by K. H. Brower
I whispered softly to myself, “Gentle. Gentle.” Theoretically, my scramjet wasn’t heavy enough to destabilize the icy surface. But risk factors in a complex system are difficult to measure and sometimes unpredictable. If I landed too hard and fractured the ice, that would be the end of our mission. I held my breath.
“Touch down.” My co-pilot and cousin, Gordy, snapped his fingers. “Welcome to Enceladus, Ginny, Gin, Gin.”
I powered down the thrusters. His applause felt over the top. Maybe, if we were stepping out for a sunny beach stroll. But we’d been sent to scavenge comms gear from an abandoned marine lab in the ocean below the crust of ice. That’s why we were parked in another cold and bleak location on a moon in the distant outer rings of Saturn.
A series of surface-level chambers lead to the lab access portal. Even though the lab had been left unattended for several generations, systems were still operational, powered by the moon’s tidal and geothermal activity. So, inside it was very comfortable. We didn’t need our air-pressure suits or helmets. However, at the portal, we learned the containment shell of the main underwater lab had shifted over time and it was flooded.
Neither one of us wanted to return empty handed. Not if we could find a way to complete our assignment. So we ran diagnostics and did a risk assessment. The water was warm enough, the marine life was not hostile to humans, and Gordy and I could both swim. So we adapted our plan. In a storage locker we found underwater gear and pulled on wetsuits.
Back at the portal, the diving bell rang and we stepped inside. Its digital display read: Please be patient as we allow gravity to carry us down. We make every effort to avoid disturbing individuals along our path during breeding and larval metamorphosis season.
According to historical records, a sampling of marine creatures and plant life had been taken from Earth and brought here to serve in a terraforming experiment for the outer planets. Interesting that the diving bell was still protecting what were technically invasive species on Enceladus.
The diving bell rang again, the door slid shut, and we slowly sank down through the passage in the ice.
My adrenaline had been pumping all day, and I welcomed the slower pace of our descent. Gordy and I stood silently in our wetsuits. I adjusted my face mask and let my mind completely relax. Deep breath in. A long slow breath out.
We dropped below the ice crust and into the darker water. There was still enough natural light in this upper zone of the ocean that I could see we were surrounded by a kelp forest. In the absence of words I became intensely aware of the kelp brushing against the glass of the diving bell. I’d seen kelp before. The stems and leaf-like blades were buoyed by tiny bladders full of air. Nearby, tiny crustaceans swam upside down through the kelp, and seemed attracted to the diving bell’s lights. Dot, my wearable device, scanned the curious, feathery creatures and found their common name, brine shrimp. They danced gracefully around us as we sank farther down into the Enceladus ocean.
The diving bell picked up speed.
The soft reflective light of the Saturn rings dimmed, the colors deepened, and the school of shrimp flickered with bioluminescent greens and blues. In the darker water I imagined a chorus whispering a nursery rhyme to me, “Ginny Gin Gin, are you our friend?”
Visibility at the lab platform was slim to none, so we turned on our headlamps. From the entrance I watched Gordy swim ahead of me disappearing into the abandoned lab, now flooded with ocean water.
Blood red blades of kelp waved me inside, too. I floated along a gentle current. The salt water was buoyant and comfortable. My breath grew deep and slow and I noticed other creatures, much smaller than my hand, camouflaged in the kelp.
Dot displayed a matching image labeled Leafy Sea Dragon, a type of sea horse.
The school of sea dragons emerged from the kelp and swirled around me in the eerie silence. Even though the water was warm, my skin prickled as if cold. Or thrilled. I reached out to touch one and they scattered. Clearly I was in no danger despite their dangerous sounding name, dragon. I grew very still so I wouldn’t startle them. One by one dragons reappeared. Curious.
A few closest to me nickered. “Come in! We’ve been waiting for you.” Or, I imagined that’s what they’d say, if they could talk in human language. Eye-to-eye I felt swallowed up by their enchanting, mythic world. And they led me deeper inside where the wild ocean had overgrown the lab.
