The water drummed against the bow of the Gritty Tang as she tugged her way along the western shoals.
Captain Kona stood silently at the wheel, his calloused hands responding in twitches to the pitching and lurching of the spring swells. He glanced at the mirror, and frowned at the curtain of mist that was purling over the horizon. The rains were coming. They’d promised three fingers by evening fall.
On any other day he’d have rejoiced at the sight of billowing clouds — by now he’d have been sitting out on the pontoons with Misha and the boys, washing out every vase, bucket and trough and plastic sheet they owned in preparation for the harvest; but he was on a job, a paying job, and he would have to forgo the evening’s festivities. As he set out from wharves just twenty minutes before, he’d noticed that the towers had already begun preparing: poles and plastic sheets fanned from windows and rooftops, connected by ropes and makeshift drains; from the harbour, several kilometres away, the towers looked like they had sprouted a coat of spikes.
He’d made the deal with a clear head over a drink and a slice of jellyfish, the customary promissory ritual, pledging to take the diver where he wished so long as he had the means to compensate him not only for his time and boat, but for any sky water he’d miss during the harvest. Kona knew before the diver had even approached him that every other captain along the wharves had turned the young digger down, and so he felt no shame in asking for his highest price and then some. In the end they’d agreed on two bags of black seed, one hundred and fifty silver pieces, and, most valuable of all, four bottles of fire water. Kona had requested to inspect the bottles before committing, to ensure that he wasn’t getting the locally distilled stuff, which tasted like weed and salt, and was pleased to find that they were indeed the original artefact, sealed by time and hard algae, and still bearing the famed and faded yellow and red labels.
From the south, the first deployment of rain catchers had launched from the inner quays—within the hour there’d be fleets about the harbour, wings spread to the skies like giant petals. The Union security wouldn’t be far behind, and soon their dart boats would be ringing the harbour like flies over a pool of fish drippings, compounding any vessels which trespassed their catchment perimeters. Kona had had a his fair share of encounters with Union security — when he’d been caught dropping crab nets too close to restricted zones, or failing, by a matter of minutes, to declare artefacts within the two-hour period — but never had he provided passage to an illegal diver. It was the greatest risk he’d taken in all his forty-five years on the harbour. That the crime of unauthorised digging (and being an accessory to it) carried the death sentence didn’t disturb Kona as much as the thought of losing his precious boat. The Gritty Tang, no matter how close she was to disintegration, was his only means of survival; without her he couldn’t fish, and without fish he and his family would starve.
Kona tapped on the radar display and squinted at the screen. Something big had registered underneath them. Something metal.
“We’re moving over Iron Cove,” he called, and stomped on the wheelhouse floor.
Two black eyes appeared at the door, followed by the lanky frame of a young man dressed in a patchwork diving suit. There were several algae-covered tubes running down the sides of his arms, and a pressure gauge strapped to his wrist. Around his waist he wore a thick, leather belt decorated with lead weights. But it was the lower part of the digger’s left leg, or lack of it, that caught Kona’s eye. From the man’s knee, where his shin would have been, two metal rods, as thick as whale harpoons, extended and joined to an artificial foot made of some form of ceramic.
“You said to tell you when we got to Iron Cove Bridge,” Kona said and nodded to starboard at the long, dark shadow in the water. The digger ignored him and went over to the harbour map that was pinned to the back wall of the wheelhouse.
“Well, we’re here. Now what? The catchers are pullin’ out something hasty. The weather took even them salted buggers by surprise. We’ve probably got a good twenty minutes before they head our way.”
“I won’t need more than fifteen,” the digger said quietly. “Ten, if the place is still intact.” He tapped on the map. “When you get to the end of the Bridge — here — head north-east for a kilometre.”
“I’d best be throwin’ out some line soon. Or a few traps. We’re supposed to be out here on the catch after all.”
