“On Good Friday the raven washes its young,
as this world curses me with frogs and snaketongue;
so this world should tell me face to face,
who have I wronged in my life in this place.”
—Hungarian folk song
Splosh creak. The docks are rusting apart, the little gangways are slowly devoured by all the alien chemicals in the sea. I slip, cuss. I want to be underwater, I want to be treasured. I want to feel like my body does what it was meant to do. Up here, I trundle, out of my element.
I clear my throat—it’s always hard to get started—then I trill to my bathysphere and watch as it pops to the seasurface and swims closer, its airsacs letting out little puffs. Responding to my call.
It’s organic, but not sentient—sometimes I wish it were, then I wouldn’t be this alone, this abandoned. The family didn’t want a freak, so I came all the way here, to the planetfrontier.
Another pop as the bathysphere opens, and I hop in, start strapping myself into the frame. I take a deep breath. The spinal connectors snake into their slots, and I close my eyes, decouple from my own sensorium.
I’m in the sea; I’m a glowing bubble of magic and I light up the murky depths as I descend. Not so fast, not so slow—all just an optimization problem of how to gather most of the organic material that craves this influx of magic. On Earth there are whales, and when they die out in the deepwaters, they sink slowly to the ocean floor, feeding a whole host of marine life. But Earth is low in ambient magic. Things work differently here.
I shine, a beacon, a strength of strengths. Critters tack onto my sphere, grasp me with their mandibles, hug me with their tentacles. I am life, and they hold on fiercely. So little of me to go around. They fight, they jostle each other out of place, they bite and tear and chomp and crunch. They love, they hate.
They look so much like the humans upside, always tearing at me, trying to wound, to hurt. The humans I cannot forgive. The sea life? I’m taking it to its doom.
The pressure holds me tight. I position myself on the ocean floor. I flare my anger around the sphere, detaching the vast, matlike clutter of animal and plant and fungus and whatnot, already compressed into death. A giant shadow passes me by just for an instant, the memory of a being incomprehensibly larger than my bathysphere. I try to extend my awareness, but the shape is already past—I’m not sure if I just imagined it, or if it’s actively hiding itself. Or maybe it is indeed just a memory.
We killed all the megafauna. We killed the starfloats, the pecan-whales, hunted the gömböc to extinction and hauled their corpses after our ships, feasted on their meat, sold it off-planet as a delicacy. And then the sea began to die, with no giant animals sinking to its depths to feed it any more.
Had this been Earth, everything would’ve churned upon itself, slowly shriveling up into oblivion, with the occasional burst of gas. A silent demise.
Here, the sea turned on us with a ferocity of nightmares, wailing in our minds, its fingers pulling greedily at our thoughts. Mine mine mine. Ceaseless magic rerouted by our actions, turned malignant due to being wrenched out of place. So now we feed the planet. Thus the planet feeds on me: all the power I use to drag organic matter down below, all my effort to mimic a dying starfloat or a gömböc. I resurface, task accomplished—I feel drained and weary. I scramble out into the docks, hoping beyond hope that they wouldn’t be there, waiting.
“Hey, the herm. Dude in a skirt!”
I’m wearing wetsuit pants. “Piss off,” I mutter. The guy gets in my face, holds firm while my feet slip this way and that. I’m too exhausted even to shove him away. He makes a grab for my shoulders.
On impulse, last-moment life-or-death impulse, I jump into the water, duck under the piers, swim away from him with the renewing force of anger. “Crazy bitch,” he screams after me with more incredulity than violence. I seem to have turned female in his mind.
And I seem to be turning into something else as well, for the water against the bare skin of my face doesn’t sting anymore.
I cuss just for good measure as I drag myself out of the sea well away from him. Down below, I am the life-bringer—if those creatures could worship me, they would. Up here? I’m the guy in the skirt.
It would be easy to blame it on the magic, I think—it confused my hormones, genetics, whatever there is. Except I was born on Earth, and my genes must’ve been set firmly in place before I came to the frontier as a child. My atypicality became apparent at puberty, which is also when magic tends to manifest, but how much of that was a coincidence, I don’t know.
