By Mark Kelly
These were strange times. The auroras returned that evening, their light shining through the kitchen window near where I stood next to Mom, slicing carrots and onions for dinner. According to astronomers, they should never have reached Hawai`i, too close to the equator, they said. Despite their beauty, the Northern Lights felt as an omen, or perhaps visiting ghosts.
Mom faced the window. “Remember when you dreamed of joining the Sisters of St. Michael? You used to say angels played with nuns instead of other girls because of their magic powers. Those rainbow colors in the sky make me think of angels playing paintball in heaven.”
I nodded and didn't look away from the window. “Astronomy is my thing now,” I said in a low tone.
“Then tell me, what makes the sky light up this way?” Mom asked.
“We’re at solar max, a time of peak flares, sunspots, and such. The sun shoots out charged particles that hit Earth’s upper atmosphere, creating the aurora.”
“Sorry I asked… but they’re still beautiful.”
Dad walked in and came to the sink, forcing me to step aside. He washed his calloused hands and studied me before launching into The Discussion.
“Hokulani, have you declared your major yet?” He never was one for prefacing a question.
“Astronomy.” I moved to the table and whipped out my phone. Charlie still hadn’t returned my text. Why wasn’t he here for dinner? I needed him here; he served as a buffer between Dad and me, a neutralizing force that kept Dad’s mind distracted.
“Not agriculture?” Dad asked. “I thought—”
“That’s right; you thought, not me. My adviser says I show promise. Maybe grad school.”
“What can a young woman do with an astrology degree?”
“It’s a-stron-o-my, Dad.” I said and returned to my iPhone. The screen wallpaper displayed the gleaming white domes of the Keck Observatory. Like twin sentinels to the stars, these telescopes beckoned me. The mysteries of other worlds allured me, not the vagaries of our chickpea plantation.
“Put your phone away and listen to me,” Dad said as he placed his broad hand on my wrist, but I didn’t look up. “I’m not science illiterate, you know. Remember, I earned a patent for that special fertilizer mix.”
He sure had. Nitrogen-infused donkey manure spiked with plant growth hormone. He called it Donkey Kong.
“With Charlie set on studying medicine,” he continued, “you’re the only one to take over the farm after I retire. You should feel lucky. How many other students wouldn’t jump at the opportunity to manage a plantation? Besides, most PhDs these days work in retail. You should pursue a promising career, not astrology. Chickpeas are your future.”
Eyes wide, Mom clasped my hand. “Wait. I almost forgot. Sit tight.”
Mom ran upstairs, leaving me alone with Dad. Don’t go there again, I wanted to say, but I instead picked at my split ends and stared at the table. I couldn’t bear to look at him.
He didn’t wait for my response, nor did he need to. We were just actors by now who spoke practiced lines. The silence between us filled with the habit of unspoken ridicule and unlaunched rebuttals. Nothing changed. His plans for my future gripped his prefrontal cortex and never let go.
“Alani,” Dad called upstairs, “could you grab my sword while you’re up there? I need to polish the blade and scabbard before tomorrow’s P-Raid.”
Right. Kamehameha Day, Dad’s once-a-year vainglorious ride down Main Street. I glanced over to him. His eyes sunk behind crow’s feet. Some men never really left the Navy, even years after retirement, as if still clinging to a time when they felt important. Had I followed him into the military, we wouldn’t be having this talk. I’d be somewhere at sea. Thank God this wasn’t on the table for The Discussion. Mom would've vetoed my enlistment outright.
He came back to the table and took a long breath as if to launch into another lecture. But Mom swept into the kitchen, breaking his train of thought.
She rested the gleaming silver sword against the wall and dropped a thick envelope beside my elbow. “This came in the mail yesterday. Here, check it out.” The envelope had the shiny embossed logo for UH-Hilo’s College of Agriculture. When I didn’t pick it up, Mom nudged it with my hand, and her eyes shared my sadness.
“Actually, I’m thinking of taking a gap year to find myself.”
