5 min read

Gathering amber

Sci-fi on the Baltic shore.

Jonas didn't mind the cold waves splashing against his waterproof rubber boots. If anything, it reminded him of the winter he and Tamara spent hanging out with a bunch of folks who believed that skinny dipping in icy water was the cure for everything. It was ironic that now he had to spend weeks upon weeks gazing at the autumnal Baltic sea.

In the distance, he heard seagulls chatter about the catch of the day. Bored, Jonas liked to imagine what birds and other creatures told each other. And with nearly every day this season being just like the previous one, he was bored quite often.

The next group didn’t take long to appear. Dressed in khaki jackets, not matching––just very similar––and fisherman pants, the always smiling retirees from a land far away were descending from the sand dune. Already equipped with fishing nets, sieves, and magnifying glasses at the Visitors Center, they were certainly up for the task. The tools looked crude and basic, but the millennia-old activity of amber gathering didn’t need much more. Some of the people in the group were probably coming here for the second year in a row. The ads the Bureau bought in the local press there indeed paid off.

'Mr. Jonas! Mr. Jonas!' the guide shrieked, waving her hand at him from afar. 'Sorry we're late, we were just…'

A sudden gust of wind drowned her excuses. It didn't really matter, as her late was most people's right on time or even early. The storm had subsided some ten minutes ago, and the size of the waves was close to optimal. Had they been higher, they would bring heaps of seaweeds, twigs, and dirt from the seabed to the shore, only for the sea to swallow it all moments later. But now, most of the gunk stayed afloat several meters from the sandy beach.

Tallying the second group of the day, Jonas squinted. The group comprised a dozen nimble-fingered and eager participants, seven ladies and five gentlemen.

'Collectors’ club?' Jonas shouted over the wind at Alicia. A recent transplant, she was responsible for guiding out-of-town groups.

'Yes, from Okinawa!' Alicia yelled back jollily, a mere fifteen meters from him, separated from the pack by a few steps. She didn't need to shout at this point, but it was a habit she developed working with octogenarians.

'Lovely. And you speak their dialect, right?'

'Language, actually. They changed its status after declaring independence.'

She turned to the group and started the drill. Even though Jonas didn't speak Okinawan, he knew the mantra by heart, as he had heard it delivered in at least fifteen languages.

'The storm has just ended, and the waves are already washing out debris onto the shore, and with it - amber. As you know, amber comes in all shapes and forms. It can be smooth, rugged, round, or irregular. Please handle any object you come across with care, and always keep your protective gloves on. There’s an extremely low possibility of encountering white phosphorus bits, which look like amber…'

Jonas remembered the first headlines that mentioned this threat. How could he not? He was the one who drafted the press release. There was a heated debate at the bureau regarding the material that would deter people from picking up amber on their own. Jonas' boss was adamant about going with uranium, and Jonas had to convince him that anything reminiscent of the nuclear age would only attract atompunk weirdos.

In any case, the scare worked, and individual incidents of amber gathering were rare among locals. The 'Don't touch the sun stone' awareness campaign even won some second-tier marketing award.

'I will kindly ask you to put all opaque stones in the blue bucket and all clear ones in the red bucket,' Alicia instructed the crowd, handing each participant a set of two small plastic buckets she took from Jonas. The buckets hooked easily to the harnesses everyone was wearing. The Okinawan retirees were nodding and smiling, eager to start gathering. Standing knee-deep in the water, they were already surrounded by sea rubbish.

‘And if you find a piece of amber with an insect inside, please let me or Mr. Jonas know. We’ll inspect it and tell you if the specimen is suitable for our museum. We’ll even add a plaque with your name on it.’

The promise of fame, however insignificant, always worked. The Bureau even had the stats to prove it.

Alicia borrowed a fishing net from one of the old-timers and swooshed it into the sea, filling the net with seaweeds and other junk. She then dumped all that biomass on top of a sieve one of the ladies was holding for her.

'Shake the sieve a few times gently to distribute the weeds,' Alicia explained, while Jonas patiently observed how the Okinawans repeated the dull actions after her. They seemed like quick learners.

‘You think they’ll find anything we need?’ Jonas asked Alicia. He didn’t bother using code with her, as the guests couldn’t speak their language.

‘Some amber, for sure,’ Alicia replied, knowing perfectly what Jonas was referring to.

‘Well, it’s been just amber for the last two months, right? Maybe the vein’s finally depleted.’

Jonas really wanted that to be true. It would mean that he could finally take a holiday. The fact that the country's top xenogeneticist had to spend his days sifting through seaweeds with a bunch of tourists was absurd.

Three years ago, when a tectonic shift exposed an underwater vein filled with solidified resin from some 50 million years ago, heaps of amber would reach the shore every day. And among them – tiny pieces of alien matter. Discovered by accident by a local collector, the stones had embedded in them insect-like creatures with extraterrestrial DNA, either biological or synthetic.

In the first year, it was a serious operation with divers and an on-site lab. They also had the perfect cover-up story, which included climate change and unexploded ordnance from WWII. A segment of the beach, a former nudist beach, was closed off to the public.

The xenobugs they'd find trapped in amber brought new questions. But the Bureau grew colder after the xenome was mapped, and no new species were discovered aside from the six- and the eight-wing variants. After all, amber inclusions haven’t brought any new technologies or records of intelligent life. And if at first some scientists, including Jonas, proposed that the xenobugs were a smart, hivemindesque culture, the consensus opinion grew to become way more unimaginative. Just some bugs that hitched a ride to Earth on an alien ship. Nothing much you could do with that.

The new funding cycle came with significant cuts, so those in the Bureau who still believed in the cause set up their own operation. And with limited human resources, they had to improvise. By framing amber gathering as a fun activity for grannies and grandpas on holiday, they both solved the shortage of hands and created a revenue stream for the program. It wasn't optimal, but it worked.

'Hacha! Hacha!' one of the old ladies shouted, holding a sizable chunk of amber between her thumb and index finger.

'It means bumblebee in Okinawan,' Alicia said. 'Let's have a look.'

Wading through the water, Alicia approached the lucky gatherer. Although the Baltic sky was grey, the amber stone glistened, as if the energy of the Sun was concealed inside it, together with the bug. Alicia was no xenobiologist, and she couldn’t tell if the tiny insect trapped in the resin of an early Cenozoic pine tree was alien or not.

She waved at Jonas, but he didn’t notice her as his gaze followed the two seagulls soaring above. What were they talking about this time?