In this queer science fiction short story, a killer job forces ex-partners to reunite

io9 is proud to present fiction by LIGHTSPEED MAGAZINEOnce a month we feature a story from the current issue of LIGHTSPEED. This month's selection is “The Waking Sleep of a Seething Wound” by Dave Ring. Enjoy!

The waking sleep of a boiling wound
by Dave Ring

The dawn brought a line of cirrus clouds that smeared the sky like sunscreen. Bini had been awake for hours, her back aching. She was too old for this shit. Mox was still sleeping like the dead, her snoring a regular wheeze.

It's hard to imagine that Bini used to sleep next to this noise every night.

She was supposed to wake Mox, but it didn't seem to hurt to press the snooze button a little longer. Until finally, movement flickered through the striped bay windows below them. Bini peered through the rifle's scope and saw the farmer put the kettle on. It took all of Bini's resolve not to pull the trigger.

Bini nudged Mox and gently covered her mouth as the other woman would have scolded her. “He's awake.”

The anger was replaced by professionalism. “Slide over.”

Bini moved aside without protest. Mox was by far the better shot. And by letting her look through the scope for thirty seconds, Bini had the opportunity to examine the light brown strip of skin on Mox's finger.

“Everything okay?” asked Mox.

“It's all right.”

“Okay. I'm on channel five.”

Bini gave an approving signal and began the descent.

Each Cabal agent had a handwritten rating in the upper left corner of the first page of their file, opposite the shabby passport photo they had taken during orientation. The rating represented their proficiency in dealing with SAPPhO, the subatomic phase order of particles. The agents simply 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 agent could penetrate the cavity. The letter indicated how well he manipulated it. Mox's SAPPhO was 45A. Bini's was 99C. None of the others had a rating above 84. Most people could only stay in the cavity for as long as they could hold their breath underwater. Bini's record was half an hour. Normally the Cabal wouldn't let anyone in the field without at least a B certificate, but that 99 was hard to argue with. Sometimes you needed a poorly aimed bazooka more than a sniper.

Oddly, all of the Cabal's voiders were female. Not all of them were lesbian, but enough were that the acronym seemed like another example of the commercialization of Pride. They weren't all cis, either—which was confirmed when Mox was cleared for spinal surgery—though Bini was disappointed to find there were no nonbinary agents. It made her doubt the part of herself that had always been uncomfortable with being a woman. “I'm hardly a girl,” she used to say, and female honorifics still sent goosebumps down her spine. But it was hard to argue against a gender-bound ability to slip into the space between atoms the way blood flows into the gaps between floorboards.

Some jobs were like killing deer with a chainsaw or husking corn with a hammer. This was one of them. Two of the farmer's knuckles were on the ground and Bini already had blood in her eyelashes, but the stupid wanker still wasn't saying shit. Maybe she was starting to lose her senses.

Harvey on the controls and Mox in her ear, and it all felt like old times. Bini was listening, yes, but what she was really thinking about was the night they'd argued in the food court at the mall. Before the first breakup, before they'd made things happen. Back when they were still alone. When, in the middle of those cheesesteaks, Mox had the nerve to tell Bini that she'd “never really let her get close.”

When Bini scraped her knee at the fountain in the middle of the mall, she realized that the whole thing between her and Mox was over. Mox needed someone to make her feel needed. But Bini had spent her whole life learning how to be enough. All on her own.

It had been fifteen years since they had done a job together. Being called in for this job was the best part of marriage, but without all the noise.

In the seven years they were together, Mox tried to save their marriage with counseling, crystals, and a brief stint as a very mismatched polyamorous trio. That moment of clarity under the neon lights of the mall didn't matter, because Bini kept it to herself. She never found a way to share it in a way that didn't feel like a betrayal. Still, she learned a lot about herself during those years — about communication and trauma and about being asexual — and when the Cabal grew big enough to form 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 behind it made Mox shut down.

After all, they had been apart for almost twice as long as they had been together. Mox's new wife Freddie was the bassist in a gothic cover band and nothing made Bini more jealous than seeing the videos that Mox had taken at the side of the stage during Freddie's performances.

One time, late at night, Bini must have watched one of these videos more than a hundred times, mesmerized by the friction of frets and strings next to Freddie's backing vocals while Mox sang along behind the camera. The next day, she had dozens of notifications. Bini's fingers must have glided over the keyboard, typing a series of nsddjjkjsdnkj below the video. The same girl, the samewas the first comment, while a drooling emoji marked the second and third.

And as Bini desperately tried to figure out how to delete her post, a small white box appeared on her screen. Mox had clicked on the heart next to her comment. Bini couldn't bring herself to delete it, that shred of connection floating like a delicate dandelion seed through the vast emptiness of the internet.

“That almost worked,” Bini told Mox over the radio. “It was almost normal. I guess I shouldn't have been afraid that…”

“Do you want to know what your fucking problem is?”

Bini grunted. She wouldn't fall for that.

“Sick tell you, what's your fucking problem.”

Bini knew that Mox was emphasizing every word with a nail-biting finger. Harvey coughed on the line, but Mox ignored him. “There is no such thing than normal. And if there was, then not want us to be almost normal. I want you to be a seething wound, because that's what you are.”

“I'm leaving this channel,” Harvey said. “Good job, Bini. It's good to have you back on the team.”

Mox and Bini argued with each other until Mox gave in first. “Damn it. Look at what you've done. Now Harvey is going to get on my nerves because I want to bring you back.”

Bini snorted. “I have boots that are emotionally safer than that boy.”

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

Bini almost didn't mind being called a girl when Mox used the word. But she pulled a face of disbelief. “No way. I remember his first job when he pissed off -“

“This is what I am sayingBini. 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're made. Sniper, half in the middle of nowhere. Fourteenth floor, against the bright light. I'm hanging up a thread.”


But she was gone.

To Bini, the Void had always been a hot butch at the bottom of a precipice, looking up as if she were about to trample over it. But today there were no rewards for her id. When she heard that silence and knew Mox was dead, she let Bini be in the middle of it. She slid through walls on fractal waves, not even noticing the horizon shift as her feet rocked Bini vertically up the building opposite Mox's blinds.

Even when the sniper was taken out, the eye socket of her skull crumpling in Bini's hands like a used handkerchief, Bini remained in the void. She found the thread Mox had attached to the bullet and used it to dart between the two skyscrapers, throwing herself at that burgeoning grief as hatred rose inside her like a fire. Bini hated that sniper, she hated the one who had set a trap for the farmer, she hated the idea of ​​having to tell Freddie what had happened to his face. Bini hated seeing Harvey like this—he had already made it back to the blind, salt streaks on his cheeks.

She would hold him immediately. If 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 lay on the floor, still wide-eyed and annoyed at being killed, his eyebrows raising and lowering like a GIF.

Bini lay down next to Mox's static outline, even though she might as well have been holding psychic sandpaper. The tingling silence between them made everything seem 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 science fiction writer living in Washington, DC. He is the author of The Hidden Ones (2021, Rebel Satori Press) and numerous short stories. He is also publisher and managing editor of Neon Hemlock Press and co-editor of Amazing Magazine. You can find it online at 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 includes 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 content to be serialized online, or you can purchase the entire issue right now in convenient e-book format for just $3.99, or subscribe to the e-book edition Here.

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