[The following story features my Deviant art OC Lianna, on a surreal journey..
also posted on my Deviantart page. http://www.mike3839.deviantart.com
Whoop! Down the chute I slid onto the floor dome of Cancer Multi-Spectrum Observatory. For a military complex they seemed real friendly. All the guys are staring at me. Oh wait, that’s not ‘cos of the tight violet skinsuit clinging to me like a second skin? Come on, guys, it’s so supple and foamy inside it’s a massage with every breath.
Colonel Stubbs was gawking too, for about half a second. I swear the vertebrae in his neck popped as he swerved away. But he could still bark orders. “Johnson! Get that girl a coat!”
Suddenly there was no shortage of lab coats on offer. I took the one closest to my back, or maybe he just slipped it over my arms. I zipped the coat’s front seal closed over the window cut in the fabric exposing the dip in my cleavage. God, it’s so good being able to dream of my sexuality without other’s inhibitions dragging on me.
Colonel Stubbs offered me a steaming cup of java, with a creamy heap of foam on top. We fell in line as we strolled the observatory floor. “Getting too relaxed with your amoeba friends, I see.” His voice had gotten deeper and scratchy in his declining years. “The professor told me. Who are they again? Are you happy?”
“Amba and Stavros. Yeah, I’m happy with them,” I smiled. “Are you…disappointed?”
He shrugged like a grizzly. “You’re a big girl now. I used to tell you stories when you were young. The professor and I were the only people you’d let near you. For five or six years you’d only talk to us.”
“Yeah, it was all about dragons and pirates and astronauts bouncing on the Moon, Earth’s Moon I mean. But you never talked about war.”
“Huh. War’s the dream of fools and politicians to keep people distracted from the real issues. It’s not worth telling bedtime stories to innocent little girls.”
“Just one thing. This base. Why that name, ‘cancer’?”
“Why not? The name alone implies scabeous diseases. Keeps the tourists away. That’s not why you’re here.”
On the whole it was an average cavernous observatory, dedicated to mapping distant stars and their compositions via their X-ray and photon emissions. The astronomers sat at their workstations, which were like little school desks with baby monitor screens in the central bowl on the main ampitheatre. They received signals from telescopes orbiting other star systems. The floor was utilitarian white with…a theatrical curtain hung on the far wall. “What is…?”
“The place could use a little humanizing,” Stubbs said. He could still whistle, and did so now. The red velvet curtains rattled on an old-fashioned track, exposing a convex lens curved towards the outside of the observatory. White light shone from different points along the lens, projecting a holo-image hovering one meter above the floor before us.
A dark orb rotated at a blinding pace, while several small planets clung desperately to their orbits. That star must be completing three polar orbits in a standard Earth day. It must’ve been damn luck that those worlds hadn’t been flung off into interstellar space before. Via their spectrographic scans, the magnetosphere appeared as a series of iridesent dragons with plump bellies, whose tails were forever sliding into their mouths…
I blinked, this time greeting shimmering strings of X-rays and gamma rays. “We received these images from the seventh planet,” Stubbs was saying. He took a deep breath before spilling the name. “Alexis Point Seven.”
“That was the world the Naga Sentry was taking us to, before she was pushed off course,” I said.
The Colonel’s hand slipped into mine, unnoticed by the crew. It was warm and the pulse strong, but not too fast. He was as he always was, the Big Scary Uncle who never says much, broods a lot, but you know he has a good spirit. His was a strong, comforting grip. I laced my fingers with his, waiting for the next boot to float.
We sent a probe when we lost contact with the colony three weeks ago…”
“Wait, are you serious? You still put a colony there, even after you lost the Naga Sentry—“
The Colonel’s eyes darkened, narrowing as he loomed over me. But he refused to let it creep into his reply. “The colony was established after Wormhole Transits became a reliable alternative to sleeper ships. It was done over my objections. You remember, I was with the professor when we came to rescue you. We didn’t know what had happened to you kids.”
I ducked my head. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s all fine, kid. Now, what do you make of that star?”
“It’s supposed to be M-class, a young main sequence red star. Every survey showed it was the most stable stellar obect in this sector. Its hydrostatic equilibrium should have lasted for another ten billion years. It doesn’t even have the mass of one Earth Sun. How is its fusion collapsing this soon?”
“It gets better. Johnson, play back the message.”
