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Mother's Shells

by E.L. Buchanan 7 months ago in Sci Fi
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An ecological fable of a clone and her originator.

A collection of opened freshwater shells.

A/N: This work deals heavily with themes of psychosis and sleep paralysis.

When BET-2102 first saw the phantom she was waist deep in Val Lake. Her hands were full of mussel shells. The water was so still the afternoon sun was perfectly mirrored. She was squinting but able to see the hazy outline of a woman on the opposite shore. She shifted the other half of her horde into her left hand and raised the right to shade her eyes.

The tall woman was wearing a blank white mask. The only feature were fine black slits meant to represent eyes. BET-2102 licked her lips; what was a performer doing in the Valta wilderness? They were far from the precincts of the City and the eastern shore of the lake was nothing but the seat of Mount Val.

The woman’s long satin duster accentuated her lithe form that would glide across a stage. Her black curls were immaculate in the humidity. Most confounding was that the specter was wearing red heels. The crimson bounced off the stagnant lake surface as fiercely as the sunlight. The performer moved for no one but herself. If she was aware of BET-2102’s staring, she gave not even a glance. She was completely self-absorbed, in a way that suggested she was moving through her own reality.

“Mother’s shells.” BET-2102 flinched at the voice.

“Huh?”

“That’s what they are,” JIL-2101 splashed into the shallows from her perch along the shore. She pried one of the mussel shells from BET-2102’s hand. She held the striated shell to the sun. BET-2102’s eyes frantically searched for her phantom. The woman had vanished into the foliage lining the east side of the lake.

“The Great Mother designed these to purify the water,” JIL-2101 laid the shell against her dark palm. Her eyelashes brushed her cheeks as she beamed down at the discarded covering. “They only exist in this lake you know.”

“I know.” BET-2102 swallowed. She decided to not ask JIL-2101 if she had seen the woman. For she may not have been real. It was frustrating to exist without that assurance so many took for granted. Nevertheless she suspected her condition was an accidental oversight in design. None of her sisters had ever expressed doubt about the nature of reality, and they were all essentially the same person.

JIL-2101 rolled her eyes up and blinked. She smiled, “you and your shells.”

“There’s been less,” BET-2102 frowned. “These past few years. Along with the fish.”

“Well, they have served their purpose.” JIL-2101 shrugged. She carelessly dropped the shell in her hand back into the lake. With no owner it would likely dissolve to join the fine silt at the lake bottom. BET-2102 carefully placed the rest of hers into the pouch at her side. Her brow furrowed at JIL-2101’s unthinking assumption.

“They were designed to go extinct?” the idea of such a waste needled her. The Great Mother surely would have never been so inefficient. Her disgust further bolstered her. After all she and her sisters were all carved from that first pre-molar.

And why should the fish be dying as well? It had long been forbidden to eat the lake perch as, like the mussels, they were a reservoir of absorbed toxins. The cleaning of Lake Val had taken more than a century, and a superstitious public had placed a taboo on drinking or eating from its bounty. The water had been declared safe to swim in about fifty years ago, but the distant salt water of the ocean was still desalinated for public consumption. Fish were imported as well. This was inefficient at best. Nevertheless every test had detected carbonic acid and other toxins in the native perch and mussels to this day.

Had the Great Mother really meant for them to always be dependent on collapsible trade? What had been the point of purifying the water then? Just so they would have a beautiful lake for tourists to gawk at?

“Once it has filled its purpose,” JIL-2101 insisted. BET-2102 looked out at the clear water. The lake was cobalt, the color of the most expansive summer sky, for it was visible to a hundred feet down. The darkness its stagnant bottom cast gave the upper surface its brilliant color. The beauty concealed its killing depths. Deoxygenated, nothing lived in that darkness but the hardiest bacteria.

