The Tattooist of Triton

Hesper Leveret


The main Triton spacedock was quiet. Soon, the next void-going vessel would arrive, and there was usually at least one newly-landed stellamariner who wanted another lucky black cat inked onto their shoulder.

For now, the tattooist sat near the front of her booth, working on a design destined for her own back. She was drawing freehand, a glittering galaxy of stars and nebulae, an attempt to capture the beauty of the void in iridescent inks on her dark skin. The tattooist didn’t know when she’d be able to have it done – she was the only properly trained body artist beyond Saturn. Perhaps she’d take on an apprentice – maybe one of the people transiting through Triton would decide to settle down one day, like a dandelion seed finding its place to grow. Like she had.

The concourse was almost deserted, filled with nothing but tubs full of air-scrubbing plants. The bakery opposite was starting to prepare the next batch of cardamom-rose rolls. Nothing like the fresh-baked scent of them to lure in stellamariners who’d been eating dehydrated rations for too long.

‘Excuse me.’ No vessel had docked, and yet here was the next customer already.

‘Yes?’ the tattooist asked, casting her practised eye over the man. He already had quite a lot of ink, shown off by the sleeveless singlet he wore, the colours popping against his pale skin. A selection of void cats strolled and sprawled across his shoulders. His knuckles were decorated with the letters HOME on the right and VOID on the left. One bicep was circled by a belt of asteroids, and the other by the stylised wavy blue lines that symbolised a crossing of the Neptune Line. The edges of a few fully extended solar panels were visible poking above the scooped neckline of his singlet – doubtless from the fully-rigged spaceship most stellamariners had tattooed on their chests as part of their initiation into the interstellar life. Down his arms were inked a series of badges showing some of the places he’d visited. There was the ancient battle helmet, circled by two moons, for Mars. An orbital station resting in a scallop shell for the habitats of Venus. There were the rings of Saturn and the swirling storms of Jupiter. This guy had been to a lot of places – but the tattooist couldn’t see any of her own handiwork.

‘First time here on Triton? Would you like the conch-and-trident badge? My most popular design,’ she said, gesturing to the rotating image board she had on display. ‘Or perhaps another void cat? As it’s quiet, I can give you a good rate if you want two small tattoos from flash, or one medium size.’

‘No flash,’ said the man, shaking his head. ‘I want something… custom.’ He sounded oddly unsure of himself for someone who already had so much ink, and for the first time the tattooist looked properly at his face. His eyes didn’t meet hers, instead focusing on a point far beyond her shoulder. Perhaps he’d never commissioned a custom piece of body art before – or perhaps this was the first time he’d visited a tattoo artist by himself, or sober. No matter – she knew how to put nervous people at ease.

‘Certainly,’ she said, and gestured to a comfortably cushioned chair nearby. ‘I do lots of custom art. Why don’t you take a seat and pour yourself a glass of isotonic lemonade? I’ll show you some of my previous work and we can discuss what you want.’

He sat down, but didn’t relax into the chair, and didn’t touch the jug of isotonic lemonade.

‘So what do you have in mind?’ the tattooist asked him, bringing up a display of her best work. The giant space squid in shades of purple, covering a stellamariner’s entire back. Images of Earth rising above the surface of Luna. Diagrammatic views of the solar system, done in the style of the ancient astronomers, for whom leaving the gravity well was an impossible dream. Dandelions, to symbolise the human diaspora. Forests, mountains, and cities of Earth. Pictures of the wildest shores of the Universe, and pictures of home.

The man ran his tongue round his lips. When he spoke, his voice was barely louder than the background hum of the HVAC fans.

‘I was thinking of another badge, here,’ he said, gesturing to the inside of his triceps, close to his armpit – a place that would be hidden most of the time, not proudly on display like the other badges he had.

‘Of course,’ said the tattooist. She was a little puzzled, both by the location for the badge, and by the fact that he wanted a custom design, when she already had ready-made badges for all the locations human void-going vessels had reached. Still, it was her job to work with the customer and she’d tattoo him with whatever he wanted. So long as it wasn’t a hate symbol, of course.

‘What’s the badge going to symbolise?’ she asked. The man still didn’t meet her eye.

