Sweet Water From Salt
By Jeremy Pak Nelson
Three months have passed since the accident and Seraph could not stay in port any longer. Cyril held a brass horn in his hands. His father found it in an auction for nautical antiques. A remnant from the Star Ferry line in Hong Kong. “Remember your family history,” he’d say to Cyril, and launch into one of the many stories of how the Shome family had made and lost their fortunes in the old city. Cyril’s mother would roll her eyes at the family tales, but she indulged him in his storytelling.
And now both were gone, and Cyril would not hear those stories again. He needed to leave this apartment. It was never meant to be home for more than a week, maybe two at most. Out the window the setting sun painted bonfire colors in the gaps between buildings.
If it had only been grief, Cyril might have managed. From New Manila, Gaurav did what he could, stayed with him every step of the way, a virtual but nonetheless reassuring presence.
“Come home when you’re ready,” Gaurav would say. “Please don’t rush things.”
Cyril wanted to rush things. He wanted to be back home and out of the East Singapore docks as soon as he could. Because it wasn’t only grief. No, it was grief buried under a bureaucratic nightmare of forms, verifications, examinations—and worst of all the unceasing offers to free him from his burdens and buy Seraph and the firm. An excavation of more varieties of grief than he’d have imagined he could hold. Yes, long for your mother’s impeccable record-keeping as you go through the files she’d prepared for just this occasion. Grieve for your father’s swashbuckling style as you sort through a wardrobe that suddenly held three times too much for the one surviving member of Shome Apiary Ltd.
Cyril brought up a video feed of the ship at port. Seraph swayed in the waves. “Just me and you,” he said. Seeing the ship never failed to lift his mood, even in these circumstances. She had two sails to each of her three masts, though none were visible at the moment. Each of the six canvases were nestled into the hollows of the masts themselves. It would be his first journey alone with Seraph. Alone apart from the hives, of course.
Gaurav materialized in the air beside him. He put a holographic hand on Cyril’s shoulder. Responsive threads woven into the fabric of Cyril’s shirt contracted, tightening against his skin. It was almost like being touched.
“I’ll be there, too,” Gaurav said. “Until you get home.”
Cyril packed the brass horn into its case. The velvet lining had a musty scent. Was the mildew still alive, he wondered? Waiting for water, waiting for another chance to thrive? He strapped the case to his pack and made his way to the docks.
The ship was infested. Security officers swarmed on her decks like ants after honey. Cyril went up to the gangplank. On either side of the walkway two barrel-chested guards stood. Red-and-gold insignias appeared to glow in the twilight: SinoPact Merchant Marine. Their suits reminded him of beetle carapaces.
“This is a secure area,” the guard said. Her voice was as uncompromising as her uniform.
“This is my ship,” Cyril said.
“We’ve been asked to check ID for anyone who may want to board, as a matter of national interest.”
“This is my ship,” Cyril repeated, and sent over his credentials and titles of ownership. The guard’s eyes flickered as she read.
“You have our condolences. The SPMM were in negotiations with Mrs. Shome to acquire your vessel. We’re to ensure our interests—and yours—are protected until terms are settled with the estate.”
“You know my mother never agreed to sell. You have no right to be on board. I’ll report this to the arbitrators.”
Neither guard moved. Cyril tried to access the network to make good on his threat, but found nothing. No signal at all. Rather than intimidated, he felt emboldened—the effort at secrecy was an acknowledgement their actions weren’t fully sanctioned. Cyril took a gamble. He stepped through the two guards like a cutter through shoals. They didn’t stop him.
Mother would have been revolted to see corporate security on board Seraph. The price of pursuing a life offshore: there would always be those that wanted nothing more than to bring new habitats under old politics. The Maldives Restoration Project gave people a model to follow, a recipe for building carbon-sink communes at sea. Agriculture, boring as it might seem, was one more front in the new lands’ struggle for self-determination. Ships like the Seraph were invaluable to the habitats, and so were valuable as political pawns.
