That Other Sea
by William Ledbetter
From his position on the sandy slope, Catat couldn’t see the Visitor, but the eerie glow moving around beyond the jumbled rocks proved the device had survived its fall into the killing depths. Catat whipped his tail to move downward, but couldn’t generate enough thrust to overcome the water pressure pushing him into the sand. Only the brute force of side-to-side undulation gave him any forward momentum. He moved two body lengths and stopped to let his shell adjust.
As water weight compressed his internal organs further, the gland that produced shellbase went into hyperactive mode, flooding his system, filling the tiny pressure cracks and thickening his ring segments. The depths were changing him, maybe forever, but Catat believed retrieving the Visitor, or at least examining it, was worth the risk.
During the intense discussions that followed the Visitor’s arrival, Catat was the only one who believed it could be artificial. Others, including Catat’s main scientific rival, Racknik, maintained that it had to be some radiation mutated animal from an ice vent. But Catat had been the only one to see it up close. He’d watched the Visitor break through the ice ceiling and then struggle with the canopy kelp before starting its long swirling descent to the chasm floor.
The Visitor was twice Catat’s size and he probably could have done nothing to arrest its fall, but he’d also been frozen with terror and made no attempt to help. Then as it started downward, lights appeared. Not the dim luminescent bait offered by predator fish, but a brilliant, painful glare, brighter than white magma. At that instant, Catat’s fear dissolved in an overwhelming surge of curiosity and fascination. So know he was going after it.
A message from his warren came down the cable he dragged behind him, the electrical pulses converted to taps he could feel through the metal plate mounted between his tool arms and just above his digging arms. The signal was still strong, which worried him. If his shell had thickened enough to protect him against the extreme pressure, then the signal should have been faint.
“Can you still see it?” A prefix identified the sender as one of his research assistants.
“I see the glow from its lights,” Catat replied.
“You made your point. We believe you. Now come back up.” There had been no prefix to identify the second message’s sender, but Catat knew it had to be his friend and sometimes mate, Tipkurr.
“I’m not trying to prove anything,” he replied. “I saw this Visitor up close and I know it’s a machine. Do you realize the implications of a machine from beyond the ice ceiling? Some elders don’t believe there is anything above the ice. This not only proves it, but gives a chance to learn what may be out there.”
“It’s too deep,” she tapped. “Racknik is on his way down. He’s larger and stronger. Let him try the descent.”
The idea of Racknik retrieving the Visitor — or worse yet, returning without it and claiming he’d been correct about it being a mutated animal — was so unpleasant that Catat felt bile swirling in his glands, ready to be sprayed. He tried turning his eyes back to look for Racknik, but they were pressed too deep into their sockets. Even the effort caused him to nearly roll up from the pain.
“Others have gone deeper,” Catat sent. Tapping with his digging claws was becoming more and more difficult as the shell thickened around the joints, but he had to keep communicating lest they think he’d gone into stress induced hibernation and pull him back.
“Guardian of the Deep is a hatchling myth,” Tipkurr sent. “No one can survive at those depths. This will kill you.”
Guardian stories had existed longer than recorded history. Twenty or thirty versions changed or added minor details, but the core story never changed. An explorer had gone too deep and been so mutated by the tremendous pressures that he couldn’t come back up and still haunted the depths. The tale had always seemed ridiculous to Catat, but when each ring movement felt like stones grinding together and every effort to lift his tool arms or digging arms beyond a few degrees produced white-hot agony, the idea of never coming back up seemed much more plausible.
“I have to do this and I’m almost there,” Catat said and then pushed downward another two body lengths.
He didn’t blame the others for being skeptical. Had his measuring instruments not alerted Catat to the strange vibrations in the ice, he wouldn’t have been present when the Visitor came through the ceiling. Still, he had been there and knew it was a machine. While some of its movements had indeed appeared biological, the water around it smelled all wrong, acrid and metallic, not organic. The ramifications amazed and frightened him, but he had to know and edged further down the slope.
During one of his pauses, Catat saw movement in his periphery and had to shift half of his forward segments to look back. If he’d waited an instant longer, he could have saved himself the effort. As Racknik slithered past, Catat was shocked and disgusted by his rival’s deformed and dysfunctional carapace. It would take Racknik two or three seasons of wallowing in the sand pits to recover any semblance of normalcy. Then Catat realized he must look the same.
No wonder Tipkurr was so agitated. There would be no breeding this season, no exploration trips or even farming shifts. He might not even be able to feed himself without corrective surgery.
With a flip of his tapered wedge-like tail and a display of athletic prowess that allowed him to dominate every warren competition, Racknik sent sand swirling into Catat’s face and moved past. Much too quickly.
