There were no miracles left for him. They'd pumped him so full of nanomachines he was sure he could feel them crawling in the sliver of space between his teeth and his gums. The doctors assured him the feeling was psychosomatic, and that it would pass as surely as would his life, though they weren't certain exactly which would come first.
The nanomachines could destroy the carcinoma at a rate just a hair shy of its replication rate. It would grow slowly at first, then it would explode in his body--his own cells turned against him by an errant photon undoubtedly born in some unnamable sun--and even the best and brightest of the medical profession were happy to admit that though most of the cases were curable, there was still one in ten-billion cases that could get past them.
Dying of disease was then an honor enjoyed by only the improbably unlucky.
Thus left to face his mortality in the examining room's stark sterility, thoughts of opportunities missed flowed through him on waves of regret. If he'd only taken Keller up on that offer to go in on half of that children's holography business, he could have turned his documentary making experience into solid cash. If he'd only looked a few yards further up the Irwin rille, he'd have been the one to discover the Grissom Marker and get the Emmy--not Carroll. If he'd only spent more time with his family. His daughter. If only there were more time to be with her. There was too much to tell her.
Not enough time.
For seventeen years he daydreamed of projects he'd work on with her, side-by-side as they blazed trails in places most doubted could be reached with terrestrial technology. He'd teach her what he knew about telling film stories of far off places. She'd have more guts than he. It had to be so. She'd explore tendrils of real estate cartographers hadn't the courage to commit to an atlas for fear of ridicule, and come back with shiploads of usable images the educational channels would pay king's ransoms for. He imagined himself hoisting a glass with the folks at the watering hole, toasting the discovery of a new life form first captured in 3D by his progeny, the warmth in his face screaming from a brilliantly toothed smile, the bar light pouring in beams from his watery eyes as he gushed the oath, "That's my girl."
It would never happen.
She'd slipped out from under his influence and become someone while he set off to live his life documenting the universe's treasures for society. He made videos. He told stories and he was great at it. But he was, at best, an absentee parent. At worst, he was a casual observer to his child's upbringing. And in her seventeen years as a citizen of the universe she'd managed to make a name for herself without him.
She'd become an ecologist. He'd remind his colleagues she'd become THE ecologist. It was her genetic engineering that restored the Brazilian rainforest. Her team of automatons restored the Arizona Grand Canyon after she'd convinced the President to condemn the developments along the rim. Now she'd taken on a bigger project, something fitting an engineer of her stature. It was no less than the restoration of non-terran DNA-based life to a tiny moon man had carelessly sterilized with transport exhaust as he reached to extend his influence beyond the solar system.
She'd be the one to leave home this time, and when she returned, his disease would make sure he wouldn't be there. It would be selfish to tell her so. She needed to move on with her life unobstructed by his problems.
There was little time before her departure. When he returned from seeing the physician, he asked if she'd walk with him. Neither of them could remember the last time they'd taken a walk together. His daughter had to ask him to repeat himself before she understood what he was asking.
"You want to what?"
"I thought we'd go outside. Just the two of us. For a while." He stammered as if a schoolboy asking for a date.
"For what?" she asked, then paused for an explanation the father didn't think he'd need to give.
"Because I'm proud of you?" he offered. "Because you're going away soon and I wanted to have some time to talk."
"Oh." The daughter glanced at the visual she'd been reading, then back at her father. "Didn't you have an appointment with the docs? What'd they say?"
He tried to smile. As he swallowed a lump in his throat he saw the muscles in her face tighten. "It's okay. . ."
"Then, let's go!" she said firmly and stood.
"Great," the man said, brightening.
So the daughter and her father went on a hike on the surface of the Earth's moon, amid shards of the big bang and the craters gouged in the lunar soil. He watched her jump clear of boulders twice her size with the skill of a woman who'd spent more time in the open environment than a habitat. She forded craters with bounding motions that amounted to little more than a flick of her foot against the ankle. She scaled rock faces as if gravity had granted her absolution from its punishing drag. He reveled in her dexterity. She was doing what she had been born to do. If only he'd had a part in helping her become the success she'd become.
He imagined the stories he could have taught her to tell, and then realized she'd have plenty of her own when she got back--and he wasn't there to listen.
She stopped suddenly on a basalt mesa, her feet level with his head.
"This is a disgrace," she said, abruptly. The sound of her voice in his communicator reminded him he'd been admiring her in silence as they walked out of the little used sub-surface city's exit that opened in Shorty's crater.
She knelt and offered him a hand. Crouching at the knees, he leapt as high as he could. She guided him over to the flat top of the boulder and gestured as he caught his balance. Before them a set of tracks extended toward the horizon where a brilliant blue and white Earth was rising. Where the tracks ended was a field dense with human footprints in the otherwise pristine lunar soil.
