We are Still Here

Anya Ow

The tourist screamed when they saw me, which was always hurtful. “You don’t have a visa,” I told them as I stayed partly submerged in the warm water. “Turn around.” 

They peered at me over the edge of their submersible. Shaped like a silver teardrop, the glass nose of a cockpit was boxed in by a holographic lattice that drew skeins of pattern-data over the tourist’s pale face. Temperature and humidity in the red. Organic lifesigns nil. Radar and map distorted. As I drew closer, the tourist tried to hide their revulsion behind genteel fascination. 

I was amused by their distaste. I could understand it – I could see myself reflected in the teardrop. Most of my natural-born skin was now heat-reflecting scale, my spine lengthened and fused with jointed bionics, legs folded and flattened into a sinuous tail. Once, one of the ethnic groups I could trace my ancestry to, called themselves the ‘descendants of the dragon’. It may have amused them in turn to see how their children had evolved. Feathery red horns extended from the back of my skull through which I could breathe, the horns of a dragon made for a drowned world. 

I waved. The tourist flinched. “My God,” said the tourist as they checked their data, “the rumours were true. Singapore became a nation of semi-organic servitors.” 

“Turn around,” I repeated. 

“How many of you are there? This is amazing! By the way, your English is really good,” the tourist said, beaming. “I’m Jeannie Langford. Call me Jeannie.” 

Frustrated, I closed my eyes and accessed shoalspace, projecting into the shared gestalt that interlinked every edited New Singaporean. “Hei this bodoh angmoh cmi lah. ‘English veli good’ my ass. Faster-faster process?” 

“HQ say kenot shoot,” said my handler-assistant, Lakshmi. “Wait world gahmen emo. Stand by ah. I checking.” 

Great. I looked back at Jeannie sourly. “You’re within Singapore’s sovereign waters. Leave,” I said. 

“Your city shows up on all readings as an empty ruin. There can’t be many of you left that are even functional,” Jeannie said, gesturing at the replanted walls of the building beside them. 

New Singapore did look like a ruin to the untrained eye. Indigenous plants edited to withstand the humid heat crowned what had once been Terminal 1 of our acclaimed airport in a summer cloak of vines and ferns. Scarves of money plant climbers slung themselves in thick ropes between repurposed buildings and lamp posts, while beneath them crests of hyacinths crowned lushly tangled beds of water weeds. Insects drew slow circles through the rippling air. There were no birds. 

“You’re in our city. Leave,” I said.

“You’re a guardian for the city’s remains, is that it? A resident AI or ASI? Your brain processor’s very advanced. Unusual shape, too.” Jeannie brought up a little mapped image of me on one of their holographic screens. “Incredible. You’re nearly two centuries old on the scans. The tech we have would’ve rusted out in years.”

“Wah lieu, it’s 1819 all over again,” I told Lakshmi. “Still kenot?” 

“HQ say watch-see,” Lakshmi said. Damn HQ. I slid into the water, ignoring Jeannie’s call for me to stop. Swimming into the densely planted B2 level, I nestled myself within the water plants and waited. 

Shoalspace was starting to focus on the intruder. They were rare in the equatorial band – the heat and humidity meant death within hours for anyone unedited and unprotected. “Who they think they is. Stamford Raffles 2.0?” “Sure got diseases.” “Why kenot shoot?” “I thought angmoh all flee to Canada?” “Ira, be careful k?”

I defocused on the public peanut gallery pinging my mentions. Jeannie’s submarine tried to follow me into B2, but soon resurfaced when the dense weeds reached for and threatened to choke its filters. They wrapped protectively around me in turn, obscuring me from sight and processing any pollutants that my scales had attracted from the surface air. The pod nosed around the submerged Terminal for an hour, occasionally stopping to sweep its surroundings with pale lines of blue light. To my annoyance, Jeannie then docked and emerged. 

“Still kenot?” I pinged Lakshmi. 

“Standby,” Lakshmi said. 

