The Siren of Titan

by shukyou (主教)
illustrated by The Winter Cynic

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/291336.html)

The light off the Kraken Mare shone warm and inviting, but Andreas knew that even if he’d been close enough to feel its reflection on his face, it wouldn’t have been like the mornings of his childhood, standing at the edge of the Aegean Sea and letting the sunrise bake into his skin. Maybe this very light had cast itself over those same sparkling waters — he could never quite keep track of Earth rotation without the computer’s help — but that would have been at best over an hour ago. By now, it was little more than a dream of sunlight, his sunlight. It shone and carried on into the black and left little of itself below.

He sighed and pushed back from the window, letting momentum take his tall body. He’d have plenty of time to gaze at its surface later.

“Hey, hey,” called Darya through the ship’s address system. “Everyone awake?”

Andreas floated to the nearest communication panel and passed his hand over its surface. “I’m up,” he said.

“Am now,” came back Ione’s grumpy mutter.

Youko, Morgan, and Llyr gave similar groggy responses; there was no night or day on the Yemanya, but everyone tended to fall into shared rhythms of asleep and awake anyway, if for no other reason than how lonely awake alone could become. Darya cleared her throat. “Everyone awake?”

“Yes, everyone,” grunted Ione. Presumably Giz was there with her and she hadn’t just become psychic about his location, though Andreas wasn’t willing to put anything past her.

“Then can Sleepy, Grumpy, and the rest of you be ready in two hours?”

It was a joke Andreas still didn’t fully get, though Darya had tried to explain it several times. He’d always thought of himself as a person confident in his convictions, if a little quiet despite that, and didn’t know why that had gotten him ‘Bashful’ written in the captain’s hand in chalk marker on his cabin door. But he’d worked on enough vessels to know that when the captain gave a nickname, a smart crew member nodded and went with it.

A small chorus of affirmations coursed through the com system, so Andreas started pulling on his mission-ready clothes. They’d all dressed like that for at least the first week out, covered from neck to wrist to ankles, but grooming standards hadn’t lasted that high that long. As long as whoever was making the reports home zipped up their jacket before the transmission started recording, no one cared whether or not they were spit-and-polish shining. He suspected the only thing that kept folk — Giz, especially — from going around naked was how even the most experienced zero-G dweller was prone to drift and miscalculation, and there were a lot of sharp parts on the inside of a ship no one wanted their more sensitive bits to meet.

After almost three years in low- and zero-G situations, Andreas had almost forgotten what gravity was like, and he didn’t expect today would be much of a reminder. Even Luna Colony’s unmodified gravity had more pull than the moon of Saturn in whose orbit their ship had been circling for the past fifty-odd hours. And yet it would still be more than the literal nothing that had been weighing him down for the last fifteen months. He tugged on his left boot with a little too much of a tug and sent himself drifting away from his locker. Maybe a little gravity wouldn’t be so bad.

Darya was the only one waiting by the shuttle bay when he got there twenty minutes later. She’d zipped herself into an exposure suit much like his own and pulled a jacket over it, only hers had DOC stencilled on the back. She wasn’t one of the three Ph.Ds on board, but she was the captain, so Andreas supposed it counted. He wasn’t one either, but that’s why he was suiting up. “Excited?” she asked him, grinning.

“Nervous.” He reached up to snag the calcium bar she drifted toward him. If another ground-up eggshell never passed his lips, it’d be too soon. When she gave him a questioning look, he shrugged. “Worst-case scenarios.”

“Better be,” she said. “You see anything else, you better speak up, Mr. Disaster.” That was another of her nicknames for him, one he understood a little better. On paper, he was their Navigations and Strategic Planning Officer. In practice, it was his job to keep as many steps ahead of Murphy’s Law as he could manage. If anyone on the crew had ever doubted his usefulness, those doubts had been dispelled a mere two weeks past launch, when he’d warned about the fuel pump five full hours before it had blown. No one had ever questioned one of his bad feelings again.

He took a bite, then made a face as he chewed its chalky contents down. At times like that, muscular atrophy and bone loss almost seemed like pleasant alternatives. “Debris?”

“Splash, not crash. Got five sites indicated by radar, but I can’t tell asteroid from ship at this altitude.”

“You think they’re down there?”

With a sigh, Darya scrubbed her fingers back through her short-shorn hair. He’d seen pictures of her from years back, when she’d had long black waves hanging down to her waist, but no one Andreas knew who’d ever spent more than a few weeks in space bothered keeping much up top or taking much off from there on down. “I don’t get paid to speculate. …But if I did, I’d say: self-contained environment, pressurized and built for long-term sustainability, surrounded by tens of thousands of years’ worth of fuel? Two centuries isn’t such a long time.”

The mystery of the Constant was only really a mystery in the urban legend sense; to the scientific community and government agencies, it was as gone as though they’d seen it blow up in atmosphere, and though no one could say for certain what exactly had happened to it, the manner of the ship’s doom was of little consequence to the final verdict. To the public, though, it still lived on in the imagination: one of the earliest outer-planet attempts at colonization, and the largest by far, gone without so much as a mayday. It had reached the end orbit of its seven-year trip, radio transmissions had assured home crews, but that was all. Four hundred and eighty-two souls, swallowed by the night.

When Andreas had been recruited for the crew of the Yemanya, he’d been excited by the Earth Government’s efforts to restart its programs out toward the rim of the solar system, and was unmoved one way or another by the idea that part of their mission would be searching for clues to the fate of the Constant. After a century and a half of natural disasters and wars for resource control, though, Earth’s population had needed something to capture the imagination in order to get public support for the mission, and the ones paid to think Big Thoughts had come up with the idea that surely everyone could be compelled by the prospect of solving the two-centuries-old mystery. Surely everyone had been. The Yemanya had been waved off with far more attention and fanfare than Andreas had strictly been comfortable with, and he could only imagine the airplay each of their dispatches got when it arrived home. Thus, he found every excuse possible to not be the one doing them.

While the rest of his crewmates had held their collective breath, Andreas hadn’t expected them to find anything but a scrap of mangled wreckage, perhaps a few bolts’ worth of an orbital debris field — and thus had been the one who’d needed to eat his own words when Morgan’s scans had definitively registered a large amount of metal on the planet, far more than would be indicated by natural stellar processes. If the Constant wasn’t down there, then something just as interesting was.

“Still pretty long,” Andreas said, gathering the parts to his bulky exosuit. He’d wait as long to put it on as he could.

