Outside the big window, the Othersea danced.
Its swirling clouds piled about one another, forming and reforming, the bubbles that boiled out around them outlined in the glittering energy released in the collision of regular space and otherspace. I looked down at my hands against the dark warm earth of the food garden, and for a moment my skin glittered too, the green feathery carrot tops frothing around my fingers.
The outer proximity alarm went off, and I blinked, dispelling the imagined shimmer. The ship would be a few hours yet, then. No hurry. I rarely hurry, here at the Lighthouse.
I took the carrots up to the kitchen, washed my hands, and went to the top floor control post. The ship was, as I’d expected, the Fair Stars, due sometime this week. Interstellar travel isn’t an exact science; you can never be sure quite how long it’ll take you to get through otherspace. Currents are unpredictable; exits shift.
I brought up the comms interface.
“Come in Fair Stars. This is the Lighthouse.”
“Fair Stars here. What is it?” There was an anxious note in the skipper’s mid-range voice.
“Just checking in. You’re about three hours, at your current speed, off the edge of the Othersea. Your nav should lock onto the Lighthouse soon.”
“I’ve a slot booked.”
“Yes,” I agreed. “You’re on my list. You need to dock here first, check in with me. Like it says in the booking information.”
Before I took over here, ships could go straight into the Sea, but I insisted on giving them a chance to back out. Even if it meant I had to make dinner for, and conversation with, someone who might never return from the Sea.
Maybe because of that.
“Right,” the Fair Skies’ skipper said, uncertainly.
“So you need to send me your docking chit,” I prompted, “and I’ll see you in three hours or so.”
The docking chit pinged onto the screen, and I pulled up the booking list to compare it. Fair Skies, correct ship ID, single skipper—they always are—but the list had Ines Silva, she, and the docking chit had Peres Silva, ze. Different citizen ID too; not just a name change. At the bottom of the chit was a Bureau note attached to it, authorising Peres Silva to take over Ines Silva’s slot sailing the Othersea.
Huh. I scratched at my beard. That was—unusual.
In general, otherspace stays where it belongs, on the inside of wormholes, where ships can sail themselves through it and back into regular space. Here, at the Othersea, is the only place (that we’ve found so far) where otherspace leaks into regular space. The Lighthouse was built here to warn people away. I’m the lighthouse keeper, three years into a five-year stint. It’s a solitary, peaceful job, which is why I applied. And the Sea is beautiful. To live by it, to see it every day, is a privilege.
Humans being humans, there are always people attracted to the beautiful, and to the dangerous, and especially to that which is both. And the Lighthouse has to be funded somehow. So four times a year, someone wins the (very expensive) opportunity to come here and surf the edges of the Sea. Those glittering energy releases propel them across the boundary and back out again, skipping between here and there. They tell me, afterwards, still caught in the exhilaration of that repeated transition, their eyes gleaming with passion, how glorious it is, how intoxicating; they tell of seeing things impossible to describe in human language, colours that don’t exist anywhere else.
At least, the three out of four who make it back tell me that.
As I listened to the hums and clanks of the airlock, I tried not to wonder which category Peres Silva would be in. The airlock hissed open, and Peres ducked under its low lintel. Ze had broad shoulders and a stocky build, with dark hair braided back from zir face, and zir blue-grey eyes were sombre in the same way zir docking-chit holo had been.
“Hello,” ze said. “Peres Silva, of the Fair Skies. Ze.”
“Hi Peres, and welcome to the Lighthouse. I’m Felix. He.”
I gave zem my best smile, and a tiny return smile appeared on zir lips before it disappeared again. I beckoned zem to follow me along the corridor and into the living area.
The huge window looking onto the Sea is right opposite the entrance to the living area. People see it and stop in their tracks. The Sea is glorious and captivating. I spend half my time here just watching it. I’ve seen sailors cry at their first glimpse.
Peres took one brief look and turned zir head away.
I caught zir brief expression of surprise at the rest of the room. Maybe ze had expected something more station-like. But I live here, all the time; it’s not a public place. I have soft rugs, and a couch for a home, rather than for being hosed down weekly. I keep the place tidy (makes a nice change after years of living with a large family and always feeling behindhand even when everyone was pulling their weight), but it’s visibly lived-in. It’s visibly my home.
I have art up across the room from the Sea. Paintings, with their extra layer of meaning, can hold their own against it in a way that pics, even holos, can’t. One of my paintings shows the blue-green tangled vegetation of Gliese, my adult home; the other, the rocky red mountains outside the Martian domes where I grew up.
