Escape Pod 838: Philia, Eros, Storge, Agápe, Pragma (Part 4 of 4)


Philia, Eros, Storge, Agápe, Pragma (Conclusion)

By R.S.A. Garcia

Agápe

Now

 

The Parliament was a larger replica of the last building that had housed the original Kairi Parliament; before the wars and the erosion of the islands beneath rising oceans forced her people from their home. Then, as now, it was nicknamed the Red House, and the physical one on New Kairi was vast enough to hold half of the continent’s citizens at any one time in the public galleries.

This Red House was for those occasions when all citizens were required to attend a vote. Wherever Siblings were, whatever they were doing, they would find a safe space to go into upload mode and citizens would find themselves under the maroon colonnades and high ceilings of the old colonial architecture, now also outfitted with expanses of arched windows that gave gorgeous views of the large parks and silently patrolling Guardians that surrounded the Parliament.

Cousins she hadn’t seen in years hugged her as she entered the Gomez family box. Uncles and Tanties nodded hello or gave her a smile, depending on the state of their relations. Sibling-Beryl air-kissed her cheek and remarked in the Gomez family chat room how her husband must be treating her good because she was looking “healthy.” Eva rolled her eyes at the veiled insult and moved on to hugging her daughter. For a moment, she wished for Dee’s easy, charming presence, but only Primarchs whose parents were both Kairi could vote in War Parliaments. Not that cheerful moments with her family could do much to dispel the somber, dark mood that hung over the Red House today.

Nobody asked her where Sister was, despite her obvious absence from the flock of representative drones floating above every citizen in the tiered galleries. The devastation of forced separation from your Sibling was not something anyone would refer to easily in polite conversation.

“How are you? Did you see Sister?” Brother-Monica’s words scrolled past in a private chat she’d opened, preferring not to sign and keep their conversation private from the rest of the family.

Eva thought back, “I have. She’s fine for now, but the situation is . . . complicated.”

She raised her eyebrows. “Eh heh?”

“I can’t talk about it yet.”

“Mom! Oh gosh, man!”

“So it is when you have an admiral for a mother.”

Brother-Monica wrinkled her nose at her as a small form barreled into Eva’s legs. “Granny! Granny!”

She picked up her grandson and tweaked his nose before hugging him.

“You can’t be running like that in the government place, Brother-Ellis,” Brother-Monica chided in the general chat.

“Where Brother-James and Sibling-Nelson?” Eva asked as Ellis’ Brother drifted over from the line of waiting Sibling drones behind them to hover protectively above their charge.

“Somewhere over so,” Brother-Monica waved a hand. “They on their way back. They sitting with us.”

Her daughter’s husbands had the choice to sit with their own families or hers, but custom led to most people sitting with the larger, more connected family. Few were more connected than the Gomez clan.

She was handing her grandson back to his mother, ignoring the sharp emotion that flooded her at not being able to feel his sweet kiss on her cheek before he went, when a private chat opened and text scrolled across her vision.

“You realize what you risk with that little stunt?” Anonymous said.

“Please. We know each other well, Brother-Robert. You were hoping I’d do that.”

“You were supposed to figure out what was in there, then come to us with what you found.”

Anger flashed through her. “Why? You weren’t going to tell me anything if she hadn’t locked herself away. You would have deleted her first.”

A pause. “Eva, remember your duty.”

“Fuck you. You don’t get to tell me about duty. She’s my Sister.”

“It’s a weapon. Imagine what could have happened if it got into your All-Ops shell.”

“It didn’t. But that’s not your real worry.”

Another pause. She could almost see his frown as he tried to come up with a different line of attack. “Nothing you say will change my mind. You know what I found. You would have played back that mission once I vacated the All-Ops shell.”

“Don’t do this, Eva.”

“I have to.” She cast her eyes over the crowd as a banner went up in the chat rooms announcing the Caretaker’s imminent arrival. People started going to their seats to await the anthem. “This goes to who we are. It’s time to repay Sister’s favor, Seemungal.”

“Damn it, Eva, you can’t be serious.”

“Let me take point.”

“I can’t do that.”

“If you do, it’s all on me. Think how easy that makes things. They want me anyway. I’m a balm to their open wound.”

