Diviner than the dolphin is nothing yet created; for indeed they were aforetime men and lived in cities along with mortals, but by the devising of Dionysos they exchanged the land for the sea and put on the form of fishes.—Oppian of Silica, Halieutica, 200 CE.
In the year 1690 some persons were on a high hill observing the whales spouting and sporting with each other, when one observed: there—pointing to the sea—is a green pasture where our children’s grand-children will go for bread.—Obed Macy, History of Nantucket (Moby Dick), 1835 CE.
Chapter One: Island.
2410 CE: 300 years after the Great Melt.
Be the water. Again. Be the water. Be the water. Again. Again. Be the water.
Ailana was a Swimmer. All her life she’d known the thrust and tumble of the sea, the muscle of waves and currents. But she’d never experienced this, this perversion. This sea had fists that beat, feet that kicked, arms that shoved her against the walls of the underwater cave she’d been thrust into. The currents seemed to have grown hands that wrenched and twisted her body. Yes, it was pitch dark, but echolocation—an ability she’d had since birth, honed in her years of training—flashed images into her brain. The cave, with its sharp pinnacles and pits, was narrowing. The vortex was strengthening.
Be the water.
Ailana fought the impulse to pull in her knees, curl into a ball. If she gave in, she would become a toy for this mad child playing its mad game. It would lob her from the jagged bladelike protrusions of one wall to those of the other. She would not survive.
She forced her body to lengthen, her muscles to loosen. She raised her arms alongside her head. She let go. I am the water. With it, she spun, allowed herself to be flung, along with debris—dead coral and plastic fragments, seaweed—into the ever-tightening tunnel that ripped her swimskin, knifed her underskin. The current gained still greater momentum. The cave contracted, bit down.
Powff! The blast threw her out of the sea and up, into air. Now—now!—Ailana tucked into a ball, arms protecting her head. She fell hard onto a shoreline of ironshore kurst. Its crags tore into her.
She couldn’t breathe.
Her fingers, oxygen-starved and numb, slipped, slipped again, reaching for the seam at her neck. The swim hood left no part of her skin exposed; even her eyes were covered by corrective underwater lenses. Come on! Twenty seconds, she calculated, if she was lucky. Twenty seconds from losing consciousness.
Yes. She managed to grip the seam. Ripped the hood back from her face. Swallowed air. Jammed her fingers into her nostrils to open them. She reached between her shoulder blades. A knot of something blocked her breathing hole. Her fingers kept shaking, slipping, refusing to grip. At last, she gouged it free—a tangle of seaweed and microplastic. She inched herself across the ironshore toward smoother rock.
Flat on her back, Ailana coughed, gulped air. Rock. Warm. Breathe. Rock. Breathe. Warm.
The oxygen hit her like a drug. She turned onto her side and vomited. Dry heaves. There was nothing in her stomach to release.
When the heaving finally stopped, she blinked up at a sky that appeared to be blue. A blurry sun hung low over the sea.
How long had she swum? Days, nights, before the cave. She’d lost count. The cave came as close to killing her as anything ever had: Lights out, the Deep. Not since advanced training had she been so close to natural death from oxygen deprivation. But that had been part of an exercise. Pike was there to monitor her every second.
Where was Pike? … Dorie?
Suddenly, her backbone was on fire. Now her left calf. Now her right forearm. Major wounds like these—through the swimskin and deep into the underskin—these were serious business. Her swimskin might not be able to repair itself. And her underbody, well, that needed attention as well. The expulsion onto this prehistoric coral reef with its spongework of pits and razor-sharp pinnacles had done as much damage as had the underwater cave. The Menders would have their work cut out for them.
Powff …pow-wooff. Ailana squinted toward the sound, a loud rhythmic exhaling at the shoreline. With each powff, a geyser appeared to rise. Blowhole? She’d just been birthed from the sea by a blowhole?
Surely she was hallucinating. Hypoxia could trick your brain into all kinds of craziness.
“I was on a regular mission,” she told herself. “With Dorie, as always. Maybe there was a storm, or an accident.” Ancient weapons—bombs they were called—abandoned hundreds of years back and invisible beneath a carpet of algae, sometimes still detonated.
The long, long swim, the underwater cave, this shore—it was all a dream, she told herself, a hallucination. She knew where she had to be, where surely she must be.
“Dorie,” she whispered. “I know you’re here. I just can’t see you.”
Soon she would recover her senses, or so she told herself. She would be lying in the east wing of the Swimmer’s Compound, at the Repair Clinic. Dorie, her partner—almost never were they sent on separate missions—would be sprawled on a nearby cot. And Pike, their Handler would be shaking its head and clicking its tongue, at the damage to their priceless swimskins.
