From the author: As the oceans disappear, previously hidden shipwrecks await those brave enough to venture across the dunes to find them. The ones who make this journey do not always make it back.
Everything she touched burned her. The sand, the metal, even the wind. Taniya looked out across the expanse of Agate Beach. A handful of fishing boats peaked their bows through the dunes. They had been all but stripped by this point. Best to let them sleep. The larger vessels, cargo ships and the like, were further out. They too had been hit pretty hard. But, just beyond the horizon was what Taniya had come for. Somewhere out there was the famed NOAA fleet.
“Some idiot left the desalinator in the sun,” Darion said as he loaded the trailer. She looked over at Aiden.
“It was in the shadow of the ship when we went out looking for firewood,” Aiden said.
“And you expected it to stay that way because why?” she asked.
“Because he failed grade school,” Darion said.
“Fuck you, man.”
“Well, some hundred-degree water will be nice and refreshing after a day of frying out there,” Taniya said. She walked back toward the hull of the ship they had camped next to the previous night. It served well for a wind break against the 80 miles-per-hour gusts that kicked up after every dusk. The shade it provided was also welcome. There wouldn’t be much of that soon. Taniya took a piece of chalk from her pocket and made her mark, a T surrounded by a circle, on the rusty metal.
“I can’t wait to get back to Portland. I have no idea how you guys thrive on this shit,” Cassidy said. Taniya looked down at her. She was struggling with getting the tent she and Aiden shared back into its bag.
“You need help with that?” Taniya asked.
“I got it,” Cassidy said, “Been camping many times. Just usually, you know, in places people actually want to go to.” Cassidy laughed and stood up, tent finally secured.
“You okay?” Taniya asked.
“Yeah. I have my mom coming in on Thursday. I’m a little stressed about it.”
“Well, if you two need to bail early, I understand.”
“No. As long as we’re back to Portland in five days, it’ll be fine. Besides, you have NOAA to find, right?”
Taniya laughed. “Okay! We ready to roll or what?” she shouted at the other two.
Aiden hoisted his beer in salute. Darion closed the hatch on the trailer and smiled. It was time to go. Taniya got behind the wheel of the solar-powered bus they had rented in Newport. Aiden and Cassidy would be travelling by sail wagon.
“Fucking hipsters,” Darion said.
“I know. I can’t even imagine what they’re thinking,” Taniya said and pressed the ignition button.
The sail wagon’s dragster-like body looked too thin and fragile to withstand any kind of off-road adventure but had so far held up.
Aiden unfurled the sail and the vehicle silent pulled forward, gaining speed. Taniya had to put her foot nearly to the floor to keep from getting left behind.
“I don’t even know what to say,” Darion said.
“Whole damn world runs on nonsense.”
Petrified logs, forgotten wrecks, and small pools of brackish water receded behind them, replaced by the vastness of what was once the depths of the Pacific. After a few hours, even the massive dunes that piled up near the ancient shoreline fell away. A burning blue sky met the caramel sand on the horizon. The wind and the crunch of the tires seemed to fill the world.
“Do you see it?” Cassidy said over the radio. To the northwest, a shadow.
“What do we have here?” Taniya said to Darion.
He brought the range finder up to his eyes. “Trawler,” he said. Taniya grabbed the CB mic.
“Let’s see what she has,” she said, “tired of driving anyway.”
The capsized trawler had been abandoned for at least fifty years. The hull was starting to lose its battle with rust, but overall the boat was in good shape for having been exposed for so long.
Aiden was the first to reach it. He threw a grappling hook up over the deck and snagged the rail on what would have been the starboard side of the boat. He frantically geared up with crampons, an empty backpack for loot, rope ladder, and a breather. He grabbed some pitons and an ax. It’d be a hell of a climb to reach the cabin of the boat. “Let’s go! Yeah!” Aiden shouted and started his ascent.
Cassidy leaned over to Taniya. “He’s been dying to show me he was really going to use all that shit. It’s been just sitting out in the garage for months.”
