Thirteen Ships for the Rising World
Over the course of a century, three generations of women strive to preserve food crops, cultivate a de-glaciated Antarctica, and build a kinder, more cooperative future.
PART 1: MELI, 2050
May 5, 2050, 10:21 am, Värmland, Sweden
It’s the eyes that get to me.
The white, filmy eyes of the dead fish emerge from Lake Vänern’s surface like a silent accusation that goes straight to my heart. The stench doesn’t help either. I cough, trying to clear my throat from the mucus of death and decay surrounding me. I need to finish this quickly so that I can put my mask back on. I wipe the tears from my face, and hit record on my visor cam.
You’d think I would have gotten used to the sight of dead things by now.
“This is Meli Nord, reporting from what was once Europe’s third largest lake,” I say to the 28,076 people who currently follow my increasingly unhinged live streams. “Just thirty years ago, Lake Vänern went on for one hundred and forty kilometers. The biggest body of water in inland Sweden. My dad used to swim here, as a kid. You heard that right, swim! Should I dive in?”
I pause, to give my audience a moment for this to sink in—and hopefully to give my bile some time to subside. I know they see what I see: the endless bodies of dead fish and plankton, circling the receding waters of the lake like the world’s saddest halo. The water glimmers an almost radioactive green in the scorching morning sun, patches of the most recent oil spills a floating proof of humanity’s folly.
I have a vague memory of these waters being blue and dead fish free. I was a toddler when my parents last brought me here. My dad didn’t feel like swimming then, quoting some article about how the lake had become polluted. My mom eventually agreed, and said we could just sit here for a while, look at the waters. I could tell she was sad; she was wearing her swimsuit and had been trying to get me excited about that lake trip for days.
I’m happy neither of them is alive to see this.
The initial flow of comments from my viewers has subsided, so I carry on. “Lake Vänern was formed after the ice melted ten thousand years ago. It provided drinking water for eight hundred thousand people until the early 2030s, when the quality of water was deemed unsafe. It was a breeding ground for almost fifty species of sea and wetland birds, and home to thirty-eight species of fish.”
I take a step back toward a dead tree and direct my gaze to my nets and shovel so my audience can see them too. “I’m here today to try to remove and bury as many of the dead fish as possible. Stay with me, if your stomach can handle it. I’ll explain why it’s important to always bury dead fish you come across, and how to best go about it.”
I switch from visor cam to drone mode and kill the sound. Based on previous cleanup missions, this will take me a couple of hours. I’ll collect the footage and play it on fast forward afterwards, with captions for those who are interested in practical instructions and not just the sensationalism of a front row seat to yet another episode of our planet dying.
I put my mask back on, about to get started, when my visor pings with a voicemail. My heart speeds up—it’s from Greta’s team. I’ve been waiting weeks for this. They must have tried to call me while I was streaming live earlier. I stop recording and play the message.
“Miss Nord,” the cool and collected voice of Frey Andersson says, “Greta has reviewed your application and we’re very happy to welcome you to our Save the Seeds initiative. I’ll be forwarding your login access to our server, and we can’t wait to see you in Svalbard in ten days.”
My eyes fill up with tears again. Finally, I can do something more than bury the dead.
I can give a second chance to the living.
May 16, 2050, 8:30 am, Svalbard Global Seed Vault, Norway
I take a deep breath that turns to cold mist. I feel heavy with the knowledge that I'm over one hundred meters underground, well into the bowels of Platåberget mountain. Thankfully my camera is never pointed at my face; my audience won’t see me wavering.
“Welcome to the Doomsday Vault,” I start, “where more than a million seed samples from all over the planet have been stored since 2008. I’m Meli Nord, here with the Save the Seeds initiative, to make humanity’s largest seed withdrawal—before it’s too late.”
My voice cracks. I should have rehearsed this.
It’s not just the solemnity of the moment that has me reeling. The permanent -18°C inside the Vault feels like a slap in the face after the long, balmy 17°C ride from Longyearbyen under a hot sun. Just thirty years ago, only the entrance of this tilted monolith of concrete and steel was visible from the base of the mountain—and most of that was covered in permafrost. But with the Arctic expanse warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet, the Seed Vault now looks less like the fortress that stores humanity’s future and more like the spine of a solitary book, forgotten in an empty bookcase.
