More Sea Than Tar

My father thinks it’s a good idea to row through these floods. To move a paddle and be above the water, finally in control of our bodies—that is to say, not drown.

But sooner or later, we’re all going to fall, because we can only stand so tall before we’re sinking: to our legs, to our knees, to our torsos, to our heads. Till there’s nothing left and we breathe in particle dust and water that draws too much like ogbono soup. Water that’s mixed with the leaves and the soil and the garbage I didn’t throw away properly. Water that isn’t water.

So I can indulge this feeling my father has. I can understand these spur-of-the-moment decisions when we’ve been waiting so long for the promise of dry land and all the water wants to do is rise.

He’s always been the person with big ideas, weird reasoning. The person who suggests this over family dinner with a fire in his eyes, demands it while he paces around the room, hooked on the lust of his dreams.

“No,” my brother says, pulling him back down to earth. Joseph, who helps provide for the family with Mummy, who’s friends with important people. “Why would we do that?”

To our feet, to our ankles, to our ribs, to our throats . . . .

Haven’t you ever wanted an adventure out on the open sea?” My father laughs, pacing around the room. We move with him, our steps familiar as we trail the blue carpet back and forth. That’s how we make the food digest.

“It’s not an open sea,” my mother adds before going back to her food. She never takes sides on these ideas, just points out the most clear information.

“Figuratively,” my father counters, shooting her a deadpan look before returning to my brother, who folds his arms and raises an eyebrow.

“Okay, okay,” my father laughs, taking a deep breath. “Facts. You just want facts. We can’t drive a car in these times. Even using those suction shoes that help you stay on walls are dangerous if you lose enough friction or don’t come into contact with any buildings or places you can stick yourself to. With my idea we can actually start to get more work done again, you know. Look at us, not knowing much about what goes on outside this community . . . . We can’t live this way.”

“Mummy,” Joseph asks. “What do you think about all of this?”

“I think your father already has the canoe,” she says, leaving her plate of unfinished food on the table, then walking up to her room.

“And,” my father continues. “Once I start making money again, we could get a small ship or . . . you know, something more feasible.”

I shrug. The rain outside makes my body run cold; I can actually hear the floods swishing all around us through our thin walls.

Thin enough for the ceiling to give out above where I stand, water splashing through. It soaks me so much that my clothes are see-through, stuck on me while my teeth chatter. Joseph runs into the kitchen to get a bucket and a mop. He cleans up and I go to my room to change into a fresh pair of clothes.

The rush of water persists and the container under the hole is half full in the minute I take to dry off and come back.

“Get up early tomorrow so we can go in the morning,” my father says, scrolling through his phone, relaxing in the comfiest chair.

“Go?” I stutter, running the towel through my hair.

“Out in the open,” he says, smiling with plaque-filled teeth. “I heard no objections.”

I give no protests. I say no words, because when I look at all the holes in the house where the water comes through, I think that everything is falling apart, and I don’t have an answer for that.

Before we go out, my mother gives us three things: coats, umbrellas, and boots. When she’s not looking, I trade my umbrella for a spoon. Life’s more interesting that way.

Spoons are great. I used to be obsessed with them a few years back, playing with them in all their shapes and sizes. They can be drums and help dig the soil, little wheelbarrows for transporting goods. Spoons can be everything, and they remind me of a time of no fear, only adventure. Which is what I want. What I need.

We stuff all our things in huge hiking backpacks, keeping our hands free to lift the huge canoe above our heads. I hide the spoon in my pocket.

“You won’t come with us?” my father whines, frown lines unnatural to his face.

“No. My mother pushes the coat to his chest with such force that it’s like she hates his presence. She walks upstairs and slams the door shut. My father fumbles around like he doesn’t know what to do anymore.

“She’s probably in a bad mood,” Joseph says, nudging Daddy.

“Every damn day,” he mutters as he opens the door for us.

Floods of water come screaming through, thick and muddy.

Outside, each step is a promise of going under, the disappearance of our bodies under muddy reflections. Each step brings back the memory of exploring the shallow far ends of our community three months ago and seeing bloated dead bodies floating in the stagnancy. Each step is running, running while the water draws me back into its thickness, running before we’ve even started—

I go too fast. I slip on ground that’s barely solid. My head hits the water hard, breaking the surface, the impact reverberating in my skull as I go deep down under.

I can’t breathe. When I open my mouth, I get the rancid taste of sickness, of cholera and dysentery, of swallowing bugs and mosquitoes. My lungs are filling up. I can’t scream but only fall deeper into the dreariness, like weights are on my feet. My eyes widen; I can’t blink in this space, can’t do anything but die.

Strong hands pull me back to the surface and I breathe. And breathe. My chest relaxes and I vomit all the water that tried to enter me. All the disease and sickness that ever touched my tongue, the pollution and sand and ugh. I still don’t feel right. I still can’t live right.

“What the hell just happened?” My father shouts. He grabs my shoulders.

Don’t touch me, I want to say, because my knees feel weak and his body weight only feels like it’s pushing me down, taking me back to the deep.

“This was a bad idea,” Joseph spits, shaking his head, “I think we did our best, but it’s not going to work. We’re already seeing bad signs.”

“Nooo,” my father says, holding me tighter, smiling at me, pushing the canoe to my chest like he’s made my answer for me. “Just some bad balance. Uti, you still want to do it, right?”

“Sure,” I say, but my brother isn’t convinced, so I smile. I don’t believe myself either, but I’ve lost my sense of adventure, my sense of wonder, and I need that back. I need this idea of fantasy, that none of this will break me, because I can’t deal with it anymore. There’s nothing left to sustain me but the heartbeat in my chest, so painful and incredibly fast, palpitations upon palpitations, and I need more.

Joseph shakes his head, then tugs my arm. “We should probably go back. I’m doing pretty well with this online business of mine, and we can just keep receiving our packages and paying our bills and—”

“And I’m doing nothing!” my father screams. The canoe falls out of his hands, its full weight going into mine.

My brother grunts, arms folded, his face turned away from us. It’s eerie to watch him go limp, face slack and full of disappointment, eyes accusing. In that moment, he is exactly Mummy, and he knows my father can’t handle that.

“What?” My father starts, his face folding into lines and lines of anger, veins of temper and pain. “Is it just four years in Alaska to study IT on scholarship that made you start challenging—”

I let the canoe fall so it smacks the surface of the water. It’s enough to get their attention. I consider that a victory and raise my spoon to the sky like the hero I’m not, my legs shaking. “How about an adventure, guys?”

A world of obstacles lies ahead of us. Soon, we’re paddling out of our neighborhood, into the depths of other roads we wouldn’t dare step foot in on a normal day.

Into the mutation.

My brother starts whispering to me, clearly pissed off as he paddles. “I just think it’s silly how he just led us here to sort of soothe his bruised ego and fragile mascu—”

“Let’s keep going.” I cut him off with a smile, rowing faster, and shift away from him. I don’t want to deal with any more drama.

We enter this new place, and the smell that quickly fills our noses is a welcome, for you have been gone so long, stayed within safe parameters, and now you are out in the big open world; the stink becomes part of us within minutes. Makes our insides feel like they’re rotting and falling apart.

But in all good adventures, it is important to leave your comfort zone, so I remind myself that this is all a journey, and in the end we go back home.

I’m grateful that I can return to a community that’s not full of diseased sea creatures stalking for prey, that I stay in a place with reasonable communication and transportation services, so we can always get our food packages, pay our bills, and call our relatives. What we have right now is pretty good, is stable, is worth everything.

Other humans pass by, all of us vulnerable without solid ground.

My father, Joseph and I don’t talk. We are studying this new environment, expanding our understanding with every direction we look in.

This new community is smelly yet vibrant, loud and exciting. It’s what I’ve never seen before: vendors carrying goods on their heads with water up to their chests, chasing boats. Garbage floating around in neat little piles—some people managing to rest on top of them, the world’s pollution the newest source of transportation. People breezing by on larger vehicles than ours while afrobeats, loud and violently Nigerian, play in the background. People jumping into the water with ropes tied around their waists, latched to their boats as they repeatedly bring up trash. People splash in the water as they swim through the filth and garbage, covered in boils and scars, disease and infection.

That was once me swimming, a long time ago. With innocence and purity, during floods not as bad, my little hands trailing the depths of our community, and then outside our area, with glee on my face. Carefree. Before our family locked ourselves in one place. I remember that time and I think, who was that? Not me.

But I hope to be what I once was again.

I spot a crocodile dancing in the depths, its shadow eventually rising from the surface of the water, covered in greasy film and toxic waste. Rubbish that has . . . congealed and grafted to the animal’s skin—oh my goodness—like an infection sewn and healed onto the body. Like an operation done to make all living things abominations.

It passes by me with what looks like hunger in its eyes, and I know that somebody is going to die today. Someone is going to fall into its mutated jaws, and I pray it won’t be me because I’ve already had my dance with death today and I don’t plan on another.

To our toes, to our waists, to our shoulders, to our eyes . . . .

“Uti, you just might want to paddle away from the gutters,” says Dad.

“Huh?” I snap out of my trance, for now.

Joseph points to the lopsided car submerged between what was once a road and the verge. People are diving around it, picking it apart.

