Bodiless, zipped up in a bag, he must still know they've crossed over. He’s still functional. He can still speak and hear and see. He can still… feel? Does that word apply? Is see the right word for what his eyes are – are his eyes even eyes? (Made by humans but not human what is he? It.)
Does he see or do his sensors transfer recorded information to his processing centres where it’s collated and disseminated into zeros and ones and then stored forever in his memory cells? Is that close to what her human eyes do, what they’re doing now? How close are his sensations to hers?
She would have known, even stuck in a bag. She could have closed her eyes and felt the change in terrain beneath the wheels; she'd like to be able to close her eyes but she can't. She has to see to drive and she was driving with her eyes open when she saw the ports up ahead, three times the height of the Prometheus’ hanger doors, and she didn’t stop. She drove the ATV into the cavernous, empty loading bay, and now she’s slowing, she has to go slower, slow down because she needs to… park. Another everyday word she can’t use to make sense of a situation so far removed from her experience. Parking is what you do outside of a shop or in a garage. You park your car in the driveway of your house. You don’t park anything so obviously built by humans in a space so completely alien to humanity, you stop your vehicle and then you hope for the best.
She pushes down on the brake, she stops the ATV and then she stops; she stays in her seat and the steering mechanism is the right shape, the right hardness under her fingers. The seat back is nonexistent; it digs into her lower back when she leans, but there’s foam padding of a sort and the thin cushion gives a bit under her weight (humans made this).
Around her there is no give and nothing of humanity but what she’s brought with her. Above her the bulkheads curve in on each other like the black ribs of a dead leviathan and that’s, it’s really not funny. Ironic. She’ll be more than three days and three nights in the belly of this monster. She could probably find out how many if she wanted. She has another monster along to translate, that’s why she brought him, although she’s already regretting bringing more of him than she can fit in a duffle bag.
Even with the winch she felt something sharp and fearful snap inside of her when she lowered his body. She won’t be able to do anything like that again after the adrenaline crash hits and she isn’t going to try. She won’t exchange her body for his; it’s what she has to work with. Like him, she’s now a tool, but she’s her own tool. She won’t be used by anyone else.
She’s learning how to use. She’s had some very good teachers. She pushes the bag’s folds away from one of those teachers’ faces (humans made him) and says, ‘Tell me how to do this.’
His voice is slow, halting. He’s muffled by the bag and malfunctioning circuitry, but his instructions are clear and concise. Her stomach jerks again of its own accord when she thinks of touching anything they made, but she has her gloves. She can feel Dad’s cross pressing into her chest. Charlie’s ring is wrapped around her finger.
She has lied and been lied to, she has wished ill and done violence. She can do this.
The grooves on the deck don’t quite match up with the ATV’s shape, but again, here, she’s using what she has to work with, not what she refuses to let herself wish for. She manoeuvres the ATV into the centre of six slits arranged in a circular pattern and then she walks to the nearest black rib and holds his head up so he can see the controls mounted into it.
He says, ‘Yes,’ when she says, ‘This one?’ and she presses down on the indent and doesn’t think about alien doors opening and closing under the press of his fingers. She leaves the ATV clamped in place by milky white, membranous webs that feel like living leather and look like (tentacles snapping out to drag her back no take have him instead) they’re breathing; she leaves his body strapped to the seat. It hurts to move herself, much less extra weight, and she’s taking only what she can see herself needing with her to the bridge.
A med kit, six nutrient tubes and a third of the water pouches join the combination analgesic/antibiotic single shots in the spare duffle bag. She hefts it gingerly, gauging the weight against the drag on her staples. When nothing pops she slings the bag with his head over the shoulder she landed on when she jumped from the lifeboat and limps toward the nearest open doorway.
In his bag, on the way to the bridge and after she sets him down beside the chair, David is silent.
He doesn’t ask after his body. He doesn’t offer any information unless she asks for it. She doesn’t speak to him unless she has to. The dynamic duo, she thinks, and instead of laughing she bites the inside of her cheek until she feels a piece of herself separate from the rest, until her tongue gets distracted by the loose flap of skin and the iron tang beneath it and her eyes get distracted by white ovoid shapes that are just as inhuman as white, breathing webs. She moves his bagged head to the console, she uses him to cover as many white shapes as she can, and she asks him how to save their lives.
Lives, plural, because he’s made it obvious that he holds his existence in as high or higher regard than she holds hers. She doesn’t want to compare herself to him. She didn’t set out to kill, she didn’t mean – but did he? Did he want to or did he have to? Her kind created his kind, built a race of slaves from the ground up. The engineers created her kind only to destroy them, and his eyes are so full of light. There’s light inside of them.
It’s better not to look at him. It’s easier to ask him, Is this the right musical note? Did I stroke the right pressure point correctly, am I doing any of this right? Am I going to press the wrong thing and blow us up?
(Easier to think about the questions than it is to let herself see what her hands are doing.)
He responds, low and slightly garbled, saying yes and yes and some and probably.
The last response is silent. She hears it in her head, or she… thinks she does. (He watched her dreams. Can he read her mind?)
The chrono in her suit thinks (believes) it’s day three when he tells her it’s safe to engage FTL flight. She does everything he tells her (the flute), she does everything perfectly (oh, the orrery), and when she’s done, when his mouth is empty of instructions—when he has nothing left that she can use—she puts him back in the bag and zips it shut. She puts the closed bag on the deck and sits down next to it.
The console hums against her skin. It feels cool and slightly clammy. She closes her eyes for a moment. Just a moment.
Dad says, ‘Because they don’t want us,’ and hands her the cross.
She says, ‘Why not?’ but he only smiles. He puts the engineer’s flute to his mouth and plays and his head explodes, spraying her with green filth that burns and wiggles against her skin like it’s trying to find a way inside her pores.
She flails like she used to at flies in the summer, slapping at her skin and screaming. She screams and screams, she can’t stop, and David is holding her up by her arms, holding her still so that she can’t kill the green things burrowing into her.
He’s speaking to her, but she can’t hear him over the sound of her own screams. His voice is muffled and indifferent, and his smile looks like someone else smiled it first and then stuck it on his face. Like drawing a mustache and horns on Michelangelo’s David, only this David isn’t a work of art. He’s not even real.
He looks real enough. His eyes are wide and strange. They don’t fit his smile any more than his smile fits his face, and she needs, desperately, to hear what he’s saying. She needs to stop screaming because he needs her to do something and she, she needs to
‘Wake up, please. Dr Shaw, wake up.’
It’s very dark behind her closed eyelids. The bridge is almost as dark when she gets them open. It takes a while. They’re crusted together, tear gummed and salt thick, and she pries them apart and stares up at the overhead and she doesn’t, she does not remember.
