Terminarch – David Vonderheide

The Terminarch is the last remaining member of a given species. Once this member dies, all that remains of the species is a legacy which oblivion will sand to nothing, eon by frozen eon. It makes a fitting name for my spaceship, at least for the next few minutes.

Maeve is on the screen, sweaty red hair plastered to her forehead and eyes puffy and blood-shot. She’s wearing my favorite green sweatshirt, now faded to a pus-like yellow, that she steals whenever she gets cold. She rubs her nose with a frayed sleeve.

She’s been dead for about one hundred and fifty-two years. The rest of the planet outlived her by another twenty-eight. She holds our daughter, Liv, who’s been dead for one hundred and eighty years, when the rest of the planet went, how the rest of the planet went.

“We miss you here,” says Maeve. She pauses, swallows hard. “I miss you here. I know you aren’t dead but… you might as well be? I know what you’re doing. I know why you’re doing it. And I guess dying is inevitable.” She pauses again and looks away from the camera. “Funny how we’ve been using inevitable for you. But it’s inevitable for me too. And Liv. I guess it’s different once you know you’re in the home stretch.” Maeve dries her cheek and I feel that stinging in my throat. “You just woke up, I’m sorry, you don’t need my existential angst.” She laughs dryly.

I’ll run out of oxygen first. I have plenty of the agar, this clear paste that tastes like chalky syrup, leftover from when I was in the Pod. Enough for decades. But I’ve finished my mission. I set up the probe and sent it down to PK-435, even though no one will be waiting for the results. I don’t intend to stick around to see if the tumor chuffing metastatic flakes in my brainstem, will beat my suffocation.

I swallow the red pill with the black stripe and pinch the plastic baggie it came in into a little ball. In a few minutes I’ll get drowsy and when I fall asleep I won’t wake back up. Simple, they told me. Painless.

“I think Liv can tell that you’re gone. Sometimes when she cries now and she’s hungry or she needs a diaper changed or whatever and I fix her up and put her back in her crib, she’ll start crying again like five minutes later. I think she’s hoping that you’ll come for her instead of me.” Liv smiled, and tucked her hair behind an ear. “Fuck me, I promised myself I wouldn’t cry every time I made you a video. But I just keep picturing you up there all alone. How can I not be there to hold your hand when it happens? And then I remember that I’ll be gone before you and I realize that you won’t be there to hold mine when I go and…”

This is the first video Maeve sent me, an hour from over a hundred of messages she had recorded. I have watched every second of footage, lived the life I won’t get to through my screen. I watched Maeve age and mature and find new love and eventually waste away from lung cancer. I watched the raw and jagged pain from our separation smooth to a dull ache, watched myself fade from an urgent desire to a fond memory.

What does it say about me if this video is my favorite?

I stare out through the small oval window into a star spackled void lightyears away from Earth. Somewhere in between the specks of light, if you zoomed in close enough, you’d be able to find the light from the sun warming our little rock. It’s funny, I didn’t think I’d be able to tell the difference between the night sky here and the night sky Maeve and I gazed at in silence from the top of my truck – it’s just a bunch of random dots after all, right? – but there’s something strikingly different and stomach-churningly unsettling about these stars. I wonder if I’d feel this way with her head on my chest and her hand in mine. I wonder if I’d feel this way if there was another human left back home on our rock.

When I had woken up in my Pod two hundred and fifty Earth-years and three Terminarch years after my departure, I checked the transmission log and found the last one from mission control, one hundred and eighty years ago.

You’re on your own now, Dylan. May God judge you fairly.

There has been no sign from Earth after that, except that empty ping once a day that confirms the coms are still up. But there is no one left on the other end. I try not to speculate what happened. I don’t want to think about how Liv died. I doubt her death will be as peaceful as mine will be.

My eyelids droop.

I had decided to use what little life I had left to gather data for the good of our species, to scope out our next home because our current home was on death’s door – really just to troubleshot the probe if something malfunctioned. I was supposed to light the signal fire on PK-435, to pass the torch of humanity to its new home. How have I become the last fading ember drifting off a collapsed bonfire?

“It’s unfair of me to unload this all onto you, because the decision’s made. I love you. I’ll always love you. Talk to you soon.” Maeve reaches to turn off the camera as Liv squirms and claws her arm.

I reach my hand out toward the screen, but it’s too heavy and it drops to my thigh. My eyelids slip shut and I can’t get force them back open anymore.

I think about Maeve as I fall asleep, as the last ember flares once more, then snuffs out.