by D. S. White
– I –
Matthew woke up in the back seat, sitting behind the girls.
It was night. It was cold out. The engine was running and the heat blasting. The window was cracked, so they were getting fresh air. They’d driven the van far enough into the night, into the cold, that they could stop and rest a while.
His back was sore. He hurt everywhere. He opened the door quietly to step out and stretch. He walked around to the back of the van and took a leak.
The sun was just starting to come up. On the horizon, they were coming. The masses were approaching, in cars, in vans, in buses, and on motorcycles. Soon the survivors would be here. They’d surround them and overwhelm them and take everything from them. Nobody was safe anymore.
He pulled up his zipper and pumped his fist on the back window. He took one last look at the sunrise and then walked around and got inside.
“Time to go. They’re getting close,” he said.
The girls rubbed the sleep out of their eyes. “How long do we have?” Ellen asked.
“Maybe an hour.”
“I need to pee. And I’m starving. And I’m sick and tired of driving,” Kelly said. She stepped out of the van.
Ellen slid into the driver’s seat. Matthew stayed in the back. It was getting warm fast. He pulled off his jacket and threw it behind him.
“What’s for breakfast?” She looked at him in the rear-view mirror.
“More of the usual,” he said. “I think we’ve got plenty of canned tuna. If the fridge is still running, there should be some pickles in a jar. I’ll take a look.”
He open the door and looked inside the fridge. He found a wrapped loaf of bread. He broke off a few pieces and looked at them. Consuming pickles and tuna everyday was getting old.
Kelly appeared beside the passenger door. She had her pants open and was scratching an itch on her butt. Modesty hardly mattered between them anymore, after traveling together for a month. Matthew hadn’t even tried to make a move on the girls. He still hoped that over the horizon, somewhere, he’d find Marcy.
Ellen giggled. “Girl, pull your pants up and get inside. This ain’t no nudist beach.”
Kelly pushed back a yawn, fastened her pants and jumped into the passenger seat.
“Here you go,” Matthew said, handing both of them a sandwich. “Enjoy.”
After they finished eating, Ellen stepped outside to relieve herself.
“What’s the schedule look like for today?” Kelly asked.
“We need to stock up on bread, if possible. And probably gas.”
That was it. They had another day of driving ahead of them. When Ellen returned, she put the van in gear and pushed the pedal down. They moved forward, keeping just inside the cold edge of nightfall. Matthew’s mind drifted back to the last time he’d seen Marcy.
– II –
They’d been standing on opposite sides of the kitchen table, yelling.
So much for peace and harmony, he’d thought.
“Look at this plant. It’s just ugly.” Marcy picked it up and threw it at him.
Matthew dodged the projectile just in time. The pot hit the wall. Dirt and plant spilled out as the pot broke open on the floor.
“That’s part of my program,” he cried. Marcy knew he was a recovering alcoholic.
“And what about your dog? What step is that? First, the plant. Then a pet. And now me? Am I just another project for you? Another tool to keep you from drinking?”
She had a point. But he wasn’t ready to concede yet that that was all she meant to him.
“The plant is something special. You don’t know what it’s capable of. It talks to me.”
She shook her head. “You told me you haven’t had a drink in months.”
“Just listen. I’m not drunk. The plant puts images in my head. And feelings. There are no words.”
“And? Is it talking to you now? Since I threw it at you, has it been crying for help?”
She was trembling all over. He could see she wasn’t going to believe him.
“No, no. It doesn’t work that way. My mind is too focused right now. I have to be open. I need to have a drink.”
“And what comes next on your road to recovery? A plant, a dog, me, and then what? Religion? Are you searching for God?”
She picked up the keys to the car and walked out of the apartment. That was the last he’d seen her.
– III –
Matthew woke up. Kelly was nudging him. “You’ve been dreaming. Snap out of it.”
He looked out the window. It was dark farther up the road. In the back of the van, sunlight reflected off the glass. The masses were far enough behind them now. Far enough behind that the road looked safe. But he knew better.
“Looks like another small town up ahead,” Ellen said, pointing through the darkness.
“We’ll have to stop and see what we can find.”
Ellen nodded and pulled the van off the exit ramp. Down below, the way through had been blocked by an accident, a twisted conjunction of metal frames. She took the long way around, driving off the road. The tires spun on the ice and she almost lost control. Then she slowed the van and let it move forward at a crawl, until they were back on the pavement.
Matthew looked at the plant, sitting in the back. It had grown a little taller in the weeks since they’d been on the road. He reached back over the seat and poured some water from a container into the pot. The plant hadn’t talked to him in a long time. He hadn’t had touched a drop of alcohol in a long time either.
