Below Salt-Heavy Tides

by Andi C. Buchanan

In the blue-tinted nights, I pull on my heavy boots and my warm coat, loop the bag of emergency supplies over my shoulders, and walk down to the shore. My wife knows I’ve been doing this for months, but we never speak of it; the children wouldn’t understand. I step carefully down the metal staircase on the outside of our basic shared building, the one that still houses eight families of settlers, each of us in a little collection of interconnecting rooms, and onto the footpath below.

The tramlines glint in the light of Kolga, largest of our nine moons, which hangs, potato-shaped and cratered, above my head. Dufa and Unn are just-visible glows on the horizon, out across the water. There are no trams yet, nor any need for them, but the tracks are part of our sustainability planning for the new city, installed right from the start. I follow them.

We’ve cut steps into the cliff, one of the first things we did after erecting our shelters, more than five years ago now. I reach out for the rope handrail and follow it down to the heavy sea.

The waves are crashing gently on the shore. To my right is the beach, all blue and silver sand, where we walk, where our children play, where we barbeque and eat together. Where we stood, all of us together, that night when the last of us arrived, shuttled down from the ship in orbit, and took in our new home.

To the right are the metal circles of the desalination pools. Even in the moonlight I can see their spectrum of pinks and turquoises. This is our planet’s wealth; so many salts, different chemical compositions, just awaiting extraction from the sea, and from there broken down into their elements. Water sucked from one to another, evaporated to leave its precious salts behind.

It’s not my sea. I’m not going to walk into it and become my other self, not going to leave my life here behind. I would not have even if we had stayed, not while I still had family who depended on me.

I just wish I had the option.

~

After work I hurry to the beach to call the kids in for dinner; keeping track of time is not one of their strong points. Now thirteen and fifteen their days are busy; mornings in school and afternoons in work placements, but as soon as that’s over they run and tumble shrieking down to the sea, smearing the barrier gel on their bodies as they go, hoping to get in an hour or so in the sun.

From the top of the steps I see them and their classmates messing around on the heavy water, their bodies buoyant and unbreakable, their voices care-free and high pitched. I no longer notice the changes to their bodies – to all our bodies – to allow us to live in this new world. They barely remember looking any different. It’s the childhood I dreamed of for them, untroubled and safe, part of a community.

Back in the communal kitchen, one of our neighbours – the only other one with children still in this block – fries up bean burgers. I pick lettuce from the hydroponics glasshouse next door, slice up bread, open a new jar of chutney. Five young people round the table, ravenous as always, and I’m surprised to find I am as well. We often cook meals together – if not all of us, then in groups. The house that will be ours is next on the list to start construction; we’ll be moved in by winter, all going well. I won’t miss these cramped quarters, the noise, the ramshackle construction, but I’ll miss times like this, seated at last, dipping hot chips in sauce and chatting with the others.

These are good times for us: I work, I take care of the family, I build a future for others.

I don’t have a speciality like my wife, whose engineering skillset was specialised enough to get the whole family passage, and I’m not really cut out for the heavy work. Before we were here I taught university entrance prep; now I teach a few classes and help out with the construction project management. They’re training me up bit by bit, Gantt charts and risk assessments. I’m happy to do anything really. I know it’s a privilege to live here. And the children may whine for all the flavours of ice-cream they can’t have and that the media we brought with us is so old and doesn’t reflect their lives, but on balance? They’re happy here. More importantly, they’re safe.

The seas out here are not the seas of Earth, not the seas of my home. It makes no sense that I should be drawn to them.

~

I hear my wife’s footsteps on the rocky ground behind me, rock smoothed to a pathway, see her uneasy shadow in the moonlight. I don’t turn round, but I don’t walk down the steps either. I find myself a place to sit amid the rocks and she sits beside me.

“You’re not happy,” she says.

I look at the moonlit sky. I remember when just one moon waxed and waned in the sky; now there’s a complex series of irregular orbits, moons shuffling in and out of view like an intricate dance, all factoring into a series of calculations to predict the rising and falling tides. I don’t know how I can put this into words as simple as happy and sad.

In some ways this is a shared loss. We all had things we had to leave behind on earth. My children left their friends, their hopes of seeing so many cities, the chance of leaving their parents behind for noise and crowds and anonymity. My wife left an elderly father. We left family heirlooms, works of art, religious relics. My loss is no more significant in the scheme of things.

We burned my skin – my seal skin – before we left, scattered the ashes over the rocks where I first came ashore. There was a temptation to use it one last time, but I knew it would make everything harder.

