Sonal awoke to the sound of crying, which filled the room like a siren. It came from the cot beside his bed. He lay very still, hoping it was a one-off, that his son would fall asleep again in a second.
The crying stopped, and Sonal heard an intake of breath. For an instant he thought that was the end of it, but then, lungs properly filled, Aki really started screaming.
"Come on," Sonal said, now shaking off the dregs of sleep. "Come on. Damnit. Come on. Sleep. Sleep!"
Behind him, Helena mumbled, then turned onto her back and sighed deeply. She'd been patient, Sonal knew, but countless nights of crying had taken their toll. The lack of privacy didn't help, either, since Aki would wake at the tiniest noise and demand to be held. He was fourteen months old, and had recently started yelling and screaming until moved out of the crib and into bed with Sonal.
"Matin, can you take care of that, please?" she said in a dull tone. She only called him by his last name when annoyed.
Rubbing the back of his neck, Sonal slowly clambered out of bed. The floor gave him an icy chill; he always forgot to put on his slippers. He reached into the crib and lifted out Aki, who immediately stopped crying. Aki's mother had abandoned them shortly after the birth; she was now somewhere in low sec. It was inconceivable to most people that any mother could leave her child, but Aki's mother hadn't been like most people.
Sonal rocked Aki, who had descended to that hazy stage between sleeping and waking, and who seemed content yet ready to unleash another blood-curdling scream should he be let go.
"I'm sorry," Sonal said.
Helena sighed again, this time without the undertone of exasperation. "It's all right," she said. "It won't last forever."
She moved closer to him. "Besides," she said, "I'm only here three times a week. I don't know how you can stand night after night of this."
"Neither do I, really," Sonal said. The room felt like it was slowly spinning. He could hardly sit up straight.
"It's really good having you here," Sonal added.
"Thanks," Helena said. She traced lines on the cooling bedsheets.
After a while, she added, "Do you ever think about us?"
"Constantly," Sonal said.
"No, I mean ... do you ever think about how this will go? First time, I came over here only for dinner and ended up spending the night. And ever since then, I've been here half the time. Where's this leading?"
Sonal kept rocking Aki, and every now and then would rearrange some fold of the child's clothing to make him more comfortable. "Does it have to lead anywhere?"
"I'm serious. I've said that I love having you here with me. But my life is focused on raising Aki, and having enough money for both of us."
She reached out and stroked his shoulder, once. "How long since she left?" she asked.
His breath caught. Then he exhaled, a long release of breath. "Almost a year now."
"You've built walls," she said.
"But you're lonely, still."
"Of course I am. Doesn't mean I should let just anyone in. I've got a responsibility to Aki."
"No," she said in a much colder tone. "You certainly shouldn't let just anyone in."
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean-"
He sighed. He attempted to put Aki back in his bed, but the child began to wail, so Sonal sat back down and continued rocking him.
"I just ... I don't want to mess this up. You know?" he said. "I've had a hard enough time keeping my own life going, and suddenly I'm a single father. I'm responsible for him, for everything he'll be. I still don't know if the relationship with his mother was a mistake, but he's the most precious thing in my life right now, and I've had a hard enough time keeping my own life going. I don't want to do anything wrong."
"I know," Helena said. "I understand. And I respect that. But you're so repressed, Sonal. I knew you for a while before I came over for dinner, and I've never seen you relax and let go, not even once. You keep this rigid, rigid control of yourself, and not only is it pushing away people who care, it's eating you up. Being a grownup doesn't mean you can't act like a child every now and then."
Sonal turned and smiled a little. "I wish. I hear what you're saying, but I honestly don't dare. Everything I do these days seems focused on Aki, whether I like it or not." He thought it over, then added, "I do play with him, you know."
"I know. It's not the same, though. I've seen you play, and you're always in control, always looking out for the boy. And the instant you feel that I'm watching you, you stop playing altogether."
She sighed, and continued, "I don't want to butt into your business. You're a great father, that much I can tell. But you really, really, really need to let yourself go, and learn that you can do it while still being a dad."
Sonal, not knowing what to say, rubbed the back of his neck.
Helena took over and gave him a quick backrub, as much to show closeness as to help him relax. "Tired?"
He nodded. "I could sleep forever."
"Drones?" she asked.
He nodded again. Setting down Aki - who resumed crying right away - he reached for and opened a door in a clothes cabinet, and from the top drawer took out a handful of tiny machines. He flipped a switch on each, and they came to buzzing life. The toy drones were noisy and gave off a faint but unpleasant odour, but they were the only thing that worked, short of keeping Aki in the main bed.
