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Battening Down
(old version)



Two meters or so beneath the surface, Reber darted through the sun-dappled water as if she'd been born to it — as, in many ways, she had. The filmy breathing mask across her mouth and nose filtered oxygen out of the water, as seamlessly as if she were on dry land. In the water's embrace, her whole body was a sensory organ, the ebb and flow of the ocean alerting her to obstacles before she encountered them. Slim fingers, their sensitivity dulled only slightly by the gloves she wore to protect herself from sharp edges of coral and stings of sea creatures, danced over the shallow coral bed beneath her. With all of her short lifetime's skill, she quickly sorted economically viable shells from the worthless, but beautiful, sea flora and fauna around them, dropping her catch into the carrybag around her neck.

She was so engaged in her task that she didn't notice the vibration of the beacon at her hip until she looked around and saw a flashing red light blinking through the water from one of the other children swimming near her. Then she looked down at the matching light on her own belt, and tapped the button to indicate receipt of the message. Waving her arms, she got her brother's attention and then signaled in the divers' sign language: Surface. Gather. Wait for me.

After rounding up her other scattered siblings — the curse of the eldest-born — she herded them to the surface and broke into the open air. Hooking a finger over the top of her breathing mask, she pulled it down so that she could speak. "Mum and Dad are calling us in."

"Race you to the boat!" came her youngest brother's immediate response, and he was away, with a flash of the fins strapped to his feet.

Moments later, breathless and laughing, the four children pulled themselves over the edge of the Lady's deck. Reber sat on the edge of the deck, dangling her feet in the water while she unstrapped her fins. As always, she felt clumsy and heavy, a mermaid trapped on dry land and forced to relearn how to stand in gravity once again.

Their mother swung down from the roof of the steering cabin, little Cat held in one arm. "I've been signaling you guys for twenty minutes."

"I'm sorry, Mumma. We found a good diving ground."

Her mother tapped the satellite uplink clipped to her ear. "Well, we're going to have to come back to it later. We need you kids' help, battening for a dive."

"Storm?" Reber asked, looking around and noticing, for the first time, the wall of dark clouds along the eastern horizon. Now that she paid attention to it, the chill breeze sweeping over her wet body made her shiver.

"Bad one, according to the weather reports." Her mother set down Cat and clipped the tether to the toddler's harness so that she had her hands free; she began gathering floaty-toys off the deck. "Ree-Ree, set a beacon. The rest of you, help me out here."

Reber stuck out her tongue at her siblings. Being the eldest was a giant pain much of the time, but sometimes rank hath its privileges; she'd much rather swim back out to the coral reef than fuss with the gruntwork of battening the boat. She checked her belt to make sure the case of beacons was clipped there — they broadcast the Lady's call sign and would let other diver boats know that this coral bed was already surveyed and spoken for. Then she reclaimed her fins, settled her breathing mask over her nose and rolled backwards into the water, letting it close above her head.

By the time she planted the beacon and got back to the boat, the Lady was battened down: horticulture tanks were sealed, fishnets had been reeled in, sensory antennae were folded down, the line of laundry that had been snapping in the freshening breeze was being carried belowdecks. As the boat began to roll in heavy, storm-driven swells, Reber joined her little siblings in a quick sweep for any toys or personal items that had been overlooked; she rescued a hairbrush and one of Cat's dolls from an ignominious watery grave.

"All good?" her father asked, poking his head out of the Lady's steering cabin.

Reber cast a last look around. "Looks like it to me, sir."

"All hands below, then." He ducked back inside, and Reber herded the little ones down the aft hatch, sealing it behind them.

The little kids raced off immediately to the ladder leading up to the steering cabin; at that age, the ship's infrequent dives were still a marvelous change from routine. Reber rolled her eyes and headed in the opposite direction for the small cabin that she shared with her sisters. She remembered when she, too, had plastered her hands against the cabin's portholes, staring in wonder as the ship broke through the skin of the ocean and sank into its depths. These days, though, if you'd seen one dive you'd seen 'em all. A big storm like Mumma had mentioned would probably mean a day or two undersea, at least, and she wanted to take advantage of the temporary privacy while the others were preoccupied with the dive. In the close confines of the boat, it was virtually impossible to find time to herself, and this would only get worse while they were all stuck underwater.

She passed Mumma going in the other direction, both arms overflowing with folders and papers. Cat toddled along behind on her tether. "Hey there, guppy," Reber said, ruffling her baby sister's curls.

