When the documentarian comes over the ridge, the biologist is already unpacked and fussing over a bag.
He descends the slope, knees akimbo against the treacherous scree. His shadow tremulous in Nafthalar’s diffuse sunlight. The biologist’s tent is already up—a violence of silver amidst the giant teal fungi and strange trees like giant eyestalks. She does not look up when he approaches, though he knows she heard him.
He stops a few feet away, and swallows, and says, “Hi.”
She straightens and turns and bows briefly. She is wearing a breather and he knows that behind it she is pursing her lips. Her standard greeting. Rendered unfamiliar by the alien sun and the alien air and the technology keeping them alive.
She does not say anything.
“When did you arrive?” he asks.
“Not long ago,” she says.
“You look hot.”
“It is hot.”
He looks around.
“Yes. To begin with.”
“Where is he?”
She gestures with her head. She has cut her hair into a fierce bob and it looks good on her, he thinks, but does not say so.
“Over there. Down by the river.”
“How’s he looking?”
“Well that’s to be expected, isn’t it?”
She turns and resumes her fumbling. He lingers a few moments and then puts his backpack on the ground and takes out his drone. It skitters around on spindle thin mechanical legs, whirring and twittering like a mechanical rodent. Finally it straightens and fixes its lens on him.
“Online,” it says.
“Establish campsite,” he says.
He turns and wanders off because he cannot think of anything else to do. He can hear the drone working behind him. The shuffle shuffle of pebbles and the dry hiss of the tent. He cannot see it but he knows it is blooming behind him like a ripening dewdrop.
He peers down at the valley but he cannot see their quarry. After a few moments she wanders up next to him with a scanner.
“So, how are things?” he asks.
“Yeah. You know. Stuff.”
“Same as always.”
“How’s the new place?”
“It’s a lab.”
And then, “You don’t miss Earth?”
“I’ll be back soon enough.”
Finally she turns to look at him.
“Soon enough,” she says.
“Well, I’m glad you’re happy out there.”
“I’m doing well too.”
For a moment he thinks maybe she will draw near or at least smile, but she does neither. She just nods and says, “We’ll strike out just before dawn. Keep within a mile of him at all times. He’s old now so I don’t expect him to move very fast. But you never know.”
“Don’t get too close either.”
And with that she turns and walks to her tent and leaves him there with nothing but the answers he had prepared to the questions that she had not asked.
The nights of Nafthalar are long and absolute. No moon to illuminate the gloom and the stars so cold and so far. Nothing but creeping shadows upon the darkness and winds slow and directionless like the spirits of a lost army still searching for battle. He remembers how lonely it had been the first time he was here, and thinks how lonely it is now, though many years have passed and he is much changed.
He sleeps, but not for long. When he wakes he is alert and fretful. He reads the news a while, his face a topography of blue and black in the sharp light of the screen. After a while he gets dressed and clamps the breather over his mouth and heads outside.
Already a frost is forming on the ground and there is a thin swirl of snow in the air. He turns on his chest light and his pheromone pump and immediately something clatters away in the night with the sound of claws on stone. He walks away from the camp and up a ridge. Slipping sometimes on the ice underfoot. It takes him longer than expected but he is determined not to go back. Then finally near the summit he sees a hint of blue light and the excitement overwhelms him and he clambers up to the top on all fours as he did the first time and perhaps, he thinks, he is not so changed after all.
When he is finally at the top he stops and puts his hands on his hips, panting, and laughs.
Big Blue is there.
He is sleeping. A colossal bioluminescent explosion of tentacles and gently swaying cilia the size of a man. His airsac, twenty meters across, deflated in the cold. Great flaps of glowing flesh, gossamer thin and rippling with light. A vast mass of life possessed of neither head nor tail nor left nor right.
He is still beautiful.
The documentarian sits on the ridge and ignores the cold clawing at his buttocks and watches Big Blue slumbering. Yes, older, he thinks. Some of those vast fleshy flaps frayed at the edges. Scars on his elephant-legs, each fifteen meters high and as vast around as tree trunks. Smaller creatures sneak around it, seeking warmth and a meal of parasites, or perhaps just entranced by the glimmer and shimmer of those lights that chase themselves over its skin like they too were alive and had intent and places to go.
The documentarian turns up his pump and turns off his light and watches. Time passes and the glowing decreases as the fire of the sun finally leaves the animal’s flesh. Presently it begins to snow in earnest, fat spidery flakes, so heavy he can feel them coming to rest on his naked head.
