Edition 14: Keep the Water Out by Mitchell Edgeworth
When the world changes shape, there’s always opportunity for those that seek it. Karrinyup Island once was a part of the Australian mainland, but the water level has caused Perth to retreat and entrepreneurial people have settled the abandoned territory in a bid for a new life. But don’t get too close; Australia has a sovereign boundary to protect, and a wall to keep the undesirable tide out. SY
Lewis was the first Australian I ever met. He came to Karrinyup Island when I was fourteen years old, sailing across the strait from Padbury on a fishing skiff and tying up at the docks at the end of Newborough Street. He wore boots and jeans and a broad round hat, shading his pale face from the sun. I couldn’t believe how white he was. I’d seen pictures of Australians before, but seeing one in the flesh was different. He fascinated me from that very first day.
None of what happened later was his fault. Not really. But when I think of that day now it makes me sick.
It was a cool morning in the dry season and the Sanmadi was chugging south at eight knots, carefully picking her way between the crumbling, weed-covered towers of what had once been called Jolimont. Flocks of seagulls went screeching and whirling from their nests twenty storeys above our heads, and a gentle breeze whipped the smell of seaweed across the deck. My brother Okitha stood at the prow with the depth sounder, calling numbers up to Dad in the wheelhouse—these waters were rarely travelled, and the wreckage in the sunken streets shifted and moved with the tides. Kadek, Dad’s Balinese dive partner, stood barefoot on the roof of the wheelhouse itself, scanning the south-east with his expensive Korean binoculars, looking for drone patrols or the red warning lights of sea mines. In my two years aboard the Sanmadi we had never come so close to Perth’s outer perimeter, and my nerves were jangling.
The city itself was enormous now that we were only a few kilometres away. All we normally ever saw of it was a faint and hazy cluster of buildings on the horizon, viewed from the deck of a boat in the straits or from the southern shore of Karrinyup Island. Now it was a titanic fortress, a bundle of glass skyscrapers glinting like a crystal formation, the tallest of them well over a kilometre high. Beyond the half-submerged buildings of Old Perth, past the landscape of security beacons and chain booms and warning signs in ten different languages, I could almost make out the foamy white waves crashing against the sheer face of the steel and concrete wall that protected it all. And beyond that, above the wall, amidst the skyscrapers themselves—distant glimpses of the foliage of rooftop parks, commuter trains twisting around the towers, helicopters, planes, balloons…
“Eyes on the job, Zahmy,” Dad said. I didn’t have anything to do until we reached the dive site, but he didn’t like me daydreaming.
“What do you think we might find?” I asked.
He waited a while before answering, guiding the Sanmadi around the barnacle-encrusted skeleton of a toppled crane. “Could be anything. Lewis’ map has a shopping centre there. It’s probably been stripped before, but not as much as the ones further north. We should find computers, electronics, for sure. Tools. Liquor. Jewellery if we’re lucky. Nah, could be anything.”
“You really think we might find a jewellery store?”
“Maybe,” he said. “Who knows? I’ve never heard of this place. They must have built it just before the flood. That’s why it wasn’t on our maps. Don’t get your hopes up—someone probably found it years ago. But even if there’s no jewellery stores, I reckon…”
There was a sudden burst of spray ahead of us, as something erupted from the water. I blinked in surprise and pressed my face up against the narrow wheelhouse windows. It was a sentry drone, a dull black sphere hovering in the Sanmadi’s path, still trickling seawater, its cyclops eye glowing and twisting as it evaluated the boat.
“Oh, fucking, here we go,” Dad said.
“Warning,” the drone said in English. “You have entered a prohibited zone. Return north immediately.” It repeated it again in Bahasa, Tamil and Filipino.
“Dad…” I said nervously.
“Don’t worry,” Dad said, swinging the wheel to put the boat on a U-turn in the narrow channel. “We’ll just have to try another way. We’ll go a little bit further west.”
“But it told us to go back north.”
“It’s fine,” Dad said, as the Sanmadi slowly turned and began to head north again. The drone followed astern, still bleating its pre-recorded warning. “It only cares about us going back over the perimeter. We’ll go north, then west. This spot on the map should be pretty much right on it. We just came the wrong way, that’s all.”
“Warning,” the drone repeated. “You have entered a prohibited zone…”
“Oh, shut up,” Dad said.
