“I know what you’re thinking,” says Jake softly in my ear, his voice tentative and hopeful. We’re pushed close together in the lively crowd that lines the lower wharf, and I know if I turn he’ll give me an eyebrow lift or a conspiratorial wink to show we’re on the same page. Jake very much wants to be on the same page with me, but he’s also nervous he’ll say the wrong thing and I’ll bolt. I don’t turn, but I don’t pull away either. Because he’s not wrong. Astral Fleet Week is a big deal here, every year, and this one is bigger than most, marking the fiftieth anniversary of the hyperstem disruption engine that finally allowed humans to hopscotch the stars, and in honor of the event they’ve organized a steady stream of lightships to return, from all the distant colonized systems: overhead the purple dusk broken, again and again, by a pop and shudder as another ship materializes and comes floating down trailing long tendrils of its own radiation. All the tourists ooh and ahh like they’re watching fireworks, and the band strikes up: boomp boomp and poop poom, the cries of circling gulls over the water, happy shrieks of children racing through the crowd with pinwheels and noisemakers. It’s a welcoming committee, a homecoming. How could I not be thinking about my mother?
Not that the Demonym that emerges from the open port looks anything like her. Regardless of the fact that my mother is light-years distant, in one direction or another, she’s still first generation and would look like us. This one is tall and angular with big eyes and a huge head as only a native-born Demonym can be, with a long neck and protruding joints and features migrated through generations of alternative gravity, her off-kilter eyes blinking up at a sky she’s never seen. Still, I sense similarities. The way her gaze drifts over things rather than at them. I’m sure my mother was like that — her true attention elsewhere, already on the stars.
Jake meets his brother, Robbie, and Robbie’s very pregnant wife, Marissa, and I watch from the side, momentarily forgotten. Robbie is youthful and attractive and energetic and uncomplicated, as is Marissa, as is every other member of the Davies clan, a balance and a harmony to the family that fills me with longing and regret. There’s something about it that troubles me, like twin plaid outfits splashed with blood. The image comes out of nowhere and makes me shiver.
Robbie chatters on about a family cookout for the coming weekend, Jake drops to a knee, presses his ear to Marissa’s taut abdomen, and I use the opportunity to slip away and follow my Demonym as she meanders through the dissipating crowd. She’s hard to miss, her big head bobbing above the fray. She’s alone, which is unusual for our interstellar guests, who usually come in groups or at least with an aide or two. But this one doesn’t seem to be with anyone and she drifts one way then the other, first to the railing to gaze out at the waves, then along a narrow cobbled side street of old shops and vintage storefronts. She pauses at one, to consider her own reflection, then turns and pins me with her oblong alien eyes. I look away, blood rushing to my face.
“Considering an adventure, Miss?”
It’s a lanky boy, with a shock of bright red hair and freckles all over his face, sitting on a stool between moorings. He might be part Demonym himself, or at least a short-range jumper, still mostly bound to Earth’s gravity and space-time, but also partially gone. I try to check his pupils without being too obnoxious.
“I’m Jimmy-Timmy,” he says, hopping down and offering a baseball-mitt-sized paw. “You can call me J.T.”
“Okay, J.T. I’m Zoe… Davies.” I try the surname on for size. My real name is “Knetts,” from my first foster family, but it always felt awkward and arbitrary and I’m pleased to let it go. Jake hasn’t proposed to me, yet, but it’s coming.
“I’m here to boost the ship,” continues J.T., gesturing to the massive gleaming hull that floats several meters above the surf. “Not that she needs any boosting, does she?”
“My mom is a traveler,” I say. “Or was, I guess.”
“Oh? Which system?”
“Kapteyn. Maybe Wolf.” I shrug like it’s inconsequential. “Somewhere close.”
“I’m surprised you don’t know.” He narrows his eyes as if suspicious that I might be making it all up, then he brightens. “Hey. Miss. Why don’t you come on board and let me give you that tour?” He fingers the rope hopefully, ready to pull it aside. “There’s lots of jobs to be had there. You could work-for-passage, like me. Maybe you’re ready for that big adventure. What do you say?”
I squint like the concept has appeal, but he reads my hesitation and soon turns to another approaching couple, more to his liking, and I move away, further up the pier. My Demonym is gone, even her big head lost in the departing tourists. And in the other direction, Jake and Robbie and Marissa are gone too, no longer visible through the crowd.