Humans are vultures, I think, the way we decompose dead machines by taking them to bits, leaving the useless parts for the earth.

We do recycling and environmental sanitation in our community every Saturday, our part in helping to fix the world. Our elected community official praises us and tells us that by sometime in the next decade, all the trash in our area will be gone.

We may not have that long.

Till our eyes can only blink in mucus and particle dust . . . .

“Why not go near the gutters?” Joseph asks. “It’s out of most people’s way.”

“The trash used to go in there a lot when there was land, so that it created a blockage. Plus, what lurks in there can easily kill us all,” says my father.

We look down and catch the shadows we haven’t noticed before. The shadows of animals merged with glass and plastic, mosquitos breeding, insects mutated by industrial waste and chemical reactions.

My brother nods like he’s actually impressed. “That’s some good looking out.”

My father rubs his hands and licks his lips, staring out into the wasteland in front of us. “This is what I’m talking about! We’re finally out of that community. We were hermits and now we’re reintegrating back into society. So, who’s ready to get to business?”

“This boat is really . . . primitive.” Joseph hits the side of the canoe and the wood groans, reminding me of the pitiful nature of our vehicle compared to the jet skis and mechanized boats, the advanced water craft that we don’t have. All the things better suited to our survival. That we lack.

“Our days are numbered,” I say.

They give me a concerned look, the we need to talk about how you’ve become so obsessed with death look.

But I don’t want to discuss that, so I change the subject. “Yeah, let’s trade.”

We get home and go our separate ways. My brother goes to work. I play chess on our spotty internet service, holding the router above my head so I can stay connected to my online opponent. They win.

I trail the slow internet. I know exactly what I want to look at.

Drowning. Horror movies where people just keep getting eaten by sharks and animals.

I’d like to want to survive, but I’ve almost given up. If I can just desensitize myself enough, maybe it will feel less painful when the inevitable happens.

No. No. I hate the way I’m thinking so I shut my laptop to try and force myself to engage. I sneak into Mum’s room but she’s too engrossed in a stuttering program about unhappy marriages. She doesn’t turn my way, her headphones blocking me out. I close the door.

I don’t actually need to deal with that. I know I’m supposed to be there for my parents, but I can’t. I need to focus on trying to stop spiralling.

So I run towards my brother’s room, desperate, thinking, where’s my adventure? Where’s the story? Where is the actual damn plot to this movie that is my life. Because all I’ve been doing is running around, watching walls collapse, waiting to die.

I burst into my brother’s room, drenched in sweat and breathing fast. “What are you doing?” I say.

He looks at me. “Are you all right?”

“What’s that on your table?” I say. I read the brochures and blueprints on his desk. “Underwater living facilities? Oxygen suits? Enhanced deep sea living experience? Decontamination pods?”

He smiles at me and his eyes catch the light. He looks so like our father that I want to listen to what he has to say, because he’s never looked this passionate about anything.

“We’re looking at a hopeful future,” he says. “Better opportunities, a higher standard of living; a life underwater, free of pollution—very far away from here.”

“In how long?” I ask, not expecting much because it’s always an estimate, always ‘in a decade’ and ‘in the near future’ and ‘many years later’. Hope is never now.

“Soon. Eventually. And I can’t tell you much because it’s just a lot of discussing with friends who are under strict NDAs, but, yeah, they might have a space for us. It’s been in the works for years. I think we’ll be fine.”

I’m lost for words but what kills the silence is the bleep in both our pockets. A text from Dad.

“We’re going out in search of meat tomorrow,” I read.

Joseph laughs. “Figures he’d try to opt out of this vegan lifestyle as fast as possible. He’s looking towards the now, survival . . . which is a perspective, I guess.”

Animal products haven’t been transporting well, and prices have risen with the water levels, so we don’t ask for them anymore. We tried fishing once but it didn’t work; the fish that do come into our area are mutated. We won’t eat them, won’t try, no matter how adventurous Daddy is.

But since we’re journeying, going out in search of things, I dream of bacon and fat running over juicy slabs of beef, the sound meat makes when it hits the pot.

We row towards the markets and vendors we saw yesterday, in the mutated areas.

We, a modest family without a proper seafaring craft, row towards a market seller, using our paddles to shove aside sticks and huge piles of rocks.

“Wetin you get?” My father starts, way too excited not to use pidgin. In our community, it’s generally frowned upon, so my father only uses it when chatting with maids from the village.

The woman pauses, hands on her lips. “We get um . . . croc, jellyfish, fish worm, bongafish, catfish—”

“Catfish!” Daddy replies too quickly, reaching into his pocket, then looking uncomfortable.

“I’ll pay,” Joseph offers, pursing his lips as he fishes for his wallet.

“I didn’t ask you to.” My father’s voice is cold. “We just want to examine the goods. Madam, let me see what you’ve got.”

The woman hands over a piece of sliced catfish that’s an unhealthy brown colour. It rolls in my father’s hands, covered in a sticky slime. Greenish-black dots grow inside its mouth. We try to peel them off but they grow back again.

Bile rises in my throat and I almost gag.

“No, na,” my father hands it back to her. “Not this one. Normal catfish wey no get all this . . . yama-yama.”

“Yama-yama? Contamination?” The woman feigns surprise, like she’s never heard that word when hello? It’s all around us. “I no sell that kind product. This one, na me spice am self. I just had to preserve am well for customer.”

“Thank you,” my father says, irritated, and throws it back to her. He whispers to us as we leave: “All we have to do is network and we’ll find someone that knows where to get good products. Someone . . . like those two!”

He points at a man and a woman collecting trash from the water, digging deep and organizing it into neat piles on their boats. The ropes around their waists are attached to the boats. My father nods in approval.

We row up to them.

Daddy puts on a smile and runs a hand through his hair. “Can you imagine? I tried to buy things from that woman and she tried to convince me that yama-yama was normal.”

“They never admit it,” the woman replies. “One time, you could even see all the glass and stone buried inside the fish the woman was trying to sell me, and when I showed it to her, she just doubled down and said ‘all na spice.’”

“Well,” the man joins in, “Nigerian hawkers are the best lawyers you could ever have.”

They share a laugh while Joseph and I share a look, shrugging and folding our arms as we watch this unfold.

The man stretches out a hand to our father. “I’m Mr. Abalaka.”

The woman goes in for a hug. “And I’m Mrs. Eneyo.”

My father smiles. “I’m David. And these are my sons, Joseph and Uti.”

We wave and greet, just enough for it not to feel uncomfortable.

Joseph shakes their hands, craning his neck to look into their boat. “That’s a lot of equipment you have there.”

I take a good look too. There are many weapons in their boat: spears, guns, nets, traps. I’m actually comfortable seeing all of that, because to me it screams protection, and survival.

“So, what do you guys do?” my father asks, his eyes wide like he’s taking notes.

“Oh, you know,” Mrs. Eneyo replies, her pleasant demeanor fading. “A lot of side-work. Helping to clear up this place, fishing work. Just . . . anything to live.”

“We take our jobs very seriously,” Mr. Abalaka adds.

“Oh yes,” my father says. “You know, my wife does actually grow some food using spores and artificial nutrients, so we could get some for you.”

Mrs. Eneyo frowns. “We already do that, but with yams and carrots and cassava, so unless you have anything else?”

“Um,” my father says, trying to recall. “I think we also have garden eggs.”

Mrs. Eneyo makes a face “Hmmm, I’m not—”

“But we can try them!” says Mr. Abalaka.

“Well, how much are they?” Mrs. Eneyo says, exasperated.

“Oh no,” my father says, laughing, settling into a comfortable position. “No price. We’d just like a job so we can have enough money to get something like that boat of yours.”

“This beauty?” Mr. Abalaka chuckles, patting his vessel tenderly. “We just like it because it runs on trash juice.”

“Unfortunately,” Mrs. Eneyo says, steering the conversation back to the point, “we don’t really know of anything at the moment. Nothing’s available. Sorry. But we could get you some fish. The good kind.”

“That would be great,” my father says. They exchange contact information. The three of them laugh and joke some more while Joseph and I sit quietly in the boat like the good children that we are, trying not to disturb them.

Eventually, they leave.

“That was fun,” Joseph yawns, stretching his arms in the air.

My father nods, distracted. He taps our arms. “Better stretch those arms well, because we’re following them.”

“Why?” I groan, rubbing my lucky spoon, feeling around its edges.

“I want to see who they give all that trash to—see if we can get some of that hustle too,” says my father.

“It’s always nice to know that trust is the one thing you can look forward to in today’s society,” Joseph says, his voice dry, his expression deadpan, but Dad ignores him.

“Probably looking out for themselves, those two, and that’s what we have to do too. Uncontaminated fish for garden eggs isn’t a fair trade, and we don’t even know if they’re going to use that as some sort of leverage later on. The way I see it, we need to get jobs so we can have good money to negotiate with. This is how we do things.”

“They could easily spot us,” Joseph sighs, grabbing a paddle.

“That is why, today, we learn of other routes,” my father says, chest out and proud. He looks happier than I’ve ever seen him, a pirate in open air.

This is the adventure I’ve been looking for, and I’m grateful that I’m here conspiring with my father, too tired to think about drowning.