There were maybe a dozen security officers on board. The windows of Seraph’s bridge were dark, the doors still locked—at least they hadn’t forced access. Cyril reflexively tried to reach Gaurav to see if he could contact a legal team, but found he still couldn’t access the network. Signals must be jammed throughout the ship. That didn’t leave many options. Forcing the corporate officers off physically was out of the question—any attempt would justify force on the officers’ part. Entering the bridge himself risked giving others access. Cyril didn’t know what the company’s plans were, but he wouldn’t be surprised if the security team was a prelude to contesting Seraph’s ownership in court.
Cyril would not risk letting corporate lawyers make their case. He had no experience in that arena. Huddled by the mast, Cyril checked that no one was watching before unpacking the antique horn. Centuries ago they would have been attached to the boiler system of a steamship. This horn wasn’t quite so old. Most appliances ran on wireless power, but Father installed a few old-fashioned sockets on board for his toys. Cyril uncapped an outlet and plugged in the horn. No doubt an ignominious ceremony compared to what his father pictured.
Cyril left the horn on deck and went midship. He unlocked a door—not to the bridge but to the decks below. A security guard watched, but did not intervene. Cyril hoped it seemed he was doing nothing more than sorting through his belongings. He descended.
Half-lit LEDs marked the corridors. He went past the cabins, past the doors to the cargo hold. Cyril feared the officers might force their way into the hold and unload Seraph’s cargo, his family’s most valuable asset: one hundred and fifty hives of Greenwing honeybees. Though the hives slept, chilled to hibernation by the ship’s environmental controls, Cyril thought he could hear them through the bulkhead. The apiary had been his nursery, its warmth and safety taken for granted as he learned how to raise and nurture the hives. Since the crash, Cyril had hardly been on board, only doing the necessary visits to make sure the bees were fed and watered as the ship coaxed them through their cycles of rest. He longed to go inside and check to see that they were well.
There wasn’t time. His footsteps sounded hollow on the stairwell as he descended to the engine room.
Onboard Seraph, the room was a glorified control panel. The emergency generator was the only remnant of the room’s namesake. Electrical motors powered the propellers when they were needed. Cyril turned on the circuits, and the ship drew power from batteries that had been idly cycling for weeks. He was still cut off from the networks, but the ship’s intranet came online, and he could see the camera feeds from around the ship.
No sense in waiting, Cyril thought. And he powered the topdeck circuits.
Even in the engine room, the sound punched through Cyril’s chest. “Nothing like real brass,” his father had said. Speakers can’t quite replicate the resonance summoned by kilos of metal sounding into the night air.
The goons scattered like roaches in the light. Even if they found and disabled the horn, Cyril suspected that attention from the entire ApLei Marina—and from the local government—was the last thing the security officers wanted to stay around for. Despite their confidence, arbitration would not take kindly to them being on board without explicit permission. When the last of the guards reached the pier, Cyril hit another switch, and the gangplank retracted back on deck. It was time for their maiden voyage together.
The sun rose full red on the horizon, flaming the sky with gold and cochineal crimson, and Seraph pulled free of interference. Cyril watched the screens as computers attempted to connect to UAVnet.
Status bars blinked and came up green. Cyril smiled, allowing himself to believe he and the ship were beyond corporate reach. The expression felt strange on his face. For a moment, he didn’t think about his parents.
The ship only had projectors installed in the bridge, so Cyril had to stay inside to chat. Gaurav’s projection flickered into existence. Cyril reached out to hold Gaurav’s hand. It was a comfort to know that, a hundred miles away, his lover could feel something.
“It’s good to see you again,” Cyril said. “SinoPact had the networks jammed on shore.”
“I’ve been trying to call. Did they give you trouble?”
“Called their bluff,” Cyril said.
They sailed east, which took them through the main shipping route. There was plenty of room for a smaller ship like the Seraph to maneuver. In open water, Seraph was not only fast, but beautiful. She cut through the waters with grace, as though barely skimming the ocean’s surface. Between the bone-white slats of the deck, solar cells collected sunlight. The flanks of the ship were lined with the same gray photovoltaic composite. Power fed onboard motors, but much of the energy was used for navigation and for the rigging that caught the winds that were the ship’s main mode of propulsion. There was nothing like sailing. Canvas snapping in the wind, masts rotating to catch even the barest breeze to turn it to speed.
