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Story 2

Lee Killough

Lee Killough has been storytelling since the age of four or five, when she began making up her own bedtime stories. So when she discovered science fiction and mysteries about age eleven, she began writing her own because she feared being left without SF and mysteries once she had read all of those on her small town library's shelves. It took her late husband Pat Killough, though, years later, to convince her to try selling her work. Her first published stories were science fiction, and her short story, "Symphony For a Lost Traveler", earned a Hugo Award nomination in 1985.

Of her sixteen novels, the five most recent are now also e-books, published by Books We Love, Ltd.,

I've always liked "Taaehalaan is Drowning," which began as a postcard story at an SF convention. The con handed fantasy picture postcards to the authors there and asked us to write a short story that would fit on the postcard and then would be sold at their charity auction. My card had a flooded city with one figure with its head on fire, a female figure with a flower for a head, and a rocket ship in the background. OMG, what was I going to do with that? So I decided it had to be approached with everything as symbolic. I liked the result so well I rewrote and expanded it into a short story that ended up published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

-- Lee Killough

Too seldom these days do we find a Science Fiction short story that has both science and fiction. Here is a story with a generous measure of both. Enjoy with us Taaehalaan Is Drowning.




by Lee Killough


Taaéhalaan is drowning. We are murdering it.

Bitterly, David Solomon stared out the window across what remained of the ancient city. . .down into streets with paving stones so well laid not even a knife slipped between them, down on spired buildings adorned by bas-reliefs, stonework carved from translucent pink and green stones, and frescoes whose centuries-old colors remained clear and brilliant. The three squares visible from his window all contained statues of such realistic detail one waited for them to start breathing and step down from their pedestals.

If only they could. Every day the waters of the Zoaa Lenáaemal, the Misty Sea, dark in the dusky sunlight of Chaaésaa's red sun, rose a bit higher, swallowing more streets and walls, inexorably inundating the city's jeweled beauty and Chaaésaalan heritage.

Pain twisted in him. Who would have thought, signing on as interpreter, that a world he found of only mild interest on holotape would end up making his soul bleed. "The water reached Heroes' Square today."

Behind him in the room serving as Carmea Flowers' office, the tap of computer keys stopped. David pictured Flowers looking around from the screen, perhaps rolling her eyes. She knew better than he the exact level of the water each day, though never the names of the streets. He doubted she cared to learn. What killer wanted to know his victim?

"I suppose you've been down salvaging artifacts."

The acid edge on her voice brought him around to meet her eyes, green and opaque as jade, and to be struck again by the incongruity of that musical, feminine name attached to someone with all the softness of her construction equipment. "They're trying to keep farther ahead of the water than that. They removed what they could there last week."

"Wonderful." Flowers turned back to her computer.

David's jaw tightened. "What they could consisted of three small statues and two small frescoes and some stonework from surrounding buildings. There's no way to move the big statues, or major frescoes and stonework without---"

"I'm not giving you a lifter, Solomon!" Her head snapped around. "For the last time, that equipment came from Earth at great expense to build and maintain canals from the mountains. I might loan a lifter if the Chaaésaala themselves asked, but they haven't. I doubt the lifters can maneuver through these streets, anyway."

The jade eyes focused back on the computer screen. Ending the discussion.

David's jaw tightened. "There must have been another way to handle this project."

Flowers did not bother replying.

"Surely it could have waited a bit longer, until some way could be found to save Taaéhalaan."

She looked around one more time, jade eyes without sympathy. "I'm doing the job these people asked me to do. Why don't you do yours instead of parading around in this sanctimonious self-appointed role of art conservator?"

He slammed out of the office. Descending the delicate web of stairs to the street, David remembered Flower's comment the first time he protested Taaéhalaan's death. "This is an old planet, Solomon. You saw it from space. Small landlocked seas. And growing smaller. Every year they evaporate more. Salinity increases, killing more aquatic species. The only way to save areas like Taaéhalaan is to release the underground water in the mountains and refill the sea basin."

