Screw this. I'm sick of being outnumbered by morons. I'm calling in reinforcements.
Dix has got to have other parents, a father at least, he didn't get that Y chromo from me. I swallow my own disquiet and check the manifest; bring up the gene sequences; cross-reference.
Huh. Only one: Kai. I wonder if that's just coincidence, or if the Chimp drew too many conclusions from our torrid little fuckfest back in the Cyg Rift. Doesn't matter. He's as much yours as mine, Kai, time to step up to the plate, time to—
Oh shit. Oh no.
Three builds back, it says. Kai and Connie. Both of them. One airlock jammed, the next too far away along Eri
's hull, a hail-Mary emergency crawl between. They made it back inside but not before the blue-shifted background cooked them in their suits. They kept breathing for hours afterwards, talked and moved and cried as if they were still alive, while their insides broke down and bled out.
There were two others awake that shift. Two others left to clean up the mess. Ishmael, and—
"Um, you said—" he begins.
" I shoot from my chair as if springloaded, hit my son hard in the face, ten seconds' heartbreak with ten thousand years' denial raging behind it. I feel teeth give way behind his lips. He goes over backwards, eyes wide as telescopes, the blood already blooming on his mouth.
I could come back—!" he squeals, scrambling backwards along the deck.
"He was your fucking father
! You knew
, you were there!
He died right in front
of you and you didn't even tell
"Why didn't you tell me, you asshole? The Chimp told you to lie, is that it? Did you—"
"I thought you knew
!" he cries, "Why wouldn't
My rage vanishes like air through a breach. I sag back into my hammock, face in hands.
"It was right there in the log," he whimpers. "All along. Nobody hid it. How could you not know?"
"I did," I admit dully. "Or I— I mean…"
I mean I didn't
know, but it's not a surprise, not really, not down deep. You just— stop looking, after a while. We see each other so rarely— ten, twenty times in the life of a sun— that you almost forget the difference between misplacing someone for a million years and losing them forever. I might have gone the rest of my life happily thinking that Kai was still alive, that we just kept— missing each other on the duty roster. You know the odds, you know the risks, and after a while it's just so much easier to not bother with the manifest. So you haven't seen her for the past five builds. So he hasn't drawn your shift since Sagittarius. They're probably just sleeping. Maybe next time.
I raise my eyes. Dix regards me wide-eyed from across the room, backed up against the wall, too scared to risk bolting past me to the door. "What are you doing here?" I asked tiredly.
His voice catches. He has to try twice: "You said I could come back. If I burned out my link…"
"You burned out your link."
He gulps and nods. He wipes at the blood with the back of his hand.
"What did the chimp say about that?"
"He said— it
said it was okay," Dix says, in such a transparent attempt to suck up that I am certain, in that instant, that my son is most certainly on his own.
"So you asked its permission." He begins to nod, but I can see my own tell in his face: "Don't bullshit me, Dix."
"He— he actually suggested it."
"So we could talk," Dix adds.
"What do you want to talk about?"
He looks at the floor and shrugs.
I stand up and walk towards him. He tenses but I shake my head and spread my hands. "It's okay. I'm not angry any more." I lean my back against the wall and slide down until I'm beside him on the deck.
We just sit there for a while.
"They say there's no such thing as altruism, you know?" I say at last.
His eyes blank for an instant, and grow panicky, and I know that he's just tried to ping his link for a definition and come up blank. So we are
alone. "Altruism," I explain. "Unselfishness. Doing something that costs you but helps someone else." He seems to get it. "They say every selfless act ultimately comes down to manipulation or kin-selection or reciprocity or something, but they're wrong. I could—"
I close my eyes. This is harder than I expected.
"I could have been happy just knowing
that Kai was okay, that Connie was happy. Even if it didn't benefit me one whit, even if there was no chance I'd ever see either of them again. Just the knowledge that they were okay, somewhere— that would make me happy.
"Even the fantasy would."
"So… so you don't check," Dix says slowly. Blood bubbles on his lower lip; he doesn't seem to notice.
"I don't check." Only I did, and now they're gone. They're both gone. Except for those little cannibalized nucleotides the Chimp recycled into this defective and maladapted son of mine.
All those people in cold storage — three hundred? Four? I've met maybe half of them. Befriended a mere handful. I may never meet all the rest. Maybe no one will. How many of us will sleep out our whole lives all the way to heat death, just because our numbers never come up?
All those people and none of them have our
genes, not any more. Just Dix and me. We are the only warmblooded creatures for a thousand lightyears in any direction, and I am so very lonely.
"I'm sorry," I whisper, and lean forward, and lick the blood from his bruised and bloody lips.