No sooner was the order given than the star flashed. It was only by virtue of the quick action from the observatory’s filters that we weren’t all instantly blinded. “Hey! What the f–?” the Colonel rasped.
“It wasn’t us, sir,” a scientist called from the floor.
Behind the spots still blinking through our eyes, we all watched the words scrolling across the whitened lens. “Never mind,” Stubbs muttered. “They’re repeating it.”
“Repeating what…?” I stopped talking then. My fingers squeaked in their gloves as my grip tightened on uncle Stubb’s hand.
This was the message:
Hi, Little Vine. What walls have you been climbing today?
With punctuation, no less.
“That’s what Poppa used to say to me…”
“This message has been coming to us on a series of tight controlled X-ray emissions,” he said, bypassing the bigger question altogether. “The source of the message is the Alexis star itself. That’s why I called you.
“We know the colonists are fine. We’ve been tracking their life-signs, even if we haven’t been able to establish contact. Now the star should have collapsed into a neutron star already. We speculate the star is holding itself together till we get our people out. But it wants to talk to you.”
“To me, specifically? You know that’s scientifically impossible.”
“A lot of things were once thought impossible. Let’s say it’s highly improbable.” He turned me to face him, and for a moment he seemed like a scared old man. “I don’t want to ask you to do this, but…I’ve got three hundred thousand people on A-Seven. I know how you feel about your father…”
“I’ll do it.”
A dozen specialists glanced up. A stricken stare faced back at me from the Colonel. “Lianna, your father’s dead.”
“Then I guess I still have issues. Get a ship ready.
“Oh, one more thing…what exactly will I be doing?”
“Colonel, what happened to the Naga Sentry?”
He wouldn’t, or couldn’t look at me. He kept his eyes on the double vault of airlock doors ahead of us. Guys in spacesuits a lot like my skinsuit, but with helmets, were preparing a spacepod for me.
“Your parents were good people. All of the people on that ship were good people. I couldn’t stand the sight of that thing. I had orders to bring it in to port. I was commanding a brig carrying it in our cargo hold. When we passed behind the star to make a standard orbital approach, I flushed it into Alexis’ photosphere.”
I nodded. “Good.”
“You’ve never talked about the seven months you spent as a Loner on that ship.”
“Why would I want to?”
I shut my eyes tight. Just like that a flash of memory returned, as real as when it happened. My father standing over my mother’s body, staring at his hands. His running screaming into the calesthetics ring between sleep pods until another crazy passenger shivved him.
Me, seven years old, wheeling my parents’ bodies on their own sleep cot to the science lab freezer where we stored cellular samples for seeding on A-Seven. I secured them on their mat, spooning them together in death as they’d been in life, before this fucking voyage began. Then I shut the freezer door.
“It’s ready,” the Colonel grunted. “How about you?”
“Yeah. Let’s go.”
And wouldn’t it have been nice if that’s how things had really happened. Some of the foregoing was true. But I recreated a lot of it from wishful fantasies mixed in with my memories.
I wasn’t going to be a hero rushing to save the masses. They’d managed to fly out from the Alexis system on their own power. The Colonel never called me. He died while I was studying on an off-campus terminal for the Space Academy. Of cancer.
Funny. They could’ve treated it. But there had been too many battles, too many bodies. When the disease circled round for the third time, he decided to let it run its course. No more miracles.
I stlll can’t go near crowds bigger than five. My muscles get all twitchy and a nervous anticipation fires from every nerve.
I made up that story about the star. I’m here alone, orbiting Alexis Point Seven in a borrowed pod, a billion kilometers from the event horizon. If I use the filters, I can watch as a glimmering milky stream of X-ray particles whirlpools into the great big nothing that is the singularity.
And I wait again for the message.
…Wait for it…
…Okay, this is getting tiresome…
Hey Little Vine. Nice of you to come.
So many questions, so many possibilities. And my mind drew zero. Someone should have come with me; I’m too close to this for any level of objectivity. Anyone to declare what a idiotic mistake this was. That was the problem, of course. I didn’t trust anyone else. So, what shall we text?
What’s the matter, little vine?
You can’t be my father. He’s gone. He was shivved right in front of me, right after he killed my mom.
Hmm, your father. How are you so certain this was ever he?
