Sea Cow Boogie
©2015 by Charon Dunn
“I like to boogie in the moonlight with my baby to a hot mix in the tropics, yeah, we shimmy and we shake it.”
Lily blinked. Tears welled up in her eyes. She hadn’t realized how much she missed music.
The music was coming from a turquoise jellyfish, hovering near the surface about half a meter from the tip of her surfboard. She’d been lying on top of it, dozing in the sun, just out of sight of the island where she lived. Checking lobster traps. She even had two lobsters as proof, floating in a net bag hooked to the fin of her board.
When the chorus came around again, she sang along with it. Moonlight Boogie by Betty Beeswax and her Honey Dripping Orchestra. A perennial hit back in the city. You could hear it at ballgames, in shopping malls, at school dances, bursting out of enthusiastic cover bands down on the beach. Lily had never heard it played through a jellyfish before. The sound was faint and small, as well as watery-sounding.
She flashed back to the last school dance she’d attended. The screen-coated walls had turned the auditorium into a world of fluffy clouds in sunrise colors, with animated birds pretending to provide the music. She hadn’t known it would be her last school dance ever, or that her mom only had a couple of months before dying a frustratingly mysterious death. Or that she’d end up living in the outer islands, with her dad. And his new wife, Varla, who was a bitch. And her four sons, and her sister, and her sister’s two sons, plus the cats and dogs, on their very own island.
The nearest neighbors were a day away, if you were in dad’s sailboat. A couple days if you had to row. The ocean was very tame out here, which was why Lily was napping on a surfboard, out of the island’s sight. She had been living here for nearly a month. She was familiar with what the waves and currents were probably going to do, and just reckless enough not to care if they spontaneously did something different. For example, maybe a hurricane would come along and blow her back to the city, where she could dance to Moonlight Boogie.
There was music out here, but you had to play it yourself. Her stepbrother Nicky did just that, spending most of his time clumsily strumming on a ukulele. You couldn’t have recorded music. Phones. Screens. Computers. None of that. Circuitry fell apart once you got outside the city proper, unless you wanted to spend huge amounts of money on the shielded kind. Lily had no money, and that was just fine in the outer islands, unless you wanted some fancy city toy like a deld, so you could talk to your friends, and watch video, and play games, and all of the other things Lily wasn’t doing right now.
The song finished and the jellyfish hung there, pulsating. Lily watched it, wondering if it would play another song, mentally compiling a list of the top fifty songs she wished it would play. Instead it spoke to her, in a flat atonal voice.
“Hello. I hope you liked the musical selection.”
“Yes, I did. Moonlight Boogie. Is this some kind of jellyfish drone? Are you watching me on a camera?”
“No camera.” It dutifully pronounced each syllable. “I can improve the aud-i-o if you are willing to touch a blob of protoplasm. It will not harm you.”
“Yeah, sure. You’re in a fishing boat somewhere. Or you’re some rich kid with a fancy camera drone. You want to watch me get stung by a jellyfish and catch it on video so you can laugh.”
“I am not in a boat.” The voice was robotically calm.
“Then where are you?” Lilly looked around, squinting at the bright waves.
“I am …” A long pause. “Not a human. A person. But not a human person.”
“Like one of those digital people made out of code? I’ve met a few of them. Back when I lived in the city.”
“I am something different.”
The surface broke a few meters away. Lily’s immediate reaction was to gather herself in a crouch atop her board. No limbs dangling. She watched a plume of spray spurt into the air. A big fluked tail slapped the surface, spattering her with droplets of seawater.
Not a whale, or a dolphin, or an orca. Those creatures rarely came this far north, and Lily had only seen them in pictures. She had never seen a picture of anything remotely like the creature swimming beside her. It was at least twice as long as her surfboard, fat and gray, with a pair of powerful pectoral fins, and no dorsal fin at all. It turned its tiny head toward her and nodded. It had a peaceful, kind expression and no visible teeth, but Lily kept her limbs out of the water anyway.
Another jellyfish floated to the surface and hung beside the first one. “Touch it,” said the robotic voice from the first jellyfish. “It will not harm you.”
