The sea, Northern Europe, 2198
It took months for me to remember the exact moments before the explosion, and when it finally came back to me, it was in a dream.
I’d been underwater, just doing my usual chores. Just harvesting, like any other day. The sun was getting lower and it was about time to come up. Any minute, there’d be a gentle tug on my air-line. I only waited a minute because I heard the rumble of another engine – sound travels far underwater. I waited to see who it was. The two boats met above my head, almost like a kiss, plunging me into shadow. Then the strange boat pulled away again and I began my ascent, curious to find out who was visiting us. I wasn’t in very deep so I could have just swum up but Pa’s really strict about equalizing the pressure. Was really strict. Was. So I did it the proper way, in case he was watching.
Before I even reached my first rest stop, my world, literally, turned upside-down. I never saw how the explosion happened but, eventually, I worked it out. I know now who did this to me.
So, having come so far, the question is, do I go on and live my life? Or do I risk everything to go back and expose them for what they really are?
A shadow falls over my hands as I work. I look skyward through the water. This old eye-mask leaks and salt stings my eyes, but I make out the blurred form of Marin, peering over the stern for me. The long, straggly ends of her greying braids dance on the surface, like insects. Shit, now I've dropped the rope. Seriously, she needs to trust me. I’m young but I've been doing this since I could swim, and I swam before I walked. I readjust my mouthpiece and pick up the rope again. Marin reaches an enormous hand towards the surface and, as it touches, it becomes clear, vanishing the rest of her in ripples. She gestures 'up’. She does it again. She signs 'cold', and I know she’s right. I catch up the basket of kelp seedlings I was planting and rise along the black snake of my breathing tube, into the wind. Into Marin's rough words and rougher blanket, but she squeezes me as she rubs the warmth back into my skin. I have been lucky to find her, after everything I've lost.
At the big Boater meeting last autumn (the Hansa, it's called) Old-Man-Lir told Audra that one day, babies will be born to their people with an extra eyelid, like the otters have. ‘Spend so much time under water,' he rumbled, 'going to happen. Ee-vol-oo-shun, it's called,' he said, blowing pipe-smoke. ‘It means how we change for the world we live in.’ Most likely he was trying to help, trying to tell her that living things adapt, they find a way, and that she too would find a way in a new world, which really was the old world, except in disguise, because she was going to live with strangers, and the taste had gone out of the food, and the colour from the sky, and she would never see her parents or her brother again.
At the time, Marin and her Pride - the all-female crew to which she belonged - were just Boaters she had seen from a distance at previous Hansa. Families didn't usually mix with the Pride or Coalition boat people. The all-male Coalition crews repelled Audra, with their noise and their drink, although of course Dad had come from a Coalition once upon a time, and he swore they weren't (couldn't afford to be) like that all the time.
Some of the Pride crews, of course, were just as loud and as drunk. The Hansa weren’t only for trading and law-making; it was party time twice a year, once going into the winter, and again on surviving it.
Old-man-Lir, the Law-speaker, had chosen a quieter Pride for Audra, as she was only fourteen. Marin, who was given care of her, was indeed the most silent person Audra had ever met. Marin's eyes had clearly asked, “Why me?” when the Law-speaker had made his decision, a gesture not lost on the grieving girl sent aboard with nothing but the ragged, salt-crusted overall she stood up in, and the wits in her head.
The weather was everything to a Boater. Pride, Coalition or family boat made no difference because the weather controlled the day you had, planting or harvesting, fishing or traveling, resting or repairing. The weather declared whether you were to have a good season or a bad one, prosper or perish, and so the science of it was the first thing you learned. This was early spring, so Audra and Marin favoured that mackerel sky of high, ribbed clouds with the light blue in between: cirrocumulus. “Mackerel sky, mackerel sky. Never long wet, nor yet long dry.” Cold and bright, with calm, clear seas.
Their seaweed – their kelp – was grown on stout, submerged ropes as the seabed, although not deep, was too sandy for much of a holdfast. The Easthaf Pride anchored their ropes with abandoned lumps of concrete or anything else that could be scavenged from a shallow wreck or an abandoned coastal building site. Despite being careful always to leave the bottom third of each plant in place, winter storms or a deep-keeled boat could drag the holdfasts from their ropes and, each spring, new seedlings had to be tied, with rapidly numbing fingers, to fill the gaps. Tight, neoprene waistcoats had been sewn from the remains of crumbling old dive and surf suits to wrap up the heart and lungs but of course the blood cooled quickly in the icy water, which clung to winter so much longer than the air or the land. It wasn't a popular task, which was precisely why Marin had chosen it. Long days in the dinghy took her away from the rust and the pervasive oily smell, the ever-drying lines of washing and the inevitable arguments of the Pride boat. For parts of the year, Marin planted and tended and patrolled the lines. In warmer seas, she husbanded and harvested, never taking too much from here or there. When the drying winds came, she stitched the green and brown kelps to flutter in the breeze – like mouldering bunting for some sombre celebration. When the drying was underway, she sailed out further, to check on the red stuff: the kelp that would be harvested last and alleviate the interminable herring and beansprout diet of the cold months. And in and amongst all of this, she would take a proprietary hand in the brewing of the famous, the legendary, Easthaf sugar kelp wine – the commodity that allowed them to trade, and kept them both literally and metaphorically afloat.
