Sandra signed off, goodbye Vanuatu 226, with thanks. The video opened in her inbox, played over the visor sensors. The image was crystal clear. A giant staghorn coral, time-captured over one month, in the process of bleaching. From rich dark colors to bone white. A few days later, the first fuzziness around the edges, from decaying inner matter, drifting around the creature in clouds. Death. Vanuatu 226 had found the perfect spot to witness the change.
Sandra was happy to have such a clear video, one of many by amateur divers helping out in the giant coral project, visualizing what to many was still abstract, far away, underwater and out of sight: the mass death of the ocean’s fragile builders, heat extinction, a few degrees the threshold between live color and white oblivion. Her project was secure again, mission fulfilled.
And yet, Vanuatu 226 stayed on her mind. Something about the video seemed different, maybe off, maybe intriguing, beyond the death angel quality of the project itself.
Sandra took off her visor, fluffed the tiny curls of her tightly cut hair, drained sweat mixed with tired tears from the edges of her brown eyes. Time to drop the weight. Sandra donned a wetsuit and flippers, adjusted her mask, and let herself fall backward into the water. She sailed through endless blue. Beneath her, white sand. Below her, the reflections of the surface, the sun bearing down, enemy, lover.
Vanuatu 226 sat back, too, video uploaded, receipt confirmed by Philippines 3. Zandro’s eyes flickered. Screen stars danced before their eyes. They took the final gulp of tea, and carried the mug over to the porcelain sink. Philippines 3 would be pleased, they knew. Brother Staghorn had danced its demise well, Zandro had sunk each day to the same depth, the spot on the dying reef marked with a diver’s lance, and had taken their photo. 31 days of sinking, aligning, focusing, click. With each click, Zandro had witnessed themselves, too: sea changes inside and out. At times, hormonal urges had rallied them, rendered them chemically upset, and then it had been hard to engage in the repetitious task, to see the value of such slow labor. On other days, Zandro had felt the sea more alive on their face than ever before: new nerves knitting, small swirls around nearly invisible needle wounds. Every day, a new wonder, changing sensations. To have uploaded it now, a completion within a month—Zandro tasted swiftness, quickening.
Sandra swam, her flippers easing her path, a swallow of the sea. She glided through blue and green, saw the darkness beneath her where the white tropical sand dropped down to the real reef. A few languid fish sailed on the thermocline, deep beneath her fins. Vanuatu 226’s images played on her inner screen, half-hidden from herself. The perfect balance: each image clear, crisp, as if a computer-driven camera had nestled in the island’s corals. There had been no traces of human tremor, the visual reverb of the slight shift most of their crowd-sourced videographers left on their timelines. How did Vanuatu 226 achieve such control? She banked into a new turn, elegant, sparse, a quick scissor of her fins pushing her into the curve. She imagined Vanuatu 226’s hover, limbs folding in on themselves in origami perfection, the black eye of the camera aimed at the staghorn’s reaching fingers.
Beneath Sandra, a different staghorn coral prepared itself for sexual reproduction. The hermaphroditic colony sucked and clasped openings in the calcite, ready to release gametes. Inside, the coral larvae were wafting, soft translucent bodies making contact with inner walls of branches, releasing, drifting. There were far fewer gametes of either sex here than in the past. No temporally aware consciousness monitored the change directly, but a slight vibration of unease ran through the mature coral polyps attached to the calcium frame: too few collisions, too little tremors of life touched them through the water-filled tubes.
Across the reef, plankton swarms had fewer and fewer coral larvae in them, and different microscopic life made up the bottom rung of the great fish food chain. Staghorn corals had already adjusted without much trouble to these sexual chemistries. The staghorn that spread its water wings and branches beneath Sandra’s fins knew that the outdated sex ritual was a bow to ancient times, a ritual of remembrance, a spawning myth that few had reason to recall as part of their life’s journeys. This staghorn, like all around them, had begun its life as a broken piece of coral branch, an ocean orphan in a storm’s aftermath, attaching itself in new reef ground and reaching out to flourish.
Seconds after Sandra’s shadow had detached itself from the twisted branches, floodgates opened, and the dance of the gametes began. Parrot fish darted through the white cloud thinning itself into the sea.
