“I could live a million years…” Verena trailed off into a series of a shallow breaths that escaped from a face frozen in a wild grin. “…and no one will ever top this present.”
She turned to her right and watched the massive arena, floating on a bed made of water vapor clouds that concealed gravity glaciers underneath. The arena, the vessels of the other attendees scattering in different directions, the stars, the rainbow of laser lights still beaming from the arena’s heart, they all began to blur as her own vessel leapt into hyperspace.
She turned to her left, still gasping with disbelief. “Dad!” she yelled.
He laughed in response.
And his laughter seemed almost as uncontrollable as Verena’s breathless joy. He was still chuckling as he glanced over, and asked, “Are you okay?”
Oh, he’d known what a spectacular gift he’d given her, when he pressed that button on his ancient wristband and summoned the hologram of two tickets to the holiday hitball tournament to end all hitball tournaments. Her favorite team would be playing. There were no stars. They worked as a unit, like different limbs of the same body. The team didn’t win. Verena didn’t care. The arena, the loaded potato balls, the laser-works, the chants and dances, and the game…it had all been incredible.
Verena’s breathing slowed, and her memory and imagination drifted and shifted through all her favorites plays of the night. She’d be seeing them again. Her dad had purchased a package that included a recording of the whole game. Her thoughts drifted into warm gratitude for her dad, for the gift to top all gifts. And then…
“Oh no,” she suddenly said. She exhaled a sigh.
Her dad shifted the vessel into auto mode for a moment and looked at her. “What is it?”
Verena felt the cold point of a mild panic piercing through the bubble of excitement in her chest. “I’m never going to be able to get you a gift as good as this.” She turned her face to his, her eyes wide.
Her dad, whose eyes at first mirrored her own, and whose brows had climbed as far up his forehead as hers probably had, blinked at her. His brows eased down his face, and his eyes relaxed into their typical size. His mouth turned up into a smile and opened to speak.
But Verena spoke first. “And don’t say that I’m the gift. I know I am, but you deserve to treat yourself. To something really big.”
“I already did that,” he said, “before you came along. I don’t need big and bold. I would just love to get quiet and restful. And gloriously boring.”
“Okay, a vacation. I know the perfect place—“
Verena grinned and sat back. “I’ll think of something.”
Her dad tapped his wristband. “Let me tell your sister we’re on our way back.” He tapped and a hologram fizzed into view and then vanished. He shook his head.
“I’ll do it,” Verena said, shaking her own head at the buggy little band of rusting metal around her dad’s wrist.
As she lightly slid her finger across her own band and sent her sister a message, another sudden sensation seized the center of her heart. She smiled. She had just decided what she would get her dad for the southern solstice holiday.
“What made you change your mind?” Rahini asked.
Verena blinked at her older sister. Her grin didn’t fade, but she felt her brows crinkle. It was not the response she’d been expecting. She figured her sister would at least give a mild nod of approval.
“What do you mean?” Verena asked.
“You rejected the idea when I suggested it.” Rahini turned around in her chair. She was sitting at her desk, reading and taking notes. “Two years ago?”
“I don’t remember that.”
Rahini frowned. “Really?”
Between the two of them, they agreed that Verena was the one who had the better memory. Rahini seemed always to be replacing what was at the forefront of her mind with new thoughts from something she’d read or studied.
Verena truly had no memory of ever discussing with her sister the subject of getting their dad a new wristband.
“I won’t be able to afford the latest models,” Rahini said. “Unless there are some serious sales happening. Maybe you could search for—“
“No! I’ll pay. At least half.”
Rahini turned her chair all the way around now and arched a brow. “You’ve saved that much?”
At her age, Verena had only begun receiving a citizen stipend the year prior. With the cost of her basic needs and a fair bit beyond being covered by her dad’s and sister’s stipends, Verena had been able to save most of hers. It wasn’t much. But she’d already worked out a plan, a way for her to earn a lot of money in a short period of time. Some she would wisely invest, in a responsible way. Some she would spend on gifts for loved ones (and a few for herself).
She did not have enough excess to cover the cost of an all-features wristband, even a modest one, for her father. But if she drained half of what she’d saved, she would have enough to put her master plan in motion a bit earlier than she initially intended. But it would be worth it to be able to get her dad as magnificent a gift as he has gotten her. She had aspirations beyond even the wristband.
“You’ve been paying for all of dad’s gifts,” Verena said. “It’s my turn now.”
