“Your Harbor Is a Graveyard, Your Sanctuary a Tomb” by Eeleen Lee
Mira sat by the infinity pool to watch the hospital ships set themselves on fire every night. She had remained behind at the resort after the outbreak in Southeast Asia and the spectacle was the only way left to pass the time.
The flashing distress beacons and the distant blare of klaxons summoned her to the edge of the infinity pool, signaling the start of the blaze. A pair of ships always arrived just before turquoise spurts of flame illuminated the horizon. The conflagration intensified to cadmium orange billows, generating branches of solid gray smoke that obscured the distant glowing points of stars and weather satellite clusters.
If Mira was still serving on a fleet submarine, she would have executed orders to torpedo both ships and end their misery. But the Navy had long since dismissed Mira for dereliction of duty and she had ended up exchanging her military body for a civilian one. Now she was a proud Hospitality Embodiment, the senior manager of the Princess Dragon, a resort set into a hillslope facing the South China Sea and overlooking Sulaman Point, an artificial bay hewn out of the coastline of Sabah in East Malaysia.
After an hour the blaze sputtered out, leaving sustained vermilion glints that outlined both ships against the anthracite sky. Mira recalled a maritime regulation about abandoning medical vessels if all their firefighting measures had been carried out. The self-destruct routine was carried out every six hours until the reinforced hulls were reduced to charred flotsam and jetsam.
Mira felt the boom before she heard it, thudding like a heartbeat from under the sea—if the heart was the size of a stadium. She could never work out the source of the massive sound yet she understood the principle: low-frequency noise displaced oxygen from the embers to put out the fire.
When the hospital ships flickered out of sight, the South China Sea returned to its default inky darkness. As if on cue, Mira scooped triton shells out of the infinity pool and stuffed them into a red biohazard bag. The resort used the shells as decoration, with their mottled whirling patterns, around the resort and featured them in all publicity as uniquely harvested from the bay. After the nationwide quarantine and evacuation of the resort, Mira had passed the time by going from room to room, collecting the shells and dumping them into the infinity pool.
Now she made her way to the deserted beach and hurled the biohazard bag into the lapping tide. Since hundreds of new triton shells were washed ashore after each underwater explosion, Mira figured adding to the number every night wouldn’t make a difference.
She trod through the scattered trumpet-shaped shells, pausing to examine the more recent cast-offs; these were larger specimens with unusual gold ridges and silver chevrons. Except for opportunistic hermit crabs scurrying away with the smaller shells, the remaining triton shells had been picked clean.
Mira always felt satisfied at the sight of all these empty husks—new contagions couldn’t possibly spring from voids.
But the melioidosis outbreak had come out of nowhere, shattering Mira’s attempts at falling back into civilian life and cursing a sea which used to teem with ferries and cruise ships. Well-meaning beachgoers had tried to help dolphins stranded on the beach, pods of which were usually found close to shore. Mira had heard the screams of children when four carcasses exploded, spraying decomposed innards and fetid gases onto a throng of resort guests.
Despite herself, Mira’s previous military training had taken over and she had mobilized her staff into blocking access to the beach with mattresses, gym equipment, and poolside tables. It was the last show of authority exercised by Mira. Two days later she felt lost like a signal relay in the circuits of a vast machine. International responders flew into the bay soon afterwards, subsuming the cleanup. Mira watched teams of bulldozers load the carcasses onto lorries before driving off towards landfill sites—treating the ill took more priority over dolphin post-mortems.
Mira’s artificial implants made her immune to most viruses and bacteria, thus making her extra vigilant for signs of infection in guests and staff members. Detecting an outbreak of melioidosis was tricky in a prime destination resort during peak season. Symptoms such as sudden high fever, vomiting, headaches and joint pains, were not uncommon in the elderly, and children who were unaccustomed to local weather and food.
Handheld sequencers later confirmed the cetacean source yet wrongly pinpointed it to the dolphin pods living in the complex of sinkholes and caves around the bay. Mira had read early internet news that soon mutated into sensationalism: offshore oil drilling exposing deep seams of prehistoric microbes. Pathogens blown south by La Niña towards Southeast Asia. Biological weapons tests conducted in the Sea of Japan.
Now La Niña was restless again, the waves nudged the discarded biohazard bag towards Mira. It snagged on a branch of driftwood and fluttered in the breeze. She picked up the bag and shook it dry—the infinity pool was not yet emptied of triton shells.
