Return

By Eric Vogt

Part 2 of 2

Read part 1 here

Tima woke hard the next morning. His alarm pulled him out of sleep and into a strange half-conscious place where it took several seconds to realize that he was indeed hearing the sound of his own voice from the other side of the door.

"Rest well, my little Liovishi," it said, over and over again, voice calming and soft. "Good night, and rest well, my little Liovishi." The accent was off, though. It was pure Gorgon, the way he used to speak when he was younger, not contaminated by spending years passing himself as a native Trin.

Tima took his own pad out and dialed up Vishi's. His looping voice was replaced by whatever character was hottest on the kids' feeds that week, singing a wake-up song. He heard her sit up and shut off her pad. "Papa?" she asked.

"I'm out here, Vishi," he said.

She tried to open the door. "Papa, unlock? I have to go!"

"You have the key. It should be in the keyhole."

"Oh," she said, and he heard the bolt slide. She quickstepped past him to the shared bathroom at the end of the hall. When she'd finished up, she opened the door tentatively, barely peeking around it to look at him. The one eye he could see betrayed a deep and quiet fear.

"Do you remember last night?" he asked. She nodded her head.

"It's OK, Vishi. I'm better this morning. Remember how I told you to never wake me up at night? That's why. But now that I'm awake, it's all OK."

She still didn't move.

"If I take the special medicine your teacher gave you, can we talk?"

She nodded her head.

Tima went into the room and quickly dumped the contents of the bottle into a glass, which he then put up on the top shelf of the hutch. He stepped into the hall, held the bottle up to his mouth, and tilted his head back, feeling the burn of strong drink as the dregs passed his lips. His jaw quivered again with a thirst deeper than mere physical need as the few stray drops of liquid in the bottle touched his tongue.

He swallowed hard one last time before he pulled the bottle away and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. He coughed a couple of times, the way he used to when he would take that soft, cold fire.

"Go put some clean clothes on. I need the bathroom," he said. As they passed, he brushed one wall to give her more room as she hugged the opposite. He winced when he saw the size and color of the bruise on her cheek.

He took his time in the bathroom, tending to business and washing up in the sink. When he got back to the room, Vishi had her pad on again, looping more footage of him. She had a piece of bread and jam on a plate next to her, but had taken only one small nibble out of it. "I liked you better when you only talked to me on the feed," she said, mouth turned down into a deep pout, eyes wet but not yet spilling over.

"I know."

Before Tima had left, he and Svena used a 0.7-Turing AI to build a reactive construct of him. That construct was all that Vishi had known of her father. When she was three, Gorgon lost the Trinity war and had to give up all personal AIs as part of the surrender terms. Svena had the AI fill a little pad with as many pre-generated loops as it could hold, and link them to a basic automated psychoanalysis program. It was not perfect by any means, but it still gave the girl some sense of who her father was.

"On feed, you would just frown at me and talk slow and with big words when you were mad," Vishi said.

"I wasn't mad at you last night, Vishi."

"Don't call me that. I want a real name, Papa. A Gorgon name, not a Trin name."

"Should I use your middle name? Cleira?"

"Yes."

Tima took a slice of bread for himself and spread jam on it. He took the little milk bottle from the window sill, where the visible gap in the glazing kept it cool, and poured out two glasses, one with half as much as the other. He gave the fuller glass to Vishi.

"Why did you lie to me, Papa? About not dreaming," she asked, then took a big drink of milk.

"I didn't lie. I wasn't dreaming last night. My body was stuck in a bad place. They gave me special teaching when I became a Gray. After we lost the war, the Trin tried to copy it, but they couldn't. Before they sent me home, they tried to take the special teaching away from me but did a bad job. They left a little mess behind. When I sleep, my body sometimes tries to do things it was trained to do, but it can't do them right anymore."

"I'm sorry that I woke you up, Papa."

"I'm sorry that I hit you like that and scared you so bad."

"I don't want to go to school today, Papa," Vishi said, turning her head slightly to show him the damage he'd done to her face. He had to admit, the girl was learning a very loud subtlety, just like her mother.