BET-2102 shrugged and followed her sister back to shore. The jaunt has been a respite of their larger task of taking chemical analyses and seismic readings of Mount Val, the awakening volcano of the wilderness. The Great Mother had saved the City more than a hundred years before by re-routing the basalt flow. Now the sleeping giant was again beginning to growl and stretch beneath the earth. It was their inherited obligation.

If it were to ever erupt again the conflagration of gas and pyroclastic cast-off would consume the City below. They were carrying on the work of their great progenitor. The sisters had been designed from birth to shape and form the land as goddesses. They must protect the City from all calamity. Only they could wield the tools of shaping, given from the armory of the Institute of Advancement.

BET-2102 forgot about the woman in the coming months. She didn’t think about her until she was standing before her again. When she began dreaming of the end of the world.

.

.

.

The bed is shaking so violently the posts must be raising off the floor. It bucks with a sickening tossing only mimicked by the strongest earthquakes. The floor below must be a rolling sea of wood and carpet. She is wondering when it will all end. She is deafened by the thunderous crash of tolling bells to accompany the physical cacophony on the floor.

She can’t move. She is rigid. Her jaw is tightly shut. She can’t even move her vocal cords to give voice to a muted scream. Only her eyes can move and give witness to the violent sparking of a thousand firecrackers above her head. The explosions are in every color at once. The sound of their cracking is a resounding of the peal of the bells. She can feel each vibration in her tense bones.

When will it end? Mother, when will it end! She is terrified she will never return from this place of gouged and bleeding reality. Sound, touch, and sight have merged into one suffocating experience. It is not real, but she may become lost in this ersatz world with its engulfing violence. She can do nothing but wait as her psyche crashes and burns all around her.

Then there is the singularity. The second the fraudulent universe collapses back into itself. It is the same instant she returns to true alertness. The borderlands of sleep and wakefulness are fled as she raises from her bed with a gasp.

The bed is still. The room is dark. There is only the sound of the distant lake. The reshaping of the shore with the breaking of every wave.

She flees her bed that she won’t return to this night. She rushes towards the living room to turn on the Stream. She curls on the couch as she frantically turns on the local news of 3am.

There are no reports of an earthquake. Not even from the struggling Mount Val that is surely dreaming of killing them all in its sleep. Her hypnopompic reality has become expanded to include a cataclysm of the earth.

She gives a small sigh of resignation and staggers towards the east window. She is covered in sweat and her heart is still racing. She throws open the casement and lets the cold air burn her lungs. She walks to her personal lab in the lower level of her home. She won’t sleep again tonight.

BET-2101 drifts back to the oldest shells she has in her collection. They are within a nook within emerald jars. Those that were gathered when she was still in the Nursery. She can recall that first field trip; not in any form however of a linear event of beginning, middle, and end. It is a rush of joy to remember the chill of the water and the dullness of the sky. The excitement she felt to gather the myriad shells in her hand as her sisters splashed all around her. It seemed like an endless bounty at the time. Fields and fields of golden laced shells beneath a sea of the clearest sapphire.

She lays the shells before her and looks at a wide sample beneath her microscope. She measures thickness, composition, and beauty. She runs chemical analyses. She spends hours comparing the samples.

How frail and brittle the newest shells are in comparison to their older sisters. How ugly they are, much smaller and less bright than their ancestors. The tiny creatures that formed such monstrosities struggled every second of their existence to even live. No wonder the fish are dying even in sweet, clear water.

This is not how things should be. Things were meant to become stronger with each generation. Her fifth generation is much haler than the first, and even second and third were. Even the Great Mother had died at only the age of forty-five, taken by a mysterious illness in the night.

She crushes the new sample in her hand as she recall her sister’s words. That they were meant to be extinct. Why should any death be meaningless? Why plant seeds doomed to die? This is not the Great Mother’s, nor her, nature.

Yet, she knows she has the malady the Great Progenitor succumbed to. She watches the sand run out of her hand, each grain the thousands of failed experiments that had come before her. There is a reason none of her sisters ever see the edge of reality.

