Science Fiction & Fantasy

CHOSEN ONES

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Fiction

Everything and Nothing

Start with a romance: a man and a woman who are wildly and irrevocably in love with each other. Or two men. Or two women. Or two people, because life is beautiful and complex. Just know that these Lovers are important. The fate of the galaxy rests on their shoulders—because, of course, the fate of an entire portion of known space can be determined by two people in love.

The laws of physics are remarkably vulnerable to the laws of love.

Star systems can move, planets can realign, and comets can learn to change their orbits. The movement of love through the universe is one of the most powerful forces known to mankind, capable of changing the fate of millions, if we only let it do so.

But we actually don’t give a shit about that.

Just know that there were Lovers, and that they were marvelous and twisted, and in the end, they went out in a blaze of glory. We teach our children not to emulate them, but they are children and they are foolhardy, so what can we do?

What can any parent do?

• • • •

Your eldest daughter becomes a starship captain, the second works as a trader in manufactured fabrics, and the third is a scholar of intergalactic law. All honorable careers—good places for them—and if this was a melodrama, we would expect them to interact in some spectacular fashion. But this isn’t that—it’s only a simple story, a tale that should be told because the youngest daughter, the one you love best, has decided to tempt fate. But you know that already.

• • • •

“Tell me the story again,” she says when she’s little, curled in your lap before bedtime. “Tell me the story.”

And so, you tell her the story, trying to be cautious with your words. To express that romantic love can be dangerous, and the established system of genetic manipulation and artificial wombs is honorable. That the natural way of doing things is not all it’s cracked up to be, and the bonds of friendship often have more value than raw passion. That the feel of your wife at night is comfort and peace, but only because you both have chosen to make it that way—to avoid the raging storms of lust in favor of a more economic form of partnership.

“Mama,” she says, when you’ve finished. “I want to be the Farmer.”

You lean your cheek on her hair, and breathe in her little kid smell. She’s had a bath and her pajamas are fuzzy, and to you, this is the closest thing to pure contentment.

“But the Farmer dies.”

“Not in my story.”

“They both die, love.”

“No, Mama, not the way I’m going to write it.”

And as she snuggles closer to you, you feel the tiniest trickle of dread. But she is warm, and so you hold her tight, as if mere hugs can stop disaster. We always think that, don’t we?

• • • •

They meet at university, on the next planet over, which is something that neither you nor I have calculated for.

“I’m Cali,” she says, and she holds out a hand to my boy. He takes it, because why would he not take it, and he holds on for just a second too long.

“Jere,” he says, and they look at each other—the way that we have looked at each other—and start babbling in earnest. They cover the entirety of their childhoods by the time they have made their way across the university campus, and they embark on their future plans over tentacle fried rice. It is only a matter of time before Cali leans forward while gesturing with her chopsticks, and Jere leans forward, too, to contest the point that she is ardently arguing. Neither knows how the chopsticks end up on the floor, only that the kiss is enough to set them on literal fire because they manage to knock over the candle in the center of the table.

The hopelessness of their love has not yet occurred to them.

• • • •

We will not speak about The Pilot. Or my boy’s desire to become that archetype. Or the fact that legends that are thousands of years old should have no power over our current lives, because the world of privilege and oppression that we inhabit is dangerous enough.

But you know that, too.

• • • •

When Jere joins the military academy, Cali follows him. She has no great desire to be a pilot, but she will also not leave him behind. There will be time to learn that love is foolish, that sex is not always the answer, that desire can often be a deception. You rage against her decision, but what use is your rage?

They enroll together, which is a foolish thing. It leads to jealousy and resentment—to bitter conversations and explosive shouting matches—that threaten to get them both court-martialed out of the academy. Cali excels at piloting the tiniest of fighters, skipping through space like a nimble dragonfly; Jere has trouble even getting a ship off the ground. She moves through the ranks rapidly, while he is sidelined into a support role.

They break up.

They get back together. Only to break up again. The cycle of love and hate is seemingly endless, but then the will of the universe intervenes.

And the war begins.

