The Caress of a Butterfly’s Wing by Christopher L. Bennett
The Caress of a Butterfly’s Wing
by Christopher L. Bennett
The Caress of a Butterfly is a hard science fiction story. A tale of love and transhumanism in a remote and dangerous star system. There has been a division in humanity due to a horrendous accident, followed by an even more divisive war. The chasm between those two halves seem unbridgeable. Suddenly due to unforeseen circumstance, the chance to reconnect becomes a real possibility.
Mariposa flew through space, two suns warming her skin against the chill of vacuum. The goldwhite wind of their light—Circe’s from ahead and Calypso’s from behind—embraced her as she sailed between them. Her skin always circulated the available heat, but it wasn’t the same as feeling direct sunlight against all her silver flesh at once. Mariposa reveled in the sensuality of it.
The past few months had been colder: a long, slow cargo run out to the Reaches, the lightwind growing weaker against her wings as she left the warmer orbits of Calypso’s planetesimal disk for the halo of icy rubble that surrounded both stars. Mari disliked the cold, but the water miners, her fellow sailors, had needed the equipment she brought. She went where she was needed; that was the life of sailfolk.
She’d hauled a load of ice halfway back, but she was due for maintenance at Aurelia, so she’d handed off the cargo to Kaze a week ago, releasing it onto a trajectory that her fellow sailor would intersect within a few more weeks. She wished a direct rendezvous had been possible; it had been nearly an oldyear since she’d felt another’s touch, or even heard another’s voice with less than a minute’s delay. But she could hold out until she reached the crèche.
Now Mariposa was unburdened for a few blessed weeks, sailing between the twin stars with no responsibility save enjoyment. She loved Inbetween, not just for the bracketing warmth but for the navigational challenge. Out in the Reaches, either you ran outward with the suns’ doubled light filling your wings, or you spilled wind and let gravity pull you in, your sailskin slicing through the radiation like a knife. But here, pushed from two directions, a sailor had to use the pressure from one star to tack into the light of the other. As the angles changed, as Circe brightened and Calypso dimmed, Mari was kept busy readjusting the trim and reflectivity of her wings to stay on course.
Inbetween had its drawbacks, though, for here were the Wandering Rocks. Though the stars’ gravity had shaved their respective protoplanetary disks at roughly a fifth their average separation, Ogygia was still a youthful system, and many rogues remained between. And of course one risked running afoul of geefolk here as they shuttled between their habs, one Lagrange point to another. They’d mostly learned to leave sailfolk alone by now, in exchange for being left alone, but the grudges on both sides still ran deep. Well, that was just part of what made life interesting.
Mari’s life got a bit interesting now as she felt a few particles of dust poking holes in her wings and tail. Her sailskin reflexively thickened around her trunk and head even as it queried the network for the latest tracking data to make sure the dust wasn’t a harbinger of something bigger. While she waited for the data to traverse the lightminutes, Mari felt a few specks strike her core body, the vacugel layer catching them, her sailskin rippling to dissipate the energy. One particle had momentum enough to hit her inner armor, the tiny explosion denting it and jabbing sharply into her midriff. She accepted the pain, almost enjoying it. When nothing but vacuum touched you for months on end, even pain brought a thrill. The micrometeoroid had knocked out a few oxy and water reclamation cells, a few nanocapillaries and neuralnet pathways, but a few out of millions was hardly debilitating. The armor was already regenerating, the skin absorbing elements from the debris to help replenish her losses.
Mari gasped as a larger micromete—whole millimeters wide—pierced her tailfin sail near her left legspar, tearing the mesh. Attenuated as far as it now was, a puff of breath would tear it. But the photon-catching mesh was already reweaving itself, and after a few moments, her somatic feedback reassured her that the tear was in no danger of enlarging. Still, she bent her knees a bit, the movement slow and delicate, angling the tailfin to reduce the light pressure on its damaged surface while changing her tack to move more rapidly out of the debris field’s orbit. She arched her shoulders slightly back to compensate, keeping her wingsails at an appropriate angle despite the movement of the spars they shared with the tailfin. Her skin gave her a bit more blood sugar to feed her heightened metabolism.
She sharpened her skin’s senses, hoping to detect any larger metes in time to focus a burst of reflected light and nudge them away from her vulnerable core. Meanwhile, she transmitted the debris field’s position to the network as a routine precaution.
With that out of the way, she tuned in to the Song bands, listening as sailors scattered across the system wove snatches of melody into a fluid tapestry. Each voice she heard was delayed by minutes or hours, and any response she sang would take its own sweet time reaching the others, even at the speed of light. But the delays became a creative element in themselves, as theme and variation, point and counterpoint, figure and ground circulated among the singers, combining in unexpected ways at unpredictable intervals, producing new emergent melodies, chords, and rhythms. A passing improvisation would echo through the Song for days, kept alive by feedback and by the sailors who sang along—spawning new counterpoints that took on lives of their own, then gradually giving way to other leitmotifs whose evolution it had influenced. It was spontaneous yet structured, ever-changing yet always distinctly itself, like the whalesongs of long-ago Earth—except that the relative distances and delays made the Song unique for each sailor, the experience shared but highly personal. Mari could listen to it for days on end.
But now her skin reflexes diverted her attention to a new signal that instantly overrode all other thoughts: the clear, piercing cry of a distress beacon. Not a sailfolk distress call. Skin memory found the type: a passenger-ship escape pod. Geefolk!