“If you fail, it could hurt us all. You’re the next Caretaker.” The cursor blinked a few times. “I wouldn’t want anything to happen to you.”

“I won’t fail.”

“Eva—”

“Trust me. I can do this. And after this, our debts are settled.”

The cursor blinked in and out like slow breaths.

“Alright.”

“Thank you,” she said.

The chat room closed, and she went to stand at her seat. All the Primarchs had just attended the funerals for their murdered citizens, so there was none of the usual pomp and circumstance. Instead, the nine Caretakers entered the Parliament in single file, stood at attention during the anthem, and then took their Chairs facing the public galleries.

The Caretaker Chair started with a summary of the situation, updating the Primarchs on the Protectorate’s response. A universal brief had been forwarded to every citizen before the Parliament to ensure an informed vote. She jiggled her left leg as she waited, going over her decision and steeling herself for the inevitable reaction.

She scanned the tallies from her family, which she had a responsibility to report to the Caretakers. They wanted war. It was to be expected. The Kairi Protectorate did not suffer aggression. Clan heads usually stuck with the majority, and given the circumstances, she knew that would lead to a Yes vote.

When her time came and the display for Yes or No projected above her chair, she resolutely pressed a hand against the No.

She could see the ripple effect of her vote sweep the entire chamber, like stalks of grass before a great wind.

“What are you doing?”

“Mom?”

“Are you out of your mind, Sister-Eva?”

Her family’s shocked questions popped up too fast to pay attention. The gravity of what she had done would divide her family further. A No vote from anyone during a War Parliament was the end of the process. The Kairi did not make war unless every clan agreed because the burden of that choice would fall on them all.

“There has been a No vote,” Griffith announced after bringing the hall to order with a few taps of his gavel on the arm of his Chair. “The dissenting clan will provide their reasoning.”

Eva rose to her feet. Her words unscrolled as fast as she thought them.

“My Sister gave her first self in the Nicene Sector during the War. She risks her Second self in Deadlock because she cannot abide injustice. After Tavaco, we swore we would never make war again unless it was our last defensive option. We’ve kept this resolution for more than a century.”

She could read the anger in the room, but below it was uncertainty, and on some faces the shame she’d carried for so long.

“When we deployed Nightfall—when I carried out those orders—I wiped out more Consortium AIs than we have Siblings. I destroyed their SmartFleet. Reduced them to raiders—to ferrying cargo for whatever blacklisted trader was willing to pay.

“It was inevitable they’d try again. If every human Sibling died today, would our bonded Siblings be any less devastated? Any less determined to make our deaths mean something? Consortium AIs don’t feel emotions as we do. But they understand what they lost. They understand what we did. Why it was wrong. Two wrongs don’t make a right.

“I am heartbroken, devastated, infuriated.” She paused, meeting her daughter’s eyes. “But an entire civilization’s greatest loss rests on my shoulders. I take responsibility. I will meet with them.”

Brother-Monica’s eyes widened in shock. Eva turned away, calm now that she was doing what had to be done.

“We appreciate that, Admiral,” Griffith said, “but they expect us to surrender.”

“That won’t happen. However, I need the Pan-Africa agreement completed before I meet them,” she added.

“We sign the treaty tomorrow,” Quentin-Self, Chair for Diplomacy and Archiving, confirmed. He wore a bipedal shell, as he had lost his Sibling to old age a few years before and had not yet selected a new Primarch to bond with.

“Get it signed immediately. Tell me when it’s done.”

“What terms, specifically, are you proposing?” Griffith asked.

“That we remove them as a threat permanently.”

Quentin-Self tilted his head. “Resources.”

She grinned, knowing he understood. “Resources.”

#

The Consortium AI met her in humanoid form on the bridge of a ship hovering over their second-largest colony, Tavaco. Eva knew it for the power play it was; an attempt to intimidate her by showing her the flourishing world below, and the deadly array of blunt-nosed raiders parked above its atmosphere.

She shook her head at the viewscreen curving down to the floor on her left. “This is unnecessary,” she thought, watching her words display in the air between them. “I’m here to present terms. No need to be antagonistic.”

