“Curiosity’s Cabinet,” by Jennifer Diemer
Dawn, an orphan Erther aboard the spaceship Curiosity, plots to break into the mysterious vault that preserves billions of relics from all over the universe–and possibly the secret of her own forgotten beginning.
(photo by Ostrograd)
(Part of Project Unicorn: A Lesbian YA Extravaganza, updated twice weekly on Mondays and Thursdays with a free, original, never-before-published YA short story featuring a lesbian heroine. Also, every story is a work of genre fiction [Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Dystopian, Post-apocalyptic, etc.].)
by Jennifer Diemer
I don’t think it’s a real memory.
How could it be?
I was a baby when I was taken to the satellite school, and infants can’t remember details. They can scarcely make sense of light, or movement, or breathing.
But I dream it so often that I can’t help wondering:
Was there ever a house with a bright yellow room?
Was there ever a dog with a tail like a fan?
Was there ever a world as black as pitch?
Was I ever held like that, so soft and close?
“Last thing Yangl put in this vault was a mummified Deplo braeworm, long as both of my arms put together,” Hern tells us self-importantly. “Looked hard as a rock, thick as a thigh.” With a smirk, he leans against the vault’s reflective door, taps on its silver surface with his pale, fisted hand. “You’ll have to take my word for it, though. Can’t let anyone in, not even”—his heavy-lidded eyes rove us, up and down, down and up—“rehas like you. So sorry, ladies.”
Beside me, Glim takes a step forward, lunging toward Hern with a lick of fire in her eyes, but I reach for her hand, smoothing my thumb over her sizzling skin. She exhales loudly, even as she offers me a weak smile; it trembles upon her lips like smoke.
I don’t know what rehas means. Obviously, it’s a word Hern picked up offship, either from his homeworld or from one of the planets the Curiosity has excavated during his years as vaultkeeper. But considering the source, I figure it’s not meant to be complimentary so much as exploitive, demeaning, and—based upon my throbbing temples and Glim’s red-hot, flaming gaze—enraging.
I squeeze Glim’s hand until her skin begins to cool. Then she sighs, leans against me, wraps her arm around my waist. Her eyes, though, remain on Hern as if frozen in place. She regards him with a menacing, icy stare.
Glim and I are paired now, and Hern has made his displeasure over our pairing as clear as glass. When I first boarded the Curiosity, he set his sights on me. Not because he found me particularly attractive. (He made that distinction clear as glass, too.) He wanted me only because he had set the goal for himself to “sample the geography” of every alien species the Curiosity contained.
He claimed to have already sampled a Fier, so Glim was never of urgent interest to him. But as an Erther, I had an exotic appeal. Few crewmembers onship had ever met an Erther before, and, to be honest, I hadn’t even realized I was an Erther until the tests confirmed my ancestry.
As an infant, I was found stowed away in the cargo hold of a roving cruiser and promptly enrolled in a satellite school for orphans. My school term ended seven months ago, on my sixteenth anniversary, and the star systems professor got me a position on Curiosity’s crew as a map specialist. (Actually, I’m only a junior map specialist; Glim is chief reader because she’s been onboard for three years now and could probably navigate the Fissure Way in her sleep. And would try to, if I ever suggested it to her—so I won’t.)
When I joined the crew, I had to undergo the standard contained-flight tests. That’s how I—and everybody else—found out I was an Erther. Until that point, I’d just assumed I was a hybrid: part Bandep, maybe, with my fluffy red hair and pale skin. Bandeps only have four fingers on each hand, though, and I have five.
And Bandeps don’t use a spoken language. Even if they wanted to—and they don’t seem to—they can’t speak. I, to Hern’s dismay, most definitely can. Onboard Curiosity, we all speak Standard Nirin, though sometimes Glim lapses into her homeworld’s tongue—all short breaths, low hisses and sibilant sounds. When she whispers to me in Fier between crackling kisses, the heat of her words, for sparkling moments, brands my skin.
Hern’s staring at Glim’s fingers upon my waist now, his forehead deeply creased. I watch as his orange eyes darken to burnished copper. “Leave off, ladies,” he tells us, sullen, arms crossed. “I’m supposed to report all loitering, you know.”
