by Eugene Fischer
Originally published in Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine (April/May 2010).
It wasn’t until they were underway that the fear truly hit his sisters–the fear of dying lost and in the dark. “It doesn’t have to be dark,” he told them, and dug through his bag of equipment. He spoke with the confidence of one in possession of freshly researched knowledge. “And there is no getting lost. Once we are out on the water, nothing can go wrong. When we get far enough from shore it is certain we will reach our destination.”
* * *
The first of the two new emails in Janet Candle’s inbox was from meteorology, informing her that tropical storm Harvey, supposed to be heading toward the Caribbean, had unexpectedly turned south. All of the distance vectors for cells servicing Venezuela, Guyana, and Surinam were going to have to be changed.
The second email was from Caxton. He’d experimentally emailed Janet at her work address a week ago, and, out of habit, she answered it immediately. Now he’d started sending each of his carefully measured appeals to both of her accounts. This one was filled with the details of his yesterday and a reminder that, it being the weekend, he’d be available when she got off shift if she wanted to talk. The close read, “Lots of love, always, C.”
Their marriage was ending. Maybe it was already over. That was the point of applying for the position on Platform Beryl in the first place, wasn’t it? To put distance between them. When they were together he came home after spending his days teaching other people’s children and would have nothing for her but disappointment and frustration. At the time she’d been certain that, by leaving, she was giving him what he wanted. But that wasn’t how he responded. Upon learning that she had conceived and acted on plans for their separation, his aspect transitioned almost instantly from indifference to voluble commitment. Now that their lives were seven hours out of synch, that commitment took the form of these emails. Exasperated, Janet resolved to wait until her shift was up to reply that she was too exhausted to chat.
Her phone rang. Janet answered it to hear the French-accented voice of the platform’s lead technician on the other end.
“Ms. Candle? This is Henri. Could we please have the pleasure of your presence down on the maintenance deck?”
“What’s up, Henri?”
“A node was just brought in for service with human passengers.”
Janet pushed back in her chair, turned away from her screen, put the email from her husband out of her mind. “What do you mean ‘passengers’? Were they riding it?”
“It came in with a shipping container still loaded. Examination revealed that the container was breached, so we opened it to transfer the contents to a seaworthy one. Inside we found three people.”
“Where are they now?”
“I put them in the break room and told them our administrator would come to speak with them soon. They speak French, but there is one who says he speaks English as well.”
“Okay. Okay, keep them there. I’m coming down.”
The idea of putting oneself into a shipping container with a watertight, and therefore airtight, seal for the length of time it would take to get anywhere was insane. The idea of heading out onto the ocean in a container that was not watertight was only slightly less so. Janet left her office and headed out into the metal corridors and down three levels to the maintenance deck at the bottom of the platform, where Henri’s team had already winched up the malfunctioning node. It hung above the intake bay, water still dripping from its screws. Next to the intake bay Henri stood beside a half-unloaded shipping container. Janet navigated around the stacks of white plastic tubs that the jumpsuited roustabouts were removing from it and made her way over to him. He was poking at a handheld.
“I can’t associate with the container at all,” he told her. “RFID’s intact, but there is no wireless signal. I’m going to have to see if I can get routing data from the node.” He dropped his handheld into a pocket of his coverall. “Come look at this,” he said, and led her up the short flight of stairs that had been wheeled up against the container.
Evenly spaced along the length of the container’s top were three holes, easily an inch in diameter each.
“It was the first thing that jumped out at me when it came into the bay,” said Henri. “Never seen anything like it before. They drilled right through the casing.”
“Air holes,” said Janet.
“So I discovered when I found our visitors hiding inside.”
“Is there anything more you can tell me about them?”
“No, no. The man, he asked questions, but I decided that this was outside of my purview. I told them you would come talk with them.”
“Take me to them,” said Janet.
Henri led her to the break room, where a young man and two younger girls waited. Their clothing was disheveled and sweat stained, and they smelled like people who had been living in a box. They sat around the table with cloth sacks at their feet and cans of soda from the break room fridge in their hands, looking nervous.
“I’m Janet Candle, the administrator of this facility,” Janet said, sizing up her stowaways. “Let’s start with who you are and where you came from.”
