Tumbling Up

“Tumbling Up”

by Kate MacLeod

 

The Hydridae on the other side of the glass danced, their willowy appendages tracing arcs through the murky water. Fumahadi nodded and my mother smiled and I realized I was the only one not understanding what was being said.

My heart pounded, certain at any moment I would be addressed, although as an apprentice that was unlikely. Keeping my face blandly polite, I reached up and plucked off the little bindi between my eyes, rubbed the lens carefully on the sleeve of my white silk robe and pushed it gently back into place, also tweaking the translator in my ear for good measure.

“…but where is the other diplomat?” the translator said in its inflectionless voice.

“Other diplomat?” Fumahadi repeated, glancing at my mother, who shrugged. “The League of Worlds only sent us two, plus Nontshaba’s apprentice.”

“We see a resemblance,” the translator said as the Hydridae danced.

“Yes, Nomakhepu is my daughter as well as my apprentice. She is the youngest to pass the entrance exams in a generation and I wasn’t ready to part from her,” she said with a proud smile. I managed a weak one of my own. The fact that what I had hoped would be my big leap into independence had turned out to be the same life as before with extra chores was not something to even be hinted at in the negotiation room.

“We approve,” the Hydridae said. “We also keep our own children close with us. We have met other species who are less concerned with their children. We did not get on well with them.”

If the Hydridae had lips, I could imagine them tightly pursed as they made that strange remark.

“If we can return to what you just said about the other diplomat,” Fumahadi said. “I am the leader of this diplomatic team, so appointed by the League. I choose who I work with, and they are all in attendance here.”

I knew what was making Fumahadi nervous. We represented the evacuated colonists of this water world currently waiting in orbit for us to negotiate for them to stay.  But when the Hydridae had come out of the deep to make themselves known there had also been a corporation in the early stages of building a mining station on the ocean floor. Corporations always turned down the League’s offer of diplomatic representation, preferring to use their own in-house diplomats. Those were usually disgraced League ambassadors or apprentices who had washed out. As someone with a long history of excellence at the highest levels of the diplomatic corps, Fumahadi did not appreciate being asked to treat such people as her equals.

“Her presence was requested by someone on your side of the table. Surely you were informed?”

Fumahadi’s cheeks reddened ever so slightly. The translator was no help in judging tone, and while creatures in constant, supple movement as the Hydridae were doubtless had very intricate and telling body language, we had no way of interpreting it. It could be a simple statement, a reproof, a dig, anything really.

“My apologies, I was not,” Fumahadi said.

The Hydridae had built this meeting space in a deep cave under the former colony using the prefabricated building materials the colonists had left behind, so while we sat at a table against the pressure glass that divided our dry side of the room from their wet one, and there was a wall with a door behind us, the floor was a thin sandy layer over cold rock. When the door behind us opened it made a soft hiss over the sand which immediately caught our attention: our third diplomat had arrived.

This new woman wore a white jumpsuit whose austerity echoed the simplicity of our white diplomatic robes, but the deep red shawl thrown haphazardly over her shoulders was deliberately eye-catching. I had a nagging sense of familiarity I couldn’t quite place. The little braids dotted all over her head felt wrong to the image my brain was trying to recollect.  They were so short they had to be new, as if she were indeed a failed apprentice now free to grow out her regulation haircut.

“Greetings, mistress,” she said with a bow to Fumahadi and then I knew her. That deep, mellow voice was unforgettable: Naledi, Fumahadi’s former apprentice. Fumahadi had taken her abrupt departure as a cruel betrayal, venting her rage and grief to my mother, her lifelong friend. I could only imagine what it took for Fumahadi to keep all that deep inside, always aware of the watching and doubtless quietly judging Hydridae.

“I was not informed we would have a third ambassador.”

“I’m not a third ambassador,” Naledi said, crossing the sandy floor to take a chair at the table to Fumahadi’s left as I was to my mother’s right. “My anonymous employer merely wishes me to observe and advise. Such advice being rendered in private chambers and which you are completely free to disregard.”

