Chapter 7. Thalassa
Sage thought she was in a dream as they descended in the lander over the deep-purple water of the eastern Thalassian sea. She held on to her seat with shaking hands as her heart almost burst from her chest. The rest of the crew, Milo, Byron, and Georgia were watching with open mouths and frozen gazes as Dina panned a camera to record the views from the lander and the team’s first reactions.
It was a clear, sunny day with swirling white clouds hanging over the smooth ocean as they dropped within a few miles of the planet’s surface. Sage scanned the vast sea, and it reminded her of a summer day on Earth with the dark California-sized continent emerging in the east. Accustomed to Earth’s views, the shorter horizons and smaller brilliant white sun reminder her that something was askew. As they approached land, the blue sea ended against a mountainous ridge of steep-sided volcanoes rising rapidly in the west.
Georgia narrated for the cameras. “We are looking at a deep submarine trench next to the eastern shore, probably a subduction zone. Plate movement has pushed the seafloor below the edge of the continent here, creating these volcanoes in the process. It’s like the Andes or Cascades. Most are in the 5,000- to 6,000-meter range, about 18,000 feet.”
“But why steep volcanoes instead of mound volcanoes like Hawaii or Mars?” asked Sage.
“Ah, good question,” Georgia replied, staring at the growing volcanoes. “I’m not sure, but it may be due to the lower gravity of the planet or perhaps the higher mineral content. If they are anything like Mars, these volcanoes may erupt at highly irregular episodes but are capable of massive eruptions.”
Milo directed Byron to fly over the top of the volcanoes and head down the western slope toward the offshore islands. As they approached, Sage looked down and saw the east coast was a long series of steep volcanic cliffs, dropping into deep water. Good for ocean productivity, she thought, but not the right shoreline for good waves. The tops of the volcanoes were lumpy and eroded, and she didn’t see any obvious calderas, but there were dark areas everywhere, probably recent lava flows, streaming off the sides of the volcanoes and down the valleys to the west.
Georgia kept narrating. “As we predicted from the probe data, these volcanoes are active, but probably at a late stage in their history. Once we’re on the ground, I’ll install seismometers to see if we can detect any earthquakes. We don’t want to get caught off guard if these babies erupt.” Georgia laughed and smiled at Sage, who couldn’t keep her face from pulling an anxious grimace. “Don’t worry. It’s just like your home, the Big Island.”
As they passed over the line of volcanoes, Sage was surprised by the rapid change in the land below them. Expecting a dark volcanic landscape, she was startled as they emerged into a series of deep, dry, highly eroded valleys draped in pastel shades of yellow and orange with large red-black mosaics covering the higher elevations. As they dropped closer to one valley, everyone craned their necks to get a better look at the hillsides, which appeared dry and barren but painted in a montage of colors.
Georgia pointed out the porthole. “The sides of the canyons are lined by dark caves, probably lava tubes. The bottoms of the valleys are dry, deep arroyos created by large rainfall events. Look at the river cuts! Erosion has exposed layers of debris from past eruptions, which looks like a mix of ash, basalt, and sedimentary rock sculpted into a wide array of complex landforms. I see arches, chimneys, and mushroom-shaped rocks. Many valleys show dark rivers of old lava flows that connect to the sides of volcanoes. Some extend to the western sea. That’s almost 50 miles distant.”
Sage had been scanning the hillsides for life and spoke as Dina panned the camera toward her. “I don’t see any obvious plant structures—there are no trees—but the colors are intriguing and could be biological in origin. Georgia is right; this place is honeycombed with lava tubes from past eruptions, even more than the Big Island.”
As they approached the western edge of the continent, the land flattened into yellow-orange coastal hills bisected by narrow canyons. The color change was so abrupt it was almost as if an artist had changed palettes in the middle of a painting. Offshore of the coastal plains, but separated by an inland sea, Sage saw a long string of islands of varying sizes running north and south disappearing over both horizons; each island was covered in speckled white sand surrounding yellow-black remnants of former volcanoes, with red on the tops of the bigger islands.
Once offshore, Byron turned and headed south over the island chain. As a line of breaking waves became visible, Milo and Sage began to hoot and holler. Dina was nearly breathless when she said, “Wow, this is amazing, Milo, just like you described. And with deep water offshore, the islands are perfect for large, fast waves.”
Sage nervously glanced west and saw a large powder-blue area surrounded by the dark-blue ocean on the horizon. “That must be the Bulge.”
“Yes,” said Milo. “That’s it! But I don’t see any waves today. It must be too small.”
Byron piloted the lander above the beaches along the string of islands heading south as Georgia continued to lecture. “These are remnants of old volcanoes. They’ve been eroded down to small islands surrounded by white sediment with a yellow tint of some unknown origin.”