– IV –
In the year 2173 the seed was discovered on Merceni Alpha, during the travels of Talphon 3. A year later the alien spacecraft delivered its new biological cargo to a destination on Earth. When they put the seed in soil, they waited around long enough to see if it would grow. Nothing happened, so they soon forgot about it. Time was money. They needed to keep searching, scavenging the galaxy for something to sell.
No one in the government had a clue. No mention of the event appeared in the news. The seed had escaped any detection at the port of entry. The crew of Talphon 3 moved on across the galaxy.
The seed had never meant to hurt anyone. It did what seeds do. After several winters, it drank up rainwater and sprouted, absorbing sunlight. Then, something unexpected happened. It mutated. The composition of the soil on Earth was a critical factor in the mutation. The seed had been left in the remains of an exhausted volcano cone, a place rich in key elements found in the earth’s crust.
From there, the seed, now a plant, moved away from the volcano. It rolled downhill like tumbleweed and landed in the ocean. Here it mutated again. Mutation and adaptation were important hereditary traits that had kept the species alive across countless galaxies. This wasn’t the first time someone had moved it to a new home.
The first humans who encountered it tried to burn it. The plant had attached itself to the bottom of a boat. When the boat docked in the harbor, they thought it nothing special and used fire to remove it. It mutated again. In the night it floated ashore and went underground.
Once in the city, it moved from place to place. One day, it was picked up by a homeless man and potted and put up for sale. Matthew bought it at a night market. He bought the plant water and new soil and took it home. The plant was about ten centimeters tall and reminded him of a bonsai tree. He enjoyed tending to it every day. It gave him new hope that he could escape his addiction to drinking.
The plant attempted to communicate with Matthew. He’d gotten drunk one night, a relapse, and thought it was the whiskey talking. The plant said earth was doomed. Feeling bold, Matthew asked it why. It communicated by putting images and feelings into his head. We were doomed because we didn’t know how to coexist, it said. The species that worked best together were the most likely to survive. They were the strongest. Working together was the answer to Earth’s future. Harmony was the key.
Matthew took the message to heart and got a pet. His dog’s name was Coffee. From there, he got really courageous and asked a girl out. Her name was Marcy.
And from that moment on he believed the Earth would be saved.
– V –
Three weeks later, after she’d walked out on him, it began. The earth shifted on its axis. One side became too hot and the other side too cold. The earth and moon were now fixed in position with each other. The moon hung over the continent of Africa, always Africa. In the border zone, a place between the everlasting day and the never-ending night, was a cool spot. It was a place where people and animals could survive. Matthew looked for Marcy there.
He met a scientist who explained it all to him. “You need to keep moving, Matthew. We all do. Or we’ll all be burned alive.”
The problem was that the earth-moon relationship no longer changed. And the tilt of the axis of the planet continued to increase. This meant the sweet spot was moving forward every day. Already the horrific heat on the sunlit side of the planet was approaching the city.
He hit the road. He went west, toward the night. Water and food became an immediate problem. He stayed to the river, but the water, coming from the colder side of the planet, was frozen. If he stayed in one place long enough, the ice would melt. And a few days later it would become burning hot. He worked it out that the swath of livable earth wasn’t more than a week wide.
He stuck to the line where nightfall began. He filled his water bottles with chipped ice and tied them to his backpack. Here and there he came across grocery stores filled with preserved goods. The windows, doors and shelves were covered in ice cold enough to peel the skin off his fingers. He worked with a pair of gloves and filled his backpack with cans of tuna fish and vinegar-soaked vegetables. He kept moving.
It was never really night, not unless he pushed himself far enough into the cold. He traveled with his dog, Coffee, until one day Coffee disappeared. The plant he kept it in his backpack with the top open so it could survive. By now, already a month into his daily trek around the planet, he realized most of the population had either burned up or froze to death. Still, there were those like himself who had found a way to stay alive. The masses were marching forward one day at a time, trying to keep ahead of the sun.
He met two girls, Kelly and Ellen, in a parking lot. They had a van. They invited him to travel together. They found abandoned gas at stations and took what they needed from department stores. Diesel fuel worked better in the cold than gas and the van was equipped to handle it. They used additives to keep the diesel from gelling. They pushed ahead, staying as far away from the oncoming wall of humanity as they could.
– VI –
“Looks like we’ve got trouble up ahead,” Kelly said.
Matthew woke up. “What kind of trouble?” he asked.
They’d run into people before, three times now, people who had been living indoors, living underground, trying to stay warm, but ready to take what they could from the people passing by. Twice Matthew had been able to negotiate a trade, giving up things like the spare tire to the van and an extra bottle of engine oil. One time things had turned ugly.
“What exactly is that?” Ellen asked.