The two girls looked at each other, and at the young man, who said something to them in a language Janet didn’t know, and then stood to address her.
“Hello to you, Administrator Candle. I am Laurent Mokina, and these are my sisters, Therese and Nagaila. We are come here from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and it is our wish to ask for political asylum in this country.”
The way he said it made it sound to Janet like a rehearsed speech. He stood under the fluorescent lights with glistening skin, his bravery like a fresh coat of paint. How old was he? Twenty-five? Younger?
“I’m afraid that will be impossible,” said Janet, “because you are not in a country at present.”
It took a moment for the meaning of her words to parse, and when they did Janet could see in the young man’s face that they gave way to a new, more troubled lack of understanding.
“Do you know where you are?” she asked.
“It was my expectation that we would be in the United States.”
“Well, if that’s where you were heading, you didn’t quite make it. You’re on Platform Beryl, the South Atlantic FloatNet maintenance hub. Do you understand? You’re in the middle of the ocean.”
Laurent considered this, then said, “I must ask how this came to happen. I need to understand, so that I may explain to my sisters.”
Janet glanced at the girls, who were watching the exchange attentively. They wore ill-fitting t-shirts and what looked like hand made skirts. Laurent wore cargo shorts and a frayed polo shirt with no buttons. He waited for her explanation, in command of himself even if he had little handle on his situation.
“Look, let’s have a seat,” she said, dragging a chair away from the table. “I’ll explain as best I can, but I need you to answer questions for me first, okay? I need you basically to tell me your story. How did you end up in that container?”
“I paid very much money to have me and my sisters put in it,” said Laurent. “The DRC, it is a very bad place to be. They say the war is over, but the war continues. And it is a very bad place for my sisters. There are many rapes; everywhere there are rapes. I hit open the face of one who wished to rape Nagaila with a rock. So always I am thinking about ways of leaving. Finally I hear about men who can get us to the United States, because there are machines on the ocean that will take us straight there from Africa. I asked many other people, and they say that it is true, that this is the FloatNet. So I thought, this is the best way.” A look of consternation passed over his face. “I did not know that we would stop in the ocean.”
“Well, normally you wouldn’t. You ended up here because the node–that’s what we call the machines that make up the FloatNet–the node that was carrying you broke down. When that happens, another node in the ‘Net brings it here.”
Laurent nodded slowly at her across the table. “I understand,” he said.
“Do you have any family still in the Congo?”
“No. It is only me and my sisters.”
“How old are you, Laurent?”
“I am twenty-two. Therese is sixteen, and Nagaila is twelve.”
“It was Nagaila you saved from being raped?”
Setting out in a breached shipping container seemed less insane to Janet than it had before. Assuming, of course, that what Laurent told her was true. His sisters did look as young as he said they were. Janet was struck by a painful awareness of the potential for corporate liability lurking within her every potential action.
“Okay,” Janet stood back up, “here’s what we are going to do. We have a room for visitors, and I’m going to put the three of you there. I’m also going to send our medic by to examine you. I can’t have you wandering the platform, so you’ll be confined to the visitor’s quarters for now.”
Laurent spoke to his sisters again, and the three of them rose from their seats and picked up their sacks. Before they could follow Janet from the room, Nagaila ran around her brother and said something plaintive, tapping the aluminum can in her hand against his chest. Laurent took it from her and held it up with half a smile.
“My sister would like to know if she may have one more of these.”
“I don’t think that should pose any serious problem,” Janet said.
* * *
On the matter of the Congolese stowaways, the Distributed Automated Maritime Shipping Company’s instructions for Janet were: (1) do not allow any communication between Platform Beryl personnel and members of the press, (2) report any new information in a timely fashion, and (3) sit tight until the legal status of the parties involved is determined. Janet sent a memo to all staff advising them of the situation, and the communication restrictions. She asked that anyone who could do so lend clothing to the refugees until she could requisition some for them through the FloatNet, and privately emailed Henri asking him to organize the effort. She also instructed that any unusual activity was to be promptly reported, and personnel were not leave their accounts logged in when they stepped away from a terminal. After that, there was nothing for her to do about the visitors but wait for something new to happen.
