The young man paused at the top of the stairs that led down into a small park. His overalls were new and made of quality materials that may have even been woven cloth rather than extruded synthetic. It was clearly the uniform of a high-class ship crew. The insignia on his sleeve showed that he was of surprisingly advanced rank for his age.
He looked around the park, taking in the lush atmosphere provided by the surrounding trees and flowering shrubs. He glanced at the play equipment in the center of the space and a smile of remembrance touched his lips. He walked over to a line of benches and sat down next to an older man.
"I remember when you used to bring me here," the young man said.
"You always had fun here. Made a lot of friends," the older man replied.
"Everything looks so much smaller now."
"And here you are ready to ship out as the Exec on the top ship in the quadrant."
"Well, it’s one of the top ones."
"You just say that because you haven’t served on her yet. Give it a month and you’ll agree with me that it’s the very best. I know you’ll help make it the best. I’m proud of you, son."
"Thanks. I’m going to miss you and mom."
"The Delta-Wendro-Thalisis loop is a big deal. Three years of the hardest work you’ve ever done."
"It’s a huge career move, Dad. I couldn’t have done it without you and Mom backing me up."
"We’re very happy for you. This is going to set the course of your life. When you get back you’ll be ready for a command of your own."
The two men sat quietly for a while, each thinking about this turning point in their lives.
The older man turned to his son. "We said most of our goodbyes at the party the other night, but there is something else I needed to talk to you about alone. That’s why I asked you to meet me here."
The young man raised an eyebrow in question as his father continued, "I’m going on a trip of my own. I wanted to tell you why."
"Where are you going?"
"I’m going back to the planet I grew up on. It’s been over forty years since I left. It’s time I returned."
"I’ve never heard you talk about where you grew up. Is anything wrong?"
"It’s just something I need to do. Your mother knows about it. She’s been very understanding."
"About what? I don’t get it."
"I grew up in a port town like you did, but it was very different. I didn’t want you to grow up in that kind of place. Quite a bit smaller than this one, just landing pads, storage sheds, and the control tower at the port, and a little town next to it where the port workers lived. Nothing was new. It had been just barely maintained since it was built more than 200 years earlier."
"Are you going back to visit friends?"
"When I was growing up, it was only the two of us, me and my dad. There weren’t any kids my age, so I didn’t have any real friends. Dad was a supervisor at the port, which isn’t as good as it sounds."
"Even for a small port, that kind of job can be a big deal."
"The port was just a transfer station where it was convenient for ships to stop and swap cargos. That way each ship would only have to go to a few places instead of ten or twenty and they could save on fuel and landing fees. You’ve seen what that’s like on some of your hops. I didn’t really get it at the time but, as Dad said, it was good for the shipping companies and it was a living for us."
"You must have been alone a lot. Tough without your mom. What happened to her?"
"My mom hadn’t been around since I was little. I only had vague memories of her, mostly from the holos of her all around the apartment."
"So your dad was keeping memories of her alive?"
"Yeah. In the holos of the two of them, they looked very happy. I asked Dad about her a couple of times as I got older, but he would just say ‘I shouldn’t have let her go’ and looked real sad. I didn’t know what he meant but figured maybe she had run off on him, or they had a big fight about something. I hoped it wasn’t about me, but was half afraid that it was. I got scared about what the answer might be, so I stopped asking. It was obvious that he really missed her. Once a year he would go off by himself for a day. I didn’t know where he went or what he was doing, but when he came back he would be in a strange mood, sort of sad but resigned. I figured it had to be something to do with her. After a couple of days he’d be okay again, so I learned to just live with it."
The son looked shocked. "Dad, I… I can’t imagine growing up like that. You and Mom have always been great together. Wasn’t there anyone else around?"
The older man shook his head. "The port was the only reason for humans to live there, so there weren’t many people around. There wasn’t anything on the whole planet worth exporting. Not like here where you have industries actually making stuff. There were just two human towns, the one at the port and another nearby that housed the few people and the machines that kept the food supply going."
The father looked off into the distance as he pulled up the memory. "My Dad and I lived in an apartment on the port grounds. It was okay, two bedrooms, kitchen, a general use room, and one bathroom. Real simple but comfortable. I had vids and games, and Dad had gotten an upgraded autoteach for me, so school wasn’t boring at least. When Dad was working I spent most of my time on that. I could go out and play in the woods by myself, but was always happier with my Dad. It would have been better if there had been some kids my age to take lessons with but, like I said, there weren’t. There wasn’t much else to do when Dad was working, so I spent a lot of time reading."
The son laughed, "Well that explains it. Anytime I found an old book that I thought you might like, you had already read it."
"I hope I didn’t stifle your interest in reading."
"Nope, just the opposite. It became a challenge. Did your dad have friends?"
"My dad wasn’t real social, so not many adults visited us, either."
The son frowned, "Awful dull for you as a kid."
