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Distant Deeps by Scott Ennis
SUMMARY: Mercury Spangler meets his soulmate on the fringes of an uncharted galaxy, but the only way to be with her involves taking a risk that could have devastating consequences.
Somewhere near the stardust arm of a galaxy called T19R64G Mercury Spangler sat in his probe-ship, wondering where he had gone wrong. Had he veered left at a critical moment when he should have veered right? Had he ordered sushi on a day he should have ordered sashimi? Was it one of those mornings when he soaked in a tub instead of standing in the shower? The thought of sushi and sashimi, tubs and showers made him smile now, so far away from such things that the distance was not even measured by his ship's computer. Where in the grand scheme of his life plan had he gone wrong? How had he ended up looping from galaxy to galaxy in this bucket of a probe?
Mercury tried to trace the causality back to some origin he could accept, but serendipity seemed to be his life's guiding star. He remembered back to his launch day when he considered naming his probe-ship Serendipity, but such an action would have been a capitulation to haunt him throughout his twenty year journey. Twenty years. And only five years into it. So five years before, Mercury christened his probe Cetus, the whale. And then, like Jonah, he entered its belly and was sealed inside. Certainly that had been a critical juncture. Why hadn't he gone AWOL that morning of his launch? He wouldn't have been the first to have deserted that way.
No. Whatever else he was, Mercury was no coward. He would not run away from something simply out of fear. Perhaps that was his problem. Perhaps if he'd had more fear of things he wouldn't have gone to Luna in the first place. Perhaps . . .
Mercury's reverie was broken by a buzzing alarm which signaled the presence of a Heminger rift in his vicinity. Now there was no time to ponder the causality of events in his life. In order to loop to the next galaxy on his assignment chart, Mercury had to focus on the approaching causes which would enable him to enter the rift at the correct angle and speed. Piloting a probe through a Heminger rift was not an exercise in serendipity; it was a complex calculus which, if you got it wrong, could leave you stranded in the vast empty vacuum of space or land you in the center of a star. Either of those solutions was unacceptable if you wanted your twenty years to count for something. And Mercury did. Sure, he puzzled over the seeming whims of fortune, but he was not suicidal. Even after his six month psych tour back on Kilimanjaro Station, Mercury was no less certain that life was worth living in any condition. One had only to find a purpose in life. And sometimes searching for a purpose had to suffice.
Mercury had never imagined that his life's purpose would be charting galaxies on the fringes of human perception, but here he was, preparing once again to make a loop through a rift, a tear in the fabric of space. It was a job that only three percent of all volunteers eventually filled, and Mercury Spangler was good at it.
It took two days for Mercury and his ship's computer to locate the Heminger rift near a massive red giant star that had the look of clotted blood.