Issue #019 Published: 27-08-2018 // Written by: Xuda Käru

Going Under

After the Wet, rafts began to appear on the canals and waterways. Some of them had been around for decades, part of a transient community that could trace itself far back, well before the Floods. The River Rats had built and rebuilt their watercraft over generations from salvaged and scavenged material. They are a floating bricolage and history lesson, with remnants of previous craft repurposed into present designs. Periodically, when people decide to settle down, drift away or when friendships collapse the faltering scene is re-discovered by another generation and revived. Of course, there were those who were in it for life. I suppose that’s what became of me.

During the Wet some made other arrangements, shuffling between a network of Wagons and Haus Projekts, while others followed the Sun. Bookending the Rafting Season were notorious parties. Dozens of rafts would meander down river at dusk, collecting friends who arrived at pickup points along its banks, heading away from the die Vorstadt and deeper into der Wald. Coming together over the long summer dusks, we would rope our crafts together to form an ad hoc island. I preferred to arrive early. To set up, get comfortable and make small talk with the Elders. When it finally became dark and the atmosphere began to thicken, I would slip into my cabina and prepare to transform. Passing a plastic comb through a nylon wig is a ritual that has continued over generations. As a child I never grew out of dressing up and as I matured my preoccupations led me to Drag. Sure, these days children are taught that biology is mutable, but even before the Gene Traders arrived—making it as easy to switch genders as you could a pair of trousers—there were many tools and tricks available to those of us curious to experiment with our bodies. The Biological Arts.

Nights which began full of promise, often ended in trouble. We were a close-knit community, but we were far from Polite Society. You had to speak up and ask for what you wanted, this was no place for the meek. There were plenty of egos, rivalries and envy. Old wood, rope, fire and intoxicants. It’s a volatile mix. People would get high and start pouring gasoline on top of spirits rather than water. The irony was that we were floating on that stuff, but if you swallowed more than a mouthful of The River you’d surely be sick. 

Things happened almost too
quickly to follow.
Breathe deeply, keep breathing deeply. 
Use both hands to hold my arm. 
I have no control.

Shouts, splashes and motors spluttering into gear broke my concentration. The police? They would often make an appearance. More of a show than a threat—to let us know was in charge—all part of the night’s entertainment. Besides, we were too far away from the City to harm anyone but ourselves. When I clocked that the smoke seeping into my cabina was not from the fog machine, I scrambled out onto a floating platform. Breathing through a scarf, I squinted through the haze, lights and silhouettes. Flames leapt across the assemblage of wood, fibre glass and steel. River Rats scurried into small dinghies and paddle-craft, breaking away. Others panicked and jumped into the toxic water. A sudden burst of sound-light-heat and on an impulse I too found myself in the drink. Suddenly sober, and trying to keeping my head from going under, I lunged towards a paddleboat as the island dispersed around me. Then everything went blank.

She heard talking, listened for human 
voices, and could not distinguish any.
Parts of her body went numb.
She could hear her own breathing.

A sharp acrid smell brought me to my senses. Blinking I glimpsed flames, dancing alight on the oily slicks skimming the waters’ surface; the River a toxic flambé. I felt a pinch of something attached to the soft flesh of my stomach. Not painful, but firm. Quickly coming to, it occurred to me that despite having passed out I had not sunk. Rather, I was being held afloat. But I was not wearing a life jacket, nor had I hooked onto a life buoy or caught onto a piece of floating flotsam.

Your body can help me. Keep 
breathing deeply.

A long time ago the River would have been the lifeblood of the settlements along its banks. All kinds of creatures would have relied on it for their survival. Inhabitants would hunt for fish and mollusks and eventually channel its water to irrigate crops. While you can still travel along the waterways, the River is obviously not what it used to be. With industry came obstructions, infrastructure, pollutants and chemicals. Of course, over the years there have been considerable efforts to treat and restore its waters. I’ve heard that sections of the River that pass through the City’s historic centre are now purer than ever and citizens swim there during the Heat. But in the outskirts of the Stadt it’s a different matter. Downriver might not run clear, but neither is it a Deadzone. Rather, in this eutrophic soup lifeforms evolve and new species emerge.

Cautiously, I reached down towards my stomach to touch a cold, slippery body, about the length of my forearm. It twisted away from my fingertips but nevertheless stuck fast to my side. Whatever it was didn’t seem to fear me and oddly I also felt at ease. I’d no urge to pull it off. Strange. I wasn’t at all cold. How long had I been out here? I scanned the waters for my comrades and spotted a single raft as it disappeared around a bend. Now fully alert, I realized that I was not moving with the current, but rather against it, propelled by a steady and invisible force.