The sea shook late in the afternoon, just as Kalen was finishing his shift. At first he thought the freighter had run aground, but they were miles from land in the empty Pacific. Stacks of Cubacon brand intermodal containers rattled like mad, and Kalen nearly lost his footing as he darted to tighten the safety straps. Waves drenched his back and the deck resounded with groans of plastic.
“Keep them steady!” Mr. Gupta, one of the ship’s supers, stood against the railing, well out of the way of the teetering Cubes.
A cable snapped on one of the stacks. Kalen darted over to secure it. The sea pitched and shuddered and the Cubes started to tip.
Then the rumbling settled. The waves returned to their usual sway beneath the freighter, and all was quiet on the Alphacorp Seaway.
“That was a big one,” said Mr. Gupta. He waved a hand at the towers of containers. “Get them all inspected. Thoroughly.”
Kalen sighed. He’d never gotten used to earthquakes at sea. They had been more frequent lately, and this one could not have had worse timing. He had already checked the Cubes four times today, but the company required they be inspected from scratch any time there was a weather event, and so he began his rounds all over again.
He mounted a hydraulic ladder and raised himself to the top of a stack, examining the Cubes one at a time. The sun cast long rectangular shadows across the deck. He worked quickly, with practiced efficiency, tugging cables and scanning the multicolored plastic casings.
It took three hours to get to the bottom of the final stack. One more Cube to go and he could finally call it a day. This one was light blue and filled with rice. He tested the security cables by hand, then took out his U-Pad and paced in a circle, running an autoscan for structural integrity. Everything looked good until he rounded the third corner. The device flashed red and squawked at him.
“WARNING. Potential compromise detected.” A blinking light appeared on the screen, indicating a small puncture on the top of the Cube.
“You’re kidding.” Kalen scowled at the big blue container. It was the lowest in a stack of seven; he would need to undo all the cables and get on the crane and move every single one to check on the puncture. It was like a prank, if scanning programs could do pranks.
He checked over his shoulder to make sure there were no supers around. The U-Pad blinked and he sneered at it. “Nope. Not today.” He typed in an override code. The warning disappeared. He made a mental note to double check this one tomorrow, just in case.
Kalen shuffled through row after row of stacked plastic Cubes on his way to the stern. Almost all of them contained foodstuffs. Alphacorp owned most of the restaurants in California and most of the agriculture in China, and a long, narrow strip of ocean connecting the two. The waters north and south of the Seaway were owned by seafood conglomerates, or by energy companies who used them for oil exploration and deep-sea fracking. These days every liter of ocean was owned by somebody, but Kalen had always been with Alphacorp, so even though he’d been working the freighters for the better part of two decades, he’d only seen a tiny sliver of the Pacific. It didn’t bother him much. He figured it all looked about the same.
He emerged from the forest of Cubes and slipped behind the bridge. The stern had become an unofficial employee lounge, and every day was a silent contest to see who could make it there first. Of course, you didn’t want to be too early or the supers might think you were cutting corners.
To his surprise, he wasn’t the first one done today. One of his coworkers sat in the sun, with her legs straddling the edge of the deck and a fishing pole in her hands. Her name was Adri. She had sunburnt shoulders and a youngish face and she was new on the ship, maybe on her second or third run. He was impressed. Not many had the balls to go fishing in broad daylight.
“You’re off early today,” he said as he approached. Next to the railing was a big cooler and he reached inside and opened a can of Alpha brand beer. Adri made a grabbing motion at the cooler and he handed her a can.
“Thanks,” she said. “I took a page from your playbook and skimmed my last round. That quake was big, but not too big.”
“Nice. Yeah, those suckers aren’t going anywhere.”
“You’re quite the Cube whisperer, huh?”
“Not for much longer, thank God.” Kalen sat on the cooler. “Few more trips and I’ll have enough saved to start my farm.”
Adri tugged on her fishing pole. “Gonna put on your land legs for a while?”
Kalen smirked. “Not really. I’m thinking oysters. They got some decent size water plots for lease up the Oregon coast. Not too expensive, either.”
“Aren’t oysters proprietary?”
“Yeah. Walton’s got the patent, but you can lease a batch if you start a franchise.”
“You must have saved a lot.”
Kalen took a gulp of beer. “Been doing this shit since I was twelve. I better have.”
“Jesus. If I’m here one more year I’ll drown mys—hey!”
The tip of Adri’s pole bent sharply down, slacked a bit, then dipped even harder. She sprang to her feet, eyes wide. Kalen smiled as she started reeling.
