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Shoresteading, Part One

Written by David Brin

"Bu yao! Bu yao!"

 Xin Pu Shi, the reclamation merchant, waved both hands in front of his face, glancing sourly at Wer's haul of salvage—corroded copper pipes, some salt-crusted window blinds, two small filing cabinets and a mesh bag bulging with various metal odds and ends.

Wer tried to winch the sack lower, but the old man used a pole to fend it away from his boat. "I don't want any of that garbage! Save it for the scrap barge. Or dump it back into the sea."

"You know I can't do that," Wer complained, squeezing the calloused soles of both feet against one of the rusty poles that propped his home above the sloshing sea. One hand gripped the rope, tugging at pulleys, causing the mesh-bag to sway toward Xin. "There are cam-eyes on that buoy over there. They know I raised ninety kilos. If I dump, I'll be fined! I could lose my stake."

"Cry to the north wind," the merchant scolded, using his pole to push away from the ruined building. His flat-bottom vessel shifted, sluggishly, while eels grazed along its mossy hull. "Call me if you salvage something good. Or sell that trash to someone who can use it!"


Wer watched helplessly as Xin spoke a sharp word and the dory's motor obediently started up, putting it in motion. Audible voice commands might be old-fashioned in the city. But out here, you couldn't afford subvocal mistakes. Anyway, old-fashioned was cheaper.


Muttering a curse upon the old man's sleep, Wer tied off the rope and left his haul of salvage hanging there, for the cameras to see. Clambering up the pole, then vaulting across a gap, he managed to land, teetering, upon another strut, then stepped onto the main roof of the seaside villa—once a luxury retreat, worth two million Shanghai Dollars. Now his. If he could work the claim.

Stretching under the hot sun, Wer adjusted a wide-brim straw hat and scanned the neighborhood. To his left extended the Huangpu Estuary and the East China Sea, dotted with vessels of all kinds, from massive container ships—tugged by billowing kite-sails, as big as clouds—all the way down to gritty dust-spreaders and fishing dhows. Much closer, the tide was coming in, sending breakers crashing against a double line of ruined houses where he—and several hundred other shoresteaders—had erected hammock-homes, swaying like cocoons in the stiff breeze.

There may be a storm, he thought, sniffing the air. I had better check.

Turning, he headed across the sloping roof, in the direction of a glittering city that lay just a few hundred meters ahead, beyond the surfline and a heavy, gray seawall. that bore stains halfway up, from this year's high water mark. A world of money and confident ambition lay on the other side. Much more lively than Old Shanghai, with its lingering afterglow from Awfulday.

Footing was tricky as he made his careful way between a dozen broad, lenslike evaporation pans that he filled each day, providing trickles of fresh water, voltage and salt to sell in town. Elsewhere, one could easily fall through crumbling shingles and sodden plywood. So Wer kept to paths that had been braced, soon after he signed the papers and took over this mess. This dream of a better life. And it could still be ours. If only luck would come back to stay a while.

Out of habit, he made a quick visual check of every stiff pipe and tension rope that spanned above the roof, holding the hammock-home in place, like a sail above a ship going nowhere. Like a hopeful cocoon. Or, maybe, a spider in its web.

And, like a spider, Ling must have sensed him coming. She pushed her head out through the funnel door. Jet black hair was braided behind the ears and then tied under the chin, in a new, urban style that she had seen on-web.

"Xin Pu Shi didn't take the stuff," she surmised, from his expression.

Wer shrugged, while tightening one of the cables that kept the framework from collapsing. A few of the poles—all that he could afford so far—were made of non-corroding metlon, driven solidly into the old foundation. Given enough time, cash, and luck, something new would take shape here, as the old house died. That is, providing . . .

"Well?" Ling insisted. A muffled whimper, and then a cry, told him that the baby was awake. "What'll you do now?"

"The county scrap barge will be here Thursday," Wer said.

"And they pay dung. Barely enough to cover taking our dung away. What are we to live on, fish and salt?"

"People have done worse," he muttered, looking down through a gap in the roof, past what had been a stylish master bathroom, then through a shorn stretch of tiled floor, to the soggy, rotten panels of a once-stately dining room. Of course, all the real valuables had been removed by the original owners when they evacuated, long ago, and the best salvageable items got stripped during the first year of overflowing tides. A slow disaster. One that left little of value for late-coming scavengers, like Wer.

"Right," Ling laughed without humor. "And meanwhile, our claim expires in six months. It's either build up or clean out, remember? One or the other, or we're expelled!"

"I remember."

"Do you want to go back to work that's unfit for robots? Slaving in a geriatric ward, wiping drool and cleaning the diapers of little emperors?"

"There are farms, up in the highlands."

"And they only let in refugees if you can prove ancestral connection. Or if you bring a useful skill. But our families were urban, going back two revolutions!"

Wer grimaced and shook his head, downcast. We have been over this, so many times, he thought. But Ling seemed in a mood to belabor the obvious.

"This time, we may not be lucky enough to get jobs in a geriatric ward. You'll wind up on a levee crew—and wind up buried in the cement. Then what will become of us?"

He lifted his gaze, squinting toward the long, concrete barrier, separating New Shanghai from the sea—part of a monumental construction that some called the New Great Wall, many times larger than the originaldefending against an invader more implacable than any other. Here, along the abandoned shoreline, where wealthy export magnates once erected beachfront villas, you could gaze with envy at the glittering Xidong District, on the other side, whose inhabitants had turned their backs to the sea. It didn't interest them, anymore.

"I'll take the salvage to town," he said.


"I ought to get a better price ashore. For our extra catch, too. Anyway, we need some things."

"Yeah, like beer," Ling commented, sourly. But she didn't try to stop him, or even mention that the trip was hazardous. Fading hopes do that to a relationship, he thought. Especially one built on unlikely dreams.

They said nothing further to each other. She slipped back inside. At least the baby's crying soon stopped.

