6460 words, short story, REPRINT
They all tried to save me.
“I think this one’s still alive.”
In that space between life and death, you make a decision whether to wake up. Maybe that’s when time ceases to matter. I felt older than four years old and too young to remember. My world was telling me not to remember how the strange crew and its dead-eyed captain came to our faraway colony and nothing was the same again.
I might’ve fought, giving them a reason to shoot me.
Or maybe there was no reason at all.
A long time later, after I was better, I heard them. Other people. Not the same bad crew. Speaking outside the door of the medical room where they kept me. It was a family ship, and they talked about dropping me at the nearest station, but—
“He’ll just cycle through the system, and how will that help?”
“Well, what do you wanna do with him?”
“Maybe we can just keep him here.”
“We don’t even know his name. He won’t talk to us. In the system, they’d be able to find out. They’d have the colony manifest. DNA records.”
DNA. In school, they ran a test for fun to find out where on Earth I was from and what kind of people I belonged to, people who had lived long ago on a faraway planet. East Asian: 61%. Spanish European: 22%. Anglo-Saxon: 17%. I colored a map of Earth, highlighting the places those people had come from and took it home to show my parents and brothers. We had things in common that spoke of our heritage: dark eyes that tilted at the corners; dark hair.
“I don’t want to give him to the system,” this woman said.
“Now we’re kidnappers?” said the man.
“We weren’t the ones who attacked his colony.”
“No, we just swept in like those pirates right after.”
“You’re being ridiculous. We legitimately found him. Only him. Look at him. It was the pirates who did it. You want to hand him over to EHHRO?”
“He might still have family outside of the Meridia colony. We don’t have the right.”
“Where’s EarthHub now? What’re their human rights organizations doing when their colonies are being attacked?”
“Look—we’ll hand him over. If no other family speaks up, we’ll apply to foster him. Eventually adopt him if it comes to that. They’ll want to get him out of their hands so it shouldn’t be too hard. That way no authorities will get on our ass.”
“Your name’s Paris, do you remember?”
I remembered. But a part of me didn’t want to.
This new lady at the station said my last name was Azarcon. They’d gotten my DNA and matched it to the records. Paris Azarcon. I remembered my two older brothers. It hurt right where I’d been shot. Right through my body.
Mama and Daddy. They were shot first. In their heads.
So much screaming.
My brother, Cairo, stood in front of me, trying to protect me, but it didn’t make a difference.
I didn’t want to remember anymore. I ran to a corner.
Days like this. Back and forth. Do you remember anything else? They all wanted me to remember until I screamed at them to stop it.
Then they said they were going to send me away from the station. That someone wanted me. It didn’t matter. I didn’t care anymore.
“Your name’s Paris, and this family is going to take you to their ship to live. They found you and they care about you. We’ll check in a little later, okay? But you can go with them now.”
“How old are you now?”
I held up my hand, fingers spread.
“Five years old. That’s good. Do you know your name?”
“How about your last name?”
I didn’t want to say it.
These people weren’t my family, even though they said they were now.
I thought of the map of Earth that I’d colored. A planet I’d never been to. It was nothing like Meridia and its rocky ground, where Daddy and Mama and my oldest brother, Bern, worked at the mines.
“It’s going to be Rahamon,” the lady said. She called herself Captain Kahta. “That’s your last name,” she said. “Look here on this ID tag. You always wear this around your neck, okay? Paris Rahamon. The newest crew member of Chateaumargot.”
Everything was muddy in my mind for a long time. I only knew what the captain and her mister said about how they’d caught a signal from a moon. They found me shot in the back outside my home, but I was still breathing. When they said those things, it was like they were telling me a story from a slate, one that someone else made up, except I didn’t have pictures to go with it. Maybe there was a drawn image of what my colony looked like, but I didn’t see it, couldn’t remember, and nobody let me look it up. The captain and her mister took me to a station and got me help. After a while, when I was fixed, they came back to get me and the station let me go. They said I had a new life now and it was good. Nobody would make me go back to the other life anymore.
I didn’t want to talk about my real family anyway.
I didn’t want to talk about the things I remembered before they were all gone. Everything was going to fade. For a while, after first waking up, I barely remembered anything. Then it started to come back and that was worse.
Back and forth. Remembering and forgetting. Remembering.
