Little Useless had succeeded, mostly, in forgetting where she came from before she worked for Dimar’s crew on Midnight’s Lady. Sometimes she had a flash of memory where she was somewhere quite different, where the light wasn’t a blinding glare off choppy water, where the ground was still under her feet and there wasn’t the constant hum of engines and smell of salt water and diesel. Sometimes she dreamed that her belly was full and someone stroked her back gently as she slept.
She drove such thoughts away. Remembering too much could break her heart. And they were probably stolen memories anyway, culled from stories she overheard the crew telling each other, or from conversations half-heard between the passengers that Dimar called moneybags and sometimes hauled from shore to shore in the absence of profitable cargo.
There was Dimar, and his first mate Hermer, who was sickly white and had a thick accent and swore in German when he was drunk, which was also when he liked to catch her and pinch her hard. She didn’t bother learning other names – there was the skinny man with the hat, and the fat man with the hat, and the cook who was kind to her and snuck her food until he died from an infected gunshot. She avoided them all when she could.
There was another kind of passenger that Dimar called useless, like her, and although they were often stowed for a time in the airless, bilge-washed chambers below decks they were always, eventually, dropped over the side. Sometimes they were in canvas bags and sometimes they weren’t, and when they weren’t Little Useless could see their faces, pale and waxy beneath the skin of water as they dropped down and down into the green darkness beneath. She wondered if Dimar would do the same to her one day; he threatened to often enough. Especially when he saw her eat, so she never ate in front of the others if she could help it.
There was a strange passenger now, not in the cabins or the tiny cells, but in the hold, in the big reinforced cage deep inside Midnight’s Lady’s iron and steel bowels that was sometimes used when a man got drunk and nasty. Midnight’s Lady met a small vessel with one lone ghostlight burning at its prow. There was much low-voiced, urgent talking and scuffling on deck. She’d crouched beneath the lip of the captain’s cabin and listened, hearing at least three different languages and a muffled sound that might have been a dropped load, or a shot. The next morning when she dumped a night-bucket over the side she saw no other ship, but a thick oilslick on the water that flexed an infinity of rainbows this way and that.
Last year they smuggled a full-grown tiger from India to Dubai, and the iron walls of the hold still retained some of the rank smell of cat. The new passenger smelled dank, like a room recently scrubbed of mildew, like newspapers that were used to wrap fish. Little Useless, having sluiced out the privies with seawater and beaten the black bugs out of Dimar’s bedding, crept into the hold. The passenger hunched into himself, a grey lump in the far corner of the cage, breathing as if the rusty air hurt him. She crept closer, while the smell of fish ripened, until her nose almost touched the corroded surface of the bars.
A hitch in the prisoner’s breathing, a preternatural stillness, and a low growl that should have warned her away. And then with a snarl like the tiger’s the figure rose and arrowed towards her. Little Useless pushed herself away from the bars. At first she thought the prisoner wore a mask, one that covered the entire head, like Dimar and some of the crew wore when they went raiding.
But it wasn’t a mask. The prisoner’s forehead was high, rising into a domed, bald head, and its nose was flat as if pushed into his face. His eyes were huge, bulbous and grey-green, and so far apart as to be almost on the sides of his head. Thin lips drew back from a maw full of serrated teeth, sprouting from pale pink gums. The arms were mottled like the face, with yellow patches, and thick with corded muscle. The hands reached for her, webbed and tipped with razor-claws.
She back-pedaled away from the cage, landing on her bottom and scooting away as far and fast as she could. The creature crashed into the bars, one arm straining between them, the webbed hand spread like a starfish. Little Useless pressed against the metal wall, the backs of her thighs stinging where the corroded floor had scraped her through her tattered trousers. The creature stayed suspended for a long moment before it sunk, head-bowed, to the floor. The mottled green arm lay limp outside the bars, the fingers curled into the palm. For a second she thought it was dead, and then the shoulders heaved and the raspy breathing began again.
Little Useless swore to herself she wouldn’t go back, until the cook (the successor to the kind one who died; this one’s cooking was as flat and bitter as his vinegar-face) gave her a steel pan of fish entrails and told her to take it to the prisoner. She knew better than to refuse, and balanced the sickening mess in one hand as she negotiated the ladder, letting her eyes adjust to the gloom until she could see the lump at the far side of the cage. She shoved the pan through the slot at the bottom of the cage door and scuttled away, waiting to see what it would do. It didn’t move, and she had to listen hard to hear if it breathed at all.
