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Table of Contents
- Title Page
- Introduction: Resisting Acclimation
- Invasive Species By Amanda Baldeneaux
- The God of the Sea By Barakat Akinsiku
- Plasticized By Kathryn E. Hill
- The Drifter By J.R. Burgmann
- The Lullaby-Dirge By Mason Carr
- Driftless By Scott Dorsch
- Galansiyang By Sigrid Marianne Gayangos
- Those They Left Behind By Jules Hogan
- Redline By Anya Ow
- Field Notes By Natasha Seymour
- About the Contributors
- Honorable Mention: 2020 Semifinalists
By Anya Ow
Morning dawned hungry against the loud whine of the Swarm. Kwok kept his breathing even as he paddled through the lingering fog of insectile bodies, mosquitoes landing restlessly over the orange weave of his envirosuit and stabbing their mouthparts experimentally against the seams. Kwok noted the colour of their spots and relaxed even as his EzLink cuff scanned them. This Swarm wanted blood, but they weren’t Carriers.
Waterpoint rose gracefully out of the limpid water in a morning made silver by mist and haze, the spherical above-water face of the settlement winking at him through the grey miasma. The humid heat was gathering fast. Kwok’s suit stuck to his skin as he paddled past the outer containment perimeter, the poles of blue light that rose from the water at uneven intervals occasionally buzzing as they electrocuted mosquitoes that ventured too close. The water around their bases was thick with the silvery bodies of greedy fish, flickering over the grey panes of submerged solar panels. It wasn’t a foolproof solution for any of the settlements, but it cut the Swarm down to just the hungriest few as Kwok paddled over to the pier.
Kwok didn’t waste energy trying to shake off the bodies crawling over his suit, mooring his canoe by the concrete pier and hauling his panel-plated pack onto his back. Pushing his EzLink cuff through the access slot by the service door, Kwok waited for the low hum of approval that would grant him guest access to the settlement for half a day. Long enough to deliver his package of vaccines and bathe, sleep, eat.
The service door slid open. Easing his hand out of the slot, Kwok walked toward the decontamination room out of habit and froze up as a tall person in an envirosuit ducked out. The visor slot of their filter mask pressed against browned skin. Dark eyes crinkled in amusement as Kwok recognised the newcomer with a gasp.
“Kwok. You’re damn early. As usual.”
“Rai. Heading out?” Kwok said, surprised. In a couple of hours or so, it was going to get too hot: hot enough that it meant death for any human exposed when combined with the heavy humidity. Besides, Rai wasn’t a packrunner—she was the Commander of Waterpoint’s Internal Security.
“Yah. Got a Code 180-A.” Rai looked Kwok over. “Was hoping you’d come with, if you aren’t too tired.”
“A 180-A? Out where ah? Khatib Control didn’t mention it.”
“Doubt they would’ve. It only just got called in. Thought I’d wait till you got here since you’ve been to where it’s at before. If we paddle hard, we’d get there before Redline.”
Kwok pursed his lips. The Redline—when it got too hot to be safe for humans—was in two hours. At peak humidity and temperatures above 35ºC, unprotected people died. “Then what? Is this place underground?”
“Not really. I don’t know, you’d know better.”
“Cannot wait for nightfall?”
“You know a 180-A can’t wait. It’s a medical emergency.”
Kwok met Rai’s stare evenly. “It’s one emergency. It’d turn into three if we don’t have sufficient cover in two hours.” Kwok had been packrunning in the deadly world that his city had become for years. He knew better than to expect miracles.
“I’m willing to take that risk. You can come with me or head into Waterpoint. It’s up to you.” Rai started to walk around the pier to the storage rack against the entry point.
Kwok grabbed her elbow. “Wait. Where’s this Code?”
“Hailat. That’s an Orange Zone, the last I heard. Mosquitoes would be the least of our problems.” Unexploded devices from the Southeast-Asian Theatre in the Resource War still slept uneasily in all the then-military districts.
