Riptides

By Leanne Su

Marina X was born by the sea.

Her full name wasn’t Marina X; it was Marina Xingqi Shui, but she had found that introducing herself as Marina X was much more efficient than going by her full name. She was born by the ocean in the middle of winter, and she didn’t cry once, not when the wind howled through their cabin and rocked her crib, not when her mother fell silent with blue lips and pale skin, not when her father almost drowned her in his anguish. The ocean had robbed Marina of her tears the moment she was born, and it continued to pick at her pockets for the rest of her life.

“It should have been you,” her father said with slurred words and clear eyes when she was old enough to understand and young enough to still be scarred. He set out to sea the next day and died on his fishing boat; authorities ruled it an accident, but Marina knew it was a suicide. She mourned his death and paid her dues like any good daughter would because he never raised a hand against her, and she deserved the words that cut her like a knife because she already knew she had outlived death, and this was her punishment.

Marina X lived and loved by the ocean, by the pushing and pulling of its deadly tides. She swam in its waters and envied its rage, tempted fate again and again. She already knew she would die by the sea. She had since the day she was born.

“I think you’re full of shit. Either that, or you found a better dealer.”

“Did you hear the news?” Indigo asked without preamble, sliding into the seat next to Marina. Indigo had a face like a fox and a smile like the sun, light freckles against dark skin like flecks of sunlight through the trees. She had bullied Marina into something resembling friendship with her years ago, and even now, the only reason Marina retained their relationship was out of some masochistic proclivity.

“No,” she responded curtly without ever looking Indigo’s way. Marina always had a sort of gravelly, glottal scrape to her voice, even when she didn’t mean to. She sounded ragged and discordant, a sharp contrast to Indigo’s melodic voice.

“Cool, ‘course not, ’cause you’re above gossip, aren’t you. Whatever, I’ll tell you anyway because I’m nice like that.”

Marina sighed and resigned herself to listening to whatever bullshit Indigo was going to regale her with today.

“So, you remember how last year at that robotics competition in Vegas we got our asses kicked by that uppity little shit from Japan? Shoji Nakamura? Of course, you remember, you remember every time you lose. Apparently he got involved with some aviation project, pretty big stuff, but last week he fucked up bad. Like, baaad. Idiot got him and seven other people killed when he drove their plane straight into a mountain.

“Now, you don’t care about any of that because you’re a soulless husk of a human being incapable of sympathy. This part, though, this you might like—”

Indigo leaned in and lowered her voice as the lecturer took his place. The lights dimmed, and she looked fey as the fairies of old.

“They checked the black box, and it wasn’t mechanical or anything; Shoji was too fucking smart for that shit. Two minutes before they crashed, he went completely off-course. Didn’t say anything. His copilot loses his shit, obviously, all ‘what the fuck are you doing’ and ‘I have a wife and kids’. And Shoji just—doesn’t say anything. At all. And then he flies them into a fucking mountain. Totally goes Icarus on the bitch. No sign of psychosis, no drugs or alcohol or anything else in his system. It was just like a switch flipped in his brain, and then—boom. Loses his shit completely. The recording pretty much stops there, but right at the end, it sounds like he might be crying.”

Indigo smiled, saccharine sweet, and sat back in her seat.

“Pretty spooky stuff, huh?”

Marina finally looked over at her, tucked a lock of wavy, grey-black hair behind her ear.

“I think you’re full of shit. Either that, or you found a better dealer.”

Indigo tipped her head back and laughed, the crinkling of her eyes and the curve of her neck so lovely and joyful that no one, not even the professor, had the heart to call her out.

“Well, you’re not wrong about that,” she responded cheerfully, squeezing Marina’s arm so tightly her fingernails left crescent moons in her skin.

“The cranes had become immobile once more, no longer the behemoths they were a moment ago.”

Marina kept thinking about Indigo’s story throughout the rest of the lecture, as their professor droned on about controls and feedback loops. It was almost certainly fictitious, as Indigo lied about anything and everything simply because she could. Still, it settled in Marina’s heart like a storm on the horizon, a malaise that crept into her bloodstream and circulated throughout her body until every move she made felt jittery and overshadowed by some impending catastrophe. She considered looking it up to verify that it was real, but some part of her feared the idea that it was true.