Whatever Adri had caught was a real fighter, but so was she. She planted her feet and used the railing as leverage. Kalen stood next to her and watched where the line pierced the water, about eight meters below.
The fight took at least ten minutes, and Adri was sweating by the time they saw splashes.
“Give me a hand, will you?”
Kalen took the pole and held it steady while she pulled up the line hand-over-hand. Something long, fat and green emerged.
When they got the fish over the railing Adri was panting, and smiling wider with each pained exhale. It was a gorgeous mahi-mahi, shimmering green with cobalt blue spots matching its dorsal fin. It slapped the deck with its tail while Adri dug out the hook.
Kalen took out his U-Pad. “Do you want a picture?”
Adri gave him a puzzled look. “Are you serious? Won’t they see?”
Kalen smirked. “Don’t worry. I’ve got all that shit disabled. Quick, before one of the supers sees.”
She grabbed the fish under the tail and posed in front of the guardrail, smiling ear to ear. Kalen opened the U-Pad’s camera. The sun was shining at the perfect angle and Adri’s beaming face glowed almost as much as the mahi. It reminded him of himself when he was younger, clueless and carefree, just happy to be out on the water.
He snapped the photo. A second later, the screen went red and a tone like a police siren blasted through the air, followed by a robotic female voice coming from both Kalen’s and Adri’s U-Pads simultaneously.
“ALERT. The Pacific Ocean stock of Coryphaena hippurus is the property of Walton Seafoods, Inc., under Patent #W98FWJ. A fine for this violation has been assessed to the offending accounts. Immediately submit documentation of the product’s safe and uninjured return to the environment in order to avoid additional charges.”
Adri almost dropped the fish in shock. “What the hell?”
Kalen smacked his screen with the back of his hand. “These fucking things.” Apparently he hadn’t hacked his device’s scanners as well as he’d thought. He felt like an idiot.
He shook his head. “I’m sorry. This last software update is fucking nuts.”
Adri looked scared. “How bad is the fine?”
Kalen was afraid to check. “Don’t worry. I’ll take care of it. Here, let me film you throwing him back.”
The mahi quivered in Adri’s hands. She gave it a forlorn glance. “Forgive me, my love. It just wasn’t meant to be.” Kalen hit record and she chucked the fish over the railing. It hit the water with a smack and disappeared.
At dinner, the freighter was cruising into Oahu to refuel, and Adri was still talking about the mahi.
“You really shouldn’t have to pay my fine,” she repeated as they stood in line at the mess hall. “I’m the one who was breaking the rules.”
“And I’m the one who got you snitched on. It’s my fault. You were probably being careful to watch for patrols, too,” he said, referring to the contracted security vessels that patrolled the shipping routes, making sure everyone’s property rights were enforced.
“But what about your savings?”
“Forget it. I’ve been doing this for twenty years. What’s a couple extra trips before I’m out of here forever? I can handle it.”
The line shifted forward. There were about a hundred crewmembers aboard, including supers and engineers and administrative personnel. The mess hall was always crowded to capacity, and sometimes Alphacorp failed to stock enough food for the whole trip, at which point they would jack up the price to cut down on demand. Now was one of those times.
“At least let me buy your dinner. Then we can be even.”
Kalen gave a slow nod. “All right. Deal.”
Dinner was rice and canned spinach and refried beans and overcooked chicken teriyaki, with a chocolate chip cookie for desert. Kalen felt guilty about having Adri buy him a full meal, especially since the ship was running low on cookies and they were now going for ninety bucks a piece. One of the ways he’d saved up for the farm was by not eating so much on these trips.
“It’s funny,” Adri said with a mouthful of beans. “We work on this ship for weeks at a time, all for a paycheck from Alphacorp, which we then use to buy dinner and snacks and beer from them. It’s almost like they’re selling this stuff to themselves.”
Kalen stabbed at a piece of chicken. “Yeah. Almost.”
“I feel like there should be a rule against that kind of thing.”
Kalen scoffed. He vaguely recalled from school that the government used to make those kinds of rules, rules about which companies owned what, and how they should treat their employees, and other things. Things must have been very complicated then.
Someone appeared next to the table and cleared their throat, very loudly and wetly. Kalen turned to face Mr. Gupta. The super was younger than Kalen by about ten years, and was also his superior by several ranks, something he had never been able to figure out.
“Kalen Fletcher,” he said, “and Adriana Mikhailov.”
Adri stopped chewing.
“Would one of you care to explain yourselves?”
There was a tense pause.
