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le mal du pays

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"'Le mal du pays.' It's French. Usually it's translated as 'homesickness' or 'melancholy.' If you put a finer point on it, it's more like, 'a groundless sadness called forth in a person's heart by a pastoral landscape.' It's a hard expression to translate accurately."

— from Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, by Haruki Murakami

 


 

The children born on the moon are different.

The children born on the moon are born with purpose.

The children born on the moon are supposed to change the universe.

The children born on the moon are supposed to win the war.

Some of this is truth, and some of this never came to pass. If they gave you the heart of a boy born on Earth, and one born on the moon, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. If I gave you a microscope, you might noticed a subtle difference in muscle fiber. You might notice a change in the ventricles, in the chambers. You might notice a change in the blood itself.

But you would not be able to tell. And now you’re holding two hearts in your hands.

So you will just have to trust this one, simple fact:

The children born on the moon are different. And that’s because they were made to be.

 


 

Dr. Grey wouldn’t have expected a broken leg to be what brings Captain Caboose to her operating room, but that’s precisely why he’s there, breathing fast and deep while she pries out bits of armor from his left calf.

“It’s numb now, isn’t it Captain?”

Caboose sits up a little and smiles at her, looking a little green around the gills. “Yeah,” he manages.

“How old is this armor? I understand General Kimball couldn’t outfit you with anything new when you arrived. And it doesn’t seem our situation has improved since forces were combined.” She glances over at Caboose. “Do you know the answer to that, Captain?”

He grimaces as he watches Grey pull a piece of metal from his leg. “N-no,” he says. “I don’t.”

“Maybe Epsilon does,” she muses, as the tell-tale sounds of Agent Carolina...arriving, begin echoing down the hall.

Grey could watch Carolina enter a room over and over and over again. When she is particularly unsettled, as she appears to be right now, she doesn’t enter so much as she bursts. Where before the only sounds in the room were the captain’s grunts of discomfort, and the slick sound of metal exiting muscle, now there is shouting and Epsilon’s trademark snark as he tries to calm his host.

Yelling isn’t going to help.”

Caboose glances over. “Hey, Church.”

“Hey, man. I heard a building fell on you.”

“Yes. It was unpleasant.”

Carolina fumes. “What the fuck happened to you?”

“You heard him,” Epsilon says. “A building fell down.”

“Epsilon.” Grey pulls out a satisfyingly large chunk of armor, deep enough that Caboose can feel it as it comes out, as evidenced by his hiss of pain. “How old is the captain’s armor?”

“Dunno.” The pause he takes is a bit slow for an AI, but quick enough for Grey to still be impressed, considering. “Six years, four months, eighteen days,” he says. “Why?”

“Please send a message to the Kimball and Doyle that the captains need to be better outfitted. Agent Carolina—”

“I’m fine.”

“I’m sure you could use an upgrade.”

“I said I’m fine.” She goes to Caboose and puts a hand behind his head. “You need to be more careful.”

“I was! I mean, I am, I’m careful. I promise. Just...just looking out for — ah!” Caboose throws his head back, clenching his fists.

“Oh dear. Did the numbing wear off, captain?”

Yes.

“Four seconds,” Grey says, and waits for the pump to administer the anesthetic again. Caboose relaxes and she continues. “Agent Carolina, the captain and I have quite a ways to go here, and your presence, while fascinating, does not lend itself to expedience.” Grey glances over. “I hope I won’t have to explain myself again.”

“Of course not, Dr. Grey.”

“Captain Tucker was also injured in the collapse, though not as severely. He’s in the next room being examined by one of my neurologists. I think he might have a delightful concussion, which is sure to lead to all sorts of interesting discussions. Perhaps you could…”

Carolina nods. “Right. I’ll check on you later, Caboose.” She heads out, and Caboose relaxes again.

It’s another hour before Grey finally removes the last bit of metal. She learns quite a few things that she hasn’t been allowed to know since she followed the Federal Army into the Republic’s ranks. She knows, now, that the captain has seventeen sisters, and that he once lived on the moon, which she finds very interesting. She knows that his sisters were all very clever and very talented. And she knows he has a tattoo, on his right leg. Grey only notices when she moves to the other side, and begins setting the broken one.

“What does that say, captain? That tattoo, on your ankle?”

Caboose is going in and out — he’s exhausted, he’s in pain, and he’s lost a fair bit of blood. But he blinks and focuses — and then he smiles.

“C-A-B,” he says. “M-0-2.”

“And what does it mean?”

