Sabrin tentatively relaxed his clenched-shut eyes. His stomach churned, but no more than was typical after a jump. "Holy shit." All was still save for the soft hum of the Dream. "That actually worked." They had just revolutionized humanity's understanding of the universe, assuming there was the remotest chance of their reporting it back. "Where are we?"
Something was wrong. "Tal? Hey."
Tallas's blond head was slumped forward, hands hanging limp at his sides. Heart leaping into his throat, Sabrin threw off his safety straps and scrambled to the pilot's chair. His fingers found a pulse, strong and steady, yet no amount of shaking or yelling could make Tallas stir. "Dreamer!"
No response. Dreamer's avatar stood frozen and staring from where he'd been before the jump. Something was very wrong.
"Dreamer? C'mon buddy, now's really not the fuckin' time." Panic cracked Sabrin's voice. Possibilities and exigencies tore at his mind in a thousand different directions. "Dreamer! Shit, shit."
Prioritize. And think. Always think. People who didn't got killed or worse, and he was trained better than that.
The ship wasn't under physical attack, none of the consoles were blaring alerts, and outside was only vacuum. Sabrin hefted Tallas over his shoulder, flashing back to their first day on the Dream.
The sickbay sensors were of no help: all of Tallas's vital signs were within normal range, including brain activity, which meant he ought to have been awake. Sabrin glared at the display like he could will them to offer a solution. He wasn't ready to risk a stim yet, but seeing as they were probably a billion years' travel from the closest doctor, his options were limited to that or nothing.
"God-fuckin'-damnit Dreamer, you asshole. I could really use your help right now." The big screen stayed dark.
Tallas's chest rose and fell beneath his palm. Like he was asleep, like it was any ordinary morning when Sabrin would wake up first, as usual, and let himself just look. A wave of impotent, frustrated rage threatened to drown him.
The useless readings said Tallas's life wasn't in immediate danger, so Sabrin could afford to leave him alone for a little bit. Maybe Tallas was having some peculiar temporary reaction to the jump, or to whatever exotic corner of space they'd ended up in. Sabrin planted a quick kiss on his unresponsive lips and stepped away. "Be back soon, don't worry."
Most of the ship's systems failed to respond properly to Sabrin's commands, with the notable exceptions of propulsion and life support, confirming his suspicion that the problem lay with the AI. Unfortunately, that was as much of the problem as he could diagnose.
Dreamer hadn't simply shut down, or else the backup command links would have taken over. Instead, it was like he was frozennot comatoselike Tallas, which made no sense at all. Sabrin couldn't think of any technology that could affect an AI that way.
They needed Lirelle, or an AI expert, or a j-topologist, or someone else who was not him. Not a backwater soldier with an above-average knack for tinkering.
Passive sensors were still functioning. They picked up no external electromagnetic gradients, no particle flux. Local space-time deformation was below detection threshold. Flat space.
The Dream hadn't jumped to another star system. They were in the gap between stars, possibly in the gap between galaxies.
Sabrin checked and re-checked the readings with trembling fingers. Intellectually, he knew that the odds of it happening were almost inevitable, given that the vast, vast majority of the universe was empty. That didn't matter to the cold, hard knot in his stomach from meeting the face of his death.
The jump network was intrinsically linked to gravity. Jump potentials formed around stars, planets, moons, where the fabric of space was bent by their mass. The farther one went from a gravity well, the fewer potentials there were. Past what science called the Mukorda limit, space was so flat that there were no potentials at all.
The Dream had been thrown so far past the limit that he couldn't even calculate where it was. Zero chance of getting anywhere, which meant no way to refuel or resupply, which meant...
Sabrin sagged in the chair, struggling to control his breathing. A remote facet of him was almost amused that he was panicking at literally nothing.
"Dreamer," he mumbled, needing to puncture the silence. "I think...I think this might be the end of the road."
God, he missed Dreamer's irreverent drawl.
"You wouldn't give up, would you? Can you AIs even do that? It doesn't really make sense to program an AI to do that."
Sabrin pushed himself to his feet and went back down to sickbay. No change, fuck. He couldn't contemplate setting up for long-term care yet, but he could leave an open channel between his and Tallas's comlinks. "Make some noise when you wake up, okay?"
Next, he checked on the main computer core and the failsafe he and Dreamer set up before the jump. The cobbled-together device was functional and connected; it would irrevocably destroy the core if it detected no lifesigns aboard the ship for one month. If he and Tallas didn't make it, which there was still time to happen, Dreamer wouldn't linger.
Steps three and onward were to munch on some ration bars while he inventoried their supplies, checked life support reserves, and shut down non-essential sections of the ship to conserve power. His comlink never interrupted him.
The first night, Sabrin curled up on one of the sickbay beds, falling asleep and waking up to Tallas's silhouetted profile.
Dreamer stood where he'd been when Sabrin arrived on the bridge with a toolbox and began taking shit apart. "Sorry Dreamer, but if you didn't want me to do this then you need to snap the fuck out of it."
Manual bypasses, though inefficient and ugly as hell, would let him regain a modicum of control over primary systems. Or at the very least, active sensors and communications. Sabrin cut himself a few times, shocked himself a few more, and tripped on a loose panel. "You two fuckers are gonna owe me so fuckin' much after this I fuckin' swear."
The second night, he sat for a long time on the deck beside Tallas's bed, face buried in the circle of his arms and hands clenched into fists.
Amid the mess of cables snaking all over the bridge, Sabrin commanded the Dream to scan for jump potentials along their present course, which was in as good a direction as any. Because perhaps the entire jump physics community was wrong and jump potentials could in fact exist in flat space. "You did tell me they were full of shit," he reminded Dreamer.
