It’s a strange thing to focus on when you’re drowning, the colour of someone’s nails. Hers are a sickly yellow, pale and rippling in the light that filters through the surface. I can see that the polish on the ring finger is chipped and scratched, but that there are small bubbles forming on the surface of the thumbnail.
Drowning is not a fun experience. I should know, considering that I nearly died that way twice already. But that’s why I’m here now, staring at the chipped nail polish on an unresponsive hand. The warning light flashes in the corner of my eye, and I force myself back to the present, pushing the memories of pruned skin and burning lungs to the back of my mind.
“Response time was three seconds better than last time,” Aiko says cheerfully when I manage to surface, gasping and choking, but with the training dummy in proper float position. “You’re still so dead when the apocalypse arrives, Mina.”
I scowl at him before pulling myself out of the pool. “I doubt the apocalypse is even coming, you idiot.” It’s a lie. Everyone in this building knows it. We all just want to pretend we can’t see it.
“Aw, Mina, are you still scared?” Seunghee throws her arm around my shoulder, completely ignoring the fact that I am still dripping wet. I can feel her hand in my hair, pulling through the wet tangles. “I could go on dives with you if you want.”
It’s a hollow offer. Seunghee knows that her prosthetic leg will hinder us in any rescue attempt in the water, which is why she stays on land, coordinating the evacuations.
“I’ll be fine, Seunghee,” I tell her, shooting her a grateful smile anyways. Her forehead creases and then smoothes out, a blank expression covering her face.
“Sure, Mina.” She peels off from the group, limping towards an empty corridor. When I look after her, she looks… scared. Scared, and angry.
I take a moment to peel off the wetsuit and get changed, the warm fabric of the jumpsuit settling on my shoulders like a comfortable arm. My face is still pale when I look in the mirror, my hair dark and messy around my neck. If I look hard enough, I can spot the telltale blankness that fills all our eyes – one that comes with being the people who live in these circumstances while others die.
The training room is empty when I leave, the window blinds raised. I pause for a moment, staring outside. The glass reflects the painting behind me, making it seem like the sky is clear. I had almost forgotten the colour of a clear sky. All we see these days out of the windows of the Tower is a grey, overcast sky, sheets of rain pouring down incessantly. I can feel the floor shake every time a gust of wind buffets the Tower.
Those of us in here are only alive because we got lucky. Every day, survivors try to reach us, braving the storm outside.
Every day, I see a face sink, upturned as the waves wash over them, too tired to hold on. I remember my own hand, fingers stretched out as if that would let me hold on to the diffused rays of sunlight that danced cruelly in the water, even as my lungs burned and my eyes threatened to close.
Aiko saved my life. I want to do the same.
A hand reaches out to touch mine, tracing the little scars left on my knuckles. I continue staring out of the window, staring at the sheets of rain washing the glass, leaving trails that send the light from inside sparkling.
“What’s going on inside that head of yours, Mina?” Aiko asks quietly. There is no sign of the man who was joking and laughing on the deck. This side of Aiko is one that only I have ever seen – silent, calm, scared.
“Will this change?” I ask him. I don’t have to clarify. By the tightening of his hand on mine, I know he understands.
“I don’t know,” he sighs. “Mina, I- I can’t tell.”
“There were three people at the base today. We only got one onto the platform.”
The wind is our greatest enemy. It howls and rages, tossing the rain into our eyes, turning the little water drops into deadly missiles. It’s hard to focus even with the goggles, because the steady drip-drip-drip of water that we are used to is instead a sharp tap-tap-tap on all surfaces.
“Where is this going to end?”
Aiko doesn’t answer. His arm remains around me as he gently pulls me away from the sight that has haunted us for months, from the sight that leaves me frozen and terrified.
If there is an end to this, we do not know what it is.
If there is a life beyond this, we do not know when it will come.
The off-shore team has returned, so that means we know more about the storms. The science is something I don’t understand, but Seunghee and Aiko are invested in it. Haru meets us on the deck, and he is his usual, unflappable self, hair and clothes dishevelled from having pulled off his wetsuit haphazardly. On the other hand, Tara’s grey hair is neatly tied in a bun at the base of her neck, and she smiles at me with tired eyes, the wrinkles around them more prominent now.
“Our saviour has returned!” Haru announces, his eyes glimmering with suppressed mirth. “The one who faced a flood of biblical proportions -“
“Please stop,” Tara sighs, but I can see her smile widen.
“- and saved our lives with her trusty boat!” Haru finishes, before throwing her a salute.