Zandro’s day was over. They dove one last time down to their undersea brethren, twined the thick flesh covering of their calcium branches around their old home. Now, the old branches felt rough, tingly, on still sensitive skins, membranes thickened from translucency into the opaque, rilled organs of humanoids. Tonight, they would not sleep here, lung pearls bathed in the oxygen-rich waters of the ocean. Instead, this would be their first night on land, taking care not to dry the grape lung globes in the cooling land nights. With a last deliciously deep breath, Zandro detached themselves and drifted upward, to the opening in the island stilt house where they made their new habitation. They stemmed themselves up, feeling how the calcium of bones thickened and responded to the pressure of muscular exertion. A good feeling. Gravity-filled pleasures.
That night, Sandra tossed on her cot in the biology laboratory, amidst the other temporary volunteer quarters. She heard groping noises, slurpy kisses out of a neighboring cot just one thin wall away, and checked herself for her response, for any envy, desire, or lust. Nothing. The sexual play left her wanting peace for sleeping, but the touch mechanics did not arouse her senses.
She observed this in herself and wondered at the detachment. Even four months ago, she would have been fantasizing about every sexy body that had come her way that day, male and female, undecided thick lusciousness of living. Had the rising thermometer frayed her erotic capabilities? Sleep ever further retreating, she decided on an experiment. She directed blood flow into her sex organs, the thick lips between her thighs. Gentle exercise. She palpated and stroked. Then, she let her mind wander where it wanted, to see what would press itself into her now, what she would conjure.
Sandra drifted, searching, opening, veils parting in the sea, in the dark, waves that took her deeper.
Gold light broke through the waters and illuminated a calcium arch. It moved on to an opening in the rounded building’s back wall. The walls’ edges were once spongy, now hardened into underwater rock.
No tentacles touched the stony substance of the corals. None of the Old Ones allowed their sensory fringes to taste the walls. Instead, they kept their swaying forms respectfully to the faint grey path that wound its way through the coral garden, deep into the nest.
Inside, the host corals had shifted their nerve net consciousness into the bulging inner surfaces of the walls. The corals cradled the Old Ones’ assembly, polyps waving in the interior luminescence.
Nematocyst sensors modulated thought and regulated tiny spurts of water outward from the walls, allowing the corals to communicate with the membranes of the Old Ones. The tentacular creatures, in turn, pinged responses, reflecting them like sonar from the shivery calcium.
Some of the Old Ones still had vestiges of sound organs, left over from humanoid beginnings, before the space odyssey of the searchers. So, from time to time, a strange humming shifted through the waters, and those who still had ear-like organs pricked them in secret, suddenly alert to the fact that time did not stand still, that this was not where they had come from. Some still dreamed of walking in dry air, the sensation of cool air buoyant in one’s central trunk, before squid matings and tentacles. Dreams unpingable, treason in this water world.
Today, in this assembly of Old Ones and coral hosts, the fate of Earth would be decided. Corals and humans: Infestation or co-habitation, a new balance in the making? Old Ones and space corals would sit in judgment today. They would decide what the explorers were to do, what pings to send to the lit waters and the sun-bleached skeletons of a coral people tortured and decimated in an age-old war waged on Earth.
One of these explorers circulating old Earth, Xoni, let xir thoughts drift back to the mother waters, to this assembly bubble xe knew so well. Xe didn’t know what outcome xe was most looking forward to: a return to the watery home post reseeding, or a new settlement, a new start in diplomacy with upright bi-pedals and the few remaining corals here on Earth?
Xe stood in the spaceship’s hold, water sucked back from the hold, ready to drop into the Earth ocean. Around xir, bulbs of skeletal corals, once home for sensitive fans, offered anchor-holds for the few instruments Old Ones used for space travel. Everywhere hung little sacs of bio-tinctures and tech amoebas, ready to nestle as demanded into tentacle bulbs all along Xoni’s cone shape. Xoni was well-provisioned, and ready.
Xe was one of the tentacular ones born with vestigial ears still able to pick up the high frequency of atmospheric sound, and xe could hear the ‘plop’ as the outer bay door opened to the Earth-alien waters below. It had been eons since the Old Ones had left here to go searching. What would they find now, on their return?