Catat tapped a rapid message to his crew above. “Have Racknik’s team tell him to slow down. He’s not allowing enough time for his shell to thicken.”
As the swirling sand cleared, Catat saw that his rival had stopped and curled into a defensive ball. An instant later, Catat felt and heard a sharp pop as Racknik ceased to exist. The imploded remains of Catat’s clutchmate enveloped him in a cloud of silt and tissue.
Catat twitched and quivered. Tasting blood, shell-base and bile in the water triggered an instinctual urge to flee, but he forced himself to stay put. Racknik had just descended too quickly. He didn’t allow time for his shell to properly thicken and harden. Catat would not make that mistake.
As the water cleared and the chemicals that had been Racknik dissipated, Catat could see the rocks hiding the visitor only ten body lengths away. Light still moved on the other side. As curiosity once again outweighed doubt and fear, he informed the warren team of Racknik’s death and moved forward. An assistant acknowledged his report, but it wasn’t Tipkurr.
He rounded the rocks and had his first view of the Visitor since that earlier chaotic glimpse, but before he got a clear look, the articulated stalk turned the brilliant light right at him. He irised his eyes down to a tiny point and even then had to divert them. The light followed his every move as he struggled closer, until he approached within about three body lengths and the lights went out. He stopped, suddenly afraid the visitor had died like Racknik, but there had been no violent implosion, only an abrupt absence of light.
He gradually opened his eyes and — without the blinding glare — could finally see the thing clearly. The Visitor was a cylinder, about twice his length and nearly three times his normal diameter. It had no body segment rings, but the part Catat considered the head was a section slightly larger in diameter and made of triangular, blade covered wedges.
A lot had happened in that first moment after the Visitor had broken through the ice and kelp field, but Catat was certain those wedges had then formed a spinning cone. Between the wedge sections, Catat could see the section’s hollow interior was filled with a complex collection of spindly protrusions, blinking lights and glittering unfathomable shapes. As he moved to get a better view of the thing’s face or head, he noticed that even though the bright lights remained off, the eye stalks still followed his movements. It was unsettling, but at least confirmed the Visitor wasn’t dead.
Catat relayed what he was seeing to his associates in the warren and turned his attention back to the face. Those tiny blinking lights fascinated him. Though brighter and more intense, they reminded Catat of flashes produced by spiny puffers during their mating season. The little animals were a primary food source for the warren’s hatchlings, causing an instinctual chase response and provided endless entertainment in the nurseries. Catat wondered if his insistent pursuit of this device was driven not only by curiosity, but at least in part by an ancient need to chase lights.
It didn’t matter. He moved closer and tapped on its hard shell. He tried several messages and greetings, but even though the dark eye stalks still followed his movements, there was no response.
He reported to the warren, and this time Tipkurr immediately replied. “Come back now. You’ve seen enough. Just hold the cable and we’ll pull you up.”
Catat stared at the Visitor for another moment. If he left it here on the sea bed, generations could pass before someone devised a way to retrieve it and the springs, or whatever mechanism powered its systems, might run down before then. If it was some kind of ambassador, they could forever lose the opportunity to contact beings from beyond the ice. He had to take it back.
“No. I came down here to retrieve it, not just look.”
He gently rolled onto his back and fought through fiery pain when he tried to remove the cable. Each tug felt as if his arms were being torn from his body, but no matter how hard he pulled, he couldn’t dismount the cable from its harness. His carapace had thickened over the harness, cable clip and tap plate. Only surgery or a long thinning process would free him. That explained why he could still feel communications so clearly.
He wondered if Racknik had anticipated the cable problem and devised a better attachment. Then Catat stopped abruptly and turned to look back up the slope. He remembered passing Racknik’s cable lying amid the collapsed shell.
He crept slowly up the slope and found the cable, still encased in a thick piece of shell. Evidently Racknik had made the same mistake. Catat fought his distaste, picked up the loose end and using a pair of rocks, slowly and painfully broke the shell away. Then he pulled it down to the patient Visitor.
While struggling to loop the cable through the sturdy ring that mounted the Visitor’s cutting wedges, Catat saw the true foolishness behind the Guardian myths. His constant pain and limited mobility, made even that simple task quite difficult. He was exhausted to the point of collapse, but knew that if he stopped to rest, he’d drop immediately into hibernation. If that happened, his warren associates would eventually pull him back up. The Guardian would have never had such help.
