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‘Should be close, now—about two cables,’ said Kexin, peering into the watery murk through the bulb of our harvester pod. ‘Come on…’
The powerful lights showed nothing but the ubiquitous organic snow—a cloud of tiny glimmering particles that filled the seven oceans of Heptabia.
‘They should be here. They should be right here,’ he said, not bothering to keep the frustration from his voice.
‘I think I just got a blip,’ I said, scrutinising the sub’s on-board echo read. ‘Try a little higher.’
Kexin puffed out his cheeks and pulled back on the controls.
I couldn’t really blame him for getting annoyed. Like most of the technology in Heptabia, the prey-dars at Stock Control were increasingly unreliable. But like a lot of young men, he would have to learn to be more patient.
‘What’s that—up there?’ I said. Ahead, barely visible in the sub’s lights, was a dark, globular shadow.
‘Well, alright,’ said Kexin, settling back into his seat.
He squeezed the throttle and the sub accelerated. The mass grew, eventually becoming an enormous, whirring ball of herring. The fish swirled through our headlamps, a shimmering patina of bright scales comprising millions of individuals.
‘Preparing charge,’ said Kexin.
We weren’t the first predators to discover the crop. Sleek, black-finned tuna darted sporadically into the mass. Swordfish arrowed into the flanks, causing the shoal to split and re-group in great swathes. Somewhere below, I glimpsed what looked like a white-tipped shark.
Kexin watched the yellow bar intently, his finger poised over the trigger.
‘And… what the fuck?’ he snapped, as the indicator dropped to zero. He thumped the control board. ‘Piece of junk!’
I shook my head. I was well-accustomed to equipment failure. ‘Try tweaking the alternator,’ I suggested.
While Kexin fiddled with the parameters, I looked up into the darkness of Three-Sea. It was night-cycle, and so impossible to get a sense of how deep we were without reference to the sub’s barometer. A two-metre-wide ray ghosted through the edge of our light beam.
‘Okay, I think that’s got it.’
‘Just punch it the moment it greens,’ I said.
When he fired, there was little to indicate the powerful pulse of energy that the sub’s canon emitted: only a faint crackle in the rear of the pod and a few briefly-illuminated warning lights on the sub’s dash. That and the fact that a heartbeat later, several million herring had ceased swimming and were floating, stunned in the open water.
‘Ka-pow,’ muttered Kexin, keying the controls.
The sub panned forwards through the stricken shoal, herring rebounding from the pod’s glass. Meanwhile, the enormous microfibre netting unfurled behind us.
‘So, how long you been down here?’ he said, as the net began drawing together, winding the catch into a tight ball.
‘An hour, maybe less.’
‘No, I mean how long you been doing this?’
‘Oh. My whole life, pretty much,’ I said. ‘I come from a long line of mariners.’ I’d actually wanted to do it ever since I was a girl. Dad had worked as a sub-harvester for many years. Even my name, Minhai, means ‘wisdom from the ocean’.
Kexin flashed a wolfish grin. ‘Long time, then.’
I gave him a look that said Careful. ‘People have always got to eat.’
We climbed through the deep, the colossal catch clamped behind us.
‘You think we’ll make it, then—in your lifetime, I mean?’
I frowned, as though puzzled. ‘Make it where?’ I said. I was afraid I already knew what he would say.
‘Where? K126, of course—New Urth.’
‘Oh, that.’ I turned back to the view pane so he didn’t see me roll my eyes. ‘I don’t really believe in all that.’
Now, it was Kexin’s turn to frown. ‘You don’t believe in New Urth?’
‘I don’t know—no. I don’t really know what difference it makes.’
The man looked thoughtful. ‘So, what do you think we’re doing out here?’
Something in his tone riled me. I was sure there had been far fewer New-Urthers when I was growing up. ‘Honestly? I don’t really know. You might be right: we might well be the descendants of the Chosen Ones, sent across the gulf from the motherland to seed a new world, or, maybe, our forefathers got the short straw and we’re banished. Maybe we got lost on the way, or maybe we were never actually meant to get anywhere at all. I don’t know. All I know is, the ship’s fucked. No-one knows where we’re headed, and more and more of what’s broken, no one knows how to fix. So, what I think we’re doing here is worrying too much about what we’re doing here, instead of getting on with trying to keep here, going.’