It’s true I don’t know exactly which star system my mother was heading to. Or from. I was found as a newborn near the infirmary on a lightship docked at Earth, and to this day nobody knows if I was left there by a departing Earther who snuck on board wanting to shoot me into the cosmos, or by a returning Demonym who had birthed me during the homeward journey. On-board intimacy of this sort is strictly forbidden, for all the obvious reasons, so ship records didn’t help. For a while there was commotion, speculation, media attention, trying to figure out my origin and family, but no one came forward to claim me. Communication with the other systems was slow and cumbersome, and fruitless. In the end, I became a ward of the state, first with a series of foster families, then on my own. For a while I was monitored by a government agency to see if I would develop Demonym characteristics — knobby joints and especially the telltale vertical, rectangular pupils. When I didn’t, they lost interest. Eventually, I was largely forgotten.
“Please don’t wander off like that,” says Jake, later, when we’re back at the apartment. He’s moving around the kitchen, rattling pots and adjusting flames in a very theatrical and aggrieved display. But he’s also sincerely worked up, his fear for my well-being tangled in his own fear of losing me, a complicated realm where he gets turned around and confused. “I won’t ever leave you,” he concludes, later, whispering in my ear when we’re lying together in the darkened bedroom. He’s arrived at this conclusion even though it’s a reversal from his initial concern, as if it’s my own fear of abandonment that drives my behavior and it’s his duty to reassure me. “You’re safe with me, always, Zoe-bean.”
“I know,” I say. “I’m sorry.” I snuggle against him, happy, for the moment, to relax into his warmth and security.
But when his limbs twitch and his breathing goes steady, I lift his arm and slip out of the bed and down the hall, my bare feet chilled on the tile floor. I crack the heavy doors to the balcony and step into a swirl of warmer air and distant city sounds. We have an aerie apartment, high in a needle cluster, nearly two miles above the streets, some of the highest residences available. From street level, they look like normal glass structures, but from a distance they’re like long glowing filaments sprouting from the grid and swaying with invisible currents.
Jake leased the place as a gift to me, although at first, the motion made him queasy. He would disappear into a bathroom and retch quietly, then return pale but smiling gamely. I’ve always liked heights and been fascinated by the stars, and the clarity up here allows a glimmer of the Trappist trilogy when the night is right, or even LHS. Tonight, I’m not using a telescope at all, or even gazing far into the firmament. What I’m watching for is closer to home. The sky is perfectly clear, plum-colored, hosting a bright, bulbous, neon moon. Then, a pop, a puckered sigh, and from nowhere another white-speckled disk appears, trailing streamers of energy and drifting gently toward Earth: a shiny winking coin settling through clear, dark water.
“The Clark-Feldman Boson Earth-Energy Disruption System.” That’s how Jake explained it to me, back when we were first getting to know each other. I had finally become emancipated, and had my own small apartment and the time to more closely consider the perplexing riddles of my existence. Or, it would be better said, no way to any longer avoid them. During my childhood, I had been able to sidestep the core topic of my identity and my origin by submerging in the fantasy of family — however artificial — with whichever family I happened to be with. Now, I no longer had that refuge. The niggling worm of uncertainty or dissatisfaction or restlessness or confusion that I had worked so hard to ignore over the years: it had grown bigger, and we were alone.
Jake is the preeminent Demonym scholar not just in the city but maybe in the world. He’s very renowned, and revered. When I first entered the gloom of his classroom and walked down the ramp toward the students clustering around him, it looked like they were clamoring for his autograph. I didn’t know what to expect, or why I was even there (I wasn’t enrolled at the school). But Jake glanced up and our eyes met and… well, I’ve no patience for clichés and I definitely don’t believe in the supernatural but when a ship from a planet can arrive at a destination before it ever departs, when it’s impossible to say whether Earth had been seeded by another inhabited planet or, indeed, whether we seeded that planet first, maybe both simultaneously, a lightship passing itself through a wrinkle in time — well, isn’t it possible that two strangers could know each other before they ever even meet?
From the beginning, I was two people to Jake, both irresistible: the lost lonely space-waif, abandoned between timeframes and biomes, doomed to wander the cosmos without history or home; the second: a miracle baby, formed from coincidence and star-magic, the type that set his academic brain aflame with wonder, and lust. This second one, he couldn’t get enough of; the first he couldn’t bear the thought of. And perhaps I saw an answer in him too. If I was an abandoned child, wasn’t being embraced by a big raucous family exactly what I had been missing? And if I was a riddle needing to be solved, wasn’t Jake the best hope I had to solve me?
“It started with fission, of course, that allowed trips to the outer planets in a matter of days.” Jake’s eyes were bright in the candlelight. There is nowhere he prefers to be than in bed with me, teaching me something. “Then it proceeded to the dual-core system, the quad-core, the ultra core, and now we have hyperstem and even quantumstem disruption engines to get us all the way to pretty much any habitable exosystem. Someday we’ll be able to jump galaxies.”
