the purple sea
by
dylan jeninga

On Venus you may be close to the boundary between delight and terror...


I was nobody on Earth. When I boarded the St. Christopher, I had nothing - nobody who respected me, nothing to my name, sentenced to labor on Mercury to pay off my gambling debts. When we crash landed on Venus, I cursed my bad luck for keeping me alive. You see, everyone says this planet is evil. Every colony they put here vanishes, gone without a trace.

    But I love it. I never want to leave.

    Venus is beautiful. Every morning I wake up and look out my window at the purple sea and endless, fiery clouds. Yes, I have my own house now - constructed from a battered shipping crate, but mine. I don’t need anything fancy; apart from the daily showers it’s always pleasant and warm here, and the breeze smells like roses.

    Only thirteen of us survived the crash. Unlucky thirteen. Four men including myself, five women, and four children, one only a baby. A few of us, including myself, were hurt, although thankfully for me it was only a sprain.

     We washed up here, where we built our village. The wreck of the Christopher lies out there, in the shallow water - you can see down there, like a sleeping whale. Me and two of the others, Mik and Jona, used to swim to it to retrieve supplies or valuables. I got real good at it, I can hold my breath for a long time now.

    Our little village we call “Haven”. We built it from debris that washed on beach, and things we salvaged on dives.  Augustine suggested “St. Paul,” who he said was the patron saint of shipwrecks, to match St. Christopher, the saint of travelers. I suggested Haven. The name made me feel safe. People liked it.

    Because I was the one of the least hurt, and had no children to occupy me, it often fell to me to solve our problems. I was the first to explore our little jungle island; I discovered the creek with clean water, and I spotted the delicious grapes that aren’t really grapes at all, but we call them that. I was the one who found that if you sit very quietly for a long time, and don’t move, the trees with striped trunks and red leaves whisper to each other.

    We were scared of monsters, the first couple months. When Yuri suggested that we needed weapons, I took the branches from a few of those striped trees and made spears. The wood was sappy and flexible, but it got real strong when you left it out under the clouds, and I was able to make a spear for everybody who wanted one. No dangerous animals have ever appeared; in fact, the planet seems almost completely empty of them, except... sometimes, just as the sun is setting, I can see strange shapes moving under the water, usually around the sunken rocket. My wife says I have an overactive imagination.

    I call her my wife, but she has a real husband on Mercury. I know she misses him, I catch her looking up at the sky. She says she misses the stars, but I know.

    It doesn’t matter. We’re happy. I would never say this, but I’m glad the Christopher got her stranded here, because it means she’s with me.

    That’s not to say nothing unnerving has ever happened. One morning, I went diving and found that all the bodies had disappeared. Not even bones are left. And when Mik’s baby died, and we buried her on an islet a little way from the coast, she found the grave dug-up the next day. She was really torn up. Augustine said that if he died here, he didn’t want his body to be buried. He’d rather be cremated, even though he’s Catholic.

    But for the most part, I’m happy here. I’ve begun some metalwork, using pliers to shape some scrap metal into a short blade. Haven may soon have an election of sorts, and Jona said he wants me to run. Maryam and I have even talked about a baby of our own. I’ve got a knife, a life, and a wife - and I think I may also take up poetry.

    I love Venus, I don’t want to leave. But that’s not why I’m not getting on the rescue rocket.

   It arrived five days ago, like a fireball. At first I thought it was another crashing ship, but Yuri said it was coming down on its fins, making a real proper landing. He was right, and it set down on the other side of the island, on the beach.

    Everyone rushed to meet them. Even Mik, who never smiles anymore, was laughing. I went with them, of course.

    The rocket was giant, its gleaming silver skin burnished by its descent, the sand beneath it blackened and scattered by its thrusters. By the time we arrived, the hatch was already open and a pair of spacesuited figures emerged, guns in hand. I thought then that maybe they were pirates, on the run from the law, but the sigil of the Interplanetary Patrol was emblazoned on their shoulders.

    Their heavy boots gouged deep footprints as they trudged over to us, the closest holstering their gun and waving. They raised their visor and revealed themselves to be a young man with a friendly look.

    “Hello!” He called as we ran to him, “We’re here to rescue you!”