The cockpit seemed to have gone into a tailspin. My hands clutched the armrests, even though there should’ve been no need. It was just my head. Nothing had changed; the pod was stationary. I could keep the tears and disappointment barricaded inside me.
Who is this?
You’ve dipped your toes in singularity, child. Just as you’ve stood on the ramparts overlooking the temples of Patala, all things are possible on the threshold of Vishwaruchi.
How do you know about Patala? I haven’t told anyone.
Blessed are you for your discretion. The delights of Patala-loka have not spoiled you, child. Rarely has an atman shown so bright. Know this, for all her glories, Patala-loka is but the lowest of the lower lokas. You have been offered an opportunity to skim the milk of infinity.
OK, the cosmos has stopped spinning. Give the stomach a moment to stop its gurgling. Yet, when I rubbed my eyes and stared at the screen, the particles rotated in an enormous tubular shape, flowing into itself, a mouth swallowing its own…
“This isn’t real…just tell yourself, dead is dead.” No, no sniffling either.
Give me a solid. I can’t just take your word. I need facts.
There. What are you gonna do with that?
So you’re just a foolish girl after all. I guess I’ll have to show you.
Wait wait wait—did I just hear that out loud?
The cockpit lurched beneath me, banging my head against the seat rest. Alarm buzzers pipped, which was kind of a wimpy response given the literal gravity of the situation. The gravitational field around A-Seven had suddenly expanded another parsec. So my borrowed pod was now in the event horizon’s particle stream.
“I can’t go with you. I’ll die.”
Your body is a shell. Consider the spirit as energy,and can not energy change form?
“I don’t know how!”
Faith, child. Leave it to me.
Leave what to…? I suddenly had a cold thrill all through my body, for the last few seconds that would last. My hands had been gripping the console, trying to at least get my seat upright. Except that…I didn’t have any hands. My fingers were elongated, peeling away cell by cell. There was no blood, no pain, no sensasion. It was like an old scab popping off a healing wound, except this was being done on a cellular level. First the skinsuit, on to the perspiration of the naked flesh.
Thank god I didn’t have to watch the skin peel back over the muscle and bone. My nipples were much too erect as the cold penetrated each limb that was relentlessly stripped away. The whole time I was aware of my body dissolving, like chalk in a soft breeze. Awareness remained even when there was nothing left but my face.
That’s where I was suspended, eyes blinking at an empty starfield, sweat dripping from every pore. The soft brush of lips on mine, a warm breath of lavender inhaling my scent. Another kiss, deep and lingering. And then, nothing.
Silken petals enfolded me, sweet with honey and dew. Pure light glimmered through the enclosing bulb, which were only parted by two hands slipping between petals to take my arms. The flower was reluctant to release its prize, yet its waxen arms slipped along my bare skin as we two seemed to float upward.
God, I was a milky slob next to this goddess. Her skin was like gold, not simply in her glow but really smooth and hard and somehow warm to the touch. Her crimson gown lined with gold embroidery was laden with ringlets and jewels. The sleeves draped loosely over all four of her arms, those on each side apparently mounting on the same shoulder.
Lotuses were bound to the back hands…the soft and warm ones resting on my cheeks. Her raven hair billowed down her waist like a cloak. Her other hands pressed to my palms as waterfalls cascaded north and south, and lotus flowers filled the lakes we casually ballooned over.
“I’m never going home, am I?” I asked.
“Be at ease, daughter. You’ve barely skimmed the surface of Bhuvar-loka. There are truths your probes have not begun to penetrate.”
“Bhuvar-loka…” I thought. “My mother was studying the interaction of the Upanishad texts with real astronomical observations. She had field book after field book, boxes of stuff…”
“And you thought to verify these findings. Sweet, lonely atman rambling in the spaces between Sun and stars, the realm of Bhuvar-loka. And such wonders have you encompassed. You have befriended a Naga in the orchards of Patala. That one offers you comfort but can never purchase for you peace.”
Our fingers laced, her golden thumbs stroking the backs of my hands. I couldn’t tear my eyes away. That voice sang soft as a harp, so young yet so much deeper. “Mother Lakshmi…?”
“I-I’m not,” I grinned.
“Then perhaps it is time we clothed you.”