When he returns to the camp a while later he sees that the lights are on in the biologist’s tent. He thinks of approaching but when he draws near her door he sees footsteps in snow. Footsteps heading towards the ridge. He follows them and sees she has taken a route just a few meters from his. Up to the ridge, where he just was. She must have slipped past him in the dark.
Suddenly he is very tired and he returns to his tent and dry swallows some pills and a few moments later is deep in a sleep as dreamless as Nafthalar’s night is dark.
The next day she is standing at the top of the ridge with her scanner when he comes out. Her bag packed and her drone a few feet behind her with a little cart hitched to its back. She descends clumsily and falls a couple of times but he knows better than to offer assistance.
“He’s warming up,” she says. “We have an hour or so.”
“Do you ever sleep?”
“Sleep is for the weak.”
He yawns and chokes immediately and begins to cough.
“Better get your breather on,” she says.
“I already ate.”
“Of course you did.”
He is in his tent when he hears the deep rumble of Big Blue’s call. The squawking overhead of alarmed skyjackals. And then, the thud of a giant foot on the ground.
He comes out with his toothbrush still in his mouth in time to see the creature lumbering past like some titanic god from a time before reason or order. Its pillar legs not ten feet away. Its airsac distending rapidly as it goes, ozone blue like a Portuguese man o’war. In its transparent belly colossal coils of innards sliding in aureate ichor. He is stuck to the spot and a little dribble of toothpaste dollops fatly from the corner of his lip onto his jumpsuit but he does not care.
They head off after it, the drones buzzing and humming behind them. Twenty minutes behind schedule, the biologist chides, but the creature is not moving fast. They climb up the ridge and down and then over another. There is a little stream at the bottom, over-blue water and rippling sheets of living things half-plant and half-animal and altogether alien. Little scurrying creatures chasing each other in play or in hunger with equal violence. The biologist stops occasionally and crouches by some rock or pond and runs her scanner over the ground and mutters something into it and then looks at him and nods and they keep on. Never losing sight of Big Blue’s great crest like some gargantuan electric blossom up ahead.
“Sixteen hours to sunset,” she says. “We should take turns taking naps.”
“I’m going to try to make it all the way through,” says the documentarian.
They continue on. To the east a vast valley, flat and dull grey, with a river meandering through it in multitudinous mercury streams. The odd squat tree with crowns as flat and uniform as a mushroom’s hood. In the clearing sky motes that could be flying creatures or something else.
A little while longer in silence and the documentarian says, “Are you going to be like this for the rest of the trip?”
The biologist glances at him and doesn’t say anything.
“So you are, then.”
“Let’s just get this done.”
The documentarian sighs. “I know you didn’t expect this but I didn’t expect you to be so difficult.”
“I’m not being difficult.”
“Yes you are. I know you well enough to tell.”
“Maybe you don’t know me very well.”
“Bullshit. I know you as well as I know myself.”
“Maybe you don’t know yourself very well.”
She holds up her hand.
“No, listen. Can you hear that?”
They have come to a stop, all of them. Up ahead Big Blue’s tentacles all turn and point east. Their tips splayed and quivering.
“Skyjackals!” says the documentarian, and turns to his drone. “Shit.”
They lie flat on their bellies, pheromone pumps turned up high. The rich scent of the stuff in their noses, like sweat and pollen. The documentarian whispers something and his drone spits four small orbs of black into the air which zip off towards Big Blue.
“What’re you doing?” says the biologist. “You’re going to lose them.”
He doesn’t say anything. He is holding a small screen to his face and in it the flying things from the east are resolving into shape. Hummingbird-like wings, four each, and slung between them a carnivore. Vicious teeth in elongated snouts and the staring eyes of all things that kill to live. They zoom towards Big Blue and the colossal creature shudders and the flaps on its body open up like sails run through with vivid violet veins.
“Sixteen of them,” says the documentarian. “Two alphas. See that? Two alphas!”
“I see it,” says the biologist.
The creatures bear down on Big Blue and orbit him, as tiny as flies against his colossal flanks. Then one or two of them fly straight in between his flaps to the delicate flesh of his torso and hover there a while, scratching at the skin and nuzzling it. Then another slips in, and another. Soon all are deep in Big Blue’s folds, busy at some task neither human can see.
“I’m going in closer,” says the documentarian.
“I’m going in closer.”
They stare at their screens, and after a few moments the biologist says, “Are those parasites?”
“Looks like it.”
“Wow, look at them go!”