    After that it was all shouting and laughing and crying. When the Patrolmen had tested the air, and our bodies, for poisons or pathogens, they removed their helmets and Jona kissed them both right on the lips, tears streaming down his face. The second Patrolman was a woman, a little older than her partner but just as cheerful, although she kept her eyes trained on the treeline, and her hand on her weapon. I thought about telling her that the strange things are in the ocean, but it didn’t seem like a good moment.

    We altogether went back to Haven, the Patrolmen fielding a million questions, first from one, then another. I didn’t ask them anything.

    “We’ve had satellites scanning through the clouds for a few days now,” the more wary patrol officer explained, “the goal being to find a few of the lost colonies - and you were our first hit!”

    “I can’t tell you how surprised we were when we realized you folks were still alive,” the other added.

    “When can you take us away from here?” Yuri asked, the first intelligible words he’d managed since we’d sighted our two saviors.

    “Soon,” assured the Patrolman.

    “How soon?” inquired several.

    “We need to look around a bit, document everything,” the Patrolwoman said. “Are there any medical emergencies that need immediate attention?”

    There weren’t, and a dozen individuals told them so at once. Another asked if it was necessary for them to go back to Haven, or if they could board the rocket immediately.

    “Sure,” the woman said.  “I’ll take them back, Paul, if you want to visit their shelters.”

    “Paul!” Augustine cried with delight, “Saint Paul!”

    “Sure, Ina,” the man Paul answered, with a puzzled look at the excited Augustine, “does anybody care to guide me?”

    “I’ll come,” I volunteered. “I’d like to collect my things, anyways.”

   “Thanks,” said the Patrolman.

    As my fellow Havenites turned back for the rocket, Paul and I carried on down the beach. As we walked, I reflected on the day’s extraordinary events. Salvation, at last, and yet all I felt was dismay. I hated, with sick revulsion, the idea of going back to Earth, or even on to Mercury, or anywhere else in the damned system. I still do.

     Paul, for his part, wanted to know how we’d survived, and whether we had any clue as to what had happened to the vanished colonies. I described to him the past few months and explained that we’d never left our island, except to bury Mik’s daughter out on the islet.

    When we came at last to Haven, it was as we left it, projects abandoned, doors of hanging tarp thrown aside, a pile of striped wood still smoking in the center of our small town. Paul looked around with interest, entering several of the crates and recording everything on a small, shoulder-mounted camera.

    “So you haven’t seen anything the least bit… suspicious?”

     I worried that, if I told him about the great, bizarre shapes that lurked just beneath the violet waves out by the Christopher, or the vanishment of the dead, he might be alarmed and order our immediate evacuation. Concluding, though, that I’d be removed from Venus soon anyway, I decided to open up.

    “Where do you see the shapes?” he asked, eyes sharpening as I pointed to the sea.

    “Just over there. The wreck is only a little ways down.”

    “And you think they took the bodies?”

    “I don’t know,” I said truthfully.

    “I haven't seen any other animals. This planet is uncomfortably quiet.”

    I have always liked the quiet.

    “They come out at just before sunset?” Paul went on.

    “Yes. They might be about all night, I don’t know, it’s too dark to see.”

    “Hm.”

    Paul wandered off to speak to his partner over the radio, and I didn’t follow. I just enjoyed the gentle breeze on my skin, and cursed my wretched luck.  A short while later, the Patrolman tapped me on the shoulder.

    “Gonna head back to the ship,” he said, “our ship.”

    “Sure,” I said, “one minute.”

     He nodded and I went into my makeshift home, my true home, and looked around. How could I leave it, when I’d worked so hard to raise it in the first place? The sleeping mat I shared with Maryam, the bench where I worked, the table I’d made from debris, all of it representative of the person Venus had made me. What a joke, that I was a better man as a castaway!

    On the bench sat the knife I’d worked so hard on. It looked pathetic to me, now. I turned and walked out, empty handed. If Paul noticed my pained expression, he didn’t comment.

    Back at the rocket, he and Officer Ina conferred while I sat in the sand with my fellow strandees. The interior of the ship would be more comfortable in zero gravity, at the moment it was a bit cramped for all of us. Paul came out, smiling at everyone, and asked me to join him inside.

    “It’s possible these things you described, whatever they are, are connected to the disappearances,” Ina said without preamble.  “Will you accompany my partner and I on an investigative dive?”

