Can a story about mass extinction be optimistic?

Why can't stories about the future be more optimistic? The Shine anthology presents uplifting visions of the world to come. Check out an exclusive excerpt, "Castoff World" by Kay Kenyon.

Child knelt at the edge of the ocean and carefully spread the bird bones on the water, putting them out to sea. She waited for them to burst into feathers and rise from the ocean, flapping in circles, corkscrewing into the wind.

Not this time, though.

Child always hoped to see the leftover bones from meals reform in their proper shapes: seagull, turtle, swordfish. When she was little, she used to think Grappa was saying they had to put meal leftovers out to sleep, not out to sea. So even though she knew better now-being almost seven-she still thought of the bones as sleeping. And it was their little fun thing that they said, her and Grappa: out to sleep.

She checked the fishing lines on this side of the island for any catches-none-and scanned the horizon for pirates. The blue-green sea stretched in gentle swells to the edge of the world. No pirates today. If you saw pirates you had to crawl to the trap door to meet Grappa who would have a rat for protection. They'd practiced many times, always quiet and serious, but Child would have liked a glimpse of pirates. The book had a picture of one, but Grappa said, no, that was like in the movies, and not a real pirate. Movies was a before word. The book didn't have a picture of movies. But it had other before things, like fire hydrant, bicycle, and nano assembler.

"You dropped a bone, Child."

Grappa stood, his beard fluttering in the wind, and pointed to the tiny bone.

"Can I watch Nora kick it off?"

He nodded, and they crouched beside the bone, watching as the nanobots slowly moved the fragment toward the water's edge. You couldn't see the nanobots because of being too small, but they were there, working hard, passing the bone to the nanobots next to them. It would take all afternoon for Nora to put the bone out to sleep. Child would come back later to check on the progress.

"Nora doesn't like our garbage," Child pronounced.

"Not her kind." Grappa stood and looked out over their floating home. It was made entirely from garbage, an island of toxic trash, collected over years of swirling round the ocean gyre. The more garbage collected, the bigger Nora got. Here and there you could see plastic bottles, sty-ro-foam cups, white and yellow bags, and crunched up cans. Over there, a collection of tiny stirrers and straws, lined up like a miniature forest. (Forest: many trees clumped together. Tree: tall growing thingy.) Nora was going to break all these things down and make them into good stuff so that bad stuff wouldn't leak into the water.

Grappa said Nora wasn't alive. But they called her her, because he said you could call ships her, and what they were on was like a ship or maybe a raft.

Grappa held up a bulky sack, his eyes sparkling. "A new rat."

They tramped over to the rat collection, carefully hung up on little poles so Nora wouldn't try to eject them. Nora couldn't take any extra weight, or the whole ship might go down. Things like a dead rat could go into the ocean, because it was good stuff that could rot. Nora just collected bad stuff like pee-cee-bee, pee-vee-cee, dee-dee-tee, and nurdles so she could turn them into derm. The trawlers were supposed to pick up the Noras once a year, but there weren't trawlers any more, so their Nora was starting to have a weight problem and threw overboard anything that wouldn't hurt the ocean.

It was Grappa's idea to hang the dead rats up on wooden poles. Sooner or later Nora would take apart the wooden poles and flush them away, but until then they had good stashes of rats in case of pirates. When the oldest rats got too slimy, out to sleep they must go. But neither did you want a nice-looking dead rat. Best was a just-right dead rat, one rotted just so, and that's how come so many rats all lined up.

Using scraps of fishing net twine, Grappa secured the body onto a pole. Then Child followed him, past the privy hole, past the hot spot, to his big net where they finished pulling the catch from the webbing. Her hat slipped off while she worked.

She caught Grappa's eye. Quickly, she stuck the broad brimmed hat back on her head so as not to get skin sores.

But he kept looking at her. "Where's your belt, Child?"

"I don't need it. I've got these." She pointed to the little nuggets that went down her shirt. They slipped into holes on the other side, keeping her shirt closed against the sun.

Grappa came over to her, fingering the nuggets. "Buttons. Where..."

"Nora made them." They'd started as little nubs and then grew in about a week to be the right size for the holes.

