From the author: On a cold, small moon inhabited by giant women, a young trans woman grapples with the possibility of losing her girlfriend along with everything and everyone she knows when a starship arrives to take her back to Mars.
None of it would have been beautiful if it lasted forever. Felicity Avdotyinichna Chaturvedi tightened her grip around Eureka Swift's smallest finger and felt at peace next to her girlfriend, sheltered from the world. Below them, the bay shone in the moon La Mancha's half-bright daylight and the forest ran unbroken to the shore.
"I don't want to rush you," Felicity said, "but much longer and you'll miss the eclipse."
"Just finishing it up now," Eureka said. She wasn't just low-gravity tall but gigantic, engineered to fit into a world that pulled only lightly on her bones, and her handheld screen was correspondingly large. She made a flourish with her stylus and beamed the finished drawing to Eureka's own screen. "There, take a look at that."
At first it was like a seeing a stranger with a face the same shape as a friend's, but after a moment the contours of chin and cheek and nose arranged themselves into stark familiarity. The skin was the right shade of brown, the eyes properly green; it was her, and not her. It was what she might look like polished, smoothed down, rather than being left incomplete. It was a face she might have seen in the mirror if any of a galaxy's worth of options for gender affirmation had been available to her, if there had been any justice in the world.
"When you look at me," Felicity said, "is this what you see?"
"When I look at you, I see what the light lets me see," Eureka said. She motioned to the sun, already shaved into a thinning crescent as the gas giant Quijote slipped between it and La Mancha like a jealous sibling who wanted all the attention. "Isn't that enough?"
The eclipse was unlike anything on Mars. She remembered her mother, eager and bright, stuffing her into a suit and calling her a name she'd realized was sour poison so that they could watch tiny Phobos glide across the sun. Felicity hadn't found anything impressive about it. Eclipses on Mars were the half-finished distractions of a half-finished world.
The sun went from a crescent to a sliver, and from a sliver to nothing. Night swept across La Mancha like a scythe, but whatever Felicity saw wasn't what Eureka was seeing. It couldn't be, with eyes that collected so much more light. It was another little truth that left her empty in the middle, that between their sight and size and so much else, there were things they couldn't share. Wasn't a relationship supposed to be about sharing?
"It must be so much more beautiful for you," Felicity said. "I wish I could understand it."
"Oh, it's easier than you think," Eureka said. "It takes time and work to become more than we are. Patience."
Felicity sighed and looked up into the constellation-dappled sky as a new star flared into being, just for an instant. A ship had come through the warp point. She squinted at the patch of sky where it had presented, traced the stars, and felt a chill. It had erupted among the stars of the Peregrine -- the traveller, the foreigner, the unwilling wanderer.
"There," Felicity said. "That's a bad omen."
"There's nothing to worry about," Eureka said. "I'm here. I've got you."
They stayed there until the sun emerged from the far side of Quijote and drowned the world in visible light, and only then did Felicity check her screen. With Eureka's drawing minimized, it reflected back at her a face that looked too much like a man's face, a mask that had been stapled to her skull, a crumbling facade she wasn't allowed to replace and should never have been her problem at all.
A message was waiting for her. It was the only thing it could ever have been.
"I can barely imagine it after so long," said Felicity's mother, yesterday the Martian Federation's ambassador to La Mancha and today just the Martian. "Home."
Such a simple word, but so heavy with meaning. Especially when it was a lie.
"I can't," Felicity said. She cast her gaze out the window of a house that had never felt all that home-like and was now only hers as a courtesy. Below were the multicoloured roofs of Baie-Sereine, capital and largest city of La Mancha, huddled together like birds in a storm. "I don't really want to, either."
"You won't have to worry about a thing," her mother said. She had filled a table with trinkets and breakables, scanning them so she could have them remade on Mars. "The ship's going through a maintenance check, it won't be able to leave for some time yet. Plenty of time for you to make your adjustments and say your goodbyes."
"For you, maybe," Felicity said. As ambassador, her mother had lived in a fragile, evanescent world where words were weapons. No wonder she hadn't made connections. "And if it hadn't needed maintenance, you'd have uprooted me like I was a weed? Would you?"
"Felicity, please," her mother said. "You're still young. You have so many opportunities ahead of you. But this is a small world, and there are big opportunities back home. For both of us."
