“It’ll be okay, solnyshko. You’ll see. There’s plenty of room and plenty of time.”
The lie comes easily. Perhaps too easily, but her little light is all I have left. Her hope is keeping us all warm. And it is her hope, no one else’s. My wife gave up long ago; myself only recently. But Ilyana…she continues to glow. So I feed the coals of hope, and pray that they catch fire.
“Is that our ship, Papa, that one there?”
She points at the first ship in line, rising both tall and bulbous beyond the wall. We can only see the tip from here, the point down to the first pod, but everyone knows the shape. We’ve all studied the colony ships. Stared at their silhouettes on the posters. Learned their angles and their curves. Wondered what it would be like to climb their gantries and find our couches within. Back when we had hope.
I lie some more.
“Yes, kotyonok, that one is ours. Or perhaps the one after it, but I think that is the one.”
“But there are so many people…and they’re all ahead of us in the queue!”
She isn’t wrong, and for a moment I worry that the fire is dying. I allow myself to look up from her face briefly, glancing at the line of cars in front of us. So many cars. So many desperate people. FORWARD! the sign says, but there is nowhere to go.
I stoke the fire.
“There are many people, yes. But the ship…it’s big. So very big, with room for everyone. And even if that one fills up, there is another. And another. A long, beautiful line of ships full of couches enough for us all!”
The flame brightens, so I add more fuel.
“Besides.” The smile of a liar. Perhaps she is still too young to know the differences in smiles. “We’re on a special list. They’ll save our seats. They won’t leave without their princess.”
She smiles back at me.
The queue has not moved. Ilyana sleeps. It’s a restless sleep, and her mother refuses to provide comfort. Not that I can blame her. It’s difficult to comfort another when you don’t feel warmth within yourself.
I stand outside, with a few of the other restless souls. Some of them look how I imagine myself: hopeless, desperate. We exchange furtive glances thick with understanding, but no one speaks. Others seem to maintain hope, some vestige of their inner fire. I pity them for their futility, but I do not hold it against them. If I still had it within me to desire, I might yearn to be like them.
Before the darkness began to spread, I hunted in the wilderness. I dreamed of providing for my family. I’d stalk the birds and the small mammals, staking out their dens in the steppes. I mimed my attacks, bow or gun, and imagined I had power over the world. I shall provide food! Shelter! Protection! I came across the tracks of predators, and pretended I was guarding the city. I’d bring home trinkets that I found, pieces of junk that I’d hold up to my family as precious relics of a lost age, rescued from obscurity.
Foolish games, when there was no real danger in the world. Foolish me, to think I could protect my family. I had hope, then. Dreams.
There is a noise, and shouting. I look to where the road enters the wall. Are they?…yes. Yes. They are. They’re trying to close the doors. Why would they close the doors? What could be happening to make them close the doors?
Don’t panic don’t panic. Don’t. Panic. Panic won’t feed the fire, it will extinguish it, like a sudden burst of wind. Stay calm and find a way. For her. For Ilyana. Only Ilyana. Be the guardian she needs, and move her forward.
There. A man in uniform. Going toward the door. Perhaps he can help. He looks like a decent man.
He stops, looks around, then walks closer, hand on his gun. Wary, but not hostile.
“My girl. My Ilyana. Can you take her inside? Can you get her on a ship?”
At first he starts to back off, to turn away, but then perhaps he sees something in my eyes. Sees my desperation. He glances inside the car. He sees Ilyana sleeping. But still he hesitates. He begins to turn away, and I ready myself for one last desperate plea, but then he sees my wife. He must see the the lack of hope in her eyes, and it changes his mind.
“Yes. I can. Quickly! Give her to me, and I will do my best.”
It’s all I can ask.
With the last of Ilyana’s hope in my heart, I pull my sleeping daughter from the car and put her in a stranger’s arms. They’re moving away before I can say goodbye. She’s not even fully awake before they reach the doors, and he pushes his way through. Forward.
Goodbye, solnyshko. Perhaps, someday, we will meet again.
There was one more ship launched; perhaps Ilyana was on it. I don’t know for sure. I can’t know for sure. It doesn’t matter now, anyway. I’ve got nothing left. I spent so long telling myself I was a guardian—a champion—on a quest to get my princess safely to her castle in the sky. But I can’t lie to myself anymore.
So I just sit here with my wife, waiting for whatever’s next. Perhaps the doors will open again. Perhaps they won’t. It doesn’t matter.
Now that we’re alone, just the two of us, I let the truth in. I let the darkness wash over me. She stares with her dead eyes out the window. Her skin is pale and blue. I can’t remember how long ago she stopped breathing, but Ilyana never noticed, and I never told her the truth.
Your mother’s tired. She’s just sleeping with her eyes open, so that she doesn’t miss anything.
So little time together in the end, and I filled it all with lies.
Now I’m just tired. So tired. I don’t think the doors will open again. I’ll go to sleep, and dream of a better time, after the darkness. Perhaps I succeeded in my quest after all, and the princess will rescue me, and bring me to safety in her castle.
The darkness is pierced. I feel warmth, although behind it is a cold and bitter wind.
I open my eyes, and don’t understand what I see. But I’m no longer tired, and suddenly I’m no longer cold.
I have hope. I am…filled with light.
“Eyes up, guardian.”