“He’s been salvaging a lot lately?”
“No,” Cassidy said, “First it was the kickball league, then the triathlon beer league, then mountain climbing. Now he’s all about this. Darion says he’s always been like that. Whatever cool ‘sport’ comes along. You should see how many fucking pairs of bike shorts we have.” Cassidy laughed and walked back to the sail wagon. She started digging through her backpack, not finding whatever she seemed to be looking for. Taniya looked at Darion who shrugged.
Aiden reached the cabin. He broke through the starboard windshield with his ax and dropped inside. The three waiting on the ground could hear him crashing around in the wheelhouse.
“You okay, man?” Darion called.
“Yeah! This fucking door won’t budge. Hang on,” he said.
Aiden eventually forced the cabin door open. He stood in the doorway with his ax raised to the air and victoriously kicked the rope ladder down. “Whooo!” he shouted. His voice boomed across the dunes only to be swallowed by the rising wind.
Taniya and Darion approached the hanging rungs while slipping on their own backpacks and breathers. “You coming, Cassidy?” Darion asked. Cassidy stared back toward town. “Nah,” she said.
Inside the ship, the air was heavy and stale. The breathers barely kept out the lingering metallic taste of rust. The wall of the cabin, now acting as a floor, was covered with maps and paper. The ship was completely intact. They were the first to step inside it since the Receding began.
“Are you fucking kidding me?” Aiden asked while jumping a bit. “Holy shit! This pays for the whole trip! Just this one hit. Oh my god. We gotta strip this thing!”
“Yeah,” Taniya said, “This was a hell of a find. Ok. Let’s get to making some money. Hopefully, Cassidy is all right with being here for a day or two.”
“Yeah. She knows we’re not really going to find NOAA out here,” Aiden said.
“That’s not what I meant,” Taniya said.
“Oh. Her mom. Well, I mean. It’ll be okay. We knew we’d be out here for a few days at least.”
Old GPS units, radios, copper wire, computers, clothing, and medical supplies. The trawler was a small fortune in salvage without even factoring the scrap metal itself. By the time the sun went down, all three of them could barely move.
“I’m fucking dead over here,” Darion said.
They sat quietly around the campfire and ate their freeze-dried chicken curry and potatoes. “It’s delicious,” Aiden said, “and there’s blueberry crumble too. If anyone feels like boiling more water.”
“Man,” Darion said, “How often do you find a Tipover? I swear to god, I’ve never heard of that ever happening!”
“Tipover?” Cassidy asked.
“Yeah. A ship that hasn’t ever been hit before,” Darion said, “You just tip it over and bag up what falls out!”
Taniya got up and walked over to the hull of the ship. She carefully drew her mark, the chalk leaving a stark line on the metal in the dark.
“Hey. I’ve been meaning to ask you about that,” Cassidy said, “What’s with that ‘T’?”
Taniya put the chalk back in her pocket. “It’s just a way to let others know this one has been hit.”
“Like you’re claiming it for yourself?”
“Not really. More of a professional courtesy.”
“Professional?” Cassidy asked. She let out a snicker.
“The day job pays most the bills,” Taniya said, “but doesn’t cover everything. I need the extra income to get by. I thought about getting a second job, but most things I know how to do…fucking automation.”
“Oh,” Cassidy said, “I always just considered this to be like a hobby or whatever.”
“It is for most,” Taniya said, “but there’s some lifers out here who aren’t just weekend warriors. We leave our mark.”
It was two hours before dawn when Taniya opened her eyes. They had passed a found bottle of vodka around and curled up next to the coals of the fire. The dunes were freezing. Just outside the circle of light cast by the firepit, Cassidy stood looking at the stars. She was muttering something to herself. It almost sounded like singing. No, not really singing, but maybe chanting.
