You shed your skin too slowly for me to detect, like a tree growing, like the tide going out. I could not say when the woman that I knew came to an end, nor when you grew in her place. Nor could I say whether I love you more than her, or less. Some part of her lives on in you, I suppose, just as some part of you was always in her, a seed waiting to be nourished. You changed, as we all do, and I would not have stopped you if I could. It was hard, though. You were so beautiful.
It was not until several months after you departed that I found myself before the beast. You left me here, on this cold world, in this tiny beachside community. You left me here and in your absence I became someone new, someone who walked alone along midnight beaches. I worked so hard to reach this place, this outpost, not understanding until too late that I would be left here alone. Looking back, of course, the signs were all there. You were distant, silent, your eyes upon the stars. My own gaze was focused downwards, upon my own projects. Perhaps you did not change so slowly after all; perhaps it was merely that my back was turned.
The beach was long and cold, a strip of dark sand between dunes and roiling water. I walked for a long time before I came across it. It could almost have been Earth. It was dark that night, the stars that took you hidden behind clouds. I was pinned in place by the sight of the thing, the great dead beast upon the shore. I stood there for a long time, less than an arm’s length from his bulk. He was black against the deeper blackness of the sky, stinking of salt and dirt and copper. The ocean’s warmth surged and receded gently over my feet, but I paid it no mind. For that long moment, he was the whole of my world. I almost took a step backwards, to take in his fullness, but I did not. I wanted to feel his hugeness, to be lost inside it.
I thought about you while I stood there. I’d been thinking about you ever since you departed, of course, but I’d left you behind somewhere in my long walk. Stopping before the beast gave my memories time to catch me up. I had always understood that you valued your work over me, and accepted it. It was simply part of who we were. Your contempt towards my own work was more difficult to reconcile. The smallness of it all, the precision, seemed somehow amusing to you. You were born to chart the stars, you said, to soar between worlds and make the universe your own. You looked down on me and my passion, on the study and classification of a single planet’s life. You found such beauty in those chilly expanses between worlds, in the ponderous arcs of comets and planetoids and gravitational fields. It was the size you found so compelling, I think, the inhuman scope of it all. Standing there in the dark with the great beast looming above me, my work did not feel small at all. Even in death, the beast was the size of the world, and he was beautiful.
I’d heard the reports, of course, the tales of huge creatures in the depths. I had more work than I could handle cataloguing the insect life of the northern forests, and paid the stories little attention. Manned undersea missions were still years away, and none had yet laid eyes on the giants beneath the waves. Even now I could barely make him out, could see only his outline as the waves hissed and churned around us. That’s how it is, when something is so large and so close to us. We see only the outline, and the marking of its passage.
The beast was carved out, as though he had been savaged by something greater still, and as my eyes focused, I began to make out the deeper recesses of his body. White bones curved up from torn, rubbery meat, and the great arch of his spine towered above me. I wondered what it was that had gouged him open in such a fashion. Time, perhaps. I did not reach out to touch him. He would be dry and desiccated, or perhaps wet and foul, but either way the spell would be broken. He would be a real thing, a dead creature washed onto the beach. Diminished.
I saw you right before you left. I don’t know if you knew that I was there. You’d been fully integrated into your vessel, and I’d been warned that communication would be difficult, perhaps impossible. The sight of you was horrible at first. You were suspended in the fluid that would cushion you during interstellar flight, your skull laid open and laced with wiring and implants. Necessary, I knew, for you to pilot the artificial singularity that surrounded us, but terrifying to behold. Your body, the one that had lain alongside me so many times, bristled and thrummed with metal and plastics that extended out through slits in your porcelain skin. You turned your great eyes in my direction as I leaned against the glass and wept, but I feel sure that I was too small by then for you to perceive. I saw it, though. I want you to know that I saw the terrible beauty that you had ached so long to achieve. I think I even understood.
I sat down next to the beast, the water bubbling over my feet and backside. When I was young, the neighbour’s cat was hit by a car outside our house. She wasn’t quite dead yet when I found her, wandering home from school with a book in my hand, but she was very close to it. I sat with her while she died, petting her head and talking to her. When I ran out of words, I read to her from my book. I couldn’t tell if it helped or not, but I like to tell myself that it did. If not, I offered all that I could. The beast was already dead, of course, but still I sat beside him. Eventually I turned to face the waves, watching the smaller moon chase the greater across the sky. The beast remained silent beside me.
Eventually, I left him where he was. The walk back to my dormitory was long, but when I arrived a few of my colleagues were still awake. They were playing cards in the common room, and one of them asked what I had been doing to get so damp. I told her that I had been wading in the water, though I did not say why, and they did not enquire further. I had not planned to keep the beast a secret, but as I stood there I could see no purpose in speaking up. I had so little that was my own, and I decided that I would keep him for myself, that I would clutch the memory to me for as long as I could. I enjoyed lying in my bunk, thinking about him out there on the beach, knowing that nobody else could possibly be thinking about him at the same time. There was something frightening about the image of his vast form alone upon the roaring beach. It made me feel powerful inside my own head, and safe. I dreamed that he lay beside me in the dorm, his bulk filling the room, silent and exhilarating.
The next day I checked all the reports for mention of the beast, and found nothing. A day passed, and then another, and my beast remained my own. Eventually I made my excuses and went back to the beach, squinting against the noonday sun. There was no sign of him. I walked through the dunes, the wind buffeting me, searching for some sign that he had ever existed. There was nothing, not even the marks where he would have lain, though I suppose that the sea would have covered those eventually. In the end, the sea claims everything.
There was a message from you that night. You told me about the nebulae you were charting, about its strangeness and its beauty. It seemed so distant to me, and so small. All just numbers in the end, telemetry and radiation signatures. Numbers and charts and graphs. There was such excitement in your voice as you described them, though, and I leaned closer to the screen, trying to share what you felt. I was thinking about the beast as I listened, and I knew that even if I never felt what you did, it it would be okay. You were yourself, and I was me, and there was more than enough beauty in the universe.
Alex Hardison is a science fiction writer hailing from Sydney, Australia, where he shares an apartment with his girlfriend, cat, and unfinished novel. He has previously been published in The Wifiles, Voluted Tales and Flurb, and lives the sort of life that comes of reading too much Moorcock, Hemmingway and Le Guin at a formative age. He can be found tweeting at @euchrid and blogging about comics at Notes From Crime Alley (http://notesfromcrimealley.blogspot.com.au/).