Curse the bureaucracy. “I know you’re still there,” Jeannie called out as they climbed out of the pod onto fern-choked escalators. “I don’t mean you any harm, any of you. I just want to talk.”

“HQ say go give a tour,” Lakshmi said. They sounded doubtful. 

“Serious?” 

“They want to kaypoh the pod.” New technology did always make HQ curious, and I’d never seen anything as compact as the pod before. I bit down on my sigh and crept out of my makeshift lair with a flick of my tail, surfacing close to the escalator.

Jeannie smiled warmly as they noticed me. “There you are. I’m sorry if I startled you. What’s your name?” 

“Ira,” I said. 

“That’s such a cool name!” Jeannie raised their palm and the silver bracelet over their wrist drew lines of blue light over my position. It was my turn to flinch. Oblivious, Jeannie studied the data as it was projected before their face on a screen. “You’re 21% organic. That’s truly fascinating. Even the most advanced organo-servitors I’ve seen were at best 11% organic. Maybe that’s why you’re so old.” 

“Are you a scientist?” I asked. 

“In a way.” Jeannie let out a little laugh. “No more universities out there to get degrees from. I’m more of a hedge-scientist.” 

New Singapore still had three universities, all of them free, one devoted to science. It figured that the rest of the world still thought education a luxury. “Why are you here?” I asked.

“I rigged up a program to NERZA – that’s one of the world’s last accessible, functional satellites – and used it to scan the equatorial belt for life signs,” Jeannie said. They brought up a large map with a flick of their fingers. It was scarred maroon across the centre and over large blotches of a handful of other countries, wherever the world was now technically uninhabitable. Singapore showed up as a paler orange in a deep band of red.

“Hailat,” Lakshmi said. Proof that the vast cooling plants under New Singapore and the bioengineering projects were working didn’t feel good when it was displayed on someone else’s map. 

“Wow,” I said, out of a lack of anything else I could think of to say. I willed HQ to shoot, eyeballing the autoturrets nestled in the ferns.

“That’s right. The temperature’s still deadly in this city, but it’s somehow lower than the surrounding regions. Your creators must have hit on something truly innovative. That’s why I’m here. To export Singapore’s cooling technology to the world.” Jeannie pointed at a spot near the southernmost tip of Australia. “This is where I’m from. We’ve been going through one bad fire season after another.” 

“Don’t you have bionic tech?” I asked. Jeannie didn’t look like they were in any hurry to leave the area and their pod. 

“We do.” Jeannie lifted one leg. “This baby’s bionic. Lost it when I was young. Viral infection. Why?” 

“You could use bionic tech to raise your optimal temperature,” I said, hoping I wasn’t giving away too much. “You won’t need much cooling tech after that.” 

“People have tried that. It only works if you replace most of everything and heavily edit the rest on a cellular level,” Jeannie said. They paused, their eyes widening. I grimaced as Jeannie flopped onto their knees and looked me over again. “Oh. You people…? God.” 

“Thanks,” I said, twitching my horns. 

Jeannie blushed. “I didn’t mean … I’ve been so rude. I’m sorry. I really … you do look like a cyborg. One of those Model-8 Alexans.” 

“Sure.” 

“That’s what you people did? No offence. Edited your entire population into …” Jeannie shivered. “I’d heard stories about your government during the 2100s, before Singapore went dark along with the rest of the equatorial belt, but this is … it’s hardly ethical.”

I resisted the urge to fire some of my tail spikes in Jeannie’s direction and forced a smile. “While the government’s trying to decide what to do about you, I could give you a tour.” 

Jeannie beamed. “That’s kind of you. I knew you’d see reason. Lead on.” 

I didn’t like this part. I swam closer to the shore and hauled myself up. Valves whirred within my tail as the segments split down the centre into eight jointed sections, which allowed me to climb up onto the platform without sliding awkwardly. It also made me tower above Jeannie by a hand’s breadth. The scales on my body arched to become tiny cooling fins in the soupy air.

Jeannie had taken several steps back. At my puzzled look, Jeannie said weakly, “I’ve never been fond of spiders.” 

