The Queen’s Skin

“I haven’t seen you before. How many times have you inhabited that skin?”

The girl looked up and slid her hood back to reveal the series of dark dots tattooed above the bridge of her nose, just above the fine lines of dark hair. “Seventeen, m’lady.” With that, she pulled the ivory fabric back up over her dark hair. The soft blue lights overhead danced over the fabric, like an oil slick on water.

Nicoletta looked out the window to the planet below, at the churning swirls of cloud obscuring the landmasses she knew to be there. Two years ago the storms had been frequent, but now they were unending, the planet below deluged. Her chief advisor assured her time and again that her people below had been working around the planet’s unforgiving weather for centuries. A tug at her ankle brought the queen’s attention back to her servant. “Have you been below?”

The girl didn’t look up from her work of winding and fastening the ribbon of the queen’s sandals. “I was remade below. We all are.”

Nicoletta scowled. She had no recollection of being remade below. Her awakening had happened on the ship, in her own throne room and already been dressed for her presentation. Her first memory was shivering as though cold and sweating as though in terror. She had stepped into the hall with her advisor declaring her to the people — Queen Nicoletta, Eighty-Third of Her Skin! — understanding herself immediately, without anyone having to explain her identity. And yet, she couldn’t conjure a single memory from her previous skin, no thought that belonged to another version of herself. “Do you remember your sixteenth skin?”

“I — ”

“Are you not done yet?” Ettore entered into the room as if carried on the air, his dark robes swept high in the current of his wake. His bushy grey eyebrows nearly obscured the open circles tattooed above them. “We have a strict schedule for the queen’s presentation.”

The girl nodded, ducking her head. “Of course, sir.” She made much quicker work of Nicoletta’s second sandal, then carefully arranged the queen’s skirts.

Nearly stepping on the girl to get to his tasks, Ettore wrapped a warm cloak around Nicoletta’s shoulders and secured it at her collar with the dark metal brooch that looked like a coiled serpent. The gold woven into the fabric gleamed under the warm lights, and it dispelled some of the constant chill of the station air.

“Ettore, that is your ninth skin, yes?”

He raised an eyebrow as he held out an arm for her. She took it as she had been taught, and followed him into the corridor. The ship was in a frenzy today, techs in scrubs scurrying one way, engineers in their burgundy uniforms going the other. “You can count, your majesty.”

“Don’t patronize me.” She stood straight and avoiding making eye contact with the techs she had known for years. The upcoming presentation left her stomach in knots and her skin crawling — even though Ettore seemed insistent that going below was a happy occasion. “Is all this activity because I’m going below today?”

“Yes. The tenth anniversary of your cloning is very important. This will be the first time that the commoners below will see their queen in the flesh.”

“Except they must have seen me lots of times,” she said, tapping her forehead between the brows to indicate the 83 four-pointed stars artfully arranged over her brow. “Why have I been remade so many more times than you? Than that common girl?”

“Lower your voice, your majesty.” He patted her shoulder as they stepped into the backup suite.

The tubes lining the wall were empty, the doors opened and waiting; only two techs managed the computing bay, neither of them people that Nicoletta recognized from her daily life on the station. “Why are we here?” she asked as she was guided into a glass cylinder with circuits running in parallel lines down along the inside surface. A tech rushed forward to pull output nodes from their storage space on the wall; he attached them to Nicoletta’s temples and at the nape of her neck without looking her in the eye. She spoke louder before he closed her in. “I’ve already done my monthly backup.”

“We must be cautious. Anything can happen planetside.” Ettore’s voice grew muffled as the cylinder closed around her and lit up, obscuring her vision of the room beyond. The whole process took about ten minutes. Upon release, she had to close her eyes against the phantom flashes of light. She trusted Ettore’s guidance, as she always had, as he took her to the transporter room for the first time.

“Step up here. Carefully,” Ettore said in a low voice as she stepped up onto the transporter dais.

Someone in the room cleared his throat. “Thank you, your majesty.”

Nicoletta opened her eyes at the address, her vision blurry at first as she focused on a man older than even Ettore. He had a hand over his heart, and his face was pinched as though in some pain. “Why?” But then the room blurred like water poured over a painting, the colors running together before reconstituting into a room nearly identical.

The transporter room below held twice as many people and Ettore moved with much more urgency as they stepped down. Nicoletta swallowed, trying to take in the halls around them as they trotted down the corridor. The compound below was dizzying in both it’s familiarity and newness, the rooms the same but the people so varied and crammed together. People here had many different types of tattoos, their indicators more elaborate, their differences starker. Nearly every color was represented on each person in some way, and she couldn’t catch her breath with the difference of it.

At the hub of six directions, they met a woman with fine wrinkles at the corners of her eyes and beautiful vines connecting the small flowers on her brow. She took Nicoletta’s vacant side without every looking away from the tablet in her hands. “We’re behind schedule. Stormbringer may be agitated.”

Ettore clicked his tongue. “She was chatting with one of the helpers. Surely it’ll be fine — we’ve been later.”

“We shouldn’t be lax with him. He initiated the attack in 610 over a scar.”

