Story Excerpt

The Proving Ground

by Alec Nevala-Lee


Perhaps . . . a message comes to the birds in autumn, like a warning. Winter is coming. Many of them will perish. And like people who, apprehensive of death before their time, drive themselves to work or folly, the birds do likewise; tomorrow we shall die.

      —Daphne du Maurier,

“The Birds”



Haley Kabua was clinging to the top of a wind tower when she saw the first bird. She had clipped her lanyard, which was attached by a strap to the back of her safety harness, to a strut on the lattice directly beneath the huge fiberglass rotors. As she braced her bare feet on the scaffold, thirty precarious meters above the beach, she knew without looking that the men on the sand below had halted to watch her climb. Only a few hours of daylight remained, but she forced herself not to hurry, knowing that any mistake she made might be her last.

A pair of thick slings had been hitched to separate legs of the tower, about a third of the way down from the top. Each one ran to the closed hook on the boom of the crane behind her, which had raised the tower into place earlier that afternoon. Both of the chokers had to be released by hand. Reaching up, she unhooked the nearest shackle, letting the loosened sling hang down, and she was about to work her way around to the other when she realized that she was not alone.

Haley tilted back her construction worker’s hat to get a better look at the bird, which was perched on the tail of the turbine. It was a tern, about the length of her forearm, with spotless white plumage and a black eye encircled by a ring of dark feathers that made it seem larger. At the moment, it was clinging to the fin of the tail section with its small blue feet, and it seemed to be staring directly at her, as if it had flown up to investigate this unexpected incursion.

She glanced around. Along the eastern end of the island, six other wind towers were spaced about a hundred meters apart, their new blades shining. A seventh tower lay on the sand, where the workers had just finished bolting its sections together. There were no other birds in sight. Haley was perfectly aware that no terns had nested on Enyu in years, and the wind tower was well above the height at which they preferred to fly. And yet here it was.

Haley waved at it. “Hey, get lost. You don’t want to be around when this starts up.”

The bird tilted its head to one side. Haley returned her attention to the remaining choker on the scaffold. “Guess you like to live dangerously. Well, don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

She inched around to the second sling, the retractable strap on her harness automatically unspooling. Now she was facing toward the atoll, which formed a horseshoe thirty kilometers across, around the central lagoon. From where she stood at the southeast, she could see the full line of the reef, walkable when the tide was low, that stretched to the islet to the north, along with the seastead taking shape five hundred meters to its leeward side.

Haley paused to drink it all in. The atoll provided few natural vantage points, with its highest elevation only ten meters above low tide, so she rarely had a chance to study the entire structure at once. Seeing it now, from as high above the islet as she would ever be, she felt the sight cut through her exhaustion. It was easy to grow obsessed by details while overlooking the larger picture, she thought, and it was that kind of blindness that had led them to this crisis in the first place.

The seastead had not been designed for beauty, but it was beautiful nonetheless, with the kind of elegance that emerged as a logical conclusion of functionality and constraint. It consisted of a modular network of caissons floating on the surface of the water, with each concrete platform measuring fifty meters to a side. The colony had been designed to expand gradually. One day, there would be more, but now there were only five, a quincunx of four squares joined by a grid of covered walkways and flexible connections to the central hub.

Each platform ascended in a series of smaller terraces, stepped like a ziggurat, with the highest level of the hub rising twenty meters above the lagoon. Their roofs had a tessellated look, with photovoltaic panels alternating with surfaces for catching rain. Half of the caisson facing her was devoted to a hydroponic greenhouse, with a floating dock on the adjacent platform, and the water on the sheltered side was covered in a grid of fish pens and bioreactors that reminded her of rows of a green quilt that had been flung across the sea.

It was a work in progress, and it always looked to her as if someone had left an unfinished mosaic on the face of the ocean, spare tesserae and all. Haley, who had spent most of the last three years on the atoll trying to solve problems at sea level, was struck by how fragile it seemed from above, and as she gazed at the scattered human figures visible below, she felt shaken back into action. They had only four working hours left, and there was still one more turbine to go.

Haley was reaching for the second choker when something struck the top of her hat. At first, she thought that a piece of the turbine had come loose, but when she looked up, all she saw was that the bird that had been perching on the tail section was no longer there.

She heard the sound of wings. In the corner of her eye, there was a flash of white, and then the tern was beating against the back of her neck. She pivoted around, releasing one hand from the scaffold, and tried to bat it away. Instead, she felt a series of sharp pecks as it attacked her shoulders and arms, its feet scrabbling for purchase on the front of her shirt.

The bird drew blood again and went for her eyes. As she attempted to duck out of its path, her foot slipped. She grabbed for the strut above her head and missed. An instant later, she was toppling back, the impossibly blue sky above the rotors filling her field of vision, and all other thoughts vanished, replaced by the logic of gravity. She tried to correct herself, failed, and fell.

Her lanyard caught her. With a jerk, the strap grew taut, the harness seizing her painfully around the armpits as she smacked against the side of the tower. Her hat came off her head. For an instant, the clip was only thing holding her in place, and as she heard the metal straining, vividly picturing what would happen if it broke, her hand groped back of its own accord and closed around one of the struts.

Haley found a toehold, dimly aware of the shouts coming from below. Ignoring them, she regained her footing, her heart juddering, and saw the tern fly off toward the water. Blood was trickling down her arms from five or six shallow cuts where the bird had broken the skin.

Someone was calling to her. It was Giff, one of the other colonists, his hands cupped around his mouth. “You okay?”

