After ripping off her welding helmet and swiping a gloved hand across her grimy forehead, Terra sighed in sweaty relief. Personal protective equipment was oh so necessary but oh so constricting.
Stepping back, she examined her work. It wasn’t the cleanest joint she’d ever welded, but it would hold a few million megaparsecs. Far enough to get to the university in time for Vivi’s conference. Terra would never be able to forgive herself if Vivi missed delivering the keynote speech on account of her old rust bucket of a starship. She rapped a fist against the metal hull—clang!—and grinned. The old girl still had a bit of life in her. Then, more lovingly, Terra reached out to trace the letters her mother had engraved on the vessel’s side when Terra was only fourteen. Star Bound. A fitting name for a homemade starship built by a girl and her mom in the slums of Gaia Nine, a starship that only two people had ever really expected to fly. That was the kind of mom Terra wanted to be. An unstoppable force ready to knock back all the so-called immovable objects life dropped in her own daughter’s path.
After slipping off her insulated gloves, Terra rubbed her midsection absentmindedly. A button, having strained admirably over the past few months to hold the stiff fabric of her jumpsuit around her expanding belly, popped off beneath her fingers. Terra fiddled with the frayed buttonhole.
She wasn’t ready.
A wave of nausea surged upward, through Terra’s stomach and into her chest, where it bubbled and burned. She leaned against the starship and breathed. Maybe she didn’t have to be a fantastic mom. After all, she’d gotten out. Her own mom had made sure of that, snarling past every condescending acquaintance and misguided educator who claimed little girls from backwater planets simply weren’t cut out for the Intergalactic Science and Engineering Academy. Star Bound wasn’t a distant dream anymore but Terra’s daily reality. The nausea drained back down to the pit of her stomach, fizzling to a bearable simmer. Maybe it was ok to just be ok—the corners of Terra’s eyes crinkled ever so slightly—and at least she wasn’t in this adventure alone.
Terra whipped around just in time to see Vivi burst from the underbrush a few meters away, tripping over her own feet as she scrambled toward the landing site. Snatching up her welding torch, Terra darted around the ship, ready to blast whatever beast had dared to terrorize her wife.
But when Vivi stumbled into Terra’s frantic embrace, her eyes, framed by clumps of sopping wet hair, sparkled not with fear but excitement. “Wanna see something incredible?”
Terra shooed a fat insectoid from her nose before grinding her fists against her hips. Her wetsuit stretched tight across her tummy and pinched her tender breasts, which had swelled almost a full cup size larger than the last time she’d gone diving with Vivi—pregnancy hormones were a pain in the, well, boob.
“Hurry in—the water’s fantastic!” Vivi laughed and splashed as if swimming in a chilly, extraterrestrial lagoon at sunset was a real party. And, for Dr. Vivian Huang, academic superstar and author of the textbook on marine astroherpetology, it basically was a party.
A begrudging smile pulled at the corners of Terra’s mouth. She preferred the familiar sweat, grit, and oil of her machine shop, but Vivi’s enthusiasm for fieldwork was too infectious to resist. After closing her eyes and scrunching up her face, Terra stepped tentatively forward. “Huah!” She gasped as her toe broke the water’s surface. “It’s f-freezing.”
“Only when you first get in.”
That was a damn lie.
But when Vivi’s fingers wove comfortably into her own, Terra hardly noticed the cold.
“Missed one.” Vivi tucked a stray ringlet under Terra’s diving cap as the two tread water. “There.” Her eyes, wide with excitement and a tiny twinge of worry, sparkled in the light of double moons. “Sure you feel up to this, dear? I don’t want you overexerting yourself.”
After rolling her eyes, Terra dipped underwater to puff her cheeks full of water, which she then playfully squirted in Vivi’s face. “I’m pregnant, not ill, ya dingus.” Then, before Terra could finish blinking, a splash of cold water broke across her own face.
“I know, I know—but I’ll fuss over you all the same.”
Terra buzzed her lips and then, grinning, dried her eyes on her sleeve. “Fair enough.”
“I promise this won’t take long. Then we can snuggle back in the ship. I’ll brew you some of that ginger tea you love so much.”
Terra grimaced. “You know I only drink that stuff to ward off morning sickness.”
“Then judging by our dwindling supply of chocolate bars, I’d say it’s working a little too well.”
Though Terra made a show of sticking out her tongue, she reveled in the way the sunburnt freckles on Vivi’s nose wrinkled when she laughed.
