02. The boat

My boat is called The Wayward, which I’ve done my best to hand-paint onto its bow. Every so often the water has its way with the words and I have to re-paint them back onto the aluminum with whatever I have to hand. This season’s name is written in broad, green strokes.

It’s just a dinghy. Some people have great sailboats that they take from island to island, but I’ve never had the means or the skill, and the idea of capsizing the thing is too much to think about. Without this boat, I’m dead. So I row it, or when there’s enough sun for excess power, I charge the meagre engine battery, which will at least take me part of the way there.

I’m grateful to at least have an engine mount. Not every dinghy does, and awkwardly clamping a motor to the bow without one can be dicey. Some people use them as gun placements, but those are usually the people who were into guns before the rise; now, as then, only assholes have them, and most people would rather do without. It’s not like most places are swarming with pirates: we’re the same people we were before civilization was destroyed, just wetter.

It’s tied up to a stump next to my hut, which is close enough to load it up with some heavier supplies. First and foremost, I bring Vince: fishing aside, he’s not particularly happy with the water, so he sits inside a crate and glares at me. Then I bring some food tubes for both of us and a portable purifier. Finally, some reflective blankets and a wind-up heater. At the last minute, I realize I’ve almost forgotten to bring my oars, and dash into the hut to retrieve them.

The trip to Sal’s is about two days due west. I usually leave my lens turned firmly off, because who needs network messages from who-knows-where burned straight into your retinas, but for this kind of journey I reluctantly boot it up. The network still connects to the Global Positioning System, as well as a distributed network of crowdsourced weather buoys that we all try and maintain. That way I can find my way to them and avoid the worst of the weather if I need to.

In their other life, Sal was a software engineer. They ran a startup, or worked for a startup, or something like that. These days they’re a hacker for hire: the person you go to when something’s gone wrong with your technology. All the fancy toys that couldn’t be repaired - the stuff with built-in batteries and glue that couldn’t be removed - have long since become useless. The only tools we have left are the ones that can be fixed, and when it comes to making things work well with whatever is to hand, or modifying the on-board software to cope with new conditions, Sal is the best.

So when I decided I had to find Let, about a minute after I heard the message, they were always going to be my first stop.

I don’t know if I can help, they responded via voice message. But absolutely. Come on down. I don’t have a lot going on right now.

Can you trace the message? I asked.

I’ll find out when you’re here. Probably not. Maybe we can learn something from it even if we can’t figure out where it came from.

I sent them a thumbs up emoji, and that was that.

The load on the boat - particularly the purifier - brings its rim closer to the waterline than I’d like, but the weather seems okay and I figure I should be okay. Vince doesn’t think so, and is making furious noises about being let out so he can fish in peace, but he’ll survive.

“Alright, you little blighter,” I say to him. “Let’s go see Sal.”

I untie the knot and push the boat a little further into the water. I’m not as steady on my feet as I’d like to be - clumsiness runs in my family - so I’ve soaked myself more than once while trying to push off, but today I make the jump. The boat rocks a little and I kick the motor into action. With the hint of an electric hum under the sound of our new wake, we head west.

Sunlight shimmers on the water. The wind is low, creating only the slightest of waves, which the Wayward cuts through like butter. Above, there are a handful of seagulls, which I watch warily: given half a chance, if they’re hungry enough, gulls will attack Vince, or even try and take a chunk out of me. Mostly they observe from a safe distance, but I’m ready to swat them away with an oar if I need to.

The auto-bailer still mostly works, so there’s very little water at the bottom of the boat. Puddles have gathered in a few corners. Occasionally, I’ve had to scoop out small crabs that have climbed in before I’ve embarked on a journey, but not today.

I’ve adjusted the interface on my lens to be as minimal as possible. I hate the distraction that notifications create: a trail of thought disrupted forever. Nonetheless, a steady stream of messages come in from the outside world, invading my eyeline as my island home disappears into the distance. It’s endless. I like the reminder that, despite appearances, I’m not alone; I just wish it was on my terms.

I’ve still got cabbage, one message reads. We’re all swimming in bloody cabbage, I think.

