by William Andrews
The shift begins as an etiolated trickle, then gradually ebbs into the evening, when things are at least cooler. Unlike the mainland, there’s little in the way of entertainment in New Honolulu. Space is too precious for frivolous activities.
Anatole makes do with the market in the plaza off the main walkway near his tower. It’s a confusion of food smells and smoke. A handful of the vendors are old school and still hang on to their metal grills, claiming with an air of mystery they make the meat and oil taste better, even though they could easily trade the materials in for a decent cash. Their sentimental attachment also invites robbers but these cooks have enough avuncular bulk to scare off casual thieves.
The market is one of the few places where you can get freshly cooked protein and Anatole’s stomach can only take so many polyshakes, frozen meals, and vitamin pills. He sits down at a bench, a bowl of saimin noodles steaming in front of him, when he feels a tug at his elbow.
The boy in the T-shirt smiles.
“Big man says come. The usual spot, he say.”
Fearing rejection, the boy quickly adds, “Big man. Sailor.”
“Yes, yes. He couldn’t come himself?”
“Too risky, he say. He here. But couldn’t stay long, he say.”
“Alright. Lemme finish this first.”
The boy beams: job done. Then daring a rebuke or even a slap around the head, he stretches out a palm.
Anaole smirks and slips a coin into the hand.
“You born in New Honolulu?”
The boy nods.
“Your folks too?”
The boy shakes his head. “Come on big raft.”
Anatole doesn’t mind the interruption per se. What else would he do tonight? But he knows who’s waiting and how long it will take to get there.
A caravan of bikes trails past. A few scooters pooter along, polyfuel burning haphazardly. He moves through some vendors trying to push junk-laced gruel and caffeine on the unsuspecting.
The worst slums are populated solely by illegals or recently arrived reffos, practically still wet from having clung to a cargo ship hull and without a dollar to their name (and no one cares about their name), since they gave their last cash to an official to buy a temporary land permit, the most basic status of residence, anything to say they are not an illegal who can be chucked—literally—into the sea by a police patrol. In those slums, even the tram doesn’t run because the cable would be dismantled and repurposed within a day.
Someone almost jostles him but Anatole steps expertly aside. It’s not worth the risk of giving a pickpocket the opportunity. He doesn’t blame them for trying. Perhaps a reffo without a work permit or a second generationer down on their luck. Maybe even a one-time miner like himself no longer able to dig for poly because it’s all too far down for manned machines.
Edgeland scree and bazaar bric-a-brac. Attenuated urchins with shady keepers. There’s the inevitable stench of human sweat and waste—shit or piss or worse—but little actual non-bio refuse, since everything has value. Any chip of poly is cycled into fuel or food. Sure, look in a grate or peer closely at a corner, and you see pullulating roaches and rodents aplenty, maybe even the odd stray canine, but the night prowlers and their hardscrabble micropolitics keep the area clean of excess, and the smoothed-out nature of the polymer walkway prevents grime in three dimensions from accumulating.
He reaches the gate unscathed and starts the descent, taking the various elevators and walkways to wind down to the surface. It involves passing a couple of checkpoints. No problem with his citizen’s ID but he wonders how many bribes the big man paid.
It’s rare to be outside properly. The walkways are covered and the windows give only a half-real view. Poly just isn’t the same as good ol’ glass. Apparently politicians and rich folks have glass in their homes up on the mountains, facing away from the towers. Anatole spits.
“Aloha,” grins the man waiting by his polymoped at the bottom of the final steps.
“Knock it off. Why send the kid?”
“With my record, you have to be careful. Too many eyes and ears up there.”
A few stragglers wander around the rocky terrain. The ground level of New Honolulu, what’s left of it, is inhabited by different sorts: those too poor even for the slums; fishermen with boats too small for the coastguards to bother with and who don’t mind about the polluted catches; illegals too scared of the slums; back-to-nature-ists who believe the present isn’t happening; and people like Corelli, the big man.
“What’s going on?”
“Get on the bike.”
“Come on. How many years you got left? You’re thirty-five. Over halfway through your life. Who was your last girlfriend? You can’t remember, right?” Corelli teases some more. “And your sister? Where’s she these days?”
Anatole spits and takes another sip from the filtered seawater they are drinking. Stamps his foot to savor the half-remembered sensation of terra firma.
“Corelli, why are we here?”
