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Seaborn

Before

Meina gazed at the child within the air-bubble. It lay slumbering, face puffy, skin wrinkled and pink. So unlike Meina and the rest of the school, but at the same time so beautiful.

“We have no other choice,” Ragan said.

“I know.”

Meina circled the bubble, pushing Ragan aside with a stumpy arm. The shallow water in the crèche bounced light around in ways that lit the child up differently depending on where one drifted.

“It’s a throwback, and we can’t”

“I know!”

Ragan winced.

“Sorry,” Meina said. “I forget how sensitive your hearing is.” And then, because she couldn’t resist: “A throwback, perhaps?” Ragan rolled over onto his back.

“The longer we keep it here, the less chance it’ll have to survive up there.”

“She.” Meina bared her teeth. “She is a person, and she is my child.”

“That’s not the point.” Meina butted him with her forehead. “And how do we know she will even survive?”

“Because it’s in our code. You feel it. If we follow the instructions, the land-dwellers will look after it.”

“But how do we know they will?”

Ragan dived to the bottom of the crèche, scratched at the pebbles with his feet. A cloud of dust arose. Meina twitched her lips. She’d frustrated him. Good. He swam back to her.

“Which would you prefer? To watch your daughter die here because she can’t breathe, or to give her some chance of survival? She’s not just a partial throwback, either. If it weren’t for the fact I watched you birth her, I’d swear she was a land-dweller. Who exactly did you mate with, anyway?”

“None of your business.”

“Well then, I’d think it’s in your best interests to put the baby ashore. Otherwise people might start asking questions. Surely not Laast?”

Meina looked away. Laast lacked social skills and symmetry, but he was kind and sweet and gentle. And he loved her. There were only two other babies in the crèche. Neither of them had needed air bubbles past their first day. Now, weeks later, they floated side-by-side in the sanctuary pen, their blubber already developing nicely.

“I’ll take it ashore if you won’t,” Ragan said.

“No. She’s my daughter. I’ll do it.”

Ragan pirouetted and knocked his ankles together.

“Good. But we must do it now. Otherwise we’ll have to wait another tidal cycle. And I’ll need to craft another bubble full of fresh air.”

It was tempting to balk so as to have one more day with her child. But Ragan, for all his unpleasantness, was right. This was her daughter’s only chance.

Carefully clasping the air-bubble between her arms, Meina swam out of the crèche and towards shore. Ragan followed, at a distance. The rest of the school, bar the three assigned to sentry duty at the reef gate, were out hunting. Meina was glad. The fewer to witness her shame, the better.

Ragan was also right in saying that the instructions for what to do with a throwback were written into her code. She knew exactly where she needed to swim, and that she must get there quickly. Fortunately she’d always been fast and she cut through the water easily, even with baby in her grip.

It wasn’t a long swim. Meina had never seen sharks or swordfish inside the reef, but still she waggled her feet in relief when the slope of the shore approached and only the usual reef fish flitted about.

“You’ll have to walk up,” Ragan said, swimming up beside here when she stopped to inspect the slope.

“Walk?”

“Yes. It’s easy. Just push one foot into the sand, and then stretch the other one forward and push that into the sand, and so on.” That didn’t sound at all easy.

She pressed her webbed toes into the soft seabed. Did land-dwellers do this all the time? But what if they had to dart quickly out of the way to avoid a shark, or roll to one side because an eel decided they’d invaded its territory?

“Go,” Ragan said. “I’ll wait here.”

The water kept trying to pull her back, but she pushed forward clumsily. Once she slipped and almost dropped the air-bubble, but somehow kept her balance.

Everything got brighter and brighter, the sunlight blinding at times. Meina blinked in the special sequence to lower her hunting film over her eyes and continued on.

As she got closer to the surface disorientation kicked in. Sounds came from everywhere at once and overlapped, making her dizzy and uncertain which way was up.

Then, just like that, her head was above water.

So much air, all of the sudden. She gasped and clamped her mouth closed and continued staggering forward. Cradle your hands beneath the child, her subconscious instructed. No sooner had she done this than the bubble was out of the water and popped.

Meina stopped. This was the first time she’d held her daughter in her arms without it being protected by oxygen. And, unlike her, the child seemed unaffected by the new environment.

Hurry. She took a tiny gulp of air–even that made her giddy–and rushed forward, the pull of the ocean no longer holding her back. The spot was just ahead. A raised platform beneath a leafy tree. The platform came up to her waist. Grunting out air from the exertion, Meina laid her child on the smooth surface.

She didn’t want to leave her daughter. She wanted to grab her and rush back into the welcoming embrace of the ocean. But she resisted, wrenched herself away and began a slow trudge back down the beach.

Then she noticed how hot she’d become, and the trudge became a shameful stomach-first slide into the water. She swam back home without a word to Ragan.

Now

Janna dropped her tablet on the table and sat down with a thump.

“Why the frown, darling?” Oma asked. She was bent over a monitor, finger tracing frenzied patterns across it. Probably tinkering with her latest virtual topography construct. Oma never stopped working.

“The other kids…”

“The other kids what, sweetie?”

Janna tried to bite back a sob, but couldn’t. She managed, “They’re calling me names again,” before smothering her eyes with her palms. Oma’s chair scraped back, and four footsteps later a hand rested on Janna’s shoulder.

“I’m sure they don’t mean to be so hurtful.”

“Yes, they do. It’s all ‘two-ton Janna’ this and ‘two-ton Janna’ that. And I try to walk away like you say I should, but they just follow me. And they try to trip me up, and throw things at me.”

