Tommi gazed coreward toward the fuzzy mass of stars. A stellar telescope orbiting near the core projected the same image in detail to stations across the galaxy, and a satellite picked up the view and projected it onto a screen where all Marksdawn’s station personnel watched.
Tommi looked from the sky to the view screen as the senior officer began the countdown and the room stilled with an anxious silence.
“…three…two…one.” A spot in the middle of the screen grew white, a slow circular flash that rolled from a central blackness and faded out, a mouth gaping and then closing. Left behind was a shadow, a tiny black spot dark enough to hide coreward stars that had once shone from behind the pulsars. The bright view of galactic core now possessed a pinhole.
The station erupted with cheers.
Tommi glanced at the sky through the dome, wondering how many years it would take that darkness to be seen from Marksdawn without satellite telescopes. Gazing into space was gazing back into time, a marvel that her years in service had not managed to trivialize. Time, she thought vaguely, had not yet caught up to her. She had outrun it with technology and rationalization, so that her past became her future, a haunting visitor she would meet up with on some lazy day, not recognizing, perhaps, the body thinned from unsatisfied hunger or the eyes passionate with memories.
Standing still as the room seethed with astounded and excited voices, Tommi looked back to the steady scene of the galactic starfield and thought again of the silent swamps of Macenia, a magical world of color that no longer existed. Amira was trapped, as was everyone who stayed. Perhaps they existed behind the event horizon — a haven, a dream of immortality they would share as they journeyed together into madness.
Tommi raised her glass and swallowed half the amber liquid. The questions that frustrated her when she said goodbye to Amira for the last time had less to do with the workings of space than with herself. She thought then she might see Amira again one day, a dream or not, beyond the event horizon.
After finishing the vintage black label she had saved since Macenia, Tommi returned to her quarters. She put away the book of poetry lying on her desk, sat before her view screen, and entered the network. Her six weeks on Marksdawn were about over. Tommi put in late hours that evening on her report.
The face of a raven-haired researcher with wild eyes gazed back from the screen. Tommi studied the portrait, concerned about the lucidity of shining blue eyes, where intemperate passions played like children splashing joyfully through a pool in summer.
Tommi recalled the gentle invasion of personal space when she had spoken with the woman that afternoon, and then the woman’s step back and eyes darting as if fearful of exposure. The wild eyes still held hers as she stared at the view screen, at a woman profound with insights into particle physics and also guilty of espionage and murder. Tommi sighed. Another case solved. And she thought back to her last time with Amira.
In the swamp alone with Amira, Tommi had watched Macenia in the midst of a storm. A waxy green sheet of lightning sizzled across the swamp, slipping around the trees and brush and blinding her momentarily before oozing off. When it passed, Tommi asked Amira where those murdered on Macenia might be.
Amira shook her head, her brown strands dripped from the rain, and she gazed upward at the roiling sky, fiercely blinking away the water from her eyes. Rain streamed from her lips, and Tommi watched them part slightly for a breath, watched liquid spray with her words. “Sometimes I imagine that’s where the storm energy comes from. All those souls.”
Amira smiled as another sheet of lightning flowed around them. “Not like me. They wander. They don’t want to be like the living.”
Tommi leaned against a tree and sighed, trying to relax but not yet able. “I’m not convinced the raja’s gone.”
“Null gravity forced it into the heleuropium you had put under your bed. Now it will remain in a null-gravity field forever, buried half-a-kilometer under the station,” Amira emphasized the last.
“Was that paranoid of me?”
“Mythic.” Amira winked. “Like your books. Isn’t that what Zeus did to Cronus after he stole heaven?”
“My books,” Tommi said with surprise. “I didn’t think you’d read them.”
The rain sparkled on Amira’s face, and Tommi reached her gloved hand toward her wet lips. “I used to believe you were a delusion. I’m still not sure what you are.”
“What was once impossible.”
“It’s not nearly so freeing as anyone would imagine it would be.”
“What if this works? This area of space could be separated from Earth inside the event horizon.”
“We’d be here together.”
“We’d be dead.” Tommi took hold of Amira’s hand. “You’ve had seventy years to think about this. You’ve already died. Do you really expect me to have the sort of faith — or desperation — to join a suicide pact?”
“It’s not a fantasy. Release gravity, movement stops and time stops. And our experience of three dimensions end. Time that has an end is linear time, and linear time with its passage from past to present to future is what we experience in our spacetime, what we call the Confluence.”
“You’re saying your research here is to find a way to destroy space?”
“Without gravity to generate different dimensions through its control of spatial movement, space is uniform, and that experience has been described as ‘narrow.’ This is because without the correct dimensions and without mass, there is no physicality, as we know it. The galaxy will indeed be different if we release gravity here. We’d experience conscious transcendence in that moment when all the dimensions spring loose and coil with unimaginable energy, like stretched rubber bands. What’s left behind is a mystery still. Will ‘Narrow Space’ encompass the local area as a black hole, surrounded by an event horizon those on Earth can’t see beyond?”
“But a black hole is infinite gravity.”