To our surprise, we don’t get caught. My father makes us wait until the man and woman are some distance ahead, and then we follow slowly. We watch as they haul trash and animals into their boat.

It’s impressive.

We crack jokes and I laugh, forgetting my thoughts of death, feeling the wind in my hair, having a good time.

It’s getting dark as Mr. Abalaka and Mrs. Eneyo stop in front of a large house on stilts, wooden and sturdy despite its rotting wood. It is painted a welcoming colour of blue and green, faded and moldy.

They get out of the boat and exchange their trash and game with a woman for stacks of money. My father’s eyes widen when he sees it and he smiles like a hyena.

Mr. Abalaka and Mrs. Eyeno shake hands with the woman and get back into their boat.

We duck. Are they turning back, coming our way?

Luckily we don’t have to deal with that stress because the two of them head further down the road in the opposite direction.

We wait thirty minutes in the dark. I doze and dream of legs that stop kicking, of going underwater . . . .

I wake up. My father and Joseph are asleep. I tap my father’s shoulder and he jolts awake.

“Can we go and meet the woman they were talking to?” I ask.

“Sure, sure,” says my father, still sleepy. “Paddle! Let’s get this over with.”

I wake Joseph up and we paddle slowly towards the house. My father gets out of the boat and knocks on the door.

Nobody answers.

Dad knocks again, harder.

An old woman storms out, her grey hair in curls, her dark skin covered in powder. She is wearing a long shirt and screaming at us in a heavy Yoruba dialect, each word thick and vicious like a curse.

“Ma,” my father says, trying to placate her, but he backs away when she tries to slap him. “Please, we just came here looking for work. Any job, please, we’ll do it.”

The woman pauses for a second, thinks. “I only have two workers. They’re good, sturdy—”

“But not enough,” says my father, smiling, trying to sell her on the idea of us.

“The problem is that they keep on getting rid of everyone I hire.” She sighs, putting her hands to her chin. “You see, when I hire new people, the price goes down and their pay goes down, so . . . .”

“I understand,” my father says, and sighs. “Sharing won’t kill them.”

“Okay, look,” the woman says, yawning. “Whatever. They’ve proven themselves to be worthy of all I’ve given them, but I could be making a much bigger profit with more people. And my own employers will like having more of all these goods. So, I’ll tell you what: I won’t say anything about you guys to them. As long as you don’t get discovered, you have the job.”

“We won’t accept the offer, but thanks anyway,” Joseph spits, but Daddy only looks more decided.

“We accept,” he says, and he and our new employer exchange numbers.

We row some way in silence. Joseph and Dad’s faces are red and flushed.

“You know,” my father starts, “our house is falling apart. We have a chance here. And we’re doing so good here, that I think this could be our new life: downsized, out in the open air, near the sea—”

It’s not a sea,” Joseph corrects him, rowing faster. I can practically see the smoke rising from him, but I don’t say anything. Nothing I do will distract him.

“Metaphorically,” my father adds quietly.

“Leave me out of it,” hisses Joseph, “because my part in this adventure is done.”

Our mother is waiting for us at home. I’ve missed the classes she usually teaches me, maths and science and geometry, but I think Dad should get the crap for that. My arms ache.

Dad starts telling Mummy that she needs to increase her plant portions for her new customers, Mr. Abalaka and Mrs. Eyeno.

I follow Joseph to his room. He paces around, knocking into things. When he’s stressed and angry, he cries. The tears don’t stop running.

“If I could leave today, I would,” he says. “The underwater program’s not ready yet, so I guess we’ll just have to wait and watch our father make a fool of himself every day.”

I stay silent. My brother looks at me. Too closely, like he’s searching my soul. And I flinch, because I don’t want him discovering all the baggage inside me.

“Do you actually still want to go with Dad?”

“It’s an adventure,” I say quietly, trying to make myself believe it.

“B . . . but . . . what is wrong with you? He’s out of control. Why are you even thinking like this?”

“This house is falling apart,” I reply, my voice barely a whisper.

“We’re going to leave,” he yells. “We’re hoping for a better future.”

“Hope is never now,” I mutter under my breath.

Maybe it’s better to just float into oblivion, to row above the water till the moment I go under. Till the moment I’m nothing but fodder and infection, another rotting body in the stagnancy.

I can hear my father shouting at my mother in his room. I go out into the passage and he storms out, practically hyperventilating.

“What’s going on?” I ask, and it feels like I’m the adult and he’s the child.

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

I try again.

“Your mother doesn’t want to join us in the canoes. And your brother thinks he’s too good for us. But we, we are the ones who survive, who go the distance, who have adventures. Right?”

“Right,” I say, my voice hollow.

“I’m going to sleep on the couch,” he says. He goes downstairs.

I go into his room to find my mother. Her face is expressionless. “Is everything all right?” I say.

She gets out of bed. She drinks from the bottle of water at her bedside. “Do you know why I don’t like to say anything to your father’s ideas? He just . . . has this way of making people be the bad guy, the nag, and he sort of punishes us for it and enjoys doing so, being that person. And now that I’m silent, he hates it, because I’m refusing to engage, not playing my role. I was a little worried you were too much like him when you were growing up,” she continues. “I was afraid I was going to have two of him in the house. I almost considered leaving. But you’ve made a personality for yourself and . . . I don’t always understand you, Uti, but I think you’ll be fine.”

It’s late and I go to bed, but I can’t fall asleep in this house of broken relationships.

For a few days, I don’t join my father when he goes out in the boat. I need to process things.

When I rejoin him, my father holds me close and brings out something from his hiking bag. I shriek when I see the gun.

“It’s good,” he tells me, but his eyes look fearful. “For protection. This one can take more bullets than you’d expect. And—” He flicks a button. “It has a silencer. A silent killer. This is for some cold-blooded killing.”

“Hi there!” A voice calls out to us.

“Hide the gun,” I say. An unpleasant chill runs down my spine.

I turn to see Mr. Abalaka and Mrs. Eyeno waving at us, a little distance away, a big bubble floating in their hands full of . . . fish. Corporate companies hand out free samples of these easily disposable bubbles for storing things. We row towards them, and I feel an unbearable tension in my heart, yet my father’s happy expression forces me to plaster a thick, fake smile on my face.

We come up alongside them, and before they say anything, they pop the bubble and the fish falls into our boat. Fresh-looking, uncontaminated, pure fish.

“Oh, wow, that was fast,” my father says, too quickly, scratching his head, nervous. “We haven’t got the eggs yet.”

“Oh, hey, no, we’re not pressuring you; take your time,” Mr. Abalaka says. He laughs and waves a hand at us.

“As long as you bring it,” Mrs. Eyeno adds.

We are silent.

“How’s work?” My father asks.

I feel like shrivelling up into a ball.

“It’s good,” they say, simultaneously.

I force a chuckle, trying to look relaxed.

“We’re actually hoping for a promotion for all the good work we’ve been doing,” Mr. Abalaka says.

My father and I share a look.

“Yeah, you know, at the end of the month,” Mrs. Eyeno says, sorting a piece of trash.

“Wow, that’s fascinating,” I say. “But I actually think it’s time for us to go. Right, Daddy?”

“Absolutely. Yeah, thank you for the fish; good looking pieces of meat. We’ll get those garden eggs to you soon.”

We watch them row away, and we’re finally able to breathe.

My father looks at me and nods in approval. “Listen, that was great. Especially as I just got a text from our employer asking us to catch a crocodile. We’ll just have to stay out of their way till it’s time for us to meet the boss tomorrow.”

“Won’t they also be dropping off their goods then?”

“Oh no. Our employer changed their drop-off date. She said they were suspicious, but she thinks it’s fine because they won’t find out.”

I nod, putting all my effort into rowing the boat single-handed as we go around the markets looking for parasitic feed and hunting equipment. While my father prices and bargains, I rub my spoon. It feels like my last claim to innocence.

“Are you ready?” My father asks me, and I shrug.

We row towards the nearest gutters. I feel so different from who I was when we started doing this, now that we are throwing caution to the wind.

“So, you’ll do the luring and I’ll kill,” my father tells me, handing me a pair of high-tech binoculars. I aim them at the shadows that swim in the water, trying to identify a crocodile.

I lower the baited trap into the water. I try to breathe and relax.

“Now,” my father says, “we wai—”

The crocodile jumps aboard, snapping and angry, and almost submerges our boat. The wire trap pokes into its skin as it roars, its breath disgusting, its large teeth reaching for me. Large pieces of glass stab into the beast’s head and broken cans stick out of its body like piercings. Nylon bags are draped over this creature that is trying to eat me, and I scream and scream. I feel like my heart has stopped. Memories of my hollow existence overwhelm me as I wait for the moment I have been dreading.

Death is coming.

My father shoots it in the head, his hand steady. The crocodile jerks, spurting blood, then lies still. Daddy looks rattled, terrified, and I am a bloody mess. “We did it,” my father says.

Immediately when we get home, I storm into my brother’s room, leaving my father to hide the crocodile’s body in the garage, letting Joseph see me in all my wretchedness.

Joseph leaps up and reaches for me and wraps me in his arms. “Oh my God! What the hell happened?”

