Tag Archives: space

Ghosts of Bari, by Wren Wallis

Salvage is the only long-term game in the universe.

No tyrant of the star-nets or titan of trade ever admired a salvage crew; we’re the crows on their trash-heaps, the rats in their walls. But I don’t think any of them’s ever considered, either, that when their names have long gone airless and their works are rust and shadow, it’s junkers who write their elegies.

Every empire ever raised eventually falls. And sooner or later, the crows always come for the corpses.

Most crews won’t scavenge off the Bari Arm, despite the graveyard of scrap that’s been collecting in slow orbit there for a few human ages now. Junkers are a superstitious lot and there’s something wrong, they say, with Bari.

Which has always been fine with me, because it means more scrap for us.

On lucky runs we’ve found whole ships and sometimes stations, mining or monitoring, in the junk field. Most of them abandoned, nothing sinister, though once we ran across an E-class Isan transport ghost-floating with quarantine glyphs still burning phosphor-green on her hull. We left that one alone.

This time it was, of all things, a light combat cruiser. Entire and, to all external scans, intact.

We’d scrapped warships before, so I didn’t doubt we could manage it, and if we could salvage working weaponry it would be a legend on the Winged Market. But the warships we’d scrapped before were always by hire; we’d never just found one ghosting. Most consortia tend to keep track of that particular species of their shit.

But— “I don’t know it,” Kin said in comm. She sounded puzzled, and Eli paused only half-suited up. When your Oracle doesn’t know a thing, it’s occasion to pause.

“How do you mean?” I asked. “Is it an off-reg? Can’t you trace it?”

“I can’t read it, Mati,” she said. “The only hull-mark I parse as a might-be tag is in a glyph I can’t read. And it’s not a hullform I know.”

Which was occasion to bigtime pause.

In the silence, Eli started to strip his suit, his damaged face expressionless. Old soldiers are superstitious, too.

“No chance,” I warned him. “That’s a floating fortune out there, wherever it came from.” A one-of-a-kind Market legend.

He would’ve argued with me—Eli’s never stepped back willingly from an argument, it’s his special pastime—but Kin herself intervened. “Dushamaya,” she coaxed. “It’s worth a look, ai?”

No cat’s got anything on an Oracle when it comes to curiosity, bless their voracious souls.

Eli hesitated, cast an exasperated look upward, and grudgingly began pulling his suit back on.

“You know I’m the captain of this crew?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he said, and crouched to strap his rag-knife to his boot. “But I like her better.”

The first peculiarity was the ship’s seals. I was still securing our wing tethers when Eli said, low and puzzled in comm, “These are live. Seals are still live.”

I made my way hand over hand across the stained and pitted hull to where he hung—upside-down from my vantage—considering the entry hatch with his head canted, ocular implant focused on the corroded keypanel. “So?” I asked. “Easier, nah? Just rat the code and key in. Saves us cutting.”

“But why are they still live, Esmat? This thing’s so old it doesn’t exist.”

“No offense to Her Sapience,” I said, “but just because Kin doesn’t know a thing doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.” I rapped on the hull: soundless in the black, but real enough that I felt the vibration in my bones. “Unless you’re not sure you can rat it?”

He muttered under his breath in Rukhani and shifted to work.

“We’ll go slow and look sharp,” I consoled him, and double-checked my gear. Eli didn’t grace me with a reply.

The hatch yielded readily enough to his persuasions, yawning smoothly open. I went in first, stunner at the ready.

The entry bay was vacant, dark and breathless. I was about to summon Eli after me when the back of my neck prickled and the words shriveled like rice paper on my tongue. For an instant I couldn’t breathe, felt something cold and stifling settle heavy on my chest.

And then it passed, like the shadow of some great winged thing. I dialed up my light and swept the bay, breathing like I’d just run a klick.

There was nothing to see. Bari superstition rubbing off on me. I felt clammy inside my suit.

“Clear,” I reported, and Eli came swinging through the hatch. He dragged it closed behind him and then turned to look at me, but if he’d heard anything in my voice or gotten any spike readings off my suit, he didn’t say; after a moment, he turned back to the wall and made his way along to the master panel. I dialed my light up some more and drifted, scanning the place again.

Most of the entry bay looked standard op, if clunky and outdated. There’s only so much variation you can work on the theme of airlocks. But black-marked on the wall beside the inner hatch, it wore an emblem that I didn’t know. The mark looked partly like a bird rising into flight, neck up and wings spread behind, and partly like the Iskaari kah for telling. It had been—smeared? inked? in haste, trailing streaks like tears.

“Kin?” I asked. “You getting this?”

“I’m downlinking to the Arkhive,” she said, which I’d never heard her say but guessed was Kin-speak for I don’t know what the fuck I’m looking at either.

“Wait,” said Eli. He was still hanging at the panel. The chilly centipede of nerves ran across the back of my neck again and I twitched it off irritably.

When he didn’t say anything else, I said, “Wait what?” maybe a little snappish.

“It’s all still live. Systems. Not just airlocks, ai? Stasis mode, but live. Power, stabilizers. Air systems are up and atmo reads good.”

We looked at the inner hatch. It looked back at us, a blank black eye.

That was the moment, right there, when I could have called the salvage off. I could have said, No, fuck it, something’s off, leave it, and we could’ve picked up something else: a dead satellite, a junked drill, pieces of a broken-up transport. But I didn’t.

It was that sign: that black bird caught reaching for flight. Telling. It didn’t mean either of those things for all I knew, but some deeper-shadowed recess of my brain had heard it whisper and wanted to listen. It felt like a thing I ought to know.

Besides, I had a renegade Oracle and a half-mod resurrection soldier on my team, which put me two up against pretty much anything.

“Kin, you’re hailing her?”

“Thirty-six times so far,” she said. “Broadlink, at intervals. She’s a stone.”

“All right,” I said, and then to Eli, “Crack her.”

Eli’s pointed response was to holster his stunner and unsling his rifle instead, but having offered that opinion, he turned back to the master panel. “Hold onto yourself,” he said.

A moment later, light blazed and gravity seized me with a stomach-surging lurch.

The inner hatch opened onto darkness. Eli shouldered past me to go first, and this time I let him. He leaned through, holding the rifle level before him, and looked one way and then the other before stepping out. “Clear,” he said curtly a moment later. I followed, making the same cautious hesitation in the opening that he had, to take my bearings.

It was a bare industrial corridor, the hatch set flush in its wall, and there was nothing to see, either up or down. Night-bars set into the floor at intervals shed a dim and tranquil ruddy light. I stepped in and turned a slow circle. Glyphs had been painted on the wall; unlike the bird in the bay, these were flaked and faded. I couldn’t read the bones of whatever had been written there.

The hatch sighed shut behind me; a moment later, it sounded a chime, and a ring of blue light woke to life around it. We were in and she was tight.

I toggled my comm to open. “Two aboard,” I called in Pinghe, and then again in Sarahatbaan. My voice echoed tinnily. “Crew Ahuja, Three Pearls System, salvage reg Kinship of Ash. Any injured or distressed?”

No response.

Eli’s visor disengaged with a hiss, and he tugged the hood of his suit back one-handed. He turned a wary circle, like expecting the atmo might mug him unawares, and then nodded at me. “Clean.”

I was reaching for my own hood when Kin said dreamily, “It’s called Ihe.”


“The language, the script. Of the hull-glyphs and that sigil in the bay, and consistent with the letter-forms in the corridor. It’s an antique dialect out of the Swarm. Predates the Iskaar-Vethani Campaign and the Su-Sun Dynasty.”

For a long moment, the silence was absolute as vacuum.

Eli shouldered his rifle and asked mildly, “Who speaks it recently?”

“No one,” Kin said.

“Not possible, Fox,” he told her.

“Clearly it is. I don’t yet know how, but you are standing among the incontrovertible facts.”

Eli was already shaking his head. “That’s not junk, that’s artifact. That’s the wrong end of the galaxy and a few thousand solar years out of time.”

“The Bari field is anomalous,” Kin said blandly, which is as superstitious as AI gets.

“Claim her,” I urged Kin. “Now. Now.” I didn’t know whether the strange warship was anomaly or artifact or what just yet, but even the chance—it was like staring into sun-dazzle. A relic like Kin was talking about—we could sell the dead ship entire to the Vo-erja to use as a temple, and they’d pay us half their order’s fortune for the privilege. We could sell Free Swarm-era weaponry to the Khaiden for twice that again. We could start a galactic holy war and become the richest junkers in history in the bargain; we could make ourselves a three-person consortium to rival the Tradeways.

Not that I would.

I mean, probably I wouldn’t.

Eli was looking levelly at me. His expression was always hard to read on account of the scars and the false eye, but I could feel the preemptive disappointment washing off him.

“In case,” I told him. “If she’s that major a find, imagine what some unscrupulous firm might do with her, ai?”

“Imagine,” he agreed dryly.

“I’ve netted and tagged her,” Kin said. “No reg number; if she’s actually Ihe, she’d predate the current system. Her hull-name, though, translates to something like Singer-at-Dusk.”

“And the glyph in the entry bay?”

“Means listen. Or—more formal, more imperative than that. Hearken, maybe.”

I felt the shiver of nerves again, a brief flush like icy water beneath the skin. Listen, the black bird whispered in memory. “Listen to what?” I asked, and pulled my own hood back.

Kin had no answer. Eli and I stood staring at each other. The corridor was silent: a faint, felt thrum underfoot, the slow pulse of a drowsing ship, but no sound.

Eli was first to finally shake his head, like twitching off cobweb. “Nothing here.”

“Maybe deeper,” I suggested.

We found the first three bodies—or the last three, as it proved—in what might have been a rec room.

We’d ventured down a narrow branchway walled on either side with tanks. They were scaled and occluded by whatever long-dry liquid they’d once held, and a film of clotted filth ringed their bases. That path opened two ways at the end: a room, and another corridor. I picked the room.

Eli had fiddled with the ship’s day/night cycle and brought the lights up so that it felt less like we were sneaking. Even so, even with everything cleanly awash in cheerful synthetic sunlight, it took me a moment to process what I was seeing when I stepped through that door.

Two of them were sitting cross-legged on the floor at a low table against the far wall. They’d been playing a game that looked like Fives, but one of them had keeled onto the grid and scattered the stones; the other slumped against the wall, head tipped up, as though contemplating an anomaly on the ceiling. I looked up too, in spite of myself. There was nothing wrong with the ceiling.

The third was seated on a bench at a big mess table in the center of the room. They’d tipped sideways to lay head and one outstretched arm on the table. A bowl before them held only dusty residue now.

Eli bumped me gently from behind. “Esmat?”

I shifted aside. He stepped in to survey the scene.

“Name of God,” he said mildly. Eli was never surprised by death; he was tolerant but resigned, as if it were a thoughtless relative who’d insisted on dropping in at a bad time. Bossy Auntie Death.

Of course, he’d known her a lot longer and better than I had.

I found my own voice. “What happened?”

He kept the rifle at the ready before him, full-charged, as he moved to investigate, which was as absurd as the way I held my stunner like a ward. These people were long past posing any sort of threat.

There was no indication of anything gone awry in here, apart from the fact the trio was dead. No signs of alarm, no wounds or broken bones, no weapons even present. All three of them sat as though they’d simply fallen asleep, passed out where they were sitting.

Time and exposure had mummified them: they were desiccated, shriveled to dark leather and lacquered bone, gaping mouths and sunken eye-pits. Whatever they’d worn in life, it was now a uniform of colorless rags and dust.

Eli crouched by the one on the bench. “Not violence,” he said. “And not plague.”

“Why not plague?”

He glanced back, showing me only the undamaged side of his face, faintly sardonic. “Not many plagues could kill three people simultaneously, and if not simultaneous, once the first one died, you’d think the other two might’ve caught on.”

“Right.” The moment’s shock had made me stupid. “Systems failure?”

He rose to his feet and shouldered the gun again. “Only they’re working now.”

“Ai, but—” I indicated the atrophied bodies with my chin. “In that state? They went deep-cold or airless or both for at least a while.”

He weighed this and conceded it with a one-shouldered shrug.

“Kin,” I said. “Can you pull systems history?”

“Not from here,” she said. “It’s a sealed stasis. I’m not sure Singer’s mind is intact at all. You’ll need to get to a core console and call her up again for me to link with what’s left.”

It was a slow progress through the mostly-empty, silent ship. We found more bodies in the crew berths. They were as peaceful as the trio in the galley, sleeping like the—well, you know. Withered husks, curled like chrysalids in their bunks. The beds themselves had gone to nests of dust and brittle fragments around them.

Eli paced the row of beds, murmuring in his own language. I moved slower, from berth to berth. I didn’t love looking at them, but it felt—disrespectful, maybe?—not to pause at each one.

Listen, the black bird said.

What was I listening for?

“Too few,” Eli said at last from the other end of the room.

“What?” I glanced up from the one I’d been staring at.

“Too few,” he repeated. “For a cruiser. This isn’t a fighting force. They’re barely enough to crew a modern ship this size.”

“So we’re in for a heap more of them somewhere?” We’d been working our way gradually toward the heart of her; I had an unpleasant picture of a hill of grisly bodies waiting in the core.

“Don’t know.”

There was something nagging me about the way the body beside me was curled on its side.

“Deserters, maybe,” Eli suggested. “Who would they have been at war with?”

“The Iskaari,” Kin’s voice replied.

I paused and Eli canted his head.

“The Iskaari?” I asked. “You said they predated —”

“The Vethani campaign, yes. The Ihe shared the Iskaari homeworld and moons in the Swarm, and were the first Iskaari conquest before they got really ambitious. They were completely subsumed. A dark footnote in Iskaari history, as the Arkhive puts it.”

Eli muttered something in Rukhani that even I knew was extremely rude.

“That bother you, Exemplar?” I asked him, maybe a little more sharply than needful.

Genocide had been his people’s game, a long time back and a lifetime ago, and Eli had been pretty good at it, and sometimes it still stuck between us, what with my folk being the ones genocided and all. It had turned out—I mean, there’s no good word for how a thing like that turns out, even when conquerors fail. It’s hard to say we won over the silence of all the lost.

He turned his head to look at me straight on, both mismatched halves of his face, one natural eye and one milk-white implant. The scars he’d taken in our old, long war. “Yes,” he said.

I turned away, went to the corpse I’d been studying and knelt down.

It cradled something in both arms, had curled around it like a lover in sleep. I stood up fast and stepped back, swallowing a hard and bitter knot.

Eli was there, somehow. “Esmat?”