Kexin’s frown deepened. ‘Right,’ he replied. I might once have found it amusing, seeing how uncomfortable my position made him. Now, the consternation in his face just made me feel old.
‘There are many who don’t see things that way,’ he said, sounding serious. ‘This year’s Festival will be the largest in history.’
I didn’t bother pointing out how limited our knowledge of history really was. ‘Let’s just leave it, alright?’
Kexin didn’t look like he wanted to leave it. But to my relief, he let the subject lie.
As the sub climbed through the maze of architecture that gave structure to the ocean, the first rays of light were starting to penetrate the surface of Three-Sea. 12 hours from now, the colossal cylinder tank would sit perpendicular to the Lightbank, the energy source of the whole ship. The Seven Seas were fixed to the heptagonal Iris like the spokes of a bicycle wheel, and between them were the triangular Habitats – or Habs – kept warm by their neighbouring aquariums.
We soon began to make out the lights of other harvesters making their way back to the dock in Sector Four. Their nets were full of fish and squid, sea-grass and kelp. One sub towed the enormous carcass of a sperm whale behind it. Empty harvesters were heading back out to sea.
Kexin was a fair mariner, but I was concerned our earlier conversation may have distracted him so I kept a close eye on the echo-sounder as we entered the docking chamber. As it often did when I was anxious, my hand strayed to the pouch in my pocket, finding comfort in the old leather. But I needn’t have worried. The sub reversed smoothly. The lock door slid into place and there was a whirring of pumps as the water was ejected from the bay.
‘My mother was like you, you know.’
I paused unbuckling my harness and looked at the man. Behind us, the net unzipped and the crop tumbled, flapping down the catch-ramp.
‘She was a non-believer, too. She used to argue a lot with Father. She actually thought that God had put us here, on Heptabia, to test our ingenuity. Except we had already failed the test. The ship was doomed. People were bound for extinction.’ He wasn’t looking at me. The empty net was retracting.
‘It’s as good an as explanation as any,’ I said.
‘Perhaps,’ said Kexin. ‘She was 53 when she died.’
‘I’m sorry,’ I said. I reached for the door lock.
‘The doctors weren’t sure what killed her, but Father and I, well…’ He looked across at me. ‘We’ve always believed that despair can be a killer, but that belief, belief can keep you alive.’
I nodded, uncomfortable. His face was full of zeal. ‘I’m sure there’ll be another instructor along shortly,’ I said.
The hatch opened with a hiss of air and I stepped down to the charging pad, relieved to be getting away.
It was a short walk through the harbour offices to the transport. I knew I was lucky in many ways. Unlike many Essential Services employees, harvesters were still well-regarded. The work I did for Control entitled me to double rations, but I’d still do it, even if I had to get by on Basic. Despite the danger, harvesting was in my blood. And the talisman I kept in my pocket just gave me that little extra confidence.
I recalled well the day Dad had given it to me. I was 15. He’d handed me the pouch of cracked leather, watching with a kind of quiet delight as I’d unrolled it, held the dried membrane up to the light trying to work out what it was.
‘I would have given it to you sooner,’ he’d said. ‘But I thought I’d hang on to it for a bit—just until I retired.’ He’d winked, knowingly. ‘Only around one in 8,000 babies is born with a Caul. There can’t be more than 200 or so across all seven Habs, but I suspect there are far fewer than that. It forms in the womb, shielding the face from embryonic fluid. You must keep it with you, Minhai, always.’
It seemed pretty gross to me, but I’d smiled and thanked him, then placed the flimsy rag of skin back in the pouch. It was only when I’d got older, gone on to full training, that I began to appreciate its power.
‘What the fuck now?’
