(Finalist for the WSFA Small Press Award, 2022)
The docks have regrown in the years since Alain last saw home. The old piers lie partially submerged and rotting, battered beyond hope of regeneration. The island has pushed new jetties out into the bay, flat tendrils that branch at their furthest points, providing anchorages for dozens of ships.
Above the port, Heora’s spire trees rise like fingers into the sky, their trunks pocked by carved windows and cantilevered balconies. When Alain last looked at his dwindling home from the deck of an outbound ship, nine spires adorned the hills over the port. Only six remain.
The ground feels dead under his boots. There is no familiar pitch or roll, no creak of old planks bearing the strain as the ship comes about on a freshening wind. He’s unnerved by the sensation. It’s as if he has never stood on land before.
Thin faces welcome him with the same muted interest that greets any returning sailor. Dockworkers look up from coiling ropes and unloading casks only long enough to guess that his ship has failed in its mission. The holes in their shirts expose furrowed ribs and shoulder blades like broken clamshells.
The hum of activity fades as he navigates the labyrinth of warehouses beyond the docks. He stands in an obedient line to pass through the thorned hedges that ring the Exploration facility like reefs. At last he exits the tall gates and shoulders his way through throngs of shouting, hissing protesters.
The Sailor’s Quarter lies in the shade of a keff tree that sends its boughs out from a stout trunk to form a ceiling for the entire neighborhood. Here and there, the limbs have withered and given way, opening holes to the sky. Thickets of weeds erupt from the dust, so bright in the ubiquitous green shade that they might as well be on fire. People avoid the sunlit patches and the thorns bristling with fresh growth.
He finds a room in an Exploration hostel, a roofless hut beside a dry fountain, where he lies in bed and waits for evening. In the gathering gloom he counts the glowworms chewing through the leafy ceiling. Ten small lights appear and vanish. Once there would have been hundreds of them casting light into the homes and businesses under the tree. Without them, it is as dark as a ship’s hold.
He remembers when Heora loved its people; when their island chose a thousand small adaptations to shelter them, give forth fresh water, provide light, and nourish them. For years, he has slept inside his ship’s airless belly, dreaming of home. Now he feels as if he has returned to the wrong island.
He doesn’t belong here any more. No one does. Heora has rejected its children.
The Shipbroker’s office perches inside the tallest spire tree overlooking the port. Alain enters its hollowed-out passages and ascends a staircase, the carved windows offering an increasingly dizzying view of the shipyards and city below. He quickly becomes lost in the warren of corridors, turned back by plugs that block familiar hallways from floor to ceiling. Parts of the tree have rotted out and been abandoned. At last he’s forced to ask directions from a passing clerk.
The Shipbroker’s head shines in the clear light from the wide office windows. His clothes are cut to reveal his muscularity, flaunting his access to protein.
This man is much younger than the Shipbroker who hired Alain for the voyage. Alain remembers shaking that man’s bony hand and knowing they would never meet again.
“Congratulations on your return,” the Shipbroker says without warmth. His office is spare, the corners perfectly milled out, with none of the soft edges that mark the more hastily excavated areas of the spire tree. He gestures to a chair and absently taps the rounded base of a pitcher full of daffodils in clear water. The glass rings like a distant bell.
Alain nods and sits, distracted by the riot of fragrance. He hasn’t smelled fresh flowers in years. The scent flusters him in a way he suspects is intentional, a tactic employed when the Shipbroker is negotiating deals and portioning out the dwindling remains of their civilization.
Alain isn’t important enough to be negotiating anything. He was not the Captain of the ship, nor did he rank among its chief officers. He was third shift’s Assistant Navigator. When not needed to take astronomical measurements or confirm plots in the company map book, he hauled on ropes and cleaned equipment like the rest of the crew.
The only reason he sits in the Shipbroker’s office is that he was offered a stipend to be what Exploration refers to as an “onboard observer.” Everyone knows the company employs spies on its ships. Their rumored presence sows mistrust and intimidates the crew into following Exploration policy. Spies insure that the crew does not conceal that they have located habitable land—information more valuable than any cargo.
