“Her Scales Shine Like Music” by Rajnar Vajra is a moving science fiction novelette about an encounter and budding relationship between two aliens, one human, who are the only living creatures occupying a planet in deep space. The human is assigned to guard a valuable find, while his colleagues leave, to file a report with the company that hired them.
Humble ice crystals high in the atmosphere often enrich sunsets on this cold world to glory. Mid-twilight, the sky shatters into opalescent shards, painting spectral pastels onto each ripple and wavelet of the vast lake near my shelter.
A strange lake it is: barely salty enough and in just enough constant motion to keep from freezing over. No more than a child’s stride inward from its smooth rim, the edge drops precipitously to a depth of over four kilometers. So sayeth Artist, High King of Scanning and Analysis on Stardancer, the twistship that abandoned me here for my unwanted tour as sentry, placeholder, and legal Vigilant.
Artist suspects the lake is artificial, created perhaps a million years ago. I can’t decide if I want him to be right. It both frightens and inspires me to imagine a species with such grandiose engineering powers. And where are they now?
Pale hexagons, magnified snowflake ghosts, appear on the fine sand around me, heralds of the falling temperature. The air carries a sharper bite.
While setting, the local sun doesn’t radiate enough energy to keep my parka fully charged, so I must be thrifty to stay warm through the next few hours. I stand and jump in place for a time, and then return to my featherweight chair, wrapping my arms tight around me. She’d either come to me or she wouldn’t. Most evenings, she would, but after what happened today, I’m not sure. Still, I think she’s as lonely as me. Not long ago, I only kept watch on the skies. Now I have eyes for the water.
But my past paints specters on my present.
Deep space scouting missions are always a shot in the vasty dark.
Even the immense Skyscreen Array can only suggest the nature of worlds hundreds of light years distant from Earth. So two months ago, when some bribable Skyscreen analyst whispered in RE’s corporate ear about G90703, a newfound marvel improbably burnished with breathable air, thus hinting at potentially obscene profits, the corporate mind drooled, but not heavily. A personal, on-site confirmation is always required for full salivation.
Skyscreen has cataloged many auspicious planets, yet few corporations can afford to investigate them. So Research and Exploration Inc., RE for short, emitter of my paychecks, bid low and won. No miracle, considering that only RE had insider info. Thus, my bosses landed a four-solar-month exclusive to send lackeys to poke around G90703.
First poke was us, a compact team for quick overview and resource mapping: a primary pilot, six scientists with twistship operations training, and two bodyguards (including me), with similar training. If enough gold panned out, RE would dispatch a heavier poke: multiple ships with large crews and serious equipment to investigate areas we’d believed worthy. By Global Council laws, no company could claim much of this Promising Land, but RE would get first crack at the ten thousand most promising adjacent acres.
Stardancer bent reality into an unimaginable pretzel, and after three subjective weeks, all nine of us crowded around the main viewscreen, gazing at our gray, white, and blue destination while residual boredom faded from our eyes. To speed up scanning, Flute, High Queen of Piloting, began by “rolling against the grain.” That’s our in-house code for orbiting a planet at the equator opposite to its direction of rotation.
Artist reported four kinds of results: expected, pleasantly surprising, disappointing, and bizarre.
As the bribed analyst predicted, even at the equator, temperatures remained somewhat below human comfort level, and gravity didn’t have quite Earth’s tug. Artist beamed during his next revelation. Praise the Lord, the atmosphere did register as breathable straight from the box, and watering holes abounded, plus three sizable oceans. Yet deeper scans showed no signs of life, not even the fuzz of primitive vegetation. Those Earth levels of atmospheric oxygen might be, he speculated, generated by organisms too small, too cold, or too buried for his instruments to detect; or, more likely, by volcanic processes.
One anomaly registered. Slightly north of the equator—“north” being an assigned direction—Artist had pinpointed a tiny area of highly refined metals. Hardly a spectacular find, but worthy of a close-up. A science team headed by Cards, High Priest of Geology, flew Mighty Moose down to do so and took Archer and me along, out of habit, I suppose, since the planet’s only apparent danger was tripping and falling.
I remember the way we joked as we spiraled down. Any number of natural events could’ve resulted in a minuscule patch of pure metals, none of which amounted to anything profitable by RE standards.
But instead of discovering a pool or two of shiny congealed irrelevance, we found the incredible.
Six days later, something far more incredible found me.
I’m doing some jumping and push-ups to stay warm. Light keeps leaching from the sky, and she still hasn’t appeared. Maybe tonight she won’t. Restlessness invades me like an emotional species of cold, but I can’t bring myself to leave. No oversize bubbles arise, no telltale bulge of water disturbs the lake’s surface. Soon, it will become too dark to know if she’s on the way.
She? When and why had I begun thinking of her as female? Oh, now I remember: when I began writing that poem about her.
Flute set Moose down on a conveniently flat shelf of rock, conveniently close to the site none of us took seriously. Gardener did a just-to-be-sure air sample test, and a minute later Archer and I led our merry band of insulated scientists toward a lake that was three drops shy of being a sea. Can’t speak for Archer, but despite ER’s commandments, I felt two kinds of fool for toting a wave rifle along. Soon, all jokes ceased, along with conversation, because we’d gotten close enough to our goal to see what had to be an abandoned campsite.
We stopped several meters from it, and spread out into a fog-exhaling semicircle. For a full minute, no one said a word. Finding this evidence would’ve had Cards—even-tempered only by being perpetually peeved—screaming obscenities at the pearly sky, poorly aimed at whichever corporation had mounted an unauthorized expedition here. But the collection of incomprehensible artifacts strewn around had clearly not been made by or for humans. Weaver, our tactile sensor specialist, finally broke our joint stunned silence.
