Near the end of the last year of her projected life expectancy, Cora knows she shouldn’t be spending any moment on frivolities. Her store of oxygen tanks is depleting. Her body begins wheezing halfway up the stairs to her apartment. Every last breath in her body needs to be spent on work, on microscopes and slideshows and documentation and the full spectrum of mycelium she’s endeavored so hard to engineer.
But instead of thinking about any of this, she, like everyone else, is riveted to her newsfeed. She clings to every eddy of information.
The satellites spot them first at night: lights where there should be none, sparse enough to be mistaken for dead pixels in the ocean’s inky gut. Before long, the lights splatter into a constellation orbiting 32°N and 145°W, and those who know the significance of that migratory path are summoned to interviews that flood every social media feed.
WHAT IS IN THE NORTH PACIFIC GYRE?
There’s speculation, amazement, alarm. Journalists and researchers and influencers livestream their journeys by sea and sky toward the light, cameras panning across the ocean’s seemingly endless blue, and then its seemingly endless heaving crust of bags, bottles, rope. Even that far out from the coast, the currents gleam in rainbow neons from runoff. Telephoto lenses show a reusable straw jabbing skyward like an arm waving for rescue. Snap-lid plastic tubs bob like polygonal turtle shells, one of which is lifted and upturned by a reporter with a waterplane, revealing barnacles fisted underneath, alive, floating: foreshadowing.
“There are people living out here,” says the only influencer Cora follows, a girl who speaks in awe through a branded lavender nasal cannula. Self-consciously, Cora adjusts her own, and takes a steadying breath as she zooms her phone camera in on grainy, irregular silhouettes in the ocean’s distance.
Over the next weeks, the extent of the floater colony becomes clear. Boats of all models slung to rafts slung to bridges slung to shelters of all sizes, constructed of plastic bottles stuffed with salt-crusted litter and compressed into bricks. A panoply of desalination vats and solar panels bob alongside, dappled with flags, indicating the floaters’ various origins. They range from disillusioned tech heirs to typhooned refugees floated out to sea alongside the ruins of sub-sea-level cities. At night, the Gyre rekindles the ocean’s horizon, radiating gold and crimson from headlights and lanterns and bulbs on hefty rubber wire.
The monitor in the lab breakroom remains fixed on Gyre newstreams, for hatewatching.
Cora’s project manager: “Do they really think they can stay out there forever?”
One of the marketing people: “Living the material-free, zero-waste lifestyle on a luxury yacht—”
An intern, laughing, eager to fit in: “All that garbage they say they hate so much—where do they think all of it is coming from, now?”
Cora feels the words whirl in her belly, coalescing into a hard, sharp knot. It swells. It hurts.
I don’t know, she wants to say. When a storm washed me out to sea as a child, I think I would have been alright ending up there.
She shuts her eyes.
Focus. Her air is too precious to waste on arguments. She adjusts her cannula, tries to calm down, stares at the news. Overhead, an influencer grimaces and laughs as she rates the output of the Gyre’s pelagic forage: slurry stewed with amphipods netted and flash-sanitized from beneath the ocean’s crusty skin, snails chopped raw with microgreens raised in a greenhousing boat, fish dried on solar-heated racks.
“Cora,” someone calls. It’s her boss. “Let’s do our dry run.”
A withdrawal. In the hallway, Cora’s boss starts talking in Tagalog.
“You’ve been spending a lot of time on Gyre news,” he says, “Cora, you need to focus on here and now,” and this time, she can’t help her protest.
There’s even more she wants to say: Anyone that makes it out there gets space, and everyone there is sifting the ocean clean, and it’s not just the rich, there are people like me, or people who just didn’t want to pay rent, and scientists, everyone who left the field because they couldn’t find investors but finally have the dedicated community, and actual applications—
But she can’t continue. Those first words were her limit, the only sounds that her deepest breath can inflate. She gags and coughs, and her boss lays a sympathetic hand on her shoulder.
“They’ve—done more good—than we have—in years,” Cora forces herself to spit out, and he frowns.
