io9 is proud to present fiction from Lightspeed Magazine. Once a month, we feature a story from Lightspeed’s current issue, and this month’s selection is “The Null Space Conundrum” by Violet Allen.
“What the fuck is wrong with you?” screams Aria. Her voice goes up raspily at the end of the exclamation, giving her the affect of a mewling cat, and she is embarrassed by the profound uncoolness of such a tone. She slams her fists on the Versa’s console to compensate, to physically demonstrate the depth and seriousness of her anger, causing the subtelar ship to rock violently in the warpwake.
Don’t judge her; Aria Astra is usually a very cool person. She likes good food and knows a bunch about film and uses lots of swears and has great fashions. Right now she is wearing a romper made of star-material and a matching neckerchief and a beret that doesn’t match but in a cool way. Also, she was in a band once. It was a pretty decent band, actually, like kind of a hipster funk-pop thing. They had, like, three really good songs, and they would’ve had more good songs, but they broke up because Aria accidentally died and then got resurrected by aliens and turned into a cosmic cyborg who has to save the universe all the time or whatever. Technically, Aria was kicked out of the band before dying and being resurrected by aliens and turned into a cosmic cyborg, but Aria preferred the former timetable, as she was fairly certain that she would’ve been kicked back in had circumstances allowed. They had just been pissy because she couldn’t quote-unquote “play more than four guitar chords” and would’ve changed their tune if given the time.
So yeah, Aria is super cool, and it is unlike her to scream and shout, because that is very uncool. Sadly, we are often unlike ourselves, and we all must struggle against the uncool shadow within, the dork inside, the petty, pedantic vulgarian who lurks in all our hearts, singing old, cthonic songs of “Actually” and “I Told You So.”
“Don’t do that! You’ll break the ship, clown!” says Kantikle.
Kantikle is also being a dork, but Aria has no reason to believe he was ever even a little bit cool. He is a living song sung by every person in the universe at once in the future, sent back in time to convince Aeon Who Judges All Things to spare the universe from the Cataclysm of Judgment, but as cool as that sounds on paper, in practice he’s just a guy, and a pretty whatever guy at that. Aria is kind of into his look (sexy glowing rainbow man), but besides that, he’s really the worst.
“We have a system. I pick a song, you pick a song. You can’t switch songs before my song is over, jackhole.”
“That song was bad. You have bad taste.”
“You have bad taste!”
“Kantikle is music itself. I understand it in a way your meat body could never imagine.”
Aria sighs and turns a knob on the console, restarting her song, a chill Italo disco number from a planet of frog people whose culture was based entirely on 1980s Earth. “I’ll kick you out of here, dude. I can get home and get ice cream or something. I don’t even care about this dumb mission.”
“Of course you don’t recognize the sanctity of our mission,” says Kantikle. “You’re an evil meat clown from a barbarous past. I am not surprised in the least.”
“Evil? Don’t be a baby. At worst, I’m neutral. A charming rogue.”
“You wield the Sister Ray, an evil weapon designed to rearrange the fabric of the universe, to turn stars into ash, to bend matter to your will.”
“Whatever. I’m not evil. Like, I have an evil clone of me, and she uses a weapon that makes people find peace and understanding or something when she stabs them. She’s still evil. Evil weapons, good weapons, it’s all what you do with them.”
“You work for the Star Supremacy, who are remembered as imperialist barbarians, one of the most evil organizations of this era.”
“We all work for evil organizations. Capitalism, right?”
“That would play super well on my home planet. It’s a good joke.”
“Is it, clown? You keep saying the things you say are funny, and I don’t believe it’s true. I have not laughed once. Ironic, isn’t it? The clown who does not make anyone laugh.”
Aria is about to say something very smart and cool and cutting, but an alarm starts to blare, and various lights on the console begin to flash ominously.
“Bogey!” says Aria.
A streak of red light shoots past the Versa, and Aria engages the engines.
“Is it the Aeon?” asks Kantikle.
“Don’t think so,” says Aria. “It’s about the right size, but most of the readings are pretty normal. Probably just a pod or a starbeetle or something.”
“No, it is the Aeon!” shouts Kantikle. “I can feel it! Destiny burns in my chest! After it! I’m engaging the hook!”
Kantikle pushes some buttons on the console, and a field of crackling energy wraps itself around the ship. Aria sighs and chases after the light. The little ship bends and crumples into strange tessellations from the rapid increase in speed, and Aria feels the meat part of her stomach going funny.
“Warning,” says the Versa’s computer. “Quantum destabilization imminent.”
“It’s about to jump. Get us in range now, clown!” shouts Kantikle.
“Stop talking! I can’t think if you’re talking!”