Darya nodded. “Well, there’s no wrong find, at least. Any answer’s an answer. We find an intact ship populated by the colonists’ great-great-whatever-grandchildren, awesome. We find a collapsed hunk of fused bulkheads, perfect. We find absolutely nothing, well, less exciting but still informative. We find a bucket full of dead bodies–” Her pretty, dark lips took a wicked turn. “You’re not afraid of ghosts, are you?”

“No,” Andreas lied.

~*~

“We’re showing conditions stable. How’s it look from your height?”

“Calm. Looks like we picked a nice day for swimming. Hope you all brought your suits.”

That brought laughs from both sides of the conversation. Morgan, Youko, and Giz were all at their various posts at the helm of the Yemanya, watching for what couldn’t be so easily seen by four people crammed into a landing craft, which was what Andreas and the others were now. Llyr tapped at his receiver where an ear would otherwise have been. “You hear that?” he asked the others.

“Inference?” asked Morgan; the landing craft’s speakers broadcast the sound fingers’ tapping on a control panel. “Clean on our end.”

“No, no, not on our band. Maybe on our band? Sort of a–” Llyr sighed and shook his head. “Gone now.”

Darya adjusted the controls to slow their descent. “What did it sound like?”

“Tidal. Organic?” Llyr shook his head. “Probably just the atmosphere.”

“Distress beacon?” asked Morgan.

“Too low-frequency. More likely I’m hearing things.” Llyr ran his fingers along the side of his head, and though Andreas was on the wrong side to see at the moment, it was a thinking gesture Llyr made all the time. Andreas’ eyes couldn’t detect the seam where organic met inorganic, but he assumed it could be felt from the way Llyr’s fingers traced a small, definite circle in the same way one might tug at one’s earlobe, a nervous habit.

“Is the computer hearing anything?” Darya asked.

“Thirty degrees left,” Ione said, pointing in case her direction had been insufficient. “Picking up a big chunk of metal about half a kilometer down, but there doesn’t seem to be corresponding displacement or impact cratering.”

“Could be old.”

Ione shrugged. “Could be a lot of things. But you want a place to start, it’s as good as any.”

“Thanks, Grumpy,” said Darya, and she steered them down.

A near-lifelong veteran of experimental transport modules, Andreas knew what it felt like to land a craft in liquid: there was always a moment of push, a fraction of an instant where surface tension resisted so hard there might as well have been stone beneath, followed fast behind by a great sigh as the liquid drew aside and let the vessel in. This particular module had been designed for this very mission, and in preparation, Andreas had ridden it into several bodies of water of various densities.

He was a bit surprised, then, to find that landing in a lake of liquid hydrocarbons felt no different from putting down into a polar sea — a change, to be sure, but not a significant one. Within Titan’s atmosphere now, he could feel the fractional tug of gravity start to weigh him in a direction different from that in which the ship was pushing him. He lifted his hand and let it relax, then watched as it wafted slowly back down to rest on his lap. A quick calculation told him that he now weighed slightly less than the portly beagle his family had owned when he was very young. It was strange what one’s mind came up with at times like these; he hadn’t thought of Atlas in years.

“That’s odd–” said Ione, and then she didn’t have to say anything else. The cameras transmitted back what they saw to the Yemanya, and the view out the window before the quartet in the shuttle was clear as day, as the brilliant headlight cast its beam on a pair of shuttle bay doors. The rest of the vessel to which they were attached disappeared from sight into the murky sea behind it, but no one who’d spent as many years in spaceflight as that crew could have mistaken it for anything else. Their tech was antiquated, obviously pneumatic at the joints; no one had built a ship with those kinds of lossy systems since even before Andreas’ grandparents had been born. A thick corrosive sheen had settled over most of the hull, giving its surface a near-black patina, but Andreas could see the ghost of the old Space Exploration Alliance flag in the few painted spots that still hung on.

“Shuttlecraft, confirm,” said Morgan, whose constant, even voice still couldn’t hide the emotions beneath the words, “are you fucking with us?

“Negative,” Llyr replied. “Are you fucking with us?”

Giz’s nasal laugh spilled out through the shuttle’s speakers; he must have been leaning over Morgan’s shoulder. “We would be the greatest practical jokers in human history if we’d pulled that one off.”

“So that’s it?” asked Ione. “We just … solved the biggest spacefaring mystery of the last two hundred years? Ten minutes in atmosphere, first place we look? That was it?”

“That was awfully easy,” said Andreas beneath his breath, but no one else heard.

Morgan, ever the voice of joy-killing reason, asked, “Are we sure it’s the Constant?”

“There’s nothing else it could be,” said Darya, her usually commanding tone having been replaced with a reverent hush. Her eyes wide, she stared ahead with undisguised awe. “Nothing else made it out this far. All the colony craft were well-documented and expensive as hell. I’m open to other theories, but Occam’s Razor is cutting pretty close to where we are right now.”

Now that the shuttlecraft was no longer in motion, Andreas unfastened his safety harnesses and stood, moving to the front for a better look. It was strange, feeling his feet pulled, no matter how gently, in one direction again. The ship before them shimmered in the ripples of the hydrocarbon sea; the inside of the shuttle felt cloyingly warm, but everything beyond its insulated walls was unfathomably cold and toxic. Even their suits could only last so long out there. The deep, radioactive void of empty space was a pleasant, passive environment compared to what their shuttle now swam in.

“Bloody hell,” said Giz over the link. “Transmitting you the open sesame code now. You’ll need to near-frequency broadcast it to a specific point around the doors, but I can’t tell where from the schematics I have. It’ll need to be in serious proximity, though, so if you can’t activate it from the shuttle, one of you has got to go exo and try–”

The grinding sound was like something out of a nightmare, and deep in the sea as they were, the resonance was so heavy and directionless that at first, Andreas couldn’t tell whether it was coming from within the shuttle or without. He felt its vibrations all the way down to his bones, and if his jaw had been clenched instead of dropped in surprise, he was sure it would have rattled his teeth. Llyr clapped his hand over the right side of his head, wincing, and Morgan called out, “Was that us or you?”

“No,” said Andreas, who had responded by looking not to any instrument panel, but at the ship before them. With all the slowness of great stone gates, the doors to the shuttle bay shifted away on their tracks, pulling aside to reveal a great flooded darkness behind them. There was a single crackling pop, an electrical noise that made Andreas’ hair stand on end, and suddenly they were not lost in the dark anymore.

