Nebula Award-winning author Vylar Kaftan weaves a dark tale of loss, regret, love, and revenge in the novella, Her Silhouette, Drawn in Water.
"Tense and gripping."—Ann Leckie
"A moving tribute to the power within us all."—Nancy Kress
All Bee has ever known is darkness.
She doesn’t remember the crime she committed that landed her in the cold, twisting caverns of the prison planet Colel-Cab with only fellow prisoner Chela for company. Chela says that they’re telepaths and mass-murderers; that they belong here, too dangerous to ever be free. Bee has no reason to doubt her—until she hears the voice of another telepath, one who has answers, and can open her eyes to an entirely different truth.
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|Publisher:||Tom Doherty Associates|
|File size:||1 MB|
About the Author
Vylar Kaftan won a Nebula for her alternate history novella The Weight of the Sunrise. She’s published about 50 short stories in Asimov’s, Lightspeed, Clarkesworld, and other places. She lives in the Bay Area.
Read an Excerpt
THESE CAVES HAVE NEVER BEEN FRIENDLY.
The tunnel is cold and dark. It's so tight my shoulders crush together. I'm bellying up the slope in my climbing suit. Rough ridges press my stomach flat to the rock, and I dig my gloves into a crevice. I can't return to the swampy passage below — we need to find the next supply print before the bugs do. My wet socks ooze inside my boots, but I can't warm myself until I'm dry. I shiver. The only way out is forward.
Chela has gone ahead. The upper passage glows with her headlamp, outlining the shape of my climb. My own lamp draws an irregular gray shape on the rock wall; everything else is blackness. I move my foot, seeking better traction, and I slip. Pebbles tremble and splash into the muck below, but I'm wedged too tight to fall. My small pack feels like an iron weight.
Light shines at me. Chela's hair hangs down like Rapunzel come to save me. "You okay, chica?" she calls. Chela is the better climber and survival expert. She says she used to mountaineer on Earth. Without her, I'd be dead.
"Mostly. What's there?"
"Dry spot. Looks safe."
I nod. The bugs like damp places, which most of Colel-Cab is. At least the parts of our prison we've seen ... or what I remember. I don't remember very much these days. I know tunnels, and more tunnels. Endless crawling, underground pools, and muddy sumps. The painful bites of tiny bugs — or whatever they are. "Bugs" is a valid term when we're the only two people on the planet. We can call them what we like.
And endless darkness. The darkness breaks your mind if you think about it. It claws at you with invisible hands, like a monster lashing out from unseen bonds. It's darkness you can't understand until you breathe it.
At least I'm not alone.
"I got this," I tell her. Defiantly, I wedge my foot and drag myself upslope. She reaches for me, but I ignore her hand as I scrabble to the flat area. I won't let a cave defeat me.
Chela laughs. "¡Qué chévere! Hey, Bee, that was fierce."
I roll on my side, savoring the floor. My headlamp shines on the rough-hewn wall. This tunnel is walkable, which is a welcome relief. It's made of smooth rock, probably man-made by whatever military group worked here. Sometimes we find a sealed metal door, but we've never been able to open one. I don't know who built this place. We're nomads in these tunnels — we go where our jailers print our food.
Chela stretches her arms and chuckles. "I thought you'd get stuck for sure."
I stick my tongue out. "Cabrona. Just because you're skinny ..."
She laughs again and kisses my cheek. Chela's everything I'm not: tall, light-skinned, and gorgeous. My climbing rock star could model evening gowns, while I look like a boulder she'd lean on. But she loves me, and I love her, and together we'll make it off this planet. Somehow.
"You're brain-damaged, mamita," she says, "so don't waste time calling me names, or I'll hit you harder."
I press my face to the wall, overwhelmed. "I'm glad you're here," I say softly.
She hugs me from behind. I blink, trying not to cry. I barely remember Earth. I don't remember our crime. I just know what Chela told me: we're telepaths, and we're murderers. Four thousand and thirty lives, wiped out in minutes. The guilt eats me alive, like this never-ending darkness.
