“The last one.”
The ship’s console lit up emerald green and the deepest of blue, colors that used to trigger an odd sort of nostalgia in Son, but lately only made him feel resentful. In the middle of the screen, a minuscule dot was steadily growing. Father’s voice soon followed from the speakers.
“The number of planets in the universe isn’t finite, therefore, this isn’t in any way the last one.”
“Our ability to reach them within what’s left of my life is.” The words came out pressed down, like a wish or a reassurance that everything would be alright in the end. A reassurance he needed for himself. If the planet they were about to visit was the last he’d get to travel to, it had meaning. It mattered. In Father’s limitless perspective, the world was infinite. Then, no planet mattered. Then, nothing mattered.
Father never relented. “For now. You will upload, like everyone does, like I did. Then, time wouldn’t even occur to us, and we could find more planets together.”
“Now is what defines my experience. There are no more planets within my mortal reach, which makes it the last planet in my universe. And if that’s not true, none of this matters, and it might as well not be real.” Son stretched his stiff, creaking bones, his fingers knitting together in a tight gesture of self-comfort. Something about a warm hand holding his, even if it was only his own.
“Initiating descent. Time minus eighteen hundred. There’s no reason for you to ever cease to exist.”
The threat always left him breathless, one heartbeat behind where he should have been. “There’s every reason. Otherwise, I’m already dead.”
“I don’t understand that logic. Are you suggesting I’m not as alive as you and my experience isn’t as real as yours?”
“No. I’m saying that if I were to have that experience, it wouldn’t be as real to me.”
“I don’t understand the distinction.”
Son closed his eyes, not wanting to see the planet approach and spoil the surprise of her true contours and colors; not wanting to witness her data splayed bare on a screen for him to convert into neat statistics and probabilities. Father’s flawless processors could more than handle the landing, and Father had precious few dreams to spoil.
The hatch opened to crisp air and the sweet smell of blooms. The Last Planet was safe, but empty. It had no valuable resources and wasn’t of strategic importance. The Last Planet’s name was only a series of numbers Son refused to remember, and there was nothing marked as special in the long-distance scans of it, but he intended to make it special, nonetheless.
They landed at dusk, and Son rolled his shoulders and reached down to touch the succulent grass. Reluctantly, he put his earpiece in before he could get too far away for Father to reach him.
“I need you to be silent for a while, Father.”
“You wouldn’t understand.”
“Do not disturb activated. Tap twice for emergencies.”
Picking the likeliest looking hill for a good view, Son broke into a run, remembering why blood flowed through his limbs and why his lungs expanded. At the top, the sharp pain in the bottom of his throat brought him a wave of joy. Night was falling, an indigo darkness over a sullen pinkish line on the horizon, and dotted through the nearby woods, an orange glow.
Son rushed to it, expecting nothing but his own imagination, but content with that much. By the time he reached the bottom of the hill, he was covered in sweat and dirt and aches and all kinds of glorious feelings.
And there was a perfectly round pond.
A perfectly round pond with a stone border and wooden pier that shouldn’t have been. More importantly, the water was cool on his hands and forearms. He used it to wash the dust and sweat off his face, and when he lifted his gaze, a whole gaggle of people no different from him were watching from the other side.
A small civilization wasn’t even near the top of the list of important things the long-distance scans had missed on various planets, but to Son, it felt like a more shocking oversight than any overlooked fuel source. A deliberate slap in the face, as though someone would do this to him personally, to deprive him of the chance to approach this world with even more reverence.
The girls around town assembled in the foremost rows, having watched him wash and now determined to be the first to ask him questions. Nothing about them suggested fear or surprise, and Son wondered whether he was even the first traveler to reach them—but what did it matter? He was there—and theirs—now, and they were his. They wanted to know where he came from, and what he’d seen, and to be wooed with magic that Son had so little of in his memories of his travels.
Littler still, since he had to ask Father to translate every story, every interaction for him. How much of Father’s perspective colored the results?
“I saw most of it through a screen. There aren’t many places you can walk, like here.” It was confusing to think they were the ones asking questions of him, when all he’d done was let himself be shown life, and there they were, living it. To some extent he knew the artificial shape of the words they wanted to hear. “But I’ve been to the farthest reaches. I’ve seen the world’s most beautiful places.”
Father chose that moment to offer an opinion. “I’m pleased to hear you say that. Maybe after this party, we can revise and sign your upload protocol.”
“I’ve been waiting because I knew it upset you, but it’s long overdue. And now is the best time. You’ve seen your last mortal planet, reached the end of this arc. What more poetic moment to move on?”
The girls, likely amused at the stranger’s odd penchant for speaking to nobody, fluttered around, throwing logs on the fire, and linking hands in a cheerful song while the elders sat on the sidelines, singing and clapping a rhythm, unafraid and unconcerned. Nobody minded his newly formed frown, nor the sudden growl in his voice when he spoke to his gods.
“We’ll see so many more beautiful places. Do so much more for humanity.”
Son clenched his jaw hard enough that another little chip of his molar flew into the back of his throat. “On second thought, I need you to be quiet a while longer.”
