PodCastle 587: Strange Waters
Rated: PG, for a parent guiding herself home.
By Samantha Mills
Fisherwoman Mika Sandrigal was lost at sea. She knew where she was in relation to the Candorrean coastline and how to navigate back to her home city, Maelstrom. She knew the time of day. She knew the season. She knew the phase of the moon and the pattern of the tide.
She did not know the year.
Strange waters flowed beneath the hull of her fishing boat, illuminating the midnight darkness with phosphorescent swirls of yellow and green. The thick scent of pepper and brine tickled her nose, and she knew that a juggernaut swam far below, vast and merciless and consuming shield fish by the thousands.
Mika squinted up at a familiar night sky, at the Dancing Girl, the Triplets, the Mad Horse. She had fished off this coast for nearly twenty years, eight of them lost in time. She’d seen green waters, pink waters, blue. She’d been to Candorrea when it was a loose collection of fishing villages, and she’d been to Candorrea when the buildings were so tall she could hardly look at them without shaking. No matter what century she washed up in, however, the constellations were there to guide her home.
It was a windless night. Mika pulled out her oars and set course for Maelstrom, keen to find out when she had landed.
It was the year of the Blade, 992. The city was metal and glass, its gleaming spires and brilliant rainbow lights casting a skyline like an oil painting. A dome was under construction on the southernmost hill, its name written in freestanding stone letters so large they were visible from the water: OCEANARIUM.
This was not her time, not even close.
Mika arrived shortly after the breakfast hour, when dockworkers and merchants were trickling down from the city in the hills. She bypassed the piers entirely, each of them far too tall for her little wooden boat, and glided into the sandy shallows at the north end of the dockworks.
She opened the fish hold in the middle of the deck and hauled out three large nets containing her catch. There were sixty pounds of rainbow-colored senfish, always popular; assorted deep-water crabs, all but one of them extinct since 646, if her Timeline of the Deeps was correct; and a single mammal, as large as a barrel-chested mountain dog and thick with hallucinogenic fat: the rare and lucrative sleepwhale.
She wasn’t the first fisherwoman-out-of-time they had encountered, and she wouldn’t be the last. The anachronism of a sixth-century fishing boat had caught the eye of every merchant on the north shore, and soon they came running, eager to beat one another to strange fish.
The sleepwhale went to a pair of glossy young researchers from the oceanarium. They wore white rubber gloves and green rubber boots, and Mika didn’t care one whit why they were taking the beast, but they seemed incapable of keeping their thoughts inside their heads.
“Gene mapping —”
“— reproduction —”
“— grafting the fat signature onto land-bound species —”
Mika understood one word in ten. She held up a hand and enunciated carefully. “Please. I will take the hardtack and beans, and a crate of apples, and be on my way.”
The young woman blinked at her owlishly, crouched beside the sleepwhale with one arm wedged under its fin. “You canny mean to weigh off so quick! We have questions —”
“No,” Mika said firmly. That word, at least, always remained the same.
After a bit of pleading and attempted bribery (a month’s worth of supplies —navigation tech — a warm bed for the night!), they let her go. She had been prepared to fight her way out, if necessary. She knew too well the avarice of researchers.
Researchers never stopped at questions. In their zeal for information they spouted theories, they babbled context, they shouted history and timelines and data and conclusions. Mika didn’t dare listen.
For eight years, she had avoided all knowledge of the late sixth century.
For eight years, she had avoided all knowledge of her children.
In the year of the Mad Horse, 537, Keira was sixteen years old and waiting for her mother to return home from a fishing trip. She was a smart girl, bold and strong. If it hadn’t been for a lingering influenza she would have been at the helm that morning, when a trio of waterspouts blocked Mika’s escape from the timestream.
In the year of the Mad Horse, 537, Emry was fourteen years old. Bowen was eleven. Terrewyn was nine. They were each brilliant in their own way, Emry with numbers and Bowen with animals and Terrewyn already reading the stars. Their father was gone, his thread cut short in 532. They needed their mother to come home. They needed their mother.
Keira, Emry, Bowen, Terrewyn. Mika breathed their names every morning when she woke and every night before she fell asleep. If she was going to see them again, she had to keep going, no matter how long it took, no matter how exhausting, how difficult, how demoralizing.
It would have been nice to stay the night in 992, to cleanse the salt from her skin and the sway of the waves from her hips. But it wasn’t worth the risk. It was only a matter of time before Mika drew the attention of someone worse than a researcher. Like a politician.