On the ocean floor, I feel a certainty that I am right, just as I was meant to be. But up here, my body is yanking me this way and that. Am I only off-balance because the planet is ailing? Or is that explanation too facile?
I drag myself to the seaside blocks of apartments, stare at the empty expanse of sky and water for long minutes before I turn to my door. I imagine the water rising—alas, it never reaches this high.
In my home-berth, I undress, wrap myself into layers of blankets. Before I know, I am asleep, and the planet doesn’t scream at me, it only drones and drones like a lone electric guitar in some minimalist composition.
“I came to you: an upstanding young man,
here to pour dew on beautiful women,
because if I don’t water them this year,
they won’t bloom and flower next year.”
—Hungarian folk rhyme
And another voice, a drunken baritone:
“Open the fucken door!”
Go away, I think, go away.
I wanted to sleep in—at least on Easter Monday if I didn’t get Sunday off. But nature doesn’t abide by our festivals and the sea is ever hungry. I pull my blanket over my head. The dudes outside are thumping on the door.
“You sure it’s a woman?”
“You pour the water and we see!”
“Ooo, boob joke!”
I always, always hated Easter Monday, and that was before these ridiculous right-wing traditionalists decided to bring back the custom of dumping an entire bucketful of cold water on girls. We are not on Earth anymore, but they just have to do this. Go to great lengths to make people miserable.
Will they ever go away?
I wait. Get dressed. They thump and yell. I eat breakfast.
Then they break open the door.
They are surprised, to their credit. They stand there for a moment, like a grotesque tableau, the smell of alcohol rising off their skin, strong over the acidic smell of seawater.
I yell. “Now you’ve gone and got me really angry!” I kick my stool away, push the table into the wall where it vanishes with a loud glop. “A, get the hell out of here, B, get someone to fix my door!”
One of them whips out the bucket and swings it forward, drenches me completely. Seawater. Caustic, abrasive chemicals.
I smile. Lick my lips. Cross my arms across my soaked torso.
This is very, very much not what they expected.
I raise my right arm to point at them, and outside, the sea rumbles.
They run away.
“Oh my God, tell me what should I do,
should I run away or should I stop?
If I run, they will chase me still,
If I stay, they will beat me till I drop.”
—Beás, Hungarian and Romani folk song
I wander the seaside. That wasn’t a prank, I’m thinking, they wanted to hurt me, maim me.
I focus on the magic inside me, the incandescent light. I don’t want to return the hurt, I don’t want to take revenge. I just want to be left alone.
I pause. Truly? Alone?
I trill and my bathysphere comes, so fast it had to have been lurking in the shallow water nearby.
Could I give up the land, move into the sea? Would I have to choose sides? Humans or the planet? The planet, definitely—I suppress a bitter grimace. But what would that solve?
“The water doesn’t sting you either,” I tell my sphere. I wonder how it is with the other magical people; I’m always uncomfortable around them. They are all into the same traditionalist nonsense, here on the planetfrontier.
The bathysphere is silent. It doesn’t speak. It’s an animal.
I pause. An animal. Smaller than the vast megafauna, but descended from the same lines.
I smack my lips together and think rapidly, furiously—if I could summon one of the old giants hiding somewhere still, as legend has it—I never allowed myself this thought before, because I was afraid what the other humans would do—but I disclaim them, part from them now in order to help them. Life will persist, but it remains to be seen in which shape.
I remember the shadows of the sea. And I remember the soft droning sound. I start to hum, the melody resonating between my teeth.
I would not summon the giant, gentle-seeming beings to satisfy my curiosity, nor to lead hunters to them. I would not call out to beings who might be the very last of their kind, just to entrap them. I summon them now because I need allies. I am a leftover, and thus we are kin.
Slowly, ponderously, a vast shape arises from the sea, and I wade into the waves to greet my lone fellow with open arms.