I could have brought it, but it would have taken up the sentimental items allowance for our whole family. I could not have agreed to that. Not for something I cannot imagine using here, on this dead planet with its beautiful dead seas.

“I miss our old home,” I say at last.

“I do too sometimes,” she says, but we both know it’s not the same. She’s a creature of the firm ground, a childhood spent running in woods and small-town streets, used to hearing her movements echo back at her, rubber soles on concrete. We all have dreams of building a better world here, but it’s a better world for human needs, and people like me are only part of it so long as we are in human form.

Not that I can be anything else, with my skin burned and scattered, and light years away.

~

I am good at compartmentalising whatever it is that draws me to the sea – grief, or hope, or longing. Our seas here may be dead, but they hold riches for us and bit by bit we are desalinating them. There’s talk of future ships bringing algae which can tolerate heavy metals; one day there may be small fish zipping backwards and forwards on the incoming tides. I can’t imagine that being in my lifetime, but I can at least feel things are a little better for our presence. On earth the seas are terminally sick and broken; everything is dying. Most of my people have come ashore, with so little hope of return they did not even bother to hide their skins.

Things may still be tough out here; hard work, and the dust in our eyes, and nowhere to go if you fall out with someone, but we are thriving, growing, thinking about the implications of everything we create. We are building and we are coming to life. We are making things better. We are making things better for our children – our smooth-skinned, human, land-dwelling children – which is all I ever wanted.

The seasons shift fast here. Summer is replaced by winter with little of a shoulder season, and the children spend their free time huddled in communal lounges with computer games and old movies. On the shortest, coldest day of the year we light a fire on the beach and watch the splinters of orange shatter into the air. There are three moons visible tonight, three moons and our fire, and their reflections make patterns out over the crashing sea.

It is then I know that I am going to swim. Not parallel with the beach, for morning exercise, or crashing and leaping playfully with the kids, but deep into whatever secrets this water holds.

~

I wait for summer; I am not a total fool even if my decision is foolish. I smear my skin with protective gel; though the modifications made to us before and during our long journey provide the greater protection. I am a good swimmer, even in human form. I remember cold waters and craggy rocks; the salt in my fur, the fronds of seaweed parting in the current like forests in wind. I take long, easy strokes out, the buoyancy of these waters making my movements easy.

The land grows far in the distance. I realise how small our settlement – of just a few thousand people, and three like it elsewhere on the planet – is among the vast, grey-blue, cliffs, the shoreline that seems to grow out with every stroke I take. This planet has been mapped and surveyed yet there is so much still unknown.

I wait in deep seas, floating, not even needing to tread water. And then I see them, lights below the water. I look up, wondering if they’re reflections of the lights of one of our drones, or some phenomenon of the refraction of sunlight through water.

The sky is empty and the sun behind cloud. And yet more lights are growing, lighting up and spreading out in patterns. Yellows and greens and turquoises, changing.

I know, deep down, that this is what has been calling me out. Not my restlessness or guilt, not my memories of a faraway planet.

I hear words; not ones that can be broken to syllables, maybe not sound exactly, but enough to leave no doubt in my mind. This is no dead world.

I swim back, fast strokes one after the other, not allowing myself to feel the tiredness in all my limbs. 

~

When I breathlessly report my experience, and then retell it once, twice, three times, to a growing committee of leaders and experts, it’s clear our whole lives are about to be thrown into disarray. Anything that could be sentient life requires careful consideration, negotiation, a common understanding of terminology before we can even begin that negotiation. It is best done before anyone encroaches on their space, even a landing party, but certainly long before settlement is made. Even non-sentient life needs protection – and there are many forms, on other planets, that test the boundaries of the two, forcing us to constantly redefine them.

The long term plan for this planet is based on desalination of its seas and eventually the export of the components that make up those salts. The change to the seas is fractional, barely measurable when you take into account their size and depth, but life survives on the narrowest of margins. 

We send messages seeking advice, but it will be months before a reply can be received. In the meantime we scour our files for comparable examples, analyse the exact wording of the protocols. Our building work halts, restricted only to completing in-progress projects where it would do more harm to leave them unfinished, shedding insulation foam out into the mind. Our already small lives grow even tinier; the optimism we built our lives on is thinly spread.

This is what we come up with: to try and make contact. Learn from them. Hear what they have to say and what their concerns are.

This isn’t my role at all. I’m a long way from a diplomat, as either of my children would tell you. And yet all eyes fall on me.

And I swim.