His head falls back and he’s silent for several minutes. Grey assumes she’s lost him. It doesn’t matter, she’ll ask in the morning, when he’s feeling stronger. As she’s finishing with the leg, though, Caboose sits up on his elbows again and looks down at the tattoo.

“That’s my name,” he says. “My first name.”

“Your first name is Michael.”

He shakes his head. “No. That’s my second name. That—” He jerks his chin toward his ankle. “—is my very first name. The one he gave me.”

“Who?” Dr. Grey asks. She moves to the head of the bed and leans in close. He’s fading, now. She’s going to lose this line of thought any second, and for some reason, right now is the most lucid she’s ever seen him.

Pain, she muses. She’ll need to explore this further.

“Who?” she asks again. “Who gave you your first name, captain?”

But he’s out, now, and Emily is left with more questions than she prefers to have, particularly when there is no time to answer them.

 


 

some years ago, on a lunar body very far away…

“Do you know,” Evelyn says, “that you and I will be the first ones to finish?”

“Saratoga’s almost done,” Michael says. “He told me so in the mess yesterday.”

“Yes, but you and I are going to be the very first.” She rests her chin on her shoulder. “It’s...kind of sexy, don’t you think?”

He glances at her and grins. “Are you trying to seduce me in the lab?”

“...Maybe.”

“That’s against regulations, ma’am.” But he turns and folds her into his arms all the same, hands sliding under her lab coat, pushing her blouse up and revealing the soft lines of her waist to him. “I can’t believe we made it.”

“Twenty of them, Mike. Twenty.

“We’ll finally be able to start that marching band like you always wanted,” he murmurs, kissing her neck. She laughs and finally pushes him away. “Oh now you’re going to insist I get back to work.”

“Yes,” she says. “Now I insist.”

 


 

They’ve been keeping detailed logs of the fetuses as they grow. The female ones took much quicker than the males, and with more success. There are seventeen of the CAB-F specimens, and only three of the CAB-M. Two of them look a little weak, but the middle one seems to be doing just fine.

“The little fetus that could,” Evelyn muses. They’re not supposed to get attached. They spent two of their thirteen weeks in training a year ago unlearning the instincts that would kick in when the babies would be born, but all of that was a waste. Evelyn is in love, and Michael is only a few steps behind her.

He reminds himself, and her, every day that they’re doing this for science. That these children are research. That calling them children in the first place is a mistake.

But he can’t help it. He made them, after all.

When they’re ready to be born, there are a dozen nurses on staff to help. They have by far the largest batch of babies, and the highest projected survival rate. Michael knows this. He senses the envy of the others sometimes, when they report their data to the commander at the end of each week. Saratoga managed triplets, Kwon ended up with six. Only Sadik managed almost as many as them, coming in at a projected eleven.

No matter how many each group winds up with, though, by the middle of the year there will be almost a hundred children born on the moon, and they won’t be like any child born on earth. Not then, and not for decades to come.

The training emphasized this. The training drilled it into their heads. They weren’t just bringing more people into the universe, they were bringing forth the next generation of heroes. Of thinkers and builders. They were creating the generals who would lead tomorrow’s armies, or diplomats who would negotiate peace in the years to come.

No one could have predicted war, then, and so when he walks into the lab that morning, ready to welcome the children he created into this universe, he does not think that, someday, he will have to watch them picked out like puppies from a litter. That thought never crosses his mind.

He’ll wish, one day, that it had.

He’ll wish he’d understood.

But right now he doesn’t. Right now, he’s about to become a father, even though they told him, again and again, never to think that way.

They’re not here right now, he thinks. And I’ll be whatever I want.

 


 

In the end, there are seventeen girls, as predicted. The weaker of the three boys don’t make it, leaving only one. Michael snaps the identification ring about the baby’s ankle that will remain there until something more permanent can be applied. He dislikes the idea of marking them, but they are, first and foremost, a research project. Specimens must be properly labeled and identified.

“CAB-M02,” he says, and leans down to kiss the baby’s head. The boy grips his finger, tight. “Nice,” he says. “Evelyn, come look. He’s strong.”

Evelyn crosses the room to him, holding two of the girls in the crook of either arm. She smiles. “He’s going to be stronger than you.”

“I should damn well hope so, after the protein modification?”

“All of them are going to be strong,” she says. “God, Mike. We did it. We actually did it.”

“Eighteen healthy tube babies,” he says. “Whodda thunk?”