Peres stared at the Gliese painting for a bit, then wandered around the room, looking at things, zir back always to the Sea. Ze came to a small carving made by my partner Narith, and I nodded permission to touch. Ze turned it over in zir fingers, then glanced back at the painting.
“Yes, the wood’s from there,” I told zem. “Good eye. It’s Gliese. My partner and kids live there.”
Peres’s eyebrows twitched, but ze still didn’t speak. Ze put the carving down gently, and went over to the couch. My kid Leah brought the knitted blanket folded over its back with her last time she visited. We used to curl up under something similar and read together, when she was little.
“Everyone who comes to sail the Sea stays here?” Peres asked. Ze was looking down at the blanket, stroking it, and I couldn’t quite see zir expression. It feels good, that blanket. Soft, and warm.
“There’s not that many of them. Of you,” I said. “But yes. I can show you the guest room now, if you want. Or I was about to make tea if you’d like some?”
It was odd Peres had asked. The sailors who come here know a lot about the Sea, and the Lighthouse. They’re experienced pilots, with years of wormhole sailing behind them. They’ve read the accounts of those who’ve sailed it. They know as much as you can about what happens here without having done it themselves. Otherwise it wouldn’t be risky to do this, it would be suicidal.
If Peres wasn’t part of that community, if ze hadn’t nursed that desire for years, did ze truly know what ze was getting into?
But then, Peres had authorisation. Ze must have the skill. It wasn’t my job to make this decision. That wasn’t quite enough to dismiss the worm of worry at the back of my brain.
“I just want to check,” I said, as I put the kettle on in the kitchen corner. “Rules, you understand.” Not true; the Bureau handled all that side of things. I just didn’t want to admit my concern. “I expected your ship around now, right enough, but my list had Ines Silva, not Peres.”
“My sister.” For the first time, Peres looked over at the Sea, then zir eyes skipped away again. “She died. Six months ago. She’d always wanted to do this. She was—so delighted, when her name came up.”
“I’m sorry for your loss,” I said.
Peres didn’t respond.
“So you’re doing it…for her?” Well, that was a bloody terrible idea.
“They let me take the slot. I want…” Ze looked back at the Sea. “As a memorial,” ze said, distantly.
Doing something with a twenty-five percent fatality rate didn’t sound like the ideal memorial to me. But was it my place to say so? Let everyone go to hell in their own way.
But I’ve never believed in absolute individualism. People’s decisions are their own; but at the same time, looking out for others is, surely, part of being a decent person.
The thing was, Peres was the thirteenth sailor I’d seen come through. The others had been nervous, sure, but they’d had fire in their eyes. Excitement. They’d all wanted to do it, wholly and desperately. I didn’t see that desire in Peres, and it bothered me.
But hell, maybe I was wrong.
“You’ve read all the information?” I asked, feeling my way. “Your sister would have, on application, but I don’t know how they manage it in a situation like this.”
“You mean the fatality rate,” Peres said, flatly. “Yes. It’s exactly the sort of thing Ines loved.”
Which didn’t answer the question I wanted to ask: that’s as may be, but is it the sort of thing you love?
“Could you show me the guest room?” ze asked, taking a step backwards.
I’d pushed too hard.
“Of course,” I said. “I’ll have dinner ready later. Unless you’d prefer something from the dispenser in your room.” It’s nice to eat with other people, when they’re here, but only if they want to.
“Uh,” Peres said, startled. “Yes. Dinner would—that would be lovely.”
Maybe I’d have another chance later. Or maybe I’d have talked myself out of interfering.
When Peres came back into the living area, ze had changed into a flowing shirt in a bright blue that reminded me of the oceans back home, and a long soft-looking split-sided skirt in deep purple. Ze’d brushed out some of zir braids, and tied the rest back with silver cords. It struck me how much more comfortable ze looked in this than in grey ship-canvas. Ze must be a decent pilot to have brought the Fair Stars here at all, but ze just didn’t seem like the home-is-where-the-gravity-isn’t adrenaline-junkie starfarers I’d seen come through here before.
This time, ze looked straight at the Sea.
“It’s beautiful,” ze said, softly. “I’ve read about it and I’ve seen holos, but the real thing…” Ze walked over to the window and rested zir hand on the frame, still gazing out. “Ines and I used to talk about it, when we were kids.” Did ze know ze was speaking aloud? “I wanted to know why, and what, and how. Ines always said that wasn’t the point. She said it was beautiful because it was unknown.”
