On Horizon's Shores
by Aliette de Bodard
Alex and Thi Loan transferred at Sapalawa Spaceport, from their small shuttle to a
military Naga craft -- the only ones still allowed to crawl between the stars with
the fuel shortage.
Because the thought of their mission on Horizon weighed on Alex's mind, he said,
"You've read the files?"
Thi Loan shrugged. "There isn't much. Professor Kishore died -- and then . . .
suddenly there wasn't enough fuel for the spaceships." She smiled, a showing of
white teeth against her tanned skin.
"It's a little more complicated than that," Alex said, darkly. "I can't believe they
have no idea why it happened." He'd seen the images in the wake of Professor
Kishore's death: the automated boats at their anchors, their control panels and
quantum brains jammed by the song of the hatirkas. And that was it. That was all it
had taken to paralyse the quadrant: no more boats meant no more algae oil, and no
more oil meant no fuel.
Thi Loan shook her head. "Horizon's a reservation, not Federation territory. There
was just Kishore and the other xeno posted here. Not enough to really investigate.
And you know they're not going to pull anyone off of the algae gathering stations."
"You really think our presence will make a difference?" Alex asked, bitterly. He'd
read the mission brief; he knew what they wanted of her.
Thi Loan shrugged. "We've had our successes."
"Yes. I wish to God they'd take those and leave us alone."
"They never do," Thi Loan said. "That's the whole point of having xenos." There
was reproach in her voice, and he wasn't sure why.
Alex said, "We'll see when we get there. See what we can do to understand why
the hatirkas are stopping the ships." But he didn't want to get there.
Again, silence. Thi Loan sat in her chair, as regal as an empress.
"Alex," she said, gently. "We'll board soon. You have to reconfigure now."
He shook his head and didn't move.
Her face was that of a mother reproving a wayward child. "It won't get better if
you put it off, you know."
She was right, as usual. But . . .
He'd seen the orders, and he didn't want to get there. He didn't want Thi Loan to
get there. He was getting the standard xeno modifications -- enough to ease his
way among aliens while he tried to discover the cause of Kishore's death. But she
was going all the way from human to tirka to adult hatirka. Her job was to get the
hatirkas to stop doing whatever it was they were doing that had shut down the
boats. To get production restarted on the Federation's precious spaceship fuel.
And to achieve that aim, they were subjecting her to a barely legal metamorphosis,
using brand-new, untested nanos; and more importantly, that metamorphosis would
be irreversible past a certain stage. If they didn't succeed quickly, Thi Loan would
become so alien that the nanos wouldn't be able to restore her to human form. But
they didn't have a choice. Xenos never had a choice, not with the Federation
pulling the strings.
Thi Loan was still watching him. With a sigh, he pressed his hand on the terminal
by the side of the chair, and felt the familiar tingle as the computer connected with
"Authentication complete," the computer said. "Alexander Paul Cadogan, xeno
number 186554." Then a pause, and another tingle. "Nanos reprogrammed for
assignment on planet designated 'Horizon.'"
He didn't feel anything. He ought to have -- he had nanos lodged in every cell, a
price to pay for a xeno's education -- but he never did. He watched Thi Loan bend
over and touch her own fingers to the pad -- and for a split second, he wanted to
wrap his arms around her and take her away, to prevent her assignment from being
downloaded. But she was looking straight at him and shaking her head. "It won't
change anything, Alex."
The computer said, "Bui Thi Loan," then paused -- for a much longer time than it
had done for Alex. "Nanos reprogrammed for assignment on planet designated
Thi Loan withdrew her hand from the pad, very slowly -- stared at it as if unsure
of what to do next. That was it -- she had the timebomb now, the insidious nanos
within her were starting to rewrite her DNA, and he'd done nothing to stop it.
He watched her, already wondering where the changes were going to show, which
parts of her anatomy would be modified first -- and he knew he'd ask himself the
same questions over and over on the three-week journey to Horizon. They'd lead
nowhere; but he couldn't help it.
The first thing you saw on Horizon was the sea.
It stretched, endless, around the small landing pad and the even smaller research
centre: a heaving mass of iridescent water, exhaling brine and the acrid smell of oil
-- all meeting the grey-green hues of the sky in a haze of foam. In the distance,
swimming beyond the algae-covered waters, were the elusive, serpentine shapes of
the hatirkas, their song mingling with the roar of the waves. Between the research
centre and the hatirkas were the darker, bulkier shapes of the forage boats,
anchored to their platforms. They weren't moving.
Still no answer, then.
Of course there would be no answer, not from hatirkas. What did the Federation
hope for? That Thi Loan could somehow mediate between mankind and a wholly
What a joke.
On the sands, Thi Loan had stopped. She took one, two halting steps towards the
waiting waves, her fingers clenched into fists. Her face was tense -- filled with a
longing Alex knew all too well: that bitter need for the beaches of her childhood.
And he knew, too, that there was no going back to that time, that Earth's rising sea
had drowned every inch of the Mekong Delta she'd grown up in. "Thi Loan," he
She didn't turn. The wind ruffled her hair; her arms stretched, like sails to catch the
brine. In the background, a tirka triad was swimming out of the water, pushing
themselves up with their stubby hands. They didn't look at the humans. They never
At length, her arms fell; but she still didn't move. Alex walked to her in silence.
"It's so big," Thi Loan said. Her voice was already taking on the singsong accents
of the tirkas: an inescapable reminder of why they'd come here.
"I know." He squeezed her shoulder, briefly -- aching to take her in his arms, to
tell her that it was going to be all right, even though it was a lie. But she'd never
been that demonstrative; not in public. Alex added, "But it's not our sea."
Thi Loan didn't speak for a while. "No. It's not the same smell, is it?" Her hands
unclenched. She stared as the foam exhaled over the horizon line, just long enough
to open a hollow of fear in Alex's stomach. "Let's get to work. The nanos won't
wait for us."
Meghan, the senior xeno on Horizon, welcomed them into the research centre. She
took them to her own rooms on the side of the building and made some tea --
artificial, of course, nothing Earth-like grew on Horizon. Alex sat down by Thi
Loan's side, swallowing the stretched-out taste of dehydrated drinks.
