Escape Pod 863: A Shoreline of Oil and Infinity

A Shoreline of Oil and Infinity

by Renan Bernardo

Charging… 87%
Energy source: light
Good morning, Vitória. The water is cold today. Brrr.

Vitória switches off the feed from her lenses and pats the tatuí’s shell, kneeling before it.

“Hey, Conchinha.” She brushes off the excess of crusted oil from the bot, scanning her fingerprint to open its main compartment. A wave breaks on the shore, sprinkling on her face and the bot. “Let’s see what you have here.”

The tatuí whirs—almost purrs. She plucks out the cylindrical cell from its rounded back. More darkened water. She doesn’t read the full report, but she can guess what it contains pretty well. Heavy metals, volatile organic compounds, hydrocarbons… All there is to know in Barra Nova’s waters these days. Layers of oil expand across both sides of the straight shoreline, coating the once gilded sand, patches of darkness suffusing the air with the stink of hydrogen sulfide that in the past made the kids call that beach The Coast of Broken Eggs. André’s kids—Vitória always thinks of them as her stepbrother’s children, though not one of them was his by birth.

Vitória tucks the tatuí’s cell and the biome packs into her backpack and passes it over her shoulders.

“Thank you, little one. Add that sample’s report to what we have and update our graphs.” She taps the tatuí’s shell and it beeps, a strip of light gleaming blue along its surface. She sprays a water-sorbent-dispersant solution over it and wipes away the oil smudges from the bot the best she can. Not enough. Never is. Oil impregnates everything, from the sand to the waters, from her tatuís to her grimy fingernails and her greasy curly hair. At home, it isn’t rare to find small patches besmirching the parquet flooring, breadcrumbs leading her back to the beach, back to her work. And if she could look, there would probably be oil within her soul, too.

She lifts Conchinha to her thigh. It uses its suctioning legs to glue easily to her mycosynth suit’s fabric.

She blinks and opens a channel with the Tatuí Central Server, an incredibly unsophisticated computer chassis open at her desk, right next to her window for better ventilation. Her eyes flitting, she selects seven of the tatuís and resumes her walk across the beach, feet sticking to the oil, parting the rhythmic canticle of waves.

Barra Nova was never crowded. Even before the Spill, the coast was a temple for peace, a defiantly silent shoreline against the violent backdrop of the waves that pulled in and out, receding with intensity as if wanting to feed on the beach’s serenit Now, it’s more than empty. It’s deadened. She’s the only one as far as the eye can see. Across the road up the beach on her left, houses line up, mostly left behind by families who couldn’t withstand the staining of their horizon. On her right, Petrocargo. The 500-meter supertanker had been wrecked for five years, a looming ruin obtruding from the water, memory of a deceased way of life with its exposed pipes and its corroded, reddened deck slightly bent toward the beach.

“Oi, little friends!” she says to the tatuís she summoned. They assemble around her, skittering across the sand. Three stick to her legs and the smaller ones infiltrate her pockets—she doesn’t even see them arriving, but knows they’re there because her lenses flash with brief yellow icons. “We have more healing for today—and destruction for some of you.” She grins to herself. There are over 2,000 tatuís spread along Barra Nova Beach, Petrocargo, and the enormous Saquarema Lagoon at the other side of the few blocks that cut the shore. All tatuís have multiple directives. They could analyze the damaged environment to bring her data to act upon; they could pick up trash in an almost old-fashioned way, sucking it into their compartments; or they could bioremediate the shoreline, spreading the adequate mixtures and trying to maintain ideal conditions for its recovery.

A tatuí pings her lenses with an interrogation mark. It comes from the water. She turns and crouches. It’s Joaninha. Some of the tatuís she recognizes at a distance. Joaninha is one of them. A giant version, at least in appearance, of the ladybugs she used to let scamper across her fingers in her home’s backyard, while André separated the fishes of the day into different baskets, whistling songs she could never recognize. She even painted Joaninha’s shell with black spots, only to realize later that the oil blotted it with cruder, fuzzier blemishes.

“I love all of you,” she says. “But I have to confess you all stink pra caramba.” Not rotten eggs for her, but gas stations. And not the kind you stop by to eat snacks and catch a beer on road trips with your stepbrother.
Vitória loads up Joaninha’s feed when it approaches.

Charging… 47%
Energy Source: light
Oleophilic Fertilizers: 66%
Microbial Remediation Compounds: 26%
Phytoremediation Compounds: 42%
Oi, Vitória. I’ve found a fishing lure.

