Something monstrous lives in the oceans.
My sister Bekka and I used to lie awake in our habitat at night to listen to the strange noises from beneath the water. They are difficult to wrap in words molded to the biology of Earth. We fancied it sounded like dinosaurs. We both loved dinos when we were kids, but Bekka loved them more, these gentle, plant-eating giants. She was among the first to get sick.
The planet, our Valenga, orbits its sun like a beautiful promise beckoning to humanity. We came with the crystalline hope dreamed in deep suspension sleep and frozen seed banks, we came with plans of an egalitarian society and building a sustainable life, something we could hand down through the ages. Bekka, my sister, swept me off my feet with her elation, swept me right to signing up for the colonizing project with her.
But something monstrous lives in the oceans. Our colony is the closest to the Middling Sea, which is what some scientist back home named the largest ocean, and mission protocol dictated we stay firmly on land, keep away from the salt-laden seas. After all, the universe’s Goldilocks zones are precious, so better to share with some strange sea creatures than to squander a habitable planet. At university, I researched fungi that have made sharing into an art. They live all around the roots of trees, and feed them nutrients as if through a tube.
We stopped burying the dead months ago and burned them instead. The colonies’ doctors figured it was something viral at first, something that blistered the skin and killed the major organs in ascending order of necessity.
Tomoe Kizu, who was the science officer and medical chief in my colony, realized it was a fungus. Mycology wasn’t her specialty, and so it took her a while; I was surprised. She theorized that we brought it, that it had evolved during our trip here and then again when we landed; Kizu, though I liked her, knew little of fungus genetics.
Kizu was one of the last to die. The last conversation I had with her was delirious, and she was angry. I dragged her to the mass grave by myself, because everyone else was wrangling with the fungus in some degree of desperation.
I moved bodies to the mass grave daily. By that time, most were in the common hall, cared for by the nurse-bots and myself. Nelaya died at her post in the comms center. I checked the logs, and the last transmission from another colony, just a message to say goodbye, was two V-standard weeks before I buried her; Omega had been silent since before Kizu finally figured out it was a fungus. Perhaps Nelaya simply preferred to face what was coming alone. Nelaya, I think, apart perhaps from Bekka, knew me best.
The bleakness of filling the grave and burning the bodies became a dull chore, like the cleaning of Petri dishes in the lab. I remember the last one, Lucas, rambling feverishly for hours, sweat slicking his colorless skin and tiny beads of blood bubbling from chapped lips. I had to feed him through a tube. He did not enjoy that. When his heart stopped, I was glad that it was over, that the days and nights were finally quiet again. His was the last corpse I took outside, wrapped in the sheet he died on.
By lighting that last fire, I set myself free. I will never be able to forget the smell of burning flesh, the way the smoke makes the stink stick to your skin.
I sent a message to Earth. All the important scientific findings. My observations. “I know you’ll have to make a judgment call, but I do hope you’ll send someone else,” I told them. “This can still be a paradise.”
And what is a paradise without anyone to admire it?
I sometimes wake to the darkness of the habitat into a few blissful moments of disorientation during which I have forgotten that Bekka is dead.
Then I remember, but I still reach over to her bed to make sure it’s empty, because I keep hoping that she’ll be there. We brewed mushroom tea once, at university, and I keep hoping that Bekka’s death will be as hallucinatory as the wicked, monstrous things I saw back then.
Instead, days grind on. I’ll see the harvest season through, hoping that Earth will send more colonists. If they come, I want them to find something that can be a home. I want them to see the bounty of my harvest. When they come.
The farm work is simple. Bots do most of it, and I only have to feed myself. I still build granaries and freeze-dry food like I was trained to do. Bekka was the engineer who assembled the processing units, so I feel some closeness to her when I take the desiccated beets to storage. Her skill-set seemed so much more useful than my own; I am a mycologist, but they trained me to be a simple farmer so I could live the simple life of a colonist. I am not a simple colonist.
We repurposed all of our suspension chambers. “I’ll see this harvest season through,” I told Earth. “Then, I’ll make my way to Gamma. They still have some of their chambers, fully functional. I’ll wait for you there.” Like that princess with the apple stuck in her throat, waiting to be kissed by love. I did not say that. Wasn’t that princess’s mother in love with herself? Didn’t she also grow an apple into something it wasn’t before?
We had to exhume Bekka to burn her because she was one of the first to die. They tried to purge the fungus with fire. What a waste of everyone’s time that was, but I never told them that.
