Nexus 3, Chapter 3

I made it around the corner, full of a desire to stomp or be stomped. But the kind of kicking that came down the hall in my direction wasn’t the right kind of masochism at all.

“You look like hell,” Elle said flatly.

“She means the rigors of our circumstance are showing,” Sam soothed.

“He knows what I mean- and it’s more complex than that.”

Sam’s chromatophores shifted blue, the rough equivalent to my cheeks going red when my mother first asked about my sex life. “I… didn’t mean to…”

“Inject yourself into our relationship?” Elle asked, and if you didn’t know her like I did, you might have thought she was about to bite clean through Sam’s neck, but the corner of her mouth turned up, in a sad little smile, because a part of her knew that Sam and I had been… involved when we reconnected. “Lot of that going around,” she added. There was a lightness in her voice that said she was acknowledging that was exactly what she’d inadvertently done when we thought Sam died on some planet whose name I couldn’t even remember now; there was no moral high ground here for any of us. But she couldn’t let herself linger on our situation; none of us could. “But we aren’t here for the parade of awkwardness that is our interrelations. We’re here to tell you we’re taking the first pod.”

“You say that like I should understand what you’re getting at,” I said.

“The prototype two-man pod. We’re taking its maiden voyage. Both to preempt you from selfishly taking it, and to keep you from using it as an excuse to keep from making your decision. Which you will do, by the time we get back. Or you lose us both.”

I wanted to fight, but the fight had gone out of me. My clone and I had idly discussed the idea, but we never really wanted to take it; we were going through the motions, fulfilling a role we felt we had to play, and at the same time knowing it didn’t matter, wouldn’t help anything, wouldn’t fix any of the things that were broken, or even delay the doom that was chasing us. “Isn’t that giving me a grace period?”

“We considered that,” Elle said. “But Sam’s pretty sure you’re no closer to deciding than the day we learned she was still among us. PsychDiv’s certain you never will; she apparently made a bet with Clew over it… the stakes of which I begged not to know about.”

“Clew?”

“Your clone,” Sam said, “the Drew clone.”

“And you didn’t go with ‘Drone?’”

“What did I say?” Elle deadpanned, pretending to glare at Sam… who was more confused than anything by it, until she inadvertently picked up enough telepathically to understand the underlying joke.

“I’m pretty sure I know what she bet,” I said.

“Please don’t tell me,” Elle said.

“Which means my clone must be confident; I wouldn’t take chances with that kind of bet.”

“I really super don’t want to know…”

“He’s right,” Sam said, “and so are you.”

“So I’m curious what my younger half thinks I’m going to do?”

“Oh no,” Elle said. “I’ve already sworn him to secrecy. I’m not letting you get demoralized or overconfident because of something your test-tube copy said.”

“Those were my two options? No chance that he and I could commiserate, and that I could draw strength from him?”

“Not much,” she said. “But you can still talk to him. Get whatever kind of support you can.”

“She’s right,” Sam said. “It doesn’t really matter what he thinks you’ll do. What matters is knowing wouldn’t help, and she’s probably right that it would likely hurt.”

“I feel like you’re ganging up on me,” I said, and I just didn’t have it in me to keep playing along. I sighed. “Wish I could say I didn’t deserve it…”

“Don’t get morose like a dick,” Elle said.

“Right,” Sam nodded. “This isn’t something you did. It’s something that happened to us- all of us.” “That’s still happening,” Elle added.

“It was tolerable,” Sam started, “when you pined for Elle. I understood that love. I shared it, with you. But it isn’t ours, anymore. It’s just yours. And so is her child.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, because it was all I could say. And every apology just made it all hurt worse, because they didn’t blame me for what happened. I know it hurt, that I hadn’t be able to figure out how to stop loving one of them. But every time I told them I was sorry- and I was- I think it just hit each of us that much harder that this wound wasn’t closing- couldn’t close- not without hurting one of us even more.

Elle shifted on her feet, pain distorting her face for a moment, and in profile I saw her baby bump, and I saw a glimmer of a hope of stopping them from taking the same kind of stupid risk I’d taken too often. “Come here,” I said, and led them to some seating a hundred meters down the hall.

Elle’s face softened, as she realized why I’d led them to a few chairs near one of the big windows. I helped her lower herself awkwardly into one of the chairs.

I bit my lip. “I’m trying to be delicate, here, because I’m sure you’ve thought through it more thoroughly than I have, but what about the baby? Is it safe to take her?”

