Return

By Eric Vogt

Part 1 of 2

The walk to the bus stop was short and unpleasant. Random stripes of dry concrete broke up the thin coating of rippled ice over the sidewalks, making it impossible to decide whether to walk like a human or shamble like some beast from a children's story. The constant winds of the long winter on the one inhabitable part of Gorgon came almost straight down from the mountains, running between the buildings and throwing stinging sleet pellets from all directions at once.

Tima Huverssa didn't mind the cold, but he wished he could become invisible again. It used to be so easy: shifts in his body language to hide his shape, a claim of no personal space beyond his own body, a facial expression that begged to be noticed but betrayed a great fear of being engaged. He could do it on Trinity, walk through a crowd of thousands and not be marked by a single soul if he didn't want to be.

The Trin shattered that ability before they sent him home, though. All of his Overtraining had been broken. He could no more become invisible in a crowd now than he could expand himself, become an alpha male among alpha men, the one everybody watched and listened to, the one everybody cued off of.

All he could do was walk down the street and endure the wide berth and fearful contempt the other pedestrians gave his uniform.

What disturbed people most about Tima's uniform was that it was clean, and none of the original, solid platinum buttons were missing from the long overcoat. That Tima had not sold off any of those buttons yet upset the stereotype of a returned Gray, and they didn't like it. He didn't need his Overtraining to sense their unease—even his daughter beside him, all of five years old, could feel it.

Every person they passed looked at her face, then shot a quick glance across his, just enough to see the resemblance between them. They shared eyes, a bit overlarge and unusually dark against such fair skin, and a jutting chin that would look strong and confident on a fuller face. His daughter gripped his index finger tightly with her small hand. She leaned against the side of his leg, trying to hide from the constant attention, somehow managing to keep contact with him without tripping either of them as they walked.

Nearly an hour passed at the stop before they got a chance to board one of the overcrowded busses. Tima managed to catch a spare seat for his daughter next to a teen who was deep into his headphones, and stood in the aisle beside her. The bus pulled out with a disconcerting lurch and loud thunk as the suspension bottomed out in a wide pothole. The winters on Gorgon were long and unpleasant: clear and frigid, with wet excursions up above freezing every few days. The constant wet thaws and refreezes coupled with the "punitive destabilization" the Trin had imposed on the Gorgon economy had destroyed most of the streets in Sekkra. Thermau Street was one of the best-maintained in the city, and even it was more patch than pavement.

"Papa?" the girl asked. She pronounced it with a proper and very endearing Gorgon accent, almost burying the first syllable, accenting the second—p'PA. On Trinity, they stretched words out. They would pronounce "Papa" with an extra half syllable—PA'a-pa.

"Yes?"

"My teacher says that Liovishi is Trin for 'little fishy.' Why did you and Mom name me that?"

Tima dug his pad out of his pocket and opened a pic file. "See that?"

She looked at the fuzzy black and white sonogram, squinting her eyes and pursing her lips in a frown. "What is it?"

"That's a picture of you, the day I left for Trinity. You were still living inside Mom, then. We thought you looked like a little fish then, so that's what we called you." The girl handed the pad back. "When you finally came, Mom was so used to thinking of you as our Little Fishy that she decided to name you that."

"That's dumb."

"Know what, kiddo?"

"What, Papa?"

"Most people pick names because they sound pretty, not because of what they mean." He tapped at his pad for a moment, waiting while overloaded servers processed his search. "Tima means 'to honor God.'"

"Who's God?"

"Somebody who lived back on Earth." He tapped another search. "Mom's name, Svena, means 'an empty field.'"

"What about my middle name?"

"Cleira means 'bright.'"

"It's better than 'fish.'"

"Don't you like the way Liovishi sounds, though?" Tima could tell the passengers around him were listening in on their conversation. Nosiness had its own texture of silence.

"I don't like being called a fish. My teacher says that only dumb people give babies names like that, and that only dumb people became Grays, and that going to Trinity made you super dumb."

Tima pocketed his pad and lowered his hand to his side. Vishi grabbed his finger immediately, holding it tight.

"I'm sorry your teacher thinks that, Vishi."

"Me, too. I want a teacher who isn't dumb."

