In her dreams, the forest whispers. Its own nightmares bleed into hers. In her dreams, the old man cajoles, pleads, demands to be listened to, and does the same again when she wakes. The days pass, the nights pass, and outwardly she is indifferent to their passing, and yet within her builds a sense of urgency she cannot name. The ghost of a memory prods at her. Something… something is coming. She must get ready. She must save them all-
Them all? If there is one thing this woman knows. If not her name, nor the name of this hell she finds herself in—this world, this forest that circles itself in perpetuity—it is that wherever and whoever she is, she suffers here alone. None have found her to explain the truth. None but the spectral wizened face that appeals to her.
After a while, she has become adroit at hiding her shock whenever he appears, staring past him. He is not in the world. He is not of the world.
I know you see me. We’re almost there! The trees, you must wak-
If she concentrates hard enough, she can filter out his cries entirely. He mutely rages at her, his contorted screams she no longer hears, his agonized gestures she no longer sees. She sails off, past this invisible ghost, deeper into the forest that has encroached all of Motherlode. These trees, they are her only friends. They, at least, speak to her only in dreams.
Black. Black. Roan drifts alone. Where is her ship? Her crew? She closes her eyes and remembers, the hull rupturing, the hissing rush of oxygen into the void. The silent screams. Faces frozen in terror. The old man, burning, burning, his tears evaporating even before they leave his eyes. Left, along with the rest of the damned to melt away on the planet that has become dust.
The captain yawns and stretches, bringing herself back to wakefulness.
“I’m sorry to wake you, but-”
Looking up from her desk, where she had sat, promising herself to rest only for a minute. She sees an apologetic Ben Cromartie. In spite of her exhaustion, she smiles.
“Ben, please, don’t apologize. Come in.” Captain Oake sees the worry on his face. “Ben… is it Motherlode? Are we-”
“We’re fine. Homeostasis deviations remain within the acceptable norms. Not 100%, though as you already know we may never get there. Rebreathers are functioning at the expected levels. Hopefully we can keep them maintained the hundred or so years it takes for the forest to seed. That’s not why I came. The Council. They’ve requested your presence.”
Inwardly, Roan groans. Along with the crew-members, astronauts, a fleet of scientists from all disciplines, and a genetically diverse base group of humans needed for labor, farming and a carefully maintained multiplication of homo-sapien stock, Motherlode also carried with it Man’s last government. They insisted, despite politicians not being mission critical in Roan’s mind, that they be saved. And as the ones who approved the funding for Motherlode, who approved the mission, they had the clout to see those demands met. She knew, and that knowledge now bore fruit, that they would be trouble. These self-important pencil pushers, now comes their push for power, of that she is sure. They would demand she kneel before them, that they direct the ship, her, its captain, little more than their hands upon the wheel.
“All right,” She rubs her eyes, reaches for the now-frigid cup of coffee before her, “Tell them I’ll be right along. You have the bridge in my absence.”
He nods his head sharply and turns to leave, but before he does, looks back at Roan, tired, forlorn, the weight of a dead world and a wounded race on her shoulders. “Captain?”
“If there’s anything I can do, anything…”
“You’ll be the first to know.”
“It’s just-these are not times to be alone. There are so few of us. Who knows how long there will be life to celebrate?”
“You think we’ll fail? That this-” With her eyes, she indicates the small dark chambers around her, then the vast ship, largely empty, that surrounds it. The darkness into which they plunge, the light-years of nothing upon nothing between them and their descendants’ destination. “This is our last-”
Roan closes her eyes, and her dream returns to her. Her own bloated corpse floating in a metal tomb. Her own eyes, hemorrhaged and frightened and now… empty. This planetoid, a sepulcher. Will some other intelligence find them once they’ve subsided in the black? Plumb Man’s catacombs in wonder, asking themselves what desperate need drove these creatures to the stars? What horrors did they encounter as they died? What hopeless struggles?
A hand on her shoulder brings her back to her cabin. A mere, slight touch, Ben doesn’t caress her, doesn’t hold her, but it brings comfort all the same.