If Peres had been talking about this since childhood, maybe I was worrying for nothing.
Ze turned around and smiled at me. “Sorry. I’m getting distracted. Can I help, at all?”
I shook my head. “It’s nearly ready. Please, sit down.”
There were only a couple of dishes left to bring through from the kitchen. I like making food. I enjoy the physical feel of chopping and stirring, and creating something nourishing. I enjoy it when it’s just me—which is just as well—but it’s good, too, to share it with someone.
By the time I put down the last dishes on the low table by the couch, Peres had sat down and was petting Leah’s blanket again. I smiled.
“A gift from one of my kids.” I handed Peres a mug, and sat at the other end of the couch. “You can put it over your lap, if you want. If you’re cold.”
“I wouldn’t want to spill on it.” Peres tilted zir head slightly to one side, looking over at me. “You have kids?”
“My kids are why I came out here,” I said cheerfully. “Which sounds terrible, but they think it’s funny. I spent twenty-five years at home raising and educating and minding and clearing up after my kids. I was about ready for a while all by myself, and some quiet.”
“Uh.” Peres shifted in zir seat. “I can go to my room, like you said…”
“Oh, not at all,” I reassured zem. “I get visitors maybe six or seven times a year. Two supply drops, one family visit, and the four sailing slots. I’m fine for solitude, believe me. It’s nice to have a chat once in a while.” I gestured at the table. “Please. Help yourself. Ask me if you want to know what anything is. It’s all grown here.”
I picked up my own bowl and started to fill it, hoping to encourage Peres.
“You’re self-sustaining?” ze asked. “I noticed how quiet it is. Quieter than the ship.”
“I grow my own food, but the supply ships bring tech and metals and so on, and a few trace minerals. The plants downstairs can handle one person’s oxygen, and the air’s moved by convection. It’s static, not like a ship. Low energy needs.”
“It’s nice,” Peres said, almost shyly, and reached for a dish of stir-fried carrots with ginger.
We ate in silence for a little. Peres seemed to agree I’d done a good job with the food. Eventually ze sat back and stared out at the Sea again, zir fork idle in zir hand.
“Ines would—Ines always wanted to see this.” Zir tone changed. “See it; and fly it.”
“Are you looking forward to it?” I asked.
“For Ines.” Zir chin went up. “Yes.”
“She was an experienced pilot, then?”
“As am I,” Peres said sharply. Zir shoulders stiffened. Ugh. So much for subtlety.
“Do you ever get researchers out here?” ze asked.
“Not while I’ve been here,” I said, glad for the change of subject. “No one’s working on it now, as far as I know. There was a big flurry straight after it was discovered.” I’d read a fair few of the papers myself, over the three years I’d been here. “But I think people have given up.”
“It’s a shame. I did my doctorate on wormhole theory, you know. I always hoped to work on this.” Ze gestured at the Sea, zir eyes wistful. “It’s so different from the rest of otherspace. Being able to see the interaction, there’s so much potential data there.” Ze pulled a face. “It’s frustrating. People think because we can use it, because we can get ships through it and out again at roughly the right place, that’s enough.”
“You disagree?” I asked, as I wrapped flatbread round a spoonful of ful medames.
Peres made an exasperated gesture. “I don’t understand how people don’t want to know. But once the basic problems were solved, the funding dried up. My supervisor’s group was the only one still working on it, and then she died. No one else had the experience to take over, so the university shut the group down. Sorry. I’m going on, aren’t I?” Ze made an apologetic gesture and smiled at me, leaning forwards to take some of the steamed greens.
“It’s all right to have desires,” I said, gently.
“As a child I always dreamt of discovering something groundbreaking, something wholly new about otherspace.” Ze half-laughed, glancing out again at the Othersea. “I was young, I suppose. It just hasn’t happened.”
Yet, I wanted to say. It hasn’t happened yet. Instead, we talked of Gliese and Mars and the station where Peres grew up, and I didn’t ask any of the questions I badly wanted to.
Peres was a grown adult. Ze wasn’t my responsibility, and discovering if ze truly wanted to do this, if chasing zir sister’s dream would make zem happy; that wasn’t my job.
