Till Death - Uncharted

Till Death

By Ingrid S. Bergø

1.              Parasite

Bea sat, her back against the inside of the airlock, looking at the thing that used to be her wife. The sprinklers had turned off a little while ago, but everything was still covered in wet ashes. The spray of blood across the wall had started to run down, half washed away.

The thing that used to be Violeta watched her in return, a glowing reflection in dark hollows. Around it lay the sloughed off pieces of skin that only hours before Bea had kissed. Pieces of discarded intestines, puddles of blood. Around Bea was a pool of vomit.

They left her here. The rest of the crew. Left Bea alone on this half-finished station on this moon, with the thing that was inside her wife had become her wife, the thing that no doubt was going to eat her or plant its eggs in her or whatever these life forms did. These parasites. No. No, that was a lie. She had chosen to stay behind, because she would rather be eaten by this thing than leave Violeta behind. Alone. To be consumed by this awful thing that infected her.

They had come to the moon, designated K1–205.1 because they had found water. Water meant life or the potential for it. In that sense, she supposed, the mission had been a success. With the near-permanent droughts going on back home, this meant hope. But things started to go wrong within days: equipment mysteriously broke down, and then Violeta got sick. It was just normal sick at first. Worrying, yes, as there was no obvious source of her flu–like symptoms, but not catastrophic. But then she began to behave more erratically.  Her skin became loose and strange. From inside quarantine, she began to vomit blood, and her teeth all fell out. When they were replaced by dark, slick mandibles and she escaped, the captain made the choice to abandon mission. Whatever lived here was too big a risk. He didn’t try very hard to convince Bea to come.

The two of them, Vi and Bea, had met on another expedition. Vi, a geologist, had kept discovering new and strange and very easily fixable practical problems for Bea, the ship’s mechanic, to deal with. It had taken her an embarrassingly long time to work out Vi was flirting. The crew and ship had been big enough that no one noticed or cared that suddenly, one of the small crew cabins stood unused for the last few months of the trip. They got married two years later. Vi had been on the fence about it because the tradition seemed archaic and pointless to her, but Bea had wanted pretty suits and matching rings and a day of cake and flowers and dancing, and Vi liked to indulge her. Now, they only went on expeditions that had roles for both of them.

The thing that was Violeta kept staring at her. It had grown patches of what seemed like an exoskeleton. Ribs slick and discoloured, wrapped around whatever organs remained. Charcoal tissue of some kind clung to the limbs that used to be hers. It wasn’t skin. Bea couldn’t bear to think of it as skin, not any more.

She was going to die soon. That was –– she had made her peace with that. She was going to die today, sooner or later, at the claws of the thing that used to be her wife. Only, the thing had not moved. It had broken through the shell of Violeta, torn that sleek and angular and lovely face to shreds as it emerged, but now it only watched her.

“Why?” she asked the thing, “why did you have to take her? You could have– Me! I was right there. Or the Captain, that asshole. You could have– Anyone…”

She wasn’t expecting a response, so when the thing made a noise, she flinched. It was a strange gurgling clicking sound, like something had gone very wrong in its throat. Which, arguably, it had. Bea briefly debated trying to run, but she had twisted her ankle earlier, and she would only be putting off the inevitable anyway. She was already dead. She repeated this to herself as the thing got up and began to crawl towards her, claws clicking wetly against the metal floor. A flap of brown skin with the fragment of a crystal formation tattoo got stuck on its clawed foot, and it took a moment to shake it off before settling in front of her. The smell of blood and organs was overwhelming.

“What do you want?”

The thing clicked softly, and inclined its head in a manner that was excruciatingly familiar. Mocking her memory. Pretending. Bea squeezed her eyes shut, taking short breaths through her mouth. This was it. Claws in her throat. Being devoured. It was better this way, better than being without her. The moment of dread stretched out, uninterrupted, but no attack came. Instead, after a moment, Bea felt sticky, wet claws against her cheek, sharp and careful. She flinched, opened her eyes. The faintly glowing sockets were looking at her, and she was overcome with revulsion. Bea did her best to crawl away, but the thing blocked her with an arm that was too long. She felt the thing’s breath on her face, hot and unpleasant and with a very faint hint of the mint toothpaste Violeta preferred. If there had been anything left in her to throw up, she would have gotten rid of it then.

After what felt like hours but was probably more like minutes, she felt it retreat. Bea opened her eyes. It moved strangely, with a scuttling motion, long limbs awkward, like it wasn’t sure whether it was meant to move on two or four legs. It turned and looked at her for a long moment before disappearing down the hall. Bea sighed, allowing herself to relax just a fraction. Not dying right away, then. She felt quite certain that she was close to going into shock, and she couldn’t bear to think about the implications of any of the day’s events, so she focused on the practical.

