By Christopher Zerby
She stops feeding as something long and silver flashes by, roiling the water. The taste it leaves makes her flinch. It’s disturbing, but strangely familiar. She wants to detach and follow it into the darkness.
“Mother,” she vibrates. “What is it?”
Mother’s voice is resonant and deep. “A Young Blade. Nothing for you to concern yourself with.”
She considers this. Everything she knows about the world comes from her mother, and she never questions. She trusts Mother. She burrows her feeder deeper inside the warm body, sucking in nutrients, savoring the strength it gives her, the comfort, all the while feeling her sisters attached around her. But this…Young Blade. She’s only recently begun to see more than just the haziest shapes and colors, and nothing has ever excited her this way, not in her whole life.
She can’t leave off. “It’s beautiful. Is that what I’ll become?”
A shower of delicate flakes has begun falling in the water all around them. Mother thrums with excitement. “Not now,” she vibrates. “I’m hungry. So hungry.” She begins her slow wriggle along the bottom, feeder out, siphoning up the flakes settling on the sand.
She’s noticed Mother has grown sluggish lately, and her feeding forays are shorter, covering less ground. She wants to ask about it, but she’s startled to realize there are other creatures moving nearby, feeding, all with dozens of small white tubes sticking up from their backs. Different Mothers, with their own daughters. It fills her with happiness to know they exist, that her world is bigger than she’d known.
“I’m so glad I’ve begun to see!” She vibrates, and feels her sisters agreeing. They can see too. Mother ignores them.
First, Mother stops talking. Soon, she grows cold.
No matter how hard she sucks, there are no nutrients, nothing to be had. Little throbbing pangs rise and fall, come and go. Her sisters suffer as well. A confused barrage of vibrations shudder through Mother’s body as they wiggle and spasm, and she does the same, unable to control herself. It reaches a crest, she is mercilessly shaken, and to her horror her feeding tube begins so slip out. She struggles to hold on, to dig back in, but all at once she is detaches and drifting off into the water. Her sisters are all around her, white worms, writhing and flailing. They begin to separate.
“Come back, sisters!” She tries to vibrate this, but it’s too weak to travel through water. Her feeder fills with liquid, she chokes and starts to panic. All around her, the white bodies of her sisters flash red, and she’s shocked to realize she too is red, then white. Red then white. A steady pulse. She’s amazed at her sisters’ beauty even as she spirals toward the sandy bottom. I’m going to die.
She clenches, her body contracting. It’s excruciating. When she expands, the water in her feeder jets out her back end, propelling her forward along the bottom. She fills again, contracts and expands again. This time, it’s less painful and she moves further and faster. It takes a few moments, some experimentation to gain control of her new ability, but she discovers she can vary both the strength and direction of her jet, allowing her to slow, speed up, to change direction, and circle about. She turns. Her sisters still flash red and white, still drift. She’s the only one who’s figured it out.
She jets through them, back and forth. She can’t vibrate but she can show them. One by one they start to catch on, and soon her sisters are jetting too, the red alarm flashes fading into a series of pink blushes as they calm and settle into a rough formation. She’s at the head, moving them away from the body of her mother, somehow sensing she’s going the right way.
It’s when she turns to look back that she sees them, the long, silver bodies, ripping through the water. Young Blades! Dozens of them. They’re sinuous and graceful, made for sharp, precise movement that fills her with awe even as she slogs along, contracting and expanding, shooting the water out her behind. She longs to be like them, beautiful creatures, surely from another world, and she stops, her sisters clumping behind her. The Young Blades flash bright colors along their bodies, bright purples, blues and greens, pulsing in patterns too complex to follow. They’re excited. She tries to mimic, but all she manages is a slight darkening of her pinkish skin.
The first one that rips a chunk of flesh from the body of her mother is huge, and it bites so deep with serrated, razor teeth—she hadn’t noticed those before—that it can’t hold the mass of tissue in its mouth. It spits it out and the chunk floats down for a moment, before another Young Blade grabs it and shakes it in its powerful jaw, showering the water with bits of skin. Then they’re everywhere, darting in and out, ripping her mother to pieces in a frenzy.
She turns away, sick to her stomach, not wanting to watch, and there, right in front of her, floats a Young Blade, pulsing blue in a slow, undulating rhythm, up and down its body. The black eyes regard her, and the mouth is open, just a slit, and there are the teeth. She freezes, feeling the mass of bodies behind her freeze as well.
“Hurry off, little sister.” The Young Blade pulses this to her in a rapid series of shapes and colors she almost can’t follow. “Get yourself into the hole and out of the open water.”
She understands this language of colors, somehow, and wants to reply, but cannot. She’s bright red. All she can communicate is fear.
“Hurry, hurry,” pulses the Young Blade. “Or I’ll swallow you whole, you and all your little worms, and you’ll make me strong, like the flesh of your mother makes me strong. I’ll take you with me when I jump but you’ll never know it. You won’t know anything anymore. Go!”
The last pulse is a blast of fiery purple, and she jets away, mindless, skirting below the Young Blade, trailed by her sisters.
It’s some time before her panic fades and her sense of herself returns. They’ve jetted far. Somewhere back in the distance she can still taste the Young Blades slicing through the water, stomachs bulging with the flesh of her mother. She’s filled with shame. For a moment something surges inside her and she wants to go back, to jet among the silver bodies, to protest what they’ve done to her, her sisters, her mother. All of it. Then she notices the large rock formations jutting up from the bottom, and the long black gash that leads…somewhere. Down they go, into the dark. It’s what they need to do. She knows it.
The dark gash becomes a long, curving tunnel that opens up into a huge rocky cavern. Creatures cling to the walls, glowing a soft, muted yellow. She floats inside, realizing the clingers are like her and the mass of tube worms trailing behind her. Other groups of sisters.