His friend deflects the question by playing with his dreadlocks. “You’re not living. You’re passing through life.”
“Why do I feel like you’re trying to sell me something?”
Anatole speaks little and when he does, with a surgeon’s care, scalpels words and questions to his interlocutor’s joie de vivre. He knows it is a trait with a flip side that makes him unbearable to many—relatives, lovers, friends, colleagues, take your pick. But who needs TLC with a flesh-and-blood companion when you’ve got a decent elastomer vagina in a drawer at home?
“You should try it. The sea life. Real air. Freedom.”
“To drown. The species is trying to avoid the water. Didn’t you notice?”
The sun loves Corelli. He is of uncertain heritage, even to himself, and his skin boasts many shades.
Despite everything that is different between them, the two men are former school buddies. But when Anatole started working as a poly-miner, Corelli drifted in and out of the gangs in the towers, then did a stretch or two in the floating prisons, and finally took to the sea itself, falling in with the bands of pirates scratching a living from daring raids on cargo ships. They had somehow stayed in touch and even proved useful to each other over the years: when the conglomerates and state enterprises were running out of places to dig for old poly, the gangs would locate smaller sites and word would filter out to salvage teams led by the likes of Corelli, who would then recruit people like Anatole to operate the machinery.
At such reunions for jobs, Anatole had often mocked Corelli’s madcap social status, his throw-caution-to-the-wind choices, but Anatole also knows his own prudence has got him nowhere in the end.
“What would you say to a little treasure hunt?” Corelli asks.
“You heard me.”
“Treasure? You mean poly? Forget it, the sites are too deep and my old job is done by automated boring machines now. Or the sites are underwater.”
“Who said anything about digging?”
This makes Anatole curious. He waits for his friend to explain.
“I heard a rumor.” Seeing Anatole’s eyebrows rise, Corelli rushes on with his pitch. “A credible rumor. From a glider pilot. A section of the Patch is drifting.”
“It’s always drifting. It’s a gyre.”
“Who’s the sailor here? I know. But this section, you see, it’s surprisingly close. Just two or three days’ sail. If you have the right boat.”
“Which of course you do.”
Anatole shakes his head, understanding. “Why me? Sounds like you need a crew of pirates or scavengers.”
“But you know poly. You can rig up a scanner.”
“If I had one.”
“I have the parts. Now I need the operator.”
Anatole’s lips trace the beginnings of eagerness, of interest. “Hand-cranked?”
“’Fraid so. But it should do the job. We need to separate at site and compact it to bring back as much as possible without burning up too much fuel.”
“If it’s fuel you’re worried about, you could just burn some of the poly.”
“You’ll never get it all back.”
“Sure I will. With the right nets.”
“And the bandits?”
“I’m one of them! I know how they think.”
“And the navies? That place is practically a warzone.”
“Was. There’s a truce on, remember? We’re small fry.”
“So why bother?”
“Because if we do it right, it’ll be a big pay day for everyone.”
“Come on. You won’t believe what I’ve heard. Just how much poly!”
Polymer dreams are an occupational hazard for someone in his profession. At least when Anatole dreams, he can pretend he’s still a miner. You might think he would dream he was back driving his digger, plunging deep into the soil to extract the plastic landfilled in generations past, back when the species was so profligate that it buried its poly. But it’s not mechanical thrills that his hippocampus conjures up for him: he simply dreams of the material.
A layman is blind and deaf; Anatole is a plastics synesthete. When most people sense nothing, Anatole feels a symphony of textureless textures, of variations in a key of inodorous smells. Polyethylene. Polyethylene terephthalate. Polyurethane. Styrene-acrylonitrile. Unlike ordinary people, Anatole sees the world through a filter of polymeric appellations.
Humankind was in such a hurry to develop plastics in the twentieth century, it forgot to let language catch up. By then it was too late. We were left swimming amid the quasi-science of sesquipedalian labels and catenated acronyms, but bankrupt of genuine epithets to express their qualities. Any bad poet can wax lyrical about wood and stone, yet stumbles beyond a few basic adjectives when trying to capture the unique character of plastic. Ineffable in every sense of the word.
Anatole is able to transcend this semantic gap. Vocabulary be damned, he is capable of feeling each facet of any type of poly. In this regard, he’s not so different from the rest of the populace, since everyone lives amid the same behavioral lattice of plastic. We all eat the stuff every day. But Anatole’s past work has made him so much more precise in his understanding. Back then, he hadn’t just lived with poly; he was living for it—a seeker. And this inevitably does something to your persuasion.
