Specialist Martin Coyle gripped the steering shaft with one hand and sat on the other. He liked to feel the back of his leg through his praxoline flight pants. He held his hand there, smashed between leg and seat, and growled at the oncoming day, wretchedly full of tasks and requirements, interactions and reports and subordinate behavior. He didn't want to fly into it, but he couldn't fly away. His routes were preset and programmed. He could only decide between them.
Coyle's meds had worn off well before dawn, when Targon's three purple suns rose over the crusted, burnt horizon. His company had spent the morning shooting tranq harpoons into Tank Three. The most recent crop of inseminators was restless; their gills had failed and their brains weren't getting enough oxygen. Coyle's unit had wrestled one of the largest proboscites into a tank by itself.
Coyle decided to go down to the Tubes and relieve himself with Exme, a soft, muscular, podquatch he had been seeing regularly for three years. These visits were against regulation, but all the guys did it. As long as you didn't wear out the spawning vessel, or interfere with her reproductive functions, Captain Gribbin looked the other way.
Coyle sighed with anticipation of what he almost thought of as a date, even though the podquatch wasn't sentient. This actually made it all the more appealing. His wife would call him sexist for thinking this, and maybe she would be right. She would be unhappy about the whole arrangement, come to think of it.
Coyle switched on his ultra-beams. It was a narrow passage down into the blackness of the Tubes. He docked his needle and climbed straight from the cockpit into Exme's pillowy petals, where he slipped into position and closed his eyes almost involuntarily. He let the rest unfold in its beautiful wordless way. Coyle needed this. Gribbin had forty-eight men up here, all between the ages of eighteen and sixty. In ten years, no one had cracked up. It wasn't the emotional reports or the spiritual inventories. It was the spawning vessels.
What made it so good? Would Coyle trade Exme for his former relationship with his current wife, Barb? He clearly recalled their painful moments together at the kitchen table. Kids finally asleep upstairs in bed, he and Barb would face each other across the formica, across the dirty forks and spoons, the unfinished applesauce on faded Archies plates. Coyle would occasionally glance outside, through windows that looked out on his neighbor's garbage cans, lidless and battered, exposed. Every night, he and Barb would sit that way, like scared kids with a Ouija board, waiting for a message from whatever soul was left between them. They were trapped between death and peace.
But Barb didn't really need to consult a voice from beyond. She had her own voice. And well she knew how to use it. Coyle could hear that voice in his head, even while wrapped up with Exme, safe on Targon, galaxies away.
"Did you hear what I just said?" Barb wanted to know. She needed a clear response from her husband. And when she didn't get one, her green eyes would pin him down like a prize butterfly; but Coyle was no prize. Barb always made that clear.
"Yes, Barb, I heard you."
"Then what did I just say?"
"You asked if I understood why it was a bad idea to serve the kids Hi-C in wine glasses. Jenny wanted to feel special, so I let her have it, then Scott wanted one, too. But I won't do it again. I get why it's dumb. I said yes, I get it. It was a dumb idea."
"Martin, you're just yes ma'am-ing me. I can tell."
Barb. She spent most of her time in the clothes she wore for aerobics: tights, a loose sweatshirt with the neck torn out, and a ponytail pulled back from her pretty, pale face. She loved her pink lipstick, and lined the edges of her lips with a darker color, even after kissing the kids goodnight. She freshened up for Johnny Carson, or Agatha Christie. Ms. Christie, she took to bed.
Exme didn't wear lipstick. Exme didn't have lips. And a podquatch couldn't tell a yes ma'am from a drop of artificial rain. Exme just enfolded and pulsed and throbbed until Coyle was completely drained. Then she gently washed him off and pushed him out through her back flaps. Feeling much better, he climbed into his needle and booted it up. There was a Code Hex message looping on his interna-com.
"All tank patrols are to report to base immediately," growled Captain Gribbin. By the time Coyle had circled back, the other guys were all seated in the assembly room, fidgeting, whispering to each other in anticipation of what Gribbin was going to say. Maybe there had been a breakthrough in the breeding procedures, or maybe a white-coat had fried himself in the conception pool. It had happened before.
"Men. Soldiers. Colleagues," the captain said with his usual flair for self-important drama. "The Breed Team has made an exciting breakthrough. It will no doubt thrill our associates back on Earth when we reach them with our findings. God willing."