"I'll show you to your rooms later," Meghan said. Her blue tirka ruff kept opening
and closing -- like gills -- as she spoke. Alex couldn't help but stare. Damn it,
why? He'd seen many xenos over the years, so many variations on nano-modifications -- heard so many voices, some even weirder than Meghan's
warbling, staccato tones. It was the same transformation that was going on inside
But he knew he was lying to himself.
How do I live, if I know you won't be here by year's end? he'd asked Mother a
lifetime ago. He had been devastated by her decision to refuse further medical
treatment. She'd turned her face away from him, hiding a grimace of pain. "You
can't change what's already happened. You can't heal me. And you certainly
shouldn't try to follow me," she'd said, as if sensing the horrible thought that that
was already coalescing in Alex's mind. "All you can do is live hour by hour, and
day by day."
That had been impossible for Alex to hear. If he had to let go, he at least needed to
know more. To understand her decision.
Meghan drank her tea and waited for Thi Loan to do the same. Thi Loan wasn't
really drinking -- her gaze was distant, even though her own ruff was barely
"All right," Meghan said. "This is the point where I usually give xenos enough
pointers to make sense of the planet." She set her cup down on a woven-fibre mat.
"Unfortunately, in the case of Horizon, I believe you already know all you need
"We've read the files," Alex said. "On the out journey."
"Yep," Meghan said. "And the files are all you get. As they said: we can talk to the
tirkas. Or rather, we have a fragmentary understanding of their language, and some
of their customs. And that's it. They're not interested in us: they might understand
what we're saying -- but they rarely talk to us."
"Surely observation --" Alex started.
"It's been tried. We've learned a few things, as I said. But only scraps. I have
thousands of hours of video," she smiled bitterly, "but no framework in which to
interpret them. I see them gather around a bit of driftwood, but how do I know
whether it's a religious ceremony, or just curiosity?"
"I'll see those videos," Thi Loan said, speaking up for the first time.
Meghan shrugged. "If you like." She shook her head. "We've been on Horizon for
a century, and we still live separately."
"Tell us about Kishore," Thi Loan said. She'd brought the palms of both hands
together, in what Alex called her Buddha pose, and her face was creased in
Meghan shrugged. "He'd been here five years. He was one of the older crop of
xenos, with the second generation of nanos. But they were good enough for him to
try to establish contact. You'll have to read some of his findings."
"About the triad matings?" Alex said, carefully skirting Kishore's real
accomplishment: the discovery that tirkas and hatirkas were the same species, a
transformation from larva into sterile adults. The same discovery which had
allowed the scientists of the Federation to reprogram Thi Loan's nanos, to allow
her to change from tirka to hatirka -- from the slightly alien to the completely
Meghan nodded. Her smile was ironic. Likely she knew what Alex wasn't telling
her about Kishore and nano research. "You already know all there is to know about
him, don't you?"
Thi Loan shrugged. "You might have seen something that wasn't in the reports."
"I wish," Meghan said. "I just found his body in the boat. That's all."
Thi Loan was staring in the distance again; after a moment of silence, she spoke
up. "The hatirkas . . . Their song has changed."
Meghan looked at her for a while. "Maybe," she said. "How long have they given
Alex knew the true meaning of the question -- how long until the nanos finished
their work within Thi Loan -- but he chose to be vague. "We have to find a
solution as soon as we can."
"Yes," Meghan said. "The entire quadrant depends on the spaceship-fuel Horizon
produces. I imagine they'd want those boats to start again, and fast." She looked
again at Thi Loan. "I'm just not sure what they think you can do."
Alex bristled at the implied criticism, though it wasn't unexpected. "Thi Loan's the
best xeno the Federation has."
Meghan waved a hand. "I know. Spare me the praise. I've read her file. If you want
to work a miracle . . ."
The miracle Alex wanted had nothing to do with the ships or with the tirkas, but he
didn't say it. It was a foolish idea: what xeno could go against the programming of
their nanos, against their masters of the Federation?
He wished Thi Loan could.
There was a bubble in their room: a smooth, huge vat of nano-grown fibreglass
which took up half the space available. It rocked back and forth, driven by the
mechanism on its pedestal -- and the liquid inside sloshed to a rhythm almost
identical to that of the waves outside.
Alex and Thi Loan took one look at it, and then at each other. Thi Loan raised a
hand to her blue-veined lips. Alex suspected that she was imagining the same thing
he was: a being with the stubby arms and sinuous, serpentine shape of hatirkas --
and the eyes of a human -- crawling into the safety of the bubble to complete its
metamorphosis away from prying gazes.
"Yes," Alex said, and together they moved the bed to the other side of the room --
just under the window, as far away from the bubble as possible.
But the bubble was still there during dinner, wedged into his thoughts. Thi Loan
was even quieter than usual: the only noise that punctuated the meal was the
silvery sound of her chopsticks against the metal bowl. Alex's throat itched, and no
amount of honeyed tea could wash down the bitter taste. Of course, it wasn't in his
oesophagus that the problem was, but in his wind-pipe, which was rearranging
itself on a molecular level.
"You want to see the videos tomorrow?" Alex said.
"Might as well start with something. I'll go out afterwards." Thi Loan's face was
Alex said, "You don't have to."
Thi Loan smiled without joy. "You think I can't handle this planet?"
She was bristling easily tonight -- the long journey, perhaps, had made her more
sensitive than usual.
Alex had no wish for a quarrel, but he could not bring himself to lie. "You saw
what the beach did to you. How it affected you."
"Yes." Thi Loan was silent for a moment. "Yes. There is that." She sighed, and
then raised her bowl of tea to her lips. Her eyes were as bright as the stars in the
void. "But I'll still do this. I have to."
When the sea had finally engulfed her village after its long, protracted agony, Thi
Loan hadn't been there: the Federation had kept her away, as it had done during
her whole studies -- afraid she'd abandon everything and go home.