“I’m not sure it’ll repair without intervention, Pike.” She raised her right arm. A searing stab of pain. Her swimskin hung in shreds. Blood streamed from her underskin. She blinked, tried to clear her vision. Pike had to be here. Pike was always here.
“9.2,” she lied. The pain was well over 20, but admitting to anything over 10 would jeopardize her status as Platinum.
“Dorie. I can’t find her. My eyes … I could use a drop of Eyeclear.”
Voices whispered back at her. They joined to make a chorus without words, the shushing sounds of the sea. The Menders. They must have given her some precious Morphalude. She was that valuable to the Government.
Last year, at only sixteen, even before she grew into her fullest strength, she’d attained Platinum thanks to her bioprospecting skills. She’d collected more medicinal bryozoans, sponges, tunicates, and snails—more lifesaving biomaterial than any other Swimmer. She had a gift, Dorie told her—Dorie, who was as proud of Ailana as if they were bloodkin. This was true, Ailana had to admit, but she, herself, didn’t understand the way the organisms seemed to call to her as though they had voices.
The other Swimmers of their series displayed negative emotion from time to time. They were jealous of Ailana. They suppressed it, but Ailana knew. They all—herself included—observed the growing scarcity of organisms. At times those others, even Dorie, returned empty-handed, which Ailana never had done. Still, she suspected that inside of five years, all resources would be depleted. Even she would return with nothing. But this was negative thought, forbidden.
Voices. Whispering, whispering. She understood what they wanted: sleep. Odd, how this cot in the Repair Clinic was so hard and uneven. Still, she could not stay awake. The Morphalude. No point in resisting.
Ailana, who had managed to sit, fell back hard. The shock of pain knocked the breath out of her, but her vision now was clear.
This was no mending room with white walls and metal tables. There was no slim figure in a silver swimskin who was Dorie. No yellow-suited Handler who was Pike. There was only the sea and this rocky shore and a sky now a dark dusty pink, nearly violet. And the blowhole spewing water, seaweed, and chunks of plastic, with each exhale.
Her computer, thank the Powers, was still strapped to her wrist. A hairline crack in the outer crystal, but it appeared to be functioning. She checked her coordinates. Latitude: 19.710, longitude: 79.836. The Southern Sea. Nothing else but the sea. Her computer registered no land mass at all.
Many of Ailana’s missions had been to this general area. She knew its past—Swimmers’ educations included historical geography. Before the Great Melt, the Southern Sea had been studded with islands—some low-lying, some mountainous—surrounded by coral reefs. These reef systems, now bleached and ravaged by acidity and high temperatures, still yielded the occasional vital organism—well worth foraging.
The few land masses in the Southern Sea that even now remained above water had been mountaintops in the before-times. She and Dorie had climbed the ruined slopes, past volcanic craters, the parched remains of dwarf pines, skeletons of animals—goats, sheep, and extinct seabirds, their stomach cavities full of plastic bits that the birds had mistaken for the fish that once schooled near the ocean’s surface. The names of the mountains-turned-islands were exotic, like the peculiar nonsense words of songs the Others sang as they went about their work at the Port of Atlanta. Pico Tarquino, Montagne Pelee, Soufriere—and those further south—Chimborazo, Huascarán, Aconcagua.…
Here had the feel of an island that had always been an island. But that was an impossibility. Her education did not allow for this option. All non-mountainous islands had been submerged by the seas, all of them.
Still, this ironshore beach of fossilized coral and limestone, the tidal pools, the beach beyond, the great wall of a bluff—all of this spoke of a before-times island. An island that existed before the Great Melt.
Her computer registered nothing at all. A serious malfunction. As soon as possible, she would perform a complete diagnostic.
Slowly Ailana moved to a sitting position. Her lips were swollen and crusted with salt. She tried to lick them with her dry tongue. Water—drinking water and shelter—that’s what she must have if she expected to survive the night. And night would be coming soon.
True, she hadn’t been mauled and eaten while lying unconscious on the shore. But you never knew what might emerge at sundown. Native creatures, once food sources vanished, had quickly taken one of two paths—extinction or mutation. She had heard rumors—Swimmer lore—of carnivorous two-headed iguanas the size of the seacraft that shuttled Swimmers to their forage sites, powerful rats whose bite paralyzed prey and who then dragged it to their nests so that their young could feed at leisure, swarming winged ants that could take you down to bone inside of a minute. Ailana and Dorie knew those mutant stories to be tall tales. Still, they both stayed extra-vigilant on above-ground missions.
The bleeding from her arm and leg had slowed but was congealing, gluing the ripped swimskin to the wounds in her underbody. No doubt the same was true of her back.
