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Prabir Suresh and his younger sister, Madhursee, live in a remote paradise called Teranesia, where their biologist parents are studying an unexplained genetic mutation among the island's butterflies. Then civil war erupts across Indonesia, shattering their idyllic world and their lives.
Twenty years later, Prabir is still plagued by feelings of guilt and an overwhelming responsiblity for his sister, now a biologist herself. Against his advice, Madhurse is returning to Teranesia to solve the mystery of the butterflies and study strange new plant and animal species that have been emerging throughout the region-species seperated from their known cousins by dramatic mutations that seem far too efficient to have arisen by chance.
Afraid for her safety, Prabir joins forces with independant scientist Martha Grant to find her. But what he will discover on Teranesia is far more dangerous and wondrous than he can ever fear--or imagine..
The island was too small for human habitation, and too far from the commonly travelled sea routes to serve as a navigation point, so the people of the Kai and Tanimbar Islands had never had reason to name it. The Javanese and Sumatran rulers who'd claimed tributes from the Spice Islands would have been oblivious to its existence, and Prabir had been unable to locate it on any Dutch or Portuguese chart that had been scanned and placed on the net. To the current Indonesian authorities it was a speck on the map of Maluku propinsi, included for the sake of completeness along with a thousand other uninhabited rocks. Prabir had realised the opportunity he was facing even before they'd left Calcutta, and he'd begun compiling a list of possibilities immediately, but it wasn't a decision he could make lightly. He'd been on the island for more than a year before he finally settled on a name for it.
He tried out the word on his classmates and friends before slipping it into a conversation with his parents. His father had smiled approvingly, but then had second thoughts.
"Why Greek? If you're not going to use a local language ... why not Bengali?"
Prabir had gazed back at him, puzzled. Names sounded dull if you understood them too easily. Why make do with a lame Big River, when you could have a majestic Rio Grande? But surely his father knew that. It was his example Prabir was following.
"The same reason you named the butterfly in Latin."
His mother had laughed. "He's got you there!" And his father had relented, hoisting Prabir up into the air to be spun and tickled. "All right, all right! Teranesia!"
But that had been before Madhusree was born, when she hadn't been named herself (except as the much-too-literal Accidental Bulge). So Prabir stood on the beach, holding his sister up to the sky, spinning around slowly as he chanted, "Teranesia! Teranesia!" Madhusree stared down at him, more interested in watching him pronounce the strange word than in taking in the panorama he was trying to present to her. Was it normal to be near-sighted at fifteen months? Prabir resolved to look it up. He lowered her to his face and kissed her noisily, then staggered, almost losing his balance. She was growing heavier much faster than he was growing stronger. His parents claimed not to be growing stronger at all, and both now refused to lift him over their heads.
"Come the revolution," Prabir told Madhusree, checking for shells and coral before putting her down on the dazzling white sand.
"We'll redesign our bodies. Then I'll always be able to lift you up. Even when I'm ninety-one and you're eighty-three."
She laughed at this talk of the metaphysically distant future. Prabir was fairly sure that Madhusree understood eighty-three at least as well as he understood, say, ten to the hundredth power. Looming over her, he counted out eight hand flashes, then three fingers. She watched, uncertain but mesmerised. Prabir gazed into her jet-black eyes. His parents didn't understand Madhusree: they couldn't tell the difference between the way she made them feel and the way she was. Prabir only understood, himself, because he dimly remembered what it was like from the inside.
"Oh, you pretty thing," he crooned.
Madhusree smiled conspiratorially.
Prabir glanced away from her, across the beach, out into the calm turquoise waters of the Banda Sea. The waves breaking on the reef looked tame from here, though he'd been on enough queasy ferry rides to Tual and Ambon to know what a steady monsoon wind, let alone a storm, could whip up. But if Teranesia was spared the force of the open ocean, the large islands that shielded it -- Timor, Sulawesi, Ceram, New Guinea -- were invisibly remote. Even the nearest equally obscure rock was too far away to be seen from the beach.
"For small altitudes, the distance to the horizon is approximately the square root of twice the product of your height above sea level and the radius of the Earth." Prabir pictured a right-angled triangle, with vertices at the centre of the Earth, a point on the horizon, and his own eyes. He'd plotted the distance function on his notepad, and knew many points on the curve by heart. The beach sloped steeply, so his eyes were probably two full metres above sea level. That meant he could see for five kilometres. If he climbed Teranesia's volcanic cone until the nearest of the outlying Tanimbar Islands came into sight, the altitude of that point -- which his notepad's satellite navigation system could tell him -- would enable him to calculate exactly how far away they were.
