5080 words, short story
In the Tank, they show Bishop the spider.
It’s the worst thing she’s ever seen; she thought spiders were bad enough when they were an inch long, but this is five inches, orange, triangular, and glossy-wet under the lights. It has pincers like a scorpion, legs like pistons. The spider launches itself at Bishop without hesitating. She hesitates and the spider is at her throat, in her throat, eating her from the inside out.
It feels as real as breathing, as real as sky.
This is why she’s in the Tank. It’s not real and Bishop tells herself that for the thousandth time. The Company means to condition her to what it’ll be like out there, in the trenches. In the Tank, Bishop can hesitate and not get herself dead; the Tank is supposed to train the hesitation out, supposed to make Bishop a goddamn man against the monsters of the galaxy. Get her phobia out in the Tank, then off to the trenches.
The trenches make the Tank look good. The trenches make the Tank look like home.
Drake tongued the corner of his mouth, his pencil-thin fingers bringing up the display on his exo. His face, bony and sharp, ran with colored readouts: green, pink, yellow. All the colors were positive in their nature, nothing screaming red, so Bishop paced away from him, waiting.
“Five trophs in a can, five trophs in a can. Knock one down, slam it around . . . four trophs in a can.”
In the submersible’s close quarters, Golic’s voice rang hollow. It was on Bishop’s tongue to tell him to stop, but she let him be. They were oligotrophs and trophs, were made for this. Every day, trophs went where no other person could, and if they’d started to get a little on edge, so what. This was the job. They each had five years under their belts prior to Titan and that was saying something. Titan was year six and seven; when they left Titan, they’d be—Well, not heroes. Bishop didn’t hold with fairy tales.
“Anything?” Frost asked, queuing up her own exo to see what Drake saw.
The submersible, Elgyn, plunged over the ridge marking the farthest explored edge of the Kraken Mare, and there, everyone’s exo shrieked with new data.
“Now there’s something, you shit troph,” Drake bit out at Frost, “but what the—”
Bishop tuned them out, narrowing her focus to her own exo. Trophs didn’t need suits, not the way they’d been built. They could breathe methane, their formerly soft human bodies scaffolded in iron and steel exos, genetically transformed to be more metal than flesh. They didn’t eat much, didn’t shit much; they were nothing if not efficient. After their unlawful arrival in countries that did not want them, they’d been given a choice: go back or go to the Company. Having given up everything to come so far, they couldn’t go back, so had joined the Company. Had been made into the ideal machines, given a shot at a life few would know at the expense of everything they’d actually wanted.
All Bishop had to do was flex her fingers and a display coursed across the air in front of her. It showed their approach through the trench beneath liquid-methane-filled Kraken Mare. In the distance sat the submersible Three, piloted by Jones who’d been two days late getting back to station. They didn’t know why, though maybe now they did, Three pinned under a vessel Bishop couldn’t identify.
“Well, that’d be a UFO,” Morse said from his pilot’s chair, angling the Elgyn ever closer.
“Unidentified floating object,” Golic suggested on the edge of a laugh.
Bishop drew her fingers together, which narrowed the display before her, and a singular blink allowed her to zoom in on the unknown craft. The way it had come down, the ovoid ship was wedged between two cliff walls, trapping Three beneath it. The unfamiliar ship had no markings but for deep scratches likely left in the course of its descent. Its hull was silvery, like a blob of liquid mercury; solid at the edges and yet not. Moving in the flow of the methane, alive, but wedged firm.
“It’s not exactly floating,” Bishop said.
“Drake?” Bishop asked, and the methane miner grunted again. From her position, she watched him manipulate the data on his own display, transforming the ship into three dimensions, spinning the angle of view until he plunged down the ship’s wound.
“Look at the belly.” His fingers skimmed his display, then threw the images against the wall so they could all see. “Three has pierced it. It’s not leaking air—no bubbles, no movement. Seal looks hard—maybe melted? I don’t fucking know. Unknown vessel is thirty-five meters stem to stern. Not getting anything from Jones. No life signs, no comms. Nothing on the unknown, either.”
“Drone?” Frost asked.
