Xochi twirled her fork in pale syrup. “One night on the trail, one night with Annie Gracious. She might be back by tomorrow noon.”
Alice rolled her eyes. “Afternoon. Earliest.” Exasperation bubbles floated up and popped with wet smacks.
“That audio coding is getting better.”
An angry face rose and exploded. It sounded distant. “Well, mom, your coding is doing a really plausible job of hiding those wrinkles.” Alice speared a small block of waffle cells and chewed noisily.
Xochi’s fork clattered. “Ok, that was rude.”
Smug faces made an animated crown. “So was pointing out how much my audio used to glitch.”
“Maya, Alice! It was a compliment!”
“Not when you’re comparing me to La’ii the Hacker, it isn’t.” All the smug faces looked pointedly at Xochi at once. The edges of Alice’s blouse and scarf began to flutter upwards, as if she were surrounded by rising warm air.
Xochi’s imp whispered “blood pressure” and ducked back into her earring. Xochi inhaled and exhaled slowly. Twice. Xochi’s projection cooled her skin tone and re-modulated her voice. “Practice coding and earn the extra equipment.”
“…or use La’ii’s.”
“She’ll be back tomorrow, Alice. I’m not giving you her stuff.”
The blouse and scarf swirled now. “I’d just be borrowing it.”
“…until you spend all night installing and coding and all day whining it’s too difficult to downgrade.” Even through the voice modulation, her syllables were clipped.
“Just until she gets back. I can do uninstall codes.” Little puppy-eyed faces waggled around Xochi’s waffle plate and whimpered.
“Practice coding and earn the extra equipment.”
Little snarls swirled. “It’s just sitting there.”
Xochi stopped reasoning. “Practice and earn.”
More puppies. “Just to see what I want to earn for myself later.”
“Practice and earn.” Xochi’s arms folded in a way La’ii would recognize.
Weeping alligators death rolled with mouthfuls of Alice’s hair. She stomped a foot. “You always let her have everything!”
Xochi started to pick up the dishes. “Practice and earn.” She turned her back on her daughter.
Little banshees screamed in a glowering cloud. “I hope she never comes back!”
Dishes slammed into the washer. “She’s coming back!” Xochi hollered, veins pulsing so heavily in her temples that her projection wavered.
Waking up in infinity wasn’t exactly waking up. Certainly, their bodies were entwined back on Earth in a pit sleeping. Leor felt that if he focused on waking up, he probably could. But he certainly wasn’t asleep, either. There was that crystalline, precise fitting of minds that happened in their sleep. That was when their hair started to braid itself into mandalas again. Dreaming became lucid dreaming, became shared lucid dreaming, became greater than the sum of their parts, became this oceanic totality.
This time, they weren’t pulled anywhere. They could drift and look.
Each bubble had an Earth. Each Earth had Leor and La’ii practicing. Leor wondered where into the future these lives went. La’ii’s mind began to answer and their tiny selves in the bubbles flickered forward in time.
There were children.
La’ii’s mind bounced off, sending them both careening toward a reality cluster in which they looked truly elvish. La’ii turned toward it and dove in. Bubbles scattered and splashed around them. The membranes of each reality were resilient, more so than the one around Gareth. They felt buffeted. They began to turn and kick, diving and slicing through the foam with gleeful abandon.
Earth: Launch +5
Juan’s hand froze in space handing the old iron skillet to Fredo. Marino’s broad, tough hands paused on the kindling mid-break. The doctor’s gracile hands folded on her lap. They all stared at Gareth.
Gareth’s lavender eyes rolled toward the darkening indigo sky. ”Timepull,” he whispered.
They were separate and physical again. Their minds remained interlocked. Every detail of cellular and molecular activity in the immediate vicinity thrummed through Leor, while the threads of melody in La’ii’s mind traced truths back and forth through time. Stars and sun breathed night and day. Seasons pulsed rhythmically around them as they listened quite literally to the music of the spheres.
They stood like statues in the sacred grove. Younger elves changed their clothing for them at the spring equinoxes. After five years, they began to show rootlets and tendrils. After a hundred, their massive roots twined into the soil, their faces only suggestions within their bark. It took a hundred and forty six before La’ii and Leor began to think it was time to get back.
Earth: Launch +5
The barrette in the doctor’s black and silver hair had fallen askew. It was a battered turquoise piece she had worn daily through the bunker, the launch, and the lean times.
Gareth’s blue eyes twinkled. “May I?”
Her eyes returned the smile.
Gareth’s finger traced the loose strands, catching them deftly in steady fingers. He popped open the clasp, slid in the strays, and snapped the clasp closed again.
Juana and Fredericka smiled from the hearth. They were sweet together, after all they’d been through.
“Ok, being elves was cool.” La’ii’s mind trilled with glee.
Leor’s mind played a note of caution. “I’m not sure which Earth we came from.”
A path paved with confidence stretched away from La’ii. “I can find it.” She tugged his consciousness with her.
There had been some shifting while they were elves. Parts of the paths between realities had rotated, had attenuated. It meant popping through realities to get back instead of sliding between them.
Leor rode along, fleeting truths and fleeting bodies flicked on and off his consciousness. The areas between physical reality and infinity moved over him like dappled sunlight. His ears grew rounder. His body grew shorter, denser, and softer.
Disorienting, but La’ii seemed to know just where she was going.
