Issue 191 – August 2022

2280 words, short story

Tender, Tether, Shell

AUDIO VERSION

The intact remnants of Tess’ pressure suit sat alone at the bar, slumped before an untouched pint of beer. No one around the Waystation blamed Hae’cera for what they did after the reactor blew. According to the logs recovered after the accident, the blast killed Tess instantly while only damaging the alien’s shell. In their place, we all would have acted as Hae’cera did: scooping out as much of Tess’ goopy remains as they could and taking refuge inside her suit until the rescue shuttle arrived.

That we all would have done the same thing under the circumstances didn’t make what happened afterward right.

It had been six months. People couldn’t handle the constant sight of Tess’ pearly white suit meandering about the station, her nameplate clearly on display, doing the same old maintenance tasks she used to perform, sitting silently beside us in the cafeteria, attending a post-shift screening at the cinema. Hae’cera even wore her suit to the memorial service. Tess deserved a proper burial. We all needed to put the accident behind us.

I got lucky and pulled the shortest straw. I had the privilege of telling our alien benefactor they needed to relinquish their newly acquired real estate.

I saddled up next to the pressure suit at the bar and ordered a pint of the same. The place was quieter than normal with everybody giving the alien a wide berth. I sat on my usual stool. This was the spot where Tess initiated the new arrivals on their first night on the Waystation, forcing them to down shot after shot of Ceresian rum. Her husky laugh filled the joint when the cockiest of star-hungry newbs nearly collapsed at the first hit of ninety-proof molten molasse. And this bar was where we inevitably found each other after every successful star-farer launch emptied the station except for its skeletal crow. We’d drink until we closed the place, and she practically had to lug me back to my bunk. If only she was still around. Tess was so much better at handling delicate situations than me. Fixing things came naturally to her, whether repairing unfamiliar alien tech or mending relationships strained by overlong shifts. There was a reason she’d been the one to volunteer to join Hae’cera and attempt to repair the malfunctioning star-farer drive.

“We need to talk,” I took a swig of my beer, “about Tess.”

This needn’t go terribly. Hae’cera would listen to me. They must be still in shock from the accident. Understandable, but they couldn’t keep hiding in there. Surely, they’d understand why everyone was so upset and see things our way once I explained the matter carefully. We’d all worked side by side before the accident. We could go back to that. Not everything had to change.

Tess’ helmet turned in my direction. Its contents obscured behind opaque glass, she could still be in there smiling at me. “She couldn’t be saved.”

“I know, I know.” I did know, all too well. I’d been the “lucky” one to pilot the rescue shuttle. Repeated reviews of surviving data confirmed what I’d known instantly upon my first arrival. An unpredictable surge had killed my friend instantly. Accidents happened all the time out here. The technology Hae’cera’s kind brought to us was miraculous but not foolproof. Our station had been fortunate to avoid any fatal mishaps until now. It was destined to happen eventually. Tess happened to get unlucky. Maybe she shouldn’t have gone with Hae’cera to try and repair the malfunctioning star-farer, but it had been her decision. Like anyone could tell Tess what to do. “It wasn’t your fault. No one blames you. It’s about . . . ”

“How I miss my old shell,” the pressure suit moaned.

I couldn’t believe it. They were onto this shit again. Tess had been the kindest soul on this whole station. Someone that could talk you down when the incessant darkness became too much, the air became too thin to breathe, and all you wanted was to flee home. She took the time and looked out for everybody. It didn’t matter if you were long-term crew or one of the latest wave of anxious voyagers passing through. My friend was gone, and all this fucking mollusk could do was to keep complaining about their lost property; in a voice synthesized to even sound like hers.

I wanted to hit them. I could have put my fist right through the glass plate and wrenched that parasite out of her suit.

No, I couldn’t. I’d never hit anyone in my entire life. I certainly wasn’t going to start with Hae’cera. Before the accident, they’d always been kind to me, in their way. So why were they now acting like this, like they deliberately wanted to hurt me? Had I done something wrong? Were they punishing me?

No, it was nothing personal. Nothing ever was with Hae’cera.

Their kind lived like interstellar hermit crabs, protecting their tender exoskeletons with salvage and whatever other materials they happened upon. Some seemed to act opportunistically, swapping out their shell as the mood struck them. They sported a newfound shell like a fresh pair of clothes. Others, like Hae’cera, appeared fiercely loyal to a single shell, carrying it no matter the situation. At most, only their biramous appendages poked out to perform the constant work the Waystations demanded. We weren’t sure if it was a cultural thing or a matter of sheer survival, but their entire existence hinged upon it. Our inquiries were met with silence. Had she lived, Tess might have been the first human to witness an unobscured view of their unshielded form as Hae’cera crawled into her suit.

Ordinarily, respecting their convention seemed like a small price to pay. They’d gifted us so much in the two decades since the wagon train of interstellar homesteaders had entered Sol’s orbit. People panicked when they started mining the asteroid belt and constructing those first vessels. Invasion seemed obvious. Only they came not to settle and take over but just linger for a spell. They promised to share with those who wanted it their means of reaching the stars. Live lightly, let go, and the galaxy could be ours. The Waystations and their star-farers were available to all, as long as they were willing to put in the labor into the shared mission. A forever outbound journey slower than light, the ships they designed allowed us to finally shuck off the past and scatter toward the stars.

“I’m sure we could craft an appropriate shell for you,” I said. “Then you can release Tess’ suit. Let her finally rest.”

The pressure suit imitated the shake of a human head. “Impossible. I inherited my former shell from . . . ” Hae’cera paused, evidently struggling to find the right word, “my grandfather.”

“Give us the specs and we’ll do our best to emulate it.”

