home stories EXISTENCE Shoresteading


by David Brin

an excerpt from EXISTENCE


"A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent upon arriving.
A good artist lets his intuition lead him wherever it wants.
A good scientist has freed himself of concepts and keeps his mind open to what is."

— Lao-Tzu, Tao Te Ching

"Bu yao! Bu yao!"
          Xin Pu Shi, the reclamation merchant, waved both hands in front of his face, glancing sourly at Wer's haul of salvage — corroded copper pipes, some salt-crusted window blinds, two small filing cabinets and a mesh bag bulging with various metal odds & ends.
          Wer tried to winch the sack lower, but the grizzled old gleaner used a gaffe to fend it away from his boat. "I don't want any of that garbage! Save it for the scrap barge, Peng Xiao Wer. Or dump it back into the sea."
          "You know I can't do that," Wer complained, squeezing the calloused soles of both feet against one of the rusty poles that propped his home above the sloshing sea. His left hand gripped the rope, tugging at pulleys, causing the mesh-bag to sway toward Xin. "There are camera-eyes on that bouy over there. They know I raised ninety kilos of salvage junk. If I dump this stuff back into the water, I'll be fined! I could lose my stake."
          "Cry to the north wind," the merchant scolded, using his pole to push away from the ruined building. His flat-bottom vessel shifted, sluggishly, while eels grazed along its mossy hull. "Call me if you salvage something good. Or sell that trash to someone who can use it!"
          "But —"
          Wer watched helplessly as Xin spoke a sharp word and the dory's motor obediently started up, putting it in motion. Audible voice commands might be old-fashioned in the city. But out here, you couldn't afford subvocal mistakes. Anyway, old-fashioned was cheaper.
          Muttering a curse upon the geezer's sleep, Wer tied off the rope and left his haul of salvage hanging there, for the cameras to see. Clambering up the strut, then vaulting across a gap, he managed to land, teetering, upon another, then stepped onto the main roof of the seaside villa — once a luxury retreat, worth two million Shanghai Dollars. Now the half-drowned mansion was his. What was left of it. If he could work the claim.
          Stretching under the hot sun, Wer adjusted a wide-brim straw hat and scanned the neighborhood. To his left extended the Huangpu Estuary, Huangzhou Bay and the East China Sea, dotted with vessels of all kinds, from massive container ships — tugged by billowing kite-sails, as big as clouds — all the way down to gritty dust-spreaders and fishing sampans. Much closer, the tide was coming in, sending breakers crashing against a double line of ruined houses where he — and several hundred other "shoresteaders" — had erected hammock-homes, swaying like coccoons in the stiff breeze.
          There may be a storm, he thought, sniffing the air. I had better check.
          Turning, he headed across the sloping roof, in the direction of a glittering city that lay just a few hundred meters ahead, beyond the surfline and a heavy, gray seawall, that bore stains halfway up, from this year's high water mark. A world of money and confident ambition lay on the other side. Much more lively than Old Shanghai, with its lingering afterglow from Awfulday.
          Footing was tricky as he made his careful way between a dozen broad, lenslike evaporation pans that he filled each day, providing trickles of fresh water, voltage and salt to sell in town. Elsewhere, one could easily fall through crumbling shingles and sodden plywood. So Wer kept to paths that had been braced, soon after he signed the papers and took over this mess. This dream of a better life.
          And it could still be ours. If only luck would come back to stay a while.
          Out of habit, he made a quick visual check of every stiff pipe and tension rope that spanned above the roof, holding the hammock-home in place, like a sail above a ship going nowhwere. Like a hopeful coccoon. Or, maybe, a spider in its web.
          And, like a spider, Ling must have sensed him coming. She pushed her head out through the funnel door. Jet black hair was braided behind the ears and then tied under the chin, in a new, urban style that she had seen on-web.
          "Xin Pu Shi didn't take the stuff," she surmised, from his expression.
          Wer shrugged, while tightening one of the cables that kept the framework from collapsing. A few of the poles — all that he could afford so far — were made of non-corroding metlon, driven solidly into the old foundation. Given enough time, cash, and luck, something new would take shape here, a new and better home, as the old house died. That is, providing...
          "Well?" Ling insisted. A muffled whimper, and then a cry, told him that the baby was awake. "What'll you do now?"
          "The county scrap barge will be here Thursday," Wer said.
          "And they pay dung. Barely enough to cover taking our dung away. What are we to live on, fish and salt?"
          "People have done worse," he muttered, looking down through a gap in the roof, past what had been a stylish master bathroom, then through a shorn stretch of tiled floor, to the soggy, rotten panels of a once-stately dining room. Of course, all the real valuables had been removed by the original owners when they evacuated, long ago, and the best salvagable items got stripped during the first year of overflowing tides. A slow disaster. One that left little of value for late-coming scavengers, like Wer.
          "Right," Ling laughed without humor. "And meanwhile, our claim expires in six months. It's either build up or clean out, remember? One or the other, or we're expelled!"