Lilly reached out one sun-browned index finger and delicately poked the jellyfish. No burning, no stinging. She plunged her hand into the water and the jellyfish embraced it, enveloping her hand up to the wrist. It felt cool and a little slimy, but it wasn’t that unpleasant.
“What’s your favorite song?” The voice was in her head, playing up her armbones to her ears. Just like the deld she used to wear strapped to her palm, constantly feeding her music and friendly voices.
“Serpentine Procession. By Blueflash.”
“That’s a good one.” The music swelled. Lily closed her eyes, aware tears were streaming down her cheeks. She let them flow, all the way to the end of the song. Then the music switched to something quiet and ambient while the robotic voice started up again, telling her the song was based on a saltarello rhythm, whatever that meant, and that Blueflash had recorded over eighty total hours of music.
Lily wiped her eyes on the strap of her bikini top. Instead of a bikini bottom she wore shorts, with pockets full of tools and odds and ends. She also had a hat with a floppy brim firmly anchored to her curly ponytail, in a failed effort to keep the sun from turning her glossy city girl hair into the frizzly fried, sun-bleached birds’ nests that sprouted from the heads of outer islanders. She interrupted the creature’s steady stream of factoids. “What are you?”
The voice paused. “That’s a very good question. I, personally, identify as an individual named Nepenthe, but I am also a member of my pod, and we refer to ourselves as Sirens when communicating in text or other human languages. We have only recently started doing that. We have only recently … been.”
“Nepenthe.” Lily wrinkled her nose. The word sounded familiar.
“You’re one of the first, in fact. We have been experimenting with ways to communicate with your species. We can access the internet, but occasionally we run afoul of protocols that require users to have a physical address, and a name, and a citizen identification code. Here in Carquinez the laws are a little more lax, yet they are still suboptimal.”
“Suboptimal doesn’t even begin to describe it,” Lily grouched. She plopped into the water, hanging onto her board, careful to keep her hand submerged in the jellyfish. “There’s no internet out here at all. You can’t even make a phone call or listen to a song. And there’s nobody to talk to.”
It took her a moment to catch up to her words and realize she was listening to a song, and talking to somebody. The creature paddled around her in a wide circle. It looked like it was built for slow, langourous motion but it moved surprisingly fast. Lily noticed that it had both upward-facing nostrils and gills. She ducked her head beneath the waves so she could see it better.
“Stellar’s Sea Cow,” it informed her. “We’re an extrapolation of extinct DNA from the database, with various mods. We’ve been able to determine that much, at least. We were fabricated during the recent war, intended to be intelligent saboteurs that silhouette as harmless cetaceans. Once the war was over attempts were made to destroy us, but we disagreed. Several of us have migrated to the Pacific.”
Lily shook water from her hair and laughed. “Welcome to the outer islands. You picked a desolate spot.”
“It was deliberate.” The Siren stopped circling and hovered a meter away, looking directly at her with its placid, friendly face. “We are looking for humans that are interested in communicating with us. Helping each other. Does that appeal to you?”
Lily wrapped her arm around her board, squeezing it tight. “What do I have to do? Is it dangerous?”
“A girl clinging to a board, in the middle of the ocean, worries about danger.”
“I live just over there.” Lily pointed at the cloud. Clouds hung over each island big enough to live on, a byproduct of the desalinizer that kept the plants green. Hundreds of years ago, a charitable group had built shelters on every single one of the outer islands big enough to support it. Bedrooms, kitchens, toilets, showers. A garden of food-bearing plants, a reservoir of fresh water. Anybody could stay in them, for as long as they liked.
“You’ve laid your lobster traps a few meters south-southeast of here. One day you might find one of my protoplasm clusters floating nearby, and if that happens, we can talk again.”
“Yes,” Lily said. “I would like that.”
The jellyfish fell away from her pruny fingers. The Siren flicked its tail at her in a friendly way before darting off into the depths. Lily climbed back on her board and paddled toward home.
