Despite the state police, the National Guard, and all the mud, it was just a beach run.
The summer was almost over and I was going to start at UPenn in a couple of weeks. Matt Candaras had this bright idea about going down to shore. He had a Metacomet cruiser — one of those six-wheel-drive monsters big enough to hold the entire Broadway cast of “Father Knows Best.” There were four of us. Matt invited Dennie Crouse because he knew how to hack into government security systems, and Dennie brought his girlfriend, Irene. Matt’s mother was in Congress, Dennie’s dad was a bank president up in Phillie, and my great-grandfather owned half of Manhattan, and we all had family places in Cape May Point.
Getting there was half the fun. Looking back on it, maybe it was all the fun.
We cruised down through Vineland and Millville, then took 47 on south. Matt found a way through the Belleplain State Forest that got us around the National Guard. Dennie found a way to get the Metacomet’s hot-car chip to pretend it belonged to the Satellite News Network. The trick was getting into the state police system to back us up. But Dennie had been hacking since he was in grade school and some kids in Belgium had sent him a package of high-powered crypt- crackers that came in handy.
We were ready for everything but the smell. It was worse than anything you could imagine — a slimy, mucky stench, mixing mud and brine and sewer sludge.
“Must be a million dead horseshoe crabs,” I said. “They get pretty ripe at low tide.”
“You’d think the seawater would clean things out,” Matt said as he negotiated a stretch of ooze-covered road by shifting into low gear.
“I think it brings in more than it washes out,” I said.
“Why didn’t we come down at high tide?” asked Irene.
“Because at high tide there’s four feet of water over the roads,” Matt said.
Green slime covered the pavement. The woods were thick with Spanish moss and Virginia creeper, and the air was full of mosquitoes and gnats and a million other bugs. A heron looked up at us in surprise as we blew past.
The west side of cape, the side facing Delaware Bay, was all low land. But keeping to the high ground would bring us into Cape May Courthouse and the National Guard headquarters, so we pushed through three or four miles of bad road, with Matt straining at the wheel, groaning and cursing all the way, before we turned east towards Rio Grande.
We pulled into the half-silted-over parking lot of an empty supermarket to get our bearings. “Where do we go from here?” Matt asked.
“We have to get around the airport,” I said, looking over the map screen.
“It’s got to be crawling with guardsmen,” Matt said.
“What’s sea level this month?” I asked.
“Ten feet,” Dennie said. “Minus five feet for low tide.”
“Yeah, but who knows when low tide is in here? We’re a couple miles from the sea,” I said.
“The road north of the airport dips down from nine feet to six. We could try it.”
“Let’s go,” Matt said, gunning the engine hard and throwing sand everywhere. We didn’t have to swim for it, but we could see the water lapping at the roadbed. A few minutes later, we were through the woods and into Villas, passing boarded-up cottages and gutted summer homes long since stripped by their owners and picked clean by looters. The sea had been rising since January and by now everyone had had a chance to get their property cleared out. The only things left were empty buildings and abandoned vehicles. The troopers didn’t have much to watch over. They were sticking around mainly to keep kids like us from getting hurt.
“The road’s clear right now,” Dennie said. “The troopers are all over near the bay. Didn’t there used to be a concrete ship off the beach over there? I bet it’s under water now.”
“Dennie, why don’t we switch disguises?” Matt said. “Can you make us into a local constable or something?”
“Your wish is my command,” he said as his fingers flew across the trackpad and keys of the cruiser’s onboard. “Pass through that parking lot over there and we’ll make the transition seamless.”
Matt pulled off the road and a moment later we were flying under a new flag, headed for the southern tip of the cape.
Though I didn’t know it at the time, I was one of the first people to notice the water rising.
My buddies and I were what the news-hacks called “subway spelunkers.” We didn’t call it that, of course. We didn’t have a name for it at all. We just liked to prowl around under Manhattan and see what we could find. Our heroes were the old homeless guys who used to live in secret rooms and hidden spaces back in the 20th. I even had a coat designed for them by some students in Phillie — big pockets to keep your stuff, a deep inner cuff around the bottom to stick your feet at night, nondescript colors to let you blend into the urban environment.
Then one winter night we were on our way out of the deep caverns under downtown when we found ourselves trapped. The passageway we’d used to get in was full of water. Even the rats were getting nervous, looking for a path to high ground and finding nothing but solid concrete.
We found an emergency phone, called for help, and ended up in jail for the night. Grampa Charlie’s lawyer, a stack of starch by the name of Johnny Russo, came down and bailed me out.
A couple of days later, Russo was all over the cablenet for engineering the overnight takeover of the Chartreuse online investment syndicate. He used Grampa Charlie’s online company, Vermilion, to buy up the memberships of more than half their partners in less than twelve hours. The day after that, though, his story was forgotten when word got out about Antarctica. The two were connected — Chartreuse knew about the ice cap but was keeping it secret — but I didn’t learn that until long afterwards.
Since then we’d watched the oceans rise. Florida was in worse trouble than south Jersey — there was a lot more of it to be in trouble. The Everglades were all flushed out with seawater and there were alligators all over Miami. That wouldn’t last long, though, since Miami was already gone every day at high tide.
Boston was awash, Wall Street was under siege, Savannah and Charleston were sandbagging the waterfront, and hurricane Bernie blew away most of Cape Hatteras the first week of August. Overseas, London was getting worried. The Dutch were asking the EuroUnion for emergency aid, but the Union wasn’t interested in betting on a lost cause. The Seychelles finally gave up and sent fifty thousand refugees in makeshift rafts towards Madagascar and Somalia. Bangladesh was reduced to a muddy mess when the monsoons came in and the survivors headed north into India, prompting a nasty border war. The Philippines was staring disaster in the face. Japan was evacuating its lowlands. And rioters were burning the cities of Indonesia to the ground.
Fifteen feet per year — that was what we were told to expect. The water would keep rising as long as the ice kept melting, and the ice would keep melting as long as the temperature was high enough. The glaciers were surging — moving an inch every minute, five feet per hour, more than a hundred feet every day. At the end of a year, they’d slip more than twenty miles into the ocean, a steady conveyor belt that was transforming the global balance of land and sea.
Some of the marine scientists said that if enough ice melted, it would change the salinity of the ocean and kill off the life there. Others said that the changes in the ocean currents would reverse the warming and stop the ice. People with lives and property near the ocean were doing everything they could to move as fast as possible. People without that stake were interested in it only for the entertainment value — mostly aging chain-gangers who had spend their adolescence living life second-hand through their gang leaders.
Grampa Charlie was getting richer every day, of course. Vermilion owned trucking companies, real estate brokerages, relocation services, and land, land, land. Everyone was heading for the hills: the Poconos, the Catskills, the Adirondacks — and speculators were running wild up there. The rest of my family was making snide remarks about how Grampa Charlie would never know how rich he was getting — not after the stroke a few years back.
And kids like me were making one last trip to the beach before it started making its advance on us.
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Daniel Hatch is a newspaper editor and a regular contributor to Analog Science Fiction magazine since the early 90s, with more than 30 works published, including a preliminary Nebula nomination for “In Forests Afloat Upon the Sea.” The story “Slow Drowning,” set in the same world with some of the same characters, can be read online here. In another century, he was a sailor in the Coast Guard who wandered around the North Atlantic, a student at the University of Connecticut before basketball was such a big thing, and a correspondent for the New York Times.