ONE DAY EARLIER, Aug. 6

There’s something about a far away place.

In a landscape painting, it’s the fuzzy hillside in the corner, nothing but a quick series of brush strokes, and easily missed. From the freeway, it’s the furthest ridge, dark enough so as to not fade away into the blue of the sky above, but only just. From a crowded beach, it’s the the vague, misty outline of an uninhabited island. In a black sky, it’s every star and galaxy and invisible planet.

That was one nice thing about being at sea. In every direction, nothing. Nothing to look at, nothing to yearn for.  

Still, The green-brown world of an algae farm was an ugly thing. For Nick Shaw, that wasn’t a new realization; he knew it on Day One, when he first stepped onto the floating rig and looked out across the operation. The long, murky green pools, the raw stench of drying biofuel, the slime-coated extractors, and all of it surrounded by great, dirty plastic pontoons and the endless, undulating brownness of the Gulf. All of it ugly as sin.

Some things are ugly in a way that makes sense. Places like zinc factories. Mountaintop coal mines, the landfills in Florida, nuclear exclusion zones. Or the flooded ruins of downtown New Orleans. What Nick was less prepared for was the unvarnished ugliness of the places where the world was actively being saved. Places like the floating carbon capture farms where he found employment.  

If the world was ugly, which it was, then why not embrace that fact and work amidst the ugliness? If Nick was honest with himself, which he was, sometimes, he’d admit that he thought himself a martyr on occasion. Okay, often. Never mind that the machines, and photosynthesis, did most of the work. This is for you, America, he’d think. This is so the whole Atlantic coast doesn’t flood. This is for the Block.

It was Friday, which meant the end of his eighteen-day shift and the onset of a three-day weekend, as soon as the rig redocked at 2100. The only other human worker on the schloop had departed on Wednesday, via transfer to an outgoing rig that was due for a systems check. Nick, for his part, was fairly clueless as far as the IT system went, and therefore got the only other job available to him: pool boy. He cleaned the skimmers after each bloom, before a new layer of scum could take hold. On his last spike, the schloop’s thermal system had detected particularly warm waters, the algae had bloomed at a maniacal pace and Nick could barely keep the skimmers operational. This time around, conditions had been moderate, and Nick could lounge. For the first time, he was nearly as unoccupied as the systems guy, Jason, and they spent most of their hours below deck. Nick would beat Jason at chess, Jason would kick Nick’s ass at any video game they could find, and they’d both prank the other rigs over the comm until a supervisor finally chimed in to shut them up.   

With Jason gone, the pranks didn’t have the same appeal, and Nick spent the afternoon wandering the lattice-like decking between the pools, oscillating between anticipation to get to shore and the unease he invariably felt when he was alone on the schloop. Even with just one other worker around, it didn’t seem so big, but when Jason left, Nick felt it expand to its true size, a half-mile across in either direction.

He took a plastic deck chair to the upper deck. Just to sit and look. The solar panels covering the top of the structure glinted orange as the sunset ballooned across the sky. He checked the time. There was no chance Nailea was still at work. Well, no, there was a chance, and a good one, at that. His little sister was a workaholic. He pulled the earpiece from the Band on his wrist and called her anyway.

She picked up after a few rings. “Hello?” She sounded distracted.

“Hey sis.”

“Aren’t you at work? I’m at work.”

“I’m a pool boy, remember sis? So I’ve got plenty of time to bother you.”

He heard a sigh. “Well, I’m pretty busy. It’s the last week of my internship and I want to make sure I leave a good impression. Letters of recommendation are very important to law students, you know.”

“Last I checked you weren’t a law student.”

“I’m not, obviously, but-”

“I know, you’re an undergrad who somehow convinced a top firm to treat you like a law student. I’m still not convinced you didn’t trick them into it somehow. You definitely didn’t forge your transcript?”

“Nick…” He heard Nailea sigh again. She had no sense of humor. “There must be a reason you called.”

Nick adopted a hurt tone. “Can’t this just be a social call?”

“Yes, of course. But I know it’s not.”

Nick paused. “I’m a bit short for Mom’s rent.”

A third sigh. “How much?”

He winced as he answered. “Five hundred fifty.”

“Nick! How on earth?”

“It went up again. And I had to buy some stuff.”

“Yeah some stuff… like a gallon of whiskey for another bender?”

“C’mon, that’s not fair-”

“I know that’s where it went! Maybe normally you can afford both, but this time you chose getting drunk over paying Mom’s rent.”

“Yeah, well, if you hadn’t noticed, I’m the only one ponying up–”

“At your insistence! You told me to take the internship, even if was unpaid!”

Nick groaned. “And I stand by that. Look, forget I asked. I’ll figure something out.”

“Okay.” Nailea was quiet for a moment. “Okay. Nick, Mom’s gonna be okay, right?”

“Yeah. Yeah, course she is.” Nick didn’t mind annoying Nailea, in fact, he saw it as something of a brotherly duty. But he didn’t like it when she got anxious. He could still picture her clearly from her junior year of high school, sitting down to study, but instead stacking her notebooks methodically until the corners matched exactly, then tapping her pencil against the desk, ten times, then one hundred, then one thousand… He shouldn’t have mentioned the rent money, should never have called her at all. She didn’t need the distraction, or the stress.

A voice came on over the speaker system, and Nick knew the rig was close to shore. Safety checks to do.

“Look, I have to go, but seriously, forget I mentioned it. I’ll make it work. You focus on saving the world.” He tried to sound earnest, rather than cynical. Somehow it never came out right. That was the problem with saying things you didn’t believe.

