When starships wheel through the kaleidoscope between worlds, three things guide them: the maps, the stars, and the screamers. Voidmouths gape in kaleidoscope space, shifting their courses every time a ship enters or exits kai-space. Screamer squadrons search for the mouths with their beacons. Sometimes the mouths recede, and the ships arrive safely.
Sometimes the mouths swallow.
“Pigeon or canary?” asked the ship’s gaunt.
Cadet Serren Psora halted before the entrance to the briefing room and blinked up at the gaunt. She hadn’t realized how many bones you could see in such a translucent face. “Sir?” she said.
The gaunt’s upper lip curled away from his silvery teeth. No, not silvery; more a shimmer, as though he weren’t all there. Which, of course, he wasn’t. “Too polite to act bright, is that it?” he asked.
Serren had been staring. The senior cadet shouldered past her with a muttered apology, and she flattened herself against the wall. “Sir,” she said. She was determined not to offend the gaunt. Like all his kind, he was sensitive to voidmouth movements during the transitions into and out of kai-space. During those moments, he held the ship’s survival. He held her own and her cousin’s. “I’m not sure what you mean,” Serren said.
He laid three fingers on her shoulder. Human fingers. Serren felt the chill radiating from the fourth. Her stomach clenched. She hoped to make it past practicum without being drained into a gaunt, or worse, a sieve. “Sir,” she said, attempting to move past him. Beyond the gaunt, inside the room, her cousin, Aris Psora, mouthed his sympathy.
“Cadets think their individual talents matter,” said the gaunt. Serren flushed, thinking of her high ratings in kaleidoscope theory—the only thing she had exceptional ratings in. “When the voidmouths come after you, and everyone has to run, you’re reduced to two things. Run screaming, or die screaming. So long as the ship hears you and escapes.”
Pigeons survived the warnings they gave; canaries didn’t. “I understand the difference in outcomes, sir,” Serren said. The chill receded; she walked forward. She didn’t find the silvery gauntmark on her shoulder until later.
In the Psora family, Serren’s cousin Aris should have been the odd one out. He was shipborn, not stormborn upon a planet; he was a kaleidoscope child. He yearned after silence and metal halls in which no wind traveled. The rest of the Psorais gravitated toward tumultuous climates. They had a knack for throwing themselves into insufficiently-understood ecologies—dying at first, and thriving afterward. The ones who hated dancing in storms tended to slip the name off and leave.
Aris had kept his name. He had found stranger storms to dance in. Kaleidoscope space and voidmouths. He was shipborn; the Psorais expected this.
The Psorais had not expected his quiet, awkward, stormborn younger cousin to follow him. They assumed that Serren had glimpsed the stars through his eyes, and yearned after them.
The screamer academy interviewers, on the other hand, recorded Serren’s fascination with the first ship’s gaunt she had met, a childhood encounter her family had forgotten about. They teased out her nascent mathematical intuition. Of Serren and Aris, they wrote, She is not his shadow; he is hers. Neither of them realizes it.
The practicum instructor, Chuya Mwar, was the second-oldest living sieve. Her face was intact, and she had dark, slender hands. She paced before the arrayed cadets. Serren glimpsed Instructor Mwar’s spinal column and part of a pulsing lung as though they ghosted just outside her uniform. One of Mwar’s ankles flickered in and out of sight, giving her a peculiar syncopated gait. Serren caught her fingers twitching to the rhythm and curled them into a fist.
“For practicum,” said Mwar, “our training ship, the Ten-Nineteen, will enter kaleidoscope space. We will wheel in and out of local space until a voidmouth shows up. If you’re lucky and it avoids us”—she smiled thinly—”we’ll keep going in until your luck changes. When that happens, you practice screaming, and we run like hell.”
Serren bit her lip. She hadn’t expected practicum so soon; none of them had. The sector had seen an unusually high rate of disappearances and ships half-devoured in transit: Maverick. Pale Coin. The great stateship Your Game. Aristocratic Forever Voyaging, which had never stopped longer than a day at any station, until this year. It was still undergoing structural repairs. The academies had accelerated their schedule to ensure that enough trained screamers would be available.
“The faster you realize the mouth is incoming,” Mwar said to the cadets, “the faster we start running.” Mwar stopped pacing and did not smile this time. “We lose three or four of you every year. We would do it if we lost all but three or four.”
Untrained screamers were said to be worse than none at all.