Milo had been scanning the islands and water along with everyone else. “No evidence of life,” he said, as they flew down the island chain. He pointed at one of the sandy islands near the end of the chain. “This looks like a low-priority habitat under the PPP.” Dina pulled her head away from the camera and gave him a quizzical look. “The Planetary Protection Protocol. Sand is an unlikely habitat for life and hence a good place for a first landing. Anyway, Sage will be taking bacterial samples so we can check for local biota if any. Georgia, you also have your marching orders.”
Georgia nodded. “Roger that.”
As they dropped down to the surface and prepared to land, Milo opened the door. “OK, everyone, remember to apply sunblock to exposed skin as the UV is strong. I doubt you’ll notice the difference in the air composition—it’s very similar to Earth except for a few noble gases—but be mindful of the reduced gravity.” He motioned to the ground as Byron landed softly on the beach. “Let’s do it!”
Sage was the first one out and jumped down with a backpack full of gear, including a camera and petri dishes, to get her first personal look at Thalassa. Jumped wasn’t the correct word; she thought it was more like floating. In the low gravity, her 110-pound frame weighed 45 pounds. Moreover, as she landed, her instinct to cushion her fall resulted in a rebound that propelled her 20 feet away. She felt like a kid on a playground.
“Woo-hoo!” she screamed, looking back as Dina jumped after her. “The low gravity is awesome.”
“Yeah,” said Dina as she bounced down the beach like a pogo stick. “I can’t wait to get some serious air surfing!” Milo and Georgia also jumped out and began falling and bouncing around.
Sage moved away from the small group assembled on the beach toward the eastern shore of the island. Adapting to the low gravity was difficult; she fell several times but finally perfected a bouncing gait that moved her along without stumbling. Standing in the sand, she realized it was her first moment on Thalassa. It looked so Earth-like she almost forgot where she was, yet it felt alien. Feeling the warmth of the coarse sand on her feet, she looked down and noticed she barely made a dent in the white sand, sprinkled with specks of yellow and black. She laughed as she realized the sand looked like oatmeal with dried garlic flakes and pepper as seasoning. “How cool!”
Facing the wind, she saw the tops of volcanoes dotting the eastern skyline across the inland sea. The warm breeze blowing over the water from the distant land was fragrant in a way she had never experienced. It was musky, like mold or mushrooms, with a hint of sharpness, like mustard, and the added salt smell of the sea. But also something else, something she couldn’t quite place. Something unique. Something Thalassian.
Captivated by the sights and smells, her body trembled, her face grew warm, and heat spread to her arms and legs. Startled, her concern grew until she remembered the feeling from another time. She was four years old, and it was the first time she had seen the stunning vistas of Waimea Canyon on Kauai. She was overwhelmed by the raw beauty of the view and recalled the thrilling feeling of that moment. Here, however, she felt awe but a faint memory from her past. It felt alien, but at the same time, it was eerily familiar, like a distant dream. Her knees went weak as she realized it was like coming home, but to a place she had never been before. It was a déjà vu moment where time stopped, and past, present, and future merged into one in her mind. All her senses were alert, and she felt fully alive. Have I been here before? Perhaps in my dreams.
Basking in the high emotion of the moment, she smiled as she realized she was the first human to see these vistas, smell these scents, and the first Hawaiian to stand on an Earth-like planet. She felt incredibly fortunate and thought about her grandmother pushing her to go. I’m here, Tutu.
The memory of her tutu was eternal, and she could picture her in her mind, sitting in her rocker on the front porch in a long floral-print dress like she had a million times before. Her dark, soft, wrinkled skin in contrast to her long gray hair pulled up in a tight bun. During her last trip home to visit her ailing tutu, Sage was startled at her iconic appearance—it was timeless. They greeted using a traditional honi: nose to nose, staring into each other’s eyes for a long moment as they shared the divine breath of life, the Hā: a pure expression of aloha. Tutu taught her that sharing a honi was special and a way to connect souls.
“How’s my little Hoku?” her tutu had said in a soft, gentle voice. She never used her given name but always referred to her as Hoku, “star.”
“I’m fine,” replied Sage. Her tutu looked weak and trembled in pain. “Are you OK? Aren’t you mad at me like everyone else?”
She held Sage’s face with both hands. “I’m glad you’re here, but we don’t have much time.”
Sage started to ask her questions again, but her grandmother cut her off. “Do you remember what I told you when you were little? About your inoa pō, your dream name?”
Sage searched her memory for the old story. “You mean about the stars?”
