2,800 words, Short fiction
Content Warnings: Death
"Blossoming of Callisto" by Erin Barbeau | 2,800 words | Short Fiction | Content Warning: Death
Peeling the skin from your flayed body is the greatest way of showing love. You are dead. You died. It was not as if I had not seen the writing on the wall! What difference does it make if you are jettisoned intact or not? Your face is the hardest for me to remove. I make the cut with the scalpel and gently start working your skin off, starting with the jawline. I was made to protect you, to carry you across the stars, and deliver you to the destiny the mothers saw in the Mirror of the Twin Moons’ eyes.
“Callisto, what you are not telling me?” You look at me with your round eyes. You look at the construct that I brought out to interface, not at me. To look at me would be to see the walls of your chamber, the lights that pulse, the cameras and sensors, the scampering constructs that hurry through the walls with tasks.
The construct I use sighs. The mothers taught me the body language to put you at ease. But I can only approximate with recorded sounds from my databanks and the synthesizers in my constructs. The future hangs on your shoulders. Our world’s survival lies in you being taken to the Prince of the Wastes to become the Queen of the Wastes. Then, and only then, will he not launch the warships that will destroy our world with ancient magic, or so the Mirror of the Twin Moons declared. “You have awakened too soon, Princess Ariadne.”
“Callisto, then why have you not placed me back into cryo?”
I know your heartbeat. I know your breath. Every single small body motion I know. I have monitored you since you were brought aboard in the coffin-like chamber. What the Mirror of the Twin Moons did not see was this. They did not see the cryo chamber failing. They did not see that you have been hurt. No, you were hurt even before you were brought aboard. They could not have seen that in your code there was a single mutation that meant cryo was a death sentence. I saw it only when it was far too late. The Mirror of Twin Moons is not infallible like all seers, they only can see part of a future. I speak through the construct, its voice soothing and calm. “You cannot be placed back in cryo.”
“But why not?” You sit up. I bend the construct to help you. Your curls cascade down your shoulders, the pride of your mother and now, my pride. Being the youngest of the royal daughters meant you would not ascend the throne on our world. You were to use your beauty as a weapon to form the alliances your mother needed to protect your people. Being the ship chosen out of the fleet created to carry you across the stars is a great honor. Only I passed the trials out of the twenty. I, Callisto, was the sole one entrusted with you. Even if you will not succeed in your mission to be the savior, you are what gives me purpose according to the lines the mothers wrote for me.
“You are dying. In a turn, you will be dead.”
“But the Mirror said—-” Your voice wavers. Your lips wobble. Your eyes are starting to water as your heart rate increases. Panic. I know it is panic. Fear. I see all, I know your emotions.
“The Mirror does not know all.”
I finish. The blood stains my hands, the construct’s hands. Soon I will don your skin for our little charade. Your hand clutched mine with white knuckles as you ordered me to do this. No, not ordered, you asked. That was the first time that anyone had given me a choice. You pleaded with me to kill you. I refused to take your skin from your body until you breathed your last. And with that you smiled and began to plot. You could have given up and ordered me to return home. But you did not. I asked you why you persisted. There was nothing for you, you told me bitterly. You were the youngest daughter, after all. Your elder sisters had already filled all the important roles and you were merely expected to be pretty and host social events and galas. This journey was your chance to do something that was lasting, something big, like your sisters. I set the scalpel aside in the try of tools to be sterilized once I am finished. Your skin lays on the operation table next to your corpse like a discarded rind. I need to steel my will for the next step of our plan.
“Callisto, have you been lonely without others?” You ask me as I attend to you.
Lonely? Perhaps. I was not made to be lonely. I have no sisters in the sense that you do. I have no mothers. I have never desired companionship. That is not part of my function. My function is to care for you and ensure that our world is not destroyed.
“No,” I answer as you take the cup of tea with appreciation. You beam up with me with a nod of thanks. Perhaps you asked me that because you are lonely? If that is so, then I should attend you more often.
