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Dispatches from the Cradle: The Hermit—Forty-Eight Hours in the Sea of Massachusetts

Before she became a hermit, Asa-<whale>-<tongue>-π had been a managing director with JP Morgan Credit Suisse on Valentina Station, Venus. She would, of course, find this description small-minded and obtuse. “Call a woman a financial engineer or a man an agricultural systems analyst, and the world thinks they know something about them,” she wrote. “But what does the job a person has been channeled into have to do with who they are?”

Nonetheless, I will tell you that she was responsible for United Planet’s public offering thirty years ago, at the time the biggest single pooling of resources by any individual or corporate entity in history. She was, in large measure, responsible for convincing a wearied humanity scattered across three planets, a moon, and a dozen asteroid habitats to continue to invest in the Grand Task—the terraforming of both Earth and Mars.

Does telling you what she has done explain who she is? I’m not sure. “From cradle to grave, everything we do is motivated by the need to answer one question: Who am I?” she wrote. “But the answer to the question has always been obvious: Stop striving; accept.”

A few days after she became the youngest chief managing director for JPMCS, on Solar Epoch 22385200, she handed in her resignation, divorced her husbands and wives, liquidated all her assets, placed the bulk of the proceeds into trusts for her children, and then departed for the Old Blue on a one-way ticket.

Once she arrived on Earth, she made her way to the port town of Acton in the Federation of Maritime Provinces and States, where she purchased a survival habitat kit, one identical to the millions used by refugee communities all over the planet, and put the pieces together herself using only two common laborer automata, eschewing offers of aid from other inhabitants of the city. Then she set herself afloat like a piece of driftwood, alone on the seven seas, much to the consternation of her family, friends, and colleagues.

“Given how she was dressed, we thought she was here to buy a vacation villa,” said Edgar Baker, the man who sold Asa her habitat. “Plenty of bankers and executives like to come here in winter to dive for treasure and enjoy the sun, but she didn’t want me to show her any of the vacant houses, several of which have excellent private beaches.”

(Despite the rather transparent ploy, I’ve decided to leave in Baker’s little plug. I can attest that Acton is an excellent vacation spot, with several good restaurants in town serving traditional New England fare—though the lobsters are farmed, not wild. Conservationists are uncertain if the extinct wild lobster will ever make a comeback in the waters off New England, as they have never adapted to the warmer seas. The crustaceans that survived global warming were generally smaller in size.)

A consortium of her former spouses sued to have Asa declared mentally incompetent and reverse her financial dispositions. For a while, the case provided juicy gossip that filled the XP-stations, but Asa managed to make the case go away quickly with some undisclosed settlements. “They understand now that I just want to be left alone,” she was quoted as saying after the case was dismissed—that was probably true, but I’m sure it didn’t hurt that she could afford the best lawyers.

“Yesterday I came here to live.” With this first entry in her journal, Asa began her seaborne life over the sunken metropolis of Boston on Solar Epoch 22385302, which, if you’re familiar with the old Gregorian Calendar, was July 5, 2645.

The words were not original, of course. Henry David Thoreau wrote them first exactly eight hundred years earlier in a suburb of Boston.

But unlike Thoreau, who often sounded misanthropic in his declarations, Asa spent as much time alone as she did among crowds.

• • • •

Excerpted from Adrift, by Asa-<whale>-<tongue>-π:

The legendary island of Singapore is no more. But the idea of Singapore lives on.

The floating family habitats connect to each other in tight clan-strands that weave together into a massive raft-city. From above, the city looks like an algal mat composed of metal and plastic, studded with glistening pearls, dewdrops or air bubbles—the transparent domes and solar collectors for the habitats.

The Singapore Refugee Collective is so extensive that it is possible to walk the hundreds of kilometers from the site of sunken Kuala Lumpur to the surviving isles of Sumatra without ever touching water—though you would never want to do such a thing, as the air outside is far too hot for human survival.

When typhoons—a near-constant presence at these latitudes—approach, entire clan-strands detach and sink beneath the waves to ride out the storm. The refugees sometimes speak not of days or nights, but of upside and downside.