He gazed at her in silence.

"Maybe she told her nanobots to help my shirt stay closed."

"Nora's nothing but a Nanobotic Oceanic Refuse Accumulator."

They faced off on the old argument. If she talked back, he'd frown and mutter, Just like your mother. Magical thinking. Mom died soon after she was born. Grappa said that when they put her out to sleep, a tern hovered over her, circling like a guard-yan angel.

Grappa went back to sorting the catch, looking up at her now and then, and squinting his eyes at the buttons. In the end his catch was-not including the rat-three medium-sized fish, two tiny crabs, and a piece of sty-ro-foam.

*☼*☼*☼*

Holding the flakey blue piece of garbage, Child asked, "What was it?"

Grappa pulled his hat down tighter, getting his face sore into the shade of his brim. "Oh, it's polystyrene foam."

She rolled her eyes at the big word.

"Well, it was a cooler. People used it to keep food, maybe for a picnic."

"Picnic?"

"The family going some place fun to have a meal."

"We could have a picnic."

He eyed her, scratching his beard. "Might could."

"When mother comes back. Then."

He didn't answer for awhile. "What makes you think she's coming back, Child?"

She shrugged. "Out to sleep."

"That's what we say."

"Yes."

"Maybe we shouldn't say that anymore. Call it out to sea."

"Let's not, though."

He pointed to the hot spot, where they threw the bad stuff. It was a big pile in the middle of their garbage island where most of Nora's nanobots worked.

Child made her way over to it. The closer she got, the more the tiny nurdles clung to her feet and legs. You could brush them off, except then they'd stick to your hands. They leapt up on her like fleas, but that was just stat-ick, Grappa said; they weren't alive. Grappa had strict ideas on what was alive and what wasn't. Nurdles are pre-production industrial plastic pellets. Everything plastic gets made from nurdles. The ocean is nurdle soup, Child. He smiled at that, but she didn't know why.

She tossed the sty-ro-foam into the hot spot. Maybe people didn't throw the cooler in the ocean, only lost it, like the ghost nets that still caught fish and turtles. But whether on purpose or on accident, Nora was against it.

Even so, Child liked garbage. It made Nora bigger and stronger, all made from derm, the material left over after Nora changed pollu-tants into good stuff. And sometimes things that came into their nets got a story going, a story of before, the time when Grappa was an ocean-o-grapher, and helped make the Noras. Some of the best stories were from: cath-ode ray tube of teli-vision (check out picture in the book), inflated volley ball (learn to play until it got bumped into ocean), and the doll's head (if lonely in time before, you could have a small friend and talk to it). Child kept the doll's head until Grappa said he couldn't stand to look at just a head. Then they argued about whether hot spot or out to sleep. People don't go into the hot spot, she insisted. Grappa turned away.

She doesn't know the difference, she heard him whisper. When she finally put the doll's head in the hot spot, it sank down, becoming island.

The really exciting thing? There were more islands like this out there. Probably every Nora had a child and a grappa. She kept a sharp eye out for other Noras so that she'd have a playmate, but the only time she saw one, it was a lonely, empty place. Except for seagulls nesting and churning around it in the air, a white gyre.

*☼*☼*☼*

The ocean rocked them in their den under the trap door. Lantern light splashed off the smooth sides of the desal-inizer that Grappa said was too heavy for Nora to eject. Child watched his bearded face as he leaned against the desal-inizer and considered a bedtime story.

"Tell about Mom and Dad again."

"Well, your Dad was a good fisherman. Kept us going those first years."

"Until the tuna fish took his fishing pole." In the lantern's glow she imagined the tuna swimming away, laughing, and Dad so mad he threw his hat in the ocean after it.

"Yes. Dragged it away. He made others, but none were as good as that pole we got from Reel Good Sports. It about broke your Dad's heart to see it go."

She glanced up at the ceiling at the big red kayak. It hung by leather cords out of Nora's reach. It had two open places for people to sit in, and together with a second kayak that had got lost, this was how they got to the island: Dad and Mom and Grappa.

