KEEPING LALANDE STATION
Major William Stone tested the gain on the station’s relay dish and verified its position: RA: 11 hours 38 minutes 56 seconds, Dec: +20 degrees 12 minutes 35 seconds. It was perfect, and had been for the past fifty years. Will made sure of that. Only when the position was shown correct and logged did he bother to speak to the apparition again. It was sitting about five meters away on a rounded stone, looking very much like the teenage boy it could not possibly be.
“Since I’m the only living human being ever on this planet,” Will said, “it therefore follows that you cannot be my son. You aren’t real.”
“But I am,” the apparition insisted. “I’m David.”
“You’re what, fourteen? David was born when I was twenty-seven. I’m now seventy-seven…best I can remember. My son would be in his fifties by now.”
“Dad, you came here in semi‑stasis in a probe that traveled barely one half lightspeed,” David said. “The colony ship was over half again that fast. You ever hear of time dilation?”
“Einstein? Special Relativity? Time aboard a starship passes slower relative to a stationary observer. Convenient.” William carefully packed the logbook away in a compartment in the comm unit’s base. The book was nearly full; there were only five pages left and he didn’t have any more books. In a month or two he supposed he’d have to switch to computer logging, but he didn’t want to. There was a physicality to making the entries by hand that just wasn’t there for voice entry. He’d miss that.
“So why won’t you listen to me, Dad?” David asked, finally.
“Because the colony ship never came.”
There were insects near Lalande Station. Or at least they were small and made chirping and buzzing sounds that told Will it was time to get up. He could have set an alarm, but he’d taken to rising earlier and staying up later and later during the past few years, long after the sun had set and the stars were out in their brilliance.
Sol was visible most nights, a yellowish dot almost lost among its brighter cousins. He wondered what life was like there now. His primary receiver had been damaged on landing, and the backup was too weak for anything except a very strong signal to register. All he could do was transmit, and he madesure the dish was ready to do just that, when that one strong signal finally came.
Will stretched, feeling all the familiar pains and stiffness like old friends. He yawned, and rose to start his day. First he made up his cot and then methodically swept debris from the front path of his survival hut. Then it was time for breakfast; leftover onion soup from supper the previous night. After that, time to tend his garden. Will smiled. It was his favorite part of the day. He walked along the well-worn path to his greenhouse.
The greenhouse was far larger than his sleeping quarters; it had to be. No one had known for certain how long the mission was going to last, and space and weight concerns had sharply limited how many supplies he could take. The greenhouse assembly and seeds had paid their freight many times over.
The temperature was rising steadily outside, but inside the greenhouse it was still moist and cool, holding on to just a bit of morning. Condensate formed on the clear plastic shingles forming the walls; the circulating fan had not yet cut on. Will checked the automatic systems first, grimaced at a new red light on the panel. The circulating fan this time. Damn display was starting to look like a Christmas tree.
Will checked on the errant fan, but was reduced to wiggling wires. He finally shrugged. No more parts; nothing to be done. He picked up a misting bottle and pruning shears to perform the type of gardening that sensors would never replace. He liked it, but it was tiring.
“There are native plants, Dad.” The thing calling himself David sat on Will’s workbench, regarding him with a curious expression. Will hadn’t seem him come in which, Will thought, was perfectly normal.
Will snipped off a dead leaf. He put it in a small pouch on his belt to save for the composter. Waste not, die not. At least, not for a while. The greenhouse, low tech though it was, wouldn’t last much longer. Will chose not to think about that. “The DNA and proteins of which are who knows what, even assuming the indigenous species use DNA. I couldn’t digest them in the first place, and even if I could they’d likely contain toxins that would never register as such.”
“You need to try, Dad,” David said. “This is our home now.”
“You aren’t real and so do not have a home.”
“What about you, then?”
“This isn’t my home. It’s my duty station.”
“The ship has come; your mission is over. Shut it down.”
Will misted a tomato plant that looked a bit dry despite what the hygrometer said. “Ah. Now I understand why you’re here. I’ve gone mad again. Humans aren’t designed to be alone for long periods; Medlab warned me about this.”
“Again? When was the first time?”
Will shrugged. “Doesn’t matter now. This time I’m trying to trick myself into either suicide or abandoning my station. It won’t work.”
“You’re stubborn, Dad.”