The air inside the habitats is redolent with a thousand smells that would overwhelm an inhabitant of the sterile Venus stations and the climate-controlled domes of the upper latitudes. Char kway teow, diesel fumes, bak kut teh, human waste, raja, Katong laksa, mango-flavored perfume, kaya toast, ayam penyet, burnt electric insulation, mee goreng, roti prata, sea-salt-laced reclaimed air, nasi lemak, charsiew—the heady mixture is something the refugees grow up with and outsiders can never get used to.

Life in the Refugee Collective is noisy, cramped, and occasionally violent. Infectious diseases periodically sweep through the population, and life expectancy is short. The fact that the refugees remain stateless, so many generations after the wars that stripped their ancestors of homelands, seems to make it impossible for a solution to be envisioned by anyone from the Developed World—an ancient label whose meaning has evolved over the centuries, but has never been synonymous with moral rectitude. It was the Developed World that had polluted the world the earliest and the most, and yet it was also the Developed World that went to war with India and China for daring to follow in their footsteps.

I was saddened by what I saw. So many people clinging to life tenaciously on the thin interface between water and air. Even in a place like this, unsuitable for human habitation, people hang on, as stubborn as the barnacles on pilings revealed at every low tide. What of the refugees in the deserts of interior Asia, who live like moles in underground warrens? What of the other floating refugee collectives off the coasts of Africa and Central America? They have survived by pure strength of will, a miracle.

Humanity may have taken to the stars, but we have destroyed our home planet. Such has been the lament of the Naturalists for eons.

“But why do you think we’re a problem that needs solving?” asked a child who bartered with me. (I gave him a box of antibiotics, and he served me chicken rice.) “Sunken Singapore was once a part of the Developed World; we’re not. We don’t call ourselves refugees; you do. This is our home. We live here.”

I could not sleep that night.

This is our home. We live here.

• • • •

The prolonged economic depression in much of North America has led to a decline of the region’s once-famous pneumatic tube transportation networks that connected the climate-controlled domed cities, so the easiest way to get to the Sea of Massachusetts these days is by water.

I embarked in balmy Iceland on a cruise ship bound for the coast of the Federation of Maritime Provinces and States—November is an excellent time to visit the region, as the summer months are far too hot—and then, once in Acton, I hired a skiff to bring me out to visit Asa in her floating habitat.

“Have you been to Mars?” asked Jimmy, my guide. He was a man in his twenties, stocky, sunburnt, with gaps in his teeth that showed when he smiled.

“I have,” I said.

“Is it warm?” he asked.

“Not quite warm enough to be outside the domes for long,” I said, thinking about the last time I visited Watney City on Acidalia Planetia.

“I’d like to go when it’s ready,” he said.

“You won’t miss home?” I asked.

He shrugged. “Home is where the jobs are.”

It’s well known that the constant bombardment of the Martian surface with comets pulled from the Oort Cloud and the increased radiation from the deployment of solar sails, both grand engineering efforts begun centuries ago, had managed to raise the temperature of Mars enough to cause sublimation of much of the red planet’s polar dry ice caps and restart the water cycle. The introduction of photosynthesizing plants is slowly turning the atmosphere into something resembling what we could breathe. It’s early days yet, but it isn’t impossible to imagine that a habitable Mars, long a dream of humanity, would be reality within two or three generations. Jimmy might go there only as a tourist, but his children may settle there.

As our skiff approached the hemisphere bobbling over the waves in the distance, I asked Jimmy what he thought of the world’s most well-known hermit, who had recently returned to the Sea of Massachusetts, whence she had started her circumnavigation of the globe.

“She brings the tourists,” he said, in a tone that strove to be neutral.

Asa’s collected writings about her life drifting over the ruins of the world’s ancient sunken cities have been a publishing phenomenon that defies explanation. She eschews the use of XP-capturing or even plain old videography, instead conveying her experiences through impressionistic essays composed in a florid manner that seems at once anachronistic and abiding. Some have called her book bold and original; others said it was affected.

Asa has done little to discourage her critics. It was said by the Zen masters that the best place for hermits to find the peace they seek is in the crowd, she wrote. And you could almost hear the disgusted groans of her detractors at this kind of ornate, elusive mysticism.