Nora wanted in the worst way to get a hold of that plastic kayak, but she let them have a few other things in the den without pulling them apart. For instance, she let them store food for a few days. Also a plastic bag or two to carry stuff around and also a few ghost nets, even though they were poly-propy-lene. Grappa said Nora had to go against her program to allow it. She wants us to be happy, Child had said once. Grappa had looked at her funny. She doesn't know happy. She knows garbage detox and sequestering. She'd objected, But, Grappa, we're helping her pick up garbage. We dragged in that big drum. We catch sty-ro-foam, don't we? He scratched around his face sore, not answering.

But the red plastic kayak was too much for Nora. Every now and then, they'd come into the den and find that Nora had chewed through the leather straps and the kayak had fallen.

Grappa was saving the boat for when it was time to go to shore, which would be when it was safe, when there'd be picnics and stores again.

*☼*☼*☼*

"Reel Good Sports was a store," she said, hoping to keep Grappa talking. "You could point at things that you wanted, and trade monies for them."

"Well, the owner was long gone. We just took things. Buying things, that was in the time before."

"On land."

"California," Grappa said. "It used to have stores, a lot of them."

"And toasters and cars and baseball gloves. Except Mom and Dad didn't, just you, Grappa. You had cars and toasters."

"Oh, for awhile, and then I didn't anymore. I raised your Mom in a compound where we didn't have cars or such. When the bad men came we escaped. She was grown by then and we hid in the woods until your Dad came along and helped us-"

"And then we were a family."

"-and then your Mom was pregnant and we needed a safe place for you, so we found the kayaks and scouted around for a portable desalinizer. I knew where Nora was, because I brought my GPS with me, and we came here, to be safe."

"Except for the pirates. They're not safe."

"Lights out, now." He blew out the lantern, and pulled derm mats over them.

"How was Nora born?"

"Lights out."

"Yes, but how did Nora get born? What was her Mom?"

She closed her eyes and thought about how Nora kept growing, and that maybe someday she'd stretch all the way to land.

"A seed," came Grappa's voice. "We put little seeds in the ocean, and programmed them to sweep up garbage."

"Seeds with nanobots."

"And you told the nanobots to get garbage out of the water and to make DERM from pollutants."

Sleep tugged on her, but she wanted to prove she knew what derm was: "De-graded Rewoven Refuse Matters."

"Materials. Degraded Rewoven Refuse Materials. And the Noras got big, some of them. This Nora swirls in a big vortex, vacuuming up one of the North Pacific gyres, just a never-ending clockwise rotation. Whole thing's kept in place by a mountain of high pressure."

"Like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch."

"Except that one, that's as big as Texas."

Texas was a place so big you could walk for months and you'd still be there. Whenever they wanted to say how big something was-like the tuna that defeated Dad-she and Grappa would say, "big as Texas."

She fought against sleep, because Grappa was talking even past lights out. But the great ocean gyre had her in its arms. The gyre was a huge ocean creature that danced in a big soft circle, carrying turtles, volley balls, tunas, ghost nets, and their island around and around and around and into dreams.

*☼*☼*☼*

"Grappa, why are you sleeping out here?"

Sometime during the night Grappa had got up and left the den. This morning she found him top side just waking up in a nest of derm.

He brushed the nurdles off his clothes. "Oh, its nice out here, Child."

But she thought he looked cold. "I don't like it when you sleep out here."

He started to make their breakfast fire in the metal drum that Nora let them keep. Child tried rotating the sticks, but she didn't have the knack of it, yet. Once the fire was going, she fetched crabs they'd saved from yesterday and they roasted them. The ocean had big swells today, rolling softly under Nora, lifting and settling them, the sunlight caught in the tops, going along for the ride.

"I'll be sleeping up here from now on," Grappa said.

"No. Nothing should change."

"Listen to me, Jessie." Oh boy, when he called her her real name, that was the worst.

"I've been collecting garbage a long time. But now I've got the same sore your Dad had. Soon I'll have to… have to be done with it. When the time comes-" He nodded toward the edge of the island, toward the ocean gyre. "You know Nora can't keep me. You help her. Can you do that? Because if I'm down in the den you won't be able to put me out to… out to …"

"But we'll always be together. You said, Grappa."