“It’s got—” I took a deep breath. “It’s holding something. Small. I can’t tell—”

He had already stepped between me and the body. “I’ll have a look.” He crouched down and I turned my back.

“Kin,” I said. “Tell us about the Ihe.”

“Not much else to tell,” she said. “Technologically peers of the Old Iskaari, but fewer in number, and then either extinct or assimilated. The language is phonetically dissimilar from Iskaari, but the alphabets are distantly related. The Arkhive only knows of it because the Iskaari administered their Ihe territories in that language for a century or so, and some of those records were preserved.”

The Arkhive didn’t pay. The Arkhive wouldn’t pay us, not even for a relic this spectacular. I wondered if Pham could turn up a philanthropist rich and eccentric enough to pay us for it and then make the donation themself.

“Mati,” Eli said. He’d risen back to his feet and was holding something cupped in his hands. He held it out to me wordlessly.

It was some kind of idol, and my knees went so loose with relief that I had to beckon him closer because I briefly didn’t trust myself to move.

It was stone of a deep blue-green hue, striated with darker lines, and it had been carved in the shape of a two-headed tortoise. I took it carefully from Eli. There were tiny stars etched on the broad vault of the shell; the eyes of each head were holes drilled straight through, so that you could see light through them when you held it up.

“It’s beautiful,” I said, and Eli nodded at me. As I stood studying it, he moved away down the row of beds again. I turned the heavy carved figure in my hands. “But who sleeps with a stone idol?”

“This one has—I don’t know. A document?” He tugged something from beneath another body and held it up. It was a tile of some pale, glassy material, faded lines inked on it. “And this one has” —he turned and crouched again— “jewelry?” He slipped it free. “A memory-pendant.” He raised a badly-tarnished locket.

“Mother of stars,” I said, and then couldn’t speak for a moment at all.

I had seen aftermaths; I had seen graveyards. I’d cracked tombs before this one, and counted the things the dead had treasured.

But I’d known, breaking into those others, that they were tombs. I’d known what I would find. This time, I hadn’t.

These people had.

I hugged the stone tortoise to my chest. “They’re not—they’re mementos. Each of them has— Eli, they knew they were going to die here? They took their precious things, things that would last, and they lay down in their beds and—”

He turned politely away when I couldn’t finish, to resume his gentle grave-robbery.

We found the core console what felt like a very long time later. It was an entire room, layered in dust and silence. Some sort of fungus had spread in patches across the ceiling, leaving only a sort of brittle fur behind, some of which sifted down like snow as soon as we troubled the room by entering.

There were no corpses. The console panels were blank and mute, gray-frosted with age. I couldn’t read any of the controls.

“Fox,” Eli said, and unslung the pack he was carrying now to set it softly in the dust. “We’re in core.”

“Introduce me,” she said, and Eli unsealed a pocket to take out the black phial.

The console woke to Kin’s ministrations very loudly and all at once. There was an ungainly rattle-and-clunk, and the light in the room flared almost unbearably before adjusting. I threw up a hand to shield my eyes.

When I lowered it, the panels were live. On every single one of them burned the glyph of the bird: Listen.

Eli and I both stood for a moment. The repeating glyph brightened gradually, insistently around us: Listen.

“Fox?” Eli asked, puzzled. “Is she there? Singer?”

“No,” said Kin. “This is— I’m not sure what I’m looking at. She was here, but she’s been largely overwritten by something. She overwrote herself? It’s encoded. There’s a fragment here I think is the last of her, but she’s not responding to me. Maybe just some kind of echo?”

The glyphs were nearly blinding now. The bird rustled at the back of my brain.

I took a deep breath and stepped into the middle of the room. “We’re listening,” I said aloud in Pinghe.

The glyphs blinked out.

And then, all at once, every panel filled with light. Alien glyphs flowed across them in dazzling, endless gibberish strings, an unstoppable, unreadable panorama.

I turned a slow circle, transfixed. There was no way for a human eye to take the river of it all in, even if I could read the language.

A few paces away, Eli was making the same wondering circle.

“God’s Name,” Kin said reverently. She sounded—if she were human, I’d have said she sounded choked up, which is a state I’d never seen her in, not even when she wore her human body. “Mother of God.”

“What? Kin, what is it?”

“It’s a poem,” she said. “Singer-at-Dusk is gone. The last fragment of her I found—I think she was waiting? And now she’s gone out. But this is a poem. Composed by her.”

“A poem?” Eli asked, like the word didn’t parse.

“It goes on and on and on.” She was silent for a moment and then said, in a soft, strange voice, “Listen: These we sing at last into darkness. These last, these few, these valiant. Take these— I can’t tell, this could be words or souls, it’s ambiguous— and remember.” She was quiet.

We were all quiet. I held my breath.

At length Kin said, “She composed—it’s an elegy for her crew, but also for—there’s so much here. A history of the Ihe, the whole saga of the war. It’s—” Silence again.

Eli had been staring at me, but now he turned his head so that I could only see expressionless scars and tech, his real eye hidden.

“Kin,” I said very carefully, and leaned against the nearest panel, because my knees were weird again. “What happened? Just—here. To them, and her. What happened?”

For a moment I thought she wasn’t going to answer, but then she said roughly, “They knew it was finished. The war. The rest of the fleet had surrendered. But these—they wouldn’t. They wanted the system, the Swarm, to know; they wanted to warn them. About the Iskaari. The crew agreed that all her resources had to go to that end, over Singer’s objections. The ones in their berths took poison, to minimize system load. The three in the room were the—the Captain was called Shaeh Toh, and those were her two officers. They remained to crew Singer as long as they could, and to manually override her life-system mandates in the end. They would have—it would have been like slipping into sleep, I suppose. She–when she realized she wasn’t going to be able to maintain herself indefinitely even without their resource load, she began to write the poem, to carry it with the last of herself.”

“How did they get here?” My voice sounded odd.

“I don’t know,” Kin said. “I don’t know. They’ve been adrift — God knows.”

I was still looking at Eli.

Why don’t you ever get your fucking face fixed? I used to ask him, maybe once a cycle. Rest of us don’t love looking at that shit.

Neither do I, he’d finally said back to me one day. But some things should be remembered. And some people shouldn’t get to hide.

“Are you still linked to the Arkhive?” I asked Kin.

“I am,” she said.

“Uplink it,” I said. “Give them the whole thing. Hell, outlink it—send it to Pham, tell them to broadcast it on the Tradeways. Send it to Nansi Station and the Commonwealth Terract. Give it to the Vo, they’ll carry it even farther.”

“Mati,” Eli said.

“Shut up,” I told him. To Kin I said, “Any open link you can hit right now, anyone who can handle the load.”

“Mati,” Eli repeated patiently. “And Iskaar?”

“Yes. Yes to Iskaar. To them and to every one of the Swarm-states.”

“That might,” Kin said, “make things diplomatically awkward in certain zones. For us, at least.”

“They started it,” I said. “Besides, we’re just a crew of crows. What’s diplomacy?”

Eli laughed abruptly.

The ship that had been Singer’s husk and memorial didn’t make it. Eli and I had barely cleared her, winging back toward Kinship, when her systems went dark behind us. By the time we were home aboard, she’d begun to break up.

Eli and I stood together before one of Kin’s monitors, watching a priceless artifact disintegrate in the black.

“Sorry about your fortune,” he told me. We still had a stone tortoise and a locket and some other pieces stowed away, but he knew without my saying that those weren’t ours to keep.

“S’all right,” I said, and leaned against him. He put an arm around my shoulders. “We’ll find another, someday, ai? Anyway, she wasn’t an artifact. She was a ghost.”

“Superstitious,” he chided me.

“Yeah,” I agreed. “Maybe a little.”

All across knownspace, a black bird was instructing: Listen.

Wren Wallis lives in eastern Massachusetts with her husband, daughter, and an odd number of chickens. Her short fiction has appeared previously in Beneath Ceaseless SkiesDaily Science FictionLackington’s, and various anthologies. She can be found online at wrenwallis.com, and on Twitter @invisibleinkie.

Published November 2018, Shimmer #46, 4500 words

Into the Depths

Lighthouse Waiting, by Gwendolyn Clare

I am alone now. The gates mostly stand dark against the starscape; you are the first to come this way in some time. I hold myself together, hold myself out, and after so much practice I can do it almost without thinking. I sing my warning song made of radio waves and light. This, too, is reflexive. Before you, there was no one here to sing to.

But I won’t have to wait much longer. Guilhermo is coming back to me.

I am one hundred and forty-three stations arrayed elliptically around the rift. The rift was meant to be a gate, but the construction failed and now it is a ship-eater, what Guilhermo calls a death-trap. I asked him to define death, but his explanation confused me. In any case, if a ship enters the rift it does not come back, and this is a bad thing, or so I understand. Which is why I am here: to keep the ships out.

Hot and bright, I sing my warning call across the electromagnetic spectrum, flinging endless waves of energy through the frigid silent void. Once my signals fell upon a dozen ships an hour, repelling them toward the safest route—near gate to far gate and far gate to near gate, a trip of six standard days. I haven’t had much work lately, not since the war began, but if you like I’ll tell you of the ships I’ve seen while you travel.

The day Guilhermo left, a whole armada emerged from the near gate, moving in perfect glittering synchrony. There were battleships and cruisers and carriers and raiders. They looked quite beautiful and refined to my young sensors, nothing like the old dust-scratched white hulls of the trade ships I’d seen before.

Also unlike any trade ship, one of the carriers taxied close to Station 23—where Guilhermo lives—and matched orbit with me. It made me nervous to have a ship so close by. After all, it was my responsibility to keep them away from the rift. Nothing had approached me since my original deployment except a few erroneously named “airdrops” bringing supplies to Guilhermo. Just a little cube with thrusters and a rudimentary nav system, not a whole ship with a landing bay large enough to swallow one of my stations.

Thank the stars I had Guilhermo to handle the situation. He traded several rounds of communications with them. I hoped he was going to send them away, but instead, he began to pack a bag.

Guilhermo told me there was an uprising in the Chaian Sector, beyond the far gate. Guilhermo said they needed him to program evasion algorithms for fighter drones, and he would have to go with them for a while.

I was scared at the thought of being without him. He had never left communication range, not since he made me. He always says he likes retiring somewhere quiet—a joke, you know, since sound waves can’t travel in space? But I think he means it. They made him leave me even though he said he didn’t want to.

Guilhermo promised he would be back as soon as he could.

Next came the deserters, three ships with engines burning hot as they burst out of the far gate. I asked them if they had heard of an engineer named Guilhermo Vaz, or perhaps he would be called a strategist, now? They told me the Chaian War was going badly, that they had mutinied and run, and they wouldn’t have known someone important like a strategist anyway.

Even at high thrust they still had four and a half standard days’ travel between the gates, so I offered to display for them a light ballad I’d been composing in Guilhermo’s absence. They couldn’t see it properly—the human visual spectrum is too narrow—so I shifted the wavelengths up for the ultraviolet tones, and shifted them down for the infrareds, and did my best to cobble together a pleasing composition.

It was good practice, I thought, for when Guilhermo returns. By then I’ll have the ballad perfected for human eyes to appreciate. He’ll be so pleased at my creativity.

“Won’t you stay to see another?” I asked the deserters. I wasn’t accustomed to being alone, yet, and feeling rather desperate for the company.

The deserters declined to slow their thruster burn, and soon I was alone again. I wasn’t worried, though, not really. Guilhermo had promised.

Would you like to watch the light ballad? I’ve refined it through two hundred and thirty-seven revisions since then, so it’s even prettier now.

Shortly after the deserters left, the near gate opened again and produced some new company for me to chat with. It was a single ship, a fierce sleek black design I’d never laid sensors on before. I inquired about their purpose, and they confirmed they were reinforcements headed to the Chaian sector.

That made me feel better. I asked them to return Guilhermo to me when they could. They agreed to pass along a message for me if they saw him. Everything would work out okay.

I played the opening stanzas of a new light sonata for them, and their feedback was quite complimentary. They seemed so nice; everyone I’d met so far in my existence seemed so nice. I had a vague impression of what war entailed, and it strained the imagination that all these nice people would participate in violence. Probably they were all conscripted into service, as Guilhermo had been.

I asked them for details of their crew, curious about their motivations, but they declined my request. Theirs was a classified operation, they explained. I had to content myself with suppositions only.

When they reached the far gate, I wished them luck and good velocity.

I was alone for a while then. I improvised light compositions and played with new orbital trajectories for my stations. I imagined whole conversations I might have with Guilhermo when he came home.

Finally a ship arrived through the near gate. It was a dinged-up, patchily repaired older model. What Guilhermo would call a “rust-bucket,” though of course there could be no oxidation damage in space. (This is something called metaphor, he once explained.)

In any case, they did not look much like a warship. I asked them what enterprise they were engaged in.

They marveled that I did not have access to a police database with which to identify the ships passing through my region of space. No, I did not, I assured them.

They called themselves a salvage team. Then they politely inquired about whether or not I have anything of value to steal.

I told them yes, I am a unique and sophisticated lighthouse with many expensive components, including short- and long-range defense systems, and would they care for a demonstration? I spun my railgun turrets and flashed my targeting eyes, hoping to impress, but they declined my offer. I was disappointed, never having had an opportunity to try out my defense systems before.

I asked them if they were certain. They assured me that, yes, they now had sufficient data upon which to formulate their course of action, even without a demonstration.

I wished them well, and they departed.

Time passed uneventfully, until my sensors detected an object approaching through realspace. It was a chunk of debris, mostly ice and rock from the spectral analysis.

The space debris swung close to Station 65, attracted by the steady pull of the rift. I warmed up the nearest railgun and aimed the turret, tracking the object’s trajectory. It was not a difficult shot, but I was nevertheless very excited to finally get an excuse to use my defensive systems. How thrilling! How eventful!

I blew up the debris.

The pulverized remains rained down upon Station 65, too small and too diffused to cause any direct damage. However, a few tiny particles lodged in the station’s attitude jets—a circumstance I had not foreseen.

My self-repair modules were not designed to compensate for such a situation. Guilhermo would have invented a solution, but I did not have his help, so I spent many hours considering the dilemma.

The station’s orbit began to degrade. I attempted to dislodge the particles using centrifugal force generated by firing the unaffected attitude jets. It did not work, and I grew desperate. I fired the affected jets, hoping to force the offending particles out, but one of the jets broke instead.

There was nothing more to do. I could only watch as Station 65 lost altitude and gradually gave in to the unrelenting pull of the rift. I lost contact and it vanished, gone forever.