Or a librarian.
It was the year of the Sidewinder, 782. Maelstrom was well into the industrial age, boasting wrought-iron gaslights on every street corner and mechanical cargo lifters along every pier. Unlike the light and shine of the tenth century, this city crouched beneath a blanket of smog.
Mika saw far more of it than she’d intended, because she’d been caught. Succumbing to the lure of a hot meal, she had entered the nearest dining hall — and had the bad luck to sit next to a bureaucrat.
Petro had lacquered hair and a crisp tweed suit studded with silver medallions. He took one look at her sun-faded clothing and declared, “I certainly hope you haven’t just engaged in an unauthorized beach auction. I’m afraid you’ll have to come with me.”
He marched her into the hills with a pair of guards at her back, to a prison hotel built for the purpose of assimilating new citizens. Mika had landed in one of the guild eras, unfortunately, and clearly belonged to no guild.
It was a nice prison cell at least, with fresh sheets and a writing desk and a folding screen to cover the privy. Mika spent three nights alone, charting what constellations she could see through her window, before Petro returned with his inevitable list of questions.
Petro’s eyes narrowed, but he neglected to challenge the lie. “Your boat is clearly sixth century,” he said, “— excellent condition, by the way — but there are patches to the hull, the rails, the equipment in the cockpit.”
Mika said, “Yes.”
“Some of these metals we have never encountered. They are forged in a manner our engineers declare impossible. You must have landed very far ahead, yes?” He stared at her, expectant, pen poised over a leather-bound notebook.
“I needed some repairs,” Mika admitted.
It was the wrong answer. “Tell me where you have been,” he demanded. “Past the ninth century? The tenth?”
Mika shook her head, mute, afraid to give away more than she already had.
Petro pursed his lips. He knocked on the door, three quick raps, and another young man wheeled in a heavy wooden cart draped with lush black velvet. Nestled in the fabric was an enormous codex, six inches thick and bound in fraying red leather.
The history book. Mika cringed and turned away.
“You know what this is,” Petro said. “You know we have questions.”
The other young man — a librarian, no doubt high-ranked to be handling a full copy — gently opened the book past the midway point. The thick pages crackled and wafted up the scent of old paper, tickling her nose, tempting her back. She kept her eyes trained firmly on a trailing length of velvet instead.
Now the questions rained down upon her, and Petro grew more flustered with every vague response. When did you conduct these repairs? What was the governing structure at the time? Did you, at any point, visit the library?
“I have nothing to tell you,” Mika insisted.
This was largely true. Mika had landed in dozens of eras, met hundreds of people, glimpsed technological wonders she barely comprehended. But she always kept her head down and absorbed as little as possible.
It was better not to know. A future left unknown was, theoretically, still flexible.
Mika had seen the history book once, in her own time, but she had never read it. In the mid-sixth century, the book was for scholarly use only, and sections of general interest were copied out and taught in public classrooms. There were other eras in which access was even more restricted, and the book was confined to government use, whether that government was militant, religious, or, as in Petro’s time, guild hierarchical.
The book documented the curious tangled history of a city that knew what was coming. For centuries, fishermen and fisherwomen had washed up on the wrong shore, bringing with them tidbits of information from every known era. The book was the accumulation of their written memories, but there were many gaps and infamous inconsistencies. Did the course of history adjust as more information was added, or were some of the contributors misinformed? Theories abounded.
The gaps left room for forward planning, but every attempt to influence the timeline was ultimately futile. In 332, the subjects of Queen Mennias built a fifteen-foot wall around Maelstrom to repel an attack by the Frenian horde. As the day approached, the Queen went mad obsessing over the paradox, and when the horde arrived they were pleasantly surprised to find the gates thrown open for them. They ruled for nearly a hundred years behind the strength of that wall.
Once the Frenians discovered the book, they were less inclined to respect the narrative. Warned of a coming attack from northern Candorrea in 422, they launched a campaign of oppression so brutal the northern tribes joined forces and destroyed their regime in 414 instead.
Generations destined for conflict did their best to prepare — but by the time their enemies arrived the population usually greeted them with resignation, if not pleasure. The history of Maelstrom included an impressive number of bloodless coups.
The book was only strange to first-generation immigrants, accustomed as they were to living in mystery. Their children took for granted that history extended in two directions.
