This bitter Earth… Well, what fruit it bears.
The Roans stand silent. A singer forgotten to all but them, the only two for whom Earth still lives in their hearts, mourns. Dinah Washington’s sad song echoes through the chamber where mankind dies. Slowly, year by year, century by century, memory after memory is lost to entropy and the ever corruptible hardware of Motherlode. Unification, it creeps toward them even faster than they projected, and still the old man has yet to find a cure, has not even spoken to them for centuries. Whether it is despondency or fear of their reaction at his failure they know not. All they had was each other, themselves, the fractured and broken Roan. They live in ,en and women wakened, souls hijacked, as each previous host withers and dies. Now, they rarely speak. Even after all this time, they remain helpless.
What good is love mmmm, that no one shares?
“Such a sad emotion. Giving yourself so totally to another. It always ends with loss. Why does love persist, even with us?” One Roan says, their own identities in constant flux.
Sometimes in their minds-eyes they see two, distinct Roans, two captains, other times they are the same mind stretched across diffuse flesh, Mortician and Librarian, their roles are one, to monitor the slow decay of slumbering Man, whose numbers dwindle generation by generation, some lost to power failures, others to Roan’s own predatory need to survive, still others to the disease that courses through each and every one of their veins, sterilizing and killing the species. To watch the slow decay of the souls they once guided through space, now trapped in stasis, slowly polluted by their own self, memories and personalities obliterated by the omnipotent and omnipresent Captain Oake.
And if my life is like the dust… that hides the glow of a rose.
One by one, in their dreams, every man and every woman becomes Roan.
What good am I? Heaven only knows.
It is a strange thing, how often power and a fear of impotence go hand and hand. How often that fear is realized. How desperately those affected cling to it, even remaining unaware of its loss until the bitter end. This stench, this ignorance, washes over Roan in the Council’s presence. A preening body of the privileged, the great grandsons and granddaughters of the best and brightest in past generations, born into power, allowed to survive because of nepotism’s long hand. And so the Captain suffers their presence, and accounts for them the progress of their journey so far, presents to them a potential list of destinations for them to approve and bicker over.
“…Pershing, the lead astronomer and Keynes, who heads our team of meteorologists and climatologists both agree,” She hears herself saying, though she feels so disassociated from the moment by the caffeine and stim that sustain her. In her head she is on the bridge, she can feel it in her bones, some imminent crisis, some unforeseen obstacle would arise while she, stuck with these… people, is unable to address it. They would die, all due to politics.
“As you see in the reports sent to your terminals, all signs point to Kepler 438-b as our best bet for a new home. It’s score on the ESI is higher than any other candidate found so f-“
“Excuse me Captain,” It was an older man who spoke, slowly and carefully, as if to a child. Rolfe Kente, the Council’s chairman after the Old Man, nameless even to them, stepped down to focus on the Motherlode project. “You’ll have to forgive me, I’m no scientist. What is ESI?”
Inwardly, she rolls her eyes. Either he is a fool or just pretending to be. The definition lay in the report she had prepared for them hours before this meeting even convened. “Earth Similarity Index, it measures which planets are most like our own. And as I said, 438-b has the highest score with .88. At 145 parsecs, or approximately 470 light-years, it would take approximately 2000 years to reach assuming no changes to our acceleration once we reach Proxima Centauri in 10 years and use it to jumpstart our journey.”
There is a long pause at that. Roan wonders if they understood a word of what she just said.
“10… years?” It is a middle aged woman who pipes up now, Roan tries to recall her name and fails. “You mean we won’t even really get moving for 10 years?”
“That’s right,” The captain replies, perhaps a little too quickly, too brusquely, “Acceleration of a craft this size requires delicate maneuvers and a large expenditure of energy. The gravity and mass that star system provides will be vital to ensuring we approach .5c, half-lightspeed, within 50-100 years. We all know the score. This isn’t some quick jaunt into the stars. Our children, their children, will not live to see its end. But Mankind might. Now, as I was saying, also promising, if further away is Kepler 442-b. That’s 1120 light years from our location, but it-”
“What about… Gilese 682c? I have here a report from a fellow named Barrens, who names that as a potential first location. That’s only 16 light years away. The youngest of us might even live to see its surface!” The speaker, Erwin… Erwin something. A man of angles, both physically and diplomatically. Roan remembers that he always sought the shortest course regardless of its dangers. He looks at Roan with something approaching hope and she can read his unspoken question:
While others might die here on Motherlode, old man and women, we… we could live, right?
She sees they still haven’t acclimated themselves to dying on this false world hurtling through space. To never again feeling the warmth of a true sun. These dreams must be crushed.
