The Drowned City

… continued from So Many Stars, and So Quiet


The days and the nights passed, and if it were not for the desperation of their situation, Anna would have found the sailing nearly idyllic. The small trimaran performed brilliantly on the broad reach of their course, the skies remained clear and the tradewind constant. Occasionally a brief squall passed over, enough to keep their water jugs full, but not so much as to cause alarm. They had enough food if they were careful, though it became increasingly bland as they relied upon the salted fish and seaweed that Ca-Seti had thoughtfully left on board, supplemented with their own dwindling supply of prepackaged meal bars.

Ca-Tren continued to ask questions about the stars in the sky, and Anna tried to teach her the basics of astronomy and the structure of the galaxy. Ca-Tren struggled with the human names for the stars and constellations, and Anna wondered if she really grasped the distances involved or was just being agreeable. How does one teach the idea that light has a velocity to someone who has never before had to learn more than how or why their world has seasons? At least Li-Estl taught her students that their planet was a sphere and that it revolved around their sun, so thankfully Anna didn’t have to broach that particular subject, and Ca-Tren had been exposed to the idea that the stars in her sky were other suns, far away. Yet the speed of light remained a difficult concept.

If our boat could fly, could we sail to your world? Ca-Tren asked on one of these nights.

“No,” Anna replied, “not on a sailboat. We would need engines, and… oh. Actually, yes, but not on this sailboat. I almost forgot.”

Ca-Tren tilted her head in that way Anna understood to mean confusion, or curiosity, or perhaps both.

“We don’t travel between stars this way anymore, because it is too slow, but we used to use a sailing ship of sorts, yes. But the sail had to be very large, and the ship very small, because there is no air between worlds for the sail to catch. This sail had to catch the light itself.”

Ca-Tren’s head tilted the other way.

A sail for light? So this sailboat could go as fast as… light?

Anna thought about the old Morpheum mission, remembering her comments to Laxmi about it, months ago aboard Aniara, before reaching orbit around 62f. Where were they now, that crew? More than halfway from Earth to Trappist-1, yet they still had decades to go before they would arrive there.

“Not as fast as light, no. But if the ship is small enough, a lightsail can achieve a fifth of that speed.”

But you said the light of your sun took a thousand years to get here. So, that means… how old are you? How long do your people live?

Anna smiled.

“The light of my sun takes twelve-hundred years to get here, but when I say that, I mean Earth years, which are longer than your years.”


“Earth revolves around Sol, our Sun, in about three-hundred sixty-five… no, wait, that’s Earth days. Days are a bit longer here, so, um…. Here, let me see the tablet for a moment, please?”

Ca-Tren handed the tablet to Anna, and she quickly did some calculations.

“Here we go. So, a year on Earth is three-hundred days for you, but a year here is only two-hundred twenty local days, so… it takes over one-thousand six-hundred years — your years, local years — for the light of my sun to reach here.”

If a Kwakitl could look stunned, Anna imagined it would look like Ca-Tren’s face now.

A fifth of that… so you’re eight-thousand years old!

“Oh! No. Oh no, not even close. I’m, um…” She ran the Earth to Kepler calculation again. “I’m ninety-three years old, based on local years. Sixty-eight by my own count.”

Ca-Tren still looked stunned, and confused.

Ninety-three! Li-Estl is the oldest Kwakitl I know, and she’s, um, fifty-something. So, you are an elder for your people? I know you are the leader here.

“I’m not really the leader. Our captain… our leader was still on board our ship when we came down, and we don’t know if he’s alive. That’s another reason I’m anxious to get back. And no, I’m not an elder, not at all. There are many who are much older than I am. I have a long way to go… I hope. But you should know that humans live much longer now than we used to. Not that long ago, our lives were much shorter.”

But your ship’s journey has been eight-thousand years to get here? How is this possible?

“It wouldn’t be. That’s how long a light-sail ship would take to get here. Our very first missions to other stars worked that way, so we could only visit those closest to us. But my ship works differently. It’s not that it’s faster, it’s just… well, it’s difficult to explain. But it took us three… er, four of your years to get here.”

Anna could see that Ca-Tren did not understand, but an explanation of warping spacetime would have to wait for another day. She pointed to the space elevator, dark against the night sky near the surface, but still catching the sun’s light far, far overhead. They were now close enough that they had to look nearly straight up to see the illuminated segment.