Kalen took a deep breath. “All right. I was born in San Pedro in 2092. My dad was a freighterman, and my mom, well, she died before I can remember. All I ever wanted was to work on a boat like my old man. I finished school in ’04 and applied to Alphacorp, where I have remained dutifully employed as a deck inspector ever since. Now, as to my hobbies and interests—”
“Don’t get smart with me.” Mr. Gupta jabbed a finger at Kalen. “I just got off a call with Walton Seafoods. Apparently the two of you were cited this evening for theft of Walton property. Cited while working aboard an Alphacorp vessel! Do you have any idea how many apologies and assurances I had to make on that phone call?”
Kalen shrugged. “We’ve never had trouble from fishing before.”
“Because you never got caught.” Gupta leaned over the table, jerking his gaze back and forth between Kalen and Adri. “You violated another company’s property rights while on official Alphacorp business. Do you realize this is how turf wars start? Do you really think we can defend ourselves from an all-out seafood liberation campaign?”
Adri frowned. “Mr. Gupta, it was just a fish…”
“Backtalk me again and I’ll have you indentured.” He ran a hand through his slicked-back hair. Kalen looked him dead in the eyes, his annoyance turning quickly to fear. It was not unheard of for companies to punish their workers by rebranding them as debtors. That would mean unlimited work hours with no pay, sometimes for weeks, sometimes years. It was not a threat made lightly. To a newcomer like Adri it was a cruel thing to even mention.
Once Mr. Gupta was satisfied that Kalen and Adri were adequately speechless, he stood up straight and did his horrible throat clear again. “I’m having both of you docked the entirety of your wages for this trip, in addition to whatever fines Walton has rightly imposed,” he said. “And we’ll be issuing a moratorium on all on-deck congregation, for the time being.”
“You’re kidding.” Kalen’s mouth hung open. “Nobody else did anything wrong. You can’t take the stern away. That’s all they’ve got.”
“Well, they have you to thank.” He turned and made off for the supers’ table in the far corner of the hall.
Kalen jammed his fork into the chicken and twisted up a little cyclone of stale meat. Several of his coworkers were eyeing him suspiciously from other tables. All he could think about was how ready he was to finally start his farm. It was going to take longer, now, at least two more trips than he’d figured before this mahi debacle. But it was coming. He’d finally be working for himself after twenty long years, and the Mr. Guptas of the world could choke on their chicken for all he cared.
It took him a couple minutes to realize Adri was crying.
“Hey,” he whispered, knowing people were watching and hoping they hadn’t heard what Mr. Gupta had said about the stern. “Hey, knock it off. You’re all right.”
She wiped her eyes and shook her head.
“Seriously. I’ve been chewed out worse. It blows over, always does.”
“No. I’m not alright.”
“What do you mean?”
She looked up, eyes red. “I don’t have savings like you do. I needed the money from this trip to pay for my…” She sniffed loudly. “My mom’s really sick.”
Kalen started to respond, but the words got caught in his throat. He thought of his own mom, who he’d never met because she’d been sick and his dad hadn’t been able to afford her treatment. He remembered his dad explaining it, saying “It was either let her go, or saddle the family with more debt than you could hope to pay back in your lifetime. It was either a wife in heaven or a son in debtor’s prison. I made my choice.” He had never thought too hard about it, but now he couldn’t get it out of his head.
He grabbed Adri’s hand. “You know what? Fuck Alphacorp. Come work for me in Oregon. I’ve got almost enough for the farm already, and I’ll get a loan for the rest. I’ll pay you whatever you need for your mom.”
She looked at him like he was crazy, but she stopped crying. “You—are you serious?”
He glanced around the crowded mess hall, at the leering eyes of his coworkers, at the prices on the cafeteria menu, the collar-shirted supers at their special table. “Yeah. Fuck yeah I’m serious.”
He sat back and reached for the U-Pad on his hip. “I wonder how bad the Walton fine is, anyway.” He swiped to his bank account and started entering his password.
Before he entered the last digit, the screen flashed red and started screaming.
“Yeah, yeah, I know, I have a fine.”
“Wait, what the hell?”
“ALERT.” the U-Pad blasted again, over and over. Soon the noise was coming from every device in the mess hall, echoing like a chorus of panicked robots.
“ALERT. EMERGENCY. An earthquake of magnitude 9.6 and associated underwater landslide have been detected with an epicenter in the PacifiGas Deepwater Field. All persons and vessels near the coast should make immediate tsunami preparations. REPEAT. All persons and vessels near the coast should make immediate tsunami preparations.”
For approximately one second there was silence, followed by a cacophony of clattering silverware and people pushing back chairs and shouting. All the supers stood up around their table. Mr. Gupta turned to face the hall with both palms in the air.
