A Killer Job Forces Exes to Reunite in This Queer Sci-Fi Short Story

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 Waking Sleep of a Seething Wound” by dave ring. Enjoy!

by dave ring

Dawn shot a quiver of cirrus that smeared like sunscreen across the sky. Bini had been awake for hours, back aching. She was too old for this shit. Mox still slept like the dead, her snores a regular wheeze.

Hard to imagine Bini had once slept beside that noise every night.

She should wake Mox up, but there didn’t seem any harm in pushing the snooze button a little while longer. Until movement finally flickered through the streaked bay windows below them. Bini peered through the rifle’s scope to find the farmer putting the kettle on. It took all Bini’s grit not to pull the trigger.

Bini nudged Mox and gently covered her mouth when the other woman would have scolded her. “He’s up.”

Professionalism replaced annoyance. “Slide over.”

Bini moved aside without protest. Mox was by far the better shot. And letting her look into the scope for a hard thirty seconds gave Bini a chance to consider the pale brown band of skin on Mox’s finger.

“We good?” Mox asked.

“We’re good.”

“Aight. I’ll be on channel five.”

Bini signaled an affirmative and began her descent.

Every operative in the cabal had a rating handwritten in the top left corner of the first page in their file, opposite the shitty passport photo they took during orientation. The rating stood for their aptitude at interacting with SAPPhO, the subatomic particle phase order. Operatives just called it the void. The first part of the rating was a number between 0 and 100. The second part was a letter.

The number indicated how well the operative could enter the void. The letter indicated how well they manipulated it. Mox’s SAPPhO was 45A. Bini’s was 99C. No one else had a number rating over an 84. Most people could only dip into the void for as long as they could hold their breath underwater. Bini’s record was a half hour. Normally the cabal didn’t let you into the field without at least a B cert, but it was hard to argue with that 99. Sometimes you needed a poorly aimed bazooka more than a sharpshooter.

Weirdly enough, all of the cabal’s voidwalkers were women. Not everyone was a lesbian, but enough were that the acronym felt like one more example of the corporatization of Pride. They also weren’t all cis—confirmed when Mox was cleared for the spinal augmentation procedure—though Bini had been disappointed when she realized there were no nonbinary operatives. It made her doubt the part of herself that had always felt uneasy with womanhood. “I’m barely a girl,” she used to say, and feminine honorifics still made her skin crawl. But it was hard to argue with a gender-linked capacity to slide into the space between atoms the way blood slides into the gaps between floorboards.

Some jobs were like killing deer with a chainsaw, or shucking corn with a mallet. This was one of them. Two of the farmer’s knuckles were on the floor and Bini already had blood coagulating in her eyelashes, but the dumb fuck still wasn’t saying shit. Maybe she was losing her touch.

Harvey on the dials plus Mox in her ear and things felt like old times. Bini was listening yeah but really she was thinking about that night they fought at the mall food court. Before the first split, before they opened things up. Back when it was just them. When Mox had the nerve, in the middle of those cheese steaks, to tell Bini she “never really let her in.”

By the time Bini skinned her knee on the fountain in the middle of the mall, she realized the whole thing between her and Mox was fucked. Mox needed someone to make her feel needed. But Bini had spent her whole life learning how to be enough. All by herself.

Now it was fifteen years since they’d done a job together. Getting pulled in for this one felt like the best parts of being married, without all the noise.

For the seven years they were together, Mox tried to fix their marriage with counseling, crystals, and a short stint as a very uneven polyamorous trio. That moment of clarity underneath the mall’s fluorescent lighting didn’t matter, because Bini kept it to herself. She never found a way to share it in a way that wouldn’t feel like a betrayal. Still, she learned a lot about herself during those years—about communication and trauma and being ace—and as soon as the cabal got big enough to have a second division, Mox pulled the plug and moved to Phoenix. It was the right thing to do, but when Bini told her that, the logic of it made Mox shut down.

