The Tides Rolled In
by Chris Muscato. Colorado, U.S.A.
The tides rolled in. The tides rolled out. It was as simple as that. And in that simplicity there was power. Enough to light entire cities, even, not that Afton knew personally. Her little village did just fine, roaming the waves, but in her thirteen years she’d never seen the capital of the Floating Republic. She’d never walked on sidewalks so steady it was said you couldn’t even feel the rocking of the waves. For Afton, sea legs were the only legs she’d ever known. But today, that would change.
Afton looked down at the scroll in her hands, her eyes hovering over the pliable screen. Her lips twitched, a subconscious reflex as she rehearsed her plan, her thoughts finding shape in the inaudible whispers escaping her mouth. Then a breeze blew a stray hair in her face and she suddenly became aware of herself, feeling the subtle burn of embarrassment in her cheeks and her eyes darted back and forth assessing whether anyone had seen her talking to herself, seen what was on her tablet. She darkened the screen and rolled up the scroll, tucking it into her belt and leaning against the rail of her ship, mind still turning as she lost herself for a moment in the horizon.
“Ahoy there, matey!” A voice boomed from behind her. “Be ye ready to see the great city?”
Afton rolled her eyes as she turned towards the sound of footsteps.
“You’re not going to talk like that in the city, are you?”
“What be ye talking about? This be how all captains speak!”
The Captain roared with laughter, rubbing his round belly.
“Captain, come look at this,” came a voice.
“Duty calls,” the Captain winked, his voice trailing after him as he scuttled off. “What have ye scallywags done now?”
Afton rolled her eyes again, turning back to the ocean churning rhythmically below the bow of her community. Her young fingers traced the edges of the scroll secured in her belt for a moment, then slowly withdrew it. A sound caught her attention and her head snapped in the direction of the captain’s thunderous voice, still audible even from the adjacent deck. Afton shook her head and shoved the scroll back into her belt. Despite her father’s outwards demeanor, he always said it was a great privilege to be elected captain of a village.
It was also a great privilege to be a captain’s daughter, and so Afton diligently bustled about her chores, inspecting rigging and cleaning solar panels as her village plowed through the waves. She checked in on the gardens, talking softly to the plants as she brushed the leaves with her fingers. She stopped by the ikat huts and brought tea to the weavers. She followed her father on a routine inspection of village. Even with the new carbon filaments, there was always thatching that could be done on the woven roofs of the many rumah adat of the village, from the conical Mbaru Niang of the Wae Rebo deck to the Batak Toba deck’s pointed gables. The entire village swayed on its half-submerged piles, and Afton skipped deftly from deck to deck along rope ladders and walkways, assisting with whatever tasks she could find, stopping only occasionally to smell yams and shrimp boiling in pots of aromatic spices.
There were more than enough things to do in the village, more than enough distractions to keep her mind occupied. And yet, as she bustled from deck to deck, from chore to chore, she couldn’t help but become aware that the inner decks and structures were quickly emptying of people. There was an excitement sizzling throughout the village, a palpable energy that swept people away from their work like a riptide and ferried them to the village’s outer railings. It wouldn’t be long now.
Afton tried to remain focused, to remain diligent. She tried to ignore the buzzing in the back of her mind, the itching in her fingers that seemed magnetically drawn to the scroll in her belt, the notes and outlines and maps flashing across its surface. She tried. It wasn’t long, however, until she could stand it no more and found herself wedged alongside the other children, eagerly scanning the horizon.
Cerulean waves danced before her village, a mesmerizing rhythmic geometry tracing the fine border between sea and sky until blending into a medley of soft blues and misty haze. Beams of sunlight punctured the waves, columns of luminescence streaking defiantly into the depths below. Afton had lived her entire life on these waters. The ocean was their home, their power generator, their garden, and still it never ceased to steal her breath from her lungs. There was something her father would say whenever he caught her gazing upon the sea, that all the formulas and equations in the world wouldn’t mean a thing if they couldn’t simply appreciate the beauty of it. Harmony required more than mathematics.
Living among the waves, carried by currents and the natural rhythms of the ocean alongside the fish and the dolphins, over forests of seaweed and metropolises of coral, their village was one with the watery world surrounding it. They had found their harmony, but very soon the entire village would get to experience this on an entirely new scale. The city was getting closer. It was hard to imagine that such place was still able to exist in perfect unison with its ecosystem. The city was just so big.
