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Flora's dreams offered no respite. A cold sweat clung to her tiny body. Blankets entangled her, ensnaring her in an unyielding memory. She was weightless, like she was floating, like a boat, drifting upon an endless ocean. She was Asleep. Motionless. And yet she felt the rocking, the swaying, and the unsteadiness - every bit as if it were real. As if the boat was still in The Ocean. As if she was still desperately hoping to be found, before the leaking boat finally pulled her under.
The relentless water pounded the hull, splashing over the sides, spilling more and more into the ailing vessel. Her clothes were wet with seawater. She began to shiver in the cold. She clung on to the waterlogged seat in the boat's cabin, paralysed, terrified, as the salty water sloshed about. This wasn't how her journey was meant to go. All she had wanted was to go somewhere safe. And now, her only hope was the blinking light of the emergency beacon - the bright orange gadget left behind by the very smugglers who had abandoned her there...
She awakened with a start, her panicked breaths choking her as she tried to reorient herself. Flora flailed at the constraining blankets, yanking at them, untucking them, bundling them up to her chest, as she twisted gracelessly into a fetal position. Her foggy mind remained affixed as her dreaming collided with her waking, her history relived in the present of her mind. She clenched her teeth. Strangled the blankets in her fists. The soft, warm blankets, atop the soft bed her protectors had given her.
Through gritted teeth, she sucked in a tentative breath of the still morning air of the bedroom. Then another. One more. Again. Eventually, once the world finally stopped spinning, Flora's eyes eased open.
The bedroom was a modest haven. Stacked high with boxes of unknown supplies along the opposite wall, it was furnished with a small bedside cabinet, likely salvaged from some deceased water vessel. It was carpeted with warm fibres which were coloured an equally warm autumnal red. The room was enclosed with walls painted in cream with a hint of gold. The colours burst to life as the amber glow of morning crept around the edges of the curtains obscuring the balcony.
The night before, Flora had placed her indispensable emergency beacon atop the cabinet. There, the device sat inert, bathed in the early rays of a new day. It was within reach if she needed it. She exhaled noisily, letting go of a small fraction of the tension that had plagued her. She wouldn't be needing to use the beacon. Not yet, anyway. It was a bittersweet memento - something that had saved her life, but which nonetheless threatened to engulf her. She watched it for a moment, her feelings uncertain, her emotions divided, as it sat unmoving atop the cabinet. Not yet...
Before she could climb out of the tangled mass of disheveled blankets and sheets atop her bed, Flora detected something in the air. Her nose tingled with the alluring aroma of something being cooked. Something sweet, rich, and likely delicious. Her stomach demanded an answer to this tantalising mystery. Flora couldn't help but agree. A night of sleep fractured by incursions of unwanted memories had left her drained, and yearning for something to take her mind off the past.
She pushed the blankets aside, revealing the T-shirt Davis had given her last night, clinging loosely to her body. She recalled the gift fondly, stopping for a moment to run a hand over the illustration printed on the front. It didn't matter that the shirt was second-hand or wasn't her favourite colour, or that it didn't fit perfectly - At last, she had something new to wear, for the first time in months. It had helped her feel almost like a person again. While it hadn't protected her from the nightmares, it gave her something good to wake up to, nonetheless. She clambered out of the bed, and slid out of the guest bedroom, not yet fully awake, but daring to hope for the new day.
"Good morning! How did you sleep, dear?" Nanaia asked cheerfully as Flora joined her in the kitchen. The elderly woman was wearing a warm brown cardigan, and long shapeless trousers dangled their cuffs over her comfiest slippers. She tended to something in a frying pan as the girl took a seat.
Flora yawned noisily, scratching at her unruly, tangled hair, and rubbing the dawn from her deep brown eyes. "Not great, then?" Nanaia surmised. Flora nodded with regret. "Don't worry, dear, you can have a nap later on if you're still tired. It's always hard to sleep somewhere you're not familiar with" Nanaia replied. Flora knew all about the difficulty of sleeping in strange places. But still, she wondered how long it would take for her to become familiar enough with this place to get a decent sleep.
Putting aside the frying pan, Nanaia gestured towards her creations. "I found enough starch, sugar and protein powders in the cupboard to make us something yummy for breakfast, at least. Go on dear, have some before they get cold." Flora looked at the pancakes, piled high upon a plate at the dining bar. Golden brown discs of fried batter were steaming invitingly in the sunlight, which streamed in through the clear doors facing the apartment's balcony.