In the parlance of the crew, Alain was a tarweigher, a dredge. If his true mission had been discovered, he would have been thrown overboard. This secret lay hidden in the folds of his friendships with fellow sailors, a poison he could never reveal or wash clean. He signed the contract in return for a promise that he will be among those allowed to emigrate if an Exploration ship ever finds a new home for humanity.
“You are one of the few ships to return ahead of schedule,” the Shipbroker says. “Many are delayed.”
“Or worse,” Alain says.
The bald man rises from the desk and strides to the windows. The shutters are open to let in the salt breath of the port below. To the left, fishing boats are tying up from a morning spent scraping the sea for the dregs of spinefish and mucosal octopus.
Alain remembers when the entire port was given over to fishing. Now it is divided by a cordon of thornbush barricades, nearly three-quarters of the space assigned to Exploration. Boats in various stages of construction lie like empty rib cages in their cradles. At the piers, a steady procession of porters loads three outgoing vessels with barrels and supply crates.
The new Shipbroker paces at the window. “We cannot be certain if those ships are lost or delayed. My backers, of course, are keen that their funding supports a successful enterprise.”
Alain notes a loose thread at the Shipbroker’s collar and a line of stitching around one cuff that doesn’t precisely match the other. His clothing, despite its tailored fit, is growing threadbare. The fabric hangs loose around his shoulders. The Shipbroker may dress like Heora’s elite, but the picture is imperfect. He cloaks himself in the trappings of wealth like a child hiding in the folds of his parent’s robes.
“Do you have any explanation for the losses?” Alain asks.
“No. They’re disproportionately distributed to the north and north-east. We suspect there may be some unknown navigational hazard.”
“Or,” Alain says, “they’ve found habitable islands. And chosen not to return.”
“That’s impossible. They know the reward. Their families would be among the first allowed to leave Heora and settle there. What could possibly persuade them to stay?”
Alain says nothing. The smell of flowers thickens in the room, like the pressure before a coming storm.
The Shipbroker returns to his seat, steepling his fingers. “Did you notice the differences here since your departure?”
“There are holes everywhere,” Alain replies. “In people’s clothes, the keff trees. And three more spire trees are gone.” He remembers when sixteen spires stood over Heora’s largest city, each housing hundreds of people. It was said they had grown for millennia before their hollows opened into a network of corridors and windowed rooms. No one had ever seen a spire tree seed or successfully induced a cut twig to send out roots. They were irreplaceable.
The Shipbroker lifts his hands in a vague shrug. “They were dying. We could either watch them rot, or use them to build more ships. But I meant the people.”
“Everyone looks thinner.”
The Shipbroker meets his eyes. “Do you know,” he asks, “how many we could feed if we ceased Exploration?”
Alain has heard sailors joke about this, usually prompted by the poor quality of shipboard food. “Eat your pork and pickle!” his shipmates would roar, seeing another sailor hesitate over their rations. “Three orphans died so you could have it!”
The Shipbroker doesn’t wait for a reply. “Roughly two hundred twenty per sailor, per expeditionary year. Not an abstraction. Actual people, starving. The cost of Exploration.”
“That explains the protestors,” Alain answers.
The Shipbroker nods. “More every year. Last year they breached the gates and burned twelve ships under construction. They set Exploration back six months.” He sits back. “Most are farmers whose fields have gone fallow. Not enough fresh water to irrigate. They say we should be spending the money on improving the conditions on Heora, instead of trying to escape it.”
“Are they right?” Alain asks.
The Shipbroker regards the bright faces of the flowers, the swollen stamens like protruding tongues. “If we don’t find somewhere else to live, our children will not see old age.”
This is even worse than Alain imagined. “What happens if we find something?” he asks. “Will you resettle?”
“My backers have given me assurances I’ll be among the first,” the man says. There is a hint of defensiveness in his voice. “They pay me well, as I pay you. But money is useless. The only currency of any value is the possibility of leaving this island.”
Alain has had eight months to plan out the lies he would tell the Shipbroker. He notes the man’s tightly cinched pants, the folds of empty cloth, the artfully concealed beginnings of hunger.