Every person standing in this Tower owes Tara their life. If it wasn’t for her warning, if it wasn’t for her foresight, we would all be dead. We pointedly do not think about those who didn’t believe her. When we join the line that shuffles towards the food counters, there are quick glances tossed towards us, before they look away.
I feel my cheeks flush with the weight of their gazes, and Aiko spots it immediately. He grins, gently bumping me with this shoulder.
“Head up, Mina,” he says. “Let them see the newest member of the Rescue squad.”
“I still freeze up, Aiko,” I tell him, swaying to lean into his space. “Some rescue squad member I make.”
“We never think the best of ourselves,” Tara says serenely, piling the potatoes and peas on her plate. “Others see more clearly, in that case. I think you should rely on your team to tell you what you’re doing right or wrong.”
When we sit down, she frowns behind her glasses. “When I predicted the…disasters, I wished to be wrong,” she murmurs, stabbing her potato with her chopsticks. “I had never wished to be wrong before. And my team did not stand with me then. It made me think that I had made the wrong choice, announcing the news back then.”
I remember the day Tara’s announcement happened. It was also the day I nearly drowned for the second time. In my mind, although the true end was far away, that day marked the beginning of the apocalypse.
It began with a simple summer shower. I could see the moon through the scuttling clouds, but there was something sinister about the pale, narrow beams it sent into my attic. The next day, I woke up to the water lapping at my window, my mattress wet through and through.
“Tara, do you see an end to this?” Seunghee asks, and I snap back to the conversation, hearing echoes of the question I asked Aiko in Seunghee’s words. “Is there anything we can expect?”
Tara rolls a pea across her plate, uncharacteristically silent.
“Tara.” Aiko also sounds serious, for once.
“Remember how I asked you if you could see the moon from the viewing platform?” she asks, and I blink. Tara hates the viewing platform, because all we can see from there is the hazy darkness of land in the distance with no way to reach it. The waves and the wind are too wild to even consider moving closer. It had startled me when she had asked, back when I had first arrived.
“I went up there again last night,” Haru says, his eyes narrowed. “All I saw was the wind blowing the rain nearly horizontal. Explain, Tara. You know we haven’t been able to track the moon since the orbital wobble.”
Seunghee snorts, stabbing her chopsticks into the table. To my fascination, it stands steadily, the tips making a small crack larger now. “What bullshit is this, Tara? The moon’s orbit?”
“The tides shifted because the orbit of the moon shifted,” Tara says abruptly. “The wobble is something that has been documented for years, but this time, we don’t know what’s happening. It shifted drastically, and as a result, we’re facing unnatural rains and weather conditions. So, I asked you all if you could see the moon, because only if we see it, can I even predict what’s going to happen. That’s the only answer I can give you.”
“So you’re just going to let us sit here, unsure of the future, while you try to wait out the weather before doing anything?” Seunghee’s voice rises, and Aiko reaches out to touch her hand.
“No, stop it, Aiko. Stop trying to defend her.” Seunghee is angry, but I understand her. It’s a fear I’ve only ever voiced to myself. I have never even mentioned to Aiko the terror I feel when we lower ourselves into the lashing waves to reach out to a distant bobbing figure. I have never talked to him about the way I feel when a hand slips through my grasp.
Seunghee used to be on the team before I joined. She had to stop when she had her accident, the waves slamming her against the structures that hold the Tower over the water. She was told that she was lucky, because all she lost was her leg.
The people in the water lost their lives.
Everyone is looking at me. Looking down, I realise that I have snapped my chopsticks in half.
“Mina, what’s wrong?” Aiko asks, reaching over to pull the shards of wood out of my grip.
“I think we deserve to know, Tara,” I say, surprising even myself. I have never before fought with Tara, or tried to question her. To me, if Tara had not been there that day, I would have died in the waters around my house. It’s because of her and Aiko that I lived to swim to the Tower.
But now, I’m scared.
“We’re risking our lives to save people, Tara,” I continue. “And you know just how hard it is for me.” To keep swimming, I don’t add. She knows. “Why am I doing this? When does this end?”
“I really don’t know, Mina,” she says, and for once, Tara sounds frustrated herself. “I’m – I built this damn machine, I doomed you to living while others die. I don’t know what to do next, except keep us alive.”
My brother loved the beach. When we were younger, he would dart ahead of me just to stand in the waves, letting the water sweep over his feet while the wind tousled his hair. For all that we looked alike, we were starkly different. I have hated the water from the first time I lost my footing and the waves dragged me down. Over and under and all the way around – I remember feeling like a rag doll being tossed around as the breath was snatched from my lungs.