Gribbin cleared his throat and the Targonauts moved about uncomfortably in their chairs. On Targon, God didn't get mentioned too often, not anymore. They had brought along a chaplain, but he had died of a heart attack three months after arrival. Since then, the whole idea of God had kind of faded. For everyone. Even Jakes and Thale, who came up pounding their Bibles and whispering about the Rapture.
"Two of the new proboscites," said Gribbin, "from Tank 6, have shown themselves to have great promise. They are identical twins, from our Cloning Initiative. They show encouraging signs of peacefulness and stability, so far unheard of in our young species. The breeders are all very excited."
Maybe the white-coats were excited. The Targonauts were just waiting to find out which janitorial task Gribbin had in mind. Coyle's cabin-mate, Emmett "Pug" Hiller, leaned over and said, "Who's gonna nurse the babies?"
Coyle would have laughed along, if he still cared about being friends with Pug. But friends are overrated, and Coyle was tired of Pug, who had been spending far too much time in the Tubes. His eyes were getting glassy and his skin had a pale, blotchy look to it. His laugh had turned into a high, panting wheeze, a whinny.
Gribbin followed the bizarre noise to its source. "Hiller, do you need me to call a medic?" Pug covered his mouth with his hand.
"They have names for the twins," Gribbin continued. "Sebastian and Gabe. They can breathe underwater, but they pucker a bit in what passes for air on this snot-ball. We have no idea how they will do on Earth. But since we have two of them, and they are both healthy, we're going to send one of the samples down. Immediately."
Every Targonaut snapped to his most erect posture. Coyle, on the other hand, slouched in his seat. He felt sick. Hell no. Absolutely not. No interest. Thank you, but no.
True, he had been on Targon for over ten years. But only three months had gone by in Colorado. Barb was still putting up French Impressionist posters in her new house. And the kids were still going around in the same trashy coordinates from Sears. He hadn't even been gone long enough for Barb to find a best friend on the new base. She would, though. She was hungry like that.
"That's it," said Gribbin. "We'll reconvene and debrief tomorrow at 0800. For now, no visits to the Tubes. Everyone stay close; either your sleeping hatch or one of the recreation modules. One of you is shipping out tomorrow."
When the Captain gathered up his papers and left the room, the Targonauts broke into jeering speculation. Pug and another cabin mate, Reggie Thale, immediately appeared at Coyle's side and started to usher him out of the room.
"Better pack your things," said Pug. "You're the one he'll send. You're the only one of us with brains."
Thale said, "I'm gonna give you a list of things to bring back for me."
Two hours later, Coyle was sitting on the uncomfortable steel bench that was built, grotto-style, into the back wall of Gribbin's office. Behind his desk, Gribbin made a big show of decoding a string of chits from the station mainframe. Coyle was armed with two pages of hastily scribbled reasons he must refuse the mission. He opened his mouth, but Gribbin held up his hand.
He said, "You're familiar with the way the military works."
Coyle leaned forward. "I've been in the army for thirteen—"
"So shut the fuck up. You're going back to Earth."
Coyle sat on his hands and stared at his persecutor. The office was airless and sour; Gribbin's breath kept all but his lower-ranked hostages away. Of course, a podquatch has no sense of smell. Gribbin spent a lot of time in the Tubes.
"Greta?" shouted Gribbins. "We're ready!"
It was no secret; there was one female scientist on the Breed Team, Dr. Greta Sanchez. The brass had prevented the Targonauts from coming into contact with her, and Coyle had almost forgotten she was up there. She seated herself beside him on the bench and gave him a sloppy salute. She was wearing a lab coat and thick-framed glasses. She looked like a brunette in a comic book who, on a signal, would strip off her egghead costume and reveal enormous, white tits and gams up to her eyeballs. But there was no signal, and Dr. Sanchez didn't rip off her lab coat.
"Are you married?" she asked him.
"You know that I am," said Coyle.
"And you have two adorable children," said Dr. Sanchez. "I have pictures of them right here."
Dr. Sanchez tried to hand the photos to him, but Coyle refused to take them. She put them away . . .for the moment. She would try again, and he didn't hate her for it. Barb would have pulled something sly like that. Barb was plenty smart . . .she would have made a very good NASA scientist. She could have succeeded at anything she had wanted, but she hadn't wanted, so she started having babies instead.
"What I am suggesting, or proposing," said Dr. Sanchez, "is that the Targonaut who escorts Gabriel in his earthbound vessel be as pleasing to the visual apparatus as possible. These two creatures simply do not thrive among the ugly. I hand picked you for this purpose, Officer Coyle. And I won't be dissuaded."