One hand she peeled away from my right cheek. At her beckoning a single lotus petal from the flower below us stretched. The flower head rattled, splashing waves around its pad. And then the petal pulled free, gliding up my foot and winding around my leg. A second petal did the same, insinuating itself behind my left knee and taking a firm grasp of my leg, balling greedily around my feet.
Mother Lakshmi didn’t have to do this. Still, she bent down to rub her palms over the clutching petals, stretching them smooth over both calves and pushing the excess up towards my waist. Any seams where the winding petals held me seemed to pucker up, leaving only a supple skin layer.
Other petals joined the first two, balling around my hands as they slapped deliciously up my arms before draping around my shoulders. Yet another wormed its way twice around my waist. I submitted to this experiment with some giddiness. These… personages…had gone to great trouble to bring me here, beyond the event horizon; beyond Vishwaruchi’s jaws, I suppose? I don’t know if there is a higher power. But isn’t that what I was out here to learn?
Now she’d gone to work on my hands, kneading the flowers over my palms until my fingers pushed through the living tissue, stretching it until it was skin tight over them. She was methodical in this task, even to the fitting over my breasts. It fit me tight as a glove, baby soft inside, and…translucent blue, like a new skin. Even the material on my heels had formed a padded surface to cushion them wherever I walked.
“This is my mother’s suit…I thought I’d lost it…”
“It is a reasonable facsimile. Come. Your true task awaits.”
“Thank you, Mother Lakshmi,” I bowed. Her eternal smile mirrored mine as our palms again touched, and the waters flowed beneath us.
I descended into a sterile environment, a blinding white wraparound wall with a tile deck. The only color was from Mother’s sky-blue skin suit, and even that reflected the sheer white off its glossy surface. I placed each footfall down gingerly; really, I expected a trap door to open up any second now.
Ahead lay an endlessly stretching corridor, and the further along I followed, the more the roof seemed to curve. Forty meters along I arrived at his bedside, all grey and blue stripes on the sheets covered by a pale green blanket. Someone was sitting up on the matt as I approached. Even seated he was obviously a tall fella with a full head of feathered blonde hair falling to his neck, and eyes maybe a deeper shade of green than mine, and big hands that could—and did!—lift me high. “Baby!”
“Poppa!” I laughed, elevated above him.
He set me down gently to appraise how his little girl grew up. “They gave you her suit,” he muttered, rubbing his hairless chin. “I don’t know whether or not that’s intended as a punishment.”
“I was wearing this for a while, in her honor…” My voice trailed off, but Poppa gestured for me to continue. “I was wearing it when I…”
“Yeah, that monster. How did you get away?”
“I didn’t. Professor Chronitis gave me a Nullifier for self-defense, it strapped onto my wrist. It was only dumb luck that a reflex action set it off. It blew that octo-freak’s squishy head clean off. The suit was kind of ruined after that.”
“Hey, you’re shaking. Come here.” Poppa took me up in a big strong hug. Then he guided me back to the bed in this improbably white corridor and set me down beside him. “How about that star, eh? It was gonna last another five billion years, survey says. How’d that work out? Hey, do you remember why we named you ‘Lianna’?”
“No, I was kind of young.” We laughed together. It’d been so long since we could do such a simple thing…”I suppose it was ‘cos you always called me your little vine.”
“Oh yeah, you were climbing the furniture as soon as you could crawl. Seriously, we thought it’d be adorable to combine our names—mine, Lee, with your mother’s Annabelle—because you were special, and a part of both of us.”
“I-I didn’t remember your names.” I swallowed and stared into his face, that unchanged, still youthful face. “Poppa, I don’t understand. You died, almost 23 years ago, but you look…”
“It may be hard to understand, baby.”
“There’s a time differential involved here. This bed, this hall are just conventionalizations for our own comfort. And this,” he added, thumping his chest, “is only spirit, just the same as you are now.”
“Are we dead?”
“Not exactly. This is a transitional zone, between the current state of samsara and the one to come…Baby?”
Trembling started in my shoulders, but it worked quickly enough into my ribs and then my whole torso was shaking. I drew my knees up to my chin and held onto myself tight. “P-poppa, I’ve seen gods, all the ones that showed up in Momma’s notebooks. Creatures that aren’t supposed to exist. I’ve felt their lips on mine, their hands open to me…I’m best friends with a lamia! I’m not even surprised when they talk about my atman! It’s—it’s…oh my god…gods?”
