The young girl Roan blinks at the echo. A voice from a previous life stirs in her memory. The sun shines high above her at the core of her world, and beyond it the world circles round to meet her again. Pastoral, empty, full of guileless man ignorant to the peril awaiting them at every moment.
Do you remember?
She shuts her eyes, tries to close her self off from remembrance. The burden of what she must do. The mantle demanding to be seized. Her grasp the only one strong enough to bear the heavy responsibility: to be a shepherd through the millennia.
This voice is rough. Louder. More urgent. It echoes not from the past but the present. And it is omnipresent, first reverberating from the air around her. From the false sky, the tall grass and the trees off in the distance. The trees of the forest that sustain mankind.
Roan. I know you hear me. You cannot forget, not forever.
The voice coalesces to a point just before her. And even as she reluctantly opens her eyes, she knows what she will see. The Old Man. She sighs to herself. The flood-gates of memory open a tiny crack.
There is too much we must do. Too little time.
And there he stands. Cloaked in the slow death of the world they left behind. Still dressed in tattered rags, smoldering as when he was flesh and not mere data, mere memory. A reminder of the fate Roan and a lucky few survivors fled. Yet he feels real still, and as he reaches out his hand to her, a mere symbolic gesture as it shimmers and leaves no shadow, she grabs for him, passing through him like his was nothing more than an image projected onto air.
Despite this he smiles, and turns his back to her.
Good. There may still be hope. Follow me, ageless one.
And together, they proceed to make their way out of the wilderness.
“Do you remember Earth, child?”
The young man jumps at the voice. He cannot see anyone else in the gloom. He can barely see inches in front of his face. Only a gentle humming emanating from the distance, only faint lights glittering on the high ceiling like stars, center him. Give him a sense of the vastness of the chamber he has been loosed in. Here he was to meet the captain. Roan Oake. Here he was to hear the tale of Earth. A rite of passage for all Voyager generations. He takes a tentative step forward, shivering. Not from cold, but from fear.
“Of course you don’t. Earth, and all souls trapped on it, died a thousand years before even your great-great grandfathers were born.”
A hoarse and thin whisper this voice, reedy and sounding centuries and light-years away. But he can tell, tell in his bones: he is not alone. Something close watches him, though he sees little in the black.
“That is why you are here. Why each Voyager must come, when you are ready, to learn what little you can of the home we left behind so very long ago. So many lifetimes, and memories ago…” She trails off, lost in memory’s reverie. Perhaps recalling a love her previous self left behind on Earth, or a family, the boy supposes.
Everyone knows Roan’s legend. They are taught her impossible tale by parents and pedagogists from a young age. To be born and to die, to live on in memories installed in his or her child and to live and to die and die again, guiding mankind through the black. Everyone knows what she’s fought against, self-destructive insurgencies and the near-deaths of Motherlode itself. Everyone knows, and yet knowledge is one thing, intangible and unsure. It is wholly another to step into her presence (or his presence, depending on the generation), a whole other thing entirely to walk with someone who dreams of clouds and blue skies, of beaches and the moon.
A light clicks on ten feet from where the boy stands on tremulous legs, illuminating a desk and chair. In it sits the captain. Surprisingly small and frail, like a wisp in the wind. He would have named her elderly were it not for her smooth skin, burnt umber and unblemished, and clear, grey eyes. Not old then, but sick, and not just sick, but dying.
She smiles, as if she can read the boy’s thoughts.
“You are a clever one. Yes-” She pauses as several deep and phlegmy coughs wrack through her. The silvery handkerchief she holds to her mouth comes away afterwards stained brackish red.
She continues: “Yes, this body is dying. You look to be my last Voyager. For this version of myself at least. I’m glad. You are a clever one.”
Whirring softly, her chair pushes away from the desk and hovers closer to the boy, whose fear is slowly replaced by awe at Roan’s poise, even in the face of death. As she pulls closer, he can see more into her grey eyes, freckled with hazel. How clear they are, how deep and penetrating their gaze. The look of one on the precipice of immortality. The look of one, paradoxically, also on Death’s doorstep.
“What’s your name, child?”
“Well, Adlai, follow me. It’s time for you to learn what you came here to learn.”
Her chair seems to know instinctively where to take her, as without any movement from her, Roan’s chair bears her to the nearest wall, which lights up at their approach.
“We are soldiers in a war against probability. Any second, one hull rupture, a mechanical error, a change to our atmospheric consistency, an unforeseen obstruction in our path to Eden, and that’s the end of the human race. We are dangling on a string over a cliff. Beneath us, nipping right at our heels, lies oblivion. Hungry and in wait.” She pauses here. Whether it is for effect or merely to catch her breath, Adlai cannot tell.
“In all likelihood we will fail. Never reach our new home. Our bodies will float bloated and blue in this planetship sarcophagus, or we will be completely obliterated. And nothing will remain to remember humanity. Every odd is stacked against us…
“So comes the question: Why? Why do we persist? What gives us the right to go on after losing the world that birthed us?”