Flora grabbed a plate and helped herself to a couple pancakes with her bare hands, before taking an enthusiastic bite of one. She smiled a massive grin as she chewed on the hot, sweet, airy treat. The food, at least, was starting to resemble familiarity.
"Just like my own Gran used to make me, way back when" Nanaia reflected. "Or close enough, at least. Chicken eggs and whole wheat were far less precious in those days, you know. But the synth ingredients are mostly the same, once it's all cooked up." Nanaia informed Flora, who listened, curious. Nanaia hobbled around to the side of the counter, taking a seat beside Flora. Nanaia slowly transferred a pancake to her own plate, her hand unsteady with a mild tremor. "Help yourself to toppings, dear." Nanaia insisted, pouring a green gel on her own pancakes.
Flora looked at the numerous bottles and jars arrayed on the benchtop. Some looked industrially manufactured, with professional graphic labelling in several languages: Caramelised glucose, Synthesised berry syrup, Pseudo-tamarind sauce. Others were clearly home-made, with rustic hand-written notes adorning them: Mint paste, legume butters, seaweed relish, and herb pickles. Others were... Nutrigel. Bottles and bottles and bottles of Nutrigel. Flora tried not to think of that terrible concoction that Davis had tried feeding her yesterday, instead opting to drown her pancakes in caramel and berry syrups.
"Where's Davis?" Flora asked, before taking a bite from a pancake stained deep crimson from the artificial berry condiment.
"Oh, he's at his role, dear. He wanted to get his work done early so he could spend some more time with you later on." Nanaia replied in a gentle voice.
"Oh. He didn't say goodbye" Flora pouted.
"He was up quite some hours ago. He did check on you, to see if you were ok, more than once, even, but you were out like a light. He tucked you in but didn't want to wake you. Said you needed your rest, he did."
Flora sighed. Nanaia watched as Flora prodded her food, a little disappointed. "Don't worry dear, he'll be back this afternoon. I'm sure he can't wait to see you."
Flora nodded, and went back to eating her breakfast instead of playing with it.
"You know, Davis surprised me." Flora said, after finishing one of her pancakes. "He actually... He loves his work. His role, I think all ya call it. He talks about it and the things he's done like... I don't know. Like it matters? He's not just doing it to get by" Flora observed.
"You're right, dear." Nanaia replied in her gentle voice. "He's a very passionate recycler and repairer. Roles are something we worked hard on, here on The Bridge. Anything hard and unpleasant is either automated or shared widely between people. That way, it makes up only a small part of any one person's life. People get to work on their passions then, and are better off for it. Davis has his engineering, I had my teaching and foster caring, and our neighbours have their crafts and music and gardening. I'm sure you'll find something you love too, dear."
Flora hoped so too. The future wasn't something she had thought about much - she had been more concerned with the present, and the events that had led up to it, but hoped that something would inspire her in the future, similar to the others. She glanced around the cosy kitchen, which was filling with warm morning light, eventually arriving at the glossy photos on the nearby shelf. Many of them were of Nanaia, most had children in them, and a few had Davis in them too. Some of the ones depicting a middle-aged Nanaia had a boy resembling Davis, but the boy was much younger than Flora. "So, you and Davis..." Flora wondered, not sure how to ask. She poked a fork into a pancake, unsure if she was prying too deep. "Is he your grandson?"
Nanaia shrugged. "Depends who you ask, dear. In my old culture we don't do family by halves. Step-families, half-siblings, foster children, in-laws, adopted relatives - it's all just treated as family. Why do you ask?"
Flora spent a moment, trying to justify her need to understand the people around her. "You kinda... don't look anything like each other".
Nanaia laughed a hearty chuckle at that.
"Yes dear, it's pretty obvious, isn't it? Doesn't matter though - family doesn't just mean people you're related to by DNA. It's also people you love, and who love you too. When people live under the same roof, eat at the same table, breathe the same air - that's as good a family as any."
Flora nodded at that with a smile. It sounded like a nice way to think of such an arrangement. She was still grieving her own lost relatives, but perhaps someday she would find a similar family to become part of.
"But, I do need to let you know, I'm not going to divulge the details of how we ended up as family." Nanaia said firmly. "Davis's past is a delicate topic for him. It's his story, and it's for him to tell. I care for him too much to preempt him by discussing his private matters behind his back."
Flora understood the warning, and agreed in principle. She didn't like people talking about her intimate details when she wasn't around either. She wondered if Nanaia would extend the same courtesy to her. Surely she would? "I understand" Flora replied.