Mira’s eyesight was now a casualty in the dark, but after a month of living in solitude at the abandoned resort she distrusted her enhanced hearing. Touch became the only sense she had to rely on. She fumbled her way back to the catering side entrance and through a curtain of cool recycled tropical air.
Phosphene after-images of the burning ships disorientated Mira for hours, and the actinic-blue track lights along the wide service corridor seemed to be floating above the worn tiled floor. The tang of disinfectants, steel cabinets, and worktops glinting in the dimness reminded her of the medical center on her submarine. The climate control hummed in time with the low purring of generators, starting up the background music that soundtracked Mira’s nights.
Mira ripped off the maintenance reminder taped to the dented steel door of the electrical room—she didn’t need to see the smug aphorisms every time she came in here:
“Perform checks on ALL generators!
The tedium of routine is only temporary.
—Electricity is everlasting!”
Diagnostic tests, collection, and storage of clinical specimens had made huge demands on the resort’s generators. So far, Mira was fortunate as long as they held out. A tear-off calendar was stilled pinned to the wall, with the months January through to July ripped out.
Half a year had gone missing since the forced shutdown of the resort, as if the place had been erased from existence. With nowhere else to go, Mira went into low-power mode and hid in the storeroom to evade the military and the last of the clean-up crew. Time became irrelevant when she was shut off from the world; in a vacuum nothing moved.
Mira took the service elevator to the deluxe honeymoon suites, where the ghosts of desire still lingered although all rooms had been converted into a makeshift ICU for children. Love remained as a heat signature but death lingered like a miasma, despite the decorative UV filters on the windows, depicting scenes of coral reefs populated with cartoon dolphins, clownfish, and sea stars.
She went into the nearest room and drew the curtains. It had been her idea to strip all the windowpanes of dolphin images, leaping and grinning on the horizon in forced perspective. The parents had appreciated this gesture, not needing any reminders of the source of the melioidosis, while their children faced an endless parade of medical workers donning latex gloves, HEPA-filtered respirators, and blue disposable gowns.
The first fifty cases had been children, spectators in the crowd on the beach near the dolphin carcasses. After other guests began developing headaches and unusual high fevers that remained unimproved after antibiotics and painkillers, the doctors in the resort medical center notified Mira of a possible outbreak. Still reluctant to surrender her managerial authority she demanded proof. The medics showed her scans of the children’s heads; the parietal bones holding their skulls together had fractured. Abnormal osteomyelitis, caused by the melioidosis, had already set in after a week.
Mira slipped into the fire escape, the beam of her saline-battery torch bobbing in the dark. Her inner cheek lining was raw from gargling with too much oral rehydration solution, after she had used the excess to refill the torch. She descended two stories to the medical center. Desperate patients had raided the pharmacy for drugs, ripping the locks off the bolted doors. The pharmacy storeroom held liquid-nitrogen tanks, still containing bone fragments and blood samples to be sent to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta for further screening.
Now the musty waiting room still held an air of expectancy for patients who would come no more. Mira heard a faint mumbling from one of the doctor’s surgeries and kicked open the door. Her torch beam illuminated a desk, an upended examination table, and a triton shell on the floor, next to the waste bin. She picked up the shell and returned to the fire escape.
The transitional event—when a pathogen jumps from its reservoir host to another creature—is called a spillover. During the first week after evacuation Mira dreaded another type of spillover: that the virus corrupting the hospital ships’ firefighting protocol would also infiltrate the resort’s network and her internal system. Now her fear had come true. She stopped going to the beach when the triton shell retrieved from the doctor’s surgery began talking to her.
Before evacuation, the patients claimed the triton shells were speaking to them, but Mira put it down to a mass auditory hallucination, induced by shared circumstances and environment, since each room contained a triton shell. As a distraction, the shells were placed next to each child’s bed during the outbreak, inviting them to “hear the ocean.”
Disbelief, flights of fancy, and even old folk myths served as excellent insulation against shock and trauma. But Mira never expected the sea to talk back to her. The shell kept transmitting a female voice, repeating the same phrase over and over. It was impersonal yet distinct, as though synthesized by a vocoder:
“Hospitality Embodiment #6638-55. Please respond.”
Hearing her ID code spoken by this mysterious voice almost made Mira shut down in terror. She hurled the triton shell out to sea, but the same voice started emanating from the infinity pool, this time from every shell inside. When she hauled the refilled biohazard bag down to the beach, the tritons still resounded with that request in a muffled cacophony.
Two nights later, before the hospital ships commenced their blaze, Mira finally weakened and held one shell to her ear and another over her mouth as though she was using a candlestick telephone.