“I see polyps budding,” Dot reported. I leaned in to examine the clusters growing on the lab console. “They’re not jellyfish yet, but it won’t be long.”
A shimmering cluster of kelp bladders floating above caught my eye. I moved up near the ceiling to get a closer look. Something was activating the tiny bubbles of air.
Fascinating. These weren’t kelp bladders. These were eggs! Another species was hatching. “Dot look. Eight legs. Correction: eight tentacles.” Tiny phosphorescent octopods popped from their egg sacs and parachuted down around me.
I followed the octopods, adrift in the current, to a lab window left slightly ajar where the babies were swept outside. “Interesting.” I spoke into my headset, “Gordy, I think I found where the lab is open to the ocean water. I see a gap around a window frame and, as we expected, the outer containment shell on this south wall is down.” I caught glimpses of it through the kelp forest beyond the lab. “Sealing the shell might be difficult. The space between the lab and the peripheral ring is overgrown.”
“Can you close the gap around the window?” asked Gordy. “If we can drain the water out of the main lab, even partially, that’ll give better access to the comms gear we want.”
“I’m working on it.” I started to clear the bits of kelp and organic debris from the window frame.
The bioluminescent octopods clung to my sleeves. “Hip hip hooray! We’re on our way.” Octopods leapt off my shoulders and arms, rushing to the ocean outside. I knew I was imagining voices. Octopi don’t have vocal chords. And it was absurd to think they sounded like little kids at playtime. But I felt called to protect them. Strange. I’d never felt maternal before.
I looked up to the hatching eggs, octopods parachuting all around me. Some landed on my face shield, holding on with their tiny suction cups, pausing before their leap. “Freedom!” This single word, repeated over and over again, was incredibly distinct, unmistakable. Now I was convinced the creatures were communicating with me. I don’t know how. But I knew, the babies were thrilled to leave their egg sacs and join the ocean current.
Back to my task. I scraped and pulled on some particularly gnarly kelp holdfast, the structure that anchored the kelp stalk to the ocean floor, or in this case a lab windowsill. I took off my gloves to get a better grip. But the kelp wouldn’t budge.
“Dot, please examine the logs recorded by the marine biologists.”
“I have found seven hundred logs at an average of twenty minutes per log. Shall I begin from the beginning, or would you like to narrow your search?”
“Examine the last log, please. Let’s find out why the scientists opened the window and raised the outer shell when they left.”
The most stubborn bits of kelp were out of reach, so I opened the window wide enough for my body to slide through. One of my braids caught on the window frame and pulled my long hair loose. The shrimp danced around my shoulders among the unfettered loops of hair, like fairies playing hide and seek.
Dot chimed. “I have the log you requested.”
“Hold the replay. There’s a lot going on here and I need to pay attention.”
The newly hatched octopods clung to my hands with their tiny tentacles. It felt like they were probing me for … what? Knowledge of their new environment? More likely they saw me as a convenient way to hitch a ride to their natural habitat. The presence of so many babies made me feel, for the first time in my life, connected to wildlife in a personal way, not so alone.
Carefully, I dropped to the rocky ledge beside the lab. You can let go now, I thought. You’re safe. I tried to brush the babies off, but they continued to cling to me, blushing.
The school of shrimp was still swirling around me, also curious. After all, they’d never seen a human.
I tugged on the kelp holdfast but it still wouldn’t give. I stumbled onto my knees.
An octopus shot past me. This one’s head was bigger than my fist, and it disappeared into the deep ocean water. I must have disturbed its den.
Sea dragons raced through the dense kelp forest growing outside. The dragons paused at the edge, hiding behind kelp blades. As I stood up, they followed my movement with their eyes and tilted their bodies for a better look. I reached out to the shy dragons. They backed up. I thought, No worries. You’re safe with me. Somehow my non-verbal reassurance worked. The leafy sea dragons, one after another, snorted softly and headed across the open water to the rock ledge where I stood just outside the lab. They joined the other creatures who apparently wanted to know more about me.
“Dot, I need a sanity check here. What do you know about communication between humans and voiceless ocean creatures?”
