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As the man in the grey cap strained to row his dingy forward, he looked back at the clear path his boat was leaving. The bay by the city was so polluted that in some areas the brown seawater was only visible when a boat, paddle, or occasional confused fish pushed a gap through the layers of drifting plastic. It led to a single dock with a hanging lamp. Already waves were beginning to nudge junk back into the empty spaces. Soon, when they were completely filled, and the night fog fully settled, that lamplight would be the only thing marking the way back to the pier. The oil could burn for three hours. Plenty of time.

He had to be careful when scavenging at night. The smog made it easy to miss night-watch ships patrolling the harbor, or the rafts of smugglers sneaking into the harbor, until they were a few meters away. Several times he had avoided by inches a larger boat that would have split his to splinters. Others he had ducked out of the way just before a searchlight exposed him. On those occasions all he could do was stay crouched in the boat, trying not moving, with nothing but fate deciding if they caught him. The past four years he had been lucky, though he preferred to think of it as a perfect mixture of experience, craftiness, and divine favor.

The city loomed behind him as he rowed. The silhouettes of the towers cross into one that looked less like a man-man construct than a crouching, scaled beast. Hundreds of lights dotted its skin. When the man turned away, he could feel it watching him. It did not care if one of its children tried to flee the nest. They always returned. It was amusing to watch the little man paddle forward, alone and blind in the fog, shivering in the winter air.

When he had rowed far enough that the outlines of the buildings were the gone and the lights were a dim glint, he stopped. He sat in the dark and listened. The air was silent except for the murmurs of waves. It was safe to light his lantern to the lowest possible flame. On each side of the boat hung 3 nets. When released, they dropped into the water and trailed behind him as he resumed rowing. The boat grew heavier and heavier with each stroke of the paddles, and when it no longer moved more than a fraction of an inch with each heave, the man stood up to examine the snares. Their ropes were stuffed with refuse.

Thin plastic, cardboard, old bags, bits of wood, animal bones, broken eyeglasses, stray wiring, straws, formless gunk, used medical equipment, empty snack packs, candy wrappers, beer cans, dead batteries, and broken toys he discarded, though he was sure to double-check each for smaller, more valuable items (he still cursed remembering the time another scavenger had found a gold wristwatch stuck inside a milk carton). The man kept perhaps one object in 40. These were anything that might be sold for extra food, traded to a neighbor, or brought back to his family. The fences in the city had a wide-variety of ever shifting tastes. Recently old cell phones and athletic equipment had been in demand. Metal, of course, was always wanted, as was anything the idlers living downtown could place on a shelf to show off to dinner guests. Every so often a thin, starving fish got caught in the net. When he found one, he cracked its skull on the side of the boat and tossed it into a separate bag.

Once the nets were picked clean, he pulled them onto the boat. After paddling around for a while, he dropped them back in the water and began the search again. He repeated the process four times. By the time he was done, with time to spare, he had his largest collection in six journeys, including two baseball mitts, a crutch, a picture frame, and something he thought might be a “hard drive”. He was rowing back to shore when something caught his eye.

An egg-shaped orange-red glow hung a few feet below the surface of the water. The man peered over the edge of the craft to examine it. Unfortunately momentum was still carrying the craft forward. He scrambled towards the oars as he glided past the spot. For a few panicked moments, circling through the water, the man thought he had lost it forever. When he saw it still floating in the same spot below the waves, he gave out a relieved yelp. He rowed toward it so quickly that he accidentally dropped a paddle. When he reached the spot this time he was sure to stop. Waves lapped against the side of the boat as he gazed into the water. It was like a bright eye staring upwards, as if this single, glowing spot was actually a window into something alive, the edge of an intelligence whose possible magnitude made him tremble. It seemed to drift left as he watched, but he realized in fact the movement of the boat, rotating slowly around a new, fixed axis. If he wished, he thought. He could stay in this spot forever. The sun would rise and set and rise and set until the ocean eroded his vessel and he slipped into the putrid depths, but still things thing would not move or lose its light. He leaned forward to get a closer look. It did not move. It was there. It was not polluted or perturbed by the water. It was there, bought to this place by no cause or will other than its own.

