Jian hadn’t seen another person in fifty-eight days. She marked each lonely rotation on the inside of her hull with dots made from kelp paste. Fifty-eight wasn’t so long.
She slid around the makeshift table, squeezing down a small hall, and opened the door to the boat’s deck. She shut the door firmly behind her, checking the seals. Jian stood up to her full height in the cockpit of the Green Moon. Surveying the dark sea on all sides, Jian felt the expanse of the Tonghai flowing around her boat. It was familiar, dark and loving. Closing her eyes, the woman took a deep breath, pressing her hands against her torso, finding comfort in the harnesses’ webbing across her body.
Her fingers were sure as she clasped the lockjaw on the front of her harness and then on the lifeline. She opened her eyes, moving then across the Green Moon. The system was a spider’s web of plastigut all across her boat, a precaution against freak waves or unpredictable storms, or Jian’s own nerves. Safety accounted for, Jian walked along the deck, one foot after the other. Her feet were rough with calluses, and the alloshark skin she wrapped around her arches every week made it easier for her to keep steady on the often-slick hull.
From the entrance belowdecks it wasn’t far to the tiller, and she switched around the locks on the harness, sitting down comfortably. She was still headed West, toward the asterism her ancestors called Tiger King. Something like that. Jian wasn’t sure.
The white needle on her onboard compass waved across the marks. The sunsails were still up, glowing faintly with leftover solar from the day. It would be enough to keep her on course, even if the wind didn’t pick up in the night.
She shifted over, pressing another button and turning a large dial on the side of the hull, manually pulling up a salinometer. Still toxic. Not sludge, at least, but any fish or kelp she’d try to harvest would be so laden with chem and barriers she’d risk disease just by bringing it on deck. It was the thirtieth day of oceanox water, and Jian’s supplies were getting dangerously low.
There was a place—Jian knew, Jian had heard, Jian had been told—in the west, heralded by Tiger King and guarded by the Great Escapements, where there was fresh water. A fount of clean water, not just the not-quite-toxic currents she chased on her solarschooner. Even when the oceanox receded deep below the surface, and the sweetwater rose to the wave’s crest in cool weather, she still needed her sifturbines to work through chem and toxisalt to deliver semi-potable water. There wasn’t clean water anymore.
Jian pressed her lips together and sat back. The debris ring overhead was continually shifting; a massive clutch of orbiting garbage that sparkled a dusky bronze in the moonlight. Holding her hands up, she compared the constellations tattooed there to the winking stars in the sky, carefully matching them up—wei–zhao–jiuhe– zhongshan. She turned her wrists, continuing to draw the asterisms across her tanned skin.
In between her arms, crossing the inked border between the Supreme Palace and the Heavenly Enclosure, passed a tellerite. Jian dropped her hands quickly, standing up, eyes to the technology flying above her. Her hands shook as she undid the harness. Once free, she darted up the deck like a dolphin, jumping onto the aft mast and scrambling up to watch the tellerite fly overhead.
It had been four hundred and eighty-six days since she last saw a tellerite. They came a long time ago, and starting circling the various latitudes almost immediately. They were…ships, of some kind. There were a thousand different stories.
The massive tellerite above Jian had two large, spinning rings at the front of it, blazing through the sky. On the outside of the rings, a series of white and blue lights flashed, reminding Jian of the messages that large ships sent each other across the Tonghai.
In the center of the ring hovered a catamaran hull, long and segmented like a piece of bamboo with three exact sections. As the boat rocked forward along the wind, Jian could see shimmering threads of silken light connecting the inside of the rings to the segmented craft. At the end of the vehicle, sticking out a long way from the rings guiding the ship, there were three small starburst-shaped propellers that emitted a greenish glow, much like the St. Ulmo’s fire that lit up the top of her mast in sparking weather.
The tellerite passed with no indication of having seen Jian’s ship. It was orbiting at such a high altitude, that it took nearly an hour for Jian to lose sight of it. She strained her eyes, trying to pick out green fire against the flickering trash and stars. Eventually, she admitted to herself that she could no longer see the strange craft.
Her fingers were numb as she stumbled back to the transom of the boat, her hands trailing along the holds on the deck. Her mind was still on the tellerite as she walked back to the tiller. She didn’t realize that her harness was loose around her chest, that her lockjaw wasn’t on a lifeline.