“Anyone doubt that intelligent ETs left all this?” She glanced around at us. Even her Kenyan face appeared somewhat bleached by more than the cold. “Yeah. Me neither. But here’s a little trivia for your consideration, children. They scrambled so recently that my sensors can pick up a touch of residual heat.”
Quite the aftershock. We looked in each other’s eyes and I’m sure everyone had the same two thoughts.
Cards wondered out loud for all of us. “You mean we just missed them? Christ! You don’t suppose they took off so suddenly because we’d arrived?”
Weaver didn’t quite roll her eyes. “By ‘recently’ I meant sometime in the last few local days. You people do know how sensitive my equipment is?” By her tone, we’d have to study hard to attain the level of ignoramus.
Cards made a firing-back sort of target, but he got distracted.
“Hey, you! Archer! Don’t you take another step. We so much as touch that, uh, equipment right now, we could be out millions.”
No one spoke, but I saw a brightness dawning in everyone else’s face. Yes. We’d landed the jackpot of jackpots. A discovery like this would be worth more than a dozen rare earth or precious jewel mines. We’d each be getting astronomical bonuses! I could quit RE, go back to school, and see if my Tara was still foolish enough to marry a—
I noticed all eyes turning toward me.
Oh. Everyone else had already thought it through. Part of me still floated, buoyed by visions of a brilliant future. Another part sank as I worked it out for myself, a three-step process.
One: Before reaping our unjust rewards, we had to stake this claim, an immediate priority with a discovery of this magnitude. Otherwise, RE specialists might lack time enough to squeeze maximum value from the artifacts before . . . other interests arrive.
Two: Global Council policy demanded a “Vigilant,” a person constantly remaining within seven hundred meters of a find until a title was officially registered. Some legal cheating by one of RE’s competitors, the Finnish-Japanese conglomerate Draaki Oyj, inspired this recent rule change. Draaki had exploited the original radio beacon dibs-on-this statute by burying inactivated beacons, thousands, on newly opened worlds wherever sites held a shred of financial promise. They’d let other companies do the actual work to find any goodies, and then activate the buried beacons to finalize a claim. This stunt had also inspired the adjacent-acres rider.
Three, where our lightning stroke of mutual luck carried an edge of personal discomfort: Stardancer equals scouting ship. We weren’t expected or prepared to find anything this valuable. And it takes six people minimum, three to a shift, to safely operate a twistship of any size. No insulation yet discovered prevents the Twist from affecting onboard electronics. So constant attention and frequent recalibration is the price for making the light-speed limit irrelevant. By both Council and RE’s internal laws, eight people are the minimum crew for any twistship, two for backup.
And who happened to be on top of our totem pole, in the sense of providing our crew the least support? Me.
I did some mental calculations and didn’t savor the result. Even with the Twist’s temporal contraction paradox, it would take almost two weeks for Stardancer to return home, a few days at best for RE to dispatch a claim fleet, and another brace of weeks for those ships to arrive here. I’d be on my own here for at least a month . . .
“Cards,” I said quietly. “I realize the finger of fate is giving me the finger. Might I ask a question at this point?”
“You’ll never get a better chance, Poet.”
“What if the . . . beings that left all their toys behind come back?”
He grunted dismissively. “Not gonna happen. Look how the stuff is lying all, uh, helter-skelter. No orderly retreat here, kid—they were gettin’ the hell out, and didn’t plan on returning.”
“Uh-huh. Still, what if they do? And here’s something that strikes me as relevant: Why do you suppose they left in such a rush? Think that might be something for me to worry about?”
He shook his head, more in sadness than anger. “Poet, you’re too damn sensitive and worry too much. We’ll set a cam or two aimed here, and if they do come back—which they won’t—just stay out of sight, keep an eye on ’em, and record everything they do.” He glanced again at the artifacts. “This site would have a . . . different kind of value in that case, and Global would send out a contact team and cut out ER, but we’d still get a fat payday. Got it? When your relief comes, we’ll have ’em park their shuttle far enough away so any ETs around won’t be likely to notice.”
His words seemed as vacuous as empty space yet densely self-serving.
“You’re making a lot of assumptions,” I pointed out. “And, again, since you ignored the question, what made the ETs cut and run?”
“Could be anything. Maybe they can’t breathe here, and something went wrong with their air supply. Maybe they’ve solved ultra-distance comm and got an emergency ‘rush home’ message. Maybe they got cold. Who knows? But look around. Artist’s right. There’s no life here. None. Sure, you’ll be alone for a few days, but we’ll ferry down the equipment you’ll need, and you’ll have company before you know it. Hell, you’re always bitchin’ you don’t have enough time to write. Here’s your chance.”
During one shipboard group meeting where we were required to air our complaints, I mentioned how frustrating it was to be on a good roll with a poem and get interrupted. Hadn’t brought it up again. No one dared contradict Cards out loud, but Archer, Dancer, and Piano skewered him with sharp looks, which failed to register on their target. You couldn’t accuse Cards of being oversensitive.
Before sunset, Moose had gone and come and gone. I inflated my new photovoltaic home close to the lake, inflated my new bed and furniture, and set up equipment, connecting everything electronic to the battery built into my new roof.
My final human contact had been with Archer.
“You know,” I’d said, “I’m willing to trade places with you if you’re up for a nice vacation.”
He chuckled. “Haven’t you watched any of those old space operas, Poet? The black guy always dies. But thanks for the offer.”
I swung an arm around, gesturing at the terrain. “Main danger here is death by boredom.”
“Yeah. Don’t envy you much.” He hugged me tightly for a moment. “When the smoke clears, we’ll all have pockets brimming with cash. Just remember that, and take care of yourself, Ross.”
