Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
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What We Said That Day

by Dianne Rees

I wake up and parts of me are missing. An arm, a leg, both fading into the blankets. I draw back a choking breath and force my eyes wide open though my instincts are to squeeze them shut.

I know that the corridors are shortening all around me, becoming insubstantial. We're in that kind of space. I get up and don't bother to get dressed, because really, what kind of appearances am I supposed to keep up all alone on the ship like this? I walk, forcing myself not to look at my disappeared limbs.

On the bridge, I press my nose against the transparent surface that pretends to be a window and stare at the purple-drawn space. I thought it was beautiful once. Now it fills me with a dull horror.

The ship's console hums. The ship knows where it's going apparently.

I move to one of the command chairs and sit down, gripping the arms, feeling myself take this action despite the fact that I can no longer see my arms. A swirling light sweeps the window like a dragon's tail and I close my eyes. When I open them, I am ordinary again, an earth female with all limbs intact and no major transparencies. I stand up and vomit on the floor. The ship's robot whirs out of its closet and gives me a reproachful, if metallic, stare, then sends the waste into another part of space -- I don't want to think where. I've been grateful on more than one occasion that it's a small robot, for I've begun to wonder whether it thinks me a bit of ship waste too.

I start to converse again with the disappeared crew. It passes the time. I ask them how they managed to leave me here while they went exploring their stupid planet. Of course, they have their own questions.

They ask how the ship managed to slip away from them, why I'd left them marooned, where I was, why I hadn't come back?

"It's past time for recriminations," I sputter, an edge of the old hysteria in my voice. "I was told. I did what I was told."

And I was told someone would come for them. Like they told me someone would come for me. None of us knew we were in such a devious fold of space. Or maybe some of us knew, the nameless They who gave out orders and expected obedience and alignment and good cheer about it all.

Then I try to remember who'd done the telling. And I can't. It's like this weird space disappears portions of my memory as well. And it seems equally likely to me that I'd left on my own, grown annoyed at the micromanaging of the senior officer, at the crew's carping and their constant belittlement of me.

"Let Sylvia stay with the ship. She's the one who's good at data collection." They'd say this as if I were devoid of any spark of imagination, as if I weren't even there.

And so perhaps I imagined myself away from them and took the ship for a joyride, telling myself that I'd be back in a bit, that I should just let them wonder, let them take me into consideration for a change.

It's easier to remember that I'd followed orders. That my intent was to take the ship to a rendezvous point and pick up supplies while the crew was planet-side. It had to have been question of efficiencies. That sounds more like me. More like the Sylvia they remember me to be. But I couldn't find the rendezvous point, could I? It wasn't where They said it was. And space intervened. A year intervened. Then two.

And in that time the ship disappeared. Parts of it anyway. Whole corridors and rooms I'd lingered in, worried over objects in. For I'd taken to going into people's rooms. Idly on some days, frantically on others, I tried to see if I'd read any of them right. If any of them were the people I thought them to be.

Lately I go into the senior officer's room most often. He was, he is, a dour man from one of the first contact planets, more than a few galaxies over from earth's. He looks vaguely humanoid if you squint your eyes just right and angle your head, but of course most of the time you can't do that.

I like rummaging through his room, not just because it feels subversive, but also because it's comforting -- surprisingly feminine, with soft edges and colors. Looking though his closet and drawers, I find strange artifacts, carvings and materials made of shiny, dyed fabric. I sit on his "bed," a scooped out hollow of polymer material. I imagine his body there. I read his personal letters on his holo vid, or I pretend to, since I don't understand his language and he's introduced a bit of code that flummoxes the translator. But I listen to the tones and watch the expressions of his friends and family. In other rooms, where I find letters in languages I understand, I collect them all and feed them to the ship robot. It's better to imagine what people have said.