She dared a look down. The men had gathered at the foot of the tower, their dark faces craning upward. As her pulse slowed, she saw two unfamiliar figures standing nearby. They were visitors, members of the research team that had been surveying the atoll from offshore for most of the last three months, and her fear gave way to a sudden irritation that they had witnessed her moment of weakness. She found her voice. “I’m fine. Just give me a minute.”

Haley took another second to collect herself, then turned slowly around until she was facing the tower again. Extending a hand, she undid the final choker, allowing the hoisting line on the crane to hang free. She checked herself to see if she was ready to come down in a dignified fashion, and she found that she was. Then she descended, hand over hand, securing her lanyards alternately as she went. The bird that had attacked her was nowhere in sight.

A second later, she was on the sand. As she unclipped the safety strap, Giff came up with her hat. “I’ve never seen anything like that.”

“It was nothing.” Haley plucked the hat from his outstretched hand. Giff was in his early twenties, a full decade younger than she was, and although they had been working together on this project for many weeks, she had begun to sense only recently that his interest in her was more than strictly professional. She forced herself to speak sharply. “We don’t have to stop. I’ll just be a second. Get over to the last tower, and I’ll meet you there.”

Giff looked as if he wanted to say something more, but in the end, he only left along with the others, who had briefly paused to watch as she came down. Haley made sure that they were all on their way, then pulled off her harness, letting it fall to the ground by the tower.

It was a hundred paces to the shore. Haley knelt in the surf to rinse her cuts, the salt stinging, and was about to head back when she heard a voice with a Dutch accent. “You should probably use this.”

Haley turned just in time to catch the nylon pouch of a medical kit. The man who had tossed it was standing a few steps away. It was one of the two visitors who had come over to observe, and when he smiled, the look that he gave her was almost shy. “In case of infection, you know.”

“Thanks,” Haley said. She brought the kit over to the shaded part of the beach where the crew had left its gear. The man followed without speaking, keeping at arm’s length at all times. He was about her age, tall and bearded, with light blue eyes and a hint of sunburn. His companion, a woman in her late forties, maintained her distance, standing at the point where the sand gave way to scrub.

Haley sat down, grateful to see that the visitor did not seem inclined to volunteer further assistance. As she opened the kit, he motioned toward the spot beside her. “Mind if I join you?”

“Be my guest.” She tore open an antiseptic swab with her teeth. “You must be Visser. Or at least that’s what I’ve heard them call you.”

“I’m sure they have other names for me,” Visser said. “My friends call me Stefan. You must be Haley Kabua. I’m surprised it’s taken us this long to meet. My colleagues and I have heard a lot about you.” He nodded at the tower. “You ever have problems with birds before?”

Haley wound a length of gauze around her arm. His full name struck her as familiar, but she wasn’t sure from where. “Not really. The terns don’t nest here. That’s why we chose it for the wind farm.”

“I can see why.” Visser sat on the sand. “What do you think happened up there?”

She taped a dressing in place. “Maybe they don’t like us nosing in their business.”

Haley watched for his reaction. She sensed a spark of attraction here, although she was hardly at her best, her hair sweaty and matted, her jeans cut off below the knees. As for Visser, she recognized the type from the tourists who had come out to the atoll in the years before the dive operation shut down. Everything about him spoke of healthy swims, morning runs, and exercise instead of real labor. She returned the kit. “I have to get back to work. If you’re not too busy, you can come.”

She saw that the offer surprised him, and she wondered if he understood it. All that anyone knew about his research team was that it was connected in some undefined way to the Deventer Group, the corporation that was helping to finance the seastead, and she had learned a long time ago that if you didn’t know what someone else was doing, it was best to keep them close until you did. Visser glanced at his colleague. “Let me talk to Jansen.”

Haley waited as he went over to his companion, who had been visibly sizing her up. Jansen cut a more interesting figure than Visser, with the look of a woman who had spent much of her life outdoors, her blond hair bleached nearly white. After they had conferred, Visser approached again. “You have me for two hours. Our boat is by Romurikku. We’ll take the dinghy back when we’re done.”

Looking over at Jansen, Haley saw that she was studying the turbines, marking something down on a folded map. She indicated the workers. “You can pitch in. Hope you’re good with your hands.”

They headed together for the last tower, which lay on the coral sand near the airstrip a hundred meters away. As she drew closer, Haley saw that the men were connecting the guy cables and unrolling them along the ground. Behind them, a diesel engine roared to life, and the construction crane began to crawl slowly along the beach. It was a chain-driven relic without a cab, leaving the driver exposed on a swivel seat. Visser whistled. “That’s quite the antique.”

“It’s tougher than it looks,” Haley said. “There’s a lot of stuff in the supply outbuildings. Trucks, milling machines, backhoes, forklifts. Most of it isn’t usable. The salt water wastes the steel. But we were able to refit some of it. This is a shoestring operation, so it came in handy. We have to make do with what we have. When I first got here, it was a real mess.”

Visser appeared to latch onto this last detail. “You weren’t born on the islands?”

“Springdale, Arkansas. Ever been there?” When he shook his head, she gestured for him to follow. “You aren’t missing much. A lot of Marshallese live there. My parents worked at the poultry plant. Here, help me with this.”

Haley showed him the armored electrical cable. Visser took up position beside her as she fed it through the center of the lattices, pacing down the length of the tower. “What brought you all the way out here?”

“I didn’t feel like killing chickens,” Haley said. “At least with wind turbines, you get to slaughter the birds one at a time.”

