I had left them—my family, Earth, all of it—purposefully and without doubt. I had planned to be away for years. Even so, on the lonelier nights, in the quiet of my grim residential cell, I pored over every sentence, watched every clip of video, studied every picture until I had every face and landscape memorized. Tonight was no different. I took a breath and held it while I read about how much Devon's son, Michael, loved his dance classes, how disappointed his daughter Renee was to be second in her class rather than first, how little Phoebe was already walking—Devon had included a still photo, so much cheaper to send than a video, and I told myself it was almost as good as seeing her toddle recklessly through the garden, a whirlwind of curly brown hair and big brown eyes and freckles dotted across her nose. From the day of her birth our parents had claimed Phoebe looked so much like me as a baby it was uncanny, but all I could see in her rosy little face was my brother's eyes and my brother's smile.
Devon did not mention the woman he had been dating, so I assumed that was over and retroactively decided I had never liked her anyway. He asked me how I was doing in a way that suggested he wasn't expecting an answer. I read all about the spat Mum had recently gotten into with her longtime academic rival about which foreign scholar would be invited to spend a year in their department. Dad was, apparently, experimenting in the kitchen again, this time with recipes based on ancient Greek texts and involving a great deal of garum.
That, more than anything else, stuck in my chest like a fistful of glass shards. I missed Dad's meals, the good and the awful. I missed our noisy family dinners. I missed stepping into the too-warm kitchen to see our parents' heads tilted together conspiratorially, Dad's ginger hair and Mum's long dark plait both alight in the evening sun. I missed inhaling the scent of spices, crowding around the table with knees bumping and elbows jostling, and gratefully accepting leftovers before the walk home.
I dropped my mostly clean boot to the floor. I should have gone to the canteen for a beer. I should have surrounded myself with people, with pointless conversation, with food that at least pretended to be something other than tasteless meal bar. I closed Devon's message, knowing I would read it again later, and opened the next.
It was a private video message, which was enough to make me wary. Nobody I actually wanted to hear from had the finances to splurge for a video message to Hygiea. The lack of identified sender meant it was probably another reporter, another doctor, another lawyer trying to get past Parthenope's filters and offer miracles to the survivors of the Symposium disaster. Or, worse. Black Halo sympathizers spitting empty threats across space, or the families of survivors begging me to join some pointless activist group. It could be another pervert wanting to tell me about their implausible cybernetic fantasies or another scientist wanting to redefine humanity. Those with avarice in their eyes were bad enough; those whose soggy expressions glistened with pity were worst. I hated them all. I had stopped telling them to go fuck themselves months ago. Answering only made them more persistent.
With a swoop in my gut like falling from a great height, I paused the message in shock.
Pale face, pale hair, blue eyes. His name was David Prussenko. Former head robotics engineer for the Titan Research Project. His life, like mine, had been ruined with the destruction of Symposium.
David was paler than I remembered, his hair thinner, his face more gaunt. The past two years had not treated him well. He would likely say the same of me.
I let the message play.
"Haven't heard from you in a little while. I know you're busy, as always. What's up?"
I frowned. I had not spoken to David since the day we had given our final statements to a trio of Outer Systems Administration officials in a lofty corporate office here on Hygiea, some eighteen months ago. Like me, he had endless medical debts and no way to afford a journey back to Earth, so he had also take Parthenope's offer of employment. But we didn't keep in touch. We never talked. We never contacted each other at all. I had always assumed he agreed it would be too painful.
David paused, fidgeted a little, glanced quickly to the side. It looked like he was alone in his private quarters; I could see an unmade bed behind him. On the wall above the bed, its corner just visible over David's shoulder, was an image that made my breath catch again. It was a map of Titan, identical to ones David had always used to decorate his living spaces both on Earth an aboard Symposium. I couldn't see it clearly, but I would have recognized it anywhere.
"I'm still on Nimue." He cleared his throat. He was nervous about something; every time he hesitated I grew more tense. I had no idea why he would be contacting me in an anonymous message. He went on, "You know the shining jewel in the company's crown and all that shit. It's all sysadmin stuff. Overseer wrangling. I still think you'd be better at this job than I am—but those machines would bore you, I think. Maybe not. Maybe they're your style after all."
This excerpt is from the paperback edition.
Monday, June 28th, we begin the book Fleet Elements by Walter Jon Williams.