The body woke up first, eyes snapping open while the mind was still sleeping, unbothered by questions of where it was or why. Limbs moved, and the spine arched slightly attempting to flex and stretch stiff muscles. Only then did the first thoughts come to mind. I am Andreas. And I am… Where am I? It was difficult to distinguish between dream and reality, to call back the last memory from before the blackness, and to tell for sure that his consciousness wasn’t a delusional reality conjured by a feverish body. His ears still rung with an echo of fierce growls and the repeated clicking of a jammed pistol. In Andreas’ memory, strange, yellowish eyes still stared at him.
Andreas attempted to get up, but as he rested his body’s weight on his palm, he hissed with pain. It was his right forearm that was more real than anything else, burying his grasp for reality, consuming it, but it confirmed that the last images burnt into his memory weren’t the stuff of dreams. Andreas looked around to see an improvised camp, empty, but his wounded arm had been carefully bandaged.
“You’re finally awake.”
Andreas nearly jumped up at the sound of an unknown voice and twisted his head to see a stranger behind him. The man wore dirty and weathered clothes, but they seemed to be of good quality. And the equipment gathered in a nearby pile looked as if it was carefully chosen.
“I think I owe you my life,” said Andreas finally, smirking at his wounded arm.
The stranger shrugged.
“I was around,” he said nonchalantly as if rescuing others from death was the most obvious and natural thing in the world. But it wasn’t, not even back before the world changed drastically. The stranger pointed at a crossbow strapped to his belt. “It’s better for the Wastelands. Guns become useless once the sand gets in and jams them. And ammunition is scarce.”
Andreas nodded in embarrassment.
“It’s my first journey,” he admitted. “I took the best from what we had available and what seemed useful.”
“To Pel. To the Sea.”
The man acknowledged without making any comments. He knew all too well that in the end people became curious… or desperate.
“No, it’s not that!” objected Andreas, as if he knew what the other man was thinking about. “I just want to see it.”
“See it?” the question was accompanied by raised eyebrows.
“I am a scientist. Well, somewhat of a scientist.” He shrugged. There was no point in explaining that his research had been purely theoretical so far.
The man looked at Andreas inquisitively, as if he was looking for something in his young, desert-dust-covered face. For answers? For guidance? Silence grew between them. Andreas moved, feeling uneasy under the intense gaze. He felt that he was being tested and the result was crucial.
“My name is Elliot Branch.” The man kneeled down by Andreas, stretching his hand out in greeting. “I’ll take you to Pel if you want to go. And then… then maybe somewhere else, too.”
“Andreas Zahman.” They shook hands. “Just like this? Without any reason?”
Elliot stood up and started gathering his equipment.
“Since I already decided to save your live, I ought to make sure that you don’t lose it as soon as you get up,” a gentle sarcasm echoed in his voice, as if Elliot tried to hide other motives. “Besides…” he looked over his shoulder at Andreas, and his thin face expressed sorrow for a moment with sadness flashing in his eyes, “rarely does one see scientists nowadays. Very rarely.”
“Too rarely,” whispered Andreas as he got up to help his newfound companion pack up the rest of his things.
Wastelands always look the same, thought Andreas, disappointed, hoping that as they approached the Sea, the landscape would change. Maybe there would be more sand, or the wind would smell of water—just like he read in the books. But rocks and grey dust still surrounded him. Sometimes, Andreas wondered how Elliot managed to find his way, as his companion never looked at a compass or checked a map and the terrain all looked the same. For a moment, Andreas thought that Elliot didn’t really know where he was going, and he just moved forward or was leading him somewhere besides Pel. Maybe it wasn’t a good idea to accept a stranger’s offer.
But then a memory of teeth tearing through his forearm chased away the doubts. If not for Elliot, I would be dead now, Andreas thought, realizing that he had no valid reasons to distrust his companion, and the meeting with the wild dogs made it clear how slim his chances were of getting to Pel on his own.
“How is it down there?” Andreas asked, in the end being fed up with silence and concerns.
“In Pel? Just like everywhere else. Some reasonable people, some opportunists, a few old grumps who still remember the Before. A lot of religious freaks, the non-religious ones too,” he spoke with a hint of sarcasm in his voice. “Only difference is the suicides are most likely above the local average.”
“You know, the ones who go to the Sea,” Elliot explained reluctantly.
A slight smile came to Andreas’ face.
“So you are not a believer?”
“It’s nothing more than superstition,” burst Elliot. “A typical human need to give familiar shape to something they don’t understand. Once they called a lightning bolt striking a tree a sign of gods, and they gave sophisticated names to personified elements. And nothing has changed since then.” Elliot stopped and looked at his companion. “And you? Do you believe?”
“I want to understand. That’s why I’m going there,” Andreas explained. “I don’t think there is much to it, but then… there’s so many other things we don’t understand,” he sighed. “I’m not looking for easy solutions, and I won’t pray to the rain just because it fell when I needed it.”
