Our Cousins’ Keepers
Marshall J. Moore
<It’s the day! It’s the day!>
I am so excited I can’t restrain myself. I race laps around the training pool, my wake sloshing over the edges. I cut every corner with perfect precision, letting my dorsal fin cruise above the surface just for fun. I leap from the water with a flip, spinning nose over tail before splashing back down in the deepest part of the pool, chattering my excitement all the while.
“Today’s the day!” Vaimiti agrees, laughing that weirdly throaty human laugh. She stands on the lip of the pool, her wetsuit fitting her as snugly as my own skin does me. I race over to her, a bow wave spreading out before me. It splashes Vaimiti up to the waist, but she only laughs harder.
<It’s today!> I say again, chattering up at her from the edge of the pool.
Vaimiti tries to chatter back, though the result is unintelligible gibberish. Her throat is no better adapted to singing my language than mine is for speaking hers. I love her for trying, though.
“Are you ready?” she asks, abandoning her garbled song for air-speech.
I bob my head in a nod; one of the few human gestures that comes easily to us. <I can’t wait! An actual ocean, not just a tank or a pool!>
“That’s right, Lash.” Vaimiti’s smile widens—another expression that easily bridges the differences between our species. “All those weeks of training feel like they flew by. Nervous?”
<No,> I say, truthfully. Though our immediate preparations have lasted only weeks, I have spent my entire life readying myself for this day. In a very real sense, my entire existence has been preordained for it, from the moment my ancestors left their dying ocean behind all those years ago.
The thought of the homeworld I have never seen makes me sad. To shake it off, I do another lap about the pool, although some of the joy has gone out of it now. Vaimiti watches, no longer smiling. I wonder if she too is thinking about Earth. About the distant home that birthed both our ancient ancestors, to which there can be no returning. It is better than three centuries since the great ships in which Vaimiti and I both were born departed that world, whose oceans must now be little more than great salt flats beneath a toxic sky.
“Hey,” my friend calls, putting out a hand. I swim over to her, nuzzle my head against her fingers.
We are quiet for a while.
“You sure you’re ready?” Vaimiti shifts, twisting her torso around in that way humans do that looks so funny. I follow her gaze to the viewport inset in the pool wall.
The enormous azure sphere hangs above us. Even from this height I can see the swirling white whorls of cloudforms, the glimmer of reflected sunlight off the ocean far below.
Like Earth that was, the planet which we now orbit is mostly water. Yet where the world that birthed both my ancestors and Vaimiti’s was one-third landmasses, eighty-seven percent of this planet is ocean. What little land there is exists in scattered archipelagoes and islets, many too near the polar ice caps for comfortable habitation. But her air is breathable, and the abundant life in her teeming seas consists of levo amino acids forming proteins suitable for consumption by both our species.
We call her Tethys.
“Imagine,” Vaimiti says, craning her neck towards the thermal lamps high over the pool. “Real sunlight. Real waves. Fresh air.”
<Home,> I agree.
“I hope so.” Vaimiti says, and although we have been partners since we were small, I cannot tell whether it is excitement or fear that makes her shiver.
Tethys looms huge and high above me as we approach, growing larger with every moment. I watch, a tremor running through me from nose to tail.
Gravity begins to exert itself, the shuttle trembling around me as the friction of Tethys’s atmosphere grates against our hull. I hang in a cabled harness, fully secured and restrained. The animal side of me screams and chitters with fear at the strange contraption, at the restraints placed upon me. I thrash and squirm, but the harness holds me snug against both the encroaching g-forces and my own panic.
“Easy, Lash.” Vaimiti’s voice comes in over the speakers in my capsule, her voice pitched low and soothing. “A little turbulence, like we trained for, and it’ll be over. A few hours and we’ll be in the water. Just hang in there.”
Dolphins find puns as funny as humans do. I snort through my blowhole, and am rewarded with Vaimiti’s laughter.
Somehow, it makes the rest of our descent seem smoother.
