Tom had made it barely five kilometers from the gate—just another three more and he could have synched his car into the autodrive lane bound for Smyrnikh—when he couldn't stand the wait any longer. He jerked the car into a hard stop on the side of the road. Nestled in the shadows of silent conifers, with not another soul in sight, he pulled his phone from his pocket and messaged Cossack that he was ready to connect to the network shared by Kalinka's bedroom netscreen.

After the morning of sweet oblivion on the living room sofa, the hot pad for his aching back, and the third cup of coffee, this had been his final and most plaintive request: to be allowed to witness, remotely, Blues's awakening to life and health.

And his hosts were ever gracious. Their willingness to humor him was laudable, for two reasons. The first was Kalinka's thinly veiled impatience for Tom to leave. His nap had pushed her to the limit of her endurance, and his last cup of coffee had nearly broken her. He'd known this not because of anything she said, but because with each delay she'd stared in the direction of her upstairs bedroom with keener longing. He'd almost abandoned the idea of asking altogether, just to spare her the frustration of another hold-up.

But that had been nothing compared to Cossack's gruff all-out resistance.

"Light," he'd said, "when Kalinka wakes Blues, those two are going to have a moment." He'd crossed his arms and added, "And when that happens, I'm going to be somewhere else, minding my damn business."

A good man, Cossack. The cruellest good man Tom knew. "But you see, that moment is precisely why…"

"Spying on Blues… using Kalinka's netscreen to do it… I don't like it."

"Five minutes. Please." He appealed to Cossack's feelings as a father. He pleaded that it had been years since he'd seen Blues happy. In the end, the only thing that worked was arguing for the necessity of a visual assessment of Blues's condition upon start-up: if something was wrong, well, Tom would spot it and simply turn the car around. This was the justification Cossack needed, whether he was actually convinced or not.

So here Tom was, gripping his phone white-knuckled and waiting for Cossack to grant him access. He clenched his teeth for a few seconds of eternity, and then...

There was Kalinka sitting on the bed, smiling serenely, with an unmistakable head of black hair pressed against her shoulder. Blues was grasping at her in a greedy embrace. Alive, crying in her arms. Behind them, on the desk, his old core was curled up like a dead spider.

Tom made a fist and pumped it into the air.

"Yes. Take that, Albert, you cocksucker!"

About twenty paces ahead of the car a motionless deer, ears at attention, stared in Tom's direction with wide eyes. The sight pulled him down from his moment of private braggadocio, and shame stabbed him in the stomach. His hands began to tremble. He placed the phone onto the dashboard and removed his handkerchief from his pocket as the audio went on unabated from the netphone speaker. It was his first time to hear Blues cry. The sound was low and musical, punctuated by staccato sobs and gasps for air. Tom listened in awe for a minute or so, then leaned up against the window with his arms crossed and squeezed his eyes shut.

He'd spent two months and five days calibrating the exact timbre of that voice. Three months and seventeen days more constructing and refining Blues's tear ducts and the internal osmosis-based mechanism which enabled him to cry. Fourteen years, ten months, and two days writing the labyrinthine set of algorithms which allowed him to feel complex emotions, among them tear-inducing joy. But he'd missed the most fundamental, most important thing of all: being a person worthy of holding Blues when he cried.

And because he'd missed it, he'd put his boy through hell.

And this was a small portion of his penance: to wish, so much that it hurt, that he could take Kalinka's place for a fraction of a second; to know that time was ticking by and that his five minutes were nearly up; to return home right away when all he wanted to do was burst into Kalinka's room, shake Blues, and tell him that, no matter what secret shame he was holding on to, nothing could stop Tom from loving him.

Well, he'd bear his penance. And for now, he could only hope that the strange, wordless channel which had suddenly opened up between the two of them carried messages in both directions.

Thomas Xavier Light was sixty-nine years old and, other than his bad back, and some extra weight around his middle, was in excellent health. His children kept his mind sharp and his heart supple. He had no reason not to expect to live another decade at least, more if he was lucky. There was still time, even in this eleventh hour, for him to win back more of Blues's trust.

His phone went silent and black. One howl of protest, and he composed himself. He started the car and pulled it back onto the road. The deer was gone; the way before him was clear. His work here was done.