They call space cold.
The landbound fear it: the loss of limit, direction. They live lives crushed by atmosphere, by gravity, their bodies muscled up against the sky.
Out here, when you push, nothing pushes back. You can curve through the vacuum and disrupt nothing, the only mark of your passing a light-memory dulled by the deaths of stars.
She thinks they're gone, the talking ones; she thinks she watches worlds end alone. She perches on the bridge and listens to the ghosts, their last confessions.
Are you she? they ask.
And River says, I am, girl named for birth and ending, the flow of time and memory.
They spill over her, over each other, words like stacked mirrors bending the universe into infinity. They whisper: Where are we, whisper, We are lost, whisper, Come show us, come fly with us.
And River says, I'm not done here, yet. I'm not done.
Once upon a time, we watched a brother free his sister from the grip of nightmares, and touch her shoulder and wrap cool fingers through her hair as she wept. He made of her a world, a careful house of science woven through with fantasy. He watched her grow, his smiles for her and her alone, her brilliant joy, the way she sang.
Once upon a time, they played at soldiers, marching out across invented battlefields. She said to him, "What if I get shot?" with eyes dark and hair like a thunderstorm.
He said, "I won't let that happen. I won't let anything bad happen to you."
She said, "But what if it happens anyway," because at four she had the understanding of adulthood and consequence.
He said, "They'd have to get through me first. They'd have to destroy the whole 'verse, dong ma?"
She said, "But what if you—"
He grabbed her hands, and the gun fell from them and turned back into a pen—such an old idea—and left an inkstain on the carpet and rolled under the sofa. "The whole 'verse."
She said, "I know, gēge." Her body shook, small and rattled, until he pulled her and hugged her and ruffled her hair.
"I looked so hard for you," he said much later, lifetimes later, when he thought she slept at last. She breathed and kept her eyelids smooth, her face without feeling. After a while he brushed a kiss over her forehead and went to find the woman he loved above all others, who sang songs unlike River's, her notes untrue and brimming with celebration. River waited for their sounds, the two of them, her laughter and his low return. Squeezed her eyes like she had done so many times before.
Once upon a time, we watched a love story blossom and another burn, watched a dance of fear between two people and a girl curled in her bed with hair no longer like a thunderstorm, her electricity faded into the thin drizzle of winter.
We're still moving.
You know how they call space cold, and you've seen enough bad science to think if you throw yourself out into it you'll explode.
It's all a big misunderstanding.
Your blood won't boil out here. Your lungs might rupture, but that's only if you try to hold your breath. So shout, when you find the vacuum, scream, and you won't hear yourself, but that might be the very thing that saves you.
And yes, technically, the water in your body will evaporate, and boil off your eyes. And you'll obviously be unable to breathe, and your body will start supporting only the basics: your heart and your brain. Ten seconds, more or less, until you can't see.
Ah, but in those ten seconds.
Let us pose this question: have you seen space?
We know you've seen pictures. Nebulae you name after things you know—plants and animals, weapons and tools—so you can domesticate the birth of stars. Striated planets and stars that burn and burn. From far away, you trace lines between them, across your two-dimensional sky.
But have you seen space?
The word describes it. That is what it is: distance, emptiness. Area, volume. Nothing can fill it.
You could all climb out here, spin your ways through the darkness, and you would never find each other again, and space would not care.
Perhaps you have seen space. Have you then looked at it, and known what it is to be lost?
Here is a woman. Her name is Zoe Washburne (née Alleyne). Before her, there was another woman, who felt her body clench in the margin between planets, pain like light between her hipbones. She said to the man beside her, She's coming, and watched his face: fear and happiness, desperation and love.
So much blood, slippery new life swathed in it.
Hey, Zoe, said the woman with the man on the ship lost in space. Hey there, baby girl.
Zoe Alleyne grew tall and long-legged, leather-tough and smart. On the playground, chasing the boys, she screamed, Just you wait, and on the battlefield, killing them, saving them, screamed her grief and sharpened her killer's hands. Now, chasing memories, the flutter of awakening life in her, she is silent, and River sits across from her also silent.
The tea steams from her mug. We watched the water heat for it, simple exchange of energy, and watched the water cloud with steeping leaves. We marveled at her steady hands. How they made the tea and then pulled the leaves back out, cradled a palm under the basket to catch the drops of water. Flicked the water into the sink and turned away as it slid to the drain.
She takes a sip and burns her tongue. She does not flinch.
River wraps a hand around herself. Maybe she imagines. The simplicity of the stories we tell: when a man and a woman love each other very much. The reality: a man and a woman love each other very much, and still everything dies.
We're watching River now. There's no one else to watch.
She spins in place, next to a still engine. She is singing:
dreams, dreams, go away,
and come again another day
beats like drums, and dreams, dreams, spinning spinning, stars still dying, planets lifeless, songs she sings lost like that first shout of surprise, that first breath out when all you see around you is the endless stretch of space.