She'd been incommunicado on Lixacan, on a diplomatic mission to establish a
joint city with the Yoalli. She'd said nothing when Alex had brought her the news;
nothing when the first mails had come from her family, showing her the deserted
streets where the water lapped at the houses. But the holos of her childhood, which
she'd always kept on her personal reader, had vanished overnight -- replaced by
pictures of Alex and her mountaining in the Andes, in the Himalayas, climbing the
summits of the Alps with a broad smile on their faces, and no sea to be seen for
hundreds of kilometres.
"The sea --" Alex said.
Thi Loan shook her head. " -- is my own affair, Alex. Please. You worry about me
Alex could have brought up any number of points. But he was wise enough to say
"You're right," he said. "Let's take things as they come."
Hour by hour and day by day, Mother whispered in his mind, You don't have to
understand why. If you love me, just accept it. But he'd learnt to ignore her by now,
to relegate her to the back of his thoughts with his other fears -- and he took Thi
Loan's hand and brought her into the bed, and they made love slowly, fiercely, as
in the first days of their marriage, a bulwark against the storm.
The bubble, all the while, never stopped rocking.
Afterwards, Thi Loan slept curled on the bed, her throat a slightly darker blue
where her ruff was developing.
There had been a legend, once, about blue throats and a god who had swallowed
poison to save the world. Alex couldn't help but wonder what the god had felt,
sacrificing himself for the sake of mankind.
Of course, no one had asked Alex or Thi Loan how they'd felt either. It was how
the game was played: ten years of xeno courses at uni, full medical benefits and a
salary big enough to own acres of land on Old Earth -- but there was a catch.
There was always a catch. Where their masters bid them go, they had to go -- and
they had to go with a smile on their lips.
Alex thought of drunken parties in Mumbai, of sunsets by the shivering sea; of all
that would be gone when the nanos irrevocably changed Thi Loan; and he found
that his hands were shaking.
To calm himself, he walked to the computer terminal, turned it on, and began
typing the usual messages: "Dear Aunt Linda, Dear Father, we have safely arrived
on Horizon . . ."
His com chimed, "Alex! Didn't expect to see you around!" Pablo. Of course. Who
else would be online so late -- and who else would pepper his speech with
exclamation marks and 3D-emos?
Alex forced a smile he didn't feel; he turned on his internal head speakers and
diverted the audio to them. Then, with a flick of his hand, he activated holo-visuals. Pablo's tanned face appeared on-screen, with the prominent fangs and fan-like ears of his hanjiu flock.
"Hombre," Pablo said, crushing Alex in a hug. Even in virtual space, it was as
disturbing as in real life to see two ghostly arms folding around him. They hadn't
nicknamed Pablo "the Bear" at uni for nothing. "It's good to see you."
"Good to see you too," Alex said. "How are you doing?"
Pablo grinned. "Trying to explain Christian religion to the hanjiu. So far, so good."
Alex couldn't help it. "You do know --"
"That's it's on the list of untranslatable topics? Yeah," Pablo said. "They asked,
Alex. What was I supposed to do?"
Alex shrugged. "I don't know. I guess I'd have done the same." He'd never been
one for rules, and neither had Pablo.
"Anyway . . ." Pablo shook his head, as if trying to dislodge a persistent insect.
Alex had expected the first thing that would come to mind to be Thi Loan, but
instead he found himself saying, "Big. Ocean as far as you can see."
"Scary," Pablo said. Pablo, like Alex, was from a race of mountain-dwellers,
without Thi Loan's hate-love relationship with the sea: to him, the ocean wasn't a
source of subsistence or of pride, but simply the invisible killer, the encroacher
irretrievably drowning the lowlands of Earth. "And the tirkas?"
"Scary," Alex said, finally, thinking of the lone figures on the shore. "In a different
"That's aliens," Pablo said. "Once you get to know them --"
"That's not going to happen," Alex said. And he wasn't talking about the tirkas'
total indifference to humans, but about the fact that they were taking Thi Loan
away from him. He was being unfair and he knew it; but he couldn't help himself.
"Give it time."
"Yeah, I don't think we have that. We're looking into Kishore's murder, and --"
"Alex." Pablo's voice was concerned -- yet as unyielding as steel. "I'm not the
Federation, remember? I don't care about your excuses."
That was too much, even coming from Pablo. "I don't need excuses," Alex said,
his hands clenching into fists. "They're changing her, and there's no coming back.
And I'm supposed to watch, damn it! I'm supposed to watch all the while, and do
On the other end of the com, Pablo's face had grown unreadable, the hanjiu ears
turned towards the ground, the mouth as purplish as burst blood vessels. "That's
the way it works. Can't change the nanos, Alex. Can't give them new orders." But
his eyes wouldn't quite meet Alex's, and that had always been Pablo's way of
"There is a way," Alex said, trying to contain the hope rising in him -- strong
enough to crush his chest. "You know there is --"
Pablo didn't say anything for a while. At length he turned away from the screen --
not letting anything of his gaze betray him. "There might be," he said.
"Government hacks. Illegal, of course. And dangerous. You know that as well as I
They'd both known a girl when they'd been in uni: Elspeth, a tall, uneasy blonde
who had never looked quite right for the xeno program. She'd gotten hold of
hacks, God only knew how -- and the janitor had found her in the morning, all
twisted out of shape, every organ trying to evolve into something else, something
different. Like a puzzle of flesh all askew, and the pictures had gone around -- and
everyone had wondered what she'd been trying to do. But of course, they'd never
"I know," Alex said. "Believe me. But --" But if he had to go down into Hell to
prevent this, he would. He'd had enough of one family member wasting away on
his watch. There would not be a second one. "If there's a chance, any chance at all
. . ."
"That's how they sell those, you know. Misplaced hopes." Pablo sighed, a sound
that Alex's new ears struggled to interpret. "I'll look into it. But I make no
promises. No guarantees. You two are on your own."
Alex turned slightly to look at Thi Loan -- and felt the ache in his own throat, the
tightening, as if he was going to suffocate at any moment. Nanos, he knew --
nanos, not grief or the sense of loss -- just a new configuration for his vocal tract.
