PodCastle 741: Between The Island and the Deep Blue Sea

Show Notes

Rated PG-13

Between The Island and the Deep Blue Sea

By Jaxon Tempest


No one knew how the island floated, but everyone knew it shouldn’t.

Four thousand square miles of concrete bones and metal veins, a million people circulating daily, and yet it sat in the middle of the Atlantic like a feather on a still pond. Even those with the most rudimentary understanding of physics would cry bullshit. Everyone had their theories, of course. Some called it an act of God, others a miracle of science, and a small yet loud minority called it a 10G interface meant to hack into their minds as a part of the new world order. When the three clashed, normal family dinners and rail rides to work turned into a three-ring circus of physics, theology and conspiracy theories.

I watched their interactions with a subdued smile. They were wrong, but their commitment to their ideals was adorable.

In rare instances, the three sides of the debate came together — when outside forces got involved. They came in the form of greedy foreigners with deep pockets and silver tongues. The Bahamas was no stranger to such people, even before the sea rose over the islands. They promised investments and jobs and economic boosts, then took all their money and fled the country at the slightest inconvenience.

It wasn’t different now. Instead of exploiting the sun, sand, and sea, they exploited the island’s secret, chased it like a cryptid. They came with cameras, diving equipment, and promises to uncover the mystery. Despite the warnings from the locals, they dove into the tongue of the ocean.

I killed them all.

First, it was a German engineer who thought the island possessed some secret technology she could replicate. I snapped her neck before she made it fifty feet down. Then came the BBC film crew, twenty strong. The metallic tang of their blood tainted the water for days. I popped the head off a social media influencer and left it on the south sea wall, hoping, in vain, it would deter them.

Human stupidity was as vast and endless as the stars, and as surely as stars burned until they burst, they kept coming. Scientists, free divers, hobbyists. They treated the island’s secret like some grand discovery they could name after themselves or a feat to be conquered — the Mount Everest of the ocean. I’d sooner claw my way to the earth’s core and die in a fiery ball of torment before someone planted their raggedy flag in my domain.

At least my humans knew how to conduct themselves. They spent their summers carousing instead of diving into my waters. Goombay season, they called it, a time of food and drink and Junkanoo. My favorite time of the year.

Lucaya Square was awash in aqua and gold light and draped in colorful feathers and strings of beads. People drifted from end to end, wrapped in luminescent clothes that turned their bodies into walking raves. Vendors lined the east and west side, wafting steam from their carts coloring the air with the scents of conch fritters and grouper fingers. Blenders whirred, bottles shook and cups overflowed with rum and daiquiris.

It was bright. It was loud. It was glorious.

No one gave me a second glance as I waded through the sea of bodies. I looked just like them, same dark brown skin, high cheekbones, colorful braids and bangles that lit up in time to the music. These were my people, from the throng of dancers clustered around the DJ booth to the wallflowers clinging to the fringes of the square.

I made it halfway through the crowd when the music cut. Murmurs of dissent rose from the gathering. The 360 jumbotron that encircled the square like an oversized ribbon swapped from colorful Kalik ads to a live feed of the news. A chorus of dissonance blared through the speakers and made my hair flicker.

The ticker at the bottom read: Live — Local Oceanographer Dr. Giselle Grey Makes the Daring Leap into the Tongue of the Ocean to Discover The Island’s Secret.

My euphoria evaporated like a cloud of steam, and a heaviness settled over me, like my bones had turned to lead. One of my own humans?

Giselle held her hands in front of the cameras as she backed away from the horde of reporters. The setting sun burnished her brown skin orange and winked off the reflective stripes on her dive suit. Reporters and camera drones swarmed around her in a cacophony of whirs, shouts, and flashes, backdropped by the ruins of islands sticking out of the Atlantic like rotting teeth.

“This is a scientific mission, not one of your spectacles. Leave. Now.” Giselle spun on her heel and started down the length of the south sea wall at a brisk walk. The reporters went after her like a pack of frenzied sharks and shouted questions at her back.

“Dr. Grey, what made you decide to dive into the trench?”

“Is The Marine Institute funding this?”

I swore under my breath. Of course, The Marine Institute. They approached the secret with caution, dropping machines into the trench that I made sure never resurfaced. I had seen none for a month and concluded they’d given up. This human had moved in silence, planned her dive in the middle of Goombay season when everyone, myself included, would be too wrapped up in the festivities to care.

Giselle quickened her steps, the wind whipping her braids behind her. She stopped at a pile of diving equipment, picked up her tank and strapped it to her body.

“Come on, you don’t have time for one question?” a reporter insisted.

Giselle gave him a long look, and her shoulders slumped, the lines around her mouth deepened to jagged crevices, and the glimmer of anger faded from her eyes.

“Fine. One question,” she conceded.

“Why? You of all people should know better than to jump in there.” He waved a hand towards the water.

She sat on the edge of the seawall with her feet dangling over. “Since you like questions so much, let me ask you this: what happens if whatever is holding up this island fails?”