Captain Kona shifted his stance. The winds had picked up and were blowing white crests across the boat’s course. He’d been fishing for bugs out this way before, but never in such gusty conditions. Should I be worried? he thought. Dozens, probably hundreds of such dives went down every week, from the back of fishing trawlers, container ships, row boats… even around the main city blocks themselves, and there had been hardly been any reports of boardings, at least in the last few months. He was worried, but determined not to reveal it to the digger. Kona drew a plastic flask to his lips and watched as the digger drew lines around a point on the map.
“May I ask what we’re after?” Kona asked.
“No,” the digger said.
“Well… it’s just that, seeing as it’s my boat and all…” Kona held out the flask but the digger stared it down. “Kinda makes us, partners, don’t it? Gives me right to know.”
The digger shook his head. “Just a little further,” he said, and moved over to the scanner. “There’s a water tower. Here. That’s the drop point.”
“Digging for water are we?” Kona steered the boat to the location the digger had indicated, and pulled the lever to drop anchor. “That would be a fine day, when we could drink our fill from the Deep. I’d miss the fall parties, but I’m sure we’d think of some other excuse. Not much stops the northerners from opening up the hatches and puttin’ on a festive diversion.” The digger ignored Kona and rifled around in his bag. “You’re from the north, aren’t you, boy?”
“I could tell. You know how? You got that thirsty look about you. You’re all sinew and cartilage, like the insides of a shark. Tough — that’s how we’re made, us northerners, as tough as sharks. And we keep swimming, don’t we? No matter how hard the towers try to squeeze us dry.”
“We’re nothing like sharks,” the digger said. “And you and I are nothing alike.”
Kona clicked his tongue in mock disappointment. “Look, son. I don’t want a cut, I’m just interested, that’s all. I’m an old salt. I’ve been trawling this harbour since before you fell out of your mother’s sack, and I wouldn’t have guessed there was anything left worth digging for down there.”
“There’s not,” the digger finally said. “You’ve already been paid for the transport. All I need is for you to wait for ten minutes, haul me up then take me back to the pontoon before midday. Got it?”
“We’re not partners.”
“Okay, I was just askin’. Sorry for showing an interest.”
The digger sighed, then pulled a metal box from his gear bag and set it on the dash panel above the wheel. There was a rectangular glass screen at the front which buzzed into a grey static. As he fixed his bulky goggles to his face, the screen flickered a few times then displayed an over-exposed and shaking video of the wheelhouse.
Kona blinked. “What’s this?”
“I’ll be recording,” the digger explained. “You can watch if you’re interested, although I doubt there’ll be much to see.”
“Recording? Making a movie are you?”
“Something like that. I record all my dives.” Behind the grim expression, Kona detected a hint of mischievousness, and his opinion of the thin boy, who refused to reveal his name, not even a fake one, softened.
“Bit risky ain’t it? Havin’ all that evidence lying around?”
“Not for you.”
“Let’s hope not.”
“If we get any heat,” the digger continued, “buzz me by pressing the button on the side. You won’t be able hear me, but I’ll hear you.” He slipped on his gloves, then connected the tubes to a flat, rectangular tank, which he strapped around his shoulders like a backpack. He tied a cloth dive bag around his neck. “I won’t be any longer than ten minutes.”
“What if you are?”
“I won’t.” With a quick snap the digger disconnected his artificial foot and in its place, fitted a bottle-sized cylinder, which began to hum, as if something inside it was spinning. Kona gazed at the contraption and scratched his beard.
“It’s a mini-turbine,” the diver said finally. “Helps me get around.” He hopped out of the wheelroom and slid down the ladder to the deck.
Kona released the anchor and shuffled out the door after him. The sheets of rain had almost hit the city, and were now sweeping towards them. It would be a matter of minutes until the storm that was propelling them followed.
“I’ll just throw a few pots then,” Kona called out, but the digger had already disappeared over the edge of the boat.
