You blink, bleary, as you wander into the kitchen. It’s horrendously early, the flip-side of morning when everything’s pitch dark. You fumble for a light switch, and squint against the glare when you find it.
The projector in the corner whirs quietly as it turns on, clean white carapace in stark contrast to the rusted clutter of its surroundings, modem lights blinking in time to its jaunty little start-up tune as it unfolds its eight legs and scrambles onto the kitchen counter next to your cutting board. INCOMING CALL, it informs you, casting the words in pale light above your pile of dirty dishes. Your mom, probably. The projector was a gift, to keep in touch after you moved out–; she always checks in before you start work, even though you tell her she doesn’t have to. Prefers that she wouldn’t, actually, not that you’d say it.
A silver swarm of fish flits past outside the fogged glass of the window, a thousand shining bodies darting out of the gloom before fading away, back to the depths. You stare for a moment, contemplative, mesmerized, before accepting the call. The projector chirps agreeably, unfolds its thorax, and a staticky projection flickers into existence against the wall.
Your mother’s unhappy this morning. She’s got that look on her face, sour—like vinegar, as your father used to say. The kind of look that asks you if you’re sitting down first before delivering bad news. Storms and horizons.
“Hi mom. Fine.”
You surreptitiously dodge over to the cupboards in search of breakfast:; no reason to bear this on an empty stomach. It’s a damn shame nobody’s figured out how to grow coffee down here yet. You wouldn’t commit murder for some caffeine, but, well… Maybe a minor felony. You carefully set the coils on the stove to heating, worn burners flaking against the white heat, and empty your thin packet of instant oatmeal into a mostly-clean pot.
Stale air filters through the kitchen nook, and the whole station creaks as the ventilation kicks on. Of course the base still runs fourth-gen oxy systems from back before people figured out how to scrub that unused-storage-closet smell out of recycled air. In a way the research station is a time capsule in its own right, questionably sealed against water pressure and filled with knick-knacks for life from back before the coasts flooded.
A siren drifts by outside the window and eyes you curiously, fins trailing like a leafy seadragon. It mouths something at you, but no sound comes through.
You see your mother purse her lips out of the corner of your eye. She watches, silent, as you attempt to coax your oatmeal into edibility. She hesitates, but only for a moment.
“Your 外婆 passed away yesterday.”
You blink. 外婆? …Who?
“Oh,” you say, at a complete loss, floundering. “I’m sorry.”
Your mother’s face sours further at your obviously insufficient response. You scramble for a minute, trying to cold-read what level of emotionally distraught you should currently be.
—外婆; definitely a family member—but which one? Someone you barely met once as a child? Someone pivotal to your world, soul-crushing to lose? Grandparent of some sort, maybe? Father’s side, mother’s side? Mother’s side? But wait, that would be 姥姥, so that can’t be right—
—In your eternal minute of internal translation, your mother has already disconnected.
You stand there, staring at your oatmeal.
You descend slowly in your little bubble, a clunky vessel of crusted metal and fogging glass, precariously gliding along the tether of the floating base. The shipwreck is some hundred feet down, and a blob of light sways in the current just above it amongst the kelp, marking its location.
Silt swirls around your feet as you step out along the path, outlined by the faint glow of buoying lamps swaying gently with the current. Can’t land too close without disturbing the site, which you understand, but you feel like you could land a little closer. Something drifts in the vast expanse above your head, a vague silhouette just outside the reach of the lights. You absent-mindedly check that the noise cancellation unit in your suit is online.
The wreck looms like a carcass out the darkness ahead, and you suppose in a way it is. A beam of light sweeps through the strands of seaweed; looks like Aria is there already. You wave at them. They wave back.
“What’s up?” they sign, a quick flicking motion on one hand, and pass you a pencil and drafting film with the other.
“Fine,” you sign back, tapping your thumb against your chest. You don’t really want to get into it.
You spend the morning taking careful note of the minute locations of shards of metal and brushing crabs off the equipment. A particularly adventurous fish keeps trying to nibble on your pencil. Portholes weeping rust, urchin-encrusted control panels. It’s meditative, in its own way, sifting through a relic of the past.
A pod of sirens circles around the edge of the halo of light, eyes glinting as faint bioluminescence pulses hypnotic patterns against the darkness, mouthing silent words at you. You can feel the faint vibration of sonar along your bones, a feeling like an itch in your teeth, but the suit keeps any sound out. Personnel loss used to be much higher before the audio cancellation tech was perfected–at least–according to the onboarding videos you had to watch for employee orientation. A perfect imitation of human language, once luring people to their deaths. Now it’s just another fact of life at sea, a setting to check, a switch to turn on.
“Did you know,” Aria signs at you from where they’re settled in the sand under a railing, “That in the original Greek legends, sirens were described as part bird instead of part fish?”
“Huh. Weird how myths kinda twist over time. Like Telephone, but over history.”
You ride the clunky little bubble back up to the base with Aria in tow for your contractual lunch break. Leaning against the counter, between bites of a dry, deeply disappointing sandwich, you surreptitiously pop open a translation app.
外婆, it informs you cheerily, pinyin: wàipó. Maternal grandmother. See also: 姥姥。
Your grandmother is a quiet woman in your rare memories of family visits. Your extended family still uses the verbal language that’s been falling out of favor for years now, living on the land where air isn’t a worry and sound travels fine, and it takes most of your concentration to follow along with the conversation. You use words more on instinct than knowledge, the shapes uncomfortable and strange, a foreign mother tongue foreign on your tongue. Old anecdotes repeated with added flair. Debates around the dinner table over the government, over the economy, over sports. You can barely tell a story, and certainly never win an argument.
You turn over your game pieces in your hand, before placing one on the board with a quiet clack. You’re not very good at 五子棋, but you like it. Matte black and white pebbles, cool drops of color nestled along the gridlines of an old wooden board. Connect five and you win. Deceptively simple. Your grandmother blocks your line of four black pieces, and in the same move completes a line of three white.
Outside the window you can see the courtyard from 196 stories up; with nowhere left to expand, cities have simply grown upwards. It’s taller than you’d ever be on any structure at sea, where the cities sink beneath the waves, anchored to the surface only by buoy and chain and engineering and faith. Here the skyscrapers live up to their names, rising so high that they leave their own wake in the sky. You consider the board.
The floor feels too steady beneath your feet.
You clamber haphazardly to the top of the base, outside of the insulating walls, metal rungs of a rusting ladder sticky and freezing beneath your palms. The above-water structure isn’t much more than a buoy, rocking in time to the waves. The night breeze is wickedly cold, but the stars are sharp and the moon is beautiful. Your eyes follow a path you know by heart: start at Pherkad, dip down to Kochab, trace the curve to Yildun; end on Stella Maris. Cynosura, scipsteorra, lodestar, pole star.
You think about your family, thousands of miles away, connected and separated by ocean. A volta do mar.
You can hear a siren singing, somewhere in the distance. A distinctly human cadence and intonation, one that should have a meaning that calls you to your death.
The song is beautiful, but you can’t understand any of it.
It’s just music. ▲