“We have made many advances, but we still haven’t yet built one of those, an elevator to reach into space. And at one time, your people had twelve of them, all around this world. I realize the Orta may have helped to build those, but that is still a highly advanced technology. We’ve been working on something like it for many years, but the problem for us remains the satellites. It would be in the path for too many of them, and no one can agree on what to do about that. So, perhaps it’s not really a technology issue as it is a political one, but the fact remains, we have not built it.”

Ninety-three. So, you are not old for your people?

“No. A couple-hundred years ago I would have been at the end of my career, my time to work and contribute to society, and I would probably only have ten or fifteen more years left to my life. I would have appeared to other humans far older than I appear today. Today, I am not yet at the halfway point of my working life. I expect to work at least another sixty, er, sorry, for you ninety years, maybe more, and even then I should have a long retirement to enjoy. Plus, they keep making advances in this field, so by the time I get to that age, who knows?”

Anna looked around the boat, then back up at the elevator and the stars beyond. “Well, that is, if I do make it back home. We have more immediate things to worry about.”

Ca-Tren appeared to pick up on Anna’s change of mood and asked no further questions. Anna kept watch quietly for the next hour, her eyes on the dark horizon, until Jaci came up to take over. She relinquished the tiller without a word and went below to sleep fitfully, her dreams troubled by visions of climbing an endless ladder, only to be pulled back down by some unseen force, irresistible and relentless.

She awoke to Laxmi’s hand gently shaking her shoulder. Groggily she opened her eyes to the daylight-filled cabin, rolled her legs out of the hammock, and sat up.

“Is it my shift again already? I feel as though I only just got to sleep.”

“No. Anna, we’ve arrived.”


“At the island. Ar-Makati. We’ve made landfall, and Jaci’s looking for a good spot to beach the boat. We thought you should come up.”

Anna followed Laxmi up through the hatchway, trying and failing to stifle a yawn. Jaci was at the helm, and turning around, Anna saw Ca-Tren perched up at the bow, peering into the water ahead of the boat. Off the port side, half a kilometer away or less, she saw the rocky shore of the island, rough and steep-sided, the sea breaking against boulders as large as their boat. To starboard lay only ocean, no fringing reef to protect a calm lagoon, and the endless rolling swell approaching from the south. There would be no gentle landing here.

“I take it we haven’t seen the far shore yet?”

“No. We’re sailing around the island now.”

Anna nodded. “The other side should be a bit more sheltered. No sign of anyone else here? No Orta?”

“Not yet. So far, the place appears completely untouched, except for, well, that.” Laxmi pointed upward.

Much like Ar-Danel, the island extended steeply upward from the sea, all rocks and cliffs and ledges with little to no vegetation. Uneven terraces broke up the cliff walls in various places, and small dark openings led back into the rock. The scene appeared eerily familiar, and Anna kept expecting to see gulls and seabirds nesting in the rocks and flying over the water, but there was no sign of life.

Lifting her eyes higher, however, she saw where the rocks gave way to a blocky structure, pale and adobe-like, blending in with the similarly colored cliffs, yet clearly manufactured with straight-sided walls and even edges, if a bit crumbly in spots. A building. A very old building. And rising from the flat roof of the building, gleaming bright silver as though finely polished just the day before, she saw the cylindrical tube, thirty meters in diameter, reaching for the heavens.

Anna craned her neck and followed the mirror-like tube with her eyes. It dwindled and disappeared with distance far, far overhead, until in a moment of vertigo Anna felt she wasn’t looking up, but down, and if she didn’t take care she would fall, fall the length of that tube all the way to its end where it met the orbital ring, forty-thousand kilometers above.

“Tak,” she whispered, drawn back to that fateful day at the far end of this elevator, and everything that had befallen them since. “Tak, I’m so sorry.”

“Anna, are you all right?” Laxmi looked at her with concern.

Anna broke her gaze away from the elevator and shook her head. “Yes. Yes, I’m fine. Absolutely. Ok, let’s have a look at the far side.”

The island was not large, far smaller than Ar-Velen or Ar-Danel, and twenty minutes later they sailed into its lee, where the wind and swell dwindled to provide a small patch of calm. All their focus now bent upon the shore, looking for anywhere they might land. A sandy beach seemed too much to hope for in this rocky abode, but in the gentler swells of the north shore, nestled between rocky outcrops rising like tower spires, an evenly sloped ledge rose from the water like a ramp, backed by a crumbling section of building wall.