And Marin did all of this alone, year after year, until Audra.
Why not live on a beach? a stranger might ask. A stranger to the Boater way of life might have pointed out that beaches have rock pools. Plenty of great stuff in rock pools. Plenty of edibles, although, granted, not swiftly replenished. Rope washes up on beaches, and driftwood. If no rope comes, a person could make their own from the dry, whippy grasses poking out from the dunes. That must be a nice life, surely? Maybe a freshwater stream trickles down to meet the sea - brown from the soil or the peat but still sweet. Perhaps you do still need a small boat, to bring in your nets each morning, but how hard could that be, when compared to a Boater life?
And space. Miles of it. Acres of it. To be able to walk more than thirty paces in any one direction. To be able to run off to a hollow in the dunes and sit there and listen to the waves and the birds and hear not one single human voice. The sky darkens and the sand cools beneath your feet as you watch the stars come out. Surely?
Well, the Boaters would answer, the problem with being in one place is you're in ONE place. Some lookout spots you there one day, covets the little you've scraped together, he or she knows right where you'll be when they're tooled up and ready to come and take it from you. And say some Land-Lubber looks out over the Wall one sunny morning and says, 'Oh my goodness, what an eyesore. What a blot on the landscape! I paid good money for this view!’ Do you think it would be long before the bulldozers hove into sight? And there's your camp gone. Your shanty. Your little piece of paradise. It isn't worth it. The smart keep moving.
Beachers were fools, according to Marin, and Audra could only agree, having heard the same arguments from her parents when first she, and then her brother Moze asked the question. Their next question, of course, had been “Why the Walls?” but that was just the way it was. Lubbers, Boaters, Beachers, seemingly since time immemorial. There were also the Rafters, but theirs was an existence, if possible, more precarious than the Beachers’. No child ever asked Why don't we live on a raft, Ma?
Audra knew more than she'd like to about Raft-life. It was Rafters who'd pulled her from the sea, the morning after her parents and brother died. Hoping for flotsam to add to their flimsy, floating world, they had rowed or sailed over to investigate the oil patch on the water and to see if any of the smoking debris could relieve their grinding poverty. The last thing they wanted to find was another mouth to feed. But there she was: draggled and thirsty and half-frozen, clinging to a shattered spar - too shocked even to cry. Kind-hearted to a fault, they nursed her and gave her a larger share than they could afford, until she was well enough to repay them with her fishing skills and her knowledge of the local currents, and how they directed the free-drifting seaweed she had followed with her family in her Life Before.
In the autumn, they took her to the Law-speaker, for him to decide her future. By then, they would have dearly liked to keep her, but Lir respected Audra's choice: she would not stay. The Council of the Autumn Hansa ordered an investigation into the destruction of the family's boat - such a senseless act. Piracy, they were used to, but thieves took, they didn't destroy. It had been too long, certain voices proclaimed. How could anyone, three months on, give account of where they had been on that day? How were witnesses or informers to be found? The investigation – such as it was – was abandoned, and Audra began Life After.
Audra woke with the double thump of rubber-soled boots on a metal floor: Marin’s none-too-subtle hint that daylight was wasting. With no point in feigning sleep, she heaved herself over the lip of the narrow shelf that formed her bunk and landed stiffly. The bunk was six inches shorter than she was. Only then did she open her eyes fully and see Marin, holding out a steaming mug.
‘What's wrong?’ Audra asked, suddenly afraid.
‘Something gotta be wrong?’ Marin turned and stomped out.
The stomping didn't mean anything, that was just how she walked. Nothing to her that the fishing crews and the rest of the boat could – in theory – sleep another hour. But the tea - that wasn't normal.
Marin called back over her shoulder, to tell Audra she had precisely three minutes until her breakfast went to the gulls.
On the deck of their wide, slow barge, small silver fish were frying over a canister of driftwood charcoal, next to a couple of dark, rough-looking pancakes. There would be sugar beet syrup with them: prerogative of growing children and crew needing to row, dive, haul or scrub that morning.
