I’ve never known anything outside the silver-tinged hull of the Shalott.
It floats freely in the darkness, drifting, always in gentle, steady motion. Through its thick-paned window, I watch the contents of the universe spill out before me: the moon, the stars, the sun, and far below, with swirls of blue and white, a planet which—according to my books—must be Earth.
When I was a child, the Shalott would read these books to me in a crystalline voice I called “mother.” A part of me knew, even then, that the voice couldn’t hold me like a real mother could, but it was the closest I had in my egg-like capsule. The voice would read about creatures with fur and clever demeanors, about princesses trapped in tall towers, about friendship and seasons and love. I listened to the voice day and night, imagining the stories were my own, until overuse wore out the mechanisms of the recording and the voice painfully, slowly died.
I still think of “mother.” She’s not really gone. I read to her now, stories from my books or from my own devising. Stories of Earth below.
Occasionally, a sudden movement catches my eye, and a ship bursts from the planet’s cloudy surface. Its engines blaze with fire and life. I rush to the window and press my face against it, straining for a glimpse of someone else, someone (anyone) who might look like me, might sound like me, might know me and help me know myself. But the ships remain distant, and all too soon they disappear beyond my window frame. All they leave behind are shadowy trails of fumes and gas and the smudge of my breath on the pane.
Part of me hates these shadows, these signs of humanity that I can neither hear nor touch, things I can only read about and watch from afar. A larger part of me would die without these reminders that I’m not alone. That there is more to the universe than the Shalott.
The Shalott, though small, is sufficient for my needs. I have food and water for a lifetime, thanks to the foresight and compassion of whoever prepared this floating capsule for me. On one wall hangs a polished mirror in which I can study my features, comparing them to the people in my books and assuring myself that I am the same; though I may not live on Earth or breathe their air, I’m every bit as human. Whoever designed this place wanted me to know that, of that I’m nearly certain.
The only other clue to my existence here is the patch sewn on my suits, embroidered with the simple words “AVOID HUMAN CONTACT,” and a symbol my books have told me means I have a rare disease, a pheromone allergy that would mean my death if I were to encounter another human being. It is my curse, which I have no choice but to bear and no say in the manner in which I bear it.
Across from the window sits my stool and the humming machine labeled “LOOM.” The small bit of paper taped to its side calls it a Linear Organza Oscillating Machine, a phrase I repeat like a song as the mechanical shuttle keeps time. Here, I work with my hands through the bright hours during which the sun streams in through my window, drawing bits of dyed silk from the machine and weaving them into intricate designs, spinning worlds and wonders before me, things I’ve never laid eyes upon but in my dreams.
As I work, I sing to myself of the Earth far below and the people who live there—of their lives, their hopes, their dreams. When my hands tire, I pick up a book and read aloud until the Shalott‘s slow pirouette angles my window toward the darkness.
The hours pass and the shadows (tiresome shadows) creep around the room to darken my world. I wrap myself in the silks I’ve woven and lay my head down to sleep, humming a song of the sea—something I imagine must be something like my skies: vast and dark and deep. In the morning, the threads must be unraveled to provide the materials for the next day’s work, but for now, tonight, I’ll wrap these dreams around me and they will keep me warm.
A comet passes my window, its tail ablaze with light. I make a wish and in my half-awake state, I dream that it draws nearer. Larger and larger it grows in my window, until it’s not a star, but a bright-shining ship that eclipses the moon and slowly (so slowly!) creeps up to the window of the Shalott.
It jolts me full awake. It wasn’t a dream at all. A silvery ship with red stripes across it has docked, tethering itself to my home. I stumble from my silken sheets like a moth breaking free from its cocoon. With fragile wings of half-formed hope, I fly to the window and peer out.
This face is like my own, yet unalike. It’s larger, rougher, and it stares at me with wide eyes as blue as the sea below. It’s strange, and yet it’s beautiful. The most beautiful thing I’ve seen.
I draw back in surprise. The face looks in, curious, and shouts, “Can you open this door?”
I’ve read the sign beneath the window—”DO NOT OPEN”—more times than I can count. More times, even, than I’d read, “AVOID HUMAN CONTACT.” These warnings in my head are drowned out by the thrumming of my heart, thrumming which begs to be answered.
He presses his hand to the window, and I place mine atop it as my mouth tries to form words to explain what my heart feels. Longing. The glass separates us, keeps me from ever knowing what his scent is like, what his hand would feel like in mine. This may be my only chance to find out.