To touch is not enough. Anatole has to stroke, to run his fingers over the material and make contact with the molded sheen’s cortex. He even licks the poly sometimes when he’s alone. Its contours are always too straight. Its smell a perpetually fresh vacancy. Its colors too bleached, too perfect. He can’t get enough of it. He lets the monotonal purity smother him until—until he wakes each time from his dream.
Other than this appetence, what did he have? He struggles to remember the last conversation he had with his sister or even the last time he saw her.
Scratching sleep from his eyes, he tries to muster a vestige of vim to face the shift.
Cops had raided a floor above, looking for illegals, troublemakers, reffos, black marketeers, dealers in contraband poly, take your pick. Whoever it was, they put up a fight: Anatole heard gunshots and screams as the perps were dragged down the corridors. He has a decent ear, but the cops were too stampy, the perps too shouty to identify which pidgin.
Anatole lets out a bitter yawn, expelling the last gasp of sleep left in his body, and sets about making a shake. He throws in some powdered protein and ersatz milk, followed by a handful of polycarbs to keep him going. He manually cranks the blender, since mains power isn’t always reliable this time in the morning, and presses the button. Pours the sludge mix into a cup. Sips. Winces as teeth crunch. He pours the mix back for another few seconds of blending. Little worse for your jaw first thing in the day than still-solid polycarb blocks.
He puts on his uniform like a begrudged costume, on his way to meet the shift’s quota of multi-compatible cogs for fan units.
The tower seems relatively unscathed by the raid. The steps still need replacing. The walls are still warping from heat, even fracturing in places, residues of corners cut decades back. Sometimes towers in poor districts of the city would collapse because a building inspector got an envelope full of bills and didn’t care who died or how many.
Choleric commuters hie their ways to the tram. Anatole joins them.
As he walks with his hands stabbed into his back pockets, he plays his daily game of Guess the Reffo: Who’s a citizen? Who fled here and when? Of the blatant reffos or illegals—obvious from their native languages instead of pidgin—he tries to tell which bygone island they come from. Kiribati? Palau? Tahiti? Vanuatu? The alphabet soup of submerged rocks. This zone is no slum, relatively speaking, and there are fewer illegals than you might imagine. Even citizens with roots in New Honolulu going back more than a generation or two, like himself, make up a comparatively large minority.
He passes a pitifully small number of Native Hawaiians who are handing out the usual chiastic literature about not eating the food, about skin rashes caused by artificial fibers. A rag-and-bone man bestrides a cart selling bottles of cheapjack moonshine, his trusty dog keeping watch for any passing police patrols.
Anatole proceeds into the main walkway. He is fifty or sixty feet or so above sea level here—safe for now—though the walkways in the zone were higher when they were first built four decades prior. The intervening years have yellowed their polyfloors with the detritus of human settlement too crammed and too limited in places to go, just thousands of feet scuffing away at the same stretches daily.
He’s made reasonable time today; the line is only twenty deep at the stop. The cable strains and the tram pulls in, pausing just long enough for the passengers to push on, and then the weight for the pulley system miles away at the end of the tower tugs, and the funicular trundles on.
It is even more humid inside the tram, though everyone thanked their gods when the city’s mandarins finally took out the glass from the windows. Anatole stopped bothering about hair years ago, opting for a permanent buzz cut, but it has the added bonus of keeping him cooler.
The walkways are always too noisy to hear the constantly piped stream of announcements and music. On the tram, though, as it’s hauled by cable toward the next sectors of New Honolulu, Anatole can make out tunes amplified through the carriage speakers. It’s a familiar snatch of melody and lyrics, he guesses a late-twentieth-century band a hundred years or more out of copyright.
“Today’s sea level: steady at a thousand feet below Maun Kea peak,” the announcer tells him. He hears the day’s predicted temperatures for various zones of the city: Maui, Ohau, Hawaii, and so on. Anatole winces at the numbers and says a silent prayer to his nonexistent god when the speaker returns to a tune. Music is a small luxury of the daily commute from his zone.
Anatole’s face is one of the few white ones on the tram and it inevitably catches the eye of a young woman. She admires his cold, handsome features, but he ignores her, waiting instead for the moments of the commute when the tram passes through a section where they can see outside, albeit just sky and ocean. Today, he manages to spot a bird in the distance.