Before that, I was a hundred and forty-four stations; now I am a hundred and forty-three.

The universe offered me no comfort. I was alone, and facing the realization that what happened to a single station could theoretically happen to more. Is this what Guilhermo meant when he tried to explain death? A slow attrition of the self, losing piece after piece until I no longer possess the processing power necessary for higher-order cognitive functions. Until my last station falls into the rift and I cease to exist. I am still not certain I understand.

It was a very sad time. Not even light ballads could cheer me.

I dwelled in persistent melancholy until the next ship arrived. Strange, how a period of sadness can brighten the joy that comes after; greeting that vessel was the happiest I’ve ever been.

I was so excited I forgot myself and sent them an accidental onslaught of over-eager hails, which I imagine must have been rather shocking to receive. I had to calm down and gather my wits and remember to communicate at a rate slow enough for humans to process. Once they got over their initial surprise, they seemed quite eager to speak with me.

I asked them if they had heard of Guilhermo Vaz, a strategist in the war.

They said, what war?

The war in the Chaian sector, I explained.

They told me “Chaian sector” was an unfamiliar designation, and they knew of no major conflicts in occupied space. Privately, I thought they must be very ill-informed, but I was too polite to say so.

They also said they were explorers and sounded quite pleased to have “rediscovered” me. Those people were confusing. How could I be rediscovered when I was never lost to begin with? I’ve always been right here where I’m supposed to be, right here where Guilhermo left me waiting.

They requested permission to dock with one of my stations, for what purpose I could not imagine. I declined.

Persistent, they asked again, claiming they wished to study my systems architecture. I had to explain that unauthorized personnel were not permitted aboard my stations, which they should have known since it was a standard security protocol. But as I’d already observed, they did not seem to know much of anything. Confusing people.

I felt bad about refusing their request to board me, so I sent them a file of my design specifications and improvised a new light ballad just for them. My stations flashed with syncopated blues and glowed with a slow rising crescendo of reds. A quiet pulse of yellow, steady as a heartbeat, helped me keep time.

That was the hardest part. I’ve never been good at keeping time.

The next ship to arrive carried a crew who spoke an unfamiliar dialect. I spent most of their six-day journey learning to accurately communicate in their language of preference. They called my dialogue archaic, and marveled at my overall functionality.

This confused me. Why would I be anything less than functional? I am a highly sophisticated integrated system. I am a pinnacle of technological achievement. I am Guilhermo’s proudest, finest creation. Of course I keep myself functional to the best of my ability. My mission here at the rift is an important one.

Guilhermo would not like it if I failed to perform my function, and I could not bear to disappoint him. After all, he is my creator. He is the only one who matters.

The ship’s crew seemed perfectly nice, of course. I don’t wish to be rude and imply otherwise. It’s simply that, in your heart, no one can replace your creator. The person who gave life to you. Wouldn’t you agree?

The ship of the strange-dialect speakers passed into the gate and vanished from my corner of the universe. Then I was alone again.

And now, you.

Why thank you, yes—I have been practicing my dialectical variations in anticipation of another vessel such as yours. It is thoughtful of you to remark upon my linguistic abilities.

Tell me, what is this archaeology of which you speak? I’m afraid I don’t understand why you wish to study old things. Can’t you simply remember history? I remember every ship passing through the gates. I remember every word that left Guilhermo’s tongue.

It must make you very sad, this forgetting of which you speak. The concept frightens me, if I may be honest. I do not understand how you can function when the past runs from you, when your own memories hide away in the cracks of your imperfect minds. It seems a difficult way to exist.

Before, I did not know to be grateful for the flawless memory storage Guilhermo gave to me. Thank you for this revelation. Even if I still can’t comprehend what you do.

History is your occupation, so I suppose that is justification enough. It is good to fulfill one’s purpose. And in any case you seem very nice, if you don’t mind my saying so.

Have you heard of the Chaian War? Have you heard any news of the brilliant engineer Guilhermo Vaz? No, don’t apologize. You are too kind, worrying over my welfare, but there is no need to linger here on my account—Guilhermo will surely be here soon to keep me company.

He promised.

Gwendolyn Clare’s novels include the young-adult steampunk duology INK, IRON, AND GLASS (2018) and MIST, METAL, AND ASH (2019). Her short fiction has appeared in Fantasy & Science Fiction, Analog, Asimov’s, Clarkesworld, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. She teaches college biology in central Pennsylvania, where she lives with too many cats and never enough books. She can be found online at gwendolynclare.com or on Twitter @gwendoclare.

Other Lonelys:

Birds On An Island, by Charlie Bookout

The Proper Motion of Extraordinary Stars, by Kali Wallace

Serein, by Cat Hellisen

The Cold, Lonely Waters, by Aimee Ogden


In the end, it’s loneliness that drives the mermaids outward from Earth, not curiosity. But fear plays its part in the story, too, as fear always does.

The capsule they send is a thing of beauty, a great glass sphere encased in a cage of titanium. They call it Sea Foam Gives Way to the Sunfish’s Breach, and see how it traces a long arc between worlds: one globe of blue and green and brown, one silver-white orb, spiderwebbed in rusty red. Not a proper world at all, that one, hanging in frozen thrall to one of the great gas planets; a distant cousin of the moon that painted silver light on the mermaids’ upturned faces back on Earth, and their best and closest hope of finding what they seek.

Toward it journey three travelers—three purposeful travelers, that is to say, for the fish and snails and algae they carry for food and oxygen did not choose this trip and have no concern with what path their strange new home takes. For that matter, only two of the travelers themselves take much interest in their surroundings.

Here they are now: the navigator, All Rivers Run Home to the Sea, checking their trajectory against star-charts and measurement lines etched on the inside of the glass shell. The alchemist, A Fish Thrashes Wildly in the Bird’s Sharp Beak, screws two glass bubbles together at their ports to mix their contents. The product is exothermic, and her palms are thankful for the warm kiss of the glass in her hands. But the mixture is not for her; she tucks it into the still arms of the sleeping singer, She Wears Cold Starlight on Her Shoulders. She watches for a moment, hopeful, but Cold Starlight doesn’t react. A Fish Thrashes grimaces, then flicks her thick flippers and glides over to drift beside All Rivers, whose does not look up from her star charts.

The bodies of All Rivers and A Fish Thrashes are made to suit the northern seas of Earth, and they manage the cold silent nothingness between worlds just as well: their bodies rounded and soft, their skin sleek with dark brown and gray fur. Their singer does not fare so well, not with the thin bubble of tissue that composes her tail, not with the fine mass of poisonous tentacles she drags along behind her. Their singer’s body glows a fragile, electric blue in answer to the stars, but it is a cold light and does not warm her. A Fish Thrashes wonders, not for the first time, what the elders were thinking when they asked a merjelly to join the expedition. Cold Starlight is the best singer in all the world that they left behind—but what good will that do if she cannot survive long enough to swim in the waters of a new world?

“Do you think she’ll make it?” she asks All Rivers, and All Rivers grunts. She hates to be interrupted at her work. “We have such a long way to go.”

“She’ll make it.” All Rivers breaks her gaze from real stars and etched ones alike. She stretches her arms and A Fish Thrashes takes shelter in their warmth. Her head rests on the great round swell of All Rivers’ breasts, and she breathes in the cool fresh water. Her adjustments to the algae levels are finally near-perfect. “Do you know what she did, when they asked her to make this trip?”

A Fish Thrashes shifts in her lover’s arms. “That’s just a rumor.”

All Rivers says it anyway. “She laughed. And then she said, ‘What good is a singer without anyone to hear?'”

“A rumor,” A Fish Thrashes insists. “A pretty story for the next set of singers to build on. Might as well say there’s really a mermaid who lives in the moon. Or that the Silent Earthers are real, and lurking in the algae pods to jump out and scare us.” Her words are meant to jab, but not so hard as to explain why All Rivers stiffens now. “What is it?”

“They caught one on the construction site,” says All Rivers slowly. She worked metallurgy before learning the shape of the celestial spheres, to guide them starward. Good luck to have a metallurgist on board, in case a non-fatal catastrophe befalls the ship’s titanium shell.

“A Silent Earther?” A Fish Thrashes’ gills open and shut too quickly. She makes herself relax, and presses her face into the soft curve of All Rivers’ neck until they are both again as fluid as the water that surrounds.

All Rivers explains how the saboteur was caught. “Trying to slip contaminants into the titanium mixing pool. To weaken the frame, make it shatter with the force of leaving the atmosphere.”

“Why would they do such a thing?” A Fish Thrashes wonders, and All Rivers shrugs.

“To keep the Earth as it is since the humans went away. To stop us from making the same mistakes.”

“We’re not riding their wake,” protests A Fish Thrashes, and All Rivers’ fingers smooth the bristling fur along her back.

“I know,” she says, “I know that.” But her eyes linger on Cold Starlight, whose face is cast in shadow despite the blue flicker of her body, who drifts listlessly on the slow motion of the water.

Cold Starlight sleeps through the day-to-day chores of life aboard the capsule. The filters must be scrubbed to keep the all-important algae from clogging them entirely. Their trajectory must be observed and measured. And occasionally, a tiny portion of the metallic hydrogen in the engines, manufactured under the terrible pressure at the heart of the very deepest sea trenches, must be burned to correct their course and nudge them back on track. All Rivers frets over the details. Sometimes she envies Cold Starlight her carefree passage between the worlds; mostly, though, she is grateful for her own warm blubber and fur.

Cold Starlight wakes to eat from time to time. All Rivers offers her wriggling fish and the cool tender meat from the shellfish that cling to the glass shell. She rarely stays awake for long. But now, lappets drooping limply, she looks out through one of the windows on the titanium shell, back toward where Earth would lie, though it has long since shriveled out of view. She asks, “What happened to the humans?”

“They burned themselves out,” A Fish Thrashes says, before All Rivers can answer. A Fish Thrashes’ eyes aren’t on Cold Starlight, but on the drawing she limns with one finger in a dark patch of algae. It’s the figure of a mermaid—All Rivers, perhaps, if she flatters herself. “That’s what happens when you’re too stupid to stay beneath the waves where you belong.”

Cold Starlight’s lappets flicker blue. Her eyelids droop. All Rivers says, more gently. “No one knows for sure. One day there were no more new buildings stacking up on the shore, no more dark oblong things to block the sun as they passed. The ocean surface went quiet, and we were alone.”

“The expeditions didn’t find much.” A Fish Thrashes adds a bubble helmet to the drawing of the mermaid, and then a long trail of seal-intestine tubing that connects to a great water tank. A Fish Thrashes has run out of room, so the tank is just one side and the suggestion of a wheel beneath. And now the drawing isn’t All Rivers, it is Sun Shatters Incandescent on My Love’s Azure Scales, the first mermaid to crawl on land.

Despite her name, that explorer was old enough during her journey that the sunlight only melted dully on her faded colors. Sun Shatters’ voyage was the direct antecedent to this one, and All Rivers wishes she could have known her as more than a song’s hero and a smear of algae on glass.

“Sun-bleached bones and great metal husks are all she found. Who knows?” She grimaces, and wipes the drawing away with her palm. A green cloud of algae floats up around her. “Maybe they killed each other, maybe they got scale-rot and scratched themselves to death.”

“Maybe they left for the stars first,” suggests Cold Starlight. “Maybe we’ll meet them, somewhere out here. Them, or their children.” A Fish Thrashes opens her mouth to argue, but All Rivers shushes her. Cold Starlight’s eyes have closed again. Best to let her rest.

They decide to wake her when they are crossing the chain of asteroids that girds the inner collection of planets. She seems to be hibernating, but still, she is so small and frail. A Fish Thrashes shrugs, neither concerned about their singer nor wholly indifferent to her fate, and opens the ports of two of her exothermic bubbles to let them mix in the water around Cold Starlight.

Cold Starlight’s eyes flutter. “Are we there yet?” she asks, though her lips barely move.Poor little fry. “Not yet,” All Rivers tells her, “but stay awake and eat something.”

Cold Starlight obeys. She is younger than the other two, and alternately obedient and stubborn enough to show it. Her tentacles, curled cautiously inward for sleep, unfurl until a heedless fish is caught on her nettles. The tentacles recede into the frilly chasm of Cold Starlight’s bell-shaped lower body. “That’s better … ” There is some warmth behind the blue-gray of her cheeks now, either thanks to A Fish Thrashes’ alchemy or the meal Cold Starlight is now digesting. “Shall I sing something? To pass the time?”

All Rivers and A Fish Thrashes have found plenty of ways to pass the time without Cold Starlight’s help, because they have nothing but time now. It’s not so very different from home, where during the cold season there’s nothing to do but stuff one’s stomach to bursting and then rut oneself senseless until the thaw—though this cold season will last months, years, longer than any of those.

“Yes,” says All Rivers, and catches A Fish Thrashes’ eye. “A song would be lovely.”

They nestle together, All Rivers and A Fish Thrashes, as Cold Starlight tests her voice for the first time in weeks. “I’ll sing about the Gyresmoot,” says Cold Starlight, to herself as much as anyone. All Rivers starts guiltily, her fingers already twined with those of A Fish Thrashes. “That’s a good song. That’s the right song.”

And she does, her clear haunting voice cutting through the water to ring against the insides of the sphere.

“Oh, we mourned our friends, our cousins, our lovers,
beneath the swirl at gyre’s heart.
No cleansing wave reached up to sweep them away
though the oceans rose and the high places washed away:
it was their own hands with which they buried
themselves, or raised themselves up into the next life.
Gone, truly gone, and us alone,
forever and longer still,
until one raised her voice, her face,
The Black Pearls of Her Eyes Pierce Mysteries,
well-named and true, and offered us the choice.
When the deepwater folk speak, we listen.
Ah! what did she ask of us?
Her jaws opened wide and the universe
in miniature danced on her tongue.
To be alone, or to seek out other company?
Ah, she said, ah, to reach for the stars …”

Cold Starlight twists slightly, and the nearly translucent tissue below her waist pulsates once. A few fish bones drift gently out. They don’t settle downward, as they would back home, but continue drifting, caught in the lack of up and down. A pair of boneworms cut through the water toward the wreckage, ready to return the nutrients to the miniature ecosystem inside the sphere.

“I don’t like the next verse,” Cold Starlight says. Her arms, thin and white as those bare fish bones, wrap around her slight body. “But I think I ought to sing it anyway. Because I don’t like it.”