They wanted me to like Chateaumargot. They bought me toys and clothes, and at first I didn’t have to work. Their teenaged daughter looked after me when the captain or her mister weren’t around. Sanja played with me and took me around the ship to show me the garden and the games and the gym. Captain Kahta saw me when she finished work, and Mister Chandar cooked for me or showed me how to build models of ships and stations, though he said I would have to grow older before I did other stuff. He probably meant work.
For a few months aboard the ship, life was like that and I forgot most days after they passed. Captain Kahta said that was okay. They seemed happy having me, even though I didn’t talk much and hardly ever felt like playing games with them. They stopped trying to force me to play games when I took their toys and threw them against the wall. For a few days all I did was break the things they gave me, so then they gave up.
On my first birthday with them, I hit Sanja in the eye and she screamed. I didn’t mean to give her a black eye but she’d forced me to sit and do math. I hated math. It was frustrating and she kept pushing. I told her she wasn’t my mom so she needed to stop. She said Captain Kahta wanted me to learn math, and I said Captain Kahta wasn’t my mom either. Sanja got this look in her eyes like she was mad even though it was true, and she put the slate back in front of me and told me to stop being a brat and do my work. So I punched her face.
Mister Chandar locked me in my cabin alone. My stomach was growly by the time Captain Kahta came in. She sat on my bed next to me.
“Paris, why did you hit Sanja?”
I stared at my hands.
“I don’t know.”
“I think you do. Sanja says you don’t want to do the math work.”
I shrugged. What did it matter?
“Paris. Look at me.”
I looked at Captain Kahta. Her dark eyes looked sad. For me. The dot on her forehead seemed to judge me. The people on the station had looked like that too, from what I remembered. I wished they would stop.
“Paris, you can’t go around hitting your sister.”
“She’s not my sister!”
Captain Kahta leaned back as if I’d hit her in the face too.
“She’s not my sister and you’re not my mom!”
“I don’t care about math!”
“Paris, sit down.”
I started to run around the cabin. She couldn’t stop me. Not until she grabbed me around the waist and held me down on the bed. I kicked and screamed at her. Mister Chandar came in and held me down too. They said things to each other, but I wasn’t listening. Sanja came in with an injet and pressed it to my arm.
Everything slowed down. Even me.
The ship was big. Tall, cold corridors, all white and gray. There were lots of adults but some kids too, older than Sanja or younger, like me. Every sixth day a vid screened in rec and we got extra treats than what was usually available from the galley. Sometimes I stayed and watched the vid, but sometimes they bored me and I snuck out in the dark.
I wandered around the ship when I wasn’t supposed to, but I didn’t like being minded all the time. Sanja handed me off to the other older kids sometimes and none of them liked it when I acted up. Sometimes I didn’t mean to act up, but everything grew frustrating. All of these rules about where I wasn’t supposed to go, and checkups in medical, and toys I was supposed to be interested in, and food I was supposed to eat. These faces weren’t the faces from my storybook memory. When I had nightmares, nobody came to save me.
Sometimes I remembered riding on the back of a four wheeler, holding an older boy around the waist. He’d tell me, “Don’t fall off, Puppy!” My brother Cairo. But I couldn’t remember his face anymore.
I had a lot of nightmares. The lady on the station said to record them when I woke up and send them to her, but I didn’t like to put words to them, so most of the time I didn’t. Mister Chandar or Captain Kahta was supposed to talk to me about them and help me record them, but after the first six months they stopped. I guessed they got busy. The ship traveled a lot and I didn’t check in all the time with the lady on the station. I didn’t ask Captain Kahta about it. If I didn’t need to do these things anymore, then maybe that meant I was okay. Or they didn’t care. I didn’t think they had to care since they weren’t my family.
My brothers Cairo and Bern. And Mama and Daddy. Now every time I thought the word “family,” I also thought of the word “dead.”
I turned seven on Chateaumargot. Captain Kahta and Mister Chandar threw a party. All the kids came, even the ones who called me weird and talked behind my back. Sanja tried to put a cardboard hat on my head. I knocked it away. After that, nobody was happy. They weren’t happy with me and the ice cream melted all over my cake. I felt a little bad so I was nice for the rest of the party and even hugged Captain Kahta afterward so she would smile. She hugged me back real tight.
“Are you happy, Paris?”
