2019, High School, Prose
March 17, 2219
Today is my fifth Worthday, and Dad gave me this beautiful pen. I never saw anything like it; the barrel is clear glass and inside is a vibrant turquoise liquid with tiny blue and yellow fish—they swim back and forth as I tip it this way and that. I laughed to see it, because any five year-old could tell you there is no such thing as colorful fish. My brother Surf works in the hatchery, and he says they are all brown and slimy like the slurry they feed on. We don’t often eat fish, of course; it’s too expensive. They cost three Work Hour Credits apiece, and who has that kind of time to spend? Surf thinks it is hilarious that the Work Chiefs are all tucking into those fish, not even thinking about the sewage they feed on. Our family is pretty much algae-tarian. I guess the Land Lubbers would find that dull, but Ma is an excellent cook, and flavor pouches can liven up even the most basic algae dish.
Tonight isn’t just any night though, and a Worthday means a surprise for dinner. I don’t know how they do things on the land, but here in Oceanalia we don’t celebrate births. Those are somber affairs, as every new person means an increased strain on our resources. From birth until you finish your apprenticeship, you are a useless lump that your family has to work hard to support. A Worthday is the first day where you are no longer a burden.
“We’re so proud of you, Coral,” Ma said, beaming with excitement as she carried my Worthday surprise to the table. A tray piled high with beautiful, ripe oranges! I’m embarrassed to say I squealed like a toddler.
“Where did you manage to find them, Neryssa?” Dad exclaimed. “I haven’t seen fresh oranges in years.”
“I asked the Boat Folk to keep an eye out when they headed over to the Floridian Peaks last month… they said the harvest was poor again, but the Governor has an indoor orangery, and I can be very persuasive…” Ma winked and we all giggled. The room seemed suddenly brighter, as though the fruit glowed with concentrated sunshine, the air tangy with its citrusy freshness. We chattered about our work day as we ate. Surf goofed around as usual, pushing a whole segment of rind into his mouth and smiling wide so it looked like his teeth were missing.
“Today we had a new kid on the team,” he announced. “We told him there was a problem with the sluice gate for the feeder system. When he bent over to look, Tide opened it and blasted him full force in the chest! Poor kid went flying into the nursery pool, and a tiddler swam right in his mouth. It was awesome! He was floundering about, fish leaping all over him…”
“Surf! That’s not nice! You shouldn’t torment the youngsters like that.” Ma was bristling, and Surf had the good sense to change the subject.
“What did you do today, Dad? Find anything good?” Dad wiped his mouth of the last dribble of zesty sweetness. “Actually, today was pretty exciting.” He paused for dramatic effect, but you know what dads are like. He’s a marine scientist for WPC, the Water Prospecting Corporation—exciting to him could be drilling a small hole and finding some unpolluted water source.
“I’m not exactly sure what I found, to be honest. An… anomaly. The team was working over towards the Deadzone, you know, where all the old-time shipwrecks happened back during the big earthquake of 2046…”
Mum gasped—she hated when he worked in the Deadzone. Until the 21st century it was called the Caribbean, and the people did this thing called “tourism” there. Back then the sea was still blue, and in the Caribbean, it was breathtaking; it sparkled like aquamarine crystals and gently rippled over white sandy beaches. Anyhow, those tourists would travel about in ships 20 stories high, with whole pools of clean water on board for no other purpose than to swim in! The ships would gather all around the islands, and they would anchor so the tourists could visit the coral reefs and see the fish. Not the ugly carp in the hatchery, more like the ones in my new pen.
One day in 2046—one cloudless, sun-soaked afternoon in this paradise—comes the earthquake. It was massive. Tsunamis roared as the Cocos plate pushed beneath the Caribbean plate, thrusting up vast fingers of rock as though Poseidon himself was furious at the wasteful humans on the surface. Volcanoes that had rumbled, mostly inactive, suddenly roared to life, pouring miles of lava into the water. The giant waves, some 100 feet tall, bigger even than the waves that roar below Oceanalia during Stormy Season, surged up over the ships and the islands. Thousands died, maybe hundreds of thousands. The cruise liners sank, dragging the unwilling tourists on a final, dreadful voyage to the seabed below. The Caribbean was gone, just totally destroyed. No more coral reefs, no more island idylls. Within ten years even tourism was a thing of the past, as people finally tried to prevent the global disaster they had created. But of course, as we know now, it was already too late.
So now the whole Deadzone is off limits, except to those with work permits. And nobody wants to go there anyway—who wants to travel in the dark black waters among the ghostly carcasses of those rusting hulks? And beyond them, the black expanse of volcanic rock of the Deadlands, the new land mass that the earthquake created? Nothing grows there, nobody visits it. No wonder Ma was worried now.
“Don’t stress, Neryssa—you know I’m always careful. Anyhow, the rest of the team was poking about at the lower parts of the Deadlands, testing water acidity. I decided to go and look a little higher up, at some crevices and caves nearer the surface. And this one cave… it opened up inside about 10 feet in… and I thought I saw… I mean, I was probably imagining it, but…”
“Saw what, Dad?!” Surf interjected, frustrated at Dad’s stumbling tale.
“Well, the caves we usually find are the same as everything else—all dark, acidified water and dead nothingness inside. But as I went deeper into this one… it seemed like I could see lightness ahead. It looked… blue!”