“Do as you like,” says A Fish Thrashes. She yawns and presses her face into All Rivers’ shoulder. All Rivers thinks that she should check their trajectory. She thinks that it can wait an hour. And anyway, Cold Starlight is singing again.

“But some turned their faces away
from cool starlight, and asked
on what far-flung world could such company be sought?
Humans reached for the stars and
burned their fingers. Our world had become
a quiet one, and no mermaid yet alive feared
the net’s reach nor the dark oily stain on the water.
The currents of another world, they warned,
would only carry a new flavor of heartbreak—”

“Stop,” says A Fish Thrashes, and Cold Starlight falls silent. All Rivers realizes she can taste a gradient of freshwater tears, and realizes again that they are her own. A Fish Thrashes brushes her thumbs along the curve of All Rivers’ face, and says, “They’re wrong. They’ll see.”

“I know,” says All Rivers, and curls into that warm embrace again. “Sometimes I’m afraid. But I know you’re right.”

They drift together, spinning with the eddy of the waters. When All Rivers remembers, a moment later, she glances over at Cold Starlight. But Cold Starlight has already gone back to sleep.

Cold Starlight wakes on her own, the frozen moon’s pale, brown-streaked face looming large in their path. Since leaving Earth she has felt herself trapped in a fog, a bubble-nest of confusion and despair. Now, she knows her purpose is close. The luciferins in the cells that line her lappets and tentacles flicker dark blue in answer to the call of that inscrutable world. I am awaited, she thinks, and smiles.

She is indeed awaited, by A Fish Thrashes and All Rivers, who would like her to test the sub-capsule.

“It’s almost time,” says A Fish Thrashes. All Rivers is busy checking and re-checking their approach, measuring angles against the etchings on the inside of the capsule. Her tongue protrudes between her sharp teeth as she calculates. “How do you feel?”

“Ready,” says Cold Starlight, and A Fish Thrashes nods approvingly. She has no more glass bubbles—it will be a long trip home—but she chafes Cold Starlight’s arms with her leathery palms. It is a kindness, and it warms Cold Starlight from the inside out.

“We’re in alignment,” calls out All Rivers. Her dark webbed fingers are spread on the glass surface of the ship, but she looks back over her shoulder to smile at them. It’s a shaky smile. What few smiles Cold Starlight has seen from All Rivers during this trip have been shaky. “It’s time.”

“Ready,” says A Fish Thrashes, and anchors her flippers beneath a bar to turn the wheel that opens the port into the sub-capsule. Her big shoulders work as she spins it once, twice, three times. On the fourth turn, the whole capsule shudders, and a bright eclipse of light peers through the titanium cage. Not light: fire. Cold Starlight looks in wonder at the long, brief shadows cast on the far side of the sphere.

“No,” A Fish Thrashes gasps, and All Rivers wails as she loses the capsule’s beautiful alignment. There is a strange sucking sound, a whirlpool gone mad—Cold Starlight startles as her head breaks the surface of the water. There has never been a surface before, not inside the capsule, and the vacuum plays with tendrils of her hair before she ducks deeper.

They’re losing water.

“Silent Earth,” moans All Rivers, still clinging to her etchings. Her voice warbles out from beneath the surface, but not for long. Cold Starlight wonders what it will be like to swim the sea between the stars.

But then her head cracks cruelly against the rim of the sphere. She blinks to clear sparks from behind her eyes, and when she opens them, she finds herself inside the sub-capsule. It is still full of water, and the hatch is closed. On the other side of the porthole, she can see A Fish Thrashes, grim-faced, straining. A Fish Thrashes meets her gaze. Mouths the word, “Go.” She reaches out of Cold Starlight’s sight, and with a terrible grinding cry, the sub-capsule kisses its parent ship goodbye.

Cold Starlight watches for a glimpse of the main ship when one of her windows spins that way. The bright bloom of fire has faded: no oxygen to feed the flames out here any more than there was beneath the warm waters of home. Despite the violent spin of the sub-capsule, she fancies that she sees two shapes twined together through the shadowed glass of the sphere. Fancy is better than nothing, but it is not a filling meal. When she loses sight of the great glass sphere, she looks toward the moon. Its pale face has grown large in her view.

“Hello,” she whispers. “I’m so glad to meet you.”

The sub-capsule very nearly survives the crash.

Cold Starlight drags herself from the wreckage. The spilled water has begun to freeze and tries to stick her to the ice—her aching arms are already locking up, and her tentacles and body cavity are of no use here abovesea. She does not know where the drill has landed, nor how long she can survive these alien oceans without the sub-capsule’s protection. Without the Sunfish’s Breach to return home to.

But she knows this: there is a great groaning crack in the ice floor, originating from the wreckage. And she knows this too: a singer’s value is in being heard. Cold Starlight drags herself toward the crack with her foundering strength.

She falls into the chasm when she reaches it, falls until ice water strikes her back and shoulders. She floats in dull shock for a moment, then turns, rights herself. Sucks in a testing breath, into her mouth and out through her gills. Again. And again.

The water is wrong, cold and foreign. A chemical taste fills her mouth and makes her cough. Her eyes burn, and her skin cries in protest. A short mission, this one, Cold Starlight thinks, and bubbles of laughter roll out of her.

Dark shadows move in the depths.

Cold Starlight steadies herself with a flick of her tentacles, forces a shake out of her shoulders. She opens her mouth. A lesser singer might not be able to make herself heard, but Cold Starlight is not a lesser singer. The notes shake when they boil up out of her, hot joy into the cold lonely waters. She doesn’t know who is listening, but she knows someone is, blurry shapes swimming in her fading vision. Something brushes her arm, another cool touch along the length of her back. Not the touch of a predator. A lover’s caress, familiar and strange all at once. Cold Starlight sings harder, through the sweetwater tears that feed this enigmatic ocean. It is good, in the end, to be heard.

A distant vibration, and whatever has come to greet her flees. She is well and truly alone when the darkness swallows her.

Cold Starlight awakes with her face pressed against cool glass.

The songs that fed her as a child told of many afterlives, but none of those were vitrine-fenced. Cold though, some of them, and this one too. She opens her eyes to see what awaits her in the next world.

It is a small world, sharply curved and tightly enclosed. Smaller than the Sunfish’s Breach, and without the familiar etchings of stars and constellations. Instead, muted yellow-green light accretes on the surface of the cylinder. Shadows blur and drift on the other side: more water? Air? She cannot tell.

She lists to one side; an air bubble is trapped under her bell. Her lappets tilt to release it in an embarrassing belch, and she rights herself in the water. Ah—there is a right and a wrong way, an up and a down. That is a strange sensation and a welcome one. She puts her hands to the glass and tries to divine what sort of world it is in which she has been made a visitor. When she spreads them, her fingers are bloated; she shakes out her tentacles and finds them turgid too. A freshwater tank then. Well. That won’t do. Not for long, at least.

Vibrations reach her from the other side of the tank. The water is cold, but the sounds buzz warmly on the skin of her face and hands, along the fine tissue of her lappets. Voices? It is so hard to tell through the glass and the muddied lights and the dark, darting shadows. So these entities, humans or their children or something else new and wonderful—perhaps they can speak. But do they know how to listen?

Cold Starlight tilts her head back to stretch her vocal cords, taut with cold and hypertonicity and, yes, fear. There is no time for fear now, no room for it in this small dark tank, but Cold Starlight finds it difficult to shed. When her voice sluices out of her mouth, it is a blunt weapon and not a sharp dart of understanding. It will have to do. She presses her palms to the glass, and sings out the chemical structure for sodium chloride.

The lights dim, and the shadows draw nearer. Dark shapes play in the condensation on the far side of the glass. Cold Starlight’s lips curl in a smile, even as they shape the exchange of electrons, the push and pull of electric charges, the steadiness of the paired nuclei. It is as good a starting place as any. As she sings, years—centuries—of loneliness, hers and the greater shared loneliness of all the mermaids she has left behind, all of it falls away. And when it falls, it pulls fear down with it.

Aimee Ogden has been a scientist, a teacher, and a software tester, but now she’s content to be a fake geek mom and spec-fic writer. Her work has appeared in Daily Science Fiction and The Sockdolager. Follow her on Twitter @aimee_ogden.



Wet ‘n Weird:

The Seaweed and the Wormhole, by Jenn Grunigen – “Your mother’s a swamp, yes, of course she is,” he murmured. “Is that what the dreams told you?” he called, still motionless, hand outstretched. It closed on air.

The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife, A.C. Wise – The fisherman’s wife breathes out, and tendrils of smoke curl around her. She listens to the tide inside and out — salt sea and salt blood, eroding shores of sand and making a hollow space within her skin and bones. She listens, and the ebb and flow tells her what she does not want to hear.

Serein, by Cat Hellisen – It’s always about the ones who disappear. I’ve imagined it endlessly: what Claire must have thought as she packed her bag. How leaving is easy, even if you lie and say oh god it’s hard it’s hard it’s hard. Make a clean break, leave everything, let loose your claim to possession: this is my house, this is my bed, these are my albums not shelved alphabetically because I tried and never could keep the world orderly, this is my little library built out of gifts and second-hand forgotten paperbacks.

Black Planet, by Stephen Case

Em did not dream the world. When the lights went out and the absence of her brother in the room across the hall became palpable, it was simply there, hanging in the space above her bed. She would stare at its invisible form, spinning silent and unseen, until she slept.

Her dreams were not always of the black planet. There were dreams of hospital rooms as well, and of the faces of her parents. Of the house that now was too large for the three of them to fill.

When the planet came and stole her from those dreams, it was almost a relief. The silence on the black world was a silence less oppressive. The darkness was welcome and warm. Em, in those nights, wandered its pitchy forests and walked the shores of surging, inky seas. There were mountains like rows of broken teeth, as though she had fallen into the weathered jawbone of a huge beast dead a million years, but it was only the world, immense and black under stars.

She did not speak of the planet to her parents. Everyone handled loss in different ways, she had been told. Besides, she could not be sure that the black planet had not always hung above her bed in the darkness. Maybe she had never noticed it before.

The only person she talked to about it was Jena, whose desk was beside her own in four of the six periods of the school day. Jena had come up through the science magnet, and she still either did not know or did not care that high school frowned upon certain enthusiasms.

“Everyone gets at least two,” Jena said when Em told her about the dark world. She wore the half-smile that indicated she expected questions. “Statistically, that is.”

“Two what?”

“Two planets. Earth-like planets, specifically.” Astronomy class was a joke, but Jena had convinced her to take it. “Twenty billion in our galaxy alone.”

“Right. But I only have one.”

“And you see it when you go to sleep.”

planet01“It is a planet.” Em paused. “Not much like Earth.”

Jena’s shirt had a picture of two robed figures in some kind of hover-car. It said, These aren’t the druids you’re looking for.

“But you could walk around and stuff on it, right?” Jena asked.

Em loved that she took her words for what they were. Jena didn’t look for hidden meanings, didn’t see a dead brother staring from every emotional nuance.

“Yeah,” Em answered. “But it was completely dark. No sun.”

That started Jena in on something called second-generation planets. It was difficult to follow. Lots of things Jena said were difficult to follow, but it was sometimes nice just to listen. She was saying something about planets forming after their suns died, planets orbiting pulsars or black holes.

“Of course there wouldn’t be life,” Jena concluded, chewing the end of a bright green pencil. “Unless it was based on thermal heat or chemical reactions.”

Em decided not to say anything about the forests. They made her nervous, with their tangled roots and restless limbs.

“Maybe everyone has one,” Em ventured. “If there are so many. Maybe everyone has a world, and they just don’t see them.”

Jena watched her.

“You said there are supposed to be enough in our galaxy for everyone to have two. Maybe we all do—one for the night and one for the day. Only we don’t always see them.”

They were both quiet for a moment.

“I wonder what happens to them when we die,” Em said softly. “A bunch of empty planets.”


When Em fell asleep, she felt she was falling. She fell down to the black planet, even as it spun above her as she lay on her bed. She fell to its surface if she did not snag on memories of her brother along the way, memories of the way he steepled his fingers when he spoke or angled his head at her when she came around behind him while he was reading. If she did not slip into memories and dreams, she fell to the planet.

On the surface, starlight gave little illumination to the landscape. The stars were tight and clustered above her.

If there were paths, she could not see them. She knew the forests were crowded with eyes, though she never heard movement among the trees, or the things that were the equivalent of trees here. After a time she realized the eyes belonged to the trees themselves. They had no leaves but millions of fingers, and they all bent away and let her pass as she walked.

She paused at the edge of a sea. The mountains were outlines against the golden blur Jena said must be the Milky Way. Jena said it must be the galaxy seen from much deeper within than they saw it in their own nights on the planet where Em’s brother was dead.

Em remembered a day when her brother had explained—a book with a picture of a prism on the cover propped carefully against the gauze on his chest—that things in a dark room did not have colors that could not be seen but that they had no color at all. He said darkness did not hide color but actually erased it.

Now she stood in the shadow of the forest and felt the world spin beneath her. The stars changed their position against the silhouette of trees.

After a time, she thought she heard someone calling.


“I can’t believe I didn’t think of it earlier.” Today Jena’s shirt bore a logo of a goblin riding a killer whale. The stylized caption beneath read Orc-Orca Alliance.

Em rubbed sleep from her eyes. She had been in the forest for weeks last night, it seemed. Now, in the passing period between classes, it was hard to concentrate.

“Tidal lock. It doesn’t have to be circling a black hole or wandering without a tether through space. Maybe you’re just always on the side facing away from the sun.”

“What do you mean?”

planet02“Like the Earth’s moon.” Jena held a hand in front of her face, palm facing inward. “It’s locked with one side toward the Earth, so we never see the other.” She spun slowly in the hallway, keeping her palm facing toward her face. A few students stopped to watch. “Rotates at the same speed it revolves.”

“I saw the stars moving last night.”

It helped that Jena was good-looking. She could stand in the hallway between periods pirouetting like a lunatic and still earn approving glances from the junior and senior boys.

“They would still move, if it orbited fast enough. But it means maybe you’ve just always been on the dark side of it. Maybe you haven’t seen the day side yet.”

She shook her head. “It’s not like that, Jena. I’ve been all over it. It’s black all the way around.”

Jena shrugged. “I wish I could see it. If everyone has one, I should too. But maybe something has to happen to make you see yours.” She broke off, glancing at Em.

“There is no sun,” Em said again, to herself, as she shut the door to her locker.


There was nothing for Jena to see. That was the point. There was nothing to see at all. It was black. Em was in the forest again.