          "I remember."
          "Do you want to go back to work that's unfit for robots? Slaving in a geriatric ward, wiping drool and cleaning the diapers of little emperors?"
          "There are farms, up in the highlands."
          "And they only let in refugees if you can prove ancestral connection to the district. Or if you bring a useful skill. But our families were urban, going back two revolutions!"
          Wer grimaced and shook his head, downcast. We have been over this, so many times, he thought. But Ling seemed in a mood to belabor the obvious.
          "This time, we may not be lucky enough to get jobs in a geriatric ward. You'll have to work on a levee crew — and wind up buried in the cement. Then what will become of us?"
          He lifted his gaze, squinting toward the long, concrete barrier, separating New Shanghai from the sea — part of a monumental construction that some called the New Great Wall, many times larger than the original — defending against an invader more implacable than any other — ocean tides that rose higher, every year. Here, along the abandoned shoreline, where wealthy export magnates once erected beachfront villas, you could gaze with envy at the glittering Xidong District, on the other side, whose inhabitants had turned their backs to the sea. It didn't interest them, anymore.
          "I'll take the salvage to town," he said.
          "I ought to get a better price ashore. And I'll sell our extra catch, too. Anyway, we need some things."
          "Yeah, like beer," Ling commented, sourly. But she didn't try to stop him, or even mention that the trip was hazardous. Fading hopes do that to a relationship, he thought. Especially one built on unlikely dreams.
          They said nothing further to each other. She slipped back inside. At least the baby's crying soon stopped. Yet... Wer lingered for a moment, before going downstairs. He liked to picture his child — his son — at her breast. Despite being poor, ill-educated and with a face that bore scars from a childhood mishap, Ling was still a healthy young woman, in a generation with too many single men. And fertile, too.
          She is the one with options, he pondered, morosely. The adoption merchants would set her up with a factory job that she could supplement with womb-work. Though they would take Xie Xie. He'd draw a good fee, and maybe grow up in a rich home, getting the new electronic implants and maybe....
          He chased the thought away with a harsh oath. No! She came here with me. Because she believed we can make this work. And I will find a way.
          Using the mansion's crumbling grand staircase as an indoor dock, Wer built a makeshift float-raft consisting of a big square of polystyrene wrapped in fishing net, lashed to a pair of old surfboards with drapery cord. Then, before fetching the salvage, he took a quick tour to check his traps and fishing lines, bobbing at intervals around the house. It meant slipping on goggles and diving repeatedly, but by now he felt at home among the canted, soggy walls, festooned with seaweed and barnacles. At least there were a dozen or so nice catches this time, most of them even legal, including a big red lobster and a fat, angry wrasse. So, his luck wasn't uniformly bad.
          Reluctantly, he released a tasty jiaoxi crab to go about its way. You never knew when some random underwater monitor, disguised as a drifting piece of flotsam, might be looking. He sure hoped none had spotted a forbidden rockfish, dangling from a gill net in back, too dead to do anything about. He took a moment to dive deeper and conceal the carcass, under a paving stone of the sunken garden.
          The legal items, including the wrasse, a grouper, and two sea bass, he pushed into another mesh sack.
          Our poverty is a strange one. The last thing we worry about is food.
          Other concerns? Sure. Typhoons and tsunamis. Robbers and police shakedowns. City sewage leaks and red tides. Low recycle prices and the high cost of living.
          Perhaps a fair wind will blow from the south today, instead.
          In part, Wer blamed the former owners of this house, for having designed it without any care for the laws of nature. Too many windows had faced too many directions, including north, allowed chi to leak, in and out, almost randomly. None of the sills had been raised, to retain good luck. How could supposedly smart people have ignored so many lessons of the revered past? Simply in order to maximize their scenic view? It had served them right, when melting glaciers in far-north Greenland drowned their fancy home.
          Wer checked the most valuable tool in his possession — a tide-driven drill that was almost finished boring into the old foundation, ready for another metlon support. He inspected the watch-camera that protected the drill from being pilfered, carefully ensuring that it had unobstructed views. Just ten more holes and supports. Then he could anchor the hammock-home in place with a real, arched frame, as some of the other shoresteaders had done.
          And after that? A tide-power generator. And a bigger rain-catchment. And a smart gathernet with a commercial fishing license. And a storm shelter. And a real boat. And more metlon. He had even seen a shorestead where the settlers reached Phase Three: reinforcing and re-coating all the wires and plumbing of the old house, in order to to re-connect with the city grids. Then sealing all the walls to finish a true island of self-sufficiency — deserving a full transfer of deed. Every reclaimer's dream.
          And about as likely as winning a lottery, it seemed.
          I had better get going, he thought. Or the tide will be against me.

