fiction, old work, science fiction, short stories, slipstream, Uncategorized

Inspiration Season

Written June 2018

I’ve tried to rework this piece several times, because I think it has strong bones, but it needs a lot more worldbuilding to really make it work and I’ve kind of moved on to other projects now. I still like it, though.

She’d hoped to go outside again before the beginning of Inspiration Season. Conditions had held good—relatively clear skies, normal oxygen levels, few hallucinations among the perimeter guards. All the labs were trying to squeeze in last-minute projects before the change of season, which meant lots of work for interns.

But now the meters showed the atmosphere shifting, oxygen levels trending downwards. The tula-trees were darkening, stretching towards the sky. Soon their great fleshy yellow blooms would open, sucking the remaining oxygen from the air.  

It might take days—even weeks—before the levels got too low to breathe. Even then, you could take an oxygen tank. But it didn’t matter. No one went outside during Inspiration Season. That was asking to come back to the Bubble altered, or not at all.

It was still unclear why the Beyond was so much more dangerous in the months when the tula-trees inhaled oxygen like animals, but the atmospheric changes definitely correlated with an uptick in strange, often fatal accidents outside the Bubble. New complications appeared every year. Even if you guarded against every danger you knew, a new one could get you. People had disappeared in full view of entire departments—gone a few steps into the tula-tree forest and vanished forever. An entire expedition was once found comatose just outside the perimeter, and though they’d been sent home, they still hadn’t awakened. For a whole week last year, enormous pink flowers had bloomed in ten different sites around the Bubble, exhaling thick clouds of black spores, which had eaten through biohazard suits and caused horrible respiratory infections.

Most concerning were the people taken by the Haze. At least ten had disappeared so far after encountering the deep purple clouds, with no traces ever found again. And the Haze grew more aggressive every year, drifting towards unsecured doors as if it could sense breaches in the Bubble’s seal—which perhaps it could. No one had ever gotten close to it without being taken, so no one knew quite how it worked.

Thus, when oxygen levels began to drop, no teams were sent out unless absolutely necessary, which meant no interns were sent out at all. And from what Miranda could see, Inspiration Season was just about to start.

She turned unhappily back to the task at hand: a rack of tula-tree samples with unusual spotting, which Dr. Hobok thought might have been caused by some kind of pathogen. The project technically wasn’t complicated: check the affected areas under a microscope for signs of cellular deterioration. The problem was that every single tula-tree was unique on a cellular level, so it was hard to know which variations—discoloration, deformed or missing organelles, precancerous-looking growths—were disease-related, and which were normal. Every anomaly had to be checked against a huge reference gallery, and anything new required exhaustive documentation. The job took intense focus, and would keep her busy for many hours; she’d already been working on it all day. Even if she stayed the whole night, she probably wouldn’t finish.

But she’d been falling behind—depressed to be trapped inside, weighed down by an odd ennui that never seemed to leave her these days. No matter how much extra time Miranda spent in the lab, her work kept piling up. Worse: she was making stupid mistakes, errors that could jeopardize entire experiments, things that would embarrass a first-year biology student.

Jordan, her supervisor, hadn’t said anything yet, but she’d seen his disapproving frowns. If she couldn’t pull herself together, she was going to be in pretty serious trouble.

He’d be checking her progress tomorrow. She had to process at least thirty more slides tonight—fifty would be better. A bad report could mean Miranda’s contract wouldn’t be renewed when it came up—internships in the Bubble were in high demand, and she could easily be replaced.

But the task was mind-numbing. Tula-tree skin had lost its alien appeal long before she’d finished processing her first lot of 800 slides. And Miranda had been up late last night, reading accounts of the first explorers’ forays through the Rip into the Beyond, trying to recapture her old excitement. She was exhausted. She needed coffee—music—a break.

But those would all be distractions. What she really needed was to keep working. If she could go an hour and a half without stopping, that might be fifteen slides…

And then Emmanuel walked in, and her distraction level skyrocketed.