He hesitates, then tells the truth.
Alain had been a year at sea when he realized he was in love with the Assistant Navigator on the shift before him.
It wasn’t true love, he told himself for a long time. His only interactions with Kiln were brief groggy exchanges at the shift change, when he took over her duties. It was her notes in the log that entranced him. Her navigation included intuitive leaps that troubled his mind as he rolled in his bunk long after the end of his shift.
In poor weather, when celestial readings were notoriously unreliable, she recorded streams of information that coalesced into astonishing deductions of their position and heading. He wanted to ask her—why did a rise in salinity compel you to suggest a course correction two degrees south? What possible use are you making of an inventory of the ship’s nails?
So he broke an unspoken rule, and asked. Not face-to-face, under the stern countenance of the Head Navigator at shift change, but in the log. He wrote short notes in the margins of her entries, which she at times answered in the margins of his. The first-shift Assistant Navigator must have read these exchanges but never contributed to them. Alain guessed that the man hated them both for complicating his workspace.
Alain told himself that his feelings were merely a form of professional respect, until the day he noted a strange pattern of course alterations. Kiln had begun making adjustments to the celestial sightings performed by the crew, basing her subtle corrections on each sailor’s height, surefootedness on deck, and the length of time they sighted through the device.
Kiln, he realized, saw pathways through the waves and weather that were invisible to him. She followed a trail of lamps hung in the pale stars. Seeing the way she quietly adjusted their course, Alain felt the purpose in the ship around him, the sweep of sky like a constant wind blowing the stars westward. He sensed that Kiln was on a voyage of her own navigation, unknown to all but her, and he wanted nothing more than to follow her wherever she was headed. The contents of the map cabinet whispered as if all the freshly named places were waking up within it, and Alain knew the feeling in the vault of his chest to be love.
He wondered what she would think if she knew he was a spy, a traitor to her and the rest of the crew.
Every new shore was the same: a blue expanse conjoined to unyielding volcanic stone, wreathed in a furious margin of foam.
Each was terrifying in its own way. Most were barren, their stony peaks pointing skyward as if asserting their sterility. The few that supported life were utterly lethal—riddled with poisons that turned sailors’ digestive systems into runny waste, teeming with carnivorous plants or stunted birds with a feverish taste for human eyes. They lay shrouded in emetic gas or draped in greenery that blistered the skin and changed bones to jelly.
Over time, the crew came to dread the sight of land.
There had to be other islands capable of supporting human settlements, Alain told himself. Life should be possible beyond the shores of Heora. That was the article of faith that drove all Exploration. They simply haven’t sailed far enough to find a new home. It was their own failure, not the obvious fact that Heora did not want them.
Alain was just rousing from his bunk one shift when the alarm was raised. A small, stony island had been sighted, and on its wave-pocked shore, a solitary figure.
Magret hadn’t seen another human face for six years, and when the crew came ashore she found herself fascinated by their expressions of shock and disgust. They stepped gingerly through her camp, and she felt her own nose crinkle up in sympathy. When they smiled in pity, her own lips pulled back from her teeth until her face began to hurt. In the visitors she saw the fresh horror of her deprivation.
Out in the perfect line of the horizon hung a troubling disturbance: a bristling insect, its wings slack against its masts, with tiny figures crawling over it, like a carcass being consumed by ants. She blinked, the way she had learned to do when hope made her see things that weren’t there, but it did not disappear.
For years she had watched the horizon the way one lover watches another. She thought she knew every trick that hope could play on the mind. Now that rescue was here, it looked nothing like what she’d imagined.
A short man in an Exploration uniform reached for her shoulder, as if to steady her. “Are there any other survivors?” he asked.
She recognized a mid-level ship functionary. The entire landing party was comprised of crew members whose deaths would not endanger the mission. This was standard Exploration procedure. When she had been aboard the Rescue, she once saw an island kill four sailors with toxins that leached through their boot soles. They had dropped like dolls onto the dry sand. The tide lifted them four hours later, swirling the bodies in the waves. Another crew rowed out to retrieve the abandoned shoreboat but left the poisoned dead behind.