“We aren’t loitering,” Glim says, her smoky smile giving way to a grin that makes my heart shiver. I bump against her, hip to hip. “We just want to have a look in the vault.”
I nod, eyes still on Glim. “Only a peek, Hern.”
“We won’t touch anything if you let us in. I promise.” A lie, but I’m so desperate. I’ve waited years for this, and months more since I boarded ship. (To be honest, my pairing with Glim proved a distraction—though a lovely one.) I narrow my brows, breathe out hard. We figured Hern would give us a hard time—it’s his job to guard the vault, after all—but I hoped I wouldn’t have to do…what I’m about to do. Glim shrugs her shoulders at me, tries to look regretful, but I can tell by the flicker in her eyes that she’s not regretful at all.
At the satellite school, I learned a trick from a classmate named Jinsa. He was older than the rest of us, though he hadn’t been at the school for long. He’d spent most of his life hopping from ship to ship, stealing rides and food, selling whatever pickings he could get his hands on. But then he settled in with a group of Drifters who invited him to journey across the Prelik desert with them, so long as he agreed to take charge of the herd of giant lizards that carried the group’s water supply.
Over the course of many hot, dry months, his thieving habit put on hold, Jinsa gained the lizards’ trust, and the Drifters’, as well. So the Drifters taught Jinsa their secrets, one of which Jinsa taught to me. At school, I used the trick to convince the floor guard to stand on his head with his tongue sticking out (I had a cruel streak when I first realized my power, but it, very quickly, passed), and to persuade my teachers to give me high marks, though I rarely appeared in class.
More recently, I used the trick to get assigned to the Curiosity’s crew. It’s not that I couldn’t have won the position on my own; mapwork came naturally to me. But I wanted to be certain, didn’t want to leave anything up to chance.
Because I needed to get into the vault.
Jinsa’s the one who first told me about the vault. The Curiosity had been his last great adventure. He stowed away onboard and was eventually caught and shipped off to the satellite school (where he remained entirely because he chose to; no one could keep him contained without his allowing it)—but not before he tricked Hern into letting him inside the vault.
And of course Jinsa would never pass up an opportunity to pocket some souvenirs.
He’d intended to sell it all but hadn’t had the chance, and since no one knew about his theft, none of the crewmen or school staff confiscated his plunder. Two days after he arrived on campus, Jinsa pulled me into his room and, fast as comets, locked the door. “Can you keep a secret?” he asked me.
Wary but curious, I nodded. “All I am is secrets.”
“That so?” He stared at me for a long moment, his gaze sweeping over my face; then he reached out to tug on one of my red curls. “This real?”
I scowled. “What do you mean, is it real? Of course it’s real. What else would it be?” I pulled my hair out of his grasp and took a step backward, balling my hands into fists. “Listen, if you try anything, I’ll scream. I swear I’ll scream. And bite. I’ll—”
“Sure you would, but there’s no need. Brought you here to show you something.”
“What sort of something?”
His eyes shifted from side to side. “Truth be told, I think it’s yours.” Then, from a pouch in his shirt, Jinsa pulled out a square slip of paper printed with an image on one side. “It’s not the sort of thing I’d take, usually, but I had to be quick, you know, grab whatever I saw, and, anyway, her face was so—”
“Whose face?” I took the paper from him and brought it before my eyes.
It was a picture of me.
Annoyed, I tossed the paper to Jinsa’s feet and reached for the door handle. “How dare you take a photo of me and then—”
“It’s not you.”
“It’s not you.”
I closed my eyes, opened them. Asked again, “What?”
“I found it in Curiosity’s cabinet. The vault.”
I blinked and shook my head.
“You’ve never heard of the vault? It’s the museum of the universe! Got stuff in there from worlds long gone, from people who never dreamed of leaving their home planets. I figure there’s probably a relic or two from every civilization that’s ever existed. And that photo,” he told me, excited, nodding, “is too old to be a picture of you. Looks just like you, I know. Maybe it’s your mother.”
“My…” I couldn’t say it, couldn’t let myself say mother. It was a word that had nothing to do with me. I had never had a mother. Had never permitted myself to hope for one. I had only this school, nothing more. Nothing soft and close, like a mo— “No,” I told Jinsa, toeing the photo further away from me. “It couldn’t be. It’s just a coincidence, the resemblance. It’s not my—not my anything.”
