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art by Melissa Mead

Now Until

Jonathan Fredrick Parks is a graduate from the University of Akron. He continues to dwell in north east Ohio despite the crippling economy due to some strange attachment to four seasons. He's had works published in Diagonal Proof, Unheard Magazine, and other digital magazines.

"This is Tomorrow speaking." The voice came from the Eleven O' Thirty radio. The left bar flashed painting the storage room a green color. "Are you listening?"
I turned the dial two clicks to the right. "You are me from the future, right?"
A pause. "Yes. Now listen to what I have to say carefully as I share what I was told thirty years ago. You are alone but you will survive. You will be rescued one day, but it won't be soon. There will be many days that you feel abandoned. You will want to give in and take your life but you won't. You will live."
"But what of the others? I can't be the only one."
"You are the sole survivor of the Tianxin. We want to keep it that way, so this is what you need to do. Access the ship's systems and place the gardens on full lock-down. If you don't, you will run out of oxygen. Next you need to direct the ships systems to run off the Trimurti engine's power grid. Although it lacks the power to activate, the reserves will last as long as you disable the gardening machines. That means you will have to tend them with your own hands."
I did as he said, isolating the gardens from what was left of the ship. Tapping into the Trimurti engines power supply was beyond my expertise, but he talked me through it step by step. After that was taken care of I flipped the red switch in the machine room causing the robots and the self-watering system to come to a halt.
The tasks complete, I returned to the radio and asked the question I needed most to know. "How long? How long will it take?"
"Twenty five years," he answered.
I took a deep breath and held the air in so that I would not scream. When isolated from the world you'll always cling to the hope that just maybe your sentence will be cut short, but to have your future self deal you the harsh truth meant something else. He spoke from one of many futures, but within such a closed system I had little chance of changing the future. There was no hope of escaping. I was now sitting in the same spot that I'd be twenty-some years later.
I once knew a girl who smelled like peaches and earth. She lived in the shelter next door. I grew up without a yard, but she showed me the joy of gardening. Seven tin cups sat beneath the window, all of them tomatoes. I'd watch her water the green sprouts twice a day. We never said much to each other, but she taught me that life can thrive in the worst of conditions. She was the reason I became a gardener, but the prospect of having my own yard was what drew me to the Trimurti project.
I was one of countless aboard the Tianxin. We were to colonize a new planet but the Trimurti engine failed, tearing the ship in two. It was supposed to carry us across the universe in an instant. I fell asleep in the ship's gardens and didn't wake until it was over. Had I been anywhere else I would have died with the rest.
Alone. Always alone. I spent most days either sleeping or tending the square kilometer of enclosed land. I often dreamed of owning my own wilderness to explore. It wasn't how I imagined it, but despite the fake sky fifty feet above, I made myself believe that I had found that perfect paradise I had always wanted. I had my thirty fruit trees, algae pond with one orange fish, and enough dirt to bury my youthful aspirations forever.
I avoided further use of the Eleven O' Thirty radio. Talking to myself made me depressed. Of the two lights on the machine only the green one turned on. I didn't want to learn of all the boring days that came after tomorrow. I refused to bother my future self who had finally found freedom, but after seven months of solitude I lowered my guard. I didn't care who it was. I wanted someone to talk to.
I turned the dial. "So, Tomorrow? Where are you now?"
"I don't know if I should tell you," he answered.
"That dull?"
Laughing. "You wouldn't imagine the things I've seen and discovered since I was rescued five years ago."
"Try me."
"Well? I have some good news. They find a way to save the earth."
"No kidding. How do they figure that one out?"
"I don't understand the technology myself, but they found a solution through a method of communicating with alternative worlds. Well I hate to break this short, but I have work to do."
"Like what?"
"We've finally made contact with extra terrestrial life. They don't look much different than we do. I was appointed as one of the ambassadors to their planet which is where I live now. The plants and wildlife are different, but they are still plants and animals."
For the first time in months I felt happy to be alive. Although it would take a lifetime, I knew the hard work and pain I was going through would not be for nothing. From that day on I made it a habit to talk to myself, or Tomorrow as he'd refer to himself. Despite being busy with his new life he would still set aside an hour every day.
"We call them Pellshins after what they call their planet. It's smaller than Earth and the oceans aren't as vast. Apparently they evolved from a bipedal creature that resembles a cross between a pig and a dog. The hardest part of this job was learning their language, which I'll soon start teaching you."
"Wait, you knew how to talk to them before first contact?"
"Yes. How else do you think a gardener got the job?"
"Good point."
