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grief is the plan

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But he stayed quiet until their last night together on the Elsa. There was no space for mourning until the universe had collapsed to a fraction of its former scale and their world shrank to a solitary colony adrift on a silent sea. Only then, when everything else was quiet, did he trust himself to speak.

"Shouldn't you be resting?"

"Speak for yourself, old man." Seated on a stack of crates against the bulkhead in the darkened lab, Jr. motioned to the unoccupied maintenance chair.

"I'm not going anywhere tomorrow." He had planned on resting anyway, although his body didn't need it the way theirs did. Juli and MOMO had retired to their bunks in the women's cabin an hour ago, and he had waited in the corridor outside until their vital signs settled into the wave phases of deep sleep.

After the occupation of the Durandal, MOMO had taken to sleeping in Juli's bed instead of her own, curled in her mother's arms like an infant, with Alby nestled at her feet, the three of them a constellation of warmth on his radar. Juli had worried at first--she always did--but MOMO's behavior wasn't a regression, not exactly, despite the trauma that had prompted it. You couldn't go back to something you never had, and they both needed each other now, the way he needed to know they were safe and close and whole before he'd let down his guard for the night.

"What's on your mind?"

Jr. shrugged--as if he had entered the Robot Academy lab on a whim and chosen his seat at random, as if he routinely wandered into Ziggy's quarters after midnight when he knew they'd be alone.

"You don't have to talk about it." Ziggy sat on a crate to Jr.'s right instead of in the chair, closer to the floor so that their eyes were nearly level, both of them staring ahead into the transverse darkness of the corridor. "But you can, if you think it'd help."

He sighed, folding his arms across the lapels of his jacket. "Maybe I just wanted to spend some quiet time with the quietest guy I know."

"That's fine. I didn't mean to sound as though I was interrogating you."

"Nah, I'm just fucking with you, man." Jr. cuffed Ziggy's left arm. His knuckles grazed the steel under the sleeve with a muted thunk, and he pulled back his hand to shake it off. "Ow, shit."

"Sorry."

"You're sorry? Because I punched you?"

Ziggy inclined his head in the manner of a shrug. "It didn't hurt me."

Jr. doubled over holding his waist, his shoulders quaking. For a moment Ziggy thought he was in serious pain until Jr. snorted and laughed aloud. "Fuck, I'm gonna miss you so much. Your dumb sad face. God." He composed himself, dragging his sleeve across his eyes. "Maybe the Professor can build me a bot that just putters around apologizing for random shit and then apologizes for apologizing until it gets stuck in an endless loop. It'd be almost like you were right there with us."

Ziggy made a halting noise in his throat, the closest he ever got to laughing. "I'm actually flattered."

"On second thought, maybe I should just get a doormat and write ZIGGURAT 8 on it."

"Okay, that was a little ...."

"Too much?" He rubbed his eyes again. "Okay, but I wouldn't let anyone step on it. See, I got your back. Which is where I'm gonna write 'reserved for Dr. Juli Mizrahi,' of course."

Ziggy reclined, shaking his head. The ship's machinery hummed through the wall behind him, a warm vibration at his shoulder blades. He would miss this place, and all of them with it, the first home and the only family he had known in a hundred years. But he couldn't put it into words the way Jr. did, he couldn't do it justice without saying too much or nothing at all. Soon he'd be grieving their absence too, on top of everything and everyone they had already lost.

"Hey, old man." Jr. took a ragged breath that frayed apart as he exhaled. "Does it ever ... hurt any less?"

He stared at the ceiling panels, letting the faint light of the monitors wash through the noise in his visual field. "No."

They were both silent, breathing in the murmur of machines at rest.

"But you get used to it. A kind of tolerance builds up, like scar tissue. The damage is still there. The pain, too, although you don't always notice. Sometimes you don't think about it at all." He looked down. The light sketched over the finger joints of his left hand, the idling engines of his legs. "It just ... becomes a part of you. And you can't get rid of it without destroying yourself."

"Huh." Bending forward, Jr. propped his elbows on his knees and clasped his hands between them. "So what I'm hearing is, my options are to be miserable forever or kill myself. Both, if I'm you."

"That's ...." He broke off with a sigh. He couldn't explain how he had survived this long when all that pushed him forward was a yearning for oblivion.

"Sorry. No, I--I'm really sorry." Jr. couched his face in his hands, wringing his fingers through the shaggy tufts at his hairline. "This might be the last time we ever get to talk like this, and I'm lashing out at the one guy who gets it, like really fucking gets it. No wonder I ...." His voice cracked, and he dragged his hands down his face and stared into his palms. His fingers spasmed as if they wanted to recoil into fists.

"Lash out at me all you want," said Ziggy. "I mean it. I can take it. It's better than turning it inward on yourself." That much he knew from experience. For a century it was the only recourse he had.

"Yeah, but ...." The fingers contracted, indenting his palms beneath nails bitten until they had bled and clotted over, so they drew no blood now. "I can't unload that shit on you, man. I don't want 'hey what about that time I used the old man as my personal therapy punching bag' to be the last thing I remember if we ... if ... until I see you again. Come on. You've suffered enough."

