GRAVE’S FIRST DAY
by Lisa Shapter
Content Warnings: Off-screen violence alluded to.
My sleep was troubled by the sound of two strangers’ voices talking in low tones over my hospital bed. I was no longer in a tank on the generation ship. I was not in a transport’s automated clinic, either: the sheets were thicker and the pillow softer than field standard; the blanket was a light, thermal one rather than the field’s heavy wool; and there were the unmistakable sounds of vital sign monitors, muffled footsteps and equipment carts in the corridor. I was not on any ship.
Nothing hurt, and my whole body seemed to be there, but I was tired, and the indistinct conversation bothered me. Then quick footsteps came through the door and stopped.
I woke up fully at a third person’s voice, louder than the other two.
‘Oh, I’m sorry, sir. Magistrate. I must have got turned around. I was looking for–’
People still spoke Earth’s one language, Lingua Franca, and that was a New Orleans accent.
The local commander – it had to be the hospital’s CO – answered in accentless Nav Standard, and as only a senior officer would.
‘Not at all, Second Lieutenant Quintanilla. I’ll walk you where you were headed.’
‘Tough thing to go through, the changes,’ the third man – Quintanilla – said, noticing that I was ‘asleep’ and lowering his voice. ‘I’m not a candidate for the new kind of motherhood, myself, but it’s good to wake up to friends at your bedside.’
Changes? There was no way I could be a mother.
‘Magistrate Urundi, if you’ll excuse me, I’m late for a dinner meeting,’ the hospital CO said, getting to his feet with practised quiet. His bootsoles made a soft, indistinct sound – not the typical squeak or thump – on the micro-surfaced floor. If the apparent grav went out there was no ‘floor’ or ‘ceiling,’ but after training exercises most people forgot to walk quietly.
‘Give my love to Rye,’ a woman’s low voice said next to my bed. She was no woman I knew.
‘Your standing within the command structure doesn’t mean you can be cheeky, Mister Urundi.’
‘Yes, Papachka, there aren’t any secrets – except the ones we keep all the time,’ the alto voice said quietly.
There were quick steps, a closing door with a word to the waiting lieutenant, and a brisk return with a low reply no one else was supposed to hear.
‘Rainforce Xuande Urundi, your mother is officially “he,” she did not lose all her children on world, and we are not changing men like her – with no more chance to assent than we’ve given this unconscious soldier. This half of the base does not exist, and my husband is not its CO.’ His tone became even gentler. ‘Do not make us marry my old academy buddy; fostering her adoptive son was enough. Moi sin, join your co-father and me for dinner, later. We don’t always get to see you when you’re here. Always tell the truth with family – and keep your job out of your home.’
Secrets? How far in the future was I?
The local CO walked away from the bed. ‘We have been poor examples.’ The door opened. ‘Come on, Lieutenant Quintanilla, this way. You took a left instead of a right. Military school brats. I say that because I was one, lieutenant.’
‘Yes, sir. Spent part of my basic piloting hours running Daysky Prospects from New Orleans, North America to East Base, Antarctica...’ The lieutenant continued to chat nervously as his squeaking bootsteps faded.
Earth still existed, that was good. The military base system was still partly the same, which was also good, although most schools and bases had been founded in ancient times for the old national killing militaries. That meant there had been no more wars on Earth or her oldest colonies since the starving times taught us we were all on the same level. The military’s rank structure and protocol were still partly the same, but I didn’t know any of these people. If I fell back asleep more years might pass; if I woke up, I would have to stay in this time. I was not sure if I liked or could trust this person, and why was a cop sitting at my hospital bed rather than a member of my family or one of my teammates from the Oriole?
‘I know you’re afraid,’ the woman-like voice said, speaking directly to me as if they knew I was awake. ‘I know what it feels like to leave everything familiar behind.’ A warm hand rested on mine. ‘It hasn’t been very long, Private Loubet. You’re at Proxima Centauri Base, Farspace Exploratory Corps. You’ve saved five hundred and sixty-two lives, rescued humanity’s ability to colonize the Milky Way galaxy, and permitted a string of medical breakthroughs – and made archaeologists and space historians very happy. Don’t you want to see how a grateful Earth rewards its heroes, Private Loubet?’ A pause. ‘Not interested, hm? I don’t blame you; no matter what you’ve done, the reward is usually a new assignment to a new post – the Corps doesn’t rest on its laurels. You’re lucky: you can retire and go back to Earth. Your hitch is done.’
