Home, to the Sea
by Jörn Grote
“Science fiction is rockets, chemicals and talking squids in outer space.” — Margaret Atwood
“Talk to me, astronaut, talk to me.” And please, I thought silently, please don’t die.
“You know, it’s funny,” he said. His voice came in staccato, as if every word he uttered was painful to him. “I’ve cruised through the universe for a long time, surviving adventure after adventure, each deadlier than the other, and nothing happens. But when I take one step inside the Solar System, I have an accident. And I may die before I can reach Earth.”
I checked my sensors. His ship was still too far away. Furthermore, I did not know much about the ancients. Even if I could reach him fast enough, I asked myself, was I able to save him with the information my ship had about the biology of the ancients? Stop that, I told myself, worry about it later. Make him talk, don’t let him pass out. Make him talk.
“You won’t die, astronaut. Tell me something about yourself. What was your mission? What reason did you have to fly so far away?”
“I don’t think talking will help me any more. I may be beyond any help. But it’s truly nice to hear a human voice after so long.”
I hadn’t the courage to tell him how wrong he was. In his condition, any shock could make matters worse. If he thought he heard a human voice, I would be a human voice for him.
“How long is long, astronaut? What was your mission?” I repeated my question.
“You’re a talker, aren’t you? Well, my original mission goal was to explore some of the nearby star systems. I had some bad luck. You could say all the bad things that could happen did happen, and then some more. When I had my ship back under control, I was stranded. Far, far away, stranded in space and time. But it wasn’t for naught. I have seen things...” his voice trailed off.
“What have you seen?” Had he stopped talking because he was unconscious or merely remembering?
“Beautiful things. Ancient ruins of long-gone civilizations, each stranger than the other. Constructions so big that whole worlds were like grains of sand to them. Trees growing around suns, or artificial clouds collecting nearly all their light, darkening them to the outside universe. And all different: each one had its own style, its own distinct signature. I have seen ecosystems, natural and artificial ones, and some where the border was nowhere to be seen. Sometimes the artificial ones were stranger than the natural. And then there was life, from microscopic to macroscopic, from sentient to sapient and beyond. I have seen so much, too much to tell. It has been a long voyage, a very long one.”
I realized that I had stopped thinking about his condition. His words had taken my mind far away. “How long have you been away?”
“I don’t know any more. My most exact guess would be around five thousand years. But I’m not sure, it could be more.”
“But that can’t be, you humans don’t live that long!”
Oh no! I had said “you.” And “humans,” excluding myself.
“You aren’t human?!”
I could hear the fear in his voice. The fear that his long voyage was for nothing, that his worst fear had come true and his home was no more. And I knew that in some sense that was true. What should I tell him?
What should I tell him? The truth? I had no experience with situations like this. Why did this have to happen on my first mission? Be calm, I thought. Think it through. Truth or lie, which will be worse? The truth could kill him, but after all the things he had seen, maybe his mind was flexible enough. If I lied, maybe he wouldn’t let me help him later, when I reached his ship.
“No, astronaut, I’m not human. I’m a squid.” I held my voice, not thinking about what could happen if he wouldn’t take it well.
“A squid? Tentacles, living in water, those things?”
“We are not things, we are intelligent beings.”
“Not in my time. I’ve eaten some when I was still on Earth.”
“You have eaten us? Are you joking?”
I could hear him laughing, but then he spoke again, “No, no, I really have. Can’t remember any more how it tasted. So, how come no human but a squid welcomes me to the Solar System. And please, make it short, I want to hear the story before I die.”
He wanted it short, he would get it. This barbarian had eaten some of my race; even if they hadn’t been intelligent then, it was disgusting. How could he? Even the thought of it made me shiver.
Before, I had wanted to spare him every shock, but now I wanted to hurt him with every word. “You want to know what happened to humanity? It really is a short story. Those pitiful things — or better, those intelligent apes — killed each other in a big war. There were not enough survivors to recreate the human race, and that’s it. End of the story.” Deep down I knew that I wasn’t being fair, but his talk of eating squids had touched some of my worst childhood fears, and my childhood was not that far behind. I could vividly remember some of those nightmares. I shivered again.
“You know, that was really short. I wanted it short, but that was a little too short. And if I said something that bothered you, excuse me, but I have my own problems right now. I could have been more tactful. I swear I won’t eat any squids in the near or the far future or ever more again, so be nice again. Please.”