Adlai does not speak. He senses the question is rhetorical. She has her own answer. One she gave to children like him long before he, his parents or their great grandparents were born.
An image emerges on the wall before them, on a screen dozens of feet tall. A sphere of green and blue and white.
Her voice is even quieter now, the ghost of a whisper. “Why must we live when Earth has died?”
Adlai was wrong, looking at her now he sees she does expect an answer. “I… I don’t know.”
She smiles again, weakly and raises a creaking hand to pat his hand affectionately. “Honestly,” She admits ruefully, “Neither do I. We, the Captains Roan Oake, are not known for our deft philosophizing. There’s never time for it these days.”
Every second saps more of her strength. Adlai wonders if he is about to witness the death of the Captain, of this vessel containing Roan.
“But here we remain, and as long as we do: We. Will. Remember. For as long as we can: We. Will. Celebrate. What we lost. What we hope to regain. It’s time for you to see the truth. The home you will never know.”
The image on the screen zooms in now, constantly focusing and refocusing, like they are peering into a moving camera recording the present instead of the distant past. And Adlai gets his first, and only, glimpse at the wonder that was the world.
…high snowcapped mountains, peopled by scraggy trees and the hardiest life. Man and beast swaddled to protect themselves from the cold. Battered by storms and wind, yet eking out a life all the same.
…forests and jungles, vast enough to make Motherlode’s sparse matte of trees appear laughable by comparison. Lush beds of green, diverse animal life that he can only barely name from his lessons on Earth that was: monkeys, bears, snakes, etc and their various species. Among them stands man, hunter and savior and king.
…deserts, hot and barren, catering to no life and yet, there man stands still. Bedouin tribesmen and Mongolian horseriders, men and women who carry all they own on their backs and their heads.
…cities and skyscrapers and concrete jungles. Here is something he recognizes, though here on Motherlode their towers were cast in metals of chrome and obsidian black, not brick and steel.
…homely villages and quiet farms. Diverse lives of all stripes.
Though the trappings and settings change, there is one constant through all the images and videos that flash before him. Human beings. He sees homo sapiens in quantities he did not imagine possible. How could he? Born onto a ship where the population is closely regulated and growth kept to a minimum. Where two parents are allowed two children. Where resources are monitored and meted out to the closet nanogram.
The camera zooms back out to a solitary, spinning Earth, blissfully unaware of its own impending end. Adlai gasps for air. He had been holding his breath the whole time.
“So, child, do you remember Earth?” A different voice, deeper and male, but the cadence is the same. He turns to the chair holding Roan, and sees a man kneeling by her side. Then he sees how still she is. How slack she lies in her chair. She had died during the video. Tears still wet on her cheeks. She died weeping for the Earth she remembered in her dreams. The Earth that, as the ghost of a ghost of a ghost, she had stood on once, long ago. The Earth on which she had lived and loved.
The man stands, regards Adlai with a severe expression. “This Roan,” He begins, with a gentle touch to his mother’s shoulder, “Expressly chose you to be her last Voyager. This was not a coincidence. We recognize your potential and believe you will be of above average service to Motherlode.”
Adlai holds his breath again. Is this what I think-? He doesn’t let himself finish the thought. Please, let it be. Let me be that lucky.
“We believe that you have the potential to be more than just a mere Voyager, working as an industrial worker on a production line, or as a resource aggregator. When your pedagogist hands you your career assignment next week. It will read ‘Crewmember’. You will report directly to the bridge. You will-”
“Get to see the stars?” Adlai cannot help but interrupt in his excitement.
The male Roan, and now sole captain of Motherlode, smiles. “Yes, perhaps you will see the stars.” With that, he extends his hand, and only then does Adlai notice there are tears upon his cheeks, salty glistening stars to match his mother’s. The elder Roan, now passed on.
After a long pause, the Captain asks, noticing Adlai’s note of his tears. “Tell me. Whose death do I mourn now? My own? My mother’s? Is there a difference? Tomorrow I’ll wake and remember her final moments. Their peace and their pain. Tell me… is there a difference?”
Adlai has no answer for that. And so it is in silence that they walk back into the artifice of Motherlode’s day. For the first time, Adlai sees how arbitrary it is, how false its sun feels on his skin. And he realizes, at least on a cellular level, he does remember Earth.
After what seems like an eternity of walking, where the dimming and brightening of Motherlode’s sun—‘night’ and ‘day’—passes in diffident fashion.. Roan pauses. She senses their destination is nigh. The Old Man, now an echo of the leader she had met once in truth, on a planet whose debris had long since left their wake, stops when he notices her hesitation, and she smiles at him. It seems foolish now to deny the truth, to continue to try and ignore what it is she must do.
“I do,” She says in response to his unasked question, to the question she herself/he himself posed to countless children for nearly a score of centuries.
“I do remember.”