Petro ran his finger down the open page of the history book, to the visible discomfort of the librarian. “We know this age of reason will end,” he said. “We will be sabotaged by unknown agents. Maelstrom will succumb to another age of warfare and then re-emerge under the thumb of an oligarchy. Eight families with a stranglehold on trade, applying their will with brute military force. Merit and skill replaced by — by greed and nepotism!”
“I’m sorry,” Mika said. And she was.
Petro sniffed and turned another page. “According to Fisherwoman Gentle Carvier — lost in 1172, found in 690 — the oligarchy is firmly established by the mid-ninth century. If this is true, the guild system will fall within the next seventy years. We need a more specific time frame. We need to know more about our attackers. Where do they come from? How do they prevail?”
Mika shook her head. “I don’t investigate the city when I land. I stock my boat and I set sail again.”
Incredulous, he demanded, “How can you touch the shores of the future and not want to know what will happen?”
“I don’t care,” Mika said faintly. “It means nothing to me.”
He ranted on about loyalty and civic duty and treason, and at last Mika lost her temper. She stabbed one finger toward the book and said, “Don’t you know by now? The more you try to alter your destiny, the more surely you will bring it on.”
“Oh?” Petro said. “And what is it you are trying to do?”
“I . . .” Mika faltered. With a mouth gone dry as dust, she said, “I’m not in there.”
Petro slammed his notebook shut. Coldly, he said, “We’ll find out soon enough.”
He gestured at the librarian to pack up and, lifting his nose imperiously in the air, lobbed his parting shot: “Your days in the timestream are over. You could have a good life here . . . if you tell us what we need to know.”
Mika held her breath till he’d gone. She stared at her hands, struggling to keep black thoughts at bay. A few minutes crawled by, and she realized the librarian was still there, dawdling over the history book wrappings and sneaking increasingly fervent looks in her direction.
“What?” she said, resigned.
With a nervous glance at the door, he whispered, “Please, I have to know — are you Mika Sandrigal?”
She recoiled. “No,” she said, but too late; her hesitation had betrayed her.
“We — the other librarians and I — we’ve gone over the list of missing fisherwomen,” he said excitedly. “I admit, the changes to your boat threw us off, but your description is quite clear. Your children —”
“No!” she shouted, and his eyes widened at the force of it, at the sudden rage.
The librarian leaned back, his expression wounded now. “You only had to ask,” he said. “We do abide by the archives’ code of ethics, even if our bureaucrats don’t.” Plaintively, he added, “I didn’t tell him, did I?”
“That is my name,” Mika admitted desperately. “But please don’t tell me anything more.”
He grinned, and Mika’s heart sank. This was it, all of her precautions for nothing — but the librarian’s code prevailed. He whispered, “Sit tight. I’m going to get you out of here tonight. I’ll say nothing else, except: your journey doesn’t end here.”
He was good as his word, and by cover of darkness she fled to the beach. The librarian smuggled her off with a bag of food, first aid supplies, and a set of letters to deliver to the archives one day — only if she felt comfortable doing so, he hastened to add, and only if she came ashore before the year 717.
It was a relief to reach her boat. A relief to feel the spray on her face. But she couldn’t dislodge the stone from her gut, the weight of a thousand questions swallowed whole every time she landed.
To ask about the events of the late sixth century would be a betrayal, an admission that she might not see it for herself. Mika longed to know if Emry had been accepted to the school of letters, if Bowen was still smitten with woodland creatures, if Terrewyn had resolved to study navigation with Keira. But she wouldn’t go begging at the doors of the library to find out.
She would be there.
Mika took the first timestream she found, a forward-leaning current that landed her a full century later. She held back from the shore, unwilling to risk a tussle with the oligarchy Petro had so feared, and waited for an opportunity to sail free of it.
The ninth century was an odd time, transitional in nature. Much of the smog had cleared, and enormous machines were visible in the hills, reducing the last of the industrial age’s smokestacks to rubble. It was a busy time on the water, as well, as fleets of fisherwomen and researchers and merchants took advantage of the relatively stable political situation to pursue their trades.
Mika avoided them all, including a luxury boat of people she could only assume were tourists from inland, keen to experience all of Maelstrom’s oddities. At the sight of her comparatively quaint craft they shouted and waved their arms and excitedly tried to flag her down, but she fled for the horizon, trusting that their captain wouldn’t be reckless enough to stray too far from land.