A wave rocked the boat. Jian missed a step and slammed to her knees. She slid off the side of the boat as the Green Moon rose up fast on the crest. She caught herself on the outer lifeline, eyes wide with panic. The dark ocean surrounded her. Jian gasped and pulled herself onto the boat, her whole body shaking. She immediately felt the rough prick of poison on her skin.
Jian cursed, stood up quickly and darted into the cockpit. She shucked off her pants to protect her skin from further contact with the poison. Her legs were already starting to get hot and she was sweating behind her knees.
Stumbling belowdecks, Jian used a foot pump to draw purified water into the sink, mindful of the pressure even with her shaking legs. Her breath caught as a spike of pain dug into her calf. She wet a rag and quickly ran it over her legs, sloughing away the ocean’s toxisalt. The ocean had turned into a dark acidic compound over the millennia of picking up the afterbirth of a hundred civilizations. The hardened base plasticine of her hull and deck could handle the toxicity, and even nullify the acid to an extent, but her legs were not so tough.
The heat, almost agonizing, continued. Jian grimaced. The rag was covered with her leg hair, seared off at the root. She took a deep breath, angry and afraid. Her heart raced as she centered herself. After she steeled her nerves, Jian wiped her legs down again. This time, burnt-umber skin peeled off. Jian’s jaw clenched, a marlin-spike of anger digging into her, just as sharp as the burning sensation on her legs.
Closing her eyes tightly, Jian scrubbed around the outside edge of the chem burns, removing any trace of the grey-green molting that was already starting to show. Infections could spread into the open wound, even from clean skin. Jian gasped in pain when she wiped her legs down a third time, making sure no more flakes of skin slid off, leaving wide patches of her legs pink and hot.
Jian sat back and closed her eyes. The adrenaline was wearing off, leaving her exhausted. Her legs still burned, but it wasn’t spreading. The ache would fade in a few days.
She breathed, slowly in, slowly out. She focused on her breath and her body. Next, she focused on the Green Moon and the waves that rocked against it. The water tester whirred as the halyards thrummed. Her own heartbeat echoed in her ears like a shell’s cusp. Another breath in, and she let it go.
Reaching behind her, Jian found a jar of the molaluna gel she harvested. It was precious stuff; she only found the molaluna fish when its large body reflected moonlight in the dark—a silver flash in the sea. Her hands, face, and soles of her feet had been treated for many years with the gel, and it helped keep her fingers and toes whole when the current brought up the oceanox. She never possessed enough to coat her skin regularly to build up the same resistance.
Scooping out the sticky, translucent, algin-green gel, Jian rubbed it between her palms until it became warm and oily. She took a deep breath and coated her legs in the balm. The gel was immediately cooling, and Jian sighed with relief, pressing her fingers into the muscles of her calves, working out the tension that built up when the nerves in her legs were shocked by the toxisalt.
Her fingers brushed along her ankles, over the rough scars from ropes she wasn’t quick enough to jump over, and then back behind her calves. There was no more gel on her hands, and while Jian knew that using more would help get rid of the last of the tingling sensation on her shins, the pot was running low. She needed to treat her face, feet, and hands at least once a week, and she was still in the oceanox current.
Sitting back against the woven plastic cushions, Jian’s eyes fluttered. Exhaustion crept up on her. Spotting the tellerite delayed her final preparations, and her slip into the Tonghai drained the last of her energy. Wasn’t there clean water? Would that heal her? Would that heal the world?
This was enough. Jian yawned and crawled to the lower deck, bent almost in half as she found her hammock. She angled herself in, strapping her hammock up to the ceiling to prevent her from rolling in the middle of the night. On her side, she dug into the familiar stretched-out spot where her shoulder fit perfectly.
Jian reached out for the monitor cuff. It would wake her if there was anything that needed her attention in the middle of the night. She settled down and took some kelp jerky from a small cubby above her head. She fell asleep with her mouth full and a dribble of brown paste dripping from her lips, staining the bag below her as she slept.
On the sixty-third day that passed without Jian seeing another person, the readings on her salinometer finally showed safe levels of oceanox. She whooped and scurried down the hatch, pulling up various bait and tackle.
Stringing up the complicated web of fishing lures typically took over an hour, but Jian’s fingers were practiced and her knots were fast. She set up a series of hardbells at certain line junctions. Whenever something was hooked, a specific melody would ring out. Her father had mastered intricate trills that were bright and rushed, but all of Jian’s patterns were lullabies and chants, simple and uncomplicated.
