‘Know They Will Die under the Salt of It’, Jennifer R. Donohue

Illustrations © 2020 Fluffgar

 [ Beneath, © 2020 Fluffgar ] Four of us were on the shore getting ready to dive when we heard the noise the first time. It was muffled, but still really loud. It was big, starting somewhere out in the deep, thrumming up through the soles of our feet and thumping in our chests as we took our shallow preparatory breaths.

We gasped almost as one, stared at each other with wide eyes. “What was that?” asked Malena, almost choking. They look at me, daughter of the captains all the way back to the first one, and I could only shrug. I had my head cocked to see if there was anything else, any noise surrounding it or after it that was smaller, quieter, calmer, but there was nothing.

I shrugged. “It must’ve been from the reef.” It was the only answer, really. I started the breathing again.

“You’re not still going down?” Chelsea hugged herself, her arms all gooseflesh.

“Somebody needs to check it out.” Then I stopped talking because it was messing me up, emotionally, physically. Much like on Earth, we didn’t have the ocean fully mapped and cataloged. Unlike Earth, we didn’t have satellite data to estimate depths, currents, temperatures. We only knew the ocean closest to us, though year by year, we’d pushed out further, navigated more. Sent out little sub drones, cobbled together with what we had, that brought back data, or got lost and didn’t. With no radio, it happened a lot.

“If you’re diving, somebody has to spot you,” Malena said. I nodded. Yes, those were the rules, even with floats and guide ropes to the reef. No matter anybody’s personal records. Mistakes happened and people died when you stopped acknowledging that you had no control over luck, or fate, or chance. Whatever you wanted to call it. “I will,” she said, after a long hesitation, barely audible.

“No,” A.J. said before I could. “I will. You go back, see if anybody else heard, and how it registered on the instruments.”

Still silent, trying to get back into the zone, I signed thank you and we started to wade in. It was shallow for awhile, knee deep for fifty meters and then waist deep and then to your chin before you knew it. That was where we paused and ducked under briefly, then floated on our backs with our goggles and nose clips on, both getting our breathing straight. A.J. was only going to spot me, but they still had to be ready.

The sky was clear, deep orange. I thought about what it would be like to be on Earth, looking up at the clear blue sky. I could form the picture of it in my head, let my eyes unfocus so I could almost see it, and when it was unwavering in my mind’s eye was when I knew it was the time to dive.

The first fifteen or so meters were the hardest, fighting my own buoyancy, but there reached a point where buoyancy was neutral, and either way could be up or down. And just like on Earth, at forty meters, I started to freefall. I followed the rope, not touching it but keeping it in the corner of my eye, a bright flash like the lights in the habitats.

We called it the reef, but mostly, it was the ship we came here on, grown over. Enough time had passed that with each generation, we grew more comfortable in the atmosphere, grew able to dive deeper and deeper for fish. The ship’s doors were beyond the depths we could free dive, but there were lights on in the windows sometimes. There were movements. A lot of our time, maybe too much, was devoted to the ‘what if?’ of the people who lived there. What they thought of their surroundings. If anybody was still in cryo. By the time the ship crashed, everybody awake had filled up all of the escape pods, arrived on our alien shore, our new home whether we liked it or not.

The cold salt water pressed in around me, and though they said you probably couldn’t really feel your lungs shrink from the pressure, I could feel it. If I let myself think about it. It was best to not let yourself think about specific things, but try to just be aware of your surroundings. No fish swam around me, unusual, but that was a big scary noise. Most normal things would’ve been chased off by that noise. I couldn’t see the lights from the reef yet, and couldn’t see the light from the surface anymore, really, and still I swam deeper. I wasn’t technically the best of us, but I was the most reckless. At least that’s what they always told me. And I’d spent my whole life trying to reach that ship so I guess they were right.