Having him use my real name despite Stardancer traditions touched me more than the hug.
The first two days weren’t bad. Some wonderful surprises manifested, including sunsets that J. M. W. Turner would’ve sold both legs and maybe one arm to paint. Also, enormous bubbles rose from the lake occasionally as evanescent domes, clearly preserved for a time by more than mere surface tension. When they appeared during sunsets, they seemed to have all the magic of the best soap bubbles in a convenient circus-tent size. I wished I had someone to share these things with.
In addition, I had my virtual entertainment system to keep me virtually entertained, and spent much of my time working out with water-filled kettlebells, digging a latrine with a muscle-powered shovel from our geology gear, listening to music, and catching up on movies I’d missed. Archer had insisted on loaning his fancy bow to me, another touching act, and it provided surprisingly authentic feedback when firing virtual arrows at virtual targets. But despite my awards in ski archery, I hadn’t retained much interest in such toys. Evenings, I watched the lightshow until the stars, distorted by the atmosphere’s icy window, emerged to twinkle outrageously as if winking at private jokes.
Sure, I worked to refine my latest poem and tried to compose another, but the muse had deserted me along with my team. By the third day, numbness reigned supreme.
That afternoon, a herd of clouds galloped in, and despite my shelter’s all-frequency converters, my battery juice took a hit. Priorities. To preserve heat, maintain a radioed trickle of energy to those cams at the alien campsite, keep my Vigilant location monitor happy, and power my water desalinator/purifier, I put aside electronic fun for that evening and the entire next day.
I tried to keep busy. But running in big circles, always within seven hundred meters from our treasure, lost its appeal after a few hundred laps, and the kettlebells failed to call to me like mythical exercise sirens. At least my dehydrated food and coffee could heat itself, and I should’ve blessed the existence of exothermic reactions. But an emptiness filled my spirit, not forceful enough to be labeled depression. “Malaise” fit the bill nicely. When night settled in, I felt grateful. Sometimes sleep is the best way to surf time.
But my snores got interrupted by rattling sounds on the domed ceiling above me, so I wasn’t shocked when I awoke the fifth day, squeezed through my shelter’s entrance membrane, and found the gifts nature had brought me. Small and slippery icy pellets coated the ground. “Hail, hail, the gang’s all here,” I muttered, a line from an antique movie I’d watched days ago. The temperature hugged Fahrenheit at the thirty mark, and it seemed wise to stay indoors until the mess thawed somewhat, likely a matter of only a few hours, assuming the usual mid-morning equatorial heat wave of merely chilly air.
Gripping myself by the scruff of the brain, I went back inside and buckled up to work on a poem. I got this far:
The bittersweet memory of a not-yet-frozen, forgotten tomorrow.
Liked the way it rolled off the mental tongue. I modified it:
Bittersweet, the memory of a not-yet-frozen, forgotten tomorrow.
That had a stronger beat, and I felt the phrase resonated with the right frequency of loneliness. Its meaning burned clear to me, evoking childhood hopes and dreams that were abandoned but lingered on. Still, would this come across to anyone else, should anyone else ever read it?
I put doubts aside, and tried to come up with the next line. Time passed, bringing me nothing. Finally, in hopes of getting things sliding, I took a random stab.
In that space between space, which no time can erase . . .
No. Wrong direction, I warned myself, and what’s with suddenly breaking out in a bad case of rhyme?
Second attempt, a half hour later:
Here, here I walk in the chill,
In the chill twilight of the soul,
Where the heart hides its own pulse lest its secrets . . .
Lest? What the hell was wrong with me? Perhaps my creativity and I should exeunt rather than leave my shelter . . .
Outside, the hailstone marbles had morphed into a layer of slush; gray rivulets of runoff trickled toward the lake. The heavy clouds had thinned, those remaining had dressed for the opera, preening ostrich feather streamers. The local sun felt like a blessing on my bare face, and with luck would keep me company long enough to dry my supposedly self-cleaning clothes, which badly needed cleaning. Having a body of water so near my front door had advantages, and the smart material, despite its stay-fresh limitations, rejected salt.
I slogged some 680 soggy meters to determine if the storm had shifted the hidden, motion-activated microcams spying on the abandoned paraphernalia. It hadn’t, although they certainly dripped. I could’ve checked on them from my shelter, but bathing my eyes in mysteries refreshed my sense of wonder, and somewhat eased my restiveness. I would’ve spent far more time staring at the alien junk if it didn’t tug on my curiosity like an addiction. The war between cupidity and curiosity was already too close to a tie.
I suspected that one object, emplaced on a smallish mound, was some form of power supply or generator. It stood a good meter taller than me—and I’m anything but short—appeared barrel-shaped with a flat top, and had what I guessed were sockets designed for massive cables. The way the soil around it bulged made me think it had sunk at least half a meter. If so, it had to be heavy as hell, a hell made of lead.
That night, my main battery had recharged enough for me to use my virtual system, watch recorded shows, or play immersive games. I tried, but after a dozen attempts nothing gripped me. I turned the device off, lay in bed, and stared up at my ceiling. Only five days, and my life here already felt very old.
Morning on the sixth day brought another kind of present: wind, sometimes brisk, sometimes violent, and always unwelcome. Outdoors, my parka at full blast couldn’t keep up with the heat loss, and even indoors felt colder than it had at night. I made several expeditions, one to the latrine and another to the lake to fetch water, and came back shivering each time.
I came up with seven more lines for the poem I’d tentatively titled “Bittersweet,” but discarded them all because none matched the feeling of the initial line. The notion of eating just for something to do had too much appeal, but while my food supply included an extra sixty days beyond the expected arrival time of the next crew, no grocery shops were currently available, and contingency supplies exist because contingencies happen.