The bells weren’t built for fishing days, but Jian felt guilty if they ever chimed out during her travel when the water around her was poison. It made her uneasy. They were bells of plenty and blessings and offerings. Music should be made the omen of good days.
She walked to the bow, playfully plucking the lines as she stepped over them, catching them with the tips of her toes, her boat resonant. The waves that her hull dove through added to the symphony. She sat at the bow of her boat and looked forward. Jian took a deep breath, held it, and let it out as her bow nosed down into the water.
Some of the spray hit her face, her cheeks and neck. She kept her eyes closed and breathed in as the Green Moon rose on the crest of another wave, the bright sunlight hitting her solarails and reflecting warm golds down on her nose. The Moon’s bow nosed down again, water flew up, hitting her hands and knees, and she smiled.
She breathed in with the waves and out with the Tonghai. Her lungs the wind, her blood the current. Wasn’t her blood metallic like the nox? Didn’t she cry sludge-salt tears? There was no proof other than her own body that told her that the world deserved to be Tonghai, that her small boat and small struggles were part of a larger current, a larger weather pattern. There was something shifting in the skies, Jian knew it. She was that shift, in every breath in every tack. Jian was the prayer alive.
The first bell that rang out, crystalline and bright, held nothing but red kelp. Using a small screener she tested the kelp periodically as she hauled it on board, but all indicators read safe to handle. As Jian pulled it under the lifelines, she picked off small ten-legged crablings, throwing them into a cone-shaped bucket. She was fast, flicking them with deadly accuracy into the pot, the mushy knocks of shell against plasticine creating an odd rhythm to accompany her chimes.
She hung the kelp out to cure under the solarsails with U-shaped needles, securing them to the wires underneath the booms. Halfway through the task, another chime rang out.
Jian carefully picked her way over the lines toward the sibilant bell. She tugged on the line gently, testing the resistance on it. Taut, and growing harder. Jian found some slack and wrapped the line around a horn, activating the pressure gauge. She strapped into a trap harness and stepped outside of the lifeline, leaning out over the Tonghai. Using her body as leverage, Jian pressed down on the fishing line to give it more leeway, and when she lifted herself up, the horn turned to pull in the slack.
Slowly, in inches, Jian measured her body against the strength of whatever creature she caught on her line. The hooked beast was heavy, and it was trying to swim away, not down. It wasn’t the panicked motion of the smaller, more mindless fish, but a controlled, invested focus of a beast intent on getting away. There was a long way to go, and no way to see what was on the line. Taking a deep breath, Jian leveraged her body up and then pushed back down again.
The sun beat on her back and shoulders. She dripped sweat back into the Tonghai, an offering of salt to salt.
Jian had only a concept of prayer, only knew parts and portions and half the theory tied to prayer. Her father taught her chants that turned into many hums and murmurs meant for repetition with intentions and motivations, but right now, her only goal was on the other end of a plastigut line, and her only focus was on the dark water underneath her.
Jian prayed to the water; to stay clean and feed her. She prayed to the spinning horn on her boat to keep turning. Jian took a deep breath and prayed to the wind to keep her sails full. Jian let her breath turn the ocean’s prayer wheel, each movement of her body against the water an effort for the dharma within the warm, clean current. She moved the wheels of absolution as a fish moves in the ocean.
It was night when Jian finally hauled the creature near enough to see it. When she saw the sloped ridge line breaking the water, she hoped it was an eel or another long, ray-finned beast. It would be easy to chop up and haul into the boat piece by piece. In a stroke of luck, the creature swam toward the boat, and the horn spun in the slack. Jian’s smile faded fast as the lumins under the water exposed its full size and shape.
A turtle. A massive, fully-grown, algin-green turtle.
Jian’s arms shook from exhaustion and disappointment as the turtle swam up to her hull. She slumped onto the boat, watching as all her prayers turned back on her.
She couldn’t bring the turtle into the boat. She couldn’t. The Green Moon was small, with no crane. There was no second boat to help her net the turtle and drag it up the transom. A day of work all spent bringing in a beast that she could take nothing from. Jian sat down on the deck. The turtle swam over and knocked its head against the hull. The edge of its flipper slid under the boat, knocking against the rudder, and the boat shifted.
“Stop that.” Her voice was hoarse and dry.
The turtle knocked against the rudder again.