We all spoke over each other at this point, trying to find an explanation for what Dad had seen. Surf and I begged him to take us with him tomorrow.
“Please Dad, there’s no reason you couldn’t take us, you still have the permit,” I cajoled. “It would be a great Worthday outing…”
Our parents tried to put up a fight, but they know when they are beaten. It was agreed first thing tomorrow we will go and see this mystery cave. I don’t know whether to be excited or afraid.
March 19, 2219
My hand is shaking as I write this, and I know I shouldn’t write at all, but I can’t keep a secret like this without letting it out somehow. Yesterday we rose at dawn and snuck down to the dock of the WPC where Dad’s work sub is moored. We sunk beneath the surface, and I felt the usual thrill at seeing the underside of our great Oceanalia. Like an iceberg, 90 percent of our city is underwater; gargantuan blocks of recycled plastic descend almost a mile, tethered to the ocean floor like a ship at anchor.
As we moved deeper, the inky water obscured the city from us, enveloping it in darkness. Dad navigated purely on sonar now, with the depressing ocean floor shown as a series of valleys and peaks that was once all sand and bedrock, but now was largely human detritus. As we reached the Deadzone, we grew tense, and he turned on the powerful headlights to help him pick his way between the wrecks. Somehow the shadowy depths seemed filled with the ghosts of all the millions of souls lost since the Climate Catastrophe. It was a relief as we approached the Deadlands’ craggy edges and rose towards the surface.
Wetsuits on, we all followed Dad as he entered the cave again, swimming carefully between the jagged rocks that guarded the entrance. Just as he had said, the cave opened out into a wider tunnel and wound upwards—sure enough, we saw a faint blue glow ahead. Five minutes later, we surfaced within a lofty cavern, and the water became a shallow pool around our feet. The water was the source of the blue!
Dad took some test readings of it, and the results delighted him so much he threw off his mask and yelled.
“It’s clean! I don’t know how, maybe currents have kept it from mixing, but somehow this water is good!”
We all waded across the cavern to the far side, where it opened out into a small lagoon. The sky above didn’t seem as polluted as normal; a weak sunlight filtered through and danced over the pleasantly warm water. It was so beautiful! The sand, whiter than you can imagine. The water glistened and rippled in a hundred shades of blue. And most precious of all… the reef. An actual living coral reef, like something out of a fairytale.
We may never know how this one small patch of paradise survived the disaster years. Somehow the earthquake formed a barrier around it, nestling the lagoon in a protective embrace. The whispers about the Deadlands kept everyone away at first, then everyone was too busy just trying to survive.
For hours we swam and explored this magical world. Like the tourists of long ago, we floated over the reef, marveling as the corals waved their fronds gently below. The colors, so many colors! The fish were a brilliant rainbow weaving in and out of purple and crimson anemones. Even if we had dreamed of paradise, we could not have imagined it this way.
The afternoon came, and Dad called us together for a family meeting.
“You know what this place means to us, to the company, to the world,” he said solemnly, and we nodded. “If we tell people, they will come in teams. First the scientists, to marvel over it and take samples. Then the WPC, to steal the water and find its source. This place is worth a fortune to them and they won’t think twice about plundering it.” He rubbed at the furrows in his brow, and a tear rolled down Ma’s salt-stained cheek.
“We can’t tell anyone. Not ever. We need to protect this place for the future. Who knows, maybe one day the earth will recover and then the reefs can be restored. But not yet, not for a long, long time. Humans aren’t ready for this. Not the Land Lubbers who cling to the ruins of our old world, nor the Boat Folk who trade and squabble over anything of value, and not even our own people on Oceanalia.”
“Couldn’t we just keep it secret for ourselves? We could come back; nobody else needs to know, and we wouldn’t harm it,” I pleaded, but Dad shook his head.
“We would be exploiting it in our own way. And worse, we might accidentally lead others here. No, we must never speak of this place again and forget it exists. Promise now. Swear it.”
We all swore to protect the secret lagoon, and never speak about it again. Which I guess includes writing, so I will have to hide this diary now. It is sad to think we can never go there again, but somehow still wonderful to know that it exists. That some small part of the planet remains pure and untainted by man, waiting for the day when we deserve paradise again. A Worthday for all mankind.
The topic of “Presence of Future” inspired me to imagine the world 200 years from now, assuming that the worst-case scenario of climate change and global warming will occur. I read articles about the predictions for 2050 and beyond, and it was clear how bleak Earth’s future really is. As the temperature increases, the polar ice will melt and the oceans could rise 10 feet, meaning a loss of inhabitable land. The oceans will flow into natural aquifers and contaminate drinking water supplies. Meanwhile extreme weather will cause natural disasters and massive droughts. The displaced billions of people will fight over the remaining land and drinking water. Yet I didn’t want my piece to be entirely fatalistic. As a member of Gen Z, I am angry at the world that we are inheriting and the damage that has already been done, but I also have a determination to rise up and fight for our future. My peers and I believe in activism, making better choices, and trying to be better humans, so I wanted the family in my story to share that hope and courage. Oceanalia was designed to be a utopian city within this apocalypse, creating everything from recycled materials and working along socialist ideals. Like all utopias though, it is flawed, and Coral and her family see this. Their decision not to share the discovery of the coral reef shows there is still hope within humanity to have the willpower and desire to save the planet.