Pacing, pacing, a tightening spiral. Mwar said, “This sector expects practicum to be complete within the next ten days. During that time, we can transition in and out of kai-space as many times as necessary, and the resulting perturbations of kai-space topology will not interfere with anyone’s itinerary. After those ten days, most of you will be alive. If you take too long to learn, some of you may become gaunts. Or worse.”
Serren thought, I will not be a canary. I will not be a gaunt. I will not be a sieve. I will not die. I will not fail.
Mwar displayed the squadron assignments. Her footsteps never changed tempo.
Serren steeled herself and looked for her name. Chuya Mwar had put her in charge of the primary beacon. Serren’s role would be to twitch the beacon—scream—the moment a voidmouth slipped past the secondaries, so the ship knew which way to “run like hell.”
She shifted her gaze to the senior cadet, Rachian Raios, who was almost as tall as the ship’s gaunt. The set of his mouth suggested puzzlement, not annoyance, that he’d been assigned to a secondary. The second senior, who had the highest rating in aggregate response time, shook her head. And Serren’s cousin Aris Psora, who could reproduce several hundred engine blueprints without the augment, lifted his shoulder at her. She restrained herself from sticking out her tongue.
Instructor Mwar halted. For a moment, she dimmed. Storm-colored light surged through the briefing room. Serren’s shoulder throbbed. Sound was sucked out of her hearing; shadows shifted like strewn petals. Then Mwar came back into focus, except both lungs were now visible in the flickering.
Rachian Raios, who had been standing nearest Mwar, flinched. For a second, the flesh of his hand was pale and transparent.
A ship’s gaunt, whose substance was merely thinned rather than a channel elsewhere, could expect to live for decades, if the ship’s screamers were good. A sieve was lucky to last five years.
“Sir,” Serren said before she could stop herself. She heard her own breathing. Heard the others’.
Mwar’s lightless gaze met hers. “Your first time around a sieve, Cadet Psora? If you’re fortunate, you’ll be around many more. Dismissed.”
Serren dragged her steps to make her cousin stop waiting for her. She couldn’t bear the sympathy in his face. He knew how she hated being singled out. Serren couldn’t help feeling that the gaunt and the sieve were triangulating on her all the way out of the briefing room.
Serren Psora didn’t mind the beaconship’s lightless claustrophobia. The screamer-augment shuttled the essential data inside her skull, bypassing ordinary vision. Ship-immersed, Serren saw kaleidoscope patterns without having to close her eyes. The cradling stillness suited her. It was polite in a wordless way.
Her cousin Aris often griped that the simulations hadn’t prepared him for this, but Serren could barely feel the difference. Another reason she shouldn’t command the primary beacon, which depended on fine-grained perception.
No voidmouths interrupted the first three kaleidoscope transitions. None had yet interrupted this fourth one. Serren was pleased to find that her analysis of critical searchpoints corresponded to the dataflow, patterns that moved like blossoms beneath rainfall. The primary beacon sweep bloomed across the kaleidoscope, touching off reflections and resonances along the secondaries. The patterns matched the inward sense that Serren had cultivated, the equations twining into each other.
Minutes trickled past. An hour. The beacons wove and unwove. At last, the secondaries flashed inward at Serren, and she relayed them to the Ten-Nineteen.
They spun out of the kaleidoscope, nine beaconships surrounding the Ten-Nineteen in symmetrical formation. Serren, as primary, was the first to roost onto the training vessel. Beaconships had minimalist maneuver drives. Most of the other cadets, unlike Serren, were qualified to pilot larger drives.
Inside the beaconship, light unfolded across lines and colors. Serren disembarked, shivering.
Aris caught her eye. “Serren.”
She walked faster, scrubbing at her eyes as though she could wash away the light, or her cousin’s worried eyebrows, or both. “Don’t want to get in the way of the maintenance crews,” she said.
Ship’s etiquette gave screamers their own partition, a ship within the ship. Screamer’s etiquette, impressed upon them by Chuya Mwar, bade them avoid ship’s crew whenever possible. “We unsettle them,” Mwar had said. “They look at all of you, any of you, and see me.” Her smile had made a terrible, narrow hole in her expression.
“Hey,” said Aris, catching her by the shoulder. She flinched. His grip eased. “It’s not your fault the mouths are keeping their distance.”
“Maybe they know I’m too incompetent to give them a challenge,” Serren said.
“Serren-” He didn’t insult her by calling her by her childhood nickname, Serre-ya, but it was that tone.
She shook her head, and he desisted. Her shadow passed over his feet as he stared after her.
In the last hours before waking, Serren’s gauntmark ached. She did not mention it to her cousin, who would have taken out his worry on the ship’s gaunt. She did not even mention to the senior cadet, with his sievemark.
