Born in Oxford, England, in 1955, Paul J. McAuley now makes his home in London. A professional biologist for many years, he sold his first story in 1984, and has gone on to be a frequent contributor to Interzone, as well as to publications including Asimov’s Science Fiction, SCI FICTION, Amazing, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Skylife, The Third Alternative, and When the Music’s Over.
McAuley is at the forefront of several of the most important sub-genres in SF today, producing both “radical hard science fiction” and the revamped and retooled widescreen Space Opera that has sometimes been called The New Space Opera, as well as Dystopian sociological speculations about the very near future. He also writes fantasy and horror. His first novel, Four Hundred Billion Stars, won the Philip K. Dick Award, and his novel Fairyland won both the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the John W. Campbell Award in 1996. His other books include the novels Of the Fall, Eternal Light, and Pasquale’s Angel, Confluence (a major trilogy of ambitious scope and scale set ten million years in the future, which comprised the novels Child of the River, Ancient of Days, and Shrine of Stars), Life on Mars, The Secret of Life, Whole Wide World, White Devils, Mind’s Eye, Players, Cowboy Angels, The Quiet War and Gardens of the Sun. His short fiction has been collected in The King of the Hill and Other Stories, The Invisible Country, and Little Machines, and he is the coeditor, with Kim Newman, of an original anthology, In Dreams. His most recent book is a new novel, In the Mouth of the Whale.
Here he gives us a powerful and deceptively quiet story set in an ingeniously described future England that has been transformed by climate change and a rise in sea level. It is a setting that in McAuley’s expert hands has the feel of a real place, both pastoral and shabby, where people get on with their ordinary lives in a world both dramatically altered and in some ways nearly the same as our own. That is, until the Unknown suddenly intrudes into this world in the form of a giant, mournfully bellowing, enigmatic alien ship that grounds itself on the bank of a river, and changes everything forever.
In the night, tides and a brisk wind drove a raft of bubbleweed across the Flood and piled it up along the north side of the island. Soon after first light, Lucas started raking it up, ferrying load after load to one of the compost pits, where it would rot down into a nutrient-rich liquid fertiliser. He was trundling his wheelbarrow down the steep path to the shore for about the thirtieth or fortieth time when he spotted someone walking across the water: Damian, moving like a cross-country skier as he crossed the channel between the island and the stilt huts and floating tanks of his father’s shrimp farm. It was still early in the morning, already hot. A perfect September day, the sky’s blue dome untroubled by cloud. Shifting points of sunlight starred the water, flashed from the blades of the farm’s wind turbine. Lucas waved to his friend and Damian waved back and nearly overbalanced, windmilling his arms and recovering, slogging on.
They met at the water’s edge. Damien, picking his way between floating slicks of red weed, called out breathlessly, “Did you hear?”
“A dragon got itself stranded close to Martham.”
“I’m not kidding. An honest-to-God sea dragon.”
Damian stepped onto an apron of broken brick at the edge of the water and sat down and eased off the fat flippers of his Jesus shoes, explaining that he’d heard about it from Ritchy, the foreman of the shrimp farm, who’d got it off the skipper of a supply barge who’d been listening to chatter on the common band.
“It beached not half an hour ago. People reckon it came in through the cut at Horsey and couldn’t get back over the bar when the tide turned. So it went on up the channel of the old riverbed until it ran ashore.”
Lucas thought for a moment. “There’s a sand bar that hooks into the channel south of Martham. I went past it any number of times when I worked on Grant Higgins’s boat last summer, ferrying oysters to Norwich.”
“It’s almost on our doorstep,” Damian said. He pulled his phone from the pocket of his shorts and angled it towards Lucas. “Right about here. See it?”
“I know where Martham is. Let me guess—you want me to take you.”
“What’s the point of building a boat if you don’t use it? Come on, L. It isn’t every day an alien machine washes up.”
Lucas took off his broad-brimmed straw hat and blotted his forehead with his wrist and set his hat on his head again. He was a wiry boy not quite sixteen, bare-chested in baggy shorts, and wearing sandals he’d cut from an old car tyre. “I was planning to go crabbing. After I finish clearing this weed, water the vegetable patch, fix lunch for my mother…”
“I’ll give you a hand with all that when we get back.”
“If you really don’t want to go I could maybe borrow your boat.”
“Or you could take one of your dad’s.”
“After what he did to me last time? I’d rather row there in that leaky old clunker of your mother’s. Or walk.”
“That would be a sight.”
Damian smiled. He was just two months older than Lucas, tall and sturdy, his cropped blond hair bleached by salt and summer sun, his nose and the rims of his ears pink and peeling. The two had been friends for as long as they could remember.
He said, “I reckon I can sail as well as you.”
“You’re sure this dragon is still there? You have pictures?”
“Not exactly. It knocked out the town’s broadband, and everything else. According to the guy who talked to Ritchy, nothing electronic works within a klick of it. Phones, slates, radios, nothing. The tide turns in a couple of hours, but I reckon we can get there if we start right away.”
“Maybe. I should tell my mother,” Lucas said. “In the unlikely event that she wonders where I am.”
“How is she?”
“No better, no worse. Does your dad know you’re skipping out?”
“Don’t worry about it. I’ll tell him I went crabbing with you.”
“Fill a couple of jugs at the still,” Lucas said. “And pull up some carrots, too. But first, hand me your phone.”
“The GPS coordinates are flagged up right there. You ask it, it’ll plot a course.”
Lucas took the phone, holding it with his fingertips—he didn’t like the way it squirmed as it shaped itself to fit in his hand. “How do you switch it off?”
“What do you mean?”
“If we go, we won’t be taking the phone. Your dad could track us.”
“How will we find our way there?”
“I don’t need your phone to find Martham.”
“You and your off-the-grid horse shit,” Damian said.
“You wanted an adventure,” Lucas said. “This is it.”
* * *
When Lucas started to tell his mother that he’d be out for the rest of the day with Damian, she said, “Chasing after that so-called dragon I suppose. No need to look surprised—it’s all over the news. Not the official news, of course. No mention of it there. But it’s leaking out everywhere that counts.”
His mother was propped against the headboard of the double bed under the caravan’s big end window. Julia Wittsruck, fifty-two, skinny as a refugee, dressed in a striped Berber robe and half-covered in a patchwork of quilts and thin orange blankets stamped with the Oxfam logo. The ropes of her dreadlocks tied back with a red bandana; her tablet resting in her lap.
She gave Lucas her best inscrutable look and said, “I suppose this is Damian’s idea. You be careful. His ideas usually work out badly.”
“That’s why I’m going along. To make sure he doesn’t get into trouble. He’s set on seeing it, one way or another.”
“And you aren’t?”
Lucas smiled. “I suppose I’m curious. Just a little.”
“I wish I could go. Take a rattle can or two, spray the old slogans on the damned thing’s hide.”
“I could put some cushions in the boat. Make you as comfortable as you like.”
Lucas knew that his mother wouldn’t take up his offer. She rarely left the caravan, hadn’t been off the island for more than three years. A multilocus immunotoxic syndrome, basically an allergic reaction to the myriad products and pollutants of the anthropocene age, had left her more or less completely bedridden. She’d refused all offers of treatment or help by the local social agencies, relying instead on the services of a local witchwoman who visited once a week, and spent her days in bed, working at her tablet. She trawled government sites and stealthnets, made podcasts, advised zero-impact communities, composed critiques and manifestos. She kept a public journal, wrote essays and opinion pieces (at the moment, she was especially exercised by attempts by multinational companies to move in on the Antarctic Peninsula, and a utopian group that was using alien technology to build a floating community on a drowned coral reef in the Midway Islands), and maintained friendships, alliances, and several rancorous feuds with former colleagues whose origins had long been forgotten by both sides. In short, hers was a way of life that would have been familiar to scholars from any time in the past couple of millennia.
She’d been a lecturer in philosophy at Birkbeck College before the nuclear strikes, riots, revolutions, and netwar skirmishes of the so-called Spasm, which had ended when the floppy ships of the Jackaroo had appeared in the skies over Earth. In exchange for rights to the outer solar system, the aliens had given the human race technology to clean up the Earth, and access to a wormhole network that linked a dozen M-class red dwarf stars. Soon enough, other alien species showed up, making various deals with various nations and power blocs, bartering advanced technologies for works of art, fauna and flora, the secret formula of Coca-Cola, and other unique items.
Most believed that the aliens were kindly and benevolent saviours, members of a loose alliance that had traced ancient broadcasts of I Love Lucy to their origin and arrived just in time to save the human species from the consequences of its monkey cleverness. But a vocal minority wanted nothing to do with them, doubting that their motives were in any way altruistic, elaborating all kinds of theories about their true motivations. We should choose to reject the help of the aliens, they said. We should reject easy fixes and the magic of advanced technologies we don’t understand, and choose the harder thing: to keep control of our own destiny.
Julia Wittstruck had become a leading light in this movement. When its brief but fierce round of global protests and politicking had fallen apart in a mess of mutual recriminations and internecine warfare, she’d moved to Scotland and joined a group of green radicals who’d been building a self-sufficient settlement on a trio of ancient oil rigs in the Firth of Forth. But they’d become compromised too, according to Julia, so she’d left them and taken up with Lucas’s father (Lucas knew almost nothing about him—his mother said that the past was the past, that she was all that counted in his life because she had given birth to him and raised and taught him), and they’d lived the gypsy life for a few years until she’d split up with him and, pregnant with her son, had settled in a smallholding in Norfolk, living off the grid, supported by a small legacy left to her by one of her devoted supporters from the glory days of the anti-alien protests.
When she’d first moved there, the coast had been more than ten kilometres to the east, but a steady rise in sea level had flooded the northern and eastern coasts of Britain and Europe. East Anglia had been sliced in two by levees built to protect precious farmland from the encroaching sea, and most people caught on the wrong side had taken resettlement grants and moved on. But Julia had stayed put. She’d paid a contractor to extend a small rise, all that was left of her smallholding, with rubble from a wrecked twentieth-century housing estate, and made her home on the resulting island. It had once been much larger, and a succession of people had camped there, attracted by her kudos, driven away after a few weeks or a few months by her scorn and impatience. Then most of Greenland’s remaining ice cap collapsed into the Arctic Ocean, sending a surge of water across the North Sea.
