Today's Reading

There was the letter again, worming its way to the front of her mind, right behind her eyes. The phrases had repeated themselves; even two weeks after reading it, she could remember every word.

There is more that you never knew at the time of your studies—a great deal more. It is imperative that I tell you, and you alone, what it is. I am near the end of my life now. I can do you no further harm. But you can prevent a far greater evil being done. Please. You must read this. There is not long.

Forget it, she told herself. Forget it, forget it.

Boats were rarer than they had been, of course, but there were still thousands out there, an enormous fleet whose only admiral was blind luck. By now most of them had drifted into the dead zone at the center of the Atlantic and were becalmed in an armada fifty miles across—an archipelago of rust destined to do nothing more than rot and sink piece by piece. She had read once that before the Slow, a hundred thousand ships were on the sea at any one time. It sounded impossible.

Ships weren't really a threat these days; there weren't enough people left in the countries that would have sent them. Icebergs were far more common. More dangerous too: boats were no problem unless they were big, but even a small iceberg could be disastrous.

Still, they had the twenty-mile ring set up around the rig. Thanks to Harv's electrical talents, whenever the ring broke, it notified the rig by radio which section was affected, to give them a bearing. Then they sent out the Rig Rocket to scout. If it was an iceberg, they'd dispatch the bigger boat, Gertie, to tow it onto a new course. But they were expected to deal with smaller vessels themselves.

Hopper's job on iceberg trips was to calculate the direction of travel and the prevailing currents at the surface, and recommend how much force to apply and in which direction to avoid a collision. It was satisfying to perform a task with a tangible result, but it was a child's job, and a distraction from her real work.

Her real work. And there he was again, the man who had first taught her all about what she was doing now. She could hear the words of his letter in his voice, apologetic and low, as it had been the last time she'd seen him.

I have done you great harm. I know that. But I also know exactly how I must atone. You are the only person who can help. I trust nobody else.

The rig was in sight now. The reactor towers were always visible first, and the wisps of steam from the heating system, little puffs issuing from chimneys designed for greater use. There it was, the closest thing she had to a home: an icy stack of radiation-riddled metal, parked in the freezing sea.

On opening, the rig had been heralded as a pioneer. Today it sat, abortive and decrepit, two hundred miles off the southwest coast of England: the first of a new species and the last of its kind. She knew from conversation with Harv that its reactors still produced enough energy to keep itself going, with some left over for the mainland. As soon as that slight functionality fell away, it would be abandoned, unlamented, like so much else in this rotting world.

And the final lines in the letter, that entreaty. Not for forgiveness, but for—oh, who knew what else? Some useless attempt to apologize, most likely, dangled with the bait of a secret. Hopper had no interest in secrets anymore.

Please contact me discreetly at the address above. Ellen, do not attempt to come any closer. The risks to you are substantial. But contact me. Please. I have something you must see.

And then nothing but the shaky signature: Edward Thorne.

She had burned the letter. She had taken pleasure in holding it at just the right angle so its beginning had burned last. The last words visible were Ellen, please do not destroy this letter, then Ellen, please do not and finally just Ellen. She had deliberately refused to learn the address he had included, in case her resolve weakened later. She had sent no reply.

They were closer to the rig now. The whole thing was visible above the waves, sorrowful and weather-beaten. It looked like a titanic iron crown: the last remnants of some huge drowned king. The four legs were scuffed with rust, the chains around them buffeted by spray and clanking in the North Atlantic breeze. At its base, the rig had turned green, furred with plant life that stuck doggedly to it, as though aware there was no better home for hundreds of miles.

Hopper unclipped her water tin from her side, poured some into her mouth, and stared out to sea in case of an unexpected whale.

And then, as the boat coasted toward the rig, she looked back at it, and saw for the first time the large black helicopter squatting like a bluebottle on the deck.

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