Mari controlled her reflexive fear, cocooning it in reason. The war had proven that the geefolk had no hold over the sailors, who could scatter through the void and had no supply lines to cut or control. Yes, the geefolk had captured Chrysalis, but the other crèches were well-hidden among the asteroids. Neither side had possessed the resources or the numbers to sustain the war for long, and in time they’d agreed to take advantage of Ogygia’s vastness and simply avoid each other. There was no rational basis for fearing a trap. And it was a sailor’s obligation to respond to any distress signal—no matter who the sender.
Well, perhaps someone else was better positioned to respond to the emergency. The geefolk had ships of their own, surely. Her skin echoed the signal back to its source, waiting for the feedback to allow a distance calculation. As she did so, she alerted the other sailors to the beacon; she would need their parallax to fix its position and trajectory.
The distress call turned out to be less than a lightmin away. No other geefolk ships were in range; Castaway was on the other side of Circe, and Robinson had few ships to spare. As other nearby sailfolk’s rangings trickled in over long minutes, it became clear, to Mari’s dismay, that she was on the best course for intercept.
“I can’t,” she radioed. “I—I’ve taken damage. I’ll need time for repairs. I’m overdue for maintenance as it is.” Her sailskin had recycled her air, water, and nutrients efficiently for the past oldyear, feeding on sunlight, ion wind, and meteoroid dust as needed, but gas atoms still tunneled out, waste accumulated molecule by molecule, and nanocells were ruptured by metes or mutated by radiation. Her margins of safety were acceptable, but a detour would shave them uncomfortably thin. “Argent could rendezvous in under two weeks.”
Argent’s reply came a dozen minutes later. “They won’t last that long. Is your damage purely so bad?”
She caught the tone in his voice. He knew her too well. “It could be far worse if I go among geefolk,” she countered. “They’re unclean, they have diseases. It’s suicide.”
Another dozen minutes, then: “You’re exaggerating, Mari. They’re not ‘unclean.’”
Samiel’s words arrived at almost the same moment: “Don’t do it, Mari. You know what will happen if they get their hands on you. Tend to your own needs—geefolk aren’t worth it.”
The bitter contempt in his voice made her uneasy, but his words resonated with her fears. “Geefolk say they no longer need us, so let them help themselves,” she broadcast. “These fools ventured where they didn’t belong, and now they’ve paid the price. Why is that our responsibility? Why should I risk myself for them?”
This time it was Spinnaker who answered. “Because they are part of the All, as are we,” her old mentor’s voice sounded in her head. “Even if they don’t recognize it, they’re still entwined with us.”
“In your day, maybe. When we did the building for them, gathered what they needed to live in their luxurious habitats, rescued their helpless, and got nothing in return.”
“We chose a life of service because it helps us turn our focus outside ourselves,” Spinnaker continued. “We’re as free as anyone has ever been. That’s why we must take care of those who aren’t.”
The elder’s words humbled her. She’d heard them from him many times, as his counsel had helped shape her over the years since she’d left Chrysalis and been implanted within her adult skin.
“Our lives are fleeting as it is,” Spinnaker went on. “The only real tragedy is passing up a chance for human contact out of fear.”
Mari gasped at the implication. “You’re talking about geefolk.”
“We were one people only five sun cycles ago. And yet we’ve let ourselves drift apart from them. We, who cherish our connections to one another, for they are all we have.”
“You know what I’d be risking.”
“No more than you risk every day. Yet you are in your element out here. The geefolk in that pod are more lost, more at risk, than they have probably ever been. So who has more cause to fear?”
She hesitated, knowing the window for her course change was closing, but reluctant to commit. But Spinnaker’s questions echoed in her mind. Did she want to be as angry—as afraid—as Samiel? When her voice echoed in future sailors’ ears, what did she want them to learn from her?
Delaying no longer, she sent nerve impulses out along her spars to trim her sails anew.
Mari’s new orientation slightly improved her reception of the distress signal, enough to let her skin’s processing algorithms draw signal out of the noise. “Yes, I … hear you!” came the faint cry through the static—a male voice. “I was, we were … from a prospecting run, seven of us.” Mari quailed at the prospect of encountering more than one person at a time. “We—we were go … Robinson to register our claim.” A mining expedition would explain why they were so far from the geefolk habitats. “Then … omething did hit … meteoroid!” The man sounded shocked, as if being hit by meteoroids were something fanciful and unreal. “The air did rush out, my God it di … ight through Fatima, it did kill her! And … others, they …” Mari heard some rasping that might be uncontrolled breath. “I, only Kamila and I might ge … pod in time, but she … dly hurt … in medbed, but I don’t know if she—she—ohh no …” So two survivors, but only one likely to be conscious. She felt a moment of relief, then quashed it. Geefolk or not, five people had died. Foolishly vulnerable people, their bodies insufficiently hardened against Ogygia’s hazards due to misplaced nostalgia for humanity’s planetbound origins—but still people.
“Please, try to still yourself!” Mari barked. Although her signal was no doubt far clearer than his, the instruction would have to cut through his shock. “You must stay calm, so you can help me save you.” Still, she knew she’d have to listen to his sobs for over a minute as the signals made the journey.
“You’re true,” he gasped at last. “You’re true, I—I need to focus. Who are you? How far … ay are you?” A pause. “… an you get to me?”
She heard the beep of the channel closing, and promptly replied. “I’m bearing for you right now. This is Sailor Mariposa. I’m thirty-nine lightsecs out, beating a course in your direction. But I need you to hook your lifepod’s brain to my comline. I must coordinate with it so your pod can thrust for rendezvous. Are your thrusters working?” Beep.
