Where are all of the trees?
Written by: Frank Cormier
The starship’s computer log displayed the date to be April 17, 2445 at 11:37pm. This was the accepted form dates and time were written in when humans still inhabited Earth. The computer ran a simple program to keep track of the passage of time in this form so that all connections back to the home planet were not forgotten. Most of the crew did not know what an Earth calendar looked like which made this program seem more frivolous than nostalgic. I stared at the date a moment longer before switching it back to the standard date/time displacement display all were accustomed to: 4.107.445-2.2337:18. “It lacks sex appeal,” I said to the monitor screen. The computer responded by asking me to repeat the command which made me chuckle. “Ignore my words,” I replied and started my shift a little early to help overcome the extreme boredom of interstellar travel.
The bleakness of deep space travel is more overwhelming than the brain can conceivably fathom. It is mostly dark and the profound emptiness that exists between other solar systems or galaxies is so vast that when you look out one of the few pancake sized windows (placed in what seemed to me random locations about the starship), to gaze at the abyss; you experienced a touch of vertigo as your brain tried to make sense of what your eyes saw or more accurately, what they didn’t see. It was then that you realized just how insignificant a human life form is in the overall scheme of the Universe. I chose not to look out of the windows too often as it just wasn’t worth it, visually or mentally. The GSS Georges Cuvier (Global Star Ship) still had another fifteen Earth years to go before it arrived at the outer limits of the Virgo Cluster of galaxies it was programmed to reach.
Our crew also had no way of communicating with any other human life forms on the other ten aircraft carrier sized starships that were launched the same year. Each starship had a different trajectory and destination and no two were on the same path. In fact, the distances were so great between the other starships at this point in the trek that the automatic location signal beacon each was designed to ping into the blackness of space wouldn’t reach any of them for thousands of years, assuming they were at the correct angle, and alive, to receive the encoded message. The Panspermia idea envisioned by the top scientist of that time period was that different trajectories were required in an effort to scatter those chosen few “seeds,” much like the wind blew them around on Earth to propagate the species, towards one of the many habitable solar systems spread throughout the known Universe, in a hodgepodge consecutive creation methodology. As for the humans that were left behind, I could only surmise that they had now perished. The last ping the Cuvier received from the starship nearest to us, the GSS Alcide d’Orbigny, when the exodus began, was over one hundred years ago.
We had been traveling for over one hundred and forty-five years now, I thought to myself. How was it that I was even chosen? My job on board is safety and security and there was not much to secure. I made routine rounds every hour that I was on watch in the section of the starship I was assigned to this year. Jobs were rotated each year as a measure to break up the monotony of living on a flying prison barge year after year. After all there were no ports of call or liberty to be had in the voluminous space surrounding us. This job was the most boring one so far that I had been assigned. I’m sure a monkey could do it, and I believe had at one point in the history of human space travel. The biggest safety risk was fire and we had never experienced one. We did however, lose several of the original crew members as some died prematurely due to problems with the cryogenic chambers and the others from natural causes. About half of the inaugural crew of five-thousand was placed into a deep sleep a year after we fled the planet. The other half lived out their natural lives performing the necessary duties to keep the starship on target, one of those duties being the replenishment of the crew.
New babies had been born in that time. Now grown up, several of them are responsible for keeping the Cuvier on target and of course reproduction. Most of the newer crew, once they reached twenty-five Earth years of age, were placed in the chambers to await their turn to be woken upon reaching our destination. I find it most curious that they will never know what is was like to walk on a firm terrain filled with trees and flowers and other life forms besides humans. It saddens me to think that this new generation has no idea what a flower smells like or what fun it was to climb a tree on a bright sunny day or know what an actual book feels like to read. Their appearance etiolated, their world digital. I get anxious when I ponder what our new world will evolve into when most of the humans on board don’t know what life was like on Earth. Maybe that will be a good thing, I mused?