Lucas had only been six, but he still remembered everything about that day. The water had risen past the high tide mark that afternoon and had kept rising. At first it had been fun to mark the stealthy progress of the water with a series of sticks driven into the ground, but by evening it was clear that it was not going to stop anytime soon and then in a sudden smooth rush it rose more than a hundred centimetres, flooding the vegetable plots and lapping at the timber baulks on which the caravan rested. All that evening, Julia had moved their possessions out of the caravan, with Lucas trotting to and fro at her heels, helping her as best he could until, some time after midnight, she’d given up and they’d fallen asleep under a tent rigged from chairs and a blanket. And had woken to discover that their island had shrunk to half its previous size, and the caravan had floated off and lay canted and half-drowned in muddy water littered with every kind of debris.
Julia had bought a replacement caravan and set it on the highest point of what was left of the island, and despite ineffectual attempts to remove them by various local government officials, she and Lucas had stayed on. She’d taught him the basics of numeracy and literacy, and the long and intricate secret history of the world, and he’d learned field- and wood- and watercraft from their neighbours. He snared rabbits in the woods that ran alongside the levee, foraged for hedgerow fruits and edible weeds and fungi, bagged squirrels with small stones shot from his catapult. He grubbed mussels from the rusting car-reef that protected the seaward side of the levee, set wicker traps for eels and trotlines for mitten crabs. He fished for mackerel and dogfish and weaverfish on the wide brown waters of the Flood. When he could, he worked shifts on the shrimp farm owned by Damian’s father, or on the market gardens, farms, and willow and bamboo plantations on the other side of the levee.
In spring, he watched long vees of geese fly north above the floodwater that stretched out to the horizon. In autumn, he watched them fly south.
He’d inherited a great deal of his mother’s restlessness and fierce independence, but although he longed to strike out beyond his little world, he didn’t know how to begin. And besides, he had to look after Julia. She would never admit it, but she depended on him, utterly.
She said now, dismissing his offer to take her along, “You know I have too much to do here. The day is never long enough. There is something you can do for me, though. Take my phone with you.”
“Damian says phones don’t work around the dragon.”
“I’m sure it will work fine. Take some pictures of that thing. As many as you can. I’ll write up your story when you come back, and pictures will help attract traffic.”
Lucas knew that there was no point in arguing. Besides, his mother’s phone was an ancient model that predated the Spasm: it lacked any kind of cloud connectivity and was as dumb as a box of rocks. As long as he only used it to take pictures, it wouldn’t compromise his idea of an off-the-grid adventure.
His mother smiled. “‘ET go home.’”
“‘ET go home?’”
“We put that up everywhere, back in the day. We put it on the main runway of Luton Airport, in letters twenty metres tall. Also dug trenches in the shape of the words up on the South Downs and filled them with diesel fuel and set them alight. You could see it from space. Let the unhuman know that they were not welcome here. That we did not need them. Check the toolbox. I’m sure there’s a rattlecan in there. Take it along, just in case.”
“I’ll take my catapult, in case I spot any ducks. I’ll try to be back before it gets dark. If I don’t, there are MREs in the store cupboard. And I picked some tomatoes and carrots.”
“‘ET go home,’” his mother said. “Don’t forget that. And be careful, in that little boat.”
* * *
Lucas had started to build his sailboat late last summer, and had worked at it all through the winter. It was just four metres from bow to stern, its plywood hull glued with epoxy and braced with ribs shaped from branches of a young poplar tree that had fallen in the autumn gales. He’d used an adze and a homemade plane to fashion the mast and boom from the poplar’s trunk, knocked up the knees, gunwale, outboard support and bow cap from oak, and persuaded Ritchy, the shrimp farm’s foreman, to print off the cleats, oarlocks, bow eye and grommets for lacing the sails on the farm’s maker. Ritchy had given him some half-empty tins of blue paint and varnish to seal the hull, and he’d bought a set of secondhand laminate sails from the shipyard in Halvergate, and spliced the halyards and sheet from scrap lengths of rope.
He loved his boat more than he was ready to admit to himself. That spring he’d tacked back and forth beyond the shrimp farm, had sailed north along the coast to Halvergate and Acle, and south and west around Reedham Point as far as Brundall, and had crossed the channel of the river and navigated the mazy mudflats to Chedgrave. If the sea dragon was stuck where Damian said it was, he’d have to travel further than ever before, navigating uncharted and ever-shifting sand and mudbanks, dodging clippers and barge strings in the shipping channel, but Lucas reckoned he had the measure of his little boat now and it was a fine day and a steady wind blowing from the west drove them straight along, with the jib cocked as far as it would go in the stay and the mainsail bellying full and the boat heeling sharply as it ploughed a white furrow in the light chop.
At first, all Lucas had to do was sit in the stern with the tiller snug in his right armpit and the main sheet coiled loosely in his left hand, and keep a straight course north past the pens and catwalks of the shrimp farm. Damian sat beside him, leaning out to port to counterbalance the boat’s tilt, his left hand keeping the jib sheet taut, his right holding a plastic cup he would now and then use to scoop water from the bottom of the boat and fling in a sparkling arc that was caught and twisted by the wind.
The sun stood high in a tall blue sky empty of cloud save for a thin rim at the horizon to the northeast. Fret, most likely, mist forming where moisture condensed out of air that had cooled as it passed over the sea. But the fret was kilometres away, and all around sunlight flashed from every wave top and burned on the white sails and beat down on the two boys. Damian’s face and bare torso shone with sunblock; although Lucas was about as dark as he got, he’d rubbed sunblock on his face too, and tied his straw hat under his chin and put on a shirt that flapped about his chest. The tiller juddered minutely and constantly as the boat slapped through an endless succession of catspaw waves and Lucas measured the flex of the sail by the tug of the sheet wrapped around his left hand, kept an eye the foxtail streamer that flew from the top of the mast. Judging by landmarks on the levee that ran along the shore to port, they making around fifteen kilometres per hour, about as fast as Lucas had ever gotten out of his boat, and he and Damian grinned at each other and squinted off into the glare of the sunstruck water, happy and exhilarated to be skimming across the face of the Flood, two bold adventurers off to confront a monster.
“We’ll be there in an hour easy,” Damian said.
“A bit less than two, maybe. As long as the fret stays where it is.”
“The sun’ll burn it off.”
“Hasn’t managed it yet.”
“Don’t let your natural caution spoil a perfect day.”
Lucas swung wide of a raft of bubbleweed that glistened like a slick of fresh blood in the sun. Some called it Martian weed, though it had nothing to do with any of the aliens; it was an engineered species designed to mop up nitrogen and phosphorous released by drowned farmland, prospering beyond all measure or control.
Dead ahead, a long line of whitecaps marked the reef of the old railway embankment. Lucas swung the tiller into the wind and he and Damian ducked as the boom swung across and the boat gybed around. The sails slackened, then filled with wind again as the boat turned towards one of the gaps blown in the embankment, cutting so close to the buoy that marked it that Damian could reach out and slap the rusty steel plate of its flank as they went by. And then they were heading out across a broad reach, with the little town of Acle strung along a low promontory to port. A slateless church steeple stood up from the water like a skeletal lighthouse. The polished cross at its top burned like a flame in the sunlight. A file of old pylons stepped away, most canted at steep angles, the twiggy platforms of heron nests built in angles of their girder work, whitened everywhere with droppings. One of the few still standing straight had been colonised by fisherfolk, with shacks built from driftwood lashed to its struts and a wave-powered generator made from oil drums strung out beyond. Washing flew like festive flags inside the web of rusted steel, and a naked small child of indeterminate sex clung to the unshuttered doorway of a shack just above the waterline, pushing a tangle of hair from its eyes as it watched the little boat sail by.
They passed small islands fringed with young mangrove trees, an engineered species that was rapidly spreading from areas in the south where they’d been planted to replace the levee. Lucas spotted a marsh harrier patrolling mudflats in the lee of one island, scrying for water voles and mitten crabs. They passed a long building sunk to the tops of its second-storey windows in the flood, with brightly coloured plastic bubbles pitched on its flat roof amongst the notched and spinning wheels of windmill generators, and small boats bobbing alongside. Someone standing at the edge of the roof waved to them, and Damian stood up and waved back and the boat shifted so that he had to catch at the jib leech and sit down hard.
“You want us to capsize, go ahead,” Lucas told him.
“There are worse places to be shipwrecked. You know they’re all married to each other over there.”
“They like visitors too.”
“I know you aren’t talking from experience or you’d have told me all about it. At least a dozen times.”
“I met a couple of them in Halvergate. They said I should stop by some time,” Damian said, grinning sideways at Lucas. “We could maybe think about doing that on the way back.”
“And get stripped of everything we own, and thrown in the water.”
“You have a trusting nature, don’t you?”
“If you mean, I’m not silly enough to think they’ll welcome us in and let us take our pick of their women, then I guess I do.”
“She was awful pretty, the woman. And not much older than me.”
“And the rest of them are seahags older than your great-grandmother.”
“That one time with my father … She was easily twice my age and I didn’t mind a bit.”
A couple of months ago, Damian’s sixteenth birthday, his father had taken him to a pub in Norwich where women stripped at the bar and afterwards walked around bare naked, collecting tips from the customers. Damian’s father had paid one of them to look after his son, and Damian hadn’t stopped talking about it ever since, making plans to go back on his own or to take Lucas with him that so far hadn’t amounted to anything.
He watched the half-drowned building dwindle into the glare striking off the water and said, “If we ever ran away we could live in a place like that.”
“You could, maybe,” Lucas said. “I’d want to keep moving. But I suppose I could come back and visit now and then.”
“I don’t mean that place. I mean a place like it. Must be plenty of them, on those alien worlds up in the sky. There’s oceans on one of them. First Foot.”
“And alien ruins on all of them. There are people walking about up there right now. On all those new worlds. And most people sit around like … like bloody stumps. Old tree stumps stuck in mud.”