Using the mansion's crumbling grand staircase as an indoor dock, Wer built a makeshift float-raft consisting of two old surfboards and a pair of empty drums, lashed together with drapery cord. Then, before fetching the salvage, he took a quick tour to check his traps and fishing lines, bobbing at intervals around the house. It meant slipping on goggles and diving repeatedly, but by now he felt at home among the canted, soggy walls, festooned with seaweed and barnacles. At least there were a dozen or so nice catches this time, most of them even legal, including a big red lobster and a fat, angry wrasse. So, his luck wasn't uniformly bad.

Reluctantly, he released a tasty jiaoxi crab to go about its way. You never knew when some random underwater monitor, disguised as a drifting piece of flotsam, might be looking. He sure hoped none had spotted a forbidden rockfish, dangling from a gill net in back, too dead to do anything about. He took a moment to dive deeper and conceal the carcass, under a paving stone of the sunken garden.

The legal items, including the wrasse, a grouper, and two sea bass, he pushed into another mesh sack.

Our poverty is a strange one. The last thing we worry about is food.

Other concerns? Sure. Typhoons and tsunamis. Robbers and police shakedowns. City sewage leaks and red tides. Low recycle prices and the high cost of living.

Perhaps a fair wind will blow from the south today, instead.

In part, Wer blamed the former owners of this house, for having designed it without any care for the laws of nature. Too many windows had faced too many directions, including north, allowed chi to leak, in and out, almost randomly. None of the sills had been raised, to retain good luck. How could supposedly smart people have ignored so many lessons of the revered past? Simply in order to maximize their scenic view? It had served them right, when melting glaciers in far-north Greenland drowned their fancy home.

Wer checked the most valuable tool in his possession—a tide-driven drill that was almost finished boring into the old foundation, ready for another metlon support. He inspected the watch-camera that protected the drill from being pilfered, carefully ensuring that it had unobstructed views. Just ten more holes and supports. Then he could anchor the hammock-home in place with a real, arched frame, as some of the other shoresteaders had done.

And after that? A tide-power generator. And a bigger rain-catchment. And a smart gathernet with a commercial fishing license. And a storm shelter. And a real boat. And more metlon. He had even seen a shorestead where the settlers reached Phase Three: reinforcing and re-coating all the wires and plumbing of the old house, in order to re-connect with the city grids. Then sealing all the walls to finish a true island of self-sufficiency—deserving a full transfer of deed. Every reclaimer's dream.

And about as likely as winning a lottery, it seemed.

I had better get going, he thought. Or the tide will be against me.

* * *

Kicking the raft along, he tried to aim for one of the broad gates, where the mammoth seawall swung backward for a hundred meters, rising uphill far enough for a sandy beach to form. On occasion, he had been able to sell both fish and salvage right there, to middlemen who came out through the massive doors. On weekends, a few families came down from nearby city towers, to visit salty surf and sand. Some would pay top rates to a shoresteader, for a fresh, wriggling catch.

But, while a rising tide helped push him closer, it also ensured the gates would be closed, when he arrived.

I'll tie up at the wall and wait. Or maybe climb over. Slip into town, till it ebbs. Wer had a few coins. Not enough to buy more metlon. But sufficient for a hardworking man to have a well-deserved beer.

As always, he used mask and snorkel while kicking along, pushing the raft. You never knew when something might turn up below, revealed by the shifting sea. Mostly, house sites in this area had been bulldozed and cleared with drag lines, after the evacuation. Common practice in the early days, when people first retreated from the continental margins. Only later was steading seen as a cheaper alternative. Let some poor dope slave away at salvage and demolition, driven by a slender hope of ownership.

In large part, all that remained here were concrete foundations and fields of stubby utility pipes, along with tumbled lumps of stone and concrete too heavy to move. Still, out of habit, he kept scanning for any change, as a combination of curiosity and current drew him by what had been the biggest mansion along this stretch of coast. Some tech-baron oligarch had set up a seaside palace here, before he toppled spectacularly, in one of the big purges. Steader stories told that he was dragged off, one night, tried in secret, and shot. Quickly, so he would not spill secrets about mightier men. There had been a lot of that, all over the world, twenty years or so ago.

Of course government agents would have picked the place cleaner than a bone, before letting the bulldozers in. And other gleaners followed. Yet, Wer always felt a romantic allure, passing two or three meters overhead, imagining the place when walls and windows stood high, festooned with lights. When liveried servants patrolled with trays of luscious treats, satisfying guests in ways that—well—he probably couldn't imagine, though sometimes he liked to try.

Of course, the sand and broken crete still held detritus. Old pipes and conduits. Cans of paint and solvents still leaked from the ruin, rising as individual up-drips to pop at the surface and make it gleam. From their hammock-home, Wer and Ling used to watch sunsets reflect off the rainbow sheen. Back when all of this seemed exciting, romantic and new.

Speaking of new . . .

Wer stopped kicking and twisted his body around to peer downward. A glitter had caught his eye. Something different.

There's been some kind of cave-in, he realized. Under one edge of the main foundation slab.

The sea was relatively calm, this far beyond the surfline. So he grabbed a length of tether from the raft, took several deep breaths, then flipped downward, diving for a better look.

It did look like a gap under the house, one that he never saw before. But, surely, someone else would have noticed this by now. Anyway, the government searchers would have been thorough. Wouldn't they? What were the odds that. . . .

Tying the tether to a chunk of concrete, he moved close enough to peer inside the cavity, careful not to disturb much sediment with his flippers. Grabbing an ikelite from his belt, he sent its sharp beam lancing inside, where an underground wall had recently collapsed. During the brief interval before his lungs grew stale and needy, he could make out few details. Still, by the time he swiveled and kicked back toward the surface, one thing was clear.

The chamber contained things. Lots of things.

And, to Wer, almost anything down there would be worth going after, even if it meant squeezing through a narrow gap, into a crumbling basement underneath the sea.


Night had fallen some time ago and now his torch batteries were failing. That, plus sheer physical exhaustion, forced Wer, at last, to give up salvaging anything more from the hidden cache that he had found, underneath a sunken mansion. Anyway, with the compressed air bottle depleted, his chest now burned from repeated freedives through that narrow opening, made on lung power alone, snatching whatever he could—whatever sparkle caught his eye down there.

