Velka’s hands twitched as she turned the page. What troubled her was a feeling without voice or words, though if it did have a voice, it would have sounded like her mother, and if it did have words, it would have said: Are you sure you read it all?
What bothered her was not the question itself but what unfailingly followed.
Yes, I’m sure, the ten-year-old girl thought.
She remembered the look in her mother’s eyes as she’d reviewed Velka’s last paper. Her mother had said nothing, but Velka’s own mind had supplied all the criticisms it could manufacture, words far harsher than her mother would have ever actually used.
Velka closed her eyes, trying to remember what she’d read on the last page of the textbook. Something about the composition of Ekath’s atmosphere. About the gases frozen along the great ice shelves that covered most of the planet. What gasses were frozen there?
You don’t remember, her doubt whispered.
I remember, Velka thought.
If you can’t remember a minute after reading, how will you remember when Mother asks?
I remember, she repeated, trying unsuccessfully to recall the information through the mental cloud.
You’re too lazy to check. No wonder she thinks you’re not good enough for the Nobility.
She clenched her fists, fear burning in her gut. She wanted to lock herself away somewhere lonely and quiet. Somewhere the doubts couldn’t reach her.
Reluctantly, she flipped to the previous page and began to read.
It was the fourth time she’d read it.
When Mother returned in a few hours, she would want to know why Velka hadn’t read farther. Velka tried to argue with herself, to say that she didn’t need to read the page again, but the churning in her gut only grew.
Velka’s mother had told her all about the Nobility—that on Earth and on the more hospitable colony worlds, Nobles had the luxury of indulgence, but not here on Ekath among the ice sheets. She had taught her to never fall into Nobility’s Four Great Shames:
- To dress finer than the humblest subject.
- To dine more fully than the hungriest subject.
- To work less hard than the most overworked subject.
- To sleep in a home greater than the home of the poorest subject.
They seemed like beautiful ideas in principle, incentives for Nobles to make life better for their citizens. But the way Velka’s mother and the other Nobles practiced them had poisoned the girl’s mind against the rules.
Velka’s clothes had been made to look worn and to display the thinness of her body. Often, before she and her mother appeared in large events, they would work for hours in the factories until they were drenched in sweat, their clothes and bodies stained. This was the image they showed the people, and it mattered to Mother more than anything.
Their house had only three rooms—the smallest home of any Ekath Noble, Mother liked to brag—and far too little insulation against the cold. Often when she was home, Velka would have to wrap a thick, patched-up blanket around her shoulders to stay warm.
Her mother wouldn’t spend pocket change on a decent heater, yet she spent a fortune paying for countless tutors for her daughter. Velka knew her courses were no harder than what children of other Noble families took, yet still she struggled through the horrible collision of her mother’s reasonable expectations with her own total inability.
Mother had also explained how each bite of food was taken from the people’s plates, and that in return for that bite, they would have to provide service and leadership worth twice as much.
“If you are to take my place someday, this is how you must live,” Mother had said.
Whenever she ate, Velka imagined that she was snatching food from a starving family’s table. Even when she learned that her mother had exaggerated the severity of their small world’s conditions, even on years when the harvest was good and all ate heartily, Velka could not bring herself to feast, starving herself far beyond even her mother’s requirements.
Logic paled before her doubts, before the fears that gnawed at her soul, the fears that told her she wasn’t good enough to be a Noble, that she had failed, would always fail—a disappointment to her mother and her people.
She had a name for the fears—the Serpent, an Earth animal she’d seen in pictures. She imagined the creature coiled around her spinal cord, its fanged mouth poised at the top of her brain stem, whispering.
The Serpent was her only motivation. There was nothing else in all her life that could so much as get her out of bed.
Or almost nothing….
Velka tucked her arms into her jacket. It looked like something rescued from the waste valleys, but it was surprisingly warm. A toboggan covered her scalp, and from underneath flowed her jet-black hair, wiry and curled like her mother’s, an unusual trait among the people of Ekath.
