In the end, it’s loneliness that drives the mermaids outward from Earth, not curiosity. But fear plays its part in the story, too, as fear always does.
The capsule they send is a thing of beauty, a great glass sphere encased in a cage of titanium. They call it Sea Foam Gives Way to the Sunfish’s Breach, and see how it traces a long arc between worlds: one globe of blue and green and brown, one silver-white orb, spiderwebbed in rusty red. Not a proper world at all, that one, hanging in frozen thrall to one of the great gas planets; a distant cousin of the moon that painted silver light on the mermaids’ upturned faces back on Earth, and their best and closest hope of finding what they seek.
Toward it journey three travelers—three purposeful travelers, that is to say, for the fish and snails and algae they carry for food and oxygen did not choose this trip and have no concern with what path their strange new home takes. For that matter, only two of the travelers themselves take much interest in their surroundings.
Here they are now: the navigator, All Rivers Run Home to the Sea, checking their trajectory against star-charts and measurement lines etched on the inside of the glass shell. The alchemist, A Fish Thrashes Wildly in the Bird’s Sharp Beak, screws two glass bubbles together at their ports to mix their contents. The product is exothermic, and her palms are thankful for the warm kiss of the glass in her hands. But the mixture is not for her; she tucks it into the still arms of the sleeping singer, She Wears Cold Starlight on Her Shoulders. She watches for a moment, hopeful, but Cold Starlight doesn’t react. A Fish Thrashes grimaces, then flicks her thick flippers and glides over to drift beside All Rivers, whose does not look up from her star charts.
The bodies of All Rivers and A Fish Thrashes are made to suit the northern seas of Earth, and they manage the cold silent nothingness between worlds just as well: their bodies rounded and soft, their skin sleek with dark brown and gray fur. Their singer does not fare so well, not with the thin bubble of tissue that composes her tail, not with the fine mass of poisonous tentacles she drags along behind her. Their singer’s body glows a fragile, electric blue in answer to the stars, but it is a cold light and does not warm her. A Fish Thrashes wonders, not for the first time, what the elders were thinking when they asked a merjelly to join the expedition. Cold Starlight is the best singer in all the world that they left behind—but what good will that do if she cannot survive long enough to swim in the waters of a new world?
“Do you think she’ll make it?” she asks All Rivers, and All Rivers grunts. She hates to be interrupted at her work. “We have such a long way to go.”
“She’ll make it.” All Rivers breaks her gaze from real stars and etched ones alike. She stretches her arms and A Fish Thrashes takes shelter in their warmth. Her head rests on the great round swell of All Rivers’ breasts, and she breathes in the cool fresh water. Her adjustments to the algae levels are finally near-perfect. “Do you know what she did, when they asked her to make this trip?”
A Fish Thrashes shifts in her lover’s arms. “That’s just a rumor.”
All Rivers says it anyway. “She laughed. And then she said, ‘What good is a singer without anyone to hear?'”
“A rumor,” A Fish Thrashes insists. “A pretty story for the next set of singers to build on. Might as well say there’s really a mermaid who lives in the moon. Or that the Silent Earthers are real, and lurking in the algae pods to jump out and scare us.” Her words are meant to jab, but not so hard as to explain why All Rivers stiffens now. “What is it?”
“They caught one on the construction site,” says All Rivers slowly. She worked metallurgy before learning the shape of the celestial spheres, to guide them starward. Good luck to have a metallurgist on board, in case a non-fatal catastrophe befalls the ship’s titanium shell.
“A Silent Earther?” A Fish Thrashes’ gills open and shut too quickly. She makes herself relax, and presses her face into the soft curve of All Rivers’ neck until they are both again as fluid as the water that surrounds.
All Rivers explains how the saboteur was caught. “Trying to slip contaminants into the titanium mixing pool. To weaken the frame, make it shatter with the force of leaving the atmosphere.”
“Why would they do such a thing?” A Fish Thrashes wonders, and All Rivers shrugs.
“To keep the Earth as it is since the humans went away. To stop us from making the same mistakes.”
“We’re not riding their wake,” protests A Fish Thrashes, and All Rivers’ fingers smooth the bristling fur along her back.
“I know,” she says, “I know that.” But her eyes linger on Cold Starlight, whose face is cast in shadow despite the blue flicker of her body, who drifts listlessly on the slow motion of the water.
Cold Starlight sleeps through the day-to-day chores of life aboard the capsule. The filters must be scrubbed to keep the all-important algae from clogging them entirely. Their trajectory must be observed and measured. And occasionally, a tiny portion of the metallic hydrogen in the engines, manufactured under the terrible pressure at the heart of the very deepest sea trenches, must be burned to correct their course and nudge them back on track. All Rivers frets over the details. Sometimes she envies Cold Starlight her carefree passage between the worlds; mostly, though, she is grateful for her own warm blubber and fur.
