by Anaea Lay
illustration by Darryl Knickrehm © 2013

Love is:

Not answering when they call, because if you talk to them, you'll cry and you don't want them to see you hurt.

Crying because you didn't answer.

Calling back and hoping they won't answer.

Wondering why you're such a bitch while spending the whole conversation acting like everything is fine.

Marni doesn't know how long she's been in the Empty Place. She can't know. Subjective time doesn't exist there. It's a time out in the most literal sense, and as she wafts through nothingness, alone with her thoughts, it becomes obvious that the human brain simply was not designed to exist without temporal parameters. She is, almost certainly, losing it a bit, and she's stuck there until enough people on the ship have forgotten or forgiven that it's “safe” to bring her out. Something to keep in mind, the next time she tries to blow a hole through the hull.

She might not have done it but for thirty-six milliliters of fuel. That's the critical catalyst you need to manufacture one cure for the Walking Plague. The cure is easy, if you have enough resources to make it. And they do. Thirty-six milliliters of fuel per person to treat everybody with the plague and they can wipe it out of the universe. They just won't have enough fuel left over to get to their destination. Woops. That's a thorny conundrum.

Love is not:

Being sure of anything.

Getting to have what you want.

Feeling in any way optimistic or positive about your future, because how could you when everything sucks and it's going to change for the worse and there are people involved who make that not okay as far as you're concerned.


What else was Marni supposed to do? Third generation on the ship, a hundred and fifty years into a thousand year trip, and they already know they're never going to get there. Numbers don't lie. The universe might be a giant, vicious cheat, but it's honest about it. The lovely little binary star system with six habitable planets and dozens of potentially viable moons is as attainable as flame for a moth – the ship very well might arrive, but everybody on it will be dead.

They're doomed, doomed, doomed, and for some reason, everybody else was content to go into complacent sheeple mode and just keep trucking along. At its current rate of infection, it would take the Walking Plague fifty years to wipe them out. Fifty years is a long time, they'd argued. They might find a more efficient manufacturing process. Or a cure that could use something else. Or a natural immunity might develop. Why accept their obvious doom when they could ignore it and cross their fingers for a miracle? So they stalled.



Why do they get to have subjective time when they're not even really using it?

That's some deeply biting irony, and as Marni starts to really let the Empty Place get to her, she grows bitter with the thought.

Well fuck that. Fuck the fuel supplies. Fuck the Walking Plague. Fuck the timing, and the planners who built the ship and the committees who selected the original generation. Fuck all the people who'd lived and fucked and died on the ship since then. Fuck their kids, and their grandkids. Fuck the shitty breakfast cereal everybody eats every morning. And fuck you, Bren. Fuck you the most, you fucking little abandoning dead fuck. This is your fault. Fucker.

Oh fuck me.


“I think you're overcompensating with your right hip.”

The words come back to Marni out of nowhere, in the place of nowhere, the emptiness of the very clever prison where they banished her. Those first, devastating words. The very end of a long fuse to a slow detonation.

At the time, she hadn't recognized it for what it was. She was all mixed up, tumbling through the air at the center shaft of the ship, where the gravity was low and everybody could be a gymnast, so long as they were coordinated enough. Marni wasn't. She went ass over teakettle when she meant to do whatever the opposite of that was. Or slumped sideways. Or got half way through and got stuck. She wanted to be a graceful, leaping acrobat, but it just didn't work.

“I think you're overcompensating...” And then there was Bren. He gave her advice, and he teased her, and when he picked on her for being a clumsy, graceless disaster it felt friendly, supportive, like he was actually being super nice to her for reasons she couldn't fathom and didn't need to. Packaged like an insult, Marni knew how to respond, which made him easy to get along with, even if he was distressingly, ineffably affable.

She wanted him almost immediately.

She decided she wasn't going to get to have him.

A week later, after she'd given in without meaning to, she decided she definitely wasn't going back.

And a week after that she decided that this was going to hurt – she didn't know when or how, but that's how the universe works – and she didn't much mind.

His ears were crooked and his hair was constantly disheveled in a way that looked genuinely sloppy and not the least bit cool or endearing. There was absolutely no reason to instantly gravitate to him the way she did.

It hurt already. She just wasn't admitting that yet.

Forgiveness is:

A lie.

A pretty name for giving a known danger the chance to come at you again.

What you call shrugging off something you didn't care about in the first place so you can look virtuous.


Speaking of awkward: giggling when they arrested her. Not your finest moment, Marni. The generous people called it a stress response, a release of tension when you realized you hadn't gotten yourself in your own blast. Idiots. Marni was giggling because they all looked so frightened, so concerned. They'd been dead, or as good as dead, for months, and taken it like zombies, ignoring the Walking Plague. One tiny little bomb, and all of a sudden they're scrambling through survivor mode, doing everything they can to stretch the fuse, draw out the agony.