I didn’t really know what she meant by being happy, like maybe if I liked my cake and the presents. The games and new clothes.
“Yeah. Everything’s good.”
She touched my hair and smiled, like she knew I was lying.
The other kids on Chateaumargot didn’t stay nice. But neither did I. I got into fights a lot until every week Mister Chandar locked me in my quarters. I sent some of the kids to medical and sometimes I went to medical. Bruises and cuts and a couple black eyes shared amongst us. Then one shift when we’d docked at a station, Captain Kahta came to get me after breakfast and took me by the hand. She walked me to my quarters and told me to pack some of my favorite things. My clothes and whatever toys I liked.
“I’ll help you, honey.”
“Help me with what?”
She cried and held me, so I couldn’t do anything but stand there and let her be. Everything felt dark and silent, like someone had covered my ears and eyes.
She and Mister Chandar took me off the ship, and we went down the dock to another ship’s airlock. That ship let us inside the airlock but not quite inside the ship. We met another woman. She introduced herself as Madame Leung. She was shorter than Captain Kahta and had dark eyes like me. Madame Leung took me by the shoulders and smiled.
“You look just like your picture, Paris.”
What picture? Captain Kahta crouched down in front of me and told me to go and live with Madame Leung now.
Captain Kahta’s eyes were shining, and she just shook her head. “You’ll be better here with Madame Leung,” was all she said. Then she straightened up, and they said things to each other in a language that I didn’t know. Mister Chandar squeezed my shoulder and then they left the airlock.
They left me on this new ship and I couldn’t do anything about it.
So I screamed.
Madame Leung dragged me to quarters inside her ship. Another woman joined her to wrangle me. They locked me in, and through the intercom she said, “I’ll come back when you’re done.”
That was it. No matter how much noise I made, nobody came.
Madame Leung told me everything. Captain Kahta and Mister Chandar didn’t feel they could provide me with the best, they didn’t know how to handle me, and they feared for the other children on board because of the fights I got into.
The idea of saving me wasn’t as good as the reality.
“You’re getting worse,” Madame Leung said. “That won’t happen here.”
Captain Kahta wouldn’t take me back to the station from long ago, and the lady who had given me away in the first place didn’t ask.
“We’re busy ships!” said Madame Leung. “Who wants to go all the way back to a station to deal with that shit?”
It was easier, out here in deep space, to hand me to another family ship like Madame Leung’s. Her ship, Dragon Empress, transported medical drugs to far-flung stations and colonies in need. But Madame Leung and her crew weren’t a part of EarthHub’s humanitarian organizations.
“We’re not pirates,” she said. “I don’t attack places and murder people. We just provide a service.”
“Why do you want me?”
She crouched down in front of me. I was sitting on the bunk. The quarters were smaller than what I’d had on Chateaumargot. The lights were narrow pricks in the ceiling, like sunrays through bullet holes.
“I like kids, Paris. Kids grow up to be good soldiers. Like my boys. I have a lot of boys here as it is, they know their work. You’ll do great with them, you’ll see.”
Madame Leung said they were going to get my records purged. It would be easy since so many records of so many kids were all over the place, and with the right amount of money, people did anything you wanted. That way nobody would come looking for me.
Nobody was left to come looking for me anyway. When Madame Leung smiled at me, it was like she knew it too.
As far as Madame Leung was concerned, I was a Dragon. No longer a Rahamon, and definitely not an Azarcon. She never asked about my actual family or where I came from. I doubt she would’ve cared if Captain Kahta had offered the information. Captain Kahta, who trunked me off as someone else’s responsibility, likely hadn’t explained much about my origins.
I was physically healthy and mentally able to handle complex tasks. Madame Leung made me one of her boys and that was that. One in a crew of four hundred men and boys who followed her lead. The drug queen of the Dragons, the Dragon Empress. Deep space depended on her, she said, to cure it of its ills.
She didn’t mean the war or the aliens or the pirates. If you couldn’t change anything, you could at least anesthetize.
I dreamed of my family. My parents’ faces, their presence, blurred out from my memory like a vid not quite calibrated right. But my brothers, my protectors, they remained vivid.
I didn’t believe in guardian angels because seeing them only in my mind’s eye was more like hell.