Vitória bites her lips and clumsily presses her fingerprint to unlock the compartment and remove the cell. Her heart acts funny within her chest. She fidgets with the lid and lets the contents drop into her hand, a blend of sticky oiled water, sand, and… a small, tarnished swordfish with widened eyes. One of André’s lures.

Vitória had only ever fished under her stepbrother’s watch, and never so much as considered she knew anything besides how to clumsily spool a reel. What she really liked about it was to sway in the Rainha Janaína—André’s motorized boat—with perhaps five or six children from Saquarema, the scent of coffee and salt and fish hanging like spray in the air while André told stories in his lilting, mesmerizing voice. Of raging storms, of gleaming fishes sparkling like lightning underwater, of the languages of the tide, of the motherly realms of Iemanjá.

André always fished on Saquarema Lagoon, and it was easier to find him there than at home. Though they lived together, he often slept in a rented shack by the lagoon’s coastline—and not rarely on the Rainha Janaína, with the nightly bafejo kissing your cheeks, as he put it. The sea was Iemanjá’s body, he used to say, so that was not his realm to disturb. The lagoon, on the other hand, was Iemanjá’s soul, a gift to the people of Saquarema, its salty body of water separated from the shoreline by a cluster of streets and houses less than a kilometer wide. At times, he removed his necklace—a small green lure depicting a silverside—and closed his eyes at the bow of the Rainha Janaína, mouthing words of security and peace to the mother of all orixás.

Other times, he sat on the gunwale and asked questions of the kids, hanging shiny, colorful fishing lures on his long black beard. Whenever one of them got a correct answer, he’d let them pick a prize.

What’s the first thing to do after catching a fish?

What are lines, hooks, rods, reels, baits, lures, gaffs, and nets?

How do you fish under the gaze of Iemanjá?

And, most importantly, not a question at all but an aphorism—almost a request he always said at the end, delivering the kids back to the pier: We have to occupy the evil places and make them good.

It felt natural that André vanished from the city—and from her life—about the same time the kids did.

Vitória washes the fishing lure in a shower people once maintained near the sidewalk—and that she maintains by herself now, channeling clean water from the few treatment sites managed by the city hall. There’s nothing indicating that the golden swordfish with a broken hook belonged to André. But there hadn’t been anything that told her he would disappear three years after the Spill, yet she woke up that day feeling a weight in the air, knowing a storm was coming. Sitting up on her bed a few minutes before sunrise, she’d known that André didn’t sleep in his shack by the Lagoon.

Like she knows the lure is one of his.

She holds it up under the sunlight. Probably a prize he gave to a kid after a correct answer. Something later abandoned as the kid moved from Saquarema and forgot about the black-bearded moço da Lagoa, the Lure Magician, the Barbudo of the Waters that silently walked around the city center buying groceries and fishing equipment, but who never held back from teaching them new stuff.

“Joaninha, where did you find this?” She holds it in front of the tatuí’s scanner, a mere black dot at the front of its shell. But she only asks because she likes exact answers.

Charging… 49%
Energy Source: light
At the place I don’t like :-(

The coordinates follow. Vitória raises her head and stares at the horizon she’d like to get rid of. She tries. Day and night, unceasingly, some of her tatuís are equipped with biomethylation modules to help corrode Petrocargo. But deep down she knows it will never happen. No company, no government will ever come to remove the supertanker from her beach—from Iemanjá’s body—and during her lifetime, no amount of tatuís will ever be able to make that wrecked temple of evil vanish like what happened to the real tatuís, the mullets, the bicudas… the kids…

The nightmares are the worst. They often come when she spends too much time thinking of Petrocargo during the day. She can scrub oil stains from her parquet flooring, but she can’t ever wash away the blackened blood that slicks out of her arteries when she’s dreaming. She’s often in the Municipal Cemetery during those dreams, and Nossa Senhora de Nazaré Church, which is right next to the cemetery, doesn’t exist. Multiple slits spontaneously open up along her arms, dripping oil into an empty grave, overflowing it with blackness. She always wakes up when she tries to read the name on the tombstone. She knows there’s a name written on it but she can’t ever read it.