He sat back on the bed, blearily watching the drones as they began flying around. Aki was immediately enraptured. The drones couldn't be kept operational all night - not with their noise and stink - but hopefully they'd be enough to quiet down the baby, and not simply keep him awake.
The drones were controlled from a central mechanism located back at the repair shop where Sonal worked. Sonal was a mechanic, and had access to all sorts of special technology. Just the other day, he recalled, he'd been complaining that the drones sometimes didn't keep Aki's interest, and someone had inserted one of the new drone rigs into the control mechanism, noting only they'd, "Fixed that for ya."
It seemed to him that the drones were flying in slightly more complex patterns, weaving back and forth over Aki's bed, but it might just be his imagination.
Helena reached out and began stroking his back again. He sighed, a mix of tiredness and gentle pleasure, and let his head hang down.
A noise made him look up. The drones were flying a lot faster.
"Something's wrong. We need to stop them," he said.
"Why? Aki doesn't seem to mind."
"All it would take is for one of them to fly into his face, his eyes."
"He'll be fine," Helena said. "The drones have no sharp edges or pointy bits. You know that."
"Yeah..." he said. "Still."
"All right. You go ahead and grab them, big man," Helena said in a slightly teasing manner.
Sonal couldn't power them down en masse, since the only way to do that would be to turn off the ship rig they'd hidden away back at the repair shop. The only way to stop them was to turn each one off individually.
He cursed himself for ever having turned them on. He was so sleep-deprived, every move he made felt like it was done underwater.
He reached out, aiming to catch the drones in flight, but they zoomed out of his way. He tried again, and the drones flew in figure-eights around his arms, oblivious and going ever faster. One drone got snagged on the toy wind chimes hanging over Aki's bed, tore through them and kept on flying, like a kite gone mad. Another apparently miscalculated a turn and plowed directly into the open cabinet, bounced around in there for a bit, then bolted right back out, a pair of crumpled underpants dangling from it.
Sonal was grabbing for the drones, but kept missing them. He got increasingly frustrated, hissing in anger every time he pawed at empty air. The drone flight patterns were getting even more complicated; they wove knots around his hands. It wouldn't last forever, as the things had only a limited amount of fuel, but Sonal couldn't imagine waiting them out. The embarrassment of being unable to stop them was bad enough as it was.
After watching him for a while, Helena finally clambered out of bed and joined in. It was a clumsy charade: They kept bumping into one another, and while swinging their arms around they would accidentally hit each other on the hips, shoulders and face.
Sonal grunted in frustration, but contrary to his expectations, Helena's mood seemed to brighten with every swipe she made. Eventually she wasn't so much grabbing as dancing around, waving her hands at the drones like she was trying to divert the flight of birds. The drones, appearing thoroughly confused by this behavior, slowed down their flights considerably. Meanwhile, Sonal, so exhausted from continual lack of sleep that he was swaying on his feet, withdrew into a corner and bided his time. He kept a close eye on the drones flying around in front of him, timed his movements, then, in one swift fell, mashed his hands together around one drone. He turned it off, and it buzzed quietly down to the floor.
Helena, stopping to take a breath, seemed to notice him for the first time. She gave him a strange look, not at all unpleasant. "I'm not doing this all by myself, you know," she said with a sly grin. Before he could react, she walked over to him, grasped his arms in a firm grip, and began to wave them around. "Like this."
"I can't," he managed.
"Rubbish," she said. "Besides, my hands are tired. Your turn now."
He stepped hesitantly into the middle of the room and began waving at the drones. They easily avoided his movements.
"Think of Aki," Helena suggested. "Like you said, eventually one of them might hit him."
That was enough for Sonal. He began waving at the drones, still carefully at first, then with more and more abandon, until at last he was spinning around like a wind-up toy spiralling out of control. He was so utterly spent that he hardly knew what he was doing any longer, and as he moved, sweaty and gasping for breath, he felt a mental block begin to give way; old exhaustion burning itself out at last. He knew how incredibly silly he must look, and he found that he no longer cared. His son, standing up in bed, was giggling and smiling, and Helena was singing to herself as she danced around beside him, trying to catch the drones. The backwash of spent adrenaline rolled over him, and he started to laugh, too. Helena turned and caught his eye, strained to keep her composure, then exploded in laughter as well. They kept moving, moving, moving as the drones zoomed back and forth around them, Sonal delirious with the feeling of being a child at last. All the while, in his crib, Aki giggled like mad.