"A disgrace. The damage to the environment is irreparable. Just think. That terrain lay undisturbed for literally 5 billion years. Then man comes along. . ."
"They didn't have eco-suits back during the Apollo program, honey. They made footprints when they walked. It was all they could do to keep themselves breathing and temperate."
"They shouldn't have come, then," she said, bluntly. "Mankind has no right to desecrate the environment, either maliciously or absent-mindedly. This landscape is irreplaceable. Look what they did to it."
"It was 200 years ago," said the father. "They were explorers. Look at it as history."
"The annihilation of the Burundi rain forest is history, Dad. The industrialization of the western hemisphere, genocide of the Indian elephant, the Russian-Japanese war, that's all history, Dad. We shouldn't glorify things because they happened a long time ago. History's to be learned from. But. . . wait, this is what you wanted me to see, right? Now I understand. Thank you, Daddy. I can make it right again: I promise!"
The man slumped his shoulders and exhaled. He felt as if his breath carried away the happiness he'd felt for his daughter only moments before. Was this why he'd spent so little time influencing her upbringing?
"I didn't mean to bring you here to have the galaxy's greatest ecologist fix anything. I meant to have a talk with you. You've grown so. Now you're moving off on your own. Appointment from the President herself. Everything you've ever done you've done so well. I wanted to let you know how proud I was. . .how sorry I was that I wasn't around as much as. . ."
She put a hand on his arm and where she touched him her eco-suit merged with his forming a single contiguous coating around the two of them. He could smell the shampoo she'd used that morning and felt the warmth of her hand against him.
"Dad," she said. "Look, it's okay. Everybody has to work. Everyone has to contribute. You couldn't always be around. I understand. Someday, I'll have kids. I'll probably feel the same way you do right now."
"Will you?" He looked into her eyes. Was this the way it had always been and would always be? He'd heard of times gone by when parents held the greatest share of the responsibility for raising their own children. Then, a family was a social unit as well as simply a cluster of humans who lived together for little reason other than they shared a common genetic ancestry. Perhaps it was thus in the time of the men that had made the tracks before them.
"I'm probably not going to be around when you finish your restoration work on Europa," he said. The young woman tapped a few symbols into the forearm communicator on her eco-suit.
"Did you hear me?" he said to her.
She looked up. "Sorry. I'm going to get them to send a crew to clean this up. We can do that now, you know. I've got an automaton team that's been studying archaic terran graphs of the lunar surface. Lunikod and Surveyor photos. We can make this place look like it did the day those clods got here and messed the place up. I promise you, Dad. Take into account the statistical distribution of micrometorite impacts--in three days, you'll believe this place had never been touched by humans. Now that we can do it, hey, that gives me an idea, we should get some crews out to clean up the other Apollo landing sites. I could do that too. I think they've collected all the hardware by now. The experiments, the archaic descent stage junk. The Smithsonian's got some of them. Cept for 11--I think. Sea of Tranquillity is still a monument. . .or is it? Do you know if they still take kids there on field trips? Maybe I can convince the Secretary of the Interior to erase the environmental damage and build a replica at the museum. . ."
He hopped off the rock, the young woman's voice still resonating in his suit's small head covering. He walked to the end of the lunar rover tracks, then advanced a few feet further. After a few moments, his daughter caught up with him. She walked and punched symbols into her forearm.
"I'd like you to think of something," he said. She looked up from her communicator briefly.
"I'm almost through to the Secretary," she said. "Hold that thought a moment."
He put his hand on her communicator and punched the "terminate" command on her forearm keypad as he forced her to lower her hand.
"I don't have many more moments," he said, looking into her eyes.
Then he knelt beside a small rock and motioned for her to come closer.
"My father showed me this when I was, oh, probably five years old. His mother told him it was here."
The young woman knelt beside her father, the mechanisms in their eco-suits balancing the weak lunar gravity so their bodies would leave no trace in the lunar dust. She moved in closer, following the imaginary ray in space he shot with his finger.
It took a second for the hieroglyph to register. Then she shot upright.
"And they had the nerve to leave their graffiti!"
"Hey, wait a minute," he said, standing beside her. Her venom confused him. Hadn't she seen what was written there? "Don't you know what that is?"
"Of course. It's heresy against nature. What gave those guys the right to mark the landscape? It's bad enough their feet left prints. I'll give you they couldn't help themselves. They didn't know how to balance gravity back then. But this? This is an outright affront. A deliberate attempt to mar the lunar surface. The audacity! Now I know why you wanted me to see this. You know I'm the only one, don't you? I'm the only one with control of the technology to fix this. I'm very happy you showed it to me, dad. I assure you my crew. . ."
Pain rose within him like a plant springing to life. It started as a seed in his chest and within a second branched and blossomed forcing sword-like branches through his tired flesh. Was it the disease or was it simply the physical recognition of his failure? He'd contributed nothing to his daughter to help develop her. Was it too late?