Today, the quiet and endless purple of the space outside makes me feel more attenuated than usual. I start dropping bits of rubbish on the floor for the robot to chase after and I pretend it's a small dog. "Here Fido, fetch!" I yell, racing down the hallway in sock feet, straight into a wall, as a section of the hallway disappears, and I misjudge my stopping distance. I swear when I pick myself up from the floor, wincing to see that I've bruised my knee. I look up from my examination of my reddening skin and see a shadow flickering at the other end of the hall. A man-sized shadow and a shorn of piece of a sentence, "Where's …"

I don't immediately run in the shadow's direction. I don't believe in it. I hardly believe in myself these days

But I start surveying the ship again, and I haven't done this in a while. I've stayed mainly on a few paths that seem the most stable. Now, I start systematically checking quarters. Not for any particular reason I tell myself, not because I believe in ghosts or in trailing edges of whispered conversations.

As I make my way past bulkheads, into fading and reappearing rooms, I return full circle to the senior officer's quarters. And I see him, or his transparent form, sitting at the edge of his bed, fingering his holo vid and muttering.

"Spock!" I yell excitedly and launch myself into his lap draping my arms around his disappearing shoulders that become suddenly substantial with my touch.

His forward-sloping features crease with annoyance, "My name is not Spock," he says, "And you're being overly familiar with a senior officer."

I don't care; I hug him harder. "I was going crazy," I say. "Well, you can imagine… How did you get here? Where are the others?"

He looks at me and I slide off his lap and sit next to him, gazing at him with intensity, as if the force of my stare will keep him anchored in the space I'm in.

"We were stranded," he says, giving me a sharp look. "For months. There was nothing on that planet we could eat outside of our own food sources."

"But it's been more than months," I say. "You must have found something to eat. You didn't eat each other," I laugh.

The senior officer mutters something again and starts to disappear. "Wait!" I grab his arm. "You haven't answered my question. How did you get here?"

He's silent, chewing on the inside of his cheek, which acquires a transparent groove I stare at in rude fascination.

"There was another ship," he says finally.

"So you were rescued." No harm done then, I want to add.

"I was picked up." He looks at me furtively, and I get a picture of him suddenly, sitting on his haunches and chewing on the leg of one of the junior officers.

I shake the image from my head. "Then, have you come to rescue me?" I ask. "I was following orders you know," I add, though he hasn't asked the question. It's also sneaky of me. If I had followed orders, the senior officer would know this. I look for his reaction. And I'm amazed to see a look of shame cross his face.

He looks away from me; he won't meet my gaze. "This other ship," he says. "They want something. They collect things," he adds.

"So they want this ship? But they'll take us someplace habitable, right? Some place we can get picked up. Some place with food," I add hastily. And when I say, "us," I mean the senior officer and me. For I can't imagine being separated from him again. I feel like I know him so well, from the murmured conversations on his holo vids, from his letters, from the placement of objects in his room -- I may not have gotten the language, but certain things are universal aren't they?

Then he interrupts my reverie with his slightly nasal intonations. "They don't want the ship," he tells me.

"Well, what else do we have?" I ask, running my disappearing hand through my hair. The senior officer is staring at me, his portion of ship space is stable right now. I hide my hand behind my back and lean towards him earnestly. I am wondering why he is taking so much time getting to the point.

Then he gets to the point. "They want you. A live earth specimen."

"Haahh!" I sputter. I say the first thing that comes into my head and it's not charitable. "Well, they've got other live earth specimens. Let them have those."

The senior officer takes me in. Perhaps I've just made it easier for him to do something unthinkable. "No," the senior officer says slowly. "There are no other live earth specimens. They were all dead by the time the ship came planet side. But the Vordoni were intrigued by the…bodies. They want to study human physiology. They're scientists. My race, they've seen before. They're naturally curious about yours."

"They sound like cold-hearted bastards to me."

"If you want to leave this ship, Lieutenant…" His sentence trails off, but his meaning is clear.

I look at him and I can't believe it. His body winks in and out of shadows for my winking space has traded places with his space.

