He dabbed the sweat from his face with a bandana. He didn’t want his implant to get wet. His fingers traced the familiar curlicue device embedded in his right temple, longing to switch it on so he could block out the bare granite rising like jagged teeth and the deep gashes in the dry, cracked ground.
His father, Ashton Klein, one of the Web’s most recognized reporters—his hologram appeared almost daily in millions of living rooms around the globe on the show See It to Believe It—dropped back to walk beside him. The show was what had brought Ashton and the others here.
Maghnus pulled his goggles down and set the tint to its darkest setting so his father couldn’t see his eyes. That was one of Ashton’s pet peeves, not being able to meet someone’s gaze. He adjusted the setting to maximize contrast sensitivity until even the tiniest weed stood out sharply against its surroundings. And weeds were pretty much the only living things left since the fungus that had wiped out all the trees. Along the rolling plains behind them rose a forest of artificial trees converting carbon dioxide to oxygen. They looked like the dough paddles on his mom’s old mixer. When the wind blew just right, it carried the droning of their engines.
“I’m glad you changed your mind about coming out here,” Ashton said. His voice—deep, rumbling, comforting to the public—grated on Maghnus’s nerves. “It’s good for you to get away from that school for a while.”
The boarding school you sent me to when Mom died because you had no idea what to do with a thirteen-year-old kid you hardly knew? Maghnus clenched his teeth and grunted noncommittally in reply.
Ashton frowned. “I wish you’d take that thing off for this hike at least, enjoy your surroundings. It’s not healthy to leave in the implant without a break.”
“That’s an urban myth. They’ve done plenty of studies, and there’s nothing wrong with wearing an implant all the time.”
“Yes, but you’ve been using that new program to talk to some computer-simulated image of your mother. It’s disturbing.”
Maghnus jammed his right hand in his pocket to keep it from rising automatically to switch on the implant. He wished he was back in his dorm room, sitting in his papasan, plugged into the Web. But he’d wanted to capture the image of the world’s last tree and use it with his mom’s hologram. If she had been alive, she’d be out here with him. Heck, she would have been one of the founding members of the Arbor Party.
He said, “Pretending to be the concerned father since we’re in front of other people?”
Ashton winced. “You have no idea what—”
“Hey, Ashton,” a woman called out from the group. “Come take a look at this.”
Ashton glanced from Maghnus to the woman and back again, a frown on his face. “We’ll talk. Tonight, once we’re back at the lodge and have some privacy.”
His father trotted off to join the group. The woman was a producer, but Maghnus couldn’t remember her name. The way she flirted with his father suggested they were either sleeping together or would be soon.
One of the guides dropped back, slowing her steps as if to join Maghnus. Her name he remembered. Sabine.
She was twenty-one, four years older than him, and had been an active member of the Arbor Party for five months. She took pride in caring for the tree they considered sacred. Not that he’d found any of this out himself. At dinner the night before, he had done his best to listen to everything she had to say without looking like he was eavesdropping.
The long sleeves, wide-brimmed hat, and goggles couldn’t hide the delicate lines of her face or the trim build of her body. As his online friend jonas313 would say, she had the perfect waist-to-hip ratio. She wore her ashy blond hair in a thick braid that hung halfway down her back.
What would he say if she joined him? He had never talked to a girl so pretty before. No, she wasn’t a girl…she was a woman. His mouth went dry.
She stopped and smiled, obviously waiting for him to catch up. Maghnus’s goggles picked out the green of her long-sleeved shirt, making it pop against the sheer granite wall behind her. He tried to swallow the huge knot in his throat, but it caught. How bad would it really look if he ran back to the lodge?
“Hello,” she said. Goggles and a bandana covered most of her face, but the crinkling along the tops of her cheeks and around her eyes let him know she was smiling at him. His stomach flipped as if he was on a long drop on a roller coaster. “Maghnus, right?”
He managed a nod.
“Yep.” He mentally slapped himself. Yep? That was the best he could do? This was why he preferred talking to people online. He could polish his words and practice his replies. None of these knee-jerk idiot responses.
“You’re not used to being offline, huh?” she asked.
That was what was different about her. She didn’t have the tell-tale curlicue of an implant on her temple.
“You’ve never been online?” he asked.
