It had taken her three days to reach open sea. Having departed from Utrecht, she first had to sail across the sunken province of Zuid-Holland and navigate the perilous region called Rotterdam. Before the storms, people told her, Rotterdam had been a great city — the largest port in Europe. Now, most of it lurked below the surface, it’s many tendrils ready to tear at the boat of any sailor not familiar enough with these waters. High-rises from the old city center now served as mere signposts — battered husks patiently waiting for the salt to gnaw through their support beams until they too would be allowed to crumble into the murk.
But all of that was behind her now. Nea trimmed the sails, set a course due west and then relinquished control to Django. Depending on the will of the wind, it would be a day or two until she reached the fishing grounds. She tossed the ragged length of cloth that served as her pareo down the hatch and stepped away from the cockpit. The wind played with her full head of curls as she tiptoed the deck around the cabin. Her body was wiry and catlike, ideal for climbing into masts and traversing the many narrow spaces in and around the boat. Her hands hovered above the railing, confident enough to not have to grab hold, but keeping the rails nearby — just in case.
On the prow, Nea leaned far into the pulpit to let the ocean spray wash over her. November was the best time to be out. The blistering heat of summer faded and yet the sea water hadn’t cooled to the point where getting wet makes you shiver.
“I could adjust our course a little to keep you dry up there”, said Django from a speaker.
“I’m good” she replied. “In fact, do the opposite! Make me eat waves.”
“Are you sure?”
A smirk formed on her face.
“Yes, of course I am sure!”
Nea’s hands clasped down hard on the railing as the boat suddenly lurched. The bow plunged down and crashed into a big wave. She emerged from it barely holding on, but giddy with joy. Soaking wet she stepped from the bow onto the cabin roof where she laid down on the sunny side. Boats are useful creatures, she thought, but for all their time spent in the water they don’t understand the first thing of it. “Django,” she intoned, “please wake me when we’re there.” She closed her eyes, savoring the salt and the warmth on her skin.
As the night fell, she climbed down the hatch. Inside the cabin, she kicked the pareo into a corner and stepped into the little galley. She fried two eggs and roasted some toast. Eggs and toast, eggs and toast — it’s what she ate on these trips. Eggs and toast and what little fruit and vegetables she had left. She’d eat better whenever she brought home a good haul. Fresh fish — as fresh as fish could be after a week in the hold — sold for a decent amount of credits on the markets.
Most months, she earned more than enough to pay for the upkeep of her boat and the docking fees that allowed her access to the port of Utrecht. December and January were often the fattest months, since so few of the fishermen were prepared to brave the freezing waters to catch their catch. Nea didn’t mind. Not as long as she could don a wetsuit and jump in with a winch line tied to her ankle. Django could always pull her out.
There were leaner months too. Summer, when the fish swam nearer to the coast and people went out in smaller boats to do their own fishing. In those months, she anchored her ship half a mile from the coast and swam to shore every day to work in her mother’s chicken farm. Nea disliked being on land, but that was the price she paid for her year-round supply of eggs and toast.
After dinner, Nea crawled into the front cabin. A custom made bed filled the entirety of the triangle shaped space. The entrance was tall enough that she could sit, but the roof angled down towards the bow leaving just enough room for her to lie down at the other end of the bed. The bed covers were propped up against a porthole on the starboard side and her pillow blocked the one on port. Nea let herself keel over and soon was sound asleep, feet sticking out into the main cabin.
Django woke her an hour before dawn. Nea liked to go in early, before the blazing sun would drive the fish deeper. She chomped down some leftover toast while she grabbed her prod and net. Nea’s method of fishing wasn’t the most elegant, but it got the job done. She dove from the stern, holding the prod in her right hand like a spear, dragging the net along with her left. Powerful kicks from her legs propelled her down six, seven, eight meters and sometimes more. As soon as Nea eyed some fish, she zapped them with her prod, scooped them up with the net and swerved back up.
Breaking through the surface, she let herself drift for a while as she caught her breath. Then she swam to her boat and dunked the net on the rear deck. Nea climbed aboard and hauled the net to the little hold on the front. She probably had four or five dives left before she’d exhaust herself. With a little luck, that would be enough to make the trip worthwhile. Nea flitted back along the narrow deck, scooped up her gear and dove to her second catch.
On the third dive, she stabbed the prod the wrong way, wasting it’s jolt. The fish she intended to catch just scuttled away. She trashed her way back to the surface and flung the stupid stick at the first thing she saw.
“Hey! Watch the paintwork!” Django howled.
Nea slashed her way to the ladder hanging off the back of the boat and hoisted herself aboard. Her hold was only a third of the way full, it should have been at least half by now. She paced around the deck, feeling her legs. Would she be able to dive four times more? Should she spare herself and try again tomorrow. Was there enough toast? What the heck was that?
Something was floating in the water, only a few feet from the boat. It was a black thing with pale ligaments and… was that hair? “Django,” she said, “we have a drifter.” Nea jumped overboard and with quick strokes propelled herself to the body. Once she was near enough, she turned the body over on its back to get the face out of the water. It was a boy, no more than twelve years old. He was dressed in an intricately patterned obsidian wetsuit. The boy’s bare hands and feet had paper white skin strewn with blue veins. How did he get here? Where did he come from? Nea couldn’t feel a pulse, but dragged the body back to her boat anyway. Django had dropped a winch line with a buoy into the water, ready to haul the boy aboard.
When Nea made her way back on board, the boy was already lying flat on the cabin roof, exactly where she had basked in the sun the day before. “Is he dead” she asked, not really expecting an answer. Of course he was dead. Nea kneeled down beside the boy and once again took his pulse. Nothing. She examined the body more closely. The skin was really very pale. She had heard of albinism, but had never met anyone with the affliction. Was this what it looked like? No, it couldn’t be that — the boy had brown hair. Nea traced a finger along the patterns on the suit. It was some kind of wiring. What was it for?
The longer she looked at him, the more questions rose. Many question she would probably never find the answer to. The most pertinent question, however, was a very pragmatic one: what to do with him? Sailing into port with a dead body wasn’t a good look, Nea thought. Best to give the boy back to the sea. It would be a shame to waste the suit, though. Nea rolled the boy over, expecting to find a zipper on his back. Water spilled from the boy’s mouth as he flopped on his belly. No zipper. Nea felt around the back of the suit. Maybe there’d be some kind of flap or lip to pull it open. When she couldn’t find any way to open the suit from this side, she rolled the body back the other way. As she did so, an arm shot up and grabbed her.
“Help me,” the boy croaked.