She shook her head. The ocean beat senselessly against the stone shore.
“I’m Alain,” the sailor said. His voice hurt her ears.
She showed them her shelter, a hollowed-out curve of volcanic rock like a standing wave. Its leeward space offered some relief from the prevailing wind. There was no foliage to fashion into a blanket, nothing to fuel a fire. She mimed gathering handfuls of small stones from the beach, as she did on the coldest nights, and covering herself to camouflage her body from the weather. As they watched, she brought her arms over her head and breathed her own exhalations, tasting the sour warmth.
“Where is the rest of the crew?” the small man demanded. She held the answer under her tongue, knowing it was the only power she had left.
There was no flora on Magret’s island, no passing birds or fish. No clams poked rough tongues up through the wet sand. Not a blade of grass shivered in the wind over the rocky knoll where she spent most of her empty days.
“How is she alive?” the Head Navigator asked.
The Head Navigator’s cabin had a window to the sunlight and air. Alain wondered how she dealt with the proximity of weather, the sight of the relentless grey waves. At the end of his shift, he only wanted to lie in the swaying belly of the ship, imagining there were glowworms and soft foliage over his head.
“There’s a fungus growing on the rocks on the leeward side of the island,” he explained. “Magret scrapes it off with her fingernails. Sometimes she uses a stone, then rolls it around in her mouth.” He described how the grit had worn away Magret’s fingernails and reduced her teeth to gray stumps. “A trickle of fresh water comes from a cracked stone near where she beds down. She licks it from a flat rock before it leeches back into the ground.”
“How long has she been here?” the Head Navigator asked.
“I’m not certain. She won’t speak, only give her name. I believe her mind has broken under the strain of isolation.”
“She must be pleased to be rescued.”
Alain shrugged. Magret had vomited up the food they’d given her, and she steadfastly refused to board a shoreboat and leave her scrap of land.
The Head Navigator spooned desalination powder into her tea and watched as a snowstorm of salt roiled in precipitating clouds. “It is a habitable island,” she said.
“In name only.”
“Still. We have to consider its viability for resettlement.”
“It can support one person,” Alain said. “Maybe two. Under the worst conditions I can imagine.”
She turned the mug in her hands. “Heora must hate us,” she murmured, “to drive us to this.”
The waves slapped the hull. The Head Navigator looked up from her tea to pin him in a calculating gaze. Alain felt the question on her mind. Was he a spy? Would he take note of this heresy against Exploration?
Alain had heard the same sentiment whispered endlessly in the crew quarters. “We all feel it,” he said quietly.
She drank, her eyes still fixed on him. When she spoke, her voice was stiff. “Exploration policy dictates we return to report the island to the company.”
“Of course,” he nodded. “But her presence here may be less important than the questions it raises.”
Through the Head Navigator’s open window, Alain saw the rocky slip of Magret’s island slide into view as the anchored ship pivoted on the tide. “Where’s her ship?” he asked. “Where’s the rest of her crew?”
Alain awoke in his berth with Kiln leaning over him.
He was at once totally alert, a skill every sailor learned the first time a rogue wave rolled the world sideways. “What is it?” he asked. Her face was shadows. “What’s wrong?”
“I have to show you something,” she whispered. She smelled of land, and her proximity made him think of home, but her hands were ice cold on his arm.
They commandeered a shoreboat with a few words to the watch officer, who raised an eyebrow but shrugged and turned his back. Perhaps he assumed they were going to the island for a romantic escape. Fraternization was against Exploration policy, but the man had already confided in Alain that he often looked the other way for such indiscretions. He was among many friends who did not consider Alain to be a likely candidate for company spy.
Kiln appeared nervous, mistiming the stroke of her oars and nearly causing them to founder. “I hope this isn’t a mistake,” she muttered. Alain kept silent and allowed himself to savor the feeling of being included in her mysterious errand, the two of them alone for a rare moment in the rocking boat.
Magret was standing on the shore as they rowed through the low surf. She led them to the stone nook where she slept. As if demonstrating a ritual, she lay down in the hollow space on the leeward side of the ridge.
