Angela’s ex had not yet left Earth, but he had left humanity. That’s what she thought as she sipped green tea and stared over the cup’s rim at the strange man on her couch.
“Why are you here?” she asked.
Tom rubbed his scalp. He used to run his fingers through his hair, but the hair was gone, as were his eyebrows and the fuzz on his arms. Probably his chest hair too, though Angela wasn’t about to ask for a peek. His pores excreted a puss-like substance that hardened into an exoskeleton, and his skin had the gray, pallid cast of a leech.
“I want to see Sarah,” he said.
She sipped more tea to collect herself. She had been afraid this might happen.
The world called Tom a hero, commander of the Mars colonization mission, but they hadn’t known him before — the dashing fighter pilot Angela had loved all those years ago. Then came the space program, and he grew as distant as the planet he was leaving her for.
“Sarah is in bed,” she said.
“Wake her up.”
“That’s not a good idea.”
He glared at her. His eyes had changed, too, the pupils dilating into huge, hideous black pools. “We launch in the morning. I won’t be back for years, if ever. I want to see my daughter and say goodbye.”
“You said your goodbyes three weeks ago, before …” She faltered. Before the surgery. Before he became less-than-human. “We agreed it was better for her to remember you as you were.”
“Yes. Well.” He cleared his throat. “The augmentation was painful. All those nanites.” He shuddered. “The only thing that kept me sane were memories of you and Sarah.”
He stood. He seemed taller, somehow, even when he knelt to take her hand. The exoskeleton was clammy. She drew back, repulsed.
“You know how Sarah is.”
“You’re afraid I’ll scare her?”
His jawline tightened. “Do I scare you?”
For a fleeting second, she considered lying, but no. She had lied to him only once, when she said he should join the space program, that she didn’t mind and he should follow his dream. Look how that had turned out.
The small voice came from the hallway. Sarah stood there, sleepy-eyed and hair tussled. A red patch marked her cheek where she had laid against her pillow. She wore rocket-ship pajamas and clutched her favorite teddy.
Angela hurried to her. “Why are you out of bed?”
“I heard talking.” She blinked at Tom, curious. “Who’s that?”
Tom took a hesitant step forward. “It’s me. It’s Daddy.”
Sarah gripped her teddy. Angela held her breath and waited for the explosion, the tears and crying, the shakes while Sarah clung to her leg and buried her face in Angela’s side, but it didn’t come. Instead, Sarah walked up to him. Tom knelt down to her height.
“You look funny,” she said.
He chuckled. “This is my spacesuit. It’ll protect me on Mars so I can come back home safe to you.”
“Does it hurt?”
“It hurt when the doctors put it on me, but not anymore.”
“Can I touch it?”
While Tom stayed perfectly skill, Sarah brushed a fingertip against his cheek and, apparently deciding that hadn’t been too bad, followed with her whole palm. She pinched his nose and drew imaginary lines where his eyebrows should be.
She kissed him. “I love you, Daddy.”
“I’ll write to you every day and send you pictures. Would you like that?”
“I’ll miss you,” he said.
He hugged her, and the distance between father and daughter closed into nothing. For the first time in years, Angela saw the man she had married.
“Go back to bed,” Tom said. When their daughter had gone, he said to Angela, “Thank you.”
Angela studied his face again. His eyes weren’t so alien, really, and she had been mistaken about his skin — it was more silvery than gray. As for his hair, that would regrow someday.
“No,” she said.
He squinted. “Excuse me?”
“No, I’m not scared of you.” Not to be outdone by her daughter, she set her hands on either side of his face and kissed him soundly. “You’re only human, after all.”
Jennifer Campbell–Hicks is a writer, journalist, wife, mother and lifelong science-fiction fan who lives in Colorado. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in venues including Daily Science Fiction, Fireside Magazine and the anthology “Raygun Chronicles: Space Opera for a New Age.” She blogs at jennifercampbellhicks.