Richmond Swamps, June ACM 296
A gray Department of Antiquities patrol boat motored across our path. I
paddled into a cattail-covered cove, kept a wary eye for alligators, and
waited for the gray-uniformed agents to leave. In the morning heat,
sweat trickled down my neck and soaked my green canvas top, causing me
to itch. I ignored the irritation and swarms of black flies.
“Regina, we should go home,” Colleen whispered from the front of my
“We’ll be fine, sis,” I said to keep her calm. “School is
safe.” I hoped.
While there was ebb and flow to life in the swamps, three patrol
sightings so far this week were unusual, and it was only Thursday.
Something was up.
The Antiquities boat finally headed up the channel. We crossed and tied
the mooring rope to reeds below our school. I made sure the log-boat was
secure and hidden from view, in case the patrol returned. Then I led
Colleen up the rocky incline beside stilts that kept the wood-frame
buildings above water.
Colleen and I hurried to our respective classes. There was no one in the
clearing between the buildings, on the stairs, or at the tiny balconies
by classroom entrances. I ran up the steps, pushed open the rickety wood
door, and dropped my wet, muddy boots beside others on a stone slab
School was the best part of my day. I didn’t have to watch my
twelve-year-old sister, since she was secure in her own classroom.
Mo-Mere, our nickname for our teacher, Marisa Seville, brought the dozen
girls in her class warm soup of beans, turtle, and spuds.
My favorite part: she let me touch real books—brittle paper ones,
yellowed, edges worn, with stories that tickled my mind, stories the
World Federation had purged from the Mesh-cloud. Mo-Mere’s books made
the six-days-a-week slog through miles of swamp in a hollowed-out log
“Regina,” Mo-Mere placed her weathered face next to mine and
whispered in a warm voice with a tough edge. “You might be my best
student, but that doesn’t excuse tardiness.” She pinched my cheeks
to let me know she meant both comments.
She was too kind. Though I was fifteen, doing seventeen-year-old work, I
took too much of Mo-Mere’s time. She was like a second mom to me. In
fact, the other girls gossiped that she was my donor mother, providing
half her DNA to Mom to conceive me in the local fertility clinic. Mom
refused to talk to me of such matters.
Mo-Mere nudged me toward the four rows of four small tables facing the
front of the room. “Take your seat. I was telling the class I received
a report of a Category-5 hurricane bearing down on us tomorrow night.”
I shrugged. This would be the second big storm of the year.
A new student sat in the first row, in front of Mo-Mere’s rough-cut
maple desk. I took the vacant seat next to her, where no one else wanted
to sit, so I could learn without all the distractions of the older girls
whispering. Mostly they gossiped about how I had a little girl’s body.
My hips hadn’t filled out, and I refused to stuff my bra like two
We all wore the same faded green canvas trousers and pullovers. Raw
canvas came in one color, dull green, and most of us Marginals had
nothing to barter for expensive dyes. Mo-Mere said if I studied hard,
she might get me into the university on the other side of the Great
Barrier Wall, in the Federation proper. “You could become a
Professional and have a real future.”
Yet life outside the Richmond Swamps seemed unimaginable. This was the
only world I knew, unless you counted the literary world of banned books
by ancients such as Charles Dickens, Isaac Asimov, and David Brin.
Compared to the river and swamp channels, the classroom felt small,
boxy, and musty, though I didn’t mind if it meant I could read.
“Let’s pray to the Blessed Mary,” Mo-Mere said, as part of our
Federation-required morning ritual.
Tapping my foot, I mumbled along with the other students, paying no
attention to words as distant as the world beyond the Great Wall, a
massive concrete structure that separated us from the Federation. They
accepted only one religion, though it seemed to me they’d picked the
wrong one: devotion to Mary Devereaux and the other Grand Old Dames.
Our teacher pointed a gnarled wooden stick at the board on the right
side of the room. “Let’s recite our Twelve Commandments.”
I mouthed by rote, recalling phrases with what Mo-Mere called my
photographic memory. “Thou shalt not kill,” “Thou shalt not
steal,” “Thou shalt not leave the Marginal swamps without Federation
permission.” Blah, blah, blah.