For a week she subsisted only on her own catches and the curiously preserved fruits and meats packed by the librarian. The ocean was frustratingly calm, taunting her with nothing but the unremarkable scent of seaweed, until, at last, the weather conspired to grant her a bit of temporal uncertainty.
At dawn, there were sprinkles. By afternoon it was a steady downpour. Her spirits surged. There were few better opportunities for catching a timestream than the churned-up currents of a summer storm.
Mika sliced through the breakers with practiced ease, and then it was nothing but wind and salt for miles. She let the current whisk her away from the city and toward the storm cloud brewing black in the distance.
Soon the ocean was roiling beneath her, pitching her boat side to side like a ringtail hopper in the jaws of a redwolf. She reefed her sails and strapped herself to the helm, desperate for some sign of a back-leaning current.
When she saw it, she almost couldn’t believe her eyes: three waterspouts, barely visible in the reflected light of the deeps, but there, most definitely there. Mika steered toward the hot, swirling winds, hardly daring to hope that this might be her passage home.
Just as she touched the edge of the timestream — and yes, yes, that was the familiar scent, like warm bread — frenzied sea creatures knocked her boat from below and dark waters flooded the deck. A shadow-crusted behemoth crested over the starboard railing and slapped one meaty fin across her deck.
Mika reached into the storage space beneath the ship’s wheel and fumbled blindly at the buckles holding her fishing gear in place. There — yes! The harpoon. She spun to face the beast, weapon in hand, but the boat tipped, groaned, threatened to capsize under its weight —
And crashed portside down into the timestream.
She awoke in a warm room heavy with sunshine and the scents of cinnamon and clover. Her face was hot, her right arm swollen, her breath ragged like there was a sack of fluid in her chest. She was the sole inhabitant of a small infirmary. A woman with a kind face sat in a wicker chair beside her bed.
“What year?” Mika rasped.
“The year of the Manticore, 616.” The woman smiled, setting aside a dog-eared book. “We found you a half-mile offshore with a fairly impressive bite out of the side of your boat. It’s been towed in, nothing our fishleaders can’t repair, but they’ll need a few more days. Take it as a blessing and get some rest. Here. Start with water.”
She handed a cup over and Mika drank her fill. The pause gave her time to swallow her disappointment, bitter and all too familiar. “How long have I been here?” she asked.
“In the infirmary? Four days. Based on your condition, perhaps another full day at sea before we found you.”
Mika sighed. Eight years, four months, and seventeen days since she left the year 537. Tears pricked her eyes. 616 was the closest she’d gotten yet, but it might as well have been 1616.
In 616, her children had been dead for decades.
“I’m Kendrall Millivar,” the woman offered.
Mika shoved her ruinous thoughts aside. Cautiously, she said, “My name is Jera.”
It was a quick-blooming friendship. Kendrall nursed her through the following week, determinedly battling the infection that had taken hold in Mika’s lungs. She kept Mika entertained with good-natured complaints about her three grown children, and in return Mika shared some of her exploits at sea.
Mika’s boat was not fully repaired by the time she was discharged, so Kendrall offered a temporary room in her own house. “No charge for a fisherwoman,” she said. “There’s a city fund to cover your essentials.”
One week turned into two, and two turned into a month. Mika’s boat was ready by the third week, but a bone-deep weariness invaded her body in the wake of her illness. Eight years of hard sailing had left its mark, and Kendrall convinced her that a good rest now would serve her better in the long run.
It was far too easy to settle in. It was far too easy to let herself be surrounded by Kendrall’s family, Kendrall’s home, Kendrall’s happiness. The woman glided seamlessly back and forth between nursing and homemaking, and Mika saw what life could have been like if she hadn’t been so irrevocably drawn to the sea.
After one particularly long, warm evening of laughter and drink, Mika confessed her real name. After so many years of lonely caution, it was like a rock had cracked through the hull of her chest, and the entire story poured out: her home and her hope, her children, her fear. And Kendrall didn’t run off to the archives, or tell her it was futile, or ask for anything more than what was offered. She took Mika’s hands and said, “Tell me what you need.”
Kendrall wanted her to stay, though she didn’t say so aloud. She didn’t have to. Mika knew she could live comfortably in this century. Fisherwomen were well regarded. Their livelihoods were supported, but their actions were autonomous. It was a time of peace, which she knew from her childhood history lessons would last at least twenty years past her lifespan. The cultural and linguistic changes from her own time were more curious than onerous. And there was Kendrall.
