io9 is proud to present fiction from LIGHTSPEED MAGAZINE. Once a month, we feature a story from LIGHTSPEED’s current issue. This month’s selection is “The Mathematics of Fairyland” by Phoebe Barton. You can read the story below or listen to the podcast on our website. Enjoy!
If you had a warp drive, it would be easy. The mathematics are strange the way ley lines are strange, invisible yet divinable. You’ve pulled your way up sterner mountains, fingertip by fingertip. You’ve already compensated for stellar motion, spacetime curvature, hyperspatial congruences. You’ve scratched out hundreds of equations in cold blue hyacinth ink and piled them away in the knitted stocking under your bed, where only Berenice would think to look. Equations that would tell you exactly where to slice a hole between worlds, if only you had the right knife. You could bring Berenice back home.
You don’t have a warp drive. It would be easier to get a nuclear bomb, and you’ve checked—sub-kiloton models are always in demand among the asteroid miners. Warp drives are locked up tighter than princesses in towers, and for good reason. Warp drives are monsters chained inside niobium prisons, with claws that rip and tear spacetime. You were never afraid of them before, but they always commanded your respect.
That was before, though. Before you stopped to think about what it must have been like for that monster to turn, to snarl, to carry your Berenice down a hole that disappeared in the darkness. If you had a warp drive you could follow her, carrying at least a guttering light. You’re each other’s princesses, after all.
There’s an alternative beyond warp drives and nukes. The old tales are clear about what the fair folk charge for their help, but the cost of life alone is too much to bear. So you kneel in the station gardens and whisper your desperation into buttercups, at once hopeful and terrified that your words will find their way to Fairyland.
It’s an in-between place, Psyche Harbour, a space station where gardens bloom within a polished hull. Below, the asteroid 16 Psyche glitters, a flying mountain of cold iron that no faerie could touch and live. Beyond, the vast and vaulting gap of emptiness between the asteroids and Earth.
You know you’re the only one there who believes faeries are real, so you’ve buried your truth beneath expectations. You’re good at that, at least. Your official title is Hardware Operations Specialist, but you’d rather think of yourself as a blacksmith. Your tools are different, fabricator and versa instead of anvil and hammer, but the goal is the same.
The gardener, Mariko, is a newcomer to the station. You see her in the corner of your eye when you crouch in the garden and whisper the faeries’ names, acid vowels and obsidian consonants. You see her kneeling reverently in front of the buttercups. After a while you begin to wonder: Maybe she knows the faeries’ names, too. Maybe she can never stop dancing between the flowers. Maybe she believes.
At least it’s not difficult for you to broach the question. The gardener has the tall, spare, dark-skinned look of a Martian. Martians call their faeries gremlins now, but they never pretended faeries didn’t follow them.
“That’s the thing about Mars,” the gardener says, her voice rich and loamy. “Too much dust, not enough air. But that doesn’t stop us from building gremlin traps. If you want, I can show you.”
It takes a special kind of faerie to live on Mars, with no trods to follow and its soil half poison, half cold iron. They’re the faeries that learned how to shred airplane engines with their teeth, to burn control cables with a glare, and when the first Mars probes flew, the gremlins went with them. On Earth, they’re annoyances; on Mars, with its bubbled meadows on hostile plains, they’re cataclysms. Of course the Martians had honed their skills to trap them.
“Thank you,” you say. There’s always the possibility a ship full of gremlins might put into Psyche Harbour, after all.
A gremlin trap, she tells you, is simple: form over function. Gears that aren’t connected to anything, circuits that loop back on themselves, switches that turn themselves off. Make it complicated enough and the gremlins will flock to it, and while they’re figuring out how to tear it apart, they’re not tearing apart the life support systems. Once it stops working, that’s when you take it out and smash it to bits with a sledgehammer, and all the trapped gremlins with it.
“Of course, it’s best if you understand gremlins as a metaphor,” Mariko says. “But that doesn’t make them any less true, does it?”