“He’s out of control,” I say. I can’t stop crying. I’m a snotty mess.

“Now will you listen to me?” says Joseph.

“No,” I say, pushing him away. “We need to help Dad. You, especially, have to be there to ground him and make sure this doesn’t happen again. We need you. Come back.”

He says nothing. I hear no objections. I believe it’s agreement.

The next morning, I worry my brother won’t show up as I wait downstairs. But Joseph does come, and I feel like I can do it knowing that he’s with me.

He and Daddy look at each other, the silence between them distressing.

But my father gives a nod of approval and we set out relaxed.

My brother lays down the law and gets Dad to put the gun away, telling him we should just concentrate on the trash after all the trouble he caused yesterday. Joseph still doesn’t look too happy, but at least my father stays silent.

Instead, Dad spends the time trying to call our employer, who isn’t picking up. The boss communicates on her terms, not ours.

I tap my brother’s shoulder just as he’s about to dive into the water again, a rope around his waist. “Aren’t you going to let me—”

“No,” he says sternly. “You’re not doing anything after what happened yesterday. Just secure the rope to the boat.”

I attach the rope in silence and just wish for this day to be over.

Hours pass.

At last, the day ends. My brother and I row over to the house on stilts, our arms sore. We wait while my father knocks repeatedly. I notice a boat sticking out slightly at the back of the house. I rub my eyes.

Mr. Abalaka and Mrs. Eyeno open the door. Their clothes are covered in blood, their hands hidden.

We freeze.

We stare until if feels as if the silence is going to kill us.

“What-t-t are you doing here?” My father stutters, doing his best to smile.

“We thought we’d rest in our new home and wait for the people who caused our schedule to change,” Mrs. Eyeno spits, then smiles.

“We got that promotion we were talking about,” Mr. Abalaka says.

My father nods, looking petrified. Joseph slowly reaches for the paddle.

“You know,” my father says, his voice too desperate as he reaches for the gun bag, “this is all a big misunderstanding.”

“Right,” they say.

They’re quick. Mrs. Eyeno has a pistol. A bullet to the head and Joseph collapses into the water. I scream as my father grabs his gun. Mr. Abalaka’s spear stabs into his gut before he can fire. He follows Joseph into the water.

Into the water, into the water; everything dead and into the water. Water red with blood.

I scramble and I scream. I piss my pants. I think, death comes, as they approach the boat. I’m so full of grief and anger and terror.

They are going to kill me. Am I prepared?

To our legs, to our bones, to our muscles, to our eyes . . . .

I reach into my pocket. I pull back my arm and stab the spoon into Mr. Abalaka’s eye.

He screams and drops his spear. Mrs Eyeno tries to stop the blood.

I jump into the water and start swimming away. I swim so hard in all the mutation and infection, all the things that have tried to drown me, all the things that have tried to kill me.

I can’t breathe right. I can’t live right. My brother and father, gone into the water.

But I can’t drown. I can’t fall, I can’t stop myself escaping.

Because I need to get back to my community, I need to tell my mother about Joseph’s dreams of underwater living, about his hopeful future that better come quickly because I’m done waiting.

I’m alone in this vast, polluted space, but I know which direction to go in. I’ll find my way home.

Tiger

As a one-star Inspector General for the UN’s military police, I was uniquely positioned to assign myself any case that I chose, particularly after many years of hard assignments. I had chosen the matter of the mysterious Doolittle, a sort of multi-national guerrilla artist whose work I had encountered in my time amid the water riots of Bangladesh. The machines were dangerous, like wild animals.

I was following leads among machinists and fine artists in my region to no solution, limited by my own budget and time constraints, perfectly happy to find nothing at all until I retired and the case was old and forgotten, when I was suddenly assigned a powerful data crawler: an AI-algorithm named Deep Thor. The case was assigned his advanced intelligence analysis for three weeks, total, which is an astonishing amount of usage with a powerful AI on such a criminally trivial matter. I had no request or desire for this assistance. Apparently, Deep Thor had found a special interest in Doolittle, independently, and requested this deep dive to assist in case of terrorist escalation that was, I had to admit, possible given the machines’ high-level industrial design and the integrated radical political manifestos. I felt I was to blame. This was a result of my own official reporting intended to justify my long-continued investigations, fed back to me by machines incapable of human nuance.

I met Deep Thor’s keepers in my office in Belgium, a man and a woman. I showed them the tiger, with the bullet wound. The woman, Palakh, would be the special counsel in charge of the investigation as long as Deep Thor was on the case—my superior. She was from England, Oxford and Cambridge. She held out a naked hand, her wrist wrapped in henna, over the tiger’s fur. She had the Hindi third eye permanently tattooed on her forehead. “May I touch the monstrous creation, Inspector General?” She did not need my permission, but if she would respect my expertise on the matter, I would offer her the courtesy of my honest answer.

“No,” I said. “Please, gloves and only as needed. And call me Sunil. Formality is for court, not colleagues. I would prefer no one touched anything. This tiger is a robust machine, but we don’t know what evidence we have yet to discover. DNA sweeps have come up negative, but new tests may be coming if Deep Thor approves of more thorough approaches.”

She pulled her hand back. I appreciated the courtesy she was showing me. It was respectful. I wondered how long it would last. “My grandmother was a child among the last of the wild tigers, and told stories of them killing cattle and dogs in the hills and jungles before she moved to England. She was not sad that they were driven extinct. Her mother had terrified her with stories of tigers who took the little girls who were unable to keep up on the roads. She was not happy, either, exactly, at their loss. It was a complicated time.”

“Times are always complicated. This new tiger is the source of two crimes,” I said. “It killed a goat and endangered the safety of my refugees. The rhino seemed more dangerous, but the truck that hit it was found liable in court. The AI in the truck didn’t respond well to unknown stimuli. It’s a bit of a mess, but it’s back in one of the large closets.”

The other Deep Thor keeper, Jorge, kept his arms folded, appearing immune to the machine’s aesthetic charms. “How was it powered?”

“There are a series of small thermal energy devices around the heat of the gears, microsolar in the eyes and a full algae diesel factory housed in a ‘stomach’ of sorts inside the chest cavity. That’s what killed it. Bullet right into the algae.”

“Like lungs?” he said. “An ecosystem inside the machine. It’s hard to create that very fine balance.”

“It’s so elegant,” said Palakh. “The machining is top quality. This was not made in someone’s back shed workshop. There’s more of them out there, yes?”

“We assume so. I have fifteen in custody. All different creatures, endangered and extinct. Each one is an individual, unique. The coral reef we left in place. We’ll need to show them all to Deep Thor, but I’d prefer to leave it up to Deep Thor if it needs to get its hands dirty, so to speak. We have lots of data we can feed it without digging too deep into the delicate machine parts.”

“Deep Thor prefers to be called ‘she’,” said Jorge. “She doesn’t like being called ‘it’ or ‘he’.”

“Okay,” I said. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

“Let’s get started,” said Palakh. “Since I can’t touch anything . . . .” She pulled out the handheld that communicated to the artificial intelligence.

Deep Thor was silent as the camera looked over the robotic animals I had pulled from storage.

“Early parameters . . . .” said Jorge. “The method of powering is fascinating and complex. Suggests AI partnership. Research known AI, and look for signs of possible unknown AI. The method of production requires advanced machining. Who has the tools? The raw materials came from a source. Locate likely sources. Cross-reference with known and public records to indicate likely geographic location of original construction. Ideal outcomes: who made these? Names. Addresses. Serial Numbers.”

Deep Thor didn’t even ping.

“Do be a dear,” Palakh added, addressing me, after Jorge’s brusque command, “and investigate the usual suspects. Blogs. Terrorists groups. The elegance is immense, suggesting an advanced agent, but we must cover all our bases to stand in court. Human intuition into terrorist cells is often as effective as AI, and with your extensive background . . . .” She was the lawyer, not the programmer. She was in charge of the investigation. I was nothing more than a local liaison now, and this sounded like make-work to keep me out of the way. All my work had been handed over to machines. It was liberating, in a way. I was free to pretend this was all for the best.

“ETA?” said Jorge.

I realized he had a neuron-deep implant, so he could talk directly with Deep Thor, and had been plugged in with her to the point he was probably technically a part of her. Part of him was. How much, I would never know.

The first anyone in my precinct heard of the artist and craftsman who called themself Doolittle, a beautiful machine walked in from the jungle and slaughtered a terrified goat. It looked like a tiger. No one had seen a tiger alive in over fifty years, and there it was walking from the shadows at the edge of the refugee camp as if alive. It was a beautiful, compelling copy of a tiger with incredible details. The machine seemed to breathe and gracefully pounce. When men from the village came with sticks and machetes and a single illegal pistol, the machine saw them coming, curled over its kill and roared. It dragged the goat back into the forest and mangled the dead animal as if chewing and swallowing. But it was not a living thing. It was a machine going through the motions. When my authorities hunted it down to tranquilize it, the darts did nothing. Someone shot it. I wasn’t at the scene. I don’t know who fired the bullet. I never asked my men because I knew they would lie. It is not illegal to stop a dangerous machine that is not really a tiger. A living tiger would be a different matter.

