Dark Space Species
Tessa Gratton's latest work is about space sharks—as I’ve been delightedly telling people for weeks. It's also about finding the space you need to be true to who you really are. But honestly I came here for the sharks.
~ J.Y., February 6, 2022.
Dark Space Species
The only thing Min did differently from the countless containment witches to come before er was to add a window.
Nobody believed er.
“They don’t even have eyes,” the quartermaster said dismissively, when Min tried to explain why this containment nest had been successful for the first half of the convoy.
“We don’t have any evidence they are sensitive to light at all,” added the young master funding the entire operation. He was a soft-looking amateur scientist, freely enthusiastic in the way old money produces. He cupped his five-knuckled, pink-spec fingers against the crystal window and peered inside at the dark subcurrents.
Min waited, hands tucked behind er back to keep from caressing the exoskeleton of the nest. Nothing bad would happen just because the young master touched it. His electrofield barely registered. Min was simply possessive of the nest because e’d designed it and pushed er own currents into its lattice. E didn’t bother arguing with the young master, mostly because e knew very little about the sorts of studies to which he referred. But also because e’d never been served by drawing the overt attention of capitalists. E already stuck out enough merely by being better at er job than the previous witches.
The young master hummed and murmured to himself, holding still, straining against the window like he’d never seen a star shark before. To be fair, many had not. But this young master absolutely had seen the ones who had died.
Maybe only in a dissection room. Or in dark space, where they belonged. Min made an effort not to allow erself to reach a filament into the comforting dark space right were e stood.
“These two cannot understand it is not about looking at anything,” Telury murmured in er ear, bending over er like a lanky orchid. He smelled delicate and sharp like one, too, the kind that required messy swamps but very specific cultivation.
Min nodded. E liked Telury despite his sharp teeth and the subtonal pop of the rebreather cutting like a bridle across his mouth. His people had refused sanctioned humanity several galactic wars ago and lost most capital rights as a result. Min’s people were aspirational humans, their only mistake having been to never choose a side, thus losing in a much blander way. Both e and Telury found themselves here with the convoy on limited work visas: Min being a crystal witch; Telury a wrangler with specialized licenses for six of the twelve species designations, including dangerous dark space species. Like star sharks.
A flash of blue silver crossed the window and the young master yelped, startling back.
Min hopped out of his way, right into Telury, who caught er shoulders in his large gray-spec hands. For a moment his fingers curled around er arms and e felt a cool sensation like the relief of shade after a hot afternoon harvesting crystal. E rolled er shoulders and he released er.
“That flash is one of the ways it communicates,” the young master told er in a rush. E knew. The star shark was communicating with the lattice as it swam through the dark subcurrents swirling inside of the nest. E wished e were in there with them. The thought made er frown. The star sharks were not drifting peacefully in subcurrents; they were contained.
Min bowed to the young master. “It is time to end our break, sir,” e said.
“Ah yes, I’ll let the two of you get back to it.” He grinned like they were friends, and scurried out with the quartermaster following.
The star shark flashed by the window again and Min stepped forward to press er hand to the gently curving crystal. It was farm crystal with a recharged lattice to give it perfect transparency. The rest of the nest was vibrant polycrystal with iron-fiber netting to provide nuanced conductivity. E’d designed it like an upright egg, with rosettes of netting at the inner top and inner base to encourage the subcurrents to flow in a gentle, consistent spiral. They had three star sharks drifting around and around inside. Min looked into the darkness through er brown-spec fingers and, upon seeing nothing, tapped er quartz foreclaw gently to the window.
Three flashes answered, pulsing cool starlight.
* * *
The convoy moved along one of the para-filaments between real space and dark space. They were a sharp-nosed flagship to cut across dark storms, a wake ship shaped like a butterfly to take the path the flagship cut and widen it for the ships in its wake—in this case only the containment nest pulled by a simple dark engine. Min and Telury traveled in personal skis, revolving around the nest like two moons.
Min kept er dark currents tethered to the nest through a network of crystal filaments, communicating with the lattice itself as if it were an extension of er body. E felt the drift of inner subcurrents like shivers under er skin as e slipped around the circumference of the egg. The skis were designed to fall in and out of dark space, balancing each other and creating a stasis for the nest so that the star sharks never beached in real space—their bodies weren’t prepared for an onslaught of matter.
That was the reason e and Telury were required on the mission. Witches studied techniques to move through difference space fields, sought after by all the major capitalist families for convoy containment. Telury’s people came from a world with entire seas of dark space and had evolved alongside such fields. His biology gave him an affinity for deep dark space creatures like the star sharks—neither were actually aquatic, but both had developed mutations similar to ocean dwellers.
