Part I is here.
Part II is here.
When the ship’s gone, all is dark. I look into the mirror. I’m a young man. Nearly a millennium old, but a young man. I’m also a relic. A tourist attraction.
I get into the casket. Many of the lights are defunct. The ones that work wink out, one-by-one, as though I’m in California again, drunk on the deck, looking out at the stars mid-summer as the heat washes over me, telling me that it’s time to sleep.
It’s time to sleep, because you’re tired. You’re tired because you’re a tree, and now you’re a thousand years old. There are names carved into your trunk, but they’re faded. Around you, towers rise everywhere. They’ve left you in a solitary green spot, as though you’re important. Special somehow.
You’re tired because you’re an ancient being floating through space, on a direct line to nothing and no where. You’ve spent your time flying, wings stretched, and for just the briefest moments, someone or something helped you along.
Or you’re tired because you’re a word that represents everything good in life. All the things we can be, the places we can go. You’re a wonderful word, a legend. But now they’ve forgotten about you, and the great literary texts of the past have been modified to include your new form – but this isn’t you at all. It’s someone else.
All you know is that you’re tired, on this journey. You’ve stretched. Striven. Done everything you could. Made all the sacrifices. Considered every cost. And here you are, floating through space. Blackness in front of you. Blackness behind. And then, just like that…
Alarms ring, and lights bubble excitedly. The casket is vibrating. It’s never done that before.
When it opens, there’s music. My favorite song, a blues tune. I don’t remember its name.
It takes a while to get out of the casket. My arms and legs are so skinny. I warm up some mush, eat it. Drink purified urine. Splash water on my face.
The mirror is unkind today. Eleven hundred years, and I’m still a young man. Just a guy from California, 2050. Failed to get into university. Loved to swim. Had a couple of girlfriends, but never married. Argued a lot with my mom. Drank beer with my dad. Liked to head into the mountains on a bike, riding the trails as fast as possible. Used to rest next to ponds and dip my feet into the water. Ate sandwiches made of Wonder Bread. Smoked cigarettes in the clean, cool air, and texted my friends as the afternoon wore on.
Left it all behind to blast off into space. The first human to a new world, on the most important mission ever launched. The greatest human endeavor of all time. Making history. Setting a path for humanity. Expanding on the human experience in the most significant piece of technology ever invented.
Music is playing. Can’t remember the song. It means I’m here, that I’ve reached Thear. But I don’t want to look out the window, because I know what I’ll find.
It’s a strange thing to dream for far far longer than you’ve lived life. There’s an inequity that occurs when you’re mostly in the dreamworld, not so much in the real one. And then you wake up to this, a place far away. A place you were supposed to reach first, but no one really thought about what might happen. That maybe people would invent faster ways of travelling. That they might reach the destination much quicker than you. In fact, they might even view the trip as a vacation. A fun jaunt, like going to the beach.
We’ve been here already, I think to myself. I’m staring at a young man. Unwilling to acknowledge the truth of what it means to be left so far behind.
Thear will be a blue planet with white clouds. Cities everywhere. Incredible inventions whipping around, things I could never have imagined. It will be the future, a thousand years ahead of where I lived. Maybe they’ll let me in. Maybe they’ll let me stay. Or maybe they’ll put me in some cage and study me. The caveman. The fossil. The guy who thought he would be first, but actually is last.
I don’t want to look. Don’t want to confirm the reality. But I do anyway. I go to the glass at the front of the ship and stare at a huge rock in front of me. I’m far back enough to see it all. It’s black. Smoking. The land, where it was, charred and heated. There are no clouds. No ice on the poles. The water is grey and dead. There’s nothing left here. Nothing remotely alive.
People have been here. They did arrive first. They arrived, ruined it all, and then they left. A dead planet hangs in space. Off to the side, a sun is shining, but it doesn’t bring any life to this place.
I sit at the glass and try to imagine what this world looked like before we reached it. Must have been beautiful. I’ve spent centuries dreaming about it. Long, cold centuries of nothing but dream.
I eat. Drink. Wash myself.
Go to the mirror. I’m a young man, I think to myself. Young. Indispensable.
I steer the ship to the side, away from the blackened, spent rock of a planet. There are stars in front of me, far away in space and time. I set a course for one of them, imagining that something must be out there, far away. A speck of hope. I glimmer of dreamsong. Maybe some place that no one’s ever visited, and I can be the first.
I lie in the casket. There are only five lights left. A hint of gas wafts through the air. A light goes out, then another. They all leave, except for a last one. It seems to hang on for longer than the others did, staring at me. Maybe saying goodbye? Maybe saying good luck?
It winks out before I can ask.