“Anybody in particular?”

“All of them.”

“Even Kevvie?”

Janna lowered her hands. She could cry, but never shed tears. Why didn’t she have tears? Another thing that made her different.

“Well no, not Kevvie. But he doesn’t stop them.” Oma kissed the top of her head.

“I think I should call the school again.”

“Nothing happened when you did last time.”

“Then perhaps I need to phrase things differently.” Oma’s words had a hard edge to them. But Janna knew that wouldn’t solve the problem. Several of the kids in her class, boys and girls, had already been hauled in front of Principal Weiss. Now they just made sure they waited until they were outside school grounds before tormenting her.

“Who’s the worst? Who gets everybody else started?” Oma asked. Janna hesitated. But Oma would keep asking until she had an answer.

“Cindy Verhuizen.”

“Then I’ll see that she gets suspended.” Oma marched towards her office, her footsteps echoing on the tile floor like the sound of a gun firing.

“No, Oma!” Janna said. “Please don’t. I’ll walk home a different way. You could come pick me up.”

Oma paused, her eyebrows low over her eyes. “I can do that, some of the time. But this girl needs to learn a lesson. Letting her get away with this will just make her worse.”

But getting Cindy in trouble would make her worse, too. The door to Oma’s office slammed shut. Janna buried her head in her arms again and gave way to more tearless sobs.


Janna loved the ocean and the beach. Always had. Apart from the fact it was the only place nearby that wasn’t covered in huge light-absorbing sheets of electron-rich metal, and that there she could escape the pungent smells of the community that only she seemed notice, it just felt right. Even before Oma told her that was where she came from it’d felt like home.

Nobody else in the town swam. They were all afraid of the water. Even Oma. Though Oma did walk to the edge of the metal canopy, every day at high tide, to examine the beach through a lens.

But Janna wasn’t afraid. Sometimes on the weekend she came down early in the morning and swam until lunchtime. She wasn’t a fast swimmer, but she had stamina, and could hold her breath for a long time.

The beach was also the one place where Janna knew nobody would follow her to torment her. Sometimes Kevvie, if he was feeling brave, would scurry down and sit under the shade tree with her for awhile. Like today. He didn’t say anything at first, just sat, scrawny arms curled around knobby knees, staring at the water.

Janna had already been at the beach for at least an hour. She’d rushed down there while Oma was locked in her office. The door might’ve been locked, but that didn’t stop Oma’s strident tones from carrying through to the dining area.

Swimming had released some of the tension in Janna’s shoulders, but not all. When Kevvie arrived she almost yelled at him, but clamped her mouth shut just in time. He was the only friend she had.

She was glad he hadn’t come down while she was in the water. It always embarrassed her if others saw her unclothed. Not just because of her bulk, but also because of her skin. It was gray and leathery and hung in folds around her biceps and thighs and stomach. All the other kids were smooth-skinned, and white or brown. Janna didn’t look anything like any of them.

Kevvie had seen her swimming once, that she knew of. He’d never mentioned anything, and Janna had never asked what he’d seen. And he was still friends with her. Maybe he didn’t mind how strange she looked. Finally, he said,

“Sorry.”

“It’s okay,” Janna said. In reality, every time he didn’t help her it hurt, but Oma had told her that things were hard for Kevvie too. He might be a landborn like the rest of them, but he was a runt, and had bones that easily broke. Janna was his only friend, like he was hers. What a pair they made. Her huger than everybody else, and him tinier.

“I didn’t want to let them be mean to you, but I didn’t know what to do. I never know what to do.”

“It’s okay.”

“No, it’s not. But there was so many of them.”

A flush of happiness shot through Janna. She touched Kevvie’s shoulder. “It’s okay. Really. We’ll figure something out.”

They sat silent for a few minutes.

Then Kevvie said, “Do you ever wonder what she’s like?”

“Who?”

“Your Mom.”

Janna rubbed the back of her head, which only reminded her that her hair was actually implants, and not really her own.

“Sometimes. Yeah.”

“Do you think she ever comes to look for you?”

“I used to. After Oma told me about her. But not anymore.”

Kevvie nodded. “Because you’d have seen her by now if she did.”

“Yeah. Though maybe she has to stay out beyond the reef.”

“Yeah. Maybe she watches you from out there.”

That’d be nice. Janna smiled. Then she had a sudden thought and turned to Kevvie. “Do you want to learn how to swim?”

His eyes widened. “In the ocean?”

“Why not?”

“But it’s, it’s… I don’t know how.”

“I’ll teach you.”

“What about the sun?”

Janna had a ready solution. “I’ve got special sun cream that Oma makes for me. It’s waterproof.”

Kevvie fidgeted. “I could get hurt.”

“I’ll look after you.”

“Is it cold?”

“Only at first.”

He stared at the water for a bit, then said in a timid voice, “Okay, but not for long.”

Janna grinned. Suddenly she felt grown-up, responsible.

“Do I need to take my clothes off?” Kevvie asked.

“Yes, but you don’t have to take them all off if you don’t want to. Just your shorts and shirt. Otherwise they’ll get all wet and you’ll be really cold when you get out.”

Carefully Kevvie removed his shirt, folded it and placed it on the stone table beside the tree. Then he did the same with his shorts. Underneath them he wore a white singlet which accentuated the boniness of his shoulders and elbows, and a pair of plain boxers. Janna passed him the sun cream and he rubbed it in swathes on his face and arms.

