The drone hovered outside the window of the high-rise, gazing at the occupants of the 36th floor. A man in a white shirt and striped tie was eating a sandwich at his desk, oblivious to its presence.
Four hundred and thirty-two feet below, Jerry Donovan held his finger above the remote’s trigger and regarded the man in the video feed. He did not know him; he never knew any of them.
Just then, the man stopped his chewing, and turned his head to the window, a piece of arugula dangling from his lips. He locked eyes with the camera.
Jerry pulled the trigger.
A jet of water and soap suds speckled the one-inch pane of glass between them and dribbled down into the window seam. Jerry fingered the joystick forward until the two-foot long squeegee made contact with the window. The drone dragged the squeegee downward, wiping away the soap and the residue of city smog.
The man in the striped tie began to chew again, watching the drone’s progress with distracted disinterest.
Jerry shifted on his makeshift stool on the sidewalk and gazed about at the throng of pedestrians moving around him. Like his drone, the people who looked at him barely seemed to register his existence.
At times, he missed being up there, suspended by a few ropes hundreds of feet above the sidewalk. He thought the advent of window-washing drones would put him out of the job, but they still needed operators. Whether it was safer to cling to a high-rise or sit on a crowded Los Angeles sidewalk, had yet to be determined. It had not stopped his boss from taking away his hazard pay. Fortunately, the city was due to expand, to push out into the Santa Monica bay. The sooner it did the better, in his opinion. The sidewalks were getting too crowded.
When his drone arrived at the thirty-fifth floor, all of his bitter musings evaporated.
Jerry sat straighter and maneuvered his drone to the next window. A small, rare smile tugged at his lips.
Along the length of the room sat five equally spaced desks, each occupied by a person staring at a computer monitor. Closest to him was a woman with large, dark-framed glasses and brown hair pulled back into a ponytail. She wore a white blouse beneath a slender dark gray business suit.
Jerry did not know her name, but he gazed in on her for a few minutes every week. Unlike other windows, he always took his time with this one.
It would have felt creepy, stalker-ish even, but she never failed to give him a smile and a wave. Today was no different, and her face brightened when she caught sight of the shadow of his drone on the carpeted floor.
Jerry dutifully sprayed the window with the cleaner.
The joystick was slippery with sweat, and he took a moment to wipe his palms dry on his pant legs.
Then he went for it.
The camera view pitched and yawed with the motions of the drone, and he unconsciously leaned from side to side, squinting into the camera feed. A moment later, spelled out in relief among the soapsuds, was the word “Hi.”
Through a clean part of the glass, he could see her smile broaden, and a hint of amusement in her eyes.
Then she broke her gaze to look at the office door. A tall man with immaculately styled brown hair entered the room. A face red with fury highlighted his scowl.
The man spoke, but the words were inaudible to Jerry. The woman stood, a white-knuckled hand grabbing the edge of her desk. Her face remained stoic, even as the man slammed a piece of paper down in front of her.
Mouth agape, Jerry stared into the feed as the man continued to shout, drawing the attention of everyone in the office. The man stuck out his hand, a single finger pointing to the door. Jerry didn’t have to hear him to known what he’d said.
Jaw clenched, the woman watched him leave and then sat down in her chair, staring at the piece of paper. Blood drained from her face.
Jerry loosened his grip on the remote when its sturdy plastic creaked in protest.
A moment later, determination crept over the woman’s features, and she looked up, straight at his drone.
Startled, Jerry set the drone to cleaning the rest of the window.
The woman stood, folding the piece of paper and pocketing it, and then approached the window. Jerry brought the drone to eye level. She stepped right up to the window, pressed her hand to the glass, and looked down.
Jerry frowned and then his eyes widened. He looked up from his stool to locate his drone suspended next to the 35th floor of the building across the street. He could just make her out beyond the hazy sky reflected by the window.
Throat constricting, he looked back at his video feed to see a sparkle in her eyes and a smirk curling one corner of her lips. She’d seen him. She turned around and walked straight for the door on the far side of the room.
Jerry gulped and hurriedly finished with the window.
Now was a good time to take his lunch break, he decided.
He yanked back on the joystick and steered the drone across the street and down to where he stood on the sidewalk. Its buzz grew louder as it drew nearer, causing even the most distracted pedestrian to look up.
