Sluicing the Acqua

Even at a distance in the hazy daylight, Sylvana could see Captain Ruggero Barsetti frowning at her as she walked down the dock carrying her diving suit. It was easy to read his thoughts: Her belly was growing, and it wasn’t seemly for her to be working so hard.

“What are you doing here, little one?” he said gruffly. It wasn’t his usual custom to be tender.

“I’m going out to Gate 38. Giorgio reported that something was causing it to snag. He could see it on his sonar on the big boat, but he didn’t have a diver. If it turns out to be a building, we are going to have our work cut out for us. Another big incursion is coming.”

“I appreciate your dedication, but I am aware of the gate problem,” the Captain retorted. “We are working on it. You should just go on home and take it easy until the baby arrives.”

Sylvana looked down at her calloused hands. “You know I can’t do that, cugino,” she said to her older cousin. “If I quit my job, I’ll never get back on. I’ll soon have another mouth to feed now, you know.”

“You’re a member of the clan. We’ll take care of you,” Ruggero said. He added, “Have you thought of joining the farming initiative after the baby comes?”

“And what will we use for fresh acqua? The only measurable rainfall is out over the sea. No, I don’t think the farming is going to happen soon.”

The Amborgettis were building freshwater collection platforms several miles offshore, but it was a risky venture in her view. The storms could be ferocious, and it was still too dangerous to subsist out on the exposed ocean. She’d stick with diving salvage from old buildings.

Sylvana felt a little guilty about playing the baby card, but she was the chief diver for the Barsetti clan. Maybe someday she could take it easy if the new farming project got off the ground. Or on the ground. There would be plenty of easy work then dusting off solar panels, to funnel back energy and provide additional light for the crops. But for now she had to keep her independence with Franco gone.

Sylvana and her relatives lived, barely, in one of the few coastal cities on Earth to survive the Gemini, the twin extinctions. The first disaster was widespread starvation initiated by runaway global warming. People moved from drought-stricken areas to the continental shores, only to fall victim to flooding and tsunamis. Then, as if humanity were not facing trials enough, an untracked extra-solar system ice ball struck Mexico in nearly the same spot as an asteroid had 66 million years ago. Any species unable to live on sludge, worms, and detritus had a difficult time in the aftermath.

Fortunately, humans are omnivores, and Sylvana’s scavenger ancestors had been fairly clever about turning dead plant and animal material into foodstuffs for people. Also luckily, there were a lot fewer people who needed to be fed. Those living in what remained of southern Europe clustered around Tristezza, or Trieste, as the Italians used to call it half a millennium ago. Now the name simply meant “sadness.”

Since the Gemini, Tristezza had watched its sister city across the Adriatic slowly succumb to the rising sea levels. Venezia had battled encroaching waters from the surrounding blue Adriatic Sea for centuries, and spent multiple fortunes hiring Dutch engineers to remove river silt and hold back the tides that threatened to overwhelm its lagoons. Venezia’s MOSE, with its series of gigantic steel sluice gates anchored below the surface, was a wonder of the world. When high tides threatened, the gates would float to the surface to protect the city. But after the Gemini, Venezia’s population dwindled, and, sensing a bargain, Tristezza negotiated to buy, dismantle, and move Venice’s gates to its own waterfront. Then the ocean erased any other signs of the great city.

Sylvana’s clan all worked to preserve the coastline and maintain the gates of Tristezza. Another clan, the Amborgettis, was responsible for running the pumps that constantly filtered the Adriatic waters for food and potable acqua. Although the climate had cooled considerably, the Adriatic Sea’s low salinity and moderate temperatures provided a climatic refuge for the remaining human population.

Sylvana’s scientist husband, Franco, had spent most of his life aboard sailing ships that Tristezza sent out each year, traveling around the boot of Italy and up the Ligurian Sea, looking for pockets of surviving species that might be suitable for refilling ecological niches or providing sustenance for humans. Franco had died five months earlier when his ship Santo Antonio tragically sank on the rugged Cinque Terre coast. Everyone thought it must have been in one of the aftershocks that continued to radiate across the ocean bed. Icelandic volcanoes regularly spewed ash and sulfuric acid into the atmosphere, cooling and darkening the hemisphere.