Usually Janna would’ve stripped completely, but her self-consciousness won out and she left on her shorts and the special bra Oma had made for her. None of the other girls her age needed a bra yet, Oma had told her proudly, but wearing one didn’t make Janna feel special. At least not in the sense of having self-pride. She started down to the water with her arms crossed over her chest.

Kevvie’s eyes never left the ocean. Each of his steps reminded Janna of the sparrows at the town shops, who hopped between tables looking for scraps and flapped off as soon as someone moved towards them.

“You’ll be fine. I promise,” Janna said. Impulsively she grabbed his hand. “Come on. The quicker you get in the quicker you’ll get used to it.”

“There’s so much.”

“It’s like a giant field. Except you can dive underneath it.”

He pulled in the opposite direction. “Are we going to go under the water?”

“Not if you don’t want to. Trust me, Kevvie.”

He relaxed his pressure and Janna dragged him into the ocean. He squealed. She laughed. When the water reached up to his thighs he stopped. “Can I stay here and watch you swim?”

“Sure.” Janna splashed him, right in the face, and then dived under the surface.

Here, she was in her element. Seagrass covered the ocean floor from the point where the slope of the beach leveled out. Fish of all sorts, some tiny silver flashes, others fat and colorfully striped, darted amongst the grass. In the distance she could make out the murk of the reef. One day she’d swim over to investigate it. She’d mentioned that to Oma once, but Oma hadn’t taken kindly to the idea.

Janna almost forgot about Kevvie. He’d be worried. She shot back to the surface to find him standing rigidly in the same spot, a tiny white stick poking out of the water.

“There you are,” he shouted.

Janna backstroked over to him, curving through the water lazily.

“How long can you hold your breath for?” he asked.

“I don’t know. Never timed it.”

“Do you reckon you could swim all the way to the reef and back without needing a breath?”

“No. I’d need one, I think. Though maybe if I was swimming really fast.” She rolled over onto her stomach. “I’ll show you how to float.”

He hesitated, then waded forward. Janna crouched so the water reached her neck, and then extended both her arms. “Lie on my forearms. I’ll balance you.”

Letting out little gasps, Kevvie tried to maneuver himself onto Janna’s arms without getting the upper half of his body wet. Janna laughed. “Silly. Stand still. Let me show you.”

She put an arm behind his back, then reached down with the other and scooped him up. He half-shouted and struggled for a moment which, in turn, made him sink.

“Don’t worry,” Janna said, levering his top half above the surface. “I’ve got you. Just relax. Pretend this is your bed. If you’re relaxed you can’t sink.”

It took a minute, but then Kevvie’s toes popped out of the water, and his head propped back like it was resting on a pillow. He said, “This is so weird.”

“It’s great, isn’t it? Now put your arms out. Not straight out, but like they’re wings. That’ll balance you.”

Neither of them said anything for a while. Soon Kevvie wore a huge grin, staring at the sky. Slowly, Janna removed her arms from beneath him. Kevvie stayed floating.

She backed off two paces. “Look, you’re doing it all yourself.”

Momentary panic crossed his brow, and he splashed his arms around. Then he laughed. “I’m doing it. This is amazing. It’s like I can fly.”

Janna couldn’t stop smiling.


They stayed in the water for another ten minutes. Kevvie even managed to kick his feet and move himself a few feet without sinking. Then they pulled themselves away and hiked back up the beach. By the time they reached the shade tree they were almost dry. Kevvie pulled his shorts and shirt back on. “Can we do this again tomorrow?”

Janna clapped her hands. “Of course.”

He grinned and scurried up the hill towards town.

When he’d disappeared Janna turned around and ran back into the ocean, a smile still etched on her face. This had turned into the best day of her life.

She practiced counting how long she could hold her breath. Somewhere after reaching ‘one-thousand lagoon oceans’ she lost count. Finally she decided to surface. Then something caught her eye just far enough away to make her question what she’d seen. It looked like a face, kind of, attached to a huge gray body. Staring at her with round eyes. But when she swam closer it was gone. Maybe she’d been holding her breath too long. Lungs still not quite at bursting point she surfaced and went ashore. That night, she dreamed of big, sad eyes watching her. In her dream she called them Mom.


Janna rushed to school the next morning. The bullies no longer mattered. She had a friend who she was teaching to swim. If only everybody in town swam. Then they wouldn’t think she was so strange.

Kevvie didn’t turn up until just before class started. The front of his neck was sunburnt, but not too badly. He gave her a tiny wave without really looking at her and took his spot in the front corner. He didn’t turn towards her once during morning class. At lunchtime Janna searched high and low for him. But he was nowhere to be found. Finally, after ducking through corridors and courtyards, dodging the taunts thrown her way, she found him slinking along the wall next to the library.

“Hi,” he said. He didn’t meet her eyes.

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah.”

“Do you still want to go swimming today?”

He shuffled a few steps away. “I can’t. Sorry.”

Janna’s world deflated. “You can’t?”

“I… I’m not allowed.”

“Oh.”

“Mom said I can’t play with you anymore, either.”

Janna didn’t reply. She held her breath to stop a moan of anguish, glad this once that she couldn’t shed tears.

“I’ve got to go,” Kevvie said.

Janna turned away, head towards the concrete, and walked back across the courtyard. She stopped trudging when she got back to class, but she couldn’t face going back inside. She turned towards home. Halfway there, she decided to go for a swim. Just because Kevvie wouldn’t swim didn’t mean she couldn’t. But today it felt hollow, the colors of the undersea world somehow muted.