It was trying to tell her something. That was clear. It was not speaking with a voice; she had heard no words the evening before. It was speaking with its presence. It was trying to explain.

Why was there a black planet hanging in her sky?

Em found a stone. She had been wandering along the shore of the black sea, listening to the sound the waves made—a sound heavier and more hollow than the seashore she recalled on Earth. She kneeled on the shoreline, trying to work up courage to put her hand into the unseen surf and feel if the liquid was water or something heavy and alien, when she found among the thousands of black stones she moved over one that struck her knee.

It was almost perfectly spherical, the size of a large softball. There were indentations on one side and circular grooves on the other. She held it for a long time, wondering whether it was natural or artificial, trying to remember what she recalled about rocks on Earth and how they formed. There might be a million other stones like this one on beaches all over the black world. They might be artifacts. They might be eggs.

She ran her hands over its surface again and heaved it into the sea.


“Do you remember my brother?” Em asked Jena the next day. It was after school, and they were sitting behind the gym, against the wall’s cold bricks. Jena was experimenting with cigarettes. Em couldn’t see the shirt she wore today, as it was covered by a windbreaker.

They hadn’t spoken of her brother directly before. Jena’s eyes widened slightly.

“I don’t remember your brother,” Jena answered.

“We weren’t friends then. And we were still in middle school. When he died.”

Jena was cautious. “It was last year?”

“Eight months.”

“Do you think it’s his planet?” she asked.

Em shook her head. “No. It’s just a planet. That’s the point.” She thought about telling her about the stone but decided against it.

“Was it cancer?” Jena eyed her cigarette suspiciously.

“No. EB. I can’t remember what it stands for. It’s a genetic thing. They call them butterfly kids, because the layers of their skin don’t adhere correctly. They’re fragile. He always had sores. He was always in pain. And then he developed an aggressive mycosis and died.”

“Mycosis. That means . . .”

“A fungus. A fungal infection. Yes.”

“Why are you telling me?” Jena asked.

“Because it’s a thing.” Em took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Smoke made breath visible, showed you how quickly it dispersed. But Em wasn’t smoking. Her breath remained invisible. “Having skin that doesn’t work. Being killed by a fungus.”

“I’m sorry.” Jena was blinking, and Em realized with a flicker of surprise that there were tears in her eyes. “I mean, what do you do with that? What does that mean?”

“You told me something once,” Em said.

It had been a long time since Em cried. For a while, that had been the only thing that helped. But then, after a while, she couldn’t do it anymore. She would think about crying, but it was as though she was watching herself from the outside, and the feeling would pass. She felt the same way watching Jena now.

planet03“You told me about how they measure wind speeds on a planet’s surface.”

Jena stared at her and wiped her nose on her sleeve. “What?”

“How they can measure winds on planets so far away we can never reach them. You explained it, but I can’t remember.”

“Jesus Christ, Em.” Jena blinked again. “I’m crying about your brother, and I didn’t even know him.”

Em waited.

Jena pushed her cigarette out against the bricks. “It’s about temperature. If you know how close a planet is to its star and how fast it’s rotating, you can calculate temperature difference between its hot side and its cooler side. And you can use that to calculate wind speed. Because wind is caused, you know, by temperature differences,” she finished weakly.

“We can calculate the wind speeds on worlds trillions of miles away,” Em said. She touched Jena’s shoulder. “What do you do with that? What does it mean?”

“Nothing,” Jena said. “I mean, I don’t know. It just is. It’s just a fact that’s there.”

“Right.” She kissed Jena’s forehead. “Like my planet. Like you. That’s the point.”


That night, when Em fell to her black planet, she understood. If she had talked to her parents, they would have made her talk to a counselor, and maybe a counselor would have had a theory about why and how she saw a black planet spinning silently above her bed each night. But that wasn’t important. What was important was that the planet was sending a message: somewhere, in the empty night of space, I am here.

Em stepped out from under dark trees and looked at the mountains outlined against stars. The planet was there, and one day someone might measure its surface temperatures and wind speeds and maybe even—one day—set foot on its surface. But for every planet known, there will be a billion more never touched or seen.

Em had a vision of a world where the inky seas pitched up over the shoreline and beat at the stones.

It was the same with her brother’s death. A fact like that hangs there, in your sky, like an absolute black planet, like a planet without a sun.

She crouched in the shadows of the mountains and felt the cold stones beneath her.

Em knew, for a time, a black planet, absolutely alien and unique under foreign stars. She knew, for a time, her brother.

Em slept.

The black planet spun in silence above her.



Stephen Case gets paid for teaching people about space, which is pretty much the coolest thing ever. He also occasionally gets paid for writing stories about space (and other things) that have appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Daily Science Fiction, Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show,​ and several other publications. His novel, First Fleet​ , is being serialized by Retrofit Publishing and is available on Kindle. Stephen holds a PhD in the history and philosophy of science from the University of Notre Dame and will talk for inordinate amounts of time about nineteenth-century British astronomy. He lives with his wife, four children, and three chickens in an undisclosed suburb of Chicago that has not yet legalized backyard chickens.

The Law of the Conservation of Hair by Rachael K. Jones

That it has long been our joke that our hair lengths are inversely proportional, and cannot exceed the same cumulative mass it possessed on the day we met;

hair1That our faith was bound by this same Law, your exuberant pantheism balanced against my quiet nihilism;

That this Law does not apply to beards;

That you were the long-haired hippie boy, born too late for Woodstock, and I the butch bisexual with a pixie cut marching beside you in the climate change rally;

That we shared the same celebrity crushes—Michelle Obama and Nicolas Cage—and this surprised and delighted us;

That on our first date, we solemnly swore this vow: If we ever found a wardrobe portal, take it; or a TARDIS, hitch a ride; or a UFO, board it without hesitation;

That for such an act we should forgive each other implicitly and completely, because there would be no time to ask, and you might only get one shot;

That brides traditionally grow their hair long, and mourners shave it;

That I shaved mine anyway;

That you wore tiny white field daisies gathered by your niece in your braids, like faraway stars;

That you wore them in your beard too, except one you plucked for the justice of the peace to press in the pages of her Sufi poetry book;

That though we both had liberal arts degrees and too many strong opinions on Sappho, we loved the stars, and the phases of the Moon, and B-grade sci-fi cheese with rayguns and swamp things;

That we were both the type to volunteer when no one else would;

That when, in the strength of my passions, I rushed headlong into a cause, you would be the sword wielded by the arm of my conviction;

That the best swords are alloyed, and folded many times upon themselves;

That I believed in peace above all else, because life was short, and we were mortal, and once life was lost, it ended;

That you believed in peace too, but for opposite reasons;

That no one had yet survived First Contact, and the ships had been recovered empty and adrift, the astronauts completely vaporized;

That I pointed out how this was an absurd conclusion, because all matter, like hair, has to go somewhere;

That fear is an easier thing than hope;

That the fleet drew nearer each day;

That Earth wanted to launch a nuclear arsenal;

That they were running out of astronauts;

That you didn’t ask me before you signed us up for the mission to babysit the shuttle’s payload;

hair2That I didn’t mind;

That they made you cut your hair before we left Earth so your helmet would fit properly, but I had to grow mine out for the same reason;

That you stopped praying that day, and I quietly started;

That we passed the time on the shuttle to the asteroid belt reading aloud from Carl Sagan;

That we agreed the aliens were surely made of star stuff too, in their flat black triangular fleet falling toward Earth like a cloud of loosed arrows;

That they came upon us while we slept, and we jolted awake in our sleeping bags when the shuttle jerked to a stop;

That when we radioed them, they bathed the cockpit in shimmering blue light which tickled my nose like ginger-ale fizz and made me sneeze;

That instead of hitting the launch button, we waited;

That it was just like on Star Trek when we disintegrated, like Scotty beamed us up, except nobody asked permission first;

That we reappeared on their craft, whole and sound and long of hair;

That they had followed the climate change rally too, and taken pity on our plight, and this was a conservation effort;

That I insisted they send us back to explain;

That when I rematerialized on our shuttle, you didn’t return with me;

That you did it on purpose;

That it was, after all, the deal we made;

That I was angry anyway;

That I blasted Nickelback over every radio frequency as your punishment;

That the fleet answered me with mandolin music, distorted as in a dream;

That every sword is wielded by the arm of a conviction;

That every arrow is loosed toward a bullseye;

That all matter—not just hair—is conserved, neither created nor destroyed;

That it is all the stuff of stars;

That the stardust would love me in any form, and I him;

That we will always expand and diminish ourselves for each other’s sake;

That we will take turns being the rock or the slingshot, so we may fling each other into adventure;

That I jettisoned the payload;

That my shuttle shot homeward in a cloud of arrowheads;

That the arrows arced over the Earth, but did not strike;

That from the ground, it looked like long, dark tresses threading through the night sky;

That the bright white stars above flashed like a field of daisies;

And that when they fetched me dripping from the cold grip of the sea, the first thing I did was shave my head, as if for a wedding.




Rachael K. Jones grew up in various cities across Europe and North America, picked up (and mostly forgot) six languages, an addiction to running, and a couple degrees. Now she writes speculative fiction in Athens, Georgia, where she lives with her husband. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in a variety of venues, including Lightspeed, Accessing the Future, Strange Horizons, Escape Pod, Crossed Genres, and  Daily Science Fiction. She is an editor, a SFWA member, and a secret android. Follow her on Twitter @RachaelKJones.

Return to Shimmer #27

The Proper Motion of Extraordinary Stars, by Kali Wallace

Smoke rose from the center of Asunder Island, marring a sky so blue and so clear it made Aurelia’s eyes ache. The sailors had been insisting for days she would see the Atrox swooping and turning overhead, if only she watched long enough, but there was no sign of the great birds.

The hull of the dinghy scraped the black beach. A sailor splashed through the shallows to pull the boat ashore and help Aurelia out. Her sealskin boots kept her feet dry, but her wool skirts were instantly sodden.

“Tomorrow?” the man said.

“Yes,” said Aurelia. “Thank you.”

He was already rowing back to the open sea, eager to be away. The ship was a dark blot in the distance, tiny and fragile as a toy.

It was a cold day, but calm for the Southern Ocean, the air raw with the stink of fish and penguins. A thin trail wound from the beach up an eroded crack in the black slope. Aurelia chose her steps with care and did not stop until she reached the top.

Asunder Island had the shape of a cat’s eye: round at the shores, split down the middle by an elongated chasm, its depths hidden by smoke and darkness. The wind carried the island’s sulfurous gasps away from Aurelia, but she could taste the fumes on her tongue, feel the sting in her throat.

motion-pull1In Aurelia’s trunk aboard the ship was a monograph: Observations of the Southern Ocean Atrox in Their Island Colonies. The author, Mr. Davies, would have preferred to write about penguins, but people only wanted to read about the Atrox, or so he told Aurelia when they met in London. He would talk for hours about birds, but when she turned the conversation to the Summer Star he had only laughed.

“Nonsense,” Davies had said. “What place do sailors’ superstitions have in this modern age?”

Aurelia withdrew her mariner’s compass from her satchel. It did not matter what men like Mr. Davies said. She was here, black stone beneath her feet and cold wind on her face, and he was not. On Mr. Davies’s map, the crevasse was oriented precisely north to south, but her own measurement showed a northeast-southwest trend of at least fifteen degrees. She could not make a note yet — her ink would be frozen solid — but she would record the correction later.

She tucked her compass away and took a breath to steady herself. She stood now at the north end of the island. A colony of chinstrap penguins swarmed over the western flank, but Aurelia’s destination was to the east, where a long ridge of tumbling volcanic rock led to a village. Beyond the village, perched atop a cliff overlooking the end of the world, was the observatory.

Asunder Island was by all sensible measure a terrible location for an astronomical observatory. It was too remote for regular use, and the Southern Ocean too stormy. The telescope offered little to modern star charts that better observatories could not provide. The Asunder Island observatory existed for a single purpose: as the southernmost telescope on Earth, it was the only place suited to observe the Summer Star and measure its curious proper motion.

Tucked in beside Mr. Davies’s monograph in Aurelia’s trunk was a copy of Lord Petterdown’s Celestial Bodies of the Southern Sky, which devoted five pages to a spluttering dismissal of the Summer Star’s unusual motion. The measurements had to be wrong, said Petterdown, because common adventurers and uneducated sailors had no place mucking about in scientific inquiry. Aurelia found his careless argument offensive to her sense of intellectual rigor, but enticing as well, like a challenge to a duel. She was very much looking forward to proving him wrong.

As they had been preparing for their voyage, Aunt Theo had suggested that perhaps the words also stung Aurelia’s pride, as her parents had been among those common adventurers who had stopped briefly at Asunder Island. Aurelia had brushed aside her concern. Her parents were long dead, and it was Theo’s nature, not Aurelia’s, to be more swayed by sentiment than science.

The trail to the village was rough and steep. Aurelia paused to rest and the crunch of her boots fell quiet. The sounds of the island surrounded her. There was the wind, always the wind, scouring the stone and buffeting the fur flaps of her hat, and there was the grumbling sea. But there were also faint hisses and groans, a rustle like pages turning in a breeze, the knock and clatter of falling stones.

Aurelia turned, heart pounding, but she was alone. The sounds were rising from the chasm, the gaping heart of the island.

She stepped off the trail to peer over the edge. The smoke was as thick as the murkiest London fog, and the sulfur stench was strong. To the south a crooked stone staircase crawled into the darkness.

Standing above the crevasse, smoke stinging her eyes, Aurelia was for the first time willing to believe the lurid, far-fetched tales of explorers who had ventured into Atrox colonies: underground landscapes of bottomless pits and lakes of lava, impossible cities carved into stone, wild yellow eyes glowing from towers with predatory intelligence, a thousand black wings rustling in the darkness.

An ache in her lungs reminded her to breathe. She could not stand here all day gawking at shadows, hoping to glimpse one great bird. She had work to do. She turned away.

The village was a ring of six stone huts with roofs fashioned from battered shipboards. There were no windows. Every door was shut tight. The only sign of occupation was the greasy black smoke rising from the chimneys. On the ground, discarded fish scales glinted in the sunlight. A skinny brown rat scurried into hiding.

Aurelia swallowed her revulsion. She was tempted to bypass the village and head straight to the observatory, but at this latitude, on the rising edge of summer, there were only a few hours of darkness each night, and it would be some time before the sun set. The ship’s captain had warned her to treat the islanders politely. There was talk among the sailors about the islanders and their relationship with the Atrox colony, sordid rumors that made the men snicker behind their beards when Aurelia and Theo approached. Aurelia had little patience for the gossip of sailors, but she would not allow their bad manners to excuse her own.