Even if Miranda hadn’t known him—even if he’d just been some random tech—he would have been distracting. He was so long and lanky that his head nearly brushed the doorframe as he walked in. His untrimmed hair twisted around his face and neck, brushing across the collar of his orange Facilities jumpsuit. Small handmade charms hung from bracelets around his wrists, organic objects faded to faintness by time. There was something a little uncanny about Emmanuel.  

And also something very human. His eyes shone; his smile was a touch too earnest. He also needed a shave. Dork, thought Miranda, grinning. “Hello,” she said.

Emmanuel smiled brightly back. “Hello.” Advancing to a table by the window, he set down his case and began pulling out tools and chemicals. “Lovely surprise seeing you here,” he said.  “Why so late?”

Miranda indicated the samples. “The usual. What are you working on?”

He rolled his eyes. “Some of those new windows downstairs didn’t get sealed right after that diamond storm last year. There are some drafts coming in—nothing big, but it could be a problem later, so I’m supposed to check the whole building and make sure there are no leaks anywhere else.” He shrugged. “It’s a little time-consuming. Do you mind if I’m here a while?”

“Of course not,” said Miranda quickly. “I could use some company.” Of course, she knew that with him in the room she wasn’t going to accomplish anything at all.

They worked quietly—for a given value of “work,” at least on Miranda’s part. Emmanuel, as always, was quick and competent. There were few enough maintenance techs here that she’d met him many times already: thanks to the randomizing effects of the Beyond, things broke down at the Bubble much more often than in other labs. Emmanuel was popular with everyone, but Miranda liked to think he paid her more attention than others.

She wanted to talk to him. It wasn’t as if she were accomplishing anything—she was so distracted she was having to recheck every sample twice. But Emmanuel was deeply involved in his work, so she just watched him as discreetly as she could: the graceful lines of his back and shoulders, his face silhouetted against the evening sky. He hummed softly, perhaps thinking she wasn’t listening.

After a long time, as if there’d been no pause, Emmanuel  said, “Have you been outside lately?”

It took her a moment to understand. “Outside the Bubble?

“Of course.” He smiled. “You’re always talking about it. Everyone does, of course—they only hire… what, planetophiles? Xenophiles? To work here… but you especially seem to love the place.”

“I’ve only gone outside a couple of times,” said Miranda regretfully, “and not recently.”

He frowned. “That’s a shame. You should try to go out more.”

“Sure.” Miranda eyed him sidelong, wondering how he expected her to do that, when there were no more assignments coming up anytime soon. “What about you?” Maintenance technicians only went out when the Bubble wall or something on the grounds was damaged, and they usually went in teams, just long enough to complete the repair.

But Emmanuel surprised her by saying, “Sometimes.” He set down his tool and began running his hands around the window frame. “It’s why we’re here, right? Everyone goes outside sometimes.”

Miranda stared at him. “Everyone? Like, regularly?” Was she somehow the only one not getting the benefit of living in the Bubble?

“Sure! I mean, it’s not technically allowed, but everybody in maintenance and catering definitely goes. Probably your coworkers do, too. There are lots of really good places to explore pretty close by—I could take you tonight, if you want.”

She almost dropped her slides and took him up on it right there and then, but managed to restrain herself. “Wish I could,” she said, “damn, do I wish I could… but I’ve got to get this done.”

Emmanuel pouted. “Not even for a little bit? We could watch the sunset—what there is of it.” His tone was light, but Miranda sensed that the offer would be serious if she chose to take it that way.

She thought about it—tempted by the offer, the company, the prospect of finally exploring the alien landscape she’d come through the Rip to see. Emmanuel wasn’t quite what she’d call a friend, but he was as close as they usually got in a place where people came and went so fast. If they did go outside, she had a feeling she could trust him as a guide.

But she couldn’t.

“Sorry,” she said, “but I really can’t tonight. Rain check?”

Emmanuel’s face fell slightly. “Inspiration Season’s starting. Technically it’s probably still all right to go out, but later… it would be too dangerous.”

“Oh, said Miranda, quelled. “I guess it would have to be some other time, then.”