A deep rumble, and Big Blue’s flaps quiver. Shimmering colors all over his body, turquoise and deep blue and crimson like fresh blood. Then he shudders and a thin spray erupts from him in an aerosol haze. With it a strange aroma not quite of vinegar and not quite of flowers. The skyjackals scatter in chattering rage and then circle back and slip back up to Big Blue’s hide and get back to their feast.
The biologists laughs. “He loves it! Look at him. Look at that flushing!”
“Old boy’s got some new tricks.”
“Yeah,” says the biologist. “Who’d’ve thought?”
Though the documentarian cannot see it, she is smiling.
They make camp not soon after the end of Nafthalar’s lingering dusk and Big Blue has settled for the evening in the lee of a low hill. The biologist disappears into her tent as soon as it is erect with a nod and nothing else. The documentarian lingers watching the stars wink into view in the moonless sky and eventually the rim of the Milky Way fades into view and blazes above like it were the revelation of all revelations.
When the cold begins to bite he goes to his tent and extracts a little cooker and a packet of bacon and some bread and a small bottle of black sauce and a little pan. A few minutes later he hears a tapping over the rustling of the fat and the oil.
“Hold on,” he says and takes a plaster and covers the ring on his right hand. “Come in.”
The biologist’s head peeks in and for an instant he remembers an occasion just like this from long ago and feels a nostalgia that evaporates as she starts to speak.
“Is that bacon?” she says.
She steps in and zips the door of the tent up behind her. A brief hiss as it repressurizes.
“You brought bacon?”
“Yeah. Who’d leave Earth without bacon?”
“So, you want some?”
She plonks to the floor, cross legged, across from him. The sizzling meat between them. It crackles and curls at the edges and the fat turns from milky to brownish and finally to clear gold. The biologist opens her mouth but before she can speak the documentarian has extracted three dripping rashers and placed them on a slice of bread and squeezed a thin line of brown sauce over them with the flourish of an artist savoring the last few strokes of a masterpiece. He holds the plate out to her and she takes it from him and folds the slice in half. The crunch of the stuff as she takes her first bite. The slow roll of her jaws as she chews luxuriously.
He throws a couple of rashers more into the spitting oil and leans back against his bed. “Must be weird living on a station. My skin always dries up on those things.”
The biologist takes another bite and looks up at him. “As if you’d know. You’ve never spent more than a week on one.”
“Wrong. I spent six months on Chandra.”
“Last year. Filming cockroaches.”
“Someone paid you to film cockroaches on a space station?”
“Apparently it’s a problem.”
“My parents still can’t get their head around it. I think it confirmed all their wildest concerns about what I do when I told them I was off to space to film bugs.”
The biologist chuckles and takes another huge bite and sighs. They sit in silence awhile, watching the bacon cook.
“How are they?” she asks.
“They’re good. Retired now.”
“Yeah. Back on Earth. In Brazil, would you believe?”
“That was always the plan, right?”
He looks at her and frowns and she pauses halfway through a bite when she notices. A little smear of brown sauce at the corner of her mouth. Then she swallows and says “What?
“I’m just surprised you remembered.”
She doesn’t say anything.
“My brother got married.”
He turns off the flame and puts the bacon on a slice of bread.
“He invited you, you know.”
“To his wedding?”
“Yes. He sent you an invitation.”
“He probably sent it to the wrong address.”
“That’s what I said.”
The biologist pops the last of the sandwich into her mouth and swallows and wipes her hands on her trousers and stands up. The little dab of sauce still at the corner of her lips. The documentarian points to the pan. “More?”
“No. Thank you, though.”
“You’ve got some sauce on your mouth.”
She wipes it away.
“Thank you very much.”
She walks to the exit and unzips it and for a moment the documentarian thinks that is all she will say before she leaves. But she pauses, halfway through, and turns to him and says, “Tell him I’m sorry, will you? I would love to have been there but…well.”
“You’d’ve been welcome,” says the documentarian.
She stares at him, still and inscrutable, and then for the briefest of moments her face softens.
“I know,” she says quietly. “That’s why I couldn’t have come.”
And with that, she is gone.
They walk in silence the next day as Big Blue stomps with massive dignity over the tributaries of the river. After a while the documentarian activates a drone and sends it off to the west, into the narrow valleys and crevasses that scar the hillsides where fleshy leaves droop in the gathering heat and insect analogues buzz and quarrel endlessly.
“Five days from the beach,” says the biologist after a while. “He won’t make it without feeding.”