“Yes, about the stars, but you have forgotten the story. I named you after the stars, yes, but your mother ignored that, and you ignored it, and you’ve been paying the price. You still have something important to accomplish in your life.” Sage’s eyes widened in recognition, but she couldn’t quite remember the details—the last time she heard Tutu’s story, she was young, and it hadn’t made sense.
“On the night you were born, right before dawn,” her tutu continued, “I had a dream, a vision about you and your connection to the Akua, to the gods. In my dream, I was standing on a pali, on a dark cliff, looking at a stormy ocean, and I saw Ke Kā o Makali‘i rise in the east. You remember that one, right? The great bailer of Makali’i? It is one of the constellations that the Hawaiians used to find their way at sea. They used it to find Hawaii.”
Sage’s chest tingled at the memory. “Yes, of course, but what does that have to do with me?”
“In my dream, as I looked at the stars that night, a bright one blinked on the horizon, Puana, the one they call Procyon.” Sage stared at her in disbelief, recalling the fate of her father and the target of Milo’s expedition. “The waves were huge and rose and fell from a great storm. The storm of all time, raging far out at sea, sent by Kanaloa, the Hawaiian god of the sea. Some say he is a giant squid or octopus that lives deep in the ocean, stirring up the sea with his arms when he is displeased. But from the star, I saw a mighty force descend, pushing the waves down, creating a calm path through the storm and spreading throughout the vast ocean. It was calming the sea amid the violence of the storm.”
Sage was transfixed as her tutu continued, “At that moment, I saw who you would become. I saw your name and your connection to Kanaloa.”
Her tutu stood up, her frail voice suddenly becoming loud, strong, and clear. “You are kamaʻāina of these islands, child, born here and forever connected to Hawaii and the sea. You are kānaka maoli, descended from the original Hawaiians, the ones that discovered the islands using that star, and others, to find their way. That means something now, something important. You are a Wayfinder for a new generation. It makes sense that a Hawaiian should lead a leap into the stars just as we did into the vast ocean. But what you will find, I do not know.”
Her grandmother grew in size and power as she spoke. “When I awoke that day and saw your beautiful, strong face, I remembered my dream, and I named you Hōkūlani e hoʻāla i ka moana: a heavenly star that awakens the ocean. It is your name, and it is who you are. It came to me, and I gave it to you. Now it’s time for you to live it, to become who you were meant to be. If you don’t, you will die; we may all die. Kanaloa will see to that. He’s been warning you, but you haven’t been listening.”
Sage tried to speak, to defend herself, but her tutu shook her head and said, “I’ve been trying to remind you, but you were always too busy doing this or that, too busy wasting your time surfing. But now you must accept who you are. I can see that your past is holding you back.” Then her voice grew passionate, and she held Sage’s face in her hands. “It is time to let your past go and face your future. I can see your journey is dangerous, but Kanaloa is a powerful protector, and you have the family ʻaumākua to guide you, so you are blessed.”
Startled at the rebukes, Sage was incredulous nevertheless. “Holding me back? From what?”
“From your life, your path.”
“My future in surfing?”
“No,” Tutu replied. “Your life is much bigger than that. It’s about your passion, your love, your connections to life, your bright aloha spirit, your beautiful voice. It’s about who you are, not what you do.” Then she collapsed into her chair and looked old and weak once again.
Sage was stunned as she stared at her tutu, who looked like she was sleeping. She vaguely remembered the story from when she was a girl, but in the context of her father’s fate and Milo’s challenge, it took on new significance. Frankly, it scared the shit out of her. As Tutu spoke her powerful words, Sage felt them moving through her body, right to her core. It was confusing but made sense at the same time. But I don’t need another challenge right now. Shit!
Her cousin Lani who had been watching from a distance walked across the yard and sat down next to her. She looked at Sage with her soft brown eyes and long, light brown hair and noticed she was visibly shaking. “Is Tutu OK? What’d she say?”
Sage took a deep breath. “Well, that’s what I’m trying to figure out. She reminded me of my future; you know that crap about awakening the ocean and saving the world she told me when I was a kid.” Then looking at Lani, Sage shook her head. “Sorry, I probably never told you about that.”
She launched into a long diatribe about Tutu’s message, her waning surfing career, Milo’s invitation, and her feelings about her father and troubles with her ‘ohana. While she spoke, Lani was quiet and respectful, occasionally nodding her head. Like many Hawaiian children, she was taught to be attentive and patient.
After she finished, Lani spoke in a gentle voice. “You should go. This is your chance to set things straight. To get your pono back.”