Kiln’s low voice was almost inaudible over the waves. “She believes this island was made for her. This spot in the stone is specifically shaped to her body.”
“How do you know that?” Alain asked. “She hasn’t spoken to anyone.”
“She talks to me. She was Assistant Navigator, too, on her ship. It was called the Rescue.”
Magret stood, and Alain examined the shallow depression where she’d lain. It was solid volcanic rock, and he noted with some surprise that it was shaped like a person. There were two indentations along its central axis. Seeing his gaze, Magret waved to attract his attention and pointed at the curve of her own spine. Two bony protuberances, perhaps the result of old injuries, precisely matched the notches in the stone.
She was right: the space behind the sheltering rock fit her body perfectly.
“You see?” Kiln asked.
He shrugged. “What does it mean?”
“She says she’d been here a while—she’s not sure how long—when she found that hollow and realized it was her size and shape. At first she thought sand had accumulated in the hole and molded around her. But it was just stone. It was waiting for her. It welcomed her.”
“That doesn’t make any sense.”
“Let me show you something else.” Kiln walked a few steps away, then lowered herself into another oblong depression. Her eyelids drooped, as if she was falling asleep, then snapped open, fixing him in her gaze. “This one is just my size,” she said.
His stomach rose, as if the ship had just gone sideways and upended the horizon.
“You can’t stay here,” he said.
“Magret believes there is an island for everyone. They’re all around us—the islands we’ve surveyed and rejected as uninhabitable. They’re poisonous to everyone but the right people.”
He stepped closer. The edges of the indentation didn’t quite conform to her frame. “It’s not exactly right,” he pointed out.
“Not yet.” She nodded, as if anticipating his challenge. “But we think once I’m off ship’s rations I’ll be perfect.”
He gestured to the low rocks, the distant surf. “There’s nothing here,” he said. “Why would you want to live like this?”
“You don’t see it like I do,” she said. “It’s beautiful when you belong.”
“They’ll never agree to leave you,” he said. He shivered in a sudden chill, the way he did when storm clouds stained the edge of the sky, promising unheaval. He had enjoyed imagining that Kiln was on her own journey, but he had never fully grasped what it would be like when her path took her somewhere he could not follow.
“That’s why I need your help,” she said. “Cover a shift for me. Tell them I told you I was sick. People trust you. By the time they realize I’m not on board, the ship will be too far away to turn back.”
A cloud passed over them. Kiln’s face changed. She took a long breath. “I’ll tell everyone what you are.”
“I...” He stammered a moment too long. “I don’t know what you mean.”
Magret stepped between them. Her voice rasped like waves on a shore of broken stones. “They’ll turn you out, same as my crew did to me. They figured this island would kill me and save them the trouble. Your crew might not be so kind.”
He shook his head. “You were...”
Magret rumbled what might have been a laugh. He smelled wet rocks on her breath. “I was. One day, I confessed the truth to someone I trusted, and she betrayed me.”
He turned back to Kiln, but he couldn’t quite meet her eyes. Stripped of his lie, he felt suddenly naked and ugly. “I didn’t mean to deceive you,” he stammered.
“Of course you did,” she said, with a surprising lack of rancor. “You’re a pretty talented liar, actually. But I’ve known for months.”
“Why didn’t you tell anyone?” he asked quietly.
“I liked reading your notes,” Kiln replied. “And I wanted to believe you were better than the worst part of you.”
Magret placed a fissured hand on his shoulder. “Don’t feel too bad, my boy. The day before my friend exposed me to the crew, she told me she would love me forever. The truth on one day can be a lie on another. A lie can become truth if it finds the right shore.”
He tried to imagine the long, lifeless days of ocean without Kiln’s scribbled notes in the corners of the log book. She had been his only indication that life could exist beyond the confines of the world he had known. He wished he could tell her how much he would miss her.
What he said instead was, “You’re a really good navigator.”
“I trusted you,” she said. “Now I’m trusting you to lie for me.”
He regarded the two figures, then their shadow-spaces in the furrowed stone. Beyond the foaming shore, the dark ship sat like a weight on the horizon.