Elliot laughed amused by the example.
“If it was so, you’d have to pray to me,” he giggled maniacally and Andreas found himself laughing, too.
And neither of them heard the quite crunch of stones preceding the attack.
The only thing Andreas felt was a blow to his back, and before he even realized what had happened, he was already lying in the dirt, partially stunned. He heard rushed steps on the rocks, several blows being exchanged, and somebody’s groan when fist met spleen. Then there was a rumble and stones crunching again, accompanied by hastily drawn breaths.
Andreas rose slowly, spitting out sand and trying to keep balance in case another attack was to come. He saw Elliot tumbling in the dust with some woman. She was smaller and looked the weaker of the two, but it was she who had the upper hand in the struggle. They tumbled again on the ground, and the woman ended up on top of her opponent. While attempting to pin Elliot’s arms to the ground, she tried to reach him with… her teeth.
Andreas bent down snatching up a rock, and then approached the combatants. He froze with surprise when he saw a row of thin needles in the woman’s mouth. Lashing out, he swung down without aiming, and the woman’s head snapped to the side. A few moments later, Elliot was pushing the limp body off his own.
“Nice hit,” he murmured impressed.
He reached for his crossbow, inspecting it, and then fixing several mechanical elements. It seemed the weapon survived the tumble without major damages. In the meantime, Andreas leaned over the unconscious woman.
“I wouldn’t do that,” warned Elliot, making his companion jump away from the body. “She might be just pretending.” With these words he approached the woman getting the crossbow ready, and then, without hesitation, he shot the assailant in the eye. The bolt penetrated with a splash-like sound that made Andreas flinch. “Now she is definitely not pretending,” summed up Elliot.
Andreas looked at him with disbelief. He shot her; he shot her just like that. Of course, the Wastelands were dangerous, and people who traveled through them were ruthless. But killing this way? When there was no more threat? Andreas involuntary wondered if he would end up sharing the same fate one day.
“I killed that bitch three times already,” grunted Elliot kneeling down by the corpse. He shook his head looking at the woman’s jaw, and tapped his knuckles on the needles pretending to be teeth.
“Three… times?” Andreas gaped.
“She kept coming back,” he said, as if it was obvious. “Do you think she’d give up only because she’s dead?”
I’m traveling with a madman, thought Andreas.
“And she will come back this time, too?” he asked cautiously, worrying that careless words might incite a madman’s rage. He couldn’t take his eyes off Elliot’s hands as they loaded another bolt into the crossbow.
“She will indeed. But we’re far away from the Sea, so it’ll take her a while.”
Andreas inhaled sharply, and in one leap, he was back by the body already leaning over it, but still looking at Elliot: “Can I?”
Elliot took the bolt out of the woman’s eye and poured some liquid on the wound from a hip flask. It hissed like holy water on a sinner. Then he waved his hand at Andreas.
“Just don’t touch the blood, my tests have not confirmed that it’s safe,” he said sitting in the shade of a nearby rock.
Andreas inspected the woman carefully. She looked so normal, until one touched the skin—a hard, rubber-like texture. At close inspection, there were scales that formed a delicate pattern. And the teeth were different too, or rather, they were thin needles sitting one by one hidden behind narrow lips. For a moment, he wondered if he could break one off to run some tests, but he knew that his meager laboratory was not enough for such experiments anyway. He only had a simple apparatus that he managed to scavenge from a destroyed hospital in nearby the settlement.
“Did you have enough?” asked Elliot mockingly. “One would love to look inside, cut into the flesh, and test some samples, eh?”
Andreas sighed looking at the dead body for the last time, and he got up.
“I’m no scientist,” he admitted, “more an amateur with a couple of toys. I don’t have a laboratory to do anything worthwhile, so I’m stuck in theory.” He snorted. “And even that can’t be done properly without documentation, conferences…”
“When you get bored with Pel and staring at the Sea, I will take you to one more place,” he said. “I think you will like it.” He got up and picked up his bag. “Let’s go. Sunset is near, and I don’t feel like sleeping by this… thing,” he pointed at the corpse.
Before they left, Andreas noticed that his companion stopped by the dead woman one more time. Was it only a whisper of sand unsettled by the wind, or was it really a sigh full of sorrow coming out of Elliot’s mouth?
Andreas didn’t like nights in the Wastelands. It was too quiet, too… empty. Maybe if the darkness was filled with disturbing sounds he’d be curling in his sleeping bag and dying of fear, but he would even prefer that to the unnatural silence disturbed only by the howling wind. That’s why, two days earlier, when he came across the pack of wild dogs, he was more excited than scared. He was delighted with the thought that if those animals managed to survive for so long, they had to be feeding on something, and that meant rodents and other small creatures. Preoccupied with newly awoken hope, he realized too late that the dogs had found a different, less common kind of food.