‘The Ivy,’ he said.

‘What?’ she asked, although she’d heard him perfectly well.

‘The Ivy,’ he repeated.

‘You mean…?’

‘Yes. I mean. The Eye-Vee-Eye. Interstellar Vehicle One.’

The tattooist drew in her breath sharply. ‘The lost ship? That’s not possible,’ she said, without thinking.

The man met her eyes for the first time. ‘It’s possible,’ he said. ‘We found it.’

It was the tattooist’s turn to lick her lips, which had suddenly gone dry. ‘But – I haven’t heard anything about this. There’s been nothing on any of the news feeds.’

‘No, and there won’t be. We decided – people didn’t need to know. It’s probably better for everyone if the ship stays lost. I shouldn’t even be telling you this. But I – I need something to remember it. Remind myself it really happened.’

The tattooist nodded. She understood. In the world of those who ventured into the void – a world paradoxically both cramped and empty – tattoos weren’t just for decoration. There wasn’t much space for luggage in the infinite expanse of Space, and so stellamariners carried their memories on their skin.

‘So – what sort of image do you want?’ she asked. Really, she was itching to ask him more about the fate of the IVI, humanity’s first void-going vessel, and yet this didn’t feel like the moment.

‘Well,’ he said slowly, ‘I’ve been thinking… I guess an ivy leaf?’

‘No problem,’ said the tattooist, switching the display to a selection of her botanical designs. They weren’t as popular as void cats, but many stellamariners liked to have plant life tattoos as a symbol of clean air and good fortune. She brought up a picture of an ivy leaf. Five lobes, dark green, white veins.

‘And…’ the man cleared his throat, then fell silent.

‘Yes…?’ asked the tattooist. ‘Something else as well? Perhaps a border of stars?’

Some clients came in with clear ideas about what they wanted. Others needed careful coaxing. The tattooist selected a circle made of stars, and tapped to combine it with the ivy leaf. ‘Something like this?’ she suggested.

The man shook his head. ‘No… that’s not right. It needs to be something – else.’

‘Ok, I’ll show you some more designs, and you can see if anything catches your eye.’

She flicked through some more images – botanical, galactic, mythological – until the man finally said ‘Stop.’

‘Yes?’ she asked, pausing the display.

‘That,’ he said. ‘What is that?’

He was pointing at a circle made from a snake eating its own tail. ‘The ourobouros,’ said the tattooist, laying it over the ivy leaf so that it formed a border. ‘A symbol of eternity. And – well…’

She trailed off. She probably didn’t need to tell this man what connotations the ourobouros had come to have in the space-faring community. Sometimes, ships went off course, found their food supplies had been inadequately packed and had spoiled while they were drifting through the void. There were only so many things you could do in such situations, if you wanted to survive.

‘It’s perfect for the Ivy,’ he said. ‘It’s been out there, all this time. In orbit beyond Pluto.’

‘Why didn’t they contact Earth?’ the tattooist asked, in a whisper.

‘From what we could tell, they destroyed their own comms array,’ said the stellamariner. ‘Wanted to – be a world unto themselves. Independent, out there in the black. And they got their wish. A breed of humanity apart. They didn’t welcome us, except as – protein. Not all of us made it out.’

He looked away again, his eyes fixed on a distant point. The tattooist sensed he wouldn’t answer any further questions, except for one.

‘Are you happy with this design?’ she asked, holding it up so he could see it.

‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Earth will forget the Ivy, but I need to remember.’

The tattooist set to work.


“The Tattooist of Triion”, © Hesper Leveret.  First published here in Cosmic Roots & Eldritch Shores on August 30, 2023
Born and raised in Southampton, Hesper Leveret studied Ancient History at Oxford and now lives in Liverpool with her family and chronic pain.
She writes speculative fiction that emphasizes the beautiful, lyrical, and strange. Her stories appear in venues including Fireside, Interzone, and Luna Station Quarterly. Her interests include reading books, escaping rooms, and baking cakes. Since September 2020 she has been a slush reader for the BFS Award-winning Apex Magazine..


Illustration by Fran Eisemann, stock used from public domain

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