On Eris 7, the stinging tide comes just after the spring storms. The rough waves rush and roil the plankton into an angry, blue phosphorescence; the plankton attracts the jellyfish and the jellyfish the calmar géant, the giant squid with tentacles of fifty meters or more. No Erisien will risk the glowing waters, not unless they’re very foolish, brave, or desperate.
I push my toes deeper into the black sand and watch the waves claw at the shore. The sand burns, even dry, but I don’t care. Atë, Eris’ smallest moon, rises above the horizon. She gives little enough light, but her larger sibling, Lethe, is still in her dark phase; if I squint, I can just see a thin sickle over the Cathedral Stones. A few people sit there, waiting, as I do. Soon we are rewarded. The waves reach the sea organ, carved into the obsidian by some alien race long ago, and its mournful, sighing song trembles in the night air.
Margot’s ring is cool against my chest. I pull it out by its golden chain. The inscription’s almost gone, but I can feel it, a roughness inside the platinum band: Forever, Raoul. It’s been a year to the day since she disappeared, leaving behind only a pair of running shoes and footprints leading into the glowing surf.
The Gendarmes searched, of course, sent in their armored, hollow hydronauts, who don’t fear plankton burn or the giant squids’ tentacles. Thirty-six hours later, the machines rose from the surf, skin corroded and scarred, all empty-handed but one; swaying in the surf, it bent down in a smooth mechanical motion and retrieved something from the roiling water. Once it reached the shore, it bowed and handed me the ring on a chain. Margot always wore it like that when she went for a swim. The waves swallowed her footprints long ago, but I still have the ring. The gendarmes never returned the running shoes.
Sometimes the world falls in the blink of an eye, and sometimes it erodes away, slowly. Did she cast my ring away, or did the waves rip it from her? I wish they hadn’t found it. At least then I could believe a part of me remained with her. Reckless, I walk until wet sand shivers under my feet and pull my arm back to cast the ring into the waves. Once, twice, thrice I try, but my arm falls. I can’t. I slip the chain back around my neck, turn my back to the sea, and search for my lone pair of shoes in the sand.
The streets of Bonne-Espérance are paved with smooth stones from the sea. The first Terran pilgrims built it on the ruins of an ancient alien civilization. Their cities are mostly rubble now, but the buildings that remain look like giant conch shells stuck to each other at strange angles, with spiraling columns that reach for the sky like tentacles from their dark maws. My footsteps shatter the silence, fade into whispers in their queer, alien halls. A few tourists pass me, laughing too loudly. A many-limbed alien in temple robes snorts at them, its compound eyes narrowing.
The festival of Hallowed Memory is upon us. Tomorrow, the streets will teem with tourists, priests, and worshippers. The vendors will sell meringue bones with marzipan marrow, spirit-lanterns, and spiced, hot absinthe mixed with cream. Street performers already gather, scoping out the best spots. I see more of them as I near the center of the city.
Margot loved the festival. It inspired her, I think. I can almost see her, swaying to the sound of the sea organ among the hundreds of spirit lanterns rising towards the stars. I should light one for her; she’d like that. Margot always had a morbid streak. Sometimes I wonder if this place pushed her over the edge.
I remember when it started. Margot had suffered bouts of depression before, but this was different. The meds didn’t help, or maybe she just stopped taking them without telling me. She wouldn’t get out of bed for days, wouldn’t eat, wrapped her misery around herself like a wet comforter. I tried to help, but I didn’t know how. We saw doctors and did breathing exercises. I fetched her prescriptions, walked her to therapy, and held her when she cried. When she started running again, I thought it was a good sign. She’d stop at the Cathedral Stones to listen to the sea organ, sometimes for hours and hours, but she always came back to me. Until she didn’t.
We came here for her, for her dancing, her art. I don’t know why I stay and live my life among the ruins. For her, I guess. Here, I can almost glimpse her from the corner of my eye, hear her voice in the sea organ’s song. They say it will get easier, but it hasn’t. I go to work, tend the machines that mine the seabed, go home, sleep, and repeat. I don’t remember any of it.
I never made friends, only acquaintances, and they deserted me, one by one, driven off by the sharp, bitter edge of my grief. Even my books lie untouched. When I open one, I just read the same paragraph again and again. I haven’t written anything since that day. The words slip from my empty mind or twist into dark funeral wreaths that that haunt my dreams. I should go home. I resolve to book passage to Terra the first thing tomorrow, like I’ve done dozens of times before, but from past experience I know I won’t follow through. Not yet.
