In time, the waters rose. In time, much of the land was borne away on watery hands, silting off into the deep which never gives up that which it has taken. In time, only a handful of trees remained above the ripples to show that the water had ever been held at bay, that hills low and forested had ever existed.

Nourished by lenses of fresh water that ebbed with each passing year, the great gnarled trees kept their silent vigil over glassy waters. An epitaph for an island, a mausoleum for a mound.

One day, it is to be hoped, someone will look across the expanse and see them. One day, it is to be hoped, they will wonder how a tree ever came to grow under such conditions. They, whoever they are, will see and wonder. And in that way, in only that way, the island-that-was will be remembered.

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The Captain’s crew explored the reef and lagoon for several hours, many of them marveling at the long-silent technology and well-preserved relics of the Bygone Age that still littered the beach. The tower at the center of the lagoon was at an unsteady angle, and exploration was limited to ten minutes at a time by the Captain’s orders. He also opened the arms locker to make sure that none of his men attempted to make off with a valuable antique, as he fully intended to see anything they took from the islands placed in a museum or given over for a thorough examination.

“Look at this, Cap’n,” said the bosun upon returning from his shift exploring the unsteady tower. “A message in a bottle.”

“Aye, that it is. And a fine way of keeping the note from being corroded by salt water and spray.” Uncorking it, the Captain read the missive aloud:

To all who may read this, know that I have struck out in search of something bigger than my island and myself. I do not regret taking this chance over a life of safety and comfort. All I ask of anyone who finds this note is to honor my choice and to do what they can to see that our little home, and the years we spent there, are not wholly forgotten.

-Nerissa-of-the-Sea
-5734-MY

“What do you make of that, Cap’n?” said the bosun, noting his commander’s silence after the last words faded away amid the roar of surf and sky.

“I suppose that whoever lived here made the same choice we all did,” the Captain said thoughtfully. “We’ll do our best to honor their wishes.”

“Do you suppose they found their way? Found another shore?”

The Captain looked out to sea, taking in the green swells, the dark shape of his own vessel, and the towering clouds on the far-distant horizon. “I’d like to think so,” he said after a time. “I’d like to think so.”

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Nerissa gently disassembled Steamy, as he had shown her to do many times for routine maintenance. The plumbing that kept his boiler supplied with water from the tank on his back was clogged with encrusted salt–as Steamy had always said, “Mistress, I must run on sweetwater only.”

The long days and nights on the outrigger, and Nerissa’s own all-consuming thirst had denied him anything but salt water, and she had seen the fruits of her selfishness in his erratic behavior and eventual shutting down. Had Steamy not also taught her to look for signs of a nearby island in the flights of gulls and the schooling of fish just below wavecrest, she never would have found the shoals.

Water roared and broke over the shallows behind Nerissa, which had nearly claimed the outrigger. It was now tied up on the calm end of a small island set amid the labyrinth of sandbars and coral. Someone had been there, long ago: they had dredged up coral and sand from the lagoon to build what must once have been an islet as small as the others into a large rectangle nearly a quarter of the size of the old atoll she and Steamy had once shared.

The buildings were crumbling and full of coconut crabs, but there was also a cistern filled with fresh water, protected from evaporation and designed to funnel rainwater.

Without the bucking and rolling of the Redflower as its outriggers cut into the waves, Nerissa could finally repair Steamy. She could finally rest easy, if only for a moment.

For there were still storm clouds on the horizon, and the island bore none of the red flowers that Steamy had once brought back.

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Nerissa would often ask Steamy if there was anything beyond the distant islets and the reef.

“Everything you want to know is in your books, my lady,” her teacher and servant would always reply, in his reedy voice that issued from pressure-fed bellows. “I cannot speak to the existence or nonexistence of that which is not in my program.”

The books, and Steamy’s daily lessons, did seem to indicate a wider world beyond the atoll. Nerissa has never seen many of the objects and creatures that stood for each letter in her worn alphabet book, and the books and novels in the tower library were ablaze with distant and exotic lands. But Steamy would not–could not–confirm which tales were true and which were false.

“My program allows me to administer the lesson and organize the library, my lady. I cannot speak to the truth or untruth of that which is not in my program.”

