Published in Lightspeed Magazine, October 2016
Three families ahead of them in line. Many more behind, stretching along the beach; it had taken most of the day to get this far, and Eris’s sun was now setting, casting red-gold rays across the sand. Gwen resisted the urge to remind Jon to stand up straight. Their hosts—potential hosts—couldn’t stand up at all, and there was no reason cetaceans would even notice a human’s posture, much less care. The only bodily attributes the Erisians might care about would be whether the humans had the added blubber and other genetic modifications to sustain them in a mostly watery environment. Though if they didn’t have those modifications, then there’d be no reason for any humans to be standing in this line, begging refuge of aliens. No, the Erisians wouldn’t be paying attention to their bodies at all—all of their attention would be focused on the humans’ minds.
Which reminded her—Gwen started humming again. A strange, deliberately atonal pattern that she had memorized—that her whole family had memorized, and in fact, the entire long line of human families had memorized, it seemed, as Gwen could hear the hum rising around her. Oh, the patterns weren’t identical, and some people were whispering rhymes under their breath, but the general concept was the same. Keep the hum going, and they won’t be able to read your minds.
Her wife, Rose, had paid five thousand credits to the shark for this pattern. Not an actual shark—there were no actual sharks on Eris, just as there were no actual whales, or dolphins. Their hosts, the Erisians, were somewhere between whale and dolphin in size, and far smarter than either. But the shark they’d paid the bulk of their savings to was a human one, one who swore that he knew how to get them to safe waters. Knew how to beat the system.
Jon and Matthew were dutifully humming along, their teenage faces set and determined. They’d practiced for weeks, and the boys had it down now. They understood what was at stake here, and while they’d caused their parents plenty of trouble in the raising of them, they were good children at heart. And to be fair, Gwen and Rose hadn’t really known what trouble was, before the last few months. Rose’s round features were drawn with anxiety, and her skin had a greyer-than-usual tinge.
“Did you eat breakfast?” Gwen couldn’t help asking.
Rose shook her head, fine strands of hair flying, tangling, in the light ocean breeze. “I couldn’t.” The wind blew grains of sand around them, erasing the humans’ footprints almost as soon as they made them.
“That’s just going to make it harder to concentrate.” Gwen could feel the knot of tension in her back drawing tighter, harder. As if in counterpoint, the churning in her stomach intensified.
“Gwen, please. Don’t harass me. Not now.” Rose whispered the words.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” An essential skill in any marriage, the ability to apologize, quickly and freely. Gwen was sorry, and even more so when a small voice piped up from near her knees.
“I ate breakfast, mama!”
“Good girl!” Gwen said, bending down to give Ciara a quick kiss on the cheek. “Now, back to your song, sweetheart, just like we practiced.” She could tell the child wanted to chatter on, which was entirely developmentally appropriate at age six, but not now, not now, and it was Gwen’s own fault for starting to talk. Thankfully, after a brief, mutinous look, Ciara settled down to her humming again, hugging her stuffed bear to her chest. She rocked back and forth on bare feet, wide and flattened, webbed toes digging into the sand. They wouldn’t need shoes where they were going.
• • • •
It had all sounded so foolish, when their neighbors had first mentioned the possibility, more than six months ago.
Rose had protested, over their shared breakfast cuppa. “But there’s nothing there! Those islands in the southern sea—they’re just big humps of grass and dirt. Barely any trees, nothing developed—it would take generations to build up any kind of civilization there; you’d spend all your time just trying to survive.”
Sarah and Stephen exchanged a look, one of those long-married looks that said they could read each others’ minds. Gwen was briefly envious of that look; Ciara had been fractious lately, in the throes of some developmental shift, and between minding her and keeping their joint fishing business going, she and Rose hadn’t had much time together. She was feeling . . . distant, disconnected from her wife. Maybe the neighbors could watch the kids for a weekend, and she and Rose could take a little vacation. Just strip down, dive under the waves, and go. Rose stood up to pour some more hot water in the pot, and her long dark hair fell forward as she bent over the table. Gwen resisted the urge to reach out, gather a thick handful, and pull her wife closer. Not now. There’d be time later.
It was Stephen who finally spoke, and his tone had turned grim. “It may not be so easy for us to survive here.”
Gwen frowned, distracted from her Rose-fantasies. “Now you’re being ridiculous. Surely you’re not taking those rumors seriously? Those pure human propagandists aren’t going to make any headway here.”
Rose chimed in, “We’ve lived together for decades, modified and unmodified, side by side. The idea that we could be in danger from people like Joe and Jamie—be sensible, Stephen. This isn’t Old Earth, you know. Eris is a peaceful planet—it always has been.”