And then the thought comes to Marni, maybe their response mirrors the stimulus. The Walking Plague is slow, incubating for months and months before it becomes contagious. And then, you don't even feel particularly sick. Just tired, so tired that one day you go to sleep and then you never wake up.

The researchers were baffled by that – what on earth could provoke that sort of pathology? – but Marni understood. They expected the Walking Plague to behave like a disease, trying to spread itself and increase its own success. It wasn't a disease, it was a sadist. All it cared about increasing was the pain of the people nearby. A long, non-contagious incubation. Just enough time to get really wrapped up in somebody.

“You know, I'm not going to be around forever.”

“Yeah,” Marni said. It was still fairly early in the relationship. She wasn't a goner yet, was safely not-yet-in-love, though she recognized the road she was walking.

“I'm not talking grand scheme, long term fate things. I'm an incubator.”

Marni's heart stopped. That's usually just a figure of speech, and it certainly had been at the time, but as the conversation replays in her head in the Empty Space, her heart actually stopped. Could have been just a second. Could have been eighty bajillion years. It's not like you can die in the Empty Space. Mortality requires temporality and she's spared both, aren't you, Marni?

“Oh,” Marni had said. And then, because it was still almost true, “I can deal with that. It's no big deal to me.” She had two options. The first, the one she liked best, was to bail. One last morning of snuggles in bed and then don't call him again, don't answer when he calls, just let it drop and fade organically. Happened to incubators all the time. Sucked to be them. They were lonely, but then they were dead, and the people who'd dropped them were in better shape than they would have been if they hadn't. It was a good idea. The right idea.

But the world is full of clichés. “Better to have loved and lost,” blah de blah blah blah. Pernicious. Nasty little lies people say because they don't know what they're talking about or, worse, they want company in their misery.

And Marni was arrogant. She thought she could handle it. She knew who she was, what she was, and that was tough, enduring, strong. She didn't need to walk away from this, because even when it hurt her, she could take it. Go ahead. Hurt all you like. Bring it. Marni didn't care. At that moment, it was true.

And it kept being true. She knew; she checked. “Am I hopelessly in love yet?” she'd ask herself. And then she'd picture life without Bren, and it was fine, so she'd shrug and keep going. Weeks passed. Months.

“I'm going to be gone next weekend,” he'd said. “Tests. I've been incubating long enough that we have to start monitoring for the changes that precede the contagious phase.”

“Oh,” Marni said, because that would sound more supportive than, “Dear God, stop talking, stop talking, I don't want to hear it,” which is what she meant. She needed to say more, to give him at least a hint of what she was thinking, so she added a cheerful, “What time do they let you go? Maybe we can get brunch.”

She'd been fine. Not in love; aware she was in for some wistful loneliness but ready for it. And then one little diagnostic routine and whoosh, self-delusion right out the airlock. She spent the entire weekend bursting into tears for no reason. They still had months before he'd have to go into quarantine, and she was an unhinged mess already. She hid in her room so nobody could see her and she wouldn't have to explain that she was an idiot who'd made a wrong, wrong, very bad choice.

Forgiveness is not:

Something you do for yourself.

A good idea.

The path to healing.

Something you actually have any conscious control over.

She never told Bren she loved him. She said other things, things like, “That hat looks ridiculous and you should never take it off.”

Oh, great. Now she's crying. You can't exactly afford to lose bodily fluids, not when you don't know how long you'll be stuck in the Empty Place and there's no way to replenish them. Then again, maybe you're not actually losing anything, since this isn't a real place and you've more or less ceased to exist. Okay, fine. Cry all you like. At least nobody can see you here.

This is the thing about Bren and the bomb. Marni was always going to build a bomb. That was destiny from the moment they figured out the time-table on the plague. It was her moral responsibility to put them out of their misery, and she was not somebody who shirked responsibility. She'd been actively plotting the whole thing before she met Bren. He'd distracted her for a while, but that was it. If he hadn't been ephemeral, if he'd been something she could have taken for granted, she probably wouldn't have been distracted more than the first few months. Moral imperatives are imperative, sure, it's right there on the label, but that doesn't mean they can't wait for you to finish up with something that has a clearly marked expiration date.

“What are the quarantine spaces like?” Marni asked. It was more code. This time what it meant was “I want you to think I'm being supportive but actually I'd let the whole ship burn if it meant you stayed.”

“They're really nice. They have great facilities. I'll be as comfortable as anyone could hope for. I get to pick the colors they display in the room, the music, the patterns on the bedding.”

“That sounds nice.”

“I'm...actually...I'm a bit nervous.”

