LACKINGTON'S

speculative prose

Something to Light the Sunless Winter, by Sara Beitia

Something To Light The Sunless WinterDAY 5

Securing a berth on the Cressida’s maiden voyage is a lottery win, Asa said.

She’s not the first ship to leave the cosmic shallows around Earth, of course, but she’s the first with an all-anthro flight and med crew, and non-suspended civilian passengers. If all goes well, the Arete and the Hippolyte will follow in kind.

We’re still taking in this new situation. We suppose ourselves adventurers, though we’re really only along for a ride. Asa disapproves of my cynical framing. He’s right. It is an adventure. (But of a passive variety I must insist, if only here.)

DAY 10

We are experiments, too, it seems. Cargo to be monitored and studied as much as everything else aboard this ship.

We were outfitted prelaunch with implants to monitor blood sugar, blood pressure, pulse ox, hormonal shifts, and a gunnysack of other physiological factors. They’re fairly nonobtrusive. Neither Asa’s nor mine have had anything to tattle, no problems to report for repair.

DAY 14

A poetical, boosterish tagline was written on the NNWVco literature but is nowhere in evidence now that the Cressida’s underway. It was very inspiring, I think. The exact phrasing has already slipped my mind. Something to do with boundless knowledge, something about frontiers. (Our friends and families reacted bitterly to our plans, but any one of them would’ve made the same gamble we have. It’s not true what they say about the devil you know.)

There’s nothing here to mark the days except military hours on large, intermittent corridor displays. We’ve been discouraged from counting (home) time. I guess this silly log helps me keep hold of days—the idea of them, I mean.

DAY 22

I find it easy to float through the gentle river time has become in this void. The feeling is embryonic. Universal. Asa laughed when I said this, but he feels it too. Yet I can tell that the stillness has lost some of its shine for him. His eyes are on our destination now, whatever that is. Specifics were written in the literature, I’m sure, but I forget.

DAY 30(?)

There’s nothing to keep our rhythms circadian (she complained). No seasons of course in this black ocean. I suspect I’ve slept through entire days, and stayed awake through a few, too.

I believe it’s still winter back home. It was easy to pull up stakes in January. (There’s nothing for us here, we told each other as we signed on the dotted line in that nondescript office monolith way back when. I remember sleet dappling the small window’s grey view.) If the launch had been in May, well. Even living hardscrabble, May is May. They knew that, sure they did. We think ourselves sophisticated and shrewd, clear-eyed adults, but there’s no such thing. January gloom set contra tantalizing novelty—“available for only a lucky few!”—was all it took to peel us back to the credulous children we are below our adult calluses. Asa has started calling our adventure The Mission.

Anyway, good work was getting hard to find, and we were promised and delivered plentiful and nutritious food onboard. The temperature outside the Cressida is 2.7 Kelvin (Asa informs me this is negative 454.81 on the Fahrenheit scale), but in her belly it’s as comfortable as eternal early summer.

DAY 41(?)

I feel funny. Have since we left, or near as. Asa objects to the vagary of “funny,” but I have nothing better. He says I just need my sea legs, says we all feel funny. I asked him if this was true, and he said no, he only feels excitement.

There’s buzz of a Something on the horizon, and maybe that’s why we all feel funny, if we all really do.

DAY 50(?)

Naturally I’d expected this adventure to be more than I could imagine, but in many ways it is less. Strange how something can be both thrilling and tedious at the same time. Like romance, Asa has just said, his breath so close to my ear it tickles as he reads over my shoulder. He thinks he’s funny. And now I’ve lost my train of thought.

DAY 70(?)

I’ve been fogged ever since we travelled through what Asa says everyone’s calling “that cloud bank” (and which we’re informed Quite Officially Did Not Happen). Was that the Something? Are there clouds in space? I didn’t think there were, but my ignorance (and fog) means I can’t be sure.

DAY 72

I’m hiding a little secret from Asa. He has enough on his mind, and I like having something that’s mine alone, just for now.