That’s why we’re here, after all. I remind myself I’m still recording, and switch to my outside voice. “Meltwater has breached the vault’s entrance tunnel one too many times now. The first incident was in 2016. The seeds are still unharmed, but their continued survival is not sustainable. Not unless we move them.”
Finally, I can do something more than bury the dead.
I can give a second chance to the living.
I step toward the group of people in one of the vault rooms, where Greta is about to give her speech. I’ve always been a firm believer in “Never meet your heroes,” because they often don’t live up to our expectations of them, but my first impression from our evening mixer in Longyearbyen last night is that this woman is as much an icon now as she was when I was a kid, or even before I was born. Frey, her second-in-command and a member of NordGen, the Nordic Genetic Resource Center in Sweden that’s co-managing this project, spots me immediately. She waves me closer.
“Is it okay if I keep recording?” I ask.
“Of course,” she says. Her blonde hair is slightly squashed from her hat, her smile tired but perfect. She can clearly handle her aquavit better than me. We had the same amount of Norwegian booze last night at the hotel bar after the mixer, but I’m the only one who seems to be hungover. Or late. “We’re making history, after all,” Frey adds. She ushers me into the circle of scientists and activists who are about to hear the specifics of Greta’s grand plan about Antarctica for the very first time.
“Buckle up, kids,” I mutter to the 14,083 people currently watching this. “Things are about to get life-changing.”
June 20, 2050, 7:50 am, Punta Arenas, Chile
Frey holds my hand as we stare at the enormous bulk of the Solanaceae, towering blue and red at the Punta Arenas port, ready for departure. The air smells of petrol and ozone, of waves and the absence of seagulls. I never thought I’d miss the seagulls and their psychotic squawking. I hated those birds as a kid; in the summer, they were always diving into my sandwiches. I would gladly feed them my lunch now.
Looking at the old naval frigate makes me feel small—as well it should. The ship is big enough to contain not just my future, but also the future of a whole plant family; it should look the part. If I start feeling overwhelmed before I even get on board, this is going to be a very long journey amid germinating seeds of tomatoes, potatoes and aubergines. Hopefully the potatoes will grow fast. We need to be able to make booze, eventually. I haven’t packed enough aquavit.
“Are you okay? Any second thoughts?”
Leave it to Frey to read me like an open book.
“I’m fine. Just processing.”
“Aayansh tells me that both the Apiaceae and the Poaceae are making good time ahead. The weather forecast is good. Looks like we’re in for a cozy seven-day trip to West Antarctica.” Frey lets go of my hand and goes for my waist instead. I can hear the playfulness in her voice.
“So it’s Aayansh now, is it?” I mumble as she hugs me. Her giggle confirms my suspicions. Aayansh Das from ICRISAT, the International Crop Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics in India, caught Frey’s eye from day one. And since he’s now “team Solana” and will be joining Frey and me on this journey, she’ll have time to explore the connection, to see if there’s anything there. He’s good looking, I guess, for a man. Maybe I can learn to like him, too. It would be good for the rest of our lives to not utterly suck while we’re trying to save the world. Makes for better morale.
I can’t postpone this any longer. I take a deep breath, and hit record on my visor cam.
“This is Meli Nord with team Solana, from the Save the Seeds initiative, reporting for the last time from dry land.” I pause, as viewers are still joining the stream, but the number doesn’t seem to want to rise much beyond 9,000. “For those of you tuning in now, the Solanaceae is one of the thirteen ships taking part in the Save the Seeds initiative. Last month, we withdrew seeds from thirteen plant families from the Seed Vault in Svalbard—seeds that we hope to one day plant and grow in Antarctic soil, as the glaciers melt and the land rises. The Save the Seeds team of thirty scientists, researchers and reporters from all over the world has been divided into groups of two and three people, each responsible for one of these plant families onboard a dedicated ship. Team Solana is currently me, Frey Andersson, and Aayansh Das. You’ll be seeing the three of us a lot from now on as I will be streaming our progress aboard the Solanaceae ship to Antarctica.”
From the corner of my eye I spot Frey signaling me that it’s time to go.
“Stay tuned, folks, and wish us luck. Our future depends on it.”
PART 2: MYRTLE, 2090
July 19, 2090, Amundsen Sea, Antarctica
You’re only six years old as I write this, but I want you to have a record of events as they happened, not the skewed version that will be passed down by word of mouth. To ensure this letter won’t be lost as so many digital records have, I’m writing to you on a rare sheet of archival bamboo paper. One day, when I’m gone, you’ll be the matriarch of the Solana, and Antarctica will be yours to cultivate. When that day comes, I want this letter to be your undeniable proof of your role in the crucial events that happened a few days ago.