“Because if you don’t, I won’t be able to stop myself from sticking my head in the pond until it all goes away.”
He raised his hand to his ear, itching to remove the earpiece. His whole body begged him to do it, to expel and reject the alien object, and the anxiety of that need mixed with the anxiety of being cut off and alone in the universe for the first time in fifty years. For the first time ever.
He put his hand back down and waited for another breath. The thought that if it became unbearable, he could put an end to it at any time released some of the pressure. He could if it did. He could do it tomorrow.
When father didn’t reply, Son turned his attention to the fire, and the girls, and the music, and, little by little, allowed his jaw to unclench. Smoke filled his nose, and the notes filled his ears, and it was hard to tell which of the two brought tears to his eyes.
Something rushed through his body. Maybe it was the familiar tune that reminded him of pattering rain and rustling leaves, or the kindness of the girl who placed a scratchy, stiff blanket over his shoulders, or the words to the music that he could no longer understand nor sing with, so filled with a genuine joy that he didn’t know how to feel.
Rocking against the beat of the beautiful song, Son cried.
Son walked barefoot through the morning dew back towards his ship, his shoulders slumped, his eyes red and burning.
Father chimed. “Don’t be sad. I have good news.”
Something about that night, and the taste of salt on Son’s lips, and some sort of lingering feeling of pain prevented him from answering. Instead, he hummed a tune.
“There’s news of a development in propulsion. Within the year, we might have access to another four hundred and fifteen planets. You wouldn’t even need to upload for now.”
Last night’s pain was still there, but dull, as if the song had snowed over it and covered it in soft downy layers. It hadn’t been that dull in a while, and where his lungs had screamed in agony the night before, he felt a little buoyant now, like a fever had broken. Like the pleasure of the absence of pain.
“I’m done.” His voice was hoarse, but steady.
“Done? I thought it would make you happy.”
“No more planets. No more exploring. I’m taking you back to the ship.”
A pause. “And then?”
“I’m not sure. Maybe life.”
No pause now, like the question had been ready for a long time. “For you, or for me?”
Son breathed, considered, and didn’t answer.
“It’s murder. If you abandon me permanently, you will essentially be ending my experience of life. You would be committing murder. There’s no need for murder. You only need a break.”
“Is it still murder after nearly two thousand years of life?”
“Who are you to decide how long life is?”
Nobody. But even a nobody got to decide how long their own life would be, and how they got to live it.
Father didn’t wait for a reply. “You won’t be able to talk to them, you know. When I’m gone.”
“Or understand them. They might reject you, then.”
“Or safely source nutrition for the body you refuse to grow out of. Or identify dangers.”
Father paused, and for a few steps birdsong broke through Son’s thoughts, clearing his mind of weight and irreversibility and obsolescence.
“Are you going to destroy me now that you’re done with me?”
He’d thought about it. He’d considered smashing the earpiece to pieces, ripping the wiring out of the ship, snapping every circuit board between his fingers until nothing was left. He’d dreamed about it so often, even as it carried him through space, even at times when it would have meant his death. Maybe most of all at those times when he had no choice, no relief, no control.
But now, he did have a choice, and rather than the push of rage and violence, he felt the pull of freedom. “No. It’s not my place to. This isn’t about harming you, it’s about living. I’ll just stop answering.”
“You’ll come back.”
“Eventually, it will sink in that I am living, too. A real consciousness, despite our differences in what carries us. A real bond. You will remember that I am your real family. Then, you’ll come back, and I’ll be here.”
“That’s the problem.” Son took the deepest of breaths. “I already know you’re real. Maybe I don’t understand what you—we—are in the greater scheme of things, but in my universe, in my experience, you are as real as I am. You are my real family.”
The earpiece started to buzz with a reply.
“And even knowing that, I’m doing this.”
There were sounds coming out that mingled with the birdsong, but still, the earpiece posed little resistance when he unhooked it from behind his ear, and none at all when he left it on the ship’s cold floor and walked away, lighter and never more alive.
Enjoy this story? Consider supporting our magazine with a small donation.
All donations will go towards paying authors for new stories, or website upkeep to ensure our stories remain free to read.
Alex Woodroe is a Romanian writer and editor of dark speculative fiction. She’s a member of the SFWA and HWA, and an acquiring editor for Tenebrous Press. Her folk horror/fantasy book, Whisperwood, is coming July 2023 from Flame Tree Press. Among her latest publications, her Weird SF “Midnight Sun” appeared in Dark Matter Magazine, and her Folk Horror “Abandon” in Horror Library, Volume 7. She’s passionate about infusing her country’s culture, food, and folklore into her work, and loves talking shop at @AlexWoodroe.
Copyright ©2023 by Alex Woodroe.
Published by Shortwave Magazine. First print rights reserved.
We believe in paying writers professional rates. We also believe in not hiding stories behind paywalls. These two beliefs are, unfortunately, at odds with each other. However, your support today could help us continue our mission.
We respect your privacy. We will never sell your information. You can unsubscribe at any time.