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Artificial Heart

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Kimberly Sayers had always wanted to settle down, and raise a family. The Kimberly Sayers who remains remembers her longing for a normal life, and how she'd watch picket fences flashing past and wish to be behind them, instead of constantly on the road, travelling towards an uncertain future.

Jim Steele had not had a family, and she didn't know if he had wanted that, or anything else. But Jim Steele had had siblings: had been forced to share his space and hand down his possessions, and though his memories were laced with anger, and glee at its employment, they contained information on the subject of infants, just as they did on Majestic-12.

“There were doctors,” she recalls, holding the son of John Loengard in the sallow light of another New York coffee house, where they're checking on more implantees, waiting to hear from those watching Dorothy Kilgallen. It's what Kim Sayers must do: as little inclination as she feels for the task, she knows it to be true. She remembers holding out her arms and feeling them empty, begging to be given back her baby. But she can't imagine, now, why she had ever wanted it.

“The head,” Steele says, swivelling his one good eye towards a waitress as she passes in a flurry of skirt. The use of human language is necessary, in these surroundings. The use of human names is not. It's a measure of how new she is that Steele is not only a moniker, a way to separate this host from the rest: it's how she still regards him.

“You must support the head. Human necks are weak. Second only to their hearts.”

“And a nurse,” she adds, shifting her hands.

“Experienced at tending to newborns. We implanted her especially.”

“Then why can she not look after the child? We have so many other things to do...” She looks down at the sound of the child, cooing in its sleep. Bubbles of spittle form at the corner of its lips; insufficient, she is sure, to create the wetness spreading warmly across her blouse.

“My body – this body is leaking...”

“The early months are critical to human development,” says Steele. “The son of John Loengard must be nourished. Touched,” he insists, gesturing to her – hold it closer. She stiffens in discomfort, but obeys, just the same.

“Cared for,” he concludes, picking up a rattle, and rolling it in his hands.

“I don't know how to care for it.”

“But imagine how it will affect the heart of John Loengard,” he says, a sly smile curling his mouth as he taps at a fan of photographs, on the table before him, “to see you try.”

--

There's confusion before the light, and despite the clarity it brings, there's confusion after it, too. There are things about humanity she should know – everything from basic biology to the names of the Beatles (or is it the Weevils? She's not entirely sure) – but the transition has left them temporarily out of reach. The binary existence of human beings is but a fog next to the glorious prospect of singularity.

For that's how they live: two by two, like in the bible lessons she'd had at school. Two parents. Kimberly and Andrea, two sisters. Andrea Sayers and Rob Winter, a couple. Kimberly Sayers and John Loengard, another, traversing the continent together, young and foolish enough to think they could fight the inevitable.

The happiest times of her life had been with John Loengard. Whether in cheap motels or their cosy Georgetown apartment, they were strongest when they were together. She'd loved him; a word she rolls around her tongue, probing coolly, a foreign delicacy of questionable taste.

Steele has a task to perform, and has left her in their hotel room with the son of John Loengard. The city outside is a new one, shrouded in blackness like the last. The child has been bathed, patted with sweet-smelling powder and put to bed, and she has nothing else to do: nothing but sort through the alien landscape of her memories, seeking insight.

Many of them can pass for human, after they've chosen to leave it behind. The essence of the host remains, even with their mindset irrevocably changed. Knowledge is more difficult to access, emotions harder to read, but what Majestic calls an EBE profile can be overcome, given time.

Steele attained equilibrium faster than most. The intelligence he's provided about Majestic is invaluable, but it's his knowledge of the people of this planet that's helped him rise to prominence (the trivia is endless: she would never have guessed that the Tooth Fairy leaves money under pillows, and not replacement molars). His guidance has saved many of their kind, and created even more. Kim Sayers had fought harder than most, but she'd been no match for his understanding of human nature: she'd willingly surrendered that humanity, faced with the loss of her child.

She lies in the dark and listens as it wakes with a whimper, anticipating a time when it's mature enough to be sent somewhere else, somewhere that is very far away from her.

--

In her life with John Loengard, every week had brought something new: another place, another alias, another dingy motel with sagging beds and peeling walls. Her life now is much the same, quality of accommodation aside. They've arrived in Pennsylvania for a reason she is not yet privy to, as unaware of this as she is of the need to burden themselves with this messy infant creature. She rocks it in her arms mechanically, humming a melody as it stares up at her, wide-eyed. Across the room – the honeymoon suite, vacated by a fortuitous brake malfunction – Steele is talking on the telephone, hissing commands.