Beside her, Mother stood with the hard-faced, gaunt dignity of an Ekath Noble. Together, they waited at the spaceport, their guards separating them from the crowd of onlookers. The crowd looked angry, but Velka didn’t know why. She was too young to understand such things, though naturally, the Serpent told her that it was all her fault. She tried to look dignified, but the excitement was overwhelming.
First, the light appeared in the sky like a new star. Gradually, it took shape as the ship descended onto the pad, a massive carrier that looked like it could hold hundreds of people, though Velka knew that it could only hold a few in the select corridors and rooms that weren’t stuffed with goods and supplies.
The ship settled, and moments later, the door opened, and Velka’s father emerged. All restraint was gone, and Velka broke into a wide smile.
The next moment, the Serpent whispered, Disgusting. You love Father so much more than Mother. She cares for you and does all she can to make you a good Noble, but when do you ever give her a smile like that?
The smile vanished, and Velka spent the next few minutes trying to conjure all the love she could for her mother.
From across the landing pad, Father locked eyes with Velka and smiled. Too frightened to smile back, she simply waved, and instantly the Serpent returned with its contradictory attack: He’s been gone for over a year, and all he gets is a wave?
Her father and his four-person crew would spend the next 30 days in quarantine along with the contents of their ship—standard procedure to prevent diseases from spreading between planets. But Velka didn’t mind the wait because every day of that month, they talked over the computer.
Ships could move faster than light between worlds, but communication signals could not. (This meant that the fastest way to communicate was—as it had been for most of history—a human being carrying a message.) Because of this, Velka hadn’t been able to talk to her father in nearly a year.
But now he was back, and he spent hours on the video call, telling her everything about his travels among the stars delivering much-needed supplies. During their conversations, Velka worried about upsetting her mother who considered Father a bad influence. She was also aware that every moment spent with him was a moment away from her studies which meant a greater chance of failure, but those studies were a torment of doubts and fear, so with effort, she was able to ignore these thoughts. She expected him notice her anxiousness, but he never did.
“One of the planets we visited was tidally locked,” he said. “That means the same side always faces the sun. One side is always day. The other is always night.”
“How do they sleep on the day side?” Velka asked, her face inches from the screen.
“Sleeping isn’t the problem. The problem is that with all the sunlight, one side is hot enough to boil you while the other would freeze you solid. The cities are built along the divide in permanent twilight.”
Behind him, two of his crew reclined on the couch of their quarantine bunker. What few pieces she caught of their conversation, Velka knew to be inappropriate and dirty. She tried ignoring them, but that only made her hear them more clearly.
Father continued, “The gravity was a lot stronger than Ekath’s. When we first got there, we could hardly move, but they had some pills that helped us.”
Freighter captains like her father transported a bit of everything between planets—news and entertainment, supplies and equipment, all kinds of local goods. When they left, they would take requests from groups and individuals. Without faster-than-light communication, people had to order products whenever a freighter was visiting, then wait for that freighter’s next visit to receive their order, sometimes years later.
“Have you ever seen a neutron star?” asked Velka. She’d just learned about neutron stars from her tutor.
“Only once,” he said, “and believe me, I never want to go back. We were dropping supplies at this small research station, but the star’s radiation was so violent that the station was buried hundreds of miles beneath the surface of a planet. To even get close we had to…”
As he spoke, Velka imagined herself with him on the freighter. As he described capturing a comet and flying behind it as a radiation shield, she imagined being at the controls. But the Serpent reminded her that these were selfish fantasies. She had never left Ekath, and she never would.
After their quarantine, Father stayed just long enough to drop off his cargo, and restock his ship—medicine, desperately needed on a nearby world. Discounting their conversations by computer, he and Velka spent less than an hour physically together.