“Our work comes to fruition today, Cora. You’re willing to throw it all away because of a handful of—sea hippies? Cora,” he says finally, “focus,” and it’s these final words that sink into her like lead, sealing her mouth tight behind them.
So close to the end, she can’t risk being pulled off this project. The path has been so hard—convincing her boss to have a spot on his team—begging allowance to work from home during flareups—nodding her head in every meeting, holding her head up over office gossip about the tank she rolls with her on bad days. She has no illusions; even with her GPA and degrees and circlet of prestigious scholarships, she’s the kind of person a lab of this caliber and venture backing took only to improve their diversity numbers. It was challenging work—and, Luis scoffed, relentless—but her best chance at getting what she really wanted.
I want to do something with my life, she wrote on her cover letter. I want to be the last to suffer this way. I want to die in peace.
She got the job.
They review the presentation one last time; and then, later that afternoon, in front of the board of directors, Cora’s boss recites points from their slideshow flawlessly. Mycolution’s arsenal of fungi is ready for deployment. Exhaustive experiments and projections show their full set of offerings is capable of digesting over eighty percent of humanity’s most non-degradable waste products, reducing even the most ancient plastics to harmless, reasonably edible mushrooms. Observers can even see the mycelium working: engineered luminescence indicates where hyphae have detected, and are digesting, plastic-based nutrients. Cora displays the diorama on the conference table, three acrylic boxes filled with her best specimen, tweaked and optimized. Each box contains different debris collected from the beach, left with the mycelium for half a year. Someone turns off the lights, for better visibility. Threading through the waste in each box is a lacework of vivid, fervent violet.
This is by far the most impressive demonstration their lab has ever been able to yield—but no one is interested. Cora’s chest tightens as one of the board interrupts the presentation halfway through and spends the remainder of the time on interrogation. The developed fungi varieties are fine, but how would the mycelium be transported to landfills? How could companies select the proper species to digest each dump’s specific stew of pesticides and nurdles and retired polyester clothing? What appeal was there for a company to wait decades before they could advertise having made any meaningful dent on the planet’s health? The costs in time and money and effort were high—there weren’t any subsidies for technology this new—and what would be the psychological cost, of bringing back to public consciousness the existence of a bunch of evacuated wastelands that public relations companies had already successfully hidden from view?
Cora gapes. Are they . . . serious? Just because problems are hidden or take a long time to resolve don’t mean they aren’t affecting anyone. It’s exactly because of companies making decisions like this that she has had to spend her life like this, not just in pain, but just trying to—clean up—
Focus, she tells herself, focus, be calm, focus, but her head is heating, and her chest is tightening, and all at once she dissolves, into coughing so harsh that she loses her balance—pitches into a wall—gasps, her breathing awful, inoutinoutinoutinoutinout.
In the end, her boss looks relieved at her struggling. It’s the perfect excuse to end the meeting.
The next day, she can’t even get up from bed. Her head spins. She fumbles herself together just enough message her boss that she’s too sick to come in, and accepts his immediate return voice call.
“I know you’re discouraged,” he says. “But the mycelium aren’t completely shelved. Let’s do the marketing research, find the money, and try again.”
I’ve already done the research, Cora types back. Her eyes are sore with it, with not sleeping, not resting. Everything they mentioned, the zero-waste certifications, the focus group branding. It takes a lot of time. More than I have left.
“None of us will ever see the fruit of our labor,” her boss argues. “All of this work is always for a future we’ll never see.” But he knows what she really means, and adds: “I don’t want to hear you sound so hopeless. This place has good coverage. You’ll live as long as anyone else. Just rest, and come back when you’re feeling better, alright?”
The way he says it, he’s forgotten that this is the only day of paid-time-off she reserves for herself shamelessly every year. She was supposed to spend her birthday in celebration of the project taking off; and in relaxation, one final breather before she dedicated herself to assembling all her documentation for whoever would inherit her work. She isn’t supposed to be shuddering nauseous on her couch—dizzy with reviewing PDFs about market and government certifications—nearly collapsing after opening the door for Luis, who arrives with birthday cake. She tries to hold herself together when the candles light, but her tears spatter on the icing. Her body squeaks, struggling to refill after she fails to blow out every candle.
