Sometimes future history can carry all the same weight of inevitability that our own history does, even when it’s fantastic. This story by Adrian Tchaikovsky is a good example.
We mass at Knightsbridge Station, just below the surface, taking turns to breathe at the half-sunk steps. Knightsbridge is a peninsula now, caught between the burst north bank of the Thames and the Serpentine. You should know better than to go there, really, with your escape route narrowed to that single land-bridge, but the waters there are fertile, some of the best of all that great expanse of shallows that was Central London. We farm there, our weed and our fish, our shells and our crabs, and where we farm, you come to steal from us. Shallow seas are paradise for my people, and the world has so many of them now, where the rich earth has been taken from you. It wasn’t as if you were taking care of it, after all. If you had been better custodians, we wouldn’t be here. There wouldn’t have been a need for us.
I go ahead, hauling myself up the ridges of the stairs. Out in the open air, the red sun in the west silhouettes the broken skyline. Evening is upon us, and you have outstayed your welcome. I am awkward on the hard ground for a moment before I find my feet. There is still something of you, in the way I stand. My spine is more flexible, my posture more bowed; my neck is long, my head streamlined. My eyes are huge dark pools that pierce the gathering dusk far better than yours. Where you scavenge rags to hide your bare bodies, I have my oil-thick fur.
My hands are like yours, though: part-webbed, but I have your fingers and your thumb, dark and naked. Or perhaps they are otters’ hands, after all. I would prefer that to be the case.
I slink from the toothless maw of Knightsbridge Station, humping my lithe body from cover to cover: not as nimble now I am on the land, but I can stalk two-legged prey with the best of them. Your sentries do not see me, between the drawing dark and the glare of sunset.
There are so many of you! I am always shocked to find there are so many left, and these are just the mass of you in this one place and time. There are numbers we have learned, for how many humans lived on the earth when Doctor Deacon began his work, but they are meaningless. They are numbers that nobody should have any use for. I know there must be far less of you now, but still . . . so many, crawling like maggots across the Knightsbridge peninsula, netting and clawing at the water’s bounty, stripping the littoral of everything edible. Your habits have not changed since the waters came.
I wait there, watching you, trying to see you as something other than a composite, consuming mass. You are pale and filthy, and I can smell the thin, sour reek of you from here. And you are thin—limbs like sticks, faces like skulls. You cluster together in your little clans: You have brought your whole families for this day at the seaside. I smell the smoke of your little fires, but many of you just tear at the fish with your teeth, too hungry to wait.
I watch your children. Even hungry, even desperate, at this trailing loose end of your history, they are still children. They play and jump as ours do; they fight each other as ours do; they splash in the water, eyes bright with curiosity. No doubt you love them, just as we love ours. You want the best for them, now that your parents and their parents have ensured that you will have only the worst.
I wait too long, watching your young. For all that we are children of a different god, I cannot see your children without feeling the stir of pity in me. We were all human once, and our creator left alone those things that let us think and feel. My heart, my lungs, my blood, my bones, these he improved, but that part of me that loves, he left alone.
But all these lands under the water’s shadow are ours, and we have hungry children too.