A few more strokes, and the reef was in view. Still no fish, and there was a light I’d never seen before, red, down deeper. We had the plans for the ship, knew what it looked like, where there were windows, and I tried to hold that picture in my mind. The windows were deeper than I’d ever gone, but there was a red glow I’d never before seen, and I kept going. The way everything diffused in the water, it didn’t seem like it was getting closer, it didn’t seem like I was making progress, and then I was at the end of the line, at the deepest point where it was secured with a metal bar, and I knew that was 122 meters. I saw a window, blank and black, hardly bigger than a person’s face. For the first time, I left the rope, swam deeper. It was right there, just a little further—

The noise happened again, maybe the loudest thing I’d heard in my life, even before I’d damaged my ear drums diving. I startled backwards, suppressed the impulse to gasp, kicked upwards, before I stopped, paused, looked. Time grew short.

I started up and a flicker caught my eye. That window wasn’t blank anymore, but glowed the same white as our habitat lights. Shadows moved around, and I realized people were there. I had no way to signal to them, and it was pure luck that one peered out. We met eyes, I swear we did, and I tried to think of something, anything, but I had to go, I had to. I kicked up, diaphragm starting to flutter, the endless ocean around me, finding the line finally, following, following, my diaphragm spasming. The longer I lasted, the closer I’d be to the surface for A.J. to spot, A.J. with a bottle of oxygen and a mask, a float to get me to shore.

Blacking out happened in freediving, and it was different for each of us. Some people had pleasant dreams, transported to Earth maybe, or other places not yet known on this planet. I normally didn’t see anything in particular, just had my thoughts dimmed away, like covering a light. This time, though, I dreamed that noise, long and sonorous and loud as a god, or a mournful whale on Earth.

I woke with the sun-warmed sand cradling me, and my face wet stiff with blood and dried salt water, thin rescue blanket crackling on my stomach and chest. A.J. pulled off my nose clips and wiped my face before putting the oxygen mask on me, but the nosebleed always lasted a little longer than that. My eyes took a minute to focus, my hearing normalizing next, the sound echoing in my memory, in my skull. I blinked, I breathed slow and easy. I gave the okay signal, when I felt like I could lift my arm, and A.J. squeezed my shoulder. Soon, though, before the medic arrived and before A.J. wanted me to, I felt well enough to sit up. “I went deeper than the rope,” I said out loud, pulling the mask off.

“You shouldn’t have.” A.J. was forever the spotter, the safety diver, never going more than about thirty meters.

“It was so hard to see.” I thought again of the face. Was it familiar? It could’ve been; we were all ship descendants. We had pictures of the original passengers, both awake and in cryo.

“Yeah, but what did you see?”

“The reef and ship. A red light. A face at one of the windows.”

“When the noise happened again I thought…” A.J. trailed off, not looking at me.

“It was the loudest thing I’ve ever heard in my life. And I’m fine.”

“There’s our daredevil,” the medic said cheerfully, coming down the beach behind us.

“Hi, Simone.”

“You seem like you’re feeling pretty chipper.” She dropped her bag in the sand and pulled out the stethoscope, the blood pressure cuff.

“I am. Just a regular blackout.” I flinched from the bright light she shone in my eyes, normal, my blood pressure was post-dive normal.

“No coughing blood?”

“No.” She looked to A.J. for confirmation, who nodded.

“And your voice sounds alright. Nothing aches? No sharp pains?”

“No. I don’t need the pressure chamber, I’m fine.” I pulled off the rescue blanket, started to fold it. None of the other divers were on the beach; they must have all run home to tell. “Did we get measurements of the noise? I think it’s an alarm. I think something is happening at the ship.” This should have been so urgent, and there was nothing we could do.

“There wasn’t much of a seismic reading, anyway.” Simone packed up, stood up. “How deep did you go?” she asked, voice lighter, on-purpose casual.

“The end of the rope,” I said steadily. A.J. would keep their mouth shut. Simone looked at me a moment and shook her head a little.

“I couldn’t do it. I’m glad so many of you do.”

“Yeah you have plenty of study subjects.” I stood up and stretched. We all walked back to the habitats together, through the hardscrabble gardens, past the greenhouses and the goat pens. The goats looked at us with their split-pupiled eyes, huddled together chewing their cud.