I think, Cora wants to say, that this is it—but she can’t say it, her body judders, inoutinoutinoutinout, and Luis hugs her, holds her face to their chest. They understand.
In the end, Luis’s mother also hadn’t been able to blow out her candles. It all happened fast, after that.
“All I—want—is one more—year,” Cora sobs between breaths. “Just to—to know—that I—”
Luis’s arms around her tighten.
“Cora,” they say. “You’ve done all that you could. Please—please—just let go of the work. If this is really . . . you know I’ll be with you, until the end. But if this is really it . . . I can’t bear to see you spend your last days like this. You’ve done enough.”
No. She hadn’t managed even close to enough. But any protest Cora might have then is interrupted by her buzzing phone. A news alert, for the Gyre: another interview, about water purification methods they’re experimenting with. And their new coordinates, near mainland. The alert displays above her boss’s last message, a reiteration: Come back tomorrow when you’re feeling better.
Luis sees the message. “Don’t,” they say. Their voice is low with contempt. “Let’s just enjoy the time we have left. They don’t deserve your labor, much less you.”
They don’t, Cora agrees with a shake of her head. Still, she keeps looking at her phone. Her hand, shaking on her oxygen tubing, fists.
“Luis,” she says. “You—mean it? With me—until—the end?”
Luis meets her gaze, trying to understand the turn of her voice. Slowly, they nod.
“Okay,” Cora says. “Then—I think—I’ll go back.”
Just one last time.
She met Luis in the university hospital as a teen, back when no one knew the name of what was killing her. She was an orphan, a refugee of Tropical Storm Bagwis, jobless, a student. For her, and for Luis’s mother, the stipend given in exchange for their cooperation was better than nothing, and adhering to experiment protocols was well worth the hope they might one day breathe freely, rather than only in spurts, at times sucking for air like fish out of water.
Doctors barraged them with tests, and chased the symptoms around and down to their roots: the blood vessels that branched and withered over and over again in their lungs, like the boughs of trees in manic seasons. That wild growth and anti-growth was thanks to a frantic pendulum of hormones; and that was thanks to the chemicals leeched into their bloodstreams by plastics, apparently ingested in fatal levels by both Cora and Luis’s mother. They were too numerous and minuscule to extract or neutralize. Luis, who always hated seafood even when it was fried anonymously into bacalaitos, remained unaffected, though it wasn’t obvious from how they cried and hugged their mother and Cora both upon official diagnosis.
The news coined their own name for it, vulgar and catchy: trash lung. An islander’s affliction, carried by superstorm exiles along with whatever baggies of memory cards and soggy photo prints they could keep hold of, adrift, before being scooped up by rescue boats. It felt unfair that the city was where things were safe to eat, with its meat trucked in from toxic mass production facilities. It felt criminal that Cora’s poison was bangús she chose from the market alongside her mother, fried and eaten with rice, plain and simple and miasmatic with microplastics and pollution finer than fish bones, and sticking deeper in the throat.
The injustice was obvious. Luis’s mother died; and Cora picked them up from their grief, cooked food, helped parse out all the bills, now in Luis’s name. It was like the sickness had simply happened, with no one to blame: no paper trails, no culprits, and no cures. When Cora asked, the doctors told her that the funding had dried up.
“And what about us?” Cora demanded. “All us research subjects? And what about everyone else in the world that has this?”
I know you’re discouraged, was all they said. Let’s just find the money, and try again.
They told her that she had a while yet—at least until age twenty-eight. She waited, and then she didn’t. She wasn’t going to die having done nothing. She’d heard of a lab, run by someone from her same hometown, who was trying to use the earth to purify the water.
Presently, Luis searches the chat forums while she makes her final preparations.
And I found someone, they message. On a Gyre forum. Their boat can take us out to the coordinates the Gyre announced they’d be at in a week. I got the time off. Do you think you have that amount of time?
