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“Mom.”

That was all he said.

The first image to enter Diana’s mind was that of her own mother, a woman with rounded cheeks and stern wrinkles. The last time she’d seen her had to be...

No, that wasn’t right. She envisioned herself holding her hands against her stomach, looking up at—Sigma? Feelings of isolation, of panic.

The image vanished and Diana was blinking against the white walls, shivering still as she waited for her bullet.

Surely Delta would pick up the shotgun and mark her, himself. Surely she was next.

For a tense moment, neither moved. The only sound was Eric’s last gurgling breath.

Then, Delta turned. And he walked. And he kept walking.

He was trying to shake her up by acting like nothing had happened. What was the term—gaslighting? Something with which Diana was familiar no thanks to her ex-husband. But she was here, still standing among a spread of bodies. Where was he going, what was he thinking? 

And how… how could he call her, “Mom?”

The facts: one, he was biologically quite old. It didn’t require a nursing degree to see that plainly. Two, if her vision were correct and Sigma was in fact Delta’s father, they’d only just met a week ago, and as such it wasn’t possible for her to conceive, gestate, pop out, and raise a child into an older adult, nor was it possible that her body remained this young in the process. Three, Diana wasn’t even certain she could conceive children, which was part of the reason it was so easy to fill out the application for Dcom.

The wild card: the otherworldly transporter and the fact that she knew exactly how it worked, somehow, despite not having operated it in this lifetime. Why?

More importantly, why now? Why wait until everyone else was dead to say this single word to her? Would someone else have figured out its meaning; was it meant only for her ears?

The edge of guilt in the vowel mocked her. It ignited a pang in her unlike any she’d felt before; a nostalgia for something that couldn’t have been, but was; a passing of time that etched her well beyond her years.

In her mind’s peculiar eye, she saw the face of an infant cradled in Sigma’s large hands, everything covered in biological curds and fluids, somewhere in a blue room. Could have been any timeline, could have been any year, but she saw in the face something strikingly similar to the man before her. So alien, so defenseless.

She pushed her little voice through a too-choked windpipe, flattening the air in the vast chamber. 

“I’m sorry.”

The man paused, turning his head to the side. He didn’t turn to face her, but he didn’t walk away either.

“I’m sorry, Delta,” she repeated. 

There was no doubt that she felt something beyond pity. It reached farther into the back of her mind’s trail. A great sadness; a great ungrieved loss so fragile that she could only compare it to what she felt for hospitalizing women who miscarried, or learning about ancient infants abandoned on Roman hillsides. 

This elderly man in front of her was not her child, yet somehow was. In order for him to have even grown old, she would have had to intervene. She had to have sent him through the transporter. But alone?

Delta himself had said the transporter wouldn’t viably function with more than one person inside a pod, but had she tried? There was a block in her mind as to why she couldn’t have placed the baby Delta in one and herself in the other. Had Sigma gone with him in the other transport pod, but somehow left Delta or died before he could raise him?

Or worse; could Diana not have thought about the small lies from her former life that led her to believe she could never have children in the first place, lies which until this moment she still would have believed?

She turned her head to Sigma’s form sprawled near the bloodied edge of the platform. Father of her child shot dead; they’d barely brushed hands.

In another life, she could see herself breaking past his grumpy exterior and delighting in his company, stringing lights around a tree near a warm fireplace. In that life, people she’d never met circled around her and passed her gifts in pastel wrapping. There was already a miniature stocking on the mantle with felted tree shapes adorning it. Comfortable and settled and spacious. Delta, he’d have a room of his own and he’d get into a great preschool and the gifted programs and play after-school sports and struggle with who to take to prom, and he’d make Diana cry when he packed up a room of memories to head to a top university.

That Delta had a chance.

This Delta was born choking, premature, malnourished, trapped in a shelter with no hope of escape but one tricky piece of technology; and while he managed to survive it, his original died on Diana’s own breast, not old enough to clearly see his mother’s face, not old enough to know they’d all starved.

Oh.

