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art by Jonathan Westbrook

The Tides

Ken Liu ( kenliu.name) is an author and translator of speculative fiction, as well as a lawyer and programmer. His fiction has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Asimov’s, Analog, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and Strange Horizons, among other places. He also has several stories at Daily Science Fiction. He has won a Nebula, a Hugo, a Science Fiction & Fantasy Translation Award, and been nominated for the Sturgeon, the Locus, and the World Fantasy awards. He lives with his family near Boston, Massachusetts.
"When I was little," Dad says, softly chuckling, "the Moon was so small I thought I could put it in my pocket, like a coin."
I don't answer because there's no time to talk. The tide is coming.
Every day, we scavenge the beach for bent rails, rusty beams, broken metal sheets. And we weld them into the frame of our tower, lifting our house higher.
Overhead, the Moon looms, taking up a quarter of the sky. Its surface is filled with red and yellow veins, like a crème caramel. It glows so brightly that the beach, a mile below us, glistens like a white tablecloth.
Far away on the horizon, I see a mountain of water, thousands of feet high, rushing at us, frothing white. The tower begins to shake with the faint, distant rumbling of thunderous waves.
"Dad, let's go inside."
Back when I was a little girl, the tower was much shorter. People used to walk right under us at low tide.
"Why is the Moon getting bigger every year, Dr. Pelletier?" They'd ask, craning their necks.
Instead of describing the local gravitational constant, orbital decay, or any of the other cold equations that used many symbols and numbers to say nothing, Dad would stand still for a moment, smile, and say, "I guess the Moon loves the Earth too much. She wants to come closer for a kiss."
The people would shake their heads and move on. Many of them were going to the spaceport, where they would board silvery ships shaped like giant teardrops headed for other worlds, never to return.
"Why don't we leave?" I asked, once.
"Élodie," Dad said, stroking my hair gently. "When the wind carries the smell of the sun-lit ocean to me, I inhale the perfume of your mother's hair."
My mother was caught in the tides and drowned shortly after I was born, near where Dad decided to build the tower.
"When the jellyfish blink under the water at night, I see the twinkle in your mother's eyes. When the waves crash against our tower, I hear your mother in the kitchen, rattling pots and pans. How can I leave, when she has become a part of the sea?"
Love tethered him to her, and to the relentless tides.
By the time our tower was as high as the spire on the last cathedral, there were very few people left on Earth. Those who remained huddled in cities on hills that turned into islands at high tide. And every day, more of them left.
Young men would pass under the tower, their chests bare, muscles rippling across their tanned shoulders, and the wind would carry their voices up to me.
"There's no future for a beautiful girl like you here. Come with us!"
I never answered them.
Except once.
That day, the tide had just started to come in, though the wall of water was still miles away. Suddenly, I saw two tiny figures, like slow-crawling ants, on the mudflats to the east. One man was carrying another.
Dad and I ran down to help. The healthy young man, Luc, had refused to abandon his brother, Pascal, who had slipped and broken his leg.
"That was very brave of you," I said, after we had sealed our door against the surging tides.
"Not at all," Luc said. "How can you leave someone you love behind?"
They stayed with us for a month, until Pascal's leg healed.
Luc and I did a lot of staring into each other's eyes. And we listened to the waves at high tide thudding against the walls of our house at the top of the teetering tower. Dad had designed the house to be shaped like a set of knives so that the oncoming waves would part and flow harmlessly around the sharp edges.
"Come with us," Luc said.
I looked into his eyes, and imagined a future not bound by the tides, a future not crammed into dark, sealed rooms.
But then I thought about Dad: about his hair, which grew whiter every day, about his face, which added wrinkles each month, about his spine, which curved more every year.
"I can't," I said. And I felt the bonds of love, as sure as gravity.
It's getting harder and harder to add to the tower. During high tide it sways like a strand of kelp, barely lifting our house above the waves.
"It's not enough that you took my wife," Dad murmured. Then he laughed at the great, oppressive, bright Moon. "I'm not afraid!" he shouted.
Instead of worrying about tensile strength and metal fatigue, I hugged him tightly.
He looked at me, and his face fell.
"Are you ready to save the world?" Dad asks, after we seal the door. "We'll cut the Moon open like a custard pie, you and I. There will be no more tides."
Dad tells me that he has been secretly working on making our house fly like a teardrop spaceship.
"Sometimes we love too much, like the Moon loves the Earth," he says.
Dad straps me down. There is a great explosion, and I feel myself pushed back hard against the bed, where I blank out.
Outside the window, I can see the rest of the house, a bundle of knives hurtling towards the Moon.
But I'm in a separate part of the house. My ship--for that's what it is--is aimed at another world, away from the Moon.
"No," I scream, pounding against the window.
Dad had known that I would not leave him. Cutting me away was the only way he knew to give me a future.
I close my eyes and wait for Dad's knife-house to hit the Moon. Instead of thinking about mass, momentum, and velocity, I imagine the Moon being cut into a million pieces, sharp, jagged, each piece as sweet, and as heavy, as love.
The End
This story was first published on Thursday, November 1st, 2012

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