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THE CHOICE

Paul McAuley

After working as a research biologist in various universities, including Oxford and UCLA, and as a lecturer in botany at St. Andrews University, Paul McAuley is now a full-time writer. His first novel, Four Hundred Billion Stars, won the Philip K. Dick Memorial Award; his fifth, Fairyland, won the Arthur C. Clarke and John W. Campbell Awards. His other novels include The Secret of Life, Whole Wide World, White Devils, The Quiet War, and Gardens of the Sun. His latest, Cowboy Angels, has just been published in the United States by Pyr Books. Paul’s last story for us, “Dead Men Walking” appeared in our March 2006 issue. After too long an absence, he returns to our pages with a compelling coming-of-age tale about an unsettling future and two boys who must make . . . 

 

 

In the night, tides and a brisk wind drove a raft of bubbleweed across the Flood and piled it up along the north side of the island. Soon after first light, Lucas started raking it up, ferrying load after load to one of the compost pits, where it would rot down into a nutrient-rich liquid fertilizer. He was trundling his wheelbarrow down the steep path to the shore for about the thirtieth or fortieth time when he spotted someone walking across the water: Damian, moving like a cross-country skier as he traversed the channel between the island and the stilt huts and floating tanks of his father’s shrimp farm. It was still early in the morning, already hot. A perfect September day, the sky’s blue dome untroubled by cloud. Shifting points of sunlight starred the water, flashed from the blades of the farm’s wind turbine. Lucas waved to his friend and Damian waved back and nearly overbalanced, windmilling his arms and recovering, slogging on.
They met at the water’s edge. Damian, picking his way between floating slicks of red weed, called out breathlessly, “Did you hear?”
“Hear what?”
“A dragon got itself stranded close to Martham.”
“You’re kidding.”
“I’m not kidding. An honest-to-God sea dragon.”
Damian stepped onto an apron of broken brick at the edge of the water and sat down and eased off the fat flippers of his Jesus shoes, explaining that he’d heard about it from Ritchy, the foreman of the shrimp farm, who’d got it off the skipper of a supply barge who’d been listening to chatter on the common band.
“It beached not half an hour ago. People reckon it came in through the cut at Horsey and couldn’t get back over the bar when the tide turned. So it went on up the channel of the old riverbed until it ran ashore.”
Lucas thought for a moment. “There’s a sand bar that hooks into the channel south of Martham. I went past it any number of times when I worked on Grant Higgins’s boat last summer, ferrying oysters to Norwich.”
“It’s almost on our doorstep,” Damian said. He pulled his phone from the pocket of his shorts and angled it toward Lucas. “Right about here. See it?”
“I know where Martham is. Let me guess—you want me to take you.”
“What’s the point of building a boat if you don’t use it? Come on, L. It isn’t every day an alien machine washes up.”
Lucas took off his broad-brimmed straw hat, blotted his forehead with his wrist, and set his hat on his head again. He was a wiry boy not quite sixteen, bare-chested in baggy shorts and sandals he’d cut from an old car tire. “I was planning to go crabbing. After I finish clearing this weed, water the vegetable patch, fix lunch for my mother . . .”
“I’ll give you a hand with all that when we get back.”
“Right.”
“If you really don’t want to go I could maybe borrow your boat.”
“Or you could take one of your dad’s.”
“After what he did to me last time? I’d rather row there in that leaky old clunker of your mother’s. Or walk.”
“That would be a sight.”
Damian smiled. He was just two months older than Lucas, tall and sturdy,
his cropped blond hair bleached by salt and summer sun, his nose and the rims of his ears pink and peeling. The two had been friends for as long as they could remember.
He said, “I reckon I can sail as well as you.”
“You’re sure this dragon is still there? You have pictures?”
“Not exactly. It knocked out the town’s broadband, and everything else. According to the guy who talked to Ritchy, nothing electronic works within a klick of it. Phones, slates, radios, nothing. The tide turns in a couple of hours, but I reckon we can get there if we start right away.”
“Maybe. I should tell my mother,” Lucas said. “In the unlikely event that she wonders where I am.”
“How is she?”
“No better, no worse. Does your dad know you’re skipping out?”
“Don’t worry about it. I’ll tell him I went crabbing with you.”
“Fill a couple of jugs at the still,” Lucas said. “And pull up some carrots, too. But first, hand me your phone.”
“The GPS coordinates are flagged up right there. You ask it, it’ll plot a course.”
Lucas took the phone, holding it with his fingertips—he didn’t like the way it squirmed as it shaped itself to fit in his hand. “How do you switch it off ?”
“What do you mean?”
“If we go, we won’t be taking the phone. Your dad could track us.”
“How will we find our way there?”
“I don’t need your phone to find Martham.”
“You and your off-the-grid horseshit,” Damian said.
“You wanted an adventure,” Lucas said. “This is it.”

When Lucas started to tell his mother that he’d be out for the rest of the day with Damian, she said, “Chasing after that so-called dragon, I suppose. No need to look surprised—it’s all over the news. Not the official news, of course. No mention of it there. But it’s leaking out everywhere that counts.”
His mother was propped against the headboard of the double bed under the caravan’s big end window. Julia Wittsruck, fifty-two, skinny as a refugee, dressed in a striped Berber robe and half-covered in a patchwork of quilts and thin orange blankets stamped with the Oxfam logo. The ropes of her dreadlocks were tied back with a red bandana; her tablet resting in her lap.
She gave Lucas her best inscrutable look and said, “I suppose this is Damian’s idea. You be careful. His ideas usually work out badly.”
“That’s why I’m going along. To make sure he doesn’t get into trouble. He’s set on seeing it, one way or another.”
“And you aren’t?”
Lucas smiled. “I suppose I’m curious. Just a little.”
“I wish I could go. Take a rattle can or two, spray the old slogans on the damned thing’s hide.”
“I could put some cushions in the boat. Make you as comfortable as you like.”
