Elana pressed her light green fingers against the cool glass, the webbing between them dry and scaly. Years of living above-surface had hardened both her skin and her spirit, yet for her own sake, for the sake of her people, she knew she must conceal her emotion.
She’d dreaded this field trip to the Preservationist Museum with her Kagarin classmates. Though she studied among the Kagarin, lived in their dormitories, dined with them — walked among them — she was reminded every day that she was not one of them. She would always be Amphiba.
Her gaze rested on the eye sockets of the three skulls in the center display case. Permanent in their emptiness, they were squared off at the top and rounded just above the protruding cheekbones. Someone, or something, had carved a perfect circle into the crown of the center skull, the bone smooth, without splinters.
She wondered what had happened to the owners of those bones, and how the portrait of their lives differed from the image the Kagarins painted.
The Kagarin canvas, Kagarin brushstrokes — that was the only truth that mattered.
Elana smiled, though she felt like screaming; gritted her teeth until the pain sliced a jagged path from her jaw to her brain. She squeezed her muscles taut, willing her pores to stop the beads of seawater that threatened to seep through. If they saw her weeping, the Kagarin would question her. Her mother warned her that questions meant danger and only led to one outcome: conscription to the mines and certain death.
Elana couldn’t do that to her mother — to her mother’s memory.
She reached up and touched her own face, pushing her fingers into flesh that embraced the same structure as those skulls — a gift from evolution that enabled the Amphiba people to perceive distance and depth through even the murkiest waters.
Her people had been cast from the Great Sea, onto Kagarin shores. In the sea, they were strong. Powerful. Alive. But here, on Kagarin land, they gave their lives for the right to live, diving deep into the underwater mines of the Asave Pools to mine Selapa Ore, the source of all Kagarin power and technology.
Elana glanced over her shoulder at her classmates milling about the interactive lecture chamber. At least a head taller than she, the Kagarin all shared the same silver hair, long alabaster necks, and wide violet eyes that were hallmark to their race. Short, green, and scaled, Elana stood out alone, a broken crab shell in a field of sea glass. The Kagarin milled together, laughing at projections from the MindBands fused to their foreheads — mostly memes of Amphiba jokes and Kagarin propaganda.
Kagarin and Amphiba both told Elana she should be grateful. Selected as a young child just days after their arrival on land, she was one of the few Amphiba the Kagarin deemed worthy of an education. Those who arrived with Elana were sent to the mines; any who were born after joined the others the moment they learned to stand.
Elana never understood why she was different.
Staring at her reflection in the glass, she wondered if the eyes held by the empty Amphiba skull on display had looked like her own, wide and turquoise, with flecks of gold that shimmered when she laughed.
Elana hadn’t laughed in months. Not since the night her mother died from an infection she’d contracted after being injured in the mines. From the time she was chosen, Elana had barely seen her mother, yet the Kagarins granted her one farewell visit to her mother’s deathbed.
Only then did Elana learn the truth about her family, about her father, and the plight of her people. She swore to her mother she’d keep the secret locked away as deep as the seas from which they’d emerged.
But the truth was an anchor swallowed whole.
Elana caught a flash out of the corner of her eye. She held her breath as the reflection of Angi, her classmate and tormentor, materialized in the glass next to her. To Angi and her friends, Elana was nothing more than a lizard, a lackey who managed their unwanted assignments and suffered as a target of their abuse.
The Kagarin teenager flipped her long hair over her shoulder and smirked at Elana with thin lips painted with blue rouge — the hallmark of an angelfish. But to Elana, Angi was the devil. Her red eyes glowed back at them both, hovering over the cavern in the center skull like lasers.
“Amphibas Forever Indebted: Kagarin Ingenuity, Compassion Saves the Aliens.” Angi read the placard aloud and laughed.
Elana stiffened. Kagarin truth, not Amphiba truth, she thought.
Keep your head down and your shoulders rounded, Mother had said. Create waves, and you’ll unleash a typhoon that will destroy everything.