Many have accused her of encouraging “refugee-tourism” instead of looking for real solutions, and some claim that she is merely engaging in the timeless practice of intellectuals from privileged societies visiting those less fortunate and purporting to speak for her subjects by “discovering” romanticized pseudo-wisdom attributed to them.

“Asa Whale is simply trying to soothe the neuroses of the Developed World with a cup of panglossian chicken soup for the soul,” declared Emma, the media critic for my own publication. “What would she have us do? Stop all terraforming efforts? Leave the hellish Earth as it stands? The world needs more engineers willing to solve problems and fewer wealthy philosophers who have run out of ways to spend money.”

Be that as it may, the tourist czar of the Federation of Maritime Provinces and States, John –, claimed earlier this year that the number of tourists visiting the Sea of Massachusetts has grown fourfold since the publication of Asa’s book (similar tourism surges in Singapore and Havana are even higher). No doubt the influx of tourist money is welcomed by the locals, however conflicted they may be about Asa’s portrayal of them.

Before I could follow up on the complicated look in his eyes, Jimmy turned his face resolutely away to regard our destination, which was growing bigger by the minute.

Spherical in shape, the floating dwelling was about fifteen meters in diameter, consisting of a thin transparent outer hull to which most of the ship’s navigation surfaces were affixed, plus a thicker metal-alloy inner pressure hull. Most of the sphere floated below the surface, making the transparent bridge-dome appear like the pupil of some sea monster’s eye staring into the sky.

On top of the pupil stood a solitary figure, her back as straight as the gnomon of a sundial.

Jimmy nudged the skiff until it bumped gently against the side of the habitat, and I gingerly stepped from one craft to the other. Asa steadied me as her habitat dipped under my added weight; her hand felt dry, cool, and very strong.

I observed, somewhat inanely, that she looked exactly like her last public scan-gram, when she had proclaimed from the large central forum of Valentina Station that United Planets was not only going to terraform Mars, but had also successfully bought a controlling stake in Blue Cradle, the public-private partnership for restoring Earth to a fully habitable state.

“I don’t get many visitors,” she said, her voice tranquil. “There’s not much point to putting on a new face every day.”

I had been surprised when she replied to my request to stay with her for a few days with a simple “Yes.” She had never so much as granted an interview to anyone since she started her life adrift.

“Why?” I had asked.

“Even a hermit can grow lonely,” she had replied. And then, in another message that immediately followed the first, she added, “Sometimes.”

Jimmy motored away on his skiff. Asa turned and gestured for me to descend through the transparent and open “pupil” into the most influential refugee bubble in the Solar System.

• • • •

The stars are invisible from the metal cocoons floating in the heavy atmosphere of Venus; nor do we pay much attention to them from the pressurized domes on Mars. On Earth, the denizens of the climate-controlled cities in habitable zones are preoccupied with scintillating screens and XP implants, the glow of meandering conversation, brightening reputation accounts, and the fading trails left by falling credit scores. They do not look up.

One night, as I lay in the habitat drifting over the balmy subtropical Pacific, the stars spun over my face in their habitual course, a million diamantine points of crisp, mathematical light. I realized, with a startled understanding reminiscent of the clarity of childhood, that the face of the heavens was a collage.

Some of the photons striking my retinas had emerged from the crease in the rock to which Andromeda is chained when nomadic warriors from the last ice age still roamed Doggerland, which connected Britain to the European mainland; others had left that winking point at the wingtip of Cygnus when bloody Caesar fell at the feet of Pompey’s statue; still more had departed the mouth of Aquarius’s jar when the decades-long genocidal wars swept through Asia, and aerial drones from Japan and Australia strafed and sank the rafts of refugees fleeing their desertified or flooded homelands; yet others had sparked from the distant hoof of Pegasus when the last glaciers of Greenland and Antarctica disappeared, and Moscow and Ottawa launched the first rockets bound for Venus . . .

The seas rise and fall, and the surface of the planet is as inconstant as our faces: lands burst forth from the waters and return beneath them; well-armored lobsters scuttle over seafloors that but a geologic eyeblink ago had been fought over by armies of wooly mammoths; yesterday’s Doggerland may be tomorrow’s Sea of Massachusetts. The only witnesses to constant change are the eternal stars, each a separate stream in the ocean of time.