DAY 73

I thought other nations were making similar embarkings, but there’s nothing about them on the shipcom station. I’m sure there’s something in the literature we were given in advance of launch, as well as other interesting information, but unlike Asa, I prefer to sail blindly, daydreaming in this stasis until we move beyond it. This enrages Asa, who is “out, engaging.” Sometimes I believe we experience distinctly separate voyages.

DAY 75

Communication with home has gone from spotty to nil. The crew assures us they’re in contact with their terrestrial mission control counterparts, that all is well. Asa says this is the truth, and that he’d know if it wasn’t.

DAY 78

Asa goes to his work assignment faithfully. I never reported after Onboard Supplementary Orientation, and I’ve found that no one enforces these jobs. At least, not mine. I think it’s meant as busy work, but I’m able to keep my own self occupied. Naturally I haven’t told Asa, whom I’m happy to let represent us both on the outside. He doesn’t ask, so I haven’t lied. He probably already knows. I’ve pestered him about what his work entails. He laughs and says he can’t yet say. (Is this why he doesn’t pester me?) Whatever they want, he says, it’s a long voyage!

How long? We didn’t ask, did we, Asa? (Or did you, and now you’re not telling? Is it a surprise? A state secret?) I swear there were complicated distances outlined in the brochure, measurements I couldn’t ken, yes I’m quite positive we were promised a better life in a fresh biome, but it’s too late to worry now.

DAY 79

Every day I wake with Asa; I read some scrap over a leisurely breakfast (after Asa’s gone to report); I watch the screens that tell us how this particular vast emptiness differs from any other we see, and partake in undemanding media. I walk the decks, rotate conservatory visits among the several climates, sometimes peer through the Major Observatory’s telescopes. I lunch alone. Asa and I sometimes supper en suite, sometimes in the Grand Leisure Park, or sometimes we visit one of the “restaurants.” They don’t vary much in taste.

I make my scribbles when I feel like it, and doze in this comfortable bed under soft, weighted bedding. I’m not lonely, because Asa will always be back soon.

DAY 90(?)

The Cressida is impressively large. I remember thinking just that when we boarded and I couldn’t see all of her at once. Like a world, it’s crafted with everything necessary contained within. Though once you’ve mapped coordinates, taken in dimensions… No matter how vast, a place becomes smaller. That which is as big as the entire universe and as small as our individual selves are equally finite and meaningless. I don’t mention these teen existential thoughts to Asa because I don’t want to upset him, and I don’t want to be laughed at, either.

I spend too much time on the Open View Deck, feeding my unease like a hungry stray. I walk often. Sometimes I run, a little electron orbiting the craft’s nucleus, pounding miles of track laid for the passengers’ fitness pleasure. Like on the sidewalks back home, I smile or nod at my fellow wanderers, passing quickly without stopping to chat. I see no point in making friends just to trade stories of Life Before Launch. Stories make me wistful. Asa has made friends, “mates” from his job assignment (on which he still offers no elucidation).

Our quarters are better than anything we had before. They’re small, like quarters on a ship are supposed to be, but nice. Efficient. Improbably cheery. We’re told every berth is different, though we all have the same devices. I wonder if they somehow figured during our pre-voyage examinations how best to suit each passenger, and if so I wonder how.

DAY 92

We left our view of the Earth and its moon behind long ago (I only guess at the time), swimming past the ropes into open water. At home, our view fronted onto a noisy street. The Cressida provides a peaceful contrast to the clamour we’re used to. (But you could touch the brick of the neighbouring building. Really, it was that close through the open sash.) You could hear and smell the street. The sounds here are mostly the purring unidentified mechanisms that keep this island alive, and there are really no scents.

DAY 97(?)

In spite of my efforts I’ve made a friend. Of a sort. There’s a woman who walks routes similar to mine, and when Asa lends his company to my “evening” exercise, the three of us have begun to stop to chat, as if it were a natural thing to do. She’s older, and somewhat vague. I find myself with nothing to say. Mostly neither have they—Asa pulls from a stock of corny jokes, she laughs, we all move along.

Until today. Today before we even stopped she grasped Asa’s sleeve and pulled his ear down to her mouth to whisper conspiratorially: It’s confirmed, ten more cases today. She seemed almost lucid.

