Sea Maple

WRITTEN BY
Marie Lu

ILLUSTRATED BY
Jazmen Richardson

Sea Maples are a member of the class Anthozoa, of the phylum Cnidaria. They are a type of black coral, relatives of the colorful kind that end up embellishing your office’s aquarium—but they live in the deep ocean, surrounded by crushing darkness, their black, tree-like limbs covered in brilliantly colored polyps.

The Sea Maple, though, is a special coral discovered only a few years ago. Other types of black coral grow to about three to four feet in height, but the Sea Maple is a massive creature. I know this because I led the expedition that found them. We went over the edge of a deep-sea trench and stumbled upon an entire forest growing in the black expanse, each one a hundred feet tall, as large as an oak tree of the land, their limbs illuminated in every neon hue of the rainbow. Together they grew in the black ocean like a Technicolor wonderland. For months afterward, I sat in news conference after news conference, trying to explain that swaying underwater forest of light as if the magic of it could be contained in a sound bite.

My sister Rose had begged me for months to see the exhibit of the Sea Maple Grove set up after my discovery. So thanks to Virtual Tech World, that’s what we’re standing in front of today—a glass frame ten stories tall, a walkway illuminated by dim, blue-black light, and beyond the glass, an entire jungle of color.

Rose doesn’t smile. She had been serious even as an infant, delaying her first smile for so long that our parents worried she might have vision impairment. Now, eight years later, little has changed. She just keeps her face turned up to the brilliant display against the dim light, her eyes fixated on the undulating branches. The limbs of a Sea Maple change color with slight variations in the water’s temperature, and here in the grove, a dozen different warm and cold currents make it so that the entire forest is a shifting mass of gold and red, green and purple.

I gave them their common name because they remind me of the maples that burst into color every autumn in Connecticut, where we grew up. It is where my mother gave birth to us—me, the accidental one, when she was a teenager and had no idea how to raise a child; and then her, when my mother was ready and did everything possible to plan for her arrival. The irony of it still haunts me: I am the one who will live, while my sister Rose was diagnosed last year.

Now I take Rose’s hand in mine and lead us farther down the corridor. “I like to think the Sea Maple is a sign of fortune,” I tell her, “depending on its color.” I nod to a swaying frond that towers up beyond the glass into the darkness, the bright yellow bioluminescence of its polyps casting us in a golden glow. “Yellow will bring power and prosperity into your life.”

Rose’s gaze stays on the thick forest of coral trees. She points to another branch. “And blue?” she asks me.

I admire the way it glows against the ocean like a turquoise fractal. “Spring,” I answer, “and growth.”

There are Sea Maples in green, for purity and harmony. Purple, for divinity and immortality. Orange, for creativity and spirit.

“And red?” Rose asks as we stop along the dim corridor at another tall glass window.

I marvel at the quality of this simulation, how much I can believe that I’m walking with my sister at the bottom of the sea, surrounded by an underwater kaleidoscope as far as I can see. “Red,” I say, “for vitality and good health. For joy.”

She turns to me for the first time, and against the rainbow of light, her skin does not look so deathly white. “Is that why it’s your favorite color?”

I smile at her and tighten my grip on her hand. “It’s a good color,” I say. I don’t tell her that I used to believe it could give her some good luck, that I’d hung up scarlet-hued symbols of health everywhere in our house and still her prognosis worsened with every hospital visit, that her face turned paler and her limbs thinned until I could see the sharpness of her elbows and knees. I don’t mention that it was the reason why our deep sea explorer is painted red.

“Mama said that the oceans were dying,” Rose continues. “She said that we took more than the ocean could give.”

“We did,” I reply.

“Then how does this forest survive?”

I turn to study the swaying seascape. The first thing I’d called it was a miracle, and it was. Like much of the life on land, coral in the oceans had been dying for a long time, sped up by the warming of the waters. It is part of the reason why simulations are so popular now—people use augmented and virtual reality to remember a different time, to escape into a joyful fantasy, to imagine what could have been. If you wear a simulation chip while snorkeling, you can still see the virtual ghosts of bright coral that had once been in the shallows.