She took in her surroundings. Sea and rock, the black jagged ironshore that eased landward into pale gray stone—fossilized coral heads and imbedded shells… A few yards inland, plastic dunes that extended to a limestone bluff pocked with caves. A hundred fifty feet high, she estimated. The only shelter available.
She positioned herself on hands and knees. First she must stand. Then she must walk. But for now she just looked down. Tiny starbursts pressed into the rock. Spirals, networks of mazes. Millions of years old.
Again she sat. She had forgotten to fold the extended fins of her swimskin into foot-protectors for land-walking.
She stood, then waited for the dizziness to pass. She slipped her fingers into a slit in her swimskin just above her right hipbone. The pocket that held the Desalinator-Purifier chip. Still there, thank the Powers.
She checked the microchannels for debris and tested the bipolar electrode. The D-P chip appeared undamaged. “Got enough juice to treat a cup of water?” A cup would be enough to sustain her until morning.
All she needed now was a cup—perhaps a hollowed-out rock.
She took one shaky step, another, another. She had no luck.
She reached the edge of the plastic dune. They were commonplace, these dunes. The tideline of any land mass was piled with plastic, long reduced to bits, as miniscule as the grains of sand they covered. Nothing identifiable. Plastic manufacture was outlawed back in the 2200s.
But these plastics were still in the shapes of things. Ancient things. Bottles, footwear, eating utensils. Crazy.
Ailana shuffled and kicked until she uncovered a small tub that was completely intact. Astonishing.
“Whipped Butter.” The print was faint, but readable. Butter? Whipped butter? What could that mean?
“Butter.” Lifting her wrist, she sounded out the two syllables, then repeated, “butter.” An odd, funny word.
“But-ter. Definition not included in Swimmers program,” spoke the smug female voice of her computer. “Definition available to Passengers only.”
Ailana scooped water from a shallow tidepool. Activating the chip, she dropped it into the tub, which fit neatly in the palm of her hand. The tiny orange light blinked. Blinked and blinked. Three long minutes. Finally, green. Carefully, gingerly—this was the most valuable thing she owned—she slipped the chip back into the slit at her hipbone. She forced herself to sip. She couldn’t afford to vomit and lose more fluids.
Under normal circumstances, she’d be aiming to climb to the highest, least accessible (and therefore safest), cave she could manage. But weak as she was, she’d be lucky to make it the forty yards or so to the bluff.
Sure enough, her legs failed amid the waist-high plastic debris, but she managed to crawl her way out.
At the base of the bluff, a tumble of boulders. One after another they rose like steps. Ailana half-crawled, half-pulled her way up to the lowest, closest opening.
There was still enough daylight for her to see that the cave was both shallow and unoccupied. She crawled across the sandy floor, pressed herself against the damp cool of the back wall, curled into a ball, and tried to believe she was invisible.
Repeated sounds of explosions startled Ailana from her deep sleep: Pow-woof! Pow-woof!
It hurt to breathe. Every inch of her underskin, every fiber of muscle, seemed to hurt. But she’d survived the night. In the slant of morning sunlight, she looked up at the limestone wall smeared green with algae. Stalactites and stalagmites grew towards each other on either side of her. Outside the wind was kicking up the waves, fueling the blowhole.
Ailana flattened her hands upon the slick stone wall and eased herself to standing. She walked slowly the twelve steps to the mouth of the cave. Her hands shook, but she managed to reach out and place the D-P chip on a ledge in direct sunlight. No more than fifteen minutes until full charge, the sun was so bright. No climate shield, naturally. … But wait. There had to be one. Otherwise, the plastics here would have disintegrated, just as they did in other unprotected areas.
The climate shield over the Port of Atlanta created a constant cloud-cover. A dozen seeding ships in the harbor, monitored by Geoengineers, sprayed sea water into the low-lying clouds, which increased their density and reflectivity. There was always a whitish haze during the day, never a spot of blue, never stars at night.
Why would a shield exist over this island? One that was more advanced, even, than that which protected both the Port and the Cityship it served. A transparent shield. How was that possible?
Swimmers were schooled in the early attempts to modify solar radiance. Experiments that involved reflective films laid over deserts, orbiting wire mesh mirrors —and the notorious reflective particulate trials that further contaminated the earth, worsened droughts and floods, and set into motion the World Water Wars.
Training: In her mind, Pike scolded her. There was a protocol. She must follow it. First, the date. She consulted her computer: January 10, 2410, four days past her seventeenth birthday.
Four days. I swam for four days.
Images, fragments of them, began to return to her. The Port. The earth shook. The sky went dark. There was no warning. A wail—as though a thousand Others began moaning a strange song of the sort they sing. The wind came strong, tasting like the sea. Then the sea itself rose overhead, became the sky. Fell with a sound like thunder.