She says, ‘David,’ and he says, ‘Dr Shaw?’ and she remembers (it’s okay, safe to remember this) she remembers why his voice is muffled. She turns onto her side and looks at the bag. It’s not too far away. If she reaches – like that-
Her fingers catch on the edge and she drags it toward her. She doesn’t unzip it. She curls in until she feels the strain in her abdomen beneath the meds, until the material is rough against her forehead. She says, ‘Doesn’t this thing have any windows?’
She swallows and her throat clicks and she thinks about how far of a crawl it is to the water pouches and the hypos and the med kit, and how much energy she’ll have to expend to get to them.
David says, ‘I don’t know.’
She nods and the bag’s rough fabric scratches her skin. She swallows again. It hurts. ‘Thank you,’ she tells him.
He says, ‘It was my pleasure.’
She lives inside of her suit, bathing in her own sweat, and she hurts. These are the constants in her life, the only parts of it that make sense. She cut herself open, stapled herself back together, and her patchwork result is something more painful than Charlie’s death, more than Dad’s, more even than the realisation that she loves herself more than she did them, together or separately.
Her guts move every time she moves, but not with her. They move around inside of her, in spite of her. She’s more aware of her insides now than she ever was before, and she wants them to stop living (dying) independently of her so that she can go back to being ignorant of them.
(She wants to be ignorant of him where he’s trapped twice, inside the bag and in the hold.)
She tries to space the injections out. Tries to save them for whenever she can’t think through the pain, when all she can do is lay her forehead on the deck and wish for water, a blue and green and white planet full of it, but she’s running out of water pouches and her mind is disappearing into fire and the injections are the only thing that helps.
Sometimes, when the latest one has taken hold and her mind is cool again for a small while, she thinks she doesn’t recognise herself anymore. She doesn’t recognise the woman who would leave anyone, robot or not, closed up inside a bag for any reason or length of time. The woman who sits with her back to the console and watches the entrance to the bridge, waiting to see what comes through it; the woman who lets her suit process her waste instead of finding wash water and clean clothes and a head; that woman isn’t anyone she knows.
Elizabeth Shaw is still thinking, still trying to be heard, but this new person, whoever she is, doesn’t seem to have any trouble ignoring her. And when she thinks – when she can think – she thinks she’s glad of it.
She touches the shape of the cross beneath her suit and she’s glad that Dad’s dead, that he can’t see what she’s becoming. She moves her thumb back and forth over the smooth head of Charlie’s ring and she can’t remember what colour his eyes were before they were black and red and coming apart.
That’s how her gut feels now, like it’s coming apart in black surges, red spiking up behind her eyes and green, green noise filling in the spaces between Elizabeth’s nonsense words.
She’s aware, vaguely, of noises that don’t come from inside her head or her gut. Sometimes she understands them; sometimes she misunderstands on purpose, but mostly she doesn’t hear him clearly enough for it to matter. She’s louder inside her head than he is outside of it and she can put her hands over her ears if Elizabeth decides to be quiet or the pain stops sounding red.
‘I can hear your eyes,’ she tells David solemnly, and Charlie laughs.
He says, ‘He’s just a synth, babe, don’t confuse him,’ and she looks up at David and asks him, ‘Don’t you understand, then?’
‘No, sorry.’ He sounds regretful, even though she knows he isn’t, really. He isn’t able to be. ‘I’m programmed to find meaning in abstract images, but I am unable to interpret them on a personal level.’
She tries to tell him, ‘It’s the colour, I can hear your colour,’ but he only blinks and looks as regretful as his program allows him to look.
Charlie says, ‘What are you on and where can I get some?’ He puts his arm around her waist and she tries not to flinch. ‘Paradises to see, angels to do, and sorry, people with souls only invited,’ he tells David. He’s laughing again (he’s always laughing at something her everything) and she remembers how (angry) annoyed that used to make her.
She says, ‘You shouldn’t say things like that.’ She says it to him but also to herself, she reminds herself, and he grins.
‘Why not?’ he says. ‘What’s he gonna do, punch me? Hey Pinocchio, what’s the first law of robotics?’
David blinks again and says, ‘A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.’
Charlie says, ‘There, you see, Ellie? He can’t hurt us.’
She thinks oh yes he can. She remembers how much she hurt and she remembers that he wouldn’t help her. She remembers how surprised she was by how much his refusal hurt her.
‘Those laws are fictional,’ David says to Charlie. ‘In reality, there are no laws enacted that would prevent a synthetic from being programmed to harm a human. Synthetics are often used for wartime and military purposes,’ he adds, and this, this is when and how it happens. It’s where Charlie bursts into flame, collapses into a pile of writhing broken DNA.
Except that he doesn’t. He throws up his hands and says, ‘You know what, I give up. You guys pick the weirdest times to discuss the weirdest shit, and I am going to need a lot of beer if I’m going to have to listen to this.’ He’s already walking away, calling back to them, ‘You want one, Ells? Speak now or forever hold your peace. I’d offer you one, Dave, but we both know you’re not in a position to appreciate it.’
She can hear him leaving her, but she can’t turn and watch him go. She can’t look back or she’ll turn into a pillar of salt.
‘Dr Shaw,’ David says. He sounds so urgent, so sad, but that’s impossible. He can only understand emotions, not feel them.
And how true is that? Weyland told them that, and she shouldn’t have believed anything that came out of his mouth (just like his son). Maybe it’s the other way round. He experiences, feels something and it confuses him. He probably understands it no better than humans understand their own emotions – humans aren’t very good at that. Psychology and psychiatry would be dead fields otherwise, and humans made him in their image.
How long did it take the first humans to understand what it was they were feeling, or that they felt anything at all? David’s brain is superior. He makes connections frighteningly fast. How much faster would he make this one?
It’s from a film I like.
Not a film he was given to watch or a film Mr Weyland liked. A film he, David, liked.
Faster. So much faster than it takes her to do anything. She knows – it’s like knowing the blue of his eyes is a soft clear note. His grey uniform sounds sharply crisp. She’d play it for him but she’s lost her flute.
‘Dr Shaw,’ he says. ‘Elizabeth.’
Her lips are wet. David is crying and her lips are wet. She wants to ask him why he’s crying but his tears are coming too fast, drenching her cheeks and stinging her eyes. She closes her mouth to keep them out, tries to blink them away and can’t. She can’t because her right cheek is stuck to the deck with her own saliva and snot, and so is her right eyelid. Her left eyelid is crusted shut and she has to rub the crust away before it will open.
‘Elizabeth,’ says David’s muffled voice. ‘Elizabeth. Elizabeth. Dr Shaw. Elizabeth,’ he says, monotone and repetitive, as though he’s been saying her name for a long time and has every intention of going on indefinitely.
She answers him to stop the sound of him. Well, she tries. It’s been… long. A long time since she used her voice. She’s almost forgot how, and her throat is too dry for sound. But David is still talking and for some reason her head is quiet. If she wants to shut him up she needs to talk to him. She swallows, trying for some of the saliva that seems to have all dripped down her chin, and pokes around inside the burnt-out nooks and crannies of Elizabeth’s head, looking for her lost words.