But he knew the distance already, from maps: almost eighty kilometres. So he could reverse the whole calculation, and use it to verify his altitude: the lowest point from which he could see land would be five hundred metres. He'd drive a stake into the ground to mark the spot. He turned towards the centre of the island, the black peak just visible above the coconut palms that rimmed the beach. It sounded like a long climb, especially if he had to carry Madhusree most of the way.
"Do you want to go see Ma?"
Madhusree pulled a face. "No!" She could never have too much of Ma, but she knew when he was trying to dump her.
Prabir shrugged. He could do the experiment later; nothing was worth a tantrum. "Do you want to go swimming, then?" Madhusree nodded enthusiastically and clambered to her feet, then ran unsteadily towards the water's edge. Prabir gave her a head start, then pounded across the sand after her, bellowing. She glanced at him disdainfully over her shoulder, fell down, stood up, continued. Prabir ran rings around her as she waded into the shallows, the soles of his feet slapping up water, but he made sure he didn't get too close; it wasn't fair to splash her in the face. When she reached little more than waist height, she dropped into the water and started swimming, her chubby arms working methodically.
Prabir froze and watched her admiringly. There was no getting away from it: sometimes he felt the Madhusree-thing himself. The same sweet thrill, the same tenderness, the same unearned pride he saw on his father's and mother's faces.
He sighed heavily and swooned backwards into the water, touching bottom, opening his eyes to feel the sting of salt and watch the blurred sunlight for a moment before rising to his feet, satisfyingly wet all over. He shook his hair out of his eyes and then waded after Madhusree. The water reached his own ribs before he caught up with her; he eased himself down and started swimming beside her.
"Are you all right?"
She didn't deign to reply, merely frowning at the implied insult.
"Don't go too far." When they were alone, the rule was that Prabir had to be able to stand in the water. This was slightly galling, but the prospect of trying to tow a struggling, screaming Madhusree back to safety was something he could live without.
Prabir had left his face mask behind, but he could still see through the water quite clearly with his head above the surface. When he paused to let the froth and turbulence he was making subside, he could almost count grains of sand on the bottom. The reef was still a hundred metres ahead, but there were dark-purple starfish beneath him, sponges, lone anemones clinging to fragments of coral. He spotted a conical yellow-and-brown shell as big as his fist, and dived for a closer look. In the water everything blurred again, and he almost had to touch bottom with his face to see that the shell was inhabited. He blew bubbles at the pale mollusc inside; when it cowered away from him he retreated sheepishly, walking a few steps backwards on his hands before righting himself. His nostrils were full of sea water; he emptied them noisily, then pressed his tongue against his stinging palate. It felt as if he'd had a tube rammed down his nose.
Madhusree was twenty metres ahead of him. "Hey!" He fought down his alarm; the last thing he wanted to do was panic her. He swam after her with long, slow strokes, reaching her quickly enough, and calming himself. "Want to turn back now, Maddy?"
She didn't reply, but a grimace of uncertainty crossed her face, as if she'd lost confidence in her ability to do anything but keep swimming forward. Prabir measured the depth with one glance; there was no point even trying to stand. He couldn't just snatch her and wade back to the shore, ignoring her screams, her pummelling and her hair-pulling.
He swam beside her, trying to shepherd her into an arc, but he was far more wary of colliding than she was. Maybe if he just grabbed her and spun her round, making a game of it, she wouldn't be upset. He trod water and reached towards her, smiling. She made a whimpering noise, as if he'd threatened her.
"Sssh. I'm sorry." Belatedly, Prabir understood; he felt exactly the same when he was walking on a log over a stream or a patch of swampy ground, and his father or mother grew impatient and reached back to grab him. Nothing could be more off-putting. But he only ever froze in the first place when someone was watching him, hurrying him along. Alone, he could do anything -- casually, absent-mindedly -- even reversing high above the ground. Madhusree knew she had to turn back, but the manoeuvre was too daunting to think about.
Prabir cried out excitedly, "Look! Out on the reef! It's a water man!"
