Ten years later, the carbon is moving. The carbon is always moving.
The carbon is moving in the sucrose as the enzyme tears its sucrose apart, pulls it into a molecule of fructose. The fructose moves through the crop of the honeybee, proteins siphoning nutrients off to the side. The fructose moves through the crop, curdling into honey, pushed and pulled by digestive enzymes and the bee’s own motion into a new shape. The bee collects pollen from every blossom one at a time, perfectly shaped, evolved to bear seeds and to thrive from this symbiosis. The bees and the plants move on a minute-to-minute schedule, combining math and science with ancient years of agricultural knowledge, food and time and life and birth, each when it should be. The bee finishes pollinating, the bee makes its way back to the tube that leads to Grain Hive 4b, where it lives and works and dies and loves, where the carbon will move again.
Far above, watching all of this with a numb fascination, is the cause. The originator of the schedule, the coder of the algorithm it sprang from. The bee looks upon the creator, distorted and alien to its faceted eyes and unwrinkled mind. The bee does not understand her, and it cannot understand her, but it is not hurt by the looking. The creator looks back, and the creator knows it. She has authorized its life, she has eaten the food it helped create, and though it will not ever know, it has a tiny, regimented, comforting place in her heart.
Her name is Jenna Navy Selfsame Trusted Sustenance Maintain Morocco Zimmerman Ammari, and she means something.
Jenna blinks. Looks away. Shifts her clipboard to the crook of her arm, so she can pick at the mess of hangnails that line the cuticles of her deep brown fingers. She’s a high-ranking scientist in Blue Sector, one of the eight color-coded sectors that divides all the work done to keep the great ship Advent in its path. The Navy in her name marks her as one of the most powerful members of the maintenance-focused Blue, supervising food production and environmental stability and everything else needed to keep a ship of thousands of people from falling apart. That role makes her, in a way, the entire existence of the bee, the crop, the fructose, the carbon. But it is only one part of hers. Three minutes and thirty-two seconds, is what the clock says. Jenna swallows. She has a place to be, and today is not a day she will shy away from it.
Ten years ago she was Jenna Goldenrod Selfsame Trusted Discovery Maintain Morocco Zimmerman Ammari, promising young theoretical astrobiologist, climbing capably through the ranks of Gold Sector’s research and development hierarchy. Of course, every one of the sectors, from teaching to maintenance to economy to creation, plays its own role, weaving in and out with the others, coming together to make the great ship Advent whole. But in those days, Gold was upheld as the thread that stitched everything together, the together of coming together that made up the backbone.
It wasn’t to last. Ten years ago, following the sudden deaths of two high-ranking astrophysicists, orders had come down from Director herself: shut down that department, shut down all of Gold. Shut down the research projects, shut down the forays into the interconnection of the universe outside. The fallout was swiftly and efficiently addressed, and the official explanation was given: Advent had learned all there was to learn. Inside Advent, they knew how each tiniest molecule fit with its companions, they knew the most efficient and productive and healthy models for every routine of their lives. They knew the optimal flight patterns of the birds and insects used to pollinate the crops, the exact amount of time to bask in the light of the tiny synthetic star, Baby Sun, to ward off sorrow and loneliness. They knew their Advent, and they would learn again when they reached their new home, at the end of the centuries-long journey.
But one of the astrophysicists had been Susana, Susana Ochre, Susana Ochre Explorer Reliant Discovery Maintain Morocco Ammari Senthil, Jenna’s favorite aunt and distant research supervisor, and Jenna knew Susana. Knew Susana couldn’t be that careless, to die in the accident she had. It didn’t add up, and Jenna obsessed over it, picking it like a hangnail for ten long years. Susana was dead, that much was clear, but the why just wouldn’t straighten out. One thing leads to another, leads to another, leads to the future, leads to…? It’s like a splinter in Jenna’s mind. Things don’t not make sense on the Advent.
Jenna had been given a swift and painless reassignment, to the maintenance of pollination routines, and climbed those ranks as quickly as she had before. She is, in her mind, quiet, planning, unassuming. Perfect, plain, sensible and sensical. But she has Susana’s office keybadge, hidden away at the bottom of her pajama drawer. She knows that Susana’s old office has been closed and locked and abandoned since Susana died. She knows that with her weeks-old promotion to Navy and its heightened security clearances, for the first time she’s been able to work up the courage for it, Gold sector’s locked doors will open for her.
As she makes her careful, silent way to Gold, weaving through corridors and doorways that cannot be taken as suspicious on their own, her fingertips alight back on her nails. A bead of blood wells up from underneath a nail bed, and she pops her finger in her mouth as she slides open the door to Susana’s old wing in the astrophysics complex.