Yes, Cora responds.
There’s a pause. Luis says, And you’re sure you want to do this?
Yes, Cora repeats.
And to her own body she begs: Seven more days. That’s it.
All I want is seven more days.
All her life, she’s had to balance so much: insurance, co-pays, tuition, grants, rent, oxygen. So it’s a blessing, really, that none of that matters at all, anymore. Her life has only one last to-do item.
She heads back to work—after hours, after packing her things, and after connecting herself to a fresh tank. Despite her conviction, her hands shake. The substrate drawers rattle as she opens them—in her anxiety, she accidentally opens one against her tank roller, causing it to clank against a cabinet—and when she finally rights it, and starts to palm a bit of spore-laden substrate into a spare vial, the vial slips, and when she tries to catch it her wild hand instead smashes it.
The sound pierces, echoes. Her breathing goes into overdrive, and then stops: Inout—in. In the silence, even the sound of her blood dripping from her palm sounds like a drum. But no one comes when she tamps the soil and spores into the vials with her bleeding hand. No one comes when she slips the vials into her pockets, sock-padded to quiet the clinking. No one comes when she heads out the door. Luis picks her up at the lab’s back door, and inside the car is Peregrin, a tanned white woman with a catamaran and a wealth of optimism, who on short notice agreed to delay her departure just another day. They make introductions. At the moorage, Peregrin points at the water, which is scaly with wrappers and plastic bottles and gleams magenta in the moonlight.
“So you’ve got mushrooms that can eat this stuff?”
“Wait,” Luis says. Cora is wheezing already, with the effort of walking across the pier. In the catamaran, Peregrin helps her into a seat, and by the time they’ve made it out of the sound, Cora’s pained but steady breathing is deafened by the groan of the boat, the hiss of seafoam on the windows.
Inside her single bag is two changes of clothing, her laptop, and binder-sized substrate trays, with humidifier layers and battery-powered warming elements. Each tray is speckled with various kinds of plastic waste, and labeled according to which mycelium can digest it. It’s equipment from home, things she used in the past to continue research over the weekend. She takes a deep breath.
“Yes—they can—eat it,” Cora answers finally. “Let me—show you.”
The soil in the vials is studded with spores and fluffy hyphae that, once the lights are off, glow: purple, tangerine, cyan, neon jade. On some vials spores luminesce in whorl-shapes, stamped by Cora’s thumb. On others, there are smears blood.
“Cora,” Luis gasps. “When did you cut yourself?”
“It’s nothing.” Her palm is still bleeding, even stinging, sharply—but a brief glance shows her no shards of vial glass, just a little dirt.
“It’s not nothing! Cora—”
Cora frowns at them. This is the least of my worries. But she accepts antibiotics and a bandage that Peregrin procures from a cabinet, and then returns to work, upending the vials and stirs the spores into the trays. Peregrin peers over Cora’s shoulders, impressed.
“That’s it? That dirt?”
“That is so fucking cool, Cora,” Peregrin laughs. “This stuff definitely deserves to be out in the Gyre, rather than in corporate purgatory. You’re a goddamn hero. Honestly, I’m honored y’all chose me to help you. Count me in until the end.”
Thanks for helping, Cora writes. And then, not wanting to get distracted: As long these mycelium have nutrients, they’re fine anywhere. A toxic dump. An ocean.
That night, she focuses, and writes everything she can remember about mycelium, about hyphae, about enzymes, polymers, monomers. About detergents and fuel and polystyrene. About how the eventual luminescent caps can be eaten, with no adverse affect whatsoever. It’s useful—it deserves a life out there. She stays up the whole night, drawing diagrams, arranging files.
All I want, she thinks the next morning, is six more days.
“How about taking a break?” Luis asks, halfway through the next day, when she asks them to roll down another tank from her meager storage. “Just for an afternoon? Just for an hour? Just for the sunset?”
No, Cora writes. I have to focus.