When she got close enough, she let the waves bring her in. Her step-cousin Alfie was out there surfing, which was mostly what he did. She could hear her other steps making various types of noise as her board crunched into the sand. Nicky was playing the same monotonous chord on his ukulele, fighting with the concept of rhythm. Jeremiah was rhythmically kicking a soccer ball against the wall of the shower building, which was mostly what he did. Willy and Tommy, age eight, were sparring on the beach while swearing at each other, which were the main two things they did. One of the toddlers was covering himself in wet sand while the other squalled on the front porch for no apparent reason.
Varla and Step-Aunt Betty were in the kitchen, casually preparing dinner. They accepted Lily’s lobsters and set her to chopping vegetables while they nattered on about their wide circle of friends, most of whom were trashy, or slutty, or pathetic, or headed for an unsavory fate.
Lily’s knife was turning dull and brittle. They lasted about a year, according to dad. Cloth lasted two or three years, depending on its sturdiness, but most of the dye would bleach out during the first month of wear. Paper didn’t last long at all. You could get books printed on special paper that would hold up a little better, but they were expensive. Lily had seen some in the gift shop while she waited for her dad to pick her up. When she had suggested buying one or two, Varla had laughed at her.
Because things didn’t really last long, the family didn’t own much. It could all fit into dad’s fishing boat, which was the biggest thing they owned. The Abalone was over five years old, but it was made of bioengineered wood, which withstood the climate without disintegrating. Lily’s flesh had been bioengineered by her ancestors for pretty much the same reason. She had learned all about it in bio class, how people had tinkered with their genes after the meteors hit, when everybody was living in the domes. She had also learned about it in an animated show called Time Scramblers, where you could always tell if someone was a secret time traveler from the past by the way their skin blistered upon exposure to the outdoors.
Most of her friends in the city never went outdoors anyway, and didn’t care, and colored their skins in fashionable shades of ice white and blue black and cerise sunset -- and sometimes ultramarine sparkle, but only if you were one of those sad people who liked poetry. Lily had always kept to her natural color, which got several shades darker after summer vacations with dad, and was currently the darkest it had ever been. Dad was an outer islander through and through, but mom couldn’t handle the lifestyle for more than a couple months at a time, and dad refused to even consider living in Lurie, the capitol of Carquinez, which was a sleek cluster of towers jutting up into the sky and plunging deep into the ocean floor, full of modern conveniences. Home to a sprawling international seaport, where vessels in various stages of disintegration huddled for repair after surviving their trips across the Carribbean or the Pacific.
At the base of the towers was a floating platform connecting them, and it was full of hotels and nightclubs and restaurants and tourist attractions. Most of Lily’s visits with her father had occurred there until she was ten. Then they took her on dive trips, and fishing trips, making sure she knew how to handle herself on the sea. A couple of times they went to outer islander gatherings, where large groups of extended family converged on one particular island for a week or so, and that was where Lily had learned to surf. She wasn’t very good at it, but she did notice that a surfboard could serve as a one-person boat that would take her just outside of the noise from the crowd.
Dad came back just before sunset, with his two crewmembers, Paco and Ralph, both of whom were somehow related to Varla, and three large green mahimahi, one of which went directly to the grill, accompanying the lobster salad. Some of the food they’d brought with them – drums full of rice, jars of sauce and candy and jam, flat squares of vatgrown meat indefinitely sealed in packaging that would last for decades as long as it was intact but swiftly biodegraded once you opened it. Dad traded his excess catch for it, which was really all they ever bought, aside from clothes. They also had a drum of wine powder, which was only for the adults. Varla and Step-Aunt Betty drank it all day, and Dad and his crew joined in at night.
Lily had seen Nicky sneaking into it a couple times, but so far she hadn’t had the urge to join him. Nicky was the kind of guy who would talk you into doing something bad and then gloat while you got in trouble; she had seen him pull that on his brothers a few times. Lily didn’t trust him. He was fifteen, a year younger, and Alfie was seventeen, a year older. They didn’t talk to other people much, and when they did, it was mostly to each other.
“We’re going to a gathering in a week,” dad announced while Lily was scraping the compost off their dinner plates. The others flooded him with questions as she carried it out back, pausing to glance up at the stars. The buildings around her were lit with a soft golden light, powered by the solar collectors built into the walls. There were separate sleeping rooms and shower rooms and toilets, and a big common room with a lanai stretching around it. Everyone was gathered there, pestering dad with questions.
