Mariner’s Planetary Rotational Coincidence

“That’s not your hatch-mate! That’s a clump of kelp!”

Everybody laughed, as we floated through the warm rest-zone, coral and sand passing slowly underneath us as the spin-currents carried us towards the ship’s return-edge. Everybody except Mariner, the human crew member.

“Did you get it, Mariner?” I asked them. They had shown an interest in our humor, but often had trouble understanding it. “The poor fellow had been fooled by the polarized light into thinking a clump of kelp was their hatch-mate!” I explained.

“Oh, I apologize, Seamaker. My mind was elsewhere,” Mariner replied through their suit’s speaker.

Their speech was good as always, but strangely distant. Fisher and Gardner were resting on Mariner’s ‘shoulders,’ enjoying the heat which radiated eternally from the human’s body. Balancer and I were floating nearby, making five of us in total.

“Is something wrong? You’ve been floating like a rock, lately.”

“Oh, it’s only…”

Mariner trailed off for a moment, looking around at all of us, considering their next words. Sometimes, getting Mariner to speak about themself could be more difficult than getting a bone out of your beak, I had discovered.

“…I suppose I miss my planet, and other humans. I have been away for a long time, and soon it will be my, ah — the planetary rotational coincidence of my birth.”

“The what?” Fisher asked, confusedly.

“It means that, roughly, the angle swept out by my home planet around its star since my birth will be evenly divisible by tau.”

“Oh!” Fisher exclaimed. “How auspicious! This, then, is one of your many ways of discretizing time?”

“Yes. The year is the longest common unit of time.”

“Speaking of time, Computer is reminding me of the things I need to do. Until next meal, then,” Gardner said, excusing themself, and dropping off Mariner’s shoulder.

“Back to your duties, then! Until next meal,” I said, dipping my head gently in dismissal.

We began to disperse, swimming away towards transit points or nearby posts. Mariner began to ascend, back up to their platform, which rested on the water’s surface.

“Balancer!” I called out. “I need to speak with you a moment.”

“Yes, Seamaker?” Balancer asked.

“Computer reports oxygen levels have been elevated lately. Is all going well?”

“Everything is under control, Seamaker. I cannot be certain of the cause of the elevated levels, but…”

Balancer hesitated, glancing upwards. Ripples were spreading out on the surface of the water, where Mariner had climbed out, onto their dry float-house.

“I believe Mariner has not been as physically active lately. I have not seen them out doing their ‘exercise,’” Balancer finished.

“I see. Thank you for your thoughts and your work, Balancer.”

“As always, Seamaker.”

Balancer swam away slowly, not in a hurry. Gradually, I was left alone with my own thoughts.

As the ship’s Seamaker, it is my responsibility to ensure that everything above and below the sea is working together in harmony, forming our bubble of life which travels through the void. The water regulators, the sea-pastures, the power matrix, the journey-threader… from the very center of our ship, containing the machines and our artificial sun, to the curved, spinning outer walls, holding in our sea from the vacuum and setting it spinning… every part must work together. But neither Computer nor I can manage all these things alone; for this, we depend on the crew. And so, part of the harmony of the ship is also the harmony of its crew. When one of the crew members might be having trouble, it is my responsibility to help them.

I was swept along by the currents for a good while, digesting my meal, soaking in the light, and ruminating. Eventually, I emerged from my torpor, and queried the computer for available information on humans. It gave me the standard entry I’d read before: an excitable, newly emerged species, coming from a crowded, so-so planet around a boring, standard yellow sun. Their planet rotated, and had land and seas — unlike our homeworld of endless ocean and eternal sun. Humans also had very complex emotions and cultural structures, blah blah blah, and so on. It wasn’t very useful for when one was trying to understand an alien crew member’s emotions.

I asked the computer for anything else it had. It reminded me that I had downloaded a package back when Mariner came aboard, titled ‘Getting to Know Humans: A Casual Guide for Sentient Organics.’ I had only opened it briefly before; Mariner had been good at stating their needs, and integrating into life aboard the ship. Now, it appeared I needed some more assistance.

Swimming to a nearby supply pillar, I picked up a screen to inspect the contents of the package. I groaned, remembering; most of it was reading material. Reading made my eyes and head hurt, and having Computer speak it aloud would take a long time, even by our standards, much less Mariner’s.

The biggest difference between Mariner and the rest of us wasn’t breathing air instead of water; it was time. Human time moved more quickly than our time. It was precious, parcelled up, and counted in endless divisions.

Humans’ lives were controlled by their cycles of day and night. On their planet, they had evolved to take care of all their needs while the brief light from their sun lasted, before entering a rest phase. As a result, Mariner seemed to us to be consumed by bursts of frenzied energy and concentration, which suddenly gave way to great fatigue, forming an endless, mad sequence of highs and lows.

Since our last meal, Mariner would have probably finished their work, and entered their ‘sleeping’ phase, where they lost consciousness and hallucinated inside a darkened room, until their body was ready to rise again. The first time Mariner explained ‘sleep’ to us, we had all been certain they were having us on. Eventually, though, we had come to believe it, and even enjoyed (in a strange manner) hearing Mariner describe their regular hallucinations to us during mealtimes. They had been doing that less often lately, I realized.