Jian shifted forward, sliding her legs off the side of the boat. The back of the hull sloped together and down, and the area near the stern was lower to the water. The turtle was large enough that her taped-up feet could touch the top of its leathery dome.
Her toes dug into the algin that grew across the turtle like a long beard, trailing behind it at least three feet. She swallowed and closed her eyes, overwhelmed suddenly, tearing up. Sliding in between the top and middle lifelines, Jian curled over herself, setting her feet firmly against the turtle’s back. She sucked in a breath and wrapped her arms tightly across her torso.
With her feet on the turtle’s shell, Jian sobbed. The whole day spent bringing in a creature too big for her to handle, too old for her to understand, too strong to give up. Her tears were so dry they left gritty streaks under her eyes.
Underneath her toes, the turtle swam next to the boat.
The sunsails whirring to life in the morning light woke her. She had fallen asleep, rocked by the Moon and secured in her trap harness, too exhausted to move.
She looked down and was startled to see the turtle looking up at her. It swam placidly next to the boat, not pulling against the plastigut. Its large fins–each easily the full length of one of Jian’s arms–waved gently.
The shame was immediate. Here was a living creature dragged like a downed flag in the water. She tried to stand too fast and her legs almost collapsed. Jian gripped the lifeline tightly and took a slow, deep breath. She focused; she was here, with the turtle and the Tonghai.
“I am sorry,” Jian said to the turtle, walking over to the horn. There wouldn’t be any way to get the hook back, and maybe that was enough of a loss to make up for the way she treated the beast. She crouched by the rotating horn, taking her knife out of its pouch.
The blade stopped an inch from the line. She swallowed and looked down at the turtle.
Its head, large, scarred, was turned towards her, beak open. Jian saw it, deeply. Saw how it survived, saw that it swam fast and strong, that it understood more than Jian understood. Jian hesitated to let it go. What other beast would know her as this turtle knew her?
The turtle blinked, the murky third eyelid pulling back to reveal the true sheen of its eyes. Its eye, dark blue, dappled with golden flecks, stared at her.
Constellations turned within the turtle’s eye, stars brightly shining and spinning. Jian’s loneliness ran through like a shock of lightning. She pulled the knife up and the turtle was free.
The turtle continued to swim next to the boat, now without a tether, and for a few seconds Jian allowed herself to believe that the creature would stay with her. Then the turtle blinked, and the stars in its eye disappeared, and the spell was broken. It ducked its head and dove under the water, sliding into the depth of the Tonghai where Jian could not follow.
She watched the space on the ocean where she last saw the turtle until her eyes hurt. She blinked, and the reflection of the waves left something wrong on her memory. She was lost at sea, and wondered if the feeling of the algin in-between her toes was enough to convince her that the turtle was ever there at all.
Not long after Jian set the turtle free, she spotted sails on the horizon. Quickly, Jian readied for trade. She set her tiller and charted a course diverting north, towards the second boat. There was little fear of pirates on the Tonghai. There was too much risk for both parties. Kill or be killed meant that everyone died. Instead of turning away, Jian pulled her sails closer to the center line as she went tighter to the wind. She found her radio and tested it, pleased that crud hadn’t built up on the mastennae.
“Hailing the schooner with blue sails, this is Jian-” Her voice cracked, and she leaned over to grab a skein of water for her parched throat. There was a soft crack on the other end of the radio and Jian took a deep breath.
“This is Jian of the Green Moon. I have turned up to you.”
She paused, waiting. A hiss of static, then nothing. Another longer hiss. Jian felt her nerves in her throat. She glanced at the kelp dots painted on the inside of the hull. The boat rode on the waves gently as Jian took a long breath, closing her eyes.
“This is Jian of the Green Moon. I have trade and…”
She trailed off, her mouth dry. Another burst of static.
This time, she listened. A pattern. She found a kelp-charcoal pencil and wrote out static and pause as it came across the radio.
“Head up. Have trade. Return happy. Head up. Have trade.”
Jian bit her tongue to keep from grinning like a fool. She opened up the line again.
“Thank you Blue Sail. I am heading up. I have fish, some spare tech. I can repair solarsails,” she said, her voice breaking again. She glanced out at the other boat, and listened. Over the radio came another series of silence and static; “We are Waka Manawa Ora. Hail Green Moon.”
