Maren Rosenbaum perched in a small skiff on Tau Ceti Seven’s rainbow sea. It caught the leading edge of a swell and Maren’s aged body swayed, adjusting to the motion. Arthritis twinged in her back.
“All right, Ma’am?” asked the gray-bearded mariner whose craft she’d leased for the day.
She’d been lucky to find him. Most folks on Tau Ceti Seven were too obsessed with promethium-mining operations to give much thought to the sea. It was only beautiful scenery, containing nothing of value.
The lie she’d published as truth still held.
“Fine, Captain,” Maren said, never taking her gaze from the redstone cliff rising from the iridescent sea. “I’m hardier than you think.” But not so hardy as all that. She ached deep in her bones.
Her crabbed fingers tightened on the gunwale. Ahead, a dark streak cut down the cliff’s face, widening to a shark’s-tooth wedge at the base. She pointed, heart racing. “There it is.”
The captain cleared his throat. “Ma’am, that cave… it’s dangerous. I don’t sail those waters.”
Maren tugged on a chain around her neck, revealing a prismatic pearl the size and shape of a robin’s egg. “Would this be worth the risk?”
He paled and glanced furtively around, as if he feared someone might be watching. “That’d buy my boat and my firstborn child.”
“I’ve no need of your firstborn,” Maren said, caressing the pearl’s smooth surface, “but if you bring me to the cave, it’s yours.”
The captain turned the skiff landward. It slid down the face of a swell, raising a spray of blue mist at the bottom. Maren inhaled the crisp scent. It seeped through her veins and tingled in her fingertips.
The skiff drew nearer to the cave, cutting through colors that swirled like an oil slick. The shark-tooth-shaped darkness drew into focus, revealing a chasm stretching deep into the redstone cliff. Inside, the sea’s colors intensified, brilliant as lit gemstones.
A low rumble shuddered around them.
“Ma’am,” the captain said, a nervous edge to his voice, “we can turn back. You can keep your pearl…”
“No,” she said. “I’ve traveled the galaxy to come here again. I’m not leaving now.”
“I’m a marine biologist,” Maren said. “I served on the first Septian station.”
“That was over three hundred years ago.”
Over the rumble came a whisper of melody, rising and falling in a modal tune that mirrored the pulsing rainbow lights. “No,” Maren replied. “It’s not.”
A breath of frost iced the wind that touched Maren’s skin. The skiff lurched forward, caught in a powerful current driving deep into the cave’s mouth. It slipped under the stony lip and everything went dark, save the gleaming sea. The wind died. Music echoed off the walls, laced with whispering voices. Maren’s eyes slipped shut and she let the sound lap up against her like waves against the stone.
The captain shifted, rocking the skiff. “All right, we’ve been here, now let’s get out.”
“Not yet,” Maren said. “Do you hear the voices?”
“Wind coming through a crevice somewhere,” he said, voice gruff.
The captain grunted, but obeyed.
In the absence of his voice, the others surged louder. Maren caught a familiar laugh. Her granddaughter, Bea, who’d drowned when she was seven. Bea’s mother Dorothea chanted prayers for the departed, though she herself had passed away in her sleep at eighty. The twins, Thomas and Benjamin, played a game of Marco Polo, their voices chasing wildly around the cave. Thomas died only two year ago, while Benjamin had succumbed to an Earth-based influenza outbreak in his twenties.
Beside her, Maren heard the sound of quiet tears. She touched the captain’s arm. “Who do you hear?”
“My Bess—” His voice cracked and he swallowed audibly. “My father and mother.”
“I hear them all,” Maren said. “My children, their children, their children’s children… Three-hundred years of death, and me left behind.”
Maren shook herself. She pulled the pearl over her head. It gleamed with its own internal fire, casting rainbows on the walls.
She placed the pearl in the captain’s hand and wrapped his fingers around it. “Your payment. And a choice.”
“The pearl’s nacre holds the essence of this sea — eternal life. It will sustain you for as long as you keep it.” The gift of the creatures who ruled these waters. Whose secret Maren had discovered those long centuries ago and protected with her silence. Even now, she spoke no word of them, though she could sense them circling just below the surface. “But, captain, there is a cost. You’ll watch your loved ones die until you’re so alone nothing remains but emptiness. Listen to your Bess. Does she speak with your parents?”
“They’re singing together.”
Tears stung Maren’s eyes. “Until you pass beyond, you can never join them. Think on that, before you accept the pearl.”
He hesitated, then let out a shuddering breath. “A man’s life’s meant to be what it’s meant to be. No more, no less.” He opened his hand and dropped the pearl into the waves.
Maren’s heart lightened. “You’re a wiser person than I ever was. Thank you. For everything.”
In one smooth motion, Maren slipped out of the skiff into the icy sea. A hand brushed against her leg, then a flowing tail — her friends come to welcome her.
Maren sank into the waves and inhaled. Liquid color filled her lungs, swirling and coalescing into her family’s familiar faces. Her silver-green essence slipped free of her the anchor of her body.
At last, she was home. She was free.
Rebecca Birch is a science fiction and fantasy writer based in Seattle, Washington. She’s a classically trained soprano, holds a deputy black belt in Tae Kwon Do, and enjoys spending time in the company of trees. Her fiction has appeared in markets including Nature, Cricket, and Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show. She is also a two-time finalist in the Writers of the Future contest.