She thought about Shoji—cocky and brilliant, a sneer always on his face and the bitter resolve to prove himself behind his every move. He put too much gel in his hair, and his cufflinks were too cheap for someone of his supposed standing. Marina thought that the two of them could’ve been friends, perhaps, kindred souls of misanthropy and resentment if either of them were the type of person inclined to have friends. They weren’t, so Shoji was nothing but a rival and a nuisance to Marina.

The sun was already low in the sky by the time the class ended, and Marina wandered down to the port with a tin in her pocket as she always did, sitting on a slope of hardened earth and dead grass leading down towards the water. It had been a dreary, overcast day, the kind that asked for rain and was found wanting. She lit a joint with deft fingers, her plastic Bic a tiny, flickering light in the melancholy blue of the evening.

Inhale, hold, exhale, the school counsellor she saw exactly twice used to say. Marina did just that and watched the smoke billow out across the cold night air, dissipating into the sky. The port was shutting down for the night, the last crates stacked and documented, a few lingering boats turning off their engines and the rushing of the waves echoing in the distance, relentless and unceasing. The shipping cranes loomed over everything as always, their silhouettes imposing against the dim haze of residual sunlight. It was warm out for spring, but it was a stifling sort of warmth, muggy and charged with unease.

Marina sat on the slope and watched the horizon fade to black, the figures in the shipyard thinning out until she was the only one left. Finally, she sighed, lingering and tired, and stood up, preparing to head back to her shitty apartment with its miserable ventilation and aggravating roommates.

“Hello, Marina X,” she heard a low, soothing voice. Marina stopped in her tracks. Inhale, hold, exhale.

“Hello?” she responded cautiously after a nervous silence, eyes darting around in the darkness in search of the speaker.

One of the container cranes shuttered, trembled. It arched its neck like a misshapen, mechanical giraffe and unmistakably turned so that its gantry was facing her.

“We’ve been waiting for you. Just for you,” the voice said again, the sound rumbling like thunder across the shipyard.

“Oh, what the fuck,” Marina muttered in disbelief, “what the fuck did Indigo give me? What the fuck?”

With an aching, ancient groan, a second container crane turned to face her the same way, then a third; before long, every crane in the port was turned in her direction in a cacophony of creaking and moaning, the bodies eerie and ethereal in the harsh fluorescence of the stadium lights dotted throughout the shipyard.

Marina felt her legs give out from under her and sat down with a thud.
“Shit,” she whispered, shaky and terrified.

“We need you, Marina X,” the cranes said as one, and she heard it like an indistinct murmur as if she were underwater and someone was trying to talk to her from above. A roaring noise was starting to overtake their voices; it was the sound of the ocean, she realized distantly.

“What? Why?” she asked faintly, but she received no response. The cranes had become immobile once more, no longer the behemoths they were a moment ago but mere structures of steel and gears. But the roar of the ocean persisted and increased until it pounded against her skull and the inside of her eyelids, and she fell back with a thud.

“She left through the window and kept the door locked, just to spite him.”

Marina X was not having a good day.

A seagull, bleary and disoriented, had rudely awoken her. Its beady little eyes pinned her with a judgmental stare before screaming in her face and flapping away. Marina remembered the events of the previous night, but they felt muddled and far away, like a half-remembered dream, and she felt hungover and hazy despite a complete lack of alcohol the night before. She’d cast a suspicious look at the container cranes—silent and immobile, as they ought to be—and stumbled her way home and straight to class. She spent the entire lecture fiddling with her pen and absorbing absolutely nothing that the professor said, choosing instead to mull over the container cranes and what she had heard them say.

Perhaps Indigo had put hallucinogens in her weed; Marina wouldn’t put it past her. This wasn’t Indigo’s typical brand of cruelty, though. She liked to watch her victims suffer, and she knew for a fact that Marina smoked almost exclusively alone. Then, a fever dream was brought on by weeks of restless sleep and a general sense of weariness. She could almost hear the voices of the cranes, still echoing in her skull, but the timbre of their voices wasn’t quite right. She couldn’t remember—she couldn’t let herself remember because if she remembered, that would make it real, and she wasn’t ready for that. Instead, Marina finished her class, went to the library, and went home. She sat in the bathtub for an hour and ignored her flatmate’s angry pounding on the door. She left through the window and kept the door locked, just to spite him.