The project gives you a distraction, at least. You never did this sort of thing with Berenice, and this far from the sun, you can arrange the gears to eclipse your grief. Still, you worry. You’re not Martian; your community never worried about gremlins. Do gremlins, so concerned with technology and machines, even talk to faeries?
That’s when you realize there’s an alternative. There’s no point in whispering into buttercups—no faerie would want to dig their heels in so far from Earth’s green hills. The gremlin trap is a part, not a whole.
You realize you need to build a radio, too.
It’s hard work to make radio waves shatter spacetime the way starships do. In almost two hundred years of faster-than-light freedom, nobody has figured it out. Warp points let ships sail through intact, but there’s never been a broadcast that wasn’t received as a mixed-up crackle, indistinguishable from the echo of everything’s beginning. All you can do is hope that nobody’s tried this particular solution yet, and that’s why they still call it impossible.
You know where you can find respite from your struggle, at least. In your dreams, you dance with Berenice among the saxifrage and snapdragon. If only you were an oneiromancer, you could apologize to her there. Tonight you sit with her next to a glassy pool and trace capacitors and antennas in the clear and changeless water.
“You could stay here,” Berenice says, except it’s not Berenice at all. It’s the reflection of her that lives in your head, the costume you built out of tender moments and warm, lingering kisses and all the times you thought of moving to Venus so that a year would be as long as a day. “We’d be together. Isn’t that what you want?”
“I want you,” you say. When you kiss her, her lips are fog and her breath is a distant whisper. “The you who’s going to climb out of the darkness. Not your echo.”
“You’re so certain there’s a ladder.” Berenice dips two fingers in the pool, slices them through a circuit diagram, presses them to your lips. There’s no weight to them, no presence. “What if there isn’t?”
“There’s never an isn’t,” you say, even though you have to force the assurances. “The faeries will know.”
“Faeries are legends. Myths. Unreality!” Berenice stares deep in your eyes, and you stare back at the doubts you’ve kept bottled for so long. Her eyes are space-black, flecked with hints of stars. “You’re grasping in the dark.”
“Then I’ll hear my way though.” It wouldn’t have to be much. Berenice’s heartbeat would be enough. If sound could fly though space, you’re sure you’d hear it across the solar system. “Whatever it takes to open the way.”
The dream’s melancholy lingers after you wake, and it sharpens the sour sheen coating your tongue. It doesn’t matter, though. Here in space, there’s never a time when you’re not falling.
Building the radio doesn’t take long; you didn’t last so long at Psyche Harbour, and places like it, by being a woman without skill. It’s a challenge, compared to the complex simplicity of the gremlin trap, and you’re eager to best it. You forge a cold iron case, to temper the faeries’ tempting voices. Around its circuits you weave patterns of spider silk, to strum impulses softly along the universe’s web. You whittle a second antenna from the branch of a rowan tree, to guide your words straight and true.
You finish the work three hundred and forty-three days after the science vessel Tabetha Boyajian triggered its warp drive in ordinary space and vanished, taking Berenice and all her crewmates on a voyage they had never anticipated. No one knows where a ship that warps in ordinary space goes. Perhaps—you hope—it went to Fairyland.
“It’s a wonderful design,” Mariko says when you show it to her. You had to tell someone, and of all the people aboard Psyche Harbour, you’re sure she’s the only one who could possibly understand. “I know this is a hard time. If you need to talk, I’m here.”
“I need to talk to Fairyland,” you say. “Someone there knows what happened. Someone will listen.”
There are a lot of frequencies to try, but that’s all right. Einstein caught a glimpse of Fairyland when he realized relativity. You force the sharp wedge of experimentation into your responsibilities, and hammer it with true blacksmith strength. Every night, once your work is done, you carry it to the garden and listen. Sometimes you hear voices, soft and sandy and crumbling, the codes of spaceship transponders, or rescue beacons shouting into the void.
There isn’t so much as a whisper of Fairyland. Only distant murmurs and softly roaring echoes, as if you’re hearing the world from the far side of a dream.