Felicity imagined herself pushing the table over and scattering everything to the wind. She could hear the shatters and clatters loudly enough that it was just as good as doing it for real. Sure, she was young -- not quite ten in Martian or La Manchan years, a bit over seventeen to an Earther -- but that didn't mean she was foolish. La Mancha might have been cold but it wasn't a desert.
"I have a life here," Felicity said, filling her voice with acid until it spilled. "I have friends here. I told you about the school I'd applied for. They have an incredible set of programs. I want to study here."
"Just because you're here now, you don't have to act like it'll be forever," her mother said. "You're comparing a world of fifty thousand people to a system filled with billions."
Felicity could read the unspoken words behind her mother's smile. You're afraid. You think you're not good enough. You'd rather deal with as little competition as possible. They were the same things she'd told herself in the dark hours during La Mancha's long, long nights. She had no trouble believing them.
"Besides, they're doing great things with medical science back home," her mother said. "Maybe they've found a solution."
Felicity froze like a waterfall in winter. A solution. Even before she'd left Mars she'd known the body she'd been born into wasn't the one she was meant to have, but bad luck on the genetic lottery: all the standard treatments, so the doctors said, were too dangerous for her to pursue. Superficial work had never satisfied her. Nearly ten long years and she'd never truly seen herself in a mirror.
"Have they?" Felicity couldn't let herself be swept up by might-be-sos. "Or is that just hope?"
"It's whatever you want it to be," her mother said. "I'm sorry that you're having trouble, but the truth is that this isn't our world. It's time to go home."
Felicity could picture it well enough. Red dust, butterscotch skies, dirty domes pumped full of endlessly recycled air that smelled like sweat and farts. No cool breezes, no soft grasses beneath her bare feet, not a hint of life. Quixotic outposts on a dead world and nothing more.
If the entire world around her was dead, how could she ever feel alive?
The road to Alturas Falls was long, winding and exhausting even in La Mancha's low gravity, but Felicity refused to ride in a rover. Once her mother dragged her back to the land of rusty, bloody sands, she wouldn't be able to bike at all. At least she didn't have to worry about carrying her own air. She was only halfway up before the winds started striking like knives.
She pulled her jacket tighter. It was worn and battered and she was sure her mother would force her to leave it behind.
Eureka's hometown was nothing like Baie-Sereine. Everything there was built with the expectation that two metres was tall, and so every time Eureka came to visit she had to crouch down and peer into windows as if she was playing with dollhouses. In Alturas Falls Felicity felt like a doll herself, but even that felt more comfortable than living in Baie-Sereine. Down there, she was sure everyone looked at her and saw a man. The people of Alturas Falls had keen enough eyes to recognize who she really was.
Eureka's house was like the others, tall and sprawling and blue. There was a bell cord hanging next to the door, thin and low enough that she had no problem pulling it. After a moment the door slid open and Eureka filled the world.
"Lissy!" She wore a loose shirt and ragged, grease-stained shorts. Mechanical engineering was her hobby, on top of her ecological studies, and Felicity was perpetually amazed that even seventy-hour-long days were long enough to indulge all her interests. "What a nice surprise! Is everything okay?"
"Nothing's been okay since that damn ship showed up," Felicity said. The evening sky had darkened enough that she could see the orbital station wheeling through its orbit, again and again on her hike out of Baie-Sereine, tormenting her with inevitability. "Is it okay if I come in?"
"You came this far, I couldn't say no," Eureka said. Inside, Eureka's house was ordinary except for all the towering furniture, but she kept a nice chair and a table and even a bed for the times Felicity came by. It felt more welcoming than the house she'd spent her growing-up years in.
Felicity threw herself into her chair as her last reserves gave way. She cried the kind of tears that would have flooded the world were she as tall as Eureka.
"I don't want to go," Felicity bubbled. "Not there, not anywhere! Why can't she understand that?"
Eureka said nothing, but offered her open palms held together. Felicity scrambled onto them. As Eureka raised her up to eye level, she felt a sensation of care and safety that she had never found at home. Eureka's hands were full of softness and warmth where her mother's might as well have been made from cold iron.
"Because it's not as important to her as it is to you," Eureka's breath was a warm wind, lively and enriching. "But you're the one that matters here. So how are you going to solve this problem?"