A picture of the welkin is an album of time, as convoluted and intricate as the shell of the nautilus or the arms of the Milky Way.

• • • •

The interior of the habitat was sparsely furnished. Everything—the molded bunks, the stainless steel table attached to the wall, the boxy navigation console—was functional, plain, stripped of the elaborate “signature” decorations extruded by personal nanites that seem all the rage these days. Though the space inside was cramped with two people, it seemed larger than it was because Asa did not fill it with conversation.

We ate dinner—fish that Asa had caught herself roasted over an open fire, with the canopy open—and went to bed silently. I fell asleep quickly, my body rocked by the gentle motions of the sea and my face caressed by the bright, warm New England stars that she had devoted so many words to.

After a breakfast of instant coffee and dry biscuits, Asa asked me if I wanted to see Boston.

“Of course,” I said. It was an ancient citadel of learning, a legendary metropolis where brave engineers had struggled against the rising sea for two centuries before its massive seawalls finally succumbed, leaving the city inundated overnight in one of the greatest disasters in the history of the Developed World.

While Asa sat in the back of the habitat to steer and to monitor the solar-powered water-jet drive, I knelt on the bottom of the sphere and greedily drank in the sights passing beneath the transparent floor.

As the sun rose, its light gradually revealed a sandy floor studded by massive ruins: monuments erected to long-forgotten victories of the American Empire pointed toward the distant surface like ancient rockets; towers of stone and vitrified concrete that had once housed hundreds of thousands loomed like underwater mountains, their innumerable windows and doors silent, empty caves from which shoals of colorful fish darted like tropical birds; between the buildings, forest of giant kelp swayed in canyons that had once been boulevards and avenues filled with streaming vehicles, the hepatocytes that had once brought life to this metropolis.

And most amazing of all were the rainbow-hued corals that covered every surface of this urban reef: dark crimson, light orange, pearly white, bright neon vermillion . . .

Before the Second Flood Wars, the sages of Europe and America had thought the corals doomed. Rising sea temperature and acidity; booming algae populations; heavy deposits of mercury, arsenic, lead, and other heavy metals; runaway coastal construction as the developed nations built up the machinery of death against waves of refugees from the uninhabitable zones—everything seemed to spell doom for the fragile marine animals and their photosynthesizing symbiotes.

Would the ocean become bleached of color, a black-and-white photograph bearing silent witness to our folly?

But the corals survived and adapted. They migrated to higher latitudes north and south, gained tolerance for stressed environments, and unexpectedly, developed new symbiotic relationships with artificial nanoplate-secreting algae engineered by humans for ocean-mining. I do not think the beauty of the Sea of Massachusetts yields one inch to the fabled Great Barrier Reef or the legends of long-dead Caribbean.

“Such colors . . .” I murmured.

“The most beautiful patch is in Harvard Yard,” Asa said.

We approached the ruins of the famed academy in Cambridge from the south, over a kelp forest that used to be the Charles River. But the looming presence of a cruise ship on the surface blocked our way. Asa stopped the habitat, and I climbed up to gaze out the domed top. Tourists wearing GnuSkin flippers and artificial gills were leaping out of the ship like selkies returning home, their sleek skin temporarily bronzed to endure the scorching November sun.

“Widener Library is a popular spot for cruise ship excursions,” said Asa, by way of explanation.

I climbed down, and Asa drove the habitat to dive under the cruise ship. The craft was able to submerge beneath the waves as a way for the refugees in coastal raft-cities to survive typhoons and hurricanes, as well as to avoid the deadly heat of the tropics.

Slowly, we descended toward the coral reef that had grown around the ruined hulk of what had once been the largest university library in the world. Around us, schools of brightly colored fish wove through shafts of sunlight, and tourists gracefully floated down like mermaids, streams of bubbles trailing behind their artificial gills.

Asa guided the habitat in a gentle circle around the kaleidoscopic sea floor in front of the underwater edifice, pointing out various features. The mound covered by the intricate crimson folds of a coral colony that pleated and swirled like the voluminous dress of classical flamenco dancers had once been a lecture hall named after Thoreau’s mentor, Emerson; the tall, spear-like column whose surface was tiled by sharp, geometric patches of coral in carmine, cerulean, viridian, and saffron had once been the steeple of Harvard’s Memorial Church; the tiny bump in the side of another long reef, a massive brain-shaped coral formation whose gyri and lobes evoked the wisdom of generations of robed scholars who had once strolled through this hallowed temple to knowledge, was in fact the site of the renowned “Statue of Three Lies”—an ancient monument to John Harvard that failed to depict or identify the benefactor with any accuracy.