~*~

“Temperature’s habitable, but you don’t want to breathe it,” Ione told him as Darya fastened the last seals on Andreas’ helmet. “Repressurizing after void is one thing, but old systems like this were never built to be compatible with liquid environments, so with our little engines bringing up the heat in here, everything you’d be swimming in outside, you’d be breathing in here. So if you want to take the suit off, don’t.”

They’d sat and debated nearly half an hour before they’d all come to the conclusion that they couldn’t not go see what was inside. No one had been exactly unwilling, but Morgan had warned them communication with the ship was already spotty at best through the atmosphere and liquid, and that moving from there into the interior of a space-rated vessel would likely cut them off altogether. And we can’t come get you if something goes wrong , Morgan had never outright said, but no one had needed that reminder.

It had been easy earlier to rationalize that the Constant‘s shuttle doors had been on some sort of proximity sensor, especially factoring in the possibility of an activated distress beacon that had since fallen silent. It was a little tougher, but still possible, to believe in automaticity as the reason the shuttle doors closed behind them as soon as they were inside, or the reason the shuttle bay began to repressurize and eject fluid once they were sealed tightly in. Now, however, Andreas was not ashamed to admit, if only to himself, that the butterflies in his stomach had turned into vultures.

“How you doing, Mr. Disaster?” Darya asked, giving him a pat on the arm that he barely felt through the suit’s heavy radiation shielding.

“Been better,” he said, putting on a brave smile. “Llyr, you got me?”

“Bashful, this is Happy, read you loud and clear.” Llyr gave him a thumbs-up. “Don’t let too many doors shut between us; I don’t like your odds there. I start to lose you, and you head right back, got it?”

Andreas returned the gesture, then looked up at Ione, who was dangling from the ceiling bulkhead’s top strut by her knees and tinkering with a sensor panel. “So,” he asked, trying to make the inquiry as casual as it could be, considering the circumstances, “should I be expecting company?”

With a grunt, Ione punched the bulkhead. “Now I’ve got it reading one possible bio-signature out there. And that’s including us, so … yeah, until I can kick it back into shape, I can’t tell you anything. Unless we’ve either all fused into a single mass organism, or three of the four of us are dead and just haven’t noticed.”

“That’s very scientific, thank you.” Andreas took a deep breath to steel himself and checked the HUD readout, then bounded over to the airlock at low-G’s sleepy speed. Standing inside it, he hit the button to bring his suit to equilibrium. “Remind me again why I’m the one doing this?”

“You’re handsome, and I asked very nicely,” said Darya, whom he now could only hear over his earpiece.

“You’re funny-looking, and the captain gave you an order,” said Llyr with an audible grin.

“Thank you, fuck you,” Andreas said respectively. His ears popped, and then the doors opened behind him, letting him out into the shuttle bay. It was time to go.

It was hard to say what he’d been expecting from that first step, but he paused in surprise at realizing how quiet everything was. He could hardly come down with enough weight to make a racket, and whatever other noise he might have made vanished into the great empty space around him. That the bay had warmed with the shuttle inside it wasn’t difficult to understand; it only took the briefest grasp of physics as they related to thermal fuel systems and enclosed spaces. That the heat was now not unbearable, and that the air had in fact leveled out at a reasonable room temperature, made him wonder just how many of the Constant‘s systems were still running after all this time. The bright floodlights that illuminated the area cast long, stark shadows that moved as slowly as he did across the floor.

This had never been a room for human occupancy, and as such, to see it so empty wasn’t too strange at all. He had no such hopes for the more residential parts of the ship. His father had used to tell stories about his grandmother, who’d been on one of the first teams to excavate some of the major coastal cities after The Rise, and how she’d said it had been so strange to stroll down the streets of Bangkok, but ten feet underwater. The sea corroded so many things, but preserved so many more, so she’d found herself staring into shop windows and peering into the lobbies of hotels, only with fish where human patrons should have been.

There were no fish here to fill the space, alien or otherwise. Despite how Andreas thought it might well temper human arrogance to have to share the galactic playground with someone else, no evidence of life of extraterrestrial origin had ever been substantiated, not even at the microcellular level. While Andreas had every respect for those who chose that field, he was glad his own endeavors actually accomplished something once in a while.

“Looks … normal, I suppose,” he said, touching the console podium where some maintenance worker or another might once have pulled up schematics. Without an input key from him, though, its display was quiet. “If I had to guess, though, I’d say that it hasn’t been flooded all this time. Nothing has that buildup we saw outside.”

“You think the rest is still pressurized?” Llyr asked in his ear.

Andreas shrugged, remembering only afterward that the odds he was right in camera range were low. “I don’t know how likely, but anything’s possible.”

“There’s three main doors from here into the rest of the ship,” Darya’s voice told him. “You want to go toward the engines, the bridge, or the living quarters?”

“Isn’t this the type of decision you’re supposed to make?”

“I am not a tyrant; I allow for democratic input,” she said, and Andreas could hear Ione and Llyr’s quiet snickering. “You two just hate democracy. He’s from where democracy comes from.”

Linguistically, at least, she had a point. “I’m thinking…” Andreas sighed; there was no way he was going to get out of this short of prolonging the walk until he ran out of oxygen, and that was its own unpleasant prospect. “Nobody’s needed to steer this ship in a while, so if anyone’s here, they wouldn’t have a lot of reason to be on the bridge. Nobody’s flown it in just as long, so same with the engine room. I guess that leaves me with knocking on their front door.”

“Two o’clock from the shuttle nose, with the blue border,” said Llyr. Andreas turned in the indicated direction and saw the door in question, then started out for it, cautious step by cautious step. The worst part about low gravity, as opposed to no gravity, was that it was still possible to fall over.

Andreas was glad that this was his job, because his inherent dignity created such a need that it overrode his impulses for panic. He was on the clock, he was on record, and damn everything, he was going to behave like a professional even when all his gut wanted to do was scream and hide under a bed. The uncertainty of the situation was wrecking him. His eyes darted around, searching the room’s few viewports and observation posts for movement as he lumbered onward. His own shadow rose and fell over distant surfaces, its bulky outline so unfamiliar that the almost-human shape spooked him more than once.

There had been people in the flooded streets of his great-grandmother’s stories, but only the dead, those too frail or infirm or foolhardy to evacuate. Their soft, pale bodies — or, really, what had been left of them — had spooked her more than once, making her gasp for air and sending showers of bubbles upward from her regulator. There’d been burial crews through since then, and now the still-submerged sections of cities like New Orleans and Tel Aviv were unusually somber tourist destinations, but for a century or so, they had been inhabited by the dead. According to his father, she’d always believed they should have been left that way.