Visser cracked a smile. As she hooked the cable to the disconnect switch at the tower’s base, he assisted as necessary, listening to her instructions and coming forward only when asked. Haley had positioned herself to keep an eye on Jansen, who was taking photographs of the row of turbines. “Your friend can come over if she likes. She seems interested.”

“We’re doing a survey of the atoll. Infrastructure plays a big role, especially this close to the reef.” Visser watched as the crane inched into place. “I wanted to ask about that. These wind towers weren’t part of the original proposal. Someone took money out of the budget to pay for them. Why put them up at all?”

Haley noticed that Giff was doing a bad job of pretending not to eavesdrop. “Are you asking for yourself, or as an employee of Deventer?”

“I’m not an employee. Deventer pays me as a consultant. It’s just us two talking.”

Looking at his handsome, privileged face, Haley saw that he had no idea of what she had sacrificed to get the towers or what they really represented. “We need power. Wind happens to be a good way to generate it.”

“But the islanders did fine without wind power before. Even over on Majuro.”

“I know. It’s silly, right?” Haley watched as the crane eased itself into line with the concrete base on which the tower would be fixed. “We could just run everything on generators. Ship in the diesel. It’s not like we don’t have the money. That’s why we’re here in the first place. It qualifies us for reparations. A trust fund. They could probably spare some of it to keep the lights on.” She continued to study the crane. “I’ve told you where I’m from. What about you?”

“You probably haven’t heard of it,” Visser said. “A charming city called Leiden.”

“That’s where Rembrandt was born, isn’t it?” Haley deflected his curious look. “You have dikes there?”

Visser seemed to sense where she was going with this. “Of course. Otherwise—”

“—the sea would swallow you up,” Haley finished. “But why not just pack it in? Pull up stakes and join the Germans. It would be easier.”

Visser silently acknowledged her point. Haley turned back to the tower. “Well, that’s my answer, too. You care about your independence. So do we. I didn’t come here for a handout. Relying on the outside is the kind of thinking that got us into this predicament. You, me, and everyone.”

“I can’t argue with that,” Visser said. “Whoever arranged to put up these towers must have wanted to make a statement.”

“You may be onto something there.” Haley turned away. “The towers were my idea.”

Leaving him on that line, she went to the crane, which had parked itself downwind from the tower. Visser watched as the work crew cinched a strap a third of the way down the scaffold, then lifted one end until it was the height of a man’s chest. As the workers brought timbers to prop it up, Haley signaled to Visser. “You can give them a hand, if you like.”

Visser pitched in as they raised the top of the tower, then stood back as the crane was unhooked and rigged to the powerhead. They hoisted it up, the men guiding it into position and bolting it into place. Haley had wanted to show Visser how professional they were, and she was gratified by how efficient the process had become, with most of the work carried out without speaking.

Once the electrical connections had been made, she waited as the men mounted the fiberglass blades one at a time. When they were finished, she waved at the driver of the crane, a younger colonist named Amata. “Ready?”

Amata grinned. As the crane engaged, lifting the tower upright, the men took up places on all sides, using the guy wires as tethers as they maneuvered it to the base pad. Haley ended up standing next to Giff. Grasping the base section to align it with the pier, Giff shot a look at Visser, who was watching from a safe distance, and spoke in Marshallese. “What did he want?”

Haley detected a hint of jealousy. She held the legs of the tower as the crane lowered it onto its pin. “You know the type. He can’t believe we can do anything on our own. So keep your mind on your work.”

Giff only turned back to the scaffold. As soon as it was in place, the workers ran the guy lines to turnbuckles that had been anchored deep in the sand. Haley locked each one with clips as the men pulled the wires taut. Using a rusted transit level on a tripod, Giff checked to make sure that the tower was as close to vertical as possible, signaling to the others to tighten or loosen the guys accordingly. When they were done, all that remained was for someone to climb the scaffold and release the rigging. Haley saw the others looking at her. “I’ll do it.”

Haley put on the safety harness. For a second, she paused at the base of the tower, aware that the men were watching, and then she reached up to clip a lanyard onto the first strut.

She climbed carefully, as always, going up one rung at a time. Whenever she reached the lanyard, she unclipped it and attached a second one higher up, so that she always had at least one line in place. It was very quiet, with no sign of birds, and the solitude gave her time to think.

As she ascended the tower, she thought back to what Visser had said, along with the assumptions behind it. None of this, he had implied, was necessary. The seastead didn’t need wind power or fish farms. All it needed was a handful of caretakers, far fewer than the hundred colonists who currently resided here. The islanders had relied on imports for their food and fuel for years. And if the reparations paid off as they all hoped they would, there would be plenty of money.

Yet she wanted to give them more. They had a chance to make something here that could sustain itself, and while it might not matter to the rest of the world, it mattered a hell of a lot to her. She knew that this sense of urgency had alienated her from many of those around her, even the ones most inclined to take her seriously. But she could never shake the feeling that they were running out of time.

She made it to the level of the tower where the sling was attached. Clipping her lanyard to the strut above her head, she looked around. She did not see any birds on the islet, although a mingled flock of terns and noddies was feeding offshore, a kilometer away from the reef.

Haley took in the view again, the wind blowing in her hair, knowing that it would be for the last time in a while. Looking past the seastead at the open ocean, she forced herself to see how it would look in a hundred years. Water levels across the globe were projected to rise one full meter by the end of the century, but it would not be evenly distributed. It would be highest here, in the equatorial Pacific, and it would erase whatever was left of the Marshall Islands.

