Maris woke before the sun, she tied her hair with leather and wrapped her body with water wicking. The tight-fitting fabric repelled water and protected skin against scrapes from corals and rusted metal. It was a luxury she couldn’t afford but diving was impossible without it. It was the only thing she owned, and she had borrowed money from the Gillen to buy it. She’d managed to put off repayment for three months but it was getting harder every day.
One pearl. All it would take is one pearl and the whole world would change.
She padded barefoot out the door and into the chill of the morning.
“You’re going down again, aren’t you?”
Maris froze, still just feet from the house. Her grandmother was standing in the crooked doorway. She turned, doing her best to look confident.
“Just one more time,” Maris said.
“That’s what you said the last five times.”
“I mean it. I was so close, nana, I could feel it.”
“What you were close to was the wrong end of a Grupnik’s stomach! Or the teeth of a Gnasher! I can’t bear to lose you like I lost your mother. Please, come back inside! We can manage well enough without-”
“Nana, look up there,” Maris said, pointing to the city, to the torches that lit the streets, to the trees and houses with painted, square walls. The slums stretched around the city in every direction, falling away like the sides of a mountain. People lived in old shipping containers, in broken-down trucks or tents or anything that could keep the storms off. The shack Maris and her grandmother lived in had been built by Maris’s father some ten years ago. One wall was an old shipping container and the other was bricks piled up and sealed with crumbly sand that needed replacing every season. The roof was plastic and prone to leaks that Maris would seal with tree sap and whatever cloth she could find.
“I’m going to buy you a proper home, Nana. With rooms and walls and a servant to cook you beet stew for breakfast just the way you like it.”
“Please, Maris. You’re all I have. I can’t lose that.”
Maris stepped up and kissed her grandmother on the cheek. “You won’t lose me. I’ll be back. With a pearl.”
She hurried away before her grandmother could object further. She couldn’t bear to see her nana like that, had to put it out of her mind. Had to concentrate. A pearl. Everything depended on that.
She had never held one, obviously, but the stories said that if you held a pearl your sense would sharpen, you could move objects with a thought, you could flick your wrist and produce a gale that could topple the strongest tower.
After the world had flooded, the pearls had been discovered at the bottom of the sea. No one knew where they came from, but Maris thought it was the world trying to heal itself, trying to banish the flood and restore the dream of dry land. And not the fake land constructed on top of the piled-up buildings, the barricades of garbage that had turned into islands after the floods. But real dry land with dirt that went down more than the few feet required for crops.
Maris made one stop on the way to the water. It was a strange vehicle from the old world – with the normal cabin for driving on one side but also a silver window that could open up one of the sides. Bright pictures of sweet treats had once decorated the side but they’d long since faded and rusted.
A moment after she knocked the silver window slid open, just as Nickolai had told her it would, no matter the hour.
“I’m here for dust,” Maris said. “I know you have some.”
The silver window started to close but Maris stopped it with her hand.
“Please.” She said. “I’m out of time.”
“And what have you got to pay the seven hundred with, girl?” The vendor grumbled.
“I will pay the debt within a week and leave as collateral a bond of service,” Maris said, just as she had rehearsed. “Ten years. Seven hundred”
The man squinted at her, and then sniffed and then looked aside.
“You know what you’re offering.”
“You know what happens to bond jumpers?”
Maris shivered, remembering the very public, very violent displays.
He smirked and produced a paper from somewhere inside. He started writing.
“Pearl divers are the worst sort of investment, aren’t they. But I have a soft spot for lost causes. Here. Sign.” He held the contract for her to read and then sign and she did so, not thinking too hard. In a few hours, she’d have a pearl and it wouldn’t matter.
“Very well.” He smirked at her name. “Maris. You have seven days to pay the debt or the collectors will come for you.” He held out a small vial. Inside shimmered with blue and green and gold. She grabbed it and hid it in her palm as if were it seen, it could be taken from her.
She stepped over an old tank – a moving canon that countries had used to kill other countries. with its gun pointed up at the sky and then under a swing set that had no swings and then she saw the sea. She could smell it, the salt-tang-stink of fish and chemicals and the monsters that had emerged after the floods.
She started running then. Not out of haste, but out of fear. Fear of the tides, fear of the gnashers, fear that she’d never see her nana again, fear that she’d fail, and fail, and fail again and end up diving for old metal to build upper city mansions.
And then she was at the edge of the slums and her fear hardened into something deadly. Something that could level this world if given time to take root.
Her slums and its city at its crown had been built on top of layers of the old world. When the waters rose, people had started to build on top of old buildings, piled up used vehicles and old cinder blocks, and built on top of them. And then people built on top of them, and so on until the waters had stopped rising. They had managed to smooth out much of the surface, adding a layer of dirt on top of the broken buildings and rusted metal.
The edge of the slums was a straight shot down into the plunging sea. Maris had been diving this spot for months. She knew there was a pearl down there. She could feel it. This time she’d find it.
She unstoppered the vial of dust and held it up to her nose to inhale. The dust was residue from pearls after they were used up. It was nothing like a real pearl but would give her just an edge, a bit of speed, a bit more time under the water.
Instantly, she felt warm and anxious. Like she had forgotten to do her chores and realized there wasn’t time before nana came home. And the light was brighter and warmer and the prickle on her bare arms was a delight she’d never noticed before.
But time was wasting. She nodded to herself and set her jaw. She took three breaths the way Nickolai had taught her. Not too deep, not too shallow, purposeful and strong.
And then she leaped off the edge of the world to find her pearl.
© 2021, Aaron Zimmerman. All rights reserved.