“I don’t know if we’ll live or die out here, if what remains of Man will ever set foot on another planet. See another shore or another sunrise. Each day is a gamble, Roan, we have to embrace them while we can.”
And he returns to the door to leave at last: “I’ll let them know you’ll be along shortly.”
“Thank you Ben.”
The door hushes shut behind him, leaving Roan to her solitude. She stands from the desk, but as she does so, a flashing light catches her eye. A message. But from whom? Ben always delivers his reports in person. The Council, still unsure of its authority, would not summon her thusly, she doesn’t think, not yet at least. Any urgent need from the crew and they would com or ping her directly. Who else is there? Who else knows how to reach her? The council did not expect her for another few minutes, so she queues the message and listens.
The voice stops her blood in her veins. The old man? “Im-impossible,” She stutters aloud.
I know what you’re probably thinking. “How am I just now receiving this message? How am I receiving this at all?” Right? Don’t worry, I’m not scurrying around in Motherlode’s bowels, I programmed this message into your terminal what will now, to you, have been years ago, before your ship ever left orbit, before you made your way out to the solar system’s edge. If you’re hearing this, that means the Earth is gone. The home of all human history is but memory and dust.
The recording pauses, long enough to make Roan wonder if it was cut short somehow, but after a while, the old man continues, the tears obvious in his voice.
I can’t help but look back now and wonder, “What could I have done?” “Could I have saved more? More than the few hundred that sail with you now?” The empty eyes of those left behind, who can number their remaining days in a couple short years, a few dozen months, how can we go on?
Sorry… that’s my problem now. Yours is much larger, your timeline longer. I do not envy your task. All that I’ve asked you to sacrifice. I’m sorry, but I must ask of you one more sacrifice.
You, Roan, you must live. And keep on living.
There is no one remaining as strong as you are, and no guarantee of what strength will issue forth in the next generations.
You, Roan, you must endure. You must transform as Man diminishes, you must transcend.
Roan blinks, confused, what is he saying? She wonders. What does he mean?
I’m sure you wonder right now what exactly I mean, but fear not, when the time comes. I will guide you. I may be little more than a ghost in the machine, a shell, an echo, but… our service is not yet done Roan. Remember that. We still have so much to give.
Silence, Roan slumps back bewildered. There was one voice she never expected to hear again. That of the man who handpicked her to lead this mission, then a young woman of 24, immature and unexperienced, but…
Roan? Make her our captain? Are you mad? Many had raged at the time. This mission is too big, too important to be placed in the hands of a… of a…
She knew what they wanted to say then, woman, little girl. It was a man’s place to save Mankind. But the Old Man, for he was old even then, nameless even then, was adamant.
We need someone resilient, which she is. Someone young, who can grow into the role, this ship, Motherlode, won’t be finished for another 10 years. And 10 years is all most astronomers predict we have. There is no time for debate, only unilateral action. Roan? He had turned to her then, both hands on her shoulders.
Are you willing to do this? Do you think you can?
She was young, brash and above all wanted to live, wanted to prove the whole world wrong, wanted to be a hero. Of course she said yes.
What a fool she had been. These pressures were not worth life.
She walks to her door, it opens before her, but before she goes through she takes one look back at her austere room. Her chair, desk, her simple sheet-less bed, the only life she has left. That anyone has.
What more could you ask of me, Old Man? Living on is all that’s left.
It’s strange, Roan thinks, but the longer she walks among the trees, the more she feels she knows them. Each one has a face, a name, familiarity to something in her. Memories of a past life she supposes. Snatches dancing just out of reach. Ones she unsure of grasping for. What weight do they carry, what responsibility do they bear? What will they demand of her? And yet, try as she might, she cannot shake the feeling that something is coming. A moment, a window that is hers to seize. Seize on behalf of a multitude she cannot see. And try as she might, she cannot totally unsee the old man’s worried face, drifting in the corner of her eye. She walks on, and a growing sense of dread walks with her.