Will nodded. “Most people who had to keep a solo duty station for fifty years would consider ‘stubborn’ a good thing.”
David shook his head. “Dad, the station doesn’t even need you, or your silly logbook. It was designed to be automated. The manual input you’re using is on a maintenance port.”
“A man needs an occupation, and especially when he’s alone. I was given my orders for that reason.”
Will reached for a fallen leaf, and a new pain shot through his back. It was a moment before he could straighten up again.
“You’re running out of time, Dad. Even money if your body or your food supply dries up first. Say…suppose I touched you, and proved to you that I am real?”
Will smiled, warming a bit to the discussion. “Yes, but would it? If you’re an hallucination, couldn’t I just as easily imagine a touch that I never really felt?”
“All right‑‑what would convince you?”
Will thought about it. He looked out toward a long shadow to the north. “You say the colony is just beyond the ridge?”
“Yes. There’s a lovely valley there. Hardly any stingwhip or razorweed at all. Do you want to come see it?”
“No. I want your mother to come see me.”
“What? Has she passed on? Did she miss the boat?”
“It’s not that…it’s just, well, you’re old now.”
Will almost laughed. “And you think seeing the wreck of your old man might make things uncomfortable for her?”
David met his gaze without flinching. He looked terribly grown up. “Don’t you?”
For a moment Will considered the wonder of seeing his son becoming a man, almost grateful even though he knew it was an illusion. “What I think,” Will said, “is that, if your mother was really here, she’d have come to see me the first day, never mind how I looked. If that had happened…well, maybe that would have convinced me. Maybe.”
“The ship’s captain and the colonial governor themselves came to greet you the day we arrived! They gave you a medal!”
“Can’t seem to find it.” Will did remember the visit. The two were comical stereotypes. It had been all he could do to keep from laughing at his own lack of imagination.
David looked beaten. “Why would seeing Mom convince you, if nothing else does?”
“It wouldn’t,” Will said, and snipped another leaf. “I just want to see her. Even if she isn’t real.”
Will was left alone for nearly a week. He had even begun to think that the whole episode had passed. Yet on the afternoon of the sixth day Ann was waiting for him by the comm dish. Will made his checks and logged them while Ann waited demurely on the same rock David had sat on. She was a little older than Will remembered, but that of course fit. David was barely four years old when the Lalande Probe launched. The Ann that Will saw now was ten years older than the one he remembered; her long black hair had a few touches of gray, but only a few.
“Aren’t you going to say something?” Will asked, gruffly.
“Such as? You wanted to see me, remember?”
“Why didn’t you come to me earlier?”
Ann didn’t move. “Why didn’t you?”
Will sighed deeply. “How does one go meet an hallucination? Do you make an appointment? Or do you wait for it to appear?”
“You wait,” Ann said. “And now here I am. This isn’t about proof, Will. You say it is, but I know better.”
Will took a step toward her. “You admit it, then? That you aren’t real?”
She shrugged. “There’s no way I can convince you one way or the other. You were here too long alone, Will.”
Will took another step. “May…may I touch you?”
She looked away. “If you like.”
Will reached out, letting his fingers barely brush the back of her hand. He touched warm flesh, and the air was full of a delicate scent that he remembered perfectly.
“I’d like to believe you,” he said.
“I know.” Ann picked up a fallen strand of stingwhip. Will started to warn her, but Ann simply flicked her wrist and the stinging spines lined up parallel to the stalk, rendering them harmless.
“Where did you learn that?” he asked.
“I learned it by living here,” Ann said, “or I learned it from you, since I’m your hallucination. Which? You have to decide.” She looked at him with pity in her eyes. “But I see you already have.”
“What should I say, Will? That I know why you can’t believe me, and prove you right? Or say that I don’t know, and have you disbelieve that? I’m damned if I do, damned…well, just damned. Either way. That’s a lousy thing to do to your wife. Or her memory.”
She didn’t do him the courtesy of just disappearing. She just got up, turned her back on him and walked away. Will watched until she disappeared among the rocks and vegetation to the north. She never turned back, not once.
“I told you it was a bad idea,” David said, watching Will make his daily log entry.
Will finished the entry, looking for a time at the dwindling number of pages. “So you did.”
David kicked a pebble. “Not even a hug, I bet. Not even a kiss. That was a waste, Dad. But then you left us, didn’t you?”
