HUGO AWARD-WINNING SCIENCE FICTION & FANTASY MAGAZINE
A pale dawn spread across the Pacific as my dead mother emerged from the waves.
The bloom of algeron must have crept closer to shore during the night, and now it shimmered in the sickly morning light all the way out to the horizon. The thing that had once loved me rose out of the bloom, slowly at first, like a column of black mercury. Then features emerged: a head, limbs and torso with skirts of algeron hanging like seaweed down to the foamy water at its feet. Finally the body shape that I knew so well came into being—a nightmarish simulacrum, but taller than her in real life, struggling one step at a time until it found land.
Its confidence seemed to grow when it saw Kelly with her back turned, playing with pieces of driftwood on the sand. It staggered up the beach and reached out awkwardly with impossibly long arms.
I had only turned away for a few seconds—like all the mothers down the ages—but now I was sprinting towards her, sand flicking up behind me.
Ripples spread for kilometers across the bloom and whispers lingered in the drafts of briny air—voices from something cavernous and deep. They rose in pitch and tone, unifying into a bleak chorus that threatened to overwhelm the sound of the ocean.
Kelly smiled as I approached, and smiled at the simulacrum. I reached out to Kelly, keeping my distance from the thing now watching my every move. “Time to go, honey.”
I could see Kelly was more curious than shocked as this wasn’t the first time we had seen forms flow out of the algeron. She confronted me with inevitable, innocent logic. “But it’s Grandma.”
I couldn’t bring myself to look into its eyes for fear I might see what Kelly saw. “I know, but we have to go. The bloom is getting bigger and I told you not to go out today.”
“But she called me.” Kelly stretched out her hand to the simulacrum. “They’re all calling me.”
“Stop.” I grabbed Kelly by the elbow. “Time to go, young lady.”
The chorus intensified—a susurrus of lost souls. A crude smile began to form on the simulacrum’s lips. Platelets of algeron shifted across its skin, turning its face into a pin-cushion mask of concentration. Its mouth moved, forming a single word: “Erin.”
I gritted my teeth and finally looked into its . . . into Mum’s eyes. The dark orbs reflected sky and sand, Kelly and I standing there, rag-tag and anorexic. Details became visible in the black juncture of its wrist, the tendons on the back of its hand, the long fingers ending in delicate nails—a mother’s hand that had once been caring yet firm.
We look for things in others we value most in ourselves. It was Mum, in a forgotten time when the world had color and nuance.
“I miss you, Mum,” I said, now feeling compelled to reach out to her. But as I did I realized there were details missing: the edges of her hands were crude and sharp so that the fingers looked like talons.
The talons came closer.
I snatched up a long piece of driftwood and clubbed the simulacrum on the jaw.
It froze; an obsidian statue with surprise etched on its imprecise face. The algeron’s chorus grew quiet against the ever present sound of the Pacific. Cracks spread across its face and then its features melted until it was a blank column collapsing under its own weight and slithering back into the bloom.
Kelly sobbed then swung wildly at me until I scooped her up and hugged her close.
“It’s okay, Kelly. We’ll be okay.”
More lies to sustain us.
Kelly whimpered in the crook of my neck as I carried her back to the ruins on the promontory. She craned her neck to look back over my shoulder, seemingly mesmerized by the sight of the bloom receding out to sea.
The skies were leaden the next morning.
Kelly sat on the dead grass in front of the building—once someone’s home, now an empty brick ruin like all the others on the Tathra headland. She was playing with her shell collection. She had been a skinny child anyway, but now I fretted as her bones and ribs protruded. I must have looked the same to her, for there were nights when we huddled in the ruins and her hands would trace my sunken cheeks and worry would fill her eyes. Soon to be replaced by innocent resilience and hushed words of reassurance that should never have come from a six year old, but I would accept them anyway and the strength they provided to face another day.
By mid-morning, bands of sunlight forced their way through the cloud, turning the Pacific into a patchwork of reflections that filled my heart with sadness. Once families had played along Tathra beach, sun-browned surfers had tried their skills on the modest waves, and a warm breeze had tugged my blouse and whisked sand around my feet. It felt like the blink of an eye against the history of an ocean that contained much of the world’s mystery. Ferdinand Magellan, on confronting the vast expanse of water for the first time, had named it mar pacifico—peaceful sea.
There were some days I still believed it, but today wasn’t one of them. I looked out to the horizon. The black line of algeron was still there, waiting. It had left a stain on the sand that ran the entire length of the bay. A small circular blotch marked the spot where the simulacrum had stood.