"Your teacher isn't dumb."

"Everybody is dumb, Papa, because they all hate you."

"They don't hate me," Tima said, looking down at his daughter. His back itched with the weight of disapproving eyes, with the unvoiced righteous sniffs and grunts of people who knew that was a lie.

"We used to have shows on the feed about the Trinity War, and everybody loved you. Then the feed started to lie, and say that all Grays are dumb because you lost, and that's why the Trin came and took all of our nice things away. It made Mama very sad."

"I know."

"Mama died because she was sad," Vishi said. "That's why I'm not sad that she's gone, because being sad makes you die."

Tima wanted to say that it wasn't sadness that killed her, but he really wasn't sure that was true. Even after the war, the B2 infection that killed her was easy enough to treat. Its mortality rate was measured in fractions of a percent.

"Do you want to be sad, Liovishi?"

"Being sad is dumb."

"You can be, you know. Papa won't let you die from being sad."

"I know," the girl said.

Three stops later, another Gray got on the bus, this one filthy and with rotten teeth. He reeked of bad hygeine, incontinence, and drink that blurred the distinction between alcohol and bio-fuel. The other passengers edged out of the newcomer's way out of simple physical revulsion, not fear. A Gray crashed out, a few weeks from an ignoble death in the slush of a gutter, was something they were used to, something they understood.

As the other Gray passed, he and Tima looked at each other, eye-to-eye, calculating their respective ranks and specializations. Tima twitched a tight nod of deference to a senior officer as the other passed, then turned to look out the window. He watched the slow passage of busses and trucks around them, weaving between the big pits in the concrete and divots in the ice, shuddering when wheels dropped into holes they couldn't avoid.

Vishi turned around to look at the other Gray. She tugged on Tima's finger. "See, Papa," she said quietly. "Being sad makes you die."

Tima turned, too. The other Gray had sold all of the original buttons from his overcoat and hadn't bothered sewing replacements on. It was held shut by a makeshift belt of an old extension cord. The epaulets flopped limply from the shoulder seams. The fabric was threadbare and mottled, abused beyond the ability of the reactive fibers to self-repair and shed stains. The Gray looked at Tima, expectant, but Tima wasn't willing to part with any of his buttons or any of the money in his pocket. Grays considered themselves a family, but his little girl was family, too, and blood at that. Because of her, he got just enough of a government stipend to keep food on the table and heat on in their rented room.

Still, Tima knew he was lucky. Trinity had just started cracking into his Overtraining when his wife died and they granted him a hardship repatriation to take care of his daughter. Most Grays didn't get repatriated until after the Trin neuroanalysts had done irreparable damage trying to figure out the Overtraining process.

Tima did some thinking, rearranging his tightly budgeted shopping list in his head. When Tima and Vishi got off the bus, he slipped a few bills to the other Gray.


"Papa! Papa!" Vishi was shaking Tima, grabbing his arm with both of her hands and throwing her whole, slight body into trying to wake him up. "Papa! Wake up, Papa!"

Tima opened his eyes and coughed wetly, hard enough to fold his body in half while his daughter backed into a corner. He hadn't finished hacking when a violent cramp in his calf twisted him into a different configuration. The pain made him kick and pound at the thin carpet under him. He drooled and moaned through gritted teeth. Snot, saliva, and a bit of blood stained the makeshift pillow he'd made from a shirt folded over a couple of books.

"Vishi, grab my right ankle," he managed to say. "I won't kick you. Don't worry, Little Fish." She made a very tiny, wide-eyed shake of her head as she pressed herself harder into the wall. "It's OK, Vishi. I won't hurt you, but you can help me stop hurting. Grab my right ankle and pull it very slowly so I can straighten my leg out."

Vishi dropped to her hands and knees and reached out to him. "Other. Other one," Tima said. "Right is the other one. Higher up, I need to be able to move my foot. Good, now, pull slowly," he said as Vishi leaned backwards. He slowly rolled himself flat onto his back and rotated his ankle, until he was able to sit up and massage the knotted muscle in his leg.

"Thank you, Little Vishi," he said, when he'd gotten his breathing back under control.

"Was it a Trinity dream, Papa?"