“Not me,” Evelyn murmurs. She leans down and kisses the top of his head before reaching down and stroking a hand over the baby’s head. “What a looker,” she says, and goes to check on the girls.

Michael smiles as she goes before reaching down and lifting the boy from his little bed. One of the nurses has swaddled him, but he’s wriggled out of most of it, mouth opening and closing, looking for something to eat.

“I’ve got you,” he says, and takes one of the little bottles they’ve readied, slipping the nipple between his mouth. “Drink up. You’ve gotta grow up and be the strongest boy on the moon.”

 


 

 

on chorus

“Let me see those implants, Agent Washington!”

Wash groans and leans his head forward. “I’ve had a headache for four days,” he mutters. He should be grateful — Grey’s been dying to get into his implants for months and he finally let her, but whatever she did wasn’t exactly minimally invasive, as advertised.

He shouldn’t be surprised.

“Pain is progress, Agent!”

“You sound like an old CO of mine,” he muses.

Grey messes with a few things and Wash hisses, then moans with relief. “Better?”

“Jesus Christ,” he mutters. “Yeah, much.

“Up you sit,” she says and Wash straightens on the edge of the exam table. “Did you know Captain Caboose has seventeen sisters, Agent?”

Wash rolls his neck, feels a few things crack happily. “Huh?”

“Captain Caboose. He has seventeen sisters.”

“Uh, yeah. Well, no. I didn’t know it was that many, but yeah, I knew he had sisters.” Wash raises a brow. “Why?”

“That’s quite a lot of sisters.”

Wash shrugs. “I had some family back home who did that Quivers thing. You know, a man whose quiver is full of arrows is a happy man? You have like a billion kids to please God, or whatever. My mother was an atheist.”

“I’m familiar with the concept. But a lunar colony? Support eighteen children in one household? It doesn’t seem odd to you?”

“I...guess. Dr. Grey, what’s the point here?”

“I looked into it,” she says, and hands him a data chip. “Something seemed odd to me, so I did a bit of digging. But I wanted to give this information to you,” she says.

“...Why?”

“Because you’re the closest thing the captain has to a commanding officer. And family.”

“I wouldn’t consider Caboose my...family.”

“Why not? You spend a lot of time with him, you’ve known him for several years. You care about him.” She grins. “Sounds like family to me, Agent!”

Wash nods. “Right.” He looks down at the data chip. “What’s on here?”

“My research. Public records from the UNSC, a few private records gained through a very low dose of psychological manipulation—” She ticks these off. Wash tries to hand the chip back. “No,” she says, taking a step away. “I very much need you to look at that.”

“Why?”

She presses her lips together and looks down. Wash has never really known the doctor to mince words or hesitate, so whatever’s on this chip must...matter.

She finally says: “I believe the captain is a clone. And that research, I think, proves it.”

Wash chokes. “A clone?!

“Yes. I had my initial suspicions when he told me he lived on the moon as a child. Caboose is thirty-one years old. Thirty-five years ago Earth’s moon was being established as a research colony, not a place for people to raise families, but to conduct experiments. The UNSC granted access to several labs to a company called Genoma Corp. They declared bankruptcy several years ago, but at their height they were the premier private company doing research into human genetics. Specifically cloning.” She leans in and taps the chip in Wash’s hands. “There’s information on here that, twenty years ago, could have gotten us both shot. Isn’t that fun?

“No! It’s not! You’re telling me Caboose is a clone.

“You don’t believe me.”

“Of course I don’t believe you. What you’re saying sounds ridiculous. But—” He looks down. “Let’s...let’s say this is true. What are you expecting me to do with this?”

Grey shrugs. “Whatever you’d like. The captain has a tattoo on his right ankle, and he seems to know more about it than you might think. But all of that has to be...teased, I believe. He didn’t give that particular tidbit of information up very readily. And even then I didn’t even get everything.” She shrugs. “You look through that, and you decide if you want to talk to him about it. If the captain has seventeen sisters, it means they were clones as well, and something happened to them. I think he might deserve to know.”

 


 

Wash takes the chip back to his room and sets it on his desk. Grey is fucking crazy, he already knows that. But she helps them, she’s helped him more than he thought someone could, and she really likes Caboose. He can tell. He goes to have dinner with the Reds and Blues, watching Caboose every so often. He talks wildly with his hands, nearly hitting Grif in the head while Tucker expertly dodges him.

It’s hard to believe that there’s someone out there who looks just like Caboose. Who could be anything like him at all.

It’s hard to believe because Wash has never met anyone like Caboose in his life.