But what a price the Chaaésaala paid to renew the sea. Despair twisted in David. For three thousand years Taaéhalaan had been one of the greatest cities in the history of Chaaésaa. And now they must consign this glory to the dark water of the Zoaa Lenáaemal?

David shivered and stopped to press his jacket closed against the chill of the dusky sunlight and brine-scented sea wind. Underfoot the ancient paving stones sloped toward the center of the street, worn in a trough by uncountable generations of passing feet, hooves, and wheels. Flowers had chosen the highest section of the city for her office to avoid the necessity of moving back continually from the rising water. That also made it in the oldest section since Taaéhalaan's builders had added seaward over the centuries, following the receding shoreline. David found sad symbolism in losing the modern sections first, forcing the population back into the older city, into increasingly more ancient buildings and narrow, more torturous streets.

The sharp turns here barred most vehicles except carts and the very smallest of mechanized transport, so traffic flowing past David consisted mostly of pedestrians. And mostly Chaaésaala, wrapped in heavy clothing that muffled the bony angularity of their bodies, exposing only long, hairless heads, and hands whose color looked grey in the sunlight. A mere scattering of off-worlders moved among them. However glorious Taaéhalaan's past, few tourists cared enough about it to leave the comforts of more modern cities in still-verdant parts of the planet.

David joined the stream of pedestrians. As he walked, he extended all his senses, trying to absorb the scents, sounds, and sights of the city. Around him rose the spired buildings, wrapped in briny sea wind and dusky sunlight, their pink and green stonework almost luminous, elaborately carved into fanciful representations of plants, animals, and Chaaésaalan faces. The translucent stone appeared as lintels and doorposts, too, decorated with the figures and faces of the family that built the house. One could read the genealogy of the city around its doorways. David paused to run his fingers down one doorpost, savoring the silky texture of the stone, the intricate contours of the figures.

At the same time, a part of him watched himself wryly. Did he really think that committing Taaéhalaan to memory would immortalize the beauty being lost to the sea?

Down the street a line of carts sat parked outside a library. David paused to watch workers loading crates of books. He kicked at an animal dropping from one of the dray animals, overlooked by the street sweeper. If only Flowers had waited to open the canals, had donated some of the equipment for just a few months, the city might have been diked against the sea, or at least properly evacuated. Instead, its citizens must snatch up their belongings and flee with the water virtually lapping at their heels, discarding who knew what treasures in the rush, irreplaceable items now lost forever.

He had no destination in mind, but without much surprise, David eventually found himself in Heroes' Square, with its three empty pedestals, and wavelets breaking over the paving on the far side. He reached out to trace the lettering and bas-relief figures around the pedestal of a remaining statue. If Flowers had waited just a year. . .

"Are you saying goodbye to Maahelén, Daafíd?"

He turned at the liquid Chaaésaalan words to find Soéel, the younger sister of the household where he rented a room. . .Soéel, laying a long-fingered hand on his arm in the touch-loving manner of her race and twisting his name to her own pronunciation.

"I'm saying goodbye to everything." He stared past the statue of the hero at the city beyond, at the streets sloping down into the sea, at the march of now-abandoned buildings following them down until just the spires remained visible above the engulfing water. David imagined the vaulted halls and rotundas filled with water and curious, exploring sea creatures, and stonework, no longer luminous in the inky depths, being encrusted by plants and barnacle-like creatures. He sighed. "Damn."

"Is there no joy in you, Daafíd?" Soéel's long grey fingers stroked the sleeve of his coat. Wide-set dark eyes regarded him with bafflement.

He turned to touch her in turn, a finger following the ridge encircling her eye to the sharp outlines of the cheekbone and small, flat shell of ear. He smelled her alien but no-longer- disagreeable fishy scent. "Sometimes."

His mouth remembered her salty taste, his body hers--bone lean, skin cool against his but warmer than the color suggested it would be--the one night they had tried, and failed, to make love. David did not understand why she, unlike most of her people, who accepted off-worlders with disinterested matter-of-factness, strove to know him and why he was what he was, but he gave thanks for her. Even in the failure of sexual relations, her friendship provided a comfort that helped ease the pain of the deathwatch.