He also commanded the Dream to broadcast an FTL signal, a repeating sequence of prime numbers. Because he'd watched too many movies about aliens.
Both moving and signaling cost irreplaceable power. The difference between fighting to live and waiting to die.
On the third day, Sabrin set up Tallas's medical bed for long-term care. Tallas was warm in his hands as Sabrin wrangled him out of his uniform and into a loose, soft shirt and pants. Gentle force fields and sonics hummed on, which would clean him, keep his joints limber, and prevent bedsores.
"Sorry man, but I'm so pissed at you right now." The words came out strangled. Sabrin fitted the cuff from the Altairan TPNC sustainer around Tallas's unresisting arm. "I know it's not your fault but...god Tal, I really need you and you're not here and I can't"
Sabrin swallowed and found Tallas's pulse point with his thumb.
"I'm not smart enough to figure out what's happening," he confessed. The cuff clicked and whirred as it found and tapped into Tallas's circulatory system. The status panel showed green across the board. "I think there's gotta be some sort of constant force keeping you and Dreamer like this but the sensors can't pick it up. I've tried everything I can think of.
"I don't know why I'm not affected. I'm nothing special." Sabrin huffed a little. "Wonder if that's the point."
Reluctantly, Sabrin let go of Tallas's hand. "I'm gonna keep us flying, that...that's something I can do. Maybe if we get far enough away from whatever it is, you'll wake up. That's uh, the theory, anyway."
He wasn't going to wallow. He had a daily routine more or less worked out, and a mental to-do list to be tackled at some point, including relocating Dreamer's avatar to someplace less inconvenient. He would keep the frayed edges of himself together, for as long as it took.
"Okay, so I'm gonna go um...yeah," Sabrin said, shuffling toward the door. The sight of Tallas all hooked up was like a spike lodged in his chest. "Anytime you wanna get up and keep me company, that'd be great. I...please." I don't want to be alone.
On the sixth day, the other Tallas showed up.
The thing at the doorway, calling his name with a questioning lilt, shocked Sabrin to the bone. He jerked, dropped pad clattering on the deck, ice flooding his veins as he scrambled off the medical bed.
It looked exactly like Tallas: dirty blond hair, dark heavy-lidded eyes, lush mouth. It sounded like him and acted like him, guileless eyebrows raised high with just a hint of furrow in between at the way Sabrin was reacting. It wore one of the Dream's uniforms exactly as Tallas had, with the jacket unzipped to expose golden skin, the white undershirt, and a set of Orion dog tags.
Only, Tallas lay on his bed barely a meter away, as he had been since the jump.
"Sabe? Sabe what's going on? Dreamer's not answering and the bridge's a mess and"
Weapon. Weapon! His gun and knife were in his quarters. Sabrin dove for the surgical drawer, rooting blindly until his hand closed around a laser scalpel. He brandished it in front of him as he put himself between the thing and the real Tallas. "Get back! Now!"
"Woah! Sabe, hey, what the fuck" The thing threw up its hands, its eyes rounding as it noticed. "Who's that? Who's on the bed?"
"Get the fuck back!"
"Okay! I'm backing up." It did so, its gaze fixed over Sabrin's shoulder. "Sabe," the voice, so familiar, cracked with hurt and Sabrin felt something within him crack too. "What's going on? I...is that me?"
Sabrin's entire being was dedicated to holding the scalpel steady. "Who are you?"
"What?" The thing looked incredulous. "Have you lost it? I'm Tal!"
"No you're not," Sabrin said, or maybe screamed. "Who are you really?"
Whatever it was, its face fell, jaw slackening. Then, like Tallas would have, it exhaled shakily and puffed itself up with a determined air. "I. Am. Tallas. H. Anderholt. What the fuck's wrong with you?"
I'm losing it. "You're not Tal. If you say that again I'll fuckin' kill you." Sabrin risked a glance at the bed and yes, it was still occupied. "That's Tal there. Now are you gonna keep lying to me?"
"Sabe..." the fake whispered, broken. "I am..."
Sabrin had lied to himself. He couldn't attack, the forgery was too perfect. He was almost in the corridor now, pressing the thing back against the far bulkhead. "Stay away from me."
"Okay," it agreed quickly. "Okay, anything you want. Just please talk to me."
Sabrin slowly lowered the scalpel, half-expecting the fake to sprout fangs or claws or tentacles the moment he did and go for his throat. "You think you're Tallas?" he asked hoarsely. The fake nodded, and what was left of his mind violently rebelled. "No." It was an alien or a dream or a hallucination. The vestiges of his sanity throwing him one last hurrah. "After the jump Tal was unconscious. I carried him to that bed and he's been there ever since."
"After" It quickly swiped a hand across its eyes. "After the jump, you were gone and Dreamer wasn't answering. I came down here 'cause I thought you might've been hurt."
"The jump was six days ago."
"Th-that can't be right."
"It is," Sabrin insisted relentlessly, as if his guts hadn't already been spilled all over the deck. "You're not Tal. You can't be."
The thing's mouth worked, mulling responses and settling on a soft, "I am." Stubbornness. Or a prayer. "I'll prove it. Scan me."
"Sure, why the fuck not?" Sabrin retreated to the real Tallas's side, letting the fake move to the surgical table and hop on.
Of course, the sensors said it was healthy and fully human; god forbid that they become useful at this desperate hour. Just for kicks, Sabrin compared the new readings with the scans he took of Tallas six days ago, and the two were identical down to the healed arm fractures from a sparring match gone bad when Tallas was fifteen. The DNA analysis took longer but also returned a 100 percent match.
