From The Sea

By Nistelle


Higher power gradations of the standard BV1 cranial device are provided on the BV1.1 beta model, but for emergency purposes only. Circumstances requiring stronger management must be life-threatening (Gestahl, 3/9 Report to MT Facility). In such cases, higher levels can be used, but must only be applied to the patient for fewer than ten (10) minutes and then only as a precursor to tranquilization. Remaining at high power for long periods may cause severe mental damage, including but not limited to: psychosis, trauma, memory loss ..."

-- from Winter Memorandum

Dr. Cid del Norte Marguez, department of Magitechnology

When the child awoke, she was thrashing and screaming in Mother's arms.

"Be still," Mother said to her, as she always did. "I'm here."

But the child continued to cry out hoarsely and gasp her breaths. It was always this way when she escaped from sleep. Mother said it was the dreams, and that must have been true; although the child never remembered her dreams, fear and anguish wracked her body whenever she emerged from them.

At last she began to quieten. She lay back, shivering, on the sand.

"There," said Mother. "You're all right now."

"Oh --" the child burst out. "Oh, Mother, it was so terrible. Worse than the other times, much worse... it gets worse every time..."

"Stop keening," said Mother. She stood up. Mother was very, very beautiful, even if she had no eyes. Her hair was lustrous and black and long; she wore it coiled up at her neck. Her lips were red and she wore a silvery silk dress that rippled in the light. "You know why it keeps getting worse."

"But -- I've tried so hard to be good."

"Don't lie. The water knows when children have misbehaved, and takes them to sleep."

"Yes," the child said, ashamed. "I'm sorry, Mother."

"Well. You're here now; there's no reason to be afraid." Mother lifted the child and held her close. "Will you come with me today?"

"Oh, yes!"

They walked across the desert. The sun was high overhead and it was nice and warm. Soon they came to the courtyard of a castle.

"Today," Mother said, "we are going to paint. Come here, Terra."

The child obeyed, and joined Mother at a white trellis next to the fountain. Gray and brown and black flowers grew there, waving slightly in the breeze.

"Oh, they're beautiful!" said the child.

Mother stared at her with her empty eye sockets.

"Are they -- what's wrong with them?" the child asked, faltering.

"The colors," Mother said. "They're roses. They should be red. Look." She ran a long fingernail across one of the black petals, and at once a vibrant line of deep red welled up.

"How did they get this way?" The child was fascinated.

Mother didn't answer her. "I don't have time to scrape them all clean," she said. "We'll paint them instead." She took a large gold ewer from the grass and handed it to the child. The paint inside was a dark, opaque red.

"There, now," said Mother. "Get started."

"But I don't have a brush."

"You don't need one. Look." Mother dipped a fingertip in the paint and smeared it thoroughly on a flower. Several delicate petals fluttered to the grass. The paint and the rose were both quite dark, but nevertheless the flower soon turned a brilliant crimson from the inside out.

The sight made the child strangely sad. The flower was red now, but its petals were crumpled, and it hung limp on the trellis.

"Now you do it," Mother said. "Don't touch the thorns."

The child hesitated, holding the gold ewer with both hands.

"Terra," said Mother in a very soft voice.

"Do they have to be painted?" the child said at last. "Can't we -- can't they just stay how they are? No, please --" For Mother had begun to walk away toward the desert, away from her.

"Please, Mother, I didn't mean it. Please don't leave me here." Fear seized the child at once. "I didn't mean it, Mother."

Mother stopped, and turned to her.

"I... want them to be painted. I think they're ugly now." The child searched for anything to say. "They're roses, they should be red. They're very ugly how they are, I see that now."

Mother walked slowly back.

"I see no reason why I should stay with disobedient children," she said. "I see no reason why I should love them. Do you?"

The child stared at her feet and shook her head. Two tears fell to the grass.

"Are you a disobedient child, Terra?"

She shook her head again.

"Will you be a good girl now?"

The child nodded.