You will die if you keep this up, he finally told himself. And someone else will get the treasure.

That thought made it firm. Still, even without any more trips inside, there was more work to do. Yanking some decayed boards off of the upper story, Wer dropped them to cover the new entrance that he'd found, gaping underneath the house. And then one final dive through dark shallows, to kick sand over it all. Finally, he rested for a while with one arm draped over his makeshift raft, under the dim glow of a quarter moon.

Do not the sages counsel that a wise man must spread ambition, like honey across a bun? Only a greedy fool tries to swallow all of his good fotune, in a single bite.

Oh, but wasn't it a tempting treasure trove? Carefully concealed by the one-time owner of this former beachfront mansion, who took the secret of a concealed basement with him—out of spite, perhaps—all the way to the execution-disassembly room.

If they had transplanted any of his brain, as well as the eyes and skin and organs, then someone might have remembered the hidden room, before this.

As it is, I am lucky that the rich man went to his death angry, never telling anybody what the rising sea was sure to bury.

Wer pondered the strangeness of fate, as he finally turned toward home, fighting the ebb tide that kept trying to haul him seaward, into the busy shipping lanes of the Huangpo. It was a grueling swim, dragging the raft behind him with a rope around one shoulder. Several times—obsessively—he stopped to check the sacks of salvage, counting them and securing their ties.

It is a good thing that basement also proved a good place to deposit my earlier load of garbage, those pipes and chipped tiles. A place to tuck them away, out of sight of any drifting environment monitors. Or I would have had to haul them, too.

The setting of the moon only made things harder, plunging the estuary into darkness. Except, that is, for the glitter of Shanghai East, a noisy galaxy of wealth, towering behind its massive seawall. And the soft glow of luminescence in the tide itself. A glow that proved especially valuable when his winding journey took him past some neighboring shoresteads, looming out of the night, like dark castles. Wer kept his splashing to a minimum, hurrying past the slumping walls and spidery tent poles with barely a sound. Until, at last, his own stead was next, its familiar tilt occulting a lopsided band of stars.

I can't wait to show Ling what I found. This time, she has to be impressed.

That hope propelled Wer the last few hundred meters, even though his lungs and legs felt as if they were on fire. Of course, he took a beating, as the raft crashed, half-sideways into the atrium of the ruined house. A couple of the salvage bags split open, spilling their glittery contents across the old parquet floor. But no matter, he told himself. The things were safe now, in easy reach.

In fact, it took all of Wer's remaining energy to drag just one bag upstairs, then to pick his way carefully across the slanted roof of broken tiles, and finally reach the tent-house where his woman and child waited.

* * *

"Stones?" Ling asked, staring at the array of objects that Wer spread before her. A pre-dawn glow was spreading across the east. Still, she had to lift a lantern to peer at his little trove, shading the light and speaking in a low voice, so as not to wake the baby.

"You are all excited about a bunch of stones?"

"They were on shelves, all neatly arranged and with labels," he explained, while spreading ointment across a sore on his left leg, one of several that had spread open again, after long immersion. "There used to be glass cabinets—"

"They don't look like gems. No diamonds or rubies," she interrupted. "Yes, some of them are pretty. But we find surf-polished pebbles everywhere."

"You should see the ones that were on a special pedestal, in the center of the room. Some of them were held in fancy boxes, made of wood and crystal. I tell you it was a collection of some sort. And it must have all been valuable, for the owner to hide them all so—"

"Boxes?" Her interest was piqued, at least a little "Did you bring any of those?"

"A few. I left them on the raft. I was so tired. And hungry." He sniffed, pointedly toward the stewpot, where Ling was re-heating last night's meal, the one that he had missed. Wer smelled some kind of fish that had been stir fried with leeks, onions and that reddish seaweed that she put into more than half of her dishes.

"Get some of those boxes, please," she insisted. "Your food will be warm by the time that you return."

Wer would have gladly wolfed it down cold. But he nodded with resignation and gathered himself together, somehow finding the will to move quivering muscles, once again. I am still young, but I know how it will feel to be old.

This time, at least, the spreading gray twilight helped him to cross the roof, then slide down the ladder and stairs without tripping. His hands trembled while untying two more of the bags of salvage, these bulging with sharply angular objects. Dragging them up and re-traversing the roof was a pure exercise in mind-over-agony.

Most of our ancestors had it at least this bad, he reminded himself. Till things got much better for a generation . . .

. . . and then worse again. For the poor.

Hope was a dangerous thing, of course. One heard of shoresteaders striking it rich with a great haul, now and then. But, most of the time, reality shattered promise. Perhaps it is only an amateur geologist's private rock collection, he thought, struggling the last few meters. One man's hobby—precious to him personally, but of little market value.

Still, after collapsing on the floor of their tent-home for a second time, he found enough curiosity and strength to lift his head, as Ling's nimble fingers worked at the tie ropes. Upending one bag, she spilled out a pile of stony objects, along with three or four of the boxes he had mentioned, made of finely-carved wood, featuring windows with beveled edges that glittered too beautifully to be made of simple glass.

For the first time, he saw a bit of fire in Ling's eyes. Or interest, at least. One by one, she lifted each piece, turning it in the lamplight . . . and then moved to push aside a curtain, letting in sharply horizontal rays of light, as the sun poked its leading edge above the East China Sea. The baby roused then, rocking from side to side and whimpering while Wer spooned some food from the reheating pot into a bowl.

"Open this," Ling insisted, forcing him to choose between the bowl and the largest box, that she thrust toward him. With a sigh, he put aside his meal and accepted the heavy thing, which was about the size and weight of his own head. Wer started to pry at the corroded clasp, while Ling picked up little Xie Xie in order to nurse the infant.

"It might be better to wait a bit and clean the box," he commented. "Rather than breaking it just to look inside. The container, itself, may be worth—"


Abruptly, the wood split along a grainy seam with a splintering crack. Murky water spilled across his lap, followed by a bulky object, so smooth and slippery that it almost squirted out of his grasp.

"What is it?" Ling asked. "Another stone?"