Lucas knew that his mother wouldn’t take up his offer. She rarely left the caravan, hadn’t been off the island for more than three years. A multilocus immunotoxic syndrome, basically an allergic reaction to the myriad products and pollutants of the anthropocene age, had left her more or less completely bedridden. She’d refused all offers of treatment or help by the local social agencies, relying instead on the services of a local witchwoman who visited once a week, and spent her days in bed, working at her tablet. She trawled government sites and stealthnets, made podcasts, advised zero-impact communities, composed critiques and manifestos. She kept a public journal, wrote essays and opinion pieces (at the moment, she was especially exercised by attempts by multinational companies to move in on the Antarctic Peninsula, and a utopian group that was using alien technology to build a floating community on a drowned coral reef in the Midway Islands), and maintained friendships, alliances, and several rancorous feuds with former colleagues whose origins had long been forgotten by both sides. In short, hers was a way of life that would have been familiar to scholars from any time in the past couple of millennia.
She’d been a lecturer in philosophy at Birkbeck College before the nuclear strikes, riots, revolutions, and netwar skirmishes of the so-called Spasm, which had ended when the floppy ships of the Jackaroo had appeared in the skies over Earth. In exchange for rights to the outer solar system, the aliens had given the human race technology to clean up the Earth, and access to a wormhole network that linked a dozen M-class red dwarf stars. Soon enough, other alien species showed up, making various deals with various nations and power blocs, bartering advanced technologies for works of art, fauna and flora, the secret formula of Coca Cola, and other unique items.
Most believed that the aliens were kindly and benevolent saviors, members of a loose alliance that had traced ancient broadcasts of I Love Lucy to their origin and arrived just in time to save the human species from the consequences of its monkey cleverness. But a vocal minority wanted nothing to do with them, doubting that their motives were in any way altruistic, elaborating all kinds of theories about their true motivations. We should choose to reject the help of the aliens, they said. We should reject easy fixes and the magic of advanced technologies we don’t understand, and choose the harder thing: to keep control of our own destiny.
Julia Wittstruck had become a leading light in this movement. When its brief but fierce round of global protests and politicking had fallen apart in a mess of mutual recriminations and internecine warfare, she’d moved to Scotland and joined a group of green radicals who’d been building a self-sufficient settlement on a trio of ancient oil rigs in the Firth of Forth. But they’d become compromised too, according to Julia, so she’d left them and taken up with Lucas’s father (Lucas knew almost nothing about him—his mother said that the past was the past, that she was all that counted in his life because she had given birth to him and raised and taught him), and they’d lived the gypsy life for a few years until she’d split up with him and, pregnant with her son, had settled in a smallholding in Norfolk, living off the grid, supported by a small legacy left to her by one of her devoted supporters from the glory days of the anti-alien protests.
When she’d first moved there, the coast had been more than ten kilometers to the east, but a steady rise in sea level had flooded the northern and eastern coasts of Britain and Europe. East Anglia had been sliced in two by levees built to protect precious farmland from the encroaching sea, and most people caught on the wrong side had taken resettlement grants and moved on. But Julia had stayed put. She’d paid a contractor to extend a small rise, all that was left of her smallholding, with rubble from a wrecked twentieth-century housing estate, and made her home on the resulting island. It had once been much larger, and a succession of people had camped there, attracted by her kudos, driven away after a few weeks or a few months by her scorn and impatience. Then most of Greenland’s remaining icecap collapsed into the Arctic Ocean, sending a surge of water across the North Sea.
Lucas had only been six, but he still remembered everything about that day. The water had risen past the high tide mark that afternoon and had kept rising. At first it had been fun to mark the stealthy progress of the water with a series of sticks driven into the ground, but by evening it was clear that it was not going to stop anytime soon, and then in a sudden smooth rush it rose more than a hundred centimeters, flooding the vegetable plots and lapping at the timber baulks on which the caravan rested. All that evening, Julia had moved their possessions out of the caravan, with Lucas trotting to and fro at her heels, helping her as best he could until, some time after midnight, she’d given up and they’d fallen asleep under a tent rigged from chairs and a blanket. And had woken to discover that their island had shrunk to half its previous size, and the caravan had floated off and lay canted and half-drowned in muddy water littered with every kind of debris.
Julia had bought a replacement caravan and set it on the highest point of what was left of the island, and despite ineffectual attempts to remove them by various local government officials, she and Lucas had stayed on. She’d taught him the basics of numeracy and literacy, and the long and intricate secret history of the world, and he’d learned field- and wood- and watercraft from their neighbors. He snared rabbits and mink in the woods that ran alongside the levee, foraged for hedgerow fruits and edible weeds and fungi, bagged squirrels with small stones shot from his catapult. He grubbed mussels from the rusting car-reef that protected the seaward side of the levee, set wicker traps for eels and trotlines for mitten crabs. He fished for mackerel and dogfish and weaverfish on the wide brown waters of the Flood. When he could, he worked shifts on the shrimp farm owned by Damian’s father, or on the market gardens, farms, and willow and bamboo plantations on the other side of the levee.
In spring, he watched long vees of geese fly north above the floodwater that stretched out to the horizon. In autumn, he watched them fly south.
He’d inherited a great deal of his mother’s restlessness and fierce independence, but although he longed to strike out beyond his little world, he didn’t know how to begin. And besides, he had to look after Julia. She would never admit it, but she depended on him, utterly.
She said now, dismissing his offer to take her along, “You know I have too much to do here. The day is never long enough. There is something you can do for me, though. Take my phone with you.”
“Damian says phones don’t work around the dragon.”
“I’m sure it will work fine. Take some pictures of that thing. As many as you can. I’ll write up your story when you come back, and pictures will help attract traffic.”
“Okay.”
Lucas knew that there was no point in arguing. Besides, his mother’s phone was an ancient model that predated the Spasm: it lacked any kind of cloud connectivity and was as dumb as a box of rocks. As long as he only used it to take pictures, it wouldn’t compromise his idea of an off-the-grid adventure.
His mother smiled. “ ‘ET go home.’ ”
“ ‘ET go home’?”
“We put that up everywhere, back in the day. We put it on the main runway of Luton Airport, in letters twenty meters tall. Also dug trenches in the shape of the words up on the South Downs and filled them with diesel fuel and set them alight. You could see it from space. Let the unhuman know that they were not welcome here. That we did not need them. Check the toolbox. I’m sure there’s a rattle can in there. Take it along, just in case.”