~

In the deepening waters I curse myself. I made a decision; to leave the seas, to burn my skin, for the good of our children. If I could just have stuck to a decision, one way or the other, it might have been okay, but now I’ve ruined the lives of thousands. I swim angrily, tearfully, but I swim. Because I may have transgressed, but I am not a coward, will not shirk my duties.

Outside the seas seem dead, buoyant and dead. I wonder if I hallucinated with the cold, wonder if it was all a figment of my homesick imagination. I’m not sure I could face anyone, having caused such disruption, were that true, but I see none of the bioluminescence here, receive no feedback, nothing I recognise as life. 

I let myself float on the water. Maybe I need to swim further. But then a movement, out of the corner of my eye. Not a light, but something heavy and yet graceful, moving through the water. Then another, brown fur slicked back. They surround me, not with hostility but with curiosity – no, more recognition, because they know I am one of them. I spin in the salty sea and watch them congregate all around me.

Seals.

~

I choose to believe, just for a moment, that fate has brought me here; a place where others of my kind wait, those who swim in cold waters with their thick, oily skins, layers of fat upon them, salt heavy upon the rocks, and who cast off that layer to walk among the people, upon two legs, who become human, who fall in love. Statistically it may be unlikely, but we were always creatures of magic and folklore more than we ever were of science and finely calculated statistics.

I allow myself a moment to believe I’ve come home.

I swim with them through the seas. I stand on the rocks and I talk softly, knowing the more I talk the more they will understand my language. Gradually I realise the truth. I have not come to a place where there are others like me; I have created others out of some form of proto life, waiting in the ocean. Something that didn’t quite meet enough definitions of alive to be detected on our scans, maybe something outside our scanning criteria altogether. Something another might call magic.

I don’t use that word. When your whole being is magic it becomes meaningless.

We will debate, later, and perhaps others will debate long after us, where that proto life came from – whether it lay dormant here for thousands or millions of years, whether it came on an asteroid. Others will talk about what this means for our understandings of evolution, whether it was the fact I am something not-quite-human that meant I could activate it.

That will be then. This is now: I am shivering a little seated on the rocks. I am alone – it has agreed I will be left, for now, to find out what I can. 

I have done more than find out. I have disrupted this planet, its development, the life that lives upon it, in such a fundamental way I am not sure it could ever be excused; and yet the very nature of these people is to be malleable, flexible, change.

I feel sick. I want to flee to our recently finished home, shut all the doors and hide in a corner of the bedroom. Despite all our efforts, despite all our good intentions, we have done this, and maybe there was never a good way to go beyond Earth after all. Maybe we poison wherever we touch.

But wallowing in my own self pity would do nothing to fix the situation. Instead I do the only thing I can think of, the only thing I know how. 

I talk to them of anything I can think of; of how we live, of our little houses and the courtyards with benches and the well-lit schoolrooms. I talk to them of Earth, of wide shade-casting trees and browned grass and red dust; of cities flooding with people and of villages around the coast eroded by the sea. I talk and I talk, not being afraid to repeat myself, and I can tell they are absorbing more and more of it. I realise that to them the land is as alien as it is to us; the lands are distant outcrops from their seas, upon which life could not even be conceived of; dead lands, far away.

I talk of the seas I swam and rolled in, long ago, and how easy it was to swim like that. I talk of large, flat rocks and steady sunshine. I talk of walking onto the land, and I talk of love.

The protocols of distant Earth cannot cover what we find so far from home. They talk about first contact but not about what you do if your contact and the creation of the species are one and the same. What happens if they take your form, but that form is no longer yours because your skin is burned and gone. If they – just days old – know more about your kind than you do yourself. How you assess power differentials if you have houses and desalination plants but they have some power you cannot even begin to quantify.

And then I listen.

I sit in the afternoon sun, by the water, and let these connections with those who at once are and are not my people form, until sensations crystalise into words, until I begin to understand them.

And I sing gently, under my breath, as for the first time they shed their skins, and they walk onto the land.


© Copyright Andi C. Buchanan


Andi C. Buchanan lives and writes just outside Wellington, New Zealand. Winner of Sir Julius Vogel Awards for From a Shadow Grave (Paper Road Press, 2019) and their short story “Girls Who Do Not Drown” (Apex, 2018), their fiction is also published in Fireside, Kaleidotrope, Glittership, and more. Most recently they’ve been writing witchy stories, starting with the novella Succulents and Spells. You can find them at https://andicbuchanan.org or @andicbuchanan on Twitter.


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