So close to the end, she can’t risk this falling through the cracks, can’t risk the last moment of her life being filled with regret. Peregrin brings cut apples as Cora is writing about optimal temperature ranges. Luis brings another air tank as Cora is writing about instructions for how to mix new substrate. Cora writes and writes, and when she starts slowing down on facts, she starts adding dreams, describing training the mycelium’s fibrous body into brick-shaped molds, describing a glowing city fruiting on the ocean, stretching, chewing the Great Pacific Garbage Patch up and spitting it out as homes, or at least as floating mycelium reefs.
To actually construct something out of material like that would take years, if not decades, of course—and who knows how it would all fare long-term, in the harsh salt and sun of the Gyre—but she can see it all so clearly, which is a blessing, because if any of this ever became reality, it would be long after her death.
Which is fine, she thinks firmly, it’s fine, it’s fine, it’s fine, and she steels herself as she feels her body constrict again—inoutinoutinout.
At the end of Luis’s mother’s life, these attacks had come on so fast and close together that she’d deflated in the space of a week. Gasping, eyes watering, Cora pinches her cut thumb, comforted by the simple sharp pain of it.
All I want is five more days.
By the time the boat noses through water cloudy with polyethylene bags, Cora feels a stab of relief—We must be close! But this delight breaks as the day proceeds and the seamless blue of their journey turns murky, then blistered, with debris. A two-second dip of Peregrin’s landing net yields handfuls of waste: salt-blunted chips of white and gray and blue plastic, flakes of wave-softened styrofoam. She upends it all onto the deck, and three of them pick through it, with gloves, and morbid curiosity. For a moment Cora raises her hand and wills her fingers to drift and rest, prophetic, on something scattered by a lola or even older ancestor: maybe a family photograph storm-flung by some miracle, through decades and miles, to her possession, an omen, a sign that someone approves of how she’s chosen to live and die. But most of the stuff is slimy knots of trawling net, and tatters of fluorescent fishing rope: castoff sloughed off secretly, before it could be counted by an expense report.
Luis is somberly silent. Peregrin wipes her eyes.
“It’s different,” she murmurs. “When you see it in person.”
Cora nods, not wanting to waste air on a useless, depressed Yes. The sight of all this garbage, scabbed over the ocean and never healing, congeals in her like she sometimes imagines the plastic inside her does: not ruining her through some haywire of hormones but with something even more basic, as if the blame for her weakening body rests on crackling film and crumbling egg crates lodged between every capillary, too deep for fingers or fine instruments to wedge out. Thinking about it, she feels her chest tighten again, with a kind of claustrophobia—she scratches her skin, as if she could claw the poison inside her out—her cut palm catches on something, and bleeds anew, and the color is so wildly bright and spills so fast and for a moment she feels her chest going again, inoutinoutinoutin—
When she returns to consciousness, it’s in panic.
Luis, she tries to scream, and she feels her hand, gripped. Luis is in chair beside her hammock; Peregrin is standing over, as well. Both are teary.
“Hey, girl,” Peregrin says. “How are you?”
Fine, Cora mouths. She reaches her arm out, toward her laptop, but Luis takes her hand, and squeezes it.
“Cora,” they say, “I think you’ve done enough,” and for the first time, Cora can’t find the energy to argue. She slumps.
“There are nurses in the Gyre,” Peregrin whispers. “Doctors too, maybe. You think maybe one of them could help her? I don’t know, I mean—if they could even buy her just another month, or—”
“Maybe,” Luis says, and then turns back to Cora, making a smile. “Just four more days. Hang in there, Cora. This—this isn’t how you’re supposed to go. Don’t you . . . do you want to see the Gyre? Isn’t that worth staying here for, just a glimpse of it? You have to see it. You have to see where your work will go. Don’t you?”
Their eyes are red.
I’ll try, Cora mouths, because she knows they’d only protest if she said, I’m sorry you have to watch this happen all over again. You don’t deserve this.
Luis brushes her hair. “You’ve done enough,” they say, “just rest now, just sleep,” and for the first time, it’s the easiest thing in the world to do.