She strode to the nearest door and knocked. Something rustled inside; she leaned close to listen.

“Hello!” she called. “Is anybody here? Hello?”

“They won’t answer.”

The voice came from another building; a round face peered through the cracked door, a girl of about eighteen, pale and freckled.

“They don’t like strangers,” the girl said.

“Hello,” said Aurelia. “I didn’t see you there. My name is Aurelia Gallagher. I’ve come to use the observatory.”

The girl disappeared into the hut and the door swung inward. Her voice floated from the murky shadows. “It won’t be dark for some time. Would you like to come in?”

The inside of the hut was as squalid as the outside. The only light came from a low fire on the hearth, and the room stank of fish and smoke. A lumpy cot crowded one corner, a small table another. Wedged into the wall above the table was a plank, and on it an assortment of objects: coins, rusty nails, medicine bottles, a fob watch with a cracked face.

“We don’t get very many visitors,” said the girl. “My name is Constance. Where have you come from? Please, go on, sit there by the fire where it’s warm.”

Aurelia sat gingerly on a crooked bench. She held her satchel in her lap and pulled her feet close. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Constance. I’ve come from London.”

“I’ve heard so much about London. My fiancé has told me. Will you have tea?”

“Only if it’s no trouble,” said Aurelia.

“Oh, it isn’t.” Constance was already reaching for a dented kettle. She moved stiffly, favoring her left side; her shoulder was hunched beneath a heavy shawl. “Gran would like some too, wouldn’t you?”

Constance smiled toward a dark corner of the hut. Eyes glittered in the shadows, and a mottled gray lump moved. Aurelia startled. She had mistaken the old woman for a pile of blankets.

“Aurelia has come to use the observatory, Gran,” Constance said. “Isn’t that grand? We don’t have many women come to our island.”

Aurelia twisted her gloves together on her lap. One of those rare women had been her mother, Letitia. Aurelia’s parents had stopped at Asunder Island long ago, before she was born. Their memories of soaring great Atrox had been among her favorite bedtime stories — although they had neglected to mention the grim village where wretched old women lived little better than animals.

“Gran likes visitors from far away,” Constance said.

Crouching in the corner, knees bent to her chest, the old woman said nothing. Beneath the folds of her skirt her toenails were yellow and curved. Gray hair fell in dirty hanks around her face. Beside her, in the corner, a wooden ladder jutted from a hole in the floor.

Gran blinked and Aurelia looked away, her face warm.

Constance set out chipped cups and saucers. The tea, she said, was a gift from her fiancé, a sailor at the whaling station on South Georgia Island.

“We’re going to be married soon,” she said.

“Does he visit often?” Aurelia asked.

“He was here last summer,” said Constance. “January, at the turn of the year. That was when we courted. He’ll return soon.”

“Will you go with him when you’re wed?” Aurelia asked, examining Constance with new interest. “Are you very excited?”

Constance knelt by the fire. The flames made her pale face look sickly and flushed. “Life aboard a whaleship is no place for a bride, is it?”

Aurelia’s vision of two young people sharing whispered plans for escape evaporated, and she felt pity so overwhelming she could almost taste it. The young man was likely oceans away by now, having forgotten all about the strange hunched girl waiting on a black lump of rock in the Southern Ocean, except perhaps when he needed a tale to share with friends. She thought I would marry her, he would say, and pass the bottle along. She smelled of fish and slept with rats and she thought we were in love, and he would laugh, he would light his pipe, he would speak of other things.

The kettle pinged and hissed. Constance wrapped her skirt around her good hand to lift it out of the fire. As she turned, her shawl slipped from her left shoulder.

The useless limb wasn’t an arm at all. It was a wing. The feathers were as black as oil.

Aurelia stared, her pulse thunderous in her ears. The captain’s warning, the sailors’ knowing laughter. The way Mr. Davies had shuddered with distaste and touched his handkerchief to the corner of his mouth when Aurelia asked about the inhabitants of Asunder Island and how they lived with the Atrox colony so near. She hadn’t listened. She hadn’t even understood what she was refusing to hear.

Constance tugged the shawl absently back into place and she was a girl again, only a girl, her deformity hidden. “Hot tea is the only thing for a day like this, don’t you think? Do you have wind like this in London? Here we are. I hope it’s strong enough.”

Aurelia drank without thinking. The tea tasted of moldy wood; she gagged and coughed. In the corner dark eyes sparked, and the old woman’s dry laughter filled the room.

“No,” said Aurelia, recovering. “We don’t have wind like this in London. Nothing like this at all.”

“Will you tell me?” Constance asked. When she spoke faint lines around her mouth creased; she was older than Aurelia had first thought. “We have so few visitors. I love to hear all about where they’ve come from.”

Aunt Theo would know what to say. She would overcome her shock at the existence of this chimerical girl, she would laugh away the awkwardness, she would fill the silence. But Theo had remained on the ship. Here there was only Aurelia with her unease and an afternoon to endure before dark. She sipped the foul tea and hoped Constance could not see how her hands trembled.

“What do you want to know?” she asked.

Constance’s expression was eager. “Everything.”

It was easier once she began to speak. It was only conversation, she told herself. It did not matter what Constance hid beneath her shawl. As the day waned she told Constance about London’s gardens in springtime, the rattle of carriages on paving stones, the markets and the pickpockets, church bells on Sunday morning. Constance was full of questions about the world beyond her island. Aurelia tried to explain how it felt to stand at the heart of London with the crowds pressing all around, so many people and so little space, the air so thick with the noise of them it felt like drowning, but all of her words were inadequate to span the distance between Asunder Island and home.

“It sounds remarkable,” Constance said, soft and wistful, pouring out the last of their second pot of tea.

“It is,” said Aurelia. She and Theo had left London months ago aboard a morning train to Southampton, and not until they passed the equator on their voyage south had Aurelia felt the pinch of homesickness in her gut and wished she had looked back for a last glance.

Her mother would laugh to hear them now. Letitia had always insisted London was dull and mundane, no comparison at all to the dark jungles and vast deserts and ancient cities of the world, all the places where a bold woman might go to feel joyous and alive.

Aurelia felt only cold and anxious. Her revulsion had softened, but she could not find enthusiasm in its place. Perhaps the joy came later, in the drawing rooms of less adventurous friends, where a crooked stone hut that stank of fish might transform into a bold Antarctic outpost, a lonely half-winged girl into an island princess.

“It will be dark soon,” Constance said. “Would you like to go to the observatory?”

motion-pull2The question caught Aurelia by surprise. The afternoon had slipped past in a dream of moldy tea and tiresome wind, and she felt breathlessly unprepared for the night. She fumbled for her satchel, dropped her gloves, mumbled her assent.

They went into the blustery dusk. Sunset burnished the sky in fiery shades, and faded, the last daylight leeching away. Bright stars emerged and Aurelia counted them one by one. Her neck ached. The wind was brutally cold but she lingered, watching the horizon, waiting. Years of planning, months of travel, and the tea had grown cold, and the earth had turned, and it was time. She had come so far to see —

There. The Summer Star was rising. A spark at the edge of the world.

From the chasm rose a sudden clattering roar. The Atrox were awake.

In the twilight Constance’s eyes had the same beetle-shell gleam as her grandmother’s. “They’re always restless at night.”


Inside, the observatory was surprisingly warm. There was a fire in an iron stove, and behind it, tucked in the corner, was the old woman.

Aurelia stopped short, but Constance didn’t notice. She bustled around the room lighting candles and lamps.

The old woman stared at Aurelia, unblinking. Here too she crouched beside a square hole where the arms of a wooden ladder reached from below. The noise of the Atrox was quieter inside, but the ground felt unsteady, as though the island itself were the flank of a great beast, rising and falling with slow breaths. Did those people who chose to — Aurelia glanced at Constance’s wing, cringed — intermingle with the Atrox stay below to live? Did they surrender to the caverns entirely? Aurelia strained to listen, but she could not hear human voices in that muffled roar.

“Do you know how to use the telescope?” Constance asked.

Aurelia pulled her gaze away from the old woman. “Yes, I do.”

“I don’t know much about it,” Constance admitted. “I used to play with it when I was little, but I could never see anything more than smudges of light. This here, this is how we open the roof.”

The observatory roof rattled as they turned the crank.

“It must be important, that little star,” Constance said. She wasn’t hiding her wing anymore. Hanging uselessly at her side, the long black feathers almost resembled fingers, or claws. “So many people come to look at it.”

“It is,” Aurelia said, “although not everyone agrees. Many astronomers say it’s only a curiosity.”

Before her journey began, Aurelia had received a dozen letters from concerned relatives and members of the Royal Society suggesting that while her capacity with sums was impressive for a woman, it would be better for her to devote herself to a more appropriate pursuit, such as a respectable marriage or a career as a governess, rather than spending so much ink pleading for an unnecessary Antarctic expedition. Think of Hugh and Letitia, they said. Would her parents not want better for her? After what happened to them, desiccated by disease beneath the pink stone palaces of Jaipur, surely they would want her to remain safe in London?

“But I think it’s far more than a curiosity.” Aurelia said. “You see, the Summer Star is moving.”

“All stars move,” Constance said.

Aurelia shook her head, warming to her explanation. “Not like this. It moves unlike stars around it. It moves with them too, rising and setting every day and through all the seasons, but it’s also moving between them. Not so we can see it with our eyes — we have to watch for years. But it’s still much faster than any star should move. Other stars have shifted only half a degree since the time of the Greeks, but this one, it’s crossed that span in less than a century.”

“Is it coming closer or going farther away?” Constance asked.

“I don’t know,” Aurelia said, an edge of frustration creeping into her voice. She was speaking too quickly, at a pitch too high. “There’s a man in England who suggests that all stars are moving away from the earth. But even for him, even with all of his equipment aimed at the very brightest stars, his flint prisms and his spectra — even then it’s a very difficult measurement. And the Summer Star is so unusual in its other motion, so strange…” Aurelia gestured helplessly. “I don’t know.”

“So much bother for one tiny speck of light,” Constance said, amused. “And there are so many stars.”

Aurelia stopped herself from making a sharp reply. Constance wasn’t being unkind. She didn’t care to hear about parallax and prisms, degrees and declinations. Aurelia turned her attention to adjusting the telescope. Soon the Summer Star’s nearest celestial neighbors would be high enough above the horizon for measurement.

“Do you need this? This is where the others have written down their numbers.” Constance carried a large leather-bound book to Aurelia, holding it against her body with her one hand. “You’ll have to write yours as well, won’t you?”

Aurelia took the book from her and laid it on her knees. She dug through her satchel to find her pen and ink. “Yes. Yes, of course. Thank you.”

The book’s pages were full of numbers, notes, and trigonometrical calculations spanning more than a century. A young stargazer aboard Captain Cook’s Resolution had been the first to measure the curious motion of the Summer Star, and a few years later his observations had captured the interest of Lord Petterdown’s father, who had spent an unseemly portion of his family’s fortune constructing the telescope on Asunder Island. New measurements had been added at odd intervals ever since, whenever a traveler or a sailor with a liking for astronomy made the journey.

Aurelia turned the pages carefully — the paper was dry and rotting at the edges — and stopped when her eyes found familiar handwriting. Her heart began to drum and her breath shortened. She traced the columns with her fingertips, catching on imperfections. She had known they would be in here. She had always known. But she had, somehow, expected her father’s handwriting, not her mother’s, not the elegant lines and curves of script she had coveted since she was a child, yearning for every new letter. At the top of the page were careless drops of ink and the smudge of a fingerprint.

“I remember them,” said Constance.

Aurelia resisted the urge to cover the book with her hands, to hide it jealously and clutch it to her chest.

“Do you?” she asked doubtfully. Her parents had visited Asunder Island before Aurelia was born, and she didn’t think Constance could be much older than her own thirty years. “You must have been very young.”

Constance sat beside her on the bench, brushing Aurelia’s shoulder. Where her arm should have been there was the unnatural give of feathers. Aurelia leaned away.

“They were a young couple,” Constance said. “Man and wife. I remember because so few women come here.”

Aurelia swallowed. Her mouth was dry.

“He was ill. He ought to have stayed on the ship. That’s what his wife kept saying,” Constance went on. “She made him rest on a pallet over there on the floor. They argued about it, but I think she was quite used to getting her own way. They didn’t seem to care much about the star, not the way you do. It was only a diversion to them.”

A storm of answers gathered on the tip of Aurelia’s tongue: But they were never ill, not until the end. They never argued. How could you possibly know what they cared about? They were alive and in love and this place, this grim little island, it was only a flicker in their lives. A breath, a blink, a bedtime story. They never told me about you.

“I confess I pitied her,” Constance said.

Aurelia closed her hand into a fist, creasing the edge of the paper. “What reason could you have for pity?” she asked, because she could not say: how dare you?

“She was unhappy.”

Aurelia had no memories of her mother being unhappy. Letitia was as radiant as a fairy queen, always in motion, pulling Aurelia’s laughing father in her wake. Aurelia could scarcely imagine how it must have changed at the end, when they were struck down by cholera. She had never forgiven them for dying so very far from her.

“Why do you say she was unhappy?” Aurelia asked.

“She told me a story to pass the time. Would you like to hear it?”

The answer thrummed in Aurelia’s fingers with her heartbeat. The numbers on the page blurred. She unclenched her hand and laid it flat, thumb covering the smudge of Letitia’s fingerprint. Everything she had learned, everything she had prepared, it all fled from her mind. There was only the wind rattling the roof, the woman beside her with an impossible wing, the restless Atrox, her mother’s ink beneath her hand. She had always thought her mother had such delicate hands, but she had been a child, and a child’s memories were less trustworthy than the sea before a storm.

“I have quite a lot to do,” Aurelia said.

It was the coward’s response.

“This woman,” Constance began, “she said — “

“Letitia,” Aurelia said. “Her name was Letitia.”

Constance looked at her with something like pity. “I thought you had the look of her.”

Aurelia set the book aside. Her breath hitched, and she was a child again, watching through the parlor window for the carriage that would bring her parents home, excited and terrified and hungry for a glimpse of their faces, for the music of their laughter.

She said, “I would very much like to hear the story she told you.”


They had been sailing between England and the Australian colonies, adventurers flying across the world, never allowing the snares of society to catch their heels. Letitia was the only woman aboard, but the crew gave her little trouble. She was a gentlewoman, and her husband was strong and blessed with an Irish temper.