There were cabins to clean, crew and moneybags, some still neat as a pin, some with blood or vomit or the other leaving of the human body to clear away (nothing shocked her now; she once found a dead woman in Dimar’s bed), and then, although she had no orders to do so, she ventured down into the hold again. The creature leaned against the near side of the cage, and the pan with its rotting mass of offal was pushed out from under the bars, rejected.
The prisoner turned and saw her standing there; she was held in the stare of one unblinking bulbous eye, like a giant dull quartz pebble. Then a translucent membrane lowered over it, blocking out her, blocking out the world. Stepping closer, she saw the creature’s skin was peeling away from the layer beneath. The thin lips were cracked and painful-looking, and the webbing between the fingers was threaded with pink.
Little Useless took the rejected pan and dumped the contents over the side. She fetched one of her buckets, lowered it over the edge to fill with seawater, and hooked it around her neck to carry it with minimum spillage into the hold. The creature was in the same position, and as she pushed the bucket against the bars the thick membrane blinked up, and it watched her with a kind of curiosity. Presently it rose, and with a shuffling walk it supported itself along the bars until it reached the bucket. With a sigh it plunged its hands inside.
Little Useless inched closer and watched while the creature cupped the salt water and brought it to its face: not to drink, but to moisten its skin. Thin sheets of skin were peeling away there, too, reminding her of fish left too long in the sink before cooking. The thick skin on either side of the neck was trembling oddly, and she saw that it split horizontally at regular intervals, in time with the creature’s breathing, exposing tissue that looked red and fragile.
“You live in the salt water,” she said. It stopped splashing its face and looked at her intently. “Under the sea,” she continued. “And you’re dying here.”
It didn’t answer, rubbing salt water by the handful over its arms until the bucket was empty. Silently she reached for it, putting herself well within the creature’s reach, but it made no move towards her. She refilled the bucket once, twice, each time waiting while the strange prisoner bathed its patchy peeling hide. Now there were still raw spots, but the loose skin had sloughed off and beneath it the skin was in parts mottled green-blue like a parrot-fish, in parts smooth and grey like a dolphin. The eyes were brighter now, like wet agates, and she thought it breathed easier as well.
It croaked at her, and the bark of it almost sounded like a word. It tried again, and the harsh sound softened as it forced its strangely-shaped lips to human speech.
“Air, and water,” it said, and swallowed, while the roughness at the sides of its neck flexed in and out. She leaned forward, concentrating on understanding the strangely-accented words.
“I was born in air, and went to the water long ago – first the fresh, then the salt, then my home in the deep sea. I can live in the air and fresh water for a while, but in time they rot me.”
“So you’re not a man at all,” she said. “You’re not human. Like the tiger.”
It tilted its head at her, as if it wondered at the word tiger. “Human? No. I haven’t been human in a long time.”
Later, as she rubbed pumice on the deck, Little Useless realized that it was a long time since she considered her own self human. In brief glances in the mirror in Dimar’s room or in a pane of glass she saw a thin, oddly jointed figure who reminded her of a spider. There was a time that the moneybags passengers, especially the women, would look at her sympathetically and try to speak to her, or give her food. Now they let their eyes slide over her. Even the crew, which was so changeable it seemed Dimar was the only anchor and constant, avoided speaking to her, even to scold and threaten.
At dusk the cook gave her another pan of offal to take to “that leper” in the hold. She wondered if he really thought she’d believe such a lie.
“He didn’t eat last time,” she said. “I had to throw it away.”
He shifted on his feet and she tensed, prepared to dodge the blow.
But the cook didn’t strike her. “He’ll eat when he gets hungry enough,” he growled, turning back to his pots, and she took the nauseating mess and crept out.
Little Useless climbed one of the access ladders down to where the wake foamed behind Midnight’s Lady and dumped the contents, rinsing out the pan. She filled another bucket and carried it down the hold, and watched while the creature bathed itself again. When she brought another bucket he applied handfuls of salt water to the formations to either side of his neck, which softened into structures she recognized as gills – pale green flaps lighter than the rest of his body, with delicate red branching structures like tree-coral that were exposed every time he took a deep breath.
“I’m sorry,” she said after a time. “They won’t let me bring you any real food.”
He shook his head.