Over the years under Madame Leung’s tutelage and the hammering of her “boys” to make me into her version of a good soldier, one who kept his mouth shut and evaded authorities on station, the memories trickled back. Like the first bits of dust that were the only evidence of an exploded star, the further I went into deep space with the Empress, the closer I came to my own past.
Maybe it was because of these adopted “brothers,” foisted on me, equipped with powers of loving persecution. Unlike the kids on Chateaumargot, Madame Leung’s gang accepted me with a rough sort of respect. The lady herself handpicked me, and though they didn’t spare me when she disciplined my rebellious nature, they offered security and freedom at the same time.
I carried a gun. I learned the trade of drug trafficking, of clandestine meetings on stations and in half-forgotten refugee colonies. Some of our clients were even EarthHub soldiers, more wary-eyed than we were but equally invested in the market. Some used our pharmaceuticals for their intended purposes, others didn’t. As long as they paid us, it was none of our business.
Adolescence passed in a haze of tattoos, training, and tradecraft. The colorful ink emblazoned on my arms and back were needle tapped in the ancient way, not with a gun. I marked my years by the images that flowered across my skin: a tiger, an Earth mountainscape, a constellation of stars, and of course, the elaborate golden dragon winding its way down my spine. Sometimes, at the height of my pain, when I lay across the horishi’s table, I heard my brothers’ voices, their ghosts whispered back in those moments.
Pain begat pain. What was the antidote for it? I’d been closest to Cairo. My oldest brother Bern held a more distant place, a peripheral shadow in the shape of our father. He’d fought back too, and the laser bolt slammed between his eyes.
Cairo’s voice surfaced with each needle puncturing into the shallow points beneath my skin.
He said, “Run, Puppy!”
His nickname for me. Because I was the baby.
Once, in the middle of the tattooing, I shoved at the pain. At the horishi. Blood scored across my skin, ruining the line she’d been drawing. I made her start on a new image. I’d seen it in the ship’s educational files while voraciously reading about an ancient civilization from a country I’d never seen.
I told her to ink an Egyptian ankh over my heart, and she didn’t ask.
Age was a meaningless thing in space, especially on a ship. Maybe I was some form of adult, chronologically in my twenties. But to look in the mirror was a different story altogether, with pictures that didn’t match up. Still a teenager to outside eyes. My own face reminded me of the ones who swam back to me in the dark, in sleep, in blissed out moments with occasional drugs in my system. We all took part, never to excess, but skating that line was a part of this world.
My third world. One was my heart, the second was my armor, and the third was my artillery. Two of those things protected the other.
I hung out with a boy named Soochan. He was a little more gentle than the other boys, probably because he was addicted to sweet leaf. He tended to smile, even when shit was going down around him, a beatific expression like a saint in the throes of religious epiphany. Once when a buyer tried to shaft us, Soochan was almost sorry. He made her face the wall of the station tunnel where we’d been doing the deal; his voice was so soft. “Just close your eyes, baby, and this won’t hurt a bit.” He whipped her once with his gun and kicked her a few times, then stole what he could off her body—an old platinum ring, her data dots. “Madame Leung don’t like stiffers,” he said. Still smiling.
On this ride between deals, the ship’s drives hummed like a hive of bees all around us. Soochan sprawled on my bunk, blowing smoke rings to the ceiling between slurred rambles. I tried to read, but the words upended and crawled over one another like roaches running from the light. Nothing made sense. Maybe it was the drugs, but the nightmares had been plentiful lately, taking my concentration into the dark.
In the middle of Soochan’s words, he said, “ . . . Azarcon . . . ”
My lulled focus sharpened like a shiv. From my seat on the deck with my legs outstretched, slate in hand, I said, “What?”
“What?” he echoed back, the corner of his mouth tilting upward as if giving coordinates to his eyes. Clouded by smoke and whatever wandering thoughts he let off the leash.
“You said something. A name.”
“Azarcon?” My name. My first world. Of course, he didn’t know.
“Don’t you read? Your head’s in that slate so damn much.” His hand flit, making the smoke from his sweet leaf cigret carve the air. “Captain Cairo Azarcon. EarthHub’s latest bulldog of deep space.”
I thought I was done collecting worlds. I thought Madame Leung had tied me to hers for the rest of my living days, one of her soldiers, one of her boys, all of the security and sanctimonious criminality of a group of people with no loyalty but to their own. Who needed more?