When he moved clear — preparing to tell those in the warren to pull it up — he realized the large rock cluster that hid the Visitor from view during his descent also blocked the path up the slope. He examined the situation from several angles and felt even more exhausted. They couldn’t pull it over the rocks and the only way they could go around, was if he were able to move the Visitor some lateral distance past the rocks to provide a clear pull path. He needed sleep and didn’t know if he could, but stopping would make it all a wasted effort.
After looking around, he found a large stone jutting from the sea floor to use as a pivot, but since he couldn’t swim to lift the cable over the rocks, he was forced to detach and reattach it. The arrangement worked and by coordinating with the warren above, Catat was able to position the Visitor for retrieval. Through the entire long and complicated process, the Visitor’s eye stalks watched Catat’s every action.
When the cable pulled taut and the Visitor finally started up the slope, Catat almost gave in to the looming coma. He knew his associates would pull him up, but as he neared that enticing oblivion, a new thought hatched in his mind and like most hatchlings it was ravenous. The Visitor had given them a gift and Catat was probably the only one who could use it. But he had to stay awake. If he succumbed to coma, they would lose the opportunity.
Though large and strange, the visitor seemed much less menacing in the familiar environs of the warren. Catat stroked its metal shell as he moved slowly down the length, still trailing his communication cable behind him. The ten other researchers in the chamber, including four who had come from the fabrication aggregate in Tu-tunk Warren, deferred to him and gave him space.
The reduced water pressure made movement a bit easier, but didn’t ease the burning agony accompanying every action. But he used the pain and his still voracious curiosity to help him focus. Only constant and deliberate force of will held the coma at bay.
The Visitor’s articulated eye stalks seemed to have differentiated between him and the others in the chamber and still followed him intently, but had not used the blinding lights again.
As Catat examined the kelp tangled mechanism at the visitor’s rear, the head of his warren’s research unit arrived carrying a tap rod to help get his words through Catat’s thick shell and started tapping rapidly.
“Even though the kelp hid it well, we found the hole you described. We also have permission from the Monarchy Council to proceed with your plan. Are you sure you still want to do this?”
The news excited and terrified Catat, but he replied immediately. “Yes. Let’s do it.”
“We have to hurry. The hole has already started to close. Along the length we’ve been able to measure; the hole has already lost 10-20% of its diameter. It could be worse further up the length.” He paused for a moment, as if to tap something else, but darted away when Tipkurr drifted up to them.
She moved closer, lying against Catat, but his shell was too thick to allow segment nesting or even to feel her warmth. After a moment she turned enough to lay her own rod against a thinner part of his facial carapace and tapped hard.
“Why aren’t you asleep? This coma isn’t something you can avoid and the longer you fight it the longer you’ll sleep.”
Catat turned to face her and moved closer to reduce the effort required to tap his reply. “You know I’ll never be completely restored. My arms are nearly useless and will not get much better, even with surgery.”
“It’s not like you have many options.”
Tipkurr understood him. She shared his drive to learn and to know. She’d accompanied him on many exploratory expeditions, yet even if she comprehended his next statement, she’d never agree with it.
“I need this thick shell,” Catat said. “The warren has approved a plan to let me ascend the ice hole cut by the Visitor before it freezes closed.”
Tipkurr quivered then tapped him hard. “You know what happens to ice vents. Tidal water is forced through them under terrible pressure. If there even is another side that you can reach, you won’t be able to get back against that flow.”
“Maybe.” He hesitated, then tapped more. “We don’t really know for sure because no one has been there before. We have no idea what’s on the other side of the ice barrier.”
Her tapping grew harder and more intense. “Then let someone else do it. You need to be healing.”
“I may be the only one who can survive it. What if there are big and even more rapid pressure differences like in killing depths? My shell is already adjusted.”
Catat’s actions had already hurt Tipkurr, but she was stubborn and loyal. She would never abandon him and that meant his new deformity would be a major hardship for her. Catat couldn’t allow that. He also couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see what was beyond the ice and maybe report it back.
“We have very little time before the next tidal event,” Catat said. “I have to go before the hole disappears.”
Tipkurr dropped her tapping tool and with one powerful flip of her tail disappeared down the main tunnel.
By the time two assistants towed Catat up to the Visitor’s hole, the fabricators had built Catat a bladder from clear, flexible kelp-tuber silk. It was roughly two thirds the size of the Visitor, and had Catat been normal size, would have been roomy enough, but in his current state it felt more cramped than a hatchlings first tunnel.
His original idea had been to just let his thickened shell protect him, but the warren’s exploration experts had insisted on the bladder filled with hot water. They claimed it would serve as protection from the abrasive ice and provide some temperature buffer. No one understood what natural forces created the ice barrier, but it only made sense that whatever was on the other side would be cold enough to freeze water. Freezing Catat through his thickened and nearly fused shell seemed unlikely, but the hot water was a sensible enough precaution.
