Linny inhaled deeply before she closed the bakery door, filling her lungs with enough sugar-and-bread scent to tide her over until the morning. Some days, she just couldn't believe her luck.
She closed the door behind her with a click and stepped out into the sweltering Cairns humidity. Insta-sweat. Grimacing, she tucked her stray fringe behind her ears. The whole of northern Queensland had been experiencing an unusual heatwave, even for a tropical summer, and to make things worse the humidity that kept Linny – and everyone else – perpetually damp grew huge cumulous-nimbus clouds every afternoon that threatened but never did anything else. It was almost, Linny thought, like the land was holding its breath, waiting.
For what, who knew, and right at this second all Linny was waiting for as she schlepped down the footpath to her car was a cold shower. Mmm. She luxuriated in the idea, imagining icy water gushing down over her head, her shoulders… She'd get out to the air con on full blast, cold enough to raise goose bumps, and just for the three minutes it took to get dry and dressed again she'd enjoy being cold.
If anyone had told her when she'd left Canberra that she'd miss the cold, she would have laughed in their face.
A muffled buzz from the depths of her bag vanquished all daydreams: the pager for her second job. Frantically, she searched through the bag for it. Why do these things never stay where you put them? she growled in frustration. Coin clinked in their rush to escape her wallet and join the general detritus in the bottom of the bag. Argh! I am getting a smaller handbag! It was a near-daily threat, sadly, with little force behind it; working the bakery in the mornings kept the bills paid, and doing on-call duty at one of the tiny local salvage companies provided just enough disposable income to feed her book habit. Somehow, there never seemed to be quite enough left over for handbags.
Eventually, Linny found the offending pager and hit mute. The message scrolling across the tiny screen read, "All hands on deck dive ready 3pm". She dug out her phone and checked the time. Great. If all her dive gear had been at the office like usual, she'd have made it in no time. As it was…
Linny hit the top spot on her phone's speed dial. "Hey, Buzz? It's Linny. I just got your page and I'm on my way, but all my gear's at home for cleaning, so I can't get there until at least quarter past."
The old dive master grunted in acknowledgement, nothing more.
Probably her place on the team was guaranteed by now, Linny thought. Surely, after six years… Still. Buzz'd hate her for asking, but doubt would gnaw away her sanity otherwise. "Am I still in?"
Buzz sighed explosively into the phone, a wind gust of cyclonic proportions. "Get your ass here quick, girl. We'll wait. Quarter past." He hung up.
Joy burst through Linny's chest, and she practically danced the last score of paces to the car. Summer was usually their busy season, with dives every day, but with the storms holding off and trade laws still under negotiation, business had been slow. She hadn't had a dive in over a week and the reef was practically singing at her.
Yes! She grinned as she got into the car, bumped the air con up as high as it would go, and pulled out into the sleepy post-lunch traffic. Dive time!
The boat bumped along at a decent clip, and Linny raised her chin to the wind, letting it blow her nearly elbow-length dark hair back from her face. So good to be back on the water.
Pete tapped her arm and pointed up ahead to the dive platform moored in the reef.
Linny nodded and quickly scooped her flailing hair up into a makeshift bun, adjusting her weight as the boat slowed.
Within minutes, Linny was fully suited up and falling backwards off the edge of the boat. She revelled in the feeling of cool ocean water pressing against her suit while she waited for Pete to join her.
It didn’t take more than a double handful of minutes to check out the latest wreck, a thirty-foot fishing vessel with a platform above its cabin. Avoiding the tangles of fishing line to check out the inside of the cabin was a little more complicated, but in the end there was nothing much to find except some reels that might be worth a couple of hundred bucks apiece, a single rod that had managed to avoid damage, and the vessel’s expensive navigation system that may or may not be functional after it was dried out.
Pete tapped Linny’s shoulder as she hovered, checking over the wreck once more to make sure they hadn’t missed anything.
Up? he signalled to her.
She nodded and turned to follow. A gleam caught the corner of her eye—a locked metal box about a foot and a half long by half a foot wide. Linny tapped Pete’s leg as he swam upwards and pointed back at the box.
He nodded and indicated that he’d go back for it. Linny was happy enough to let him; the box was nested in a tangle of fishing line that was more likely to try her patience than anything else.
