It's quiet in the lab except for the hum of machinery and the periodic chirping of the monitors, so familiar they seem part of the silence. He's almost asleep when the door slides open and MOMO ventures in, balancing a cup on a tray. Steam trails across the room as she pads toward his chair. "Are you awake?"
He lifts his head. "What is it?"
"I thought you might be lonely." MOMO sets the tray on the arm of his chair and climbs into his lap. "So I brought you some tea. Um, it's chamomile, so it'll help you relax."
"Thank you." He moves the cup farther back so he won't knock it over by mistake, and rests his right hand on her shoulder. "That was kind of you." Such gestures on her part no longer surprise him, but he's still not used to being treated with compassion, with anything besides indifference or contempt.
"Well ...." Her eyes stray around the perimeter of the room, over the consoles and the holographic screens reading out his vital signs. "Before I was born, my father said I could be human if I did good things for people. But that's not why I brought you tea," she adds abruptly, shrinking into herself. "I--I just wanted you to be happy, and I like spending time with you, so--"
"I know." Sensing her need for space, he withdraws his hand from her shoulder and considers dropping the conversation as well. She hasn't mentioned it, but he knows it's been on her mind since the Encephalon dive when she watched her father fall to his death from the Labyrinthos tower above the war-churned streets of Miltia's capital. He's seen enough in a hundred years to know those memories will stay with her, like slivers of glass and metal in a wound, rising to the surface when she least expects it with a stab that takes her breath away. The kind of wound that tears you apart from the inside if you can't extract the shrapnel.
MOMO's head droops forward. "I'm sorry. You probably think I'm being selfish."
He takes a sharp breath, his deliberation cut short. "Not at all," he says, stalling. "It's--"
"But if I'm just doing good deeds because I want to be real, does that mean I'm not really a good person?"
"MOMO ...." He sighs. It's been a while since he had to grapple with an ethical dilemma. His previous career was rife with them, but since he was repurposed as a blunt instrument of the Federation Government, the hard decisions--however inhumane the outcome--have been out of his hands. On a good mission it never enters into his conscience, and he forgets it as soon as it's over. The bad missions ... well, those are the ones that leave splinters.
He brings his hand back to her upper arm. She's tiny, younger-looking than her fourteen years, not much taller than his stepson at eleven. Since their escape from Pleroma she's put on such a tough façade it's easy to forget how vulnerable she is. Sometimes it occurs to him again in the middle of a battle or a standoff with the Federation military, and it terrifies him.
He notices her staring in anticipation and starts over. "MOMO, your father was a very intelligent man. But parents often have to tell their children things they may not fully understand at the time. Doing good deeds isn't what makes you human, because ...." The twinge of betrayal in her eyes makes him wince. "... You already are. From the moment you were born, you ...." He wills himself to say it to her face, to the amber eyes that distinguish her to the world as a Realian. "You're alive, and you have consciousness. You have your own will. You experience emotions. That makes you no different from another human being."
She nods--unconvincingly, and unconvinced. "But then why would Daddy have said that?"
"I think ... I guess it has to do with experience. Every life starts out the same, more or less. But some people grow up to be kind and caring, and others don't. Your father wasn't sure if he'd be there to raise you, but he must have wanted you to have a good life. And part of that, part of being human, is learning how to live with others, how to care for them, and how to get along when bad things happen. No one can live completely alone, isolated from the world. So when Professor Mizrahi told you that, he probably wanted you to understand what it means to coexist with other humans."
"So it wasn't just a lie?"
He wants to say that parents lie to their children all the time, that he's only guessing at Mizrahi's intentions, scrambling for a practical interpretation that will alleviate her guilt without destroying the only fond memory she has of the man. "It was a story. But one that was meant to tell the truth. I'm sure he would be proud to see how you've grown."
MOMO shifts her weight, fidgeting with the hem of her skirt over her knees. "Even if I'm not always good? If I make mistakes sometimes?"
"Of course. It's hard to do the right thing all the time, and every human being makes mistakes."
"You think so?" A smile flits across her face, and she leans against his shoulder. "Then I'll do my best. For Daddy and Mommy, and for you and Jr. and Shion and everyone else."
He draws his arm around her back, hugging her gently. The room smells of chamomile, incongruous against the sterile tang of metal and warm circuitry.
She raises her head again. "You know what? I wish I could be tough like you, Ziggy. Then I could help more people without being scared or getting hurt." She leans back, eyes aglow in the pulse of the monitors. "You've been alive for a long time, haven't you? So you must have done a lot of good deeds for the Federation. And you have a mind and all that other stuff, so you're just as human as I am, right?"
He catches his breath, hoping she won't notice--shrapnel pushing through his lungs, the old familiar ache. Corridors streaked with blood and smoke, bodies in and out of uniform sprawled under guttering institutional lights. A hundred years of covert missions, sabotage, coups and installations, rogue states overthrown and figureheads assassinated and planetary systems thrown into disorder--state-sanctioned crimes with no suspect because the perpetrator had no legal identity, only a serial number and a proprietary implant in his brain that forced him to follow orders.
He won't lie to her. She's still a child, but even a child deserves the truth. "I don't know," he says, and reaches for the teacup. The heat sensors in his gloved right hand register nothing; it's already cold.