“I’ll take my catapult, in case I spot any ducks. I’ll try to be back before it gets dark. If I don’t, there are MREs in the store cupboard. And I picked some tomatoes and carrots.”
“ ‘ET go home,’ ” his mother said. “Don’t forget that. And be careful, in that little boat.”

Lucas had started to build his sailboat late last summer, and had worked at it all through the winter. It was just four meters from bow to stern, its plywood hull glued with epoxy and braced with ribs shaped from branches of a young poplar tree that had fallen in the autumn gales. He’d used an adze and a homemade plane to fashion the mast and boom from the poplar’s trunk, knocked up the knees, gunwale, outboard support, and bow cap from oak, persuaded Ritchy, the shrimp farm’s foreman, to print off the cleats, oarlocks, bow eye and grommets for lacing the sails on the farm’s maker. Ritchy had given him some half-empty tins of blue paint and varnish to seal the hull, and he’d bought a set of secondhand laminate sails from the shipyard in Halvergate, and spliced the halyards and sheet from scrap lengths of rope.
He loved his boat more than he was ready to admit to himself. That spring he’d tacked back and forth beyond the shrimp farm, had sailed north to along the coast to Halvergate and Acle, and south and west around Reedham Point as far as Brundall, and had crossed the channel of the river and navigated the mazy mudflats to Chedgrave. If the sea dragon was stuck where Damian said it was, he’d have to travel farther than ever before, navigating uncharted and ever-shifting sand and mud banks, dodging clippers and barge strings in the shipping channel. But Lucas reckoned he had the measure of his little boat now, and it was a fine day and a steady wind blowing from the west drove them straight along, with the jib cocked as far as it would go in the stay and the mainsail bellying full and the boat heeling sharply as it ploughed a white furrow in the light chop.
At first, all Lucas had to do was sit in the stern with the tiller snug in his right armpit and the main sheet coiled loosely in his left hand, and keep a straight course north past the pens and catwalks of the shrimp farm. Damian sat beside him, leaning out to port to counterbalance the boat’s tilt, his left hand keeping the jib sheet taut, his right holding a plastic cup he would now and then use to scoop water from the bottom of the boat and fling in a sparkling arc that was caught and twisted by the wind.
The sun stood high in a tall blue sky empty of cloud save for a thin rim at the horizon to the northeast. Fret, most likely, mist forming where moisture condensed out of air that had cooled as it passed over the sea. But the fret was kilometers away, and all around sunlight flashed from every wave top and burned on the white sails and beat down on the two boys. Damian’s face and bare torso shone with sunblock; although Lucas was about as dark as he got, he’d rubbed sunblock on his face too, and tied his straw hat under his chin and put on a shirt that flapped about his chest. The tiller juddered minutely and constantly as the boat slapped through an endless succession of catspaw waves and Lucas measured the flex of the sail by the tug of the sheet wrapped around his left hand, kept an eye on the foxtail streamer that flew from the top of the mast. Judging by landmarks on the levee that ran along the shore to port, they were making around fifteen kilometers per hour, about as fast as Lucas had ever gotten out of his boat, and he and Damian grinned at each other and squinted off into the glare of the sunstruck water, happy and exhilarated to be skimming across the face of the Flood, two bold adventurers off to confront a monster.
“We’ll be there in an hour easy,” Damian said.
“A bit less than two, maybe. As long as the fret stays where it is.”
“The sun’ll burn it off.”
“Hasn’t managed it yet.”
“Don’t let your natural caution spoil a perfect day.”
Lucas swung wide of a raft of bubbleweed that glistened like a slick of fresh blood in the sun. Some called it Martian weed, though it had nothing to do with any of the aliens; it was an engineered species designed to mop up nitrogen and phosphorous released by drowned farmland, prospering beyond all measure or control.
Dead ahead, a long line of whitecaps marked the reef of the old railway embankment. Lucas swung the tiller into the wind and he and Damian ducked as the boom swung across and the boat gybed around. The sails slackened, then filled with wind again as the boat turned toward one of the gaps blown in the embankment, cutting so close to the buoy that marked it that Damian could reach out and slap the rusty steel plate of its flank as they went by. And then they were heading out across a broad reach, with the little town of Acle strung along a low promontory to port. A slateless church steeple stood up from the water like a skeletal lighthouse. The polished cross at its top burned like a flame in the sunlight. A file of old pylons stepped away, most canted at steep angles, the twiggy platforms of heron nests built in angles of their girder work, whitened everywhere with droppings. One of the few still standing straight had been colonized by fisherfolk, with shacks built from driftwood lashed to its struts and a wave-powered generator made from oil drums strung out beyond. Washing flew like festive flags inside the web of rusted steel, and a naked small child of indeterminate sex clung to the unshuttered doorway of a shack just above the waterline, pushing a tangle of hair from its eyes as it watched the little boat sail by.
They passed small islands fringed with young mangrove trees; an engineered species that was rapidly spreading from areas in the south where they’d been planted to replace the levee. Lucas spotted a marsh harrier patrolling mudflats in the lee of one island, scrying for water voles and mitten crabs. They passed a long building sunk to the tops of its second-story windows in the flood, with brightly colored plastic bubbles pitched on its flat roof among the notched and spinning wheels of windmill generators, and small boats bobbing alongside. Someone standing at the edge of the roof waved to them, and Damian stood up and waved back and the boat shifted so that he had to catch at the jib leech and sit down hard.
“You want us to capsize, go ahead,” Lucas told him.
“There are worse places to be shipwrecked. You know they’re all married to each other over there.”
“I heard.”
“They like visitors too.”
“I know you aren’t talking from experience or you’d have told me all about it. At least a dozen times.”
“I met a couple of them in Halvergate. They said I should stop by some time,” Damian said, grinning sideways at Lucas. “We could maybe think about doing that on the way back.”
“And get stripped of everything we own, and thrown in the water.”
“You have a trusting nature, don’t you?”
