A Champion of Nigh-Space

1

Here’s how I found out my girlfriend was a champion of nigh-space.

2

Her name was Vivian and she went by Vivy. We met on a dating site, and the algorithm thought our interests were similar and/or complementary enough to make us a mathematically near-perfect match: zombie movies, live shows with local bands, favorite author (Iain Banks for me; Iain M. Banks for her), Friday nights spent with a good whiskey and a good book, a fondness for travel, grad student life, and congruent kinks.

I messaged her, and it turned out we were both studying at Cal (me in my second year for a PhD in psych, her newly arrived to pursue a doctorate in public policy), so we met at a café near upper Telegraph one afternoon and we just clicked. She was beautiful: short and curvy, short dark hair, big dark eyes, and though autumn was beginning to fall she wore a deep purple sundress covered in little yellow stars, with strappy sandals. We talked about life in Berkeley and books and music, then went for a walk and segued into personal philosophy and life goals, then went to a bar and delved into the depths of our pasts—we were both raised by single moms, though mine was alive and great, and hers had died years ago and had always done more drugs than parenting. At the end of the night, several drinks in, she pushed me up against a wall and stood on tiptoes and kissed me deep and I was lost.

We lived just a few streets apart, but she’d scored a studio apartment without housemates (family money, she said), so we spent most of our time at her place; it was private, and we could be loud. Those first weeks after meeting someone and really connecting are so good: it’s like you’ve just discovered this vast new world called “sex” and you’re determined to explore every archipelago and peninsula and secret grotto. When we weren’t having the best kinky sex of my life we slurped noodles and watched Train to Busan and worked on our laptops side-by-side and took walks in Tilden Park and weekended away in Sonoma and lay companionably reading books covered with bright yellow interlibrary loan stickers and we fell in love.

She left on short-notice trips twice in that first year together, and once, I saw a ghost that looked like her.

3

Four months into our relationship, I came over for our usual work-and-hang-out evening and found her shoving things into a black overnight bag. “My aunt died, my mom’s older sister. We weren’t close, but I have to go back and show the flag for my side of the family.”

I knew her mom was gone and her dad had vanished from her life when she was little, so I nodded. “How long will you be gone?”

“Two days? Three maybe, if my cousins guilt me into helping them clean out her place. Her house is way out in the country and last time I was there my phone service was non-existent, so don’t worry if you can’t reach me. I’ll text when I can.” She kissed my cheek and whooshed away.

That was the first time since our first date that we hadn’t spoken daily, and I was surprised how vast her absence felt. Two nights later, sleeping in my bed, something jolted me awake and I blinked in the darkness. Vivy was beside my bed, leaning over and looking down on me, but she was pale and translucent, like an image projected on a sheer curtain. “Vivy?” I blinked, and she was gone. I shivered in the dark and felt pathetic, missing my girlfriend so hard I hallucinated her phantom.

The next day she texted: “home, come over” and I was out the door before I’d even sent a reply. She opened the door and grabbed me and pulled me in and kissed me hard, and I happily followed her to bed. She pulled my clothes off and then her own and I stopped and looked at her body. I knew it well, having seen it naked basically every day for months, and it was leaner and tauter than before, her muscles more defined, her soft sweet stomach more firm, and there was a little scar on her hip I didn’t remember, but it looked long healed.

“What’s wrong?” she said.

“I don’t know, you just seem different somehow, like…” I could tell I was moving into a minefield and trailed off.

She made a pfft sound. “Less podgy? I was just carrying a lot of water weight last week. I was bloaty. Plus I hauled a bunch of boxes at my aunt’s house.” She curled her arm and popped her bicep. “I got swole.”

“In three days?” I said.

“Are you supposed to be using your mouth for talking right now?” she said, putting her hand on top of my head and pushing me down. The nature of our sex life was that she told me what to do and I did it, and we were both quite satisfied with the arrangement, even if my satisfaction often took the form of delicious frustration. Sorry if that’s TMI. It might make some other things make more sense later.

4

“Six months,” she said on the morning of the day. “Quite a milestone. We should do something to celebrate it. It’s a demi-anniversary.”

“Like a half-birthday?” We’d celebrated her half-birthday the month before in a little bed-and-breakfast with a hot tub. It had been wonderful and exhausting and much more bed than breakfast and much more floor than bed.