Later that evening, once Peres had gone to zir room and I’d gone to mine, the cold, lurking fingers of self-doubt began to grip the pit of my stomach. That gnawing, lurching, familiar feeling that I’d done something wrong, said something wrong, that I was just, somehow, and for no reason I could specify, wrong. Maybe it was asking about Ines being a pilot; but we’d had a perfectly pleasant conversation after. Or. Maybe.
It could have been anything, or nothing, and I wouldn’t know. That was precisely the problem.
When I first thought of coming out here, Narith and I talked over a great many things. But what he worried about most was that being away from people for this long would screw with my social anxiety. Which wasn’t, isn’t, an active problem any more. I’ve dealt with it my whole life, and I have strategies. It’s just something that comes up every so often, and then I handle it. Narith thought the sheer volume of social interactions, when we were in the throes of raising kids, meant I got inured to it, and with less practice, those skills might atrophy. Myself, I didn’t think I would suddenly forget everything I’ve learnt. I argued that fewer opportunities to freak out would mean less freaking out.
It turns out we were both right. Statistically, I am more likely to get anxious in any given interaction out here than back at home, possibly because it’s always higher-impact. No casual conversations down the shops out here. When it does happen, my strategies still work.
On the other hand: there is a great relief in never having to consider anyone else’s comfort, or their wellbeing, or whether they’re around and what their plans are. In not needing a facial expression. In never having to explain myself to anyone. Not that I had to explain myself, exactly, to my family; but here, there’s no one else even to tell. And, yes, then visitors come, and having to remember all those things can be overwhelming, but I cope.
This was something different. There’s a thing that happens, where you think you’ve got a handle on something and then you haven’t, and you forget all your coping strategies and then you wonder why you aren’t coping.
That. That had just hit me like a rock.
My best coping strategy is honesty. I tell whoever it is that I’m worrying I’ve been weird. I say I get anxious, sometimes, around other people; that I enjoyed talking to them; and that I find it helps me, when I’m anxious, to check in with people. Turns out, somewhat to my initial surprise back in the day, most people react pretty well. But I could hardly wake Peres up in the middle of the night for reassurance. So I did other things instead. I talked myself through the likelihood this was baseless. I reminded myself Peres had seemed to enjoy our conversation. I spent twenty minutes meditating. And finally, I got to sleep.
The sleep didn’t get rid of the anxiety. So when Peres showed up for breakfast, looking like ze too hadn’t slept well, I got straight to the point.
“I’ve been worrying, this morning,” I said, “that I overstepped the mark yesterday. Your decisions are your own, and I shouldn’t question them, even by implication.”
Peres blinked, a small frown appearing on zir face. “I—no. Not at all. This is your responsibility, here. It must be odd, seeing people come through here, and not, always.” Ze paused. “Not always coming back. I understand you wanting to ask.”
Zir tone still sounded flat, the way it hadn’t any more by the end of the previous evening, but I didn’t press further. The other part of dealing with this is not second-guessing what people say. Or there’d be no damn point in asking in the first place. Instead, I started making pancakes, putting my anxious energy into beating the mixture and achieving the perfect brown-and-gold lace. I’d transferred a stack to the table before Peres spoke again.
“Do I have to go today?”
I blinked. “Of course not. Not today, and not at all. It’s not obligatory.”
“But it’s all arranged.”
I shrugged. “That’s never a good reason to do something.”
Peres didn’t look convinced. I carried on. “You have five days at most here, that’s your only limit.” The Bureau doesn’t like other people being around the Lighthouse, or the Sea. “I have things to do, but you’re welcome to do whatever you’d like around the Lighthouse. I could show you the control room later? Or you could come down to the garden?”
“I’ll just stay in here, I think. If that’s all right.” Peres transferred a pancake to zir plate.
“Certainly. Help yourself to a book, or food.”
I smiled at zem, but ze was looking down at zir plate, face solemn, and I felt awkward again. I ate a couple of pancakes as quickly as I decently could, muttered something about chores, and left zem to it.
I checked over the seedlings and the indicators on the composter, and tried not to think about Peres’s decision; because it wasn’t my damn decision. Grief has its own logic. Perhaps doing this for Ines was the right thing for Peres to do. Perhaps it wasn’t. But the last thing ze needed was someone else with an opinion.
The people who fly out to the Sea make their choice, just like I choose to come out here. All I wanted for Peres was for zem to choose for zir own reasons, not for anyone else’s. Not even mine.