“If you mean, I’m not silly enough to think they’ll welcome us in and let us take our pick of their women, then I guess I do.”
“She was awful pretty, the woman. And not much older than me.”
“And the rest of them are seahags older than your great-grandmother.”
“That one time with my father . . . She was easily twice my age and I didn’t mind a bit.”
A couple of months ago, Damian’s sixteenth birthday, his father had taken him to a pub in Norwich where women stripped at the bar and afterward walked around bare naked, collecting tips from the customers. Damian’s father had paid one of them to look after his son, and Damian hadn’t stopped talking about it ever since, making plans to go back on his own or to take Lucas with him that so far hadn’t amounted to anything.
Damian watched the half-drowned building dwindle into the glare striking off the water and said, “If we ever ran away we could live in a place like that.”
“You could, maybe,” Lucas said. “I’d want to keep moving. But I suppose I could come back and visit now and then.”
“I don’t mean that place. I mean a place like it. Must be plenty of them, on those alien worlds up in the sky. There’s oceans on one of them. First Foot.”
“I know.”
“And alien ruins on all of them. There are people walking about up there right now. On all those new worlds. And most people sit around like . . . like bloody stumps. Old tree stumps stuck in mud.”
“I’m not counting on winning the ticket lottery,” Lucas said. “Sailing south, that would be pretty fine. To Africa, or Brazil, or these islands people are building in the Pacific. Or even all the way to Antarctica.”
“Soon as you stepped ashore, L, you’d be eaten by a polar bear.”
“Polar bears lived in the north when there were polar bears.”
“Killer penguins then. Giant penguins with razors in their flippers and lasers for eyes.”
“No such thing.”
“The !Cha made sea dragons, didn’t they? So why not giant robot killer penguins? Your mother should look into it.”
“That’s not funny.”
“Didn’t mean anything by it. Just joking, is all.”
“You go too far sometimes.”
They sailed in silence for a little while, heading west across the deepwater channel. A clipper moved far off to starboard, cylinder sails spinning slowly, white as salt in the middle of a flat vastness that shimmered like shot silk under the hot blue sky. Some way beyond it, a tug was dragging a string of barges south. The shoreline of Thurne Point emerged from the heat haze, standing up from mud banks cut by a web of narrow channels, and they turned east, skirting stands of sea grass that spread out into the open water. It was a little colder now, and the wind was blowing more from the northwest than the wast. Lucas thought that the bank of fret looked closer, too. When he pointed it out, Damian said it was still klicks and klicks off, and besides, they were headed straight to their prize now.
“If it’s still there,” Lucas said.
“It isn’t going anywhere, not with the tide all the way out.”
“You really are an expert on this alien stuff, aren’t you?”
“Just keep heading north, L.”
“That’s exactly what I’m doing.”
“I’m sorry about that crack about your mother. I didn’t mean anything by it. Okay?”
“Okay.”
“I like to kid around,” Damian said. “But I’m serious about getting out of here. Remember that time two years ago, we hiked into Norwich, found the army offices?”
“I remember the sergeant there gave us cups of tea and biscuits and told us to come back when we were old enough.”
“He’s still there. That sergeant. Same bloody biscuits, too.”
“Wait. You went to join up without telling me?”
“I went to find out if I could. After my birthday. Turns out the army takes people our age, but you need the permission of your parents. So that was that.”
“You didn’t even try to talk to your father about it?”
“He has me working for him, L. Why would he sign away good cheap labor? I did try, once. He was half-cut and in a good mood. What passes for a good mood as far as he’s concerned, any rate. Mellowed out on beer and superfine skunk. But he wouldn’t hear anything about it. And then he got all the way flat-out drunk and he beat on me. Told me to never mention it again.”
Lucas looked over at his friend and said, “Why didn’t you tell me this before?”
“I can join under my own signature when I’m eighteen, not before,” Damian said. “No way out of here until then, unless I run away or win the lottery.”
“So are you thinking of running away?”
“I’m damned sure not counting on winning the lottery. And even if I do, you have to be eighteen before they let you ship out. Just like the fucking army.” Damian looked at Lucas, looked away. “He’ll probably bash all kinds of shit out of me, for taking off like this.”
“You can stay over tonight. He’ll be calmer, tomorrow.”
Damian shook his head. “He’ll only come looking for me. And I don’t want to cause trouble for you and your mother.”
“It wouldn’t be any trouble.”
“Yeah, it would. But thanks anyway.” Damian paused, then said, “I don’t care what he does to me anymore. You know? All I think is, one day I’ll be able to beat up on him.”
“You say that but you don’t mean it.”
“Longer I stay here, the more I become like him.”
“I don’t see it ever happening.”
Damian shrugged.
“I really don’t,” Lucas said.
“Fuck him,” Damian said. “I’m not going to let him spoil this fine day.”
“Our grand adventure.”
“The wind’s changing again.”
“I think the fret’s moving in, too.”
“Maybe it is, a little. But we can’t turn back, L. Not now.”
The bank of cloud across the horizon was about a klick away, reaching up so high that it blurred and dimmed the sun. The air was colder and the wind was shifting minute by minute. Damian put on his shirt, holding the jib sheet in his teeth as he punched his arms into the sleeves. They tacked to swing around a long reach of grass, and as they came about saw a white wall sitting across the water, dead ahead.
Lucas pushed the tiller to leeward. The boat slowed at once and swung around to face the wind.
“What’s the problem?” Damian said. “It’s just a bit of mist.”
Lucas caught the boom as it swung, held it steady. “We’ll sit tight for a spell. See if the fret burns off.”
“And meanwhile the tide’ll turn and lift off the fucking dragon.”
“Not for a while.”
“We’re almost there.”
“You don’t like it, you can swim.”
“I might.” Damian peered at the advancing fret. “Think the dragon has something to do with this?”
“I think it’s just fret.”
“Maybe it’s hiding from something looking for it. We’re drifting backward,” Damian said. “Is that part of your plan?”
“We’re over the river channel, in the main current. Too deep for my anchor. See those dead trees at the edge of the grass? That’s where I’m aiming. We can sit it out there.”
“I hear something,” Damian said.