Without blinking, Diana watched tears stream out of the bottom of her line of sight. Not one, but many tears, over and over, stinging her nose and throat and threatening to hitch her breath.

But she continued softly, “I didn’t want that for you.”

She thought of the broken bluebird music box and tried to sense its position in her pocket. It was what she gave him when she set him on the green padding of the transporter, wasn’t it? Not a music box, but a cage.

Someone else lifted that infant out of the output pod on the other side. 

Someone else examined her cryptic item, its melody too damaged to play and too forgotten to hum.

Someone else bathed him, washed the foot until the marker that read “Delta” in bubbly script scrubbed off. It would have only been his second bath.

Whoever it was, whether it was a researcher or an orphanage caretaker—she pained to think of it—they couldn’t have known just how much extra love this child would need.

Did they tell him he was adopted? Did they ever properly adopt him? If they’d sent him far enough back, would society even acknowledge the needs of young children, or would he have been raised alongside so many other abandoned babies? She couldn’t possibly know if she hadn’t had a body that traveled back with him.

It was clear, though, that whatever path his life had taken in this time, he’d never been taught the meaningfulness of the bluebird.

In her aching heart, Diana felt helpless. Delta had been helpless. Delta didn’t choose to be surrendered to another time to get a chance; they had. Or maybe just she had, as she wasn’t sure whether it was her joint decision with Sigma, and she couldn’t ask him now. Maybe he had already died by the time Diana made the decision. All Diana knew was that she definitely held the baby as he died.

She never got to be his mom.

He never got to call her “mom.”

So why here, why now after he’d made it clear he didn’t want an extension of this history, after Sigma was dead, after he’d all but ruined her chance for escape by frying the mainframe?

Her head hurt. Through it was rushing endless noise, but nothing she could hear—it was more like, her brain felt every possible emotion it could perceive, and she couldn’t focus on any particular one.

Her body snapped upright and stopped shaking, then the feeling left.

She understood all at once. It wasn’t her suddenly cutting off the—what was it?—morphogenetic field noise. It was Delta’s presence in her brain. 

It was Delta, not Eric, who controlled the shotgun. His power overwhelmed Eric’s mind, controlling him to do it.

Soft-willed, misunderstood Eric who shouldn’t have had the gun in the first place. Days ago at Dcom, Eric insisted that Sigma was “crazy” and kept looping back to how Carlos should have had him locked up. Diana remembered thinking it sounded like someone scraping for a modicum of control as though there were none in his life otherwise. When the barrel of his gun had pointed at her before they traveled to this quantum computer room, she remembered thinking how right she was. “Crazy.” She had a feeling Eric had himself been called that, and maybe even deservedly so; with such a hair trigger, Diana didn’t doubt he could have used some help before things got to this point.

Now, with his body slumped over his own blood, Eric wouldn’t have that chance.

Which was worse: the fragile, “crazy” brain that pulled the trigger, or the stone-faced, unkind man who manipulated him? Regardless of whether Eric would have kept his calm while waiting for Sean to unlock the X-door, it had to seem like he flew off the handle.

Diana narrowed her eyes against the thought.

It would have been better had Delta just taken the shotgun in his own hands. At least then, she’d have understood it as a father–son strain rather than whatever it was Eric did.

If my father left me to die in a shelter, I’d hate him too, Diana thought.

The question begged: why not her? Why hadn’t he chosen to kill her? Hadn’t she done worse, having not been able to keep him alive and sending him off with her precious Maeterlinck treasure? Somewhat comical to think about, but hadn’t Sigma’s role in the tragedy simply been providing the other half of the chromosomes? 

Oh, Sigma. He didn’t deserve to die for that. She yearned for his reassurance and felt as though she’d wander to his side to kneel down and grasp his face and whisper that she was sorry and pray his hearing was, in fact, the last to go.

But somehow she couldn’t. Her eyes remained trained on Delta, who didn’t budge. Delta, who had to maintain appearances for the cameras. Delta, who had let his mother die countless other times but spared her the bullet this time.