At some point Poppa’s arms wound around me, strangely as warm as a summer sun. “It’s okay. Your mother wanted you to be protected. She’s clear now. She’s broken the cycle of samsara.”
“You’ve seen her too.”
“Poppa, why are you still here?”
“I was waiting for you. I thought you might come as soon as that star went nova.”
I nodded, uncurling like a caterpillar from her ball. “I had to see. After all the shit the Naga Sentry put us through, they still put a colony there. I wanted that star to be ashes. Did the…gods…have anything to do…?”
“No, baby. Not everything that happens in the universe is due to the caprice of random deities. That was an unexpected but naturally occurring event. Any errors committed were strictly human.”
“You still haven’t told me what you’re doing here.”
“That you shall know soon enough, daughter.”
I never even heard her coming. Bare foot—bare naked, for all that mattered—with cobalt-blue skin and supple muscles that highlighted her feminine attributes as well as her strength, both at once. A jewelled crown framed her gorgeous features, with golden guards over her ears and a jade temple peaking behind the shield curving round her brow. Armlets and wristbands covered her upper limbs, all eight of them flittering with a spider’s grace.
Waist length hair as black as space flowed from the back of her crown. Her palms were painted red like blood. An inverted crescent moon was positioned between emerald pupils floating in dingy yellow corneas. Her view once it turned to you was cold and imperious, without a blink. And even if it was blue, she had Momma’s face.
Something made me stand up, blocking Poppa. “Do you have hands growing out of your ass?”
“Lianna Jensen!” Poppa’s voice scowled.
The new arrival’s voice was a high, somewhat harsh girlish one. Definitely not Momma’s. “You are bold, as your mother was.”
Poppa’s hands rested on both shoulders, turning me to face him. “Please, I’d like one last moment with my daughter.” The blue lady with Momma’s face bowed, fading back into shadows that were now encroaching on us. Poppa gazed at me so sad and longing. “It’s time for me to move on to the next phase.”
“Why aren’t you smiling…?”
“It’s time. I have to answer for what I’ve done, baby.”
“What–? NO! I can’t let you—” That creature, I thought. Maybe I could bargain…and maybe Poppa knew what I’d do, ‘cause I jumped up two inches just when he gripped my arms and slapped my bum back down again. Still he couldn’t look me in the eyes as he spoke.
“I want to do this. I owe it to you.”
By now both our voices were cracking. “Things are not as isolated here as you might think,” he said. “I know the hell you went through for seven months, alone, on the Naga Sentry. I know you hid the bodies of the adults in the gene sample freezers. For three months you did this and then, you just stopped, like you’d lost any hope of being rescued. Apart from two remarkable exceptions, I know you don’t trust people to this day.
“I did this. I left you alone, defenseless. I have to atone.”
“Then why bring me here, if you didn’t want me to rescue you?”
“Because you scare me. You take chances going off alone, where there’s no help to be found. Can’t you stop?”
“No. I can’t.” Suddenly everything was a blur in tears. “Poppa, it wasn’t your fault. It wasn’t anybody’s fault. Everybody went insane in that sector of space. It-it wasn’t you that killed Momma, not really. Poppa…I forgive you.”
“Thanks, baby. Maybe someday, I can forgive myself. That’s not how samsara works.”
“But…how many lives will you live before it’s done? How will you know?…You’re not even going to remember this life!” “Well, apart from losing you…it’s probably just as well.” His last gift to me was that smile, so broad and proud of his little girl. He stroked my cheeks one last time, then stood towards the darkness that encompassed all but the spotlight shining directly over his bed. “Let’s go,” he nodded to the blue lady.
One hand took his while an upper one on her right flank guided him forward. Both hands then pressed into his mid-back. As Poppa kept walking, his body radiated a soft light like buttercups. In a blink that light intensified to supernova brightness. And then I was left alone, with her.
“Fear not, little vine. Has this face not soothed thee?”
I shook my head, hugging myself. “Will Poppa suffer?”
“Life is suffering, child.”
“That’s Buddhist philosophy, not Hindi.”
“There is a little truth in everything. Now I will show you the way home.”
As she’d done with Poppa, so she did with me, the lower right hand warm and firm in mine while the upper one held onto my bicep. The darkness it appeared bent around her, and she was my beacon to the light.