The Sanmadi shuddered and I stumbled against the map table. A moment later the whole vessel ground to a halt, the engine revving and groaning before Dad hit the kill switch and it was suddenly silent.
“What’s wrong?” Okitha called from the prow.
“We’re caught on something,” Dad said, heading astern to join Kadek, who was already peering over the side, unflustered by the drone hovering a few metres above his head. We’d only covered about ten metres back north from the point where it had burst out of the water in front of us, so apparently it still considered us to be inside the perimeter. I was frightened of it, but Dad and Kadek didn’t seem overly concerned, so I followed after them.
“Something’s in the prop,” Kadek said. I could just make it out below the greenish murk—an octopus of tangled rope or cable, something that had drifted up from the detritus below and snared itself around the Sanmadi’s propeller.
“Shut up!” Dad said, glancing up at the drone. “I’ll get it. You get on the wheel. Don’t turn that fucking engine on until I’m well out of there, yeah?” He took a knife and a diving mask from one of the kits and pulled his singlet off while Kadek went up to the wheelhouse. A moment later Dad dived overboard with a splash, leaving Okitha and I standing on deck with the idiot drone hovering above us, making a humming noise like a fan and reciting its warning over and over.
His head broke the surface again a minute later. “There’s wire mesh caught up in it,” he said. “Oki, get me the cutters.” Okitha scrambled around in Kadek’s dive kit for a moment, with Dad calling out “Now, boy!” before he eventually found the wirecutters and passed them down.
Dad disappeared beneath the water again. As he went there was a sudden change in the drone’s message —now it began to wail like a wounded animal, and flashed strobing red lights. The message was amplified. “WARNING! This is a prohibited zone! Leave immediately or you will be fired upon! You have five minutes!”
“We’re dead in the water, you bastards!” Okitha screamed, waving at it. “Hey! We can’t move!”
“It’s just a drone, it doesn’t understand,” I said, although I sincerely hoped I was wrong. Surely they wouldn’t automate something like that? Opening fire on boats? I imagined a security officer deep in some control room in Perth, drinking from a coffee mug on his morning shift. Someone whose job it was to oversee drones who’d gone into red alert. To make sure they didn’t open fire on poor souls who strayed past the perimeter and then got trapped there. Surely.
Okitha and I both stuck our heads over the edge, where we could just make out Dad underwater, patiently cutting through the twisted strands of old fencing entangling the prop. “Fucking hell,” Okitha said. “Take your time.”
“You have three minutes,” the drone said.
Dad surfaced for another breath of air, and we both blurted out what was happening at once. He glanced up at the drone and swore. “I’ve nearly got it,” he said tersely. “One minute.”
I thought his overconfidence was going to get us killed, but I suppose there wasn’t anything else we could do—and I still believed, deep down, that there was no way the drone would fire on us just like that. So did Okitha, apparently, because he had run into the middle of the deck, the centre of its field of vision, and was jumping up and down, yelling at it, hoping against hope that it had a microphone somewhere behind that carapace of armour and weaponry, that someone behind the fortress walls of Perth was listening to him.
“You have one minute,” the drone said, just as Dad scrambled over the stern, dropped the cutters on the deck and yelled at Kadek as he ran up to the wheelhouse, “Go, go, go!” The Sanmadi’s heavy diesel engines roared to life, the propeller span freely, and we were once again cruising north through the flooded canyons of abandoned buildings. I felt a great, sweeping sense of relief in my stomach.
I guess we didn’t make it back over the perimeter in time, because a minute after its last warning the drone opened fire.
A few months before all of that happened, before we stumbled into Perth’s lethal borders above the sunken ruins of Jolimont, was the day we met Lewis. We were refuelling the Sanmadi when he arrived, and we watched with interest as he threw his suitcases up on the wharf, paid the Javanese fisherman who had brought him across from Padbury Island, and was mobbed on the dock by a gaggle of local kids, squealing and giggling at the excitement of an Australian visitor.
We gathered around him with the other divers and dock workers, shooed the children away, and listened to what he had to say. He was from Howard University, he said, a student of anthropology—“the study of people and cultures,” he explained to us. He was writing a dissertation on the immigrant societies of what he called “the Perth Metropolitan Islands.” He’d spent the last few months with the fishing fleets on Padbury, and now he’d come to Karrinyup to see the famous salvage divers.
