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art by Jonathan Westbrook

The Most Important Man in the Universe

Joseph Zieja is a budding author of fantasy and science fiction, with over a dozen short works published on the web and in print in the last two years. He was asked to speak on military affairs at WORLDCON 2012 in Chicago due to his background as a commissioned officer in the United States Air Force. As a musician, he also remixes video game music for a community of uber-nerds at OverClocked Remix. You can find out more about Joseph and his writing at josephzieja.com.

It stared back at me like a cataract, blue and bloated, the black canvas of space all around it. Half illuminated by the nearest star, I followed the line between light and dark with my eyes, staring at the face of dusk. Or dawn. I didn't know which way the planet rotated. For my home, I was woefully ignorant of its orbitology. I could describe the orbital elements of every planet in every system in the galaxy, but I did not know my own.
I rubbed the back of my hand to try and stop it from shaking. It didn't work. It never worked.
"Gregory? Greg, are you there?"
"I'm here, mom."
"Oh. Solar flares have been bad lately. I thought we got cut off."
The viewscreen next to my desk cast a shadow across the only document on its surface. At the bottom was my signature.
"I'm so glad you left before it all happened," my mother said. "Things down here have been bad since the quarantine."
"I know," I said. "I'm sorry."
Long ago, when she had laughed I had always thought of small bells ringing. Now, with the disease in her, it sounded watery and hollow as she chuckled.
"That's a silly thing to say. It's not your fault."
I tried to think of something to say to convince her otherwise, but nothing came to mind. I tore my eyes away from the planet and looked down at the screen. My mother's face looked back at me, a shadow of its former beauty. Through the maze of boils and sores, I could still see hints of that glamour, that spark of a glamorous visage stolen away by the biological terror. Yet, somehow, she still smiled.
"I miss you, dear," she said.
"I miss you too."
I could barely see the kitchen I grew up in behind her. Our station was too far from the planet, and the attenuated signal left me only a gray outline with which to reconstruct the memory in my mind. I could still smell chicken roasting in the oven. I wondered how long it had been since she'd eaten any meat.
"Mr. Blaney," a voice sparked up over the intercom. "We're nearly ready."
"Fine," I said. "Alert me when we're on final."
"Yes, sir."
I took my finger off the intercom button and tapped it on the desk.
"Who was that?" my mother asked.
"My assistant," I answered.
She laughed again, and I found myself biting my lip to stop from frowning.
"My son, The Most Important Man in the Universe. I'm so proud of you, and I barely know what you do."
I shrugged. "It's not that interesting."
"I know you have to say that," she said. "But I know better."
I swallowed, glancing at the stellar map floating above the projector to the side of my desk. My notes, suspended in the air underneath it, had a list of four other planets. A list that rotated through my mind every night when I lay down to perform the charade of sleep. The "quarantine" hadn't worked, and other planets had paid for it. Now I was back at the source.
"So why did you call?" she asked. "I'm not used to hearing from you unless you're making your rounds. You weren't due back in this orbit for three months."
"I just wanted to see your face," I lied. I never wanted to see her face. I barely wanted to hear her voice. Both of those things just reminded me how badly I'd failed, how I should still be down on the surface, suffering with her. In all likelihood, I'd be dead. The disease worked fastest on middle-aged men, but it spared no one. In truth, I would have been lucky to go first.
"That's sweet, dear," she said. "It's nice to see you too. The neighbors…"
I let her voice fade into the back of my mind. She would give me the report, now, like she always did, and it would only be filled with bad news. More dead, more infected. Food supplies dwindling. The Resistance fighting furiously in all the capitals. It was probably those people that were responsible for smuggling people off-planet, but it was too late to assign blame.
"Mr. Blaney," the voice came again. "It's time."
My mother was still talking. She hadn't heard my assistant come over the intercom this time. I looked back down at my desk and slid the authorization paper closer. The words on the page shouted at me, asked me questions for which I had no answer. I crumpled it up in my hands and threw it into the disintegrator, knowing full well that there were thousands of copies in all the places that mattered.
"Do it."
"Do what?" my mother asked. "Gregory, are you listening?"
"I'm listening, mom."
"Oh. I asked you what you did for your birthday."
My lips opened, but no sound came out. I had forgotten it was my birthday. Of course she had remembered. She'd gone through the pain of bringing me into this world. Everything I had, I owed to her in one way or another.
"Nothing," I said. "Absolutely nothing."
A bright flash lit up the blackness around the station, blotting out my view of the planet for a few brief seconds. I couldn't see the beam as it traveled through space. For some reason, that always bothered me.
The planet exploded.
"Well that's silly," my mother said. "You should treat yourself to something special. You're always working so hard."
I looked down at the viewscreen; courtesy of relativity, I was staring into the past. The ghost of my mother gazed back at me, still smiling.
"I love you, mom," I said. "And I'm sorry."
She would never hear it, of course. Three seconds later, the screen went dark.
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, November 14th, 2012

Author Comments

Just a few days before I wrote this story, my grandfather had suddenly died. I was in the kitchen thinking about him, and his face came into my head. One of his eyes was afflicted with a sort of chronic cataract that, no matter how many surgeries he had, persisted until the day he'd died. It turned his whole iris into a sort of smokey, swirly blue color. I remembered looking at it once and thinking that it reminded me of the way a planet looked from outer space. Then I wrote the first line of the story.

- Joseph Zieja
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