Genre: Young adult, dystopia
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. 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. My Mum wraps her worries around me and my sister 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.
I bend at the knees and 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 tremble in my fingers I uncurl the leaflet and flatten it down. 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.
My heart leaps into my throat and drums out a warning. The leaflet I’m clutching could be a cinder straight from the stove, I drop it as fast.
Since the Coalescent Bill was passed last month the Coalies have spread their unwelcome reach into every part of ship life. Politicians from the Federated States wax lyrical about the heroic effort by law enforcement to ‘clean things up’ on the Arcadia. But as far as I can tell it’s no safer to live here. If anything, the black-clad Coalies have put our collective consciousness to the rack. People are jittery. Whispered rumours tell of arrests for non-crimes. Of people being taken. You don’t want to meet a unit of Coalies down an underlit stretch of deck.
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 and I hear the air rush from her chest. I turn back and start 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. She looks at me through strands of dampened hair, our fear twinned. 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.
I don’t breathe again until there are three decks between me and the Lookout. 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. Since my great-grandparents dropped anchor here the ship has been expanded outwards and upwards. Only a few stretches survive that are long enough to sprint down, and during the day I’d have to dodge around people, or the animals they let out to sun.