“Guilt won’t work, David. I had to leave. People are strange that way, you know? No matter what the instruments said, one person had to land here and survive before the thousands on the colony ship could be cleared to approach. Someone had to plant the flag, verify what the instruments told us. Someone had to be first.”
“Did it have to be you?”
Will put the logbook in its niche. “It was me,” he said. “Nothing can change that.”
“The colony was something you believed in, wasn’t it, Dad?”
“Not just me. Your mother, too. I wouldn’t have…well, I wouldn’t have gone without her consent. We sacrificed everything we had together for the future, uncertain as it was. Our future for what seemed a better one for all of us.”
“Then don’t you want to see what you and Mom sacrificed for? You don’t have to believe it. Just look at it.”
“Why not? Will you tell me that? It’s just beyond the ridge, just a few kilometers from here. Just come look. Is that asking too much?”
Will shut the compartment containing the log book. “Yes,” he said. “It is.”
“I want to understand, Dad. Help me.”
“I can’t help you. You don’t exist. You don’t want anything.”
“If that’s true, then I’m just a projection of you. What do you want, Dad? More to the point, what are you afraid you’ll see? You’ll think it’s an illusion if it’s there. If it’s not there, you can take that as proof you’re right. So why not come?”
Will didn’t answer him. He looked toward the west. The sun was low in the sky. Already a chill was in the air. After fifty years Will still wasn’t used to the thinner air, and the older he got the more it affected him. His joints pained him all the time now, and he wondered just how much time he had left. Perhaps soon there would come a time when what David asked wouldn’t seem important at all. Not now though. Not yet. Will turned toward his hut.
David tried again. “It’s not as if you have anything to lose, you know.”
“You’re wrong,” Will said. “I have everything to lose.”
That night there was a storm outside the hut, and a storm in Will’s dream. Outside, rain and wind lashed at his hut, and made the plastic shingles on his greenhouse rattle. Inside, Will sat on a rock, watching a lightning display in the sky over the northern ridge. The lightning had more of a reddish cast than that on Earth, at least that’s how Will remembered it.
“I don’t watch lightning,” Will said. “I don’t like storms.”
Yet he was watching now. He tried to look away, but he could not.
THE SIGNAL CAME. CHECK YOUR LOGS.
Will shook his head. That was just the madness talking. The signal had never come. He still waited. He would keep waiting as long as he could.
WHAT WENT WRONG?
Nothing. Nothing had happened to go wrong. The ship had never come. Nothing had happened to go wrong…
YOU BROKE THE MAIN RECEIVER, DAD. YOU COULD FIX IT IF YOU WANTED; THERE ARE SWAP MODULES FOR EVERYTHING. WHAT ARE YOU AFRAID OF HEARING?
Will tried again to look behind him. He could not move. He was frozen in the dream, his eyes fixed on the north ridge. The sky was on fire. A reflection on the clouds, that was all. He knew that in the dream, when he refused to know that anywhere else. He could not lie to his dreams, try as he might. The clouds reflected the fire below them.
THAT’S NOT LIGHTNING, IS IT?
Will stared at the sky. “It can be. If I say it is.”
THAT’S NOT THUNDER, IS IT?
“It can be…David? Is that you?”
Now the voice was beside him, not just inside his head. A shadow sat beside him on the rock. “I’m here, Dad. If you say I am.”
Will leaned on his son’s shoulder and began to cry.
“‘RA: 11 hours 38 minutes 56 seconds, Sec: +20 degrees 12 minutes 35 seconds.’” Will made the note and put the log away. There were a couple of blank pages left still. It should have mattered, but it didn’t.
Will went to the greenhouse. There was one ventilation fan still working. Barely. It made about one revolution per second. Will watched it weakly spinning for a bit and then reached out and pulled the wires. It felt like an act of mercy. He glanced over at the stone, but David wasn’t there. David hadn’t been there all day.
I’m sane again— for a while.
It wouldn’t last, but Will wanted to make his decisions while it did. That was important, still, though he wasn’t sure why. Will knew that David was waiting for him over the ridge, and it was time he kept the appointment, time to reunite with his family. Time to finally let himself know why the sky was always on fire in his dreams.
Will took a bottle of water from his hut and nothing else. On his way out to the ridge he passed by the dish one last time and finally threw the switch that shut down Lalande Station.
©2001 by Richard Parks. All Rights Reserved.