Lucas heard it too. The ripping roar of a motor driven at full speed, coming closer. He looked over his shoulder, saw a shadow condense inside the mist and gain shape and solidity: a cabin cruiser shouldering through windblown tendrils at the base of the bank of mist, driving straight down the main channel at full speed, its wake spreading wide on either side.
In a moment of chill clarity Lucas saw what was going to happen. He shouted to Damian, telling him to duck, and let the boom go and shoved the tiller to starboard. The boom banged around as the sail bellied and the boat started to turn, but the cruiser was already on them, roaring past just ten meters away, and the broad smooth wave of its wake hit the boat broadside and lifted it and shoved it sideways toward a stand of dead trees. Lucas gave up any attempt to steer and unwound the main halyard from its cleat. Damian grabbed an oar and used it to push the boat away from the first of the trees, but their momentum swung them into two more. The wet black stump of a branch scraped along the side and the boat heeled and water poured in over the thwart. For a moment Lucas thought they would capsize; then something thumped into the mast and the boat sat up again. Shards of rotten wood dropped down with a dry clatter and they were suddenly still, caught among dead and half-drowned trees.
The damage wasn’t as bad as it might have been—a rip close to the top of the jib, long splintery scrapes in the blue paintwork on the port side—but it kindled a black spark of anger in Lucas’s heart. At the cruiser’s criminal indifference; at his failure to evade trouble.
“Unhook the halyard and let it down,” he told Damian. “We’ll have to do without the jib.”
“Abode Two. That’s the name of the bugger nearly ran us down. Registered in Norwich. We should find him and get him to pay for this mess,” Damian said, as he folded the torn jib sail.
“I wonder why he was going so damned fast.”
“Maybe he went to take a look at the dragon, and something scared him off.”
“Or maybe he just wanted to get out of the fret.” Lucas looked all around, judging angles and clearances. The trees stood close together in water scummed with every kind of debris, stark and white above the tide line, black and clad with mussels and barnacles below. He said, “Let’s try pushing backward. But be careful. I don’t want any more scrapes.”
By the time they had freed themselves from the dead trees the fret had advanced around them. A cold streaming whiteness that moved just above the water, deepening in every direction.
“Now we’re caught up in it, it’s as easy to go forward as to go back. So we might as well press on,” Lucas said.
“That’s the spirit. Just don’t hit any more trees.”
“I’ll do my best.”
“Think we should put up the sail?”
“There’s hardly any wind, and the tide’s still going out. We’ll just go with the current.”
“Dragon weather,” Damian said.
“Listen,” Lucas said.
After a moment’s silence, Damian said, “Is it another boat?”
“Thought I heard wings.”
Lucas had taken out his catapult. He fitted a ball bearing in the center of its fat rubber band as he looked all around. There was a splash among the dead trees to starboard and he brought up the catapult and pulled back the rubber band as something dropped onto a dead branch. A heron, gray as a ghost, turning its head to look at him.
Lucas lowered the catapult, and Damian whispered, “You could take that easy.”
“I was hoping for a duck or two.”
“Let me try a shot.”
Lucas stuck the catapult in his belt. “You kill it, you eat it.”
The heron straightened its crooked neck and rose up and opened its wings and with a lazy flap launched itself across the water, sailing past the stern of the boat and vanishing into the mist.
“Ritchy cooked one once,” Damian said. “With about a ton of aniseed. Said it was how the Romans did them.”
“How was it?”
“Pretty fucking awful, you want to know the truth.”
“Pass me one of the oars,” Lucas said. “We can row a while.”
They rowed through mist into mist. The small noises they made seemed magnified, intimate. Now and again Lucas put his hand over the side and dipped up a palmful of water and tasted it. Telling Damian that fresh water was slow to mix with salt, so as long as it stayed sweet it meant they were in the old river channel and shouldn’t run into anything. Damian was skeptical, but shrugged when Lucas challenged him to come up with a better way of finding their way through the fret without stranding themselves on some mud bank.
They’d been rowing for ten minutes or so when a long, low mournful note boomed out far ahead of them. It shivered Lucas to the marrow of his bones. He and Damian stopped rowing and looked at each other.
“I’d say that was a foghorn, if I didn’t know what one sounded like,” Damian said.
“Maybe it’s a boat. A big one.”
“Or maybe you-know-what. Calling for its dragon-mummy.”
“Or warning people away.”
“I think it came from over there,” Damian said, pointing off to starboard.
“I think so too. But it’s hard to be sure of anything in this stuff.”
They rowed aslant the current. A dim and low palisade appeared, resolving into a bed of sea grass that spread along the edge of the old river channel. Lucas, believing that he knew where they were, felt a clear measure of relief. They sculled into a narrow cut that led through the grass. Tall stems bent and showered them with drops of condensed mist as they brushed past. Then they were out into open water on the far side. A beach loomed out of the mist and sand suddenly gripped and grated along the length of the little boat’s keel. Damian dropped his oar and vaulted over the side and splashed away, running up the beach and vanishing into granular whiteness. Lucas shipped his own oar and slid into knee-deep water and hauled the boat through purling ripples, then lifted from the bow the bucket filled with concrete he used as an anchor and dropped it onto hard wet sand, where it keeled sideways in a dint that immediately filled with water.
He followed Damian’s footprints up the beach, climbed a low ridge grown over with marram grass, and descended to the other side of the sand bar. Boats lay at anchor in shallow water, their outlines blurred by mist. Two dayfishers with small wheelhouses at their bows. Several sailboats not much bigger than his. A cabin cruiser with trim white superstructure, much like the one that had almost run him down.
A figure materialized out of the whiteness, a chubby boy of five or six in dungarees who ran right around Lucas, laughing, and chased away. He followed the boy toward a blurred eye of light far down the beach. Raised voices. Laughter. A metallic screeching. As he drew close, the blurred light condensed and separated into two sources: a bonfire burning above the tide line; a rack of spotlights mounted on a police speedboat anchored a dozen meters off the beach, long fingers of light lancing through mist and blurrily illuminating the long sleek shape stranded at the edge of the water.