“They won’t leave here any time soon,” he said.
Magret grinned, dusty cracks appearing in the corners of her eyes. “They will,” she said, “when you tell them about the other island.”
The island grew large in their minds even before its volcanic cone broke over the horizon. The wind pressed the ship forward, as if the island was inhaling and drawing them closer.
The coordinates Magret supplied were perfect; her mind had apparently remained sharp even as the rest of her had withered.
As they drew near, they saw the sloping green walls of the mountain. Horror gripped the crew at the sight of so much caustic vegetation.
Rumors were rife that the deserting Assistant Navigator was an Exploration spy, who had jumped ship because her status was about to be revealed. Magret had been left behind as well, pending confirmation of her story of exile from her former crew. No one seemed to suspect Alain’s role in the deception.
As they rounded the curve of the white shore, they came in view of a canted mast emerging from the surf at the edge of the reef. Severed ropes snaked in the wind. RESCUE was carefully lettered on the broken hull. The deck of Alain’s ship went quiet.
Alain was again selected to lead the landing party, a reminder of his expendability. He and two crew members sculled through the outer reef and bobbed in more placid waters off the beach. An iridescent blue fly descended with a faint buzz and lit on the gunwale. His colleagues recoiled and swatted at it with their oars.
Alain’s eyes were on the beach, where three figures had emerged from the darkness under the forest. They moved with a peculiar, slumped shuffle, as if trying to run while bearing a heavy burden. Two paused at the water’s edge, but one splashed into the surf and waded out in the gentle swell, waving furiously.
“Gods!” one crew member cried out. The figure wore a collection of wind-torn ribbons, barely recognizable as an Exploration uniform. His face was difficult to look at. The cheeks were split into strips radiating from his lips, forming fleshy appendages that moved like an anemone around his mouth. They waved in sympathy with his hands, exposing lines of fused teeth on each side.
“Stop!” Alain ordered the figure as it approached through the waist-deep water.
The soft strips of the man’s cheek stiffened and sealed together to cover his jaw. Only at the lips did they continue to quiver, the reddish tips caressing each other gently.
“Of-f-f course,” he said, struggling to enunciate the “f” sound through his tendrils. “Yes. Touch nothing. We did the same at f-first when we landed. Exploration procedure.”
Alain turned to the other crew members. “I’m going ashore,” he said. Ignoring their protests, he rolled over the gunwale and found sand under his feet. “Wait for me,” he said, fearing they might immediately flee to the ship.
The man waded back to the beach with him, remaining at a respectful distance. Alain noted the faded insignia on his uniform.
“Captain,” he said. “What happened?”
The two figures on the beach shifted from one bare foot to another, as if suppressing their eagerness to approach. Their hardened skin cracked into light crusts at the joints. It shone with a faint iridescence mottled with suggestions of blues and greens.
“You look so strange,” the Captain breathed between quavering cilia. “Strange. I’d forgotten.”
“What happened to you?”
The Captain nodded as if in sudden comprehension. “I’ll show you.”
He led Alain along the curve of the beach and to a low rocky slope. He began to climb the tumbled rocks, moving with astonishing facility. Alain struggled to keep up. Glancing over his shoulder, he was reassured to see that the shoreboat was circling just outside the froth at the base of the cliff.
They emerged on a plateau of pitted volcanic rock. A few epiphytic tufts clung to life in the hollows. Alain avoided the touch of their dry fronds.
Another figure stood in the distance, its back to them, as immobile as a stalagmite. The naked skin was crusted like a crab’s shell. Its facial tendrils curled and licked at the wind, shrouding the face in an undulating wave.
The two shipmates from the beach emerged over the lip of the promontory. Ignoring Alain, they took up nearby positions on the rocks, spreading their mouths as they gazed out to sea. From this vantage point, he could see the sweep of the island’s flanks, narrow stone fingers reaching into the ocean with white beaches like webbing between them.
“Do you understand?” the Captain asked. His face broke into what might have been a smile, splitting wide to expose the cuttlebone jaw within. The soft fingers waved joyfully.