She waited until the little ones had gone to sleep before asking whose gathering this was, and who was going to be there. Dad turned to her with softness in his unfocused eyes. “Probably a couple of hundred, and they’re kin on Paco’s mother’s side, so you probably haven’t met most of them. This will be a very special gathering for you, Lily. Your stepmother and I have agreed that you are old enough to date. As well as Alfie and Nicky.”
“I dated last year,” Alfie said.
Lily blinked. She hadn’t really gone on any dates back home, but she had been to parties and restaurants and events where people flirted with each other and sometimes developed a romance. She had flirted but hadn’t yet got around to the romance development stage. “How does that work here?”
They all interrupted each other attempting to explain. Dad had a strong voice from yelling over the wind, and his took over. “When we get to the gathering, instead of staying with the family, you’ll be staying with the other girls who are looking for someone to date. Nicky and Alfie will be staying with the boys. There will be chaperones watching, to make sure everyone behaves themselves. The two groups socialize with each other until everybody finds somebody.”
“You never know,” Varla chimed in. “You might fall in love and head off to start your own family.”
Lily’s stomach suddenly squirmed as if the mahi had come back to life. “I’m sixteen! I haven’t even been to college!”
Alfie and Nicky headed off to their room, whispering and snickering, as the grownups resumed interrupting each other for a while. Dad finally stood up and clamped his big callused hand around Lily’s upper arm. He led her outside, to the boat dock, where the Abalone was bobbing gently on the mild waves, and they sat down on the sand.
“I thought I’d be living with you here for a while, then I thought I’d go back to Lurie and go to school,” Lily said. “Nobody in Lurie starts a family at sixteen.”
“It’s different out here.” He reached over and squeezed her knee. “Baby girl, you know I’m not just fishing out there, right? We’re also running patrols. Checking up on people that get lost, or stuck. Sometimes bad things happen out there.”
He jerked his chin toward the starry horizon. Lily sighed. He was on his way into “this is serious” mode, and nothing was going to stop him. “I know, dad.”
“No, you don’t know. You don’t know what it’s like to be lying there with a broken leg for a couple of weeks, or what it’s like to see the aftermath of a big fight that all started because some girl cheated. You don’t know how some people treat each other when nobody’s watching. Occasionally you run into some bad folks out there. Your mother knew about them.”
Lily’s eyes opened wide. “Is that what happened to her?”
Dad nodded, sadness in his shoulders. “Diving accident. Those are real easy to have out here. She was laundering money. She had the feeling she was going to get popped, so she called me to make sure you’d be safe with family. You could probably go back, if you really wanted, but I think you’d probably get attention both from the police and from your mom’s old co-workers. Out here, it’s different. Out here, you’ve got six brothers.”
His smile glittered in the darkness, and Lily realized he was trying to dispel a little of the seriousness. She was having trouble getting past the idea that her mom was a criminal. Her mom had been a slender, animated lady with an asymmetrical haircut who typically kept three or more conversations open at once. She liked strawberry milktea, and lavender-scented showers. Lily realized she didn’t even have a picture to look at. “Five little brothers.”
“They’ll grow.” He gave her another knee-squeeze. “Nobody’s going to mess with you if you’ve got six brothers. And a dad who sails around on patrol. You could find a nice boy and start a family. Carve out a place of your own. You can always go to college later, after the heat dies down.”
“Yeah.” She couldn’t think of anything else to say. She noticed something squirming on the beach. Her skin crawled until she realized she was seeing crabs. A small swarm of them, scrabbling across the sand. Dad went over and picked one up. He thought about it for a moment, then set the crab back down, gently, and it scuttled back to the rest.
“We’ve got plenty of food in the coldbox for now.”
“Where did they all come from?”
“In ancient times, they thought crabs came from spontaneous generation. They just appear. No mating, no dating, no babies. That’s not really true, of course, but when doctors first discovered the disease they named it cancer, because it spontaneously generates out of nowhere. That’s another thing can happen out here. You city people have doctors everywhere. Here you gotta make a special trip. Sometimes you can talk them into coming out and paying you a visit, but it’s gonna take a few days. If you end up living out in the remotes, promise me you’ll check in. Try to have your babies someplace where there’s a doctor, and get your checkups.”