Matthew leaned forward between the two seats and tried to make out what was ahead of them. Kelly stopped the van and rolled down her window, but left the engine running. It was night, as usual, with the sun far behind them. This was the farthest ahead of the sun they’d gotten. It was risky to go any farther, where the earth was cold enough the engine on the van might seize up and the heater stop running.
“That, my friends, looks like water,” he said.
“A lake? Can we go around it?” Kelly asked.
“Let’s take a look.”
It was cold outside the van, colder than he’d ever encountered. He pulled his hood down tight over his face, leaving just enough room to see. Even his cheeks hurt. He tried not to blink, afraid his eyes would freeze shut.
The girls joined him. Kelly had left the headlights on, but they didn’t reach far enough to see the water clearly. Matthew led the way.
The first thing he noticed was how flat the water looked. He thought it might be a lake at first, because it hardly moved at all. Then two things occurred to him. A lake was fresh water and should be frozen. And the ocean should have tides. But because the moon was in a stationary orbit, the tides would have vanished. Reality struck him hard when he put his hand in the chilly water and smelled the salt. They had made it to the Pacific.
He looked back at the van. It wouldn’t do them any good now. All they might use it for at this point was a place to stay warm. Once the sun got here, they’d have maybe a day or two before the masses reached the beach. People would swarm up and down the sand, taking what they needed to stay alive. Then, in about eight days, the sun would become unbearable. It would cook them all alive.
“Over there,” Ellen pointed.
Down the beach he saw a boathouse and a dock. It looked like there might be a boat waiting there.
“Go check it out,” he said to the girls. “I’ll start packing things up. We’ll bring whatever we can salvage from the van.”
– VII –
They’d been on the ocean for three weeks when they’d run out of canned tuna and had switched to fresh-caught fish. More fish. Matthew could hardly stand it now. Occasionally it would rain and they would collect as much water from the sky as they could.
He noticed the girls were getting nice tans. He noticed their tan lines. They were both attractive women. He’d give up on the idea of ever finding Marcy the moment they’d entered the ocean.
They’d been in the sun for over a week now. It was impossible to stay on the edge of night in the boat. They weren’t moving fast enough. Some days the wind would die and the heat of the sun would feel like it was burning beneath his skin.
The plant seemed to thrive out on the open water. It looked taller. He didn’t want to give it any rainwater, as they barely had enough. One day he slipped a cup in the ocean and poured saltwater into the pot. If the plant died, so be it. They were all near the end, anyway. Instead of wilting, within moments the plant stood up taller.
He felt it inside his head. It was speaking to him like never before. The images and feeling were coming so fast his head was shaking. It was telling him the same message, over and over again. Humanity had to learn to coexist with other species in the universe or it would never survive. He had to be the one to tell them. He had to carry the message onward and let every living person know. He must take the plant with him.
“How?” he yelled, grabbing his skull.
The girls looked at him.
“How what?” Ellen asked.
“How?” he yelled again. “We’re all going to die. Humanity won’t be left alive any more. What you’re saying doesn’t make sense.”
The plant continued to repeat the message over and over again, the images flashing so fast they blurred inside Matthew’s brain. His eyes twitched and he shook. He needed a drink. It had been too long since he’d any alcohol. Without it, the plant’s messages were attacking his brain too rapidly for him to process them. He needed relief.
Kelly was shaking him. “Wake up. Stop it. You’re dreaming again.”
She slapped him on the face. Ellen grabbed the cup and scooped it in the ocean and dumped water on his head. He took a drink of the water and his shaking subsided.
“No, no. Don’t drink it. The salt will kill you,” she said.
He looked down at the ocean and saw the reflection of the sky. Up above, a spaceship was approaching. He looked up at the sky. He pointed.
“There,” he yelled.
The girls turned to see what he was pointing at.
The alien spacecraft descended to within meters of the boat. It held steady while a mechanical arm extended outward and extracted the plant from the boat. Then the girls and Matthew were invited to climb inside.
A day later, Matthew found the plant in an observation room, behind glass, absorbing artificial light. Someone, a scientist, was explaining something to him. Although the plant’s message was powerful, it was nothing more than another species attempting to survive. They had other plants like it on other planets. The species was considered dangerous. Scavengers tried to sell them illegally.
“Looks like you carried it all this way for nothing,” Kelly said.
“I don’t mind. Keeping it alive kept me alive,” Matthew said.
“There might be more truth to the message it gave you than anyone realizes,” Ellen suggested. “Learning to coexist with someone is not a bad idea.”
“You mean as in a relationship?” Matthew asked.
“I’ve seen the way you’ve been watching me,” she said and giggled.
“Do you think they serve any alcohol on this ship?” he asked.
“Not a drop,” she replied.