FICTION


From Far Away, With Love

By Carol Scheina in Issue Eight, March 2023

Marcus laughed when Rella asked him to take a rokri fish with him to Station 12. “Rokri fish? Isn’t that what teens use to send love letters when their parents won’t let them use the comms?”

“Yeah, but comms are expensive, and rokri are cheap.” Rella was always the practical one when it came to money.

Roki fish were unique in having a symbiotic digestive system. When two rokri bonded, whatever one ate, the other digested, and that connection lasted even across the immense span of space. As Rella explained, that meant Marcus could scribble short notes on specially coated paper, feed them to his rokri, and even though their work stations would be lightyears apart Rella’s fish would harmlessly digest the paper out.

Marcus couldn’t stop chuckling over the digestion part.

Rella nudged him to stop laughing—“Come on, it’s not that funny!”—as the pet store clerk rang them up for two fish, which came in separate dura-plast containers filled with water and a few drops of something from a blue bottle that the store clerk said would make the liquid the right pH-balance.

Before he left, Rella made sure Marcus packed his fish carefully in his duffel bag, ensuring nothing would leak, and gave him a few long kisses, for luck. He joked, but she could see the bright tears hidden behind his eyes as they said goodbye.

#

Their apartment on Station 4 was far too quiet without Marcus. Rella set up her rokri fish on a table in the kitchen and checked several times a day for any messages, even though she knew one wouldn’t arrive for weeks. Not until Marcus reached Station 12.

“You look like a Maisy,” Rella told the fish, sprinkling dried bugs into the water. Maisy waited for the treats to sink to the pebbly bottom before gobbling them up.

The fish were a favorite for horror filmmakers, with its fins and tail branching out into tentacles, a mouth like a bristled vacuum, and eyes softened by a white film that made it look somewhat dead. The gray bodies always looked terrifying on the screen as they swam toward unsuspecting swimmers.

In reality, the rokri fish were small bottom feeders, usually growing to about the size of a hand. Their digestive abilities were useful for teens who had been banned from their parent’s comms. Or for two cash-strapped lovers living lightyears apart.

Rella thought Maisy actually was kind of cute.

Marcus’s first rokri note arrived right when Rella would’ve expected him to arrive on Station 12, three weeks after his departure. Typical for Marcus, he teased her about the fish. “If I send kisses, are you going to accept them when they come out of the fish’s butt?”

Rella wrote back, “Send kisses? What are you doing with your rokri over there?”

“Well, there’s not a lot of entertainment out here,” he quipped back.

The messages were short and sweet, for there was only so much paper you could feed a rokri at one time. They quickly settled into a schedule, with him sending a note before his shift started. She’d write back so there was a note waiting for him when he returned.

Only when they could pay for comm time did she see the longing in his eyes. “I miss you, babe,” he said.

Words built up in her throat. She missed him too, but she couldn’t tell him to come back early. They’d gone through the same discussions so many times before. Just two years apart. Promotional opportunities. A better future.

She also didn’t want to talk about the words she hid further down. Like how long-distance relationships didn’t always work. What if he found someone else?

Then she’d see his dark eyes wavering on the screen, and it wasn’t just the bad connection. Their cheap comm cameras were often finicky, focusing and unfocusing when it came to liquid, especially when small drops formed in the eyes.

She knew her own eyes were wavering for him.

They pressed their hands to the same spot on the screen until it froze and asked her to please enter more credits.

He’d send her a rokri message right after. “You look gorgeous. And my words sound so much sexier when coming from a rokri, don’t they?”

Rella laughed and wiped her eyes.

#

Rella kept her eye on her rokri when Marcus didn’t send her a note in the morning. It wasn’t like him to forget.

“Things must be busy on Station 12, huh, Maisy?”

The fish’s tentacles drifted through the bluish water.

She hesitated to send a note without hearing from Marcus first. At first, she thought it must’ve been a station emergency sending him scrambling and working overtime. He didn’t need dumb rokri notes if he was busy saving the day.

