by Jennifer Pelland
Callie numbs both wrists to the bone before slicing deep into each one with the cutter, its sonic waves effortlessly singing through the skin and veins, and as she watches her blood slip out, she wonders how people did this in the old days. How had they kept their hands steady through the pain as they’d ripped through their flesh with sharpened metal? But then again, the end came quicker back then–back when they had water. Tubs of it, warm and wonderful, that people could soak in, the heat coaxing the blood from their open veins.
She props her feet up against the wall to make the blood flow faster. She should be getting cold by now, but the blood warms her skin, sticky and sweet. Her feet go numb, almost as numb as her hands. If she can just keep her legs propped up, if she can just keep the blood flowing, then soon she’ll be away from this arid existence and on to an afterlife where she’ll finally learn to swim.
The door to her dressing room opens, and her manager’s narrow frame casts a shadow across her prone body. He clucks his tongue. “Is it high tide already? I thought the full moon was tomorrow night.”
She moans and looks away. “I didn’t think you’d be checking up on me so soon.”
He actually laughs. “Please. You like to be caught. You’d wait to slit your wrists at home otherwise. Come on, let’s clean you up for the show. I’ll have your press agent release a statement. The stadium’s been sold out for months, but maybe this can still drive up the online viewers.”
Her cutter is taken away, and a laser is produced to close her veins and seal up the rents in her flesh. Jeremy, her manager, has a roadie take her to the sonics to get cleaned up, and when she gets back to the dressing room, he tells her that his request for plasma has been denied. “You could trade some water rations for it, but–”
“I didn’t think so.”
She turns to the mirror and stares at her too-pale face. “I can’t do it tonight. I’m too weak.”
“Don’t worry, you’ll be fine,” Jeremy says. “We’re putting a divan on the stage. All you need to do is lie there and moan in tune. Now get your game face on and get out there.”
He storms out, just like he did last time, and the time before, and the ten times before. The roadie strokes Callie’s close-cropped hair and asks, “Do you need any help?”
“No, I’ve got it.”
The roadie takes the laser with her as she leaves the dressing room.
And Callie is alone with her costumes and her wigs and her paints. She picks up a makeup brush, stares at herself in the mirror with eyes as green as the lost seas, and begins to paint waves on her sunken cheeks.
In half an hour, she walks out, transformed, and nods to the crew.
“Ladies and gentlemen! Straight from the Albany Protectorate, let’s give a warm Providence welcome to Undine!”
The lights come up, and she’s resplendent in water tones on her blue divan, where she spends the next ninety minutes whispering out love songs for forgotten oceans. Between numbers, the crowd reverently passes tiny plastic water bottles up to the stage. They only contain an inch of water each, maybe less, but they’re precious gifts, dribbed and drabbed from their daily rations.
For that ninety minutes, the world is once again wet.
And then the lights go out, and Undine again becomes Callie–small, parched, and alone. The roadies collect all of the offerings and help Callie off the stage. There is a crush of groupies waiting for her outside her dressing room, some waving full daily ration bottles as enticement, and she hesitates, her body screaming out for more water. But she has given all she can for one night. She has nothing left to trade. So she shakes her head and goes into the dressing room, alone, as always.
Callie crawls onto the sofa, nestles the bottles to her bosom, pulls a blanket around her, and dreams of floods.
“How dare you?”
She opens her eyes to see the familiar argument brewing between her brother and her manager.
Jeremy shrugs expansively and says, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“This happens every time. You can’t leave her alone at high tide. She needs protection.”
“From who, herself?”
“Look, Owen, your twin is a grown woman. She doesn’t need a babysitter. If she wants to slice her wrists open–”
Her brother jabs a finger into her manager’s chest so hard that she can hear it thunk. “You encourage her. You like the publicity. You’re a fiend, Jeremy. An utter fiend.”
Callie props herself up on one elbow, the tiny bottles sliding down her chest and puddling by her side. “Owen, leave Jeremy alone.”