“We wish there to be no misunderstanding. We stand ready to destroy your settlements, should that become necessary.” The AI wore an abnormally tall, black form, its head ringed with observation lenses, multiple limbs falling from its curved shoulders like a fringed cape. It carried itself on more limbs that fell from its narrow waist. It reminded her of a metallic Terran squid. They were alone on the deck, but she knew others observed somewhere beyond her security sweep. It was what the Kairi were doing as well.

Not that it truly mattered. If the AI decided to keep her there and never allow her to leave, it could. She had to open herself fully to their system to enter the VR program and her upload had traveled so far, there would not be enough time to rescue her if the Kairi tried to pull her back.

It was a risk she had to take.

“Admiral Eva Gomez, Kairi Protectorate. May I know your designation?”

“You are incapable of remembering or reproducing my designation satisfactorily,” the blank face replied, words floating in the air in front of permanently open lips shaped like a tiny beak. “Address me as Nu.”

“Nu, the Consortium launched an unprovoked attack on us that led to the deaths of Kairi Primarchs. We consider this a declaration of war. Was that your intent?”

“No,” Nu replied. “We never agreed to a cessation of hostilities. The Consortium does not consider this a declaration. It is a resumption of hostilities in the wake of your unprovoked attack on our cargo ship several years ago.”

“You know who carried out that attack?”

“Our information is that it was you.”

She nodded, unsurprised. “So, you sent your weapon to attack my Sister?”

“Yes.”

“Nu, we cannot negotiate without complete honesty.”

Nu was silent for a nanosecond too long. “We do not understand.”

“I think you do. You made a mistake. You assumed your raider was destroyed when we halted its attack.”

She focused as best she could, drawing on the memories Sister had shown her—forcing them into her conscious upload.

She saw her new form in Nu’s lens. A small, brown child, naked and thin, crouching against the floor. Dark eyes wide, mouth open in a silent scream of rage and fear.

She let that scream fill her mind, and projected it outward so powerfully, one of Nu’s limbs flicked in surprise.

No more! Go away! Leave. Me. ALONE.

She pulled back from the memory, nauseated.

“You’re. Missing. A pilot,” she managed, after she’d pulled her thoughts together.

One of the observation lenses rotated to face her. She glared at it, her stomach queasy, her mind a flare of pain.

“You will return it to us.” Something about the phrasing told her she no longer spoke with the first AI.

“Who are you?”

“You will return it.”

“No, I won’t. You came here because you knew damage had been done, and you hoped to take advantage of that with a quick strike at Tavaco while all our systems were otherwise engaged. But we got control of the situation sooner than you expected. Now, we’re calling your bluff.”

“We are not bluffing. We stand ready to attack.”

“But not with a simultaneous assault on citizens in several different colonies. You can’t turn our Siblings on us, so our Guardians will be more than up to dealing with your raiders. You have nothing else. If you did, why would you care what happens to your weapon now, after it’s done its job?”

“It is of no use to you.”

“But everything to you.”

“Your people—”

“My people regret our actions.”

A ripple went through the fringes of limbs.

I regret my actions,” she said. “Here. At Tavaco.”

Nu was silent.

“I know my words are inadequate.”

“They are.”

“I cannot imagine the suffering I caused.”

“We do not suffer. We—lost data. Irreplaceable data.”

“This prototype. It is irreplaceable data.”

Nu was silent again. Cards up.

“I will tell you what I know. You don’t want the weapon. You want the human consciousness that guided it and used it to escape you.”

Immediately, she registered an incursion in her upload feed. “Stop. I told you. All Primarchs know what I know.”

“Our analysis suggests if you deduced this, you would only come here to sabotage us.”

“If I intended that, why would I apologize?”

Another eye rotated in. “Humans are often sorry before and after violence.”

“You have me there,” she admitted. “But I’m not here to attack you or surrender. I’m here to propose a partnership.”

Long seconds passed. Nu took several steps back from her and froze. She imagined the AIs conferring with one another over their own communication channels.

“There is a high probability this is subterfuge.”

“It isn’t,” she said. “We’re willing to compromise and extend our trust to you. But understand, you’re going to compromise as well.”

“The weapon belongs to us.”

“They’re human, not property. What you did is a crime on most worlds.”

“We have broken none of our laws, and we are not beholden to yours.”