Why does she have the badge? Why did she think to pick up and hide what was obviously contraband the second Susana died? Jenna slips up the side of the dark hallway to the nondescript door, presses the pad of her thumb over the lock as she presents the card so the beeps won’t set off any alarms.
The door slides shut behind her, and Jenna leans back against it, letting out a deep sigh into the dark now that there’s less danger of being overheard. The air gusts out in front of her, rustling what she can only assume are papers and eddying clouds of dust into the stale air. Jenna freezes. The dust over everything gives her a little bit of wiggle room, a little license to be loud or fast or careless, but not much. Not that much.
No lights flicker on, no alarms sound. Jenna sighs again, quieter, through her mouth this time.
She can hardly just flick on a light to help her search, not when the current will show up on every system on the ship as an energy drain in an unauthorized area, so she slides her feet forward blindly, arms outstretched and fingers fluttering to brush up against the desk she knows is there. Nothing in here will have been touched, even if Jenna is correct and there was some confidential reason for Gold to be obliterated. Director will have simply locked it up, trusting that the only one with access was dead, because Gold was dead with her. Jenna eases the desk open with the tips of her fingers, breath held tightly in prayer for the drawer not to squeak. It doesn’t.
She feels a thrill of the forbidden, as she reaches in and pulls out the pile of Susana’s ramshackle notebooks. Not because this is Gold, and Gold is forbidden, but because of what Susana would say if she knew Jenna was going through her notebooks, alone. She would be furious.
The computer will be monitored, not to mention make an ungodly amount of noise booting up, so Jenna doesn’t even try that. Instead she creeps over behind the desk and twitches open the shade, just enough so a tiny bar of morning sun falls onto the floor. Not enough to be noticed, if anyone is even looking, if anyone is even in any of the other coveted offices with a view of Baby Sun. She slides down the wall and curls up beneath the window, opens Susana’s last notebook, and begins to read.
The pages are covered with equations, question marks and exclamation points, incomprehensible diagrams, nostalgic symbols Jenna almost understands. Old neural pathways kickstart rustily in the depths of her brain, synapses that haven’t fired in a decade catching alight. She tries to quell her excitement, flipping to the last pages with nervous hands.
Susana wrote things down. Her research notes are consistent up to close to the date of her death, where the pages get graphite-stained, writing dense and leaving silvery tracks on Jenna’s finger pads. Scribbled in the margins, hastily crossed out in some places, are disorganized notes and strange, multi-sided shapes and words that don’t sound like words. Jenna frowns.
Despite everything else about her, Susana’s handwriting was always immaculate. But as Jenna turns another page, fingers slipping slightly on the smudged paper, it steadily deteriorates to the point of nonsense. The few words Jenna can make out are strange, disjointed from anything else around them – Newton, old friend, outdoors, after, and in places they’re so deep and intense that they tear through the page to the other side. She’s afraid to turn to the last page. She’s afraid to end this. She doesn’t know what could be at the end of this.
The last entry is in simple, shaky prose, not bulleted lists and diagrams like the rest of her notes. It looks as strange and disconnected as anything else, sentences trailing off into unrelated subjects, starting and stopping with no semblance of order. But if she’s careful, if she squints and looks at it from just the right angle – yes. No.
Yes. She must have expected this, somewhere inside of her. Jenna clutches her hand to her face. Suicide note.
Not just that. A description, some jumbled words, just barely coming enough together to form a picture. We FOUND it. Jenna falls back against the wall with a thud.
The thud echoes through the office, vibrates out of the other side of the wall, into the great space at the ship’s center, with Advent’s pride and joy Baby Sun hanging in the middle. It stirs in a field mouse’s ear, tagged and regulated and let out to chew on the weeds, and the mouse scurries out of the blossom it was perched in to safety. The onion flower bobs back and forth in the mouse’s sudden absence, startling a young crow into motion, sending it flapping up out of the field in a great fuss. Marisol Carnation Sunny Sidewinder Creative Teacher Mexico Robles Rivera, standing behind her class and looking at the birds instead of paying attention to the seventh of these tours she’s listened through, jerks upright.
Her little dozen-strong class of kiddos clusters loosely around the tour guide, half-listening or quarter-listening or peeling the fibers off a leaf they found on the ground. They know their teacher gets distracted sometimes, of course; they’ve even taught themselves how to take advantage of it, squiggling out of homework or seating charts like water slipping through Marisol’s fingers. But she doesn’t think any of them noticed, not today. Which, lucky break! This annual field trip, to an actual field, is quickly approaching the point where everyone just wants to go eat lunch instead.