I wondered how long it would take for her to return.
I knelt down and picked up a fan-shaped shell from Kelly’s collection as she hummed to herself. It was covered in ridges and striations—the discarded home of some tiny creature, washed up over centuries—one and a billion others like it eroded by endless cycles of water and sun.
Then I caught a glimpse of something black in Kelly’s hand.
Kelly clamped her fingers around the object.
“Kelly. We don’t keep secrets.”
I held out my hand. “Give it here.”
Kelly reluctantly placed the inert algeron shell in my palm. It was sand-paper grainy, an imperfect replica. I’d seen something like it in a museum, a Paleozoic ammonite fossilized into shining pyrite—the minerals had slowly replaced the original shell over unimaginable spans of time.
And I had seen it happen in the space of heartbeats that day not so long ago when the world changed, Mum prone on the sand as the algeron nanotech crept up her legs, transmuting flesh. She had been trying to save the dolphins washed up on the beach. Their screams still haunted me when I was able to dream, but not as much as Mum’s mute agony.
Now the algeron seemed to call me again. Perhaps it would always be there, more terrifying yet different than before—for now it contained the lament of eight billion souls. A wave of euphoria had swept the world when the algeron was created to bring the carbon cycles back into balance and enhance the power of the oceans to absorb more carbon from the polluted air. But the nanotech quickly evolved, overrunning its safeguards with mutating algorithms, and in the space of several months—with a stunned world helpless and watching—it had washed inland over the continents, absorbing just about every living thing on the planet.
I doubted that I would ever hear the untainted sound of the Pacific again. The ocean had given me comfort all my life, a sense of permanency that used to fill me with hope. But now all I could do was listen for hope in the songs of the dead. And the more I listened the more I could hear a strange cadence emerge from the algeron that hinted at plans and far reaching intentions. And somehow Kelly and I had a role to play—for why else would it bide it’s time when it could just as easily sweep the world for stragglers?
Then I shook my head, furious at being lulled into a survivor’s crude delusion that everything would be right again. Who was I kidding? I wiped the tears from my cheeks and hurled the replica shell out over the cliff edge.
Kelly got up and stormed inside the ruins. “I hate you.”
“Pack your bag,” I shouted. “We’re going inland. We need to find more food.”
And it’s no use waiting here, waiting for death in the house of the dead.
We made our way through old Tathra town where you could once buy fish and chips and relax with a beer in sleepy places. The wrecks of old cars glinted in the occasional thrust of sunlight, which made me wonder why the algeron could not absorb non-living things. It had washed over every car, building, fence and street sign leaving most things smeared with a residue of fine black powder. Maybe it was just attracted to the living carbon that was everywhere in our proteins and nucleic acids—the foundation of life.
With water bottles and rations in our backpacks, I led the way inland along the broken tarmac up towards Brown Mountain. Kelly followed, obedient and silent. The days were hot and the stench of rotting vegetation was still pungent—rain forests took a long time to die, and now the trees were ash-colored silhouettes.
We stopped every now and then to search the husks of vehicles, found some preserved food tins but all else had perished or been consumed. On the second day we left the highway and on the third and fourth nights, Kelly woke up screaming, but the sound was quickly muffled by the oppressive silence.
“Is Grandma dead?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Will she come back?”
“I don’t know. Go back to sleep.”
In the mornings Kelly was forgetful as she chewed on rations and exchanged vacant glances with me.
On the sixth day I was afraid she would never speak again until we found a ravine where water still ran and the foliage was still touched with color.
The words were as startling as the sight of spongy green moss around a small pool at the base of the ravine. I frowned, insulted by the strange palette invading our monochrome world. Crying now, wondering what a bleak thing I had become.
Kelly turned and sat on the ground.
“I’m sorry, sweetheart.” I reached down to comfort her then paused as an inky stain spread through the pool. High above the ravine where the dead rainforest clung to the slopes, the last runoff was black with tendrils of algeron.
I quickly filled the plastic bottles from the clear water at the edges of the pool then swept Kelly up and was about to turn away when I noticed the algeron trickling down an exposed rock wall. There was a deep history there in each weathered layer. Life and time and wind and rain had wrapped the world in hard veils, shrouding the past for all but the tenacious and providing a foundation for the future. The algeron spread down, almost deliberately, pausing at every evolutionary nook and cranny on the way. It flowed as if cautious, as if exploring. For the first time I saw different hues in the black, hints of purple and gray, pin-point flashes of yellow and orange. It looked like a dark hand blotched with years of experience caressing the lost layers of the earth, curious, respectful.