• • • •

We meet in the military hospital, you and I, while the machines beep, and the nurses and their robotic assistants scurry back and forth. You are so tired that you spill your coffee on me, and I yell at you, and you yell back that your baby is in there.

“My baby is in there, too,” I say, and I watch the fight go out of you. We sit together on the hard waiting room chairs, with the air recycler blowing cold on the back of our necks, and you offer me your hand to hold. We sit there, and I stare at our fingers—the dark brown of mine intertwined with the light brown of yours—and I pray to whatever gods are out there. That they stay safe; that they stay whole. That the power of our love for them can keep them alive.

But even prayers cannot change reality, and the forces of physics that happen when two starships collide violently with one another. Human bodies are frail, and even the best of doctors have problems cheating death.

Jere loses his right leg, and his AI-enabled prosthesis clanks along the hospital corridors. Cali has it slightly easier, only walking away with two broken arms and a ruptured spleen.

When the time comes to take them home, they cling and kiss, crying over each other and their injuries.

“You’ll take me flying, when you’re better?” Jere says.

“Of course,” Cali answers, and they stare at each other, while you and I try to make ourselves invisible.

We make plans to meet again soon, but soon is never soon, is it?

• • • •

The war rages on because it always rages. The young are conscripted. There is talk of good and evil, of the fate of the universe, of the way that tyranny can be overthrown by simple optimism.

For unknown reasons, the tale of the Lovers becomes even more popular, and the people gather to hear their fatal love story. We drink homebrewed beer and listen quietly, until inevitably someone starts blaring music, and then we are dancing, always dancing. Moving to the twin beats of hope and freedom, twirling to the fact that love can both harm you and heal you. Celebrating in the face of imminent disaster because this is life, and if you’re going to die, you might as well dance.

• • • •

We do not see each other again for years.

Cali and Jere fall apart again, and this time, there are too many things unsaid for them to come back together. Dreams of a life lived side-by-side have given way to the urgency of the war. Your girl has become the Pilot instead of the Farmer, but she is still writing the story her way. It just no longer includes my boy.

I do not contact you, and you do not contact me. I wonder whether the bond forged between us in that long-ago waiting room is merely a figment of my imagination. Like the feel of your hand in mine; like the look on your face as we cried over our children together. Like anything that does not serve this place and time.

• • • •

Jere takes the offer of early retirement from his military duties, and buys a farm on my home planet. He meets a man who has avoided conscription, and if they do not fall violently in love, they do form a strong partnership. Jere’s husband, Arvin, is gentle, and there is true caring in his eyes. I cradle my grandbabies when they come, fresh from the artificial wombs, and the kisses I give them are precious.

The future that we imagine for our children is never the one that happens, is it?

• • • •

Cali flies more missions. Enough missions that she actually makes an impact on the war. Soon, everyone knows her name, and there are some who even credit her for the eventual ceasefire. She brings great renown to your family, but there is never a Farmer she marries. But that’s not so bad, is it? You tell yourself that this is the path she’s forged. Lying is easier than wishing.

When your wife passes away, Cali comes home. She and your other daughters mourn with you, through long periods of sadness. Time passes, as it always does, and she cajoles you into traveling with her. You pack your sadness away, just as you pack your bag, and you spend long days sailing the cerulean seas on the planet that I call home.

You are not stupid—you have never been stupid—and you realize what she’s doing. But you let her do it anyway, just as you let her drag you to Jere’s farm for a long overdue reunion.

• • • •

You are just as beautiful as you were the first time we met. There are more lines on your face, but there are also more lines on mine. We go for long walks on the farm, letting my grandchildren run between us like eager puppies. You talk; I talk. We both talk so very much that I am afraid that I will run out of words by the end of the day. I never do.

If there is one gift you have given me, it is the ability to speak about everything and nothing, and have it all mean something.

You finally kiss me on a day when it has done nothing but rain. The ground is damp, and there are clouds obscuring the triple moons, but you insist on going out to look for stars. And you kiss me, and I kiss you, and then we troop inside to see smug grins on our children’s faces.