From Mother’s perspective, Elana’s scholarship was the key to a different life. A better life, out of the mines. But Elana was no longer sure what her future held.
“An Amphiba is forever indebted,” Angi repeated. She grabbed Elana’s arm and squeezed it so tightly the skin turned yellow under her grasp. “You’ll complete the day’s assignment for me. And my friends.”
Elana nodded. “Of course.” She silently apologized to her reflection and to the opened skull staring back at her.
“Good!” Angi tapped at the metal headband fused to her forehead, photographing the skulls with flashes from her eyes. She projected the image from her band.
“Hmm. And what caption would fit such a beautiful photograph?”
Elana lowered her head and tugged at the webbing between her fingers. Kagarin truth is false, she thought.
“I know!” Angi clapped her hands, her eyes radiating glee. She blinked twice and tapped at her headband again. The words, “The only worthwhile Amphiba is …” hovered above the skulls. Angi cackled and the rest of the Kagarin students turned toward them. Elana felt pins and needles rising into her skin; it glowed amber as she fought the sentiment that threatened to ooze through.
“For Kagarin country! For Kagarin honor!” A high-pitched female voice cried from the back of the room. Twenty arms raised fists in the air and stomped against the wooden floor in a unified drumbeat. Twenty sets of eyes bore into Elana, as if they sought something inside her. A slick oil seeped through her skin, cooling her as her features shimmered like moonlight over the sea. Thank goodness the Kagarin technology hadn’t evolved enough to extract thoughts. Yet.
“Ok, students, you’ve had your fun.” Professor Worlo waddled through the crowd. His paunch and wild white hair betrayed his age; Elana had heard rumblings among her classmates that the administration slated the teacher for termination by year’s end. And not just his title and tenure. Amphiba people would never discard elders in such a callous manner — they revered the wisdom years brought and never scorned age.
Elana wondered whether any of her elders still breathed.
“Time to learn more about our Kagarin history, and …” He nodded toward Elana and, seemingly, toward a male Amphiba statue standing beside her. “The days when the Amphiba emerged from the Great Sea.”
She flinched when the ‘statue’ nodded back at the professor; he had stood so still, Elana thought he, too, was an artifact on display. An examination of his name tag revealed him as Marvic, a docent.
Odd, she thought.
The Kagarin students groaned as they pushed forward in a single wave toward the glass. “Who cares about a bunch of lizards,” a voice muttered.
Elana separated from the crowd; the docent followed her. Marvic was tall for an Amphiba, though she hadn’t seen a male of her species in years. The gold flecks in his eyes twinkled as she stood next to him, a signal of camaraderie and interest. She smiled weakly as the lights dimmed and a three-dimensional hologram flickered behind the glass—an image of the sea.
A booming, yet soothing voice filled the room.
“The Kagarins have ruled our planet for centuries, living in harmony with nature and all its creatures.”
The scene changed from the ocean, to woodlands, to vast deserts; the silhouette of a Kagarin female overlaid each.
“Our military prowess has preserved that harmony through the world, quelling uprisings, promptly quashing those that would threaten our peace, our prosperity, our position as the superior species.”
A collective stomp shook the floor.
“For Kagarin country!”
“For Kagarin honor!”
Elana shuddered. Marvic shifted his position; so close now that she could feel him breathing next to her. For an Amphiba to hold a role of cultural importance was almost unheard of; it was as uncommon as an Amphiba scholarship. She blinked twice to quell the rising shimmer she felt in her own gaze.
The voice continued. Images of battle and blood washed away by the lapping of waves on a rocky beach.
“But our might, our intellect, does not supersede our altruism. When the Amphiba surfaced from the sea, driven from their home world by the Great Rains over 500 fortnights ago, the Kagarins embraced them. Offered refuge. Shelter. The opportunity to live and work among us. A new home.”