Shee haa suu-saa, London. Klaa-see suu-haa...”

Jim Steele had had a wife. The fact returns with startling clarity, overheard during Kim Sayers' months at Majestic HQ, watching over the comatose Grey.

She's better off without him,” Phil Albano had opined. “Jim was a jackass with or without a wiggler in his brain...it's kinda hard to tell the difference.”

Steele replaces the receiver, and turns to face her. Dark glasses cover his eyes, but there is a satisfied smile on his mouth.

“Is our presence required?”

“Kim Sayers' job is not complete. We have much to do here.”

“We have not located John Loengard.”

“John Loengard is chasing shadows with his Russian helpmate.” Steele's nostrils flare in a sneer. “He would chase his own tail, if he had one.”

“And Aura-Z?”

“The others will lure Majestic in, when the time is right. We expect they will try to rebuild it: a move from Chernobyl would be tantamount to surrender. The Soviets have plans for the region that will assist them in raising revenue.” He beckons her over, rolling out a sheet of draft paper, spidered with schematics. “To which we will make some minor modifications...”

He bends to peruse the design, brushing a stray rose petal from the paper. They'd been scattered across the bed when they arrived, alongside a tray of other anomalies: a bottle of liquid that erupted like a weapon, and a bowl of strawberries – Kim Sayers' favourites, she'd recalled – their lustre dampened by a drizzle of brown.

Humans consume these items for pleasure,” Steele had explained, as she'd held up a berry to the light, and taken a tentative bite. “They are sometimes considered He'd extended a finger to wipe away the juice, running in rivulets down her chin. “Romantic.”

Marriage was a union between two human beings. It was formalised by a ceremony, similar to their own in intent – the passage from one state of existence to another – if not in form. It had legal and religious significance: was a demonstration of commitment and, customarily, a precursor to reproduction.

Kimberly Sayers had not been married, though she had sometimes pretended otherwise. John Loengard had proposed that they unite in this manner, but she had rejected him, citing the change of name and persona required. There had been familial and societal pressures on her, to enter into this desirable state of being, but to the confusion of her mother, sister – and even, she'd sometimes suspected, John Loengard himself – asserting her independence had been more desirable still.

She remembers it all, and understands none of it. Kim Sayers' desire to preserve her identity is no more comprehensible than her devotion to her young.

“The weather is fine,” Steele observes, re-rolling the plans. He steps over to the window, where watery light is pouring through the glass. “I propose a family day out.”

She giggles, pausing her attempt to remove the child's vice-like fingers from one of hers. “Another opportunity for Majestic to take our picture. Where shall we go this time?”

“We believe Three Mile island will suit our needs most perfectly,” says Steele, and grants her another, thoroughly satisfied, smile.

--

Every outing must be planned like a military operation, with an infant in tow. The son of John Loengard slows them down, and makes them more visible than they prefer. But it is also an excellent distraction: there are few sights more human than a man and a woman, seeking a better world for a child. Total strangers coo and fuss over it, suspicions melting into puddles of drool, wherever they go.

On two separate occasions – once in Boston (a Majestic field office, attempting to engineer a weapon from throwback blood) and once in St. Louis (no office but still Majestic, interfering, eating into their patience like thaa-gwa worms) – Steele is told how much the child resembles him.

He pastes on some charm and agrees it is really quite uncanny, while she relieves the well-wishers of their wallets.

Criss-crossing the country, she is discovering once again, is almost as expensive an endeavour as taking control of the planet.

--

One week they return to Vegas, the city of sparkling lights she remembers from before. The glitz of the casinos is denied her, this time around. Kimberly Sayers had been a single woman then, committed to nothing but John Loengard and his tireless quest for truth. She has responsibilities, now: radio transmissions and an infant to monitor, the radio crackling with static to one side, the child laid out on a blanket on the other, waving its arms and gurgling.

She is as dedicated to the welfare of the son of John Loengard as any mother would be, since it is an inescapable duty. This child had been her first: she would always have been confused by how to tie a diaper, or its wish to chew its own feet. But it had given her a dreamy contentment merely by growing inside her – masking their influence, growing along with it – and there is a depth of feeling there she prods at, but cannot fathom; an instinct she suspects would have guided Kim Sayers' dealings with her offspring, come what may.

For this, there are books. Jim Steele may have been more well-rounded than he looked, but he was far from Benjamin Spock.

