Following the Tracks
a Mother vignette by Wasuremono

The train tracks go as far as Snowman, and some days Ninten does too. On a quiet Saturday, he can be to the last station by nightfall if he leaves home early enough and keeps a brisk pace, just fast enough so he can feel his pulse quicken and the muscles of his calves burn. He lets the feeling hover at the edge of pain, always present yet never urgent, as he follows the tracks into the mountains and out again.

Ninten first realizes just where this path takes him on his fifth trip, halfway through the mountain tunnel, as he perches on his usual rock to eat his boxed lunch and let his legs relax a while. He glances up at the ceiling, still mostly raw stone, and it sinks in at last: he's below Mt. Itoi. Above him are the natural caves and the plateaus, the lake and whatever's left underneath it. Above him are the trails weaving along the cliffs until, finally, just after the raw half-dead scrub forest gives way to bare rock, they reach the peak.

At the peak, Ninten knows, is his great-grandfather's grave.

He's been back to Mt. Itoi since then, of course, helping Teddy take care of what remains of the invasion force, but he's never climbed all the way to the peak since then. Ninten realizes he hasn't really thought about why that is. It isn't fear, he doesn't think; with Giegue's mothership gone, there's nothing there to be afraid of anymore. It definitely isn't fear... but it's something shaped like fear, a worry about what it all means, what going back there and being close to whatever's left of Great-Grandpa George would lead to.

Ninten sips the dregs of his orange juice, still staring up at the stone above him. He's read his great-grandfather's diary through twice now, and he still doesn't understand how whatever happened eighty years ago came to be. Great-Grandpa George hadn't been a scientist, so how'd he learn any of that well enough to use it? The diary talked about the "secrets of PSI" -- could you just learn PSI, like math or geography? Ninten thinks of George at a desk, poring through great alien schoolbooks, and he isn't sure whether to laugh or cry.

Maybe, he thinks, it isn't that way at all. Before it all began, he'd loved to read old science-fiction novels in the library, and now he can't help but remember all of them that were about disease -- The Martian Chronicles, in particular, where all the fearsome Martians had died of chicken pox and left their cities empty. An entire world dead of some silly germ humans take for granted! And yet... hadn't Giegue treated PSI the same way, taken it for granted as normal, maybe a little silly and childish? And he'd spent so long around Ninten's great-grandparents, after all. Had PSI been passed to humans like chicken pox to Martians? That would explain how it had spread -- from that first contact as far as Snowman and Youngstown, like a flu passed from stranger to stranger. Was that it? A flu transmitted through dreams? Could it be that simple?

Maybe. Maybe not. Ninten stands up; around him is the stone of Mt. Itoi. Above and below him are the past that he may never really understand, and inside himself is the future. Ninten can feel his heart beating, and he wonders just what is left in his blood from the journey and from George. However PSI got passed on -- through blood, or through dreams, or just through luck -- it had been passed on, and Ninten can't believe that it could all be coincidence. And then there was EVE...

EVE had said she'd been left by Great-Grandpa George to protect Ninten, and Ninten realizes, surrounded by the earth and the past, just what that means. George had known that his descendant would come to Mt. Itoi one day and that that descendant would need protecting; had he known that Giegue would be coming back, too? That whatever it was he'd stolen -- secrets, or PSI, or maybe even EVE -- would be taken back? How much had he known?

Ninten stares at the ceiling and thinks of Prometheus, who stole the fire from the gods and was punished in turn, chained to a mountain forever. Had Prometheus had children? Or were all the fire-using people after that his children, and that was why the gods troubled them so? Maybe that's why myths bother him these days -- he's in one, and if the gods have been chased away this time, that doesn't mean they won't be back. Even now, Giegue is as real as Mt. Itoi. Ninten knows that, and he knows his great-grandfather must have, too.

Some part of him wants to be angry, of course. Because of everything that happened eighty years ago, his life will never be easy; he'll always be waiting and watching, knowing that one day they'll have to do it again. If he doesn't, he knows, he'll be leaving it to his children, or their children, or theirs. But what else can he do? Nothing -- except to be ready, and to wait.

There's a rumbling sound from behind him, and Ninten breaks his reverie to glance down the tunnel. The train's coming? Already? But it's only... Ninten checks his watch and realizes that, yes, it is 1:00 after all, and he should have been on his way a half-hour ago. "Shows you what you get for daydreaming, doesn't it?" he mutters to himself as he packs up what's left of his lunch and starts striding out. But no matter -- Ana isn't expecting him until dinnertime anyway, and if he picks up the pace he'll make up the last half-hour easily. His legs are strong, and he's got a whole day ahead of him.