“… n you hear me?” came from the pod just after she finished speaking. It didn’t repeat; apparently he had finally remembered the time lag. A minute and change later: “A sailor?” After a silence: “Yes—yes, the thrusters are fine. I’ll … the comp now. Thank you, thank you! Uh, my name’s D-Daniel. Daniel Sadiq. Uh, habari gani?” Beep.
She felt the pod’s computer link in to her skin’s neuralnet. “Don’t worry, we’ll rendezvous in just five days.” Beep.
Eighty seconds passed while Mari absorbed the data from the pod.
“Five days? I have to … here alonely for five days?” He made it sound like torture.
“It’s not so long. Indeed,” she went on, loath to put up with more spoiled geefolk blather, “you should let your other medical unit put you to sleep to conserve oxygen. In any course, your radio’s weak, and I don’t want to drain your power with too much talk.”
It was more than eighty seconds before the response came. “The second medbed’s damaged. I can’t … do I have enough air? Will I …”
The panic in his voice made Mari regret her selfish impulse. “Your air should last long enough,” she admitted. “So long as you remain calm and quiet. Sleep all you can naturally. Otherwise, relax and breathe slow.”
“I’ll try,” the answer finally came. “Will you—talk to me? … me company?”
She’d never imagined a geeman could sound so vulnerable. “You should rest now. Conserve air and power.” After a few moments, though, she added: “Once I’m closer, we’ll be more free to talk. Square with you?”
His reply began with a burst of static which might have been a sigh or a splash of cosmic rays upon her sails. “Okay. … robably best.” A desolate pause. “I venture I’ll talk … ou then.”
Mari didn’t know how to reply.
Mariposa spent the next four days beating into Circe’s light, zigzagging toward Daniel Sadiq’s pod by alternating tacks, averaging out to a path nearly straight for the star. She strove to tack as sharply as she could, adjusting her sail mesh to favor transmission of light from ahead and reflection of that from behind, so that Calypso’s rays drove her forward more strongly than Circe’s pushed her back. Careful calculation and lifetimes of sailskin instinct let her shave hours off her rendezvous time.
But every now and then, Daniel’s voice would interrupt, sounding a discordant note, and she would have to shift her attention to keeping him calm. Communication was strained, now that Daniel’s initial burst of relief had faded and Mariposa’s identity had sunk in, but it was still something he needed, the only lifeline in reach.
“Why are you helping me?” he asked once they could communicate clearly.
Mari went with the most neutral answer, aware that others were still listening. “Nobody else can, not in time.”
“But why should a sailor care about a huma—a geefolk?” Mari was struck by his slip. Did they actually consider sailors inhuman now? Though admittedly there was some truth to that idea. And Daniel did sound embarrassed at the slur.
So she responded without anger, feeling Spinnaker’s calming influence on her words. “There was a time when the question wouldn’t need to be asked.”
“But no longer. You did turn against us.”
“You tried to end our whole way of life!”
“Only to free ourselves from dependence on you!”
“By making us dependent on you? Taking away everything we—” She caught herself. “Never mind. We’ve both sides learned not to dwell on who began it.”
“Instead we just avoid each other. And my people suffer for it.”
“You claim not to need us. You have your own haulers and builders now, mine your own stroids.”
“But they’re not as efficient, you know this. And we’re … not as deft at surviving Ogygia’s hazards,” he added with meaning.
Spinnaker’s lessons echoed in her mind. “The rift has cost us both,” she admitted.
“What cost to you? You need next to nothing. You don’t eat, don’t drink, don’t exercise … you barely even move because it’ll move the sails and throw you off course.”
“We need to be free and unharassed. We need Chrysalis, which you took from us.”
“You’ve done wellnough without it.”
This was true on the face of it. But Chrysalis had been their womb, their garden, the kernel of their soul. Mari remained silent, though, not ready to share such private spirituality with this geeman.
“I’m sorry,” Daniel’s voice came after a time. “It’s just hard … Even before the rift, we did rarely meet. We did speak so little that our dialects did drift apart. You’d be crushed in our world, and we’d be … well, we’d be lost in yours.” He chuckled bitterly. “I feel truly lost here now. I don’t know how you bear it, Mariposa. To mod yourselves to survive in a way humans never were meant to survive.”
Mari resisted bristling. By his own words, he simply didn’t understand. “The first sailors had no choice,” she answered patiently. “The Wrecked were scavengers, not colonists. Their tech was damaged, their cybers half-wiped.”
“Through their own greed! They did choose to enter forbidden space in secret. They did know the Spinward Void was abandoned for true cause.”
“I don’t defend their folly in coming here,” she told him. It seemed the geefolk and sailors still learned the same stories of how the Wrecked, hungry for alien technology left over from the ancient war that had depopulated this part of the Orion Arm, had paid for their greed when a surviving booby trap had destroyed their superluminal drive. “But once stranded, all that mattered was staying alive. They had to jury-rig crude sailcraft—modified probes, spacesuits with sails and cargo hooks attached—just to scrounge the materials to build a life here.” It was a basic story she retold, a child’s tale, but Mari doubted that geefolk learned much sailfolk history.
“But did not build a transmitter. Did not dare broadcast their crimes to the galaxy.”
“We’re dozens of parsecs from civilization. Building a transmitter powerful enough to be heard would have taken too much labor and energy, when they had barely enough for survival. And rescue would have been generations away in any case. Building a life here was the only choice we had.”