“Could be.” Drake pulled the images from the wall, and refreshed his display with a ten-finger flick. He zoomed into Three again, the ship showing dents and scratches as the Elgyn lights skimmed closer. “Hatch is clear on Three. Should be able to sync. Morse?”
“Yeah, yeah, five minutes out.”
In the Tank, they show Bishop the emptiness.
The emptiness is never quite empty. The bleak room makes Bishop remember the crossing, when the Bishop steamed across gray oceans, toward a distant, freer land. The emptiness makes Bishop remember the name her parents gave her (mo chroi, her father whispered, kissing her bare brown feet before wrapping her in an impossibly soft blanket knit by her nana’s own hands), makes her remember the officials who later named her and every other refugee for the ship they arrived on. How many Bishops? How many Frosts?
Bishop thought spiders were bad enough, but the emptiness harbors a different kind of pain and out of it come shadows. The room darkens with them until she cannot see anything, not even a spider were there to be one. She breathes and waits and an echoing breath greets her in the shadowed dark. Who is it? She never knows; she understands that’s part of the point, to push her past the fear of assault. Having slept in a ship, packed against twelve bodies huddled against the same wall through the endless journey, breath doesn’t unnerve her. The light that slants down when they crack Bishop’s cargo door—that is what unnerves her, so when the Tank reverts to its bright walls, to its stark void, that’s when Bishop flinches.
Three was a ghost ship, hollow and creaking. Bishop stood in the access corridor and found it was not unlike the Tank with its darknesses, its impending antagonists. They’d trained for this too; without her having to say a word, the group fanned out, assuming their positions, taking their readings. Bishop stayed on Drake, his scans penetrating the gloom.
“Nothing,” he said.
But there was something. Small and distant maybe, but Bishop could feel her arms prickling with it. Troph skin was strangely sensitive, attuned to the hostility of space, of strange, airless moons. The sun shone on Titan, but provided no warmth; Bishop and other trophs didn’t need the sun, not for warmth and certainly not to see, but she wondered about it all the same. She could remember what it looked like on the ocean when her mother lifted her to look out the Bishop’s grimy porthole. A thousand hands before hers had printed the window, but she added hers to the mess, pushing herself up, to look at the sunset at the edge of the world. Now, her eyes were made for darkness, and she saw nothing out of the ordinary, nothing amiss or approaching them.
No spiders. No emptiness. Could troph eyes lie?
“Let’s walk,” Bishop said and they went down the corridor, two leading, two trailing, Morse remaining with Elgyn.
Three was small, but not so small as all that; she had space for passengers, because once upon a time administrations took the time to dream of pleasure cruises beneath the methane lakes. Gaze Upon the Glories of Titan’s Infrared Rainbows! Such dreams had fallen to the wayside when future administrations decided Titan’s methane could be mined for greater profits. What did tourists matter, when there were ships to fuel, when there were unconquered stretches of space yet to dominate?
Bishop supposed they were lucky to have Three at all; most moon-base crews had unmanned submersibles they could only pilot remotely. They couldn’t walk the halls of their ships, let alone explore the more distant features of their base. In this, Bishop supposed trophs were blessed. Being confined within a wholly human body would be—Prison or freedom, she didn’t know, placing a hand against the wall, to feel the ship vibrate with some distant disturbance.
Drake had come to a standstill in the middle of the corridor, sensors humming. Bishop didn’t press, only looked into the spreading darkness and waited. Within those breaths, she felt it, the warm press of spider feet against the back of her neck. It was so like being in the Tank, she didn’t flinch. But this was the Trench, not the Tank, and she was still all right. She was smiling before she knew it, proud of herself because they’d trained her for this. This very moment. Bishop breathed through it, took a deep breath and—
The feeling fled.
Bishop turned to survey the wall behind her, ordinary and smooth; there was nothing there, nor any trace that anything ever was. A small sign listed the rooms on the deck, labeled with numbers, arrows. A hotel, Bishop thought, but she’d never been inside anything so posh.
Drake moved again and Bishop fell in line, Three groaning around them. She expected to feel the ship settle in the sea, but she couldn’t feel anything moving except her. Bishop pinged Golic and Frost to follow them and sent Morse an update; they moved down a deck, toward the infirmary.