“Any excuse to celebrate. How would you feel about getting matching tattoos?” She had a few tattoos already, abstract swirling things, on the small of her back and behind one ear and laced around an ankle. I didn’t have any but I’d been thinking about adding one. She liked ink and I liked what she liked.

“What did you have in mind?”

“Something that won’t be totally embarrassing if we end up breaking up someday,” she said.

“So not ‘Property of Vivy’ across my stomach then?”

She snorted a laugh, then opened up a little notebook she carried around. “I was thinking of this.” She showed me a little symbol, nothing I recognized, sinuous curves around a pointed star, a little like Celtic knotwork overlaying Moorish tile.

“It’s beautiful. What is it?”

“Something I saw in a dream. I was thinking, we could get them on our wrists…”

So we did, and when we held hands after, it felt like we were more connected than ever. A few days later she told me she had to go—her most no-account cousin had used his inheritance to start a serious drug habit and she was needed for an intervention and to help check him into rehab. I offered to go with her and she laughed and said, “This is not the way I want you to meet my family.”

“Speaking of,” I said. “My mom is dying to meet you.” Mom lived down in Santa Cruz, just ninety minutes away. I visited her every couple of months, but Vivy had never made the trip with me yet.

She made a face. “What if she hates me?”

“She’ll love you. All she’s ever wanted is for me to be happy.”

“Then we’ve got that in common. We’ll talk about it when I get back.” She kissed my cheek and left.

Two days later I was working in the library and my wrist suddenly pulsed with… not pain, exactly, but pressure, and a sensation of heat. I looked at my wrist and the black tattoo seemed to glitter, like it had gone from flat ink to onyx, but then the sparkle faded, and I blinked and rubbed my eyes. Maybe I’d been studying too hard.

My phone buzzed: “home, come.” I packed up and hurried over to Vivy’s place, and when I went inside at first I thought she had a visitor, because the woman with her back to me had long hair in a multitude of braids. Then she turned, and it was Vivy, and she swept across me and had her way.

Afterward I said, “Your hair?”

She laughed and touched a dangling strand. “Oh, yeah. My cousin—not junkie cousin, his sister—took us for a ‘girl’s day’ and we got these woven in. Ridiculous, huh?”

“It looks so totally real.”

“For what they cost, they’d better.” She snuggled up to me all sweet and told me she’d missed me, and started talking about a conference she hoped to attend in Helsinki next summer, and did I think I could get away to go with her. Then she suddenly sat up. “I forgot, I got you something!” She went to her bag and fished out a short length of silver chain. When I examined it, I saw it wasn’t a round chain but flattened, and twisted like a Möbius strip. I couldn’t even see a clasp. “I want you to wear this,” she said. “So even when we’re apart, you know you’re mine.” I held out my arm, and she shook her head. “No, it goes around your ankle.” She bent and fastened it around my left ankle, and I held up my leg to watch it glitter. A symbolic chain. Sweet and hot.

I still couldn’t see how the chain unclasped. “How do I get it off?”

“Now, now,” she said. “You should never take it off at all. If it ever needs to be removed, I’ll take care of it.”

“I love it when you talk to me like that.”

“I know you do.”

5

Two months later we were spending one of our rare nights apart, because I had a cold and with all the sniffling and coughing I wasn’t fit to share a bed with her. I was just dosing myself with heavy-duty cough medicine so I could get some ugly uneven sleep when my phone buzzed. Vivy, texting, “family emergency, back in a couple of days, love you, be good.”

Her cousins are such a shit-show, I thought, and went to sleep. I stayed home in my room the next day slurping soup and sipping tea and watching movies on my laptop, and the next day was much the same, though my throat was no longer ringed with fishhooks and my cough had gone from chronic to occasional and I could even breathe through one nostril reliably. I decided it would be a good idea to actually get dressed, and once I managed that, I was considering taking a walk around the block because I’d been cooped up for too long, when my wrist pulsed with heat.

I looked at the tattoo and it was definitely glittering, and then it seemed to lift off my skin and levitate above my wrist, and then the symbol expanded and grew wider and rotated in the air until it hung before me, a star at the center of sinuous swirls, easily six feet high and wide, and then the lines warped and curved and wrapped around me—

I stumbled and fell to my knees on a gray metal floor scattered with ashes, the ground tilted at a slight but noticeable angle, and I gurgled because I couldn’t breathe, because there was no air—I was sucking at nothing. Something cool touched the back of my neck, and I gasped, sucking in great gulps of the air that suddenly surrounded me. I struggled to my feet and stared. At Vivy.

