At the end of the 21st century, the world has changed dramatically, but life continues 1,000 feet below the ocean's surface. In Great Britain, sea creatures swim among the ruins of Big Ben and the Tower of London, and citizens waver between fear and hope: fear of what lurks in the abyss and hope that humanity will soon discover a way to reclaim the planet. Meanwhile, 16-year-old Leyla McQueen has her own problems to deal with. Her father's been arrested, accused of taking advantage of victims of the Seasickness — a malaise that consumes people, often claiming their lives. But Leyla knows he's innocent, and all she's interested in is getting him back so that their lives can return to normal.
When she's picked to race in the London Submersible Marathon, Leyla gets the chance to secure his freedom: The Prime Minister promises the champion whatever their heart desires. The race takes an unexpected turn, though, and presents her with an opportunity she never wanted: Leyla must venture outside of London for the first time in her life, to find and rescue her father herself. Now, she'll have to brave the waters and defy a corrupt government determined to keep its secrets, all the while dealing with a secretive, hotheaded companion she never asked for. As she discovers a world drowning in lies, how much longer can Leyla hold out hope for the truth? If she fails or falls prey to her own fears, she risks capture — or worse. And her father might be lost forever.
Release date: October 29, 2019
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Print pages: 256
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The Light at the Bottom of the World
I turn down the blaring punk rock music ricocheting off the submersible’s interior and peer into the murky green-gray depths once more for any hint of a watchful Eyeball; the tiny spherical cameras could be anywhere. The current looks clear. I steer past the fluorescent face of Big Ben and edge closer to the center of the former Houses of Parliament, toward the soft illumination of the Memorial Candle. A small number of patterned rabbitfish remain transfixed by the commemorative shaft of light. A traditional reminder of the looming anniversary, the lilac ray beams up through the city’s waters as far as the eye can see.
God, how I love staring at it every year.
Sometimes the Memorial Candle is all of humankind echoing up through layer after layer of current and wave and pressure, breaking through the liquid skin of the surface and reminding the universe: Hey, we’re still alive, still going down here! Other times the glow is a greeting across forever, a trillion Old World hugs and laughter and memories and dreams reaching down through the ages, lighting our way.
Sixty-five years tomorrow. Only sixty-five years ago all of this was air, not water. Like, there was nothing all around. Nothing in between structures, below people, or above their heads. Humanity carried on outside as if they were safely inside. Imagine being out in the open without the security of the water, exposed to the whole universe like that? Surreal.
My Bracelet flashes. I check the caller ID on the plain flexi-band around my wrist. “Accept.”
Theo’s holographic face materializes above my Bracelet, his smile reaching his pale-blue eyes. “You on your way, Leyla? There’s a money pot with your name on it. We have a clear window—pair of Eyeballs passed by not ten minutes ago, so we’re good for another hour. You’d think they’d take Christmas Day off, but nope.”
The money pot. I straighten, pushing my shoulders back. I really, really need it. Being a driving instructor doesn’t pay nearly enough, and if I get the reply I’m waiting on, then I’ll need every penny of the pot. I have to win today’s sprint.
As if he’s guessed what I’m thinking, Theo nods. “You’ve got this, I know it. And I know you don’t want to borrow, but—”
“Hey, I’m fine, really I am. But thanks. On my way now.”
“Great, we’re all gathered by the bridge. Everyone’s here. And, erm, Tabby’s getting, you know, ‘impatient.’ Ouch, Tabs!”
His twin sister’s face squeezes into the frame, with Tabby rolling her piercing blue eyes. “Ignore him, Leyla. Hmm, bet you’re out by the Memorial Candle, all lost at sea again and—”
“Oi,” Theo says. “Just cos you’re a bot, doesn’t mean everyone is. Ouch!”
Every time Theo says “Ouch” I actually flinch as I grin; Tabby’s nails are always pointy and red, as if she’s drawn blood in the jab.
“I’ll be there in a minute,” I say. “And, Tabs, leave Theo alone!”
The Clash’s guitar riff resumes its rightful place at full decibel as I rise. The current is calm. I push the throttle all the way forward and hurtle toward Tower Bridge and my friends.
Light from the countless solar spheres a thousand feet up on the ocean’s surface highlights the watery depths. Beneath me, early morning London is a giant interlocking puzzle of domed titanium buildings interspersed with acrylic transport tunnels—all shadowy shapes and misty lights. The inky body of the Thames passes by, the memory of a river. Londoners feel attached to the legendary trail of deeper water, and its former banks are kept perennially lit. The city glimmers around me. Festive and commemorative signs are everywhere.