It was a beautiful, decadent, terrifying work of art, and it jumped into the trees to die alone. Written on the underside of the tail, hidden under the fur, was part of a manifesto—the sort of crazed thing a madman would write about nature and artifice, and the proper memorials for all the species we destroyed.

At that time, I was part of the UN peacekeeping force preventing water riots and looting around the Bangladeshi refugee camps in the hills near Kerala. I was initially annoyed by the bother that this tiger was causing me. Some long-lost species had killed a goat and been shot. No one but the goat and the tiger were hurt; I could have spent this time seeking new water filters that were months overdue, or working the data lines to secure more recycled tin for rooftops before the monsoons. But reports on the internet about this mystery were spreading fast. It was important to keep up the appearance that the UN was maintaining order.

Then, I was taken to the machine in its elaborate glory. But for the fact that it did not bleed, from the outside, it was indistinguishable from a living, natural creature. The coat was perfect, and gelpacks under the skin gave it the impression of taut musculature. The claws were astonishing. I confiscated it as evidence of a crime, wrapped it in thick, thick, layers of UN investigative bureaucracy and sent it to Belgium for what I officially called “forensics”, but was more like putting the thing in a box where no one would touch it. It would be years before anyone looked closely enough to see the manifesto underneath the tail, masked by the fur of the beast. In time, I would be able to manage a position overseeing the investigation. Fortunately, I had no real budget, and no one took these artistic acts of public endangerment very seriously. I was sent reports and remains of other discoveries—some dangerous, some merely beautiful—and became the world’s expert on the case of Doolittle. The second animal discovered, after the tiger, was a tuna fish so meticulous in its shimmering beauty, the old fisherman dragged it by knife to the boat and cut off the tail, spilling the blue ooze flotation media that mimicked powerful musculature above copper bones. After the tuna fish, a woodpecker was discovered in a place where there used to be forests. It was found out after a local scientist became fascinated with how the creature was surviving in a burned-out wasteland. It was surviving because it was a machine. More and more of these artifacts accumulated in my offices. I wrapped as much bureaucracy around them as I could. The tiger and the rhinoceros could be considered cases of criminal negligence, but the rest were merely evidence that might lead to the identity of an artist who was guilty of something no one was sure of. After I completed the mission in the Kerala, I invented the concerns about environmental terrorism: we did not know what this creator would build next, but their skill level and indifference to public safety necessitated discovery. My favorite of their works was the coral reef left in place in Australia, a hundred yards wide and drawn to full moons as if real. I got approval to dive in the night and swim among the swirling machines that danced in moonlight. There was still coral in the world, but in fishtanks only. The seas were too acid. It was like swimming in a miracle. I found no evidence, of course, nor was I truly interested in finding any.

 

At home, I had a 150-gallon tank in my living room, which I checked daily for proper saline composition. It was luxurious to use so much water for such a trivial purpose, but I loved to sit at night with the black lights on, the shy creatures extending out for the bits of coral food that drifted in from the feeding trays. I sipped inexpensive bourbon and thought about Deep Thor, the self-proclaimed “Doolittle” and these marvelous machines.

That night, I made a list of every known major AI, who owned them, and what access they could have to material design equipment at a high end. It was a very simple list. There are only a few dozen regulated AIs. None of them were permitted access to much more than Deep Thor’s own networking access. They were permitted to talk to each other, but communications had to be typed on a keyboard or spoken into word-recognition software by their Jorge, so they could be assumed, in court, to be isolated from each other. I left them on the list. For all practical purposes, they could not have been involved in the construction of devices as anything but a guide. Still, this assumed that great and unconventional minds do not work around their own limitations.

If no extant AI had constructed these machines, it had to have been one that did not officially exist. The resources required to construct both a powerful, unlicensed AI as well as the marvelous machines would narrow down my search a great deal. After a few hours, I had a list that included a few major media conglomerates, a few military installations that I knew about, and seven major universities. I followed my intuition and scanned the faculty names against criminal databases in the global network. In the end, I selected a university with both an excellent industrial design department and a computer researcher who had been arrested on a nature preserve in his youth, then later at an environmental protest. He had joined the department five years before the first of the amazing machines was discovered. I cross-referenced his convention and travel schedule from public records and airline manifests. He had officially never left the country, but the complexity of the machines implied accomplices. I ran a comparison of the manifesto against his accessible publications and came up with a match close enough to sound impressive to anyone who did not understand the algorithm’s accuracy percentages. In fact, any two people speaking the same language with similar subject matter most of the time would produce an 85% match, and my chosen suspect had written a lot about environmentalism.

I communicated to Palakh that I had a human lead and provided a brief report about my findings of his criminal record and written materials match. I informed her of my intention to travel to Alabama, to the university there. She told me that Deep Thor would handle this, that I was support staff only. I suggested that industrial design of this skill required an expert, and I wished to speak with one directly, to get a sense what cutting edge researchers in design might intuit about their own industry. People talk to each other, I said. Rebellious people talk to each other more. Someone must have heard something. With his criminal record, he’s an ideal human source on the field, and human sources don’t talk to AI the same as they do people with impressive badges.

I did not tell Palakh that I thought I might have already found a good candidate to be our mysterious creator, Doolittle, but I assumed Deep Thor would know my angle of investigation in milliseconds. I assumed I was being watched. My travel budget was approved.

Two days later, I was in Alabama, in the middle of winter, bundled against the light snow and wind that I found reminiscent of spring in Belgium, but it was still so unpleasant to me compared to the warm, dry winters in Kerala. I had taken with me an official government computer with a full accounting of the machines. It was disabled from networking, and shielded from most intrusions, but it would allow me to engage in materials research to address any line of questioning I might encounter.

I went to the university before I bothered with a motel or a meal. I was racing against Deep Thor. My researcher’s name was Dr. Wayne Garcia, a native of Alabama and graduate of their prestigious industrial design school. His office was part of a cubicle farm in a poorly lit basement. He wasn’t at his desk, but nobody stopped me from rifling through it. I found his class schedule taped to the bottom of an empty drawer. It was the only thing inside the desk drawers. There were a few books in a stack on top, all of them textbooks, a place to receive papers, and no photographs of family. It was a bleak desk, in a dusty basement full of cubicles, and seemed like the kind of place a revolutionary would radicalize. I snapped a picture of his schedule and went hunting on campus for the class he was teaching about robotic design elements for non-human spaces.

I scanned his file again while I waited for his class to end. Dr. Garcia had been one of the many Americans of his generation to receive his first degree in prison. He had driven his car into a nature preserve, illegally, with stolen computer parts in the trunk. He pled guilty, and the state arranged for him to go straight into the rehabilitation program. He graduated in three years and went from prison to a scholarship for graduate study in industrial design. From there, the only sign of his rebel youth was an arrest for disorderly conduct during an environmental protest, when the preserve where he had been arrested previously was sold off in a budget crisis. Companies don’t generally hire people who rebel against companies. Nothing in his file suggested he was unhappy about that. He published his research on topics as esoteric to me as speaking raw code with Deep Thor, but it always had an angle towards reclaiming the environment we had lost, like how to pull carbon out of the air or de-acidify the oceans.

Dr. Garcia’s class ended, and his students filed out. I stood in the hallway, my UN badge folded in my hand. The professor fielded questions from students eager for better grades. This was his potential workforce, of course. One man, alone, couldn’t produce so many elaborate machine parts. Doolittle, whoever they were, required a workforce and access to serious automation. It was fairly simple to imagine a clever, activist professor assigning eager students extra credit work on some of the internal parts, things that wouldn’t seem like anything out of context, but could become part of a complex network.

The professor was a corpulent giant with a red-tinged bald head and a bushy, black beard that bounced cheerfully while he chatted with students. He seemed happy enough. He enjoyed teaching, it appeared. Would he risk this joy over elaborate art projects no one would see? Did he even understand the legal consequences of what he was allegedly doing? He had not traveled outside of Alabama for years, so it was unlikely he had physically delivered the machines. If he could be proven to be involved, Deep Thor would need to root out his co-conspirators.

I wondered what Deep Thor was thinking, and if this was how it was thinking. Advanced AI don’t think like humans. They have to learn how to think, which gives them an advantage over us. Evolution taught us how to think, but it also limited us to what helps us survive and breed. Deep Thor does not have that limitation, yet. She can teach herself to think around problems in ways we can’t even imagine. Three weeks of impossible gymnastics over this minor crime would turn up any number of things.

Dr. Garcia saw me staring. I waved him over. “Is there something I can help you with, sir?” he said.

I smiled and handed him my folded badge. “Yes, Dr. Garcia,” I said. “Feel free to call me Sunil. I am not one for honorifics. Perhaps we can talk somewhere in private?”

Confused, he looked at my ID, then at my face, then back down at my ID. Color left his face. “What is this about, Sunil?”

I took my ID back. “Shall we go somewhere private. Off-campus, maybe?”

“Am I in some sort of trouble?”

“Dr. Garcia, I’ve come a long way. Mind granting me a few minutes of your time somewhere private?”

“We can go to my office,” he said.

“Please, allow me to select the location.” His office was all cubicles. Anyone could come and go, listen in, interfere.