Get up. Her ankle was a sharp burning pain, but if she moved slowly and kept her hand on the wall she was able to hobble quite efficiently. First order of business: disinfect her wounds. When Vi – when the thing had broken loose, it caused a decent amount of havoc, and the sudden unprepared launching of the shuttle hadn’t helped. There were a few fires, and the stink of burnt plastic was heavy. Bea herself had quite a few cuts. Disinfecting the wounds and bandaging them might help her feel a little less… just a little less.

The medbay was a wreck; it was where Violeta had been quarantined, and the walls were covered in claw marks. Glass crunched under Bea’s boots as she made her slow way through, looking for what could be salvaged. The equipment was pushed around and broken, but– yes, there. A sealed first aid kit.

Deep breath. First, she peeled the blood-stuck cloth back from around the wounds, and then she got the disinfectant wipes. Deep breath. She winced, but the cleaning was something to focus on. Another deep breath, then apply the plaster. Deep breath, rinse and repeat.

Unfortunately being a little calmer meant that some of the fear and pain had made space for thoughts of Violeta. She squeezed her eyes shut. The tears made it through anyway, and for a moment, she allowed herself to give in. She sobbed, moaned in pain and grief and desperation. That thing and her, alone on this moon. Unless, even worse, they weren’t alone. Unless there were more.

The thing did not come to find her in the medbay, so she took a crutch and went to see about provisions. Probably, it was enough to last. They were meant to be down there for months, a crew of ten. For one person, that would last years. Everything freeze-dried down to powder. Not tempting, but edible. God. Months alone here? With the thing? Maybe freezing to death on the surface was better. Attacking it so it would kill her to defend itself.

Eventually, exhausted and terrified and not yet murdered by the thing that lived in her wife’s corpse, Bea retreated to her room. Their room. She locked the door, then shoved every single object in there against it. It slid open, so that wouldn’t help, but the makeshift barricade made her feel a little bit safer. Satisfied, she climbed into their bunk. Her ankle still throbbed painfully despite the meds she had taken earlier, but she was exhausted. Even so, it took her a long time to stop shaking and drift off.

Some time later, Bea woke, groggy and disoriented, and for a few seconds, the lingering smell of Violeta on the pillow let her forget the events of the day. But the clamps of grief gripped her heart as realisation set in, and she opened her eyes. And screamed.

The thing was crouched next to the bed, its head slightly tilted, staring at her with hollow eyes. Here, they didn’t glow. Here they were black holes in that gruesome face. It didn’t even seem to notice the scream; it just continued to watch her. Maybe… maybe there was something of Violeta left in there? Some residual memory? No. No, the thought was too painful because then – Bea took a fortifying breath.

“Violeta? Vi?”

Her voice was shaky, but the thing tilted its head to the other side. Its mandibles clicked together, twice. The twisted, stripped down face that was nothing like her wife was horrible to look at, revolting, but… But if there was a chance.

“Is there anything of her left in you?” she whispered.

A movement – was that a nod?

“Do that again?”

The thing nodded again. It was such a human movement that it was more unsettling than anything else it had done so far.

“As in – as in yes, there is something of her left? In you?”

A third nod. Oh. Oh god. Bea couldn’t tell whether that was worse. Worse because then there was hope. Worse because then she knew she could never leave this thing, whether by escape or self-inflicted death. Worse because she would never be the same, but Bea could not grieve her or let her go either. Worse because she has to look at this horrifying face made from the mutated twisted skull of her wife and know that some part of her beyond the bones remained.


“Are you– are you going to hurt me?”

This time the pause was longer. The thing tilted its head back and forth as if in thought before finally shaking its head. It added a shrill sound, followed by a few clicking noises. Bea shifted, pushing herself to sit up in the bed, cover pulled tightly around her as if it would do anything to protect her from those sharp claws. If it came to that. She sighed. Looked at the thing that maybe just a little bit was still her wife.

Not-Vi crept up onto the bed, the horrifying face looking up at Bea briefly, as if to see whether it had permission. The mattress dipped under its weight. Lighter than she had been. This thing was only bones. Had it changed its mind? Bea held her breath, waiting. This time, though, she kept her eyes open.

Not–Vi clicked its mandibles together twice. Its sharpened claws, little more, really, than the exposed last knuckle of a finger, tore through the blanket. Bea felt it against her foot. The skin, or what passed for it, was cold and wet. Something that had once been a hand she had held every day reached out to touch her, and Bea recoiled. Not-Vi tilted its head and made that little clicking noise again.