          Propelling the raft was a complex art. Wer haunch-squatted on the polystyrene square while sweeping a single oar in front of him, in a figure eight pattern. It had taken months, after he and Ling first staked their claim, to learn how to do it just right, so there'd be almost no resistance on the forward stroke.
          He tried to aim for one of the static pull-ropes used by other shoresteaders, which then led directly ashore, where the mammoth seawall swung backward for a hundred meters, far enough for a sandy beach to form. On occasion, he had been able to sell both fish and salvage right there, to middlemen who came out through a pair of massive gates. On weekends, a few families came down from nearby city towers, to visit salty surf and sand. Some would pay top rates to a shoresteader, for a fresh, wriggling catch.
          But, while a rising tide helped push him closer, it also ensured the gates would be closed, when he arrived.
          I'll tie up at the wall and wait. Or maybe climb over. Slip into town, till it ebbs. Wer had a few coins. Not enough to buy more metlon. But sufficient for a hardworking man to have a well-deserved beer.
          As always, he peered downward as the raft moved with every stroke of the oar. Wer had modified the chunk of polystyrene to hold a hollow tube with a big, fish eye lens at the bottom, and a matching lens up top. After much fiddling, he had finally contrived a good device for scanning the bottom while pushing along — a small advantage that he kept secret from the other steaders. You never knew when something might turn up below, revealed by the shifting sea. Mostly, house sites in this area had been bulldozed and cleared with drag lines, after the evacuation. Common practice in the early days, when people first retreated from the continental margins. Only later was steading seen as a cheaper alternative. Let some poor dope slave away at salvage and demolition, driven by a slender hope of ownership.
          In large part, all that remained here were concrete foundations and fields of stubby utility pipes, along with tumbled lumps of stone and concrete too heavy to move. Still, out of habit, he kept scanning for any change, as a combination of curiosity and current drew him by what had been the biggest mansion along this stretch of coast. Some tech-baron oligarch had set up a seaside palace here, before he toppled spectacularly, in one of the big purges. Steader stories told that he was dragged off, one night, tried in secret, and shot. Quickly, so he would not spill secrets about mightier men. There had been a lot of that, all over the world, twenty years or so ago.
          Of course government agents would have picked the place cleaner than a bone, before letting the bulldozers in. And other gleaners followed. Yet, Wer always felt a romantic allure, passing two or three meters overhead, imagining the place when walls and windows stood high, festooned with lights. When liveried servants patrolled with trays of luscious treats, satisfying guests in ways that — well — he probably couldn't imagine, though sometimes he liked to try.
          Of course, the sand and broken crete still held detritus. Old pipes and conduits. Cans of paint and solvents still leaked from the ruin, rising as individual up-drips to pop at the surface and make it gleam. From their hammock-home, Wer and Ling used to watch sunsets reflect off the rainbow sheen. Back when all of this seemed exciting, romantic and new.
          Speaking of new...
          Wer stopped kicking and twisted his body around to peer downward. A glitter had caught his eye. Something different.
          There's been some kind of cave-in, he realized. Under one edge of the main foundation slab.
          The sea was relatively calm, this far beyond the surfline. So he grabbed a length of tether from the raft, took several deep breaths, then flipped downward, diving for a better look.
          It did look like a gap under the house, one that he never saw before. But, surely, someone else would have noticed this by now. Anyway, the government searchers would have been thorough. Woudn't they? What were the odds that....
          Tying the tether to a chunk of concrete, he moved close enough to peer inside the cavity, careful not to disturb much sediment with his flippers. Grabbing an ikelite from his belt, he sent its sharp beam lancing inside, where an underground wall had recently collapsed. During the brief interval before his lungs grew stale and needy, he could make out few details. Still, by the time he swiveled and kicked back toward the surface, one thing was clear.
          The chamber contained things. Lots of things.
          And, to Wer, almost anything down there would be worth going after, even if it meant squeezing through a narrow gap, into a crumbling basement underneath the sea.