Marni kissed him. It was mean. She should have let him talk, been genuinely supportive, lied to him and told him everything would be fine. Instead she kissed him, because her voice was quivering and if they kept talking he was going to have to comfort her and that wasn't fair since he was the one who was dying, he was the one who had to spend all that time with doctors and go to some tiny room they constantly reconfigured so they could feel better about letting somebody die.

Thirty-six is a magic number. Full of threes.

That was Marni's mistake, letting herself believe in magic. She'd spent so much time angry. Why was she, of all people, the only one who cared that they were letting people die. They were collecting a pile of pointless corpses on the off chance they might someday find a way to do the impossible. It was exhausting to be alone with that. So she'd gone and let herself pretend that the right person could change everything for her. That love would find a way. There's no such thing as happily ever after, Marni. You knew that. You've always known that.

Maybe it was selfish, kissing him. It might have helped him to see her cry, to have something other than her inexplicable enthusiasm for his terrible fashion sense as evidence that somebody cared about him, he wasn't alone, his life had a positive impact on somebody. Insofar as being completely shattered is positive. Marni contemplates this while she floats in the Empty Space, crying, wondering whether they'll ever release her from the time out, or they'd just implied it so she'd have hope, and then be impatient, and then suffer more.

Grief is:

How you know you're alive.

Like hunger.

Wrath for the weak.


The Empty Space is a humane solution to the thorny problem of prisons on a generation ship. There's no room, no people for guards and, frankly, not enough criminals to justify the infrastructure investment. But, chuck somebody into the Empty Space and they can do a lot of thinking on what they'd done.

And they can go crazy. It takes forever and happens instantly, because that's how timeless existence works. So Marni checks. “Am I crazy?” and she waits for the answer which doesn't come. Or maybe it had come already, except she doesn't remember thinking of an answer that wasn't attached to a question. She spins that around for a while, flipping it in her mind to make sure both sides get a good sear on them, then decides that it doesn't matter.

They're supposed to let her out when they've forgiven her, or forgotten her. But how will they ever forget the person who tried to blow them all into vacuum? She's never getting out of the Empty Place. If she's crazy, she will be crazy exactly like this for the rest of her existence, which is already over, is ending, will be coming for a long, long time.

They were very dignified when they said goodbye. He waved. She grinned. “We'll stay in touch,” he'd said. “I can call you from the quarantine ward.”

Marni nodded, smiled, wished him luck. Just before he went through the doors she yelled at him, then performed a perfect pirouette and did not overcompensate with either hip. They blew kisses.

Then Marni went back to her room and built her bomb.

She knew she couldn't destroy the ship. She didn't have access to the quantity of supplies she'd need and wouldn't know how to build a bomb of the necessary size anyway. She went with what she could do, planted it, waited. The point wasn't to destroy the ship, but to make the gesture, maybe to inspire others, to wake people up.

So what if they didn't get to their destination? Digressions are fine. Pauses in the moral imperative, totally okay. Some things are worth losing time for. Some things are worth sacrificing all your energy for.

Bren died the morning she planted the bomb. She hadn't spoken to him since the day after he went to the quarantine ward. After she was arrested, she'd giggled whenever people tried to ask her questions, and they thought she was psychotic, gloating over damaging ten meters of hull. Really, she was giggling so nobody would see her cry.

Grief is not:

A five step process.

Something you can control

Temporally locked. It will take hold of you long before the thing that actually causes it happens.


I don't think there is an actual Marni. I made her up. The empty space is a metaphor. It's a lie I'm telling because I don't know what else to do, don't know how to deal with the fact that this thing I've spent four months utterly devastated by has just now actually happened and somehow it's even worse. I want a hug, and you're not there for me to get it from. I can't lie and pretend I'm doing it just to comfort you anymore. I can't lie at all because there's nobody to lie to. Just me and Marni, stuck here, in this empty room. Trapped in a metaphor. Watching the fuse.

Or I'm crazy, and I've always been crazy, or I went crazy when you said you were leaving and I didn't walk away, didn't abandon you first. I don't remember how the sequence went anymore, can't put the thoughts in order. Everything is happening at once, forever.

I think maybe I'd have gone into quarantine with you, if you'd asked. Or did you? Is that what you meant, when you said my ass looked nice, but my tea kettle could use a polish?

I never told you I love you. I never will. I can't. If I say it once, I'll be saying it forever, and you can't hear forever. Mortality requires temporality.



© 2013 Anaea Lay

Anaea Lay lives in Madison, Wisconsin where she sells real estate under a different name, writes, cooks, plays board games, spoils her cat and runs the Strange Horizons podcast. Her work has appeared in Lightspeed, Apex, Nightmare, Daily Science Fiction and Penumbra among other places. She is currently engaged in a perpetual war with Tuesdays.