Sarah shook her head. “All I know is, people are leaving, heading off to the islands. The ones the Erisians will accept, anyway. We’re going to look into it.”
Humans, going off to live with the Erisians. Bizarre. It was one thing to share a planet with them, and kind of them too, to give humans permission to settle on the large, unused continent. The Erisians had no use for it, after all, and on this mostly-water world, no other sentient species had evolved. The Erisians didn’t even speak, but their projective empathy made their feelings clear. Welcome, welcome, they’d beamed, when the humans first arrived. A palpable warmth.
The adult Erisians had mostly ignored them after that first welcome, but their adolescents had taken a real interest in the humans. They’d shown the colonists where the best fishing spots were, and had warned them of oncoming storms, so they’d have plenty of time to batten the hatches and hunker down. The humans hadn’t been able to do much in return, but the Erisians didn’t seem to mind. And when the first generation of fully-modified humans had taken to the seas, with bigger lungs, splayed, webbed feet, and scales all adapted to spending much more of their lives underwater, the Erisian adolescents had greeted them with joy.
Gwen had grown up living on the beach, never more than a hundred paces from the ocean. She’d blissfully flung herself into the waves, and it was there that she’d met Rose, actually under the water. That had always seemed a sign of good luck for them, for their marriage. They’d been blessed with twenty years of happy life together, and eventually, three healthy children, equally at home on Eris’s sandy shores and in its deep waters. It was bewildering to think that could all be snatched away in an instant.
• • • •
She’d been home alone with Jon when it happened. They were working on the nets, fingers tangled in knots, pulling and tugging, testing for strength. Some would need mending. There were times in the water when Gwen wished for fins instead, to be able to cut through even more cleanly, swiftly. But fingers were too useful to give up, as the first generations of experimenting humans had discovered. Most who chose to modify followed a similar path for themselves and their children, a now well-trodden path, three generations into colonization. It wasn’t an easy life, settling a colony planet—none of the technological luxuries of Old Earth, or even the Seven Daughters, the first planets to be colonized. But Eris, beautiful Eris with its wide, warm oceans, had its own charms. Kneeling there in the sand, with her tall, handsome son working beside her, his own callused fingers as skilled with the knots as hers, Gwen couldn’t imagine a better home, a better life.
“Fish-lickers! Greyskins!” The shouts warned her, when the—mob was the only word for it, as much as it shocked her to admit it—the mob was still several yards away on the beach. At least a dozen people, all adults, all with skin colors characteristic of the unmodified, an array of creams and pinks and browns. As for her and her son—she wouldn’t have called their skin grey. Oh, it was grey in parts, but more of a grey-green, or grey-blue, like the water on a cloudy day. And shimmered with silver scales, gauntlets along their arms, and sheathing chest and back and legs as well. Some gene-modded with more scales, some with less—as with hair, you were never quite sure what you’d end up with. But she’d always thought their scale-skin was beautiful. The mob clearly disagreed.
Her gut clenched; no weapons, not that Gwen could see, but the ugly rage on their faces was clear enough, and frightening enough. What had she ever done to them? Or her sweet, innocent son? At thirteen, Jon was still a child—still a decade and a half from full majority. He couldn’t have done anything to offend them, but now wasn’t the time to argue with a rabid crowd, no matter what her stupid, stubborn brain wanted. Mama-instincts kicked in; she grabbed Jon’s hand and without even speaking, they were moving, in sync, the few short steps to the surf. And then they were in, first running into the shallow waves, then, when the water grew deep enough, diving in, taking refuge in those cool depths. With the first faceful of cold water, she could feel her breathing begin to slow, mammalian diving reflex kicking in.
Old-stock humans could swim too, of course, so she urged Jon deeper, with silent gestures. They couldn’t go as deep as an Erisian might, of course, but much further than the unmodded. She took them down, into the cold and darkness, a deeper world than she usually ventured into. Nictitating membranes slid down, protecting her eyes, though there was little to see here. Peaceful, a cold, quiet expanse. Even with the thick, insulating layer of blubber under her skin, Gwen began to feel chilled. They stayed down until her lungs, finally, began to burn. Their systems were far from base human—better oxygen-carrying capacity in the blood, altered urinary system to help with the bends. Better, much better, but not nearly efficient enough; living entirely underwater was still only a dream. Jon could stay down longer, with his young, powerful body, but safer if he came with her. At least for long enough to surface, grab a breath, assess the situation.