‘What’s today?’ Audra asked, having fallen into Marin's habit of extreme economy with words.
‘Fill more gaps,’ said the older woman, mouth full. ‘Check lines. Maybe head as far as the flats.’
Audra was excited to visit the mud-flats again. She smiled. It sounded like a good day.
‘Low tide just coming up to midday. Dig some edibles. Could be risky.’ Marin shrugged. It wasn't quite a question, but a space was being left open for Audra to speak.
‘Still early spring,’ she said slowly, cautiously, not wanting to get it wrong. ‘Sands have shifted since last year. Take them a bit longer maybe, to re-draw their maps. Dangerous for them if they haven’t charted the sandbanks yet. I think we’d be pretty safe.’ She was gratified to see Marin nod, acknowledging her input - beginning, week by week, to admit that Audra did know things. Perhaps realising that life for a child on a family boat, far from being that coddled existence Marin seemed to suppose, actually meant taking on your share of the work far younger than it would if you had twenty or thirty adults onboard.
‘Well then?’ Marin stood and set down her plate and fork, leaving the charcoal for the rest to use.
They had the choice of three small craft for leaving the Pride boat: a dinghy they could either sail or row, good for open sea and silent running but visible from miles away with its white triangles of salt-stiffened canvas; a long, narrow punt, originally designed for hunting ducks in the marshes and shallow dikes of the Edgelands; and a catamaran that could run with sails or a motor, which was Marin's choice nowadays for visiting the kelp-lines, spread over an ever-increasing area. Its wide, twin-hulled shape made it stable for getting into and out of the water over and over again, as they took it in turns to dive. And the cat’s motor had been replaced the previous year with an almost-new, high efficiency version, brought from a Coalition based off the crescent-shaped island of Trischen, almost on the mouth of the Elbe river, that did lots of salvage and repair work and somehow failed to catch the attention of the authorities behind the Wall.
Audra had heard her father talk about how it all worked, how the Land-Lubbers would never completely crush the outcasts, as the sea provided commodities they couldn’t do without. His anger swelled as he described how the Boaters were kept on the very knife-edge of survival, how they were meant to survive but never thrive, and then, at a look from her mother, he was their gentle Pa again, ruffling Moze's hair and making some stupid joke and getting on with the washing up. Salt water stung her eyes, and not from the motorcat's spray.
‘There yet?’ she asked Marin.
‘Look like it?’ came the reply. The voice was gruff but the brown eyes were soft. Audra had been gazing into the deep whirlpool of a memory and had dragged herself back from the brink, and Marin saw it and knew exactly how it felt. There were plenty among the Boaters who were living a Life After in some way or another.
Meticulously, they checked the kelp-lines, taking turns to go down, always on the lookout for a plume of smoke on the horizon, saving the motor. Mid-morning, they snacked on jerky and a couple of rye and potato pancakes saved from breakfast. Marin said, what she wouldn't give for a cup of hot coffee, but Audra, only ever having tasted the ersatz chicory root kind, made a face. Moving on, they turned towards the distant spike of a lighthouse, appearing to levitate on a layer of mist, the same grey-white as the sea.
‘Day's warming up,’ said Marin, tying a hair-wrap to protect her scalp and ears from burning, and looking to the high, puffy altocumulus clouds that were whiter now, lower, but still arranged in neat, even rows.
There was no need to explain. Heat meant mist later, mist eventually meant rain, but probably not today. The language of clouds needed no translation between Boaters. They sailed on.
The first sandbank appeared to their right, like the hump of a whale, sleek and grey, revealed, then covered, then revealed again. Further on, they came to a higher bank with a tufted crest of marram grass. Then a third came into view, separated by a narrow, shallow channel – a seagate - through which the waves pushed and sucked back, rhythmically. Skilfully, Marin rode the push, and the motorcat slid through the gap into deeper water on the landside of the sandbank. This was the most dangerous time: you slid through, not knowing what you would find (which ninety-nine times out of a hundred was nothing). The only sounds were the constant sloosh of the channel behind them and the seabirds calling.
To their left, the low sandbank with a weathered, broken down hut on low stilts and some decaying oil drums that would once have stored rainwater from the tin roof; to their right, flat grey water, fast becoming flat grey mud; and in the distance, firm wet sand, then dry sand, then grass, and towering over it all, the Wall. Behind that, who knew? Land, certainly, and people. Buildings, presumably, but that was as far as anyone could say. Audra, knowing nothing else, imagined Lubber dwellings as grand, two or three-storeyed houseboats, connected by waterways such as the dikes and canal-mouths she had seen connecting the sea to the Interior. Or perhaps like versions of that hut, with legs to save it from the high tides, only larger, and with glass windows.