But not entirely. The atoll had an average elevation of two meters, and the estimated increase in sea level meant that the high tide would sweep over the few spots of land that survived. If they wanted to remain a country, at least in the eyes of the courts that would award reparations from developed nations to regions destroyed by climate change, they had to make some new real estate of their own. Seen in the right light, it was almost comical. A country could be compensated for the loss of its territory, but without any land, it would not be considered a country.

Hence the artificial island. Turning back to the seastead, Haley reminded herself that it was only a beginning. They had a few decades to set up wave turbines, to make the bases of the wind towers watertight, to build up fish farms and bioreactors until they could live here indefinitely on their own, no matter what happened elsewhere. It had all been born of trial and error, and they had made big mistakes already. But as she looked out at the lagoon, reflecting on what else lay sunk below its surface, she knew that she could not trust anyone except for herself.

Haley detached the chokers without any trouble and climbed down again. Looking around at the others, she knew that the rest could wait until tomorrow, or even later. But when she saw that Jansen had joined them to observe, standing silently alongside Visser, she found that she wanted to do it when the visitors would see it. “Let’s turn them on now.”

There was a murmur of excitement. As the workers grounded the last tower, driving the copper rods deep into the ground, Haley went to the shed that had been erected at the center of the wind farm. The inverters were already in place, and once the system checks were done, she gave the order to proceed.

Giff ran down the beach, darting from one tower to another to turn on the switches, as a second worker did the same with the turbines on the other end. Haley kept her eye on the bank of inverters. As the rotors high above began to turn, the screens blinked to life one by one.

A cheer went up from the work crew. As the men slapped one another’s backs, Haley continued to watch the towers. When they caught the trade winds, the displays on the inverters began to update rapidly as the output wattage increased. She allowed herself a flicker of pride, and when she looked at Visser, she saw that he got the message. They had done all this themselves. Deventer might have provided some of the resources, in exchange for a showpiece project and a percentage of the reparations to come, but it had played no part where it counted.

An instant later, Visser’s expression darkened. Turning to follow his eyes, Haley saw a single white tern circling far overhead.

She did not know if it was the same one she had seen before. All she knew was that it was heading directly toward one of the turbines, and before she could react, it had flown straight into the rotors.

Haley heard a thud as the bird collided with a blade. She watched, unbelieving, as it fell to the ground in a tight spiral, like a maple seed, and struck the sand at the base of the tower.

She ran to it, vaguely aware of Visser at her side, and looked down at its broken body. It had died at once. Haley was still staring at it, feeling as if she were dreaming, when she heard more shouts.

Looking up, she saw a flock of at least thirty birds coming their way. They were flying unusually high, at the level of the turbines, and they were moving in a line that would bring them directly into the path of the towers.

Haley watched, rooted to the spot, as the flock hit the wind farm. It missed the first turbine entirely, but when it reached the second, there was another series of thumps as more terns hit the rotors. If it hadn’t been so awful, she would have laughed. As the bodies of the dead birds plummeted, the rest flew on, and before she could say a word, they had flown along the entire line. At every turbine, more terns fell. A few survivors made it to the end, but within seconds, she had lost sight of them in the trees at the heart of the islet.

“Turn it off,” Haley said. Giff sprinted away without being asked twice, hitting the disconnect switch at the nearest tower before racing along to the next. The others joined him, leaving her alone with Visser. Haley watched as the rotor slowed to a stop overhead, its blades speckled with fresh blood. Then she turned to the north, looking along the row of towers as each one came to a halt, stretching from where she stood to the reef that led to Bikini.

*   *   *


“Let me see if I understand,” Ruben DeBrum said. “The birds were flying far above their customary altitude. They hit the first turbine and kept going. And they flew in a line that took them across the whole wind farm. As if they were doing it deliberately. Or as if they were being drawn to it.”

Haley reminded herself to remain calm. “It’s too soon to jump to conclusions. Birds can be attracted to wind towers as a place to perch or scan for prey, but that doesn’t seem to be the case here. Bugs can swarm around turbines, which draws birds that eat insects, but that doesn’t include terns. And I’ve found studies of how electromagnetic or auditory fields generated by wind power can attract bats. But not birds. At least not that I’ve seen so far.”

Ruben shifted in his chair. It was early the following morning. The councilman for the Bikini district had the girth and the easy grin of a born politician, but he was not smiling now. He had played no role in the construction of the seastead, living back on Majuro with what remained of the government of the Marshall Islands, and he had moved here only a few months ago, once it had become clear that the colonists were serious. “In other words, we have no idea. I’m sorry to say it, but we have to halt the project until we can evaluate the situation. Or find a more qualified expert.”

Haley bit back what she wanted to say. They were seated in the common area on the uppermost level of the central caisson, along with twenty other colonists. Haley had asked for the meeting to be public, hoping that it would work in her favor, but when she looked at the crowd, it struck her as a mixed bag. Some of the men and women here believed in everything that the seastead represented, but others had wound up at the colony because they had nowhere else to go, and she did not think that she could count on their support.

The common room stood twenty meters above the base of the platform, high enough to be safe from the largest of rogue waves. On Sundays, it doubled as a chapel, with its windows of safety glass affording a pleasant view of the atoll. It had been one of the first areas to be furnished, in part with an eye on renting the space to wealthy vacationers, and the result had the look of an anonymous resort lounge. She saw that the councilman was waiting for her response. “We checked the turbines. There’s no damage. If anything, I’m more concerned about the birds.”

“So are we.” Ruben glanced at Visser. “Deventer is sensitive to perceptions of environmental impact. If we’re killing birds here, it looks bad. This is all starting to look like a mistake. We rushed to build the towers too quickly.”