She stood there dressed in a black outfit not unlike the ones she wore on stay-at-home date nights (strappy, shiny, body-hugging), but without the strategically bare areas those outfits usually sported—this looked like a garment you could do extreme sports in, shifted way to the right on the “fetish-wear-to-body-armor” scale. She held something like a telescoping baton, but with a ball of crackling blue electricity at one end; a scepter of lightning. She looked like an angel of death in a video game that had issues with too much male gaze.

“Oh, fuck,” she said.

6

Vivy looked around, and when I started to speak she shushed me, and stalked a few feet down the corridor (I think it was a corridor) and peered around the curving corner. She was tense for a moment, then slumped her shoulders.

“What’s wrong?”

“I was hoping I’d missed one, and that someone would try to kill us.”

“Why?”

Vivy turned to face me. “Because that would be less awkward than the conversation we’re about to have instead. And if I saved your life, maybe you’d be less mad at me.”

I nodded. I was paying a lot of attention to my own reactions, and they didn’t seem appropriate to me. I was angry because she’d clearly kept a huge secret from me, and that made sense, but considering I’d just been teleported by a magic tattoo, anger should have been, at best, number four on the intensity-of-emotions scale, after shock, terror, and confusion… none of which I was feeling.

Vivy seemed to understand. “It’s the patch.” She patted the back of her neck.

I reached back and felt something smooth and cool, about the size of a band-aid, right at the base of my neck. “What patch?”

“Emergency life support, providing you with breathable air, and also some mood-levelers. It’s battlefield tech, mostly meant for use on civilians who find themselves in bad situations.”

I sniffed, and then sniffed harder, through both nostrils. “I can breathe fine. My cold is gone.”

She nodded. “Right. The patch does some basic medical work too, mostly geared toward stabilizing trauma, but also killing off infectious agents.”

I sat down on the floor, leaning into the curve of the wall. “Vivy.”

“Yeah?” she said.

I gave her my blankest stare. “Vivy.”

“Okay,” she said.

She slid down the wall to sit beside me, her weird scepter across her knees. She sat close to me but didn’t touch me, which I appreciated. “So. Who what when where why?”

“That’s a start.”

“The where is, we’re in another world.”

“Is my tattoo a spaceship. Or is it a teleporter ray.” I could hear how flat my own voice was, but I couldn’t seem to do anything about it. I had a bad temper as a teenager and ever since then I’ve always put a wall between me and my anger, to keep that anger from spilling out like a flood of acid and dissolving everything in my life.

She looked at the tattoo on her wrist. “Neither. You could call it an anchor, but really it’s just one end of a thread. My matching tattoo is the other end. I… go places, to do things, and sometimes I go very far away, and it can be hard to find my way back. I need a beacon. Since I met you… you’ve been my beacon. My feelings for you alone are a sufficient anchor, if I don’t go too far, but a while back, I went farther than I ever had before, and I almost didn’t make it home again. You know how you saw that ghost?”

I nodded.

“That wasn’t a ghost. That was me, reaching for you, and not quite being able to connect. I was just too far off. I ended up snapping to… call it an adjacent place, closer to home than I was when I started. From there I was able to feel you strongly enough to come home. But nobody likes layovers, so I suggested the tattoo. That way, in the future I wouldn’t have that issue. No more ghosts. In addition to being romantic as hell, getting matching tattoos with entangled particles in the ink strengthens the connection between us for… it’s called a snap-trace. The process of traveling. I reach for you, and snap back to wherever you are.”

“But not this time?”

“Not this time,” she agreed. “I finished up my mission, and tried to snap home from here, but what I didn’t know was, the enemy hit me with a fixative, a weapon that interferes with the snap-trace. So when I grabbed that thread between us and pulled on it to reel me back to you, I became an immovable object, and the connection snapped you here, to this plane, instead.”

“We’re on a plane?” I looked around. The walls were metal, but the space was too big to be an airplane.

“We’re on the wreck of a starship, actually. I meant plane, like, plane of existence.”

I groaned. “We’re in outer space? But not even our outer space?”