After setting up a few crab pot and casting them over the side, Kona hurried back to the wheelhouse, filled up his canister and pulled up a seat in front of the screen. The image was shaky, but he was amazed at the clarity of the broadcast; he could see each bubble, each streak of weed as the digger dove down into the dark green. A smooth strip of tar indicated the digger had already reached the bottom and was cruising along at street level as swift as sea snake. Kona made out shapes of cars, street signs, concrete blocks and sheets of metal; he moved closer until his nose was almost touching the screen. He’d seen the old streets and the piles of land vehicles, the roofs of the old apartment buildings and other old world artefacts in pictures, observed their shadows in the shoals, but never had he looked upon the Deep through such a clear window.
The image grew dark as the digger adjusted something on his suit, then it turned suddenly to reveal a wall mottled with pink lichen. Tiny marine creatures surged at the lens as the digger dove and sped under a collapsed tree. Clouds of sands rose up from the floor, and once again the image grew dark. As the sand settled, the monitor revealed a façade of crumbling brick behind a forest of weed. Dark shapes, rectangles, barred windows. The digger sailed to a door and gripped the frame with one hand, while the other wedged a metal rod between a recess. After some shaking, the door fell silently from its hinges. A light spread from a point behind lens and the camera floated into the gloom.
The room had low ceilings, its walls sagged slightly inwards, as if the building was on the verge of collapse. Filing cabinets were scattered across the floor, a bookshelf stood upright in the corner still filled with blooms of rotting books. Against the rear wall stood a low counter and several blackened boxes wrapped in cords. The digger wasted no time exploring: he manoeuvred behind the counter, and immediately began chipping away at the flaking wooden panels underneath, causing an explosion of fragments and bubbles with every blow. At the third panel, the rod fell from view and two fists appeared in front of the lens. There was the unmistakable flash of teeth, and an eye, black and small… something alive. It blasted across the screen. The camera shook. Kona leapt from his seat, then scolded himself for his cowardice. Outside, the rain had started to fall. He took a swig from the canister and returned to the monitor. It was then that he saw the familiar set of fins, the thrashing tail and the tell-tale spotted pattern. The eel glided away and digger collected the rod, and removed the rest of the wooden panels. Through the strands of weed and ocean static, Kona could not see the object that the digger held. It was a case of some sort, with hard edges, dark and long. The digger pulled a length of white tube from his belt and pressed it onto the case, then he pushed himself from the wall, over the counter and back to the entrance.
“What are you doing?” Kona muttered to himself.
The sharp bleat of a siren tore him away from the screen.
“No, no, no!”
He scrambled to the wheelhouse door. A dart boat was skipping over the swell, speeding in his direction. Kona raced to the monitor and pushed the alarm button, then fell to the floor to make sure the storage units, where he’d stashed his payment, were locked and secure. By the time he’d made it down the ladder to haul in the pots, the pointy stern of the security boat was already jutting into the side of his trawler.
A guard in the blue coat of the Union walked to the nose of vessel, and swept his gaze up and down the Gritty Tang. Another stood in the cockpit, scanning the surrounding waters through a set of binoculars. Kona had seen one of the men before, though he didn’t know his name. He pointed to his cages and offered the guards a relaxed smile. “Looks like I’ll be going hungry tonight,” he yelled and shrugged.
The rain had caught up with them and Kona raised his mouth skywards and let a few drops fall into his mouth. Somewhere beyond the heads, lightning flashed.
“What are you hunting today, Kona?” the man at the nose of the security boat said.
“Bugs. Not much about though.”
“Bugs, huh?” The guard turned to his partner, who was still combing the choppy sea. “See any bugs, Perrot?”
“No bugs,” Perrot said.
“Anything else?” the guard said, and rested his hand on the holster strapped to his leg. “Anything with two legs?”
Kona felt his lungs drop to his stomach and his fingers turn stiff. “I was just about to turn in. Beat the storm.”
“I think that would be a good idea,” the guard said. “Why don’t we escort you around the catchers?”
“Oh, no, there’s no need-”
“It’s not a problem, is it, Perrot?”
“Not at all,” the other guard said and let the binoculars drop to his chest. “We’ll take you right up to the city docks.”