"Flattered and honored," muttered Coyle. He glanced at the photo of his children, who both looked more like him than Barb. With their black hair, blue eyes, and jutting chins, they too looked like descendants of Superman. Barb wasn't in the picture, which Dr. Sanchez strategically left lying face-up on the bench between them. It was a photo he had never seen. Jenny and Scott were in brightly colored ski-clothes, squinting in the Rocky Mountain sunshine. Maybe they were learning to ski. Who was teaching them? Barb couldn't even walk to the mailbox without losing her balance.
"Thank you for placing your faith in me," said Coyle, pulling his eyes away from the photo. It was probably a fake. "But I really must refuse. I came up here with personal goals of my own, and until—"
"We know how important it is to you," said Dr. Sanchez. "To be a good father."
"Oh that," said Coyle. Good fathering, he had decided, happens from a distant galaxy. Good fathering is just a subtle voice in the back of a child's mind that he or she eventually learns to call God. If the voice had a body, it would wear an Irish white wool sweater and a Fisherman's cap. If the voice had hands, the fingers would be big thick-knuckled and clasped around a steaming cup of chowder.
"Fathers exist because we need them to," said Coyle.
"Here we go." Gribbin snorted and lit his cigar. "The philosopher. This is what I was telling you about, Sanchez."
Gribbin had a drawer full of psychic evolution reports on Coyle, and all the other knuckleheads on Targon. He knew exactly how Coyle felt about selfhood, fatherhood, husband-hood, and the general hell of family life.
"Fathers are for people who need them," Gribbin mocked, reading from a file on his desk. "And so a child makes HIM up."
Coyle closed his eyes. It was not the tone of voice he would have used to give voice to these beliefs. Gribbin went on.
"He draws an outline in his mind, then fills it in with color and shadow, details from a well of wishes and longings. Features like a moustache, or a tendency to clear his throat. Quirks, personal things, like soft mushy bowel movements that are inadvertently left in the toilet, the smell of the newspaper and the bowel movement mixed up in the air because some kids make up a father who likes to linger on the john after a few cups of instant coffee."
Dr. Sanchez placed her warm fingers over Coyle's free hand and squeezed it. He was still sitting on his other hand. It could turn blue and fall off for all he cared. He opened his eyes and Sanchez was looking at him with a twisted half-smile on her face. Coyle couldn't make out what this smile was trying to say. He had never been good at reading inscrutable smiles. Luckily, Barb had always spelled things out for him. Then, she hadn't smiled much at the end before he left.
"Some children will give their imaginary father a tedious job that must be held for forty years in order to pay off a mortgage," said Gribbin, further broadcasting Coyle's inner thoughts back to him through the noxious air in the tiny office. "But you didn't do that, did you?"
Coyle didn't answer. He didn't need to. They all knew that his father had worked as an engineer, and that he had loved his work. In fact, Coyle's father had moved to Singapore to build skyscrapers. Had just walked out on Coyle and his mom and his little sister, Agnes, who died later of leukemia when she was eleven. Coyle's father remarried in Asia; his second wife was Chinese and very beautiful. Even Coyle's mother, Winnie, would admit this after a few martinis. And then she would cry and lock herself in her room.
"Are we holding hands?" Coyle sneered at Dr. Sanchez. "What does that make us?"
She pulled her hand away. "How are you ever going to get back to Earth, if you don't go there for us when we tell you to? And don't think Barbara will ever get a penny of your military benefits, or your life insurance, if you refuse."
Coyle almost laughed at the thought of Barb and that damned insurance policy. It had almost become a fantasy, that she and the kids would get the money. And he would get what? Deep space? The love of a podquatch?
But Barb was not all bad. She had enormous, deliciously soft breasts that she shoved into black lace bras with wires sewn in. They were thick wires, wires you could walk on if they were unwound and stretched out between two high buildings. If you were acrobatic and brave, you could pull it off. But Coyle was neither. He never walked on lines or wires. He ran and ran. He ran to keep ahead, as Barb pushed him from behind like some undersexed gym teacher.