In the Tank, they show Bishop the Fear Moat.
They tell Bishop every creature fears something; this is what she fears, they say. But it’s just the Bishop, the ship she came over on. She walks its corridors as if she knows them all, though some part of her understands that she never left the cargo hold. She dreamed these corridors, then, perhaps imagining them better than they were ever meant to be.
The corridors lead to rooms that look like houses, with kitchens that smell like nana’s black beer bread. Windows looking on to meadows that stretch green, dotted with white flowers heavy with droning bees. She finds her own room, for her name is painted on the door, and inside there stands a bed, and a desk piled with books, and a line of shoes in front of the closet door. It is the shoes that captivate her; she kneels down and pulls one pair onto her dirty and cut feet, and her next step does not hurt at all.
She walks to the window and presses her hand to the clean pane, and stares at the meadow until her eyes begin to water from the bright sunshine. She spies a figure in the meadow, a thin young man she knows is her brother. (In the ship, he was so slight she could hold him between her knees and her breasts, fully enclosed within her arms.) Fergal, she wants to call out, but the window is shut and he’s running. Laughing as he high-steps through the meadow grass, as he plucks a flower and gently shakes the bees into the sky.
The window opens easily under her hands, and she’s up and over the sill before she can consider how ma and da may yell at her. Windows are not doors, how many times had they said. Oh, but they could be, she thinks, and her shod feet sink into the soft meadow grass and she’s running after Fergal, who is little but a speck of red amid the green grasses. Wait, she calls out. C’mon, he calls back.
At the edge of the meadow, she finds a pair of shoes, blood-flecked and dirty. Beyond the shoes, the world falls away, a black ravine filled with tangled, thorned vines separating her from Fergal. Where has he gone? Beyond the black gash of the ravine, a city rises against a gray sky. The meadow grasses are burned and bent beneath buildings, and Fergal’s body is flung among them, unmoving. Beyond his body, the world does not exist.
Three’s infirmary stood silent, but the reason Drake led them there became instantly apparent: the floor was flooded with liquid methane. The trophs walked through it as if it were water; it felt cool against Bishop’s modified feet, but she couldn’t tell if it was because it actually is, or if that’s just how her body perceived it. She wondered if walking through fire would feel similarly cool, uninspiring of fear.
Beneath the clear liquid, Bishop could see the shadowed outline of a body. She moved toward it, knowing the methane wasn’t deep enough to conceal a body, but the hesitation had been trained out of her, so she moved, always moved. Drake and the others fanned out, Frost covering the single entry so whatever they find inside cannot leave. (And, Bishop thought, whatever was yet without could not enter.) Bishop kneeled in the wetness, reaching a hand for the shadow.
“Fergal,” she says, even as she knew it would be Jones, their missing miner.
Golic was confused. “Who the—”
Bishop distilled her focus to the shadow, to the body. Her hand didn’t touch anything but floor; on the floor, she pulsed her fingers once, scanning the liquid, the shadow, the entire room. Close up, the shadow looked like ink floating in water, tendrils of black stretching into the colorless flood. When the shadow moved toward Bishop, it was like the spider in the Tank: sudden, vicious. She hesitated and the spider was on her, in her mouth, eating her from the inside out.
As real as sky and—
In the depths of the Vinsin, Baroness draws fresh air into the part of their gilled body that is not the ship, though what is ship and what is body is blurred, indistinct at this juncture of the union. It has been too long since either was apart; Baroness cannot tell the ship’s belly from their own.
Still, Vinsin remains perfectly tight against the liquid methane that courses in riot across its hull. Even with the intrusion of the secondary ship, Vinsin remains sealed against breach, yet they can sense something approaching in the dark wetness. It is small and inconsequential, but still coming closer. Baroness cannot lift either ship out of the sea, cannot summon the energy to pilot away from what traps them. Baroness tries once and again, but Vinsin is unresponsive, a ship that will never fly again, and they are sealed within.
