Absolute darkness. La’ii waved her hand on front of her face.
There was no hand. There was no face. There was no body.
What there was was: Leor at her side sharing her mind, also without his body; darkness thicker than cheese; and the slightest glimmer at astronomical distance of sea foam in the moonlight.
“We’re moving toward it,” murmured Leor’s mind.
He was right. They were rushing towards it. The glimmer increased to a glint. The glint increased to a shine. The shine increased to a beacon. The beacon expanded into a break of crashing white-limned waves. The break became a shoreless ocean.
“We’re going in!” He was trying not to flinch, which was funny since he had no body at this point. Yet their minds both cringed as they plummeted toward the waves, and they sucked non-existent air into lungs that weren’t there.
They didn’t get wet. They seemed still to plunge toward the foam without reaching it. She began to see individual large bubbles in the surf. She began to see masses of tiny bubbles moving like wet mortar between the large bubbles.
“Er. Errrr. Earth?” asked Leor. She could feel his absent head tilt quizzically.
Following the line of his attention, she peered into one of the larger bubbles. She recognized it from history class: Sol, its system of planets, and blue Earth.
The large bubbles loomed huge as houses. The tiny bubbles grew.
She whispered, “All of them have Earths.”
“Which do we choose?”
“Choose?” she asked. “I don’t think we’re steering.”
“Good point,” he agreed.
What had been tiny bubbles were now enormous. Between them sloshed and tumbled masses of smaller bubbles, which also grew huge.
She felt his brain lose focus.
He mumbled, “Four dimensional fractal masses of related realities?”
She increased her presence in his mind, exaggerating the points where it felt most like they were in contact. Something reminded her of Xochi snugging a boyfriend’s arm closer when a passing bit of code turned his head.
She felt Leor put the astro-temporal theory away and snug back. The mass of bubbles turned a degree, and a bubble that had been quark-sized before consumed them. There was the slightest drag as they passed through its membrane.
Sitting on the ground. Back in physical bodies. Hand in hand.
Blue sky. Blue, mind you. And two shadows over them.
Gareth didn’t bend back to grinding corn. It was that feeling, that old feeling of a time jump about to toss him willy-nilly into the universe. A keening pang struck him: the feeling always took him to or from Maya; would he see her again? Could he stand to see her again? Could he stand, inevitably, to leave her again?
Two figures appeared at his feet, crouched and falling backwards as if chairs had been pulled out from under them. Masses of wavy light hair. Holding hands.
Stinging tears rose in his lavender eyes.
The cheeky chap squeaked and ran. “Dr. Hernandez!,” he called.
The pair looked up, a little dazed.
“First jump?” asked Gareth.
Leor recovered first. “Yu. Yyyy. Yes,” he managed.
La’ii blinked up at the bizarre sky. Blue was a weird color for it. The plants around them had an almost fluorescent green hue. Leor’s auburn highlights flashed only yellow and his irises were pale. It smelled like outdoors, though a little different. It looked like outdoors, though the plants were unfamiliar. The man looking at them holding a rock in his hand looked like a man.
She blinked. The man was speaking, putting down the rock, stretching is hand toward her.
“Gareth,” he said.
A rough, hard-working hand taking hers kindly like Annie Gracious’ did.
“La’ii,” she answered with matching counter-pressure.
“Leor,” he offered, reaching his hand toward the older man.
She asked, “Captain Maya’s Gareth?”
Again, that pang. “The same,” he intoned.
The twins’ eyebrows popped up. Leor said, “That was easy.”
“Don’t suppose you have Dr. Hernandez tucked away nearby?” She thought it was a hopeless joke.
Gareth smiled. “Here he comes now.”
The boy who had squeaked and run reappeared, towing a genial-looking man with a rather patronizing look on his face. After all, the boy was telling him twins had magically appeared in the clearing.
Incredulity replaced patronage for an instant, then burning curiosity flared. Dr. Hernandez pressed hands, repeated names, and sat right on the ground with them. His merry eyes flashed with delight.
Gareth spoke. “You’re on Earth, six years after the Sappho launched. Where are you from?”
“Planet Maya,” said Leor.
“Three hundred years after Sappho landed,” added La’ii.
“How did you get here?” Dr. Hernandez asked.
La’ii shrugged. “We went to Annie Gracious to talk about the Apocalypse. She told us we were eugenically-developed time travelers and we had to bring you two back.”
