Last Son of Tomorrow
Last Son of Tomorrow
illustration by ross macdonald

This story is also available for download from major ebook retailers.

John was born with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men, and he often wondered why. But as a boy, it was simply wonderful to have those abilities. He could lift his father’s tractor overhead before he learned to read. He could outrace a galloping horse. He couldn’t be cut or bruised or burned. He could fly.

But his life was not a trading card with a heroic-looking photograph on one side and a convenient list of his abilities on the other. He had to discover himself for himself. It took him years to realize he could fire laser beams from his eyes. That he could force his lungs to expel nearly frozen carbon dioxide. And it wasn’t until his mid-thirties that he realized he’d probably stopped aging biologically somewhere around the age of twenty-two.

His parents weren’t perfect people. His mother drank, and when she did, she got mean. His father had affairs. But when they understood that the baby they’d found abandoned on the edge of their farm wasn’t like other children—was probably, in fact, unlike any other child who’d ever been born—they cleaned up their acts as best they could. They taught themselves to be better people, and then they conveyed those hard-won lessons to their son. They were as good as they could be. When they died while John was away at college, he decided if he could be half as wise, as kind, as generous as they were, then he could be proud of himself.

Driving back to the city after his parents’ funeral, he began his career. There was a commuter train derailment, a bad one, with a fully occupied car dangling off the Utopia Street Bridge, sixty feet above the Tomorrow River. John got out of his car and left it behind on the clogged highway. Fully visible in bright daylight, he leaped into the sky, and moments later, he had the train car resting safely on the bridge. He freed passengers from twisted metal. He flew those who needed immediate emergency care to the hospital, and then he returned to the scene of the accident. He thought it might be necessary to file a report of some kind with the police. With dozens of cameras pointed at him, microphones and tape recorders shoved in his face, questions being barked at him as if he’d done something wrong, he felt like he might suffocate. He wished he could turn and walk back to his car and drive to his dorm, maybe go out for beers with his friends. But he knew he’d never be able to do that now. He’d chosen otherwise.

He coughed nervously. The questions stopped. Everyone was quiet. Everyone was waiting. “I’m John,” he said. “I’m here to help.”

And for the next sixty years, that was just what he did.

It was the least significant period of his life.

 

* * *

John had an enemy.

Actually, he had many enemies, from the flamboyant nuts who were simply desperate for his attention, to the well-funded organizations who felt John threatened their political, financial, or ideological interests. But there was one man who devoted his entire life to vexing John. He called himself Teeter-Totter, of all the goofy things, and he wore an outfit not dissimilar to the jumpsuit John wore, made of a flexible composite material that could withstand the wear and tear of everyday battles and rescues and adventures. Teeter-Totter had no powers. John found that out when he punched him while foiling a bank robbery attempt and broke Teeter-Totter’s jaw, fractured his eye socket, cracked four ribs and punctured his lung.

”See?” Teeter-Totter said, once paramedics reinflated his lung. “I don’t need freaky powers to take you on.”

John felt just sick about the whole incident.

Their relationship, such as it was, got worse. Teeter-Totter graduated beyond bank jobs and jewelry heists and began committing acts that were downright heinous. He burned Yosemite. He brought down skyscrapers. He drove a robot-controlled truck into Hoover Dam. And he made John feel responsible for all of it.

”What did I ever do to you?” John asked after Teeter-Totter successfully set off a massive genome-bomb in the Midwest. There would be a catastrophic crop failure that year, and not even John would be able to prevent starvation. “Really, I have to know. What did I ever do to you?”

”You exist,” Teeter-Totter said, as if the answer were so obvious he couldn’t believe John had asked. “And if it weren’t for me, you’d exist without limits. Jesus, didn’t you ever wonder why I call myself Teeter-Totter? It’s so you can be up only so long as I stay down, and that when you’re down, someone else is sure to be up. Hello? Is any of this getting through?”

”I’ll win,” John said.

”Oh, you think so?”

”Yes. It doesn’t make me happy, but I know so. In the end, I’ll win.”

Forty years later, John felt he was proven right when Teeter-Totter died of old age. But then he realized something. Teeter-Totter wouldn’t have done any of those things had John never been born. John wasn’t merely the motivation for Teeter-Totter’s crimes. He was the reason for them, as much as if he’d committed them himself. If his every act of heroism was countered by an act of evil, then how were the two any different?

John gave Teeter-Totter a respectful burial. “Congratulations,” he said over the grave. “You won after all.”