Nicoletta pulled her attention back to her advisor and the stranger he seemed to know so well. “Who is the Stormbringer? What attack occurred in 610?”

“Never mind.” Ettore directed her down a corridor that ended in an airlock.

Beyond the lock was the tube that would take her into the city — the first thing in the compound below that seemed familiar, if only by description. They had been preparing the visit for weeks, her flesh presentation an important part in boosting the morale during the rainy season. Before the lock opened, a flurry of strangers rushed into her space and took over to fix her hair, to set a garland of bright red flowers on her brow as a crown, to trail out the cloak so it dragged in a train behind her. She took a deep breath to steady herself.

The lock opened. Both the noise and the cold shocked her as the air hit her face and raised goosebumps on her bare arms. The rain beating down on the clear tube created an odd sort of drumming. Despite the storm thundering around them, the people of the city had flocked to look up at her. People stretched as far as she could see, winding in the crooked alleys between squat buildings.

When she stepped into the tube, the cheering of the crowd rose to overpower even the cacophony of the rain. It made her heart race, panic seeping into every limb. She tried to stop, but Ettore at her side, their arms still wound together, didn’t allow her to still. They walked slowly, giving each person a chance to see her. It came to an end far too soon, another lock opening out into the open air. A short mountain loomed in front of the exit, the top of it flat as though someone had cut it short.

“Ettore? This isn’t what we talked about.”

“They need to witness you,” he said. “You have to go to the top of the mountain. It’s an important part of the ritual.”

She bit her lower lip and looked over her shoulder to the crowd below. They were still shouting and cheering, each soaked by the downpour. “You didn’t tell me I’d have to go out into the rain. You didn’t mention the mountain.”

“You have to prove that you’re one of them — that you above can endure what everyone here does, without complaint. It will give them the strength to endure through the end of the rainy season. Go now, your majesty. Be their queen.” He kissed the top of her head, and then stepped back from her as the lock opened.

Rain poured in over her feet; drains in the tube just behind the airlock disposed of the runoff before it reached Ettore. The path up the mountain was made of well-worn stairs, cracked and craggy, carved out generations ago. Had her first skin made this same walk when those steps were new?

If I have walked this route 82 times, I will not falter now.

She swallowed and stepped out into the rain, her dress and cloak soaking and chilling her to the bone as the lock snapped closed behind her. The crowd could hardly be heard over the thunder that boomed from within the mountain. She struggled against the brisk wind in her face and the slick rock underfoot as she took her first steps. The rain made her cloak heavy, but she held it tight around her shoulders to keep it close. Her garland flattened against her forehead, and she stopped long enough to ensure that it at least rested straight on her brow.

Halfway up the mountain she looked back, the compound and the city much smaller below. She could no longer hear them cheering, but she could see the movement of the crowd. They undulated like a wave. She feared for a moment that maybe they were being swept away in floods.

Shaking her head to dispel such foolishness, she continued her walk up the mountain with shivering limbs and chattering teeth. Despite her discomfort, she kept her spine straight and her steps measured. Her people would not see her fail. They would not see her panic. They would not see her bend.

Only at the top did she realize that there was more. The mountain was not flat as it had looked, but hollow. Spiral stairs wound around the edge of the large hole — so wide that she could hardly see the opposite edge. Was she meant to go into the mountain?


His voice rumbled just like the first warning of thunder, and for a moment she thought the clouds had spoken her name. But then the ground under her feet quaked. Down within the hole, she saw his eyes first, enormous golden orbs that blinked first sideways, then length-wise. As he rose, the length of his angular face came into view — the horns like a ram’s that curled out from his head and the reptilian snout. The steam rolling from his maw momentarily warmed her skin.

Her hand snapped up to the brooch at her neck, her fingers tracing the circles of the serpent. “Stormbringer,” she said as he rose further from the hole to reveal wide wings, clawed feet, and the scales that lined his belly. Lightning cast a shadow of him against the mountain. Despite the distance, Nicoletta could hear the crowd screaming. Trembling, she closed her eyes.

Gasping, Nicoletta opened her eyes. She held her hand to her chest, her heart pounding as she leaned forward to catch her breath. The throne under her was soft — her throne, she knew it was hers — and the room was cool, but sweat beaded on her brow. She looked to the hull window, trembling at the sight of the planet below.

Ettore stood over her, smiling and holding out his hand. “Welcome back, your majesty. Are you ready?”

She nodded even though she wasn’t sure exactly what she should be ready for; she took his hand and followed him out into the main hall of her ship. As they stepped out, they were enlarged on the screen on one wall, a feed that would be reflected live in the cities below. She could see the stars on her brow. She touched the serpent brooch on her chest and shuddered.

Ettore raised their entwined hands and shouted to the crowd: “Queen Nicoletta, Eighty-Fourth of Her Skin!”

Ashley M. Hill found her voice in science fiction when her curiosity about technology coupled with the lifelong urge to tell stories. Her interest in social and feminist issues shapes how she approaches the genre. She's pursuing computer and network repair for her day job.


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