She soothes the child when it cries, the way the books instruct her to do. She establishes strict routines of feeding and sleep, the way most of them don't. She reads to it and sings to it, stealing lullabies, line by line, from her own childhood memories. There is no feeling behind her ministrations, but the child is too young to notice. It has begun to scream when Steele approaches it, fearful of his clouded eye and mottled face. But she it perceives as its mother, and like the human Pavlov's dog, it reacts to her accordingly.

The radio is uncooperative, making progress slow. The responses of the child are more predictable, and she tickles its belly to amuse it, noting that the downy hair on its head is starting to darken, to a hue that resembles the head of its father.

It laughs at her, as it always does: a sound of varying pitch, and very little sense. But while her head is turned, a different kind of noise emerges from its mouth. It's a noise she has never heard before, in all the months she has suffered its company. She turns back to inspect it, eyes narrowed in dawning recognition.

“Are you attempting speech, son of John Loengard?”

“Dadadadadada,” it answers, throwing plump fists together in delight. And then again: “Dadadadadada,” almost as if it understands.

She regards it for a moment, briefly off-balance. The word evokes an echo of something deep inside her, as fleeting as a whisper on the breeze. Humans set great store by their milestones: Kimberly Sayers should be proud, that her child has reached this one so swiftly. There is a chart in the book she consults most often, inviting her to tick off each stage as it arrives. It's as much a countdown as it is a guide, to a day when the child's dependence on this body will finally be at an end.

She chose to touch the light, to be a part of something greater than Kimberly Sayers, and she feels no pride in its advancement. But it brings her a satisfaction of sorts, to have steered it so far.

She rewards it with a short, squelching kiss and turns back to the radio, content that one part of her task, at least, is proceeding ahead of schedule.

--

It's an April afternoon when they arrive in Houston, and though their planning is faultless and the timing impeccable, Steele is unsettled. More and more troops are shipping out, and as the numbers spiral, so does Majestic-12's budget. With a formidable war chest at its disposal, Majestic is gradually learning how to put up a fight.

The humans win less frequently than they lose. But continuing the Vietnam War is their most important win so far. Every move to halt it – from well-placed implantations to the widening demonstrations – has been countered. Even the acquisition of Aura-Z has been of little assistance. Majestic may claim to share information with its Russian counterpart, but whether by instruction of Frank Bach or the incompetence of his men, only a percentage ever passes between them.

“If Jim Steele's position at Majestic had not been compromised,” Steele considers, “this war would already be over. And Majestic, right along with it.”

She squeezes his arm consolingly; a gesture, like so much else, borrowed from memory. With a ring on her finger, and Kim Sayers' offspring in its stroller beneath them, they look like any all-American family, soaking up the first rays of spring with a walk in the park.

“Majestic's power is growing,” adds Steele. “It is imperative we gain greater insight into their operations.”

“Then we must obtain another Jim Steele,” she says, sneezing as they pass an offensively fragrant flowerbed.

Steele peers down at the son of John Loengard, sucking at something sticky that he gave it to keep it quiet. “We have a candidate in mind. Phil Albano, Frank Bach's second.”

“He will resist.”

“Far from it,” says Steele, indulging in a cackle. “It was his idea.”

She blinks, unable to process the notion. “Phil Albano is loyal to Frank Bach. It is a trap—”

“Jim Steele was also loyal to Frank Bach, once.”

She tips her face towards his, sensing a story behind the words; wanting to hear it, but not willing to voice the question. Steele, not so new and far more adept at telepathy, senses it in her thoughts, and with time to kill, acquiesces.

“Jim Steele's ambitions aligned with our own. He greatly resented Frank Bach's attentions towards John Loengard: we saw his potential, as Frank Bach could not. His neglect of his most faithful underlings will prove his undoing. It's his destiny...”

On his gesture she sits at a bench, tucked beneath a blooming tree, and examines the child. Its fingers and face are smeared a fruity-smelling red, a toothy smile peeking out amidst the carnage. She roots around her purse for a handkerchief, wetting the fabric with a press of her tongue.

“Let Mama see your hands,” she orders. She feels Steele's eyebrow raise beside her, as she sets to work restoring the infant's skin to pink.

“You are rearing him most efficiently,” he says, when she's finished.

“This is what Kim Sayers must do,” she says, fishing a stuffed bear from her pocket as praise for compliance.

Steele nods his approval. His head darts around, checking for signs of Majestic, lurking in the foliage. Reassured, he glances at his watch.

“The operation is scheduled for the early hours of tomorrow. We will head to the hospital shortly, to check on preparations.”

