originally published in Asimov’s, September 2015
Included in THE YEAR’S BEST SCIENCE FICTION, V.33 (edited by Gardner Dozois), and BEST SCIENCE FICTION OF THE YEAR (edited by Neil Clarke), and THE BEST SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY OF THE YEAR VOL.10 (edited by Jonathan Strahan), as well as the 2015 Locus Magazine Recommended Reading List.
5400 words. © Sam J. Miller
My son’s eyes were broken. Emptied out. Frozen over. None of the joy or gladness were there. None of the tears. Normally I’d return from a job and his face would split down the middle with happiness, seeing me for the first time in three months. Now it stayed flat as ice. His eyes leapt away the instant they met mine. His shoulders were broader and his arms more sturdy, and lone hairs now stood on his upper lip, but his eyes were all I saw.
“Thede,” I said, grabbing him.
He let himself be hugged. His arms hung limply at his sides. My lungs could not fill. My chest tightened from the force of all the never-let-me-go bear hugs he had given me over the course of the past fifteen years, and would never give again.
“You know how he gets when you’re away,” his mother had said, on the phone, the night before, preparing me. “He’s a teenager now. Hating your parents is a normal part of it.”
I hadn’t listened, then. My hands and thighs still ached from months of straddling an ice saw; my hearing was worse with every trip; a slip had cost me five days work and five days pay and five days’ worth of infirmary bills; I had returned to a sweat-smelling bunk in an illegal room I shared with seven other iceboat workers—and none of it mattered because in the morning I would see my son.
“Hey,” he murmured emotionlessly. “Dad.”
I stepped back, turned away until the red ebbed out of my face. Spring had come and the city had lowered its photoshade. It felt good, even in the cold wind.
“You guys have fun,” Lajla said, pressing money discretely into my palm. I watched her go with a rising sense of panic. Bring back my son, I wanted to shout, the one who loves me. Where is he. What have you done with him. Who is this surly creature. Below us, through the ubiquitous steel grid that held up Qaanaaq’s two million lives, black Greenland water sloshed against the locks of our floating city.
Breathe, Dom, I told myself, and eventually I could. You knew this was coming. You knew one day he would cease to be a kid.
“How’s school?” I asked.
Thede shrugged. “Fine.”
“Math still your favorite subject?”
“Math was never my favorite subject.”
I was pretty sure that it had been, but I didn’t want to argue.
“What’s your favorite subject?”
Another shrug. We had met at the sea lion rookery, but I could see at once that Thede no longer cared about sea lions. He stalked through the crowd with me, his face a frozen mask of anger.
I couldn’t blame him for how easy he had it. So what if he didn’t live in the Brooklyn foster-care barracks, or work all day at the solar-cell plant school? He still had to live in a city that hated him for his dark skin and ice-grunt father.
“Your mom says you got into the Institute,” I said, unsure even of what that was. A management school, I imagined. A big deal for Thede. But he only nodded.
At the fry stand, Thede grimaced at my clunky Swedish. The counter girl shifted to a flawless English, but I would not be cheated of the little bit of the language that I knew. “French fries and coffee for me and my son,” I said, or thought I did, because she looked confused and then Thede muttered something and she nodded and went away.
And then I knew why it hurt so much, the look on his face. It wasn’t that he wasn’t a kid anymore. I could handle him growing up. What hurt was how he looked at me: like the rest of them look at me, these Swedes and grid city natives for whom I would forever be a stupid New York refugee, even if I did get out five years before the Fall.
Gulls fought over food thrown to the lions. “How’s your mom?”
“She’s good. Full manager now. We’re moving to Arm Three, next year.”
His mother and I hadn’t been meant to be. She was born here, her parents Black Canadians employed by one of the big Swedish construction firms that built Qaanaaq back when the Greenland Melt began to open up the interior for resource extraction and grid cities starting sprouting all along the coast. They’d kept her in public school, saying it would be good for a future manager to be able to relate to the immigrants and workers she’d one day command, and they were right. She even fell for one of them, a fresh-off-the-boat North American taking tech classes, but wised up pretty soon after she saw how hard it was to raise a kid on an ice worker’s pay. I had never been mad at her. Lajla was right to leave me, right to focus on her job. Right to build the life for Thede I couldn’t.