“There. Right there. Jaci, take us in, please. That’ll do nicely.”

Jaci pushed the tiller away and turned the bow toward the ramp, while Anna pulled the sail in tighter as they rounded up into the wind coming down over the shoulder of the island. That done, she moved forward to the mast, preparing to drop the sail once they reached the shore.

With perhaps two-hundred meters still to go, something in the water caught her eye, a lighter turquoise shade against the deeper blue, lit by the sun rising toward its zenith. The light patch passed between the main hull and the port outrigger, and with a bit of shock Anna realized she was looking at the rooftop of some sunken building, a spire passing but a few meters beneath the surface. Now that she knew what to look for in the calmer, crystal clear waters of the lee side, an entire city appeared laid out below their keel. Rounded domes, narrow towers, and squat cubes all jumbled together, with streets between, their edges softened and broken by the passage of time and relentless waves. Fish swam the lanes of the drowned city, and kelp grew from the rooftops like whip antennas, waving in the current and reaching for the surface. The trimaran’s shadow ghosted over the blocky structures, startling the aquatic denizens who had taken up residence, scattering the fish left and right as they sensed a predator above.

Indeed, the trimaran’s shadow appeared all too large and close in the deceptively shallow depths. Anna looked up and forward to see Ca-Tren likewise enraptured by her history beneath the waves.

“Ca-Tren! Eyes forward!”

The young avian, hearing her name, looked up, and seeing Anna’s pointing arm, she turned to look forward, but too late.

With a sickening crunch the starboard outrigger caught on a rooftop spire, and the boat lurched and spun hard to that side. Momentum threw Anna to the deck, knocking the wind out of her, and hearing a splash, she knew someone had gone overboard. The boat’s forward movement ceased, and slowly the offshore wind pushed them back, easing them off the spire.

Anna gained her feet, wincing at the pain in her knee, and looked around, taking stock. Jaci was still on the helm, looking a bit dazed, and Laxmi was just now sitting up from where she had fallen in the cockpit. So it was Ca-Tren who went into the water. Anna rushed up to the bow, and to her relief, there was Ca-Tren, hanging on to the port outrigger by a wing. She let go, paddled over to the main hull, and Anna helped pull her up over the side and back onto the deck.

“Are you ok? Are you hurt?” Anna gazed into Ca-Tren’s normally inscrutable eyes, seeing what looked like chagrin in her expression. Ca-Tren shook herself, squawked what sounded an awful lot like “Sorry,” and stood up, evidently unhurt beyond her pride. Anna faced back to the cockpit.

“We’re ok up here. Laxmi, Jaci, are you all right?”

“We’re unhurt,” Jaci said, “but we have a different problem.” He pointed at the starboard outrigger.

The outrigger had come loose from the forward spar holding it to the main hull, and it was visibly sinking. It was still attached by the aft spar, and Anna didn’t think it would take the whole boat down with it, but…

“The e-suits are still in there! Jaci, Laxmi, do what you can to get us to shore immediately. Ca-Tren, come with me.”

They were at most a hundred meters from the shore. Surely the boat would hold together for a hundred meters? Anna ducked into the cabin and grabbed a coil of line, then took it forward to the broken spar. She jumped into the water and clambered out along the spar to the outrigger.

Ca-Tren appeared beside her in the water. Without needing to be told, she took a length of the line under her wing and dove under the outrigger, coming up again on the outboard side. She tossed the line back across toward Anna, looping it around the outrigger, then dove back to pull one more loop under and toss it over the pontoon. Anna secured the loop to itself with a fast clove hitch, then she and Ca-Tren both swam back with the line to the main hull. Back aboard, they pulled the line as taut as they could and secured it to belaying pins at the base of the mast. It was ugly, it was inefficient, and it would not survive in rough seas, but it would get them the hundred meters to shore.

And with a crunch of wood upon rock and stone, they grounded upon the ramp they had seen earlier, which Anna now realized was a sloping rooftop.

They had made it to Ar-Makati, at the base of the space elevator.


… continued with An Open Door

header image credit: Enrique Meseguer / via Pixabay License

© Matt Fraser and, 2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Matt Fraser and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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