"Good. Now, paint those flowers as quickly as you can."

Mutely the child dipped her fingers in the paint. It was warm to the touch, almost hot. She shuddered, but spread it on a brown flower. The petals loosened and spread tiredly as they changed color. The sight made the child's chest ache, but she didn't stop or even slow.

"Faster," said Mother, who was watching her steadily with her empty eyes.

The child obeyed. Soon she was gathering handfuls of the viscous warm paint and palming them onto the roses. Red dripped down her arm and down the trellis.

"You need to go faster than that. Faster."

The ache in the child's chest got worse, but she flung the paint at the roses, squeezing the color into them so they turned red instantly. She was clumsy; whole flowers began to break and fall, but Mother didn't seem to mind. In fact, she was smiling at last.

"Good, good," she said. "But faster."

The child started throwing the paint at the trellis, not even aiming for the roses anymore. The ewer never grew empty; in fact, it was always full, and so the child dumped out paint on the leaves, the thorns, the white wood of the trellis. She herself was covered in the sticky stuff, but she didn't care, because Mother was happy now.

"All right, all right," Mother said at last, laughing. "My word, child. Look at your handiwork."

The child stepped back. The entire trellis was saturated in paint -- some of it still ran down in rivulets. Half of the roses had fallen into the dirt; more hung brokenly on their stems. The rest looked ragged and pathetic. Everything was a bright uniform red.

The child thought Mother would be unhappy because she had done such a sloppy job, but on the contrary: she looked quite pleased. The child herself stared at the flowers with a bad, tight feeling in her throat.

"Splendid," said Mother. "You did a very good job, Terra. I'm proud of you."

"Yes," said the child; then, more strongly: "Thank you, Mother."

"You're sad."

The child looked at Mother but didn't say anything.

"Come here." Mother knelt and held out her arms, and the child nestled into them, feeling the soft stroke of Mother's long fingers on her hair. The fingers stroked more deeply until they slipped underneath the skin of the child's forehead, and moved whisper-quiet below her temples, burrowed into her eyes, spread out to run under the flesh of her cheeks and chin.

The child sighed in contentment. Soon she fell asleep.

The next time she did not wake so easily. Sleep clung to her, and she fought, thrashing, even though she could hear Mother calling her name. When she finally woke she was covered in a cold sheen of sweat and shivering violently in spite of the hot sand beneath her.

"The dreams make you struggle so," said Mother. "They try to drown you."

The child clung to Mother, unable to speak. As always she could remember nothing of the dreams, but waking was so horrible that even here, lying on soft desert sand, with the sun high in the orange sky and Mother next to her, she felt caged and panicked. It was a long time before she came back to herself and was able to speak.

"Will the dreams ever go away?"

"Yes," said Mother, "soon. Soon you'll never fall asleep again and you will stay awake forever, with me."

The thought made the child feel glad. She leaned into the cool silk of Mother's dress.

"Will you come with me today?" asked Mother.

"Yes," said the child, and she felt much better at once. "Where are we going today?"

"We're going to the shore."

"Oh --" The child felt a new shudder of fear. The shore was next to the ocean. She knew that sleep lay waiting in the dark deeps of the sea; it was where the dreams came from. "I don't want to go there."

Mother looked down at her with no eyes. "You'll stay close to me."

The child was still afraid, but she was more afraid of being left behind when Mother went. So they walked until the sky turned black, and the sand underneath them turned powdery and white. It was cold.

The ocean was so far away that the child, holding Mother's hand, could not make out the dark water from the dark sky, but she trembled nevertheless to know it was there.

"Now," said Mother. Mother was not afraid of the water. Mother was not afraid of anything. "We're going to find a shell. A very special shell, and you're going to help me." She stopped at a neatly-stacked pile of wet, glistening rocks, the only mark in the huge white expanse of the beach. "It's in here somewhere."

"How do you know?"