I walk, keeping my head down, looking at no one, just the dark stones beneath my feet, but then I see her. A flutter of skirts, a familiar turn of ankle. I look up just in time to see her disappear into one of the alien buildings, her dark, curly hair tossed from her face by the salty wind. My heart twists and wet sea air solidifies in my throat.
I gape, unspoken words choking me. Finally my voice finds a way out. “Wait!” I call, but she’s gone.
I run after her, take the spiraling steps three at a time, but a thug in indigo velvet bars my way. She’s thick and meaty, with steel in her eyes.
“Performers only, Monsieur.” Casually, she leans against the door, one hand on her weapon, a golden affair with copper inlay. Somehow I doubt it’s a stun-and-pacify, like Crowd Control uses.
“But that’s my wife. Please! It’ll just take a second.”
“Nobody goes in but the performers.” A frown wrinkles her brow, her hand tightens on the weapon: a warning.
“Will you go get her? Look, I have money.” I hold up a wad of octagonal Hallow-notes. It’s a better offering than my credit chit. Besides, everyone uses banknotes at festival-time.
“You want to see the show, get a ticket like everybody else. Over here.” She draws aside a curtain of maroon Erisien ivy and reveals an opening to my left. The warm glow of candlelight flickers inside.
I nod and back off. I’ve learned to choose my battles, and this is one I can’t win. Easier to buy a ticket, anyway.
Another guard in indigo mans the door. The woman lights a candle in a mercury-glass cube and beckons me to follow. The black stone floor spirals into stairs, which open into a chamber with a low pedestal on the far end. On it sits an alien in dark robes, its face in shadow, three-digited hands crossed. More glass cubes surround it. The candles cast strange shadows on the walls.
I swallow, clear my throat. “I’d like a ticket, please.”
The alien produces a crystal box from its sleeve, unlocks it, and draws out a single bone token carved with strange, snaking symbols that seem to move in the candlelight. Its claws gleam as it holds it out to me.
“Payment?” it buzzes.
I offer it the Hallow-notes, but it draws the token away.
“What do you want, then?” I hold up my credit chit, my silver tie pin, even the honey bonbons I bought at lunch the day before. It pushes my hand away after every offering.
“Well, what then?” I bite the inside of my cheek to keep from snapping.
The alien lifts a finger, and its claw touches my chest, right where Margot’s ring hangs.
I flinch back, my hand closing protectively over the ring. “No. Anything but that.”
“Is the price.”
I glare at where I judge the alien’s eyes to be.
The guard clears her throat behind me.
“Shall I show you out, Monsieur?”
“No.” I swallow my anger, pull the chain over my head. Over the alien’s waiting hand, I hesitate. Am I chasing a ghost, an illusion? But what if Margot is alive? Are they holding her here against her will? I have to find out. I let the chain slip through my fingers. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. The alien’s claws close over the ring, and it hands me the token. It’s warm and smooth, but heavier than it looks.
The guard bows and leads me to another set of stairs. A crystal cube lights every other step.
“Enjoy the show, Monsieur.”
I nod and take my token. As I step onto the first stair, a shiver goes through me, of fear or anticipation, I can’t tell. What if it is Margot? What possible reason could she have for letting me believe her dead? Will she fly into my arms, like nothing happened? Would I let her? Things will never be the same between us, that much I know.
At the top of the staircase I find a velvet curtain. A blue-liveried woman stands in front of it. As I approach, she draws the curtain aside, bowing. Before me opens a great, round hall, filled with dining tables set with immaculate white linens, Terran china, and Selenian silver. In the middle of each table, fluorescent jellyfish swim in smoky glass spheres. Crystal chandeliers chime above, floating in midair. The middle of the room is empty, a stage. The floor soaks up the candlelight like a dark pool, but stray flickers glint on the spiral staircase that ascends into impenetrable darkness on the far side of the room.
I stop, unsure of which table I should choose, but then it occurs to me to examine the bone token more closely. The swirling symbols make no more sense than before, but a blue-liveried attendant sees me looking and comes over. She looks at the token, and leads me to a table right at the edge of the stage. I thank her and pull out a chair lined with black velvet, or something much like it.