It was big, the sea dragon, easily fifteen meters from stem to stern and about three meters across at its waist, tapering to blunt and shovel-shaped points at either end, coated in close-fitting and darkly tinted scales. An alien machine, solid and obdurate. One of thousands spawned by sealed mother ships the UN had purchased from the !Cha.
Lucas thought that it looked like a leech, or one of the parasitic flukes that lived in the bellies of sticklebacks. A big segmented shape, vaguely streamlined, helplessly prostrate. People stood here and there on the curve of its back. A couple of kids were whacking away at its flank with chunks of driftwood. A group of men and women stood at its nose, heads bowed as if in prayer. A woman was walking along its length, pointing a wand-like instrument at different places. A cluster of people were conferring among a scatter of toolboxes and a portable generator, and one of them stepped forward and applied an angle grinder to the dragon’s hide. There was a ragged screech and a fan of orange sparks sprayed out and the man stepped back and turned to his companions and shook his head. Beyond the dragon, dozens more people could be glimpsed through the blur of the fret: everyone from the little town of Martham must have walked out along the sand bar to see the marvel that had cast itself up at their doorstep.
According to the UN, dragons cruised the oceans and swept up and digested the vast rafts of floating garbage that were part of the legacy of the wasteful oil-
dependent world before the Spasm. According to rumors propagated on the stealth nets, a UN black lab had long ago cracked open a dragon and reverse-engineered its technology for fell purposes, or they were a cover for an alien plot to infiltrate Earth and construct secret bases in the ocean deeps, or to geoengineer the world in some radical and inimical fashion. And so on, and so on. One of his mother’s ongoing disputes was with the Midway Island utopians, who were using modified dragons to sweep plastic particulates from the North Pacific Gyre and spin the polymer soup into construction materials: true utopians shouldn’t use any kind of alien technology, according to her.
Lucas remembered his mother’s request to take photos of the dragon and fished out her phone; when he switched it on, it emitted a lone and plaintive beep and its screen flashed and went dark. He switched it off, switched it on again. This time it did nothing. So it was true: the dragon was somehow suppressing electronic equipment. Lucas felt a shiver of apprehension, wondering what else it could do, wondering if it was watching him and everyone around it.
As he pushed the dead phone into his pocket, someone called his name. Lucas turned, saw an old man dressed in a yellow slicker and a peaked corduroy cap bustling toward him. Bill Danvers, one of the people who tended the oyster beds east of Martham, asking him now if he’d come over with Grant Higgins.
“I came in my own boat,” Lucas said.
“You worked for Grant though,” Bill Danvers said, and held out a flat quarter-liter bottle.
“Once upon a time. That’s kind, but I’ll pass.”
“Vodka and ginger root. It’ll keep out the cold.” The old man unscrewed the cap and took a sip and held out the bottle again.
Lucas shook his head.
Bill Danvers took another sip and capped the bottle, saying, “You came over from Halvergate?”
“A little south of Halvergate. Sailed all the way.” It felt good to say it.
“People been coming in from every place, past couple of hours. Including those science boys you see trying to break into her. But I was here first. Followed the damn thing in after it went past me. I was fishing for pollack, and it went past like an island on the move. Like to have had me in the water, I was rocking so much. I fired up the outboard and swung around but I couldn’t keep pace with it. I saw it hit the bar, though. It didn’t slow down a bit, must have been traveling at twenty knots. I heard it,” Bill Danvers said, and clapped his hands. “Bang! It ran straight up, just like you see. When I caught up with it, it was wriggling like an eel. Trying to move forward, you know? And it did, for a little bit. And then it stuck, right where it is now. Must be something wrong with it, I reckon, or it wouldn’t have grounded itself. Maybe it’s dying, eh?”
“Can they die, dragons?”
“You live long enough, boy, you’ll know everything has its time. Even unnatural things like this. Those science people, they’ve been trying to cut into it all morning. They used a thermal lance, and some kind of fancy drill. Didn’t even scratch it. Now they’re trying this saw thing with a blade tougher than diamond. Or so they say. Whatever it is, it won’t do any good. Nothing on Earth can touch a dragon. Why’d you come all this way?”
“Just to take a look.”
“Long as that’s all you do I won’t have any quarrel with you. You might want to pay the fee now.”
“Fee?”
“Five pounds. Or five euros, if that’s what you use.”
“I don’t have any money,” Lucas said.
Bill Danvers studied him. “I was here first. Anyone says different they’re a goddamned liar. I’m the only one can legitimately claim salvage rights. The man what found the dragon,” he said, and turned and walked toward two women, starting to talk long before he reached them.
Lucas went on down the beach. A man sat cross-legged on the sand, sketching on a paper pad with a stick of charcoal. A small group of women were chanting some kind of incantation and brushing the dragon’s flank with handfuls of ivy, and all down its length people stood close, touching its scales with the palms of their hands or leaning against it, peering into it, like penitents at a holy relic. Its scales were easily a meter across and each was a slightly different shape, six- or seven-sided, dark yet grainily translucent. Clumps of barnacles and knots of hair-like weed clung here and there.
Lucas took a step into cold, ankle-deep water, and another. Reached out, the tips of his fingers tingling, and brushed the surface of one of the plates. It was the same temperature as the air and covered in small dimples, like hammered metal. He pressed the palm of his hand flat against it and felt a steady vibration, like touching the throat of a purring cat. A shiver shot through the marrow of him, a delicious mix of fear and exhilaration. Suppose his mother and her friends were right? Suppose there was an alien inside there? A Jackaroo or a !Cha riding inside the dragon because it was the only way, thanks to the agreement with the UN, they could visit the Earth. An actual alien lodged in the heart of the machine, watching everything going on around it, trapped and helpless, unable to call for help because it wasn’t supposed to be there.
No one knew what any of the aliens looked like—whether they looked more or less like people, or were unimaginable monsters, or clouds of gas, or swift cool thoughts schooling inside some vast computer. They had shown themselves only as avatars, plastic man-shaped shells with the pleasant, bland but somehow creepy faces of old-fashioned shop dummies, and after the treaty had been negotiated only a few of those were left on Earth, at the UN headquarters in Geneva. Suppose, Lucas thought, the scientists broke in and pulled its passenger out. He imagined some kind of squid, saucer eyes and a clacking beak in a knot of thrashing tentacles, helpless in Earth’s gravity. Or suppose something came to rescue it? Not the UN, but an actual alien ship. His heart beat fast and strong at the thought.
