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Boundless

“T, wake up.”

Anna? Terumi reaches across the empty bed seeking Anna’s warm presence.

The voice again, unmistakably clear. “I’m sorry I’m missing our anniversary. It is our anniversary, right?”

Baxter the terrier, nestled against her legs, jerks to alertness. The old basset hound Ringo pushes the bedroom door open with his nose. Both dogs catapult down the stairs.

Terumi switches on the bedside lamp. But this is impossible, she thinks, it must be a dream. Her late wife’s photo smiles at her from the dresser, framed by two unlit candles.

“T, you can hear me, right?” Anna’s voice is still clear, but fading now, like the volume on a headset being turned down. “It’s the weirdest thing, I—” The rest of the sentence fades into silence.

“Anna?” Terumi follows the dogs downstairs, where they race from room to room, searching for their human. The house is empty. “Is it really you?” She opens the front door. The dogs fling themselves into the front yard. Baxter whines at the gate.

There’s nothing.

She can’t go back to bed. She brews a cup of green tea. She lights the candles and a stick of incense and stares at the photo of Anna. She pulls a chair to the window, wraps herself in a blanket, and gazes out into the starless night.

Ringo lies at her feet, and Baxter jumps into her lap. She strokes his silky ears as he snores against her belly.

The call came eight months ago, the one all astronauts’ spouses dread. There’s an informal confederacy among those who are left behind. Everyone knows someone who’s had the call.

In Terumi’s case, the director herself broke the news. She’d been fond of Anna, too. “I’m so sorry, Terumi. The team lost contact with her seventy-two hours ago.”

Terumi’s voice was lost inside the hollowness of her chest.

“She left the habitat on a routine patrol. The vehicle was found empty, her tracker stopped transmitting. She’s missing.” The director sighed. “The team’s done what they can, but they can’t expend the resources to keep searching. I’m sorry.”

Terumi didn’t say, you knew for seventy-two hours and you didn’t tell me?

She didn’t say, she can’t be gone. She promised she’d be back. I promised to wait for her. What am I supposed to do now?

She said, “Thank you.” She listened to the expressions of grief. She hung up and took the dogs out for a walk that lasted three hours. The dogs’ tongues were lolling with exhaustion when they finally came home.

Terumi sits at the kitchen table the morning after she heard Anna’s voice the first time. The tulips she’d bought yesterday nodded at her. She doesn’t care for tulips but Anna loved them. Loves them? “Happy anniversary,” she says. The words bounce around in the house aimlessly.

Baxter pads up and scrambles into her lap. He’s a sensitive dog. When she and Anna used to fight, he’d hide in his kennel, cowering from their raised voices. Anna deflected arguments by pointing it out: “We’re scaring Baxter, baby. Let’s stop.”

Baxter sighs gently, reminding her that he needs to be petted. She scratches behind his ears and kisses his nose. “Do you think it was her?”

His eyes are wide and curious.

“You heard it too,” she says, scratching his head, although she’s not sure she believes it. “I know you did. Good boy.”

“Can you pick up the dogs from day care tomorrow?” Terumi asked one evening, months before Anna’s mission started.

Anna was scrubbing out the stock pot. “Can’t Harley do it?” Harley, the dog-sitter.

“Harley’s out of town.” As I told you last week, she almost added, but decided not to.

“Well, I don’t know when I can leave work.”

Terumi paused. “I hardly ever ask you to get the dogs. Can you get them just this once? I was going to see a movie with Cass.”

“Leave them overnight, then.”

It was a logical suggestion, but the casual tone of it threw her. Leave Baxter and Ringo overnight at doggy day care? Because Anna couldn’t be bothered to get there before eight? Terumi banged the forks into the dishwasher harder than necessary.

“Hey,” Anna said playfully. “Talk to me instead of taking it out on the cutlery.”

She wasn’t in the mood to let Anna diffuse her resentment. “We both wanted the dogs, but it feels like I’m the only one who looks after them.”

Baxter crawled into his kennel. Ringo merely sighed from his spot under the table.

“It’s just one night. They don’t mind it there, and we can afford it, right?”

“That’s not the point. You avoid the responsibilities of this life, this life I thought we’d both chosen, having dogs and a house and a wife. You’d rather be out there, out in space. Or in the training room. Or at the gym. You’d rather be anywhere than here at home with me and the dogs.” Terumi was crying now, big fat tears rolling down her face, her cheeks heated with rage and sadness and helplessness.

