She steps inside. The door hangs open for a fleeting moment, then crashes back into its frame, sealing off the hallway. Despite herself she is terrified.
She makes an unsuccessful effort to strip the fear out of her voice before it can leave her mouth.
“I’m the . . . lady Titania,” she says. A shaky start. She can’t help her nerves. She can’t even see what she’s talking to. Her eyes are reconfiguring themselves, adapting to the gloom, but so slowly.
“I have to apologize,” she says, “for your present . . . circumstances, but we’ve got to protect ourselves. We don’t intend to be your captors, though I know we are, in a way, at the moment.”
Not, she reflects, the best way to put it. Should have at least stopped before that last sentence.
Her eyes have nearly tuned to the dark room’s frequency. As the cage crawls into definition, she’s reminded of the most ancient history, when the first life crawled onto land. Now, three billion years later, that land is gone. There is nowhere to crawl.
Should have saved ourselves the trouble, she thinks. Should have stayed in the sea. Should have stopped before that last sentence. Should never have come in here. Should never have given Sila the nod for this crazy enterprise.
The last time Titania saw the cage it was empty. This is no longer the case. She sees bands of broken light in there, grappling with the splinters of shadows. She waits for a shape to coalesce, but stops waiting when it dawns on her that this will never happen. There is no form here, no overriding physiognomy. At least not one she can comprehend.
This is another kind of being entirely.
She decides the time has come to explain herself, to detail the reasons she allowed any of this to happen.
She begins with, “We badly need your help,” and before she can even finish this sentence a shriek, high and thin, flies from the cage and juliennes the air.
Titania’s courage crumples.
This, she thinks, is my cue to leave. She knows the reinforced lattice is strong – it was Sila’s design, after all – but now, confronted with what it was built to contain, she’s not so sure it’s up to the task.
It seems to her that a caged goddess can’t possibly stay caged for long.
Back in the hallway Titania is breathing hard. With considerable effort she calms herself down.
Sila leans against the wall with a frankly infuriating insouciance. She seems to expect her to say something. Titania shakes her head, but Sila, who never quite got the hang of nonverbal communication, says, “See? I wasn’t kidding, was I? I found it.”
“Yes, Sila. Yes. You found her.”
A man approaches from around the corner. He is tall and thin, but far from lanky. His skin, tightened to the point of near-translucency, strains to contain cords of thickened musculature. Stick a needle in this guy, and he might just explode.
She can tell this is one of Sila’s constructors, and not just from his freakish physique. A deep bagginess underscores each of his eyes.
She wonders how many months it has been since this man last slept.
She wonders, also, if she has seen him before. If she has, she can’t remember what his name is, or if he even has one. Not all of them do.
The man touches a palm to his forehead and says, “Lady Titania. Officer Sila.”
Sila says, “You’re a little early.”
“I heard a scream. I hurried over.”
Titania raises an eyebrow. Sila ignores this and says, “Go ahead. Just touch the lattice and it’ll slide back.”
Once the man has stepped into the room she adds, as though by way of explanation, “I read up about it. It used to be traditional to make sacrifices.”
Titania hears a shriek, and she cannot be sure whether it’s the man or the goddess.
Sila says, “This is the fourth time I’ve fed it. I’m still not quite sure how it eats. It never leaves a trace. Not a scrap of clothing, not a drop of blood.”
Titania, who is getting dizzy, says, “Let’s get out of here for a while.”
The men, with their literalist lingo, talk not of sea and sky, but of “the heavy water” and “the light water.” They may, without knowing it, be anticipating the future. For as long as Titania can remember, the sea and sky have flowed into and out of each other. Another few years and that miscibility could well progress to unity.
Today, more than ever, the horizon looks more implied than real, a faint slash that separates something dark from something slightly darker. You’d never see it if you didn’t already know it was there.
Everywhere distinctions are weakening. Forms are eroding and collapsing. Not even the goddess was immune to the decay. She thinks, again, of that flickering collection of caged non-shapes. Not what she’d imagined, certainly not what she’d hoped for.
Sila says, “You’ve been staring out that porthole for almost half an hour.”