She held out her hands, one on top of the other. “The way it was explained to me is, reality is like a ream of paper, okay? You live on top of one sheet of paper. Your planet, your stars, your galaxy, your universe. All on one side of one sheet. There’s another side to that sheet, and that side is a whole world of its own, too—a whole universe. There’s also another sheet underneath yours, and another sheet above you, and on and on. The sheets are very close together, but they’re all separate. Every one is a universe. The ream of paper might be infinite, too. We’re not sure. No one has ever reached an end, but when you go far enough, the physical constants of those universes start to change, and after a while, the basic physics get so bizarre that not even hardened probes can survive there. Infinity aside, there’s still a huge stack of universes that are, at least in terms of physics, basically like our own, and most of them are inhabited to some degree. We call that swath of inhabited universes nigh-space.”

“Who’s ‘we’?”

“That’s the who. I work with some other… let’s say people… to preserve and protect and improve life in nigh-space. That’s the what, and the why, I think.”

I stared at her for a while.

“Well?” she said.

“This is just a lot, Vivy. I thought you were studying public policy.”

“I am. Studying it, and enacting it. I work for a group called the Interventionists. We… nudge things in good directions.” She paused. “Does that cover all the basics?”

“Who what where and why, sure. What about when? How long have you been doing this?”

“The Interventionists recruited me in high school. I had certain aptitudes. Tendencies. They pretended they were a government agency for a while, until I was sufficiently prepared to understand what they really were.”

“So you’ve been lying to me for our whole relationship.”

She nodded. “I have. Not just to you. To everyone. I’m basically a spy. It’s not the kind of thing you bring up on a first date, or a tenth date. I wouldn’t get married or have kids or even move in together without disclosing it, but before that…” She shrugged. “I might have handled this all wrong. I’m really sorry. I didn’t want you to find out this way.”

I rolled my eyes. “How did you want me to find out?”

“For our anniversary. I was going to take you to the Realms of Spheres and Harmonies and expand your universe. In several ways.”

I looked at her closely. “Really? You were going to tell me?”

“I was. We’re starting to feel like… a forever thing, these last few months, and I’ve wanted to tell you a dozen times, but I was trying to be responsible. I had to get permission to tell you first, or risk upsetting people you don’t want to be upset with you. Do you hate me? Are we done?” She looked away. “I’ll get you home, I’ll keep you safe, but after that, if you… I hope you don’t, but… I’d understand.”

“I… this is a lot to think about, Vivy.”

She nodded, and tentatively put her hand on mine. I didn’t move my hand away, but I didn’t clasp hers back, either. That was the best I could do.

I decided to focus on the immediate issues. “So if I’m your anchor, your beacon or whatever that guides you back home… and I’m here with you… how do we get back to our plane, realm, planet, house?”

She sighed. “We go the long way around.”

7

The ship we were on was hopelessly broken—I gathered Vivy had done the breaking—but she had a smaller vessel in a nearby hangar that had brought her here. “You were just going to leave it on board when you snapped back to me?” I asked.

“Oh, that ship knows the way home,” she said.

Her vessel looked a little like a dragonfly crossed with a stealth jet, and was about the size of a van. When she opened the cockpit door there was only one seat inside, but then the interior flowed and changed and suddenly there were two seats, one with controls in front, one without. “Who’s this?” the ship said. “Doesn’t look like a local.”

“This is my boyfriend, Glenn.”

“We’re bringing Glenn to work now?” The ship sounded amused.

“Your ship is talking,” I said.

“He’s not mine. He’s his own. We’re partners. Glenn, meet The Wreck of the Edmund Pevensie. Call him Eddie.”

“Welcome aboard,” Eddie said. “You get hit with a fixative?”

“Apparently.” Vivy climbed in and I did the same, my seat shifting around to accommodate me. It felt like being held in a vast, gentle hand. “Can you shield us?”

“Mmm,” Eddie said. “Mostly. I’ll go real fast.”

“Shield us from what?” I said.

“Evil spirits that eat your bones,” Eddie said.

Vivy smacked the console. “Eddie. Don’t be like that.”

“What, the people on your home world are like level two, right?”

“They know what radiation is, Eddie.”

“Oh. Okay. Then I’m shielding us from radiation.”

The ship rose and spun—I couldn’t feel any motion, weirdly, but I could see the movement through the screen—and faced one of the dark metal walls, which flowed and rippled to make an oblong opening the ship darted through. Space. I was in space.

Then I frowned. “Eddie. Your name is a reference to a couple of things from my world. You must know enough about us to know we know about radiation.”