Within the ship that has pierced them, there is a humming, a heartbeat. There is a warmth in the depth of this chilled sea, and it calls to Baroness like nothing has in a very long time. Baroness takes another deep breath, they exhale a wash of solar wind across a barren moon. Breath ripples the air and draws this heartbeat closer, until Baroness can hold it within their own grip. The heartbeat tastes like iron. It is foul upon their tongue, rejected almost as soon as tasted.
The heartbeat hovers in the air before Baroness, spreading and silent. The blood is black at this depth, the blood is thin, the blood is gone as quickly as it came, and Baroness cannot bond. They sag against Vinsin, trying to call the ship to wakefulness once more, but the ship does not answer. Some part of Baroness does not answer, and this is abhorrent to them, the idea that half of them is gone, silent.
Baroness reaches again, screaming at Vinsin, but again there is no reply. Baroness can taste the methane and beyond it, water ice and rock, and beyond that—Oh, the stars have been lost to them, and Baroness howls a hollow cry that ripples through the methane sea. Vinsin still does not move and Baroness hangs in the unexpected casket of the ship, reaching, calling, searching.
The second heartbeat Baroness finds is utterly alien. It is close, as close as the first was, but tastes not of iron. This heart tastes like nothing they have known. It is a heart that has been changed, withered to its core until very little can dominate it. It does not need air or light or water to keep beating. It simply goes on.
Explain, Baroness whispers against the withered heart. Explain yourself.
In the Tank, they show Bishop the worst case scenario.
The ship drowns much as a body would, water filling every empty pocket until the air is simply gone, pressed out. Bishop can feel the air pressing from her lungs, too. Decompression. The world goes dark at the edges, perhaps because the ship is falling into the depths of some black sea, but also perhaps because she is losing the ability to see anything ever again.
Bishop thinks it’s some distant ship she’s never set foot on, until she finds Fergal in her arms, not quite drowned. The ship, then, is the Bishop, and everyone they have crossed over with is drowning or dead. No one matters but for her brother; his brown eyes are open, but they can’t focus on her. He fits as he ever did, into the hollow that her arms and legs have made, but he cannot see her. She can see him and only him. They would have called him Bishop, too, named for this drowning ship. Every Bishop a brother, a sister, the Company building a family even as they tore them apart.
She tries to remind herself she’s in the Tank; it’s not real. This isn’t water and this isn’t Fergal, but it is and it is. Seeing him blink his last blink is too much. His eyes never close, his mouth parted in an eternal gasp for air as the last bubbles of breath from his lungs escape into the void above them. She alone has a choice; she can remain with the dead, or she can flee, and live to see another day.
Bishop hauls Fergal by his sodden collar, swimming upward through the dead that clutter the compartment. Everyone floats, arms and hair and clothes streaming as she kicks past, and up always up, toward a surface she cannot see.
There is no surface to see.
Bishop realizes this with a shriek that takes the last of her own breath. She does not release her hold on Fergal, does not stop trying to haul him from the wreck even as the weight of it presses down on her. Everything goes dark and uncomfortably warm; she thinks death ought to be cold, surely. Death should be ice, not warmth and motion. When she opens her eyes, she is wet and dripping in the center of the Tank.
Across from her sits a spider.
Golic pried Bishop’s hand off of the floor. She dripped methane as Golic led her away from the spilled ink—not ink, but not anything she completely understood, either. Although, she did. In her withered heart, she knew it was Jones, or what was left of Jones. Where was the rest of her? Bishop stared at the blur in the water, and it faded until it was gone, only a half remembered thing in the wreck of Three.
“Anything?” Frost asked from her post at the door.
“Ain’t nothing,” Drake answered, pacing back.
Explain, the voice whispered inside Bishop. Explain yourself.
The voice felt like the weight of the drowning ship in the Tank, felt like the spider crawling down her throat. Bishop cleared her own throat now, though there was nothing there, her body too efficient to malfunction in any such way.
“Jones sent a message to the station at 0300,” Drake said, “and then nothing. Fuck this—you clear to move on, Bishop?”
Bishop nodded and pushed up to her feet without a thought. “Yes,” she said, because she was always ready, never not ready, so the four walked out of the infirmary and sealed it behind them.
“—happened on Europa, didn’t it.”