Steering at warp is very difficult, on account of human brains not really being able to think at faster-than-light speeds. Aria’s computer brain can do it, but relying on it while also processing meat language can get really headachey. This plus the queasiness is highly unpleasant, as Aria decides, as she has decided for each of the last thirty days, that this is the worst day of her life.
“This is it!” Kantikle yells, as the object is just about to hit the warp horizon. “Now!”
He presses a button, and the object disappears, only to reappear in the ship’s holding bay a moment later.
“Is it the Aeon? Did we do it? Is it time for Kantikle’s destiny to unfurl?” He stands and looks into the middle distance. “Is this what it is to be a hero? Yes, I can feel it. We finally did it, Aria. We faced many trials, but we did it. You are loathsome to me in many ways, but I admit, you have a noble soul inside. Your name will live forever, Aria Asterisk. Finally, Kantikle will do what he was born to do, usher in an era of peace and justice that will last unto eternity. It is time!”
Aria taps the viewscreen a few times and frowns. “I think it’s a mail-pod? Do they have those in the future? It’s how we send mail. Like letters and packages. Mail. You know, mail, right. Can you feel that? Is your heart burning with mail?”
“I hate you, clown. I hate you as much as Uvognig the Traitor hated Addfle the Wizened Fire.” He pauses. “See, that is a funny joke. On my world, everyone would laugh uproariously at that reference. You do not understand my bold flavors.”
Aria sighs, long and hard. “This is hell. You are hell. Everything is hell.”
When Aria first started doing future/space stuff, she was informed very directly that it was dangerous for corporeal beings to stay in warp longer than a few hours at a time.
“Your brain will turn into jelly,” said her trainer, who was a giant floating eyeball. “And you’ll probably piss yourself.”
Wanting neither to urinate involuntarily nor have her brain rendered into mush by quantum decoherence, Aria has, until present, studiously avoided remaining in warp for more time than is absolutely necessary. This has suited her well, as warp makes her feel nauseated, and she has always been bad at being sick, usually reverting into a giant baby at the slightest hint of physiologic distress. Plus, she dislikes traveling by spaceship anyway, preferring instead to travel inside cool cosmic aliens or timecubes or whatever. So much more interesting and usually easier on the tummy. Before this mission, her record for time spent in warp was just over five hours. It had been an ordeal, and her brain deffo felt gooey afterward (and not in a fun drugs way), but it had probably been for the good of the universe or something, so it was cool.
Her new record is, currently, six weeks and counting.
The Versa is designed for this, staying in warp for long periods of time, so her brain has not gone to jelly, and she has not urinated outside the appropriate facilities, but still, this sucks. This tiny ship sucks. Spending all day sitting around, scanning passing ships to see if they might be a cosmic god-thing sucks. And most, most, most of all, Kantikle fucking sucks a lot. She cannot remember why they had initially started arguing or what the initial argument had been about (something about music maybe?) but they argued all day, every day now, over anything and everything. He is probably the worst person Aria has ever met, and Aria has met some real assholes, both in terms of omnicidal mega-supervillains and, like, shitty dudes she was forced to hang out with because they were dating her friends. Kantikle is the worst of all. Like, .00001 out of ten, F minus minus, the uncoolest of them all. And she has to spend all day with him, waiting for Aeon Who Judges All Things to cross the warp so that Kantikle can go inside Aeon’s mind and teach him that this universe has cool stuff and good people. It’s her job to protect him at all costs. They eat together, sleep together, and spend all day listening to music and arguing. It’s like having a song in your head for weeks and weeks, but also, it can talk to you and self-aggrandize and make fun of your great fashion choices.
It sucks. Way worse than having a jelly brain or piss trousers.
“Can you please stop making that noise?” asks Aria, as she lay in her very small, very uncomfortable cot at the rear of the cabin. Neither she nor Kantikle technically require sleep, but both have a fondness for it as an elective. Anything is better than staring into the void all the time.
“You know I can’t,” he says, laying in his own cot. “I’m literally made of sound.”
“You keep saying that, but I feel like you could if you really tried.”
“What of your own sonic excretions? Kantikle can hear everything. Can you silence the noise of your inside meats moving fluids and gases around? Can you silence the squelching of your cells dividing?”
“Maybe. I’ve never tried. Let me try. Okay, I tried. Now you try.”
“You didn’t try.”
“I did! I guess I just couldn’t do it. But you’re still obligated to try. ”
“Okay, fine. There. I tried. Oops, didn’t work. Happy?”
“You tried to silence the song of your people? You said that babies are born singing your song, that the laughter of children is incorporated into its melodies, that all the sounds of love and joy in the universe are featured in the music of you. You tried to stop all that? That’s pretty fucked up, dude.”
