The way I miss Esther is a slow-spreading bruise. It started in my belly, and every day, it spreads further across my solar plexus. If it had bloomed across my skin, I would sink my thumb into the center of it, press until the venous blue deepened into black. I would watch the color change with satisfaction, knowing that it would fade with time.
I do not have enough time for it to fade.
I take shallow breaths, trying not to feed the ache, trying not to cough. I breathe as little as I can, but it’s never enough. There is no escape for me. Esther’s bunk is as empty as every other berth in the ship.
I should hurt for all of those lost souls. But it is Esther’s bunk that is emptiest.
No one thought to rouse me from stasis until half of the crew was already gone. I woke in my pod, seized tight by overwhelming terror, thrashing hard against the soft webbing that restrained me. I was in a coffin of thick metal and fogged glass, and stopped thrashing only when the recording started. My own voice, reminding me of where I was, guiding me through breath and prayer. It’s the recording that plays in every stasis pod prior to unlocking and release; the engineers thought that waking to a high priest’s intonation would help with the transition from deep stasis to consciousness.
“It’s normal to panic,” the recorded me said, the pitch of my voice higher than it sounds inside my head. “This feeling is normal. The Infinite Void contains space for every piece of you, including your fear. Trust in the Infinite Void.”
The cue worked. My lips started to form the familiar shapes of prayer. Trust in the Infinite Void, as the Infinite Void has trusted in you. From the Void were you created, and to the Void you shall return. I whispered the creed as the needles that had taken root in my arms and spine retracted into the walls of the pod. The webbing over my hips and shoulders loosened and dropped to a pool around my ankles, and the door to my pod opened with a crack and a hiss of incoming air. I remained inside with the door open until I had finished the prayer: For all is the Void, and the Void is All. Amen.
I wake in the night with the phantom of an itch on the flat of my tongue. I swallow hard, again and again, until it’s gone. I kneel at the edge of my bed and pray until the desire to cough has passed.
It will be hours before I can sleep again, and there’s so much to do. When I pull my robes on, they’re still warm from the autoclave. I walk to the airlock chapel and go through the motions of a morning service, even though there is no one to drink the unreclaimed water I consecrate to the void. There are barrels and barrels of it in the hold, water from real springs on the planet we left behind, water that came from an unending cycle of atmosphere and earth, water that was not distilled from shower drainage or urine. Enough barrels for nine rotating high priests to anoint and baptize and bless four thousand souls over the course of two hundred years of spaceflight—but, of course, things didn’t work out that way. So there are at least a hundred barrels of holy water, just for me.
I drink a mouthful every morning in the empty chapel as I perform a service to the barren pews. I flick an aspergillum into the chapel’s vacuum chamber, and I pray as I unseal the chamber to release the vapor into space. I dip my fingertips into a glazed clay bowl, and I brush holy water over the throats and temples of the dead, over and over again until my fingers wrinkle and the faces run together and the prayers of release begin to feel like nonsense syllables, animal noises emerging from someone else’s throat.
There are too many barrels of water in the hold, and not nearly enough time for me to use them all.
When my predecessor coughed up his first feather, it was Esther who demanded they wake me. She had been out of stasis for a month, woken earlier than scheduled so that she could attend her wife’s funeral. Her wife, who had been the last doctor on the ship. After the funeral service, the captain had asked Esther if she thought her bioengineering degree made her close enough to medical staff. If she could fill in.
A month after the funeral, the high priest who came before me walked into the sickbay with a squat white feather in his palm, and Esther didn’t bother waiting for his condition to progress. She ordered me awake, and when I emerged from my pod, she was waiting with a glass of water and a set of robes.
I smiled when I saw her. It took her a few seconds to smile back, as if she had to remember how to perform the maneuver.
“Things are moving fast around here, Judith,” she said, walking me to my berth. My legs felt far from my body. “You’re going to be the only high priest on board within a week.”
“The only one out of stasis? But we’re supposed to work in teams of three…?” My voice was creaky from disuse. I drank some water, felt it work down my throat until it settled, cold in my belly.
Esther shook her head. “No, not the only one out of stasis.” She wouldn’t meet my eyes. “The only one left alive.”
I hear my own voice every time I open another stasis pod, cycling through that soothing script, trying to help guide people who can’t hear a word of it: It’s normal to panic.