Dr. Sanchez was getting impatient. For the first time, Coyle noticed the tiny wrinkles around her lips. Her lipstick was creeping into the dry skin, in the same way that storm run-off will find the cracks in a parched riverbed. Rapids and bends, tree limbs and thorny bushes and wind . . . wouldn't it be nice to go home? Coyle was starting to like the idea. But then he formed a mental picture of the welcome he would receive: maybe two or three days of happiness. Then his wife would want to know what he had done with the Phillips-head screwdriver. She would want to know why the hell it was so difficult for him to put tools back in the toolbox. Come to think of it, the whole garage needed an overhaul.
The next day, Coyle would be standing in the musty aisle at Home Depot comparing pieces of pegboard. He would try to ask the guy in the orange vest for help, but it would appear that the guy in the orange vest didn't speak English, or any language. Coyle would feel like the guy in the orange vest couldn't even see him. The guy in the orange vest wouldn't care about Coyle, or his pegboard, or his very existence.
"I am sure you've been keeping up with the Atlantic currents," said Dr. Sanchez. "The thermohaline circulation has shown signs of imminent reversal. This will be devastating for the planet."
"I recognize that," said Coyle. "But I think my efforts up here will in fact be more important than anything I could—"
"And anyway," Gribbin interrupted. "We put Exme out of commission at 0500."
Coyle didn't move, didn't blink, didn't even swallow. If he didn't allow the information to take hold, he wouldn't have any feelings about it. He could take the cruel facts out later, in the privacy of his bunk. He would have his feelings then, if he so chose.
Dr. Sanchez had her hook in his cheek and she knew it. She pulled fast and hard, and it dug in so deep that Coyle couldn't swim free. Not without losing part of his face.
"Be reasonable, Coyle," she said. "You can go by choice, in which case we will spend the evening going over instructions and procedures. Or you can refuse. In which case you will spend the next few hours with these gentlemen."
She placed her fingers on the muscle just above Coyle's knee and squeezed. The door opened and three men Coyle knew well, men who were simply referred to as the Steroid Experiment, ducked their heads under the doorframe and crowded into the office.
Coyle surrendered immediately and put himself into the capable hands of Greta Sanchez. He had no regrets about this cowardly decision later, when he drifted peacefully out of his sleep-coma in an earth-bound travel capsule. He had been shot through to the far side of the solar time collapse. If everything was on schedule, they were just two hours from splashdown in the Scotia Sea.
Coyle sat up and cautiously detached the hydration and nourishment patches from his chest. He stretched and smiled. He felt relaxed and optimistic, probably due to the anti-anxiety serum that Dr. Sanchez had dumped into his feed gel. Sanchez had looked after him, but only for Gabe's sake. She wanted a willing, handsome Targonaut to be standing at her baby's side when he came out of his own sleep-coma.
Sanchez doted on Gabe in the manner of a biological mother, or even worse. Oh! Little Gabe had to be so protected from everything! Heaven forbid he should be exposed to an ugly face. What was Gabe going to think when he got to Earth? Sanchez couldn't shield him from the hideous realities of the human race: hair growing out of ears, pimples on buttocks, decayed teeth, fat cellulite-covered legs stuffed into polyester leggings under oversized tee-shirts that say "Foxy Lady."
Coyle maneuvered himself over to the ship's control panel and strapped himself in. He reached into his ear and snapped on his interna-com. The droid pilot was droning: "Initiate tank release for Probo Gabe. Initiate tank release for Probo Gabe." It continued to blink and buzz and chatter at Coyle as he unlocked the latches on Gabe's tank. Before the locks were even released, the droid pilot was barking more orders.
"Provide visual data on Probo Gabe. Provide visual data on Probo Gabe."
"Sure," said Coyle. "No problem. Keep your skirt on."
He rotated his weightless body and passed the scanning wand over the area where Gabe's head should be. Coyle had seen plenty of proboscites. After all, it was his job to maintain order in the sperm fountains and the holding tanks. This meant shoving the inseminators around and swimming through clusters of confused and horny teenaged mutants. Most of them looked like aged-out child actors.
But this probo was functional, elite, and on his way to Earth. Its gills even worked, so it would look a lot better than the other inseminators, which had pinched faces, like they were trying to find someone familiar in a crowd of strangers. This was due to oxygen deprivation. It sometimes drove them mad.
The features of Gabe's face started to slowly take shape on the screen as Coyle passed the wand back and forth. He took a deep breath and held it. Then he completely forgot to release it. Gabe was a gilled genetic replica of Martin Coyle, and they had left behind his twin, Sebastian, yet another identical reprint. The two creatures were Coyle; they were clones. They were clones of Coyle. What was going on here?