“Cassidy?” Taniya asked quietly. The way she stood, a sort of slow wobble, was disquieting. Taniya remembered her sister and the way she used to sleepwalk. “Cassidy?” Again, if she heard Taniya, she didn’t show it. Taniya closed her eyes. Whatever her deal was it wasn’t Taniya’s problem.
They got rolling just as the sun came up the next day. Long shadows of rusty hulls shifted across the blue and red of the dune’s changing light. Originally, they were just going to camp at the Tipover and take it for all it was worth. It was Cassidy of all people that urged them to drive even deeper into the desert.
“We came out here for a reason,” she said, “We keep going west, I guarantee we find NOAA.”
“I thought you needed to get home. For your mom,” Darion said.
“It’s okay. Look. We’ll do a day’s drive that way,” she said while pointing northwest, “and if we find nothing by nightfall, we come back and raid this thing. That gives me plenty of time to get back for Mom.” So they rode on. Four more hours in the heat and wind.
The sun was just starting to go down when Taniya got on the radio to call for a rest. “I’m starving. Let’s stop for an hour.”
Darion and Cassidy dug around in the ice chests for snacks while Taniya walked around the van and sail wagon to stretch her legs. Aiden quietly walked up to her. “Got a second?”
“Yeah. What’s up?”
“Cassidy is acting totally weird,” he said.
“How so?” Taniya asked. All these Portland lifestyle hipsters acted weird to her.
“The entire way she’s been weird. I mean, I know she’s a bit of a quiet person…”
“If you say so,” Taniya said,
“Haha. Anyway, not a word on that last stretch. She’d let out these little laughs though. Fucking creepy.”
“All right,” Taniya said, “Think she’s…having an episode or something? Should we go back?”
“No. Just. I don’t know. Just saying,” he said.
They returned to Darion who passed out some applesauce packs and protein bars. The three of them ate in a triangle while Cassidy stood about twenty yards away. She held her hand up to shield her eyes and stared out at the nothingness.
“That’s what I’m talking about,” Aiden said.
“Talking about what?” Darion asked.
“Oh, he thinks his girlfriend’s got desert madness,” Taniya said.
Darion looked over at Cassidy and then back at the other two. “Hmm.” He said and made his way back to the passenger side of the van.
“Hey, Cassidy,” Aiden shouted, “We’re ready to roll.”
Cassidy turned around smiling. “Let’s head this way,” she said like it was an epiphany.
“Any particular reason?” Taniya asked.
“NOAA. They’re out there. Promise.”
“Makes no difference to me,” Taniya said to Aiden. They loaded up into their rigs and changed course.
Hours later, when the long shadows had returned and everyone was getting tired, Taniya was the first to see the antenna. She had just turned on the headlights when she noticed the tall rusted arm sticking up through the sand.
“Sonofabitch,” she said.
The four of them got to digging right away. Given the height of the antenna sticking up through the sand, Taniya figured the roof of the bridge would be no more than five feet down.
Darion and Aiden unloaded the folding walls they used to make buttresses while digging for the buried boats. “Have to keep the sand from just sloughing back into the hole.”
“This is going to take us all fucking night,” Aiden said.
“I knew we’d find them,” Cassidy said.
“Well, I don’t know about ‘them’, but we found a ship. And we don’t know it’s a NOAA boat,” Taniya said.
“It is,” Cassidy said.
It was well past midnight when they finally found the roof of the bridge. In the pre-dawn, they had moved enough sand to get to the door. With what strength he had left, Darion pulled the door open and shined his flashlight into the dark.
“Here we are,” he said. In the dim light, they could just make out the NOAAS Rainier stenciled on the bulkhead.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” Taniya said as she stepped inside and turned on her own light.
The others followed her. Unlike their last find, Rainer was upright. They’d be able to take what they wanted without the extra hassle of needing climbing gear.
The navigational equipment was mostly all still there. They stood there in silence for a moment as the realization of their historical find sank in. Cassidy picked up a logbook and leafed through the pages. She smiled and slipped it inside her bag.
“Okay,” Taniya said, “Let’s see what she has.”