Even the biggest cargosails, ponderous as they were, had a grace of their own. Seraph cut through the wake of one behemoth. The cargosail’s four masts towered like office buildings overhead. Sixteen wings of white canvas embraced the wind. With enough surface area, the atmosphere became a solid thing, powerful enough to satisfy the appetites of ports old and new. Cyril couldn’t imagine the force that pushed against the masts—, a force needed to move thousands of containers stacked on her decks. From where he stood they were small as bricks.
He finally had a chance to go to the apiary. Seraph had room for nearly three hundred hives in her hold, though she carried only half that number at the moment. The extra space gave the bees room to fly and maneuver, to work as soon as they anchored at a habitat.
The warmth of the hold welcomed him. Seraph was waking the hives. Even stowed away, the bees were never silent. Cyril checked the strappings for the brood boxes, and everything looked as it should. To Cyril, the hives were a blanket of sound, a thrum that confirmed he and his family had done right. That their legacy was worth pursuing.
A warning message flashed on the intranet. Cyril automatically started a message to his father before he remembered. He set the hives aside and ran back to the bridge.
He feared SinoPact would send cutters after Seraph and abandon all pretense of respecting international waters. But no, Cyril found on the screen a far more impersonal adversary. On the navigation screen, yellow flags flashed: a tropical depression warning for their plotted course. He pulled up charts and radar overlays. He’d seen these decisions made dozens, even hundreds of times before. His parents would ask him what he thought was the right course, because how else would you bring up a sailor to be proud of? But in the past, he could be wrong, and his parents would tell him so.
Navigation Assist brought up two promising options. Either cut through the storm, hope it doesn’t grow larger than the models predict, or turn south and avoid the worst of the winds. It would add days to what was meant to a short journey. Or longer, if the storm pushed them further off-course.
A longer trip wouldn’t be good for the hives. That’s what Cyril thought to himself as he selected the shorter path. He’d ridden through worse, and so had Seraph.
Safe is only as safe as your preparations. Cyril went through the decks and tied down everything that wasn’t already secured. He checked the living spaces, the machine room, the kitchen; much of the tools and equipment was already stowed away from when they first arrived.
Cyril returned to the apiary to finish the checks. Crouched next to one of the last hives, he stopped. The bees may never be entirely quiet, but the buzz in the air was louder than it should have been. He’d missed something.
Following the sound, he saw the problem. Hive eighty-four hadn’t been closed. It must have happened when he first received the navigation alert. Careless. If it had only been a matter of a few escaped bees, that would be manageable. A headache, but manageable. Cyril hadn’t been tending the hives as well as he should have been these last three months. Hadn’t checked the frames, counted the cells—he should have split this hive weeks ago. It had gotten crowded.
The bees decided to fix the problem for him.
Cyril turned the lights on full.
A swarm of bees balled around one of the hatches in the ceiling. At its heart, he knew, was a queen looking to build a new home. The swarm seemed almost a liquid thing, with bees burrowing in currents of legs and wings, clinging onto one another. The ball dripped insects that lost their grip and fell until their wings caught and brought them back to their brethren.
The hatch was open just a crack for ventilation. The swarm could sense the fresh air, knew that the way out was near. Closing it to cut off their escape would risk killing bees and, even worse, risk crushing the swarm’s queen. Cyril knew what he had to do: get at the split from the outside, seal them in, coax them back into the hold. He grabbed his tools.
Though they were only on the very edges of the tropical depression, the waters had roughened. The seas crested white, and the deck was pitching more than it had. Cyril made sure to keep at least one hand on the railing as he approached the hatch. His other hand carried a bee brush, another antique his father had collected. Boar bristles fit to brush out a horse’s tail were more than enough to knock the swarm back inside. He’d close the hatch, and re-home the swarm when the ship was clear of the storm.
Bees lined the edge of the hatch. In the sunlight the bees’ wings flashed a signature iridescent green. Cyril’s mother had helped with the research efforts in Jakarta, when there were still precious few Greenwings anywhere in the world. The engineered bees fared better at sea than their cousins who would often lose their way and fly into open waters.