Xoni dropped xir seven foot tall cone-shaped body down into the waves. Xir sensitive lower tentacles adjusted for drift and buoyancy. Other tentacles flooded little compartments inside xir skin membrane where xe kept necessities ready to suck out and into action. Xir purple-blue outer skin shimmered in the portion of the noon sun that reached into the top layer of the ocean. Xir skin’s white stripes helping xir diffuse the solar heat. Xe could not live in oxygen, and still struggled with xir survival suit, an onerous hump system that constricted xir range of motion. Kono, second down from the ship after xir, was more accustomed to the complex arrangement of membrane openings, feeder tubes, and sealants. Kono’s elegant closed bodyshape, denoting xir birth-carrier status, swayed next to Xoni’s wide open mantle, xir ripe bulbous extensions.
One by one, they waterglided to their research site, rock tips that protruded from the waters. The tactile surfaces of Xoni’s lower extremities grabbed onto tiny irregularities of the round forms, and xe noted human-manual transformations in the crystal strata.
Tool marks. Interesting. Sculptural uses unclear.
Xoni slipped long tentacles downward, sampling the relative coolness of this isolated sea segment. It was above the ideal range for coral life, heated beyond long-term survivability, but still allowed some to hold on. The water looked dark blue in the sunlight, carefully filtered through xir bodysuit lenses. Xir mouth tentacles tasted for salinity, purity, and found it acceptable, within range.
Around xir, two of xir survey colleagues were also balancing on similar rocky protrusions.
“Sunken, gone. Another one. We should be out of here and nuke it all. Fucking humans.” This was Kono, impatient as ever.
Xoni pinged back, initiating the hormonal layer of wait protocol. Xe was a scientist, not a demagogue. “Let’s investigate.”
“Investigation seems complete to me—everywhere but here, coral layers sunk too deep for adequate nourishment, algae overgrowth due to heavy agriculture on land, desalinification: the usual story, just a bit slower around here. Just accept it already.”
Kono’s tentacles were deeper blue now, a pleasing shade in Xoni’s solar adjusted glasses. Xe warmed to the tussle, a hint of sexual excitation shimmering through the exchange.
“We will investigate this site, test its waters, and work out the best course of action after we’ve sampled multiple sites. We will not tolerate deviance from the procedure.”
Kono’s ping pitch modulated, lymph up: “Just be real, Xoni. How long do you want to keep this up?”
They began their work, sucking, sampling, manipulating tiny vials with tender tentacles, safely housing them inside skin mantles, pressed close to each creature’s three beating hearts.
Xoni and Kono were penned in tight in the ship’s laboratory, pinging with Krix, who used xir tentacles to suck liquids from one vial to another.
“You two keep crowding me. I will get the results to you as soon as they are ready.”
“Humans should never have been given the opportunity to spread this deep into this eco-system. Why didn’t the elders leave chemical weapons for the corals?”
“You know the answer, Kono. That’s not the way of the coral. It does not fit into their temporalities. Humans are such short time creatures.”
“Then why do you defend them?”
“They are our history. It takes a long time to emerge from warfare.”
“But we have emerged now. What is the use of this vermin now?”
“Who knows what else will emerge, given time?”
“Don’t you care for whatever might be left of coral on this airless, polluted planet?”
“Xoni, Kono, can you take it elsewhere? I am trying to concentrate here. Less philosophy, more investigation.” Krix transferred a slide from the undulating surfaces of the laboratory field to the magnifying lens holder, bulging a sucker outward to shift the glass into place.
“Yes. Sorry about this. We are getting carried away,” Xoni apologized. “Any sustained coral life?”
“I think so,” Krix pinged back. “Give me a minute.”
“Oh please, oh please, let it be real,” Xoni’s passion shifted violet across xir mantle.
“There is no need to apologize for defending the coral!” Kono pinged, heat spreading crimson along xir mantle.
“Beautiful,” Xoni telegraphed gently back. “And yes, you are right, we do need to make sure to do what’s best for the coral.”
Kono’s angry poise broke, blue amusement weaving through, “I know. I hate humans.”
“We’ll see what the elders decree.” They turned back to Krix, who had shifted xir stance, white stripes luminous against the purple in xir mantle. Waiting.