The group made their way through the below decks in the dark. Log books, boots, tools, maps, and scientific equipment littered the ship. Taniya was doing the math in her head. Her share of the haul would easily pay her rent for a full year. Hell, if she and Darion added theirs together they could get at least a few months of their own place. Community living had a great PR campaign, but dorm life was getting old.
“Why is this stuff still here?” Darion asked.
“Abandoning the ships…” Taniya started.
“The Great Receding was seen as a temporary phenomenon,” Cassidy cut in. Taniya bit her tongue. That tourist has been hanging back the whole time, but suddenly, now of all places and times, she’s a fucking expert, Taniya thought.
“That doesn’t make any sense,” Aiden said, “I mean. That would have been a pretty obvious lie.”
“Yeah, well,” Taniya said, “people are pretty fucking dumb.”
They were standing at a stairwell. The metal stairs plunged deep into the dark ship. On the nearby wall was a floorplan of the Rainer. “Okay,” Taniya said, “Let’s do two to a floor. Darion and I. Cassidy and Aiden. Meet up in the galley in a few hours?” Each pair headed in their own direction beneath the sand.
When they were alone, Taniya said, “What’s with Cassidy? Talking over me like that,”
“I don’t know,” Darion said, “Aiden says she’s been weird the last few days.”
“She opted to stay. If this is about her mom, I don’t know what to say about that. Nobody keeping her here, I can tell you that.”
Darion laughed. “Yeah. None of that is our problem, though. Let’s scavenge ourselves a new car.” Hours in the barely lit ship passed as they piled their finds near the stairway for later extraction.
The echoes in the dark carried the sounds of their companion’s efforts. The strange and distorted screeching of metal being scraped against metal rose to the upper decks from the belly of the ship. Under that sharp din was something more organic sounding. Something guttural. Taniya chased the thought away. Voices carry. Things reverberate. “As much as I love spending this money, I’m not looking forward to days of that shit,” Darion said while gesturing toward the stairs. The screeching and growling carried on.
In the galley, the four sat around a battery-powered lamp in the middle of the table. They quietly ate from their bags of insta-food, but there were only a few days of water left.
“I didn’t see a single puddle or spring, did you?” Taniya asked the group.
“No,” Aiden said.
Darion shook his head. Taniya looked over at Cassidy who was turning pages of the logbook as she ate her dinner. She hadn’t said anything since they returned from below.
“So what’s in there?” Taniya asked.
“What all is in there?”
“Oh, it’s just stuff. A record of coordinates and crew rotations and the like,” Cassidy said without looking up.
“Can I take a look?” Taniya asked.
“Not right now. I’d like to hold on to this.”
Taniya looked at Aiden who shrugged. The three watched Cassidy for a moment, but she was engrossed in her reading. The conversation was over.
“Okay, so,” Darion said, “We got a choice of berths to crash in. We could fight about the Captain’s quarters, but there’s no point. Taniya and I are taking that.” He laughed.
“Yeah, that’s cool. We got lots of room anyway. Besides, if we need room, we’ll camp out there,” Aiden replied.
“Glad that’s settled,” Darion said, “And with that, we’re going to turn in.”
“Goodnight,” Aiden said.
“Yeah. You too.”
“Uh, battery is at a premium. Don’t stay up too late reading. We’ll need to put those on the chargers tomorrow,” Darion said as he and Taniya walked out of the galley.
“Sure thing,” Aiden said. Cassidy was silent.
Taniya opened her eyes. The stateroom was in total darkness save for the edge of the ajar door. They’d left it open just in case. Her eyes focused on the glint of light on the metal door’s grey paint.
“Goddamnit. She left the lamp on all night.”
Taniya carefully made her way down the hall toward the galley. Shadows of arms and legs were cast through the galley’s doorway and onto the far side of the hallway. It looked almost like dancing. Very quietly, she could hear a repetitive murmuring.