“Why don’t you learn Swedish?” he asked a French fry, unable to look at me.
“I’m trying,” I said. “I need to take a class. But they cost money, and anyway I don’t have—”
“Don’t have time. I know. Han’s father says people make time for the things that are important for them.” Here his eyes did meet mine, and held, sparkling with anger and abandonment.
“Han one of your friends?”
Thede nodded, eyes escaping.
Han’s father would be Chinese, and not one of the laborers who helped build this city—all of them went home to hardship-job rewards. He’d be an engineer or manager for one of the extraction firms. He would live in a nice house and work in an office. He would be able to make choices about how he spent his time.
“I have something for you,” I said, in desperation.
I hadn’t brought it for him. I carried it around with me, always. Because it was comforting to have it with me, and because I couldn’t trust that the men I bunked with wouldn’t steal it.
Heart slipping, I handed over the NEW YORK F CKING CITY T-shirt that was my most—my only—prized possession. Thin as paper, soft as baby bunnies. My mom had made me scratch the letter U off it before I could wear the thing to school. And Little Thede had loved it. We made a big ceremony of putting it on only once a year, on his birthday, and noting how much he had grown by how much it had shrunk on him. Sometimes if I stuck my nose in it and breathed deeply enough, I could still find a trace of the laundromat in the basement of my mother’s building. Or the brake-screech stink of the subway. What little was left of New York City was inside that shirt. Parting with it meant something, something huge and irrevocable.
But my son was slipping through my fingers. And he mattered more than the lost city where whatever else I was—starving, broke, an urchin, a criminal—I belonged.
“Dad,” Thede whispered, taking it. And here, at last, his eyes came back. The eyes of a boy who loved his father. Who didn’t care that his father was a thick-skulled obstinate immigrant grunt. Who believed his father could do anything. “Dad. You love this shirt.”
But I love you more, I did not say. Than anything. Instead: “It’ll fit you just fine now.” And then: “Enough sea lions. Beam fights?”
Thede shrugged. I wondered if they had fallen out of fashion while I was away. So much did, every time I left. The ice ships were the only work I could get, capturing calved glacier chunks and breaking them down into drinking water to be sold to the wide new swaths of desert that ringed the globe, and the work was hard and dangerous and kept me forever in limbo.
Only two fighters in the first fight, both lithe and swift and thin, their styles an amalgam of Chinese martial arts. Not like the big bruising New York boxers who had been the rage when I arrived, illegally, at fifteen years old, having paid two drunks to vouch for my age. Back before the Fail-Proof Trillion Dollar NYC Flood-Surge Locks had failed, and 80% of the city sunk, and the grid cities banned all new East Coast arrivals. Now the North Americans in Arm Eight were just one of many overcrowded, underskilled labor forces for the city’s corporations to exploit.
They leapt from beam to beam, fighting mostly in kicks, grappling briefly when both met on the same beam. I watched Thede. Thin, fragile Thede, with the wide eyes and nostrils that seemed to take in all the world’s ugliness, all its stink. He wasn’t having a good time. When he was twelve he had begged me to bring him. I had pretended to like it, back then for his sake. Now he pretended for mine. We were both acting out what we thought the other wanted, and that thought should have troubled me. But that’s how it had been with my dad. That’s what I thought being a man meant. I put my hand on his shoulder and he did not shake it off. We watched men harm each other high above us.
Thede’s eyes burned with wonder, staring up at the fretted sweep of the windscreen as we rose to meet it. We were deep in a days-long twilight; soon, the sun would set for weeks.
“This is not happening,” he said, and stepped closer to me. His voice shook with joy.
The elevator ride to the top of the city was obscenely expensive. We’d never been able to take it before. His mother had bought our tickets. Even for her, it hurt. I wondered why she hadn’t taken him herself.
“He’s getting bullied a lot in school,” she told me, on the phone. Behind her was the solid comfortable silence of a respectable home. My background noise was four men building towards a fight over a card game. “Also, I think he might be in love.”
But of course I couldn’t ask him about either of those things. The first was my fault; the second was something no boy wanted to discuss with his dad.