Wer turned it over in his hands. The thing was heavy and hard, with a greenish tint, like jade. Though that could just be slime that clung to its surface even after wiping with a rag. A piece of real jade this big could bring a handsome price, especially already shaped into a handsome contour—that of an elongated egg. So he kept rubbing and lifted it toward the horizontal shaft of sunbeams, in order to get a better look.

No, it isn't jade, after all.

But disappointment slowly turned into wonder, as sunlight striking the glossy surface seemed to sink into the glossy ovoid. Its surface darkened, as if it were drinking the beam, greedily.

Ling murmured in amazement . . . and then gasped as the stone changed color before their eyes . . .

. . . and then began to glow on its own.


More Than One

The wooden box bore writing in French. Wer learned that much by carefully cleaning its small brass plate, then copying each letter, laboriously, onto the touch-sensitive face of a simple tutor-tablet.

"Unearthed in Harrapa, 1926," glimmered the translation in Updated Pinyin. "Demon-infested. Keep in the dark."

Of course that made no sense. The former owner of the opalescent relic had been a high-tech robotics tycoon, hardly the sort to believe in superstitions. Ling reacted to the warning with nervous fear, wrapping the scarred egg in dark cloth, but Wer figured it was just a case of bad translation.

The fault must lie in the touch-tablet—one of the few tech-items they had brought along to their shorestead, just outside the seawall of New Shanghai. . Originally mass produced for poor children, the dented unit later served senile patients for many years, at a Chungqing hospice—till Ling took it with her, when she quit working there. Cheap and obsolete, it was never even reported stolen, so the two of them could still use it to tap the World Mesh, at a rudimentary, free-access level. It sufficed for a couple with little education, and few interests beyond the struggle to survive.

"I'm sure the state will issue us something better next year, when little Xie Xie is big enough to register," she commented, whenever Wer complained about the slow connection and scratched screen. "They have to provide that much. A basic education. As part of the Big Deal."

Wer felt less sure. Grand promises seemed made for the poor to remember, while the mighty forgot, Things had always been that way. You could tell, even from the censored histories that flickered across the little display, as he and his wife sagged into fatigued sleep every night, rocked by the rising tides. The same tides that kept eroding the old beach house, faster than they could reinforce it.

Would they even let Xie Xie register? The baby's genetic samples had been filed when he was born. But would he get residency citizenship in New Shanghai? Or would the seawall keep out yet another kind of unwanted trash, along with a scum of plastic and resins that kept washing higher along the concrete barrier?

Clearly, in this world, you were a fool to count on beneficence from above.

Even good luck, when it arrived, could prove hard to exploit. Wer had hoped for time to figure out what kind of treasure lay in that secret room, underneath the biggest drowned mansion, a chamber filled with beautiful or bizarre rocks and crystals, or specimens of strangely twisted metal. Wer tried to inquire, using the little mesh tablet, only carefully. There were sniffer programs—billions of them—running loose across a million virlevels, even the gritty layer called Reality. If he inquired too blatantly, or offered the items openly for sale, somebody might just come and take it all. The former owner had been declared a public enemy, his property forfeit to the state.

Plugging in crude goggles and using a cracked pair of interact-gloves, Wer wandered down low rent avenues of World Town and The Village and Big Bazaar, pretending to be idly interested in rock collecting, as a hobby. From those virtual markets, he learned enough to dare a physical trip into town, carrying just one bagful of nice—but unexceptional—specimens, unloading them for a quarter of their worth at a realshop in East Pudong. A place willing to deal in cash—no names or recordings.

After so long at sea, Wer found troubling the heavy rhythms of the street. The pavement seemed harsh and unyielding. Pulsating maglev trolleys somehow made him itch, all over, especially inside tight and sweaty shoes. The whole time, he pictured twenty million nearby residents as a pressing mass—felt no less intensely than the thousands who actually jostled past him on crowded sidewalks, many of them muttering and waggling their fingers, interacting with people and things that weren't even there.

Any profit from that first trip had been slim. Still, Wer thought he might venture to another shop soon, working his way up from mundane items to those that seemed more . . . unusual. Those kept in ornate boxes, on special shelves, in the old basement trove.

Though just one specimen glimmered, both in his dreams and daytime imaginings. Frustratingly, his careful online searches found nothing like the Stone—a kind of mineral that glowed with its own light, after soaking in the sun. Its opal-like sheen featured starlike sparkles that seemed to recede into an inner distance, a depth that looked both brighter than day and deeper than night. That is, until Ling insisted it be wrapped up and put away.

Worse yet, time was running out. Fish had grown sparse, ever since the night of the jellyfish, when half the life seemed to vanish out of the Huangpo Estuary. Now, the stewpot was seldom full, and often empty.

Soon the small hoard of cash was gone again.

Luck is fickle. We try hard to control the flow of Chi, by erecting our tent poles in symmetrical patterns and by facing our entrance toward the smiling south wind. But how can one strike a harmonious balance, down here at the shore, where the surf is so chaotic, where tides of air and water and stinging monsters rush however they choose?

No wonder the Chinese often turned their backs to the sea . . . and seem to be doing so again.

Already, several neighbors had given up, abandoning their shoresteads to the jellies and rising waters. Just a week ago, Wer and Ling joined a crowd of scavengers converging on one forsaken site, grabbing metlon poles and nanofiber webbing for use on their own stead, leaving little more than a stubble of rotting wood, concrete and stucco. A brief boost to their prospects, benefiting from the misfortune of others—

—that is, until it's our own turn to face the inevitable. Forsaking all our hard work and dreams of ownership. Returning to beg our old jobs back in that stifling hospice, wiping spittle from the chins of little emperors. With each reproachful look from Ling, Wer grew more desperate. Then, during his third trip to town, carrying samples from the trove, he saw something that gave him both a thrill and a chill.

He was passing along Boulevard of The Sky Martyrs and about to cross The Street of October The Seventeenth, when the surrounding crowd seemed to halt, abruptly, all around him.