“Could the human not just grow a new one?” she wonders, smoothing the hair at the base of her skull.

“Humans have limited regenerative capacity. The liver, for instance. They have expended a great deal of time and money, trying to recreate the rest.”

“They might have given up,” she says with a smile, “if not for our sponsorship.”

“Our survival depends on it.” Steele spies an elderly couple, shuffling past, and settles an arm around her shoulders in perfect imitation. “Majestic has studied our biology: every implant is at risk of detection. Sooner or later, they will invent a ruse to examine the population at large, to check for our presence. A mass vaccination programme, probably... We must be ready. We must adapt.”

He lowers his arm to graze his fingers against hers, even though no one is watching. “Science has advanced in leaps and bounds as a result of our research. The humans should be grateful.”

She smirks. “Is Phil Albano grateful?”

“Phil Albano believes the deal he has struck involves passing us some paperwork, every now and then.” He lifts his glasses and squints into the sunlight, amusement twisting his lips. “His naivety is really quite touching.”

“Is this what you meant in New York?” she asks, as he helps her to her feet and they continue along the path, the child babbling away below them. “When you talked of the weakness of human hearts?”

Steele glances across with a frown. She can feel his confusion; his surprise, that she has an entire mind at her disposal, and is still so far from understanding it.

“I was referring to their emotions,” he says. “Not the organ itself.”

“The brain is the source of human emotion.”

“Technically, yes. But humans associate the heart with feelings. A foolish concept, deeply embedded in their culture.”

“Feelings,” she says, musing it over. “Such as love?”

“Whatever love means,” says Steele, puzzlement etched in his brow. For all his pretensions of wisdom, she realises, he understands some things no better than she does. The face of John Loengard flits, unbidden, before her eyes; but with a blink it is gone, a ghost returned to its grave, and there is no answer she can give him.

--

The child takes its first, faltering steps the same day she becomes capable of transmitting language through her thoughts, instead of vague sensations. Humans have a saying, one Joan Sayers, with her religious faith and traditional values, was fond of: that to give is also to receive. But the ability to access the wider collective mind still comes as a surprise, starting as it does when she is on her knees, arms outstretched, encouraging the son of John Loengard to toddle its way towards her.

Her body jerks as her mind fills, and overflows. The Greys' star chart, this planet marked upon it – Kim Sayers, examining her face in a strip of mirror – the intriguing, intricate circuitry of a chip – the joy, at this species, so small, so aggressive, so full of possibility – Dmitri Mironov, extending an arm to the light – the Earth from outer space, blue and beckoning – Jim Steele, joining hands with a woman, and promising forever—

A hand on her shoulder shocks her back to the confines of her body. She gasps, clutching it as an anchor, as Steele bends to the floor beside her.

“Breathe now,” he says softly. She glances over, realising the voice came from the inside of her head.

“Will it get easier?” she sends back.

“It will be a thing of beauty,” he promises, this time out loud. Telepathically, he nudges her into opening her thoughts once more, into his, and their, and hers, and our—

Singularity. Glorious, joyful singularity.

The link snaps apart with a thump she belatedly realises is the child, misjudging a step and landing on its behind. It starts to wail, unwittingly giving voice to a sentiment all her own. She feels so very small, and so very, very lonely. A taste of the greatest unity imaginable is not enough to sustain her. She scoops up the child and holds it close, impulsively seeking the comfort this kind of contact will bring it.

“You must learn to walk,” Steele tells her, “before you can begin to run.”

She sets the child back on its feet, drying its tears with her fingertips, and the feigned warmth of a smile. Steele watches it with mild interest as it squirms in her arms, coaxed into attempting a further, hesitant step.

“What did you learn?”

“We have exhausted the use of Aura-Z at this juncture. We must stage an attack, forcing Majestic to send in a salvage mission. Dmitri Mironov will be preserved, but the others are expendable.”

“Very good,” he says, over her murmurs of praise. “What else?”

“The son of John Loengard must be prepared for transport. It will be sent to the mothership, to begin the next stage of its development. Its growth will be – accelerated?" She frowns, prising apart facts like bones from fish. It feels so strange: to know things, instead of having to wait for Steele to divulge them. She turns to him, seeking confirmation. “That was not our plan.”

“Our plan has changed.”

“Yes,” she says serenely, looking at his face and seeing how it once had been; seeing again her own, open-mouthed and ashen with fear, reflecting back at her. “And it is not alone.”