“There was a whole box full of stuff, Dawn. A whole box of pictures and letters and—”
“Letters?” The word caught in my throat, slicing like a paper cut.
“Yeah. I looked at one of them. It was addressed to Dawn.”
I pushed him against the wall. “You’re lying. Let me out of here.”
He unlocked the door, waving his hands in the air, and I ran out into the hallway, seething and trembling. I collapsed in a heap at the top of the stairs.
“Let’s go, Dawn,” Glim says, just like we rehearsed, because those words are the last thing Hern will remember when he wakes up. He’ll figure we did as he asked, left him alone, and then he’ll wonder, glancing at the time, how his shift flew by so fast.
I pull my necklace over my head and dangle its shining stone before Hern’s narrowed copper eyes. He follows the path it cuts, shimmering, through the air, his mouth open, poised to tell us, again, to leave. But before he can speak, before he can think another thought, I begin the chant that Jinsa taught me, that the Drifters in Prelik taught to him.
“My voice is all you know.
“All you know are the words I give you.
“My voice is all you know.
“All you know are the words I give you…”
Again and again, I chant, watching Hern slip further and further away from himself. Beside me, Glim covers her ears with her hands and keeps her eyes shut tight, so as not to be entranced along with him.
“Open the vault for us, Hern.”
With lumbering movements, Hern removes a device from his pocket and points it over his shoulder, toward the vault door. His fingers fumble, fail to enter the deactivation code correctly. A warning beep sounds from the device—three fast, high-pitched notes.
“Open the vault, Hern,” I order him again, trying to keep my voice level.
Glim sighs, peeking between her fingers and tapping her foot.
Finally, his eyes still staring at the swinging stone, Hern’s fingers find the code, and the device beeps again, this time low and long. And the vault door—so thick and solid a moment ago—dematerializes, revealing a hollow black corridor, lightless, endless.
I swallow and shiver, chilled by a draft of cold air.
I feel Glim’s hand slide into mine. The heat of her skin warms me all over, and then her mouth is pressed against my mouth: my heart burns.
“You’re amazing,” she whispers, lips on my lips, squeezing my hand until my whole being smolders. Our breath mingles, two girls of smoke; we gasp and then waft into the tunnel of darkness.
The spell—as Jinsa called it—that I cast over Hern will last for an hour. Long enough for us to find the box of photos and letters, Jinsa promised me, then leave the vault and return to our rooms, with no one the wiser.
I pull Glim along, following the instructions Jinsa helped me memorize at the school. Walk straight back until you come to an opening on your left. Turn right; then turn right again…
Strange shapes loom all around us. The space is too big to contemplate, the ceiling too far away to see. Everything is black, unless it’s silver: silver shelves and sealed cases. Silver locks on silver safes.
“What if it’s locked?” Glim says. “Your box. What if it’s—”
I shake my head. “Jinsa said it’s an open box. Just sitting there. It’s nothing important, only papers.”
Mouth at my ear, Glim makes a shushing sound. “It’s the most important relic of all. It’s living history. Your history, Dawn.”
“We don’t know that for certain—”
“We will soon.”
I nod, because my lips are too dry to speak. Hand in hand we walk past the remains of time—neatly categorized. It seems perverse, this conserved arrangement of artifacts.
The universe is chaos, not order.
Time is wild, not something to be tamed.
“Look, Dawn. There it is.”
When you reach the cabinet that looks like it’s on fire, turn left.
Within the silver walls of the sturdy cupboard, small fires burn—though no heat pulses through the glass, and there are no scorch marks on the surfaces of the shelves.
“I think they’re alive,” Glim breathes, fascinated, leaning nearer to the pale yellow lights. “I wonder if they’re related to Fiers, if they originated on my world. I’ve never seen anything like them before…” Her fingers tug at the lock on the case, but it holds fast. She gives me a flickering smile. “Another time, maybe?”
I smile at her and press a quick kiss to her lips. “Yes.”
We turn left.
Walk on until you reach the end of the corridor. There, to your right, will be the box. It’s at the bottom of the shelf with its lid askew. Just a small silver box. Unmarked and unremarkable.
I pause, stumble.
Glim wraps her arm around my waist, urges me on.