I opened my eyes, thinking of my family, and fresh air, and real food.
‘I can go home?’
‘Mm-hm,’ the man next to my bed murmured with a nod.
He was dressed in the universally-familiar dark purple robes of the magistrate’s office, and he held up an unchanged judicial insignia showing the ancient scale with a heart and a feather. The cuff of the field uniform under his sleeve was the same earth-coloured sleeve I had worn on the Oriole, and he briefly unfastened the robe to show me the only flag he wore was the globe of humanity’s first world, Earth. I could also see that his patches and insignia were all ones I had learned in basic, identifying him as Magistrate Urundi of Earth’s Farspace Exploratory Corps. He even put one ankle on his knee to show me that field boots had not changed from the model I had fastened around my ankles every morning on my ship.
This was less reassuring than he might have imagined: militaries were conservative and seldom changed designs. Anyone could have checked reference files or seen and copied what I had been wearing when I was brought to this hospital, unconscious. It might still be very far in the future, there might have been a war, Earth’s governing ideals might have changed, or her fragile environment become too much like her neighbours’. I looked at the man again.
He was Central Asian by his looks and accent, about thirty, and scarred by some ancient disease.
‘I know, I’m not pretty,’ he said, an amused and utterly un-insulted light coming into his dark eyes. ‘There hasn’t been a plague or a disaster: of everyone on Earth, only my people were dumb enough to settle an uncleared ancient battlefield.’
It wasn’t too far in the future, then – he talked about the last wars, and the starving times, and the collapses of the ancient nation states the way I would.
‘I’ve been interviewed by military historians too. I won’t let them make pests of themselves, Private Loubet.’
Oh, he grew up among those people. No one else but that little cult would settle there, refusing all offers of help, government services, or modern infrastructure, and not even letting anyone inspect the corroding weapons around them. There was a standing offer to resettle them, untroubled, anywhere less dangerous – always refused. The very few who left were always interviewed by military historians for what remote scans could not tell them. Protective fields would keep everyone beyond their territory safe from the failure of an ancient bomb or bioweapon. The battlefield people were the only ones who castrated, shunned and exiled any of their boys who asked to leave. This man must have really wanted to join the Corps if he’d gone through that in order to present himself on the doorstep of a military prep school. Career soldier: he could have retired after fifteen years in, but he had nothing to go back to. I really had woken up to the same military I had enlisted in.
‘Are you going to tell me my duty to the Corps, sir?’
‘No,’ he said, firm but amused. ‘I’ll do everything in my power to compel the Corps to oblige your wishes. You left us while you were in a bit of a quandary about your future, Private Loubet. We’ll give you time; I presume you haven’t spent your time asleep thinking. And my name’s “Rainforce,” unless you want to stick to “officer,” “councillor,” or “fearful representative of the majesty of the law.”’
He smiled, trying to make friends, trying to get me to laugh. I still had too many questions about when it was.
‘My name’s Gravenhague, magistrate. Are my family dead?’
‘No, actually. You have all the same relatives, your teammates from the Oriole are fine...’ He caught himself. ‘Let me explain. I am Exploratory Corps Magistrate Rainforce Urundi, your legal military guardian and advocate. I was appointed by Nis Seven, who started you on your adventure with ancient medicine. He writes me every week...’
‘You saved his life.’ Urundi nodded with a broad smile. ‘You saved the lives of every human being on Nis’ generation ship: so Mr. Penrhyn Hannis Seawell the Forty-First – sorry, Private Seawell – he enlisted in gratitude to you. His older brother Rhyn Seven and his younger brother Sea Seven are very much alive, settled on a thriving colony world, and bedevilled by the entire next cohort of their six eleven-year-old brother-sons. Nis is the father of several adopted children and a four-year-old created by new medical advances that you are responsible for, and he and his husbands are very happy. I did their wedding.