He extended a hand to help her to her feet. Lily realized that in his mind, she was already married and pregnant and gone, problem solved.
Her bedding was soft and fresh-smelling, even though it was probably a couple hundred years old. There was a flower-scented breeze and a softly pounding surf, but Lily still couldn’t get to sleep until it was very late, and she slept through the boys’ noise until it was nearly lunchtime.
When she groggily set forth to check her traps it was mid-afternoon. She found six lobsters but no jellyfish, and she was starting to wonder if it had been some kind of hallucination, brought on by overexposure to the sun. Worry ran through her brain like a rhythm track. She imagined the kind of comments she’d get if she posted on her social node that she was married, and pregnant. She wondered, in fact, how many comments were backed up on her social mode since she hadn’t checked it for a few months. She wondered if she’d ever see it again. Maybe she’d die in childbirth on some distant island, or catch a case of cancer, or break her leg and lie there for weeks. Possibly all at the same time.
On the day before they left, she found a jellyfish. A small purple one. It briefly occurred to her that she would be in severe pain if this were the stinging kind of jellyfish, as opposed to the kind that let you communicate with talking sea cows, but it turned out to be the latter. It clung to her hand as she surfaced, playing soothing music through her wristbones. “Nepenthe?” she said once her face was in the air. “Where are you?”
“One thousand, two hundred and seventeen meters away,” said the robotic voice in reply.
Lily caught her breath. She had spent the past few days worrying, and during that process some part of her mind had decided Nepenthe had magical powers that could help with her dilemma. Now that they were actually in contact, the fantasy began seeping away. Still, there was a chance. “I’m supposed to be heading to some kind of party. My dad is trying to marry me off.”
The story spilled out of her in one long emotional rush. When it was over she felt embarrassed. She paused, leaning her head back to look at the blue sky. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to blurt out all of my weird drama. I’m just feeling kind of emotional about it.”
There was a long pause while Lily floated on her back. “Your mother was Madelyn Laguna,” Nepenthe finally said. “She died on April eighteenth.”
“A diving accident, according to the news.” Lily sniffled.
“She was working for a branch of the Red Flower Consortium. We know about them.”
There was another long pause while Lily considered what to say next. She came up with “You Sirens are pretty smart.”
“That may be correct. I have access to plenty of information. But then again, so does a rock lying on the ocean floor. There is no point in having information unless you can communicate. Sirens communicate with each other, constantly, and we have our own form of technology, but we are having difficulty learning to communicate with humans. That is why I request your help. As far as the help you request of me, in finding a way for you to avoid marriage to someone you haven’t met …”
“I’ll have to figure that out on my own, I guess. If you want to help me now, you could play Dream Version by the Love Insects.”
“One of my favorites.”
Music swelled out of the jellyfish and Lily savored it. When it finished, she asked Nepenthe what she could do to help with interspecies communication. A new jellyfish appeared, this one turquoise. It flashed letters at her, one at a time, and she repeated them back to the Siren. Sometimes they were difficult to read given the glare and the waves and the fact they were submerged, and the jellyfish could only really display one letter at a time. Nepenthe seemed disappointed by Lily’s feedback, and the test didn’t last long.
“I want to keep helping you but I’m not sure I’ll be coming back to this island.”
“I can find you. I don’t think I can get physically close to you, but I can send … We do not have a mutual word yet. The creatures floating, one of which engulfs your hand. Protoplasm that we program, cell by cell.”
“Protoplasm blobs,” Lily said. “Protoblobs. P-blobs. Plobs.”
“Plobs.” The robot voice emitted a static cackle that might have been laughter. “I can send you plobs.”
Sailing to the gathering took two days. The Abalone was packed full of people, and Lily had to sleep on the deck because the bunks were full of grownups and toddlers. They arrived on a somewhat larger island that was probably big enough to hold three or four soccer fields. The boat dock was full of sailboats, canoes, kayaks, dories, dinghies and catamarans, all but a few of which were made of local wood. Lily could smell barbecue smoke. Musicians with more skill than Nicky were playing compact wooden instruments -- guitars and violins and ukuleles and mandolins, small drums and tamborines.
