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Battening Down

Two meters beneath the surface, Reber darted through the sun-dappled water as if born to it. In some ways she had been. She'd known how to swim before she could walk.

This coral bed, winding along the top of an undersea ridge, was proving fruitful in some stretches, barren in others. Living reef and shattered wasteland alternated in stripes: typical dragger-grid pattern. The big commercial vessels swept back and forth, ripping up the seafloor, but they rarely bothered to go back for the patches they'd missed. On those stripes of living reef, an industrious diver family could make a living.

As long as they didn't get caught.

You can't stick to the open sectors and make a living, Dad always used to say when Mum complained about the risks: losing their license, losing their boat, losing the kids ... or straying out of the ever-narrowing demilitarized zone and getting shot. The public seafloor is overcrowded and picked to bare bones. The companies buy up the best half of the sea, the war displaces everyone from the other half, and we scrape to survive on what's left.

Of course, Dad wasn't making those decisions anymore. But they kept poaching, because even Mum could see that he was right.

So far, a morning's gleaning had unearthed quality-grade lapis shell, pearlhearts and other pretty things for the offworld luxury market. The carry-bag slung around Reber's neck was getting heavy. There were a few edible species, too: salt cactus and star whelks and several different kinds of sea fungus. The rose-apples were ripe. She picked a few, tucked them into her bag with the shells.

Coming out of a particularly rich patch of lapis, she glanced around to make sure that her siblings were still nearby, and not goofing off too much. The boys were chattering, their hands flying in the divers' simple underwater sign language. And -- was that a flashing red light on both their belts? It was. She looked down at the matching light at her own waist. She hadn't even felt the vibration, but sometimes it was hard to notice in the water.

She tapped the button to indicate Message received to Mum, then waved her arms until she had the attention of the others. Her hands moved, signaling: Surface. Together. Wait for me.

They all broke the surface like a bunch of seals, sleek and wet. Reber hooked her finger over the top of her filmy breathing mask, and pulled it down to ask, "Did no one notice Mum's beacon?"

"That's why we have you," her little sister Gandrey giggled, and then rolled over with a flash of her flippers, and stroked for the boat. "Race you!" she called over her shoulder.

Moments later, breathless and laughing, the four siblings pulled themselves onto the deck of the Lady Sings the Blues. As always, Reber felt gravity pull her down, making her heavy and clumsy, like a mermaid trapped on dry land.

Mum stepped out of the steering cabin, little Cat tucked in one arm. "I've been signaling you lot for twenty minutes."

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

Her mother tapped the satellite uplink clipped to her ear. "Well, chart it. You'll go back later. Right now I need your help, battening down for a dive."

The first thing that occurred to her was that they'd finally gotten caught. "Sea patrol?" Reber asked. "Police?"

The little siblings' eyes went round, and Mum sighed. "Could you hold the melodrama before you cause a riot? It's a storm, Ree. Sat report says a big one's coming in."

Reber knew she shouldn't be disappointed. Still, after all those times her parents warned the kids to be careful, to avoid unfamiliar boats and never tell anyone just where, exactly, their harvest came from ... it would be exciting to get chased just once. No one ever mentioned that piracy was boring.

Mum set down Cat, and, after checking the tether that clipped the toddler's harness to the belt at her waist, began gathering toys off the deck. The Lady was already mostly battened down: horticulture tanks were sealed, fishnets had been reeled in, sensory antennae were folded down. Gandrey, without being asked, began taking down the line of laundry snapping in the freshening breeze.

As she stowed away the contents of her carry-bag, saving out the rose-apples for later, Reber could feel the Lady starting to roll in rising swells. Dark clouds lined the horizon. She joined her siblings in a quick sweep around the deck for abandoned toys or personal items, saving a hairbrush and one of Cat's dolls from a watery grave.

"All good?" Mum asked, pausing in the doorway of the steering cabin.

Reber cast a last look around. "I think so, ma'am."

"All hands below, then." Mum vanished inside, and Reber herded the younger 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 their age, the ship's dives were still a fun change from routine. Reber rolled her eyes and headed in the opposite direction, making 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, she'd much rather snatch a few minutes of temporary privacy while the others were preoccupied with the dive. In the close confines of the boat, it was impossible to get time to herself.

And she had to check her messages, preferably without a sibling or two hanging over her shoulder.

Reber scuttled hastily into the girls' cabin before Mum could dispatch one of the little ones with another chore for her. As she sealed the door, the deck tilted -- Going down, Reber thought -- and random items went skittering past her bare feet: Gandrey's game-deck, some of Cat's toys. Gandrey could never remember to stow items properly. Reber sighed, scooped up the loose items and put them in the lock-box before sitting down at the console in the room. She glanced at the door nervously -- there were times when she could swear that just thinking about her family caused them to materialize. Then she wrapped herself in a towel, crunched on a tart little rose-apple and logged into her personal account.

Two new messages. One from Dad. No surprise: he wrote to all of them every day. The other was from Lenny, and Reber nearly choked in delight.