They strolled on together, fingers intertwined. . .along streets at the water's edge at first, then up away from it, back to an area where workers struggled to remove the stonework from the arched entrance of a building. They chiseled hurriedly, breaking loose the blocks and heaving them into a cart drawn by a thin, dispirited eeól. The stone glowed, filled with ruddy sunlight. A cold hand squeezed David's chest, catching his breath.

"Why do you grieve for Taaéhalaan?" Soéel asked.

He had lost count of how many times she asked that, and how many replies he gave her, looking for one that might explain him and satisfy her. This time he tried a question in return. "Don't you resent losing your heritage to the sea?"

She shrugged--not a Chaaésaalan gesture but one copied from him. "What use is heritage without a future? We need the sea to live. If it asks something from us in return, is that not fair, a sacrifice for life?"

"Something? But it's demanding everything!" How could she accept such a loss so calmly when his heart, the heart of an alien, protested in agony against this destruction. "Surely---."

A cry interrupted him. "Help me! Oh, please someone help me! My daughter!"

The workers scrambled down from their scaffolding and ran toward the sound, followed by David and Soéel.

Around the corner lay a square with an old well, probably millennia old but sealed for the centuries since the invention of plumbing. Now in the retreat from the sea it had be reopened and put back to use.

A Chaaésaalan woman leaned over the rim, reaching downward, wailing.

David crowded to the rim with the workers and Soéel. Meters below a small form thrashed screaming in the water, sinking before their eyes as water soaked into her clothes. Amid the liquid babble of the Taaéhalaanese dialect around him, David's mind raced. The water level lay too far below to just reach down for the child. But something must be done immediately, before the weight of her clothing pulled the child under.

He grabbed a bucket from the rim and lowered it. "Grab the rope, little sister!"

Both Soéel and the mother repeated the instruction, but the overlay of voices prevented the child from understanding, or the child's own screams and panic drowned them out. She ignored the bucket and sank under the water. Her thrashing brought her up again, but she quickly started to sink again. The mother shrieked in terror.

Without another thought, David stripped off his boots and jacket, swung over the lip of the well to hang by his hands, then took a breath and let go. Soéel screamed. He seemed to fall forever, and on the way down it occurred to him that if the water were shallow, he could break a leg.

The icy shock of the water drove the breath out of him. He fought not to gasp. At least the water had some depth. His feet barely touched bottom. He kicked back to the surface and grabbed the child.

She flung her arms around his neck, fastening to him with the desperate strength of terror. By treading hard, David managed to keep them both on the surface, despite the water in their clothes.

Once she had something to hold to, the child stopped screaming, but when David tried talking to her, the wide-set eyes stared back without comprehension, black with fear. He called up to Soéel, "Give me enough slack on the bucket rope to tie around the child!"

The rope loosened. But he could not pry the child off his neck long enough to wind the rope around her. He tried forcing the bucket under the water, to bring the rope up between them from below. Lowering his arms lost surface support. As they sank in the water, the child screamed again and tried to climb higher on him. The action buried David's face in the sodden, icy fabric of her coat, blinding and almost suffocating him.

He fought her strangling grip, the drag of the water-filled bucket, and numbing hands to tie the rope. Visible portions of it looked brittle and thin. He prayed it would hold the child's weight.

Tying blind took an eternity but finally the knot felt secure. "All right, pull her up!" He felt a tug, but the child remained leeched to his head. David pried at her arms. "Keep trying! Let go, little sister! You'll be safe if you let them pull you up." God, just let him peel her loose before he lost the feeling in his hands altogether.

But she clung with a strength that defied all their efforts. Then Soéel cried out in dismay. The upward pull stopped abruptly in a coiling rain of rope. David managed to twist his face free and see the end of the rope floating on the water near them, frayed apart.