“It’s quite a view,” Alain acknowledged, watching the shoreboat bob in the foam below. Although tiny, the island was precisely the kind of lush habitat that Exploration had sought.
The Captain’s cheeks sealed themselves again. “No!” he admonished. “Not out there! Here!” He indicated the ground.
Alain shook his head.
“I belong here!” the Captain said.
A faint, rolling nausea filled Alain’s stomach. “Where’s the rest of your crew?”
“Some died. This was not their island.”
“The others? Are there more than four of you?”
“Oh yes. Many. Each found a place. This is mine.” He pointed to his bare feet. The toes were splayed slightly, the groove between the second and third splitting his foot halfway to the heel. His feet fit neatly into two hollows in the uneven stone.
Alain remembered the small indentations in the rock where Magret slept. He’d been wrong to think the rock was shaped perfectly to fit the bumps in her spine. Those imperfections were not an old injury; she had grown them, her form changing to fill the space.
The islands were not shaped to accept them. It was their own bodies that waited for fresh places, yearning to adapt and reform against strange textures, to transform beyond the limits of Heora’s shores.
Alain scanned the horizon for his ship. As he turned, he realized his feet were comfortably slotted into two narrow depressions. They didn’t come close to fitting him perfectly, but if he removed his shoes, he suspected he would slide easily into the cool pockets of shadow within.
At once the island came into place around him. Not only his feet but the air and the patterned sky and rising cone of a long-slumbering volcano that had shaped this raw place when his own people were still crawling out of the ocean and into Heora’s embrace. He felt its spines reaching from its molten heart into the cold reaches of the sea, green growth fleshing the hollows between its bones. The water folded and retreated between its stone fingers. Clouds settled around its shoulders. He stood on the margin of its vast intelligence, an interminable mind that gave rise to new species like ideas, telling stories that become age-spanning ecosystems.
In the movement of the trees and the cries of the island’s animals he heard the voices of the crew. They scuttled through the brush at the edge of the clearing and dangled from palm trees, observing him with pale, liquid eyes. They drank groundwater through spreading filaments. The island had allowed them through its defenses, made room inside its poisonous immune system. It had accepted them, and it would do the same for him.
Alain had never known what it felt like to belong. He had only felt the absence of it, like standing on a pitching deck over the ceaseless ocean swell and wondering if twenty feet or a thousand lay between him and the bottom. The closest he had come to love was between the dry pages of navigational log, where he hid his desperatation within notes on heading and weather.
He had been drifting, as homeless as a jellyfish. Now that he belonged, he was bound to the surface where he stood. It fed him, and fed upon him. Its acceptance was tempered with the certainty that it would change him, and although he welcomed the transformation, he couldn’t guide it. He would be altered as anyone was by love or tragedy.
He wanted nothing more than to remain here, trusting the years to strip him free of his uniform and harden his flesh to the offshore winds. He understood now why Kiln saw beauty in her small, featureless island. There were as many kinds of beauty, as many ways of hoping, as there were places to be.
The shoreboat bobbed offshore. He felt great pity for the lost souls within it, for his shipmates and all Heora. They were the children of a dying parent. There was hope on this island—an abundance of it—but no one would ever know about it.
Unless he told them. It was his job, after all, to be both messenger and deceiver. Kiln had believed he could be better than his worst part. He was the only one who could save the people of Heora, and in the process destroy them.
When he pulled his feet from their hollows, if felt as if he had torn his own flesh from the wet bones. He stumbled down the uneven slope, tears blinding him, and foundered into the waves, accepting the hands of his crewmates, who drew him out of the water as mute as a fish.
It was days before he could speak again. When he at last showed signs of recovery, the Head Navigator appeared at his bunk. “We’re headed home,” she said.
He stared, unsure which place she meant.
Eight months later, he breathes in the scent of the Shipbroker’s indulgent flowers.
The Shipbroker pushes the vase to the desk’s edge as if it had been obstructing his view. A few drops of water slosh out, and Alain is suddenly thirsty.
“You’re losing ships,” Alain finishes his story, “because the crews are dispersing. Once they find their island, it changes them. They can’t leave. More importantly, they don’t want to.”