Flipping further through the package’s contents, one thing caught my attention: a large series of videos, which humanity itself had selected as being culturally important. Selecting one at random, I opened it and listened to the guide’s notes. The video was a ‘musical,’ in which dialogue was combined with song, an auditory form of human art. In it, a human female taught children to sing, found a mate, and faced a geopolitical conflict. The idea of all these concepts presented together in just one video made my head spin; the spinning was doubled when it was stated this was a movie for young humans, as well. Just how complex was their culture?

Nonetheless, I opened the video on my screen. Computer shifted the sound into frequencies I could hear, and translated the dialogue. The story began.

Human videos are incredibly difficult to watch. When they tell a story, they compress long, complex events into tiny spaces. One does not see the characters sleep, eat, or take care of ‘private business’ (as Mariner termed it) during the film, unless it served to catapult the story another step further. And so, jumping by leaps and bounds, the story charged forward, leaving me thrashing in its wake as I tried to keep up.

Just as I was becoming overwhelmed, and beginning to lose hope of gaining any insight into how to help Mariner, the picture jumped forward to a new scene. Several young humans were being frightened by a strange meteorological phenomena, huddled together on a soft-looking piece of furniture. Suddenly, one of the young humans asked the main character what she did, when she was sad.

I heard those words, and my spirit was immediately lifted; here, inside this labyrinthine plot of sudden twists and turns, the answer to my question had been hidden: how to cheer a human up! Marking the scene, I asked Computer to make notes, and listened carefully.

“Bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens,” I muttered, excitedly. “Human favorite things. Of course.”

For a moment, I was sceptical that a human’s favorite things alone could stimulate them out of a torpor. But, “no, it really works!” the main character reassured a small, young human. I was satisfied, and closed out the video. Human favorite things, maybe they would do the trick.

Looking at the list, I asked Computer to cross-reference its sources and fabricate whatever it could. Some of the objects were impractical to fabricate, requiring living beings, and others were purely metaphorical. It seemed the deeper I looked, the more humans confused me. Nonetheless, several objects were manufacturable, and the order was added to the main printer’s queue.

I was satisfied that I had a start. Perhaps something specific to Mariner’s interests, and not just humans in general, would increase the favorite-things treatment’s effectiveness. Maybe an environmental recreation of their homeworld would also be of use. Certainly, humanity’s home planet must count as a ‘favorite thing.’ I continued to think, floating along in the warm currents.

The hardest thing to get used to, I had found, wasn’t the unending sunlight, or the extra gravity; it was the color of the water. The Decapods’ favorite algae was bright red, and it colored much of the sea in patches throughout the ship. Much of the time, I existed at the top of their world; sandwiched between the surface of the sea and the bottom of the sun, in the atmospheric buffer layer. There wasn’t much to look at up there — just the bright, artificial sun overhead, and the curve of the sea’s pink and red surface, arcing up against the ship’s tapered cylindrical hull. All the detail was below me, in the exquisite, living reproductions of Decapod reefs and ecosystems.

I put on my suit, and brought the visor down. On it, Computer posted a list the things I needed to get to, in descending order of priority. That was the way Decapods did things: priorities, not deadlines. When you don’t have much of a concept of time, or days, you just end up with an endless to-do list. Theirs had grown quite long, and so they had hired a new ‘hot-blood’ to come aboard and help clear the backlog. I furrowed my brow when I saw the new top priority: eat with Seamaker and crew!!

“Computer, will Seamaker be eating soon?” I asked. That was basically all you could ask: ‘soon,’ or ‘later.’

“They will be eating later,” it told me.

So, I swam to the nearest transit point, and took it down into the machine-core, which was blessedly dry and cool. A few hours went by as I replaced burned-out components and rebooted redundant systems. That was the beauty of Decapod ships: the Decapods had grown and advanced while being unable to replace or fix things quickly, so all of their systems had to be able to tolerate failure on multiple levels. It was an adaptation which had served them well in space, giving them a reputation as indefatigable and reliable haulers. Still, the ship I was crewing on was near its safe failure-limit, prompting the growing to-do list and my hire.

Computer chirped at me while I was taking a break.

“Seamaker and the crew will be eating soon, near supply pillar 23-C,” it informed me. I put my helmet back on, and went to go meet them.

There was a transit point quite close to pillar 23-C, and so I took a capsule from the machine-core to get there. At its destination, the pod refilled with water and opened its doors, letting me out into the sea. I gasped.

Had something gone wrong? The light from the artificial sun overhead had diminished greatly, reduced to a silvery glow. The pale light was refracted and bent over the seascape from calm waves travelling overhead, painting the seascape in bands of shifting, luminous patterns. My first instinct was that something had gone horribly wrong, that this was an emergency, a catastrophic failure. But, no; Computer would have alerted me. Something else, then? A Decapod festival?

