Monday, September 11, 2023

“Solace” • by Ephiny Gale

It started with scissors. 

Cora van Ellison had been working ten-hour days, hurrying to get several commissions ready and putting the final touches on her end-of-year collection. She was clumsy at the best of times, and then she dropped some scissors and successfully caught them; then wished she hadn’t because of the surprisingly deep gouge in her left palm that needed stitches.

Two days later: a busy day of travelling between the generation ship’s connecting pods. She had two meetings in the Verdant pod that morning, predominantly to confirm that her clothes sat correctly around their prehensile tails. After lunch, she ventured 30 kilometers across the ship into Blue Skies, where the residents were all fifty percent taller than anyone else on the ship, and where she needed to climb a ladder for most measurements. And lastly, there was Solace, to design for Meadow Fullstone.

The appointment was for 16:30, when anywhere else on the ship would have been bathed in artificial sunlight, but Solace was dark. Meadow was wealthier than most of her pod-mates, and her house boasted two full stories above ground. Lights in the shapes of dragonflies, tigers, and hummingbirds welcomed Cora to her front door. Meadow greeted Cora with a kiss on each cheek and some cherry-flavoured tea.

The first half of the appointment elapsed normally, even if Cora thought she saw something unsettling from the corner of her eye. Then there was something skittering near her feet and she flinched automatically, enough to stick Meadow’s soft skin with a sewing needle and draw blood. Enough to open up the wound on Cora’s own left hand, which she’d left uncovered for ease of use, and then she felt so mortified that she fumbled with the needle and managed to mix that tiniest smear of Meadow’s blood with her own.

It had been stupid, as many life-changing events often are.

Once Cora had apologised profusely, she raced into the bathroom, initially to press a wad of tissue paper to her bleeding hand, but then to vomit into the cold toilet bowl. She emerged dizzy and shaking, and Meadow pressed a hand against her forehead and said, “Oh dear, oh dear,” again and again, and insisted that Cora stay the night as she was in no condition to go anywhere.

Recovery took a few days. Meadow or her housekeeper brought a variety of soups morning, noon, and night, often made with the leafy greens, carrots and herbs that thrived in Meadow’s garden. They fed Cora vitamin D pills, and Meadow read to her from a favourite novel about a ship that sailed across oceans instead of space. As Cora became more lucid, she came to understand what had happened to her. The new skin around her wound was growing back milky-white. Meadow felt deeply guilty and promised she’d pay for Cora to be cured, but as it required a hospital stay, there was a six-month wait; Cora could stay in Meadow’s backyard studio until then.

Almost everyone who lived in Solace had a severe genetic allergy to the ship’s lights. It had been introduced to the Solace pod about fifty years ago: blood-transmissible and gene-altering. Many spoke of bio-terrorism. There had been rumours that Admin themselves were responsible, but  only rumours. Eventually, it had become such a normal part of life that its origins were rarely mentioned at all.

The first couple of weeks were the worst. Cora’s collection never walked the runway. Her commissions were late: she contacted her clients and apologised; she was very sick. Some days it seemed pointless to leave the bed; perhaps she could hibernate for the next six months until her hospital appointment. Occasionally communications from extended family or friends arrived, but replying felt impossible. Despondent, she sunk into the grass in Meadow’s back garden and marvelled that those flowers and plants could still grow when Solace was only bright between 22:00 and 5:00 hours.

Meadow took her hand and taught her their names: deadnettle, rhapis palm, bromeliads, birds nest fern, caladium, devil’s ivy. The caladiums were Cora’s favourite, with their heart-shaped leaves and variegated colouring, each leaf green around the outside and a bright pink in the middle.

One evening, staring down at her artificial steak, she asked, “Why don’t you get the cure as well? Why doesn’t everyone in Solace?”

Meadow chuckled. “Well, the cure is expensive, and it takes time. But mostly, people here are quite happy with their lives.” She squeezed Cora’s fingers for reassurance. “Let’s say you grew up somewhere where everyone had wings. Almost nothing is at ground level. All of the building entrances are at least three metres up with no ramps or stairs or built-in ladders. You would be disabled in that society, wouldn’t you? It wasn’t built for you.”

She gestured to the darkness outside her window, to the roses thriving under special garden lights. “Solace is just about perfect for us.”