The beasts in the ocean break the water’s surface like black mountains with scales or skin that looks like flesh cracked in flames. I can walk to the cliff that offers a stunning view of the sun setting in about five minutes from the processing unit. The creatures’ noises carry on the wind, rattle the very air in my lungs.
The other day, I saw something unusual on the beach, grooves, half as wide as the grave, as deep as a person standing. We knew of that strange, megalithic life in the oceans, but we decided it would be okay to live here if we only stayed on land. The land creatures are hardly any threat to humans, everyone said there were no monsters on the land.
There were noises the night before. I stood on the edge of the cliff, chewing a dried beetroot, the sweetness almost sickly, the rubbery texture fleshy against my teeth, and I was wondering: what if we were wrong? What if these monstrous things are amphibians that come to visit like giant black shadows, like terrible nightmares in scales and burnt flesh?
The worst thing about a fresh mass grave is the sight you can’t escape, and the smell of fire and ash that lingers like a phantom limb. The nurse-bots managed a good degree of cleanness in the common hall, even before I moved Lucas out of there, and I can go inside without gagging.
I reprogrammed the farm-bots to cover up the grave. Perhaps in their limited bot brains, there is a faint hope that something new will grow from that peculiar field. It’s too close for me to fully avoid, but far enough away so that I can walk past it and think it a shrine, a place of memories.
The groove on the beach is almost gone. The waves washed it away like a stain on a plate, like blood after a fight, and I try to imagine that it was never there to begin with.
But there are mountains, coiling upwards from beneath the water, and I think I actually saw something like an eye today, staring back at me over the distance.
I doubt the eye was real. A good psychiatrist would tell me it wasn’t. The nurse-bots keep offering me things I don’t want to take. I might shut a few of them down. After all, there’s only me.
Nelaya, apart from being brilliant at her comms, was an excellent chess player. She was also excellently patient in trying to teach me. She sacrificed some of her weight allowance to take a fancy chessboard. Real Earth wood, carved into knights and rooks, kings and queens that move on fields of black and white.
Nelaya used to say there is a beauty in the game. I meant to ask her if that’s why she took objects of such craftsmanship with her, for the ephemeral game they represent. I’ll never ask her now, but I have taken her board and figures into our habitat. It sits on the table Bekka and I had our meals at.
Bekka told me she had started dating Lucas over breakfast. My first thought was that I didn’t want her to move out. I knew she wouldn’t be happy with Lucas. We were happy together, she and I. Lucas had been boisterous during training, smug-faced. I could tell he thought himself brilliant, but I knew he wasn’t, and I didn’t understand what Bekka saw in him. Bekka and I had always been together. I told her he wasn’t good for her, and we fought like never before, and now Bekka is dead.
I was woken several times during the night by the beasts’ wild screams, a deep rumbling that made me dream of thunderstorms back on Earth. I loved those as a kid, the lightning, the fire, but Bekka hated them.
The harvest cycle will end in 1.5 V-standard months. I thought about sending another message back home, just so they know I haven’t done anything stupid like jump off that cliff.
I’ll let them know I’m still alive soon. I don’t want them to think I’m desperate, but it would be nice to have a message, even if I know, rationally, that these things take time. I hate that about space, that everything takes so much time, everything except dying.
There’s another groove, close to where the first one was. I checked Kizu’s observation logs, and I’m not going crazy. There haven’t been this many sightings before, and the grooves are entirely new.
I don’t even know if they are all one species. Maybe it’s just one gigantic creature, like a kraken big as a comet that lives at the bottom of these oceans and reaches toward the foreign sun with its arms, tries to touch that distant light. Bekka came up with the kraken. She was obsessed with Jules Verne when she was eight, while I was fascinated by how the zombie fungus can command ants, how it lives inside their brains like one wicked, monstrous thought. I thought it was almost like telepathy, the way the fungus rules its ants. The creatures in the oceans made me think of that again, even though that particular fungus was never the focus of my research.
I took pictures and enhanced them. Those are definitely eyes. Sometimes, I can feel their voices vibrating my entire body as if they reach unseen feelers through the air.
I checked, and we have climbing equipment. The cliff goes on for miles in either direction, so the climb would be safer than finding somewhere I can go down with the rover.
All the rules say we should avoid any beaches at all costs, but who the fuck cares about rules anymore?
When I read about how to do it, abseiling sounded simple enough. I station two maintenance-bots on the cliff, along with a nurse-bot just in case. They can pull me back up. If I don’t get pulled into the water and eaten, that is.
It takes me ages to figure out the harness, and abseiling is not as simple as it sounded. I enjoy it though. There is a rush of adrenaline. I feel alive, not just like a ghost haunting a ghost town.