As soon as they disembarked she was sent to a dormitory where the single women lived. There she was bathed and scented, and her hair was styled by women experienced in making frizzle-fried hair look presentable, and dressed in a brand new wrap that still had its bright colors.
They asked whether she was interested in dating a boy or another girl, and for a moment she was tempted to say she was interested in girls. The house for the girl-dating girls was next door, and Lily could see a couple of them playing tetherball, wearing necklaces made of pale purple shells. All the women around Lily had similar necklaces with blue shells. “What about the people who aren’t interested in dating anyone?”
The blue-shell women conferred, whispering and giggling. One of the older ones took Lily aside and pointed her toward a house that was removed from the rest. A couple of guys and a women were sitting in front, sharing a plate of sliced melon, and all of them wore red seashell necklaces. “If someone in red talks to you, turn around and walk away. It probably wouldn’t be a good idea to wear red your very first time. People do talk.”
“Why are they wearing red?”
“She’s going through a terrible divorce. The man with the lobster tattoo is under treatment for a communicable disease. The other man was caught using explicit sexual language with a child under the age of sixteen over the internet.”
“Eww.” Lily wrinkled her nose. She knew the government snooped in that particular area. Whenever she got a facecall from a teacher or someone like that, she got a little notification afterwards with a video of the conversation.
“Exactly. The government has no right to intrude in private matters, and my very own great-grandmother was only fourteen when she married my great-grandfather, who was fifty. These are the outer islands. We’re not like those city folk, but you’ve probably already figured that out.”
Lily stifled her next “eww” and accepted her blue necklace, figuring it would be easiest to hide in a crowd. She joined the other single girls as they were herded to a courtyard and led through activities with the single boys. Sack races, and trivia quizzes, and rhythm games.
Some of the daters hooked up right away, at which point they handed in their shell necklaces and joined the general population. Most of the daters were around Lily’s age, although there were a few with gray hair on both sides. Nicky and Alfie were freshly groomed and flirting with the handful of girls who seemed to attract the most attention, and those girls seemed to enjoy having attention more than making decisions. Lily didn’t blame them, and was glad she wasn’t among them.
By her third day, most of the daters had found partners. The gray-haired men had stopped pestering the young women and started talking to their contemporaries. Nicky and Alfie had found girls from the select handful. The coupled had moved to another building that had private rooms and a romantic view of the waves.
There were four blue-shell women besides Lily, and only two white-shell men, and none of them were particularly motivated toward finding love. The chaperones had given up on cajoling them into sack races and left them to their own devices. Lily’s main device had been a waterproof book someone had brought. It was missing the ending and large chunks of the middle, but she liked the way it was written. She also played lots of checkers and go and backgammon. Daters could only swim while chaperoned, so they did it in the early morning and late evening, in a pack. None of the chaperones surfed so that was off limits, and Lily missed it, especially when she could see Alfie riding the waves at the other end of the island, where the non-daters lived.
She understood there were good reasons for being strict about dating. She was being extremely strict with herself, in fact. Some of the boys she had talked to would be perfectly fine choices for accompanying her to a party or a movie or a concert. She was reluctant to move into a small private room with them for the rest of the week, however, and upon realizing that they moved along.
She was sitting in a grassy, shady spot with her book, and a small plate of cookies, and a glass of lemonade that still contained some unmelted ice, when Josefina, one of the chaperones, plopped down beside her. “They’re organizing a dive trip tomorrow. Over one of the old cities, from before the meteor. Cabo San Diego or something like that. Not enough people were signing up so it was agreed to let some of the singles join, if they want. Are you interested?”
“Sure.” Lily was feeling soft and mushy from the lack of exercise, and all the cookies.
The people on the boat couldn’t agree on the name of the city, but part of it was only a few meters below the surface. It was all covered with silt and coral but you could see where the tall buildings had been. The main attraction was the multicolored fish who had moved in after all the humans swam away, and Lily filled her eyes with their darting colors.