After that, John still helped people whenever things happened right in front of him, but he stopped seeking trouble out.

* * *

John quite naturally wondered how he’d come to be. He knew he’d been abandoned near his adopted parents’ farm, but he’d never found out why or by whom. He reasoned that he might be an alien. He’d even worked out a scenario: He’d been sent to Earth as an infant by his home planet’s science council, who had calculated that, free from Zethon’s heavy gravity (Zethon being the name he’d given his home planet) and free from the influence of the exotic star the planet orbited, the Zethonian baby would possess amazing abilities. Without a doubt the orphan would rule Earth before he reached puberty, and then go on to conquer the surrounding space sector, the quadrant, and at least half the Milky Way galaxy.

What the council didn’t count on was John’s parents.

After Teeter-Totter died, John began flirting with space. He knew he would never find Zethon, because he didn’t believe imagining something made it so, and he wasn’t crazy. He was merely lonely. He hoped he might find someone like himself out there. But since he had never flown outside Earth’s atmosphere, he had no idea if he could survive away from Earth.

”Trying not to die ain’t the same thing as living,” his mother used to say. So he launched himself straight up until he saw the planet bend in a sharper curve than he’d ever seen before, until blue sky faded to black, until he was no longer going up but out, away from Earth for the first time.

It turned out he could do quite well in space.

It was like being a small child again. Everything was vast and scary, and he exulted in it. He floated respectfully over the lunar surface, not wanting to add his footprints to those of the astronauts who’d come before. They’d been his childhood heroes. He climbed Olympus Mons. He showered in the sulfur geysers of Io. He let himself go limp and be battered about inside the Great Red Spot of Jupiter. It was an amazing ride.

He spent years away from Earth and learned there wasn’t an environment he couldn’t survive. No amount of gravity or kind of radiation or absence of it could harm him. He learned to fly faster than the speed of light, and he explored. For a while he named every new planet he discovered. He named one for each of the astronauts. He named them for school teachers he’d liked. He named one for a magazine writer he’d dated. He named a pair of moons for his parents, and he named a spectacular ringed gas giant for Teeter-Totter.

In all the places he traveled to he found no one like himself. The closest he came to encountering intelligent life was on a small, rocky world where he came upon what someone had left behind. They—whoever they were—had worked out the mathematics to predict the position of every particle coming from Earth out to sixty-two light years. They had made a copy of each and every one of those particles and reassembled them into coherent signals, which they filtered out to leave only television broadcasts from 1956 to 1977. These broadcasts were played in a decades-long loop on a screen the size of Yosemite’s Half Dome.

John watched the broadcast loop several times but never figured out what the point was. Eventually he went home.

* * *

Things had gotten bad and strange in his absence.

Resources were scarce, fragmented nations fought for drops and crumbs, and it seemed to John after he’d spent years in the peaceful silence of space that every single person on Earth had gone crazy. He thought of leaving again, but he hadn’t forgotten the lessons his parents had taught him hundreds of years ago. He needed to stay, and he needed to help.

For starters, he knew he had to do something about overpopulation. Culling was suggested as a possible solution, but he seldom considered the idea. The revelation that Protein-G, trademarked as GroTeen, was in fact made of dead human tissue—that caused some uproar. But it was cheap and plentiful, and after it ended a decades-long European famine, the conversation switched from “Protein-G is people” to “We need to ensure Protein-G manufacturers follow better quality control standards.” It remained illegal to eat human brains, for example.

When celebrities started earning huge advances by signing their post-mortem bodies over to exclusive Protein-G eateries, John had finally had enough. He took over the world. Five hundred years later, he gave it back. And five hundred years after that, nobody remembered he’d ever been the most powerful dictator ever known. People had short memories. At least his name, or variants of it, survived in the languages that came after the last speakers of English and Mandarin and other ancient tongues fell silent. It meant things like king, and father, and servitude, and slavery, and also freedom, and safety, and sacrifice, and generosity.

John didn’t quite know what to make of it. He could only hope he’d made people’s lives better. At least they were no longer eating each other.

* * *

He met a woman named Aisha who ran a café in what used to be Ethiopia. She served him bread and lentils and beer, and if it wasn’t the best meal he’d ever had in his life (he was a picky eater and continued to compare everything to his mother’s cooking), it was certainly the most pleasant meal he’d had in a long time, due almost entirely to Aisha, who was beautiful and funny. She had many stories to tell and she was good at telling them. One thing led to another, and a month passed before they finally parted company.