“You are a curse, clown.”
“Oh my God, stop calling me that.”
“Perhaps you should not dress in such a comical fashion?”
“My fashions are avant-garde, and you’re a child.”
Kantikle sits up suddenly. “Do you hear something?”
“I’m not doing this with you again.”
“No, I thought I heard footsteps. But they appear to have faded.”
“It was probably my inside meats. Goodnight.”
Aria closes her eyes, but they snap back open immediately as a loud explosion echoes through the ship. Before Aria or Kantikle can react, the Versa begins to shake and groan, and there are a lot of flashing lights and beeping computers and scary space noises. Small holes begin to open along the seams of the ship, and Aria sees strange, many-angled shapes emerging from them.
“Fuck!” she shouts, jumping up and out.
“The holding bay!” shouts an angry Kantikle, rushing to the cockpit antical.
“Fuck,” repeats Aria, all out of luck as the hallway is blocked with debris. “Do you feel those weird vibes. A trembling inside? Something weird’s happening to me. ”
The Versa goes spinning, the inner atmosphere thinning, ship beginning to fall apart. The antigrav stalls, and Aria falls, and Kantikle sprawling, imparts, “We now decohere!” Then he screams out with fear, “The Versa has broken to crumbs!”
Aria rolls her eyes at the one she despised and says, “Why are you talking so dumb?”
“We lamp the light-road left without a light-leaper.”
The music man manages, matter muddling deeper
The star-witch’s phrasing: “Form is forfeit to feeling?
Idea and Material no longer congealing?”
“Desperate for design, some solace of structure
Our atoms make meaning in meter while ruptur
and the star-lite stream hangs around kantikle
and they they reach out in the void (as they
are unmade) and untouch unfingers
and unhold, unhanded one another
and wonders where things go
when they are nothing
The Null Space Conundrum
A Play in Zero Acts
By ARIA ASTRA and Kantikle
Cast of Characters
Aria Astra: A cyborg in her late 20s who dresses like the villain of a cartoon targeted at three-year-old children.
Kantikle: A living song with an ego the size of Milesglorio the Megasun.
Nulla the Merciful: Who? What’s happening? This is weird.
SETTING: We’re wandering somewhere, possibly nowhere.
It’s like a castle, but every time you try to look.
It disappears right in front of you.
Like trying to pin down a memory.
Where are we?
AT RISE: Time is doing some real weird stuff.
Like, it moves when you pay attention to it.
But then if you don’t, it stops.
Like the fable of Gormand and the Sloog.
Oh my God, we know exactly what we mean.
We seem to be some kind of gestalt being,
trapped in immaterial timeliness.
No, we’re gross.
No, we’re gross.
I think I figured out how to specify myself.
How? Oh cool, I did it!
(looks around, sees nothing)
This is very conceptual, and I don’t like it.
How did this happen? Why’d the ship blow up like that?
I think it was a bomb?
Remember that mail-pod?
Did you actually check if it was full of mail?
Did you eject it?
I feel like those things would be your responsibility. You’re supposed to protect me.
Well, I did a bad job, okay? I thought it was funny, and I was going to use it to make fun of you later. They struck at my only weakness: extreme pettiness. But how did they know?
You’ve killed us! You’ve killed us, and you’ve destined our universe to a billion years of darkness!
I am genuinely sorry. I apologize. But if we’re going to throw blame around, I will remind you that you were the one who was so sure that that pod was Aeon. I knew it wasn’t, but you were being a total dip about it.
(ARIA is absolutely the worst. None are more hateful than she. If only Kantikle, the greatest and most beloved of all universal heroes, had undertaken this mission alone, this disaster never would’ve happened)
Hey, don’t do that!
Kantikle shall do as Kantikle shall do.
(smiles like the biggest dipshit in the world, worse even than Aspera)
Ugh, fine. Fine. No taking advantage of our . . . condition for insults. Who’s Aspera?
My evil clone. I told you. You’re like her but worse.
If she’s the opposite of you, then she’s probably great.
Whatever. So what do we do now?
I think we just remain here for eternity as timeless, immaterial beings. Forever.
Is that it?
How does nothing become something? It’s impossible.
There’s got to be a way.
No, this is it. Even the end of time will not end our suffering. We are alone here forever.
(Holy fuck! What the shit is this? Did you see that? We need to get away! How do we run? Do we have legs? We obviously don’t have legs. We’re such an idiot. We’ll just shoot it with the Sister Ray. We can’t! What part of us being nothing do we not understand? We can’t just shoot our problems away.)
Calm yourselves. I am a friend to you.