Everyone seemed equally intrigued by and wary of Lewis, but as soon as it became clear that he would be paying money to whichever family might be kind enough to let him live amongst them for a couple of months there was a flurry of welcoming offers. It was my family he ended up choosing, probably because Dad and I both spoke good English, or what we considered to be good English. Lewis could only speak English and some Bahasa, which would get you by on Joondalup and Padbury but not on Karrinyup.
Okitha carried his suitcase and we led him up Edmonson Street, across the island, past the gigantic old shopping centre where you could still make out the faded word MYER on the white brick walls. The centre had years ago become a warren of homes and apartments for successive waves of immigrants, and now the roof was dotted with hundreds of TV antennas and wind turbines twirling in the afternoon sea breeze. We walked through the underground car park, between ranks of rusting sedans whose tyres and engine parts had long since been stripped, and crossed the bustling marketplace that squatted in what had once been the northern car park.
“Very different from Perth, yes?” I asked Lewis as we pushed our way between the stalls.
“Very,” he smiled. “But not quite as crowded as Padbury.”
Like the other islands along the coast, Karrinyup had once just been a hill, part of the massive suburban sprawl of Old Perth. But those suburbs had been abandoned two generations ago, when the flood came and the Australians retreated behind their dykes and their walls, protecting what little dry land they could in the inner city. Now Karrinyup had been colonised by a wave of immigrants, built over and built between and rebuilt entirely by a race of people who knew how to use space properly. The old photos we’d been shown in school looked like a barren place to me—all open parkland, houses with gaps between them, not a single building more than two storeys tall.
Our house was on Beckington Way, on a hill at the north end of the island, with a view out to the open ocean where you could see sun setting on the horizon and the fishing boats returning to port for the day. Dad turfed Okitha into my bedroom—he got the bed—and let Lewis get settled into Okitha’s. Mum was cooking goat curry with coconut sambol. The house buzzed with the novelty of a visitor, and even as I tucked my sheets into the spare mattress on the floor of my own bedroom I felt dazzled and excited by the prospect of having an Australian live with us for the next few months.
After dinner Dad took Lewis into the backyard—we were lucky enough to have a backyard, a small patch of lush green grass with a shady peppermint tree—and they sat on plastic chairs drinking arrack and watching the sky turn pink and the stars come out. Dad wouldn’t let me drink, being too young, but it was enough for me to be allowed to sit and take part in the conversation, to practice my English on this strange visitor from Perth.
“How long do you plan to stay on Karrinyup?” Dad asked him.
“A few months at least,” Lewis said. “I want to be home by September; I’ll need to do a lot of writing and the dissertation’s due in November. Of course, I can stay elsewhere…”
Dad waved a hand dismissively, and offered him a cigarette. “I don’t smoke,” Lewis said, wrinkling his nose at the wisps coming from Dad’s own.
“We’ll take you out on a few dives,” Dad said, “if you stay out of the way. Working boats are dangerous. My dad died around the time this one was born. Engine fire.”
Dad shrugged. “It’s the nature of the business. High risk, high pay. I’ve got my two boys onboard with me now, and heaven knows Muthumani would kill me if anything ever happened to them, but what can you do? It’s good money. It’s what keeps us here, gives us this house. Keeps us out of Malaga, off the mainland.”
“Yeah,” Lewis said. “I’ve seen Malaga.”
“I want to go to Perth one day,” I said nervously. It had always seemed a stupid pipe dream, but now somebody from Perth was sitting in my backyard drinking with my dad, so who was to say? It wasn’t the fantasy city I’d always imagined it to be, floating on the horizon like a mirage. It was real and solid. If he could come here, couldn’t I go there?
“Shut up, boy,” Dad said in Tamil.
Lewis must have noticed the tone, because he looked uncomfortable. “It’s hard to get into Perth,” he explained. “There’s a lot of…rules. Visas and things.”
I nodded sagely, though I had no idea what a visa was. Rules and regulations—the hallmark of a civilised world. Dad was changing the subject but I was already imagining myself walking through Gloucester Harbour, seeing those fabulous skyscrapers from ground level, entering the city of my dreams.
