Parent's Worst Nightmare
An excerpt from Peripatetica, by M. K. Sebastien, Engr, ret.
Sunday, 05 Apr 2522
Upsilon Brigantine class, IAV Aceso
Somewhere in Red Sun (Zhu Que) system
1330hrs, ship’s time
Arden’s crack about my leaving Mike slammed home and I had to walk away or mop the deck with him. The truth hurts, so the saying goes, and there was nothing I could say to refute him. I stalked the ward to give myself something more constructive to do and to give myself time to cool down.
So I noted the placement of the exits, the view screens and the possibility of each one being a surveillance camera; watched the staff watching me. I kept walking, using my IV pole as a support and making my circuit around the ward. Here were the ICU units, two frighteningly well-equipped rooms behind glass at the fore of the ward. To the rear lay the beds and an equipment/work area for the less urgent cases. A common area separated the beds from the ICU units, kitted out with tables and a few comfy chairs, and I had seen some of the staff taking their breaks at them—reading, eating, catching a combat nap or two. I threaded my way through the furniture and made it to the corridor outside. A quick look was all I needed and I pulled my head back in before the staff could notice.
I had to shift my mental map of the place: the corridor outside followed the keel of Aceso and our ward lay to starboard and athwart. With my bearings thus corrected I could make better sense of the evac map mounted to the wall next to the entrance, and I duly noted the decks. Admin, engineering, life pods, elevators, airlocks, flight bays … everything. Of course, I was still pretty damned weak and doubted I’d be able to fight my way out of here, much less herd my crew along with me, but it never hurt to learn the layout.
Just in case.
As I’d hoped, my mapping expedition had distracted me long enough to let my anger fade and I no longer wanted to pound Arden like a tent peg. I glanced at the nurses’ station and admitted that I’d never really stood a chance doing it. They’d have had me tranked and in restraints before I could do more than bloody his nose, and the fact that they could have done it at any time gave me pause.
Why hadn’t they? After all, the Commander of their ship all but accused us of somehow being involved in his son’s disappearance. He didn’t explicitly say it but it was implied by the out he gave us: we could say we’d found him strung out on some planet somewhere and had given him a ride. If we would agree to the fiction as a matter of record, he’d be happy to leave it at that. Otherwise he’d have to open an investigation and interrogate the lot of us. Nika stuck to her guns and refused to lie and the Commander walked off to start the investigation rolling.
To this point, we’d been treated well. I wondered how long it would last. Interrogations could take any manner of harshness—from a gentle questioning in front of witnesses to torture behind locked doors. Propaganda from the war and hazy impressions from my captivity in Blue Sun’s hands crowded to the fore and I shoved the memories back. There was no point in painting the picture worse than it was. Working myself up to a frazzle would not help. What would happen would happen and soft or hard, I would have to be ready for it. Calm. Collected. Thinking.
What was Commander Wise thinking? For two years his son was missing. I thought of Lem, safe on Angel with Christian, and tried to put myself in Commander Wise’s shoes. Before Lem, the loss of a child was a hypothetical, an academic exercise I could contemplate rationally. Unlike Christian, I had not made that internal shift from caretaker to parent until I’d officially adopted him. I had been his caretaker. No more. I was his mother. He was my son. And as much as I wanted him with me, our life in the Black was too dangerous. It would have ruined him. Again, Christian saw it before I did and stayed behind on Angel, keeping Lem safe. Happy. Whole. Knowing my son was with him made it possible for me to leave him.
But for a while afterward, I would be struck with an irrational need to wave Christian to make sure Lem was indeed all right. I had to talk myself down from the ledge time and time again. I never mentioned it to my crewmates. It wasn’t something they could help me fix. Time passed. I adjusted. Seeing Lem on layover last year reassured me that I had made the right decision in letting him go. I had my closure and the paranoia retreated to something approaching normal—that I wonder how he’s doing? Healthy? Staying out of trouble? level that I suspect any parent suffered. A parent’s worst nightmare is that the answer is no. And somehow, the Universe saw fit to dump us into Commander Wise’s lap and have him believe that no, his son isn’t well. His son, two years missing, is a strung-out drug addict and has fallen in with a crew that insists he’s someone else. Had Lem had disappeared and later been returned to me in such a condition, I would have thought the worst—brainwashing, abuse, God-knew-what—and not thought myself insane for thinking it.
That was what we were dealing with here. That was what Commander Wise was going through. Two years ago, I would not have been able to see past his uniform or the politics it represented, but now I was moved to pity. I did not believe Joshua was his son but rather that Joshua had Borrowed his son on Blue Sun’s orders. The fact that his son did not later reappear of his own volition made me think he was either still a Blue Sun captive or a victim of Blue Sun’s Janitorial Services. Either scenario was not something I wanted to present to Commander Wise. Not without proof. And since I had no way of obtaining it, I decided it would be best to say nothing about it. There was no way I could justify adding to the man’s uncertainty and pain, and there was little I could do to ease it, short of throwing over the truth for a lie and telling the man that Joshua was his son.
And for moment I entertained the idea that Joshua was … but if that were the case, then Joshua’s history as a Borrower was the lie and the Commander’s son was the truth. It didn’t wash—I’d seen Joshua Borrow and do it more than once. It was not something just anyone could do. That and Joshua’s gut-deep aversion to firearms argued strongly against a military background. So while I did not know who Joshua ultimately was, I could eliminate Lt. Cmdr. Wise as a candidate. Could the father do the same? Not without more proof, whispered the mother in me. Not until I’d eliminated all other options. The specter of not having done enough, of having missed that one vital detail that would have explained everything … it would have haunted me. I gazed at the doorway Wise had walked through, his head up and his shoulders back, refusing to give in the doubts that must have plagued him, the horror that what he suspected might be true. What would those inner demons make him do?
There was no telling, not until it came. However, if there was one thing of which I was absolutely certain, it was this: no matter who Joshua ultimately was, Joshua had the sole right to decide who he’d be. No one, not I or a Commander grieving for his lost son, could take that away from him, no matter how compelling the evidence or how much our hearts wished otherwise. When it was my turn to be interrogated, I would have to remember it, tell the truth as I knew it, and let the consequences fall on my head as they may.
It was just as well I’d come to that decision, for when I rejoined the crew they’d pretty much had decided the same thing: tell the truth as we knew it, let the chips fall where they may. Short of breaking Joshua out of whatever room they held him in, there was little else we could do.
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