“I can live a long time without food. The salt water will do for now.”
She brought a third bucket, her shoulder aching with the effort of bringing it down the ladder. This time instead of bathing in it, he cupped a double-handful of water in his webbed paws and contemplated it, like a fortune teller with a crystal ball.
“What are you?” she ventured.
He raised his inhuman head and contemplated her with unblinking eyes. Looking back, she saw that now they were not simply blank agates but that they had pupils – elongated vertical rectangles of deep gold-yellow lined with black. They flexed inwards and outwards as he stared at her.
“I am not your kind, as you know,” he rasped. “My people live beneath the sea, although some of us begin as humans, born of a human mother or father on land.”
He looked back at the water in his hands. “Then we return to our home: to Y’dari, Y’goreth, Yith of the shell-black waters, Gormengi of the infinite maze. S’barsi, where the mad gods speak from the crack in the ocean floor. Pai, where the water is so clear you can see the stars we came from, two miles to the surface and infinite reaches beyond.”
He spoke as if he could see them in the pool in his hands, as if he could show her. She wished she could.
“What is your name?” she asked, although she had always avoid knowing names if she could help it.
“Your mouth couldn’t form my everyday-name,” he said. “If you wish, you can call me Poc. They called me that, when I was on the land.”
He didn’t ask for her name, and she wondered if it was rude, where he came from, in those cities beneath the sea when mad gods spoke and you could see the sky. Or perhaps if they identified their own by what they were, not what they were called.
Poc was looking at her again, his eyes with their golden centers slightly luminous in the gloom.
“What becomes of you, small human, when you are grown enough for the others to take notice of you?”
Little Useless shivered, a long, shuddering sigh that left her cold all over, even in the fug of the hold.
“I’ll die before then, if I’m lucky,” she said.
“You remind me of a human child I saw many years ago,” said Poc. “More than a hundred years after I became as I am; I found a flow of sweetwater slicing into the sea that intrigued me. At that time my body did not need the salt so much, and I followed the sweetwater upland, for miles, to a lake that had pooled in the hollow body of a volcano.”
He carefully poured the water back in the bucket.
“I stayed there for a time – it was peaceful. Men lived nearby, but I stayed to the depths of the lake – the bowls of the volcano still stirred beneath, and the voices of the gods were different there. Until I heard a sound I remembered from my childhood on land – the sound of guns. And a wailing of a people in despair, as when men brought their weapons to bear on Y’hanthlei. I smelled the blood threading the water and because I was young and curious I swam up to the shore to see. There were bodies floating in the water, men and women both, torn apart by the guns I had heard. It is the fate of men to die, so I watched with curiosity but no grief. Until – I had anchored myself at the base of the reeds beside an outcrop of land – a child, a girl child, broke the battered surface above me.”
Poc stirred the water in the bucket with the tip of one claw.
“She was trying to escape, and in her desperation she saw me. I don’t know how – the water was churned with silt and blood, and human eyes are not made to see well under the surface – but she somehow she did see me, lurking in the reeds, and although the sight of me must have been terrifying she reached out and tried to swim down to me. And, although humans are nothing to me, for some reason I reached out to her. I almost had her when her eyes bulged and a great froth of blood and bubbles burst from her chest. One of the men on land had shot her as she swam. I took her in my arms, but she was already dead.”
“What did you do?” Little Useless was squatting on her heels now, leaning close enough for Poc to twist her head off, if he cared to.
He made a gesture that was much like a human shrug. “What could I do? Matters of human vengeance are none of mine. I took the body that it might not be desecrated, into the deep waters of Mother Sea, and I ate it with compassion.”
Little Useless shivered again, another kind of shiver. That evening the sour-faced cook caught her and set her to peeling potatoes, and as she cut off gritty-slick strips of peel she mouthed the names of Poc’s cities: Y’dari. Gormengi. Pai.
When she brought Poc his water next she noticed his skin was losing its luster – not quite peeling away, as before, but it looked dry, and his eyes weren’t so bright.
“You’ll die if you don’t get back into the water,” she told him.
In answer he held out something to her, balanced in the palm of his frog-like paw. Something round, and lustrous, and she wondered where he had hid it so Dimar didn’t find it. He nodded at her to take it, and she did, the tips of her fingers brushing his hand. His skin felt smooth, maybe a little damp, but not slimy.
