Chloe N. Clark "Symbiosis"
After it happened, after we’d all slipped into its grip, I would try to remember the last true moment I’d had. I’d been looking out the bay windows. A ship was coming closer, getting ready to dock. They’d flagged us a few hours previously so they could deliver something. One of the station scientists had been awaiting whatever it was for months. The excitement in the research team was palpable. It felt like the air was filled with something: it felt like static and tasted like copper, like the air before lightning.
“What do you think it is?” Kieran asked me. I hadn’t noticed him approaching and so I jumped slightly, my shoulders raising defensively before I could stop myself.
“I don’t know,” I said. I kept my voice even, trying not to play up the moment of fear.
I turned from the window to face him. He was looking out the window, not at me. It was rare to get a moment where he wasn’t matching my gaze and so I let myself glance at the scar that stretched from his hairline, down his cheek, charting the length of his neck, before finally dipping under his shirt. The scar was almost shockingly white against his skin. It looked like a star falling through the night sky. He never talked about the accident that left him alive but marked. Others talked about it, in whispers mostly, because he was the sole survivor of a crash. The whole crew dead and him, a miracle in the wreckage. We had words for what he was but they all came down to this: we considered them like a luck charm. Catastrophes in space were small—more on pods or if you were a jumper but rarely on ships or stations—and so having someone who’d been though one already, on board, it pretty much meant that it wouldn’t happen again. Not while they were on board. I wondered how he felt about that, to be such an unlucky symbol of luck. Where did the scar stop? I traced it in my mind, under his shirt, across his skin.
He turned back to me, but I’d already averted my gaze to down the hallway. “It’s about to dock,” he said.
“Kit, report to the research bay,” Alexa told me through the intercom. It was early in the morning. Like crack of dawn, back home, early. Still I drug myself up and out to the research bay, without even the dark mutterings that normally would have hovered in my mouth. I had the kind of curiosity, about what had been delivered, that fairy tales used to warn against.
The research bay was buzzing. Not metaphorically. Literally, a buzzing sound filled the air just below the level of everyone’s voices. The four scientists, currently in the station’s rotation, were standing around some kind of aquarium. Dr. Ambrose turned to me, as I entered. She was the one I knew best, as we’d talked over meals a few times. Her research had to do with water, something about fluidity and dynamics.
“Kit, excellent.” She beckoned me over. “Drs Lewis, Jones, and Escalante, this is Kit D’Etcheverry. She’s the best of the techs on board.”
I smiled, tried to force myself to blush so that I’d seem humble. But it was true. I knew every operating system in the fleet, could take them apart and put them back together blindfolded. I could crack codes in seconds. “Thank you, Dr. Ambrose.”
Dr. Lewis stepped forward to shake my hand and then I saw what the aquarium held. I felt myself involuntarily intake a gasp of air. Inside the water were four objects that looked like tubes mixed with mushroom stalks. Some kind of sea-life, except they glowed. The amount of light was more than some kind of bioluminescence that didn’t need the darkness to work. It was as if they were holding sunlight itself. The doctors laughed at my reaction, but I was too busy stepping forward, not blinking, watching the light. “What is it?”
“Have you ever heard of a Venus Flower Basket?” One of the doctors asked.
I shook my head.
“Well, that’s too bad, because this is sort of like that. It’s a kind of bioluminescent sponge. These aren’t those exactly, but the shape, color, and growth is similar.”
“Where is it from?” But I knew. Everything in me, as I leaned forward to study it, knew.
“The goldilocks. It was one of the samples collected. We’re the team getting to do some preliminary study on it, before they decide if they’ll transport some back to Earth.” A doctor said.
The sponge pulsed out light. It felt warm on my skin. I wanted to reach out and touch the glass, to feel the heat, let it pool into me. I turned from it, back to the doctors. “And what do you need from me?”
“We need someone to help us set up a program to study it. We essentially want something that can help us monitor the light and pulses, even when we’re not in the room. And then, also, help figure out if there is a pattern, etc.” Ambrose said. She looked back at the sponge and a smile curled at the corners of her lips. I wondered if she, too, wanted to reach out and touch the glass, feel the warmth seep into her skin. It would have felt so good.
I nodded. It would be a simple thing to set up. I could do it in my sleep.