“Hospitality Embodiment #6638-55. Mira responding.”
A pause. “Speak louder— my audio receivers have degraded from disuse.”
“Identify yourself!” Mira demanded, her voice reverberating around the infinity pool area.
“Starfish Killer Bot. Model 12.5. MariBone Tech named me ‘Julan.'”
“Current location?” asked Mira.
There was another pause before the shell spoke again, “Near resort. In Sulaman Bay.”
Mira grabbed her torch and ran down to the beach, scanning the waves.
“Don’t expend your energy looking for me. I am a self-replicating bot.”
“A von Neumann?” Mira lowered the torch.
“More advanced. I am purely biological in makeup, as befitting my task.” She detected a touch of pride in Julan’s tone.
“MariBone Tech developed me to protect its coral from predatory crown-of-thorns starfish. It selected the starfish’s natural predator, the giant triton, and modelled me after it. During self-replication I create a basic shell framework which I fortify with calcium and other elements in marine water. Each shell is me and I am every shell.”
“How come we’re having this conversation?” Mira felt inside the shell for circuitry and her sensitive fingertips picked up faint vibrations from the gold ridges and silver markings.
“All of my components—audio and communications included—are nanoscale and embedded into the shell matrix.”
Mira recalled what she had read of the history of the resort’s surroundings during her hospitality training. “MariBone constructed the bay to harvest coral for synthetic bone grafts?”
“That was the company’s vision.”
“Why did they abandon the bay?”
“The company started outsourcing coral harvesting to aquaculture farms in Myanmar and Laos. Coral in aquariums grows ten times faster than in the sea due to less pollution. I was decommissioned but I stayed behind, analyzing the water and starfish populations. I observed your situation for a while and tried to relay my findings to you. The melioidosis pathogen in this case is a bacterial strain engineered to digest oil spills and remediate toxic environmental contaminants in water. MariBone ran some preliminary tests in this bay. The dolphins were not the source of the outbreak.”
But Julan’s information had come too late. Searching the horizon, Mira saw two more hospital ships approach the bay.
“Since you’ve been observing the sea longer than me, do you know who keeps sending those ships? It can’t be Regional Watch—they would never deploy autonomous vessels with no personnel after an outbreak.”
“These hospital ships are in dock in Singapore but operate under MariBone’s emergency medicine subsidiary.”
“Isn’t it a waste to set themselves on fire?”
Mira sat down on the sand, next to a large triton shell. Julan must have sensed her change in position, for its voice suddenly crackled out of the shell’s opening:
“The ships set fire to themselves to trigger a fire control measure—sonic booms. The vibrations break up the coral and cause underwater rock falls. MariBone are trying to get rid of the rest of me.”
“Maybe I know too much about the epidemic or what goes on in these waters. The Navy will destroy the resort to contain the strain and you with it, if you remain.”
In frustration Mira kicked sand over the shell, but Julan was only stating the inevitable. Ten minutes later she calmed down and addressed the triton shells lying around her feet.
“Since you’re also technically a MariBone AI, can you remotely disable the self-destruct protocol of one of those hospital ships?”
“Leave with the Navy!” chorused the shells.
“I cannot work anywhere else with my record. My resort employers gave me an undeserved second chance, despite my dishonorable discharge.”
Mira replied, “I was stationed near a tsunami refugee settlement. Let’s just say I got caught writing fraudulent prescriptions for several families.”
“I cannot disable remotely, but I can direct more of me towards a ship. If triton shells clog the ballast tanks and jam the propellers you have enough time to swim out, climb aboard, and manually disable its protocol.”
“Thank you,” sighed Mira. “Give me an hour.”
She returned to the side entrance and made her way down the service corridor. She entered the electrical room and shut down all of the generators. In the dark Mira tore a page off the wall calendar and scrawled a new reminder for the Navy on the reverse side:
Carry out ALL disinfection routines
Illness is temporary
—Death is permanent!
As she stuck the note on the door, Mira’s laughter echoed down the service corridor, for the first time in months. She deserved this display of impertinence—after a long time, mindless routine for its own sake wore down the spirit. In an hour she was going to swim out to sea and wait for Julan’s signal. The view of the deserted resort’s destruction from a commandeered hospital ship would be most bittersweet.
|Eeleen Lee‘s short fiction has been published by Mammoth Books UK, Monsoon Singapore, and Fixi Novo, Malaysia. Her debut science fiction novel Liquid Crystal Nightingale is published by Abbadon Books.|