“Birther of Stars”
by Leslie Vedder
The ocean was full of stars. As far as Thea could see in any direction, the thick, ink-blue water around her glowed with hundreds of thousands of bioluminescent exocephalopods—ammonites as red as supernovae, pulsing nautiloids, and vast octopus-like beasts with their long arms splayed like the filaments of translucent underwater galaxies, surrounded by tiny whip-tentacled squids small enough to fit in the palm of her hand. Every time she turned her head, it came again: the eruption of light, another body igniting against the dark sea. Floating here, close enough to touch them, she felt like she was watching the unfolding of a universe barely 200 million years old, a universe that had only just learned how to burn.
The train jolted underneath her. Thea swore as her head cracked against the window. She pressed her thumb to her temple, and the VR shroud contracted, the shimmering sensoscales withdrawing from her skin, folding up smaller and smaller until a pair of travel-sized goggles fell into her lap. Top-of-the-line in virtual experience, the shroud was the one luxury she’d allowed herself after getting the job at Nova Power. The catalog boasted thousands of virtual scapes, but she only ever used one.
Thea looked outside. The tube train was rumbling up through the shallows, fast approaching Colony 1. The ocean beyond the glass was dark and lifeless, as always. If the exocephalopods native to planet Neirus had ever lived beneath the colony, they’d long since moved on. The ocean belonged to something else now.
The train burst out of the tube. Colony 1 rose up before her, an immense city floating precariously on the surface of a planet that was almost all water. Growing up in the squalor of the Offset Colonies, she’d imagined Colony 1 as a glittering city of gold, a haven of sea-breaching skyscrapers where everything buzzed and hummed with electricity and no one wanted for anything. Now she knew most of it was propaganda. But at least they had enough power to keep the lights on.
She watched Nova Energy Dome growing closer, waiting anxiously for her stop. There was the immense gleaming dome, white as a shell—and there was the familiar crowd of protesters swarmed around the gate, their faces twisted in outrage.
Thea set her jaw. She walked fast from the train platform to the front gates, keeping her head down. But she could never walk fast enough. Men and women in recycled clothes closed in around her chanting and waving signs, crowding as close to the doors of Nova Power as the black-clad security guards would allow. Some chanted Stop the rape of the ocean! Others waved signs like Nova Power’s cost is the soul and Not Earth 2.0. Without meaning to, Thea locked eyes with a teen girl sporting elaborately dyed blue and green hair, her freckled arms hoisting a black sign as dark as the ocean with the glowing words Free the Nova Squids!
Thea turned away in disgust. Nova policy was never to engage with protesters, but sometimes she could barely hold herself back. Of course the eventual goal was a totally sustainable independent power system—one that didn’t rely on the exospecies of this planet like the Nova Squids to produce what they called charged water, an ounce of which could power Colony 1 for an entire week. But that goal was a long way off. What about the Offset Colonies, that didn’t even reliably have power yet? What about the thousands of people killed when the shield dome failed around sector G-12, leaving them at the mercy of a hurricane as wide across as a small moon? That’s what made anger burn in Thea’s stomach. These protesters paraded out of their cushy homes in Colony 1, never knowing one day of actual struggle to survive, and shouted that everybody needed to make do with less. If they’d grown up where she had—in G-8, devastated by summer hurricanes every time the stabilizers went out, scraping the last drops of desalinated water out of the aqueduct when the pump died—they wouldn’t be so keen on less.
A man with ropes of blond hair surged forward, hurling something at Thea. She gasped as a security guard pushed her out of the way. A black clamshell shattered against the guard’s riot shield, pelting her with broken shards. Thea raised her arm to cover her face, stumbling blindly into the jeering crowd. A pair of sturdy hands steadied her from behind.
“Thank you . . .” Thea said, looking over her shoulder.The words died in her suddenly dry mouth. The woman who had caught her was tall and muscular, with brilliant aquamarine eyes and waves of light brown hair that flowed around her like water. Thin, nearly translucent tentacles slithered over her shoulders from the base of her neck, and the hands that held Thea’s arms had the faint tracery of webbing between the fingers.
She was a Neired.