The pods were the only sensible place to store the bodies, once the deaths started coming too fast for the high priest that came before me. He didn’t have time to perform funerary rites; they were dropping too quickly. It was last rites only, a blessing before their last hard-won breaths ran out, enough to commend them to the Void. By the time I was awake, there were a thousand corpses in the stasis pods—I was the only living soul in my quadrant. By the time I was alone, there were more than three thousand waiting to be released to the Void.
Every morning after service, I unlock eight pods. I eat breakfast as they cycle through the thirty-minute unlocking and decompression routine, watching the glass front of each pod slowly transition from frosted to clear. I load eight corpses onto a chain of medicarts that I’ve linked together with zip ties. The lead medicart is programmed to follow me, and we file slow and stately down the long series of hallways that run between the stasis chamber and the chapel. My parishioners follow me, and we take the journey silent as a vow.
Eight is the most I can do in a day. Each one takes an hour in all, if I don’t stop to cry: anointing, prayers, more anointing, more prayers. Then, finally, release into the Void. I tried to do ten in a day, once, but I got too tired and the skin started to peel from my fingertips from the anointing.
So I only made it to nine. Pyotr—a fifteen-year-old, apprenticed in life to the ships’ chief of engineering. He was the one I couldn’t release that day. I left his corpse on his medicart in the chapel overnight. When I returned in the morning to finish my work, he had changed: A crest of white feathers had erupted from his gaping mouth, spilled down over his chest and bloomed wide enough to cover his face. They were as soft as vapor and as white as a dying star.
I don’t leave anyone out of stasis anymore. Eight a day, that’s all I can do. Eight stasis pods, eight souls. Eight airlock cycles. I do not skip days.
There is no time for me to skip days.
I eat my breakfast in front of the stasis pods every morning. I eat, and I wait, and I do not cough.
Esther was exhausted, but she wouldn’t admit it. We were in her berth, drinking bootleg gin one of the engineers had brewed under his bunk, and I told her that she looked tired, and she laughed at me.
“Tired? Who has time to be tired anymore?” She shook her head and tapped the rim of her cup against mine twice before drinking, a habit from planetside all-nighters. Drinking to get her through finals, drinking to get me through ordination exams. Her smile was different now than it had been then. It was wry and bitter, a smile that she put on as a joke—imagine if someone could smile, it said. Imagine a person like that.
Of course her smile had changed. We were drinking to get her through watching all of her patients die. We were drinking to get me through hearing all of their confessions, blessing them, and sending them into the arms of the Void. It was all we ever did anymore: We watched people die, and we put them into stasis to be dealt with later.
I tapped my cup against hers twice in return and drank. The moonshine was potent and terrible. It went down hot and I choked on it before I was able to swallow. When I looked up at Esther, her eyes were wide and furious.
“It was just the gin,” I rasped. “I was just choking on the gin.”
“Have you been coughing?” she whispered, her jaw clenched tight around a panic that she wouldn’t let herself feel. “Tell me the truth.”
“No,” I said. “Not at all. I would tell you. I promise.” I reached out and rested my hand on her wrist, and tried not to notice how she flinched when my skin touched hers. “Hey, really. I promise. We tell each other everything, right? No secrets.”
She stared at me hard for a long time before answering. “No secrets.”
The ship felt claustrophobic when it was full of people, but with everyone in stasis pods—save for me and my eight daily charges—it echoes with emptiness. I wear footpaths between my berth and the chapel and the canteen and the stasis chambers. On the first day that I was alone, I visited other parts of the ship. The engine room, the research lab, the escape pod bay, the nursery. But the emptiness is much too harrowing. I should be comfortable with it, but this isn’t the emptiness of the Void. It isn’t an emptiness that stretches wide with boundless space for infinite compassion.
It’s an emptiness that crowds too close.
Not with the ghosts of the dead—those souls belong to the Void, even before I release them. No, that would be easy. Instead, the halls are crowded with memories of Esther. The way she’d stare into the nursery, watching the babies sleep with a half-smile on her face, and the way she smashed half the lab when her hundredth ham-fisted attempt at a cure failed. The places we used to sit together, watching people walk by. The places she’s supposed to be.
So I don’t go to those places anymore. I breathe shallow, and I try not to look at all the places where she’s not. I miss her, pure and whole, and I don’t want to let that sour into an angry thing. I don’t want to let it rot. Not yet.