“Well spotted,” Eddie said. “I was just being a jerk. Vivy always said you were smart.”

The screens went black, hiding the view of stars before I could even properly appreciate it. “Shielding,” she said. “We were sent here to deal with a Hollower infestation. They’re solar parasites. Creatures that crawl inside a star and suck up its energy, hiding inside, until they’ve used all that energy up. The infested star still puts out the usual light and heat and radiation… but it starts to put out lots of other things, too. Mutagens. Teratogens. Just looking at the radiation that appears in visible wavelengths exposes you to poison.”

“Plus evil mind-control rays,” Eddie said.

“Sort of,” Vivy said. “Any creatures with organic brains in the vicinity start to behave very aggressively with anyone who approaches the star. Some kind of defense mechanism, probably. Fortunately, this infected star wasn’t in an inhabited system, but unfortunately, there was a ship nearby, and the crew was affected. We came to try to cure them, but…” She shook her head. “Too far gone. They tried to destroy us, so I had to board and stop them.”

“Wait… did you kill them?”

“Of course not! They’re sick, Glenn, not my enemies. I put them in stasis. I’m not saying I didn’t crimp a pseudopod or two in the process, but there were no casualties. A medical ship is on the way to pick up the crew, to see if they can be saved.”

“What about the parasite?” I was imagining a titanic space battle with some sort of stellar whale-kraken-worm.

“It’s a horrible giant energy being that lives inside a star,” Vivy said. “I punch aliens, but that’s not an alien on a punchable scale. All we can do with Hollowers is save the locals and put an interdict on the system to keep people away.”

“And our work is done,” Eddie said. “ I assume you two aren’t going to settle down on this plane, so where are we going? Local hub?”

“Best we can do,” Vivy said.

“There are going to be S-Cons there.”

“Oh, you think?”

I knew I should be interested in what they were talking about, space travel and mysterious threats and getting home, but now that I had time to sit and stare at a blank wall, all I could think about was me, and her, and us.

Vivy had been the axis of a beautiful world, and now that axis had shifted. I wanted to talk to her about what this revelation meant for us, about how everything we did was based on trust—even more so than a typical monogamous relationship, because of the nature of our kink, which required me to have faith in her absolutely, coming from a place of profound vulnerability—but I couldn’t say any of that with the ship listening in. So I just stared at the blankness where a view of space should have been, thinking how sad it was that even my one opportunity to voyage among the stars and see the wonders of the galaxy (or anyway a galaxy) was spoiled.

Vivy patted my leg. “We’re going to a transfer point on this plane, where we can move a few levels closer to our home universe. Once we’ve closed the gap a bit, we’ll try to do a snap-trace back home, with some other anchor.”

“What anchor?” I asked.

“Something else I love.”

“You’re saying interdimensional travel is literally powered by love?” I said.

Eddie chuckled. “An anchor needs to be something deeply imprinted in your memory, with a lot of specific associated glandular and electrochemical brain activity swirling around it, and yeah, it needs to be something you really, really wants to get back to. That level of devotion is what allows the snap-trace to work with any precision. Doesn’t have to be romantic love, or even love for a person, but it needs to be a deep attachment. Something you sorta-kinda-like isn’t good enough. Try to snap-trace to something like that, and either nothing will happen, or you’ll end up embedded in a wall next door to it, or as a ghostly projection watching it from three planes up or down.”

“Okay, so let’s think about anchors,” I said. “What else do you love?”

Vivy said hmm. “I like that one café we go to sometimes, with the good Americanos. What’s it called?”

“It you don’t even remember the place’s name, you can’t love it enough to use it for an anchor,” Eddie said. “You’ll end up a ghost smeared across the ceiling again.”

“Look, I haven’t been in town all that long.” Vivy scowled. “I haven’t, like, gotten attached.”

“I’d be happy to get to any town,” I said. “Isn’t there someone else you love? One of your cousins?”

Eddie chuckled again. I pushed the heel of my hand against my forehead. “Right. There are no cousins. They’re the cover story.”

“Sorry, babe.”

“Don’t babe me. What was your anchor before me?”

“I had a cat. Gummitch. He died just before I moved to Berkeley.”

“A cat. Did you tattoo your cat?”

She half-smiled. “No, there was a little charm on his collar, and I had a matching necklace.”

I shook my head. “You didn’t have a cat anymore, so you got me. I’m a replacement. For your cat.”