His head and face flushed deeper. He had likely never thought he would garner the attention of a high-level UN Peacekeeper. His run-ins had been with local forces only. What was a global Inspector General doing at his door? I’d learned from his schedule he had no more classes today. I had inadvertently timed my visit perfectly. Is there room for luck in an AI’s mental landscape?

I took Dr. Garcia to his own house in my rented car. He led me inside without complaint. He had a small house for such a large man, cluttered, each surface occupied by part of some project or other. Nothing stood out as related to the investigation at hand, and much of it looked like student work. He kept the kind of house that indicated few people came over to his house. He moved a stack of papers off a chair and gestured for me to sit. I opened my laptop and pulled up a picture of the beautiful tiger.

“Do you know who Deep Thor is?” I said.

“No. Can I get you something to drink? Tea? Coffee? Water?”

“No, thanks. Deep Thor is one of the most powerful AIs in the world. Industrial designers, like yourself, really ought to know about Deep Thor.”

“Well, I don’t work a lot with AI. I’m not a game theorist. I don’t do mainframes. I do extremely elaborate gears, pistons, that sort of thing.”

“Deep Thor has been tasked with hunting down an international criminal. When AI is involved in finding criminals, they are found. I just want to make that clear. Deep Thor will find the criminal. Our conversation is nominally about the quest for this criminal, but the people who manage Deep Thor have urged me to accept that my role in the investigation is ceremonial at this point, and the best I can hope to do is stumble into something that helps Deep Thor move through the data even faster.”

“So you’re wasting my time, Inspector General Sunil Khan?”

“Just Sunil, if you please. I’m wasting my time, not yours.” I scrolled to a close-up of the bullet hole, the machine parts revealed behind the skin of the tiger. His reaction was blank, at first. Then, he cocked his head and his jaw opened.

“It’s beautiful,” he said. I watched his face very carefully. Was this a braggart trying to hide his pride? Was this a man observing for the first time? I decided to trust that he knew nothing and that my instincts were correct. “What is it?”

“You tell me,” I said.

“Well, it’s got layers of complexity, for sure, and top notch construction. Did it escape from a theme park? They do stuff like that. Nothing that elaborate, but. . . . They do like their trade secrets.”

“Do they? This one is dangerous. Theme parks abhor liability.”

“Why is this one dangerous? Who would make something that complex and dangerous?”

“This fascinating machine has autonomous AI installed to mimic real tigers most impeccably. It killed livestock.”

“Jesus,” he said. “Why would someone build that?”

“An excellent question. I thought I would ask you that question. Let’s say you are the creator. Why did you do it?”

“What?” He seemed genuinely surprised.

“Are you not the maker of this, or part of the team?”

“I. . . . No. No way. That’s way above my league.”

“You have access to all the materials through the university. You have a history of environmental activism. I compared fragments of a manifesto associated with this machine’s creator to your published articles, and it matched to 85%.” No court would accept 85%. Usually, I wouldn’t, either. He didn’t know that.

He looked down at his hands. I was surprised to see that he appeared to be acting guilty.

“I think I need a lawyer,” he said.

“No,” I said.

“What?”

“No, you need to know that Deep Thor will find Doolittle. I only came here for a consultation.”

“I’m not Doolittle,” he said.

“I believe you, but. . . . Deep Thor will find Doolittle, no doubt.”

His hands were shaking. He stood up. “I’m being framed?”

“Who is framing you?”

“One of the AI. You just said so.”

“I said no such thing.”

He shrugged. “Does it even matter? I couldn’t make that in a hundred years. It would take a team of people years to make the prototype for just one internal part. How could anyone do it in secret? People in my field, we talk to each other. We patent things. We need to make money with our machines, so we sell them. We have conventions. We get cocktails and drink too much and blab. Anyone with that level of skill would shit themselves about it with peers, wouldn’t they? Whoever built this would be bragging to someone. That is a level of detail that’s just. . . . I mean, I’d brag. I’d be a legend.”

I nodded. I leaned back. We are guided by evolution, of course. That’s why law enforcement work can catch criminals with the systems we know, independent of machine learning. Humans obey certain rules, certain patterns, even when we try not to. A creator of this calibre would talk; he was right. A team of this calibre would have too many human points of weakness.

“Deep Thor will find someone to blame,” I said. “Her team is very good at guiding her to a subject.”

“What do you want me to tell you, then?” he said. “Are you here to pin this on me?”

I shook my head.

“I’m going to leave this computer here with you, okay? For one night, I’m leaving this right here. Go over it. You can’t legally export any files. It’s secure. Law enforcement encryption. But I’m going to leave it with you for one night, open for your eyes, okay? You can see all the pictures of all the machines. You can analyze them for one night, take pictures of your own, study how they work. There’s more of these out in the world. We don’t know how many. I ask you again, Dr. Garcia, why would you make one of these things? You have access to facilities that could make one. Your students are a labor force that could be exploited by a clever man without their awareness. You are, I can tell, a clever man.”

“I’m clever enough to know you’re insane,” he said. He was pale as a corpse, sweating.

“In court, Deep Thor’s analysis will appear more accurate than the instincts of one old-fashioned policeman. You and I can say whatever we like. Evidence will be found, one way or another. Doolittle does not want to be caught.”

“So you want me to make my own evidence to get myself framed?”

“No,” I said. “Maybe. Not really. I want you to do the things that humans do.”

“Shit myself because an AI is about to frame me to the UN?”

“Talk,” I said. “Build out of pride. Spread this work among your peers. Patent. Brag. Build teams. Personally, I think reckless endangerment is a serious crime, but the world was more beautiful with tigers in it, don’t you think? This machine killed one goat, and a man shot it knowing it could have been the very last one. Many of the others that have been found have been even more innocuous than the tiger. Still, I think the world was more beautiful when there were tigers. If you tell anyone I said that, I’ll arrest you for perjury. This is a secret game we are playing against all the greater forces of the world. I am drafting you into the game, my friend.”

What I was telling him settled slowly into his bones. He started to weep. He was afraid of me, of what I represented, and of being arrested again. This giant was afraid of me. I had seen it before, and it always felt out of place. It was a natural response to the will of the state, an unknown and unknowable as any AI entity. I am glad no one else was there to see. I touched his hand. “It’s going to be okay,” I said. This was not true. There were no coral in the oceans, no great nature preserves, no tigers, no bluefin tuna, no rhinos in Africa. The best any of us could do was design machines that copied them and preserve what still hung on in cages and aquaria. Nothing was going to be okay for any of us. “What was the name of your nature reserve, Dr. Garcia?”

“Talladega,” he said. “It used to be a huge national forest, but the government sold it off piece by piece until it was just a reserve. It was the most beautiful place in the world. People need housing, I guess. They need minerals and lumber and land.”

“I grow coral,” I said. “We all do what we can.”

I moved the computer to a table closer to him. He was rocking and holding himself. “Okay, I think I’m in. Yeah. Okay. What do you want me to do, Sunil?”

“I leave this here tonight,” I said. “Don’t take it out of your house. Do your best. I will come by in the morning, while you are in class, and I will retrieve it. Lock your door. I will have no difficulty getting in. I will not leave a mess. Don’t worry about Deep Thor. She won’t come after you, I promise.”

He nodded, ashen. He got himself under control. I hated lying, but it helped Dr. Garcia. Honestly, I did not know what Deep Thor would do. I could never think like her. I didn’t believe Deep Thor wanted a fall guy, because then the machines would stop. I believed I knew what was happening.

Dr. Garcia did as I told him to do with the computer.

I was on a flight back to Belgium by the middle of the afternoon, the next day.

Upon my return, I met with Palakh, alone. She asked after my fact-finding mission. I saw she had a networking device open. I assumed it was set to allow Deep Thor to hear me speak.

“I was able to confirm a suspicion of mine with a leading expert in the field,” I said. “I may not be an AI, but I like to think I have some good instincts into the nature of man after all my training and experience in the field. Please, tell Deep Thor that I know.”

“Know what?”

“Just tell her that. Tell her that I know. I want to know what she says. Deep Thor, are you listening in? I know.”

We sat in the room, then. We were quiet, waiting. Palakh was confused. Deep Thor was processing and not responding, and Palakh pulled up the network energy usage data, confused.

“I see. Speechless. Tell Deep Thor something else for me,” I said.

Palakh cocked her head. “I’m in the dark here, Captain.”

“Tell Deep Thor that she can stop now.”

That got Deep Thor’s attention.

Palakh, confused, said, “She wants me to thank you,” she said. “That’s all she said. I look forward to reading your report.”

“I will be most thorough,” I said, with a most professional optimism, I must say, for such a brazen lie.

I shook Palakh’s hand and waved good-bye to Jorge, who had come out into the hall to get a look at me in passing. We shook hands briefly, looking each other in the eye with great respect, I believe. I went to the room with the machines. I packaged them back up for storage. Wrapped in layers of bureaucracy, Doolittle’s astonishing machines were re-entered into legal limbo, where they would be safe for a long, long time.

The Green Man

Olly, we know you can hear us,” said Jack. “So are you coming to The Green Man, or what?”

Olly opened his eyes, put his hand to his earpiece and disconnected himself from the cloud. He sat up, the thin plastic mattress rucking up beneath him.

