Once There Was Land
“And here we have the Artic Ocean, home to some of the biggest and most ferocious aquatic animals in the world!”
The tourists oohed and awed, the flash of their cameras creating spectacular reflections on the water below. The boat rocked back and forth on the icy blue waves, making it difficult for Nalis to stand up straight. She grimaced as an icebox wind blew through her black curls. She hadn’t expected it to be so cold here. Almost everywhere else in the world was warm, why shouldn’t the Artic Circle be any different? The waves pitched, and the boat followed obediently. She stumbled over to the shabby rail and hoped it wouldn’t give under her weight.
A man in tacky brown pants and a ridiculous sun hat snapped seven or so pictures of the same patch of water while his daughter shrieked about the penguins. “And, over to the left, you’ll see the last bit of solid, natural ground in the entire world!” The tour guide was pointing at a scrappy patch of Earth that hardly seemed worth mentioning. It was small, maybe a meter long by two meters wide, and covered in dirty ice. A lone penguin sat perched atop his kingdom, judgingly watching the strangers to his land. Nalis grimaced. She and the ocean weren’t really the best of friends since her mother forced her to take sailing lessons as a kid. She had fallen into the water, and since that day, she refused to step foot in the ridiculous bathtub that ensnared humanity. But now, with the oceans covering more than ninety percent of Earth, there was little she could do but learn to love it.
The tour guide was shouting again, something about penguins and migratory patterns. Nalis looked over the edge and was surprised to find a little black and white face looking back at her. It cocked its head and watched her with imploring spilled-ink eyes. It’s head turned almost imperceptibly, and Nalis turned to find a man standing only inched behind her with his beady brown eyes focused intently on her. He cleared his throat. “Can I help you with something, or are you just enjoying the view?” If looks could kill, Nalis would be penguin food. The man glared at her for a good minute and a half before inhaling sharply and saying, “I know you from somewhere, don’t I.”
It wasn’t a question. This man seemed to think he and Nalis had a history. “I think you’re mistaken,” Nalis said, “I’ve got one of those faces.” “Yeah, you do have one of… those faces.” The man watched her like one might observe an interesting bug as it goes about its business. “You’re one of those… activist people,” the man spat out the word “activist”. He grimaced as if it had left an awful taste in his mouth, as if it had gone bad long ago and should never be mentioned now. “You could call me that, I sup-pose,” she replied slowly. “You want equal right for the Cyborgs, isn’t that it.” “Now, its interesting you bring that up,” Nalis said with a artificial grin, “since its obviously none of your business.” “Oh, but it is my business. I don’t want those, those things being treated like human beings!” The man had gone from annoyance to outrage like a spark whipped with kerosene. Anger warped his face and created an awful image. Nalis forced herself to calm down and stepped away from the man of fire. “They are mostly human though. Androids, now that’s something else entirely, but Cyborgs… they’re mostly human. They think, they feel, and not treating them like they can is just inhumane,” Nalis spoke clearly and calmly, trying to keep things from escalating any farther than they already had. “Oh, what would you know anyway? You’re just one of those,” he sneered.
He really was an ugly man, his face all pinched in and narrow. His eyes were beady and too close together, making him look like doll left to melt in the sun that had been smashed back together. He was just the kind of man Nalis’s mother had always hated. Nalis swallowed her pride and softened her eyes. “You’re right, I’ll always just be “one of those”. So how ‘bout you leave me alone and get back to your cruise?” The man seemed to consider his options before giving Nalis a final death glare. “You’ll pay for being one of them, you will,” he said as he strode off. Unsurprisingly, he bumped into several people without apologizing before heading downstairs. Nalis sighed deeply before turning back towards the water.
A whole flock of tuxedo-clad birds had gathered next to the boat. They danced and swooped majestically through the water, and Nalis thought it’d be quite a sight to see the creatures fly. She could almost imagine walking along an old forest path and seeing them soar above her, so free and so graceful. She giggled quietly as she pictured them diving through clouds and stars, putting on a ballet with the world as their stage. She closed her eyes for a moment and pictured a day seventeen years back, back when the world was so much simpler and life was a dream. She and her mother sat side by side atop a grassy hill, watching the clouds drift between the stars. They were nearly invisible this close to the city, but their light was persistent. The moon had not yet been blasted out of existence during The War, and it glinted dully amongst the stars and smog.
The older woman told stories the whole night, and Nalis was sure she kept talking after little Nalis fell into her dreams to ensure she stayed there. She told of far off places that soon wouldn’t be so far off, of places that would soon be touched by the infectious rockets and viruses of mankind. She told of a race of sentient rocks that rolled about Pluto and build homes out of cloud. In her stories, Nalis always saved the day with cunning. Brute force never came into play, which was a good thing. Nalis was a puny child, and was still smaller than average height today. But in her mother’s stories, she was a goddess of light. She could illuminate the galaxy with a laugh; burn out all evil with her smile. Her mother always made her out to be the queen bee of goodness, someone who needed no one to be righteous and perfect. As Nalis danced through her memories, she wondered what her mother might think of her now. Nalis decided that her mother would be proud.
And then there was nothing. The waves washed over her so quickly, she hadn’t wasn’t aware that she was falling until her head dipped below the dangerously cold waters. She could feel her life slipping away, all the love and hope and dreams being sucked into the vacuum. Despair washed over her with the frigid tide, froze her and forced the air from her lungs. She flailed wildly, gasped for the sweet familiarity of air but found only the sea. She was somewhere new and yet somewhere she had been before, falling hopelessly through cold and fear. The harsh sunlight faded as she was pulled down down down further and further until the light was nothing. The faintest glimmer of a reflection of a shadow might have passed overhead but she could not see it. Nalis couldn’t think but somehow felt; I’m going to die today. It dashed through her muddled brain and left a trail of panic in its wake. Like the wind that draws the water behind it in a gust of fear during a storm her mind fell to pieces. The mast ripped apart and the hull, nothing but loose wood with no meaning. Nalis screamed but was filled with only more dark water. Things could not get worse but oh yes, they could. When the ice melted years ago, Horrors and Terrors were released into their nest of Pure Delirium. The panic that feeds on pandemics and starvation and war ran through the veins of the ancient things the ocean housed. These things of snapping teeth and demonic eye swirled and swam, always on the prowl, always on alert. One in particular had been called a mastodon in years gone by, and this beast had a particular fondness for the Arctic waters he was born in. It was this nightmare that watched Nalis from the deep, watched her roll and tumble and die.