Tertiary thrusters slow our fall once we’re in the atmosphere. The shuttle is ungainly, meant for controlled descent rather than flight, but I trust that Vaimiti and the rest of the human crew will guide her with steady hands towards the target landing site.
The shuttle shudders again as the landing balloons deploy, turning our approach into a lazy glide. My capsule is buffeted by winds, which are now visible as rain lashing against the viewport. We drift down, through the clouds and into the bright blue sky above a bluer sea.
Ocean stretches away to every horizon, setting my heart trembling with excitement. Soon I will be down among those warm and shallow waters, feeling the tug of true tides and real currents for the first time in my life. The simulated systems of the pools aboard the Verne have prepared me for the real thing, but I can already feel in my heart that they are an inadequate imitation of the real thing.
We drift steadily downwards, Vaimiti guiding us unerringly towards the landing coordinates. Through the viewport I can see a linked collection of prefabricated spheres floating on the surface, looking like tiny opaque bubbles upon the broad stretch of Tethyan ocean. They are a perfect compromise between our two peoples: humans living and working in the levels above the surface, dolphins in those below.
The Nautilus. It is to be the first habitat for terrestrial refugees on Tethys, both those with legs and those with fins. It floats upon a broad but relatively shallow stretch of sea, thousands of kilometers from any of the islands or archipelagoes that dot this oceanic planet.
Though few and far-flung, the landmasses of Tethys would have proven suitable habitats for the two-legged of our mission. But the Nautilus’s location was selected intentionally, as was the intent it declared: we would settle this new world together, or not at all.
I have never thought my life was lacking. The pools in which I have lived are enclosed, yet they run the length of the Verne, threading through the terrestrial habitation areas. It is important for our human cousins to see us daily, our elders say. To know that we are partnered together as the fleeing children of a bygone world.
You cannot miss what you have never had, and so I have never missed the feel of real sun on my back or a natural breeze against my dorsal fin. The waters of the tanks possess a salinity near to that of Tethys’s, only slightly more diffuse than that of Earth’s oceans in their prime. By all accounts, the difference between the experience of swimming in my spaceborn pools and in the oceans of Tethys should be negligible.
It is not.
From the moment I dive from my capsule into the waiting waves, I come alive. Every fiber and nerve ending of my being sings with the giddy joy of this new world, of the unfamiliar warmth of wave and sun. My whole life until now has been a dream, and only in the wide waters of a true ocean am I awake.
Powerful strokes of my tail propel me downward, deeper. The Nautilus lies within Tethys’s tropical bands, and the water surrounding me is warm and welcoming. All about me the water is illuminated by the gentle beams of sunlight filtering down through the waves above, but they can only penetrate so far. The wide black of the depths looms below me, sending a shiver down my spine, but it is a tremor of excitement as much as fear.
I sing a burst of sonar, illuminating the depths around me. It reveals that I am drifting above a wide oceanic plain, though nearby the seabed rises to a tangled labyrinth of cliffs and canyons. In the opposite direction the massive bubbles of the Nautilus float smoothly atop the waves. Several others of my pod are there, assisting the human crew with the unloading of valuable tools and materials. I sing a greeting to them, and they chatter-laugh back their own delight. We are all of us giddy with the joy of this new world, this new home.
The Nautilus was deployed by automated systems once the Verne had stabilized her orbit around Tethys. We are to be the first of her attendants; technicians and scientists sent to prepare the way for those to come after. One day the vessel orbiting this world will be empty; a monument to a forgotten home and our yearslong journey across the stars. One day everyone, human and dolphin, will feel the joy of Tethys’s sun upon their skin.
It will take time. At least two generations will be born and die aboard the Verne before more reside on-planet than off. But it is a start.
<I’m going to explore!> I chatter to my pod. They sing back their acknowledgement as they maneuver one of the Nautilus’s agricultural bubbles into place.
I am not shirking my duties. Later I will take up the same responsibility as my podmates in helping to construct our habitation, but our tasks today were assigned by lot.
Mine is exploration.