“I tried it once. It wasn’t for me.”
“Really?” He couldn’t imagine being so out of touch with the rest of the world. “Why?”
“It was isolating.”
He let out a snort of laughter and immediately regretted it. He’d probably offended her.
The others’ mumbled conversations drifted back. He racked his mind for something to say and finally blurted, “How did you end up here?”
She laughed. “It seems crazy, doesn’t it? I think I was destined to end up here. I almost had to. My parents are neo-Hippies.”
“They live off the grid?”
“Yep. Self-sufficient all the way.”
She laughed again. “Don’t sound so shocked.”
His cheeks warmed. “Sorry.” Silence was definitely better than saying something idiotic.
“Look,” she continued. “What I mean about the Web isolating people is this.” She took his hand.
A sharp tingle ran up Maghnus’s arm. He was acutely aware of each spot where her skin touched his. He wished he could switch on his implant to record the feel of her skin and replay it over and over again. But that would probably come across as creepy.
“You can’t touch people online,” Sabine said. She withdrew her hand.
Maghnus resisted the urge to snatch it back. “But now you can. You can talk to people you’d never be able to otherwise, and it’s like they’re really there.” His mother’s soft smile and voice came to mind.
“I heard about that new program. A lot of people have been talking to dead celebrities. Or dead friends and relatives. Some people get so wrapped up in those programs that they forget to eat or don’t show up to school or work.”
“You talk about it like it’s bad,” he said.
She cast a sidelong glance at him. “When was the last time you went on a date?”
He let out what he hoped was a laugh filled with the perfect combination of worldliness and humor, as if to suggest he’d been out with a girl only a couple of nights before, but he was afraid it sounded more surprised and nervous. “I’ve been out with girls.”
“I’m sure you have. But when was the last time?”
“When was the last time you went out?”
“Last weekend when we were in Salt Lake for supplies.” She paused a beat. “He wasn’t as cute as you, though.”
Maghnus’s heart did a funny sort of flop. Was she really hitting on him? But she was older and pretty…she could have her pick of guys. Why hit on some kid still in high school? Unless her real target was his father, and she thought to get to him through Maghnus. But she didn’t need to try so hard. Ashton responded to any female attention.
Sabine sighed. “I have a confession.”
Here it comes, thought Maghnus. She’s going to talk about her huge crush on my father. His stomach turned to lead.
“I heard you last night,” she continued. “I guess you were making a report for school.”
Ah, yes, the report his teacher had insisted on. Maghnus had waited until his father left their room before recording it. Ashton would have been sure to heap critiques on him. Stand up straight. You’re saying ‘um’ all the time. Smile more. Then he realized what Sabine had just admitted.
“You spied on me?” Although he couldn’t be too angry, seeing as how he’d eavesdropped on her conversation the night before.
“Not exactly. But I walked past your room, and what I heard caught my attention. So I slowed down, just enough to hear you talk about the memorial tree your mother planted for you.”
When Maghnus was born after years of his parents trying to start a family, his mother had an Australian pine planted in the park near their home with a plaque reading, “April 9, 2020, our miracle arrived.” Each year on his birthday they had a picnic next to his tree, and they visited it at least once a week to clear the space of weeds and make sure it was growing well. In a way it was a good thing she hadn’t lived to see the fungus kill it. He’d cried, alone, when it died, then taken the plaque and hidden it in the corner of his closet.
“Nobody was supposed to hear that,” he snapped.
“I’m sorry. I thought it was really sweet. And I’m sorry about your mom’s passing.”
He shrugged. “It’s been a while.”
“I’m sure it still hurts.”
The old familiar tightness in his chest—like skin puckering around a deep wound—came back. “Yeah,” was all he said. If he was online, he’d go to another site to take his mind off the ache. He’d just have to do the next best thing.
“I, uh, just remembered something I need to tell my father,” he said. Without a backwards glance, he hurried to join the group.
Their guide, Brian, stopped them about two hours into the morning hike. Ashton’s crew made themselves useful and staked the cameras down with thick cables so the wind wouldn’t blow them over. The producer—Maghnus finally remembered her name was Karyn—barked orders at everyone. Ashton sat on a folding camp chair reading a script while the make-up person made him suitable for television.