Sleeping, that night, I dreamt of biking down a suburban street at night. Every house was dark and there were no streetlights. I didn’t know where I was going, but as I biked, the wind rushing against me, the houses began to glow from within. They slowly got brighter and brighter. Brighter. The light caressed my skin, slipped inside me. My body thrummed with it and I woke up gasping.
“So you’re the lucky one, huh?” I was eating breakfast when Kieran approached me. He sat down across from me, after asking.
“You’re working with the delivery. What is it?” He leaned forward, eager to hear. He had perfectly shaped eyes. Something I’d never noticed before. They were spaced a little further apart than most peoples, giving him an open look.
“It’s some kind of water plant,” I said.
“A water plant?”
I lowered my voice, leaned closer to him, “from the goldilocks.”
His eyes widened.
“I knew it had to be. They were being so secretive. But I also didn’t quite believe it. What is it like?”
“It’s kind of…I don’t know. It’s some kind of sponge. One of the scientists said it reminded them of A Venus Flower Basket.” I said.
“Oh, til death do us part,” he said.
“What?” I didn’t even try to hide the confusion in my voice.
He smiled. “It’s what they supposedly symbolize. I had a friend who specialized in sponges, if you can believe that that’s something people specialize in.”
“I could show it to you, tonight, if you want? I have to take some notes on its light emission.”
“Okay, I’d like to do that with you,” he replied. For a split moment, I wanted to reach out and touch him, but I didn’t know why.
In the research bay, I was the only one there. The aquarium still glowed and I turned off the overhead lights for a moment to watch it. The color shimmered, accepting the darkness in, and then intensified to make up for it. I placed a hand against the glass. It was warm like the outside of a cup of tea, hot enough to yell caution but not hot enough to make me take my hand away.
I spun around at Kieran’s voice in the dark, my heart beating too fast. He was right behind me, I could feel the warmth of his body. “I didn’t hear you come in.”
“I didn’t mean to scare you,” he said. “I just saw you standing there and the light…”
He shrugged, “it just made you look different, I guess. I wanted to see you up close.” He turned to the aquarium. I reached out and took his hand, placing it against the aquarium glass. He gasped, under his breath.
I wanted to ask him but instead we stood there, letting the light caress us as the heat pulsed through our skin.
We stood there for I don’t know how long, before he finally pulled away. “I should let you work.”
I nodded, switching on the overhead light. It was so dim compared to what we had just seen. The stalks of the plant lowered their own radiance in response. We blinked a few times, accustoming our eyes.
“Thank you for showing me,” Kieran said. He slid his hand from the aquarium, brushing my fingers with his own as he did. Then he left me alone with the light.
In the morning, I saw Dr. Ambrose in the lab and so I stepped in to talk to her. “Hey, I just wanted to say thank you for bringing me in to do the program.”
She didn’t look up from what she was studying at her desk. “Ambrose?” I said, a little louder. Her body jolted and she looked up.
“Oh, Kit, sorry, I was just…Well, daydreaming about my husband.” She shook away whatever the thought had been.
“It must be hard, being away for so long,” I said.
She nodded. “Yes, I keep dreaming about him. I never used to.” She paused, maybe embarrassed to continue. “So what do you need, Kit?”
“I just wanted to say thanks for bringing me in on the program.”
She smiled, her gaze already slipping away from mine, back to some memory. I’d never seen her so unfocused. “Yes, of course. Great job.”
I nodded, didn’t remind her that I’d barely stopped. “Okay, thanks, again.” I left, walking through the research station. A couple of the scientists were standing close to the aquarium, their bodies pressed together as the leaned in, whispering something I couldn’t hear. I watched them for a moment, and then looked away. It felt, for some reason, like I was spying on something intimate so I left.
That night, I went back for more data. I kept the light on, trying to not distract myself from the task at hand. After a few hours, though, I could barely keep my eyes open. My body felt tense. I heard the doors whoosh open and I looked up.
Kieran was there, carrying a coffee. “I walked past and saw you, thought you could use this.”
“I can. So much.” I took the cup and, again, our hands met. It was like someone was running fingertips over my whole body, instead of just a brush of our skin. “Thank you.”
I took a sip and we both turned to look at the aquarium. The light was different again. The stalks seemed to be pulsing it out faster.
