The Salt Dark

WRITTEN BY
Deborah Biancotti

ILLUSTRATED BY
Andreea Dobrin Dinu

“All hands! All hands!”

Sharp. Demanding. With the squeal of digital interference at the end.

“Ow.” Meri winced.

Jae must’ve found the intercom controls. The research boat was so high-tech even Meri didn’t know what all the buttons did yet.

She rolled over and slapped the pillow over her head, drowning out the intercom and—from somewhere to her left–Kabul’s persistent snoring.

“All hands!” the intercom squealed. “Right the hell now.”

There was a groan from the bunk above.

“Is he serious?” Inala muttered, her voice thick with sleep.

“No. He’s a jerk,” Meri murmured into her pillow.

Goddammitt!” Jae on the intercom again. “They’re stealing the baby coral!”

Christ.

Meri jack-knifed into sitting so fast she slammed her forehead on Inala’s bunk.

“Ow!” Inala said. “Did he say–“

But Meri was already up and out of bed. She hurled her pillow towards Kabul and heard his snoring stop short. Good.

She took the stairs at a run, stubbing her toes with each step.

She was the skipper of this thing. It was her mission now, her boat, her team. Her coral farm, fifteen metres below the surface. Her stewardship, until the scientists came back. It’d taken her too long to get this job.

She wasn’t about to let somebody screw it over.

The deck was lit by moonlight and the soft, red pulse of computer screens. The wind off the water was cool, even in October. It smelled of salt and stung like ice.

“What’ve you got?” Meri gasped, the wind snatching her words.

“Hear that?” Jae pointed out to sea.

Meri strained to hear anything over the wind. She frowned.

“Pumps,” Jae supplied.

“Another boat?”

She trusted Jae to know what he was talking about. Before this gig, he’d worked dive cruises off Cairns for ten years. He knew the noises boats made.

She scanned the water. Darkness and the moon, turning the water blue.

“No lights,” Meri observed. “Not a good sign.”

If there was a boat out there, then someone was trying to hide it.

Jae ran a hand across his iPad, scanning drone footage in night-vision yellow.

“There. Fishing skip,” he said. “Pretty basic.”

Meri checked the screen. Way smaller than their boat. No grant funding. Not much funding at all. Unlike Meri’s mission.

“Could it be night divers?” she suggested.

Jae snorted. “So, it’s a coincidence they’re diving so close to our farm?”

Fair point. Meri didn’t believe in coincidences, either.

Behind Jae, the computer screens showed the eReef in red lines that looked like comic-book art. Not drawn by hand, though. Pulled from data grabs all up and down the coast. Crowd sourcing at its finest. A real-time feed from cell phones, iPads, computers, any networked device employed by any tourist or reef worker.

Meri flipped a screen to the underwater cameras. Twelve remote cameras spat out ghostly images of the farm, rolling like a bank security feed, fed through the tapetum lucidum: a crystal lens based on the eyes of nocturnal mammals. And sharks.

Nothing showed up but the soft shapes of infant coral strapped to ceramic stands.

And then:

“There!” Meri leaned into the screen.

A pale hand came into shot. It dug up a cloud of sand at the ceramic feet of the coral.

“See? Told you they were after the babies,” Jae muttered.

The whole stand lifted, the infant coral waving as it disappeared from the top of the shot.

“We need to get down there,” Meri said. “Right the hell now.”

“We, who?” Jae said. “Inala can’t, and Kabul won’t. Everyone else left with the scientists.”

“That leaves you and me,” Meri said, with a confidence she didn’t feel.

By then, Inala was hobbling up the stairs on her busted ankle. Kabul stumbled out behind her, rubbing his face.

Meri pulled open the locker where the dive suits were kept.

“Catch!” she called.

Inala ducked. She’d be in the ocean in a flash, except for that ankle. Meri knew it, because Inala told her every damn day.

“No freaking way!” Kabul grabbed the suit and sent it right back to her. “Not at night.”

“Coward. It’s the same ocean, only dark.”

“Sharks don’t need light, Mer,” Kabul replied.

Not strictly true, but fair point.

She fixed her gaze on Kabul, rocking the suit like she was about to send it back his way. He shook his head in an emphatic nope.

“Jae,” Meri warned, tossing the suit his way.

He snatched at it before it fell into the ocean. Meri pulled out a second suit. For herself.

She stripped off her pyjama shorts and stepped into the suit. Jae held out the Trinity oxygen gill. The new, experimental one that extracted oxygen from sea water and—-Christ.

She was going in.

 

 

It’s strange when you quit a place, the way it can call you back.

A grain of sand under the skin. Something to produce a pearl.

The ocean was that place for Meri. She’d been on the Coral Sea for two years. Before that, she was strictly a Pacific girl. But only surface-level. Swimming, surfing. Skimming. Nothing deep-sea. Not diving. No, that was an afterthought. She learned it in case the waves failed her.