Why not, I asked myself, see how many push-ups you can do these days in an hour? When I’d taken silver for Canada in ski archery, my record had been 1,260. I’d worked to stay fit since then, but my edge had certainly dulled. Question was, had it chipped entirely off?
I’d lost count somewhere past six hundred when the wind, which had been rattling my shelter and periodically moaning through the tent’s clever tangle of guy wires, stopped so suddenly, the hush felt as though someone had just died. My interest in push-ups dropped to a new low, and I headed outdoors to certify that I wasn’t that someone.
In the utter stillness, the air felt relatively balmy, which levitated my spirits so much that I decided to get reckless and do something my bosses wouldn’t endorse: give this world a name. That kind of honor made an excellent bribe, and when my relief showed up, if I bandied my choice around, there’d be a slight but real chance the name would stick.
“I dub thee . . . Sonnet!”
After such a massive accomplishment, I felt worthy of taking the balance of the day off. A picnic, an alcoholic beverage, and a no-pressure writing session seemed in order.
I fetched a blanket, whitepad and stylus, one of my three small bags of mixed nuts, and reconstituted some orange juice. Piano had provided me a single carton of vodka, really all I wanted, since I’m not much of a drinker. I opened the tab and added a splash to the juice.
Settled on the blanket, snacks on one side and wimpy screwdriver on the other, I opened a fresh file on my whitepad, put on my best Moses-confronting-Pharaoh impression, and declaimed, “Let my verses flow!”
And they did. Except, dammit, they kept driving me more nuts than my snacks by trying to rhyme. I didn’t understand my problem until I found myself humming a simple melody. How about that. The muse wasn’t bringing me a poem, but a song. With that realization, all the words fell into place like a creative implosion, and I scribbled furiously before any could slip away.
Here it is again, what I’ve seen in the dark.
Your eyes glow from within, your skin shoots out sparks.
Just a hint that’s something’s been erased . . .
Just a hint the path ahead has already been traced.
A star falls out of the night in the shape of a flame.
It casts off lightning in flight, spelling your name.
As I move through the mist where all things exist,
A strange tower comes into view.
I step through the door, I’ve been here before,
I’ve been here before with you. Déjà vu.
How will I recognize you in a new form?
Does the cyclone of time have a center, an eye of the storm?
No wonder I’d been blocked! For weeks, I’d been struggling to avoid thinking about how much I missed Tara while my heart had been trying to express nothing else. I munched on cashews and almonds that tasted wonderful after days of rehydrated “food,” made myself more comfortable on the blanket, ran my fingers through the cold sand within reach, and stared at the wavelets. I wondered about the sand, wishing I’d asked Cards how this narrow beach had come to be. Even in such clear weather, I couldn’t see the lake’s far shore, and I’ve got eyes 5X binoculars would kill for.
I don’t know when I drifted off, but woke up chilled in the opalescent twilight, stood up, activated heating in my parka, and wrapped myself in the blanket. The colors were now too good to miss. One of the house-sized bubbles, like an igloo made of rainbows, rose up within throwing distance of the shore. As it finally popped, another appeared immediately, much closer to me. Interesting. I’d never seen two appear in such close succession. When something stirred the water again, I figured a third psychedelic pocket of splendor was on the way.
Instead, something solid and exceedingly strange gradually emerged from the water. I couldn’t quite distinguish its shape at first because it was highly reflective, but thought it had three huge eyes, if they were eyes—two close together on the front of its head, if that was a head, and one toward the top. The front eyes stayed aimed directly at me, and if the thing had moved in my direction or done anything vaguely threatening, I would’ve run like hell.
Whatever it was, it remained dead still, front eyes now level with mine, wavelets gently splashing against its sides. No sign of mouth, gills, or a blowhole. I couldn’t imagine how it kept so steady in the water, and sincerely hoped that it wasn’t standing on the lake bed four kilometers below. As my own eyes or my brain adjusted, I could tell the thing vaguely resembled a horse covered in small, very shiny hexagonal scales. Only this equine was about mastodon-size and twice as wide.
Artist would’ve called this a “tableau.” The thing stared at me and I stared back as the sky so slowly faded and the first hyper-twinkled stars appeared. Any thought of fetching recording equipment from my shelter never crossed my mind, and retrieving the wave rifle didn’t get within a light-year. Just as the first of Sonnet’s moons peeked over a distant mountain range, my companion eased downward and smoothly vanished underwater without changing its upright position.
“What,” I asked the universe after a few minutes, “the hell was that?” Rather than wait around for an answer, I jogged back to my shelter, bringing only the blanket along. I set the tent’s lume-room panels brighter than usual, pulled out a packet labeled “lentil stew,” and put it back. No appetite. Only sleep, I thought, would do me good. Still, I sat for a time, heart slowly un-pounding, before trusting my head to the puff pillow. Thus began a long night of shivers, although I wasn’t cold. In the very early morning, an interesting thought arose: What made me so sure my new pal was confined to the lake?
I awoke after a last-hour uneasy nap and found my tent battery fully charged from yesterday’s abundant sunshine, despite the trivial draw from running last night’s illumination for an extra hour. This meant I could waste another day buried in virtual occupations. Games, shows, and a pantheon of other electronic time-eaters lay beckoning, likewise a few chores such as digging a second latrine, and my kettlebells seemed to sulk from disuse.
I got dressed, grabbed my chair, hauled it down to the beach, and set it next to my whitepad and last evening’s mostly depleted party supplies. The mixed-nut bag wasn’t quite empty, but only Brazil nuts lurked within, and like all right-thinking people, I put them out of my mind and not in my mouth.