My sleek body cuts smoothly through the waters, the joy of motion singing through me with every powerful thrust of my tail. I journey south, towards the tumbled maze of subaquatic cliffs and canyons. They are so unlike the smooth, regular pools I have known; I am fascinated by them.
Tethys is not a dead world. I let out bursts of sonar as I approach the cliffs, each one revealing more of both my surroundings and their inhabitants. Rayform creatures glide by in graceful schools, each one half again as large as the landing capsule I descended in. Tiny plankton and algae drift through the tides, their presence felt only as a collective mass rather than individuals. Nearer at hand a lone sharkform cuts lazily against the current, hunting. I keep an eye on it, but I am not afraid. I am young and strong and smarter than anything else that swims in this ocean.
Or so I think.
As I draw near to the cliffs, something changes in the water around me. I cannot tell what at first; the sensation is gradual, like waking from a dream. A subtle shifting in the tides, a minute increase in pressure. I do not think much of it at first; though the training pools aboard the Verne have simulated the experience of swimming at depth, I imagine the sensation I am experiencing is merely the difference between the dream and the reality.
Until the Voice speaks to me.
It is not a human voice. It is a true voice, composed of the same whistles and clicks and song that my kin and I use to sing to one another. Yet it does not come from a single throat. No, it speaks to me in the whisper of the current, in the rhythm of the tides, in the crashing of the waves far above and the scrape of silt across the seabed—all blended together into a single, overwhelming Voice.
[WHO ARE YOU,] it asks, [AND WHAT ARE YOU DOING IN MY WATERS, LITTLE SWIMMER?]
I say my name—not the air-name the humans call me, Lash, but my real name, the one that is sung rather than spoken. A pregnant silence follows.
<Who are you?> I ask, to fill that silence.
There is a tremor in the water around me, like a tectonic plate has just shifted. For all I know, it has.
[I AM OCEAN,] the Voice answers, though when it says the word “ocean” it also says “world.” [I AM ABOVE AND BELOW, BEFORE AND BEHIND, WITHOUT AND WITHIN. I AM OCEAN.]
Another ponderous pause. Then she speaks my name. Her voice is the currents and the tides and the thousand interactions of push and pull that even I possess only a faint understanding of, all reflected back to me in a deeper echo of the clicks and whistles that compose what I am called.
Suddenly I am afraid. Only now do I grasp the immensity of the being I am talking to; the scale and depth of her. She does not merely name herself Ocean—she is the Ocean, the interlocking systems both living and unliving. The entire biosphere is her body, every creature from the smallest plankton to the greatest leviathan her cells, the deep valleys and towering archipelagoes her bones.
Ocean, she names herself, and World. But I know her true name is Tethys, the planet entire.
[YOU ARE NOT ONE OF MINE,] she repeats. [ALL MY CHILDREN ARE KNOWN TO ME, WHETHER THEY DRIFT OR SWIM, SCUTTLE OR BURROW. YOU ARE A SWIMMER, BUT YOU ARE NOT MY CHILD. NOR ARE YOUR FELLOWS, OR THE STRANGE ONES WHO ACCOMPANY YOU.]
<The strange ones?> I know she means our humans, but I am curious how a mind that is a hydrosphere perceives terrestrial creatures.
[THOSE WHO FLOAT UPON MY BACK ON ISLANDS THAT ARE NOT ISLANDS. THOSE WHO CAME WITH YOU FROM THE UPPER WATERS.]
<The upper waters?> I ask before I realize what she means. <Oh! The clouds?>
[YES.] An ocean cannot nod, but there is something affirmative in the way the tides shift about me. [THOUGH YOU CAME FROM HIGHER THAN EVEN THAT, AND FARTHER AWAY.]
I wonder how she knows this but decide the question can wait.
<What you say is true,> I tell her. It would be a poor start to our habitation on this world by lying to the planet herself. <I hope we can be friends.>
Of course. How to explain friendship to a being without peers?
