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art by Jason Stirret

Skipping Stones

Devin is a cardiac ICU nurse who writes stories on his days off. His fiction has appeared in various smaller venue magazines, and he won the William H. Hooks award as a creative writing student at UNC. This is his first professional sale. He enjoys wondering about unknown things. He blogs at devinmillerwriting.blogspot.com, and you can follow him on twitter @dmmiller4000. Thanks for reading!
"My job as a father, Jalel," he told me one morning, "is to leave you better off than I was."
It was a cold morning. On this planet, called Apella, the winters lasted years. Frost clung to some of the heartiest vegetation ever studied, and in their shadows, small animals sent up puffs of white dust in their quest for buried food.
We went through our flare routine: set our pod on hibernate, initiate a homing signal, and lumber outside to start a camp. Before long, five or six other pods joined us, descending from the stars with hums like Grandfathers' stories. Families stepped out; greetings were exchanged, and we passed the time telling tales of the home world.
I had heard most of the legends before--the home world was dying, but new technology could heal her. We, the people, just needed to step aside for a while.
"You're an only child," Father said, "but I had a brother. He caught a sickness like your mother and died, and ever after my father thought of himself as a failure. But he had me, and I had you, and together we skipped on through the stars."
The pods are programmed to know where to go, and when. We were to spread out, skip through the galaxy like stones on a lake surface, only instead of connecting shore to shore, we linked the future to the past.
On the Apellan tundra, I met a girl named Calia, and she was beautiful. In the brief time on that planet, pods came and went, but we stayed together. Our love was easy. It was the only warmth in that forsaken place. I guess I can't be too bitter at the cold.
The pods had appendages, male and female, and we linked ours with Calia's family's. When the ceremony had completed, I kissed my bride. I saw my father's shining eyes and hoped he knew his mission was accomplished.
"I've done well," he said. We shared a laugh. "My job's almost complete."
When at last I discovered what he meant, I paled. I balked. I resisted.
"There's plenty of room in the pod," I argued. "Calia and I want you along."
"And where will your kids reside?" Father asked me. "Her parents will remain behind as well."
"Where is Grandfather?" I asked.
"Many skips behind us," he told me, "on a lush jungle planet, living out his days with his generation in the peace he deserves. As I will here."
There were memories in his eyes, and they were happy, and in the end I think that alone was what placated me enough to climb back into the pod.
"I am not so old," Father told me. "There is much life for me yet. Perhaps when my sun sets, you won't be an only child anymore."
The pod lifted off the tundra, humming the tune of a thousand legends.
Calia and I skipped many times, to planets of varying beauty and wonder. We answered flares, made friends, and finally had a family of our own. Holding my son, I told him, "My job is to leave you better off than I was." Farther down the bridge between past and future. Closer to the home world, clean and pure, to which the pods would eventually return us.
He had my father's eyes. I named him Dranel, my father's middle name. I liked how it made me remember Apella, how it filled me with curiosity about my father's future alone. I found myself imagining stories of his grand life in the arctic wilderness, with a new wife and brood, to tell Dranel. Perhaps one day, Dranel would reach the home world, and his generation would explore the skips of the past and discover a thousand human civilizations, founded by ancestors.
I imagine this staring skyward at the spot where his pod has disappeared. It's a beautiful planet I live on, warm, blue, and Calia and I are never hungry. Dranel will recognize it when he searches. Until that day, I wait.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, March 18th, 2013

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