He shot the first one when the pack was still trying to circle him. But the second one managed to leap, and the shot echoed the same moment that sharp teeth dug into his arm. Andreas remembered falling down and hitting his head against something hard. The last moment of consciousness bore only a glimpse of two other dogs slowly approaching.
If not for Elliot… Andreas thought again. He looked at his companion dozing nearby. Who was this man? Well-equipped, he seemed to know everything about the Wastelands; but not only that, from their conversations had come a picture of an intelligent and, most importantly, well-read man. Andreas remembered that Elliot promised to take him to some place. Where? He said I’d like it… Maybe a museum or a well-stocked library?
Andreas thought again about their current journey. Elliot claimed they had two days of travel before they reached Pel. Just two days from fulfilling his quiet dream, to look at the Sea. But would it bring any answer? Without detailed research, without classified reports lost in the war, there was little hope of understanding anything. And he definitely won’t know for sure if the Sea was their salvation or a curse. He sighed quietly. I think my expectations were a bit too high when it comes to travelling to Pel, he admitted somberly. He would look at the Sea just like he looked at the corpse of that dead woman: without learning and without understanding anything. And this will be end of my big journey, he thought sarcastically.
“Andreas?” Elliot murmured.
“Stop sighing and go to sleep. One would think you fell in love.”
“I’m thinking. I can’t sleep.”
Elliot turned to him and rose on his bedroll.
“Thinking about the Sea?”
“I am wondering if we will ever manage to understand it, to learn the reason it was created,” he explained.
“The Sea was just an experiment, a failed one as a matter of fact,” claimed Elliot. “A desperate attempt to fix past mistakes, fix the world, not thought over, not refined, just an expensive mistake.”
“What do you mean?” Andreas almost shot up, realizing he might have just gotten a chance of gaining the knowledge he desired so much. At this point he didn’t care where Elliot’s information came from.
“See how the war wasted the world?” his companion waved his hand indicating their surroundings. “Everything is dead; ecosystems are ruined. We can’t even rebuild them, since almost nothing survived. Even during the war the scientists wondered how to fix that, but before mankind came to its senses, it was over. We live in a barren desert, existing only thanks to leftovers of the past civilization. When the supplies run out, we will die.
“And the Sea?” prompted Andreas who was not keen on listening to a diatribe about mankind’s dire situation. He’d much rather learn if there was any hope for it.
“The Sea was an attempt at rebuilding the ecosystem,” Elliot explained. “There was a need for an environment somewhat limited so that the experiment would not run out of control. But as it appears,” he threw a bitter comment, “it still did. But at least it doesn’t spread onto the lands and fresh water bodies. Even rivers flowing to the Sea are safe, at least several miles away from the shoreline and brackish waters.”
“So the experiment failed?” asked Andreas disappointed.
“It turned out to be mistake that the Sea was created.” Elliot got silent and stared into the darkness. “It’s really time to sleep,” he said in the end. “If we want to make it to Pel in two days, we need to get up early.”
Andreas knew he wouldn’t learn anything more. Even if he managed to encourage Elliot to say something more, he wouldn’t learn any new facts, only complaints about errors, mistakes, and failed experiments. But maybe if they tried to engage in some research at the Sea, understand the way it functioned, maybe even learn to control it. Maybe it would be of benefit to mankind? Andreas heard about people who sacrificed themselves for science, who claimed that one could not understand the Sea from the shore, from the surface. Elliot called them suicides, and he probably was right since none ever came back. None? whispered a voice in Andreas’ head and the young man shivered at the memory of the woman’s corpse. Well, no humans, he decided.
He fell asleep still considering various ways of studying the Sea, each of them more insane than the other.
Pel made an unforgettable impression on Andreas. Before the war it must have been just a small fishing town, but that was why it survived the war, away from the bombs and armies that saw no benefit in taking over a backwater hole with its total wealth no more than two fishing ships. Shattered skeletons of those ships were lying now on the beach, thrown away like used-up toys. The Sea had made its statement that the time of man’s reign over its waters was over.
When they walked through the town, Andreas looked around with curiosity, amazed by the houses that kept their pre-war appearance. Of course, they slowly corroded as time passed, but they still looked together like a town. A real town, he thought. Pel was not a conglomeration of accidental constructions built from anything available, unlike the typical architecture of other settlements.
“So here we are, this is Pel,” said Elliot and his words were dripping with irony. “In the past, a shithole that people avoided even on holidays, now a heart of civilization. And only because it still has glass in most of the windows and tarmac streets.”
“Do I hear some jealousy?” Andreas couldn’t resist a bit of mockery.
“Exactly, my friend, exactly! The place where I live has no glass, not even windows. But,” he smiled suddenly and his eyes shone as he hushed into a whisper. “It has some more interesting things than that. But let’s go and look at the Sea now,” he added, not allowing any questions.