She wanted to grab him and refuse to let him go, to tell him it wasn’t fair, that she wanted more time. But wouldn’t that be selfish? What if she delayed him and people died because he hadn’t delivered their medicine in time? Just the thought of that filled her with such guilt it was almost crushing.
Two weeks after Father left, Velka was in a session with a tutor when her mother entered the room. Her eyes were red but only slightly, like she’d been crying but had waited until she had recovered before seeing Velka.
“Your father is dead. I’m so sorry.”
The room was silent.
“It happened two days after he left,” Mother continued. “Malfunction in the engine. Their communications array sent a signal automatically, but it took twelve days for the signal to reach us at light speed.” She glanced at her feet then opened her mouth like she was going to say something, but nothing came out. Finally, she said, “Why don’t you take the day off.” She left the room without looking back.
Velka looked to her tutor who seemed too terrified of saying the wrong thing to speak, but nothing he could say could hurt her more than seeing her mother walk away as if telling her had been no more than an obligation.
You should have begged him to stay, the Serpent said. If you had, he would still be alive.
Four years later
Velka lifted her machete and struck the flint as she’d been taught, as she’d done so many times in practice. A few faint sparks showered her pile of wood and dead moss, but the fire would not light.
She huddled beneath a rock overhang beside a wall of snow she’d built to shield herself from the chilling wind. The ground of her makeshift camp had been cleared of snow which would have melted from her body heat and dampened her clothes. She wore a half-dozen layers of jackets and clothing, but the cold was still unbearable.
If you died out here, you’d deserve it, the Serpent said. You’ll never be a good Noble, no matter how hard you work. You know it, and she knows it.
The emotions hardly even registered on Velka’s face anymore. She was practiced now at acting however she needed to, no matter what she felt inside. That was part of politics, of forging the relationships she’d need as a Noble. But her mother saw right through her mask.
Velka struck the flint again and again. Please. She didn’t know who she was praying to. Mother had said that only the desperate and lazy hoped in a god, that the only real way to accomplish something way by taking action.
The fourteen-year-old girl huddled around what she hoped would soon be her fire. She was so cold.
It had started with the speech. Her first address to her mother’s subjects. She had thought she would be able to control her emotions as she always did, but one misspoken word was all it had taken. Her mask had cracked. She hadn’t even been able to finish the speech.
To make up for the embarrassment, her mother had suggested a night on the ice—an Ekath tradition to prove her skills. It would have shown the whole planet just how strong Velka was. Of course, hardly anyone younger than eighteen ever spent a night on the ice, but Nobles aren’t like other people, as her mother had taught her. She had acted as if it were Velka’s decision. But in reality, she knew she had no choice.
Not even this could prove you worthy, the Serpent said.
Her hands twitched. She struck the flint again and again and…
She screamed and dropped the flint and machete, clutching her bleeding hand.
In the middle of the fire pit lay part of her index finger.
You’re going to die here, the Serpent said. You worthless piece of garbage, you’re going to die.
Velka clutched the wound, applying pressure to try to stop the bleeding. Then, with her uninjured hand, she dug through the pockets of her many coats until she found the transmitter.
She spoke into the device: “Send emergency signal.” She waited, but the machine didn’t react to her command. She repeated, “Send emergency signal.” She tapped the screen, but nothing happened. “Can you hear me? Send emergency signal.”
You broke it.
Velka examined the transmitter. She didn’t see any damage.
Maybe Mother sabotaged it, the Serpent said. A good way to get rid of a daughter as disappointing as you.
Velka tried to ignore the words.
You hate her, the Serpent said. Your own mother and you hate her.
She closed her eyes, trying to force the thoughts out, but they only grew.
You hate her, and your final act is to deprive her of her only child all because you can’t even light a fire.
Her head was spinning. Sometimes when the doubts came, she would imagine hiding somewhere isolated and quiet. Well, she was alone now, but the inside of her mind was anything but silent.