“But why a life trapped in sail suits, forever alone in the void? Why not join us in Castaway?”
“It took more than half a sun cycle to build Castaway. By then, the sailors had been without weight too long to go back. They’d begun having babies in their crude pressurized domes.”
“But why not let the children come to Castaway?”
“They didn’t wish to part from them. More—they’d found a fulfillment, a freedom they’d never thought possible. True, it was a difficult life, but great truths never come easily. So they built Chrysalis, and later Aurelia and the others, to nurture their heirs and their legacy.
“Over time, we refined the sailcraft,” Mari went on. “Made them more efficient. Hooked them to our nerves and our blood. Streamlined and minimized everything, the craft and our bodies alike.”
“Until you did practically become the sailcraft yourselves,” Daniel finished.
“Practically?” She chuckled at the understatement.
“But I still can’t imagine how you can live thus.”
Her smile widened invisibly. “And what do you really know about the way we live?”
“Tell me.” He really seemed to mean it.
So she spoke of her first memories, of the nursery situated on Chrysalis’s equator, letting her feel just enough weight so her bones would learn the right directions to grow. She spoke of swimming in the girdling stream, her playful turbulence kicking up vast undulations in the water; of how whole masses of the stuff would separate from the stream, sometimes carrying her with them, snatching at her with their surface tension, carrying her languidly across a chord of the stream’s circumference before gently merging back into their element. She spoke of the plants that grew along the oblate habitat’s inner shell, of the trees that grew in random and confused directions yet still seemed to strive toward the miniature sun at its center. She spoke of the birds and insects that had managed to learn to fly without the gravity they had evolved for, as if daring the humans to achieve the same.
Mari told him of learning to sail with her bright silver playwings; of the swooping, dizzying games she shared with the few other children the habitat’s resources could bear; of taking insane chances and darting amidst the tangled tree branches, around the scaffolding that held the tiny sun in place, through the pseudopods of water bulging out above the stream.
She told of her pride when she had first been joined with a sailskin and begun training in space, of the wonder she had felt at gaining a vast new body with new senses, new thoughts, new abilities, a whole new beauty. She spoke of the struggle of learning to sail with a whole new kind of wind, one without convection or turbulence, and learning to see the suns as down instead of up. She shared her triumph when her brain’s instincts had finally meshed with the skin’s and it had suddenly become the only way to sail. Though there was so much more to that communion that she kept to herself, for he could never understand.
And she told him, her voice singing, of her rite of passage into adulthood: the donation of her ova to ensure the birth of future sailfolk generations, and then her sterilization, her final commitment to a life spent sailing upon stellar radiation. Daniel seemed unable to appreciate the poignant beauty of the ceremony, or of the life it inaugurated.
“But it’s such an austere way of being,” he said. “Don’t you ever chafe at leading such a cold and empty existence?”
Mari strove not to laugh too hard. He was right; it would’ve shaken the sails. “You pity me, Daniel! Oh, pity could not be more wasted. You’ve never felt what it’s like to fly through space for real! Not locked away in a can, but the master of your own course. Never known what it’s like to be vast, to have a body that stretches so far you can’t see its edges, yet feel as light as a feather upon the wind. Never had a home that’s not a tiny bubble of metal, but a whole, sprawling star system with all its farthest bounds within your reach.”
She grinned with savage pride, and it carried through her voice. “You’ve never braved the elements naked and alone, taking on the vacuum and the flares and the meteoroids and the solitude—daring them to kill you and laughing when you survive another day.
“Our ancestors started with almost nothing, Daniel. Yet they survived and made a life for themselves, through ingenuity and bravery and pure plain will. The first sailors took on a life humans had never been made for, and they embraced it and made it theirs—made it beautiful. Our very existence is a triumph, Daniel! And every day I go on living is a triumph as well.
“Cold and empty? No. I’ve never felt empty a day in my life.”
Later, after a rest, came Daniel’s turn to tell her of his life. It was a strange existence: living in two dimensions, aloft only in machines, always surrounded by masses of humanity. Having permanent homes, pets, possessions. Living with so much structure, so many divisions: different school grades, specialized careers, different families. They even spoke of God as something separate from themselves.
Hearing Daniel tell of his life alongside his genetic forebears and siblings was one of the strangest things of all to Mariposa. She couldn’t fathom the way geefolk valued shared biology over shared experience. It seemed as though they alienated themselves from the majority of their fellows, devalued anyone who wasn’t genetically close enough. Daniel even spoke of having grown too distant from his family, and Mari wondered if there were anyone he truly felt connected to.
Then Daniel’s monologue turned to Kamila, the woman who now lay in a coma in the lifepod’s medbed. He painted her as a warm, kind, beautiful woman, a gifted dancer and actress, her grace alluring, her smile blinding, her intelligence entrancing. His voice broke as he chronicled what he feared he might have lost.
“You love her very much,” Mari said.
“I did—do. Everyone does. But I did hope … maybe she might love me too. I did hope this trip might be a way to find out. But now I … I may never know.”
His sense of loss bewildered her. “I don’t understand. You haven’t already joined in love?”
His laugh seemed embarrassed, of all things. “In my dreams, truly. But she didn’t know yet. We’ve never even kissed.”
“Why not?” she asked, profoundly lost. This was the most tragic, most alien thing she’d ever heard.
“I don’t know. I suppose I was afraid.”
“That she might say no.”