Haley saw that he was showing off for the two visitors, who had taken up position at the rear of the room. Going forward, she unrolled a map on the conference table, holding its edges down with the shells that had been left there as a centerpiece. Across from her hung a traditional stick chart, with coconut fibers knotted together to represent ocean well patterns. On the opposite wall, where Visser and Jansen were standing, there was a framed artist’s rendition of the finished seastead, a dream on paper with no sense of the work required to make it a reality.

She pointed to the map. “These are the nesting grounds. There are big bird rookeries on the uninhabited islets to the north and southeast. You see thousands of terns and noddies there, along with herons and frigatebirds. But there aren’t any birds on Bikini or Enyu. They’ve steered clear ever since the islets were built up for the nuclear tests in the fifties. Even after the people left, the cats and the rats stayed behind. And we checked the nesting sites and flight patterns before we began to build. There are fewer birds here than anywhere else on the atoll.”

“But you haven’t checked again recently. Birds can move, I imagine. A colony might have arisen since you last surveyed it. Or maybe you overlooked it the first time around.” Ruben leaned back in his seat. “But it might be for the best. A wind farm could be put to better use elsewhere, like Majuro. They still have a population of fifty thousand. I’m not alone in thinking that wind power might be more valuable there, rather than for a handful of colonists. Doesn’t that seem reasonable?”

“Yes. All too reasonable.” Haley removed the shells from the map, which sprang shut. “I’d like to survey the island one more time before we come to a decision. Giff and I can cover most of it in a day, and I’ve already asked for a drone to do a flyover. If there’s a nesting ground, we can evaluate our options. We could always move the towers to Bikini. The equipment is already here. I just want to find a solution that makes sense for us and the birds.”

“The birds will be gone in a hundred years, no matter what we do,” Ruben said mildly. “We won’t. If we’re lucky.”

Haley glanced around and saw that the meeting was over. Rolling up her map, she made her way to the door, not looking at Visser or Jansen, and headed stonily outside before anyone else could speak. When Giff caught up with her in the corridor, she told him to meet her at the boat in twenty minutes. She waited until he had left, wanting to be alone, and then moved on.

After emerging into the sunshine of the terrace, she descended the open stairs to the lowest level of the caisson. As always, it felt exactly like walking on land, although the platform was floating on the surface, tethered to the bed of the lagoon at twelve separate anchor points.

Haley often found herself thinking of the early days, when the first set of platforms was assembled on Bikini. The initial crew had consisted of only twelve volunteers, residing in the decaying resort rooms on the beach, along with a supervisor from the Deventer Group. The interlocking slabs that made up the caissons, with their alternating layers of concrete and polystyrene, were based on the company’s patents, and early on, it had been assumed that Deventer would also oversee the construction. In fact, the islanders had been determined to do everything on their own, and before long, the company man had been safely back on a plane to the Netherlands.

There was no question that they had made mistakes. They had tried mixing their own concrete with local coral sand, only to find that it was too coarse for binding, and setting up the molding plant for the polystyrene had taken months. Once finished, the slabs had to be slid into the water, fitted together, and towed into position, and several had been damaged or lost in the process. But the result was a growing seastead that could survive a hurricane or rise with the worst of the waves, even if the real threat, as Haley had come to understand, lay in the human factor.

She moved along the encircling walkway and headed for a covered bridge that led to an outer platform. Going to her quarters, which were bare except for a bed, a laptop, and a shelf of books, she retrieved the equipment she needed. Then she continued on to the next caisson, moving counterclockwise around the seastead until she reached the greenhouse.

Manita Jacklick was checking the hydroponic tanks in which the colonists were learning to grow cucumbers, chives, and watercress. As Haley entered, Manita glanced up. “How did it go?”

“I’m glad you weren’t there,” Haley said. “Ruben sawed me off at the knees.”

“He needs you more than you’ll ever need him.” Manita set down her tablet. The biologist was another transplant from the outside world, training the colonists to establish pilot systems for hydroponics, aquaculture, and bioreactors. Like the wind turbines, they were less a matter of practical necessity than part of a larger vision, a strategy for the seastead to sustain itself with greater independence than the islanders here had known in decades. “Let’s take a walk.”

Haley followed her outside. She had often sensed that Manita was driven as much by aesthetic concerns as by more pragmatic considerations. The bioreactors had been designed to grow spirulina and other algae for food and biodiesel, but they had also a peculiar beauty, the plastic membranes of wastewater floating on the water like a line of pearls, lined on the inside with bluish paste. Even the pens of seaweed, shellfish, and tilapia, crossbred for resistance to ocean acidification, were lovely in their way, and it was this combination of attention to detail and concern for the whole that made Manita such a valuable ally.

As they crossed over to the dock, Haley told her about the meeting. “I can’t go back to Ruben without an explanation. Maybe there’s a lack of food offshore, and the birds are moving inland—”

“That’s not what I’m seeing,” Manita said. “If anything, there are more fish in the water than ever. The birds aren’t starving. But I can take a look after I check the sampling stations. Did you keep any snarge for me?”

“It’s in a fridge in the central galley. Twelve birds in all. I bagged them separately.”

“Hope you labeled them, too. I’d rather not see them get served up for lunch.” They arrived at the floating dock at the edge of the adjoining platform, at which five boats were moored. Giff was there already, waiting for her in the nearest dinghy. As the women approached, he rose, and Haley was about to speak when she saw something pass across his face.

She turned to see Visser coming in her direction. Halting a few steps away, he pointed to a boat with an electric motor berthed at a distance from the rest. “That one’s ours. She’s fast. You can use her. I’m sorry about what I said yesterday. And if it’s not a problem, I’d like to join you.”