I approach Tower Bridge where the sprint will begin.
The sight of the bridge always lifts my spirits. I’ve spent more time hanging out here with the twins than any other location in London, our grouped subs giving the adults plenty to moan about.
Rapid movement near the Tower of London to my left catches my eye and I squint: Is someone watching me? But it’s just a glistening oarfish slipping out of one of the upper windows of the White Tower. The creature panics, heading straight into the crab-like machines laboring on the tower’s moss-ridden walls, before its flat silver body dives out of sight. I dip and zoom through the construction’s middle, seaweed hanging off every remaining part of the smashed-up bridge deck, and spot the other subs waiting for me.
The twins are in their blue twin-seated craft, a joint seventeenth birthday present given to them earlier this year. I can just about make out their faces. Even in this murky environment, their platinum-blond hair is clearly visible, and the world is instantly that much brighter.
I peer at my competition. Eight subs of various sizes and models—all the usual contenders. I mustn’t underestimate Malik; he’s been paying me for lessons, and he’s getting faster every week. We each chip in with the money pot, and the winner takes it all. Losing always hurts, because I know the coming week will be tough minus my contribution to the prize pot. I used to sprint solely for the thrills, but things are different now. And this week’s festive pot is much bigger than usual.
“All right, let’s do this.” Keung, contender and organizer, addresses us all via group broadcast. “The check-in cars are ready and waiting. Stop points are: St. Paul’s, Clio House on Trafalgar Square, and finally, the Island Housing Project. Usual rules apply—anyone misses a single check-in and the sprint is forfeit for them, et cetera, et cetera. Theo’s monitored the route for Eyeballs, and we should be all right for traffic violations for the next hour. Any questions?”
None. We move to line up at the walkway of the bridge. I give everything the once-over.
“Okay… Ready?” Keung asks.
Here we go. As usual, I’m driving Tabby’s compact but powerful single-seated scarlet number. The cockpit offers a 360-degree scope of my surroundings. Perfect. The more I can see, the safer I am. I hope. I scan once more for the telltale blip of an Eyeball hovering in the depths, despite Theo’s assurance. I can’t afford a traffic violation; three of those and my driving instructor’s permit is revoked. Thankfully he’s never wrong, though, and there’s no sign of the titanium spheres.
Theo’s a technical whiz kid and will happily spend entire weeks fiddling around with the bits on the huge table in his room. It’d drive me up the walls if I didn’t get out into the waters regularly. He’s studied the Eyeballs, recording the exact routes and shifts of the remote cameras.
“And in three… two… one… GO!”
The vessels move. The water churns and heaves, and my sub sways. Bismillah. I glance below, push forward on the joystick, and dive until I’m just above the enormous solar-fuel storage pipes. Phosphorous fibers are strewn over them, the celebratory illuminated strands mingling with the green algae worlds inhabiting their surfaces.
The music resumes with an album from the last decade, and I race toward St. Paul’s, climbing, falling, and swerving in time to the beat. My mood soars, my heart expands.
I hurtle over a colossal protein plant before whizzing above rows of obsolete rooftops jutting out from the ground like Old World gravestones. The brilliant white light of the tall streetlamps illuminates the shadowy grid of streets like ancient moonlight from forgotten skies.
St. Paul’s looms into view. The check-in car hovers above the cathedral, its lights on the antiquated landmark’s partial dome, and a humongous halibut descends inside via the open roof. The destruction was the result of an Anthropoid attack two decades ago—one of the terrorists’ most brutal. I flash until the car acknowledges my attendance. Lights appear in the block of flats next door, the cube-like resin-and-acrylic structure blinking into life. London’s waking up.
I tear away in the direction of Trafalgar Square and zoom through street after street, passing block after block, over all the ruin and decay and life of the city’s seabed.
My biggest weakness when racing is I’m easily distracted. It’s maddening. A sight here or there and my thoughts drift and I’m lost at sea, as Tabs puts it. Not good.
Traffic’s still at a bare minimum this early, only the odd craft around. I get to Clio House in record time. The giant construction is Great Britain’s largest historical-reenactment hall yet, but I prefer the twins’ Holozone; it’s more private and we never have to dress up. I check in and move on.
A quick glance and there’s a car way behind me, its lights low. It might not be a contender, but I can’t take any chances, not today. There’s a flash of illumination below as the first Underground train of the day whooshes through the transparent tunnel, startling the nearby creatures as usual. I dip toward it, skimming the debris on the ocean floor. The corroded skeleton of a bus thickly carpeted with moss and a telephone box trapped under an enormous statue—a man riding some kind of animal—lie coated in breadcrumb sponge. Both have attracted a group of inquisitive herring. I press on.