She tried to remember her training. What did she do in the event of an injury? Two-dozen thoughts flooded her brain, but any time she tried to focus on one, the others drowned it out. Everything felt foggy and impenetrable.
In the event of an injury…
There was nothing. Suddenly her mind was empty, a hollow shell containing nothing but the Serpent, towering over and mocking that which was once her soul.
An impulse appeared to take the machete and drive it into someone’s head. It didn’t matter who. An impulse to kill as Velka had been killed, to avenge her anger.
In response, a tidal wave of self-hatred—disgust that such an image should enter her mind—tried to smother the violent thought, but it only grew. She wanted it gone. Wanted to take the machete and cleave her own brain in two, then find the thought and rip it out of her head.
Velka told herself that the violent thought was from the Serpent, not from her. She told it to herself again and again, but the Serpent laughed.
It twisted itself around her and whispered, but I am you. All of you. Everything else is a lie. There is nothing in you but me.
Velka woke in a hospital bed. She tried to move but her body ached.
“Velka!” Mother shot up from the chair beside the bed. For a moment, the middle-aged woman had an expression of relief, which quickly returned to its standard stoicism. No doubt she was relieved that her heir was still alive. An idiot successor was better than none at all.
“How…” It was all Velka could say.
“I had people monitoring you just in case. Good thing too since the transmitter broke. I told you to keep it wrapped up so the components wouldn’t freeze.”
Velka frowned. She’d forgotten that part amid all the instructions.
“S-sorry,” she choked out. “I’m sorry.”
Her mother grimaced. “Unfortunately, there’s more. It was too late to reattach your finger.”
Velka’s hand was bandaged, but she could clearly see that the first joint of her index finger was gone. Her eyes widened and she looked at her mother, desperately wanting to keep apologizing, yet hoping for pity.
“Maybe it’s not a bad thing,” Mother said. “They’ll say you lost a finger for the good of the people.” She brushed grey hairs from her hardened face. “And when you try again next year, you might succeed.”
Even as Velka’s mind boiled with guilt and fear, her heart grew as cold and dead as Ekath’s ice sheets.
Five years later
The blonde woman’s fingers breezed across the piano.
In the corner stood another young woman, nineteen years old. Her distinctively-curled hair had been meticulously straightened, and she wore clothes of moderate luxury that would have shamed her mother. Her posture was normally flawless, but here she slouched, trying to appear shorter, and she wore gloves to hide her prosthetic finger. Her expression was a practiced calm that contrasted with the torrents of emotions inside.
In the distance, a man mixed sulfuric-smelling chemicals. The woman at the piano continued playing, providing a haunting backdrop to the chemist’s work.
“What song is that?” Velka asked.
The woman turned, and if Velka hadn’t been so focused on remaining calm, she would have fallen over.
The woman had no eyes.
The pianist faced her for several moments before resuming playing. Velka remained silent until the chemist finally finished his work and handed her a vial containing a few drops of red liquid.
“The vial looks like glass, but it is not,” the chemist said in an accent Velka didn’t recognize. “It is flammable and will quickly burn to ashes. This is how you must dispose of any evidence.”
“How long will it take to work?” Velka asked.
“Less than an hour.”
She reached for the vial, but the chemist pulled it away.
“If you get caught, the courts will ask you to testify against me. You must tell them nothing.”
She frowned. “You said it was undetectable.”
“The compound will not fail, but you might.” He stared, as if testing whether her mask would break. “Do you know what makes Ekath unique?” he asked. “People think we are all stoics—as hard and cold as the ice that covers our planet. And perhaps we are. But I believe that more than this we are a people of family. The cold outside drives us to the warmth of our hearths. Drives us together.”
She knew this firsthand. It was why her mother hadn’t divorced Dad when he’d left to join a freighter, though she’d done her best to limit his influence on Velka. It was why the crowd had seemed so angry the day her father returned—they hated him for daring to have goals and ambitions beyond their tiny planet.