“Aw, babe, I’m sorry. It’s just this week, I swear.” Anna reached out for Terumi. Terumi turned away.

Anna sighed. “This isn’t about choosing between you and the dogs on one hand, and space on the other.”

Isn’t it? Terumi wanted to say. She gripped the dishtowel in helpless despair. “Don’t make promises you know you’ll have to break, then.”

“I’m sleeping on the couch tonight,” Anna muttered.

The dogs, after pacing with anxiety, elected to sleep with Terumi although around midnight Baxter got up and went downstairs. Terumi lay on her back. She wanted to follow Baxter downstairs and fling herself on Anna. I love you, let’s not fight, I love you, stay with me. Maybe Anna couldn’t sleep, either. She must want her to come down. She was waiting for her.

Terumi got up. Ringo snorted and shifted his bulk. She leaned over the bannister. Anna breathed easily, deeply. Terumi hesitated.

Anna’s voice reached her through the darkness. “T? Hey, babe.”

Liquid warmth rippled through her limbs, relief and love and regret. “Please come back to bed.”

Anna did, and held her. “I can’t help it,” she murmured against Terumi’s hair. “I have to go.”

Terumi turned her head to kiss Anna’s ears and cheekbones.

Her sister calls her on Saturday morning, as usual. “Why don’t you take time off? Come out to Boulder and stay with us. The kids would love to see you. Bring the dogs.”

“I heard her voice.” Terumi leans her elbows on the kitchen table. The tulips are dying, their yellowing heads hanging from rotting stalks.

“That happens. You’re grieving.”

“The dogs heard it, too.”

There’s a short silence. She can imagine Reiko running a hand through her hair, wondering what to say. “Should I come out there? Scott can manage without me for a week.”

“What if it’s true? What if she’s still alive? What should I do?”

“T, it’s not possible.”

Do we know that for sure? Terumi wanted to say. “Thanks for calling, Rei. I’ve got to go.”

When Anna was offered a place on the mission, Terumi had been shocked and furious that Anna was planning to accept it.

“But it’s six years,” Terumi said, putting down her fork. “I’ll be forty-eight when you return. You’ll be fifty. Ringo will be dead by then.”

Ringo heard his name and twitched an ear but didn’t get up from the floor.

Anna poured more wine into both glasses. “It’s an unprecedented opportunity, Terumi. You understand—you’re an explorer too.”

“We both retired from active service. That was the deal.”

“I know, baby.” Anna’s hand held hers, warm and solid. “But this mission will be the first attempt the build a habitat on Mars! It’s what we’ve both dreamed about.”

“I can’t believe you’re considering this.” Her voice cracked. “We made a promise. We both agreed to retire from field missions.”

“Baby, we’re building a new world on another planet. I have to go. Can you understand that? Please.” Anna’s face was open, loving, pleading. Asking her to give her permission.

Terumi trembled from the effort to contain her tears. Anna would rather hurtle into the unknown than wake up next to her wife in a warm bed, surrounded by their loving dogs. “We don’t know what happens to the human body in space for so long,” Terumi said. This was her expertise, after all– a very narrow field of medical data, an emerging science: what happens to the human body in non-terrestrial environments. “You could be permanently changed.”

“It’ll be okay, I promise. I’m coming back to you, safe and sound.”

You can’t promise that! Terumi thought, but she was too choked up to form words.

“T,” Anna said, pointing. Baxter had retreated into the depths of his kennel, back hunched, ears pressed against his skull, his wide eyes darting back and forth between their faces.

“If you go,” Terumi said, “I might not be here when you come back.”

Anna looked at her with such tenderness, such faith. They both knew Terumi was lying.

Terumi gets ready for bed. She lights incense in front of the photo. She doesn’t know how to pray, but she can talk to Anna. “I miss you. I don’t know what to do.”

She gets into bed, and the dogs nestle against her. Ringo’s heavy head presses on her shoulder; Baxter is under the covers, his back legs stretched out to the pillow, his snout snugged against her ribs. They don’t know what’s wrong but they sense, with their gentle canine intuition, that she needs them close.

Ringo lifts his head and snuffs the air. Out on the street, a car drives past and slows in front of the house. Baxter leaps out of the covers, vibrating with attention, staring at the window. He does this every time he hears what he thinks is Anna’s car.