“If anything, she felt numb, liker her mind had fallen asleep but left her body awake.”

The night air was colder than it had been before, and Marina was seriously starting to reconsider her life choices. There was no sane reason to sit by the ocean and shiver in the wind, waiting for a hunk of metal to speak to her. She’d decided not to smoke tonight in a facsimile of the scientific process. It seemed, however, that the missing variable was the cause of her bizarre conversations, as it was approaching one in the morning, and Marina still hadn’t conversed with anyone, mechanical or otherwise. Just as she heaved a sigh and got to her feet, a familiar voice rang out.

“Leaving so soon, Marina X?” she heard, and once more, she heard the guttural creaking from the night before. She turned to find dozens of container cranes warped and twisted to face her head-on. She felt herself humbled in the grip of unspeakable horror, yet at the same time, she felt something settle into place, some universal offset click into alignment.

“Hello again, you wretched bastards,” she said pleasantly and tucked her bony hands into her pockets.

“Hello to you too,” the cranes responded, again in unison, and Marina somehow knew with sudden and complete certainty that each and every one of them had her mother’s voice.

“We have a proposal for you.”

“Sure,” Marina responded, easy and familiar. The fear and existential dread that she had felt the day before were still there, but it felt muted now. She had been here before; she knew it. Maybe in a dream, maybe in a past life, but the voices filled a void she hadn’t even known existed. It was like coming home after years overseas; the details were lost to memory and time, but the impressions were still there, the familiarity and ease settling into her soft and easy.

“You could forget all your pain, Marina. Be free of all that plagues you. Forget about your mother and your father and all those who you hurt. Doesn’t that sound nice, Marina?”

Marina stayed silent, but she could feel her heartbeat pounding in her throat. It sounded too good to be true, and it had to be too good to be true, but their soothing, dulcet tones seeped into her skin and under her fingernails and itched at her scalp until she thought to herself, you know, that does sound nice.

“And what do you get out of it?” she finally asked, no longer questioning the logic of what was happening or how they knew who she was.

“We just need a friend. We’re lonely, you know. We need you to take a little trip.”

“And where am I supposed to go?” Marina asked, although she already knew the answer.

“To the bottom of the ocean. Right here in the bay. We’ll be waiting for you. Waiting to free you. You could be free, Marina.”

The wind whipped her hair across her face, but Marina didn’t feel cold anymore. If anything, she felt numb, like her mind had fallen asleep but left her body awake.

“I’ll consider it,” she said at a moment’s length and turned to walk away.
She looked back once she reached the top of the hill, and the cranes were silent once more; the night air was cold, the wind was biting, and she felt the beginnings of an insatiable drive prick at her heart.

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“What’cha thinking about?” Indigo asked, chin resting on her hands and eyes boring into the side of Marina’s skull. Instead of staring blankly straight ahead at a spot on the wall right above the lecturer’s screen, Marina ignored her.

Marina felt a sharp pain in her left forearm, and she pulled away from Indigo with a scowl. Indigo had pinched her hard enough that Marina knew it would bruise, although not hard enough to draw blood.

“You’re so spacey today, Marina,” Indigo whined, cloying as ever. “C’mon, pay attention to me.” She batted her eyelashes a few times for good measure.

“Whatever,” Marina muttered, looking down at her blank sheet of notes. Sometimes when Indigo got like this, Marina would wonder about her, about them, about Indigo’s persistent companionship and her own emotional attachments and the time in freshman year when they hooked up once and never talked about it again. Marina wondered about what they could be if either of them were inclined towards anything except cynicism and acerbity.

Indigo huffed and turned away, her afro radiating indignance. Marina resolved to focus intently on the lecturer just to piss her off. He’d moved onto fluid dynamics and was presently discussing the use of hydrostatics and the need to factor in buoyancy when designing watercraft. Nautical engineering was one of the few things that piqued Marina’s interest. She’d thought it was morbidly funny, the idea of building a vessel (a coffin, really) to propel herself straight into the maw of the ocean.