ARIA and KANTIKLE
You’re here, but you’re not us. We thought everything here was us.
I am Nulla the Merciful. I contain all who have been lost to this place, all the little traces of something in this place of nothingness. You too will join me in time, when you have forgotten who you are. You are nothing, true, but there is still a bit of something to you, a tiny ember of something that will burn a little while longer.
Yes, that sounds very bad.
I was once like you. I was like you unto infinity. But now I know the peace of nothingness compared with the violence of being. You will learn nothing soon enough! Let us rejoice! As long as you are something, we have something to celebrate. Then there will be nothing to celebrate, and we will celebrate nothing. Our time is short, perhaps a few million years, but I promise it will go by in an instant.
Because there’s no time. We get it. Nothing and something. Cool. Please stop.
Yeah, it’s not as clever as you think it is.
Like, hey, I’m made of nothing, so nothing can hurt me! I eat nothing, so we have a feast of nothing. Are you sure this isn’t just a universe that runs on stupid puns and chiasmus instead of physics?
Clown, please. Do not be rude to our host, who speaks nothing because something made nowhere sometimes no one, and thus nothing nowhere is sometimes not something nor somewhere nothing forever something nothing.
(laughs and points at NULLA)
That’s what you sound like! Got ’em!
(We high five.)
Okay. Point taken. Rude, but point taken. Commence the revelry!
(We party for a couple of weeks or so. Like just now, that was a week. Whoa. It’s pretty cool. It turns out not drinking and not dancing is almost as fun as drinking and dancing when you’re in a place that operates on dumb chiasmus logic. Also, roasting Nulla is very easy and fun, and we are starting to get along. All we needed was someone (or as NULLA insists, no one) else to channel our assholishness towards. It turns out we have a ton in common, and being a single entity really does help one extend empathy. But then, at some point, ARIA notices KANTIKLE sitting specified in a corner of nowhere, sadly, not not partying.)
Hey, what’s your deal?
This is fun.
I’m not supposed to have fun. I’m supposed to execute my mission.
You can still do it. We’re just chilling for a while. I get, like, no vacation days. We can bust out of here when we want.
I’m not supposed to “chill.” I’m supposed to keep the universe safe. I’m supposed to save everyone.
You can still chill. They aren’t mutually exclusive.
I know. That’s the problem. I think I like this “chilling” more than I ever thought I would. It’s nice. But I have to focus on my mission. I have to. Don’t you have something you care about? Something to live for and die for?
Not really. I kind of just do whatever. I save the universe ’cause it’s something to do, and because the Star Supremacy keep my robot parts working. I don’t have much investment in it. It kind of bums me out, but I try not to think about it. Like I said, I’m neutral.
But you have fun, at least.
Fun can get a little old. It’d be cool if I had something to really care about. But whatever.
Do you really think we will escape this place? How?
I dunno. I usually improvise these things.
I fear we are lost. This is it. I have failed my mission.
Well, I don’t know what to tell you. Something’ll come along.
I was born for this mission. It’s all that I’ve ever known. What am I without it?
Don’t say that. You’re kind of a cool dude. You have pretty good taste in music, even though you don’t appreciate disco, which is the best music, and you have like a good look. We’ve never done anything actually cool together, but I feel like when we get out of this, we should go do something cool.
Ha. Face it, Aria. I’m a song without a listener. Just vibrations in the air. Or less. Without my mission.
That took far less time than I expected. I thought a few million years at least. But I guess some people don’t have a very strong sense of themselves.
(ARIA looks for KANTIKLE, but she sees nothing)
Don’t worry, you’ll join him soon enough. I find that singles don’t make it very long. We define ourselves by our opposites. Without someone, you’re no one.
Ugh, shut up! Kantikle? You’re still in there, right? Come back.
It’s no use. He is nothing now.
For real, Kantikle. Get back here!
Forget it. Your boyfriend is gone now.
He was not my boyfriend.
Yes, exactly. Your not-boyfriend.
You’re really the worst, you know that?
Yes, and I am the best. Nulla is all things and no things, the beginning and the end! Everything you experience here is me! I only allow your little somethingness the illusion of control!
It was not like me to say that. But Nulla is the most beautiful, the most elegant, the most wondrous creation of all universes! When I have absorbed you and your Sister Ray, I will have the power to extend myself past the limits of this place, into the real, where I will consume all things!
I really did not mean to say that.
That’s probably Kantikle. I knew he was still there. He’s like that. Like kind of an asshole.
It matters not! Soon, you will be part of me, and Nulla will again know the peace of nothingness!
