by Sara Stamey
New Los Angeles, 2027
NeuroLink NewsEntertainment Studio
Leeza Conreid, hostess of “Celebrity Smackback,” plops her well-honed tush onto a stool at the production console, hooking her stilettos over the rung. Violet fingernails flick open a popper beneath her nostrils as she inhales with a hiss, and focus sharpens into max clarity. She snakes out two leads and snaps them into her lower-back spinal insert. Slips on the goggles.
“Showtime.” Reaching into deceptively empty space, her long pale fingers spider the air to cue the file:
***NLNE REQUESTED FIELD ASSIGNMENT: 5 March 2027
LEADLINE: Where is Ariadne? Who is Ariadne?
SUBJECT: “Saint Ariadne,” rumored healer of New Plague leprosy victims.
MEDIA SATURATION: 53% and growing.
Gaea Speaks cult leaders: “Mother Earth is fighting back against the pollution of the patriarchal corporate technocracy. Only Ariadne can save us now.”***
Behind the goggles, Leeza smirks. “You said it, bitches. And I’m the one gonna nail her.” Another finger-twitch through the file, images cascading across her retinas.
***ASSIGNMENT DANGER RATING:
High. No data on risk factors for illegal penetration of Med League border. No weapons or training provided.***
She licks her lips and shimmies on the stool, running a fingertip over her thigh. Leeza Conreid doesn’t need a gun.
***INITIAL FIELD CONTACT:
None established. Field agent Conreid advised to search Athens’ Piraeus Harbor taverns for one Peter Mitchell, AWOL NorthAm Navy. Current occupation: smuggler.***
Geomagnetic palsy hit the satellite navigation again.
Peter Mitchell scowled at the rebellious LEDs and the radar static, rubbed his chin stubble, and watched the compass in its plexiglas bubble dip and spin aimless as an oracle. It was built-in and he hadn’t seen any point to removing it. Anyway he liked it, part of the old bucket of bolts, like the crude mermaid some forgotten seaman had painted inside Nereid’s wheelhouse.
He pulled off his shades, rubbed bleary eyes, and squinted into morning-after sunlight over the purple-blue Aegean. The “wine-dark sea.”
With a groan, he groped for his binoculars and scanned, wincing at the sun dazzles. Was that a distant froth of boat wake? A border patrol? Or worse? He shook his head—all he could see now was glare. He lowered the lenses and fumbled through a bundle of old paper charts. More solar flares were hitting, amplified in effect by a geomagnetic null phase, garbling navigation signals. All the satellite systems getting damn shaky. And with the accelerating geomag field wobbles, the communications blocs weren’t bothering to maintain the satellite grid, so the gaps even during stable intervals were getting bigger. A lot of useless junk in decaying orbits up there. Like the “Peace Shields” the Reds and Feds had sucked their budgets to launch.
Scanning the charts and his scribbled updates, he snorted. Big boys had their horns clipped now, down to ground level with the rest just trying to read the maps. Momma Earth not a hell of a prize any more, what with the pollution and global warming, rising sea levels, quakes, ozone holes, and solar radiation showers—not to mention the human hordes on self-destruct.
Fire and brimstone. Retribution? Daddy Reverend righteous-right after all?
Peter shrugged. Looked like nobody, meek or not, was going to inherit. Just keep paying the price of progress right along with one of the geomagnetic polar alignment reversals that had maybe happened last time to herald the Flood. This time it was a new pandemic, Rapid-Proliferating Hansen’s—leprosy on fast-forward. He’d seen them go, like the guy at the shipyard. You start with a rash, some bumpy “sunburn blisters,” and the next thing you know your fingers are just lumps, your face a horrorshow blob choking the breath out of you. No cure in sight.
On the plus side, the powers that be were too busy to worry about one Peter Mitchell, “freelance import expediter” and NorthAm AWOL from the latest un-greatest war, or a missing Turkish spy boat dressed down as a fishing trawler, impounded during that same illustrious Gulf War Three. All things considered, he was sitting pretty to watch the world go to hell in a handbasket.
A lopsided grin cracked his stubble. He checked the radio and radar again—still nothing but static. Could be anything out there, he was cruising blind. And he couldn’t shake the itchy feel of something closing in, a sort of useful sixth sense from his Navy days, much as he hated to admit it. Unrolling another chart, he swore, then leaned down to rummage in the console cubby for the right tube. He straightened, clipping his head hard against the wheel. “Son of a bitch!”