"This is about my leaving, isn't it? I told you I was following orders. Even if you don't remember. Even if They didn't tell you."

He's silent and it makes me nervous.

"And even if I wasn't following orders," I sputter, "I certainly didn't intend any of this. Maybe I just took the ship out to clear my head. That doesn't mean I deserve…" I feel the thread of my arguments disappearing along with the senior officer, who is reaching for something invisible -- a weapon? "Maybe I don't want to leave this ship after all, then," I shout." I can't believe you'd even ask. That you'd make my rescue have such strings."

The senior officer's quiet for a bit, digesting my rebuke and becoming more substantial again. The muscles of his face ripple, whether from his shame or from the unpleasantness of being in this distorted bit of space. His arm is still invisible so I can't see if he has a weapon in his hand.

"It's not conditional," he says finally.

I blink.

He explains. "It was my rescue that was conditional. They said they would leave me on that planet unless I found you. Unless I brought you to them."

"Then why aren't they here?" I tilt my head towards the faux windows of his quarters. "Why didn't they come already, since I assume you brought them with you. They're out there right now, aren't they?"

"They've built their ship so they can survive in this type of space, but this ship -- it's too unstable for them…" the senior officer's voice trails off.

"You're a senior officer," I say quietly. "How could you even contemplate such a thing?"

"I have a family. I want to see them again. And I wouldn't judge if I were you."

I ignore the inference and reach for righteous indignation. "You want to let them experiment on me so you can save your sorry…" I get up. I try one last thing. "Maybe we don't need them for you to see your family again. We can try to get the ship out of this space."

"They'll blow up the ship, Sylvia. They don't have that much patience."

I am stunned that he would use my first name in an attempt to lure me to a fate worse than death. I take a step back. And a bulkhead appears between us. I press my hand to my mouth and giggle, a little hysterically, imagining the expression on the senior officer's face. He's not used to the ship's ripples the way I am. He's certainly not used to the patterns they create.

I start running then. He might not find me, I think. It's all about chance isn't it? It's true those demented aliens he hitched a ride with might blow us up. But they might just get bored. Or, equally likely, they might lose sight of the ship in this wavering space that seems to be as confused about when as about where.

For I often find myself back on the bridge, back to those early days, when the planet loomed up in front of us like a blue pearl and my shipmates, though annoying, were my friends.

I see myself waving them off, good humouredly, not a vindictive bone in my body. Sure, I wish that I could go with them. I'm always the one left alone to collect the data. As if it I can do nothing else but record events and memories, until memory itself grows faulty. And when I am up on the bridge, back in those days, the senior officer always leaves last. He turns to me and says "Lieutenant, we're expecting a transmission from Command." Or maybe he just frowns at my gape-mouthed stare and says tiredly, "Mind the ship, Lieutenant."

I can't remember. Every time I'm back there, back then, it's different. Sometimes I tell the senior officer, "You don't always have to go." Sometimes it's "Why do I always have to stay?" But always, he's walking away from me as I say it, hardly listening to me. We never do connect.

I find a shifting hallway where the ship's robot waits for me to toss it some trash. I pluck it from the ground and examine its metallic green underbelly, which I've rigged in my spare time with a small explosive. I tweak some of the settings that will cause it to detonate if the senior officer gets near it -- ten feet this time. I put the robot on the floor gently and send it on its way. I'll forget that the senior officer was even here soon. Because it's that kind of space. But if we find each other again maybe I'll remember enough to ask him what we said that day. Because it seems to matter.

Maybe I'll even ask him while the ship robot whirs at our feet and tries to make out what we are.


© 2008 Dianne Rees

Bio: Dianne Rees is a science writer. Her fiction works have appeared in Vestal Review, Spillway Review, Farmhouse Magazine, The Scruffy Dog Review, Planet Magazine, Universe Pathways, Bewildering Stories, The Harrow, Halfway Down the Stairs, Atomjack, Neon, I Am This Meat, and The Indie Underground.

E-mail: Dianne Rees

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