When she eventually went home, Oma was waiting for her in the hallway, arms crossed, brow furrowed, lips thin and tight. Janna tried to walk around her, but Oma mirrored her movements.

“What?” Janna said.

“Don’t you take that tone with me, young lady,” Oma said. “I think you know very well what.”

“He didn’t get hurt.”

“No, but he could’ve. You’ve no idea the state his mother was in when she found out. The water is no place for someone like him.”

“He loved it.”

“That’s not the point.”

“I was looking after him.”

“It’s dangerous, Janna. There are things like sharks. He could’ve been caught in a current.”

“The water only reached up to his waist.”

“You should’ve at least asked his parents first.”

Janna pushed past Oma into the living room. She kicked one of the chairs and it fell over with a satisfying clatter.

“Janna,” Oma called, “you know the water’s not safe. I only let you swim there because it’s part of you.”

“The water’s fine. It’s never hurt me.”

“That’s because you’re designed for it.”

“There’s no current, and I’ve never seen a shark. I was looking after him the entire time. I taught him to float. He wanted to come down again today. I can teach him how to swim.”

“You’re missing the point.”

Janna whirled. “Am I? I don’t think people are afraid of the water. I think they’re afraid of me.”

Oma’s face softened. She pushed gray curls off her forehead. “That’s not true.”

“Of course it is. Everybody’s always been afraid of me. The only person who isn’t is Kevvie, and now he’s not allowed to be my friend anymore because his stupid parents are scared I’ll drown him or eat him or something.”

“Janna.”

“And I think you’re scared of me, too. I’ve never hurt anybody. But everybody always wants to hurt me.”

Before Oma could respond, Janna ran for her room. She slammed the door behind her so hard the house rattled. Then she buried herself beneath her covers and cried until she ran out of energy. But no tears. Never any damn tears.


Later that night, Janna, hoping Oma had gone off to the university, went looking for food. Oma hadn’t. She sat at the kitchen table, bent over a tablet.

Janna waited for the explosion. But Oma just motioned towards the fridge and said, “I’ve left some dinner in there for you. Heat it for two minutes.”

Part of Janna was disappointed. She wanted Oma to get mad. To ground her, or forbid her to go to the beach. That would prove it was true that everybody hated her.

Dinner was rice and carp drenched in chili sauce. One of Janna’s favorites. The carp came from a farm somewhere far away. Janna had never been anywhere outside town. She’d never had any desire to travel, either. Not anywhere on land, anyway. When she sat down Oma said,

“Would you like to be home-schooled?” Janna thought it over.

“Maybe.”

“I haven’t wanted to in the past, because I think it’s wrong to isolate you from everybody else. Everybody needs social interaction, even if it’s difficult. Plus, I haven’t had the time. But I’m only pulling half hours at work at the moment, and will be until I get funding for a few other projects. We could trial it.”

“I wouldn’t have to see Cindy or the other kids?”

“No. But you wouldn’t see Kevvie either.”

“He’s not allowed to be my friend anyway.”

“I’m sure you can still be friends with him. You just can’t take him swimming.”

“No, he told me he wasn’t allowed to be my friend.”

Oma scratched her nose. “I love you, Janna. You know that, don’t you?”

Janna didn’t reply. Instead she stuffed a spoonful of rice into her mouth.

“You’re my daughter. Maybe not biologically, but in every other way.”

“You’d teach me?” Janna asked.

“Yes. Please don’t talk with your mouth full. It makes me queasy.”

Janna opened her mouth wide and poked out a tongue covered in rice.

Oma tried to look angry, then laughed and stood.

“I love you so much.” She walked around the table and enveloped Janna in a hug. “We’ll start next week. But you don’t have to go to school the rest of the week if you don’t want to.”


Janna missed Kevvie terribly. But she didn’t miss any of the other kids. Or any of the teachers. And especially not Cindy. Oma had a tendency to go into too much detail when she explained stuff, but she never made Janna feel stupid, and never mocked her when she got an answer wrong or missed the point.

And every day at two p.m. Oma would go down to the beach with her and watch her from under the shade tree. Janna didn’t try to persuade her to swim. But she did chuckle at the sight of Oma in shorts, her arms resting on her pasty white legs, her gray hair hidden beneath a hat so wide-brimmed the whole town surely could’ve fit under it. After a few weeks Janna stopped glancing at the top of the beach every few minutes to see if Kevvie was there.


The earthquake came entirely without warning. One moment Janna was sitting in the living room behind the coffee table which served as her makeshift desk, listening to Oma make basic algebra very complicated, the next the entire room was shuddering and bouncing. Oma’s projection board slipped off the wall and smashed on the floor. Her row of pot plants on the half-wall that separated the living and dining areas also fell and broke, spraying dirt over the rug. The lights flickered and popped and disappeared. But the thing that paralyzed Janna was the rumble. It was like the stomachs of a thousand starving beasts gurgling at once.

Oma yelled something Janna didn’t pick up and dived for the doorway. Janna didn’t move. After what had to be forever the rumbling and bouncing died down. All the windows that faced out towards the beach were shattered, and the wall rent in two. There was a crack in the roof. The smell of earth and rotten eggs made Janna want to gag. For a few moments, all she could hear was her breath, whistling through her throat. Then Oma appeared from the doorway, wild-eyed.

“We have to go. Fast.” Janna didn’t move. “Now,” Oma said, running over and tugging at Janna’s arm. “Before the tsunami comes. We have to make sure everybody knows to get to the shelter.”