He thought of the last planet they'd been on, of the herd-like garakas and their
placid, Zen-like mentality; of Thi Loan, smiling as she recounted a Vietnamese
legend to them: something about a girl finding a golden ball among the husked rice
kernels and ascending into the stars to speak to the Jade Emperor.
"We've always been on our own," he said.
Meghan showed them the videos, hour upon hour of them, an endless accumulation
of frames that didn't make any sense.
Thi Loan sat watching them, her brown eyes wide -- taking in everything,
dissecting it, trying to build a coherent system from what she was seeing. Alex had
no doubt she'd succeed: Thi Loan had the uncanny ability to make sense of widely
different cultures, the same gift that had allowed her to sail through her classes at
uni -- the same gift that had gotten her noticed by the Federation, chosen for this
Alex, to whom the videos didn't speak, drifted into Meghan's quarters.
"I take it the prodigy is working?" Meghan asked, somewhat sarcastically.
Alex didn't rise to the bait. Theoretically, he should have been out there, gathering
the information Thi Loan needed to fit into the tirka frame of mind. He couldn't
bring himself to do it though; it felt like aiding and abetting the Change. He just
couldn't do that.
"Where did you find Kishore?" he asked.
"Drifting in his boat." Meghan shook her head. "Never found a cause of death,
"What was he doing out there?" Alex asked.
"What we all do," Meghan said. "Gathering information on the hatirkas."
"He'd done it often, I take it."
Meghan's gaze was shrewd. "It wasn't unusual, if that's what you mean."
"Apart from the fact that he died."
Meghan shook her head. "Yes," she said, finally. She stared at the Spartan
furnishing of her room. "I'll show you what was on the boat, if you want."
It wasn't terribly interesting, sadly: there was a change of clothes, a neon lantern,
and a handful of first-aid nanos. A pile of memory chips, too, which made Alex
frown. Meghan slid one of them into a reader, and handed it to him. "He took notes
everywhere," she said.
The chips weren't very interesting: mostly fragments of Kishore's magnum opus, a
thorough study of tirka and hatirka life that would, theoretically, have propelled
him to the firmament of xenobiology. But everything was incomplete, and nothing
coherent could be put together. "That's useless," Alex said, finally, and Meghan
"Nobody said it would be useful," she said. "Or that his death can be solved at all."
"And you can live with that?" Alex asked.
Meghan shrugged. "Do I have a choice?" And, when he remained silent: "Not
everything makes sense, Alex. That's the first lesson you learn here on Horizon."
After that, the days seemed to shiver and merge into one another, like a hazy road
in the midday sun. Alex got up in the morning and washed, staring at his image in
the mirror -- at the alien ruff on his throat. The water cascading over him felt
warmer and more reassuring than it should have.
Most mornings he went walking. He tried not to remember the first thing he'd see
when opening his eyes -- not to chronicle, day after day, the effect the nanos were
having on Thi Loan: how her eyes had turned larger and broke the light into facets,
how her arms kept shrinking, tightening around their bones like those of a
Pablo sent regular, terse messages about his progress -- or lack thereof. But Alex
didn't say anything. What Pablo had offered, and what he'd accepted, was illegal,
and, if they were caught, there would be Hell to pay.
One morning Alex woke up to find that Thi Loan wasn't by his side. His first,
panicked thought was that the nanos were faster than he'd thought, and that she'd
already shut herself into the bubble for the final transformation. But the bubble was
empty, quietly rocking on its pedestal. Then where --?
With his heart tightening, he ran out of the research centre and onto the grey,
glistening sands, looking towards the horizon, a wordless, anguished prayer
resonating in his thoughts.
There was a group of tirkas talking to each other in staccato gestures, utterly
unaware of his presence. The wind carried to his ruff the smell of their
conversation -- something about changes and the will of the sea.
And then, as if the world had shifted on its axis, he saw that one of them wasn't a
tirka at all, but Thi Loan. He knew from the way she held her head; the calm,
measured way her forked hands rose and fell.
He stood for a while, his expanded throat contracting with the rhythm of his breath,
tingling with each chemical he received. He thought of the nanos continuing their
slow, insidious work inside her. She wasn't looking at him; she hadn't looked at
him in a long time, and now she'd changed so much he barely recognized her.
In a heartbeat he was running toward the other side of the small island where
they'd found Kishore's boat.
He ran, his feet sliding on the sand, breathing in the acrid smell of Horizon's brine.
The sea by his side wasn't grey or blue or wine-dark -- but the iridescent colour of
growing algae; and in the distance were the hatirkas, sinuous shapes limned in
Better not think of the hatirkas.
Kishore's boat was still there, half on land, half in the water. Alex slowed down
when he got near it: an air of neglect and stillness hung about it, as commanding as
the silence of the grave. Oily water lapped at its keel, making a low, gurgling noise
that sounded almost happy.
On a whim, Alex hoisted himself inside, wincing as his muscles protested. He
wasn't as fit as he had been before the transformation began -- and the nanos
would be messing with his metabolism for another few days.
The boat was simple enough: a hull with a hybrid motor, starting on battery and
burning the algae for fuel once it got into deep waters. A pair of steel oars hung
within the hull -- just in case. They didn't look as though they'd been used at all.
A patina of salt and oil covered them, the same patina that covered everything left
outdoors on Horizon; but they didn't seem to have algae. Just to be sure, Alex lit
his UV lamp and passed it over the whole keel. And, sure enough, nothing shone
Except . . .
There was a fluorescent handprint near the back; and when Alex ran his own hand
on the steel, something inside the boat clicked -- and a secret panel slid open.
Inside, nothing; just more fluorescent fingerprints. Alex photographed them, not
really believing that was a great discovery: the prints probably belonged to Kishore
or Meghan, nothing out of the ordinary.
When he pulled himself out of the boat, he found himself staring at a tirka -- and
although it was looking at him with what first appeared to be the same bored
disinterest that tirkas show toward all humans, there was something else in this
one's stance. It was emitting a chemical: the tirka equivalent of a hand wave.