The argument over for the moment, Sylvana donned her suit, while the captain waved to Giorgio to bring the rowboat closer to the dock. The Barsettis owned 16 boats of varying sizes, all created from digital models and constructed of liquid plastic.

Giorgio rowed with one of the plastic oars and nosed the boat up, holding it steady so that Sylvana could step in.

Sylvana flashed a smile and clambered aboard. She sat near the prow to monitor the echo locator, perching her helmet in her lap. To save fuel, Giorgio made the two-mile row out to the gates. Sylvana silently counted his strokes to estimate when they were close to the 38th sluice. The sea was a touch choppy today, making it a bumpy ride.

As the water slapped against the sides of the boat, she unsnapped a long telescoping pole from the interior wall and unfolded it over the water. Giorgio rowed in a tightening circle, while Sylvana poked into the murky water. The tide was not yet officially an incursion, so it should be low enough that she could find the gate without having to try to inflate it with compressed air.

Ah, luck was with her. Her pole hit something solid.

“Let’s stop here, Giorgio,” she said. Her red-bearded oarsman tossed over a heavy anchor, which would slow them down, although the rope wasn’t always long enough to reach the sea bottom. The rope would be her lifeline if she was unable to see the surface, which was most of the time.

Sylvana tucked in her long braid, as Giorgio helped her don the helmet and twist the air hose onto the valve. She slipped into the chilly water and began descending the anchor rope. As the surface closed over her, she could see only a bit of pale sun overhead. It was a short journey to the obstruction they had located. She could barely make it out with her torch, but it appeared to be part of an old wooden dock from the original Trieste marina that had slipped under water about 80 years ago. It should have floated out to sea, but part of it was stuck about 50 feet below the surface, maybe on one of the gate pylons. Chunks of plastic and other trash were accumulating on the obstruction. She pried a piece loose and tucked it into her catch bag.

She tugged on one of the timbers, but it didn’t budge. She would have to surface and get more rope. And more help. Maybe with two or three boats they could dislodge it and pull it inland. Wood was a valuable commodity, even if waterlogged.

Sylvana’s efforts to move the dock kicked up a dark green slow-motion cloud, probably dead algae that would have been useful as food, except that now she couldn’t see anything. She swam around for a while without finding the boat. She reminded herself not to panic and hyperventilate. After what seemed like an eternity, she heard Giorgio pounding on the rowboat hull. She swam in what she hoped was the right direction and with relief grabbed the anchor rope.

Giorgio pulled her in, and said, “What took so long? What did you find?”

Exhausted, Sylvana began shedding her suit. She noticed that Giorgio stared a little, and was a little embarrassed that he probably was looking at her expanding stomach. She started to tell him about the submerged find, but suddenly she felt queasy, and spots swam before her eyes. She sank toward unconsciousness, and the last thing she remembered was Giorgio shouting soundlessly as he struggled to pull up the anchor.

Sylvana sat up and looked around. She was in a strange bed, but the room was familiar. Whitewashed plaster walls with pictures of Jesus and the Virgin Mary on the bureau. She was at Ruggero and Anna’s. Her salt-flaked diving suit lay across a bench.

“I’ve got to get back home,” she muttered, throwing the blanket aside and clambering out.

“Oh, no you don’t,” her cousin Anna said, appearing from nowhere and insisting she get back in bed.

“Here, I’ve brought you some soup. You need to gain your strength. Ruggero said he doesn’t want you going out again until after the baby is born. Eat up; this might be the last for a few days. Someone vandalized my slug sterilizer in the backyard, and some greedy gulls got most of this week’s harvest. They’re worse than rats.”

Reluctantly, Sylvana took the bowl and spoon. Maybe she was a bit hungry after all. Sniffing the warm garlicky broth appreciatively, she could see what Rugerro saw in the little Anna. She was a great cook and handy with tools. As Sylvana drank the liquid in the soup in a single draught, Anna announced, “The queen said she wants to see you.”

Oh great, Sylvana thought, nearly choking on a rubbery but tasty slug. I’m totally broke, and now I’m probably going to get banished.