"What do you want to do instead, then?"

"I want to go visit Mama," she said, looking back at her pad, at the loop of her AI-generated father proxy. Slowly, eating only on the unbruised side of her mouth, she finished her bread and jam.


Standing over the pale, sunset-colored rock with its lifelessly ardent psychopomp, Tima mentally calculated how many buttons it would cost him to give Svena a better gravestone. He was sure that if the distant cousin who'd selected it had simply closed her eyes and picked one at random, she would have done a better job.

His daughter knelt down, carefully scraping snow out of the letters carved in the stone. "Svena Maureth Huverssa," she said, carefully, actually reading the name instead of speaking it by rote. "I miss you, Mama, and I wish you could talk to me on feed, like Papa did when he was gone."

Tima heard a quaver in her voice that was more physical than emotional, and he slipped his coat off. He started to lay it across her shoulders, causing her to curve her spine away, drawing herself close to the ground like a cat not wanting to be stroked. "I don't want to be a Gray, Papa," she said.

He moved upwind of her and dropped to a knee, putting an arm around her instead. She leaned her body into his and grabbed his arm, pulling it tighter around her neck like a scarf.

"I miss Mama, too, Cleira," Tima said. "She always made the nights warmer."

"Mama would let me sleep in the bed with her, but she never let me sleep on her right side. That was your place, she told me, and nobody could have it. Not even me."

"She never told me that."

"Mama and I had a lot of secrets, Papa. Just for us. I don't have any secrets with you." She looked up at him, not angry, but with a definite accusation.

"You had secrets with me over feed." Twice during the war, Svena managed to subsignal a dump from the AI proxy. It let him see how his daughter was growing, and what her relationship with "him" was like. She kept a lot of special secrets with the proxy, most of them silly small-child things.

"The feed wasn't really you, Papa." Her face and posture offered no further explanation.

"Why do you want a feed from Mama, then?"

"Don't be dumb, Papa." She picked up a handful of the snow they had brushed off the grave and ate it with a slow reverence.


It was exceedingly awkward to be talking to an identity-smith in the employ of a foreign intelligence service while also keeping a careful eye on his daughter, set just out of earshot with her pad. The kinds of establishments where one met such a person were also the kinds where it was best not to bring small girls. Unfortunately, it was also extremely difficult to reschedule an appointment with an identity-smith once it was made.

They wanted to smuggle functional former Covert Services Corps agents to Bose. Five hundred agents from a harsh planet that could barely support a million souls had almost overturned the government of a planet of three billion. Bose desperately wanted to learn about Overtraining—the skills themselves, and the techniques used to implant them. Naturally, Trinity kept a very tight grip on Gorgon's transfer point to Bose.

"It would be easier if you left the girl, you know."

"Not negotiable."

"I don't mean forever. Let's get you over, then we can import her."

"No. She's already lost her mother and got bounced through seven different places in the time it took me to push the documents to get the Trin to repatriate me. She's not going through that again."

"We can set her up with one of our deep cover teams here. They're a stable couple; they'll keep her until we can process a transfer."

"I can't do it. I'd love to give the Trin a swift kick up between the thighs for what they did, but not at that cost."

Trinity connected a spur circuit of five other systems, including Gorgon and Bose, to the main router loop that let people and information flow throughout human-occupied space. When Trinity cut the connection to the main router loop, it cut those other systems off as well.

The smith opened his mouth to say something, but thought better of it. He took a sip from the heavy glass tumbler in front of him. Tima could smell that it was top-shelf, offworld liquor. His mouth watered and his hand kept threatening to walk over and grab the glass on its own. "Home before homeworld. I understand," the smith finally said.

"Don't patronize me," Tima said. "Even before the Overtraining, I could spot a sociopath at a hundred paces. You don't understand anything about human emotions, and I'm completely fine with that. I don't need you to empathize; I need you to get me and my daughter off of Gorgon."