"I said." He turned away. "It's just sleep, Child."

As his words sank in, they released a weight from her chest, as though a big rock had lain atop her. It lifted, letting in a good light that fired up her heart like a lantern. So he'd be coming back. They'd all be coming back.

That's what she'd been trying to tell him all along.

She put the crab shells in the ocean and watched as they bobbed away. Then she sat down to watch her nets, pulling them in now and then, expecting good luck today. She hummed a tune and lay down on her stomach trying to see the nanobots. Looking real close, sometimes she saw a seething and sparkling, and she knew the bots were breaking down pee cee bees and other pollu-tants and car-cino… car-cino…

Underneath her she felt the ground heave, and a big wave jolted the island, sending Child rolling down a sudden hill. Then, unthinkably, she fell off the side into the cold water, into the ocean. She sank, popped up, gulped air, sank again. Down, down. Under Nora, her hands and elbows hit plastic bottles, a huge jumble of them. Down here nurdles floated everywhere like fish eggs. Mustn't get trapped under Nora. Need to get to the edge... Overhead, Nora's shadow loomed dark, except the bottles glimmered with a sunken light. She grabbed the nearest plastic bottle that was stuck fast to the others, and pulled herself forward, chest aching, breath gone. She slapped at the bottles, pulling, pulling.

Popped up. And there, Grappa shouting. Grappa throwing a net. She reached for it and he pulled it closer, closer, until he bent down and hauled her over the side. As she sat hunched over, retching and coughing, he slapped her on the back. She spit salt water out, and nurdles, too.

Then he tore the net off her and pulled her into his arms.

After awhile he carried her to Nora's exact middle and told her to stay put. He came back with a water jug and her second set of derm clothes. She shivered hard, but he wanted her to wipe down with fresh water, so she did. That's when he pointed to the jacket she'd been wearing. It was puffy and didn't fold like normally. Then it slowly wilted, like the air got let out.

As Child dressed in dry clothes, Grappa picked up the wet jacket and examined it. "Life vest," he said. "Little air pockets that must've filled up when you hit the water."

"Nora, I guess."

"You ever have… nanobots on your clothes, Child?

"Sometimes."

He looked around at the island, as though expecting to see nanobots gotten big.

They sat together then, his arms around her, and they watched the forever blue sky without their hats on so her hair could dry. The great sky stacked overhead in an ocean of light.

"Grappa, Nora puts the bottles underneath."

"There's bottles down there?"

"It's all bottles. Just a million bottles, all stuck together."

He looked down at the ground. "For floatation."

"Do we float on the bottles?"

Grappa put his head in his hands. After a few moments he said, "We do if she strengthened the bottles and they're full of air."

Child put her arms around him. "The nanobots do it, Grappa. It's all right."

"They're getting smarter," he said, like he was speaking to the gyre, and not to her. "They've had to. All these years on their own, and no trawlers." He seemed confused and not as happy as he had been a few minutes ago when he pulled her from the water.

To lighten the mood, she said, "The nurdle soup tastes terrible." She pointed to the water where the nurdles floated under them, swimming with Nora.

He smiled a little. "I'm going to make you seagull soup, how's that?"

And he did, but it took him a long time, and when they'd eaten, he slept.

*☼*☼*☼*

The day was blue and bright like every day. A high pressure system sits over our heads, Grappa always said. It drives back the rain. Since they didn't get rain, she'd had to learn how to run the desal-inization box and how to clean the salts from it. And she finally learned how to make fire from two sticks. Those were the last things, the hardest things, to learn just before Grappa died.

In the full sunlight the kayak's lovely red sides looked more scuffed than when it hung in the den. The kayak was supposed to be for getting to shore, but Child couldn't just push Grappa into the ocean.

Dragging the kayak to the edge of the island, she pulled it over onto its side. Somehow she managed to get Grappa into the little boat, and turn it right side up again.

She sat for a long time, leaning against the kayak, staring out to sea. "I know you said to keep the kayak, Grappa. But I just can't." She stared as birds lifted their wings, letting the air currents take them higher. She wished Grappa could go up, like a bird, like Mom, instead of out to sleep. But it was only for a while. So she got up her courage, and walked behind the kayak and leaned against it, pushing, pushing. It didn't budge. She tried pulling from the front. No better.