“Ready?” Vivi held out a small packet of bright blue gel. “We don’t need to go deep—promise. Just a few meters. Nothing dangerous for you. Or for baby girl.”
Terra accepted the proffered packet and then gently placed it under her tongue. The water-soluble outer membrane dissolved within seconds. Terra inhaled, grimacing as the breathing jelly filled her lungs. Then she thrust her face into the water to suck in a few short breaths. Satisfied, she flashed Vivi a thumbs up.
Together, they dived.
With two moons shimmering from above and the glow of phosphorescent weeds below, the lagoon was surprisingly well lit. Kicking deftly to the bottom, Vivi scooped up a handful of the glowing leaves. After tying a few around her own wrists, she draped the rest around Terra’s shoulders like a shawl and planted a kiss on her forehead. Then, with an effortless backstroke, Vivi zipped nimbly ahead.
Terra followed, flailing her arms and legs. She grinned. So what if “intoxicated frog” was her only swim stroke? It was a nice change from the pregnant “penguin waddle” she’d begun developing on land. Smiling serenely, she swept her arms in broad, graceful strokes and—thnk!—head-butted a rock.
After straightening up to rub her head, Terra scanned the lagoon floor for Vivi. She spied her a few meters away, hovering at the edge of a wide trench. The glowing reeds tied to Vivi’s wrists twirled through the water like dancing ribbons as she gestured excitedly downward. Terra flutter-kicked over. Curling her fingers over the edge, she peered down into…darkness. A lot of darkness. Terra shot Vivi a raised eyebrow. Winking cryptically, Vivi unwrapped a reed from her wrist, knotted it, and then dropped the glowing ball into the trench. It drifted downward, illuminating the pockmarked rock walls until—Terra saw it.
Coils. Writhing coils. Writhing coils weaving into even more writhing coils, a seemingly endless mass, spinning, winding, undulating. For an instant, the glisten of white teeth and golden eyes flashed before burrowing out of sight. A shiver threatening to slip down Terra’s spine but she held her shoulders rigid. The creepy, crawly creatures of the universe’s oceans were decidedly not her cup of tea. But Vivi simply adored them. A slender arm slipped around Terra’s shoulder and she could feel her wife practically vibrating with excitement.
As their eyes met, Vivi rolled her fingers in front of her face in the sign for “Beautiful.” Terra curled her lips into what she hoped was more smile than grimace. Vivi signed more vigorously. “Beautiful—beautiful.” Then, after a pause, she clarified with a thumb against her chin, “Momma. Beautiful momma.”
Terra’s heart fluttered. She squinted back down into the darkness. Vivi’s phosphorescent reed ball had long faded, presumably crushed within those churning coils. Terra slipped a weed from her shoulders before smashing it into a clumsy wad. With a slightly trembling hand, she released the wad. It spiraled down, down, down as it fell. There it was again, the snake-like sea monster, and…there! Vivi’s fingernails dug into Terra’s shoulders as a red, distended balloon snaked into view. The bulge pulsed like a heartbeat and, from within, dark shadows wriggled.
Vivi shook Terra’s shoulders before signing, “Beautiful momma, like you,” and beamed.
Terra cocked her head a moment but then, cheeks flushing, buried her face in her hands. Her body shook as fat bubbles of laughter slipped past her lips. Under any other circumstances, she would have resented being compared to a giant writhing sea monster full of giant writhing sea monster spawn, but coming from Dr. Vivian “Giant Writhing Sea Monsters Are My Passion” Huang, that was actually a heartfelt compliment. No wonder Vivi had been so eager to drag her pregnant wife on an underwater monster observation mission.
After recovering from her giggling fit, Terra reached up to twine her fingers into Vivi’s. Vivi squeezed Terra’s hand tightly and leaned her head against Terra’s shoulder. And so, hand-in-hand, they lay on the precipice’s edge, taking turns dropping down weed-balls to observe the monstrous mother-to-be.
After a few guttural coughs, Terra spit the last of her breathing jelly onto the shore. As the gel beaded, sparkling amongst the grains of sand as electric blue spheres, she drew a deep, satisfying breath of air.
Beside her, Vivi peeled off her diving cap. “It’ll be a live birth.” Her fingers fluffed her short black hair. “Like some of the ancient marine reptiles of Gaia One. And any day now by the looks of it. Oh gosh—” She twirled on tippy-toes with her arms flung wide before flopping onto her back in the sand. “—what I wouldn’t give to stay and observe her.”