    The question caught me by surprise. I had never, in all my years on Venus, considered diving at sunset. I was afraid of the shapes, and besides, the light was poor. I voiced my second objection aloud. Paul shook his head.

   “Our spacesuits have lights, and they’ll work just fine as long as the water isn’t too deep.”

    I was about to say that the creatures, if that’s what they were, could be dangerous, but an idea began to occur to me. So instead I said “alright, I’ll go with you.”

    Night on Venus is the darkest night anywhere in the creation, and the purple oceans gradually turn jet black without the Sun to color them. Ina, who was to go first, told me that I didn’t need to actually dive with her, only be on hand to answer questions. However, I insisted on going down with her in case anything happened. Paul waited on the shore, our soon-to-be ghost town behind him, in his own spacesuit and ready to come to our rescue.

    The weight of the Patrolmen’s outfits was enough that Ina just walked straight into the water, slowly sinking with each step, until I was swimming over her head. In my pocket was my knife, which I’d retrieved while the other two readied themselves for our expedition.

    I kept my eyes fixed on the darkening surface of the water, my feet tingling as I imagined something awful grabbing me from below. Ina’s helmet lights were like a pair of eyes watching me from the depths, but they comforted me in that I might at least see something coming for me in their glow.

    When we reached the Christopher, I watched Ina move slowly down its length, staying close all the time. No doubt she and her fellow were in constant communication. I needed to be quick.

    I took a very deep breath, as I’d learned to do, and dove, swimming directly toward the twin lights, I came up behind the Patrolwoman, who with each step kicked up clouds of obscuring mud, and put my knife against her oxygen cord. Steeling myself, I cut it.

    She stopped as her helmet filled with water, and then started flailing, but her suit kept her from rising. I panicked when she fired her gun wildly, stabbing her repeatedly before rushing to the surface and swimming away. Finally, the lights stopped stirring.

    Before I allowed myself a moment to contemplate my crime, I called to Paul.

    “Help!” I cried, “Ina’s hurt!”

    I inhaled deeply again and got ready to meet him, blade in hand.

    I wasn’t sure my friends would believe my story, but when I described to them the horrible, savage beast that appeared out of nowhere and killed the Patrolmen, myself barely escaping thanks to my greater speed, I saw the horror in their faces. Mik wanted to see if we could find their bodies, but by the time we returned the next morning, they were already gone.

    Their deaths induced a panic in some. Yuri and a few others ransacked the rescue rocket, searching desperately for the passcodes to the ship’s computer, with the thought of using the vessel to radio for help. It seemed those codes were lost with the ship’s owners.

    Others fell into a depression. Maryam wandered into the jungle and didn’t appear again until the sun had set. When I greeted her, she didn’t answer, only collapsed onto our sleeping mat and stared at the ceiling.

    For me, I had the problem of the rocket to consider, for no doubt the Patrol would come looking for their lost agents and zero in on it. The best solution I could think of was to turns its reactor on itself and blast it to pieces, and I resolved to try it the next day.

    I got up early, when the Sun painted the clouds a deep maroon. I hurried to the other side of the island, but stopped short of the rocket.

    Standing there were the Patrolmen.

    They smiled and waved at me, and seemed for all the worlds happy to see me. Ina told me I didn’t need to worry, and that the rescue would leave as soon as they were finished investigating. Then Ina told me tactfully that they were busy. When I tried to question them, they ignored me, instead setting off for town.   

    The Havenites were overjoyed. Paul told them they’d been attacked by an alien beast, as I’d said, but barely escaped, and weathered the previous day on a small islet before daring to make their way back to shore. This narrative has been accepted without question.

    Paul also added that they’d need a few more days than expected to finish their work here, and Maryam declared that we’d pass the time celebrating. Everyone has been busy for days gathering grapes and other plants to prepare a grand feast. There’s been dancing, and Ina took bourbon out of the ship and passed it around. She and Paul party as enthusiastically as any other, but they never speak a word to me.

   I’ve done my own investigating in the meantime. The black shapes appear ever more often now, and I saw one when the sun was still high in the sky. But no one will listen to me.

    Ina says they’ll be ready for takeoff tomorrow. She looked at me when she said it. And Paul grinned his friendly grin.

    I’m not getting on that rocket. Not with them, whatever they are.

    I’m going for another dive tonight, back to the Christopher. I’m going to wait for the shadows. I need to know what I’ve done.