After a quick trip to the latrine and a quick raid on my breakfast supplies, I settled into the chair and slurped lukewarm goo humorously labeled “oatmeal with raisins, brown sugar, and cream.” Breakfast complete, I picked up my pad and stylus, and proceeded to use neither. My eyes seemed glued to the water, which remained slightly calmer than usual and free of monsters.
After a break for lunch, a guilt-provoked brief exercise session, and some clothes-washing that didn’t take long since my wardrobe was so limited, I resumed my post and waited. Artist had accurately measured Sonnet’s rotation speed and reported the world to have a 23.2-hour day. Yet sitting there, the day seemed to stretch for weeks.
In the late afternoon, before the sky even thought of darkening, the creature appeared in the same spot, again heralded by two behemoth bubbles. Sunlight practically sprayed from it in every direction. Damn. Those scales made tarpon skin seem tarnished in comparison, and it dawned on me that the thing was beautiful. I commanded myself to stay calm. Aside from its size, the gorgeous monster posed no obvious threat. Not that I planned to take a swim.
My calmness held well enough as those huge eyes, brighter green in the daylight than emeralds, reached my eye level. But after a pause, they kept rising until they gazed down at mine from at least six meters above water level. That was bad enough, but then I had the biggest shock of my life, far worse than last evening’s record-breaker.
Conceding today’s staring contest, I squinted downward to see if my visitor had fins, legs, or something really creative. That brought on my blood-to-ice-water moment, although at first I thought my eyes were lying. They weren’t. Turned out the giant equine’s lower half smoothly merged into something unbelievably larger. The water horse clearly wasn’t a creature in itself, but an extrusion from the back of an aquatic titan shaped like a blue whale, but easily three times longer. Several meters of restless water and hints of sun-cast caustics obscured that back, but it seemed covered in gleaming hexagonal scales similar to those of its . . . living conning tower, but far larger.
Something akin to countless tendrils or fronds surrounded the leviathan, but this vague forest floated deeper down, hard to distinguish. I looked upward and met those glowing eyes again, and once again, tableau time . . .
Don’t know how minutes passed, but a lot of them evaporated before I noticed the change. So very slowly, the eyes were rising even higher while moving farther away. As those eyes gradually became obscured by intervening surfaces, I saw what was happening. This whale’s whale had been progressively tilting. I had no idea what this signified or what consequences would be coming my way, but from how my heart hammered on my ribcage, at least one part of me felt less than safe.
When the front end finally surfaced, a cascade pouring off it as a skyscraper of a head rose above water level, I found a new set of eyes staring at me, a quartet of immense, blazing green diamonds.
Some detached part of my mind decided this was the perfect moment to become a media-style commentator: You know, Ross, that the colossal squid sports the largest eyes of any Earth animal. Isn’t it interesting that such a squid could fit most of its body within one of those eyes?
Interesting? Fucking terrifying.
I caught a hint of something, possibly a mouth, far enough beneath the eyes to be submerged, and wondered how something so vast could survive on a world that might have just two living creatures. What could it eat? That line of thought led straight to panic, and I pulled myself back to the moment.
Silence. Both of us motionless except for occasional violent bursts as if from underwater jets, presumably from my dance partner’s respiration. Twilight came and went, the first stars arrived and steadily accumulated company. In eerie silence, the monster eased under the water and was gone, leaving behind spreading ripples, the cold punch of genuine awe in my soul, and a few thousand questions.
Before I fell asleep that night, it occurred to me that the alien campers may have departed this world because they’d encountered the giant fish, although I couldn’t guess why that would scare them enough to take off so very posthaste. Another thought shoved the rest aside. One thing for certain: Whatever surprises might come tomorrow, they’d be trivial compared to today’s.
So much for certainty.
I kept myself as busy as possible the next morning, partly to keep from obsessing. Certainly, a wide array of things to obsess about remained available. Should I relocate my shelter farther from the lake, just in case? Should I continue my evening trysts with the giant, or avoid them like a sensible poet, since I had no way to know if they put me in danger? Was I willing to avoid the most interesting thing on the planet? Were there other monsters in the lake? I decided that prudence demanded that I move the tent, and let floating giants lie.
So, naturally, I did neither. That afternoon, I relocated to the beach equipped with snacks and a reconstituted “beverage” of indeterminate nature. Trusty whitepad in hand, I began a new poem. The title came to me instantly, and the subject was hardly a surprise: “Her Scales Shine Like Music.”
That, I decided, would also be the first line. Second line? I had nothing. But as I rolled the title around in my head, I noticed with a touch of amusement that my momentary inspiration had made the monster female. I tried substituting “its” for “her,” and that just felt wrong.
She didn’t appear until twilight had settled in, but did her tilting routine right away. For perhaps another half hour, we just performed our staring duet. Then I found out that something major had been hiding in the surprise bag after all.
Thin tendrils slowly rose from the water. A flotilla of them. Alien water snakes? My new burst of fear helped me remember the hula skirt of tendrils around the monster that I’d glimpsed yesterday.
“Well, damn,” I said out loud. “You’ve got tentacles.” So a creature nearly the size of a naval destroyer, a giant fishy version of a centaur, came equipped with things to grab with?
“Tentacles” wasn’t quite the right word. Taken individually, these were smoothly covered with tiny silver scales and seemed delicate to the point of fragility. Taken as a group, they scared the hell out of me. I lurched several steps backward, and then a few more as they kept extending. When they stopped extending, they were a lot longer than I liked, long enough to reach and coil around me. I resumed slowly backing up, but stopped when the tendrils suddenly bunched up and appeared to be engaged in bizarre maneuvers, twisting around each other, almost tying themselves in knots. Flexible buggers, each one capable of multiple bends in multiple places.
A worry crossed my mind that all this activity was meant to hypnotize prey. As the only prey around, I didn’t care for that idea.