All the while, the fake sat docilely with its hands folded in its lap. It had red blood, same type.
"Doesn't matter. You're not him."
"No, I'm me," it sniped, with Tallas's inflection, before lowering its head. Its tone turned bitter. "Not like I'm shocked at you saying that. Test me however you want, whatever it takes."
"What's my favorite food?" Sabrin tossed out hopelessly.
"It's chips. And there's half a bag stashed in your desk."
Sabrin was having a hard time pulling in enough air. "So they copied his body. And his memories," he said out loud to make it more real. Nothing and no one could manufacture authenticity. The tags that the fake Tallas subconsciously thumbed weren't Sabrin's, even if they bore his name and were accurate down to the atom, because they hadn't rested against his skin for eight years.
Sabrin didn't have an answer, so he gave none. Edging further back, he reached behind and found the real Tallas's limp hand, his sole lifeline. The fake watched, devastated.
"Sabe..." it pleaded, the raw pain in its voice utterly flawless. "I...I can't explain this." It gestured at itself and the bed. "I can't...but I swear that I'm me. Every...particle of me is the same as it was yesterday. Or a week ago or whatever. Sabe, please...I love you."
I love Tallas. Any moment Sabrin's heart was going to cave in, and by this point he'd welcome it like a drink of cool water. "I need to think, okay?"
"Okay." The fake raised its hands again, slipping cautiously off the table. "That's fine, I get it. I'll just..."
The Dream didn't have a brig. "Quarters." The fake nodded, biting its lip, and turned. "Not that one! Number three," Sabrin snapped.
It flinched, anger flashing for an instant. "Fine. There's, uh...nothing in three."
"I'll bring you stuff."
The door closed on the fake Tallas's shattered expression. Sabrin set the cabin on lockdown and collapsed against the door, slowly crumpling down to the deck. If the copy was exact, the fake had done the same on his side, the two of them separated by a single layer of metal. The forgotten laser scalpel slipped out of his sweaty fingers and rolled away.
He opened the doors to cabin three only twice more that day. The first to shove an armful of bedding, clothes, and toiletrieshis, not Tallas'sat the fake. The second to deliver a box of ration bars.
"Oh c'mon, raisins? Now you're just being fuckin' petty!"
Sabrin fled from a perfect rendition of Tallas's scrunched-up, disgusted face, as dumb and as cute as he remembered except for the sad, red-rimmed eyes. He couldn't remember what he'd been hoping to achieve there.
"Dreamer?" The word barely escaped his constricted throat. Sabrin didn't bother saying the rest of his request.
Sleep eluded him despite his exhaustion. When he closed his eyes he was stalked by the terror that, when he opened them again, the bed next to his would be empty and he would forget what was real and who wasn't. That the copy would displace the real Tallas even in his memory and his heart. Lost in an incalculable ocean of flat space, he had no place to go, no way to escape.
The internal sensors now reported three lifesigns on the Dream. According to the logs, the third one appeared on the bridge one instant, no other anomalies detected. Seventy-plus kilograms of mass added to the ship, which by the first law of thermodynamics had to have come from somewhere. They, them, the something lurking in the emptiness outside.
Sabrin turned his face into his pillow, pulling the sheets tighter around himself.
The fake Tallas knew about the intercom. "Hey Sabe? Uh, you can hear me right? Look, I'm giving you space like you wanted but could you at least talk at me? Please? I'm going a bit crazy in here and I still don't know what's going on so..."
Sabrin was ready to press the button to shut down the intercom. He pressed to respond instead. "I'm here."
"Hi. The ship clock says you were right, I've lost six days. I can't remember."
Not what I said. "Haven't missed much."
"What happened after the jump? Where did we end up?"
No good reason to withhold the information; the Dream was completely at whomever's mercy. "Totally lost." Sabrin described their situation, in absent fits and starts as he fiddled with the secondary plasma distributor.
"Aw shit. Better than getting slagged though. Have you got a plan?"
"A couple. Kinda long shots though," he admitted.
"What else is new?" A wet chuckle.
Having a live-ish person to bounce ideas off of beat talking to himself. He discussed rigging alarms to the sensors in case something changed outside. Optimizing the transmission profile of their broadcast to maximally boost the signal without wasting power. New ways to prolong the lifespan of the atmosphere scrubbers.
"Okay, bottom line."
"Hmm?" Sabrin stooped by the crate plastered with Altairan medical signage. He walked his fingers over the rows of plastic pouches slotted in impact-resistant foam. The first five slots were empty; he pulled out the sixth one, filled with translucent nutrient solution. He switched the sustainer over to the second feed, pulled the spent pouch, and put the fresh one in its place.
"How long have we got?"
"I dunno." The spent pouch went into a spare box. Two crates equaled a seventy-two day supply, and after that he...he would find a way to make more. "Prob'ly longer than you wanna think about."
Eventually, some aspect of the life support system would break beyond his ability to fix, likely well before their deuterium ran dry.
"Oh god, two hot guys stuck on a ship, it's like a bad romance novel. We're gonna get so sick of each other."
Sabrin huffed, latching the crate lid shut. "Yeah well, it's already been like twenty years" No it hasn't.
"Guess that makes me a masochist and you incredibly lucky. Between the two of us we were fuckin' made for adventure."
Tallas slept on, his soft skin and vital pulse beneath Sabrin's thumb. He pressed his lips to that spot, begging forgiveness. I love you. The words were being poisoned. His own heart was ill, decaying.
"Sabe? Can you still hear me? Hello? Hello?"
"Are you there? Is this stupid thing working?"
"I'm sorry. Really fuckin' sorry. I was pushy and I overstepped and... It's a habit with me, I know. I promise I'll get better."