Rahini pursed her lips. “Normally, I would suggest you wait until next year or so. But dad’s been needing a new watch for…well, probably for half your life. He missed his chance to upgrade to something he’d like, and approve of. He thinks the watches nowadays are flimsy, especially for how much they charge. He’s not wrong. You know maybe we could just get him a pocket-tablet.”
Verena shook her head. “If it’s not attached to his body, he’ll lose it.”
Rahini nodded. “Maybe on purpose.”
Their father did not like carrying objects around.
Verena clasped her hands. “I would like your help.” She scrunched her eyes together, and then opened them again. “No, I need your help.”
“With what exactly?”
Verena nodded. “I have a plan.”
Verena and her family lived on the largest moon orbiting a gas giant that was uninhabitable to most biological lifeforms. To that day, the planet’s innermost depths remained unexplored. In the turbulent outer atmospheres, there lived schools of night-swimmers, sulfur-smoking eels, and massive tide-whales. Spectacular sights to see, from a distance. Many areas were even safe to fish—and those were marked off and claimed. But the wild parts held a fleeting treasure for the daring and the foolish.
And if the daring and foolish were also the lucky, they would catch in their nets of tetrapolar energy a small sample of a substance known as “cosmoridium plasma.”
It was rare, and it formed and collapsed so quickly under natural conditions that no one had yet invented a technology that could detect it fast enough to collect it. So skimming the stormy surface layers of the planet was a gamble, a game of chance. For most ordinary folk, it was a chance that was not worth the expense of chartering a vessel capable of navigating the dangers of the so-called “unforgiving ocean.”
But taking that chance was the core of Verena’s plan.
Her sister peered at her sideways when Verena was done explaining.
Rahini pointed to her. “So you want to take half your entire savings,” she said, in her quiet, reasoning-it-out tone, “and instead of putting it towards getting dad a pretty decent new watch—maybe even one of the skin tight ones he wouldn’t feel on his wrist—you want to pay some hauler-trawler pilot to take you straight into the ‘unforgiving ocean,’ where you’d be the luckiest person in the system, if you caught even a glimpse of cos-plasma, much less a sample.”
“It’s not just about the wristband. If we get even a few grams of cos-plasma, we could get dad a wristband, replace my savings—several times over, add to your savings, and give dad the gift he really deserves.”
Rahini’s eyes flashed with sudden understanding. “Going back to his old position.”
Their father had been a professor, and he had loved his position. But professors didn’t early salaries. Their citizen stipends were more generous than other positions of public service. But not generous enough to pay back the gambling debts that their hapless uncle had amassed and laid at their dad’s doorstep when Verena was still small.
Verena was aware that she was taking after her uncle in her scheme to gamble with her savings. But that’s why she had gone to Rahini. Her sister’s reason would balance her risk.
Verena nodded. “Yeah, and I’d like for you to review the research I’ve done on some of the pilots and captains. Tell me who you think is trustworthy.”
Rahini rose from her chair and put her hands on Verena’s shoulders. “None of them.”
“I haven’t shown you my research yet.”
Rahini paused for a moment. “Is there any way whatsoever that I can talk you out of this?”
Verena shook her head. “Not a chance.”
With a sigh, Rahini settled back in her chair. “Show me your research.”
Rahini had only agreed to go along with the plan, if she could go along on the trip. She had doubts about all the prospective candidates that Verena had presented as their guides into the “unforgiving sea.” But she had grudgingly pointed out one captain who only skimmed the safest surface layers, and whose ship appeared to be in fairly good shape and had fairly good equipment, from what the sisters could tell. Rahini had even called a few previous customers. No one had struck cos-plasma on their trips, but they had good things to say about the captain, who told the sisters to just call her “Mona.”
So before too long, with their dad off on a work trip to their moon’s twin on the other side of the planet, the sisters found themselves on a hauler-trawler skimming along the wispy gases that were technically not part of the planet.
“At this height, we’re off-planet,” Mona explained. She was the one-woman crew of her small ship.
From the fore window, they could still see the stars above and the murky gases below. If the planet were a pot of simmering steam, they were currently gliding through the steam.
They dipped a bit lower, deeper into that “steam.”
A bolt of lightning flashed before them, splitting and arcing around the ship.
“Just a tickle,” Mona said, pulling a lever to her right, and patting the console. “Nothing to worry about.”
Verena was sitting beside the captain. But Rahini was behind them. She hadn’t settled into a chair yet. She was still walking around the ship’s main compartment, looking at all of the dials, consoles, panels, and readings.