Another worry wasted. As I watched, the intricate tentacle weaving began to take on a more defined shape, which suddenly tightened into something similar to a sculpture.
I don’t have Artist’s sense of proportion or perspective, so this artwork might’ve had technical flaws beyond my untrained discernment, but it was easily good enough to recognize what it depicted: me. Parka, gloves, and boots included.
Another eerie moment. So my titanic companion was no mindless beast, unless she did portraiture by instinct. One thing for sure: she was damn good with her, um, hands. I used my glove-covered ones to applaud softly. Nothing else happened for a very long time, until she pulled her sculpture apart, drew the tendrils back into the lake, and sank out of sight.
Our tête-à-têtes over the next three weeks followed a similar pattern with a few troubling variations.
Every evening, at some point, she’d reassemble my image and hold it for up to an hour. One non-balmy evening, after her daily tribute to my pulchritude, she built a different representation, almost touching the first. I stared at the barrel-shaped living sculpture, the tendrils so tightly packed that the barrel’s surface appeared smooth, and recognized it as the largest artifact at the alien campsite. She gave me plenty of time to admire the juxtaposition before freeing her tendrils. I expected them to slide back into the water as usual, but this time they wafted closer to me, stopping near my feet just as I seriously considered abandoning
my chair. I’d begun to trust my leviathan, but doubt I would’ve had the courage to keep sitting if a nearby tendril had so much as twitched. They didn’t, and she soon departed.
Days passed, and I paid progressively more attention to the sky, watching for a flash from descending twistships, and listening for any telltale rumble. Afternoons, I set up by the lake, worked on poems, and waited. Before any stars appeared, she would. She’d taken to creating and destroying those same two sculptures three times in a row before sending her tendrils near me, closer each evening.
I don’t know why, but I started talking to her. Her magnificence deserved oratory, but I seemed to be in short supply.
“God, how I wish we could communicate,” I remember saying, doubtless louder than necessary, since she wouldn’t understand a word. “My name is Ross, but on the ship that brought me here we have this tradition of using people’s hobbies as names. So I’m also ‘Poet.’ I’m from the planet Earth. Well, ‘Earth’ is what we call it where I live.”
Pathetic, Ross, Olympic-level pathetic. Why don’t I further inform her that my hometown is Vancouver, and offer to provide her a pamphlet of scenic attractions?
But once started, there was no stopping my mouth. “Are you alone, the last of your kind? Except for you I’m alone, but not for long. More of my kind should be here within the next few days.”
I blathered the stars up, and only stopped when my audience slipped silently away.
But after another two weeks, my kind still hadn’t arrived, and my anxiety level soared. No matter how I calculated it, RE crews were long overdue. From then on, every passing day further confirmed my sense that something had gone wrong. I cut my calorie intake dramatically to stretch my food supplies, but after the supplies were gone a month or maybe two, I’d be gone as well. Yes, the idea of dining on tendrils crossed my mind, but even if I were willing or able to injure my floating companion, the possibility of safely digesting alien proteins seemed as remote as Earth. Better to starve than die in convulsions.
Maybe I got a bit emotional. The night her tendrils finally touched my legs, resting gently against them, I opened up about my family, my mother’s death, my sister’s battle with cancer, my dad’s slow recovery from a major heart attack, the money issues that made me quit graduate school and accept my glorified bodyguard job with RE.
Then I talked about Tara, her kindness and understanding, the plans we’d made for our future together that demanded long periods of painful separation. How my being stranded here meant we’d probably never see each other again. I sensed bands of tension around my chest snap one by one, compression so constant that I hadn’t been aware of it, and my feelings poured from me as poetry, bad poetry and rhyming, but I didn’t care.
Her eyes, so deep and wise.
Her heart, as pure as skies.
Appalling stuff, but I meant every word. It was only when I heard my voice cracking hoarsely that I felt my tears streaming, freezing on my cheeks. The night had turned colder than any I’d experienced here, and despite my parka’s efforts, I shivered.
One of her tendrils lifted up and, so softly, touched my iced face. Did she somehow understand how I felt? I don’t know, but all her tendrils pulled away and she slowly tilted farther than I’d ever seen her tilt, until part of a mouth that could’ve held a herd of elephants came free of the water.
She bellowed like a thousand foghorns resounding at once. I felt the vibration through my insulated boots, and standing wave patterns rose on the lake’s surface as if her cry tortured the water. Then she vanished, this time pulling a cloud of bubbles after her.
The following day and evening she didn’t appear, and I was afraid that I’d permanently driven her away.
Next morning, I headed right to the beach, determined to camp there all day. Every few minutes, I called to her. Stupid, I know, but I desperately needed her companionship.
She rose from the lake in the late afternoon like the birth of some alien oversized Venus, and swiftly fashioned a new sculpture, a near-perfect replica of the chair currently supporting me. The only things missing were the little guy wires I’d improvised to keep the thing from blowing away when I wasn’t ensconced in it.
She pushed this replica halfway toward me, set it down on the sand, and waited. I’d formed an idea of what she’d been trying to tell me with her other two sculptures, but had kept playing stupid. Sure, my hopes of rescue were reduced to fumes, but if the RE cavalry did arrive, I wanted the alien campsite to hold full value. If I was right about her motivations, and went along, it would punch a big hole in the potential money bucket.
Now her invitation had become too obvious to ignore. Question was, did I trust her enough to accept? And if I did, and it led where I expected, could I refuse her the help she’d been requesting for so long?
Some decisions—maybe most of them, for all I know—aren’t conscious. While I thought my internal debate still raged, my legs pushed me out of my chair and carried me over to hers. I turned around and sat. Even the texture her fronds had generated duplicated the feel of my chair. They lifted me high into the air as I watched the beach recede.