Owen shoots the manager one last glare, then snarls, “Get out.”
Jeremy raises his hands in mock surrender and leaves.
And Owen sits down at Callie’s hip, carefully avoiding all the precious plastic bottles, reused from the desolate world outside. Some once held fizzy drinks, some cough syrup, still others carried tiny amounts of liquor on the airplanes that once criss-crossed the sky. They’re all relics of a world long gone, reused to keep this world alive.
Owen clasps her hands tightly and stares down at her wrists, the new scars standing out vividly against the old. “You have to stop playing full moon shows,” he says.
“I need to play with the tides. You know that.”
He presses her palms together, his own hands cradling hers. “I’m sorry I couldn’t be here last night. There was a sandstorm. They canceled my train. I would have met you in Albany and come out here with you, but you know how work is.”
“Hey, I understand.” She kisses his fingertips. “Your work’s important.” Owen is part of a team of scientists working to find a way to restart the manufacturing economy without using water, or at the very least, without losing any. Their ultimate goal is to get the space program back on line so they can bring back water from other solar bodies to replenish the oceans. Water is ripe for the taking on the Moon, Mars, and the comets. Many think this project is Earth’s only hope.
Owen stands and pulls Callie to her feet along with him. “Come on. Let’s take you home.”
“Hold on,” she says, and scoops up all of the bottles, cradling them in her arms like the baby she will never be allowed to have. Some of the groupies must have left their ration bottles for her, because there’s a small stash of them by the door. Callie carefully collects them all and places them in an old hard-sided suitcase.
“More for the tub?” Owen asks.
“Do you have any grand plans for it, or–”
“Not particularly.” She knows she shouldn’t lie to her brother. They’ve never kept secrets from each other. But if he knew the thoughts she was entertaining, he’d try to stop her. And between full moons, the thoughts she entertained were all that kept her alive.
Owen gestures at the bulging suitcase and asks, “How are you going to get all of that through customs?”
Callie smiles for the first time in days. “Sometimes, it’s good to be a celebrity.”
She tries not to look out the window as the train makes the desolate journey from Providence to Albany, but she can’t help it. Her vision is magnetically drawn to the reality that so horrifies her. The solar-powered train races through ghost town after ghost town, empty buildings jutting starkly into the dusty sky, the tracks following a coast that no longer exists. Every so often, they get close enough to it that she can see what was once the seabed, and Callie bites back tears and turns away. Wasting water is not the way to mourn the oceans.
Her brother looks up from his reader and says, “It’s times like this that I understand the Angry Earthers.”
Callie clasps her scarred wrists tightly against her chest. “You can’t.”
Owen stares out the window as they pass through what was once New London. “I know there has to be a scientific explanation, but–”
“You just need to keep looking,” Callie says. “You’ll find it.”
Owen shakes his head and looks back down at his reader.
He can’t believe in the Angry Earth Theory. Not Owen. He’s a scientist. He can’t believe that the planet is a sentient being that’s trying to wipe out humanity by taking away all of the water. If even the scientists are entertaining such quasi-religious mumbo-jumbo, then what hope can people like her have?
Callie grabs his forearm with one thin-boned hand. “You’re just saying that, right?”
He opens his mouth, sighs, then says, “Of course I don’t believe that. The view…” He waves his hand at the window. “I just get depressed sometimes. We’ve been hitting some…snags on the project. It’s enough to make you believe in the supernatural.”
“We’ll get the water back.”
“Some day, yes.” He smiles at Callie, plucking her hand from his arm and clasping it tightly. “You just need to hang in there, sis. No more high tide melodrama, okay? I mean it this time.”
His smile fades. “Will you? Really?”
Callie nods and looks out the window again. She’ll try, but she can’t promise more than that.
The train turns north for Albany, and the desolation is magnified as they leave the corridor of cities. There is just wind-swept dust, stark terrain, and the occasional storm of debris as the clutter of the former oceans makes its way across land. Bleached-out bath toys bounce off of the train’s windows in a rubbery hail, and Callie shrinks back into her brother’s arms until the assault ends. And then there is nothing again. No trees, no farm houses, nothing but dust.