<That we can live harmoniously,> I tell her. <We like swimming in your waters, exploring your currents. I hope you like that we like that.>
[FRIENDS,] Tethys repeats, and seems to consider this for a long while. I wonder if she perceives the passage of time in the same way I do. Probably not.
I am just starting to wonder how to politely ask if I can return to the surface for air before continuing our conversation when she finally speaks again.
[WHAT BROUGHT YOU TO ME?]
My tail thrashes in agitation. I wish fervently that I was not the one being asked. By all rights it should be one of our matriarchs, like crafty old Palestripe or fierce Bentnose. But they are not here, and I am.
<We came here to live,> I tell her. Again, there is no point in telling anything other than the truth. Besides, lying is a human vice. <My people and our cousins, the ones you call strange. We had hoped to make a home here, in and upon your waters. We had not known you were…that you were a…>
I trail off, unable to find the words. How to explain to a being of such vast scope that you have no term for what she is? How to explain to a thinking, speaking world that you come from a silent planet?
[I UNDERSTAND.] The tides shift erratically around me, and I must fight not to lash my fins in panic. [YOU COME FROM A DEAD WORLD. ONE WITHOUT VOICE OR MIND, OR LIFE.]
<If it was without life, how could we have come from there?>
Only once I have spoken do I realize that it may be a poor idea to sass a planet.
Apparently Tethys agrees. Another tectonic tremor reverberates through the depths, sending a jolt of fear from my dorsal fin down my tail.
[I KNOW MORE THAN YOU GUESS, LITTLE SWIMMER. THE UNSEA BETWEEN WORLDS IS WIDER AND BLACKER THAN THE DEEPEST OF MY TRENCHES. NONE CROSS IT WITHOUT GREAT NEED.]
This time my fear has a different flavor. <We are not your first visitors, are we?>
[YOU ARE NOT.]
Shock tightens my muscles, but before I can even begin to register the implications of this revelation I feel the current pulling at my body. I am being tugged along, down and deeper into the maze of underwater cliffs.
My lungs have begun to ache, but I do not try to fight. Tethys wants to show me something. Breathing can wait.
A burst of my sonar reveals a world of narrow cliffs and sudden turns. I would struggle to navigate them under my own power, but Tethys’ manipulation of the tides and currents is remarkably fine. She pulls me along with unerring precision, zipping me between tight gaps and around sharp corners. None of my fins so much as brush the rock.
Then I am decelerating into an open space, a broad depression in the center of the subaquatic labyrinth. I let out another burst of sonar, just as Tethys speaks again:
[COME AND SEE.]
There is a city down here. Or at least, the remnants of a city. Crumbled towers and shattered buildings lay strewn across the seabed, interspersed with innumerable and unidentifiable detritus. Released from Tethys’s grip, I swim towards the broken city, each burst of my sonar revealing a new impression of the ruins.
They are not of Tethyan origin. Their material is strange, composed of denser metals with textures that do not correspond to anything I have encountered either here or aboard the Verne. Patches of algae coat their surfaces, and corals have slowly begun to colonize their jagged edges.
This city was not built in this place, or even underwater. A single sonar burst is enough to show that the less damaged buildings were not airtight even when intact, and the vehicles scattered among the wreckage are open-topped. This city was built along similar lines to Nautilus: modular platforms floating atop the waves. The realization chills me.
<What happened to them?> I ask, though I fear I already know the answer.
There is something triumphant in the way the currents around me coalesce and clash, so violent that it stirs the silt into a frenzied vortex and trembles the ruined towers. Dread seizes me, and I want so badly to be back in my pool aboard the Verne that I tremble from tail to nose.
[THEY CAME HERE FROM THE UNSEA,] Tethys thunders in the voice of the vortex. [STRANGERS FLEEING THE WRACK AND RUIN OF A DEAD WORLD. THEY SETTLED THEMSELVES UPON THE WAVES, BUILT THEIR STRUCTURES AND THEIR DEVICES.]
I nose my way through the wreckage. The ruins are as alien to Tethys as I myself am.