The door release was unfamiliar, but not unintuitive; he reached his gloved hand into the circular depression in the wall and pulled it outward, then turned. There was a smaller airlock on the other side, and though he had every expectation that he’d have to pry something open to get through, when he was inside, the doors shifted shut and the system hissed as it pumped in air on its own. “Guys, are you getting this?”

“Breathable,” Llyr confirmed. “Can’t swear to how good it’s going to smell, but–”

Ione laughed. “Can’t be worse than we all do by now.”

Andreas chose neither to confirm nor to deny his shipmates’ stench. The hissing stopped and the white lights of the chamber clicked over to blue, which he assumed was good. The interior doors opened and he stepped out into the small entry cell. He was used to desert-dry ship’s air, but this had enough moisture in it that a sheen formed over the exterior glass of his helmet. He reached up to wipe it away, and when his vision cleared, he saw the boy.

Dressed in simple grey fabric, the boy — a teenager, really, just on the cusp of adulthood — stood there in the doorway with a curious smile on his face. His eyes were bright blue and his light brown hair fell to his shoulders in perfect loose curls. He was so still that Andreas assumed this must have been the place where the boy had died, or where some sick joke of physics had pushed him after his death, eyes open and spine upright. Then the boy blinked and Andreas only just barely did not scream.

“Are you from Earth?” asked the boy in flawless Greek.

“Bashful, what’s going on?” Darya’s voice was taut and tinny in his ear. “The feed’s gone blurry. Talk to me.”

“Have you come for us?” the boy asked again. His accent was the same one Andreas knew from the fishing villages of his youth. His lips lifted into a smile, and what lips they were, wide and soft.

“Hey, ‘Dreas, are you saying something?” Now the captain’s concern had spilled over into Llyr’s voice. “That doesn’t sound like you.”

“I’m here, I’m fine,” Andreas replied in English; until he spoke, he’d half-believed he’d lost the ability altogether. The boy before him looked neither anxious nor upset about the vision before him, as though men in space suits stopped by every day. “I’m, um–” He took a breath, and though the youth before him presented no obvious threat whatsoever, tense tears trickled from the corners of Andreas’ eyes. “I’m not alone.”

“Oh my God,” said Ione, her voice a whisper that carried through the sudden shocked stillness of the connection.

“My name is Cal,” said the boy, this time in English that bore no trace of any non-native accent. “Our ancestors told us you’d come.”

There was a collective gasp from back in the shuttle; the visual feed must have corrected itself. “Oh God, oh God,” Ione repeated, half prayer, half panic.

“How many of you are there?” asked Andreas.

Cal extended his hand. “Come and see,” he said, and because Andreas’ brain could not give him a reason to do otherwise, he put his gloved hand in Cal’s bare one and followed.

illustrated by The Winter Cynic

~*~

“I’ve never seen a hydroponic setup that efficient. Never.” Youko shook the carrot in her hand for emphasis, then bit it in two, her eyelids fluttering with pleasure at the taste.

“Necessity is, as they say, the mother of invention!” laughed Thel, who was the group’s matronly, silver-haired leader. She bore no evidence of status on her plain, grey garments, the same ones everyone on the ship wore, but everyone they’d passed as she’d toured them through the Constant knew and deferred to her. “I can’t take credit, of course. We’ve made some improvements and adjustments in the last thirty years, sure, but the original system predates me.”

Lao, another aged community member who had been introduced to them as the community’s historian, nodded his head excitedly. “The ship left Earth stocked with the required supplies to start on arrival a sustainable farming system. When it became clear that leaving the ship was going to be impossible, our ancestors were forced to improvise. Fortunately, the proximity to a fuel source like this meant that that the onboard fuel storage units could, as they ran out, be repurposed.”

Andreas listened as he ate, but mostly he ate; after months of living on dehydrated and preservative-heavy rations, having a big bowl of salad placed in front of him felt as close as he’d ever get to heaven. Some of the tastes were a bit strange, and he couldn’t identify all the vegetables on sight, but he supposed that two hundred years was a long time to get creative with agriculture.

Cal sat beside him; he hadn’t left Andreas’ side since they’d met by the airlock. He was older than he’d looked at first, Andreas could see now from close up, but still on the very young side of adulthood. What his relationship to anyone else here was, Andreas couldn’t determine, but no one seemed to object to his having become the de facto ambassador — or Andreas’ smaller shadow. Even as the four Yemanya crewmembers had debated who should take the shuttle back to get the others, Cal had grinned with visible relief when Ione, not Andreas, had been the one chosen to go.

They were all here now, though, all seven of them, with the Yemanya making her peaceful orbit kilometers above. Once Thel had pointed out that the Constant had more than enough spare space to give them all comfortable accommodations as they performed their various investigations, no one from Andreas’ crew had seen reason to object, not even Andreas himself.

“Physiologically, how do you deal with the low gravity?” asked Morgan between bites of tomato.

Thel and Lao looked at one another for a moment before Lao nodded. “The first few generations were … difficult,” Lao said at last, a somber expression on his face. “There were of course a number of casualties after the emergency landing, adding to the survivors’ stress. Then a number of children born lacked sufficient bone density and muscle tone. Our ancestors always knew they’d be coming to a low-gravity environment, but they of course envisioned having more room to build centripetal structures. After a while, though, we began to adapt. Small-scale evolution, done very quickly. Our infant mortality rate is still higher than we’d like it to be, but of course any non-zero number is higher than we’d like it to be.”

“Of course,” Darya agreed. “We don’t have anything but basic medical equipment on our ship, but we’d very much like to examine some or even all of you. I know several scientists who’d be interested in seeing just how those adaptations work.”

“Absolutely,” said Thel. “Tell me, are you at this moment in communication with Earth?”

Darya shook her head. “From inside the Constant, we can’t even get a signal back to our ship in orbit, and it’s got all our long-range communications anyway. And, of course, there’s still a delay. We’ve made engines go faster, but some laws of physics are hard to bend.”

“And are there other ships coming behind you?” asked Cal, his voice soft and sweet as he gazed up at Andreas with undisguised adoration. He had such a gentle face that Andreas now felt bad for having been so scared of him at first. It had been a tense situation, to be sure, but none of that had been Cal’s fault.

“No,” said Andreas, hoping the low ambient cabin light hid the flush he was sure was tinting his cheeks. “Not right now, anyway.”