Cold Starlight wakes to eat from time to time. All Rivers offers her wriggling fish and the cool tender meat from the shellfish that cling to the glass shell. She rarely stays awake for long. But now, lappets drooping limply, she looks out through one of the windows on the titanium shell, back toward where Earth would lie, though it has long since shriveled out of view. She asks, “What happened to the humans?”
“They burned themselves out,” A Fish Thrashes says, before All Rivers can answer. A Fish Thrashes’ eyes aren’t on Cold Starlight, but on the drawing she limns with one finger in a dark patch of algae. It’s the figure of a mermaid—All Rivers, perhaps, if she flatters herself. “That’s what happens when you’re too stupid to stay beneath the waves where you belong.”
Cold Starlight’s lappets flicker blue. Her eyelids droop. All Rivers says, more gently. “No one knows for sure. One day there were no more new buildings stacking up on the shore, no more dark oblong things to block the sun as they passed. The ocean surface went quiet, and we were alone.”
“The expeditions didn’t find much.” A Fish Thrashes adds a bubble helmet to the drawing of the mermaid, and then a long trail of seal-intestine tubing that connects to a great water tank. A Fish Thrashes has run out of room, so the tank is just one side and the suggestion of a wheel beneath. And now the drawing isn’t All Rivers, it is Sun Shatters Incandescent on My Love’s Azure Scales, the first mermaid to crawl on land.
Despite her name, that explorer was old enough during her journey that the sunlight only melted dully on her faded colors. Sun Shatters’ voyage was the direct antecedent to this one, and All Rivers wishes she could have known her as more than a song’s hero and a smear of algae on glass.
“Sun-bleached bones and great metal husks are all she found. Who knows?” She grimaces, and wipes the drawing away with her palm. A green cloud of algae floats up around her. “Maybe they killed each other, maybe they got scale-rot and scratched themselves to death.”
“Maybe they left for the stars first,” suggests Cold Starlight. “Maybe we’ll meet them, somewhere out here. Them, or their children.” A Fish Thrashes opens her mouth to argue, but All Rivers shushes her. Cold Starlight’s eyes have closed again. Best to let her rest.
They decide to wake her when they are crossing the chain of asteroids that girds the inner collection of planets. She seems to be hibernating, but still, she is so small and frail. A Fish Thrashes shrugs, neither concerned about their singer nor wholly indifferent to her fate, and opens the ports of two of her exothermic bubbles to let them mix in the water around Cold Starlight.
Cold Starlight’s eyes flutter. “Are we there yet?” she asks, though her lips barely move.Poor little fry. “Not yet,” All Rivers tells her, “but stay awake and eat something.”
Cold Starlight obeys. She is younger than the other two, and alternately obedient and stubborn enough to show it. Her tentacles, curled cautiously inward for sleep, unfurl until a heedless fish is caught on her nettles. The tentacles recede into the frilly chasm of Cold Starlight’s bell-shaped lower body. “That’s better … ” There is some warmth behind the blue-gray of her cheeks now, either thanks to A Fish Thrashes’ alchemy or the meal Cold Starlight is now digesting. “Shall I sing something? To pass the time?”
All Rivers and A Fish Thrashes have found plenty of ways to pass the time without Cold Starlight’s help, because they have nothing but time now. It’s not so very different from home, where during the cold season there’s nothing to do but stuff one’s stomach to bursting and then rut oneself senseless until the thaw—though this cold season will last months, years, longer than any of those.
“Yes,” says All Rivers, and catches A Fish Thrashes’ eye. “A song would be lovely.”
They nestle together, All Rivers and A Fish Thrashes, as Cold Starlight tests her voice for the first time in weeks. “I’ll sing about the Gyresmoot,” says Cold Starlight, to herself as much as anyone. All Rivers starts guiltily, her fingers already twined with those of A Fish Thrashes. “That’s a good song. That’s the right song.”
And she does, her clear haunting voice cutting through the water to ring against the insides of the sphere.
“Oh, we mourned our friends, our cousins, our lovers,
beneath the swirl at gyre’s heart.
No cleansing wave reached up to sweep them away
though the oceans rose and the high places washed away:
it was their own hands with which they buried
themselves, or raised themselves up into the next life.
Gone, truly gone, and us alone,
forever and longer still,
until one raised her voice, her face,
The Black Pearls of Her Eyes Pierce Mysteries,
well-named and true, and offered us the choice.
When the deepwater folk speak, we listen.
Ah! what did she ask of us?
Her jaws opened wide and the universe
in miniature danced on her tongue.
To be alone, or to seek out other company?
Ah, she said, ah, to reach for the stars …”
Cold Starlight twists slightly, and the nearly translucent tissue below her waist pulsates once. A few fish bones drift gently out. They don’t settle downward, as they would back home, but continue drifting, caught in the lack of up and down. A pair of boneworms cut through the water toward the wreckage, ready to return the nutrients to the miniature ecosystem inside the sphere.