Finding herself far more exhausted at the end of the day than she could have anticipated, she decided to load her VoIP client and call her husband.
“So the next time I’m dying to see you, all I really have to do is drive down to the beach and pack myself in a box?” Caxton said, after Janet had told her story.
“It would be a long drive to the beach. You’re on the wrong coast to reach me that way any time soon. Anyway, the visitor’s quarters are occupied now, so you should probably wait a while before you try it out.”
“What, you don’t have a room of your own there that I could stay in?”
Janet hesitated. Then, “These kids were ridiculously lucky that they made it here alive. About the only thing you can say for their method of travel is that it’s maybe less dangerous than staying in a war zone.”
“Well, I wasn’t actually planning on trying it.”
“Don’t mention it to anyone either. We were all specifically told not to contact the press, and I probably shouldn’t have told you, except I just wanted someone to vent to.”
“Hey, that’s my job. I’m always here to be your confidant.”
A green bar in the VoIP window bounced longer and shorter across Janet’s screen with each word Caxton spoke. Since the last time they had talked, Caxton had changed his avatar image from the default tulip to a cropped and shrunken copy of a photo from their wedding. Though their faces were reduced to tiny smudges, Janet could easily recognize her stance, his bearing, the contrasting lights and darks in the wedding day glamour shot that she used to see daily on the mantle of the home they had, until recently, shared.
“Yes. Thank you for that,” Janet said. “Anyway. It’s pretty late here. I think I’m all confided out for the night.”
“Of course. So, do you want to give me a call tomorrow?”
“I don’t know. It depends. You may have picked up that things are even crazier than usual here right now.”
“I did get that impression. But it has been, what, eight days since we last talked? Could you try to make time for me?”
“We’ll see how things work out, Cax. We’re under communication restrictions, there are hurricanes out there, and now I have these orphans that washed up on my doorstep to take care of on top of it all. That is important to me, you know.”
Caxton didn’t immediately respond to the sensitive subject. Janet continued to push.
“Had you forgotten that that sort of thing matters to me?”
“Come on. That isn’t what we were talking about,” Caxton said finally. “I don’t want us to fight. All I was saying was that I wanted to hear from you. I do want to hear from you, if you aren’t too busy.”
“If I’m not too busy, you will.”
“Okay, that’s great. I love you. I hope your tomorrow is better than your today.”
“Thank you. So do I.”
Janet shut down the program, and Caxton’s window vanished from her screen. His exaggerated enthusiasm for every scrap of her attention wasn’t endearing. The artificial warmth served only to stir echoes in her mind of his previously intractable coldness. She could still hear him reciting at her, in argument after argument: “A man who raises another man’s children has a Darwinian fitness of zero.” Where had he first read that sentence? What convinced him that it communicated some eternal significance?
Janet logged herself out of her own computer, the first time she had done that in weeks. She left her office and headed to her room, no different from any other staff lodging on the platform, but which she was obliged to share with no one.
* * *
The next day Janet received Henri’s maintenance report on the Mokinas’ node. Containing suggestions of both sabotage and drug trafficking, it was probably, Janet thought, the most interesting maintenance report in Platform Beryl’s history.
The first discovery was the sabotage. Once the plastic tubs and the empty bottles, pots, fruit rinds, and other waste were cleared from the damaged shipping container, it was discovered that its internal battery compartment had been prised open. The battery had been dislodged and the wiring reconfigured. Broken contacts were covered with strips of vinyl tape, splices added to circuits. The container battery was supposed to be recharged by the node transporting it. Henri determined that the manipulation of the charging circuitry had triggered a failure condition in the node’s software, causing the shutdown and request for maintenance.
The drugs were discovered after Henri got the node running again. He was able to retrieve the routing information and manifest for the shipping container. The routing data indicated that the container had been acquired by FloatNet off the coast of Angola, which was consistent with Laurent’s story. The manifest indicated that the cargo was cobalt ore, which was inconsistent with the stacks of not-very-heavy plastic tubs Henri’s team had unloaded. They opened one and discovered that it was filled with vacuum-sealed packages of marijuana.