But every dawn, Mika marked the passage of time in her travel log with a grease pen. And every dawn, it seemed the wrinkles on her hands had deepened. How old would she be, when she finally made it home? Would she return to her children as their caretaker, or would they be forced to take care of her?
Keira, Emry, Bowen, Terrewyn. Her navigator, her mathematician, her biologist, her astronomer. Her babies.
Eight years, six months, twenty-two days, and Mika returned to the sea. Kendrall came to see her off, and Mika wasn’t ashamed to shed a few tears. “Say hello to your children for me,” Kendrall said, and Mika left the year of the Manticore behind.
It took three days of sailing for Mika to catch a back-leaning current. On a warm evening, in the dim light of dusk, she spotted tendrils of pink light slithering up from the deep. They burst on the surface like air bubbles, releasing the sickly-sweet scent of tropical wildflowers.
She followed the lights north, and in their glimmer and flash she spotted untimely schools of fish flanking her hull. They were spiny beasts, gray and gruesome, slipping through the waves from an era long before humanity studded the coast. Each one would have been worth a small fortune in the sixth century, but she had no time to cast a net.
The timestream sucked her in with the force of a whirlpool and it took all of Mika’s skill to keep the craft upright. By the time she spun out again she was trembling with exhaustion but wholly, fiercely alive.
It took her until dawn to reach land. There were no mechanical cargo lifters, no buildings of metal and glass in the hills. In fact, there were no buildings at all, and no docks, either. A long, thatch-roofed pavilion stood on the lonesome beach, still smoldering from a recent fire.
Mika had gone too far.
She didn’t stay in the pre-Mendorian era for long. If the stories were true, these hills were controlled by competing warrior bands — territorial at best, cannibals at worst. Archaeologists and anthropologists were divided on the subject, and she didn’t care to investigate on their behalf.
At night there were lights to guide her, those strange phosphorescent blooms that lived in the midspace between eras, native to none. Sailing was trickier by day, when the glare of the sun blinded her against multicolored hints from the deep, but a good fisherwoman trusted her nose over her eyes. She knew the sharp herbal scents of drifting leviathans, the floral pockets of midspace cilia, the burnt-rubber sharks and the sour-lemon sleepwhales.
Mika drifted back and forth along the coastline until she caught the scent of black tar under a hardboiled sun, and then she turned her boat west, toward the future.
The year of the Bat, 1127. There were more ships in the air than ships in the water, but as soon as Mika touched the beach there were customers waiting, as always. Their food packaging was nearly as incomprehensible as their slang.
The year of the Two-Headed Calf, 312. Mennias was Queen, but her famous wall was still years away from breaking ground. The local language was so far removed from Mika’s that she had to haggle by sketching numbers in the sand with sticks.
In 1520 the cityscape was so terrifying and unrecognizable that Mika never even landed. In 415 Maelstrom was in ruins, on the cusp of being repopulated by Mika’s northern ancestors.
The year of the Candlemaker, 702. The year of the Usurper, 139. Back and forth she sailed, feverishly charting the stars, the tides, the scents and colors and speed of the timestream, desperate to unlock a pattern that would guide her home. And if it really was all chaos? If the only way home was through sheer luck? Then she would roll, and roll, and roll again, until her number came up. Mika sailed and sailed, till the years blurred together and she hardly remembered the feel of earth beneath her feet or fresh water on her skin. Four times she encountered the trio of waterspouts, and four times she skipped off their turbulence a little too early, landing two hundred years out, one hundred years out, wrong and wrong and wrong again but circling closer with every attempt.
And there was a pattern. There was a complicated interplay between the season, the weather, the orientation of the stars, the migratory pattern of whales, and the duration of time spent in the stream. As Mika’s data piled up, her predictive models grew more precise. Now, with a bit of careful observation, she could predict the arrival of forward or back-leaning currents down to a window of a few days.
She began to wait for optimal conditions rather than leap into the first timestream she found. The waits were painful, notching endless additional days in her travel log, but she knew she was on the verge of success. In every era she anchored, she resupplied, and she returned to the sea, a grim and sun-weathered figure in faded, salt-crusted clothing, eating little and speaking less.
Mika haunted the port of Maelstrom like a restless ghost.