They turned into one of the streets and followed it. It was there, in the space between two lines of buildings, that Andreas caught his first glimpse of the blue-green infinity. He stopped, both surprised and amazed. This space, this emptiness… Contrary to the grey landscapes of the Wasteland, it seemed to have some meaning. And the perfectly straight line of the horizon dividing the world in half, into two shades of blue, could there be anything more perfect than that?
Elliot stopped by Andreas and nodded understandingly.
“I reacted the same way when I saw the sea for the same time,” he said. “It was a windless day, no waves disturbing the surface,” he recalled. “Children were running around shouting, chasing away the withdrawing water since the sea was always in motion, or they dug shells out of the sand, and I stood there and stared. Damn, I didn’t look at the first woman I went to bed with the way I looked at the sea.”
Andreas didn’t listen too carefully, still looking at the infinity before him. Then he realized something was wrong with the story he’d just heard. Nobody got close to the Sea, and children were definitely not allowed to do so. That was common knowledge even for people who lived far from the shore.
“Exactly how old are you?” he asked, smirking at his companion suspiciously.
Pulled away from his memories, Elliot looked at Andreas and grinned.
“Sixty-five,” he answered openly. “And yes, I’ve seen the sea before the war, before the experiments.”
“You don’t look more than forty!” exclaimed Andreas in surprise. “Is it because of radiation?”
Elliot shrugged and then looked at the Sea again.
“So? You travelled for so long, risked your life, and now you don’t want to see it up close?” he asked changing the topic smoothly.
Andreas nodded and followed Elliot towards the shore, but his thoughts were preoccupied with his companion’s secrets. What else would he learn from him? The Sea was not that exciting anymore compared with Elliot’s knowledge, but Andreas still wanted to see it if for no other reason, then simply because it was so beautiful.
Elliot pointed at the stranger that passed them by. He wasn’t over fifty, but looked much older than Andreas’ companion. Weariness reflected on his tanned and wrinkled face.
“Look, a suicide,” murmured Elliot. “If we hurry you will have a chance to see something interesting.”
The street led them towards a wide boulevard. Only a few people leaned over the railing, looking down at the beach, at the Sea. Further to the right was a pier stretching into the water and this was the suicidal man’s destination. Elliot and Andreas watched them from a distance, and slowly approach the railing. Black paint was flaking, revealing rusted metal underneath. It’s a metaphor for Pel, thought Andreas, glancing at it as the initial fascination with the town was replaced by cold observation.
The stranger approached the pier slowly, as if still hesitating. But once he turned towards the Sea, he had made a final decision. He started walking confidently, launching into a mad sprint.
“Look now,” instructed Elliot when the suicide was making his leap from the edge of the pier.
Everything happened in the blink of an eye. The Sea parted suddenly, as if moving away from the man, forming an arena of shining, golden sand surrounded by a wall of water. Then a thorn rose from the seabed, formed from—one would think—water. The man shouted just before his body was impaled on the thorn that kept rising above the water, flowing back into the empty space.
“Will he stay like that forever?” he uttered.
“Two days, no more. Little bastards will handle it quickly,” Elliot stopped himself from saying more. “So, had enough? There are other, more interesting things I could show you.”
Andreas nodded absent-mindedly. He was already thinking of what he had heard. Bacteria? Parasites? Was there anything alive in the Sea? A hope for a barren Earth, or just another curse? He saw with his own eyes what had happened to that man. Andreas was nearly sure that the stranger didn’t intend to die, that he just allowed hope to get the better of him, hope that it is better there, in the Sea; that the merciful Sea will accept anyone, grant them new life, new happiness. That’s what the traveling preachers repeated, trying to convince people that the time of living on the surface, on land, was over, and they had to turn towards the water. Andreas couldn’t quite swallow it; the whole idea seemed like an attempt at escape. “We have to stay and fight,” his father used to say, even when his wife decided to go to the Sea with other pilgrims. They never made it, attacked and killed by half-crazed robbers from the Wastelands.
Meanwhile, Elliot led him along the boulevard that constituted a border between Pel and the Sea. Sometimes he replied to a passerby’s greeting, but he never stopped to talk with them. Nor did he say a word to Andreas. They ventured away from the buildings, and the boulevard ended, opening into the beach. Elliot stopped suddenly and turned to his companion.
“Everybody thinks that the Sea is some new kind of a god,” he said. “They pray to it, make up stories, look for signs. And this water,” he lifted a stone and angrily threw it into the waves “is thoughtless, completely mindless!” he claimed. “It can only do what it was created for, what it was programmed for.”
Andreas remained silent. He agreed with Elliot about deification of the Sea, but even without the mystical hype, it was still mysterious and fascinating.
“Look, I will show you something,” said Elliot.
He took several steps towards the Sea, then a few more. Andreas thought that any moment waves would reach Elliot’s shoes; but no, the further he went, the more the water retreated.
“See?” he shouted when he was quite far from the shore. “I’m a damn Moses!”
