by Caitlyn Konze
Come back to us, Daddy. Please.
Leothold was buoyant when he heard it. Her voice wrapped around him like a zero-G harness. Pressure built around his shoulders and thighs. His tried pulling as much air into his lungs as possible, but it wasn't enough. He needed to get to the adjustment clips but his limbs were dead in the water.
“He's waking up. Hot damn, he's actually waking up!”
His need for that voice drove his eyelids open.
“Everything's fuzzy.” His voice sounded like someone chucked a bag of bolts into his ship's thrust reactor.
“You haven't used your eyes for nine Foundings, Dad. Just give yourself a minute.”
“Soepy?” A tall, thin blob slid to his side. After a few blinks he could start to see a long nose, pointed chin, and wide, dark eyes.
“Yeah. I'm here.” Leo's vision cleared enough to notice the differences in his daughter. Her cheeks were no longer rounded with baby fat, but concave. The skin of her face was pulled tight. Her trachea bulged from her neck. He wondered if she had gone nine Foundings without a proper meal. Nine Foundings. Could it be true? It had to or he'd be in a horse, not a bed. Dangerous work, wrangling ore, but it put food on the table.
Soepy sighed. “Your boys said you were lining up for a drive. Debris caught your horse. Lost pit pressure in seconds.” She shook her head slowly. “Your insides would have been your outsides if your team hadn't scrambled like they did.”
Strands of memories began weaving together. Nalia ripping into him for putting off suit maintenance. Little Sephon crying in the background. Leo arguing that his oxygen tank was still a quarter full, not yet worth filling. It was probably his tank that spared him. Leo thanked God he was still alive.
Soepy flinched like someone moved to hit her.
“You okay, kiddo?”
Soepy looked at her feet and whispered, “It's war, Dad.”
Leo figured it was just disorientation from being unconscious for so long, but his eyes were good now and his voice was smoothing out. Still, his gut wouldn't unknot. There was a piece missing from this puzzle, but he just couldn't find it. Nalia would know. Sharp as a beetle mandible, that one.
“Where's your mother?”
“Dead.” said a voice deeper than Leo's daughter's.
“What? Impossible.” He tried to throw his feet over the bed, but his entire body was bound in gauze. Various tubes snaked around his limbs, holding him in place.
The hissed as it lifted. A thin boy and man in a white lab coat ducked into the room. The boy pumped his arms forward and back with exaggerated effort with a sing-song laugh.
“Tell me what's going on, or so help me—”
“You'll what,” said the man in the white coat. “You'll breathe on us?”
The crazy kid slapped the wall with his large hands. Another round of giggles spewed from his mouth.
He heard Soepy bark his name, but Leo's brain rebelled against the knowledge.
“Say hello to Daddy, little brother.”
“They'll be plenty of time for family reunions later.” White Coat pulled a syringe of red liquid, and a thick needle from his pocket. Something inside Leo twisted like a cut hydraulic hose.
His children tugged on the sides of his bed and the whole thing spun so Leo had only the floor for company. He heard his son start singing.
“The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out.”
Soepy stuck her head under the bed. “Your body will last longer if you’re willing, Leothold. Everyone lives like this now. Get used to it.”
He screamed as the needle pierced his spine.
Leo's body twitched. His breath came in sharp gasps. His closed eyes searched for something. Nalia would give anything to know for what. Six-month-old Sephon arched in her arms. She bounced from foot to foot.
“He's been like this since the accident last month.” The man in the white lab coat assured her there was still hope. But hope had started sliding from her heart weeks ago. She was slowly preparing herself to accept her husband might never wake up. Little Soepy held her daddy's hand, petting it like one of her stuffed animals.
“She'll be fine here. If you'll follow me, we can discuss your options.”
Nalia nodded. Before the door lowered, she heard her daughter's small voice.
“Come back to us, Daddy. Please.”