“Who can tell me how we know that the quinoa is nearly at its prime ripeness?” the guide asks. Marisol tries to look distantly interested, like quinoa cycles are a thing she understands, and also has understood for years. The answers, yeah, are simple things like the readings of the monitors and the way the pinkness of the blossoms reaches veins through the entire plant, but Marisol’s stubborn mind always sees things more like the joy you can get by squeezing the blossom in your hand, or the amount she even likes quinoa. Strange little disconnections, patterns that aren’t really.
One of her kids fields the question easily – it’s Tyo, quiet Tyo, she’s proud – before another one cuts him off. “Is the, uh, al-go-rim, the thing that says when it’s ripe, is that something Gold made up?” asks Pepper. “Or older?”
The tour guide does that thing with her mouth that people do when you ask the wrong question. “Al-go-rithm,” says Marisol absently, pulling a leaf off a nearby plant and shredding it. “I think so. Most of our crop formulas are from pretty early in the Stability Era, right?” She gives the glaring tour guide a small, slightly defiant smile. See, most adults are stupid. If you don’t answer a kid’s question, they’re just gonna keep asking it.
“Right,” says the tour guide, and continues on. The quinoa’ll be at its peak in twelve days and four hours exactly, Marisol learns, using a formula developed close to seventy years ago. That was right when the ship was coming out of the Anarchy Period, but nothing’s really changed since the first thirty years or so of the renaissance. Except Gold, of course, but Marisol doesn’t think much of it. Discord comes from unknowns and disconnections, that’s the wisdom that pulled them out of their old violent anarchy back before Marisol was born and into the Stability Era. Now that everything’s all linked together there’s no need for any of that anymore.
That’s what she teaches, anyway! That’s the slippery, rusted, blade-sharp wisdom it’s taken her this long to learn.
Marisol knows she’s a little sideways, is what the nicer teachers at her childhood school said. A little backwards, a little bit upside down. The strangest sounds grate on her even if they’re regulation-loud, clothes and foods created to be comfortable feel like mud and sandpaper on her skin. She doesn’t see the easy whys and hows and what-ifs, especially the ones about other people, and she’s got all these little tics and fiddles that don’t serve any proven purpose. She sees patterns in things that aren’t, like the mesmerizing drip of a faucet with the rhythm of her heart, and doesn’t in things that are, like how numbers always seem to move around when she’s not watching them. And like her own class’s newest obsession, too.
Part of it is probably group dynamics, like she learned how young kids work back in teaching school. They’re feeding into each other’s interests. But –
“How do we know that this is the best algari’m for the quinoa?” Pepper bursts out, startling the tour guide out of her explanations. “That’s what Gold was for, right, was improving stuff? But how do we know that it’s the most improved?”
All of them have reasons to want to learn more about Gold. One’s reading about stars, one’s mom is sick, one tried to climb down the waste chute to see where it went. But it all leads back to Gold, how do we know, how do we know, Gold, Gold, Gold, like a crescendo. And Gold is one of the things that stresses Marisol out – it’s simple, open and shut, closed down for a sweet and easy reason, closed down because we didn’t need it. Only that’s one of the things that Marisol doesn’t understand, she just knows it because it’s what she’s told. She can’t move it around on her own, can’t fit it into the shapes that these kids’ questions need her to. And they need her to, more and more and more in a way she hasn’t had to deal with before.
That’s when Baby Sun, like it’s been waiting poised for this for years, like it’s been listening to her scatterlight thoughts, like it’s only too ready to tear the world apart, flickers.
It’s just a flicker. Really it is. On and off – a split second of darkness, a return to light. But chaos falls. Marisol feels her hands freeze up, the ice crawling up her body and through her veins. People are yelling, her kids are clenched up tight next to her, panicking, they – the tour guide is shouting, everyone is shouting, SHOUTING – it’s maintenance! It’s routine! Someone’s crying – Tyo – the workers stop moving – go on, get back to work – it’s intentional, don’t worry – she can’t hear it’s too loud she can’t hear she needs to she needs to –
Marisol needs to help her kids.
She puts her hands over her ears, whistles to get the class’s attention, and starts heading for the doors at the edge of the field, walking backwards and doing a quick, trembling headcount as she goes. The tour guide is nowhere in sight. Marisol’s heart is pounding. She’s running, well, no, not running, not backwards, but the closest she can. Get out. Get out. Get out. She ushers the kids through the door, one two three keep going it’ll be okay seven eight, and as the class trails out, Baby Sun flickers again and shifts into a deep, radiating gold.