The sphere fit into the hollow of her hand with a satisfying weight that belied its size. It looked gold – not the butter-yellow gold of the ingots Dimar has stacked in his cabin once, or coppery-bright like old jewelry. Instead it had almost a green patina, like a faint sheen of algae across its surface. When she looked closely the green glaze resolved itself into tiny figures – aquatic figures, dolphins and octopi and things she couldn’t name. She wouldn’t swear that they didn’t move.
“I know where we are,” Poc said. “I feel the surge of the water against the hull, and although I cannot see the stars, they speak to me through this iron prison. My people came from the stars in the beginning, and the older I get, the louder they call.”
The membrane flickered over his now-dulled eyes. “This object is a message to my people. If you drop it over the side within the hour, they will find it. They will read it, and come to get me.”
Little Useless closed her hand over the sphere. “I will.”
“But you need to know this. My people will kill all on board. Do you understand that?”
“And more – the Y’aggathi Sphere – it is valuable to your kind. If you give it to the man who keeps you here instead, he may be kinder to you. Or, if you can hide it, and one day make your own escape, you will find those who will give you more gold than you can imagine. Do you understand that as well?”
This time she didn’t answer. There was no need to answer.
She tucked the ball beneath her shirt as she emerged from the hold, blinking in the sunlight. Dimar and Hermer were talking in low tones on the foredeck, and the first mate frowned at her, as she ducked away and tried to make herself smaller.
“I don’t like it either,” she hear Dimar say. “But the money’s too good.”
“You know and I know that ain’t no leper.”
“I know and you won’t know anything unless you shut the hell up. I don’t need a panicky crew, not when they’re as superstitious as you are. Word gets out, and I’ll know who to drop.”
Little Useless scanned the ship to see where she could safely throw the sphere without it being fouled, or catching on a rope or ladder, or without a crewman seeing what she was doing. There – a clear deck, and no-one at the railing. She darted for the side, pulling out the sphere as she went.
“Hey! What are you doing?”
The sound of the first mate behind her made her go faster, cursing as she went. She’d forgotten how it would catch the sunlight, away from the gloom of the hold.
“What do you have there, you little bitch?”
At the railing she turned, holding out the sphere. She felt the small marine creatures on its surface moving beneath her fingers. Dimar was close behind Hermer.
“It’s something she got from that thing in the cage. Don’t you dare!”
The instant before she threw the sphere stretched infinite. Hermer, his face cherry-red, charged at her so slowly, flecks of spittle flying from his wide mouth. She could study him as he took forever to move one foot, two feet closer, gulping like a fish, one fist balling higher and higher in the air, beside his ear now.
The sphere was falling freely, and she gasped with the shock of how swiftly time returned to its natural state. Hermer was on her like a bull, slamming her into the deck. The breath was knocked out of her and she felt the sickening crumple of a rib. She gasped for breath and saw the green-gold ball falling past the railing, fast but not fast enough as Hermer reached for it, close enough to graze it with his fat fingers. She swung her legs weakly forward, no strength in her but it was enough to trip Hermer and he fell against the railing with a grunt. Her cheek was pressed against the rough salty wood and the rusty rail, and she saw the sphere drop down past the iron hull, raising barely a splash as it hit the water. By a trick of the wave she could see the golden ball just beneath the surface, as if under a thick pane of glass. Suddenly its green-gold coloration didn’t seem alien at all, but as beautiful as Man’s works were ill-made. So Poc would appear underwater, master of his element, clean-limbed while her kind were shambling apes.
More pain as Hermer kicked her in the side, cursing in a long spitting stream of German. She forced herself to her hands and knees and scuttled sideways, barely avoiding the next vicious kick. Back, quick, like a crab, towards the trapdoor that lead to the hold. Various crew stood about, bemused: they’d seen the skinny scrap from the scullery lean over the side and heard the first mate yell at her, and couldn’t puzzle out the rest.
Men crowed at the rail now, and she heard Dimar calling for a spar, a net, anything. Just as she reached the door Hermer fell on her again, slapping at her until she lost her grip and half-fell into the doorway, grabbing at the ladder.
Hermer rose and kicked her once more. Another rib shattered, and she wobbled and fell. She caught herself once, halfway down, the impact wrenching one arm half out of socket but breaking her fall enough so she didn’t smash her brains out at the bottom.