We were in the long, narrow family dining chamber on board the Solanaceae, anchored in the Amundsen Sea, looking out onto the swirling white mists of West Antarctica. The Solanaceae and the twelve other revamped former naval frigates are a whole country to us. By the time you’re old enough to read this, our land settlement will be built and you’ll view the ships only as our floating greenhouses, your source of nourishment, but maybe you’ll remember that in your childhood, the ships were our everything, our home, practically our whole world.
You were at the table, eating your salad of tomato, basil, and fresh goat cheese from the milk of the goats that lived onboard with us. I was going over the numbers again, running simulations on my tablet, trying to find a reason our plants wouldn’t grow in the soils of Antarctica. Glacial retreat and isostatic rebound had caused new land to rise above sea level, relieved from the ice sheets that once weighed it down. With our treatments, it should have been fertile, but for some reason I couldn’t figure out, crops still wouldn’t grow.
“I heard that woman again,” you said, putting down your child-sized fork. I was only half-listening, my mind on the eggplants in the vertical planter rooms. I’d found spots of mold on a few plants’ leaves the day before, and if it got any worse we would need to treat them with some Trichoderma to out-compete the pathogenic fungus. I glanced out at the wind turbines on shore, rising above rough, exposed earth. The land was still rocky till, barren except for a few pioneer species: red and green splotches of lichen on the dark rocks along with the first mosses, unassuming spongy beds of green clinging here and there. The ground would become rich with growing things eventually, I hoped, but without our intervention, it could take hundreds of years to reach a mature plant ecosystem with rich soil. We didn’t have that kind of time. People all over the world were counting on us: the rest of the world’s remaining arable soil couldn’t sustain Earth’s population.
Ignoring your observation, I walked you to the play room for some games with the other children before your lessons, then I headed to the growing rooms. Through the windows, between the tall shelves where our lush eggplants grew in a tangle of broad leaves, the solar panels on the neighboring ship winked in the sunlight. I loved the plant rooms: row after row of floor-to-ceiling planters, the color of hope and future generations, bathed in cheerful full-spectrum light from bulbs as well as sunlight through the glass walls and skylights. The place smelled like life.
I pulled out my cutters and snipped off a diseased leaf here and there. Nothing too bad.
Something tugged at the back of my shirt, startling me. I turned and there you were, looking up at me, eyes wide.
“She was louder last night. I understood some of the words,” you said.
“Who was louder? What?” I had forgotten your comment already.
You sighed with the patience every child must display to deal with a wayward parent. “The woman in the walls.”
“The walls?” I tucked the clippers into the pouch at my waist. They would need to be sanitized before their blades touched healthy plant tissue. “What do you mean?” I remembered then that you had been talking about hearing an indistinct voice for a few days, but I’d assumed it was a game or a dream.
“I’ve been telling you. It’s in my room. Not yours. That’s why you don’t know about it.”
I didn’t have time for this. My mind went back to our crop issues. Everyone knows post-glacial land needs nitrogen for agricultural success. And we were giving the shoreland plenty of fertilizer rich in nitrogen. So why wasn’t it?
“It was still happening a minute ago.” You tugged on my hand. “Come on. Maybe you can hear it, and then you’ll believe me.”
I followed you. “I didn’t say I don’t—” I stopped myself. No, I hadn’t said out loud I didn’t believe you, but I hadn’t really been listening, either, and that was almost as bad.
I loved the plant rooms: row after row of floor-to-ceiling planters, the color of hope and future generations, bathed in cheerful full-spectrum light from bulbs as well as sunlight through the glass walls and skylights. The place smelled like life.
We wound through the hallways, saying hello as we passed our fellow Solanaceae residents, the people who, like us, lived on the ship dedicated to the preservation and cultivation of plants in the Solanaceae family.
When we entered your room, that small chamber with its light-blue walls painted with fluffy clouds, I heard it right away: a low, subtle buzzing in the background. “That’s not a woman,” I said automatically. “And it’s not coming from the wall. That sounds like your radio is picking up static.” The radio in your room was set to the frequency at which soothing music was broadcast for all the young children at bedtime. It helped you fall asleep, especially during the long Antarctic summer nights.