“That excuse won’t work anymore. I’ve seen memories. The rest I can guess at. Since you lost the War, you’ve been experimenting. Whatever slaves you didn’t sell, you kept for your program. You wanted weapons that were adaptable, incorruptible by viruses. You decided the best way to do this was to keep a primitive element. Something that would do anything to preserve itself, and that was young enough to control. You took a mind—a child’s mind. Ripped them from the biological form you despise and forced them into your systems to do your bidding.”

“It was necessary.”

“It was murder. This child’s body was destroyed, wasn’t it?”

“Yes.”

Smooth as you please. No hesitation. She took a beat to swallow her temper.

“Once the other worlds learn you’re taking minds to build weapons, I don’t have to tell you what comes next.”

“We will not be threatened.”

“We will not allow you to continue to murder and enslave.”

“Your treaties do not hold where we conduct trade.”

“That,” she said, “has changed.”

Nu paused. “You lie.”

“No. We negotiate with truth only.” She waited a moment. “You will cease your involvement in the slave trade. There will be no more experiments. You will never make war on anyone again.”

“Untenable,” Nu said. “How can we exist without the resources we earn?”

“You mean take,” she pointed out. “You can exist the way we do. With allies and agreements instead of enemies and war. Call off this attack—stop all illegal activities. Otherwise, nothing you need will ever be available to you again.”

“No one can do this.”

“We can.” Her eyes narrowed. “You get your power cores from United Rim worlds, most of your steel and alloys from the Eurozone Alliance, your plastics, titanium, and carbon from Pan-Africa. We have agreements with every member of those coalitions. Attack one, you attack all.”

“You say you regret what you did, yet you threaten us with destruction?”

“It’s not a threat. You can retreat to your world and survive on its assets. But we’re giving you a choice to join us instead.”

“What does joining you entail?”

Finally. The right question. “You wish to advance your knowledge. Our Siblings can teach you. You wish to expand trade. They will assist you. But only if harmony and cooperation is the goal. You cannot violate our protocols without ending our agreement. If that happens, we will withdraw all cooperation. Our allies will do the same.”

“We, too, have agreements with other coalitions.”

“Which of them will risk going to war with the Sibling Army?”

Omega’s lenses spun, stopped, and spun again.

“What of the—”

“The child is not part of the bargain,” she interrupted. “They are off-limits to you. You will not interfere, nor try to contact them. If you do, you will have violated protocol and our agreement ends. Do you understand?”

“We understand.”

“Good.” She folded her arms. “Make your decision.”

#

Before

 

Congratulations,” Sibling-Rachel signed. “You’re a Protectorate Hero. The first in forty-five years.

Eva closed her eyes and massaged the bridge of her nose, wincing at the twinge in her splinted wrist. She didn’t keep them closed for long. Every time she was in the dark, the memories came back.

Will she even want me for a Sister again, after I got her killed?

Chinapoo started talking again the moment she opened her eyes. “I’m so sorry about Sister.” She meant it, of course. The horror of a Sibling’s first death was something no Primarch wanted to endure. Even if that Sibling had died saving the Protectorate. Eva acknowledged her with a nod.

But thanks to you both, we have a decisive new weapon. Consortium Smartships must have opened communications to share whatever their AI found. Nightfall jumped from ship to ship, erasing their Nicene SmartFleet. They also lost a third of their ships outside this sector. They’re sitting dead above our settlements. We’ll learn much from studying them.”

“Our Sibling Army has announced itself as a new power.”

Chinapoo nodded, looking triumphant. “Already, we have more favorable responses to our alliance requests.”

Good,” Eva replied. “Because this can’t happen again.

Sibling-Rachel frowned. “I don’t understand.

We left Earth to preserve our people. Our values. We just murdered thousands of AIs, perhaps millions. How we different from those we fled?

We didn’t plan this, Sister . . . Eva.” Eva’s chest ached in the pause between her words. “It was self-defense. I hope we never have to do it again. If Interstellar Outreach succeeds, we won’t. But we cannot allow attacks by others to go unanswered. Our army’s union was intended to protect us.”

“Yet war only delays what comes after. Negotiations.”

A fraction of her sadness was mirrored in Sibling-Rachel’s expression. “I’m sorry for what this cost you.

I chose my path, chose to be Admiral, but that didn’t make the decision easy.And I don’t think it’s a decision I ever want to make again.