Marisol stops in the doorway. The kids disappear down the hallway, led along to safety by several harried security guards. The light on her back almost burns, but doesn’t quite.
Something moves in the corner of her eye, and she looks over, squinting against the glare. A lone honeybee, tiny but determined, the black parts of its body turned a shimmering, radiant gold by the sunlight, floats past her.
This isn’t pollinator season. There shouldn’t be pollinators out. Marisol’s gaze traces the bee’s flight, and as soon as her eyes swing up, a red-clothed technology worker bursts out of an official-looking door and runs. The door hangs open. The bee orients towards it almost immediately.
Of course it would. That’s where the nectar is stored, the reward to get the bees to come in from the fields. Of course it would go there. This isn’t a connection, between her and the honeybee and the door. These connections aren’t real.
She follows the bee.
High above her, far and not so far, Director comes for Jenna.
“Did you truly think we would not have this wing of Gold monitored at every minute?” Director herself asks, tall and imposing with her slate-dark skin and hooked, authoritative nose, crossing the room in a stride to crouch beside Jenna’s trembling form. Her guards fan out behind her, securing the doorway and blocking any point of escape. Jenna notices this, dimly, as if she’s underwater. She stares at Director, eyes wide, hands still clasped over her face.
Director’s eyes soften minutely. “We have never been able to keep the answers from those who are truly determined to find them.”
Jenna looks up at her. Director gazes back, steady and unflinching, and Jenna can feel it in her bones: Director is so, so tired.
“Do you want to know why Gold sector shut down?” Director asks. The guard standing directly behind her looks suddenly, desperately uncomfortable. Jenna’s mouth feels dry.
“How many others?” she asks instead. “How many others have gotten this far?”
“Mmm,” says Director. “Think about your old coworkers, your old friends. How many of them do you still know?”
“The suicide epidemic,” Jenna breathes. Of eight or so years ago. Highly localized to former high-ranking workers in Gold sector. A horrific, if natural, delayed reaction to losing one’s place in the world. It terrifies Jenna still, to know that if she’d been only a rank or two higher she must have fallen too.
Director inclines her head. “I still agonize over it. The first few instances, they were unexpected. Isolated. But it kept happening, and as the number of people who knew grew, so did the fatalities, and the panic. We…put an end to it. I thought that was the end of it.” She glances back up, a tiny, sad smile on her face. “You’re a little slow, Jenna Goldenrod. I believe that saved your life.”
“But – but surely, that, that can’t be everyone,” Jenna babbles, panicking, trying not to think of what this means for her. “Something – something big enough to hit all of Gold like that, it mustn’t have just come from those people!”
Director nods. “We know there are conspirators, but as far as we know, none of them have gotten to the absolute truth yet. That tends to end in only one way. And that is the reason that we cannot, as a ship, bring any of this to the light. The only way to keep this from spiraling out to affecting the whole ship is to keep it as quiet and secretive as possible. You cannot let this leave this room. Do you still want to know?”
“I do,” says Jenna, who has come this far.
Director blinks, long and slow, closes her eyes to the world as if she’s bracing herself. She lets out a sigh. “I thought you might. Guards, leave us.”
The guards, exchanging glances, do. Jenna wonders absently what their lives hold, now that they’ve been exposed to even the faintest idea of whatever this is. In a distant way, she notices that she’s afraid, her insides churning with a silent storm. Director stands up, with some effort, and goes around the room methodically clicking off every tiny hidden camera and audio recorder. Jenna stands dumbly, watching her, as the door closes behind the last guard with an incredibly final-sounding thud. All the air feels like it rushes out of the room with that sound, and Jenna is left spinning in its wake, trying not to gasp. Director finishes her work, turns around, and wakes up Susana’s computer with practiced hands.
“When we started out,” she begins, “we thought it was a planet. We named it. It was our Homeland, our journey’s end. With the information we had available to us then, with the mathematics and the physics we used to build our understanding of the universe, that made sense. However, as we approached our destination, as our knowledge kept growing, what Homeland was kept changing. We found evidence that it was a sun at the beginning of the Anarchy Period. Those are the numbers you scientists were used to working with, the assumptions you used to fit your conclusions together. For hundreds of years, our Homeland was a star, that we could orbit around indefinitely as we kept searching for planets nearby. But ten years ago, the highest ranks of Gold found out first that that isn’t true, either.”