The waves swallowed him that night, and I never saw anything of him after. It was meant to be a simple walk on the beach at sunrise. It killed him.
“I was doomed even before you built this machine, Tara,” I tell her, and my voice shakes slightly. “I have been living a borrowed life anyways.”
Aiko’s hand finds mine, but I find no comfort in the warmth. “Mina, I know what you’re thinking,” he says, but I find that I am angry.
I don’t know why. When I declare that I am leaving, no one follows me.
The viewing platform is empty, as it usually is. No one wants to see the waves that keep us afloat destroy another piece of land. No one wants to see the rain we used to love pour down and hide everything from sight.
I can feel the wind in my hair, the spray of rain hitting my face when I close my eyes and lean against the window.
“Didn’t really expect to see you here,” a voice says cuttingly, and I open my eyes with a sigh. “Shouldn’t you be with all the other rescuers on the deck?”
“Hello, Leah,” I say, not turning to greet her to her face. “Even rescuers have some time off.”
She snorts and leans against the railing. “Who would have even guessed?”
“What do you want?” I ask, tiredly.
“You sound like Tara let you down,” she says. “What did the old bat say?”
Leah is…strange. She hates Tara’s guts, but I know that she was on the boat that day. She only survived because Tara and Aiko were there. In that way, we’re both connected by a single string of fate that let us live. But she is angry, always.
Sometimes I wonder what the connection is between anger and fear on this Tower.
Maybe it’s a shorter path than I thought.
“Hey, Leah?” I ask her, finally making up my mind. “Why aren’t you on the rescue squad?”
Her eyebrows rise and she laughs, short and cruel. “Whom would I be saving? All I’d be doing is damning them to this half-life, Mina. I can’t have that on my conscience.”
I want to argue, but I can’t find the words. A small, hidden part of me is terrified that she is right. What are we living for, now?
“Oi, Mina.” Her voice has become tight and taken on a sharper tone. “Are you also seeing this?”
I follow her line of sight and squint. A dark mass looms in front of us, and my heart drops down to my stomach.
“Go find Tara,” Leah says, and I’m already moving.
When I skid into the lab, panting and grabbing the handle of the door to stop myself from falling, Tara and Haru are already glued to the window.
“That’s a mountain!” I say, rather unnecessarily. “Tara, there’s a mountain in front of us!”
“The tides must have shifted more than we predicted with the shift of the moon’s orbit,” Tara muses. “I knew the wobble would affect the levels of the ocean, but this-”
“It pushed us upriver, didn’t it?” Haru asks, his eyes wide with wonder. “We’re actually inland now.”
“What does that mean for us, Tara?” I ask, leaning on the table. Haru absently swats at me to get me to move, but I ignore him.
“Well, nothing much, really,” she says, adjusting her glasses and finally looking away from the window. “Unless the rain lets up, we won’t be able to properly calculate the distance the coastlines have been submerged, and until the floods recede, we won’t be able to see the damage that happened inland.”
“But -” Haru raises a finger, “- since we’re inland, we could theoretically go onshore.”
“What would you do, Haru?” Tara snaps. “We’d still be waterlogged and bogged down.”
“We could save more people!” Haru shouts, slamming a hand down. The pens in his holder rattle. It seems like I have walked into an old argument.
“Where would we – what would we be rescuing them for?” Tara retorts, her eyes flashing. “There’s barely any space left on the Tower, Haru, and I refuse to let everyone here live like livestock so you can live out your saviour fantasy!”
“It’s not a saviour fantasy,” I say quietly, and they both turn to stare at me like they had forgotten my existence. “It’s not a fantasy at all, Tara.”
I would know.
“I’m one of those who risks their lives to save people who are losing everything, Tara. We-we were lucky enough to survive. We want to extend that hand to more people, that’s all.”
I remember the feeling of sinking outside my own house. One of my neighbours had been up on his roof, waving his hands to me when I stared out of my attic window. When the water lapped at the edges of his rooftop drain, he panicked and slipped, the rain turning his tiles slippery and deadly.
When you hit water, your body displaces it an amount equal to the weight you’re hitting it with and displacing. And when you fall into it, it hurts. It’s easy to forget that when you think of splashing someone with water in a pool, because everyone laughs. But when you slip and fall, it’s like hitting a brick wall.
I jumped in after him. It was an impulse I couldn’t explain. Maybe I thought it was a depth I could handle. Maybe I thought of everything my brother told me about swimming, or at least floating. I don’t know why I jumped after him, but I do know that I watched his hand slip away from mine because he was too heavy. I didn’t know what I was doing, and I sank with him.