Verena turned her head back. “Rahi, you’ve got to see this!”
“You read your contract right?” Mona said, steering them a bit lower. “You’re probably not going to net anything. But you paid for the ride. So you won’t get a refund just for not netting anything.”
Verena nodded. “I understand.” She had read the contract. And Rahini had too.
“Sometimes people catch something else that’s interesting,” Mona said, “but not valuable.”
That was true. One of the former customers that Rahini spoke to had said that he’d caught some kind of crystal cloud that he’d donated to a research facility where he lived, and the facility had given him a tour and credits to take a few classes at their partner academy.
“I’m seated,” Rahini said from behind them, as the captain lowered them a bit more.
Mona had shown the sisters how to interpret a few readings, so they would know how low they were—measured as their distance from the planet’s core. And whether there were any other solid objects near, so they could avoid collision with other ships.
They would not dive deep enough to encounter any of the ocean’s wildlife. Rahini had been sure to make the captain put that in their contract.
So when Verena glanced at the reading of their depth and saw them sinking farther and farther down, she started to alert the captain.
An alarm sounded just as she spoke.
“It’s okay,” Mona said, her voice steady and quiet. “There’s a tide pulling us from under. But we are strong enough to resist.”
The ship trembled. Verena gasped again.
A loud metallic boom rattled the ship. Verena let out a scream.
The ship began to sink, fast.
“What’s happening!” Verena cried.
Mona was flipping switches, swiping through and selecting commands on her console, pulling levers up and down.
“We’re leaking anti-ballast on the port side,” Mona said. “I’m trying to keep the ship level.”
The stars vanished. The steam vanished. They sunk through and into thick streams of grit-filled orange gas and dense clouds of electrified plasma.
“We’re too low,” Rahini said from behind. She said it forcefully, but calmly. “Can we rise?”
“Not until I can get level and then point the ship up. The dorsal thrusters are slowing our descent, but aren’t strong enough at this depth to raise us.”
All three were silent for a moment, letting Mona focus on keeping the lurching and plummeting ship from tumbling over altogether.
The ship’s rocking steadied somewhat. Mona had time to switch off some of the alarms.
Rahini spoke again, in a tone that seemed confused. “Captain, I see a reading back here that says that the anti-ballast tanks are both full?”
But Verena recognized the true feeling underneath her sister’s apparent confusion. Suspicion.
Mona, however, did not hesitate to nod. “That’s not what I’m seeing here, so either the reading is faulty, or something else is going on.”
Verena gulped. “That blast…”
“I’ll investigate it later,” Mona said. “Right now, my aim is to get us out of here before—“
Verena jerked forward in her seat, the restraints catching her.
What now? she thought.
“Impossible…” Mona whispered. She swiped the console a few times, bringing up a view of the ship’s rear.
Verena saw, and she understood.
The ship’s nets were still deployed. And they had caught something. Mona magnified the view.
Gleaming obsidian blobs, splitting, joining, shifting colors to indigo, bright pink and orange, and back to obsidian. The material was struggling to do what it would naturally do, dissipate back into the matter around it. But the net was holding it fast, holding it still.
Verena had only seen pictures. She had not expected the stuff to be as pretty in real life.
“Cosmoridium plasma,” she said.
Another alarm sounded. Orange and yellow lights blinked.
Before Verena could read the panel to see what the lights were warning about, a monstrous shadow loomed over them, and dove toward them.
With the butt of her hand, Mona slammed all the levers on her console forward, and the ship veered to starboard just as the massive shape plunged past them. Verena caught the glossy swirling orb of a single eye. It was a tide-whale. Her heart thudded.
“Cut the net!” Rahini said. “It’s dragging us down.”
Verena’s heart froze and sank. But she knew her sister was right. “She’s right.”
“No,” Mona said. Her voice sounded tight and breathless. “It’s okay. I can get us out. I can dodge it.”
Verena turned to the captain. “It’s not worth our lives!”
“We won’t lose our lives. Please, trust me.” Mona’s brow was dripping sweat, but her hands were steady on the ship’s controls. “Keep an eye on the rear view.”
Verena kept her gaze glued to the console in front of her. A dark shape rose from the dusky sea of gas below them. It grew bigger, closer.
Despite the net full of cos-plasma, the ship was now rising. But it wasn’t rising fast enough.
“It’s, it’s catching up with us,” Verena said. She gulped. Her mouth had gone completely dry.