Emmanuel looked thoughtful. “I’m just sorry you won’t be able to go outside. But… how about a walk around the Bubble? It wouldn’t take as long, but you’d still get a bit of a break.”

Tempted, Miranda glanced at the work piled on her table. “I really need to get at least half of these done. Ideally two-thirds.”

“Maybe I could help you?” Emmanuel suggested. At Miranda’s surprised look, he added, “I’ve actually had a lot of Bio classes. I’m pretty good with stuff like this. If you wanted a break…”

She glanced up at the security camera. What would happen if she let someone else help her with her work? Best case, no one would care; the Bubble didn’t stand on much ceremony. Worst case, she’d get into huge trouble and be fired.

Assuming anyone checked the footage. But why would they? If there was no problem with the work, there would be no reason to check up on her—and with Emmanuel as smart as he was, Miranda was sure the work would be well done.

“All right,” she said, heart fluttering. It had been ages since she’d had anything resembling a date. “Sure. A walk sounds nice.”

Emmanuel’s eyes lit up. “Let’s go get something to eat first.” He began cleaning up his supplies. “Then we can see where our feet take us, shall we? Here, I’ll help you clean those up.”

Cleaning her workstation took only minutes. She worked faster with the prospect of a break. Maybe she needed one. She might be more efficient after some food and good conversation, a little time away from the lab. She smiled gratefully at Emmanuel, happy he’d had the foresight to interrupt her.

As Miranda started towards the door, Emmanuel froze. “Look.” He pointed out the window towards the tula-trees. “Look at the Haze.”

Miranda followed his gaze. Dozens of small purple clouds passed like phantoms between the tula-trees. Trails of deep color followed in their wake, staining the forest floor: not the pink-violet of iodine gas, but a much darker shade. The clouds passed and met and paused, undulating gently, as if exchanging brief greetings. Miranda had never seen so many in one place before.

She looked up at the gray sky, then back down at the Haze. They’d never gotten a sample—people couldn’t be risked going near it, and drones malfunctioned if they got anywhere close—but the Haze had been scanned repeatedly with every ranged technology available. Spectrographically, the clouds read as water vapor—just clouds, nothing unusual but their color. But they stayed on the ground, and they moved as if self-guided.

And they ate people.

“They usually stay deeper in the trees, don’t they?” she said. “They don’t usually this close.” As she spoke, a tiny cloudlet left the forest, rolling down the hill towards the Bubble.

Emmanuel nodded slowly. “Hope nobody left a window open. Come on, let’s go.”  

For convenience, they went to the cafeteria. Though it was off-shift, the place was still half full, people meeting friends or taking breaks from their own overtime. Miranda recognized most of them. It was both an advantage and a disadvantage of working here: on one hand, you knew everyone; on the other hand, everyone knew you.

Several people glanced curiously at her and Emmanuel as they entered. Emmanuel, for his part, smiled unselfconsciously, waving to a group who must have been his friends. Miranda knew she was blushing. There was no reason to be ashamed, exactly, but she knew the conventional wisdom about workplace romances, and knew they’d be whispered about later.  

Suppressing her discomfort, she followed Emmanuel down the line, choosing from what the machines had laid out. She saw the fungus that Hobok’s department had studied last year—unpoetically named ‘Collier’s tree-ear’ by its discoverer—as the topping on some kind of sushi. It was too brightly purple-and-white to pass for fish, or anything Earth-born. Its rippling edges seemed to writhe on what might have rice or might have been something else.

Miranda took two pieces anyway, along with a salad of the “grass” that grew under the tula-trees. The catering staff seemed to have decided that, if the native ingredients they’d been using hadn’t hurt anyone yet, they must be safe enough for now. They might be right. The tree-ear fungus, at least, had the same basic nutrient profile as an edible mushroom, and contained no known toxins or carcinogens. If if turned out later to have been dangerous… well, people would probably die. Maybe that was what science was all about? Anyway, Miranda had tasted what the cafeteria produced when it ran low on supplies from Earth, and so was willing to risk a few exotic ingredients.