“Everyone!” he shouted. “Remain calm. Tidal waves pose no danger to us. Please return to your meals or proceed to your cabins in an orderly—”
“No!” One of the ship’s engineers strode across the hall, waving his U-Pad in the air with the map open. “Look. We are a mile and a half from Oahu. It’s not ten meters deep here. Now look where the wave is coming from. It will crush us!”
“Everyone sit down!” yelled Mr. Gupta.
“Everyone abandon ship!” yelled the engineer.
The mess hall erupted. About half the employees returned nervously to their seats, staring at their U-Pads or looking to the supers for orders. The other half scattered like someone kicked over an anthill. They scrambled to their cabins or up onto the maindeck, pushing and grunting and screaming.
Kalen found himself somewhere in between. He didn’t follow the order to sit, but he didn’t run either. He’d never worried about a wave before. They were usually in deep water and the freighter was too big to capsize. But they’d never been close to shore during a tsunami warning. And a 9.6? Was it bad enough he should do something, or was it so bad there was nothing to be done? He thought about Oregon, his savings, his mom, his life. Did 9.6 mean none of that would ever matter?
He felt a hand around his wrist.
“We have to go,” Adri said. “Now.”
“On deck. Lifejackets. Come on.”
She pulled him away from the table, through the mess of scattering crewmen and spilled dishes, to the stairway leading from the mess to the bridge. They elbowed their way through the crowd and out onto the deck. The ship cruised over calm ocean, the Cubes sat still in their stacks, Oahu was a green blur off the bow, the sun hung low and orange over the western sky.
But there was something else in the west, something Kalen barely noticed at first. The ocean was too high. The horizon was ever so slightly raised in the distance, off the port side compared to starboard. A ridge of sea standing above the rest, like hair on an angry dog’s back. And it was getting closer.
Adri led him across the deck to the maintenance superstructure near the midship. It was pure chaos. A dozen employees stood huddled together with puffy orange lifejackets around their necks. All of them looked terrified. At least two dozen more surrounded them, screaming and shouting and drawing in closer.
“Where are the rest?” someone demanded.
“You took them all.”
“These were the only ones. There must be more in the cabins.”
“We checked the cabins!”
“I’ll kill you!”
Kalen pulled back on Adri before they got too close to the crowd. She turned to him, horror in her eyes.
“No more lifejackets,” he muttered.
“The ship doesn’t have enough?”
“It has enough,” said Kalen through his teeth. “Enough for the supers.”
Adri’s gaze drifted over Kalen’s shoulder. “Oh my God.”
He turned around.
The ridge of ocean was now a mountain. It soared upward, overtaking the sun. Its approach was bizarrely slow, seeming to slow as it grew taller, and at the same time the ship sank beneath it, as though the sea was digging a hole in itself to bury them in.
His eyes fell to the bridge. A different crowd had gathered there. They had jackets on, and they were jumping overboard.
He started to walk, then run, then sprint across the deck. As he suspected, the crowd was all supers. He caught up to them just as the last few were hauling themselves over the side.
Mr. Gupta was climbing over the beer cooler onto the railing. Kalen felt a surge of anger. He grabbed him by the collar and yanked him hard.
“Everyone remain calm, huh?” He dug a knee into Gupta’s stomach.
“Get your hands off me!” Gupta kicked and squirmed while Kalen struggled to unclip the lifejacket. A shadow came over them. The shadow of the wave. He smacked Gupta aside the head and ripped the jacket off of him.
“Give it back!” cried Gupta, spitting out blood.
“You don’t need it.”
He hit Gupta again and he fell still.
Kalen turned to face Adri, who had rushed up behind him. The other supers had all pitched into the water and most of the employees were jumping over too, lifejacket or no.
He handed her the jacket. “Put this on.”
“Now!” He pulled Adri’s arms through the jacket himself and clipped it shut. She hugged him and started to say something, but the shadow over his shoulder stole her eyes and the words vanished from her mouth. Kalen grabbed her around the waist and hoisted her over the railing. He waited just long enough to see her head pop above the water before turning to face the wave.
Everyone had stopped shouting. The sea drew up under the ship’s stern, and Cubes started to shake in their straps. Kalen could not move, he could not scream, he could not even breathe. All he could do was stare at the wave. No, this was not a wave. This was the blue mouth of death. This was the edge of the universe. This was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.
It swallowed him.
When he awoke he was floating.