Now that was even more alien.
“Or that I might make myself a fool.” His mood shifted abruptly. “Here, what do you know anyway? Locked away in those skins your whole lives—what do you know of touching, of loving?”
“I wasn’t born in the skin.”
“But you seal yourselves in, cut off from human contact. It’s not natural. Humans need touch, affection. Babies die without it. Hearts turn cold, minds turn sick from the absence or abuse of it. Take those bonds away and what’s left isn’t even human.”
“You know nothing!” Mari shouted back. “The skins sustain us, balance our hormones and neurotransmitters. I feel touch—the warmth of the suns, the stretching of my spars, the pain of a mete hit. Those parts of my brain do not go unstimulated.
“But yes, the flesh within us has its ancient needs. That’s why, when sailors rendezvous, our skins merge and open so our flesh selves are freed to move and touch—to merge in their own way. When sailors sight the chance to share another’s touch for a few hours, we take it. We devour it. Such moments are too brief, too far between, to waste time on caution and preliminaries. When sailors rendezvous, we make love. Always. No matter if we’ve never met in flesh, no matter if we like each other. It’s a chance that may not come again for far too long, or never come at all.”
It was some time before Daniel replied.
“Does that mean that when you reach me, you’ll want to …” He trailed off, perhaps due to more of that strange sexual modesty.
Sailors discussed sex freely all the time, listened and rejoiced when others made love, for it was too rare and precious a thing not to share. But Mari tried to imagine it through geefolk eyes. Castaway and even Robinson held so many more people than all the remaining crèches put together. Could that overabundance of neighbors explain why the geefolk limited their sense of kinship to a manageable few? And could their constant physical closeness be so overwhelming that they needed to create distance? Maybe some echo of a sailor’s yearning for trackless immensity lived in geefolk’s hearts as well. And maybe Daniel was not so hard to understand after all.
But Mari hesitated nonetheless. There was much more at stake here than in an ordinary joining. “I don’t know,” she told Daniel.
They both fell silent, but others were still monitoring. “Listen to what you just said,” Spinnaker’s voice came to her ears alone. “How can you not know?”
Her reply was equally private. “How can I not doubt? Our kinds have been apart so long. Who knows how … how our bodies might react? What his could do to mine?”
“Stay outside, and you will say this man isn’t worth touching. What message will that send to our people? Mari, this is the first time in nine oldyears that our peoples will physically meet on amicable terms. All of Ogygia is listening. And what you do here can help to heal the rift … or to worsen it. You must choose which risk you fear more.”
Daniel’s voice resumed after a time. “You have a point. On Castaway, we’re raised to value caution and balance. Resources are limited; breathing room is limited; deadly vacuum’s all around us; and if you’re not careful you’ll suffer for it. So we’re taught to be reserved, to avoid extremes.
“But you have so much less, yet you embrace the extremes, revel in them. You don’t shy from risks. Maybe it’s because you have nothing to lose.”
“You’re wrong, Daniel,” she said—though with sympathy now, not anger. “We have everything to lose. I could be killed by a flare next week or a meteoroid tomorrow. A single day may be a lifetime, so sailors strive to live a lifetime in each day.” Now she was speaking as much to herself as to him. “A single moment, a single hour of companionship, can mean everything. And to miss the chance to grasp it is to lose everything.”
He was silent for a time. “I think I understand now. I did think there was endless time to woo Kamila. That I could be cautious, patient. Now I may never speak to her again. We never know what chances we’ll get, or when they’ll be taken from us.
“Maybe that’s what did happen between our peoples, Mari. We did grow too careful … pass up too many chances to know each other better. Maybe this is a chance to change that.
“So if you want to come in … if you need to … I won’t turn you away.”
Long minutes later, Samiel’s voice arrived, begging her not to contemplate such a disgusting union. Argent urged her to ignore him, to take the chance on healing the rift. Vayu suggested that rescuing the pod would be enough of a gesture without the need to enter and risk contamination. Kipepeo, herself berthed at Aurelia for a few more weeks, begged Mariposa to abandon the pod to its fate so they could rendezvous in the crèche, cajoling her with graphic descriptions of the lovemaking she planned, then insisting in equally graphic terms that sex with a geeman would ruin Mari forever.
But they were all too far away, their words reaching her too late to matter. Mariposa’s choice was hers alone.
And she knew her course was already fixed.
As Mariposa drew within a kilometer of the capsule, its velocity now virtually matched to hers, she trimmed her sails flat between the suns, the light pressure from both directions largely canceling out. At the same time she began furling her sails, feeling her spars retract from hectometers down to meters, the wing material condensing from molecules-thick mesh into millimeter-thick fabric. Not only did this minimize the light thrust, but the greater thickness would protect her sails in case of collision with the pod or associated debris.
It had been some time since Mari had seen another sailor with her own eyes, but she knew what she must look like to Daniel: a small human figure tightly wrapped in silver; her head a featureless bulb atop a body splayed into an X, stretching into four slender spars which supported the shimmering sail fabric and delineated it into four triangles, their outer edges curved in graceful catenaries. “My God,” Daniel breathed, his words now reaching her ears almost instantly. “You’re beautiful.”
“Thank you,” Mari replied a bit shakily, hoping she could feel the same about him.
She fired the nerves nature had intended for controlling her hands, and cargo hooks extruded from the front of her spars. Silently asking the pod to maneuver its hatch around to meet her, she crept toward it on momentum and finally grabbed hold of it with her manipulators. “Docking successful,” she broadcast to the listeners throughout the system.