Then from the back again, and this time she thought she saw little sparks along the path where the kayak pressed into the derm. And the boat moved an inch, and then an inch more. The nanobots, she thought. Nora had finally got her hands on the plastic kayak.

At last the kayak slipped over the edge. Child knelt, watching it go.

"Always together, you said."

It's only sleep.

OK, then.

*☼*☼*☼*

Voices overhead. Aman laughed, but not a nice sound. Child felt the ground shake from people stomping around. She was still breathing hard from throwing everything into the den: cooking drum, fishing nets, bird traps. Then kick up the derm over the privy holes. Lastly: throw the rats overboard, but save a slimy one.

*☼*☼*☼*

Just before getting into the den, pile derm on the trap door and put the rat there. Grappa said that keeps them from looking too close, because the rat stinks and looks bad.

The pirates were looking for stuff, because sometimes the Noras had usable things collected. Also they would take a bunch of derm to make clothes and bedding. She had to hide, because the pirates might also steal her.

She eyed the trap door. It would be her last chance to see a pirate, if she just opened the den cover a little ways.

But the sounds they were making were getting angry and loud. She huddled into herself. As she folded up as small as possible, her heart knocked hard inside her chest. Her pulse came into her wrists, bumping like crazy. If you ever have to go to sleep, to be with your Mom, there's one way, Grappa once said. You cut your wrists, using something very sharp. It hurts a little, but then you put your wrists into the DERM, and let them bleed. Don't look, though. Then sleep comes. You understand? Only if you have to. If things are too sad. All right?

All right.

Sometimes, like during that big storm once, she calmed herself by thinking about Mom and what she looked like. What color was her hair? He'd said, Black. It was black, Child. Just like the tern, then, all white with black on the very top. Somewhere out there, a tern rode over the world, looking down on her. Keeping watch.

Smoke curled down from the chinks in the trap door. The pirates were burning something.

She climbed the ladder and tipped the door up, just a little. Blazing, jumping fire. They'd set Nora on fire. Beyond, she saw the boat oaring away. She rushed down into the den to get the big jug, and then up the ladder and, pushing the jug out ahead of her, slithered out onto the derm.

The boat was still too close for her to stand up, so she crawled to Nora's edge, filling the jug with ocean water. Then she poured it over her head, like Grappa told her in case of fire. The jacket puffed up around her. Once more she refilled the jug. By now, the boat was so far, the men looked small. She threw the water on the closest flames, burning hard, making popping noises. Back for more water, but by the time she got a jug-full, the fire stopped, going to embers.

Amid the smoldering derm, she sat down and watched the boat until it disappeared. Maybe the pirates were mad that alls they found was a dead rat, so they set a fire. Nora hadn't liked the fire. Air pollu-tion.

"The rat worked really good, Grappa."

I said.

You did.

*☼*☼*☼*

In time, the weather changed. Storms came, and Nora thrashed and rocked on her platform of plastic poly-mers. By this, Child knew that the island had passed from the great ocean gyre. Nora was headed somewhere, and this worried Child because where would they go?

Nora's sides had built up into little walls. Child never fell in the ocean again. It was harder to get the nets in and out, but fishing got better outside of the gyre, and Child was not often hungry.

As she grew, her clothes changed, getting bigger. Now she had only one shirt and pair of pants but they never got dirty.

The desal-inization machine finally broke-that had been two hundred days ago-but she collected rain water now, in a drum. Also Nora caught rainwater into a little pond that was seldom empty.

And the island sailed on.

In rough seas, Nora pitched up and down, but the waves just broke on the walls she'd built. And the island got taller. In time it was too hard to cast nets down, and so Child trapped birds. There were more of them than ever. She got hungry, though, if the wood was too wet to make a drum cooking fire. That was a problem with being outside the gyre: it rained a lot. Nora hadn't yet learned that Child needed dry kindling to cook. She tried telling Nora so, but that wasn't how Nora learned.