‘Since it still takes months to contact them by interstellar relay, and longer to contact anyone on Earth via military-to-civilian protocols, he insisted I visit you frequently, unremittingly harassed technological historians and medical specialists about the quality of your care, and appointed me your military legal guardian with an architecture presuming you might outlive me and all my non-existent magistrate great-grandchildren.’ He smiled without bitterness. ‘I’m glad you’re awake, I’d run out of synonyms in Earth’s old ArtLang for “resting comfortably” and “sleeping peacefully,”’ he said, dropping into Nis Seven’s archaic language for those two phrases. The warring Earth Nis’ family had left had not been united simply by another clunky attempt to invent a universal language. Lingua Franca's predecessor had possessed a charmingly awkward vocabulary of eight hundred words; it was difficult to think of synonyms.
‘You learned his language.’
‘It only seemed polite. I had to learn a new language when I was a young adult, too. It’s a strain, sometimes.’
‘There were other people on that generation ship. We thought it was a relic.’
‘Nis Seven, his older brother Rhyn Seven, and his younger brother Sea Seven. From cohort seven of an eight thousand year, one hundred cohort slowship mission to colonize the Helix Nebula. They owe their lives to you, as do all of their unborn little brothers. We rescued every single stored embryo on that ship. Though it doesn’t make up for...’ He caught himself again. ‘I am sorry, Private Loubet; your daughter has died.’
I’d only known her as an enlistment donation authorization form; she could have been created in a lab for any purpose at any time since I hit space. I pictured a child, a teenager, an old woman. I felt too confused to feel sad.
‘How old was she?’
‘Embryonic, and death was instantaneous. Still, she should have been here to meet you.’
‘Oh, God.’ It was hard to know what to make of the news. It did mean I was within a hundred and fifty years, a lifetime, of my enlistment date, but I could not know when Nis had settled down or if his people aged differently than their modern counterparts.
‘You see, the other thing you need to know is that we lost a transport ship, the Virgo-class Hera: all ten thousand women and their unborn children, all hundred thousand stored embryos – including your daughter – died when the ship suffered a catastrophic failure in the nav sector just past the four-three.’
Sol’s Planet Three in the Orion Spur: Homenav, our solar system, the coordinates even the most junior Nightsky-man or -woman knew.
Magistrate Urundi went on, ‘No women serve in farspace any longer. You won’t see any women in the Corps unless you opt for a career within our solar system’s Kuiper Belt. Only the medical advances created by your saving Nis’ five-hundred-and-seventy-five-year-old generation ship, and all his cloned, unborn brothers, have let humanity continue colonising space.’
‘We’re not just putting his embryonic clones in artificial wombs...?’
Urundi picked up on my ‘we.’ The tilt of his head and way he crossed his legs, the confidential note in his voice, his whole way of being in his body shouted that he was male-exclusive, like me. Presumably, his original culture did not let people be themselves in ways that did not fit the group’s strictly limited roles or expectations, but most male- or female-exclusives settled into a no-big-deal self-presentation by the time they were eighteen: this behaviour was irritating for a man in his mid-thirties living in Earth’s accepting-of-every-variety-and-difference culture. On most of humanity’s worlds, differences did not matter beyond a brief nod of ‘I-see-we-are-in-the-same-club.’ I tried to start making a list of what did not bother me about Magistrate Urundi.
‘No, humanity is not genetically idiotic,’ the magistrate said dryly. ‘The wealthy eccentric who built the ship and populated it with clones of himself wasn’t either: egocentric, but not stupid. The final generations of clones are hermaphroditic and have mechanisms to create healthy offspring from a limited genetic pool. He assumed, bisexual old lecher, that technology would advance, and future men and women would catch up with his slowship’s colonists and throw themselves at his distant descendants, populating a second Earth.’
‘Or they’d just interbreed with their cohort of siblings.’
‘Oh... that’s horrible.’
‘The shrinks will ask again, but you didn’t feel an overwhelming sense of attraction towards Nis Seven, did you?’
Nis Seven had known his ship was failing: his one surviving older brother had expected all of them to die. Additional clone gestation tanks were apparently the generation ship’s only form of medical care. The one ready tank had not been for me; it was for Rhyn. When I’d crawled back into the tank room after the blast, had Nis run to save either of his brothers from rooms closer to the explosion? No. He’d dragged me, hurt himself, slipping on my blood, not knowing as much first aid as any recruit in basic or even the simplest rescue carry, and had put me in the tank that could have saved his life. We had met ten minutes earlier; he’d known nothing about me, or the future, or my time, and he’d hauled me onto his shoulder, put me into the tank, and pushed me under, activating the controls. Rather than thinking of me as a stranger from outside his family or an alien type of person from the future, Nis had acted the way I had thought only modern people would, out of altruism.