Night had fallen some time ago and now his torch batteries were failing. That, plus sheer physical exhaustion, forced Wer, at last, to give up salvaging anything more from the hidden cache that he had found, underneath a sunken mansion. Anyway, with the compressed air bottle depleted, his chest now burned from repeated freedives through that narrow opening, made on lung power alone, snatching whatever he could — whatever sparkle caught his eye down there.
          You will die if you keep this up, he finally told himself. And someone else will get the treasure.
          That thought made it firm. Still, even without any more trips inside, there was more work to do. Yanking some decayed boards off of the upper story, Wer dropped them to cover the new entrance that he'd found, gaping underneath the house. And then one final dive through dark shallows, to kick sand over it all. Finally, he rested for a while with one arm draped over his makeshift raft, under the dim glow of a quarter moon.
          Do not the sages counsel that a wise man must spread ambition, like honey across a bun? Only a greedy fool tries to swallow all of his good fortune, in a single bite.
          Oh, but wasn't it a tempting treasure trove? Carefully concealed by the one-time owner of this former beachfront mansion, who took the secret of a concealed basement with him — out of spite, perhaps — all the way to the execution-disassembly room.
          If they had transplanted any of his brain, as well as the eyes and skin and organs, then someone might have remembered the hidden room, before this.
          As it is, I am lucky that the rich man went to his death angry, never telling anybody what the rising sea was sure to bury.
          Wer pondered the strangeness of fate, as he finally turned toward home, fighting the ebb tide that kept trying to haul him seaward, into the busy shipping lanes of the Huangpo. It was a grueling swim, dragging the raft behind him with a rope around one shoulder. Several times — obsessively — he stopped to check the sacks of salvage, counting them and securing their ties.
          It is a good thing that basement also proved a good place to deposit my earlier load of garbage, those pipes and chipped tiles. A place to tuck them away, out of sight of any drifting environment monitors. Or I would have had to haul them, too.
          The setting of the moon only made things harder, plunging the estuary into darkness. Except, that is, for the glitter of Shanghai East, a noisy galaxy of wealth, towering behind its massive seawall. And the soft glow of luminescence in the tide itself. A glow that proved especially valuable when his winding journey took him past some neighboring shoresteads, looming out of the night, like dark castles. Wer kept his splashing to a minimum, hurrying past the slumping walls and spidery tent poles with barely a sound. Until, at last, his own stead was next, its familiar tilt occulting a lopsided band of stars.
          I can't wait to show Ling what I found. This time, she has to be impressed.
          That hope propelled Wer the last few hundred meters, even though his lungs and legs felt as if they were on fire. Of course, he took a beating, as the raft crashed, half-sideways into the atrium of the ruined house. A couple of the salvage bags split open, spilling their glittery contents across the old parquet floor. But no matter, he told himself. The things were safe now, in easy reach.
          In fact, it took all of Wer's remaining energy to drag just one bag upstairs, then to pick his way carefully across the slanted roof of broken tiles, and finally reach the tent-house where his woman and child waited.