Well, not everybody, but enough people to bring the rhythmic bustle to a dead stall. Wer stumbled into the back of a well-padded pedestrian, who looked briefly as confused as he was. They turned to see that about a third of those around them were suddenly staring, as if into space, murmuring to themselves, some of them with jaws ajar, half-open in some kind of surprise.

Swiftly he realized, these were people who had been linked-in with goggles, specs, tru-vus, or contacts, each person moving through some virtual overlay—perhaps following guide arrows to a destination, or doing business as they walked, while others simply liked their city overlain with flowers, or jungle foliage, or fairytale colors. It also made them receptive to a high priority alert. Soon, half the people in sight were shuffling aside, half consciously moving toward the nearest wall or window in order to get away from traffic, while their minds soared far away.

Seeing so many others dive into a news-trance, the overweight gentleman muttered an oath and reached into his pocket to pull out some wraparound glasses. He, too, pressed close to the nearest building, emitting short grunts of interest while his aiware started filling him in.

Wer briefly wondered if he should be afraid. City life had many hazards, not all of them on the scale of Awfulday. But . . . the people clumping along the edges of the sidewalk didn't seem worried, as much as engrossed. Surely that meant there was no immediate danger.

Meanwhile, many of those who lacked gear were pestering their companions, demanding verbal updates. He overheard a few snippets.

"The artifact has spoken . . ." and "The aliens have begun explaining their invitation, at last . . ."

Aliens. Artifact. Of course those words had been foaming around for a couple of weeks, part of life's background, just like the soapy tidal spume. It sounded like a silly thing, unworthy of the small amount of free time that he shared with Ling, each exhausted evening. A fad, surely, or hoax. Or, at best, none of his concern. Only now Wer blinked in surprise over how many people seemed to care. Maybe we should scan for a free-access show about it, tonight. Instead of the usual medieval romance stories that Ling demanded.

Despite all the people who had stepped aside, into virtual newspace, that still left hundreds of pedestrians who didn't care, or who felt they could wait. They took advantage of the cleared sidewalks to hurry about their business. As should I, he thought, stepping quickly across the street while ai-piloted vehicles worked their way past, evading those with human drivers who had pulled aside.

Aliens. From outer space. Could it possibly be true? Wer had to admit, this was stirring his long-dormant imagination.

He turned onto the Avenue of Fragrant Hydroponics and suddenly came to a halt. People were beginning to stir from the mass newstrance, muttering to one another—in real life and across the mesh—while stepping back into the sidewalk and resuming their journeys. Only, now it was his turn to be distracted, to stop and stare, to push unapologetically past others and press close to the nearest building, bringing his face close to the window of a store selling visualization tools.

One of the new SEF ThreeVee displays sparkled within, offering that unique sense of ghostly semi-transparency—and it showed three demons.

Or at least that's how Wer first thought of them. They looked like made-up characters in one of those cheap fantasy dramas that Ling loved—one like an imp, with flamelike fur, one horselike with nostrils that flared like caves, and another whose tentacles evoked some monster of the sea. A disturbing trio, in their own right.

Only, it wasn't the creatures that had Wer transfixed. It was their home. The context. The object framing, containing, perhaps imprisoning them. He recognized it, at once. Cleaner and more pristine—less pitted and scarred—nevertheless, it was clearly a cousin to the thing he had left behind this morning, in the surf-battered home that he shared with his wife and little son.

Wer swallowed hard.

I thought I was being careful, seeking information about that thing.

But careful was a relative world.

He left the bag of stones lying there, like an offering, in front of the image in the ThreeVee tank. It would only weigh him down now, as he ran for home.


Despite his hurry to get home, Wer avoided the main gate through the massive seawall. For one thing, the giant doors were closed right now, for high tide. Even when they opened, that place would throng with fishermen, hawking their catch, and citydwellers visiting the last remaining beach of imported sand. So many eyes—and ais—and who knew how many were already sifting every passing face, searching for his unique biosignature?

I should never have posted queries about an egglike stone that glows mysteriously, after sitting in sunlight.

I should have left it that hole under the sea.

His fear—ever since glimpsing the famous alien "artifact" on TV—was that somebody high and mighty wanted desperately to have whatever Wer discovered in a hidden basement cache, underneath a drowned mansion—and wanted it in secret. The former owner had been powerful and well-connected, yet he wound up being hauled away and—according to legend—tortured, then brain-sifted, and finally silenced forever. Wer suspected now that it was because of an oval stone, very much like the one causing such fuss, around the world. Governments and megorps and reff-consortia would all seek one of their own.

If so, what would they do with the likes of me? When an object is merely valuable, a poor man who recovers it may ask for a finder's fee. But if it is a thing that might shake civilization?

In that case, all I could expect is death, just for knowing about it!

Yet, as some of the initial panic ebbed, Wer felt another part of his inner self rise up. The portion of his character that had dared to ask Ling to join him at the wild frontier, shoresteading a place of their own. If there were a way to offer it up for bidding . . . a way to keep us safe . . . True, the former owner must have tried, and failed, to make a deal. But nobody knew about this kind of "artifact" then . . . at least not the public. Everything has changed, now that the Americans are showing theirs to the world . . .

None of which would matter, if he failed to make it home in time to hide the thing. Or to make some basic preparations. Above all, sending Ling and Xie Xie somewhere safe.

Hurrying through crowded streets, Wer carefully kept his pace short of a run. It wouldn't do to draw attention. Beyond the public-order cams on every ledge and lamp post, the state could tap into the lenses and private-ais worn by any pedestrian nearby . His long hair, now falling over his face, might stymie a routine or casual face-search, but not if the system really took an interest.

Veering away from the main gate, he sped through a shabbier section of town, where multistory residence blocs had gone through ramshackle evolution, ignoring every zoning ordinance. Laundry-laden clotheslines jostled solar collectors that shoved against semi-illegal rectennas, siphoning mesh-access and a little beamed power from the shiny towers of nearby Pudong.

Facing a dense crowd ahead, Wer tried pushing ahead for a while, then took a stab at a shortcut, worming past a delivery cart that wedged open a pair of giant doors. He found himself inside a vast cavity, where the lower floors had been gutted in order to host a great maze of glassy pipes and stainless steel reactor vessels, all linked in twisty patterns, frothing with multicolored concoctions. He chose a direction by dead reckoning, where there ought to be an exit on the other side. Wer meant to bluff his way clear, if anyone stopped him.