Emmanuel loaded his tray with five pieces of the sushi and two of the little plates of salad and looked around for more. Miranda moved aside so he could take a dish of chocolate pudding (dusted with dried purple seaweed no one had yet managed to taxonomize). “Hungry?” she said jokingly.

He grinned. “Starving.” He plucked another dish of pudding from the counter and put it on Miranda’s tray, then led the way to a relatively secluded corner. Miranda still sensed people watching, but ignored them. She felt nervous, half as if this were a job interview, and half as if she wanted to skip dinner and drag Emmanuel off to a closet somewhere. It had really been too long since she’d been on a date.

“So,” he said, after they’d taken a few bites. “How’s work?”

Miranda laughed, startled by the prosaic question, and answered a bit more honestly than she’d intended. “I’m going to get fired. There’s too much to do. I feel like we’re working nonstop, but not really producing anything… and I feel like I’m the only one who can’t keep up.“

“Would getting fired be that bad?” Emmanuel sounded genuinely curious. As Miranda spluttered, he added, “You clearly don’t enjoy the work. If your passion isn’t in it, why stay?”

“For the Beyond,” said Miranda miserably. “If I get sent home, I’m never going to see it again.”

“Really? You’d just give up? Why not get a different job?”

“What, like—“ Miranda stopped herself from saying, like mopping floors? She remembered, blushing, that Emmanuel was essentially a custodian.

He gave her a sideways look, but shrugged. “Why not? Nothing wrong with maintenance. It isn’t glamorous, but it gets you here if you need to be here. Same goes for catering. And there’s supply management, admin, commissary sales…”

“Yeah, I guess so,” said Miranda. “But I’d be stuck inside all the time! I don’t get to go out that much now, but I’ve been a couple of times, and at least I get to work with what we bring back.”

Emmanuel grinned. “I told you, there are ways out. Honestly, sometimes I’ll just slip out for a little break—won’t even wear a suit. It feels better to just breathe the air with no plastic over your face.”

“But that’s—“ Miranda realized that clearly his outings hadn’t hurt him any. “I can’t believe you,” she said instead. “You just go outside? What if you run into something you’re not able to deal with?”

“People do,” he said seriously. “Not all those disappearances were from field expeditions. Someone stays out a little too long, looks the wrong thing in the face, never comes back… But it’s pretty safe close to the Bubble—as long as it isn’t Inspiration Season.”

Miranda shivered. “Have you ever seen the Haze up close? I’ve only seen it from the windows.”

“Once,” Emmanuel said, “when I was out by the fence having a smoke. Sometimes it shows up a little before before the numbers tick over, but it usually doesn’t come that close… I saw it coming through the trees, right towards me. I booked it, obviously, but it’s way faster than you’d think. A few more seconds and I wouldn’t have made it.”

Miranda shook her head, horrified. “You know, you’re the reason we keep having all those seminars about wearing protective gear and staying away from local wildlife,” she joked. “You’re going to get eaten if you’re not careful.”

Emmanuel laughed. “I don’t think the Haze actually eats people… but it’s definitely unnerving to watch. When it’s close… there’s this sense like something else just walked through your head. Can’t describe it. Just… eerie.”

Miranda leaned closer, intrigued. “How many people has it gotten now—ten? Eleven? They never found any bodies. Theory is they were dissolved.”

Emmanuel winced. “Ugh, nasty. Do you… ” He glanced at her as if gauging something. “Are you one of the people who thinks the Haze is intelligent?”

Miranda opened her mouth to say no. The approved theory was that the Haze was just a byproduct of tula-tree respiration, moved by wind, and possibly by magnetism or some other still-unmeasured force—just an unusual cloud formation with a few unidentified chemical components.

But Miranda—like everyone—had always been fascinated by the idea of intelligent clouds, beings so alien they didn’t even have bodies. She didn’t believe the Haze was a lifeless vapor, and she doubted Emmanuel did either. “I think it is intelligent,” she said, leaning forward. “I think it’s self-directed. I think it would have gotten you that time, if you hadn’t run. And I think we’re damn lucky it can’t get in here.”