"No. I don't dream about Trinity."

"My teacher told us that Grays dream about Trinity, and then they kill people or make them hurt so bad they want to die," Vishi said. While Tima tried to put together a reply to that, she opened her little backpack and took out a small bottle. It was an old, dark green pharmaceutical bottle, the label long since worn away. "Here, Papa. My teacher says this will help with the Trinity dreams."

Tima twisted off the childproof cap and took a deep sniff of the contents. It was strong alcohol, rich and sweet with the scent of evergreen berries and herbs. He started to shiver again at the scent, a memory of the only "relief" the Trin made available after a cracking session. The tremor in the hand holding the bottle agitated the liquid, releasing more of its clean aroma. "I don't dream about Trinity," he said. "I don't actually dream at all anymore."

"My teacher says you need to drink that if you can't sleep right."

"Don't you listen?" he shouted. All of the parts of his body moved at once, rising up, striking out. She spun from a solid impact to her cheek that knocked a grunt out of her and left her too shocked to cry. His right hand had set the bottle down with sharp, thought-free, robotic precision, then caught a big handful of her sweater, pinning her into the wall, her feet dangling a foot above the floor while he knelt in front of her. "I don't dream anymore," he yelled.

Vishi hung there, not even daring to breathe. Tima could feel the cramp coming back into his leg, but he didn't dare move a single muscle to prevent it. He wasn't Rapid Combat, but a standard and very lethal fight package was still part of his Mass Dynamics Overtraining. He was very, very aware that the hand holding her to the wall was in a position to crush her trachea with just a small twitch, and his other hand was hovering, stiff fingers aimed at another kill point. Tima held himself as still as he could while his calf muscle crumpled itself up, fearing that any voluntary motion he made would cascade the kill sequences queued up in his body.

"Vishi," Tima said, his voice quavering and uneven. "I'm going to close my eyes, and I need you to sing your little sidewalk song."

"Papa?" she squeaked, just along the edge of audibility.

"Your sidewalk song. The one you sing when we go down Jakra Street. If I close my eyes and you sing that song, my hands will remember that you are my little baby girl, and they will let you go."

"You should have taken the special medicine, Papa," Vishi said.

During his third cracking session on Trinity, they had injected something into the muscle of his calf, something that hyperactivated every nerve cell, locking the muscles, pain signals blasting at maximum volume, the cumulative discomfort of a thousand itches in each square inch of flesh, the heat of an arc welder, and the unnatural cold of the hard vacuum outside of a ship. While he suffered that, there were rings around his wrists and ankles, neck, and torso that were lined with needles doped with the same drug. If he so much as moved any part of himself in response to that pain, he would suffer the same in another part of him, then another, and another. It was deep memory of that session that caused his leg to cramp whenever he was under stress or angry.

Vishi started to sing, the words starting as a fragile, breathy whisper. With his eyes closed, listening to the nonsense syntax of a child's song, he was able to recall a bit of warm sun touching his skin in the freezing air, smelling the foreign spice of Jakra Street's offworlder restaurants. Jakra Street was paved with smooth softcarbon that would actually put a spring into his and Vishi's steps when they walked down it. Those memories gradually overqueued the kill sequences, and he was able to gently lower Vishi to the floor. As soon as she was on the ground, she threw herself to the corner of the bed and huddled up tight. He let himself collapse to the floor again, to rub out the renewed cramp. As soon as he was able to move around again, he grabbed his books and shirt and shrugged on his gray coat.

"I'll sleep in the hallway," he said, digging the room key from his pocket and setting it on the cardboard box that served as a nightstand. "Lock the door behind me."

He stacked his books and folded his shirt to remake his head rest, and lay down with his body pressed against the door. Only then did he hear Vishi get up, dragging her pillow and blankets to the door. She turned the key in the lock and settled herself down, also pressed up against the door.

"I love you, Papa," she said.

"I love you, too, Liovishi," Tima said.

Read part 2 here


Eric Vogt is an old rivethead living in Madison, WI. By day, he is a technical writer working at a level of not-quite-reality where people cannot agree on a definition of "Current Date." Therefore, he writes SF in his off-time to maintain his sanity. To contact him, send him email at corvid@gmail.com.