“I’m not counting on winning the ticket lottery,” Lucas said. “Sailing south, that would be pretty fine. To Africa, or Brazil, or these islands people are building in the Pacific. Or even all the way to Antarctica.”
“Soon as you stepped ashore, L, you’d be eaten by a polar bear.”
“Polar bears lived in the north when there were polar bears.”
“Killer penguins then. Giant penguins with razors in their flippers and lasers for eyes.”
“No such thing.”
“The !Cha made sea dragons, didn’t they? So why not giant robot killer penguins? Your mother should look into it.”
“That’s not funny.”
“Didn’t mean anything by it. Just joking, is all.”
“You go too far sometimes.”
They sailed in silence for a little while, heading west across the deepwater channel. A clipper moved far off to starboard, cylinder sails spinning slowly, white as salt in the middle of a flat vastness that shimmered like shot silk under the hot blue sky. Some way beyond it, a tug was dragging a string of barges south. The shoreline of Thurne Point emerged from the heat haze, standing up from mudbanks cut by a web of narrow channels, and they turned east, skirting stands of seagrass that spread out into the open water. It was a little colder now, and the wind was blowing more from the northwest than the west. Lucas thought that the bank of fret looked closer, too. When he pointed it out, Damian said it was still klicks and klicks off, and besides, they were headed straight to their prize now.
“If it’s still there,” Lucas said.
“It isn’t going anywhere, not with the tide all the way out.”
“You really are an expert on this alien stuff, aren’t you?”
“Just keep heading north, L.”
“That’s exactly what I’m doing.”
“I’m sorry about that crack about your mother. I didn’t mean anything by it. Okay?”
“I like to kid around,” Damian said. “But I’m serious about getting out of here. Remember that time two years ago, we hiked into Norwich, found the army offices?”
“I remember the sergeant there gave us cups of tea and biscuits and told us to come back when we were old enough.”
“He’s still there. That sergeant. Same bloody biscuits too.”
“Wait. You went to join up without telling me?”
“I went to find out if I could. After my birthday. Turns out the army takes people our age, but you need the permission of your parents. So that was that.”
“You didn’t even try to talk to your father about it?”
“He has me working for him, L. Why would he sign away good cheap labour? I did try, once. He was half-cut and in a good mood. What passes for a good mood as far as he’s concerned, any rate. Mellowed out on beer and superfine skunk. But he wouldn’t hear anything about it. And then he got all the way flat-out drunk and he beat on me. Told me to never mention it again.”
Lucas looked over at his friend and said, “Why didn’t you tell me this before?”
“I can join under my own signature when I’m eighteen, not before,” Damian said. “No way out of here until then, unless I run away or win the lottery.”
“So are you thinking of running away?”
“I’m damned sure not counting on winning the lottery. And even if I do, you have to be eighteen before they let you ship out. Just like the fucking army.” Damian looked at Lucas, looked away. “He’ll probably bash all kinds of shit out of me, for taking off like this.”
“You can stay over tonight. He’ll be calmer, tomorrow.”
Damian shook his head. “He’ll only come looking for me. And I don’t want to cause trouble for you and your mother.”
“It wouldn’t be any trouble.”
“Yeah, it would. But thanks anyway.” Damian paused, then said, “I don’t care what he does to me anymore. You know? All I think is, one day I’ll be able to beat up on him.”
“You say that but you don’t mean it.”
“Longer I stay here, the more I become like him.”
“I don’t see it ever happening.”
“I really don’t,” Lucas said.
“Fuck him,” Damian said. “I’m not going to let him spoil this fine day.”
“Our grand adventure.”
“The wind’s changing again.”
“I think the fret’s moving in too.”
“Maybe it is, a little. But we can’t turn back, L. Not now.”
The bank of cloud across the horizon was about a klick away, reaching up so high that it blurred and dimmed the sun. The air was colder and the wind was shifting minute by minute. Damian put on his shirt, holding the jib sheet in his teeth as he punched his arms into the sleeves. They tacked to swing around a long reach of grass, and as they came about saw a white wall sitting across the water, dead ahead.
Lucas pushed the tiller to leeward. The boat slowed at once and swung around to face the wind.
“What’s the problem?” Damian said. “It’s just a bit of mist.”
Lucas caught the boom as it swung, held it steady. “We’ll sit tight for a spell. See if the fret burns off.”
“And meanwhile the tide’ll turn and lift off the fucking dragon.”
“Not for awhile.”
“We’re almost there.”
“You don’t like it, you can swim.”
“I might.” Damian peered at the advancing fret. “Think the dragon has something to do with this?”
“I think it’s just fret.”
“Maybe it’s hiding from something looking for it. We’re drifting backwards,” Damian said. “Is that part of your plan?”
“We’re over the river channel, in the main current. Too deep for my anchor. See those dead trees at the edge of the grass? That’s where I’m aiming. We can sit it out there.”
“I hear something,” Damian said.
Lucas heard it too. The ripping roar of a motor driven at full speed, coming closer. He looked over his shoulder, saw a shadow condense inside the mist and gain shape and solidity: a cabin cruiser shouldering through windblown tendrils at the base of the bank of mist, driving straight down the main channel at full speed, its wake spreading wide on either side.
In a moment of chill clarity Lucas saw what was going to happen. He shouted to Damian, telling him to duck, and let the boom go and shoved the tiller to starboard. The boom banged around as the sail bellied and the boat started to turn, but the cruiser was already on them, roaring past just ten metres away, and the broad smooth wave of its wake hit the boat broadside and lifted it and shoved it sideways towards a stand of dead trees. Lucas gave up any attempt to steer and unwound the main halyard from its cleat. Damian grabbed an oar and used it to push the boat away from the first of the trees, but their momentum swung them into two more. The wet black stump of a branch scraped along the side and the boat heeled and water poured in over the thwart. For a moment Lucas thought they would capsize; then something thumped into the mast and the boat sat up again. Shards of rotten wood dropped down with a dry clatter and they were suddenly still, caught amongst dead and half-drowned trees.
The damage wasn’t as bad as it might have been—a rip close to the top of the jib, long splintery scrapes in the blue paintwork on the port side—but it kindled a black spark of anger in Lucas’s heart. At the cruiser’s criminal indifference; at his failure to evade trouble.
“Unhook the halyard and let it down,” he told Damian. “We’ll have to do without the jib.”
“Abode Two. That’s the name of the bugger nearly ran us down. Registered in Norwich. We should find him and get him to pay for this mess,” Damian said as he folded the torn jib sail.
“I wonder why he was going so damned fast.”
“Maybe he went to take a look at the dragon, and something scared him off.”
“Or maybe he just wanted to get out of the fret.” Lucas looked all around, judging angles and clearances. The trees stood close together in water scummed with every kind of debris, stark and white above the tide line, black and clad with mussels and barnacles below. He said, “Let’s try pushing backwards. But be careful. I don’t want any more scrapes.”
By the time they had freed themselves from the dead trees the fret had advanced around them. A cold streaming whiteness that moved just above the water, deepening in every direction.
“Now we’re caught up in it, it’s as easy to go forward as to go back. So we might as well press on,” Lucas said.
“That’s the spirit. Just don’t hit any more trees.”
“I’ll do my best.”
“Think we should put up the sail?”
“There’s hardly any wind, and the tide’s still going out. We’ll just go with the current.”
“Dragon weather,” Damian said.
“Listen,” Lucas said.
After a moment’s silence, Damian said, “Is it another boat?”
“Thought I heard wings.”
Lucas had taken out his catapult. He fitted a ball-bearing in the centre of its fat rubber band as he looked all around. There was a splash amongst the dead trees to starboard and he brought up the catapult and pulled back the rubber band as something dropped onto a dead branch. A heron, grey as a ghost, turning its head to look at him.
Lucas lowered the catapult, and Damian whispered, “You could take that easy.”
“I was hoping for a duck or two.”
“Let me try a shot.”
Lucas stuck the catapult in his belt. “You kill it, you eat it.”
The heron straightened its crooked neck and raised up and opened its wings and with a lazy flap launched itself across the water, sailing past the stern of the boat and vanishing into the mist.
“Ritchy cooked one once,” Damian said. “With about a ton of aniseed. Said it was how the Romans did them.”
“How was it?”
’Pretty fucking awful you want to know the truth.”
“Pass me one of the oars,” Lucas said. “We can row a while.”
They rowed through mist into mist. The small noises they made seemed magnified, intimate. Now and again Lucas put his hand over the side and dipped up a palmful of water and tasted it, telling Damian that fresh water was slow to mix with salt, so as long as it stayed sweet it meant they were in the old river channel and shouldn’t run into anything. Damian was sceptical, but shrugged when Lucas challenged him to come up with a better way of finding their way through the fret without stranding themselves on some mudbank
They’d been rowing for ten minutes or so when a long, low mournful note boomed out far ahead of them. It shivered Lucas to the marrow of his bones. He and Damian stopped rowing and looked at each other.
“I’d say that was a foghorn, if I didn’t know what one sounded like,” Damian said.
“Maybe it’s a boat. A big one.”
“Or maybe you-know-what. Calling for its dragon-mummy.”
“Or warning people away.”
“I think it came from over there,” Damian said, pointing off to starboard.
“I think so too. But it’s hard to be sure of anything in this stuff.”
They rowed aslant the current. A dim and low palisade appeared, resolving into a bed of sea grass that spread along the edge of the old river channel. Lucas, believing that he knew where they were, felt a clear measure of relief. They sculled into a narrow cut that led through the grass. Tall stems bent and showered them with drops of condensed mist as they brushed past. Then they were out into open water on the far side. A beach loomed out of the mist and sand suddenly gripped and grated along the length of the little boat’s keel. Damian dropped his oar and vaulted over the side and splashed away, running up the beach and vanishing into granular whiteness. Lucas shipped his own oar and slid into knee-deep water and hauled the boat through purling ripples, then lifted from the bow the bucket filled with concrete he used as an anchor and dropped it onto hard wet sand, where it keeled sideways in a dint that immediately filled with water.