For the Great Mother saw it, and by inches it killed her. This defect, it came not from a clumsy hand as she was designed or an incorrect chemical balance in the womb. It came from the first. It came from that tooth from which they had all been sprung.

No death should be meaningless. She won’t let this be true. The mother’s shells don’t exist to die. She only exists to save and protect. The fulfillment of a promise her ancestor could not keep.

I can see what only you could.

.

.

.

She confessed to her lover she had been dreaming of the end of the world. He was not offended to hear she equated it with their pending marriage.

Traditionally at the age of thirty-five a sister could experience the relaxing of her duties. In generations past a sister could only be expected to live for ten more years or so after that age. It was considered an act of mercy that they should be allowed to spend those last ten years as they wished.

Nevertheless the oldest living sister was now sixty. BET-2102, now “Beta” with her new personhood, was not ready to retire her red sash. She would have love. But her dedication was as deep as ever. She and her ilk were re-shaping society as easily as they did the earth.

“It’s always a tsunami,” she smiled. She didn’t mention she dreamt of standing on the shore before it happened, gathering the most beautiful shells she’d ever seen. They were the familiar black and gold, but also of cobalt, crimson, and ochre. They were the large shells of her youth that nearly filled the hand. The rocks were hard on her bare feet, but never pierced her soles. She nearly glided across the sopping edges of the rocks. She came to soft sand and before her was the precipice of the bottom of Val Lake.

The displaced water raised over her like a fury. She tried to flee but was swept up as the lake devoured the City. The wave demolished even Mount Val in its roar and maw.

She tried to hold onto her shells even as she could feel the crush of the water above her. She lost them however; one second her hands were full and in the next the lake has reclaimed its bounty. Somehow she surfaced and bobbed in the infinite expanse as it slowly receded.

In the shallows there were only crushed bodies.

“Just stress I suppose,” she sighed as she gave a wary glance towards the volcano. It was presently hidden by the line of shops along the promenade, but it was always there, threatening in gasping breaths. The tremors were becoming more frequent, but never enough to break open the earth. Somewhere, a crack existed that the giant vented all its rage into. No one had detected where the vent was as of yet, its location had been lost in the chaos of the Great Mother’s death. The sisters fervently measured the fits of the mountain in fear it had become blocked.

He took her hand gently.

“It is a big decision,” he agreed. His psyche however is not in the habit of projecting itself along bedroom walls and dark corners.

.

.

.

She’s annoyed when she first meets them.

She is impotent and reduced to nothing but eyes that can only see. She cannot even turn her head in the pressure of mutated reality. She can only stare at the ceiling overhead where they swim like inverted dolphins. They’re somehow defined from the darkness of the bedroom as male, human figures. They never fully manifest out of the ceiling however, their legs and lower arms are sunk into their sea. They stare down at her with faces that have no features save an indent where their mouth should be. Yet one has a gaze so direct she feels they must be making eye contact even if she alone has eyes to see.

Go away. Go away. I don’t want to look at you, she fumes. She isn’t afraid of the creatures. There is a familiarity. There is no expectation of attack nor hostility. She sees herself even in the male forms. She knows they are projections from within. It’s as instinctive an intuition as looking upon any other human face. They’re as familiar as the faces of her sisters or the Great Mother.

These are not demons, aliens, nor inter-dimensional beings; they live within all people. Other people however keep their other selves contained. Why has she been born like this? Why does she share this trait with the Great Progenitor?

In this terrible second she has no control over her psyche. It freely fractures and stares back at her with its inhuman and human faces. She moves her eyes away.

She tries to summon herself back to the shore of reality and far away from this terrifying place. There is a convulsion, but it is not the quake of the singularity she seeks. It is a tremor that brings the false world down on her with a roar. She is extracted from her body as the air crackles with dazzling lights. There are a thousand dying and reviving circuits of light. She floats above her body in a helpless drift.