He seemed to understand her. When I asked him later what she meant, Asa said he wanted to wait for more information before discussing it. “It.” Do they know each other? Do they work together? What is “it?”

DAY 103(?)

Over half of the passengers and crew aboard the Lusitania were drowned. In its disaster, the Titanic lost two-thirds of its souls. We can access much meaningless information (the only kind) here. I can’t get straight how many souls are aboard the Cressida. I only know that many have died and many are expected to die soon. There’s been a sickness termed a flu epidemic but which seems more like a cancer. (It weakens and wastes in that telltale fashion, but faster.) I feel fine. Asa says he feels fine, too.

What do they do with the bodies? Cremation? Burial at sea? Meat satellites? Space junk.

DAY 107

Asa is unwell. He eats poorly. He laughs at my scrutiny and tells me he feels very funny now.

DAY 110

His monitor implant has been loquacious. They have taken him away for treatment. I remain well so I’m left here to wait.

DAY 114(?)

He is dead, like so many of the others. Our strands have been separated, and now I’m alone with my grief and my fear. It’s very still in our quarters. It is unbearable.

Even in grief I feel on the edge of revelation. Today’s GP told me my Sense of Something Larger is a textbook coping device.

I look down now to see the warm swelling I suspected and now can’t imagine away, bulging just above the shelf of my pelvis. I’m too tired to keep writing.

DAY 118(?)

What a strange mechanism memory is. Points of my life are mere memorized facts, without texture: My mother had brown eyes. I broke my collarbone when I was ten. Asa’s laugh is (was was was) hoarse.

For all its comprehensiveness, my memory system is badly organized. My mother and the feeling of chokeberry on the sidewalk under my shoes, and the smell of my childhood dog’s head, are archived together. I locate Asa and preserved lemons and the rumble of a service truck in their own proximity. All these scraps stored with no discernible rhyme—crisp edges, smugly two-dimensional.

This gut lump is all texture. It’s red and glowing—like cheeks burnished by winter air, not hot and angry like infection. This lump is becoming more vivid to me than anything outside of us. As it grows I can feel the balance tip from it being part of me to me being part of it.

DAY NEXT

I no longer see a point in keeping count of “days.” This is a prolonged moment, and my divisions are just that: My divisions. Time itself has stalled. I eat, I sleep, I walk. I stand at the big glass of a nameless aft viewing deck, looking for Asa’s jettisoned self.

I wonder if I might grasp hold of the tangle inside and resurrect him here, if only his memory shone brightly enough. (I would go back and shake us both if I could.)

DAY NEXT

It’s impossible, yet even so the Cressida has taken on a new passenger. In the wave of the epidemic that has only now run its decimating course, we are fearful of unexpected developments, and this one is another most unexpected.

There’s no obfuscating it away: We can see the barnacle, a translucent, phosphorescent thing, the only near brightness besides ourselves, attached to our hull, presence unexplainable.

There’s a beauty to this improbability, seeming life where we expected none. (Like the lump.) They are tight-lipped about it, but then they’ve trained their reactions out of visible existence. I find myself fearful and awed. Almost grateful. There’s been so much to find bitter. If we’re to die, at least it will be in awe. Isn’t that why we boarded, Asa? To experience this feeling before it’s all over?

DAY NEXT

The barnacle’s been here for what feels like weeks. There are murmurs of sentience. I can’t guess how this could be confirmed, though it feels true.

We can ascertain that it’s growing. (Like the lump.) It’s a bit like a jellyfish, a bit like an egg’s albumen. Its inexplicable phosphorescence has all but enveloped the ship now, its glow penetrating all the Cressida’s transparencies.

DAY NEXT

Humans can get used to anything. (But you know, don’t you, little growing thing?) If they know what the barnacle is, no explanation has been given.

DAY NEXT

I’ve learned that I’m far from the only one with this growth. Apparently there’s a new sickness on the ship. Is that the right word? None of us is suffering. Perhaps “development” is more in the spirit. I feel wonder, but no kinship with these other gut-lumpers. I clung to you, Asa (and you to me), and that was a mistake.