Thirty minutes later he stepped onto the personal, duffel bag over his shoulder, as dusk was well and truly setting. The underpowered pontoon boat carried him across a bloated Lake Ponchartrain, leaving the schloop to await its next 21-day crew.

He was back. Carnival. The hulking ships floated before him, all three still standing at attention, prepared for a Caribbean cruise that would never come. Nick walked down the concrete wharf to the biggest ship, sandwiched between the other two, and turned up the ramp to the deck. To most of the occupants here, it was just home. But since Nick and his coworkers only enjoyed the comforts of the cruise ship for three days at a time, they had a different take on it. For them, it meant company other than the skimmers and output drones. It meant good food that he didn’t have to cook himself, flowing alcohol, a chance to hit on girls in the campy ship bars, or cross the levees and hit on girls in the sweaty jazz bars uptown. And a chance to wash up, change out of his salt-stained company uniform into a pair of jeans and boots. That was up next.

The ship was alive with Friday night excitement and teeming with life. People lined up to order from fast food restaurants, and a gang of young teens glided past on the latest hoverboards, likely en route to the VR games in the arcade. Nick worked his way through the crowds to the nearest staircase and headed down to the third floor. Compared to the schloop, Nick could barely feel the gentle rock of the massive ship, and in any case, after a year spent mostly on the Gulf he definitely had sea legs under him.

He fished out his key card and opened the door to his room. The sound of the shower and the heady mix of steam and rank laundry that attacked his nostrils told him he already had a roommate — one of the rotating cast of schloop workers that shared rooms during off days. Music pumped from behind the closed bathroom door — something bassy and electronic that Nick already couldn’t stand. Steam clung to the lone window, circular and double thick.

Nick threw his duffel bag on the top bunk and fished a cigarette from a pack sitting on the lower bed. Shirts and socks, devices and power cables, bags of cookies and empty drink bottles lay scattered everywhere.

A smoker and a slob, with shit taste in music, Nick thought, looking around at the half dozen suitcases around him. Only one guy fits that bill. Nick pulled his teal-green uniform shirt over his head, lit the cigarette, and called out, “Tommy boy, you jerkin’ off in there?”

The music halted and the door open with a billow of steam, followed by a shaggy head of brown hair and a scrawny body wrapped in a huge purple towel.

“Gotta do it while you can, you know how many goddamn cameras they got on us on the rigs. Who izzat anyway?”

Tommy tried to bat away the steam with a hand and squinted at Nick, who grinned up at him from his seat on the couch.

“Nick! My dude. How was the spike?”

“Slow. Only mucked twenty six.”

“Shit. Lucky dog. I was in the high forties, and that’s my lowball. Plus I shared a rig with Piggy.” He grimaced, and wiped beads of water from the screen of his Band.

“He’s not so bad.”

“Piggy got the name he got for good reason. He’s a fuckin’ mess.”

In response, Nick just gestured around the room to the half-packed suitcases strewn across the floor.

Tommy wiped the fog from the mirror, and his reflection scowled at Nick from across the room. “Motherfucker! you know I’m gonna clean this up. Piggy had a half-eaten bowl of noodles on my bed this spike. Can you believe that shit?”

“You puked on my sheets on our last set of days,” Nick pointed out.

Tommy nodded, looking stumped for a moment. Then he lit up. “True, but you ain’t slept there that night, so you can cry me a river! Remember that Alison chick? Who played wingman for that score? I told her your favorite thing was going around on your private yacht, settin’ dolphins and whales free from fishing nets.”

Nick laughed, and flicked his cigarette butt at Tommy on his way to the shower. “I never did thank you for that, Tommy,” he said. “So thanks. Truly. Thank you.”

“So who else is on land right now?” Nick asked.

He and Tommy had just gotten their order, and Tommy was struggling to pay. “Hold up. I got money in one of these accounts,” Tommy said, waving his Band wildly in front of the server. It finally beeped to show the payment had registered, and the server flashed a thank you on it’s message screen and wheeled off.

“I’m tellin’ you, trying to build credit is fuckin’ mental, man. I got five different cards now, but of course no actual, physical cards I can hold in my hands, they’re all on here,” he said, holding up the wrist with the Band on it, “and I can’t keep any of it straight. I miss at least one of my payments every fuckin’ month and got two maxed out at any given moment.” Tommy paused to dig into his burger and nodded in approval. “Gotta love these things, man. Tastes just like the real thing and doesn’t take a year to grow up like it does a real cow. Anyway, what were you sayin’?”

“Who else is here?

“Well, schedules got messed up this spike. Some weird cool water phenomenon out along Mexico. Probably why your rig was so lackluster. Anyway, guess yours bloomed good enough to keep you out there, but they pulled half of ‘em back early and then reshipped last week. But everyone who was on the East side is back now. So… you, me, Brian, Curly, Jacko, Twigs… some others I can’t think of now. And fuckin’ Piggy, but I’m sure he’s laying in bed, covered in crumbs and mayonnaise and watching tentacle porn.” He took another massive bite and chewed for a long time. When he spoke, his mouth was somehow still full. “Jacko’s already on the other side of the concrete, tryin’ to find something to stick his porker in.”

Nick nodded, and took his last bite. They were both silent for a while. They watched a group of teenage girls sit down and order, giggling at a hologram one of them pulled up on her Band.

“So we’re gonna go find Jacko, right?” Nick said.

“Too fuckin’ right we are,” said Tommy.