The smith gave a small jerk of a nod, a hint of a smile, and took another drink. Tima leaned back from the table and took a sip of his hot tea. It was another offworld luxury, Gorgon's climate being perennially too cold for the truly quality stuff, tea grown from actual plants in real sunlight under open air, instead of in a hothouse. Even worse was the tea analogue the nanoassemblers made before Trinity disabled those, too, under the surrender agreement.

"I'll have to talk to some people. I can't promise anything, though," the smith said. He started to lay out some of the difficulties of moving a child. Nobody on Gorgon could afford to take their kids on vacation to Bose, and nobody on Bose would want to take their kids on vacation to Gorgon. Emigration from Gorgon was not allowed. Simply put, there was no reason for a child to travel to Bose.

While the smith talked, Tima caught a change in the room, a little wave of subconscious minds noticing something that wasn't getting to their front brains. Something wasn't right. He cut through the excuses. "That better not be one of your people, behind me, a bit to the right, that's got the wrong eyes on my daughter," he said, never taking his own eyes off the smith.

The smith moved a hand slightly, then made small motions with his head, mouthed some words, shifted where his eyes were looking. Somebody in the bar moved, very noisily scraping their chair on the dirty tile floor. Some looks were exchanged. The room went tense, but the Tima felt the attention in the room shift away from his daughter.

"On Trinity, I could read the way people interacted with each other in a crowd of fifty thousand. That's how we controlled them. You've heard of the Fennerkal riots?" Tima asked.

The smith nodded his head. It was one of those things everybody knew. It was where the civil war on Trinity started.

"Seven of us. One other Mass Dynamics specialist, four Rapid Combat operatives to initiate direct action, and a Saboteur with an implanted 0.9-Turing rig to jam police and military communications. That's all it took. Seven of us to move a city of four million." Tima drank down the last of his tea. He hated to rush something that he would really love to savor, but there was nothing to be gained by lingering any longer. "Ever hear of the Ourenbadt riots?" Tima asked.

The smith shook his head.

"That's because there weren't any. That was our doing, too. We let Fennerkal burn bright and hot for inspiration, but we had to keep that fire from spreading. If rioting had spread from city to city, the rebellion would have died within a week. If you want a chance to get at what's left in my head, you'll bring me and my girl over together."


Tima kept one hand on his pad while he walked through the dark streets of Sekkra. It was pure superstition—having it in his hand wouldn't let him respond that much faster if his daughter woke up and needed him, but he felt better holding it. Only one in every three streetlights was lit, bringing the light pollution down to where a few stars and one bright, pale blue dot were visible through the hazy sky. That dot, since the Trin were sometimes frightfully direct, was simply known as World Killer 3. There were two others just like it parked in equidistant geostationary orbits over Gorgon.

"No point staring at it. Nothing to see if they throw the switch," said a dark shape silhouetted against the dirty snow.

"It won't be that fast," Tima said.

"They won't just blow them in place?"

"At that altitude, it would just create a bad EMP. More of a World Annoyer than a World Killer. If the Trin throw the switch, each one of the World Killers will drop a spread of warheads well down into the atmosphere. We'll have two or three minutes to panic before it all ends."

"You seem to know a lot about them," the stranger said, falling into step with Tima but keeping a careful distance.

"It's an extremely open secret on Trinity. Even POWs can pick it up."

"You miss Trinity?" the stranger asked.

Tima looked over at the stranger. "Don't be dumb," he said.

"What's that mean?"

"You have a beautiful culture and you're fundamentally an honest people who will stand by your promises, but I would be hard pressed to find three good memories from the last two years I spent there."

The stranger walked on for some time in silence. Tima could see his body shifting side to side as he literally weighed out possible answers. Finally, he said, "If you come back as an immigrant, we'll give you a better life than you had as a prisoner. We'll give you a nice place for you and your daughter."

"Can you top what Bose is offering?"

"I don't know what Bose is offering," the stranger said.

"Yes you do. When I met with their identity-smith, half the people in the room were on your payroll."