Simulated thunder boomed around them. Images of great ships cracking through the surface of the sea hovered above the skulls in the display case. These were superimposed by the faces of anguished Amphiba blistered and bleeding as crimson rain pelted the ocean. Through the hologram, Elana saw Angi point and giggle, nudging a friend next to her as she whispered in her ear. The scene changed again; images of Kagarins pulling wounded Amphiba from the water, draping blankets over the Amphibas’ shoulders as the storm calmed and the sea lay dormant, red, behind them.
Marvic leaned in. “Ever wonder who poisoned the sea?”
Elana froze with a chill as cold as a glacier at midnight — the same heart-stopping feeling she had when she absorbed her mother’s last words.
She moved her eyes toward him, her head stiff, as if still focused on the presentation. “The gods brought the Great Rains.” Elana spoke through thin lips, her words nearly inaudible. “We were destined to surface.”
“Fairy tales.” His eyes flashed again. “What they want us to think.”
A new image appeared: Kagarin doctors surrounding a smiling Amphiba patient, his olive skin a stain on the white sheets upon which he lay. Wires and tubes spread from the patient’s head, overlapping his body like mechanical tentacles, yet the Amphiba smiled. “Kagarin technology allowed the Amphibas to live.”
“If you call enslavement living,” Marvic muttered. His eyes flickered gold for just a moment, casting a glow over his features. His gaze warmed her, just as her mother’s did. Just as she remembered her father’s gaze in flashes cutting through the depths of the undersea world she had barely known outside of her dreams.
The docent nudged her elbow. “You’re the first Amphiba I’ve seen here in two seasons.” He motioned toward the class — a swell of whitecaps around the room. “Why?”
“Scholarship,” she whispered. “Mother said I was one of the Chosen.”
“Chosen.” He snorted. “Like that’s a good thing.”
Red and yellow light flashed above the hologram, which now showed the floor of a deep cave. Purple stalagmites rose through an aquamarine pool like fingers reaching up from the planet’s core. Through the mist that slept on the surface, Amphibas dove deep, disappearing for a hundred heartbeats or more before they reemerged with bloodied fingers that grasped spiked spheres above their heads. Ever smiling, they swam toward a group of Kagarins waiting near a stockpile of the glowing orbs.
“Amphiba mine divers contribute to the greater good by excavating Alwic Spheres, driving cleaner energy, generating purity in the air that we Kagarins breathe. And with Selapa Ore, our technologic prowess allows our people to live fully automated lives — free of worldly constraints to pursue a higher purpose.”
Elana gritted her teeth. “They chose me for an education.” She swallowed hard, fighting to control the change of pigment that threatened to surface on her skin. The Kagarins challenged and berated her daily; never did she think one of her own would judge her.
“Ever wonder why you’re here?”
She shook her head, her two hearts beating a syncopated rhythm.
“I was on scholarship, too. Same horrible teachers. Same awful classmates. Now I’m an intern. A temporary assignment, they told me. And when I asked them what was next, they smiled. That’s when I knew, it was time for me to go.”
“Go?” Elana only knew of two options: the school and the mines.
He shook his head and smiled. “You’ll know. When the time is right.”
Elana rubbed the webbing between her thumb and pointer finger, slowing her hearts to a normal pace. She looked up at him, brow furrowed. “I don’t understand.”
“Kagarins only show kindness when it suits their purposes. And it’s far easier for a beast to prey on a complacent target than a suspicious one.” He folded his arms. “They are ready to take from me what I’ve been groomed for.”
She leaned in closer, convinced Marvic could hear the resurgent fluttering in her chest. “What will they take?”
Saltwater pooled in the palms of her clenched fists. She smelled the sea in her fear. She’d promised her mother silence, but the secret pushed through, as desperate for its freedom as a doomed fish, caught in an angler’s line.
“My father. The Kagarins took him when we arrived in the Great Rains. We never knew why. Or where —” She stopped. Her classmates shuffled with boredom as the presentation droned on. Some played Mindgames on their headbands, the green blip reflecting off their eyelashes the only sign of their clandestine activity. Others fidgeted, whispering and giggling to each other. Professor Worlo sat on a chair in the corner, eyes closed in a meditative state.