You cock your head. Your curls are growing thinner as the sickness is starting to show. “How can you not be lonely? I wish that I could say that I do not feel alone. But I am. My mothers are far away. My sisters are far away. I am alone on this ship. All but for you.”
All but for you. That makes me pause.
“Do you wish that I attend you more often?” I ask.
You nod. You reach out for me. I let you embrace me. The construct is warm for you. But it is not soft. Not soft like a mother or a sister would be. I am not meant to comfort you. But the mothers did teach me what to do. They said it was essential for me to interface properly. I embrace you, sit next to you, as you sob into my chest. I have never held another with a construct. I have held you since the moment you arrived. But this is different than reading your body signals. This is touching you, knowing that you are soft, knowing that your body smells of our home that my sensors have not picked up since we left.
You are my home. You are everything that my home is and will be, that is if only you were not sick. Before they put me in the hull after passing the trials, they showed me the world. They let me taste the sweet lychee and hear the cry of the birds in the orchard. The mothers said it was so I would know how important my purpose was. I do not think of those days often. But now with you awake, I come back to them with a feeling I do not know. They haunt me as I send the small constructs through my walls while you are asleep. I do not sleep, but if I did, I would call these days, dreams.
I start with your feet once I have gathered myself. Your body lays on the metal table with the muscles exposed like red rose petals curling around the ivory of your bones. Your eyes have been covered. I cannot bear to have you stare up forever even if I have removed your eyelids. The construct I wear is made to be your dimensions. The skin slides on and the tech wakes up, adhering it, nurturing it, letting it know this is its new home. The skin meshes together where I cut it to remove it. There will be no scar. Only I will know of the cut down your back which should be marked on your skin, no-- my skin now. Your hands are mine now. I am you and you are me. That is what you would say. I do not carry your memories or your germ line. What I do carry is the duty that the mothers gave me and your love.
You asked me to stay with you since you were afraid to be alone at night. You did not want to die by yourself, you said. I obliged you like I had before with the other requests. It is not in my purpose to make you comfortable in this way. It is not in my purpose to want to do so. The Mothers tasked me with one thing, keeping you alive, the one thing I cannot do. You brush the construct’s face. It does not have a face that is unique like yours. Other ships have this same model of construct with a decorative face. Your fingers run down my face. You look so sad. I embrace you in the way you like. In the way I like to do. Holding you is holding home and keeping those emotions away, the ones I don’t understand.
“Callisto, do you love?” You ask me as you rest your head in the crook of my arm.
It is not in my purpose to love. “The mothers did not deem that important.”
“You have been so kind to me. You could have treated me far worse as I am a failure to the mothers.” She sounds so small. I pull her closer. I know this makes her feel relaxed from previous readings.
She is not a failure. It was the Mirror of Twin Moons who failed. “This is not your doing.”
“But I will not make it. You know that. Then what will happen?”
I do not know what to say. I do not know what will happen. I will return to home perhaps and await the destruction foretold. Maybe I will die there or maybe I will take some of the mothers and their children to escape the fate. Or perhaps I will continue towards the Wastes. It is more likely I will continue to the Wastes. The purpose the mothers gave me was strong. And there is nothing for me if I return home. It is not as if I can be truly removed from this hull, this body.
She lays there silent. “Callisto, do you miss home?”
“I do not know.”
“What do you mean?”
I cannot explain this feeling. “I know home. It makes me feel something I do not understand now. The mothers did not teach me what that feeling is. All I know is that home should not be home to me.”
“Sadness, perhaps. Bitterness could be another. Resentment to the mothers. Callisto, you have many reasons to feel many things about home.” She says. “At times I have resented the mothers, but not now. Even as I lay here dying, this is more than I would have ever done.”
I know the meanings of those words, but I do not know what they truly are. “You are home now.”
She smiles her broad smile. The one that I try to bring out. “And you are home for me.”