Alex took a deep breath and fumbled with his own, newly-grown glands, trying to
imitate it as best as he could.
The tirka cocked its head right, then left, radiating disapproval. Damn the manuals,
Alex thought. They always told you that using this stuff was instinctive once you'd
studied the language. It only worked if you were Thi Loan -- but then, Thi Loan
was quadrilingual in Earth languages, and fluent in God knew how many other
"Apologise/humility," Alex said, hoping he'd put the stresses where they belonged
and he hadn't mangled the diphthong past retrieval.
The tirka said nothing for a while, and just when Alex had convinced himself that
it was going to leave, it moved its ruff with an audible sigh. "Youth/ignorance.
It barely made any sense -- God, how he wished Thi Loan were here.
"You/other companion Hachand/honoured guest?"
The Hachand. The Changing One. The Dying One. In their language it seemed to
be the same. It was talking about Thi Loan. "Yes/emphasis," Alex said.
The tirka gestured towards the boat. "Owner/curious."
It was an odd accent to put on the last word -- in fact, the association of the
chemicals and of the high-pitched accent almost made the secondary meaning of
curiosity more important than the primary. Why the emphasis?
Alex pointed at the boat again, and at the sea. "Owner/dead?"
The tirka turned its multi-faceted eyes towards the boat. "Deep waters/secrets," it
said, with an expansive mandible movement, their equivalent of a shrug.
"Sea/depths keeps all/takes all."
"Compartment/secrets," Alex said, gesturing at the boat. His head spun, and he
only kept the vocabulary possibilities separate through sheer strength of will.
Juggling between the spoken and the modulated meanings was taking a heavy toll.
The tirka shrugged again, and turned away. Clearly, it had said all it had wanted to.
Alex watched it walk to the shore, dipping its forked hands into the sea --
crooning to itself in words he couldn't understand.
Meghan, he knew, would have been overjoyed -- a tirka had taken an interest in a
xeno, had spoken without being prompted to. But Alex knew why it had chosen
him, and it wasn't because of his own nanos or anything he had done; it was only
because of his connection to Thi Loan.
Still . . .
They did, after all, notice more than they let on. Why had they thought Kishore
curious -- and not Meghan, for instance?
Alex pulled himself into the boat again, and knelt by the secret compartment. He
shone the lamp into it and watched the fluorescent handprints. They were in a
sequence, except for one, which dragged across the whole of the compartment: a
slow 90-degree rotation while gradually splaying the fingers.
He was on Horizon, and there were double meanings within everything.
Carefully, Alex laid his own hand on the steel -- every instinct in him screaming
that he was destroying evidence -- and rotated it to match the handprints, slowly
extending his fingers.
He hadn't expected it to be that easy; but if life had taught him anything, it was
stubbornness. He placed his hand into position again, and tried yet again.
Nothing on the second or the third try. But on the fourth . . . Just as he was about
to give up, believing the tirka to have meant nothing more than what it had said,
another click resounded through the steel; and the back of the compartment split
Inside were Kishore's true secrets: a thin sheet of paper that was covered with
incomprehensible equations; and a memory chip already eaten at by the oil and the
The chip was standard-issue: Alex's personal reader could read it. He had to fight
to slide it in because of the layers of foreign materials on the circuits; but the reader
powered up, all the same.
Whatever had been on it was badly damaged, plastered over by Horizon's brine,
but Alex could get the beginning of it, and enough words scattered throughout to
guess at what it was.
It was a report, and it wasn't going to the Federation, but to a researcher at
Betelgeuse Point, which hosted the biggest oil refineries in this quadrant. It said
something about new processes, and about the low yield of Horizon's algae fields
-- it seemed there was barely enough fuel produced to cope with the explosion of
It was an old, old dream: being able to put Horizon's algae within tubes, to control
their growth from start to finish -- and to increase fuel production by a thousand
fold. It was this century's Eldorado -- and like its sixteenth-century equivalent, no
one had ever found it. Horizon's algae weren't reproducible with nanos; they
withered when taken away from the planet, and the labs had yet to come up with a
reason to explain this.
Everything in that report -- whatever it had been before the sea had eaten at it --
that had been Kishore's real reason for coming to Horizon: not helping Meghan, or
writing a book, but simply following his dreams of fame and fortune.
It wasn't surprising. Disappointing, perhaps, but Alex had had enough experience
to know the depths of human greed -- the same humans who'd send Thi Loan to
Horizon to make sure production continued without a hitch, without caring about
her past or her future.
Was that the reason for Kishore's death: something so brutally simple? Something
he could give to Thi Loan, enough that she could get the boats running again,
before it was too late to reverse the nanos' work in her body?
Slowly, Alex walked back to the research centre, trying to crush the nascent hope
that made his heart beat faster.
He found Meghan in her lab, watching a video of tirkas entering the sea. She was
vocalising notes to her e-assistant -- something about the tirka cycle and the
rhythm of algae growth.
"Alex?" she said when he closed the door.
He laid the chip in front of her. "You said you'd checked the boat."
Meghan frowned. She turned off her e-assistant with a flick of her head, and took
the chip. "I did," she said, curtly. "You found this in the compartment, I presume."
Things were starting to make less sense -- and he wasn't even facing a tirka, or
Thi Loan. "You knew about the secret compartment? Then why --?"
Meghan took the chip and slid it into the reader of her e-assistant. Her lips mouthed
the words of the report for a while. At length, she raised her eyes. "Kishore was
paranoid about backups. He'd had most of his master's work destroyed when his
student hall burnt down, and he swore it wouldn't happen again. He kept copies
everywhere. I found piles of chips beneath his bed, and another pile on the boat. I
gave you every one of those, incidentally. That compartment was full of them."
She shrugged. "I must have missed this one when I gathered them."
"You told us --"
"That I gave you everything I found on that boat. Why not? It was the truth." Her
voice was defiant, and Alex knew why she'd done this -- the petty need to remain
in control of Horizon, to challenge Thi Loan on a ground where she couldn't lose.