I turned away as the pool transmuted to black and tiny fingers of algeron stretched towards us. Scrambling back down the path now, Kelly bouncing in my arms. A sense of fear and wonder as I ran: had any human being in all the history of the world ever paused at this place and touched the rock in the same way as the algeron?
My energy levels plummeted during the long days as I carried Kelly back to the promontory. The bloom was in with the tide when we arrived, a terrible slick in the dwindling light. Something tired and perverse inside me felt good to be home.
Kelly started pulling her shells out of her backpack.
“Don’t unpack those, Kelly. It’s time for bed. We’ll go to Kianinny in the morning. You can play in the boats.”
I expected some retort, but Kelly put the shells away quietly and found the old mattress in the shadows of the ruin and was soon asleep.
I stayed outside and watched for signs of change in the algeron, but I couldn’t see anything in the twilight and there was no way of seeing much at all beneath such heavy eyelids.
Waking to darkness, the rush of blood loud in my ears and something more—the frantic sound of the algeron across the bay. I shivered at the thought that it was mimicking the painful pounding of my heart. Rubbing knuckles against sunken eyes didn’t improve things. Voices carried from the ruins and I got up from where I had fallen asleep on the grass.
Kelly was standing in the shadow of the doorway talking to the flowing black figure of Grandma, an umbilical of algeron trailing from its long skirts out over the edge of the headland. They were playing a game, Kelly laughing and puffing her small chest in and out in exaggerated breaths. Then the simulacrum copied the move, breathing out a rush of air that sounded more like a whinny.
I approached cautiously. “Step away, Kelly.”
The simulacrum whipped its head around. I had seen that look a thousand times as a child, but I stood defiant—some things never changed. Even in such poor light I could see patches emerging across its body like radiant flecks in opal.
I took a step forward, fists raised. “Leave us alone.”
Kelly peered beneath the algeron that trailed from the simulacrum’s arm like an antique sleeve. “Mum, Mum. Guess what? Grandma says that the world used to breathe the way we breathe.”
“Did she now?” I couldn’t stop the vitriol in my voice.
Kelly puffed out her shrunken cheeks. “Breathe in for summer, breathe out for winter. That’s how the air worked with the trees and the water. The Earth was like a big round body.”
I turned to the simulacrum. “Stay away from us.” I waved my arm back to the ocean. “All of you. Just leave us alone.”
To my surprise, the simulacrum suddenly collapsed and swept away back along the umbilical until it disappeared over the cliff edge.
Kelly screeched once but seemed to have little energy for any other protest.
We didn’t sleep for the rest of the night, and I think we were both wondering how many times we would have to go through this same ritual. Kelly eventually cradled in my arms as I leant against the ruins and a brooding silence descended over the ocean.
Kianinny Bay was once a rocky, sheltered cove just south of Tathra headland, circled overhead by white gulls and surrounded by the native flora extending into the expanse of the Bournda National Park. An old concrete ramp used to provide a perfect spot for launching boats captained by Sunday fishermen keen to escape the bustle when the world allowed such indulgences.
Now the cove was littered with boats tilted at angles and rusting SUVs sat on flat tires. There were no gulls. The trees lay like decayed matchsticks and the rocks were powdered with granules of inert algeron.
We held hands as we walked down the cracked bitumen, the panorama of the cove spreading out before us, the bloom somehow flattening the water so that no waves came to shore. It was like watching one of those old silent movies in three-d.
Kelly looked up at me and made a cranky face. “I think Grandma is angry.”
I was so lost in fatigue I couldn’t even raise a half-smile at the grim humor of it all.
She let go of my hand and ran down to the boat at the top of the launch ramp. It was a small, tin thing with a seized up outboard motor. She climbed aboard and stretched up to peer over the steering wheel. “What were pirates like?”
“I don’t know, sweetheart. What else did Grandma say?”
Kelly grabbed the wheel and tried to turn it. Then she blew air through her lips and made engine noises. “Ahoy!”
“What did she say?”
Kelly ran her hands over the wheel. “They are going to fix the Earth.”
I fell to my knees, recalling the purpose in the algeron’s song. I’d tried so hard to deny it, thinking that it was just my stubbornness and refusal to accept what I had known all along.
Some things were inevitable.
Kelly frowned. “Mum, do you think it can copy us? It copied Grandma; it copied lots of people and the animals. Why won’t you let it copy us?”