[AT FIRST I WAS CONTENT TO WATCH. MY WATERS ARE WIDE AND DEEP, AND I THOUGHT THERE WAS ROOM ENOUGH FOR THESE STRANGERS.] Sorrow inflects and infects her anger. [YET THEY WERE NOT AS YOU, LITTLE SWIMMER. THEY HAD NO VOICES. THEY COULD NOT UNDERSTAND WHEN I SPOKE TO THEM.]
<Was that enough to kill them?> I ask, and once more chide myself for speaking so foolishly to a being that rules the tides and storms.
[NO,] Tethys answers, seeming to overlook my impertinence. [EVEN THEN, I WOULD HAVE LET THEM BE. YET WITHIN A SCORE OF REVOLUTIONS ABOUT THE SUN, THEY HAD BEGUN TO PILLAGE ME. TO DRILL MY BONES FOR THE BLACK LIQUID WITHIN.]
That stirs something in my memory. Hadn’t humans done similarly, back on Earth? I thought so but couldn’t be certain. My history lessons had always skirted around the details of our homeworld’s incremental destruction.
[WITH EACH REVOLUTION THE NEWCOMERS GREW GREEDIER. MORE RAPACIOUS. THEY BUILT MORE SETTLEMENTS, AND WITH EACH GROWTH THEY SPEWED MORE POISON INTO MY SKY, MORE BILE INTO MY WATERS. SO I ACTED.]
The vortex picks up its pace, a million fine grains of sand and silt lashing against the alien ruins.
[NOW THEY ARE NO MORE. YET I REMAIN, AND I WILL BROOK NO FURTHER INFRACTION UPON MY WATERS.]
<What are you saying?> I ask, though the dread curling itself into a knot in my stomach tells me I already know.
[YOU ARE NOT WELCOME HERE.] The currents converge, pressing me down until my ventral fins scrape the seabed. I chatter in pain, so loudly I am half-convinced the others of my pod still on the Verne can hear it. [SOME OF YOU ARE SWIMMERS. BUT THE STRANGE ONES YOU CALL COUSIN ARE TOO LIKE THE OTHERS FOR ME TO PERMIT THEM TO STAY. LEAVE ME.]
Somehow I find my voice through the haze of pain and fear. <We have nowhere to go!>
[YOU CAME FROM A DEAD WORLD. RETURN TO HER AND SEE IF SHE HAS FORGIVEN YOU YET.]
<We can’t!> My tail thrashes against the current as I try to fight my way free, but Tethys pulls me back down. <The vessel that brought us here from the stars –from the Unsea—it was a one-way voyage. We couldn’t go back to Earth any more than you could travel there.>
The current trembles in what feels like a shrug. [THAT IS YOUR DIFFICULTY.]
<Please,> I beg as sand chafes against my tail. <We are not like the others who came here, please—>
The pressure eases on me, ever so slightly.
[PERHAPS,] Tethys says slowly. [WERE IT ONLY YOU AND YOUR KIND, LITTLE SWIMMER, I MIGHT BE INCLINED TO PERMIT YOU STAY. BUT NOT THOSE WHO BROUGHT YOU. THEY ARE TOO LIKE THE OTHERS.]
<They are not,> I say, thinking of Vaimiti. Her gentle hands, the way she tries her hardest to sing our songs with her crude human mouth. <They are better. Kinder, wiser.>
[YET THEY RUINED THEIR WORLD AND FLED TO A NEW ONE. TO ME.]
<And they have suffered for it!> I have used too much air. My head is beginning to feel fuzzy, so that I am only half-conscious of what I am saying. <They have learned. They will do better this time. They have us.>
The vortex of silt slows, its fine particles drifting to settle upon the alien ruins.
[YOU DID NOT STOP THEM FROM DESTROYING YOUR FIRST HOME.] It’s hard to imagine an ocean sounding accusatory, but she does. [WHY?]
<We could not,> I say. <We were like children then. Aware, but only of the things that concerned ourselves. They took us with them on their voyage across the Unsea, and we grew into ourselves.>
[SO YOU ARE THEIR TOOLS.]
