Kaguya SF Contest, grand prize winning story
Toward the Open Sea by Shunichiro Yoshimi was awarded the grand prize at the 2nd Kaguya SF Contest, held by VG+, a Japanese website about all things SF. Between June and August 2021, 381 stories on the theme of “colors of the Future” were submitted.
Toward the Open Sea was translated into English and Chinese as part of winning the grand prize. The English version was translated by Toshiya Kamei. The Chinese version was translated by 田田 (Tian Tian/Den Den).
Toward the Open Sea
By Shunichiro Yoshimi
Translated by Toshiya Kamei
“You’re all essential workers,” the CEO tells us through a video feed. “Let’s make contributions to our country by improving our company’s food self-sufficiency.”
That’s her usual mantra. I can’t tell if she’s patriotic or dumb. All I know is no one else is sticking around in this time of crisis. The president and the managing director were among the first to skip town as if their asses were on fire. There are higher elevations in Japan, but no one knows what’s going to happen once an earthquake hits. On the other hand, other countries may be safer from earthquakes. The rich have already moved into high-rise towers on solid ground. That’s what I heard on the news. The world has been split into higher and lower grounds. In the meantime, the three factions vying for the control of our company have become one. When three arrows are united, fuckeries are justified, bathed in the spotlight, and showered with applause.
When the CEO finishes her talk, a lukewarm round of applause trickles. I join the applause. So does Eeyore next to me. He’s the only one clapping hands besides me, so the applause may be pre-recorded.
The project leader steps on the stage and speaks without removing his mask. To start off, he tells us to examine our skin. The ointment has gradually shown its effects, and thin oily coatings have formed on our faces and bodies. I used to be able to scrub the coating off with a towel, but it doesn’t come off easily anymore. We’ve been instructed to cover sixty percent of our body with the ointment. Most of us, however, apply it to eighty percent. If you apply it too much, your clothes get stuck on your skin. When the fibers absorb the coating, your skin gets hot. Similar to a third-degree burn, your skin feels raw for a couple of days. So moderation is the key, unless you want your skin to have the widest surface possible to take in oxygen underwater. That’s the dilemma.
“Don’t apply it to your fingers too much,” the project leader says. “You need to keep your fingers nimble when you work in the sea. In a few days you’ll be wearing plastic uniforms including underwear.” He seems to expect us to be overjoyed.
He asks us to tell him about our eyes. It’s my turn.
“This morning, I woke with transparent, jelly-like substances on the corners of my eyes,” I say. “Malleable to the touch of fingers, they’re as small as beads. My eye tunics feel swollen with water. It feels weird to close my eyes. It bothers me every time I blink.” Everyone else has the same condition.
After my presentation, the project leader says, “It’s a sort of chemosis. A type of bacterial inflammation.”
We’ve been fed the same explanation a million times, but no one believes it.
“There’s no need for concern,” the project leader says. “Water will be absorbed by your eyes. You’ll need to wait until your eyes stop absorbing the water before you see results.”
He never tells us what happens afterward.
“Discuss your recent concerns with your group. Make a list of concerns and share it with us.”
“Let me go first,” Elsie says to my group. “My kids are scared of me because of how I look. They don’t want to talk to me online. The same goes for my husband. My former colleagues don’t tell me anything. They avoid me when I try to chat with them online. I’m dying to talk to someone outside.”
Elsie doesn’t say why she doesn’t want to talk to any of us here. We don’t ask why. I understand her perfectly. I want to see my son, but I’m forbidden to see him in person. I haven’t spoken to him online in over a year. My wife said my appearance scared him. I told her to teach him how to respect me, but she got upset and said I had no right to tell her how to raise our son because I wasn’t there. That’s the last time we talked. Whenever I try to contact her, she refuses to accept my call. I took this job for my family’s sake. Of course, I first joined here because I possess the merfolk genes found in only ten percent of the population.
“It’s not true that we’re the ten percent,” Mia says. “We’re duped into volunteering. None of us here is rich. We’re a bunch of immigrants.” Mia pushes their long hair behind their ears. They wear plastic gloves because they need their fingers to flip pages. They used to read a collection of letters by Yaobikuni and Mimei Ogawa. More recently, they’re reading up on global warming and the discovery of merfolk genes. Mia is the only one who reads books around here. The rest of us feel like throwing up at the sight of a book.
“Why are you reading books? If you read literature, will your soul go to heaven?” I ask.