Sylvana sat on the bed wearing her best dress, as Cristina swept into the room. Tristezza’s queen held a lion cub in her arms, which she nuzzled and then sat gently on the floor next to her. The kit was on a leash, but Sylvana had never seen a lion up close and was a bit nervous. Among all the animals saved from the old Trieste Zoo, the lions were Tristezza’s pride and joy. So, of course, Cristina had to have one as her mascot.

“How are you doing, darling?” the queen said. Officially there was no such thing as royalty, but everyone called Cristina the queen, because she handled all the administrative duties for the clan and served as a liaison with the Amborgettis.

“I’m fine, thank you, Queen Cristina. I don’t know what all the fuss is about. I’m anxious to get back to work.”

“Well, we’d like to talk with you about that,” Cristina said. “We don’t think you’ll be going back to that job. . . You see–”

“What? Why not? I’m a certified diver, and my troubleshooting record speaks for itself.”

“That’s not it at all, dear,” Cristina said. “Please don’t interrupt me. We just think you’re the right person to take over for Franco.”

Now Sylvana felt confused. I’m no explorer, she thought, and Franco died in a freak accident. Didn’t he?

“What can I possibly do?” Sylvana asked.

“Franco was on a mission for the crown,” Cristina said. “Er, we mean, we were working with him on a special project.”

The queen held out a red leather-bound book. “This was Franco’s journal. It explains everything. You know, after Franco, you are our best technically trained citizen. I think only you will be able to figure out what he was onto, before he was so sadly taken from us.

“Rest and read the journal, and after the baby’s born, we want you to go to Cinque Terre to investigate.” Sylvana knew what that meant. It was royalty-speak for: You do what we want, or we’ll take one of your loved ones hostage.

“But what about the baby? I need to be here for him–or her,” she protested.

“Don’t worry, we’ll take care of the little one, no matter what happens,” Cristina said.

“You can’t keep my baby from me,” Sylvana repeated, her voice rising.

“Just think of it as extra motivation, dear,” Cristina said. “The sooner you go, the sooner you’ll be back.” The cub at her feet let out a yowl, and she glanced at the orologio on her wrist.

“We’ve got to be going. We’ve got another meeting about the farm initiative with the Amborgettis. You know, if you play your cards right on this thing, you might get a position on the farm board, and perhaps a share of the sea farm. If we find the fresh water we need, that is.” She scooped up the lion and hurried out the door. Sylvana jumped to her feet to bow as Cristina left.

Sylvana disgustedly pulled off the lace scarf Anna had lent her to cover the gap in the back of her now-too-tight dress and paced back and forth. The heavy kohl eyeliner she had applied so carefully had run down her cheeks. She wiped a hand across her eyes and sat down again on the bed. Her eyes fell on Franco’s journal.

He’d often told her the history of the Gemini disasters. The Earth had always been an ocean planet, but recently sea level had risen another 200 feet, and a good deal of the remaining inland was high plains deserts and mountains. Freshwater lakes had vanished long ago. It was said that when the ice sheets melted, Greenland would spring upward, but that only been a few feet, and the continent was under water.

Though familiar with Franco’s scientific work, Sylvana had never violated his privacy by looking in his private journal. How had Cristina gotten it anyway? She opened the cover and began to page through the book. It seemed to mostly be painstaking entries about species and quantities of resources he was cataloging for his work. Not really a private journal, after all.

Ah, here was an entry that mentioned Cristina:

Pressure from queen. No choice, with S.

Did the “S.” refer to Sylvana? Had Cristina threatened to do something to her if Franco didn’t do her bidding? She determined to get to the bottom of this, and started reading more carefully, diving until she was totally immersed. She reached the bottom without finding anything.

Franco had traveled to the rugged coastline of Cinque Terre on two occasions, but Sylvana didn’t see anything unusual in the entries, except the reference to Cristina near the end of the journal.

She had to get home and look for Franco’s private journal, if there was one. She told Anna she was returning to her own cottage, over her cousin’s objections.

“I’d be more comfortable at home,” she said, thanking Anna and gently shooing her out of the way to slip out.