Leor waved a hand above his head, stirring vagueness. “Fate of humanity, I think.”
“We don’t really have details,” La’ii apologized.
“As soon as she told us, we just disappeared into….” Leor fumbled.
“…A vast oceanic timespace?” offered Gareth.
“Yes!” They agreed together.
Leor’s eyes widened. “You’ve been there. You really are Gareth.”
Dr. Hernandez smiled. “He really is Gareth.”
A low whistle from Leor marked his amazement. “Her-nan-dez,” he muttered.
“Yes?” asked the doctor.
The twins gaped together.
La’ii stammered. “He didn’t mean you. I mean, he did mean you, of course, since that’s where the word came from, your name, you, originally. But he didn’t mean you because we just say that, ‘Hernandez’, when it’s good or surprising or awe-inspiring or…” Etymology failed her, and she trailed off.
Dr. Hernandez smiled. “I’ll take that as a compliment.”
“Eugenics?” Gareth probed.
Leor shut his mouth and looked at the ground. Better hear what La’ii had to say.
“Right?” She said. “Pisses me off. I mean, generations of Readings and pressure to Expand, generations of visiting the Annies to check bloodlines. The story was ‘small population, small gene pool, gotta be careful’. But the truth was breeding time travelers! Breeding me! Manipulating me, making me a particular type of person, on purpose, without any choice at all, then raising me to expect to participate, accept a Reading, and Expand just for, for this.” She waved an exasperated hand at the irrational cerulean sky.
Leor touched her fingertips very, very carefully. “It brought us together.”
“It brought you here,” added Gareth.
At her temper, a wistful twist touched Dr. Hernandez’s mouth. “It brought back a glimpse of my girl.”
La’ii folded her arms. “It pisses me off.”
Brrda stirred. “We’d better contact their parents,” whe mused.
Annie Gracious blinked at the two empty chairs. “We’d better find a few more folk for dinner. I don’t think you and I can put away three whole rabbits by ourselves.” Her braid thumped the table as she stood; she flipped it back; it swung saucily behind her as she went for the door.
Brrda ginned in a way that would have made those rabbits, in life, freeze in their tracks for a solid hour. Wher folk had manes, but never long hair falling to the waist. Then, of course, there was the tantalizing weirdness of immutable truncated gender. Wher claws absently traced downy lines of auburn on wher thigh. Whe had to admit it: Gracious was sexy and whe’d like to see that braid unbound.
Whe kept wher eyes on the simmering stew as Gracious returned. The auburn streaks stood on end as whe caught a whiff of the fragrance of her hair. Luckily, humans rarely noticed any change in her fur and never knew what it meant. Whe had plenty of love to enjoy back home in wher pride. Whe inhaled over the stew, suffusing wherself with the mouth-watering food scent instead.
Two more couples came in carrying infants. Whe looked and whiffed, needing to concentrate to identify them accurately. All four had the sweet odor and swollen dugs of nursing parents. It was an old tradition, but Annies tended to offer any extra to those in lactation. The first parent – whe leaned slightly away from the stew to get a clearer whiff – was a male. He beamed beatifically upon the tiny creature latched to his nipple and sucking greedily. The second parent was female. Their smiling mates were both male.
Of course, in a pride it was damn rude even to try and determine gender without an obvious mutual and immediate consent to privately reveal themselves.
Here among humans, whe couldn’t even talk without the gender-based “he” and “she” constructions they used. This made wher folk so deeply uncomfortable, most of them wouldn’t take wher job even if they had the chance. At least here, led by the Annies, the males chose to lactate. Brrda knew that among the civilized and those at the coast, males never nursed – usually didn’t even know that they could nurse even though all it would take to find out was to pick up an infant and let it latch on. Whe shook wher head. To have truncated static gender was bad enough, but to choose – as a culture – not even to know the capabilities of one’s own body!
Whe heard wher name. “Hm?” Whe purred.
Annie Gracious grinned. “Worried about the cubs?”
Brrda blinked. Cubs? Ah, La’ii and Leor. “Out of wher reach.” Whe shrugged. Wher folk didn’t worry. If one could act, one acted. If not, not.
Wher lips quirked in a way only the closest adults in wher pride might understand. Whe hefted the cauldron to the table. “Soup’s on.”