Next to me, Asa quietly recited,

The maple wears a gayer scarf,
The field a scarlet gown.
Lest I should be old-fashioned,
I’ll put a trinket on.

The classical verses of the Early Republican Era poet Dickinson evoked the vanished beauty of the autumns that had once graced these shores, long before the sea had risen and the winters driven away, seemed oddly appropriate.

“I can’t imagine the foliage of the Republican Era could be any more glorious than this,” I said.

“None of us would know,” Asa said. “Do you know how the corals get their bright colors?”

I shook my head. I knew next to nothing about corals except that they were popular as jewelry on Venus.

“The pigmentation comes from the heavy metals and pollutants that might have once killed their less hardy ancestors,” said Asa. “They’re particularly bright here because this area was touched by the hand of mankind the longest. Beautiful as they are, these corals are incredibly fragile. A global cooling by more than a degree or two would kill them. They survived climate change once by a miracle. Can they do it again?”

I looked back toward the great reef that was Widener Library, and saw that tourists had landed on the wide platform in front of the library’s entrance or against its sides in small groups. Young tour guides in bright crimson—the color of Harvard achieved either by skin pigmentation or costume—led each group in their day-excursion activities.

Asa wanted to leave—she found the presence of the tourists bothersome—but I explained that I wanted to see what they were interested in. After a moment of hesitation, she nodded and guided the craft closer.

One group, gathered on what used to be the steps ascending to the entrance of Widener, stood in a circle as they followed a guide, a young woman dressed in a crimson wetsuit, through a series of dance-like movements. They moved slowly, but it was unclear whether they were doing so because the choreography required it or because the water provided too much drag. From time to time, the tourists looked up at the blazing sun far above, blurred and made hazy by a hundred feet of intervening water.

“They think they’re doing taiji,” said Asa.

“It looks nothing like taiji,” I said, unable to connect the languorous, clumsy movements with the quick, staccato motion I was familiar with from sessions in low-gravity gyms.

“It’s believed that taiji once was a slow, measured art, quite different from its modern incarnation. But since so few recordings of the pre-Diaspora years are left, the cruise ships just make up whatever they want for the tourists.”

“Why do taiji here?” I was utterly baffled.

“Harvard was supposed to have hosted a large population of Chinese scholars before the wars. It was said that the children of many of China’s wealthiest and most powerful inhabitants studied here. It didn’t save them from the wars.”

Asa steered the craft a bit farther away from Widener, and I saw more tourists strolling over the coral-carpeted Yard or lounging about, holding what appeared to be paper books—props provided by the cruise company—and taking scans of each other. A few danced without music, dressed in costumes that were a mix of Early and Late Republican fashions, with an academic gown or two thrown in for good measure. In front of Emerson, two guides led two groups of tourists in a mimed version of some debate, with each side presenting their position through ghostly holograms that hovered over their heads like comic thought bubbles. Some tourists saw us but did not pay much attention—probably thinking that the drifting refugee bubble was a prop added by the cruise ship to provide atmosphere. If only they knew they were so close to the celebrity hermit . . .

I gathered that the tourists were re-enacting imagined scenes from the glory days of this university, when it had nurtured the great philosophers who delivered jeremiads against the development-crazed governments of the world as they heated the planet without cease, until the ice caps had collapsed.

“So many of the world’s greatest conservationists and Naturalists walked through this Yard,” I said. In the popular imagination, the Yard is the equal of the Athenian Acropolis or the Roman Forum. I tried to re-envision the particolored reef below me as a grassy lawn covered by bright red and yellow leaves on a cool New England fall day as students and professors debated the fate of the planet.

“Despite my reputation for romanticism,” said Asa, “I’m not so sure the Harvard of yesteryear is better than today. That university and others like it once also nurtured the generals and presidents who would eventually deny that mankind could change the climate and lead a people hungry for demagoguery into war against the poorer states in Asia and Africa.”