That didn't seem likely, amid the hubbub. At least a hundred laborers—many of them dressed little better than he was—patrolled creaky catwalks or clambered over lattice struts, meticulously cleaning and replacing tubes by hand. At ground level, inspectors wearing bulky, enhanced aiware, checked a continuous shower of some product—objects roughly the size and shape of a human thumb—waving laser pincers to grab a few of them before they fell into a waiting bin.

It's a nanofactory, Wer realized, after he passed halfway through. It was his first time seeing one up close, but he and Ling once saw a virtshow tour of a vast workshop like this one (though far cleaner) where basic ingredients were piped in and sophisticated parts shipped out—electroptic components, neuraugments, and organoplaques, whatever those were. And shape-to-order diamonds, as big as his fist. All produced by stacking atoms and molecules, one at a time, under programmed control.

People still played a part, of course. No robot could scramble or crawl about like humonkeys, or clean up after the machines with such dexterity. Or so cheaply. 

Weren't they supposed to shrink these factories to the size of a toaster and sell them to everybody? Magic boxes that would let even poor folk make anything they wanted from raw materials. From seawater, even. No more work. No more want.

He felt like snorting, but instead Wer mostly held his breath the rest of the way, hurrying toward a loading dock, where sweltering workers filled mag-lev lorries at the other end. One heard rumors of nano-machines that got loose, that embedded in the lungs and then got busy trying to make copies of themselves. . . . Probably just tall tales. But Wer still had plans for his lungs. They mattered a lot, to a shoresteader.

He spilled out of gritty industry into a world of street-level commerce, where gaily decorated shops crowded this avenue. Sucking air, his nostrils filled with food aromas, wafting around innumerable grills, woks and steam cookers, preparing everything from delicate skewered scorpions to vat-grown chickenmeat, stretched and streaked to look like the real thing. Wer's stomach growled, but he pushed ahead, then turned a corner and headed straight for the nearest section of massive wall separating Shanghai East from the rising ocean.

There were smugglers' routes. One used a building that formerly offered appealing panoramas overlooking the Hunangpo estuary—till such views became unfashionable. Now, a lower class of urbanites occupied the tower.

The lobby's former coating of travertine and marble had been stripped and sold off years ago, replaced by spray-on corrugations that lay covered with long beards of damp algae. A good use of space—the three story atrium probably grew enough to feed half the occupants a basic, gene-crafted diet. But the dank smell made Wer miss his little tent-home amid the waves.

We can't go back to living like this, he thought, glancing at the spindly bamboo scaffolding that crisscrossed the vast foyer, while bony, sweat-stained workers tended the crop, doing work unfit for robots. I swore I would not raise our son on algae paste.

The creaky elevator was staffed by a crone who flicked switches on a makeshift circuit board to set it in motion. The building must never have had its electronics repaired since the Crash. It's been what, fifteen, sixteen years? Yes, people are cheap and people need work. But even I could fix this pile of junk.

 The car jerked and rattled while the operator glared at Wer. Clearly, she knew he did not work or live here. In turn, he gave the old lady a smile and ingratiating bow—no sense in antagonizing someone who might call up a face-query. But within, Wer muttered to himself about sourminded "little emperors"—a generation raised as chubby only-children, doted on by two parents, four grandparents and a nation that seemed filled with limitless potential. Boundless dreams and an ambition to rise infinitely high—until the Crash. Till the twenty-first century didn't turn out quite as promised.

Disappointment didn't sit well with Little Emperors—half a billion of them—so many that even the mysterious oligarchs in the Palace of Terrestrial Harmony had to cater to the vast population bulge. And they could be grouchy. Pinning the blame on Wer's outnumbered generation had become a national pastime.

The eleventh floor once boasted a ledge-top restaurant, overlooking a marina filled with opulent yachts, bordering a beach of brilliant, whitened sand. Now, stepping past rusty tables and chairs, Wer gazed beyond the nearby sea wall, upon stubby remnants and broken masts, protruding from a brownish carpet of seaweed and sewage.

I remember it was right about here . . .

 Leaning over, he groped over the balcony railing and along the building's fluted side, till he found a hidden pulley, attached to a slender rope leading downward. Near the bottom, it draped idly over the seawall and into the old marina, appearing to be nothing more than a pair of fallen wires.

Wer had never done anything like this before, trusting a slender line with his weight and his life. Though, on one occasion he had helped Quang Lu ferry mysterious cargo to the bottom end, holding Quang's boat steady while the smuggler attached dark bags, then hauled away. High overhead, shadowy figures claimed the load of contraband, and that was that. Wer never knew if it was drugs, or tech, or untaxed luxuries, nor did he care, so long as he was paid.

Quang Lu would not be happy if he ruined this route. But right now, Wer had other worries. He shaded his eyes to peer along the coast, toward a line of surfline ruins—the former beachfront mansions where his simple shorestead lay. Glare off the water stung his eye, but there seemed to be nothing unusual going on. He was pretty sure he could see the good luck banner from Ling's home county, fluttering in a vague breeze. She was supposed to take it down, in the event of trouble.

His heart pounded as he tore strips off an awning to wrap around his hands. Clambering over the guard rail, he tried not to look down as he slid down the other side, until he could support himself with one arm on the gravel deck, while the other hand groped and fumbled with the twin lines.

It was awkward, because holding onto just one strand wouldn't do. The pulley would let him plummet like a stone. So he wound up wrapping both slender ropes around his hand. Before swinging out, Wer closed his eyes for several seconds, breathing steadily and seeking serenity, or at least some calm. All right, let's go.

He let go of the ledge and swung down.

Not good! Full body weight tightened the rope like a noose around his hand, clamping a vice across his palm and fingers. Groaning till he was almost out of breath, Wer struggled to ease the pressure by grabbing both cables between his legs and tugging with his other hand, till he finally go out of the noose. Fortunately, his hands were so calloused that there appeared to be no damage. But it took a couple moments for the pain to stop blurring his vision . . .