“This isn’t Sontem’s ship anymore. I’m not just a uterus on legs, and the ship can’t spare me until the brat’s in classes.”

“But we can spare you for a jaunt off-ship?”

“I deserve some R & R. Away from this place. Away from our shit. Away from,” she couldn’t look at me, and her voice got quiet as she added, “you.”

“I’m sorry. For everything.”

“Stop apologizing,” she said, rising from her seat enough to shove me back. “Stop staring at me with those puppy fucking eyes.”

“I have puppy-fucking eyes?” I asked. “That sounds horrifying. And kind of uncalled for. Even if it is true, that’s not the kind of thing you tell a person.” I rubbed my eyes for effect. “Wait, just so we’re clear, is this eye-fucking in the traditional sense, as in someone leering at puppies in a way that makes everyone in the pet store uncomfortable? Or are we talking the look in a man’s eyes when he’s mid-coitus with a puppy, which is definitely so much worse? I- God help me, I now need to know really badly.”  

Elle sighed, and the littlest hint of smile crossed her lips. She hit me in the shoulder, like we were on the same little league team. “Thanks.” It was hard, everything that was happening. None of us wanted to be in the situation we were in… and none of us could navigate a way out. The way I loved Elle, always had, probably always would, the joy I felt over being the father of her child, all of it was so different from how I loved Sam. She knew me in a way that Elle never would, never could, likely couldn’t stomach, even if somehow it were possible.

I wished I could cut myself in half, and try to make both of them as happy as I could; the thought of not making one of them happy was so much harder than the ship hunting us down, and somewhat ironically, my clone was dating someone else, someone who I’d screwed up with in a way I couldn’t recover from- but that he could.

I realized then, that they were sharing a look, and just how fucked that meant I was. Sam fixed me, and it was the look of a woman who knew my worst moments, who had felt my deepest hurts, and was cracking my heart delicately, like an egg. She sighed. “I can-” Elle offered, but Sam put up her hand.

“Let me. This is an ultimatum. We discussed it, that Elle may be hard-nosed, but is soft-hearted; it means you don’t always take her words to at face value. But I am not inclined towards hyperbole, and often struggle to be assertive. So hear me when I say, either you can choose between us before the first pod launch, or we will take it ourselves, buying you the time it takes for us to return.”

“Whatever you choose,” Elle said, taking Sam’s hand, “we want you to be a part of my pregnancy. However else this plays out, you’ll always be the father of my child.”

“I appreciate that,” I said, feeling like a man who had just been moved from the uncertainty of being on Death Row for years, to finally having his date on the calendar.

The thought of a calendar reminded me of all of the logistical tech built into our HUDs, including the memo about the scrum between the Meh-Teh and the Argus crewmembers. “Crap,” I said. “While I’ve got you, I should probably…”

“If it’s about the brawl, I’m working the problem.”

“Which is?”

“That the culture aboard the Nexus is vastly different than the one aboard the Argus. Or that the Meh-Teh are used to, for that matter.”

“Oh?”

She rolled her eyes, uncertain if I was trying to have her help me think out loud or if it was another memo I’d spaced. “The Argus may have technically been organized around the same basic corporate boilerplate mission statement as the Nexus. But the crew was almost entirely military security veterans, people whose experience of contact with aliens was of the ‘shoot first, let god sort it out’ variety. The Meh-Teh were not a cooperative species, even within their species. Add a xenophobic, martially-minded cohort who blame said alien bears for their defeat and you have conflict.”

“And what has PsychDiv said?”

“The Argus cohort do score higher than the Nexus crew on the Xenophobia Scale… but PsychDiv think that’s conquerable.” I tilted my head to induce her to continue. “Basically, some portion of xenophobia, like most biases, can be defeated by long-term, positive interactions with the object of the phobia. Fear gay people, get a gay friend and you’ll be less homophobic. Fear trans people, then have an uncle transition, and you get less transphobic. Fear sex workers, and find out your favorite grandmother stripped to put your mother through school, and your world-view adjusts. The Argus crew aren’t born bigots- they were taught it, and through a MilSec career had it encouraged as a survival mechanism. So if we can get them to stop being toxically masculine long enough to have a beer with the Meh-Teh, well, the situation likely sorts itself out.”

“Huh,” I said. I could practically hear the rusted gears in my head starting to turn. “I’m frightened,” Elle said. “He’s forming an idea.”

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