"The Leeshore: Chapter One"
by Robert Reed
The sailer same out of the mist and the gently falling filth. Its wind fin was unfurled, the triangular slice of skin taut and dark and speckled with little patches of faint luminescence. Ahead was a floating island – an enormous plastic island – shaggy and rounded and seeping a gentle red light. The sailer tacked. As if hunting, it followed the curving shoreline, its head dipped, all of its eyes submerged. On the leeward side of the island, the wind fell away, and the water went smooth. The sailer drifted, furling its wind fin. Then it kicked with both of its tails and turned away from the shoreline, the steady noise of its labor muted by the wind overhead and the mist and filth all around.
At the edge of the smooth water, it quit kicking, resting now, acting like everything else in the sea.
It lay still on the water, much like something dead.
A pair of figures crawled out from one of the bright orange gills. They looked small against the sailer’s broad back, wearing lifesuits and minimal packs and an assortment of lightweight equipment. Keeping low, they watched the island. Their voices were soft and cautious and not a little frightened by their circumstances. “At least the blood-oaks are doing well,” said the girl, her tone caustic and cold. “Can you see anything?” she asked. “Jellico?”
”Nothing,” her half-brother said.
She glanced at him. In the gloom, red-tinted and shadowy, all they could see was each other’s dark faceplate. “You think?”
She pulled herself higher, trying for a better look.
Grabbing a long leg, he said, “Abby.” He tugged on her once, then harder. “Abitibi.”
She retreated. “It’s got to be the one,” she admitted.
The size and shape. Where it was drifting and the degree of rot. Neither of them had any real doubts.
Quietly, with a touch of heat, Abitibi said, “Damn.”
Jellico laid still and quiet, thinking.
Abitibi asked, “What do we do now?” and then muttered, “Damn,” again, the word delicate and slow. “Jellico?”
”I…oh, never mind.”
Because they came knowing the worst, they took what they saw too well. Between Abitibi and Jellico ran feelings of not grieving enough. Of not being properly devastated. Even if the Islanders hadn’t been their family or friends – not in any real sense – at least they had been the only other humans on Leeshore. Like them or not. And so now they felt guilt for having dry eyes, and guilt for their still being alive. As if the proper thing was to have been here and died. As if either of them should have preferred an ignoble end to what they had now.
”Stuhr,” said Abitibi, a long gloved finger making a gesture.
Jellico asked, “Where?” and then he saw the stuhr.
The island was an enormous sphere riding low in the water, its surface shaggy with a tangle of treelike things above the surf and kelp below. Most of the fungal trees were blood-oaks, small as yet lacking the full crimson color of mature seed-bearers. Draped over the oaks, here and there, were ragged snatches of what seemed to be sheer plastic sheets. Stuhr, Jellico knew. Dead stuhr. Nothing else was left of the towering skyhook. The largest human thing for light-years around had collapsed into pieces nearly too small to be seen.
”I should swim in,” he decided. “Have a look.”
He thought a moment, then said, “There might be something we can use. Or maybe someone’s left alive.”
Abitibi said nothing.
”It would take two hours,” he judged. “Maybe three.”
”It’s not worth the risk,” she said. “They could still be nearby.” They. The Alteretics. Their faceless, shadowy enemies.
Jellico wasn’t listening. He was thinking about the Islanders and their precious skyhook. Decades ago, they came to Leeshore to build it all from scratch – a tower of hollow stuhr reaching into orbit; a feuling port ready to serve all comers – and, ever since, they had maintained the facilities and themselves with the same rigorous care, waiting for the day when a starship would come from Earth to relieve them. Saving them at long last. He could picture the Islanders now, and plainly – their thick ageless faces and their careful plodding ways. He had never understood them. Not a bit. His mother had been one of them once, of course, but he had never known her to look or act like them. Not hardly. And now, what with them dead and the island ruined, Jellico was beginning to see the world through their narrowed eyes. Finally. He was understanding how it feels to have dangers all around you. To have hazards imagined and hazards real.
”Alteretics,” he muttered to himself.
Abitibi heard the world but said nothing.
Mankind’s greatest threat, the Islanders had called them. Alteretics were demons led by a god of their own making. Ruthless monsters without decency or honor or trust.
Jellico decided, “They’re gone, I bet.”
”I don’t see any point in taking chances,” she said. “The skyhook’s down, and there’s no repairing it. So far, the Alteretics don’t know about us. I’d like to keep it that way.
”Abby,” he whispered, aiming to soothe. “I really think one of us should go in and look things over.”
”So go,” she snapped, arguments and patience both spent.
He lay beside her, thinking, the thick steady wind pushing the island towards them. They began to see details – individual oaks and the milky white of a narrow shoreline. The island smelled like something gone sour, then bathed in a strange almost-sweet deodorant. Jellico put his head close to Abitibi’s and said, “I’ll open a channel. I’ll put up my aerial. You can watch and hear me all the way.”
She said nothing.
”If anything goes wrong, anything, just leave. All right?”
Her silence seemed to mock him.
He gave a voice command to his own helmet, beginning to broadcast now, and he put a hand to his throat and closed the speaker under his faceplate. If anything, his voiced sounded closer. More intimate. He began backing away, saying to her, “Till later, Abby. All right? Hmm?”
”Sure.” She made herself lie still, watching him. “Just go.”
”With luck?” he asked, sounding boyish. “How about some?”
”Luck,” she said, making a gesture.
He told her, “Thanks,” and eased towards the water, every motion spare and secure. “Make it kick, Abby. When I say.”
She used a code word, linking the controls in her helmet to the sailer’s mind. The sailer woke from a fish-rich dream. Muscles rippled beneath them, shuddering and stretching. She looked down at Jellico, imagining the strong lean face behind the darkened glass. His helmet gave a nod. He was ready. So with another word Abitibi gave a command; and the sailer, thinking the command was its own, beat the water with all of its might.
The island vanished behind a wall of red-tinted spray.
End of Chapter I
©1987 Robert Reed -- All Rights Reserved