He cordoned off a five-foot-by-five-foot landing site on the street with four collapsible traffic cones, much to the annoyance of the driver waiting to claim the charging station he now blocked.
Jerry set to work with practiced efficiency, detaching the propellers, battery pack, and washer-fluid receptacle and storing each inside the large wheeled case that had served as his stool.
Just as he was loading the frame and controller in the case, the hard clicking of approaching footsteps lifted above the general bustling of the crowd. A pair of small black shoes appeared in his periphery.
Swallowing, Jerry stood from his crouch and turned to face the owner of the shoes.
It was the woman from behind the glass.
Her eyes searched his for several moments as if she struggled to connect the lanky man with untidy hair before her to the persona of the drone.
A car honked at them.
Jerry scrambled to retrieve his cones and leave room for the driver to park.
“I’m sorry you witnessed that,” she said as he added the cones to his other equipment. She put a hand to her forehead and shook her head. “I’m so embarrassed.”
Jerry didn’t know what to say, so gave a one-shouldered shrug.
“I’m Cassy by the way.”
“Jerry,” he said, and shook her extended hand.
“Well Jerry,” she said, considering him. “I could use a drink. Care to join me?”
“I was just…” he stammered and then collected himself. “Yes I would.”
Jerry set off down the sidewalk alongside her, tugging his case after him. They merged with the lunch crowd that was just beginning to pour into the streets.
He concentrated on the back of the person in front of him and tried to ignore the awkward silence between them.
“You realize that ‘hi’ backwards reads ‘ih.’” She said abruptly.
Jerry’s stomach fell, and he covered his face with a palm.
“I’m an idiot.”
“At least it wasn’t ‘olleh’ or ‘yeh.’”
Her laugh made the embarrassing oversight worth it.
“What bar were you thinking?” Jerry asked after they had walked east for a couple blocks.
“I think I have a few bottles at my place,” she said. Jerry was still reeling from her answer when she spoke again. “Do you like to play games?”
“Well I…” he stammered. “Where is this going?”
“That came out wrong,” she said, flushing. “I meant video games. I assumed with you flying a drone…” She trailed off.
“Sure. I love video games. I’d hardly call my job one though.”
“How far can that thing fly, anyway? Can you work from home?”
“I have to be within a mile or so for the controller and receiver to communicate, but they want us on location in case we lose signal. It won’t fall out of the sky or anything. It lands automatically, but we have to make sure we clear a place for it.”
As he described the less-than-riveting details of his job, she led him into the lobby of a modern, recently constructed building. They entered a small elevator and rode it to the fifteenth floor and proceeded down a hallway that smelled of new carpet.
“Come on in,” she said, holding a door open.
Inside the condo, a large fish tank, a hundred gallons at least, stood against one wall. A television comprised nearly the whole of the wall opposite the door. Whirls of color bounced across it in a pattern reminiscent of an old screen-saver. Only a solitary ergonomic chair faced it.
“Is that a TFG console?”
“One of their first,” she said, her hands on her hips.
Jerry left his case by the door, walked over, and ran his hands along the chair’s back and then down along an armrest. His finger grazed a small black surface, and a touch-pad came to life. A moment later, the entire wall lit up, revealing the last thing he expected to see.
TerraForm Games had revolutionized the gaming industry. No longer did gamers waste hundreds of hours performing virtual tasks; they had something real to control.
If it hadn’t been so expensive, Jerry would have purchased the operating rights to one of their Lunar and Martian Rovers long ago. It was the ultimate sandbox game, casting regolith into any number of shapes with 3D printers.
What appeared in the display before him was not the surface of Mars, the moon, or even the cloud-tops of Venus. He was staring at an underwater palace through the camera of a TerraForm Games submersible.
Fish darted across the screen and in and out of a large white structure. It wasn’t coral, though there was certainly some of that too, growing on the rough angular walls, the tall support columns, and inside open windows. The palace was too small to be accessible by humans and made entirely from the white stone. Above it all, was the rippling surface of the water no more than one-hundred feet above.
Below the camera feed, the screen was divided into two sections. One displayed a large topological map of the Santa Monica bay, including longitude, latitude, and depth. The palace appeared as a small angular bulge, and hundreds of other structures lay beyond, just out of sight.