She is beyond any threshold of human fear. This is a preternatural divorce from all she has even known. She has never died. Never known any existence but that of within a human body. She tries to scream but she no longer even has human vocal cords. She is smoke, spirit, floating in a void.

She at last closes her eyes and dissipates. She falls as a rain back into her body. She awakes with a pained, but, grateful gasp.

There is nothing but the sound of the lake.

.

.

.

Beta was a bride when she saw the masked vision again. This time they passed each other along the pier; again in the summer sun. The boardwalk was packed with tourists, and the air sweltered with humid heat. The moisture from her drink was bleeding onto her hand as her other was held by her new husband. The woman was as graceful and untouchable as ever. She was again in a sleek duster, a garment too thick for the weather. Her heels bled red and her black curls were immaculate in the mugginess.

She could only stop and stare. Her husband was distracted by a window display. The phantom pivoted and if not for the mouthless mask, she felt as if she would have seen the figure’s smile. Their eye contact was brief, but devouring. Beta was paralyzed as she always was in her waking dreams.

“Sweetness?” her husband asked lowly. She glanced back at him and lost her specter again in the crowd. She shook her head.

“I just…thought I saw someone I knew,” she only realized it as she said it. How could she know that woman? She had never met anyone with black curls or so tall! Yet, the woman knew her, Beta knew it in the furthest reaches of her fractured psyche.

“Love,” It was on the tip of her tongue, a drop of blood that choked her.

“Yes?” He blinked.

“She…” 'The Great Mother didn’t die of an illness. She poisoned herself because she could never tell anyone of the horrid dreams she had. Dreams I have. The mother shells aren’t dying for no reason. '

The words died before they were born.

“Never mind.” She sighed. She glanced again at the void her phantom had left.

Who are you?

.

.

.

The figures drifted into the corners of her eyes sometimes. Eyes that saw so much more than they should. Eyes that could break with how much they saw. Eyes that never seemed to fill.

All it usually took was a glance to confirm nothing was ever there. There would be the dark dart across the floor that looked like a cat. Or she would glance over her husband’s head in a theater to prove no eight foot tall shadow man was hovering by his side.

Sometimes, when she was tired, however, veracity took several seconds. She would confront the man standing in the middle of her lab. She would dare to reach out towards him. She would reach into his dark mass and indistinct features. She would be comforted to feel the softness of her computer chair and find herself alone after all.

She would sit down before the eastern window and wonder. What would have happened if she had reached out to touch that woman? What would she have found in her hands? The wind stirred the surface of the lake. An endless refiguring of the world. The mountain would never quiet.

Perhaps all she would find were her beautiful shells, lost in a dream.

.

.

.

One day the lake leaves the shore. It collapses into itself as the sigil for the end of dreams does. It is not fading however, it is amassing beyond the reach of human hands. It is growing, looming, and towering in a place no man could reach.

She is standing before the tsunami again. It is more than a hundred feet high. Its millions of water droplets all vibrate to conjure a destroying thrum. The wind from the air displacement rakes over her as she struggles to breathe. She doesn’t even try to escape. She’s paralyzed by some deadly psychic poison again. She is alone on the shore, her feet cleaving to the wet sand as nature is devoured by its death throes. A cataclysm of the earth.

It breaks over her with a killing crush. She is violently twisted and throttled in the water. Pressure threatens to rip apart her chest and her unguarded soft organs.

Yet after a few seconds the deathly churning is calmed. A figure vivisects the darkness. She is wearing a white mask that cannot be dimmed even in the darkness of demise. Her black tendrils drift and wave as tentacles in the restless currents. Her arms are thrown open wide and coax Beta towards the final shore.

She reaches towards the phantom’s face and removes the mask with trembling fingers. It falls away silently. Beneath there is only darkness. It is the mere shadow of a face, there are no eyes, mouth, nose, and only an indent of a mouth. There are no lips to smile with. No eyes to brighten. Yet there is joy in the curve of darkness and a direct gaze. She embraces her other and finds softness there.