A thin smile crossed his father’s face. "In some ways it was pretty good. There were a lot of little lakes that I could play in. Most of them weren’t much, merely splotches of water here and there among the forests, but there was enough water to swim in. The forests were fun. There weren’t any animals that were dangerous to humans, so I got to go wherever I wanted to, even when I was pretty little. There were carnivores out there, but apparently we smelled bad to them or something, because they never bothered us. I just had to stay away from the groves of ‘no-no’ bushes."
"Odd name for a plant."
"Yeah, well, I was just a kid. I couldn’t pronounce the real name of the things when I was little, so we called them that as a reminder to stay away. They weren’t dangerous as long as you didn’t eat the leaves. The sap was a powerful narcotic. Apparently you got fantastic dreams, but it was so addictive that withdrawal wasn’t just painful, it was fatal. Some of the first humans on the planet figured that out the hard way and every year one or two people dropped dead from it.
The son nodded. "Seems like every trip I’ve been on there’s some idiot who does something stupid because he has to find out for himself."
The older man shook his head slowly in recognition of the type. "The indigenous sapients, the Cetoi, didn’t seem to have any problem with the stuff though, and ate it a lot. I think it was their main source of food. It certainly didn’t do them any harm. Some of those little guys were really old. There were quite a few that were a couple of hundred years old and had been alive since the port was first built."
"Well, if there weren’t any human kids to play with, what about the indigenous people? Did they have kids you could play with?"
The father chuckled, "The Cetoi were friendly enough, but they moved real slow and seemed like they were half stoned all the time from eating the ‘no-no’ bushes. They were about as fun for a kid as shrubbery. They lived in simple huts clustered together in little villages, so visiting them wasn’t any kind of a thrill. They weren’t much good to talk to either. They were able to speak Universal, sort of, but they didn’t get the concept of pronouns or even names, and time was only a vague notion. One of them might say ‘Go to lake’, but you didn’t know who they were talking about or if it was a question or a statement or a suggestion. Conversations with any of them got real long and frustrating, so I didn’t bother much with them. Not many of the humans did, really. My Dad was real good with them, though. He had figured out how to talk to them and was sort of the unofficial liaison between the port and the Cetoi."
"I can see why you didn’t want me to grow up there."
The older man sat up straighter, his features hardening. "I wasn’t in a huge rush, but I was getting ready to take my Tech Comp Exam when I was sixteen. It was early for the TCE, but like I said, I didn’t have much to do except study for a lot of the time, so I was ahead in school. Dad was encouraging me so I could get a better job than he had and get off planet. I knew it was important to him that I didn’t get trapped on a crummy planet like that the way he was, so I worked real hard getting ready." He stopped for a moment, closed his eyes and his rigid posture began to melt. "It was two days before I was supposed to take the exam when the accident happened."
The father paused and gripped his hands together tightly for a moment before going on. "The planet we were on wasn’t in the richest neighborhood. It was out on the edge of the Krostos zone."
"Out in the boonies, then. Not the best part of the sector," noted the son.
"Some of the ships that went there were decent, but most of them were in pretty bad shape. A lot of tramps carrying low-grade cargos and making do with minimal maintenance until they went to the boneyard or just disappeared someplace. Well, one of them was on short final descent when the maneuvering thrusters crapped out and put the whole thing on its side. Dad was in the control tower when the ship hit the ground. It was a real mess. Everybody on board was killed. Took out half the fuel storage yard. About thirty guys on the ground got killed right off and another dozen or so kicked it at the infirmary. A lot of stuff around the port got torched. My Dad got hurt bad. Real bad."
"No, but a lot of internal damage. Nerve damage. He was in the infirmary for over a month. There wasn’t anything that could actually be called a hospital on the planet and the infirmary usually handled only the occasional cut or broken bone, so they were overwhelmed by the casualties from the accident. It was a month before I was finally able to bring him home. He was just about completely paralyzed and almost comatose. He couldn’t even talk. The medics said there was nothing more they could do. Getting him to a real hospital off planet wouldn’t help either, because the damage was so severe. So he stayed at home and I took care of him like that. The med techs came by every day to check on him and refill his meds, but he didn’t get any better.
"I’d sit by his bed and talk to him. I’d read him stories and bits from the news feeds, but I didn’t know if he could even hear me. It was horrible to see such a strong guy be so helpless. He couldn’t do anything for himself and even though he couldn’t talk or anything, I knew he was miserable. He looked old, tired, and really stressed by the pain. His whole body was tense from it and his face, well he just looked like he was fighting all the time. He never slept except when he was totally zonked on the meds. If I had been like that I’d rather have been dead. I was pretty sure he felt the same. Actually, after he was injured I started going through his papers and found one that said just that–he didn’t want to be kept alive if there was no hope. But I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t imagine doing anything that would kill him and I couldn’t just let him starve, but leaving him like that was unimaginable. I didn’t know what to do."