I’d expected to hear he was dead. The original Penrhyn Hannis Seawell might have been a lecherous, self-centred ideologue with the money to fund a private astronomical folly, but Penrhyn Hannis Seawell the Forty-First was his opposite.
My team on the Oriole had expected to find no one alive on a drifting relic slowship: there never were any people alive on those degraded hulks now, and in previous centuries the ones who had been were never sane. My CO had ordered me in because I knew ArtLang the best: I’d belonged to the ArtLang Club in high school, I’d be able to read the labels under the blinking red alarm lights. Now I felt something profound for Nis Seven: relief that I would be able to write to him.
Urundi had been joking, but if the military was now single-sexed, then it had probably revived ancient neuroses about relationships. Nis had been, in a sense, a member of the Corps’ predecessor, his actions making him more than worthy to enlist. His first ‘Hello, spaceman’ had sounded sly and almost seductive, but he had heard my ‘suit’s’ footsoles thirty meters off, checking each room. I suppose if it hadn’t been a first-contact situation, there could have been some kind of spark. I did not answer the magistrate’s question.
‘They’ll be more interested in what you remember from the sleep training while you were in the generation ship’s gestation tank,’ he said. ‘Did it still work? Did you get any of the information or education a growing clone on that ship would need, or was there some other plan to teach them interstellar astronomy and agriculture?’
‘Ah, I won’t be much help to historians, Mag–’ my advocate opened his mouth to correct me, but I did so myself ‘–Rainforce. I remember generation one’s training on ship mock-ups, the elderly couple who volunteered to raise and educate them, and the small plot of land the whole test facility was on, but the memories have degraded. They’re vague and dreamlike. Unless I had the generation ship’s computer to prompt me about the lessons it gave me, I’d have to stand there and think about how to do anything. In a few generations no one on that ship would grow up knowing anything of use. There must have been something wrong with the computer as well as the engine if the stored lessons for later-growing clones were in that bad shape. Did they have any other kind of record-keeping or education?’
‘The shrinks and historians will want to know what you remember, first. You’re the first person who’s come out of one of those tanks coherent – or alive.’
I thought about it, still struggling to calculate from inadequate information how old Nis must be right now. We were about the same age when we met, early twenties, but there wasn’t enough information to work out how long I’d been out, sleeping in his ship’s tank or unconscious in this hospital.
My hands looked the same, not like someone’s a generation older than me. Even without work or exposure to any world’s sun the backs of my hands should have looked older.
‘Um, Rainforce. How long has it been?’
‘Oh! It’s 5327 H.D. You’ve been out for seventeen years. Your relatives are all alive. Your teammates from the Oriole are also all alive and retired to Earth or successful colony worlds. I have their current addresses right here, you can write them once you’ve been debriefed.’
I tried to imagine everyone I knew seventeen years older, one by one: each member of my family, each member of my team, Nis himself.
‘You should have said that first.’
‘Private, all travel by fastship in farspace involves time travel. They tell you that in basic when you’re preoccupied with a hundred other things, and they never explain it in detail, but every soldier who leaves Earth will find that the date doesn’t match his time in service when he returns. Not the relativistic time effects that the ancients posited before actual spaceflight, but small, necessary artifacts of how fastships move.’
‘You know, I did pass basic,’ I said tartly.
‘I get the sense I won’t be signing permanent adoption papers here,’ he said in exactly the same tone I had used.
‘Well, you still should have told me that first,’ I said, as if arguing with a cousin rather than correcting my guardian.
‘Gravenhague, the shrinks instructed me not to shock you, to break it to you gently. They didn’t think I should open the conversation with “Hi, you’ve been asleep for seventeen years. Want to read ‘Rip Van Winkle’ or The Sleeper Awakes or perhaps some ancient Celtic mythology about abductions by the fae?”’
