The Big Slip

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Carrington kept going over it again and again as he stared outside. The long morning light slashed across a barren plain, a narrow shaft of benign sunlight blazing in through a crack in the massive windwall that ringed the outpost. It streamed into the window behind Jessica as she slept, illuminating the otherwise imperceptible veil of downy hair on her bare shoulder. Yet his mind was still out among the lethal white arcs of the corona of the portal star.
“How long you’ve been awake?” Jessica murmured and with wine-dark lips kissed him too gently. “It was good being with you again,” she whispered.
“I guess I need more time,” he said, turning away to lie on his side and stare into the far corner of the white recovery room. It was nothing like his cabin on his survey ship just beginning repairs in a dockyard half a star system away. The blast breached her hull along all six main juncture points—the ship he had fought for, commanded, been entwined with, for more than 10 years. Jessica had rocketed weeks far beyond the shipping lanes to be with him. Another puzzle.
“You’ve only been back a month. Do you want to talk about it?” she asked.
“No.”
“They said no one could survive getting that close to a portal,” she continued, coaxing him.
Carrington felt something was off, like she was letting just the right amount of admiration seep into her warm, honey-smooth voice. He also could not shake the disquieting feeling he knew what she was going to say before she spoke.
“The ship locked down into hibernation,” he said.
“But you were awake.”
“The captain has to be.” He said nothing about the claustrophobic hell of the e-suit, the boiling darkness, and the terror, He didn’t want to say another word “The main computer had to be shut down. Diffrax were more frequent than the models predicted.”
“Jared told me. He said he thought they wouldn’t be serious.”
“He’s never even been out on a survey.” That fool had no idea of what it took to fly across diffracted gravitational waves flooding from a sun suspended on the cusp of nova .“You could say Diffrax just cause the boundaries of things to slip a little. But computers can’t handle that shit at all.”
“And what about for people? Do they hurt?” her voice blurred softly at the edges like a shadow. Her pale hand caressed the side of his neck.
He couldn’t believe how he craved her touch. He’d broken off their relationship a few weeks before the survey, knowing only that he had to get out. Maybe it had something to do with how far away her eyes went when she thought he was not looking, like when she made a half-turn away to drag on her cigarette, staring intently somewhere beyond the bright red tip of ember. But he needed her now.
Even if she had cared he had no desire to explain how neural synapses are subject to quantum effects, and how micro jumps in time slowly unmoored the mind’s connection to universal temporal reference frames. Each hour that crawled by he would check the viewports for the rescue ship, seeing nothing but her shadow in bed with someone. Had it been them in the past? Someone else in the present? Or the future? He drowned in that hallucinatory sea.
“People bend rather than break. That’s why corporations still stick them on ships,” he said.
She leaned in, peering around his shoulder to try to see his face. “Didn’t this hurt?” she asked as the tip of her fingernail made a slow circle around the jagged scar just below his left nipple. From the corner of his eye he thought he caught a whip-flicker of a grin cross her lips
In the end the relentless avalanche of Diffrax crashed all the ship’s computers at once. Alarms screamed. He tore himself from the kinesthetic control ports, flinging wolf-bite chunks of flesh into the air. He slipped in his own blood while just barely managing to get to the manual control board.
“They’re growing replacements now,” was all he said.
“Jared also told me how you escaped, that it was brilliant. Igniting your own engines, jettisoning them at just the right instant.”
By the second time he heard the name of that sycophantic, back-stabbing director of research, the answer began to cohere.
“The shockwave took twelve of my crew.”
“But eight survived,” she said, smoothing his hair like he were an errant schoolboy. “You opened a whole unexplored quadrant. If the portal holds up only for a year, that’s more than enough time for the corporations. You’re going to be wealthy, a hero.”
“How long had you been sleeping with Jared?”
She hesitated only a microsecond, but it seemed longer. “We were together for three years.”
“He ordered us to go in too close.”
“He’s a scientist, in love with imponderable questions. You’re a man of action.” She gave him a light, spiderweb kiss on the back of the neck. “I didn’t like it when you left. I’m the one that was supposed to leave.”
He turned back to her eyes. Glittering. Beautiful. Dark. “And when did you stop sleeping with him?”
“So they did change you. The Diffrax. Still, you’re going to be OK. I’ll take care of you,“
“Yes,” he said as he ran his hand through the tangle of her long gold-brown hair, letting the strands stream for hundreds of thousands of kilometers through his outstretched fingers. He gazed into the entrails of a dying sun.
“You were the one that forced him to ask that particular imponderable question, the exact location of the eddy point for a thousand light-year jump, weren’t you?”
She smiled again. “Let’s just say I now hold enough interstellar transport stock to own more than ten thousand of you. Many more.” She pulled him into a marvelous deep kiss far colder than the void between the stars.

About the Author: 
I have published science fiction in Bull Spec magazine, Escape Pod, and recently in Nihilist Science Fiction. My inspirations are Ray Bradbury, Jorge Luis Borges, and Elmore Leonard.

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