They pull into the Albany station, wait for the moisturelock to dock with the train, and debark onto the waiting solar bus. It takes them back to the Protectorate–a massive series of vapor-tight bunkers constructed when the water started to vanish. They are all that saved the people inside and their hoarded water from the thirsty masses. All water in the Protectorate is recycled, even the precious water in the air. Not a single puff of vapor is allowed to escape. At least, not on purpose. No system is perfect. Every year, just like in every other hab, a little more water is lost, and there is no way to replenish it.
Callie was born in the bunkers, just eleven minutes after her brother, just moments before the news reports that the very last of the water had vanished. By the time Callie was born, the riots had ended, the arsenals were empty, the governments had long collapsed, and not a creature outside the bunkered cities was left alive. Callie never had to learn to adjust to this dry world. As long as she can remember, she has known how to operate a moisturelock, how to monitor her water consumption to the milliliter, how to identify and repair breaches in the vapor systems, how to keep clean with sonics and chemical scrubs.
But it has never felt natural.
She has never understood why she is so profoundly tidal, why she feels the lost oceans with every cell of her body. Doctors have tried to write it off as depression, or an overactive imagination, or intense self-involvement, but she knows they’re all wrong. She is simply suffering from hydrophilia in the middle of a desert world.
“I’ve got a great video idea,” her manager is saying. She has him on linkup. “The Marianas Trench. You wouldn’t actually be there, of course. It’s too dangerous, never mind the fact that no one wants to see you sing in a still suit. But it’d be a hell of a backdrop for Undine, don’t you think?”
“Jeremy, no.” She glares at him from the sofa in her one-room apartment. It is a big room–a corner unit with small, high windows, luxurious for this impoverished world. Most people live in glorified cells clustered around water rationing stations. This is yet another perk of celebrity that she is happy to accept.
“Trust me, it’ll be perfect. You’ll need a new song for it, though.”
“Come on. You need to capitalize on your image. Think big, Callie. The fans will eat it up.”
She rises to her feet and advances to the screen. “I will not exploit the oceans!”
Jeremy stares at her as if she is a child. “Callie, you can’t exploit something that hasn’t existed for thirty years.”
Callie slaps down hard on the connection, and her manager is gone.
Her brother shuffles in from the sonics, his bathrobe tied loosely at his hips. Despite the green and blue tissue paper she’s put over the windows, Owen looks golden in the diffuse sunlight. He must have gotten all of the beauty that was available in their mother’s womb. She, at thirty, has already been gifted with salt-and-pepper hair, and her skin is so pale that her veins stand out on it like marble. Of course, she might not be so translucent if she didn’t keep bleeding herself.
“Who was that?” Owen asks.
Callie wraps her arms around herself and tries to rub some warmth into her body. “Oh, just Jeremy.”
“You need a new manager. I don’t trust that man. He treats you like a commodity, not an artist.”
“There aren’t a lot of managers to choose from, and he’s got all the right connections.”
“There has to be someone else. Tell you what, I’ll do a little digging on the trip back to the university and see what I can come up with, okay?”
Callie nods, but knows he’ll fail. They do not live in a time that can support much in the way of celebrity, and the number of good agents who can make a living representing them is correspondingly small. “Do you have to go back so soon?” she asks, and tucks cold hands into her armpits. It’s impossible to get warm the first few days after she bleeds.
He shrugs. “Sorry. Work calls.” He actually looks guilty.
“Hey, don’t do that,” she says. “No guilt. You’re doing–”
“–important work. Yes, I know.” He looks down at his bare feet. “I’m sure we’ll figure it out any day now.”
“Any day now,” she parrots. If only she could believe that they were that close. If only they’d gotten far enough to announce a launch date. Then she’d have something concrete to hold onto. Then she’d have a reason to want to live through the next high tide. “I just wish your schedule weren’t so inflexible.”