Yeah, but you know. Also, thanks for letting me know that the Sister Ray is here. I was concerned ’cause I died and turned into nothing, but I guess it turned into nothing too. Just one sec.
(ARIA finds and brandishes Sister Ray; also, Nulla sucks, right? Like, I didn’t buy her whole act, but even still, I just thought it was hungry, not like a weird universe vore thing.)
But that’s cool. Let’s see how nothing you really are.
(ARIA shoots NULLA with the Sister Ray still set to pizza. Nulla screams a bunch
Let Kantikle go.
And lend us a little matter so we can go home.
I bet you have extra.
“Curse you, Aria Astra!”
Aria and Kantikle find themselves back in reality aboard a fully repaired Versa. They immediately embrace one another, appreciating the sensation of being once again. They spend several moments like this, so close, smiling and laughing, and luxuriating in the real.
“When will I learn that all of my problems can be solved by shooting them with my magic space laser?” asks Aria. “It really should be my first thing every time.”
“We did it!” shouts Kantikle. “I can’t believe we did it!”
“We?” asks Aria. “I feel like I did that. I shot it. Like a bunch.”
“You wouldn’t have known to if it hadn’t absorbed some of my bold flavors.”
“Ha. I guess your flavors are pretty bold.”
“Your flavors are also not terrible.”
“Are we gonna make out? I feel like that’s what’s happening now. I’m just saying. I’m into it.”
“Yes. Let it commence!”
The making out commences. It is pretty good, lots of tongue, and it lasts for a bit. There’s some sex in there, too. Awesome, right? What an afternoon, A double plus, ten out of ten. After finishing up, Aria takes a long shower and puts on a comfy dress made of undulating space worms, and Kantikle prepares some energon cubes or whatever it is he eats in the kitchen area. It’s real chill.
“Hey,” says Kantikle, when he and Aria have taken their places back in the cockpit again. “I was kind of thinking. Doesn’t this seem kind of easy?”
“How so?” asks Aria.
“I feel like how we defeated Nulla didn’t really make sense.”
“Lots of things don’t make sense. I have a very colorful life.”
“And how’d it send us back here? Like, why does it have that power?”
Aria shrugs. “I mean, it could have that power. I didn’t really understand what was happening most of the time it was happening.”
“I guess you’re right. It was kind of for the best, if you think about it. The mission is going to go a lot better now. I feel like I finally get you now.”
“Peace and understanding?”
Aria lets out a deep, agonized sigh. “No. Ugh! Fuck me.”
“No, dummy. God. You’re lucky you’re pretty.”
She unholsters the Sister Ray and holds it to her temple.
“What are you doing?”
“I fucking hate this part,” she says, and pulls the trigger.
Aria wakes up in the holding bay of the Versa, tied up back to back with Kantikle. A sword sticks out of her chest. It is covered in purple stuff, which is basically her blood, but the edge glows like the summer sun, and Aria finds its warmth oddly comforting, as though she and this blade were old friends catching up after a long time.
“What the fuck?” he howls. “There’s a sword in me!”
“There’s a sword in us. And yeah, this is not great.”
“What is happening?”
“That whole thing we just did all mega pretendo. Sorry. Don’t freak out. The Paradise Eye doesn’t hurt as long as you stay calm. It’s an inner peace thing. Just take a deep breath.”
“It’s my clone. Aria Aspera, wielder of the Paradise Eye and supreme cosmic jackhole. She must’ve got us when we were asleep.”
A small, glowing orb sits on a metal folding chair next to the pair. It buzzes loudly, and a crackly voice emerges. It’s basically Aria’s voice, but with a bit of an aristocratic affect. Like kind of a phony mid-Atlantic thing. You know, like how people talked in old movies? Like that. “Hello friends. How is your day going?”
“Fuck you, Aspera,” says Aria.
“I’m sure you definitely said something rude to me, Astra, but I can’t hear you if you don’t touch the orb, and you won’t be able to touch the orb. I’m quite sure you’ll find the nega-bonds quite unbreakable.”
“Who is that?” asks Kantikle.
“I told you, my evil clone. I’m not super clear on the origin. She might be an alternate universe version of me who got split into good and bad halves, and then the bad half killed the good half and came to this universe to fuck with me, but she may have actually been fucking with me when she told me that. Wheels within wheels, you know? It sucks, and her dumb sword makes you hallucinate and learn life lessons and stuff. It also sucks. A lot about this situation sucks,” says Aria.
Aspera cackles. “Oh, wouldn’t you like to know, Astra? But I’m afraid my motivations will remain secret for now. But please, keep begging.”
“I didn’t ask, dork.”