Shut off the intercom. Why couldn't he bring himself to do it, if he had no doubt that he was listening to a fake? Logically, there was no way it could even be human, sensors be damned.
"Has something gone wrong Sabe? Is that why you're not answering?"
He was in hell. The man dying of thirst in a pool of water.
"Sabe, I..." The familiar voice came through soft and strained. "I think you're still there. Maybe you're not listening but I think you're still out there. With the uh, the other me. It took me a while to get it 'cause, y'know, that's kinda my thing, but I think I do now. He was there after the jump and I wasn't, and I can connect the dots on what that means."
Drinking was a terrible idea. Worse than leaving the intercom on, which he wouldn't have done had he any spine at all.
"The thing is, I don't know how to stop being Tallas and start being Tallas's freaky alien clone or whatever. Also I really, really don't want to, 'cause honestly it feels a lot like promising to kill myself and it scares the shit out of me."
Me too. Sabrin raised the beer bottle to his lips and emptied it.
"But I uh, I can promise to try, 'cause I have literally zero other ideas on how to make this better. It's what you want, right? And I hate this fuckin' cabin, so hey, we both win, huh?"
God, that was the tone Tallas used the time he wheedled Sabrin into taking an after school job at Brimmie's.
"I'll try to embrace my inner alien clone. I won't..." A thick pause. "I won't pretend to be him. I'll just help. Maybe keep you company, if you want."
Sabrin groped for the mess hall intercom. "'Alien clone'?"
"Sabe!" The yelp was accompanied by a thump. "Sabe, hey, so good to hear you."
"I'm gonna let you out. I'm sorry," Sabrin slurred in the general direction of the microphone and left the mess hall.
"Okay, great...are you drunk?"
Unlocking the cabin took three tries, the third in the middle of a wave of dizziness. Closing his eyes, Sabrin stumbled backward until his outstretched hand found a bulkhead he could slide down pathetically against. Footsteps approached; he braced himself for a punch because even fake Tallas didn't deserve to have been locked in a tiny barren cabin for two and a half days.
Instead, fake Tallas crouched and said gently, "Hey Sabe, started the party without me, huh?"
"This..." Sabrin coughed, sounding more like a sob. "This party fuckin' sucks."
"Tell me about it." Fake Tallas looked rather post-bender too, all sallow skin and bruised eyes, yet also...happy to see him. He glowed, danced with light, the way he did.
"Kiss me," Sabrin whispered.
A split-second of pure agony crashed over fake Tallas's face. "You don't really want that," he said as he pulled Sabrin's arm across his shoulders, the first time they touched. Sabrin tried to protest, or possibly he tried to smell and then taste him. For purposes of comparison.
After waking up in his own bed for the first time since the jump, Sabrin threw up twice, then broke into a cold sweat when he remembered that he'd left fake Tallas alone with the real Tallas. He ran to sickbay, gun belt in hand. "You!"
"Me." Fake Tallas offered him a wretched smile. He was watching real Tallas, but stood nowhere near the bed. "The clone."
"Right." Sabrin winced, suddenly embarrassed by the gun dangling from his hand. He attempted to subtly hide it behind his leg.
"You can wear that if you want," fake Tallas said, artificially careless. "You remember what I promised yesterday? You usually do."
Sabrin did usually retain his memories, even if he got black-out drunk. He nodded, which was a mistake.
"Good." Fake Tallas headed out the port side door, giving both of them a wide berth. "You know where the de-intox is. I'm making breakfast. No more fuckin' raisins, ever. I could murder you in your sleep for that Sabe, note that I didn't!"
True. Sabrin set his gun belt down on a countertop, massaging his screaming temples. He appreciated that the fake Tallas had left him alone so he could check on the real one. Fake Tallas was moving around and eating solid food, while real Tallas wasn't; if this situation went on much longer the sensors would start being able to tell them apart.
Fake Tallas wordlessly served him a bowl of noodles upon his arrival. A bit overcooked, of course. "Thanks."
"What's on the agenda today, captain?"
Sabrin chewed and swallowed. "Maintenance, same as always."
"Math says that'd take at most half the day. You wanna do anything else in the rest of it?"
Sabrin heard the plea. Kindness is all he's asking. "Movie? Ky left his database open."
"Sure." Fake Tallas smiled, tentative but genuine. Sabrin recognized him mentally debating whether to add more. "I...remember Ky. And Lirelle and Fennic," he said slowly, on alert for Sabrin's reaction.
They could make this work: clear boundaries that acknowledged reality. "Yeah, I miss 'em too."
Time passed in a kind of hazy stasis, as the Dream traversed millions of kilometers of space yet traveled nowhere. They watched things, played cards and games, and sometimes Sabrin drank but fake Tallas invariably refused.
Each day, Sabrin cared for the real Tallas before and after spending the rest of it with Tallas's copy, who also made him laugh and gave him warm feelings whenever he forgot to guard himself even a little. In his full-sensory dreams and nightmares, he opened the cabin doors and fell gratefully into Tallas's waiting arms on the other side. The cabin number was never readable.
Pain was woven into his life, and in his lower moments he considered that he might be okay dying like that.
Then one day, Sabrin found fake Tallas inside sickbay, a violation of their unspoken agreement. "The fuck are you doing in here?" he blurted out.
"Sabe...Sabrin," fake Tallas said shakily, turning to meet his gaze. "I love you." Another violation.
"It's not real," Sabrin replied without thinking.
"God! Can you stop feeling sorry for yourself for one fucking second?" Tallas, other Tallas, exploded, his fury jolting Sabrin back. His arm shot out and wrenched Sabrin forward by the front of his shirt. "I fuckin' love you and I have for fuckin' years and I don't want to" his voice cracked, "stop."