“There will be, though, once we tell them all about you,” Llyr said, leaning back in his chair. “You’re all quite a famous mystery out here. There’s going to be plenty of people doing research into offworld human habitation who will flip their lids to have two hundred and sixteen new living data points.”

“I bet they will,” Thel said with a smile. “However, I know it’s somewhat ridiculous to keep day and night cycles this far away from Earth, but it’s a tradition we’ve all grown up with, and I’m afraid our night is approaching. And you all must be so tired too, after the day you’ve had.”

In fact, Andreas was tired; his body had spent so long drawn tense that release from that tension had brought a great weariness with it. He was full on fresh food, too — on fresh eggs, even, which had been nothing short of miraculous — and even the awe and wonder of having discovered a living relic was not enough to keep the heaviness from his eyelids. “We can’t thank you enough for your hospitality,” Darya said, reaching for Thel’s knobby hands.

Thel laughed as she clasped Darya’s in return atop the table, beaming at her with a mother’s pride. “We can’t thank you enough for what you’re going to do for us!” Her laugh echoed throughout the mess hall. “I can’t tell you what it’ll change for us, to have the resources to expand to the surface. Offering you comfortable accommodations is the least we can do.”

What happened next was a bit of a blur. Andreas felt his hand in Cal’s again, and this time there was no protective, radiation-shielding fabric between warm skin and warm skin. He saw Ione and Giz laughing in each other’s arms, and Llyr and Morgan were speaking to a group of attractive young people, and he had no idea where Darya or Youko had gotten to, but it didn’t matter, because Cal had him and Cal was leading him, and he was going to follow.

Low gravity was dreamlike, with the twinned senses of impeded motion and irresistible force, but Cal moved in it as swift and sure as Andreas had as a boy on Earth, knowing just where to land and how to push to keep going. The ship’s lighting got softer as they moved away from the core. “I want to show you to your room,” said Cal, who stopped only long enough to let Andreas’ inertia pin Cal between him and the wall. He was speaking in Greek again, or maybe Andreas was just hearing in Greek. Cal’s long arms wrapped around Andreas’ neck, and with no effort at all he pulled his legs up, until they were wrapped around Andreas’ waist in a way that could not be misinterpreted.

illustrated by The Winter Cynic

Getting hard in space wasn’t difficult — quite the opposite, sometimes — but getting laid in space was usually such an ordeal that Andreas all but took a vow of celibacy every time the ship he was on left orbit. With training and planning missions, it had been over two years since anyone else had touched his dick, and the idea of turning down the opportunity seemed now like madness. He could feel the hard press of Cal’s cock against his belly and the brush of Cal’s teeth against his lips. All he could do was nod.

The room they reached was either Cal’s or a guest suite, Andreas couldn’t tell and didn’t care. Cal pushed him back onto the bed with such force the frame creaked, and Andreas would have bounced off and drifted away had Cal not been right behind him, pinning him down; he unfastened the high collar of Andreas’ undersuit and started kissing at his neck. It had been well over a day since Andreas had been able to give his beard anything close to a good trim, but Cal brushed those soft, beautiful lips against his unruly scruff with no complaints.

Cal’s hands were cold on Andreas’ skin, but Andreas himself felt so flushed and feverish that he leaned into the cool points of contact. He could barely remember being so hard before in his life — not since he’d been a teenager, at least, more than twenty years previous. Cal straddled Andreas’ waist, and every time he brushed his ass against Andreas’ clothed cock, Andreas though he surely was going to come right then and there, and every time he didn’t , building him into a knotted ball of arousal and denied release.

With an obscene little wiggle, Cal shimmied out of his pants and shirt, until he was naked atop Andreas’ body, his perfect hard cock pointing toward the ceiling. His skin was so pale and smooth, he reminded Andreas of fine ancient marbles, milky stone somehow all but transmutated into skin. “Do you want to fuck me?” Cal asked with a hungry grin.

“Yes,” gasped Andreas, writhing. The idea of sticking his cock instead of Cal’s perfect body was making him so hard he could feel his rapid pulse throbbing in his balls. He wanted to flip Cal over on his back, to toss those lovely legs wide and pound him sore, but all Andreas could do was lie there, at Cal’s sweet mercy.

As luck would have it, though, Cal was very merciful. He rocked back on his heels just long enough to unzip Andreas’ undersuit all the way down, then reached in and pulled Andreas’ cock free. It looked almost purple in the low light, engorged with blood and leaking precome in a steady stream down the backs of Cal’s pretty hands. With that grin still fixed on his lips, Cal bent down and dragged his tongue across the head of Andreas’ cock, making Andreas whimper and writhe.

He’d always been a quiet one during sex, to the dismay of some of his partners, but Andreas felt no compulsion to hold back now. When Cal’s icy fingers squeezed his balls, Andreas groaned so loudly he was sure the whole ship could hear him. He didn’t care.

From the way Cal’s skin felt, Andreas assumed that he might be cool inside as well as out, but when he slid slick into Cal’s ass, he found heat. Cal was tight, so tight that considering his age, this must have been his first time — but he fucked as though he’d been doing it all his life, alternating fast and slow, bringing Andreas to the edge with friction and then sitting still. His own cock bobbed with every bounce, moving and shifting in time with his halo of hair. Anyone would have killed to have a taste of this beauty. Gods he didn’t believe in would have swooped down and stolen Cal from his arms. But they were safe here, beneath the sea, in an impossible lost ship, on some improbable icy moon, light-years from Olympus.

Cal bent down to kiss him, and his mouth had the same fire to it. “I love you,” he whispered against Andreas’ lips as he ground his ass against Andreas’ hips. It was a mad thing to say, but it had been a mad day, and when Andreas lacked the words to respond, Cal laughed and rode him harder. “I want to feel what it’s like when you come inside me. Do you love me? Will you come for me?”

Zeus himself could not have refused. As though some mighty dam had cracked and given way, Andreas shouted and grabbed Cal’s hips, flooding him with come. He felt each spurt leave his cock as though it were a pulse from an engine, hot enough to burn him through. “Oh, fuck,” he gasped or shouted, he could no longer tell. He could feel his release all the way to his toes.

Cal made no motion to climb off him, though, and presently Andreas realized that was because neither of them was soft. Wrapping his hands over Andreas’ to keep them in place, Cal laughed and began riding Andreas’ cock again. “You can fuck me as many times as you can fuck me,” Cal promised in a voice so sweet for what it was saying. “But you have to stay with me tonight.”

