A Mari Ad Astra

By dave ring In Proton Reader One

What did becoming a myth feel like?

It felt like 


Nothing that the human body could contain.

It felt like


Everything Estreia felt now: the cold blackness of the void slapping on her usual aches like aloe on scalded skin. It felt like impossibility; how could she take up so much space, or know the feeling of solar wind caressing improbable scales? How could her tail stretch out in a miles-long streak? But it was possible. It felt like this. 

Now, Estreia knew that she had never been merely human. 

And she knew that she was hungry.

Thirty minutes before: The Kirby rumbled and nine of the eleven sensor readings flashed red. Estreia pulled the covers higher over her head and moaned. Her feet ached and her skin itched. She refused to look at any of the monitors. It was all so unfair—visiting this system had been all she’d wanted for years and as soon as she talked Jackson and Cip into going with her, a sudden fluctuation in the star’s mass put their spectral emissions way off the charts. Now the Kirby’s stardrive was a sitting duck.

And it was all her fault.

Estreia’s comm buzzed, but before she could decline it a third time, her cabin door whizzed open and Jackson stood at the threshold. All six and a half feet of him, plus two inches of thick, unruly hair that his momma would tell him to brush if she could see him.

“If you’re here, who’s at the helm?” Estreia blinked up at him. 

Jackson scowled. “Darling, what does it matter? Our radiation nullifiers are almost fried and that star is about to turn into a bag of angry cats.” 

“But is Cip still working on the—”

“They’re doing their best.” Jackson’s tone didn’t brook much argument. 

Estreia rubbed the heels of her palms into her eyes. Every part of her hurt. She was used to her legs refusing to function, but when everything ached at once, it took so much effort just to think, to focus. She couldn’t even eat. She’d spent years dreaming about returning to this system. And to what end? “You two should never have come with me. If it weren’t for me, they’d be thrifting. Or smoking. You’d be in some delightful hooker’s bed at Wonderland.” 

“This again.” Jackson rolled his eyes and abandoned the doorway to crouch by Estreia’s bed. “E, come on. Bringing you back here was the deal. And you couldn’t have known the system was unstable. What were the odds? Besides, I have never been in a courtesan’s bed that you were not also in.”

He wasn’t wrong. It had been Estreia who dragged him to Wonderland in the first place, introduced him to her favorites: sweet Dustin with the small hips and the furry ass, Persimmon and her bountiful curves. Still, she didn’t buy that all this was just bum luck. 

The tenth sensor reading went from green to crimson. Every klaxon on the ship sounded for an eardrum-scathing moment and then abruptly stopped.

Estreia almost laughed. “Cip hates those damn alarms.”

The corner of Jackson’s mouth turned up. “We should tell them to come in here with us until…you know. Better to be together.”

Part of her didn’t want to share the moment with anyone else, but Jackson was right. Cip was family. She nodded and tapped her comm. But now it was Estreia’s turn to be ignored. “They’re not answering.”

Jackson closed his eyes and nodded, distracted by one of the monitors. “What do you think that is, E?” 

Estreia levered herself up from the bed with the utility straps on the ceiling and carefully lowered herself onto her chair. 

“Darling, put those guns away, I’m trying to focus. You see this scan?” 

Estreia snorted, rubbing her muscled arms self-consciously, and then used the controls on her chair to swivel the monitor her way. There was the Rekka Star, taking up most of the frame. Prominences of radiation and monstrous stellar winds rendered the screen fuschia and teal. But where Jackson tapped his finger, a white ribbon pirouetted across the screen in real time like the mark of a figure skater across a pond. 

“I have no idea,” she said. 

Cip burst into the room, a flurry of bungee cords and wrenches. “I know how to get us out of here!”

Jackson stood up. “How?”

They wrung their hands. “One of us needs to reposition the solar hood. If we’re quick, we’ll be able to ride the emissions out of the system.”

“But that’d be suicide.” Jackson looked incredulous. “Our skin suits can’t sustain that much radiation.” 

Estreia felt purpose alloy itself to her bones. “I’ll do it.”

“Darling, you can’t—”

“I’ll do it,” she said again. “Besides, if we’re dying either way, I wanna feel weightless one more time before I go.”

Estreia wasn’t alone. That graceful ribbon on the monitor—beside her in the void—who’d danced beside her in a double helix around the warmth of Rekka, her hair like a nebula, her skin like a starlit shadow—where… 

She couldn’t focus. The hunger burned now. Worse than her usual pains, worse than the tail of inexplicable light bursting from her core. 

What’s your name?

Estreia spun, dodging plasma within the corona. There—

I’m Kpakpa. You need to eat, she said. In her mind, through space, Estreia didn’t know, but it didn’t matter. You must be hungry.

Yes, she replied. But what do I eat?

Kpakpa dove through space at an incredible speed, the white blur of her tail looping around the Rekka star. She coasted on a pulse of the solar wind, face alight with the joy of movement. Across the miles, still, Kpakpa spoke to her: Dinner’s right here. Piping hot.

Jackson stood between Estreia and the airlock. She’d already gotten the suit on without his help, but she needed him to operate the panel. It wasn’t designed for solo operation; how would one get back in? Felt ironic, considering the circumstances. 

“You need to give me this,” Estreia said, for the fourth time. “You can’t be the savior this time. I got us here. It was my damn past we were chasing. It’s my turn to save you. And you need to fly the ship.”