Coyle did finally exhale, but only to shape a terrified shout. The capsule was suddenly filling with water. Hundreds of nozzles were shooting powerful streams of water into the control room.
His brain fisted up and broke against itself with panic and disbelief. The droid pilot was still blinking and whirring. Coyle stared wildly at the cords, switches, and buttons along the various panels. He wasn't willing to compromise the capsule's trajectory. Besides, even if he wanted to, he didn't know how. Sanchez had only offered an hour of very rudimentary training before she filled his blood with chemicals and stripped him of consciousness.
"Goddamn female scientist!" Coyle was getting soaked now. He was going to die. Barb would soon have cash for his corpse, her plentiful life insurance and her military benefits, which would go a long way in Colorado. He held onto the side of Gabe's tank and started to cry. He wondered what had become of Exme, and whether Gribbin had really decommissioned her, a gruesome procedure he had heard about but never witnessed. He imagined himself inside her petals, inside her unfolding, inside her generous quiet acceptance of him with all his flaws.
He thought of his son Scott, and his daughter Jenny, and privately recanted his elaborate, misguided theories of fatherhood. He loved them and wanted to see them grow up and try to make sense of things. He thought of Hiller, and Thale, and the others, still back on Targon, clueless and uncloned.
And he did love his wife; he did love Barb. Coyle came up with this, especially, in the spray and flail. She tortured him and made him feel like a loathsome bottom feeder, but he loved her anyway, or maybe because of that. He had annoyed her horribly, and her constant irritation had confused him, but it also made him feel important to someone. She once got up from the kitchen table and told him she couldn't stand to sit there and listen to him as he ate an orange.
"I don't know what it is," she said. "Whether your teeth or too big, or you never learned the proper way to chew. But you make a lot of noise and I think it's disgusting."
Then she stomped upstairs and slammed the door to their bedroom. Coyle felt the vibration all the way down in the kitchen. He sat there and stared at the shredded orange peel where it lay in pieces under his shaking hands. There was one wedge of fruit left. He thrust it into his mouth; it was sweet and fresh, but it just sat there on his tongue like a bully's fist, like someone had jammed it into his mouth to stop him from speaking.
Coyle frantically searched the capsule for some kind of emergency switch or hidden button. The droid pilot was glowing, placid and annoyingly mute in the hissing, spinning chaos. Coyle leaned against the wall of the capsule and screamed, for all the good that would do. He thought of his father, who had been cowardly, but brilliant, and very exact. Barb would have loved the precise and proper way his father ate an orange. First, he would cut his orange in half. Then he would cut around each individual wedge with a steak knife. Next, he would sprinkle sugar over the exposed fruit. He ate the individual pieces one by one, scooping them out with a serrated silver spoon.
Coyle's father took the silver spoons with him when he moved to Singapore. Truthfully, he did not take them. He sent a letter a few years later asking Coyle's mother, Winnie, to send the silver to him if she didn't mind. It had been in his family for two generations. Winnie didn't mind. She enjoyed that kind of thing.
Coyle was now submerged up to his shoulders in the sloshing water, which was strangely impervious to the lack of gravity. It was warm and viscous. Maybe it wasn't water at all. The nozzles had turned off as suddenly as they started. The proboscite, Gabe, squeezed through the opening of his tank and tumbled out like a jumbo shrimp in NASA-issued briefs. Coyle felt depleted and hopeless and strangely at peace. He didn't move away when Gabe swam over to him and took him into his arms. Gabe held Coyle in a loose embrace. He stroked him, patted him, comforted him with clumsy, almost loving gestures.
"Don't worry," Gabe said in a deep, familiar voice. "We are almost home."
Coyle was reminded of something his mother used to say when he was little, when he was acting rebellious or indignant, when he was ferociously enraged by her random acts of discipline. "Submit to your fate," she cooed. Because a nine-year-old boy really has no control. He has no say. He might as well relax and enjoy himself and take a goddamn bath.
And why did it matter how Coyle ate an orange? His technique was to peel it completely and break it into big pieces, clumps of three or four wedges together. He would shove the entire cluster into his mouth. And when he was done, more often than not, he would leave the discarded orange rind on the table for Barb to clean up. That was wrong. When he got home to her, he wouldn't do that anymore. But he did have big teeth, and they did make a lot of noise when he chewed. Gabe would probably have the same problem. It wasn't their fault.