This story is part of Imagine 2200: Climate Fiction for Future Ancestors, a climate-fiction contest from Fix.
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The boat jostled and everything went sideways. I flew to Mom’s side, worried that her wheelchair would tip over and hurt her, but she had an iron grip on one of the many grab bars scattered throughout our boat home. The sound of things crashing around us quieted as the rocking abated, but my stomach was in knots from the suddenness of it.
“Was that an earthquake?” I asked. Mom shook her head, none the wiser.
“You stay here,” I told her. “Let me just check that there’s nothing sharp on the floor.” Mom nodded, her eyes wide and hand still clutching at her chest. We have had fewer earthquakes since the Decree was passed, which slashed public and private funding to the fossil fuel industry and redirected that capital toward renewable energy solutions. It also implemented social programs to minimize and contain the effect of climate change on island nations like ours and funded humanitarian relief efforts for those left houseless from climate-related disasters. Mom grew up in that time where chaos abounded, the devastating impacts of earthquakes and tsunamis compounded by increased frequency, and widespread mitigation efforts seemed like nothing but a dream. She didn’t talk about it much, but it was possible that shakes like this surfaced old memories of those times and any loved ones who might have suffered.
I made my way gingerly across the living room, picking up books and pillows to clear the path for Mom’s wheelchair. I picked up a framed picture of my brother, Arjuna, and Dad in front of their apartment in town where they stayed while Mom and I had active cases. Ever since my apprenticeship in Mom’s expanding detective business, this boat had become more of a home for me than the cramped space of our two-bedroom, stifling-hot apartment.
Thankfully, boat living had conditioned us to leave our breakables in locked wooden cabinets. Unfortunately, one of those cabinets had burst open and shards of multicolored glass, clay, and ceramic pooled around it. I turned back toward Mom and said, “Don’t come near the storage wall until I clear this up. We’ll just have to use that bamboo set your friend gave us for the time being.”
“Oh!” Mom called out, and the sharpness of her voice made me think it was out of pain.
“Mom! Are you OK?” I called back.
“My barong statue! Something smashed it,” she moaned. I used a brush to scoop up the broken kitchenware and locked the cabinet before jogging back to her.
“What happened?” I asked. She just stared at the barely recognizable pile of paint-chipped wood at her feet. The barong was a mythical lion often placed in homes for protection. Only the statue’s large eyes and wide, toothy mouth remained whole. I placed my hand on her shoulder. “I’m sorry, Mom. That really sucks.”
Mom sighed and picked up the larger pieces. “I’ve had this since I was young. My parents gave it to me when I married your father.” She sounded broken, but there was little I could do, and our clients were arriving soon.
“I’m sorry, Mom,” I repeated. “Maybe we can find someone to fix it?” I scooped the pile onto a scarf and tied it up, storing it in a bag for safekeeping.
An hour later, our clients entered our living room and settled on the freshly cleaned couch. They were dressed immaculately in cotton slacks and blazers, and sustainable shoes made from seaweed and recycled plastic. One of the clients, Betty, had tan skin and sleek blond hair tucked into a side ponytail. The other, Arnold, had brown skin and curly dark hair that hung over his eyes. They looked around the small room, and I saw their eyes land on the government-issued Sea Debris Scooper that public and private boats were required to install for passive collection of microplastics and inorganic material. It gave off a gentle whirring sound that some found unpleasant but didn’t bother Mom and I, who were just happy that we could benefit from it without having to break the bank. Sea Debris was a Dutch company that created large-scale commercial environmental solutions and was currently being represented by Betty and Arnold.
“I see you have one of our best sellers,” said Betty.
“And our saline-resistant solar panels,” Arnold commented, craning his neck to better see the panels fastened to our upper deck.
“Yes,” my mom said mildly. “Your products are a point of pride for us.”
“Then you’ll be pleased to learn that we have a new product coming out this summer,” Betty replied. “A state-of-the-art technology for harnessing tidal power and wave energy for the masses. This will bring much-needed diversity to existing renewable energy infrastructure and reduce the chance of homes like yours being stranded at sea after a string of cloudy days.”
“We’ve done extensive tests on our prototypes,” Arnold added, “and are scheduled to deploy models this summer for major cities across the world. Your capital, Jakarta, will receive one as well.”
“That sounds great,” I said, excited about the major news but feeling confused about the direction this conversation was taking.