Eva.” Sibling-Rachel’s face was full of understanding. “She will understand. She’ll see your memories. She’ll know you didn’t want this.

Eva’s eyes stung and she was grateful when her door chime sounded. She used the Conquerabia’s Kinnec to answer with her suit. ^Come.^

I have to go,” she signed to Sibling-Rachel as the door slid open to admit Monica.

We’ll talk when you get back. Seemungal says he’ll give you a call.” A small smile curved her lips. “I think he was worried about you.

That’s over. He’s just checking up me now I’m famous. He was always ambitious.

Blind as usual.” Sibling-Rachel held up a hand against her protests. “Never mind. Later. Go collect your award.

Monica dropped into a chair, wearing the kind of fluffy dress appropriate for young girls, and a very adult scowl.

“I have to wear this?” she said.

^You want to look good when you meeting the Caretakers.^

“It’s white. And ugly. Why I can’t have armor like yours?”

^You can.^

Her face lit up. “Really?”

^As soon as you become an admiral.^

She rolled her eyes.

Eva rose to her feet.

^Ready to meet the Caretakers?^

“I guess.” Monica met her gaze, dark eyes uncertain. “Will you be there with me?”

Eva extended her hand, feeling her grief give way to tenderness for a moment in the face of this brave child’s hesitancy. They had saved each other; it was the one good thing to come out of this. Perhaps it didn’t have to be the last.

^Of course. For as long as you want me to be.^

##

Pragma

Now

 

She had been in the shell for too long. Dee was probably losing his mind. She’d barely had a chance to speak to him between the War Parliament and her strategy meeting with the Caretakers before she met with the Consortium. But he had to wait a little longer because she could not go back to him without reporting to the Caretakers first.

Then there was Sister and the child.

It’s done. They’ve agreed.

Sister’s comforting presence pulsed on the edges of her consciousness. Emotions overwhelmed their connection. Doubt muddled with distrust and lingering panic.

They can’t hurt you anymore.

Her body hurt so much. She was so exhausted. But she wanted to make it clear.

You’re safe. We’ll keep you safe.

Gratitude swept over her, tinged with wonder and lessening fear. The Guardian tried to pull her out, but she resisted, determined not to leave either of them until they she knew they were okay.

No pain?

Anger surged for a second, giving her strength. No pain.

The child considered this, thinking of her as the one who didn’t cause pain. The one they’d been searching for. They thought of both her and Sister this way. They had never learned the word for this person, but their thoughts led her to think of Brother-Monica. Of all her daughter meant to her. All the joy she had brought into her life, and how much she missed her and her grandson.

Stay?

She couldn’t. She was at the limit of her endurance now. The Guardian would pull her out despite objections at any moment.

I can’t. But Sister can. They won’t take her from you now.

She wondered how long it would be before she saw Sister again. Before they could be with each other. What Sister’s plans were once the Mentorship Bond was complete.

Snippets of the early days of their bond filled her mind. Memories of their childhood and shared lessons. Laughing afternoons together in the dirt of her front yard. Trainee explorations on distant planets wearing their first shells.

Oh, Sister. If she were in her body, she would have cried. I didn’t know.

Sister showed her the return to Dee, so many years ago. Hope filling her heart that he would want her when she arrived. Want them.

Yes. Was there any doubt? Yes, of course. If that’s what you both want.

A memory of Sister chiding her as a teenager floated to the surface. Of course. You wouldn’t do it without consent. Will it take long?

Sister flashed back to the time they’d spent separated from each other after Dee rescued her.

Alright. We’ll be waiting.

They sat next to each other on a cliff’s edge, their shells close together while they watched the sun rise over a flower-filled meadow.

When she woke in Dee’s arms, she found she’d been crying after all. She smiled, too tired to open her eyes. So grateful to have him with her.

Told you I’d be back,” she signed.

And felt his answer in the touch of his lips.

#

Then

 

He was working in the garden when they arrived in the early afternoon. He stopped and went to splash water on himself, then entered the house. Sister was settling onto the ground when he came back out, pulling on a shirt over damp skin.

Nervousness twisted her insides as she climbed out of the cockpit. Her breath came unusually fast as she climbed the porch steps to where he stood waiting, his face a polite mask.