But this fourth world crashed into me and sheered to the side the next moment, casting me against my own armor.
“Captain Cairo Azarcon,” I said, like an invocation of the devil.
My brother lived.
When Captain Kahta had found me, had there been no others? Hadn’t she seen Cairo? Or had the pirates who had taken our colony also taken the one member of my family who’d lived and left nothing but the dead and thought-dead for the Chateaumargot to find.
There was nobody to ask.
I went on a treasure hunt around the Send. I excavated and saved every possible mention, note, and passing criticism lobbed toward my resurrected older brother. I became an Azarconologist, twice divorced from the name but like any spouse rendered obsolete by a new mate, I looked back with judgment. On myself if not on the one who’d left me.
I wanted to judge. I found shoddy pictures of a handsome man attached to reports of bravery and ruthless alien strit killing. He tended to avoid cams, so the only people who had a clear picture of him also had access to his military records or his daily life. But there was enough to see a resemblance. Dark eyes and dark hair. Tall. The kind of carriage in the spine that would rarely bend for anybody. He was the young scourge of aliens everywhere. He made his name as a fighter pilot but now commanded the spacecarrier Macedon. Specific corners of the Send said he was one to watch, like they were talking about a celebrity. The deep space war made military heroes.
My corner of the galaxy didn’t bow down to heroes. I didn’t care about the war.
He was a new father. Captain Cairo Azarcon was married and had a son.
I was an uncle.
What did blood mean?
I wanted to hate him. Didn’t he look for me? Couldn’t he have found me? In the entire galaxy, why didn’t his honed military skills somehow raze the stars for his little brother? Who told him I was dead, and why did he believe them? Why didn’t he refuse to stop looking until he had tangible proof of my death?
Neither of us were children now, and maybe, with so many years behind him, my brother also preferred to forget.
At Basquenal Rimstation 19, I met a woman at the bar and shacked up with her in a private den. After sex, she told me she was an investigative journalist and she’d been looking into my ship. She said this while smoking a cigret in my face. I was uniformly unsurprised. For some reason, when you had sex with a stranger, anything they said just seemed to go along.
“You think my ship’s a pirate? Because it isn’t. It’s not interesting enough to be a pirate.”
“No,” she said. She’d only told me her first name: Mabel. Her hair was long and silver but her face was young. Maybe from suspended aging treatments, so there was no telling her real age. Not that it mattered. “No,” she repeated. “Not a pirate, but they do recruit in unconventional ways.”
“Yeah?” I took the cigret from her and dragged. I could tell she was trying to read my eyes, but I’d been told enough times that I was “stoic,” that my stare walled people off and forced them to lay siege. So I watched her building a siege tower word by word.
“I found a node on the Send. Where the children are traded.”
She squinted at me as if this was supposed to mean something. When she didn’t get anything, she pressed on.
“They disguise it, of course. It looks like a parenting node where people are just talking about their kids. Getting advice. Arranging meet-ups at various stations. But there’re code words. Pictures and code words. These people know what to look for and how to ask for it.”
“Why are you telling me this? You want me to spy for your story?”
“No—but Paris, your name was there.” She glanced at my tags.
“My name Paris? Lots of kids are named Paris.” But my stomach began to form an ice rock, deep in the center.
“Isn’t your last name Rahamon?”
I hadn’t told her that. It wasn’t something you told to someone you just shacked with. And maybe she could read my eyes after all.
My last name wasn’t Rahamon. I was reminded every time I heard it.
She said, “I recognized your first name and your face. Your picture had been posted. You were a little boy but the resemblance is obvious.” She climbed off the bed and went to her clothes, which were strewn on the floor in our haste to get together. Her body was flawless in a way that probably spoke of enhancements, but I hadn’t really noticed in the act. Now, as she leaned down to fish something out of her jacket pocket, I just wanted to get away.
But I couldn’t seem to move from the bed. This room. Or out of my own skin. She returned, sliding back beside me with a slate in her hand. She brushed at it, and soon lines of text and an image popped up.
A photo of me. As a child. I knew my own face like you did a vague stranger. Difficult to place but not forgotten.
I looked away before I allowed myself to read the words beside the image. The cigret burned between my fingers, so I pulled on it some more.