He looks back up at her and shrugs. “That’s why they pay me the big bucks.”
“Oh please. If they really wanted to pay you what you’re worth, they’d give you that breeding license you’ve always wanted. You know, should find someone to settle down with so you can get started as soon as you get the okay.”
He grimaces, quickly turning it into a fake smile. “Hey, what can you do?” he says. She can tell she’s hit a nerve. Owen has wanted children his whole life. It must be killing him to have made it to thirty without a license. She’s sure he’ll get approved as soon as he finds a partner. He’s educated, employed, and painfully stable.
“Sorry,” she mumbles. “I shouldn’t–”
“No, that’s okay.” He shifts his weight, and in a strained voice, says, “You know, you should take your own advice. I know you don’t want kids, but you’d be so much happier if you weren’t alone here so much of the time.”
She shrugs and shoots him an awkward grin. “Oh, you know me. I’ve never been much for pairing up.”
“That’s because you’ve never tried. Give it a shot sometime. You just might like it.”
“Owen, I appreciate the concern, but seriously, I couldn’t.”
“You don’t know that.”
“Owen, please. Drop it. Okay?”
“Absolutely not.” He steps forward with an odd intensity to his gaze. “Callie, think about it, maybe you wouldn’t want to kill yourself if you weren’t alone. Maybe you just need someone who loves you.”
“I thought you loved me,” she snaps.
He looks wounded. In a small voice, he says, “You know what I mean.”
She hates seeing him this way. But he brought it on himself. He should know better by now. “Look, if you’re so worried, I could come live with you in Stonybrook.”
“I told you, it’s almost impossible to get a visitor’s visa, never mind to get approved for residency. If you were a scientist, it would be one thing–”
“But I’m family, Owen.”
“I already have–” A strange expression crosses Owen’s face. If Callie didn’t know better, she’d think it was panic.
It quickly vanishes, and he raises his hands and says, “Forget it. I’m sorry I brought it up.” He turns and pads barefoot behind the partition that gives his guest bed a modicum of privacy, and from the faint shadow he casts, Callie sees him getting dressed. Twin or not, she feels it’s an invasion of privacy to keep watching, so she turns away to face the only other love in her life.
Callie rubs one thin-boned hand across her face and stares across her apartment to the centerpiece of her decor–the large, claw-footed tub surrounded on three sides by gauzy turquoise curtains. She drifts over, looking down at all the water offerings snug inside their bottles in the smooth porcelain bowl. If she were to pour them all in now, she would have three, maybe four inches of water.
She hears the latches snapping shut on her brother’s suitcase and feels a shudder run through her body. He’s right. She’ll never make it alone.
But she has to try.
The next full moon comes, and this time she’s in Toronto. Her brother is at her side at all times, leaving her only when she walks alone onstage and becomes Undine for her fans. Callie has written a new song for this concert. She fingers the keys of her mixer, calling up the echoing whale cry that forms the backdrop of the piece. Sea otter chatter fades in, providing the beat, and she layers in the delicate sound of bubbles to add a subtle texture to the sonic wall.
Only then does she open her mouth and let the floods come pouring out.
Every cell in her body offers up its water. She can taste the brine of the sea as the words flow out of her, crashing against the wall of fans, and washing back over her like a baptism. The slush of blood in her ears is the rhythm of the lost seas, and she can feel it echoed in every single person in the room. They are creatures of water. It makes up three quarters of their bodies. Not even the Angry Earth can take that away from them, no matter how badly it wants to punish them for their crimes.
When the concert is over, she has collected so much more water from her generous fans.
She loves them all. They have no idea how much they’re helping her.
“I have to go back to work. Are you sure you’ll be okay?”
“I’ll be fine,” she says. She holds her wrists out as proof. “See? I made it through a full moon.”
“That’s because I was there.”
“And you’ll be back next full moon.”
“I should be. The timing might be tricky, but I’ll do everything I can to make it.”