“The dogs believe you’re coming back,” she says. “I don’t know if I do.” She closes her eyes as if she can conjure Anna, standing in the room. But no, that’s wrong; Anna never stood still. Anna would be moving, getting ready for bed: closing the curtains and putting away the clothes draped on the dresser, planning a weekend trip to the lake, playfully jumping on the bed to kiss and nuzzle her. It’s so vivid Terumi can almost smell her, the scent of her hair fragrant with the coconut oil pomade she used, the rose oil body lotion, the deodorant. “I’m here, I’ll always be here. I love you.”

Anna’s voice, suddenly out of the dark, as if she’s materialized right beside the bed: “I know, T. I love you, too.”

Baxter’s ears spring up like a rabbit’s, two parallel lines pointing at the sky. Ringo barks and clambers to his feet on the bed, tail waving uncertainly.

Terumi sits up. “Are you alive?”

“Sort of.” Her voice seems to come from the walls. From inside the room, from outside, from the stars, from everywhere. “The theory of the consciousness of the universe—” The voice ends as if it’s abruptly switched off, like a recording.

“Anna! Where are you?”

Just as suddenly, it’s back: “—so T, listen, you can’t come look for me, all right? Promise me—” Pause.

“What should I do?”

“—look after the house, the dogs, I’ll—”

Silence.

She flings open the windows and screams into the night. “Anna! Anna!”

Terumi met Anna during the spaceflight training program. Terumi, freshly armed with her bioinformatics PhD, was dazzled by the sexy pilot who’d logged over 1200 flight hours in the Navy. She had swagger and style, her hair cropped short to show off the perfect planes of her face. Terumi was shocked and ecstatic when Anna asked her to lunch.

Anna had a wicked sense of humor and an optimism that overcame Terumi’s uncertainty. “We’ll figure it out” was her confident phrase. Terumi soon adopted it, applying that to every problem she encountered. “We’ll figure it out. We’ll find a way.”

They served together on the historic first crewed mission to Mars. Two years in space—the longest any human had ever been off Earth. They survived because they had each other. When they returned home heroes, Anna proposed, and they married six months later in the spring, with tulips and anemones in full bloom.

“I do,” they said to each other. Which meant, “I promise.”

Another anniversary. Terumi brings home a bouquet of tulips mixed with anemones. She makes tea and eats her lunch at the table facing the glorious explosion of spring blooms. Anna’s voice has never reached her as clearly as that night a year ago, although Terumi hears whispers sometimes, and once, a distant voice singing Anna’s favorite song.

“Am I supposed to just sit here?” she says. Her soup has lost its savor. Baxter whines. “Anna, am I supposed to just wait for you?”

She’s been studying. Reading up on the fringe theories of quantum mechanics, of multiverses, of the idea that the universe has a consciousness. She’s reviewed all the data she’d collected from her past missions, reread all her own research papers, searching for clues. She’s explored esoteric Taoist and Buddhist practices of sending one’s spirit out, astral projection. She’s even tried it herself, although nothing’s happened. Yet.

“I have to do something,” she says. She jumps to her feet. Baxter, alarmed, circles around her legs.

The next day she’s in the director’s office, listening, again, to the same hollow explanation: how they’d failed to find any sign of Anna. She’d gone out on a routine patrol. The team lost contact with her. When they went to go look for her, the vehicle was empty. The cameras revealed nothing. She was just gone.

The director looks at her with such compassion that Terumi can’t stand it.

“She has to be somewhere. You never found her body.”

“Space is a big place.”

Terumi snaps at her. “Don’t patronize me. I went through the same program you did. There are multiple possibilities. Multiverse theory. Or panpsychism. The universe has a consciousness.” She takes a breath. “I heard her voice. We had a conversation.”

“There’s no evidence,” the director says gently. “Even if I believed you.”

“What if quantum mechanics can actually explain that consciousness is everywhere, and we can learn to traverse it to communicate?” She lays out her theory, the one she’s been working on for a year. “I need to be out there to continue my research.”

“It’s not rational. I know how hard it is to lose someone. We don’t want to let go.”

“I’m putting in a formal request to reactivate my status. The next mission leaves in two years, right?” She’s checked.

“You’re not psychologically equipped. I can’t let you risk your life when you’re—”

“You let Anna risk hers, though.”

The director says nothing.