He slammed the cubby closed, flinching as the clatter tromped spike-shod through his hangover. Frowning at the nav readouts, he popped the heel of his hand against the tried and true spot on the console. Gauge needles jumped, but the digitals kept up their drunken dance.
Clutching the charts and a coffee bulb, he left the wheelhouse, sucked in a fresh salty lungful, and hauled himself up the ladder to the flying bridge. He nudged its wheel, dropped into the pilot seat, pulled off his shades and lifted closed eyes to the morning sun already simmering. He stifled another groan and rubbed his throbbing temples. Reaching for the fifth-liter in its handy slot, he thought better of it, took a sip from the lukewarm coffee, and made a face.
Peter grasped the wheel. “Captain Mitchell surveys his domain.”
Up here on Nereid’s bridge, bathed in light shimmering over the distant stark-stone islands of the Cyclades and skimming closer above the purple-blue depths, he could almost forget looming Doomsday. These islands had been honed to the bare bones for centuries. They’d somehow gone beyond time and change, despite the recent earthquake and volcanic upheavals rearranging map contours, like they’d survive anything mere humans could throw at them.
He peered edgily from his chart to an approaching scatter of bare islets. Hadn’t taken this route in years, not since the big Number Three. Most of the old drifting mines, at least, had been cleared out by pukes like himself—ex-puke—but he didn’t like running unknown waters without his depth-sounder. The geomagnetic fluctuations screwed up more than just radio transmissions. Right now, they were getting one of the unstable shifts to null in the global field, as the north and south poles wavered in and out or split into random islands of magnetic charge. Played hell with fine-tuned circuits. And he wasn’t in the mood to appreciate the irony that advances in nanocircuitry miniaturization had come just in time to make the electronics even more vulnerable to the electromagnetic field pollution.
He studied the chart, made a course correction, and stood to scan 360 with his binoculars. No sign of border patrols. Or pirates. Or Sons of the Prophet.
He sat, drumming his fingers, still keyed up. Too easy. So why look a gift horse? If he couldn’t monitor the patrol radio bands, they couldn’t get spotter reports on him. Maybe he’d make it clear. He leaned back, riding the dip and surge over low swells as the twin diesels hummed high. The sea glimmered around him, breeze freshening, sky gem-clear. Off to starboard, toward one of the rock islets, a gleaming curve broke the surface, then two finned backs—dolphins, breaching in a burst of spray.
Despite his jitters, Peter smiled. Greek sailors counted them good luck. He just liked to see them around, liked to cruise in the midst of a rough-and-tumble of sleek dolphins riding Nereid’s bow wake, grinning up at him. No hate or fear in their eyes, laughing through it all at the lunacies of Homo sapiens.
He wanted to believe the islands and the dolphins would survive after all the wars and warriors were long gone. Somehow he needed to believe that something beautiful and pure would outlast human stupidity. His own Noble Quest had certainly been a roaring farce.
Another leap, a splash, and the dolphins were gone. Peter shook his head, checked the radio and radar. Still no go. His fingers drummed on the armrests. He took another look at the chart, tempted to veer off on a shorter course, but that would put him right through a recent pirate hotspot.
Damn. He wanted to get this run over and done with, gold standard stashed in the kitty, maybe invest in an engine upgrade for a little more edge, and thank you ma’am Kali nichte Good-bye.
He blew out a breath and leaned over the spray shield to peer down through the forward deck’s open hatch to the bunks.
His client was still sleeping. Pricey fantasy material for certain tastes, the pale, coltish limbs and blond tousle so fair it was almost white. A delicate blue artery pulsing beneath her firm little chin. Face half-hidden, smoothed out in dream, the only hint of color in barely parted pouty lips. And dark-smudged lids hiding the feral glitter of her eyes. Even asleep, she screamed Trouble.
Sara Stamey’s journeys include treasure hunting and teaching scuba in the Caribbean; backpacking Greece and New Zealand; operating a nuclear reactor; and owning a farm in Southern Chile. She teaches creative writing at Western Washington University and shares her creekside land with wild creatures and her cats, dog, and very tall husband Thor.
Sara’s SF novels with Berkley/Ace made Locus Best New Novelists. The Statesman Journal calls her Islands “a superior mystery and suspense novel… a stomping, vivid ride.” Her near-future Greek Islands thriller, The Ariadne Connection, has received the CYGNUS Award for speculative fiction.