Her first attempt ends in a coughing fit. Her second produces sharp pressure in her nasal passages, squeezes tears from the corners of her eyes. They drip down her face into her mouth, and they’re like David’s in that they’re bitter, but it’s a saline bitterness, not silicone. She can safely swallow them and they’ll wet her throat enough for her to croak, ‘I’m here.’
The litany of her name gives way to silence.
‘Dr Shaw,’ David says. ‘I was. Afraid you were unwell.’
Hysteria lives in her chest, but she doesn’t have to let it burst out. She can contain it, contain herself, with both hands if necessary. ‘What made you think that?’ she says, gritting her teeth as she pushes herself up, bracing her hands against the deck. She needs both of them to stay upright because there’s nothing between her ears but vertigo and now that she doesn’t need it her mouth is full of sour saliva. Nausea claws at her belly; it clings to her oesophagus and hovers at the back of her throat, waiting for her to move again.
‘You spoke my name, but when I attempted to respond, your replies were unrelated. You were dreaming?’
Yes and yes and God, she never wants to move again. Beneath the tough skin of her suit her knees are raw meat and her abdomen is ripe flesh: a swollen, liquid ache. If she pushed down on it, her juices would leak out through her pores, filling her suit to overflowing.
She’s surrounded by empty water pouches and injectors. His bag is just beyond her reach. She blinks sweat and tears out of her eyes and slaps her hands down one after the other, slick palms dragging rough over the deck, catching on ridges and skidding across the dips.
He says, ‘Elizabeth?’
‘Just a minute,’ she pants. She tosses her hair back out of her face and she feels the wet slap of it on her neck, hears the spatter of her sweat against the deck as she looks up at the bag. She’s almost there. One more slippery pull, her hands scrabbling wetly for purchase and she’s falling forward.
She cries out more out of feared than actual pain; she catches herself on her stinging, sweating palms before the rest of her finishes landing, and David is speaking again, but her blood is loud in her temples, loud enough to drown him out. She leans over his bag on her hands and knees and gasps her relief out in sobs that twist through her abdomen in rhythmic, almost menstrual clenches.
They leave her shaking and nauseous, but the position is the most comfortable she’s found for her abdomen, and she stays in her arch. Positioning the bag between her hands, she pulls the zip open with her teeth.
‘Thank you,’ David says, still muffled, though not as badly as before.
She pushes the sides of the bag away, but she can’t see him clearly. She tries lifting him by his hair, tugging on it until her belly convulses and so does she. When the nausea goes away again, she opens her eyes. He’s half in, half out of the bag. She can see his eyes. She tells him, ‘I think there’s something wrong.’ She says, ‘I think what’s wrong, I think it’s me.’
His eyes go distant, looking through her. He’s scanning her. She watches his eyes change color, green flecked with gold and red, and thinks a robot, he’s a robot, he can’t be infected by that kind of thing.
His voice cuts through her spiraling panic. ‘Yes.’ He looks into her eyes as he tells her, ‘I’m sorry.’
She says, no, no you aren’t, you’re glad, and she says, if I, if you, would you. Will you.
He says, ‘If I can. I’m truly sorry, Dr Shaw.’
She says, ‘Liar, oh God, I can’t believe any of them believed you,’ and she laughs at him, at herself, at all of them until she can’t breathe, until she splits open down all her seams and dissolves into red black green.
Every time she tries to stand she sees purple and blue. The third time she tries she thinks, that’s interesting, no red and green, but after the blue there is black, a lot of it. There’s a lot of nothing.
David calls her back to consciousness the same way he’s done every other time. She has a bump on the back of her head and twin aches in her temples and they seem to throb in time with him chanting her name. She tells him to shut up then she stuffs her last water pouch into the bag with him, wraps its handles round her wrist, and crawls.
Time folds around her. It compresses her into tight knots of muscle, torn pieces of aching flesh. She’s gasping, sweat stinging her eyes and pooling at the neck of her suit, and she’s
She blinks the color away and the masked statue above bends down and she hears her panic speed her pulse, she cradles her sour fear in her mouth and blinks again. The statue stands as it’s stood for millennia. She’s barely through the port.
She’s climbed in the Andes more than once and loved it. She loved the strain in her muscles at the end of long days, dust thick and sweat-caked in her hair and throat. Now she can’t crawl a few metres without needing to rest, but this, it’s not Chile. It’s not even the Prometheus. It’s a ship built for the mental and physical comfort of nine foot tall beings and she is their creation, crawling small and insignificant through another of their creations on her hands and knees. Crawling, listening to the labored sound of her own breathing. Her pulse is too loud in her ears; it seems to ricochet from her throat to the dark walls then back into her head in a continuous reverberation, and she is more than uncomfortable: she is afraid.
She drags herself past sealed, slab-like doors and she imagines them opening. She imagines the things that would reach out of them for her. She watches them from the corners of her watering eyes, staring and crawling until one door opens and something reaches and she screams and she opens her eyes, her scream a fast fading echo down the corridor.
Maybe that echo is in her mind as well. Her head feels disconnected from her body and she doesn’t know where she is or how far she’s come and it’s been
She doesn’t know. She doesn’t know how long since she last heard him say anything.
Maybe she should unhook the bag from her wrist for a while. She should pace herself, rest before she passes out again, but her chrono is too far away from her down at the end of her arm. She starts counting doors instead. When there are no doors she counts the raised ribs dividing the walls into sections. They’re easy to keep track of; she can turn her head either way and see them without having to raise her head. Every third door or fourth rib, she stops.
She rests her intolerable weight, all the pressure in her abdomen propped up by her braced arms and crooked elbows. She lays her cheek on the deck, ‘And on the seventh day he rested.’
‘If you need to sleep, I can wake you later.’
The bag is lying on its side; the handles are dug into her wrist where they’re still looped around it; it hurts, but so does everything else; that’s probably why she didn’t notice until now. She hadn’t noticed the bag was unzipped, either, but she can see a few strands of blond hair and the line of his cheek. ‘All right,’ she says, and closes her eyes.
She chokes, coughing and rolling over onto her side fast enough to prevent herself from drowning in her own blood. She spits twice, human red spattering engineer black, but there’s more. Her mouth is full of it, drool thick and slick and leaking at the corners. She must’ve bitten her tongue when she passed out.
She spits again. ‘Don’t call me that.’ She wants to roll onto her back but if she does she might not be able to get up again. She wonders how many staples she has left. How many are loose in the suit, swimming free in her belly?
‘It’s your name,’ David says. It sounds like a question. She could ignore it, ignore him. She doesn’t owe him anything, but neither does he owe her anything. He got her off the planet; she brought him along. That deal is done. Now there’s a new deal growing between them, its parameters still nebulous and unformed. There has to be a new deal because she still wants to live.