Mother didn't answer her. "Lift these, and put them to the side. If they stick together just pull hard, like this." She demonstrated. "But make sure you don't hurt the shell."

"What does it look like?"

"You'll know it when you see it," said Mother. "Now start."

The child began. She was cold and frightened, and she didn't want to disturb the arrangement of rocks that looked so neat and organized, but she said nothing to Mother. Instead she carefully lifted one heavy rock after another, then staggered and dropped to her knees in the sand to put them aside. The rough surfaces of the rocks scraped against each another, making a terrible sound, and soon the child's hands were covered in tiny cuts and scratches.

"Good. Keep going," said Mother.

Though her back and shoulders hurt dreadfully, the child obeyed. As she lifted the next rock, something blue and shining caught her eye. She was so surprised that she almost dropped the rock on her foot.

"Oh," she said.

"What is it?" asked Mother.

"Nothing," the child said. "My hands hurt a little."

"Keep going."

The child nodded. Carefully keeping her eyes away from the pile, she shoved away the rock she was holding. Then she glanced for a second at what she had seen.

It was a beautiful spiral shell, made of transparent blue glass, in perfect shape: there were no nicks or breaks in it. At first the child thought it was polished so well that it seemed to glow; but then, when the shell pulsed with light again, she realized it was illuminated from the inside.

She didn't realize she'd been staring until Mother said, "What are you doing?"

The child opened her mouth to speak, but couldn't think of an explanation. Just then Mother saw the shell.

"You've found it! Very good. Give it to me."

The child hesitated, then picked up the shell. The glass was very cold, and upon touching it she felt dizzy.

"Don't dawdle, Terra, give it to me."

Why did Mother want the shell? the child wondered suddenly. It was beautiful, but so cold, and its light was so strange. She turned to give it to Mother, then froze.

"Is there something wrong with you, girl?" Mother's lips looked like two gashes of red in the moonlight. Her eye sockets and mouth looked like three black gaping holes. The child pushed herself backward a little in the sand.

"Give it to me now," Mother said very softly, "or I will leave you here by the ocean."

At that the child felt her throat tighten. She stood silently and placed the shell in Mother's hand.

Instantly Mother screamed, a piercing shriek that filled the vast empty beach. She dropped the shell at her feet and fell to her knees, clutching her right hand. The flesh there was melting away like the wax from a candle, already showing gray bone underneath.

"Mother," began the child in horror, but Mother lunged for the shell again, this time with her left hand. The shell hissed and spat like water dancing in a pan, and Mother dropped it with another screech of agony. Both her hands now dripped flesh.

After a minute Mother grew quiet. She pushed back on her ragged skeleton-hands and looked on the shell with her eye sockets.

"Mother," whispered the child.

"I can't hold it," Mother explained calmly. The wind had picked up, carrying the cold wet scent of the sea with it. "You carry it on the way home."

The child nodded shakily, but then she stared at Mother's gray-white skin, her black hair loosed from its knot and whipping around her face in the wind. Some indistinct thought began to form in her mind.

"Terra. Take it now, we have to leave. The tide is coming in."

The child looked where Mother was pointing. The water had risen, a malevolent dark shifting mass. She could clearly see the waves, secret and ominous, surging on the sea's surface, and she could hear their dull roar as they broke. But she heard something else in them, too.

"Pick up the shell, girl." Mother was standing now, her steel-colored dress thrashing in the wind.

"Wait," said the child. "Can you hear that? I think..." Finally she recognized the sound.

"It's saying my name!" she exclaimed.

"It's the sea," said Mother. She took the child's hand in one of her own skeletal ones. "It's trying to trick you. It wants to take you to sleep. Get the shell; we have to leave before the sea comes for you."

The child obeyed, and took the shell from where it had dropped in the sand. She glanced at Mother's face, illuminated in the strange blue light, and her eyes grew wide as her thoughts cleared at last.

"You --" She wrenched her hand from Mother's bone-fingers and stumbled back in the sand. "You're not my mother."