. . . and when it cleared, he made the mistake of glancing straight down. He swallowed hard—or tried to. A terror that seemed to erupt from somewhere down his spine, ran up and down his back like a monkey. An eel thrashed inside his belly.

Stop it! He told the animals within. I am a man. A man with a duty to perform and luck to fulfill. And a man is all that I am.

It seemed to work. Panic ebbed, like an unpleasant tide, and Wer felt buoyed by determination.

Next, he tried lowering himself, hand over hand, by strength alone. His wiry strength was adequate to the task, and certainly he did not weigh enough to be much trouble. But it was hard to hold onto both strings, equally. One or the other kept trying to snap free. Wer made it down three stories before one of them yanked out of his grip. It fled upward, toward the pulley while Wer, cluinging to the remaining strand, plunged the other way, grabbing at the escapee desperately—

—and finally seized the wild cord. Friction quickly burned through the makeshift padding and into his flesh. By the time he came to a halt, smoke, anguish, and a foul stench wafted from his hand. Hanging there, swaying and bumping against a nearby window, he spent unknown minutes just holding on tight, waiting for his heart to settle and pain speckles to depart his eyes.

Did I cry out? He wondered. Fortunately, the window next to him was blocked by heavy drapes—the glare off the Hungpo was sharp this time of day. Many of the others were boarded-up. People still used this building, but most would still be at work or school. Nor would there be much AI in a hi-rise hovel.

I don't think I yelled. I think I'm all right. His descent should be masked by heat plumes and glaring sunlight reflections off metal and concrete, making daylight much preferable over making the passage at night, when his body temperature would flare on hundreds of infrared-sensitive cams, triggering anomaly-detection programs.

Learning by trial and error, Wer managed to hook one leg around each of the strands and experimented with letting them slide along his upper thighs, one heading upward and the other going down. It was awkward and painful, at first, but the tough pants could take it, if he took it slow and easy.

Gradually, he approached the dull gray concrete levee from above, and Wer found himself picturing how far it stretchedextending far beyond vision to the left, hugging the new coastline till it reached a great marsh that used to be Shandong Province . . . and to the right, continuing along the river all the way to happy regions far upstream, where the Chang became the Yangtze, and where people had no fear of rising waters. How many millions were employed building the new Great Wall? And how many millions more labored as prisoners, consigned on one excuse or another to the great task of staving off China's latest invader. The Sea.

Drawing close, Wer kept a wary eye on the barrier. This section looked okay—a bit crumbly from cheap, hurried construction, two decades ago, after Typhoon Mariko nearly drowned the city. Still, he knew that some stretches were laced with nasty stuff—razor-sharp wires, barely visible to the eye, or heat-seeking tendrils tipped with toxins.

When the time came, he vaulted over, barely touching the obstacle with the sole of one sandal, landing in the old marina with a splash.

It was unpleasant, of course, a tangle of broken boats and dangerous cables that swirled in a murk of weeds and city waste. Wer lost no time clambering onto one wreck and then leaping to another, hurrying across the obstacle course with an agility learned in more drowned places than he could remember, spending as little time as possible in the muck.

Actually, it looks as if there might be a lot of salvage in here, he thought. Perhaps he might come back—if luck neither veered high or low, but stayed on the same course as his life had been so far. Moderately, bearably miserable.

Maybe I will risk it, after all, he thought. Try to find a broker who can offer the big white stone for sale, in some way that might keep us safe. . . .

Before climbing over the final, rocky berm, separating the marina from the sea, he spotted a rescue buoy, bobbing behind the pilot house of one derelict. It would come in handy, during the long swim ahead.

* * *

It was nearing nightfall when he approached the shorestead from the west, with the setting sun behind him.

Of course, by now the tide was low and the main gates were open—and Wer was feeling foolish. I might have made it home by now, just by waiting in town. In hindsight, his initial panic now seemed overwrought and exaggerated. I might have sold those lesser stones, had a beer by the fishmonger stands, and already have made it home by now, having dinner while showing Ling a handful of cash.

Soon, he faced the familiar outlines—the sagging northside wall . . . the metlon poles and supercord bracings . . . the solar distillery . . . the patches where he had begun preparing two of the upper-story rooms for occupation. . . . He even caught a scent of that Vietnamese nuk mam sauce that Ling added to half her preparations. It all looked normal. Still, he circled the half-ruined mansion, checking for intruder signs. Oil in the water. Tracks in the muddy sand. Any kind of presence lurking below.

Nothing visible. So far so good.

A wasted day, then. A crazy, draining adventure that I could scarcely afford. Some lost stones . . .

. . . though there are more where those came from.

 In fact, he had begun to fashion a plan in his head. The smuggler, Quang Lu, had many contacts. Perhaps, while keeping the matter vague at first, Wer might use Quang to set up a meeting, in such a time and place where treachery would be difficult. Perhaps arranging for several competitors to be present at once. How did one of the ancient sages put it?

In order not to be trampled by an elephant, get many of them to push against each other.

All right, maybe no sage actually said that. But one should have. Surely, Wer did not have to match the power of any of the great lords of government, wealth and commerce. What he needed was a situation where they canceled out each other! Enough to get them openly bidding to obtain what he had. Open enough so that no one could benefit by keeping him quiet.

First thing, I must find a good hiding place for the stone. Then come up with the right story, for Quang.

It took real effort just to haul himself out of the water, Wer's body felt limp and soggy with fatigue. He was past hunger and exhaustion, making his way from the atrium-dock to the stairs, then across the roof, and finally to the entrance of the tent-shelter. It flapped with a welcoming rhythm, emitting puffs of homecoming aromas that made his head swim.