“Yes, I did hear,” Daniel answered, a bit giggly with relief. “So now what?”
“First I replenish your air supply. I’ll make a seal with the airlock and open its doors, so we share our air and my skin can metabolize your cee-oh-two into oxygen.”
There was a pause that Mari had to remind herself wasn’t due to time lag. “Then you are coming inside?”
His voice shook, making hers shake in reply. “I’ve come all this way … it seems only polite.”
“Then I’ll truly get to see you. The you inside the skin.”
“The skin is me too.”
“Yes, but you’ll be … naked.”
Mari chuckled. “Sailskin, remember? I’m always naked.”
He replied only with a nervous laugh. Despite her casual air, Mari was nervous too. Maybe Spinnaker was right: this could be a new beginning, a symbol to reunite the castaways. And it would be her first human contact in nearly an oldyear. For all those reasons and more, she knew she had to embrace it. More than that, though: she wanted it. Now that Daniel was nearly within reach, the intensity of her need to be with him was startling. And that alone frightened her more than any threat of geefolk disease or crushing strength.
Mari calmed herself and let her fears disperse. As Spinnaker often reminded her, she was one with all things, now and forever.
Though it was not another sailor she sought to merge with now, the process of forming a seal with the escape pod was much the same. It was a shock as always when the sailskin’s tight embrace began to release, inflating and molding itself against the airlock door. Her human flesh began to tingle, its nerve endings slowly awakening from their numbness. Then her limbs were released from their silver sheaths, and with a deep, moaning breath, Mariposa began to move.
“What’s wrong?” Daniel cried. “Are you in pain?”
She smiled at the anxiety in his voice. “Of course I am. I’ve hardly moved my limbs in an oldyear.” As she watched an opening appear in the skin and gradually widen to reveal the airlock door, Mari just as gradually lowered her spars—no, her arms. “The skin … kept my muscles … electrically stimulated … so they wouldn’t atrophy.” She bent her legs. “It’s giving me … adrenaline and protein … to boost my energy.” She flexed her fingers and toes, swiveled her head from side to side. “But it’s still … a struggle to make my muscles work again.”
“Do you … must I come out? Help you inside?”
She chuckled through the pain, touched by his concern. “Who’s the rescuer here? I just need to finish warming up. This is … a regimen all sailors follow when our skins … release our core bodies.” She downplayed the difficulty for his benefit. But it was still strange and stiff and unnerving to slowly remind her muscles what it meant to move.
Finally she sent the command to open the airlock door. “Here I come, Daniel.” The next step was the hard one: moving her body outside of her sailskin. Slowly, with difficulty, Mariposa moved her arms, reaching for the frame. Flailing, more like, for her hand fell short.
“Are you truly well?”
“Just getting my bearings. It’s been so long since I’ve seen through these feeble eyes in my head.” She reminded herself it was like grappling onto cargo, and that made it easier. But the touch itself, the sensation of cold, hard matter against her palms, was a shock. It was a numbness, an inchoate pressure, yet it was real and overwhelming. It burned; it chilled; it hurt; it was ecstasy. She gasped and sobbed at the proof that she was tangible again.
But this was just a lifeless sheet of carbon composite. Inside was flesh, warmth, humanity. Inside was Daniel, who offered her such kindness even through his own fear and need. How much more overwhelming would his touch be? How could she possibly bear it? Yearning to drown in it, she clung to the frame and began to pull. “I’m coming.”
The force her delicate arms could exert was tiny, but so was her mass. With a focused effort, she managed to propel herself into the lock. The next step was to open the inner door while the outer remained open, in order to accommodate the silvery umbilicals that kept her one with her skin. Tendrils extruded to probe the airlock’s mechanisms, finding ways to bypass its failsafes.
The door just cracked at first, allowing pressures to equalize. It felt like an eternity before the lock slid open and Daniel was revealed to her. He was a veritable giant to her eyes, nearly a meter eighty in height, each of his thighs almost as wide as her entire torso. His skin was an even richer brown than her golden-bronze inner flesh, though it had felt far less radiation in its life than hers had. But most of his flesh was hidden beneath a loose, dull-colored outer skin that seemed to serve little function.
His head was uncovered, though, except by tightly curled black hair. His jaw was square and his nose broad … but it was hardly the rough, brutish geefolk face described in sailors’ tales. It was … beautiful.
How could she have ever expected otherwise? Geefolk or not, his was the first human face she had seen in nearly an oldyear. Of course it was beautiful. But there was more to it than that. There was a vulnerability to Daniel’s visage, and a warmth that she felt would make him beautiful even to one who gazed on human faces every day.
His dark eyes were wide, curious. She could see them fixating on her hairless scalp, her fragile limbs, and the shimmering umbilicals that trailed from her neck and spine. Was she too alien to him, too hideous?
But then he smiled nervously, and her heart caught fire. “Um, hello, Mariposa. I’m, I’m glad to meet you.” He extended a diffident hand.
“Daniel.” All her hesitation was forgotten. Clumsily but eagerly, she clasped his outstretched hand, gasping at the wave of sensation. This time it was beyond words. Feeling human skin after so long was always overpowering, but this was somehow more intense, more solid, than any touch she’d known before. Panting, she pulled herself slowly against him and wrapped her arms and legs around his massive frame. The more it overwhelmed her, the more she could bear it, and the more she craved it. She nuzzled her head against his cheek, startled by the scratchiness of the tiny hairs that grew from it, but still reveling in the warmth of human flesh upon her scalp.