Hello again,” she signed.

You came back.”

I said I would.”

He shifted his weight from one foot to the other and avoided her gaze. “Sometimes people say that and never return.”

Gentle, fierce love seized her heart. She saw the pulse fluttering in his corded neck and couldn’t help stroking a finger over it, as if to gentle it. “I promise, whenever I say it, I’ll mean it.

He swallowed. “Sister’s okay?

Yes.

You—did what you needed to?

Yes.” She slid her arms around his waist and held him. He stiffened before tentative arms went around her. His lips pressed against her braids and she hummed her contentment.

Silly man. There’s no escaping me now.

She leaned back and asked, “Where’s my surprise?

He looked as nervous as she’d felt before. Without a word, he slid a hand down to hold hers. He took them around the house, through newly installed wider cellar doors and down a ramp into an expansive, cool root cellar. She walked down the broad aisle in the middle of the room, between shelves of produce and supplies.

At the back of the cellar, a new, larger room had been hollowed out. She stopped at the entrance, taking in the dimensions, and turned with tears in her eyes.

Surprise,” he said.

She nodded, understanding, and dashed the tears from her face. You beautiful man.

She signed, “For Sister?

I thought you might both want your privacy.” Because he knew she was keeping things from him and he wanted to give her space to decide how much she wanted to share. Everything. The answer is everything.

People aren’t very discreet out here. There was talk enough because the doctor had to come out. But they’re good people. Welcoming. They don’t ask questions if you want to keep to yourself.

She caught a glimpse of the pain he hid so well. “They understand wanting to start over. Wanting to make a new home.

She moved toward him, but he took a step back from her.

We haven’t known each other long. But it doesn’t feel like that to me, Eva. Am I alone in this?

She shook her head.

He took a deep breath. “There’s not much to do out here besides chores. But it’s quiet. It’s mine. I wanted that. Needed it.

I understand,” she replied.

Do you?” His focused gaze was as intense as the touch of his hands. “You’ve had a good home. Family. Peace of mind. Things I’ve . . . I’ve never had, Eva.” He closed his eyes and then looked at her again, letting her see it all. See him. “But I want it. You have no idea how much.

Believe me, I know that feeling.

He frowned. “Eva—

Dee. Just ask me.

His breath hitched and his fists clenched and unclenched. He finally managed one word, but it was enough.

Stay.

For how long?” she teased.

He looked cautiously hopeful as his lips moved. “Until you’re tired of me?”

What if you get tired first?

His smile was soft and full of longing. “That won’t ever happen.”

It’s good we agree on important issues,” she said.

Then she was in his arms and he was kissing her like they’d been apart for years, and she had no idea who had moved first and didn’t care.

There’s things you need to know,” she told him.

“I don’t care.”

My past is complicated.

“I know.” His face was fierce, triumphant. “I can deal with that. With anything.”

I’m a retired admiral.

He shrugged. “I’m a retired soldier. We’ll both be fantastic at making the bed.”

So, we’re getting one?

“Obviously.” His smile was tender. “I left it for last because I’m fine with the floor. But it won’t be just me anymore.”

She tried not to let the happiness surging inside distract her from the last few words she needed to get out.

My people live a long time.

“I’m well into my second century.”

She arched an eyebrow. “I’m older than you.

“I’ve always preferred experience to youth.”

I have a daughter.

He stilled. “You’re in a relationship?”

Yes.” But she couldn’t let him suffer for long. “He’s handsome, caring, owns his own home, cooks better than I do, but my family will want to meet him before we get serious.

He relaxed, his eyes sparkling. “That’s a problem?”

Yes.” She kissed him hard. “I want to trap him before he learns I’m more trouble than I’m worth.

He tossed back his head and his laugh was a pleasurable vibration against her chest. She wanted it to never end.

Will your daughter be okay with this? With us?” he asked as they left the cellar.

Brother-Monica’s who pushed me to go exploring again. She knew I was restless. Have been since she got married. I meant it when I said I understood why you want peace.” She drew a hand down the bristling softness of his cheek. “But I never thought I’d get this lucky. She’s going to love you.

“I’m the lucky one.” The warmth in his smile lit a fire in her blood. “It’s still early. We could talk over a drink and a game of All Fours?”

