Standard Year 2517
Above their heads, the sounds of the Reavers traveling make noises like distant bombs dropping on their underground cavern. Chuck doesn't stop his fingers digging, but still takes a mental moment to thank whatever deities may still exist that Reavers move in the haphazard, improvised rhythms of jazz percussion, as opposed to the lockstep resonant frequencies of military precision. If the Reavers ever found out they could take down bridges just by marching in the same time...
Chuck's fingers grab at more dirt, shoveling it behind him onto the ground of their mobile tomb, where Sarah shuffles it back to Casey, where Casey packs it into the wall behind them.
They're in a hamster cage made of wet earth. Chuck's not sure if his plan is the most wildly ingenius one he's ever come up with, or just the most apropos, since their bodies will all likely be trapped underground before they get off this planet anyway. But they'd been tired, and thirsty. So tired that not even Casey had had enough energy to muster up his usual insults and complaints about any of Chuck's plans. So thirsty that even the thought of muddy water sucked straight from the earth sounded like a gift from the heavens.
Between scoops of dirt from Chuck, Sarah pushes her hands deep into the soft, wet earth below them, scooping up the disgusting brown water that squeegees to the surface in her canteen. The canteen is near full now, but they only drink out of it every twelve hours, both to preserve their water supply, and because they don't want to take off their oxygen masks for too long. Their hole is only about the size of a water closet, and using up the oxygen too quickly would spell certain death if their tanks were to run out.
Which, of course, they are. Running on less than four hours total. Because, Chuck thinks bitterly, why the hell not.
When they had first dug the tunnel, the idea was to just dig the tunnel, leaving an escape route in case they needed to run, but two things became apparent quickly: if they were going to be running, it'd probably be away from something coming down the hole they'd left; and if they wanted to have that exit, they were going to have to haul the dirt across the entire length of the tunnel every time. And Ellie and Awesome's signal was over seven miles away.
Thus, the walking tomb.
Above them, the ruined city had once housed thousands of buildings, but it had also had plant life strewn across the medians and over the sidewalks, because people just lost their minds if they couldn't see things that weren't man-made. Though everything else has crumbled, the roots of those plants now thrive, twisting down through the earth and popping through the ceiling of their makeshift subway. Casey, he grabs the roots as they come, pulling whatever he can down. It's not much, but it does kind of count for food.
They work in silence, watching the distance on Ellie and Awesome's beacon count down from 11.265408 kilometers in increments of single millimeters. 0.378119. 0.378118. Sometimes Chuck pushes himself deeper into the earth just for the satisfaction of seeing the number go down, even if it pops right back up again once he returns to digging.
The last thing he had said to Sarah was that he would kiss her.
It's a practiced motion of his arm that signals that they need to take a break, take their fifteen minutes for drinking sewer water and eating the roots of decorative plants. It makes him think of leading armies, and the gulf of distance between himself and Sarah, and Morgan, and Alex holding Morgan, and Alex. When he sits down, it makes a loud, ugly thud.
Opening the mask of his suit, Chuck is hit by just how hot it is down here, the sweat of the planet itself, of the half-dead foliage above, of the millions of long-silenced footsteps, of the three people tucked underneath its surface. He can almost taste the dank, arid flavor of it all. He'd hate it, but its a reminder that this planet is still alive. That they're still alive. Chuck drinks out of his canteen and tries not to vomit.
They sit in silence which hangs as oppressively as the humid air of their hamster ball, refusing to make eye contact with one another. If they did, Chuck knows that all they would see would be varying degrees of hopelessness. He's not sure if that even bothers him anymore.
Chuck chews on a few roots, and he can't even taste any difference between it and the water.
He looks up just for a moment, a moment in which he notices in his periphery that Casey and Sarah both have their heads ducked. He looks at his crew, what's left of it. And for maybe the first time Chuck notices exactly how this all has changed the two of them. Casey looks so much older than he should, the furrows of anger that once crossed his face running into tributaries of stress wrinkles. His eyes have gone from their steely, metallic blue to a more muted, subdued color.
And Sarah. Her skin, once a flawless and smooth pane of glass, is now marked with wounds and dirt and worry. She's paler than Chuck can ever remember her, not from cold, but because her body needs more and more to keep her going, and it's receiving less and less. She looks vulnerable in a physical way, which is different from anything Chuck has ever seen, and it makes him so sad.