I get to the beach with shaking hands. Then, the sound washes over me, the voice of a beast, a harbinger of death and destruction. Suddenly, climbing down to the beach feels like the stupid idea it was.
Blackness breaks the water’s surface, so close to shore, the distance warped by the sheer size of the thing. How is the water so deep there already? I wonder, because you wouldn’t expect something so big in shallow water, unless it also likes being on land.
I just stand there and watch the dark shape, dripping water off its roundness. A part of me thinks, This is it, you’re going to die here, but no. The creature doesn’t come any closer. Instead, it either shifts or unfurls, it is hard to tell which, and that body part opens like the shell that birthed Venus, just bigger and darker. There are traces of spined cartilage or bones running skyward. They end in obsidian tips I have never seen before.
The whole episode looks almost like the creature waves at me. The shell-like structure eventually recedes beneath the waves, but my heart still races. Another noise rumbles through my body, and the blackness coils up again, exactly where it was before.
I have no idea why, but something makes me raise my arm and wave back at it. I don’t even know how I imagine it might see that.
The creature unfolds itself again, but it is smaller this time, and it adds a left-right movement, definitely like someone waving.
At our farewell party back on Earth, one of my friends told me she thought I was stupid to leave everything behind. We had done the Chytridiomycosis research together, though I was the one who did the genetic work with the frog-killing fungi. After all the long nights in the sequencing lab, I felt like I knew those genomes by heart, knew them like the shape of my own shadow, like the patterns of my own shadowy thoughts. I knew what made them eat the little frogs, consume organs in ascending order of necessity. I knew, with great intimacy, the tender chromosomes on which its choice of food was encoded. My friend wanted me to not go, to change my mind at the last minute. By now, she’s probably dead.
I walk toward the water lapping at the pebbly sand. The waving structure is still up. It is huge, and it is scary, and I come closer. I squat by the water and splash the salty ocean between it and me with my hand. I really have no idea what I’m thinking.
The creature must have observed in its unique and alien way. The shell structure bows toward the water, and like a nightmarish demon paw, it splashes barrelfuls of ocean in my general direction. It’s too far away for any of the water to reach me, but wavelets of the disturbance lap at my feet and hand.
I stand and wave again. The creature sings its noise at me and waves back. I’m giddy all of a sudden. There’s more in my life again than the simplicity of a colonist’s life.
I scramble back up the cliff, determination in my bones to come back the next day. The creature’s song follows me up, but it doesn’t wake me during the night. It seems it wants to say, Sleep, you need your rest.
When I wake in the morning, I’m actually scared it might have left. I race to the cliff before I get dressed. The shell hand rises up from the deep in what feels like a greeting, accompanied by its noise. The structure is bigger again, its spikes reaching high. Maybe it wants to make sure I can see it. Maybe it thinks land creatures’ eyes are poor imitations of whatever sight organs it has.
I wave at it, this time with both arms. This is received with a rippling ocean and another spined structure rising. I have no idea if it’s one creature or more, but I see these spined, hand-like things return my greeting.
I am so happy at the sight of these two hands that would be fit to hold nightmares between them. Bekka would have been either very proud or very shocked. Just like that time she looked up to me from the bottom of the well.
My body hurts from my climb to the beach the previous day, but I’m determined to go down there again.
The maintenance bots and the nurse-bot follow me. I have never been more relieved that our colonizing project voted to not take any AIs. They would have told me to stop whatever I thought I was doing long ago, to focus on securing what’s left of the colony now, and to stop waving at aliens.
Those three bots will just do whatever I tell them to do, just like they did before, when I was tending to Lucas.
I move my limbs through their soreness, but even though I did it yesterday, getting down to the beach is harder now. My breath comes heavy and ragged, and I suck in lungfuls of air as I walk toward the water.
The creature is there, though I can’t yet see its ‘hand.’ All it shows me is the coil of its body. It has come closer to the beach. If it decides to splash me with saltwater, I’m positive that I will catch those droplets today, but so far, I have barely seen it move.
“Hey!” I say. “Hey.”
It moves. It pulses and raises just two sections of that hand, though it doesn’t stretch them very high. An attempt not to seem intimidating, I think.
Then, it folds down again, leaving a part of itself above water level. It approaches, about halves the distance between us. If I walk into the water up to my belly button, I would be able to actually touch it.
I do consider that, just going into the water, but before I can, some of the hand sections unfold. They wave, even though now they no longer stretch quite so high. I hear the air shift with the movement. The creature’s penetrating noise follows like a greeting.