There weren’t as many bees as there should have been. These were only stragglers. He bent close to the gap between the hatch and deck to try and peer into the hold. Had he gotten lucky? The swarm might have been knocked back in by the rocking of the ship. He gently swept the remaining bees back inside.
The ship’s bow cut through a particularly high wave, and Cyril almost fell over. The sails would have to be taken in. He looked up at the masts, and nearly lost his brush to the sea when the next wave hit. Nestled at the shroud, halfway up the mainmast, the swarm had found itself a new home.
Cyril could let them go. Retract the sails, sit the storm out, get ready to be home for the first time since his life broke apart. His parents would have told him the swarm wasn’t worth it. He had to take care of himself. Their voices did not dissuade him as he approached the mast.
Seraph had wingmasts, which meant that the mast’s cross-section was shaped like a teardrop to minimize resistance . There were no handholds. Instead, a ladder had to be secured to the mast.
Only when he had the ladder extended and braced against the mainmast did he feel the first touch of fear in his chest. He’d never loved heights. A personal embarrassment. Not the best quality in a sailor.
He looped the tie around the mast and winched it tight. The waves reached higher, and the ladder pulled against him as he secured it. Saltwater dampened the decks. One kick to the ladder to make sure it stuck fast, and Cyril took a deep breath. The air felt different. As if he could taste the electricity building in the clouds.
Cyril tucked the brush through a belt loop and threaded his arm through the mesh basket he’d need for the bees. For a moment, he closed his eyes. He could only hear wind, the strain of canvas, the whistle of air against the ropes. He climbed.
Four, five steps up the ladder and already the swaying of the ship pulled harder on his arms. Clouds chased after the horizon, and behind them the skies darkened. As the ship shrank under him, the oceans seemed only to expand, endless, marked by faint lights of ships or habitats so distant they may as well be lanterns on the water.
Rung by rung Cyril climbed. He told himself not to tire his arms out, to use his legs like his father taught him. But against the wind he had to grip the ladder with everything he had. His arms ached. He was close enough to hear the swarm. It hung like a bizarre black-and-yellow fruit on an impossible tree.
Another wave came, and the mast tipped starboard. For a moment Cyril dangled over nothing but water, and the mast swung back. He had eyes only for the bees. He did not let himself think about what he’d do if the swarm fell now.
Cyril wrapped his left arm around the mast. He could just hold the mesh basket under the swarm, but the wind made it almost impossible to keep it steady. The basket pulled away from him, trying to take to the air like a kite, then a gust pushed it flat against the mast. Cyril knew the wind would only grow stronger. He kept the basket as steady as he could, braced against the mast, and reached up with the brush. He could feel his bootsoles squeak against the ladder’s damp rungs. He could almost reach the swarm.
The ship pitched again. He drew back and held tight to the ladder as the mast once more swung over the edge of the ship. There wasn’t much time left. He could see the cloud front. Cyril couldn’t remember if all tropical depressions were as intimidating as this one. The first splatterings of rain came, drawing patterns on the waves.
He had a sense of the timing. One shot, he told himself, he had time for one shot and he’d go back down the ladder. He wrapped his arm around the mast again, and reached up with the brush. The bristles caught a handful of bees. They fell and broke apart, swept away by the wind. Cyril adjusted his grip, held the brush by its very end, and stretched. Gentle, he told himself, and he pressed the brush against the swarm. It sank into the living ball, and then the bees gave—the swarm dropped from the mast, pulling the brush from his hand. He held the basket out and felt a weight drop inside.
Cyril’s legs shook. The lines vibrated in the wind, seemed to whistle at him as the storm tried to peel him from the ladder. His right hand was back on the rung. Breathe, he thought, breathe. Descending, his limbs were so weak he thought he might have to let go. Better to land in the water than the deck, he thought. He’d find his way back on board somehow. Rain fell uninterrupted, and waves threatened to wash over the decks. Rushing down would be a mistake.