The other section of the display was a text box, an event log or status window from the looks of it. The last message read:
::SUBMERSIBLE IDLE_ BATTERY CHARGING_ AWAITING OPERATOR INPUT::
“I call her Cephi.” Cassy said from beside him, he hadn’t heard her approach. “Since she looks a little like a Cephalopod. A Squid,” she supplied at his blank look. She stuck out a hand, gesturing toward the chair. “Care to take the helm?”
He didn’t need to be asked twice. He sat down and reached for a button that resembled his drone remote’s joystick.
It took a moment, but the camera view began to move, causing a few fish to dart away. He neared the palace and passed beneath an arch into what looked to be a small courtyard.
“Did you build all this?”
“It took a couple years, and the help of some friends, but yeah. This is all mine.”
“What’s it made of?”
“Calcium carbonate, the same stuff that mollusks and coral use to make their shells and skeletons.”
She leaned down, her ponytail swinging into his face for a moment as she toggled another button forward. When she stood straight again, and Jerry was no longer distracted, he saw that an armature had extended into the sub’s field of view. Several servo boxes separated the arm into segments, and two long tubes stretching down its length.
“This is the 3D printing arm. One tube carries concentrated calcium chloride isolated from the seawater by osmotic and chemical filters. The other tube contains carbonic acid, the dissolved form of carbon dioxide. When they mix at the end of the probe, they form insoluble calcium carbonate.”
“What can you print?”
“Anything really, so long as I have enough calcium chloride and carbonate stored. There’s another arm too, the manipulator.” She leaned over him again, but he was ready for it, and saw the buttons she pressed. Another arm with pincers moved into view on the opposite side of the camera feed. “It helps to steady the object during printing and move things around afterward.”
Jerry had steered up to a wall spotted with coral and anemones like some kind of vertical garden. The vibrant colors of red and blue coral were surpassed only by those of the fish surrounding them. Some of the yellows were so bright as to be fluorescent.
“Aren’t you afraid they’ll destroy what you’ve printed?” Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Cassy’s features darken, but a weak smile replaced it by the time he focused on her.
“At first, I guess, but making them at home here has now become the unofficial purpose of the game. Yeah, I got into it to build an underwater paradise, but then I realized how shortsighted I was. Did you know over ninety percent of the carbon dioxide we produce is dissolved in the oceans, slowly acidifying them? Our subs have captured thousands of tons of it, but that’s nothing compared to reefs, and those are mostly dead now.”
Jerry looked out at the garden of coral and schools of fish. Each appeared to be thriving within the artificial home she’d created for them.
“These seem to be doing well enough.”
“Right? We had no idea it would happen,” she continued, excitement brightening her features. “The new regulations have helped clean up the water around here, but we never expected this. Coral and tropical fish don’t normally come to these northern latitudes, but with the oceans getting warmer, these are the new tropics. They latched on to our artificial reef and made it their own.”
“So the reefs won’t disappear after all?”
“If this reef and others around the coast are allowed to prosper, it will easily outpace any of our efforts to reverse climate change.”
Jerry blinked. Her tone had become somber.
“That’s amazing. So why don’t you sound excited?”
Cassy mashed another button on the touch-pad and held it.
Cephi rose, first slowly, and then with surprising speed. Once it had cleared the top of the coral garden, he could make out large spires, squat domes, and even part of a labyrinth in the distance. Other subs idled around the structures or moved between them like the fish. The subs were a squatter version of a submarine, with two propellers at the tail end and two small arms hugging its sides. Cassy was right, they did resemble large squids.
Cephi broke the surface, and then crashed back down, sending waves in all directions. Rivulets of water flowed across the camera lens, but when the view cleared, they looked out over a broad expanse of water at the coast. The tallest skyscrapers of Los Angeles were visible in the distance, but only as a hazy backdrop to the much closer buildings of Santa Monica.
A small fleet of barges in the foreground partially obscured their view. Several figures in hardhats scurried along the decks and rails of the ships.
“All that we’ve done, all that we’ve built here. It won’t last another day.”
Jerry’s stomach sank.
“The City Expansion Project?”
She nodded and clenched her jaw.
Just to the left of the Santa Monica beach, large hills and mountains loomed over the city. They had been beautiful and green once, but now strip mines and construction roads scarred them.
“For over a dozen miles off the coast, the water is no more than a couple hundred feet deep, the only depth at which reefs can grow. With the mountain so close to the water’s edge, all they have to do is push all of that dirt in. They’ll have flattened a mountain and filled in the bay at the same time. All the more area to build on.”