Quietly, we continued to drift around the Yard, watching tourists climb in and out of the empty, barnacle-encrusted windows like hermit crabs darting through the sockets of a many-eyed skull. Some were mostly nude, trailing diaphanous fabrics from their bodies in a manner reminiscent of Classical American Early Republic dresses and suits; others wore wetsuits inspired by American Imperial styles, covered by faux body armor plates and gas mask helmets; still others went with refugee-chic, dragging fake survival breathing kits with artfully applied rust stains.

What were they looking for? Did they find it?

Nostalgia is a wound that we refuse time to heal, Asa once wrote.

• • • •

After a few hours, satiated with their excursions, the tourists headed for the surface like panicked fish fleeing some unseen predator, and in a way, they were.

The forecast was for a massive storm. The Sea of Massachusetts was rarely tranquil.

As the sea around us emptied of visitors and the massive cloud-island that was the cruise ship departed, Asa grew noticeably calmer. She assured me that we were safe, and brought the submersible craft to the lee of Memorial Church Reef. Here, below the turbulent surface, we would ride out the storm.

The sun set; the sea darkened; a million lights came to life around us. The coral reef at night was hardly a place of slumber. This was when the luminescent creatures of the night—the jellies, the shrimp, the glow-worms and lantern-fish—came out of hiding to enjoy their time in this underwater metropolis that never slept.

While the wind and the waves raged above us, we hardly felt a thing as we drifted in the briny abyss, innumerable living stars around us.

• • • •

We do not look.

We do not see.

We travel millions of miles to seek out fresh vistas without even once having glimpsed inside our skulls, a landscape surely as alien and as wondrous as anything the universe has to offer. There is more than enough to occupy our curiosity and restless need for novelty if we but turn our gaze to the ten square meters around us: the unique longitudinal patterns in each tile beneath our feet, the chemical symphony animating each bacterium on our skin, the mysteries of how we can contemplate ourselves contemplating ourselves.

The stars above are as distant—and as close—as the glowing coral-worms outside my portholes. We only have to look to see Beauty steeped in every atom.

Only in solitude is it possible to live as self-contained as a star.

I am content to have this. To have now.

• • • •

In the distance, against Widener’s cliff-like bulk, there was an explosion of light, a nova bursting in the void.

The stars around it streaked away, leaving inky darkness behind, but the nova itself, an indistinct cloud of light, continued to twist and churn.

I woke Asa and pointed. Without speaking, she guided the habitat toward it. As we approached, the light resolved itself into a struggling figure. An octopus? No, a person.

“That must be a tourist stranded behind,” said Asa. “If they go up to the surface now, they’ll die in the storm.”

Asa switched on the bright lights in front of the habitat to get the tourist’s attention. The light revealed a disoriented young woman in a wetsuit studded with luminescent patches, shielding her eyes against the sudden glow of the habitat’s harsh lights. Her artificial gill slits opened and closed rapidly, showing her confusion and terror.

“She can’t tell which way is up,” Asa muttered.

Asa waved at her through the porthole, gesturing for her to follow the habitat. There was no airlock in the tiny refuge, and we had to go up to the surface to get her in. The young woman nodded.

Up on the surface, the rain was torrential and the waves so choppy that it was impossible to remain standing. Asa and I clung to the narrow ridge around the entrance dome on our bellies and dragged the young woman onto the craft, which dipped even lower under the added weight. With a great deal of effort and shouting, we managed to get her inside, seal the dome, and dive back underwater.

Twenty minutes later, dry, gills removed, securely wrapped in a warm blanket with a hot mug of tea, Saram – looked back gratefully at us.

“I got lost inside,” she said. “The empty stacks went on and on, and they looked the same in every direction. At first, I followed a candy-cane fish through the floors, thinking that it was going to lead me outside, but it must have been going around in circles.”

“Did you find what you were looking for?” asked Asa.

She was a student at Harvard Station, Saram explained—the institution of higher learning suspended in the upper atmosphere of Venus that had licensed the old name of the university lying in ruins under us. She had come to see this school of legend for herself, harboring romantic notions of trying to search through the stacks of the dead library in the hopes of finding a forgotten tome.

