Author: Phil Gagnon

The prairie stretches before me in an endless expanse under the million blue hues of a sublimely beautiful sky. The camp is busy with the preparations for serving the evening meal and then later to bed down for the night. A freshly downed buffalo has supplied the cooks suitable forage for a veritable feast even while the smells of roasting meats and stews are denied to me.

Enervated movement in their evening chores conveys the weariness of the prospective settlers in the long journey they have made so far, and for the thousand miles remaining. I do not feel that same fatigue that is imparted over the twenty miles of walking and riding that the convoy made today and the same many days before.

I fish the harmonica from my pocket, pleased by the cold steel in my hands. The instrument is a family relic. It traveled these trails with my ancestors as professional captains of the wagon trains that crossed to and fro over the wild continent that is now before my eyes. This artifact conveys a feeling like it knows this place better than I ever will, even though I am a captain of emigrants in my own right.

The switchgrass moves in endless waves and I can hear the sharp snap of the canvas enveloping the prairie schooners, the winds that cross this land unchallenged have come to lap around the first abrupt obstacle in their paths. While I cannot feel the stir of this air, I have known the ebb and flow of far greater winds. I raise the battered harmonica to my lips and play the tune of the atmospheric tides. The small fire I have near me imparts no warmth, but its crackle is the percussive accompaniment to the melody.

Lost in the moment, I watch as the sun begins its fiery descent into sunset. The lurid reds and oranges are stark against the indolent violets and black. I pause to observe the encampment again. Even though one in ten will not make the end of the trail the respite leads them to laughter and recreation and the sounds of a people awakening from a long day’s drudgery with unbridled excitement for being one step closer to the end of their journey. I smile at their prospect, even though they will not speak to me directly.

Twilight has blanketed the camp in the inky pitch of night. I play a gentler tune that corresponds to the rhythmic dance of the shadows across the camp. My aria is just beginning its last wordless verse when in the blink of an eye the life of the camp is frozen, the shadows held fast to whatever surface they cling to. I instinctively turn to the west knowing an ethereal message hangs waiting in the air. It glows in soft artificial green:

Virtual Recreation Allotment Has Been Reached

I go through the command sequence to shut down the VR emulation. I am going to be needed on the bridge shortly, as a captain’s duty is never done. We will be making our final approach burn for TRAPPIST-1e this evening to deliver the yearly allotment of twenty-thousand colonists aboard CV Prairie Echo. I slip the harmonica back into its protective case. The 400 year old instrument has accompanied the safe movement of hundreds of thousands of people in its time, and I have no intentions of breaking its streak.