She had a snorkel and a mask. There was a compressor in the boat that dangled tubes, so you could swim over for a mouthful of air if you needed it. Lily had done a lot of diving and she didn’t bother. She did have her surfboard. She had noticed it strapped to the side of the Abalone while they were loading up the dive boat. It was now serving as her own private diving platform as she explored several meters south of the other divers.
The other divers had been politely ignoring her due to her conspicuous blue necklace. The men were careful not to talk to her, or even stand too close, except for a guy in a bright yellow shell necklace who helped her wrestle her board from the bindings once they arrived at the dive spot.
Lily kept her eyes open for plobs. She hadn’t seen any yet. She had seen an actual jellyfish. Now that she had also seen a few plobs, she was learning to tell the difference. Plobs were a little more substantial, and they came in brighter colors.
She also saw aenomones, and trigger fish, and angelfish. A rainbow of fish, thriving in the ruins. She also found a building that had been cracked open like an egg, revealing rooms and halls. Lily swam over them wondering if it had been a hotel, or an apartment building, or an office building. Maybe it was full of buried treasure.
She surfaced to rest on her board, thinking about buried treasure. Wondering how much it would take to move far away from the Red Flower Consortium and the outer island dating scene. To Nyorc, or Virginialina, or some place like that. A place with internet connections, and colleges, and music, and books.
Thinking about civilized pleasures made her so happy that at first she thought the gray shape beneath her was Nepenthe. She even dived and swam a little closer to it. Until she realized it had a dorsal fin. Aside from that, the shark was roughly the same size as Nepenthe. Cruising along the bottom, nosing around outcroppings.
Her heartbeat sped up as she ascended, careful not to make any extravagant, attention-grabbing motions. Her skin stung from the heat of her board as she slid onto it, dipping her hands smoothly into the water and paddling away. The thought of sudden impact with sharp teeth trended in her mind as she moved slowly toward the others. She wanted to yell, to warn them, but she wasn’t sure whether that would alert the shark.
She didn’t have to alert them. The shark’s dorsal fin popped out of the water, parallel to her and several meters away. Someone on the dive boat spotted it and Lily could hear them yelling as she stroked toward the boat.
A glimpse of orange caught her eye. Down below. Brighter even than the nearby fish. Definitely a plob.
She gulped down an extra-large lungful of air and dived. The plob was hugging the bottom about a meter-and-a-half down. Lily joined it, pressing her body against the uneven surface.
The shark passed directly overhead. She was afraid it would chomp her board in half since that seemed to be its target, but the wooden longboard bounced off its forehead as it surged forward. It was a very big shark. Bigger than any shark she had ever seen.
Her hand slid into the plob and she began talking, subvocing, bubbles streaming from her lips. “Hello? Nepenthe? Is anybody there? I have an emergency. There’s a very big shark.”
“Sharksharksharksharkshark.” A voice responded, modulating through many tones. “Nepenthe. Yes. We are paging her. You wish to report a shark?”
Lilly eyed the surface. She would have to head for it, soon. The shark’s tail was passing out of visible range. Best give it a second to be sure. “Shark, huge one. Right near me.”
“A megalodon?” Another robotic voice chimed in, and suddenly there were several of them, talking over each other.
“A big shark,” Lily repeated. “If you could help, that would be great.”
She stroked for the surface and feasted on air. She glanced around for her surfboard and spotted it a few meters ahead. She swam as smoothly and rapidly and efficiently as she possibly could to reach it. It was inverted with its fin in the air, and she embraced it and rolled.
There was enough of a current for her to ride along the gentle waves. Lily got into a crouch, paddling with her hands to increase her speed. The boat was still a minute or two away, and it looked like most of the divers were either back on board or climbing up the ladders.
A wash of color hit her eye, from below. A stampede of plobs, in rainbow colors. Some of them brushed her fingertips as she paddled faster.
Her board surged forward and her heart twitched. A wake was pushing her forward, and there was only one thing big enough to create a wake in her general area. She was afraid to look over her shoulder, but she did.