And then I realized, all the time I had tried to make it easier for him. He was in for a big cultural shock, but I had forgotten that the same applied to me also. His culture was as alien to me as my own to him. But unlike me he was completely alone in this new world, nothing would dampen the shock when it came.
“It’s okay, astronaut, I was a little shocked. But I can handle it. I hope my words were not too harsh. About the human race and their end, we don’t know that much, only that a big war happened between the colonized worlds of the Solar System. The squids had been uplifted to sapience, because we could think in three dimensions more naturally than humans. We were their navigators, and when the war broke out, most of us died along with the humans. But since our colonies were big spheres in space filled with liquid, they were less interesting targets than most human colonies. Many spheres were destroyed in the war, but some survived; and after the humans had vanished, those surviving spheres spawned others and so on. In time we spread over the whole Solar System.”
“But how could all humans vanish? Surely there were some survivors?”
“We were as perplexed by this strange phenomenon as you are now. There are some theories about what happened to the humans, but in fact we just don’t know.”
I could only roughly imagine how the astronaut would feel after hearing this. All these years of traveling, alone out there but always with the hope that he could come home one day. And when he reached home after all this time, it was all for nothing.
“Astronaut, are you all right?”
“Yes. No. Not really. But that changes nothing. My people died, and I’m the last one. And I’m also dying.”
“Not if I can reach you in time. I have found enough of your biology in the databanks of my ship. I know I can save you.” Well, I thought I could, but I wasn’t really that sure.
“Why even bother. Now there is only death.”
“Why! You ask me why to choose life and not death. Life is always better than death.”
“You’re still very young, aren’t you, squid-boy?”
“I’m no boy, and yes, I am young. So what?”
“When you have lived as long as I have, sometimes living seems so much harder. Experience and memory are like pressure, and it grows, every day, every minute, trying to break you. But when you have something to live for, then it can be endured. But now, that something is gone and I don’t know if I can go on.”
“You need a reason to live? Then think about it. You could try to find the vanished humans or you can tell my people about the history of your race, for much knowledge was lost in the war. You can tell us of the things you have seen and done. There is so much you can do, but if all that isn’t enough, then live for me. This, astronaut, is my first mission, and I don’t want you dead. If you need one reason to live, then live for my sake. Because,” I added, “even if you have nothing to live for today, when you live long enough, maybe one day you find again that something you lost.”
“Why do you care?”
“Because I do. Just because. Do you really need an explanation for this?” He didn’t answer me, but I knew he was still there, trying to make sense of my words. Maybe trying to find reasons not to trust me. And so I continued, “Why does anyone care for another being? This is what distinguishes us from an uncaring universe: the ability to be there for each other. Caring for others makes us more real, in our own and the other’s eyes. Maybe it’s like that, or maybe it’s more complicated, I don’t know.”
For a short time nothing happened, and then he said, “Thanks. I mean it.”
A signal told me I had reached his strange ship. Where my own was a flexible sphere, not unlike our big colonies, his was like a long needle.
“Astronaut, can you see me?”
Silence followed, then his voice spoke, but I could hear, or maybe I only imagined it, amazement in it. “Your ship looks beautiful, like a drop of water, or a sphere filled with light. I can see you, and all the things inside. All is transparent, even you.”
“Yes, we never understood the human impulse to shroud everything. Your worlds are all like that. I’m coming in, please wait a little bit longer.”
I waited, but I heard no answer. Had I arrived to late? “Astronaut? Can you hear me?”
I can’t remember much of what followed. I know I tried hard to blank out the fear, working to get him out but always fearing that I was too late. What I can remember is that I had taken apart many segments of his ship in order to save time. To save him. When I found his body, I plugged him into an air-breathing system that I had built while I was on my way to his ship. Then I worked on his body. Assisted by the knowledge of the ship, I began to cut him open, trying to repair damaged organs and bones. Red liquid welled out of him, and I felt like a butcher. Hours later, after I had done the most delicate work of my life, I stopped. I had done what I could.
It may seem strange, but after that I slept, deep and dreamless. When I woke, my patient was still unconscious. And I began to wait. It was hard, this waiting. I swam around the motionless body of the astronaut, always thinking. Had I done enough? Was there anything I could still do? But I knew that anything I did now wouldn’t be of much help.
After what seemed like years and eons, compressed into tiny bits of time, I felt like I was ready to explode. Then I heard a voice.
“Hi, squid-girl, how’s it going?”
Relief washed over me, and I swam nearer to his body. “All is fine now, astronaut, all is fine.”
Copyright © 2004 by Jörn Grote