Daniel stiffened at first, but then he relaxed. “Mariposa,” he sighed, a word filled with welcome, gratitude, and invitation. His arms moved to embrace her, but he hesitated, his fingers exerting only the most delicate pressure against her skin.
She found she could speak again. “Don’t fear, Daniel, I’m not quite as delicate as my sails. You can touch me more firmly than that.” Excitedly, she planted a series of quick kisses from his neck across his cheek to his full, warm lips, which she caught hungrily between her own. After a moment, he returned her kisses, his arms encircling her more firmly but still delicately, with care not to snag her umbilicals.
Mariposa had to take the lead in their lovemaking. Daniel had no experience at freefall maneuvering, and needed her to help him undress, following his coaching. His body was remarkable, exotic in its massiveness, the thickness of its sinews. She’d always assumed unaugmented bodies were somehow incomplete, but there was a compelling purity to Daniel’s form.
But that lack of augmentation had its cost. Daniel’s body was unused to the way microgravity altered its blood flow, and this combined with his stress to leave him impotent. He apologized profusely and abashedly. But Mariposa would hear none of it. “We’ll manage fine,” she purred. “Make love with your whole being … and one piece of it more or less won’t matter.”
Under Mari’s passionate ministrations, it soon became clear to them both that Daniel’s lack of physical response in no way diminished his emotional desires. Still, he caressed her carefully, handling her like the most fragile of cargoes. His light touch burned her flesh with ecstasy wherever it fell.
Afterward they floated together for a long time, wrapped in each other’s arms, simply holding each other. They didn’t say a word, or need to; they were communicating on a far purer level. This was like the communion she shared with other sailors, but somehow deeper, almost like the merger of a sailor and her skin. Surely it wasn’t always like this between geefolk? Was it because they were a sailor and a geeman? Or was it simply because they were Mariposa and Daniel? All she knew was that being with him had given her sensations and emotions she’d never felt before.
And she knew these epiphanies were worth the price she might pay for them, and more.
All too soon it was time to return to her skin and hoist sail to put the escape pod on course for Robinson. It wasn’t something she could do from inside, for the nerve impulses would control her arms and legs rather than her spars. But once that was done, she returned. They made love again, as far as Daniel was able, and then they fell asleep in each other’s arms. Mari had never known sleep like this. Sailors needed little, and what they took was hardly different from the waking state. Most dreams were hypnagogic, semiconscious, filling the vast stretches of quiet yet easily shaken off when alertness was needed. But this was different. Mari’s body was spent, sore, exhausted as it had not been since her raucous playtimes in the crèche. The oblivion of deep slumber was more welcome than ever—particularly since she shared it with another.
When she woke, though, it was not to contentment. She was hot, as if she’d skirted too close to a sun, yet her body trembled. Her muscles ached and burned. Her little-used digestive system twisted and roiled as if calling for attention. She felt like she was spinning.
She tried to ride it out, clinging to Daniel, soaking in his warmth and trying not to wake him. But she couldn’t control her trembles or her moans, and soon he came to awareness. “Mari, what is it? What did happen to you? Are you too long out of your skin?”
She shook her head weakly. “Still connected … not the problem. Ohh, I’d hoped this wouldn’t hit so hard … that my fears were exaggerated.”
“What? What is it?” His eyes were frantic.
“Immunity. Our peoples have been apart so long … unused to each other’s germs … and sailors need our immune systems so little that they grow weak. But I … hoped it wouldn’t be this bad.”
Daniel looked at the damaged, useless medbed—then more intently at the occupied one that kept Kamila alive. “No,” she urged him. “Don’t even think of trading her for me. The beds wouldn’t know what to make of my physiology anyway. Might try to reject the skin.” Besides, she couldn’t sever the umbilicals and survive, not under these conditions.
“Can the skin itself not help you?” Daniel asked.
“It has no more immunity than I. And it’s weak, depleted. All it could do is … put me in hibernation … but I’m so weak as it is, that would just kill me.” She stroked his chest comfortingly. “It’s all right, Daniel. I knew the risk … and I made the choice. No one else could’ve reached you in time.”
“But you didn’t must come in with me. Didn’t must leave the skin. I’m sorry I did sway you.”
She touched his cheek. “That was my choice. To a sailor, touch is life. Turn away from others’ touch, waste a chance to connect, and you only serve death. Maybe you’ll breathe longer for it, but you haven’t truly gained life, or given life.”
She savored a slow breath. “We castaways need to stop letting fear keep us from taking chances. I took a chance—not just to be with you, but maybe to start healing the rift. Both of those would make it a worthy sacrifice.”
Tears pooled around his eyes. He brushed them away, the moisture clinging to his fingers. “You’re being so brave.”
“Not really,” she admitted. “Only my body will die.”
“This is the one gift of the sails that I didn’t want to boast about. Too private. But now I need you to know, so you won’t be sad. Daniel—the skin is me as much as this body is. Its neuralnet is an extension of my brain—my psyche inhabits both at once. And I will live on in it, just as its former occupants do.” Within her, she felt Spinnaker’s warm reassurance, and those of the other long-dead sailors who had inhabited this skin before it had become hers. “They advise me. Help make me who I am. I never would have come to you if not for their wisdom. And so I will endure in the skin and advise the next sailor who joins with it.”
“How much of you will survive? Will it still be the Mariposa I know?”