That sounded like a too-good-to-be-true situation, especially in light of not knowing who she was working for, but in front of the Hydridae Fumahadi merely nodded.

Fumahadi turned her attention back to our hostesses, making formal introductions of each of us in turn. I reached under the table, found my bag and retrieved one of the spare translator units then moved as discreetly as I could down the table to Naledi’s side, touching her shoulder. She turned, saw what I had in my hand, and slipped on the earpiece as I touched the bindi between her eyebrows.

“Thanks, Nomakhepu,” she whispered then turned back to the Hydridae, who were now making their own elaborate introductions. She nodded to herself then gave me a thumbs up over her shoulder. I went back to my seat, baffled and surprised that she knew my name. As Fumahadi’s apprentice she had been on many of the same missions as my mother, but I had been lost in my studies at the time, forgoing most of the outings and recreational events in favor of reading endless texts, only observing the actual negotiations from some far corner. And yet she remembered me.

“May I ask which of you is Kala?” Fumahadi said, our translator having made a complete botch of the Hydridae’s complex names.

“The one you call Kala regrets she could not attend. She had very much wished to do so, but is…” the translator hesitated although the dancing of the Hydridae’s limbs did not. “…in bud. It is an awkward time for us and would likely be very confusing to you. But Kala has informed us of your ongoing conversation. You may speak with us as freely as you’ve spoken with her.”

The next hour was given over to what was on the surface idle chit-chat. Business is never discussed at the first meeting. Both sides only mouth polite nothings while trying to figure out the tells, how to read the other side before the real work begins. I observed the Hydridae, looking for differences in their dances, trying to discern hints of individuality. I made some tentative notes but doubted I was gleaning much. Hopefully my mother and Fumahadi saw more than I.

Naledi seemed half-asleep.

At last the banquet began. A light beside the small hatch at the end of our table lit up and I got up to fetch the covered trays for each of us.

“The colonists showed us how you prepared your food,” the Hydridae said. “It is tricky for us but we built a sealed version of one of your kitchens we can control remotely.”

I tried to picture this like hands reaching through the gloves built into a wall like in a lab dealing with toxins or radioactive materials, but dismissed that: not with their noodly appendages. Something more like programmable waldos; I longed to see it. Perhaps later we would be permitted to put on pressure suits and explore their world.

In the meantime there was alien cuisine to try, one of my favorite parts of the job. I lifted the lid and inhaled deeply the aroma of roasted meat. Or was it fish? It appeared to be some round thing about the size of a child’s ball. The outside had been glazed with something sweet and brown before cooking; the inside was pink and tasted like shrimp although the consistency was more meaty with a grain to it. The salad appeared to be crisply fried seaweed of some sort, a bit salty for my taste but I liked the bitter tang of the dark greens.

Fumhadi and my mother enthused over the food to the Hydridae but Naledi sat silently, only eating the greens.

“May we eat with you?” the Hydridae asked. “We eat our food fresh and will understand if that is not appetizing to you.”

“Please, feel free,” Fumahadi said. There was a pause and then a panel opened in the Hydridae’s side of the room, filling it with a bouncing school of zooming pink balls. The Hydridae caught them in their willowy arms and brought them to the juncture of their limbs, on top of their tall stalk-like bodies. The balls deflated as they sucked them dry, leaving grayish husks to flutter down to the sandy bottom of the room.

Some of the balls tried to escape or hide in the corners but the Hydridae snagged them all. It was vaguely horrifying watching the pink life get sucked out of them, but I was certain what I was eating was the same creature only killed and cooked first. I glanced at Naledi who hadn’t touched hers, but if she felt the same horror at the Hydridae’s feasting she didn’t show it.

After the meal and more formal shows of politeness we retired to the room prepared for us, really one of the colonists’ prefab houses assembled inside the cave. My mother opened and shut cupboards until she found the makings of tea.