The problem with this guy was he had that cynical sense of humour lifers get, the kind of ugly, unfunny sense of humour ancient soldiers, police, and medical triage workers developed because they’d seen so much death. But I was lucky he was a lifer, a career soldier; a lot of enlistees quit after their first five years. He could have quit a few years into this thankless, difficult job and handed off to some more distant magistrate who cared less. I had been thinking about my own options since my first hitch was nearly up. If I stayed beyond five years I’d be in for ten, and fifteen years was an average career – Urundi was in for good, a choice usually made only by soldiers who’d opted for colony worlds.
I had already stopped seeing the damage to his face: his eyes were lit up with a smile as if he really had known me before I was out. No doubt he’d read my record and consulted my family, trying to guess what I would want or what might be in my best interest if I never woke up or some miscalculation of ancient (well, six-hundred-year-old) medicine poisoned, maimed, or killed me. Rainforce had watched over me as the only son he would ever have, and he had kept Nis (whose whole family and purpose had been seeing that ship to a distant nebula) from staying on this base and sitting in that chair and staring at me for seventeen years. I’d had the same education clones received and heard the views he had as I’d tried to convince him to leave – he would have wasted his life doing that if someone modern hadn’t intervened. I shut my eyes and wondered if I wanted to live in this time again.
‘You would have been out of your own time no matter what you did, Grave. You enlisted: the rest is a matter of severity. I’m supposed to try to–’ Rainforce moved his shoulders in a helpless shrug ‘–“normalise” your unique and usually fatal experience, to guess what you would feel and want – not your relatives on Earth, or your doctors, or Command. Does that help?’
I had been plunged into a tank of five-hundred-and-seventy-five-year-old artificial amniotic fluid, which I breathed and swallowed and which had gotten into every one of my burns and wounds, fluid that had held at least seven strangers from embryo to age twenty-five, and all their bodily processes, and an unknown number of injured, sick, or dying clones. Fortunately, my mouth didn’t taste like anything, or I might have grabbed for a basin at the thought. I moved all my limbs and took a deep breath: everything worked, I was awake, this military was my military, I still served Earth, and this era was my time. Everyone I knew was still alive – I had not been in the service that long – and I had saved Nis’ life. Now I was just back where I had been before I’d had orders to board the relic ship. My hitch was up, but I could stay in if I wished to: so did I want to stay in? Why?
‘You said I could retire.’
‘Yes, you’ve been in fifteen years, a normal career, and you’ve done nothing to fuck up your record–’ Rain smiled, meaning I’d been asleep ‘–and I really meant it, you have honours and commendations out the ears for saving all those lives and keeping colonisation possible.’
‘I talked to Nis for ten minutes and didn't catch his ship's engine before it went.’
‘You were in contact with your ship the whole time: you cleared half of Nis’ ship and read them its diagnostics. So you told your teammates what was wrong with the ship and where to find Nis and the stored embryos. Nis pointed your teammates to his two brothers. His ship could do things we can only learn from, including saving your life – we might’ve fixed the hole in your chest but breathing high-temperature combustion’s a tougher problem – and how to perpetuate humanity without women.
‘Nis’ originator would have been wealthier without the failed marriages, but the historians will also ask why he was trying to colonize space without women.’ Rain shrugged. ‘I wouldn’t do anything consequential without them, but I grew up in a place that never listened to them.’
Rain had to be doing the best he could: the shrinks and the doctors were the ones who’d have all the right words and kind phrases. He was just sitting here so I wouldn’t wake up alone in a strange room. I’d come this close to waking up with one of his cloned great-grandchildren sitting over me instead.
‘You haven’t been sitting here for seventeen years.’
‘No, but I come back as often as I can and write your new CO, Major Tsiolkovsky, every time Nis writes me. We’re good friends, now.’
I decided not to mention what I overheard when I first woke up.
‘“Major?” That’s a command rank?’
‘Yes, your base commander is a major. There are only five hundred thousand soldiers in space – in the Milky Way galaxy – not the million that you remember. Seventeen years ago, about every ninth soldier lost a child, and every hundredth lost a mother, a sister, or an aunt on the Hera. It hasn’t been great for recruiting or retention.’
‘So we’re all male-exclusives out here? I mean, who has kids with who on colony worlds? And how?’