He'd have liked to shout at her, but he couldn't -- he still needed her goodwill.
"It's a report to Betelgeuse Point," he said, slowly. "About algae yield. You didn't
think that might be significant?"
Meghan just stared at him, obviously struck speechless.
Alex went on, relentless, "He mentions tubes and artificial growth."
Gradually, he became aware that Meghan's expression was no longer hostile --
but that she was shaking her head in a slow, sad way. "Oh, Alex. I know what
you're thinking, but I've seen the original report. I can show it to you. It's not the
reason he died."
"It's not?" His voice was as challenging as hers had been a moment ago.
Meghan went towards the back of the lab and placed the palm of her hand on a
cupboard -- which slid open. The shelves were full of chips; and on the right was a
small keypad. She typed in some numbers, and the shelves shifted and presented a
"There," she said, coming back to the table. "You'll see."
Alex slid the chip into his reader -- it went in smoothly, easily, as if eager to
disgorge its contents -- and fired up the screen.
It was a report to Betelgeuse Point; and it was focused on algae yield. But, with the
missing words filled in, the context became quite different. Kishore hadn't been
experimenting with new ways to grow or harvest algae; the whole point of the
report was simply to confirm that there was no other way to produce fuel for
spaceships, that tubes and artificial lights and nutrient wouldn't make a difference.
Alex recognized the profusion of technical points and mathematical formulas: the
scientist's supreme weapon to try and confuse the layman. Kishore hadn't even
gathered enough data to justify all of this; but he'd written the report anyway.
"Betelgeuse Point --"
"They pressed Kishore the last time he went to buy supplies," Meghan said. "I
wrote some of that piece, actually." She grimaced. "The last thing we wanted, both
of us, were more machines on Horizon."
Alex stared at the report, willing it to change, to become something else. He'd
believed, so much, that he'd found the solution; that Thi Loan could solve the
problem before her metamorphosis had become too advanced to be reversed; but
now he saw it was as foolish to have believed in that as to believe that the sea level
on Old Earth would decrease.
As for the possibility that Betelgeuse Point had come here and killed Kishore in
retribution . . . It was just too ridiculous to even consider. The place was too small,
and any extra person would have stuck out like a mountain-dweller on the beach.
"Perhaps the hatirkas misunderstood what he was doing," he said.
Meghan shrugged. "Who knows that the hatirkas think?"
Only one person, Alex thought. Like Meghan, he knew the answer to that question;
but he couldn't bring himself to utter it out loud.
Thi Loan was still on the beach when he came home -- absorbed in her discussion
with the tirkas. He waved to her, but she didn't answer. He couldn't say he was
surprised; he simply went inside to brew himself some tea.
With the ruff around his throat, he was much more sensitive to the foul taste in the
mug: he gulped the liquid down in one convulsive swallow. But it wasn't quite
enough -- not salty enough, not mingling with the taste of Horizon's air. Soon, he
thought wryly, he'd have to eat like the tirkas: fish and young algae buds, culled
from the waters. He didn't think his digestive tract would be up to it, though.
Modification of the intestinal flora wasn't on the list of nano-work: too much
trouble, and it was easier to import food along with the other supplies the bases
He felt drained of everything -- having his hopes raised and crushed again seemed
to have emptied him from the inside out. So he lay on his couch and slid down into
darkness -- into nightmares of Thi Loan crawling into the bubble, of hatirkas
dancing before him, tormenting him with the weight of their knowledge -- laying
their cold, damp fingers on his hands, dragging him underwater where he choked
on algae oil . . .
He woke up to something cold touching his shoulders: Thi Loan's forked hands,
shaking him out of his sleep.
"You were -- screaming," she said. Her chemicals trembled in the air, on the edge
of blossoming into accents.
Her eyes were wide and faceted, and he had to make a conscious effort to
remember what had happened. "Bad dreams," he said. "Did you have a good day?"
Thi Loan shook her head -- and for a moment she seemed lost for words. "Good,"
she said finally. "Learnt many things. About the Change."
It didn't surprise him. "Giving yourself to the sea, that sort of thing?"
She paused after he spoke, confirming the fear growing in his belly. "More
complicated." Her eyes were distant again -- she focused on him with a visible
"Thi Loan," he said, frightened that the time had come, that he was going to lose
"I'm all right." Her gaze was still remote. "Come on. Let's eat."
At dinner, he couldn't help but notice that she was eating fish and algae, even if
they were still human-made things.
"About Kishore --" he said, hoping to draw her from inside her shell. He told her
about what he'd found on the boat.
Thi Loan shook her head, her gills opening and closing on the rhythm of her
breath. Her face was already tighter and longer than that of a tirka. "He was a good
man," she said. "In love with Horizon."
"The tirkas are telling you that?"
She shook her head again. "His reports. Don't be silly, Alex. The tirkas don't care
Alex snapped, "I'm not sure how they ever rose to the top of the food chain with
such a blithe attitude toward other life forms."
Thi Loan smiled, revealing a row of neat, sharp teeth, as fine as those of a shark.
"There was some . . . thought, a long . . . time ago. They decided we're . . .
harmless. Harmless," she repeated, a little uncertainly, as if she were no longer sure
that the word was the right one. "Are they wrong?"
"No, but --" He wanted to tell her about how frightened she made him -- about
the chemicals that she emitted, hanging in the air like so many unsaid words:
care/devotion, duty/dreams, sea/secrets . . .
After dinner, he discovered that they couldn't make love anymore; she'd changed
too much for that. She lay on her side of the bed, exhaling chemicals with every
breath. He stared at the ceiling, trying to accept the realization that the end was
near. He saw how she struggled with human language; how long would it be before
he had to speak to her in the tirka monosyllables?
Mother, in her final months, had been the same: so gaunt as to be unrecognisable,
shot with so much morphine she had barely been coherent. And when she'd finally
slipped away, he had been holding her hand in the hospital, willing her to at least
wake up and say goodbye. But she never had.