Eventually, they’d been apart almost twice as long as they’d been together. Mox’s new wife Freddie was a bassist in a goth cover band and nothing made Bini more green with envy than seeing the videos Mox took standing at the foot of the stage at Freddie’s shows.

Once, late at night, Bini must have watched one of those videos more than a hundred times, entranced by the friction of fret and string alongside the snatch of Freddie’s background vocals, Mox singing along from behind the camera. The next day she had dozens of notifications. Bini’s fingers must have dragged across the keyboard, posting a string of kjnsddjjkjsdnkj beneath the video. Same girl, same, said the first comment, while a drool emoji marked the second and the third.

And as Bini frantically tried to figure out how to delete her post, a little white box appeared on her screen. Mox had clicked the heart button beside her comment. Bini couldn’t bear to delete it, that shred of connection a wispy dandelion seed floating across the vast emptiness of the internet.

“That almost worked,” Bini told Mox on the comm. “It was almost normal. I guess I shouldn’t have been afraid that—”

“You wanna know what your fucking problem is?”

Bini grunted. She wasn’t falling for that.

“I’ll tell you what your fucking problem is.”

Bini knew Mox was punctuating each word with a nail-bitten finger. Harvey coughed on the line but Mox didn’t acknowledge him. “There’s no such thing as normal. And if there was, I don’t want us to be almost normal. I want you to be a seething wound, because that’s what you are.”

“I’m gonna get off this channel,” Harvey said. “Good work, Bini. Nice having you on the team again.”

Mox and Bini breathed back and forth at each other until Mox caved first. “Well shit. Look what you went and did. Now Harvey is gonna be on my ass about bringing you back.”

Bini sniffed. “I have boots more emotionally secure than that boy.”

“You’re not wrong.” Mox laughed. “But that boy is in his late thirties now, old girl.”

Bini almost didn’t mind being called a girl when the word was in Mox’s mouth. But she grimaced in disbelief. “No way. I remember his first job, when he pissed—”

“That’s what I’m saying, Bini. That was seventeen years ago. Since then we’ve—oh.” Something crunched in Bini’s ear, like an egg breaking on the sidewalk. Mox’s voice dropped twenty decibels. “We’ve been made. Sniper, half in the void. Fourteenth floor, against the glare. I’ll hang a thread.”


But she was gone.

For Bini, the void had always been a hot butch at the bottom of a precipice looking up like she was gonna walk all over her. But there were no rewards for her id today. Hearing that silence, knowing that Mox was dead, dropped Bini right in. She skated through walls on fractal waves and didn’t even register the horizon shift when her feet rocked Bini perpendicular up the building opposite Mox’s blind.

Even when the sniper was dealt with, the orbital surface of her skull crumpled in Bini’s hands like a used tissue, Bini stayed in the void. She found the thread Mox had hung on the bullet, and used it to zipline between the two skyscrapers, flinging herself towards this incipient grief, hate building in her like a fire. Bini hated that sniper, she hated whoever set up the farmer, she hated the idea of having to tell Freddie to her face what had happened. Bini hated seeing Harvey like this—he’d already made it back to the blind, salt making tracks down his cheeks.

She’d hold him in a second. When she was ready.

When you die in the void, you leave behind a thin, hollow echo. A sketch. The echo of a person wasn’t much. It’s a neon mirage with a vicious half-life. Mox’s was on the ground, still wide-eyed and annoyed at being offed, eyebrows raising and lowering like a gif.

Bini laid down beside Mox’s staticky outline, even though she might as well have been holding psychic sandpaper. The prickly silence between them made things almost like it used to be. Just one more minute, she told herself.

Just one more minute.

About the Author

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 dave-ring.com or @slickhop on Twitter.

Graphic: Adamant Press

Please visit LIGHTSPEED MAGAZINE to read more great science fiction and fantasy. This story first appeared in the June 2024 issue, which also features work by Varsha Dinesh, Andrea Kriz, Megan Chee, Dominica Phetteplace, Deborah L. Davitt, Oyedotun Damilola Muees, Shanna Germain, 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 here.

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