New information. Janet took a printout of the report with her to the visitor’s quarters to question Laurent. He and Nagaila were listening to Therese read aloud from a French novel when Janet arrived. Henri, it turned out, had brought it by for them the previous evening when he dropped off the clothing. Therese was doing voices for each of the characters, affecting a squeaky exuberance when Janet entered the room.
“Sorry to interrupt,” Janet said into the sober silence that followed after Therese stopped reading and the siblings gave her their attention. “I have some new questions for you, Laurent.”
“Of course, Ms. Candle. I will answer for you any questions that I can.”
Janet stood holding the report, suddenly uncomfortable in front of the three pairs of eyes. The girls were both on one of the room’s two beds. Nagaila was sprawled on her stomach and Therese was seated on the edge, the book closed on her index finger. Laurent was in the room’s desk chair, which he had moved next to the bed.
“You know, we don’t actually have to do this here,” Janet said. “It’s really just you I need to speak with. If they’re okay being left alone, why don’t we talk in the commissary? That way your sisters can keep reading if they like. You can bring back food for them.”
As they left the room, Laurent said that his sisters were well used to his needing to leave them to their own devices as he pursued ways to improve their lot. That this was the first time in five days they had parted company was one more novel aspect of the scenario he had constructed for them. He shared his other observations of things that were new to him as they walked, things ranging from the architecture of the platform to learning that a woman was in charge of it. His reaction to this last didn’t seem critical, he expressed it as just one of the exciting differences that showed he was somewhere new. If anything, he seemed impressed. But Janet resisted the urgent to engage with Laurent in his rumination, feeling her role was more properly to be collecting information than supplying it.
When they reached the commissary they both filled trays and sat facing each other across a table. Janet began to question Laurent about the details of the report.
“I did not have any idea what was inside of those boxes,” he said. “Nagaila wanted to open one and look, but I told her that they belonged to people in the United States, and we should leave them alone because we did not want to cause anger before we even arrived.”
“And what about the people you arranged your passage with? Did you know that they were involved with drugs of any kind?”
“They said to us only there is a container, and in it there is space for me and for my sisters, and the container will go to the United States. That is all I knew of them. That they had a container with space.”
Janet wrote claims no knowledge of drugs in the margin of the report and flipped through the pages.
“Okay. So you didn’t know about the marijuana. The other odd thing we found was that the onboard electronics of the shipping container had been altered. Someone removed and rewired the battery. Do you know anything about that?”
Laurent smiled broadly. “I removed the battery so I could install a lamp.”
Janet had been ready for him to attribute it to his drug trafficking contacts, or to claim ignorance. She did not expect him to take credit. “You did it?”
“Yes. It was very dark inside, and this was making Nagaila and even Therese frightened.”
“How were you able to do that?”
“I brought with me my tools, and of course the lamp. I had a flashlight for finding the battery compartment.”
“No, I mean how is it that you knew how to take out the battery and install a lamp? Yesterday you told me that you had never heard of the FloatNet until shortly before you left your country.”
“The circuit is very simple, Ms. Candle,” he said with laughter in his voice. “I am very good with circuits. For money I will wire a house for electricity, or fix a machine that is broken. I learned about circuits in Form Three physics.” Janet’s astonishment must have been evident on her face, because he went on, “This is a surprise to you? My teacher was an American in the Peace Corp. She taught me circuits, and also optics. This was very important for me.”
“What do you do with optics?” Janet asked.
“Optics I do not use as much as circuits, but still it was very important. I will tell you a story. When she starts to teach us, she says of optics that it is about light and shadows. Now, all of us had heard that there was a man in a nearby village who did not have a shadow. One boy raises his hand and asks our teacher, ‘what about the man who has no shadow?’ And our teacher says, ‘that man is not real.’ All of us wanted to know how she could say the man was not real, when she had never been to the village. She says, ‘pay attention to the lesson, and you will learn.’
“She teaches us about light, about how it moves in lines. The geometry to light. This is what she teaches us. And she shows to us on the chalkboard how, if we can see the man, then it must be that he has a shadow. So the man who has no shadow cannot be seen. And the reason he cannot be seen? Because he is not real!