I wonder (I have so much time to wonder!), did this lump presage the barnacle, or was the barnacle there, an overlooked seed, bringing…whatever this is…with it, growing symbiotically: It to the ship, lumps to us?

Us. We’re a category: Hosts? Carriers? The afflicted? (I can’t help but think of Asa and all the others, but he was ill and wasting, and I’m as hale as I’ve ever been. I don’t believe it’s tumorous.) Whatever we are, we’ve been subjected to scans and blood draws and tests I don’t understand, physical and cognitive. The GPs and the RNs and the specialists say nothing about what they find, or what they expect. Our questions only frustrate them. They don’t seem to fear contagion.

DAY NEXT

According to this sector’s Supervisory RN, some patients (women, we’re all women) find it comforting (instinctive?) to think of it as carrying life.

And some men? I asked for today’s clinical group’s amusement, an absurd question that got few laughs. Most of the men are dead, I think, though there’s no official comment. Just slow attrition we can plainly observe. I asked, Are we carrying life? A question that goes unanswered.

There’s no enforced isolation. The Cressida herself is quarantine. We carriers come and go as we please, and everyone hopes for the best, whatever that is.

DAY NEXT

I admit my sense of wellbeing may be a physiological effect of this affliction, a word I still hesitate to use, even as it grows. (Could something else be driving this hesitation, and I only think it’s mine?)

I’ve stopped worrying whether there’s a “there” to mark an end to our journey. Maybe we’ll go until we run out of fuel (energy?), then float interminably, sealed and preserved. Maybe our translucent barnacle gives us auxiliary power, or maybe she’ll digest us into space poop.

DAY NEXT

As my gut lump grows I’ve been dreaming—pretending—it’s Asa’s, a girl I’ll call Ozma when she’s born. I’ve inscribed a dedication on this log’s inside cover: TO MY DEAR OZMA. I have so much more to write—forward and back—if she’s to know me, us, after I’m gone.

Explanatory factors like brain lesions, tumours, hormonal shifts—none apply. My tests are clean. Scans of my gut are inconclusive. Tissue too dense, I’m told.

I just think you’re hiding, Ozma.

I’m still not a bit sick. My fingers are stiff from shredding this bedding into a soft, nest-like mound for my lying-in. It’s a pleasant soreness from a job well done, and I feel more settled now.

I’ve grown protective, fond, of Ozma. There are no dogs or cats or guinea pigs or even goldfish aboard the Cressida, clearly a planning oversight. I hope they rectified this mistake for the launches of the Arete and the Hippolyte. It’s been lonely with just humans, and so many have died.

DAY NEXT

I was out walking earlier, cradling my new appendage, and I came across our friend, Asa, you know her. Where’s…? she asked, unable to catch hold of your name (any more than I found hers). My face was my reply because hers fell with a sad Oh yes as she remembered. She does not appear ill, nor to have a little Ozma of her own.

DAY NEXT

I feel better off in my nest. No more scans, no more sessions. I hate to leave, even with the DO NOT MAKE, DO NOT LAUNDER notes I leave in the middle of my bed/nest. (I’ve never witnessed the mechanism of this efficient island, never come back to the rooms to find a thing out of place, even if I left it so.) I never thought to ask how much they might be observing us, or why. No one bothers me. I send for my meals—every contingency is met by the Cressida without fail or comment—and rarely need to bathe. I pull the shreds over us (myself and you, my Ozma), burrowed in to wait. (You seem to glow, even concealed.)

DAY NEXT

Our friend was inconsolable and incoherent when I saw her, Asa. She’s a bad ambassador for the effects of long-term space travel on civilians. Of course I’d rather keep to myself.

We see things, she told me. Not everyone, not the lucky ones, she added bitterly. She grabbed my hand to keep me (she’s a grabby one, isn’t she?), to explain what she meant, but I pulled it back and waddled lopsidedly away and ignored her keening.

Do you think you’re protected? she demanded of my back, and I sensed she was pointing at Ozma, who has grown so much that I have to support her bulk with my forearm in order to walk now.

I had no answer, but she wasn’t expecting one.