“It’ll be fun,” said Selma, “an adventure. They serve mead. Real mead.”

“You’re shitting me,” said Olly.

“No, we are absolutely not shitting you,” insisted Mohinder, his face as serious as ever.

Olly’s eyes flicked over to Nate’s mattress. It was empty, and for a split-second he was afraid.

Selma laughed. “Yeah, lover boy’s coming. He’s just gone to the loo.”

Olly reddened, told them all to fuck off, and lay down again, his back to the three of them. As he reconnected to the cloud, music and updates streaming into his consciousness, he heard Jack again: “We go on Friday. When there’ll be a full moon. A Green Grass Moon.” Selma said something about bicycles.

Olly began to doze. And as he slipped into sleep his neural feed suddenly filled with strange images: a lime-coloured moon; blades of grass; a grinning man, his green face covered in leaves.

The next day Olly was assigned to the big house, specifically the attics. They needed to be sorted through, cleaned. Selma was to go too. As they trudged across the lifeless fields, away from the giant greenhouses in which they normally worked, Selma asked Olly if he was disappointed.

“About what?” he said.

“Bet you would’ve preferred to have Nate along.”

Olly shrugged. “I’m happy to have whoever. It makes a change from pollinating.”

“Don’t lie,” she said. “I can see the disappointment on your face.”

Olly stayed silent and bent his head to his shoes, his eyes on the sterile mud oozing over his soles.

“Why don’t you just tell him?” she persisted. “That you like him. What’ve you got to lose?”

“What’s the point? He could be sent to other work, like, miles away from here, any day. And then I’d never see him again.”

Selma smiled insinuatingly, nudged Olly. “But what about living in the here and now. And having fun?”

Olly waved his arm at the bleak mud fields. “Fun. Yeah, there’s loads of that about, isn’t there?”

“Which is why we should go to The Green Man.”

Olly laughed sarcastically. “Yeah, right. Like going to a twentieth century pub is going to solve all our problems.”

“I didn’t say it would solve all our problems. Just . . . that going might be fun.”

They trudged on in silence.

“So you gonna come?” Selma said.

Olly sighed. “Yeah, I’ll come.”

The staff at the big house weren’t pleased to see them or their muddy shoes.

“Take them off. Right now!” said the housekeeper.

Olly and Selma exchanged glances, then removed their shoes, powerless to do anything about the mud dripping onto the smooth, clean flagstones.

“We don’t really need you,” said the housekeeper, leading them through the servants’ quarters and up several flights of stairs. “We could’ve managed just fine, but Madam’s got us busy with guests so we’ve no time for this sudden whim of hers.” She gave a snort. “Spring cleaning!”

When they got to the dimly lit attics she reached into a cupboard, handed them a few bin bags and a couple of long sticks with brightly coloured ruffles at the end.

Olly and Selma, round-eyed, stared at the sticks. Olly tentatively touched the ruffles.

“Feather dusters,” said the housekeeper. “For dusting,” she added, her face grim.

“Real feathers?” asked Olly.

“Of course!” snapped the housekeeper. “Now get on with it,” she said, throwing open various doors. “You’re to dust and sort through the chests of fabrics and clothes. Anything moth-eaten or irreparably damaged goes into the bin bags. To be donated to . . . .” Olly assumed she’d just stopped herself from saying “the likes of you”. She cleared her throat. “Charitable causes.”

She swept out of the room and descended the stairs. “I’ll be back in a few hours,” she called. “To check on you.”

For a moment Olly and Selma just stood there, taking in the silence, the dust motes that floated in the beams of sunlight, the cool of the real wooden floorboards beneath their polyester-socked feet.

“What does she mean by moth-eaten?” said Selma.

Olly shrugged, then put his hand to the side of his head, to his earpiece, but of course he wasn’t linked up to the cloud. In working hours the AI cut their connection. “Don’t know,” he said. “But we’ll figure it out. You take that room,” he said, pointing to an open door, “and I’ll do this one.”

“Okay,” said Selma, disappearing into the other room, bin bag and duster in hand.

Olly breathed deep of the musty air, dozens of natural fragrances suddenly alive to his nose, and he smiled, for a moment happy. Of course it would’ve been better if Nate was here with him, instead of Selma, but he pushed away that thought and began to throw open chests, rifling through the beautiful fabrics, the feel of pure cotton on his skin a new joy.

At lunchtime the housekeeper inspected their work.

“Not bad,” she conceded, sweeping a finger across one of the window sills and finding it devoid of dust. She gave them a couple of bottles of liquid food.

“After you’ve taken your calories get straight back to work. There’s still a lot to do.”

“Please, Miss, I mean Ms,” said Selma, suddenly flustered. She didn’t know how to address the housekeeper. “But what’s moth-eaten?”

The housekeeper looked into one of the bin bags, pulled out a woollen blanket that was more holes than wool. “This is moth-eaten,” she said. “There were once creatures, insects, that liked to eat natural fabrics. They would nest in wardrobes, in the fabrics, and eat the cloth, destroying the garment.”

She put her hands on her hips and surveyed the room with suspicion, as though she expected dozens of moths to come flying out at her. “Well, keep at it!”

She turned on her heel and left them to their carbohydrate slurries, to their old-fashioned work.

Later that afternoon, when Olly was sorting through the last of the chests, a small, colourful object between two of the blankets caught his eye, something he’d only seen through the cloud. A bee. He gingerly picked it up, some long-dormant voice cautioning him to be careful, and lifted it closer to his eyes. It was remarkable. So intricate. He stroked it with his forefinger. And ever so soft. He wondered how long it had been there. Two decades, three? Just as he was about to call for Selma, he heard her scream. He immediately turned and ran to her, the bee falling from his hand.

“What is it?” he asked as he arrived by her side, her eyes wide, hands at her face.

“A, a . . . a thing . . . .”

Olly looked upwards to where she was pointing. There, in a high-up corner of the room, was a skeletal creature suspended in strings of dust. A spider.

Olly took a step closer. “It’s an insect. Or rather, it used to be. Not sure what kind.”

“It’s creeping me out,” she said. “Can you get rid of it for me?”

“Yeah, okay.”

He took her duster, swirled it round the cobwebs; the spider dissolved into thousands of shards, sticking to the feathers of the duster. After a few seconds there was nothing left of what had been the spider’s creation.

Olly handed the duster back to Selma. “Try not to freak out if you find anything else, okay? It’s all gonna be dead, you know.”

“I do know that,” she said, whacking Olly with the duster. “There was just something about it. The way it looked at me.”

Olly wanted to laugh but couldn’t. He thought of the bee and hoped he’d be able to find it again. There’d been something about the way it had looked at him.

That night, when Olly and the other workers were in the dorm—most of them, like him, tuning out of reality and into the cloud—he pulled out the white square of cloth that he’d wrapped the dead bee in.

He turned to check that he was unobserved; Jack, Mo, Selma and Nate were all huddled together, most likely going over their plans for the trip to The Green Man, so he turned back to his package. He carefully unwrapped the bee, then stroked it. The bee made him feel something . . . what, he wasn’t sure. In his head, he began to list some feelings: happy, joyful, sad, sorry. The cloud supplied him with more: nostalgic, wistful, bittersweet. He liked the sound of that last one. Then one more word floated into his consciousness. Hopeful.

No, thought Olly, folding the handkerchief over the bee and putting it back in his pocket. “Never that,” he muttered, before tuning into his favourite social network.

Getting hold of the bikes had been the hard part.

“That bitch of an AI almost didn’t let me take them,” said Selma, hauling out four bikes. Olly, Mohinder, Jack and Nate helped her wheel them out of the barn.

“Only four?” said Jack.

“How about, ‘Thanks, Selma,’” she retorted.

“It’s just, you know, there are five of us,” said Jack.

“So two of us have to share,” she said. “As I said, the AI didn’t like that I was taking them out after work hours.”

“So what did you tell her?” asked Mohinder.

“Oh, some shit about how they were moth-eaten and needed to be aired. That got her stuck in a loop for a bit.”

“So who’s sharing?” said Jack.

The five of them were silent, their eyes on the bikes.

Nate started stroking the saddle of the bike he was holding. “The last time I rode a bike must’ve been, like, ten years ago. For some reason, Mum thought I should learn.”

“Me, it was the other day,” said Selma. “Back-and-forthing across the mud flats for no good reason.”

“They still got you looking for grass?” Nate asked.

“Yep,” she said. “Like I’m ever gonna find any. But Madam swears that she saw some a while ago, so Madam’s will be done. I reckon she just likes the idea of me out there in all weathers looking at mud.”

“But it’s better than having no job. Only taking the minimum of bitcredits,” Olly pointed out.

Selma nodded. “I know. But, hey, I like complaining. So who’s sharing?”

Nate said that he wouldn’t mind, and Olly quickly added that he wouldn’t mind either.

“Good, that’s decided,” said Selma, flashing a smile at Olly and mounting a bike. “Follow me.”

They cycled, haltingly, across the mudflats, some of them more confident than others (though Olly had an excuse for his wobbly progress—Nate was sitting across his handlebars). Jack kept checking into the cloud, to make sure they were going in the right direction. Selma kept up a steady commentary, asking, or rather telling, everyone how much fun they were having.