I find it difficult to remember, now that everything has changed, if I’d ever really wanted to be a salvage diver—to follow in Dad and Okitha’s footsteps, to spend the rest of my life fossicking about underwater to sell old junk to traders on the mainland. Maybe I had bigger ideas. Maybe I’d been more enchanted by the sight of that great and not-so-distant city than other children my age. Or maybe I’d been perfectly content until Lewis came into my orbit—a friendly, inquisitive stranger, who proved to me for the first time that Perth was a tangible place as he sat drinking arrack in my family’s backyard, and who ventured out from his safe and comfortable city in the clouds simply because he was curious.
Either way, whether or not I’d ever dreamed of Perth before, I certainly was now. I became besotted with it as only a young boy could, pestering Lewis with questions and looking at all his photos—of his family, his university, his friends. I was enchanted by visions of tree-lined skyway streets between towers, rooftop swimming pools, lavish penthouse apartments. Lewis indulged my curiosity happily. He was, after all, asking plenty of questions of his own. He was interested in anything and everything the five thousand inhabitants of Karrinyup Island did. He sat in on the lessons of the children in the schoolhouse. He sailed with the fishermen who went out past the broken shoreline into the deeps of the Gage Roads. He took me along to translate as he visited some of the oldest people on the island, gnarled and wrinkled men and women who sat at the centre of their spiderwebs of extended family, people who had been born in cities and countries that no longer existed. He waited patiently as they sipped tea and screwed up their faces and tried to understand what he wanted to know, voyaging back into the history of the immigrants from across the sea who had shaped this shattered fragment of the old city into something entirely new.
Most of all, he was interested in us, and we were proud to tell him. My family had been the ones to begin the salvage industry on Karrinyup, way back when my grandfather first arrived in Australia. He had been an engineer diver in a city called Negombo (long since sunk) and when he came to this country with his wife and infant son and found the great cities closed to immigrants like himself, he had instead settled on Karrinyup—not yet an island at the time, but part of a long peninsula stretching down from Joondalup.
Perth knew what was coming, and was already building enormous dykes and walls around the core of the city, abandoning vast stretches of suburbia to the implacable ocean—turning away from two centuries of sprawling growth and begrudgingly beginning to build up instead of out. Grandad knew what was coming too. He saw the outer city being abandoned and realised there was money to be made from the flooded districts that now scattered the coast from Joondalup to Mandurah. His was the first salvage boat, but not the last, and by the time he died twenty years later Karrinyup was an island, famous for its divers, with traders coming from as far as Boyanup and New Geraldton to buy the trinkets and treasures we dredged up from a forgotten age.
When Lewis arrived I was fourteen years old and I’d been working aboard the Sanmadi for two years, Mum having insisted I stay in school until I was at least twelve. Lewis came with us on countless salvage expeditions, though Dad never let him actually dive, saying that a working boat was “not a playground.” He was content to watch and listen and scribble notes in his palm computer—a glittering piece of Korean technology I never grew tired of looking at. We showed him our salvage grounds, the old retail megacentres and warehouses and workshops. We taught him what we took to the surface or left for the fish; electronics, for example, you would think ravaged by saltwater, yet they still held rare earth metals, which could be extracted, sold and recycled. Anything that wasn’t totally destroyed by decades underwater was usually useful in some sense: tools, scrap metal, tyres, sealed bottles of liquor or perfume. Most valuable of all was jewellery—gold, platinum, gemstones—though you’d be lucky to find any left these days.
We took him with us to Malaga City, that open-air hive of a million people from all over Africa and Asia, through the filthy hot slums crawling around the base of arid hills, to the shady bazaar where we sold scrap metal and electronic components to Mr. Yee’s junkyard. We took him out to the old Hamersley radio tower, which still protruded a hundred and fifty metres from the water, and which Dad, when he’d been a reckless young buck, had once climbed to the very top of. We took him exploring through the half-submerged ruins of the once-great city built by his ancestors, the puttering of the Sanmadi’s engine echoing around the decaying buildings.
“My grandad used to work here,” Lewis told me as we sat at the prow one morning. We were in Osborne Park, anchored above an old warehouse. Dad and Kadek were down below with the suction dredge, clearing silt and rubble away from a doorway so they could get inside. The dredge ran off an ancient, rickety air compressor the size of an engine, and Lewis and I were sitting up at the bow to get away from the racket while Okitha kept an eye on it. Osborne Park was one of the deep water zones—there wasn’t a ruin poking its upper storeys above the sea for hundreds of metres in any direction.