I swam forward out of the pod, towards the supply pillar. In the distance, my eyes picked out dim yellow lights, bobbing gently up and down. Growing closer, I saw that the glowing lights formed a circle, enclosing Seamaker and the others. They had begun eating, using their tentacles to pull in small food capsules which they broke open, and ate from. A large box was sitting in the center of the circle, which I recognized as an output module from the print factory.

“Mariner!” Fisher cried out upon seeing me, their ultrasonic speech pitched down for my hearing. Mariner was only my title, but, over the months, I’d grown attached to it. “You’re here!”

“Yes, you might say coming here was my — top priority,” I replied dryly.

They laughed at that — it was a phrase which, in some oblique manner, formed a pun in their language. Seamaker finished eating, and then began speaking.

“Mariner, I was realizing that maybe you have been sad lately, and that seemed to be an undesirable state for humans. After studying an Earth film, I have done my best to make a plan to ‘cheer you up!’” Seamaker announced quite excitedly.

Immediately, my cheeks began to burn under my helmet. Decapods seemed to have three main emotions: sleepy, cheerful, and introspective. Resultantly, they never hesitated to bring up or discuss any emotions which they detected in others.

“I… I suppose I have been,” I admitted. Covering up the truth would only hinder any development our relationship could have. “What did you have in mind?”

“To begin with… a ‘song!’”

My mouth dropped open, as around me, under the silver light of the dimmed sun, the Decapods did their best to try and carry a melody and tune.

“When a predator bites! When a mite stings! When I’m feeling ‘sad!’ I simply recall my most favored objects, and thus, my spirits are lifted,” they chorused.

Seamaker dropped down from the group, towards the factory box on the ground, while the rest of the Decapods continued to sing in eerie, wavering, earnest voices.

“Behold, Mariner: Human favorite things!” Seamaker announced.

They deftly unlatched the box with a tentacle, and opened the lid, taking out a pair of fuzzy mittens.

“Warm hand-coverings! They are powered by a thermoisotopic ceramic weave, and will stay warm even after the sea has become cold.”

Reaching with another tentacle into the box, they pulled out a misshapen kettle.

“A shining copper container for heating water! I’m afraid only the coating is pure, though; copper is a scarce resource onboard the ship. Nonetheless: very bright!”

Lastly, they reached again into the box, and pulled out a package, wrapped in brown kelp-paper, and tied with string.

“A brown paper package, closed up with string! These are, I’m afraid, all the favorite things we could make.”

The rest of the Decapods stopped singing, as Seamaker came forward to present me with all the gifts. Remembering I didn’t have eight extra appendages to hold things, he recovered by setting them on the sandy sea floor in front of me.

“Oh yes,” Seamaker added, “Computer had an idea for another favorite object, placed inside the brown package.”

Already overwhelmed, I moved to pick up the package on the seafloor, which was strangely heavy. Undoing the delicate knot which held the package closed, the kelp paper fell away, revealing a small plastic box with a sliding lid. Placing my hand on the top, I pulled the lid aside, and gasped.

Inside a vast spaceship, which held a sea, in which a human floated, holding a box, was a perfect replica of Darth Vader’s lightsaber.

“Oh my god!” I gibbered. “Aaaah, it’s a lightsaber!”

Taking it out of the box, I held it in my hands, and admired the craftsmanship.

“Activate it,” Computer whispered in my ear. “It’s safe.”

My mouth dropped open again. Taking the lightsaber into my right hand, I pushed the button on the hilt with my thumb. A glowing ray of red light shot out, forming a blade. Its light reflected off all the Decapods, who oohed and aahed with excitement.

“H-how did you know?” I finally asked, tears beginning to roll down my face.

“Computer figured it out!” Seamaker responded, elated. “It noticed we had videos in our database which you accessed quite frequently, and deduced that they might constitute one of your ‘favorite things.’”

“Happy Birthday,” Computer whispered in my ear, in English.

“Thank you. Thank you, everybody,” I said, beginning to choke up. “This was my best rotational birth coincidence ever.”

The Decapods cheered at my approval. There was a pause.

“Can we turn the sun back up now?” Fisher asked. “I can barely see a thing in this light!”

I nodded.

“Yes. Thanks for making it night, for once,” I added.

The sun came back up, dispersing the sliding silvery light and playful shadows. The Decapods began to slide away, back to their duties and to-do lists. I packed up my things, promising to join them for the next mealtime, and tell them more about dreams. Returning to the deck of my houseboat, I played the rest of the afternoon with the lightsaber, striking awesome poses and making it hum.

When the time for my evening came, I entered the boat’s cabin, where a program simulated sunset and twilight. Eventually, it came time for bed. Putting my gifts on the sideboard, I climbed into bed.

I felt restless.

“Computer,” I finally asked. “Can you sing?”

“Yes,” it replied. “Would you like me to sing?”

“Yes, please. Could you sing ‘My Favorite Things’, from the movie Seamaker watched?”

“Certainly, Mariner.”

With that, Computer began to sing to me. Gradually, as I drifted off, I slowly realized that it was even improvising on the tune, stretching it out, making it last. Then, I fell asleep, and slept well.