Jerry shook his head. Just earlier that day he had been hoping the expansion would be underway soon to relieve some of the sidewalk congestion. Now…
“They have to know what’s down here. Why would they bury a reef?”
“Someone from the Fish and Wildlife Service did a survey, but concluded the species here weren’t protected under the Endangered Species Act, even though the list hasn’t been updated in years.” She balled her hands into fists.
“There has to be a way.”
“I’ve tried everything, we’ve tried everything,” she said, motioning toward the edge of the screen. For the first time Jerry noticed a message feed showing hundreds of unread messages, most marked as urgent and with a fair number of expletives in their subject lines. The other subs.
“It even cost me my job.”
Cassy pulled a piece of paper from her back pocket, the one her boss had slammed onto her desk. Jerry took the slip of paper and unfolded it. It was an email correspondence between a Cassandra Thomas, CP and the International Union for Conservation of Nature, specifically, the Species Survival Commission. Several emails detailed her apparent pleas to move Heliopora coerulea, Blue coral, from Vulnerable status to Endangered. Their only response was that it would be discussed at their next SSC meeting in three weeks. By then it would be too late.
“I don’t understand. Why did this get you fired?”
“I’m a paralegal. Our law firm represents the city and this construction project. My boss found out I was trying to stop it and…”
“I’m sorry. I wish there was something I could do to help,” he wanted to reach out and comfort her, lay a sympathetic hand on her shoulder, or let her cry on his. He held back. He may have looked in on her for over a year, but she’d known him for less than fifteen minutes.
“Maybe there is,” she said cryptically, and then backed away from the chair and approached her fish tank. She stared in at several of the bright blue fish.
Puzzled, Jerry stood from the chair and followed her. The fish nearest him was the largest of the fish in the aquarium, about eight inches long and with a large knobby forehead. The aquarium’s overhead lights illuminated a lacework of orange across its blue scales. Cassy’s dark-framed glasses reflected the entire scene.
“Cheilinus undulates, the Humphead wrasse. They are on the endangered species list. Don’t even ask how I got my hands on one. It wasn’t exactly legal, but at least it’s in my hands and not the belly of someone who thinks its rarity makes it more delicious. If I could get him out to the reef, and capture video of him swimming around, it would put a wrench into their construction plans.”
“That doesn’t sound legal either.” Jerry said, rubbing at his neck. This was all moving too fast. All he had wanted was to have a drink in the company of a woman he had admired from afar for so long.
She shrugged a shoulder.
“People dump their fish and let out birds all the time. It’s illegal, sure, but it’s not something they send people to jail over. I would have done it already, but the entire reef is now in a construction zone. They’ve closed the beaches and they won’t let any boats on site.” She turned to him and swallowed. “But a drone with a water tank could reach it.”
A chill rippled across his skin and then it was gone, replaced by a sinking feeling in his stomach.
“This was why you asked me out for a drink?”
Cassy looked to the floor.
Jerry’s nostrils flared, and he turned around, walking back to the chair and gripping the headrest.
He should have guessed she had an ulterior motive. What would a girl like her want with him? He ground his teeth as he stared at the distant city through the camera feed. The forty-three-story high-rise he’d been washing was visible from this angle, its windows reflecting the sun overhead. He should leave now and get back to work, finish the windows before the building manager filed a complaint.
Just beyond the skyscrapers was the sky itself, hazy from the pollution settling over the valley. Despite the city’s efforts to improve air quality by promoting the electric car and the use of solar charging stations, it continued to deteriorate.
He had never looked to the ocean for answers, but Terraform Games had, and they had gamers: the most dedicated workforce on the planet. They had invested millions of dollars, thousands of hours into the reef, and now they were all counting on him. If he went back to washing windows, he would be condemning all that vibrant and beautiful life to death.
Cassy was wringing her hands together and chewing on her lower lip as she watched him.
“I’ll do it.”
She smiled and hopped up and down on her toes. She looked like she might throw her arms around him, but thought twice and settled back on her heels. She took off the blazer of her business suit and threw it over the chair.
“Then let’s get to work.”
“Now?” He gaped at her.
“Now is all the time the reef has left. The construction begins tomorrow morning.”
“It could take some time to modify the drone, and I’ll need to be nearby when I fly it.”
“That won’t be a problem. I have a friend with a boat that can get you close enough. But we both can’t go. I need to stay here to film the fish once you deliver it. If we don’t get video, it could hide, and we might not be able to find it again before tomorrow morning.”