“What did he do?” I asked.
“He worked for a mining company. Not sure what he did, exactly. Australia was a big mining country back in the day, you know. Iron ore, coal, stuff like that. Half the reason the flood happened, I guess.”
“They say the waters are still rising.”
“Maybe,” he said. “Nobody really knew how much ice was locked away in Greenland and Antarctica. The government reckons it’ll level out at another ten metres. Of course, they said the same thing twenty metres ago. That’s why nobody on Karrinyup lives by the shoreline, right?”
“Yeah,” I said. “And because of the monsoon. But the walls around Perth have got to be at least a hundred metres above sea level.”
He shrugged. “They were built ages ago, back in the panicky days. But…well. They’re not just to keep the water out.”
We listened to the throbbing of the air compressor for a while, looking across the open water to the higher parts of the old city in Yokine. “Do you think I could come visit you in Perth?” I asked. “Sometime?”
Lewis kept his eyes on the distant shoreline, where the waves lapped between thousands of weed-slathered ruins and the spines of dead trees. “Maybe,” he said. “You’d have to get a visa issued. Maybe.”
Lewis had been staying with us for a month when Uncle Wasan came to visit. My father’s older brother, he’d never quite belonged in the salvage business, especially not after grandad was killed. Instead he had left the island and chosen to become a trader—not a sea trader with a dinky little boat, plying the coast between Shark Bay and the Southern Islands, but a land trader, venturing east across hundreds of kilometres of salinity-stricken crop fields to sell goods from the ports to farmers and miners who’d probably never seen the ocean in their life. He’d even gone further east than that, across the ancient desert which had been empty and inhospitable for millennia and neither knew nor cared how the coast had changed. He had seen Melbourne and Sydney and Brisbane, the famous Australian city-states of the east coast, assailed by the rising ocean on one side and the empty saltpans on the other.
Every few years he would return to Karrinyup Island, leaving his convoy of camels and wagons in the care of an associate on the mainland, crossing the strait to comment on how much his nephews had grown and fetch the rare and unusual salvage trinkets Dad always saved for him to sell inland. I was excited for him to meet Lewis, because I respected them both greatly—not, I realise now, for the people they were, but rather for the things they had seen and done. I was only fourteen, after all.
After dinner we retired to the backyard for drinks while Mum cleaned up inside. Uncle Wasan was on his fifth or sixth beer and he reclined comfortably in the old plastic chair, his stomach flowing over his belt. For a man who had spent his working life harrying camels through the desert he really did have a tremendous gut. “So tell me, Lewis,” he said, “why have you come to Karrinyup? What do you find so interesting about us?”
“What’s not to find interesting?” Lewis asked. He’d also been drinking, though not as much as Uncle Wasan. “It frustrates me, really. All my classmates are flying off to do their dissertations in China or Africa or whatever. It doesn’t occur to them to do anything else. But we’ve got an emerging culture right here on our doorstep and nobody cares about it!”
“Maybe not in an anthropological sense,” Uncle Wasan smirked. “I’m sure we do occupy the minds of quite a few of the good people of Perth.”
“It’s just weird, isn’t it?” Lewis asked. “My professor ummed and ahhed about it a lot, but I really wanted to do it. I mean, I can see your island from my bedroom window.” (Lewis’ family, as I knew, lived in an apartment on a tower’s 112th floor, a concept that made me both amazed and slightly queasy.) “But there’s nothing there. I was trying to do some research in the university library, and there’s just nothing. They pay about as much attention to these islands as they do to the clouds.”
“I’m sure they seem very distant,” Uncle Wasan said.
“I’m going to go to Perth,” I said. “To visit Lewis. Once he’s finished.”
Uncle Wasan looked at me, then at Lewis, then back at me. “Are you really? Who told you that?”
“It’s what he’d like to do,” Lewis said, looking at his drink.
“I know it’s not easy,” I said. “You have to get a visa, and go through a process. But I want to see what it’s like in there.”
“Don’t we all,” Uncle Wasan said. “I think your friend might have underestimated just how hard it is for non-citizens to enter Australian cities.”
“There’s the Work for Residence program,” Lewis said defensively. “If he really wants to go to Perth and work or study he can enrol in the program and do a few years of work out east and then go.”
“A few years,” Uncle Wasan repeated. “Lewis, have you ever been out east?”