"Stop," Sabrin whispered at the same time, trapped by the desolation on Tallas's face.
"I couldn't really believe you," the other Tallas said raggedly, blinking away tears. "I was Tallas Anderholt. You can't fuckin' just quit believing that you are the person you think you are! That's just total steaming grade-A bullshit!"
Sabrin couldn't move, could hardly breathe.
"Except I'd do anything for you, and I'd take any part of you that I can get. That's always been true and I've never regretted a single second of it, not even here in the middle of nothing. It was mine. The only thing I couldn't handle was to...to actually start knowing."
Finally, Sabrin forced his brain to work. "You...know?"
"It happened a little bit at a time, when I was asleep, when it was quiet. No words, just knowledge." Tallas gave a clogged laugh, shook Sabrin a little. "Fuckin' alien clone, man."
"I..." Sabrin wrapped his shivering hand around Tallas's.
"I can't stop it. I want to and that's me being selfish 'cause the real me's still right there but I don't want to change." Tallas pulled Sabrin until their foreheads met. "I won't forget but I'm going to stop feeling it. At some point I'm going to stop loving you."
"Tal..." Sabrin closed the remaining gap between him and the other Tallas, who loved him. He dug his chin into Tallas's shoulder. "God, I'm so sorry. I can't be who you need me to be."
"You are already. I don't need somebody who's not you. The man I love," the other Tallas said into Sabrin's skin. "I don't want to stop."
"I believe you," Sabrin swore. "I'll remember feeling it."
The two of them stayed wrapped in each other's arms for what seemed like forever, until the other Tallas summoned the strength to nudge him away. They both understood it to be the ending it was. The other Tallas wiped away the wetness on his face, thanked Sabrin, and told him things were going to be alright. That he was not alone.
The other Tallas never tried to touch him again. The torturous familiarity in him retreated day by day, the bright, messy edges of his humanity progressively smoothed away and replaced by something else. In a way it was a relief, the universe setting itself right, and yet seeing any version of Tallas die still sliced Sabrin to ribbons.
Sabrin sat down at a table in the mess hall, across from a man who now copied Tallas in appearance only. He mourned in silence.
They were a gestalt residing in the deeper structure of the universe, who had created a chain of consciousnessladder rungsto bridge the vast gulf of understanding between them and humans. Their duplication of Tallas was the last rung. "They weren't being cruel. They don't understand the concept."
"Tal? Dreamer?" Sabrin asked weakly. "What happened to them?"
"They're fine, they're simply...paused for their protection. The instant the ship jumped, Tallas and Dreamer both came into mental contact with them and were overwhelmed," Other-Tallas explained. "They didn't create the pathways, but they're intimately aware of them."
"Why Tal and not me?"
"The nature of their thought processes are closer to an AI's than a human's. Tallas expresses a rare genetic mutation that lets him...tune into their frequency, so to speak."
"Tal doesn't have...cybertelepathy," Sabrin said dubiously. "That doesn't exist in real life."
"The communication's not on a conscious level. It's more like instinct, like when he knew how to free the Dream, or distract Vesuvius," Other-Tallas said, sending Sabrin's mind reeling. "They were interested, so they brought the ship here."
"A quiet place," Other-Tallas clarified non-helpfully.
"Okay, so they were curious about Tal"
Sabrin's eyebrows climbed high. "What? Why?"
"They've met you before." Other-Tallas quirked his mouth and tipped his head toward the windows. The compartment was bathed in coruscating silvery light; indescribable beauty phased into existence outside, singing into Sabrin's battered soul.
"Holy shit." On unsteady feet, Sabrin went to the window, reaching out and touching the composite glass. "You were the Wayfarer at Windfall?"
"Every Wayfarer's a small reflection of them."
Beholding one of the great wonders of the cosmos, unveiled to the minutest degree for his ordinary eyes, for that moment Sabrin considered himself blessed. One of the Wayfarer's gossamer wings elongated, arcing toward the Dream, unfurling ghostly patterns and shoals of twinkling sparks out of some physics-redefining dimension. He felt like his hand had been shaked.
"It's time," Other-Tallas said. "Follow me."
Sabrin obeyed in a daze, watching him assume the pilot's seat and activated the jump vane. "I'm gonna take you home," he said.
"But we're in flat space."
"Oh, that's not really a thing." Other-Tallas glanced backward at him...and he was just Tallas, smirking impishly like he'd just shared a huge secret. Sabrin's breath snagged on the startling pang in his chest. "Sabe," Tallas addressed him with a wink, "I love you, and for you I'd do the impossible."
Dreamer turned his head toward him, asking a question.
The pilot's chair was vacant. Sabrin sent his silent thanks as he gulped crisp air into his lungs. He sprinted off the bridge amid Dreamer calling his name.
The sickbay doors opened as he descended the ladder. Tallas shuffled out on coltish legs, blinking in confusion and lugging the still-connected TPNC sustainer with him. "Hey, Sabe?" he asked, voice scratchy from disuse. "Uh, what happened? I was piloting and..when did I get to sickbay? I do feel kinda"
Sabrin dragged him into a fervent kiss. Golden warmth filled his body to bursting.
"Damn," Tallas murmured against his cheek afterward. "Sorry, I'm a bit gross"
Sabrin held him tighter as he shuddered wordlessly, burying his face in the crook of Tallas's neck as the unrelenting, crushing weight on him began to lift. Tears leaked from his closed eyelids and wet Tallas's skin.