Iemanjá has left this city, Vitória told André days after the Spill. He nodded at her remark, as if knowing it already. Perhaps he did. In those days, he rarely said anything. Perhaps for him Iemanjá had abandoned them a few years before the Spill, when the oil tankers started cruising Barra Nova from side to side after the discovery of a pre-salt layer. Or, perhaps, Iemanjá could never leave them at all because she wasn’t in the city, but she was the city. All those questions wandered through her mind at the time, but she never did ask him.

The kids that had once flocked around André’s stories slowly dispersed after the Spill, scattered by the chaos that ensued. But before, a lot of them would use canoes to reach the new ruin that sprouted near the shore. Vitória shouted at them, urging them to come back, telling them of the dangers. But it became their new adventure. And when she realized she’d do the same if she was a kid, she stopped shouting. Kids were curious. For them, it was like visiting an abandoned church in the countryside or venturing into mysterious woodlands. Instead of uselessly scowling at them, Vitória would find unspoiled patches of sand to sit on and hear the gurgling of the waves, uselessly trying to wash away the oil by closing her eyes.

The wind plucks at her dress. The scent of candle wax leaks out from Nossa Senhora de Nazaré Church behind her, the indistinct canticle of a mass seeping through the salt and oil across the air. She flicks the golden swordfish between her fingers, sitting on a stone and overlooking the Municipal Cemetery, Saquarema Bridge, and the Lagoon beyond it.

The trees ruffle around the cemetery, and mournful seagulls fly above the church, crooning for their spoiled habitat.
She tucks the fishing lure into her pocket and walks to the undertaker’s tiny cabin. She knocks lightly on the door. He’s a humped man with furry eyebrows and the smile of someone who knows all the secrets beyond the grave. He pats the tatuí she gave him two years before—which he plastered full of stickers.

The man’s eyes shine in silver for a second and she recalls how he and André helped her test her prototype tatuís years before. Both sat on the beach with their eyes gleaming with the tatuís’ feeds, the still rough cube-shaped bots bustling about their legs and feet.

The man shakes his head. Negative. Not yet. Maybe never. His smile slightly wavers—and hers, soon after.

Vitória rarely visits the ruin. She doesn’t fear the dark, endless corridors, slightly crooked, and the abandoned accommodations, empty and eaten up by moss. She has grown used to the stink, as if every molecule in the air itself had been smudged with petroleum and rust and mildew. What she doesn’t like is the ruin’s lament, the way it sings, unevenly, tuneless, the walls creaking and clanking and clattering, hidden pipes blowing whatever breath they still have within them. Even her tatuís’ A.I. systems, a biased reflection of her mind, have decided they don’t like Petrocargo.

Foquinha has brought her here, a canoe-sized tatuí, one of her largest, which she uses only when she needs to navigate somewhere. She has brought Joaninha and a few smaller ones attached to her mycosynth suit, and now they skitter along a darkened corridor, casting their lights on the path and showing her the way to where Joaninha found the fishing lure.

We have to occupy the evil places and make them good. It’s harder to think on those terms inside the supertanker. She’s in the root of all evil. Vitória grimaces when her feet shiver on the uneven floor. The tanker groans, reading her thoughts.

“Joaninha,” she whispers. “Are we there yet?”

Joaninha and the other tatuís turn right and stop at a dead end. Joaninha casts a blue halo across the floor. The place where it found the lure.

Vitória pats the LED on Joaninha’s shell so it knows it can dim the light and save its battery.

There’s nothing else there, but at the end of the corridor she sees an entrance covered with a muslin curtain fluttering with the stale wind that finds its way through the tanker’s recesses. Someone has drawn a smiley face on the fabric.

She loads the tatuís on her lenses and asks them to go inside with their lights on. She shivers a little. Not because she doesn’t know what she’s going to find but because she does. Her tatuís had already informed her of those things.

They’re in many places around the ship. Mostly toys the kids left scattered in their adventures. They must have kept them at the tanker knowing they’d come back soon, knowing they could make a base to explore the place and forget their parents talking about the economic recession gnawing at city and country, about the death of animals and plants, about leaving everything behind…

Vitória paces slowly around the small room, careful not to kick the stuff left behind, Joaninha guiding her steps. A storeroom, probably used for cleaning items when the tanker was still operating. Now, those forgotten items are replaced by dice, board games, wireless toy trucks, ship models, plush fishes, shrimps, sushi, even books, neatly organized and undisturbed in a metal shelf by the corner. At the far side of the storeroom lies a broken wooden board with a single item atop it. A toppled Iemanjá statuette made of resin, her blue dress, long black hair, and brown skin pockmarked by moss, but mostly preserved. Vitória smiles alone in the dark and turns the idol up.