“There’ll be something nearby.”
“I wonder why he’s so far inland.”
“Not a clue. He’s not the only one, though.”
“Two other males, at least. The drones caught them.”
“I wonder if he remembers us.”
“I doubt it.”
“Do they even have memories? They don’t even have a central nervous system.”
“Doesn’t mean they don’t have memories.”
“We’re probably just a clutch of weird smelling chemicals to him.”
“So maybe he remembers that.”
“Yeah, but that’s not us.”
“People are just clutches of weird smelling chemicals.”
The documentarian sucks in air through his teeth and says, “Wow. That’s dark.”
They descend into the valley and carry on over the grey-black earth, water welling up around their boots, ink, black and glossy with alluvium.
“Whoa,” says the documentarian. “Look at this.”
He patches the feed from the drone through to the biologist. A shuddering chaos of a bare stone cliff face. Smears of lichen like emerald blood on the rock. And then suddenly an explosion of pink. There is a cluster of living things in a small fissure. Opalescent blobs clinging to the rock face. Tentacles as slim as leaves and moving against the wind.
“Wow,” says the biologist. “Never seen those before.”
She turns and heads up the hillside.
“Where’re you going?”
“What, you’re just going to climb up that cliff face?”
She is already halfway up, clambering on all fours, her drone alarmed and buzzing behind her, chattering.
“Yes. You don’t have to come.”
“I’m not going to.”
“And what am I supposed to do when you fall off and break your legs?”
“Summon the pod. It’ll take me to safety.”
She stops and looks down at him. Her face obscured in her own shadow. Like the silhouette of some old prophet descending in rage from the mountaintop.
“Stop it,” she says, and continues on.
He is alone for the next few hours, trudging along behind Big Blue, slipping and cursing and avoiding the great circular puddles the creature has left in its wake. The sun rides high and bakes the ground solid. Every now and then the documentarian stops and looks back over his shoulder to see if the biologist is behind him, but she never is.
Then in the middle of the long afternoon Big Blue lumbers up to a patch of huge pitcher plants, amphora shaped and ten feet tall. The vague shapes of half-digested skyjackals inside, dark and inert. Big Blue comes to a halt and extends a giant proboscis and dips it into one of them. The documentarian can see the nectar as it enters the creature’s body and delicate tendrils of it osmosing greenly through its insides. He dispatches three drones and films intently and does not notice the biologist coming up behind him.
“Worth it?” he says.
She holds up a small tub with one of the anemone creatures inside, wobbling like a living blancmange.
“Worth it.” She looks at Big Blue. “He’s hungry.”
“Must be exhausting, all this walking around on land.”
“Tell me about it.”
They watch the spectacle a while. Then he says, “Do you think he’s going to make it?”
“I don’t know. He’s quite old.”
“Well, if there’s no other male there…”
“On a beach like that? There will be.”
“That’s what I thought.” And then, “Remember last time?”
“Remember how we didn’t think he’d make it then?”
“Maybe he’ll make it this time too.”
The documentarian frowns. “God, you’re so negative.”
“It’s pronounced “realistic”.”
The biologist shrugs. “If you say so.”
“This is just like last time.”
“You weren’t so whiny back then.”
“And you were just as obstinate.”
The documentarian snorts and walks away.
The biologist chuckles. “Yep,” she says. “Just like last time.”
It is just before nightfall that they see the other male on the horizon. A shapeless silhouette lumbering slowly in their direction, glowing neon and fluorescent on a horizon slowly bleeding from blue to black. Big Blue stops dead in its tracks, membranes rigid, tentacles pointed at the interloper.
“Holy shit,” says the biologist, scrambling for her gear.
“On it,” says the documentarian.
Six drones buzz up and off into the gathering murk and as they do Big Blue begins to call. The sound so deep it seems to rise out of the earth like the drums of the underworld. The pebbles at their feet dancing against the vibrations. Then abruptly it ends and leaves the air shuddering and the biologist and the documentarian breathless.
The male on the horizon stops.
“He’s a big one,” says the documentarian.
“Let me see.”
The biologist leans into him and peers at the screen.
“Wow,” she says, and looks up at Big Blue. “You think he can handle it?”
“Yeah, he can handle it,” says the documentarian, grinning.
Already the response is upon them, the earthquake-low rumble, and Big Blue is enraged. He unfurls his membranes and sweeps them up and down, iridescing in the darkness like a fallen aurora.
“Here we go,” says the biologist.