Fear closed Thea’s throat. She could feel her eyes going wide, unable to look away. She’d seen pictures of Neireds in newsfeeds, but never up close. And never one whose condition was so advanced.
“Are you okay?” the woman asked, beautiful and strange all at once. One of the tentacles rose from her shoulder, stretching out as if to stroke Thea’s face.
“No!” Thea cried, pulling away hard. “Don’t touch me!”
The woman flinched, her hands and tentacles recoiling. Guilt rose in Thea’s stomach, but she ruthlessly shoved it down. Staying away from the Neireds was only prudent. They weren’t human anymore, after all.
No one really knew what they were. The Neireds were people from the colonies who had spent too much time in the oceans and were starting to change. Once on the train, Thea had seen a man with long, feathery tentacles wrapped around him like a belt, his emerald-green eyes glowing like distant lamps in the darkness of the tunnel. Some of them fought the transformation, having the new parts of themselves hacked off like diseased limbs. Others claimed they were being called by Neirus itself. Either way, Thea wanted nothing to do with them. Whether they chose to fight it or embrace it, they were becoming something utterly, terrifyingly new.
Thea hurried to the Nova building. As soon as she was inside with the door shut behind her, the cacophony gave way to peace and quiet. The tension drained out of Thea’s shoulders as she headed to her workstation. Nova Power was made up of three divisions: the Distribution Center, the Refinery, and the Lab, where the scientists worked to extract the charged water that made Neirus so rich in energy. Thea was an intern in the Lab division. So far that meant running errands and taking the power readings of a seemingly endless supply of samples. But someday she would be one of the great innovators—the scientists changing the face of the new world.
She tipped her head back, looking up at the high domed ceiling. The great curve was set with a thousand tiny fractal squares that spun and shimmered, creating the illusion of a vast Nova Squid that seemed to be moving, its long tentacles straining toward something eternally just out of reach. Thea closed her eyes, trying not to remember the papery feeling of webbing against her skin.
It wasn’t that she didn’t care about the Nova Squids. She did, desperately. They were magnificent. When the first colonists landed on Neirus, it was said that dozens of Nova Squids surrounded their floating podships, fluorescing from brilliant white to blue to fiery red like fireworks under the surface of the waves, welcoming them home. As a child, she had made her mother tell that story over and over.
But suffering was an equation. The protesters cared about the beautiful Nova Squids and the darkening seas, but they were utterly blind to the suffering in Offsets like G-8 because they never had to see it. Maybe that was the truth of people—when a problem got too big to solve, everybody just pushed the suffering around until they couldn’t see it anymore.
Not Thea. She wouldn’t bury any of it. Eyes wide open.
“Hey you—intern,” came a woman’s voice. Thea startled, lurching up in her chair as a red-haired scientist poked her head over the dividing wall. “You on the clock yet?”
Thea glanced up at the huge digital display on the wall. She was early as usual, but she shrugged. “Sure.”
The woman nodded, looking through Thea like she was just one of the AId Robots from customer service. “Good. I can’t be away from the algae bloom today—can you run these to Dr. Davies?” She lifted a thick pile of folders, shoving them into Thea’s hands before she’d even stood up. “Thanks. He should be down in the Harvest Room.”
“Wait,” Thea called after her. “Where’s the Harvest Room…?” But the scientist was already gone, hurrying back to the Refinery.
Thea sighed and headed for the elevator. The woman had said down, after all. The basement level was the only one she hadn’t seen during orientation. Impatient, she studied her reflection in the shiny elevator doors: tired eyes, waxy skin, messy brown hair in need of cutting. Her eyes were green, but for just a second she imagined them as brilliant aquamarine. Then her reflection split in half as the doors slid open.
Thea hit the button for the basement level with her elbow. Her stomach pitched as the elevator surged downward, traveling deep beneath the artificial surface to the colony’s sublevels. It stopped with a pleasant ding, and Thea found herself in a hallway that looked half-lab, half-hospital. The air smelled like antiseptic and chlorine. There was no one around to ask for directions, but a large sign on the rightmost door read Extraction. It stood to reason that was the Harvest Room, where Dr. Davies would be.