When Jian came close enough to the Ora, she saw that it comprised of three hulls, the smaller outriggers on either side each as long as the Green Moon. The middle hull, the largest and longest, stuck out another twenty feet, with at least two levels into the hull. It was very impressive, and Jian sailed up slowly, reefing her sails to control her approach.
There werefive people lined up against the safeties. Jian held up one hand as she maneuvered the Moon with the other. The hull of her boat knocked against the starboard outrigger as she docked.
Jian swallowed, took a deep breath, spoke in commonate: “Hail.”
A wiry woman with long hair, braided back, stepped towards Jian and bowed, holding her hand out. Along the Ora’s hull, the rest of the group hooked the Moon’s lines to raft their boats together. Jian smiled brightly at the crew, and looked up at the woman, taking her hand.
Jian was pulled onto the Ora easily—the woman’s broad shoulders flexed as Jian’s feet landed on the rosin-coated deck. She pulled Jian into a hug, holding her tightly. Jian let a breath out, and wrapped her arms around the darker woman, closing her eyes. She felt strong, sun-warmed, and whole. She felt something rise up, and almost began to cry, simple human touch nearly enough to unspool Jian.
“Welcome, friend,” the woman murmured, taking a step back. “You honor us.”
Jian nodded, bowing back. “You honor me,” her voice was soft and gravelly.
The woman nodded, gesturing. “Eat with us. We have plenty on this clean rise.”
Jian swallowed and looked around the large boat. The Ora was deeper than she thought, and could probably house fifteen comfortably. How they survived on the Tonghai—a clan floating among the poison—was remarkable. It made her eyes tear up, the resilience of people. She took a deep breath.
“You honor me,” she repeated as the woman led her across the netting to the center hull, and into the depths of the Ora.
The meal was roasted fish, a salad with spicy peppers that the gardener, Yerva, grew from a mix of kelp-soil, excrement, and ground-up fishbones. Jian’s mouth burned at the spice, but she picked out the orange-red disks and popped them in her mouth, crunching down. Boolie quickly offered her water, holding her up as she coughed.
The laughter around her as her eyes prickled and her face became warm made her cry, but she was able to blame it on the pepper. She turned, could smell the sweetness of Boolie’s skin, the heat that radiated off her even in the cool evening.
After dinner, Boolie, offered to escort her back to the Moon for the night, keeping a steadying hand on Jian’s back.
“We will trade tomorrow,” Boolie said, looking at the stars tattooed along Jian’s arms. “We have a sheet of solar for you to look over.” Jian blinked and nodded, not moving away from Boolie, watching her with clear eyes.
Jian stood at the edge of the Ora, looking over Boolie. The captain caught Jian’s eye, and Jian flushed red again, but this time without any spice to blame. Boolie caught her jaw next, and kissed her gently.
Jian was not so gentle, pulling Boolie onto the Moon, and taking her belowdecks, tangling her hands in Boolie’s long hair.
In the pre-dawn shine of the morning, Jian instructed the youngest onboard the Ora—a small, green-eyed boy named Té—on how to properly lay out the solarsails. Té ran around, pulling on the tack to tighten the sail. All three sides of this sail—the leech, luff, and foot—had to be without creases or Jian wouldn’t be able to properly see the connections. Once Té lashed the tack to a horn on the far outrigger, Jian began the painstaking process of testing the connections and reflecthread woven throughout the teflon sails.
“Will it all glow again?” Té asked, standing at Jian’s right, holding her bag of tools tightly. “It should,” Jian said softly. She inspected the reflecthread and the hex-panel it was woven into, then
moved down, hands running over the edge of the sail. Fraying at the borders was the most common, but the easiest to fix. She spotted the first short thread about a third of the way down the sail and gestured for Té to sit down next to her on the netting.
“See this?” Jian held up the edge, showing him the broken connection.
Té nodded. Jian quickly took a bit of wiring and a bit of tack from the bag Té held open and rubbed the thread until it became smooth. Then, she laid the wire down to the border and covered it with the tack again. She applied a sealant made from the intestinal lining of the alloshark, and then leaned over to blow on it. Té watched with wide eyes.
She finished mending the connection and scooted down the net. The solarsail had to be up the mast and boom to absorb and provide energy to the boat, so most of the work Jian was doing wouldn’t be seen until they tested the sail out in the light. It was tedious work, and Jian could see that Té’s attention was fading as he glanced over his shoulder, his hands going from his knees to his face to the sail.