Big Blue stomps the ground twice and begins to shake. The earth shaking with him. A rumble and boom erupting from beneath them louder than before and more forceful. The pebbles spring hither and thither. The sound rises until they can barely stand it and Big Blue whips the gossamer substance of his body with rising fervor until the world is illuminated with his rage and his call is so loud the biologist and the documentarian have to cover their ears.
When he is done, they cheer.
He finishes with four stamps on the ground and his body slowly subsides to limpness but the other male’s response is already thundering out of the east. Diminished by distance and perhaps not as strong to begin with. Yet the ground still shakes and on the horizon he blazes a while, redder and brighter than Big Blue. And then Big Blue starts up again and so the two behemoths go on backwards and forwards getting louder and brighter until the biologist and documentarian feel sure they are about to explode and scatter themselves bodily all over the valley. At last the male in the distance lets out a forlorn bellow and its light diminishes and it disappears into the far distant darkness without a trace.
Big Blue stomps the ground a few more times and launches into another display, but he too is exhausted and his colors less vibrant and he ends the show halfway through the cycle. The fizzing light of his flesh dissipating into the night. Naught now but the sound of his alien huffing and the hormones flooding in torrents from his skin.
“You gotta see this,” says the documentarian.
They watch the footage from the cameras, nestled at the bottom of a hill. Leaning in together conspiratorially and laughing and high-fiving in delight. The drones stand by in silence, undirected and unaware. It is not until the cold winds of the evening slip across the valley floor and onto them that they stir and begin to pitch the tents.
The biologist tries to sleep but she can’t. Scattered visions of the night crowding her head. The confines of her tent semidark and expansive and empty. When she realizes what she is going to do the tension rises in her and after a while wrestling with it she gets up and reaches into her bag. She pulls out a bottle of dark amber liquid and dons her breather and heads out into the frosty night.
The documentarian is sitting on the floor by his bed when she goes in. Reading something from an old book. Older, she thinks, and going to fat. The hair on his head receding, his forehead high and pitted. He looks up at her, eyebrows raised, and she remembers that this is what he does when he does not know how to react.
She smiles and holds up the bottle. “Drink?” she says.
She turns to leave.
“No, wait. I don’t have any glasses though.”
“Just wipe it when you hand it back.”
She sits opposite him, cross-legged, and opens the bottle with a crack. She takes a swig and it is deep and fiery and hot as sulphur in her throat. She hands the bottle to him gasping with the force of it and he takes it and sips a little.
“What happened to your finger?”
She points at his hand. “That plaster.”
“Oh. I skinned it.”
They drink in silence but for the crackle of the tent cloth. She takes a good hard look at his face and he does not seem to mind. She does not remember his eyes being so small, or his lips being so full. She does not remember him having flecks of silver in his beard and in his hair, and then remembers that her memories are of long ago, and perhaps of a different person.
He takes another swig and hands her back the bottle and she takes a drink without wiping the mouth and puts the bottle down next to her. Then she lies down and looks up at the rippling tent cloth overhead. The creeping warmth of the booze on her skin and in her heart. She stretches and says, “Just like last time.”
“We’re older now.”
She shrugs. “We all get wiser.”
“Not so sure about that.”
She props herself up on one arm and looks over at him. He is gazing off into a dark corner of the tent, chewing his lip. Face half lost in shadow. He has not noticed her looking at him and for a moment she sees him unpoised and wonders if this is how he really is now. Old and melancholy and a little lost.
“How are you?” she asks.
He snaps his head around at her like a bird.
“I’m good! You?”
“No. I mean, how are you, really?”
He looks away. And then, “You want the real answer?”
“Just not bad?”
“Just not bad.”
“You seem so busy.”
“How do you know?”
She shrugs. “I read the news.”
“Oh. For a moment there I thought you took an interest.”
She nearly tells him the truth but instead she holds the bottle out to him and he stares into its dark amber depths for a few moments before taking a swig and grimacing. And again they look at each other and open their mouths at the same time and get through half a syllable each before chuckling in unison.
The documentarian leans back and says, “Please.”
“No, you go.”
“I talk enough as it is.”
“I like listening to you talk.”
“That’s a lie.”
“No, it’s not. The only problem is you talk too much.”
The documentarian smiles and looks away and is silent for a good long time. The biologist begins to think he has got lost in a daydream and she is about to prod him when he says, quietly and barely audible over the crackling of the tent, “It’s good to see you.”