I tried to pay attention but my mind was already wandering. I wanted to understand it. Part of me had decided that even if I could never decipher the deeper truths stamped into my hybrid psyche, surely I could at least figure out how the ships worked. But we had smoked part of a vision stick and as he spoke I felt adrift, the shadows of the room entwining around me as if we were in an ancient cave hosted by dancing spirits and half-formed truths.
“Look,” said Jake, jumping up and returning with a sketchpad and pencil. “It’s like this.” He drew a curve along the bottom edge, then a series of curves above it. “This is the troposphere, stratosphere, mesosphere, right?” He labeled each. “And the planet produces all kinds of energy: solar, geothermal, nuclear. But the breakthrough, for these disruption engines, was discovering a new type of energy, previously untapped. It exists right here, all around us.” He made a motion to show me. “It’s human emotional and psychic energy.”
“Exactly! A super combustive force; it’s been here all along. All the desire, pain and suffering and joy and inspiration, collecting and accumulating since the beginning of life, the same way biofuels built up in the forests and on the ocean floor before we came along to use it. So, the ships gather and gobble this energy through their hyperstem, and gobble and gobble it, until… Tzzap!” He made a sudden, sharp snapping sound that made me jump. The host of creatures around us recoiled also, then crept back, stealthy and curious.
“See?” Jake laughed at my expression. “I know you’ve heard it. That’s the sound the ship makes as it breaks through the Higgs field toward a new destination. Oh, you see it, Zoe-bean. I know you do.” He tackled me backward, circling me with his arms, cackling into my neck, blowing noises in my ear, his thigh pressed against mine, fingers intertwined, until, yeah, I saw it all right. I saw something.
But the sound didn’t sit right and it wouldn’t leave me alone. It reminded me of something I had heard in a dream that I couldn’t quite remember and brought me perilously close to some uncomfortable recollection. I woke Jake.
“So what’s the downside?”
“There’s a price to pay, right? There has to be.”
“Oh. Um…” He reached for me dopily. “We need to make more?”
“None of that.” I slipped out of bed and crossed to the window. Through the glass the glittering city curved away in all directions. I pictured the human lives there, going through their routines and hopes and passions. For a moment I could almost see the energy he referred to: great billowing golden drifts of it rising and spilling from this Promethean forge. “There’s a price to pay,” I said softly. “What is it?”
“Well, maybe.” Behind me, Jake had propped himself against the headboard, a pillow behind his neck. He had the remnants of the vision stick from the ashtray and when he sparked it his features illuminated in the glow. He held the smoke, then exhaled toward the ceiling. “The truth is, they don’t know,” he said. “There’s data but it’s extensive and complicated. Some points to a rise of conflict — divorces, suicide, that sort of thing, maybe a void that needs to be filled. Some indicate an increase in miscarriages.” He grew pensive, perhaps thinking about his brother Robbie and Marissa and the new life growing inside her. Then he shrugged, ground the smoke stick into the ashtray and snugged back down in the bed. “Anyway, it’s senseless to speculate. There’s no going back.” He lifted the blankets to reveal the warm hollow beside him. “Come to bed?”
And, after a moment, I did.
The next time I see my Demonym I’m in a cavernous hall or a museum, vaulted ceilings and stonework bathed in rich, molten, timeless light. A small dark-haired child runs ahead of me, calling back over her shoulder. “Matching plaid! Shirt and skirt! Splashed with blood!” It’s a naughty rhyme or a schoolyard taunt and she shrieks with pleasure at the taboo. “This way, Zoe! This way!” She leads me past elaborate exhibits of past and future, artifacts from the colonized systems set up for public viewing. She brings me to a glass case full of alien coins and waits, attentive, as I study them.
Then I’m in a cafe delivering cakes and tea to various Demonym who are dispersed at tables around the perimeter. “Flare-paste,” says one, clasping her hands as I arrive. I see it’s the one from the ship and I’m struck by the coincidence, that she found me here, or followed me. Her head is gargantuan, lion-sized, her eyes level with mine even while she’s seated. She studies me with one big eye, the vertical pupil dilating gently, while her other eye roves the tray of pastries. She’s like two separate beings: one that reaches and gathers the flare-paste while the other presses coins into my palm for payment. “Don’t mind her,” says the second one, referring to the first. “She’s never traveled this far before.” I notice that she’s given me one of the rare exotic coins from the glass display.