Andreas wanted to object and remind Elliot that the Sea was not to be trifled with, but he couldn’t resist watching the scene. The powerful element was moving away from a human, a common human. Common? Are you sure about that? whispered a voice in his head. Someone who knew everything about the Sea, claimed to be sixty years old but looked forty, and who had a personal enemy coming from the Sea. No, such a man was not a common one for sure. But he still might be a charlatan and a madman, concluded Andreas.
Elliot danced and shouted threats, laughing maniacally, but he got silent suddenly, looking around with uncertainty. He was still standing on the sand, but the Sea surrounded him now—the water shallow at first, but its level was rising dangerously.
Andreas saw Elliot’s face going pale and reflecting fear, but then his companion clenched his teeth and charged at the water. The Sea parted rapidly, and Elliot made a dash for the beach.
“Old, but stupid,” he said once he collapsed on the sand beside Andreas and caught his breath. “Pride was what doomed mankind,” he claimed, looking at the Sea. “And was almost my doom, too,” he admitted in a hushed voice. Then he turned towards Andreas. “But it was worth it, if I sparked your curiosity.”
Andreas only nodded, as his curiosity had been demanding satiation for quite some time now.
“Will you join me?” asked Elliot. “I could use your help, and you will benefit greatly for doing so.”
“I will,” came the reply. “But… Let’s stay here for a little longer,” asked Andreas. “I’d like… I’d like to look at the Sea a little bit longer.”
Elliot gave him a smile of understanding and nodded. They sat on the sand, listening to the hum of the wind and waves, admiring the most perfect view in the world.
They walked through the Wastelands again, leaving Pel behind. Andreas caught himself missing the sounds of the Sea, and the gentle flow of the waves washing over the sand, but instead, he had Elliot’s constant talking to listen to.
“When the war was near to its end, true mostly because there was no one left to fight, the scientists realized that Earth was in poor condition. Before, they sat, stuck in their bunkers, and had no idea, because all they cared about was their research and government funding that had to be repaid with new inventions, new weapons, with whatever would help to win the war.” Elliot paused, taking a breath. “And that’s how it looks after victory,” he claimed, indicating their surroundings. “Only the victors are missing to bring some order to it.”
“We all lost,” admitted Andreas. He thought it was better to let Elliot talk, even if half of it was just complaining, because sooner or later he mentioned something that was worth the wait.
“Mankind lost,” Elliot continued, “against themselves, against their nature. But I meant to talk about something else. The scientists came to their wits finally, and they wanted to fix the damage they participated in causing. But it’s impossible to do it just like that,” he snapped his fingers, “to change a barren desert into a blooming paradise. It would require finding places with some vegetation that survived, then protect and nourish them, encouraging growth. But there wasn’t enough time, weren’t enough people. Who would want to travel through the Wastelands anyway and risk their lives just to obtain some samples, research material, anything? But there were so few of them.”
Andreas nodded. He understood such problems as he many times ventured into the neighboring areas or even further in hope he’d find something useful for his studies.
“They wanted to come up with something else, something that would enable them to achieve better effects on a bigger scale. And of course,” Elliot smirked at his companion, “much faster. Something for ‘now’, so the Earth would flourish instantly, so that we wouldn’t have to wait for centuries.”
“So they came up with the Sea.”
“No, nobody came up with the Sea,” he explained. “It was created by accident, when the experiment ran out of control. You see,” he stopped and looked at Andreas, “the scientists hoped to invent something that would find any surviving fauna and flora specimen and then help them survive and spread. That way, man’s overseeing wouldn’t be necessary. Basically, they wanted to create Santa’s little helpers,” he snorted.
“Who?” Andreas gave him a confused look.
“Oh, never mind!” Elliot waved him off, displeased with his lecture being interrupted. “Anyway, they succeeded. Well, at least in producing the helpers. The lab tests turned out quite well, but nobody felt like attempting a global test. We knew that it would be impossible to make corrections later, that we needed to perfect every single letter of the code.”
“You took part in it?” Andreas caught the plural form and dared a cautious question.
Elliot hunched down suddenly, losing some of his confidence.
“Yes,” he admitted shamefully, but then quickly pulled himself together and continued. “It was me who suggested using the seas. You have to understand, we needed an environment big enough to test our creation, but at the same time, limited enough to make sure it didn’t spread across the Earth entirely.”
“Why not a lake then?”
“Lakes are rather small, and there was no guarantee that they had any surviving life. Besides, they aren’t limited enough: ground waters, rain, vaporizing… With seas, it was enough to have a salt water requirement.”
Andreas looked at Elliot inquisitively. He was preparing to ask the most important question and hoped for an answer. He had enough lectures about humankind destroying itself, and about scientists who apparently wasted their chance.
“So what is the Sea exactly?”
Elliot was caught unprepared, and he ventured into his thoughts.
“It’s a good question,” he admitted, almost driving Andreas insane. “One can say it’s a machine, a bio-machine. A natural environment altered and improved by machines.”