Terumi says, “I have two years to train. I’ll pass every test you give me.”

“You’ll have to be in peak physical and psychological condition.”

“I’ll be ready.” She’s stunned. “You need me. No one else has as much experience as I do in extraterrestrial medicine.” She hadn’t anticipated capitulation. She lets nothing show on her face but determination.

Anna blazed through the night sky, a comet. The evenstar. The voyager, sailing forth to seek and find. Anna had always been an explorer, down to her bones. Terumi loved that about her.

Several months later, Reiko calls.  “How are you holding up? Are you seeing friends?”

“I don’t have time.”

“It’s been nearly three years, T. You have to accept that she’s gone.”

How to tell her? It’s best, she decides, to just lay it out. “I’m going on the next Mars mission.”

A long pause. “What the hell, T.”

“It’s what I was trained for.”

“But not at your age. Isn’t it dangerous? You didn’t want Anna to go for the same reason!”

“Could you take the dogs?”

“Jesus. For how long?”

“Six years.”

Reiko says many things, nothing that Terumi hasn’t already told herself. Then her voice gets quiet as if she’s exhausted herself. “You have other people who love you, you know.” Terumi can tell that Reiko’s about to cry. “You have your nephews. Me. Cass. Ringo and Baxter! They won’t understand why you left them. They won’t know you’re coming back.”

Somehow that’s the most heartbreaking thing of all, that the dogs might think she’d abandoned them. But she has to trust in their unconditional hope. “They’re dogs. They’ll adapt.”

Her sister draws in a long breath. “Of course I’ll take care of them. Damn it, T. Are you sure you want to do this?”

No. Yes. What else could she do? “Thanks, Rei. I love you.”

Long before she met Anna, before she was even aware of it, she’d made a promise to herself. She would be the kind of person other people could count on. She would be dependable. The person who’d always return a call, get the job done, finish the project.

It seemed clear at the time, what it meant to be that person.

She passes all her physicals. To her astonishment, she passes her psychological tests too. The director takes her aside, assuring her she can still drop out if she wanted, that they have alternates trained and ready.

The director means well, and Terumi thanks her.

She’s made her will, leaving everything to Reiko, just in case. She’s packed up the house, found renters. Cass, who lives nearby, agreed to manage the property. Harley will come by later to dogsit until Reiko arrives to take the dogs to Boulder. Terumi has left money in a bank account to cover vet bills, food, and the like. It’s upsetting, the burden left behind on people who loved her, but she knows the dogs will be happy with Reiko and the kids and the big back yard with hiking trails nearby.

She makes coffee, and takes them out at dawn for one last run. They jog along the beach. Ringo is thirteen now, ancient for a basset hound. His stride is ragged and he breathes in gasps.

They stop at a water fountain and Terumi lets the water run so Ringo and Baxter can drink. “Reiko’s coming,” she says. “She’ll take you to Colorado. You’ll like it there.”

Ringo slurps noisily. When he dies, will his soul race across the sky, through the stars, straight to Anna? The dead aren’t bound by physics, time, or space. She kneels and whispers into his floppy ears. “Good-bye, Ringo. When you see her, tell her I’m coming. I’ll bring her home.”

Baxter whines, his eyes fixed on hers. What’s wrong, he seems to ask. What’s happening? She opens her arms, and he jumps into her lap, kissing her tear-streaked face, leaving sandy paw prints on her legs. “I love you.” She presses her nose into his warm, solid skull. He still smells like a puppy. “I’ll be back, I promise. Wait for me.” He wags his tail. “I’m counting on you, buddy.”

She stands, brushing the sand off her leggings, and looks out to the ocean. The shimmer of blue on azure stretched into an infinite morning.

 

(Editors’ Note: Miyuki Jane Pinckard is interviewed by Caroline M. Yoachim in this issue.)

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Miyuki Jane Pinckard

Miyuki Jane Pinckard is a writer, game designer, educator, and the co-founder of Story Kitchen Studio, a community for exploring writing techniques. Her fiction can be found in Strange Horizons, Uncanny Magazine, Flash Fiction Online, and the anthology, If There’s Anyone Left, Vol. 1. She was born in Tokyo, Japan and now lives in Venice, California, with her partner and a little dog. She likes wine and mystery novels and karaoke. Follow her @miyukijane (Twitter and Instagram) and at www.miyukijane.com

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