‘If you opt for a colony world – I’ve been told to phrase everything in terms of your future career track, presuming you don’t retire – then you would serve with a handful of other men. One of them would carry and birth the team’s children, your children. I know – we’re all still getting used to it. Hermaphroditic clones, remember? Well, the advance is you can roll a young adult back to puberty and convince his body to be partly female for decades at a time. No, the volunteers don’t much like it, either. What else are we going to do? Hopefully, you’ll miss the artificial womb catastrophe films – you were in a gestation tank, you can imagine the possibilities better than most.’
Rainforce tightened his mouth. ‘I’m not supposed to sit here talking to you, Grave. I’m supposed to call the shrinks and doctors the moment you wake up. I’ve had a medscanner trained on you this whole time: if it so much as chirped I would hit the panic switch, and three teams of dedicated specialists would be in here in a quarter of a minute. But I didn’t think that was kind; it’s enough to deal with one stranger and only a few hard facts at a time. I know what it feels like to leave everything familiar behind; I’ve been through it, too.’
All my family, now older, were back on Earth; all my buddies from basic and my teammates from the Oriole had retired. Nis Seven was a middle-aged father and husband. I still felt like I was four years out of basic, not twenty years older. The man at my bedside was a mid-career magistrate who could have stayed at his desk thousands of kiloparsecs away, signed (or not signed) a medical authorisation form every so often, written Nis a series of placating messages, and told my family on distant Earth that the doctors were ever so sorry about my irreversible unconsciousness. Instead, he’d regularly travelled months out of his way to sit at a perhaps permanently unresponsive stranger’s bedside, appreciated the magnitude of the shock I was feeling, and taken up every meaning of the word ‘advocate.’
Putting on his boots, I’d have felt a little awkward breaking all of this news to a stranger, too. This was his best effort to be nice about it, to be genuinely kind. This was the only friend I had in this time, and he could go back to his desk and sign off on his obligation, now that I was awake. What had I been expecting when I woke up, anyway? Everyone from the Oriole around me? All my relatives from Earth – now all twenty years older at the snap of a finger? This was another time, and I was still bound by my enlistment oath: I had to start over again.
‘I’m sorry I was irritable with you, Rain. Even if it had only been one year, it would all have been a shock.’
‘We’ll get through this together. My experience was not your experience, but I think I’ll understand. I went through it, too.’ Rain smiled. ‘I was a lot worse than irritable.’ He had kept his hand, warm and still, on mine for the whole conversation. I imagined reaching to touch only the warm, wet glass of the tank: in reality, I remembered nothing after Nis Seven had pushed me under. That poor kid who could barely do algebra and who had only the dimmest notion of ancient medicine had saved my life. He’d already been through everything I was just going through now.
‘Is he happy, Nis Seven? How many husbands did he marry?’
‘Nineteen.’ Rainforce was not joking, for once.
I could have said a lot of things. Instead I said, ‘That’s ambitious.’
‘They’re very happy. His first husband and the world’s bearer – his wife – make sure no one intimidates him. Nis rescued the teams and children from seven failing colony worlds: thirty-nine people, half of them children – whom he adopted – born before the recall of women to nearspace. There are some commendations that only you and he share: commendations the military has not used since the abolishment of combat.’ He smiled. ‘And they’ll all have to hold him back from coming to see you.’
Given fastship travel speeds, that would take him from his family, from his spouses, and his two grown brothers, and his children, for six months to a year: no.
‘I’m sure he has plenty on his mind with a new world and a large family, please tell him not to drop everything to see me. I need to sort out what I’ll be doing and where I’ll be posted to, first.’
‘Earth would be worse of a shock. I’d love to see my family, but I wouldn’t break atmosphere after going home.’
If I had been quitting, that would have been one thing, but I was here to serve out my oath, not wallow in homesickness and grief for the time I could never return to. I tried sitting up, and Rain handed me the control for the bed, putting down the medscanner only for an instant. I raised the headboard of the hospital bed: I was in thermals and had all the usual leads and tubes for an unconscious soldier.
The moment I said anything, everything would happen at the rush this man was holding back: the teams of medical specialists, the historians’ interviews, all the schedules and procedures to ready me for active service and reassignment. Training would be on top of recuperation, if I knew this military, and I would be assigned to a transport out as soon as there was a projected date for me to finish recuperation. Rain had not mentioned disability, and going back to Earth was a choice, not a medical necessity. The military was now understaffed by fifty percent and I’d be at some new post before I knew what’d happened. This man was my only friend and ally. He might have been here to see me, but he didn’t always manage to have dinner with his two fathers – and he had been in constant touch with Nis.