‘Dr Shaw was my mother,’ she says once she’s spat again. ‘She’s dead.’
He’s quiet. Then he says, ‘You’re not.’
‘Not yet.’ She can’t stay down here; if she does she’ll never get up again. She says, ‘I’m just Shaw,’ and rolls up onto her knees and then she waits for the deck to start behaving like a deck again. ‘David.’ God, it’s a hot dart through her belly, a burst of ultraviolet going off light behind her left eye, and that’s just when she speaks. ‘I could call you something else.’
The throbbing behind her eyes dies down into the usual dull ache. ‘Thank you for offering,’ David says. ‘I’m fine.’
Laughing hurts everything—her head and her mouth, her eyes and her belly—but it was such a bloody human thing to say. People ask how you’re doing but they don’t really want to know. They want you to tell them you’re fine so you can all move on.
They want to get on with their day and remember you as being all right; they don’t want to know for sure one way or another.
‘You’re not,’ she says. ‘I’m not. None of this is fine.’ If she turns not too far to the right she can see his outline without making her head start up again. She’s going to have to drink some more water soon; there isn’t much left. ‘You’ve got, you have a lot of languages. Don’t you? In your memory?’
The blood in her mouth is mostly gone. She can feel the place where she bit her tongue now, but it’s a small pain, secondary to the others. Her tongue feels clumsy in her mouth, though, swollen and dehydrated. It makes it harder to push the words out, but maybe that’s all right. She doesn’t have many words left to waste, and maybe that’s why she’s asking, ‘What about books?’ She needs someone else’s words now.
Her mind could be putting hesitation into his tone, but she’s not imagining the long pause between her question and his reply. Eventually he says, ‘Is there one in particular you’re interested in?’
Her smile stretches her dry skin too tight; her lip cracks and she tastes blood. ‘The book, David.’
‘Ah. Chapter and verse?’
‘Anything,’ she says. ‘You choose.’ Because she’s curious but also because she’s made too many choices, too quickly; she doesn’t want to make any more decisions for a while, not even one this small.
David says, ‘Very well. In the land of Ur,’ he says, ‘there was a man named Job, and that man was blameless, upright, fearing God and turning from evil,’ and she bleeds and she hurts and she swallows, tasting her own salt.
‘No boils yet.’ She can’t remember cursing His name. She can’t remember if she’s been crawling for a few hours or a few days.
He says, ‘Do you believe God’s actions toward this man were justified?’
Her father asked her the same question, with dialectic intentions. She thinks David just wants to know what she believes.
She says, ‘I don’t know. I don’t think anyone does.’
Vickers was right. They were all right, everyone but her. She was in the wrong, so much so that even now she can’t allow herself to fully understand how much. She questioned wrongly and too deeply. She plucked the fruit and ate and now she is reaping what she sowed, abandoned, cast down, an inhuman being and his sword of fire standing between her and everything she’s always believed to be true.
Behind her the void slithers in, chitinous and hungry. She hears it uncoil, preparing to wrap her round and pull her the rest of the way down into the pit, and she throws herself forward, away from it. Desperate, she crawls.
Hands and knees, she is suppliant here; her forehead hurts, pressed down into gritty dirt. The grey hem of his uniform trousers is soft under her raw fingers.
Please let me go, let me go back in. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’ll be good this time.
‘Apologies,’ he says. ‘You must know that I can’t.’ His voice is gentle, regretful. His eyes are twin reflections of the fiery sword he carries.
‘Please,’ she says again. Please.
She lifts her head and looks at him and with his hand he reaches down. With her hand, she reaches up.
He lifts her and holds her there, steady and unmoving with only his hand. He says, ‘I have no wish to cause harm to you, Elizabeth,’ and then he swings his other hand down. He plunges his sword into her belly and she screams, screams oh God my God why has thou why. He shouts back, shouts her name until she has to shout again, until they’re shouting together and only her voice grows hoarse. Only her throat hurts.
Of the two of them, only she has a throat left to hurt.
Her face is pressed against the bag and she can feel the shape of him through it: her nose nudges one inhumanly high cheekbone.
He says ‘Elizabeth,’ and she doesn’t mind.
She says, gasps, ‘Psalm twenty-three.’ Click-click-click, something’s not processing right and it’s too loud for this empty corridor. He’s too quiet underneath his own sound. She imagines him searching his files, turning bright bits of information over with what passes for his mind until he has the one he needs.
When he looked at her with artificial, flame-shadowed eyes, all she saw was light.
He says, ‘The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.’
His singing voice is a pleasant tenor and coming back to consciousness with someone else’s words coming out of his mouth, even if his delivery isn’t perfect, is a thousand times better than having him put her name on repeat and hit play. And the flawed delivery isn’t really his fault. Every few sentences his voice stutters over a word, not because he doesn’t know what he’s trying to say or how to say it; he stutters because some connection isn’t being met. Something is very wrong with him.
Something is very wrong with both of them. Some things. His voice is the least of them.
‘I haven’t heard that for – it’s been a long time,’ she says, and his voice breaks off. She says, ‘I didn’t know you could sing.’
He says, ‘I can do almost anything that is asked of me.’ His speaking voice is in worse shape than his singing voice; it jumps, shivers around ending consonants and beginning vowels like a stroke victim’s slur. ‘Are you feeling better?’
‘I.’ It hurts less to lie on her side facing his bag and it’s better to keep him close. She’s not sure she’d wake up again if he wasn’t there to wake her.
Laying a careful hand on her abdomen, she allows herself to feel what she’s feeling. She wonders how many more staples have popped out, become lost between her skin and the suit. ‘I’ve been better,’ she says honestly. Her head is a hollow ache and her stomach has come completely loose inside of her; she can feel it liquefying under her fingers. She says, ‘I think I’m going to die.’
He says, ‘According to your God, everything does.’
His voice is what she has left. That was as true on the bridge as it is here. The difference is, she can’t hate him for it anymore.
She breathes in and out, in through her nose and out of her mouth, until everything evens out inside of her and there’s nothing left to do but make everything uneven again. She doesn’t give herself time for anticipation—that’ll just make it worse. She rolls up onto her hands and knees and starts crawling.
‘David,’ she says, pulling at the bag until his face is free of its folds, ‘is it – are we?’
She saw her mother a little while ago, standing in the middle of a corridor talking to the aunt she left back on earth. She can’t trust her eyes and brain anymore and she wouldn’t trust him with anyone’s life, but she trusts him to get her to his body. She trusts him to tell her if she’s in the right place.
‘This is it?’ she asks, and he says, ‘Yes.’ He says, ‘On your left,’ and she lifts her head and something huge and wet and merciless surges behind her eyes up into her throat. The loading bay is as massive as she remembers and the ATV is half a world away but she can see it; she can see an end. She can’t see what it’s going to be but it’s there and so is his body and she’s crawling and there’s her end, one she can put a name to: soon she won’t have to crawl anymore.