Thea hurried past a series of giant empty glass tanks, then a closet spilling over with high-pressure diving suits. With a spark of excitement, Thea imagined herself in one of those suits, in the deep water where the sea still glowed with exocephalopods like the scene in her VR. Interns weren’t allowed on collection dives anymore, not since a boy two years her senior had pulled off his helmet in the midst of the nautiloid swarm. The water pressure had crushed his skull before anyone could get to him—but not before his dive team heard him shouting into the intercom about a symphony of light in that dark world, so fierce he had to cover his eyes.
Somehow, that only made Thea want to dive more.
She almost missed the Harvest Room. The door was unlocked but made of heavy steel, and Thea had to push with her whole weight to slip into the antechamber.
In the room beyond was a thick hydraulic door, its lock blinking red to indicate the seal was engaged. A trio of steps led to an observation deck. Thea crept up the stairs, eager to get a sneak peek at the charged water extraction process. Maybe this was her chance to pull ahead of the other interns.
The observation deck was lit by dreamy blue light. A handful of hard plastic chairs fanned out beneath the window overlooking the lab beyond. Thea set the folders aside and moved up to the glass. There were four scientists down below. The white-haired man with glasses, standing with his arms crossed over a clipboard, was clearly giving orders to the other three. Thea thought that was Dr. Davies; she recognized him from the orientation video. Two women stood beside a lead-lined container, one with a hose-like device and the other holding a large glass beaker. A younger man waited on a stepladder beside a giant glass tank that took up nearly half the room. The tank was filled with swirling dark water. Deep sea water, if Thea had to guess.
The old scientist barked out another order, and Thea searched for the intercom button, the observation deck crackling with his impatient voice.
“. . . anything yet?”
“Looks like I’ll need another catalyst. She’s being stubborn today,” the man on the ladder replied. “Then we can start the harvest, Dr. Davies.”
“Be ready, Ruth,” Dr. Davies said to the woman with the hose. “And see that your assistant has steady hands this time.” The girl with the beaker ducked her head, ashamed.
Ruth chuckled. “She was just a bit surprised, weren’t you, Selina?” She squeezed her assistant’s shoulder. “It can be pretty startling the first time—especially the noise.”
Thea shivered with anticipation. She watched, fascinated, as the man on the ladder lowered a thin wire into the water and squeezed a trigger, lighting up the tank with ripples of electricity. Instantly a strange sound crashed through the speakers—something low and sonorous, so deep Thea wasn’t even sure she was hearing it so much as feeling it in the base of her skull. That sound filled her with revulsion and fear. The buzz grew stronger and stronger, until it became painful. Thea clutched her head. She didn’t let go of the intercom button, though.
“Here they come,” Dr. Davies said, sounding pleased.
Thea’s eyes shot to the empty tank. Only it didn’t look empty anymore.
There was something moving in there. Something alive. Thea’s heart swelled. The swirling colors were changing rapidly, purple to blue to a blistering, luminescent white. She could see long feathery tentacles uncurling in the water, and above them the wide, triangular mantle that would make this creature look like a shooting star as it raced through the black sea. Thea flattened herself against the glass, gasping.
There was a Nova Squid in that tank.
Her guts squeezed, like she was at the center of the press of protesters again, but she wasn’t sure why. She already knew the Nova Squids played a part in making charged water, but . . .
But she had never seen it. Somehow, she hadn’t imagined it like this. The squid had stopped thrashing around, and now little sparks of light were rising from its core, like embers from a dying fire.
“Protosparks,” Dr. Davies declared. “Harvest them, quickly!”
Ruth leapt up the stepladder, lowering the hose into the tank. She turned on the machine and moved the lip of the tube back and forth, sucking up all the little lights like a vacuum. They traveled through the tube to the beaker in the assistant’s hands—so many that within moments the glass seemed full of pure light, a thousand fireflies crammed into a bottle.
Pain buzzed through Thea’s skull again. This time she was sure the sound was coming from the Nova Squid. She tore her eyes from the protosparks to the creature in the tank. It was fading back to translucence, but she could see that it had crushed its great nebulous body against the glass, its tentacles desperately tracking the little lights as they were sucked away. It lowed again, deep and sad, with an intensity that made Thea feel like her bones would rattle apart.