She looked at the man whose height surely gave him away for Sigma’s son and, although she’d dutifully examined him during the Dcom experiment, for the first time wished she could reach out to touch his face, make sure he was real beneath her hand.

She found she couldn’t move at all. She’d become numb slowly, like a foot falling asleep. Nothing responded to her command.

Delta was inside her mind, manipulating her; the chill informed her it wasn’t the first time he’d done it, either.

Was that wrong?

Was that wrong the same way she heard the echo of Sigma’s voice in her mind, telling her about the divorce he couldn’t have known about—wrong? She couldn’t even close her eyes from the oncoming vision of Sigma’s tired, worried face, somewhere here in the shelter, even.

No. No, no, Sigma was dead, Sigma was lifeless on the ground and it was all Delta’s fault.

Delta, her monster son.

Delta turned to face the wall again and began to step forward. 

Suddenly, she couldn’t bear the thought of watching him going through that door, leaving her.

I didn’t mean it. 

She fought her paralyzation, she focused on the expanding of her lungs, tried to feel her heart beating.

Delta was a murderer. Delta murdered Sean, Sigma, Eric, Mira. Delta let Junpei and Akane and Carlos die, and most poignantly, he let Phi die somewhere he wouldn’t let Diana recall. Delta allowed this disgusting “experiment” to move forward; Delta trapped them all underground and left them to fend for themselves and played these decision games. 

But he was still her son. Would she choose to hate her son?

She couldn’t. Whether she had control over it or not, hate wasn’t something she felt when she recalled the feeling of knowing she was pregnant in another history. Not even animosity described what she felt in the realization that she’d carry him to term; restrained, but it was joy nevertheless. She must have doted on her little belly, even if she couldn’t quite reach the part of her SHIFTed memory that would inform her of how. It was barely a choice, but it was a choice still to love him.

And she would choose not to hate him now. Hate the things he did, surely. Hate all of the hatred he, in turn, spread, and the murders he incited. Hate making her think that this was all for some bizarre, unknown higher purpose when it might have been as simple as the result of her own neglect.

Diana knew just as well that choosing to love wasn’t as simple as not choosing to be hateful, either. For instance, her ex-husband would feign his love for her but only after he’d beaten and assaulted her. Even the clemency Delta showed now by not killing her after making her witness three other ruthless, unnecessary murders was not necessarily love; it was merely not taking spite out on her. Or whatever the feeling was, if it weren’t spite.

Her heart opened consciously to him. If he didn’t feel it, he didn’t feel it; she had to try. The saying was “such-and-such only a mother could love,” right? This moment of homicidal boredom threaded through his repeating notion that life was unfair and that pain called out to her.

His momentary sparing of her life resonated within her. For whatever his reasoning, she was meant to feel this unabashed empathy.

Sometimes she wondered, when Sigma and Phi and the others talked about jumping, SHIFTing, did they mean what she meant? When they seemed to enable other memories, they spoke so calmly. It often hit her all at once in high tidal crashes of emotion. Every vague notion she had of other times—raising Delta in the normal world, giving birth in this shelter—felt so chaotic inside her that she was certain they couldn’t be feeling the same thing. Her SHIFTing led to leaps in empathy, and perhaps that was why the tears continued to stream down her face.

The life I gave you was unfair to you, Delta.

She almost pried open her mouth to plead in one last effort.

Forgive me.

Delta’s steps paused him in the doorway. 

Diana felt a sharp tingling in her limbs as though they awakened from his grasp.

Softly, monotonously, he muttered one phrase before his exeunt.

“38080832.”

He disappeared through the door. Every footstep clacked until it was far, far away, and then nothing.

The copper tang of blood wafted around her. In silence, she waited for a moment, then minutes, for something to pop up and bring instant death, but it never came. Neither did the moment of inspired realization, nor relief of her son’s acceptance of her apology. 

The “why” in this world wasn’t going to be answered; she’d have to pray everything beyond the passkey stuck with her and force herself to SHIFT.

But first, it would have been unloving to leave the other bodies.