After dinner he goes to his room and takes the chip in hand. He picks up his tablet and slots it into the side and loads the files.

It’s hard to believe, but Wash knows better, now, than to write something off just because it seems like it can’t be possible.

He shouldn’t be possible. Not anymore. So he puts in the chip and watches the files download, one by one. The first one is a video file. Wash settles on his bed, tablet in his lap, and taps it.

The screen fills with a video of Caboose’s face, though Wash is aware right away that this isn’t Caboose. He’s older, hair streaked with grey. Wash presses play, and his voice fills the room, shrill and a little excited.

Um, okay. We, uh. We’re here! We did it! God, I can’t believe this, I seriously can’t believe it. We’re here and we’ve got the samples processing. If we can get a complete string over the next forty-eight hours, it’ll be a fucking miracle, I’m serious. I’m losing my damn mind.” He laughs and runs his hands through his hair. “Evelyn is hopeful. I’m hopeful. I think we have to be hopeful.

A lot of the videos are like this. The man who looks like Caboose kept a thorough log of the process, of what they were doing. Sometimes a woman makes an appearance, his wife Evelyn. Wash learns that the female specimens are clones of her, that she thinks the video logs are a little unnecessary, and that she loves this man. Very much.

Michael,” she calls from off screen in one of the videos. “It’s late. You need to come to bed.

He points at his camera. “We’re making history, Ev. Someone’s gotta know we did this.

 


 

Wash spends his entire night reading through documents, watching videos. After the babies are born, he sees little videos of them playing, being cared for. He skips through parts of their infancy, scrolls down and finds a video file labeled “CAB-M02_radio” and taps it.

It opens on an empty table. Michael enters the frame and sets an old radio on the table before waving someone over. “Come on, bud. It’s okay.

Do I have to do it with the camera?

Yeah, but it’s okay! Come on.” He looks at the camera. “This is CAB-M02 demonstrating the deconstruction and reconstruction of this radio.” He taps it and Wash looks on as a boy no older than six steps into frame. “You can do it. You wanna show mom?

Yes.

Ev? Ev, can you watch?

I can.

Michael grins. “Great.” He looks back at the camera. “I am Dr. Michael Caboose and this—” He puts his hands on the boy’s shoulders and helps him sit. “—is CAB-M02.

The girls have names. Why don’t I have a name?

The girls picked their names, M. Did you want to pick a name?

M shrugs. “Maybe later. Three minutes?

Three minutes,” Michael says.

Wash watches as he starts a timer, and the boy begins dismantling the radio, picking up tools and taking out bits and bobs until the radio is scattered across the tabletop. When it seems completely pulled apart, he starts putting it back together, hands moving so fast Wash isn’t quite sure where they are. He slams a screwdriver on the table and chirps, “Done!

Michael grins. “That was awesome, bud! Ev, did you see that? How long was it?

Two minutes and thirty-nine seconds!

You went so fast! I’m proud of you.” Michael kneels down. “I am so proud of you.

I did okay?

You did more than okay.

Wash takes a breath, and he understands that Grey was right. He knows that boy, he knows him intimately, has known him for years now.

The boy is his Caboose, and he feels something warm at that thought.

He’s never thought of any of them as his. And suddenly, with this knowledge, knowing there is someone out there in the universe who looks like Caboose, who opens his mouth and sounds like Caboose — Wash suddenly feels some...responsibility.

Wash puts the tablet away as Chorus’s sun starts to rise, leans back against his pillow, and falls asleep.

 


 

 

some years ago, on a lunar body very far away…

“Dad.”

“Yeah, bud.”

“Can I use your name?”

Michael looks over. M asks a lot of questions, and not all of them make sense, but this one is pretty straightforward.

“You want to use my name?”

“The girls have names,” he says, without looking up from the telephone he’s pulling apart. “They all picked names.”

“Can you remember them?”

“Yes. Rachel plays viola. Rebeccah plays the cello. Maria plays the piano. Esther sings—” He lists them all one by one, never stopping, never looking up from the project he’s created for himself.

When he’s done, Michael looks at what he’s done — he’s completely rewired it, rendering it useless, but it looks functional — and says, “If you want to use my name that’s fine.”

“That way no one forgets you.”

Michael laughs. “I don’t care if other people forget me,” he says, and realizes that it’s...true. Having the kids has made everything different. They’re the ones who’ll be remembered. And if M takes his name, then that’s fine. He’ll make it his own.

“I don’t care if the whole universe forgets me,” he says. “As long as you never do.”