Fourteen years, eight months, eleven days. It was the year of the Lion’s Head, 72, and Mika had been anchored for three solid months. She had avoided more than a dozen timestreams, patiently waiting for this one. Late afternoon. Sleepwhale breeding season. The Mad Horse ascendant. A jump of 465 years would require a long plunge, by her calculations more than twenty minutes.
The clouds formed dense and low and black, just as she had expected. Bubbles appeared on the water’s surface in sporadic bursts and small waves lapped at the hull. Visibility was low through the drizzly haze, but Mika spotted the first hints of a funnel forming in the cloud layer.
She raced after the growing waterspout, exultant at the sight of two more funnels overhead. One had already touched the surface, visible only as she approached. And yes — yes! The water was dotted with neon-green kantamimes, carnivorous algae transplanted there in the fifth century, a menace by the sixth. Mika fought increasingly choppy waves and breathed deep of the ocean spray: yeasty and inviting. Like warm bread.
“I’m going home!” she shouted. The words tore at her throat, hoarse and startling. “I’m going home, and you can’t stop me!”
She knifed into the dark space between waterspouts before the third one touched down. The seductive flow of a timestream caught her boat, threatening to run her into the waves, and she fought to maintain her position. She had come this far before and always been tossed out too early.
Green and yellow lights glimmered ahead. She was close. She only had to stay in these waters another ten minutes. Ten minutes without hitting a spout, or a behemoth —
Or the whirlpool forming dead ahead. Mika tried to course correct, but she was penned in by the spouts and she refused to drop out of the stream, not now, not after coming this far. She skirted the lip of the whirlpool, her boat surrounded by peppery froth and rattling so hard she thought it would break at the seams.
She tilted, tilted —
Two tentacles slithered up the side of the boat, each one nearly a foot in diameter, mottled blue and red, pulsating with the glowing ichor in their veins. A midspace cephalopod. Mika stabbed at the questing limbs with her harpoon but she couldn’t reach them unless she abandoned the helm. She clung tight to the wheel and watched a tentacle wrap tight around the mast, watched the wood shatter into splinters, watched her sails and rigging crash to the deck in a broken tangle. The body of the beast dragged at the boat, tipping her toward whatever grasping toothy maw waited beneath the surface.
She felt it when the hull cracked and water flooded in below. Mika spun around the edges of the whirlpool, faster and faster, whipping past waterspout, waterspout, waterspout, crying for her faithful boat, her thoughts a blur of Keira Emry Bowen Terrewyn Keira Emry Bowen Terrewyn —
The timestream snapped with a sound like falling glass. It spat her out atop the shattered front half of her fishing boat, struggling and sinking fast. Mika unbuckled and jumped overboard before the wreck could suck her under, swimming hard, almost laughing with incredulity — twenty-five years a fisherwoman, and how often did she have to swim?
It took all her strength to reach the shore, and by the time Mika felt sand beneath her fingers she was so exhausted she half thought it a trick of her mind. She crawled the last yards, looking up at a city blurred around the edges.
She knew that skyline. She knew those spires, those painted bricks, that stained glass —
Her heart twisted, threatened to break. A slim figure was running down the beach, and his clothing was familiar too, but for all the wrong reasons.
“The year, the year, what’s the year!” she cried, praying that she was wrong, her memories faulty.
He skidded into the surf beside her, breathing hard. “The year of the Oak,” he said. “626.”
Too far. Months of waiting and her boat in ruins and she had jumped too far. The boy tried to take her arm, eagerly asking, “Mika? Is that your name? Are you Mika Sandrigal?” but she was crying too hard to answer.
It was Kendrall, of course, who had asked the men of the stormwatch tower to keep an eye out for her friend. Just in case. The last ten years had been kind to the nurse, adding a few more lines around her eyes and a few streaks of silver to her hair. Mika, sun-sick and heartsick, once again relied on the tender ministrations of her friend, and it wasn’t until Mika was well again in body, if not in spirit, that Kendrall took her by the hand and said, “Come outside with me, Mika. I have something for you.”
“I need to sleep,” Mika said thickly, depression wrapped like cotton batting around her tongue.
“You’ve slept enough. Come along.” Kendrall led her outside and up the road, into butter-yellow sunshine and the cheerful ruckus of a city letting out for lunch. They walked to the beach, to a quiet pedestrian bridge overlooking clear waters, and watched the tide roll in.
