Like Footprints in the Snow

Shelly Jones

April 28th 2023


I follow Owen’s footprints before we quarrel. He always likes to run ahead, his instinct to bolt, to tackle every danger head on, as the human saying goes. He is especially anxious today, as if the code inside him were programmed all wrong, a Javascript interpreter trying to parse Python.

“Hormones,” his mother informed me before our departure, shaking her head.  “A mother’s dilemma: I want him to be my little boy forever and yet I want him to grow up, put these teenage mood swings behind us.”

I nodded, understanding her words, but not their meaning.

Flocks of wind turbines line the southern plains, their blades slicing the air. The winds are fierce, but they do not deter Owen as we continue up the mountain.

I track his boot treads, knowing the curve of them, how his feet bow outward when he runs, excitement taking over.  Today I begin to see something different. His motions are more controlled. No longer are his arms flapping inefficiently, expending his energies before he reaches the top, lungs flagging, back crumpling in defeat. My years of programming, commands to regulate his stride, pull in his arms, focus on the incline, have all finally been realized. Owen scales the ridge easily and looks back at me with an expression I have never seen before, his usual mischievousness hiding something else: confidence. He disappears over the edge and I begin scanning the area for heat signals.

“It’s no use, Owen. I still have you in my sights,” I call out, detecting him, a red and orange splotch on my map, as I crest the ridge. I can see him now, his back to me, staring up at the starlit sky.   

“I don’t want to be on this boring planet any longer. I want to be out there.” His voice is sour with defeat.

“Your mother will miss you when you’re gone.” Owen and his mother share a loving bond, despite the hormones. But my words bristle him.

“What is this? A guilt trip? Did she put you up to this?”

I search my communications logs, looking for the kind of conversation that he could be referencing, but find nothing. “I have no record of any such request by your mother.” Owen softens, his muscles slacken, and I can see the childish sensibilities take over his face once more. “I have a present for you.”

“Why?” The wind whips at his back and his parka’s hood flaps behind him like a bird’s wings. For a moment I think he might fly loose into the atmosphere, escaping my detection for good.

 “Isn’t it customary for presents to be given on the anniversary of one’s birth?”

“Yes, but that’s not for a few days.”

“I am never sure how much time we will have together anymore, so it is better if I give it to you now.” A strange look passes his face as I reach into my compartment and retrieve his present.

“A book?”

“A compendium on the history of space travel of your people,” I clarify. “Perhaps one day you will be featured in a text like this.”

Owen flips through the book, his eyes intent on the images of rocket ships and satellites hovering above his planet. “No one else thinks I’ll make it out there.” Owen shivers as he closes the book, stores it in his knapsack. “You’ve never told me. What happens to you when our time is done? Do you go play nursemaid to some other spoiled kid?” Owen laughs.

Self-deprecation is a human trait I will never understand.

“No. Watchers are specifically programmed to their charge,” I begin. The protocols for this kind of conversation dictate that direct language be used in order to eliminate the possibility of a charge developing false hope. “They begin designing us even before you are born, ensuring we’ll be in sync with your needs, your rhythms, your quirks, as well as any artificially intelligent being can understand a human. When our training is done, I will be wiped clean, stored in a repository until another of your kind is conceived. Then they will begin to program me for that child. But the “me” you know will cease to exist.”

According to my service number, Owen is the fourteenth child I have had this type of conversation with, but I have no memory of how those other encounters went. They do not prepare us for the Parting.

Owen seems disturbed by my words, his fists balling up. “So you just go away? Like footprints melted in the snow? No trace of you left?”

I look back at our tracks down the hillside and consider Owen’s words for a long while. “That is an apt analogy.”

 “No, this isn’t right. It can’t be. You can’t just leave.” He turns suddenly and bolts up along the ridge, where the winds are bending the pines fiercely. “No!” Owen screams, cracks the air with his voice, splinters the mountain.

My sensors detect a disturbance to the north and I hear a rumbling. “Owen, come back. It isn’t safe.” Before my words can reach him, the avalanche begins, a wave of white looming above me. 

My pulsar-lift motor stalls as the snow buries me. The Ward detector flickers orange and my heat sensors cannot penetrate the wall of snow. “Owen!” I try to call out, but my vocal relays have short circuited. For a moment I am frozen in place, unable to see in front of me or behind me. I wonder if this is how Owen feels.  The power-thrusts in my tracks whine, unable to initiate. A shining light stuns my ocular system as the Ward detector blinks, disengages. My time with Owen has ended.

But then I hear a familiar voice above me, and Owen’s hands, no longer a child’s, wipe the snow from my gears, shovel around my frozen tracks.

“Not yet. My birthday isn’t here yet,” Owen says, placing the book back in my compartment for safe-keeping. 

Shelly Jones (she/they) teaches classes in mythology, folklore, and writing. Her speculative work has previously appeared in F&SF, PodcastleThe Future Fire, and elsewhere. Find them on Twitter @shellyjansen or 

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