But different. She jets closer to investigate. They’re swollen and stretched, bodies grotesque and round, and a pale sickly white. She watches in horror as a mass of tiny, black crawlers swarm the wall, branching off in long tapering arcs that undulate like the sea weed she’s seen drifting in the waters where she grew up. The crawlers find the sisters clinging to the walls and enter their tubes, disappearing inside. As she watches she feels a horrified excitement stirring deep in her core.
One of her own sisters latches on to the wall and is swarmed by the crawlers. She feels herself pulse red with fear and alarm. The fear grows as another sister grabs hold and anchors itself, and another, then they’re flooding past her, fighting for space along the walls and ceiling. Part of her wants to give in and join them, pick her own spot and allow the crawlers inside her to do what she knows is their purpose, to make more of her kind.
It’s the memory of the Young Blade with the cold, black eyes that stops her, and the words it flashed: “I’ll take you with me when I jump…”
What did it mean? Jump where? And why do the Young Blades get to experience it and not her? She takes a last look at her sisters, some of them already swollen and deformed, and remembers how they followed her when Mother died, how she led them through the dangerous waters and brought them here to give up their bodies. She is different. She turns and jets back the way she came, the image of Mother being torn apart drifting through her head even as she notices the haphazard procession of fat, white bodies pulling themselves along the bottom. New mothers, making their way to the birthing grounds. She’s going there too. But not to give birth. Not to live with eyes cast downward, the feeding tubes of her daughters lodged deep beneath her skin, slowly depleting her. She’s going to find the Young Blades.
They are there, near the birthing grounds, darting through the water, brazenly flashing their colors. None of them notice her as she jets among them. They’re talking to each other, bright and excited, urging each other on.
“Swim up, swim up, sister!” Flashes the Young Blade nearest her, but it’s not talking to her. Another bursts past her like a silver knife and surges up until it disappears into the distance. She follows it with her still improving eyes as it disappears into the distance. There’s something up there, a shimmering. She’s never noticed it before.
All around her the Young Blades, full from gorging on the bodies of the dead mothers littering the sandy bottom below, exhort each other in loud, rambunctious colors, and one after another they swim up and away.
If she could communicate like them, if she could flash a riot of colors and patterns to urge herself on, she would. Instead, as she pivots and begins to jet upwards, following them, swim up, sister, swim up, echoing in her head, over and over.
At first, nothing is different or difficult, except the violent wake that buffets her whenever a Young Blade passes too close on its mad dash upward. But soon, the water warms. It’s just a tiny change, baffling, but exciting. None of her sisters will ever go this high! But as the temperature gets warmer still it starts to feel unpleasant. It’s harder to push herself upward, and she fights the urge to stop and rest, even as she begins to tire.
These are not my waters. They’re too warm and too thin. Go back to the cold, below.
But she persists, even as her muscle ache with the effort of contracting and expanding, blowing the water out behind her in weaker and weaker jets.
She didn’t imagine the shimmer. It grows brighter, and it hurts her eyes more and more. She swims for long moments with them closed. Whenever she opens them she catches glimpses of Young Blades through tight slits, and they seem to be flashing burst of silver and nothing more.
She finally stops. It’s all she can do to just hang there, limp, letting the currents push her about. It’s so hot now. So bright. Every inch of her skin feels coarse and painful, and she realizes there’s no way to get back to the cool dark below now, even if she wanted. She’s run out of strength.
She can still taste the Young Blades, still sense them rushing past in the water. I’ll take you with me when I jump but you’ll never know it. You won’t know anything anymore. That’s what it said. It looked at her with contempt. Then it helped rip Mother’s body apart.
She forces open her eyes. Still so bright, but she will bear it if they do, and now the shimmer is just above her, so close. A Young Blade rushes toward it, flexing a powerful tail and flashing colors, blasts through the shimmer and disappears. She watches another do the same. Then another. She gathers herself and sucks in water. Her body contracts and she jets up, up, the shimmer rushing toward her.
The blue stretches on forever, and it’s richer, more vibrant than any of the colors flashed by the Young Blades. It’s impossible. There’s no way she could ever describe it to her sisters or Mother, and she knows that it would terrify them, bewilder them, if she even could, and her whole body hurts to think of it. It’s exhilarating to see the expanse of it all as she floats atop the water. And it breaks her heart. There’s so much to the world, she realizes, that’s not for her.
A Young Blade breaks the surface of the water, knifing upward into the sky. It’s silver body shines in the bright light, so dazzling and beautiful that she doesn’t see the creature swooping down until it slams into the water with a loud smack. Then it’s back in the air, beating its wings, hovering above her, the Young Blade dangling broken backed in its talons. The creature rips it to pieces, showering the water with flesh and scales, which she knows will float all the way down to the bottom where hungry Mothers are waiting.
It happens again and again. A Young Blade breaks the surface, and a creature swoops down to snatch it, and now she sees them, dozens and dozens, hovering in the air, waiting to feed. She tries to flash her acceptance of it all, a bright red “here I am” to these nightmares that she never could have imagined, that have been biding their time, patient and terrible, her entire life, waiting for her to swim up and find them. But she’s too weak. She turns a feeble pink and realizes that she’s gasping and her mind is growing dark.
When the creature grabs her, it doesn’t hurt. She fits so perfectly into the curve of one talon it almost comforts her. She feels safe. There’s the beating of wings, and the roar of the air, and soon she’s so high the rough water looks still and calm, and she forgives the Young Blades, and her terrified, complacent sisters, and she loves Mother as much as she can. She closes her eyes again, and she’s back down there again, in the cool and the dark.