Haley studied his expression, which revealed nothing but a genuine desire to help, as well as an assumption that they were united by concerns that the others could not understand. “Why?”

“I’ll be honest,” Visser said. “I want to know what’s happening here, too. We’re surveying the atoll. If the geography is changing, the birds can be the first to sense it. And if they’re resettling for a reason, it matters to me.”

Haley took a moment to respond. She sensed again that there was an unspoken aspect to Visser’s interest in her, and it had nothing to do with her more obvious charms. Last night, she had spent the better part of an hour looking into him online, and what she had found only raised additional questions. Glancing at Giff, she observed that he did not seem particularly happy about the arrangement, but she could think of no good reason to decline. “Come on, then.”

A few minutes later, after transferring their gear to Visser’s boat, they were heading out into the lagoon. Giff had remained silent, and Haley hoped that there wouldn’t be trouble between the men. To head off any further tension, she had volunteered to take the helm herself, and now she was steering away from the seastead, heading south toward Enyu.

Halfway there, she decided to change course, departing from the most direct line to follow a long curve toward the islet. Up ahead, an orange mooring ball bobbed like a bath toy. She had brought them here deliberately, wondering if Visser would make the connection, which he did. “Is that what I think it is?”

“It’s the Sakawa,” Haley said, speaking loudly above the motor. “It’s right below us.”

Visser leaned over the edge of the cockpit, then raised his eyes toward the islet to the east. In the sky overhead, the drone that she had asked to do a flyover was winging its way toward Enyu. “It’s hard to imagine.”

“You can still see the signs, if you know where to look.” Haley pointed to the south. “They used explosives to blow up a channel in the reef. One of the islands was vaporized by Ivy Mike. If you head west, you can see the crater from Castle Bravo. They called it the proving ground. It was chosen because it was in the middle of nowhere. But there were people here. When they were relocated, they were told that they could come back in a few months. Know what really happened?”

Visser did not look away from Bikini. “I expect that it wasn’t anything good.”

Haley asked Giff to take the helm. Opening her bag, she checked the wildlife transmitters that she had activated before their departure, which she would use to tag any nests they found. “They almost starved at the first relocation site. When radioactive ashes fell from the sky, nobody told them what it was. Finally, they were informed it was safe to go home. A few years later, somebody noticed that cesium levels were off the charts. There were stillbirths, miscarriages. They all had to leave again. So you can see why we don’t trust what other people tell us.”

She anticipated his next question. “The radiation fell to normal levels years ago. They put potassium in the soil, just to be safe. That’s why we built the seastead here. Nobody has lived here for decades, but it’s clean. We can use the infrastructure they left behind, and the atoll is a natural breakwater. It was like a house with the keys in the front door. When we arrived, it was just us and the birds.”

As they drew closer to Enyu, Giff brought the boat around to the construction dock at the lee of the islet, where they tied up. To the south, a flock of shearwaters was feeding on the open ocean, dipping from side to side on their stiff wings as they flew, the tips nearly touching the water. She saw that Visser had noticed it. “Migrants. They stay for a while, then move on. Like everyone else.”

They descended from the dock, walking along the sand toward the trees. Giff inclined his head southward. “I’ll take this end. You two go north. We can meet up again in the middle.”

“Fine.” Haley waited as he headed off, knowing that he had wanted to leave her alone with Visser. Whatever his reasons, she was glad for it. The two of them, she suspected, would have a lot to talk about.

Visser was looking at the wind turbines, which were motionless and bare. “No birds.”

“They can be hard to find. So I could use a second pair of eyes.” Haley knelt to draw on the sand, which was light gray, with flecks of coral. “This is the island. I want to focus on the scrub and forest here, north of the airstrip. We have to be systematic. Terns don’t build nests. The eggs get laid in bare branches, forks in trees, sometimes just depressions on the ground or in the shingle. If there’s a colony, it’s going to be somewhere that isn’t obvious. Let’s go.”

They headed north. Beyond the beach, the ground turned into short grass and soldierbush, followed by a sparse forest of pisonia and manjack. Near the airstrip, coconuts had been planted in neat rows, replacing the trees that had been blown away by the nuclear blasts.

As they picked their way forward over the next hour, focusing on sheltered areas that might reveal signs of birds, Haley realized that she wasn’t sure what she was hoping to find. Visser remained silent. She had been wondering if he would open up about what he was really doing here, but with every passing minute, it became increasingly clear that she would have to pry it out of him herself.

Her first opportunity came as they circled back toward their starting point. They had found nothing, and Haley was trying to decide what to do next when Visser spoke up beside her. “You’ve said that you don’t trust anyone from the outside. But you still cut a deal with Deventer.”

“It wasn’t my deal.” Haley headed toward the airstrip. “But if they want to use us, I’ll use them back. They need a proof of concept. If Deventer wants to build islands for countries that are going to vanish underwater, they have to prove that it works on a large scale. We need land and a permanent presence to stay on the list of nations. So they made us an offer. The details don’t matter. I just want to get the seastead up and running before anyone has second thoughts. That’s why I’m in a hurry. It isn’t about the seas rising. I know how quickly the politics can change.”

They looked toward the ocean, where a mixed flock was feeding on the water, the white terns and black noddies flying low to pick up squid and fish. In the old days, she knew, the islanders had followed birds to find promising fishing grounds, but that way of life was long over. Watching Visser, she saw her chance. “Let me tell you another story. Back in the nineties, the Marshall Islands made a deal with a private company to conduct iron fertilization. You know what that is?”