“Good, good.” She looks down at the suitcase, then to his feet. Owen’s shoes are old and badly scuffed. Most people’s shoes are old, as are their clothes. Because there’s no manufacturing, goods are strictly rationed, and reused whenever possible. All of Callie’s wigs and costumes and paints were made before the earth went dry. They were scavenged from what was left in abandoned stores and houses in the land outside. When the makeup runs out, Undine will need to perform barefaced, if she’s even still alive by then.
Hopefully, she will have collected enough water before that happens.
“I wish you could stay here,” she sighs.
He takes her hands in his. “My work’s important.”
“I know, but if you could just live here and commute to Stonybrook every day–”
“But I–” He breaks off, his brows drawn in a tight line. “I mean, seriously, that kind of travel is a luxury. It’s hard enough for me to justify coming to see you as often as I do. If you weren’t alone…” He trails off and looks down at his scuffed shoes.
“Oh,” Callie says, and drops frozen hands to her sides. “So that’s why you want me to find someone.”
“It’s not like that. I just…” He looks up at her with his sandy brown eyes. “It’s a lot of responsibility, being your only companion.”
“But you’re my brother. My twin.”
“Please, Callie,” he begs. “Please. You need friends. I can’t be everything for you.”
She sniffs wetly, sucking her moisture back into her body, and picks up his bag. “You’ll be late,” she says, and hands it to him.
“Callie…” He sighs, takes the bag, and holds it limply at his side. “I’ll see you next month.”
Celebrity doesn’t keep Callie from the work rotations, although it does let her opt out of some of the chores that most other people have to do. She can’t deal with aeroponics duty. Seeing plants growing with so little water makes her weep. She is too weak to handle recycling, and hasn’t had enough schooling to handle the complexities of the water processing plant. The Protectorate has seen fit to remove her from water distribution duties, as it is well-known that fans will hand their rations right back to her, and it is not in the Protectorate’s best interests to have dehydrated citizens on work rotation.
This week, they have her on wall duty. She begs to get out of it, but they say she’s been granted too many exemptions as it is. So she bites back tears as she straps herself into her hated still suit in the locker room, trying to ignore the stares from her fellow workers.
Her boss is not amused.
“I know who you are,” she sneers. “You’re not getting special treatment.”
“I didn’t ask for any.”
“And don’t even think about trying.”
They walk through a series of moisturelocks, and then they are outside, a rain of dust and pebbles bouncing off of their suits, creating a soundtrack of pings and pops. Layered in behind that is the constant hum of the wind farm rotors, endlessly spinning to keep the city alive. It would be musical if Callie didn’t find it so abhorrent.
Over the suit’s intercom, the boss says, “They tell me you’re not much good for climbing.”
She hits the reply switch on her arm and says, “I’m not very strong.”
“You’d be stronger if you didn’t spend so much time whining about things you can’t change.”
Callie literally bites her tongue.
The boss waves her toward the nearest wall segment, a block six feet high and twenty feet wide, outlined in well-worn paint, with “A-27” barely visible in the center. There is a ladder leading up to the catwalk for B-27 directly above it, and above that, C-27 and its catwalk, then the roof. “That’s yours,” she says. “Report back when you’re done and I’ll get you started on another segment.”
The woman walks away, and Callie rests her helmet against the wall, closing her eyes to the nightmare around her, trying to ignore the pings and pops and whirs that fill her ears. The Angry Earthers can’t be right. There has to be an explanation. Otherwise, all the water the rockets bring back will just vanish, and nothing will change.
Callie startles at the bark over her intercom.
Her boss is staring at her from several yards away, arms crossed. “No swooning. This is work, not a Victorian fainting couch. Now get your ass in gear.”
As her boss turns away, she leaves the intercom on long enough for Callie to hear her grumble, “God damned whiners.”
“I’m not whining!” Callie snaps. “I’m in pain.”
She hears a laugh over the intercom, and the woman turns on her heel, raising a small cloud of dust. “Oh, really? And what makes you so special?”