Madhusree followed his gaze uncertainly.
"Straight ahead. Where the waves are breaking." Prabir pictured a figure rising from the surf, stealing water from each collapsing crest. "That's just his head and shoulders, but the rest will come soon. Look, his arms are breaking free!" Prabir imagined dripping, translucent limbs rising from the water, fists clenched tight. He whispered, "I've seen this one before, from the beach. I stole one of his shells. I thought I'd got away with it ... but you know what they're like. If you take something from them, they always find you."
Madhusree looked puzzled. Prabir explained, "I can't give it back. I don't have it with me, it's in my hut."
For a moment Madhusree seemed about to protest that this was no real obstacle; Prabir could simply promise to return the shell later. But then it must have occurred to her that a creature like this wouldn't be so patient and trusting.
Her face lit up. Prabir was in trouble.
The water man lowered his arms and strained against the surface, forcing more of his body into existence. Bellowing from the pain of birth, baring glistening teeth.
Prabir turned a nervous circle. "I have to get away before his legs are free. Once you see a water man running, it's too late. No one's ever lived to describe it. Will you guide me back to shore? Show me how to get there? I can't think. I can't move. I'm too frightened."
By now Prabir had psyched himself up so much that his teeth were chattering. He only hoped he hadn't gone too far; Madhusree could gouge agonising furrows in his skin without the slightest qualm, ignoring his screams of protest, but she'd also been known to burst into inconsolable tears when anything else distressed him.
But she gazed at the water man calmly, assessing the danger. She'd been treading water since the creature appeared, and she'd already drifted around to face sideways. Now she simply leant towards the shore and started swimming, all difficulties forgotten.
It was hard work feigning panic without overtaking her, when her arms were about a quarter as long as his own. Prabir glanced over his shoulder and shouted, "Faster, Maddy! I can see his ribs now!" The water man was leering angrily, already assuming a kind of eager parody of a sprinter's crouch. Rocking back and forth on the tips of his splayed fingers, he dragged more of his torso out of the waves. Prabir watched as the creature inhaled deeply, driving water from his lungs through his glassy skin, preparing himself for the world of air.
Madhusree was beginning to slap the water open-handed, the way she did when she was tired. Prabir suspected that he'd be able to stand soon, but it didn't seem right to intervene before he had to. "I'm going to make it, aren't I? I just have to breathe slowly, and keep my fingers together." Madhusree shot him an irritable don't-patronise-me look, and clawed the water in an exaggerated fashion before accepting his advice and powering ahead.
Prabir stopped dead and turned to examine their would-be pursuer. The last stage was always difficult; it was awkward trying to brace yourself as you dragged your legs up beneath you. Prabir closed his eyes and imagined that he was the water man. Crouching lower, forearms to the waves, he strained with his whole body until his muscles expelled a visible surge of brine. Finally, he was rewarded: he felt the warm air on the back of his knees, on his calves. His right foot broke free; the sole rested lightly on the surface, tickled by the choppy water as if each tiny crest was a blade of grass.
He opened his eyes. The water man was rising up, ready to spring forward, with just one foot trapped below the waves to hold him back.
Prabir cried out and started swimming after Madhusree. Within seconds, he knew the chase had begun. But he didn't dare look back: once you saw a water man running, you were lost.
The violence of his strokes made Madhusree turn; she lost her rhythm and began to flounder. Prabir caught up with her as her head dropped beneath the surface; he scooped her into his arms and reached for the bottom with his feet. His toes hit the sand with Madhusree cradled safely against his chest.
Running through the water was nightmare-slow, but he pushed his leaden body forward. He tramped right over a bed of brown sea-grass, shuddering with each step; it wasn't that the blades were sharp, or slimy, but it always felt as if something was hiding among them. Madhusree clung to him, uncomplaining, staring back, transfixed. Skin crawled on Prabir's scalp. He could always declare that the game was over, there was nothing following them, it was all made up. In his arms Madhusree was a passenger, immune to the rules, but if he turned and looked for himself now, the simple fact of his survival would prove beyond doubt that the water man had never been real.
But he didn't want to spoil the game for Madhusree.
His legs almost folded as he hit the beach, but he caught himself and took a dozen more steps; just walking on dry land made him feel stronger. Then he crouched down and stood Madhusree on her feet before turning to sit facing the sea, his head lowered to help him catch his breath.