 [ Loose Goat, © 2020 Fluffgar ]

I imagined how it had probably felt, fleeing a ship with a rapidly decaying attitude, hoping the escape pods had everything necessary for survival, and then going back for the goats. Herding them into one of the pods, leaving the ship, landing. Goats weren’t exactly the easiest things to get along with.

Our habitats were built from the escape pods, and the main lab and medical facility were in a basalt cave with a chimney to the sky, something volcanic once upon a time, but we hadn’t found volcanic activity near to the surface in all our time here, almost a hundred years. Long enough that the first survivors were gone and the first generations too.

I walked into the lab still dripping and my mother appeared immediately to chase me out. “You know better.”

“I dove during the noise,” I said. “What are we going to do about it?”

She stopped, looked past me, but I was the only one who came to the lab. “Alone?”

“No, not alone, A.J. spotted me, nobody else dove. They wouldn’t have been safe.”

“And you were?” She put her hands on her hips.

“Of course I was. And Simone already checked me out.”

“Somebody other than you needs to make that kind of call.”

“A.J. was there,” I said again. “And I sent the others to make sure you heard the noise.”

“We heard the noise. Your father is taking a boat and crew for some readings.”

“I’ll go with him.”

“He’s already launching.” I’d started to turn, but the way she paused made me stop and wait. “My best guess is the ship is approaching final shutdown. Projections indicated how long their reactor would sustain criticality, and that date is likely getting close.” Because of the crash, we didn’t properly know the right Earth-date anymore, another item on the long list of what we’d lost.

“But the people—” I stared at her. I thought of the face at the window, the red light, the sonorous alarm pressing into me even as all the water squeezed down.

“We have no good way to estimate the ship’s population. We’ve never been able to establish communication.” For once, I didn’t know what to think, or to say. We knew how radios were supposed to work, from the data store, but they didn’t work here.

“We have to….” I trailed off. We didn’t have a submersible vessel. The pressure would kill them if they tried to swim. Mom just watched me; she always knew my thoughts, not because she was psychic but because I was an open book to everybody who knew me, and I’ve never met anybody who didn’t know me. Now I wouldn’t. “We can’t just not do anything.”

Mom sighed. “Our resources are limited as it is. Enough breaks down around here that we don’t have replacements for. It’s a miracle that all this old tech keeps going at all.”

“They must have something they can use. They have to know that they’re going to die down there if they don’t do something.”

“Things don’t just magically happen when people say we need to do something.” Mom looked as tired as I’d ever seen her.

“Did you know this was coming?”

“I’m familiar with the ship’s data. It’s one of the things we do when we become ‘captain’.” She quirked her lips; she liked being in charge but didn’t like being in charge. “You will too, if it’s you. If you don’t get yourself killed.”

“Mom, I—”

“I know what you do. Give me a hug and then get out of my lab.”

I wanted to press her for an estimate of how long they had. Instead, I gave her a hug and got out of her lab. She probably wouldn’t tell me anyway. I went and showered, rubbing the salt out of my eyebrows. There was a long period of, not silence, but time when the alarm didn’t sound. I didn’t know what to do. I had assigned tasks, of course. I could be doing any number of things to perpetuate our survival, even without diving for fish. There was always greenhouse work, weaving, checking the desalination systems, even just visiting the daycare so whoever was in charge could go pee.

I did none of those things. I grabbed a tablet, called up the information about the ship’s reactor. We had solar panels to power our generators, and batteries that I didn’t quite grasp the mechanics of, but we didn’t have any reactors and the science of it had slipped out of our day to day understanding. I wondered if the people on the ship were all just nuclear specialists at this point. What they had was a molten thorium salt breeder reactor, which mean it was supposed to go on indefinitely, properly maintained. I scrolled to possible faults, and found things like decay of containment, the freezing of salts, and buildup of materials as things that would cause failure. It was cold down there, and what they had was what they brought, much like us. We had natural resources now, some metals we’d been able to roughly melt out of the stone, and bamboo from the grow kits in the escape pods, which gave us a lot of building materials and fibers, but nothing that would be useful for nuclear reactor upkeep.

