They were forty-five minutes late getting everyone debarked; Michel, who only took charge when he was too disgusted by incompetence to do anything else, grabbed some humans off the boat and hauled them ashore, with the people complaining the loudest receiving the most unsettling version of the experience.
“Buck up or fuck up,” Michel called to George cheerfully as he passed, a rude slap accompanying his comment on George’s state of mind, which to a Sixer could be smelled a hundred metres away as “distraught but managing”.
Michel put Anh down on the slender, rocky beach before her coloratura squeaking got any louder.
The rehearsal was not optimal, George thought, and now we’re running late.
Someone on shore could be heard to start singing the theme of the Muppets Show, and was shushed.
“Damn Unitarians!” George exclaimed. There were giggles, and more shushing.
George appeared to turn into a lectern, and a sweet-faced old lady with a dandelion puff of white hair walked up to him, and then climbed him as if treating an alien like a staircase was something she did routinely. She faced the natural amphitheatre provided by the trees nestled into the shoreline, standing where she could see everyone. There were forty people assembled. Nobody was laughing now. A child’s voice could be heard saying, “Where’s George?”
“He’ll be back soon,” said his daddy’s voice. “We should try to be quiet.” Jesse, knowing what he did about Sixers, thought that bringing a child was a damned stupid thing to do, but he also knew why George had allowed it.
“Welcome,” the old lady said. She didn’t introduce herself. George’s hair, fully engaged and cooperative for once, made her voice seem to each person standing before her as if she were speaking directly to them from a conversational distance.
“I’ve spent my whole life looking up at the stars and waiting for aliens,” she said. “I never thought I’d find them walking down my street. What would be the good of thinking that? Any aliens who came would want to talk to the humans who run this world, or pretend to, or claim to; not the people who live in it without wanting to be boss. We’re fortunate, in this meeting, to be able to think of ourselves as being somehow of equal status.”
“You’re not!” Michel heckled.
“Sez you,” said the old lady. People from her church giggled. Unfazed, she continued. “Tonight we gather where the tide and the forest meet; where the salmon of wisdom is sheltered in its first morph as an alevin by the cedars of our home. We gather on the lands of the Coast Salish and their kin, who share it with us without ever having given over their collective bond to it.”
“At the end of the ceremony, we will share food and stories, and drum, and sing, and dance. Let us hold each other close as sharers of a great and troubling secret. Let us create in ourselves a space for awe, and wonder, and the questions that are our bridge between knowing and unknowing.”
She stepped down and took her place among the group.
Out of sight in the trees, Jesse heard a chorus of men’s voices, singing. It resonated in his chest. He could feel tears springing into his eyes, and laughed inside, wondering why he couldn’t save some for later, as he thought might be required. Women’s voices, sweeping upward, sang, sometimes in harmony, sometimes with a staccato pulse. There were words, but Jesse couldn’t understand them.
The illusion was perfect. The celebrants turned as one and saw a line of hooded and cloaked figures approaching them, walking slowly in time with their singing, and carrying torches.
“Who are they, daddy?”
“They aren’t really there, Paolo,” his daddy said.
The singing grew louder and lower, and stronger, but never moved faster than a slow walking pace, with spaces for silence that made the singing seem like an act of defiance, although against what, Jesse could not say. He hadn’t come to understand, though; he had come to witness.
Each of the phantoms drew nearer and nearer. With a reflex as old as humanity, the crowd moved to face them and to put the children and the elderly in the middle.
The song ended on a long chord woven across their shared space as a protective canopy. The phantoms, moving as one, threw their torches into a pile, which blazed into a bonfire and then died back into embers and sparks. Each phantom was touched by a spark and like a spark blazed upward and vanished.
While everyone gasped, looking as the phantoms flew up into the trees, a simulacrum of Kima crawled out of the embers.
Almost everyone gasped again at how the embers shone through her almost transparent body, before realizing that it wasn’t truly Kima.
“She’s in the water with Michel,” Jesse whispered.
“I’m the oldest person here,” she said. Her voice was still quite mechanical, but Michel had been coaching her and her prosody had improved. “I’m so old I don’t know how old I am. This sometimes happens with humans too. You can be so old you survive everyone who could tell you the truth, and lose the papers that prove it, if you ever had them.” She gestured with one arm toward the ocean.
The cove vanished; Kima and Michel completely cut off the celebrants’ view across the water, and replaced it with an enormous, marvellously detailed projection of the sea bottom.
“The first thing that I remember that ties me to human history is an earthquake.” Strange music, discordant and jaunty and somehow ominous, began to play. (author’s note: https://earthquake.usgs.gov/learn/music/) “I was swimming in the ocean, not knowing that I would be two kilometres from the epicentre of an earthquake that would be felt from Syria to Italy.”
They watched the chaos on a projection the size of a building, and felt in their bones the wrenching roar of the earth tearing itself apart. Paolo hid himself in his daddy’s coat and sobbed, but could not be heard over the clamor. Half a dozen people put their hands over their ears. The rumbling died away.
“I was lucky to be where I could not be crushed by an underwater avalanche,” Kima said. “I wanted to know what had happened. The first time I went to dance at the shore, which was in 1825,” and now the projection faded out and revealed a rocky beach in the Mediterranean, “I met my people for the first time and learned that if I wanted to understand the world I lived in, I would have to learn a human language.”
There was brief tableau of perhaps half a dozen landmorphs and a dozen watermorphs frolicking in the water at sunset.
That’s my boast. I got LITERALLY 7 minutes away from my desk. I did not eat after my coffee and (cunningly) 2 cheese biscuits. I stayed at my desk for 8 hours.
Since I do want to stay employed, I won’t go into details. It’s more a systems and process thing. Software crashes. People leave incomplete messages. Life sucks sometimes.