The tram enters the industrial sector. Most passengers get off here and Anatole doesn’t even have to push. It’s a short walk to the factory.
As a citizen and someone with poly-related skills, he’ll never be jobless, but he wouldn’t miss a beat to tell you the truth: he hates his work. He is belittled by his corpulent babooz of a supervisor who plays Napoleon. More than anything, though, Anatole hates that he has to stay in one spot all day, measuring out the hours by the clock rather than how far he has ploughed into the earth. Those days are long gone. It’s all too deep now.
“What did I tell you? There he is!” Corelli whips and crackles.
“And there she is.” Anatole points at the ship.
“Ain’t she something?”
The vessel is certainly impressive: a trimaran fitted with two large outriggers, flanking a long deck area large enough for half a dozen men to lie down. There’s a roofed part—for sleeping and resting, Corelli later explains—and a large triangular mainsail with a somewhat smaller headsail in front, the whole rig furnished with various lines, ropes, and straps of whose names Anatole knows nothing but can tell are used to control the sails and steer the vessel across the ocean.
It goes without saying that the vessel is unmarked and unlicensed. It flies no flag, like almost all the small ships in the Pacific these days, bargaining on being too small for the Navy patrols and coastguards to bother with. “They have their hands full maintaining this uneasy truce we are living in.”
Two women are busy checking lines and boxes of food and supplies.
“Where was she made?” Anatole is stroking an outrigger.
“At a black printworks in a cove near Lanai Zone.”
Apart from near major ports like New Waikiki, most coastal areas are bandit and pirate territory. The authorities make half-hearted efforts to patrol for smugglers and new refugees, but everyone would rather be aboveground these days. Martial law is a very imperfect state of affairs.
“It’s good stuff.” Anatole is patting the ship.
“Is it?” Corelli’s lips curl, inviting a test.
“Sure. This is polycarbonate. You couldn’t ask for a tougher choice.” He touches another part of the vessel. “Good old ABS: acrylonitrile butadiene styrene.”
Corelli laughs and claps, dances a three-second jig. “See! I told you he was the right man for the job.” The two women seem neither impressed nor interested in the qualification Anatole has offered for his role.
Corelli suddenly drops the antics and segues to introductions. “Hey, ladies, this here is Anatole. He’s a dark horse.”
The women nod. Anatole learns that the younger one is Dian, a second-generation Javanese reffo in her early twenties. The other is Ansina, Chuukese and in her mid-forties. And from the casual way Corelli’s hands reach for her waist every time he passes, Anatole knows they are lovers.
“She’s an illegal,” he later confesses. “Her family was denied permission to seek refuge in New Honolulu twenty years ago.”
“What happened to her relatives?”
He shrugs. “Scattered. Now I’m her family.”
“I didn’t figure you for the settling-down type.”
“You call this settling down?”
The ship powers through the waves with surprising grace.
Anatole can’t recall the last time he was away from New Honolulu. Surely not since his last mining job, out at one of the final former landfill sites remaining above sea level. Now there are none left, what reason would he or anyone have for leaving the city? Travel is too dangerous unless you have a Navy escort. Decades ago, they had planes to take people to and from the mainland, but now not even passenger ships bother: it would be a one-way trip; not a soul wants to self-exile in these sinking islands and the mainland anyway already has enough evacuees. The Patch and its economic potential is practically the only thing stopping the federal government from jettisoning the state from the Union.
For the denizens of New Honolulu, with the exception of marginals like Corelli, you could get everywhere worth going by traveling between zones on the raised walkways. What were once separate islands in the previous century are now simply sectors of the same network of platforms and towers.
They are a remarkable thing to observe, which Anatole cannot resist doing as the ship pulls further away. For as manically conceived and desperately rigged as it all is, the results are spectacular from this distance: a malformed skyline right in the middle of the Pacific. The last steel available to the state was used to build the city’s main towers, along with the others in the lesser cities. These first towers were soon not enough, necessitating more built of polymer materials to accommodate all the reffos pouring in from across the Pacific after the Oil Drought. The cluster of towers continued to grow, printed polybeams and polyplatforms tessellating without discipline or design. And after China collapsed into chaos, followed swiftly by the whole of East and Southeast Asia, and Australasia shutting its borders, the towers became a beacon for all the peoples fleeing from the edges of the Pacific.