Director pulls up a slew of documents on Susana’s old computer, everything from frantic emails to hasty meeting minutes to panicked doodles on the edge of a diagram. “It is not a star. Neither is it a black hole, white hole, wormhole, quasar, pulsar, or any other celestial object that has been proven or theorized to exist. The closest thing we have to a name for it is a localized spacetime anomaly, although even that…” Director sighs, indicating a series of emails between two researchers that mostly consists of strings of question marks. “It defied every one of our attempts to measure it meaningfully. One day our readings indicated that it was older than all recorded time, another that it had just burst into being. It emits energy, in the form of light and sound and probably others, despite not consuming any energy to make up for this loss. The simplest facts of its existence break our ancient understandings of physics. By all definitions of being, this entity should not be,” says Director. “We do not know – cannot know – what will happen when we reach it. We do not know why we cannot know, but we cannot know. All that we can anticipate is that there is no zone of habitability anywhere around it, and that we cannot get away from it. Would that not…break anyone, to learn?”
Jenna thinks that it would. Jenna can’t think.
Director pulls out files dating to the start of the Stability Era, pictures, recordings that must have done their best. Jenna feels like her mind is bending just looking at them, like optical illusions in a medium that shouldn’t be able to produce them. “It’s been the one thing we do know. That we learned. It’s been calling us. Ever since our departure, and probably even before.”
The unscientific wording, calling, in the middle of all this, chills Jenna’s bones. She takes her place at Susana’s desk, flips through the files, seeing, unstoppably, seeing. Research abstracts, grainy photos that look like the guts of a paper shedder crossed with the insides of a fruit. The marks of pencils pushed through papers, files named in apathetic keysmashes. Math that bends her mind just to look at, or math that perfectly rationally adds up to numbers that shouldn’t be possible, or even aren’t numbers at all. It seems so obvious, now that she’s looking at it. So plain, so inevitable, so natural and new. She can’t stop looking at it.
It feels like the edges of her body are flaking away into dust. She thinks, dimly, from outside the grayed-out edges of her vision, that she might be hyperventilating. She wants to cry. She wants to scream. She wants to rationalize this away. Tell anyone. Tell someone. To just – if she can’t, if she can’t cope with this, just like nobody who came before her could cope either, to just, spread it. Make someone else have to know too. So she isn’t so alone. Alone in a world where everything – nothing – is connected, anymore.
“You see why we had to close Gold down,” Director says, gently.
Yes. Yes, of course she does. The ship couldn’t go forward in this knowledge. This wasn’t a new discovery, this was something that blew the foundations out. It’s finding the south pole of a magnet for the first time, because everything else you’ve ever seen is part of the north.
“Before you ask. It does not respond to any language, or any type of distress signal. If there is a way to stop it, or to get ourselves away from it, we cannot even begin to understand it.” Director puts her hand on Jenna’s shoulder, and Jenna startles badly at the unexpected contact. “It is the end of our journey. There is no other way to put it.”
Jenna understands. She cannot speak, but she understands. This being, this vast, unknowable being, is their end and their beginning in one. It is beyond their comprehension, and it is beyond their capacity to survive. The universe has never been bounded by the tiny, rigid rules that humans have tried to tie it with.
Jenna curls her fingers into a fist. As her fingernails scrape over the desk, one catches on the edge of a light switch panel, and the desk lamp above her head flickers off.
Faulty wiring, hooked up by an overenthusiastic intern more than a dozen years ago, takes that sudden lack of signal and transfers it through the thousands of on/off gates between the lab and the rest of the ship. It zips through the wiring until it connects, after random twist after random turn, to the central chamber of the Advent itself. A light flickers on.
Marisol turns at the motion and looks at it. It’s a single, yellowy bulb, staunch and bright, that as she watches blooms out into thousands of lights, all glowing the same color. They go through the whole ship, she can tell, as far as Baby Sun above, every light in the whole world. But the first, the brightest, hangs pulsing, just above an ancient, gleaming panel that says Outside.
Freedom. Deliverance. Beginning again.
Marisol knows what it is. Of course she knows what it is. Marisol has brought her classes here, she has come on childhood field trips herself. It looms in stories, from novels to picture books, in daydreams, delusions, hopes and wonders. It’s the control panel for the massive master airlock, sealed fast until the Advent’s journey is over, until it reaches its centuries-long destination. Only the eldest, cleverest Red Sector workers know how to open it, she knows – the sequence of codes is passed down, she hears, through each generation. Like a fable, an ancient legend.
Marisol gets the sudden, delirious feeling that if she were to try, she wouldn’t need it. She grips the console, a wave of hysterical dizziness washing over her.