I have not opened Esther’s stasis pod. I know that when I do, the anger will rise up in me like a wing, and I won’t be able to contain it anymore. It won’t be righteous fury at injustice; it will be childish petulance at unfairness, a foot-stomping tantrum about the things that have been taken from me.
I am saving Esther’s pod for last. On the last day, her pod will be the only one I open.
On that day, I will finally have time for anger.
It started in the children and the elderly. Of course it did. That’s what Esther told me when she finally told me what had happened: Of course it took them first. She had been in stasis for the first month, so she didn’t see the beginning. By the time she woke up, most of the children were in the Void with stunted wings where their lungs were supposed to be. Most of the older residents of the ship, too—people who had started the journey young, who had opted out of stasis for the middle leg of the journey, who had wanted to end their days in the Void anyway. They were gone, too.
Esther had missed the beginning of things, but she read the logs of every dead medical officer, their accounts of the sudden sweep of disease through the ship. The last one—Esther’s wife—recorded her own symptoms in earnest detail, all the way up until her death. She described the way the cough started as a tickle and built to a heaving, retching, uncontrolled thing. She described the sensation of feeling a feather float from the back of her throat, of feeling the quill tap against the back of her front teeth.
That was the worst part, Esther told me one night over more of that awful gin, one of the nights after we’d stopped bothering to pour it into cups. She had patients in the medbay, coughing, coughing, coughing, and then—she paused at this part and closed her eyes, her fist tight around the neck of the repurposed machine-oil bottle. “They stop coughing,” she whispered. “They stop coughing and their eyes get all big and confused, and they reach into their mouth, and they pull it out. Like a magic trick.”
I nodded and held out my hand for the bottle, because I’d seen the magic trick, too. She knew I’d seen it. She just needed to say it out loud. She needed to put words to how awful it was to watch someone draw a full, lush plume of white from between their lips, the first of what would certainly be dozens. No one had coughed up fewer than forty feathers before finally suffocating on their own down. The feathers should have been wet, covered in mucus, crumpled—but no. They were gorgeous, wafting things, light as spun sugar. They were beautiful.
“I wish we could leave,” Esther had mumbled that night, her head pillowed on her arms, one hand still clutching the half-empty bottle. Her words were slurred with drink and sleep, and she sounded as small as the girl I’d met back when I’d never had a best friend before. Back before I knew how a best friend could change the entire shape of my life, of my dreams. Back before we’d decided to visit the Void together. “I wish we could break the fugging quarantine and just… go.”
“I know,” I’d said, tucking a blanket around her shoulders. “But we can’t. You know we can’t. The risk is too high.”
“But,” she murmured, and she trailed off into the deep quiet of sleep without finishing her objection.
I slept in her bed that night, slept with my boots on. She didn’t need me there, but I didn’t want to go. I didn’t want to walk back to my own silent berth. I listened to her steady, clear breathing as I lay awake, my head on her pillow, and I prayed to the Void. An impossible prayer—but then, the Void has infinite room for impossibility. Let her live, I prayed, my fingers crooked into the shape of a new-formed nebula. I could not make myself pray for my own life, but praying for Esther was as easy as breathing. Let her survive this. Let her make it out of here alive.
The quarantine is never going to be over, of course. The captain made sure of that, before he feathered. He told me that he was going to do it—that he was going to contact our destination planet and tell them about the disease, tell them that our ship wasn’t safe. He told me with a stun-baton on his hip, his hands braced on the table. He was ready for me to react poorly. He was ready to subdue me if I did.
Things were happening faster every day; we had gone from fifty to twenty to five in a matter of days, and everyone, save Esther and I, had started to cough. The ship was cashed, the captain said, his eyes exhausted. He coughed, hard and long and brutal, into a handkerchief. We couldn’t risk bringing this thing planetside, he told me. We needed to make a decision.
“Would you like me to pray with you about it?” I asked. He shook his head, paused, and nodded.
“I don’t need a prayer for guidance,” he rasped. “I need a prayer for forgiveness.”
So I prayed with him. We bowed our heads and closed our eyes, and I asked the Void to grant us peace as we accepted the infinite embrace of eternal drift. I asked for rest, and for a gentle passing for those of us who remained. I asked for enough time to release every soul into the Void. I asked for forgiveness for the ways in which we had failed each other.
By the time I said amen, the captain had a feather between his fingers.
He tucked it into his handkerchief. “Thank you,” he whispered, his voice hoarse from the work of coughing up his first feather. “You’re the first I’ve told.”