They’d also reinforced the cable attached to his shell, fastening it to him with bands and rivets. They told him the strengthened mount would allow them to pull him back, even against the gush of rising water. Catat suspected that was impossible, but if the falsehood made their task easier, then he could pretend as well.
Workers had fenced off the area around the hole to keep the canopy kelp away. The Visitor had bored its hole through a thin part of the ice, an old fissure zone, where a mysterious dim light filtered through from the other side. Of course brighter areas are where the kelp grew thickest and keeping it at bay was difficult.
The tide grew stronger and stronger around them. Those operating the cable equipment and the few who came to see him off, struggled against the strong currents as water swirled upward toward the hole.
He told them he was ready. They eased him closer to the hole and the cable brakes were released. He thought he saw Tipkurr approaching just before the vortex caught his bladder and sucked him in.
He bounced along the tube walls in a blurring rush as the water roared around him. Strange sensations churned inside him as pressures changed and viscera shifted around, but he was moving so fast, he knew it would be over soon.
Then the bladder snagged on something and came to an abrupt halt. He twisted around and could see he was hooked on a thick metal rod protruding from the tunnel wall. He noticed a tiny light flashing on the rod’s tip just as the bladder material rolled past and he continued his frightening ascent. Three more of the light-tipped rods briefly halted his progress, but the fourth one held him fast against the rushing water.
He could see the bladder stretching as surging water slammed him again and again against the tube wall. He struggled to turn enough to pull the material free, but just as he managed to face the snag, a small hole opened in the bladder and it pulled free. Once more the water pushed him higher until the roar changed to a hiss, then abruptly faded to silence.
Catat didn’t know what he’d expected, but the reality baffled him. He’d left the tunnel, yet continued to rise, slower and in a broad arc over a wide, bright plain. It was painful to look at for very long, so he focused on the water jet below and behind him, shooting into an oddly black sea. The water floating around him had fractured into tiny crystals. He realized they were ice particles, but couldn’t understand why they didn’t dissolve into the strange black water. He also felt suddenly cold.
He pulled his arms to the cable’s tap pad and began listing out what he could see, hoping this alien environment would still allow the electrical signals to travel down the cable.
Below him, at the point where the bladder had torn, a stream of tiny ice particles wheezed outward in a glittering spray and the wide, bright plane seemed to look more and more like the surface of a huge sphere.
He continued tapping, but the once warm water had grown frigid. A layer of ice formed on the inside of his bladder and grew thicker as he watched. All the water in his little cocoon was freezing.
He didn’t have much time, so as he struggled to turn around and see above him, he tapped rapidly, trying to tell those below as much as he could. Once he turned his eyes upward he stopped tapping. A huge disk floated out there in the black, like a round bubble filled with swirling waters, some dark, some bright and all around it were tiny brilliant lights.
“We live inside…an ice bubble,” he tapped just as forming crystals blocked his last small viewing hole. “And it floats in a large, bright sea that is…even colder than ice.”
“We’re pulling you back.”
The tapping felt distant and even though the cable yanked him repeatedly against the bottom of the bladder, there was no pain.
As the water froze all around him, Catat knew they would never retrieve him. He had the amusing thought of spawning a new legend. Perhaps they would call him the Guardian of the Beyond. More sluggish and dim messages came from the warren far below, but he ignored them. He’d given his kind a tantalizing glimpse into the strangeness beyond the ice and he knew they would eventually send others. That was enough.
He could barely move his arms, but he struggled and twisted until he was close enough to scrape a clear place on the bladder. He had to see. Outside, tiny brilliant lights drifted slowly past his little clear patch. His fat and nearly frozen tail twitched repeatedly in one final effort to chase the lights.
About the Author
William Ledbetter is a Nebula Award winning author with more than seventy speculative fiction stories and non-fiction articles published in four languages, in markets such as Asimov’s, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Analog, Escape Pod, Baen.com, the SFWA blog, and Ad Astra.
He’s been a space and technology geek since childhood and spent most of his non-writing career in the aerospace and defense industry. He administers the Jim Baen Memorial Short Story Award contest for Baen Books and the National Space Society, is a member of SFWA, the National Space Society of North Texas, a Launch Pad Astronomy workshop graduate, and is the Science Track coordinator for the Fencon convention. He lives near Dallas with his wife, a needy dog and two spoiled cats.
About the Narrator
Shaelyn Grey is a person that exists.