Flying like this required just enough of Min’s concentration that e could not dream off, but not so much that e couldn’t relax into the rhythm of shifting space and pulsing lattice.
Real space blurred in er visual field, dark space leaned against er internal organs, and e parted er lips to taste it, breathe it, and listen to the flutter of the star sharks through the lattice.
They swam close enough to one another inside the subcurrents that they pulsed as one.
“They’re a family, don’t you think?” Telury said through the network.
“What is ‘family’?” Min wondered slowly, wanting it to be true. Maybe e was more dreamy than e’d thought.
Telury hummed in what might have been a laugh. “They have each other.”
“Having nothing else is not the same as having something.”
“Don’t let the capitalists hear you say that.”
This time Min laughed.
* * *
The mission was simply to move the star sharks from a pocket of dark space currently undergoing networking for a relay station. In most cases the sharks would be chased out or exterminated, but the young master had money enough to indulge in saving them—for science and the edification of posterity. And the glory of his house, no doubt.
Telury had told er, the first afternoon after he’d wrangled the sharks into er nest and introduced himself, that the young master’s family liked to list as many philanthropic efforts under their names as could be crammed into an ID flake. “Saving a trio of star sharks that can be visited by capitalists and their kits in a safe, fun, expensive environment is like finding artisan sapphires in their slag.”
Min wondered frequently if the star sharks would survive long in the planetary dark space tank built to be their new home. Could it possibly suit them? A new home that only replicated the environment of their natural habitat? Built by capitalists for profit, not the benefit of the star sharks. It made Min’s blood vessels tighten with anxiety. There had been unexpected flaws in the containment nests designed by the four witches before er, to the loss of nine star sharks out of the fifteen living in the colony. If Min failed, there would only be three left. E had requested and been denied the schematics of the planetary dark space tank twice, but hadn’t asked again. E would ask once more two real days from their destination, and use the survival of the sharks in er nest as proof e ought to be given a look. A chance to improve it. Make it welcoming.
If e succeeded, maybe they’d offer er a permanent work visa.
Telury didn’t want that. He caught er sighing during the rest period when they docked at a precapitalist moon base to recharge the engines and replace a few of the sound blades on the flagship. “What’s wrong?” he asked, offering er a prepack of salt licorice to replenish er crystal acids.
Staring through the huge viewfield at the gas planet this moon orbited, Min admitted what e’d been thinking. Stable visa. Familiar ground. Secure work. A home. And with beautiful creatures like the star sharks for wards.
Telury curled his thin upper lip, displaying rows of sharp teeth. Like an ocean shark’s, Min thought, staring rudely at them. His mouth was just above er sight level; e could see the teeth’s slightly jagged edges. Telury smelled like specialized flowers and Min constantly forgot he was a predator. Were some orchids predators? Luring flies?
A pinch at er arm brought er back and e blinked er inner eyelids. E didn’t need them in space, but on er people’s home planet they kept microscopic crystal filaments from slicing er eyes to pieces.
Telury smiled thinly at er. He wasn’t wearing his rebreather, because they’d been in dark space for so long. But it left impressions deepening the corners of his mouth. “Stuck in one place, even if of our choosing, doesn’t sound like winning to me.”
“‘Winning’ and ‘losing’ is capitalist talk.”
“You’re the one framing your future around a permanent visa.”
“You’d prefer living job to job forever?”
“Easily. Different jobs, different licenses. Different space. Movement is better.” He glanced toward the containment nest, the constantly moving star sharks. Some people said if a star shark stopped drifting, it would die, stuck in either dark space or real space. Min doubted that was true, but it felt true.
Min peeled open the licorice. “On-world I might make friends with the edges of the containment nest around me. Get to know it. Be comfortable.”
“That would kill me. The same borders every day, every night.”
Min slid him a look because their borders were the same, every day and every night, whether they were under a permanent visa or jumping between para-filaments. The capitalists made sure of it. E said, “I should have known somebody so pretty would be stupid, too.”
“Most aspiring humans don’t think I’m pretty,” he said, and the scent of orchids definitely intensified.
“Not as pretty as the star sharks.” Min looked away.
“True,” Telury agreed quietly, bumping his arm against er shoulder.
* * *
The young master wanted to ride in Min’s ski for a few hours of travel, three real days out from the destination. Min hated the idea but had no grounds for refusing—it was his ski, really, his money, his convoy. The transport had been going so well, the best excuse e could come up with was to point out how smoothly e and Telury had learned to balance real-dark slippage for the nest’s stasis. The young master smiled brightly and waved his hands. “Oh no, I’m rated five for these skis and we can activate the snap lattice to grow a new section of crystal to make enough room that you can stay! So if I do anything wrong, you’re there. You won’t have to lose contact with the nest or with the saltman.”