She reaches out and takes the bottle and takes another drink. The hearty glug of the liquid in her throat. She does not say anything but lies silently in that twilight, watching him with what could have been sadness for him, or else sadness for herself. She cannot be sure which.
She is only awake for a few moments before she realizes she is hung over. Her tongue fat in her mouth and a dry pain at the front of her skull. She opens her eyes and realizes she is not in her tent and in a panic looks to her side. But the documentarian is asleep on the floor a few feet away, fully dressed and mouth pressed to the ground and drooling slightly like a remora come loose.
She steps shoeless and silent across the tent floor and checks the time as she goes. It is already bright outside, and hot. She checks the time and whispers “Shit!” and prods the documentarian with her foot.
“Oh god,” he groans. “Oh sweet Jesus in the manger.”
“Wake up. We’re late.”
He rolls over onto his front, yes cherry red. The side of his face wrinkled like cloth. “What was that shit? You said it was whiskey. Not…demon semen. ’
“Stop whining. Get ready.”
She turns and zips open the tent. The heat and the light and the moistureless wind in an explosion as sudden and violent as a grenade. She steps blindly into the world and finds herself unexpectedly in shadow. She opens her eyes slowly and looks up at the sight before her and screams and then clamps her hands over her mouth. After a few seconds she reaches back into the tent with her foot and whips it around a bit. The frantic rustling of the material like static.
“Hey!” she hisses.
“Get your camera and come out quietly.”
“Just get out here!”
The documentarian staggers out a few seconds later and gasps and falls backwards into the tent.
Big Blue is barely twenty meters away. His bulk towering overhead. The patter of his secretions on the floor like gentle rain. He sways gently and tastes the air. All of his tentacles pointed at the two, some rigid, some rippling slowly with eerie octopus flexibility.
The biologist stretches out her hand and steps forward. The documentarian hisses and grabs her shirt but she pinches his wrist and he whips his hand back. The tentacles draw near her. Flushing now, purple and blue and pink. The biologist reaches out and touches them. Smooth and warm under her fingertips and pulsating organically. They caress her skin and wrap slowly around her hand. A tingle on her skin like a gentle current.
Then suddenly she is young and long haired and clambering over Nafthalar’s topography in amazement because she had never seen rocks so big or creatures so strange. Silver clad and quick like she were a drop of starlight come to life. And behind her another figure. A slower presence and kinder perhaps. Both tiny together in this strange world.
The vision lasts just an instant.
When she opens her eyes she sees Big Blue’s huge tentacle rising up into the air and his column-legs bending with slow majesty as he begins to trundle away.
“He remembers us,” she whispers.
“He remembers you,” says the documentarian.
“No, us,” she says and wipes the tears from her eyes. “Us.”
“Those were the same colors it flashed last time, right?” asks the documentarian.
“Dunno,” she says. “Best get ready. He’ll be off soon.”
“You think he waited for us?”
The documentarian goes to say something else but the biologist strides straight into her tent, face averted, unzips it, and slips inside. The clutter of silver devices and notes on the floor. The winking lights of her drone lying motionless in the corner. It comes awake when she walks over to her bed but she waves it away and sits on the edge of her bed and buries her face in her hands and weeps. The documentarian taps on the tent door but when he opens she hisses and waves him away too.
When she emerges a little while later he is packed and fiddling with a console. He looks up at her, chewing on his lip. Like a little boy caught red handed in some mischief. He gets up when she approaches and she is about to say something when she notices a glimmer of gold on his right hand. He notices her notice an instant too late and goes to hide his hand behind his back but then gives up.
“What the hell is that?” she says.
She raises her eyebrows and points at his hand. “That.”
He knows what she is pointing at but he lifts his hand to his face and takes a good hard look at the ring as if he had never seen it before.
“That’s not ours, is it?” she asks.
The documentarian nods.
“We should get going,” he says.
“Why are you here?” asks the biologist.
“Why are you here?”
He points at Big Blue. “To film him. Why else?”
“I’m not lying.”
“Then why are you here? You don’t have to film him. You could have sent some drones. Or someone else. Why are you here?”
“I thought it would be nice. To see you.”
“Why? Why the hell would you want to see me? Why?”
The biologist rolls her eyes and crosses her arms. Her brow furrowed over her breather. Her eyes narrowed and fierce.
“What do you want from me, man?”
“Jesus, Miriam, calm down. I don’t want anything from you.”
“Then why would you want to see me?”
The documentarian holds up his hands palm outwards and steps away as if she were coming at him blade drawn and murderous.