Bishop listened as they climbed through the ship, to Frost and Golic talking in low tones behind she and Drake.
“People just vanishing.”
“People don’t just vanish.”
“We ain’t still people, so how’d we know anyhow.”
Bishop considered that—not the people vanishing, but if they were still people or not. Was she the same girl huddled in the hold of the Bishop? The little girl—six? Now we are six—who had parents and a brother and a name that was a confusing jumble of sounds on foreign tongues that didn’t take the time to learn how to properly say a thing. They had all been disposable, easily remade when they were found lacking in what the Company needed.
Bishop considered the voice, too, its warm weight settling uncomfortably at the base of her throat. It made her feel as though she needed to clear her throat again, but she didn’t. She pressed her modified fingers to her chest to find there was nothing that would hinder her normal operation.
As if to explain herself, she thought of the ship Bishop, of the warmth of the hold, and her small brother. Of her parents. Of the way they had all been parted. Her father cried and her mother—The voice didn’t want to hear the last; it dragged her back to her brother, to the neat way he folded up to fit within the cage of her arms and legs. Like the voice, he’d had a warm weight, and she had not minded bearing it, because he hated sleeping on the floor of the ship. The floor left marks on his skin, until it was worn through. Bishop took a breath—
—and saw a cage within a spherical room. The cage was not metal; if anything, it was liquid, quicksilver bars streaming down and around a vast, ovoid creature. The creature was blacker than anything Bishop had seen before, as black as the spaces between stars, though when it unfurled (and it unfurled with all the grace of a thousand blooming flowers, bursting with fragrance and sound both), it was violently purple. The deeper Bishop fell into the unfurling creature, the more purple everything became, until the purple was black once again. Bishop felt as though she were emerging from the other side of the beast, as though she had been run through the cage and shat back out.
Bishop dripped mercury to the floor and didn’t know where it had come from, only that the other ship looked that way, silver and fluid. It ran in silver streams behind her, causing Golic and Frost to sidestep. They didn’t have to think about it, they simply did, bodies attuned to the environment around them, avoiding any hazard.
“Bish, is your suit malfunc—”
Bishop was aware of the duality, of the fact that she walked the corridor with her crew and that she also stood within a sphere, staring at the quicksilver cage, which held the blackness. Not the blackness—
The name swelled within Bishop, causing breath to stutter in her throat. She dragged in a fresh breath and felt Baroness breathe in turn, and around them, the methane sea quaked. Bishop stumbled against the wall in the corridor, and stared at the faces that swam around her: Drake and Frost and Baroness and Golic. Baroness had no eyes that Bishop could discern, but saw everything nonetheless, its sleek head rippling back into its ovoid body.
“Where is Jones?” Bishop asked Baroness, receiving three frowns from her crew in return.
“Something ain’t right,” Drake said as he turned his scans from Three and onto Bishop.
“Trophs don’t malfunction,” Golic said.
People don’t just vanish.
“Then where the fuck is Jones?” Frost bit the words out, her face swimming into darkness before Bishop as Baroness answered.
Jones malfunctioned. Its heart was not . . . ideal.
Bishop could sense that “ideal” wasn’t the word Baroness was looking for, but that it struggled to find the proper one.
Drake’s scans illuminated the air between Bishop and the crew, but did not reflect in the black void that was Baroness. The scans were red and flickering. Bishop reached for Baroness, fingers skittering with something akin to lightning when she made contact. Bishop’s breath stuttered in her throat again.
“Bipedal life form,” Bishop said of herself, to Drake’s frowning face, “augmented for . . . ” She tried to find the right words. “Harsh conditions of . . . ” What had they called it—“Adventures on the outer—”
Bishop closed her eyes and tried to show Baroness, because remembering was easier than talking. She thought of Titan Station, of its heptagon corridors, windows that gazed upon Saturn and the system beyond. The sun looked impossibly small, wasn’t warm, but that was okay, they didn’t need warmth, though once they had, once they had rolled in green meadows, until they had left them behind, behind because their world was crumbling, falling to pieces and no longer held a place for them. Drake and his wife, their newborn dead on the shore; Frost hauling herself from icy waters she should not have survived; Golic and Morse both stowaways, hidden until hauled into view. In the bottom of the ship, bundled together against the cold nights, Bishop and her brother—
That isn’t your name—
Though she tried to think of the name, Bishop could no longer find it. Mo chroi is what came to mind, it having fallen from her father’s mouth so often, and Baroness seemed content with this explanation. When Bishop remembered being turned away at the entry, the island and the gates and the people—Baroness rippled with disgust.