I watched the bubbles rise from my mouth, each one a sign of the breath that I had taken for granted. I watched the sunlight ripple against my outstretched hand, turning my faded green nail polish brighter. I felt the pressure encircle my chest, forcing out the air that kept me alive.
And I remember the hand that reached out to me and pulled me out. The same hand that held me when I tried to enter the Tower pool for the first time and froze, even the water lapping at my knees reminding me of a bottomless depth that called me to it.
Aiko reached out to me and saved me.
Why can’t I do that for others?
“There’s space in the bunks for another fifteen people,” Aiko tells me the next day, when we are folding up the towels in the pool area. It’s just us, with Seunghee having left immediately, and Haru chasing after her.
“What’s the plan?” I ask, my fingers tightening on the cloth. I can feel my heart rate rising at the thought of heading out into the storm again. It is fear, I realise, but also excitement. I’m actually looking forward to it.
“Haru wants to go over to see what it’s like in the landlocked areas, especially considering the rains,” he says, grabbing another towel. “We could go along, and if there’s someone who really needs help, we can bring them back.”
“What’s the criteria going to be?” I wonder. “Who really needs it?”
He shrugs. “I guess we’ll find out when we see them, huh?”
He sounds confident that we’ll be able to pull this off, but still, I worry. Seunghee didn’t sound very happy with the fact that we were still going to rescue more people without having an end goal in mind. Tara outright hated the idea when I talked to her in the lab. Without Seunghee being our eyes out of the water, we would be going in blind.
“Is…is Seunghee in on this?” I ask Aiko hesitantly. “Because – I’m not sure what we could do otherwise.”
“Haru’s going to be there. We’ll be fine, Mina. We can rescue so many more people this way. We can really help.”
It is like a balm to my soul. All this time, sitting in the Tower, waiting for a certain death? It has felt like drowning on land, the breath choked out of me, the sounds muffled and growing more and more distant. But this? This chance to go out and actually do what I’ve been training to do? This chance to do more than pulling a person onto the deck of the Tower, it’s everything I ever needed.
“Let’s do it,” I tell him, my eyes sparkling. “I want to do this.”
When Haru comes to find us, we are both ready, wetsuits on, goggles and gear checked. He nods wordlessly, but I know he approves of this. The idea of diving into the water is terrifying, but I think, for once, that my fear of the water is weaker than my desire to help. My desire to make a change in this state of living.
The rains have reduced marginally when we set out in the boat, and I find myself on the deck, feeling the soft patter hit my face. It has been a while since the drops felt soft and fresh, since the wind seemed ready to make weapons of them all this while. Aiko stands beside me, his eyes keen and scanning the area. I still don’t know how I will know, or who I can save. Do I even have the right to decide this?
“Look,” he murmurs, touching my hand gently. I see what he’s pointing to. A woman and a child, clinging to a concrete wall on what must be the roof of their house. They are drenched and shivering, so it is hardly a difficult decision. We exchange glances and dive, and in a few minutes, they are on the boat, wrapped in blankets and heating pads.
I swam without freezing.
I think I can conquer my terror now, if I keep having this purpose. No matter what happens, I can see the little break in the clouds, the little cessation of the rain. Maybe we will be able to go back to how we used to live.
Maybe we won’t have to make decisions about who lives and who dies anymore.
What happens next is too quick. I can’t see out of my goggles when a wave buffets the side of the boat with a strength that sends us staggering against each other. Aiko grabs my arm, steadying me. When I meet his eyes, he looks away, his face grim and set, and I can feel a weight sinking into my stomach.
Something is wrong.
“Watch out!” Haru’s voice comes from the cabin, but it is too late. The waves rise, higher than I have ever seen them. In the second before they land on our heads, I can feel a sense of calm settle over me. It is a sight I have seen before, long before this catastrophe descended on us. In my mind, I am three years old again, staring up at the wave with curious awe.
The wave descends, the force knocking me down and dragging at my legs. I sputter and choke, the water rushing into my face and blinding me.
His hand is there, in front of me. I just have to reach out –
The wave recedes. So does his hand.
When the bubbles surround me once more, I can see the moon again. It is large and bright, the rays of its light sinking as far down as I am, almost a tangible presence that I can touch.
I lift my hand and the water ripples, the patterns shifting across my skin. I won’t see the new world that emerges.
I am scared. The edges of my sight are blurring out. The breath is burning in my lungs.
If I could just reach out once more…
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