He was dizzy from the sudden end to his exertion, and his vision was marred with dark after-images. But Prabir was almost certain that he could make out a damp patch glistening on the sun-baked sand, one step beyond the water's edge, evaporating before his eyes.
Madhusree declared calmly, "Want Ma."
Prabir wasn't allowed inside the butterfly hut. Because the malaria vaccine didn't work for him, he'd had a pellet inserted beneath the skin of one arm that made him sweat mosquito repellent. The mere smell of the stuff probably wouldn't harm the butterflies, but it could affect their behaviour, and any risk of serious contamination would be enough to invalidate all of his parents' observations.
He put Madhusree down a few metres from the doorway, and she waddled towards the sound of her mother's voice. Prabir listened as the voice rose in pitch. "Where have you been, my darling? Where have you been?" Madhusree began to deliver an incoherent monologue about the water man. Prabir strained his ears long enough to check that he wasn't being libelled, then went and sat on the bench outside his own hut. It was mid-morning, and the beach had grown uncomfortably hot, but most of the kampung would remain in shade until noon. Prabir could still remember the day they'd arrived, almost three years before, with half a dozen labourers from Kai Besar to help them clear away vegetation and assemble the pre-fabricated huts. He still wasn't sure whether the men had been joking when they'd referred to the ring of six buildings with a word that meant "village", but the term had stuck.
A familiar crashing sound came from the edge of the kampung; a couple of fruit pigeons had landed on the branch of a nutmeg tree. The blue-white birds were larger than chickens, and though they were slightly more streamlined in their own plump way it still seemed extraordinary to Prabir that they could fly at all. One of them stretched its comically extensible mouth around a nutmeg fruit the size of a small apricot; the other looked on stupidly, cooing and clacking, before sidling away to search for food of its own.
Prabir had been planning to try out his idea for altitude measurement as soon as he was free of Madhusree, but on the way back from the beach he'd thought of some complications. For a start, he wasn't confident that he could distinguish between the shore of a distant island and part of a cliff or an inland mountain, visible over the horizon because of its height. Maybe if he could persuade his father to let him borrow the binoculars he'd be able to tell the difference, but there was another, more serious problem. Refraction due to atmospheric temperature gradients -- the same effect that made the sun appear swollen as it approached the horizon -- would bend the light he was trying to use as one side of a Pythagorean triangle. Of course, someone had probably worked out a way to take this into account, and it wouldn't be hard to track down the appropriate equations and program them into his notepad, but even if he could find all the temperature data he needed -- from some regional meteorological model or weather satellite thermal image -- he wouldn't really understand what he was doing; he'd just be following instructions blindly.
Prabir suddenly recognised his name amongst the murmuring coming from the butterfly hut -- spoken not by Madhusree, who could barely pronounce it, but by his father. He tried to make out the words that followed, but the fruit pigeons wouldn't shut up. He scanned the ground for something to throw at them, then decided that any attempt to drive them away would probably be a long, noisy process. He rose to his feet and tiptoed around to the back of the hut, to press one ear against the fibreglass.
"How's he going to cope when he has to go to a normal school back in India, in a real solid classroom six hours a day, when he's barely learnt to sit still for five minutes? The sooner he gets used to it, the less of a shock it will be. If we wait until we're finished here, he could be ... what? Eleven, twelve years old? He'll be uncontrollable!" Prabir could tell that his father had been speaking for a while. He always began arguments dispassionately, as if he was indifferent to the subject under discussion. It took several minutes for this level of exasperation to creep into his voice.
His mother laughed her who's-talking laugh. "You were eleven the first time you sat in a classroom!"
"Yes, and that was hard enough. And at least I'd been exposed to other human beings. You think he's being socialised properly through a satellite link?"
There was such a long silence that Prabir began to wonder if his mother was replying too softly for him to hear. Then she said plaintively, "Where, though? Calcutta's too far away, Rajendra. We'd never see him."
"It's a three-hour flight."
His father responded, quite reasonably, "How else should I measure it? If you add in the time it takes to travel from here, anywhere on Earth will sound too far away!"
Prabir felt a disorienting mixture of homesickness and fear. Calcutta. Fifty Ambons' worth of people and traffic, squeezed into five times as much land. Even if he could grow used to the crowds again, the prospect of being "home" without his parents and Madhusree seemed worse than being abandoned almost anywhere else -- as surreal and disturbing as waking up one morning to find that they'd all simply vanished.