Last check-in now. I head straight for the towering shadows of the Island Housing Project. The lofty housing looms ahead.
The towers were built to reach out above the waterline after the floods, part of another failed global initiative. Scientists hadn’t foreseen the devastating levels the water would finally settle at, and the housing was fully submerged—now with no connection whatsoever to the world above.
The check-in car’s waiting by one of the rooftops. The whole roof is witness to Old World hope, rigged with all manner of survival resources, including a helipad. I hurtle away, headed straight back for the twins at Tower Bridge. A glimmering shoal of salmon split and dart out of the sub’s way, flickering in unison. My eyes narrow as the water ahead clears. I stiffen.
It wasn’t the sub that caused the salmon to scatter.
A bulky shadow rises from the depths, pausing in front of me.
My pulse races. It’s oily black and as wide as the sub. I don’t recognize it, which means it could be anything. It turns its head and swims straight for me. Two narrow milky-white slits for eyes stare as it advances. What the—
I swerve, gripping the throttle and joystick tight, and luckily miss the animal by inches. But the turn is too sharp, and the sub lurches before spinning out of control. I take deep breaths as I counter the spinning by repositioning the wings.
I mustn’t let the panic win. I’m safe. I’m at home, in London. This isn’t the wild, and there’s nothing to fear.
At last the whirling slows down, enough for me to notice the creature’s shadow slinking away back into the depths. I shudder. Movement ahead catches my eye and a circular yellow sub speeds past me, toward Tower Bridge. Malik. No.
I push the throttle all the way forward, pull back on the joystick, and climb waves that have turned choppier. Come on. I see the bridge, its pulsing lights beckoning me. Malik is directly below me now, racing toward it. I head into a forty-five-degree dive at full speed. I hold my breath. Come on, come on… Malik is fast.
But I’m faster. I pass his sub and keep pushing forward as I level. Please let me be the first. My eyes scan the scene, spotting only the twins’ craft. I lean right, soaring over the bridge and working my lights like mad. My Bracelet flashes, the twins’ voices bursting into the sub.
“You did it!”
Yes. My shoulders relax. If the solicitor’s firm gets back with a yes—please, God—then the money’s as good as spent, and I’d have been in trouble without it.
I run a diagnostics and the sub’s fine. Phew. And I know I didn’t hit the creature, thank goodness. I should spend more time on practicing stabilizing the sub when it whirlpools like that. Conquer that panic somehow. A freefall. It’s the only way.
No. I’m never, ever trying a freefall again. One terminated attempt months ago was enough terror for a lifetime.
As we wait for everyone to finish, the twins and I finalize plans for when I join them later this morning. The idea is mostly to feast, play endless games in the Holozone, and watch the live draw for the London Submersible Marathon—the annual obstacle race through the capital.
The arduous course is a big deal—huge. But there are only a hundred places, so nobody really expects to land one. Imagine having the chance to race an obstacle course as big and dramatic as the London Marathon! To ensure the actual route itself remains a secret, additional race boundaries are randomly installed throughout the city, and every year the exact obstacles and challenges are always concealed, too. It’s an incredibly tough undertaking. Thrilling, but seriously demanding.
“Enjoy this morning with your family, won’t you, Leyla?” Theo says.
My insides do this wild flip thing as I remember I’m this close now to the best present ever—some real McQueen family time—and I can’t stop grinning as I head home.
I speed up once more, belting out the lyrics to the ’20s pop-rock playing. At last I steer onto Bankside, slowing down as I pass my long block of flats. The one-story basic construction isn’t much to look at but remains watertight—I’m lucky. I do a quick scan of the immediate area to ensure there are no vessels lurking in the shadows today.
The sub grinds to a halt by my own bay on the parking wall, and I dip its nose into position, maneuvering until I hear it lock into place. The vehicle’s seal emerges from around the edges of its body, a large oval shape of robust, watertight material extending to meet the seal surrounding the dock. I shift around in the seat, my smile wide. I’m this close now. With the seals joined and the vessel safely locked and watertight, any trapped water is sucked out. The craft’s dome then slides back just as the hatch to the building releases, granting me access. I unbuckle and jump down into the compact space. Once the exterior door is secure again behind me, the interior hatch is released and I rush through into the long and gloomy corridor.
Covering my nose to block out the wretched damp, I sprint along the resin floor, passing rows of gray metal doors on either side. The pale-blue walls are full of cracks, the paint chipped, and blotchy mold spreads in all directions.