Walking a wide circle around the blunt, eyeless prow of the dragon, he found Damian on the other side, talking to a slender, dark-haired girl dressed in a shorts and a heavy sweater. She turned to look at Lucas as he walked up, and said to Damian, “Is this your friend?”
“Lisbet was just telling me about the helicopter that crashed,” Damian said. “Its engine cut out when it got too close and it dropped straight into the sea. Her father helped to rescue the pilot.”
“She broke her hip,” the girl, Lisbet, said. “She’s at our house now. I’m supposed to be looking after her, but Doctor Naja gave her something that put her to sleep.”
“Lisbet’s father is the mayor,” Damian said. “He’s in charge of all this.”
“He thinks he is,” the girl said, “but no one is really. Police and everyone arguing among themselves. Do you have a phone, Lucas? Mine doesn’t work. This is the best thing to ever happen here and I can’t even tell my friends about it.”
“I could row you out to where your phone started working,” Damian said.
“I don’t think so,” Lisbet said, with a coy little smile, twisting the toes of her bare right foot in the wet sand.
Lucas had thought that she was around his and Damian’s age; now he realized that she was at least two years younger.
“It’ll be absolutely safe,” Damian said. “Word of honor.”
Lisbet shook her head. “I want to stick around here and see what happens next.”
“That’s a good idea too,” Damian said. “We can sit up by the fire and keep warm. I can tell you all about our adventures. How we found our way through the mist. How we were nearly run down—”
“I have to go and find my friends,” Lisbet said, and flashed a dazzling smile at Lucas and said that it was nice to meet him and turned away. Damian caught at her arm and Lucas stepped in and told him to let her go, and Lisbet smiled at Lucas again and walked off, bare feet leaving dainty prints in the wet sand.
“Thanks for that,” Damian said.
“She’s a kid. And she’s also the mayor’s daughter.”
“So? We were just talking.”
“So he could have you locked up if he wanted to. Me too.”
“You don’t have to worry about that, do you? Because you scared her off,” Damian said.
“She walked away because she wanted to,” Lucas said.
He would have said more, would have asked Damian why they were arguing, but at that moment the dragon emitted its mournful wail. A great honking blare, more or less B-Flat, so loud it was like a physical force, shocking every square centimeter of Lucas’s body. He clapped his hands over his ears, but the sound was right inside the box of his skull, shivering deep in his chest and his bones. Damian had pressed his hands over his ears, too, and all along the dragon’s length people stepped back or ducked away. Then the noise abruptly cut off, and everyone stepped forward again. The women flailed even harder, their chant sounding muffled to Lucas; the dragon’s call had been so loud it had left a buzz in his ears, and he had to lean close to hear Damian say, “Isn’t this something?”
“It’s definitely a dragon,” Lucas said, his voice sounding flat and mostly inside his head. “Are we done arguing?”
“I didn’t realize we were,” Damian said. “Did you see those guys trying to cut it open?”
“Around the other side? I was surprised the police are letting them do whatever it is they’re doing.”
“Lisbet said they’re scientists from the marine labs at Swatham. They work for the government, just like the police. She said they think this is a plastic eater. It sucks up plastic and digests it, turns it into carbon dioxide and water.”
“That’s what the UN wants people to think it does, anyhow.”
“Sometimes you sound just like your mother.”
“There you go again.”
Damian put his hand on Lucas’s shoulder. “I’m just ragging on you. Come on, why don’t we go over by the fire and get warm?”
“If you want to talk to that girl again, just say so.”
“Now who’s spoiling for an argument? I thought we could get warm, find something to eat. People are selling stuff.”
“I want to take a good close look at the dragon. That’s why we came here, isn’t it?”
“You do that, and I’ll be right back.”
“You get into trouble, you can find your own way home,” Lucas said, but Damian was already walking away, fading into the mist without once looking back.
Lucas watched him fade away, expecting him to turn around. He didn’t.
Irritated by the silly spat, Lucas drifted back around the dragon’s prow, watched the scientists attack with a jackhammer the joint between two large scales. They were putting everything they had into it, but didn’t seem to be getting anywhere. A gang of farmers from a collective arrived on two tractors that left neat tracks on the wet sand and put out the smell of frying oil, which reminded Lucas that he hadn’t eaten since breakfast. He was damned cold, too. He trudged up the sand and bought a cup of fish soup from a woman who poured it straight from the iron pot she hooked out of the edge of the big bonfire, handing him a crust of bread to go with it. Lucas sipped the scalding stuff and felt his blood warm, soaked up the last of the soup with the crust and dredged the plastic cup in the sand to clean it and handed it back to the woman. Plenty of people were standing around the fire, but there was no sign of Damian. Maybe he was chasing that girl. Maybe he’d been arrested. Most likely, he’d turn up with that stupid smile of his, shrugging off their argument, claiming he’d only been joking. The way he did.
The skirts of the fret drifted apart and revealed the dim shapes of Martham’s buildings at the far end of the sand bar; then the fret closed up and the little town vanished. The dragon sounded its distress or alarm call again. In the ringing silence afterward a man said to no one in particular, with the satisfaction of someone who has discovered the solution to one of the universe’s perennial mysteries, “Twenty-eight minutes on the dot.”
At last, there was the sound of an engine and a shadowy shape gained definition in the fret that hung offshore: a boxy, old-fashioned landing craft that drove past the police boat and beached in the shallows close to the dragon. Its bow door splashed down and soldiers trotted out and the police and several civilians and scientists went down the beach to meet them. After a brief discussion, one of the soldiers stepped forward and raised a bullhorn to his mouth and announced that for the sake of public safety a two-hundred-meter exclusion zone was going to be established.