"What the hell, Sabe?" Dreamer's complaining voice neared. "I've got major discrepancies between a bunch of my system logs that make no fuckin' sense. And you are coming back to clean up all this shit on my bridge, I'm betting that was you"
Tallas shushed him, fingers curling warm and secure around Sabrin's nape.
He could finally say it now, after a fucking eternity. "Tal, I love you. So goddamn much."
"Um, love you too. Okay, now you're kinda freaking me out, so..."
Sabrin started snickering, or maybe even giggling, letting Tallas hold him up. "I'm just really fuckin' happy."
"Right," Tallas said, stretching the word out, and patted the back of Sabrin's head. "Dreamer, where are we?"
"We" Incredulity entered Dreamer's tone. "We're in the Calabo System. How in the hell did we manage to go through an unstable potential and end up in NSC space? The odds of it"
"It wasn't random," Sabrin mumbled.
Dreamer's hand settled between his shoulder blades, rubbing in circles. "I'm getting the impression of a story here, bud." He paused, cocking his head. "Hold on, there's an incoming hail. It's a civvie transport ship, the Marguerite. They're asking if we need help and also... No. Fucking. Way."
"This is Lirelle Wice aboard the Marguerite. Do my eyes tell the truth, or have I at long last lost my grasp on sanity?"
"This is Captain Sabrin Payne of the farship Dream of Dawn," Sabrin replied, words bubbling over with giddiness. "Why don't you drop by and we can figure it out together."
Participation in the group hug was mandatory. Even for Ky, who barely protested when Dreamer reeled him in on his other side. A frenzy of activity followed, to put the ship back to rights.
Ky recruited all of them as assistants and laid out a dinner spread that swelled Sabrin's waistline just to look at. During the ensuing stuffing of faces, it emerged that Sabrin had somehow experienced thirty-two days while only four days had passed for Lirelle's group.
"Technically she's right," Dreamer told him. "It's only the forty-fourth. I've re-synced my clock."
"But..." Sabrin felt a need to defend himself.
"On the other hand, thirty-two days also definitely passed here. Confirmed by physical and digital evidence."
Sabrin knew full well that he hadn't imagined the whole ordeal, but Dreamer's statement still came as a relief. He was the only one with any memory of those days: Tallas's doppelgänger, the Wayfarer, the revelations they shared.
"Maybe they sent you back in time," Fennic suggested, waving his fork excitedly. A spot of wine sauce landed on the table.
"No, that cannot be the case," Lirelle insisted with a shake of her head, making an expression along the lines of profoundly disturbed. "You can't reconcile that kind of...cavalier temporal manipulation with the issue of causality paradox."
Ky popped a roasted cabbage roll in his mouth. "I wouldn't put manipulating the flow of time beyond a Wayfarer."
"It totally sucks that I slept through that," Tallas complained. "Sabe, you saw one of 'em closer up than any human's ever been. All the other ships that have tried before ended up with total system failures before they got within a thousand k's."
"You're the one who actually talked with 'em."
"Sure, with my powers," Tallas said sarcastically. Pressing a slender finger to his temple, he pursed his lips and squinted. "Dreamer, I'm giving you a psychic order right now."
"Why yes master, I will tell you to fuck off," Dreamer replied promptly, tacking on an obscene gesture.
"I must say, I find your caricature of telepathy offensive," Lirelle commented, utterly deadpan.
Tallas turned that half-constipated expression on him. "Sabe...?"
Rolling his eyes, Sabrin went to fetch his boyfriend another beer.
Tallas crowed in triumph. "Hey, turns out Sabe's an AI!"
"Nah, he's whipped. There's a difference."
Haha, Dreamer. Although, due to recent events Sabrin probably would do anything Tallas wanted for the foreseeable future. He kept that fact to himself, since Tallas would abuse it for evil, only he had trouble keeping the blush off his cheeks at the train of thought. To throw the others off the trail, he smacked Dreamer as he returned to the table.
"Okay, but seriously," Dreamer said after retaliating, "what're we gonna tell Alyan Command about all this?"
"Nothing," Sabrin snapped. The last thing they needed was more attention and scrutiny.
Tallas seconded. "I'd rather we didn't go around telling people I'm a mutant, thanks."
"We most certainly would not," Lirelle said.
"Thought you didn't believe you had it," Sabrin grumbled.
"No I believe it." Tallas wrinkled his nose. "I just don't wanna make a big deal of it. Not like I can even tell when it's happening."
"Tallas has a right to his medical privacy," Lirelle said. "However, with regard to your experiences, I can't help thinking that we have some measure of responsibility to science here. In addition to your encounter with a Wayfarer, this is the first ship in history to return after jumping through an unstable potential. You've collected priceless data."
"The jump only went the way it did 'cause Tal was here," Sabrin pointed out. "It wasn't, like, how it would normally go."
"Nevertheless, to have any data at all. And your second jump to Calabo was something no one even suspected was possible."
"Speaking of, there's also the matter of the Dream jumping in front of the Marguerite without using a potential," Ky added.
"The Marguerite's sensors glitched." As punctuation, Sabrin crammed an excessive quantity of potatoes and cheese in his mouth and chewed resentfully. It wasn't just the element of risk; he personally resided at the core of all those experiences. The prospect of exposing his inner self, to be dissected under a microscope and published for posterity, made him feel like he was breaking out in hives.
"Compromise," Dreamer proposed. "We put the data on a disc, stash it in a safe deposit box somewhere, and release it at some point down the line when we all agree it won't cause a problem."
"That does seem reasonable," Lirelle said, and the others concurred. "Sabrin, it would also be beneficial for you to write down as much as you can while the memory's fresh."
She looked ready to lament the dagger he would be personally plunging into the back of the march of human progress or some such; Sabrin caved with a groan. "Ugh, fine."