And then they did.

Five years ago, a swell bounced her off the granite ledge by the headland at Shipstern Bluff. It ended her surf career and shattered eleven bones. She saw out the summer in hospital, winter in physical therapy learning to walk again. Waiting for the day she could breathe without pain.

And now, here she was. Shrugging into a dive suit for the first time in forever. Her collarbone pinging painfully, sending out its own signal into the dark. She’d forgotten how stiff latex got when it was dry. She should’ve dipped it in the ocean first, like Jae did.

Zipped up, the suit stuck to her ribs and waist, reminding her she wasn’t young anymore. She took a seat on the edge of the boat, the ocean slapping and gulping at her back. Inala held out the weight belt. Kabul strapped lumen dive lights to both her wrists. Finally, someone gave her a visimask so she could navigate under water.

“Try it with the data feed first,” Inala suggested. “Skip the lumens unless you need them.”

“And don’t shine the lights in anyone’s eyes,” Jae added. “I mean, unless you want to blind them.”

“Good advice,” Meri said.

“Here,” Kabul held up two small tubes. “Glow sticks. Backup. But don’t drop them in the reef. They’re toxic.”

“Got it.” Meri stuck the sticks into her belt.

She pulled the visimask over her head, trying not to snag it on her dry hair. She spun a few dials, bringing an image into focus. The reef scrawled itself across her field of vision. Red lines, like the computer screens. She turned her head left and right, watching the reef roll. The image was reliable to a certain depth. Beyond that, the data points would fade out like an old tapestry.

“What’s our plan, boss?” Jae asked.

“Scare them off,” Meri improvised.

“And if they don’t scare so good?”

“Grab the coral. Forget the divers,” Meri answered. “We need nets!”

Inala pressed a couple of mesh bags into her hand.

“Ready?” Jae asked.

Was she?

“Ready!”

She bit down on the air mask.

Kabul kissed her lightly on the temple, which he’d never done before. When she got back from the ocean, she’d have to ask him about that.

For now, she gave her crew a thumbs up.

And then she fell.

 

Backwards, into the ocean.

She dropped like a dead weight and the water rushed up to claim her, cushioning her fall. It closed over her face, trapping her in a liquid salt cage. Bubbles of agitation sent the surface into a frothy kaleidoscope, making the moon skid. The cold air off the surface died out. The chug of the Trinity kicked in.

Meri dropped into the same, familiar feeling that water always gave her. The same thing she’d felt when she was sixteen and she could surf all day. Even wasted, even after pulling an all-nighter for an exam. Even when she stayed up just to surf the dawn.

After Shipstern, there was maybe a moment when she thought she’d never go near an ocean again. But she couldn’t stay away.

So she’d headed north, to the Coral Sea. At first, she couldn’t explain what drew her. Change of scenery? Or the simple knowledge that her bone grafts had come from coral, and that coral had come from the Great Barrier Reef. Coral’s porous exoskeleton was already half-way to human bone, the doctors told her. And that was before the mild chemical nudge that refined calcium carbonate into something more biodegradable. To ensure the connection, that coral and bone was compatible.

The Reef was part of her now.

So, she headed to Cairns and made a home amid the ferns and flying foxes. She was there to repay a debt. Not just for the bone grafts. Also for the new sense of purpose. She wasn’t just a surfer, a skimmer. She was a guardian now. The salt water world was hers to preserve and protect.

Her first job was in a lab, snapping coral into shards and sticking them to ceramic stands, for farming. She spent her days submerged in tanks of salt water up to her elbows. Her nights dreaming of water. She worked her way up to the boats.

Now the shadow of the bow hung above her and the moon sank away, up into the sky. She drifted for one steadying moment, getting her bearings. If it wasn’t for the weighted belt, the buoyancy of the suit would keep her bobbing at the surface, incapable of descent.

She flipped gracefully so she was facing the ocean floor. The farm was below them, north-east two degrees, according to the visimask. She angled down and kicked out. Hopefully Jae did the same. The mask only gave the simplest heat reading for his location.

The water cooled as they sank. The suit was only 5mm thick. Built for agility, not warmth. She made fists and wriggled her toes in the fins, working the blood back to her extremities. Over the thump of her air mask, she heard the crackle and crunch of fish eating and coral moving below her.

Something bumped against her knee. Not Jae, because he was ahead of her. She knew it because she could feel the eddies of his progress near her shoulder. Sharks were the most dangerous predators in the water, but sea snakes creeped her out the most, if she was honest about it. She angled away from the impact and hoped the thing in the dark left her alone. It worked.

Four metres down, she flipped the visimask to clear and let the real world soak through to her retinas. At first, she saw only the reverse imprint of the eReef against the dark.