"That sounds so horrible. What did you do?"
"About two weeks after I got him home, several of the Cetoi came by. The one I knew as Michael was the leader. I didn’t even know if he had a name in his language, but that’s what all the humans called him. I knew he and my Dad had been real friendly. He said ‘Take. Fix. Better.’ We went back and forth for quite a while before I was sure of what he was saying. I could hardly believe that they could do it, that they could make Dad better. The human medics couldn’t do a thing, but these little guys could? I wanted it to be true so much."
The older man leaned back and rubbed his eyes. "The decision was tearing me up, but I couldn’t do nothing and leave things the way they were. And it kinda made sense. The Cetoi lived almost forever, or at least it seemed like they did. I thought they must have some secret knowledge that could help. I wanted them to. I finally agreed to let them take him out. As they carried him out I tried to follow. Michael forced me to stay at the apartment by blocking the door and saying "Here. Fetch. Ready." I finally figured he wanted me to wait for them to fix up Dad and since I didn’t know how to help, I waited at home for Michael to come back. I needed to trust them. And I did. For the first time since the accident I started to feel hope. They could fix him, make him better. They had some sort of knowledge that gave them long lives–maybe that was useful for humans, too. I figured that they were willing to help him since they knew him so well, and were friends. It was great. I was going to get my Dad back. I slept well that night for the first time since the accident.
"Finally, three days later, Michael came back. When he did, he was his usual placid, slow-moving self. I was just about crawling out of my skin to get to wherever Dad was, but Michael just shuffled along at his usual leisurely pace. I couldn’t wait to see Dad. I figured he wouldn’t be a hundred percent already, but he was probably conscious and feeling good. Michael led me to one of the larger of the Cetoi huts. Inside was a long row of cots. Three or four of them had Cetoi lying in them, but about a dozen were occupied by humans. I recognized them from the port so I figured they had been injured in the crash too. Most of the way towards the end was Dad, so I ran down to see him. I couldn’t wait to talk to him, but he was just lying there. I could see that he was slowly breathing. He was alive! But he looked blank. No expression at all. He didn’t look like he was in pain, just unconscious. Relaxed, sure, but no real expression. I couldn’t see any life in him except that he was breathing.
"And then I saw that the cot next to his had been pushed right up next to his and that his hand was laid on top of the hand of a woman in the other cot. Their fingers were intertwined. I looked at her and knew exactly who she was. She must have gotten sick or injured and Dad turned her over to the Cetoi hoping they could help. She looked just like the pictures Dad had around the house. Exactly like the pictures. It was like she hadn’t aged a day. Michael tottered up and said ‘Together. Happy. Good.’ Happy? Her face was as blank as Dad’s.
"I tried to wake the two of them up, but couldn’t. Michael just touched my arm and said ‘No. Dream. Joined.’ The IV lines into their arms explained it. At the end of a frustrating conversation, I got Michael to confirm that they were getting a solution of the narcotic tree sap pumped into them. They were both seriously doped. But were they really okay? Mom was beautiful. I mean, she really hadn’t aged a day in what I knew was more than ten years. It had to be the sap that made the Cetoi live longer, and it obviously worked on people too. Mom and Dad looked sort of okay, but it felt all wrong. Neither one was going to tell me anything. I could imagine that they were in some blissful dream, linked together for all the years to come. That Dad had found the companionship he had been missing all those years. That he wasn’t feeling pain anymore. But instead, maybe they were inside of some special hell in there; alone, hurting, haunted. What’s that line–‘but in that sleep like death what dreams may come?’. Maybe there was nothing going on inside and they were just two brain-dead bodies being kept alive."
The older man resumed his rigid posture and stared ahead, his jaw clenched. "I had no way to tell. He wasn’t all fixed. I wasn’t going to get my Dad back. I couldn’t pull out the IVs, because that would kill them for certain. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t even know what I had really done. Maybe it was good, maybe it was awful."
The son stared at his father, incredulous. "You’ve been living with that ever since? Dad, I’m so sorry."
"I went every day for a while, and then every week. But nothing changed. I wanted to believe that this was the right thing for them, but never could convince myself that what I had done actually was the right thing. The Cetoi were taking care of them. There was nothing I could do. Six months later I took the TCE exam. Did well enough to get an engineering job with a shipping company and off the planet."
The man leaned back on the bench and looked blankly up at the sky. "It finally made sense to me, what Dad was saying about how he shouldn’t have let her go. He didn’t know how she really was, what he had done to her. I didn’t understand it at the time, but looking back I can see how it ate at him. But at least now he does know. One way or the other."
"I shouldn’t have let him go. But I did, and then I left. I haven’t been back since. I don’t know what I did to him." He straightened up, stared straight ahead. "But I need to."
The two stood and faced each other, the older man’s face stiff with determination, the younger with a tear wending down his cheek. They reached out and held each other for a moment, then turned and left the park, each on their path.
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