“Observations?” Fumahadi asked as she took one of the chairs at the little table. Naledi went to the bunk over mine, dropped her bag on the floor and sprawled out on top of the covers. The house had no roof but the darkness of the cave above.

I glanced at my inadequate notes then set them aside. “I felt like they were observing me more than the rest of you.” I used all of my diplomatic training to not let my paranoia show in voice, face or body language but I felt it very deeply.

“You’re not wrong,” Fumahadi said.

“They were comparing you to your mother,” Naledi said, still regarding the ceiling. “Luckily you follow League behavior guidelines as rigidly as Nontshaba does.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“They do seem a bit fixated in mother-daughter relationships,” my mother said.

“They were looking for homogeneity and they found it. They find that reassuring,” Naledi said.

“You’re guessing,” Fumahadi said. “We only just met this species, no one knows anything for sure.”

“I’m theorizing,” Naledi allowed. “I’ve been studying these creatures since they made themselves known. Children being very like their parents is paramount to them.”

“That’s not unusual,” Fumahadi said. “It’s rare, but there are other sentient species like theirs that reproduce asexually. They are genetically clones; if an offspring isn’t like her mother something changed in development, some environmental influence. It would be easy for a species to assume difference meant defect; in their case it usually does.”

“Changes in environment,” my mother repeated. “The colonists were too few to affect this system much, living on the surface as they did. The corporation was intending to go underwater, but they never really got started.”

“The building materials were brought down,” I said, checking my notes. “The corporation won’t confirm if the drilling for supports had begun. Perhaps it had. Perhaps the drilling brought the Hydridae out of hiding?”

“The corporation won’t offer a bit of information it doesn’t have to; their evasion here doesn’t necessarily mean anything. But something changed; the Hydridae came out of the deep after being invisible to us since the first probe came here more than a century ago,” Fumahadi said. “There were signs of structures on the ocean floor, but they had been long since abandoned.”

“They gained a food source,” Naledi said. “They have similarities to other asexually reproducing species in normal circumstances, but when food is scarce they suddenly breed sexually, the fertilized eggs resting in a spore state until food is again available. That’s why the League scientists called them Hydridae. Once there is food enough to sustain them they hatch and suddenly you have a full population again.”

“You theorize,” Fumahadi said.

Naledi shrugged, barely perceptible to us from where she lay on the bunk with her hands laced behind her head. “It fits the data.”

“If they are first generation, never knew their parents, that could explain their parenting fixation,” my mother said. The kettle whistled and she filled the tea pot.

“Also about the absence of Kala,” I added. “They said she was ‘in bud’ but two of the three with us also had young forming off their trunks.”

“She must have been further along,” Fumahadi said. “Do you suppose they can communicate even before they separate from their mothers?”

“If they could, and if this one didn’t show the homogeneity to the mother they expect, that would explain why we would find her state ‘confusing’,” my mother said.

We stayed up for a few hours more prepping for the opening of negotiations. Fumahadi felt confident from her exchanges with Kala that what the Hydridae really wanted was access to spaceships usable by aquatic creatures. There was a League ally, not member, who had built such things, but the Tritons were notoriously hard to negotiate with. It seemed likely the colonists would be allowed to return but we weren’t sure what the corporation would do about their mining station. As always Fumahadi would make clear that they were a separate entity and she did not speak for or even to them.

At some point in the night, whether minutes or hours after I shut my eyes I don’t know, a small shaking of the bunk roused me. Naledi dropped catlike to the floor. I watched her cross the room, sleepily wondering why she was taking her bag with her to the bathroom, then saw she was heading out the door, back into the dark conference room.

I sat up, looking at the bunk where my mother and Fumahadi slept. Nighttime wandering was one of the things I remembered about Naledi, and it probably meant nothing but her usual restless curiosity. I had never gone with her and the other children of diplomats who inevitably followed her on these secret excursions. I had always been so serious. Now that I had passed my exams and achieved my goal of early entry into apprenticeship, I wished I had explored more and studied less. And in that moment I wanted to see what adventure Naledi was up to.