“God, it’s beautiful,” Kieran said. “We should see it in the dark again.”
I turned off the overhead and the stalks pulsed faster and brighter. I could feel the heat of the glass, even from a few steps back. We both stepped forward at the exact same moment. And then we were touching the glass at the same time.
Our fingers touched and I felt a jolt of static shock slip up through me. The glass felt hot, the warmth went into my skin, up my arm, and then all over me. I watched Kieran, watched the heat pool into him as well. He reached out and touched my face. Another surge of electricity. And then we were both touching the other. Our lips were touching, skin touching. His hands were around my waist. I pushed my hands up under his shirt, his skin was so hot, like a fever coursed through him. And then we were on the floor, our clothes off, and I was tracing the arc of his scar with my lips. The air throbbed with electricity, with sparks. It felt exactly like a lightning storm now, the buzzing taste of the air. His hands on me felt far away and so I pulled him closer as he pushed into me. I saw the lights spooling out from the glass like tendrils, saw them making patterns in the air above us. It looked like the lights were dancing.
Back in my bed, I tried to think over what had happened. There were so many protocols I’d just broken. It made me dizzy to think about. I tried not to focus on Kieran, on how he had felt, on the taste of him as I’d kissed his skin.
I slipped into a dream where I was on a ship out on the sea. There was a storm and I was tossed over into the water. Sinking, women swam around me with shimmering fish tails, they grabbed hold of my arms and I thought they were going to save me. But they just pulled me deeper.
In the morning, I woke up groggy. My limbs were heavy, as if I’d taken a sleeping pill before going to bed. In the corridor, I walked past two crew members. They were standing close together and it was only as I passed them that I saw it was because they were kissing.
As I passed the research bay, I looked in and saw Dr. Ambrose leaning against the aquarium. Her face pressed against the glass, it looked like she had been crying but in a happy way, as if she’d just seen someone she’d loved and lost and now had returned miraculously to her.
Across the research station, another pair of scientists were holding each other. Their embrace so tight that it seemed as if they were being tied together by something. I wanted to look but everything in me was heavy, sluggish.
I kept walking until I reached Kieran’s room. I knocked once and he opened. “I was just, I was just coming to find you,” he said.
“Something’s wrong,” I said. “It’s doing something.”
He reached out and pulled me to him. His body was warm, safe. I just wanted to be held by him forever. “It’s fine. It’s fine.”
We walked to his bed and he pulled me onto it with him.
I thought of the women pulling me deeper under the waves and I tried to fight the feeling. But like in drowning, I knew at some point to give in.
“What’s happening?” I asked as he hugged me closer. I put my arms around him, gave in to the embrace. It felt so comfortable, so right.
But he didn’t answer. He was already gone.
It was luck, really, that they found us at all. A passing ship noticing that we didn’t answer any signals. I heard about it later. How everyone on board was asleep, wrapped in each others embraces. “You all looked so peaceful, I almost felt bad to save you,” someone said to me.
They quarantined us. Quarantined the plant or whatever it was. I dream of it sometimes still, the light was the most beautiful thing I ever witnessed or would witness.
We don’t know exactly what it was doing to us, though the doctors said we were low on certain nutrients in our system. So maybe it was just hungry.
I heard later that Ambrose was the only one not found with someone else. I found out she was a widow. That her husband had died shortly before she joined our ship. She had looked so happy daydreaming about him and I hope I can never understand what that would be like—dreaming about the one you loved after they were erased from you.
Kieran and I married a couple of years ago. It was a small ceremony and everyone commented on how, in the vids of it, we looked so happy, so in love. When I look into his eyes, I see the world I want to be in.
Sometimes, I can’t help but think back to before the lights. To that moment when I think it couldn’t yet have affected us and I was looking at him, marveling at the scar against his skin. I must have wanted him then, I’m sure.
And yet everyone who woke up in the arms of someone that day, when we were saved, must be thinking the same thing.
Bio: Chloe N Clark is the author of Collective Gravities, Your Strange Fortune, Under My Tongue, The Sciences of Unvanishing Objects, and the forthcoming Escaping the Body. She is co-EIC of Cotton Xenomorph and can be found on Twitter @PintsNCupcakes