No one seemed to give a damn about Kagarin history.
Or the two Amphibas speaking quietly in the corner.
Marvic nodded. “Your family’s sacrifice.”
Elana closed her eyes, recalling her mother’s story. Amphiba families clinging to each other, trudging through a sea as thick as blood, and greeted by the barrel of an ion cannon. Mothers, fathers, and children falling to their knees on the rocky sand, prostrate in the grief of an impossible decision. One should go, the rest should stay. They forced all those who refused to surrender one of their own back into the sea. Hand-in-hand, full families stood waiting to die together, poisoned by the waters that once nourished them. For Elana’s father, there was no choice. He simply stepped forward to spare his wife and young daughter.
“You know what became of him?”
Elana shook her head. The docent gestured toward the three skulls in the display.
“The center skull is an artifact of the sacrifice.”
Her eyes glowing, Elana’s hand flew to her mouth to smother the gasp that threatened them both. Did her mother know what the Kagarins had done?
“Your father. My mother,” he said. “Sacrifice one, or all should die.”
“The Kagarins did that. To him. To your mother.”
“The Kagarins were dying. A brain pestilence of which no one speaks. We were the serum that saved them all.”
The sound of lapping waves again filled the room. The voice boomed around them. “We embrace our Kagarin heritage …”
“There isn’t much time.” The docent was nearly breathless. “There was a reason they chose you — a reason they chose me. They saw something different in your father when they opened his mind. My mother ... They want to take the same. From us.”
“For Kagarin country …”
“Cultivating our brains?” she said. The docent squeezed Elana’s hand, as if to quiet her. Realization crashed into her, relentless as a tsunami. Scholarship was not a privilege or a way out. It was a long-drawn death sentence. All those late nights spent with the headmaster, running mathematics drills, solving equations on the virtu-board until every piece of her cartilage ached — they were not for her betterment. They were part of a fully framed strategy to build a mental machine, a machine for the Kagarin to occupy and manipulate.
“When the tide changes, when their smiles supersede their sneers, the time is close ...”
“For Kagarin honor.”
“The path is lighted when the three moons of Agralan align in the north. You’ll find me, and the others, in the tidepools hidden behind the cliffs outside the Endowin Mine.”
Absorbed by the light, the hologram faded. The professor roused, coughing, as the students shuffled their feet and adjusted their packs. Elana turned toward Marvic, but he was gone.
“Reports are due tomorrow,” the professor said. “No exceptions.”
Arms crossed and smirking, Angi approached Elana.
“You have work to do.” The Kagarin’s eyes shined red like the poisoned sea.
“I do.” Elana nodded, watching Angi turn on her heel and strut away to join her friends. “There is much work to be done,” she whispered.
Elana would study their history and their mathematics, their physics and their art. She would study them just as they studied her. But they would not take her thoughts or her memories, her knowledge, her power, for their own greater good. She would leave them, a whole Amphiba being, not just another skull in the display case.
Armed with the truth, she knew she deserved to live. Her people deserved it.
Elana shuffled toward the door amid the din of Kagarin chatter. As she approached the threshold, she looked back at the three skulls immortalizing her people’s oppression. She ran her fingertips across the glass containing them, leaving a streak of sweat that reeked of seawater. Her essence. The mark of her people. Elana smiled.
She awaited the rising moons. And a path forward.
Text copyright © 2021 by the author. Illustration by Pixabay, used under license.
About the Author: Lisa Fox (Facebook / Twitter / Website) is a pharmaceutical market researcher by day and fiction writer by night. She thrives in the chaos of everyday suburban life, residing in New Jersey (USA) with her husband, two sons, and their couch-dwelling golden retriever. Her work has been featured in Metaphorosis, New Myths, Luna Station Quarterly, Brilliant Flash Fiction, and Defenestration, among others. She won the 2018 NYC Midnight Short Screenplay competition and in 2020 had short fiction nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best Small Fictions.