There are a few different classifications of dead people, and that’s the problem. Most of them, thank whatever, move on. I don’t know where they go. That’s not my job. My job is the other kinds. The never-were, the lost, the malefactors, and the desperate. That’s what I call them. The never-were are the ones I hate to meet the most. They’re a mixed bag of child spirits, some of them died young and some were just wanted so badly that they couldn’t leave. The lost at least don’t know what they are. They keep going about their lives with no idea that anything’s changed. It can get unnerving with the old ones. They don’t know how the newer buildings work and they end up going through them. The malefactors are pretty much what it says on the tin. They’re bad. If it tries to crawl into someone, kill someone, take over and destroy things, then it’s a malefactor. The scariest though, are the desperate. Malefactors do it because they have to, because evil and destruction is their nature. The desperate want to. They’re trying to find a way to cling to life in any way they can. They ride in other people’s bodies and try to reclaim who they were, they refuse to give up their past. All in all, it’s a bad time. Sometimes, though, it’s hard to tell what kind you’re dealing with. The lines blur and that’s when things get dangerous. That was probably how I ended up backed into a corner with four children smiling up at me. Their eyes weren’t black when I let them in. I know they weren’t. I know the rules. But today, it looked like the rules were being broken.
“Don’t worry. Our parents are on the way.”
I could hear the front door opening and my pulse hammered in my ears, blotting out the rest of what they said. Slow, deliberate footsteps made their way up my stairs and I turned towards the sound, dreading what I might see. My blood ran cold as I stared into my own eyes. The other me smiled slowly and walked forward, placing a hand on the shoulder of the tallest of the children.
“Now don’t worry, dear, there will be more than enough for all of us to feast.”
Alright, I’ll admit it. I have no idea what I’m doing here. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I believe in the cause. I made my sign myself after a late night craft store run. The cashier was so funny, asking if we had a project for school.
“No, ma’am, we’re actively participating in our democracy.”
That had been my best friend’s flippant response. I’d seen this kind of thing on TV and I was scared. They kept saying it would be fine though. Somehow, I don’t think they really understood.
Now, I was trying not to cry as I heard shouting and loud bangs that sounded a lot like explosives to my ears. That was when he appeared out of the smoke. A tall man with dark hair cut military short. He was wearing wraparound shades that obscured his eyes, a bandanna over the lower half of his face, and a tight t-shirt with a Spartan logo on it. He grabbed my arm and hauled me up.
“Come on, kid. How’re you doing?”
I tried to speak and started coughing. He cursed in a language I didn’t understand and handed me a bottle and a bandanna.
“Swish and spit. Wet the bandanna and hold it over your mouth. Got me, kid?”
I nodded once, uncertain. We both heard the sound that caught his attention then. It was like a loud pop and then something hissing. I didn’t think, I just moved. Doing as he’d told me, I kept the bandanna over my mouth as I stayed low hoping this stuff worked like smoke. He grabbed my arm and pointed, making signs I’d never seen. I could follow it though. Grab the woman near us and follow him.
He led us up a side street where there were a few people working on a sort of street triage. He nodded to them, clearly knowing each and every one of them. My eyes were burning and tears streamed down my face. The woman we’d helped out was worse off though. Another woman grabbed a bottle of something and was talking quietly to her, saying she was here to help. Not to worry a bit.
When my eyes were clear, I started helping. He coached me, teaching me things I never thought I would learn. I learned more about how medicine really works than I ever had before. And not gentle, kind, sterile medicine. This was rough and we could only do our best. Sometimes, I wondered what he was doing here. He was a soldier. He had to be. But he just laughed and said he fought in these trenches now, in this new kind of war for liberty. If he was a general, I think I would follow him to the ends of the earth.
“Come on, kid. You and me, we’ve got more people to help.”
Experimental. It was experimental. That was what was shaking me to my core as I watched the console. Worse was knowing who was on board, locked into the safety restraints. They said they’d injected her with sedatives. If the screams coming through the communication system were any sign, either they’d lied or she’d woken up.
