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Episode 7.0: Aquariums
Gabriel Menendez managed to swim out from the stone lion guarding the old bridge and landed on a barrier island where the Helios had washed up, years ago. Its broken body lay on its side, the ship’s bridge window was at the three o’clock position. The Whole Earth Helios protruded from the surf in the shape of a five-story-high bullet that was fired then inexplicably dropped to the sand, which wasn’t far from what really had happened. It astonished him that small waves like these could rock the massive ship up and down, slowly but continuously. He could only sit and gaze at the great scolding finger that wagged its accusation, “You’re too late.”
Gabriel wasn’t the kind of person who did well when alone. Despite the fact that humanity had been reduced to fewer than seven million people, he had never really been alone. As he sat on the sand beside a brine-blasted ship meant for hundreds, on an abandoned planet meant for billions, he appreciated just how alone he really was. But he knew not to panic. He had learned not to panic in the aquariums at home on Loreon station.
As a kid, Gabriel would visit his dad, an aquatic botanist, at work in the aquariums. His favorite thing to do was to open the lid of a tank and coax a fish to come out. In low gravity, the fish could exit the tank encased in a blob of water and float about the compartment in its own liquid enviro suit. If the fish kept its cool, it could explore all the places otherwise forbidden to fish. If the fish panicked and thrashed, the water would be scattered, the fish would be exposed to the air, and begin to suffocate. Either way, Gabriel would return the finned adventurer to the tank. It would always dart away as if rejoicing in the thrill of its freedom while concurrently embracing the safety of its captivity.
“What kind of fish am I?” Gabriel said out loud, knowing no one heard. He pulled his helmet release and it hissed open. It was fortunate he was sitting down when the unfiltered world hit him. He experienced the same sensory overload and vertigo Mikhail that had 50 kilometers away. He had smelled dead fish and rotting seaweed before, but this was beyond his reckoning. Crashing waves sounded like cataclysm. Screeching gulls were dragons on the attack. The steel grind of the Helios’s hulk, slow rocking in the waves, was the breaking of the world. He lurched forward to his hands and knees prepared to vomit. He only wretched.
When the assault of the new world subsided to a manageable state, Menendez lay on his back. The bulk of his suit kept his head off the sand. He could lean his head back, close his eyes, and just breathe. He began to wonder where the others were, who had survived, and if there was anything left of the lander. If Liu saw the Helios and was still alive, she should be somewhat close. Unless he was the only one alive.
A voice familiar yet changed interrupted his desperate solitude. “Tho, what da hell kinda fith are you anyway?” He snapped upright in a sitting position, warm fear rising in him.
Before him he beheld a face that was two faces. The right side was the face of Leani Liu. The left side was a purple puff of flesh with a slit for an eye that shared a nose and mouth with Leani.
“Fish?” Gabriel said through a snort. Having felt just about everything possible in the past few minutes, he burst into laughter; Leani was already laughing. They had hardly begun to breathe this foul, rich air and now they were laughing in it. The two newborn Earthlings sat on the beach in the shadow of doom as their laughter made them high.