“Who’s next?” I asked, standing. I wished I could give him more guidance, more prayer, a blessing—but he only had so much time to talk to the remaining crew, to file his last captain’s log, to set up the Safe Distance broadcast that the ship would emit until the day it disintegrated and became dust in the Void. He could not afford to waste any of that time on worry or guilt, not when there was so much to do.
“Will you send Esther in?” he asked. I nodded. As I left, I heard him clear his throat once, then twice. I closed the door on the sound of him beginning to cough again in earnest. When I rounded the corner, Esther was there, waiting. I took her hands and closed my eyes. She squeezed my fingers tight and leaned her forehead against mine.
“He’s doing it, right?” she whispered, her breath sweet with the candy lozenges she’d taken to tucking under her tongue. “He’s locking us into drift?”
I squeezed her fingers back. I didn’t need to answer. She already knew.
I must not cough. I have so much work to do—still at least four hundred souls left to release into the void, at least fifty days before I can let it begin. I can feel the weight in my chest, growing every day. I keep thinking of the old riddle. Which weighs more: a kilo of carbon or a kilo of feathers? I inhale around the heaviness, little sips of air, as small as I can. The impossible part, of course, is sleep, when my breath gets deep and even. Twice now I’ve woken in the night with the beginning of a cough in my throat. The compulsion to let my itching lungs scratch themselves raw is a powerful, animal thing, roaring and urgent, and it takes everything I have to resist it.
Mouthfuls of water. Slow, cautious breathing. I can’t bring myself to use Esther’s lozenges.
Missing her is the only thing harder than breathing.
At first, I thought she’d killed herself. I had half-expected it. The captain had lasted for five days after his first feather; I’d found him on the floor of the engine room, his mouth full of pinion feathers. The other two survivors were a couple, both teachers—they sealed themselves airtight into their berth and died in each other’s arms, gone together. Esther had helped me drag them into their stasis pods. With them gone, she and I were the last two left, neither of us infected as far as we could tell.
That night, with all the corpses locked away, Esther and I drank all the gin we could swallow and made horrible, maudlin, crass jokes about the isolated years to come. We planned a half-dozen mass-funerals, a week of working together to load corpses into the airlock and mist them with holy water before sending them into the void en masse. We planned the life we’d have, on a ship with more supplies than we could possibly use before we, too, became one with the Void.
“It’s just us now,” she said. “Roommates again after all these years. Who would have guessed?”
“Me and you, kid,” I slurred, tapping the bottom of my bottle twice against hers. “Me and you and the Infinite Void.”
“Does the Void ever answer you?” she asked, dropping suddenly into a state of drunken gravity. “Have you asked it why we haven’t gotten sick yet?”
“The Void answers, uh. In its time and in its way,” I replied, struggling to remember the answer. I knew that was the right answer, but was it really? I shook my head, trying to rid myself of the spasm of doubt. This wasn’t the time for fear. That time had passed.
That night, it was Esther who tucked a blanket around me. I slept deeper and harder than I had in the two months since stasis, my spine bent into a deep arch over the table, my cheek pressed to the empty gin bottle.
When I woke, sweating and heavy-skulled, there was a message written on the surface of the table in black permanent marker. Esther’s handwriting, looping and even.
I’m sorry, but I can’t do this anymore, it said. I’ve decided to trust in the Void. Please don’t forgive me.
At first I thought she’d killed herself. I searched the ship for her body, increasingly frantic, wondering how long ago she’d written that note. She’d written it while I slept, written it right next to me, how long had I been asleep? I ran through the berths and into the engine room. I checked her stasis pod. I tore open cupboards, peered into vents. Anywhere she might have hidden herself away to die.
The answer was, of course, in the last place I looked.
The escape pod bay.
I thought to check there, to see if she’d tucked herself into a pod. Someplace that would seal shut, so I wouldn’t have to deal with her body if I didn’t want to. That was the kind of thing Esther would have thought to do, I figured, and I looked in the escape pod bay. And in a way, I was right.
One pod was gone. Just one.
An empty gin bottle rested on the floor in front of the panel where she would have punched in the activation code. Her logbook was there, too, square in the middle of the panel. A parting gift, I suppose.
The shame rose up in me, sudden and hot and thick. She left without me. Not a word of warning, not so much as a halfhearted invitation to join her. She’d climbed into an escape pod, activated the homing beacon, and left me.