The Shipbroker sits back. His chair creaks in protest. “My backers fund Exploration because, if a suitable island can be found, they will be the first ones to leave Heora. They are paying for survival. You’re telling me we’ll never find it.”
“I’m telling you we’ve already found something,” Alain replies. “It may not be what your backers are looking for—”
“Rich people don’t pay to be told ‘no’,” the Shipbroker interrupts. “They pay to preserve a world in which they are rich. Do you know why we offer resettlement to the families of sailors who locate a habitable island?”
Alain shifts, suddenly uncomfortable. “To insure the ships return?”
“Because, after resettlement, someone will have to do the work.” The Shipbroker speaks with force, as if angry at Alain’s ignorance. “My backers need a suitable number of less wealthy families to accompany them, in order to preserve their way of life.”
It suddenly occurs to Alain that this man, too, is a spy. He drinks clean water and sits in the perfume of wealth, but he does not belong to the class of people who fund Exploration. He is, like Alain, a traitor. His funders have bought his loyalty, and they believe they’ve bought the truth with it.
“Lie to them,” Alain says. “Tell them to fund more expeditions. Tell them we’re close to finding something habitable, and we need to expend every resource we can. Then pack the ships with people.”
“Why would I do that?”
“We need to get as many people as possible off Heora before it falls apart. We can’t save everyone, but increasing the pace of Exploration will insure a few more ships find islands that will accept them.”
Some of those ships, he hopes, will be welcomed as Heora took them in aeons ago, as fingerlings dancing in tidal pools, or storm-torn gulls, or dust from the belching stomach of a distant volcano. They will scatter to distant pinpoints on the map of the world and appeal to the scattered gods to grant them new shapes and names.
The Shipbroker’s gaze settles on the flowers. He watches them as if expecting a sudden transformation. “If what you’re saying is true, there’s no reason for me to stay here.”
“You need to stay as long as you can,” Alain replies, “to convince the funders there’s hope. They have to fund Exploration as long as possible.” He leans forward and runs his finger through the spilled water on the desk, leaving a smear of droplets like inverted islands.
For a strange moment, he considers grabbing the flowers and dashing them against the desk. What’s the point of beauty in a dying land? Instead, he touches the delicate stamen within the ruffled yellow center of the largest bloom. Fine granules of brown dust stick to his fingertips.
The Shipbroker slumps, the chair creaking beneath him. “I believed in Exploration,” he says quietly. “It was worth the sacrifice to find our people a new home. I truly thought we would survive.”
“We’ll survive,” Alain says. “But not as people.”
He thinks of Kiln lifting strange eyes to the stars, and he wonders if she will remember him. He wonders if love itself will endure what is to come.
The scent of the flowers is suddenly strange and repulsive to him. The room itself seems to squeeze inwards, as if it is already growing rotten, collapsing like a mouldering gourd. He stands and goes to the window. The breeze pulls him forward, away from the withering green air of his old home, the lure of it so profound that he steadies himself against the sill. Flags atop the other spires snap and point out into the bay.
Below, the freshly grown piers swarm with workers carrying provisions for the outgoing boats. More tiny forms clamber over the milled remains of spire trees, moving into place the long timbers that will form the keels of countless more ships. All the materials for their departure are here, and the wind is blowing ever outward.
Heora, he realizes, hasn’t rejected them. Like a loving parent, it has spent thousands of years preparing the tools for their exodus. Heora’s dying act is to push its children out into the world, lifting them like seeds on the wind. Many will fall on fallow soil. A few will find places to belong, put down roots, and become new wonders.
The Shipbroker smiles ruefully. “Very well,” he says, “I’ll do what I can. What about you? Will you sail again?”
“I will, if I still have a job.”
“I suggest you head north-east,” the Shipbroker says. “We’ve been losing many ships in that direction. You may find what you’re looking for there.”
They shake hands, and Alain wonders how many more times people will part forever, grasping each other with human hands and sharing recognizable words of farewell. Each goodbye brings them closer to the final departure. The world has already begun to forget that they were here.
He goes down through the half-remembered city to find another ship.