Tomorrow started my lessons by teaching me a new word every day. The structure of the language reminded me of Chinese, but the sound was unlike any I'd ever heard before. Sounds could mean different words depending on their length and vowels outnumbered consonants. The human vocal cords couldn't mimic all the vowels, but I practiced getting as close as I could.
"Why do you bother doing this every day? I asked him as our two-year anniversary approached. It can't be all that fun talking to your past self. From your standpoint I must seem like a kid."
"Because I know firsthand how much it means to you. Remember, I've lived through those days as well."
As I improved my ability to keep the gardens alive and healthy, I found myself with more and more free time on my hands. Since I only had an hour to talk to Tomorrow that meant I had to find new things to keep me entertained. The only working electronic I had was the headset they had given to everyone. It was capable of projecting any image in front of the wearer. Had the main computer still been attached to the rest of the ship I would have had libraries filled with books and video that would take multiple lifetimes to devour, but the device had no media natively stored. The only music I could listen to was the music I made.
There was one program installed on my headset that I came to cherish. Called the Personal Orchestra Program, the lens could project one of thirty different instruments. The cameras would read your movements and the virtual instruments would produce sounds through the speakers just like the real thing. Without any formal training I first taught myself to play the piano. From there I learned the guitar and next the violin. When I learned to play enough instruments satisfactorily, I started to record my own music. I couldn't sing well, but the software could make my voice sound like I was born to make music. When I grew tired of my own voice it replaced it with another.
It was during the fifth year that Tomorrow told me the news.
"You won't believe it, but I met someone."
"Is she Pellshin?" My ear tilted towards the radio.
"No. She's human."
"What is she like?"
"Perfection. She has these cloudy blue eyes that remind me of the ocean. Her voice is like heaven, and she has beautiful... beautiful red hair."
"Sounds like my kind of woman."
"Our kind."
"So what's her name?"
Talk of Autumn dominated most of our conversations after that. Tomorrow would tell me about her and I'd beg to learn more. I had an image of her in my head and every word added to filling in the shadows. Only five months after meeting her he told me how he proposed.
"Beneath the apple tree in our back yard I sang to her my best song. It didn't sound as good as the recorded version but her eyes sparkled more than the distant sun."
"Wow. So how is it falling in love with the same girl for the second time?"
"Unbelievable. You may think you know her from all I've said, but just wait until you see her with your own eyes. Imagination doesn't cut it."
Tomorrow married Autumn three months after the proposal. The wedding took place in a grand cathedral back on earth with all sorts of famous people invited--a celebration worthy of the hero that spent half his life in space.
"Hey, I got a surprise for you," Tomorrow told me after returning from their honeymoon to mars. "Someone here wants to talk to you."
I straightened my back in anticipation.
"Hey." It was the most beautiful voice I'd ever heard. "It's me, Autumn, your future wife." Muffled, she said, "Am I doing this right? He can hear me, right?"
"I can hear you loud and clear, Autumn."
"Wow. It is you, isn't it? You told me all about yourself--how you were stuck in space for so long. It--it must be lonely."
It was, but not anymore.
Autumn only talked a little at a time. Tomorrow talked for most of the hour, but everyday Autumn would linger around longer then the day before. It wasn't long before most of my words were dedicated to her. I came to learn how she'd been married once before but had no children. She was a teacher who taught history. We first met at a restaurant in the capital of Pellshin. She was the only other human in the room. The first thing that I told her was how she was more beautiful than I had ever imagined.
"Am I cheating by talking to another man every day? I know you are the same person, but you aren't. Not entirely."
"I laughed. Yes, but I forgive you. I'll always forgive you."
"If that's true with the next kiss I'll pretend I'm kissing you."
"No need to pretend."
She laughed.
"Okay. Then how about this? I'll refrain from kissing any other girls from now until we meet for the first time."
"That's a promise, right?"
"Yeah, I got what? Twenty more years of solitude? What's another ten after that?"
When I found the fish floating on the surface of the pond I wasn't as upset as I'd thought I'd be. I'd given him many names but none ever stuck. I never fed the fish. It lived for more than seven years only eating the algae. I never talked to him either, but whenever I would hear that plopping sound from that misguided jump I'd feel a little bit better than I felt before. If I lacked courage I would feel stronger and if I was feeling happy I couldn't help but smile.
The holidays were what made life special. We celebrated my birthday twice a year. Autumn said my birthday was on earth time instead of Pellshin time like Tomorrow's was. Every Christmas I'd dress up the small juniper tree with tin foil and roast yams over a fire. I always made sure to have a present ready for Autumn. All I could give her was my voice, so I sang for her new songs that she had already heard.
"I became an honorary Pellshin today, but that's not the good news."
"How is that not the good news, Tomorrow?"
"Autumn is expecting. We're going to be a father soon."
I spilled the rest of my water. "That's wonderful."