That earth night, Xoni sprawled on the rock. Xe had refused transport back to the ship and had given the rest of their xir vial collection to Krix and the others. Xe was going to listen to the whiteness of Earth’s moon, to the black sea, to any corals still singing deep below the waves. Bioluminescence shifted through the veils of the sea, gliding upward to Xoni.
The moon. Xe remembered pings of poem fragments, transmitted through old Earth data chips in xir crèche circle. Only Xoni had tentacled out toward the syllable sound mosaics, the tender ear membranes buried deep beneath watertight skins vibrating in echo. Some of these poem objects spoke of a white round thing, hanging above the ocean’s membrane surface just like this.
The moon, and tides: pulls, unseen, unclear, like streams in the water. Xe understood the principle of water forces’ pull on land and water creatures, had glided often on the home planet from colony to colony, traversing the empty dark water on squid wings. Nothing was there, only coral colonies and Old Ones, a world prepared and just right for them and their dance. On xir perch, xe contemplated the coming decision.
The water creatures came from nowhere, and now, they were circling xir. Fantastic shapes that should no longer be on this detritus-earth, should have long vanished from oxygen-depleted seas. But xe recognized these creatures, too, from the data chips and their chirpings: a triangular fin knifing through the dark, excited bacteria swirling neon-green in the wake. A head coming up above the wave, ivory teeth glinting in the silver moonlight. Grinning at xir, as xe roiled xir tentacles upward on the rock, contracted xir mantle close to xir head bulb. One carved forward, scimitar curve skimming the rock. Another attacked from behind, snapping at a tentacle’s tip, barely missing. Xoni had never felt such fear. Adrenaline from ancient species memory courses through xir, hearts accelerating their beat. Xe felt a rise in basal temperature that was outside xir normal operating parameters. Xir thoughts spiked, too, pinging high and low, without thought for the starship doing night duty high above. Xe was alone, and afraid.
Another monster shark rose up directly in front of xir, muscular fins getting ready to jump, and pluck xir from the rock. Xoni’s pinging became a high-pitched wail, an audible thing that bled through the old membranes, and xe could hear xirself, in agony.
Then, it rose. Between Xoni and the advancing shark, it reared up toward the moon, blocking out the view and capturing the sound. It was gigantic, rotund, a cone of strength erecting itself from the waves. It had come, as the poems had said, to intervene in a last humanoid memory. The whale stopped the shark, its giant fin crashing into the waves, stunning the puny torpedo shapes into retreat. The last whale, encrusted with marine lice, white patches gleaming in the silver light, turned its eye toward Xoni. Darkness. A look like a wail, a loneliness, a response.
Eventually, the whale sunk down again after the sharks had fled. Xoni surveyed xir boundaries, wrapped xirself, all tentacles tucked in, and let the last of the adrenaline bleed from xir system. Black water, white light, star shine: sleep took xir, took xir under, and xir dreams were of touch and song.
In the laboratory, they had found their answer. There was still life here, on Earth, after so many millennia of desecration and abandonment.
“They are here, a few, at least. They are alive. Old, but alive.” Krix’s ping vibrated, a bell of joy spreading between the three of them. Kono and Xoni crowded up to the microscope.
“They would be tired.” Kono chimed softly.
“Yes, maybe, but they have adapted. These are live ancient corals, in water of sub-par oxygen, a few degrees too warm, full of hormonal additives and chemicals. They’ve learned to live.”
The three of them took turns looking at the surviving coral polyps, near translucent life dancing in the watery medium of the slide. Luminescent tentacles arranged in circular patterns wove in the dark-field light.
This morning, Xoni had not pinged xir thoughts about the whale and the sharks to Kono or anyone. They were in the open ocean again, wrapping tentacles around stone croppings peeking out of sunken land. Krix had called them. On xir first dive after the long night in the laboratory, xe had finally found a living reef, archaic, elegant, a shimmer of the planetary home in the old seas.
When they swam near, the corals bloomed all around. Xoni vocalized for joy, unknown to Kono and Krix, who had no functional ear organs that allowed them to hear in the air without the amplifying vibration of water. But an earth bird in grey and black plumage swooped overhead, headed toward one of the rocks. With the holler, it abruptly changed direction. Xoni blushed crimson through xir tentacles.