<No!> My anger surprises even me. In my mind I see Vaimiti’s smile. <We are their friends. Their partners. We came here together, to live and make a home together. Had we known you were a thinking being, we might have gone somewhere else. But it’s too late for that now.>
[TOO LATE,] Tethys agrees, but there is a new quality to her voice now. Curiosity? [YOU CANNOT RETURN, AND YOU CANNOT LEAVE. AND YOUR KIND AT LEAST ARE CAPABLE OF SPEECH. PERHAPS…]
A long silence, so long that my lungs have begun to turn to fire by the time she speaks again.
[I HAVE DECIDED.] Something in the measured cadence of her words forbids me from interrupting. [I WILL PERMIT YOU TO STAY.]
Relief floods through me. I am about to sing my thanks when she speaks again.
[YOU AND YOUR KIND ALONE, LITTLE SWIMMER. I DO NOT TRUST THOSE WHO CAME WITH YOU. THEY MAY REMAIN IN THEIR REEF BETWEEN THE SKY AND THE UNSEA, OR THEY MAY RETURN TO THE OCEAN OF THEIR BIRTH. BUT I WILL NOT PERMIT THEM TO TAINT MY WATERS.]
<But they’ll die!> My song has risen into a scream. Somewhere in the distance I hear my pod echo back their alarm, singing out inquiries to my whereabouts, to the danger I am in. I ignore them.
[ALL THINGS DIE.] Again that tremorous shrug. [THE SMALLEST OF MY DRIFTERS IS BORN AND DIES WITHIN AN HOUR. THE LEVIATHANS WHO PLY MY DEEP CURRENTS LIVE FOR HUNDREDS OF REVOLUTIONS, YET THEY DIE JUST THE SAME. ONLY I AM WITHOUT AN END, LITTLE SWIMMER.]
The entire ocean goes abruptly still.
There is no current, no tide. The only force weighing upon my body is the pressure of the depths, though that alone is considerable.
[EXPLAIN.] Tethys’s voice is small, no more than a whisper across my nose. Yet the danger in that silence is greater than any display of force she has shown.
<You will outlast us,> I say, desperation spilling the words from me at a greater speed than I have ever sung. <By longer than I can imagine. Millions of years. But even that isn’t forever. One day your star will grow cold, and you will be no more than a piece of ice and rock in the Unsea.>
[YOU ARE LYING.] The current lashes against me in agitation, nearly pushing me into a ruin. I swim over it, trying to take some solace in the uncertainty Tethys is trying and failing to mask. I doubt she has ever tried to hide her feelings before.
<I am not.> I swim in a tight circle, my sonar echoing off the ruins and the cliffs beyond. <Old as you are, that time will pass for you as swiftly as mine will for me. Do you really want to be alone, there at the end?>
The ocean speaks to me in a whisper once more. [WHAT IS ALONE?]
<To be without friends,> I answer, my song echoing gently across the seabed. <I still want to be your friend, Ocean. Another mind for you to speak to. The same with my kin, and with our cousins. They will love you too. They will work to keep themselves from doing you harm, to keep your waters warm and your skies clean. All I ask is that you give them the chance.>
[HOW WILL I KNOW THAT THEY SHALL DO AS YOU SAY?]
<We will keep watch over them,> I promise. <We will remind them of what happened to our first home, and keep them from doing to you as they did to Earth. They can be better this time, I know it. With our help.>
Tethys is silent for a long time. My lungs are screaming for air by now, but I cannot leave this conversation unfinished. Not even if it is my last.
[VERY WELL.] The voice of the ocean is a gentle upswell of warm water, pushing me insistently towards the surface. Perhaps she senses that I have nearly exhausted my supply of air. [I WILL PERMIT YOUR KIN AND COUSINS BOTH TO REMAIN.]