I pushed a piece of trough meat loose from between my teeth. Savored how close it came to the real thing. Only with Thede, with his mother’s money, did I get to buy the classy stuff. Normally it was barrel-bottom for me, greasy chunks that dissolved in my mouth two chews in, homebrew meat moonshine made in melt-scrap-furnace-heated metal troughs. Some grid cities were rumored to still have cows, but that was the kind of lie people tell themselves to make life a little less ugly. Cows were extinct, and real beef was a joy no one would ever experience again.
The windscreen was an engineering marvel, and absolutely gorgeous. It shifted in response to headwinds; in severe storms the city would raise its auxiliary windscreens to protect its entire circumference. The tiny panes of plastiglass were common enough—a thriving underground market sold the fallen ones as good luck charms—but to see them knitted together was to tremble in the face of staggering genius. Complex patterns of crenelated reliefs, efficiently diverting windshear no matter what angle it struck from. Bots swept past us on the metal gridlines, replacing panes that had fallen or cracked.
Once, hand gripping mine tightly, somewhere down in the city beneath me, six-year-old Thede had asked me how the windscreen worked. He asked me a lot of things then, about the locks that held the city up, and how they could rise in response to tides and ocean-level increases; about the big boats with strange words and symbols on the side, and where they went, and what they brought back. “What’s in that boat?” he’d ask, about each one, and I would make up ridiculous stories. “That’s a giraffe boat. That one brings back machine guns that shoot strawberries. That one is for naughty children.” In truth I only ever recognized ice boats, by the multitude of pincers atop cranes all along the side.
My son stood up straighter, sixty stories above his city. Some rough weight had fallen from his shoulders. He’d be strong, I saw. He’d be handsome. If he made it. If this horrible city didn’t break him inside in some irreparable way. If marauding whiteboys didn’t bash him for his dark skin. If the firms didn’t pass him over for the lack of family connections on his stuttering immigrant father’s side. I wondered who was bullying him, and why, and I imagined taking them two at a time and slamming their heads together so hard they popped like bubbles full of blood. Of course I couldn’t do that. I also imagined hugging him, grabbing him for no reason and maybe never letting go, but I couldn’t do that either. He would wonder why.
“I called last night and you weren’t in,” I said. “Doing anything fun?”
“We went to the cityoke arcade,” he said.
I nodded like I knew what that meant. Later on I’d have to ask the men in my room. I couldn’t keep up with this city, with its endlessly-shifting fashions and slang and the new immigrant clusters that cropped up each time I blinked. Twenty years after arriving, I was still a stranger. I wasn’t just Fresh Off the Boat, I was constantly getting back on the boat and then getting off again. That morning I’d gone to the job center for the fifth day in a row, and been relieved to find no boat postings. Only 12-month gigs, and I wasn’t that hungry yet. Booking a year-long job meant admitting you were old, desperate, unmoored, willing to accept payment only marginally more than nothing, for the privilege of a hammock and three bowls of trough slop a day. But captains picked their own crews for the shorter runs, and I worried that the lack of postings meant that with fewer boats going out the competition had become too fierce for me. Every day a couple hundred new workers arrived from sunken cities in India or Middle Europe, or from any of a hundred Water-War-torn nations. Men and women stronger than me, more determined.
With effort, I brought my mind back to the here and now. Twenty other people stood in the arc pod with us. Happy, wealthy people. I wondered if they knew I wasn’t one of them. I wondered if Thede was.
They smiled down at their city. They thought it was so stable. I’d watched ice sheets calf off the glacier that were five times the size of Qaanaaq. When one of those came drifting in our direction, the windscreen wouldn’t help us. The question was when, not if. I knew a truth they did not: how easy it is to lose something—everything—forever.
A Maoist Nepalese foreman, on one of my first ice ship runs, said white North Americans were the worst for adapting to the post-Arctic world, because we’d lived for centuries in a bubble of believing the world was way better than it actually was. Shielded by willful blindness and complex interlocking institutions of privilege, we mistook our uniqueness for universality.
I’d hated him for it. It took me fifteen years to see that he was right.
“What do you think of those two?” I asked, pointing with my chin at a pair of girls his age.
For a while he didn’t answer. Then he said “I know you can’t help that you grew up in a backwards macho culture, but can’t you just keep that on the inside?”
My own father would have cuffed me if I talked to him like that, but I was too afraid of rupturing the tiny bit of affectionate credit I’d fought so hard to earn back.