Uncle Wasan shook his head. “Listen to me, Zahmy. You don’t want to go into Work for Residence. There have been people in that program for years and years and years who never get a visa. They send you out to some godforsaken place at the edge of nowhere trying to grow crops out of salt. There’s combat drones patrolling the farms just to keep them safe from desert bandits. We go past these places and there’s all these black and brown workers digging in the sun all day with an Australian farmer looking on. It’s like something out of the American South before the Civil War. I swear it’s true. And you never even know if you’ll get in or not. Probably you won’t. Stay here, with your family. It’s not so bad here. Or if you want to get out and see something of the world, come with me. You can try being a trader for a while. But don’t set your sights on Perth, because you’ll never get in.”
He slouched down in his chair a little, and drained the last of his beer in the silence. “Anyway,” he said, “what would you want to go to Perth for? They hate people like us.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Lewis asked.
“You know what it means,” Uncle Wasan said. “Whites only. That’s why they make it so hard to get in.”
“That’s not true,” Lewis said.
“Wasan,” Dad warned, “you’ve had too much to drink.”
Uncle Wasan shrugged. “What? You don’t want me to upset your guest? Except he’s not your guest, is he? He’s paying to stay here. So he can study you, like you’re rats in a lab. So interesting, so exotic for the Australian.”
“That’s all they understand, Australians. Money. They think they can just buy whatever they want. Or take it. They took this country off the Aboriginals and then they ruined it.”
“You’re a trader,” Lewis said, “and your brother is a salvage diver.”
Uncle Wasan narrowed his eyes. “We survive how we can,” he said. “We weren’t born into wealth like you were.”
“He can’t help where he was born,” I said angrily.
“And neither can we,” Uncle Wasan said. “Lucky for him, eh?”
“I don’t understand what you want,” Lewis said.
“He’s been drinking too much, that’s all,” Dad said. “Please, don’t listen to him. Wasan, maybe you should go to bed.”
“I’d like to,” Uncle Wasan grinned. “Except he’s sleeping in it.”
Dad exhaled in frustration. “He’s a guest too. You can have Zahmy’s bed.”
“I’ll sleep on the couch,” Lewis said angrily. He stood up and walked inside. Dad made a disgusted noise, glared at Uncle Wasan, and followed him.
We sat in silence for a moment, my uncle and me, listening to the cicadas singing and the distant, delighted screams of children playing in the street. “I’m going to Perth,” I said.
“No,” Uncle Wasan said, “you’re not.”
I was, of course, the one who ended up on the couch. I slept fitfully and woke early, only to find Lewis was already awake. He was sitting in Dad’s study, zooming and rotating the display on his palm computer with one hand and writing on one of Dad’s maps of Old Perth with the other. I almost gasped in shock—Dad never let us touch his maps—until I saw that he was awake as well, leaning against a bookshelf with his arms folded, watching the Australian impassively.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“Lewis is accessing maps we don’t have,” Dad said. “Old maps. Marking places that might still have good salvage.”
I stood behind his shoulder and watching him noting and scribbling across the old names of the flooded city—Floreat, Churchlands, Claremont. “How come?” I asked.
“Just trying to help out,” Lewis said.
It wasn’t his fault what happened. He knew we were experienced. Knew we wouldn’t take risks we didn’t have to. It wasn’t his fault at all. He was just trying to help out.
It was three days later, while Lewis was interviewing some of the harbour mechanics back on Karrinyup, that we puttered into Jolimont and accidentally took the Sanmadi across the perimeter.
When the drone opened fire I saw only a quick flare around its muzzle before something slammed into me from the side, knocked me off the edge of the boat, and suddenly I was underwater and someone’s arms were around me and I couldn’t see a thing. All I could hear was the dull, water-muted thumping of the drone’s machinegun fire.
I surfaced, legs thrashing, gasping for air. I glimpsed Okitha’s face floating next to me and heard him shout ,“Swim!”
A second later something exploded and all I could hear in my ears was a horrible ringing. The force of the blast pushed me under the water and this time I swam, held my breath and swam as far away from the Sanmadi as I could, swam until my lungs were splitting with pain.