Aspera clicks her tongue. “Astra, Astra, Astra. Do you really think I’d forgive you so easily? I’m glad you admit that I am the superior Aria, but it’s humiliating for both of us for you to grovel so. It’s truly unbecoming.”
“Okay, so she’s definitely doing this on purpose. She’s the worst.”
“I don’t know,” says Kantikle. “I think it’s kind of funny.”
“Let’s just get out of here.”
Aria tries to struggle against the bands of glowing light holding her to Kantikle, but they do not budge. Worse, as she wriggles and stretches, she can suddenly remember all the bad things that have ever happened to her, very clearly and without prompting. All the petty betrayals, the trespasses, the cruel circumstances forced upon, and she remembers them all at once, and she can do nothing to stop the flood of despair, and she realizes that trying at all is futile, that life is pointless, and that she should just give up. She sighs and relaxes, no longer trying to escape. This is her life now, tied to Kantikle, waiting to die. Kantikle stops moving, too. Bummer. The nega-bands must’ve got him. What an unchill day. Whatever. Who cares?
“Oh fine, if you’re going to be that way, I’ll give you a little taste. I’ve tracked Aeon the Judge with this nice ship of yours, and me and him are going to have a nice talk about just how bad this universe can be.”
“Aeon,” murmurs Kantikle.
“Who cares?” asks Aria.
“You’re right. It doesn’t matter.”
“No,” says Kantike. “That’s not right.”
“Right and wrong, just words,” says Aria.
“No. We have to fight. We have to.”
“There’s nothing we have to do. We have absolute freedom, but freedom is a curse. The only option is to lie down and accept the only inevitability, death,” says Aria,
“No!” shouts Kantikle. “I have a mission! I have to save everyone! I will save everyone.”
Kantikle starts to get loud. His inner music, usually light and gentle like a heartbeat, begins to roar, and he material body begins to vibrate and strobe violently.
“I’ve almost got it!” he sings. “Just a little more!”
And Aria thinks it is pretty stupid, but Kantikle is kind of a cool guy, and it seems like ensuring the existence of the universe is really important to him or whatever, so she guesses she can help him for like a minute. Just to be nice. Flexing her muscles and engaging her cyborg strength, she pushes against the bonds. And just like that, they break, shattering into glittering shards that hang in the air. It’s pretty cool.
Aria takes a deep breath as her brain goes back to normal, and Kantikle pulls the Paradise Eye out of their chests.
“We did it!” she says.
“I feel like I did it, mostly,” sings Kantikle, still kind of vibrate-y.
“You loosened the lid, but I was the one who opened the jar,” Aria says.
“There is no time for me to explain why I am definitely the one who should get the credit for that. The Aeon is close. I can feel him. It is time. Destiny burns in my chest.”
Aria nods and picks up the Paradise Eye from the floor. “Cool,” she says.
“What’s wrong? You sound weird. Are you still sad from the sadness bondage?”
“No. I just. I’m not sure I’m ready. I want to do this, but . . . right now? I was just starting to enjoy myself.”
“I’m sure we could figure something out.”
“No. This is it. It’s time for me to fulfill my destiny. This my time.”
“So what’s the plan?”
Before Kantikle can answer, the orb on the chair begins to buzz again, more violently than before. Aspera’s laugh echoes through the room as cracks begin to appear on the orb’s surface. It swells larger and larger with each passing moment, until it breaks open, revealing a large blue beetle with two heads and flaming wings emerging from a glittering carapace. It continues growing until its head reaches the ceiling, at which point it glares at Aria and Kantikleand roars.
“Oh,” says Aria, brandishing the Paradise Eye. “That’s where starbeetles come from. Weird space eggs. It makes sense. You just never really think about these kinds of things until you see it, you know? Today really blows.”
Aria stumbles into the cockpit covered in bruises and cuts and lots of really cool battle damage on her clothes. Aspera is waiting at the cockpit. She is dressed very boringly, in a black tank top and shorts. Why even bother getting out of bed if that’s what you’re going to put on? Terrible, just terrible. Also, the ship has just exited warp and entered regular space, and Aeon, a very large, many-angled being who makes your soul hurt when you look at him, floats in front of the ship, which is probably also bad.
“Hey Aspera!” shouts Aria. Her right arm hangs limply, covered in purple stuff and with a bunch of bones and wires and stuff protruding out of the skin, but she points the Paradise Eye at Aspera with her left arm in a really cool way regardless. “I solved your nega-band puzzle! It turns out I just needed to believe in myself. I mean, sort of. That’s basically what happened.”
Aspera looks back from the controls and sighs dramatically and makes a real show of rolling her eyes in disgust. “I know, genius. It doesn’t matter.” She aims the Sister Ray at Aria. “No funny stuff. I’m almost done.”