“You’ve been there before. Several times.”
“Only to the fringe and back, to retrieve any packages blown off course. During the night.” Kwok shivered. “I’ve had a few close shaves.”
“If you’re afraid, don’t come.” Rai tugged her arm out of his grip. “I can go by myself.”
“Who’s out there? One of your officers? Why?”
The question burned Rai’s determined bravado out of her—her shoulders slumped as she rubbed at her shoulders, frowning under her mask. “My sister. She … I don’t know what she was thinking. It sometimes happens in the settlements. Even one as big as Waterpoint. People feel like they’re trapped. She said she was going to the surface for some fresh air and she didn’t come back.”
Hell. “I’m sorry, Rai.”
“It’s not too late yet. And don’t waste your breath if you’re not going to help me. I’m not interested in thoughts and prayers.” Rai jerked her thumb behind her. “That’s the only thing that everyone was willing to give. It won’t do Sara any good.”
Kwok looked longingly at the access door down to Waterpoint and squared his shoulders. “Get in my canoe. It’d be faster than yours, and I know the quickest route to the Park.”
“I …” Rai gripped his shoulders when Kwok gestured at the canoe. “Thank you. Thank you.”
“Save your breath.” Kwok patted Rai’s wrists. “You’d need it for paddling.”
The Aerospace Park had been one of the last set of above-ground structures built before the Resource War, and rising tides had radically changed how Singapore approached construction. Half of it was still above water, built on reclaimed land shored up with concrete embankments along the border. The seawall hadn’t amounted to much in the end: it was a final spectre of humankind’s defiance in the face of the inevitable. Singapore had weathered rising seas, thick smog swept down from neighbouring countries, and the Resource War—but it had been the heat and humidity that had driven the Lion City underwater. The Merlion—the half-lion, half-fish creature that had long been Singapore’s mythical mascot—had been a prophetic choice.
Kwok moored the canoe against a stairway cut into the concrete. “This is as far as we can paddle,” he said. There was another canoe moored close by. Good sign—Rai’s sister had come this way.
Rai projected a map of the Park against the wet concrete, absently batting away the resident Swarm that settled over her visor. Blue lines of light picked out the airfields, hangars, control towers, and administration blocks. The orange blip on her map was in one of the hangars. “You don’t look happy,” she said.
“We’re going to have to run if you want to make it there before the Redline. Which will make us sweat and warm up. And I’m not sure of the ground. Or of how we’re going to get to adequate shelter after that. The hangars and the airfield section will get very hot, very quickly.”
“So we run,” Rai said, taking the stairs up two at a time. She paused at the top as Kwok stared at her. “Come or stay; it’s up to you.”
Grumbling under his breath, Kwok hauled himself up the steep stairs. The sun was inching higher into the sky, blanketing the asphalt and concrete face of the Park with shimmering heat, distorting the air itself. The Swarm eased away as Kwok followed Rai into the shimmer, the ground already hot under his boots, his breath steaming up his visor despite the solar-powered intra-suit circulation. Rai muttered something inaudible over the comms and broke into a loping run.
Gods, the heat. It baked up at them from the ground, a constant aching compression of blistering air. Why had Sara come to the Park? Kwok’s questions burned away unsaid in the sticky heat, his suit slithering against the sweat-slicked skin beneath. Kwok’s panting was over-loud in his ears, and he grew light-headed and dizzy as he followed Rai past towers and blocks and rusting machinery. Heat-drunk, Kwok wouldn’t have cared if he’d accidentally triggered any unexploded ordinance. First, it became too hot to care; then it became too hot to concentrate. Before him, Rai stumbled. Kwok forced himself forward before she fell onto her knees and righted her with a touch. They leant against each other as they slowed into a jog, gasping, drowning on land.