Visser kept his eye on the flock. “You seed the oceans with iron. The iron supply is the essential limiting factor in plankton growth.”

“Right. The idea was that if you can get more plankton to grow, they suck up carbon dioxide, and when they die, it sinks to the ocean floor. Marine snow. On a large enough scale, it could offset carbon production. We could solve climate change without anyone lifting a finger. If you’re lucky, you get more fish, too. It sounded good to our politicians, so we leased our offshore waters. You can look it up.”

She regarded the birds. “It was supposed to be a trial run, but it never happened. Before they could even start, iron fertilization was outlawed as a form of illegal dumping. But maybe it’s better that way. Science isn’t going to save us. We like to think that we can invent our way out of this. It lets us avoid the hard choices. And I figured out a long time ago that we have to depend on ourselves.”

Glancing toward the airstrip, she saw that Giff had emerged from the coconut grove. When she raised her arms in a silent question, he only shook his head. As they went closer, she lowered her voice. “And I’ll tell you one last story. After the islanders were relocated from Bikini, they were given a trust fund to compensate them for the loss of their land. They had nothing else, so they couldn’t live without those handouts. I don’t want that to happen again. Deventer can have their cut. If we can sign over a piece of our future to make a home for ourselves, we will. I just want to get it done now, because I don’t trust the system. It doesn’t have any interest in what we’re building here. But you know that already, don’t you?”

Visser turned. Something was gathering behind his blue eyes. “What do you mean?”

“You aren’t a scientist,” Haley said. “You’re a lawyer. And I want to know why you really came.”

Before Visser could respond, Giff had joined them at the edge of the airstrip, his face glistening with sweat. He pointed. “Look.”

Following his gesture, Haley felt a sudden chill. When she had last looked at the wind towers, they had stood empty against the sky. Now, at some point in the last few minutes, they had become covered in birds. Clusters of white terns were perching on the struts of the latticework and on the tail sections of the turbines, hundreds, perhaps thousands looking calmly inland, as if they had all descended simply to watch and wait. “Where did they come from?”

Giff shook his head. “Don’t know. I didn’t find anything on my end. A few heron’s nests in the bunker on the southern tip of the island. That’s all. But I haven’t checked anything here.”

Haley knew that he was referring to the supply outbuildings and the communications bunker by the airstrip, which were the only places they had yet to search. As they headed in that direction, with Giff casting a nervous look back at the ranks of terns, she felt Visser’s eyes on her face.

Giff went ahead to the nearest storage building, signaling that she and Visser should check the other. Visser followed as she went to pry open the door, which had been all but swallowed up by undergrowth. Inside, hulks of construction equipment and rusting generators were visible in the shadows. Haley switched on her flashlight, casting its beam around the interior, and heard the low scurrying of rats. “Now you can tell me what you’re doing here.”

Visser faced her in the darkness. “First, I never said I was a scientist. You only assumed that I was. I studied biology and law at Leiden University. But it sounds like you already figured that out.”

“I figured out a few other things,” Haley said. “I looked you up online. Your name sounded familiar, and I finally remembered why. You wrote one of the first papers about us. I read it last night. It was hard to get past the legal language, but I think I got the point. You wanted to define what a country was. For a nation to collect reparations, it has to legally exist, but places affected by climate change might vanish from the map. It’s quite a paradox. But you came up with a good solution.”

Visser’s expression was difficult to read. “I wanted to understand the situation. That doesn’t mean I liked it.”

“No. But you didn’t have any trouble coming up with ways to profit.” Haley retraced her steps to the door. “It isn’t enough to define a nation by its geographical coordinates. You need land and a permanent presence. A few caretakers would be enough, but let’s call it a hundred. A minimum viable population. You can rotate them in and out, as long as somebody is always there. If you like, you can even make the whole thing sustainable. It humors the colonists. Or it allows them to think that they’re something more than a fiction.”

Haley emerged into the sunlight. “I was impressed. That paper was written years ago, but you laid out the whole operation. A government in exile in Springdale. A trusteeship to distribute reparations to refugees. To get startup capital, you treat the reparations like any future income stream. You package it like an annuity and use it to raise money. Deventer agrees to sponsor the construction in exchange for a cut of what we expect to earn from lawsuits against developed countries. It’ll take years to work its way through the courts, but you’re willing to risk it—”

Visser broke in. “The courts are the only tools you have left. I was giving you a way to use them. Both of us want to make a difference. For me, it just happened to be on the legal side.”

“And I should thank you,” Haley replied. “Deventer gave us the patents at a discount. We did the rest. No matter what happens, we’ll have the seastead. They can’t exactly repossess it. And we have an eye on the long game. In a thousand years, sea levels will fall again, and the rest of us can go home. But that still doesn’t explain what you’re doing here.”

Visser’s voice was flat. “I’m doing exactly what I said. We’re conducting a survey of the atoll, both of its current state and of how it might look over the next century. And this affects you today. Because not everyone is convinced that these islands are going to disappear at all.”

Haley had an uneasy sense of what was coming. “What are you talking about?”

“It isn’t just a question of sea levels,” Visser said patiently, as if explaining a difficult concept to a child. “Reef islands change shape. They move around. Even if they erode on the ocean side, sediment can accumulate where they face the lagoon. If the coral dies, it makes more sand available. These islets might actually grow as the seas rise. Most of them formed when sea levels were even higher. Climate change just reactivates the process. Increased storm action could build them up. We simply don’t know. I’m just here to gather information.”