I broke my head above the surface and turned around, gasping and crying, treading water and looking at the roiling orange flames consuming our boat, a thick black plume of smoke swelling into the air. The diesel tanks had blown. The Sanmadi was listing and splitting apart, and even as I watched there was a terrible rending of metal as the bow broke off from the wheelhouse. Burning flotsam was scattered across the water and I couldn’t see Dad or Okitha or Kadek anywhere.
I wanted to look for them but I was terrified of the drone, which was still hovering above the wreck, the oily smoke curling into circular patterns as it came near its exhaust vents. Sick with adrenaline and panic, I struck out for the closest piece of land I could see—the shell of an old structure with broken walls and empty windowframes, the roof long since collapsed, the tide leaving brown stains and barnacles along the bricks. I staggered up a concrete staircase slick with green weed, dragged myself up onto the dry, dusty second floor—or what had probably once been the tenth floor. I crouched on hands and knees at the edge of a room full of rotted furniture and vomited my guts out, sobbing and trembling.
When I found the strength to crawl to one of the empty windowframes and look out at the wreck of the Sanmadi, the drone was gone. The boat had almost entirely sunk beneath the water, extinguishing the fire, with only a chemical slick on the surface still burning. I looked among the hundreds of pieces of floating wreckage for a long time but couldn’t see anyone else—only the dark, ominous shapes of bull sharks nosing through the wreckage.
I waited for hours. I saw nothing—not even bodies—but the Sanmadi had been a big boat and had left so much wreckage scattered across the water. Dad and Kadek had been in the wheelhouse, anyway, right above the fuel tanks. Okitha had tackled me off the boat and had yelled for me to swim, but I hadn’t seen or heard from him since the explosion.
I looked at the other buildings in the area—shells of apartments, office buildings turned to seabird habitats, sticks of power poles and streetlights and gantries. Nothing moved. Seagulls circled above, sharks circled below. The last of the fires dipped below the water and went out. Above it all, looming to the southeast, the impregnable citadel of Perth itself.
Still distraught, still crying, I started to make my way back home. I was frightened of sharks but this complex of ruins ran north for at least a kilometre, and I picked my way across old brick walls and rusted shipping containers, across warehouse rooftops where only the support beams remained, across a bus wedged in a street with its roof only a foot below the water. I passed across a tiny hill island, no more than fifty metres wide, overgrown with palm trees, the domain of a wild dog that barked and growled at me until I left the isle’s northern shore.
I found a jagged stick of metal and carried it with me when I had to swim across open water. I picked my way from ruin to ruin, from islet to islet, as the sun crept across the sky and burnt my exposed neck and back.
When I was about halfway back to Karrinyup, in the early afternoon, I heard the thumping of a helicopter approaching from the south. I was in the burnt-out, roofless top storey of a derelict high school, and I ducked underneath a desk, peering out as it passed. It was a dark black chopper with men in black uniforms sitting in the sides, black boots sticking out over the edge, grasping dark black automatic rifles. A big black raven winging its way north. I waited till it was long gone before emerging again.
As I was on the final stretch home, swimming across the Hale Strait with the southern shores of Karrinyup in sight, a column of smoke began to rise up from the island.
They were burning the salvage boats. A massive crowd had gathered at the docks at Newborough Street, their screaming and wailing audible from the other side of the island where, dripping wet and exhausted, I had hauled myself ashore into deserted streets. Everybody on Karrinyup was at the docks.
The helicopter had landed on one of the wharf platforms and two dozen Australian soldiers had spilled out of it like angry black ants. They had poured something on the boats and lit them aflame. Karrinyup’s livelihood was burning before our eyes. The crowd screamed and ranted but nobody surged forward, nobody threw bricks or bottles. We all knew what would happen if we did. Only a few soldiers were engaged in burning the boats, shaking fuel from jerry cans, setting them alight. The others kept watch on the crowd, pale white fingers on triggers, their eyes and expressions hidden behind their combat visors.
But somebody had stepped forward from the crowd and was pleading with the lieutenant in charge of it all. It was Lewis. The lieutenant had flipped his visor back and was looking at him with indifferent blue eyes. A sergeant stood next to them, one calm hand on Lewis’ chest, pushing him back while he raged at the lieutenant.
“…way, way, way out of proportion!” Lewis yelled. “I’m recording everything that happens here! This is going to the ABC, Perth News, NewsWire, everybody! You’re going to be in a huge amount of fucking trouble!”