She watched just long enough to make sure that Pete got the box without getting himself tangled, gave him a thumbs up (which he returned), and began swimming for the surface. Midway there, she turned, neck prickling. Quickly she scanned the middle distance. No sharks, no unusually large rays, no giant fish… Nothing. Nothing except the ferocious prickling of her neck that told her someone was watching, and… And now that she thought about it, a strange, haunting sound. It was almost reminiscent of the recordings she'd heard of whale song out in the ocean depths, but more consistent, more melodic. She'd swum a few body lengths towards the sound before she'd even realised it.
Treading water, she flicked her tongue against the edge of her mouthpiece. It was nothing. It couldn’t be anything. But they were salvage after all, right? She should at least check it out.
Because she wasn't entirely stupid, Linny broke the surface of the water near the boat and clumsily spat out the mouthpiece. "Hey," she called to the boat as she lifted her facemask. "Hey!"
Meaghan, qualified diver but preferentially the boat crew on most missions and with upper body strength that belied her earlier career on a commercial fishing trawler, hauled Pete into the boat and waved. "What's up?"
"I think there's something else down there, off the edge of the shelf. We have time for me to take a look?"
Just barely, she knew, scanning the horizon. The storm clouds scudded along, coming in low and fast from the east, and the sun over the land was inching towards the mountains. Half an hour, max, until she had to get out or get wrecked.
Meaghan finished her own scans of the east and west horizons and shrugged at her. "Your call. Think it's worth it?"
Linny tossed her head in a somewhat vain attempt at keeping the water out of her eyes, and stared at the storms rolling in. "What's the radar say?"
Meaghan disappeared for a moment. "Looks like rain this time," she said when she returned. "Radar's showing orange."
Urgh. Of course these had to be the first real storms in two weeks. Linny ducked under the water and swirled herself in a circle, weighing up the risks. Music drifted into her ears, clearer this time, louder – and definitely coming from somewhere just off the shelf. She exhaled forcefully and followed the subsequent trail of bubbles back to the surface.
"Give me twenty minutes," she told Meaghan. "Not a minute more. I'm heading—" she checked her wrist compass "—almost due east, not quite east-north-east, straight off the shelf to a depth of…" She did some quick maths, calculating how deep she could go and still give herself time to get back up in twenty minutes. She sighed. “I won’t go below thirty metres.”
Meaghan nodded. "Twenty minutes. See you then."
Linny bit down on her mouthpiece again and readjusted her facemask. Right. Twenty minutes to track the mysterious music. She sucked a breath out of the tanks to check the flow, and dived.
It was so easy to follow the music she barely felt like she was swimming. It was more like giving in to the currents and letting herself drift, drawn ever deeper, over the edge of the shelf into the dimmer gloom below. The view was a whole lot of nothing for the most part, just sand and rock with the occasionally straggling coral or misplaced reef fish, and it felt a little like she'd dropped off he edge of the world. The silence pressed in on her eardrums and she checked her depth meter. Only twenty metres; the pressure seemed stronger, for some reason.
Gradually the music became louder, clearer – it sounded like someone singing. Part of Linny crinkled her eyebrows and frowned at that, but most of her was too busy drifting on the melodies with her body.
Then, in the middle of the gloom, a flash of white. Linny swam closer and a ship loomed in the darkness. That kicked her brain out of its hazy, dreamy state and into overdrive. What was a ship doing down here? This shelf was supposed to have been cleared out years ago, right around the time that marker beacons became compulsory for all ships travelling these waters, around the time that the wrecks became a weekly, if not daily occurrence.
The waters out off the reefs had always been peculiarly treacherous – peculiarly so, because according to all the geographical surveying and imaging and current tracking and weather predictions that science could offer, they shouldn't have been treacherous. Superstition had, of course, grown up around the area – a sort of bad luck Bermuda Triangle, people said, where ships never went missing but frequently drowned – but it was the quickest and most direct trade route, and avoiding it meant thousands of dollars, maybe hundreds of thousands, of lost income.
And then the channels, shelves and reefs had been cleared out of all wreckage, the official salvage companies sponsored by the local government and shipping companies, and tracking beacons installed compulsorily on all boat traffic in the area – and the wrecks had increased.
And now, Linny thought, flicking the edge of her mouthpiece in deep contemplation, there was a wreck where none ought to be, and something white and floating apparently singing on the front of it.