“Wait,” you said and held still.
I waited, and together, we listened to the static. After a minute or so, I moved to turn the radio off.
“Wait. She’ll say something,” you told me.
“—records are clear, but … not much … water,” said a voice breaking through the noise.
I felt as if I’d been pushed through a curtain, and everything around me looked bright and sharp for the first time that morning. “We’re picking up someone’s signal from outside the ship. Come with me.” It was almost time for your lessons by then, but I didn’t want to waste precious moments by taking a detour to your classroom. We headed at a brisk walk for me, almost a run for you, to the communication room in the ship’s engineering wing.
In minutes, our comms team had homed in on the signal and established communication with the sender. Since you were the first to notice she was trying to contact us, they let you stay in the room. You pressed your chest up to the slick instrument panel with its many-colored screens and knobs.
“Do you know your location?” I asked the voice that came through a speaker in front of us.
“I’m at minus 65.29, minus 81.79,” she said. “My name is Seina Romero. I’m a soil scientist. I know what you need to make the Antarctic soil fertile. But right now I’m out of fuel in the middle of the ocean, I have no food, and I’m almost out of water.”
We sent a solar-powered boat to pick her up. Once Seina was safe on board the Solanaceae ship, we learned she’d spent time in the Andes to try to find out how the post-glacial cultivation there was so successful in the 2020s. But she ended up tangling with a small, regional throwback regime that didn’t want the seed project to succeed. Until then, I didn’t even know such regimes existed. I hope, by the time you read this, that they won’t exist anymore. It must already have been small and nearly helpless; most of humanity has banded together to find a new way forward. Seina managed to escape the obstructionist regime in an ancient, gas-powered cruiser, but she ran out of gas before reaching us.
By the time you read this, you’ll be deeply familiar with the secret she brought with her: phosphorus. The records were nearly lost in the tumult following the acceleration of climate change half a century ago, and they were no longer available in electronic format. It took Seina a long journey into the South American mountains to find the written records that explained that when Peruvian glaciers melted many decades ago, the addition of both nitrogen and phosphorus to the soils proved to be the key to quick, lush growth on the newly revealed, pristine land.
I’d started to think our experiment might fail, and that our only way forward might be to shift plants to permanent vertical greenhouse cultivation, with soil nutrients imported from around the world. Now, we’ll be able to realize the dream of a bountiful, green Antarctic continent. Your grandmothers, Meli and Frey, and your biological granddaddy, Aayansh, would be proud if they were here to see the fruition of what they worked so hard for.
I’m writing to you about this now because I already hear whispers saying incorrectly that I was the one who discovered Seina’s signal. I want to put it in writing for you now, so you’ll know for all your life that you’re the one who heard her broadcast. You saved her life and secured all our futures.
With all my love,
Your mother, Myrtle Solana
PART 3: CARLA, 2160
July 20, 2160, West Coast of Antarctica
“And so, the seeds of the Solanaceae were saved and protected. Given from my grandmother Meli to my mother Myrtle, and from my mother to me … and from me to my children, who planted them in the ground just a week ago when our test crops showed the Antarctic soil had finally become a place where they could thrive.”
The kids sitting in a half circle around Carla chuckled as she reached out and ruffled through their hair. “And in the future, not only will you protect the seeds, but hopefully all that sprouts from them.”
She let the kids tell the story of one plant from the Solanaceae family each, then called two of the parents on afternoon duty into the community tent to get the kids ready for their nap. She got up, leaning on her cane and ignoring the stabbing pain in her knees, and left the tent for her daily visit to the crop fields.
Protecting the seeds had been her responsibility for almost 60 years now. Given the disarray of global society, it took decades to source enough phosphorus from fragmented communities around the world, and fertilize the Antarctic crop fields. Giving up the responsibility to a new generation hadn’t been easy, but it was the only way forward. Carla knew this, yet still she wished for more time. Her stiff fingers slid into her pocket to feel for the soft paper of her mother’s letter. It had been preserved in the family’s archives for most of her life, but she had taken it out last week to read it aloud in her Remembrance Day speech. The day to honor the memory of Seina Romero, the soil scientist who brought the missing knowledge to Antarctica, was celebrated every year, but this year was special. This year was the first year when seeds were planted in the Antarctic soil, and the weight of expectation was palpable.
