An image of deep space

What Lies Ahead

Fiction, One Off

I met him once, a long time ago. I was walking down the high street in the rain, burying myself in the hood of my coat against the drizzle, in a hurry to get home, when suddenly there he was in front of me.

So sorry to bother you, but do you have a light?

He asked me so politely and with such a sense of apologetic deference that I felt truly awful when I said I did not smoke, having never taken up the habit, and he thanked me very much and exclaimed about how rude he was being, and he would let me continue on and get out of the rain. As I stood for a moment and watched him continue on through the grey weather I felt for a while that perhaps I should take up the habit, simply so that if I ever bumped into him again I could offer my assistance and make up for my tragic oversight on this occasion.

Such was the effect he had on people, such a welcoming and commanding presence, a born leader and orator. He was to announce his intention to stand for one of the major parties in the election and claim the seat in my constituency just a few months later, beating the incumbent in a narrow race, and I have not met him since.

Years later, and we stand on the brink of disaster, but because of him we stand together, facing the darkness, defiant at the end. Without his leadership, we would have been consumed and defeated a long time before.

I am old now, but then I was young and vital. I wore his badge when he entered the Commons that first time, proud that my vote had been cast in his name. And 15 years later, three major reform bills penned by his hand and holding the respect of the entire nation, I shouted his praises and denounced his naysayers as he resigned in disgust at his senior minister’s actions. He was back in office a year later, of course, now as an independent, soon to be leader of his own party.

They were called outsiders and upstarts by so many in the early years, but as they gathered support quietly from the sidelines, and chipped slowly away at the establishment, the major parties felt their majorities slip away, and the balance of power shifted. By the time my thirty fifth birthday arrived, he was a coalition partner, and when the political alliance abruptly collapsed when the other side was exposed in a flurry of fraud, a snap election saw him leading us as Prime Minister.

Do not fear change, he told his citizens when the confetti had settled, do not fear the future, for that is where we are heading and for all our efforts we cannot halt the passage of time. We must seize the opportunities that present themselves, and move forwards with purpose, hope and confidence.

With these words he made us great again, and the world took notice. Some tried to halt the advance, but he stood firm, and our allies were enheartened and our enemies converted. A golden age, if you will, descended on us. Many were responsible for bringing about the change we saw in the world at that time, but it was his leadership that galvanised so many to rise up and exceed all the expectations. But gold is finite, unlike time, and things were not to remain as they were.

Fellow citizens of my country and of humanity, we have come upon a difficult truth, are words that echo around the heads of those few of us who are left from that time. The world changed again, except this time for the worse, and there was nothing any of us could do to prevent it, not even him. Of course, we tried, but nature has a way of being far more resilient to our attempts to control it, as much as we would have liked to believe otherwise.

Crops failed, animals died, and populations shrank. We concentrated ourselves in the warm places, cultures mixing and peoples melding until nobody cared where anyone else came from much; we were just people to one another, pure and simple. There was no room for rivalries. Beneath the remains of a once great city, I sheltered with many others, and he still spoke from his chambers down here with us. Often he would venture out and give hope to people, and many times I went to hear him speak, but never did I get close to him.

I was already growing old, and I did not have the energy to push through the crowds of young people to see him. In my mind I was closer to him, having shared his journey along with so many, but all these youths knew were his words from after our hardship had begun.

Now, I lie alone on a bare bunk in my quarters. I cannot believe what I have heard on the radio, but I know that it is true. If I am frail and weak as I am, he must be so too, if not in the mind, for he is older than I. Ah, a knock on the door, a welcome change, and something to take my mind off the sad news. I suppose I shall answer it.

And three days later, there it is. The final announcement on the radio, and the funeral is held a week later. It was reserved and small, attended only by close friends, for he had no family. Our other leaders arranged a sombre march through the steel corridors to allow all to pay their respects. He had left instructions for a quiet send off, though I do not think he would have begrudged them this. I did not go, for mine have been paid.

Behind the knock on my door a week prior had been a messenger from the government offices. I had been asked as a senior citizen to share my story with a historian. I accepted after a moment’s thought, for I am often lonely here on my own, and had gone with him to the administration complex.

On my arrival I was show in to a small room, and waited briefly, before being invited in to another cramped chamber, occupied only by a chair and a bed, in which lay a man. There he was, our leader.

He had discovered we share a common origin (the words came with difficulty, I could tell). I could only nod as he continued. He had someone do some digging, and found I had attended his first ever rally. He thanked me for my support over all these years, and wanted to have me share my experiences.

History is just as important as the future, we can no more prevent ourselves from glancing back as we can stop our advancement forwards. I smiled, recognising the reference to that early speech.

We talked for maybe a few minutes, and he took my hand to thank me again. As I left he raised a hand and spoke once more.

So sorry to bother you before you go, but do you have a light?

I froze, and turned slowly to face him again. His face was turned up in a grin, and explained he had never kicked the habit, and he guessed there was hardly any point in stopping now. I pulled myself together and replied, no I did not smoke. He  said he was glad I never did take it up, and that he would let me go now, as he did not want to keep me from the historian, and he did not want to be rude. He gave me a nod, and I left.

I cried when I got to the corridor once more, my body shaking along with the deck below, mixing with the shudder of the powerful engines, and I leant against the wall until I felt able to go on. I found the historian in a room I had seen pictures of but never been in myself. The Observatory had an enormous window, facing forwards, gazing tirelessly in the same direction as humanity.

We plough on in silent resistance, refusing to give up, steadfast against the dark of the endless night of the universe. This was the vessel carrying the last of us in to that blackness, our ark, keeping us safe and allowing us to continue into the future. Giant engines, thousands upon thousands of tons of metal, the ingenuity of the combined forces of humanity come together to save us all. And he had led us through, not by the hand, but by inspiring and driving us on.

I stood for a moment, staring at the great spangled velvet sheet, and smiled, for what lies ahead cannot hinder us.

An image of deep space

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