Once you finished the gremlin trap, Mariko set it in the middle of a little stone circle in the garden module. That’s where she finds you, crouching with a hammer, waiting for the last of its workings to stop. It still feels like a waste to break it apart, but what do you know? You weren’t born with red dust in your lungs.
“You did excellent work,” Mariko says. “Definitely Mars-quality. I hope it helped take your mind off things. Are you doing all right?”
Her tone is thick and sweet like jam, and leaves you feeling sticky. She acts like she understands, but unless her own love disappeared down a dark hole, there’s no understanding.
“I’ll be all right once this is all done,” you say. “Until then, I’ve got work. Faeries don’t reveal themselves to just anyone, you know.”
“Faeries.” Mariko sucks in a breath so deep it might last the rest of her life. “I’m worried about you, you know. I really think you need help.”
“Maybe, but not the kind you’re thinking of.” You went through a full psychological evaluation before you joined Psyche Harbour and you check up with a virtual therapist every two weeks. It’s been enough to keep you grounded, here where the ground is spinning metal. “I’m fine. Really.”
“As fine as Mars dust in your lungs, maybe.” Mariko kneels down and offers you her hand. “If you really want to rescue her, you need to rescue yourself first.”
“I’m not the one who’s lost!” She can’t understand. Only a handful of people in the galaxy, the dozen or so who lost people aboard that ship, possibly could. “You’re asking me to walk away from the pit when I’m holding a rope.”
“You’re on the edge of falling in yourself.” Mariko closes her eyes, and you catch yourself wondering if she’d catch you or let you pinwheel over the side. “We’re all here to help each other. Let me help you. Please.”
You’re torn between possibilities. An angry shout, a calm explanation, a flood of tears—there are pathways to them all, but not all pathways lead to Fairyland. The forest here is too overgrown and dark. Perhaps you’re already lost.
“I can help myself,” you say. “Leave me alone, please.”
Mariko is quiet for a moment, then sighs and walks away. Now the world can contract into what you need it to be: the calm green of the garden, the gremlin trap in front of you, and the hammer in your hands. It’s solid, present, substantial—everything the warp drive stole from you. It’s neither tool nor weapon now, but your determination crystallized and forged, and the trap is stuffed not only with gremlins but all the anxieties and fears you poured into it.
You test the hammer’s weight, experiment, then wind up and strike. The trap comes apart under the force of your blow. Springs and coils and switches shatter across the soft grass in a constellation of debris.
There’s no hint of gremlin pieces anywhere. No matter how closely you sift, you find only shards of metal.
It takes you some time to figure out the right conditions, but the answer has always been there, waiting for you to find it. On Earth, auroras are shimmering as far south as the Mediterranean. A new dark storm has formed in the skies of Neptune, and an auspicious number of sunspots have persisted for seven days now. You’re sure there’s meaning encoded in all of it, and you make a winged leap into the work.
You narrow down the frequency range—would fairies be listening around the water hole?—and determine ideal broadcast times, balancing planetary arrangements and lucky moments and all the other tricks you need to talk safely to faeries with more equations in hyacinth ink.
When the moment comes, you prick your finger with a silver needle and smear the blood on the radio’s face. Your vital force should give your words power to breach the veil. You speak with confidence, with boiling love, with frozen determination. You weave the most compelling tapestry of your grief from the most carefully chosen words, enough that even the distant and merciless fae just might be made to feel.
You don’t hear anything. Not even the quiet hiss that is the echo of everything beginning. For hours you hunch over the cold iron case, run your fingers along the rowan antenna, and still you hear nothing. A lesser woman would give up there, but you are not a lesser woman. Neither is Berenice, nor anyone else taken when their starship vanished whole.
There’s another option. 16 Psyche is the frozen iron core of a planet dismembered, a shield against Fairyland’s fury in case things go wrong, and it’s easy enough to invent a reason to visit. The mining is automated, but machines require attention just as gardens do. There’s much in common between amaryllis and actuators, carnations and capacitors. It’s where you can offer payment.