“Find yourself?” Dad roared. “The farm will be yours someday. And you’ll have your own family, and a place for your children to roam just as you and Charlie have.”
Without saying a word, I marched down the hall to my sanctuary. My bedroom was my domain, the only place that gave me privacy, free of parental oversight. A crucifix hung over my locked door, placed there years ago to ward off evil spirits. Now, it warded off evil fathers. I looked up to the vintage Star Wars poster tacked to the wall over my bed. My soul mate, the restless Luke Skywalker, stared back with blazing eyes. Similar to him, my destiny wasn’t to work the family farm but to head for the stars. Adventure, not agriculture, was my calling.
Schrödinger jumped on my lap, his purring sounded like a distant motorboat, his tail held up in the shape of a question mark.
“Cat, you always read my mind. I only want to get out of here. Someplace where life isn’t so messed up. Suppose there is such a place?” There must be. Far, far away from here, behind the moon, beyond the rain that blanketed the farm, somewhere to pursue my dreams, to live out my own life.
A chime sounded from my phone, a text from Charlie. Just returned from my night dive off the Kona Coast. OMG. You got to see this weird glowing colony of brain coral. Meet me at Honaunau landing tomorrow morning.
Leave it to Charlie to rescue me from domestic doldrums. Game on. Snap, too bad I had to miss Dad’s parade.
Outside my bedroom window, the sky came alive again with aurora. The trees silhouetted against the neon night seemed out of place, even dwarfed, by the spectacle. Overpowering Hilo’s dome of amber light pollution, the Northern Lights waved like paint dripping from space, bands of glowing green and red washed away the stars in silence. The neighbors flocked in the street, their faces gaped at the sky. The streetlights flickered before dumping the neighborhood into darkness. Again.
The next morning, I headed down to Honaunau Bay to check out Charlie’s magical mystery coral. The power was still out, leaving traffic lights flashing a caution yellow at every intersection, and forcing cars to navigate congested roads in fits and starts. It took forever to get to Honaunau. No doubt, my brother was pissed that I was so late.
After I arrived at the boat ramp, Charlie checked his watch, but said nothing. His wavy red hair danced in the wind, making him snap his head back to clear his blue eyes. With a wave of his hand, he motioned me over to the boat trailer. We transferred the dive tanks into Dad’s Boston Whaler, its white fiberglass hull dull from years of sun exposure. After we lowered it into the water, we took off for the dive site.
The morning sunlight glistened from the white caps offshore. The wind picked up, making the ride out a rough one. Seawater sprayed over the bow and stung my face, prompting me to move to the stern and ready our dive gear. Charlie harped on about the blackout, another fine example of our notorious power company.
Tired of his haranguing, I switched subjects. “After the dive, how about we grab a six-pack and head for the beach to celebrate King K Day in Hawaiian style?”
“You’re forgetting Mom wants us at the parade, cheering on Dad’s regalia.”
“Lighten up, Poindexter. After we make an appearance, let’s cruise up to Manukona Beach. They’ll never miss us. Jake said he’ll man the slack guitar. Come on, we’ll have a great time. I’ll get the weed, and you can bring the poke bowls.” The marijuana got his attention, and he nodded.
A mile offshore, the depth sounder showed a submerged mount rising from the seabed. Within seconds the ocean shallowed to less than a hundred feet, and Charlie tossed the anchor overboard, sending a big splash topside.
I slapped a chunk of Spam between two slices of bread and handed it to Charlie with a bottle of water. Of course, he had forgotten to bring any snacks or drinks for the trip. He took a bite and gave me a thumbs-up.
Not hungry, I removed my jacket and stretched out on the cockpit cushion in my bikini. The warm rays soaked my skin, and the boat’s gentle rocking at anchor sent shadows sweeping past my closed eyelids, stealing my chance to take a nap.
After finishing his sandwich, Charlie remained quiet, almost too quiet. I tilted my head up and shielded my eyes with my hand and squinted at him.
A questioning expression came to his face.
“What’s up?” I asked him.
“I passed my EMT exam and should get my license next month.”