“Hell no. I’m reading to avoid going to heaven,” Mia answers with a laugh. “Aren’t we supposed to talk about our concerns? I hate the ocean because it’s dark.” They pout. “All of us are poor. Look at the leader. He wears a designer suit in this dump because he’s loaded.”
“But I heard the leader lacks merfolk genes,” Elsie chimes in.
“Elsie, if I had money, I’d say the same thing,” Mia says. “I’d leave dirty jobs to the poor. How else can you explain only poor people like us happening to have merfolk genes? What are the chances? This happens only in capitalist fantasies. Look, we’ve been trapped in a capitalist fantasy ever since we can remember.”
“So what? What are you going to do about it?” Elsie says.
“Let’s rob a bank. We’ll split the loot. Luckily, we’ve grown strong, thanks to weight training.”
“Even so, we’re not strong enough to destroy a safe,” Elsie says with a frown. “Besides, banks have no money. They’re used to store food.”
“What kind of food?”
“Fish free of microplastic.”
“You need to cut out their stomachs.”
We haven’t robbed the bank yet. We’re still stuck in a mold-infested beach hotel. We apply the ointment several times a day. As our contract stipulates, we weight train. We apply eye drops before swimming in the sea. Disappointed in our futile attempts to contact our loved ones, some of us have divorced. Our skin is now covered with a thick layer of coating. Our eye inflammation no longer disappears. It keeps growing and now covers our entire eyes, which protrude slightly. We can close our eyes, but it feels strange. We go for hours without blinking. Of course, our eyes don’t move. We feel no urge to blink. We can see clearly underwater. Things look bright. The deep sea used to be pitch-dark. It’s fun to swim in the bright sea. Our camaraderie has improved, and rumors fly faster than before. For instance, we’ve speculated that the ointment is made of deep-sea tube worms or ground merfolk livers. We don’t think we’re here to increase our food self-efficiency. We suspect that we’re being sacrificed to find seabed resources. After all, the CEO is too stingy to use money for food. That’s what Mia told me. Elsie heard the same story from Mia. Mia didn’t say who told them. They no longer read books. They’ve become fascinated with colors.
“According to some astronaut, everything was pitch-black in space,” Mia says with a gleam in their eyes. “There was no color. When he looked at Earth, he saw every existing color. I feel the same. Every color exists in the deep sea.”
“I don’t see colors,” I say. “I recognize brightness.”
“Use this.” Mia shows me a colorizing app. “Download this on your cell phone. It colorizes black and white videos. The app alternately shows a monochrome image and a colorized image. You stare at the screen and train yourself. Your brain will colorize what you see automatically.”
“It sounds difficult,” I say.
“Train yourself for five minutes before going to bed. First, your dreams will be colorized as your brain gets used to your altered eyes.”
After four weeks, the deep sea looks colorized. The app has spread throughout the community. Competition has driven us to acquire colors. As the seabed becomes colorized, our lives on the ground have lost color. Covered with a coating, the ground has remained cloudy and strewn with green molds. We can’t get hold of our loved ones. They’re content as long as they have money. My wife and son need money. And my previous appearance.
We have abandoned our souls.
You put a coin in a cup. One or two coins won’t make the water spill over. Neither will three or four coins because of the surface tension. The fifth coin does the job. What’s important is that the first and fifth coins are identical. Our escape is similar. We put up with the same old shit until the surface tension isn’t enough.
The first to escape isn’t any of us. Mia or Elsie or Eeyore or me. That guy speeds through us and reaches the open sea. His body melts into the darkness.
Mia follows. So does Else.
We all swim with all our might. I think I hear everyone’s laughter.
I look back and see the shadowy ground swaying. I look forward and see all existing colors. I stretch, crawl, and kick as hard as I can.
Yoshimi writes various types of stories and lives in Japan. In 2019 and 2020, his works were selected for main round of the Bungei Fight Club, a Japanese flash fiction competition. In 2020, he contributed an essay to Everyone’s Art Museums, an essay anthology about art museums. In 2021, he won the grand prize of Kaguya SF Contest with Toward the Open Sea.
Toshiya Kamei’s translations have appeared in such venues as Clarkesworld, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and Strange Horizons. His short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in the anthologies Enchanted Entrapments, Myths Subverted, and Winter of Wonder, among others.
Japanese Version of Toward the Open Sea （アザラシの子どもは生まれてから三日間へその緒をつけたまま泳ぐ）