The cold ate into him. Panting, he kicked hard to keep them afloat and hold off the deadness in his hands and arms that threatened to invade the rest of his body. With the first touches of panic he wondered how the hell they would get out of the well now. Was there more rope available close by? At a work site, perhaps? No, the workers had used no pulley system to let down the stone they removed, merely passed it from worker to worker into the cart.

"Send someone after Flowers, Soéel!" he called up.

Though by the time she arrived, he would probably have long lost the ability to keep afloat. They needed to get out this water now! His mind raced desperately, trying to think of anything they might let down for him to grab. Or a way to climb high enough for them to reach him.

He felt along the well shaft. But like the street above, the stones fit too tight and smooth to offer any handhold, even if his fingers had the ability to grip. Forget climbing.

Maybe forget everything. The water washed into his mouth and his leaden legs barely lifted him high enough to spit it out again. Exhaustion enveloped him. Unless Flowers came at light speed, only a miracle could save them. What irony. All those streets flooded and the water here remained shallow. If only the water level here at least equaled sea level, he and the child would easily be in arm's reach of--

Across the thought cut another. A name. Archimedes. The well need not be full of water; they needed only to displace the water. What to use to fill the well, though?

Above him the workers debated possible courses of action: Tying clothing into a rope, or making a living chain, each person grasping the ankles of another until they reached the two in the water.

The voices reminded David of the workers' job.

"Daafíd, what do you want us to do?"

Looking up at the long heads silhouetted against the circle of sky, he opened his mouth to answer but no words came out. They had a ready source of material to fill the well. . .but his soul recoiled from it. He could not possibly ask them to use that.

His legs faltered. Water washed over his mouth again. The child shrieked, echoed by her mother above. David groaned and forced his legs back into motion. God, he felt so tired. He wanted to weep from weariness. Where the hell was Flowers!

His sodden clothes dragged at him. David choked on the water rising almost to his eyes.


Somehow he forced his legs into motion again. The effort necessary told him they had no time to wait for Flowers. Despair wrenching him, he called instructions to Soéel.

David sensed her surprise, but her head nodded--another human gesture she had learned from him--and all but one of the silhouetted heads above him disappeared. Only the mother remained, calling down tearful assurances to him and the child.

Shortly, cartwheels rumbled on paving, then he heard the crack of breaking stone.

"Watch out, Daafíd!"

He pulled against one wall of the well, turning so his body shielded the child's. A block of stone plummeted past into the water. He tried not to watch its luminous glow disappear, but even the sound of it striking the surface brought a mental image. And with it, a little piece of him died. More stone followed. He tried to concentrate on pumping legs he no longer felt, to think about the water rising with each piece, anything but the ancient, irreplaceable carvings broken and drowning below him.

His entire body had gone numb. He could not even feel the child. Lassitude crept through him. Only the sound of Soéel's voice him kept him moving, a sound growing steadily nearer. Then instead of encouraging him, she said, from very close, "Hand up our little sister."

He had to look at his hands to see what they were doing. They moved in slow motion. Someone he managed to pull the child loose with them anyway. She must feel as numb as he did. David pushed her above his head, struggling to kick hard enough to keep from being pushed under by the action.

Her weight lifted from him. Moments later he found himself, too, lifting, hauled upward by Chaaésaalan hands around his wrists, dragged up and out over the rim of the well to huddle on the paving gulping air and shuddering with cold.

Soéel opened her long coat and enfolded the both of them in it. "You will be all right?"

Over her shoulder he saw the child crushed in the embrace of her weeping mother. "Yes, just as soon as I thaw out."

Soéel drew her head back to meet his eyes. "I did not mean that."

David wrapped his arms around her angular, alien body under the coat. "I know." The heat of her body seeped into him, dissolving the ice in his bones. "You meant the stone." He buried his face against her neck, aching. "But what other choice did we have?"

Like Taaéhalaan, he realized, and with the thought, felt the ice in his heart begin dissolving, too. Holding Soéel, David glanced around at the glowing, spired city and forced himself to accept giving it to the sea. "A sacrifice for life and the future." He wished Soéel and her people a boundless measure of both.



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