I jumped to my feet at the news. Jealousy broke out in my heart, but I quashed it before giving him a warm hug. “That’s wonderful. I’m so happy for you. It’s been a long time coming. Dad will be so proud.”
Charlie patted my back in a consoling manner, only making my anguish worse. “But that seals your fate,” he said. “I’m sorry the plantation falls on your shoulders.”
Generations of Akamus had built the farm into the most profitable chickpea plantation on the Big Island. Although Mom’s ways were subtler than Dad’s, they both wanted me to take over the family business. I pushed him away and at once regretted it. I could see the hurt in his eyes. “Look, Charlie. My fate rests in my hands, not Dad’s. I’ve a different plan for my life, one that doesn’t involve spreading manure.”
“The stars always pulled you more than any John Deere. I think you should follow your dreams. Like why not?” He looked over his shoulder and pointed to Mauna Kea where the twin Keck Observatories gleamed white. “After all, you may find new worlds out there, planets to visit someday.”
I smiled at his simple way of looking at it, unencumbered from parental overlords. But what would my Dad do with the ranch when he retired? That was a long way off. I had my own future to protect and getting off this rock in the Pacific was the first step.
Charlie checked the dive tables and calculated our bottom time. “Our no-decompression limit is twenty-five minutes, enough time to find the coral and check it out. I brought a three-mil wetsuit for you. There’s plenty of stuff down there that’ll cut you to shreds.” He looked up at the sky where several thunderheads flowed off shore. The weather followed a common pattern during the summer with morning sunshine yielding to showers by early afternoon. From the look of those clouds, today was no different.
I squeezed into my wetsuit, but the boat’s rolling motion made it difficult. A large swell lifted the stern, and I toppled over a heavy air tank. After getting a sure footing, I moved to the transom and sat on the gunwale. With no words between us, we donned our buoyancy compensators and connected the air hoses. With one hand on my mask and the other gathering my air hoses to my body, I back-rolled into the water. Charlie followed with an entry less graceful, sending bubbles cavitating around him. I relaxed in the warm ocean, its current pulling me from the boat. I drifted to the anchor line where Charlie exchanged an “Okay” hand sign with me, signaling our descent.
Beneath the waves, the visibility became cloudy. Hoping it would be calmer on the seafloor, I reached for the purge value to release air from my BC and followed the anchor line down. The bottom soon came into view. Triggerfish circled above the coral reef, their bodies striped in green and gray. Bright yellow tang swam around me as if unconcerned by my presence. I inflated my BC with enough air to hang ten feet over the seabed and checked my compass. Enveloped by the clearest water I could imagine, I couldn’t help but smile.
We swam along the sandy bottom to a coral reef twenty feet away where Charlie pointed to it, then shrugged and raised his hands in a question. It no longer glowed, just sat there, a bleached dead mass of brain coral. He turned and glided closer to it. I dove after him and banged on his tank with the back of my knife to get his attention, but he ignored me. With a tentative hand, he touched the reef. The coral texture wavered as if I were looking through a hot column of air. Charlie jerked his hand away, and the mound of coral morphed into a metal dome half buried by the sand. At first, it looked like a sunken wreck, but its surface was smooth and lacked any corrosion.
Charlie brought his glove back to the structure, and it shimmered with a blue glow, as if responding to his touch. Before I could blink, his hand—then his whole arm—disappeared into the dome. He looked at me with panic in his eyes. Bubbles flowed from his regulator in a silent scream. Before this all registered in my mind, he was gone.
My heart pounded while I struggled to breathe, unable to comprehend what I had seen. A high-pitched ringing grew louder, followed by a brilliant light that flashed from the glowing dome, then all was quiet. I tore my eyes from it and looked toward the surface, hoping to see Charlie floating above me. But he had disappeared. Even if I returned to the boat and radioed for help, hours would pass before anyone could show up. And then what? Charlie’s air wouldn’t last that long.
Desperate to find Charlie, I swam back to the dome. The water grew warmer as I approached--almost hot within just a few feet of it. With a shaking hand, I reached for the metal surface. Rather than pulling me into it, it seemed to envelop me with a light so bright I squeezed my eyes shut.