He followed Damian’s footprints up the beach, climbed a low ridge grown over with marram grass and descended to the other side of the sand bar. Boats lay at anchor in shallow water, their outlines blurred by mist. Two dayfishers with small wheelhouses at their bows. Several sailboats not much bigger than his. A cabin cruiser with trim white superstructure, much like the one that had almost run him down.
A figure materialised out of the whiteness, a chubby boy of five or six in dungarees who ran right around Lucas, laughing, and chased away. He followed the boy toward a blurred eye of light far down the beach. Raised voices. Laughter. A metallic screeching. As he drew close, the blurred light condensed and separated into two sources: a bonfire burning above the tide line; a rack of spotlights mounted on a police speedboat anchored a dozen metres off the beach, long fingers of light lancing through mist and blurrily illuminating the long sleek shape stranded at the edge of the water.
It was big, the sea dragon, easily fifteen metres from stem to stern and about three metres across at its waist, tapering to blunt and shovel-shaped points at either end, coated in close-fitting and darkly tinted scales. An alien machine, solid and obdurate. One of thousands spawned by sealed mother ships the UN had purchased from the !Cha.
Lucas thought that it looked like a leech, or one of the parasitic flukes that lived in the bellies of sticklebacks. A big segmented shape, vaguely streamlined, helplessly prostate. People stood here and there on the curve of its back. A couple of kids were whacking away at its flank with chunks of driftwood. A group of men and women stood at its nose, heads bowed as if in prayer. A woman was walking along its length, pointing a wand-like instrument at different places. A cluster of people were conferring amongst a scatter of toolboxes and a portable generator, and one of them stepped forward and applied an angle grinder to the dragon’s hide. There was a ragged screech and a fan of orange sparks sprayed out and the man stepped back and turned to his companions and shook his head. Beyond the dragon, dozens more people could be glimpsed through the blur of the fret: everyone from the little town of Martham must have walked out along the sand bar to see the marvel that had cast itself up at their doorstep.
According to the UN, dragons cruised the oceans and swept up and digested the vast rafts of floating garbage that were part of the legacy of the wasteful oil-dependent world before the Spasm. According to rumours propagated on the stealth nets, a UN black lab had long ago cracked open a dragon and reverse-engineered its technology for fell purposes, or they were a cover for an alien plot to infiltrate Earth and construct secret bases in the ocean deeps, or geoengineer the world in some radical and inimical fashion. And so on, and so on. One of his mother’s ongoing disputes was with the Midway Island Utopians, who were using modified dragons to sweep plastic particulates from the North Pacific Gyre and spin the polymer soup into construction materials: true Utopians shouldn’t use any kind of alien technology, according to her.
Lucas remembered his mother’s request to take photos of the dragon and fished out her phone; when he switched it on, it emitted a lone and plaintive beep and its screen flashed and went dark. He switched it off, switched it on again. This time it did nothing. So it was true: the dragon was somehow suppressing electronic equipment. Lucas felt a shiver of apprehension, wondering what else it could do, wondering if it was watching him and everyone around it.
As he pushed the dead phone into his pocket, someone called his name. Lucas turned, saw an old man dressed in a yellow slicker and a peaked corduroy cap bustling towards him. Bill Danvers, one of the people who tended the oyster beds east of Martham, asking him now if he’d come over with Grant Higgins.
“I came in my own boat,” Lucas said.
“You worked for Grant though,” Bill Danvers said, and held out a flat quarter-litre bottle.
“Once upon a time. That’s kind, but I’ll pass.”
“Vodka and ginger root. It’ll keep out the cold.” The old man unscrewed the cap and took a sip and held out the bottle again.
Lucas shook his head.
Bill Danvers took another sip and capped the bottle, saying, “You came over from Halvergate?”
“A little south of Halvergate. Sailed all the way.” It felt good to say it.
“People been coming in from every place, past couple of hours. Including those science boys you see trying to break into her. But I was here first. Followed the damn thing in after it went past me. I was fishing for pollack, and it went past like an island on the move. Like to have had me in the water, I was rocking so much. I fired up the outboard and swung around but I couldn’t keep pace with it. I saw it hit the bar, though. It didn’t slow down a bit, must have been travelling at twenty knots. I heard it,” Bill Danvers said, and clapped his hands. “Bang! It ran straight up, just like you see. When I caught up with it, it was wriggling like an eel. Trying to move forward, you know? And it did, for a little bit. And then it stuck, right where it is now. Must be something wrong with it, I reckon, or it wouldn’t have grounded itself. Maybe it’s dying, eh?”
“Can they die, dragons?”
“You live long enough, boy, you’ll know everything has its time. Even unnatural things like this. Those science people, they’ve been trying to cut into it all morning. They used a thermal lance, and some kind of fancy drill. Didn’t even scratch it. Now they’re trying this saw thing with a blade tougher than diamond. Or so they say. Whatever it is, it won’t do any good. Nothing on Earth can touch a dragon. Why’d you come all this way?”
“Just to take a look.”
“Long as that’s all you do I won’t have any quarrel with you. You might want to pay the fee now.”
“Five pounds. Or five euros, if that’s what you use.”
“I don’t have any money,” Lucas said.
Bill Danvers studied him. “I was here first. Anyone says different they’re a goddamned liar. I’m the only one can legitimately claim salvage rights. The man what found the dragon,” he said, and turned and walked towards two women, starting to talk long before he reached them.
Lucas went on down the beach. A man sat tailorwise on the sand, sketching on a paper pad with a stick of charcoal. A small group of women were chanting some kind of incantation and brushing the dragon’s flank with handfuls of ivy, and all down its length people stood close, touching its scales with the palms of their hands or leaning against it, peering into it, like penitents at a holy relic. Its scales were easily a metre across and each was a slightly different shape, six- or seven-sided, dark yet grainily translucent. Clumps of barnacles and knots of hair-like weed clung here and there.
Lucas took a step into cold, ankle-deep water, and another. Reached out, the tips of his fingers tingling, and brushed the surface of one of the plates. It was the same temperature as the air and covered in small dimples, like hammered metal. He pressed the palm of his hand flat against it and felt a steady vibration, like touching the throat of a purring cat. A shiver shot through the marrow of him, a delicious mix of fear and exhilaration. Suppose his mother and her friends were right? Suppose there was an alien inside there? A Jackaroo or a !Cha riding inside the dragon because it was the only way, thanks to the agreement with the UN, they could visit the Earth. An actual alien lodged in the heart of the machine, watching everything going on around it, trapped and helpless, unable to call for help because it wasn’t supposed to be there.
No one knew what any of the aliens looked like—whether they looked more or less like people, or were unimaginable monsters, or clouds of gas, or swift cool thoughts schooling inside some vast computer. They had shown themselves only as avatars, plastic man-shaped shells with the pleasant, bland but somehow creepy faces of old-fashioned shop dummies, and after the treaty had been negotiated only a few of those were left on Earth, at the UN headquarters in Geneva. Suppose, Lucas thought, the scientists broke in and pulled its passenger out. He imagined some kind of squid, saucer eyes and a clacking beak in a knot of thrashing tentacles, helpless in Earth’s gravity. Or suppose something came to rescue it? Not the UN, but an actual alien ship. His heart beat fast and strong at the thought.
Walking a wide circle around the blunt, eyeless prow of the dragon, he found Damian on the other side, talking to a slender, dark-haired girl dressed in a shorts and a heavy sweater. She turned to look at Lucas as he walked up, and said to Damian, “Is this your friend?”
“Lisbeth was just telling me about the helicopter that crashed,” Damian said. “Its engine cut out when it got too close and it dropped straight into the sea. Her father helped to rescue the pilot.”
“She broke her hip,” the girl, Lisbet, said. “She’s at our house now. I’m supposed to be looking after her, but Doctor Naja gave her something that put her to sleep.”
“Lisbet’s father is the mayor,” Damian said. “He’s in charge of all this.”
“He thinks he is,” the girl said, “but no one is really. Police and everyone arguing amongst themselves. Do you have a phone, Lucas? Mine doesn’t work. This is the best thing to ever happen here and I can’t even tell my friends about it.”
“I could row you out to where your phone started working,” Damian said.
“I don’t think so,” Lisbeth said with a coy little smile, twisting the toes of her bare right foot in the wet sand.
Lucas had thought that she was around his and Damian’s age; now he realised that she was at least two years younger.
“It’ll be absolutely safe,” Damian said. “Word of honour.”
Lisbeth shook her head. “I want to stick around here and see what happens next.”
“That’s a good idea too,” Damian said. “We can sit up by the fire and keep warm. I can tell you all about our adventures. How we found our way through the mist. How we were nearly run down—”
“I have to go and find my friends,” Lisbeth said, and flashed a dazzling smile at Lucas and said that it was nice to meet him and turned away. Damian caught at her arm and Lucas stepped in and told him to let her go, and Lisbeth smiled at Lucas again and walked off, bare feet leaving dainty prints in the wet sand.
“Thanks for that,” Damian said.
“She’s a kid. And she’s also the mayor’s daughter.”
“So? We were just talking.”
“So he could have you locked up if he wanted to. Me too.”
“You don’t have to worry about that, do you? Because you scared her off,” Damian said.
“She walked away because she wanted to,” Lucas said.
He would have said more, would have asked Damian why they were arguing, but at that moment the dragon emitted its mournful wail. A great honking blare, more or less B-flat, so loud it was like a physical force, shocking every square centimetre of Lucas’s body. He clapped his hands over his ears, but the sound was right inside the box of his skull, shivering deep in his chest and his bones. Damian had pressed his hands over his ears too, and all along the dragon’s length people stepped back or ducked away. Then the noise abruptly cut off, and everyone stepped forward again. The women flailed even harder, their chant sounding muffled to Lucas; the dragon’s call had been so loud it had left a buzz in his ears, and he had to lean close to hear Damian say, “Isn’t this something?”
“It’s definitely a dragon,” Lucas said, his voice sounding flat and mostly inside his head. “Are we done arguing?”
“I didn’t realise we were,” Damian said. “Did you see those guys trying to cut it open?”
“Around the other side? I was surprised the police are letting them to do whatever it is they’re doing.”