The console was beeping, quietly: a message. In silence, he rose and walked to the
keyboard, and rerouted the volume to his integrated head-speakers.
It was from Pablo, and the only thing it said was: Call me back. It's urgent.
He didn't like the sound of that: sending the hacks to him via the network
shouldn't have posed any problems. Had they been found out? That didn't sound
like a good explanation, either: the Federation would have impounded their ship,
implants, and nanos in a heartbeat if that had been the case.
He typed in Pablo's number and waited for the image to come into focus. Pablo
was wearing military fatigues, and his hands were covered in mud.
"What the hell --"
Pablo shook his head. "Building a mud house," he said with a smile -- an
expression that didn't even touch his eyes. "But that's not what I wanted to tell
"The hacks," Alex said, a hundred alarm bells ringing in his mind.
Pablo smiled, tiredly. "I'll send them to you via the network. If you still want
"I don't understand --"
"Your hacks cost me a fair bit of hobnobbing with high-ranked Federation
officials," Pablo said. He was looking Alex straight in the eye -- and Alex knew
the expression: it was the same one Meghan had had when he brought her
Why -- ?
"Alex . . ."
Pablo hesitated, then started speaking very fast, without stopping, his words
tumbling on top of each other, merging with each other. "They told me things --
things known only at the highest levels. That the Federation would never send
anyone on this kind of mission with barely-tested nanos."
Alex stared at him. "They made her do it."
Pablo's voice was soft, as soft and as cutting as the surgeon's knife when it parted
flesh. "They didn't, Alex. Thi Loan volunteered for this."
That was -- He heard the words, and no matter which way he turned them, they
didn't make sense. "That's not possible," he said, hoping Pablo would say
something, anything, different from what he'd heard.
But Pablo stood his ground, his muddy hands falling at his side -- wan and small
and defeated, but unwavering. "I know what I heard, Alex. If that's what it'll take
to convince you, hombre, I can ask for her holo-recording -- the one where she
suggested the whole scheme to the Federation . . ."
She volunteered. Thi Loan volunteered. The words beat against the confines of his
mind like the wings of a maddened bird. "Stop," he whispered, and realised that
Pablo hadn't spoken for a while.
Thi Loan volunteered . . .
"I'm sorry," Pablo said. "Alex . . ."
There were no words in the abyss he was falling into. He'd have asked why, but
Pablo wouldn't know the answer -- and he couldn't bear the weight of someone
"Thank you," he said finally, politeness coming to his rescue when nothing else
Pablo shook his head. "I'll keep the hacks."
On impulse, Alex said, "No."
"No?" Pablo's voice was incredulous. "You don't need the hacks."
Anger flared for the first time. "Don't judge what I need and what I don't."
Pablo said nothing for a while. At length: "All right. I'll send them on to you. But
"I know," Alex said. "We're on our own."
Pablo shook his head, half-annoyed, half-angry. "You're not. That's why you
shouldn't do any insensata thing right now, hombre. Anger's a bad judge."
Alex said thanks again, cutting the communication as gracefully as he could.
But he didn't move: he stared at his white, salt-wrinkled hands, their nails
encrusted with gritty sand. He thought of Thi Loan, striding ahead of him in the
mountains of the Himalayas, turning back to him with a wide, mocking smile,
daring him to run to her -- of the way she'd stood on the beach with her hands
clenched at her side, longing for something she couldn't have.
He'd thought he was supporting her, that he was making it easier for her to
complete a Change she didn't want.
How wrong he'd been.
He never could keep a secret from her: that had always been his challenge. Even
counting how distant Thi Loan had become, how alien to his ways of thinking,
she'd still know something was wrong as soon as she took a good look at him.
So he decided to take the offensive.
He got up before she did -- and waited for her in the kitchen, cradling a mug of
acrid tea between his hands.
She stopped when she entered. "Alex?"
"I spoke to Pablo last night."
"Pablo Jimenez y Cruz," he said. "Remember him?"
"Of course." Thi Loan stood with one hand on the wall, intrigued. "I don't see . . ."
Sometimes, there was no solution but bluntness. "I wanted hacks. To turn you back
before it was too late." He paused for a second -- not long enough for her to
interject -- and went on. "But of course you don't want hacks, do you? Seeing as
you were the one who volunteered for this mission -- this Change -- in the first
There was a silence, filled only by the distant roar of the waves. Thi Loan had
turned as still as a statue, except for her ruff, which was dilating and contracting
faster than a human heartbeat. "I see," she said. "I see."
"That's all you can say?" Alex snapped. He inhaled the smell of the tea, its
wrongness, its artificiality -- knowing it was all that anchored him to sanity. Seven
years of marriage, and that was all that she had to say?
"What do you want from me?" Her words were slow, halting -- a further sign that
her metamorphosis had entered its final stages. He forced himself to let her speak,
to let her explain herself.
"Something. Anything. Why you suggested this madness to the Federation."
"Not madness." Her voice was quiet now. "I knew you wouldn't understand."
"No," Alex said. "You lost your home to the sea. I don't understand why you'd
wish to lose yourself in it too." Even as he said it, he wondered if it wasn't her
death-wish -- if it wasn't the same as those old Buddhist monks who would set
themselves on fire to be free of the chains of the world. But Thi Loan wasn't
Buddhist -- she wasn't even religious. "I don't understand why you'd endanger
Thi Loan smiled and shook her head. "There is no marriage anymore, Alex."
"Because you chose to have your nanos activated!" He was up on his feet and
shouting, and she still didn't move -- still looked at him with those bright, faceted
eyes that he couldn't read. Her chemicals saturated the air, shaping words on the
cusp of perception, words he couldn't understand. "Do you think that you'll get
your home back if you give something to the sea?"
Thi Loan shook her head. "Who knows? But it's not the point. It's my choice,
Alex. I need to do this."
Her voice, when she spoke again, was that of a tirka, and the words hovered on the
edge between English and an incomprehensible language. "Because I need this."
"You're not making sense," Alex said, slowly.
"Do I have to?"
"I'm your husband, damn it!"