"Come on, Bee," she says gently. "Keep moving. We need to find the next cache before the bugs hatch."
I nod and force back tears. It's the stupid neck-chip that ruined me. It was just supposed to block my powers, but something went wrong when they installed mine, Chela says. I guess. There's no one else I can ask.
We walk silently in the tall passage, stooping for the low ceiling. I name it the White Walkway. All the passages are specked gray limestone — some rough and natural, some smooth as if carved. Like this one. The rare doors look the same: smooth metal plates with a single handle, like a cabinet. Everything smells awful; it's rust and corpses and toilets all mixed in one. The stink comes and goes in waves, so we can't get used to it.
Colel-Cab is an oppressive planet: silent and dank. Nothing but the endless dripping of water and scuttling of bugs. The toxic water makes us sick. Our cave suits are always damp, and our feet squelch coldly inside our boots. Sometimes we find an underground stream, surprisingly loud, after which the silence throbs in our ears. And sometimes cold wind bites through our suits, hinting at a nearby cavern. Mostly we're lost in an underground maze. A labyrinth with no Minotaur, no golden thread. Just us, trying to survive.
This cave curves through a field of small boulders. The floor becomes rough-cut ahead, despite the smooth walls. "Wait," I say, "there's more of the writing."
Chela looks with me. "I still don't think it's writing."
There are markings on the walls sometimes, never near the doors. It looks like writing or weird floral patterns. I can't explain what's there, but it's like there's a similarity I never quite spot. We don't know who built this place. I like to imagine aliens shaping these caves — perhaps some tunneling species, only semi-intelligent. But we haven't seen proof of anything.
"Well, I want to map anyway," I say, sliding my tablet out of my thigh pocket. I take a picture of the symbols.
"This is a dead planet, honey-Bee. Looks like bug tracks more than anything."
"It feels important."
She shrugs. "If you like."
She's right, but I'm desperate for meaning. I've been mapping as we go. Twice we've lost our data to technical problems — including three weeks ago. And I'm not even sure how long we've been imprisoned here. Chela says eleven months. It's a blur to me.
I slide the tablet away. My stomach twists with guilt. "Chela, why did we do it?"
Her voice grows tender. "You remember the starship?"
"No, I just remember what you told me. We decompressed a starship."
"Yes. There was a war."
"Yes," I say, faintly remembering. I'm embarrassed I have to keep asking.
"We had to stop that ship. But really, we should've found another way. Worked harder." Her voice turns icy. "We're mind terrorists, Bee. Monsters."
"We're telepaths —"
"We were telepaths."
My neck aches, like I've been punched in the head. "Were."
"You were incredibly powerful. Everyone said you were the best. I think that's why your chip is messed up. They're afraid of you, and I can't say I blame them. I don't know why they put me here with you. Probably a mistake — but here we are. Where we can't hurt anyone."
"Except ourselves," I say.
She takes my hand, and I stare at the ground. Something moves next to us, and we both turn sharply. Three bugs skitter into a crack and drop their lentil-size bugshells. They're still small, but molting is a bad sign.
She yanks my arm. "Move!"
We need the supplies. We clamber over uneven rocks as the path grows rough. I trip and fall, catching myself with my wrists. My knees bruise even through the cave suit. My backpack drags me down. Chela's faster, and she's leaving me behind.
"Wait!" I struggle to one knee, frightened. "¡Chela, espérame!"
"No, abeja, we need it!"
She's right — if we delay, the bugs will wreck the print. It's happened before. It's our only clean water and food, and sometimes we get new clothing or rope or even little distractions. We had a ballerina music box that was my joy until it broke.
But still, I can't do this without her. She's my lifeline. My throat locks and I can't breathe. Darkness surrounds me. I can't think of anything except I'm alone, she's left me alone; I'll die here alone in the darkness.
No. I won't think like that. I focus on the music box. That memory, so clear underneath the fog. "Waltz of the Flowers" — that was the song. I force myself to hum. I imagine I'm a dancer, standing up after a fall.