“Lisbeth said they’re scientists from the marine labs at Swatham. They work for the government, just like the police. She said they think this is a plastic eater. It sucks up plastic and digests it, turns it into carbon dioxide and water.”
“That’s what the UN wants people to think it does, anyhow.”
“Sometimes you sound just like your mother.”
“There you go again.”
Damian put his hand on Lucas’s shoulder. “I’m just ragging on you. Come on, why don’t we go over by the fire and get warm?”
“If you want to talk to that girl again, just say so.”
“Now who’s spoiling for an argument? I thought we could get warm, find something to eat. People are selling stuff.”
“I want to take a good close look at the dragon. That’s why we came here, isn’t it?”
“You do that, and I’ll be right back.”
“You get into trouble, you can find your own way home,” Lucas said, but Damian was already walking away, fading into the mist without once looking back.
Lucas watched him fade into the mist, expecting him to turn around. He didn’t.
Irritated by the silly spat, Lucas drifted back around the dragon’s prow, watched the scientists attack with a jackhammer the joint between two large scales. They were putting everything they had into it, but didn’t seem to be getting anywhere. A gang of farmers from a collective arrived on two tractors that left neat tracks on the wet sand and put out the smell of frying oil, which reminded Lucas that he hadn’t eaten since breakfast. He was damned cold too. He trudged up the sand and bought a cup of fish soup from a woman who poured it straight from the iron pot she hooked out of the edge of the big bonfire, handing him a crust of bread to go with it. Lucas sipped the scalding stuff and felt his blood warm, soaked up the last of the soup with the crust and dredged the plastic cup in the sand to clean it and handed it back to the woman. Plenty of people were standing around the fire, but there was no sign of Damian. Maybe he was chasing that girl. Maybe he’d been arrested. Most likely, he’d turn up with that stupid smile of his, shrugging off their argument, claiming he’d only been joking. The way he did.
The skirts of the fret drifted apart and revealed the dim shapes of Martham’s buildings at the far end of the sandbar; then the fret closed up and the little town vanished. The dragon sounded its distress or alarm call again. In the ringing silence afterwards a man said to no one in particular, with the satisfaction of someone who has discovered the solution to one of the universe’s perennial mysteries, “Twenty-eight minutes on the dot.”
At last, there was the sound of an engine and a shadowy shape gained definition in the fret that hung offshore: a boxy, old-fashioned landing craft that drove past the police boat and beached in the shallows close to the dragon. Its bow door splashed down and soldiers trotted out and the police and several civilians and scientists went down the beach to meet them. After a brief discussion, one of the soldiers stepped forward and raised a bullhorn to his mouth and announced that for the sake of public safety a two-hundred-metre exclusion zone was going to be established.
Several soldiers began to unload plastic crates. The rest chivvied the people around the dragon, ordering them to move back, driving them up the beach past the bonfire. Lucas spotted the old man, Bill Danvers, arguing with two soldiers. One suddenly grabbed the old man’s arm and spun him around and twisted something around his wrists; the other looked at Lucas as he came towards them, telling him to stay back or he’d be arrested too.
“He’s my uncle,” Lucas said. “If you let him go I’ll make sure he doesn’t cause any more trouble.”
“Your uncle?” The soldier wasn’t much older than Lucas, with cropped ginger hair and a ruddy complexion.
“Yes, sir. He doesn’t mean any harm. He’s just upset because no one cares that he was the first to find it.”
“Like I said,” the old man said.
The two soldiers looked at each other, and the ginger-haired one told Lucas, “You’re responsible for him. If he starts up again, you’ll both be sorry.”
“I’ll look after him.”
The soldier stared at Lucas for a moment, then flourished a small-bladed knife and cut the plasticuffs that bound the old man’s wrists and shoved him towards Lucas. “Stay out of our way, grandpa. All right?”
“Sons of bitches,” Bill Danvers said as the soldiers had walked off. He raised his voice and called out, “I found it first. Someone owes me for that.”
“I think everyone knows you saw it come ashore,” Lucas said. “But they’re in charge now.”
“They’re going to blow it open,” a man said.
He held a satchel in one hand and a folded chair in the other; when he shook the chair open and sat down Lucas recognised him: the man who’d been sitting at the head of the dragon, sketching it.
“They can’t,” Bill Danvers said.
“They’re going to try,” the man said.
Lucas looked back at the dragon. Its steamlined shape dim in the streaming fret, the activity around its head (if that was its head) a vague shifting of shadows. Soldiers and scientists conferring in a tight knot. Then the police boat and the landing craft started their motors and reversed through the wash of the incoming tide, fading into the fret, and the scientists followed the soldiers up the beach, walking past the bonfire, and there was a stir and rustle amongst the people strung out along the ridge.
“No damn right,” Bill Danvers said.
The soldier with the bullhorn announced that there would be a small controlled explosion. A moment later, the dragon blared out its loud, long call and in the shocking silence afterwards laughter broke out amongst the crowd on the ridge. The soldier with the bullhorn began to count backwards from ten. Some of the crowd took up the chant. There was a brief silence at zero, and then a red light flared at the base of the dragon’s midpoint and a flat crack rolled out across the ridge and was swallowed by the mist. People whistled and clapped, and Bill Danvers stepped around Lucas and ran down the slope towards the dragon. Falling to his knees and getting up and running on as soldiers chased after him, closing in from either side.
People cheered and hooted, and some ran after Bill Danvers, young men mostly, leaping down the slope and swarming across the beach. Lucas saw Damian amongst the runners and chased after him, heart pounding, flooded with a heedless exhilaration. Soldiers blocked random individuals, catching hold of them or knocking them down as others dodged past. Lucas heard the clatter of the bullhorn but couldn’t make out any words, and then there was a terrific flare of white light and a hot wind struck him so hard he lost his balance and fell to his knees.
The dragon had split in half and things were glowing with hot light inside and the waves breaking around its rear hissed and exploded into steam. A terrific heat scorched Lucas’s face. He pushed to his feet. All around, people were picking themselves up and soldiers were moving amongst them, shoving them away from the dragon. Some complied; others stood, squinting into the light that beat out of the broken dragon, blindingly bright waves and wings of white light flapping across the beach, burning away the mist.
Blinking back tears and blocky afterimages, Lucas saw two soldiers dragging Bill Danvers away from the dragon. The old man hung limp and helpless in their grasp, splayed feet furrowing the sand. His head was bloody, something sticking out of it at an angle.
Lucas started towards them, and there was another flare that left him stunned and half-blind. Things fell all around and a translucent shard suddenly jutted up by his foot. The two soldiers had dropped Bill Danvers. Lucas stepped towards him, picking his way through a field of debris, and saw that he was beyond help. His head had been knocked out of shape by the shard that stuck in his temple, and blood was soaking into the sand around it.
The dragon had completely broken apart now. Incandescent stuff dripped and hissed into steaming water and the burning light was growing brighter.
Like almost everyone else, Lucas turned and ran. Heat clawed at his back as he slogged to the top of the ridge. He saw Damian sitting on the sand, right hand clamped on the upper part of his left arm, and he jogged over and helped his friend up. Leaning against each other, they stumbled across the ridge. Small fires crackled here and there, where hot debris had kindled clumps of marram grass. Everything was drenched in a pulsing diamond brilliance. They went down the slope of the far side, angling towards the little blue boat, splashing into the water that had risen around it. Damian clambered unhandily over thwart and Lucas hauled up the concrete-filled bucket and boosted it over the side, then put his shoulder to the boat’s prow and shoved it the low breakers and tumbled in.
The boat drifted sideways on the rising tide as Lucas hauled up the sail. Dragon-light beat beyond the crest of the sandbar, brighter than the sun. Lucas heeled his little boat into the wind, ploughing through stands of sea grass into the channel beyond, chasing after the small fleet fleeing the scene. Damian sat in the bottom of the boat, hunched into himself, his back against the stem of the mast. Lucas asked him if he was okay; he opened his fingers to show a translucent spike embedded in the meat of his biceps. It was about the size of his little finger.
“Dumb bad luck,” he said, his voice tight and wincing.
“I’ll fix you up,” Lucas said, but Damian shook his head.
“Just keep going. I think—”
Everything went white for a moment. Lucas ducked down and wrapped his arms around his head and for a moment saw shadowy bones through red curtains of flesh. When he dared look around, he saw a narrow column of pure white light rising straight up, seeming to lean over as it climbed into the sky, aimed at the very apex of heaven.
A hot wind struck the boat and filled the sail, and Lucas sat up and grabbed the tiller and the sheet as the boat crabbed sideways. By the time he had it under control again the column of light had dimmed, fading inside drifting curtains of fret, rooted in a pale fire flickering beyond the sandbar.
* * *
Damian’s father, Jason Playne, paid Lucas and his mother a visit the next morning. A burly man in his late forties with a shaven head and a blunt and forthright manner, dressed in workboots and denim overalls, he made the caravan seem small and frail. Standing over Julia’s bed, telling her that he would like to ask Lucas about the scrape he and his Damian had gotten into.
“Ask away,” Julia said. She was propped amongst her pillows, her gaze bright and amused. Her tablet lay beside her, images and blocks of text glimmering above it.
Jason Playne looked at her from beneath the thick hedge of his eyebrows. A strong odour of saltwater and sweated booze clung to him. He said, “I was hoping for a private word.”
“My son and I have no secrets.”
“This is about my son,” Jason Playne said.
“They didn’t do anything wrong, if that’s what you’re worried about,” Julia said.
Lucas felt a knot of embarrassment and anger in his chest. He said, “I’m right here.”
“Well, you didn’t,” his mother said.
Jason Playne looked at Lucas. “How did Damian get hurt?”
“He fell and cut himself,” Lucas said, as steadily as he could. That was what he and Damian had agreed to say, as they’d sailed back home with their prize. Lucas had pulled the shard of dragon stuff from Damian’s arm and staunched the bleeding with a bandage made from a strip ripped from the hem of Damian’s shirt. There hadn’t been much blood; the hot sliver had more or less cauterised the wound.
Jason Playne said, “He fell.”