 


 

 

on chorus

Wash goes back to watching the videos later that day, finding a quiet place and some headphones. He taps one of the videos, and the exhausted face of Dr. Caboose fills his screen.

The Director was here,” he says, and Wash feels a painful flutter in his chest. “I don’t know what Project Freelancer is. I just know I don’t like it. He came to watch the combat training. Only Rachel and Michael are really any good at it, so he kept his focus on them. I just...didn’t expect it to happen so soon. I always knew we’d have to let them go, but we’ve been living in this...bubble, the last few years.

Another video.

Laura and Sylvia are gone. Rebeccah is leaving tomorrow. Esther, too. They’re just...leaving. Ev’s having a hard time with it, but she keeps reminding me that we knew this was coming. And she’s right, I know she’s right but—” He ducks his head, swears loudly. “I hate this. I fucking hate this.

Wash keeps going. Project Freelancer wasn’t the only one that came for Caboose and his sisters. He hears about programs he never knew existed, people he doesn’t recognize, all coming to the moon to pluck these clones from their home.

“Hi Agent Washington.”

Wash looks up. Caboose is silhouetted against the sun, grinning down at him.

“Hey, Caboose.” He closes down the videos, plucks a headphone from his ear. “What’s up?”

“What are you doing?”

“Learning some stuff.” He pushes himself up. “Caboose, Dr. Grey said you have a tattoo on your ankle.”

“Yes.”

“What’s it for?”

“My name,” he says. “It’s my first name. You have a first name, right? The one you had before Washington.” Wash nods. Caboose shrugs. “Then you understand.” He turns and jogs away.

 


 

He finds Caboose later in the week, alone in the mess, and sets the tablet down next to him.

“Caboose. Can I ask you something?”

“Sure.”

Wash taps a video, and Dr. Caboose’s face fills the screen. “Do you know him?”

Caboose nods. “That’s my dad.” He takes a bite out of an apple. “How did you figure that out?”

“Dr. Grey thought it was...odd, that you had so many sisters. And your tattoo.”

Caboose puts his foot on the chair next to him, pulls up the pant leg of his fatigues and shows Wash what’s printed there. “Mom and dad called me M. All the girls picked names and I wanted to pick one, too.”

“So you picked his.”

“That way he’d still be around, even after he was gone.” Caboose sets down his apple. “He always said that were only copies right here.” He turns his left hand over, palm facing up. “That’s where they always took our blood. So we were copies here, but we were ourselves up here.” He taps his temple.

“I watched some videos of you.” Wash pulls up another file. “You were really good at taking those radios apart.”

Caboose grins. “Three minutes. I always did it in less than three minutes. Mom and dad were proud.”

“Where are there now? Do you know?”

Caboose shrugs, picks up his apple and takes another bite. “I think mom went back to Earth. But dad’s dead. Someone shot him.”

Wash nods. “Okay. I remember you told me he had died, a long time ago.”

“Yeah. I don’t know who did it. I don’t know why either. But he died and mom left. And that’s...that’s it.” He looks at his apple, a little sad, now. “Wash. You get it, don’t you?”

“I do.”

“Okay. So you know why...why I don’t talk about it. I mean, you asked, you had all...that. But I don’t want to tell everyone. I don’t want to talk to anyone else about it. And I...I don’t want you to ask me anymore about it.” He leans forward on his arms, looks over at Wash. “It used to be good. It was good for a really long, long time.”

“And then it wasn’t.”

Caboose nods. “And then it wasn’t.”

Wash closes all the files and pulls the chip from the tablet. “This is all of Dr. Grey’s research,” he says. “It’s...everything.” He jerks his head toward the door. “You wanna take it outside?”

“Can we break it?”

“Yep.” Wash stands and Caboose eagerly follows him out of the mess and outside. “You wanna do the honors?”

“Yes!”

Wash laughs and hands over the chip and Caboose tosses it to the ground. He steps forward, like he’s going to step on it, but he stops.

“Caboose—”

“I just...this is everything,” he says. “This is everything I used to be.”

Wash puts a hand on his shoulder, taps Caboose’s palm. “You can remember that on your own. It’s your story. I’m sorry I didn’t learn it from you.”

“That’s okay. I wouldn’t have told you if you’d asked anyway.”

“...Good to know.”

Caboose takes a breath, closes his eyes. He raises his booted foot and brings it down on the chip crushing it into several pieces.

He opens his eyes.

“Better?” Wash asks.

Caboose nods. “Yes,” he says. “Much better.”