Huge grey boulders jutted from the mountainside to Maghnus’s left. Wind and storms had borne away much of the soil that used to fill the spaces between rock, leaving that part of the mountain looking like the rotten, gap-toothed smile of a drug user. To his right, the trail had been reinforced with a short stone wall. Below that, the land dropped precipitously. One wrong step and hello, broken neck. Heights usually didn’t bother him, but this view had his stomach doing slow flops. He edged closer to the trail’s left. Not that those boulders looked as if they had a firm grip on the earth. One little tremor could send them all rolling.
“There’s a short climb ahead,” Brian said, the wind whipping his words away as the cameras rolled on him. “And around the next bend is the last tree on Earth. The Arbor Party founder, Linda Greyson, was hiking this area two years ago, almost to the day, when she stumbled across it. That this one tree has survived the fungus, the harsh climate, and multiple landslides is a testament to its miraculous existence.”
Maghnus squirmed. He suddenly felt like he was in church. He murmured, “That this one tree has survived is probably sheer dumb luck.”
“Luck, huh?” Sabine said.
Maghnus hadn’t heard her approach. His face warmed.
“You’ll see for yourself in a few minutes,” she said, then walked away.
Maghnus started to call out to her. But what would he say? If he was online, he could come up with a great apology. He shook his head.
Brian continued, “It’s the Arbor Party’s wish to show the world how sacred this tree is.” He nodded once.
Not to mention they needed funding. Brian had said the area around the tree had been slowly falling prey to constant landslides. The Arbor Party wanted to stabilize the area around the tree to protect it, and that called for money.
Karyn yelled, “Cut. Now for Ashton’s introduction.”
Ashton took Brian’s place. His khakis were as crisp as when they’d been ironed that morning, and somehow his hair managed to remain perfectly coiffed despite the wind. When he flashed his teeth at the cameras, Maghnus knew they were filming.
He closed his eyes and flipped on his implant. A gray screen showed up with a swirling rainbow-colored ball. After a few seconds, the Web loaded, and Izzy Welbourne, star of the remake of the Twilight movies, greeted him with a dimpled smile.
“Where can I take you, Maghnus?”
“Feedback on the upcoming episode of See It to Believe It, the show on the world’s last tree.”
“Ooh, excellent choice.” She always said that. “Any particular location?”
“North America, English language, teenage demographic.”
“You got it.”
Izzy faded, replaced by the first livecam the Web pulled up. A Latino boy with braces leaned towards his camera, blocking most of his room in the background. “These people just want money. They’re like some sort of cult. Everybody knows there are no trees left, none. Whatever they show is a fake.”
An African-American girl replaced him. “They’re crazy. They know the cost of restoring the earth’s forests. It’s not worth it. We have plenty of other problems to take care of, like that elementary school in Chicago where, like, fifty kids were addicted to heroin. It’s time to adapt to a world without trees. Move on, people.”
Much of the other feedback was in the same vein, with a few exceptions. Not surprising, considering most of the Arbor Party’s supporters weren’t the kind to take to the Web, like Sabine. Maghnus switched off. He blinked a few times to bring the mountain back into focus.
His father had finished. The crew packed the cameras for the last leg of the hike. In a few minutes they were ready.
Maghnus joined his father while Karyn spoke with the crew. “So what do you really think of all this?”
Ashton glanced around, then leaned conspiratorially close. “Personally, I think these Arbor Party people are crazy. I don’t think we’re going to find a living tree. If there’s anything there, it’ll be an extra-big weed.”
Maghnus grunted noncommittally and dropped back. Sabine and Brian didn’t seem crazy, just passionate about their beliefs. But he thought his father and a lot of the others on the Web had a point. The Arbor Party had guarded this mountain for the past couple of years, claiming the tree was too special to share with a world that had destroyed all save this one, but now they wanted everyone to see it.
The trail ended at a ten-foot-high rock wall. Brian climbed it first and helped each of them up one at a time. The trail disappeared behind a huge wall of rocks that looked like tents.
Maghnus made his way towards the front of the group. He wanted a good look at this tree and to upload its image before the crew started doing whatever they were going to do. He imagined the tree as he had dozens of times already—it would be some scrawny pine sticking out of a crack between rocks, barely holding onto life, like that Charlie Brown Christmas tree, needles falling to the ground if someone so much as looked at it crossways.