I crept up to the doorway but stopped in the shadows and watched as she pulled footies and gloves out of her bag then a tight head covering with a clear face plate from brow to chin. They all adhered to her white jumpsuit which I suspected was a pressure suit even before she took out a small oxygen tank and fastened it to a port on her stomach. She used a tool to force open the door our food had appeared from and crawled inside. The snap when the door shut behind her seemed incredibly loud.

I tiptoed up to the window, peering into the murk beyond. It was dark, but surely that bright white suit would ghost through the darkness? But of course this wasn’t where the food had come from. She had to be in the waldo kitchen.

I turned and hustled back into the prefab house to fetch my own bag then went back into the conference room so as not to disturb the others and sat down on the sandy floor. My hunch had been correct: Naledi was still wearing the translator’s bindi cam and every minute of it was being recorded to my tablet.

I missed seeing the kitchen; she was already in a watery tunnel that spiralled deeper and deeper. I doubted this was mere curiousity anymore, it felt too sneaky. If she really was working for a corporate interest she might be covertly gathering intel, but that didn’t feel true. I wasn’t surprised when she’d given up on being an apprentice, the rules of comportment had chafed her more than they did a personality like mine, but she had never struck me as the mercenary type either. But if not that, what was she up to? I was almost tempted to use the earpiece to ask her what she was doing.

She hadn’t eaten the meat. My mind kept coming back to that detail. Not eating an offered food was an action that required an explanation, an apology, from a League diplomat. She wasn’t a League diplomat anymore but still it was a grievous breach of protocol.

Naledi reached a branching of tunnels and looked at a map on the inside of her wrist then took the path to the right. At the end of the tunnel was another door she forced with her tool before slipping quickly inside.

A crowd of bouncing pink balls gathered tightly around her in the room beyond, attracted to her or to her light. She swam through them, up to the top of the dome-shaped cave to a grill that sealed off a narrow passage heading straight up to barely perceptible moonlight. She used her tool on the latch and hinges both, throwing the whole grill to the floor. The pink things needed no prompting to make good their escape.

Prison escape? That’s what she was doing? But the Hydridae had so extolled the virtues of these things as foodstuff we felt sure they’d be offered as a trade good, and they’d been so tasty we knew they had the potential to be a major new commodity. So this was a heist?

The Hydridae had assured us they had access to a nearly limitless supply, but when that cave was empty Naledi retraced her route, coming back faster than she had gone in. It made sense they only kept what they needed on hand, but I wondered where the rest of the limitless supply was. Further out to sea? Were these little pink balls going to find their way home now?

I saw that Naledi had already reached the kitchen and as much as I wanted to see it, I didn’t want to get caught spying on her. I ran back into the room and put my tablet and bag away, curling up on the bunk and pretending to sleep. But Naledi did not go back to bed, merely passed through the room and out the other door.

I sat up and looked at my sleeping mother. Perhaps it was that homogeneity remark, I don’t know, but in the split second I had for deciding, I opted to follow Naledi and not protocol.

I’m not sure why I took my bag, I would have been sneakier without it, but Naledi never looked back.

Her shuttle was the same model used by League diplomats if a bit old, so when she lowered the ramp to climb into the front of the craft I knew the hatch for the baggage compartment would unlock at the same time. As soon as she was out of sight within the shuttle I sprinted to the back of the craft, popped open the hatch and climbed inside. The moment I shut the door I heard the lock snap shut.

Naledi fired up the engines and the shuttle lifted gently off the landing pad. I groped around in the dark, feeling my way along the low, long space further forward to where the smaller hatch in the cabin floor would be. I was crawling over some sort of fine netting, a lot of it. I had reached the front but still hadn’t found the trapdoor when the hatch behind me opened. I saw the door handle and grabbed it as the luggage hold filled with wind and the shuttle tipped, sending the netting billowing out behind it.