Janna had heard the word ‘tsunami’ before, but only when the kids at school used it to taunt her. ‘Careful, everybody, Janna will jump in the ocean and cause a tsunami if we get her mad.’

“I’ll be okay,” she said. “I can swim.”

Oma tried to pull Janna towards the door.

“Not through a tsunami you couldn’t. Please, Janna. We have to move.”

Reluctantly, and unsure why she acted so, Janna followed Oma outside. The sun shields that protected the town had ripped and fallen in many places, long silver trails snaking across upheaved cobble courtyards and half-collapsed houses and shops. Rivers of mud oozed where there had previously been streets. The world was covered in dust. Sobbing and screaming came from some of the nearby houses, but Oma didn’t stop. She ran straight for the town hall, dragging Janna along in her wake.

The town hall was normally the only building that poked its head above the shields. It was an imperious structure, dark and severe, made from different materials to the light and breezy wooden houses everybody else favored. Janna didn’t like it. Now, a gash travelled from its spire to its base. Oma swore and dashed inside. “Stay here,” she said over her shoulder just before she disappeared.

People had begun to appear, dazed and covered in dust and dirt. Some of them bled, or held limbs awkwardly. This part of town was where most of those who worked at the university and council offices lived. It was only small, and separated from the rest of the houses by the shop district. Janna’s house hadn’t fared too badly in comparison to most of these. A lot of them were now nothing more than piles of firewood. How had the bigger houses coped, the expensive ones where people like Cindy Verhuizen and her parents lived? Janna’s lips curled back. They were probably cowering in fear, terrified because all their luxury was of no use to them.

Janna had never let her feelings bubble so close to the surface before. It gave her a weird tingle. Made her strong. She reveled in the emotion for a moment.

What about Kevvie? He lived not far from Cindy, even though his parents weren’t as rich. Janna couldn’t quite summon the sneer this time. She hoped he was okay. And his parents, too, just because he needed them to look after him.

Someone Janna didn’t know staggered up, blood dripping from his cheek, his suit covered in dust.

“Where’s Professor Klup?” he asked. He meant Oma.

“Inside,” Janna said. The man smelled of urine.

He nodded, swaying in the same movement.

“She’ll be sounding the alarm. Good.”

Just then Oma appeared from the town hall.

“Ah,” she said when she saw the man, “glad you’re okay, Greg. I’ve contacted Overton. They felt the shaking, too, but no significant damage. They’re sending rescue teams and supplies. The warning systems are offline, so we must assume the worst case scenario. We have to get everybody we can to the shelter. We’ll concentrate on this area, and take whoever we find on the way. I’ve contacted the emergency leaders in the West District and the Shops and told them to do the same. We don’t have much time, but we need to get everybody we can to safe ground. Are you able to help me with this?”

“Yes,” he said, drawing a deep breath. “Lead the way, Adriana.”


Tired, hungry and thirsty, Janna huddled in the shelter on Mount Paere with the rest of those who’d heeded the call to get to higher ground. There were no sun shields up here, and the air was thick with humidity and mosquitos. Weeds and shrubs had invaded through broken windows, and a musty scent hung in the air. Outside the shelter, the thin line of the shuttle track was the only cut in bush that stretched down almost as far as the town. Janna could barely stand the heat. Her skin itched and her neck felt like it was crushing her throat.

The ground had shaken at least three times more since they’d arrived. Only shudders that lasted one or two seconds, but every jolt had people grasping at each other, their breath turning to ragged gasps.

Even now, with everybody worried about whether another big quake was going to hit, and what was happening to the people trapped in the buildings below, nobody came too close to Janna. Except for Oma, who was quick to offer a hug when she wasn’t marching around the shelter, swearing because the generator hadn’t been maintained and the supplies hadn’t been replenished in years.

Three shuttle loads of people had come up, with most sharing similar stories of how others had refused to leave, instead deciding to focus on rescuing trapped people and salvaging what they could from the hospital.

Oma growled each time someone told her.

“Fools. They’ll pull people out just so they can get smothered by the ocean.”

But the tsunami never came. They waited in the shelter for a whole day, sleeping in uncomfortable piles on the stone floor, before finally deciding to go back down.

“You go in the first shuttle, Janna,” Oma said. “I’ll make sure everybody gets down okay. Help out where you can. They’ll be so tired and fresh muscle will be just what they need.”

The trip down the mountain seemed to take much less time than the ride up had. Janna had been given a row to herself–of course–and she spent the ride with her cheek pressed to the cool metal of the backrest. She’d had plenty of time to think in the shelter, but hadn’t been able to make sense of anything.

They were met at the first shuttle stop by a gang of exhausted people. Their clothes were all torn, and sweat glistened on every available piece of skin. When the shuttle stopped, a man stepped forward, a hardhat resting at an angle on his head. His hands were covered in scrapes and bruises.

“So,” he said, voice dripping with sarcasm, “all the prophets have finally decided to come down from their mountain, have they?”

Greg, Oma’s fellow professor, had also ridden with the first group, and now stood in the shuttle doorway. He held his hands up in a placating gesture.

“A tsunami was a very real possibility. If it had struck it could’ve destroyed everything.”

“Yeah, I bet. Meanwhile, you haven’t had to get your hands dirty like we have.” Murmurs of assent rose from behind the man.

“We’re here to help now, ” Greg snapped.

“Oh, how nice. Maybe next time you won’t follow that Klup woman as soon as she yells ‘March.’ Thinks she rules this damn town.”