The sun was setting, and the water around them was deserted. The beach as well. It was late; they’d been down longer than she’d realized. Gwen had a sudden panicked thought—Rose was due back at dinnertime with the other children. What if they’d come back already? What if the mob had caught them? Terror lent power to her strokes, and she raced back, outpacing even Jon’s strong shoulders. Their nets lay scattered on the sand, shredded. But she couldn’t look at that now—she was staggering through the sand, her legs trembling beneath her. Great, shaky strides until she was almost at the door—but there, there was Rose. Walking down the shore path, Ciara on her shoulders and Matthew beside her. Safe. Gwen fell to her knees in the sand. She seemed to have forgotten how to breathe.
• • • •
They hadn’t decided to leave right away. A few destroyed nets—those weren’t enough to convince them to abandon the home they’d built together, their community, all the conveniences of modern life. At first, Gwen couldn’t imagine a life without the net, that stream of news and education and entertainment that was the birthright of every colonist—they’d worked so hard to ensure that every child born on Eris had access. To walk away from that felt like walking away from their shared history, their humanity. Felt far more of a break than a few simple genetic modifications.
But when Stephen and Sarah came home to find their beloved pet siball dead in the road, his tail chopped off and his throat sliced open—that was when Rose started making calls in earnest. She had always been the communicator in the marriage, the one who talked to strangers, who made friends easily. Gwen was slow to warm, slow to trust. So she focused on getting things in order, trading what she could for settling supplies. The basics that they would need to survive—tents and bedding, tools, portable computers, seeds. There was only so long you could live on fish before humans would start to get sick. And they were still human, no matter what those people thought.
The shark came to their living room, sat at the broad dining table that Gwen had shaped herself out of long planks of native wood. He spoke with a strange accent—didn’t sound like he was from around here. But he had the information they needed, and a plan.
“The problem,” he explained, “is that they’re pacifists. That’s why some people get turned away.”
“We’re pacifists, too,” Rose said. “So we’ll be all right then?”
“Nah. When you say pacifist, you mean you like things peaceful. But that’s nothing like what an Erisian means. They have no natural predators, you know, and they don’t fight each other. Just didn’t evolve that way. They eat their algae, swim and sing, have long, philosophical debates with each other. It’s a nice life. They don’t understand about violence. How sometimes, it’s the only choice a human has left.”
Gwen said, mindful of the children listening from the other room, “There are always other choices.”
He laughed shortly. “You think so. Bet you’ve never had to make those choices.”
Gwen would have to admit that she hadn’t, if pressed, so she kept silent instead. Her life had been uneventful for its forty-seven years. Aside from the last few months, she had never had a fist raised to her in anger—well, not unless you count her big brother, who had taken a swing at her a few times when they were kids. Luke was gone now, had taken the retro-genes and gone back to stock human, spending every penny he had to afford it, and then some, indenturing himself to a starship crew in order to pay the last doctor bills. He’d never been happy in the ocean, and the brightest smile she’d ever seen on his face was when he stepped onto that ship. A different path. Not the one for her, or for Rose. Even if they would choose it for themselves, they couldn’t bargain away their children’s futures. And to leave the sea . . . the very thought broke her heart.
“They’ll read your mind, and they’ll find whatever dark secrets you’ve kept hidden, whatever violent urges. They don’t like what the humans are doing to each other; they don’t want any of that on their islands, in their waters. And no one knows exactly what’s going to set them off, so safer to think of only peaceful things.”
“But how can anyone do that?” Like not thinking of pink elephants.
“I’ll teach you—I’ll teach all of you. For the right price.”
Gwen didn’t like the shark, didn’t want to spend another minute in his company, didn’t want him near her children. But she met Rose’s soft brown eyes, and saw in them the same steely conviction she felt herself. They were both convinced. They’d give him what he asked, and try not to count the cost.
• • • •
The line shifted, and now there was only one family ahead of them. The sand was wet beneath Gwen’s feet, and occasionally, a little wavelet would run up and touch her toes. The boys were being so good—Rose was fussing around them, straightening their tunics, as if that mattered, and aside from a few eyerolls, they were tolerating her nervous movements. Gwen couldn’t believe how Matthew had shot up in the last few months—at fifteen, he was taller than both his mothers, strong enough to catch enough fish to feed the whole family by himself, if need be. Thank god this hadn’t come on them when the boys were small, or even five years earlier. Trying to settle a new land with a ten-year-old, eight-year-old, and nursing infant—impossible. Now, Gwen had some confidence in her family. Together, the five of them could build a good life for themselves, if this madness lasted. And if not, as she fervently hoped, maybe in a year or two, they could go home again. Although home would never be the same.