Kwok checked his cuff. Max humidity. The temperature was 33ºC and climbing, a few degrees away from Redline. He jerked forward on sheer ingrained panic and Rai stumbled with him, nearly pulling them both to the ground. Somehow they managed a final burst of speed, jogging and staggering over the asphalt against jagged shadows cast by dead machinery. There—a service door, freshly pushed open, judging by the marks left against the dust and debris. Rai pulled them both in, breathing in ragged gasps.
The temperature within the hangar was a couple of degrees lower, but it didn’t feel like much. They spent a few minutes catching their breath, wheezing and leaning against a prefab wall. As Kwok’s wrist cuff continued to ping him anxiously about the temperature, he managed to lift his head for a slow look around them.
The small hangar had an office at the back and sections of machinery and workbenches that Kwok couldn’t make out against the light from the door. As Rai closed it behind them, their envirosuits lit up automatically from bars at their throat and wrists, tossing dim blue light against the sole occupant of the hangar. The bulbous grey aircraft squatted in the dust, its primary wings two circular rings within which silver blades sat forever quiet. Age had turned the bar of glass over its nose and along its flanks opaque. An access ramp fed from under its belly to the dust, and a row of prints led in an uneven line from where they were to the ramp.
“Sara,” Rai said. They moved together to the ramp. It felt like the air was getting hotter as they walked, flailing through the musty air and tripping over themselves as they stumbled up the ramp. A figure in an envirosuit lay slumped in the cockpit, her wrist cuff beeping loudly against her outstretched arm.
“Sara!” Rai pushed away from Kwok with a sob. Kwok staggered back and fell into a seat against the warm flank of the aircraft, slumping down gratefully as Rai touched her wrist cuff to her sister’s and gently shook her shoulder. “Oh Gods, Sara. Why?”
“It’s going to get too hot in here soon,” Kwok rasped.
“I … yes. We’re going to have to carry her out.”
“That was your plan?” Kwok said, too incredulous and heat-sick to be angry. This wasn’t the Rai he knew, the meticulous, by-the-books boss of Internal Security. “We’re too close to the Redline outdoors, even if we could somehow drag her back to the canoe without collapsing. We have to find shelter underground. We—”
“Rai?” Sara whispered.
“Sara. I’m here. I’m right here.” Rai grasped her sister’s hand. “You’re safe now. We’ll get you home.”
Sara let out a loud laugh. “You shouldn’t have come. But I knew you would. Leave me. I’m already dead. I just wanted to come here to say goodbye to my girl.”
“That’s not true,” Rai said fiercely.
“I was bitten by a Carrier, Rai. The fever will melt me alive from the inside. I’d rather end it here.” Sara stroked the dull console before her lovingly. “I still remember what it was like to fly this old girl.”
Kwok dragged himself over to the sisters, supporting himself with a palm against the flank of the aircraft. “It’s too late to leave,” he said, checking his cuff. “Even if we aren’t carrying Sara, it’d take us more than an hour to get back to Waterpoint.” An hour in the Redline was the human limit for survival—an hour and a half, maybe, in envirosuits.
“I guessed that she was going to come here,” Rai said, leaning a hip wearily against the console. “No, my plan wasn’t to carry Sara out immediately.” She pulled the pack she carried off her shoulders, settling it carefully on the deck and unzipping it. “I have a battery. If we hook it up to the aircraft, we might be able to juice up its battery briefly. Enough to kickstart its air recyclers for a few hours.”
Enough to get them all past the Redline. “Sorry I doubted you,” Kwok said.
“Don’t thank me yet.” Rai struggled to haul the battery out of her pack, then she glared at Sara. “Well? Aren’t you going to help? This is your baby, isn’t she? Don’t you want to see her wake up, even if it’s for a short while?”
Sara chuckled helplessly, closing her eyes. “Damn you, sister.”
