by Mary E. Lowd
Originally published in The Lorelei Signal, January 2021
The binary black hole sucked all the glittering starlight around into its twin maws. It stared at the viewscreen like two dark eyes, windows into the void.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” Clarity said, twisting her dyed-green hair nervously around her fingers. “We can’t fly between those things.”
The pilot of the small starhopper, a red-furred canid, stared right back at the pair of black holes, orbiting each other in a mad, spiraling dance that would end in eventual merging. Centuries from now. “Dead serious,” he said, triangular ears laying back flat against his head.
The Heffen and human sat in their pilot and co-pilot seats in a starhopper perched on the edge of star-crushing nothingness. The walls of their ship felt very thin with that binary black hole filling the viewscreen.
“Come on, Iroh,” Clarity said to the Heffen. “There has to be a better option — turn yourself in to the authorities on Crossroads Station and ask for asylum–”
Iroh shook his head, refusing to even meet his human friend’s eyes.
“–okay, or go to the Genie Shop again and get another genetic mutation?” Clarity was twisting her dyed-green hair nearly hard enough to pull it out.
Iroh turned to face Clarity, his muzzle drawn into a serious frown, and said, “And you’ll get changed too? Maybe into a reptilian S’rellick? We could both become reptiles. Or do we part ways?”
Clarity’s brow creased. “Good point.” She didn’t want to change herself into a different species… She’d seen how hard that had been for Iroh. The red-furred canid had been a bulgy-eyed amphibioid when she’d met him. Met her. They’d met only days before the transition from female-frog to male-dog, and by all rights, Iroh shouldn’t have shared who he’d been before with anyone. Let alone a random bartender. But changing that much of yourself… It was too hard for Iroh to do it alone.
“Well, we’d be doing it together…” Clarity still didn’t want to and was relieved when Iroh shook his head again. “Fine, then,” she said, “Face your fears and turn yourself in to the Diasporans.”
Iroh barked a harsh laugh. “You’ve never actually met a Diasporan, have you?”
Considering that the be-flowered tumbleweed-like aliens had been the villains in her life since meeting Iroh, she’d had shockingly little direct contact with them. One or two had come into the All Alien Cafe while she was bartending, before she met Iroh, but that was it. “Well, they’re basically sentient flowers. How bad can they be?”
“Heartless,” Iroh said. “For one.”
“A physiological condition of being plants,” Clarity countered.
“Literally and metaphorically.” Iroh spoke the words quietly. He’d been in love with a Diasporan once, before he’d aided the sproutling revolution and been placed at the very top of their queen’s Most Wanted list. Back when he’d been a sentient frog.
Iroh’s eyes dropped from where they’d been locked on the twin black holes, and his voice lowered to a mere rumble: “I can put you into the escape pod, leave you in stasis with a looped distress call, on course for the nearest space station. But I’m flying this starhopper between those black holes.” He glanced at her sidewise, not wanting to show the pain in his eyes, but wanting to see what was in hers.
Clarity’s eyes were full of tears. Her big red-wolf that had rescued her from the pedestrian life of serving bar, too much in debt to enjoy the exciting space station where she had lived, was offering to say goodbye to her. Forever.
Clarity reached a hand out, and Iroh grasped it desperately with his paws.
“I’m not leaving you,” Clarity said. Flying between those black holes looked like a death wish to her, but she would fly into death’s crushing embrace with Iroh. She’d fly anywhere with him. She wanted to ask whether he really believed it was safe, but instead, she said simply, “Let’s do this.”
Iroh’s wolfish muzzle split into a grin. A grin bright enough to cancel out two black holes. He didn’t say anything. He didn’t have to with a grin like that. It said everything for him. Instead, he simply squeezed Clarity’s hand before taking his paws back to work the controls.
Irrationally, Clarity tightened the safety belts on her seat. As if safety belts would make a whit of difference if they were grabbed by the event horizon of either black hole. “Fly straight,” she said, voice catching with fear.
“I’ve got this,” Iroh said, eyes once again locked on the the viewscreen. Though he shot one glance to the side, to check on her, and added, “I’ve got you.”
Clarity leaned back in her co-pilot’s seat and closed her eyes. But with her eyes closed, she imagined she could feel the two black holes pulling at her, grasping at her from either side with their impossibly strong gravity. It was all in her head, but it was too horrible to bear, and she opened her eyes again to watch as the last of the glittering lights shot away off the side of the viewscreen.
All was blackness. With the artificial gravity, they couldn’t even feel the speed they were picking up, slingshotting between the black holes, gaining the largest gravity assist available in the universe.
“Pick a direction,” Iroh said, still focusing on the controls.
“We can go anywhere in the universe. Point in a direction, and we’ll go find a galaxy to explore.”
Stars began appearing in the distance again. Crystal constellations and entire galaxies glowing brightly on the far side of the binary black hole. They had survived. They were through, and they were flying fast.
A triple-spiral galaxy, glittering with blue and yellow swirls caught Clarity’s eye. She wondered what kind of sentient species lived there. What kind of worlds they could find. With a shaking hand, she pointed to it.