“Then there’d be no sacrifice, would there? No … only part of me will live on. My memories, my awareness will continue, but changed. Memories and emotions associated with my human body … those reside in the flesh, and will be lost.”
He wept more. This time she wiped the tears away for him. “Then … you won’t remember what we did share. Won’t feel it.”
She stroked his cheek. “You will remember for both of us.”
Daniel held her for a long time. “How long will you last?” he finally asked.
“I don’t know. But not long enough to see you and Kamila home, where they can heal her.” She coughed. “My skin will lose motor control without my body. It’ll have to stay with the pod. Your people can send it back to us once they recover you.”
He stiffened. “Mari … to them you’re still the enemy. They’ll destroy the skin. Destroy the last of you.”
A chill went through her, not from the infection. And Spinnaker, and Vela, and the others … “But I saved you—”
“They will fear a trap. And a skin with a will of its own … They won’t take the chance.”
“The skin—we—will be helpless.”
“And they will be too afraid of it anyway.”
Mari understood that fear all too well. Yet she had made her peace already. “Then I suppose … this will be the end. It’s all right. Sailors face that risk every day. Even skins die eventually. But we understand that a lifetime can be lived in a single day. That infinite love can be shared in a single embrace. And that a single wasted chance can cost you everything.”
She kissed him. “I took a chance with you, Daniel, and I don’t regret that. Our chances for happiness are finite. So don’t you let this harden you against future chances. Don’t let fear of circumstances or consequences keep you from seizing them. Find someone to love and love unreservedly. Reach out to your kin, geefolk and sailfolk alike. Even if it hurts, even if it costs.”
He stared at her intently, thinking. “Mari,” he finally asked, “how do you transfer the skin from one sailor to another? Does it take special tools? Or could we do it here?”
The question stunned her. “You? You want to—”
“It’s the only way to save you.” There was trepidation in his voice, but no doubt in his eyes. “I did see how the skin did expand and flow to free you, to merge with the pod. Truly it might fit around me.”
“But is it even possible? Your body’s too massive, too inefficient.”
“If I reach a crèche, they can modify me.”
“If they trust you enough to let you close.”
“You’ll be with me. You can vouch for me.”
“But what about Kamila?”
He threw a lingering look at the medbed. “Kamila is … a friend. And a hope for a future that might never be. Like you did say—I mustn’t let fear or doubt stop me from seizing chances. You did tell me to love someone without reservation. And I choose thus now—with you. I love you, Mariposa.”
She clasped his hand. “And I love you.” She thought it over, listened to the wisdom in her skin. “There is a chance it can be done … but the skin is already depleted. Sustaining your body would strain it badly, even for the time it would take to reach Aurelia. It’s far riskier than staying here in the pod.”
“You did risk everything, did sacrifice the life you know, for me. How can I do any less for you?”
“But you have no training, no reflexes for sailing. It will terrify you. Your instincts will fight it. Panic even once and you could mangle the sails.”
“I will have you to show me the way.” He stroked her smooth scalp. “Mari, you were right. We have a chance to begin healing the rift. A geeman and a sailor, together in one skin … it might change everything. Yes, it’s dangerous. But joining is always a risk.”
Mariposa smiled. “And so is the alternative. Yes, Daniel. Let us be together. Always.”
Sailor Daniel tenderly clutched Mariposa’s body in his cargo hooks. It was tightly sealed in a plastic shroud from the lifepod’s supplies,
retaining its moisture until he could bring it to Aurelia, where it would nourish the crèche’s biosphere and help sustain the next generation of sailfolk. Daniel could only hope the gesture would bring him the acceptance that his own people would have denied Mariposa. Mari’s voice in his head, and those of her forebears, seemed to think it would.
But that was weeks away, weeks of cold and emptiness and silence. Weeks he might not survive even with the skin to care for him. The physical joining had been comparatively easy, at least for the skin; it had changed hosts before and remembered what to do. It was even old enough to remember earlier generations of sailors whose bodies had been closer to his in mass and metabolism, helping it adapt to his cumbersome form, though not without strain on them both. But nothing in Daniel’s experience could help his mind adapt to this. In the days since he had made the final course correction for the pod—since he had ensured Kamila’s safety and then sailed away from her forever—he had been alone in deep space with nothing around him save the sails that he was still learning to see as part of himself. Being naked to vacuum and the suns still terrified Daniel as nothing ever had. And sharing his head with other voices, even one as cherished as Mari’s, still felt like an invasion he could not escape. The skin had needed to keep him mostly paralyzed lest his fight-or-flight instincts tear it to shreds.
Yet it was liberating in a way he’d never imagined. The more it overwhelmed him, the more he could bear it, and the more he craved it. It was like dying and being reborn. Which was only fitting.
At least the voices outside his head had been mostly quiet. Mariposa’s sacrifice—and his own—had made the other sailors pause their endless chatter, and they watched with reverence or hope or wary patience as he struggled through his rebirth. Daniel dared not even contemplate what the geefolk were thinking now.
But Daniel knew that he wanted this life. The skin was already changing him, body and soul—eating away the excess baggage, purifying him of his burdens, broadening his mind in an entirely literal sense as his awareness spread throughout a far vaster body. And though there was nothing around him but infinite emptiness, save for the odd lethal hazard like radiation and metes and the gravity wells of half-formed planets, he felt no fear, no vulnerability. For Mariposa still sang in his head, and he understood now what no geefolk ever had before:
That a sailor is never alone.
©Christopher L. Bennett