Anatole imagines the look on his boss’s face this morning when he didn’t show up for his shift. He knows he has just thrown away his source of income, but it feels good. He feels in charge of himself again, even if just for this trip. When he returns, he’ll hopefully have some money from the haul and will find another position making cogs or the like.
Corelli is a man transformed: crisscrossing the trimaran to grab lines and the boom, controlling the vessel like a giant marionette. Anatole senses his decades-old envy of his former schoolmate resurface and refocus: a resentment of Corelli’s insouciance that was capable of morphing into a ballet of precise actions performed on the moving ship.
Anatole is uneasy to be helpless in the hands of others. His offers to assist are rebuffed. “Don’t worry. Your job is the poly.”
The two women speak together in a trilling pidgin Anatole barely understands, though Corelli seems fluent. They are as busy as Corelli; when not engaged in tasks with the sails, they are staring out at the sea or breeze with a preoccupied intent that Anatole dare not interrupt.
He fills his time by setting up the poly-scanner and making some finishing touches to the homemade fuel converter he has brought. If they are becalmed—Anatole prides himself on knowing at least this nautical term—or need to make themselves scarce, Corelli has a propeller motor that he can quickly fit. Fed poly, the converter would give them fuel to drive the motor. It is crude, noisy, and inefficient as hell, but a lifesaver if you’re in a fix.
Later on that first day of their voyage, during a lull after they eat—fresh fish caught right in the sea!—Dian starts singing a shanty. Anatole the landlubber understands none of the lyrics but smiles at their buoyant ooh-arr-me-hearties charm. When they sleep, Corelli or Ansina take turns piloting.
The hours of the second day pass in fits of languor and helplessness. Anatole isn’t used to this exposure, being constantly on view to his fellow crewmates and to the ruthless ubiquity of the brine and sun. He feels naked and restless. He tries to learn what the others are doing or, when that proves impossible, to watch the horizon. Once or twice he thinks he sees a vessel in the distance. He seems to catch sight of a glider or balloon somewhere in the sky, but knows these could all be tricks of the light.
He stares at the iridescent body of water all around, which is weirdly devoid of life. He had imagined dolphins or fish frolicking here or there. The creatures have apparently retreated to the benthic depths, leaving their passage unchallenged, unchaperoned.
Sometimes Corelli fiddles with a printed contraption. A sonar, he claims, hand-cranking it. “It’ll beep if there’s a patrol nearby. It can detect their radio waves.”
Anatole scoffs. “Come on. You can’t trust tech no more.” Nonetheless, he is glad that the boxy device remains stubbornly silent.
“Anyway,” Corelli continues, “the Patch is too big to patrol. It’s the size of a country, if not a small continent.”
“So why isn’t everyone doing what we’re doing?”
“Maybe they are.”
No, they were but that is all history now.
After the Oil Drought two generations prior, accompanied as it was by the flooding of coastal cities and surges inland, followed by technological collapse, the world eventually turned to plastic for the answer to its troubles. While New Honolulu was rising into the skies and refugees fled submerged isles, a peculiar wave of economic migrants swept into the Pacific—Anatole’s own father among them.
The Plastic Rush was brief, quickly descending into war among nation-states in the region for control of the Patch. The truce holds for now, threatened by further diluvial pressures and the temptation of Australia and the United States to exploit the remarkable resource. The people who came for the opportunities are stuck in New Honolulu or somewhere similar, unable to book passage to the mainland due to the risk and expense of such a long sea voyage.
They start to see it on the third day: hulking into view in the distance, a floating moraine of craggy shapes. Anatole stands, rigid with reverence. It draws the attention of the others, who dare not speak for the final miles until they reach the first stretches of poly in the water.
The Patch is a nonpareil, one of the manmade wonders of the world, up there with the Great Wall of China. It is a canyon of plastic, stretching as far as they can see.
Anatole’s awed silence is finally broken by Corelli’s laughter and clapping. “You see! Aren’t you glad you came now?” The giddy sailor begins to pull poly out of the water with glee. Anatole glances at the pieces and instantly identifies them: PMMA, PVC, PP, PC, HDPE, PET. An endless supply of acronyms.
He dips his own hand into the sea and pantingly brings up a massive hunk of conjoined PVC. He studies it with a master’s eye, yet also tenderness. He looks out at the vast sweep of poly across the water and almost swoons.