Birds chirped merrily ahead. Maghnus’s steps faltered. What sort of birds lived out here? When the trees had all died, they’d taken refuge in the cities.
He caught a whiff of moisture in the arid air. There was enough water somewhere ahead that he could smell it. He hurried after Brian around the rock wall.
Lush, green grass carpeted the ground. Flowers in scarlet and deep purple dotted the area. A stream cut through the midst of the meadow, gurgling over stones to end in a small pond. And beside the stream towered the last tree.
It rose on a trunk wide enough to fill Maghnus’s dorm room. Branches lush with foliage swayed in the wind, leaves rustling as if conveying secrets. Thanks to Maghnus’s goggles, the leaves shone a bright green, almost as if each one was lit from within by its own light.
His hands longed to grab hold of one of the lower branches and propel himself up to sit cradled in one of the tree’s many nooks. The shaded grass called out to him. Come, lie down, find shelter.
“What kind of tree is that?” he asked in a hushed voice.
“It’s an alder,” Brian said. “Come on, take a closer look. Here, take off your shoes. Feel the grass beneath your feet.” He followed his own advice, leaving his hiking boots standing in the dirt.
Maghnus yanked off his boots and socks. He stepped onto the grass and sighed. The springy surface was like a cool bath.
The alder’s shade cut the day’s heat as he moved into it. He took off his goggles. To his surprise, the leaves still shone. He pushed his hat back and let the breeze flow through his sweaty hair and dry his forehead.
“You can touch it,” Sabine said. She’d silently joined them. A silent I told you so hovered momentarily in the air between them.
Maghnus laid a hand on the bark. It was pleasantly rough against his skin. He craned his neck. The tree rose to a point far above him, its branches filtering the sunlight so that it fell softly in patches all around.
Then he wrapped both arms around the trunk as far as he could reach and laid his cheek against the tree. A whiff of his mother’s perfume passed so quickly he thought he must have imagined it.
Here, he felt closer to her memory than he ever had speaking with her hologram. He could easily conjure her image and voice as if she stood beside him. Hot tears brimmed along his eyes. He never wanted to leave this place.
His father’s nervous laugh broke in. “Maybe we should leave you two alone for a while?”
Maghnus pulled away from the alder. He yanked his goggles back over his face and tugged his hat down low. He shoved his hands in his pockets as he stepped away from the tree.
Karyn stepped in between Ashton and Maghnus. “Let’s just get the cameras set up and film this before the sun gets too high.”
Maghnus put his shoes back on and wandered from the others, searching for the best angle to record the alder. At the small meadow’s western end, the mountain rose precipitously. A thick mesh clung to it like a hair net to hold loose rocks in place. A few areas bulged with rocks, and some the size of basketballs rested at the wall’s base.
Brian argued with Karyn, pointing at the mesh and towards the mountain’s top. She crossed her arms and shook her head. The only word Maghnus caught during their exchange was ‘deadline.’
He found a spot that captured not only the tree, but the stream as well. A flick of his finger set the implant to record. A tiny hum filled his head.
He walked slowly around the tree to record as much detail as possible. Then he deleted the others from the scene and added his mother’s hologram to it. He perched on a shaded boulder, closed his eyes, and set the program to run.
The scene filled his vision—the alder rose high into the air, birdsong and sunlight filtering through its leaves. His mother peeked out from behind the trunk as if playing hide-and-seek. She smiled as she studied the tree, the stream, and the wildflowers and grass.
“This is very nice,” she said. “Where is this place?”
Maghnus hesitated. He’d programmed as much of his mother’s personality into the implant as he could. He didn’t want to explain all the trees’ disappearance, but he didn’t want to lie to her either, not even if she was just a hologram.
“It’s the world’s last tree,” he said.
Her smiled faded. “I thought so.”
“You—you aren’t surprised?”
“During my free time I roam the Web. I keep up with the world’s news.”
“I didn’t know the program kept running.” He imagined his mother’s hologram, sad and lonely, exploring the Web.
“Don’t worry about me,” she said. “Remember, I’m not real.” She laid a hand on the alder’s trunk and craned her neck to look at how it rose. “I’m glad you got to see this. And I’m glad I got to see this. Thank you, Maghnus.”