“Your life will change,” Bishop whispered. “They tell you. And they aren’t wrong. But they also aren’t . . . specific.”
“The hell is wrong with you,” Drake whispered, his face looming in Bishop’s view, Baroness liquid and black behind him. “Scans are clean now, but showed a spike in—”
“Explain yourself,” Bishop said to Baroness, and Drake went back to his work even as Baroness’s voice filled Bishop’s body like a flood, like a drowning.
The ship was alive, Bishop saw, and into it they poured Baroness, sleek and wet and the heart of the ship even as they became the brain, too. One was nothing without the other; together, they made a perfect whole, a unit that could fly across the vast heavens, through solar winds and into the depths where none had ventured before. Baroness went everywhere, until the call from a frozen, whiplashed moon sent them off course, until greedy Saturn pulled Baroness first, throwing them into Titan.
Happened on Europa, didn’t it?
People just vanishing.
“Did you take Jones?” Bishop asked.
Baroness roared and rushed as the water would, down Bishop’s throat to swallow her heart.
In the Tank, they show Bishop the emptiness.
This emptiness is all-consuming. There are no shadows, there is no sunlight, only a perpetual gray twilight. Nothing grows in this place, for even the dirt is rough with salt. If someone once lived here, they can live here no longer.
Bishop does not fear this emptiness, because she has always known it. Her homeland, turned over by mines, by soldiers, the ground thick with blood. Her escape, jostled by waves, by storms, the compartment thick with sweat. Her arrival, denied and detoured, for this land was not for her, they said; she belonged somewhere else.
Anywhere but here.
No matter where Bishop walks, the emptiness comes. There is no place for her. Cast out of her homeland, refused by every refuge. There is a way, a voice tells her, but it is also empty. You can go back, or you can allow us to make you as empty as every place you have touched. You will be turned over, you will be jostled, you will be detoured.
And so she is, because it is the only path forward. The path into the dark.
She opens herself to the emptiness so that she never fears it. It will come—all will be lost—but she will carry on. As she has always done.
In the Tank, they show her the emptiness.
In the Tank, they show her the spider.
In the Tank, she sees that both are the same, eating her from the inside out.
As real as sky.
In the Tank, Bishop opens her mouth. She knows that sometimes it’s about swallowing the spider to survive, to become something more.
Bishop takes a breath and Baroness breathes. Bishop feels as though she is flying and when she opens her eyes, discovers it is so. It is not the murky depths of Kraken Mare that surround her, but the glory of the universe outside Saturn’s orbit. Bishop cannot feel a ship, can only feel Baroness encompassing her, filling her to overflowing. In return, Bishop cages Baroness the way she once did Fergal; a small body held within her own, protected no matter what comes, cherished. When she moves as she would within a cockpit, pressing feet to floor and hands to controls, the sky moves. They move, in concert.
She thinks of herself as the ship, for so they named her, Baroness the humming engine beneath. She moves them out of Titan’s reach, through the long-reaching and icy shadows of Saturn’s rings. She turns them head over heel and stem over stern, and Baroness does not ask her to explain herself. Baroness knows, as Bishop knows, the things that have been lost, the things that may still be discovered.
Bishop, now Baroness.
They sent you out here, they think as one, and you lost all you had, but there is more.
She plummets through the system, past Jupiter and Europa, through asteroids that appear to cascade around them in a blizzard they move in such a flurry. She pushes past ruddy Mars and closer to fragile Earth, where the waters are still largely blue, and where she does not pause to look down on all she lost, for she’s flying past it, into the depths, into the black, into every trench they would deny her.
E. Catherine Tobler is a Sturgeon Award finalist and editor at Shimmer Magazine.