Meadow had dimples when she smiled, Cora realised. The heaviness of the recent weeks slowly began to lift.

Soon after, Meadow took her to the bustling Dark Market, which shone with a hundred types of lights and where children revelled with lit-up balloon animals and glowing face paint. Adults were mostly draped in black, or they wore illuminated clothing where the fabric pulsed or changed colour with the music or temperature. “You could design outfits better than this,” Meadow said into her ear, as they bought chicken-salted popcorn and flaming cocktails you blew out like birthday cake.

They attended a Gothic cabaret bar, where Meadow knew the owner and smuggled Cora backstage to sing songs with the cast after the show. Cora sang quietly, embarrassed that she only knew the choruses and could barely hold a tune, but no one seemed to mind. While Meadow held court with the performers, the pianist painted Cora’s makeup to better flatter her new complexion.

The next week, at a liquid meat tasting, Cora interrogated Meadow on the realities and dangers of their condition.

“Well,” said Meadow, wiping a drop of pseudo-shark off her lip. “Direct exposure to the ship’s lights will leave your skin blistered quickly. If it continues, then comes the fever, and that leads to unconsciousness within about fifteen minutes. And yes, people can die from it…” She deliberately caught Cora’s eyes. “But that happens so rarely these days; I can’t remember the last time someone died from allergic light exposure.”

“And going outside the pod?”

“It’s doable,” Meadow said. “A lot of clothing here, like what I commissioned from you, is long and dark and draped. If I were leaving Solace, I would add thick stockings, long gloves, a full hood that covered my neck and shoulders. They come with translucent fabric across the eyes, and then you wear goggles underneath.” She swirled her glass and sighed. “It’s a lot. It can be hot, and some people look at you strangely. But it’s done.” A pause. “Or there’s always the Solace version of a bodysuit.”

When Cora was measuring her Solace time in months instead of weeks, Meadow took her to some underground baths modelled after ancient hot springs. Meadow, like many of its patrons, bathed nude, and her figure was stunning. Cora blushed at being caught staring as water dripped down Meadow’s body through the steam, and quickly muttered something about wanting to make more dresses for her. Meadow seemed predominantly amused, wading to sit two hands’ lengths away; Cora thought she could have kissed her then, if it hadn’t been so early and things hadn’t felt so unequal, and if Cora had been more sure of what she wanted.

She’d been serious about the dresses. She sewed Meadow long dresses and short ones, dresses with queenly collars and dresses with bat-wing sleeves that hung between the wrists and waist. Above-the-knee ruffled skirts that could be untied for floor-length light protection, and tops with a huge hidden hood that could billow around the wearer like a parachute. Jumpsuits with tiny lights sewn into them like embroidery. A long, silky gown with arms that finished in its own gloves, that covered everything except Meadow’s face and came with a fabric crown seamlessly built to the garment at the top of the head.

Cora designed for Meadow, and for Meadow’s friends, and then for Solace. Over time, Cora had her things gradually transported from her old apartment into the backyard studio, which was still hers even though she sometimes slept in Meadow’s enormous bed. She made clothes for Solace, and she tended the garden.

Finally, while Cora and Meadow sat beside the caladiums with fresh mugs of cherry tea, Cora asked, “How would you feel if I cancelled the hospital appointment?”

Meadow didn’t look at her. Very evenly, she said, “Does that mean you would stay here? Stay with me?”

“If I could.”

“Well,” Meadow said, reaching for the hand Cora injured with scissors months ago. “That would be glorious.”




Ephiny Gale was born in Victoria, Australia, and still lives there, alongside her lovely wife and a small legion of bookcases. She is the author of more than two dozen published short stories and novelettes that have appeared in publications including PseudoPod, Constellary Tales, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and of course, Stupefying Stories, most recently with “This is (Not) My Beautiful Cat.” Her fiction has been awarded the Sundress Publications' Best of the Net award and has been a finalist for multiple Aurealis Awards. More at and @ephiny (Twitter).

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Please don’t make me escalate to posting pictures of sad kittens and puppies… 


Pete Wood said...

This is a great story and one that a reader can enjoy even after multiple readings.

Karin Terebessy said...

This is really beautiful. With subtlety, it discussed segregation (literally plays on “one drop of blood”), disability, compassion, and love. Truly wonderful piece!

Made in DNA said...

Gorgeous storytelling.