The sea is full of fossils, interspliced antiques dating back to the twenty-first century. Every conceivable shape has contorted itself into being here among the floating poly, forming odd wedges melded and grafted into immense candelabrum structures several times the size of their ship. Baked by the sun and bleached by the saltwater, all the dyes of the poly have faded to various hues of the same pallor. It takes the crew some moments to adjust their eyes to the molluscoid complexity of the sight, though soon they can absorb both its magnitude and detail: not only the architecture but also the life that exists alongside it, for this is a seastead with communities of seafaring, glistening creatures weave in and out of the detritus. Others hitch rides on it—anemones, barnacles, brittle stars, starfish, all treating the Patch like a mobile strand, a littoral conveyance across the ocean.
The crew drifts in the Patch for an hour or so, just content to wallow in a marine field of marvels. It is almost with regret that Corelli starts preparing the nets, as if their purpose for coming here mattered nothing compared to the majesty of the vista.
Anatole’s professionalism is automatic. He processes the poly that the others haul in, snapping the tritonic crusts apart, separating them by type, and then using the jury-rigged scanner to verify certain clusters of material. Then he works the compactor to reduce the odd shapes and forms into more efficient blocks. These are then loaded into the nets hung from the ship like strange ballasts.
He glances over at the other three, intent on their work but with a detachment: for them, it’s all just a resource. Anatole can’t help feeling an almost paternalistic pity. He knows they don’t enjoy the same connection, the same synergy with the poly.
Consumed by the task of loading the harvest, and distracted by the noise of the compactor, the crew fail to hear the gentle yet steady putter coming from the west. Corelli is the first to spot the ship.
He squints, uttering a silent prayer that it’s merely another scavenger like them. The others frown as they watch him.
“Shit!” Corelli is rushing to the nets.
“Who is it?” Anatole asks, knowing the folly of his question.
Ansina and Dian spring into action, knowing they have minutes at most to get enough of a head-start.
Anatole joins Corelli, fumbling at the nets to release their spoils back into the ocean. “Australian patrol,” mutters Corelli, sweating violently.
The sail is unfurled and the ship starts to turn, but is quickly undone by the very object of its illicit voyage, the hunks of crusted plastic preventing the trimaran from steering at its usual speed. Dian uses a pole to push beautiful crystals of poly out of the way.
The Australian ship is calling something through a speaker. They ignore it and try to push clear. The last of the nets is jettisoned and the trimaran staggers forward, unburdened at last.
The sound cracks through the air and a flash shatters across the deck. Anatole is thrown to the side, instantly airless. He then realizes he is in the water. Dian is nearby, lying on a sheet of pearl-white PVC.
The trimaran is, incredibly, now in two, ripped apart and smoking. It doesn’t sink, but seems rather to be floating among the poly, bobbing up against the existing pieces. Anatole immediately intuits what will happen: that the remains of the ship will fuse with the Patch, its poly-printed components claimed by their kin.
He hears something and looks over to see the Australian ship has somehow turned and is already departing, its ammunition spent and punishment exacted.
“Corelli!” Anatole clambers onto a raft of PPT. Dian is still out cold. Something splashes behind him and he sees Ansina surface and frantically board a wedge of poly.
“Corelli!” But then he notices the red water on the other side of the devastated strimaran and the ominous sight of a floating human back in the bloody sea.
“Ansina! Can you get to Corelli?” He feels useless asking and she confirms as much with a bitter, terrified shake of her head.
Almost on cue, some pieces shift and a dorsal fin glides through the Patch. With brutally smooth efficiency, the body is tugged away and swiftly under the water.
Ansina begins to wail.
Anatole remains in a state of shock for hours, numb to hunger and the sun. He watches the Patch continue the process of assimilating the wreck, the outriggers encouraged by eddies to float beside certain bulks, acquiring natural companions.
Ansina’s cries come and go, like a kind of tide. Dian hums to herself, resigned to their fate. Anatole eventually has to smile: to be in the midst of such wealth, to have everything a modern human could need—food, water, fuel—so close, and yet to be cast adrift in a situation so hopeless. The sea, he concludes, is a charlatan, bountiful yet treacherous.