Ducking his head inside, Wer blinked, adjusting to the dimmer light. "Oh, what a day I have had. You won't believe, when I tell you. Is that sauteed prawn? The ones I caught this morning? I'm glad you chose to cook those—"

Ling had been stirring the wok. At first, as she turned around, he thought she smiled. Only then Wer realized . . . it was a grimace. She did not speak, but fear glistened sin her eyes, which darted to her left—alerting him to swivel and look—

A creature stood on their little dining table. A large bird of some kind, with a long, straight beak. It gazed back at Wer, regarding him with a tilt of its head, first one way and then the other. A moment later, it spread stubby wings, stretching them, and he numbly observed.

There are no feathers. A penguin? What would a penguin be doing here in sweltering Shanghai?

Then he noticed its talons. Penguins don't have—

The claws gripped something that still writhed on the tabletop, gashed and torn. It looked like a snake. . . . Only, instead of oozing blood or guts, there were bright flashes and electric sizzles.

A machine. They are both machines.

Without moving its beak, the bird spoke.

"You must not fear. There is no time for fear."

Wer swallowed. His lips felt chapped and dry. "What . . . who are you?"

"I am an instrumentality, sent by those who might save your life." The bird-thing abruptly bent and pecked hard at the snake. Sparks flew. It went dark and limp. An effective demonstration, as if Wer needed one.

"Please go to the window," the winged mechanism resumed, gesturing with its beak. "And bring the stone here."

Well, at least it was courteous. He turned and saw that the white, egg-shaped relic lay on the ledge, soaking in sunlight—instead of wrapped in a dark cloth, as they had agreed. He glanced back sharply at his wife, but Ling was now holding little Xie Xie. She merely shrugged as the baby squirmed and whimpered, trying to nurse.

With a low sigh, Wer turned back toward the stone, whose opalescent surface seemed to glow with more than mere reflections, as he took two steps. Wer could sense the bird leaning forward, eagerly.

As he raised his hands, the whitish surface turned milky and began to swirl. Now it was plain to the eye, how this thing differed from the "Havana Artifact" that he had seen briefly through an ailectronics store window. It seemed a bit smaller, narrower, and considerably less smooth. One end was marred by pits, gouges and blisters that tapered into thin streaks across the elongated center. And yet, the similarities were unmistakable. Especially when his hands approached within a few centimeters. A spinning sense of depth grew more intense. And, swiftly, a dim shape began to form, coalescing within, as if emerging from a fog.

Demons, Wer thought.

Or rather, a demon, as he realized—there was just a single figure, bipedal, shaped vaguely like a man.

With reluctance—wishing he had never laid eyes on it—Wer made himself plant hands on both tapered ends, gritting his teeth as a brief, faint tremor ran up the inner surface of his arms. He hefted the heavy stone, turned and carried it away from the sunlight. At which point, the glow seemed only to intensify, filling and chasing the dim shadows of the tent-shelter.

"Put it down here, on the table, but please do not release it from your grasp," the bird-thing commanded, still polite, but insistent. Wer obeyed, though he wanted to let go. The shape that gathered form, within the stone, was one that he had seen before. More human-like than the demons he had glimpsed on TV, shown conversing with world delegates in Washington—but still a demon. Like the frightening penguin-creature, whose wing now brushed his arm as it bent next to him, eager for a closer look.

"The legends are true!" It murmured. Wer felt the bird's voice resonate, emitting from an area on its chest. "Worldstones are said to be picky. They may choose one human to work with, or sometimes none at all. Or so go the stories." The robot regarded Wer with a glassy eye. "You are fortunate in more ways than you might realize."

Nodding without much joy, Wer knew at least one way.

I am needed, then. It will work only for me.

That means they won't just take the thing and leave us be.

But it also means they must keep me alive. For now.

The demon within the stone—it had finished clarifying, though the image remained rippled and flawed. Approaching on two oddly-jointed legs, it reached forward with powerfully muscular arms, as if to touch or seize Wer's enclosing hands. The mouth—appearing to have four lips arranged like a flattened diamond—moved underneath a slitlike nose and a single, ribbonlike organ where eyes would have been. With each opening and closing of the mouth, a faint buzzing vibrated the surface under Wer's right palm.

"The stone is damaged," the penguin-like automaton observed. "It must have once possessed sound transducers. Perhaps, in a well-equipped laboratory—"

"Legends?" Wer suddenly asked, knowing he should not interrupt. But he couldn't help it. Fear and exhaustion and contact with demons—it all had him on the verge of hysteria. Anyway, the situation had changed. If he was special, needed, then the least that he could demand was an answer or two!

"What legends? You mean there have been more than one or two of these things? You mean they've appeared before?"

The bird-thing tore its gaze away from the image of a humanoid creature, portrayed opening and closing its mouth in a pantomime of speech that timed roughly, but not perfectly, with the buzzing under Wer's right hand.

"You might as well know, Peng Xiao Wer, since yours is now a burden and a task assigned by Heaven." The penguinlike machine gathered itself to full height and then gave him a small bow of the head. "A truth that goes back farther than any other that is known."

Wer's mouth felt dry. "What truth?"

"That stones have fallen since time began. And men have spoken to them for at least nine thousand years.

"And in all that time, they have spoken of a day of culmination. And that day, long prophesied, may finally be at-hand."

Wer felt warm contact at his back, as Ling pressed close—as near as she could, while nursing their child. He did not remove his hands from the object on the table. But he was glad that one of hers slid around his waist, clutching him tight and driving out some of the sudden chill he felt, inside.

Meanwhile, the entity within the stone appeared frustrated, perhaps realizing that no one heard its words. The buzzing intensified, then stopped. Then, instead, the demon reached forward, as if toward Wer, and started to draw a figure in space, close to the boundary between them. Wherever it moved its scaly hand, a trail of inky darkness remained, until Wer realized.

Calligraphy. The creature was brushing a figure—an ideogram—in a flowing, archaic-looking style. It was a complicated symbol, containing at least twenty strokes. I wish I had more education, Wer thought, gazing in awe at the final shape, when it stood finished, throbbing across the face of the glowing "world-stone." Both symmetrically beautiful and yet jagged, threatening, it somehow transfixed the eye and made his heart pound.

Wer did not know the character. But anyone with the slightest knowledge of Chinese would recognize the radical—the core symbol—that it was built from.


* * *

To be continued in Volume 3 Number 4

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