“Are you sure? Because I reckon that cut in my son’s arm was done by a knife. I reckon he got himself in some kind of fight.”
Julia said, “That sounds more like an accusation than a question.”
Lucas said, “We didn’t get into a fight with anyone.”
Jason Playne said, “Are you certain that Damian didn’t steal something?”
Which was the truth, as far as it went.
“Because if he did steal something, if he still has it, he’s in a lot of trouble. You too.”
“I like to think my son knows a little more about alien stuff than most,” Julia said.
“I’m don’t mean fairy stories,” Jason Playne said. “I’m talking about the army ordering people to give back anything to do with that dragon thing. You stole something and you don’t give it back and they find out? They’ll arrest you. And if you try to sell it? Well, I can tell you for a fact that the people in that trade are mad and bad. I should know. I’ve met one or two of them in my time.”
“I’m sure Lucas will take that to heart,” Julia said.
And that was that, except after Jason Playne had gone she told Lucas that he’d been right about one thing: the people who tried to reverse-engineer alien technology were dangerous and should at all costs be avoided. “If I happened to come into possession of anything like that,” she said, “I would get rid of it at once. Before anyone found out.”
But Lucas couldn’t get rid of the shard because he’d promised Damian that he’d keep it safe until they could figure out what to do with it. He spent the next two days in a haze of guilt and indecision, struggling with the temptation to check that the thing was safe in its hiding place, wondering what Damian’s father knew, wondering what his mother knew, wondering if he should sail out to a deep part of the Flood and throw it into the water, until at last Damian came over to the island.
It was early in the evening, just after sunset. Lucas was watering the vegetable garden when Damian called to him from the shadows inside a clump of buddleia bushes. He smiled at Lucas, saying, “If you think I look bad, you should see him.”
“I can’t think he could look much worse.”
“I got in a few licks,” Damian said. His upper lip was split and both his eyes were blackened and there was a discoloured knot on the hinge of his jaw.
“He came here,” Lucas said. “Gave me and Julia a hard time.”
“How much does she know?”
“I told her what happened.”
There was an edge in Damian’s voice.
“Except about how you were hit with the shard,” Lucas said.
“Oh. Your mother’s cool, you know? I wish…”
When it was clear that his friend wasn’t going to finish his thought, Lucas said, “Is it okay? You coming here so soon.”
“Oh, Dad’s over at Halvergate on what he calls business. Don’t worry about him. Did you keep it safe?”
“I said I would.”
“Why I’m here, L, I think I might have a line on someone who wants to buy our little treasure.”
“Your father said we should keep away from people like that.”
“Julia thinks so too.”
“If you don’t want anything to do with it, just say so. Tell me where it is, and I’ll take care of everything.”
“So is it here, or do we have to go somewhere?”
“I’ll show you,” Lucas said, and led his friend through the buddleias and along the low ridge to the northern end of the tiny island where an apple tree stood, hunched and gnarled and mostly dead, crippled by years of salt spray and saltwater seep. Lucas knelt and pulled up a hinge of turf and took out a small bundle of oilcloth. As he unwrapped it, Damian dropped to his knees beside him and reached out and touched an edge of the shard.
“Is it dead?”
“It wasn’t ever alive,” Lucas said.
“You know what I mean. What did you do to it?”
“Nothing. It just turned itself off.”
When Lucas had pulled the shard from Damian’s arm, its translucence had been veined with a network of shimmering threads. Now it was a dull reddish black, like an old scab.
“Maybe it uses sunlight, like phones,” Damian said.
“I thought of that, but I also thought it would be best to keep it hidden.”
“It still has to be worth something,” Damian said, and began to fold the oilcloth around the shard.
Lucas was gripped by a sudden apprehension, as if he was falling while kneeling there in the dark. He said, “We don’t have to do this right now.”
“Yes we do. I do.”
“Your father—he isn’t in Halvergate, is he?”
Damian looked straight at Lucas. “I didn’t kill him, if that’s what you’re worried about. He tried to knock me down when I went to leave, but I knocked him down instead. Pounded on him good. Put him down and put him out. Tied him up too, to give me some time to get away.”
“He’ll come after you.”
“Remember when we were kids? We used to lie up here, in summer. We’d look up at the stars and talk about what it would be like to go to one of the worlds the Jackaroo gave us. Well, I plan to find out. The UN lets you buy tickets off lottery winners who don’t want to go. It’s legal and everything. All you need is money. I reckon this will give us a good start.”
“You know I can’t come with you.”
“If you want your share, you’ll have to come to Norwich. Because there’s no way I’m coming back here,” Damian said, and stood with a smooth, swift motion.
Lucas stood too. They were standing toe to toe under the apple tree, the island and the Flood around it quiet and dark. As if they were the last people on Earth.
“Don’t try to stop me,” Damian said. “My father tried, and I fucked him up good and proper.”
“Let’s talk about this.”
“There’s nothing to talk about,” Damian said. “It is what it is.”
He tried to step past Lucas, and Lucas grabbed at his arm and Damian swung him around and lifted him off his feet and ran him against the trunk of the tree. Lucas tried to wrench free but Damian bore down with unexpected strength, pressing him against rough bark, leaning into him. Pinpricks of light in the dark wells of his eyes. His voice soft and hoarse in Lucas’s ear, his breath hot against Lucas’s cheek.
“You always used to be able to beat me, L. At running, swimming, you name it. Not any more. I’ve changed. Want to know why?”
“We don’t have to fight about this.”
“No, we don’t,” Damian said, and let Lucas go and stepped back.
Lucas pushed away from the tree, a little unsteady on his feet. “What’s got into you?”
Damian laughed. “That’s good, that is. Can’t you guess?”
“You need the money because you’re running away. All right, you can have my share, if that’s what you want. But it won’t get you very far.”
“Not by itself. But like I said, I’ve changed. Look,” Damian said, and yanked up the sleeve of his shirt, showing the place on his upper arm where the shard had punched into him.
There was only a trace of a scar, pink and smooth. Damian pulled the skin taut, and Lucas saw the outline of a kind of ridged or fibrous sheath underneath.
“It grew,” Damian said.
“I’m stronger. And faster too. I feel, I don’t know. Better than I ever have. Like I could run all the way around the world without stopping, if I had to.”
“What if it doesn’t stop growing? You should see a doctor, D. Seriously.”
“I’m going to. The kind that can make money for me, from what happened. You still think that little bit of dragon isn’t worth anything? It changed me. It could change anyone. I really don’t want to fight,” Damian said, “but I will if you get in my way. Because there’s there’s no way I’m stopping here. If I do, my dad will come after me. And if he does, I’ll have to kill him. And I know I can.”
The two friends stared at each other in the failing light. Lucas was the first to look away.
“You can come with me,” Damian said. “To Norwich. Then wherever we want to go. To infinity and beyond. Think about it. You still got my phone?”
“Do you want it back? It’s in the caravan.”
“Keep it. I’ll call you. Tell you were to meet up. Come or don’t come, it’s up to you.”
And then he ran, crashing through the buddleia bushes that grew along the slope of the ridge. Lucas went after him, but by the time he reached the edge of the water, Damian had started the motor of the boat he’d stolen from his father’s shrimp farm, and was dwindling away into the thickening twilight.
* * *
The next day, Lucas was out on the Flood, checking baited cages he’d set for eels, when an inflatable pulled away from the shrimp farm and drew a curving line of white across the water, hooking towards him. Jason Playne sat in the inflatable’s stern, cutting the motor and drifting neatly alongside Lucas’s boat and catching hold of the thwart. His left wrist was bandaged and he wore a baseball cap pulled low over sunglasses that darkly reflected Lucas and Lucas’s boat and the waterscape all around. He asked without greeting or preamble where Damian was, and Lucas said that he didn’t know.
“You saw him last night. Don’t lie. What did he tell you?”
“That he was going away. That he wanted me to go with him.”
“But you didn’t.”
“Well, no. I’m still here.”
“Don’t try to be clever, boy.” Jason Playne stared at Lucas for a long moment, then sighed and took off his baseball cap and ran the palm of his hand over his shaven head. “I talked to your mother. I know he isn’t with you. But he could be somewhere close by. In the woods, maybe. Camping out like you two used to do when you were smaller.”
“All I know is that he’s gone, Mr. Payne. Far away from here.”
Jason Playne’s smile didn’t quite work. “You’re his friend, Lucas. I know you want to do the right thing by him. As friends should. So maybe you can tell him, if you see him, that I’m not angry. That he should come home and it won’t be a problem. You could also tell him to be careful. And you should be careful, too. I think you know what I mean. It could get you both into a lot of trouble if you talk to the wrong people. Or even if you talk to the right people. You think about that,” Jason Playne said, and pushed away from Lucas’s boat and opened the throttle of his inflatable’s motor and zoomed away, bouncing over the slight swell, dwindling into the glare of the sun off the water.
Lucas went back to hauling up the cages, telling himself that he was glad that Damian was gone, that he’d escaped. When he finished, he took up the oars and began to row towards the island, back to his mother, and the little circle of his life.
* * *
Damian didn’t call that day, or the next, or the day after that. Lucas was angry at first, then heartsick, convinced that Damian was in trouble. That he’d squandered or lost the money he’d made from selling the shard, or that he’d been cheated, or worse. After a week, Lucas sailed to Norwich and spent half a day tramping around the city in a futile attempt to find his friend. Jason Playne didn’t trouble him again, but several times Lucas spotted him standing at the end of the shrimp farm’s chain of tanks, studying the island.
September’s Indian summer broke in a squall of storms. It rained every day. Hard, cold rain blowing in swaying curtains across the face of the waters. Endless racks of low clouds driving eastward. Atlantic weather. The Flood was muddier and less salty than usual. The eel traps stayed empty and storm surges drove the mackerel shoals and other fish into deep water. Lucas harvested everything he could from the vegetable garden, and from the ancient pear tree and wild, forgotten hedgerows in the ribbon of woods behind the levee, counted and recounted the store of cans and MREs. He set rabbit snares in the woods, and spent hours tracking squirrels from tree to tree, waiting for a moment when he could take a shot with his catapult. He caught sticklebacks in the weedy tide pools that fringed the broken brickwork shore of the island and used them to bait trotlines for crabs, and if he failed to catch any squirrels or crabs he collected mussels from the car reef at the foot of the levee.