She swam closer and peered through the gloom. Shapes slowly resolved into clarity – and Linny just about choked on her mouthpiece. Strapped – no, nailed, she realised as bile threatened to choke her. Nailed to the front of the ship by her wrists, upper arms, knees and feet was a woman, long hair that was maybe dark blonde or light brown – some sort of medium shade, it was hard to tell down here – wafting around her face, an organic echo of her diaphanous white gown – and her mouth wide open in full song.
Linny shook her head as her brain tried to compute the physics – Where was her air supply coming from? How was she not drowning? How long had she been down here and why hadn't she drowned already? – before giving up and simply staring.
The woman seemed to stare back, pupils dilated in the dim lighting, but white showing all around her dark irises. The song continued without ceasing, a rolling, haunting cry that seemed designed specially to prickle the back of the neck and remind the listener of things glimpsed out of the corner of the eye, things half heard in the dimness of the predawn, shapes half imagined in the middle of the night.
Tingles rolled up and down Linny's spine as she trode water, transfixed for a moment before she shook herself. What was she doing? This woman, although she seemed in no danger of drowning right at the second, clearly needed help, and the iron spikes binding her to the ship were an obvious target.
Linny swam closer and grabbed onto the bows of the ship before transferring her grip to the woman's arm. The woman's song never wavered, but her eyes conveyed her gratitude.
Linny shifted her grip once more, steadying the woman's arm with one hand and grasping the iron spike driven through her wrist with the other. Abruptly, the woman began to thrash. Her song lifted in urgency as she twisted and writhed, trying to shake Linny away.
Linny gritted her teeth down on her mouthpiece, grabbed the spike with both hands, and yanked. It came free with surprisingly little effort, and Linny tumbled backwards, head down and feet up. She reoriented herself, and her heart leaped. The woman's eyes now glowed green, and when she reached towards Linny her fingernails extended to become claws that matched her mouthful of needle-thin teeth.
Linny’s heart pounded. Okay. Maybe not such a great idea. “Um.” She glanced down at the iron spike in her hand. It wasn’t like she could just put the thing back—and not just because the woman’s now-free arm was flailing and groping like a sea snake; Linny didn’t know if she had the stomach to drive a spike like that through a living person. Although, Linny realised with another jolt, where the woman’s wrist should have been bloody and punctured, the skin was smooth and blemish-free. “What are you?”
For the briefest instant, the woman stilled, eyes widening again as she gestured frantically with her head.
Linny didn’t move. I’m not that stupid, however much trouble you seem to be in.
But then the song changed, becoming sweet and urgent and compelling, and Linny found herself drifting towards the woman without meaning to. She tried to back pedal, but her path towards the woman seemed inexorable. She thrashed harder, pulse pumping, adrenalin rushing, but it was no use; the woman’s song reeled her in as easily as a trawling hauling in an empty net.
Linny fought back panic as she neared the woman. Soft wisps of the woman’s dress touched her first, too delicate to feel through her dive suit, but then the woman clamped her fingers down around Linny’s wrist, and that she could feel like a steel vice.
For a moment the woman seemed to struggle with herself; although her song never wavered, she pressed her eyes closed and shuddered once or twice, and dark notes crept into the song, sending chills up and down Linny’s spine. But then the moment passed and song became lighter again. The woman shifted her grip on Linny’s arm, and to Linny’s utter surprise, worked one of her fingers into the seam between Linny’s glove and sleeve.
The instant the woman’s finger met her skin, the song changed. She’d never in a million years be able to explain how she knew, but Linny sensed relief in the melody almost as tangible as the water around her.
And then the woman released her, and Linny realised how she knew: the song made sense. It wasn’t just a haunting melody, there were words, lyrics, in a language strange and alien, but now somehow she knew them.
“You must not set me free,” the woman sang. “You must not set me free.”
Linny frowned. That wasn’t what she’d been expecting, not at all. “Then what?” she asked, for surely the woman had some design in luring her down here.
“The surface,” the woman sang. “I long to feel the sun. Take me to the surface, take me home.”
“But how? If I can’t set you free, how can I take you to the surface?”
Linny almost rolled her eyes at herself as she realised the obvious solution, right at the woman sang, “The ship, the ship. You must raise the ship. Go. Go now. But don’t forget me: raise the ship.”