“Which is why we need your help,” Betty said. “This technology is highly innovative and could drastically change the market for tidal energy. But just as we were about to ship the final blueprints to our partners, they went missing. Along with one of our engineers.”
“We suspect that this engineer ran off with the blueprints and is planning to sell it to one of our competitors,” Arnold continued. “If they patent our technology, it would be impossible to fight for proprietary rights, and the debt we’ve accrued from funding this research could destroy us.”
I glanced at Mom and could tell we were wondering the same thing. How could a company that raked in millions each year from private and public partnerships possibly be in debt?
“Do you have any information on this engineer?” Mom asked.
Betty produced a tablet and swiped to unlock it. On its smooth surface a calm face framed by dark wavy curls peered back at me, their brown skin and brown eyes achingly familiar. They looked Indonesian, but I was not sure until I scanned the text below their picture and saw their country of origin and last place of residence: Jakarta. Their first name was recorded as “unknown,” which was not uncommon due to the different naming structures of different countries. But aside from basic information on appearance, background, and length of employment at Sea Debris, the file revealed shockingly little.
“Is this everything?” Mom asked with an arched brow.
“Unfortunately, yes,” Arnold replied. “Although Pertiwi worked with us for nearly 10 years, she kept a low profile. When we interviewed her supervisors, they didn’t have much to say other than noting her stringent work ethic. In fact, she never took time off, except once a year for something called Nyepi, which is … ah, some kind of local holiday from her hometown,” he said with a shrug.
Nypei was a Balinese holiday. It shouldn’t surprise me that they would mix up the traditions and customs of different islands, but my heart grew heavy with the knowledge that we were going to have to find and turn in someone from the same island as us.
“We can make do with this,” Mom said, bringing me back to the conversation. She entered her code into the tablet so that Pertiwi’s file could be uploaded to our virtual case management system with encryption for confidentiality. Mom discussed our payment policy with Betty and Arnold before leading them outside to our dock and promising to contact them frequently with updates.
We dove headfirst into the investigation, splitting up tasks like running Pertiwi’s information through local record systems, scouring news articles and social media, and making inquiries to Banjars across the island. Mom was insistent on reaching out to the Banjars herself as these community groups often acted like local government and had key, intimate insight into the goings-on of their towns and neighborhoods, which they might be willing to share if you showed trustworthiness. It helped if you spoke the local language instead of the pidgin used for inter-island communication, which Mom was more fluent in than I. That was just as well since I also had to tamp down a general feeling of unease about this case, and the best way to do that was through tedious tasks like navigating data systems and hashtags.
Hours later, our solar-powered lamps kicked on as the sun dipped below the horizon of gentle, lapping waves. None of the people we contacted had gotten back to us yet, but I did enjoy some of the posts that came up in my social media search. Searching for variations and combinations of different terms came up with lots of random posts and rabbit holes, but one of my favorites was by a local singer crooning an old ballad with the description “for Pertiwi” under the video. She looked to be about my age and had an amazing voice, strumming along with a guitar and wearing a white kebaya top with a frangipani flower tucked behind one ear. It looked like she had just come from temple, with the sun streaming through some banana trees behind her. Switching on Bluetooth, I played the song over from the beginning so Mom could enjoy it as well.
She hummed along for a bit, tapping her feet in time to the music. “This is nice,” she said. “What song is this?”
“It’s that old song that used to play on the radio a while back, remember? This singer tweaked it a little for an acoustic version, and I found it because she dedicated it to someone named Pertiwi,” I said with a chuckle. We knew from our records search that there were hundreds of people with that name on this island.
Mom nodded then turned back to her work. A moment later, a small chime went off on someone’s device and Mom scooted back from her table with a loud whoop. “We got a reply!” she said with excitement and turned around to flash me a broad grin. “Tomorrow we’ll meet with Banjar Mimpi for lunch. They said they are willing to sit with us and hear our questions.”
The next morning, we took an automated, zero-emissions hydrogen train up north to a town named Mimpi. The open market was packing up, and activity on the streets had thinned as a result of residents and schoolchildren taking their lunches to some shaded retreat. It had been a while since we ventured into these parts, and I was not sure if the infrastructure here would be accessible for Mom. However, we were pleasantly surprised to find that most of the buildings surrounding the town center were equipped with railed rampways made from cork and recycled rubber tires. The roads were also well-paved and spacious enough for Mom’s electric wheelchair, which is standard-issue and fully funded from the post-Decree People’s Healthcare Plan. Its embedded gyroscope and spherical frame made from molded bamboo and reclaimed metal is phenomenal at keeping her upright on any terrain regardless of slope, but does require smooth surfaces to operate on.