“It’s 4.4 times the size of Earth. That alone makes it nearly inhospitable. It’s at the border of the Goldilocks range, and we can’t even be certain, given its size, that it’s even a rocky planet. It could be a gas giant, or given its place on the outer range of habitability, covered in a frozen, inaccessible ocean. Best case scenario, it’s 45th in ESI. There’s no guarantee, and once we’ve slowed to verify if it’s suited to our needs, that’s another several hundred years added to our trip just regaining our lost speed. Any delay, any unnecessary stoppage, anything that necessitates us regaining lost acceleration or lost time, adds risk to our journey. We cannot afford to take unnecessary risks, not with all that’s at stake.”
“We all know the stakes, Ms. Oake!” Erwin… Stossur, that was it, snaps, shamed into asserting himself by her lecturing tone. “This is a burden we all bear. You are a mere captain, not president, not king, you would do well to remember your place.”
Rolfe speaks before Roan has a chance to bite back at Erwin’s pettiness. “And I think we all would do well to remember our lives, all our lives, are in this ‘mere’ captains hands.” He smiles at Roan, as if he has done her a great kindness. Perhaps he has, though she is in no mood for any of this bureaucratic interference, she is in no position to handle both Motherlode’s technical and administrative needs. These men and women, administrator was the role they were born to. If they let her do her job, why not let them do theirs? Maybe Rolfe is not the fool she first thought him to be. Or maybe that is an empty hope, and she is truly without allies in this stuffy room of suits.
Rolfe continues, “But, as Captain Oake kindly reminds us, these are not decisions to be made right away. We have time, perhaps more time than some of us have life. Let us adjourn, peruse these reports, and reconvene at a later date when we are better informed, and more able to help our Captain make this momentous decision. Otherwise we may drift in this dark forever, our species lost and our history forgotten.”
And, without waiting for the consent or acknowledgement of the others, he takes his leave of the meeting hall.
The others, put-out by his abandonment of protocol, themselves still clinging to the traditions of the lost-Earth, slowly file out after him. More than one of them, and Erwin in particular, glaring at Roan as they go by. Before them she is stone, but inside she despairs their continued existence.
What would you have me do? She silently implores of the old man, long dead and long lost to her. How will we survive when I am gone, and only these toothless cowards, and cowards’ children remain?
Lord this bitter Earth. Yes, can be so cold. Today you’re young. Too soon you’re old.
Days later, in their shared chambers, after long silence and the same routine, the same failures, the same slow death, Roan finally responds to the other captain’s question.
“Must it? End, I mean.”
The other, annoyed at the length it took him/her to respond, pretends ignorance, though they both know the other’s thoughts too exactly for the pretense to succeed.
“Must what end?”
He/she humors him/her, and responds despite the knowledge that they understand each other perfectly.
“Our love, we are not quite human anymore are we. We, our memories, we could live forever like this. Just you and me, leaping from flesh to flesh.”
“It’s not right, nor is it fair to those we promised to protect-”
Roan cuddles with Roan, their joined warmth bringing them even closer than their shared thoughts and selves had thought possible. At first, it hadn’t felt right, this coupling, but then… mankind was sterile, they bodies they used not truly related and they were alone, so alone, except for the other. Why not be together? Why shouldn’t this last forever?
“Why care about what’s right, or fairness? Or about these humans who sleep, forgetting themselves? What gratitude have they shown us for our suffering, our sacrifice and sorrow? We could be more than they ever were. That planet, when we reach it, could be Roan’s, and spread over it a single mind, a conglomerate of the self. Imagine it…” They did, and as they did so, they began to stimulate one another, first intellectually and emotionally, and then also physically.
“We could be glorious,” The other agrees, between kisses, between pleasures given, flesh shared. “But first-”
They cry in orgasmic unison, and in the afterglow realize: “We must cure this disease.”
“We need the old man.”
Little do they know, he already watches them, has watched them fall into this selfishness for some time. A danger he should have foreseen. Such an obsession is inevitable when the only company one keeps is oneself. Only more so when that self is split in two, and one sees in the other a perfect reflection of their shared desire. He is torn. A cure, he inches towards one with each passing decade, is so needed. Man must survive, an imperative coded into his very being by his forefather, his face and namesake. But not as the monstrosities Roan envision, not as an endless reflection of Captain Oake. And so…
He must oppose the very creatures he empowered, the very Captain who he saved time and time again. This time from her self, from the bitter need of love. He leaves them, enthralled with one another, with their one-and-the-same-ness, with the desperate words of need that call to them from Earth’s past, and contemplates: How best to counter the monster he has created?
But while a voice within me cries,
I’m sure someone may answer my call,
And this bitter earth,
May not, oh be so bitter after all.