It rained through the rest of September and on into October. Julia developed a racking and persistent cough. She enabled the long-disused keyboard function of her tablet and typed her essays, opinion pieces, and journal entries instead of giving them straight to camera. She was helping settlers on the Antarctic Peninsula to petition the International Court in Johannesburg to grant them statehood, so that they could prevent exploitation of oil and mineral reserves by multinationals. She was arguing with the Midway Island utopians about whether or not the sea dragons they were using to harvest plastic particulates were also sucking up precious phytoplankton, and destabilising the oceanic ecosystem. And so on, and so forth.
The witchwoman visited and treated her with infusions and poultices, but the cough grew worse and because they had no money for medicine, Lucas tried to find work at the algae farm at Halvergate. Every morning, he set out before dawn and stood at the gates in a crowd of men and women as one of the supervisors pointed to this or that person and told them to step forward, told the rest to come back and try their luck tomorrow. After his fifth unsuccessful cattle call, Lucas was walking along the shoulder of the road towards town and the jetty where his boat was tied up when a battered van pulled up beside him and the driver called to him. It was Ritchy, the stoop-shouldered, one-eyed foreman of the shrimp farm. Saying, “Need a lift, lad?”
“You can tell him there’s no point in following me because I don’t have any idea where Damian is,” Lucas said, and kept walking.
“He doesn’t know I’m here.” Ritchy leaned at the window, edging the van along, matching Lucas’s pace. Its tyres left wakes in the flooded road. Rain danced on its roof. “I got some news about Damian. Hop in. I know a place does a good breakfast, and you look like you could use some food.”
They drove past patchworks of shallow lagoons behind mesh fences, past the steel tanks and piping of the cracking plant that turned algal lipids into biofuel. Ritchy talked about the goddamned weather, asked Lucas how his boat was handling, asked after his mother, said he was sorry to hear that she was ill and maybe he should pay a visit, he always liked talking to her because she made you look at things in a different way, a stream of inconsequential chatter he kept up all the way to the café.
It was in one corner of a layby where two lines of trucks were parked nose to tail. A pair of shipping containers welded together and painted bright pink. Red and white chequered curtains behind windows cut in the ribbed walls. Formica tables and plastic chairs crowded inside, all occupied and a line of people waiting, but Ritchy knew the Portuguese family who ran the place and he and Lucas were given a small table in the back, between a fridge and the service counter, and without asking were served mugs of strong tea, and shrimp and green pepper omelets with baked beans and chips.
“You know what I miss most?” Ritchy said. “Pigs. Bacon and sausage. Ham. They say the Germans are trying to clone flu-resistant pigs. If they are, I hope they get a move on. Eat up, lad. You’ll feel better with something inside you.”
“You said you had some news about Damian. Where is he? Is he all right?”
Ritchy squinted at Lucas. His left eye, the one that had been lost when he’d been a soldier, glimmered blankly. It had been grown from a sliver of tooth and didn’t have much in the way of resolution, but allowed him to see both infrared and ultraviolet light.
He said, “Know what collateral damage is?”
Fear hollowed Lucas’s stomach. “Damian is in trouble, isn’t he? What happened?”
“Used to be, long ago, wars were fought on a battlefield chosen by both sides. Two armies meeting by appointment. Squaring up to each other. Slogging it out. Then wars became so big the countries fighting them became one huge battlefield. Civilians found themselves on the front line. Or rather, there was no front line. Total war, they called it. And then you got wars that weren’t wars. Asymmetrical wars. Netwars. Where war gets mixed up with crime and terrorism. Your mother was on the edge of a netwar at one time. Against the Jackaroo and those others. Still thinks she’s fighting it, although it long ago evolved into something else. There aren’t any armies or battlefields in a netwar. Just a series of nodes in distributed organisation. Collateral damage,” Ritchy said, forking omelet into his mouth, “is the inevitable consequence of taking out one of those nodes, because all of them are embedded inside ordinary society. It could be a flat in an apartment block in a city. Or a little island where someone thinks something useful is hidden.”
“You don’t know anything,” Ritchy said. “I believe you. Damian ran off with whatever it was you two found or stole, and left you in the lurch. But the people Damian got himself involved with don’t know you don’t know. That’s why we’ve been looking out for you. Making sure you and your mother don’t become collateral damage.”
“Wait. What people? What did Damian do?”
“I’m trying to tell you, only it’s harder than I thought it would be.” Ritchy set his knife and fork together on his plate and said, “Maybe telling it straight is the best way. The day after Damian left, he tried to do some business with some people in Norwich. Bad people. The lad wanted to sell them a fragment of that dragon that stranded itself, but they decided to take it from him without paying. There was a scuffle and the lad got away and left a man with a bad knife wound. He died from it, a few weeks later. Those are the kind of people who look after their own, if you know what I mean. Anyone involved in that trade is bad news in one way or another. Jason had to pay them off, or else they would have come after him. An eye for an eye,” Ritchy said, and tapped his blank eye with his little finger.
“What happened to Damian?”
“This is the hard part. After his trouble in Norwich, the lad called his father. He was drunk, ranting. Boasting how he was going to make all kinds of money. I managed to put a demon on his message, ran it back to a cell in Gravesend. Jason went up there, and that’s when … Well, there’s no other way of saying it. That’s when he found out that Damian had been killed.”
The shock was a jolt and a falling away. And then Lucas was back inside himself, hunched in his damp jeans and sweater in the clatter and bustle of the café, with the fridge humming next to him. Ritchy tore off the tops of four straws of sugar and poured them into Lucas’s tea and stirred it and folded Lucas’s hand around the mug and told him to drink.
Lucas sipped hot sweet tea and felt a little better.
“Always thought,” Ritchy said, “that of the two of you, you were the best and brightest.”
Lucas saw his friend in his mind’s eye and felt cold and strange, knowing he’d never see him, never talk to him again.
Ritchy was said, “The police got in touch yesterday. They found Damian’s body in the river. They think he fell into the hands of one of the gangs that trade in offworld stuff.”
Lucas suddenly understood something and said, “They wanted what was growing inside him. The people who killed him.”
He told Ritchy about the shard that had hit Damian in the arm. How they’d pulled it out. How it had infected Damian.
“He had a kind of patch around the cut, under his skin. He said it was making him stronger.”
Lucas saw his friend again, wild-eyed in the dusk, under the apple tree.
“That’s what he thought. But that kind of thing, well, if he hadn’t been murdered he would most likely have died from it.”
“Do you know who did it?”
Ritchy shook his head. “The police are making what they like to call enquiries. They’ll probably want to talk to you soon enough.”
“Thank you. For telling me.”
“I remember the world before the Jackaroo came,” Ritchy said. “Them, and the others after them. It was in a bad way, but at least you knew where you were. If you happen to have any more of that stuff, lad, throw it in the Flood. And don’t mark the spot.”
* * *
Two detectives came Gravesend to interview Lucas. He told them everything he knew. Julia said that he shouldn’t blame himself, said that Damian had made a choice and it had been a bad choice. But Lucas carried the guilt around with him anyway. He should have done more to help Damian. He should have thrown the shard away. Or found him after they’d had the stupid argument over that girl. Or refused to take him out to see the damn dragon in the first place.
A week passed. Two. There was no funeral because the police would not release Damian’s body. According to them, it was still undergoing forensic tests. Julia, who was tracking rumours about the murder and its investigation on the stealth nets, said it had probably been taken to some clandestine research lab, and she and Lucas had a falling out over it.
One day, returning home after checking the snares he’d set in the woods, Lucas climbed to the top of the levee and saw two men waiting beside his boat. Both were dressed in brand-new camo gear, one with a beard, the other with a shaven head and rings flashing in one ear. They started up the slope towards him, calling his name, and he turned tail and ran, cutting across a stretch of sour land gone to weeds and pioneer saplings, plunging into the stands of bracken at the edge of the woods, pausing, seeing the two men chasing towards him, turning and running on.
He knew every part of the woods, and quickly found a hiding place under the slanted trunk of a fallen sycamore grown over with moss and ferns, breathing quick and hard in the cold air. Rain pattered all around. Droplets of water spangled bare black twigs. The deep odour of wet wood and wet earth.
A magpie chattered, close by. Lucas set a ball-bearing in the cup of his catapult and cut towards the sound, moving easily and quietly, freezing when he saw a twitch of movement between the wet tree trunks ahead. It was the bearded man, the camo circuit of his gear magicking him into a fairy-tale creature got up from wet bark and mud. He was talking into a phone headset in a language full of harsh vowels. Turning as Lucas stepped towards him, his smile white inside his beard, saying that there was no need to run away, he only wanted to talk.
“What is that you have, kid?”
“A catapult. I’ll use it if I have too.”
“What do you use it for? Hunting rabbits? I’m no rabbit.”
“Who are you?”
“Police. I have ID,” the man said, and before Lucas could say anything his hand went into the pocket of his camo trousers and came out with a pistol.
Lucas had made his catapult himself, from a yoke of springy poplar and a length of vatgrown rubber with the composition and tensile strength of the hinge inside a mussel shell. As the man brought up the pistol Lucas pulled back the band of rubber and let the ball bearing fly. He did it quickly and without thought, firing from the hip, and the ball bearing went exactly where he meant it to go. It smacked into the knuckles of the man’s hand with a hard pop and the man yelped and dropped the pistol, and then he sat down hard and clapped his good hand to his knee, because Lucas’s second shot had struck the soft part under the cap.
Lucas stepped up and kicked the pistol away and stepped back, a third ball bearing cupped in the catapult. The man glared at him, wincing with pain, and said something in his harsh language.
“Who sent you?” Lucas said.
His heart was racing, but his thoughts were cool and clear.
“Tell me where it is,” the man said, “and we leave you alone. Your mother too.”
“My mother doesn’t have anything to do with this.”
Lucas was watching the man and listening to someone moving through the wet wood, coming closer.