She took a step forward and laid a hand on his shoulder.
“I’ve seen you fly that thing. You’re good. I have every confidence in you.”
The touch sent a pulse of warmth through him, and he suddenly found a confidence that hadn’t been there a moment before.
They set to the task of preparing the drone, all plans to have a nice, relaxing drink forgotten. Jerry washed out the fluid reservoir and then, at Cassy’s instruction, washed it out twice more. He didn’t know what the washer fluid was made of, but it couldn’t be healthy for fish.
The reservoir was large enough to hold over two gallons of water from her aquarium, more than enough for the fish. The problem was the release button. He would need a way to dump the contents of the tank into the bay remotely.
After some minutes of staring at the drone and scratching his head, Cassy asked if he could just drop the whole reservoir into the bay.
“The fish could swim out and I’ll buy you a new one.”
That made the problem easier, but it didn’t solve it. He had no way to release the reservoir remotely, otherwise drone operators might inadvertently send twenty pounds of washer fluid and reservoir down onto the heads of pedestrians on the sidewalk. After some tinkering, he routed the tube of the spray nozzle and wedged it into the manual release switch. With a press of the remote’s trigger, the water pressure was sufficient to trigger the release. Cassy brought him a glue gun to fix the tubing in place, and they tested it several times with the reservoir full.
While he made the last adjustments, Cassy contacted a friend of hers who owned a boat.
“I’ve taken it on trips to Ventura and Santa Barbara,” she said to him after hanging up the phone. “It’s large enough to set up your drone, and I think you’ll like Leon, he’s a really nice guy.”
Jerry hated him already. Any guy who would drop everything to do this for her would definitely have a thing for her. He was proof of it.
After he packed up his drone, Cassy wrote the coordinates of her underwater palace on a piece of paper, and he put it in his pocket. Then she programmed her number into his cellphone.
“Call me if anything goes wrong, and I mean anything.”
They loaded the fish in the reservoir last, which took some doing as they chased it out of it hiding place among the coral and anemones. Her only instruction was not to take too long getting it in the bay. Ammonia from the fish’s waste would build up rapidly in the small volume of the reservoir and the oxygen would plummet. It was an endangered species, she reminded him. It was irreplaceable.
Once they had secured the fish in the reservoir, Jerry strapped it to the top of his case and wheeled it to the door.
Cassy was wringing her hands again, and he could see how desperately she wanted to go with him.
“Could you ask another sub to record video?”
“It’s best we keep what we are doing quiet. The fewer people know the better.”
Was she lying to him about the legal repercussions of what they were planning? She was being exceptionally careful not to leave evidence behind. But if he knew all the details, would that really change his mind?
She walked him to the elevator down the hall.
“You too,” he said.
They did not embrace or even shake hands; they simply looked into each other’s eyes for enough time to feel awkward, and then a little while longer.
When the door finally closed and descended to the first floor, he had the shape of her soft smile and every contour of her face burned into his memory.
The car Cassy had called for him waited outside. With his case in the trunk and the fish reservoir in his lap, he passed the thirty-minute ride south to Long Beach in silence.
It was just after 3pm when he wheeled his case onto the marina and checked his phone.
Jerry looked up to see a blonde-haired man wearing a T-shirt and swim shorts. He was tall and well-muscled, a fact that was hard to ignore as he raveled a rope between his hand and bicep. If he wasn’t a surfer, or body builder, or even an up-and-coming Hollywood actor, Jerry would lose all confidence in stereotypes.
“The one and only,” he said, smiling with too-perfect teeth. Leon grabbed his hand briefly, forgoing the shake, and returned to coiling the rope.
“This the boat?” Jerry asked, gesturing to the vessel moored to the dock beside them. It was larger than he had imagined and much more luxurious. It had a small wheelhouse in the forward section and assorted snorkeling gear and coolers cluttering the aft part of the deck. He could picture the many hundreds of parties the man had hosted here, parties to which Jerry would never have been invited. As if to confirm his suspicions, stenciled on the side of the boat was its name, The Good Time.
“This is her,” he said, and threw the rope on the last remaining part of the boat where the deck was visible beneath the clutter.
Leon helped move his case onto the boat and Jerry set the fish reservoir gently inside the wheelhouse and out of direct sunlight.