"That's good. Just give him some time to get comfortable. I'm sure he will tell you about it when he's ready." Nanaia promised. Flora nodded.
"So... What are we going to do until he comes home?" Flora wondered, between bites of a sweet, golden pancake dripping with caramel. Nanaia paused for a moment, collecting her thoughts.
"Oh, a few things..." Nanaia took in a slightly laboured breath, and pointed to some folded laundry sitting neatly on the couch in the lounge. "You might like to get dressed first. We've washed and dried your clothes for you. It took a few goes to get all the salt and dirt out of them, but they're spick and span now."
Flora nodded. She had tried to rinse her travelling clothes from time to time, but safe opportunities for doing so had been rare, and achieved limited results. "Thanks" she mumbled vacantly, while trying to push that particular ordeal from her mind.
"No problem, dear. We can't have you out and about around the city in nothing but a t-shirt, after all" Nanaia insisted with a half-serious voice. Flora nodded with an affirmative tone, but suddenly felt a little self-conscious. She pushed her empty plate forward, spun about and leaped down from the seat.
The clothes were as described. Flora's shoes had been restored, revealing a hint of pink still remained in them, despite the worn outsides and soles. Her favourite sweater was a radiance of green stripes, neatly folded up to form an envelope of polyblend fabric. Her shorts with their handy pockets running up their sides sat upon the chair, their deep tan colour masking any remaining stains. Her t-shirt was as gold as sand during a sunrise, fraying at the edges but still mostly intact. Even her socks and underwear had been taken care of and folded neatly atop the pile. She grabbed a hold of her pile of clothes and retreated to the guest bedroom as Nanaia finished tidying up their breakfast.
Flora soon re-emerged, now also wearing her shoes, socks, and shorts. She was dressed as she had been the day before, with one exception. "I like this T-shirt" she declared to Nanaia, who had sat upon her comfy lounge chair for a break. Nanaia peered through her glasses at the unchanged shirt.
"Ah yes, it suits you, dear." Nanaia agreed. Flora ran a finger over the flower design on her chest, lost in thought.
"We should fix your hair too, while we're at it" Nanaia suggested. Flora looked up and groped at her hair to check if Nanaia was correct. Unruly locks of shiny black curls were amassed in a lopsided fro of bed hair and frizz. Flora didn't argue.
Nanaia retrieved a comb and hair ties from the handbag tucked beside her chair, and got Flora to turn around and sit in front of her. "How do you like your hair done, dear? We can brush it back, tie it up into a bunch or two... I might be able to remember braids, too, if you're lucky." Nanaia offered as she carefully worked the comb through Flora's hair.
"Um..." Flora tried to remember. Lately it had just been left to itself, developing a mind of its own bordering on sentience as she fought with more urgent concerns. She had even found a few small twigs in it while she washed last night.
"Tied back, maybe with a couple of braids?" She suggested, uncertain. It was a strange feeling - being free to decide how she appeared to the world. To not merely reflect what fate had painted her with, but to be an agent of her own presentation - with a bit of help from her caregivers, of course.
Nanaia took up lengths of Flora's hair in her fingertips, working through meticulously with her comb. "You know, my hair used to be similar to this, back in the old days. I'd love to hear where you got such lovely thick curls from." Nanaia wondered aloud. Flora pondered the question. She took a moment to realise Nanaia was probably asking about her family, in that round about way that adults sometimes talk in puzzles. Flora took a few more moments to consider whether she was ready for that conversation yet.
Flora took in a deep breath. Nanaia seemed like a safe person to talk to. She had been kind to her so far, and had raised heaps of other children previously. She treated delicate matters with confidentiality. And Davis trusted her completely. "My uh... My parents?" Flora answered. She figured that discussing that aspect of her history, at least, probably wouldn't lead to any trouble. She couldn't see Nanaia sitting behind her, but felt reassured by her presence. Her hands remained gentle and gradual as they plied Flora's hair. "Dad told me once that his family came from the Western Pacific, some place where the islands are all underwater now. They had nowhere to go back to, so they needed to find a new home." she sighed. "Like me". She started to twirl her shoelaces. They were visibly pink again, just as they had been in the good times. Before the grief that had brought her here.
