He awoke. A thousand years had slid by as if a dream, and he awoke to the same red, rusted landscape he’d seen when he’d last closed his eyes. He pressed his hands to his face, rubbed rough fingertips across his eyes, the gesture automatic – as though to test if it were a dream, different from the dreams that had come before. It wasn’t.
How long had it been now? How long had he been traveling? They’d left in search of a new home; their old world tattered and scarred, the long years of war never-ceasing, the laughter of children long gone, the birds all slipped from the sky. The Red Planet. It had called to them like a beacon then, long before they knew how it all would end.
He set aside the slim metal hull that had encased him safely all this time, sat up. Looked around through the thick windows at the endless crimson of the land. How had they ever thought this could replace what they’d lost? Everywhere it was rocks, nothing but rocks. Rocks couldn’t sustain life; not forever. Not as they’d hoped.
Not that it mattered. He was the only one left now. There was only his life to sustain and he didn’t want it anyway. He tapped out a message, his first in a thousand years. The words came easily, as though he used them all the time, as though he still spoke to his wife over coffee in the morning, as though he still chased his children through a sunlit forest path, the wonders of the earth still wondrous, as though those words could still call them back to safety. As though words alone could still accomplish things.
I’m here, he tapped. I’m alive. Is there anyone out there?
He didn’t wait for a response. One never came, anyway. He didn’t know why he kept trying, why it felt like sending these words through the vast black ink of the sky might reach someone, like the stories he’d once heard of sailors scrawling on scraps of paper, corking it into a bottle and tossing it overboard, into the turbulent waves, hoping somehow, somewhere, someone might receive it and know… what? That they’d once existed? That they’d fumbled all the graces they’d been given? He couldn’t identify where it had all begun to go wrong, even now, even after all these years of dreaming.
The indicators on the hull were all blank. Not even a flicker of response, though the slow, soft hum of the machinery proved everything was working as it should. It had kept him alive, after all. He was proof that at least they’d gotten one thing right. There wasn’t even a layer of crimson dust inside the craft. It was as clean and clear as when he’d arrived.
He spent the next few weeks doing routine maintenance, the kinds of homeowner tasks his wife had chided him about often, back when they’d owned a home. Back when she’d been alive. Cleaning the ducts, replacing filters. He would have done them all without complaint now, fixed anything she asked, fixed it before she asked, even. He would happily have spent a thousand years tinkering with anything at all if it meant things could have gone differently.
Once everything was cleaned, there was nothing left. He spent a day scanning the sky, it’s emptiness still unfamiliar to him, even after all this time. After all this time, he still expected to spy a bird in flight, to catch a glimpse of a wing as it soared across the expanse of air that separated land and space. There was nothing, of course. No bird. No sky, really.
Nothing to do but sleep.
He set the timer, settled in. Another thousand years. Perhaps this time, he wouldn’t wake again. A spark of hope flared at the thought and he almost chuckled at the irony. Hope. It was all that was left, and what good had it done, anyway. Hope was useless without action. Without change.
He closed his eyes. Slept. His craft spun along atop the planet, rounded the sun again and again, as time and space moved around him, the stars still sending their distant beams of light out into the void, the same as he’d done with his messages. He dreamt, again and again, of the time that had come before, all the ways they’d failed, all the things he would give anything to change, if he could.
On the hull, a tiny green light flickered, then glowed.
Kate Lewis lives along the tidewaters of Coastal Virginia with her husband, their two young children, and a mischief-making dog. A former celebrity publicist, she has lived everywhere from West Hollywood to Washington, D.C., with stints in Florence, Orlando, and Tokyo along the way. Her essays on motherhood and life have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Good Housekeeping, Romper, and more, with literary work forthcoming in Literary Mama and River Teeth. She is a recipient of the Perry Morgan Fellowship at Old Dominion University, a reader for Barely South Review, and also writes The Village on Substack. Find her online @katehasthoughts.