Earth: Launch +5
“That’s not just timepull,” mused Gareth. The vicious scar down his face occluded one blue eye.
The doctor tugged the ends of her bound hair to tighten her malachite barrette. “I have an odd feeling that scar hasn’t always included your eye, even though I remember the scar from the moment I met you.”
“I just wanted to clasp your hair for you.” Gareth studied her, as if from an unfamiliar angle.
Juanita giggled. “As if you two would. I mean if five years of means, motive, and opportunity hasn’t done the trick.”
A skinny girl flashed past, swiping a leftover burnt tortilla on the way. Juanita managed to cuff her, landing a negligible thump on the head. “Freak!,” Juanita called after the knobby elbows disappearing onto the brush.
Gareth’s fingertips rubbed his sternum. It was much more than timepull. “What is that?,” he asked the air. His left ankle began to ache.
…which it had always done, ever since he broke it rolling that log in the swamp with Daniel. His eye caught the doctor’s lapiz barrette perched tight in her hair. That thing hadn’t budged in in the whole time he’d known her. She stacked the hearth for morning, leaving the living coals banked under ash at the back. Her hands remained immaculate.
“Leor?” La’ii’s voice quavered. “This pit house isn’t exactly right. I mean the chamber pot is different and the blanket is different.” She rubbed her eyes.
He tried the boulder at the entrance. “Looks like we’re still in quarantine.”
“I wonder how long we were gone,” she asked, yawning.
Footsteps approached. A woman’s voice filtered down through the roof. “First coherence check. Are you two ok in there?”
They looked at each other and shrugged. “Yes!” they piped together.
“Who is that?” asked Leor. “I’m not sure we’ve met.”
They could both feel the immediate cloud across her thoughts. They should know her. They just met two hours ago.
La’ii sidled up to her mind. Aghast, she whispered, “It’s Doctor Hernandez.”
Leor pointed up helplessly while his jaw worked.
Parts of La’ii’s face tried to make light of it. Parts tugged down on her mouth. “Try again in the morning?” she suggested.
She touched the tips of his fingers, gentle as spring leaves uncoiling in a breeze, and led him to their rest.
Earth: Launch +5
It wasn’t her bed. It wasn’t her room, her house, her family, her planet, her time, or her life. Yet La’ii slept blissfully entwined in Leor’s arms. The mandalas weaving themselves around their heads included elvish runes for fate, volatility, and unintended consequences. La’ii’s fingers traced Leor’s skin: the curve of his belly near his hip, the grooves between his ribs, the sweep under his pecs to his sternum.
He woke up. He listened to her mind. There was a reverberating awareness of his skin through her fingers, his scent comforting her deep into feelings of unquestionable belonging, and a burgeoning thrum of sexual delight. A hundred and fifty years as a tree had been a lot of waiting while their leaves stirred softly in the breeze, barely touching, keenly aware of every squirrel, every elf, every bark mite, every nightingale’s vivid life cycles around them. His body roared for hers.
He unveiled his mind. He didn’t offer an image or a plea. He didn’t unleash his emotions within her consciousness. He simply existed sincerely beside her, enjoying the resonance between the physical thrill of her touch and her sleeping contentment tracing his body.
She murmured and snuggled up to rest her head on his chest.
He could simultaneously feel his heartbeat press her cheek and hear it through her ears. Maya, the woman could sleep through anything.
Gingerly, he stroked her jawline with a fingertip. That jaw, if she woke, might clench, might bite back desire, might turn away from him. It had been a hundred and fifty years, but it was still only their second night together. Even back home with constant pressure to Expand, two days was fast.
Her brow clouded, and he deftly turned his mind toward her jaw, the miniscule moisture between her cheek and his chest, his heartbeat in her ears.
She relaxed. Her fingers traveled up his neck to his jaw. Her mind crossed into consciousness. With the slightest pressure on his chin, she turned his face toward her. She stretched her neck and kissed him.
May I? He suffused it with his love for light on her dappled leaves, with the drip of spring rain on her bark, with more than a century of yearning, with her intoxicating scent, and the wailing of every cell in his body to enfold her.
“Let me touch you,” she moaned.
“Here. Quotidian, 3D, in the flesh, no coding, no timesurfing, no borrowed reality. Now.”
They clasped each other, rolling in the blankets on the dirt floor. Minds enmeshed, each knew the other’s needs: where to put a hand, how hard to bite, how tantalizing was the taste of sweat, when to shift weight to relieve pressure, what pressures racked and gloriously rattled the bones.
The entwined mandala writhed in seeming agony, the tiny runic stroke that differentiated “death” from “rebirth” fluctuating as their bodies rocked.
Their joy lifted their consciousness together as the physical distinction between their bodies simply dissolved. Microbes in the soil around them increased activity. They could feel infinitesimal dust mites feasting on the skin cells on the blankets, those minute satisfactions adding to their own. They floated quite naturally into nulltime, pulsing like electrons around a shared nucleus.
In physical transcendence, La’ii opened her eyes to infinity. In shared motion, they swam like plankton in foaming masses of realities, each with an Earth, with a La’ii and Leor in ecstasy, with-
-with La’ii, Expanded, burdened with child, aching and exhausted.
She pushed him away. Their bodies parted. Their minds parted. Their safety in infinite nulltime collapsed and La’ii hurtled helpless and alone into an unknown reality.