Flora felt the tension in her scalp as Nanaia twirled her hair into the first braid, tying it up behind her head within a bundle of Flora's remaining hair. "My mum..." Flora continued. "She called herself Afro-Caribbean. I think that means she's a couple of things. Or, was... I guess." A tremor in her voice declared that her memories of this era were far from happy. "I've never been there - the Caribbean. But apparently it's a hard place to live. A lot of really bad storms, and almost nothing left in the sea". Nanaia hummed along in agreement, affirming what Flora was telling her, as she worked on the girl's hair.
"Mum and Dad, they kept saying they... didn't want me to end up like them..." Flora stopped talking. Her eyes were downcast, fixed on her shoes. Her words had been painted in blue. It seemed that some journeys left behind trails of mud that lingered on, even once the shoes that made them had been scrubbed clean. Nanaia paused her hairdressing, sensing something was wrong. Flora shook slightly, her breaths were uneven, her posture unsteady. She sniffed, and wiped at her eyes. "I don't wanna talk about this no more" she declared, despondently.
"Oh, dear, of course," Nanaia placed a hand on Flora's shoulder. "Our home is a safe place, you don't have to talk about anything that upsets you, not if you don't want to" Flora nodded quietly with another sniff. "But we're also here if you decide there's something you need to discuss, ok dear?". Another nod. Flora knew about the house rules. Truth and safety, or something like that. Flora wiped her nose on the back of her hand. Nanaia offered her a freshly ironed handkerchief, which she took gladly. "I want to thank you for sharing some of your story with me." Nanaia continued. "I know that wasn't easy for you. But I understand. I've been through a similar journey too."
Flora wondered what she meant by that. Was she just offering idle platitudes, or was there more to this woman than appeared on the surface. She tried to push aside her own difficulties for a moment, to distract herself from the unresolved grief. She remembered something that had been mentioned last night. She turned to face the woman. "You were... one of the founders?" Flora recalled. "Does that mean you were... like me?" she asked, begging to find some commonality.
"A refugee? Yes, dear, I was, a long time ago." Nanaia confirmed, nodding, and settling back in her chair for a reminiscence. "I was about Davis's age when my Island home in Micronesia returned to The Ocean. The first true independent settlement of what became Marinabridge started out soon after then, it did. People - including myself, mind you - we were meeting on The Bridge, coming from both sides of The Ocean and beyond. Looking for anywhere that would let us in when no-one else would. Then, while we were sheltering in some of the abandoned resupply and maintenance depots, we eventually realised that we would need to build a new home ourselves."
A sparkle appeared in her cloudy eyes as she recalled the memories, a living history of Marinabridge itself. "And since The Bridge was rarely being used anymore, and since it technically belonged to all of humanity, we believed we had every right to build a city on The Bridge and call it our home. Some of us chose to come here, some had no other choice, and others had no choice whatsoever. But we were all fortunate to find a home on The Bridge." She let out a gentle sigh of satisfaction at her life's work, her hands clasped together.
"It was hard at times, you know, and some other countries weren't too happy about it, but I think it was well worth it." She focused back on the girl, her hair now partially worked into some form of order. "Flora, don't let your status diminish you. You're every bit as capable of wonderful things as you've ever been. If a place like this can be built by people like us, then I don't think there's anything we can't do. There's mana within you, just waiting to be revealed, I know it". Flora was still sullen, her eyes damp, but she nodded along in acquiescence to the stirring motivational speech.
"Great. Now how about we finish up your hair?" Flora had forgotten what they had been doing, but now that she had been reminded, she noticed the gentle weight of several braids sitting atop her head. She nodded, feeling them flop about slightly from the motion, and she turned back around so Nanaia could finish. Flora still had questions, but wondered if she had the strength to ask. Nanaia began working on another braid.
"Nanaia?" Flora asked, her voice unsteady.
"Yes, dear?"
"You said... you came from a Pacific island?"
"Like... Dad's family."
"That's right. You know, if we were to go back a few thousand years, we probably shared an ancestor or two."
Flora was surprised at the notion that they may be relatives from far away and long, long ago. But, also, she found it slightly comforting to imagine she had more family in the world, waiting to be discovered, no matter how distant.
"You see, Flora, I claim my ancestry through my grandparents, and their grandparents, and theirs, back to our ancestral predecessors, and then back to the grandmother of us all."
"Who's that?" Flora wondered.
"Why, The Ocean, of course." Nanaia declared, neatly tying off Flora's next braid.
That... didn't make a lot of sense. Flora was confused. "How can an ocean be a grandmother?" she questioned, perplexed.