“Joaninha, relay a message to the others for me. I want you to make a catalogue of everything around here and bring the small stuff back home.”

The last time she saw André, they were aboard the Rainha Janaína. He’d taken them to the middle of the lagoon, to the most equidistant part from all the shores, as if he wanted to escape the city by infinitely converging into the water. André had a dead carapicú on his lap with glazed, unfocused eyes and greenish spots smudging its scales. So far into the lagoon, the wind didn’t reek of oil, but a mustiness clung to the air. Three years had passed since the Spill and the water had shifted its colors from verdigris to a nauseating lime. Algae bloom, one of the uncountable consequences. Many species had disappeared by then, and it was a matter of time until the struggling survivors found their demise.

Saquarema was a lot emptier from a massive exodus, too. Restaurants had closed their business, tourism had dwindled, and the beaches became coastal deserts. Even the kids risking themselves sneaking into Petrocargo had all gone away with their families, their friendships disbanded, their adventures a memory.

André had always been a silent man, except when telling stories to the kids. That day, he said only one thing.

How can you occupy an evil place that big, maninha?

He didn’t take his eyes off the dead fish on his lap. Vitória remained silent then, but later, reminiscing about that day, she realized André really wanted to know her answer, if she had one. She didn’t anyway.

They stood quiet for many minutes, the wind spraying salt on their faces. André always liked quiet moments, most of all during those last days. All Vitória wanted was to sway lightly with the boat, to stay there with her stepbrother, as quiet as they used to be when their mother died—she was sixteen years old then—and they sat mute on the backyard grass to avoid waking up their father’s ire for whatever reason.

André had saved her life once. Their father wanted both of them to work on the docks like him. For him, it was the only work his children could ever do because he had bred such whiny weaklings. Whenever his Fiat Uno roared into the garage, Vitória was prepared to leap across the backyard wall and disappear with a duffel bag into the streets leading to the lagoon. Sometimes she’d spent hours away from home. And when she dared, she’d sleep at a friend’s or even—as she did twice—walk eight kilometers along the beach, hoping for it to stretch and become infinite. She couldn’t stand her father’s lessons, which often involved going with him to the docks and carrying heavy boxes from place to place in what seemed to be purposeless rearrangements. And every time she fled, it was with the knowledge that later she’d have to hear screams and sometimes a glass or a plate breaking. But as long as André stood grave like a totem by her side, her father wouldn’t touch any of them. And André seemed to know exactly when to be there.

When she started enrolling in online automation classes, André watched in silence behind her, sometimes whistling lowly, a sound that calmed her. And when she started assembling shelled bots for her projects, she glimpsed the smile underneath his shaggy beard. She told him she wanted to live in Rio de Janeiro for a while, just to graduate in control and automation engineering. So he stole his father’s Uno and drove her and her bulky luggage to Rio. He was twenty-three at the time, four years older than herself. She knew he spent months—perhaps years—listening to sermons and hearing how despicable a son he was for dumping his fragile irmãzinha in a giant city. When she came back, five years later, her father had already vanished with his Uno. She thought of asking André if he did something, anything that could’ve scared him away.

But she didn’t. Silence had always been their friend.

When André vanished, he left only a brief note on a torn piece of paper stuck to a tatuí on her table.

I need it more than anything. Goodbye, maninha. Te amo.

Apart from peeking at the obituaries in the first weeks after his vanishing, Vitória refrained from looking him up or finding out what he did with his life. In his eyes, he had already departed when Petrocargo sailed the waters of Saquarema.

The blue of her dress is different; the brown of her skin and the black of her hair are sharper. Even the gilded colors of her seashell-crusted crown gradually change while the smallest tatuís scoot throughout the statuette, cleaning it, removing five-year-old moss and mildew. Beside it on the workbench, other tatuís take care of the couple of books and the ship model Vitória brought from Petrocargo.

She’d like to go after the owners of those items, perhaps see the smiles of finding things thought long lost.

Vitória’s lenses flash with a proximity alert from her central server. She blinks twice and moves her eyes to the left to open a connection.

A list of names and locations appears: Areia, 24 meters; Azulão, 25 meters; Estrela da Rainha, 26 meters… Many of her medium and big-sized tatuís coming back? She hears a loud whir outside and hurries to the front gate. Hundreds of them cross the street from the beach. She reopens a connection and skims through their reports, trying to find a pattern.