"I don't know," Felicity said. "It's so big. Bigger than you, even. I keep thinking of running but I know she'd find me."
"The trick to that is to take advantage of the places she'd never think to look," Eureka said. She was silent for a moment as a wide smile crawled across her lovely face. "You're almost ten, local, right?"
"Way too almost," Felicity said. Eureka had just had her tenth birthday and won adulthood, fair and square. "If that ship had come a little while later, I'd have been clear."
"That's interesting," Eureka said. "You know one thing that's really cool about warp points? There's a bunch of evidence to suggest that the arrival side starts to flare before the ship on the departure side makes the decision to transit."
"So they can propagate backwards in time." Felicity frowned. She'd powered through her physics lessons when learning had felt like jumping through closed windows, but hyperspatial physics had felt like ramming her shoulder into a block of lead light-years thick. "I've already done the past, though."
"They let things move faster than light, they break time," Eureka said, now wearing a knowing smile. "How do you know how old you are, Lissy?"
"Subjective experience," Felicity said. "They know exactly when I was born, how many seconds I experienced on Mars, how many seconds I experienced in transit, and how many seconds I've experienced here. It's all just basic addition. Thanks, Einstein."
"Sounds about right," Eureka said. She had never left La Mancha, so age-marking was as straightforward as breathing. "What if they screwed up their math?"
"If they--" Felicity didn't smile, but she felt an ember of hope spark deep inside her, and in that darkness even the guttering light was enough to dazzle. But it only lasted for a moment before the shadows extinguished it. "It would never work. She'd just say we could get the answer en route, and if it turned out I was old enough, tough."
"So that won't work, then," Eureka said. There was no frustration in her voice, only patience. "What else?"
"I run away," Felicity said. "Disappear into the backcountry, hide for long enough that the ship has to leave without me. Then I'd finally be able to see what she cares about more, me or the next big opportunity."
"I never realized how lucky I had it," Eureka said. "My mom, she was devoted, and she never cared if I saw her outside of her mega, either. There was always that honesty. Not everyone here got that. I wish you had."
Felicity nodded. Eureka was part of the first generation of giant humans, raised by Felicity-scaled scientists who had worn Eureka-sized exosuits built in their own likenesses. Some psychologist somewhere would have a field day studying the effects of that kind of childhood, she was sure, but in the moment Felicity felt such consuming envy that she tasted weathered copper.
"I wish I had more time," Felicity said. "I wish I didn't have to run."
"We've got here and we've got now," Eureka said. "That's enough to make something work, isn't it?"
Felicity kissed Eureka's finger, but she couldn't stop the bitter taste of the countdown from coating her tongue. She knew that if she could have seen the sky, the orbital station and the ship of thieves would be staring down at her again.
Things would have been so much easier if they had let her be a cyborg. She had consulted with specialists with encrypted messages back and forth through the warp point, and the answers had always been no. Contra-indicated. People had killed themselves after the transfer, they'd said, because they couldn't adjust to their new body.
The fact that Felicity couldn't adjust to her current body, but was surviving just fine, got ignored every time she brought it up. If only she was an adult already. Then she could make her own choices.
Outside, the sun had slipped beneath the horizon and the sky was aflame with red, but only her mother delighted in setting sail. She had left Felicity alone in the house that was no longer theirs, had never really been theirs, while she made one last circuit of the town and shook hands with people who were no longer useful to her. Felicity used the solitude to her advantage, to get ready to run.
She wouldn't be using her feet. The gates of Baie-Sereine closed at sunset and she had no doubt her mother had told them to watch for her. The wings she made out of sheets and sticks wouldn't work well, but they would work enough. She had years of experience relying on a body that only worked enough. They would take her past the wall.
Even if the worst happened, she would stay on La Mancha.
Once the wings were ready, she took one last look around her room. She had made it as much of a refuge as it could be, covered its walls with nature photography and the world from orbit, and there was no hint of Mars in it. She picked up Chance, the little stuffed rabbit who perched on her pillow and guarded her bed, and nuzzled them for a moment before putting them in her pack.
She couldn't leave them alone. Her mother might take Chance all the way to Mars, and then they'd both be alone.
