Chapter Twenty

Several hours later, as Jack let himself into his own apartment, his thoughts drifted back to what his parents had said.

The truth was, he thought, that even though they might have a point about the importance of a sympathetic ear, Herlander Simões desperately needed more than Jack McBryde — or anyone else — would ever be able to give him. And despite his own training, and despite how hard he tried, Jack’s professional detachment wasn’t enough to protect him from the fallout of Simões’ despair.

He checked for any personal com messages without finding any and walked through the apartment’s sitting area towards his bedroom. At the moment, it was a rather lonely bedroom, without female companionship, and he suspected his own reaction to Simões had a lot to do with that. His last relationship had been working its way towards an amicable parting for several months even before Bardasano had called him in, but he had no doubt his absorption with Simões had hastened its end. And he had even less doubt that it had a lot to do with why he’d found himself unable to work up much enthusiasm for finding a new one.

Which is pretty stupid of me, when you come down to it, he reflected wryly. It’s not like turning myself into a monk is going to help Herlander any, now is it?

Maybe not, another corner of his brain replied. In fact, definitely not. But it’s a little hard to go leaping gaily through life when you’re watching someone come gradually apart before your very eyes.

He undressed, stepped into the shower, and keyed the water. Zachariah, he knew, preferred the quickness and convenience of a sonic shower, but Jack had always been addicted to the sheer, sensual pleasure of hot water. He stood under the drumming needle spray, absorbing its caress, yet this time he couldn’t fully abandon himself to it the way he usually could. His brain was too busy with Herlander Simões.

It was the contrast between the barren unhappiness of Simões’ current existence and his own family’s closeness, he realized yet again. That comforting, always welcoming, nurturing love. Looking at his parents, seeing how after all these years their children were still their children. Adults, yes, and to be treated as such, but still their beloved sons and daughters, to be worried about and treasured. To be (although he suspected his mother would be more comfortable with the verb than his father) celebrated for who and what they were.

For who and what had been taken away from Simões.

He’d tried — and failed, he knew — to imagine what that had truly felt like. The pain of that loss . . . .

He shook his head under the pounding water, eyes closed. Just from the purely selfish perspective of what had been stolen from Simões’ own life, the anguish must be incredible. But he’d spoken with Simões several times now. He knew that part of the hyper-physicist’s anger, his rage, really was the product of his sense that he’d been betrayed. That something unspeakably precious had been ripped away from him.

Yet those same conversations had made it clear to Jack that far more than his own loss, it was the entire lifetime which had been stolen from his daughter that was truly tearing the man apart. He’d seen the promise in his Francesca which Thomas and Christina McBryde had seen realized in their JoAnne, their Jack and Zachariah and Arianne. He’d known what that child could have grown up to be and become, all of the living and loving and accomplishments which could have been hers in the four or five centuries which the combination of prolong and her genome would have given her. And he knew every one of those loves, every one of those accomplishments, had died stillborn when the Long-Range Planning Board administered the lethal injection to his daughter.

That’s what it really comes down to, isn’t it, Jack? he admitted to the shower spray and the privacy of his own mind. To the LRPB, Francesca Simões, ultimately, was just one more project. One more strand in the master plan. And what does a weaver do when he comes across a defective thread? He snips it, that’s what he does. He snips it, he discards it, and he goes on with the work.

But she wasn’t a thread. Not to Herlander. She was his daughter. His little girl. The child who learned to walk holding onto his hand. Who learned to read, listening to him read her bedtime stories. Who learned to laugh listening to his jokes. The person he loved more than he could ever have loved himself. And he couldn’t even fight for her life, because the Board wouldn’t let him. It wasn’t his decision — it was the Board’s decision, and it made it.

He drew a deep, shuddering breath, and shook himself.

You’re letting your sympathy take you places you shouldn’t go, Jack, he told himself. Of course you feel sorry for him — my God, how could you not feel sorry for him? — but there’s a reason the system is set up the way it’s set up. Someone has to make the hard decisions, and would it really be kinder to leave them up to someone whose love is going to make them even harder? Who’s going to have to live with the consequences of his own actions and decisions — not someone else’s — for the rest of his life?

He grimaced as he recalled the memo from Martina Fabre which had been part of Simões’ master file. The one which had denied Simões’ offer — his plea — to be allowed to assume responsibility for Francesca. To provide the care needed to keep her alive, to keep private physicians working with her, out of his own pocket. He’d been fully aware of the kinds of expenses he was talking about — the LRPB had made them abundantly clear to him when it enumerated all of the resources which would be “unprofitably invested” in her long-term care and treatment — and he hadn’t cared. Not only that, he’d demonstrated, with all the precision he brought to his scientific work, that he could have satisfied those expenses. It wouldn’t have been easy, and it would have consumed his life, but he could have done it.

Except for the fact that the decision wasn’t his, and, as Dr. Fabre had put it, the Board was “unwilling to allow Dr. Simões to destroy his own life in the futile pursuit of a chimerical cure for a child who was recognized as a high-risk project from the very beginning. It would be the height of irresponsibility for us to permit him to invest so much of the remainder of his own life in a tragedy the Board created when it asked the Simões to assist us in this effort.”

He turned off the shower, stepped out of the stall, and began drying himself with the warm, deep-pile towels, but his brain wouldn’t turn off as easily as the water had. He pulled on a pair of pajama bottoms — he hadn’t worn the tops since he was fifteen — and found himself drifting in an unaccustomed direction for this late at night.

He opened the liquor cabinet, dropped a couple of ice cubes into a glass, poured a hefty shot of blended whiskey over the ice, and swirled it gently for a second. Then he raised the glass and closed his eyes as the thick, rich fire burned down his throat.

It didn’t help. Two faces floated stubbornly before him — a sandy-haired, hazel-eyed man’s, and a far smaller one with brown hair, brown eyes, and a huge smile.