Sometime later, I wasn’t sure when, I opened my eyes and found myself floating in silent space as if mentally detached, like those moments before dawn when I drifted in and out of sleep. Light melted into darkness. Against a velvet black sea of space, beyond luminous moons that hung in their orbits, sat Jupiter. The Great Red Spot, a hurricane larger than Earth, whirled between turbulent bands of yellow, white, and brown clouds. Astonishing to behold, the sight both captivated and horrified me. My mind groped to make sense of it. I took a tentative breath. Air filled my lungs. Impossible. Why hadn’t the vacuum of space sucked the life from me? How did I get here? And where was Charlie? As panic welled inside me, the scene dissolved like pixels shredding their light, giving themselves up to a black void. Even the stars disappeared.
A dim blue light emerged from the dark void, revealing the coral seabed again, but the metal structure had vanished. I shook my head to clear my mind and checked the dive gauge console. The air pressure needle was well into the red. My watch was missing, and I wasn’t sure of my bottom time. But running low on air, I had to surface and risk the bends on the way up. I inflated my BC and ascended inside a swarm of bubbles. Closer to the surface, the visibility reduced, and the water changed from a deep indigo to turquoise. A long minute later, I surfaced and spat the regulator from my mouth and shoved my mask up.
What the hell? Where’s our boat? Cold rain pelted my face, making it hard to see. My heart raced at seeing no sign of Charlie. In place of our Boston Whaler was a white trawler moored to a red channel marker. Neither the trawler nor the buoy was here before we dove on the reef.
Farther out, shrouded by the hard rain, a gray outline of an oceanographic vessel floated. I must have stayed down longer than I had planned. Impossible, though. I had no signs of the bends, no pain in my joints or burning in my chest. My bottom time couldn't have been over twenty-five minutes.
Confused, I swam over to the trawler and called up to a man working at the stern. His soaked jeans and T-shirt lay tight against his trim body. He ran his fingers through his thick black hair and looked down at me with worry in his eyes as I treaded water.
“Who are you and why are you out here?” he shouted in an Asian accent.
“I was diving on the coral reef just below us. Have you seen my brother?”
“You’re not supposed to be here. This is a restricted area. Did you see my partner down there?”
“No, but where is Charlie?”
“My brother. He’s seventeen and has flaming red hair.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. Swim over to the stern ladder and come topside so we can sort this out.”
After I climbed aboard, I pulled off my dive fins and wiggled out of my BC, dropping the vest and tank on the deck. Although I baked in the neoprene wetsuit, I kept it on. Not trusting this stranger, I dared not strip down to my bikini.
He looked me over—not in a sleazy way, more out of curiosity—and pointed to the patch on my left shoulder. “Where’s that flag from?”
I shook my head, trying to clear it. “It’s the American flag, of course. Who are you anyway?”
“I’m special agent Kali Tanaka, PSIA. Now, tell me again who you are and what you’re doing out here.”
“Wait. What or who is PSIA?” I looked out to sea. A sheet of rain marched across the bay towards us. “Never mind that. Have you seen my brother? We were diving together, and that metallic coral right below us swallowed him up. I went in after him but didn’t see him anywhere. He must have surfaced. How could you miss him?”
Tanaka held his hand up, palm facing me. “Slow down. There has been no other boat out here all morning. How did you get down there? You couldn’t have swum from shore with no one seeing you.” He walked to the stern and leaned over the rail as if searching for something.
“Why aren’t you listening to me? Like I said, Charlie and I took our dad’s Boston Whaler out here to dive on the reef. My Dad will be pissed to no end when he finds out someone stole his boat.”
Tanaka strode to the cabin door and snatched a radio microphone from the bulkhead. Worry filled his face. With clipped words, he called the Coast Guard and reported a missing diver. A voice cut through the radio static and confirmed a patrol craft was on its way.
“Thank you,” I said. “But it’ll take them over an hour to get here from Kilauea Pier.”
“What are you talking about?” he said and pointed behind me.