Pictures of statuettes and, in some cases, the objects themselves appear on her lenses. Iemanjá, Saint George, Oxossi, Saint Sebastian, Jesus, Ogum, Xangô…

Vitória crouches and picks up a small Saint George’s idol from Azulão’s compartment, the dragon underneath defiled by moss. On the bottom, written in blue crayon: The Lure Magician said we should shun the gods of oil by bringing ours.

A tear crosses her cheeks. That storeroom—and all the others hidden in the darkness of the tanker—filled with toys isn’t only an abandoned base for child’s play. It is that and so much more. It’s a temple erected by the kids. A place of evil occupied by good.

A ping pops up in her lenses, incessantly seeking her attention. A tatuí jostles the others and plops open its compartment, releasing a tiny, still glossy, green silverside.

She doesn’t always dream of graves and oil. Sometimes, she’s not in the cemetery at all, but stepping barefoot on white sand gilded by the sun. In those dreams, Vitória always looks ahead and knows the shoreline stretches infinitely.

The breeze wafts the aroma of wet earth and the flowers the undertaker’s pruning toward her, completely overcoming the oil-ridden air. Around the Nossa Senhora de Nazaré’s tower, seagulls sing their songs, and a fog hovers in Barra Nova Beach, completely cloaking Petrocargo.

When André vanished, Vitória knew he had a friend who would never stop looking for him, one who knew where people settled when there was nowhere else to go. And even though she respected André’s last wish, she fed herself throughout the years with the same hope she nurtures about seeing her beach, her lagoon, and her city healed—a queasy tightness in her chest, a stubbornness that insists life always finds ways to impregnate what’s dead.

She touches the undertaker’s elbow. His tatuí emits a subtle hum, making circling patterns over a small bromeliad field. He turns toward her, smiling, and points to the tatuí.

Vitória loads its feed on her lenses, but the answer is already on the smiling eyes of a friend.

Charging… 77%
Energy source: light
Olá! There’s someone in the lagoon.

Vitória hasn’t seen a real tatuí since a few months after the Spill—the Emerita brasiliensis, that minute, grey-shelled crustacean that lent their name to her bots, is one of the many species that disappeared. The only things her tatuís bring back to her from those creatures are their tiny, hardened, oil-clad shells.

But now there’s one gamboling at her feet on the Saquarema Lagoon shore. She crouches, picks it up, and lets it scurry along her palm like she did when she was a kid on the beach, waiting for them to caper out of her hand and drill their tiny holes into the sand to disappear. It circles the lures on her palm, finding a path along her index finger.

When she turns her hand to keep looking at it, the creature leaps off and quickly vanishes into a hole it bores for itself.

She sits on the pier’s edge, her feet slightly touching the water. She stares at the silhouette of a fisherman floating on the lagoon and starts whistling a velvety song along with the wind.

Host Commentary

Renan has this to say about the story:

“This story is set in Saquarema, a town in Rio de Janeiro state weaved between a lagoon and the Atlantic. All places mentioned in the story, with the exception of the supertanker, are real. The Saquarema Lagoon biodiversity is enormous and it’s home to a lot of different species of fish. The story imagines a tragic (but sadly possible) future where the town has suffered from a major oil spillage, but healing is still a possibility for the future. The tatuí (Emerita brasiliensis) is a tiny crustacean who drills holes in sandy beaches. Its presence often indicates the environmental quality of a beach, since it disappears from polluted areas.”

Some stories bring us a vision of our future that’s so painfully real it feels like a warning from a time traveler. This is one of those stories. So many people today are working hard like Vitória to keep just such a future from happening, but the problem feels insurmountable–and sometimes is. But like Vitória, we can refuse to give up, finding ways to make the future better little by little, day by day, one grain of sand at a time.

And our closing quotation this week is from Paulo Freire, who said: Every relationship of domination, of exploitation, of oppression is by definition violent, whether or not the violence is expressed by drastic means.

Thanks for joining us, and may your escape pod be fully stocked with stories.

About the Author

Renan Bernardo

Renan Bernardo

Renan Bernardo is a science fiction and fantasy writer from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. His fiction appeared or is forthcoming in Apex Magazine, Podcastle, Dark Matter Magazine, Daily Science Fiction, Translunar Travelers Lounge, and others.

Find more by Renan Bernardo

Renan Bernardo