He counted his steps. The lines stopped whistling and moaned as though they had voices. Seraph bucked against a wave like a horse. Cyril lost count, and started again.
When his foot met a plank and not a rung, Cyril collapsed to the deck. Only then did he check the mesh. Inside was at least half of the swarm. It held together, bound by an ember of pheromones and instinct. Cyril let the first breath of relief loosen his shoulders. He’d managed to get the queen.
He moved the bees to a warmed drybox to protect them from the damp. They’d be rehomed into a new hive box as soon as he had a chance. Cyril left them for the bridge. The orders he gave by heart, directing Seraph to steer into oncoming waves at an angle, to conserve power, and to stow the sails.
Cyril watched as the sails furled themselves. Fabric strained with gusting wind, and the sails drew together with aching slowness. It took a full ninety seconds, and Cyril could feel each one. Only when the sails were folded and stowed into the masts did he know the risk of damage to the ship was minimal. Cyril strapped himself to a seat. He tried to call Gaurav, but the drones overhead had been rerouted to avoid the storm. Once he was home, he’d get Gaurav a radio. Strapped into the chair, he waited for the storm to pass. The world of the ship moved around him. The windows showed inky sky, and on the glass drummed rain spat by boiling clouds. The world moved around Cyril, and the windows showed only a canyon of the sea, the view of one falling from the crest of the wave to the valley of storm-driven seas far below. Once he was home, Cyril told himself, he would remember. Remember how much there was to love, remember Gaurav, remember what there was to live for.
Seraph’s bow hit the bottom of the trough and dug into the ocean like a needle into flesh. Cyril could not breathe, felt his ribs tighten as the ship ploughed into the bottom of the wave and struggled to raise itself up. The windows darkened with drums, with boiling rain, and the Seraph climbed.
Cyril did not know when night began, or if he’d truly slept in the nightmare of the storm. When he came to, chest sore from the strapping, clothes still wet from his climb up the mainmast, morning had come. Calm seas made the storm seem almost impossible, an absurdity. But even at Seraph‘s gentle rocking, Cyril found reminders of what he’d endured.
On the horizon, the first of the cultivated islands came into view: a green brushstroke on the sea. Three repurposed drilling rigs anchored New Manila, and mangrove trees rooted to algal mats traced the outlines of the habitat. Cyril had spent his childhood diving around and under the mangroves. He missed the tranquility of living on the islands, the canopy of bridges between homes, but above all he missed the eerie magic of the waters beneath. He found peace in glass-bodied shrimp gardening mangrove roots, in schools of fish dueling with the light under the leaves. Waters were kept quiet enough for dolphins to roam when they passed through on their seasonal migrations. The platforms’ supports extended hundreds of meters underwater, steel columns covered with crustaceans, mollusks, and algae. The floating groves helped isolate the fish farms within the islands from the open ocean.
Seraph swung around until it reached a part in the trees. Cyril steered into the harbor. To his ears the birdsong seemed almost delirious. On the water, fallen branches floated, the only evidence of last night’s storm. It’d be harvested for compost soon, along with other cuttings and waste. With a gesture, Cyril opened the cargo hatches. It was time for the hives to earn their keep.
As light and warmth flooded into the hold, the first bees left their homes, drifting drowsy from the journey. The bees sparkled green in the sun, a dusting of glitter on their way to scout the dozens of islands in the archipelago. They would return, and share news of nectar and pollen. The decks would hum with the beating of wings as the hives seek out apple groves, plum orchards, melon vines and mango trees. And because of the bees, there’d be a harvest.
The family mooring drifted into view. Gaurav waved from the dock. Cyril felt, for a moment, like he was on top of boundless ocean again, vertigo thrumming through his chest to a deeper part of himself he had no name for. Cyril didn’t wait for the gangplank to touch the pier before he leapt across. He’d come home.
Jeremy Pak Nelson (he/him) haunts the canals of Manchester charting leylines that connect the city to his birthplace, Hong Kong. He is preoccupied with outdated methods of putting words on paper, and when not sifting through his hoard of stationery enjoys folk fiddle, accordion, and the game of go. He can be reached on Twitter @jpaknelson.