“You’re welcome.” Maghnus could stay online the rest of the day speaking with his mother, but he had to watch at least some of the show’s filming so he could finish his report for school. His father would get on his case, too, if he noticed Maghnus wasn’t paying attention. With a sigh, he said, “Gotta go, Mom.”
“We’ll talk again,” she said.
Maghnus hesitated a moment before turning off the hologram and returning his attention to the real world.
Ashton was walking slowly along the mountainside, talking to the camera about the netting. It was that contemplative, I-have-something-serious-to-say stride that all reporters used. Every time Maghnus’s father used it, he secretly hoped Ashton would stumble, but the man had the balance of a ballet dancer.
Brian, hands clasped, followed the cameraman so closely the poor guy could probably feel him breathing down his neck. Maybe he didn’t want to be responsible for a loose rock hitting the famous Ashton Klein on the head.
Ashton laid a hand on the netting as he continued talking. Then he waved the cameraman closer in his trademark move. He always wanted to give the people at home a close-up of what he saw to make the experience as real as possible.
The cameraman’s foot landed on a baseball-sized rock and twisted. The man put a hand out and grabbed a fistful of netting. He scrabbled for footing but went down anyway and brought some of the netting down with him.
Everyone froze. Even the birds fell silent. Tiny rocks rained through the broken netting and pelted the cameraman.
Then a sound like ice cracking came from the mountainside.
Maghnus rose to his feet. He wasn’t sure what was going on, but it sounded bad. Adrenaline poured through him.
Brian grabbed the cameraman by one arm and hauled him to his feet. When the man tried to bring his camera along, Brian shouted, “Forget it! We need to move!”
The cameraman took one step and cried out in pain. He crumpled to his knees.
“Help us,” Brian called to Ashton.
More rocks poured through the broken netting, tearing it wider. The cracking morphed into a rumbling, and then a low, long groan came from everywhere at once.
Just above the three men, a line split down the mountainside. A stream of dirt, boulders, and dead trees began rolling.
Ashton bolted. Karyn and the rest of the crew joined him down the trail like a pack of antelope racing from lions.
Brian struggled to help the cameraman up again. Maghnus ran towards them. Dirt hung in the air. He coughed as he reached the men. Several tiny rocks bounced off his head. He didn’t want to think about the larger ones rolling his way. As Brian wrapped one of the cameraman’s arms around his shoulders, Maghnus took the other. Together they half-dragged the injured man away from the mountainside.
Maghnus risked a quick glance over his shoulder. The stream of debris had widened into a river and was tumbling faster.
“I don’t think we can outrun it,” he said.
“Wasn’t planning on it,” Brian replied.
He aimed them for a slab of granite about as tall as Maghnus.
The cameraman took one look at it and moaned. “I think I did more than sprain my ankle. I think something’s broken too. I can’t make it up there.”
“Yes, you can,” Brian said. He scrambled to the top and leaned over. “You push and I’ll pull,” he said to Maghnus. He took the cameraman’s hands.
Maghnus squatted to get his shoulder under the man’s behind and, at Brian’s direction, heaved him up.
Then Brian was leaning down again, extending one arm. “All right, kid, your turn.”
Maghnus took one last look at the tree. It stood directly in the landslide’s path.
There was no guarantee the crew would be able to get out of harm’s way. The cameras and proof of how special the alder was would be destroyed. But Maghnus could upload his images to the Web, and his mother’s program could make sure it spread where it needed to go.
He flipped on his implant and started the program.
His mother appeared, a smile lighting up her face. “Back so soon?”
“I have no time to explain,” Maghnus said. “The recording of the tree, you need to spread it all over the Web—to the media, the Arbor Party’s Website, everywhere you can think of.”
She nodded. “It’s on its way right now.” She hesitated, then added, “Whatever’s going on, Maghnus, know that I love you.”
Her words yanked at his heart. “I love you, too. Gotta go, Mom.” Reluctantly he returned his attention to what was happening around him.
A small, hunched form came into focus. Sabine crouched beside the alder.
“Kid, come on,” Brian said from atop the boulder.
Debris had reached the base of the mountainside and was starting to pile up, with the worst of it about to reach the bottom.
“Hold on.” He ran towards the tree. He ignored Brian’s calls for him to get back there and not be an idiot.