The stranger started slightly. "I—" he stammered.

"You need to remember what I did on Trinity. Even with my Overtraining cracked, I can still tell a man that's got his hands in two pockets as easily as I can blink."

Tima and the stranger walked along for quite a while in silence. The stranger kept watch on Tima through the corner of his eye.

"It really is the best thing you can do for you and your girl," the stranger said. "Flopping in a single, small room, you clicking off in the middle of the night. We've gotten better at extracting the Overtraining without causing damage since we repatriated you."

"Right," Tima said, looking at him out of the corner of his eye as he kept walking. He finally thumbed the test button on his pad, causing it to chatter. "Look, my daughter just woke up. I've got to go," he said. "I can't worry about tomorrow if she's alone and she needs me right now." He turned slightly away from the stranger and put the pad to his cheek. "Hey, Little Fishy," he said, then paused. "Yeah, I'll come home, real quick. Just stay in the room, OK?"

Tima clapped the stranger lightly on the shoulder. "I'll think about it," Tima said, and turned away. The stranger slowly nodded his head. He had children, too, and he knew what it was to be the calming reassurance they needed in the dark of night.

As soon as Tima was out of the stranger's sight, he ducked into a filthy alleyway and dropped to his knees, collapsing from there into a twisted parody of a fetal ball. His calf tied itself into a knot again. His conscious mind hovered, slightly askew from a true awareness of his body, while his diaphragm kicked upwards, forcing the air out of his lungs in hard, breathy jerks, choking on phlegm and saliva when a tiny bit of air managed to sneak back in. The part of him that was aware winced at every aborted inhalation, at the dry heaves when the thick slime in his mouth tripped his gag reflex, until he finally passed out from insufficient oxygen to maintain the isotonic tension in his muscles. He lay there, light snow melting as it touched his hot cheeks and sweaty hair, but accumulating on the near perfect insulation of his overcoat.

He struggled to wake up when his pad chattered at him again.

"Yeah," he said.

"Papa. I woke up a long time ago and you weren't here, but I went back to sleep, and now I'm awake again and you're still gone. Where are you?"


Spring on Gorgon was as subtle as it was ephemeral. The warmer temperatures were masked by gray skies, so heavy they reached down to touch the ground as thick fogs. When the mist broke, the city dwellers up on the slopes of the mountains could see the rusty reds of the native flora patchworked with the dull greens of engineered offworld species on the narrow coastal plain.

On one such day, Tima stood up straight, hefting his basket of vegetable leaves. He looked up to the terraces of Sekkra hovering above him, knowing that his daughter was on recess at school, suspecting that she was standing at the edge of the playground looking down.

Tima carried the heavy basket to the cash truck. Everybody on the field crew was paid by the basket. The fruit pickers were the senior and the favored hands. Fruits left air space between them, made their baskets quicker to fill, more lucrative. The new hands, the unreliable, the lazy, and the Grays got to pick leaves and beans.

Tima was careful when he picked up his basket. At the beginning of the season, he'd snagged a button and torn it off. He didn't realize it until he noticed that a couple other hands had seen it. He saw the way their attention shifted, despite themselves, to the spot on the ground where a month's pay was just sitting, waiting to be picked up. If Tima had a safe place to stash the buttons, he would have done so. Instead, part of his routine every morning was to check the thread on each and every one, make sure it was tight and wasn't fraying.

At mid-afternoon, Tima quickly topped off his basket and took it to the cash truck. He collected his bills and walked off to the crew shed. The rest kept working, would keep going until full dark at an easier pace than his. They didn't have to get up to the city in time to pick up their daughters from school.

The Bose identity-smith was waiting for Tima when he came out of the crew shed, his boots and the tails of his coat still shiny from washing off the mud. They'd been talking on and off for a few months, mostly because Tima was curious to see what they were willing to offer.

"Look. I finally got you a window. You and the girl—something happened where I can get you both off."

"I can't," Tima said, looking up to the sky. He actually missed winter's frigid nights, when the sky was clear and wide open.