“Have you ever heard about nanotechnology?” Elliot grinned, amused by his companion’s disbelief.
“Yes,” Andreas tried to recall brief notes in the books he managed to find. “Microscopic technology, a hope for medicine–”
“And for humankind,” Elliot interrupted smoothly. “The nanobots we prepared were supposed to recognize DNA of living beings and support their survival. You know, neutralizing harmful substances in the body and using elements to create anything that an organism would need. But why limit one to the inside, when the whole ocean is full of useful chemical compounds that could be re-used?”
“So what went wrong?”
“We forgot safety valves,” he said. “Nanobots reproduce when possible, keep alive those organisms that managed to survive so far and… they don’t really know what’s next. We didn’t know ourselves when they wouldn’t be needed anymore so we didn’t program anything. Nanobots multiplied, and it looks like they evolved too. We don’t know for sure, but looking at the Sea, one can safely conclude that they must have.”
“Couldn’t you check it somehow?”
“At first… At first there was nothing, no effects, so we waited. And then, when the Sea started to change, we didn’t have the courage, at least back then, because in the end, everyone felt attracted to it; everyone was curious. So they went, one by one, first illuminated by the glory of the explorers of the unknown,” he mocked. “And later, quietly, concealing their surrender. I don’t think they even believed they could come back.”
“But somebody did come back,” pointed out Andreas.
Elliot looked as if he lost an inch or two of height, and sadness was reflected on his face.
“Yes, somebody did,” he said quietly. “Pam. Pamela Esche,” he explained, seeing an unspoken question in Andreas’ eyes, “my assistant, and a treacherous viper, too.”
“She’s trying to kill you.”
“With a remarkable persistence,” Elliot admitted, “if it’s still her and her persistence. You see, Pam was smart; she didn’t want to risk that the Sea would ‘decide’ to impale her. She wanted to come back, so she took some precautions. The problem is that she injected herself with untested nanobots, and this is how it ended. Even I don’t know what has become of her, and how much of the real Pamela there is left.”
Elliot stopped at the top of the hill, looked forward and smiled.
“We’re here,” he said.
Andreas looked around. The Wasteland spread wide before them, and it looked no different than what they’d left behind, same rocks, same sand. Even the horizon looked the same. But Elliot seemed excited, and, grabbing his companion by the shoulder, he led Andreas down a steep path.
Only when they reached the bottom did it become obvious that what looked like rocks from afar was, in fact, a building complex. Elliot paused, reached out with his right hand, and stroked its top with three fingers.
“I have a control chip implanted,” he explained. “This way no one else can access this place.”
Andreas nodded in silence, fascinated by the sight itself and by the door that started opening—inviting, encouraging.
“After you,” declared Elliot grinning widely.
Andreas couldn’t fall asleep. He felt locked in a box: as soon as he switched off the light, the room was engulfed in a perfect darkness and a silence so deep he could hear his own heartbeat. Compared to this place, the Wastelands seemed full of life with the quiet whisper of the wind, rasping of the sand, and mysterious rustling. And the stars made the night a little bit brighter. Andreas turned in the bed that was suddenly too soft, too comfortable. He thought of the laboratory he saw, with apparatus he didn’t even know by name. It seemed almost like a dream come true. Elliot was excited during the tour, describing in detail all the state-of-the-art technologies. And then, during dinner in a well-supplied canteen, they talked about the future.
“You have to understand,” said Elliot, underlining each word gesturing with a fork. “I’m sixty-five already, and I don’t know how much longer I have. I don’t only need an assistant, but also a successor.”
“Are you really that old?” doubted Andreas. “You look very young.”
Elliot laughed shortly.
“I look the age I stopped at,” he replied. “See yourself.”
He laid his hand on the table between the plates. He reached for the knife and cut the skin on his palm, and then he dug the blade deeper. A grimace of pain came to his face, but it quickly faded as if Elliot was cutting someone else’s hand. Before Andreas could react, Elliot set the knife to the side and gently brushed the blood off his skin.
Andreas looked. The wound, though deep, didn’t bleed profusely anymore, and a few seconds later it started… mending. Andreas jumped up moving away from the table, unable to overcome both shock and fear. His half-opened mouth was unable to articulate any question, any words.
Elliot smiled sadly.
“We all sacrificed for the science,” he said quietly. “Those who went to the Sea, and Pam with her untested bots. And me, too,” he paused and looked at Andreas. “I’m not getting older because nanobots take care of my body, carefully selected ones, with a precise, specialized program… much more advanced than the ones we sent to the water.”
Andreas sat back at the table.
“I’m sorry,” he said, still having difficulty with adjusting to the new perspective, but now more ashamed than scared. He shouldn’t have acted that way, scientists were curious, not irrationally biased.