Then slowly the curtain of night rose.

The coral revealed itself in muted, glowing light. The luminescent skeleton of the world, pushing up gently, swaying and soft. Not brittle and bony the way coral is underneath its animal hide. Here, it was clothed with gentle life. Chaotic, uneven, unmatched polyps of every colour crammed onto shelves and rock shelters and littering the sand. The reef was a perpetual machine. It didn’t die unless it was killed. But it struggled with wear and tear, pollution. And heat. Global warming was starving the coral, killing the sensitive stomachs inside their limestone homes.

Hence, the farms. Science was busy making hybrid corals. Genetically splicing local coral with more heat-resistant breeds from other places. Western Australia. Hawaii. Iran.

Which made the farms unique and precious. It also made them a target. Not all conservationists trusted the hybrids. They were unnatural. Unpredictable.

 

She spied Jae silhouetted against the coral glow. She adjusted her path so they were elbow to elbow, guiding each other in the low light.

She dropped through a school of fish, moonlight catching their scales as they banked, like tiny filaments. Every metre she went below the surface moved her further and further from real life. Descent, but it felt like ascent. The chug of air into her mouth was the only thing reminding her to keep breathing. The thud of her grafted bones was finally lulled into quiet.

And then, there was the farm. The coral cross-breeds glued to terracotta plates and strapped to ceramic stands. She’d never been this close to it before. That’s what the scientists were for.

Between Meri and the farm, there was a shadow. Long in the water, broader at the shoulders. Male, Meri speculated. He had an old-fashioned air tank on his back and a net full of coral stands bouncing through the water behind him. And he was operating by lumen lights. Good. It’d make it harder for him to spot their approach.

Meri tapped Jae on the shoulder. She flashed her own lumen once at her hand, so Jae could see she was pointing down at the diver. Jae gave her a thumbs up. Message received. Target sighted.

Engage.

And . . . then what?

Grab the net. Maybe try to get the diver topside. Find out what he planned to do with their coral.

Meri circled the diver, watching her own shadow. Then she kicked down until she was eye level. He didn’t see her. The sides of his mask were too thick. So she rolled until the moon hung above her and the sand was at her back, dropping lower.

The stranger glimpsed her at last. He started. Probably thought she was a shark.

Meri shone the lumen right in his eyes.

The stranger recoiled, blinded. He drifted down, kicking up sand with his fins. With his heels on solid ground, he braced and lashed out with an arm.

Meri was knocked in the jaw.

Not a punch, because his palm was flat, but at this depth, it was enough to unbalance her entirely. Her mask jerked, clobbering her teeth. She sucked it back into place, tasting blood, travelling backwards through the water, her hair covering her eyes.

She pulled up her knees and kicked out gently towards the stranger. Her heel collided with something. His ribs, she hoped. But mostly it just pushed her further back. She dragged her hair out of her face. The stranger was unbalanced enough by her blow that he curled sideways.

Into Jae’s waiting arms.

It was like a slow dance in a dimly-lit ballroom. The weight of the ocean wouldn’t let it happen any faster.

Jae was ready. He put the guy into an armlock and pushed upwards from the sand, heading straight for the surface. The stranger tried to grab at him, failed, dropped his net full of stolen stands. The soft fingers of infant coral reached out gently, finding each other. Safe, for now.

Meri got her feet under her and pushed up, following the others. The stranger was struggling, so she gripped him around the waist, lending her momentum to their upward trajectory. Heading for the choppy moon above.

Their aim was good. They broke the surface only a couple metres from the boat. The stranger pulled free, dumping Jae underwater. Meri launched at them. She grabbed the stranger’s mask and yanked it out of his mouth.

Payback.

“Meri?” Kabul’s voice, echoing across the water.

She ripped off her mask. Her gums hurt where she’d been clobbered.

“Get him onboard!”

Kabul jumped into the dark water and splashed towards them. Finally over his fear of the dark. Inala was smarter, though. She grabbed an oversized marine hook and expertly stuck it under the stranger’s armpit. Then she dragged him towards the marlin board at the back of the boat. Still, it took all four of them to get him out of the water.

“I will knife your air hose if you don’t stop!” Kabul threatened.

The diver swung one more punch. Then he went limp. Good thinking. It’d be a long swim back to his boat if he had to do the whole thing topside with a useless tank on his back.

Meri shimmied onboard after the others. By then, Jae had ripped off the guy’s mask.

Christ.

“Yosh?” Meri sputtered.

“Hey, Mer,” Yoshiro said. “Long time.”

The red lights of the screens slipped along his dark hair and snatched at the sharp angles of his face.

She felt Kabul staring at her, then at Yoshiro. Jae was the one to break the silence.

“Care to fill us in, boss?” he asked.