“I can search my database. Meanwhile, do you want to see the recording of the lab window being opened? You’ll be interested to know, it happened after the scientists evacuated.”
I held up my wrist to watch the playback on Dot’s screen: Inside the dry lab, unoccupied by humans, an adult octopus crawled out of her tank and onto the countertop where she reached out and opened a window. The same window where I was standing. Then she climbed onto the console where she used a controller to lower the containment shell, flooding the interior of the lab. “I don’t know what I thought had happened here, but this wasn’t it.” In the final image of the recording the mother octopus swam to a ceiling rafter, where she deposited her eggs and curled around them protectively. Her camouflage shifted and she looked like part of the structure.
The baby octopods clinging to my face mask giggled. Once again, I knew the giggling had to be all in my head.
“To answer your earlier question, there are many records of humans communicating with marine mammals, such as dolphins and whales,” Dot said. “But I find nothing on cephalopods or crustaceans, or even fish. Our sea dragons do make intentional sounds, snaps and clicks to attract their mates.”
I continued to clear out one strand of the kelp holdfast after another, and the herd of sea dragons followed me around the curve in the wall. Their snaps and clicks did sound like a chattering conversation.
I felt protective again. How will I get you to move when we close the window? The sea dragons backed away, a cloud of shrimp followed in their wake. Like they could understand what I was thinking.
And then I felt something next to the open window. A different texture than the rocks. A large tentacle wrapped around my wrist. It didn’t hurt, but it definitely pulled me closer until I was eye to eye with an octopus as large as my own head.
Her complexion shifted from the camouflage that mimicked ragged rocks to smooth dappled gray with tawny undertones.
More of her suction cups reached out and found bare skin on my hands and she tugged me closer by wrapping around the back of my neck. I felt her gently massage me. And then an electric surge poured deep into my bones. I’d never felt anything like it. Unnerving, but not unpleasant. I knew she would not devour me physically, and I surrendered to her touch as she explored my thoughts, and deeper into my subliminal nature.
The baby octopods giggled and hopped off me, drifting away and clinging to blades of kelp. Your offspring? I thought of the cluster of eggs still inside the lab. Through our telepathic connection I knew she was the mother of this brood, and I named her in my mind, Hester.
No worries, Hester. I’ll make sure all the babies make it to the ocean.
I wanted to reassure her. I held her frail body in my arms. She was unraveling. It was her time. Hester was dying.
Most of all I felt the weight of her sadness. I knew what it was like to grow up separated from my mom. I recognized her loneliness. I wondered if there was anything she wanted to tell me. As I held Hester, both of us grieving, she begged me, Not here. They belong on Earth. I beg of you. Return them home.
Hester knew about Earth.
How could she have known? And how would returning to Earth be better than this flourishing ocean on Enceladus?
The picture she shared with me was a vibrant aquatic environment populated with countless, wildly diverse species, many schooling in spectacular formations. Each belonging to one another, shoaling in casual aggregations. The cascading energy was irresistible.
In stark contrast to the ancient ecosystem, the limited number of species commingling here on this outer planet moon felt threadbare. I understood her draw to return home. Hester longed for the original ocean.
But, Hester, Earth’s oceans are not what they once were.
She nodded. She knew. But the longing rang deep and true. It’s still our home.
I felt infinite connection through her intergenerational memories. How could I deny her progeny?
It wasn’t hard to convince Gordy. He agreed: our rescue and repatriation mission was one hundred percent righteous. All the individuals who volunteered to return to Earth made clear their intention to regenerate a thriving marine biome.
We soared through the outer rings of Saturn, carrying comms gear nestled among tanks full of octopus eggs, sea dragons, and bioluminescent shrimp. We were on our way to return as many as we could to our ancestral home.
K. H. Brower is currently on a foray to use mushrooms and their mycelium networks to heal our planet. When she’s not reading or writing or watching movies, you can find her kicking leaves. In warmer weather you might find her paddle boarding cool lakes. Daily she devotes time to dancing, practicing yoga, and cooking yummy food.
To find out more visit her website KHBrower.com and join her in conversation on Twitter @thestorygoddess.
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