Maybe Luis is right.
I’ve done everything I needed.
I’ve done everything I could.
I can die now, in peace—
But in the days and hours before her death, robbed of the lush distraction of work, all she can think about is how hard it is to breathe. How cold she feels, even with Peregrin’s hand-knit shawl. How her whole body aches, especially her cut hand, even her whole arm. How Luis’s mother, in her deathbed, had painkillers, and movies, and short books—but all Cora has is an ache deeper than the one in her chest, something hard and huge in her belly, something that says, This can’t happen.
I can’t die yet. I still want—all I want—
Is . . . to . . . to see the Gyre.
Just three more days. To know the mycelium made it, and then, Cora swears, I’ll die, I know it, it’ll be fine, I’ll go without complaint, and so for the first time Cora listens exactly to what Luis says, stays wrapped in the hammock, drinks Peregrin’s bone broth, tries to ignore Peregrin and Luis whispering around her in anxiety, and Cora wishes, hopes, begs.
All I want is three more days.
One, please, one.
“Cora,” Luis calls, and Peregrin says, “Cora, sweetheart, wake up, we’re all docked and locked in, I’ve got your air, let’s go,” and together they heft her out of the hammock, out of the boat, and she thrashes, violently, but Luis says, “It’s alright, Cora, I packed the mycelium up, just like you wrote, they’re here, look,” and it’s true: the trays are stacked and labeled neatly, and now there’s someone here, and they’re taking the mycelium, legs wide and careful to keep balance because, yes, they’re all on a bridge, which is floating on the water, swaying gently. All around her are lights, and boats, rising and shining in the night.
She made it.
This is it.
I got it, everything I wanted.
I can—finally I can—
But peace, a comforting blanket of triumph and private fulfillment she always imagined, doesn’t come. Instead her lungs are burning, and her body is heaving. People are around her, lifting her up, and she hears Luis’s voice, “Please, Cora, please, hang in there,” and somehow her feet move beneath her, bringing her forward, forward, with some wild animal hope, as if there might really be someplace left still for her to go, and that place turns out to be a boat heady with the smell of sanitizer. Cora gasps hideously as she is released into a cot; Luis grips her hand as someone approaches, a nurse, maybe, with a stethoscope, and Cora inhales, and inhales, and inhales, ineffectually, and knows, suddenly, that this is really, actually it. Her final moments will be spent like this, in pain, in furious misery and marrow longing and nothing at all of being glad that she did something useful with her life. Somewhere in the burning of her body, her mind is even hotter, incendiary.
I want—all I want—is—
Not just one more day.
She wants days, months, years, more, everything: her whole life, all the years she should have had left, stolen from her because she was cheaper than the unspeakable complexities of a corporation cleaning up after itself. Their extravagance stole her hometown, her body, and her future, and left her not even this last minute on earth that she could spend in anything other than excruciation.
The nurse grips Cora’s shoulders.
“You’re having a panic attack,” they say. Their voice is firm: “Close your eyes. Listen. Breathe with me, using your diaphragm, right here,” and Cora almost tries to use her precious little wisp of air to shout, You don’t know what you’re talking about, but she sees it now, finally, in the blur of her tears, the nurse’s nasal cannula, and her tank, too, and Cora mashes her palms against her eyes, aligns her breathing to the nurse’s slow count: inoutinoutin . . . out . . . in . . . out.
“See?” the nurse says, smiling warmly, and Cora—inhales. Deeply—fully. She trembles, not from exhaustion now, or cold, but startled awe. As the world starts to re-align around her, she spots Luis, and gapes.
“Look,” she gasps, purely from disbelief, and Luis says, “No. You look.”
“At what?” Cora asks. She looks at the nurse, at the faces of the others in the room, coming into focus again, all staring, at her. Peregrin is covering her mouth. Cora looks down, and notices it, finally, under her collar. Trembling, she rips off her shawl, her sweater, her shirt.
Her skin is glowing. Threading through her palm, her forearm, and up across her entire chest is a lacework of vivid, fervent violet.