A year and a day after the disappearance of UNEV Tabetha Boyajian—the most auspicious day, the end of a term of service to the fae—you descend to serrated mountains, dry iron rivers, and a sky of unblinking stars. The surface of Psyche is a liminal place between life and death. The sun is a soundless shriek, a litany of needles. It’s the best place you could be.
Here, with no protection, cosmic radiation will sleet into you. Here, you can pay for Fairyland’s attention with all those years you’ll never live.
You clutch the rowan antenna and hold it skyward, a challenge and a supplication. Your spacesuit’s radio isn’t powerful when it comes to the world, but Fairyland is everywhere and nowhere. Range doesn’t matter; honesty does. You call out to the fae on all the quiet frequencies, the ones humans have stopped listening to, while cosmic rays flash in your eyes again and again and again, little glimpses of all the corners of the world you can’t see.
When you swallow, you taste metal.
When you look around you, there’s only desolation to see.
Psyche is your life, crystallized in iron, and you understand why you stayed.
“marigold.” Your name, whispered above the hiss, jagged and icy, distant yet present. It’s Fairyland. It has to be. “marigold what are you doing.”
“I’m begging your aid!” you shout. The solar wind is a whipping storm of light, and it’s all you can do to keep from being dazzled. “My beloved, she’s lost, please!”
“Marigold.” Stronger now, sharp enough to cut. “Marigold, what are you doing?”
“I’m doing everything I can!” You can see the suggestion of Berenice out there, the implication of her life contrasted against the frozen ground and indifferent stars. “I’m trying to bring her home!”
“Marigold!” It’s as real as the air in your lungs, as the radiation warping your genes, as the hand on your shoulder. It’s Mariko, alive in a suit painted with blooming flowers and twisting vines, an ambassador of the living world to dead, silent Psyche. “Marigold, talk to me! What are you doing?”
“Mariko.” The gardener’s name is heavy on your tongue. “It’s my last chance to get her back. I have to try.”
“By sacrificing everything you have?” You can’t see her face, shielded against the sunglare, but her voice does the work. “By sacrificing her memory?”
“She’s trapped, wherever she is, with all the rest!” you shout. “If I’m the key, then that’s what I’ve got to be!”
“But like this, though?” Mariko gestures at the jagged mountains, the dry iron rivers, the uncaring stars. “You can’t be a key if you’re dead!”
“I—” The word is enough for the reality to crack your suit like a hammer. The rowan antenna slips from your grip and you fall to your knees. “I don’t know if I can live without her.”
“Maybe not yet,” Mariko says. “I know it’s hard. But one day.”
She offers her hand again, gloved and open. It’s not easy to get a warp drive. It’s harder still to accept a second chance.
“Okay,” you say. “Okay.”
Mariko leads you back to the shuttle. You leave the antenna behind you, flat against the iron ground. It doesn’t matter which way it fell. It will always point towards Fairyland.
Phoebe Barton is a queer trans science fiction writer who first visited Earth on an unseasonably warm day in the winter of 1982 and decided to stay. Her short fiction has appeared in venues such as Analog, On Spec, and Kaleidotrope, anthologies from Bundoran Press and Alliteration Ink, and she is currently deep in the weeds writing interactive fiction with Choice of Games. She serves as an Associate Editor at Escape Pod, and is a 2019 graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop. She lives with a robot in the sky above Toronto. You can connect with her on Twitter at @aphoebebarton or her website phoebebartonsf.com.
Please visit LIGHTSPEED MAGAZINE to read more great science fiction and fantasy. This story first appeared in the February 2021 issue, which also features work by Micah Dean Hicks, A.T. Greenblatt, Paul Crenshaw, Autumn Brown, Keith Brooke & Eric Brown, Alexander Weinstein, Maureen F. McHugh, and more. You can wait for this month’s contents to be serialized online, or you can buy the whole issue right now in convenient ebook format for just $3.99, or subscribe to the ebook edition at a via the link below.