"Well, Jakarta's out of the question." There was no reply; maybe his father was nodding agreement. They'd discussed this before: throughout Indonesia, violence kept flaring up against the ethnic Chinese "merchant class" -- and though the Indian minority was tiny and invisible in comparison, his parents seemed to think he'd be at risk of being beaten up every time there was a price rise. Prabir had trouble believing in such bizarre behaviour, but the sight of uniformed, regimented children singing patriotic songs on excursions around Ambon had made him grateful for anything that kept him out of Indonesian schools.
His father adopted a conciliatory tone. "What about Darwin?" Prabir remembered Darwin clearly; they'd spent two months there when Madhusree was born. It was a clean, calm, prosperous city -- and since his English was much better than his Indonesian, he'd found it easier to talk to people there than in Ambon. But he still didn't want to be exiled there.
"Perhaps." There was silence, then suddenly his mother said enthusiastically, "What about Toronto? We could send him to live with my cousin!"
"Now you're being absurd. That woman is deranged."
"Oh, she's harmless! And I'm not suggesting that we put his education in her hands; we'll just come to some arrangement for food and board. Then at least he wouldn't be living in a dormitory full of strangers."
His father spluttered. "He's never met her!"
"Amita's still family. And since she's the only one of my relatives who'll speak to me --"
The conversation shifted abruptly to the topic of his mother's parents. Prabir had heard this all before; after a few minutes he walked away into the forest.
He'd have to find a way to raise the subject and make his feelings plain, without betraying the fact that he'd been eavesdropping. And he'd have to do it quickly; his parents had an almost limitless capacity to convince themselves that they were acting in his best interest, and once they made up their minds he'd be powerless to stop them. It was like an ad hoc religion: The Church of We're Only Doing It For Your Own Good. They got to write all the sacred commandments themselves, and then protested that they had no choice but to follow them.
"Traitors," he muttered. This was his island; they were only here on his sufferance. If he left, they'd be dead within a week: the creatures would take them. Madhusree might try to protect them, but you could never be sure what side she was on. Prabir pictured the crew of a ferry or supply ship, marching warily into the kampung after a missed rendezvous and days of radio silence, to find no one but Madhusree. Waddling around with a greasy smile on her face, surrounded by unwashed bowls bearing the remnants of meals of fried butterflies, seasoned with a mysterious sweet-smelling meat.
Prabir trudged along, mouthing silent curses, gradually becoming aware of the increasing gradient and the dark rocks poking through the soil. Without even thinking about it, he'd ended up on the trail that led to the centre of the island. Unlike the path from the beach to the kampung -- cut by the Kai labourers, and Prabir's job now to maintain -- this was the product of nothing but chance, of rocky outcrops and the natural spacing of the trees and ferns.
It was hard work moving up the sloping ground, but he was shaded by the forest, and the sweat that dripped from his elbows or ran down his legs was almost chilly. Blue-tailed lizards darted rapidly out of his way, barely registering on his vision, but there were purple tiger beetles as big as his thumb weaving over one fallen trunk, and large black ants everywhere; if he hadn't smelt as vile to the ants as the tiger beetles did to him he might have been covered in bites within minutes. He stuck to bare soil where he could find it, but when he couldn't he chose the undergrowth rather than volcanic rock -- it was more forgiving on the soles of his feet. The ground was covered with small blue flowers, olive-green creepers, low ferns with drooping leaves; some of the plants were extremely tough, but they were rarely thorny. That made sense: there was nothing trying to graze on them.
The ground became increasingly steep and rocky, and the forest began to thin out around him. More and more sunlight penetrated between the trees, and the undergrowth became dry and coarse. Prabir wished he'd brought a hat to shield his face, and maybe even shoes; the dark rocks were mostly weathered smooth, but some had dangerous edges.
The trees vanished. He scrambled up the bare obsidian slope of the volcano. After a few minutes in the open, his skin had baked dry; he could feel tiny pulses of sweat, too small to form visible droplets, appear on his forearms and instantly evaporate. In the forest his shorts had been soaked through with perspiration; now the material stiffened like cardboard, and issued a curious laundered smell. He'd sprayed himself with sunscreen before leaving for the beach with Madhusree; he hoped he hadn't lost too much of it in the water. They should have added some UV-absorbing chemical to his mosquito pellet, sparing him the trouble of applying the stuff externally.