“It’s alright.” Elliot smiled and patted him on the shoulder. The wound was no more than a pink scar already. “You took it quite well, especially considering how many new things I’ve shown you.” He adjusted in his chair, rested his elbows on the table, and looked inquisitively at Andreas. “But let’s get to the point; I want you to join me. I will share my knowledge and all the research I’ve gathered so far. I have several ideas concerning nanotechnology, maybe synthesizing food, or attempts of rebuilding a simple organism. That would give us the necessary time to solve the issue with the Sea.”
“What do you mean?”
“The Sea can’t stay the way it is,” explained Elliot calmly. “We know nothing about it, and if it really evolves, then one day it might become a threat. It is necessary to get rid of the marine nanobots… or to find a way to control them.”
Elliot fell into thought, as if considering new possibilities already. Andreas didn’t interrupt him, though he couldn’t agree with Elliot’s reasoning—mostly because the Sea still fascinated him, and he’d prefer to explore it than find a way to reverse the experiment. Maybe it wasn’t as much a failure as Elliot claimed? Still, helping in research meant Andreas could affect their direction, push his own ideas and solutions. And then he could save the Sea, or maybe even make it useful. He nearly smiled at this thought.
“You’ve already decided, eh?” Elliot watched his face and seemed amused. “I knew you were a real scientist.”
“Will I have to,” Andreas smirked at Elliot’s hand. “You know…”
“I don’t plan on forcing you, though it would be desirable,” he admitted. “Nanobots will optimize your body, and considering how young you are, will ensure longevity. Even if I die, you will be able to continue my work for years.”
Andreas nodded, though he wasn’t convinced. The memory of a stake rising from the water haunted him along with the gruesome sound of the body impaling itself. The idea, no matter how logical, instilled fear—to invite machines into his own body…
“If you don’t trust me,” Elliot misinterpreted Andreas’ hesitation, “we can do it together. I planned on injecting a new, enhanced batch anyway to take care of possible code errors that might have appeared. We will inject the same nanobots. You won’t even notice the difference, but you’ll never get a cold, toothache, or any other ailments… not to mention a decreased need for food and faster healing.”
Andreas sighed and nodded. He had to admit that Elliot was very convincing, but there was also a scientist’s curiosity at play. He wanted to discover new things, new solutions—even if he was to test them on himself.
“Marvelous!” exclaimed Elliot. His eyes shone with joy. “Then tomorrow we will go on with the procedure and immediately move on to work. We have a world to save,” he joked lightly.
After revisiting all the memories, Andreas felt like he tamed the darkness a bit.
He yawned as tiredness took him. Elliot was right, too many new experiences for one day. And the next day was supposed to bring even more. Andreas rolled to the other side and fell asleep thinking about the future.
He dreamt about the Sea and its waves washing gently on the shore in Pel.
Andreas glanced at the clock displayed in the corner of the screen and went back to reading. Then he realized what he had just seen, and he checked the time again. If the computer was not lying, Andreas had spent a whole day in front of the screen reading biology and chemistry texts. Yet he didn’t feel tired, only a bit hungry. Nanobots are working, he thought.
Andreas had worked with Elliot for a week now, though he rarely visited the laboratory. First, he had to catch up on theory. He read through a vast collection of electronic publications, trying to absorb as much information and scientific jargon as possible, taking breaks only for food and sleep.
Elliot warned him that even though he wouldn’t need much food anymore, as nanobots recycled for useful substances everything that a body normally would dispose, sleep was irreplaceable. Andreas still had to spend up to seven or eight hours in bed. But the benefits are huge anyway, he thought.
He stretched, deciding to take a break and get a snack. He could pop in on Elliot on his way and learn something about the base they stayed in, since he hadn’t seen anything yet save the laboratory, canteen, and command center. He thought about the latter, remembering a room filled with computers and empty chairs. Once, it was probably full of people, he thought when he entered for the first time. Then he noticed huge screens covering the wall. They all displayed one picture: the Sea.
“It’s to remind me of the higher goal,” explained Elliot. “Besides, I prefer to know early if something starts to happen.”
Andreas nodded back then.
Maybe I will go there for a moment? he thought, turning off the computer. He liked watching the Sea. The movement of the waves calmed him, hypnotized him. And it reminded him of the, as Elliot put it, “the higher goal.”
Suddenly, everything got dark and began flashing red. Alarms sounded throughout the base. Andreas jumped up, and without hesitation, ran to the command center, almost bumping into Elliot who was rushing from the opposite side of the corridor.
“Come on, we have no time!” Elliot shouted, and his voice melted into the siren’s howl. “There was some error, and the reactor will shut down,” he explained as they entered the room. “We will have to reset it manually before we run out of power!”
“What do I do?” asked Andreas, though his eyes were escaping toward the screens, toward the Sea. He felt instantly relieved that it was only the reactor, not some marine nanobot anomaly, but Elliot seemed worried.
Elliot scribbled down a sequence of numbers and then led Andreas to one of the computers.
“Stay here,” he said, pushing the paper into Andreas’s hand. “When I manage to start the reactor, this code will restart its program and enter a backup copy that should be free of errors.”