“The number of legs is optional. I just find them more stable than just two. There’s nothing wrong with spiders – we’ve preserved over half of our remaining native species. They’re an important part of the ecosystem.” I wished I didn’t sound so defensive. 

“I’ve offended you again. I’m sorry.” 

Jeannie didn’t sound particularly contrite to me. I nodded anyway and made my way along the floor, taking care to give Jeannie a respectful berth. “This way.” 

“Where are we going?” Jeannie followed me, stopping every few steps to scan the area with their terminal.

“The Jewel. It should be more comfortable for you in there.” It was also a bit of a walk from the Terminal. I could’ve swum the distance in a quarter of the time that it took us to traverse one of the Strands into the central dome of the old airport, the first of its kind in New Singapore. 

Jeannie gasped as the air grew cooler the closer we walked, charged with the sound of a giant’s constant inhalation. The Jewel drew breath through the massive waterfall in its heart, twice as vast as it had been when it had first been built. The percussion from the infinite veil of water shook its own microclimate through the dome, optimal for the banks of hydroponic tiers shelved around the waterfall in slow-moving intervals. 

“It’s so beautiful,” Jeannie breathed. I inclined my head. “I’ve never seen anything like this. It looks so efficient. How do you people do it?” 

“Our country’s been preoccupied with the changing climate for centuries,” I said. I gestured at the glass walls beyond the green tiers, which looked out to the pristine inland sea, a sea that had long swallowed all that we once were. “We didn’t have a choice, as an island country.”

“A very wealthy one, with an autocratic government,” Jeannie said. 

“Every government is imperfect. Some more than others.” I tried to sound kinder than I felt. Everyone knew that the remaining governments that made up the World Government were fragile, venal things, still fighting over the remnants of the world that was. They did not see that change was irrevocable. That it did not have to be frightening. “We preferred to meet the challenge of survival head-on with all our resources rather than opt to retreat.” 

They looked at me with a strange expression. “Were you edited at birth? Into what you are now?” 

“Everyone is.” 

“God, I can’t even … I’m sorry, but. Doesn’t anyone object?” Jeannie asked. 

“Why?” The pity that Jeannie wore was hard to take. “My body lets me live here. In my home. Even after everyone else left island-countries like us to drown. When we weren’t big enough or white enough to be given even a front-page obituary on world news platforms.” I walked over to the vast waterfall, my sharpened feet clicking on the deck. The fruit trees were grown at careful intervals between the tiers. I pulled a starfruit from the closest and tossed it to Jeannie. “We’d always knew we’d have to adapt to thrive.”

Jeannie examined the starfruit. They unsealed their helmet, which fed back into the folds of their clothes. Even in the Jewel they quickly began to sweat, but they took a bite of the starfruit and smiled. “It’s sweet. I’ve never seen anything like this before. Not even in docudramas. Do you grow apples? Oranges?”

“Nothing that isn’t indigenous to this area. We’ve learned our lessons.” 

“Lessons?” Jeannie asked. They tucked the fruit into their clothes and resealed their helmet. Their skin had reddened, turned shiny with sweat. 

“The gene editing we used worked better with indigenous plants and fauna. Everything else either died quickly or caused side-effects. Diseases, mould, worse.” I had been a child when the Red Spot leaf mange had burned through a quarter of our Jewels. It had been the reason I had grown up knowing hunger. That was the last time we tried to grow strawberries. 

“Could I walk around for a while in here? Take measurements?” Jeannie asked. 

I waited. No objection from Lakshmi. “Sure,” I said, settling by the starfruit tree to wait. 

Jeannie walked around systematically, scanning each section and occasionally recording notes into their terminal. “Andy, you’re not going to believe this. I made it. Told you Porgie was more than seaworthy. Singapore’s not as empty as we thought, but they’ve gene-edited everything on a cellular level. Even their own people. Incredible, I know. I’m going to attach some of my initial readings and thoughts on this packet. Shoot it over to the duds at Parliament. There’s some localised interference around here, probably just their infrastructure. Ping me when you get it.”