“Forgive my indulgence—” Carla had said after reading the letter, “but it is not to celebrate myself that I read this letter to you. I read it to you because it is the story about how the persistence of a child, and the willingness of their parent to listen, saved the world. It is a story about how the tiniest moment can make the biggest difference. I want you to remember that. Some of you already have or will have children in the future. Listen to them. See them. You will make mistakes, but you can come back around. Like my mother did.”
After Remembrance Day, Carla should’ve put the letter back in the archives, but she kept it. She liked to carry it with her when she went on her daily walk to the airlock, the entrance to a vast, white dome that rose behind the living quarters. The domed ceiling was necessary to protect against the acidic rain. According to her mother, there had been a time when rainfall didn’t mean drops of acid falling from the sky to burn your skin; Carla couldn’t remember it. But if the Faga family succeeded, soon there would be trees growing in Antarctica, and they would cleanse the air and the rain. Luckily, the sky above was clear.
She leaned heavily on her cane, stopping two or three times along the way to catch her breath. Her lungs had never been good, but now it seemed they shrank every day. She reached the airlock and endured the UV-light shower meant to cleanse her clothes and hair of outside bacteria or viruses that could pose a danger to the inhabitants of the dome.
The first step inside the dome was always like stepping into a different reality. Air filters droned in the background, and there was the steady splish-and-splash of the watering system. Carla took a deep breath of the clean, earthy-smelling air.
The Antarctic earth was almost black in color. Like the waves of an orderly ocean, rows and rows of black-brown earth stretched before her. The view made her feel small in the best possible way. She had reached the edge of the potato field when the cough came, a cold blade slicing through her lungs. She sank to one knee with the violence of the spasms, lost hold of her cane, and barely caught her fall with her hands. The earth on her face was warmer than expected, and after another heavy convulsion, the cough was over. Carla controlled her breathing to avoid another fit. Her head spun and she opened her eyes, focusing on the crop row in front of her. It took her a few seconds to glimpse the little white point showing in the black earth. Gravel, her murky brain thought, but her eyes wouldn’t turn away. With her last remaining strength, Carla raised her head and brought her face nearer to the little white point … and cried out. This wasn’t gravel. This was a sprout whose milky-white peak had breached the earth. It would turn green soon.
Carla sank back, and gasped for control of her breathing as hot tears shot into her eyes. Her grip hardened around the cane again. With stiff fingers she fumbled for and pressed the emergency button built into the head, alerting the nearest medical team to come find her. Then she rested her head on the warm earth and watched the little sprout. She wanted to look at it for the rest of her life.
Danai Christopoulou writes mythpunk SFF & Romance inspired by her heritage (Greek, Egyptian, and Romanian) as well as her experiences living abroad as a queer, neurodivergent femme, and a journalist. Danai’s non-fiction writing has appeared in several women’s and lifestyle magazines in Europe and in the US since 2008. She is a submissions editor for Uncanny magazine, and a QueeryFest mentor. Her short fiction is published or forthcoming in Etherea Magazine and Khōréō Magazine, and her novel-length work is represented by Lauren Bieker of FinePrint Literary.
Twitter, Instagram, TikTok: @Danaiwrites
Len Klapdor is a queer, autistic writer from the sprawling Ruhr region of Germany. She writes speculative fiction from dark fantasy to spooky horror to solarpunk and published her first book, the sci-fi noir thriller "The Hand That Feeds", in 2021. Enthralled with the art of storytelling from an early age, Len has worked as a stage director and story developer for games before committing full time to writing. Her short fiction is published in Etherea Magazine. Len is currently represented by Lauren Bieker at FinePrint Literary.
Twitter, Instagram: @len_klapdor
A. J. Van Belle's writing has appeared in journals and anthologies from 2004 to the present. A biology professor in the Boston area, they draw on their expertise in natural science to inform the world-building details in their fiction. Their novels are represented by Lauren Bieker of FinePrint Literary. In addition to writing full time and nurturing new talent via the QueeryFest novel-writing mentorship program, A. J. has taught undergraduate courses on climate change since 2017.
Twitter, Instagram: @ajvanbelle
“Royal Navy Antarctic Survey Vessel HMS Endurance” by Defence Imagery, via Flickr
“Mount Erebus seen from Pegasus Field” by Alan Light, via Flickr
“Dourado Pôr Do Sol” by Sambre Hubaut, via Pixabay
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