Vivy groaned. “No, you aren’t. I was going to get another cat and hope we bonded fast. Instead I met you and we bonded fast, faster than I ever have with another human being. I usually do a lot better with cats, to be honest.”

I wanted to be exothermically hurt some more but instead I took a breath. “Is there really nobody else? No close connections you can think of?”

She went icy, and not in the sexy way. “I’m going to call ahead to our contacts at the hub, and make sure the way is clear.” An opaque blue sphere suddenly enveloped her head, like a fishbowl helmet painted to match the sky, and she leaned back in her chair.

“Vivy,” I said. “Hey, Vivy, I’m sorry, I just—”

“She can’t hear you,” Eddie said. “Isolation field. Immersive communication.” He paused. “Look, your whole… thing… with Viv is not my business, but just so you know, the kind of people who get chosen to work for the Interventionists… they aren’t people who have a lot of close friends or family. Orphans and loners are the profile. When I met Viv, she was basically an impenetrable shell full of infinite rage, and over the past years I’ve watched her become someone who believes in the power of positive change, and over the past months, I’ve seen her become someone capable of love. You’re the first test case for that.”

“She’s had other boyfriends before, and girlfriends,” I said.

“People she had fun with, sure. People she played with, tied up and hit with things, played the goddess for—yeah, I know what you get up to, meat people are so strange. She liked them, or disliked them in enjoyable ways, but they were never her anchor. That’s you. She’s learning how to love, and she’s going to mess up sometimes. You can tell her to leave you alone after we get you home, and she’ll accept it. She’s good at cutting things off. Nobody compartmentalizes like our Viv. But if you leave her, I think she’ll vanish into that shell again. That part of her that reached out to you and sought a connection, she’ll chop it off and cauterize the end. If you decide what she’s done is unforgivable, she’ll believe you, and she’ll never forgive herself. We’ll be lucky if she even bonds cat again. We might be down to using a houseplant as her anchor. Or a really good sandwich.” He paused. “Also, she’s telling the truth. She did get permission to tell you. She’s been planning it for weeks. So, it’s your choice, but I’ve got my own opinions about it.”

I thought about that for a while. While I was thinking, Eddie said, “We’re clear of the radiation field,” and opened the windows. Stars hung in the dark, small and sharp and white and close and vast and blue, and glowing ribbons of dust shone and shimmered like aurorae, and far off something like lightning crackled and sparked among dark irregular forms that must have been asteroids or wrecked ships. I gasped and reached out unthinkingly for Vivy’s hand, and her isolation field flickered off.

“God, your face,” she said. “Seeing something like this for the first time is wonderful, but seeing your face as you see it for the first time is even better.”

“I love you, Vivy.” I squeezed her hand and looked at all that light in the darkness.

“Are you still mine?” I almost never heard anxiety in her voice, and the flutter I perceived there pierced my heart.

“I am,” I said. “If you’ll keep me.”

Then the ship was torn apart and her hand wrenched out of mine and we went spinning apart into the glittering dark.

8

I wasn’t sure what exactly happened to a human exposed to the vacuum of space. I’d seen some movies and stuff but they weren’t consistent. Did you freeze into a lump, or did your eyeballs burst, or did you just die of suffocation?

None of those things happened. Everything spun wildly around me, stars whirling, and I gasped and heaved and breathed just fine. As I spun, I saw something like a jellyfish made of black oil reach out dark tendrils and gather up Vivy into itself, then zip away through the dark. Fragments of the wreck of The Wreck of the Edmund Pevensie spun around me on their own random trajectories.

I held out my hands and saw they were enclosed in a shimmering, translucent blue field composed of millions of tiny diamond shapes.

A piece of the wrecked ship stopped spinning, changed its orientation, and then floated toward me. The fragment was silver, about the size of a baseball, with a triangular sort of shark fin on top. A beam of light shot out from its center, shining right at my head. I expected to be vaporized by some kind of laser but instead Eddie’s voice spoke like a whisper in my ear. “So, this is bad,” he said.

“What was that? What happened to Vivy? Why am I still alive?”

“That was an S-Con ship attacking us. They got some kind of new stealth tech. Very slick.”

“What is an S-Con?”