Come the revolution.
The sky was bleached white; when he raised his face to the sun it was like staring into a furnace -- closing his eyes was useless, he had to shield himself with his arms. But once he was high enough above the forest to see past the tallest trees, Prabir emitted a parched whoop of elation. The sea stretched out beneath him, like the view from an aeroplane. The beach was still hidden, but he could see the shallows, the reef, the deeper water beyond.
He'd never climbed this high before. And though his family certainly hadn't been the first people to set foot on the island, surely no stranded fisherman would have struggled up here to admire the view, when he could have been carving himself a new boat down in the forest?
Prabir scanned the horizon. Shielding his eyes from the glare allowed enough perspiration to form to run down his brow and half blind him. He mopped his eyes with his handkerchief, which had already been marinated in sea water and an hour's worth of sweat in the forest; the effect was like having his eyelids rubbed with salt. Exasperated, he blinked away tears and squinted, ignoring the pain, until he was convinced that there was no land in sight.
He continued up the side of the volcano.
Visiting the crater itself was beyond him; even if he'd brought water and shoes, the approach was simply too steep. On the basis of vegetation patterns in satellite images, his mother had estimated that the volcano had been dormant for at least a few thousand years, but Prabir had decided that lava was circulating just beneath the surface of the crater, waiting to break free. There were probably fire eagles up there, pecking through the thin crust to get at the molten rock. They could be swooping over him even as he climbed; because they glowed as brightly as the sun, they cast no shadows.
He stopped to check for land every five minutes, wishing he'd paid more attention to the appearance of various islands from the ferry; the horizon was such a blur that he was afraid he might be fooled by a bank of clouds, a distant thunderstorm approaching. He'd cut his right foot, but it wasn't very painful, so he avoided examining it in case the sight of the wound put him off. The soles of his feet were thick enough to make the heat of the rock bearable, but he couldn't sit to rest, or even steady himself with his palms.
When an ambiguous grey smudge finally appeared between the sky and the sea, Prabir just smiled and closed his eyes. He didn't have the energy to feel properly triumphant, let alone indulge in any kind of victory display. He swayed for a moment in the surreal heat, acknowledging his stupidity at coming here unprepared, but still defiantly glad that he'd done it. Then he found a sharp-edged rock and scraped a line at the place, as best he could judge, where the distant island first appeared.
He couldn't write the altitude; it probably wasn't all that different from the five hundred metres he'd naively calculated, but he'd have to return with his notepad to read the true figure off the GPS display. Then he could work backwards to determine the effects of refraction.
The bare line wasn't enough, though. No natural markings on the rock looked similar, but it wasn't exactly eye-catching; he'd be pushing his luck to find it again. Carving his initials seemed childish, so he scratched the date: 10 December 2012.
He headed back towards the forest in a happy daze, slipping and cutting his hands on the rocks twice, not really caring. He hadn't merely named the island, he'd begun to measure it. He had as much claim to stay as his parents, now.
The afternoon thunderstorm came from the north, behind him as he descended. Prabir looked up as the first swollen droplets splashed onto the rocks around him, and saw dazzling beads of white light against the clouds. Then the fire eagles rose up out of the storm, leaving the sky a uniform grey.
He tipped his head back and drank the rain, whispering, "Teranesia. Teranesia."
Prabir arrived back in the kampung around three. No one had missed him; when there was no school he went where he pleased, with his watch to call for help if he needed it. He was exhausted, and slightly nauseous; he went straight to his hut and collapsed into his hammock.
His father woke him, standing by the hammock in the grey light of dusk, speaking his name softly. Prabir was startled; he was meant to help prepare the evening meal, but he could already smell it cooking. Why had they let him sleep so late?
His father put a hand on Prabir's forehead. "You're a bit hot. How are you feeling?"
"I'm all right, Baba." Prabir balled his fists to hide the cuts on his palms; they weren't serious, but he didn't want to explain them -- or lie about them, if he could help it. His father looked unusually solemn; was he going to announce the decision to pack him off to boarding school, here and now?