David is talking one long garbled stream of fact. Tools are under the rear compartment of the ATV and in a sealed pouch in his suit. She’ll have to work on him where his body is, strapped into the back of the vehicle; the straps will hold him still and she couldn’t move him if she wanted to.
She lets him talk; doesn’t interrupt; doesn’t really listen. He’ll repeat himself (he does when she asks him to) and the deck needs her attention more than he does. It’s full of inconsistencies, rough and uneven and she isn’t very steady. Inevitably her hand slips, wrenching her sideways. Her belly convulses and she chokes on her scream, but she throws out her arm in time and the deck scrapes layers of skin off of her palm instead of punching her in the gut. Her head drops and her hair falls down into her face, slapping wetly at her cheeks. Her sweat is melt water, seeping out of her pores and dripping down her face to the deck; she hears it hit and she hears her own uneven breathing, the high hitch of it that sounds like a whimper.
She hears him say her name.
‘Shut up.’ Her throat is so dry. How can her face be wet when her tongue is cracking, crumbling away inside of her mouth? It hurts to say, ‘Until I get there, until then just shut up.’
For once, he listens to her. She gets back up on her palms, up on her knees that must be there even if she can’t feel them. She moves and she wishes he hadn’t listened. His silence isn’t so loud that she can’t hear so very many things she’d rather not.
Her fingers bump the tread, jolting her hand back to life. If she couldn’t feel the sting she wouldn’t believe it. ‘H-here,’ she says, and she digs her nails into hard rubber, she scrapes and claws herself upward, up, she still has this little way to go.
The back of her throat tastes like tarmac and someone is sobbing, choking, and her chest is caving in. Her boot catches on the step and she tips forward over his strapped in body and God, God, God she’s going to die right here, spilled half over his body, her guts spilled out inside of her suit, her left boot jammed at an awkwardly right angle into the space between the step and the frame.
He’s between her and his body, jammed against her hip and she has to think about this. She has to think her hands into unknitting themselves from the bag and his uniform and make them pull him the rest of the way out.
‘Your hands,’ he says, and she lets go of him, lets him fall onto his own lap and holds her left hand up. She holds it close to her face because sometimes she can’t focus when things are too far away.
Black with millennia worth of grit from the deck, skin scraped red and raw. Two of her nails are gone; the rest are worn bloody. She looks down at his body. She looks at him. They’re not the same thing.
‘Tell me what to do.’
He says, ‘I’m sorry that I’m unable help you more than this,’ and she doesn’t shake her head, doesn’t tell him it’s okay. It’s not okay and they aren’t and she can’t they can’t she isn’t
Even braced against the step her twisted ankle wobbles under her. She grabs onto his shoulders to keep her balance. They’re bare, she had to pull his suit down to see what she was fixing, and her hands slip-slide over his skin before she finds a grip that works and steadies herself, trying for a balance she doesn’t feel.
In the end she stands on her good leg, her other knee braced on his lap. She lifts his head by his hair, lines it up with his spine and looks into his eyes. ‘There?’
‘What do I—’
‘Push down. As hard as you can.’
It’s not very. Not enough to fix him in place, put him back together, not for all the king’s horses or men. It’s more than enough to make her scream. The skin of his throat and chest is slick with her sweat; his shoulder glistens where her forehead was briefly pressed against it and his arms hang useless at his sides. He says, ‘Shaw,’ and his voice jumps and jerks, stumbles off into mechanical static.
‘Just… moment.’ She can do this. She didn’t want to, wasn’t going to, but now that she has to she will.
She pushes and screams and something snaps apart inside of her at the same time something else snaps into place outside of her. She tastes iron, thick and cloying, and she slumps into him and she can see his eyes watching her while his body doesn’t move and doesn’t move because it can’t.
She tries. She tries to straddle him, tries to make her hands work the tools and her body stay upright but she can’t.
‘Perhaps if you could lie down?’ he says, and she swallows red iron and says, ‘Can’t, no room.’
He says, ‘I don’t believe it would be difficult to get us down. If you think you can bear the impact.’
She swallows, swallows and pants, ‘You’ve no idea what I can bear,’ and she lifts her head, searching for the strap release.
It’s difficult, no it’s just hard to press the release hard enough free him from the straps. It’s stupidly easy to anchor her hands in his uniform, let her own unbalance take her and fall down with him onto the deck. She lands on top of him and her lungs are flat and empty and she has no air but she still has to bite her lip to keep the scream in, has to blink and blink until her eyes stop stinging. She lets momentum roll her off him onto her side and they’re side by side, her hand still clutching his suit and the wand.
Her chest and everything in it is moving too fast. His isn’t moving at all.
‘Ok?’ she croaks.
She says, ‘I hate the way you say that.’ She wipes her eyes clear with the back of her hand then she flattens her palms on the deck and on his chest and pushes herself up.
‘One arm,’ he says next to her ear (her head is on his shoulder, it’s the only way she can’t make it stop spinning and wobbling). ‘That’s all you need do, Shaw. I’ll finish.’
Her forehead slides against him as she nods; he’s too smooth, except for where he isn’t. His torn skin flops down loosely, covering the bits she’s supposed to be fixing. Every time the wand touches a connection inside of him, his mouth twitches and something jerks and the loose skin shudders like something out of the sea trying to breathe on land.
The torn edges feel odd, scratchy and ambivalent under the raw tips of her fingers. ‘Does it hurt?’
He says, ‘Not as you understand the word. A little higher, please – there.’
She presses in again with the wand and she knows before he does it that he’s going to flinch.
Brimstone burning her sinuses, the roof of her mouth, searing the back of her throat. Her voice isn’t hers anymore but the seventh night was ago and the waters are still rising. ‘…Smell? David, that—’
‘Sorry,’ he says, ‘the chemicals in the sealant react violently with the composition of synthetic skin. It’s something like cauterization would be for you, I should think, although a rather more temporary measure.’
She tries to move her head and something rubs rough against her cheek. The right side of her face is pressed against his left thigh; his suit scrapes her again as she turns her face up toward the sound of his voice and opens her eyes.
He’s bending over her. That’s why it seemed so dark behind her closed eyelids. In the sick green light, he looks like a corpse. She says, ‘Y’look like I feel,’ and she realises: he’s bent down. She can feel his hand on her head and she can see his other hand, holding a tool with a faceted crystal tip.
‘Long’ve I… out. This time?’
‘Quite some time. Hours. I thought it best to let you sleep.’ Something clicks and the tool is lowered. She blinks up at him and there is an odd halo around him, fuzzy white. The tear isn’t torn all the way anymore. Now there is a jagged brownish-red line halfway across his chest; it looks like he melted his skin together; it looks like something out of a burn unit. The smell… sealant… he did burn himself back together in a way.