I was never going to be able to open the door at this angle; the best I could do was hold on with both hands as my legs scissored the open air, hoping I wouldn’t tire and let go before the shuttle leveled out. Too much reading and studying had given me a round, soft appearance, but under that was more muscle than one might expect. I didn’t panic. Below my dangling feet I saw the netting hit the ocean, two fine tethers still attaching it to the shuttle. The net dragged the surface of the water, where thousands of pink balls bounced on the moonlit waves.

Naledi flew in a few low, lazy circles and I hooked a forearm through the handle to better hang on. Then suddenly we were shooting up into the sky and leveling out as a loud whirring noise surrounded me: the net was being retracted. I looked around the space and doubted there’d be room for me as well as all those pink balls. We were flying close enough to level for me to get my feet under me and open the trapdoor.

I slipped quietly into the shuttle cabin. I was in the back under the rear conference table; the kitchen, bath, bunks and flight seats were between me and Naledi at the controls but still I feared she would look back and see me. I shut the door as softly as I could and huddled under the table clutching my bag.

As the shuttle fired to lift us out of the atmosphere I realized just what a jam my curiosity had gotten me into. It seemed very unlikely that Naledi would return after what had just happened. How was I going to get back to my mother?

I sat there miserably pondering my scant options for what felt like an eternity when suddenly Naledi said, “you might as well come sit by me. We’re nearly there and you don’t want to miss this.”

I sat frozen for a moment, unsure if she was talking to someone else I hadn’t seen and if I should stay as I was, but that was silly. I crawled out from under the table and passed to the front of the shuttle, bag hugged tight to my chest.

“Where are we going?” I asked as I slipped into the copilot’s seat.

“The middle of nowhere,” she said. So it was a secret, like the identity of her employer.

“Why did you steal the Hydridae’s food source?” I asked. “You didn’t even eat any.”

“It’s not their normal food source. It’s not even native to their world. The change in shipping lanes to accommodate the colony drove these babies too close to the gravity well, and the Hydridae have benefited quite enough from that already.”

“So you’re rectifying a human mistake?”

“And trying to prevent a bigger consequence of that mistake. If the Hydridae get the ships they’re asking for, there will be a slaughter.” Then her attention was on her comm panel, pinging and searching the screens for a response, pinging and searching again.

The answer was not another ship’s ping, it was a song without words and yet so sorrowful I felt tears filling my eyes.

“What is that?” I asked. The screens were still showing nothing but far off stars.

“It was a hello,” Naledi said, then give me a dry smile. “Imagine if she had said something truly sad, your heart would just break, wouldn’t it?” She turned to the console and I watched her type I RETURN AS PROMISED. HERE THEY ARE. Then she flipped the switch that opened the back hatch.

There was more singing, a choir of vocalizations interweaving, and yet I knew only one creature was speaking.

“The translators haven’t cracked this one yet,” Naledi said to me. “But I feel what she means. Do you feel it?”

I closed my eyes and listened. “Thank you. Thank you. So few but thank you.” I opened my eyes and looked to Naledi, who nodded.

“I hate to guess how many of her children the Hydridae ate.”

I felt a pang of queasiness in my belly. “They’re sentient? Those little pink balls?”

“Not at that stage of their development, not yet.”

“You should have said.” Not even for politeness would any of us have eaten a sentient being, no matter how important the negotiations, and these had not been so terribly important at all.

“If I had, I doubt I would have saved any.”

The song continued, I nearly couldn’t bear it. I had eaten something that would have one day gone on to be a singer like this. It felt so wrong.

“It’s not so bad as all that,” Naledi said, seeing the anguish on my face. “Look, she understands the intent of things I type into this console; it comes out as music much simpler than hers but she will work to understand. She’s a mother, they do that.”

I nodded and typed I AM SO SORRY I ATE ONE OF YOUR CHILDREN. I DID NOT KNOW AND NOW I MOURN THE LOSS.