The last thing he told her is that he was going to kiss her.
He finishes his roots and slides the visor of his helmet down. He feels the rush of cool air from his internal life support systems like false hope. It's a practiced motion of his arm that signals it's time to start digging again.
And then the footsteps start again. Stumbling over each other as before, but this time right above their heads.
Right above their heads.
Loose earth shakes free of its confines above them, raining down like wartime shrapnel. Chuck only barely resists the instinct to cover his eyes. The pounding is pure tribal battle drums, or the ugly thunder of perpetual storm planets. The layers between the Reavers and them thin like peeling bits of plastic wrap apart from each other. Within seconds, a solid two inches of soil is at their feet instead of above their heads.
The three of them share a look of insane panic, the fear of certain death grabbing a hold of them simultaneously. They allow it to take control of them for one second, two seconds, three, and then Chuck swallows and pushes it down, and repeats his practiced motion of the arm.
Get to work.
They do, but with an edge of desperation, and Chuck imagines they look like hamsters feverishly attempting to escape their ball. Instead of the calm, workman-like assembly line they had established, the three of them tear at the wall in front of them, uncaring of where the earth falls. It doesn't matter. If they don't get out of here, they'll just be future Earth. Chuck wonders idly how many disintegrated bones are in his hands right now.
The pounding gets louder, the roar of starship engines but in rhythm, and the crust above them keeps thinning. They had once visited a planet where the precipitation was methane-based and the snow at the poles was horrid brown color, and now it looks like that, right down to the muted colors Chuck can see through his visor. In passing, Chuck wonders if maybe they died there, long before the war and the Gamma Intersect, and the rest of all this has just been Hell. He doesn't know if it matters.
The beacon reads 0.364933.
Scrabbling madly, Chuck's fingers suddenly bend against something thick and hard and tangible. He stops for a moment, confused, before diving back in with his arms. Like before, they hit a solid, uncompromising surface.
Inside his suit, a cold sweat breaks out. He sees Sarah and Casey, a few inches shallower than he is in their digging, look at him through their peripheral vision. Shaking it off without any observable movement, Chuck tries again.
It's still there.
There is an earthquake around them and something in their way. He sees Casey and then Sarah retract at the same feeling, curiosity and terror both crossing their expressions. With determination, they scratch away the dirt from the surface, and as more falls away, the material blocking their path slowly reveals itself.
It's bark. The pattern of the wood tells the Intersect everything it needs to know.
In a city that had been completely paved over, every tree uprooted and replaced with synthetic approximations of life, one lone tree root had somehow remained, buried beneath the soil because it was too wide across to be pulled and too hefty to be vaporized. So it sat beneath one of a hundred thousand buildings until, less than 400 yards from the beacon marking the location of Ellie and Awesome, it stands definitely in front of them, impeding any further progress.
Because they're going to die, half of the roof caves in under the stampeding footsteps of the Reavers.
Chuck can't help it; he laughs. It's a maniacal, outlandish thing that echoes roundly in his helmet until it sounds like it's coming from everywhere at once. Casey looks at him like he's crazy, and the look is both familiar and distant, a reflection of a time when the tall man used to have to wipe the snot from Chuck's nose. All that does is make Chuck laugh harder. Desperately and with huge gasps of breath and incoherent intervals, his laugh rattles out his lungs and fogs up the interior of his helmet.
They're all gong to die because of a fucking tree.
Not because of Reavers or the Alliance. Not because of the Intersect War or a smuggling job gone wrong. Not even because of old age, though Chuck knows that was never in the cards for them.
It's a tree that kills them.
He's laughing so hard he can barely breathe.
The dirt shakes free with such ease now that Chuck wonders how it ever held together at all, this dry soil unbound to its adjacent brethren due to years of drought, the only water a tepid cesspool that lingered under the surface for years with no movement. The dirt falls in clumps and Chuck leans back against the tree impeding their path and takes in the moment of their deaths.
Through the painful hysteria, he sees that Sarah and Casey see it, too. He sees the life leave their body through their shoulders, which go from tense with the anxiety of living to slack with the knowledge of fatality. Through the fog of his visor, Chuck sees his entire life before him, a series of progressively more ridiculous, fateful cock-ups that cast him, Pinocchio strings and all, as some sort of savior. A savior that let almost everyone he loved die, and then died himself.
The laughs subside.
Chuck takes his last deep breath.