More than two hundred years later, John found himself walking through that part of the world again. And there was Aisha’s café, still standing, still serving lentils and bread and beer. There was no mistaking the woman in the kitchen. He could have analyzed her on a cellular level to make sure she wasn’t Aisha’s descendent, but there was no need. She remembered him, and now she knew what he was. Two centuries after their first meeting, they discovered one another.

It wasn’t a perfect marriage. They were both practiced at relationships but still fell prey to misunderstandings, impatience, bouts of selfishness and resentment. But they figured it out, and together they traveled the earth and made homes and left homes and traveled some more.

There were no children. John surmised it was because they were of different species, compatible but not compatible enough. John had powers, Aisha did not. And, as they slowly discovered, unlike him, she wasn’t immortal. She was aging, just slowly. When you live forever and everyone you’ve ever known has died, even eight hundred years of being with the woman you love isn’t enough.

John stayed with her until the end, when her hair was white and her skin like paper.

He told her he loved her.

She told him not to give up.

* * *

At the end, there was no reconciliation with a lost loved one, no forgiveness granted by the dead, no revelation, no epiphany that gave his life a particular meaning, no overriding message his life could be said to impart, no tidy, circular shape to it. There was just a lot of living, day to day, each hour spent trying to find grace or happiness or satisfaction or decency. And in that his life was no different than anyone else’s. Just longer.

After four score and billions of years, he’d had enough, and he sat down to die. For a man who could survive in the core of a sun, this proved itself a challenge. But he could do so many other amazing things, surely he could make himself die. He concentrated on learning his body, not just the cells, but the molecules, the atoms, the protons and all the little bizarre bits that the protons were made of.

It was complicated stuff, and it took a long time. And while he was trying to figure out how it all worked and think himself dead, the universe, which, except for John, was barely a ghost of its former self, reached its outmost expansion. It paused for a time neither long nor short, but immeasurable either way, and then began drawing in on itself, much in the same way John had turned inward. Perhaps he was the thing causing the contraction.

By now John had a pretty decent handle on the stuff he was made of, and he even began to understand not just the what of it, but the when of it. As the universe continued to reverse its course, John rode with it. Backwards. Backwards. All the way, backwards.

Maybe, he thought, he didn’t really want to die. After all, if the matter he was made of had already been eroded and replaced uncounted times, then he’d been dying and being reborn for eons. His particles had shot out on their trajectories, and then his new particles had done the same, and so on, until they’d all gone so far out that they had no other choice but return to their origins.

John chose to go with them, as far back as he could go.

 

Copyright © 2009 Greg van Eekhout

33 comments
Richard Fife
1. R.Fife
Hmm, in an interesting, if not novel, look at "the ultimate man". Perhaps a bit of a consideration for what would happen to Dr. Manhattan well after everyone else had passed on.

I'll admit, though, the ending kinda confused me. What exactly did it mean that "John chose to go with them, as far back as he could go"? I got that he got over his "mid-life crisis" death wish, but what was the result? That'd he just continue to live in the new ectropic universe? Hmmm.
Nathaniel Lee
2. Scattercat
I enjoyed the story, but the ending confused me slightly. He decided he didn't want to die, but the universe was ending so why not? While I appreciate the irony of the most powerful being in the universe nonetheless spending most of his time subject to the vagaries of fate and the choices of others, I'm not sure I'm properly grasping the nuances of the story as a whole.
Blake Engholm
3. UncrownedKing
I agree with the two above about the ending. The story as a whole was very good. An interesting view on the life and times of the ultimate being. We have seen Clark Kent go through the same emotions. Believable story, witha confusing last three paragraphs.
John Chu
4. JohnChu
Awesome story. And I like the ending. What else is there for him to do ultimately besides recreate the universe from his own being? He literally saves the universe by taking it back to its origin.

Yes, the story is a palimpsest of the Clark Kent story. It admits as much in its first clause. It takes advantage of the allusion though and it's much more expansive and epic in scope than any Clark Kent story I've read. Also, in this age of dark, emotionally fraught superheroes, it's a pleasure to read someone who both acknowledges the challenges his powers represent and revels in the joy of them.
RobotRevolution
5. RobotRevolution
Great story!
James Goetsch
6. Jedikalos
Crash Test Dummies said it well:
Sometimes when Supe was stopping crimes
I'll bet that he was tempted to just quit and turn his back
On man, join Tarzan in the forest
But he stayed in the city, and kept on changing clothes
In dirty old phonebooths till his work was through
And nothing to do but go on home
Superman never made any money
For saving the world from Solomon Grundy
And sometimes I despair the world will never see
Another man like him
RobotRevolution
7. Haddayr
Oh, Greg what a beautiful, beautiful story. I'm in tears. Thank you.
John Skotnik
8. ShooneSprings
That was quite novel. Very enjoyable. Well done sir.
Greg Morrow
9. gpmorrow
Chu@4: Superman #400 (IIRC) is an anthology that covers some of the same ground in terms of Superman eschatology. In addition, Action Comics #387 features a Superman who has a time travel malfunction and keeps going forward in time until he reaches the end, so that's also similar. Seventy years of stories covers a lot ground....