“Uh. Old boyfriend.”

First boyfriend, if she was specific. High school sweethearts from a thousand years ago.

Yoshiro smiled distantly. “No one can compete with the ocean, not for Mer.”

“Still true,” Meri admitted.

Yoshiro chuckled.

Meri dragged off her fins and leaned back against the side of the boat, listening to the slap of the ocean. The others relaxed, too. Yoshiro was caught. The only place he could go was back in the water. And they’d already pulled him out once.

“Didn’t know you took up diving,” she said.

“Didn’t know you became a corporate patsy,” Yoshiro shot back.

“Excuse me, what?”

“Hybrid coral?” Yoshiro said.

“How is that corporate?” Inala cut in. “It’s research money.”

“Other reefs need coral, too. Not just yours.”

Meri hesitated. She hadn’t expected this.

“Thought you were trying to stop the farm,” she said.

Yoshi pulled the band from his long hair. Ocean water spilled down his shoulders.

“Nope,” he said. “Trying to share it.”

“Hey, buddy,” Kabul said, with mock friendliness, “that’s not up to us. You have to talk to the people funding the grants.”

“Which brings us back to the whole corporate thing,” Yoshiro said. “Come on, Mer. Just one net.”

“The hybrids were bred for here, Yosh,” Meri said. “You can’t take them to another ocean. We don’t know what they’ll do. Could take over a whole reef. Could squeeze out native strains. Could change the entire ecosystem.”

“Better a changed reef than a dead one,” Yoshi argued.

Kabul grunted. “That’s what I’ve been saying.”

“They’ll put you in prison,” Meri said.

“If they catch me,” Yoshiro said. “I only need one plate. To test it out. Not even a full stand. I’ll trade you for it.”

“Trade me what, exactly?”

Yoshiro shrugged. “You might need another job one day.”

Ironic. She wouldn’t need a job if she could hold onto this one. But trading was how the blue economy worked.

She stared out at the dark ocean while the moon swayed above them. She’d seen two spawning seasons on this reef. Snorkeling close to the surface while the slick snowstorm of the coral spawned below her. Every marine biologist for miles dived those nights. And they all shared what they knew.

Science wasn’t a competitive sport. No point only saving part of the world.

“Forget it,” Yoshiro muttered. “Thought I’d ask.”

He reached for his fins.

“What are you doing?” Meri asked.

“Surrendering?”

“Not yet, Yosh. You have to help us put the hybrids back.”

“You trust him?” Jae asked.

“That was my question,” Kabul muttered.

Yoshiro’s dark eyes drank in the moonlight.

“Trust? No,” Meri answered them.

But maybe she wasn’t a guardian after all. There was something too rigid in the idea. She didn’t have to guard the ocean. She had to share it.

“Some small pieces might go missing,” Meri continued. “Not a whole stand. This job is important to me.”

But so was the ocean.

“Natural attrition,” Jae said, backing her up. “Sometimes a piece goes missing. Or dies off.”

“Exactly.” Meri nodded. “All the oceans are connected. No point protecting just one. Right, guys?”

She looked around at her crew. They had to agree, or the plan was forfeit.

For one long minute, all she could hear was the wind off the water and the lapping of the ocean.

Inala shrugged. “Who are we to stand in the way of science? I mean, if it helps . . . “

“Whatever gets him out of our hair,” Kabul added.

Jae nodded encouragingly.

Consensus.

Yoshiro straightened. “So, now?”

“Right now,” Meri agreed. “Before I change my mind.”

Yoshiro straightened, checking the readings on his air tank.

Meri slipped the visimask over her head, grabbed the Trinity, checked her belt. All in one smooth move. Like she’d been doing it for years.

She moved to the edge of the boat, feeling the ocean at her back.

“Don’t make me regret this,” she told Yoshiro.

Yoshiro grinned. “When it comes to the ocean, Mer, I never saw you regret any crazy thing you did.”

“Except Shipstern,” she admitted. “But then, only for a while.”

“You’ll have to tell me about that,” Yoshiro said. “Tomorrow. I’ll buy you breakfast. All of you.”

“You’re on,” Kabul told him.

“You coming, Jae?” Meri asked.

“Try to stop me.”

“Ready to dive?” she asked them.

“Always,” Yoshi replied. “You?”

Always.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Deborah Biancotti is the author of BAD POWER, WAKING IN WINTER and A BOOK OF ENDINGS. She is a co-author on ZEROES, the New York Times bestselling Young Adult trilogy. She's been shortlisted for the Shirley Jackson Award for Best Novella and the William L. Crawford Award for Best First Fantasy Book. Her short stories have appeared in Australia, the US and UK. She’s currently working on a novel and writing screenplays. Deborah lives in Sydney, Australia and was born in Cairns. Right beside the Great Barrier Reef.