“I can take the bag now,” she said, holding her hand out. “Go play somewhere else.”
The child wavered for a second, and Jian smiled at him.
“Thank you for your work today.”
Té nodded, pulled the bag off his belt, and handed it over. He ran across the boat and strapped into the security lines, called for another member of the crew—his mother, presumably—to check his harness. The instant he was approved, Té scrambled under the boat, setting up fishing lines and lures attached to the side of the outrigger. Jian wondered if she could set up a similar rig on her boat.
Lost in thought for a few minutes, Jian didn’t notice Boolie until the woman knelt down next to her.
“How does she look?”
Jian shrugged, smiling at her hands. “Not bad. None of the previous repairs have been damaged.”
“Good to hear. We ran out of sealant a few months ago and never found a suitable material replacement.”
Jian nodded. “I sailed over a pod of shark five weeks ago. Was able to get some small ones on board.”
“I’m grateful for it.”
“So am I.”
Jian nudged Boolie’s leg, and the captain slid down the net, giving Jian room to follow. They were silent down the leech and the foot of the sails. Jian inspecting, fixing, nudging. Boolie smiling, touching her arm, asking about each star written there.
“I’m headed west,” Jian said finally, after they had clambered around the entire sail.
“We’re chasing the warm current,” Boolie responded, looking over at the other end of the boat where Té and Yerva were pulling up a small octopus. “We’ll be heading northward soon.”
Jian nodded, keeping her head down, smiling. She was so pleased that Boolie was near her, and as she worked, she occasionally reached over, touching Boolie’s hands.
Boolie was about to say something when a strange noise cut through the bustle of activity on the boat.
Rustling, then, a sharp caw.
“Birds!” Boolie yelled and jumped up. She quickly ran to the center hull, joined by two more of her crew. They started scaling the masts as Jian watched, eyes wide.
“Bearing down!” The navigator—a stout man name Harral—called out. Boolie responded with a sharp whistle, gesturing south. Turning towards the port side, across the bow of her own Moon (still lashed to the Ora’s outrigger), Jian saw the flock, a feathered cyclone of birds that drifted up in expanding helixine patterns. Such creatures were rare, and Jian quickly waved for Té to come over and help her flake the sail for storage.
The Ora turned around and approached the birds from leeward, giving them more control over their speed. The sail safely belowdecks, Jian found a vantage point on the starboard outrigger. The birds cycloned upward slowly. They had long wings, tilted down into the center of the vortex. The tips of their wings were curled upwards, and Jian’s father used to tell her that this adaption helped create a vacuum to draw the flock upwards, allowing the entire group to fly for weeks at a time without touching the water.
At the center of their vortex, where the flock dropped down into the sea, was a large floating mass. It was bright green, with shimmering red stripes up its sides.
She called Té over, pointing at the colorful creature.
“That is a nesting nomad,” Jian said, her eyes on the bowl of its center. “There will be bird’s eggs in the middle. They are protecting it.”
“We’ll take the eggs?” Té asked.
Jian shrugged, looking up at the members of the crew. They were all setting up small hand-harpoons. “We take the birds for flesh and feathers. We leave the eggs for more birds.”
Té nodded, settling down next to Jian. The Ora slowed down, almost crawling as they came within throwing distance. Boolie gave another series of whistles, and hand-barbs flew from the boat, spearing birds’ wings. They dragged the birds into the boat like kites, dropping them down to Yerva, who snapped their necks and laid them out carefully, placing them over a channeled part of the hull that collected any blood that dripped off them.
Jian was silent, noting the cruel efficiency of the harpooning. After almost two dozen of the creatures were brought on board Boolie let out another sharp whistle and called for a halt.
The rest of the day was spent plucking the oil-slick feathers, setting aside the offal to cure in brine as a bait reserve, and butchering birds. Dinner that night was birds over fresh seaweed, and Jian licked the meat juices from her fingers as Boolie’s hip pressed against hers.
On the Moon, Jian dozed on the couch, curled against Boolie’s larger frame, listening to the dual patterns of the waves and Boolie’s breathing. She sighed, pressed her face against Boolie’s neck, and fell into a deep sleep, smelling birdflesh on her breath.
The next morning, after Jian tested the Ora’s solarsail and felt its heat, she prepared to leave. The Moon was now stocked with octopus and birds, in addition to the tackle and thread given for the sail repair. She stood on the bow, testing the stays, and then wandered back over to the starboard side of the boat, looking up at the members of the Ora who were lining up to say farewell.