But the ocean is a vast world of mystery and resilience. Here, in the silent, dark depths, it had been nurturing something of great beauty.

My discovery happened several months after Rose fell ill. When she turned seven, my team realized that samples we took from the Sea Maple Grove revealed the coral to contain powerful antibodies capable of curing a whole host of human diseases. The maples in this grove became sought after on the black market after that, until finally a consortium of governments protected it inside this guarded sanctuary. It is one of the rare times that the international community came together without argument.

I almost feel sorry for the poachers. If the coral could have cured Rose, I don’t know what I would have done. Maybe I would have sought them, too.

As we stare at the wall, a small golden glow suddenly darts among the swaying maples. I blink, surprised by the abrupt ball of light. It moves between the branches like a pixie, starting and stopping, before it finally jets through the inky water and out of view.

Everything in Rose straightens in interest. She turns in the direction it had gone and breaks into a run. Her bright blue shoes slap against the ground, as if real.

I laugh a little under my breath before I follow in her wake. Even now, I can still barely keep up with her.

She runs down the corridor, passing frame after frame, the stained glass effect of the colors outside soaking her in washes of blue and gold as she goes. Her black ponytail streams out behind her. I’m reminded of the summers when we would chase each other down by the river that ran through the yard of our home, when I’d call her over and point out the tiny minnows swimming against the current.

Where will they go? she’d asked me then, running her chubby hands through the water. The minnows darted around her fingers.

A place where they can grow bigger, I’d told her. They might turn into fish three meters long. Can you believe it?

Her eyes turned to me, wide and wondrous. Why do you like the water? she’d replied.

I’d smiled and tapped her nose. Because it always teaches me something new about life.

The golden glow outside streaks past us and disappears around the corner. We hurry after it. As we turn, it finally comes to a stop at the end of the corridor and hovers in a black clearing between two Sea Maples.

Rose comes to a halt in front of it. Its glow outlines her face, and I stop a few yards away to watch.

For the first time, I realize that the golden creature outside looks like a young Sea Maple. It’s barely the size of my hand, a small, circular tangle of fronds that hasn’t yet settled into the ocean floor like the older relatives around it. Now it floats in the darkness, swaying gently with the currents, as if unsure where it should anchor.

Rose stares at it. She finally smiles. “Is it a baby?” she asks.

I come to stand beside her and turn my face up to the small creature, too. It’s hard to believe that such a little thing will someday grow to the size of its massive sisters, and that when that day comes, everything in the world above will be completely different.

“Do you know how long Sea Maples live?” I ask her.

She shakes her head. “No.”

“Thousands of years.”

At that, Rose turns wide eyes up to me. Her eyes catch the rainbow of colors from outside the glass window, even though I know it should be impossible to do so with a simulation. “Really?” she says.

I lean down to her and rest my elbows on my knees. “Yes. You see those large ones?” I point to a maple with enormous branches that extend far past the window, vanishing into the murky depths.

“Yes?”

“They must be at least five thousand years old. Do you know how old that is?”

“Much older than us.”

“It means they’re older than the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. You know about the Romans from the cartoons we watched, right?”

She nods, still entranced.

“They’re so much older than the founding of our nation. They were alive before the Great Wall of China was built, or when the first Maya cities rose. They’ve been living down here, growing steadily, since our earliest civilizations. Do you know what that means?”

Rose puts a hand against the glass. Her eyes are turned up in awe, and her body is bathed in the dimness of the deep sea. “What?” she asks.

“It means Sea Maples are the world’s oldest living creatures. No one knows how much longer they’ll live, either. No one has ever found a dead specimen.”

Rose looks at me. “That’s impossible.”

I shake my head. “Not impossible. It just means that we don’t even know how long they can potentially live.” I nod at the massive coral before us. “This may be alive for another five thousand years. Maybe they even live forever. And do you know what? Somehow, despite all our conflicts and bickering, humans have managed to come together to protect it.”