With a final curse Hermer slammed the trapdoor shut. She knew he’d kill her if he saw her again, and likely Dimar wouldn’t stop him.
Poc pressed against the bars, and she crawled towards him. As she neared him he reached out, and she wondered if this was the last sight that long-ago child saw as well, this alien creature reaching out to it with an alien compassion. At the lip of the bars she stopped, and collapsed within herself. She tried to speak and, found she had no air, and pressed her elbows against her aching ribs. It hurt, but it seemed to keep her breath in, and air in her lungs.
“I did it,” she managed. “Helmer almost stopped me, but I saw it sinking. Too fast for a net.”
“It’s on the bottom by now,” said Poc. “They’ve already found it.”
“Poc,” she said. “Could I go with you? You said you were born on the land, and that the blood of your kind took you, changed you. That many have the deep-sea blood. Do I? Could I change?”
She remembered she never felt human, and allowed herself a fierce, desperate hope.
A webbed hand cupped her face and took her gently beneath the chin, lifting it until she was looking into the bulbous, opalescent eyes of her friend. “No, child,” he said, raspy and reluctant. “I don’t see it anywhere in you. I wish I did. You are not like me.”
Little Useless had learned a long time ago not to cry. Not when she was hungry, not even when Hermer kicked her in the ribs. But now hot tears spilled from the outer corners of her eyes, and she tasted salt. Poc didn’t blink, and she closed her eyes, and felt his other hand stroke her back. Despite the pain, she fell into a half-sleep. There was something touching her hair, and a familiar voice singing a strange song. She knew it was in no language that was ever spoken on dry land, yet she understood the gist of it: a tale of the city of Pai, made of living coral, and the stories they sang there.
In her doze, she heard the sound of alien bodies hauling themselves up the sides of Midnight’s Lady, the slap of webbed, wet feet on the deck, the screams of the crew. The screaming went on a long time, but she didn’t care, so long as Poc stroked her hair.
She sat, alone under the stars. Although there were no bodies left, the smell of blood was coppery in her nostrils.
Another ship, fast-moving, with searchlights that flashed over the deck of Midnight’s Lady. Voices through a megaphone. Grapples over the side, and the ship lurched as it was made fast. Someone speaking next to her, fast and anxious.
“There’s a child –hard to tell, he’s so thin. More – severely malnourished. Oh, I think it’s a girl. I can’t…no, almost catatonic, I’d say. And she’s been beaten. Badly beaten.”
Poc. Please take me with you. Don’t leave me.
Child, I can’t. You’ll die in the sea. You’re not our kind. I can’t change that.
I know that. I’d rather come with you and die than stay here. Than be on land. Than be a human anymore.
A deep raspy sigh, and a webbed hand taking hers, opening it and pressing something into her palm.
To remember. Or to sell, if you will. Try to live. Try to prosper. And if you can’t…
He swallowed, making a sound like a croak.
…come to the sea again. I will know where you are. And although you cannot live beneath the surface, I will take you.
Do you promise?
Men moved over the deck, different men, all dressed alike with an air of brisk efficiently. There were women too. One kneeled beside her, her long slim fingers, so different from Poc’s, on her wrist. The women spoke to her, softly and carefully. She paid no attention.
The sky was purple with coming night, and she could see Venus bright on the horizon. Here and there were glittering pinpricks: the stars coming out, one by one.
What was it Poc had said? He knew where they were by the stars. His kind had come from the sky, from star-matter, and the vastness between the stars and the bottom of the sea were one and the same to them.
If you held your breath, if you sank deep enough into the water and stayed there, just as your vision blacked out it would explode into a million, glittering stars.
She looked down at her free hand, and saw for the first time what Poc had left her. Like the green-gold sphere, but smaller. Tiny marine carvings moved across it like brineworms.
There was always the sea. And if not the sea, then maybe the stars.
Samantha Henderson lives in Covina, California by way of England, South Africa, Illinois and Oregon. Her short fiction and poetry have been published in Realms of Fantasy, Strange Horizons, Goblin Fruit and Weird Tales, and reprinted in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Science Fiction, Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded, Steampunk Revolutions and the Mammoth Book of Steampunk. She is the co-winner of the 2010 Rhysling Award for speculative poetry, and is the author of the Forgotten Realms novel Dawnbringer.
For more information, check out her website at www.samanthahenderson.com .
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Story illustration by Robert Elrod.