“Do you know what happened to you?”

Not-Vi hissed. Bea wasn’t sure what that meant. She tried again.

“Do you remember?”

Not-Vi shook its head. Bea tried to see if there was anything recogniseable in its face. Her face? It had to still be her skull that was showing through, didn’t it? The proportions of it.

“But you remember me?”

Not-Vi nodded almost eagerly this time. Was this worse or better? Bea couldn’t tell.

“What we were to each other?”

Not-Vi ducked its head, looking up at Bea. It reached out again, slower this time, giving Bea the chance to avoid the touch. She didn’t. Cold, damp fingers touched her cheek. They were hard and pointed, like those of a desiccated corpse. Like those ancient bodies preserved in bogs, eerily life-like hundreds and thousands of years after their deaths, shrivelled and blackened. The arm moved strangely, as if the joints didn’t quite make sense any more. It unsettled Bea.

“I’ll take that as a yes.”

She felt a little less terrified but just as stressed.

“I’m glad. That you don’t want to kill me, I mean, or eat me or whatever. I lost you, and…”

She swallowed down the lump in her throat. Tears stung at the corners of her eyes. She was so tired. Not-Vi clicked again, then hissed. A soft little sound. Bea wondered if there was meaning to it. Something she could eventually learn how to interpret. She would have to, wouldn’t she?

“I’m glad there is still something left of the cute geologist I met on that first mission years ago. Even if you look a bit… different, now. I don’t know what I am going to do.”

Not-Vi turned its head, looking at the printed-out photograph of the two of them pinned to the wall above their bunk. Two women in big space suits, helmets under their arms, trying to hold hands through the chunky gloves and laughing. Vi taller, her puff of dark curls trying to escape from their tie. It was three years ago, when they first joined this crew.

“Remember that? We were so happy. You were so excited about the mission.”

Not-Vi peered at it for a long time, then shook its head. Her head. Maybe-Vi. Ex-Vi. Almost Vi.

“Will you let me try to help you remember?”

2.            Paramour

Despite the finality of the day when the rest of the crew left, life continued. Sort of. Bea continued to be alive, and Almost-Vi continued to be strange, unsettling, and weirdly comforting. Because she was alone, now. This empty moon was too small to be the likely destination for any other expeditions, too far from anything that might make it probable that whatever signals they were still emitting were strong enough for passers-by to pick them up. She had no means of reaching anyone beyond the orbit, and there was no one there any more. She knew that. On the first day, she had tried to send a message in case her crew had stayed on the ship after they took the shuttle, but the message bounced back unreceived. They had gotten the fuck out. She couldn’t blame them.

Not-Quite-Vi spent a lot of time out on the surface of the moon. She would disappear without warning, neither the station’s systems nor Bea able to pick up exactly when or how she left, but inevitably she would return, whatever she had these days instead of skin freezing cold. Sometimes, she would bring in rocks, which she piled in a corner of Bea’s room. Of their room. It took Bea an embarrassingly long time to understand why. Samples. She was collecting samples. Some leftover instinct, scrambled and nonsensical, but attempting to do her job. To do what they were sent to this moon for. Bea broke down crying, then, and the being that used to be her wife stared at her as if not sure what this behaviour meant. Almost-Vi clicked her mandibles, and the inflection was almost a question. Bea startled as she felt an icy claw wipe a tear from her face.

“Sorry,” she said, wiping at her nose with the sleeve of her stained jumper, “sorry. You’re still a geologist at heart, huh? If you even have a heart. Um, physically speaking, I mean.”

She was pretty sure by now that Almost-Vi still had one metaphorically. She seemed to retain some sense of what things meant to her, even if Bea didn’t know whether she fully understood them. Bea took the cold and hard hand in her own. Almost-Vi’s fingers felt like roots or twigs, hard and gnarled things. Inhuman. But the hand still gripped hers back. That had to count for something, right? She had to keep telling herself that, or she would go insane.

“Do you want me to analyse the samples?” she asked, indicating the pile of space rocks.

Almost-Vi stared at her blankly. Just as well. Geology was beyond Bea’s expertise. She was the mechanic, which was convenient, because quite a lot of things had been destroyed on the ship, and needed to be fixed. Some more crucial than others, but that was good. She needed a job to do, goals, something to focus on. Sometimes, Almost-Vi would join her, perch nearby, and watch what she was doing with wide black eyes. Bea would talk her through what she was doing, never quite sure whether Almost-Vi absorbed any of the information. She still understood language, that much was clear, but maybe not a lengthy explanation of the mechanics of the motion sensor doors. To be fair, Vi would have zoned out if Bea had tried to explain that to her in the before times, too.