When she got home, she was not too surprised to see that all of her and Franco’s belongings had been ransacked. Obviously Cristina’s people were looking for the same thing she was. She surveyed the damage and began putting chairs right side up and dishes back on the shelves. Dejectedly, she surmised that she was not going to find anything either.

She felt a kicking in her stomach, and said, “All right, all right, I’ll sit down, bambino.” She lay on her mattress, which she had left bare since hearing of Franco’s death five months ago. She hadn’t even had the chance to tell him he was going to be a father. . .

She dozed fitfully, dreaming that Franco had returned to her. “I thought you were gone,” she said to him. “Never, my beautiful one,” he replied, stroking her hair and embracing her. They kissed and made love until the chill air awoke her. Another dark dawn. Franco was dead, and the baby was jumping, telling her to eat some breakfast.

The next night she dreamed of Franco again. He bent over his journal, writing in the small yellowish pool of light thrown by the solar lamp. The lamp took days to charge up on the porch outside, so he always used it sparingly. He smiled when he saw Sylvana and held the book out to her. “I’ve found something wonderful, cara.” Then she woke up.

This was getting to be an obsession, she thought to herself, making up a cup of bitter espresso substitute. Although it was still breakfast time, she wished she could have a mug of alcool. She missed the sting in her throat and the radiating warmth afterward. But that was a pleasure to be saved for after the baby…

She could even see the color of the journal in her dream. It was dark blue, not like the one Cristina had given her. Sylvana walked over to Franco’s chair, with the solar lamp sitting on the table beside it. She had picked it up from where the searchers had tossed it and put it back in its place. Luckily, the panel hadn’t been damaged. The panel. It was dark blue.

She ran her finger over the glass surface, feeling the bumps over the diamond shaped separators holding the pieces in the casing. To her surprise, the glass slid aside, revealing a slim book inside.

She read the first entry:

Funny, isn’t it? “Water, water, every where, nor any drop to drink.”

She recognized the line from the famous poem, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Franco detailed how he had come across some articles in the Tristezza database on early attempts at seasteading. It seemed that the technical challenges on the high seas were too difficult, with the sea expected to demolish or capsize even the most solidly built floating domiciles. And floating residences built near the shores would inevitably be subject to political disputes and water shortages. Critics called them “paradises for fools.”

Franco had laid the idea aside for a while, reporting that he had made an encouraging discovery. He had encountered some large swaths of chlorophyll-rich plankton in the Mediterranean a dozen miles off the Cinque Terre coast. And equally surprising, he saw dolphins and fin whales. The ecosystem was making a comeback! He felt this held great promise, and was eager to report it to the queen. The increase in chlorophyll signaled an increase in solar radiation, which could be harnessed to start to grow crops on land again. Although there was still the limiting factor of the scarcity of fresh water, some could be distilled using solar energy and solar stills, now that there was more sunshine available.

Still, Sylvana had not seen anything too startling in Franco’s journal. Everyone knew solar radiation was increasing as the atmospheric dust settled out; that was why the queen had proudly announced the new farming initiative, in cooperation with the Amborgettis. She didn’t see why the queen would be after Franco–and her–from what she read. Sylvana felt the baby kick again, and closed the journal, replacing it in the solar lamp. She would read more tomorrow.

Sylvana didn’t get back to the journal the next day, or the next. The baby had decided to make an appearance. She walked slowly down to Anna and Ruggero’s place, wincing as the pains came closer together.

Anna called for the midwife, who appeared quickly, accompanied by two goons from the queen’s retinue.

“You can’t come in here. Wait outside,” Anna ordered them. They settled at the front door, prepared for a long wait. First children often took their time. Anna closed the door, as Sylvana began her work. “The queen’s men have arrived before the baby even comes. It’s disgraceful.”

The birth was a difficult one, and Sylvana got to spend time with little Mario while she recovered. Guards remained in front of Ruggero and Anna’s house to make sure she didn’t leave without warning.

Sylvana agonized over whether to tell her cousins about the journal. She felt it was key to resolving the mystery of Franco’s discovery, but she didn’t want to involve them if it might endanger the family. Finally, she decided to talk with them as soon as Ruggero got back from the gates. He had been overseeing the effort to free Gate 38 from the obstruction she had identified, and it looked like all the sluices were now lifting and sinking properly.