The song changed, becoming a complex epic that went on for an hour or more. By the end I knew this strange mother’s pain, how her kind was doomed to have millions of young at a time, far too many to care for, and her sorrow as she had to leave them alone in the vastness of space, her loneliness as she waited for the strongest, the cleverest, the most adept or just the most lucky to find her again. Most would die, some even eaten by other beings, and that was part of how the universe worked. But she had very nearly lost all of her children, every last one.

“An unusual breeding pattern for a sentient being,” Naledi said. “They have the longing to raise them all with love, to teach them and help them grow and mature, but they just can’t. The Hydridae don’t understand them at all. In their eyes, these creatures throw their children out into the universe to let them just tumble up on their own any way they can.”

“I can see why even their hello sounds so sad. Every mother losing so many of her babies. Everyone that survives knows she has lost so many sisters. That’s a hard life for a feeling creature.”

Then Naledi leaned over the console again. TAKE THE LITTLE ONES AND RUN. RUN FAR. RUN DEEP. YOU ARE BEING HUNTED.

The song became two interwoven melodies, one thanking Naledi for her warning and one forgiving me for what I had unknowingly done.

A thousand smaller voices tentatively joined in, their songs tremulous yet lovely, a sad farewell to their rescuer. Then the song faded away and we were alone.

“What do you think?” Naledi asked.

“About what?” I asked, wiping tears from my eyes.

“Well, I see you brought your bag. Are we going onward or back?”

I was surprised by the question. “You want me to travel with you? Be your apprentice?”

Naledi laughed. “I was thinking more like a cohort.”

“But I don’t even know who you work for.”

“Don’t you?”

I sat quietly, going over all the events of the day. “You don’t work for anybody.”

“Just me.”

“But the Hydridae said you were sent by someone on our side.”

“I made it look that way. And I kept it from Fumahadi’s knowledge, which was trickier. But I know the League’s communication systems as well as any full-fledged ambassador, and they are very easy to hack.”

“So what are you doing next?”

“I don’t know yet. I’ll find someone else that needs a less formal kind of help than the League provides. Don’t you want to come with me?”

I did. I desperately did. But in the end I shook my head.

“I don’t think I’m ready. I know I studied hard and aced my exams, but I’m starting to see that that doesn’t mean much. I want to help you, but I think I need to spend more time as an apprentice before I can be a… cohort.”

“I thought that’s what you would say, but I had to try,” Naledi said and set the shuttle on a course back to the Hydridae world. “But I’ll be around. I’m sure if you change your mind you’ll know how to find me.”

“If you’re in the communication system, then yes,” I said.

“Fumahadi had put in to have you as her apprentice, you know.”

“No, I didn’t know that.”

“Your mother had first choice, of course. Fumadi hasn’t had an apprentice since me, has she? I feel bad about that. She was a good teacher, I was just the wrong pupil. She works a lot with your mom, you’ll still have lots of opportunities to learn from her. But always watch, always listen. You can learn a lot by what they aren’t teaching you.”

I nodded, not sure exactly what she meant but certain I would with time. “Are they going to be okay now? These… what are they called?”

“I didn’t feel it was my place to name them,” Naledi said. “The universe is big and full of places to hide. I think they’ll be just fine. But I’ll be watching the Hydridae, just to be sure.”

I settled into the copilot’s seat, wondering how the next day’s negotiations were going to go. If anyone could smooth this over, Fumahadi could.

And I just might learn something.

________________

Kate MacLeod lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with her husband, two sons, two dogs and a cat, although they may head further north soon, as the winters in Minnesota just don’t get cold enough anymore. Her short fiction has appeared in AnalogStrange Horizons, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies among other publications. The sixth and final book in her young adult science fiction series The Travels of Scout Shannon, will be out in October 2018. She occasionally pops up on various social media, but her internet home is at https://www.katemacleod.net.

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