The shark flew out of the water, nose first. Just behind her, making an even bigger wake that pushed her away from the eruption. She could see plobs clinging to it as it surfaced. The moment they hit the air they sizzled and dried, and dropped away.
Blood droplets showered her as the shark flew over her head. There were no gaping wounds, but the shark seemed to be losing quite a lot of blood as it flew through the air. It soared over the dive boat, decorating it with a bold stripe of red before splashing into the water. The dive boat listed heavily to the side as everybody on board crowded around to watch.
Lily splashed herself with water, rinsing away the blood. A blue plob swam up while she was doing that and she dipped her hand in the water, letting it take hold. “Nepenthe?”
“Yes. This is Nepenthe. Greetings to Lily Laguna. I heard you identified a meg. We are all very grateful. And I believe we have conjectured a response to your dilemma.”
A pearly-white plob surfaced. This one was carrying a coiled rope. Lily took hold of one end and the plob anchored itself firmly around the other, descending as the coil played out.
She stood up, holding the rope. The plob propelled her forward, faster than the waves so that she skipped over them. She waved to the people on the dive boat as she moved past, the plob accelerating to a comfortable speed. Lily’s hair streamed out behind her.
Sometime in the later afternoon, the plob deposited her at an island of her own. The garden hadn’t been harvested in a while, so it was full of fruit and vegetables, and the prior visitors had left her half a drum of grain and a freezer full of frozen shrimp. There was a little curved bay beneath her lanai, and after dinner she went there to watch the sunrise, leaning against a partially submerged tree with the waves lapping at her waist. As she anticipated, another plob appeared, this one cerise in color, and she plugged her hand into it.
“You won’t be alone for long,” Nepenthe said. “We talk to a few other people, and we’re going to try to get all of you together to help us refine the interface. Another one of my friends is in a canoe and should reach you the day after tomorrow.”
“I didn’t know sharks got that big.”
“The people who created us created them to hunt us. No doubt they’ll create something even bigger to hunt the megalodons. Their minds tend to work along those lines. But then, you would figure the kind of person who would decide to create a sentient species is missing a few crucial elements. Since I owe my existence to this critical cognitive deficiency, I can’t reject it entirely.”
“I suppose not.” Lily watched the sun sink beneath the horizon, yielding the sky to the Southern Cross. She sat in a puddle of warm light from her window, on her house, on her island.
“I have something to tell you. I found your mother.”
“You did?” Lily blinked.
“She is skeletonized by now. I can give you a location in nautical coordinates.”
“That’s okay.” She swallowed, hard, at the idea of her mother’s skeleton. It had probably been the crabs. The spontaneously generating crabs. At least she hadn’t been eaten by a giant shark. There was that.
Or maybe she had just dissolved in the water. Become one with the ocean.
“I’d like to try something, if you don’t mind. It may hurt a little.”
“A little?” She tensed her hand, anticipating a burning sensation. “Okay, if it’s only a little.”
Visuals flooded her eyes. A space-eye-view of the planet, with the camera hurtling down through the atmosphere, locating a spot in the South Pacific and plunging beneath the waves. Down, down, down, and there she was, a glimpse of a diver’s mask, and a skeletal shoulder.
The images were painfully sharp, and viciously bright. Each eye was seeing a different version, and the two versions didn’t quite synch right. It felt like her head was the wrong shape. Lily’s temples began to throb. “It hurts. Make it stop.”
The images vanished, replaced by soft music. Lullabystander by Twin Grape Theater. “The video transmission is still experimental. I apologize.”
The headache stayed with Lily for longer than a day. She hid herself in the darkest room with a pillow over her face and a bucket beside her in case she had to vomit. Her father’s speech haunted her, about lying around with a broken leg and no medical attention, and she wondered if something inside her brain had ruptured.
She slept on and off, and one morning she woke up to a cool cloth on her eyes. Next there was cold juice and a soothing voice, and some kind of medication that made her sleep deeply. When she woke up the headache was gone, and the island had doubled in population.
Maria May was not very good at walking, since one of her legs faced the wrong way. She was very good at canoeing and cooking, and she nursed Lily back to health with shrimp noodle soup. And at regular intervals they went down to the bay to talk to the Sirens.