Nothing that could get me to the bottom of the ocean and save the people in the ship that brought us here. Today was the deepest I’d gone, and I had a hard time getting back.

I could almost hope that Mom was lying about the radio, that the captains had always lied about the radios, because a rescue situation was so hopeless that there was just no point to listening to the voices in the deep. Just no point in telling them about our tangerine lives, our electrified night skies, our rain that fell like clockwork, like the drawing of the shades in the afternoon. No sense describing the iron-loam scent of the earth and the sound of water droplets in the bamboo thicket, long burst free of its containment. There wasn’t any point in being cautious about invasive species. We weren’t getting off this rock, not a single one of us.

But I’d accused her of that before, of lying about not having communications, and she went through one of the most complicated series of emotions I’d ever seen. Genuine regret and grief, irritation that I’d think that, resignation. And then she showed me the records, of the tests, of what they tried right after the crash and as the years went by. And she would never put our own people in danger, letting them get in a boat without communications if we could have them.

I found myself on the shore again without consciously meaning to go there. I’d meant to stay away, but Dad’s boat was coming in. He smiled when he saw me, tired, distracted. “There’s my girl. Big dive today?”

“Who told you?” I gave his rough cheek a kiss. “What kind of readings did you get?”

“Chelsea’s dad, and…” he paused, jaw tightening. But secrets kept served no purpose, and he sighed and went on. “There are people leaving the ship.”

“People leaving the ship?” I looked behind him, at the little boat with the sonar equipment strapped down in it. Chelsea’s dad was cycling down the equipment, Malena’s mom shaking out the tarps, Jesse checking over the boat one last time. “That doesn’t make sense,” I said. “They can’t possibly—”

“We know. And we think they know too. But whatever’s happening in their ship… the ocean floor seemed like it was worth the risk.”

I wondered if it was my fault. Because somebody saw me. Was it hope, or desperation, that made people open those doors, try to step outside? I didn’t realize I was crying until Dad hopped off the boat, waded the few steps to shore, pulled me close. He didn’t say anything, just rubbed my back and let me sob like a little kid.

I stopped eventually, rubbed my eyes with the backs of my hands, weirdly embarrassed. It was just Dad and me on the beach now; the other two left discreetly. “I’m sorry,” I said.

Dad kind of shrugged, tousled my short-cropped hair. “I’m more worried that you don’t cry more,” he joked.

“It doesn’t change anything.” I hated crying, hated how it could just overtake me like a strong current. The way it robbed me of my thoughts on land, like being in the deep but without the serenity, the focus.

“No. But it’s like a personal release valve.”

“I guess.” I’d never seen him cry. “So there is no plan.”


“We’re just going to hope it stops bothering us with that noise soon.” I don’t know why I wanted to hurt him; none of this was our fault. The urgency, the helplessness.

He sighed and guided me up the beach, his arm around my shoulders. In an Earth movie there would be a lesson here, or he’d get me ice cream, or both. This wasn’t how our lives were supposed to be. We were supposed to have a larger population. More supplies. Communication. What we had were goats and bamboo, which almost took care of themselves. Dying tech that limped along far past what its reasonable recycling date would have been. A small enough population that we kept close track of who slept with who, to keep our genetics as diversified as possible for as long as we could. Endless ocean, endless water, endless salt. Sunsets that looked like the whole planet was burning itself up. Constellations we had to name ourselves, because our night sky was eternally far from Earth’s.

We sat in the sand and watched our sun go down, bigger than Earth’s Sol but comparable. Maybe a little closer. Two of the moons rose before Dad kissed me on the top of the head, dusted himself up, and went home to Mom. When the third moon peeked over the horizon was when I made my decision.

A.J. came to the beach after I’d plundered the boat for one of the big glow sticks, but before I’d shrugged out of my clothes and waded in. “What are you doing?”