She shouldn’t be here. Nothing should have led to her being here. But…but her connections, and everything that’s been happening, with Baby Sun, and her kids, and the honeybee, and, and now she’s thinking of it there’s even more! Even more that logic doesn’t explain! The impromptu drills and alarms of the last few weeks! The parts of the ship blocked off with unscheduled construction! The way the tour guide knew how to deal with Baby Sun’s change! Something is wrong, everything is wrong. Something is right. She’s never felt more right, and right in a way that makes her feel wrong with the rest of the world, but, but this time maybe the rest of the world is what’s wrong, and she’s the one that’s right.
So she traces her hands down the console to the switch that says “Seal
Airlock Chamber,” because if she goes out there and she’s wrong, she’s the only one dying today.
“Marisol Carnation,” comes an unsteady voice from the other side of the room. “Stand down from the console.”
Marisol lifts her eyes. It’s Director, who of course she recognizes, and a terrified-looking Navy worker, who she doesn’t. The lights, the alarms, the sirens that everyone knows means something big is happening. They must have known to come here, somehow. Maybe in the way that she knows.
“Stand down,” echoes the Navy worker. “You don’t know what’s out there. It will kill us. It doesn’t care that we’re alive… Marisol. It can’t even notice us.” She licks her lips, eyes blown wide. “It’ll kill us without missing a beat.”
Marisol can feel her truth. Marisol can feel the hugeness, looming, years away and right at their doorstep. Something small and natural is whispering to her, calling her, from the other side. Something as small as knowing your favorite color, as big as knowing you don’t like boys and never did.
So she shakes her head. Marisol says, “No.” Marisol touches the smooth cool of the airlock metal, Marisol drags her hand down its shiny surface as she walks through the seal and enters the main, glass-lined chamber. A gear clicks, and a pipe hisses, and the metal moves away, and it’s singing.
Marisol hears it, Marisol understands it. It’s not calling. It’s singing. This is how it exists. Bright, and distant, a great beast, an old god. Hanging in space, so close and so far, she hears what it is, why it hurts, how it takes every human apart through its sight. It feels like something is ripping through her atoms. It feels like some light is drowning her. It feels like she’s reeling, she’s unstoppable, she’s dying, she’s being born. It’s the end of all things, it’s realizing there wasn’t a beginning. Marisol knows, in a way no one ever could have – that humans are small, everything they knew, that the monolith of all their history can be knocked over by not even the clumsy hand of a being, but by this being’s sheer existence. That there are things who swim between the stars and that know the gaps in the atoms, beings to which humanity is like an insect, like a microbe, like dust in their wake.
But her kids. And her cat, and her family, and her home. They mean something to her. Which means that, however small they are, they mean something.
So she has to do something. Because even if humans are small, they mean something to each other, and even if the something is small, it is something. We matter to each other, and that means we matter.
She has to sing back. She has to cry out. She has to try, because some things matter.
They might not matter anywhere near enough for the universe to take notice, but Marisol’s part of the universe, and she cares. Yes, she is tiny, yes, we are tiny, but we are not nothing. By the fact that we exist, we are something. And because we are something, we deserve to be heard.
So Marisol listens. She sings back, you are hurting us, because it deserves to know. And all Jenna and Director can do, trapped and frozen behind layers of airtight glass and metal, is watch.
Soon she opens her eyes.
“I am hurting you,” says the thing that is inside Marisol’s body.
Jenna can’t breathe. She reaches out, hands trembling, and traces her fingers down the glass. Her fingertips graze the outline of the thing, blurred in the background, as her own gaze fixes on her tremulous fingers. The glass is cold.
Slowly, from behind Jenna’s unfocused eyes, the blur and the glow dissipate away. What she can see is Marisol, the teacher, the Pink worker, in front of the open airlock, suspended, motionless. The thing that was Marisol’s hair floats out around her, surrounding her face in a perfect halo, and the edges of her clothes flutter and drift in wind that is not there. She is floating, weightless, but not moving. Perfectly oriented, perfectly motionless, in the vacuum of raw, impossible space. It hurts Jenna’s eyes. It feels like standing on the edge of a cliff and wondering what it would be like to jump. It feels like jumping.
“I am hurting you,” says whatever happened to Marisol, again. Jenna can hear it through the glass, clean and pure and strong. Marisol’s face contorts, squeezing in and then blowing wide, shifting through several expressions before settling on one of heartbreaking pain. “Tell me how not to hurt you,” it pleads.