Andreas lost track of how many times he came after that — in Cal’s body, on his back, on his thighs, on his belly — but when at last he collapsed and went soft for good, there was no force in the known universe that could have pulled him from that bed. With a happy laugh, Cal fell atop him, kissing Andreas long and deep before settling down with his head pillowed on Andreas’ furred chest. “So, ah,” said Andreas, exhausted but not wanting to be so rude as to just pass out, “is ‘Cal’ short for something?”

“Yes,” answered Cal with a laugh. He craned his head up and kissed the underside of Andreas’ rough jaw. “Sleep now. We’ll talk in the morning.” And whatever protest Andreas might have made to that, it disappeared into dreaming.

~*~

When he woke, however, Andreas was alone in bed and had a splitting headache, the kind he most associated with hangovers. He wiped off the mess he’d made of himself as best as he could on the sheets, then fastened up his suit and wandered forth in search of something, anything to tone the pounding down. In Cal’s arms, he’d lost track of all sense of direction, and was therefore surprised to find that all he needed to do was exit the room and turn right to find the mess hall again.

It was empty except for Youko, who sat at a long table, examining a potted plant. She gave him a bright smile and a wave as he walked in. “Where is everyone?” he asked, looking around.

“Still asleep, I think,” she said with a shrug. She plucked a leaf from the plant and chewed it thoughtfully; she had two degrees, one in medicine and one in biology, and botany was her real love. “Our people, that is. All the Constant folk are off doing … whatever they do, I guess.”

“You don’t have anything for a headache, do you?”

“Sure, I’ve got my–” Youko patted her sides, where her jacket pockets would have been. She wasn’t wearing her jacket, though; she was dressed in the same grey clothing the ship’s inhabitants worse. “Oh. I think they’re washing my clothes. You could try one of these leaves.”

“Pass, thanks,” Andreas said. “What about water?”

Youko shrugged. “You know, it’s a miracle that their reclamation systems have worked so well this long. Air, heat, those are important, but history shows us what happens when the water goes bad.”

“They must keep a good eye on it.” Andreas scratched his hand across his hair, trying to massage his scalp. The pain was making it hard to think. “Still asleep, really?”

“Really,” said Youko. “No, wait, I think I saw the captain earlier. Maybe going toward the engines?”

“Thanks,” Andreas said, starting off in that direction. Maybe it wasn’t so hard to believe the rest of the crew was asleep, if they all had headaches like he did. Maybe it was something about the air quality here — though if so, it was hard to believe Youko hadn’t been the first to notice. When the others had questioned the captain’s nickname for her, she’d been happy to explain both her congenital condition and the way her synthetic lung tissue worked; she’d even lifted her shirt to show them the scars. When the Yemanya‘s air filter had gotten clogged, she’d beaten Andreas to the punch at identifying the problem.

Maybe it wasn’t environmental, then. Maybe he’d just had so much sex it had given him a hangover. He couldn’t keep from smiling at the thought of the previous night, though it was tempered by wondering where Cal had gotten to. Well, like Youko had said, the Constant‘s crew had things to do.

He was so lost in thought and muddled by the pounding behind his eyes that he nearly missed it. He would have missed it, in fact, had the little sparkle of gold not caught his eye. It was a patch she’d stitched on, a little handmade, heart-shaped thing from her nieces, just above the cuff of the left sleeve. He reached for the lump of dark blue fabric hiding in the corner of the hallway and saw ‘SNEEZY’ stencilled in across the shoulders. That was odd; he didn’t see a laundry room anywhere nearby.

It could have fallen out, though, he reasoned as he reached into the pocket and pulled out her pill dispenser. He tapped three into his mouth and crunched them dry, wincing at the bitter taste. He then folded the jacket and placed it on a narrow ledge by a wall console; he’d get it for her when he came back through, if someone else didn’t before. Any possessions brought along on these long missions tended to become even more valuable for how few of them crew members were allowed, and he knew this was something she wouldn’t want to be without for long.

Though he’d been paying fair attention when they’d been taken on the tour before, Andreas soon found himself turned around with no sense of where to go. There were signs on the walls here and there, but they never seemed to be accurate more than a few steps in any direction. The corridors were all painted the same industrial-drab colors, and while a few walls bore the scuffs and scratches of use, there was no sign beyond that of human habitation. The Constant‘s crew must be good at raising children, if two hundred years hadn’t produced a single crayon drawing on the walls or left a single toy lying about — or anything else, for that matter.

After several minutes, he realized something — or, more importantly, he realized that he should have realized it earlier: Since he’d left the mess hall, he hadn’t met a single person. The Yemanya was small, but seven people could be small too, and at the right time, one could float through her for hours without encountering another person. He’d grown so accustomed to the quiet that it hadn’t seemed odd that he might find it here as well.

But there weren’t seven people here; there were over two hundred, and while that was less than half of the Constant‘s total capacity, it wasn’t a small number either. What could they possibly be doing now?

Sleeping, right. That was the most plausible answer. He hadn’t checked a clock or known where to find one to check it, but Andreas bet he’d only slept an hour or two at most. No wonder he had a headache. Boundless source of energy that she was, Youko probably hadn’t even gone to bed, choosing instead to examine the result of two centuries of low-gravity hybridization. The best thing for him to do now was probably to turn around, find the room where Cal had taken him, and try for a little more shut-eye. Maybe he’d feel more human then.

“Andreas?” Hands caught his arm, and he turned to see Cal sidling up beside him. “Come back to bed.”

Anyone else would have — after all, hadn’t he just been thinking that very thing? — but a bad feeling had begun to crawl up from the base of his spine, electric and insistent, and despite his attempts to rationalize it, it hadn’t gone away. Mr. Disaster was awake and stalking the halls. “My head hurts,” Andreas said, and despite the tablets, it was still true. “I wanted to take a walk.”

“Can I come with you?”

Andreas knew he should say no, but instead he nodded and began walking, this time with Cal at his side, as though they were lovers strolling through an open-air market. “Where did you learn Greek?”

“Why, is my pronunciation off?” asked Cal, laughing. “There are language resources in the ship’s computer, and hundreds of thousands of books. I like to read.”

“In Greek, too?”

“When Greek is the original language, yes.”

They came to a signless junction, and when Andreas felt Cal begin to guide him left, he looked toward the right and said, “I want to see what’s down there.” Cal hesitated, but gave no argument, and thus they went right. “What authors do you like to read?”

“I tend to prefer the classics. Aeschylus, Sophocles, Sappho, Homer. The big tales, the old ones. Love and monsters. I’m not very picky. At least, when it comes to books.” At another junction, Cal began to list left again, so Andreas strode them forward. “Tell me about Greece. The authors seem to write about nothing but its beauty, all its winedark seas and cloudy heights. Do they exaggerate?”