“I think so, too,” said Emmanuel, and the last awkwardness between them disappeared.

After dinner they went to the commissary for chocolates and wine. Emmanuel wrapped his arm around Miranda’s shoulders as they left. They wandered the Bubble’s outer curve, looking out the windows. The setting sun—never quite visible—cast a milky golden glow through the eternal gloom of the sky. Beyond the perimeter, the rising crowns of the tula-trees stood out in stark relief against the sky.

“What first got you interested in the Beyond?” asked Emmanuel, stopping by a large sunward window.

Miranda considered. “I was in middle school when the Rip first opened. We heard about all the expeditions disappearing, the animals wandering in, you know, all the international teams coming to study it. My friends thought it was all kind of creepy. All of us were interested, of course, but they were happy to just follow it online.”

“Not you?”

She shook her head. “I always loved adventure stories. I used to read all those explorers’ memoirs, you know? I had this daydream that I’d go to see the Rip, get sucked in, and just have all these adventures…”

“Me, too!” said Emmanuel, grinning. “But it was more the nature side that interested me. I wanted to be where you are, working with all the specimens. I couldn’t afford school, though, so I just moved close to the Rip and started looking for help-wanted ads. Even the Bubble needs janitors.”

“Yeah,” said Miranda, at a loss. “Wow… I feel like a real asshole now, complaining about my job…”

“No need to feel bad,” Emmanuel said. “I’m here—that’s what matters.” He turned. “Come on, I know where we can have our wine, if you don’t mind walking a little.”

There wasn’t time for wine—Miranda needed to cut this date short or risk being empty-handed tomorrow. But Emmanuel’s smile was so bright, the curve of his arm so warm… Another hour wouldn’t matter. She would never catch up, anyway—and he’d promised he would help her, so in the end she might actually save time. Anyway, she knew she wouldn’t be able to make herself say no. Smiling, she gestured for him to lead the way.

But he stopped abruptly at the next window. “Look.”

Looking outside, Miranda gasped. The largest Haze cloud she’d ever seen was wrapped around the Bubble’s base like a vaporous purple slug. One end of it ranged back towards the forest; the other trailed out of sight along the wall. The thing must have been at least thirty meters long. “What the hell?” Miranda said. “Looks like it’s trying to get in.”

“Glad I sealed all the downstairs windows,” Emmanuel said. “I hope it can’t climb walls.”

“I don’t think it can,” said Miranda slowly. “It usually stays low, right?” She made a mental note to check with Jordan later. “Shall we go?”

Hi gaze lingered on the window. “Yeah,” he said finally. “Let’s go.”

Their destination turned out to be a small supply closet near the currently-empty B-Section labs. They met no one going up. The deeper they got into the dim, silent corridors of the empty sector, the more uncertain Miranda felt. What was she doing? She’d planned to spend the night working… But it seemed silly to back out now, and she didn’t really want to. Glancing at Emmanuel, she felt a little better when she saw him looking equally uncertain.

He stopped at a nondescript door and laid his hand on the knob. They stared at each other.

She cleared her throat. “Shall we?”

Emmanuel opened the door with a relieved smile. “After you.”

After a moment’s hesitation, Miranda slipped inside. The dark closet was oddly soundless. There was carpet underfoot. Reaching out, Miranda felt thick cloth insulation on the walls. “What’s with this place?” The words dropped echoless from her mouth.

Emmanuel followed her in and pulled the door to. “A lot of the equipment they use up here is calibrated really finely. Even footsteps outside can mess it up, so they insulate the closets. Totally soundproof.”

Miranda looked nervously at the thin crack of light around the door. “Do you have a light?”

He rustled in his pockets. Suddenly his hands were full of light—a dozen tiny, golden-white LEDs. He laid them out on the floor, a circle of fairy torches. “Have to get behind the walls a lot,” he said, “so I keep some of these on me.” He added the wine and chocolates to the circle, and the closet looked almost festive.