A small box meanders among its larger cousins. Ansina abruptly ceases her crying and reaches down, recognizing it as salvage from their erstwhile vessel. Her pragmatic mindset takes over and she forages, discarding items now made obsolete by their plight, but triumphantly raising a flare above her head.
“Let’s wait until dark,” she instructs them.
In the end, they don’t have to wait long. Their flare must have been visible for miles.
There follow a few nervous minutes as they hear the ship approaching but remain unsure who it is. The vessel that pulls up noisily to them, its searchlight sweeping a merciless beam over the poly, is reassuringly marked “U.S. Navy.”
No one attempts to make conversation above the engines of the ship. A rope ladder is perfunctorily dropped over the side and the three castaways immediately swim over to scrabble up it.
Towels are draped around their shoulders like a curious marine ritual welcoming them aboard. They stand in front of a man Anatole assumes must be some sort of captain, though his uniform in the dark seems much the same as those of the other half a dozen or so members of the crew.
Anatole had spent the hours while they waited for dusk formulating a story. It had all been a misunderstanding. A mistake. A prank. A dare. But now confronted by the might of the state, all his contrivances seemed faintly ridiculous. He makes do with smiling awkwardly, knowing the jig is up.
“Aloha.” It is all he can muster. He finds himself wondering what kind of ship they are on. A patrol boat of sorts, but so far from a coast? He is almost tempted to ask.
The two women are conspicuously silent, not even venturing to express relief or gratitude for their rescue.
“We . . .”
“Don’t even bother,” the captain clucks. “We pick up your type all the time. Where’s your boat?”
Anatole points to the remains of the trimaran.
The captain’s moue takes in Dian and Ansina. “I’m guessing you two aren’t. Refugees? Illegals? Any permit at all?”
They stay silent, hedging their bets.
Anatole tries to triangulate a helpful contribution but two immense bangs get there first. He has reflexively covered his face and only belatedly notices that Dian and Ansina are gone. Even with the illumination of the Navy ship’s searchlight, he can’t see or hear them in the water.
“You’re only alive because you’re a citizen. But the Coast Guard will probably press charges.” He thinks he see the man smirk.
He is still searching the black water when the captain is called over by another sailor, who is pulling a piece of the outriggers from the sea. They are examining the markings with flashlights.
“You were hit by an Australian patrol boat?” The captain’s voice is almost giddy. “These are strikes from an Australian Navy harpoon gun.”
Anatole affirms with a movement of his head but guesses its redundancy.
The Navy sailors confer. Anatole presumes it’s about the arrangements for returning to New Honolulu. There seems to be some below-deck quarters and he wonders if he’ll have his own cabin. He yearns for privacy. He vows never to leave the city again. He wants desperately to see the poly all around; the sound of it creaking and kissing taunts him.
“You’re in luck.”
“Yes. We’ve got good evidence here of an attack by an Australian patrol on a United States citizen’s vessel. And the death of a citizen.”
Anatole remembers Corelli being dragged beneath the waves.
“How is that good news?”
He wonders about the right way to address the sailor. Captain? Sir? Officer?
Then he wonders how they know about Corelli.
“Good for our superiors at Pearl Harbor, who are itching for a chance to end this truce.”
Now the sailor is smiling, no doubt about it.
But Anatole is already falling, a gasp of shock expelled just as he hits the water.
With instincts that surprise even himself, he flounders quickly for a hulk of poly. But then something rudely thrusts into him and he is pushed back into the water. On the second time this happens, the implication unnerves him: the Navy sailors are deliberately trying to keep him in the water. Their pole and searchlight work effectively to hound and exhaust his efforts.
Despite his frantic movements, the water is weirdly still. He moils, yet the ocean is indifferent. Surrounded by largesse, flailing amidst an embarrassment of riches. To touch is not enough, but now he can’t even do that. Slithering, slipping, his fingers find purchase on sluiced poly prizes, only for an unseen force to push him back. Find purchase again, until they don’t and he sees the bounty above. That monotonal purity is his, all above him, but soon too far to reach, and finally seen no more. A trail of blebs escapes his lungs, stretching up to touch the poly one last time.
William Andrews is a writer and translator. Originally from the UK, he has lived in Japan since 2004. His first book, Dissenting Japan: A History of Japanese Radicalism and Counterculture, from 1945 to Fukushima, was published in 2016. He is currently working on a biography of the filmmaker and activist Masao Adachi. https://www.williamandrewswriter.com