“What does it look like?” We looked at each other in the shimmering reflected moonlight. “I have to go back. I have to see.”

“So you’re doing that now? At night and without telling anybody?”

“I get that it isn’t the best decision I’ve ever made.” I always had goggles and nose clips with me. If I didn’t, I’d lose them forever, somewhere. Goats would eat them, or toddlers. My clothes puddled around my feet.

“You’re goddamn right it isn’t.” A.J. went to the storage bunker, rattled around for oxygen and something else, came back and disrobed too.

“I’ll be careful,” I said.

“No you won’t. You’ll be you.” A.J. had an oxygen bottle, and a coil of bamboo rope they were tying loops onto the ends of. “I’m tying this onto a float, and I need you to hold onto the other end. I know it isn’t long enough, but it’s something.”

“Okay,” I said, nervous and grateful and all kinds of other things I needed to clear from my head before I went into the water. I wasn’t used to feeling nervous. I was used to doing what I wanted to do, or thought I needed to do.

I put my goggles and my nose clips on, waded in, knee deep, hip deep, A.J. beside me, and we swam out further than normal, past the buoy and the rope, closer to the ship. We floated on our backs next to each other, not touching. I cracked the glow stick and let it dangled from my wrist on its loop. I thought about what it would have been like to live on Earth, in houses with lawns. With a blue sky. With people I didn’t know, on streets, in cars, moving into the neighborhood. A school. It seemed like I heard distant shouting, and with my luck, it was Mom angry that I was taking such a risk, diving at night. But as deep as the reef is, there wasn’t much light from the surface anyway, just cold and pressure, and the ship’s lights. Just dark windows.

The noise sounded from the deep, rippling up my spine, and it sounded almost inquisitive, like it was inviting me in for a conversation. I dove.

Without the rope to my right, the glowstick was my wavering constant. I fought away from the grasp of the surface, my lungs full of air, so full, and gradually shrinking down, hardening to protect themselves. There were other shapes in the water, and I thought they were fish, I thought the fish had come back. Then I realized no, no those shapes were people, people from the ship who had left out the doors we could never see, fleeing the death throes of their home, taken by the current, crushed in the water’s cold embrace. Some were going to wash up, others were just going to wash away past the distant horizon. We would never meet them, count them, know their names.

I swam deeper, my slowing heart thumping in my ears. The noise came again and I flinched and kept swimming. The ocean closed its hand around me, and I started to swim in freefall, the rope unwinding in my hand, flowing up behind me. There were no fish.

There was a tug on my rope and I tried to ignore it. A.J. getting worried, probably, or A.J. starting to see the bodies too. There were so many bodies. I looked at none of their faces, afraid I would recognize one as somebody’s cousin. I was nowhere near my depth but I was shaken and nervous, and too present in my head, and I turned even before A.J. tugged on me again. The way up was harder, and easier, than it should have been. I looked up and there were lights on the surface, and I pushed away my thoughts, my worries, concentrated only on swimming. Concentrated only on nothing, only on the big blue sky on Earth, the big salty ocean around me.

I broke the surface and signaled the Okay, waving my glow stick for good measure, and Dad plucked me out of the water like he was pulling fish from a tide pool, dropped me in the bottom of the boat. I pulled off my nose clips, my goggles, breathing the air, breathing. Somebody handed me a towel, A.J., and I wiped my face. Somebody pulled the wet coils of rope away from me.

“What’s happening?” I asked, breathless. “Why’d you pull on the rope?”

“Look,” A.J. said, and pointed.

On the shore, walking steadily and heavily out of the waves, were two people in EVA suits. Pressurized suits, probably the last ones they had left after all this time. The rest of the settlement was on the beach to greet them, these survivors from the deep, and once they were on sand, water falling freely from them, one of them fell to their hands and knees, while the other turned back and looked out across the water.

I raised my hand in greeting, and they waved back.

© 2020 Jennifer R. Donohue

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