As to Greg's story; readable, generally makes you feel good, unsurprising. The conclusion that "Teeter-Totter wouldn’t have done any of those things had John never been born" is absurd; a stalker will find someone to stalk. Its related theory of hero-villain moral equivalence is equally absurd (and rightly mocked in Dark Knight Returns).
RobotRevolution
10. Breogan
I think the end means that he decided to go "travel" into the backward time, Big Crunch universe. Instead of dying, he would just live the same live backwards.
Torie Atkinson
11. Torie
I loved this one, too. Beautiful and lovely.
Irene Gallo
12. Irene
Hands down, one of my favorites. Thanks, Mr. Van Eekhout!

And loads of fun working with Ross MacDonald on the illustration.
RobotRevolution
13. dcole78
I agree the idea that great good attracks great evil is ridiculous but it isn't something that hasn't been said before and it may very well be true. I don't think it is but I admit the possibility that I might be wrong. I also don't think the least important part of his life could be when he was helping people, as I don't believe that helping people is ever meaningless. Still interesting story and I like these that are more philisophical in nature. Haven't read any of your other stuff but think I will have to try and check it out now to do so.
Tamara Allen
14. tamaralynn
A very big thank you to TPTB at Tor who set up their download file names to match how I save my own files. It saves me time and effort (and makes sense, too)!

As for the story, I enjoyed it, but felt the ending was uncomfortable, as if the author ran out of ideas and was tired of writing about John, so he just stopped.
RobotRevolution
15. Lenny Bailes
I have to ask this: Greg, did you, by chance, happen to read the recent series of JSA comic book stories (ending with JSA #22) that eventually form a sequel to Alex Ross's to "Kingdom Come?"

FYI, the Geoff Johns/Alex Ross capsule of the DC Superman's history over the next 1000 years. (I particularly like the very last panel.)

http://4.bp.blogspot.com/_5VgL6ZXwkaw/SWK6q4wsp8I/AAAAAAAALtk/6jqvH98EZ1g/s1600-h/Justice+Society+of+America+22-9.jpg
and

http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_5VgL6ZXwkaw/SWK64-_3QYI/AAAAAAAALts/duiddERaTvA/s1600-h/Justice+Society+of+America+22-10.jpg
RobotRevolution
16. MYSICKBONES
Nice story, I've often wondered as to the ultimate fate of the hero who was truly immortal and invulnerable to ALL harm. However, the author has given John a slight get out by assuming that the ultimate fate of the universe is the Big Crunch (where the universe collapses back in on itself in a never ending cycle of birth and rebirth). Unfortunately for John, the theory that currently seems to hold sway is that the Universe will continue to expand, at an accelerating rate, for eternity. Eventually, because of the expansion, all particles are so far apart that it becomes impossible for there to be any interaction between them. If these circumstances prevailed then, eventually, John would find himself FOREVER alone trapped in the ultimate Limbo. The heat death of the universe would, for him, truly be an eternal hell.
Greg van Eekhout
17. gregvaneekhout
First of all, thanks for all the comments. It's always gratifying when people care enough about something I wrote to talk about it, whether or not they liked it.

Lenny, I haven't read the JSA books, but I'll take a look for them next time I hit the comic book store. I *loved* those Alex Ross panels you linked to.

Mysickbones, I have faith that scientific thinking will come back around to support whatever cosmological theory best supports the story I want to tell. In other words, Big Crunch, Big Crunch na na na I can't hear you!
Ethan Glasser-Camp
18. glasserc
Interesting story. Reminds me a lot of a work called Marvelous Bob -- you should check it out if you can, it was taken down but it should be in the Wayback Machine if you look and are patient.

Re: the discussion about Teeter-Totter -- we can go back and forth all day about whether he would or wouldn't do things if not for the protagonist's existence, but, just as in real life, there's no real way to know. No being, human or super-, ever got anywhere wondering "What if?"