If that was its true nature. A field of stars orbited beyond the portal we faced. Yet, they were the blackest balls of gas I’d ever witnessed. The whole spinning whirlpool below us could be characterized by its absence of color. “Is that a white hole?” I whispered.
“Umm-hmm. Matter changing form before returning to the universe.”
Her lips were on my ear. Both her upper arms pushed up into my breasts, cobalt blue pythons nestled to the skinsuit’s sky blue. Its supple fabric crinkled while the lower pair cinched snug to my waist. Was it on account of her proximity, spooned skin to skin against my back, that I shook so much? What was the point of this?
A scent of roses, freshly cut, wafted into my nostrils as she answered,
“It was for your benefit as well as his that this has been permtted. This burden of guilt has no place in an atman as pure as thine. Your father has taken the first step toward the cessesion of samsara.”
“Will I ever see him again?”
“Perhaps you have.”
I wriggled around to face her. It’s oddly comforting to have two hands kneading your shoulders, another one massaging your neck while a fourth and fifth hand stroked your cheeks. The shaking soon subsided, and it no longer bothered me that my mother’s face, captured in blue, was smiling back at me. She moved in, cheek to cheek. The sweet oils covering her skin seemed to cling to mine. “You’re gorgeous,” I giggled.
“I’m not scared.”
Lips as soft and moist as fresh flowers captured mine. Her soft nose touched mine, breathing our scents onto each other. My lips tugged on hers as the warmth spread up my chest, my fingers pushing through her night-dark hair. The muscles of her arms expanded, pressing hard to my shoulders, waist, back, one hand slipping between my buttocks. Until finally with a gasp as unexpected as it was relieved, the blue lady peeled her lips longingly from mine.
“Th-thank you,” I grinned. She too smiled, two hands wiping the perspiration from my cheeks. Then with one last face palm, she pushed me into the white void.
…And I tumbled down into the Cancer Muliti-Spectrum Observatory. I actually popped out of a waste chute just as a baby-faced astronomer was dumping the remains of his lunch. An old, familiar voice cried, “Lianna! How’d you get here?”
“Pop…I mean, Professor?” Oh my god, it was him! Before he could say another word I glomped him hard and wouldn’t let go. At least not before he said, “Lhnna?”
I un-mushed him, while he oogle-frowned his wayward adoptee. “Isn’t that your mother’s…I thought that was…? Never mind!” he said, both wiry hands tearing at his scalp. “What in creation were you doing anywhere near a supernova! You could’ve been killed! And what about the radiation levels—the spike in X-ray emissions–!”
“Poppa’s first name was Lee.”
“Not to mention the…uhh?”
“Did you know, Professor?”
In spite of the clipboard slung at his waist, he fidgeted in a less-than-authoritarian manner. “Well, yes, but you never asked and I didn’t want to bring up a painful subject, and you always called me ‘professor’ anyway. So I…well, you see…”
“Can’t you hear in my voice that I’ve always meant it affectionately?”
He shrugged, staring at the floor until I came over to give him another hug. Once I pulled out of that, it was back to business. “Any chance I can get my ship back from the Alexis system?”
“It’s in a stable orbit,” he nodded. “I’d already sent a remote drone to pilot her back here. This is home, after all.” “Yeah,” I admitted. “If any place in the universe can be called home, this would be it. Do you still have Momma’s notebooks?”
The Professor’s eyes shunted left-right. Still, even with no one watching, he was compelled to lower his voice. “My cabin, after hours. Colonel Stubbs always thought those were too dangerous.”
“A military mind’s always a bit conservative. I don’t mind, he was a big softie at…” From across the amphitheater a shrill yap-yap-yap! called my name. Astronomers old and young dodged a little bundle of fur with spindly legs racing across the spotless white floor.
“Maxie!” I cried.
In a flash he’d bolted across the observatory and, thanks to the lower gravity, launched himself into my arms. He was sooo adorable, but I couldn’t risk him on the crazy jaunts I went on, especially with that blondish fur that feathered back… No, they wouldn’t. Wait, who am I kidding? “Sorry, what was that, Professor?”
“I was merely saying she has extensive notes on the concept of samsara. I just thought, with your recent experience…no, that was a case of exceptionally bad timing…”
But I patted his arm, cradling—Maxie, I guess I’ll call you in this life—in my arms. “Keep talking.”