At Maghnus’s approach, Sabine looked up. Tears streaked her face. “Maghnus,” she said, her voice thick with surprise. She wiped away the tears with the back of her hand and stood. “I thought I was alone.”
“We can’t stay here.”
“I know.” He wanted to do something, too, but it wasn’t like they could hold back the landslide.
Sabine rose, and together they darted to the boulder. Brian hung over the edge and pulled them to safety.
Maghnus didn’t want to watch the landslide hit the tree, but he couldn’t turn away either. It had lived through so much. It might survive this, too.
The rolling mass of debris hit the meadow and consumed grass, wildflowers, and the stream. The alder stood defiant against the onslaught, but as more rocks and dead trees and dirt piled up against it, it began to bend. Then a loud crack split the air. The alder toppled, slowly at first, then with greater speed until it disappeared into the heart of the landslide.
Maghnus crumpled. The last tree was gone, just like that. The empty space inside—the one he’d had since his mother died—came roaring forward.
Brian began pummeling the cameraman. “This is your fault!” Punch. “Your fault!” Thud of fist against flesh. “Your fault!”
Sabine pulled Brian from the cameraman who was doing nothing to stop the onslaught.
“That netting was worthless,” she said. “Whether the crew was here or not, this was going to happen. It’s why we invited them in the first place, remember?”
Maghnus closed his eyes, drew up his knees, and rested his face against them. In the upper right corner of his vision blinked a tiny red light.
His head jerked up. He flicked the switch that would take him online.
The world around him went gray, and Izzy, always smiling, appeared.
“I’ve been recording all this time?” he asked.
“Yes. You switched off your mother’s hologram program, but not the recorder.”
His finger found the recorder button on the implant and flicked it off.
“Has the recording been streaming live on the Web?”
“Yes.” Her smile widened. “Your mother’s program attached it to the previous recording of the tree you wanted her to send out, along with your physiological response pattern to the tree.”
“Ah. And, um, how many people have seen this so far?” And felt exactly what he felt when he first saw and touched the tree…
Izzy’s eyes half closed and flickered as she calculated the number, then popped wide open. “One hundred million viewers and growing. That’s a lot more viewers than your father’s show.”
He closed his eyes. “Give me some average responses. Audio only please.” He couldn’t bear to watch people’s reactions.
A chorus of chatter came to him, then faded and slowly focused on one voice as Izzy picked feedback at random.
“It reminded me of when I was a kid and drove out to the mountains to watch the leaves change in the fall,” one woman said.
“I was too young to really remember what the world was like before the trees died. I had no idea what it felt like to walk in a tree’s shade,” a boy said.
The other comments were in the same vein. Maghnus listened to a few more, then went offline. His finger hovered over the button that would call up his mother’s image. But he didn’t need it to know she’d be pleased.
The Arbor Party sent Maghnus an oak sapling when the first genetically altered trees became available. He’d already made arrangements with the city to plant it at the park down the street from his school.
A few dozen people and the local news turned out for the planting. Maghnus declined speaking on camera.
He fidgeted as he spoke to the city’s mayor and a few other people and tried not to rush them off when they made their farewells. Finally, he was alone.
The oak stood a few feet taller than him, surrounded by a circle of rubber mulch. When it was mature, it would cast its shade over swings on one side and a bench on the other. The rest of the park remained as it had been…compacted dirt with a few weeds straggling through. But that would slowly change.
From his backpack he pulled out two plaques. One was the plaque his mother had made after he was born. The other he’d had made recently. He snuggled them side by side in the mulch.
The new one read, “For Mom, who led an extraordinary life.” On top of that plaque he set the tiny chip that held her hologram program. He stood there a long while, letting memories of her wash over him. Then he grabbed his backpack and left.
The wind picked up and, behind him, young leaves whispered a farewell.
REBECCA ROLAND lives in New Mexico, where she writes primarily fantasy and horror. Her first novel, Shards of History, is available from World Weaver Press. Her short fiction has appeared in various publications such as Uncle John’s Flush Fiction, Plasma Frequency, and Stupefying Stories, and she is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop. When she’s not writing, she’s usually spending time with her family, torturing patients as a physical therapist, or eating copious amounts of chocolate.