"So have you."

He took his next breath like a bullet to the chest. "But I ... I've barely even had time to let it sink in. And it already hurts so much. I can't imagine going on like this, feeling like I'm bleeding out every day for the rest of my life."

"I couldn't either." He closed his eyes. A deep red pulsed behind them. "I tried not to."

"Old man." His voice was rough, bittersweet with affection and regret and choked-back rage at the circumstances that had brought them both here. "Is this ... is this what it felt like when you had to go on living anyway? Like you've been ripped apart and put back together so wrong you don't know what you are anymore, and your name belongs to a dead person and everything you loved, everything worth living for, died with them, and the only way to find peace is to forget you were ever anything more than a set of instructions heading off on a suicide mission you'll never ...."

The emotion he had struggled to suppress rose beneath his words until they crested into silence again, sheared off in horror at his own admission. He had spoken aloud what both of them knew and what their companions--other than Juli, who had confessed her scientific doubts to Ziggy during maintenance a few days earlier, when MOMO was out of scanning range--seemed unwilling or unable to contemplate. Even if the Elsa reached Lost Jerusalem, even if they all survived that long, even under the best possible circumstances, the odds of their meeting again in this lifetime, in this universe that was both smaller and impossibly vaster and lonelier now than it had ever been, ran to a fraction so infinitesimal it might as well be nothing.

He opened his eyes. Jr. had folded, his body jackknifed at the waist, hands digging into his abdomen as if he wanted to rip himself apart literally, the rest of him quaking with the strain of holding himself together. This time he was in pain. He had been in pain all this time.

Ziggy's gaze shifted to the gouged nail beds and the scuffed joints of the fingers, from there to Jr.'s eyes, sunken as deep in exhaustion as his own. Moisture clung to the lashes but his cheeks were dry, his mouth wrenched and teeth gritted in anguish.

"Jr." His left hand stirred from rest with a cold metallic rasp, the soft whir of a motor at his wrist as his fingers clicked into place.

Jr. strained to lift his head against the gravity bearing down on him, his slim shoulders bending to snap under the weight. He stared at the outstretched hand as if he had lost all his bearings and forgot he had ever seen a hand before, human or otherwise. Steadying his shoulders with a deep inhale, he reeled himself back from the abyss and sat up halfway. Light from the monitors revealed the numerals tucked in his palm for an instant before their hands touched.

Jr.'s hand barely fit across the palm of Ziggy's left; if Ziggy closed his fingers it would vanish inside his fist, encased in a hull of steel and circuitry. Instead he let his fingers curl to rest without applying any pressure. Jr.'s grasp was firmer, his knuckles whitening as he squeezed against unyielding metal, bringing to bear the full weight of a grief too enormous to carry on his shoulders, too massive to fit inside his frame. Ziggy braced himself against the deck and held his arm still and let the magnitude of it pass through him. When a single-handed grip proved insufficient, Jr. wrapped his left hand around the back of Ziggy's and squeezed tighter, as if holding on for what remained of his life. His fingers shuddered as the strength drained from them at the ebb tide of his agony and rage. Without letting go, he loosened his grip enough to relieve the tension in his upper body and slumped sideways into Ziggy's shoulder.

Ziggy made a tentative gesture with his right hand at Jr.'s back. When Jr. didn't flinch or jerk away, he brought it to rest at Jr.'s shoulder blades, spanning halfway across both. Jr.'s grip tensed and relaxed again in an aftershock.

He rubbed Jr.'s back in a slow clockwise arc through his jacket. The strength he had summoned to weather the shock wave of Jr.'s grief was fading too, and he was more tired than he'd let himself acknowledge until now. At some point his weight had shifted and he was no longer supporting Jr. but leaning against him, the two of them bracing each other like fallen pillars in a ruin. Jr.'s shoulders twitched, his breath catching and halting as he crushed his face into the stiff mesh of Ziggy's vest, his mouth open for a sob that never escaped.

Ziggy's tear ducts had been modified to limit overflow and prevent fogging of his optical sensors. He could flush them with a system override, but he seldom wasted the effort. This time he did.

They rested there, two dead men in the hold of a sunken ship beneath uncharted waves. When Jr.'s pulse and respiration stabilized he pulled back slowly, still cradling Ziggy's hand in both of his. Ziggy sat up and checked his visual overlay as if waking from stasis. The lab's instruments thrummed and chirped around them like nocturnal insects.

After a longer silence, Jr. said, "Do you ever think about what you'd say to them? If you got to see them one last time. Just long enough to say what you never had a chance to tell them."

I'm sorry.

I failed yet again.

I'm sorry.

I'm sorry.

I'm sorry.

He nodded. "I don't think there's a good answer. I've thought about it every day since I've been dead. Anything worth saying at all would take a lifetime. More time than I'll ever have."

"Yeah." Jr. patted the back of Ziggy's hand. "I mean, what else can you say after goodbye? And I never wanted to say that to him. I always thought, when it was all over, we'd go out together, in style. But I didn't think we'd live this long. I didn't think I'd live longer."

"I know." He flexed the fingers of his left hand and let them contract again. It would be morning in a few hours--but for now, he held on.

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