Right up to the city docks. That meant a search. They’d go through his ship, rake through his maps, and pull apart the entire deck if they felt like it.
“No, no,” he said quickly. “Not necessary, thanks anyway. I was actually on my way home, I was. Northern blocks. Sharp colony.” Kona moved over to the other side of the boat and began hauling up the anchor by hand. From the corner of his eye he saw a shadow move across the starboard side. He cast his gaze downwards and saw two black eyes stare up at him from the water. “You can follow me up there if you like,” he shouted.
As the two guards conferred, Kona moved down the edge of the boat, whistling and pretending to wind the anchor. The digger was treading water. Around his neck the cloth bag bulged and stretched and hung in the water like a weight.
“Throw me a line,” the digger hissed from the water.
Kona shook his head and kept whistling.
“Throw me a line!”
The fisherman glanced over his shoulder; the two guards who were still talking. “The bag. Gimme the bag.”
The digger shook his head. “Not until I see a rope.”
“Throw me the bag and I’ll lower a rope. I’d say you’ve got about ten seconds to decide before they start to get suspicious. Your choice.”
The digger spat into the water. He untied the bag from his neck and tossed it over the boat’s ledge, where it landed with a wet thud on the deck. Kona kicked it under a pile of netting, then turned to the digger.
“I can’t let you on board. They’ll see you,” he whispered.
“Everything okay, Kona?” one of the guards called out.
“Yeah, just pullin’ the last of the traps. I knew it — damn things are all empty.” Then, to the digger he whispered,“I can’t let you on board. They’ll see.”
“Let me up!” the digger hissed. “They won’t see if we stick to this side.”
“No!” Kona raced back to the bridge and started the engine.
“Lead the way then,” the guard said. “We’re right behind you.”
Kona turned the boat towards the harbour, the dart boat following soundlessly at the rear. His hands were steady, and he steered the Gritty Tang in a straight line, trying not to push her too hard, all the while hoping that the mad digger wasn’t tagging at his side. He arched around the harbour and turned north, and for a full twenty minutes, he thought nothing but of his wife and son, and how he would hold them and not let go as soon as his boat hit the northern wharf. Without looking behind him, Kona waved out the side of the wheelhouse to indicate to the guards that he was exiting the harbour and going home. When he finally checked his mirrors, he saw that the Union boat was no longer tailing him, but had turned back a hundred metres or so towards the city.
He tooted his horn as he passed under the arch leading into the northern district, and few old salts, already having claimed their position on the sprawling chains of pontoons, whistled and waved. The rain was coming down harder, and Kona could not help but smile at his fortune; he’d won not one, but two bags of treasure – his pay, and the digger’s haul – and he’d be back home in time to celebrate the fall with his family.
The Gritty Tang hit the pylons, and Kona shut down her engine. He checked his payment, and decided to take the seed and coin with him, and collect the bottles of fire water after the festivities; at least for the night until he could find a safe place or a buyer for it. He hated to have to leave such valuable items in the boat unprotected, but he had no choice. He threw the digger’s monitor and false let into the storage compartment, which he locked, then went to rope up the Tang and inspect the bag he’d won from the digger. It was heavy, and when he jangled it front of him he heard the sound of glass or metal — coins perhaps. He imagined a handful of jewels and gold coins. Although it was rare, it had happened before that diggers had uncovered huge hauls of treasure in suburban dwellings and other areas which had not yet been claimed by the Union. His heart thumped. He raced around the deck one last time checking for signs of the digger, in case he had, despite the security escort, managed to hold on, but there was no sign of him. Kona chuckled and shook the bag one more time. Just one look, just a peek. He could be holding a new dwelling in his hand, top floor even, or a new boat, or even a tank. He loosened the string and turned the bag over into his cracked hands. The objects jingled around in his palm, sharp and shining: glass shards, bottle caps, sand, and some grey pebbles. He threw it and the bag into the sea, and swore. He would take the bottles up to the tower with him, he decided now; if he was going to get drunk, he wanted, for once in his life, to do it in style.