Genre: Young adult, dystopia
16 year old Esther knows she has to look out for herself. She was born on the Arcadia, a shanty town grown from the rusting hull of a cruise ship. Life aboard can be dangerous. Resources are scarce, gangs fight for power and no one can leave without permission. At least Esther has a chance at escape. If she works hard and stays out of trouble she’ll win a place at medical school on shore, and leave the dangers and privations of her childhood behind.
Her dreams of a different life are threatened when Esther is kidnapped and forced to save the life of a teenage boy. She survives, but the repercussions of that night can’t be left behind. A gang leader puts a price on her head. She learns that her sister is determined to join an illegal rebel group. The Coalies, a brutal armed unit sent aboard by the government, have her in their sights. And the person she trusts the most is following her every move.
As government forces close in on the ship and her dreams slip further away, Esther must choose: fight for herself, or fight for her people.
19.00 Federal Standard Time
Gentle-moderate westerly wind
Expect small wavelets
A gust lifts the edges of my homework and threatens to blow the sheets over the rail and into the sea. That’s the last thing I need. I don't want to pull an all-nighter, and I definitely don’t want to explain to Harry why I can’t turn in my assignment. This close to graduation I can’t afford to let my grades slip.
I weigh the loose pages down with what remains of my dinner: a pile of teardrop mussel shells that rattle against each other, topped off with a crust of stale bread. Goose flesh puckers the skin on my arms so I shake out the blanket from the back of my chair and wrap it around my shoulders. It itches like it’s crawling with bugs.
The Lookout draws people in like moths whenever the wind brings icy fingers from the Atlantic. It’s the only place on board you can go for sit down food or a hot drink. The cafe is held up on a wide disc of planks, open to the sky and hanging over the water like a balcony. The coffee stinks, I’m sure they reuse the grounds. But it's the view I come for. Every butt-chilling metal chair faces the city. the sun is slung low behind the skyscrapers, creating a jagged silhouette dotted with hundreds of home fires burning. The government’s eyes, humming white drones sewn onto the sky, keep watch to see that no one swims ashore. Up here, I can forget the waves that separate me from the city.
At least I’ve got a shot. Other people are trapped here for life. My test scores were adequate. My family showed their loyalty. And the government judged me promising enough to educate. Of course I’ll never be a full citizen. Wherever I go they’ll keep track of me with a GPS implant, legged and spider-like under my skin. But it’s got to be better than spending my days here, in this shanty town that grew up from the carcass of a cruise ship.
A ping tells me I have a message waiting. A joyful noise for bad tidings. It’ll be Mum wanting to know my location. A glance at the scuffed plastic comband around my wrist confirms it. “Esther, it’s almost dark. Are you in?”
I’ve stayed too long. Again. Sighing (louder than I’d dare if Mum was here), I wipe my buttery fingers on a napkin and tap out a lie: “With Alex, home soon.” I pull the strap of my medical bag onto my shoulder and stuff the pages of homework inside, trying hard to stamp on the irritation that’s already picking at me. Mum will moan the second I walk through the door, saying I need to be more careful. Tread quietly. Lower my eyes. And never stay out once it gets dark. Mum wraps her worries around me and May until we can barely breathe. I want to say that I already button my waxed jacket up under my chin, and that I never wear my hair loose, but it wouldn’t do any good.
I weave a path between the sticky plastic covered table tops, heading for the exit. There’s a yell from the walkway on the next level so I look up, just in time to see a pale hand clutching a small white rectangle. The rectangle swings through the air, shattering into a hundred sheets of paper that drift out and down towards the Lookout. The sheets catch the last dregs of the day’s light as they fall, making them glow.
Hands are already grabbing at the white leaves before their arcs meet the ground. Paper litters the floor and tabletops, a black and white snowdrift lined with text.
I anchor my feet to the deck. I should leave now. I shouldn’t even think about reading the message. Getting busted for possession of propaganda would blow any chance I have of getting into med school. But then, all the other customers are taking the chance. A quick glance can’t do any harm.
Crouching, I snatch a leaflet that’s laying against the toe of my boot. My hand trembles. I face the sea and hunch my shoulders, shielding the forbidden rectangle of paper from the view of anyone aboard. With a shake in my fingers I uncurl the leaflet and flatten it against my palm. It’s a photocopy of a newspaper report. There’s a blurred photo of a cruise ship underneath words in blocks of black: OASIS OF THE SEA CLEARED.
“Coalies!” someone shouts behind me.
The leaflet I’m clutching could be a cinder straight from the stove, I drop it as fast.
A whimper rises from the cafe’s patrons. People let leaflets fall from their hands. Steel chairs screech against the metal deck. Still steaming drinks are abandoned. Half eaten sandwiches are left to the yellow-eyed gulls. A crowd bottlenecks at the exit, people push each other back in their need to get away from the reams of evidence strewn over the cafe. No one wants to be caught near all that.
A girl thuds to the ground next to me. I hear her groan and turn to help her up, but a team of Coalies hustles into the Lookout. Armoured and visored with guns the length of my arm. Panic stretches the girl’s eyes.
I’ve seen that collision of fear and resignation before. Our neighbour didn’t fight when the Coalies searched his cabin for contraband. He stood by his front door, arms loose by his sides and body slack like he was filled with sand. His eyes clamoured from face to face, looking for a clue that something would save him. He never came back.
The girl looks at me through strands of dampened hair that stick to her lips and move in time with her breath.
Don’t get caught up. Look after yourself. Let her escape, or not, on her own.
I ball my fists and force myself to leave her behind.
When there are three decks between me and the Lookout I slow down. I keep checking over my shoulder but there’s no sign of the Coalies. They’ll be too busy rounding people up in the Lookout to chase after the ones that scattered.
A bitter film of guilt and adrenaline coats the back of my tongue. The blurred grayscale image of the cruise ship; the wide eyes of that girl lying on the floor; the surge of the Coalies. I shake my head to dislodge the thoughts and break into a jog for the long stretch to the back of the ship. I’m almost home.
My hobnailed boots are too heavy for running, and the muscles in my calves scream in complaint after a few steps. I ignore the burning in my legs, and concentrate on the clack-clack of the nail studded boot soles against the deck. My great-grandparents wouldn’t recognise the Arcadia. Since they dropped anchor here the ship has been expanded. Barges and floating shacks carpet the sea around the rusting hull. The upper decks heave with balconies and new floors lashed together from scavenged wood. Only a few stretches survive that are long enough to sprint down, and during the day I’d have to dodge around people and the animals they let out to sun.