“Ugh!” Dr. Davies rubbed at his temple, annoyed. “You’d think she’d be used to it by now.” He turned to the assistant. “Into the container with those—quickly!”
The girl set the entire beaker into the lead-lined container. Thea didn’t know why, but her chest constricted as she watched those thousand sparks sealed in—a whole sea of stars locked away in darkness and silence.
“Good. They’ll dissolve soon enough,” Dr. Davies said, making a mark on his clipboard.
Dissolve into what? Thea wondered. The lead-lined containers were a familiar site throughout the facility. But what exactly had those sparks been? When she learned the Nova Squids were part of the energy extraction process, she’d thought it was because of their symbiosis with Neirus’s ocean waters. She’d assumed the energy they created was a natural byproduct—an excess. That’s how Nova sold its power supply: a natural and humane utilization of the planet’s animal life.
Was that what Thea had just seen—something natural and humane?
The assistant cranked the top of the container closed, swiping her hand over her forehead. The Nova Squid was sinking fast, disappearing into the black water. Thea watched the woman scientist press an affectionate hand to the glass.
“Well done, lovely Andromeda,” she murmured.
“Don’t name them, Ruth,” Dr. Davies warned. “I get enough grief from the protesters.”
“Not to worry,” Ruth said. “I’m from G-8 sector. I know exactly what we do here and why. Eyes wide open, Davies. ”She flicked the glass once and turned away. “It’s the people with their eyes closed you got to worry about.”
Thea’s whole body locked up. Suddenly it felt like she was looking through a mirror instead of a piece of reinforced glass. G-8 was her sector. The dark-haired woman who had turned her back on the Nova Squid—she had lived Thea’s life. She had hunkered down when the tidal tsunamis pounded whole dwellings off the cliffs of their artificial island. Her family had gone hungry right alongside Thea’s when the supply chain stuttered to a stop after years of neglect. Maybe she’d even lost someone, like Thea had, when the power winked out for almost a full month and they lost their only hospital, sentencing hundreds to die. Maybe her mother had bent over a darkened incubator, too, tracing the wisps of black hair on a stillborn infant’s head.
She was G-8. She was Thea, in just a few years. The tank looked empty and black again, like the sea around Colony 1. Only now Thea knew that was a lie. Eyes wide open.
She stumbled back from the window. Her foot caught the leg of one of the plastic seats, and she fell, bruising her elbows on the concrete. There was a loud scrape as the chair slid across the floor.
“What was that?” She couldn’t see the scientists anymore, but she could hear the assistant’s voice.
“Go check it out,” Dr. Davies ordered.
Thea cast about desperately for someplace to hide. The deck was empty; she could never hope to use the spindly chairs for cover. She heard the hydraulic hiss of the sealed door unlatching.
In some small corner of her mind, she wondered why she was so frantic. She was a Nova employee, after all, even if she hadn’t gotten express permission to be here. But it felt wrong to have seen this.
Thea sucked in a deep breath and then slid behind the door into the hallway, her back pressed to the wall. She was barely hidden at all. The blond assistant jogged onto the observation deck, looking around.
“Is somebody up here?” she asked.
If she turned, she would spot Thea. Thea couldn’t even breathe. The girl put her hands on her hips, puzzled, and then bent down. When she stood up, she held the armful of folders Thea had forgotten. The girl moved to the intercom.
“It looks like it was a delivery from Dr. Branna,” she said. “I hear her algae’s supposed to bloom today. She was probably in a hurry.”
Distantly, Thea heard Dr. Davies grumbling about seaweed-addled scientists with no respect for proprietary information.
The assistant rolled her eyes and flicked the intercom off with her elbow. She turned. Thea’s entire body went cold, but the girl marched right past her down the stairs. Out of the corner of her eye she could see the scientists filing out of the lab, heading for the elevator.
Still, Thea didn’t dare move until even the faintest echo of footsteps had disappeared. She felt woozy and sick, and her legs wobbled as she threw herself out from behind the door and stumbled toward the low steps, desperate to be anywhere but here, trying to remember everything she had seen and to forget it at the same time.