It was touch and go, even with Kwok’s years of experience as a packrunner, spent jury-rigging and repairing gear out of cobbled-together scraps whenever needed. They scavenged cables and tools from the machines and workbenches in the hangar under Sara’s feverish direction, dismantling part of the belly of the plane to access the large battery beneath. The aircraft stayed dark as Kwok and Rai limped back into its belly, dizzy from the heat. Their wrist cuffs were both in the red, beeping angrily.
Sara was straight-backed in the pilot’s chair, muttering to herself as her hands flew over the flight controls. “Come on, girl,” Sara whispered to the aircraft. “Just one more time, baby. One last time. Let me say goodbye.”
Rai collapsed into a seat against the hull. Somehow, Kwok managed to stay upright. “Maybe the battery wasn’t enough. I could check the workbenches for something else,” Kwok said, even though it would be hopeless. Scavengers would’ve carried away anything easily portable, risking unexploded ordinance. Something as useful as a generator or a battery would’ve fetched a high price in any settlement.
“No time.” Rai looked up at Kwok, exhausted and calm. “Sorry.”
“Don’t be.” Kwok sat down opposite her, leaning his head against the hull. “Regret is pointless. You’re a good friend, and in my old age, I don’t have many of those.”
“You’re not that old,” Rai said, though she chuckled wetly.
Kwok shook his head, gesturing weakly at Sara. “Go. Talk. We don’t have much time left.”
“We—” Rai flinched as Sara crowed in delight.
“Yes … yes! Lady, I knew I had it in you!”
The aircraft hummed to life, pale streaks of line banking on along the ceiling and against their feet. The ramp rumbled as it began to close up, the flight controls projecting holograms of data in blue light above Sara’s palms. And—blessed Gods—the air recyclers kicked in, cold air wafting down over their heads. Slowly, the wrist cuffs eased away from red to orange. Kwok hung his head with a laugh, too weak from heat exhaustion to do much else.
Sara ran her hands lovingly over the console. “I remember the last time I flew. Blue skies—blue as far as I could see. Our beautiful city, swallowed by water and stifled by the heat but still alive, still proud. We’d killed the world we knew, but we were going to find a way to live on anyway. It felt pointless. I wanted to fly until the battery gave out, but I turned back.”
“Some of the others didn’t,” Rai said. She staggered over to her sister and threw her arms around Sara’s shoulders. “I was there.”
“I know. Watching from the airfield. My baby sister. Knowing you were there made me turn back early. It wasn’t all pointless. Not while we still breathe.” Sara squeezed Rai’s arm. She looked over tiredly at Kwok. “Packrunner. There should be enough of a charge to tide us over to the evening. Can you get my sister back to Waterpoint safely?”
“I was asked to bring you back safely,” Kwok countered, leaning back against the hull and folding his arms. “Packrunners don’t leave jobs unfinished.”
“There’s no need. Didn’t you hear? I’m dying,” Sara said.
“Swarm Fever isn’t instantly—or always—fatal.” Kwok nodded at Rai. “Your sister refused to give up on you. I think you shouldn’t be so quick to give up on yourself. And like you said—it isn’t all pointless. Not while we still breathe.”
Sara stared at the flight controls, reaching out with shaky fingers to run her hand through a hologram, tense with longing. She exhaled, her hand dropping, turning to hug Rai back.
“Sorry about the trouble,” Rai said as she saw Kwok off at the pier, a new package in the belly of his canoe.
Kwok snorted. “Don’t be. I know you’re not. How’s Sara?”
“No change since we got back, but our doctors said they might be able to synthesise something from the new vaccines you bought.” Hope rode harshly in Rai’s tone. “If that works, I owe you double.”
“No need lah. Buy me a drink when I’m next in Waterpoint, and I’ll count us even.” Kwok shook Rai’s hand firmly and got into the canoe, paddling out. He looked back once at the ring of blue-lit poles, waving at Rai as she waved back. Taking in a slow breath, Kwok paddled out into the Swarm, ignoring the small black bodies that whistled their hunger to him as they settled over his shoulders and helmet. He had a long way ahead.