"Suddenly found yourself in love with farm work?"

"You know," Tima said, "you're not completely inaccurate there. I get into a rhythm, I can forget myself for a few hours. I'm clicking off less often at night. Sometimes I can go four or five days without it happening." He brushed a lock of hair off his forehead. The law said he had to wear his uniform in public, but levied no obligation to keep up the rest of the physical appearance standards, so he was letting his hair grow out, sporting a short beard.

"The season for open air farming is short, you know. What've you got, a month left? They don't trust you Grays around the greenhouses—where are you and your girl going to be then?"

"The foreman here," Tima said, twitching his head back towards the field. "He's got a contract to keep the pass down to the desalination plant open for the winter. Trucks can keep the snow off, but he needs shovel men to work the pothole crew."

"You're going to stay, then?" the smith asked. "Three years ago, you almost took over a planet, now you're going to be happy picking weeds and patching roads. We're offering you a real life, a good life again."

Tima looked back up to the sky. The Trin owned too many of the identity-smith's helpers. If he threw in with Bose, he'd be intercepted at the transfer point. He'd probably go back to the prison camp for violating his repatriation agreement. Having his daughter with him would make things interesting, though. He guessed they'd set him up in an apartment in the camp so she could live with him. They'd be warm, they'd be fed. During the days, while she was in school, the Trin would keep picking into his brain, trying to figure out how he was Overtrained, and exactly what he was still capable of.

If he threw in with the Trin directly, it would be the same, except the apartment would be outside of the prison camp, but close by, so he could go there every day while his girl was in school.

Trin culture was beautiful in its direct simplicity, but he could not give what he had inside of his head to a government that would not tolerate outside thought in its precious meme pool, supported by a people who were stubbornly resistant to change.

Tima would not give what he had inside of his head to a people who had broken so many of his fellows and then dumped their damaged husks back onto the streets of a home that didn't want them either.

He put his hand on the smith's shoulder, squeezing it slightly while he rhythmically nodded his head, as if carefully choosing words. He didn't need the pause, his answer was already on his lips, but the appearance of an uncomfortable internal struggle would give an appearance of veracity. "I don't trust you with what I've got inside of my head, any more than I trust the Trin with it. Maybe the experiment we created here on Gorgon needs to die here on Gorgon. Quietly."

"The window will be open for six days," the smith said. "I'll need a full day of prep, so you've got 'til the end of the week if you change your mind." He walked off, making it clear to Tima that he would not be offering a ride up to Sekkra in the idling taxi that was waiting for him.

Tima walked to the bus stop and took out his pad. He checked two things every day when he got off of work—the gradually dropping prices of a few houses, and the gradually increasing price of platinum.


Tima got to the school just before it let out for the day. He got there at the quietest point of the day, when the kids hadn't quite realized how close the final bell was. They weren't getting jumpy yet; the hallways weren't noisy with the inaudible buzz of acute impatience.

None of the other parents went inside, preferring to enjoy the mild afternoon. A couple of them were willing to give a nod of acknowledgment, but the rest drifted themselves farther away, keeping him in their periphery. He took a violet, spiky ball out of his pocket, a Gorgon fruit fresh off the tree. He didn't need to look at his watch to know it was time to take out his pocketknife and start paring off the leathery rind. He carefully scraped the sweet, firm fruit from the parings with his teeth.

The bell rang. There was a short pause before the doors opened, students coming out at a fast walk. Tima was just spitting out the last peeling when his own child came up to him. "Papa!" she said, as he offered the peeled fruit to her. She took a bite, slurping up the clear juice that ran from it. "I have been waiting all day for this."

"Was it a good day?" he asked.

"Too slow, and Matha and Garra got into a fight so we lost our recess." She bit off another chunk of fruit, and grabbed Tima's index finger with one sticky hand.

"Well, little Cleira," he said. "Do you need to go run around the playground for a bit to make up for it?"

"Don't call me Cleira, Papa," she said. "My name is Vishi."


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.