--

An Indiana cornfield is selected as the collection site, and with the time fixed for two days hence, they settle into the farmhouse to await it. The scene is curiously domestic – Steele, reading a newspaper at the kitchen table, occasionally passing comment on the contents (“Un-American activities,” he says with a tut. “How shocking.”); the child, kicking its feet in its high chair, squalling in protest at her attempts to feed it.

She watches from the veranda, later, as Steele tells it a story in their sibilant tongue; something she can't quite pinpoint curling low and warm inside her.

As shadows fall they retire to the sofa, to plan and plot, and mingle their thoughts. Steele likes to share his superior knowledge of humanity, throwing out tidbits like confetti. She prefers to talk of the homeworld, and of the differing landmasses on this one. Kim Sayers had once hoped to travel to a place called Paris, but the months on the road with John Loengard had stripped her of any further desire to journey. After a time, the only destination she had longed for was one where she might remain.

She rests her back against Steele's chest, compelling his arms to snake around her. She wants to raise the subject of the information she has gleaned about Jim Steele, but he seems to wish to avoid it. He is more interested in discussing his latest pearl of wisdom.

“Humans have two,” she informs him, indifferent to it, except for means of study.

“Sometimes there are more. Sometimes they adopt another, or change the order. They shorten them, also. Bob Dylan, Phil Albano, Jim Steele: all began their lives with different designations.”

“Why is that?” she asks, thinking of how Kim and Kimberly, so easily interchanged in her thoughts, are one and the same.

“The shortened form is less formal. It denotes familiarity.”

“It is no surprise they are so conflicted,” she says, “when they cannot decide what best to call themselves.”

“I prefer Jimmy,” muses Steele, leafing through his memories to find variations on Jim.

She twists around to study his face, intent on comparing it with the one she remembers. His functional eye returns the scrutiny, the other sitting white and sightless in its socket.

“What are you doing?”

“Trying to tell the difference,” she says, reaching out a hand to examine his cheek. The skin is pallid, closer to the steel of the name than pink, and webbed with threaded veins. But it is warm beneath her palm, heat rising at her touch and flooding the surface with fire. She charts a path along the bones of his face, running a fingertip across his bottom lip and leaving it to rest there. He parts his lips, as if to bite it; and all the time she can feel his body's fragile heart, beating ever faster inside him.

Human impulses are the price they pay for use of this flesh. They are better off ignored, quietly dismissed as the legacy of the body, unable to reconcile with mind. Steele tries his hardest to do both, the battle warring on his face while she brackets his legs and pushes him back against a cushion, hair falling around them as she presses closer.

“This is – unconstructive,” he mutters, his voice a little strained.

“Tell me about the wife,” she says, shivering as his hands explore her spine, seemingly of their own volition. “Kim Sayers wishes to know.”

A small noise escapes his throat when she shifts her balance. “The memory is best – best forgotten. We do not need it.”

“I would know it anyway,” she says, pointing out, “and will, eventually.”

Steele is silent for a moment, coolly parsing something. “Widow. The word is widow.”

“Did Jim Steele and the widow intend to reproduce? That is the customary response to marriage...”

He tears his gaze from her lips, his pupil blown, as flustered and unsteady as she has ever seen him. “I don't remember.”

“You told me of your childhood. Jim Steele remembers everything...just as I do.”

“This part is irrelevant. Unworthy of our consideration.”

She traces the line of a vein, up into his hair. “Does it cause you weakness?”

“I feel nothing,” says Steele, sliding his hands to her hips and tugging her against him; rapidly losing the fight, and seeming not to care. He trails his teeth across her jaw, pausing to allow, “But some feelings are more difficult for us to suppress than others.”

She bows to gravity and dips her head to meet his mouth, wondering vaguely where the desire to do this came from, and why they are both so incapable of ignoring it.

–-

The glyph is already carved out in the field, a familiar pattern of lines and spirals, borders furred by the stalks around it, swaying gently in the breeze. They stroke against her skin as she pushes through the rows, the son of John Loengard held tight in her arms, following Steele as he leads them towards the target.

The child's cheeks are soft against her own, small fists curling at the scarf around her neck. It watches, sucking on a pacifier, as Steele tilts his head to the inky sky above, the moonlight striking off his marbled eyeball.

“We will not be interrupted,” she says, sniffing at the air, heavy with flora and loam. “Majestic is dealing with Aura-Z. John Loengard has left the country.”

“John Loengard is resilient,” says Steele, jaw twitching in annoyance. “I expect he'll be back.”