My hands betray me. Before caution can assert itself, they’ve flung the bar upward, disengaging the lock. The air hisses, pressurizing between the two spaces, and in that moment, my own eagerness deserts me, leaving only the question: What have I done?
I pace the room as the stranger (the human!) struggles with the weight of the door. It gives suddenly, with a cry of protest, and he stands before me. Human. Just like me. Words fail me. Yet still I breathe, I live. Could all these years of isolation have been for nothing?
He looks around the Shalott, at my silken bed, my food stores. He frowns at the LOOM and the books.
“I saw a light on in one of these quarantine pods and stopped to investigate. What are you doing here? How did you get here? These pods aren’t supposed to be in use anymore. They’ve been deserted for years.”
My lips open in answer, but something is wrong. Horribly, terribly wrong. My arms move in slow motion, painful and stiff. My joints are swollen; my tongue has gone completely numb.
“What have I done?” My voice sounds harsh and strained. I lift my hand to my heart, where the patch has been sewn, and stare down at the warning I’d failed to heed.
“AVOID HUMAN CONTACT.”
The stranger steps forward, hands out in alarm, but I push him back. This is my fault. He shouldn’t be here. My faltering body is weak, but he puts up no fight. He gazes at me, dumbstruck, as my legs give out and I collapse into the piles of silk.
“Avoid human contact,” I whisper, pointing to the symbol on my chest.
“You’ve got the allergy?” He gapes, his eyes upon my patch, and speaks a word unknown to me, a word that sounds harsh on his tongue, yet full of something—anger? fire? life? “Why did you open the door? Didn’t you know that’s what this meant? Quick, get in my shuttle. We’ve got to get you down to Earth, now.”
Flustered, panting, he scoops me up, and all I can feel is the warmth of his arms, the softness of his skin upon mine. My foot strikes the mirror, and it falls to the floor, where it splinters into a million pieces that sparkle and gleam like the stars. He carries me through the door, out of the Shalott. Out of the only world I’ve known. Here, he rests me in a bed of dark green blankets, much coarser and thicker than my carefully woven silks.
Though my eyes water and my breaths come in rasps, I gape unabashed at my surroundings. If the Shalott was a mother—warm, soft, and light—this ship has the bearing of a father. Its lines are sharp, cool, and metal, and tools lay scattered about. Even the smell is unfamiliar, and it stings my nose in a way that’s both pleasant and awful.
The engines roar to life. The stranger pulls on the controls, and slowly we float away, leaving the Shalott behind.
“Goodbye,” I whisper, my voice cracked and shaky, as the egg-shaped capsule grows smaller and smaller, until soon, it passes from view.
I turn my head and from where I lay, robed in blankets of green, blue, and gray, I can just make out the bright marble of the Earth through the wide, curving window of his ship.
“To Earth, sir?” I whisper, and despite my pain, my heart seems to swell with unbridled hope.
He tells me his name, his voice breathless and tense, and then he tells me the rest.
“A cure was found, years ago. The capsules were all emptied out, deserted, and those with the ailment could live out their lives on Earth. How they missed your capsule, I don’t know. If we can get you on the surface in time, you can have a normal life, too. I mean, that’s what you want, right?”
But of course, I can’t answer.
I can’t move a muscle, nor can my lips form words, but somewhere in my panic, I let out a noise. A hum. I fix my eyes on the planet below, growing larger and brighter each second. I gather my breath. I remember the songs I’d sung back on the Shalott as I’d wished, hoped, prayed for someone to bring me to Earth, never expecting that it would truly happen. Never thinking it’d be like this.
And I hum wordless songs. My voice fills the shuttle, and the astronaut stares down at my face. I sing of my story. I sing of the Shalott. I sing of my weaving and reading. Each song is a plea that this stranger won’t forget me, that he will tell my story, so that even after my vision fails and my song fades to silence, after my breath stops and darkness surrounds, I will know that I was not alone, that someone will have known the lady of the Shalott.
—Wendy Nikel is a speculative fiction author with a degree in elementary education, a fondness for road trips, and a terrible habit of forgetting where she’s left her cup of tea. Her short fiction has been published by Fantastic Stories of the Imagination, Daily Science Fiction, Nature: Futures, and elsewhere. Her time travel novella, The Continuum, was published by World Weaver Press in January 2018, with a sequel forthcoming in fall. For more info, visit wendynikel.com