Rose’s eyes dart from the large maple to the small, golden one, still floating in the space between the others. She presses both of her hands against the window, leaving her prints against the fogged glass.

“Forever,” she whispers.

It’s the smallest sound, and I barely catch her word, but she says it as if to the creature before her. I can almost feel those words stabbing between my ribs like needles.

Because Rose is not immortal. She was seven years old and she died last winter, right after we had all gathered at home with her for the holidays. Because even though the corridor we’re standing in really is at the bottom of the ocean, a revolutionary tourist sanctuary for the Sea Maple Grove, Rose is the simulation, a virtual projection of her mind created by the company Virtual Tech World.

Because Rose is not the one standing beside me right now, turning her eyes up in awe at the scene before her. She is only her mind downloaded into a hologram, so realistic and so intelligently made that, for a moment, I can actually be here with her and believe that she’s real.

Rose died before this underwater sanctuary could be finished, but before she went, she took my hand, looked me in the eye, and said, “Can you take me to see what you found?”

In my pocket sits the projector, a small, silver cube that contains a chip bearing the closest resemblance to her once living mind. I smile at this technical rendering of my little sister. She is so lifelike here, so real, that her virtual image can even render the glow of colors from outside against her virtual body.

She looks at me again. “Can I go out there?” she says, pointing at the baby creature.

I know it’s only her virtual mind mirroring what her living self would have said. It is, in some sense, a way for her to continue being alive, except her virtual mind can only be as mature as she was when she died. It can only know what she knew before she went. Like her, it can never grow up.

But even so, I take her hand and pretend I can feel her warm little fingers wrapped against my palm. “Of course,” I tell her.

Her eyes even brighten in the same way they did when she was alive—like the spark right before the fire is made. She turns back to the small, floating creature, then pushes off with her legs. Her virtual form leaps into the air and stays there. She hovers like she, too, is in an ocean I can’t see, and as I look on, she rises until her virtual figure floats out through the glass window and into the black ocean around her. She reaches a hand forward to touch the small, golden coral floating before her. Her fingers, ghostlike, go straight through the creature, but she still giggles as if its feather-like fronds can tickle her skin. She hovers there, swaying in the deep sea breeze, a glowing figure surrounded by life in this absolute darkness.

She looks back and waves for me to join her. I smile at her and shake my head. “You go on,” I tell her. “I’m right here.”

To my surprise, the small Sea Maple circles her, as if it can sense her presence, before it finally glides through her simulated figure and swims farther from the glass. She follows.

I watch as her figure dances in the blackness. She is, of course, not real. When she swims out into the ocean, she is not setting off after the young coral but simply resetting in her virtual simulation.

But here, bathed under the light of a hundred ancient creatures, I can believe that she has indeed left the sanctuary and followed the Sea Maple off into the great sea. Close my eyes, picture her setting off on an adventure, her human limbs transforming instead into swaying fronds of green and gold and blue. Who knows where they might go together? Perhaps they will settle in some other unexplored expanse of the unknown, build a new city of creatures that might not be discovered for another five thousand years.

Maybe she, too, will live forever, and witness the world change during her virtual lifespan. She will outlast every human who ever existed, be around long after we’re gone, witness the unfolding of this small world that is so much bigger and smaller than we could ever have known.

The Sea Maple has now disappeared into the depths, leaving behind the forest of its swaying ancestors in their kaleidoscope of colors. My sister lingers outside, her back still turned to me.

In an hour, her simulation will reset, and she will return to my side, where she will again take my hand in hers and I will do the same, as if she is really here. But until then, I stay standing alone in front of the window, taking in the majesty of the sanctuary, and let her live.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Marie Lu is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Young Elites, Legend, and Warcross. She graduated from the University of Southern California and jumped into the video game industry as an artist. Now a full-time writer, she spends her spare time reading, drawing, playing games, and getting stuck in traffic. She lives in Los Angeles with her illustrator-author husband, Primo Gallanosa, and their family.