Space outside the window is a particularly dead shade of black. He wanted to time the rotation of the station so that Earth would appear to rise in his and Lacey’s window. It’s something that he had asked Lacey, but she told him it would be best if they didn’t see it rise. She said it made her sad. Her opinion was and is the only one that matters. Everyone else besides them is dead.
“And It’s another day, Desmond Bradley.” His personalized alarm chimes backdropped by deep and ambient synth. As close to a beautiful sunrise as he’ll get. “Current time is six in the morning. Please refer to your deck for today’s assignments.”
“I’m going, I’m going.” He mumbles awake.
“As an integral member of Project Dawn, you have the survival of the human race in the palm of your hand.” The alarm continues as it always does. “Thank you for your service.”
“Don’t mention it.” Desmond says sarcastically, rubbing his eyes. He taps the com on his bedside table. “Lacey, rise and shine. Another beautiful disgusting day in the sky.”
He rises from his bed and starts his routine. It’s a miracle he still has the energy to do so. But he knows today will require more of him, especially if Lacey is still feeling under the weather like she was yesterday. He needs her to keep her strength now that the whole project relies on just the two of them.
Lacey doesn’t respond. “If you need more rest, then let me know.” He shouts across the room as he puts his pants on, toothbrush in his mouth. “You didn’t look so hot yesterday. I’ll take the bulk of today.”
There’s no response. He hopes she’s sleeping deeply, maybe even dreaming of the surface like she told him about the other day. It was the way she talked about it. Lacey always had a way with words.
“The ground was so green, Des.” She had told him. “No people, no concrete. Just green. Shimmering emeralds in the breeze. I waved my hand through the blades of grass, like the hair of a lover. It felt so… natural. A peace we’ve never known, but I was there. The only person floating in a sea of Earth. It was unlike anything I’ve ever felt against my skin. It was like going back to square one. Before everything.”
The night after she told him of her dream, Desmond had his own. He was standing with her in an ocean. No pollution, no garbage, just the waxing and waning of blue waves. They were naked and holding hands, floating with no effort. A proverbial Adam and Eve. It made sense. Up here in Project Dawn, with the passing of every other scientist and technician, the static from the ground, it’s almost biblical. Two people on their own responsible for the rest of the planet’s future. He’s certainly thought about it, making their relationship something more, but they remain platonically and professionally locked. It could just be the pressure of the situation. Lacey’s his only friend.
Dressed and shaved, Desmond walks out of his quarters to Lacey’s door, which is sealed tightly. He puts his ear against it. Still nothing. She must really be knocked out.
“Alright, keep resting, Lacey.” He whispers, puts his hand on the metal. “I’ll come back and check on you later.”
Resolved, he walks down the hall to the bridge, the taps of his feet echoing around the lonely corridor. It’s not usual to be surrounded by so much silence, certainly not when Lacey’s jokes and quips would fill the air, their banter back and forth, their reminiscing of the way things are and were and could be.
He thinks about what it would be like to go ‘back to square one’ like Lacey said. Not research solutions to humanity’s self-destruction, not float alone in a dust covered ship isolated from Earth. Just go back to square one. The way things were. Or better yet, the way things should be.
But for now, Desmond continues. He starts with his rounds of the ship’s systems. Vitals are good. The fortified hull remains secure. No leaks in any gas or water lines, especially to the eco-lab. Lacey usually does the systems checks while Desmond goes straight to the lab. He hopes he didn’t miss anything.
“They didn’t ever prepare us to be here so long. Certainly didn’t prepare us to be alone up here.” Lacey had said after Jason, the last of the other crew members, passed. He was seventy-eight. “Now we’re just two peas in a pod, rattling around like we know what the hell we’re doing.”
“I’m just glad it’s you and me.” Desmond smiled at her.
She returned it. “Me too.”
By the time Jason died, Desmond and Lacey were accustomed to their peers falling - old age, cancer, accidents, suicide. Project Dawn started with over fifty crew, and Desmond and Lacey were barely nineteen when they climbed aboard. That was back when Earth was still sending people to the project. They were the last new crew members before the project lost contact with the ground. And now, thirty years later, they’re all that’s left, continuing the research and systems checks to give humanity hope, drifting about in orbit. But it’s not the hope that fuels them anymore. It’s the boredom. It’s the lack of hope giving them nothing better to do.
Leaving the bridge, he taps the com on the wall.
“Systems checks completed, Lacey.” He says quietly. “Making my way to the lab. Going to check on Jenny.”
Jenny, short for Genesis. Desmond’s specialty on the project. A special network of intertwining plants modified to be impervious to drought and disease. At least, that’s always been the goal. For decades, it’s been a mesh of various greens and browns he bombards with sample conditions, as close as he can replicate from the current reads of Earth’s surface. The drones the project used to send to the ground to collect information don’t return anymore, get lost in static.
Desmond reaches the blinding white of the eco-lab and sits at a screen. The current readings from the surface still depict the worst. A literal hellscape, a mess of dust and fire and desert, a lifeless rock. Ozone shattered like glass from an unforgiving sun, a post-apocalypse brought on by greed, misuse, and competition. He envisions the remaining communities on the surface fighting and killing for resources in abandoned cities, dancing violently as they regress to primitivity. Whatever the state below, Desmond will never know the full story from up here. He grabs a notebook and rolls his chair to Jenny.
“How’s it today, Jen?” He asks the glass, writing notes of the plant’s current state. “You’re looking good.” But he frowns. There’s still a lack of bloom and fruit. Jenny remains nothing but a stunted mess as the replicated conditions of the surface continue to get the best of her. “Sorry, I’m just trying to be nice.”