The entire exchange — the words, the gaze, the touch, the coin — happens very quickly and fills me with a profound impression of harmony: a single, perfect, rising, braided musical note, as if all the ill-conceived notions of my life are finally merging into something meaningful. I wake sobbing, my fist clenched, still hearing this beautiful melody. It resolves into the pedestrian wail of the tea kettle, Jake in the kitchen making breakfast. But when I relax my fingers, one by one — I find the alien coin still there. I know there’s an explanation (Jake keeps similar coins in a dish on his nightstand) but for a moment I allow an alternate scenario. If a creature from my imagination can travel through time and space and land in my city, and then reappear and talk to me in my dreams, isn’t it possible she might reach right through my subconscious and press a cold, hard, coin into my hand?
Jake’s family likes me. They’re a big, boisterous clan in similar houses in abutting neighborhoods on a residential extension called the Fingerstrands, near the water; the type that mingles holidays and birthdays, mixing up each other’s pets and children, but it doesn’t matter because they’re nearly interchangeable; children and marriages and anniversaries all overlapping and intersecting in a neat, knit configuration of communal dependence. Jake is the outlier. Not just his occupation as an academic and a scholar, but also his olive complexion, his dark hair and clipped beard that’s incongruous amongst the towheads. Not to mention that he’s thirty-two years old without kids or a wife — a radical anomaly. But this is soon to change. I found the ring in his sock drawer. Because where else would he hide it?
He hasn’t told them about my origin. Not that they would treat me differently. But it would add an unnecessary hitch to an otherwise smooth and calibrated machine. Still, I’m pretty sure the mother suspects. Recently, she led me aside, to her bedroom, and sat me down and took both my hands in hers. “I sympathize,” she said, gazing soulfully into my eyes. “I know you’ve had a difficult time of it, Zoe.” (Referring, presumably, to my upbringing in foster homes.) “Jacob is going to ask you to marry him.” She got up and moved to the window and looked out. “He’s requested the ring and I gave it to him.” Up to this point, I felt like she had been following a fairly standard motherly script, but when she turned back there was an edge to her tone that caught me by surprise. “I’m asking you to say no. I know that won’t come naturally to you, Zoe, but I’m sure you’ll agree, we don’t want him to suffer any more than necessary. Will you do that for me? And for Jacob?” She waited for a response. When I gave none she smiled slightly and left, as if she had received all the confirmation she needed from my expression.
“We have to play the game with Zoe, peek-n-hide! Please!” We’ve come this afternoon for a cookout at the family compound and this is one of the youngsters running up to the deck and jumping up and down with the urgency of it. The rest of us — the middle generation — are arrayed on the shaded, cantilevered extension of the big house with a view of the dunes and the ocean, reclined on haptic, mood-enhancing chairs or propped on the white metal railing, sharing an obligatory midafternoon cooler. It’s that nowhere time of day when arrival and reunion have played out but the meal is yet to come (though Uncle Chester, true to form, is already shirtless by the coals).
“The only thing I’ll be peeking into is this glass of charm,” says Marissa, plopped in the center of everything in her expanded, pregnant role, shrouded in a light checkered wrap, her feet stretched on a separate chair, fanning herself with a story-card. “And my friends here,” she adds, spreading the card so the characters sprout out the top in a crowded, animated bouquet, before sucking back in when she collapses it.
“You’ll stay right where you are,” says Robbie, swooping in to kiss her forehead and take away her glass. He’s wearing — surprise surprise — a matching checkered shirt. “And no more charm.”
“One glass!” says Marissa, grabbing it back. “Doctor prescribed.”
“Peek-n-hide?” I ask Jake.
“An old game.” He makes a motion that’s both dismissive and protective. Jake likes to imagine that he’s transcended his provincial family roots, when really he’s just as entangled as the rest. “Basically hide and seek with a twist. We used to play. But I don’t think Zoe wants to,” he says louder, trying to shoo the kids off the porch.
“She has to!” says the black-haired girl, eyes blazing and not backing down at all. I realize where I know her from: she’s the small excited waif who guided me through the halls of my dream. I’m not surprised to find her here now. I probably met her at some gathering with Jake and that’s how she visited my subconscious. Or, maybe it’s vice versa. From inside comes the rising wail of a tea kettle. There’s a chorus of support from the kids near the pool. I stand up. Jake groans, happily.
Could it have anything to do with me that the iron marker points toward Jake when it comes to rest? I don’t see how it could; I’m not even the one who spins it. But I’m convinced the dark-haired girl shoots me a triumphant glance as she scampers away. Is it pure coincidence that I end up near the boat shed, near the water, when we all scatter to hide? I don’t see how it could be anything but that. But the warm sticky feeling of currents beyond my control has been creeping over me all afternoon, making everything feel sluggish and preordained.
