“Oh my god,” Ji sighed, steam rising around her head as she lowered herself slowly into the almost too-warm water. Her shoulder had been throbbing all morning, like a pulsing coal at the top of her arm, and she sighed with relief as the pain spot touched the water.
“I know, right?” grinned Claire. Her wife gently pulled her into a hug, her arms carefully not touching Ji’s shoulder. “What took you so long?”
Claire and the kids had been in the pool for an hour, along with what seemed like all the other refugees from Thule’s E Dorms. Dozens of families were lounging, a few were doing laps in the deep end, and kids were shrieking with laughter as they played in the geothermal-heated pool.
Ji sighed, feeling the water leech the pain from her shoulder. To tell the truth, part of her didn’t want to believe this was real. A heated pool. For them. After all they had been through the past year…
It was like the last bubble on the soap. If she popped it, the dream would end and they’d wake back up in the Novosibirsk shelters…
But she felt the water lap the pain from her aching body, watched Crys and Cassia scream with laughter as they competed to see who could splash the most water up each other’s nose.
“Mommy look! Look what I can do!” Crys shouted in her brand new Haas-Bioroid Skinmeld swimsuit – sparkling cerulean, her favorite color – moments before grabbing her nose and ducking under the water, flipping like a dolphin. Her feet breached the water moments before her head did, laughing as she wiped the water from her eyes. “Did you see? Did you see?”
“I saw, baby, well done!” Ji said, feeling the infection of her daughter’s joy spreading through her chest, warmer than the water, warmer than the pain.
“That’s great baby but did you check for…” Claire grinned, planting her feet against the pool edge, her teeth all showing. “Sharks?”
“NOO!!!” screamed the hapless victims as their mother pushed off the wall and cannoned straight into them, the two girls howling with laughter as Claire grabbed them both around the waist. “GOING DOWN!” Claire screamed as her two girls squealed before getting deservedly dunked.
Ji’s face hurt. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen Cassia smile, or Claire laugh. Her wife was laughing now as both her daughters, realizing that war had been declared, engaged in the most dastardly of payback tactics: the tickle monsters.
“Ji?” said a smooth voice by her ear.
Ji turned to see an Emily squatting daintily by the pool edge. 3K19B2 was printed neatly on the collar – their case worker.
“Hi Emily,” Ji put on a smile, hiding the wince in her shoulder as she tried to turn around, but the bioroid’s eyes flicked to it instantly.
“I’ll put in an order for more pain medicines,” said their Emily, smiling gently. “Does the water help?”
“Kinda” hovered on her tongue but her family’s intense, spontaneous joy made her say “Yes,” instead.
“I’m glad the swimsuits fit,” Emily smiled again, as if she wasn’t able to measure every millimeter of their frames with a single glance. “I won’t take long today, Ji. Just wanted to stop by for a brief checkup.”
Emily held out her pad, and Ji raised her wrist so the bioroid could scan the bracelet she wore. All of her family had one, their data all routed together.
“Wow, record dopamine levels across the board,” Emily smiled, showing Ji the readout. The graph was gibberish to her, but Ji smiled politely anyway. “I’m so glad you’ve been adjusting to life at Thule.”
“Thanks,” Ji said, not knowing what else to say.
“Hm, your screen has been malfunctioning again,” Emily frowned.
“Yeah, the kids keep getting woken up.” Ji said, grateful at last to have something to complain about. Life at Thule was fiercely tripping her too-good-to-be-true senses. The other shoe was going to hit like a fallen mech.
“I’ll flag maintenance again,” Emily said, before leaning in closer with a conspiratorial whisper. “Actually… there’s a reason I came while Claire and the kids were busy.”
Another tap of the pad to the bracelet. Ji saw the readout on the little plasscreen and the pool came to a still.
This time the tears did flow. Ji tried to pretend she just got some pool water in her eye but she couldn’t stop the scrunching of the face or the choked sob. “Thank you,” she said softly, leaning out of the pool and giving the bioroid a one-armed hug, her severed shoulder shaking as she cried.
“It’s, what do you humans say, no big deal?” Emily smiled again. “Anything we can do to make your stay at Thule more comfortable.” The next words were in that same just-between-you-and-me whisper. “The closest outlet is just outside the pool to the left. You can tell them you’re taking them to meet me.”