“Oh, right. Strict Constructionists. Enemies of the Interventionists. It’s complicated, but basically, they believe we should leave other regions of nigh-space the fuck alone. The Interventionists have better technology, but they have numbers. They tend to congregate around hubs to try to interfere with our operations. That’s not usually much of a problem—they guard the train stations, sure, but we have airplanes and buses and helicopters too, so who cares. But this time, the only viable local option was the train station, and they saw us coming. What happened to Vivy is, they took her prisoner. She’s a little bit famous, or infamous, as far as they’re concerned. As for you being alive… it looks like you have an adaptive emergency system on your ankle there.”

“What? My anklet? That was a gift from Vivy.”

“It’s a nice gift. It’ll keep you alive in all kinds of rough situations. It’s mostly defensive, but it has a little bite too. See, Vivy really was planning to bring you to nigh-space.”

“What now? How do we save her?”

“Well… they tore me up pretty bad. This lump is my only functioning component. It’s got my brains inside, but not much else for resources. I have enough reaction mass to get us moving, but slowly, and you’ll be dead before we get anywhere useful. The suit you’re in can recycle your waste water, but it’s a diminishing-returns thing, and you’d die of dehydration before we reached a place with a water fountain. On the bright side, you won’t have time to die of starvation.”

“Can’t you send out a distress call or something?”

“Nope. I’m only able to communicate with you because we’re line-of-sight.” The laser blinked off and then back on. “My shit is bashed.”

“So what do we do?”

“I’m open to suggestions.”

I looked at my glowing blue hands… and at the tattoo on my wrist. “This connection between me and Vivy… if she can snap-trace to me… can I snap-trace to her? I mean, obviously I can, because I did, but can I make it happen on purpose?”

“Hmm. You’ve got the right hardware. When you got the tattoo, you got the whole snap-trace system installed too. It’s really just a question of loading the right software so you can control the process consciously.”

“How do we do that?”

“Look into the light,” Eddie said.

“What?” I glanced up from my wrist and the beam of light shot straight into my eye and then—

9

I blinked, my eyes tearing up. “What was that?”

“Direct neural installation,” Eddie said. “I put some knowledge in your brain. A bit crude, sorry, but the best I could do in my current circumstances. Did it work? Do you know stuff?”

“I—huh. I think. If I want to get to her I just—”

“Wait! Grab me first!”

The sphere drifted closer to me, and I held it close to my chest. “Okay. It’s sort of like a meditation thing, right? I close my eyes and think of Vivy…”

I closed my eyes and thought of Vivy.

10

I opened my eyes and went “ow” because I’d landed on my back on something hard. Gravity again. I rolled over and there was Vivy, her head wrapped in an oily black isolation sphere, her arms and legs chained with actual chains to an actual wall, in a black metal room about three meters square and high. (She didn’t look right at all on that side of the chains.) Eddie rose up out of my arms and shot a beam of light at a spot on the ceiling. “I’ve got the surveillance baffled,” he said. “Poking into the ship from there. I’ll see what I can do. You try and wake her up.”

I moved toward Vivy, still shimmering in my silver suit, and found a sort of metal collar around her throat (that was also all wrong). I fiddled with the clasp, the collar came loose, and the sphere blinked out of existence.

Vivy’s hair was matted to her forehead with sweat, her eyes were puffy and red, and she was just as gorgeous as ever. “Glenn? How did you—you snap-traced to me?”

“I do love you,” I said.

She touched my face, tears welling in her eyes, then hugged me as best she could with her wrists chained. Then she looked up. “Eddie?”

“What’s left of me. I’m thinking I’ll take this ship as my new body, at least until I can find one that’s not a total piece of shit. There’s no AI, so taking over the vessel doesn’t even count as murder. It’s barely got expert systems, and those are just for navigation and combat. All the other ship’s functions are controlled by meat-people pushing buttons. If they hadn’t stolen such a good stealth generator they never would have stood a chance against me.” He sighed. “We’re still fucked, though. The local hub is crawling with S-Cons, and it’s literal years at this thing’s top speed to reach the next hub, and that one goes the wrong direction in nigh-space anyway.”

I sat beside Vivy. “I guess that means I’m not going to make the next meeting with my advisor.”

Eddie said, “Well, maybe. The flow of linear time isn’t constant in nigh-space—if you go in the direction we’ll arbitrarily call ‘up,’ time moves faster than it does on your plane, and if you go ‘down,’ it moves slower. So you can spend a long time on one plane, and when you return to yours, only a couple of days have passed. Or, alternately, you spend a day away, and come back to find months have passed. We’re downstream of your plane now, so time isn’t the real problem.”