“Listen, I don’t want anything from you, I just thought it would be nice to see you again, that’s all.”
“Bullshit. Why haven’t you taken it off? Do you realize how weird that is?”
“It’s not weird. I just…needed some time.”
He cannot maintain eye contact and after a few second he turns away and stares across the valley. Golden blue and bereft of foliage. A landscape with nowhere to hide. The biologist stares at the back of his neck, mute with fury and grief. She draws her crossed arms tighter around her body and looks over at Big Blue’s figure disappearing down the valley. Then she turns and grabs her bag and starts marching up the hillside.
“Wait!” says the documentarian.
She wheels around and glares.
“Don’t follow me.”
“I’m going on ahead. You follow Big Blue. Down in the valley.”
“Jesus, why’re you so angry, anyway? I’m the one who got fucked.”
She freezes, her back to him, silhouetted against the blue grey hillside.
“Go to hell, Mazin,” she says, not looking back.
She storms up the hillside kicking pebbles down in little avalanches. The clouds now streaming in above her as if her temper were churning the skies themselves. And then she disappears over that elevated horizon and the documentarian is left alone to stare at his ring.
She walks, unflagging, through that long Nafthalian afternoon. The sunlight perforating a veil of cloud but no less oppressively hot for all the shade. Soon she is sweating. To her left, a thin sliver of grey beach, and beyond that the sea, wrinkled and static and endless. By mid-afternoon she is well past Big Blue. By the time the shadows begin to creep out to her right, elongating and black as tar, she has lost sight of him completely.
She finally arrives at the beach. Up above, a flock of cawing motes, and the tangy smell of sea creatures on the air. Here and there there are large holes in the sand, clustered in pairs, rimmed with detritus. Dead fish and glistening patches of some organic liquid. Occasionally a bird analogue settles in chattering cacophony and pokes about and takes flight again, pursued by its kin, something squirming in its beak.
She chooses a vantage spot halfway down the beach and settles about fifty meters up a hillside. It is cooler in the shade but not cool enough so she attaches a small packet of juice to her breather and lies down and closes her eyes for a moment. Then she feels a deep rumble in the ground and sitting up, sees something emerging from the sea. Something a lot like Big Blue but bigger still and tinged purple. Another male. Slowly rising out of the water like a nightmare from the depths. Great cataracts of water flooding off its body. It steps onto the sand and its feet sink deep.
Behind her, her drone clicks to life and starts filming.
The male approaches a pair of holes, dripping water and hormones. Its proboscis extends, pearly white and spasming in peristaltic rhythm. Another proboscis emerges from the hole, larger and wider, its tip flared like a trumpet and ringed with little feathery cilia. The male’s organ settles above it and contracts and empties a torrent of matter into it. A crimson and pink gush of liquid nutrients. She can smell it where she is, a rankness undiminished by the distance.
Then something emerges out of the other hole—another giant tube, but this one pink and purple and stinking of pheromones. The male swings another tentacle over it. Its anemone-arms rigid and quivering in anticipation. The two appendages fasten together and the instant the male has finished emptying his crop he shakes his whole body and empties his seed too. Thick ropes of slimy stuff coursing from one to the other and trickling in excess down their bodies and onto the sand.
Then another rumble, and the whole thing is over. The female’s organs slide back into the sand with the steady grace of a ship sinking in calm seas.
The biologist reaches up to her communicator and then stops. One of the male’s tentacles is extended towards her, crown flared and swaying gently. She can hear Big Blue’s footsteps, a distant thud thud thud barely audible above the swelling of the sea. The other male is still now, airsac dirigible, vast and rippling in the wind. It stomps its leg and calls.
A few seconds later, Big Blue responds.
The biologist’s communicator buzzes.
“Did you hear that?” says the documentarian. “Where are you?”
“On the beach. There’s another male.”
“Oh.” Silence. And then, “Is it big?”
She turns off the communicator and begins to take notes. After a few moments she gives up and tosses her console aside and just watches as the beachmaster walks along the beach, vast and oblivious and beautiful beyond reason.
It is nearly twilight by the time Big Blue arrives. The documentarian is not far behind, flustered and sweaty. He sits down beside her and fiddles silently with his console for a few minutes before looking up and saying, “Shit, that is huge.”
The biologist doesn’t say anything.
“Do you think they’ll go at it today?”
“I doubt it,” she says. “It’ll be night time soon and they’ll want to rest.”
“Right. Better set up camp then.”