Here I am.

When she wakes she is not alone. Her husband is snoring softly besides her. In the same timbre as the lake.

Calling from all sides of reality.

Tonight, for the first time, she begins to research the possibility of tsunami occurring in lakes. Chased from sleep she swims in the Stream, looking for all records of such a calamity. She finds them, always in the shadow of a volcano, a mountain dreaming of destroying the world.

The mother shells aren’t dying for no reason. She checks her data for a second, third, tenth time. The slow decay of the shells over generations, the struggle of the lives of the mollusks within, the inexplicable slow die-off of the fish.

It was all a sign; from the Great Mother herself.

.

.

.

The slim silver lines impaled the lake to its darkest depths. They hovered above the water’s surface in a mirage just like Beta’s performer. The slender arms of the saviors disposed of the natural poison within the waters in a controlled explosion above its surface while reaching towards heaven and the Great Mother above. They were forever praising her.

The end of her dream.

“Why do you think the Great Mother didn’t just leave this to us in her writings?” JIL-2101 asked one day. She and Beta were again measuring the seismic trembling of Mount Val, processing the result of siphoning off deadly gas.

Beta’s mouth twitched in amusement. Her sister was perhaps disappointed she had overlooked the warning.

She had presented her findings to her sisters some months before. The one hundred active descendants of the Great Progenitor. They are all familiar faces, etched from the DNA of a woman a hundred and fifty years dead. There are the slight variations in each face and body. Each sister was distinctive in her small differences of shade of skin or eye, freckles or not, and a heavier or lighter body type. They were the full spectrum of expression of one person’s DNA and the modifications of a hundred unique lives.

From her urging the sisters had re-evaluated the lake. There was no evidence of the genetic kill-switch within the mussels as they had previously supposed. The mother’s shells may have been the baubles of this particular sister, but sometimes mania was divinely inspired.

The shells were not dying for no reason. They were dying because of an unprecedented amount of carbon dioxide in the waters. Mount Val had confounded them. The apocalypse would not come from fire and ash this time, but as a slow, agonizing gasping.

The vent was found to be on the eastern side of the lake, only a few hundred feet from the base of the volcano. The increased activity of had led to the skyrocket of the poisonous, colorless, and odorless gas within the lake. Mount Val had been churning its revenge upon the Great Mother. Its stuttering starts and fits had lifted the carbon dioxide out of the lower depths into the warmer, higher levels. That was when the mussels and then the fish had started to die.

If the gas had been left to roil within the clear waters, the loss of human and animal life when it burst from the lake would have been almost incomprehensible. The City, its residents, the outlying farms and hamlets, and a vast amount of wildlife would have suffocated in a burning grip. As far as the wind carried it. Something as catastrophic as an eruption from Mount Val and a resulting tsunami, or as simple as a rainstorm, may have triggered the apocalypse.

A vision the Great Mother must have also seen in her dreams.

“Because, the mother’s shells were only engineered on her designs.” Beta revealed. JIL-2101 glanced at her. “She died before she even started the project. The First Daughter had assumed they were simply for purifying the lake of debris after that first eruption.”

For unlike Beta she had been able to see what only the Great Mother had.

“Her last gift.” JIL-2102 sighed and for a second both sisters were lost in the awe of their ancestor.

“Yeah.” Beta smiled. She turned away and laid her hand on her stomach. She had another secret to keep from her sister. It was not unheard of for a sister to become pregnant, but this child, like all those who were not sisters, had not been designed. It was a chaotic factor in reality, like Mount Val, the Great Mother, and Beta.

She could only hope this child would carry the flaw that had killed the Great Mother, and the triumph that had saved them all, into the future.

Sci Fi

About the author

E.L. Buchanan

E.L. Buchanan is a southern California native and Cal Poly Pomona alum. She is a mother to six cats and one daughter. She enjoys gardening and murder documentaries. Follow her on facebook @e.l.buchananauthor.

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