“Lakshmi,” I said in shoalspace. 

“Don’t worry lah, the packet won’t go anywhere.” 

“What about the tourist?”

“HQ say catch-release,” Lakshmi said. 

“Serious?” 

“Ya lah. Tell you later.” 

Maybe HQ thought the shoal was ready for the world. I skimmed through shoalspace, sifting through the morass of public opinion. When Jeannie returned, I would’ve missed their approach if Lakshmi hadn’t pinged me to warn me. “Hi! Hi. Sorry about having to make you babysit me. I have to go,” Jeannie said.

“Oh.” That was it? I’d been braced for worse. Taking samples, maybe. Or Jeannie insisting on seeing the warren-colony that we had built beneath New Singapore, nestled under the Jewels and the cooling plants.

Jeannie mistook my surprise for disappointment. They smiled reassuringly at me. “I’ll be back, I hope. I’m going to have to get funding for a proper exploratory expedition. It’ll be very exciting. In the meantime, I only have so much coolant in this suit and my submersible to go around.”

“I see,” I said. 

The neutrality of my answer finally pierced their excitement. Their smile faded. “We’ll love to engage in an exchange of ideas,” Jeannie said as I walked us back to Terminal 1. “There’s so much that we could teach each other.” 

“Right.” 

“You’d see,” Jeannie said, confident in their ideas. They’d regained their good mood by the time we returned to the Porgie. Getting in, they waved to me from the cockpit as the holograms flickered to life around them. I waved back as the pod sank into the water, twisting around in a plume of expelled air and speeding out as the setting sun tore purpling shades into the empty sky. 

I sank into the warm water, refitting my legs into my tail. As the last kink folded into place, Lakshmi swam out from the depths with a container of nyonya bak zhangs. “Oh, lifesaver,” I said. 

“Thought you would be hungry.” Lakshmi passed it over. It was still warm to the touch. I took myself to the surface and opened the container, savouring the steamed rice and vat-grown pork scent. I peeled one leaf-wrapped pyramid to reveal the blue-tipped rice dumpling within and took a luxurious bite.

Lakshmi popped up next to me, twisting to float comfortably onto their back. “Sorry ah. You having to babysit.”

“Wasn’t hard.” The bak zhang even had water chestnuts. The hawker canteen under the Terminal had outdone itself. “What did you people do to the submarine?” 

“Replaced the coolant with something similar enough for her onboard not to notice.”

“‘Her’?” Oh, right.” Gender was still a thing in the unedited world. I kept forgetting. 

“It’d look like she suffered engine failure and died to the heat,” Lakshmi said, ignoring the interruption. 

I’d thought so. “Gahmen didn’t want to meet her gahmen?” 

Lakshmi laughed. “Hell no.” 

“We have the resources to help. Our population’s stable, educated, prosperous,” I said. Although I’d known what HQ was likely going to do to Jeannie, it was only now that I felt a slight pang of guilt. 

“Forget the world. It’s still mourning what it used to be. While it does that, it’s never going to move on,” Lakshmi said. 

They were right. I let go of my guilt and ate another bak zhang. It should not have felt so easy to contemplate the slow impending death of someone I’d just met, but I told myself she would’ve died sooner or later anyway. Global life expectancy was now in the low 40s now, a mayfly blink in time compared to us. We floated in the warm water and watched the sun go down, safe and secure and comfortable at the bottom of our well, the well that we had built around ourselves for years. We are still here.

Anya Ow is the author of Cradle and Grave, and is an Aurealis Awards finalist. Her short stories have appeared in Daily SF, Uncanny, Strange Horizons, and more.
She lives in Melbourne with her two cats, and can be found at www.anyasy.com or on twitter @anyasy.

Art: Mark Toner

Editor’s note

This story is published in Shoreline of Infinity 19. If you enjoyed this story please consider buying a copy for yourself or your friends. Available in paperback and digital formats.

—Noel Chidwick

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