“Why would Franco hide a journal from the queen?” Ruggero asked quietly as they sat around the dinner table that night. “He was her pet scientist, and she was always parading him around at public events.” Sylvana said she wasn’t sure yet, but she pointed to the guards outside his door as evidence that something hadn’t been right between them.

“That might help explain the piece of rudder I found in the junk hung up in the gate,” Ruggero said. “Now I’m sure it was from the Santo Antonio. I built that ship from scratch. I think the rudder was intentionally damaged and probably failed completely by the time Franco got to Cinque Terre. Very dangerous on that rocky shore.”

Anna shivered and crossed herself.

Finally they agreed that Anna would go to Sylvana’s house and retrieve the diary, telling the guards that she needed to pick up some clothes and supplies for Sylvana and the baby.

Anna returned an hour later with a basket of diapers and a container of seaweed flour.

“They actually had the nerve to search me and the basket,” she said. “But I put Franco’s idea of a false bottom to good use. I’ll bet those men were the ones who tore up my drying rack. Here you go.” She handed the slim blue volume to Sylvana.

Sylvana retreated to the bedroom and opened the book to the page where she had left off. She spotted something that drew her interest. Franco wrote:

Apparently the Israelis were onto the idea of seasteading. Living in a country with enemies on three sides, they sought to build a structure that would support a thousand settlers in the Mediterranean and move on the open ocean. They would operate floating farms using stocks from seed banks all over the world and design a fresh water generating system that used solar stills. If solar energy was lacking, electricity would be generated using heat exchangers that captured energy from ocean waves or even radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) like those used on satellites. This is interesting, since radioactive material from old nuclear power plants along the coasts is plentiful. But the problem is how to get to it, because those plants are now submerged.

Sylvana wondered what became of the project, which was certainly ahead of its time. Israel had ceased to be a country about 200 years ago, and its former citizens were forced into another diaspora. “So much for being the chosen of God,” she said under her breath.

Sylvana read several more entries about Franco’s preparations for his next voyage and his interactions with queen Cristina.

Serious error in judgment. Shared the story of the Israeli seastead with the queen, and she latched onto it with a vengeance. Pressing me to find this legendary sea city for Tristezza. The problem is, it isn’t even legendary–no one knows if it ever existed, or where. Probably at the bottom of the ocean, rotting away, like Atlantis.

An entry dated a week later:

Pouring through some of the records regarding the disbanding of Israel. Now have a clue where the floating city went. It was indeed being built in the Mediterranean, possibly off the southern coast of Italy near Sicily. It was real!

Sylvana’s heart quickened, and she began to read faster. Franco’s investigation led to the plans for the city, code-named Simcha.

Initially skeptical about this plan. Pontoons not sufficient for long-term. Thought the ocean would almost certainly eat up the little city, just like others before it. Then saw the additional plans for sluice gates similar to those in Venice to be built near Palermo. In case of extreme weather, the city would float to a position centered on the gates, which would rise to protect it from flooding. But this can’t be right, can it? The Venice gates are much too fragile to work on the open seas. . . But Palermo still exists; it’s on high ground. . .

It appeared Franco hadn’t told Cristina what he’d found. Sylvana sat down to write a letter and called to Anna to ask her to deliver it personally. Anna tucked it into her bosom and headed out the back door.

Sylvana inhaled deeply and then held her breath as she tore out the page, stared at it one last time, and threw it in the fire. The flickering fire was one of the few colorful things left in the world. Mesmerized, Sylvana watched as the page caught, blue flames licking the edges and curling it until only black ash remained. Only then did she exhale.

Equipping for another voyage around the horn of Italy. Told the queen it is another trip to the Cinque Terre. Wish I could take S. with me. She is the best deep sea diver in Tristezza, but C. denied my request. I’ll bet S. would give her eye teeth to see such gates, with their feet sunk deep in bedrock. Truly a godsend.

That was the last entry. Sylvana tore out the page and crumpled it before adding it to the fire.

Suddenly she heard a pounding on the door. Anna burst into the room.

“The guards! They found the lamp. I must have left it open in my hurry to bring the book.”