"We plan on raising him on Pellshin. There are a few schools that accept humans now. He'll grow up being different, but he won't grow up alone."
My son was born later that year. We named him what was most important to us, Future.
When Future was five he spoke to me for the first time. He called me Dad just like he called my future self. I then made a pact with Tomorrow that he wouldn't share too much about my son. I wanted something to look forward to for the first time. He had Autumn's smile and eyes. I hadn't seen his face but I was sure of it.
Tomorrow would sometimes tell me these stories that sounded too good to be true. Pellshin was ruled by only one government with representatives from each of the independent nations and a king that was revered by all. The king considered him a close personal friend and he was regularly invited to the palace.
"You'd never seen such a place. The Pellshin take pride in being one with the environment and the royal palace is no exception. They have this one room with a glass ceiling and fifty different fruit trees."
"Sounds amazing."
"His highness started calling me"Aaoyi" which means distant brother."
I always wanted a brother.
Our most heroic tale came two years later. On the eve of a meeting that would decide future relations with earth, Tomorrow cut our conversation short. Four hours later he called me sounding out of breath.
"You'll never believe what just happened."
"Try me."
"I just thwarted an elaborate assassination plot. The anti-Earth faction wasn't happy about the direction things were heading, but I saved him."
"Amazing. How did you do it?"
"It was all thanks to what I am about to tell you. Listen carefully and record all I am about to say. It is important that you remember the smallest details, otherwise you will fail."
For the next five hours he told of all the key people involved and the events leading to the assassination. The crucial task was in winning over the crowned prince of Pellshin's trust. With his assistance and some smuggled weaponry from earth, Tomorrow managed to break through the siege and reach the king in time.
"I'm to be knighted, but the best part is we saved my best friend."
After awhile I forgot all about being rescued. I stopped worrying about my future and focused on enjoying what life I had. Time seemed to pass the fastest those years. I had my home and beautiful wife and together we grew old together. Our son grew up smart and strong despite the adversity. Ten more years went by and time refused to slow down. It wasn't until Tomorrow reminded me that I realized I wouldn't stay forever in my own Garden of Eden.
"I'm sorry. Only one more year until it's goodbye."
"Has it been twenty four years already?" I looked at my reflection taking notice of all the wrinkles on my face. The sides of my head were streaked a silver gray. I'd become an old man during my stay on the Tianxin. "If I didn't know better I'd say my life is coming to a close."
"No, you still have many days before you, but I don't. In case something happens to me and we can no longer talk, I leave Autumn in your hands."
"No problem buddy. I'll take good care of her."
One month before my rescue date the green light on the radio went dim. I cried for the first time in years. I never got to say goodbye to Tomorrow. I thought it was for the best. That way there was no telling how long I'd live. I could always hope to live past one hundred with Autumn by my side. I only regretted not being able to talk to Autumn or Future any more.
Tomorrow never told me an exact date as to when he was rescued, but he left me with a vague block of time. Those days were the hardest. All the years of contentment were tossed aside by the anxiety pulsing through me heart. I was ready for my new life. I considered every day to be the day I'd shake hands with someone else. I wore clothes for the first time in forever just in case. But the days passed just as they came.
With every new week a small but consuming sense of worry and doubt gnawed away at my being. I questioned if I made a mistake by keeping track of the exact date. I wondered if I told myself an earlier time knowing it would make things easier on me, but that was not something I could easily accept. If I was to lie about one thing there was no telling what else I lied about. So instead of jumping to any conclusions I continued my life as I knew it tending my gardens. I stopped naming days as it did me no good.
One afternoon after I had finished watering the summer chamber I entered the storage room to take a quick shower. As I approached the hose I noticed that the wall was coated a dull blue color. I turned to see that the blue bar on the right side of the Eleven O' Thirty radio had turned on. My jaw dropped and I grasped at my chest for air. I understood what it meant.
I rotated the dial to the left and cleared my voice. I called out asking if anyone was there. I waited a few minutes to calm my voice. Then I repeated the same words I heard long ago.
"This is Tomorrow speaking. Are you listening?"
The End
This story was first published on Friday, September 2nd, 2011

Author Comments

“Now Until” is primarily a story about a man who must live his life through his future. One of my main goals with writing the story was to create an attitude of optimism that contrasts with the depressing scenario. In many ways I feel the dialogue between the narrator and Tomorrow mirrors our own internal struggles with facing the future. We can’t know what tomorrow brings but we fill our head with small stories, or expectations, to ease the uncertainty. These stories may or may not come true, but they are a part of what gets us through the day.

- Jonathan Fredrick Parks
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