“Bright, enthusiastic, inquisitive boy,” she read. It was obvious that she was reading from the text, not making up the words. “Energetic and requires a lot of attention and compassion. He’s had a rough history, but he’s sweet and capable of loving. A family without any other children would do well.”
“They write these posts like they’re advertising for pet swaps.”
“I said stop it.”
I climbed off the bed, flicked the cigret into the trash, and grabbed my clothes. “I was legitimately adopted. I don’t know what the hell you’re looking at.”
“Adopted by the Dragon Empress?”
No. And we both knew it.
I didn’t reply. Once I got my boots on, I grabbed my gun off the table and left her in the den.
All of my worlds were colliding.
Mabel found me at the bar, four drinks deep. Soochan was there, drunk and high too. “Heeey Mama,” he kept saying. Several of my other brothers from the Empress danced haphazardly to the music funneling in the center of the floor.
“Paris,” Mabel said, glancing at Soochan.
“Heeey Mama. Heeey Parchisi, she want your comm code?”
We ignored him. I wondered what either of them would do if they knew my real origin.
What should I be doing?
Everywhere I went now, I thought of my brother. Swapping drugs for cred or weapons, it was Cairo. Drinking myself into a stupor, it was Cairo. Fucking a woman, it was Cairo.
The ankh on my chest that I saw every day. What had possessed me to wear that reminder? My body was now a walking séance ritual, begging the ghosts to follow. To answer back, letter by letter, yes or no. I invited them now to shake my seating and short-circuit my tech. To stand behind me in the dark when I wandered the corners of the ship.
My brother was a ghost. The kind who made marks on the living.
“Please,” Mabel said. “We need to talk.”
How many kids were outside the system, like me? How many had been put into the system only to be torn out like a splinter? Children that couldn’t be handled so they were hijacked. Especially refugee kids, Mabel said. Good ships with good intentions found themselves over their heads and no longer wanted to deal with the kids.
It wasn’t a bad life, I heard myself telling her, the two of us in a corner booth while the music kept winding up and falling down and everyone around us moved like mannequins of broken robotics.
“Do you remember when you were taken?” she asked.
Do you remember? That question refused to pick another path. It hunted me everywhere.
“What’re you going to do,” I said. “Put me back? That ship has flown—literally.”
“I could find out if you have any family—”
“I don’t.” It came out of my mouth like every answer I’d given to anyone who asked. No family but the Dragon. No ship but the Dragon. No place but the Dragons. Deep space was our home. Mabel took it as stated and I carried on. “The captain of the Chateaumargot had checked. Or the case worker that I had—whoever. Social Services. I don’t even remember the name of the first station they’d put me at. They purged the records anyway.”
Mabel frowned. “The station?”
I gave her a flat stare then let her track my gaze to Soochan, still sitting at the bar mouthing off to the air.
“We’re not pirates but we’re not saints.”
What if, I thought. What if I gave this journalist my real world name?
Soochan suddenly appeared at my shoulder, leaning over the table. “Leh we go, Parchisi.”
“Be there in a second.” I pushed his hand away as it coursed through my hair. Big brother, except he wasn’t. He wandered off to hook up with our other brothers, now headed off the dance floor.
I had this information locked inside my chest. If I let it out, what other explosion would it cause? Would that birth yet another world, one that I couldn’t predict or control? Another situation I couldn’t defend myself against?
No one could know.
To Mabel: “Can you do me a favor?”
Her eyebrows arched.
“Whatever you need for your story, I’ll tell you. As a source. No names, on your word.”
She nodded. “Anonymous. I promise.”
“Because you know what I’ll do if you break our deal.”
She’d seen the gun. More importantly she’d seen the ink on my body and read the affiliation well enough.
“What’s your question?” she said.
“Find out Macedon’s next port of call.” I did, in the end, slip her my comm code. “And let me know ASAP.”
Somehow she came through. The message on my system said simply: Austro Station. And gave a date.
It wasn’t difficult to go to Austro Station, despite what we did for a living. Austro was a main hub even for us, with its rampant underdeck activity and illicit commerce. I didn’t have to mention a thing to Madame Leung, beyond the usual conversation about scoring big there. We bought and sold drugs at Austro for the rich elite in the higher modules because exploitation was the true ecosystem of the galaxy.
The Dragon Empress docked at the station a day after Macedon. To the galaxy outside, we were basic trade merchants in harmless cargo like transsteel and mechanical goods. It was a different story for the boys Madame Leung sent off in other directions on deck. I was one of that crew.