Aria slowly lowers the Paradise Eye. “Fuck you. I should’ve known that you were going to get involved in this thing.”
Aspera nods. “Yeah, you really should’ve. Like, for real. It makes me kinda sad. Am I as dumb as you? Do we have the same dumbness within us? It makes me wonder.”
“But seriously, you’re such a weirdo, Astra. What was that null space thing supposed to be? You’re like the weirdest version of us I have ever met.”
“You saw that?”
“Yeah, that’s how it works. It’s like half the fun. I thought I was going to get a nice film about you two learning to be friends, not some bizarre conceptual fantasy. I got bored halfway through and started writing my own scenario, a sort Astra/Kantikle fanfic. So in mine, instead of that null space nonsense, you two and the ship get trapped inside a sun, and you’re okay, but the ship is very hot, and you can’t figure out a way to get out, and the heat is so, so bad you can’t even think. And so you’re fighting a bunch, both because of the heat and because you’re both baby-brain losers who don’t know how to deal with sexual tension, and so you end up stripping off your clothes, and then you’re eating a lot of popsicles, and then it’s so hot you have to have angry fire sex and then you like each other afterwards.”
“I actually like that a lot. If you write it down, please send it to me. But seriously, fuck you, Aspera.”
“I love you, too, sweetie.”
Aria smirks. “One thing, though. I think you’re more of a sword person than a gun person. I wonder if you can aim that thing as well as you can describe erotic scenarios.”
Aria raises her sword and rushes toward Aspera. She makes it about two steps before Aspera shoots her in the shoulder, knocking her right to the ground and opening a big purple wound.
“Oh my God, are you kidding?” asks Aspera. “I’m like ten feet away from you.”
The Paradise Eye clatters to the ground, and Aria groans in agony. “Damn it!”
“Really, this is just pathetic, Astra. You can’t even kill a starbeetle without hurting yourself, and now this? I’m starting to feel bad for you.”
Aria looks up at Aspera and shakes her head, sadly. “You’re right.”
“I can’t do this. I can’t beat you. Just please, don’t hurt Kantikle.”
“You’re too powerful. You’re stronger than me, smarter than me, better than me.”
Aspera stands up, looks around the ship, an expression of pure bafflement on her face. “What is this?”
“You can do whatever you want to me, but spare Kantikle.”
“This is a trick. It has to be!”
“You know what it is to be lonely, what it feels like to care about nothing. All Astras understand that.”
Aria grabs the Paradise Eye and begins to slowly, painfully crawl to Aspera. Aspera points the Sister Ray at Aria. At Aspera’s feet, Aria remains on her knees, eyes downcast, and holds the Paradise Eye by the tip of the blade, offering Aspera the hilt.
“Take it,” says Aria. “Just save Kantikle. What do I have to say? I know you, Aspera. You did this because you just like to watch things burn. I’m like that, too. Nothing really matters, if you think about it. I understand. But Kantikle is . . . different. Save him, please. I’ll do anything, say anything. You’re very funny and beautiful and you’ll probably rule the universe one day if that’s your thing. Even your fashions are better than mine. ”
Aspera smiles as she wraps the fingers around the Paradise Eye’s hilt. “Thanks. By the way, I know what the Paradise Eye feels like. It’s my weapon! Did you really think you could trick me into thinking I was in it?”
Astra shrugs. “Not really, nah.”
Astra pushes her hand forward, the blade of the Paradise slicing through the meat and bone, and knocking the hilt out of Aspera’s hand and into her stomach. With her other hand, Aria wrestles away the Sister Ray as she pushes Aspera to the ground. It is like the most anime-ass shit ever, and it is so fucking awesome, oh my God.
“Fuck you,” says Aspera, dropping her bullshit fake accent as Aria holds the Sister Ray to her head.
“You were right,” says Aria. “I am really super dumb, huh?”
Aspera sneers and rolls her eyes. “You struck my only weakness: extreme pettiness.”
Aria shakes her head. “No. Your true weakness is that Evil can never truly understand Neutral.”
“So what now?” asks Aspera.
Aria points to the viewing screen, on which Kantikle is flying out to Aeon on the starbeetle.
“Well, my friend Kantikle, who is just my friend, is about to do his whole thing over there. For real, you thought I couldn’t kill a starbeetle? Come on. The hard part is getting them to chill out and be cool.”
Kantikle leaps off the starbeetle and floats in front of the Aeon. His humanoid form begins to blur into pure light and sound as the Aeon itself begins to pulsate in time with Kantikle’s cosmic rhythms.