Min swallowed er discomfort at the epithet. Wondered what the young master called er. Witch usually didn’t carry the same derogatory connotations these days. But e’d heard lattice-bitch and cheap peach at various points in er life.
It did not go poorly, having the young master in er ski, pressed back against er thighs and belly so he could have his feet on the pedals and his hands splayed over the sensory flats. Min could not lean away, because they hadn’t snap-grown that much crystal. What was Min against him, so snugly, but another piece of the ski? A specialized moving part of the containment nest. Not worth a new home, even a subpar deep-space tank for capitalists and their kits to stare through. Er blood vessels tightened and e fought to breathe evenly as the young master’s silky hair caught in er lashes. He smelled like flowers, too—but the essence of, the smell of lilies plucked and beaten, squeezed into oil and poured into vials and sold light-years away from any swamp or sunny field.
For that entire phase of the transport, Min kept er lips firmly closed against tasting the dark space flavors. Er dismay translated through er filaments into the subcurrents, and the star sharks flashed past the window much more frequently. They were distressed. For er. With er.
The young master was delighted with the flashes, told Min the star sharks were doing so much better than before.
When they stopped for the rest period, Telury dragged er through the wake ship to the bathing spheres and shoved er into a saltwater flow. It stung er skin, but e liked it.
* * *
The last two real days of travel, Min introduced a new pattern to their revolutions so that each time e circled over the window, e and Telury both slowed down. One of the star sharks matched its pace in the subcurrents inside to er and every time e passed, it passed. Its body shimmered, in and out of spaces, gathering energy through the transitions until it pulsed with sparkling false starlight. When Min shifted between real space and dark space, e gave off no such visible waves, nothing like poetry. Er transitions were practical and used up every spare unit of energy. The star sharks existed in their natural states and somehow that alone made them light up.
* * *
Before launch on the last real day of the convoy, the young master brought Min the schematics to the tank. He’d been delighted Min had asked such a favor of him—of course, Min did not present it as a favor, such things were not reliable with capitalists, but if the young master chose to allege beneficence, that was his prerogative.
They leaned over the panel together. Min saw the shape of the containment instantly, but pretended to require a few closer looks, examining lattice-type specifications for a long moment, particularly interested in the quality of the farm crystal intended for the wide, curving transparent wall of the tank. To allow visitors to view the star sharks in every curve. No place to hide. No privacy.
“Well, Min?” the young master asked, voice hushed with the expectation of er approval.
E nodded once, eyes lowered.
“They’ll like it, won’t they!”
“They may live long lives within it,” e demurred.
Apparently, Min was losing er composure, because the young master hesitated. “You think they won’t be happy.”
Min glanced at him, allowing erself to display a hint of er distress. “We . . . cannot say if star sharks experience such things. As happiness.”
The young master frowned, tapping his long fingers against his own hip. “True. But!” He grinned. His blunt white teeth were so different from Telury’s. “Your window got them this far, and the tank is nearly all window!”
Er lips parted in surprise. But Min tucked the expression away. “It isn’t the same.”
“The window . . .” E folded er hands together behind er waist, gripping er own wrists. “The window is a promise, sir.”
The young master’s expression opened as if he understood, but Min very much doubted he did. Er doubt was confirmed when he attempted to tease er by saying, “My promise is bigger, then.”
* * *
Telury tugged on the end of er braid. “Do you want me to sabotage the final flight?” he asked, standing so close in er space, e felt the unique currents he gave off. “Set them free?”
“It would kill us all,” e murmured, staring at the cut of his rebreather, the puckered gray-spec skin darkened to nearly blue on his thin lips.
“What’s the difference, to them?” His voice lilted into tenderness. For us whispered behind it.
Min swallowed and tipped just slightly, touching er shoulder to his sternum. “The window,” e said. E wasn’t sure it was enough.
“Worth it?” he said evenly. Seriously.
“For now,” Min answered, and climbed into er ski for the last time.
Thank you for being part of The Sunday Morning Transport journey this week.
Tessa Gratton is genderfluid and hangry. She is the author of The Queens of Innis Lear and Lady Hotspur, as well as several YA series and short stories which have been translated into twenty-two languages. Her most recent YA novels are Strange Grace and Night Shine, and the forthcoming Chaos and Flame. Though she has traveled all over the world, she currently lives alongside the Kansas prairie with her wife. Visit her at TessaGratton.com.