She hurried across the moon-silvered fields, her child asleep in her arms, and all around the tall grass sighed in the breeze. Soon she had cleared the plains, and now the land sloped up and the grass turned to dirt, and then the dirt to rock. Further still she climbed, until at last she reached the edge of the foothills where the earth fell away and a steep path twisted down into the valley.
She stopped and gazed over the ridge. The stars were as crisp and bright as ever, and far below she could see the twinkling fires and thin wisps of smoke curling into the night. She saw movement, too—dark smudges near the firelight. There were voices, laughter; sounds she hadn’t heard in a long time and feared she never would again. Four years spent hoping, searching, and now, at last, she had found them.
The breeze picked up and her child shivered in her arms. She pulled him even closer, letting the warmth of her body stifle the chill. He was too old to be carried, but tonight she carried him anyway, letting him rest. He needed the rest.
How easily you sleep, she thought, losing herself in the gentle rhythm of his breaths. Her own mind raced constantly, making sleep impossible. She didn’t need it, though.
She remembered the day she found her son: a memory recalled with perfect clarity, replayed so many times, never a detail lost. There was a great war and a city ravaged by it. She could still see the skyline rising in front of her, gray and broken and jagged in the places where the buildings had fallen, and the plume of smoke above it that darkened the sky.
She was sent there to find the survivor. And she did, hearing his cries over the last gasp of the city: the sirens, the car alarms that continued to wail, the televisions that played on. These were the voices of ghosts that haunted the wasteland.
But not his; his was real.
She found the baby in an abandoned building, kept him alive, nursed him when he was sick, fed him what little she could find. She raised him and loved him like a son, and in the years that followed, they had not spent a moment apart.
Now that moment had finally come.
With her child tucked against her shoulder, she followed the path down toward the fires, boots scraping against the rock. Each step came slow and reluctantly, her heart breaking, knowing what she had to do. She had experienced love she never imagined, but never knew the sadness that would come from saying goodbye.
At the bottom, she could hear the people clearly now and saw their shadows. She lay her son gently on the ground, cradling his head in her hand. His legs and arms were thin as sticks, his clothes ragged and draped loosely over him. Food was difficult to come by these days, clothes even harder, but somehow she managed.
“It’s time to wake up.”
He sat up on the ground, letting his eyes focus in the darkness.
“Where are we?” he asked, frowning.
She put her finger to her lips and pointed toward the fires. Then in a quiet voice, she said, “You’ve always wondered why you were so different than me?”
He nodded, but didn’t speak.
“And what did I tell you?” she asked.
“You said I was special. That there’s no one else like me.”
“You are special. But I—we—made a mistake. There are more like you. And I’ve found them.”
The boy’s eyes widened. They were deep and beautiful, and she admired the way they caught the starlight.
“They’re like me?” he asked.
“Yes,” she nodded, dreading what she was about to say. “I need to tell you something.”
“What is it?”
“It will happen someday soon. You will hear stories about us, and they will not be kind. You must believe what they tell you, even though I know you will hate me. But no matter what—”
She took his hand.
“—Never forget how much I love you.”
The boy shook his head, confused. “I don’t understand, Mom. Is something wrong?” His small fingers trembled in her hand.
There was more to say, but she couldn’t bear to tell him the rest: the day she found him in the building—she had not been sent there to save him.
She was there to finish the war.
They thought he was the last.
The final target.
He lay naked and afraid, crying on the floor, alone in the nursery blackened by fire and ash.
No more than a few days old.
She raised the rifle and trained it on the baby, hearing the high-pitched whine as it revved.
Her finger slipped through the guard, tensed around the trigger, and then—
She saw the helplessness in his eyes, heard his cries mixed with violent coughs, and knew she couldn’t do it. Something in her changed. Her defiance would cost her her life—but they would have to find her first. She fled the city with the child, spending her days hiding, holding out hope that there were others like him, so he would not be alone, so his kind might endure.
Now there was a chance it would.
She stared at her beautiful child, knowing this would be the last time. Her eyes blazed in the night.
She hugged him tightly, her sensors reporting the warmth of his cheek against her metal. He was her son and always would be. Nothing could change that. She would hold onto him forever if she could.
But she knew she couldn’t.
She had to let go.
“Go to them,” she said, her voice a soft whisper that slipped away with the midnight breeze.
And then she did.