“First thing’s first,” Anya began, fingers flying as she deftly placed a polished stone in each corner of the blueprint paper she’d stretched across the table, laying a pale, sheer, blank canvas in front of the two women. “We need to decide how big the Dome is going to be. I’m talking dimensions, as specific as possible.” She grasped a thin charcoal drawing pencil, sketching out a small box in the bottom right corner of the blueprints. Anya felt her ribcage reverberate as her heartbeat increased in anticipation, her veins flooding with adrenaline in a way they hadn’t since before Gramps died. Her hand shook slightly from the exhilaration of it all, when Susie’s cool voice wafted into her ears, quelling her trembling fingers and rooting her back in the present.
“Before we think about size, we should think about numbers,” Susie said calmly, leaning her arm on the edge of the table. “How many people, human and Mer, are we building this for?” As soon as the words were out of her mouth, both women paused, their bloods chilled, veins icy, as they realized for the first time, the full extent of what the Dome would mean. The frantic drumming of Anya’s heart began to ebb, slowing from the tune of a battle cry, to something mournful and fleeting, almost like a funeral dirge.
“Anya,” Susie murmured, her voice low and soft like velvet, “this isn’t a who, it’s a how many.” She blinked, her mouth opening slightly as she drew in a breath, exhaling as the shadow seemed to pass off her face. “I know this feels like we’re playing God,” Susie began, raising her chin slightly, “but we aren’t. It’s like, it’s like when you design the emergency exit stairwells in a building. You know not everyone can fit in that staircase at once, but if you didn’t design it at all, if you chose instead to leave them no escape, then you would risk no one being able to make it out alive.” Susie stared intently at Anya, her dark eyes narrowed slightly as she searched the latter’s face.
Anya gazed back at Susie and saw her own uncertainty reflected in the other’s eyes, the dark depths churning like waves on a roiling sea. Suddenly, Anya felt her vision grow dim as the smell of salt filled her nostrils, the concrete beneath her turning to wet, rocky sand as she looked upwards, not into the fluorescence of the basement, but at the rain soaked beach that had appeared before her.
“Anya!” came Gramps’ strangled cry, and she whipped her head towards the sound just in time to catch a glimpse of his tanned skin and dark curls before she was thrust backwards, her body hitting the ground in a heap as the giant wave that would have swept her away now carried Gramps away from the beach.
“Gramps!” she screamed, the sound ripped from her throat by the wind as it tore at her body like claws, gouging her skin as flecks of wet sand assaulted her pores. “Gramps, hold on! I’ll find a boat!” Anya scrambled to her feet as the scene shifted, the land beneath her fading into the soft fabric of her old sofa, and the warmth of a presence beside her as she glanced over to see Gramps sitting beside her. He smiled softly, reaching over to tousle her hair slightly, and Anya remembered this was the moment she’d decided to take the offer from Butcher’s Engineer, the moment that had sealed her fate.
“Don’t you worry, cherub,” came Gramps’ deep, rumbling voice, “if anyone could build this Sea Wall, it’s you, darling.” He paused a moment and his eyes grew serious, the blue iris turning stormy, as it did when had something serious to say. “But remember, Anya, that mother nature always wins. We may live here, but we don’t get to play God. Only the sea,” here he paused and nodded out in the distance, “only the sea can do that.”
Anya gasped as she came to on the floor of the basement, her face and hair damp with sweat, cheeks glowing with shame and frustration at the double-flashback that had just occurred. She looked up at Susie, whose hand, she now realized, rested lightly on her forehead, the cool dryness of her palm an anchor amidst all the commotion. Sitting up, Anya looked Susie dead in the eyes, her pupils contracting slightly as the light hit them.
“I promise you, I will build this Dome, Susie, even if it’s the last thing I do,” she began, heating radiating from her irises. “But even though this must be done, even though it’s making an emergency staircase so others can escape, it’s still playing God because we are still inadvertently taking that choice away from someone.” Susie blinked, her dark gaze glittering in the fluorescent light. “I’ve played God once before and it cost me everything, you know that,” Anya continued, reaching up to grip Susie’s arm as she struggled to stand. “We’ve both lost everything and that’s why we’re here, because we have nothing else that can be taken away from us. But let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that what we’re doing, while necessary, is anything less than what it is: a choice, maybe not in terms of who we save, but in terms of how many.
“When they found your mother and her family, the overall Mer population only lost a fraction of its members, and yet to you, Susie, that small number was your world. When my Sea Wall collapsed, the only casualty was Gramps, and yet I doubt I’ll ever look at fresh blueprints again without feeling like I killed him.” Anya paused, her throat tight, as a single tear escaped the corner of her eye. She looked back to Susie, who stood, motionless, her eyes softening, and then hardening in understanding, and finally, acceptance.
“By making these blueprints we are killing people, Susie, and we’re fooling ourselves to think we aren’t. But the only way we can get through this and save anyone, is if we are honest with ourselves about it. If we acknowledge that we’re playing God, but that everyone whose lives we’re about to change will get through it, just like we did.” Anya stepped towards Susie, reaching up and gently cupping the latter’s cheek in her palm, feeling the cool surface of it against her warm fingers.
Susie locked eyes with Anya, her pupils filled with such excruciating sadness that Anya had to fight from blinking from its intensity.
“Five thousand people,” Susie murmured, reaching out to tuck a lock of russet hair behind Anya’s ear. “two thousand five hundred humans, two thousand five hundred Mer. That’s the size of the oldest ancient Mer civilization, located on the coast near Seattle.” She paused and took a breath, still staring mournfully into Anya’s eyes. “Those numbers are enough for both populations to sustain themselves, and it allows for Mer-human pairings too.” Without breaking their gaze, Susie reached over and grabbed the charcoal pencil still resting on the table, placing it firmly in Anya’s other hand, a sad smile crossing the former’s features. “Like you said, time to decide how big the Dome will be.”