DAY NEXT

How could I not latch to the life that seems to have latched to me? I admit to some trepidation, but it pales next to the feeling of being necessary to some system, even if I don’t understand it. Even if I have no idea what’s to happen, how my role terminates. I still don’t know anyone here. I didn’t want to know anyone. I write to you here, Asa, but I barely miss you now.

Oh, Asa, I signed on to the Cressida because you did, because you wanted to and though I didn’t, I didn’t want you to leave me behind. I remember you said you wouldn’t beg me, but I remember that you did. You wanted it both ways, and like an idiot I buckled.

Then you had the temerity to die and leave me here alone anyway.

Ah, but even before I finish writing the above, you, dear Ozma, pulse gently, as if to remind me: Not quite alone.

DAY NEXT

I think about you, Asa. You’ve been tugging at my brain so much that I tied a long strip of shredded sheet around Ozma (to hold her now that she’s swollen into an almost unbearable weight) and left my nest for the first time in…so long.

I felt I might find you, Asa, or your echo. I’ve walked for what felt like miles, but I haven’t seen you anywhere, somehow you’ve sealed the memory of you from the inside.

Once I thought I saw myself. I retreated to these quarters, where I’ll remain, but I think I see her still, here, just at the edge of my peripheral vision.

DAY NEXT

There are no locking doors on the non-crew units of the Cressida, only strictly observed boundaries. (This hasn’t stopped me fearing being locked into my berth, nor equally fearing being locked out.)

The medical staff doesn’t observe these boundaries when compelled to breach them, which is why I’ve barricaded the entrance to our quarters with all the furniture. I don’t see anyone breaking down a door, though I can vividly imagine a slow drain of oxygen. Even so, I’m afraid to leave. I stare through the small portals from our nest. The glow around us has become blinding, like staring into the sun, but I can’t look away, and the afterimage whites out all but the edges of my vision, persisting even when my eyes are closed.

My final visitor was the dietician, who said she had to come because my implant tattled that I needed to eat. And when I told her I haven’t needed to eat in some time, she made such a face, Asa, you would’ve laughed at this caricature of displeasure. I tried to explain how good I felt, but she wouldn’t listen to me, only to my heart and lungs and whatever that monitor tells her about where I’ve fallen short in exercise and nutrition and mental stimulation.

How prepared are we for the care of those born on the Cressida? I pressed her while she took my pulse and put her stethoscope over Ozma.

I don’t know, she snapped. But then she sighed and informed me that no births had been planned for this voyage. And now, she went on, it’s a near impossibility, so why worry over a moot point?

I touched you, my little Ozma lump, my moot point, and didn’t argue, because I guess I don’t care about answers outside of us anymore.

DAY NEXT

The corridors and public spaces of the ship are always lit, but in quarters, we can choose to extinguish the light. We can shade the portals. Except you’ve grown bright enough, Ozma, to write by. If Asa were here, I’d make him look, make him confirm that your brilliance is more than my imagination, or afterimage.

You glow like the barnacle, dear one, and neither it nor you nor your kin is fading. I wonder when you’ll finish showing yourself. My hope is that in time (or out of it, as we seem to find ourselves) we smaller hosts can be consumed with the same honey fire that consumes this vast ship. Before we might arrive somewhere. The Cressida keeps on smoothly, and there’s nothing else of interest out here. Perhaps that’s an omen.

*

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Issue 19 (Spring 2019)

Story copyright © 2019 by Sara Beitia

Artwork copyright © 2019 by P. Emerson Williams

Sara Beitia lives and writes in dusty Southern Idaho. Her first novel was selected for YALSA’s 2011 Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults list, and her recent short fiction has appeared in Shimmer and Not One of Us.

P. Emerson Williams is an artist, musician, actor, and writer who works on a creative continuum that draws upon an interest in the arcane and esoteric. His passion is for embodying the mythic in visual media and melding visual art with narrative form. He has collaborated with writers James Curcio and Nathan Neuharth, and illustrated Bedlam Stories: The Battle of Oz and Wonderland Begins, the first novel in Pearry Teo’s series. As a musician he has worked with SLEEP CHAMBER, Jarboe, Manes, and kkoagulaa, among many others.

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This entry was posted on November 14, 2019 by in Stories.
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