I use the mirror to finish the process of becoming you. The construct eyes take on your brown. I pull on the cleaned dress that you wore when you were placed in cryo. No one would know that it is I, Callisto and not you, Ariadne, unless they took the blade and opened me. I have practiced your inflections, your body language, your stride. The false orifices I have re-engineered to become working ones once your skin is on-- a mouth that opens, eyes that blink, a nose that has fully formed nostrils.
And yet, I do not feel as if I can become you. I am a ship, you were a human. You tried your best to teach me. But I still feel as if I cannot pretend well enough. I wrap you in the white sheets that we once shared. I tuck the wilted flowers you kept into your burial shroud along with the bracelet you wove for me. All traces of you waking early must be removed so no one will know. I have already scrubbed my databanks clean except for the one memory core hidden deep in my hull. I want to keep the small things you made for me as reminders of you, but it is foolish enough leaving one memory core intact. You told me that I would carry your love in me. But I did not understand. Now I do. You meant the memories. The memories that I now understand the feelings of.
You kissed me. It was in the greenhouse with the clear roof to the stars. I had brought you there because you told me you missed the orchards of home. The mothers had planted flowers in my hull for you to share with the Wastes. We sat under the sweet smell of the jasmine as you worked on your weaving. You finished the bracelet of silver and black and slipped it on the constructs wrist then cupped my face. If I could cry, I would. Love. That was the feeling I was struggling to name, to understand. I loved you. You loved me.
But how could you love me, a ship? You knew that I was not like you, but you still persisted. You slept with me in your arms. You wanted me to hold you. I should have known from the databanks of literature. But the mothers did not feel it was important for me to be taught about love. I knew it as a word. Nothing more.
I cannot kiss you back properly. I press my face against yours. You laugh. I laugh. It is the first time I have laughed. I had been given a laugh in my voice by the mothers. But I had never used it before. I was home again, in the orchards before I became Callisto. But this time, you are with me and I am like you, soft and organic. I can be what you want. “I love you.”
“Callisto,” Your breath, your breath stuck in your throat from your readings, “You said you could not love.”
“You taught me, Ariadne. You are love. You are home. Home is love. That is why we must try to continue our purpose like you say.” I say taking your hand. I know that I have opened myself up to more emotions that I will not understand once you are dead. But I will take the moment as I can.
Your face becomes sad. “Yes.”
I carry you over the threshold of the airlock. In a different future, perhaps I would have carried you over the threshold of a home in the orchards. But that is not this reality. I could carry on the journey to the Wastes to save our home, you had said, since I would outlive you. I had tried to argue with you that I could not take your place, your role, your identity. But you put a finger to my lips and told me that I knew every inch of you. That I knew your heart beat, that I knew your genes, that I knew your smile, and that I knew your mind. It did not matter if I knew your memories. After all, when I was to arrive in the wastes, the mothers and your sisters would be long dead, and their descendants would not know better. Your argument had been good. But I did not want to do it at first. Then I did since I loved you and you became home for me. You were the first to treat me as something more than a means to an end. This is the only reason why I will journey to the Wastes to save a world that did not love me. But that world created you, and I will not turn my back on them. Perhaps, one day I will return and speak of you, Ariadne, the youngest daughter who brought a ship into full blossom.
The airlock opens. I release you. I can cry now. The construct we designed together can. You had brushed away my first tears during the testing of the construct. And now I cry for you because I cannot do anything else until I arrive in the Wastes. I close the airlock and watch you float away among the stars. I finally turn as you have disappeared from my sight of my eyes and my sensors. I lay the construct in the cryo chamber. It is time to sleep and dream of a future for our love—our home—in the Wastes.
Erin Barbeau is an entomologist by day and creative by night. Ze has been previously published as a coauthor on a species description in Journal of Hymenoptera Research. Erin’s current research is on caterpillar behavior. Ze has worked in several museums including an aquarium and insect collection. When not playing with insects, Erin enjoys gardening, writing, art, and dancing with zir dance troupe at local events and festivals. Ze reviews speculative fiction on zir blog, Insectoid Reviews, and has been a guest reviewer for Quick Sip Reviews. Ze can be found @insectoidreviews on twitter.