For a moment, I am frozen. There were thought experiments during training, what we could do should we encounter an alien life form. At the time, that was mostly a fun group-building experience, seeing who was the most creative about figuring out how to talk or initiate contact. Bekka suggested to touch. All creatures that reasoned, she suggested, would understand touch, and what it meant if it were gentle.
Most poisons in nature are delivered with a sting, but a fungus sends its spores to stick to your mucous membranes. It is the gentlest of touches, and there are many simple ways to help a fungus spread.
I reach a hand out toward the creature, take two steps forward into the water. I think the creature understands. I remain where I am, my hand reaching. Ever so slowly, it creeps forward. I still have no idea what the entirety of its body looks like, and that dark shape stretches far back into the ocean, but whether it’s an appendage or a head, the hand-shaped section approaches.
Slowly, that dark part of the creature’s body comes at me. Its skin is like nothing I know. I want to say barnacled, but the roughness of this limb is far too regular for that. It’s dark, though not entirely black. Dark as venous blood perhaps, or dark as summer leaves fallen to the bottom of a well.
Me and Bekka, we found an old well one summer, that summer when I stayed with our aunt, who was a psychiatrist. When my parents and Bekka came to pick me up again, we ran outside, and I showed her the well, and dared her to climb down. What a wickedly monstrous thought that was.
The sections of the creature’s unfolded, outstretched hand seem more like bone now. Between them, the skin is lighter, the deep dark green of algae.
The closer it gets, the more it blots out all other sight. It is so huge, I would have to turn my head to see anything but its body. I am fascinated. I watch open-mouthed as the hand section bends down, slow, and with improbable precision. It touches my still outstretched hand.
I feel a roughness there like sandpaper, but also warmth. I found a coin on the sidewalk once, in the middle of summer, and the creature is as warm as that coin was. A part of me categorizes that—warm-blooded, circulatory system—but another part is just…glad. We have something in common.
At this stage, if it wanted to, it could smash me or eat me. It does none of those things. It still towers over me even though it has bent low enough to put skin to foreign skin, and it is motionless. Then, it makes its not-quite-dino noise.
“Hello,” I say in answer.
After we stand there for a momentous age that no one but us takes note of, it retreats its section, and I drop my hand. It’s still close enough for me to touch it if I want to, but the hand section is invisible again. Even though I am this close, I can’t quite see how the folding and unfolding of that works. Its skin seems to ripple and simply come apart or pull back together again.
It makes more noises, lower, noises I feel more than hear. “It’s very nice to meet you,” I tell it.
From the left, the lapping waves are broken apart by movement along that side of the creature’s body. I take one step back as the splashing approaches, and immediately, it slows, diminishing the water’s commotion.
The creature makes a noise, and the source of the splashing comes level with where I stand. Something like large algae or kelp bobs up from the water. It is held by another, much smaller section of the creature, and that section brings the kelp closer to me.
“Are you offering me food?” I say. I approach, look at the kelp, which looks harmless, take it. It is a huge armful of watery growth.
“Thank you? But I have nothing to offer in return.”
It makes something like a gurgling sound while I bend my head over the kelp to smell the saltiness of it. I don’t want to seem ungrateful, so I try nibbling on one lush leaf. “It’s really good, thank you.”
The creature ripples, but doesn’t unfold itself again. Instead, it retreats from the beach with a constant, breezy song. Further out, it coils upward once, then vanishes.
I take the kelp back to the colony. The maintenance bots pull it up the cliff with ease. I run it through the lab we were trained to use for our own crops, and it is perfectly edible, healthy even.
I stand over the results, wonder how this creature, this feral thing from beneath the strange, salty water, can possibly know that this food won’t kill me. I should absolutely send a message to Earth with the latest development, let them know I established contact. I don’t.
I slice off some of the kelp with a scalpel, put it in my mouth. It tastes so very strange, but not in a bad way. These are the fruits of paradise.
In my dreams last night, the ocean became a chessboard, and the coiling bodies, the outstretched spines, those were dark chess pieces. I was a pale thing, all the other pieces sacrificed, and I waited on my square for whatever came next.
I wake to a noise cutting the darkness of the night. What will come next? Still in my pajamas, I grab a flashlight and run to the cliff. In the darkness, I almost don’t see the grave. The cliff is ahead, beckoning, and I might have strayed with the flashlight, missed a step, tumbled down. I don’t, because of the noise.