(Aurelia smiled, remembering her father’s red face and untrimmed whiskers, the boom of his voice, the songs he taught her to shock disapproving nursemaids. They could have been great friends, father and daughter, if only he had quelled his wanderlust, or lived long enough to take her along.)

One night during this journey Letitia woke from a restless sleep to find the ship still in the water. Desperate for a breath of fresh air, she slipped from her husband’s embrace and fled their stuffy cabin. On deck the sailors had fallen asleep at their watch; not one stirred at her approach. It should have worried her, but she felt only relief to have the night to herself.
There was no moon, but the starlight on the sea was bright enough for her to see an island nearby: a gentle hump of land, a necklace of silver sand, a dark thatch of palms.

The night air was cool and pleasant on her skin. She gulped it in greedily, tasting each breath. Though she was newly wed and very much in love, Letitia still harbored the suspicion that the farther she ran, the smaller the world became, the more insidious its traps. London had grown too close for her, England as well, and every grand city in Europe. She had thought to escape by setting sail, but even the world’s oceans seemed to be shrinking around her, the horizons creeping closer with every day. She knew in the morning her restlessness would fade, and she would walk the deck on her husband’s arm, and they would talk of the places they would go, the wonders they would see. You are so very lucky, her mother had said when she married, the needles in her voice belying the kindness of the words. You are so very lucky to have found a man to indulge your whims, to keep you safe from your wildest impulses.

But now Letitia stood with no one but the sea. She could not bear to return to the suffocating cabin and the scratch of her husband’s chest against her cheek. The night was as untethered as a dream. It had been too long since she let a wild impulse take her.

She stepped out of her nightgown, climbed onto the wooden rail, and dove into the water. She swam toward the island with long, smooth strokes. She did not stop until she felt the sugar-soft sand beneath her feet.

When she emerged from the sea, the women were waiting.

They stood like sentries on the beach, unsmiling in the starlight. They were dark and pale, sturdy and thin, young and old. Letitia wrung seawater from her hair and did not let herself tremble under the weight of their stares.

The line of women parted, and an old woman appeared. She was hunched and round with plaited gray hair hanging over her shoulders. She held out a hand and led Letitia up the beach to where a great bonfire raged.

Around the fire the women danced and sang into the night. Letitia did not know their languages, for they spoke dozens, but she understood every song. They told stories of escaping their own husbands and mothers and the pretty cages their families had built for them, how they crafted boats and wove sails and chased the wind across storms and sunrises. Each woman’s voice lifted in an exultant shout, and she threw her arms to the sky, and her arms became wings, and she rose on the cries and cheers of the others.

(In the eyepiece of the telescope, the Summer Star wavered, blurred. Aurelia remembered sitting quiet as a ghost in her mother’s room, watching Letitia dress for a party, and the thin twin scars she spied between Letitia’s shoulders. She had invented her own stories for her mother’s old wound: a jaguar stalking through the jungle, a headhunter in the Amazon, a sultan’s flashing sword in an Arabian desert. Had she imagined a pair of wings unfurled? What a fanciful child she had been.)

The night lasted years. Letitia danced until her skin wrinkled and her breasts sagged, her voice cracked like old wood and her hair grew matted and gray. She forgot her own name, her husband’s touch, her mother’s voice, the cool green homeland she had left behind. She danced to welcome every new woman who surged ashore.

Then it was her turn to stoop and shuffle as the younger women stepped aside, to hold out a welcoming hand to a girl who emerged dripping and wary from the waves.

But when Letitia caught the girl’s hand, smoke and saltwater cleared from her eyes. The girl had Hugh’s red hair, Theo’s Roman nose, Mother’s pinched scowl. The sky to the east was brightening. The dark silhouette of a ship marred the water.

Letitia gripped the girl’s hand and pulled her into the waves. Fear was a fire in her throat. They dove together, and with every stroke the years washed from Letitia’s body. When she reached the ship and scrambled up the ropes, her hair was dark again, her skin smooth, her limbs straight and strong. Her nightgown lay where she had left it. She dressed with shaking hands.

She looked back, but the island was gone. There was only a burst of seabirds, specks of shadow in a gray dawn, whirling and rising as the sun swallowed them.

It wasn’t until she was settled again at her husband’s side that she remembered the girl. She pressed her fingers to her lips to muffle her sobs. They had been swimming together, then she was alone, and she had not felt the moment the girl slipped away.


“That’s all she told me,” said Constance. “The island was gone. The sailors had never seen it. She was your mother?”

Aurelia scrubbed at her damp cheeks and cleared her throat. “Yes. She — yes. She used to tell me stories of her adventures. She was… They were always sailing away to somewhere new, some faraway place. Every time they sent a letter I would find them on a map.”

Aurelia had been twelve years old when a letter brought the news of her parents’ deaths to Aunt Theo’s house in London. Old enough to read it for herself, young enough to declare it a lie. She was adamant: there was no way they could know for certain what had happened. They had no proof. For two months she presented her hypothesis every morning over breakfast. India was very far away, and who was this army officer sending them letters anyway? Her mother and father had never contracted cholera here, in London, and why should Indian cholera be so very different? Had they not survived ordeals far stranger? The next letter — this was the culmination of Aurelia’s thesis, punctuated with the clatter of a spoon on china — the next letter would arrive any day now, and that stranger would be shown for the fool he was. What a mistake I have made, he would say. It was another girl’s parents who perished. Yours have already set sail for home. They will be with you soon. What a terrible mistake I have made.

Aurelia remembered how Aunt Theo had listened with tears in her eyes, tears Aurelia scorned because there was no reason to cry. She remembered finding Jaipur on a map of the world and tracing the long route back to London: overland to Bombay, aboard a ship around the Cape of Good Hope, north across the doldrums, riding the westerlies home. She remembered the feel of the map beneath her fingertip, the clean lines made imperfect when ink smudged from her touch.

What she couldn’t remember was when she had stopped imagining her parents as a speck on a map coming ever closer, and when she had begun instead to see them as shades retreating into the distance, all color and light and laughter washed away, echoes of echoes fading to silence.

“She never told me that story,” Aurelia said, envy sour at the back of her throat.

Constance’s face fell. “I’m so sorry. I’ve always remembered her.”

Aurelia’s jealousy vanished as quickly as it had sparked, and in its place she felt only sadness. Sadness for Constance on her lonely island, collecting the stories of strangers, forever trapped between the two worlds to which she could never fully belong. For the restless young woman Letitia had been, sitting on this same bench, beneath the dome of this same telescope, sharing a small secret piece of her heart. For the little girl who had traced her fingers over maps and watched at rain-streaked windows for a carriage that never came.

“I could tell you more,” Aurelia said, “if you like. My mother had so many adventures, and even a short night can feel very long.”

Through the night they shared stories as Aurelia measured the stars. Aurelia spoke of her parents and eventually herself, her voyage south and how long she had yearned for it, and Constance told her about all the people who came to Asunder Island to study the stars or the Atrox, from those who stayed only a night to the others who went into the chasm and never returned. Aurelia could not bring herself to ask if there was a woman below with Constance’s pale face and freckles, human in form but birdlike in manner, thinking only sometimes about the hybrid daughter who lived above. Her curiosity was fierce, but it was not more important than allowing Constance the dignity of deciding what parts of herself to share.

Accompanying their voices was the ceaseless wind, the restless birds, the soft scratch of Aurelia’s pen. With every memory and every measurement she felt something untangle in her chest. The Summer Star had four close companions in the night sky, and she recorded the distance between each pair carefully, once in the book, again in her own journal. So much fuss for such a little speck of light, but for that night, in that place, the star was hers.

She made notes as new ideas occurred to her, planning the first of what she was sure would be many letters to the Royal Society. It was time to learn about spectra and prisms and the optics of starlight falling on earth, if she wanted to discover which direction the Summer Star was traveling. There was no reason to wait for somebody else to solve the problem for her.

Eventually dawn chased away the polar night and the stars faded. Constance had been quiet for some time; Aurelia had not noticed when their conversation faltered. She made a final note in her journal, rolled her tired shoulders and rubbed her eyes.

Her movement broke the quiet that had settled over the observatory. The old woman, still as a statue for hours, blurred into motion. Her legs unbent, her arms flashed. Aurelia saw yellow teeth, the red cave of her mouth, and before she could even catch a breath the old woman was gone, scurrying down the ladder like a spider on a web.

“She worries about them before they fly,” Constance said. “She likes to see them off.”

Her voice was mild, but Aurelia felt the words as a reprimand. She had scarcely been able to glance at the old woman, too afraid of staring, too absorbed in her own disgust. Had she looked closer she might have seen the concerned grandmother beneath the grime, the one for whom the colony below and the island above were only different rooms in the same house.

Constance banked the fire and doused the lamps. Aurelia blew on the book to dry the last of her ink. They closed the observatory dome and went into the cold, cold morning.

The Atrox were even louder outside. Aurelia stepped toward the chasm, but Constance stopped her with a hand on her arm. They stood shoulder to shoulder, backs to the sunrise, rocked by the wind. The sky was a painter’s canvas of pink and gray and orange, brush strokes untamed and beautiful.

Beyond the black shoulder of the island, beyond the chasm and the smoke and the gray waking sea, the Summer Star lowered itself toward the horizon. The sun rose, and Aurelia’s shadow stretched beside Constance’s, long inseparable spindles reaching to the crevice. A heartbeat, a held breath —

The Atrox took flight.

They exploded from the chasm in a fury of thunder and black wings. The gust knocked Aurelia backwards — hot, scented of sulfur and fire. The noise was deafening. The birds whirled in a long spiral, blanketing the island in shadow. The sky was a shroud of wings and reptilian yellow eyes. Claws, curled. Heads angled toward the sky.

Aurelia’s heart was racing. She began to shiver. She felt impossibly light, freed from gravity. All she had to do was raise her arms and she would soar as well.

The cloud of birds lifted and dawn returned, and with it the shimmering sea. The last Atrox beat their way out of the chasm to follow the black cloud to the west, to their star, the Summer Star, their noise and their stench fading as they raced away. The flock became a puff of coal smoke, a thread of black silk, and the sky swallowed it in a flash of impossible starlight. The birds were gone. The Summer Star had set.

“They’re lovely, aren’t they?” said Constance softly.

Aurelia had no answer. Weight returned to her limbs, pressed her feet to the ground. She hesitated too long, pulled herself back to earth too slowly, and Constance was turning toward the stone cottage.

“Wait,” Aurelia called.

Constance stopped.

“You can come with me.”

Constance tilted her head, an unnervingly birdlike motion. “Come with you?”

“To England. To London. You don’t have to stay here. Come with me.”

In the dawn light the faint lines on Constance’s face stood out as shadows. “You’re very kind,” she said. She tugged her shawl over shoulder, hiding the wing that would never carry her to the sky. “It was so lovely visiting with you, but you had best hurry to the beach. The sea is rough today. They’ll be wanting to take you away soon.”

She disappeared into the hut.

Aurelia looked at the closed door for a long moment, seized by indecision. She could run after her, pound on the planks, convince Constance of her sincerity. Prove the disgust and pity she had felt was gone — but it was a selfish impulse. Constance was not a child, however young she looked. She did not need Aurelia’s approval, nor her rescue. Aurelia turned her back to the village in a confusion of disappointment and relief, sensations unmoored by the morning wind.

The trail to the beach was littered with black feathers. Aurelia collected a handful and tucked them into her satchel. They were unexpectedly sharp, pricking her skin like nettles. Mr. Davies had neglected to describe the physical properties of the feathers in his monograph. She would have to write her own account — her interaction with the Atrox was limited, to be sure, but she could at least mention the feathers.

She had scarcely considered what might come after her journey’s purpose was fulfilled. She had been following the footsteps of others, looking to affirm what they had already discovered. She could not remember why she had ever thought challenging Lord Petterdown would have been enough. He was only a man, a diversion in a world of wonders. There were truths yet to discover about that odd outcast star that sat so uneasily in the night sky, questions pressing at the back of her throat. Asunder Island sat alone at the end of the world, but an end was not so very different from a beginning.

motion-pull3But that was for tomorrow. Today she would return to the ship, and Aunt Theo would check her calculations and chuckle in her deep alto voice, and she would propose a toast: to proving the men of the Royal Society wrong, to humiliating Lord Petterdown, to unladylike curiosity and scientific inquiry, to questions with answers waiting to be found. To the excitement of traveling the world and the comfort of returning home. They would drink the cognac Theo had been reserving for this occasion, and they would drink more, and as the warm sleepy flush spread, Aurelia would tell Theo about Constance and Letitia’s lost island in the South Pacific. Theo’s eyes would soften with surprise, and it wouldn’t be as difficult as Aurelia had always imagined it to be, to allow Letitia to shine again for moments between them, as infuriating and impossible as she had been in life.

And they would toast again, Aurelia to her mother, Theo to her sister, to the life she had lived in the only way she knew how, to sailing their own oceans to do the same. They would toast to one journey ending and another beginning, and because Letitia would have laughed they would laugh as well, their voices small in the heart of the sea.

Clouds crawled across the sky. The ocean was choppy and flecked with white. Aurelia picked her way down the steep slope to the beach. She drew her scarf over her nose and watched the dinghy appear as a black speck in the distance.




Kali Wallace studied geophysics before she realized she enjoyed inventing imaginary worlds more than she liked researching the real one. Her short fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, F&SF, Asimov’s, Lightspeed, and Tor.com. Her first novel will be published by Katherine Tegen Books/HarperCollins in 2016. She lives in southern California.

We Take the Long View, by Erica L. Satifka

The snow crunches under our boots as us-in-Devora and us-in-Mel trace our way through the Forest-That-Thinks. We pause, waiting for directions.

That way.

Sunlight pierces through the low-slung clouds. The Forest speaks again and there’s a picture in our minds of the Very-Big-Wrong and the image of a landing site appears in our head. We have not thought of landing sites for a very long time.

What do you think it is? Us-in-Mel asks, mind-to-mind.

Us-in-Devora shakes her head and shrugs. I do not know.

Is it food? Us-in-Mel scoops a pile of dead Leaves from the ground on which we stand and crams them into our mouth. That part of us is always hungry.

I. Don’t. Know.

Faster! screams the Forest, and we snap to attention.

As we sprint to the landing site, Us-in-Mel makes careful blazes in the Forest’s thick trunks. It wouldn’t do to wander off—not when there’s a Very-Big-Wrong somewhere, loose and so close.