‘F’nished?’ It catches wrong in her throat and her tongue tastes numb and she coughs and her chest rattles under her curled in hand. There are metals warm on her numb tongue and in her stunned sinuses and both of his hands are on her, around her, supporting her head.
There’s a sort of hum coming from him; she wonders if it’s supposed to be comforting or if it’s involuntary: a sound from inside of him, as uncontrollable by him as a grumbling stomach would be to a human.
‘Not quite,’ he says, and his fingers settle in her hair. They move. ‘Would you like me to fetch you an analgesic patch?’
She moves her head once against his leg, one negative. ‘Used ‘m all. Sure.’
‘There is a technique. Specific pressure applied to certain nerves clusters may lessen the pain.’
‘Not finished, then.’
She closes her eyes. ‘Do it.’
Two sets of hands inside her chest, squeezing her lungs, pushing the air out of them until they’re flat. There’s no breath left in her throat, no light left to see by. Just his eyes, above her.
She tries to shake her head but it won’t move. She tries harder and the pressure blooms out from her chest tingling down her arms into her fingertips and sharp up her spine into her brain. It hurts.
And then it doesn’t.
Usually she’s not much of a drinker. She never has been, not even during the short, inchoate period when she wasn’t sure if her father’s God was still hers or if she even wanted Him to be. Tonight, though, Charlie dropped down beside her and held out a beer and she smiled back and took it. Because it’s just them and a few more grad students and Dr Zawass out here in Akhenaten’s failed monotheistic experiment. It’s the end of a long week and beer, warm as it is, is everyone’s choice of beverage, and one beer isn’t going to do much damage one way or another.
And maybe she thought it would relax her a bit, give her a bit more social ease. Charlie’s always teasing her about that, telling her to ease up (although he laid into Hank the other day for calling her a tightass), and maybe tonight she just wanted to be easy in her skin, next to him.
If she’d stuck to the one beer, she might’ve pulled it off. But one turned into two, two into four, and she’s always been a lightweight. Tiny frame, slow metabolism. And now the stars are a great sea of light above her and the ground is halfway out from under her feet and everyone is laughing about Yu’s brush with destiny in the form of a Ptolemaic mummy in an eighteenth dynasty tomb. Charlie is laughing and so is she.
It isn’t the first time she’s been drunk but it is the first time she’s been this drunk. The last hour is a blur of sensation she can’t separate into its constituent parts. Hops cling bitter to her tongue and she sways uneasily between sand and sky and the pit fire, dug out in the desert away from Amarna, but far too close and hot for her skin. Charlie’s presence is steady; she breathes him in along with wood smoke and sand and her own sweat. He’s warm against her side and, later, pressed up against her back when she tries to stand. ‘Whoa,’ he says as he holds her steady. ‘Uh. You don’t do this much, do you?’
‘No,’ she tells him truthfully. Then, ‘I don’t like leaving myself this far behind.’ His eyes widen, alarmed, and he says ‘Ellie, hey, don’t,’ but she’s falling, falling and not falling because he’s caught her.
‘Gotcha,’ he says, still laughing. Her vision is behaving oddly, fuzzing out around the periphery but his smile is wide and close and oh—
She opens her eyes and looks up at him, still tasting him. ‘You taste like beer.’
He throws his head back on a shout of laughter. ‘So do you, babe,’ he laughs. He says, ‘Come on, up,’ and she says, ‘What,’ but he’s laughing again, turning her round toward him and the ground is spinning and so is she, her ears ringing, her stomach flipping queasily where his shoulder is suddenly pressing into it.
She blinks away pressure-induced tears, blinks until she can see what she’s looking at. ‘Charles Jefferson Holloway, why is your arse in my face?’
She’s slung over his shoulder and he’s still laughing like a not very bright hyena, and she squirms, trying desperately for a better position because… oh God, she’s never been this drunk before. She didn’t know you could get a hangover before the alcohol wore off, but that’s what this must be, nausea welling up into her throat in a great wave, bright pain agonising in her gut.
‘Charlie,’ she’s panting, can’t speak, can barely breathe, ‘down, I need to-’
‘Not yet,’ someone says. She opens her eyes and there are other eyes above her, looking down at her. And her vision is still blurred but she knows the other eyes aren’t Charlie’s. He’s carrying her, but not like Charlie did. He’s carrying her the way her father did when she was six and she crawled into her parents’ bed after a nightmare. She fell asleep between them and woke up with her head on Dad’s shoulder, his arms supporting her as he walked her back to her room. She fell asleep again before they reached it and woke up in the morning tucked into her own bed.
He’s carrying her like Dad did her six year old self, like she weighs nothing. ‘David.’ Yes, he’s- ‘Where?’
He’s lowering her and suddenly she doesn’t want him to. She’s afraid of what’s down there, afraid of where he’ll put her down, of what will happen to her after he does. She grabs onto him with both hands and she says, ‘Don’t don’t don’t,’ and he says, ‘Shaw,’ he says, ‘Elizabeth, let go. You have to let go.’ He lowers her, hard flat surface under her back, uneven under her head, he pulls her hands from him, pulls away and he’s going leaving he’s going to leave her alone again not going to help her she
don’t make me this again I can’t please
Someone is gasping. The sound of their breathing hurts her chest. His palm is flat on her diaphragm; she can feel the shape of it through the suit.
‘I’ll come back,’ he tells her and she tries to believe that but the exam table is so cold through the gown and she can’t feel her hands and feet but she can feel her belly squirming sickeningly within her and he’s leaving her not helping her again again oh God.
‘I’ll come back,’ he says again. His hand moves once, down to rest gently on her swollen abdomen, and then his face is gone and the overhead curves down on her to take his place and she is losing pieces of herself one long double helixed strand at a time. They swim against the backs of her closed eyes, combining and recombining until she can almost hear the snap of broken strands, the screech of them fitting back together. It’s so loud behind her eyelids she doesn’t hear him come back. She doesn’t know he’s there until he speaks.
‘Shaw.’ Odd. He sounds odd. Demanding. ‘Open your eyes please.’
She doesn’t want to. Why should she do anything he wants? She wanted, she needed his help enough to beg for it and he left her alone.
‘Shaw,’ again, only now it’s a question more than a demand. And now she wants to know what could make a thing like him sound like that, but there’s a new sound, one she can feel more than hear. Something is vibrating the platform beneath her, the bridge is full of grinding noise, gritty like a hinge that hasn’t been used in centuries.
His fingertips are warm, light imprints on her cheek. His skin feels like skin, like her skin used to.
‘Open your eyes.’ And she does and it hurts as much as she knew it would.
She blinks rapidly. Her eyes are twin floods, blurring his face in front of her. He’s bent down over her, holding a piece of torn cloth: a piece of a ship’s flight suit. He brushes it over her cheeks and it hurts, her eyes throb in time with her temples, but at least they’re clear.