Child never saw another Nora. Finding a friend or a grappa on a Nora had been a childish thing to believe, she knew. And she was used now, to being alone. Grappa was back there, still circling the old gyre, his red kayak going round and round. It seemed like a thing she'd dreamed, that Grappa had been with her. She began to doubt that he truly slept, because she'd packed the paddle in the kayak, and he would have come for her by now. But maybe the gyre creature wanted to keep him.

She sat with her back to the cooking drum-still warm from her last meal-and paged through the book, faded, torn, musty. There were land animals: cat, horse, and others whose names she'd forgotten. There were things like clock, chair, space elevator, ship with masts, and skis.

She fell asleep in the warm afternoon. When she jerked awake she saw a whale.

No, something too big for a whale.

The horizon had a black lump that didn't move. It got bigger.

*☼*☼*☼*

They were closing in now, people in little boats, staring at her and Nora. Children too, pointing at her. The shore drew near. She saw trees dark against the sky, and farther inland, wooden buildings with windows and smoke drifting from what might be cook fires. It was where Nora had been taking her, following whatever trail the nanobots could sense, whether the taste of soil or smoke borne on the wind.

Dozens of little boats. The people in them kept their distance, chattering and looking past Nora, as a bigger ship came around the headland toward her. Many oars came out, and they beat up and down together. She thought the sailors would come on board Nora, but instead they used spikes to secure ropes to her and began pulling her to shore. Then Nora was caught up in waves rolling onto the beach, and, with people pulling from the land, Nora creased into the sand with a heavy smack.

For the last time Child went down into the den. Looking around at her possessions, she picked up the book and Grappa's hat. Before she left, she pressed her forehead against the soft, rewoven refuse of the wall. "You never needed those trawlers, did you? Got the garbage out of the water all on your own."

Back on top, she saw a growing crowd of people on land.

The people turned to watch two large creatures approaching from down the beach. The creatures stopped some distance away, pointing at Nora. Then Child saw how it was people riding horses.

It was time to go. Child stuck wood staves into the derm and looped a fishing net over it, trying to snarl it so that it wouldn't slip. Then she used the net to climb down.

Her feet landed in shallow water. Surrounded by a crowd that gently urged her forward, she walked closer to the horses with people on them.

One horse rider was a woman. She had yellow hair pulled back into a knot at her neck, and wore clothes with bright colors. She leaned forward, saying, "Your name, child?"

"Yes."

"Where did you come from?"

Child tried to answer truthfully. "A North Pacific ocean gyre."

"Who made your clothes?"

"Nora."

The woman turned to the man next to her, also on a horse. "She is a gift to us."

He nodded. "But what is that?" He looked past Child, down the beach.

Child turned. There was Nora, pulled up on the sand. From here, Child saw how Nora had lovely smooth sides coming to a point in front. In back, a blade jutted out and down into the waves as they crested into the shallows. Strangest of all, the side of Nora that Child could see had a beautiful moving circle on it, traveling round and round, sparking like sometimes the nanobots did. Then she saw how it was a picture of the ocean gyre, because a small red dot rode on the circle, slowly, slowly moving like a kayak on a softly turning wheel.

"What is that thing?" the man repeated.

"It's a ship," Child said. "Her name is Nora."

And it was a ship, more than ever, more than she had ever guessed. Nora had made herself beautiful so people would want to bring her onto the land. So at last her task could be finished, to get the bad things out of the ocean forever.

The woman smiled at her. "Would you like to pet my horse?"

Child came closer, putting her hand on the creature's nose, feeling its soft warmth.

At this, the people began to press closer, putting their hands on Child's clothes and exclaiming, but friendlier now that the woman had let her pet the horse.

A boy about her age pointed at Child's ankles, where her pants had puffed up from being in the water.

"Life vest," Child told the child.

Nearby, where a tree leaned over the beach, a dark-headed tern flew in, settling onto a branch. It flapped white wings, tucking them close, keeping watch.

They died, each species, one by one. Cats then owls; owls then ants. They died.

But now look.

They rise, each species, one by one. They rise.

This story by Kay Kenyon originally appeared in the Shine Anthology. More details at the link.