The chemist said: “On Ekath, family is everything. Family is what keeps away starvation.” He eyed her as if trying to determine whether she’d guessed where he was going. She had. He continued, “And that is why matricide is our greatest crime.”
Velka had thought she was being clever, traveling beyond her family’s dominion into the Glacier Sea. She’d thought the people wouldn’t recognize her here.
“Do you know much about the Noble Families on the mainland?” he asked. “I have heard pieces here and there. For instance, did you know that Noblewoman Jai will soon be naming her successor—not that anyone expects her to pass away anytime soon, but one never knows, and it is good to be prepared.
“Now, everyone expects Jai’s daughter, Velka, to be the successor. The only child. Popular enough with the masses. Apparently quite clever. The people expect Jai to choose Velka. This is so certain that if Jai died before naming a successor, the title would pass to Velka automatically.”
He leaned closer. “But right now, something tells me that there is more to the situation than is obvious from the outside. Perhaps the daughter will not be the successor after all. Noblewoman Jai does have siblings. It is unusual for a brother to be chosen over a child, but it is not unheard of.”
If he’s figured it out, other people will, too, the Serpent whispered. What if you’re caught? If Mother was disappointed in you before, imagine how she’ll feel when she learns you tried to kill her.
“I am not here to stop you,” the chemist said, “but I want to warn you in case your resolve fails, in case you find the deed more difficult than you expect—if they catch you, do not mention my name. Not even you, with all the power you hold in the mainland, can touch me out here on the Glacier Sea. And if you try, I will not be merciful.”
He held out the vial, and Velka took it.
She said, “I won’t fail.”
It’s not going to work, the Serpent whispered. You’ll get caught. And after that, What kind of person does this?
But fear and guilt could no longer stop her. Her fear had laid out this track years before, and now it was not enough to derail the very thing it had set into motion.
Velka clutched the vial, bracing herself against the wind that swept over the deck of the ice cutter that would take her back to the mainland, to the naming ceremony.
Velka had done everything her mother had asked. Starved herself, endured the frigid cold. She had felt her mother’s disapproval time and time again, yet she still tried to prove herself worthy. The Serpent had told her she wasn’t good enough, had demanded a certainty she never possessed; yet she followed it, unswervingly and unceasingly.
And yet when it came time to choose a successor—just as the chemist had guessed—her mother had chosen not her daughter but her brother, Velka’s uncle.
That was too far.
Who would have chosen you? You blame your mother for your own failures.
She didn’t command the Serpent (as she often did) to be silent. It never listened anyway.
Velka didn’t care about getting her mother’s title or power. She hadn’t wanted power. All she’d ever wanted was her mother’s approval and for the Serpent to go away. The first was out of reach, but the second…
To Velka, the Serpent and her mother had become one. It was her mother’s voice that she heard from the nape of her neck, telling her exactly what she least wanted to hear. Her mother was the Serpent who had hollowed out Velka’s heart and ground her soul to powder.
To kill one was to kill the other.
And maybe when her mother was dead, there would be a drop left for Velka.
Velka sat in the dressing room. In a few hours, they would go onto the stage where Mother would announce the news to all Ekath. Their whole extended family would be together. In a final indignity, Velka would have to be present to watch her ultimate failure.
But the announcement wasn’t going to happen.
She took the vial from her pocket undoing the cloth she’d wrapped it in. The Serpent had warned her of the glass breaking, of poison droplets running down her body. She knew it wouldn’t break, but she’d cushioned it anyway rather than listen to the creature’s voice.
Her mother stepped in—right when she’d said she would, down to the minute.
“I bought you something,” Velka said, opening a drawer and producing a bottle of wine.
The Noblewoman frowned. “What’ve I told you about such luxuries?”
“You also told me that a Noble accepts a gift graciously.” Velka produced two glasses then stared at Mother.
“I suppose it is a big day,” the Noblewoman said.
Velka smiled and turned so that her body blocked her mother’s view of the glasses. She removed the cap from the vial.