I shakily get to my feet. My only light is my own. I smell sulfur, which means the bugs are near. I don't notice any, but I have to focus on my footing. Boulders are scattered throughout the tunnel; the cave floor is an obstacle course. The ground is spiky like the inside of a geode. Ahead of me, Chela's headlamp casts wild shadows as she runs. She's risking a sprained ankle. We're close enough to see the beacon flashing orange, a steady pattern against the rocks. A few clicks off to the side, and my heart races. Those are bugs preparing to swarm. Chela scrambles toward our target, and the clicks intensify. They're louder, summoning more insects. More enemies to steal our food — to starve us.
"Almost there!" she shouts. A wing brushes my face — but it's gone again. Yet another thing we don't understand on Colel-Cab: how bugs go from crawling to flying in seconds. We've seen wings burst from their hairy bodies and grow in a minute flat. Fully grown, they're rabbit size with a four-foot cobwebby wingspan. Like flying mutant roaches. Just one can easily smash a supply print and ruin our rations — and they always come by the hundreds.
I brighten my lamp, using up battery. I scream — not because I'm afraid, but to startle the bugs. "¡Cuidado!" I warn Chela between screams.
Chela shrieks too. It's hard to do a controlled scream; the act of screaming panics you. It's worse than the silence of Colel-Cab. Chela told me about the Rapture — a panic attack specific to spelunking, when you lose your shit completely. Numb hands and feet, heart racing like a locomotive, tremors that tear your finger muscles to pulp. Sometimes I think my whole existence is a never- ending panic attack.
Chela shouts, "Got it!"
I crawl forward, swatting at the insect cloud obscuring Chela. Thankfully these aren't the red biting bugs, but their weaker gray cousins. But they land in my hair, buzz their wings in my face, and seek cracks in my suit to tear open. They shove their antennae up my nose and into my ears. I wave my arms frantically, trying to dispel them and protect the print. Chela bangs the metal box against rock — she has it, the print is safe.
We push through the swarm, not stopping until we reach clear ground. We sit against a wall, huddled with our faces together, holding our treasure close. Soon the sound dies out as the bugs shed their wings. They fall to the floor, then shrink and scuttle into cracks. The silence is overwhelming, and my ears itch. But the threat is gone — for now.
The bugs still terrify me. But I'm curious about them too. I wonder what xenobiologists know about our prison. We've never met anyone working here, and we think that's deliberate. No one would put a closed person near telepaths. It's just Chela and me. All our supplies come from remotely controlled printers.
Chela breaks open the box. Eagerly I ask, "What'd we get?"
"The usual," she says. "Water tubes, protein bars, salt pills. Another clip to replace the one you broke. Ooh, new gloves. Good, mine were torn up."
"Anything we could try to signal with?"
She gives me a dirty look under her headlamp. "Yeah, no. As if we could ever escape."
"What, I'm supposed to give up?"
"You're supposed to enjoy the moment," she says gently, taking my hand. "We aren't getting out, and we can't make base camp. So we may as well adventure — and be glad we're together. That we're not in solitary like telepaths should be."
I look down. I know we've had this argument before. Probably more times than I remember. But I can't give up. I've got to talk to the warden — whoever that is. To explain things: my chip was damaged, and I need my memory back, and I'm really sorry for my crimes.
Chela digs in the print box, scraping the bottom. "Oh, and something else. Hmm. A picture of flowers. A postcard or something." She turns it over in her hands.
"Let me see," I say, taking it from her. The back is blank, but the front shows green leaves and white flowers.
"I guess it's an Earth souvenir. They think we miss it?"
"I do miss Earth," I say, staring at it hungrily.
"Well, I don't," she says, drinking from a water tube and carefully recapping it. "There's no point in missing what we can't have. You're wasting energy and depressing yourself."
"I suppose," I say, slipping the postcard into my pocket. "I still think about it."