She didn't have much trouble getting to the roof. The sky wasn't yet dark enough for stars, but it was only a matter of time. She had her flashlight and her screamgun on her hip, a thick layer of critter repellent covering her skin, a backpack full of survival essentials, and her memory of the trails beyond the walls. Anything else would weigh her down. She paused there for a moment, breathing away her fear as she took in the pinprick lights of Baie-Sereine and the unbroken shadows beyond.
It was just enough time for her mother to come home and see her perched on the roof's edge.
"Hey!" her mother shouted. "What do you think you're doing up there?"
"I told you I'm not going to Mars," Felicity said. "It's not home. This is. I'm staying here."
"Felicity, don't do something you're going to regret!" her mother shouted, and it only made her angry. She already knew what she would regret, and it was boarding that starship. "Come down and let's talk about this."
"There's nothing to talk about," Felicity said. "I have to live my own life."
Before her mother could say anything else, before she was forced to justify herself any more, she leaped and the wind caught her. There was no malice in it, the way there would have been on Mars, with its vacuum-thin air sharp and poisonous and brutal. La Mancha's winds could recognize a friend.
Below her, the city wall marked a sharp transition between two worlds, but for her it was just a line. The sonic turrets mounted along its length had been calibrated to keep away birds, not humans. Her arms were already burning from exertion as she sailed over the wall into open, uncontrolled skies. Quijote was her beacon, wide and silver and cloud-flecked, and she flew toward it for as long as she dared.
Then, without any warning at all, she was tumbling out of the sky. There was no smooth transition, only an instant leap from tolerable to terror as the ground spun to meet her. She pumped her arms furiously, but the wings held the wind as if it was grease. All she could do was fight and sweat from her exertion. It wasn't fair--
It hurt less than she had expected. La Mancha had lighter gravity than Mars and thick air to slow her down. The fall left her aching and raw, though, and a sharp rock had torn a gash across her leg. She shook off her wings and fumbled through her survival pack for a tube of healant. There were plenty of meat-eaters in the darkness who'd be intrigued by the scent of her rusty blood despite the repellent.
The healant tube made a mocking noise. Instead of the glob she'd expected she found dregs. She rubbed in what she had, winced at the pain, and took a moment to examine the wings. They were more ragged than she'd thought. She could see where one of the sticks she'd used as a brace had snapped, torn a hole in the wing, and sent her spiralling down.
There was a little stream running near where she'd crashed, but big enough. She set the ruined wings in it and watched them float away. Then she set off through the underbrush, ignoring the pain in her leg, not carrying what direction she went as long it was away from the walls of Baie-Sereine.
The long night, Felicity has realized, was La Mancha's own message to the people that had built houses on it. That it wasn't a place for the tender or the timorous. That people who could only feel secure under a sky that roofed the stars away were better off staying under roofs of their own. With every step she bit down her fear. The stars, at least, pointed the way to safety. Despite the cold she was sweat-slicked and despite the darkness she was vigilant for teeth and claws.
None of it could have happened that way on Mars. There were no hunters on a dead world. If she hadn't been so vigilant, if the air had been just a little bit thinner, she would never have heard the all-too-human moans. They were the sounds that transcended language, that meant pain.
"Hello?" Felicity said. Steeltooth hunters heard as well as humans, if not better. Someone being around to moan was a good sign none were around to listen. "Are you there? Are you all right?"
"Oh... help, please." The voice was soft and quiet, accented in a way Felicity had never heard. "Please."
Felicity cast her light around. The forest here was on a hillside, with only a narrow trail made by generations of wide-bodied forest dwellers granting passage between the trees. Up ahead the trail went sharply to the left, avoiding a cleft in the ground. Felicity went to the edge of it. Down at the bottom she could see a person in a space-black uniform piped with red, and she shuddered as all those flashes of memory came back.
One of the people who would do the work of taking her back to Mars, and who had brought her to La Mancha.
It might have been easy for a lot of people to tell them not to worry, that she would go get help, that everything would be okay. But it wasn't easy for a Martian. How many stories of sacred hospitality, of the absolute necessity to help people in need because the world certainly wouldn't, had she swallowed along with her milk? So many that they blended together.
She found the rope she'd stuffed into her survival pack, tied it securely around a tree, and went down into the gully. The forest disappeared and all she could see were all the distant stars.