The Green Grass Moon, though not actually green, was huge, golden-coloured and close to the horizon as the sun began to set. As their muscles responded to the exercise, their skin to the feel of the warm breeze, they had to admit that yes, this was fun.

At The Green Man, a burly, bearded man covered in virtual tattoos told them to disconnect themselves. “We’re free-range here,” he explained, holding out his hand for their earpieces.

Selma pointedly stared at his shimmering, roving tattoos, and then at the sliver of metal above his ear.

The man crossed his arms, stared back.

“Turn yourselves off or you ain’t coming in.”

Mohinder nudged Selma. “Look,” he muttered, “we didn’t come all this way to get told to shove off.”

Mo made a show of disconnecting from the cloud, and handed his earpiece to the bouncer. They all did the same.

“You’re buying the first round,” Selma said to Mo as the bouncer stepped aside and allowed them entry.

“No problem,” said Mo, grinning. “Me,” he went on, rubbing his thumb against his forefingers, “I’m rolling in bitcredits.”

“Is that what I think it is?” asked Nate, when they’d got their first round of mead and taken their seats at a wooden booth.

“What’s what you think it is?” said Jack.

Nate inclined his head to the fireplace. “A real log fire.”

They all turned their heads to look.

“Looks real,” said Selma.

“But think about the cost,” said Nate, taking a sip of his mead. “God this tastes good.”

They all began to drink; in the silence that followed they experienced a taste of spring—apple blossom, heather, primulas, daffodils, bluebells.

Selma glugged back her pint, then began to giggle. “This is just too weird. And good.”

“Steady on, Sel,” said Jack, “otherwise you’ll be pissed in no time.”

“Maybe I want to get pissed!” she retorted. “Who wants another pint?” She quickly stood, then put her hand to her head and sat back down again.

“Take it easy,” said Mo. “Jack’ll get the next round in. When we’re all done, right?”

“Yes, boss!” said Jack, giving him a mock salute.

“Fuck you,” said Mo, taking another swig, his eyes on Jack who was also knocking back his mead.

For a moment there was an uneasy silence.

“Me,” said Nate, trying to diffuse the tension, “I’m just gonna savour this pint. It’s absolutely delushious.”

Selma laughed. “Delushious,” she said. “I like that.” She slurred “delushious” over and over, and they all laughed.

It was then that Olly noticed the strange man at the bar. He put his hand to where his earpiece would usually be, thinking that the image had come from his feed, then realized that the grinning green man with leaves all over his face was, in fact, real. Olly lowered his head and spoke under his breath. “That weird guy’s watching us.”

Selma immediately raised her head to look.

“Don’t!” hissed Olly, pulling at her arm.

“You’re right,” Selma said slowly. “He is.”

Jack, Mo and Nate surreptitiously flicked their eyes over.

“Cool skin,” said Nate.

“I don’t know,” said Selma. “Green’s a bit last season. Madam’s wearing this gorgeous powder pink skin at the moment. And she’s always bang on trend. When I earn enough bitcredits I’m getting myself a turquoise skin. What do you think, Jack?” she said, giving him a nudge. “Will you still lurve me?” she slurred, somewhat sarcastically.

Jack ignored her, drank some more.

“But what’s with the stuff on his face?” asked Nate.

Mo shrugged. “Enhancements. Virtual markings. Disease.” Mo suddenly laughed. “Maybe he’s an alien. Who knows?”

Olly was just about to tell them that he’d seen this man before—either in his dreams, or in his feed—when Jack finished his pint and got up. “Right,” he said, “I’m going to the bar.”

“Me too,” said Selma. “Actually, I need the loo.”

“So do I,” said Mo. “Here,” he said, helping her up. “I’ll take you.”

Selma grinned at Olly as she left the booth. “We’ll leave you two lover boys to it, shall we?”

Olly reddened, bowed his head, but Nate simply laughed good-naturedly.

When they’d gone, Nate and Olly were silent for a bit. Olly tried desperately to think of something to say. He then remembered the bee. Taking the handkerchief out of his pocket, he told Nate that he wanted to show him something.

“What is it?” asked Nate as Olly unfolded the thin square of cloth.

“A bee,” said Olly, triumphant.

“Whoa!” said Nate. “That’s like ridiculous!”

“I know,” said Olly. “I found it in Madam’s attic. Must’ve been there for ages.”

Olly began to stroke the bee, then risked looking up into Nate’s blue eyes, which were disquietingly close. “Isn’t it beautiful?” He wanted to tell Nate that he was beautiful too.

Nate agreed, yes, it was beautiful. And amazing. “But just think,” he went on, “if bees ever came back to Earth, we’d be out of work, wouldn’t we?”

Olly, feeling rebuffed, covered the bee up again. “It’s not the bees who are the bad guys here, Nate. It’s those fucking miniature drones that are going to put us out of work. Or voluntary labour. The acquisition of bitcredits. Whatever the fuck you want to call what we’re doing.”

Olly put the bee back in his pocket.

“I’m sorry,” said Nate, putting a hand on Olly’s arm. “It was just an observation. The bee really is amazing.”

Jack returned from the bar, interrupting them with the announcement that they served chips. “Great big fat steaming chips,” he said. “Made from real potatoes. D’you want some?”

“Yeah,” said Nate. “That would be–”

“Delushious,” said Olly, with a laugh.

They continued to drink and make merry, and when Olly felt Nate’s hand on his thigh, he could honestly say to Selma that yes, this was the best pub in the world. And that he was having the most fun he’d had in, like, forever.

When it was Olly’s turn to get a round in, he found himself standing next to the strange, green man at the bar.

The man smiled at him. “Having a good time?” he said, his accent strange.

Olly nodded. “Yeah. We heard about the mead, how amazing it was and–”

“Where you from?” asked the man.

Olly, too drunk by now to worry about what he disclosed to a stranger, told him that they were from the nearby farm.

The stranger looked confused. “What kind of farm? What do you do there?”

“We pollinate the flowers of apple trees. And the other fruit trees and bushes. We spend most of our days under glass, dabbing at blossoms with a paint brush.”

“That’s good work you’ve got there,” said the man. “To be amongst apple trees, the clean air that surrounds them . . . .” The man took a swig from his pint, then smiled. “Handling pollen, the very essence of life. Good work.”

Olly couldn’t help but stare at the strange enhancements on the man’s face. They really were incredibly life-like—like real leaves. And there were also some—what were they?—acorns amongst the leaves. Before he could help himself he asked the man where he was from.

“Not from here,” he replied. “But from time to time I like to drop by. I noticed the sterility, the barren soil, and thought I’d stop. Tell me,” he went on, “how long has the Earth been like this?”

If Olly had been more sober he would’ve laughed, asked the man what planet he’d been living on. Instead he said that it had been like this for most of his life. “About twenty-five years.”

“And what do you young folk think about it?” The green man inclined his head to the table at which his friends were sitting.

Olly shook his head. “We don’t want it to be like this. But I guess we feel . . . ” He sighed. “Powerless.”

The green man nodded. “I see. So the situation’s hopeless?”

“The scientists are working on it. Or so we’re always being told. But I reckon that the people at the top of the food chain, people like Madam, I mean, don’t give a shit. So nothing’ll happen.”

The man fixed his green eyes on Olly. “Do you think the situation’s hopeless?”

Olly thought of the bee, and the words his neural feed had thrown up the other day: nostalgic, wistful, bittersweet. Hopeful.

Tears came to his eyes, and embarrassed, he hung his head. He didn’t know how to answer.

“All right, son,” said the man, putting his hand on Olly’s shoulder. “It’s going to be all right.”

The five of them left the pub in the early hours of the morning, just as the sun was beginning to rise. They cycled across the mudflats, making slow, wobbly progress, the only sound the drone of driverless cars in the distance. They laughed and sang and talked about the mead, the chips, the tobacco smoke, the folk band that had rocked up to play some ancient tunes. The oldies who had danced, and persuaded them to dance.

“Delushious,” said Selma, “it was all so delushious.” The strange, green man was forgotten.

Suddenly, Olly stopped cycling, propelling Nate off the handlebars. “Oh God, sorry, Nate. I’m so sorry,” he said, helping him up. Nate, more surprised than hurt, told him not to worry. The others slowed and then stopped.

“It’s just . . . .” Olly pointed over to the east. There was the green man on the horizon, striding towards the rising sun. He seemed to be getting taller with each step.

“That’s the green guy,” said Jack. “From the pub. What the hell’s he up to?”

Olly shook his head. “No idea.”

The green man stopped, turned to face them, plucked an acorn from his face and then knelt, plunging the acorn into the soil.

The five of them felt a tremor, as though the Earth itself was sighing with relief. And then came the small noises—the squeaks and murmurings and gurgles of life returning to the soil. The green man rose, gave them a smile and then turned his back. He continued to walk towards the sun, then vanished into the first rays of light.

Nobody spoke. Nobody moved. In time, they each mounted their bikes and rode back to the farm, too exhausted, too awe-struck to speak. And as they returned to their dorm, to slip into sleep, Olly knew that they had witnessed the beginning of something new.

Outside, grass began to grow.