Asa looked outside the porthole at the looming presence of the empty library. “I doubt there’s anything left there now after all these years.”

“Maybe,” Saram said. “But history doesn’t die. The water will recede from here one day. I may live to see when Nature is finally restored to her rightful course.”

Saram was probably a little too optimistic. United Planets’ ion-drive ships had just succeeded in pushing six asteroids into near-Earth orbits earlier in the year, and the construction of the space mirrors had not even begun. Even the most optimistic engineering projections suggest that it will be decades, if not centuries, before the mirrors will reduce the amount of sunlight reaching Earth to begin the process of climate cooling and restoring the planet to its ancient state, a temperate Eden with polar ice caps and glaciers on top of mountain peaks. Mars might be fully terraformed before then.

“Is Doggerland any more natural than the Sea of Massachusetts?” Asa asked.

Saram’s steady gaze did not waver. “An ice age is hardly comparable to what was made by the hand of mankind.”

“Who are we to warm a planet for a dream and to cool it for nostalgia?”

“Mysticism is no balm for the suffering of the refugees enduring the consequences of our ancestors’ errors.”

“It is further error that I’m trying to prevent!” shouted Asa. She forced herself to calm down. “If the water recedes, everything around you will be gone.” She looked outside the porthole, where the reef’s night-time denizens had returned to their luminescent activities. “As will the vibrant communities in Singapore, in Havana, in Inner Mongolia. We call them refugee shantytowns and disturbed habitats, but these places are also homes.”

I am from Singapore,” said Saram. “I spent my life trying to get away from it and only succeeded by winning one of the coveted migration visas to Birmingham. Do not presume to speak for us or to tell me what it is we should want.”

“But you have left,” said Asa. “You no longer live there.”

I thought of the lovely corals outside, colored by poison. I thought of the refugees around the world underground and afloat—still called that after centuries and generations. I thought of a cooling Earth, of the Developed World racing to reclaim their ancestral lands, of the wars to come and the slaughter hinted at when the deck of power is shuffled and redealt. Who should decide? Who pays the price?

As the three of us sat inside the submerged habitat, refugees enveloped by darting trails of light like meteors streaking across the empyrean, none of us could think of anything more to say.

• • • •

I once regretted that I do not know the face I was born with.

We remake our faces as easily as our ancestors once sculpted clay, changing the features and contours of our shells, this microcosm of the soul, to match the moods and fashions of the macrocosm of society. Still unsatisfied with the limits of the flesh, we supplement the results with jewelry that deflect light and project shadows, smoothing over substance with ethereal holograms.

The Naturalists, in their eternal struggle against modernity, proclaim hypocrisy and demand us to stop, telling us that our lives are inauthentic, and we listen, enraptured, as they flash grainy images of our ancestors before us, their imperfections and fixed appearances a series of mute accusations. And we nod and vow to do better, to foreswear artifice, until we go back to our jobs, shake off the spell, and decide upon the new face to wear for the next customer.

But what would the Naturalists have us do? The faces that we were born with were already constructed—when we were only fertilized eggs, a million cellular scalpels snipped and edited our genes to eliminate diseases, to filter out risky mutations, to build up intelligence and longevity, and before that, millions of years of conquest, of migration, of global cooling and warming, of choices made by our ancestors motivated by beauty or violence or avarice had already shaped us. Our faces at birth were as crafted as the masks worn by the ancient players in Dionysian Athens or Ashikaga’s Kyoto, but also as natural as the glacier-sculpted Alps or sea-inundated Massachusetts.

We do not know who we are. But we dare not stop striving to find out.

Ken Liu

Ken Liu (https://kenliu.name) is an American author of speculative fiction. A winner of the Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy awards, he wrote The Dandelion Dynasty, a silkpunk epic fantasy series (starting with The Grace of Kings), as well as The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories and The Hidden Girl and Other Stories. He also authored the Star Wars novel, The Legends of Luke Skywalker.

Prior to becoming a full-time writer, Liu worked as a software engineer, corporate lawyer, and litigation consultant. Liu frequently speaks at conferences and universities on a variety of topics, including futurism, cryptocurrency, history of technology, bookmaking, the mathematics of origami, and other subjects of his expertise.