"What?" Mother was stunned. "How could you say such a thing? Terra --"

"No, no! You're not my mother. You're something else -- a monster --" The child now saw the motions of something gray and wriggling in the sockets of Mother's eyes. She clutched the shell to her breast and walked backward with faltering steps. "Where is this? Where have you taken me?"

"I haven't taken you anywhere. It's the sea. That's what wants to take you. It's making you see things. Come back to me." Mother reached out a skeleton-hand to her.

The sound of sea behind the child grew louder, and louder too grew the sound of her name on the waves. She had no doubt now that Mother was lying. It was Mother that sought to take her, and keep her. The child looked over her shoulder at the sea.

"Come back with me," said Mother, walking toward her. "I don't want to leave you in the ocean to dream and sleep. But I will, if you don't come with me."

Mother's face had changed. Her red lips had split across to reveal iron-colored teeth, and in the rain her black eye-holes had bled, like running ink, down her cheeks. The sight held the child motionless, and before she could react, Mother had seized her wrist.

"There now," she said. "Walk home with me."

"No!" the child cried, but Mother's grip was tight and unbreakable, and the wind and the sea had grown so loud that the child could hardly hear herself. Mother's voice, however, remained steady and soothing in her ears.

"We will go home, and I'll take that shell and bury it in the earth, and then you'll stay with me forever -- do you want to do that, Terra?"

And the child, being dragged along, felt against all her struggle a deep and ruinous longing. She did want to go home with Mother. She wanted Mother to be beautiful again. She wanted to please her, and be loved by her, and never fall asleep again.

"Yes, Mother," she said at last, brokenly, and began to weep. Mother embraced her there on the sand, still grasping the child's left wrist.

"There, child. It's all right now. It was the sea."

The child sobbed in Mother's arms as the worst of it passed. At last she breathed deeply, and straightened. Then she took her right hand and shoved the shell into Mother's heart with all her strength.

The earsplitting scream that followed was an awful and primal sound of utter rage. But the child never paused; she was already running, away from the scream and from Mother, to the ocean.

The dark water looked as though it longed to swallow her up. The child no longer had the shell to give her strength, but she did not stop running when she reached the sea's edge. Nor did she stop when the freezing water broke over her knees.

The waves didn't call her name anymore. They were so loud and crashing that the child couldn't even hear Mother screaming on the beach. The cold water grew higher, rougher. She felt it grasping at her legs. Very soon now, she knew, it would knock her down and draw her away and bring her to sleep.

She took a deep breath, and closed her eyes, and dove into the water with a cry.

Down, she sank, down and down into the water, infinite and cold and heavy on her. She fought and flailed, but it did no good; she only fell faster and faster. She could see nothing, only the inky blue water. Soon would come the sleep, and the dreams.

In anguish the child threw her head back, and the last thing she saw was the sun. It had risen, and now shone through the water, illuminating the sea around her to a light transparent blue. It's not water, the child realized at last. It's light, blue light --

Then she awoke.

"The Empire has some fancy official term for it, but that's basically what it is. A slave crown." Arvis handed it to her. "They were using it to control you."

Terra turned it over in her hands, studying the gray surface, the tiny red electronic lights.

"Really, it's incredible you remembered even your name," Arvis continued. "How do you feel otherwise? Brain seem to be working right?"

"Yes," she said. "I'm just a little tired. May I rest a bit longer?"

"Of course. Do you want me to...?" He gestured to the slave crown.

"Oh, no, I'd like to keep it, thank you."

Arvis looked a little puzzled, but he nodded. "Sure. Okay. Sleep well." He closed the door behind him.

Terra put the slave crown on the dresser. She studied it for a minute longer. Then she snapped it in half over her knee, then in half again, and again, until it was just tiny pieces of metal and ceramic and stripped copper wire. Then she opened the window and threw the pieces out into the snow.

All That Glitters Is Cold Fanfic Competition
Nistelle's Fanfiction

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