Several soldiers began to unload plastic crates. The rest chivvied the people around the dragon, ordering them to move back, driving them up the beach past the bonfire. Lucas spotted the old man, Bill Danvers, arguing with two soldiers. One suddenly grabbed the old man’s arm and spun him around and twisted something around his wrists; the other looked at Lucas as he came toward them, telling him to stay back or he’d be arrested too.
“He’s my uncle,” Lucas said. “If you let him go I’ll make sure he doesn’t cause any more trouble.”
“Your uncle?” The soldier wasn’t much older than Lucas, with cropped ginger hair and a ruddy complexion.
“Yes, sir. He doesn’t mean any harm. He’s just upset, because no one cares that he was the first to find it.”
“Like I said,” the old man said.
The two soldiers looked at each other, and the ginger-haired one told Lucas, “You’re responsible for him. If he starts up again, you’ll both be sorry.”
“I’ll look after him.”
The soldier stared at Lucas for a moment, then flourished a small-bladed knife and cut the plasticuffs that bound the old man’s wrists and shoved him toward Lucas. “Stay out of our way, grandpa. All right?”
“Sons of bitches,” Bill Danvers said, as the soldiers walked off. He raised his voice and called out, “I found it first. Someone owes me for that.”
“I think everyone knows you saw it come ashore,” Lucas said. “But they’re in charge now.”
“They’re going to blow it open,” a man said.
He held a satchel in one hand and a folded chair in the other; when he shook the chair open and sat down Lucas recognized him: the man who’d been sitting at the head of the dragon, sketching it.
“They can’t,” Bill Danvers said.
“They’re going to try,” the man said.
Lucas looked back at the dragon. Its streamlined shape dim in the streaming fret, the activity around its head (if that was its head) a vague shifting of shadows. Soldiers and scientists conferring in a tight knot. Then the police boat and the landing craft started their motors and reversed through the wash of the incoming tide, fading into the fret, and the scientists followed the soldiers up the beach, walking past the bonfire, and there was a stir and rustle among the people strung out along the ridge.
“No damn right,” Bill Danvers said.
The soldier with the bullhorn announced that there would be a small controlled explosion. A moment later, the dragon blared out its loud, long call and in the shocking silence afterward laughter broke out among the crowd on the ridge. The soldier with the bullhorn began to count backward from ten. Some of the crowd took up the chant. There was a brief silence at zero, and then a red light flared at the base of the dragon’s midpoint and a flat crack rolled out across the ridge and was swallowed by the mist. People whistled and clapped, and Bill Danvers stepped around Lucas and ran down the slope toward the dragon. Falling to his knees and getting up and running on as soldiers chased after him, closing in from either side.
People cheered and hooted, and some ran after Bill Danvers, young men mostly, leaping down the slope and swarming across the beach. Lucas saw Damian among the runners and chased after him, heart pounding, flooded with a heedless exhilaration. Soldiers blocked random individuals, catching hold of them or knocking them down as others dodged past. Lucas heard the clatter of the bullhorn but couldn’t make out any words, and then there was a terrific flare of white light and a hot wind struck him so hard he lost his balance and fell to his knees.
The dragon had split in half and things were glowing with hot light inside and the waves breaking around its rear hissed and exploded into steam. A terrific heat scorched Lucas’s face. He pushed to his feet. All around, people were picking themselves up and soldiers were moving among them, shoving them away from the dragon. Some complied; others stood, squinting into the light that beat out of the broken dragon, blindingly bright waves and wings of white light flapping across the beach, burning away the mist.
Blinking back tears and blocky afterimages, Lucas saw two soldiers dragging Bill Danvers away from the dragon. The old man hung limp and helpless in their grasp, splayed feet furrowing the sand. His head was bloody, something sticking out of it at an angle.
Lucas started toward them, and there was another flare that left him stunned and half-blind. Things fell all around and a translucent shard suddenly jutted up by his foot. The two soldiers had dropped Bill Danvers. Lucas stepped toward him, picking his way through a field of debris, and saw that he was beyond help. His head had been knocked out of shape by the shard that stuck in his temple, and blood was soaking into the sand around it.
The dragon had completely broken apart now. Incandescent stuff dripped and hissed into steaming water and the burning light was growing brighter.
Like almost everyone else, Lucas turned and ran. Heat clawed at his back as he slogged to the top of the ridge. He saw Damian sitting on the sand, right hand clamped on the upper part of his left arm, and he jogged over and helped his friend up. Leaning against each other, they stumbled across the ridge. Small fires crackled here and there, where hot debris had kindled clumps of marram grass. Everything was drenched in a pulsing diamond brilliance. They went down the slope of the far side, angling toward the little blue boat, splashing into the water that had risen around it. Damian clambered unhandily over thwart and Lucas hauled up the concrete-filled bucket and boosted it over the side, then put his shoulder to the boat’s prow and shoved it into the low breakers and tumbled in.
The boat drifted sideways on the rising tide as Lucas hauled up the sail. Dragon-light beat beyond the crest of the sand bar, brighter than the sun. Lucas heeled his little boat into the wind, ploughing through stands of sea grass into the channel beyond, chasing after the small fleet fleeing the scene. Damian sat in the bottom of the boat, hunched into himself, his back against the stem of the mast. Lucas asked him if he was okay; he opened his fingers to show a translucent spike embedded in the meat of his biceps. It was about the size of his little finger.
“Dumb bad luck,” he said, his voice tight and wincing.
“I’ll fix you up,” Lucas said, but Damian shook his head.
“Just keep going. I think—”
Everything went white for a moment. Lucas ducked down and wrapped his arms around his head and for a moment saw shadowy bones through red curtains of flesh. When he dared look around, he saw a narrow column of pure white light rising straight up, seeming to lean over as it climbed into the sky, aimed at the very apex of heaven.
A hot wind struck the boat and filled the sail, and Lucas sat up and grabbed the tiller and the sheet as the boat crabbed sideways. By the time he had it under control again the column of light had dimmed, fading inside drifting curtains of fret, rooted in a pale fire flickering beyond the sandbar.

Copyright © 2011 Paul McAuley

 

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"THE CHOICE" by
Paul McAuley
copyright © 2011 with permission of the author.

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