A valid concern, but unfounded. The buildings could stretch to the moon, the sea could swallow the earth and the summer storms could tear the sky asunder, and even then, I would never allow The Island to sink.

Another reporter snorted. “There’s no evidence of that happening.”

“Not to the naked eye, no,” Giselle said. “But we’ve been expanding this island for nearly a century. Theoretically speaking, there could be a point of critical mass. A new building. A drop of a feather. And this whole thing sinks. What do we do then? There are nearly a million souls on this island, and no contingency plan.”

“Yeah, well, that’s just speculation.”

Giselle slipped on her fins. “We deserve to know what’s under there.”

Guilt pinched my stomach, amplified by the murmurs of assent rising from the crowd. Why did humans have this burning need to know how every little thing worked? They chased their curiosity and called it science.

The reporters shot another barrage of dissonant questions.

“You got your one question!” Giselle snapped, her voice quieting them. “Just please, leave me to my work.” She topped her ensemble off with a dive helmet and jumped into the trench.

Silence fell over Lucaya Square; even the vendors who’d been blitzing up fruit and alcohol paused to watch the last ripple flatten in Giselle’s wake.

They all knew what was coming.


I eased out of the crowd to the south side of the square where the statue of the conch blower stood. She stretched three hundred feet tall, one foot braced against a slab of limestone, body angled toward the east and a conch shell held to her puffed-out lips.

On an ordinary day she was a tourist trap, but during Goombay, the Junkanooers sat at her feet, making last-minute adjustments to their costumes. An android glued iridescent beads to her feathered headdress. She lifted her head and gave me a nod as I drifted by. I forced a smile in return and found a vacant spot to sit.

I leaned my head against the conch blower’s ankle, closed my eyes and breathed, a deep inhale that I held for longer than a human could. The crinkle of crepe paper and clicking of beads faded away, replaced by the gurgle of moving water. A gentle ebb and flow rocked the tension from my limbs. The salt of the ocean sat on my tongue, along with the bitter tang of an unwanted visitor.

When I opened my eyes, the jagged bottom of the trench stretched beneath me. Rotting furniture and boats were scattered across the sand, tangled together with old rags and nets and fishing lines. Slabs of concrete strung through with steel leaned against the sheer cliffs on the west side, and empty dive suits swayed in the current like ghosts.

The island sat on my back, its weight balanced down the length of my spine, heavier than I remembered it the last time I woke up. My gaze drifted to the east cliff. The water was a touch higher, covering more of the ruins of the Exuma Cays. Still rising, still destroying, as it had been for hundreds of years.

When said rise had begun, I awoke to the cries of a dying ocean and swam from the caves that webbed out at the bottom of the trench. I beckoned what little remained of this region’s ocean life into my embrace, made an ecosystem on my skin where they could thrive without worry of human interference. Anemones embellished long vines of algae falling from my head like faux locs. Starfish hid in the seagrass that adorned my collar in swirling clusters, and coral coiled around my legs from knees to ankle. Schools of fish swam past my eyes, crawfish crawled around the reefs, and the occasional shark settled on my feet to sleep.

But these creatures hadn’t been the only ones suffering. Year after year, I watched bodies and cars and buildings fall into the trench, washed away by the summer storms. I watched the humans try in vain to float platforms atop the water and build a home that would rise with the ocean. Their best effort lasted a week, then collapsed on itself and sank. As the ocean continued to encroach on the islands, time ran short. Their dreams were too big for anything the technology of the time could achieve.

But not too big for me. Their perseverance in the face of adversity filled me with pride and pity. Like the ocean, they were victims, only trying to survive. So I stretched my faux locs under the platforms they built and held them up. The stalks were strong enough to keep them afloat, but discreet enough to not reveal me.

It wasn’t thankless work. I felt the islanders’ gratitude with every new platform added, every new building erected and every family who slept without worry of the rising seas. They continued to expand, and the more the island grew, the more they realized their dreams defied their precious science. And I realized I couldn’t rely on the darkness of the trench to keep me hidden.

It was then I shifted the island to my back and draped my hair around my body for an extra layer of privacy. The transition sent a tremor through the concrete that roused the humans from their slumber. I carved the shape of a woman from the wall of the trench, strung a thread of my soul through her and sent her to be my eyes above. She warned me when someone planned to jump into the trench, but she wasn’t enough to stop them. No, humans required more radical means of determent. While I hadn’t enjoyed killing all those greedy foreigners, the thought of killing an islander made me ill.

Light cut through the water at my right, glaring enough to send the morays into the holes in the reefs. The ocean carried Giselle’s voice to my ear, and I heard her as clearly as the hum of the currents.

“Log: I’m at fifty feet, almost the point of no return. If I make it past the photic zone, I’ll only have ten minutes to gather as much info as I can.”