Terra twisted her head from side to side, thumping the heel of her hand against one ear, then the other. She felt…ok. Not great. But ok. Try as she might, she couldn’t get the image of the sea monster’s bulbous red belly and writhing black spawn from her mind. Perhaps because the chilly swim had woken up the writhing monster in her own belly. Kick. Kick. Kick. It was a wonder those thunderous little feet hadn’t yet burst through her thin-stretched skin. What must that sea monster feel with at least half a dozen mini monsters bashing against that taut red balloon belly? And how strange was it to empathize with an extraterrestrial sea monster?
“So,” she said, stretching before plopping down onto the sand next to Vivi, “let’s stay.”
“Can’t.” Vivi flailed her arms and legs like a toddler in the throws of a tantrum. “Conference.”
Vivi’s eyes widened, almost hopeful, but then her lips curled back in a grimace. “Terra, I’m the keynote speaker. You can’t skip a conference when you’re the keynote speaker.”
“Lucy can give the speech,” said Terra with a shrug. Lucy. Dr. Lucille Burns. Vivi’s former graduate student and current post-doc. “It’d be a good opportunity for her. Besides which, between all your faculty meetings, grant writing, and freshman Introduction to Biology office hours, she’s probably done more of the actual work for the paper you’re presenting.” She smirked. Vivi didn’t. “Only joking about that last bit—I for one should know how many ungodly hours you spend holed up in your lab.”
“It’s not that.” Vivi still wasn’t smiling. Instead, she stroked her chin between her thumb and forefinger.
“It’s just—well, I did actually already contact Lucy to prep her for the speech. You know, after we….” She spiraled a hand downwards while whistling and then pounding her fist into the sand. “Just in case you couldn’t fix the ship in time—even though of course I never doubted you’d fix the ship in time. You know that old, er, seasoned ship inside-out and upside-down.” She paused, thinking, then rolled onto her side and batted her eyes in an obnoxious imitation of casual. “I mean, I’m sure you’ve already fixed the ship, haven’t you, my darling?”
Terra smiled with her eyes and frowned with her mouth. “Actually, dear, I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that. The repairs simply haven’t gone to plan. I expect they’ll take a few more days, maybe even a few more weeks.”
“Good heavens! That’s simply awful news.” Vivi grinned. “I cannot see how I could possibly make the conference now.”
“Such a shame. I do know how you were looking forward to those many, many hours crammed into lecture halls with people who’ve spent more time socializing with globs of algae in tests tubes than with actual human beings.”
“I happen to be one of those people, thank you very much, and I was actually looking forward to it.” Vivi squirmed closer to Terra and nuzzled her face into the crook of Terra’s neck. “But,” she whispered, “I’m looking even more forward to some impromptu field research with my blossoming family.” While nibbling the lobe of Terra’s ear, Vivi cradled an arm around Terra’s stomach, which jiggled as the baby let out another massive kick. “Oh!” Vivi shot up, her eyes wide. “She kicked! Baby kicked!”
Terra rolled lazily onto her side and propped her head up with her arm. “She’s been kicking. My innards are probably all black and blue.”
“Our little martial artist,” cooed Vivi, resting her ear against Terra’s stomach. Terra’s fingers curled almost instinctively into Vivi’s short hair. As she teased the smooth strands between her fingers, Vivi tilted her head to gaze admiringly up. “You’re gonna be a great mom. You know that, right?”
Terra paused, chewing her lower lip. “Eh. I’ll be ok.”
“Not ok. Great. You’re gonna be great.”
Something about the earnestness in Vivi’s eyes stilled Terra’s protest. Instead, after a brief pause and a flash of teeth, she corrected, “We’re gonna be great.”
Vivi lifted her head and then wriggled up to plant a kiss on Terra’s forehead. Then one on each cheek. And, lastly, a nice sloppy wet one on her lips. “Yeah,” she murmured. “Yeah, we are.”
After a deep, contented sigh, Vivi and Terra turned their gazes upward. There would be a lot of work in the coming weeks—contacting Vivi’s graduate students, setting up a base camp, arranging shipment for all of the necessary equipment—but right now, all Terra wanted to do was lie her on this extraterrestrial beach, limbs intertwined with her wife’s, and gaze at the twinkling stars above.