There had been a lot of excitement about spindrifters, once. Unfortunately, after a bit of testing, they were found to have certain foibles that hadn't been anticipated by any of the computer models. They whisked up these eldritch low-altitude storms, which were of no concern to anyone but seabirds; but they also seemed to interfere with rainfall patterns, even at quite unaccountable distances away. And rainfall patterns had been brutalized enough already. It wasn't fair to put them through anything else. This time they might really lose it.
After that, the excitement dissipated like a fine-gauge cloud, the optimists turned their hearts to some new prospect, and the armada was never launched. But several different outfits had built those early spindrifters—the competition to save the world being some of the bitterest competition there is—and a couple of them closed up shop without ever getting around to taking their prototypes off the water. So there were still about a dozen spindrifters roving the Baltic. Unmanned, self-navigating, powered by the wind, built from almost incorruptible polymers, these ghost ships would just carry on until a rotor cracked or a circuit shorted, which might take decades.
Such were the new fauna of this poisoned sea. No ringed seals anymore, no harbor porpoises, no velvet scoters, no European eels, no angel sharks, and practically no venomous lumpsuckers. But a thriving ecosystem of these faceless pack-beasts: cargo drones and spindrifters and the autonomous mining vehicles that browsed the ocean floor for ferromanganese nodules forty fathoms beneath their mothership the Varuna.
By now the spindrifter was less than a kilometer away. The wind in her face was wet and cyclonic and scouring. She zipped her jacket up to her nose and pulled the cord to tighten the hood. Within a couple of minutes the spindrifter would pass the Varuna, and, remembering Abdi's warning, she knew she ought to go inside. But something had caught her attention.
At the base of the spindrifter, which skated on two hulls like a catamaran, she could make out a white glimmer. She thought of sea fire, the phosphorescent plankton that sometimes shone from the waves at night. But it wasn't that. The light had an artificial hue. Yet it was flickering like a candle flame, and anyway a spray vessel, crewless, had no need for any lights apart from the warning beacons up on its rotors.
And then Resaint realized she'd already waited too long. The storm had arrived.
The spindrifter didn't create its own wind, but something about the serpentine airflow between its huge rotors, in combination with the salt fog it spewed out above, was a wormhole in the weather, an anomaly which lured in naive little breezes and turned them out as rabid squalls. This jacket could keep you dry in a monsoon but now her skin was soaked down to the small of her back as if the water hadn't leaked in past the cuffs or the hood but had ghosted straight through the nylon. She felt like chewing-gum under a jet wash, a loose bolt in a turbine engine. Even though she was almost sure the force of the wind couldn't suck her over the side, she was scared to let go of the railing. But she was also scared to just wait out here for the spindrifter to pass. So she started to pull herself along the railing toward the stairs. She wished she hadn't turned down that life jacket.
Her foot slipped. One knee hit the deck. The spindrifter's rotors loomed overhead like the columns of some vast temple half hidden in the mist, their shafts tinted orange by the Varuna's floodlights.
She heard a clunk behind her. She looked back. It had been the sound of a door flying open. Abdi was standing in the doorway holding a coil of rope, one end weighted with a steel snap hook. He shouted something—she couldn't hear it over the roar of the storm and the thrum of the rotors—and then threw. His aim was pretty good: the snap hook nearly walloped her in the face. She grabbed it before the wind could drag the rope away.
And yet she waited a moment longer before she pulled herself to safety. Because she needed one last look at the spindrifter as it passed just a few meters away from the Varuna. She needed to be sure she had seen what she thought she had seen.
The glow was coming through a window in the spindrifter's helm. This window was masked from inside by a curtain or blind, but one corner of the blind was flapping back and forth, as if the interior of the ship wasn't quite sealed against the wind. That was why the light had fluttered like a moth's wing. And behind the window, visible only in snatches, a human silhouette. Somebody trying to fix the blind back into place.
The spindrifter had a passenger.