His stance softened, then. He took a tiny step closer—the only apology I could hope for.
The pod began its descent. Halfway down he unzipped his jacket, smiling in the warmth of the heated pod while below-zero winds buffeted us. His T-shirt said The Last Calf, and showed the gangly sad-eyed hero of that depressing miserable movie all the kids adored.
“Where is it?” I asked. He’d proudly sported the NEW YORK F CKING CITY shirt on each of the five times I’d seen him since giving it to him.
His face darkened so fast I was frightened. His eyes welled up. He said “Dad, I,” but his voice had the tremor that meant he could barely keep from crying. Shame was what I saw.
I couldn’t breathe, again, just like when I came home two weeks ago and he wasn’t happy to see me. Except seeing my son so unhappy hurt worse than fearing he hated me.
“Did somebody take it from you?” I asked, leaning in so no one else could hear me. “Someone at school? A bully?”
He looked up, startled. He shook his head. Then, he nodded.
“Tell me who did this?”
He shook his head again. “Just some guys, dad,” he said. “Please. I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Guys. How many?”
He said nothing. I understood about snitching. I knew he’d never tell me who.
“It doesn’t matter,” I said. “Okay? It’s just a shirt. I don’t care about it. I care about you. I care that you’re okay. Are you okay?”
Thede nodded. And smiled. And I knew he was telling the truth, even if I wasn’t, even if inside I was grieving the shirt, and the little boy who I once wrapped up inside it.
When I wasn’t with Thede, I walked. For two weeks I’d gone out walking every day. Up and down Arm Eight, and sometimes into other Arms. Through shantytowns large and small, huddled miserable agglomerations of recent arrivals and folks who even after a couple generations in Qaanaaq had not been able to scrape their way up from the fish-stinking ice-slippery bottom.
I looked for sex, sometimes. It had been so long. Relationships were tough in my line of work, and I’d never been interested in paying for it. Throughout my twenties I could usually find a woman for something brief and fun and free of commitment, but that stage of my life seemed to have ended.
I wondered why I hadn’t tried harder, to make it work with Lajla. I think a small but vocal and terrible part of me had been glad to see her leave. Fatherhood was hard work. So was being married. Paying rent on a tiny shitty apartment way out on Arm Seven, where we smelled like scorched cooking oil and diaper lotion all the time. Selfishly, I had been glad to be alone. And only now, getting to know this stranger who was once my son, did I see what sweet and fitting punishments the universe had up its sleeve for selfishness.
My time with Thede was wonderful, and horrible. We could talk at length about movies and music, and he actually seemed halfway interested in my stories about old New York, but whenever I tried to talk about life or school or girls or his future he reverted to grunts and monosyllables. Something huge and heavy stood between me and him, a moon eclipsing the sun of me. I knew him, top to bottom and body and soul, but he still had no idea who I really was. How I felt about him. I had no way to show him. No way to open his eyes, make him see how much I loved him, and how I was really a good guy who’d gotten a bad deal in life.
Cityoke, it turned out, was like karaoke, except instead of singing a song you visited a city. XHD footage projection onto all four walls; temperature control; short storylines that responded to your verbal decisions—even actual smells uncorked by machines from secret stashes of Beijing taxi-seat leather or Ho Chi Minh City incense or Portland coffeeshop sawdust. I went there often, hoping maybe to see him. To watch him, with his friends. See what he was when I wasn’t around. But cityoke was expensive, and I could never have afforded to actually go in. Once, standing around outside the New York booth when a crew walked out, I caught a whiff of the acrid ugly beautiful stink of the Port Authority Bus Terminal.
And then, eventually, I walked without any reason at all. Because pretty soon I wouldn’t be able to. Because I had done it. I had booked a twelve-month job. I was out of money and couldn’t afford to rent my bed for another month. Thede’s mom could have given it to me. But what if she told him about it? He’d think of me as more of a useless moocher deadbeat dad than he already did. I couldn’t take that chance.
Three days before my ship was set to load up and launch, I went back to the cityoke arcades. Men lurked in doorways and between shacks. Soakers, mostly. Looking for marks; men to mug and drunks to tip into the sea. Late at night; too late for Thede to come carousing through. I’d called him earlier, but Lajla said he was stuck inside for the night, studying for a test in a class where he wasn’t doing well. I had hoped maybe he’d sneak out, meet some friends, head for the arcade.