“Do you have sonic beacons?” Rahini asked.
“Yes, but by the time help comes—“
“Shoot them in different directions. It might disorient the whale. Make us look bigger. Give us time to get away.”
“What if she doesn’t fall for it?” Mona said. But she was already activating the three beacons she had onboard. She shot them each in a different direction.
Verena watched the console in front of her. She couldn’t tell at first if the shadow behind them was still growing bigger and closer, or if was hovering in place, or if it was receding.
They were still rising.
And the shadow was growing dimmer as more layers of thick gas covered the distance between the whale and the ship.
Verena held her breath. When the shadow vanished altogether, she gripped the arms of her chair tighter. Not being able to see the whale was nerve-wracking. Even after the gas above them thinned, and gave way to a view of the black space, and then stars, she kept herself braced, braced for the whale to come surging up out of the soupy sea, jaws wide, overtaking the ship, and clamping shut with all of them inside, plummeting again, this time into the belly of the whale.
But Rahini’s plan worked. Or else they got lucky. Or both.
They were silent on the ride back to the dock from which they’d departed.
“Are you both alright?” Mona asked when they landed.
“I think so,” Verena said. Rahini said nothing.
They climbed out of the ship. Mona had reported that they were carrying a sample of cosmoridium plasma, and so they’d been escorted to the dock as soon as they reached the border of the lunar atmosphere.
Mona went inside the building where materials hauls were processed and packaged for the customer.
Verena was still too stunned by the whole ordeal to truly feel the awkward triumph she would have otherwise felt at pulling off her plan successfully. She watched workers remove their net with the cos-plasma in it.
They waited for a few hours. Rahini bought them a meal at the commissary she found down one hallway. They sat at a table from where they could see Mona’s ship. Assessors had come out to observe and record the damage, so Mona could use their report when she submitted her ship for repairs. Rahini had gone outside when she saw them. Verena had seen her sister asking the assessors questions. But Verena had been more interested in finding out how long it would be before they could go home with the treasure they had risked life and limb for.
At last, just when Rahini was about to get them some more food, they saw someone in an official green jumpsuit heading towards them.
He smiled, thanked them for waiting, and informed them that they were now free to go.
“Thank you, sir,” Verena said. “Where do we pick up our haul? The cos-plasma. The cosmoridium plasma, I mean.”
The tall man frowned and raised an arm. He checked the band on his wrist. “Oh, you don’t, miss. I’m sorry. It appears that the ship’s owner has already claimed the haul.”
“Oh no, sir. She was only supposed to get ten percent.”
The man pressed his wristband, summoning the image of a document. “Ah, yes, correct. Ten percent. Unless there is a breach of contract. The captain cited that there was a breach, here. You were attacked by a tide-whale, correct?”
“The contract stipulates that a whale attack is one of the special circumstances that would warrant the captain’s claim on the entire haul, for damages.”
Verena’s heart began to race again. Heat rose from her neck to her face. Her breathing quickened and she frowned as she turned to her sister. But Rahini’s attention was not on the man in the green jumpsuit, or the image of the contract they had signed. Rahini was watching the ship they had risked their lives in.
The ship’s launching thrusters crackled, and it rose into the air, and zoomed away.
“This is my fault. And I will make it up to both of you.”
Rahini had said those words in her quiet but firm voice, her hands on Verena’s shoulders.
Of course she blamed herself. She was the oldest.
But she was wrong.
The whole thing had been Verena’s fault. She had gambled. Just like her foolish uncle.
She had won it all, and immediately lost it all.
So as much as she wanted to wallow in self-pity and stew in anger, Verena decided that she was the one who had some making up to do.
For a few days, she still tried to find some authority to help her get her haul back, or at least be refunded for the money she spent on hiring that two-faced Mona. But the contract she had signed tied the hands of everyone she reached out to, even those who seemed to sincerely want to help her.
When their dad returned home, the sisters pretended to be cheerful. But with southern solstice approaching, and all hope of receiving justice fleeting, Verena couldn’t stand it anymore.
She told Rahini that she wanted to confess everything to their dad and that she would take the blame. She saw in her sister’s eyes that any attempt on either of their parts to take full blame for what both had done would not work. But Rahini agreed anyway.
So Verena confessed everything to her dad, and asked for his help.
As expected, her dad was distraught at hearing that both of his daughters were almost swallowed by a tide-whale. He hugged Verena close and kissed the top of her head so many times, he started scaring her. He let go when she said so.