“She is in it, nevertheless,” the man said. He tried to push to his feet but his wounded knee gave way and he cried out and sat down again. He’d bitten his lip bloody and sweat beaded his forehead.
“Stay still, or the next one hits you between the eyes,” Lucas said. He heard a quaver in his voice and knew from the way the man looked at him that he’d heard it too.
“Go now, and fetch the stuff. And don’t tell me you don’t know what I mean. Fetch it and bring it here. That’s the only offer you get,” the man said. “And the only time I make it.”
A twig snapped softly and Lucas turned, ready to let the ball-bearing fly, but it was Damian’s father who stepped around a dark green holly bush, saying, “You can leave this one to me.”
At once Lucas understood what had happened. Within his cool clear envelope he could see everything: how it all connected.
“You set me up,” he said.
“I needed to draw them out,” Jason Playne said. He was dressed in jeans and an old-fashioned woodland camo jacket, and he was cradling a cut-down double-barrelled shotgun.
“You let them know where I was. You told them I had more of the dragon stuff.”
The man sitting on the ground was looking at them. “This does not end here,” he said. “I have you, and I have your friend. And you’re going to pay for what you did to my son,” Jason Playne said, and put a whistle to his lips and blew, two short notes. Off in the dark rainy woods another whistle answered.
The man said, “Idiot small-time businessman. You don’t know us. What we can do. Hurt me and we hurt you back tenfold.”
Jason Playne ignored him, and told Lucas that he could go.
“Why did you let them chase me? You could have caught them while they were waiting by my boat. Did you want them to hurt me?”
“I knew you’d lead them a good old chase. And you did. So, all’s well that ends well, eh?” Jason Playne said. “Think of it as payback. For what happened to my son.”
Lucas felt a bubble of anger swelling in his chest. “You can’t forgive me for what I didn’t do.”
“It’s what you didn’t do that caused all the trouble.”
“It wasn’t me. It was you. It was you who made him run away. It wasn’t just the beatings. It was the thought that if he stayed here he’d become just like you.”
Jason Playne turned towards Lucas, his face congested. “Go. Right now.”
The bearded man drew a knife from his boot and flicked it open and pushed up with his good leg, throwing himself towards Jason Playne, and Lucas stretched the band of his catapult and let fly. The ball bearing struck the bearded man in the temple with a hollow sound and the man fell flat on his face. His temple was dinted and blood came out of his nose and mouth and he thrashed and trembled and subsided.
Rain pattered down all around, like faint applause.
Then Jason Playne stepped towards the man and kicked him in the chin with the point of his boot. The man rolled over on the wet leaves, arms flopping wide.
“I reckon you killed him,” Jason Playne said.
“I didn’t mean—”
“Lucky for you there are two of them. The other will tell me what I need to know. You go now, boy. Go!”
Lucas turned and ran.
* * *
He didn’t tell his mother about it. He hoped that Jason Playne would find out who had killed Damian and tell the police and the killers would answer for what they had done, and that would be an end to it.
That wasn’t what happened.
The next day, a motor launch came over to the island, carrying police armed with machine guns and the detectives investigating Damian’s death, who arrested Lucas for involvement in two suspicious deaths and conspiracy to kidnap or murder other persons unknown. It seemed that one of the men that Jason Playne had hired to help him get justice for the death of his son had been a police informant.
Lucas was held in remand in Norwich for three months. Julia was too ill to visit him, but they talked on the phone and she sent messages via Ritchy, who’d been arrested along with every other worker on the shrimp farm, but released on bail after the police were unable to prove that he had anything to do with Jason Playne’s scheme.
It was Ritchy who told Lucas that his mother had cancer that had started in her throat and spread elsewhere, and that she had refused treatment. Lucas was taken to see her two weeks later, handcuffed to a prison warden. She was lying in a hospital bed, looking shrunken and horribly vulnerable. Her dreadlocks bundled in a blue scarf. Her hand so cold when he took it in his. The skin loose on frail bones.
She had refused monoclonal antibody treatment that would shrink the tumours and remove cancer cells from her bloodstream, and had also refused food and water. The doctors couldn’t intervene because a clause in her living will gave her the right to choose death instead of treatment. She told Lucas this in a hoarse whisper. Her lips were cracked and her breath foul, but her gaze was strong and insistent.
“Do the right thing even when it’s the hardest thing,” she said.
She died four days later. Her ashes were scattered in the rose garden of the municipal crematorium. Lucas stood in the rain between two wardens as the curate recited the prayer for the dead. The curate asked him if he wanted to scatter the ashes and he threw them out across the wet grass and dripping rose bushes with a flick of his wrist. Like casting a line across the water.
* * *
He was sentenced to five years for manslaughter, reduced to eighteen months for time served on remand and for good behaviour. He was released early in September. He’d been given a ticket for the bus to Norwich, and a voucher for a week’s stay in a halfway house, but he set off in the opposite direction, on foot. Walking south and east across country. Following back roads. Skirting the edges of sugar beet fields and bamboo plantations. Ducking into ditches or hedgerows whenever he heard a vehicle approaching. Navigating by the moon and the stars.
Once, a fox loped across his path.
Once, he passed a depot lit up in the night, robots shunting between a loading dock and a road-train.
By dawn he was making his way through the woods along the edge of the levee. He kept taking steps that weren’t there. Several times he sat on his haunches and rested for a minute before pushing up and going on. At last, he struck the gravel track that led to the shrimp farm, and twenty minutes later was knocking on the door of the office.
Ritchy gave Lucas breakfast and helped him pull his boat out of the shed where it had been stored, and set it in the water. Lucas and the old man had stayed in touch: it had been Ritchy who’d told him that Jason Playne had been stabbed to death in prison, most likely by someone paid by the people he’d tried to chase down. Jason Playne’s brother had sold the shrimp farm to a local consortium, and Ritchy had been promoted to supervisor.
He told Lucas over breakfast that he had a job there, if he wanted it. Lucas said that he was grateful, he really was, but he didn’t know if he wanted to stay on.
“I’m not asking you to make a decision right away,” Ritchy said. “Think about it. Get your bearings, come to me whenever you’re ready. Okay?”
“Are you going to stay over on the island?”
“Just how bad is it?”
“I couldn’t keep all of them off. They’d come at night. One party had a shotgun.”
“You did what you could. I appreciate it.”
“I wish I could have done more. They made a mess, but it isn’t anything you can’t fix up, if you want to.”
A heron flapped away across the sun-silvered water as Lucas rowed around the point of the island. The unexpected motion plucked at an old memory. As if he’d seen a ghost.
He grounded his boat next to the rotting carcass of his mother’s old rowboat and walked up the steep path. Ritchy had patched the broken windows of the caravan and put a padlock on the door. Lucas had the key in his pocket, but he didn’t want to go in there, not yet.
After Julia had been taken into hospital, treasure hunters had come from all around, chasing rumours that parts of the dragon had been buried on the island. Holes were dug everywhere in the weedy remains of the vegetable garden; the microwave mast at the summit of the ridge, Julia’s link with the rest of the world, had been uprooted. Lucas set his back to it and walked north, counting his steps. Both of the decoy caches his mother had planted under brick cairns had been ransacked, but the emergency cache, buried much deeper, was undisturbed.
Lucas dug down to the plastic box, and looked all around before he opened it and sorted through the things inside, squatting frogwise with the hot sun on his back.
An assortment of passports and identity cards, each with a photograph of younger versions of his mother, made out to different names and nationalities. A slim tight roll of old high-denomination banknotes, yuan, naira, and U.S. dollars, more or less worthless thanks to inflation and revaluation. Blank credit cards and credit cards in various names, also worthless. Dozens of sleeved data needles. A pair of AR glasses.
Lucas studied one of the ID cards. When he brushed the picture of his mother with his thumb, she turned to present her profile, turned to look at him when he brushed the picture again.
He pocketed the ID card and the data needles and AR glasses, then walked along the ridge to the apple tree at the far end, and stared out across the Flood that spread glistening like shot silk under the sun. Thoughts moved through his mind like a slow and stately parade of pictures that he could examine in every detail, and then there were no thoughts at all and for a little while no part of him was separate from the world all around, sun and water and the hot breeze that moved through the crooked branches of the tree.
Lucas came to himself with a shiver. Windfall apples lay everywhere amongst the weeds and nettles that grew around the trees, and dead wasps and hornets were scattered amongst them like yellow and black bullets. Here was a dead bird too, gone to a tatter of feathers of white bone. And here was another, and another. As if some passing cloud of poison had struck everything down.
He picked an apple from the tree, mashed it against the trunk, and saw pale threads fine as hair running through the mash of pulp. He peeled bark from a branch, saw threads laced in the living wood.
Dragon stuff, growing from the seed he’d planted. Becoming something else.
In the wood of the tree and the apples scattered all around was a treasure men would kill for. Had killed for. He’d have more than enough to set him up for life, if he sold it to the right people. He could build a house right here, buy the shrimp farm or set up one of his own. He could buy a ticket on one of the shuttles that travelled through the wormhole anchored between the Earth and the Moon, travel to infinity and beyond …
Lucas remembered the hopeful shine in Damian’s eyes when he’d talked about those new worlds. He thought of how the dragon-shard had killed or damaged everyone it had touched. He pictured his mother working at her tablet in her sickbed, advising and challenging people who were attempting to build something new right here on Earth. It wasn’t much of a contest. It wasn’t even close.
He walked back to the caravan. Took a breath, unlocked the padlock, stepped inside. Everything had been overturned or smashed. Cupboards gaped open, the mattress of his mother’s bed was slashed and torn, a great ruin littered the floor. He rooted amongst the wreckage, found a box of matches and a plastic jug of lamp oil. He splashed half of the oil on the torn mattress, lit a twist of cardboard and lobbed it onto the bed, beat a retreat as flames sprang up.
It didn’t take ten minutes to gather up dead wood and dry weeds and pile them around the apple tree, splash the rest of the oil over its trunk, and set fire to the tinder. A thin pall of white smoke spread across the island, blowing out across the water as he raised the sail of his boat and turned it into the wind.
Copyright © 2012 by Gardner Dozois