She wasn't sure if Mars circled any of them.
"Don't worry, I'm here," she said, kneeling next to the fallen crew member. Their skin was sandy pale and flushed with sweat despite the night. "I'm Felicity. What's your name?"
"Vee," they said. "I was such a fool, I told them I wouldn't be back for hours, nobody's even looking for me..."
"Then it's a good thing I found you anyway," Felicity said, trying to keep her voice calm and level. "First things, where do you hurt?"
"Left leg," Vee said. "It's wrecked up good. They kept saying gravity's so low here you could fall a hundred metres and barely even feel it, all that, and then this--"
"Everything's going to be okay," Felicity said as she checked Vee's injured leg. With La Mancha, like Mars, so thinly peopled, the educational systems on both worlds made sure everyone knew the basics of emergency first aid. She didn't find any swelling and Vee's skin hadn't been pierced by bone, so at least it wasn't as bad as it could have been. The emergency splint came out of her survival pack and went on smooth.
"Now," Felicity said. "I don't suppose you brought your screen with you."
"Over there," Vee said. They motioned to the other side of the gully, and when Felicity shone her flashlight there something manufactured glinted in the dark. "It really flew, and moving hurt so much..."
Felicity could see her opportunity, bright as daylight. All she had to do was give Vee the screen and scurry back up the rope and disappear before any other helper could come. All it meant was trusting Vee to the tender mercies of the dark forest, riven with teeth.
All it would be was an admission that her choice to stay on La Mancha was more important than someone else's life.
"We'll get the emergency responders in," Felicity said. Vee's screen was light, scratched, and battered, and the back was festooned with stickers of glittery hearts and rainbow unicorns. There was an honesty to it that made her smile. "Don't worry about a thing."
"You sound like you're from Mars," Vee said as Felicity handed over the screen. "What's it like here?"
It was only an instant but felt much longer. Felicity imagined all the things she could have said to Vee, so reckless and inexperienced that they'd gone out and fallen off the edge of a clear trail, and how easy it would have been to ignore those pained moans. But it wasn't easy, not for a Martian.
"It's great," Felicity said. "Great."
She waited in the gully with Vee until emergency lights filled the world. It was easier than she'd expected.
Twenty-four hours before the starship was scheduled to depart, Felicity's mother escorted her into a windowless rover. The atmosphere inside was icier than Quijote's airless, slushball moonlets. She wasn't sure whether her mother was terrified, furious, or both at once. Terrifurious? Her jaunt in the backcountry hadn't been long, but it had been long enough for smouldering nightmares to erupt. The silence tore at her like a steeltooth hunter's claws.
"You said you wanted to talk," Felicity said as the rover rumbled away. It would be a long trip to the starport. "So let's talk."
"That's all--" It came out as a shriek. Her mother swallowed her words as if they'd erupted into flame. When she spoke again, Felicity could hear the practiced, diplomatic calm. "If only I'd figured out before that this is what you needed to get interested in communication."
"Because you never listened to me," Felicity said. "Did I ever talk about wanting to go to Mars, or did you just decide that since I'm not old enough it didn't matter what I said?"
"What you wanted has always been important to me," her mother said. "Do you remember when I got this assignment? When you spent an entire night in tears because you didn't want anything to change? I wanted to make sure you had opportunities to make yourself the person you were meant to be."
"The person I was meant to be doesn't look like this," Felicity said. "If I was that person I wouldn't have had to burn all the hair off my face."
"I'm sorry I didn't do more for you. I know I wasn't the best parent. All those politics kept getting in the way of everything."
Felicity was silent for a moment. Her mother's apology seemed genuine, but everything about her mother was practiced to seem genuine. How could she ever know what was really going on behind those eyes? Could she ever be sure she wasn't being manipulated?
"I'm going to be an adult soon no matter where we are," Felicity said. "Did you ever think about what I wanted to do?"
"This was always about you," her mother said. Felicity could see the frustration flickering in the corners of her eyes. "I always wanted what was best for you, but... well, some things are easier to see than others."
After a while, but not a long enough while to be the starport, the rover shuddered to a stop. Her mother opened a door and Felicity recognized the lights of Alturas Falls, shining just a little bit dimmer than the ones in Baie-Sereine. The streamlined walls of the town's collegiate reached high into the sky.