There was no aborting this mission. No fail-safe measures that could be taken. Not with a gun to the head of our commander and dozens more aimed around the room. My hands shook over the controls at my station. What could I do? Nothing. Save her, kill us all. Kill her, we live.
The words fell from my mouth, their thorns digging into my lips. The numbers were consonant with a successful launch by our calculations. But that was all they were: calculations. We were go-green across the board. She was crying.
The fuels were mixing. This part was still a traditional launch, just enough to escape the atmosphere before we moved on to the second stage of the flight. I ran the figures through in my head, remembered all the simulations that had succeeded. Or I tried. The images were replaced with the failures instead.
Science. That was all this was to them. They didn’t care who they had strapped to the top of the missile. That’s all it really was. No matter how pretty we made the rockets, no matter how many safety features we thought we had added. In the grand scheme of things, it was just another nuclear missile that we hoped we were aiming correctly.
The floor had long ago started to shake. A launch does that. It shakes the whole building and you can hear the shutters banging against the windows and they seem to glow a dull red. Listening to the comms was all that mattered to me now. I just needed to keep hearing her voice.
Silence is a kind of nightmare, one I knew was coming. When a shuttle passes through the atmosphere, the radios go silent. It has to do with the makeup of our atmosphere and how the magnetosphere works. I knew that silence well, and I dreaded it.
The rocket would be decoupling from the launch platform now. Most people think all the important things come at the last moment, but the launch procedure is a carefully timed and orchestrated dance. The slightest misstep would mean an aborted launch. Normally, at least.
“I love you.”
Those words were for me. Those wonderful, terrifying, sorrowful words were mine. She was still crying, I knew that. But she also knew I was listening. Moving slowly, not wanting to attract attention, I flipped the switch that turned my microphone live.
“I love you too. Forever.”
The roar was deafening. I turned my microphone back off, not wanting the rest of the launch crew to hear me crying. The odds of success were so low. Untested, untried. We should have sent an unmanned mission, a monkey mission, a pig mission, even. But we didn’t get that choice. The glory of the state came first and no one got a choice.
We both knew how the stories all went, how this tale ends. Land and sea can only mix on the shore and only for a brief time. At first, I believed it. Then I met her. Maddie will tell you I saved her, but I will swear until the day I die that she saved me.
It was one of those summer days mortals write songs about. The kind of day where the light skips off the water and plays games in the spaces beneath. I lay on the bottom, watching the girls playing on the shore. One bolder than the others ran out into the water and dove beyond the drop-off. She didn’t realize she’d caught a foot in one of the ropes that littered the seabed. They didn’t realize she hadn’t come back up. So, I freed her and brought her to the surface.
Sitting on the rocks at dusk, we talked alone. She didn’t know then what I was. I was just a pretty girl named Carys and she was just Maddie. Every day, she came back to the same beach to meet me until I was sure she must know, she must have realized.
Realization didn’t come until we’d gone moon to moon twice. Under the stars on that dark night, she kissed me. She tasted like hope and taffy, like young love and summers bright. Her lips were so warm against my own. It left me breathless. But she realized that I was cold despite the warmth of the air, that my lips tasted of salt and sea foam, that my feet were wet even this far from the surf. She knew the stories, knew I wore a sealskin as a coat about my shoulders.
She didn’t take it. We both knew the stories, and I almost wanted her to take my coat and hide it somewhere where neither of us would ever find it. Take me away to her dry shoreland and let me be hers. But she spoke of a thing called University, of studies and grades. And of a promise, sworn on the sea, to return.
The sea is a fickle thing, her faces changing with the tides. But four years later, a young woman with bright eyes and a bag of saltwater taffy walked up the beach. She left her shoes on the shore and walked out into the water calling my name.
She didn’t take my coat then either, though I would still have accepted it. She spoke of research and tides, of the faces of the sea and the wonders beneath the waves. And of something called scuba.
My Maddie and I know the stories well. When a human takes a Selkie’s coat, they stay together for a time and part in anger and sorrow. But when a human gives her heart to the sea, things are very different.