High on the roof, where the raucous noise of the city’s nightlife was distant enough that it was nothing more than a dull thrum, Aamil took a seat on one of the old, rusted air conditioners that littered its blacktop surface. He took a drag from a small, pen-like device that trembled between his fingers until they were eased to calm by the influx of nicotine. He closed his eyes, breathing out the plume of vapor and trying to ignore the coolness in the air. Winter was sneaking in and soon the thousand pins and needles that would punish his joints for the next four months would sneak in with it. “Thought I’d find you up here,” said a voice from behind him.
“Safir,” said Aamil, taking a second drag. “You should be in bed. Tomorrow is going to be a long day.” He opened his eyes again and found himself staring up at the leviathans that loomed over the city. It was the city he’d been born in, the city he’d met Jez in, the city in which they’d raised Safir and now it was the city their son was leaving behind.
“There’ll be plenty of time to sleep when I’m up there,” the boy said, nodding skyward. Aamil knew, of course, that he’d stopped being a boy long ago, but he wasn’t sure he’d ever be able to shake the idea of him still being one entirely. “Besides,” Safir continued, “I couldn’t go if we left things the way they ended tonight.” He perched up on the air conditioner beside Aamil and snatched the cigarette from between his fingers.
“You shouldn’t do that,” said the older man. “You’ll get addicted.” Safir smiled at his father as a chimney of vapor billowed out the side of his mouth. It was the same playful smirk he’d given him the first time Aamil had caught him swiping cookies from the cooling rack.
“You sound like Rupert,” he said. “But don’t worry, up there cold turkey won’t be so much a choice as a fact of life. So just let me have my fix, yeah?”
Aamil nodded, resigning in the way that always made Jez furious, then turned back toward the stars. “So which one is it then?”
Safir briefly scanned the night then raised a finger toward one of the smaller vessels that hovered just this side of the horizon. It looked like a skiff compared to the mammoth galleons that hung immediately overhead. “The Xanadu,” he said. “Might not look like much from here, but she’ll support six thousand.”
Aamil didn’t respond but let the blue and red lights that gave decoration to the oblong shape dance in his dark eyes. Beside him Safir squirmed the way he always did when something was gnawing at him. “You—you don’t seem too upset,” he said. It wasn’t a question, but the pitch of his voice seemed to want to make it one.
“Upset? I’m not upset,” Aamil said. He saw his son’s shoulders relax and before they sunk too far he pushed forward, “I only burn with the white-hot rage of every star that shines down on us. Your mother and I gave you life, we toiled away in the factories so you could go to Academy instead of wasting away on the stipend like the rest of your generation. And now, just after you’ve made a family for yourself, after you and Rupert have given us a grandchild, you’re going to go off and disappear out there?”
“Ah-ah, I’m not finished,” said Aamil wagging a finger. “I am furious, I am distraught, I am heartbroken–but I understand.”
Safir’s brow wrinkled. “You do?”
“Yes,” said Aamil, taking a shallow drag. “Your mother doesn’t but she will, in time.”
Safir stared at him, his jaw slack. “I don’t know what to say.”
“Say that you’ll tell my granddaughter how much her papi and nonna loved her. Say that her life aboard that stadium-sized egg will be better than one down here with us.”
“Of course,” said Safir. “And it will. It’s like its own world up there. She’ll go to school and train for a job, but whatever she does up there, it will really matter. She’ll be helping people, helping humanity.”
Aamil nodded. “Good. A girl that sweet deserves a world all her own.”
Safir laughed, “Well if she lives as long as my papi did she’ll have one. The star is only eighty years away as the monstrous metal crow flies.”
Aamil tried to fathom that. He was only halfway through his fifth decade himself, Safir just beginning his third. His granddaughter would be nearly as old as the two of them together when she finally set foot on the surface of a planet again. Safir and Rupert likely never would.
“And what about you?” Aamil asked, handing the cigarette back to his son.
“What about me?”
“This is what you want, isn’t it?” asked Aamil. “Your mother and I have put aside a lot for you, her degree, my machine-shop, but we didn’t give up everything. Whether you live in a world of sixteen billion or six thousand, one day that pretty little girl of yours is going to go and make her own way in it. And when she does, if you and Rupert haven’t built a life outside of her you’ll wonder just how the hell you ended up five light-years from the nearest star.”
Safir smiled again, but this time it wasn’t his sly cookie-thief smile. This was one that Aamil had only seen a handful of times: when Safir had gotten accepted into the Academy’s genetics program, the day he’d brought Rupert home to meet him and Jez, when the two of them had announced their baby was on the way. It was a smile that said he’d gone all in, he’d gone all in and hadn’t had to think for a second about whether it was the right choice or not. “We will, Dad,” he said. “You don’t have to worry.”
Aamil put an arm across his son’s shoulders. “I might be furious,” he said, pulling his boy close to him. “But I was never worried.”