“They don’t, no.” Andreas smiled as he gave a little shrug. “At least, not that I’ve noticed. I haven’t read as much as you seem to have.”

“Do you miss it?”

“Sometimes,” he said, then paused and sighed, unable to continue the half-truth. “Constantly. And that has little to do with its beauty and more with how … home can look like anything and you still love it, if it’s home.”

Cal nodded and reached out his free hand to stroke the walls of the corridor as they passed. “I guess you’re right. It’s hard for me to think of a world outside this ship. We’ve been so self-contained for so long, and now you’re here, I–” With a tug, Cal brought their progress to a halt and drew Andreas close until despite their height difference they were staring into one another’s eyes. “It means a lot to me. That you’re here.”

This close to Cal, Andreas could feel his concerns begin to wash away like footprints at high tide. Cal drew his arms around Andreas’ neck again, the way he had the night before, and kissed him, long and slow. He tasted like ozone and salt, the recycled tastes of life in a closed system.

“You said–” Andreas gasped as Cal’s nimble, chilly fingers brushed the back of his neck. “Last night, you said you loved me.”

Cal nodded and buried his face in the crook of Andreas’ shoulder, a bashful gesture for how bold he’d been not so long before. “I did.”

“You barely know me.”

Cal was always so quick, always so clever, that Andreas expected some sort of glib, off-hand response. Instead, though, Cal drew back enough that he could look Andreas in the eye, his lower lip caught between his teeth in a gesture of serious thought. “I thought it might be what you needed to hear,” he said, though he added quickly after, no doubt upon seeing Andreas’ dark eyebrows furrow, “and it’s true, besides!”

Andreas found himself wanting to believe it, almost praying that it would be real — but the aching in his head had only grown worse, not better, and like a morning drumbeat, it called him up from dreaming. “…But how?” he asked, moving away from the embrace so they still connected, but now there was space between their bodies, room enough for thought to temper desire.

Wearing a cautious expression now, Cal did not try to close the gap between them, though neither did he let Andreas’ hands go from his. “Human instinct,” he began, pausing as he reached for the rest of the sentence; the confidence he’d displayed every inch of their acquaintance had begun not to falter, but to shift into raw honesty. “Human instinct is a survival instinct. But it’s based on fear.”

Andreas’ frown deepened. “Of death?”

Cal shook his head. “Of separation. Love is the opposite of separation. There are so few of us down here that … that essentials become not only what we need, but only what we have.” With an embarrassed little laugh, he brought Andreas’ hands up to his lips and kissed the backs of his knuckles. “I forget how hard this can be, to communicate instead of to understand. I was never good at it to begin with. I came because I wanted isolation. Instead I found everything stripped down to those essentials, and the only one that mattered was love.”

The ache behind his eyes had become so fierce that Andreas’ vision was starting to blur and soften at the edges. It was darker in here than he’d thought previously, and when Cal spoke, Andreas couldn’t always be sure that his lovely mouth matched the words coming out of it, or that it was even moving at all. Talking of love made him think of his own crew, how they’d become so close out there in the deep, willing to die for one another even on days when they couldn’t stand one another. He wanted to be back when them now, smiling as they all laughed at someone’s corny joke, listening as they told the same stories they’d told a dozen times before, dodging whatever loose objects one of them was throwing at another, calling one another by their stupid nicknames–

Nicknames. That was right; he’d been looking for Darya.

As Andreas pulled up his captain’s face in his memory, he saw Cal’s expression fall. “They’re all right,” Cal said, letting go of Andreas’ hands. He pointed to a heavy pair of doors just behind Andreas, doors Andreas would have sworn had not been there before. “You’re all going to be all right. I can’t stop you from walking through those doors, but you need to know that before you do. You don’t have to be afraid.”

He was, though, but he’d never let fear stay his hand before, and he wasn’t going to start now. Before he could change his mind, Andreas turned and shoved the doors wide.

It was the engine room — or, really, it was something that once had been an engine room. Now it was a tomb, a great haphazard pile of wreckage that stretched farther on from where he stood, and as it did it ceased to be like any technology Andreas recognized. Two-hundred-year-old corpses lay in quiet lines along the wide walkways, desiccated and skeletal. Some few wore identifiable crew uniforms or civilian clothing, while others were wrapped only in charred and bloodied strips, if anything was left covering them at all. A few were obviously incomplete, never to be pieced together again.

One had a strangely dense chest area, and Andreas’ curiosity drew him forward until he could see tiny foot bones clustered around where the larger body’s pelvis lay. Colony ship. Families, children. Not one of them must have survived the landing.

A crackling through a high power cable caught his attention, and he turned toward the far end of the room, where the great machines that had once pushed the ship across the billions of kilometers now lay mangled and disused — and then became something else. He couldn’t even see what it was that had become fused into them, not because the light was wrong, but because his gaze just slid off its surface. Trying to look at it was like trying to stare at distant stars on a dark night: his eyes simply were not built to make sense of what it was, and the best hope he had was to catch it from the corner of his vision. It didn’t appear to be moving, but it didn’t appear to be not moving either, seeming to rush forward when Andreas glanced at it sidelong, then snapping back into place when he stared it down.

What lay between him and it, however, was clear and still: six bodies, all dressed in familiar clothes, their cheeks ruddy, their eyes closed and hands loose by their sides as though they were sleeping. Two were arranged so they lay in one another’s arms, but all were close enough to the ones next to them that they could have touched, if only they could have moved. And all but one were wearing jackets with their stupid nicknames on the back.

He ran to Darya’s side with all the strength left him, shouting as he fell to his knees beside her, but her lifeless eyes could not see him. He grabbed Llyr’s hand, feeling for a pulse and finding nothing. The others were just as still. There were no signs of injury or trauma; they looked as though they’d simply fallen asleep and never woken up. His stomach lurched as he realized he was the only living person left on the ship.

He wasn’t the only living thing, though. He knew that now. He lurched to his feet and staggered toward the unseeable mass at the center of the room. Pressing his palms to what remained of the long-cold engines, Andreas could at last understand what Llyr had picked up on during their initial descent. It was impossible, of course, but this was all impossible, and Occam’s Razor wasn’t done cutting yet. The single life sign Ione had detected on their arrival had just been so big it had thrown off the sensor’s scale. And now it was watching him.