What had I done wrong? I thought back over the night before, and the night before that, and the night before that. I thought back over the decades of our friendship, the friendship that had led us to seek postings on the same ship together. I sat on the pod bay floor and buried my burning face in my hands and tried to remember. What did I do, what did I say? Why would she leave me here? Why would she leave me alone?
Why was she so desperate to escape me?
I sat there for a long time, too long. I sobbed and I tore at my hair and I threw her logbook across the pod bay, regretted it, fetched it back again. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t unravel it. She was gone.
And I was left alone to wonder why.
I have not read the book yet. I see her handwriting every day, on the table in my berth, and it’s already almost more than I can bear.
I’ve been saving the book for the last day. I’ve been telling myself that on the last day, I’ll open that book and see an explanation. I’ve been telling myself that I have to release eight people every day. Eight every day, until my work is done. My penance for whatever sin drove my best friend away: I must complete my work, a full burial for every feather-drowned soul on my ship.
Eight every day. Water at their throats, water at their temples. From the Void you were created, and to the Void shall you return. Amen.
I have been telling myself that I will wait. But then there is a day when I release eight children in a row, and the prayers don’t blend together. There is no respite. There isn’t a single moment when I don’t feel the full weight of the work that remains, and I can’t take it, I can’t take the waiting, I can’t.
So I break.
I sit at my little table with Esther’s logbook. I center it, so it’s resting where my head was the night she left. So that none of her handwriting on the table’s surface is covered. I open it, telling myself I’ll only read a little. Just a little, to get me through the night.
Her handwriting covers the first page, as neat and even as field notes. The date, and her name.
We are dying. Amanda is already gone, and soon, everyone else will be gone, too. I have to wake Judith. It isn’t fair to her, but I can’t face this alone.
I blink at the words. My throat is dry, too dry, and I should take a sip of water before I cough, but—
I can’t face this alone.
I hear the logbook hit the wall before I realize I’ve thrown it. I’m on my feet, my hands gripping the edge of the table, my thumbs digging into the words I’m and forgive. My vision slides in and out of focus.
I want to destroy something.
I’m too angry, I need to calm down. This isn’t right, what I’m feeling, what I want to do. I need to calm down. Rage is not a gift of the Void. It’s destructive. I need to calm down.
I give in to an old reflex, rooted in memories from the time before I climbed into my pod and closed my eyes and prayed to the Void that my journey would be safe. For one second—just one—I am so afraid of my own anger that I forget the habit that’s kept me alive all this time.
I’m too angry, and I need to calm down. So I take a deep breath.
I feel my mistake immediately. It’s like the brush of eyelashes against my throat, like tall grass shivering in the first whisper of autumn wind. It’s like the turning of a wheel.
I can’t cough. I must not cough. There is too much left to do, and I am the only one who can do it. I take small sips of air through my nose, trying not to panic. My chest spasms. I swallow hard, trying to keep the cough down, but my mouth is dry.
My eyes land on the logbook, on the floor across the room. I remember the shame I felt when I saw it on the floor of the escape pod bay, the hot flush of questions, wondering what I did wrong and how I could possibly ever fix it.
I can’t face this alone, she said.
I grip the table harder and let it happen. Not a cough, but a sob—a choking, painful sob that grips my throat hard and won’t let go until I let it turn into a scream. I cross the room in two quick steps, grab the logbook off the floor, and before I can think about what I’m doing, the pages are in my hands. I scream hard enough to scratch the itch that’s been nesting in my lungs since Esther woke me up and dragged me out of my sealed pod, into this world of suffocation.
I scream and I fill the air with shreds of her handwriting. Paper fibers cover the floor of my berth, floating down around me like snow, like dandelion fluff, like down. My throat aches and my chest burns and I sink to the floor with fistfuls of Esther’s memories.
The scream dies in my mouth, and I try to find it again, but it won’t come. My throat is aching and dry. I sit in the flurried white remains of the thing I’ve destroyed, and I slump, exhausted. Spent. Still alone, but satisfied.
I rub my palms across my face. There is so much to do, and I should clean all of this up unless I want to spend the night in someone else’s berth. I should sleep, so I can release eight more souls tomorrow.
I allow myself the indulgence of a sigh. Just one. A final sigh—and when I sigh, that’s when I feel it. Sudden and yet so long due, against the back of my front teeth.
The click of a quill.
Published November 2018, Shimmer #46 , 5000 words
Hope Is the Thing With Feathers