Jake appears, between the trees, acting his part of the stalking predator, arms raised and teeth bared, and kids squeal and scatter when they see him. I duck behind a hedge, make a dash for the boat shed, my heart hammering. Is it calculated somewhere that I should arrive at the same moment as Robbie, that we crowd through the door basically on top of each other, scrambling and giddy with the effort of not getting caught? Robbie closes the door and we crouch together, stifling giggles. Outside, the scrape of shoes on gravel as Jake’s shadow slides across the window. The latch wiggles. Then his footsteps diminish, moving away. Robbie stands. I fall back, sitting against a pile of wrapped sails and masts, faded canvas and braided hemp, age-old artifacts of family lineage mixed with contemporary metallic hulls and hydrofoils.
“Oh,” I say. “I know where we are.”
“Yeah? Where’s that?” Robbie has his back to me, on tiptoes, peeking out the single window. Is it my fault that his back is smooth and tanned and dusted with sand, that he’s so much closer to my age than Jake is, that at that moment he reminds me of all the boys I dated when I was growing up, the type that was fun and easy and looked at me a certain way and never any further; that I recognize in him the long thoughtless childhood I never had? “It’s simple,” I say, coming up beside him. “We’re in a museum. Don’t you get it?”
He turns, surprised to find me so close. “You’re a strange one.”
Our lips never touch but a small spark materializes on his upper tooth and jumps around before it arcs to mine, accompanied by a quick, magnetic snap. “Ow.” Robbie recoils, touching his mouth. “What the hell, Zoe!” He looks startled and scared. “What are you doing?”
“Your eyes. They’re glitching.”
I blink, to clear them, then stretch them wide a few times. The room looks the same. “Nothing.”
“Well… craps! You looked batshit weird, for a second.” Robbie has recovered his balance, and his place in the world, but still he appraises me with distrust. “Just c’mon, okay? Quit being such a freak show.” He opens the door and checks both ways. “We can make it back to base now.”
Neither of us puts much effort into a sneaky return as we trudge back up the path toward the main house. I think we both know that something has fundamentally, irrevocably altered, even if we don’t know what it is. Everyone is outside, near the pool, and for a moment it seems they’ve gathered there as a tribunal to assess our betrayal. Then I see that their attention has nothing to do with us at all. There’s a blankness to it, a bafflement. Only the mother stares right at me with stunned recognition.
Marissa is on the lowest step, moaning and hugging her abdomen, her plaid sundress dark and heavy around her calves. When she reaches for Robbie, her hands are slick and wet with blood.
“I’ll need to go back,” says Jake, when we’re bobbing in his 2-Pod, near the base of the Needle Cluster, back in the city. “See what I can salvage. Okay?” It’s the first thing he’s said since we left the Fingerstrands and I turn, force myself to see him. He looks miserable, dejected, both hands braced on the guidance yoke. I know I should reach out, say something supportive, anything at all, but I can’t summon the words. Besides, everything feels pointless, beyond remediation. All I keep hearing is that quick, staticky snap when Robbie’s lips came close to mine. I know what that was now, not a connection at all, but a rupture: the sharp, stinging fracture as a lightship breaks through the atmosphere, dematerializing toward a new horizon.
The final time I see my Demonym is in the glass facade of a storefront, down near the docks, back where we started, where I had seen her the first time. There’s a lot of activity this morning, being the end of Astral Fleet Week, all the Demonym returning in waves and funneling to the piers, the lightships bobbing at their moorings and preparing to depart in their unique energy-gobbling way. I had paused at this antique store remembering how my Demonym had paused there also, a week prior, when she first arrived, the way she gazed at the glass. And there she is, passing close behind me, warped by the reflection. She doesn’t look at me, and I don’t turn to check if she’s real. We’re beyond this need for empirical evidence. Whatever membrane existed between us is gone. I understand now: it’s not my mother I’ve been searching for all this time. It’s myself.
“I dunno,” says Jimmy-Timmy, studying the misshapen coin in my hand. He takes it and hefts it, then holds it up like he’s appraising it to the light. “Maybe Wolf 1061. Maybe Luyten B.”
“What about a flare-paste sandwich?” I say. “Have you ever heard of that?”
“Oh, heck yeah!” He brightens at the mention of the unusual treat. “That’s Wolf 1061, Miss. I know it is, for sure. I can show you on the menu-form if you like.”
“No need.” I point at the spreadboards and animations arrayed at the gate, then at the chute and the armada of big bulbous lightships waiting for departure. “That’s where I want to go.”