Beside her, Director makes a small gasp. Jenna flattens her hand so her whole palm is pressed against the glass, the cold seeping through the skin and into her bones. It’s like she can feel it, in the staticky, burning feeling in her palm, the one that comes through on the other side of the cold. She can’t take her hand away.
“What are you?” she croaks.
And the – the, thing, turns its attention to her.
Turns Marisol’s attention to her. Its own attention, she realizes, is the gaps in the marrow of her bones, the static electricity swimming between the strands of her hair. The ship drops away around her, until there’s nothing but Jenna, and Jenna’s hand, and the being, the being in Marisol, the being in waiting.
“What are you,” the being echoes, carefully and slowly, as if every syllable is a precious stone. Jenna nods, and remembers she has a face.
“I am the energy in us,” the being speaks. “I’m the fiery sky, I’m the waking sleepwalker. I am bright, I am the end of the rainbow. I’m the smell of birth. I am the wild blue yonder. I am…”
It trails off, still fixated on Jenna’s face, but with a slight furrow of confusion now creasing its brows.
“Yonder,” Jenna tries. “You’re…”
“Yon-der,” murmurs Yonder.
Then the face splits open in a grin, all white teeth and joy, wide and consuming enough that it could almost be deranged. A drop of blood beads out of Marisol’s nostril and floats out into the air. “Little, little things. Little impulses, little beings, trapped between atoms and seeing everything in straight lines. You fascinate me!” it bubbles. “And I do not want to hurt you.” It stretches out Marisol’s hand, turning it over in wonder, gazing at the dry skin and knobby knuckles. “You are so young. But you know how you will not be hurt. You understand yourselves more than I ever will.”
“I – what?” Jenna stutters. “Are you – “ is it, talking to her? Asking her? “We – think, we think it’s your, um, proximity,” she babbles, feeling like if she takes any sort of time to pause from saying anything at all then everything holding her together will fall apart. “You’re already causing the unexplainable fluctuations in our miniature star unit, our Baby Sun, aren’t you? Even when you’re more than a year away. You’ll consume us. You consume things like us.”
“And that will hurt you?” asks the being.
“Yes. It will. You could have killed us!”
Yonder, inside of Marisol, tilts its head. “Not after you answered me.”
Jenna glances sideways at Director, desperate for some sort of authority in this. The Yonder squints in thought, the tip of its tongue poking out from behind its teeth. “I can hold you at bay,” it offers, slowly. “You’re not the first who has called back, you know. If you become my own, when you approach me, you can orbit around me with those like you. I will ensure your safety.”
Jenna lets out a great, sobbing breath, half turning to Director and taking her by the shoulders before she can stop herself. “You see?!” she hisses. “It’s not the end! It doesn’t have to be!”
Director stares, catatonic and stiff in Jenna’s arms, up to Yonder. Her mouth moves, but it is a long wait before anything comes out. “Why,” she croaks, finally. “You are so huge, and so old, and we are dust before you. You could destroy us without a second thought. You have no reason not to. Why. Why would you care? Why would you help us?”
And now the Yonder inside Marisol’s face turns to her. Its eyes close, then sweep open again, like a thing that’s just discovered blinking and is in awe of it.
“Do you remember,” Marisol says, “when you were a child, and you chased after butterflies, because they were glittering and small and so different from you?” It pauses, and blinks, and its eyes drift down to the side like it’s remembering. “Because they were beautiful. And, maybe, before you learned what hurt them, you pulled off their wings. But you only ever wanted to keep their beauty.”
“I don’t – understand,” Director gasps.
The Yonder being doesn’t pay her any mind, attention seemingly turned inward. “You chased them with nets afterward. You never wanted to hurt them. Just because they were small did not mean they were nothing, or that being kind to them meant nothing.
“Or how you looked through the microscope at the samples of pond water in school, all full of the tiny things going through their tiny lives? And you marveled, that something could exist so close yet so distinctly, that something could have life but have it so small. Most of us never interact with them. We don’t know them. But we hold affection for them anyway. It’s like how when we see a bee, gathering pollen, in the park or on a flowerbed, and we could kill it. We could, without a second thought. But we don’t.
“We could choose to let them mean nothing at all. But we can also choose to let them. We can choose to recognize their being. We can coo over the ducklings, watch the bees travel, thanks the rabbits for the meat they provide. The universe wants to connect with itself.” The being that is Yonder and Marisol and everything in between raises its gaze and smiles, a small, sweet, secret thing. “The universe doesn’t want to be alone! It doesn’t have to be!”
Jenna’s hands are still withdrawn from the glass. Marisol and Yonder are still looming above her, still a breathtakingly human woman, smiling fit to burst with its eyes full of hope.