What Ji remembered of the rest of that day at Thule – the last good day, as she would bitterly whisper to Claire later – was the look on the twins’ faces when the bioroid at the desk told them exactly what their birthday present was. Captain Hughes had been 17 when they were at the shelter and they had been forced to bury him in the permafrost with his collar on top of the small mound of gray ice.
“We can bring him back,” the bioroid had smiled at her children, pulling up a perfect holo recreation of Captain Hughes down to the little white patch under his chin. “From your memories. The bracelets you’re wearing have been monitoring your brain signals. He’ll be… a little heavier than you might remember, but from our data we’re confident we can get his personality, mannerisms, even that weird growl he used to make when he stared out the window…”
Tears. Hugs. The replicant Captain Hughes meowing for the first time when they woke him up in their apartment later that evening. Claire grunting as she tried to pick him up for the first time. The twins sobbing as they held their beloved cat between them. The quietest snores as they all went to bed together, Captain Hughes 2.0 making a dent in the bed so deep Ji had to inch away to fall asleep.
“Oh sorry,” Ji said a week later when she reported to the case office for her weekly follow up with Emily. “Is… Emily okay?”
“She will be,” said the woman who was not Emily, smiling knowingly. “I’m Zu. Is your screen still turning on in the middle of the night and making weird noises?”
Ji stared at the woman, who was wearing a headscarf and the bright white uniform that case workers wore. “You’re not a bioroid.”
“Well-spotted,” Zu smirked. “Your lieutenant got in touch. Think of us as friends.”
Screams. Fire. Her arm crushed beneath the orbital mech. Ji’s shoulder burned.
“Thule is up to something,” Zu said in the manner of someone who had a lot to say and not a lot of time to say it. “And I’m told you’d be interested in helping us find out what it is.”
Ji watched Zu’s smile fade, then realized she was snarling.
“I don’t know who you are,” Ji hissed. “But you stay the FUCK away from my kids!”
“I have no interest in endangering your new life here,” Zu said, flicking a data disk out of her sleeve and sliding it across the desk. “No one will know you helped us. But Thule is recording you, and your wife, and your kids, and everyone else here. All of it. Those bracelets are doing things Haas-Bioroid should not be able to do.”
Ji stood silently, her eyes burning.
“Put the disk next to your screen,” Zu said. “The next time it ‘glitches’, we’ll be able to intercept what it’s transmitting, and to whom. From there we can untangle the knot of what’s going on here. After that you can get rid of it. Just toss it in the garbage at lunch. Or… if you want to contact us again, there’s a secure channel ID on the back. We can get all four of you out. If you want.”
“Why me?” Ji hissed, her entire weight rested on her back foot, ready to spring forward.
“Something your lieutenant told us,” Zu smiled.
“Was it some bullshit about always being ready to do the right thing?” Ji growled. “I’m done with the right thing. Fuck the right thing. What has the right thing ever done for me and my family?”
Zu laughed. “Yeah… xie said you’d say that. No, it was what you said earlier. No one fucks with your family. Not even the megacorp with the heated pool and the free cat.”
Zu’s pad beeped. “Listen, I gotta get back to my ship. Tallulah’s waiting for me with Sub 2.” She touched the door control. “Hide the disk. Emily’s about to wake up.”
“What?” Ji said, but Zu had slipped away just as Emily sprang up from behind her desk, looking mildly confused.
“Oh! Ji!” Emily smiled, recovering from whatever it was that had just been done to her. “You’re early for our meeting! That’s great.”
Ji sat down to hide her hand sliding the disk into her pocket. “Yeah,” she put on a smile, letting Emily scan her bracelet.
“Is Captain Hughes settling in well?”
Zu’s face slid across the inside of Ji’s mind. She’d never told Emily the cat’s name.
“I’m really sorry that maintenance hasn’t been round to fix your screen making noise in the middle of the night,” Emily sighed, pulling up a holo display. Lots of red text. “With the new construction, it’s just been hard to get a slot…”
“You know what?” Ji said, a little bit too fast. “Just go ahead and cancel the maintenance request.”
“Are you sure?” Emily blinked, her finger hovering by the display.
The disk in her pocket felt like it was on fire.
“Don’t worry about it,” Ji put on her biggest smile. “Anyway, the cat’s been snoring so loudly, I doubt we’ll even notice.”
Parhelion will be released digitally on December 9, 2022, on Jinteki.net and as pay-what-you-want print-and-play files, and, on December 12, 2022, as physical cards via Null Signal Games’s store, our print-on-demand partners, and our authorized resellers.