Now I had to conjure my brother’s face—in the delicate balance of stalking the dock where the carriers were moored, not going too close, but hovering outside the broad doors to catch every person that flowed back and forth. Casing the airlock directly was impossible in such a restricted area. Instead, I disappeared from my Dragon brothers in the hopes of seeing another. Hiding myself behind garish kiosks and aromatic food stalls. I felt like a pervert, but maybe that was fitting. A perverse turn in my life. As if the universe agreed, it made me wait and gave me ample opportunity to get the fuck out of there.
Of course I didn’t.
I wanted to see him. I recognized his walk before anything else. In all the years, that detail hadn’t changed. He was taller, and he tried to hide beneath a hoodie and civilian clothes, passing through the concourse toward the carrier docks. But I knew those shoulders and the gait of someone who knew where he was going. He didn’t cover up out of fear, but from stealth.
I moved with him, slipping along the edges of the crowd between his path and mine. It took me a minute to notice the child.
A little boy. Maybe four or five, but who could tell? They held hands. The boy carried a stuffed bear wearing soft armor, its furry ears dragging on the deck.
I was that age once. Cairo held my hand like that.
It’s me, I wanted to shout. As if those two words could make up for a decade or more as some humans reckoned time.
It happened all at once; the little boy said something and Cairo leaned down to pick him up in his arms, barely breaking stride. Smaller arms went around broad shoulders. The bear dropped to the deck in their wake and Cairo kept walking, oblivious.
I saw the boy open his mouth to protest and then I was there. The crowd was no longer a wall. I hadn’t made the conscious decision, but I found myself holding the stuffed toy, reaching to touch Cairo’s arm.
He turned before I could tap him, sensing proximity maybe. Or his son’s distress. The little boy twisted in his arms to keep his own eyes on the toy, reaching toward it. Toward me.
“He dropped this,” I heard myself say.
My brother wasn’t the only one covered up. My hood was pulled low, long sleeves covered all of my ink. Maybe he saw my mouth move but that was it. I stared somewhere at his chest and below. At the blue boots his son wore, dangling at his side.
The bear left my outstretched hands, plucked to safety.
“What do you say, Ryan?” A deep voice. But I knew that accent.
Meridian. Like mine. What it had been three worlds ago.
“Thank you,” a small voice said.
“Thank you,” my brother said.
I just nodded.
They turned to go. He wasn’t going to waste time on a stranger.
I looked up as they moved further into the concourse crowd, still headed toward the carriers. Cairo didn’t turn around, but his son was looking over his shoulder, holding the armored bear in his arms.
The boy had blue eyes. Not like mine. Not like his father’s. Big, searching blue eyes that stared at me as if he knew. Ryan, Cairo had said. My nephew.
I didn’t follow them. They walked away and I stayed where I was, the ghost they left behind.
Now all I do is remember.
My fourth world is the clearest. Sun bright and comet swift, all I can do is chase it. Maybe one day I’ll be able to enter in again. Like it’s a room left open for me. Like a voice offering a greeting, something as simple as hello. Maybe next time I’ll look up and stare him straight in the eyes, dark eyes like mine, with just enough tilt at the corners to speak of our common ancestry. His son’s gaze was a start, but it was only the edge of the solar system. There’s more.
Soochan found me sitting on the deck outside of the carrier docks. He twitched, all nervous.
“Them Marines gonna sweep you away from their stoop, you can’t stay here. Come back to the Empress.”
He didn’t ask why I was sitting there. Maybe he thought I was high.
I’m waiting for them to come back, I wanted to say. But of course I didn’t. It wasn’t the truth anyway. What would I say in that moment if they had?
I’m your brother, take me with you? Take my DNA and test it against yours. Check how far back we’re connected. Tell me where you’ve been all this time, when time slipped so easily between the stars. What war are you fighting? Will you fight mine for a while?
Save me just this once.
Come back, my brother. Come back, Cairo. You’re tattooed on my skin, beneath my heart, inside my blood. I tried to forget you, but nothing worked.
I want you to hear me say our family name. I’ll only say it to you. No one else would understand what it means.
You were my first world.
Originally published in Where the Stars Rise, edited by Lucas K. Law and Derwin Mak.