A flood of anger spread through her body. “If you’re saying we have nothing to worry about, I’ve heard that story before.”

“That’s not what I said. Parts of the islands probably can’t be saved. Urban areas, industrial sites, places where the reefs have been affected by infrastructure, like your turbines. But if it looks like any of it will survive, it makes it harder for a judge to award damages. I’m not saying you won’t lose your country. But people are bound to wonder if the claims will hold up. And this isn’t something you worry about in a century. You worry about it now.”

Haley felt as if she had been struck in the gut. “So there may never be reparations.”

“You have to prepare for that possibility. And if that’s the case, what you have now is all you’re ever going to have.” Visser paused. “I’m sorry. But you knew from the beginning that it might not last, and that you had to be open to other options. I want you to remember this. No matter what else happens.”

For the first time, Haley found herself at a loss for words. Hearing the sound of footsteps, she turned to see Giff coming their way. He shook his head, indicating that he had found nothing, and headed for the concrete communications bunker, which was the only structure that they had not yet inspected. Haley made for it, walking rapidly ahead of the others. She did not want to look at Visser, even as his words continued to resound in her brain.

The bunker, built decades ago for the bomb tests, was a short distance away from the supply buildings, with a huge sloping roof nearly engulfed by the trees. Tufts of grass and moss had sprouted in minute cracks in the concrete. Haley went to the doors, which were ajar, and stepped inside without pausing, wanting nothing more than to be done. She no longer cared about what they might discover.

Going in, she took stock of the interior, which was strewn with debris and the remains of equipment that its former tenants had left behind. As Giff and Visser came up behind her, she switched on her flashlight, and she was moving its beam along the floor when she halted. “Giff—”

In the illuminated circle before her, there was a single heron. It was gray, with short yellow legs, a strip of pure white going down its throat. When it was struck by the light, it turned in her direction, and in the instant before it flew toward the ceiling, it seemed to her that it had almost been dancing in place.

She cast her flashlight up to follow it. Dozens of golden eyes were staring down.

There was a sound like the pages of an enormous book being riffled as the herons in the loft took flight. Haley fell back as the birds descended, coming at them in waves, their wings beating the air in the confined space. Otherwise, they were utterly silent, and within seconds, they had surrounded the three of them, jabbing down with their sharp brown beaks.

Giff cursed and beat away the birds with his hands. Haley felt the flashlight slip from her fingers to the ground, and when it went out, it left nothing but a darkness filled with dense feathered bodies. A heron flung itself at her head. It was like being punched by a fist in a padded glove. The bird came again and she shrieked, reaching up wildly to drive it away, only to feel its claws groping for a foothold. Another blow opened a gash on her cheek.

Beside her, Visser had taken hold of one of the herons as it strained forward, trying to get at his eyes. He managed to fling it away, but its place was immediately taken by two more, one going for his face, the other attacking him below the waist. As she watched, he stumbled and went down hard. Haley broke free of the bird that was flailing against her and reached for Visser’s wrist. He returned her grip and made it to his feet, but the birds above were still coming, row after row, bearing a nauseating smell of the sea and vomited fish.

The door of the bunker was still open. Haley turned and ran for that rectangle of sunlight, feeling another set of wings beating at the back of her neck, and tumbled outside. Her bag slipped from her shoulders. Leaving it where it had fallen, she ran for the boat. Giff had already emerged and was shouting for her to follow, blood streaming from cuts on his head. Visser was somewhere behind her.

Haley sprinted as fast as she could through the scrub, ignoring the angry scratches it left on her ankles and calves. She did not stop until she felt sand beneath her feet and saw the construction dock up ahead, and even then, she kept going until she was at the edge of the water, lungs aching, and her mind had finally caught up to the fact that the sound of wings had ceased.

She looked back. The herons were gone. Whatever had caused them to attack had not carried them past the airstrip. The only noise was that of her own pulse, ringing high up in her ears.

Giff was beside her, breathing hard. Visser was standing alone on the beach. He was looking directly at her, but his eyes did not seem to be registering his surroundings, and then he collapsed on the sand.

Haley scrambled back to him. When she was close enough to smell blood, she looked down and saw that the right leg of his khakis was all but soaked through to the knee with red.

She reached down, tearing away the fabric, as a warm jet rose in an arc from Visser’s inner thigh. The sharp beak of one of the herons had sliced open his femoral artery. She spun toward Giff. “Give me your belt.”

Giff complied, staring down at the man on the sand. Haley looped the end of the web belt through its buckle and ran it up Visser’s leg, as high as she could, and cinched it. She caught his eye. “It’s going to be okay.”

Visser said nothing. He was very pale. Looking up the beach, Haley saw a long trail of blood leading back to where they had emerged from the scrub. A gash to the femoral artery could cause death in less than two minutes, and despite the tourniquet, the blood was still flowing.

It seemed that Visser was trying to speak. In the end, whatever he wanted to say was lost as unconsciousness took hold, and before she could do anything more, he had grown still. He was dead.

Her hands were sticky, and the high sweet smell of copper filled her nose. She was about to rise, not knowing what to say or do, when she felt a light touch on her arm. Giff was pointing. “Look.”

She lifted her eyes. In the distance, the terns that had been perched on the lattices of the wind towers were taking off one row at a time. As she watched, the entire flock took flight, hundreds of birds ascending in unison, and before long, the scaffolds were empty again. Even before she saw where they were flying, she knew it in her heart. The flock was moving west, toward the lagoon, and then turning north in a single body. It was heading for the seastead.


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Copyright © 2016. The Proving Ground by Alec Nevala-Lee

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