“I can’t just leave you here,” Linny protested.
“You must,” the woman sang. “You must, you must, you must.”
Linny gave her a last, long, considering look, then nodded. “I’ll be back.”
“You must,” the woman’s song continued. “You must…”
The words haunted Linny all the way back to the boat until she finally broke the surface of the water and spat out her mouthpiece, gulping down fresh air that smelled of storms.
Meaghan’s head popped over the edge of the boat. “There you are. Pete was suiting up to come find you.”
“I’m fine,” Linny told him as she stroked over to the back of the boat. Meaghan gave her a boost out and she stripped off her dive hood, mind racing. How much should she tell them? Which bits?
“So. Find anything?”
In the end, she settled for the simplest version of the truth. She nodded. “It’s big. There’s a whole wreck down there, old timber vessel.” She’d been too preoccupied by the woman serving as its figurehead to examine the wrecked boat closely, but it definitely hadn’t been built in any modern style. “I think we need to bring it up.”
Meaghan’s eyebrows flicked up and down.
“Bring what up?” Pete said, joining them as he exited the cabin.
Meaghan tilted her head towards Linny. “She found something. Old wreck.”
Linny paused in the act of wringing out her hair to shake her head. “Not yet.”
Pete nodded. “I’ll get on it.”
They’d hauled the old wreck with the woman in white out of the reef the next morning, at the same time as they collected the fishing boat. Linny had been on shift at the bakery, so she hadn’t been there, but as soon as her bakery shift was over she hit the road and dialled the office.
“Hey,” she said as soon as Bea, the receptionist, answered. “Linny here. Can you tell me where they parked the boat they dredged up his morning?”
Bea gave her directions to a big old warehouse they hadn’t used in a while. “Only place with enough room,” she said by way of excuse.
Linny ended the call and took a left up through the centre of town. She hadn’t been to the warehouse in forever, but it was just on the northern edge of town, close to the coast.
Fifteen minutes later, Linny parked her car, clambered out, and stared up at the two-storey building whose paint job had seen better days. The thunderclouds were building early today, and she reminded herself – forcibly – that the uncomfortable prickling on the back of her neck was just building atmospheric pressure, not some kind of funky premonition.
Around the front, Linny flashed her salvage ID to the bored duty clerk, who dutifully punched the desk button to open the doors into the warehouse proper.
The smell hit Linny first, and she flared her nostrils, trying to breathe around it: mould and mildew, rust and decay.
The boat wasn’t particularly hard to find, even though the warehouse looked like something from one of those reality shows about hoarders. It towered above everything else, awkward and clumsy enough on land that it felt at least twice as big as it had in the water. Linny stopped in front of it and stared. The figurehead was still a woman, but it was just wood, carved seamlessly against the boat so as to make it almost impossible to tell where the woman’s diaphanous gown ended and the bows of the boat began.
The only thing that marked it out of the ordinary, Linny thought, was the quality of the carving and the fact that the woman’s face was upturned, eyes closed, as though receiving a benediction from above. Disappointment stirred in Linny’s chest. But then, what else should she have expected? The woman, whatever she was… Well, if the salvage crew had raised a boat to the surface with a real life woman – or woman-like creature, Linny amended, remembering the teeth and claws – nailed to the front, surely someone would have said something, and the poor woman would have been taken down.
But this? This was just a pretty carving.
It was extraordinarily life-life, though, Linny thought as she moved closer. Impulsively she reached out and traced the lines of the woman’s hip, the highest she could reach with the boat perched up on its clunky old trailer. Warmth hummed through her, and faint, discordant notes sounded in the air.
Linny snatched her finger back and shook it, though in truth the heat had been no hotter than a pleasant bath, and certainly not hot enough to burn. What in the world?
Glancing around, heart pounding, Linny stretched out a hesitant finger. Again, as soon as she touched the wood, warmth flowed through her, and music sounded – a little less discordant, this time. And actually, the warmth was kind of nice, pleasant and soothing, the kind of healing touch that cleaned up all those little aches and pains the human body collects without its owner ever really realising.
Linny straightened and stared wonderingly at the figurehead, then down at her fingers. Her pulse jumped; her fingers glowed with a soft, golden light. Mesmerised, she reached out and stroked the wood again.