He’s clear. ‘All the king’s horses… all his men,’ she tells him, and he’s not in pieces anymore but she can see the joins of his mending. He’s still stripped to the waist and just looking at the ugly band of brown and red in place of torn skin feels like all the places she’s coming apart inside.
‘Look up,’ he says. He touches the fingers that touched her cheek to his burn scar and she tips her head back and oh.
‘They do have windows, apparently,’ he says and she bites into her cheek instead of laughing.
She doesn’t want to look at anything else again ever, but he did this. She rolls her head against the dais and he’s beside her, kneeling down.
He’s very close, filling her vision, living eyes in an inhuman face. She says, ‘You don’t want me to die.’ It tastes like rusted truth and his hands feel real and when she turns her face upward the stars the stars, oh the stars they are so they are and she looks and looks at them until she flares and burns out.
‘We should go, no-one’s there today,’ says Nkoyo, and Elizabeth says, ‘All right.’
Nkoyo is fourteen to her twelve-almost-thirteen and objectively a year and a half isn’t much time; subjectively it’s a vast plain connecting the hundred doorways between adolescence and adulthood, and Nkoyo has passed over more than one threshold already. Elizabeth only just got her period.
Dad doesn’t like her going places with Nkoyo. Why, Elizabeth asks him, and he says she’s too old for her age, but Elizabeth likes that about her. Nkoyo isn’t going to stay here. Her parents are Christian and indulgent. She’s uncut, and she’s going to stay that way.
‘I’m not going to marry anyone, I’m going to France,’ she tells Elizabeth. ‘I’m going to university.’
Dad says he thinks it’s good that she wants to do these things, he’ll help her all he can, but he still thinks Elizabeth spends too much time with her. Elizabeth doesn’t care. She likes the way Nkoyo grins at her when they’re alone, she likes the way Nkoyo’s hands feel in her hair, finger-combing it out, careful with the coarse reddish strands Elizabeth is beginning to hate.
‘Pretty,’ Nkoyo says, but she’s the one who’s pretty, standing naked on the rocks above the pool, her hair a curling dark cloud around her face and under her arms and between her thighs.
She didn’t tell Dad she was going; he’ll find out later. He always does, but it will be worth it for Nkoyo’s smile and laughter and her hands smooth palmed and finger callused sliding water cool over her skin beneath the surface where no one can see but she can feel so much.
‘Go again! That one.’
Anything, any height for her and this rock is the highest so far. Nkoyo below her, laughing, arms raised, and she should have looked where she was jumping but it’s hard to look at anything but Nkoyo when she looks like that.
The surface slaps her silly and her head goes off with a bang and the light is so green down through the water, life and air bubbling away from her up into it. Green light and clear water and… things. Weeds in her nose and in her mouth and down her throat, she can feel them in there pulsing with her breath that isn’t hers anymore, and she reaches up, tries to claw them away. Tries to scream, but they swell within her throat, filling her full.
She claws blindly, flails her hands out through heavy liquid and she hits something. And the water is still green but it doesn’t feel like water, the walls are white and close and living, she can see veins, long green arteries pulsing like the weeds are still pulsing in her throat. There’s a screaming noise ringing in her ears and it’s not hers, her mouth is still full of weeds and the noise screams and screams again and she thrashes, wanting to scream with it. She grabs handfuls of long thin weeds and pulls and it’s like pulling her throat out.
Distant and muffled. He’s always sounded like that. The walls split open all around her and the fluid gushes out through the tears. She falls with the rush of it and she would gasp but she can’t, she doesn’t need to because it catches her, folds up around her and holds her and he bends down over her and wipes the green haze out of her eyes and she can see him as he is now, not as he was.
‘This will hurt,’ he tells her. ‘It’s best to do it quickly.’
What, she wants to ask, and there’s a tug at her mouth and nostrils and then he rips her throat and sinuses out and finally she can scream.
There are more green veined twisting white weedy things attached (grown into her) at her wrists and on the insides of her thighs (and other places others don’t don’t think don’t think about) she feels the tugs and the sick sliding, she burns in her other places through the burn of trying to breathe, and it’s forever but it’s too quick, it’s a dried up scab beside the raw ruin of her throat.
She can’t even ask him what he did to her.
‘Shaw.’ He finished bandaging her wrist but he’s still holding it. Now he lifts her hand, laying it palm down on her abdomen. Her skin is… bare.
‘My apologies for the extent of the scarring. Under the circumstances it was unavoidable.’
She is bare. On this… what is it beneath her? It feels like sponge, fibrous and puffy against the backs of her legs, under her sore shoulders and her bruised fingertips.
Bare, scarred belly, naked fingers scrabbling at her equally naked collarbone. ‘What did you do with it, where is it, give it back now!’
She sounds more like a crow than a human and her throat is sandpaper agony but he must understand because he withdraws the chain from his breast pocket. She stares at him as he brushes her hair away from her face and fastens it around her neck and she feels the reassuring weight of the cross and the ring settle in the hollow of her throat.
Her hand moves up, grabbing at his sleeve; he was wearing a suit like hers, she’s sure of it. ‘Where’d you get that?’ Better. Not quite as painful to say, a bit more human to hear.
He looks down at himself, at the olive green flight uniform with no identifying name badge. ‘There were emergency spares in each of the ATVs. There’s one for you, if you want it. I’m afraid your suit will require cleaning and repair before it can be worn.’
She doesn’t care if she never wears it again but she doesn’t have the luxury of choice. She nods and as she does, one of the trailing, corkscrew things that were so lately attached to her squirms, drawing her eye. Her aborted scream is a harsh guttural caw clawing ragged red lines through her larynx.
His hands cuff her gently; she’s held immobile.
‘Please be calm. You’ll injure yourself.’
‘That - you, what did you-’
‘You can see for yourself.’ His hands move down underneath her, supporting her, lifting and turning her until she can see the thing dominating the centre of the room.
Most of the fluid has drained away but there are still cloudy, glistening pools of it puddled around and between what looks like thick shredded white skin. The cords twitch and wriggle, moving sluggishly around the six towering shell-like shards rising up from the deck, curving inward from their bases into sharp points.
‘It’s something like a womb,’ he explains. ‘The inner membrane and umbilical cords were grown from a sample of your own DNA to make the possibility of rejection lesser.’
Inside it, she was inside of that for- ‘How long?’
‘Two weeks and two days. The infection was widespread. You nearly died.’
Her fingers curl, digging into the surface beneath her; it rustles and she looks down. It’s green, it looks like moss, and it changes, reshapes and grows or shrinks with her own movements. Her scalp prickles and she doesn’t look at the (womb) thing that saved her life but she can hear – little movements, little splashes of sound that aren’t hers or his and her skin ripples like it wants to crawl away. She wants to crawl away with it but he’s lowering her back down and the moss is growing up to cover her. She wants to crawl away but his hand is warm on her bare shoulder and her body wants to lie where it is forever.