He sputtered and coughed and wretched and could not believe he was able to think, much less open his eyes, much less breathe. He was lying on his back on top of a Cube. It seemed he’d managed to get his arm under one of the security straps when the ship turned over. Now the Cube bobbed on the surface like a life raft. That, or the afterlife had a bad sense of humor.
He sat up and waited for his head to stop spinning, then glanced around to get his bearings. It was nighttime and the sea was quiet. The sky was blistered with stars, thick and shimmering. No sign of land, or life, or other floating objects anywhere. He was alone.
Almost instinctively, he reached for his hip. His U-Pad was still there. He tapped the screen and it turned on.
He wanted to laugh. He wanted to kiss it and lift it over his head and thank God in Heaven for the miracle of waterproofing. But that could wait. He was alive, but he was stuck, and who knew how far from shore.
He also had a sense that the Cube was sinking. It was hard to tell in the dark, but the far end of it was lower than the end he was sitting on.
He shone the light of the U-Pad downward. His heart sank into his gut when he recognized the Cube. It was blue and labeled for rice. The Cube from the end of his shift. The Cube with a puncture he hadn’t fixed. With each bob the ocean seemed to reach just the slightest bit closer. And if he concentrated he could hear a faint squelching sound, like someone had washed their hands in a clogged sink.
He swiped to the map function on the U-Pad. It still showed his location off the coast of Oahu, which must have been where it’d lost its signal. He switched to satellite data.
The device squawked. “WARNING. No wireless network detected. Satellite communication will incur additional charges. Would you like to proceed?”
“Yes, goddammit.” His voice was hoarse. The U-Pad flashed the word LOADING for a long time. Water seemed to creep forward over the far end of the Cube, overtaking it bit by bit. He thought about Adri while he waited. He hoped she had survived somehow. He hoped the supers had all drowned.
The device gave a quick beep and then the screen turned blue. He thought it was a glitch, then realized it was doing exactly what it should do. It had centered on his current location. He zoomed out with trembling fingers. “No.”
Blue. All blue. The only text on the screen said Pacific Ocean. Oahu was two hundred miles south. How was that possible? How long had he been out for?
“No, no, no.”
His spine chilled with panic. He looked up at the clear, starry sky, and across the endless sea. He started to sweat, even though he was cold and wet. Then he remembered something. A few months back he’d modified his U-Pad’s map to show the locations of other devices in range. It was something the supers used to tell where people were on the ship, but he’d managed to unlock it for himself in case he needed to avoid them.
He had to find Adri. He had to try, even if it was impossible, even if he wasn’t sure why. Maybe something to do with the mahi incident, or her mom, or his own mom. Maybe something to do with the wave and how big it was.
He punched in the code and started the search. “Come on.” The sea was near to swallowing the far end of the cube, its gentle waves rolling over the blue plastic. Searching for devices, blinked the U-Pad.
Little bubbles appeared on the map. A scattering of tiny circular employee photos spread all over the ocean, with a hub on land in Oahu. Some had survived, or at least their devices had. Mostly supers, he noticed, but some of his co-workers too. He didn’t see Gupta’s photo anywhere, which brought him some small comfort.
He also didn’t see Adri. He zoomed all around the Hawaiian Islands, searching for her to no avail, heart racing. The Cube made a horrible sucking sound.
He was close to smashing the device over his knee when he saw her. Her bubble was even farther from land than his was, and the photo was greyed out, indicating her U-Pad had stopped transmitting a signal. His heart sank. He’d failed her. For all his efforts to get her overboard with a life jacket, she’d been washed hopelessly away, swallowed and spat out by the tsunami in the empty blue hell of the North Pacific.
Then he noticed something: a tiny speck, almost covered by Adri’s location bubble. He zoomed in to find a thin brown ring in all the blue.
Land. An atoll, about fifty miles northwest of him. That’s where Adri was, or at least where she had been when her U-Pad died. The atoll was so small and remote it didn’t even have a name. It was closer than Hawaii was, but he still had no way of getting there.
Or did he?
Almost without thinking, he dunked the U-Pad into the water and paddled. It was hard to tell if the Cube moved. He slid his legs under the safety strap, like in a kayak, and rowed on either side. The Cube inched forward, but only slightly. By the time he gained any momentum at all his arms were sore. The Cube gurgled as water sputtered into the puncture, bit by bit.
But he kept going. He didn’t even know if she was alive, but he knew he would keep rowing until his arms gave out or the Cube went all the way under. He would swim if he had to, no matter how cold it was, no matter how far, until he found her or the ocean claimed its due.
The cold sea kissed his legs and the Cube sank slowly beneath him, while he rowed with all his might toward Adri, under the stars.