"Oh, Ree, there you are. I thought you'd be up top." Looking distracted and tired, her mother unclipped the tether and handed the end to Reber. "Watch your sister for a while? I need to go over the account books and Catti's underfoot."

"Of course," Reber sighed, "because it's not like I have anything better to do." She scooped up the child and then staggered as the deck tilted underfoot, shifting her weight to catch herself. Through her bare feet, she could feel the slight vibration of the engines changing pitch as they dove.

"Ree-Ree, is it too much to ask that you help out on the boat occasionally? You don't have to go out with them every time, you know. Your brothers and sister are getting old enough to take on more of the diving."

"Yes, Mum." In all honestly, she wasn't nearly as fond of the diving as she'd once been. It was becoming a chore, and she hated the way that constant immersion left her hair limp and lifeless. Of course, it wasn't as if there were any boys in the middle of the ocean to notice her bad hair days, and given the choice between spending her time in the water or being stuck on the boat with Mumma and Cat ...

Her mother was still speaking. "—and while we're undersea is the perfect time for all of you to catch up on lessons. When your brothers and sister come below, could you please download the latest lesson plans from the uplink? And make sure that Gandrey practices her Swahili vocabulary words. Her test scores are slipping."

"Yes, Mumma."

Letting down a squirmy Cat, Reber clipped the tether to her belt and headed for the girls' cabin at the end of the hall. Unsealing the door, she moaned under her breath when she discovered — unsurprisingly — that the younger kids' idea of cleaning up the deck had been to gather all of Cat's outside toys and dump them in a big pile in the middle of the floor.

Cat squeaked happily and scampered over to the toys. Well, no point in picking up if they'd just all get pulled back out again. And a busy Cat was a quiet Cat.

Reber sealed the door, but left the tether fastened — how many times had Mumma drilled into them It only takes a moment's inattention and then your little sister will be unsealing the airlocks and we'll all drown! — and wandered over to the window. Dad had taken them deep; the water outside the porthole was a muted, murky blue. Something quick and glowing darted sinuously past her field of vision, gone before she could identify it. She gripped the windowsill as the orientation of the ship and the engines' pitch shifted yet again. With the little kids up top, Dad would probably take the boat on a tour of every undersea mountain and canyon in the whole grid.

Reber folded her hands under her chin and leaned on the sill, watching a reef appear out of the gloom and then peel away and vanish again. She had not yet gathered the courage to bring up the idea of boarding school to her parents. Cousin Clay would be going to an offworld school in the fall, and most of Reber's friends, other diver kids whose boats plied the same waters as the Lady, had had at least some dry-land schooling. Dad was adamantly opposed to the whole idea, though; Reber had no doubt that just mentioning it would start him off on his usual rant about old ways vanishing and brainwashing our children with dry-land culture and all I ever needed to know I learned on my dad's diving boat!

But the world was changing. Dad wouldn't talk about it with the kids, except for the odd rant when a newsfeed story on the war or the commercial diving operations set him off, but even Reber had noticed that they crossed paths with fewer and fewer boats. More of the divers were opting for dry-land jobs these days, at least seasonally. Her dad's cousin Billy had sold his boat and moved to the city; they didn't see Uncle Billy much anymore. But Billy's brother had done something worse: He'd taken a job with one of the commercial rigs. Billy was still welcome on the boat, even though things were strained, but Dad never mentioned Uncle Ted's name at all.

Reber could kind of see Dad's point about the commercial diving operations. They didn't employ human divers; instead they used spiderlike robot crawlers that trawled the ocean floor, dredging up anything that remotely resembled the patterns of commercially-viable ocean life in their memory banks. They disrupted the coral beds and left stretches of the ocean nearly barren, useless to other divers. Worse, they didn't always respect the divers' beacons. Reber didn't used to pay much attention to all of that, but lately she had been listening to her parents' conversations when they got together with other diving boats and talked politics with the rest of the grownups. She'd heard them talk about lawsuits and about how the commercial outfits were trying to push for private ownership of seafloor real estate, the same way drylanders bought and sold pieces of their islands. Reber couldn't even wrap her mind around that idea. The sea was the sea; it shifted and moved without regard for boundaries, carrying the diver boats with it. How could you own the sea?

The world is changing, she thought, leaning on her hands, and was suddenly afraid of how much her own life might change with it. You could batten down for a storm, but she didn't know how to batten down against the future.



Author's Notes: I wrote this in 2007 for International Pixel-Stained Technopeasant Day



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