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art by Stephen James Kiniry

The Farthest Coast

Jeremy Lightner is a law student from Erie, Pennsylvania who writes science fiction and fantasy because he thoroughly enjoys writing it. He is especially interested in what speculative fiction can say about being human, a result of a peculiar obsession with Vonnegut in his childhood, though he wishes he could write with such a simple voice. He enjoys stripping away the things we take for granted around us to see what remains, and what that means about who or what we are. He has also been published in Every Day Fiction, and his blog can be found at jeremylightner.wordpress.com.

"My life has been good," Vincent said through dry, cracked lips, his eyes looking out his lone bedroom window to the gray desert. "I'm dying, aren't I?"
His lone companion, a peculiar old robot named Jonas, smoothed the blankets that covered Vincent. "Yes," Jonas said.
"It's been a good life," Vincent repeated. He could see a tiny vegetable garden in a corner of his yard, overgrown with brown weeds. He still lived in his childhood home, had never left. His roots dug deep and thick.
Jonas smiled at him, strange metallic curves moving upward as he cleaned up the dishes from Vincent's lunch. Nodding to his owner, he walked out the door.
Vincent mirrored the robot's smile. He pitied Jonas, when he thought about it, for the robot had not led a good life, yet he seemed content to die. Jonas was in a peculiar position. When Vincent died, if he ever did, Jonas would inevitably die as well. He was solar powered, like any robot, and he required a flap on the back of his head to be opened every couple of days so that he could lie in the sun, garnering energy. Jonas was an ancient model, made back before humans truly understood their relationships with robots, and to keep a reasonable control of him, his creators had made sure the panel could only be opened by human hands.
Because the house lingered on the edge of the desert, Jonas had no hope of walking the distance back to a town before running out of energy. If he waited for the old man to die, he would run out of energy and die as well. Although he'd only bought the robot recently, Vincent was saddened by the tragedy of such a death. Jonas had no home, nothing to call his. He had no roots.
"Jonas," Vincent said when the robot brought him dinner, "I don't want you to die here, and I've been thinking. What about that girl that brings me groceries every two weeks? What if we have her take care of me for these final days, or some other person from town? Then you could move on and get on with your life."
Jonas laid out the plate, filled with meatloaf and mashed potatoes. "Oh, I'm alright," he said pleasantly.
"But Jonas," Vincent pushed, "now listen here. I've had a life. I've done things. I own this ranch, with acres and acres to call mine. I've married, had children. I have had a long, happy life. You've had nothing. You've been a wanderer most of your life, right?"
Jonas nodded. "Yes. Stopping here and stopping there."
"You've bounced from place to place, never finding a home. You've got no roots. That's a very sad way to live a life," Vincent explained.
The robot sat on the chair beside his bed and shrugged. "I guess," he said.
Vincent studied him, the poor fool. "All the things that I have... a family... children, a wife. I've loved. I have a place to call my own. You've never had any of that." A flash crossed Vincent's mind. "Have you ever even been in love?" He asked.
The metallic face smiled with little emotion, considered the question. "I'd like to think so."
A frown creased Vincent's face as he embraced a new thought. "Can robots even love?"
The room was silent as Jonas studied the plate in his robotic hand. "What is love, really?"
Vincent sighed. "Don't get all philosophical. Answer the question. Do robots love?"
Jonas sighed right back at his master. Eventually, he answered: "Do humans?"
"Don't be smart with me," Vincent warned, his leathery skin reddening.
"I wasn't being smart, Vincent. But to answer the questions: I'd like to think so." Jonas took the tray from the room. He returned a moment later without it. "Her name was Rain, and I met her in a city off of Brantalei 6."
Vincent looked impressed. "Did you marry her?"
Jonas shook his head no.
"I'm sorry to hear that," Vincent said.
Jonas shrugged, robotic shoulders rising and dropping. "I have nothing to regret." He paused, then continued: "Have you ever left this ranch?"
"Of course. I went to school out east, 'bout a hundred miles. Graduated. Came back. Didn't like much of what I smelled outside this valley."
"You've never traveled?"
"Not really. Why?"
"Do you like poetry?" Jonas asked.
"What's that got to do with anything?" Vincent replied, annoyed.
"My favorite lines of poetry go as follows:
Have you ever felt the brilliant shock
of the electric wind just off the farthest coast?"
"And what does all that mean?" Vincent asked.
Jonas showed that robot smile. "I'm not quite sure, but can I ask you something?"
Vincent nodded.
"Have you ever felt the brilliant shock of the electric wind, just off the farthest coast?"
"I don't know what that means." Vincent said.
"I don't know either, but do you think you would say yes to such a question?"
Vincent was growing rather irritated. "Of course not. Who could say yes to such a stupid question?"
"I think I could," Jonas stared at his master.
The old man wet his lips. "But you don't know what it means," he said.
Jonas smiled softly. "I've tasted the salt of mountain air. I've watched lava flows on faraway moons. I could say yes to that, Vincent."
Vincent sat up a little in bed. "What are you driving at, Jonas?"
Jonas' eyes met Vincent's unflinchingly. "Which one of us truly lived?" Relaxing, Jonas sat down in the rocking chair besides Vincent's bed, eyes glazed over, and stared out the window into the vast desert.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, October 11th, 2011

Author Comments

I first wrote this story years ago, but found the rough draft on my computer recently. I loved the ending, but realized that there wasn't much of a theme to it. At this point in my life, as I search for the day job that will be the beginning of my career, I keep thinking how we define our lives in a way that gives them meaning to us. This led me to the question that pervades the rewritten story: What is a good life? I find that there is no universal answer to this, but that we can only act upon our individual needs and desires, and the highest form of arrogance comes from trying to tell others what they should do or should have done with their lives. In his own way, Jonas responds to Vincent with that attitude. The line of poetry is my own, from a larger piece written during high school, discussing the realization that anything can happen, but not everything will.

- Jeremy Lightner
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