Janna glared at the man. Now she recognized him, beneath all the dust and tattered clothes. Principal Weiss. What a silly little fool!

The confrontation appeared to be over, and everybody began to file wearily off the shuttle. When Janna stepped down, Principal Weiss sneered at her and appeared about to say something. But then he snorted and stalked off.

Oma had told Janna to help, but whenever she walked near someone to ask what she could do they strode away, some muttering angrily, others looking right through her. She was too tired to cry but she wasn’t too tired to be angry. She decided to go home.

No part of the town had been spared. Mansions lay like lopsided, open dollhouses, their manicured lawns torn and churned. Rivers of mud reached into some houses, like the fingers of a beast. Other houses had collapsed completely, and it was around these that people swarmed like ants, tugging at blocks and rafters and calling into the buildings for survivors.

At one point Janna saw Cindy, clad in a torn dress and clutching a teddy bear to her chest. She stared at a huge house, the front of which had caved in, displaying rooms full of broken and fallen furniture. Both her parents milled nearby, clearly unsure what they should be doing. Janna wanted to jeer, but she couldn’t work up the emotion. Right now Cindy looked just like everybody else. People who’d been pulled from building wreckage lay on trolleys. A few were in bags, but most breathed weakly, staring at the sky. People wearing medic armbands darted from patient to patient, administering fluids and kind words.

The cobbled roads, which had never seen automotive use, were treacherous, ruptured and bumpy in places, submerged in mud elsewhere. The odd bike, laden down with water bottles and medical packs, maneuvered haphazardly past, their riders ignoring the dangers to get to where they were needed. One lost control right in front of Janna, sending water bottles flying. She helped him to his feet, and he scooped up what he could, grunted thanks in her direction and took off again, blood dripping from fresh grazes on his elbows and knees.

Janna snared one of the fallen water bottles and continued towards home.

Surprisingly, the school hadn’t been badly affected. Some of the classrooms sat at slight angles, but the courtyard was intact. Teachers organized people into groups and handed out blankets. She paused for a moment and stared at the throng. She hadn’t spotted Kevvie on her travels, and worry tickled her ribs. But she didn’t see him here either and walked on.

At one point the ground trembled again, and Janna froze, not seeing anywhere she could hide. But this was only a nudge. When it passed she rushed towards home as quickly as she could.

There was hardly any activity in the streets around her house. Most of the people who lived here had gone up to the shelter, and Janna figured that the ones who’d stayed behind weren’t likely to expend much effort on these houses. Plus, Oma had done a headcount when they got up the mountain, and the only people missing were ones who had jobs elsewhere in town.

Nonetheless, Janna hurried from door to door, calling into each one and waiting to hear if there was a response. She didn’t know what she’d do if one came, but she felt she had to try.

Finally she got to her door, which hung open, rattling in the breeze. She paused there for a moment, then walked through the alley at its side to look at the beach.

If anything, the beach’s slope looked steeper than it had, but the platform Oma checked every day still stood tall and immovable, even if the shade tree beside it lurched forward at an odd angle. Water lapped gently at the shore as if nothing was wrong with the world. She looked further out towards the reef, and spotted a couple places where water churned more vigorously than usual. It must’ve suffered some damage, but not too much.

Back inside the house, the situation finally struck home. A fallen picture of her when she was five, leaning against Oma, both of them grinning like clowns, was what did it. The town was destroyed, and three-quarters of it hated Oma for no good reason. Still, Janna didn’t feel like crying. She picked the picture up and sat carefully on one of the sofa chairs, consumed by thoughts that travelled the breadths of the oceans in a single second.


She was still sitting there hours later, dozing, when Oma got home.

Bags hung from Oma’s bloodshot eyes. A couple of fresh tear trails weaved their way down her sagging cheeks. Janna jumped up and gave Oma a huge hug.

When she pulled away, Oma said, “Thank you, dear,” and stumbled over to the cabinet next to the fridge. She yanked the door open and there was a tiny pause, then she swore with more venom than Janna had ever heard before. Janna peeked over her shoulder. The cabinet was where Oma kept all her liquor, which she only touched for special occasions. All the bottles had broken, and their contents now lay in a big pool on the bottom shelf.

Oma muttered for a few more seconds, then made her way over to the sofa chair where Janna had been sitting and slumped onto it. “I did the right thing, but they can’t see it,” she said, and fell asleep.

Janna covered her with a blanket, then pulled the other sofa chair over and curled up on it, her head resting on the armrest of Oma’s chair. Within a couple minutes she too was asleep.


Neither of them left the house for the next three days except to use the tiny portable toilets that’d been set up in the nearby square. They ate from cans, rationed out their supply of emergency water, quickly ran out of candles and torch batteries, and just as quickly ran out of things they could fix or clean.

Nobody, not even Greg or anybody else from the university, came to visit. On the fourth day, just when Janna thought she could take no more, someone knocked on the door. Oma, in the middle of one of her staring bouts, didn’t move. Janna hauled herself up from where she’d been passing time piecing together a broken vase and answered the second knock. It was Greg, wearing a sheepish expression.

“Hello, Janna,” he said. “I’m so sorry I haven’t”

“What do you want?” Janna couldn’t be bothered being polite

He scratched his head. He stank of sweat and dirt. “Is Adriana in?”

“What the hell do you want, Greg?” Oma yelled from the living room.

“There’s, the, well, Overton hasn’t been able to get supplies to us because a landslide blocked the rail. So they’ve had to ferry them in by boat.”