“Record whatever you want,” the lieutenant said. “I’m following orders. Now—hey!” He’d seen me step forward from the crowd and stabbed a finger at me, raised his gun, barked at me to get back. But Lewis turned and saw me and embraced me in a surprising bear hug.
“God, thank God!” he said. “I thought you were dead! Where’s your dad? Your brother?”
Trembling, I shook my head. Lewis rounded on the lieutenant again. “You’ve murdered people,” he hissed. “Murdered them! Over nothing!”
The lieutenant scowled. “Do you have any idea how many people we catch trying to get into the city every week, kid? You have no fucking idea…”
“They’re divers!” Lewis yelled. “Divers! Not smugglers! Not illegal immigrants! They were salvage diving!”
“Vultures,” the sergeant muttered.
“If they hadn’t been in the wrong place, the drone wouldn’t have fired on them,” the lieutenant said. “Boats get warnings as soon as they cross the perimeter, and they have ten minutes to leave.”
“Our prop got stuck,” I said, my voice croaking. “We couldn’t get out.”
“Shouldn’t have been there,” the sergeant said.
The lieutenant looked down at me. “You were on that boat?”
“Our prop got stuck,” I said miserably.
“Jesus Christ,” the lieutenant said. “What are you, kid? Thirteen?”
“Fourteen years old,” he said. “Jesus Christ. They take children down there. What kind of animal puts their kid in danger like that?”
“You have no idea…” Lewis started.
“Oh, shut up,” the sergeant said. “They shouldn’t have been there and they got what was coming to them. Go cry over it somewhere else.”
“Fuck you,” Lewis hissed, but he shrank back as the sergeant took a menacing step towards him.
“That’s enough,” the lieutenant said. “He’s right. Nobody forced them to be there.” He glanced sideways at Lewis. “And you shouldn’t be here. Go home, mate. Leave this place to them.”
The soldiers had doused the last of the salvage boats, more than twenty of them, and now the edge of the wharf was a wall of fire. The heat from it burnt my face, curled my eyelashes, and I looked down at the ground. I sank to the concrete, weary and exhausted. Lewis stood by my side saying nothing, just watching the boats burn, as the soldiers reboarded their helicopter and flew back inside the precious borders of their city.
“They can’t do this,” Lewis whispered. “People won’t stand for it. They can’t do things like this. They can’t. I promise you, Zahmy, I’ll do something. They can’t do this.”
Lewis left a few days later, leaving me alone with my mourning mother and my horrible nightmares about that drone, that menacing black ball that swivelled and shouted and gunned down my family. I saw him off at the docks on a boat to Malaga City, where he could take another to Gloucester Harbour. Both our faces were bleak. He hugged me with no happiness, and promised me again that something would be done.
Nothing ever was. I wrote to him a few times, and he sent me back long and wordy letters I had trouble reading, detailing the politics involved, the public opinion. He denounced his fellow citizens as craven and racist. He said he was sorry that he couldn’t do anything. He implored me never to risk going near the perimeter again.
I didn’t ask him about a visa. Even if it was possible, which it probably never was, I no longer wanted to visit Perth. It no longer seemed the bright and beautiful palace of my childhood dreams but instead a cruel and fearful place. Lewis moved away a few years later, anyway. He went to Africa to study the Masaai.
It was a difficult few years for us on Karrinyup Island. We pieced together a fleet again, bit by bit, sourcing boats from Malaga and Joondalup and New Geraldton. Nobody blamed me or my family for what had happened. It was not, after all, our fault.
I am eighteen years old now. I work as a hand aboard a boat called the Narai. We all steer well clear of Perth these days. But sometimes, while we’re in waters above Innaloo or Glendalough or Osborne Park, I still find myself looking across the water to the south at that strange, impossible city, at those the walls rising a hundred metres from the crashing waves, and I wonder.
How long can they keep kidding themselves? How long do they think they can keep the water out?
Mitchell Edgeworth is a Western Australian writer currently living in Melbourne. In his time he has been an English teacher, a bookseller and an unemployed motorcycle vagrant. He has fiction published or forthcoming in magazines including Pseudopod, Postscripts to Darkness and The Abstract Quill, and his Black Swan sci-fi stories are currently serialised at Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction. He keeps a blog at www.grubstreethack.wordpress.com and tweets as @mitchedgeworth.
Also by Mitchell Edgeworth in SQ Mag #1: Nullus