Aria continues. “I think he might die from it? No one’s totally explained the rules to me, but I feel like he’s going to die or, like, exist only as a song inside an ancient god’s head after this. It’s kinda sad. But we are just friends. I mean, I guess we’re ‘hanging out.’ You know? Just a casual thing. I don’t know. We haven’t talked about it. I don’t think it counts if it happens in a shared hallucination.”
“Okay, shut up. I don’t care.”
Suddenly, both Aeon and Kantikle explode in a bright flash of white light. Spacetime itself roars and shudders, and the Versa is sent flying in the opposite direction. Unwilling to let Aspera go, Aria allows the ship to tumble through space for a while until its internal systems right it. Looking out the viewscreen now, all she can see is blackness in all directions.
“I guess he’s dead?” says Aria, after a long silence. “That’s sort of a bummer. You wanna go watch a movie or something after this? I mean, you’re done being an asshole, right? Like, you failed, so now you can just be cool?”
Aspera shrugs. “Whatever. Just don’t talk to me about your feelings. I really, really don’t care.”
Aria lets Aspera go as her healing matrix engages. She hops on the controls and plots a course. Aspera sits next to her in the cockpit, pouting and sighing and generally being a sore loser. Aria tries to engage her in conversation a couple times, but Aspera is not having it. Aria decides to lean into and do the most annoying thing she can think of: whistling Kantikle’s song, the melody that used to come out of him when they were trying to sleep. At first, it is a simple recollection, but the whistling becomes more complex with time. Soon, she is whistling better than she has ever whistled before, and soon, better still, beyond the point of pure whistling. She whistles harmonies, percussion, and then voices. It becomes ever more complex and intricate until it crosses the boundary between conceptual and material, and in a flash, Kantikle appears, standing in the cockpit.
“Kantikle has returned!!” he shouts.
“Great, this guy,” says Aspera.
Aria leaps to her feet and wraps her arms around Kantikle. “You’re alive! How?”
“You thought I was dead? Is that why you just left without waiting for me?” asks Kantikle.
“Well, yeah. Like, I thought you were like giving Aeon your message of hope, but you’re the message, so you wouldn’t exist anymore. I thought that’s why you were so weird about pulling the trigger at the end there.”
“No. That was more of an existential crisis.”
“Oh. So you were just floating in space there? Waiting?”
“Yes. But it’s fine. It wasn’t your fault. We did it, Aria. Together.”
They do some kissing.
“Ugh, awful,” says Aspera.
“What’s she doing here?” asks Kantikle.
“We were gonna hang out. But you can hang with us. It’ll be fun,” says Aria.
“What are you talking about? She’s evil.”
Aria shrugs. “Uh, I know I should probably care about that, but I really just don’t. That’s neutral, I guess.”
“She tried to kill us!” shouts Kantikle.
“I did no such thing,” says Aspera. “I captured you. I probably would’ve let you go, completely unkilled.”
“You wanted to convince the judge of the universe that everything is bad!”
“I mean, everything is bad,” says Aspera.
“She has a point. Most things are bad,” says Aria.
“You’re the worst. You’re the absolute worst!” says Kantikle.
“No, you’re the worst!” says Aria.
“You’re both the worst,” says Aspera.
“No one asked you, Aspera. Look dude, do you want to go to the movies and make out or what?” asks Aria.
“I do,” says Kantikle. “I just have a lot of feelings about this situation.”
“Just chill,” says Aria. “I know an awesome place. All the movies you could ever watch.”
And Kantikle sits on the floor next to Aria as the Versa flies into the black, and Aria reaches down, and their fingers touch each other lightly as nothing turns into something.
Aria Astra May or May Not Return In: Journey to the Center of the Omegaplex!!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Violet Allen is a writer based in Chicago, Illinois. Her work has appeared in Lightspeed, Liminal Stories, Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy, Resist: Tales from a Future Worth Fighting Against, A People’s Future of the United States, and elsewhere. She is currently working very hard every day on her debut novel and definitely has more than ten pages written, is not lying to her agent about having more than ten pages written and does not spend most of her time listening to podcasts, and everything is totally cool, I promise. She can be reached on Twitter at @blipstress.
Please visit Lightspeed Magazine to read more great science fiction and fantasy. This story first appeared in the July 2019 issue, which features eight science fiction and fantasy short stories, plus nonfiction and novel excerpts. This issue also contains work by Micah Dean Hicks, Adam-Troy Castro, Karen Lord, J. Anderson Coats, Andrew Penn Romine, Senaa Ahmad, Indrapramit Das, and more. You can wait for most of this month’s contents to be serialized online, or you can buy the whole issue right now in convenient ebook format for just $3.99, or subscribe to the ebook edition at a discounted rate via the link below.