I drew the stingrays sleeping on my arms closer to my chest and silently begged her to leave. If she turned around now, I wouldn’t have to kill her. But, like the foreigners, she was persistent. Her descent continued, past the point where the seawall ended and I began, and clusters of mermaid fans and seagrass hid the edge of the concrete. I felt every stroke of her legs, heard her every breath — the breath I would crush out of her if she didn’t turn around. But she had seen nothing of significance yet. There was still time.

Giselle paused at the point where the sunlight could reach no further, and a bright flash lit up my hair. “Log: this looks like filamentous algae, but I’ve never seen it grow this thick. It’s like rope. I could bring back a sample.” She took a loc into her hand, oblivious to the ones curling around her back. If she cut my hair, I would strangle her. “But I doubt I’ll make it back either way.” She let my hair fall, but I remained poised to kill.

“I think if I get through this algae, I’ll be able to see the bottom of the island.” Giselle’s hand came through my hair and parted it like a curtain. I had no choice now. She swam through, one hand held near the side of her helmet as she looked around. I had to do it. But she still hadn’t seen me or the ecosystem. If she turned around now . . .

Giselle looked up, and a bright flash radiated from her helmet. As quick as the light cut through the water, I coiled the locs around her neck. She froze, eyes wide, body rigid as a board. I could snap her in two with a thought. I should snap her in two. For the sake of everything I’d sworn to preserve, I had to. But the thought refused to form.

The rapid thump of her heart echoed out into the water — a drumbeat that reminded me of Junkanoo. Her eyes met mine through the visor of her helmet, and the fear in them made the island feel heavy enough to crush me. This human wasn’t another greedy foreigner. She was the Junkanooers in their feathered headdresses, the dancers around the DJ booth, and the wallflowers hiding behind the stands. She was one of my humans.

Giselle’s gaze roamed over every inch of my visage, from the scales adorning my brow to my high cheekbones and full lips, and her expression morphed from fear, to childlike wonder, to very adult disbelief.

I frowned. Part of me wished she’d thrash or scream, beat her fists against my hair. Call me a monster. Vindicate me. Her mouth worked, but only small, choking gasps escaped. I eased my grip enough for her to speak.

Giselle coughed. “Holy shit.” She clasped her dive suit over her heart, her rasping breaths fogging the inside of her dive helmet. “I know you. You ride the north rail in the mornings. You’re the one who’s been . . . ?”

I closed my eyes briefly, as though that could make all the diverless suits at the bottom of the trench disappear. As though it could scrub the stench of blood and death from the tide.

As though I wouldn’t do it all again.

“Why?” The question lingered in the silence between us, heavy with the weight of every human I’d sacrificed to the trench. I turned my hand over and exposed an octopus clinging to my pinky.

“A reef octopus? They went extinct ages ago. You’ve been preserving them under these conditions?” Her words came out in a breathy rush.

I ducked my head to expose the bit of the seawall peeking over my shoulder.

“Them . . . and all of us.” Giselle breathed a laugh. “I have so many questions. Have you always been holding up The Island? What other species have you been preserving? Are there others like you? How are you up there and down here?”

I shook my head at the onslaught of questions. Even if I could articulate an answer, I didn’t want to be picked apart by her science.

“I see.” Giselle fell into silence, staring past me at some far-off place only she could see. The sounds of the ocean moved in to occupy the space between us — the hum of the currents, the gurgles of the water as wind churned it into waves.

Giselle pressed the side of her helmet, and a metal square popped out from the side. “My logs.” She cradled it in both hands, stroked the back with a thumb. Her eyes betrayed nothing, but I sensed the tense set of her shoulders and her uneven breaths. She held it over her shoulder and let go.

Her logs, her science, fell end over end to the bottom of the trench and settled amongst the bones of civilization. And yet, Giselle smiled, warm like the dawn after a summer storm. Even with her science gone and the cords of my hair a breath away from taking her head, she smiled.

Warmth flooded my chest. Tiny as she was, I believed in that moment, if given the chance, she could hold The Island above the rising tides too.

I loosened my locs from around her neck and gathered them beneath her feet. Then, as slowly and gently as I’d eased the island onto my back all those decades ago, I lifted Giselle towards the dregs of sunlight dancing on the surface.

She looked down at me and inclined her head in a bow. “Thank you.”

This was either the best or worst decision I’d ever made. And yet, as the abundance of gratitude in Giselle’s words fell over me, I felt light enough to float out of the water and into the sky, even with the island on my back.

And I smiled too.


About the Author

Jaxon Tempest

Jaxon Tempest is an aspiring author of serialised fiction. When she’s not staring at a blank page waiting for words manifest themselves, she’s drowning out the world with an audiobook or comic, or spending too many hours playing video games.

Find more by Jaxon Tempest


About the Narrator

Soleil Knowles

Soleil Knowles is a Bahamian born and raised author, currently working on obtaining her Bachelors in English. She’s presently curating a collection of books she’ll get to at some point, and has a soft spot for stories with a dose of wild magic and terror. She can be found lurking on Twitter @srkwrites_, and her work can be read in Fiyah Literary Magazine and The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror, Vol.2

Find more by Soleil Knowles