The woman who minded Té apologized, and said he was too sad to say goodbye. Harral gave her a needle’s point from a compass on a small chain, and fastened it around her neck. Yerva gave her a bowl of bone-soil that was already sprouting up a few seedlings.
“Peppers,” she muttered, giving her a hug. “Careful harvesting them—they will burn your hands.”
When Boolie embraced her, Jian wanted to cut the Moon free and bind herself to the Ora forever. It was the pang of an oncoming loneliness. Boolie kissed her temple and pulled away. Jian forced herself to take a step back, and then step over the Ora’s lifelines, down to the deck of the Green Moon.
Harrel cast off her bow, and Boolie the stern, and Jian cradled the bowl as her raised sails caught the wind and spun her down, pulling her away from the comfort of company. She raised a hand as she drifted, and then began to sail away.
“Hail, Waka Manawa Ora, fair winds.” Jian convinced herself her voice didn’t crack. Boolie raised a hand in response, but her voice was snatched by a gust that dropped from the clouds, pulling the lighter Green Moon away from the trimaran.
The Ora sailed, and Jian kept her eyes fixed on the boat until she could not see the figures on the sides, until the sails were just blue glimmers that disappeared on the Tonghai’s horizon. Jian sat in the cockpit, cradling the seedling bowl, trying not to think of the folly of chasing the stars to the west, following the patterns on her arms that grew closer the sky.
She spent her life searching for Tiger King, for the Escapement-sky. She desperately pursued the season and the hemisphere that would show the asterisms on her hands. She would not be pulled off course for the sake of a week of companionship. There was weak water, the floating river, and it was clean and it would take her to the sea of sweet fish.
Night fell, and Jian looked up at the garbage ring that crossed the sky. The moon was half-gone and Jian was alone on her small ship, with only dead birds and pepper sprouts for company.
The first morning Jian woke without Boolie next to her, without the Ora knocking against kelp-macramed buoys, she placed the first small algin dot on the plastifiber hull of her boat.
It wouldn’t help her to dwell on that lonely dot, and she quickly made her way to the deck. Jian checked the sails and her heading, and then spun the salinometer. The oceanox levels remained in the safe zone, the cool clean water still too heavy for the warmer poison it rise to the surface. The current would shift soon; it’s why the Ora went north toward the cold water.
Jian decided not to set up the full symphony of strings and bells, and settled for a half-chorus of tack rigged only from the transom of the boat. There were hours of work to do repairing netting, and she started by stripping the leafy parts of kelpweed from its stalk. The weaving required concentration and swift fingers, and Jian crouched over the work, focused. No bells rang out, and time passed, the pooling of netting spreading like a leaky bilge around her feet.
The sun was high when Jian finally sat up straight, cracked her back, and looked around, blinking. The bells were soft, but no chime indicated a catch. The sound helped lull her into her craft. She stood, hands on her lower back and stretched, closing her eyes as she turned her face upwards. What kind of prayers come from knotwork, Jian wondered. What constellations turned underneath her hands?
She hummed and turned toward the bow. The solarsails were up, glowing bright and creating a circuit of warmth across her boat. Stepping up on the cockpit seat, Jian walked along the Moon’s deck. As her eyes adjusted to the reflection off the Tonghai she froze. Her hand tightened around the maststay, and she took a deep breath.
On the horizon, tall, stalk-like orange protrusions jutted out of the water. Dozens of them, orange and white, with silver streaks emanating from the tip down to the base, hidden under the water. Jian’s mouth was dry. She had no idea what these were. They undulated gently on the horizon, the silver along their sides flashing as the protrusions waved.
Jian knew that she should bear down, pick up speed downwind and avoid this new mystery that rose from the depths. That was the right decision, the good decision, and she knew deep in her bones that this was not something she understood.
It was not the decision she made. She scrambled back to the cockpit, bringing in the Moon’s sails, heading up to the distant creatures.
They were cerata. Horns on the horizon.
There was one grouping, and then a second, and she got closer and realized there was a third, all shimmering gently, sunset-colored, reflecting across each other. The cerata were moving in a circle, around each other. It wasn’t obvious until she got closer that these massive, soft-skinned beasts were swimming together. Jian had never seen giant nudibranch before, she had never even considered that they were real—how did they survive the oceanox? Jian could see through their skin to the soft cartilage-like tissue that went through the cerata.