Her eyes slid to the heavy door. The light on the lock was blinking green. They’d left it open.
She should go. She should absolutely return to the main level of Nova Power and never come back. Whatever was behind that door, whatever they had been doing to the Nova Squid, she was better off not knowing. At least not like this. Not without context.
Whatever Nova Power was doing, it was necessary. The people of the colonies were barely hanging on. The niceties of ethics or humane treatment or moral responsibility—those had to wait until people weren’t dying anymore. She had come to Colony 1 for one reason. Beat out her best friend for the Nova internship for one reason. Forced her way through the protesters day after day for one reason. To stop the suffering in G-8 sector. Human suffering. People Thea knew. People who had lost precious, irreplaceable things.
I know exactly what we do here and why, Ruth had said, as though she’d long since figured out the calculus of saving some creatures at the expense of others.
But if that was true, then why should Thea be afraid to step into the lab?
Her fingers shook as she lifted the latch on the hydraulic door, releasing it with a hitch. It swung open slowly, and Thea ducked into the room beyond.
The tank that held the Nova Squid dwarfed her. A labyrinth of clear tubes surrounded her and vanished into the dark over her head. She couldn’t see the Nova Squid anymore; it had retreated back to translucence, lurking invisible in the depths of its tank.
She stared at the crank on the top of the lead-lined container box, then passed it. The thick vacuum hose lay across a high table. Thea lifted it gingerly, running her fingers around the wet lip of the nozzle. They came away with a faint glow.
What exactly were the protosparks? Some part of the deep ocean water? Some part of the Nova Squid? Or some kind of chemical reaction between them? Thea drifted closer to the tank, peering inside.
One moment it was empty black water, dead as the forgotten reaches of space. Then all at once the creature inside burst into radiant bloom, its massive body churning and shifting. As the light unfurled through its limbs, Thea could see the Nova Squid was bent around through the tubes, some of its feathery tentacles stretching through the pipes above her like a bioluminescent root system that had taken hold in the lab. One tentacle slid along the glass near Thea’s glowing fingers.
Fascinated, she lifted them higher. The tentacle followed. A little of the Nova Squid’s exquisite color seeped back into the water, like ink staining a vast empty page. The creature lowed again, sad and soft, and Thea suddenly understood what the protosparks really were.
They were paralarvae—the tiny offspring of the Nova Squid, practically pure energy at birth. She had seen them sometimes in the waters around G-8, the whole ocean seething with tiny creatures like a nebula of newborn stars rolling with the waves. More precious, irreplaceable things. Now she knew why she’d recognized that long, low moan that shook her to her bones. It was the way her mother had moaned, slumped over the dark incubator, cradling the white moon of her newborn brother’s head. A sound that had gone on and on, thrashing inside her mother like the waves beating tiny stars against the artificial shore.
The paralarvae had been ripped away from their mother and left to dissolve from lack of nourishment, while the Nova Squid bled her energy into the water. That was the secret behind Nova Power.
Thea stared in horror at the tentacle pressed close to her glowing fingers. People were suffering. The Nova Squid was just an exoceph. A beast. A single number in an infinitely vast and complex calculation.
And it was suffering, too. Just not where anybody had to see it.
Giant, luminous eyes opened in the dark, staring right into Thea’s. Aquamarine eyes. A low hum that vibrated in Thea’s bones trilled through the lab. Almost in a trance, Thea found herself climbing the steps, and without even thinking about it she thrust her hand into the tank. The icy water hummed against her skin, the hairs crackling on the back of her neck. Then the Nova Squid’s tentacle wrapped around her wrist, and Thea plunged into water.
For one disorienting moment, she thought the creature had pulled her into the tank, intending to drown her. Then she realized her feet were still firmly planted on the step. And she wasn’t herself anymore . . . she was something else.
Her tentacles whirled. She could see pulses of light, each one bright and quick as a pulsar, speaking to her in a language deeper than words. These were the nautiloids, the ammonites—these were the exocephalopods in the sanctity of the sea. The memory of the VR mirage vanished. She stretched out her limbs and became a shooting star. Somewhere the Neired dolphins were calling, and she felt the ripples of the sound on her skin, the grand symphony setting her ablaze. She went red and the sea went red. She went white and the sea went white.
