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The Hard-Bitten Outskirts of the World's Only Undersea City

M. J. Pettit is an academic and writer. His fiction has appeared in such venues as Compelling Science Fiction, Nature, Toasted Cake, and Daily Science Fiction.
Cousteau City isn't all geodesic domes glittering with bioluminescence. The place disappoints. It leaks. Constantly. The corridors stink of semi-processed kelp. The cephalopod cardsharps overestimate their precognitive abilities and the uplifted dolphins get cranky when the house inevitably wins. Cousteau City, where the future isn't exactly the one promised and the past has a nasty habit of catching up with you. So, of course, I run into Henry Muldoon at the casino restaurant.
Henry doesn't do subtle. The word isn't in his vocabulary. He waves at me from the other end of the buffet, calls my name across the room. "Abigail, over here. How've you been?"
No chance of passing unseen. As I approach, he puts down a plate loaded with cocktail prawns and hugs me tight. It feels genuine this time.
He doesn't look half bad at sixty. Greying at the temples, he's gone full John Steed, complete with Savile Row suit, boutonniere, and bowler hat. I mean who carries an umbrella around an undersea city? The perfect disguise I suppose. A super-agent hidden in plain sight.
Henry and I first met back in the 1970s in a stone circle near the Jurassic Coast. His father the paleo-astronomer was trying to decode the Neolithic symbology carved into the rocks while my aunt, the local white witch, endeavored to prevent him from unleashing an unfathomable menace. As the adults argued, Henry and I became fast friends. We just clicked.
Until we didn't.
I don't hold a grudge. It's healthy to grow apart. No one marries their prepubescent crush. That'd be weird, right? Once the endorphins subsided, our romance fizzled. We kept in touch though. After we defeated the blood-thirsty, transtemporal astronauts in the stone circle incident, we kept on saving the world. It became our habit, an obsession even.
Half the time we ended up on opposite sides. Neither of us could fully explain why. It was almost as if the world didn't come readily parsed into good and evil, black and white. Down here the bioluminescence washes out everything in a steady neon glow.
So, it wasn't time or distance or the unrelenting future shock which drove us apart. In the end, we all want to be the hero of our own lives. Around Henry, I was never sure.
Our plates filled with succulent morsels selected from the buffet, we find a quiet table under the glass viewport. Life ambles about the rejuvenated reef above us.
"I heard you retired," Henry says, failing to cover his disappointment. "I'd hate to think you've given up."
True, I'd hung up the catsuit. Gladly. There's only so many times you can level a villain's secret lair or reseal a transdimensional gateway with your own blood. No matter what you do, the powerful, the monied, always end back on top. Every time without fail. It wears you out.
"Not quite retired," I explain. "Trying a different tack."
Less raw firepower, more grey cells.
Looking at my plate, I don't want any of what's on it. I fork a cube of Kobe beef imported at unimaginable expense. I have a nibble. It needs more salt. At this depth, everything tastes bland. Everything except for kelp.
"Why the long face, Abby?"
Henry could always read me like a casefile. I hated that about him.
I take a gamble. "Ever get the feeling the future isn't what it was cracked up to be? Is this how you imagined things turning out?"
"Whatever do you mean? The future is amazing. We've got moonbases, hovercars; we're dining in an undersea casino. What more could you want?"
"Dunno. Something different. Something better."
Around us the Davos set slurp down oysters and crack open lobsters as servers refill their flutes with Dom Perignon. The same Davos set who ruled when Henry and I entered the world-saving business. If anything, those same faces look younger now. That's why I retired. I couldn't shake the feeling my former interventions actually worked to keep them in power.
Henry catches me staring. "I've missed you, Abby. Tell me. What brings you down below?"
I lean in close so the other tables won't overhear. "Forensic accounting." The UN established Cousteau in international waters as a scientific facility, but soon it became the world's largest tax haven. The fiberoptic cables pulsing underneath us launder the one-percent's spoils. "Tax evasion. It's how they nabbed Capone. It'll be how we nail these fuckers."
After years of painstaking intelligence and cultivating whistleblowers, I'd almost secured the most damning spreadsheets. The grand jury waits. We're taking things slow, making sure we do everything right. Hopefully the charges stick this time.
It makes sense for Henry to appear as my case enters the homestretch. He always does. Our stories are entangled. Have been from the very start. No one alive knows me better. No one else has seen the things we've seen. We understand each other.
"You've been a good friend, Henry," I reach across the table and squeeze his hand. "I'm glad you're in my life."
He gives me that impish smile of his. "Same."
This encounter feels different. We aren't arguing. Maybe people can change. Maybe we don't have to keep repeating the same scenarios over and over again. Maybe there's hope for a different future.
The restored reef above us looks healthy. Break coral into pieces and it grows back faster. Small changes can make a huge difference.
My plate empty, I order a decaf. I'm willing to linger a bit for old time's sake. "So what brings you to Cousteau City? You never said."
The coffees arrive.
"Glad you asked." Henry gulps his macchiato. He swallows it in one swig like he hears a detonator clock ticking in his head. "Best clear out tonight, because at 4 am I'm blowing this place sky high."
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, June 5th, 2019


This is a story about how those shiny retrofutures from my childhood preserved the status quo and why so many things stay the same after our heroes blow up the baddies.

- M.J. Pettit
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