"What's going on?" Felicity narrowed her eyes.
"I had a long conversation with Eureka while you were out," her mother said. It was a needle in Felicity's heart. All the time she'd spent in the forest, all the effort she'd expended to wait out the starship, and she hadn't thought of Eureka at all. She had been so focused and so small. "I never appreciated how much she cares about you, but you for her... well, you made that clear. It's not just anyone you hide in a dark forest for."
"It's not just her," Felicity said, and it didn't even feel like a lie. More like shading the truth. "I was going to come up and say goodbye before we left."
"She's inside," her mother said. "So let's go. She told me she has something to show you."
There was a comforting solidity to the collegiate's interior, with hard walls painted in bright, soft colours. Her mother led her to a double door with "Mechanical Shop" written in clear, tall letters. Felicity followed her mother through the door sized for them.
Eureka was there, welcoming, familiar, beautiful. Next to her was one of the giant-sized exosuits, smooth and polished with chin and cheek and nose arranged--
"Oh my," Felicity breathed.
--arranged into not her face, and her face. The face she might have seen in the mirror, the face Eureka had drawn, riding the sort of body that every doctor she'd consulted had said she could never, ever have.
"Hey, Lissy," Eureka said. "So, what do you think?"
"Eureka, it's--" Felicity nearly choked on all the words fighting to erupt at once. "How?"
"Plenty of old exosuits sitting around now that we don't need our folks to pretend," Eureka said. "I've been working on this one for a while, but when the ship got here I really had to rush. I did my best to capture the woman I fell in love with."
Every part of the giant exosuit was masterfully done with no trace of roughness in it, as if it had been made in the same factory that built sweet dreams. Its eyes were closed as if sleeping.
"But this..." Felicity spun toward her mother. "What about Mars?"
"I had it explained to me, very thoroughly, that you're not ready for Mars yet," her mother said. "I wish I could have realized that sooner. Jumping off the roof should have been a clue. I know you're going to be an adult soon, but until then, the people here... they'll take care of you."
"Mom, I--" She couldn't go any further. It was everything she'd wanted being offered to her, and she felt like she didn't deserve it. Like she hadn't earned it. "What about you?"
"I'll be fine," her mother said. "You knew I would be, or you wouldn't have tried to spend the night outside. But come on, let me see how it all suits you. I just want to be sure that you're going to be okay."
Felicity wanted to say something, anything, but nothing felt right. In the end she took her mother in a tight, teary hug, and held it for what felt like minutes before it came apart. When she looked back, Eureka had unbuttoned her giant double's shirt and opened a hatch in its -- her? -- chest. There was a little cockpit inside, cramped-looking but hopefully comfortable.
"Once I shut the hatch, the tutorial will run," Eureka said. "You'll be fine."
The cockpit had a chair that conformed itself to her shape, and it was well-lit with calming light. A soft synthetic voice explained the basics of the neural interface it used and showed her how to put it on. After a few moments, all that was left was to press the big red button.
For a moment there was only darkness, and then there was light. She opened her eyes and the room around her had transformed. It didn't tower around her anymore, it was just a room, and Eureka--
"See, I said you'd be fine," said Eureka, looking straight into Felicity's eyes. "How do you feel?"
Intellectually Felicity knew that she was still that same unpolished body in a molded chair in a sealed-off cockpit. But how was that any different from the understanding that she was also just that kilogram and change of wrinkled jelly locked inside that body's skull?
"I feel amazing," Felicity said. She turned her gaze to her mother, so far away, and felt a tear as she kneeled down. "This is so weird. I can't even hug you anymore."
"Then remember the last time," said Avdotya Chaturvedi, former ambassador of the Martian Federation. "And kiss her. I know you want to."
Felicity picked herself up and turned face-to-face with Eureka. She was still the woman Felicity had fallen in love with, extraordinary and magnificent, but being able to touch her with more presence than a fly made her feel like she'd spent all that time living in a dream.
"I can't believe you went to all this trouble," Felicity said. She sniffed back tears, true tears from sculpted eyes. "Even making me cry."
"No trouble at all," Eureka said. "I wish I could do more."
"It's enough," Felicity said. "It's what I needed."
Their lips touched, and Felicity knew she had found the sort of beauty that would last forever.
This story originally appeared in Analog.