There are six places at each table, with the side facing the stage left clear. I take last the seat on the far right. To my left sits an Opalite couple, the female veiled up to her feathery eyebrows, the male in traditional court finery, sleek fur breeches and a maroon doublet; a sign of mourning, if I recall correctly. I say hello, but the two Opalites just smile politely. They must have left their translator at home. Two chattering women and an older man who keeps wiping his nose with a checkered handkerchief occupy the remaining seats. The man keeps rubbing a pale strip of skin on his wrist, where a chrono might have usually been. Margot is nowhere to be seen.
The tables fill up until only a few empty chairs remain, and a dozen servers bustle around bringing in the first course. It’s an assortment of ices, emerald green and red and yellow. I sample each. The green one is sweet and gummy and sticks to my teeth like cucumber toffee, the yellow bursts on the tongue in a shower of cold citrus sparks, and the red is a savory that tastes of shrimp and pepper flakes. The accompanying wine is pale and crisp like the first touch of spring.
Suddenly the lights flicker, and a man in an indigo suit and top hat descends the spiral staircase. His silver spurs strike lightning with every step. An eager hush falls over the room.
He stops in the middle of the stage.
“Mesdames, messieurs, and gentlebeings, I welcome you to La Curiosité.” He lifts his gloved hand. “A warning: none leave here as they arrived. Those of a delicate constitution should leave now.”
A few people look apprehensive, but no one gets up.
The man grins, flashing silver teeth.
“Well, then. Let the show begin!”
The first performer is a contortionist. The blue-liveried attendants carry a large vessel of blown glass on stage. Their muscles strain as they lift the vessel above their heads and empty it. A translucent, shifting substance flows to the floor, bends into a humanoid shape, and bows.
A shape-changer. I lean forward to see better.
First the creature shifts through famous statues from the Sphinx to Michelangelo’s David to the Water Singers of Dabara. The Opalite female gasps as it takes the form of The Mourning Twins from her world’s capital. These are impressive enough, but then the shifter adds motion: a man on a bicycle becomes a bounding hellcat, which morphs into an eternity loop.
Despite the performance, I fidget in my seat. I want to run backstage and look for Margot, but the armed guards standing behind us dissuade me from that idea.
The act continues, as the shape-changer amuses itself by taking the forms of guests from the audience and making fools of them. When it takes my form, it vaults around the floor and does a handstand that causes its shirt to fall down, revealing a bawdy tattoo of three alien women. The crowd roars. I smile and wave. Better to be a good sport about these things, especially if armed guards are watching your every move.
Finally the shape-shifter morphs into a dragon and breathes fire. The dragon melts and from the fire emerges a phoenix, blinking at the light. It opens its magnificent golden wings and flies into the darkness. The music fades away, and applause erupts forth.
A six-armed alien juggles burning knives as the main course, a flambéed concoction of scuttlecrabs and mussels on a bed of saffron rice, is served. The sparklewine that goes with it is strong enough to make the room spin. I refuse a second glass; I need to stay alert. A splendid show of Opalite sword-dancing elicits a high, trilling whoop from my tablemates. The waiters collect the plates and pour coffee and cognac. I look for Margot among the servers and the blue suits, but she isn’t there. There’s bound to be an intermission soon. Maybe I can sneak off then?
The sword dancers bow and disappear up the staircase, and a woman in indigo sequins enters. Two assistants carry a pot of something behind her. As the music starts, she dips a spoon in the pot and spins a tangle of burnt sugar in the air. She closes her eyes and bends over the pot. Slowly, the caramel flows up and forms into a golden sphere between her hands. She raises her arms and the orb rises with them until it spins over her head. She walks to the nearest table, the orb of caramel trailing after her.
“What is your favorite flower?” she asks an elderly grey-skinned alien with three heads.
The heads confer for a moment, then the middle one rumbles something unintelligible. The woman nods and pulls a strand of caramel from the orb. Her hands twist and twirl, never quite touching the sugar, but molding it nonetheless. An intricate bloom with heart-shaped leaves takes form. She hands it to the alien. All three faces light up with delight. And so it goes at every table, the caramel transforms into dragons and birds and creatures so unusualI have never seen their like. When she gets to me, I ask for a calmar géant. She smiles, and lays the miniature squid in my hand. It seems much too lovely to eat, but I break off a tentacle. The caramel is crunchy and perfect, sweet with a hint of lavender.
The show can’t go on much longer.
Still no Margot.