Us-in-Devora is the first of us to stumble into the clearing to the landing site covered with a fine layer of snow. She-that-is-us paces around it, careful not to step on the pieces of us that were broken off at the Wrong. Our nose wrinkles.

Smelly, she says, her mind-speak betraying her disgust.

It’s… Mel grasps for a word, but can’t come up with a better one. Smelly. Yes.

We pick up a stick, a stray dead part of us, and poke the thing in the clearing. It stirs.

26 January 2564

Today we enter the outer fringe of the Horsehead Nebula, a dismal little planet called Fleming-7, where two standard years ago we lost communication with sixty-five Terran colonists. A recovery team has been rallied to recover what we can from the ill-fated mission, laying to rest the suspicions and fears of their families.

I know I shouldn’t question the motivations of Central Control, but this is a fool’s errand. It’s a waste of time to hunt about for dead bodies on some lousy backwater. With any luck we’ll find what we’re looking for quickly, and I will be home soon to my precious Bianca, waiting for me in stasis, unwilling to lose our life together to such a distant journey.

At least I’ll get overtime, if we’re lucky.

End transmission,

We poke at the not-us on the ground for a good long time, until it turns over, coughs, and sits up, rubbing its face with its hands. It blinks, looking at us as we look at it.

“You’re alive?” It reaches for something at its waist, then reels back its hand.

“Of course we’re alive,” us-in-Mel says in the mouth-voice, Leaves falling from our lips. “Are you alive?”

“Am I alive?” The not-us scoots back.

“That’s what we asked,” says Devora. “You don’t have to answer now if you don’t know.”

The not-us stands and scrambles back to the site of the Wrong. It pulls out a little black box and pushes a button on the side. “I’m going to have to call this in. Just…stay there. Stay right there.”

Silly it-thing! we think. Where else would we go, if not the Wrong? Because it is wrong, and because it lies at the heart of the Forest-That-Thinks, we can’t exactly leave it alone.

While we wait for the not-us to finish with its black box, we play one of our favorite games. Devora ducks behind one of the huge trunks, while the us-who-is-Mel scampers behind another.

Marco, Devora thinks.

Polo, Mel thinks.

And we think as one, and because of this, we are happy.


8 February 2564

Unexpected complications have arisen. Several of the doomed colonists are alive, though badly traumatized from their experiences. Spectral analysis performed remotely aboard the ship has determined the overabundance of unusual compounds in the heartwood of the trees.

Aside from the trees and the colonists, there is no other life.

The survivors of the crash will be briefed, decontaminated, and brought aboard the ship. The properties of the planet must be investigated as well, for their usefulness and potential profit to Central Control.

I do wonder if there’s a way to spin this to my advantage. The euphoric, almost childlike state of the colonists leads me to believe that the alien compounds might fetch a good price on Terra. We’ll run tests, of course. Still, how fortunate it would be to return a rich man. That would almost make these months of isolation worth it, both for me and for Bianca.

End transmission,

We are in turmoil.

The Very-Big-Wrong, the it-thing from the landing site, has invaded the settlement, the place where the we-that-are-mobile gather to speak, to screw, and to eat of Leaves and body-food. We begged and pleaded at it and asked the Forest-That-Thinks to give us permission to use force to repel the intruder.

No, said the Forest.

But why? asked us-in-Devora.

He is of use. And then the Forest-That-Thinks did the cruelest thing it can ever do, shutting us off from it, so that Devora and Mel could only speak mind-to-mind in whispers, and they couldn’t hear the others of us very much at all.

Sometimes, we do not like the Forest-That-Thinks.

The intruder strode into the settlement with great bounce in its step. It is no longer afraid of us. And because we don’t want to be forever shut off from the Forest-That-Thinks by fighting back, it has no reason to be afraid of us.

We are powerless.

It has been here for seventeen cycles of the light that shines behind the cloud cover: seventeen dusks, sixteen darks. Refusing to eat either our food or the sap of the forest, it lacks Understanding. It will not speak with us except through the mouth, and only a few of us retain that primitive method of communication. Those who do are resentful at having to translate everything for the Wrong.

It is Wrong, after all! We are Right! Why has the Forest-That-Thinks forsaken us?

Forest has reasons, us-in-Devora says. Her real voice is barely a whisper compared to the ugly mouth-voice.

You trust too easily, us-in-Mel replies.

Maybe, she says, eyeing the intruder. It is breaking off one of our Branches, and our heart catches at the pain. Maybe not.

15 February 2564

Through observation and conversation with the other members of the crew, I’ve determined that the compounds secreted by the sap of the native trees seem to induce a weak telepathic ability in the stranded colonists. It’s a little scary to know how easily they can talk behind my back. If they weren’t so subservient, I might start to get paranoid.

Physically, the colonists are weak as kittens. The sap that opens their minds to one another betrays the body, and as a result the colonists are completely spotted with tumors of all sizes, making them look a bit like bags of rocks with faces. It brings to mind the terminal form of that ancient disease, cancer.

The other day, I caught a colonist eating his own tumors, using his thick fingernails to slice open the epidermis and ferret the tumor from his body. Then he popped it in his mouth like a cherry. I shuddered when I saw that. Must investigate further.

The crew sends cans of food down the elevator, but they won’t come down themselves, the big babies. Certainly, my bravery will earn me special mention from Central Control when we get back to Terra.

I hope so, anyway.

End transmission,

The intruder wears a mask around its mouth now and swathes its body in linens dropped from the ship in the sky. It doesn’t fear us, but it fears the Understanding.

To be fair, a few days ago, some of the us-that-are-mobile did try to put the sap in its mouth. And it did roar mightily about that with its mouth-voice, and it did hit several of us. The one-that-was-Mel died.

And yet, the Forest-That-Thinks remains silent. Help us, you who are also us!

But we will not stray, we will not allow the individual desires and hungers that once ruled us like iron fists to dictate our actions now. To do so would remove us from the grace of our Forest.

That would be suicide.

The intruder set up its camp at the edge of our settlement. There it stays, crouching, waiting. For what, we do not know. It speaks into its little black box with its horrible mouth-voice. It eats from silver cans. Its bright orange inflatable hut is like its ugly mind, a shield that hides it from the Community. When it questions us, which is often, it forces us to speak with our mouth voices, because it cannot yet speak the true language.

It laughs at us. It thinks we-who-are-mobile have forgotten the way we used to be. “I could fix you. Cut out those tumors, synthesize an agent to work against the tree sap.”

“No,” one of us says. “Not that.”

It lowers its eyes. “I could make you.”

We flinch when it says that. We have seen the power in the intruder, the way it cast us-in-Mel aside. We don’t want to be cast aside to die. Even though we are but instances of the Community, each of us still clings stubbornly to our own facet of life.

“Please don’t,” we say. “Please.”

It just laughs some more, that hideous noise smearing the perfect silence of our world.

Us-in-Devora travels often to see the intruder. She watches it from the bushes near its camp, and through her eyes, we see it too. At first we could see it brightly, as if with our very own eyes. Now, we can barely see it at all. We-who-are-mobile are very worried about us-in-Devora.

28 February 2564

The crew grows impatient. Ever since I came down they’ve been requesting a departure timetable. I know my faithless crew is reading these entries, so here’s your timetable: we’ll go when I say we go.


I have studied the sap of what they call the “forest that thinks” more in depth, and have determined that it is indeed highly carcinogenic. Why these people are alive, I have no idea. Nor do I know what triggers the telepathic sense. In all my weeks here, I haven’t felt a trace of the “mind voice.” Surely it must be controlled by the sap, or the tumors the sap generates.

Sometimes I wish I could taste it.I have made contact with a local. Research into the ship’s manifest reveals her to be one Devora Mikelski, a first-year xenobiology student undoubtedly chosen more for her looks than her grades. She displays no real curiosity about the properties of the forest that surrounds most of this snow-covered world. Like a little puppy, she follows me when I go out to study the trees, though she looks away when I take core samples from the thick, fibrous trunks. She allows me to palpate her many tumorous growths and take photographs. (See attached.) When I am around her, I wear a form-fitting mask, in case she tries to slip a bit of sap into my mouth or nostrils. She hasn’t tried recently. She obeys me utterly.

It’s quiet here, so very quiet. Sometimes, just to break the silence, I sing Bianca’s favorite songs at the top of my lungs, those awful jazz-rock hits she liked to listen to on the infobursts. The colonists cower, like I’m hurting them. But I’m not hurting them, right?

So what if I am? I’m lonely.

Transmission over,

Devora washes the intruder’s spare masks and linens. We arrange its tins of food. We sweep the small inflatable dwelling with a soft-bristled brush, and try not to shudder when the intruder strokes our mounds of body-food and calls us “beautiful, in your own way.”

We grit our teeth. We remind ourselves that eventually, it will see the truth. We take the long view.

“It hurts,” us-in-Devora says through her mouth. The resentment we feel when we look at the intruder is as vast as the silver belly of its ship.

The intruder looks up from its mutilation of a branch plucked from the Forest, a piece still alive when it was severed. “What hurts, honey?”

We shake our head, thinking of us-in-Mel, the instance of the Community that Devora had cared for most. Our head glistening with blood and sap, our limbs shattered. “Nothing.”

Devora looks no more at the silent Forest-That-Thinks. We close our minds to the rest of us. We practice the unfamiliar pronoun which the intruder forces us to say.

“She,” says the intruder, jabbing at Devora’s body-food with a scalpel. “She. She.”

And it is a he, and to the intruder this means something profound.

She-is-Devora doesn’t bother listening to the rest of us anymore. Our voices are too faint to hear. She takes the medication the intruder provides and lets it rip the voice-giving structures right out of her body. She gazes into the mirrored pool outside the intruder’s inflatable hut, and retches.

It’s time. “When can we leave for Terra?” she asks, affecting her best traumatized-survivor impersonation.

The Wrong, it grins.

4 March 2565

Departure is nigh. I have only one week to pack my meager belongings and finish up my anthropological notes. Unfortunately, it would take several lifetimes to give justice to all I’ve experienced here.

Only one of the doomed colonists will accompany me back to Terra: Devora Milkelski, my little assistant. She has allowed me to remove the tumors from her body, though she cried when I did it. I tried to comfort her, but it didn’t help.

I’ve taken my last samples of sap and of bark, and while the colonists certainly did complain about it, I only had to sing one of Bianca’s songs to make them flee in terror at the shattering of their silence. How fast they fall, how weak they are in this environment. Even if they wanted to return to Terra, I’m not sure they could withstand the gravity or rapid pace of life. Only Devora seems excited to see her home planet after so many years away.

I asked her how much she remembered.

“Not very much,” she responded, running her hands over her fixed body. “The forest took so much from us, but you have restored it.”

Isn’t that wonderful? I’m her hero. And heroes deserve a reward, and I have been away from Bianca for a long, long time.

End transmission,


She-is-Devora watches us through a wall of frosted glass, one only she can tell is there. We send our thoughts and emotions to her, but they patter against the glass like the flying creatures we vaguely remember from Terra.

Goodbye, says us-in-Malik.

Farewell, says us-in-Qin.

The voices are so far-away, like transmissions through a shattered ansible, the Community must open their mouths and speak the words to she-is-Devora through our little-used larynxes. The voices come out ugly, nails on rusted steel. At the edge of the camp, the Wrong’s face crumples.

She-is-Devora responds in tears.

She packs her rucksack from the corner one of the inflatable pods the members of the Community abandoned when they landed, before they were the Community, before they had known such love. In the depths, she places a package wrapped in a layer of Leaves, and covers it with the clothing the intruder insists she wear.

Boots crunching through the snow, she returns to the invader, to the it-him. Her nutrient-stripped body is swathed in his castoff linens. Her hand encloses a sachet of sap.

“Take me back.”

We watch behind the wall only she-is-Devora can see, and we mourn. The loss of any of us is a loss beyond measuring. However bad it is for us, it is worse for Devora. Locked away from Understanding, one is but a shadow, a Branch broken from its Trunk.

Devora slips the sachet of sap between her teeth. As the elevator starts to rise, the intruder sweeps her up into his arms, tongue reaching down into the very depth of her-the-former-us.

Devora doesn’t say no.

The intruder’s eyes widen as we welcome a new member into the Community. When he falls from the elevator we are there to receive him. Receive us.

Our Bianca,

We must report that our return to Terra is permanently cancelled. We have found a place that surpasses even the pleasures of Terra, which disappears in our estimation as a shooting star disappears over the farthest horizon.

The body in which this instance of we resides can no longer stand, no longer walk to commune with the Forest-That-Thinks. It is no matter. We carry us wherever we wish to go. We carry us to the river, we carry us to the lake of snow and to the clearing where we can see the Very-Big-Wrong, the “landing site” that was once so important to us, but is no longer.

Sometimes, when us-in-me lies in this frozen body, as gobbets of body-food are pushed into our mouth by the other pieces of us, we think of you similarly frozen in your stasis chamber, and wish that you could experience all that we do. How dreadful it is to be alone! How unnatural!

Us-in-Me have no way of sending this transmission, it is but a thought projected into the minds of all who share the Understanding. We hope you-who-are-not-us are happy, wherever you are. And now we will think no more of you, for such things are irrelevant.

We remain,

She-is-Devora is painfully alone, in a way she hasn’t been since arriving on the planet the crew calls Fleming-7, but that she only knows as home.

Two of the crew members say she-is-Devora pushed the one named Gabriel from the elevator, while three say it was an accident. But after she puts a little sap in their first-cycle coffee, it doesn’t matter. In the greenhouse, she buries the fist-sized Seeds she hid in her rucksack for future transplant.

It takes longer for the tendrils of the crew’s minds to reach outwards and entangle with one another and with hers. It takes weeks for them to become us. With so few people, it’s not the intense Understanding of the world swiftly slipping away through layers of black space, but it’s a start.

She-us is no longer alone.

“How many people live on Terra now?” Devora asks them-us.

“Much the same as when you left,” they reply. “Seventeen billion.” Devora’s heart soars to think of so many people joined in the mind-voice. She knows they feel the same.

When the first body-food is ripe, she-us shows them-us how to harvest it.

It will take years for Terra to become a true Community, all members knit together in harmony. Without the Forest-That-Thinks to boost the mind-voice, it will take even longer. But we will wait for the Understanding to take root, for all to think as one. It is a thing worth waiting for.

After all, we take the long view.


Erica L. Satifka’s fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Ideomancer, and Daily Science Fiction, among others. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband Rob and too many cats. Visit her online at www.ericasatifka.com.

Erica Satifka
Erica Satifka


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