“The night sky is beautiful,” Seven says. “Deep and dark, blue-black and starless. It has a certain ineffable purity to it, don’t you think?”
Mara glances up. This world is a young one, snugged tight against the galactic core. The stars above her are so fat and bright and crowded together that this can barely be called a proper night at all. She looks back to Seven, one eyebrow raised.
“Not here,” he says, his face twisting into a delicate scowl. He’s human tonight, mostly, though it seems to Mara that he’s gotten some of the proportions wrong. “This night sky is a trollop. I was speaking of home.”
Something cries out in the starlit half-dark in a voice like a child’s. Seven seems not to notice, but Mara feels a cold shiver run the length of her spine. She leans over to pick a handful of thin branches from the pile she’s assembled, snaps the longer ones in half, then drops them onto the fire.
“I envy you,” she says. “I barely remember my home.”
Seven shrugs, with a rippling motion that betrays an extra joint somewhere in his shoulders.
“Mine was lost long before I found you, but I still recall it in great detail.”
The soft breeze dies, and the forest falls silent.
“Found me?” Mara says. Her voice is low and even, but her eyes have narrowed to slits. Seven flinches as if he’d been struck.
“A poor choice of words,” he says.
“The night sky…” Seven begins, but Mara cuts him off with a look.
“To say you found something,” Mara says, “is to imply that it was lost.”
Seven sighs, and seems to shrink into himself.
“I was not lost,” Mara says.
“No,” Seven says. “You were not lost.”
“I was not,” Mara says, “not until you found me.”
“Found is the wrong word,” Seven says. “I concede it. What word should I use?”
Mara leans forward. The fire casts a monstrous shadow behind her.
“A fine question,” she says. “I think abducted has a nice ring to it.”
She waits for Seven to reply, but he has no answer to this. He never does. This conversation, like all their conversations, is a minor variation on a well-worn theme.
In a literal sense, Mara’s accusation is unfair. She did, after all, consent to this. She can’t help but feel, though, that consent means little without understanding—and when she consented, she had no hope of understanding forever.
To Seven, of course, this is incomprehensible. Forever is the water he swims through.
Mara turns away, leans back against her pack and closes her eyes. They’re in a clearing of sorts, though this world is covered in great woody ferns rather than honest trees. She should probably set a tent. The ground is soft, though, and the fire is warm. She takes a deep breath in, holds it, then lets it out in a long, slow sigh.
“There is no reason to be sad,” Seven says.
“There are infinite reasons to be sad,” Mara says. “You should know that better than anyone.”
“Untrue,” Seven says. “There are tragedies, admittedly, and injustices aplenty. The good are swept under, and the evil prosper. In the end, though, the night sky is beautiful.”
“But not this one.”
“No,” Seven says. “Not this one.”
Off in the distance, a creature howls. The sound this time is almost familiar. It could be a wolf, Mara thinks—but no, wolves are far from here, on the opposite side of an unbridgeable gulf in both distance and time. The animals on this planet are built to a different body plan—asymmetric, many-legged, and scaly. She’s seen them in the distance, moving sinuously through the ferns, covered in mouths and studded with eyes.
But still, they might serve.
Once, on a different world, under a different sky, Mara found the courage to ask Seven if he would ever permit her to die.
“Of course,” he said. “Everything dies. You, in fact, will be eaten—by a bear, I believe.”
Later, he said, “Well, not a bear, exactly. More like a spider, perhaps? Or an elephant? I’m not entirely clear on the distinctions.”
“Will you ever die, Seven?”
He stared at her until her smile faltered, then shook his head.
“Nothing is eternal, Mara.”
Mara wakes in the early hours. The fire has died, and the glare of the starlight at first tricks her into thinking it must be morning. Seven is curled into a ball on the far side of their little campsite, snoring delicately. She sits up. The forest is laid out around her in sharp-bordered patterns of silver and black. Mara climbs silently to her feet. Seven shifts in his sleep, then tucks his head under one arm like a gangly, featherless bird. Mara turns her back to him, and sets off into the ferns.
In the strictest sense of the term, Mara is free, and always has been. She has walked away from Seven before, sometimes for months, and once for what would have been most of a lifetime if she and Seven had never met. Seven never came for her, and when she finally returned, it was as if she’d never left at all.
For Seven, it may actually have felt that way. His relationship with time is a slippery one, and it has sometimes seemed to Mara that to him, the birth and death of the universe are simply the soft, possibly permeable edges of the space he inhabits. Mara, though, is trapped in linear time, and the thread that stretches from this moment to the one where she and Seven first met is exceedingly long. Her memories of home are fragments, frozen bits of flotsam that have somehow managed to lodge in her brain when the narratives surrounding them have long since washed away. One of those comes to her now—a warmth in her palm, the imprint of a tiny hand clinging to hers. Her eyes fill momentarily. She has to stop walking to wipe them clear.
When she looks up, she finds a dozen eyes looking back at her.
“Well,” she whispers. “What have we here?”
The tip of a claw brushes the soft skin below her left eye, trails down along her cheek, then traces the line of her jaw. The creature’s movements are silent, but Mara feels the passage of air as its body surrounds her. Cold lips kiss her hand, then her throat. Where they touch, numbness spreads. Her knees buckle. A hundred arms are there to catch her. Teeth nip at the back of her thigh, and she feels a brief stab of pain before that too goes numb. The creature is coiled tight around her now, tight enough that her breath comes short and a rising roar fills her ears. Its mouth covers her own, barbed tongue probing. It…
She tries to open her eyes, but she’s frozen, pinioned in time, trapped along with the creature, along with the forest, along with…
“Mara. This creature is not a bear.”
No, she thinks. It is not a bear.
“This is not a spider, or an elephant.”
No, it is not.
“You mustn’t die today.”
“Then rest. We can stay on this world for a while.”
You’re a god, Seven. Just make yourself a new companion.
Seven hesitates then.
Mara can’t recall him ever hesitating before.
“I am not a god, Mara.”
Really? What are you then?
Again, the hesitation.
“…alone, if you leave me.”
I am not made for eternity, Seven.
“There is no eternity, Mara. Patience. In the fullness of time, who can say? There may be a bear.”
If she could, she would smile.
Or a spider?
“Yes, or a spider. Or perhaps an elephant?”
Mara holds her silence, but she knows now what her answer will be.
Promise me, Seven.
The universe shifts…
…and Mara is back again at their little campsite, staring into the coals of their long-dead fire. Seven sits across from her, a hopeful smile on his face.
Off in the distance, the many-eyed creatures howl.