“That’s why your body was different, and your hair,” I said to Vivy.

Vivy nodded. “I was gone weeks once, and months another time. God, I missed you so much.” She put her head on my shoulder.

“The real problem,” Eddie said, “is that we have to go a very long way, in a plane where we’re literally the only Interventionists, and we can’t even go pirate because the regions we have to pass through are empty, and this ship as I mentioned is a piece of shit, and the supplies on board aren’t compatible with your biology because these particular S-Cons are methane-aquatic congloms, and this cell is currently the only place that even has air you can breathe, so while I’ll be fine, you guys are going to die in a few weeks—”

“I love my mom,” I said.

“That’s… nice?” Eddie said. “The sort of thing meat-people think about when they’re confronting death, I suppose—oh. Oh.”

“Would it work?” I said.

“There’s nothing boosting the connection, like our tattoos,” Vivy said. “But you can probably get close. If you end up somewhere… weird… just refocus and try again.”

“And once I’m home… you can snap to me?”

“Eddie cleared the fixative out of my system before I got snatched,” she said. “Also… I’ve never loved you more. You saved me.”

“I am a pretty amazing space hero,” I said.

She kissed my cheek. “Say hi to your mom for me.”

I closed my eyes. Then I opened them. “Thank you, Eddie, for the… pep talk. Counseling session. Whatever.”

“Thanks for not leaving me floating in the wreckage of myself.” Something banged hard on the wall of the cell. “They’re trying to break in,” Eddie said. “I don’t have full control of the ship yet. Could get inimical to biological life here soon, so…”

I kissed Vivy, just in case, and closed my eyes, and thought of my mom’s face, and snapped away.

11

I opened my eyes, and I was not in my mom’s house in Santa Cruz. I was in a steaming jungle, but the leaves were all blue, and the vines began moving toward me like snakes. Something wrapped around my wrist and my shimmering suit suddenly burst out with spikes all over, shredding the vine, and the others drew back, undulating. I did not want to close my eyes in that place, but I did. I tried to focus, and concentrate more specifically, because specific was better: mom’s studio in the back of the house, mom there in her baggy denim shirt, painting one of her secret-creepy still-lifes with hidden skulls and teeth and knives among the flowers and fruit and books and goblets…

I opened my eyes in the darkness. My suit suddenly glowed, providing enough illumination to make out a cavern with walls of pulsing pink flesh. I stood in a pool of something that steamed and gurgled, and lumps of partially-dissolved meat and bones floated around me. I knew immediately that I was in the stomach of something vast, and my suit started blaring warnings about imminent loss of integrity.

Eyes squeezed shut. Mind’s eye open. Mom, in her backyard garden, yanking weeds alongside me and talking about her next gallery show, and her first show, and the group show she did with Louise Burgeois back in the 90s, and—

12

I opened my eyes in her backyard, and the soil at my feet sizzled as the last of the acid ran off my suit. The shimmering suit flickered and drew back into the anklet just as my mom turned around in the lawn chair where she was reading and sipping iced tea. “You didn’t tell me you were coming, hon. What’s the occasion?”

“I, ah…” My tattoo warmed up, and a moment later, Vivy came strolling around the side of the house, dressed not in her nigh-space warrior battle-leathers but in a white sundress. (Later, I found out her suit had a field projector that allowed for all sorts of camouflage, not just the social kind. We had… a lot of fun with that later.) She walked over and stood beside me.

“Mom, I’d like you to meet Vivy.”

“Well.” Mom rose and looked at us for a moment, then smiled. “Meeting the parent. Things must be getting pretty serious, then.”

I took Vivy’s hand. She squeezed tight. I squeezed right back.

“They must be,” Vivy said.

Tim Pratt

Tim Pratt is the author of more than 20 novels, most recently the Axiom space opera series, including Philip K. Dick Award finalist The Wrong Stars, The Dreaming Stars, and forthcoming third volume The Forbidden Stars. He’s a Hugo Award winner for short fiction, and has been a finalist for Nebula, World Fantasy, Sturgeon, Mythopoeic, Stoker, and other awards. His collection Miracles & Marvels is coming this fall. He tweets incessantly (@timpratt) and publishes a new story every month for patrons at patreon.com/timpratt.

 

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