Oma appeared in the living room doorway.

“So?”

“And it’s only a skeleton crew, and they need help unloading.” Greg looked like he wanted to disappear beneath the floor. “And, well, only Janna knows how to swim.”

“They haven’t grounded?”

“The yacht’s too big. He’s come as close as he can, and dropped anchor, but they don’t even have a rowboat, just some little pods that float if the boat sinks.”

Oma laughed, a bitter snort.

“And suddenly the town wants Janna’s help. Tell whoever sent you they can go f–”

“I’ll do it,” Janna said. Both Paul and Oma swiveled their heads to stare at her. She mightn’t like many people in the town, but she could swim, and this was a chance to show them that she wasn’t some clumsy freak, but a real person who was good at something. And it was also a way to prove that the water didn’t need to be feared. Plus, she hadn’t been swimming since the quake and she badly wanted to feel the touch of the ocean on her skin. She continued, “But I’ll need your help, Oma.”

Oma didn’t look too pleased at Janna’s volunteering. She licked her lips and said, “What do you need?”

“I can swim out and carry things back. If they’ve come close enough I probably won’t even have to swim. But I’ll need someone at the tideline to take what I give them back to the top of the beach.”

Oma nodded and squinted, both telltale signs she was attacking a problem in order to solve it. Good. “We’ll need more than me. We’ll need a chain of people stretching up to the town. That’ll make it much quicker.”

She turned to Greg, who spoke quickly. “I’ll ask for volunteers. Thank you both so much.”

He darted off and Oma snorted again. “Well, he was quick to get out of volunteering himself, wasn’t he? Are you sure you want to do this, Janna? I know I’ve always tried to be positive about people here, but they’ll probably thank you today and avoid you again tomorrow.”

Janna was already stripping down to her singlet and undies. “I want to do something else, too.”

“Oh?”

“I want us both to leave on that boat. They’re obviously not afraid of the water, and if they’re not afraid there’ll be others who aren’t too. I might be able to find some friends there. People who understand me. And you’ll be able to find friends, too. Ones who aren’t so stupid.”

Oma gave her an appraising stare, then said, “Let’s get this done first. Then we’ll talk. I promise.” Sensing that was the best she was going to get, Janna took off out the back door for the beach.

“Hold on,” Oma called. She jogged outside too, then said, “We’ll go down together, but don’t swim out to the yacht until we’ve got that line of volunteers sorted out.”

“Okay.” Janna turned. And saw the yacht. She’d never seen one before, not even in books. It jolted the air out of her lungs. Sleek and smooth, with tall masts and billowing white sails. It looked like it could skim across the water. She couldn’t take her eyes off it.

Oma had grabbed her big sunhat and sun cream. While they walked, she slathered the cream on Janna’s neck and arms. They got to the waterline and Janna looked back to the top of the beach. A huge crowd, probably most of the town who could walk, had gathered, but all stood within the protection of the sun shields. The strips that had fallen had already been relaid. “Go into the water,” Oma said, “but wait.”

Janna waded into the water and stopped when it reached her knees. Oma took up position just at the edge of the tideline. Someone from the yacht called a greeting. He wore a big smile and Janna smiled and shouted back, before turning around to look at the crowd again.

Greg was at the front, back to the beach, gesticulating madly.

For a while nothing happened. Then a skinny figure darted out from the mass and ran to the water. Kevvie! Janna jumped up and down, waving both arms. He was okay. And he was going to help!

He dashed past Oma and into the sea. He stopped when it reached his thighs, about five meters from Janna. “Hi,” he said with a shy smile. “I can stand here and take what you give me back to Professor Klup. That’ll make it easier.” Oma said, “And you’re strong enough to carry the big packages all by yourself back to me?”

His expression turned uncertain. Then Oma stepped daintily into the water, her arms held up from her sides as if she might fall. “I think two of us should be able to do the job,” she said. Then she turned and yelled up the beach, “C’mon, people, get your asses down here. Form a chain from the waterline to the top. You want what Overton have sent us? Then come get it.”

There was a moment of inactivity, before a few people detached from the crowd and started gingerly making their way across the sand. More followed and soon a thick human chain had been formed. Even Kevvie’s mother joined in.

“Go on, Janna,” Oma said. “Show them how beautiful you are.”

Janna grinned, dived beneath the water and swam to the yacht.


It took the better part of two hours to unload everything. By the time they’d finished, Janna was exhausted. She had just enough time to thank Kevvie for being so brave before his parents whisked him away to the safety of the sun shields.

Oma, still in water up to her mid-calf, grunted and said, “There’ll be some sunburns tonight, I can tell you. But damn it was worth it.”

The two of them stood in the water in relaxed silence for a minute before Janna decided to talk about the rest of her plan. Before she could, Oma said, “I think the captain of the yacht is calling you, Janna.”

The man who was waving was indeed the captain. He’d introduced himself as such when Janna swam to the boat, and with no suspicion or hostility either. He was tall and brown-skinned, his shoulders broad and his face open.

Janna turned back to Oma, but Oma shook her head. “We can talk in a minute, dear. I expect the captain will want to set sail as soon as possible, so it’d be best not to keep him waiting.”

After letting out a loud sigh, Janna ducked her head beneath the water and swam the short distance back to the yacht. There were handholds on the side that she could rest her weight on.

The captain leaned over the side and said, “Thanks for your help. That should keep the town going until the slide is cleared and normal rail service can resume.”