“No,” Amira said smiling with satisfication. “It’s the absence of gravity. Scientists are wrong, and we’ll prove it. We’re trying to control gravity, to change space. Try to understand, Tommi. We’re on the verge of creating immortality.”
Tommy shook her head, wondering more than ever if Amira were not simply dead but also mad. “So you’ve convinced them.”
Amira turned away and began walking again, but Tommi caught up to her. “Did you tell them sometimes consciousness remains intact, sometimes it merges with others, but that sometimes it goes mad?” She gripped Amira’s arm, pulling her to a stop. “Did you tell them how unpredictable the loss of duality is? They may lose their lives and not gain what you have. They may just be dead.”
“They want immortality. I’m giving it to them.”
“They’ve seen you. They have that and their fantasies driving them.”
“And their science. They’ve come here on their own. They began this on their own. If they can create the event horizon, then I’ll be free, too.”
“And confined still.”
“As you are to the surface, separated by your body from everyone else. What difference–”
“The difference, Amira, is my separation isn’t forever, and yours is. The difference is what it does to you and not to me.”
Amira slipped from Tommi’s grasp and walked away, disappearing into the gray mist.
Amira returned that evening, fresh from the heat and wet as she crawled into Tommi’s bed. Half asleep, Tommi took her into her arms, kissed her, felt the length of her body slide against hers.
“Yes,” muttered Tommi as Amira wrapped herself around her. Amira’s nipples slipped against Tommi’s cheeks, and she drew one between her lips. The full, soft flesh pressed against her face, and Tommi tightened her arms around Amira. Running her hands along Amira’s back, Tommi traced the smooth skin of her hips and reached between her legs. She brushed her fingers through the hair and warm moisture until Amira moved down, her breasts against Tommi’s.
“You’re leaving tomorrow,” Amira said.
Tommi’s hands ached, her stomach tightened, and then the pounding in her ears slowed the moment until it seemed to stop. She touched the phantom, squeezed her skin, traced the lines of her face, tasted her breath, and wondered at the reality of an impossibility.
“I finished it,” Amira said into her ear, then watched for a reaction. “The book. The gods were worse than men, weren’t they? Immortal but petty, powerful but selfish. It’s strange, don’t you think?”
“Why shouldn’t the gods be petty? They need no faith.” Tommi wondered at Amira, at her turning only now to the books she had been given months ago. Tommi kissed her shoulder, began to lose herself to the bitter taste of sweat, but curiosity at Amira’s intent drew her back. “When you have an end to imagine, moments become distinct and those you meet become giants. That’s why I’ll carry you with me the rest of my life. But I’ll probably fade into your long, unrecollected past.”
“My poet, my storyteller, my creator,” mumbled Amira.
Tommi rested her head against Amira’s shoulder, wondering whether Amira had found a haven from her past and whether she herself had yet begun to build a future. Amira’s journey through death would draw her inward toward the core, inward toward hope, inward toward forever. Tommi’s journey would draw her to a world from where the core was a blur in the sky, from where the past was a lost haven, a tattered cage, not forgotten, no longer confining. Tommi rolled onto her back, and they discussed Homer and gods and life far into the morning.
Tommi rose late the following morning. The station commander greeted her when she arrived at the lab. He gestured toward another chair across from him, but Tommi declined the offer. She spent nearly an hour explaining that Amira was insane.
After she finished, he remained carefully observing her across steepled fingers, like a priest accepting the inconsequential confessions of a child.
Amira appeared behind him then at his office door, and as Tommi glanced from him to her, she realized she had already spoken to him, seducing him with her siren song.
Amira’s eyes held hers, and Tommi smiled at the sleek, emerald hunters loose and roaming the world. Tommi imagined the desire and hope that must have seduced the researchers toward Amira’s shore, and Tommi envied them, envied their surrender.
“When you destroy the pulsars,” Tommi told her later, “there’ll be nothing left here, except you, alive or dead, imprisoned as Amira is on Macenia. I only hope you go mad in that instant, so you don’t find your way there slowly like her.”
“Stay with us, Tommi,” said the commander rising from his chair.
“Tommi’s made her choice,” said Amira as she walked up behind him.
“I want what’s real, what’s sane.”
“Your ambition is enormous, Tommi. Most people never expect to possess both.”
Amira’s sarcasm forced a smile from Tommi. “And I still can’t figure out which you have. In another seventy years, your new prison will have grown too small, Amira, and how will you convince your conscience to allow deception and murder then, and who will you find to release you?”
“You’ll be long dead by then, Tommi. I’ll never know when or where. But I’ll remember you here, at twenty-seven. Ferocious, passionate, terrified.”
On Marksdawn station, Tommi’s headache was not soothed with the scotch, as strands of consciousness unraveled her in three directions. From across the room, a half-filled bottle stared back at her. Tommi went to it and tossed it in the trash. Then she took another bottle from the cabinet, peeled away the seal, and poured the foul-smelling liquor into a glass.
“Whiskey,” she mumbled, uneasy as she swished the liquid around in the glass at eye level. But one sip swelled a pleasant fire through her chest, a new fire, but not an unfamiliar one. After another drink, she returned to her memory, her dream, her future. The distinction seemed unimportant.