Thi Loan's eyes glazed again, taking on the distant look that was neither human
nor tirka. "Change/everything clear/revealed."
"You're mad," Alex said. She was saying everything, and saying nothing. Did she
really hope the sea of Horizon would explain why the sea on Earth had drowned
the Mekong Delta? That had been caused by mankind and global warming, and
nothing she found on Horizon would ever change that.
Thi Loan just stood there -- not rising to the bait, not getting angry. Just staring at
him, a rock against which every one of his assaults broke into a thousand disjointed
"You're mad," he said again, and strode out into Horizon's muddy sunlight,
leaving her behind.
When he came back, she wasn't there anymore -- but there was a darker shape
inside the bubble, and he couldn't open it no matter how hard he struck it with his
fists. He screamed himself raw, trying to reach her; but the slow, steady rocking of
the bubble diminished his voice to nothing. Her chemicals hung in the air, a
tantalising smell, perpetually out of reach.
It was Meghan who found him, later, sitting on the beach with his reader on his
Wordlessly, she slid down by his side. They watched the hazy shapes of the
hatirkas, sliding in and out of the fog like beasts from children's tales.
"You know," Alex said, after a while, "They still creep me out."
"You get used to them."
"No," Alex said. "I can't. And I can't believe she'll ever get used to them either --
no matter what shape she's in."
Meghan shook her head. Her face was unreadable. "No one said it would be easy,
"Did you know?" Alex asked. "Did you know she'd volunteered for that?"
Meghan had a movement of recoil, barely perceptible unless one watched out for
it. But Alex had done nothing but watching things since sunrise.
"No," she said. "She hid it well."
"Yeah. Even from me." He tried to keep the bitterness from his voice, but it was
hard when he remembered Thi Loan's final proclamation. There is no marriage,
Alex. "What a world."
Meghan took sand and let it drip from her hand, glistening in the sunlight. "You
believe yourself responsible?"
"I don't know." And that was the worst: the thought that he could have said
something, or done something, that had tipped her over the edge, that had
ultimately made her volunteer for this. "I don't understand why she did this."
Meghan inclined her head, slowly. "We're not telepaths, Alex. You can't --"
"She was my wife, damn it!" No. No longer. The Hachand. The Changing One.
The Dying One. One and the same.
Meghan said nothing.
"Her village -- it was disappearing, the whole time she was in college, studying
xeno. But they wouldn't let her come back, not until she'd finished her indenture.
They were afraid -- afraid we'd all run away if we saw our families. And
afterwards, they posted her on one planet after another, until the only thing she
ever saw were the holos of the drowned streets."
"In her culture, the sea is everything, and it takes everything," Meghan said. "For
her, it had taken her childhood, her community -- everything except her life. It
He recognised the doubtful tone, the same one the teachers had taken when
warning them in their first xeno classes: just because something made sense didn't
mean it was real. "You think that's the reason?"
Meghan shifted in a crunch of sand. "It's one possible reason," she said. "If it
makes sense to you . . ."
People needed reasons, didn't they? Stories. Anything to make the going easier. He
could have made up something, too. "It's not going to be enough," Alex said.
He saw her shake her head, sadly. "I'm afraid that's all you get. I'm sorry." She
rose, letting the last of the sand drip back into the beach. "Goodbye, Alex."
That wasn't enough, Alex thought again as he listened to the sound of her footsteps
receding in the distance.
He flipped open his reader, stared at Kishore's report -- at the words so neatly
aligned, revealing nothing more than their vast ignorance of what was really
happening on Horizon. If they couldn't understand what pushed people to sacrifice
themselves -- if they couldn't understand why a wife would leave everything
she'd ever known behind -- how could they hope to make sense of the hatirkas, or
of what had happened to Kishore?
There was something else in his reader: Pablo's hacks. They couldn't be used on
Thi Loan anymore, but there was a way, surely, to hack into himself, to set in
motion the same metamorphosis Thi Loan was going through.
He could join her.
There was only the sound of the waves, and the distant song of the hatirkas. The
beach was clean, the air heavy but free of any chemicals. He thought of the way
Thi Loan had run away from him on the mountain path -- and of that first day on
the beach, when they had already been apart from each other, and he knew the only
answer he could give.
Whatever her reasons, she had made her choice, and he wouldn't demean it. But
just as he wouldn't join Mother in death, neither would he join Thi Loan in her
As the sun sank towards the horizon, he heard a vast, indescribable noise in the
research centre. But he didn't turn around. He didn't need to. He just listened to the
scratching of stubby paws, dragging themselves on the cold sands -- to the slow
unfolding of a long, serpentine body -- and felt the chemicals saturate his ruff.
Thi Loan was on the beach now -- a silent shadow in the growing darkness,
smelling of brine and oil. Dragging herself towards the waterline, and whispering
of longing/sorrow/duty/pain until Alex's own throat ached with the need to
Far, far away, on the vast, unknowable sea, the swarm of hatirkas had opened,
leaving an empty space as neat as the path of a spaceship. And Thi Loan was
swimming towards them, glorious and magnificent. The whispers on the wind
changed to need/sorrow/share/atonement, and then into something else, something
that made no sense at all but filled him with a great, quivering joy.
There followed another noise then, over the endless roar of the waves: the
ponderous noise of motors striking the water. The first of the automated boats were
leaving their platforms, harvesting algae from the waves -- the machine that fed
the quadrant was grinding to life once more. There would be spaceships and space
travel, and humans navigating once more between the stars in the sky.
Thi Loan had done her job, gotten the boats running again. The algae harvest was
back underway. Alex had no idea how, and probably never would.
In the end, the algae was all the Federation really cared about. All they had ever
really cared about. They would probably send Alex home without figuring out how
Kishore had died. But he didn't care anymore. He merely sat there on the cold
sands, with his useless hacks on his knees and his stories incomplete, listening to
the song of the hatirkas and knowing he would never understand any of it, just as
he'd never really understood Thi Loan.
And, like Mother's death, it didn't make sense. It wouldn't ever make sense no
matter which way he turned it.
But it didn't have to.