“I can’t. It’s dangerous, and a long trip. It’s bad enough that my dad died, but…” Sage let her voice trail off as she thought of her fears about her surfing career and competing with Milo. She gave her cousin a stern look. “I’m not going. I don’t care if Cutten fires me, but I’m not going to waste a year in space to explore a dead planet with big mushy waves. I can’t chase after my father’s death. I don’t want to know what happened. It won’t change anything.”
Lani broke into a big, bright smile, her braided pigtails shaking as she spoke. “Relax and stop worrying. Surfing and science, your two things in life, right? It sounds perfect. Plus, you can ride the big waves and fulfill your destiny at the same time. Your ‘ohana is seriously worried about you. And you definitely need to work on your pono. But we’re here for you and always will be.”
Tutu woke with a weak smile and spoke with a soft voice. “Lani’s right, Hoku. This is your life’s journey. You must go and find your purpose among the stars and that planet’s ocean. It makes sense now what the star meant. You must connect with our ancestors and bring their wisdom back to Hawaii.” Then looking into the distance as if seeing into another dimension, she said, “Maybe you are meant to re-establish the ancient connections to the Koholā.”
“The Koholā?”asked Sage. “The whales? What do they have to do with anything? Aren’t they extinct?”
Lani looked like she could cry, as she loved whales. “No! But there aren’t many left. The planet is too warm.”
Tutu lowered her eyes in shame at Sage’s comment. “You have forgotten your lessons!” she said. “The whales are a manifestation of Kanaloa and move back and forth between here and the ancestral world. They are the record keepers, the messengers. They are the link between us and our ancestors, the source of the Polynesian people. They bring love, and patience, and understanding. From the zenith star `A`a they came. But…” she said, as if in a trace. “…you may not recognize them, for they are creatures of an ancient time. Without the wisdom of the Koholā, we are doomed, our connections to the ancestors broken. You must go.”
Then, becoming very weak, she closed her eyes and breathed her last words in a whisper as the two girls leaned in. “Look to the waters, my child, for they are sacred. Listen for them, for the ʻāina is singing her song. When the white mists part, you will see her. She is always there: waiting, patient, the source of all life. Beautiful is the ʻāina. You must protect her. We live or die together. But remember your ʻaumākua and trust your dreams and visions. They will guide you.” She beckoned Sage to move closer, and they shared a honi, with Tutu’s last breath passing to her as her tutu’s eyes closed forever.
Several days later, Sage and Lani were invited by the kāhuna to assist in a kākū ʻai ceremony, a traditional Hawaiian ritual where offerings were made to the gods to transform their tutu into an eternal guardian spirit, a ‘aumakua, for the family. As Sage stood watching on a high cliff, the wind blowing through her long hair while tears ran down her face, Tutu’s sister Halina chanted as Tutu’s body, wrapped in tapa cloth, was lowered into the sea. The sun was setting as dark clouds moved across the volcanoes, and a rainbow appeared. As Tutu disappeared into the ocean depths, thunder rumbled across the waves, and Sage saw a bright star peak below the clouds on the western horizon. It was Procyon. The star was beckoning to her across the sea as she stood straight and strong before the sacred volcanoes of Kīlauea and Mauna Loa. As intense grief and fear ran through her body, everything she knew as a person and as a Hawaiian told her that Procyon was calling to her. She knew she had to go.
Sage must have been in a trance, because she didn’t notice when Georgia bunny-hopped up to her on the beach and said, “Pretty amazing, huh?” Sage wiped her face, but didn’t say anything as Georgia scooped up a sample of sand. “The sun and gravity will take some getting used to. It’s weird because Procyon is seven times brighter than our sun but three times farther away. This sand is bizarre, and what’s that smell? It’s like a wet dog.”
Yeah,” Sage said with a weak smile. “The sand almost looks edible. And that smell feels familiar and alien all at once. Weird.” Georgia turned around and quickly bounced back toward the ocean.
As Sage watched Georgia spring away, she wondered about the larger significance of standing on Thalassa. Sure, she thought, I have a job to do, but this looks like a lifeless planet. And I have an opportunity to revive my surfing career. But my tutu was wise, so maybe there’s something else I need to do here. But what is it? Despite years of rejecting her traditional Hawaiian upbringing, the old chants and stories occupied a well deep in her subconscious. She knew the legends and traditions were rooted in time immemorial and represented an accumulation of important knowledge. And within her genealogy, which extended to the creator, were mythical links to the gods and the stars. But the role of whales and the meaning of Tutu’s challenge remained a mystery.
As she shuffled toward the ocean collecting bacterial samples, she heard whistling and saw a flash of brown quickly disappear in the surf. What the hell? She ran down to the water’s edge but whatever it was had vanished, and she only heard the crashing of waves on the shore as a shiver ran down her back. It must have been sand in a wave. But what if it was something else?