You’re a murderer.
Her hand didn’t even twitch. She poured the poison into her mother’s drink, then slipped the vial into her pocket. She handed Mother the glass.
“To your successor,” Velka said and clanked their glasses together. Velka drank hers, but her mother remained still. “You don’t like it?” she asked.
“I’ll drink in a moment.” The noblewoman appeared to be considering something.
Velka turned away, pretending to examine the objects on the dresser. She forced her voice to remain steady: “Well, don’t take too long. I have to finish getting ready.”
Suddenly, Velka felt a hand on her back, then to her shock, her mother kissed her on the cheek. The girl’s eyes widened, and still facing away, she reflexively brushed where her mother’s lips had met her skin.
“I know this hasn’t been easy for you,” Mother said.
Suddenly, Velka whipped around. The poisoned wine was almost at her mother’s lips.
She stopped, eyeing Velka who took away the glass, placing it on the counter.
“Your poorest subjects can’t afford wine, so neither can we,” Velka said. “What kind of daughter would I be if made you violate your principles on such an important day.”
Her mother smiled and turned to leave.
Before she could go, however, Velka said, “I’m sorry for disappointing you.”
When her mother turned, for just a moment Velka saw the affection she’d always longed for.
“Daughter,” she said, “when did I ever say I was disappointed?”
She left the room, and Velka was alone in a world that had flipped onto its head. She tried to hold herself together, but the sobbing came anyway, and she sank to the floor.
When did I ever say I was disappointed?
In every look, Velka protested. I saw it in your face every single time you looked at me.
But had her mother ever actually said it?
Suddenly, an alternate history presented itself: Maybe that wasn’t disappointment on her mother’s face. Maybe all Velka had seen was what the Serpent had told her was there.
She remembered her night on the ice. She’d felt like her mother had forced her to go, but really Velka had practically begged for a way to make up for her failure. It was what the Serpent had demanded, weighing her with guilt until she could do nothing else but what it said.
Velka held the glass of poisoned wine. Her mother had told her there was no afterlife, despite what lesser people believed. Now, with Velka’s world changing so quickly, she wondered if she still thought the same. If there was no afterlife, then she knew one way to kill the Serpent. But no. Despite her present suffering, she wanted to live.
She touched her cheek again.
Finally, she emptied the glass into the sink, burned the vial, and prepared for the ceremony.
The next day, Velka packed a suitcase. She was surprised at how little she wanted to bring along. She set it down by the door of Mother’s room and knocked. The older woman opened the door, her eyes widening when she saw the suitcase.
“I’m leaving,” Velka said. “I want to be a freighter captain.” Velka was close to tears. She expected her mother to be angry, but she didn’t appear to be. For a moment, she almost looked sad.
When Mother finally spoke, she said, “Are you certain?”
“I’m not certain of anything.” Velka dipped her head. “Do you think they’ll hate me the way they did Father?”
“I won’t tell them,” Mother said.
Velka’s eyes shot up.
Her mother continued, “They’ll notice your gone, but I’ll tell them I’ve sent you away on an assignment, that you’re coming back.”
“Protecting your reputation?”
For a moment, she looked offended. “I’m protecting yours.”
Velka glanced away again and said, “I don’t know if I’m coming back. I’m praying not to.”
“Prayer is for the weak. I think you will.” And for the second time in two days, Mother leaned forward and kissed her cheek. “Goodbye.”
The bedroom door was closed before Velka could even react.
She walked to the spaceport, disguised as she had been on her trip to the Glacier Sea. The Serpent asked whether she was sure she was making the right decision. Before, she would have tried to argue with it, to convince herself that she was doing the right thing, but that would have only made the Serpent stronger. Now she just whispered, “I don’t know.”
She didn’t know who she was praying to, but still said, “Please take this burden away.”
Velka felt glorious weakness. It was enough to make her wonder whether anyone was truly strong.