Mom led us toward a raised pavilion that was open to the elements but blissfully shaded from the sun in most parts. We removed our shoes before rolling up the ramp, ducking under a sign hung overhead that read “Banjar Mimpi,” and were greeted with a burst of intoxicating aromas. We neared the table where food was being served, drawn to it like flies, and ogled the vast array of sumptuous dishes. Creamy coconut rice; spring rolls loaded with julienned veggies; crispy, fried match sticks of tempeh tossed with peanuts in a sweet-and-spicy sauce; curried tofu and potatoes; chilled, spiced local veggies and seaweed; and my personal favorite, gado-gado. I zoomed in on the dish of crisp bean sprouts, green beans, chopped cabbage, tofu, and congealed steamed rice cakes slathered in heaping amounts of spicy peanut sauce, my mouth watering at the heavenly smell. But before I could grab a bowl, Mom grabbed my arm in a steel vice and leveled me with her most severe don’t-even-think-about-it stare.
“My apologies,” Mom said, and I belatedly realized that she had been talking to someone. A tall man in his 60s was standing next to her, his hair close-cropped and wispy white against mottled dark brown skin. He was dressed in a well-worn short-sleeved shirt with a sarong wrapped around his waist, which featured a lovely batik pattern in burnt umber. “My daughter must have been distracted,” Mom continued, giving me the side-eye. “This is Pak Surya, he is the head of the Banjar for this town. He has graciously invited us to lunch with him and his husband, and then after we can ask any questions we have.”
“It’s very nice to meet you, Pak Surya,” I said as my cheeks flamed with embarrassment. “You and your husband are very generous.” Despite the hunger churning in my stomach, it was no excuse for my rudeness. He smirked knowingly and nodded toward the food, indicating that we should serve ourselves before joining him in the center of the pavilion.
We joined Pak Surya and his husband, Pak Jendra, on some faded but sturdy rattan chairs. As soon as they lifted a delicate handful of food to their mouths, I inhaled my gado-gado and sagged in delight at its comforting texture and flavor. My dad’s version would always be my favorite, but I loved how spicy Pak Jendra’s dish was and how the local veggies he had used were crisper and sweeter than the ones in our town. He’d also added small, boiled rice-paddy snails that were delightfully chewy and combined well with the steamed rice cakes made from a red variety grown only in this region.
Pak Jendra grinned at me. “I’m glad you like my cooking,” he said, leaning into his husband with affection. “You might already know that I source all of my food from this town and its surrounding area. This red rice is a source of pride for me, in particular.”
“Many years ago,” Pak Surya said, “we almost lost all our rice fields. If our crops weren’t being ruined by scorching heat or flash floods, they were buried beneath landslides or ransacked by people fleeing sea-level towns and cities.”
Pak Jendra’s grin faded. “It was a struggle to feed ourselves during that time. But we realized that by adapting our existing subak irrigation systems to fit the changing needs of our fields we could mitigate at least some of the damage. We turned our temples into shelters for the houseless, who assisted our priests in measuring rain patterns so that we could predict the flow of water downhill and ensure that every rice paddy was equally fed. We banded together to advocate for policies in the Decree that now offer stronger protections for our land and resources. Over time, conditions improved and now we can rest knowing our grandchildren won’t be hungry and that our cuisine can still be enjoyed by many.”
The food in my stomach turned to stone as the reality of his words sank in. He did not say it, but the gravity in his voice indicated that surviving this period had come at a huge physical and possibly spiritual cost.
Mom pulled three sticks of incense made from recycled prayer flowers out of her bag and gave them to Pak Surya. “This may not ease the pain for you, but sometimes it helps make it more bearable. If you want, we could light these and make an offering,” she said.
Pak Surya and Jendra accepted her incense, their faces tight masks of closed emotion. They produced some squares of woven pandan leaves filled with prayer flowers and together we lit the incense and quietly honored the dead.
When the incense had burned, Pak Surya turned to us and said, “Now, I believe you’ve come here to ask us some questions?”
Mom straightened and got right to it. “We’ve been hired by Sea Debris to locate an engineer who goes by the name Pertiwi.” Mom took out her tablet and shared the photo and information on physical appearance that Betty and Arnold had provided. “Do you know anyone who fits this description?” Mom asked.