But no sooner has he said that than the beachmaster stomps the ground twice and let’s rip a great bellowing cry. An instant later Big Blue steps out onto the beach, his body taut and flashing and tentacles flailing, and the ground rumbles with earthquake intensity under the clashing calls of the two males.
“Guess I was wrong,” says the biologist, clambering to her feet.
They ascend the hillside to a small ledge rimmed with fleshy black plants. The last light of the sun garish on the underside of the cloud cover.
“That thing’s huge,” says the documentarian. “Look at it.”
“Have faith,” says the biologist.
Big Blue is heading towards the beachmaster at full tilt, body flashing firework-bright. But the beachmaster is responding in kind and his light is brighter and his bellowing louder. The documentarian smiles.
“Look at him go,” he says.
The two creatures exchange challenges for a few minutes and then abruptly cease. The biologist gets to her feet and fixes a pair of goggles to her eyes and says, “They’re going to fight.”
“I’m getting it all.”
The two great beasts collide with a crunch that sends the sand on the beach billowing off in sheets. A great cloud of fluids exploding from each. They flail at each other with their tentacles and the humans three hundred meters away can feel every blow in their bones. Across the beach females’ tentacles emerge from the sand with crowns of feelers extended.
Big Blue swings one giant appendage around and it crashes into the beachmaster’s leg and sends the creature down onto its side. The documentarian and the biologist cheer. But then the next instant the beachmaster has wrapped his own feelers around Big Blue’s leg and brought him crashing down to the sand too and with groaning effort brings himself back up onto all fours and extends his proboscis. Big Blue reaches for it but the beachmaster stomps on his flattening belly and sends his innards spilling out onto the beach, glimmering neon like celestial snakes released from long captivity. And then it plunges its proboscis deep into Big Blue’s body, and again, and again, and holds it there until his foe stops struggling and twitching and the wind pauses for an instant and there is nothing but silence and the female’s organs now perfectly still and the two humans on the hillside with their hands on their heads and their eyes full of tears.
For a few minutes they sit in silence and then the biologist leans over to the documentarian and puts her arms around him and sobs.
“I’m sorry,” she says.
The documentarian hugs her back and puts his chin on her head and does not ask her why.
They spend part of the long night together in silence, wrapped up in each other and watching Big Blue’s body turn dark. Then when the cold is too intense they part company for a while. But not long after she slips back into his tent and curls up next to him and says, “I just don’t want to be alone.”
“I know,” he says.
“Don’t try anything.”
“I’ll kill you.”
“You already did.”
After a few moments, she says “I never meant to, you know.”
“I thought you hated me.”
“I don’t hate you.”
“Never. Never ever.”
“That’s not normal.”
He takes a deep breath and rolls over onto his back and closes his eyes.
“Neither of us are normal.”
They wake late the next day and eat in silence punctuated only by a brief smiles. He expects her to cry when she takes samples but she pins her hair back and dons her gloves and sets about her work with professional precision and does not stop until she has filled all of her receptacles. He remembers the first time her saw her like this and thinks how magnificent it is to see someone so utterly at one with what they do. And soon afterwards other thoughts follow and he decides it is time to leave.
His pod arrives first. Settling like a great smoking spider soon after Nafthalar’s dazzling noon.
“I’d better get going,” he says.
The documentarian walks over the great carcass, so dull now in death, and wrestles the ring off his finger and tosses it into the great membranes hanging off the creature’s side like layers of wet cloth. Then he comes up to her and she stiffens when he puts his arms on her shoulder and leans in. She moves away for an instant and then realizes what he is doing and lets him plant a single kiss on her cheek.
“Good bye,” he says. “Good luck.”
He turns to go.
“Hey,” she calls after him.
“It was good to see you too.”
He frowns. “You don’t have to lie.”
“No really. It was.”
He nods. “Right.”
“Do you suppose…they’d, maybe, want to see me again?”
“They’d love to.”
“OK.” She smiles at him. “I’ll send them a message.”
“They’ll be very happy.”
He watches her for a few moments and then smiles and gives her a thumbs up.
After he is gone and the smoke from his pod has dissipated into an acrid miasma she orders her drone to start packing up and wanders down over to Big Blue’s body. The sand yielding and rough between her toes. The creature’s ozone aroma strong in her nostrils. She runs her fingers along one of its body flaps and leans in and presses her lips to its already cold hide.
“Goodbye, old friend,” she says.
And then, above, the sonic boom of her returning pod.