The cranes came to mind, then. She mused a visit to the bottom of the ocean, and a nebulous idea began to form. Marina put her pen to paper for the first time that day and started to sketch, periodically looking up at the instructor and jotting down a few notes. She felt a little lightheaded, but she ignored the feeling, concentrating instead on what the cranes had promised her— a way to forget and a life free of regret. A path to move on.

“The cranes said nothing, but it wasn’t their usual dead silence.”

She visited the cranes once more the next night and could physically feel her body settling into a routine, bones aching with the rumbling of the cranes.

“Evening,” she said quietly to the night air, once their usual cacophony had died down.

“Hello, Marina X,” they said in unison. “Back so soon?”

“Nothing better to do, really. All of my other friends are also busy talking to unearthly shipping cranes.”

“Understandable.”

Marina nodded silently, content to sit in the cold and watch the harbour lights flicker. She felt more at peace here than she felt anywhere else in the world, her mind empty and calm.

“Would a boat work?” Marina asked abruptly. “To get where I need to go?”

The cranes said nothing, but it wasn’t their usual dead silence. Instead, it felt as if some ancient gear was turning, and they were considering her offer, running it through their cogs and wheels.

“Perhaps,” they said at last. “If you do it properly.”

And Marina knew she would.

“For once in her rotten, godforsaken existence, Marina X had a purpose to fulfill.”

Her next three weeks were spent in mundane repetition; she would sleep from dawn to dusk and wake up in time to see the sunset over the horizon to begin work on her submarine. Her cramped room was now filled with scrap metal and blueprints, and she had taken to bringing in more supplies through the fire escape to avoid the disdainful looks from her roommates. An even more ragged sleeping bag had replaced her ragged twin bed to make more space for her work. She had stopped going to classes, stopped talking to Indigo, stopped doing anything besides what was necessary to keep herself alive and work on her boat. Once she felt satisfied with her work, usually hours after midnight, she would meander her way through town and towards the port.

The first time she waded into the sea after dark felt like a revelation. She had never quite enjoyed swimming, especially in the ocean, partially out of fear and partly out of respect. Swimming at night now, though, felt like an otherworldly experience. The water was murky and deep, an endless void that rebuffed any moonlight daring to venture more than an inch below the choppy surface. Bioluminescent algae covered the shallows, sparkling every time she passed through them. She marvelled at the light and wondered if they were there at the bottom of the ocean if her submarine would glide through them and cast glittering shadows in the deep as they did in the shallows, if when she drowned—and she did intend to drown—they would cover her body in a gossamer casket. She swam every night until the sun rose.

Marina’s face had always been angular, but now she looked almost skeletal, exhaustion working away at her skin. The shadows under her eyes crept darker and darker, and her skin developed an unhealthy pallor; her world was swallowed in blues and blacks, pinpricks of light shining in the distance but never coming near. The idea of death had become a romantic fantasy for her, a beautiful and poignant thing that had sunk deep into her mind. It would be a lovely death. She was sure of it. She imagined herself like Ophelia, lips parted and skin pale and arms outstretched, covered in not in flowers but in coral, seaweed tangled around her legs and fish nibbling at her fingertips.

It was all for the best. For once in her rotten, godforsaken existence, Marina X had a purpose to fulfill, and if that purpose was ending her own life, then so be it.

“I feel good. Good about it. Maybe if you’re lucky, I can show you one day.”

“So, what’s the occasion?” Indigo asked, legs dangling off the cliffside. Marina lay splayed out on the grass besides her, eyes closed against the bright glow of the overcast clouds.

“Hmm?” Marina mumbled, cracking open an eyelid and accepting the pipe the Indigo passed to her.

“Come on, this is the first time you’ve ever asked me to smoke with you. Or anyone else, for that matter. The fuck’s up?”

Marina said nothing. She sat up, brushed grass clippings off her back, and lit the pipe. Inhale, hold, exhale. She stared vacantly into the bay below them— this was a spot she would come to often when she was younger and more vulnerable when she still found the world overwhelming rather than simply disappointing. The hike was difficult but worth it for the view, and this was the first time she had taken someone up here with her.