“Because I can still feel the water. And it hurts.”
Her boss storms forward. “You have no idea, do you, little girl? You’re just a spoiled brat who has no clue.”
“I grew up in Gloucester. You know where that is? It’s right on the Atlantic coast. My father was a fisherman. The ocean was my goddamned backyard, and I got to watch it dry up with my own two eyes. From what I hear, you’ve never seen so much as a puddle.”
Callie’s vision swims with tears, and she reaches a trembling hand out toward the other woman.
Her boss slaps it away. “You disgust me. You’ve made a career out of wallowing in misery over something you can’t possibly miss, when people like me who have every right to be basket cases are doing just fine. If I can adjust, then I don’t know what the hell your problem is.” She looks Callie up and down, then says, “Now get to work.”
The boss stands and watches until Callie blinks her eyes dry enough to see the gauges on her meter and begins scanning for tiny vapor breaches in her section of the wall. She finds one, outlines it in chalk, then scans for more.
When the lunch break comes, Callie is too upset to eat. She cannot look at her boss without struggling to hold back tears. This woman knew the oceans. Her family made its livelihood on the oceans. She watched the oceans disappear.
Callie barely makes it through the rest of her shift.
When it is over, she races home and stares at her tub, at the collection of water bottles, and tries to imagine yet again what it would be like to have all that water touching her body. How can her brother expect her to seek out companionship when the only lover she’s ever wanted is lying right here in front of her?
She picks up one of the bottles and feels how fragile the plastic is in her bony grasp. The water in the cells of her palm screams out to the water trapped behind the plastic, swelling up towards it in its own rude tide. What would it feel like to splash a tiny amount on her skin? She can spare one bottle, can’t she?
But she pries her fingers open and forces herself to drop it into the tub again. Every tiny bit counts. Every drop is precious.
She sinks to the floor and starts shaking. To be so close to all this water and not be able to touch it, to let it wash over her like the floods that once scoured the earth, carving the land with its infinite patience and slow hand… She can’t take it any longer.
But it’s too soon. Too soon. She has to wait until she has enough.
Maybe she can stay with her brother until the concert. He’ll help her hang on. She should have enough water once it’s over. She can get Jeremy to help her cut through the immigration red tape if it’s as difficult as Owen says it is. She links to the Stonybrook hub and looks up visiting information so she can forward it to her manager.
Hmm. They must have changed the rules since her brother last checked them, because it looks like it’ll be no trouble at all for her to get a two-week visa, so long as she brings her own water with her.
Callie switches on the linkup and calls Owen to tell him the good news.
A woman’s face fills the screen, broad and tan. “Yes?”
Callie double-checks the IP. “I was expecting Owen,” she says.
“He’s on volunteer rotation right now. Is this his sister?”
“Yes, but who are you?”
The woman blinks and cocks her head to the side. “He didn’t tell you?”
“He’s my brother. He tells me everything.”
The woman’s expression darkens, and her full lips twist up into a tight knot. “He told me he was finally going to come clean with you on his last visit. I wouldn’t have picked up the link otherwise.”
Callie leans forward, betrayal boiling through her veins. “Look, you’d better tell me who you are, or I’m going to tell the authorities that someone has broken into my brother’s apartment.”
“I’m Marina. His wife. Your sister-in-law.”
Callie’s entire body goes numb, and she falls back into her chair, unable to summon up the will to move. “Wife,” she whispers.
Marina leans back and runs a hand over her swollen belly. “The babies are due in a few weeks. Apparently, twins run in the family. I can’t believe he didn’t tell you.”
Callie’s insides twist into complicated knots. “He never…he never…”
“I never wanted him to hide this, but he said it would kill you to know that you were alone when he wasn’t. So he kept it from you. I don’t know what good he thought that would do, but I suppose it’s a twin thing.” She gazes down at her belly with a ghost of a smile. “I guess I should get used to it.”
“You’re lying,” Callie says, and finds the strength to rise to her feet. “You’re lying. My brother would never hide anything from me. He’d never keep a secret like this.”