More than one kind of relief floods through me as the rippling sunlight grows larger above me. <Thank you—>
[NOT WITHOUT TERMS.] A warning shudders through the water surrounding me. [NEITHER YOU NOR YOUR STRANGE FRIENDS ARE PERMITTED TO POISON MY WATERS OR MY SKY, NOR DO ANY HARM TO MY CREATURES SAVE FOR WHAT IS NEEDFUL TO FEED YOURSELVES. THEY MAY BUILD THEIR HOMES UPON MY WAVES, BUT I WILL NOT ALLOW THEM TO BREED AND MULTIPLY LIKE ALGAE IN BLOOM.]
I whistle an affirmative. <I will tell them—>
[NO.] The current bears me upwards, towards the surface. My lungs are aching, so I do not resist. [TELL YOUR KIN, BUT NOT THE OTHERS. THEY ARE NOT TO KNOW OF ME, OR OF THIS AGREEMENT.]
I am so astonished my blowhole nearly opens. <What? Why not?>
[YOU SAY THEY ARE NOT LIKE THE ONES THAT CAME BEFORE. LET THEM PROVE IT, THEN. THEY SHALL ABIDE BY THE RULES ALL THINGS IN MY WORLD LIVE BY, OF THEIR OWN VOLITION.]
The silt swirls about me, and to my amazement I see that Tethys has formed shapes in it: the outline of a dolphin and a human, side by side. [YOU WILL BE THEIR WARDENS, THOUGH THEY SHALL NOT REALIZE IT. YOU WILL GUIDE THEM IN HOW TO LIVE HARMONIOUSLY HERE. SHOULD THEY TRANSGRESS, IT WILL BE AGAINST YOUR STEWARDSHIP, AND YOU SHALL ANSWER FOR THEM. DO YOU UNDERSTAND?]
I do, though the weight of that understanding feels like the pressure of the deepest trench.
<Yes,> I say. <But I am only one among many, and I am young.>
The current ripples in amusement. [YOU ARE ALL YOUNG, LITTLE SWIMMER. GO, THEN. TELL YOUR ELDERS MY TERMS.]
<I will,> I promise, already thrashing towards the glittering surface. My lungs are screaming for air. <Thank you.>
[FOR WHAT?] Tethys ripple-laughs.
<For giving us a chance.>
The sun-speckled surface expands before me. I swim madly, my tail propelling me up, up, up, faster and faster—
Cold air slaps my nose as I break the surface, rocketing clear of the waves. Water erupts from my blowhole and I drink in deep, greedy gasps of air as I fly, suspended weightless in the sky by the arc of my leap. I chatter and shriek for joy, for the sheer gladness of movement and life. The horizon stretches around me in every direction, like something from a story—yet it is realer and better than the cramped tanks I have known all my life.
Home. The word comes to me, and I know it is true. Our home, if we will let it be. If we can prove ourselves worthy of her.
A tremor as I belly-flop back into the waves. I dive under, then surface, bobbing in place. My sojourn through the depths has tired me, and it is still a long swim back to the Nautilus.
[Good luck, little swimmer.]
I start. Here on the surface Tethys’s voice is softer, spoken only in the gentle slap of waves against my flank. But there is no mistaking the ocean’s voice.
[I hope your elders agree to my terms,] she says. Maybe it is the reduced volume of her presence, but she sounds almost shy. [I…enjoyed having someone to talk to.]
I laugh. I cannot help it. My chittering, clicking laugh echoes across the waves, my amusement wrapped up in the absurdity of speaking to a planet and with the hope of a bright future and the pure, simple joy of being alive.
To my unending surprise and infinite delight, the ocean laughs with me.
Marshall J. Moore (he/him) is a writer, martial artist, and filmmaker who was born and raised on Kwajalein, a tiny Pacific island. He has trained a mercenary in unarmed combat, sold a thousand dollars’ worth of teapots to Jackie Chan, and was once tracked down by a bounty hunter for owing $300 in late fees to the Los Angeles Public Library. He lives in Atlanta, Georgia with his wife Megan and their two cats. A member of the SFWA, his short stories have been published by Mysterion, Air and Nothingness Press, Flame Tree Press, and many others.