I was fortunate my chamber didn’t malfunction, not that I would have known if it had, and have been awake now for over ten years. The main part of my job is to ensure that the cryogenic chambers were functioning properly and to report any issues to the cryogenic engineering and medical staffs. In between my security shifts I would look up events that happened on board while I was asleep and listened to the reports. I learned that the starship had suffered some minimal damage when it accidently flew through a debris field of micro space rocks that were too small for the ship’s long range sensors to detect. The Cuvier had come to a full stop once it cleared the miniature rock storm and a few of the crew went on a spacewalk to assess and repair any damage. The sensors had since been reprogrammed to detect that type of anomaly and we have not encountered another one. Not much else had happened since we left Earth according to the starship’s logs. Sometimes I wondered if I would have been better off had I refused to take this journey and stayed behind taking my chances on Earth. There was no guarantee either way.
I remembered being approached by two men dressed in formal military attire as I studied for an exam in the main campus library at Tufts University. One half semester to go and I would have graduated with a double major in psychology and math. To this day I’m not exactly sure how they even located me; however, I believe now it had something to do with my DNA. They mentioned something at the time about a certain marker and trait that I possessed and that I was to come with them “immediately.” I mildly protested but went along anyway because I was intrigued by the mysterious air that surrounded them. Seventy-two hours later I was sitting on a rocket ship headed towards a space station located on the moon and then shuttled aboard this starship and have not seen the Earth or the moon since. During the first few months of the trip, when we could still communicate with the space station and Earth, reports came over the starship’s broadcast system about an “inner core explosion” that rocked the entire planet off its axis. Speculation on board was that Earth was hit by an asteroid or comet so large that it literally pushed its orbit nearer to the Sun and was now caught in a death spiral with the Sun’s gravity pulling it closer and closer to its ultimate demise. Nothing was ever confirmed because we lost contact with Earth before receiving a response to our query regarding its health status. I conjectured that the “powers to be” blacked out the official reason so as to not dishearten the few humans sent away and have them worry about the fate of their loved ones.
“A book,” I thought to myself as I patrolled the cryogenic sleeping chambers, “that is what I miss the most.” The actual feel of the paper stock and smell of a new book was once a drug to me. And the weight of all the pages with those nuanced words permanently etched upon them with indelible ink that formed a message meant to be deciphered and colored by one’s brain through the eyes of your own experiences and imagination; they were meant to last a lifetime. Even though every book ever written or magazine published were in audible form back on Earth before the evacuation, I often chose to go to a library or bookstore to borrow or purchase a book. You could listen to your own inner voice tell the story and imagine the scene in the private theater of your mind. There is not one book on this entire starship.
All written forms of entertainment were uploaded to the central library computer before the starship began its journey and the books read to you while wearing a listening device. The stories were spoken by a computer voice that often placed the wrong emphasis on a syllable or added inflection where it was not called for, and worse, it completely missed the nuances the original author intended the reader to enjoy and make the mental movie all their own. I tried several times to listen to “The Grapes of Wrath” and just couldn’t get past the mispronunciation of Tom Joad’s last name (the computer voice pronounces it “Joe-Add”), and the bleak picture John Steinbeck painted with respect to the arid farm land and the family struggles, does not come across in the vivid detail he wrote about when read to you in flat computerized voice. Some other books are read aloud by actual people voices, but you still run into the problem of inflection and mispronunciations if the person reading them wasn’t informed. Very few of them were good readers, such as Christopher Evan Welch who read aloud “The Art of Racing in the Rain.” I listened to that story so much I know it by heart and still find it captivating, in large part as to how it was read by Christopher. He made the story come to life and it was easy for my imagination to take over and picture the words as the author Garth Stein meant them to be read. Come to think of it I mused, there were no living pets or any type of animals or fish or plants on board for that matter. They only existed in one’s mind and in the DNA strands that were frozen like popsicles in the Farm & Agriculture section of the starship.
“A tree once grew in Brooklyn,” I wondered aloud as I sat in front of the rectangular monitor about to recite my report, “hopefully one will grow in our future home?” We’ll need them if we ever want to hold and read a book again…
Copyright (C) by Frank Cormier 2016. All rights reserved.