Miranda closed the door all the way, shivering pleasantly as lights and shadows closed around them. “I didn’t think about bringing a bottle opener. You have one?”

“Naturally.” He held up a utility keychain. “Forgot about cups, though. Did you happen to grab any?”

She shook her head. “We’ll have to pass the bottle back and forth.”

Emmanuel took her hand and helped her to sit down. “Sounds lovely,” he said, smiling. “Let’s get started.”

Leaning her head against Emmanuel’s chest, Miranda sighed—heard and felt his answering sigh, as contented as her own. She wrapped her hands in his and smiled. Finding out that her crush on him was reciprocated had been the best thing to happen to her all year.

She wanted to stay here all night. Could they get away with it? This sector would probably be empty for at least another six months, so no one should have any reason to be watching it. They could sleep here, leave in the morning, and then—

She remembered the slides.

”Emmanuel.” She whispered his name against his skin. “I have to go. Did you still want to…”

Emmanuel stirred slowly, as if waking, though his eyes had been open. “Of course.” His voice was a faint rumble, pitched as if to let Miranda herself sleep. She couldn’t believe how much she liked him. “Let’s get dressed,” he said, “and we’ll go get started. Then…” He helped her sit up, looking almost hesitantly at her face. “After that, we could maybe get breakfast, if you’ve got time? Or go back to mine and grab a nap?” He winked, and passed her her shirt.

Miranda smiled. “Breakfast sounds lovely.” They dressed and helped each other stand.

But when they opened the door, a shrieking klaxon flooded the room—a buzzing, screaming, pulsing whoop that went on and on and on. They stumbled back, taking scant shelter from the onslaught in the closet.

 “What the hell is that?” Miranda hissed.

Emmanuel paled. He stared out into the hallway as if he were looking at the end of the world. “It’s he breach alarm,” he said. “Something’s gotten into the building.”

The klaxon continued for fifteen or twenty seconds, and then it stopped. A voice message played.

“This is a repeated warning. All personnel are to evacuate the facility immediately. If no exits are accessible from your location, please find a secure location and remain there until this alert has lifted. This is a repeated message. This message will repeat in five minutes.”

They stared at each other in mirrored shock. “What the hell?” Miranda said again. “What happened?”

“I don’t know.” Emmanuel took out his phone and scanned the newsfeed. “There are no details, just the same announcement posted like twenty times.”

“Why wouldn’t they say?” She edged out of the closet and started down the hall, wincing against the noise, all her nerves alert. The gate to the Rip was in the basement, a long twisting way from here.

Emmanuel followed quickly. “Maybe they didn’t have time. Come on.”

The siren cut off before they got to the stairwell, leaving the hallway eerily silent. Rubbing her ears, Miranda wondered how long the alert had been playing. They’d been in the closet for… she checked her phone… about four hours. Everyone must be long gone by now.

“We need to find the command center for this floor,” she said. “It should have some hard-copy maps, maybe an emergency kit—and maybe we can check the security feed.”

Emmanuel shook his head. “We have to get to the Rip. It’s too dangerous to stay here.” He paused. “But…”

“But the gate’s probably sealed by now.” It was protocol to seal off access to the Rip after an evacuation. Miranda was sure her expression was as grim as Emmanuel’s. “Should we try anyway, or try to find someplace to hide?

He started to answer, but then froze, staring down the hall. Turning, Miranda saw the Haze.

It filled the hall—a massive wall of billowing purple fog, gliding steadily towards them. There was no way to see beyond it.    

“How did it get in?” said Miranda faintly.

Emmanuel looked stricken. “It must have come through one the windows upstairs. Guess it can climb walls after all,” he said numbly. “If I’d—“

“No time to worry about it,” said Miranda. “Let’s get out of here.”

“This way.” Emmanuel tugged her back the way they’d come. “We can cut through the next hallway and get behind it.“

They ran.

The Haze followed, stately as the sun. It was odorless, silent—but it radiated chill. Miranda imagined that cold burning into her skin, wondered how long it would take to die that way.