Before Andreas managed to ask any questions, Elliot was on his way. Andreas sat at the chair, waiting for the signal, and stared at the Sea. It seemed so calm, so unaffected… Andreas thought that the world could end and the Sea would stay the same. He decided that in a while he would ask Elliot to go to Pel again—maybe using research or obtaining samples as an excuse.
“Are you there?” Elliot’s voice through the intercom sounded strange, but was clear enough. “I handled the reactor, enter the sequence!”
Andreas reacted, instantly entering the numbers and confirmed them, sending the data. The screen displayed the number ten and started a countdown. Nine, eight, seven, six, five… A rumbling sound echoed in the corridors, and somewhere far off, metal screeched. Andreas looked around, but everything seemed fine. Four, three, two, one… The walls trembled from the sound of thunder and whizzing. A moment later everything became silent; even the alarm switched off. The red lights were replaced by the usual ones.
Is this what rebooting the reactor looks like? thought Andreas.
“We did it!” Elliot cheered through the intercom. “I will be there in a moment.”
Andreas waited, looking at the screens again. The Sea was calm, unchanged. Suddenly the display wavered, and Andreas spotted something that looked like an explosion. Water sprouted upwards as if hit with a missile. Then it settled, and everything went back to normal. What was that? A fear, a bad feeling, crawled into Andreas’s thoughts.
“It’s over now,” said Elliot, entering. “Did you see the hit?” he didn’t conceal his joy.
“The hit?” uttered Andreas. Then he understood. “It wasn’t the reactor!” he shouted, turning to Elliot.
“No. It was a rocket, filled to the brim with nanobots. There should be enough to kill off those parasites dwelling in the sea. No more miracles, no more mysticism and killing people who just wanted to swim for a bit,” he said angrily.
Andreas, deep in shock, made a step toward him.
“But why? Why? So many possibilities–”
“The Sea was wild, uncontrollable, a failed experiment,” Elliot said. “And those are to be disposed of, not nurtured. They have no future anyway. Just like Frankenstein’s monster,” he added, not bothered that Andreas might not understand the comparison.
“You used me!” Andreas approached. “You lied to me!”
Elliot shrugged, not bothered. But he smiled, watching Andreas trying to take another step and—as he lost his balance—falling down to his knees.
“I tricked you,” he admitted. “I needed another person to arm and send the rocket. But it doesn’t matter now. What matters is that the Sea will cease its existence. And you,” he suddenly chuckled maniacally, “will be eaten alive by my nanobots.”
Andreas looked at his hands in horror. He saw patches of skin disappearing, revealing muscles underneath.
“And don’t think I am ungrateful,” Elliot added. “I programmed them to anesthetize you.”
“But you… The same…” stuttered Andreas, trying to overcome the fear.
“Yes, I injected myself with the same batch,” he said. “But they were quickly neutralized by the ones I already have in my body. I prepared for that. And I carefully calculated the activation time: enough for you to trust me, but not too much. I waited for this far too long.”
Andreas didn’t reply. He froze with his eyes widened and face twisted with dread. Though he didn’t have his face for long as the decomposition progressed.
Elliot turned away and left, as he did not want to look at Andreas, his remaining eye shining with contempt. He knew well enough what nanobots could do to a human, so he didn’t have to watch it again. Besides, he wanted to celebrate. He finally conquered the Sea. It refused to be tamed, so it had to be destroyed.
Andreas, left alone, died quietly without a sound. Behind him, on the wall filled with screens, the waves washed upon the shore the same they always had.
Citizens of Pel looked at the Sea with concern. They saw the explosion over the water, but they would never dare to think that one rocket could achieve the effect they were looking at now.
“The Sea is dying,” whispered someone in the crowd that gathered at the promenade.
He was right. The waves constantly washed dead creatures onto the shore. Some of the bodies were similar to fish from the old photographs and pictures, but most of them were of the most amazing shapes. Among them, there were corpses that resembled people, but with their bodies changed, resembling sea creatures. They were foreign, but beautiful in their own way… and dead, all of them dead.
All except for one…
Twenty miles away from Pel, the water washed to the shore something that looked like a woman. She moved with difficulty, crawling through the sand. Her face was partially fallen apart revealing strings of muscle hanging off the jaw and needle-sharp teeth. Whenever the woman leaned forward, brushing her head against the ground, grains of sand stuck to her face and changed their structure, fusing, and forming the start of a mask.
Pamela Esche crawled persistently. From time to time, she reached toward the bodies lying around, letting the nanobots obtain necessary substances to try to reconstruct her decomposing body. She knew she was dying, but she kept on fighting. Crawling across the beach, she thought about the one thing she still had to do.
“To Conquer the Sea” (“Pokonać Morze”) was first published in Polish magazine Science Fiction, Horror i Fantasy, and then it also appeared in the English-language anthology “Of the Dead and Dying: Tales of the Apocalyspe”.