I was thunderstruck that Kelly had become so accepting. Then my stomach growled, reminding me that I had forgotten the last time I ate anything or did anything that really mattered. What the hell did anything matter now? The carbon cycles were broken, the air was stale, and the oceans were clogged. How could it possibly repair all that? Natural evolution was blind, and not even humanity had been able to turn around its own fatal evolutionary curve within the biosphere. So how could something as crude and technological as the algeron think it could achieve it?
I recalled that place by the pool: layers of rock, life evolving over eons, intent upon leaving a legacy . . . maybe I had misread the algeron’s intentions.
Maybe something else was happening.
Something that defied all reason.
My tired limbs wrenched into action and I stood up on shaky legs and stepped up to the boat. “Stay inside, honey.”
Kelly hesitated. “Where are we going?”
I pushed the boat hard until it began to slide down the launch ramp.
With no power and no tide, the boat rocked dangerously in the water as the algeron propelled it along, leaving a strange luminescent wake.
Kelly had kept hold of the wheel all this time and pointed ahead, shouting at the top of her lungs. I couldn’t hear because the algeron had resumed its roar so I looked instead to where Kelly was pointing and saw stray sunlight filtering across the bloom. The algeron was indeed changing, and now there were strange rainbow refractions across its surface.
The boat slowed and came to rest, bobbing gently on preternatural currents. A familiar hand reached out from the bloom. There was more detail this time, skin tones filtering through the black. I sensed the enormous effort required as the algeron strived to bring more texture and shape to Elizabeth Hendrie, mother of Erin, grandmother of Kelly.
I reached out and grabbed Mum’s hand as the face and body rose up, more lifelike than ever, blue eyes emerging, the reds of her favorite skirt that I used to hide behind.
An electrical current jolted through me as the algeron flowed into my veins. I had thought about this moment so much, expecting nothing but terror as I gave up all resistance and let it consume my living cells. But perhaps I had mistaken Mum’s pain for awe as the algeron now flowed up my shoulders and neck and something impossibly wide flowered into my mind. It was like standing in a subterranean cavern that had never been touched by light or sound. At first it felt dreamlike, but as the hollow spaces filled with texture, blossoming networks and connections blossomed like the overlapping opal flecks I had seen earlier, but magnified beyond perception across a canvas that seemed to stretch out forever. It was the collective of humanity, and much of the world’s flora and fauna, copied into the nanotech host.
Mum opened her mouth, but I reached out and touched a finger to her lips.
“It’s okay.” I whispered. “You are sorry. I understand.”
Mum nodded and held my hand against her soft cheek.
I took a deep breath and closed my eyes as the collective mind reached out. It was in its nature to scan and replicate, but there was something different going on now, an urgent need to connect and unify. There were new forces at play—the remnants of humanity emblazoned into a crude collective consciousness.
Now I knew what Magellan and all the explorers felt like when faced with overwhelming frontiers. The nascent ocean mind opened up fully in all directions, west and east, nadir and zenith. I reached out with my own mind and touched the myriad souls out there in all their tones and subtleties—they were still capable of human desire and still full of human frailty. Blended with the algeron, they were beginning to connect and evolve into something wondrous.
I opened my eyes and saw Kelly watching me intently.
“Can we fix the Earth?”
“I’m not sure, honey.”
“Maybe we don’t need the sky and the water anymore.” Her shoulders lifted a little. “Maybe we can make our own now.”
I pictured the world as it once was, a lacing together of saline ocean and loamy ground and oxygen sky. Perhaps we didn’t need those things anymore. Maybe Kelly was right and the algeron would evolve new layers over the Earth, connecting generations of living things and human souls in the ocean memory—something that could learn from the past and rise above blind evolution, something that was more self-guided as the world aged.
Kelly slipped her hand into mine, reassuring as ever, and then she reached out and took hold of her Grandma’s hand. The three of us swayed in tune to the motion of the bloom beneath the boat as the algeron flowed between us. My last breath exhaled from tired lungs as the algeron worked through my body.
There was a single stab of pain as I was reborn into light and sound and color. Kelly was there on the other side, laughing; Mum, crying; a new world, waiting. For the first time in a long time I smiled. I wondered if the collective dreams could ever really come to fruition, but I knew it wouldn’t be through lack of trying, and that fact alone filled me with peace.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Greg Mellor is an Australian author with 50 published short stories. "Mar Pacifico" is his second story to appear in Clarkesworld Magazine. He is also a regular contributor to Cosmos Magazine and Aurealis as well as independent press anthologies in Australia and the United States. Wild Chrome, his debut collection introduced by Damien Broderick, was published in October 2012,
Greg holds degrees in astrophysics and technology management. He is a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA).
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