"I'd read that," Fennic piped up helpfully.
Ensconced in his quarters, Sabrin knelt between Tallas's long legs. Tallas's blond locks now curled over his ears, he'd lost muscle mass after his time asleep, and he was the most gorgeous thing Sabrin could imagine. Sabrin's hands hesitated over the overwhelming expanse of smooth flesh, free at last to his starving touch.
Four weeks. The explanation lodged in his throat.
Tallas naturally understood anyway. With a gentle smile, he guided Sabrin's hands to his chest, arching his back for emphasis. He let Sabrin methodically relearn his body, visiting the inside of his arm, the dip at the base of his throat, his bellybutton. They moved against each other, steady rather than frenzied, until Sabrin needed more.
Curling his fingers around Tallas's elbow, Sabrin dropped onto his side and rolled, pulling Tallas over on top of him. His breath hitched as Tallas's solid weight pinned him down, anchoring him to the one constant in his life. Again, he begged wordlessly.
"Hey...hey I got you," Tallas whispered, brushing a thumb over Sabrin's cheek.
Sabrin shook apart first on an uncontrolled moan, buried deep as Tallas ground down hard onto him. Tallas followed right after with a few strokes, as if he'd been holding himself on the brink. Grinning manically, he traced his fingertips through the slickness on Sabrin's stomach, making him quiver, then drew him into celebratory kiss.
Some time later, cuddled together in the darkness, Tallas asked softly, "What was he like?"
Sabrin's attempt to roll away was thwarted by Tallas's arm and leg. "Who?" he asked, playing dumb.
Tallas edged his head closer, so that his words tickled the sensitive skin under Sabrin's jaw. "The other me, duh."
"He was like you, duh," Sabrin echoed. "What do you want me to say?"
Somehow, he heard Tallas roll his eyes. "Oh come on Sabe. I'm not trying to interrogate you or accuse you of cheating on me with other-me or whatever, I swear. I'm just curious 'cause this is like by far the weirdest thing that's ever happened to me."
"More like happened to me," Sabrin grumbled.
"Okay fine." Tallas gave his bicep a squeeze.
Sabrin stared at the shadowed overhead, memories swirling in his brain. "It was tough. They made him so much like you, and he thought he was you most of the time. I tried to keep him separate in my head, but I was fighting my instincts every step of the way."
"Huh." Tallas propped up his upper body and peered down at him. "Gotta say, part of me wants to be jealous of this guy, but the way you talk about him...it sounded like a bad time."
"I wasn't good to him at all. At first I didn't even think of him like actual person," Sabrin confessed. "After I started to, I still couldn't really do better by him, so I just felt guilty. He was...his situation was just hopeless and he handled it way better than I would've."
"Heartbreaker," Tallas said fondly. His hand sought Sabrin's, tangled their fingers. "Did you feel anything for him?"
Sabrin tightened his jaw so as not to snap. "Why would you ask that?"
Tallas laid his head back onto Sabrin's shoulder and shrugged. "I dunno, seems like kind of an obvious question. I'm not gonna be mad if you say you did, he was basically me after all."
"He was not," Sabrin said emphatically, needing to be clear. "Tal...if you'd been permanently out of the picture then yes, I could've potentially felt something for him, 'cause obviously he was exactly my type okay? But that completely hypothetical feeling...it wouldn't have been this thing between you and me right now, it'd be a new thing with a new person. Now can we please stop talking about this?"
Tallas shook with silent mirth. "Alright, alright, no more torture."
"Hey," he said after a few seconds' respite, "you're one of a kind, Sabe."
"Oh my god." Sabrin shoved Tallas's cackling face away. This was his type; he was so embarrassed for himself. "Go to sleep!"
"Love you." Whispered into his ear.
The other Tallas had loved him too, a gift Sabrin hadn't deserved yet freely given and absolutely, unreservedly real. Sabrin tucked the memory of it away to keep, a bead of sunshine beneath his ribs. He'd seen the same emotion from two different perspectiveslove in stereoand with Tallas's arm draped over his chest his heart was filled to bursting. He was ridiculously lucky.
The next day, Sabrin pulled Dreamer aside and asked him for a favor or two.
The Dream had returned to the Alya System. They ended up telling Command mostly straight-up lies, since between Ky's estranged brother and Tallas's alien duplicate the truth was all bizarrely personal. Fortunately that shortened the debriefing process.
Tallas was rocked out of sleep by...the ship, rocking. The spot beside him was empty. "Dreamer? The fuck?"
"Brace for descent Tal," Dreamer said, far too cheery for the hour. Or maybe not, now that he checked.
"You turned off my alarm? Wait, 'descent', what?" That wasn't on the schedule. Rubbing his bleary eyes, Tallas twisted his upper body around and found the porthole fully opaque and unresponsive. "Where are we going?"
"It's a surprise. Brace."
Dreamer refused to let him out of his quarters until after the ship landed, unswayed by his shameless wheedling. The only clue he would offer was that Tallas should dress civilian light.
"Okay, c'mon. Everybody else's already outside."
Tallas didn't expect that. The surprise was specifically for him?
A peculiar sound reached him from the bright rectangle of the open ventral hatch. A deep roar, not like the Dream's engines. His pulse picked up as he descended the exterior steps.
He stepped onto sparkling white sand, a short distance away from more water than he'd ever seen. Sapphire to the limits of his vision.
"Welcome to the Nygeri Archipelago in Mnemosyne's southern hemisphere," Dreamer's avatar said, spreading his arms. "Local time's a quarter past fourteen hundred hours, in summer. Here" Tallas's hands shot up to catch the small tube tossed in his direction, "sunscreen. Wouldn't want a repeat of last time. Tell Sabe to help you apply that."