In her soothing bedside voice, Kendrall said, “I don’t think anyone in the history of Maelstrom has traveled as far as you have, Mika. What you’ve done is incredible. Inspiring. I’ve often wondered: would I have done the same, when my children were young? I’d like to think so, but . . . well, you just don’t know, do you?”
Mika pulled her hand from Kendrall’s. Suspicion was an ice dagger to the chest. “Why are you telling me this?” she demanded.
Tears shone in her eyes, but Kendrall didn’t sound a bit sorry when she said, “I looked you up in the book.”
“No.” Mika took a step back.
“I didn’t think I would see you again. I had to know —”
“No! No, no, no!” Mika clasped her hands over her ears, as though she could drown it out, as though she could negate the knowledge in Kendrall’s eyes through sheer force of will. If she didn’t know, it might not happen. If she didn’t know, it might not be true.
“You don’t have to hear it from me,” Kendrall said sadly. “Somebody else has been waiting for you.”
She gestured down the bridge, to a nervous young woman walking toward them with an envelope clutched to her chest. Her hair was thick and braided, her shoulders broad, her gait eerily familiar. Mika understood instantly. She turned in a circle, looking for a way out. She could jump from the bridge, swim back to shore, hide.
“I’m not talking to you,” she warned. “I don’t want to hear it.”
The girl paused a scant few feet away, staring at her with wide, worried eyes, and Mika rounded on Kendrall instead. “You’re my friend. My friend. Don’t make me do this.” The last words turned into a plea.
“I’m so sorry,” Kendrall whispered. “You never make it home.”
Mika covered her face, shaking uncontrollably. Then: a delicate touch on her sleeve. She lowered her hands and stared with bitter longing at this young woman who carried hints of Keira in her veins.
“My name is Varity,” the girl said gently. “I’m your great-great-granddaughter. I have a letter for you.”
She held out the envelope. Mika almost didn’t take it, a decade and a half’s resistance shoring her spine, but her journey was over, and she knew it. With trembling fingers, she pulled out the letter.
She recognized the writing, and the sight of Keira’s script set her weeping openly. Mama, it began.
Mama. I don’t know if this will find you, or when. I need you to know that I love you, and that’s why I’m telling you to stop. Don’t waste the rest of your life on the water. Don’t beat yourself to death on the rocks. I remember you too well to hope you’ve reached this decision on your own.
We waited twenty years to check the book. Mama, you’ve been spotted everywhere — and that’s only what we could find in our edition. You must have seen incredible things. But the book doesn’t say when you settle down, and I have to believe you do. I’m nearly seventy-two years old now, and I don’t think I’ll see seventy-three. So I want to tell you about my life, and about Emry, and Bowen, and Terrewyn . . .
Mika read on. She read about Bowen’s work with endangered redwolves, and Terrewyn’s two astrologer husbands. She read about Emry’s short-lived professorship before he became a field mathematician, and about the time he was surveying for a new road and discovered ancient mines in the hills. She read about Keira’s shipbuilding business, and about her love, and about their children.
Mika read the history of her family, front and back, seventeen pages lovingly penned in blue ink. Varity and Kendrall waited while she finished the letter, politely directing their attention to the tide.
Mika had seen Maelstrom rise and fall and rise again. She’d seen technological wonders that astounded her and the primitive precursors that made them possible. She’d seen the evolution of the city’s population, constantly expanding and contracting, constantly absorbing new blood through invasion or travel or trade, but always keeping a few core cultural threads, a city that knew its future. And none of it had mattered to her. This was the only future she’d ever cared about, seventeen pages front and back.
Varity said, “My grandmother is still alive, and so are some of her cousins. I think they’d like to talk to you.”
Mika’s grandchildren. The last living memories of her babies, long gone.
“Yes,” Mika said. “I’d like to talk to them, too.”
About the Author
Samantha Mills is a speculative fiction writer living in Southern California, in a house on a hill that is hopefully not a haunted hill house. Her short fiction has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Strange Horizons, Escape Pod, and others. Watch out! She’s coming for books next.
You can find more at samtasticbooks.com, or chat with her on Twitter @samtasticbooks.
About the Narrator
C. L. Clark
Cherae graduated from Indiana University’s creative writing MFA. She’s been a personal trainer, an English teacher, and an editor, and is some combination thereof as she travels the world. When she’s not writing or working, she’s learning languages, doing P90something, or reading about war and [post-]colonial history. Her debut novel, The Unbroken, came out at Orbit last year, and her work has also appeared in FIYAH and Uncanny.