Castaway Planet – Chapter 10

Chapter 10

Laura stared in uncomprehending shock. Bobbing ever so slightly, the vast wall of dark, wet stone still loomed up less than a kilometer distant. The piece that had fallen from it — a solid mass the size of a skyscraper — should have been towering over them even nearer. There was no possible way that the lagoon before them could have been two hundred meters deep, no, not even a tenth of that!

Yet that monstrous fragment had plunged down effortlessly, irresistibly, neither slowing nor pausing, and taken their hopes with it into the impossible deep.

Even as she thought that, the seething water bubbled more, darkened, and that same fragment surged from the depths, shedding water and stripping itself of soil, a massive bulwark of varicolored stony outcroppings and dripping mud. It bobbed slowly, rising and falling in diminishing cycles. She hoped against hope that she might see something else, smaller but oh so very much more valuable, also bob to the surface… but there was nothing more coming from the mysterious depths.

Sakura was clinging to her with a deathgrip, and Whips’ tendrilled arms were only just beginning to relax. Slowly Laura forced herself to stand. “Are you all right, Sakura? Whips?”

Sakura managed a tiny nod of her head, eyes so wide that white showed all the way around them. She was otherwise silent, and did not release her grip.

Whips buzz-clicked something in his native language before catching himself. “I… I am all right, Dr. Kimei… Laura,” he said slowly, uncertainly.

Her omni buzzed. “Laura!” came Akira’s shaking voice. “Are you all okay?”

“We’re… fine, Akira. But…”

“We saw,” he said. “LS-5 is gone?”

“It… looks like it. I don’t know if there’s anything to salvage. Whips is the only one who might be able to even try.”

The big Bemmie — only an adolescent, but still outmassing her by at least two to three times — shuddered, a rippling motion accompanied by jangling, discordant patterns of light and color in his skin. “I’m … not sure I can.”

Laura knelt next to Whips. “Harratrer, honey, I know that must have scared the wits out of you. But I really need to know exactly what you saw, what it means, and that might mean you have to go down and really look.”

His back quivered under her touch, and she wondered for a moment… but the clenched tendrils relaxed slightly. Then he heaved a long, wet — sounding breath and shook himself something like a long, flat dog. “You’re right. No one else can do it, you don’t have the senses or the equipment to do it right. And I …” a quick flash of bright patterns that were like a chuckle, though a very nervous one, “… I really didn’t understand what I saw, and I have to see it again to really know.”

“If you’re afraid of that… thing we saw –”

“A little, but really, something that big isn’t going to bother coming after something like me unless I make myself an obvious nuisance. I think.”

Laura bit her lip. Maybe this was a stupid idea. “On second thought…”

“No, I’m doing this.” Whips turned and moved back towards the former lagoon. “You’d do it, if you were me.”

Laura couldn’t argue. “But you’re…”

“… Bemmius novus sapiens,” he said bitterly, and she understood now what drove him.

“No,” she said, and put her hand on the base of one of his arms; Whips twitched, but didn’t move away. “I was going to say, you’re not an adult yet, you’re like one of my own children, and I wouldn’t force them to go.”

His discordant colors quieted, went to a calm blue-green. “Sorry… Sorry. I just… this is what we have to do, isn’t it? Do what we can? If I don’t… if I can’t… then maybe they’re right about me, about us.” He contracted, then raised himself up. “I can’t be afraid to go in the water. I’m still fast, I’m still smart, I can’t let this keep me out. And if I don’t go in now, it’s because I am afraid. And I am. I really, really am.” He shuddered again. “But I’m not going to let that stop me.”

With a swift, decisive movement, Whips sent himself sliding over the edge and into the water.

Sakura finally let go. “M… mom? What happened? That didn’t make any sense, the whole end of the … the land, it tipped up, and it’s over there,” her voice was rising higher and shaking, speaking faster, “like, floating, and the LS-5, it was hit and then it’s gone and we’re — “

Sakura.” She spoke her daughter’s name firmly but quietly, taking her by the shoulders, looking her in the eye. “Sakura. Stop.”

The girl’s brilliant blue eyes locked on hers. With an obvious effort Sakura forced her mouth closed and stood there, shaking, then closed her eyes. Slowly they opened again, but they were less wide, more focused, more there, and Laura let herself relax a tiny bit. “Sorry, mom.”

“It’s okay, honey. We’re all near that panic. We just can’t let it catch us. And I have no idea what happened.”

There was a splash, and they saw Whips emerging from the water. “I’m back, Laura.”

The dull colors on his back echoed his tone of voice. “I still can’t believe what I’ve seen.”

There were sounds of running behind them, and she turned to see Akira, with Caroline, Melody and Hitomi close behind. They came here as fast as Hitomi could run, she guessed.

She took a moment to hug her other daughters and take a rib-straining one from her husband. Then she turned back to Whips, whose colors were now brighter but slowly rippling. “All right, Harratrer, what did you see?”