Soon as I gain entry to the flat, Jojo leaps around, wagging her tail. “It’s almost time, baby.” I shed my jacket and pet the Maltese pup.
I bounce on my toes in the narrow hallway outside the lounge, catching my breath. Any second now. Jojo’s too intrigued to remain still. The fluffy white puppy circles my legs, only taking a break to watch the thin lounge door with her ears cocked.
Heavenly notes rise from behind the door, melodies of Christmases past. Jojo takes a step back, her brown eyes fixed on the entry. I scoop her up and take a deep breath.
The door slides open. I step into the compact room and my hand flies to my mouth, fathoms of warmth spreading inside me. Jojo leaps down, wagging her tail and jumping around, but I can only focus on one thrilling sight.
Papa stands by the expansive window.
“Salaam, Pickle! So what do you think?” He smiles his usual lopsided smile, his bright hazel eyes twinkling. He points at the faded-red festive jumper he’s wearing.
My pulse races; I stare, unblinking. “Salaam, Papa. I… I think it looks pretty fab.” Warmth flushes my cheeks.
The “festive” design he’s wearing is actually a map of some far-flung solar system that fascinates my papa with its remoteness and possibilities. All the colorful planetary spheres look like baubles, though, and over time it’s become his “Christmas” jumper. It was a gift from Mama, before I was even born.
I should say something, but I watch, speechless, my smile wide.
“There’s my little queen.”
I turn toward the soft voice. My petite mama stands by the far wall, beside the towering turquoise vase she painted for Papa, smiling with arms outstretched.
“Come on, my beautiful gul—come give Mama your strongest hug. My little Leyla.”
“Salaam, Mama.” I move closer. I feel both light-headed and super awake at the same time. A comforting heat radiates from my chest and ripples throughout my body. Her green eyes, sand-colored skin, and lengthy ebony hair are seriously uncanny; we’re identical. My Kabuli peree, Papa always calls us—his fairies from Kabul.
Like always on special occasions, Mama’s wearing a traditional Afghan kameez. The vivid hues of the long, flowing dress seem to seep into the air around the room, instantly brightening the dreary space. An Old World rainbow after the rain. She tilts her face and smiles. Tiny beads dangling from the silver tika that sits on her forehead dance with the movement.
“You want to do the honors, Pickle?” Papa winks.
I might cry as I dart to the cabinet, careful as I pull out the most brilliant snow globe ever. It’s a McQueen family tradition to bring it out on special occasions. I hold it high for them both to see, and Papa’s face especially lights up. I cup the globe’s smooth surface.
These small-scale spectacles, mostly of the Old World, are avidly collected. The more ancient the scene inside, the dearer the cost. Sometimes it’s a row of houses on a bustling street, a hillside with trees and flowers, or a busy children’s playground.
I prefer the less desired watery scenes.
I shake the globe and catch my breath. Tiny rainbow fish and sparkly jellyfish bob in the turquoise ocean around an inviting submarine, a warm glow emanating from its windows. It’s so utterly perfect. A whole world right here in my hands.
The Christmas carol ends, and a favorite festive song replaces it, loud and merry. I laugh, setting the globe down as I nod along to the music. Everything is heavenly. I might burst any second now. It’s too much. Could joy actually bubble over and spill out? God, I hope not, because I want this sensation to last forever. I break into dance moves, shaking my body on the spot beside an excited Jojo. Papa chuckles. Mama smiles.
I beam. They both look so happy. My skin tingles. It’s all sheer magic. I’d never expected to feel this good.
The melody resounds in the small space. “Are you waiting for the family to arrive-rive-rive-rive—”
I stop mid-twirl as the song falters.
“Are you sure youuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu…”
Jojo growls at the harsh electronic notes. I clutch my stomach. My eyes widen; I spin around to Papa. He’s talking, but the words are indistinguishable.
He flickers into vivid colored lines.
Then he’s gone.
“No! No, no, no…” A sudden coldness spreads inside. I turn to Mama.
There’s no one there.
“No, not yet, it’s too soon. Please.”
Jojo stops barking and stands still. It’s dark and quiet. I blink rapidly to cut short the prickly sensation at the back of my eyes and try to swallow past the ache in my throat. The weight of my chest will crush me. The water outside causes rippled, ghostly shadows on the moldy walls. The auxiliary lighting comes on and casts a thick gloom over the still lounge.
I press my face against the window in the dimmed lounge and stare out into the patchy darkness. Jojo, cradled in my arms, whines.