He dropped his arm into the sea, swiped at where he thought it was, and touched nothing. He leaned forward, gripping the edge of the boat with his other hand. The water smelled rotten. He reached down further, felt the slime slide across his skin, moved his arm back and forth, but the object stayed out of reach. He pushed even further out, as far as he could go, until his body leaned nearly vertically and the tip of his nose almost brushed the water and his forearm was into the layer of sea so polluted nothing there could be seen and his body leaned passed the axis where gravity could save him and the tip of his finger brushed something hot. He slammed his knees against the wall of the boat to stop his fall just as his grip closed around an object the size of an egg. It was his.

He wasn’t sure how long he lay on the floor of the boat, weeping a silent prayer. By the time he picked himself up and rowed back to shore, the lantern on the pier was just flickering out.

  • * *

He walked quickly but quietly back through the streets. Like any good scavenger, he had the shifts and general routs of all the neighborhood guards memorized. It was technically not illegal to be out at night, but if the wrong patrol saw him, and they were in the mood for it, there would nobody to stop them from giving out a drunken beating. Three weeks ago the body of a man from his building had been found with a fractured chest and its nose almost torn off. He had not been robbed. The city did not investigate.

Worse than a beating would be if they found the object tucked in the inner pocket of his coat. Even swaddled in cloth and tucked into a bag of fish, its glow was faintly visible. He walked with his jacket pulled tight and his arms around his body as a shield. The scrap he’d placed in an alley hiding spot, where he would pick it up from tomorrow and bring to the pawnshops, but he didn’t dare place the object out of arm’s reach. As he carried it, every pole felt like a living, waiting presence, every shadow looked like a trap, around every corner there seemed to hide a thief. When he turned onto a street and saw a light on in an upper window on the other end, he turned around and walked two blocks down to find another route. It took him three times as long to get home as it normally did. But he made it to the front door of his housing complex unseen.

The building in which he lived was identical to the dozens of other ancient apartments in the area. Rusting metal, rotting wood, half the windows shattered, clogged or leaky pipes, the icon of some forgotten government welded above the door. The residents were the only ones who had conducted repairs since he’d played there as a child. The doorless rooms inside often to fit four families each, with only sketchily drawn agreements and occasional violence deciding placement. He climbed up to the seventh floor, navigating in the darkness with only touch and memory, and entered a hallway to the right. Near the middle was a bare moon-lit room. Sleeping bodies lay scattered across the cold floor. Some lay huddled together, others under blankets, a few exposed and alone. The man stepped lightly between them. Near the center of the room he reached a woman underneath a blanket with three children and a teenage boy. After transferring the glowing bundle to his pocket, he placed the bag of fish under the blanket at the foot of the sleeping area. Without undressing, he crawled under the linen, put an arm around his wife, and fell asleep.

  • * *

Light filled the room. Adults and children moved about, some preparing packs for the long walks into the heart of the city, others changing into their work garments, a few making futile attempts to clean themselves with tepid water from shallow bowls. The days here began in waves. At the first light of dawn, the cleaners, hospital aids, pedi-cab pullers, and factory-workers rose and rushed to get to work before they had to face their boss’ anger. Later rose the ware-hawkers, shop-helpers, street performers, cloth-weavers. Older siblings woke their younger, helping some prepare for work and the rest for lessons in the first floor’s makeshift classroom. Those skilled at cooking came and went with each meal-time. The building wasn’t close to being empty until mid-afternoon. It stayed that way for little time before the flow reversed, and groups of people began to fill it back up.

Haster, as usual, woke just before mid-day. Only his daughter remained under the blanket. Careful not to wake her, he stood. He pulled the cloth bundle from his coat and peered inside. The orange-red glow had not faded.

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