A short distance away, Kono had already settled, all extremities splayed into contact, the bulbous roundness of xir central processing unit organically melting into the fringed yellow stag horns of a majestic coral. Tentacles made contact, and Xoni could see the communication beginning, the slow dance of intergenerational love. Xoni’s lenses were misting, old human DNA feeding archaic emotional response patterns to the color plates in xir body. A rainbow shimmered through the mucosal edges of xir mantle. Tiny fish flitted around xir tentacle, intrigued by the newcomer.
Xe looked over to Krix, who was still undulating in circles, overwhelmed with the rich coral life beneath xir, pinging harmonics into the water, some vibrant enough to ruffle the tender membranes of living polyps.
Kono surfaced out of xir mind-melt long enough to ping the others, using lyrical archaic patterns: “We found them. They are glad. They are exhausted.”
Xoni noted the elevated diction, felt xir lymph rippling in waves through xir organs, automatic response to Kono’s poem. Aware of the importance of this long awaited moment, xe initiated the nourishment protocol so long drilled into xir. Xir peeled away part of the surface of one tentacle to gain access to the skin sacks below, releasing detachment zooxanthellae. The algae would protect and support the coral, even in transit, if that were the decree. Xe watched as the minute algae melded with the living corals.
Then it was time to go back to the ship hovering over them on autopilot. It was time to transmit the data to the home planet. To let the Old Ones and the coral hosts decide how to proceed.
Xoni watched Kono and Krix prepare themselves, could feel Kono’s assemblage of a forceful rhetorical parry, a vibrational message that would be equal to the momentous news of the coral’s survival. Xe could also imagine the response back home, the excitement running in colorful waves through mantles and blood fringes. And the deliberations. The edict. Survive or transplant, destroy, reseed.
They swam back to the assembly point. A mid-size fish swam up to Xoni, and xe stared into the single eye set into the fish’s flank, took note of pupil and corona, and of the curiosity lodged therein.
Their survival suits still clanked against their bodies. Raw patches had opened up at the spaces where tentacles and head bulb met, rubbed raw by the suit’s friction. None were comfortable. But all this would end soon, as soon as the transport pod had them safely back on board, coral evidence pouched away. They’d be home, in environments well adapted to them, by them, engineered and honed to the perfect comfort, a fit for both lifeforms: Old Ones and corals.
Xoni swayed in the water. Kono stood on one side, thoughts preening through tentacle tips. Krix glowed quietly, happily. Xoni could see the transport capsule descending toward them. A flash, nearer the horizon: in the far distance, a fish jumped, a silver rainbow curving over the waves.
Xe decided. The sun stood high in the sky, nearly eclipsing the little capsule, the tiny spec of metal arcing out of the heavens.
Xe opened one last compartment in xir undulating body cavity, tentacle tip descending deep into purple flesh, probing. There. Xe pulled out a yellow vial. It had a human death head on it, an old reminder of danger that had survived the planetary shift and bodily transformation. They were still part human, and this vial could end them, the Old Ones touched down on planet Earth. Kill humans and humanoids, and only them.
In the heavens, the capsule descended, its underside shadowed, clearly visible to them. Kono lengthened xir body upward, ready to compose the transmission to decide the planet’s fate.
Xoni cracked the vial between the sensitive tips of xir tentacles.
Petra Kuppers is a disability culture activist and a community performance artist. She is a Professor at the University of Michigan, and she teaches on the MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts at Goddard College. Her most recent poetry collections are PearlStitch (Spuyten Duyvil: 2016) and the chapbook Green Orion Woman (dancing girl press, 2018). Her stories and poems have appeared in Anomaly/Drunken Boat, PANK, The Sycamore Review, Visionary Tongue, The Future Fire, Capricious, Festival Writer, Accessing the Future: A Disability-Themed Anthology of Speculative Fiction, and QDA: Queer Disability Anthology. Her speculative queer/crip short story collection, Ice Bar, appeared in 2018. She is the Artistic Director of The Olimpias, an international disability culture collective. She lives in Ypsilanti, Michigan, with her poet partner and collaborator, Stephanie Heit.