“I don’t like the next verse,” Cold Starlight says. Her arms, thin and white as those bare fish bones, wrap around her slight body. “But I think I ought to sing it anyway. Because I don’t like it.”
“Do as you like,” says A Fish Thrashes. She yawns and presses her face into All Rivers’ shoulder. All Rivers thinks that she should check their trajectory. She thinks that it can wait an hour. And anyway, Cold Starlight is singing again.
“But some turned their faces away
from cool starlight, and asked
on what far-flung world could such company be sought?
Humans reached for the stars and
burned their fingers. Our world had become
a quiet one, and no mermaid yet alive feared
the net’s reach nor the dark oily stain on the water.
The currents of another world, they warned,
would only carry a new flavor of heartbreak—”
“Stop,” says A Fish Thrashes, and Cold Starlight falls silent. All Rivers realizes she can taste a gradient of freshwater tears, and realizes again that they are her own. A Fish Thrashes brushes her thumbs along the curve of All Rivers’ face, and says, “They’re wrong. They’ll see.”
“I know,” says All Rivers, and curls into that warm embrace again. “Sometimes I’m afraid. But I know you’re right.”
They drift together, spinning with the eddy of the waters. When All Rivers remembers, a moment later, she glances over at Cold Starlight. But Cold Starlight has already gone back to sleep.
Cold Starlight wakes on her own, the frozen moon’s pale, brown-streaked face looming large in their path. Since leaving Earth she has felt herself trapped in a fog, a bubble-nest of confusion and despair. Now, she knows her purpose is close. The luciferins in the cells that line her lappets and tentacles flicker dark blue in answer to the call of that inscrutable world. I am awaited, she thinks, and smiles.
She is indeed awaited, by A Fish Thrashes and All Rivers, who would like her to test the sub-capsule.
“It’s almost time,” says A Fish Thrashes. All Rivers is busy checking and re-checking their approach, measuring angles against the etchings on the inside of the capsule. Her tongue protrudes between her sharp teeth as she calculates. “How do you feel?”
“Ready,” says Cold Starlight, and A Fish Thrashes nods approvingly. She has no more glass bubbles—it will be a long trip home—but she chafes Cold Starlight’s arms with her leathery palms. It is a kindness, and it warms Cold Starlight from the inside out.
“We’re in alignment,” calls out All Rivers. Her dark webbed fingers are spread on the glass surface of the ship, but she looks back over her shoulder to smile at them. It’s a shaky smile. What few smiles Cold Starlight has seen from All Rivers during this trip have been shaky. “It’s time.”
“Ready,” says A Fish Thrashes, and anchors her flippers beneath a bar to turn the wheel that opens the port into the sub-capsule. Her big shoulders work as she spins it once, twice, three times. On the fourth turn, the whole capsule shudders, and a bright eclipse of light peers through the titanium cage. Not light: fire. Cold Starlight looks in wonder at the long, brief shadows cast on the far side of the sphere.
“No,” A Fish Thrashes gasps, and All Rivers wails as she loses the capsule’s beautiful alignment. There is a strange sucking sound, a whirlpool gone mad—Cold Starlight startles as her head breaks the surface of the water. There has never been a surface before, not inside the capsule, and the vacuum plays with tendrils of her hair before she ducks deeper.
They’re losing water.
“Silent Earth,” moans All Rivers, still clinging to her etchings. Her voice warbles out from beneath the surface, but not for long. Cold Starlight wonders what it will be like to swim the sea between the stars.
But then her head cracks cruelly against the rim of the sphere. She blinks to clear sparks from behind her eyes, and when she opens them, she finds herself inside the sub-capsule. It is still full of water, and the hatch is closed. On the other side of the porthole, she can see A Fish Thrashes, grim-faced, straining. A Fish Thrashes meets her gaze. Mouths the word, “Go.” She reaches out of Cold Starlight’s sight, and with a terrible grinding cry, the sub-capsule kisses its parent ship goodbye.
Cold Starlight watches for a glimpse of the main ship when one of her windows spins that way. The bright bloom of fire has faded: no oxygen to feed the flames out here any more than there was beneath the warm waters of home. Despite the violent spin of the sub-capsule, she fancies that she sees two shapes twined together through the shadowed glass of the sphere. Fancy is better than nothing, but it is not a filling meal. When she loses sight of the great glass sphere, she looks toward the moon. Its pale face has grown large in her view.
“Hello,” she whispers. “I’m so glad to meet you.”
The sub-capsule very nearly survives the crash.
Cold Starlight drags herself from the wreckage. The spilled water has begun to freeze and tries to stick her to the ice—her aching arms are already locking up, and her tentacles and body cavity are of no use here abovesea. She does not know where the drill has landed, nor how long she can survive these alien oceans without the sub-capsule’s protection. Without the Sunfish’s Breach to return home to.