"I don't want you to erase the name, honey," he said, forcing himself to pronounce each word, fighting back the flood of emotion that threatened to rob yet more of his ebbing lifetime. He put his hands on her shoulders and where he touched her the eco-suit gave way like an amoeba, allowing his bare hands to touch her through the covering.
"Because it's your name."
"You?" she said, the word as much an accusation as a question.
"No. This is really killing me," he said. He pulled her into his chest.
"Dad?" He felt her arms return the embrace. "Are you going to die?"
"My great-grandfather's grandfather was an explorer. He was one of the last men to visit this place. He didn't know when people would come back, or even if the human race would survive long enough to revive an interest in lunar space travel. So as one of his parting acts, as he knelt to collect an interesting rock, he wrote his daughter's name in the dust with his finger. He had no idea. . .he thought that name might be up here for millions of years. And now it's come full circle. His great-grandson's great-granddaughter will be the one to wipe her hand across the name he wrote.
"That's your name written there. Of all the people in the world, your ancestor speaks to you as if he were here today. It's your hieroglyph. Imagine him kneeling here, rubbing his finger across the dust, hoping that maybe his daughter or his granddaughter would be here to appreciate what he'd gone through. Imagine how he felt, how far away he must of felt, the wonder of it all, the need for life to bring him to this spot.
"Tracy, I know we haven't spent a lot of time together. I don't have a lot of time left. I thought if I could give you one thing, maybe I could give you. . .maybe I could help you learn who you who you are."
Tracy looked at her father and squinted as if staring into the sun.
"I know who I am, Dad. It's you I never got to know."
The man stared at the sun sharpened horizon hoping if he thought about it hard enough, some gem of wisdom would come to him that could make up for the lost years.
While he thought his daughter said, "I'm the one who cleans up after mankind, even if my great-great-great, however many greats, grandfather made it."
And as he watched his daughter type an address into her wrist communicator a spike of fear ran down the marrow of his spine and straightened him.
"You can't eradicate all of traces of mankind. What do you do about yourself?"
She ignored him as the communicator's screen flashed to light. He spoke even as she gave coordinates to the technician who would unleash the machines she'd designed to remove the signs the Apollo explorers had once trod the primordial lunar soil.
He tried to explain the terminal fear inside him. Fear of being misunderstood. Fear of having no time. Fear of being forgotten.
"A human being is granted life and moves through this universe. As she lives she touches things. Her touch makes her mark as she travels until finally the spark of living leaves her. That's all we're given to do here, Tracy."
He gestured to the footprints around them. "This is all that remains of the spirit that lives inside the both of us. The marks there. . ." and he pressed his hand to the center of his chest, ". . .the mark that's left here. Once I'm gone and this is gone, what remains?"
He touched her arm and answered his own question.
Then let his hand fall as he walked back toward the entrance at Shorty's crater, his feet never contacting the soil below as he trod on invisible waves of gravity generated by his suit.
As he opened the airlock Tracy caught up with him.
"I'll get a holograph before the crew erases it. . ." she said, looking toward her feet. "If I had my camera with me, I'd take it now. I'll at least have that to show my children."
"It's okay," he answered her, pausing before the airlock as its interior lights flickered on. She didn't understand, and she'd be too old before she realized the damage she'd done. "You don't have to go out of your way for me. I'm sorry I've become so sentimental."
"Dad. You have to understand. They'd get to it, eventually. This place is going to be restored no matter what we do."
"You think I don't know that? I said it's okay," he repeated. "Really. Do what you have to do. I want you to know I'm proud of you." He walked into the airlock expecting her to follow and close the door behind them. When he turned again he saw her still standing outside.
"I always thought you named me after yourself," Tracy said. The unfiltered sunlight seemed almost fluid. It made her seem as statuesque as the jagged rocks behind her.
"I gave you a name I thought would live a million years," he replied, smiling. Then, "You coming, or staying?"
She hesitated, then took a step backward into the stark lunar sunlight. "Staying. I gotta supervise the crew. Sometimes they need some adjustment. The automaton's pattern recognizers get confused by high contrast shadowing. They can get into places they're not supposed to go. It's a problem I haven't worked out yet. In this light, they could damage unmolested areas. They have to be watched."
He nodded at his daughter. She closed the airlock door. As the air hissed in he heard her through the communicator in his suit. Maybe he'd gotten through, or maybe not. A walk in the sun wouldn't erase years of not being there for her. It would take a long time for anything he did or said to become part of her.
"I'm still not sure why I'm going through all this trouble for a silly glyph in the dirt."
"It's your glyph, Tracy," he said. "No one can tell you to do what the glyph in your heart won't accept."
He took off his helmet, walked through the inner door, and took the motivator back to their apartment in the subsurface city.
The last old story is Lost in the heart of a storm
The first old story is The cheshire woman