“Everyone should live as a Marginal swamp rat for a year,” Mo-Mere
said, “before complaining about their life.” She made this sound
like a badge of honor, a way to build character and help us survive in
our drenched world. She’d said this on my first week and repeated it
whenever a new student arrived.
“Who can tell Beth how the Community Movement and Federation began?”
Mo-Mere’s intense eyes looked from student to student. When no one
volunteered, her sharp eyes drilled into me until I nodded.
She expected me to give the official answer for the new student, another
chance to stand out so the older girls could ridicule me. It didn’t
matter. They wouldn’t be friends with the “little girl” no matter
what I did.
While I longed to be out, making preparations for the storm, my heart
raced to recall official histories. I wanted Mo-Mere to like me so
she’d let me read precious books she hid from other students.
“You’re the luckiest of the lucky,” she’d told me. She only
accepted students whose mothers could barter food, clothing, or other
necessaries. Those whose moms couldn’t pay had to drop out.
“Three centuries ago,” I said, “our atmosphere warmed, glaciers
melted, and oceans rose, destroying croplands. The Great Collapse
threatened to destroy civilization. The Community Movement rose up to
establish the World Federation. They restored peace in order to save
us.” The last was a big lie. They restored peace so they could be in
charge and remake the world in their image. To do so, they purged all
knowledge and books from Before the Community Movement (BCM).
I didn’t add how GODs ran the Community Movement and its World
Federation. Their notorious Department of Antiquities controlled all
electronic information on the Mesh, eliminating anyone and any
information that threatened their control. Even those were just words to
me. I’d never seen the Federation, GODs, or the Community Movement,
although Antiquities patrols made their presence known.
I stopped my foot from thumping on the creaky wood floor.
Girls behind me snickered. “Restoorr.” They were making fun of my
Federation accent, which Mom and Mo-Mere insisted I learn. It made me
sound like Beth and some of the other newcomers.
Mo-Mere’s face hardened. “That’s enough.” She looked around the
classroom then at me. “Very good, Regina. With waters rising, the
Federation built the Great Barrier Wall to our west to hold back the
seas and protect as much cropland as they could.” She gave the same
introduction to each new student. Listening to it again had me squirming
in my seat.
“Why are we on the wet side of the Wall?” I blurted out, since
Marginals had helped build the Wall centuries ago.
Mo-Mere scowled at such an obvious question. “Why don’t you answer
for Beth’s benefit?”
I shifted my bony rump on the wood seat, hung my head for disappointing
her, and gave the official answer. “Marginals were cast out of the
good lands after they rebelled.” Except my ancestors had been in the
Federation at that time.
“And?” Mo-Mere prompted.
“We must work hard to prove our worth to the Federation.” I looked
up. “But every year, the waters swamp more of our lands. Soon, we
won’t have anywhere to live.”
“That’s why you must work for a chance to go to their university.”
“Regina Shen! That’s enough. See me after class.”
While pretending to frown in shame, inside I smiled at the chance to
spend more time with Mo-Mere. Looking around, I realized I’d dug a
bigger grave for myself with the other girls. I wanted to learn, even if
Mo-Mere stood in front of her desk, towering over me. “This storm
could be the worst in my lifetime.” She let that sink in.
Worst was relative. Each storm took homes and land, and made us
scramble, but they were all bad. She seemed more worried this time.
“Since the storm isn’t expected until tomorrow night, school will be
open in the morning, unless your moms want you home. Don’t take
unnecessary risks. If you do come, bring examples of how you’ve
prepared. In order to survive, we must share with other students and
She looked around the small room to be sure we were listening. “Find
the highest shelter you can with protection against storm surges. Make
sure you have emergency supplies, including medicines. Think about how
the storm will affect your gardens and how you’ll hunt for food. Be
careful what you scrounge to eat. Remember the pictures I showed you of
* * *
Inspector Joanne Demarco watched the growing storm system onscreen from
the helm of her Department of Antiquities patrol boat in the middle of
the Richmond Swamps. Waves broke along the port side. The hurricane will
make landfall tomorrow night, she thought. A big storm would send tens
of thousands of Marginals scrambling for the Barrier Walls created to
hold out them as well as the seas. They’ll offer themselves into
servitude for a chance to live.