          "Stones?" Ling asked, staring at the array of objects that Wer spread before her. A pre-dawn glow was spreading across the east. Still, she had to lift a lantern to peer at his little trove, shading the light and speaking in a low voice, so as not to wake the baby.
          "You are all excited about a bunch of stones?"
          "They were on shelves, all neatly arranged and with labels," he explained, while spreading ointment across a sore on his left leg, one of several that had spread open again, after long immersion. "There used to be glass cabinets —"
          "They don't look like gems. No diamonds or rubies," she interrupted. "Yes, some of them are pretty. But we find surf-polished pebbles everywhere."
          "You should see the ones that were on a special pedestal, in the center of the room. Some of them were held in fancy boxes, made of wood and crystal. I tell you it was a collection of some sort. And it must have all been valuable, for the owner to hide them all so —"
          "Boxes?" Her interest was piqued, at least a little. "Did you bring any of those?"
          "A few. I left them on the raft. I was so tired. And hungry." He sniffed, pointedly toward the stewpot, where Ling was re-heating last night's meal, the one that he had missed. Wer smelled some kind of fish that had been stir fried with leeks, onions and that reddish seaweed that she put into more than half of her dishes.
          "Get some of those boxes, please," she insisted. "Your food will be warm by the time that you return."
          Wer would have gladly wolfed it down cold. But he nodded with resignation and gathered himself together, somehow finding the will to move quivering muscles, once again. I am still young, but I know how it will feel to be old.
          This time, at least, the spreading gray twilight helped him to cross the roof, then slide down the ladder and stairs without tripping. His hands trembled while untying two more of the bags of salvage, these bulging with sharply angular objects. Dragging them up and re-traversing the roof was a pure exercise in mind-over-agony.
          Most of our ancestors had it at least this bad, he reminded himself. Till things got much better for a generation...
          ...and then worse again. For the poor.
          Hope was a dangerous thing, of course. One heard of shoresteaders striking it rich with a great haul, now and then. But, most of the time, reality shattered promise. Perhaps it is only an amateur geologist's private rock collection, he thought, struggling the last few meters. One man's hobby — precious to him personally, but of little market value.
          Still, after collapsing on the floor of their tent-home for a second time, he found enough curiosity and strength to lift his head, as Ling's nimble fingers worked at the tie ropes. Upending one bag, she spilled out a pile of stony objects, along with three or four of the boxes he had mentioned, made of finely-carved wood, featuring windows with beveled edges that glittered too beautifully to be made of simple glass.
          For the first time, he saw a bit of fire in Ling's eyes. Or interest, at least. One by one, she lifted each piece, turning it in the lamplight... and then moved to push aside a curtain, letting in sharply horizontal rays of light, as the sun poked its leading edge above the East China Sea. The baby roused then, rocking from side to side and whimpering while Wer spooned some food from the reheating pot into a bowl.
          "Open this," Ling insisted, forcing him to choose between the bowl and the largest box, that she thrust toward him. With a sigh, he put aside his meal and accepted the heavy thing, which was about the size and weight of his own head. Wer started to pry at the corroded clasp, while Ling picked up little Xie Xie in order to nurse the infant.
          "It might be better to wait a bit and clean the box," he commented. "Rather than breaking it just to look inside. The container, itself, may be worth —"
          Abruptly, the wood split along a grainy seam with a splintering crack. Murky water spilled across his lap, followed by a bulky object, so smooth and slippery that it almost squirted out of his grasp.
          "What is it?" Ling asked. "Another stone?"
          Wer turned it over in his hands. The thing was heavy and hard, with a greenish tint, like jade. Though that could just be slime that clung to its surface even after wiping with a rag. A piece of real jade this big could bring a handsome price, especially already shaped into a handsome contour — that of an elongated egg. So he kept rubbing and lifted it toward the horizontal shaft of sunbeams, in order to get a better look.
          No, it isn't jade, after all.
          But disappointment slowly turned into wonder, as sunlight striking the glossy surface seemed to sink into the glossy ovoid. Its surface darkened, as if it were drinking the beam, greedily.
          Ling murmured in amazement... and then gasped as the stone changed color before their eyes...
          ...and then began to glow on its own.

THE END of this excerpt...


about this book

David Brin's bold newest novel EXISTENCE explores the ultimate question: Billions of planets may be ripe for life, even intelligence. So where is Everybody? Do civilizations make the same fatal mistakes, over and over? Might we be the first to cross the mine-field, evading every trap to learn the secret of EXISTENCE?

"Shoresteading," a novella-excerpt from Existence, tells the story of a brave Chinese man trying to make a life in the flooded boundaries of Shanghai, who stumbles upon a great and terrible discovery.

Copyright © 2012 by David Brin. All rights reserved.

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