It’s just as Jinsa described it: the box, the lid. Even before I lean near, I can see a soft mound of paper within—unmoved, most likely, since Jinsa last disturbed it.
“This is it,” I whisper, kneeling. Glim kneels beside me and takes the lid in her hands, the flames in her eyes casting a shifting red light.
The first thing I draw from the box is a photograph. It’s a blurry image of a doorway, with a yellow-painted room beyond. Near the floor, just at the edge of the open door, disappearing into the yellow room, a white tail like a fan is visible, caught mid-wag.
My tears splash onto the picture, and Glim quickly takes it from me, evaporating the beads of saltwater with her hot breath.
“The letters,” she insists, nodding toward the box.
I pick up a stained piece of paper, unfold it with shaking hands. The words are written in an incomprehensible language, but someone—an archivist of the vault?—has written a Standard Nirin translation in the margins.
As we end, you begin. I pray that you will be safe. They have promised me that you will be safe, but there is no place for promises in a time of war. I have to believe they will do their best by you, that they will try to save you.
You are small; you can be hidden.
You are beautiful; you will be loved again.
I ache already, though you are still here, still nestled warm against me. How is it possible that a mother could give up her child? How can I? Can I?
We are dying, Dawn. All of us, and so few of us remain. Earth was once green, they say, and blue with water, and it had a sky so beautiful, it shook your heart.
There is only death here now.
I give you up so that they will take you up, take you away. Perhaps you’ll find a sky somewhere—or a place, or a person—who shakes your heart, Dawn. Somewhere far from here. Too far for me to imagine. It is my prayer, my only prayer now, that you have a chance at life.
My baby girl…
Your mother, even when I am gone, millions of miles away and ground to dust in the scorched sand, will always, always love you.
“My mother,” I whisper.
Glim holds me until my sobs give way to whimpers.
“She loved you, Dawn.”
“I know.” Removing one of her arms from my shoulders, Glim reaches into the box and plucks out a photograph that I had glimpsed amongst the letters: a woman with red hair like mine holding a baby dressed in a torn, oversized dress embroidered with a single word across its front: DAWN.
They’re both smiling, the woman and the girl.
But behind them is a bleak landscape: black soil, barren, populated by houses with missing roofs and punctured walls. The woman’s face is smeared with something—earth or soot, or blood—but the baby looks clean, healthy.
She looks happy.
“You were happy,” Glim says, pressing a kiss to my eyelid.
“I remember.” I take the picture in my hand and breathe out. “I remember Earth.” Sniffling, I wipe my nose and incline my head toward the soft, close Fier by my side. Her scent—of ash, of smoke—has become, to me, the scent of safety. The scent of home. I wonder what Earth smelled like. In the end, black and scorched, treeless and dry, perhaps it smelled something like Glim.
“It’s happened,” I whisper, bowing my head, squeezing tears from my eyes. “What she wanted. My heart, Glim.”
“Your heart?” She takes my chin in her hand, tilts it up so that our gazes flare together.
I smile at her, staring for long moments at her silver hair, at her curious mouth. But I lose myself, as always, in the blaze of her eyes. “You’ve shaken it. My heart. You’ve granted my mother’s dying wish. And maybe—maybe the very last wish made on a dying planet.”
Glim’s arms engulf me, and we kneel, afire—two map readers loitering in the vault of forever.
If you liked “Curiosity’s Cabinet,” you can now enjoy entire collections worth of stories in Project Unicorn, Volume One on your eReader or in person in paperback form (I’m a real book!), and support the project at the same time!
eReader edition on Etsy (all proceeds to authors)
Signed paperback on Etsy, PLUS free eReader edition!
(all proceeds to authors)
How can I support the project?
If you love what we’re doing with Project Unicorn, the two greatest things you can do to support it is to talk about it on your social network, blog or web site, and purchase each eZine as it comes out.
Project Unicorn is a very large undertaking, but we’re deeply dedicated to giving queer-girls stories they can identify with. Thank you so much for being supportive, and please consider purchasing an eZine to help us continue with this project! ❤ (You can also show your support by buying our other books, or simply donating to buy the authors a cup of tea. <3)
Please sign up for our newsletter to stay in touch and be the first to know when we release anything new! ❤