Home is a dimly lit expanse of cold rocky sand on a miles-broad ledge on a high mesa. The air is unnatural thick soup of argon, neon, nitrogen, oxygen, water vapor, carbon dioxide, and a lovely tinge of methane and ammonia that gets worse as one climbs higher. Out here, halfway down the slopes, people come out and breathe it on purpose, seeking their own level of balance between remaining functional and giddy, stupefying inert gas narcosis. Miles further down are the ponderous waves of the slow-motion ocean that splash and gnaw at even the highest slopes. Gravity is high, but the dense soup provides plenty of buoyancy. Outside on the ledge any tiny child speaks with a creepy basso profondo that carries for miles.

“Earthlike” said the brochure more than two hundred years ago. “Earthlike” on a cosmic scale leaves abundant room for nuance. “Breathable atmosphere” it boasted, referring, as it turned out, to a vaguely half-mile-thick layer granting access to a couple of percent of the unsubmerged surface, not pointing out that the layer can shift up or down by a couple of miles over the course of three or four days at the whim of demonic weather driven by the tidal forces of a massive speed-demon moon. Many, many liberties were taken with the word “breathable.” Breathable, maybe, alternately by hyperoxy or laugher euphoriacs who bring their drum clubs out to the very edge of the ledge to be licked by the icy, syrupy salt spray from the growling sea, booming away in call and response to the distant ocean’s own rhythms, each group competing to see which can best commune with the spirit of this place.

Speaking of, there’s something alive in the water. Or maybe the water itself is alive. How do you draw a line between a snail and its shell? Certainly it’s not currents or tides that makes the plumes of water reach our shelf, or even higher. This ocean is even more like unbound cytoplasm than the samples of the seas we brought here from Earth for comparison.

At least the ledge is warm, balmy and unchanging all year long. This place has no seasons.

Eight generations it took to arrive still alive to our little outpost in the afterlife, gradually drifting the gravity, the air mixture, and the lighting to try to ease the shock of arrival. We had to change our target points a hundred times in the course of our trip as we got better ideas of where we would have to settle on Earth’s “twin” and what the blue starlight would look like filtered through clouds of ammonia and methane crystals, strobed by very impressive lightning. We sang like whales to one another down the hallways through the muck we tried to learn to breathe. We were insane to the level of our constituent cells by the time we got here and snaked down the cable for the elevator. Two generations have been born here, and the youngest still have attacks of uncontrollable laughing and terrifying hallucinations.

Every ten or twenty years or so after we left Earth was supposed to lob a care package out after us, strung out on a line behind us like beads. We should have gotten two or three of them by now. Info updates on scientific advancements we wouldn’t have the resources to discover ourselves. Third and fourth priority seed banks. Chocolate and coffee, just in case. Letters from family left behind. None of them have shown up.

Last time I took the week-long ride up the lift, I went straight to the observatory, like everyone else does, and looked at the scope-image of old Sol, 295 years in this world’s past. The people there, if there still are any, won’t spot the light from our landing flare for another 245 years. And from their view it took us 350 years to get here. From ours, it was about half that. The light we see is still T+200 years or so, but we’re long past the range of being able to discern any kind of intelligent signal against the background. We are alone and cut off.

Why are we even here?

The oldest of us are great-great-grandchildren of anyone who signed up for this voluntarily. Even if we refitted and fueled up and high-tailed it home, it would be our own descendants trying to make sense of whatever it was they found there, the better part of a thousand years after the last word from them we ever heard, less a few hundred years of time dilation. On the path things were on, even a hundred years could make for incomprehensible changes. For all we know, they worked out FTL travel and have agents here ahead of us that we’ve yet to find. For all we know, civilization collapsed completely and any contemplation of space travel is taboo, and we are near-forgotten myths at best.

And now that we are here, the ocean reaches higher for this ledge than it does anywhere else on the planet, far higher than it ever did in our surveys before we came down. Once every couple of weeks someone jumps — but there’s no way they could make it out far enough to hit the water before they hit the sloping cliff-face below. Every couple of weeks a small team suits up and rappels down to retrieve a body, successful as often as not. Sometimes the jumper times it right when a surge comes up to grope at the edge, and maybe, just maybe, the ocean accepts its gift and carries it back down to its bosom.

Forty years. A thousand jumpers. Five hundred corpses retrieved and processed and fed to the gardens. Five hundred lost, too far down to find or recover, or perhaps dissolved into the frigid soup. Maybe all of that reaching up of the surge is an attempt to grab a few more. Or put back the ones we have given it.

I am the first one the sea ever gave back.


April 10, 2012 · by xalieri · Posted in fiction  


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