I drag my hand through the water, feeling the cool flow between my fingers. When the rise was fresh, it wouldn’t have been safe to touch: pollution from cities and industry seeped in, and it was both toxic and radioactive. But over time, it was like it washed away. It wasn’t clean, exactly, but it was clean enough. As far as I know, just touching it won’t harm me, and pulling fish from the water doesn’t seem to have harmed Vince. I’m not stupid: if I’m going to drink it, I run it through the purifier, and if I want to eat anything that’s been in it, my lens can tell me how clean it is. Still, it’s a lot better than it was. Some of the older people at the market, who remember the time before better than I do, tell me that in places the water is cleaner than it used to be even then.

As the day wears on and stars become visible against the darkening sky, I flick through the entertainment options on my lens. There are lens filters for serious content, for people filming long conversations with each other or just showing what their part of the world looks like, cooking with limited supplies, and so on. What I love more than anything else are the old videos, from long before I was born. It’s like a window into another world; in fact, not just like, but literally that.

The lenses don’t run out of power or connectivity: they run on my body’s internal electricity and use it as a kind of antenna, so I can connect wherever I am. The display isn’t light at all, but electrical signals delivered directly into my optic nerve. Which is how, in a dinghy in the middle of the water after the downfall of civilization, with nothing else around me at all, I curl up in the bow, binge-watching a murder mystery before falling asleep in the safe confines of my reflective blanket.

I awake at dawn to a stronger wind and no land in sight whatsoever. There’s still sunlight, which paints the choppy water a vivid red. Vince is making a stink about it, and a quick glance at my lens-map shows me that we drifted quite a bit off-course in the night. I wish this thing drove itself, but it doesn’t. I wrap my hand tightly around the engine tiller and course-correct.

My lens lets me know there’s a storm coming from the south. It’ll take another day to arrive, but it looks like it’ll intersect with my arrival at Sal’s, so I’ll need to be careful. It’s not quite a hurricane, but not exactly small, either.

“We’d better hurry up,” I say to Vince. He looks at me with absolute disdain.

I haven’t seen any more messages from Let, so I’ve been putting out messages to him, to see if he’ll respond. Just small things: Let, are you out there?, for example. There’s no sense in being subtle about it.

So far, nothing. I’ll keep trying.

The wind stays constant as the morning wears on; a scattering of clouds race across the sky. The boat knocks from side to side as it rides the waves, and I catch Vince trying to steady himself against one of the walls of his crate.

Mid-morning, I see a dot on the horizon: finally, some kind of a feature to break up the water. It reflects the sun, and I realize it’s another boat of some kind, which makes sense because there’s no land on the map. It doesn’t seem to acknowledge my presence in any way, so I return the favor and stay my course.

The food tubes I brought for Vince are the usual cat varieties: tuna, fluke, scallop. The ones I brought for myself are far less appetizing. Synthesized protein and fiber don’t make my mouth water, but they do the job. While Vince laps up his meal with gusto, I struggle through mine, wincing as I squeeze it into my mouth like toothpaste. I’m glad I have the purifier, because rinsing my mouth out afterwards is far from optional.

I get another lens message about produce at the market and flick it away, although I have to admit that it’s beginning to sound more appetizing.

The other boat is a little closer after our meal. It’s still some way away, but I see that we’re going to pass by each other. It looks a little bigger than mine; there’s a windscreen and at least half of an indoor cabin. More like a fishing boat than a dinghy.

“We’re going to make a new friend,” I tell Vince, who makes it clear that he would prefer to fall asleep on stable ground.

My lens-map shows that we’re back on course, and there’s nothing to do except wait. I send another message to Let, and browse a few more from the boards before curling up back under my blanket.

It’s early afternoon when the other boat passes, maybe a hundred feet away. It is a fishing boat; silver, unmarked, no flags of any kind. The sole inhabitant is a man in a long, navy blue coat and a beard who doesn’t react when I wave to him. His eyes are covered by shiny aviator sunglasses; there’s an insignia on his cap, but it’s too far away to see more than that.

We leave each other without any real communication beyond my first, tentative wave. Just two people on their way to somewhere else.

I continue west as the wind picks up.