Her steps faltered as they passed the closet. “Maybe we should—“

“No.” Emmanuel pulled her on. “If it seeped through the windows, it could seep under the door. We’d be—“ He jerked to a stop.

Stumbling to a halt, Miranda followed his gaze. At the end of the hallway, a second bank of Haze approached. They were completely cut off.

Paralyzed, she stared into the new wall of fog. Emmanuel’s fingers tightened on hers. “Oh,” he said softly, sounding more baffled than upset. “It…”

“The closet,” Miranda said. No other choice now.

 But when they turned back, it was too late. The first bank of Haze had already crossed the closet door. They were trapped.

“We’re going to die.” Miranda’s voice sounded blank and strange in her ears. “We can’t get away.”

The cloud was only paces away. Now Miranda could see the vapors painting the walls, layer after layer of deep violet seeping into every surface they touched. The Haze rolled over and through itself, recycled and expanded, growing larger with every centimeter of ground it gained.

“I wonder if life insurance will kick in,” Miranda said dully. “You think this counts as death by workplace hazard?” Her mind was oddly numb. Time seemed to be slowing. This was apparently how she was going to die. She hadn’t predicted anything like this, didn’t know how to feel.

Emmanuel stared at her bleakly. “I’m so, so sorry,” he said. He stroked her hair, looking down at her as if she were a treasure on the verge of destruction, a painting threatened by wildfire. “If I had done my job…”

“It’s all right,” Miranda said shakily. “At least everyone else got out. Anyway, it was my fault, too. I was the one distracting you.” She smiled crookedly up at him. “We fucked up together.”

Emmanuel laughed humorlessly. “Go team.” He shook his head, eyes brimming. “I shouldn’t have asked you to come,” he said. “If you hadn’t been with me, you would have evacuated with everybody else… no, if I hadn’t… if I’d just done my job, it never…”

“It doesn’t matter now.” Miranda was surprised by how calm she sounded. She took Emmanuel’s hand and kissed it. “We knew it was risky just coming through the Rip—and I did come to see things like this.” She smiled. “Anyway, it was a great last night.” Emmanuel still looked stricken, so Miranda leaned up and kissed him as the Haze rolled over them.

Darkness surrounded them, and moisture, and cold. They both tensed, wrapping their arms around each other as they broke the kiss. Miranda wanted to scream—but it would mean opening her mouth, letting go of her last breath of untainted air. She kept silent, pressing herself against Emmanuel.

The Haze was cool and damp against her skin, like forest air after a night of rain. No poisonous tingling yet.

Emmanuel shifted, shielding her more with his body. Miranda folded against him, eyes still tightly closed. If she opened them, she’d only see the Haze. That was the worst part—that there was no end to it, that she wouldn’t see clear air again until she died.

Could they have run? If they’d had goggles or safety equipment—if they hadn’t panicked—could they possibly have escaped? Maybe they should be trying even now—running blind through the Haze, feeling for untainted space. Were they even now wasting their last chance to survive?

Miranda trembled. Her heartbeat quickened—her last breath grew toxic in her lungs. She leaned against Emmanuel, trying to remember his face clearly enough that it would be the last thing her mind’s eye saw. Anything would be better than that purple fog.

Still there was no pain—only damp, cool air.

Finally, her breath ran out. She exhaled as slowly as she could. Then, when she had no other option, she drew a tiny bit of the cloud into her lungs.

It felt like breathing fog—nothing worse.

She heard Emmanuel take a small breath, then felt him relax. No pain for him, either, then.

She had an odd feeling of gnosis, as if the mist were imparting something to her that she would never have thought to look for. It seemed important—but whatever it was, it was so alien that Miranda had only a vague echo of it in her mind, some poor translation of an original message.

Emmanuel was quiet. Perhaps he was receiving the same message. Probably he was better prepared for it than she was.

Finally, gathering her courage, Miranda opened her eyes. The air around them was clear. The Haze was pulling back.