She’d told the shark that she was a pacifist, and she supposed she still was, in some weak sense. But two days before their number came up in the Erisian lottery, their chance to beg for a place on the islands, Gwen had come home to find devastation. They hadn’t come into the house, whomever they were, but her garden was destroyed. Trees hacked down, shrubs as well, chopped into chaotic bits. Perennials dug up, vegetables stomped into mush, tender annuals shredded underfoot. They’d gorged themselves on her berry bushes, and one of them must have had a taste for fruit, since the trees had been picked bare. That was perhaps the most chilling part—it wasn’t just some mad mob, but someone who still had sense in their head, enough to pick fruit and carry it away. That someone had come and joined in tearing her garden to pieces.
And still, they’d been lucky. They hadn’t been home when the mob came. The Andersons, across the shore road, hadn’t survived. Rose had told the boys that night, though Gwen had hesitated. But Rose had insisted. “They have to know. They have to understand how important it is, that they do as they’re told.” And there they stood, her boys, Jon and Matthew shoulder to shoulder, waiting quietly, humming their tune. Meditating on something calm, peaceful, as she should be, instead of reliving that moment when she first saw her garden, the ruin of all those hours of patient labor. In that moment, she could have picked up her machete and taken a swing at any intruder. To defend her own—surely, that was justified, was understandable.
But who knew what alien sea creatures understood? It was terrifying, thinking that so much depended on someone, some thing, she didn’t really understand. For a moment, she felt the sharp shock of thinking like a human firster, of being terrified of the strange, the other. Safer, surely, to be surrounded by your own.
The line was moving—and here it was, their turn. Some had gone through quickly; others had taken a long time. Gwen took a deep breath, and focused her eyes past the Erisians in the bay, looking out, to the open water. There was her peace, there, where the rising moons cast a serene glow across the white-capped waves. That was what brought her back to herself—this ocean that she loved. If humans had never come to Eris, never taken that fateful step into the unknown, she couldn’t be here, falling in love with the waters all over again. There—that was something the cetaceans could read, and gladly. Gwen would give them her love for this planet, and surely, they would embrace her, as they’d embraced ancestors, crying “Welcome, welcome!”
Rose was through, and the boys—one, then the other, stepping into the water in response to some silent signal. Gwen turned to collect Ciara, and that was when it happened. Another child, a younger child, grabbed at Ciara’s stuffed bear, the one thing she had insisted on packing, that she had clung to through the long day, into this fateful night. The child grabbed at the bear, and Ciara screamed, “No!” and slung an angry fist into the child’s arm, and then another, and another. The tensions of the day, of the past weeks and months, leading perhaps inevitably to this moment, when six years old was not nearly old enough to hold back in the face of such impossible provocation.
Gwen grabbed Ciara up, pulling her away from the child whose father was doing exactly the same, sharing an appalled glance with that father before turning back to the grey shape bobbing in the waves. She’d avoided looking at it before, but now, she faced it squarely. Surely, it would understand. She was only young.
But without words, the Erisian made its decision clear. Gwen had passed, but Ciara had failed. Oh gods. Nothing to be done about it—best to make the cut swift, in hopes of bleeding as little as possible. A quick, final look at Rose and the boys, pressing the memory of them into her mind and heart. Rose’s face was even greyer now, and she was hunched over, as if she’d been punched in the gut. She knew.
Gwen was so proud of her wife in that moment, as Rose straightened, squaring her shoulders, gathering their sons to her, turning them away. Permission had been given, but could be revoked. She needed to get the boys out, quickly, get them moving past the judge and jury, out to the open sea. Perhaps some adolescent Erisians would help them. Perhaps they would be kind, as their parents, apparently, could not.
“Mama, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” Ciara never apologized, would dig her heels in, insisting that whatever had happened, someone else had started it. She was only defending herself. But now, the child seemed to have some sense of the magnitude of what had happened, because she was sobbing. Exhaustion, frustration—what an impossible day for six years old. Gwen couldn’t even be angry. She picked up the little girl in her arms and started walking back up the beach.
“Shh . . . shh, little one. Be quiet, and I’ll tell you a story. About how there was a big battle, and some people ran away and hid, but others stayed and fought. I bet you’re the kind of person who would stay and fight, aren’t you? Yes, that’s what I thought.” She sent her love to Rose and Jon and Matthew, starting their long journey to the islands. Maybe they would meet again, someday soon. Maybe not.
“So it was long ago and far away, when a mommy and her daughter lived in a little house by the sea . . .”