A man was on his feet beside me. It took me a moment to realise that the transport had stopped. I craned my neck. Outside, dozens of coloured figures were marching over the tracks. They were carrying placards and loudspeakers. ‘We near our journey’s end,’ one sign read. ‘Ready the seed of Mother Urth,’ read another.
The New-Urthers often began causing trouble as their Festival approached. ‘Seed’ was likely a reference to the vault that was located at the centre of Heptabia, behind the factories powering the Lightbank. Some thought the stored biomasses had been meant to propagate some sort of ‘dry ecology’ throughout Heptabia. Others thought the true purpose would only become clear in the event of an emergency. But the New-Urthers seemed to think of it as a kind of giant seed pod, destined to fertilise the barren lands of New Urth when the ship arrived. ‘Giant Sperm Theory,’ Dad used to call it. We’d really laughed at that.
The transport driver sounded his horn. Outside, the rabble were getting agitated, shouting and gesticulating, chanting something about ‘ending the greed of Old Urth.’ When the driver sounded his horn for a second time, a number of the group broke away and surrounded the carriage. The next thing I knew, the vehicle began rocking back and forth as the mob pushed and pulled from either side. Several of my fellow passengers were on their feet. A few fell. Others banged on the glass, shouting at those outside. It was getting ugly; I had to steady myself on the rail. I found that my free hand strayed to my pocket, my fingers closing on the leather wallet that contained my caul.
There was a further commotion, and a dozen or more Control Force Officers arrived with shields and batons. The transport fell still and I watched, relieved as the blue-suited officers began routing the fanatics from the rail. My husband, Seoul, had once said that the way things were going, we’d end up with half the population having nothing to do but cause public disturbance, while the other half worked for Control Force. ‘Perhaps it’ll all end in war,’ he’d once joked. That idea didn’t seem so far-fetched anymore.
It was daylight by the time I arrived back at the high-rise.
Inside our quarters on the 24th floor, our lodger, Nyall, lay asleep on the sofa. He worked nights at the bottling plant, cleaning the machinery that processed the harvest, and I went quietly to the kitchen to avoid waking him. He wasn’t a tidy lodger, and he ate slightly more than he brought in, but at least he had a job. Very few people were not required to share their living spaces these days, and fewer and fewer were employed with Essential Services. According to Dad, there had only been around 100,000 people here in Sector Four of Three-Hab, back when my grandmother was alive. Now, there were over twice that number. Across 70 Sectors—all seven Habs—there were now thought to be just under 20 million mouths to feed. Idleness is fertile ground for the imagination, Dad used to say, and Heptabia simply didn’t need that many people to function. It was little wonder that so many people had strange ideas when they spent their days just wandering about, living on Basic. Seoul and I had decided long ago that reproduction would be unethical. It was a pity more people didn’t share our view.
From the pantry, I took a jar of pickled kelp, a roll of dried kipper, and two patties of boiled fish eggs. I heated water on the stove and used it to make a mug of seaweed broth which I took out to the balcony. Outside, the high-rise towers stood like vast dominoes. Clothes hung from balcony lines, drying slowly in the UV and gently-wafting air currents. Transports whirred through the crowded streets below. Half a click over my head, the glow from the enormous light-tubes that reflected the Lightbank was somewhat sallow. A friend of Seoul’s had once told us that they were running low on the mixed oxides that powered the reactors. ‘Another generation or so and we’re out,’ he’d said, necking his gin. ‘Least we won’t be around to see that though, eh?’
While I ate, I thought about what Kexin had told me about his mother. Was this God’s idea of a test—seven ocean bottles, spinning through the void, carrying a great cargo of life towards an avoidable doom? That kind of speculation made me feel uneasy, but I preferred even that to the dogma of the New-Urthers. She was right about one thing, at least: our situation was a test—a test of our adaptability. The faith of the New-Urthers was nothing but wilful stupidity.
Seoul woke me in the early evening, back from his work at the desalination plant. Nyall was out. We tidied up before taking our meal.
‘You saw the news?’ Seoul sipped his broth.
‘Not today,’ I said.
‘That purifier issue they had in Sector Eight of One-Hab?’