Tallas flushed. He spotted Sabrin nearby, and Lirelle, Ky, and Fennic pretending they weren't spying on them from farther off. "Did you do this?" he asked Sabrin in wonder.
Sabrin shrugged, looking a little bashful. "We had some hazard leave built up. I asked Dreamer if he could..."
Before Sabrin's face could get any redder, Tallas surged forward and kissed him, pushing everything welling up inside into that searing point of contact. It left them both dazed. "Thank you."
The ocean was fucking amazing. Unimaginable power surging around him, immensity beyond human ken he could touch with his bare hands. The white-capped waves crashing to the shore, buoying up his body, connected him to the living universe.
Sabrin laughing in the surf, blue eyes glittering. Rivulets of water running down his frankly insane abs. That was even better.
When the sun sank low on the horizon, painting the sky in a stunning assortment of oranges, reds, and violets, Dreamer disassembled one of the gnarled trees that grew further up the beach to create an impressive bonfire. They'd been the only people in sight all day; hopefully the island wasn't actually a nature preserve or a military test range.
"So apparently you're like, some kind of Kinjori duchess or something?" Dreamer asked as they lounged in a circle around the fire, pleasantly full. Sabrin was curious too, but he wasn't going to bring it up unless she did.
Lirelle responded with a heavy sigh first. "Something."
"Huh, Madia never told me about that when she gave me her necklace." Dreamer brightened. "Hey, do you think I could've been"
"No," Lirelle said sternly, for the good of the Kinjori people. Fennic slapped a hand over his mouth to hide the chortle, Tallas didn't bother.
Pouting but undeterred, Dreamer turned to Ky, sitting beside him. "Well what about you? Are you like a secret marquis or...?"
"God no." Ky's face was the picture of horror.
Lirelle smiled, more fondly than Sabrin had seen before regarding Ky. "I believe that during his formative years on Kinjor," she said, "our Mr. Ilvarra could best be described as a character of deliberate ill repute."
"Indeed it's true," Ky said solemnly. "I sucked so much cock."
Sabrin choked on his beer, spraying foam on his fingers. Tallas helpfully pounded him on the back.
"Hell yeah." Dreamer punched Ky in the arm, nodding and laughing in sheer delight.
"It was a different time. A different me," Ky said. "I took pains to be...unacceptable, to avoid any semblance of respectability. Aggressive hair, tattoos on each shoulder and across the chest." He gestured at the relevant parts of his body. "Four facial piercings."
"Really?" Fennic's eyebrows almost vanished beneath the fringe of his hair.
"Hold up, lemme see..." Tallas scrambled onto his knees and bent toward Ky, scrutinizing his face. "Both ears...left eyebrow, that's three...uh..."
Bearing what could only be described as a wicked expression, Ky very purposefully opened his mouth and extended his tongue, curling the tip up over his teeth before withdrawing it.
Sabrin wasn't the only one whose jaw dropped. He'd only known the Ky who looked and dressed like an overworked accountant. "No way."
"I'm...I dunno what to say," Tallas said. "Awesome."
"In retrospect, I admit I may have tipped over into self-parody," Ky said, lips twitching. "Not to say that such accoutrement didn't offer its own benefits." He dodged without looking Dreamer's attempt to pinch his earlobe.
Dreamer leered blatantly. "I don't guess you'd consider revisiting"
"As I've said, it was a different time."
"Nope, I can totally still see it," Fennic declared, beaming. "You're still a rebel at heart."
"Hey Tal, take a walk with me," Sabrin said, standing up. Tallas accepted his helping hand.
Giant Thial loomed in the sky with its flotilla of moons, casting the beach and ocean in various deep shades, easy to see by. They strolled side by side along the shore in companionable silence, cool water lapping over their feet. There was no hurry.
After the voices of the others dissolved into the crashing of the waves, Sabrin turned him so they faced each other. "Hey."
"Hey," Tallas mirrored happily. "I'm having a great time."
"Good," Sabrin said too fast. "I, uh, I've been thinking...we're good together."
"I think so too," Tallas said. Better than good. More than I dared dream a year ago. He laid a hand over the lowermost part of Sabrin's tattoo, following the lines he laid down so long ago up past Sabrin's bare shoulder to his neck. Sabrin was as responsive as always.
"Right! So, y'know, it would make sense to...to formalize it."
To formalize... Tallas stopped breathing. His blood pounded in his ears, in rhythm with the ocean and the blazing heat beneath his palm. Sabrin's gaze never wavered from his as he reached into the pocket of his swim trunks and produced a pair of unadorned metal bands, dark circles against the ghostly paleness of his skin.
Is it too soon, Tallas thought he should ask, except for the caveat of their entire lives. Sabrin was a fact, not a question. "Why Captain Payne," he simpered, albeit slightly undermined by the hoarseness of his voice, "a romantic moonlit walk on the beach? I am gonna be holding this over you for the rest of our goddamned lives."
Sabrin began to grin. "That a yes?"
"Okay, great, let's get married," Sabrin said in a relieved rush. He handed Tallas the ring intended for himself, oddly proper. Tallas slid it onto Sabrin's right fourth finger and Sabrin did likewise back. The metal, heavy and quickly warm, granted him a crystal-clear vision of the day he transferred it to his left hand.
"When did you get these?" He didn't think he'd been that unobservant.
"Yesterday," Sabrin said, surprising him. "They're tungsten-bonded neoalloy from the Dream's spaceframe. Dreamer helped me and kept his mouth shut, which means we'll prob'ly have to give him our firstborn."
Well, that deserved a kiss, or several.