Pak Jendra excused himself and took away our dishes. Pak Surya cupped his chin in thought. After a long pause, he said, “These people who hired you — Sea Debris? What do they want with Pertiwi?” He spoke her name with a calmness that revealed little, neither confirming nor denying his knowledge of her.
“They didn’t say,” Mom replied. “But law enforcement has dramatically changed since the Decree, so I’d venture to guess that at worst they want to press charges and at best they want to pay her off with a non-disclosure agreement.”
“You really think they would treat her with the same due process that they show their own citizens?” Pak Surya asked, shaking his head. “Things may have changed since we were young, but people like Pertiwi with fragile immigration statuses are still legally at the mercy of employers and civil servants in their host country.”
“That is true,” Mom said. “But what we do know is that the technology Pertiwi has had been scheduled to arrive in just a few months in Jakarta. This could mean the difference between just getting by and thriving for lots of people. Not only will more families have access to cheaper and more consistent energy sources, but the inventory for higher-paying jobs will skyrocket while tidal energy units are stationed across the country. You can’t deny that this would be great for a lot of people here.” She looked around at the people milling outside the pavilion, but I knew she was also thinking of Dad and Arjuna, who taught at the high school but often had to work second jobs to cover energy costs.
Pak Surya gave a heavy sigh. “I cannot answer your original question,” he said, “because to do so would break a promise that I made many years ago. But I do not entirely disagree with your logic and will leave you with this: Today, good triumphs over evil. If you follow good, you may find the truth.”
When we left the pavilion and were out of earshot of Pak Surya, Mom and I shared our thoughts. “So that was interesting,” I ventured, feeling somewhat disappointed. “He and Pak Jendra were great company, but that was kind of a bust in terms of leads.”
“It did seem that way, didn’t it?” Mom said, lost in thought. “But his parting remark has me thinking. It was strange of him to speak in such broad terms of ‘good’ and ‘evil.’ I’m still puzzling out what he meant by it.”
I rested against the roots of an old banyan tree, feeling tired from the heat and the heavy meal. Scrolling through my phone out of habit, I noticed that the local singer who did acoustic cover songs had made a new post. It was a simple flyer with artistic drawings of traditional Balinese dance superimposed in front of a photo of an old Banjar building. Apparently, she was going to be performing tonight in just a few hours.
Mom peered over my shoulder and startled me with a loud gasp. “What?” I asked, mildly annoyed.
She tore the phone from my hands and held it up in the direction of town. “This is the same Banjar building as Pak Surya’s,” she exclaimed. “This singer is going to perform here. Tonight.”
We spent the rest of the afternoon doing as much research as we could into the singer before the performance. We learned that her name is Priyanka, she was in her 30s, loved dogs, and grew up in Mimpi. Most of her posts were rather impersonal, but we did come across a photo of her alongside Pak Surya from a few years back. In that post, she gave extensive thanks to Banjar Mimpi for funding her education in Java, which allowed her to receive top-notch professional training from Balinese dance tutors in the capital. There were also a few interview-like posts highlighting some local, traditional mask-makers and the lengthy processes that they undertake, including practices for sustainable-wood sourcing, collaboration with priests and community members, and customs to impart respect for spirits throughout the process. There were no other mentions of Pertiwi besides the one, but we suspected nevertheless that Priyanka would be our key to learning more about the missing engineer.
As the sun set, we approached the pavilion-turned-stage and found seating near the back of the growing audience. Gamelan percussion music wafted magnetically from the musicians arranged on the pavilion. Off to the side, a gate façade was propped up, mirroring the entryway common to most temples. The music swelled to a dramatic height and out of the gate the mythical lion Barong emerged, resplendent in gilded clothing and flower-strewn hair. His teeth were larger and wider than the statue version Mom had in our living room, with bulging bright eyes and enormous ears. He pranced playfully with two monkeys, the smoothness of their motions making it easy to forget that it was humans performing this epic dance. Then Rangda, the queen of demons, entered the stage and ensorcelled human soldiers into turning their daggers against their own skin. But as they pierced themselves, Barong cloaked them in protective magic, making them impervious to their deadly weapons. The dance came quickly to an end, with Barong triumphing over Rangda to the cheers of the audience.
“Well, that was fun,” I said, tired from a day of dead ends.