‘They’re evacuating,’ Seoul said, shaking his head. ‘They can’t fix it. Air’s getting unfit to breathe.’
I looked over at him, thinking how much older he seemed. ‘Sector Eight – what’s that, around 400?’
‘460,000,’ said Seoul, not looking at me. He shook his head again. ‘They’re spreading them cross-Hab to share the burden out. We’ll likely end up with more people here.’
I sighed and dipped my mackerel in the coral butter. ‘I’m sure they’ll get it fixed,’ I said. It wasn’t the first time Heptabia had faced difficulties, though they were certainly getting more frequent. A fault in the sewage works had recently caused a pandemic in Six-Hab. A breakdown in the desalination plants had once meant that half of Sector Nine had needed to be rehoused. In Dad’s lifetime, a rupture in the cylinder of Three-Sea had flooded the void space that separated it from the Hab. To this day, they were still working on a repair.
‘What makes you say that?’ said Seoul, testily. ‘Most of the engineers don’t even understand how it works, let along how to repair it. Purifiers are life-critical, Min, you know that.’ He scoffed. ‘We’d have been better off leaving them down there. Least that would have part-solved the problem, rather than making it worse.’
‘You don’t mean that,’ I said.
‘Don’t I?’ he snapped. ‘We’re a fish in a pot, Min. The water’s getting hotter—it’s been getting hotter for who knows how many generations and we’ll soon be boiling—bloody boiling, you understand?’ Rising to his feet, he threw his cup along the balcony, spattering the contents over the concrete. ‘Rutting and dreaming, that’s all people are good for now. Don’t they know how fragile this place is?’ He leaned over the parapet. ‘And these New–Urthers—you know there’s a gang over in Two-Hab that actually think they’ve found it—found K126 or whatever they bloody call it?’ He rounded on me again. ‘They’ve been peering up through their telescopes and they now they want to turn the ship, clear a dozen Sectors and blast the air out into space. Can you believe it, Min? God knows what’ll become of us if that idea takes hold. Even that caul won’t save you then.’
I didn’t like it when he spoke of my talisman that way, but I held my tongue. When he turned back to the balcony, I walked up behind him and placed my hands on his shoulders. I was glad that I hadn’t mentioned the incident with the transport; I knew he was simply afraid, but it was upsetting to see him angry. When he bowed his head, I slid my hands to his waist and rested my cheek against his back. ‘This world is still bigger than you and I,’ I said.
After a moment, Seoul turned and hugged me. ‘You sound like your father,’ he said. ‘He was never much of a worrier. I sometimes wish I was more like him.’
‘We shouldn’t envy the dead,’ I replied.
‘No,’ said Seoul, his chin on my head. ‘We should probably count ourselves lucky.’
It was several cycles later when the Festival of New Light began. When I was young, the New-Urther carnival had only lasted a day, and Dad remembered when it had just been a gathering over in Time Square beneath the old clock tower. Now, it ran to three full cycles. The streets were packed with revellers, their faces painted with glitter, wearing all sorts of fancy clothing. Food carts sold roll mops and seaweed gin. Youngsters staged marches or danced to electric drums, wired on home-made drugs. Preachers took to their soapboxes.
The streets were so clogged that many Service employees couldn’t get to work. Much of the infrastructure had to be reduced to a minimum, but Stock Control had gotten better at planning, and most of the Harvesters took the time off. I tried to avoid going out during the Festival, but I needed produce from the Control Store.
It was even more frenzied than I remembered. Horns rang out over the din of voices. People marched beneath banners showing the New-Urther’s treasured symbol, the Rune of Future Paradise. People slept in the streets or else watched the crowds with wide, saucer-like eyes.
I moved quickly along South Road, stepping nimbly to avoid a pile of vomit and doing my best to avoid the main procession. A group of Nearby CFOs were embroiled in a scuffle with a band of New-Urthers who were throwing bottles and carrying placards that read, ‘No more Control.’ I wondered what Dad would say if he could see them. How long do the fools think they’ll last without Essential Services? Honestly, I don’t know what this ship is coming to. He’d once said he was sorry to see me inherit the ship in this condition. But I knew it wasn’t his fault; he’d done all he could.