Indigo snatched the pipe and lighter from her, huffing in annoyance.

“God, I fucking hate hanging out with you; you never even talk,” she snapped, tossing her head. Her hair looked like a gentle cloud, swaying in the breeze and backlit by the light of the sky.

“I think I might be going away for a while,” Marina said quietly, voice almost lost in the wind.

Indigo turned to level a look at her, one eyebrow raised in incredulity and disbelief. She snorted.

“Where to, the gas station in the next town over? Like you have anywhere to go.”

Marina smiled faintly. Where Indigo’s particular brand of abrasiveness normally chafed, she felt almost soothed by its familiarity and iciness, like she had applied a sheen of tiger balm to an open wound.

“On a trip. Just for a while. See what there is to see.”

“What, you’re gonna try to find yourself?” Indigo snarked.

Marina stared out over the water, gaze pale and serene.

“Something like that,” she said simply.

Indigo snorted but didn’t respond. They lapsed into silence, the distant crash of the ocean upon the shore the only sound breaking through.

“Where do you—go?” Indigo finally asked, and for the first time, there was a note of uncertainty in her voice. “You don’t come to class anymore; I hardly ever see you. You look even worse than you did before you started this little zombie routine. What do you do?”

The wind rustled through the grass. In the distance, Marina could see the pier. It was a Saturday, and the port was busy, ant-like figures in the distance weaving between the containers on the docks.
“It’s—a personal project. Something really cool.”

Marina turned and smiled at Indigo, a real smile that wrinkled her eyes and pulled back the skin from her teeth.

“I feel good. Good about it. Maybe if you’re lucky, I can show you one day.”

“No, no, no,” she whispered, deliriously slamming her limbs against the windshield.

The right time crept up on Marina stealthily. The days had been getting longer and longer, the summer solstice now only days away. There was a full moon that night—a blue moon, as it so happened—and Marina tightened the final bolt on the hull of her boat before taking a step back to look at it in wonderment. She hadn’t thought she would ever really finish, despite the project being the sole focus of her life for months now. She had taken to calling the submarine Ophelia, a rather unimaginative name but one she was nevertheless fond of. It was an ugly, bulbous thing, a portly amalgamation of sheet metal and rubber seals. There was no periscope, or sonar, or radar, just a single headlight embedded in the front. She fit inside, but only barely, with her spine folded, and neck tucked so that she could still peek through the windshield.

Marina didn’t know if it would work. She didn’t know if it mattered. As the clock started ticking towards the wee hours of the morning, she heaved the sub onto a trolley she had stolen from the shipping docks and set off towards the port.

It was a balmy night, sounds of frogs and mosquitoes buzzing through the air, slowly overtaken by the crashing waves of the ocean as she approached the shore. It was eerily quiet for a summer night like this, no bonfires or parties by the beach; no one had stopped to question the solitary figure carrying a hunk of misshapen metal on a wagon towards the water. Marina stopped at the end of a barnacle-laden boardwalk, trolley handle still in hand and watched the waves crash against the dock. She realized with a kind of detached interest that she hadn’t worn shoes, and her feet were now covered in cuts from glass and rocks along the shore.

With a bit of effort, Marina managed to heave Ophelia over the side of the dock and was relieved to see it bob gently in the water instead of sinking straight down to the bottom. She popped the hatch in and squeezed in, the suffocating quarters of the boat already pressing in on her. She hadn’t rigged up any life support systems— figured she didn’t need it— but by her calculations, there was at least enough air to last her a few hours. With a final look at the wan moonlight filtering in through the clouds above her, Marina took a deep breath and plunged into the submarine, the hatch coming to a close above her with a grim thud. She fumbled around in the dark for the light switch and instead found the latch that allowed her ballast tanks to fill with water, her stomach swooping when she realized she had indeed started sinking into the water.

So this is really happening, then, she thought dimly to herself.