“Indeed,” Mom said distractedly. She was craning her neck around the crowd of people milling about and talking after the performance. They were distracted and slow-moving in the darkness, possibly out of tiredness but also perhaps due to overindulgence in homemade rice wine as well. Her eyes lit on some movement near the stage, and she zipped in that direction, maneuvering past stumbling shadows with expertise.
“Where are we going?” I called after her.
“Do you know what that dance is about?” she asked me in excitement. “The triumph of good over evil! Pak Surya said that if we found that tonight —”
“Then we should follow the performers who played Barong!” I said, catching on.
We reached the pavilion and rounded toward the back, arriving upon a small gathering of performers and musicians. Some were changing out of their costumes and into more comfortable clothes, while others were enjoying a hot meal and some tea by the fire. Mom’s eyes locked on someone removing the Barong mask off in the distance. They were partially shrouded in darkness, but I could see just enough to recognize that it was Priyanka.
She shucked her clothes and folded them carefully into a neat pile, handing them off to someone for storage. We trailed behind at a distance, trying to be as quiet as possible while stumbling through the darkness on unfamiliar terrain. There was not much we could see, but it was obvious from the slope of the ground and the thickness of the air that we were getting closer and closer to sea level. The ground turned from smooth pavement to bumpy packed dirt to shifting sand so suddenly that I had to grab Mom’s wheelchair to stop her from pitching over into the darkness.
Then a bright light flashed in our eyes and a jagged edge pressed into my chest. “Who are you and why are you following me?” a harsh voice demanded. Blinking rapidly to get my vision back, I realized that the voice belonged to Priyanka. It was jarring to go from admiring someone’s singing voice to fearing them over the course of 24 hours, but Mom kept her cool and replied to her.
“We mean you no harm,” Mom said. “We’re just detectives, looking to track down some proprietary information. All we want is to have a conversation and find out what you know.”
“Proprietary information,” someone said in the darkness. They did not approach us, but I had a good idea who we were finally speaking with.
“That would indicate ownership of something,” they continued. “But how does ownership manifest? If a company funds research, but the scientist creates, tests, and finalizes the technology, does it belong to the company that paid for it or the scientist who made it? What about the community that raised and invested in that scientist? If a coastal town is forced to build a tidal-energy station without being asked or consulted with, and that equipment damages that town and its ecosystem, then who takes ownership and responsibility for correcting those damages?”
“Those are all very thoughtful questions,” Mom said slowly. “But it doesn’t provide an alternative. Yes, there are flaws with the way big companies like Sea Debris operate. But they have a measurable positive impact on the environment, increasing access to better-paying jobs, and pushing Decree-like world-changing solutions.”
“But those solutions don’t impact everyone the same,” Priyanka said. “Sea Debris designed and tested the tidal-energy stations to be perfect in the Netherlands. But that one-size-fits-all approach is doomed to fail without the proper adjustments.”
“They wanted to implement these stations across several islands in Indonesia,” the shadowy figure said. “Without consulting with any of those communities. But over the course of a few weeks, we’ve been able to connect with Banjars on different islands and tweak the tidal stations to suit the wave power, depth, wildlife needs, and fishing needs of each community. All it took was having conversations and inviting people to lean on their expertise to come up with their own solutions.”
Mom and I exchanged a look and the shadowy figure receded farther into the darkness. Priyanka looked at us and asked, “So now what will you do?”
A few weeks later, Mom and I were sitting in the living room of our boat home having tea with Betty and Arnold.
“You’re telling me she fell off a cliff?” Betty said with no small amount of horror.
Mom looked solemnly into her teacup and shuddered. “It was horrific to watch. She’d been so close to the edge when we caught up to her, but the soil must have been loose because it crumbled right before our eyes.”
“We reached for her, but by then it was too late,” I said.
Betty and Arnold looked at each other with barely hidden discontent. They opened Pertiwi’s case file, which had been updated by us that morning, and moved it from “active” to “archived.” “Is there anything else you learned in your investigation?” Arnold asked, voice brightening with a last-ditch dash of hope.
Mom looked at the Barong statue, which had been recently repaired with painstaking care and restored to its former glory. It was now fastened securely within one of the clear, enclosed cabinets where it would be safe from any future falls.
“No,” Mom said. “Nothing at all.”
Savitri Putu Horrigan (she/her/dia) lives and works in Manchester, New Hampshire. She is a social worker and community organizer with a passion for health equity. Dia draws inspiration from her Balinese heritage, world history, and detective stories.
Carolina Rodriguez Fuenmayor is a 31-year-old illustrator from Bogotá, Colombia.