Jackson blew out air. “Like you couldn’t fly the Kirby with your eyes closed.”

“Then why aren’t you the one putting on a suit?”

Jackson grunted like he’d been punched in the gut. “You know I—”

“Barely know the difference between a wrench and a screwdriver?” Estreia pushed herself out of the chair, ignoring the pain shooting through her shins and emanating up her back. She needed to look rock solid for long enough to convince him. “You’re not in control. And you’re going to lose something, yeah. But if you don’t let me do this, you’re going to lose everything, and the world will lose you and Cip. So double check my helmet fastenings and do your damn job.” 

All bravado. She was scared shitless of dying. But she was even more scared that her dumb obsession would be the death of the two she loved most in the universe.

It took everything in her power not to collapse while he sidled around her and ran his big knuckles over the seals. And then even more than that when he kissed the clear plasteel dome of her helmet.
“I love you,” Jackson said.

“I know,” Estreia replied. Then she grinned. “I love you, too. Now go push that damn button.”

Dumb luck got them into this. Maybe it would get them out. 

Time to roll the dice.

Kpakpa held Estreia’s hand and they dove into the rough eddies of Rekka’s chromosphere. The echoes of her pain felt far away. Movement had rarely felt like this for her before: a simple joy, instead of a task to accomplish or endure. Something about the motion reminded her of Cip, and she tried to conjure their face as she fumbled for words to describe the way that they moved through space with neither wind nor propulsion. 

For a moment, she wished earnestly for the universe to be kind to them, and to Jackson, but that was all the intention she had to muster for anything other than her wild flight, her careening plunge through plasma and void. 

Estreia sliced through the explosive brightness of Rekka’s wild corona, buffeted and already hot inside her suit. Immediately after, she turned off the suit’s audio. Cip’s instructions weren’t difficult to follow; she didn’t need any more distractions from what she needed to do. Two cuts with a molecular saw, a rotation, and a bit of soldering was all it took to reverse the solar hood. She barely needed the holo-guide, which was good, considering all the interference. 

She could feel the change in the ship’s engines almost immediately. Estreia let herself notice the numbness in her lower limbs, the shadows in her vision. The relief that ran through her must also have wiped out whatever adrenaline had been holding her together. Her eyeball started twitching like she’d had a dozen espressos; this was only the beginning of the ataxia. As the engines got more juice, Kirby’s second sensor array lit back up and Estreia realized that Jackson and Cip were probably still watching her on the monitors. 

Panic shot through her—what if they blew their chance on survival by trying to rescue her? It would ruin everything. Before she could change her mind, Estreia detached her tether and pushed off the ship’s hull towards Rekka’s turbulent glow. She gave herself a bit of a spin, enough that she could somersault away from the ship with a jaunty wave. “Go, damn you.” When the Kirby disappeared with a shudder, she thought it was just a new flaw in her vision, but no, they were really gone.

This was it, then. Just her, space, and the fire of the sun her ship had been found beside, all those years ago. 

She tried not to mind. At least she didn’t have gravity grinding down half the nerves in her body.  This was the feeling that made her join the crew, after Jackson paid off her indentured years on Libertalia. There were worse ways to go.

What are we? Estreia asked Kpakpa as they pierced the throbbing photosphere to the star’s convection layer, all that remained between them and Rekka’s heart. 

What does it matter? she replied, nearly singing with bliss at the speed of their descent.

Estreia thought about it. Something held her back from revelry. It just does, Estreia said, holding out her finger to slice a line through a wave of whitehot plasma.

We are myth! Kpakpa cried out. We are legend! From the sea to the stars. And together, we are two queens of the endless black sea. The galaxy is ours, and we owe it nothing.

And we are weightless, Estreia added silently to the chorus. Was it this legacy that drew her back to the Rekka Star? That called out to her over all those years on Libertalia while she was barely eking out a living. 

Girl, you come on strong, Estreia said. I like that.

Kkakpa took Estreia’s other hand, her long tail wrapping around hers. Estreia realized then that they weren’t merely swimming through the star’s energy—they were absorbing it. And as they took it into themselves, they grew larger, and their tails longer, yes. Estreia was sure she’d dwarf the Kirby if it were to return, even if there was little point of reference at this point. As they fed, Rekka’s violent flares grew quieter, its mass less erratic. And yet, Estreia’s hunger grew no less voracious. 

Estreia had never really lived without the tug of inevitability pulling on her. She slid her long, brilliant tail free from Kkakpa’s coils and pulled the other mermaid’s face to hers for a kiss. Whatever this new life was, she wasn’t going to waste it, or leave it to chance. All or nothing, it was hers.

dave ring is a queer writer of speculative fiction living in Washington, DC.  He is the author of The Hidden Ones (2021, Rebel Satori Press) and numerous short stories. He is also the publisher and managing editor of Neon Hemlock Press, and the co-editor of Baffling Magazine. Find him online at www.dave-ring.com or @slickhop on Twitter.

Proton Reader One

Welcome to Proton Reader
A foreword by Sami Lawson

Suck It Up
Flash fiction by Claire McNerney

A Mari Ad Astra
A short story by dave ring

Of Infinite Ends
A short story by Emily M. Dietrich

The End of Forever
A novelette by Amanda Cecelia Lang