Ethan
RobotRevolution
19. SarahP
I'm not a comic book fan, but I loved this story. Superman on a truly cosmic scale.

The ending totally worked for me. Riding the wave into...
Kate Nepveu
20. katenepveu
This caught me with

They taught themselves to be better people, and then they conveyed those hard-won lessons to their son.

Which was lovely.

I enjoyed it a lot. Thanks.
Dave Thompson
21. DKT
Great piece. I agree with katenepveu above - I was hooked right around that line. The story as a whole made me re-examine the destiny of earth's mightiest hero/immortal in a way I hadn't before. Thanks!
RobotRevolution
22. Lenny Bailes
Greg:

Those JSA stories have now been collected under
the title "Thy Kingdom Come":
http://www.amazon.com/Justice-Society-America-Vol-Kingdom/dp/1401216900
RobotRevolution
23. Antinomic
Nice work. Just think, If he hangs around long enough he gets to witness the Big Bang! I understand it's hard to get seats for that show.
Sumana Harihareswara
24. brainwane
I enjoyed this story; thanks for writing it, Mr. Van Eekhout, and thanks to Tor.com for publishing it.

It's admirable how epic a feel we get in such a short wordcount.
Silvia Wilson
25. sillama
Very satisfying story to me! I can imagine that the Big Crunch could be the metamorphosis from John to God, a little like the end of 'Well of Souls.'
Brian Huesman
26. ambassador_at_large
Frankly I think that this story is just a little too close to that of DC Comics "Superman" But otherwise, Bravo! And if you did mean to copy DC Comics and rewrite it, then you should be working for them, cause this is gold for a new movie.
RobotRevolution
27. Charles Ian Chun
I enjoyed your story. Great ending, especially in the sense that it gave us all something to discuss and figure out together.
RobotRevolution
28. gregvaneekhout
Thank you, Charles. It's always interesting for me to read discussions of my stories. I often learn a lot!
RobotRevolution
29. quantumcat
This may not have been the intent of the story at all but I found myself toying with an eisigesis that had John wind up being God (or a defacto God analog put to work by the Supreme Being).

The last sun gives birth to the first.

The Last Son takes on the role of the First Father.

Maybe,he does all the "in the begining" stuff when he reaches the other end of the temporal Moebius strip.

Maybe,he does find his ending but something of his essence serves a similar function to HELA cells and provides the materials and template of life.

Perhaps,he becomes the Alpha AND Omega Man.

Or,perhaps,he is observed by someone else-a someone who may be powerful,may be good,may be infinite.

Or,that being could be just as much a part of nature as John but with its own origins,its own limits and its own secrets.

Perhaps,John's story hinges on how little we need rely on a backstory or saga-worthy adventures.

The big super-power was one posessed by John and the couple who raised him.

It is one any of us can have-even the Teeter-Totters.

It consists of making the best of what one has to work with and living that life one bit at a time.

It's all a super-hero can do.

It's all any of us can do.

If we got the chance to ask an unlimited God,He might say that it's enough.
RobotRevolution
30. Lincoln Crisler
Hmmm... not as great as I was hoping for when I picked it out of the long list of fiction on the site... I'm a huge superhero fan (and a spec-fic author) and I'd have liked to see something different.

I thought Mr. Van Eekhout really had something when he made John's parents a mean drunk and a philanderer... I was like, "Hell yeah, it's Superman, but without the perfect cookie-cutter upbringing!" And then he kinda sorta didn't run with it. It was a letdown.

I did like the whole part with Aisha... that definitely evoked an emotional response. But the story as a whole..? I was really expecting something more outstanding from the publisher of so many books I've enjoyed over the years.
Jason Denzel
31. JasonDenzel
Somehow stumbled upon this story several years after it was published here on Tor.com Very nicely done. Thanks for sharing. Loved the scope of it, and especially the ending. Seems like we can all interpret what happened a little differently.
Robyn Ng
32. robynical
Great story, great illustration (Ross MacDonald, you are SO BOSS) - this has been one of my favourite lunch-break reads!

I think one of the biggest dangers of being a total nerd is that we get too caught up on the practical details of logic, and miss out on the poetry of a narrative. Not to discount all the points brought up by commenters before me, but I still enjoyed this thoroughly.
RobotRevolution
33. juanito
Oh my... this story really was heartbreaking and hopeful.

I'm going to find a way to get this story to my students (seeing as I teach middle school Spanish, this might be tricky...)

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