It’s nothing new. He’s managed to approach every day in this lab like it might be the last, like Jenny will magically reveal the secret behind humanity’s salvation. He surprises himself with his resilience. He adjusts some of the settings on the terrarium, some knobs and buttons he knows like his own body, hardly being cognizant of what exactly he’s changing. Today they are more drastic changes to the terrarium’s stimuli to reflect the post-storm of the ground below according to the readings. Like every other day, he reaches for his recorder and begins speaking as he observes.
“It is… 8:05am. 21st of April. The effects of yesterday’s geo-storm has altered the conditions of the target surface according to the most recent readings.” Desmond begins scanning the terrarium from left to right. “Conditions in the terrarium have been altered to reflect it. Anomalies are being actively recorded.” He scribbles on the notebook. “Genesis seems to remain unchanged. No fruit or bloom yet.” Or ever. He thinks.
Desmond sits back in his chair and plays with his pen in his mouth. He turns off his recorder.
“Give me something, Jenny.” Speaking to the glass.
There’s a deep silence wrapped in the hum of machinery. Then, the comms system statics to life. “Don’t you always say that, Des?”
Desmond smiles and looks to the ceiling. He presses the com on his desk. “How are you hearing me?”
“I just know you, Des.” Lacey responds. Desmond can hear her stretching as she wakes. “You forget how long we’ve been here doing this.”
He chuckles and continues to look at Jenny.
“Well, it’s nice of you to join me.” He says quietly. “How did you sleep?”
“Still not feeling great.” She says. “But I have a feeling about today.”
“A feeling of what? What do you -”
Desmond’s words become clogged in his throat as he spots something at the bottom right of Jenny’s terrarium. Sprouting out of the soil. It’s the faintest color of yellow, a newborn flower. A fruiting flower.
“I knew I had a feeling, Des.”
It’s a miracle. On this day. The one day Lacey isn’t next to him observing with him. There’s life against all odds. Desmond jumps out of his seat and throws his eyes to the glass. He begins breathing heavily. Then without another word, he bolts out of the eco-lab, screaming down the corridors.
“Lacey! We did it!” He yells ecstatically. The walls seem particularly bright. “We solved it! We can go home!”
The com statics again. “Oh, Des. You are home.”
He stops at Lacey’s door. But it isn’t fully closed. There’s a sliver of tan light emanating from a small opening.
He slides the door open with ease. There’s nobody inside Lacey’s quarters. In fact, there’s no sign it’s been lived in at all. An immaculate bed, a lack of personal knickknacks, the smell of new and unused fabric.
Desmond’s heart begins beating faster and faster. His blood feels like acid. As he enters Lacey’s room, his pacing becomes frantic. Where the hell is she?
Then, in the corner of his eye, he spots a data stick on the corner desk with a sticky note. He slowly walks up to it, feeling as if anchors are tied to his heels. On the sticky note, it reads: For when you can’t find me.
Desmond sits gently at the desk and picks up the data stick, turning it between his fingers. After a hesitant thought, he places it in the drive and watches a dull light grow on the monitor. Suddenly, he’s staring at a video of himself.
The Desmond in the screen has his elbows on the desk, his face in his palms. The desk and room appear disheveled, the consequence of chaotic action, the remnants of an emotional outburst. This Desmond is younger. He begins speaking.
“If you’re watching this, I’m sorry Desmond. But Lacey isn’t here. The fact that you were even able to see this on the desk and play it proves that you’re not completely insane.”
Desmond watches himself writhe in the desk he currently sits in. His neurons are firing at light-speed.
“I regret to tell you that Lacey passed away a month ago. Well at least, a month ago for me. I have no idea when you’ll be watching this. But I’ve been… not well the last few weeks. I’ve been seeing things, hearing things. I’ve tried to do my work, but I find myself wishing so desperately to not be alone. I’ve been hallucinating. I’m using this brief respite from my insanity and isolation to give you this message before I forget it.”
Desmond wraps his chest in his arms and clenches on his shoulders. His limbs have gone numb. The video continues.
“My guess is that you are watching this in your own respite from your insanity and isolation. That something snapped you out of it. For me, I thought I saw something in Jenny. I thought I saw the answer. But I was hallucinating. And I was talking to myself. You’re alone, Desmond. And probably have been for some time. The crew of Project Dawn died shortly after you and Lacey arrived. And your contact with the surface was severed. It left you with two choices. To continue the work that would save humanity. Or send the emergency shuttle back down to an unknown and unforgiving planet with no guarantee of returning. The two of you decided on the former. You told yourselves that you were so close to the solution. You told yourselves that this, Project Dawn, provided you the most security after all of this time without contact with Earth.”
He watches himself in the video look up from his hands. It’s a face soaked and red with tears.
“Whether that was the right decision or not, you’ll never know. The truth is you’re alone. And since Lacey… died. You haven’t been the same. And now, I’m afraid you’ll be haunted by her. And by the work you so desperately cling to. By work that won’t go anywhere, I’m afraid.”
“No, no, this can’t be happening.” He mumbles to himself. “This can’t be.”
“So this is what I’ll leave you with.” The video says. “You have two more choices. You can place this video back on the desk with the sticky note, walk out of the room, and wait for you to go insane again. Continue to do the work and talk to your friend in peace and see Jenny bloom every now and then. Or you can forget all of this, take the pod back to Earth, and see what has happened there for yourself.”
In the video, Desmond rises from the desk and looks about the mess.
“As for me, I want to see Lacey again. I want to feel like what I’m doing means something. So I’m going to clean this all up, leave this video for you, and walk out with my head held high. Wait for the dream to start again.”
He walks back up to the screen.
“Whatever you chose, Desmond. I know it’ll be the right one. Take care of yourself. It’s time to go back to square one, just like Lacey said.”
There’s a small smile, and then the video goes black.