“This lesson was the most important one for me. She showed for me that if you understand how a small thing works, you can know very much bigger things about the world. After this I listened very closely to the lessons. Always I want to know how things work. I try to teach this lesson to my sisters as well. Always when I learn I try to explain to them.”
Laurent had held Janet’s gaze as he told his story, but now he broke it, picked up his fork and turned back to his food. Janet’s hand hovered over the paper, looking for what to write and finding nothing. She should be writing something like admits to sabotaging container, but that felt like missing the point. What was the important information here? She supposed it was that packing off to sea in a breached container, consigning oneself to the FloatNet–insane, borderline suicidal–could be the act of a genuinely intelligent person. But refugee a thoughtful man wasn’t the sort of revelation to be annotated and filed. Janet put down her pen and looked up at Laurent, who was looking back at her, amused.
“I think that’s great,” Janet said finally. “Really. Both the lesson, and the way you take care of your sisters. And I bet Henri is going to be as surprised as I was to learn that it was you who rewired the battery.”
“I am sure that I can put it back the way it was before, if you want that.”
“No, that’s all right. Actually, I think Henri wants to leave it the way it is until he figures out exactly how you made the node fail.”
The amused sparkle left Laurent’s eyes.
“The failure of the node was a result of my actions?”
“Well, yes,” Janet said. “That’s what Henri thinks. The container battery is charged from the node, and something about what you did to it confused the node’s software so it thought it had broken down. He’s still trying to figure out exactly what happened.”
“And this is why it brought us here?”
“That’s right. This is where it comes to get fixed.”
Laurent pushed his food away and dropped his forehead toward the tabletop. He laced his long fingers together against the back of his head and squeezed his skull between his arms.
“It is my fault.” he said. “It is my fault that we did not get to the United States. If I had not done anything to the battery, we would not be stuck here.” He pounded one fist down on the table. “We are stranded in the ocean and it is my fault.”
Janet put a hand on his strained wrist. “It’s okay. There’s no way you could have anticipated what would happen. Hell, Henri isn’t sure exactly what did happen yet. You can’t blame yourself.”
“No. No. I did not understand what it was that I was working on, and so I broke it.” Laurent abruptly stood up from the table. “I have to go back. I must tell my sisters what has happened.”
Janet helped Laurent fill two trays for his sisters, entrees and desserts in about equal quantities, and escorted him back to the visitor’s quarters. She didn’t stick around to watch him deliver his bad news.
Later, in accordance with the instructions from her superiors, Janet composed an email detailing the results of Henri’s examination and her interview. She referred frequently to the service report as she typed. On the first page was a table of the routing information downloaded from the node, and when the realization of what that information implied hit her, it sent her running across the platform back to the Mokina’s room, report in hand. She was surprised to find Henri there, sitting very close to Therese and reciting from a volume of Nerval.
“I feel I have a duty to entertain these young ladies,” he explained. “There is no one else on the platform they can talk to.”
Leaving unexamined for the moment the degree to which she believed her chief technician’s stated motives, she said, “Laurent, I have something else I have to ask you. How long did you expect it would take to get to America?”
Laurent was seated on the floor with his back against the wall, and still seemed weighted down by failure. “The men said that we would be in the container for less than two weeks. Maybe only one.”
“I want you to look at this,” said Janet, proffering the report. “This page is the routing data for your container. See here? It says, ‘service priority: 4.’ The lower that number is, the faster the shipment gets delivered. If this were service priority one, then for a transatlantic shipment you might have gotten there in two weeks. Maybe. But you were priority four, which is the bottom of the scale. A priority four shipment averages nine weeks to get across the Atlantic.”
She could tell by the look on his face that he was processing what she was saying, and he would probably get to the conclusion she had reached on his own, given time. But she carried on and spelled it out for him.
“The men you paid to get in that container lied to you. They took your money and sent you out to die. And you would have. You and your sisters would have died, except that you rewired the battery. You didn’t strand your sisters in the middle of the ocean, you saved their lives.”
* * *
Janet did not call her husband that night.
