Soul in the Sea by C. M. Fields
When you sink beneath the Atlantic and take your first breath of canned air, you can start to feel it. As you descend into the mile-deep darkness into which 1,500 people perished one frigid April night, the creaking in your hardsuit becomes regular, like a heartbeat. When you reach the ocean’s silt-sand floor, your feet sink a little, but the sea is not going to keep you today.
When you reach the Titanic, her lights are on.
We call it a “special interest”, the therapist tells your father. You are three. You can hear the conversation just fine, even though your father has dragged you yet again to see the woman with the robin-red perm because of your “attention problems.”
Right now she is very interested in telling stories, she says. It’s a good development.
He grunts. Hell of a story, he says.
Soft yellow lights illuminate a shattered scene. There are no currents down here; the dead lay where they fell, eyes wide open, silks and linens billowing, porcelain doll hands reaching for the far-off heavens. Towering sheets of torn steel stand upright like trees.
You press through the water, leaving a glittering wake as the great ship draws you closer into its embrace. Your suit beeps a warning: temperature increasing.
“You know how your father is,” your grandmother says. You are eight, and your grandmother makes you spaghetti with cheese and no sauce because everything else tastes the way looking at the sun feels. “He doesn’t like all that past life stuff.”
But sometimes, on nights when she lets you stay up late while she chain smokes on the porch, she’ll tell you about her own. Grandmother says she has a vivid memory of a train station on a prairie. She sits on a wooden bench and swings short legs out over the green tiles sweating in the heat. The train is going to take her somewhere far away, but she can never remember where. The year is about 1910, she says, or maybe earlier.
That’s only two years before the Titanic sank, you chirp.
You can’t feel it, but your suit indicates that the external pressure is decreasing as you pull yourself up into the wreckage of a hallway. All the lightbulbs overhead are smashed, but the light seems to emanate from all around you.
You take a deep pull of oxygen. It smells only of the metal tank on your back, but something like melancholy fills your lungs and makes them heavy in your chest. Your throat tightens.
You are thirteen and you keep a color-coded dream journal. Blue for good dreams, red for nightmares. During school, you try to draw connections between them. Was the brown-haired woman who peers from cafe windows the same one you dance with in the ballroom? Do the dreams mean something special? Or just that you frequently forget to take your amphetamines?
The drugs fade the memories that aren’t yours until they are ghostly and flat like daguerreotypes. It doesn’t make them any easier.
You shouldn’t be able to hear anything, but the sound of a piano catches your ear: far-off, tinny, like it is coming through an old radio. You swim through the destroyed hallway, pushing centuries-old detritus out of your path. Ashtrays. Broken plates. Scattered old trunks.
Slowly, you find yourself on your knees, your fingers buried in the thick red carpet. You climb to your feet and realize the water’s resistance is waning.
You walk, as if through air, although the jetsam remains suspended. Strains of The Blue Danube echo, layered, slightly out of sync.
You are twenty-one, and you blink as the estate lawyer repeats the number that made your father gasp softly. Neither of you had any idea of the sum your grandmother left behind. It’s enough to pay your student loans. Enough for a down payment on a house. Enough to buy a boat, to hire a crew, to secure a hardsuit.
The note your grandmother transcribed on her deathbed speaks of many things. The family that remained. The husband she wished to join. The dreams she never followed—the past lives left uninvestigated. She never found that train station.
Your father sighs. Your hands tremble. You do not wish to die with the same regret.
There is a piano in the lounge: black, pristine, shining as if newly polished, clashing with the upturned, rotting chairs that bob against the ceiling and clutter the door. The waltz issues from it, and from a distance, you can see the keys moving.
A strange mist coalesces as you approach. It is as if you are watching a painting that can only be viewed from one angle; the path that draws you across the room the only one which will lead you to that which you seek.
You buy the boat. You hire the crew. You wave to your father as you set sail for an unremarkable point off the ice-laden coast of Newfoundland.
There is a shift. The free-floating furniture sinks, repaired, to the floor. The shattered lamps reassemble, their wicks alight. And the mist in front of you takes the hourglass shape of a woman.
She turns to face you and her fingers release the keys. She is a lovely postcard from an elegant past, an Edwardian angel in a cream-colored corset and skirts, deep brunette locks swept up into a pompadour. She looks up at you with wool-gray eyes and extends a hand.
The metallic construction of your hardsuit reaches out, and as your fingertips brush it all begins to fade: the darkness creeps in, the furniture decays, your suit beeps a pressure warning. Your past life offers a wry smile, a smile like a brilliant sunset before the night settles in, and it all fades to black.
When you surface, silent, the crew gives you your space. When you return to your quarters, no one knocks. When you drift to sleep, you dream of light and laughter.
C. M. Fields is a queer, non-binary astrophysicist and writer of speculative fiction. They live in Seattle, Washington, with their beloved cats, Mostly Void Partially Stars and Toast, and spend their days looking for other Earths. They are also the co-editor of If There’s Anyone Left, an anthology series featuring the flash fiction of marginalized writers from across the globe. C. M. can be found on Twitter as @C_M_Fields and @toomanyspectra. Their fiction has appeared in Diabolical Plots, Neon Hemlock, Metaphorosis, and more.