This time, the haunting melody resolved itself into words, just for an instant: Thank you. Thank you thank you thank you.
Warm calm flooded over Linny, even as the world around her grew sharper. It reminded her of what her brother had told her about the first time he’d put on glasses, the whole world snapping into crystal-clear focus he hadn’t even known was possible.
Awed, Linny stared around the room. A bookcase teetered against the far wall; earlier, she’d only been able to see that it was weighed down with old hardcovers that had definitely seen better days, but now she could pick out words on the spines – not clearly enough to read, perhaps, but she could see the shape of where they were.
And her hearing had improved, she realised as a commotion out in the front room caught her attention. She stilled, listening as a woman’s commanding tones resolved into words.
“You call this security? You, get out from behind there. You’re officially on leave until you hear from us again. Tilly, you’re on desk duty. The rest of you, no one goes in or out of this warehouse without full body scans and security checks, understand? If you even think someone’s going to be trouble, you call me. Sooner or later whoever authorised this is going to come poking around, and when they do, I want to know about it.”
The doors to the warehouse shushed open, shunting Linny out of her daze, and she cast around for somewhere to hide. Whoever that was out front, Linny knew with chilling and unsettling clarity that meeting her would be bad. Very bed. Sadly, as cluttered as it was the warehouse was almost completely empty of good places to hide.
Warmth sizzled through her.
Get on board.
Biting her lip and steadfastly ignoring the way her fingers were glowing again, Linny eyed the steep side of the boat. It was the only likely hiding place, but there was no way up, no way in.
The warmth kicked up a notch, and Linny nearly squeaked as the ground dropped away. She slapped a hand over her mouth and tried not to let her eyeballs fall out of her head. This was so not normal.
The warmth drained away as quickly as it had come, and she landed on the deck with a thud. Not a moment too soon; Linny ducked for cover as boss-lady and her second paced towards the boat.
“Fifteen years,” the woman was muttering to her companion. “Fifteen years, Leon, and someone decided to authorise a lift now. I want to know who they are and what they’re playing at. And once I know that…”
Linny’s heart pounded in the pregnant pause.
“I want them dead.”
Great. Linny closed her teeth over her finger to trap the hysterical giggles in. Find an inhuman something nailed to the front of a boat, rescue it, receive apparently magical powers, and paint a giant target on her back in the process. Oh yeah. That was definitely what she meant when she’d told her best friend Zippy that this was the year she’d learn to change things up.
At least luck was on her side – for now. The steely-voiced woman spent less than two minutes circling the boat, examining it critically from every ground-based angle. Linny stopped breathing for a second when the companion, Leon, suggested that he climb on board and have a look, but Steel Woman quickly dismissed her fears.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” the woman snapped. “I’m not clambering up into that thing. It’s so rotten I’d be shocked if the deck didn’t disintegrate, for a start, and you know perfectly well I don’t give a damn about the vessel. It’s her I’m worried about, and if you had any sense in your head, you would be too. Come on. Marlon will be waiting.”
Linny exhaled as their footsteps trailed away. All that adrenalin had left her strung out and desperate to pee – and she didn’t fancy being stuck in the boat for any longer, now that Steel Woman had put the idea of the deck collapsing into her head. It did look remarkably flimsy and gap-toothed.
She waited until she heard the voices in the front room quiet, and a car engine thrum in the parking lot. One leg, then the next… Balancing on the gunwale, Linny tried to call up the warming power that had lifted her up here. Nothing came. She sighed. “Fine,” she muttered. “But if I break a leg jumping down from here I’m going to sue.”
She jumped, stumbled, and straightened. Right. The front way was out, since whoever had been left behind to guard would no doubt report her to Steel Woman at the least, and maybe physically restrain her. But big places like this designed to store clutter had to have at least one fire exit, right?
It turned out that the warehouse had three fire exits, one on the side of the building right near where Linny had parked her car. She picked her way through the ordered chaos towards it, eased it open, thanking her lucky stars that it wasn’t locked, and ran across the gravel to her car.
As she sank into the driver’s seat, warmth filled her again, and the strange golden glow played over her fingertips. Hurriedly she shoved the car into gear and reversed out of the lot, dialling Zippy with her free hand.
“Hey, Zip. You won’t believe what’s just happened.”