Titania rolls over, rests her head in the crook of an elbow. She peers up at Sila, who sits with a pillow between her back and the headboard, a sheaf of papers fanned across her lap.
“I’m trying to figure out what to do, Sila. It’s not easy.”
“Why not? We have it.”
“I was expecting we’d have some way to communicate.”
Sila says, “I don’t see how that’s important. It would be good to have some cooperation, that’s true, but the fact is, we have it. It’s not the other way around. We have an advantage there.”
“This isn’t some power struggle, Sila. She’s a goddess.”
“I wish you’d stop calling it that.”
Titania rolls over again and closes her eyes. She wonders how two people can be so close yet fail to understand each other so completely. She and Sila are nearly touching. There is no clothing between them. Sila’s skin is so familiar to her that it might as well be her own, but of course it isn’t.
Atoms decay and cells divide. It is easier, she thinks, to take a thing apart than to put it together again. Heavy and light water. She and Sila are two entities, not one.
On deck Titania breathes the light water, which is damp and thick and redolent of brine. She gets dizzy if she spends too much time up here. Sila has long discouraged her from coming up. “Let my constructors do that for you,” she always says. “That’s what they’re for.”
Yes, the constructors, with their modified Y chromosomes, their ability to function without sleep, their supercharged musculature, their hardened lungs, their . . . minimal personalities.
Once she admitted to Sila that they creep her out.
“Well, that’s irrelevant,” Sila said. “They give us a chance at survival. You know we didn’t have any use for the men before, and now look what they can do. We’re alone on a ship, Titania, in the midst of an ocean that may well have engulfed the entire planet by now. We’re not in a great situation. If we want to survive, we’ve got to be ruthless.”
Hence the capture of the goddess. The last goddess.
The wind blows. Titania hugs herself, hooking her palms into her armpits. She watches the water, ripples and waves spurting out of its turbulent surface only to be pulled back underneath.
She is not sure how long she’s been on deck when she hears the clunk of the hatch opening behind her.
Sila, hands on her hips, says, “What are you doing?”
A reasonable question, Titania thinks. I’m not sure myself.
“I wanted to collect my thoughts before talking to her again.”
“You shouldn’t be here. You know that. What if you’d passed out? What if the constructors had come up only to find you, the lady Titania, lying dead?”
“Bad for morale, I guess.”
Sila furrows her brow. “Well, morale doesn’t exactly apply to the constructors.”
“I know, Sila. I was trying to make a joke.”
“I don’t think this is the time.”
They watch each other.
Finally, Titania says, “I better go talk to her.”
“Again,” Sila says. Titania tries to ignore her smirk.
She steps inside, again. The door hangs open, again, for a fleeting moment, then, again, crashes back into its frame.
She is about as terrified as she was last time. Maybe a little more. Last time she was only terrified of the goddess. She’s still terrified of the goddess, but now she’s even more terrified of Sila.
She speaks into the darkness. “This is Titania. The lady Titania. I . . . you might remember me.”
There is no acknowledgement that she has been understood.
“I . . . my partner is a woman named Sila. And while I love and respect her, we have . . . different views on a few things.”
“We both want your help, but I see you as a goddess, and Sila sees you as a ruined thing. I want your cooperation, but she doesn’t think you need, or have, a choice. If I can’t figure out a way to communicate with you, she will destroy you. She’ll do it slowly, granted, and she’ll keep you fed with her constructors, but she’ll drain everything she can. She’ll do to you what she thinks she needs to do to you for us to survive.”
And she may even be right to do so, Titania thinks. We’re lost at sea. There is no land in sight, or even in existence. To the last humans, maybe the last goddess really is just a resource to exploit.
By now her eyes have adjusted. She sees the goddess’s physical form, or what remains of it. Those thrashing shadows.
There’s a flash, an explosion of light that seems to come from inside her head. It bypasses her eyes, sets the optic nerve itself ablaze.
A voice that is not a voice tells her, without speaking, that she’s worried over nothing. That she and Sila and the constructors and the goddess will all disintegrate, in the end, and the end is nearer than it has ever been, and this is all that matters.
For the first time in longer than she can remember, the lady Titania is at ease.