~*~

The full-force blast of the aerosolized hydrocarbons made him choke, but he pushed himself forward and willed his stomach still. The distance to the shuttle was not as far from this door as it had been from the one to the living quarters, though it might as well have been as close as the nearest star. Still, he had to try. He felt as though he were back on Earth, hip-deep in a swamp on Earth, every step a heavy trudge. He wished the shuttle had the handy self-destruct device all spaceships in old science-fiction movies had, but he thought he could create a similar effect. Its thrusters weren’t calibrated to run in an enclosed environment like this, and if he could raise their heat to critical, the flammable sea in which they swam would do the rest of the work. It wouldn’t take much, but it would be enough–

“Please,” called a voice from behind him, with its gentle accent that sounded like his childhood. “Don’t.”

Andreas didn’t turn around. He couldn’t. If he did, he’d never make it, and he was the only one who could keep this from happening to someone else. When they didn’t return, others would come looking and walk right into the same trap. “You killed us–”

“You were dead before you got here,” said Cal, a note of sorrow in his words, and that, at last, Andreas stopped. The world swam, and every gasp he took pumped another burst of poison into his lungs. They’d been breathing it from the beginning. Why hadn’t they been able to smell it?

“We were not,” Andreas spat through gritted teeth, fixing his fury on Cal. “We were in our ship, we were fine, we–”

“You really weren’t.” Cal shook his head and took a single step toward him. “You should have seen us when we landed here. The radiation, the muscular atrophy, the bone loss, the immune system damage — we lost control and hit the sea, and our bodies snapped like twigs.” The look on his face was one of honest pity so human that Cal’s grief, not his own, was what was at last breaking Andreas’ heart. “It’s cumulative. There are ways to survive it, but we don’t know them yet. Your heart would have collapsed the moment it re-entered Earth’s gravity. You’d never see the Aegean again.”

Exhausted and confused, Andreas felt his knees give way, and he sank to the ground, barely able to hold his torso upright. “What are you?” he asked, scrubbing at tears that streamed from his burning eyes. He couldn’t stay here, but he couldn’t move. This was all he got.

Cal sighed and stepped forward again, and when Andreas jerked back, Cal raised his hands in front of him, palms empty, and slowed his approach. “The crash wasn’t a systems failure. It was a collision. A being in its larval stage sought our energy, but it miscalculated, and it and we all fell to the surface. It was badly hurt, and none of us survived, so it gave us a choice for a way we might help one another.”

“A choice?” asked Andreas, no longer wholly sure he knew what words meant.

With a nod, Cal knelt in front of Andreas, and when he took Andreas’ hands in his, Andreas did not resist. He felt warm now, or perhaps Andreas had simply lost enough of his own body heat to match. No matter how true Cal’s earlier assessment had been, he was dying now. He could barely summon the energy to fuel his body’s panic responses. He was so tired.

Cal stroked Andreas’ sweat-soaked hair back from his head and smiled. “There’s no such thing as death. There are only states of matter and energy. It told us we could return to the cosmos, like water poured back into the sea, or we could give it our energy, and in return we could remain here together so long as it was here, and when time came for it to leave, we could go too.”

“And you said yes.”

“And freely, we said yes.” Cal’s smile was strong, though a tear trickled from the corner of his bright blue eyes.

“So, why…” Andreas was having greater difficulty by the minute making his lips form the words he wanted. “Why us?”

Cal squeezed his hands. “Healing is a long process. It was hungry and afraid. With you seven here, with your energy still so vibrant and concentrated, we can leave soon. Without you–” He shrugged. “Time is difficult. A longer time than soon. A long and vulnerable time. If something happened, it would scatter all of us. We wouldn’t be together anymore. And that’s all we want.”

He was dying, Andreas reasoned, and maybe this was what brains did when they were dying. Maybe they told little stories like this about beautiful young men who told him they loved him. Maybe he’d suffocated in the airlock, leaving the others safe in the shuttle and able to retreat. As though someone had cut his strings, he slumped forward, and Cal was there to catch him; with great, slow care, Cal lowered them both to the floor, until they were in the opposite positions they’d taken in the bed. With his head to Cal’s chest, Andreas could hear the same thrumming noise that resonated from the core of the creature. “Was there a real Cal?” Andreas asked, his voice a feeble murmur.

illustrated by The Winter Cynic

Cal stroked Andreas’ head. “I wasn’t nearly this handsome, though,” he said with a laugh.

Andreas nodded as he rubbed his hand in small, feeble circles against Cal’s side, focusing on motion even as his ability to make it waned. “My crew…?”

“Waiting.” Cal sighed. “Confused, but less so by the moment. It’s not an easy transition any way it happens. We didn’t want to frighten you. We all died so scared, and that lingered so long after. Some of us couldn’t come along, because they couldn’t let that go. We just wanted you to go to sleep happy, with just enough bedtime stories to make you relax. It didn’t — we didn’t expect you to be strong enough to fight it.”

“I can still fight it,” Andreas gritted out, even though he was at the end of his strength.

“You could. But you’re a scientist.” Cal reached for Andreas’ hand and twined their fingers together. He was so small, but his presence was so steady. “There are other seas, and other suns. And you could visit them. With me. With all of us.”

Every ghostly submerged city his great-grandmother had visited had always contained the possibility that she would never see the surface again. Every rumble of a ship’s engines behind him, pushing him to break orbit, had threatened never to let him return. Really, if he were to put aside his stubborn pride and be honest, it wasn’t any choice at all. “What now?” he asked, though the words were barely whispers from his heavy, ragged lungs.

Cal pressed a kiss into the middle of his forehead. “Close your eyes,” he said, and he did not let go of Andreas’ hand.

~*~

The light off the Kraken Mare shone warm and inviting, and Andreas stood at its edge, amazed at the way the sun’s long-traveled rays refracted in rainbows through the liquid’s surface. He wasn’t really there, of course, though it was hard to say what was really where, or if anything in the universe really existed at all. Distinctions such as bodies and separateness would fade, Cal had assured him, but for now, a little distinction was all right. It was all part of the learning process, and there was a whole universe out there to be learned.

“Coming in?” asked Cal, up to his knees now in the thick, cold sea. He looked both more and less familiar every time Andreas looked at him, and once Andreas had gazed upon him yet seen nothing but his own reflection. There was no separation between life and death, matter and energy; even atoms, Cal had told him, their impossible lips pressed together, only dreamed they were one thing and not the other. When it came time to go, he’d finally know for himself.

With a grin, Andreas stepped forward into the deep.


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