“Cassidy?” Taniya called out. No answer. Just the shifting shadows. Taniya gripped her flashlight tight. Cassidy’s outstretched arms cast a double shadow on the wall. The darker inner shadow seemed to move just a fraction of a second faster than the outer, lighter, shadow. Taniya stopped and watched as they weaved and flew. She knew a double shadow was caused by there being more than one light source, but still…this looked different. And why were they moving at different speeds? The murmuring, chanting really, was louder, but she couldn’t quite make out what Cassidy was saying. It sounded like a name. Maybe a mantra of some kind? She couldn’t tell. Carefully, Taniya reached out and touched the shadows on the wall. She recoiled.
“Did I wake you?” Cassidy asked. Suddenly the galley and hall were very still and quiet in the dim light. Taniya stood with her back to Cassidy. Staring ahead at the wall, she could see the shadows as they shifted and became sharper. Cassidy was walking toward her.
“Uh…yeah. I heard something, Thought I’d check it out,” Taniya said.
The inner shadow’s head tilted to the right, followed quickly by the outer. “Is that right?” Cassidy asked. “Do you want to join me?”
“Nah. Think I’m good here. You look like you’re doing a whole thing. I’m just going to grab some water and go back to bed,” Taniya said.
“Very well. The sun will be up soon anyway.”
Taniya turned around to face Cassidy. Two lit lanterns sat on the floor and the log book Cassidy had taken was open on the table. Taniya could see there were words on the page, but couldn’t make them out. Drawn over them were shapes. Stars with hooks. An anchor of sorts. A squid eating a man, the legs of the victim protruding from its mouth. Cassidy stood there smiling. She was wearing an extra-large Tractor Tavern t-shirt as a nightshirt. Taniya grabbed a collapsible cup and poured a bit of water from the desalinator and took a drink. The whole time, Cassidy watched her without saying anything. Just smiling and tapping her foot impatiently. “Okay. Goodnight,” Taniya said and walked backwards into the hall. Cassidy nodded. Taniya turned around and quickly started making her way back to her quarters. Looking over her shoulder, she could see the shadows stretch across the wall. The inner and outer. They were perfectly in synch. Her hand was still freezing when she reached the door. “Fucking idiot. Interrupting me. Now, where were we?” Taniya heard her say.
“I’m telling you, it was fucked up,” Taniya said. It was late afternoon, but down in the ship, there was no light save what they brought with them. Darion was taking a crowbar to a locker. They had gotten an early start that day and had been far below decks for nearly all of it. Darion for the money, Taniya to avoid Cassidy.
“I don’t know,” he said, “She’s always been weird. Probably some kind of yoga thing or whatever.” The lock strained as he pulled the bar. The last three lockers had netted them some rat skulls and thirty-eight cents in change. They’d been loading up with a lot of great loot earlier, but things seemed to be winding down.
“This was different. She’s been kinda getting progressively shitty with me since we got here. She was openly aggressive on top of just being fucking weird last night.”
“Just let that roll on by. We’re out of here in forty-eight hours tops.” The locker door broke open. Inside was a pile of books and a pair of shoes. Hanging from a hook was a single gold chain. Darion gently took it in his hand. “By then,” he said, “We’ll be middle-class.”
“Middle-class? From that?” Taniya asked.
“Well, upper-poor anyway.”
The duffels that they had brought down with them were finally full. Clothes, gear, even pencils. All of those things would be putting food on the table for months. They each grabbed a few bags and started the trek up to the bridge door where the loot was being piled up for transport. When they reached the galley, they found Aiden at the table. He was thumbing through Cassidy’s log book in the failing light of the lantern.
“What the hell, man?” Darion asked, “I told you we only have so many batteries. We need those. Use your headlamp!”
“Have you seen this?” Aiden asked as he set the book down. A printout of a navigational chart had been folded into the logbook. It was sourced from a clearly old book. Something about the position of the stars. Drawn in shaky blue ink was a constellation. Its frightening shape was not from any mythology Taniya was familiar with. Whatever it was seemed to be designed by whoever drew it, yet it also seemed right.