Certainly there was no reason to doubt the old automaton was sincere; he performed his daily tasks with aplomb. There were kelp greens to be harvested, traps and baits for fish and crustaceans to be emptied and reset, and of course meals to be prepared. The strong metal piles sunk deep into the rock at the center of the atoll to support the tower also needed regular maintenance; they were a bulwark against the storms and waves that sometimes lashed against the atoll.

Still, on those occasions when the barometers were low and Steamy allowed Nerissa to accompany him to the outlying islets on the outrigger, she would look out to the horizon, through the palms and across the barrier reefs, and wonder at what lay beyond. Perhaps her parents, who had vanished in the other outrigger many seasons ago, leaving Steamy and the books as her only companions.

And then something happened which confirmed her beliefs.

Steamy had gone beyond the reefs in the outrigger, through a passage only he knew, on his annual trip to the islet of Motanu (visible from the farthest islet) for rocks and birds to capture for egg-laying. He returned bearing an unusual crimson object that be wordlessly presented to Nerissa.

She’d never seen one before, but her alphabet book had it on page 6: F for Flower.

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Everything would have been fine if the Spanish tourists had arrived on time.

Kay and Alice had met them at the bus stop, clearly bamboozled and lost (as the island’s easygoing bus schedule was wont to do for foreign tourists). As it so happened, no one at the bus stop spoke any more than pidgin Spanish…that is, except the two young American education students fresh out of Advanced Spanish 499.

There were still problems, largely because the tourists were Galician and spoke Castilian Spanish with a heady cocktail of Galician loanwords and a strong accent. Kay and Alice, who had studied Latin American Spanish–specifically the Mexican variety–were able to communicate only with considerable difficulty. Still, they had been able to describe the bus schedule, tell the Spaniards when the next bus was probably due, give them directions to their hotel, and even attempted to impart a few useful English phrases.

That would have been that, deeds done by good Samaritans, if the Spanish tourists had arrived on time.

Only they hadn’t.

The two Spaniards, Isabella Sanchez and Inez De Rojo, never arrived at their hotel, and never left on any of the ferries. There were no bodies, and no leads–except for Kay and Alice, who were the last ones to have any contact with the missing and who had spent the following week at a rustic and secluded beach on the leeward side.

It wasn’t until they tried to take the ferry home that Kay and Alice realized they were the only suspects in a missing persons case.

Spielmann’s notes were in a kind of quasi-German patois–whether as a function of his haste, his terrible handwriting, or the fact that Yiddish was his first language, I couldn’t say.

He would describe the things he found on the islands using a kind of code: A-D for the island, X for animals, Y for plants, Z for fungi, and the word “specien” for multiple captures and “speci” for singles. In lieu of a description, he provided a basic sketch.

AXspecien6, for example, appeared to describe a curious asymmetrical walking stick insect, which had three legs on the left but only a single large leg on the right (and, if the scale was correct, was 6-7 inches in length!). Ordinarily I would have dismissed such a finding as a single aberrant individual, but Spielmann apparently cataloged dozens. He even included sketches of larger, brighter females, smaller, duller males, and nymphs which apparently shed their legs as they grew.

The outrigger canoes had stopped arriving with trade when he had been but a boy. Uncle’s canoe, the only one on the isle capable of making the journey, had been carefully conserved until Father felt there was no other choice but to send it. Uncle and two cousins had set out, promising to return with the necessary trade goods or an answer for the traders’ disappearance.

They had never returned.

Father had died of sickness not long after, and before long the isle was wracked by illness–caused by starvation–and the infighting that caused. Those who didn’t succumb wound up mortally wounding each other in pointless struggles.

When it was time for his manhood ritual, only a cousin and half-brother remained to stand beside him. He could not take a wife, as the only two women on the isle were his close kin. They too dwindled away, like a dying bonfire. The last islander, a cousin, had died almost ten seasons ago, leaving him alone.

The outriggers had not returned. Food was plentiful enough for him to feed himself, but without help it was impossible to do much else. It would not be long before an accident or a sickness claimed his life, and then the isle would be empty.

He spent most of his time looking out to sea in the direction of the setting sun.