Three or four, Chuya Mwar had said. Three or four would become gaunts, or sieves, or die. Which ones would it be?
None of us, Serren thought into the dregs of sleep. None of us, if they were good enough.
On the fifth kaleidoscope transition, Serren became absorbed in the searchpoints highlighted by the beacons. They had drifted in ways that tickled her curiosity. Measurement error? Petals and whorls, drawn by her pattern-craving brain in order to replace the noise in the dataflow?
The eight secondaries had been refracting into a standard searchnet around the Ten-Nineteen when three of them screamed in tandem, indicating the voidmouth’s trajectory. The resulting vectors fed into the primary and jolted Serren out of her contemplation. No time to think idiot idiot what was I doing stupid canary-
The searchnet frayed, leaving dangerous blind spots. The trefoil flared again. Shifting topologies warped the beacons upon themselves, forming useless knots. Serren went numb, as though her bones had been rinsed in light. She should magnify the secondaries’ scream, triggering the beaconship formation and the Ten-Nineteen to shunt out of kai-space in the safest rotation.
Too slow stupid canary-
Her eyes ached in the darkness. She could feel the voidmouth preparing to devour her marrow. She could end up with her substance sucked out, like the gaunt, or as an extension of the voidmouth, like Instructor Mwar, fading piece by piece and taking parts of the world with her. Like Rachian Raios.
Serren had to guide the ship away from the mouth. But the safest way was the wrong way. She felt it in the dataflow, the beacons’ knotted trajectories.
She could taste her cousin and the other screamers shouting at her, even if there were no intership communications in kai-space other than the beacons. Shouting. Demanding to know why she hadn’t already pulled them out.
Serren yanked the primary back toward the voidmouth and triggered her own scream.
No. I’m right, dammit.
No override came. The instructor didn’t intervene to save them.
They sheared out of kaleidoscope space just as a second voidmouth yawned toward them where the first had been, distorting the topology further-and enabling their escape.
Too close little canary-
It was the gaunt’s voice, in her memory. She wondered what his name was.
Serren flung herself back in the beaconship cradle and looked behind her eyelids. She stopped breathing. Started again. It had never occurred to her that voidmouths could swallow—and disgorge—each other.
Rachian Raios caught up with Serren on their way to stationside debriefing. She stopped; he kept from skidding into her. “Your cousin,” Rachian said to her.
Serren said bitterly, “You can hardly tell he’s a gaunt.” Only the way the light tangled in his hair, only the brightness of his veins against pallid skin. “They’re keeping him under observation in case of complications. To help him adapt. If I’d figured it out faster-”
“Trigger reflexes aren’t everything,” Rachian said.
“I saw the first one after the rest of you did.”
“That’s what the secondaries are for,” Rachian said. “We see the details so the primary doesn’t have to.” He was silent for a moment. They watched each other.
“If I’d pulled us out before it came so close-”
“-we’d never have found out that voidmouths travel as one,” Instructor Mwar said, entering. Her eyes were tired, but the corner of her mouth tilted upward. “All those years we’ve been pulling out ships too fast—or too slow. This changes the math.”
“How do you keep doing this?” Serren asked Mwar. “Leaving pieces of yourself behind?” It wasn’t discussed. It wasn’t polite.
She had to ask.
Mwar looked at her a long moment. “I do it every time someone’s cousin doesn’t return. Or someone’s brother. Someone’s sister. Someone like you.” She tapped her foot as though keeping a tally. “I do it every year. Three or four always get swallowed. The holes in me are nothing compared to that.”
Rachian Raios touched Serren’s elbow. Behind him, two other cadets were pale, brooding.
“That’s terrible,” said Serren.
“That’s why I do this, little pigeon,” said Instructor Mwar. “Isn’t it the same for you?”
Serren opened her mouth. Closed it. She saw her cousin’s face in her mind’s eye. One piece of herself was already gone; more would follow. But she could not turn away. “Yes,” she said. “Yes.”
Yoon Ha Lee’s fiction has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and Sybil’s Garage. She is a section editor at The Internet Review of Science Fiction.
As for inspiration, I wrote this story as an exercise at Viable Paradise VIII. The prompt involved “space opera, odd body types, and pigeons”; the other prompts involved either romance or “Luther, Faust, Hamlet, and Horatio at Wittenerg.” I can’t write romance to save my life and it’s been years since I’ve read Hamlet, so I panicked and went straight for the space operatic pigeons!