No queen or king had ever been carried on such a litter, or enjoyed such a butter-smooth ride. I’d expected my pilot-cum-vehicle to merely swing sideways to head in the right direction, but she backed quite a distance from the shore before she turned, never lowering me closer to the water by so much as a millimeter. Maybe she needed some serious elbow room to get her fins correctly aligned. If she had elbows, or fins.
Moving forward at last, with me for a figurehead, she didn’t rush but moved steadily parallel to the shore. She stopped, as I’d expected and feared, opposite the abandoned equipment, spun leisurely until my litter faced the campsite, and placed me so softly down on this beach that it felt like love.
I stood up, took a few steps toward higher ground, and watched her extend a squadron of tendrils straight toward the massive artifact she’d been mimicking for weeks. She stretched her flimsy-looking tentacles farther than seemed possible, but fell short of reaching the generator, if generator it was, by a good twenty meters. The tendrils trembled with strain, but had clearly reached their limit.
No mime had ever conveyed longing so plainly.
She held the posture for a full minute before withdrawing her tendrils all the way back into the lake, and then she waited, her equine-portion eyes steadily watching me.
I felt sick as I reviewed my lovely options and their ugly consequences. Just being this close to the campsite could be grounds to fire me if I were rescued, rescue admittedly becoming more unlikely with each passing hour. Moving one of these artifacts far enough toward the lake for my companion to reach it would surely get me fired, and the company would likely sic their legal department on me to ensure that RE would get the lion’s share of any money coming my way for the rest of my life. Then again, the Global Council could put me away for that life as a traitor to the human race, although, to be honest, betraying my Stardancer friends bothered me more. If my super-rorqual somehow removed the generator from the local inventory, that’s when my prospects would truly turn grim.
And what the fuck did she want the thing for? To begin a collection of junk left by scaredy-cat aliens she’d spooked?
I looked up at the small part of her that was currently visible, and she reached toward the generator again. Longing.
Having so many vital reasons to walk away from this, I could scarcely believe it when my legs began striding toward the artifact. Full of bitter disappointment in myself, nothing bittersweet about it, crushed with a sense of terrible loss with Tara the heaviest loss of all, I recognized that I’d already made my decision when I’d sat in that improvised chair.
I reached my goal, circumnavigated the thing, and touched the smooth surface with the back of my gloved hand in case it held a strong charge. Nothing happened. My instincts suggested I avoid those four deep openings that might be alien sockets, so I put both hands on the fattest part of the generator and gave it a gentle shove, a firm one, and then pushed for all I was worth. Nary a wobble. The device felt immovable, incredibly heavy. I nodded to myself. Suddenly my ethics issue had become an engineering problem.
Given a fulcrum, a long-enough lever, and a place to stand, I could topple this son of a bitch. Unfortunately, all I had available was a shovel with a handle too short to apply enough leverage to topple something this heavy. So I sighed, looking down the barrel of a whole lot of digging.
I went to retrieve the shovel, this time without relying on my previous ferry, and got to work, gradually and very carefully undercutting the artifact so it would fall sideways without falling on me. Luckily for me, it stood at the highest point of the campsite, so once it fell onto its curved side, the shovel’s handle should make a long enough lever to get it rolling. I hoped.
I’ll say this much for shoveling: After a few minutes, I didn’t feel the cold. I did feel some pre-blister irritation despite my gloves, and a great start on lumbago, despite my training in bending from hip joints rather than the back. Awkward positions soon become their own punishment.
A glance lake-ward told me that I’d lost my entertainment value. Even starlight would’ve revealed those scales. I planted the shovel in dirt, trudged over to my shelter, and treated myself to a full ration of dinner. I needed it.
Morning bloomed clear, bright, and warmer than usual. A perfect day not to shovel.
But I did, and after a miserable half hour or so, the thing suddenly lurched, catching me by surprise and providing me a jolt of paralyzing panic as it fell. It hit with a truly sincere thud, landing pretty much oriented as I’d planned. I’m not sure if my laugh came from relief at not being squished, or that I’d finally succeeded.
My laugh didn’t last long, drowned out by something much louder. It came from the lake. I spun around to look. My audience had returned, her scales painfully bright in direct sunlight and her eyes, more tsavorite than emerald, focused totally on me. I have no idea how she produced it, but the noise she’d made reminded me of a huge gong or temple bell struck by a giant’s mallet.
I sat in the cold dirt, slurping some of the water I’d brought along, and waited for my breathing to slow.
“Good news,” I called to her, “the hard part’s over.”
But, oh joy, when I set up my roll-your-own system with shovel handle and a thick rock, the surface dirt and sand proved so soft that it kept the device too trapped for me to get my new and least favorite toy moving. Which meant my troubles were far from over. I’d have to dig a very long trench, one deep enough to reach the firmer soil below.
After another two hours of back-ruining labor, I’d dispensed with my parka and both clothing layers beneath. Sweating in the near-freezing temperature, I stood up to see what my efforts had accomplished so far. My trench now stretched all the way from the object of my affliction perhaps two meters toward the lake. At this rate, I’d be done in about a week. I wasn’t a happy castaway.
The big question now: Could I actually get the device rolling on the harder surface I’d uncovered? I had to answer that one before doing any more digging.
I stepped into the trench behind the artifact, positioned my flat rock under its curve, and jammed the shovel’s handle on top of the rock and as far under the device as I could. Then I stood on the shovel’s blade and let my weight work for me.
My shout of joy when the device began rolling was instinctual, but heartfelt. And then it kept rolling. I trust my eyes, but this time it took an effort. The barrel shape didn’t stop when the trench did, as I expected, but leapt free, accelerating, spinning and skidding along toward the beach. It finally slowed when it hit several large rocks, doing them no good, and eased to a standstill where the dirt became deep sand.