While Leon navigated the boat out of the marina, Jerry cleared a space on the cluttered deck to assemble his drone.
Just after they passed a pair of buoys, he had to find a place to sit as Leon lay on the speed.
“How do you know Cassy?” Leon called back over the rushing wind.
“We just met today, actually. She needed my help with a project of hers.” He had overheard a part of their conversation over the phone and knew she hadn’t told him everything. Leon seemed pleased by this answer, possibly having feared Jerry was her new boyfriend.
What had Cassy said? You’ll like him? He’s nice? To her maybe. It must have irked Leon to no end that Cassy hadn’t accompanied them on this trip. At least they had that in common.
“She want you to put some Christmas lights on that palace of hers or something?” He had obviously not figured out there was a fish in the opaque plastic reservoir on the floor beside him.
“Something like that.”
The boat rounded Point Vincent and Santa Monica eased into view. The mountains beside it were visibly shorter than they had been months ago, the thousands of tons of earth now sitting inside a fleet of barges in the bay.
They passed a few fishing boats, but before long, they were the only ones out in the water. They came to a series of floating buoys strung together in a wide arc around the construction site, at least a mile away from the nearest barge. It wasn’t a high barrier, and they could have driven the boat right over it, but the bright red of the buoys suggested that action would be unwise.
It didn’t matter. This was the perfect spot.
Leon slowed the boat to a stop within twenty feet of the barrier and turned off the engine.
Jerry cleared more room on the deck and opened his case. He had to snatch a piece from Leon, who had pulled out one of the propellers and was spinning it with a finger. He had to hurry; the fish couldn’t live much longer inside the reservoir.
“It’s a drone,” Leon said stupidly as the last piece clicked into place. How he couldn’t tell that from its parts was a mystery.
“Yup,” Jerry replied as he stepped around him and into the wheelhouse to retrieve the reservoir.
Despite the confirmation, the appearance of the reservoir made Leon look just as confused as he had a moment ago.
Jerry checked on the fish, which huddled next to the edge of the tank in apparent fear, but seemed healthy enough. He then connected the reservoir to the drone.
With the remote, he primed the spray tube with a few presses of the trigger, and as expected, the reservoir detached. After reconnecting it, he paused and stood. That was all there was left to do. The familiar task of assembling the drone had momentarily chased away his anxiety, but now that he was done, it swept back in and rocked him like the waves against the boat. This was it.
According to his phone’s GPS, the coordinates Cassy had given him were no more than one thousand yards away. He could not see any evidence of the reef from the surface, but knowing that such a beautiful place existed below filled him with awe.
He messaged Cassy to let her know they’d arrived and to expect to see the reservoir in the water within a couple minutes.
”Thank you, Jerry. You are my new favorite person,” she replied.
He stared at the screen for a long moment before Leon broke his trance.
“So what next?”
He entertained the idea of showing Leon the message, just for the pleasure of watching the man sulk. Maybe later, after he made sure the fish was at home in the water.
He took up his remote.
The drone strained against the weight of its full reservoir, but cleared the edge of the boat without any obvious problems.
Once it was over the water, a frightening thought occurred to him. It was one thing to crash his drone into a building or botch a landing on the street. He could always recover it. Now, with over a hundred feet of water between him and a sunken drone, it would be lost forever.
The drone reached twenty feet in the air before he steered it over the barricade. He maintained the altitude and watched the drone shrink into the distance with its precious cargo. It was perhaps the first fish to achieve sustained flight, he mused.
He flipped on the remote’s viewing screen and was treated to an expansive view of open water, beyond which lay an equally expansive city.
The drone was closing in on the score of barges floating in the bay. The behemoth flat-bottomed ships sat low in the water under the tons of dirt and rocks. Only the wheelhouse and a narrow walkway along the sides of the vessel were accessible to crew. On the closest barge, a small group of crewmen followed each other like ants around the dirt mound. As his drone approached, he could see one of them pointing out over the water. At him.
Another man split off from the group and ran back along the path with one hand on the railing and the other holding his hardhat in place.
Jerry tensed and pushed the joystick forward, increasing the drone’s speed. He needed to drop off the fish and return before anyone came to investigate.
Just before the drone reached the coordinates, the man emerged from the door of the barge’s wheelhouse and scurried back, holding something.
Leon’s thick finger tapped the screen.
“What’s that?” he said uncomfortably close to Jerry’s ear.