She remembered those days as a child. She swore never to let anything
return her to the life of a swamp rat. Yet here she was, doing the
Federation’s dirty work. A promotion might improve that.
An alarm pierced the calm, the sort that would send you jumping for
lifeboats. Demarco cursed under her breath, forced a smile, and locked
the cabin door. She took a deep breath and activated her Mesh-reader.
North American Governor Gina Wilmette’s ancient face filled the screen
with a wide canvas of wrinkles and tufts of skin. Like all Grand Old
Dames, the governor was more than 300 years old. Meds, treatments, and
replacement parts had helped, though she still looked like the fossils
Demarco seized while clamping down on local salvage efforts.
“How’s my favorite Antiquities agent?” the governor said in a
politically cheery voice.
I’m probably the only Antiquities agent you know. “There’s a storm
brewing,” Demarco said, sending an image of the massive swirl on her
weather screen to the governor. It was the biggest she could recall, as
if three storms had merged into one.
“There always is,” the governor said, the mask of surgeries and
makeup dulling any facial expression. “The reason I called is … are
you aware fertility clinics are failing everywhere?”
“I was not, Your Majesty.” Though Demarco had heard rumors.
“We’ll need more than flimsy Barrier Walls to protect us from this.
The Antarctic governor pretends she has matters under control, but
they’re failing. Failing! The Federation made a huge mistake putting
all our eggs in her basket, but she convinced the premier that
Antarctica was the safest place on the planet.”
While the governor let off steam, Demarco contrasted the calm of the
swamp around her to what this new storm would do. At least the southern
continent didn’t have Marginals to deal with. Their glass-domed cities
were impenetrable, though maybe that was a lie perpetrated by
Antarctica’s Department of Antiquities. As North America’s chief
inspector, Demarco had manipulated enough reports on behalf of Governor
Wilmette to know how.
She returned her thoughts to the governor’s comments. Though birth
rates had dropped worldwide, Demarco never suspected a conspiracy,
certainly not one involving the rivalry between Wilmette and the
Antarctic governor. “Do we know the cause?”
“My medical experts tell me more defects enter the process with each
generation. EggFusion Fertilization now fails to provide live births. If
we can’t solve this, we’re a generation away from extinction.”
The inspector mulled over the news. She had no children by choice,
mostly the job, but the possibility of never having kids raised the
stakes. This was the first time the governor discussed this issue so
candidly. Demarco wondered why Wilmette was telling her now. Then it
“I need you to track down rumors of Marginal DNA offering better
potential. They certainly replicate like mosquitoes.”
The chief inspector rarely interested herself in affairs beyond North
America, but this was big. It was time to toady up to her boss and set
expectations. “I’ll take this on personally, Your Majesty, but so
far we’ve found no evidence.”
“Look harder.” The skin on the governor’s face pulled in various
directions, as if all the surgery in the world couldn’t fix her.
“You know what it means if we find a solution, even if it does come
from our Marginal swamp rats.”
“I understand the urgency, Your Majesty. I’m on it.” A win could
put the governor of North America in line as successor to the current
Federation Premier, another GOD whose health was … less than robust.
Yet what did that mean for Demarco? Well, failure meant return to the
shrinking swamps as an outcast, or worse.
Demarco cleared her throat. “I sent you an image of the storm.”
“I see it.”
“Our meteorological group reports the super-cell will hit the east
coast tomorrow night. Rains will be heavy with damaging winds. We expect
flooding on our side of the Wall.”
“Your recommendation?” the governor asked.
“Open the dams. Push river and lake water beyond the Barrier.”
“Will that stabilize our water levels?”
“It’ll help. It’ll also thin out the Marginal population.”
Demarco lowered her voice. “Meaning fewer candidates for—”
“I know what it means. Have all your resources to put tracking devices
on Marginals and draw blood samples. When the storm comes, have patrols
and bounty hunters round up all the girls. We’ll sort them later, use
what we can, and throw back the rest.”