A memory came into her mind, unbidden. It was the first time she had seen Shoji at some engineering tourney a few years ago. He had been standing by himself in the middle of a crowd of his teammates, an invisible bubble around him from the way people unabashedly avoided crossing his path. Marina caught a faint whisper of gossip, something she usually would have tuned out but caught her attention this time.

“—you hear about his parents?” came the quiet, furtive question. A pause. “They both died on some hiking trip up Everest. They couldn’t even find the bodies. Really sad, honestly. He hasn’t been the same since. Cut him some slack, you know?”

As she passed by his booth, Shoji looked up from the pile of scrap metal to glare daggers at the two girls talking about him. From the abrupt silence and hurried footsteps that followed, Marina presumed that they saw him. She caught his gaze on accident as he turned back to his work. They held eye contact for just a moment before she nodded at him, cordial at best, and he waved back with a strange familiarity.

Marina didn’t know why she was remembering this now, as the last glimmers of moonlight faded above her, and all she could see was the murky waters in front of her, illuminated by the faint glow of her headlight. She didn’t remember turning it on. She started feeling the water pressure above her and heard an ominous creak from the structure of Ophelia’s hull.

Her heart was pounding in her chest. She could feel herself begin to hyperventilate.

“Wait,” she said, feebly, then louder, “wait!”

She pushed against the sides of the submarine. It felt like the walls were closing in. Her feet were wet—she couldn’t tell if it was from blood or seawater, although surely if she had sprung a leak, the pressure would’ve killed her already. She felt her head spinning, eyes blinking rapidly to try to stave off the vertigo but only making it worse. This wasn’t how she had envisioned it. This wasn’t how she had wanted it. She had thought she would be regal, poised for death, fully prepared to die beautiful and sad and alone.

There wasn’t anything lovely or romantic about where she was now. Marina felt like a haze was lifting from her mind through her adrenaline, her thoughts now crystal clear and amplified tenfold. How the hell had she gotten here?

“I changed my mind,” she cried out. “I don’t—I don’t actually want to die, I didn’t realize—”

Her boat creaked again, and this time she heard a hollow, mechanical laugh, the same voice she had been listening to for the past few months.

“It’s too late, Marina X,” it crooned. “A deal is a deal.”

“I didn’t promise you anything!” she said frantically, now jamming at the latch in a desperate attempt to empty the ballast tanks of water and bring her back to the surface. The laugh came again, the groan of shifting metal thrumming underneath it.

“You were born of the sea, Marina X,” the voice came, becoming distorted and warped. “You were promised to us long ago.”

Marina couldn’t see through the water anymore. The light had gone out. She kicked against the dashboard, chest heaving from the exertion.

“I don’t want to,” she sobbed. “I didn’t mean it; I don’t want to.”

“You’re free, now, Marina X. Can’t you see? You’re free.”

With a bone-deep rattle, the bottom of the Ophelia struck something unyielding and firm below her. The light flickered on and off, and Marina tried to see through her tears and the blood streaks on the dashboard to what lay beyond.

A graveyard of desiccated boats and rusted cars and half-buried mechanical equipment vaguely took shape through the glass. With a sick lurch in her gut, Marina realized that the impact of her landing had been from the wing of an airplane; the rest of its body extended beyond her field of view.

“No, no, no,” she whispered, deliriously slamming her limbs against the windshield. She couldn’t breathe. She couldn’t see. She couldn’t feel.

She could only hear, and what she heard was the creak of the flimsy metal hull around her, the hiss of something leaking and breaking under the crushing weight of the water above it. Water started streaming in from above her, below her, from all sides. It tasted coppery as Marina coughed it into her lungs, hands still scrabbling for purchase at the unforgiving metal walls.

“Welcome home, Marina,” a thousand voices sang in unison. “We’ve been waiting for you.”

With a final, earsplitting groan, the Ophelia caved under the pressure, and Marina X was returned to the sea.


Leanne Su (she/her) is a second-generation Chinese American woman from Seattle, WA. Currently she is a Ph.D. candidate in aerospace engineering at the University of Michigan studying electric propulsion. When she’s not breaking or fixing thrusters, she’s usually embroidering, swimming, or taking cursed pictures of her cat Pudge. She can be found on Instagram or on the world wide web at leanne.space/.

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