“I don’t know.”
The man stopped halfway back to the group and put the object to his shoulder. It was some kind of rifle or cannon with a fat barrel. It was pointing directly at his drone.
Then the camera feed went black.
Heart racing, Jerry looked up, expecting to see a cloud of smoke and drone debris. Instead, the distant drone slowed its forward motion and hovered in place.
In horror, Jerry watched as it began to execute an automatic landing, but there was nothing but water beneath it.
He fed more power into the propellers, but the drone continued its descent.
Jerry pulled the trigger once, then twice, but there was no splash to indicate the drone had dropped its reservoir.
The anti-drone device had done its job. None of Jerry’s signals were getting though.
He watched with heart-stopping helplessness as the drone hovered down into the water. When it hit, the propellers shot a plume of spray and mist into the air. Then it was gone.
“Dude. That sucks,” Leon said with a tsk.
Thunderstruck, Jerry dropped the remote to the deck of the boat and stumbled to the railing.
The fish was still in the reservoir. If it didn’t get out soon, it would die. Without the fish, thousands of tons of mountain rock would cover the reef by this time tomorrow. Cassy would never forgive him if that happened.
“We’re going out there.”
“No way, Dude. It’s gone.”
“We have to. The fi—” Jerry took a deep breath. “Cassy would want this more than anything in the world right now. I swear, you will be her new favorite person,” he said. It wasn’t exactly a title he could give away, but he would say anything to get this boat moving.
Leon bit his lip and looked out over the water toward the crash site.
“Alright. But the second I see any boats coming after us, I’m gone.”
Leon started the engine, and Jerry squatted down to keep from falling over as the boat lurched forward and whipped around.
The barricade was of little hindrance to the boat. They sped between two of the buoys where the line connecting them sagged well below the water.
The phone in his pocket was buzzing, but he ignored it. He could not talk to Cassy now, not until he set the fish free. But how could he get to it?
The pile of junk he leaned against shifted, and a pair of goggles rolled out into the space he had cleared on the deck.
He grabbed them and sorted through the rest of the pile. He pulled out two matching flippers and checked their size against his shoe. It would have to do. Once the flippers were on, he took off his shirt and placed it and his cellphone, keys, and wallet, in their own pile on the deck.
“I think this is it,” Leon said, laying off the gas.
Jerry stood and saw what had clued him off. A fragment of the safety barrier that surrounded the drone’s propellers drifted in the water.
He took a few deep breaths, lowered his goggles over his eyes, and launched himself over the side of the boat.
His eyes stung with saltwater as the impact jostled his goggles loose. He surfaced and adjusted them until they were tight against his face.
Leon had brought the boat around, his eyes wide as he stared at Jerry.
Holding his breath, Jerry dove again.
Below, shimmering schools of fish meandered through a city of white stone. The top of the closest structure, a spire, was twenty feet below, but it was five times that far to the ocean floor. He stared in awe for a few seconds before searching for the wreckage of his drone.
He saw it then, sinking to the bottom. The drone was largely intact, and he could just make out the reservoir above it, the small amount of air inside providing some buoyancy.
Fighting the urge to dive after it, he surfaced for a fresh lungful of air.
The boat was idling twenty feet away, and Leon was waving for him to swim back. His other hand was pointing out over the water toward the barges. Two small dinghies had separated from the ships and were speeding toward them.
Now was the time to get out of the water and leave if they had any chance of getting away.
Jerry shook his head, first to convince himself, and then for Leon. The man dropped his hands and leaned his head back as if to beseech a god to pluck Jerry from the water for him.
He ducked back beneath the waves and kicked off in the direction of the drone. The flippers propelled him faster than he would have expected though desperation surely played its part. He closed the distance to the drone in under twenty seconds.
He grabbed the first thing that came within reach, the two-foot long rubber squeegee. It reminded him just how much trouble he would be in once his boss got word of the drone’s loss. Hauling the thing to the surface was not an option. Already his lungs ached with the breath he held, and the interior of his goggles were fogging over. He needed to set the fish free while he still could.
While he positioned himself atop the drone, nearest the reservoir, they descended into a bed of coral growing on the roof of some kind of flat-topped structure. He pressed the manual release button, but the reservoir did not pop free. The crash must have jammed it.