Incredible as it was to believe, Afton heard that there were once cities even larger on the land, even if most people today lived on the water. Her ancestors lived in such a city, a long-lost place her grandparents called Jakarta, a name they only spoke of in the reverent whispers of a people eternally in mourning. It was one of many places reclaimed in the Great Flooding. That’s what her grandparents called it, although Afton never really understood the term. It didn’t sound so great. Entire countries disappeared into the ravenous sea, hundreds of thousands dead and millions displaced by the rising ocean, the survivors moving onto the water as the remaining land dried up and was depleted. Afton read all about it. She was good at science. All the marine ecologists and engineers and meteorologists in her village said so. What didn’t make sense to Afton was how nobody noticed. Her grandmother said that people were aware the ice was melting but weren’t willing to do anything about it, neither to save the planet nor the people, but that made even less sense.
When Afton looked down at her hands, she was surprised to see her scroll between her fingers. She glanced around, and slunk away into a corner as she opened it, eyes hungrily zipping from side to side. Her lips twitched as she read over the plan, little beads of sweat forming on her brow. She looked around again, ensuring that her father was not watching, could not witness her nervous recitations. Huddled against the wall, the scroll an inch from her nose, Afton read over it again, and again.
“There it is!” Someone shouted. Eyes popping open wide, Afton felt her heartbeat jump and she rose on the tips of her toes to try and see between the crowds pointing and gasping, her small frame weaving between legs until she reached the railing. And there, crystalizing in the distance, magnificent structures began to take shape. The excitement was enough that even Afton’s great agenda and responsibilities vanished in her mind, the scroll returning hastily to her belt as eager eyes bulged with wonder.
The village slowed as it navigated the maze of wind and tidal turbines heralding the appearance of the great city itself. Children on the floating village pointed upwards in awe at these awesome structures, children inhabiting apartments on top of the turbines laughing and waving giddily at the passing community. Their cheers joined with the clarion songs of seabirds plunging and diving, skimming the water’s surface, frolicking between roosts built into the slowly revolving edifices.
“You know every one of these turbines provides the backbone for an entire ecosystem,” Afton informed a young boy who clung to the railings next to her, mouth agape. Afton tipped her head to glimpse a rainbow of brightly colored fish darting between the turbines. “There’s all sorts of reefs living down there.”
With the village magnetically tethered, the villagers poured onto the dock amid gasps of wonder and the craning of necks. Afton swayed back and forth as she took it in, her body adjusting to its first time on a structure that didn’t rock with the waves, or at least rocked more subtly.
Afton slowly took in the towering structures that composed the city, mouth hanging open. There was so much here that she wanted to see. The underwater greenhouses. The hatcheries. The reefs. The ocean, a wild garden that sustained the city. Her father also said that the capital had the most innovative waste reclamation system in the world, but Afton didn’t feel like she needed to see that in person.
Of course, all of that would have to wait. Afton looked down at her hands, her throat going dry as she saw them trembling. She tried to retrieve her scroll, but for the first time her fingers seemed unable to reach it. The weight of it all seemed like an anchor on her shoulders, the reason her village had come to the city rising like floodwaters over her head. It was time to coordinate the rotations of fishing grounds, sustainability quotas, and the sharing of resources, but this year there was another issue at hand. A young girl from a small inconsequential village, just one in the vast Floating Republic, had discovered an unintended consequence of their fishing practices on the marine ecosystem. This research needed to be presented to the general assembly.
Afton clenched her fists, trying to quiet her shaking fingers. The presentation seemed so daunting. The Floating Republic was so big, and she was so small. But her father always said that a utopia was not a place where things were perfect, only a place that was willing to address its own imperfections. And now she was part of that.
“Avast! Be that the great savior of our rolling seas?” The Captain’s booming voice rattled Afton. She turned, clenching her teeth and trying to look brave. It was a great responsibility to be the captain’s daughter, and she wanted to be worthy of it. It was a great honor, to be heard by the assembly. It was a great privilege, to be a steward of the vast maritime garden they called their home. It was all so great, and in that moment she felt so small.
The Captain leaned down in front of her and took her hands in one of his, smiling with large, sympathetic eyes. With his other hand, he slowly withdrew the scroll from her belt, and handed it to her.
Afton took a deep breath, and nodded.