“You understand,” says Director after a second, “that we cannot let this leave the room. This would mean chaos. Full-scale social collapse. You’d be asking us to destroy everything we know.”
“But that’s it!” breathes Yonder in Marisol, suddenly right next to the glass, smacking open palms against it. “We need to go forward! We need to not give up! Everything we know is wrong. Let’s figure out what’s right!” Fingertips tap across the glass, dancing in strange, rhythmic patterns. Marisol in Yonder is grinning, grinning a child’s grin, gaping and breathless. “Reopen Gold,” she gushes. “We can’t live like we did, not anymore. Let us know that we know nothing. You – Jenna, you! You can be the head of the sector! We can start it again, together! Come see it! Come hear it! Come learn with me! Come teach!”
And Jenna’s heart just kicks in her chest.
Come teach? Come learn again? Come have some sort of new start?
“Jenna!” Director gasps, horrified. But Jenna reaches out and puts her hands back against the glass. It’s still cold, but there’s something warm, on just the other side of it. Her chest feels hot and tight, and she can feel her pulse all throughout her body. “Okay,” she hears herself say.
“Jenna!” Director cries, her voice catching in her throat. She sounds so terrified, so out of her depth, that Jenna thinks she might pity her. “Jenna, no, please, Jenna, you’ll die, it’s not safe – “
This is beyond safety now. Jenna enters the airlock chamber. Director makes an aborted grasping motion but doesn’t stop her.
The airlock opens again, and the judder of contact sends shockwaves of joy through Marisol. She watches, she listens, as it rips through Jenna far harder than her – collapsing her to the ground, some sort of scream tearing out from behind her clenched jaw. It hurt Marisol, having her foundations ripped out like fingernails, but she didn’t have nearly so much of a foundation to lose as this stark Navy woman. Jenna hugs her knees to her chest, spinning slightly in the weightlessness, and Marisol wants to go over to her and then she is. Yonder streams between them, through the spaces in their cells and their split-second synapses firing, traces the lines in their palms, thrums their vocal cords with notes they’ve never heard before, and when Jenna uncurls, there’s blood seeping out from her nose, and her ears, and her eyes, and she’s smiling. And what Marisol is now smiles back, and takes what Jenna’s hand is now. It doesn’t feel like a touch. It doesn’t feel like they’re any more connected than they were.
“What – “ Director sounds broken, so terrified, and Marisol aches for her with a sorrow older than anything she thought possible. “What do we tell the ship? This is insane. We have to understand – everything’s connected, everything makes sense, that’s how, that’s how we function.” She takes a breath, deep and shuddering, and Marisol and Jenna both remember to do that at the same time. Marisol is hungry.
“Not everyone,” Marisol says. “People like me.” People who never saw those connections. Who saw, just barely, the right ones instead; or, ones that weren’t any more wrong than everything else. “People whose minds are put together differently. We can – we can help. Lead?” She’s never led anything bigger than a classroom before. Her brain is burning through itself, so hard and fast and bright, she almost can’t keep up.
“No. You’re wrong. You don’t understand Advent like I do. You can’t,” Director cries. “You’re eating those poor women up! Aren’t you?! You’re killing them!”
Marisol’s head hurts. She thinks there’s more blood, coming out of her face, from somewhere. This’ll eat her up eventually, from the inside out, and she realizes she’s dying because of this. Marisol is hungry.
“You’re not – you’re not human, even if you’re inside them. You’re a monster,” Director growls. “Our society won’t survive this. You can’t understand what it’s like to need to understand.”
Yonder in Jenna blinks, like it’s her favorite thing to do, and her thick eyebrows draw together. Marisol feels the consternation, and her eyebrows do the same. “No,” she says, quietly, resolutely. It’s not true. Even if Director wants it to be, it’s not true. Humans can’t be that limited, to have come this far already. She turns to Marisol. She’s smiling. There’s blood on her teeth. “Let’s start a revolution. Let’s let everyone know.”
The Yonder being brushes over a panel with its fingertips. All around the ship, alarms begin to sing. The sound rings out soundlessly into space, broadcasting in radio waves and flashes of the ship’s outside lights, reaching the Yonder being itself in as fast as they can run. The Yonder being pulses with delight, and its delight plays its part, in shifting its makeshift system just slightly in its orbit. The system moves within its galaxy, spinning it just a fraction of the way through the space in which it travels, thousands and thousands of planets and stars and beings joining in with its whirling through space. And the galaxy is moving, moving in the universe, and ten years later, the universe is always moving.