She spent nearly an hour in the visitors’ quarters as the Mokinas worked through multilingual waves of shock, betrayal and relief, with Laurent and Henri alternating fluidly in the role of translator. When she finally returned to her office to resume the work she had left unfinished, there was another email from Caxton waiting for her. She chose to let it sit in her inbox, unread, until her report was complete. Then she let it sit until the following morning.
It was just a reminder of his availability to chat, but still demanded some response. She replied with a note recapitulating the events and discoveries of the previous day, which she felt were plausibly distracting enough to support her decision not to call. Now that the weekend was over there would be five days of jobs and time zones conspiring to make extended communication impractical, and the freedom of their incompatible schedules felt expansive. Liberating. Like a gasp of air after being held under water.
* * *
It wasn’t long before Janet decided there was no danger to the platform in allowing the Mokinas to leave their room. The girls were harmless, and Laurent had been nothing but accommodating. And given how many new things relevant to his interests there were to be found on Platform Beryl, it seemed cruel to keep him locked away from them. Though he could not be allowed to work with the maintenance crews–something he did express interest in–there was no reason he could not watch their activities, and ask questions.
Henri began taking all of his meals with the siblings, and Janet often joined them as well. It was still ostensibly part of her job to monitor the activities of the platform’s uninvited guests. And it was definitely part of her job to monitor Henri. She sought him out in the maintenance bay break room one day and said, “You are aware, I hope, that DAMSCo would frown on one of its employees creating an international incident with a sixteen-year-old refugee?”
Henri barked a laugh and shook his head, sending the graying curls at his temples bouncing. He was the longest serving member of the platform staff, and, while he deferred to her professionally, he had always treated Janet with the easy humor of a social equal. “What kind of person do you think I am? She is a lovely girl, and like a sister to me. Besides, I would never want to anger her ferocious big brother.” He gave her a sly smile. “I think, if you are worried about incidents, you should be keeping an eye on him. He is keeping an eye on you, after all.”
Laurent’s probing curiosity had made him friends all over the platform. He asked questions of everyone. As soon as Janet received a complaint, she would have a talk with him about interaction with people who were on the clock. But no one complained. It was possible that he was cleverer about who to ask questions of and when to ask them than she feared. He often came to Janet with questions about things he had seen; questions that perhaps others could have answered just as well. But perhaps, as Henri suggested, he was seeking her out for reasons of his own. If so, Janet felt herself untroubled by it.
Once, when he asked her how big the FloatNet was, she took him to her office, sat him in front of her computer, and loaded up a map of the globe. Millions of dots representing FloatNet nodes covered the Atlantic, bunched together in some areas and sparse in others, like a great flock of birds frozen in flight. Janet pointed out the rectilinear smudges representing Platform Beryl in the south and Platform Grouper in the north. She showed him the spindly flower shapes that represented the deep water ocean thermal energy conversion installations, surrounded by dense clouds of charging nodes. She told him that each node communicated with every other; it was a network that moved information as well as physical objects. She found him suitably impressed by the enormity of it.
“It is your job to administrate how much of this?” he asked.
“Well, I’m directly responsible for this facility,” she said, waving at the ceiling, “and I’m part of the routing efficiency oversight team for the whole ‘Net.” Janet thought for a moment. “Here, I can show you some of what I do.”
She zoomed in on one of the spindly OTEC installations and drew her fingernail across the screen, pointing out a nearly straight line of nodes stretching away from it to a small island.
“This island was hit by hurricane Louise on Monday. We do disaster relief projects during hurricane season pretty often. Usually it’s expedited routing for consumables. Food, medicine, what have you. But here the hurricane knocked out the island’s power plant, which happens occasionally. So we set up what we call an ant trail. See this line of paired dots? Those are nodes carrying other nodes–just like the node that brought you here, actually. In this case they are carrying charged-up nodes from the power station so that aid workers on the island can use the batteries.”
“Ah, Instead of food or medicine, it is voltage that you ship.” said Laurent.
“Yes, exactly. I mean, we ship food and medicine too, of course. But what they lacked was power. I just got these this morning,” she said, and clicked over to an email with pictures from the island. They showed tents and awnings set up on a beach, between piles of storm debris that were still being cleared. Extension cords snaked through the sand toward the shoreline, where the outlines of a row of nodes that had been dragged up the beach could just be made out.