The engines' pitch changed again, the deck leveling off. Reber glanced reflexively at the porthole: not too deep, she saw; the water was still clear and light, not dark and murky. Probably Mum would use the opportunity to scout around the reef and look for good diving opportunities -- they couldn't go outside while the ship was sealed for a dive, but once it was safe to come up top, their next few dives would be all mapped out --

... Oh, and crud, speaking of maps, she was supposed to chart the morning's finds. Absently she called up the seafloor mapping program, and opened Dad's message too. She wanted to save Lenny's for last, like a gift -- it was no good to open it right away; you had to tilt the box, shake it, smell it, try to guess what was inside.

Dad's message was very short. When he'd first been drafted into that far-off war on the other side of the world, he'd always sent long, chatty letters, with voice and video recordings, and lots of pictures. Now, it was a single terse line of text: Love you, sweetie. How are your lessons? Hug your mother for me. -Dad.

Probably the same thing had been copied into her siblings' messages as well. Reber curled her bare toes against the floor. Mum said not to worry, that there wasn't really as much fighting as it looked like on the newsfeeds, and Dad would probably be far away from it anyway. But he'd sounded so very tired on the last few voice recordings, before he'd stopped sending them at all.

Well, but there was still Lenny's message to look forward to. Reber smiled and caressed the keyboard, teasing herself as she moved to toggle it open and then paused each time. She hadn't seen Lenny in four months (four months, six days), not since the last time her family had been in port at one of Secuba's floating markets to sell their harvest. Lenny was one year older, sixteen standard to Reber's fifteen. They had made plans to go to offworld boarding school together, if she could just talk her parents into it. Lots of parents were sending their kids to boarding school these days. Cousin Clay had gone already. Mum was still dragging her feet; with Dad away, she wanted the kids here, where she could keep an eye on them. But maybe Lenny's message would help convince her, if his parents were okay with --

"Oh, there you are," her mother said, sliding back the door, and Reber nearly jumped off her seat. "I need you to watch Cat for a while. Oh, there's a message from your father; did you see it?"

Reber nodded, and managed to put on a smile as she took Cat's tether. Mum hadn't mentioned Lenny's message, so either it had come in since she'd done her snooping, or she was making an earnest stab at respecting Reber's personal space (which probably meant there would be even worse parental snooping later). Leave now, won't you, and let me shake my gift some more ....

"While we're undersea is a perfect time to catch up on lessons, too. Will you help Gandrey with her algebra later?" Mum smiled ruefully. "You're better at it now than I am."

Why did parents always want to chat at the worst possible times? Reber nodded and smiled her pasted-on smile some more. Okay, now, leave ...

Luckily that was Mum's last pearl of parental wisdom for now. As soon as she'd gone, Reber gathered Cat into her lap. "Now sit there, and be quiet, I'm busy. Have a rose-apple."

"Don't like them," Cat said.

"Be quiet or I'll feed you to the fishes."

Cat stuck her thumb in her mouth. Reber toyed with the keyboard for a moment, but no, she'd better open Lenny's message before even more of her family showed up. So she took a deep breath and opened it.

Dear Reber, she read over her squirming sister's head.

Dear Reber. Had there ever been two such lovely words?

I hope you'll be happy for me. I've decided to enlist.

Wait. She must have read that wrong.

Cat popped her thumb out of her mouth and tugged on her sister's arm. "I'm bored."

"Shush," Reber said absently, reading faster and faster.

It's only another year anyway, and if you're a year or two underage, I heard they'll take you if your parents sign off on it. A lot of my friends have done it already. And Dad said yes. He's proud of me! I know we talked about going to school together, but this just means we'll have to wait a little longer. Unless you could talk your parents into signing off for you too --

Reber closed the message with a hard slap. Cat cut off in mid-whine, startled.

"But you can't," Reber said aloud.

Breathing hard, she set Cat on the floor. She wanted to fling something. Rage. Cry. Beg. The army was for grown-ups. They were just kids. "We had plans," she said helplessly. "This wasn't our plan."

But the realization came to her slowly that Mum and Dad had probably had plans, too. Lenny was right, he'd be seventeen next year, and eligible for the draft. And they were drafting everybody for the war now, male and female, young and old. Caregivers of young children, like Mum, were exempt. But everyone else ...

A finger of ice wormed its way into Reber's belly. I'll be seventeen in two years.

She had to sit down next to Cat. Two years. How had this happened? I'm a kid, she thought wildly. This is too soon. I'm not ready. Not ready ...

But the world was rushing on around her, carrying her with it. The war kept on going, and the big commercial draggers were tearing up the seafloor, and ... no wonder Mum and Dad talked in quiet, worried voices when they thought the kids couldn't hear. She had never felt so precarious, her life balanced on a knife's edge as thin as the liminal boundary between sea and sky.

I want to stay here, she thought, helpless, and put her arms around Cat, burying her face in her sister's curls. I don't want to grow up.

Battening down their boat for a storm was easy. But this ... how did anyone prepare for this? 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. In 2011 I started making minor revisions to submit the story somewhere, and ended up rewriting it practically from scratch. If you compare the old version, it's an interesting demonstration of how much my writing style (and my idea of what makes a good story) changed in the intervening four years.

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