"When you invent the ship, you also invent the shipwreck." - Paul Virilio
I'm staring off into the Drop: into the place where the reef fissures and breaks and becomes forever. Just a slash-line of dirty coral there at the end. Wisps of algae clinging like the skin of a leper to sea-dyed bones, and then nothing.
The sunlight is a murky diffusion down here, brightness turned communal by the weight of water overhead. I click my membranes. Pupils like teaspoons dial and focus. I can pick out a threat a mile away in the dark.
But it is day. And I am on the reef still. And I am alone.
I breathe, tasting the water as it runs through the slats that line my neck. Feathered gills strain oxygen from the mix. I adjust my grip on my spear, wind my body into an indentation in the reef, and wait.
Chromatophores ripple camouflage across my flanks. But for the stir of silt around where I have settled, I am invisible. A patch of mottled insignificance in a vast, undersea shelf of the same.
Devil Reef is one of our few near-surface colonies. Up until a week ago, it had been in regular contact with Sandy Trench. Merchants had made their way to us in one and twos, sometimes with a half-formed colt trailing alongside them, bringing bags of sharpened coral. In return we had supplied them with materials pulled off of the corpses of arcologies.
When the shipments had dried up, we had sent a scout to re-establish contact.
Our scout had found the bones.
The ocean works quickly and not a single skeleton wore the meat it had known in life. Women, men, and children, they lay in their burrows, grinning predatorily from their vacant skulls. I verified the scout's findings as soon as I arrived and I was struck again by how monstrous we appear in death. It is as if our ocean-stripped bodies have merged with the divine.
I suppress an involuntary shiver, not wishing to invoke Hydra here. Not now.
Let her be prowling the Elsereaches. Encroaching on someone else's settlement. Digging tendrils into another inhabited abyss.
It is said that she can hear the thoughts of the pious, so I think of sun and shore and other blasphemies until I am convinced that I am safe.
A spear would be nothing against the mother – but it might be enough to put paid to whoever killed my kindred. I lie in silence for several long drags of the tide. Unfamiliar parasites scramble and climb over my scaled tailskin. A barnacle latches onto my left shoulder. I resist the temptation to pick it off.
The Drop lies just ahead of me, crumbling away into ever darkening blue, and I stare down into it.
Sometimes an Interloper will climb out of the dark, its million legs sequence-marching up the side. I am not prepared to fight one. None of my kind are. When we are sorely threatened, we run.
That is how we have survived in our enclaves.
When the planet died, when the ancestors were fractured, that is how we remained.
I will probably not remain for long, I think.
The routinely-females select me for these tasks. I am too curious, too aggressive to be maled and selected as breeding stock, so I remain in androg and spend most of my time outside of the enclave.
The ocean is wilder past the kelp farms and scavenger traps and scooped sandy nesting-beds. It fits my temperament exactly.
Waves of song wash over me – the distant scan of a roaming leviathan – and I remind myself that I am too insignificant a twist of gristle to be worthy of its notice.
But I am just the right size for the PredatorMouth, when it arrives.
The old word, shjyak, rises to my nose and I almost articulate it as a burst of ultra-high frequency sound. Just old skin and razors is the shjyak, with jaws wider than my body and an appetite that could eclipse the moon. It has scented me, turned from its endless reefside patrol to take in a meal, and I know that it is no good trying to outswim it.
It is adapted for the chase, whereas I am not.
It is not adapted to being disemboweled from below, so that is what I do.
Rising from my hiding place on the reef as it passes overhead, I give a savage kick of the tail and glide up beneath it. Running a hand across its belly would be like running that same hand across the dagger-points of the reef, so I show my respect for it with the point of my spear. Up and in, fountaining wisps of copper-tasting red, my weapon breaks flesh. The shjyak jerks, tries to turn in a horrifying Immelmann. I go with it, clinging to the spear now. Kicking out to keep pace with the creature and to avoid presenting my head to its mouth.
Waiting rows of teeth skin inches from my face and I dig the spear in further. Cartilage crunches. I have pierced something vital.
The shjyak is in no hurry to die.
It rolls, meaning to snap the spear, and as I conform my body to the movement, I hear the song of the distant leviathan again.
This time it is much closer and there is an odd cadence to its notes.
It is also coming from above me.
I see the shadow before I feel the surface distortion. A shape glides across the distant sun, darkening the sea around me, and high overhead the surface breaks. Webbed figures spill into the top layer, their bodies bulbous and distorted. I scream, overcome by instinct, and I let go of the shjyak.
It spalls away, trailing blood, confused by this new arrival, but a moment later its course corrects and it is headed away.
Little breathy puffs of air echo through the near-ocean and the PredatorMouth dissolves in a cloud of flechette.
Now I have a word for these new intruders: High Ones.
Now I know why the Devil Reef enclave is empty.
I cannot flee across the reef. Even winding quickly, their weapons would find me. They strike at an impossible distance, catching handfuls of blood and flesh from across the waters.
Instead, I turn off the side of the Drop and I dive.
Searching fire chases me. Hard, too-dense-for-bone slants of a substance I have never seen strike and bury in the reefside as it rushes past me. I dart around outcroppings and twist past shelves, slipping their attack. Behind me, I hear the throaty roar of of a pursuit device rumbling to life, and I know that this is likely to be my last foray out of the enclave.
Ia, I intone, and the words ripple supersonic out into the deep. Mother Hydra. Ia.
To my horror, she responds.
She is all places in the dark, and I had been foolish to think that all places excluded here.
Inky tentacles jet out of the deep, some streaking past me to where the High Ones wait. The creature clinging to the pursuit device desperately tries to reorient itself upward, but blackness coils around its midsection and snatches it away. Now the hail of flechettes changes direction, searching for mother's body.
If the High Ones were properly educated, they would know that she does not have one.
Another is taken and its screams are bubbles from a broken coil of arcology rubber.
I do not stick around.
Mother Hydra is greedy. Her children are also prey.
Kicking sideways to level out, I drive a horizontal cut through the waters. Mother's tentacles follow, but I am built for this. I stay less than a tail-flap ahead of her, kicking eddies across her arm, until suddenly the chase is no longer worth it. Her tentacle snaps away, retreating into void and icy silence, and all I can hear over the general rushing of the ocean is the pounding of my own hearts.
I keep running.
For several minutes, I pace the side of the reef. Then I angle up, making my way to the Drop. It is now high overhead.
When I regain the safety of the ledge, I swim inland, moving across the reef until I find a deserted place to rest. It is on a promontory, only several tail-lengths under the surface, and the corals here are thin enough that I can see the structure underneath them. Plexiglass windows, long since ruptured, and submerged concrete stare back at me from beneath the blanket of bristling coral barbs.
I think momentarily about darting inside them but then that insanity passes. I consider the things that could find and settle into a spot away from the windows. As my pulse quiets, my chromatophores adjust. I become cluttered with color again.
The enclave is not going to want to hear this. The High Ones hunt us wherever they find us. They do not care at all if we are food. They kill and leave our bodies to drift.
Some routinely-females speculate that we have done them a great injustice. That our grandmothers cursed their grandmothers out onto the land.
I cannot say for certain whether this is true.
All I know is that Sandy Trenches is in terrible danger. I will have to return home, navigating for miles across uncertain deeps, with this news.
As I uncoil from the promontory and make my way again across the reef, I do not pray for a safe journey.
Mother would hear the words, and she is always listening.