And that’s when I saw it. The shirt: NEW YORK F CKING CITY, absolutely unique and unmistakable. Worn by a stranger, a muscular young man sitting on the stoop of a skiff moor. I didn’t get a good glimpse of his face, as I hurried past with my head turned away from him.
I waited, two buildings down. My heart was alive and racing in my chest. I drew in deep gulps of cold air and tried to keep from shouting from joy. Here was my chance. Here was how I could show Thede what I really was.
I stuck my head out, risked a glance. He sat there, waiting for who knows what. In profile I could see that the man was Asian. Almost certainly Chinese, in Qaanaaq—most other Asian nations had their own grid cities—although perhaps he was descended from Asian-diaspora nationals of some other country. I could see his smile, hungry and cold.
At first I planned to confront him, ask how he came to be wearing my shirt, demand justice, beat him up and take it back. But that would be stupid. Unless I planned to kill him—and I didn’t—it was too easy to imagine him gunning for Thede if he knew he’d been attacked for the shirt. I’d have to jump him, rob and strip and soak him. I rooted through a trash bin, but found nothing. Three trash bins later I found a short metal pipe with Hindi graffiti scribbled along its length. The man was still there when I went back. He was waiting for something. I could wait longer. I pulled my hood up, yanked the drawstring to tighten it around my face.
Forty-five minutes passed that way. He hugged his knees to his chest, made himself small, tried to conserve body heat. His teeth chattered. Why was he wearing so little? But I was happy he was so stupid. Had he had a sweater or jacket on I’d never have seen the shirt. I’d never have had this chance.
Finally, he stood. Looked around sadly. Brushed off the seat of his pants. Turned to go. Stepped into the swing of my metal pipe, which struck him in the chest and knocked him back a step.
The shame came later. Then, there was just joy. The satisfaction of how the pipe struck flesh. Broke bone. I’d spent twenty years getting shitted on by this city, by this system, by the cold wind and the everywhere-ice, by the other workers who were smarter or stronger or spoke the language. For the first time since Thede was a baby, I felt like I was in control of something. Only when my victim finally passed out, and rolled over onto his back and the blue methane streetlamp showed me how young he was under the blood, could I stop myself.
I took the shirt. I took his pants. I rolled him into the water. I called the med-team for him from a coinphone a block away. He was still breathing. He was young, he was healthy. He’d be fine. The pants I would burn in a scrap furnace. The shirt I would give back to my son. I took the money from his wallet and dropped it into the sea, then threw the money in later. I wasn’t a thief. I was a good father. I said those sentences over and over, all the way home.
Thede couldn’t see me the next day. Lajla didn’t know where he was. So I got to spend the whole day imagining imminent arrest, the arrival of Swedish or Chinese police, footage of me on the telescrolls, my cleverness foiled by tech I didn’t know existed because I couldn’t read the newspapers. I packed my one bag glumly, put the rest of my things back in the the storage cube and walked it to the facility. Every five seconds I looked over my shoulder and found only the same grit and filthy slush. Every time I looked at my watch, I winced at how little time I had left.
My fear of punishment was balanced out by how happy I was. I wrapped the shirt in three layers of wrapping paper and put it in a watertight shipping bag and tried to imagine his face. That shirt would change everything. His father would cease to be a savage jerk from an uncivilized land. This city would no longer be a cold and barren place where boys could beat him up and steal what mattered most to him with impunity. All the ways I had failed him would matter a little less.
Twelve months. I had tried to get out of the gig, now that I had the shirt and a new era of good relations with my son was upon me. But canceling would have cost me my accreditation with that work center, which would make finding another job almost impossible. A year away from Thede. I would tell him when I saw him. He’d be upset, but the shirt would make it easier.
Finally, I called and he answered.
“I want to see you,” I said, when we had made our way through the pleasantries.
“Sunday?” Did his voice brighten, or was that just blind stupid hope? Some trick of the noisy synthcoffee shop where I sat?
“No, Thede,” I said, measuring my words carefully. “I can’t. Can you do today?”
A suspicious pause. “Why can’t you do Sunday?”