When she was inside, Almost-Vi generally followed Bea around. She stalked, moving like an animal on the hunt, nearly silent. Her steps would have actually been silent on a surface more forgiving than the hard metal floors of the station. Soft curves had been replaced with a skeletal figure. Literally skeletal, her ribs having migrated to the outside of her body and begun to fuse into something like a breastplate. It didn’t seem to stop her breathing or moving, though. She would crouch on some surface behind or next to Bea, watching intently. Like a cat, Bea thought one day. She was behaving like a cat.

It helped, she thought, having someone to talk to. Or talk at, rather. Someone who, though they listened and probably understood a little, could not really reply. Almost-Vi nodded and shook her head, and she indicated things, but beyond that, it was hard to get specifics out of her. Bea had attempted to demonstrate writing in a substance, emptying a bag of powdered bug protein onto the floor and writing in it with her finger, but Almost-Vi frowned and struggled and made attempts she crossed out, hissing loudly and stalking off to sulk out on the surface somewhere. Maybe she had some kind of expressive aphasia, able to understand but not to form words. Or maybe her brain was so scrambled by the alien parasite or infection or whatever it was so as to be irreparable.  If it was the former, practice might help. She could hope for that. Then maybe she would learn what she did out there.

Bea hadn’t dared go out on the surface yet. Only one suit remained, and although it wasn’t torn, it had scratch marks on the helmet. And that sort of thing mattered. There was a hint of an atmosphere, but not one hospitable to human life. Enough for whatever was left of Vi’s lungs, but Bea didn’t dare go out without full protection. Besides, all they had found were subterranean pockets of ice and lots of space rocks. Vi had told her about the rocks in question, but Bea hadn’t paid attention, not really. She loved Vi, but her capacity for understanding these things was low, even after years of watching very charming yet incomprehensible rants.

One day, after the creature she was beginning to think of as Vi left, Bea watched on the camera feeds. It was more rapid black and white slideshow than it was video, but still she saw the skeletal dark figure bounce across the surface. Like she barely weighed anything. In this gravity, no one really did. She watched as Vi stopped by some rocky outcropping, where the crew had blasted an opening and disappeared down into it. This time, she was gone for hours, and Bea didn’t see her return. Instead she woke up to that horrifying alien face inches from her own, a claw on her shoulder. She yelped in surprise.

“Sorry! Sorry, fell asleep. Not scared, just startled.”

Which was almost true these days. She sat up, wincing in pain as she rolled her neck. Sprawled across the desk was not the most ergonomic position. Vi dropped another rock into Bea’s lap, an almost perfect sphere, with red and orange bands. Beautiful if polished, probably. Currently, it is like touching an ice cube. Bea grabbed the edge of her jumper to lift it gently onto the desk.

“This one is very pretty! I wish you could tell me what it is. And then tell me half an hour’s worth of facts about it I would immediately forget. Which I say with love.”

Vi clicked her mandibles a few times at her, which, despite the weeks they had now spent together, Bea still didn’t understand. She couldn’t even tell if it was any sort of language, had neither the aptitude nor patience to chart every click and hiss as if decoding Morse code. Which it wasn’t. She’d checked.

Bea tried to like Vi’s new face. She really did. Tried to see whether any of Vi’s proportions remained visible in it, but it was too distorted. The black holes that were more like eye sockets than eyes bore no resemblance to the so dark brown they were almost black eyes she had stared into for years. The mouth was an upsetting fleshy thing, flanked on either side by the jagged mandibles. Vi’s lower jaw had split and cracked and grown to protrude out, distorting the shape of her head. If she squinted her eyes until the world went blurry, she could see something familiar in the distance between the eyes, the height of Vi’s cheekbones. Hers had always been an elegant face. Now, it looked like a meteoroid crater, but it was taking less and less effort for Bea to lean in and kiss the cold, smooth cheek. 

3.           Parallel

Two months after Vi changed and everyone left, Bea began to get sick. It started light, and the dread flowed through her like ice; she tried to convince herself it was just some space cold, something stuck to the samples Vi kept bringing, which never went through any meaningful decontamination. But on the morning after she started to feel the symptoms, she developed a fever. It was not unexpected with any illness, but it was an ominous sign all the same. As was the fact that Vi now never left her side. She was worried, that was all. Had to be all. Right? Bea focused on that as she curled up on her cot, Vi crouched on the floor next to her, cold clawed hands stroking Bea’s forehead. Which did, to be fair, make her feel better.