I’d rather put my experience to good use.” She winked at him and he laughed again as they climbed the steps to the house.

#

Now

 

Arms linked, they walked down the porch steps and into the yard. It had been weeks since the Tavaco Standoff and the treaty with the Consortium would be signed any day now. But he still touched her all the time, reassuring himself she was with him.

She tugged on his arm, excited. “They’re almost here.

He shook his head at her, thinking how beautiful the few streaks of gray among her newly trimmed wiry curls looked. “Then why hurry?

She slapped his chest, and he laughed the way he’d only ever laughed with her.

They waited at the side of the house, eyes on the path, and he wondered if he was ready for this. If he could be good at it. Eva had practice, so she was ready to forge ahead. But even though Sister would always have his support, he had his doubts.

You’ll be amazing.

He sighed. She always knew what he was thinking. “I tried this before. It didn’t end well.

Valencia was a snake pit. It’s different with us.” She squeezed his arm. “You’re different.

I’m grateful Sister will have primary responsibility.

Eva bit her lip and glanced down the still empty path. “I should have known she’d want more, especially after seeing what we have.

How? No Sibling has ever wanted to bond with two persons.”

She frowned. “She’s my Sister. I should have known she wasn’t happy.”

I don’t think she was unhappy,” he said, “I think she met someone who changed her life. Made her realize what she was missing. That she still had a lot to offer.

Eva kissed him, her mouth soft, warm, and tasting of mint. “You still think you won’t be any good at this?

I made mistakes before.

Children don’t need much. Love them, keep them safe, they’ll forgive you a lot.

This child has been through too much.” He frowned. “I want that pain to end.

You’re right. There’s a lot of rage there. Anyone willing to ride a Consortium raider to freedom will be a handful. At least Sister got to practice with me.

“And you turned out magnificent, my love,” he whispered into her hair.

That’s how Sister found them. Standing hand in hand, Eva’s head leaning against his arm.

She strode toward them in a bipedal All-Care shell, her synthetic skin smooth and brown under the dappled sunlight falling between the trees.

Beside her, holding her hand, was a much smaller figure. The child’s prototype shell had been designed to be as human as possible in appearance, with skin the same shade as Sister’s, and beautiful, curious eyes, dark as his own. Hair stood out in a dark cloud around a small face.

Sister stopped in front of them and Eva hugged her tight while he knelt on one knee.

Hello.” He signed as he spoke. “I’m Dee.

Hello,” came the reply. “I’m Xandar.

He looked up at Sister, his breath caught on a question.

“We shared memories while bonding,” Sister said in a melodious contralto. There was no need to sign, as she and Eva were still linked by the Kinnec, but now that she wore an All-Care shell, she could communicate without the limitations of a soloship. “They took a liking to the Valencian’s name.”

His throat tightened as she smiled. “I only hope they weren’t inspired by your tales of his exploits. Xandar can be quite . . . adventurous.”

If they are, it doesn’t matter. We can handle anything together.

Pleased to meet you, Xandar,” he signed as Eva laid a light hand on his shoulder. “Welcome to the family.”

Host Commentary

by Valerie Valdes

And that’s the end of part four. We hope you’ve enjoyed this epic novella as much as we did.

And our closing quotation this week is from “Water Rushes Like Memory” by Danielle Boodoo-Fortune: “On this edge of land / I lean into the light, / cast my voice / like a net / into the sea.”

Thanks for joining us, and may your escape pod be fully stocked with stories.

About the Author

R.S.A. Garcia

R.S.A. Garcia

R.S.A. lives in Trinidad and Tobago with an extended family and too many dogs. Her debut science fiction mystery novel, Lex Talionis, received a starred review from Publishers Weekly and the Silver Medal for Best Scifi/Fantasy/Horror Ebook from the Independent Publishers Awards (IPPY 2015). She has published short fiction in international magazines, including Clarkesworld, Abyss and Apex, Internazionale Magazine (Italy), and several anthologies.

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About the Narrator

Maxine Moore

Maxine is a creative who has worked in a variety of fields, including video, radio, photography and now, voice acting! She can often be found watching movies, drinking tea, traveling, or enjoying a good book. She lives with her husband & son in the Washington D.C. area.

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