When I came back from the gardens, Peres was on the couch. A handful of sheets of paper, scribbled over with equations, lay on the table in front of zem, and a tablet was balanced on the arm of the couch. Ze was staring out at the Sea, turning a pen over and over in zir fingers. Ze turned to me, and I saw tears on zir cheek.
“Ines was always the golden one, you know.” Ze sounded like the thought had been there for a while, waiting for someone to say it to. “The one to look up to. She thought she needed to protect me. And she did need to, sometimes. She was my sister, that was how we were. Sometimes.”
Cautiously, I sat down on the other end of the couch, not wanting zem to stop talking.
“But to everyone else, it was always. Ines always in the front. Our parents—Ines met all their expectations, overflew them, every time. And I, I.” Zir throat moved as ze swallowed. “I didn’t. I was never what they wanted. I swear, I could see my mother thinking, at the funeral—why her and not Peres?”
My heart contracted at the thought of any of my own children thinking I, or Narith, felt such a thing. I wanted to do something; but the best thing I could do right now was to listen.
Peres was still talking. “I thought, this thing, this one thing, I could prove something. I don’t know what. Something. But I’m not her, am I? I’m not her.”
I bit my lip. I had no idea what to say. “You don’t have to be her,” I said, in the end.
“Ines wouldn’t even have wanted it.” Peres’s voice cracked. “She always just told me to be myself. That was what she was protecting, that was why—she always said, do what you want, be what you want, and I’ll handle the bullies.” Tears slipped down zir face as ze spoke. “That’s all that matters, she said. Me being myself. It’s just the same if the bullies are family, isn’t it? Or if they’re just in my head. I’m still me, and not Ines. I don’t have to be Ines.”
All I could do was nod.
“Like you,” Peres added, and I blinked, surprised. “You’re right here, being yourself.”
“Haven’t always been,” I said, honestly. “It’s taken a while.”
“You asked. You asked. Only a little bit, but no one else even tried. No one else challenged me. Ines would have challenged me. Ines would have asked whether I really wanted this. Ines would have said, there’s no need to be, to do, what anyone else wants.”
“Ines,” I said, “sounds like a sensible person.”
We both stared out at the Sea, its fractal shaded edges swirling and bubbling and glittering, always different, always moving.
“It’s beautiful,” Peres said. “It’s so beautiful. Ines would have loved it. She would be out there already.”
“She would.” I didn’t look over. “But what do you want?”
Peres didn’t say anything for a while. I resisted the urge to prompt. Or to look down at that pile of paper.
“You don’t have to know,” I said, instead. “Or if you do know, you don’t have to tell me.”
We were both silent.
“I was sitting here,” Peres said, eventually. “Sitting, and looking.” Ze gestured at the papers. “I don’t have all the references here, and it’s been a while, but I want to understand it. The way those edges interact, I can feel there’s something there. I haven’t quite grasped it yet, but I can feel it.” Zir voice steadied, became more certain. “That’s what I want. I don’t want to sail it. I want to discover it. To know more about the Sea. It’s the key to otherspace, I’m certain of it. We shouldn’t be satisfied with piloting through it on guesswork. We should find out.” Ze turned to look at me. “When you look at it, don’t you want to know more?”
“I’m not a researcher, myself,” I said, carefully. “I just—admire it. The Sea.”
“Ines admired it. She thought that meant it had to remain mysterious.”
“It’s not that. There is beauty in understanding, and in seeking to understand. But that isn’t me. Not here and now. If I did that,” I paused, looking for words. “I would begin to expect something of myself, in relation to the Sea. That’s not what I want from being here.”
“Flying the Othersea was what Ines expected of herself,” Peres said.
“You get to choose your own expectations,” I said. “Or none at all.”
“I want to know more,” Peres said; and now, at last, I could see desire in zem, fire in zir eyes.
I opened my hands to zem, and to the Sea, gesturing invitation. Peres sighed, and it sounded like hope.
Silently, we watched the Sea break against its invisible shore. I let my breath fall into sync with it; let my mind rest.
When, finally, I looked round again, Peres had fallen asleep. I got up, and gently covered zem with Leah’s blanket. Ze didn’t stir.
Peres had four more days to embrace zir search for understanding, before ze would have to leave the Sea, and the Lighthouse, to be once again mine alone. For a while, at least; ze would be back, I was sure of that.
For now, I could share the Sea’s peace; and in that sharing find my own peace too.
© 2022 Juliet Kemp