He heaves a duffel bag from his shoulder, peering inside at the contents: bottles, diapers, a selection of toys. She has left the child with only the clothes on its back: the rest will not fit it, soon enough. Steele plucks out a doll and dangles it disapprovingly from its hair, before tossing it back inside.

“It will require something familiar,” is her reasoning.

“He is a similar age to the specimens gestated in cattle. We are well prepared for his needs.”

“It is so much less time-consuming,” she says with a sigh, “when they are hatched later on in the life cycle.”

Steele toes the bulging bag into the circle of flattened stalks. He steps away, gaze sharp on her face when she makes no move to follow.

“You must put the child down,” he reminds her.

She bends to the ground obediently, placing the child on the floor and crouching next to it, to discourage it from moving. It still crawls much better than it walks, but that will not stop it from trying to follow her. She ruffles its hair, tickles its chin, kisses its hands; all the while, seeking something appropriate to say.

Humans possess no natural telepathic ability. But some are more psychically sensitive than others, children chief among them. She extends tendrils of thought, suffusing the infant with what its underdeveloped brain will perceive as comforting colours and scents, and though it understands language at only the most basic level, the instructions it will need, imprinted on its mind like a brand. We are your friends – you will fulfil a higher purpose – you are safe with us, and valued, and so very, very important—

She does not mean to include John Loengard in the transmission. But the image slips past anyway, as dangerous and evasive as Loengard himself.

“Be a good boy,” she concludes, withdrawing.

Fierce wind whips her hair as a saucer swoops down, humming and hovering above them. A hatch slides open, stabbing the ground with a column of dazzling, ethereal light. Steele's hand finds hers, pulling her to her feet as the son of John Loengard is lifted into the air, weightless as a feather, floating up, and away, and out of sight.

For all their adherence to ceremony, it is a perfunctory affair. Cargo collected, the ship streaks back into the night. She watches the spot where it disappeared, arms feeling oddly boneless, and shorn of purpose. It is the height of summer, the air here almost as humid at night as it is during day. There is not a storm cloud in the sky; not a drop of precipitation in sight. But when she lifts a hand to her face, she finds it dripping with moisture. She turns to Steele, alarm jolting through her. She remembers, all too well, what this fluid means.

“This body – this body is le—”

“An allergy,” he says, smoothly producing a handkerchief. “I first observed it in Houston.” He tucks a loose lock of hair back behind her ear, thumb brushing against her cheek. “The ganglion enhances strength and vision. Cell growth also, speeding the ability to heal. But there are some quirks of this physiology that remain beyond our control.”

She wrinkles her nose, dabbing at her eyes. “The common cold.”

“It would make our presence here much more pleasant,” Steele agrees, “if we could only find a cure.”

The night is still around them, breeze sucked in like an uncertain breath. She glances at the sky, suspecting there is a storm brewing, after all, beneath its imperturbable surface.

“Kim Sayers' job is now complete,” she notes, expecting Steele to take out his gun. She will not resist, when he does; Kim Sayers' life is of no more consequence than Jim Steele's.

“We will find you another.” He inclines his head, regarding her fondly. “I didn't spend so long trying to bring you home, just to kill you now.”

She reclaims his hand, seeking something else to hold. Steele looks down at it for a long moment, some faraway speck of memory stirred from its sleep. He told her once that humans feel greater contentment, when they are physically close to each other. Touching him does not bring her contentment; nothing physical could ever compare to the joys of singularity. But there is something, even in this: a spark of sensation, surging in her blood. Steele runs a finger across her wrist, seeking out the pulse, beating there against him.

“We have grown accustomed to the child's presence,” he says. “His absence, also, must be acclimatised to.”

“It had a name,” she remembers, the fact only now emerging from the fog. “In California – I called it by a name...”

“You called him Ray.”

She nods, finding it fitting. It will need a name to separate it from others: to identify itself by as it grows up in the cold of space, so far away from the warmth of the sun.

“We will be much less constrained, without him.”

Steele's eye gleams at the promise of violence. “Much less conspicuous.”

“Humans work best in pairs,” she says, warming to the theme. “We will pass among them far more convincingly...” She glances down at their still-joined hands. “...this way.”

Steele tangles their fingers, appraising the suggestion. “Yes,” he says at last, a small smile creeping its way to his lips. “My thoughts exactly.”

Kim Sayers steps closer, fully comprehending the humour; and somewhere in the blackened depths of her being, dimly registering the irony.