His father said, "There's been a coup in Jakarta. Ambon's been placed under martial law." His tone was deliberately neutral, as if he was reporting something of no consequence. "I haven't been able to get through to Tual, so I'm not sure what's happening there. But we might not be able to bring in supplies for a while, so we're going to plant a small garden. And we'll need you to help look after it. Will you do that?"
"Yes." Prabir examined his father's half-lit face, wondering if he seriously expected Prabir to be satisfied with this minimal account. "But what happened in Jakarta?"
His father made a weary, disgusted noise. "The Minister for Internal Security has declared himself 'Emergency Interim Leader', with the backing of the army. The President's under house arrest. Sittings of the MPR have been suspended; there are about a thousand people holding a vigil outside. The security forces have left them alone so far, which is something." He stroked his moustache, discomforted, then added reluctantly, "But there was a big protest march in Ambon when the news came through. The police tried to stop it. Someone was shot, then the crowd started trashing government buildings. Forty-six people died, according to the World Service."
Prabir was numb. "That's terrible."
"It is. And it will be the last straw for many people. Support for ABRMS can only increase now."
Prabir struggled to read between the lines. "You think they'll start sinking ferries?"
His father winced. "No, no! It's not that bad. Don't start thinking like that!" He put a hand on Prabir's shoulder and rubbed it soothingly. "But people will be nervous." He sighed. "You know how whenever we want to go out and meet the ferry, we have to pay the captain to make the detour? We're quite a way off the normal route between Saumlaki and Tual; the money makes up for the extra fuel, and the inconvenience, with a little left over for every member of the crew."
Prabir nodded, though he'd never actually realised before that they were paying bribes for a favour, rather than purchasing a legitimate service.
"That could be difficult now. No one's going to want to make unscheduled stops in the middle of nowhere. But that's all right; we can get by on our own for as long as we have to. And it's probably better that we make ourselves inconspicuous. No one's going to bother us if we stay out of their way."
Prabir absorbed this in silence.
His father tipped his head towards the door. "Come on, you'd better wash up. And don't tell your mother I upset you."
"You didn't." Prabir climbed out of the hammock. "But where's it all headed?"
"What do you mean?"
Prabir hesitated. "Aceh. Kalimantan. Irian Jaya. Here." Over the years, as they'd listened to the news together, his father had explained some of the history of the region, and Prabir had begun to pursue the subject for himself on the net. Irian Jaya and the Moluccas had been annexed by Indonesia when the Dutch withdrew in the middle of the last century; both were Christian to some degree, and both had separatist movements determined to follow East Timor into independence. Aceh, at the north-west tip of Sumatra, was a different case altogether -- the Muslim separatists there considered the government to be too secular by far -- and Kalimantan was different again, with a long, complicated history of migrations and conquests. The government in Jakarta had been talking reassuringly about "limited autonomy" for these outlying provinces, but the Minister for Internal Security had made headlines a few weeks before with a comment about the need to "eliminate separatists". The President had told him to moderate his language, but apparently the army had decided that this was exactly the kind of language they liked.
His father squatted down beside him, and lowered his voice. "Do you want to know what I think?"
"Yes." Prabir almost asked, Why are we whispering? But he knew why. They were stuck on the island for the foreseeable future, and he'd had to be told something of the reasons why, but his father had been instructed, above all else, not to risk frightening him.
"I think the Javanese empire is coming to an end. And like the Dutch, and the Portuguese, and the British, they're finally going to have to learn to live within their own borders. But it won't come easily. There's too much at stake: oil, fisheries, timber. Even if the government was willing to walk away from the more troublesome provinces, there are people making vast amounts of money from concessions that date back to the Suharto era. And that includes a lot of generals."
"Do you think there'll be a war?" Even as he spoke the word, Prabir felt his stomach turn icy, the way it did when he saw a python on a branch in front of him. Not out of any real fear for his own safety, but out of a horror at all the unseen deaths the creature's mere existence implied.
His father said cautiously, "I think there'll be changes. And they won't come easily."
Suddenly he scooped Prabir into his arms, then lifted him up, right over his head. "Oh, you're too heavy!" he groaned. "You're going to crush me!" He wasn't entirely joking; Prabir could feel his arms trembling from the strain. But he backed out of the hut smoothly, crouching down to fit the two of them through the doorway, then spun around slowly as he carried Prabir laughing across the kampung, under the palm leaves and the wakening stars.
Copyright © 1999 by Greg Egan
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