She could hardly think straight as she sailed closer, her hand tight on the tiller. The cerata towered above her mast, the giants not even considering the Green Moon as they swam. Not in circles, but in a strange interwoven pattern, one that mimicked the netting Jian tied together for hours. Jian wanted to cry again, the same feeling when she saw the asterisms in the turtle’s eye. Every creature overwhelmed her, made her feel desperately connected to the world around her. Giants still searched the ocean, the Tonghai could sustain beasts, of course it could sustain her. She turned a dial on the tiller, and the forward pumps turned on, pushing from the bow, stopping the boat, still fully-rigged, from moving forward.
She stood then, knowing she should turn away, knowing that this was foolish, and fools did not last on the Tonghai, knowing this and standing anyway, she walked to the bow. She slid around the forestay, onto the pulpit. She slid out over the water, her toes curled around the mesh grid. Jian took a deep breath and reached out towards one of the undulating cerata, stretching with her full body and her fingers, the bright colors hypnotizing.
Overhead, a tellerite spun. Jian looked up, eyes huge, the craft lower in the sky than she had ever seen any of the strange vehicles fly. It was V-shaped, the point moving forward, the two terminals of the shape rotating, the stems emitting a white power source that kept the tellerite going. Jian was so distracted by the tellerite that when the nudibranch came closer, a massive cerata knocking against the Green Moon Jian’s whole body went into the water, and she fell head-first into the Tonghai.
The massive bodies of the nudibranchs created a current that swept her under their bellies, the cerata and plumes on their sides pushing water down, and Jian along with it. She couldn’t swim against the beasts, and tried to dive deeper to get away from their pull, but the vacuum sucked her into the center of the circling creatures. They pulled her in.
Jian struggled and couldn’t swim back to the Moon. Like a whirlpool, she was sucked into the eye of it. Turned around, she fought to reach the surface—any surface. She grabbed onto a cerata, but it was too soft, and she found no grip. The bright lights of the horns were blurring together, and the brightness of the beasts did nothing to guide her. Jian’s air was running out—the pressure on her chest more painful than any fall or hurt. She took one last furious kick towards a bright flash of light, and broke the surface.
Her eyes were wide as she gasped for air, treading water.
It was night-time. She looked around quickly, still gasping, her adrenaline pumping in her ears. It had been day when she fell. She swallowed, looked up, and saw the V-shaped tellerite still nearby, moving slowly across the sky. A bit ahead of the tellerite bobbed the Green Moon, still locked in the holding position where she left it.
Jian almost sunk back under the Tonghai. Her arms hurt. They ached from her wrists to her shoulders. She turned on her back, took a deep breath, and then began to swim to her boat.
It took nearly ten minutes for her to get to the hull, and she rested against the transom, holding onto the pull-down ladder. Jian looked up, blinking salt water out of her eyes. The tellerite was still moving, but now even slower. It turned slightly, as if searching for the right star to anchor on.
Jian swallowed and heaved herself into the Moon. She sat heavily in the cockpit, her whole body sagging. The tellerite was still there, hanging, moving slowly.
The craft ducked down, and then, like a finger drawing the constellations between stars, it moved in a set pattern, nosing into the Tonghai. Jian could be imagining things, delirious after falling into the water. She forced herself up, holding onto the lifelines as she walked along the deck. She sat down heavily, eyes fixed on the tellerite.
As the V of the craft lifted out of the Tonghai, a waterfall streamed down from its bow. Jian’s pushed at her eyes until they watered, but the water continued to pour. Her mouth was dry as the spacecraft spun towards her, the ends of the V’s submerging themselves into the water, the apex of the craft slowly turning to point up.
The water continued to flow from the apex, not down to the bubbling, white-silver waves, but up into the heavens, a river of water ascending into the sky.
Jian’s breath caught in her throat.
She ran back to the cockpit, her hands fumbling with the dial on the tiller. The pumps at the bow stopped, and the Green Moon, running on stored sols, shot forward. She aimed the bow in the middle of the two stems, her eyes huge as the Moon sailed in between the engines. She looked up, at the river that streamed up from the apex of the tellerite, and nudged her boat forward, up onto the waterfall, and then onto the weak river. Tears began to slide down her face as she rose above the Tonghai, sailing on the sky’s clean water.