“This work, the ant trail, this is done as a charity?” asked Laurent.
“Depends on what you mean. This is all charity work, but the network time still has to be paid for. There are always NGO’s to partner with to finance disaster relief, though. Honestly, when and island gets hit like this I just go ahead and start setting things up and worry about the service contracts later. It would be defensible from a public relations standpoint even if we couldn’t get a deal in place, though I can’t imagine that ever happening.”
Laurent nodded, and pressed at the floor with his heels and swiveled toward Janet. “It is very important work that you do,” he said.
On that occasion, with Laurent sitting in her chair, the side of his face illuminated by the soft blue light from her screen, Janet was moved by some indulgent urge to ask him questions of her own.
“Do you believe in adoption?” she asked. He gave her a quizzical look. His skin was even darker than Caxton’s, but his eyes were almost the same. She elaborated, “By that I mean, do you think it’s okay to raise someone else’s children as your own? Would you adopt a child?”
“I think I already have done this,” he said. “Therese and Nagaila are not so old.”
“But what if they weren’t already family? Do you believe in it then?”
“I think,” said Laurent, “That the civil war makes everyone believe in adoption.”
There was still a war out there, and he and his sisters might have to return to it. There was nothing Janet could do. Eventually, somewhere far away, a consensus would coalesce at the interface of international law and corporate governance, and when it did it would sweep over the Mokinas like a storm or a wave, something too big to ever be contested.
* * *
The article was published less than a week later. “Drug Filled Coffins of the Desperate.” It appeared in a weekly news magazine. The piece began with an overview of Congolese history, but the focus was on the recent development of entrepreneurial narcotics traffickers. The Congo had long been the region’s primary source of cannabis; it was illegal, but with the general lawlessness there was no enforcement. Now, some groups had started buying up local crops and using the FloatNet to distribute them to places where the drugs were more highly valued. When they couldn’t fill enough of a shipping container with marijuana or other contraband to make the enterprise cost effective, they would augment their income by selling “passage” to the destination country to people trying to escape what still, in many areas, amounted to a war zone. No one survived the trip. Their emaciated bodies were unceremoniously disposed of by the traffickers on the receiving end of the shipments. The article closed by relating the story of one family who had fallen for this scheme, but was lucky enough to have their container end up at one of the FloatNet maintenance hubs before they died.
The publication of the article caused a major furor within DAMSCo, as people in administrative positions tried to determine who had contacted the press. Janet’s communication with her husband had come to consist exclusively of brief and impersonal emails. She had not actually spoken to Caxton since the night of the Mokinas’ arrival. But in the shitstorm stirred up by the article she finally gave him a call. During their conversation there were many things said in anger, by both sides. And most of them–including Caxton’s insistence that he had said nothing to anyone about the Mokinas–were true.
In fact, it turned out that no one had contacted the press. The reporters responsible had been working on the story of this black market for some time before Laurent ever became a part of it. They had already established contacts within DAMSCo by the time that the news from Platform Beryl began to move through the company. On the whole, the article was an excellent piece of investigative journalism.
The spotlight of international attention that the article focused on Platform Beryl catalyzed DAMSCo’s bureaucratic processes. A decision on the fate of the Mokinas was finally handed down. The official reasoning for sending them back to the DRC was that doing otherwise would make the company complicit in an attempt to ship living cargo via the FloatNet, a serious violation of charter. The official communication informed Janet that a ship would arrive at Platform Beryl to take them home in two days.
Janet cried in her office when she got the news. Not for very long; only one tissue hit the bottom of her wastebasket before she regained her composure. Then she picked up her phone and got Henri on the line.
“Is Laurent down there with you?”
“I think so. Yes, I see him. He’s chatting with Kevin. They were talking about photovoltaic trickle-charging last I was paying attention.”
“Could you send him up to talk to me, please? I’m in my office.”
“Oh, no,” said Henri, after the barest of pauses. “They aren’t going to send them back? They can’t!”
“I just got word, Henri. I should be the one to tell him. Please, send him up.”
When Laurent arrived he was wearing a jumpsuit and still had on a hardhat from being down on the maintenance deck. The first thing he said was, “I think you have for me some bad news.”