“That’s good,” Janna said. “Thank you for bringing everything in your yacht. It’s so nice.”

“Thank. Y’know, I was warned the people here had a thing about the ocean, but I had no idea it was this bad. Does anybody else swim?” “No. I’m the only one. I started teaching Kevvie, the one who was standing in the water next to Oma, a few months ago but his parents wouldn’t let him. I don’t know why they’re so afraid.”

The captain chuckled. “They probably don’t know either. People are a strange lot.”

“Yeah, tell me about it.”

The captain squinted at her, then asked, “What was your name?”

“Janna.”

“Janna. My name’s Hopo. It’s means albatross where my ancestors came from. I think it fits. Is that your Mom in the water?”

“Yeah.” Janna didn’t know what an albatross was, but she decided she liked the captain. It didn’t feel like he was trying to hide things.

“Okay.” Hopo squinted some more, then asked in a gentle voice, “Are you seaborn, Janna?”

She instantly tensed, ready to look away or even dive beneath the water, but Hopo wasn’t frowning or doing anything else that might indicate anger. In fact, his smile had the same quality to it that his question had. In a small voice, she answered, “Yeah.”

“I should’ve picked it earlier,” he said. “You swim like Rocho, one of my crew. He’s seaborn too.”

“Really?” Janna found herself looking up at the railing around the deck as if Rocho might be standing there watching.

Hopo laughed. “I take it you don’t know many other seaborns.”

“No. And everybody here hates me because I’m not landborn.”

She expected Hopo to tell her, like Oma usually did, that the people didn’t really hate her, that they just didn’t know her, and didn’t realize what effect their words and actions had. But instead he nodded and said, “I’m sorry. It doesn’t surprise me, though, judging by how they acted just now. Sometimes people aren’t just strange, but stupid as well.”

More than ever, Janna wanted to go with Hopo and the yacht. But she didn’t know how to ask. She said, “Do people everywhere hate the seaborn?”

“I’m not sure. I think some places are worse than others. There aren’t really very many seaborn around. On land, anyway. The undersea colonies are thriving, far as we can tell. Land dwellers have all sorts of weird notions in their head about the people who live beneath the waves.”

“Why? We’re still people.”

“Yes, you are.”

The boat rocked as a tiny quake hit, the water around Janna slapping her shoulders. She asked the question in a rush. “Can me and Oma come with you back to Overton?”

Hopo ran his hands along the railing. “Things might not be any easier there.”

“But there are other seaborn. I’ve never talked to anybody else like me. Do we even look the same? Do we all end up on land the same way? Why do we even exist? I want to know all these things and if I stay here I never will. I don’t think even Oma knows. And I’ll never have friends, ones who understand what it’s like to be me. I’ll be stuck forever in place.”

Hopo took a deep breath and let it out slowly, staring in the direction of the town. Janna swiveled her head, too, checking for Oma. She’d got out of the water, but stood right at the edge. Even at this distance, Janna could see the worry on her face.

Finally, Hopo said, “I can take you both, but you’ll have to get ready quick. I’m already behind schedule. I can wait two more hours, maximum.”

“Thank you,” Janna said, flush with excitement. “Thank you, thank you!”

Hopo said, “I can’t promise things will better. Please remember that.”

“They can’t be worse,” Janna said, and raced back to Oma, the exhaustion of earlier completely gone.

Oma was silent for a whole minute after Janna told her.

“You can go, Janna,” she said, “but I can’t come with you.”

“What?” Janna cried, her excitement suddenly replaced with anxiety. They were so close to escaping. “Of course you can. You can work at their university.”

“It’s not that. I–”

“You have to come!”

“Let me finish, Janna.”

Janna grumbled, but did as she was told.

“The reason I can’t come,” Oma said, “is because part of my job is to monitor the platform in case seaborn babies who can’t survive underwater are placed there. Like you were.”

Janna sagged. Nobody else in town would take on that job.

“It may never happen again in my lifetime, but if it does the baby will need to be cared for by someone who will love it. One day I’ll have to pass on that tradition to someone else. You go, Janna. I agree it’d be better for you than staying here.” “But the town…”

“They and I will get over what happened with the quake. I’ve been at odds with them before.” Oma smiled. “And if a big quake hits again, I’ll follow the same procedures as I did this time because I know it’s the right thing to do.”

“I can’t go without you.”

“Yes you can. You can come back and visit, can’t you? And we can link up across the cloud, once service is restoried. We can talk every day if you want to.”

Janna hesitated.

“Go and tell the captain it’ll just be you,” Oma said. “Tell him to take you to Doctor Greaves. She’s my contact in Overton for anything related to the sea dwellers. I’ll pack some things for you and bring them down.”

Before Janna could protest Oma began walking back to the house. Janna watched her for a few seconds, every emotion she knew swirling through her. Then she turned and looked at the yacht, where Hopo still leaned over the railing, waiting.

She waded a few meters out and ducked her head beneath the water. Everything was so clear in the afternoon light. She stared out at the reef for a while, hoping for some sort of sign, maybe even to see some of her people at the reef’s edge. Then she surfaced, embarrassed at her silliness. She’d never yet seen a sea dweller, so why should she see one today? This was a decision she had to make all by herself. Oma wouldn’t be angry if she didn’t go. She thought of Kevvie, and how he’d been so brave. Would he still be brave if she wasn’t here? Then she thought of meeting Rocho and other seaborn. Maybe she could have some brothers and sister and aunties and uncles.

She dived beneath the water again. It was time to discover who she was.

THE END

Short Stories


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