"Well... that also depends on who you ask. A more science-focused person like Davis might say life on Earth evolved in The Ocean, nurtured by the seas until it was ready to emerge onto land and spread all throughout the world. Someone more spiritual would also say The Ocean is our living ancestor and Goddess, grandmother of all creation, provider of bountiful tides, and the current of life. The one from which we all came, and to whom we will all, eventually, return."
Flora was left with more questions than answers. This wasn't a mythology she had ever heard of, although she was hardly an expert theologian. "Is that the religion here?" Flora wondered, as Nanaia put some finishing touches on the braids she had tied.
"It's one of many you'll find here, dear. But it did start here, and it's a belief I follow, where I can."
"Hmm..." Flora wondered, not quite convinced. "What's it called?"
"Well, there's a number of names - this country is multilingual after all. I know it as Moanatapu, but other people call it the Seafaith, or Samudra Bi?b?sa, or Spiritualität der Ozeane, and lots more."
"Seafaith" Flora repeated, in the one language she spoke fluently. The phrase almost tasted salty in her mouth. She wasn't in a hurry to go anywhere near The Ocean anytime soon, but knew she should be respectful of what other people believe - especially ones as generous as Nanaia . She felt conflicted - divided between her newfound phobia of the sea and her loyalty to the kind woman who had granted her a temporary home.
"Indeed. And we're about done with your hair now." Nanaia announced. Surprised, Flora touched a hand to the top of her head to check the truth of Nanaia's claim. "Here, I've got a mirror you can use". Nanaia reached into her handbag and handed over a small antique looking-glass, framed and backed with the rich golden wood of a now-extinct conifer, and inlaid with iridescent shells of abalone. Flora saw her reflection through her dark eyes, noting the skillful sculpting of her hair into a more manageable formation of braids and loose curls, tied back and slightly to the left. She watched herself smile at the image, breaking through a few of the lingering feelings she was yet to resolve.
"Hmm... It's not quite straight. I suppose I'm out of practice, and these hands aren't what they used to be." Nanaia said, disappointed in her work.
"I like it!" Flora told her, excited with the result. "Can you teach me how to do it sometime?" She asked, hopeful.
"Oh, sure, dear. Sometime." She glanced to the clock app displayed on the nearby infoscreen, and peered through her thick glasses to observe its information. Flora looked to the clock too. The 24-hour cycle displayed local time along with the time zones of the distant Sunrise and Dusk stations. It was joined by data on the date, tides, lunar cycles, solar cycles, weather and climate forecasts. "Sometime, indeed." Nanaia mused to herself.
Flora got up and sat in the lounge suite beside Nanaia, sprawling on the seat's armrest to try and get comfortable. She leaned her head on her hand for a few moments. She wondered if the date or time held some kind of significance. Eventually, she asked "is there something you're waiting for?"
"Oh, It can wait for a bit longer" Nanaia said, patting Flora on her head with her free hand. "Usually I visit our Sea Temple on the turning of the moon. Today is the new moon, so I'll be heading along later today."
"Hmm..." Flora murmured, doubtful about whether it would be a good idea for her to attend such a place. "I've never been in a religion before. We moved around a lot, so we didn't have much chance to do things like that." She reflected. Then she wondered for a moment, concerned. She imagined a cathedral of barnacled limestone, looming out of the briny depths, only to sink back under the ocean without a trace once it had swallowed her whole. "The temple... it's not in the sea, is it?". She shuddered at the concept.
Nanaia chuckled gently. "No dear, it's a building, just like any other church."
Flora welcomed that clarification, exhaling in relief. But she still had reservations. Even if it was set in just another building, the religion seemed built upon reverence for a force of nature that had come perilously close to killing her.
Nanaia gazed at Flora, seated next to her. The woman's eyes glowed with spirit in the morning light. "You're welcome to come too, if you want to learn more", she offered.
"Hmm... I'm not sure." Flora said hesitantly, dodging Nanaia's glance and adjusting a braid evasively. She was nervous. She wanted to say more - to question how she could be expected to reconcile the serenity that Nanaia was preaching with one of the most frightening moments of her life. She didn't want to hurt Nanaia's feelings, but had serious doubts that the two of them could see eye-to-eye on this issue. But then again, her knowledge about this alien faith was basically non-existent. Maybe there were reasonable explanations underpinning their beliefs that could justify their position? Either way, it probably wasn't fair to treat the worshipers with the same fears she held for the sea they worshipped. She took in a breath with a light shrug. "I'll think about it".

Submitted: November 26, 2020

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