Two burly men pushed Anna aside and pounced on Sylvana, tearing the book from her grasp.

“That’s private property,” she yelled, struggling against the iron grip binding her.

“You’re under arrest,” the guard said. As they dragged her to the hallway, Sylvana saw a hooded woman slip out the front door carrying something she treasured even more than the book. She screamed.

Cristina’s masque of joviality was slipping rather badly.

Sylvana stood before a curved table of clan elders, with the queen at the center. Rubbing her wrists, Sylvana tried to get feeling to return. Off to the side, a nursemaid held Mario. Sylvana was charged with treason.

“By God, you’ll tell me what Franco’s journal said, or you’ll never see your child again,” Cristina warned. Sylvana’s stomach felt like it was filled with broken glass. She noted that several Barsettis had managed to barge their way into the hearing, as well as a few Amborghettis wondering what all the excitement was about.

She had spent two nights in the cells below the Tristezza city hall. Although she was used to being in cold, dark places from her years of diving, she couldn’t help thinking this might be the end and that she’d really blown it. She agonized over the trouble she’d caused for Franco’s cousins Ruggero and Anna. The queen held Ruggero responsible as head of the family and had confiscated his boats. Sylvana was terrified that the queen held Mario captive–what could she do when they had taken everything?

But now that she could see the baby, Sylvana felt better. They seemed to be taking good care of him, at least. She thanked the stars that Franco had kept his theories to himself, or she would have no leverage at all. Sylvana straightened her shoulders and spoke.

“I demand a public trial.”

“Are you insane? You have no rights, here, you traitor,” the queen said.

“Perhaps not, but unless you release me, my baby, and my family’s property, everyone will know that you murdered my husband.”

“That’s preposterous,” Cristina said. “I had nothing to do with his death.”

“You wanted his discovery all for yourself and sabotaged his ship. You thought you had Franco’s journal–the red book you originally threatened me with–but you were disappointed to find it held nothing about the whereabouts of Simcha.”

“Simcha? What is that?”

“It means ‘joy’ in Hebrew. I believe it is the seagoing city we’ve all been looking for. I’ve sent word to Palermo with Giorgio offering my services in recovering it.”

“But I took your family’s boats!”

“You must have missed one,” Sylvana countered, her confidence growing. She grinned inwardly at the thought of red-haired Giorgio rowing the little boat out beyond the sluices under cover of night until he could turn on the pulse engine. She fervently hoped her vision was a reality.

“But– Palermo? Why didn’t you tell me before?”

“Franco thought it was too important for you to keep all to yourself, Cristina. We’re going to share it with everyone. We all thought the ocean had taken our cities away, but we’re going to learn to live in the new ocean world, you know.”

“You foolish girl. You burned all of the evidence in Franco’s journal. No one will know you even existed, once we execute you.”

Sylvana took a moment to savor her impending escape from the trap Cristina had laid for her.

“Not everything has been burned. I already mentioned Giorgio, didn’t I? One thing I didn’t mention is that Franco sent all the plans and locations to Palermo before he went on his last trip. They know everything, and they are waiting for me there. You may as well release me. And you may as well resign, because otherwise Palermo will only negotiate with the Amborgettis.”

The room erupted as the Barsetti clan mobbed their heroine and made to carry her out on their shoulders. But she resisted the tide for a moment before joining the flow, her arms outstretched to snare the prize the nursemaid held out to her. In the confusion, Cristina slipped out a side door.

Sylvana gazed out over the flotilla of ships from Tristezza gathered to start a new life as seasteaders in the archipelago. A small pod of dolphins skipped alongside the boats in greeting.

Ruggero shouted, “Sonar’s showing something big below!” A cheer rose from the crowd. Anna stood beside him at the prow, clasping a cross on a chain around her neck as she prayed for blessings on her husband and the new citizens of Acqua Simcha.

She shifted the sling holding three-month-old Mario and pointed toward the “island” of Palermo and its submerged sluices, where the floating city of Simcha would harbor.

“Look, Mario. That’s where we’re going,” Sylvana said. “Mama’s going to help bring up Papa’s city.” The sky glowed a light silver along the horizon, and Mario was the first baby to feel the warmth of the sunrise in a long time.

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