by Will McMahon
It started getting passed around the slums six months ago, sloshing in old plastic bottles encrusted with barnacles. No one knows where the stuff comes from. People are calling it Koral—murky blue and loaded with sediment. No one trusted it at first. No one trusts it still, but you aren’t likely to find it if you have any options left on land.
It’s past midnight and the latest crowd is shambling down to the sea. Victims of today’s casual destruction. “Clean up our city,” “Pave the neighborhoods,” “Build good housing.” The concrete budget was quietly cut. The dynamite budget is booming.
There’s nowhere to go, and nowhere to stay, and they sit in the detritus of their lives watching their children cough black smoke, and they turn the rumor over in their heads. Koral. “Back where we came from.”
The crowd is small. The demolition crew got off early today— government holiday. The men in hard hats were lethargic and inattentive, cutting out early to go drink. The rest of the shanties could wait until tomorrow. So it’s just eight or nine people tonight. An old woman with a hand-drawn map leads them.
“Do you think it hurts?” a boy asks, preemptively scratching his arm. He’s thirteen, maybe fourteen—he doesn’t know his birthday, so can’t be sure.
“It doesn’t,” a woman assures him.
A man carrying a duffel bag turns his head. “How would you know?”
They chatter nervously, these freshly dispossessed, as if wishing to hear their own voices one last time. They walk under the glowing night’s sky, starless, the neon city lights reflected back at them by the smog above. They carry small things, unsure what will be of use—food in glass jars, battered tools, knives.
They near the water but turn away from the neat sand beaches. Those are patrolled, and Koral has been banned. They are not wanted, but they may not go—another paradox of cruelty.
Past the harbor with its beaches and the docks lined with small pleasure craft is the industrial port. There the great engines of commerce sleep, awaiting the light of day and fulfillment of purpose: ships to unload food for a hungry city; pipelines emerging, gargantuan, from the sea—bringing fuel for the crushing machinery. The exiles look up at these things with hate or desire or despair, or do not look at all, their eyes ahead.
They arrive, finally, at a rocky cove strewn with needles. The nervous chatter has died down. Someone takes out the plastic jug; a flush of green grows on one side. As they open it, a small crab pulls itself out of the slurry and jumps onto the beach, running for water. They all stare at the open bottle.
The man with the bag lifts the jug and brings it to the woman. She was a priest once, back when any of them had believed in God.
“Father?” he asks, sardonically, but she can see the eyes of the others on her, and it may not be a joke after all.
“In Nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti,” she intones, ignoring the bile that rises as she makes the sign of the cross. The others shuffle and glance furtively away.
The boy goes first. He rubs the murky liquid on his arms, then his face and chest. It drips down his body. The molecules of this unknown catalyst seep into his pores, awakening ancient genes, creating new ones. Barnacles and seaweed and ridges of coral bloom from his skin. Others are following suit now, and soon they are drinking it, the sea growth closing their throats. They shamble into the waves, these half-human reefs, abandoning land and sky, turning desperately to life’s primordial home.
Two are left, who have covered themselves in the life-giving parasites but who have not yet drunk—the woman who had been their Father and the man with the duffel bag. He opens it.
They stare down at the explosives, stolen from the government demolition crew.
“Will it work underwater?” she asks.
“I don’t know,” he says. They look out at the bulbous heads of the pipelines rising from the sea; the great metal caverns stare back— hollow in the night as the port sleeps, readying to breathe life into the world-crushing machinery. “Let’s find out.”
They zip up the bag and swallow the last of the foul slurry. Staggering into the surf, they sink into cold black water.
Will McMahon is a union organizer and writer living in Brooklyn, NY. His work has appeared in or is forthcoming from F&SF, Interzone Digital, Daily SF, and others. He can be found at will-mcmahon.com.