As one day stretched into two, she began to read over Marcus’s last messages to her, wondering if there was a hidden meaning somewhere. Maybe he was coming home early? No, that was a silly hope. He still had more than a year to go. She wrote several notes to feed to Maisy, but then hesitated, feeling the stir of something wrong.

She checked her credits record, just in case she got paid early and could summon him on the comm. No luck.

The first reports about Station 12 trickled in over the news later that day: Explosion. Massive damage. No survivors. Rella sat in shock as her mind took in the words and tried to weave something that made sense out of them.

She looked to Maisy, still swimming serenely in the dura-plast container. Rella didn’t know everything about rokri fish, but she knew the fish bonded for life. One half of a bonded pair couldn’t survive without another. If Marcus’s fish had died, then Maisy wouldn’t be eating bugs off the tank’s bottom.

“We need to wait just a little longer,” she muttered to the fish. There would be more news coming. An explanation that somehow, Marcus and his rokri fish had survived. For as long as Maisy was still fine, there was hope.

She dropped a handful of treats into the tank, and Maisy’s brush-mouth vacuumed them up.

Formal notification of Marcus’s death arrived in Rella’s mail several days later. Each breath hurt, as though her chest had dried up of all life, and she couldn’t see anything clearly through the wavering of tears.

The worst moments were when she put her hand on the comm screen, knowing Marcus would never appear on the other end. There was so much she wanted to tell him.

Only later, after re-reading the death notice, did she notice the statement that no personal effects were recovered. She looked to Maisy.

“Is your mate alive?”

Rella didn’t dare voice the hope that if a fish in a dura-plast container could survive, then perhaps Marcus could’ve survived as well. She needed to know how Maisy was still swimming as though nothing had happened.

She took the fish to the vet, a short, spectacled man who hmmmm’d quite a bit as he examined the rokri, then pronounced that a bit of paper was stuck inside the fish.

“I can extract it. Though it seems that the paper has put the fish in a suspended state,” he said.

“What does that mean?”

“Well, the fish isn’t getting any nutrients from its bonded mate.”

Rella swallowed hard at this news. Marcus’s fish was dead. That meant Marcus…

The lost hope tasted bitter and left her knees trembling. She sank into a chair.

The vet continued as though he hadn’t noticed. “It looks like the paper has fooled the rokri’s system into behaving as if the mate is still alive and sending nutrients. You can feed the fish a specialized diet that won’t interfere with the paper, and it should be able to live a relatively normal life, maybe 3 years, or until the paper finally breaks down. Or I can extract the paper, but the rokri will most certainly die.”

Rella’s first thought was to immediately ask him to remove the message, but then she stopped. Those were Marcus’s last words. What if they had been written in fear or pain? Worse, what if she hated what he said? Those would be the words she’d forever associate with him.

Maisy swam contentedly, unaware of her life or death being decided. Rella didn’t like the thought of killing a creature. On the other hand, if she didn’t kill Maisy, would she lose the letter?

“I’m going to need time to think.”

At home, Rella imagined what Marcus’s last message would say. A joke. A teasing little statement. Like, “How long have you been waiting for the zombie fish to give you my love?”

She pictured him writing it, feeding it to his rokri fish, smiling as his mind filled with thoughts of her.

She knew one thing for sure: when Marcus had slipped his note into his rokri, he was breathing, his heart beating. The world was still a world in which his skin was warm and his mouth could smile.

Once she read that note, that would be it. She would never receive another message from him again. As long as the message was still in Maisy, a part of Marcus was still alive, in a way.

The rokri’s tentacles brushed up against the tank walls, and Rella put her hand against the dura-plast, right where the tail rested.

“I’ll wait just a little longer,” she told the fish.

For now, the universe would still be place where she’d be waiting for a message from her love.

© 2023 Carol Scheina


Carol Scheina

Carol Scheina is a deaf speculative author whose stories have appeared in publications such as Flash Fiction Online, Escape Pod, Cossmass Infinities, and more. You can find more of her work at carolscheina.wordpress.com.


Fiction by Carol Scheina
  • From Far Away, With Love