"So let me distract you." She takes my face in her hands and kisses me, deeply. Her lips are always soft, even when mine are split and cold. I relax and hold my partner. We're trapped in the depths of Colel-Cab, but at least we have each other.CHAPTER 2
I KNOW I HAD a family. My dad died when I was young. My mom worked in a doll factory. She brought home broken, imperfect dolls for me. I'd line them up in my bedroom like an audience. They'd stare at me through missing eyes and wobble on their strangely shaped legs. I knew they were dolls, not people, because I couldn't hear them thinking. For a long time I thought dolls were just better at hiding their feelings.
I don't remember much about being a telepath. I remember my mother carrying me in her arms, running down a hallway, but I don't remember why. I have a clear memory of a car that scared me, some armored black machine speeding past the damaged apartments on my block. I remember my mom's caramel churro recipe, which she made as a birthday treat. I'm fluent in Spanish, but I only spoke it at home. I've loved spaceships ever since second grade, but I don't remember why.
I feel like a silhouette without a self.
At least today we discovered a dry sleeping place — that's not always true. We've returned to that cave, which I've labeled "Scarlet Dome" on my map, to sleep. I'm sick of dull rocks and darkness. I name landmarks to give them color in my mind.
It's an alcove with one entrance, big enough for us to stretch out in. It isn't really nighttime, of course; our tablets say 7:11 A.M. But every time I look, the time and date are different on the tablets. We can't use them as timers. Chela's been estimating days, but she's not sure how accurate she is; she says that people in caves have longer sleep- wake cycles.
We change into the high-tech pajamas we keep in our packs. Chela says they're itchy, but warmer and lighter than silk — she snidely calls them "bata de cárcel." I just find them dry, wonderfully dry. She unfolds our sleeping pads and lays them out. I set out my helmet for a night-light and turn hers off to conserve the battery. I hate doing it. The cave darkens, as if shadowy creatures encircle us. The claws of the darkness scratch our minds. It happens every time we have to rest — but we need to save batteries, so we give the darkness its due. Chela sleeps and I settle in for first watch.
So many holes in my mind. I remember odd things, like the peach teacups at some party I attended. But when I think about telepathy, my neck spasms. Shame overwhelms me and sometimes I cry. I hope I had a good reason for what I did. I must have. I don't think I'm violent; I'm really softhearted. And I don't want vengeance — I just want my thoughts back. I think if Chela weren't here, I would've killed myself long ago.
I've pressed Chela to fill me in. She must know all about me. But she doesn't like talking about the past — ever. ("Why go over it all again? I envy you, mi abejita, without so much shit on your mind.") She says there's lots I never told her, so she doesn't know the answers.
What she's told me: we met through a secret group. We thought we were resistance heroes, but a telepathic cult was controlling us. "Can't trust a telepath," she always says, and won't say more. She doesn't know when we fell in love — she thinks we always knew how we felt. And we always agreed not to read each other's minds.
Even without my full memory, I know I've never met a woman like her. Chela loves exploring these caves. She wants an adventure — at least, she's making the best of a nightmare. And cheering me up too. I look down at her sleeping figure. She rests on her side, curled like a cat. A long honey-brown curl has drifted across her nose. I tuck the curl back and trace her smooth cheek with my finger. Then I remember the postcard.
I pull out the postcard and examine it, squinting in the dimness. It shows a little white flower — two flowers actually, one mostly hidden. They each have five petals and a pale yellow center. I don't recognize them, though I feel like I should. Maybe I had a garden once. I sniff the postcard, but it just smells like damp paper.
What a strange gift. The wardens decide what we get; from my perspective, supply boxes appear like magic. We get messages on our tablets, and Chela finds the way. For all my mapping, she's much better at navigating. Maybe because she's not trying to find alien histories written in bug scratches.
Something moves nearby. I freeze. Nothing in sight, so I wait. My heart pounds. The darkness presses me, heightening my senses. It crawls into my eyes, my ears and nose, like poison seeking my brain stem. I listen as hard as I can, as if focusing could change what exists. I'm convinced something's there beyond my night-light.
"Chela," I whisper fiercely as my pulse races.
Her eyes flash open, as if she never sleeps. She leaps up, pulls on her helmet, and crouches silently with me.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Her Silhouette, Drawn in Water"
Copyright © 2019 Vylar Kaftan.
Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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