‘I,’ she says. ‘Please.’
He says, ‘Sleep,’ and she does.
Days not spent in the field are lovely rarities, weekends doubly so. Sundays are still her favourites, the same as they were when she was young. Then it was listening to Dad speak, feeling her friends around her and the soaring union released from the notes of a sung hymn. Now it’s a quiet hour of solitary reading after many more hours of much needed sleep, lying in bed with her hand on a stretch of still warm sheet listening to Charlie moving around in his office. It’s slouching on the sofa with a pile of field notes on the coffee table and Esther in her lap, and it’s knowing that if she opens her eyes the footsteps pausing behind her will become Charlie’s smile.
The late Sunday sun-heavy weight of her cat on her belly becomes lighter, becomes the weight of someone’s hand. She opens her eyes to smile back and she remembers, oh God how can she not remember his eyes?
‘Are you hungry?’ David asks, and her stomach roils and growls as though it can’t make up its mind.
She pushes up onto her elbow and sees unfamiliar surfaces, a room she doesn’t know. ‘Where are we?’
‘Private quarters. There are four cabins and this is the cleanest of them. And it has this.’
He moves too quickly, too unexpectedly and she jerks back, hands scrabbling at the mossy cover beneath her, but he only looks at her once before moving around to the head of the platform.
She turns her head to watch him and he leans forward and… blows. On a series of holes set into a silver plate. The sound doesn’t echo the way it does on the bridge, but it’s still the same sort of sound the flute makes.
The grinding noise that comes after isn’t as loud or grating as the sound of the bridge ports opening, but it’s similar enough that she’s not as surprised as she might have been when the dark arch of wall on the far side of the room opens up and they’re not on the ship anymore, she’s reclining on nothing, surrounded by space. If she reached out, she’d burn her fingers on a star.
‘I think I’m hungry.’
He hands her the cornbread from an MRE and she eats it slowly, one small stomach-cramping bite at a time. She gets a quarter of it down before she has to stop. Anything more and she’d throw up; she’s not sure she won’t anyway.
‘There aren’t many of these,’ he says, taking what she couldn't finish and putting it aside. ‘Even fewer of the nutrient tubes.’
Her stomach cramps again, gurgling uneasily around digesting cornbread, but she can’t think about that, not yet.
‘Shaw,’ he begins and she cuts across him, cuts him out, ‘I need the head.’ Her stomach hates her, hates her in cramps and gurgles and strange flops. ‘I need to get clean.’
Not a lie. Her skin feels like it hasn’t touched water in months; well, it probably hasn’t. She doesn’t even want to think about her hair. She’s been on long digs before with minimal amenities, but this is beyond her experience. She can smell her own soured skin and the (amniotic) fluid she lived in for two weeks every time she moves. She looks down at his feet and tries not to feel displaced inside her own skin, inside the olive drab uniform that doesn’t fit, tries not to smell (herself) anything when she says, ‘Is that possible?’
He says, ‘Yes of course. Now?’
She glances at the viewport but for once the thought of clean skin exerts more force than the stars. She says, ‘Yes,’ and swings her legs over the side of the platform.
Her ankle hurts when she puts her weight on it – ‘Compound fracture,’ he says, and she sees the red of fresh scarring that starts at her ankle and goes down the top of her foot. ‘The wound is free of infection and the bone healed, but take care with it.’ She tries to walk under her own steam but she’s barely made it through the port before she’s hanging on to the back of his shirt.
He stops walking. ‘It will be easier if you allow me to carry you.’
‘No.’ Incontrovertible fact. He won’t carry her because that is an unacceptable outcome. ‘Just… oh, here.’ With his arm supporting her shoulders and hers round his waist. She feels like telling him she staggered out of the medpod and supported herself into the infirmary without help but her ankle bloody hurts and she’s tired of hurting.
‘This way.’ He pushes a glowing green hieroglyph and a port grinds open. She limps through the doorway and stops dead on the threshold, dragging him into stillness with her.
A disinterested third party would probably call it beautiful, would probably see a translucent green flower spreading its petals out around a clear stamen, soaking up light from an artificial sun.
She isn’t a disinterested third party. She feels as far from being a disinterested third party as it’s possible to get without moving to the next galaxy.
She shifts her weight to her bad leg, letting him take the brunt of it, and says, ‘It’s hunting.’ Like a Venus flytrap. Or a sea star turned upside down. Their mouths are in the middle, too.
He says, ‘It’s a combined sanitation and cleansing unit. The first setting is water. The sensation is that of showering. The third is for waste disposal.’
She spares him a glance, trying to look at him without looking away from the thing on the floor. ‘Are you saying you’ve used it? David, it’s rippling.’ It looks like it’s breathing.
There’s something. Impatience? That’s – yes, it’s impatience, impossible on his face and in his voice. ‘I’ve used it, and it’s perfectly safe. The water reservoirs are full and free of impurities. If you have further reservations I’ve not addressed, please tell me. I can’t read your mind.’
Impatience and sarcasm, and one worry laid to rest. If not for the Venus flytrap masquerading as a shower, she might rest more easily on her unwieldy legs. She looks down at it and she would give almost anything for a tiled cubicle and a recognisable showerhead, but like everything else now, it’s about what she can have, not what she wants.
‘Do you require assistance?’
She’s spent more time around him semi-clothed and fully naked than she has dressed. It’s a sudden suffocating need for privacy, not modesty or embarrassment, that makes her say, ‘I can manage.’
He looks as though he doesn’t believe her, but he shows her how to work the controls and steps back. Before the petals close, sealing her in, she sees him leave. She almost calls him back. Then water swirls around her from what seems like every direction and for a short, steam-drenched time she forgets even the colours of him.
She goes back to the cabin because it’s close and her ankle feels newly fractured and the shower’s heat drained what little energy she had away with the water. Clutching the bulkhead, sometimes leaning against it, sometimes both, and it doesn’t matter that she has to stop every few yards, she crawled half the length of this ship and she’s still here.
She’s still breathing.
She smacks the right hieroglyph with her palm and the door slides back and the light from the corridor would be enough, but she doesn’t even need that. David left the viewports open. The room is full of light.
She stumbles forward and everything spins, walls and floor flipping over themselves and falling in on each other. Or she falls or the stars do, but the sleeping platform is solid against her hip. The moss was strange and horrifying at first, it still is, but it’s soft against her skin, sliding up over her in slow-grown stages until she’s covered.
She digs her toes into it, wriggles her fingers free of clinging strands. She lies on her back and lets the light of a billion heavenly bodies wash her the rest of the way clean.
She should think. About the womb and DNA and the dais with its empty hypersleep units. About him.
She should think about what she’s going to do when the food runs out, but she’s aching and her eyes are closing and she can’t see the starlight anymore but she can feel it. She can breathe it in with the sleep she doesn’t want to need, and she can dream.