It’s on the beach now. My flashlight isn’t strong enough to fully illuminate the scene down below, but there are stars and the pale moons shedding their light, and I can see the dark skin move like boiling flesh. I also hear the noise of its weight shifting the sand.
And of course, there is the song that woke me.
I stand, salt-frozen. I could remain like this, just watch, or I could go down, see what will happen. I have a choice. I’ve had a choice in this from the very beginning.
Going down in the dark ranks high among the not-smart decisions I have made in my life. I cut my knees and my left hand on the rocks, and I collect a tapestry of bruises. When I have my feet back under me and my flashlight out and turned on the creature, I almost dissolve into shock. It is close, its body pulsing and black. It towers over me, and it sings.
I am still bleeding from my cuts, and I think, If it likes the smell, I’m dead.
The creature’s skin erupts with tendrils like the ones that dragged the kelp toward me, and those tendrils slice the beam of my flashlight in their slow approach.
The limbic part of my brain is very clear in communicating the immediate need to run. I don’t run.
I expect that the tendrils will grab me and quarter me. I am scared, and the creature’s song bubbles through the blood in all my heart’s chambers. It slows its approach, I think because it feels this fear that I can’t control, but it still keeps coming.
Its tendrils ring my legs first, then they move up. On my right knee, the one that aches under the sliced skin and blood, the tendrils fold close and tight like a bandage. I can feel them do something to the cut, but when I look, all I see is my leg wrapped in dark appendages, and I look away again, tears in my eyes.
It makes its gurgling noise again, but it keeps on moving. On my left hand, the process of covering the wound fully repeats. When it reaches my right hand, the hand that holds the flashlight, I lose that brightness, the light tumbles to the beach, illuminating a few rocks.
I am left in the creature’s grasp, and all things are darkness, except the stars.
I wake on the beach. The sun is high in the sky, and I’m cold because I’ve been lying on the beach for heaven knows how long in only my PJs. I’m still alive, and this comes as a surprise. I sit up, look around. I am in a groove like the ones I saw before. I spot my climbing harness slicing down from the cliff, so I haven’t been moved much.
The ocean lies placid, but when I stand up, a blackness rises from beneath. Its arch glistens with eyes, all of them turned at me.
I look at my left hand, the one that should be bloody and sporting a ragged cut. There is a mark there, an almost barnacled scar, but it is healed, healing worth weeks.
I look at my knee, and that is the same. My skin feels different. It is smooth in a way, but not like it was. It’s not the smoothness I was born with. It has the same quality the creature does, not quite as pronounced perhaps, but it is no longer my skin.
“What have you done to me?” I say to the eye-bedazzled thing.
It sings, but I can’t understand what it says. I can hear it better though. It is no longer the dino noise, the just-noise I feel throughout my body. It’s like a voice now, speaking a language I don’t know, but with distinct joints to it that are words and sentences.
They thought there was something monstrous in the oceans. They were wrong about monsters.
I run back to my climbing gear. The flashlight is still on, tingeing the sand yellow, so this is the next day, or just a few days after my nighttime descent, but not more.
I turn. “What have you done!” I yell again, and hear again its babble in response. “I can’t understand,” I say, look down on myself. My arms feel rough under my touch. I know what it is to change the genetics of a thing and make it something it wasn’t before, create something that could make a paradise.
A splashing of salt makes me turn my head. “What now?”
Its bony hand section rises again, one obsidian-tipped finger striking skywards. It says something, one word.
Then, it holds up two sections, says another word.
This it repeats several times. It must think I don’t get it, so it holds up one section, then points that section at me. When it holds up the two sections, it points them back and forth between us. I understand. We are alone no more. The monster and I, we are alike. We have always been alike.
Something monstrous lives in the oceans of Valenga. Something monstrous came here from the sky to live on the land.
On Valenga, there are monsters.
Story copyright © 2022 by Alexandra Seidel
Artwork copyright © 2022 by Richard Wagner
Alexandra Seidel writes stories that often turn out darker than she thought, unless they turn out funnier than she thought. Follow Alexa on Twitter @Alexa_Seidel or like her Facebook page. As Alexa Piper, she writes (somewhat queer) paranormal romance books, which have been rumoured to make people laugh out loud in public. Such rumours please this author. If you want to buy Alexa a coffee, you can do so at ko- fi.com/alexandraseidel.
Richard Wagner is a graphic designer and illustrator living in the United States. His academic schooling consists of a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree with an emphasis in painting and drawing as well as training in graphic design and illustration. For seventeen years he taught college-level graphic design and photo- illustration classes while also freelancing. He now works on his own and enjoys focusing solely on being a designer/illustrator.