“Having a good time, Mama?” Cali says.

“And you, Mother?” Jere says, with great irony, and elbows Arvin. Cali rolls her eyes, and Arvin starts to laugh. Before we know it, they are teasing us mercilessly, and you grab my hand and pull me back out into the rain.

We get very wet that night.

• • • •

If we were the Lovers—and we are not—this is when our romance would be the sweetest. Before the battles, before the fights, before all the difficulties that have universe-shattering ramifications. But we are not those people—and neither are our children.

I fall in love with you, and you fall in love with me, all that long summer into autumn. We watch together as our children fall back in love with each other, in a different form than before. Arvin forms a sort-of-glue, keeping them from killing each other, and by summer’s end, they have formed a solid unit. Cali talks about having a child, of raising it here, with these two men who love each other and her. Of putting down roots and finally resting.

You, on the other hand, have discovered that travel agrees with you. When the winter winds start blowing across the plains, you pack your bag, kiss me goodbye, and book passage on the next starliner leaving the planet. We send each other voluminous messages—numerous enough to fill a printed book, if we compiled them all.

I wake each morning to long spiels that you write about climbing sand dunes on Garalat or windsurfing on Picara; I send back equally long ones about my grandchildren and the wood sculptures that I’ve been working on. We video chat whenever you have good reception. For a long while, you come and go, crisscrossing the galaxy in search of new experiences, but you always come back. To my arms, to my home, to our life together.

Until the day that you don’t.

• • • •

A ceasefire is just a ceasefire until it isn’t one anymore. We don’t know how it happens at first, just that the enemy hasn’t entirely disappeared and that our galactic security has grown lax. No one knows whether they put the biological weapon in the food or in the water supply, but by the time people start getting sick, it’s too late. It’s not contagious, which is the only good thing about it.

But it kills, just as surely as cancer used to do, and we don’t know how to cure it. Four planets—four entire planets sickened at once—and just like that, we’re at war again. Not everyone dies in the first few months, which is something to be thankful for. And Cali’s influence is something to be thankful for as well; she manages to break through the military blockade that has prevented you from traveling, and she brings you home.

She half-carries you through the farmhouse door because the illness has weakened you. You collapse on the sofa in the front sitting room, and you smile at me.

“Vela,” you say, and stretch out your hand.

“Hanna,” I say, and stare at how thin you are.

We hold hands for a very long time.

• • • •

Cali goes back to war, to the pain and death that she is so very good at.

She still hasn’t had that child, but she loves Jere and Arvin’s children with a passion. They’re still together, a stable triad of people who have finally found one another. Two men who create life, while one woman destroys it, and yet it works for them. She fights and fights, and keeps writing her own glorious story.

I take care of you, for as long as I can.

It is not long enough.

• • • •

End with a romance: two women who are wildly and irrevocably in love with each other. Neither of them are young, and they are not the Lovers, but that doesn’t matter. Their love will not move mountains nor galaxies, but it binds families and hearts. It grows and glows as the women age, as they make plans to grow old together, until those plans can no longer come true.

The laws of love are remarkably vulnerable to the laws of life.

There are things we cannot change, and diseases we cannot cure. There are eternal wars we cannot win. There are children who will do things that we cannot control.

This is just a simple story, after all.

Cali and her sisters, Jere and Arvin and the kids—they’ll be here soon. Crowding into this hospital room, with its beeps and its equipment and the robotic assistants that disturb you at all hours of the night. Coming to tell you, before it’s too late, how very loved you are. But you know that already.

You’ve always known that.

Jenny Rae Rappaport

Jenny Rae Rappaport has been published in Lightspeed Magazine, Escape Pod, and Daily Science Fiction, among other magazines. She is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop, and holds a BA in Creative Writing from Carnegie Mellon University. In the past, she has worked as a literary agent, a marine sciences field guide, and spent a semester observing monkeys as an intern with the Pittsburgh Zoo. Jenny lives in New Jersey with her family, where she divides most of her time between writing and herding small children. She can be found online at www.jennyrae.com and on Twitter at @jennyrae.