I collected my produce from a nervous-looking service worker and then returned outside, electing to take a slightly longer route to avoid the main thoroughfare. It was still busy. A small crowd had gathered on the opposite side of the transport track to hear a man speak. I kept well back and caught a snippet of what he was saying:
‘…cold oceans rose, and drowned all who lived in the Low Countries. Those who survived fled to the highest land and shared what resources were left to them…’
I paused with surprise, recognising the voice.
‘…and from those Urthly minerals, they forged the Great Ark, Heptabia, to carry the seed of the great and the good from that sunken land, where greed and avarice had plagued the soil and clogged the seas with filth…’
Crossing the rail, I joined the rear of the group and pushed up on my toes to get a look at the speaker. He wore a robe of crimson and yellow, and his cheeks were painted with glittering stars, but there was no doubt: it was Kexin.
‘…and from the ashes of that choked lowland plain, was ushered forth the seed of New Urth—the seed of hope—a vestige of that former world, purged of sin, and swollen with purpose. Now, good people of Heptabia, we find ourselves enthralled to those who recall nothing of that purpose—nothing of our holy mission in breaching the black void of space. Control bleats of the need to repair, to renew, to build our home upon the ark where they are the masters of all Urth. And to that, to them and to you, I call, No! Our birthright lies ahead, and our egg will bring forth the bounty of our legacy. Let us not forget it, for surely then, we will all perish in the dark.’
The crowd cheered, stamping their feet, clapping. But I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Such speculation was beyond dangerous; anyone with any sense knew that. I took a breath, incensed, despite the braying crowd, to shout down the myth-making of the young preacher.
But before the first word had left my mouth, an enormous sound echoed through the metal of Sector Four, cutting me off. There was a clang, followed by a brief groan, as of metal buckling and giving way. It was of such enormity that the crowd fell instantly still and silent.
Attention turned to a high place in the spin-wise bulkhead. There was the void space, long known to have been filled with water from the cracked cylinder of Three-Sea.
I didn’t realise I wasn’t breathing until the bulkhead burst. The enormous clang was followed by a cascade of water, a giant column, pouring down from a height of over 300 metres to the city below. The crowd gasped, crying out as the column thudded into the ground.
I took my breath, transfixed. The sound of the huge waterfall echoed all around the walls. It seemed almost peaceful from this distance—sort-of surreal. I found myself wondering how fast the water was flowing: a thousand tonnes per minute? A million? Sector Four had an area of around three-and-a-half cubic kilometres—three-and-a-half billion cubic metres. How long would it take to fill?
All around me, the noise of the crowd was changing as shock turned to panic. People began running in all directions. Screams of fear rent the air. My thoughts turned to Seoul in the desalination plant; likely, he’d escape to another Sector when they realised what was going on. But I was a long way from the nearest Inter-Sector lift, and they would soon be crowded with people.
Water thundered against the metal. I felt a knot of tension forming in my stomach while in the pocket of my trousers, my fingers gripped tightly to the leather of my caul. I thought of my father, heard his words in my head resonating across the years: ‘As long as you carry it with you, Minhai, you will be immune from drowning.’
For long years, I had carried the caul, sure in the knowledge that water could not harm me. I tried to focus, reminding myself that there was no need for me to panic. I knew that with my talisman in my hand, the liquid wouldn’t even touch my face. It mattered not at all that it wasn’t strictly my caul; it had been in the family for generations, handed down from one mariner to the next.
The water boomed, people scattered in all directions, but I felt my heartbeat steady. I came from a long line of seafarers; their blood still ran in my veins. I saw my father’s proud face, smiling as the hatch closed on my harvester, knowing that his daughter would be safe, protected by the powerful charm he had given me.
Water gushed through the hole in the bulkhead and sirens rang out over the din. No, there was no need to panic; we had been through worse before. I took a deep breath, bolstered by the weight of my inheritance and filled with a sudden certainty.
Everything was going to be alright.