Neirus’s ocean wasn’t dark at all. It was a world of energy and light. A world the creatures on the surface would never understand.
The Nova Squid let go of her hand. Thea stumbled back down the steps, clutching the tank for balance. The whole world seemed muted. It was like she had stared at the sun, and now the afterimage of its brilliance was seared into every blink of her eyelids.
There were a million questions in Thea’s mind—questions she had no answers to. Were the Nova Squids intelligent? Did they think? Did they feel? Did it matter? If a thousand human lives could be improved by harvesting of one Nova Squid, did that tilt the scales? Could Thea become like Ruth, staring eyes wide open at the equation of suffering?
Her gaze slid to the lead-lined container. She couldn’t do it—not if it meant the paralarvae dissolving before they ever had the chance to starburst through the sea. Even if every other piece of the equation of right and wrong was too complicated to unravel, this choice was easy.
Part of her was still in the depths of the ocean. Part of her was terrified. Thea spun the crank, unlocking the lead-lined box and extracting the beaker. The Nova Squid seemed to sense what she was doing. It churned in the water, changing from purple to searing orange and back again.
The beaker was a little dimmer as Thea lifted it reverently out. But it was still alive—a thousand tiny paralarvae buzzing along the surface.
There was only one way to get them out of the lab. Thea looked into the luminous eyes of the Nova Squid glowing like great lamps, lighting the way into the dark. She was scared, more scared than she had ever been. She wasn’t even sure there would be a Thea after this.
She tipped back the beaker and drank the protosparks. They tickled her throat as they went down, hot like she was swallowing live volts of electricity, but Thea didn’t stop until the beaker was empty.
Immediately she felt a strange tingling in her hands and her feet. Her whole body sparked. Her thumb, wrapped around the beaker, shimmered as translucent webbing began to knit between her fingers.
The sea. She had to get to the sea.
The need was crushing. Thea dropped the beaker, letting it shatter against the floor. The sudden noise in the quiet jerked her out of a haze. Already she could feel the nubs of tentacles forming at her neck. She shoved her quickly transforming hands into her pockets and turned one last time to the Nova Squid.
It had a name, she knew now. She could feel the sea whispering it to her from somewhere deep below the compound. Birther of Stars. Thea could not save the Nova Squid, but she would protect these thousand stars and keep them from winking out. The Nova Squid went dark, and Thea understood it would be the Birther of Stars no more.
No one tried to stop her as she left the lab, the collar of her coat turned up to hide the tentacles slithering down her back. Her lungs felt stretched and papery as the need for water took over the desire for air. She burst out the front door at a run, pushing aside protesters as she raced to the high wall at the back of the dome that overlooked the sea. For just one moment, she caught a glimpse of a figure silhouetted against the black waves: the Nereid girl she had recoiled from, her aquamarine eyes wide and her tentacles whipping around her neck in the fierce sea wind. This time, Thea didn’t see a mutation at all—only an evolution.
She kicked off her shoes and stood with her webbed toes hanging over the steel wall. The ocean was black beneath her, dead, empty. She could hear someone shouting her name as both protesters and security guards yelled at her not to jump. But they didn’t understand.
They didn’t understand what was in Thea. They didn’t understand what was in this world. They didn’t understand the endless possibility that existed for creatures that could see a different world in the dark. Luminous eyes wide open, Thea jumped, arcing gracefully down into the great dark trench of the water that opened to catch her.
I will give you whatever you want, she thought to the stars blazing inside of her. If you want to hide, I will hide you. If you want revenge, I will avenge you. I will be whatever she would have been to you—and you will be the storm that reshapes this world.
It was an explosion of color, of light. It was a supernova. The thousands of protosparks left Thea, swirling out to make a new galaxy of stars beneath the sea. And Thea felt herself becoming something different, too. A new Birther of Stars.
Leslie Vedder (she/her) is the author of The Bone Spindle and The Severed Thread (forthcoming from Penguin/Razorbill in 2023). Her short fiction won the 2020 Voyage YA Short Story Award. She lives in Colorado with her wife and two spoiled house cats. Find her at leslievedder.com.