But she knows this: there is a great groaning crack in the ice floor, originating from the wreckage. And she knows this too: a singer’s value is in being heard. Cold Starlight drags herself toward the crack with her foundering strength.
She falls into the chasm when she reaches it, falls until ice water strikes her back and shoulders. She floats in dull shock for a moment, then turns, rights herself. Sucks in a testing breath, into her mouth and out through her gills. Again. And again.
The water is wrong, cold and foreign. A chemical taste fills her mouth and makes her cough. Her eyes burn, and her skin cries in protest. A short mission, this one, Cold Starlight thinks, and bubbles of laughter roll out of her.
Dark shadows move in the depths.
Cold Starlight steadies herself with a flick of her tentacles, forces a shake out of her shoulders. She opens her mouth. A lesser singer might not be able to make herself heard, but Cold Starlight is not a lesser singer. The notes shake when they boil up out of her, hot joy into the cold lonely waters. She doesn’t know who is listening, but she knows someone is, blurry shapes swimming in her fading vision. Something brushes her arm, another cool touch along the length of her back. Not the touch of a predator. A lover’s caress, familiar and strange all at once. Cold Starlight sings harder, through the sweetwater tears that feed this enigmatic ocean. It is good, in the end, to be heard.
A distant vibration, and whatever has come to greet her flees. She is well and truly alone when the darkness swallows her.
Cold Starlight awakes with her face pressed against cool glass.
The songs that fed her as a child told of many afterlives, but none of those were vitrine-fenced. Cold though, some of them, and this one too. She opens her eyes to see what awaits her in the next world.
It is a small world, sharply curved and tightly enclosed. Smaller than the Sunfish’s Breach, and without the familiar etchings of stars and constellations. Instead, muted yellow-green light accretes on the surface of the cylinder. Shadows blur and drift on the other side: more water? Air? She cannot tell.
She lists to one side; an air bubble is trapped under her bell. Her lappets tilt to release it in an embarrassing belch, and she rights herself in the water. Ah—there is a right and a wrong way, an up and a down. That is a strange sensation and a welcome one. She puts her hands to the glass and tries to divine what sort of world it is in which she has been made a visitor. When she spreads them, her fingers are bloated; she shakes out her tentacles and finds them turgid too. A freshwater tank then. Well. That won’t do. Not for long, at least.
Vibrations reach her from the other side of the tank. The water is cold, but the sounds buzz warmly on the skin of her face and hands, along the fine tissue of her lappets. Voices? It is so hard to tell through the glass and the muddied lights and the dark, darting shadows. So these entities, humans or their children or something else new and wonderful—perhaps they can speak. But do they know how to listen?
Cold Starlight tilts her head back to stretch her vocal cords, taut with cold and hypertonicity and, yes, fear. There is no time for fear now, no room for it in this small dark tank, but Cold Starlight finds it difficult to shed. When her voice sluices out of her mouth, it is a blunt weapon and not a sharp dart of understanding. It will have to do. She presses her palms to the glass, and sings out the chemical structure for sodium chloride.
The lights dim, and the shadows draw nearer. Dark shapes play in the condensation on the far side of the glass. Cold Starlight’s lips curl in a smile, even as they shape the exchange of electrons, the push and pull of electric charges, the steadiness of the paired nuclei. It is as good a starting place as any. As she sings, years—centuries—of loneliness, hers and the greater shared loneliness of all the mermaids she has left behind, all of it falls away. And when it falls, it pulls fear down with it.
Aimee Ogden has been a scientist, a teacher, and a software tester, but now she’s content to be a fake geek mom and spec-fic writer. Her work has appeared in Daily Science Fiction and The Sockdolager. Follow her on Twitter @aimee_ogden.
Wet ‘n Weird:
The Seaweed and the Wormhole, by Jenn Grunigen – “Your mother’s a swamp, yes, of course she is,” he murmured. “Is that what the dreams told you?” he called, still motionless, hand outstretched. It closed on air.
The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife, A.C. Wise – The fisherman’s wife breathes out, and tendrils of smoke curl around her. She listens to the tide inside and out — salt sea and salt blood, eroding shores of sand and making a hollow space within her skin and bones. She listens, and the ebb and flow tells her what she does not want to hear.
Serein, by Cat Hellisen – It’s always about the ones who disappear. I’ve imagined it endlessly: what Claire must have thought as she packed her bag. How leaving is easy, even if you lie and say oh god it’s hard it’s hard it’s hard. Make a clean break, leave everything, let loose your claim to possession: this is my house, this is my bed, these are my albums not shelved alphabetically because I tried and never could keep the world orderly, this is my little library built out of gifts and second-hand forgotten paperbacks.