“Is this what I think it is?” she asked Vi, before dissolving into painful coughs.

Vi just looked at her, calm and expressionless. She continued to stroke Bea’s overheated skin.

The third day, something felt wrong. More wrong than maybe she had a flu, wrong like on an existential level. Maybe this was the sense of impending doom they talked about with heart attacks. She couldn’t put a finger on what it was, both because it was everywhere and nowhere and, more acutely, because she couldn’t find the strength to lift her arm. Vi stayed close. Stayed vigilant.

“What’s happening to me?” Bea asked, pleaded, but there was no answer.

There never was.

“Can you help?”

Vi hesitated for long moments, considering, and then shook her head. Of course not. Because maybe this was her doing? Maybe she had brought the rocks and things for this purpose?

“Did you do this to me?”

Vi stared at her with hollow black eyes, unmoving. No sign of guilt, not in any body language Bea could read, but also no reassurance that of course she hadn’t, of course she wouldn’t. Or whatever the spooky alien hybrid version of that sentiment would be.

“But I’m… becoming like you, aren’t I?”

At this, Vi nodded with something like enthusiasm. Her mandibles clicked excitedly, and Bea thought with a shudder of how her face would erupt into something similar, twist and change as her flesh loosened and fell from her new frame. At least she wasn’t managing to eat enough to have anything to throw up. She tried to sit up but winced, sinking down. Her limbs felt as though they were filled with lead, her muscles like they were barely connected to anything anymore. Vi crept closer, lifting Bea carefully and repositioning her pillow beneath her so Bea rested in something like a reclined position. Cold claws stroked her hot clammy skin.

On the day Bea’s teeth fell out, she cried. She couldn’t speak properly anymore, could barely move, and then she woke up spitting out teeth and blood, nearly choking on a canine. Vi chittered excitedly.

The day the skin of her left hand grew loose enough that, upon gripping the edge of the bed to get up, it stayed behind, she did throw up. It was wrenched off, like a glove carelessly removed, and the skin hung there, still wrapped around the metal edge, fleshy and wet and slowly, noisily sliding down. The hand below looked like Vi’s, now. Like wrinkled charcoal, slick and entirely inhuman. Bea tried to remember how long it had been since Vi looked like this until the rest of her fell away to reveal the monstrous form beneath.

“Do I have long?” she asked, struggling to get the sounds right.

Vi shook her head. Bea thought for a long moment.

“Help me?”

She leaned on Vi as she helped her move through the ship, towards the airlock. The suit hung there, untouched. The glass visor watched the two of them with what felt like judgment. Vi helped Bea into the suit, some muscle memory remaining, enough to take the vague and mangled instructions Bea gave as she tried to cling to some remnant of humanity. It took ages, but then Vi slid the helmet onto Bea’s head, and the latch clicked shut, and she was sealed in. Already, the inside stunk of her rapidly dissolving body, but at least this way, she didn’t have to see. Didn’t have to be so excruciatingly aware of what was happening.

They went out through the airlock, Vi clawing impatiently at the door as it adjusted. As if any of that mattered anymore. As if anyone would ever use it again. Bea had contemplated leaving some sort of note or recording, in case anyone ever came here, but she hadn’t managed. Not only was she so very tired, but she could not face the possibility that someone else would know what happened to her and Vi. Especially not anyone they knew. It was better to disappear. Lost in Space. That was something their parents could put on a grave. It sounded nobler than twisted into some kind of alien hybrids until they lost themselves. Well. Lost most of themselves.

Even with the bulky suit, walking on the surface wasn’t too hard. On Earth, Bea would have been a puddle on the ground. The distant star which the moon reflected was about to rise above the horizon, she realised, and she patted Vi’s arm, nodding at the ground. Vi helped her to sit down, then joined her. She sat almost like a person now, not in the strange crouched way she seemed to prefer these days. A clawed hand over Bea’s gloved one. There was enough air in Bea’s tank for a few hours, and soon, she wouldn’t need it anymore. Inside the suit she could feel her skin slipping, but if she sat still, if she didn’t move, she could stay here, with Vi, and watch as the cold and distant sun rose while she fell apart. .

About the Author

Ingrid S. Bergø is a Norwegian writer, illustrator and generalised nerd about a lot of weird stuff. Their favourite thing to do is looking at concepts in sci fi and horror and taking them way too seriously. Their stories have been described as queer horror noir, a phrase which delights them and they will keep quoting. More work and info can be found at isbergillustration.com. This is their first publication.

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