Hae’cera’s kind arrived with the most remarkable fabrication technologies. They seemed capable of reinventing anything. What was one shell, even if a family heirloom? Out here, nothing was precious. Everything got remade.

“Just because something is the right size doesn’t mean it fits,” Hae’cera said.

“We’ll make sure it fits.” Better than Tess’ old suit. Hae’cera must be painful in there, upright and all stretched out into four limbs.

“You don’t understand. Have you ever molted?”

“I can’t say that I have.” I tried washing away the thought with a mouthful of bitter ale.

“Well, molting comes easy compared to adopting a new shell,” Hae’cera said. “I can assure you my old one cannot be replicated. It started from home.”

“That’s not possible.”

Admittedly, that shell had been a marvel. It resembled something like a ginormous sepia conch, except it somehow shimmered of starlight even under the Waystation’s steady neon wash. Still, Hae’cera’s story couldn’t be true. Their kind had been on a one-way trek across this arm of the galaxy for literal eons. They would have been another species when they’d breached that world’s atmosphere for the last time. To have carried the same shell for all that time; it was unbelievable.

“I heard it myself. The oceans of the old world still echoed through its chamber. A synthetic replacement will not do. They run too quiet.”

“That’s interesting and all, but I don’t see what it has to do with Tess.”

I kept pushing, but it didn’t matter. Hae’cera kept changing the subject, returning to their magical shell and the mythical oceans of a long-dead world. They refused to even talk about giving up Tess’ pressure suit. They were as stubborn as she could be. Hae’cera stood steadfast, utterly committed to refusing her the dignity and the rest she deserved. There was nothing I could say or do. Hae’cera’s kind called the shots around the Waystation. We all talked a big game about interspecies collaboration and mutual understanding across the interstellar expanse but, in reality, we humans were merely their grateful passengers. If I pushed too hard, they could shrug us off.

My words ran out, leaving my mouth hollow and empty. There was nothing else to say. We were done.

I needed to get away from that bar, the pressure suit, the life I’d wasted on the Waystation. For the first time in years, I longed for the warm, wet Earth and to forget the time I’d lived out beyond Jupiter facing the stars.

At the very least, I didn’t have to hang around talking to that ghastly suit. I paid for my beer and moved to leave.

“Don’t go.” Hae’cera placed a gloved hand on my shoulder. The warmth of their touch left me feeling icy. “Would you call us . . . friends?”

I slunk back onto the barstool. “I suppose.”

“Can I confess something?”

“Sure.” Before the accident, the three of us had all been close, in our way. Hae’cera even talked about sticking around Sol when the rest eventually decided to continue on. I could give them one more chance.

“It’s something I’ve never told anyone else. Please keep it our secret.” Hae’cera’s voice wobbled as they spoke. Their beer remained untouched, but it sounded like they needed a drink of something stiffer. “I did not want to adopt my old shell at first. You see my grandfather passed suddenly, without warning. We had to act fast or abandon them forever. You must understand. We don’t return. The journey always flows outward for us. Either I adopted his shell then and there or we would have been forced to leave it behind. He would have been lost.”

Hae’cera stopped. I couldn’t see them through the faceplate. They must have shrunk deep into the recesses of the suit. Its mechanical pulse filled the silence. After a minute, Hae’cera pressed on. “But I wasn’t ready for a new home. Mine fit me so well. But among my brood, I was the closest in size. There was no choice I could make. Chance honored me with a unique privilege. I came to know our grandfather like no other. I alone carried the memories he etched into his shell. They became as much a part of me as my own carapace. Their absence worries me. How quickly the memories fade, like I never carried them on my back.”

“Sorry for your loss,” I said feebly, uncertain of what to say. What was the right response? I’d worked with Hae’cera for years, but clearly I never understood them. We’d simply traveled alongside one another like strangers for a spell. Nothing more. Tess would have known what to do. I tried again. “You did your grandfather proud. I’m sure you did.”

“I’m ashamed to admit I did not initially appreciate the tremendous gift they left me. Those first dark nights, it remained very much the shell of another. Not mine. I hated its feel, all snug yet hollow and empty. It pulled at me in all the wrong ways so unlike my old, familiar home. I couldn’t sleep or eat confined inside it. I needed nothing more than to slough it off and be free, even if the exposure killed me. Then I heard the oceans’ echo in my chamber; I knew I’d arrived home.”

In the emptiness of the bar, something kept buzzing, gently. It was Tess’ pressure suit. It still hissed and hummed with the machinery intended to keep her alive, even though the power and the air should have long run out.

“We aren’t really talking about your grandfather’s shell, are we?”

“I couldn’t save her.”

No, we couldn’t.

“What do you hear now?” I asked, even though their answer worried me.

“Sounds. Alien sounds,” Hae’cera replied. “Memories I want to learn to understand.”

We sat together as I strained to hear them too. What did Tess’ suit recall? Did it remember me? Was it angry at me for not stopping Tess from going to the damaged shuttle? Could be worse. The suit probably didn’t remember me at all. Even in the quiet of the bar, I could only hear its steady, dull hum.

I wanted my friend back, or at least have the chance to talk again. As soon we received the report of an accident, I left as quickly as possible. Still, I arrived too late. We’d never said goodbye. Nothing I could do could change that. She was gone. When the time comes, I will leave this station on my own, no matter which direction I chosen. All those years, working side by side, I came to love Tess, though I never managed to find a way to tell her.

Maybe, sitting vigil in her suit, Hae’cera had.

Author profile

M. J. Pettit is a full-time academic working at the intersection of history and psychology as well as an occasional writer of short stories. He divides his time between Toronto, Canada and Manchester, UK with stopovers in other interesting places. His stories have previously appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Compelling Science Fiction, Nature, Zooscape, Toasted Cake, and Riddled with Arrows.

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