“How could you tell?”
“Henri. He did not look very happy when he sent me to you. And you do not look very happy. We have to go back, don’t we? My sisters and me?”
She nodded. “There’s a boat coming to get you the day after tomorrow.” Janet felt pressure starting to build behind her cheekbones, her vision starting to swim. “Laurent, I’m so sorry. In the end it was a liability thing. It’s against the rules to ship live cargo, so they have to undo it. I had…you know I had no influence over this decision.”
Laurent laced his fingers behind his head. Janet had seen him do this before, in the commissary on his second day on the platform. But this time he seemed calm and contemplative. He said, “Ever since I learned where we were, I have tried to prepare myself for this. It is not the worst way for this adventure to have ended. You told me that.”
Then Janet did need another tissue. Blinking into it, she asked, “What will you do?”
“I do not know. I will have to think on it. I have learned very much. Whatever decisions I make, they will be better ones than I could have made before.” He let his elbows fall, dropped his hands back to his sides. “I should go find my sisters,” he said to Janet, adding, “Thank you for the kindness you have shown to us,” before he left her alone in the room.
* * *
Henri arranged a small party for the siblings the next day, their last full one on the platform. It was held in the commissary. Brownies were baked, the platform’s supply of cellophane-wrapped snack cakes was exhausted, and there were plenty of cans of soda for everyone, even with Nagaila in attendance. Henri prevailed upon Therese to sing for the assembled crowd, and her performance was no less charming for being haltingly delivered. Everyone applauded her when she finished, and Laurent enveloped her in a hug that nearly obscured her from view.
Janet decided that since an international incident, albeit not the one she had been worried about when she spoke with Henri, had already occurred, there was no more harm to be done. When the party ended and people began to disperse, Janet took Laurent aside and said, “I would like it if you would come see me tonight.”
They met at Janet’s office, and she led him to her room, which was sparse, with an organized closet, a small, clean desk and a single, narrow bed. Janet took Laurent to the bed with her and took off her shirt. She showed him the lines on her abdomen, from the surgery for her ovarian cancer. Laurent in turn showed her the furrow on his hip. He told her of being fifteen years old, and hiding in a bush from militiamen looking to grow their ranks through kidnapping, and being struck by a bullet fired randomly into the woods. They explored the scars with their fingertips as they shared their bodies with each other.
After, with Laurent lying with his head on her chest, Janet found herself thinking many silly thoughts. She thought about marriage and immigration. And about divorce. She was already married, after all. But if she wasn’t, on how short notice could she marry someone else? Was she like the captain of a ship? Did she have the power to declare marriages? Could ship captains even do that anymore?
She dragged the tip of her nose across his short coarse hair and breathed deeply. It was all just fluff. Idle thoughts to pass the time until the ship arrived to take Laurent and his sisters away.
* * *
The departure was a relatively subdued affair. The ship docked and Janet took the Mokinas with her to meet with its captain, a bony, cheerful man from Belarus who said that the sisters would have one room and that Laurent would have another, and assured them that the trip would be a comfortable one. “Far more comfortable than your trip here, no? We try, anyway!” His jocularity rushed fluidly to fill any empty conversational space, which was a relief to Janet, who found she had no words that felt adequate to the occasion. She hugged each of the siblings before they were led, carrying their new bags full of donated clothing, away into the ship.
After all the necessary but tedious administrative tasks were taken care of, Janet went to the observation deck at the top of the platform to watch as the ship sailed away. She found Henri already there, leaning out over the railing.
“I was surprised you didn’t come to see them off,” she said.
“I saw the looks on their faces when they first got out of that container,” he said. “I couldn’t bear to see what looks they were wearing as they got on that boat.” He held his cap in his hand to keep it from blowing away, and he was facing into the wind, which might have been the cause of the streaks blown back from his eyes. “I’m going to find a way to get those girls out of there. It isn’t right that they should go back. DAMSCo should offer that boy a job. I’m going to make waves about this.”
Janet didn’t respond. She was fantasizing about a world in which, if you could just make it to here, that was enough. A world where you could expect to be met halfway.
She wondered where she would be going when it was her turn to leave.