Sean’s head lifted with some difficulty but she placed it as close to his body as she could. A robot, but a child nevertheless; she couldn’t help but wonder whether she may have even known this child in another life before he became a consciousness. She felt a strange fondness for him knowing he was crafted from scratch, meant to resemble something almost human. Perhaps it was kinder that Sean’s bullet wound bled white, more representational of his childlike innocence.

Diana wandered to Eric. It was too late now; even if she’d tried to stop the blood flow, the angle of the bullet was too precise where it ripped right through the top of Eric’s skull. Nothing she could provide without intensive assistance in an ER would suffice to save his body, let alone his brain. She knelt by his side, gently closed his eyelids, and glanced at the small smile on Eric’s lips that remained even if all use of his muscle was gone. Whatever he’d been thinking of must have been at least a little pleasant, and selfishly Diana hoped Delta hadn’t had a glimpse of it while the controlled shotgun fired. She wanted to move him from his side to his back to give him a kinder presentation but let the futility overwhelm her.

She stood and stared at Sigma’s feet.

Now that she paused, she noticed their bodies had formed a triangle.

Of course.

At least Sigma had the… dignity to close his eyes before his soul left so that Diana didn’t have to look at him with the same caution as she looked at Eric. Still, she avoided his face. He was flat on his back, probably smacked his head as he hit the ground, hopefully letting him lose consciousness faster than the wound could bleed him out.

Diana found herself kneeling in his blood, falling sideways and catching herself in the crook between his body and his arm. Tepid, both the pool of blood and his shell of a body. Her hair caught like a paintbrush in the stuff so she let her head rest momentarily, curled against the large figure of this man whom she didn’t feel like she only barely knew. If he, at some time, could buckle down and assist her through childbirth, she’d do him the small grace of staying with his dead body for a while. 

He slept like this, she knew, on his back. Once argued with her that it was the best position to sleep in, but she slept on her side anyway. 

Maybe he wasn’t all gone yet. Maybe if she tried to laugh about how she preferred side-sleeping and damn the wrinkles, he’d....

She bloodied her hand by covering his chest with it, as though it’d stop any of the blood or magically make it return to his heart. But she wouldn’t look up at his face. If she looked up at his face and it seemed like he was sleeping, she’d close her eyes, too, and pretend it was all a dream, and then wake up hours later to a colder, deader body.

No. Stop it, now.

Her heart was clouded. Staying here would mean rotting too slowly to catch another history’s body. She knew that she would only escape Sigma’s death if she SHIFTed.

She leaned up, then knelt.

“Sigma,” she addressed him, wondering if it sounded a bit silly in the emptiness. “I have to go now.”

As though it were nothing. As calmly as if she’d told him, “I’m going to the store to get more potatoes.” 

She wouldn’t look back at him, but she would look further and past to the edge. 

Could she launch herself off that platform? What was down there? If she didn’t die from the impact, would she be willing to starve there?

No.

Then, the gun.

It seemed too cruel. Not to mention, without Delta’s aid inside her mind, it might be difficult to aim such an unwieldy shotgun such that it would hit her brain in the right spot and not just leave her paralyzed. If she clung too long to life, rescuers would arrive. She couldn’t fail because near-death could mean a life tied to machines without enough danger to allow her to SHIFT.

What was the surest way for her to die? She kept scraping the room for answers. Not the cliff. Not the shotgun. What about…

She noticed the exposed wires, several frayed from the sudden eruption of Sean’s cabling, sticking up out of the console of the computer, sparking.

Metal.

She had metal. If all went as predicted, sticking metal in the sockets would mean electrocution. Painful but effective.

She reached to the back of her skirt, which was now sopping with Sigma’s blood. Her hand dug in the pocket to find the bluebird in its metal cage. 

Of course; now she knew why it stayed with her all this time, not left behind in her bunk at Dcom. It was a robust metal covering the damp and bloodied bird. It was perfect. And now wet with blood, she’d surely…

Take a breath.

Place it on the wires.

SHIFT.