D. Thomas Minton
In the stark light, Adler's face hangs long, as if Ghara Station's point eight gee is oppressive. "Real or relative?" he asks.
I fidget with my drink, a bitter distillate of Ghara's 'finest' algal whiskey. Near-light travel has made aging--not to mention personal relationships--complicated.
A weariness that belies his biological age shrouds Adler's eyes. "I'm forty-two," he says, "but I was born two centuries ago, Earth Standard."
I know this already. I know a lot about Adler. I should. He's my father.
Sweat pours down my spine like I'm a hard-vac laborer at the back end of a double shift. I resist the urge to tug at my collar. Does he see himself in my wrinkled countenance?
His slack face is unreadable.
"That's a lot of time debt," I say to fill the awkward void.
"It's all relative, now isn't it?" He accent is quaint, one I haven't heard since I was boy.
That was a long time ago, I realize with regret.
I stare at the back of my hand, spotted with livery Rorschach blots. This old body doesn't have much time left in it. I've spent fifty years hunting Adler across the big dark. A lifetime planning for this moment and now I can't find the words.
"I assume there's a reason for this meeting," he says.
I clear my throat. The sound echoes in my ears. "You're a hard man to track down," I say. I have rehearsed these words ten thousand times. Yet to my ears, I sound like a second-rate actor in a third-rate neural-noir. I wonder if he notices. "I work for Eos. We specialize in relativistic legal matters...cases involving people on disparate time arrows--"
His eyes are glassy. Is he even paying attention?
Adler perks up when I stop speaking. "Can we get on with this? I've a long-jumper to catch."
Alder has spent twenty-three years--his years not mine--long-hauling cargo across the big dark at point nine-nine cee. Most long-jumpers retire after thirty or forty years of time debt rich and still with something of their lives to go home to.
He has no clue who I am, but why should he? He left before I was born. My throat tightens; I can't remember my carefully crafted script.
Alder finishes his drink. "It's been nice meeting you Mr. Nata." As he rises, his lips press into a line--a suppressed grimace from lifting his weight on muscles accustomed to low gee.
My left hand snaps out and grabs his wrist. My right retrieves a velvet-covered box from my pocket and places it on the table. My mouth goes dry.
Adler's eyebrows push together. "What's that?"
"Your inheritance." The words sound more like a croak than actual words.
"You've made a mistake," Adler says.
"I'm here on behalf of Laura Koss." I stumble over her name, nearly calling her mom.
Adler's eyebrows rise, then avalanche down. He drags the box across the table top as if it is too heavy to lift.
"Of course I knew her." Adler raises his hand, like a fighter asking for a moment to recover after a low blow. He takes a deep breath and opens the box.
The sound in the room is sucked away as if I've been shoved out an airlock.
After a moment that seems to dilate into minutes, Adler removes a gold ring--simple in design yet infinite in beauty. He holds it up and turns it with trembling fingers. As it spins, I watch his eyes through the center. They look to a different place, a different time.
"Where did you get this?" I can barely hear his words.
I try to read the thoughts flashing through those eyes. I came here to get revenge for my mother's pain and--although I find it hard to admit--my own. Part of me wants to tell him who I am so I can tear it away from him when I leave. "It was part of her estate."
Because she loved you--but that's not what I say. "It's yours, isn't it?"
He doesn't take his eyes off the ring. "I gave this to her the day I left on the long-jumper, Eternity. I was supposed to return in six years rich enough to give her and the family we wanted a comfortable life. When Eternity reached its turn-around, I had a message from Lara waiting for me: don't come back; I've found someone else."
"She what?" If he had looked at me then, he would have seen through my ruse.
My mother waited ten years. She cried in the room next to mine on the day Eternity returned without Adler aboard. She tried to muffle her grief so I wouldn't hear it. That was the first day I really hated him.
Thinking about it still hurts.
"She didn't want me back," he says.
My mother never would have sent that message, but if not her, then whom? My mind runs through a list of names--people long dead--and stops at Rialto, my bastard of a stepfather. She could have done better, but he was the only one who had asked, and he had asked many times. She had always turned him down, that is until Adler didn't return.
Adler gently replaces the ring into the box. After a moment, he closes the lid. "Not a day goes by," he says in a whisper, "that I don't think about the life I didn't get. Growing old with her. Watching our children--"
He pushes the box across the table. "I can't go back. I can only go forward and hope that more distance takes the hurt away, but two-hundred years isn't a long time, relatively speaking."
I've spent my life hunting this man just so I could hurt him in some way, but seeing the pain in Adler's eyes, I cannot do it.
I pick up the box and slip it back into my pocket. When I look up, I catch Adler's eyes searching my face.
"Do I know you?" he asks.
In a brief second of longing, I almost tell him, but doing so will only cause more pain. I'm an old man now. There isn't time for him to know me. There's only time enough for more regret, and we both have enough regrets already.
"No," I say. I finish my whiskey in a single burning gulp. My old legs ache as I stand to leave. "I'm sorry to say we've never met."