Marina raises one eyebrow. “Well obviously, he did.”
Callie doesn’t want to hear anymore. She slams the connection shut, blocks her brother’s IP, and calls Jeremy. “I want to play a concert tonight. Here, in Albany. For free.”
“Done,” he says.
And it’s Undine’s best show ever. The music rips from her, tearing her vocal chords in its mad attempt to escape into the world. There is blood flecking her lips before long. New songs spring unbidden from the deepest wells of her soul and drench the audience to the bone. She combines sounds from the mixer at random, creating a cacophony of noise that her voice cuts through with the precision of a cutter drilling for the deepest veins. They will talk about this concert for years, and not just because of what’s to come afterwards.
When she’s done, she finally has enough water for her bath.
Callie can’t get back to the apartment fast enough. Should she warm the water? No, then she’d lose some as steam. She needs every drop, every precious drop. With surprisingly steady hands, Callie pours each bottle into the claw-footed tub. When she is done, there is over a foot of water waiting for her.
She’d hoped for more, but she can’t wait any longer.
Callie peels off her clothes, and dips her toe in.
The freezing water laps at her skin, and she shivers.
Bit by bit, she lowers herself into the frigid pool, her skin breaking into furious goose bumps. But she doesn’t care. She is lost, adrift, caressed in ways that she had never dreamed possible. So this is what it’s like to be swaddled in the very stuff of the womb. She is completely surrounded, touched from all sides, tickled, smoothed.
Tears pour down Callie’s face, her own water becoming part of the bath.
She hears a hammering at the door. “Callie? Callie! Let me in!”
She’s surprised he managed to get here so quickly. She’s surprised that after what he’s done to her, that he still cares. How long until he gives up and fishes out his key? Perhaps she should have bolted the door. Too late now. She’s never getting out of this tub.
“I never should have lied to you, Callie,” he yells. “I didn’t think you could take it, and that was wrong of me. We’re not supposed to hide things from each other.”
But that’s all right, because Callie has hidden this from him.
She hears the jingle of keys, and smiles. It’s time.
She slides under the water, submerging her face, takes in a deep breath, and surrenders to the flood.
And it burns.
Her lungs scream and work to expel the fluid, and Callie claws at the sides of the tub, willing herself to stay under. Why is her body fighting this? She coughs, and struggles to suck in another deep breath of water. Her legs kick out violently, and one of her toes cracks against the porcelain, the pain sharp and fresh. Drowning is supposed to be peaceful. This is how she is supposed to die. It’s not supposed to hurt. The water is supposed to welcome her home.
But the water refuses.
It sloshes behind her in a wave, rising, heaving her out of the tub, and Callie lands on the cold, wood floor, struggling to cough out great lungfuls of water just as her brother bursts in. “Oh my god!” he screams, and runs towards her.
And runs past her.
He rips down the gauzy turquoise curtains from around the tub and starts desperately trying to sop up all the spilled and vomited water. When the curtains won’t absorb any more, he tosses the sodden mass in the tub, grabs Callie’s bedspread, and throws it over her. “Look at all the water you’ve wasted! What were you thinking?”
Callie shoves him away and struggles naked to her feet. She staggers away, limping on her broken toe, trailing water behind her, and he pulls off his sweater and tries to mop it up. In a hoarse croak, she says, “Your concern is touching.”
He grabs her roughly by the arms and says, “You of all people should know better, Callie. You don’t waste water like that. You just don’t.”
“What do you care? You’ll get more with your rockets.”
“There are no rockets. There are never going to be any rockets.”
She stops trying to struggle free of his grasp and stares up at him. “What do you mean?”
He drops his sweater at her feet, and she drips on it. “Do you really think we’ll live long enough to build rockets? We’ve made no progress, Callie. None. All those times I said I was busy working? They weren’t work. They were Marina.”
He looks at her for some reaction, but she has none.