For his next attempt, he tried to brace his feet against the drone, but the flippers were making it impossible. He stuck a finger between his ankle and the flipper and pried one off and then the other. With them gone, he could fit his feet on the crossbars that attached the propellers to the drone’s chassis.
His ankle brushed against a red spindly-looking coral, and it burned like the red-hot embers of a fire. It took all his willpower not to suck in a lungful of water at the sudden pain.
Repositioning his foot, he heaved, and finally, the reservoir came free. It floated up a few feet and rotated, releasing its trapped air. The bright blue fish darted out and away, and past a looming silver shape.
It was Cephi. Cassy had found him.
Even as he pointed frantically in the direction the fish had gone, the submersible continued toward him. She had to have seen it. If she did not give chase, the opportunity to save the reef would be lost forever.
He could not care about that now; he had to get to the surface. Panic quickly overcame him when he looked up. The glimmering surface of the water was so far away. He pushed off the drone and kicked his legs.
Without the flippers, he was moving too slow. Darkness was condensing along the periphery of his vision, and his diaphragm spasmed, trying and failing to suck in the salty water.
Then something passed before his eyes. A mechanical arm with pincers at the end. Cephi’s manipulator arm. The moment his fingers closed around it, it lurched upward. He held on with all his might as he and Cephi rocketed toward the surface.
They had barely breached before Jerry was gasping in a breath. For a moment, he was weightless, and he luxuriated in the feel of the air passing across his lips and filling every inch of his lungs. Then he crashed back into the water losing his hold on the sub. Somewhere along the way, his goggles had disappeared, and he had to wipe and blink away the stinging water.
Hardly a minute had passed since he dove after the fish, and now that he was on the surface again, he could see Leon over a hundred yards away, speeding back the way they had come. From the opposite side, their two pursuers were quickly approaching Jerry’s position.
Cephi was floating just feet away. He splashed over and draped his arms over its cool metallic surface to wait for rescue.
Cassy had chosen to save him instead of getting footage of the fish. He had put her in that position, and while he was glad of her choice, he was now to blame for the destruction of the reef.
“Thank you,” he said to the sub. He was pretty sure she could neither see nor hear him, so belatedly located the camera among a bunch of other unidentifiable ports and lenses on the front of the submersible and gave her a thumbs up.
It was another minute before the boats arrived and hauled him out of the water. The crew had little to say in the way of chastisement, perhaps out of consideration for his near-death experience. The captain of the boat, however, a tall man with a mustache and black security baseball cap, had several choice words to say about the unnamed man who had left him there to drown.
They bandaged the red blisters on his ankle from the fire-coral and gave him a shirt, towel, and cheap flip-flops. That was what he wore to the police station where they charged him with trespassing on a construction site.
His one allotted phone call was to his mother, who said she would be on the next flight from Idaho. So as not to worry her unduly, he stuck to his story of joyriding his drone with some new friends. He had never lied to her before, and this made him sulk on his cell’s cot until he fell asleep.
The next morning, he woke to a smiling police officer knocking at the bars to his cell. He left a folded sheaf of paper between the bars, and Jerry slipped out from beneath the thin blanket to retrieve it.
It was a printed article from the Los Angeles Times. The cover page made his pulse quicken.
“City Expansion Project Halted Due to Endangered Fish.”
The text remarked that the beautiful and little-known artificial ecosystem off their coast had received a stay of execution due to the sudden appearance of an endangered species of fish.
Jerry breathed out a sigh.
Another sub had seen the Humphead Wrasse after all.
Also mentioned in the article, the near-simultaneous but seemingly unconnected rescue of a drone enthusiast named Jerry Donovan by a TerraForm Games submersible.
He flipped to the next page and was awed by several of the images printed there. One was a shot of the aforementioned fish peering out from the shelter of a large orange sea anemone’s tentacles. Other images included the vast collection of structures the TFG operators had printed over the years, and the massive explosion of life on the artificial reef.
The article concluded with a caution to the rest of the industrialized world. “The ecology of Earth is far more complex than we ever appreciated. The death of one is to the detriment of many. Ultimately, our lives depend on the smallest of theirs.”
An hour later, Jerry was let go. The construction company had enough of a PR nightmare to deal with than to press charges against a man who almost died on their construction site.
As he was being discharged by the clerk in the front office, he caught sight of Cassy sitting in the waiting room.
She smiled when she saw him holding the printed article.
“This time,” he said as he guided her out of the station. “We better be going out for a drink.”