TAAEHALAAN IS DROWNING
by Lee Killough
Taaéhalaan is drowning. We are
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
"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
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
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
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
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
"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.
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
"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
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
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
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.
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,
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
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
Soéel drew her head back to meet his eyes. "I did not
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.