“Actually, that’s not strictly true,” he says. “At first, it was work. But lately…” He turns away, his shoulders sagging inside his worn cotton t-shirt. “We’ve tried everything. Everything, Callie. We don’t even bother going into the office anymore unless one of us manages to come up with a new idea, and even then, it never takes long for one of us to shoot it down.”
He lets out a long breath and sinks down to the floor, staring up at Callie with the most hopeless expression she’s ever seen. “Callie…we haven’t even figured out how to make a sock without wasting water. There’s no way we’ll ever build a rocket ship. This whole project’s just a…a stupid pipe dream conjured up by idiots like me who can’t accept the fact that the human race is doomed.”
She looks down at him, and is surprised at how little emotion she feels. “How long do we have?”
“At this rate? Maybe a hundred years. I don’t know. I mean, we can’t even make a truly leak-proof hab–”
“But you’re having babies, Owen. Babies. You have to have some hope.”
Owen shudders and buries his face in his hands. “I’m a selfish fool, Callie.”
She stares at the tub, at the trail of water she’s left behind her, and looks down at the slick coating still glistening on her body.
The water rejected her.
Callie ignores her brother’s sobs and limps to the sonics and stands under them until her skin is crisp and dry again. Then she walks back out and stares at the slick trail leading to the tub, where her brother is slumped in a cross-legged heap.
Owen looks up at her with puffy, red eyes. “We can cover this up somehow. We don’t need to tell anyone.”
She cocks her head to the side, staring at the tub appraisingly.
The water didn’t want her.
Then what did it want?
She pads barefoot over the slick and hisses as the water touches the soles of her feet. It feels…
It feels angry.
She stares down at the damp patch under her feet and finally understands. Unless the human race cleans up its mess, unless it finds some way to atone for its sins, they will die. The planet has issued its ultimatum. It is time to answer it.
The water has always been trying to speak to her. She just hasn’t been listening properly. And she is in a unique position to do something about it.
She opens a link to Jeremy. “Cancel Baton Rouge. Can you physically get me to the Marianas Trench?”
He shakes his head. “It’s too unstable. The best we can do is file footage.”
“No, file footage is no good. I need to actually be there. Niagara Falls is close. We’ll do that instead.”
“A new video?”
“No, a concert.”
“We can’t get an audience out there.”
“It’ll be an online concert.”
“Got it. I’ll start getting word out.”
“And I won’t be playing as Undine.”
“Interesting,” he says. “What’s the deal? A new persona? Or do you want to go by your own name now?”
She switches off the connection and turns to her brother. “Go back to your family.”
“I have a concert to prepare for.”
He gestures to the tub. “But the water–”
“Will be taken care of.”
When he’s gone, she calls the recycling center and reports herself for water wastage. Since she wasted her own water and not the community’s, it’s only a misdemeanor, and she pays the hefty fine gladly. A team scours her apartment for hours, sucking up every last drop.
And then she prepares.
Two weeks later, she is standing in her still suit at the base of what was once Niagara Falls. Her costume trunks are scattered around her, all lidded tight.
It is time.
She nods, and the director activates the ring of lights and cameras.
Callie calls up the sound of wind over a sand dune on her mixer, adds in the drone of a wind farm and the clatter of pebbles, and tries to imagine the faces of her online audience. Even though they are all miles and miles away, she can feel the puzzlement radiating off of them like the heat of a desert wind.
Soon, they’ll understand.
The roadies set the trunks aflame, sacrificing the remnants of Undine to the Angry Earth, paving way for Sirocco.
And as Sirocco, she opens her mouth and sings of sand, no longer mourning a world long past, the prophet of this new earth and its new way of life.
Jennifer Pelland is a Boston-area writer whose fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons, Apex Digest, Tales of the Unanticipated, and Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine. Not content to simply hide behind the keyboard, she also hides behind a microphone by doing voice work in local radio plays whenever she gets a chance. Visit her web site at www.jenniferpelland.com to learn more.
Art Director: Bonnie Brunish