Maybe I should slip off now, when everyone’s attention is focused on the next performer? Say I need to use the toilet facilities? I rise, ignoring the strange looks from my tablemates. One of the guards steps towards me.
The next performer slinks on stage. It’s the alien who sold me the token. It carries an instrument like a harp, but made from the mandibular bone of some large sea creature and strung with silver. But it’s not alone; a woman follows, swathed in rose silk and tulle, her brown, curling hair tumbling over her shoulders.
I slump back down.
The man opposite me drops his sugar frog and stares. His hand goes to his empty wrist. The three-headed alien gapes at her with all three mouths open. Even the Opalite female looks at her with a strange longing in her golden eyes. I want to go to Margot, but a strange force glues me to my seat. I can’t move a finger, can’t call out to her; I can hardly breathe.
The alien sits and runs the tips of his claws over the harp. The melody falls like whispers in the wind, subtle and soon forgotten. Margot begins to dance. The silk shifts and flows, her hair tumbles through the air in a graceful wave. She spins and dips, tiptoes. The scent of roses fills the air. I see her on our wedding day, laughing, frosting on her nose from when I fed her the first piece of wedding cake. She looks so happy.
The music changes, dark tones creep in. The silk shrivels, the rose fades to grey. Still Margot dances, graceful as a swan, but there’s a gauntness in her face. Hopelessness clings to her like a dark, smothering veil. The chandeliers tremble and chime.
As the music grows more frantic, she pirouettes around the room, her hair whipping around her. After the last pirouette, the dress turns black. Her face is a mask of sorrow, her movements slow. She looks at me, pleading. Suddenly there’s a skull where her face should be, just for a second. Somehow I knew it was there all along, Margot’s old companion. I remember the running shoes in the sand, the stinging tide, the ring burning my fingers.
Grief condenses into a hard lump in my throat. The Opalite female is crying softly. The music is slow and painful and cuts right into my heart. The lump in my throat rises. For a moment I can’t breathe. Then I cough, and it falls in my hand, a dark marble shot with blue. The Opalite makes a startled squeak and draws a similar, but larger, orb from under her veil. The man opposite me spits his delicately into the handkerchief.
The alien’s strumming continues, now with a hopeful air. Margot produces a black velvet bag from her sleeve and goes around the tables. The people place their marbles inside. The moment the orbs leave their hands, their faces relax, lines smooth out. They seem at peace.
Margot stops in front of me and holds out the bag.
I pull back. Surprise flickers in her eyes. I want to scream at her for leaving me, for taking the coward’s way out. I want to cry and rail and weep and once, just once, hold her again. Her face flickers, and the skull is back. There’s no remorse or guilt or compassion in its dark sockets. She moves on. Marbles clink into her bag of sorrows.
The alien plays on. Margot ties the bag shut. The candles burn blue and go out. It takes a moment, an eternity, for them to flicker back to life. When they do, we are alone. No servers, no blue-liveried attendants, no Margot. The audience stirs, confused. We wait, but in our hearts we know it’s over.
A drone of chatter swells, and people start getting up. They look content. The man at my table lets his sleeve fall over his wrist, and offers his arm to the woman beside him, and the Opalites trill at each other in their strange, lilting tongue. I drift outside with the tide and wait by the door with a few others until everyone is gone, but nothing happens. The building is quiet and still. We leave the way we came, encountering no one, and go our separate ways, melting into the shadows.
I find myself back on the beach. The sun will rise soon, and the sighs of the sea organ grow faint with the ebbing tide. I examine the black marble in my hand. Should I cast it into the ocean? When I think of Margot, I feel nothing. I’m as hollow as the hydronauts, and I don’t want that. I place the orb on my tongue. Its bittersweet taste fills my mouth and makes my eyes water.
It’s time. Tomorrow I’ll resign my position, book a place on the ship to Terra, go search for my lost words in her vast libraries.
I gaze out over the waves and wait for dawn.
Anna Salonen has been exploring imaginary worlds ever since she could pick up a book, and she loves speculative fiction in all its forms. Her short stories have been published in Finnish and in English. Apart from writing, her other interests include classic literature, mythology, and Victoriana. When she’s not writing she enjoys museum visits, console games, and playing superhero ninja pirates with her niece and nephew. She lives in Turku, Finland with her husband and daughter. She blogs about all of the above at strangeandcuriousthings.blogspot.fi.