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.
Vylar Kaftan weaves a dark tale of loss, regret, love, and revenge in the novella, Her Silhouette, Drawn in Water—available May 21st from Tor.com Publishing.
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 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 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-sized 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 through 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-sized 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.
Excerpted from Her Silhouette, Drawn in Water, copyright © 2019 by Vylar Kaftan.