I doubted ‘military advocate’ was his regular post: he must have investigated criminal cases all over this nav sector, or perhaps more than one. A different, more ordinary, rush would happen for him, and we would lose touch. I didn’t want to be absolutely alone in farspace reading about the retirement hobbies of my friends from the Oriole on Earth. Likely no one on my new post knew much about the service’s new secrets or the science from Nis’ ship which had made them possible. I suspected I would be told, perhaps by Major Tsiolkovsky, to shut up about everything Rain had not been supposed to mention.
‘I’m sure the shrinks will question my judgement...’ I said, reaching for Rain’s judicial datatablet on the bedside table.
‘If you’re going to propose, Grave, there’s one critical thing you need to know about me...’ Rain said in his low, feminine voice.
‘Figured that out, thanks: I’m the only son you’ll ever have. I’m not proposing; I want to be your son rather than your ward.’
Rainforce left to walk to the door-side intercom, briskly, calm. He either expected some rash choice or – no, he must have thought I didn’t really mean it. Why should he have meant it when he’d agreed to watch over a stranger for seventeen years?
He tapped in the location code and thumbed the button in a single gesture.
‘Wooster – yes, he’s awake like the doctors predicted. Could you and Rye come here to witness a short cerem... no, not that.’ Rainforce interrupted a sudden, joking ‘congratulations!’ and other muffled words. ‘Sorry to... yes, I know. Thanks.’
There was another thing I ought to figure out before my CO arrived, and I started making statements about my future.
‘If I want a post on a colony world, do I now have to volunteer to carry children?’
‘Yes, but we’ve already screened you for that, and you’ve washed out. The doctors can explain if you want details. We need men willing to serve on colony worlds: the changes are a secret. We don’t tell most men of your rank, but it was a career track option the shrinks wanted me to mention.’
‘Are you on my side or theirs?’
Rain tilted his head a little and looked at me, baffled I would have a moment of confusion on that point.
‘Yours, son. Always and forever yours.’
All of his facade was gone: all of his humour and asides, all of his camp and irreverence. This man was and would always be alone for reasons that had nothing to do with being an exile, or a male-exclusive, or a cop. Nis Seven could have waited another moment until I’d passed out; then he could have run for either of his brothers or gotten into that tank himself. What were we doing, out here? What did the future ask of us?
I wanted help with everything that would come at me, but that was not the only thing I needed to think about, and I was not the only person involved.
Rain had not said why he’d done this. I had not said why I was doing this, but I think we had the same reasons.
‘Papa, then,’ I said, realizing too late I was using the same gentle tone Major Tsiolkovsky had used. ‘What do you want to be called? Dad? Pops?’ I took his hand because he’d sat quickly and was suddenly pale. His hand slid off the datatablet and knocked the stylus to the floor. ‘Father?’
When my commander and his ‘colleague’ came in, Rain was still crying, and I was hugging him, patting his back, saying, ‘Pa, it’ll be alright.’
I turned to the two of them. ‘He’s had a bad shock today, too much at once.’
I did not push Rain off or tell him to stop crying: what would I have done if the soldier I’d spent my whole career watching over, praying over, defending, reassuring my family about, arguing with doctors about suddenly woke up? I’d have expected him to say, ‘Thanks, now call my CO, I’m leaving here forever – back to Earth or out to the stars,’ not to see or think of that seventeen-year obligation.
I turned to Rain and said to him, ‘Pa, I’m a grown man, I’ll be alright...’
He made an odd noise. Right, his family had kicked him out and never asked if he lived or died.
‘Do you think you can do this, Pa? I mean...’
‘Today you were born, you’ve grown, you’re re-enlisting, and you’ll be leaving – all in the same day. It’s just like my life for nothing to be ordinary,’ Rain said, picking up his datatablet, wiping his face, and finding the adoption form with the press of a pressure switch. ‘Rye – sorry, Major Goddard, Major Tsiolkovsky, today I’m making legal what has been true for a long time: Gravenhague Loubet is my son.’ He put a steadying hand on my arm.
‘Gravenhague Urundi Loubet,’ I said, correcting my father with a smile.
Lisa Shapter is a cis lesbian and a member of the Dramatists' Guild of America.