“A lot. But … I don’t know exactly what it all means.” He took an audible breath. “Once I get out past where you can see the shallow water, it just… drops away. Farther than I can ping. Even when I shout as loud as I can, there isn’t a return from the bottom.”

“But…” Melody started, then stopped.

“Go on, Melody,” Laura said.

“But… I thought your people could ping to the bottom of the Europan ocean.”

“Some of us can. I couldn’t manage that, but… there are other noises. I think the bottom’s a long, long way down below even that level.”

“We’re sitting on a cliff tens of kilometers high?” Caroline said in disbelief. “That’s impossible. Even underwater that should –“

“Not a cliff,” Whips said, cutting her off. “I don’t know what we’re standing on, but… once I get down maybe thirty meters or so, there’s nothing but water in all directions. Well, that’s not true, I detect some stuff in the direction that’s, well, inland, but there’s always water in that direction eventually.”

Laura and Caroline exchanged disbelieving glances. “Whips, are you saying that, well, there’s nothing supporting the land we’re standing on?”

“Nothing as far as I can tell.”

For a moment they all stared at each other, trying to come to terms with that ridiculous, impossible statement. Laura turned and looked back at the immense stretch of land behind them, vanishing into hills on the horizon, then over to the black wet towers of what had been the land across from them. “You looked at that piece that … well, is floating there?”

“Yes. It is floating. Nothing under it anywhere.”

“Coral,” Caroline said slowly. “The rock… I noticed it looked rather like coral. But I never thought…”

“Coral?” repeated Melody incredulously. “But shouldn’t that sink?”

Caroline bent over, searching, and found a chunk of rock that had been broken off by LS-5 in the crash. Laura watched as her oldest daughter flung the rock far out into the water.

The white-pink rock plunged into the sea. And a moment later, bobbed to the surface .

“There were cases of floating coral on Earth,” Caroline said, her voice starting to become more animated, excited, “and some pieces could drift for hundreds of kilometers, last for many months. Mom, Dad, this is amazing. If Whips is right, we’re floating on an ocean so deep that no landmass could rise out of it, not for more than an eyeblink on a geologic scale, because you can’t get that many kilometers of rock to stick up above the rest. There are plenty of water worlds out there, some of them with oceans over fifteen hundred kilometers deep, so deep that even geological forces probably can’t make themselves even felt on the surface. Since this one has life like ours, though, trace elements, some kind of active geology just has to be working here to get all of that into solution. But with the gravity here, by the time you get a hundred kilometers down it’ll be all solid, ice-six, maybe ice seven, but then there’s heat from below…”

She broke off. “Sorry, got carried away. Anyway, something must have evolved here to keep itself up on the surface, where it got the advantage of all the light energy from above, or maybe harvesting things like diatoms or whatever that did use the light energy… maybe also keeping it away from a lower-down ecosystem like the one on Europa, where everything revolves around the vents. And that turned into colonies, and then other things started taking advantage of the colonies to support them…” She looked back inland, eyes shining. “We’ll have to get samples, get a look at the actual geological history… only it’s not really geological, it’s … coral-ological? Alcyoneological?”

That‘s why the guide app got confused,” Sakura said suddenly. “It was right. The geometry shifted. We assume that land doesn’t shift detectably over any reasonable timescale — a few centimeters per year, right, Caroline?” Caroline nodded. Sakura went on, sounding finally like her regular self. “But these things aren’t land, they’re floating. Floating islands — floating continents — and they’re moving with wind and currents, so they must’ve been drifting at centimeters per second, maybe even more, and so the guide app lost certainty on the targets because it was like trying to get a fix on … I dunno, a set of waves or something. The app and the sensors could see small changes that I couldn’t with my eyes.”

Laura was still trying to grasp it. Floating islands… floating things hundreds, thousands of kilometers in extent? Her mind balked momentarily at the idea. The material in question would have to remain buoyant for a timescale of… how long? To build something that huge, get forests growing on it? How strong would it have to be, how flexible, to keep from shattering into pieces at the first storm and waves flexing it?

“That is fascinating, Caroline, Sakura,” Akira said after a moment. “And we will of course be studying this as time goes on. But I think the first order of business is survival, and I don’t think it matters, for that, whether we’re on regular land, an island of floating coral, or the back of a giant turtle.”

Laura couldn’t keep from smiling at the last, and the others burst out laughing; even Melody ended up grinning. “No, love, you’re right. We’ve lost LS-5, but we haven’t lost any of us, and that’s the important thing. This isn’t going to be easy,” she said, looking at her family steadily, reassuringly, “but we will survive.”

Akira took her hand, and the others — even Whips — gathered around for another hug. “Now, everyone — let’s go back to our camp and figure out what we need to do next.”

Inside, Laura was still shaking, still worried. But she could see her family — including, now, one juvenile Bemmie — straightening up, wiping away tears, taking that new breath and focusing on the moment, ready to face whatever Lincoln held for them, and that was all that mattered. If Akira and I stay strong, they’ll be strong. And that’s what we need right now.