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Fiction: "Chrysalis" by Becky Chambers

Stocking Stuffer 2014I didn’t take it seriously when she told me. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I asked, over mac and cheese and broccoli. It was the only way I could get her to eat vegetables — slathered in sauce until the green was a distant concern. 

“I want to go to space,” she said. 

“A pilot,” I said. “Cool. You know, your great-aunt was a pilot. She took tourists up and down.”

“No,” she said. “I want to be an Explorer.”

I stopped chewing for a moment. “Do you understand what that means?” I asked. Noncommittal. Unfussed.

She looked at me, that same wise stare she had first greeted me with as they cleaned blood and fluid from her hair. “Yes,” she said.

I ate my broccoli. “That’s not for girls like you,” I said. “Explorers are people who don’t have families, or who were born with different bodies than you and me.” I thought the terms at-risk and impaired might go over her head, but then, I always underestimated her. 

Hours later, she came to me, tablet in hand. “You’re wrong,” she said, pointing to a glowing FAQ. “Anyone can sign up. I can go.”

* * *

For years, I tried. I bookmarked articles on dinosaurs and volcanoes and deep sea fish. I presented educational sims as a treat, and we’d spend Saturdays exploring biomes together, brains full of lemurs and kudzu, toes dug into the living room carpet. She always emerged laughing and full of questions, and for a few hours or so, my fear subsided. 

I’d check the browser history after she went to bed. Comets. Star clusters. Black holes. Okay, not rainforests, I’d think, grasping in the dark. Deserts, maybe. Let’s try deserts.

Whenever we rode the fast rail, I’d point out things on the ground. “Look at those trees,” I’d say. “Look at that river.” Look at anything, I thought, but the sky.

* * *

She came to me in tears when she bled for the first ― and last ― time. “It means I’m late,” she sobbed. “I’m late.”

I didn’t understand. “Thirteen is entirely normal ― ”

“I’m changing, Mom. They might not take me. It’s — it’s so much harder after — after — “

I shut my eyes, blocking out her words, blocking out everything. Puberty. That’s what she was getting at. 


I didn’t look at her.

“Mom, please let me talk to a recruiter. Please. Just talk. I won’t ― we’ll make decisions together, okay? Just let me at least find out.” 

Maybe she’s already too late, I thought. They might turn her down. 

But I knew, as we cried together, that they wouldn’t. 

* * *

I hated meeting with the doctors, week after month after year. Hated their kind faces, their desk plants, their marble offices. Hated words like metabolism and restructuring and progress. Hated knowing that when I went to visit her in the pristine dormitory, they’d been the ones pumping new genes into her crusting skin.

“I look so strange,” my daughter said, staring uneasily into a mirror, touching her scabbed cheeks. I’d brought her candy, but she was too sick to eat it. Metabolism, she said. 

“You’ll always be beautiful to me,” I said. Sometimes mothers have to lie.

* * *

The woman who boarded the ship looked nothing like the girl I remembered. A silver carapace sheathed her hairless body, too thick for radiation to penetrate. Her breaths were slow, and few ― she didn’t need as much oxygen as me. Her hollow bones would lose little density out there, and meals would be a monthly occurrence. She was something beyond human, engineered for the long dark between worlds.

“Are you scared?” I asked, holding her hand in the hours before.

She could no longer cry, but she would have. There were things I knew better than the doctors. “Yes,” she said. “God, yes.” She put her arms around me, the segments at her joints scraping like leaves. “I want to take you with me.”

I held her, tight as my soft body would allow. “I’m always with you,” I said.

As her ship disappeared from view, I imagined her in that moment. I imagined her eyes — the one thing that still looked the same — taking in the naked sky she’d always longed for. I imagined the stars looking back into that face, so eager, so ready. How could you not welcome someone that sincere? How could you not love her? 

Beautiful. Yes, beautiful. I meant it this time. I had always meant it.


Becky Chambers writes science fiction, essays, and anything she’s hired for. Her debut novel, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, is available now in ebook and paperback. Like most internet people, she has a website.

"Chrysalis" was first published in Jurassic London's Stocking Stuffer 2014.