“That’s Cassidy’s book, right?” Darion asked. Aiden looked up at him. “Yeah, she’s…”he started.
“Aiden!” Cassidy called from somewhere down the hall. Aiden stood up and looked nervously at Darion and Taniya. Without a word he walked out of the galley and into the darkened hall.
“Guess she’s calling the shots,” Darion said.
“He didn’t take a light,” Taniya said. They stood in the galley for a moment. They could hear the wind howling through the open door in the bridge above them. On the table was an eye with a star-shaped pupil drawn in chalk. Taniya reached into her pocket for her own chalk and found it empty. Fuck. She took my chalk. What an asshole, she thought. Darion reached over and turned the lantern off. “Fuck it. These fools can walk in the dark. I’m not wasting my batteries on this shit,” he said. Their headlamps were just bright enough to fill the room. They shouldered their bags again and started down the hall to the stairway that lead up and out.
“Fuck! Guys! Guys! Come here. Oh shit! This isn’t good! Darion, man, get in here!” Aiden’s panicked voice called out. Taniya and Darion dropped their haul and ran toward the sounds.
“Aiden? Cassidy? What’s up?” Darion yelled. There was a noise coming from inside the stateroom they had slept in. The door was ajar and a pale light glowed inside. Darion pushed the door fully open. Cassidy’s headlamp lay on the floor casting a soft blue light. Cassidy lay on the bed, staring straight at the celling. Aiden was facing away from them near the opposite wall. On it was drawn another eye.
“So…what is this?” Darion asked.
Aiden turned around slowly and started shuffling toward them. Taniya took a step back. Darion balled his fist.
“Do not run. Do not…fear. This is the easy part. It’s always easy. Thank you. I love you. It will be fast,” he said.
“Man, I’m not even joking,” Darion said, “I don’t know what kind of shit this is, but I’m not doing this.”
“I’ll talk through this one so you’ll listen,” Aiden said, “I talk through this one because you know his words. You will not listen to me. You will not listen to the other. I will use you for life.” Aiden was fully lit by their headlamps by then. A red wet tendril lead from his head across the room toward Cassidy who still lay on the bed. It ended at her temple.
“The fuck,” Darion said. The uppercut snapped Aiden’s head back hard. There was a wet crunch sound as he flew back, snapping the tendril.
Cassidy shot out of bed, her eyes pure white. She let out a low growl as she launched toward Darion. Darion shoved her back and she hit the bed. “Run!” Darion shouted and Taniya bolted down the hall. As they reached the stairway, a rising howl erupted from the ship. It rose to a high-pitched screech. The hull vibrated. Taniya reached the top of the stairs and tried to cover her ears, but it did no good. Her hands came away bloody. She looked down into the darkness of the stairway. Darion was nearly to the top. Their eyes locked.
A thin, hair like line formed across his throat and then ran dark down his shirt. He grasped at the wound and tried to yell as blood escaped his teeth. Darion fell backward into the void.
Cassidy’s eyes shone in the dark. She stood at the bottom of the stairway next to Darion’s body and smiled up at Taniya. The ear-rending screech halted. “He says there is a place for you,” she said, “You can be here with us, our home in this sea of sand and heat.”
“Who is he?” Taniya asked. She cringed. Why had she done that? Just run, she yelled in her head. Whatever this is, run.
“You know him. He lives in our conversation. He walks in our dreams,” Cassidy said.
Taniya broke free and ran outside the bridge door. The night air was clean and crisp. She slammed the door shut and ran to the van. Cassidy was yelling and laughing. The sand shook. Taniya’s foot hit the floor and the van shot east towards town.
Three miles from what was once the shoreline of Newport, Taniya pulled over and got out. She cried and sat in the sand. She wiped her eyes and stared into the night, her double shadow cast long across the dunes. The outer and inner, just out of sync.