He kissed her forehead one more time, and said, “This is not the last conversation we will have about this.”
And it sounded both comforting and ominous to Verena.
He then went to go to talk to Rahini, and Verena hoped he wasn’t harder on the older sibling for not taking better care of the younger.
Verena held on to one last bit of hope when her dad started trying whatever he could to get her money back. They had all given up on trying to convince the captain to return the cos-plasma. Verena feared they would never find Mona again.
It was the night before solstice day that her dad came in to her room to tell her what she already knew. He had done all he could. Everyone had.
“You did everything right,” he said. “You did your research. You had your sister help you.”
“But I still got cheated. That’s how life goes though, I guess.”
“It shouldn’t be.”
Her dad’s voice sounded so hard that it startled her and she looked at him. His jaw was clenched, but it loosened and then he smiled and his eye twinkled a little.
“All because you can’t stand me still having this old thing, huh?” He raised his wrist.
Verena nodded. And felt the first of many tears slipping down her cheek. Soon, she was sobbing, for the first time since the whole thing happened.
Her dad held her. “Do you want me to stay while you cry?”
Verena shook her head. Her dad knew she didn’t like other people seeing her cry, even him, and even Rahini. She knew he wanted to cradle her until she felt better, and that he had to make himself let go and stand up.
He stopped in her doorway. “When you’re done, join us for dinner. Your sister made your favorite.”
Verena cried a bit longer. Not for herself. But for her dad, who had deserved everything that a fortune would buy him. And because she was sorry she had put herself and her sister in danger, and that if they had gotten hurt or died, it would have destroyed him. And she cried for her sister, who only wanted to be quiet and calm and read and study, but who had plunged into an unforgiving ocean, knowing she could not have stopped Verena, but that she might be able to save her from whatever she’d gotten herself into. And she did save Verena after all.
Oh, she would spend her life making it up to them. She would take it slow, slow and steady.
She would start by going down to dinner, and saying “sorry,” and saying “thank you,” and washing the dishes without being asked, and having a jolly holiday.
The next morning, there were seven gifts on the family table. Under and around the table were many little gifts from friends and other family—most of them probably sweets, and messages of love, and hilarious images of whole families dressed alike in hideous holiday sweaters.
Five of the gifts on the family table were wrapped in familiar wrapping. The sisters’ gifts to each other and to their father. The father’s gifts to his daughters.
But two of the gifts were contained in thin dark blue boxes with no label indicating the giver. One was for Verena and one for her dad. There was no third box. So even though they each had a present from Rahini, they both turned to her.
“An extra one?” Verena asked her sister, holding the box up. “What is it?”
Rahini raised her brows. “Why are you asking me?”
Her dad raised his box. “Because this is your handwriting that says ‘To Dad.’”
Verena and her dad exchanged a glance. They both opened their mystery boxes at the same time.
Inside each were identical tablets, palm-sized, older models, modestly priced, and solidly built. These were simple ones, the kind people usually kept at their desks, or used for reading. A little note inside each box read, “Activate me.”
Verena and her dad looked at each other again and synchronously activated their respective tablets.
An image projected up from each, the same hologram. A news story about the arrest of the owner and operator of a hauler-trawler. There was something about the ship being out of compliance, and a pending investigation into tampering, perhaps even sabotage for reasons unknown, but definitely illegal, especially given that this individual brought other people aboard a faulty ship.
Verena stopped reading. She watched the various still and moving images of the woman she knew as Mona, being taken away by one of the very authorities that Verena had entreated for help.
Rahini was lounging on their sofa now, holding up a mug with wisps of steam rising from the top. “Happy Solstice, Dad,” she said, raising the mug to their dad. She lowered the mug and raised it again to Verena. “Happy Solstice, Vee.”
Their dad leaned toward Verena. “I think you sister just topped my present,” he said.
Verena grinned. She beamed. She could not stop gazing at her sister. “Both presents are tied for the best ever,” she said. She stepped back and pointed at both her dad and her sister. “But you should know…”
She dropped her hands, and she dropped her smile. “…you’re the real present.”
There followed the requisite groans before things got too sentimental, and the turning on of a movie feed, and the opening of more gifts, and the eating of foods that were not typically eaten for breakfast.
And the whole time, Verena kept glancing at her sister and her dad, as sat between them, between the greatest gifts the galaxy had ever given her.
Copyright © 2022 Nila L. Patel