I politely asked my heart to descend from my throat. Evidently it didn’t approve of having something resembling a massive power supply get violently shaken in my vicinity. Understandable.
As I calmed, it occurred to me that the accident had saved me and my back most of the remaining digging. It seemed possible that the longest of my friend’s tendrils could just barely touch the artifact where it had settled.
“How about that?” I called out to her, climbing out of the now obsolete trench. “All part of my plan!”
Her response came as another struck gong, and she reached out. I’d been right: She could touch the device with a few tendrils. What I didn’t expect was the way she used them to slide the thing a bit closer and effortlessly lift it into the air, then into the water beside her. What I really didn’t expect came next.
She lit up like a cruise ship on party night. Small, bright lights suddenly ringed her, and blazing strips of them ran along her back underwater. You learn something new every day. She gonged again, so loud it seemed to shake reality, and slowly vanished with her new treasure. For quite some time, I could trace her progress downward until she’d dived too deep, or quenched her illumination.
I walked down to the sand, and stared into the lake until it occurred to me that bare skin wasn’t keeping me warm. Besides, I was ravenous.
She failed to appear for the following two days, although I kept waiting by the lake from morning to well past midnight. Loneliness chilled me more than weather, and depression became my new companion. Sometimes, I’d sense more than hear a faint rumble, and when this occurred in daylight, the lake’s surface would become unnaturally agitated, wavelets running in all directions. I kept asking myself the same questions: What had I done, and why had I done it? If rescue came, however improbable, the consequences felt more real to me than whatever benefit I’d provided my wet pal. What was that artifact, really? Why would a kaiju-size fish want it?
By the third day, I wondered if I’d ever see her again. Maybe she’d wanted nothing from me but the device. The thought of breakfast appalled. I’d taken to adding water to whatever food I had that could be converted to soup. This helped fill my belly and stretched supplies, but the dilution meant lukewarm or colder meals. My coffee reserves were nearly exhausted, so I’d sacrificed my morning ritual to conserve what I had. That dawn, I decided to make an exception, brewed a cup, and sipped it in my lakeside chair. I made an attempt to savor it, but when hope fails, everything tastes bad.
One of the mysterious rumbles gave me the only warning.
For a crazy moment, I thought the entire lake might be levitating. Then the object, perhaps a kilometer from me, fully emerged from the water and seemed enormous enough to contain a medium-size lake. It rose into the air with smooth dignity, dripping a Niagara or two, and I stared out at this hollow, intricately faceted crystal sphere and thought: God’s own diamond. Sunlight scintillated from every facet it struck, but enough globe remained shadowed that I could see clear liquid inside, not quite filling it, and God’s own whale drifting near the bottom.
Incredible. It hadn’t occurred to me that something her size might be a fellow stranded traveler.
A spaceship. What else could it be? But so insanely huge that it reduced my evening companion to the scale of a neon tetra in a twenty-gallon aquarium. It eased slightly higher and in my direction until the ship floated, unmoving, directly over my head. Was she saying goodbye? From beneath her, I witnessed an unexpected version of flippers, hundreds of massive tendrils, each wider than a jet’s wings. I squinted hard and even then could barely make out clouds of tiny, shrimplike creatures in there with her. Food? Hints of massive structures lurked deeper within the vessel.
In open air, whatever propelled the vessel produced remarkably little racket, but its soft whine made my teeth itch.
I wondered if she would hear me if I called out to her, but then the behemoth resumed rising, not so rapidly but steadily. Neither gravity nor wind seemed to impress it, and minutes later it became a mere dot in the sky.
All this affected me profoundly. I kept gazing up at that dot as if in a glorious dream, wrapped in a memory of magnificence, my spirit so nourished that, for this blessed time, I didn’t think what her departure would mean for me.
But the dot didn’t vanish into space as I expected it would. It just hung there as if glued to the atmosphere’s edge. Then I realized it was getting larger, a lot larger. Not falling, but descending as patiently as it had ascended. I’d already forgotten just how immense it was; maybe my imagination couldn’t stay that stretched.
It eased into the lake so gently it seemed to melt, and the lake’s water level rose just a little. A minute of rumble then total silence.
Maybe peak experiences always leave a hangover in their wake. A padded sledgehammer of exhaustion hit me, along with a dull headache. I staggered up to my shelter and did something I never do: take a daytime nap.
The sun hadn’t yet surrendered when I awoke, but was getting discouraged. I slurped some lukewarm improvised soup, and still feeling groggy, ambled down to my favorite and only chair. I waited . . .
A second moon ascends, painting extra sheen on the lake’s wavelets. Should I give up and call it a night?
One of the great bubbles rises and I hold my breath, waiting. Yes! The motion is seconded by an even larger bubble and my heart leaps. She is here! Her lights flash briefly as if in greeting as she glides to the shore.
“How do you do that?” I ask casually, hearing the joy in my own voice. “Must be useful for hunting at great depths, right? Glad you could make it, but I sure wish you could let me know why you returned. Mind if I tell myself you came back for me?”
Her only reply is to reach out with those delicate tentacles until a handful rest so gently against my legs, a few drape across my shoulders. I’d seen how strong her tendrils are, but they comfort me. Unbidden, that poem I’d begun days ago, when I’d lost inspiration after the first line, comes to me, already complete and polished. A nub of a poem, and it rhymes, but it feels . . . just right. At this moment, I am content.
Her scales shine like music,
Her heart beats like thunder,
Her breath howls like grieving,
Her eyes pierce like wonder.
“Her Scales Shine Like Music” copyright © 2016 by Rajnar Vajra
Art copyright © 2016 by Jaime Jones