Kato stood in the center of the windowless room, watching the solid wood door, anxiously waiting for it to open, listening for the slightest sound, any hint that Joan and Akito had arrived. He imagined hearing his son’s laughter or the boy asking his mother a question as they walked down the narrow halls of the nearly deserted building, the soft sound drifting in through the door. But it had been utterly silent thus far. Kato wondered if there had been a problem. If Joan had declined to meet with him; if she had refused to let him see his son.
In the middle of the room was a group of cheap, dusty furniture: a fabric couch, a coffee table with nothing on top, and two matching chairs. The decor reminded Kato of a doctor’s office—or more likely, the waiting room of a government office building, which was probably where the furnishings had come from, at the end of their useful life, discarded to be thrown into a landfill, only to be sucked into this black hole of a location where they hadn’t seen the light of day since. This was a sort of place out of time, a tomb hidden away from the world.
Beyond the door, Kato heard the faint hint of the sound he had been waiting for: Akito’s singsong voice. “Mommy, where is the people?”
A pause, then he pressed on. “Where they go?” “Be quiet, Akito,” she said, voice hushed.
Akito had always been a curious child. Every new discovery sparked a dozen questions from the boy. Kato thought that trait would serve him well in life. And possibly get him in some trouble, but sometimes a person’s passions had a way of doing that.
The door opened, and a uniformed marine held the handle just long enough for Joan and Akito to step inside before closing it.
Kato’s wife stared at him, eyes filled with a mix of anger, fear, and something he thought might be relief—perhaps at the fact that he was here
or maybe that he was alive (he didn’t know what they had told her to get her to come).
She held Akito in front of her, her hands on his chest.
Kato hadn’t seen them in person for nearly seven months. His son, who was almost four now, appeared to have aged years. He was taller, his face more mature—more like Kato’s face, except for the wicked scar that ran from his nose to his chin.
If there was one thing Kato liked about being a father, it was how his son looked at him—like no other person on Earth. Kato had gotten the scar two years before his son came into the world. Akito had never known him without the scar. And when he looked at his father, he didn’t see a monster. Just the opposite. He saw a protector. A playmate. A provider.
Akito had once run a finger down Kato’s face and said, “Daddy got a boo-boo.” And that was all it was to him.
In time, the child would see it differently, but now, he stared up at his father with innocent, loving eyes, glittering with excitement that was spreading across his face. He broke free from his mother’s grasp and ran into Kato’s arms, yelling, “Daddy! Daddy!”
Kato hugged him tight and rocked him side to side, never taking his eyes off of Joan, who stood by the door, unmoving.
During his past deployments, they had talked via video conference. That had helped Kato get through them. Joan had refused to talk to him during his last deployment. That had weighed on Kato. It just may have been one of the things that had gotten him into the trouble he was in.
“Where is the people go, Daddy?” Akito asked. “They all went home, little one.”
“Their work was done.” “What work?”
Kato smiled as he sat on the couch, setting Akito in his lap. Joan sat in the chair diagonally from him, farthest away.
“All kinds of work. Some are wizards that make computers do things.” “Wizards!”
“That’s right. It’s like magic, only with robots and computers. Some make sure things get to where they need to go.”
“Like you, Daddy.”
“Sort of like me. They’re all trying to keep us safe. Their families too.” Kato looked at Joan. “Because they’d do anything for them.”
She glanced away from him and spoke quietly. “They put us in a van. Without windows. In the back, like we were delivery boxes. They played music so we couldn’t even hear where we were going.” She paused. “It wasn’t a black bag over our heads, but it did make me wonder: what did you do this time?”
“I haven’t done anything.”
“Is this about the court-martial?” “It’s not that.”
Akito looked at his mother. “What’s wrong, Mommy?” “Nothing.”
The door opened, and Gerhard Richter stepped inside. When he spoke, the thick German accent was gone, replaced by a neutral American accent, the type that didn’t place him anywhere. Perhaps even more surprising was the warm smile on his face, a sharp contrast to the cold, expressionless man Kato had met the night before.
“Please, pardon the interruption, ma’am.” Richter held out his hands. “Just wanted to pop in here and say something we rarely get a chance to say to the families of the folks working on this project.”
Richter held Joan’s gaze a second. “Thank you.”
She nodded, clearly surprised.
“The work Kato is doing here could very likely change the world, ma’am. I’m not just being grandiose. I mean it—what he’s doing is that important. I know the work has been trying, especially lately, and I want you to know that we know that military spouses and children bear some of that weight too, not just the folks wearing the uniforms. I just wanted to tell you personally: we see you, we recognize your sacrifice, and we thank you.” Richter nodded. “Well, that’s it. That’s all I wanted to say. Again, pardon the interruption, and thank you again.”
When Richter left, some of Joan’s anger seemed to leave with him. The hardness in her eyes had softened, and when she looked at Kato, he thought he saw a shadow of who she was before, in the years before his troubles started.