A blue and white patrol boat sped toward us from a crowded harbor, its blue beacon sending a rotating beam through the mist. My chest tightened. A national park and marine sanctuary, Honaunau had no port service and never would. Perhaps I’d somehow surfaced miles from my dive point.
The wind whipped spray from the white-capped swells, stinging my eyes. I went to the trawler’s stern rail and lifted my tank and BC vest. When I strapped fins to my booties, Tanaka grabbed my arm. “Where do you think you’re going?”
I yanked my elbow free. “Below to look for my brother.”
“No way. I already told you that this area is off limits to civilians. Now get below decks until the Coast Guard arrives.”
His menacing eyes and the sidearm on his belt showed he was serious. I let out a tight breath and slumped onto the transom bench, throwing the fins to the deck. After a last look to sea, I went below.
In the trawler’s main cabin, the air was stuffy, and the vinyl seats covered with humidity. I paced the deck, tracing in my mind the events leading up to Charlie’s disappearance. The metallic dome absorbed him as it had done to me, yet we must have surfaced in separate places.Maybe this was just a dream, and I’d wake up soon. But my hope extinguished when I glanced at the patrol boat coming alongside, a blue and yellow emblem painted on its bow. I had always dreamed in black and white. All around me, everything shone in vivid colors.
Tanaka came part way down the ladder and ducked his head under the companionway hatch. “The seas are getting too rough to continue the search, but we’ll put out word to other boats in the area. Maybe he’s ashore. Don’t worry. He’ll turn up.” He leaned over and turned on a radio mounted on the bulkhead, and Hawaiian music played over the cabin speaker. “We’re heading in now. Stay down here until we’re docked.”
I stood and peeked out of the overhead hatch. Dark, gunmetal-gray clouds hung low in the sky, forming an almost indiscernible line where they met the confused ocean. Choppy waves smashed against the boat, the bow charging up and down, making the ride into the harbor a wild one. Behind me, the buoy receded into a pale red dot on the horizon. I wondered if I’d ever find Charlie. Off the bow, the bay looked familiar, the shape of the coastline, the bluffs above Keoneʻele Cove, and the gentle slopes of Mauna Loa. Yet it also looked foreign. The thatched huts standing in the historic Place of Refuge were missing. A dozen sailing yachts now moored in the bay, beyond which stood a gleaming white coast guard station with a blue roof and floating docks. My car and the boat ramp were also missing. Only a chain-link fence stood on the spot where I had parked this morning.
The deck crew made ready for docking—bumpers out, lines coiled. I bit my lower lip and a sinking feeling settled into my stomach. From the cabin speaker, some guy named Don Ho sang a syrupy tune, “Tiny Bubbles. In the wine…” I closed my eyes and let the music release some tension in my shoulders, a tension I had carried since surfacing. “Charlie,” I whispered. “Where are you?”
The music ended, and an announcer came on the radio. His crisp Asian accent rang with authority. “Hello, and welcome to the Japanese Broadcasting Corporation, coming to you live from Tokyo. It is 0600 hours, GMT. I’m Haruto Yamamoto with the latest on Japan’s historic space mission. Today the world eagerly awaits mankind’s first steps on the moon. But first, here’s the other news for July twenty-fourth, 1969.”
Stunned, I collapsed on the cabin settee, my chest burning, my throat filled with a shooting pain. Through bleary eyes I made out the ensign flying from the patrol boat, the Japanese Rising Sun. I blinked back tears and struggled to breathe. Lost in this strange new world, I threw my head back and whispered, “Lord, just take me now.”
MARK KELLY Mark became hooked on science after Neil Armstrong took an epic stroll one Sunday morning in July 1969. He later served as a submarine officer based in Scotland and New England. He is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, Bryant University, and Swinburne University. After leaving the Navy, he spent two decades teaching college physics and astronomy. Reading and writing mind-bending science fiction is his passion. His debut novel, Mauna Kea Rising, was released in 2019. As a flight instructor, he has also published a column on flying among the Hawaiian Islands.