Like throwing back undersized sea bass, Demarco thought. “We’ll tag
as many as we can. Then I’ll oversee the roundup. What about the
“Open them. I don’t need mayors complaining we let them down. Then
find me girls with productive DNA.”
* * *
Detention for me meant Colleen had to stay at school until I was ready
to take her home.
“I’m hungry,” Colleen whined, when I came to tell her. She brushed
her dark-chocolate hair to look more adorable and more worthy of me
giving in, which meant stop getting detention. “I want to go home.”
Her pleading eyes tore at me.
“Mom won’t be there,” I said. “She’s diving salvage to barter
for new boots.” This was a stretch. I had no idea what Mom did while
we were away.
Colleen stared at her toes poking through. “Why do you have to get
detention every day?”
“I’ll make it up to you later.”
I scooted her into her classroom and headed down the rickety wood steps
of her schoolhouse and across the grassy clearing. The sky to the east
took on a charcoal gray appearance while the sun broiled in the
afternoon sky. I hurried up the steps and into my own classroom.
At the back, Mo-Mere lived in a one-room apartment, with a bed, a small
clothes chest, and her kitchen nook. Stilts kept the buildings above
surge waters. So far. But each storm brought the channel closer.
Her apartment gave off a hint of welcoming fragrances from her
potpourri, a collection of hybrid herbs she bred and grew in a garden
across the clearing. The floral scent masked the odor of rot and decay
from ever-humid wood and fumes from hot tar on the roof. The calming
scents contrasted with sharp, lush swamp odors each time I stepped
Mo-Mere stood over a wood-burning stove in the corner brewing an herbal
tea. “What am I to do with you?” She turned to face me. “Your
mother wants you in school. Eleventh grade is as high as we go and
you’re beyond that.” She raised my chin until I looked at her.
“I’m not scolding. I’ve never had such a precocious child. But
that doesn’t give you permission to speak your mind in class or in
public. Watch what you say around others.”
I stared at the worn wood floor in need of new varnish before it rotted
through. Fixing Mo-Mere’s place was a welcome form of detention.
Making myself useful opened up reading opportunities. I looked up.
“What’s the value of education unless I can express my thoughts? You
taught me that.”
“Regina, I taught you to think for yourself. It’s your
responsibility to know when not to speak your mind.”
“What’s the point of learning if I can’t speak out against
Mo-Mere’s eyes bored into me. “You know the answer.”
Out of frustration, I picked up a Chinese cipher puzzle she set out when
we were alone, a tribute to my mother’s heritage. It had taken me
longer than other brainteasers to crack and still challenged me with
traps. I liked its deceptive simplicity, and it never got me into
“Well?” Mo-Mere prompted.
I looked at her and remembered she was challenging me to answer. “We
can’t be sure those cast out of the Federation, like Beth, aren’t
“It’s not just her. There’s no telling who might turn you in to
Antiquities for speaking out against the Federation.”
“How can speaking the truth be wrong?” I asked.
“There’s truth and there’s integrity.” She poured the tea.
“For example, if you met the ugliest girl in the world, would you tell
“Only if I wanted a fight.”
Mo-Mere laughed. “There you have it.” She put two cups of tea on the
table with some hard biscuits.
I sat on a wood-stump stool, cradled the hot tea, and stared at a
biscuit she’d put out. Eating her food brought guilt. She had so
little. Yet I was hungry and she was willing. I ate because I assumed
Mom bartered for this.
Mo-Mere picked up my right foot and examined my toes. “Your feet are
still damp. You need to get them and your boots dry every day to avoid
swamp rot. You need a new pair of boots.”
I studied my feet. They felt as they usually did, tough and feverish.
Cool water made them feel better. “You don’t like me asking
“Questions are fine, just not in class. Federation spies look for
hints of rebellion.” She fanned her arm out toward the river.
“Don’t make the same mistake as those who came before you. Learn
your studies and someday I’ll try to get you into a university on the
other side of the Wall.”
“How? The Federation won’t issue us IDs.”
“Leave that to me. For now, focus on making it through this storm.”
Excerpted from "Regina Shen: Resilience" by Lance Erlick. Copyright © 2015 by Lance Erlick. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.