“Look.” She tugged at Emmanuel’s sleeve. Her voice sounded a little richer, a little more resonant.

Emmanuel opened his eyes and drew a sharp breath, staring at the retreating fog.

The Haze fell from the walls and ceiling, wandering off in both directions, as if searching for any space it hadn’t covered. It retreated down the hall, leaving everything in its path a deep and vibrant purple.

“Look,” said Emmanuel suddenly. “Look at us.”

Turning, Miranda saw that he, too, was purple—his skin, his hair, his clothes. The whites of his eyes gleamed like enamel in his deep-violet face

“We match.” Emmanuel grinned, teeth flashing.

Miranda looked down at herself. She looked like she’d been painted. Lifting the neckline of her shirt, she found that the Haze had soaked through the thin fabric, staining her skin.

Physically, she felt unaltered—she felt great, actually. Emotionally, though—spiritually, maybe—she knew that she was changed. She felt as if she’d woken from some dream of perfect enlightenment that she couldn’t remember. Emmanuel’s face suggested he was having similar feelings.

“Well.” Leaning over, Miranda pressed her lips gently to his. He deepened the kiss enthusiastically, as if swallowing down all the fear and anxiety of the last few minutes. They’d survived—nothing could frighten them now.

Finally, Miranda broke away. They really should discuss what had just happened—they really should start to react to it. She didn’t want to, though.

Emmanuel released her reluctantly, still holding her hand. “Do you think it will come off?” He tipped her hand back and forth, smiling at her new coloration. “I kind of like it.”

“It’s certainly different.” They should be running for chemical showers, first aid kits—but the relief she felt was so intense, the strange sense of gnosis still so strong, that Miranda couldn’t muster any urgency. She wasn’t ready for the world to start again.

She was about to make some terrible joke about couples in matching colors when she realized, quite late, that they should be trying to send back word to Earth that they were alive. They must be listed as missing by now. “We’ve got to report in.” She moved towards the nearest wall console, wondering if it would still work.

Emmanuel followed, face sobering. He would be in a lot of trouble, Miranda realized suddenly, for not sealing all the windows. It would be a stretch to blame everything on him—for the Haze to have entered so quickly, there must have been other leaks somewhere—but people always looked for scapegoats in situations like this. At best, Emmanuel would be fired. At worst…

She stood by the console, uncertain. Eventually Emmanuel said, “Could we maybe just… rest, for a second?”

She turned gladly. “I don’t want to call. I just… I want…” She hesitated. What she wanted would sound crazy.

“I feel it, too,” said Emmanuel, nodding. “The calling.”

“Calling,” Miranda murmured. She couldn’t hear anything—but when she focused, the feeling was undeniable: something coming from the wilds of the Beyond, far outside the Bubble.

It was strange—not anything as concrete as intelligence, per se, but something seemed to be aware of them. The Bubble’s air, always stale, now felt almost stifling. Miranda wanted to be outside, in the wide new world she’d dreamed of for so long, the new world she was born to see. Out there, delicious mists curled over the landscape—beings waited, as different from her as she was from the Haze, as akin to her as she now was to Emmanuel. Her veins shivered like twigs in a rising wind.  

“This must be what happened,” Miranda said suddenly. “The people who disappeared—the Haze didn’t eat them. They left. They’re out there somewhere.”

Emmanuel read her thoughts. “And we need to be out there, too.” He stared down the hall after the retreating Haze, visibly longing.

“We shouldn’t,” Miranda said, trying mostly to convince herself. “We’re not in our right minds right now. This stuff could really be slow-acting poison.” She looked again at her violet arms. She should be more upset, she thought, but felt only slowly rising excitement.

“Miranda.” Emmanuel’s smile was teasing, cajoling. “Come outside. Come walk in the Beyond.”

“We’re aware this is a terrible idea, right?” Miranda started towards the door. “We definitely should not go out there.”

“Definitely not.” Emmanuel followed, smiling.

“It’s Inspiration Season. Who knows what could happen?”

“Anything.” He took her hand, and hand in hand they went.

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