“Something’s come up,” I said. “Please? Today?”
The sea lion rookery. The smell of guano and the screak of gulls; the crying of children dragged away as the place shut down. The long night was almost upon us. Two male sea lions barked at each other, bouncing their chests together. Thede came a half hour late, and I had arrived a half hour early. Watching him come my head swam, at how tall he stood and how gracefully he walked. I had done something good in this world, at least. I made him. I had that, no matter how he felt about me.
Something had shifted, now, in his face. Something was harder, older, stronger.
“Hey,” I said, bear-hugging him, and eventually he submitted. He hugged me back hesitantly, like a man might, and then hard, like a little boy.
“What’s happening?” I asked. “What were you up to, last night?”
Thede shrugged. “Stuff. With friends.”
I asked him questions. Again the sullen, bitter silence; again the terse and angry answers. Again the eyes darting around, constantly watching for whatever the next attack would be. Again the hating me, for coming here, for making him.
“I’m going away,” I said. “A job.”
“I figured,” he said.
“I wish I didn’t have to.”
“I’ll see you soon.”
I nodded. I couldn’t tell him it was a twelve-month gig. Not now.
“Here,” I said, finally, pulling the package out from inside of my jacket. “I got you something.”
“Thanks.” He grabbed it in both hands, began to tear it open.
“Wait,” I said, thinking fast. “Okay? Open it after I leave.”
Open it when the news that I’m leaving has set in, when you’re mad at me, for abandoning you. When you think I care only about my job.
“We’ll have a little time,” he said. “When you get back. Before I go away. I leave in eight months. The program is four years long.”
“Sure,” I said, shivering inside.
“Mom says she’ll pay for me to come home every year for the holiday, but she knows we can’t afford that.”
“What do you mean?” I asked. “‘Come home.’ I thought you were going to the Institute.”
“I am,” he said, sighing. “Do you even know what that means? The Institute’s design program is in Shanghai.”
“Oh,” I said. “Design. What kind of design?”
My son’s eyes rolled. “You’re missing the point, dad.”
I was. I always was.
A shout, from a pub across the Arm. A man’s shout, full of pain and anger. Thede flinched. His hands made fists.
“What?” I asked, thinking, here, at last, was something
“You can tell me. What’s going on?”
Thede frowned, then punched the metal railing so hard he yelped. He held up his hand to show me the blood.
“Han,” he said. “My… my friend. He got jumped two nights ago. Soaked.”
“This city is horrible,” I whispered.
He made a baffled face. “What do you mean?”
“I mean… you know. This city. Everyone’s so full of anger and cruelty…”
“It’s not the city, dad. What does that even mean? Some sick person did this. Han was waiting for me, and mom wouldn’t let me out, and he got jumped. They took off all his clothes, before they rolled him into the water. That’s some extra cruel shit right there. He could have died. He almost did.”
I nodded, silently, a siren of panic rising inside. “You really care about this guy, don’t you?”
He looked at me. My son’s eyes were whole, intact, defiant, adult. Thede nodded.
He’s been getting bullied, his mother had told me. He’s in love.
I turned away from him, before he could see the knowledge blossom in my eyes.
The shirt hadn’t been stolen. He’d given it away. To the boy he loved. I saw them holding hands, saw them tug at each other’s clothing in the same fumbling adolescent puppy-love moments I had shared with his mother, moments that were my only happy memories from being his age. And I saw his fear, of how his backwards father might react—a refugee from a fallen hate-filled people—if he knew what kind of man he was. I gagged on the unfairness of his assumptions about me, but how could he have known differently? What had I ever done, to show him the truth of how I felt about him? And hadn’t I proved him right? Hadn’t I acted exactly like the monster he believed me to be? I had never succeeded in proving to him what I was, or how I felt.
I had battered and broken his beloved. There was nothing I could say. A smarter man would have asked for the present back, taken it away and locked it up. Burned it, maybe. But I couldn’t. I had spent his whole life trying to give him something worthy of how I felt about him, and here was the perfect gift at last.
“I love you, Thede,” I said, and hugged him.
“Daaaaad…” he said, eventually.
But I didn’t let go. Because when I did, he would leave. He would walk home through the cramped and frigid alleys of his home city, to the gift of knowing what his father truly was.