“Hey, no need to feel afraid, you daft mutt,” I whisper, trying to swallow away the lump in my throat. “It’s only a power cut. I’ve got you now, baby. Everything will be all right, you’ll see.” I kiss her on her button nose.
I glance over at the far wall again. I’ll be lucky if I hear from the solicitors today; it’s Christmas Day, after all. But there’s a small chance, and I pray the power cut is a short one.
I pull the colorful blanket closer around us both, Papa’s light citrus-and-herby scent still very much present in its threads. I spent months crocheting the bright squares from various unwanted woolens. Papa insisted it was the best Eid present he ever received. My chest tightens.
Of all the moments for the power to fail, curse it. It had taken Theo days to perfect the clips once he unearthed them from Papa’s album files, to ensure both cuts would look like one real scene. Still, it was only a projection. To think I’d secretly entertained the idea Papa might actually come home this morning—a compassionate release by the authorities.
I hang my head. Mama’s spirited laugh from the footage plays in my mind. I was only three when it was recorded, so I can’t recall the actual memory. I take a deep breath. “God bless you, Mama. Rest in peace.” Mama suddenly passed away in her sleep a year after that recording.
“Hang in there, Papa, wherever you are,” I whisper, placing my hand on the window and fixing my gaze on the familiar unknown stretched out before me. Detained in a facility in London is all I’ve been told of his whereabouts. Somewhere out there in the city, in its obscure and cloudy expanse, is my whole life. The routine ache pulls at me, tugging away at my insides and latching on to every thought. His absence is unbearable.
I tap my feet and glance over at the far wall again. Come on.
White emergency lighting beams through the green-blue of the early morning waters that stretch high above me. A lengthy form shoots past, startling Jojo. She tucks her head into my jumper. The shape slows down. An eel. It wriggles against the window and swims away, rising to follow the taillights of a four-manned security sub. All around the water fluorescent and phosphorous lights flash by as a mixture of police, ambulance, and structural integrity vehicles speed past.
“Looks serious, Jojo.” I nuzzle the puppy, trying to ignore the obvious dread: Could the power cut be Anthropoid related?
A large Newsbot—resembling a sphere of crushed wreckage and blipping lights—whizzes by the window. Moments later a number of them, each bearing the logos of various news stations, race through the waves trailing the vehicles. It’s serious, then.
A ping sounds as the power returns, and the dim auxiliary lighting in the room is replaced with sharp illumination. The communications wall of the lounge flickers back to life, information tailored to my interests displayed across its surface. Yes.
In the kitchen I command the Tea-lady on and hurry back to the wall with a steaming cup of kahwah. A calming blend of saffron, cinnamon, and cardamom fills the air.
An alert pops up: I’ve not paid my monthly Explorers Fund installment. I bring up my bank balance, pulling a face as I check it. I wave the alert away and skim each message as I dress Jojo.
The Landrovers are up to their usual scams and are “this close to discovering legendary dry land,” if only they have my “regular financial support.” I scowl. Yes, quick as you can, five hundred pounds and Bob’s your uncle: dry land.
Firstly, there’s no dry land up there—only a few mountain peaks. Secondly, discovering dry land wouldn’t even begin to solve my problem.
There’s another alert from the authorities demanding I end the constant petitioning and complaints regarding Papa’s arrest. Not bloody likely.
I throw my hands up as I reach the end of the morning’s post. There’s no message from the solicitor.
“Jeeves?” I call out to activate the Housekeeper.
“Good morning, Miss Leyla. How may I assist you today?” The voice coming from my far wall never changes, as people find it familiar and reassuring.
“Jeeves, a file was playing this morning when the power went out. Is it possible to replay it?”
Jojo’s already trying everything she can think of to shed her festive outfit.
“I am sorry, Miss Leyla, but the power cut destroyed the file. Anything else I can help you with?”
I’ll never get to watch the whole thing now. I swallow past the disappointment. “What caused the power failure? I want to pay some Christmas visits—the twins and Grandpa. Has the power cut affected my routes?”
Jojo gives a triumphant yelp as her festive hat rolls off her head. She catches me glaring and scampers.
“Miss Leyla, the power cut was due to an incident in Marylebone. Although authorities initially suspected foul play, emergency services now report an earthquake as the cause. Your intended journeys are not affected by the subsequent travel restrictions. Would you like me to order you a cab?”
Foul play. I gulp. The Anthropoids can go back to whichever hell they came from.
They’re artificially designed humans. They were created by desperate Old World scientists to breathe freely underwater, bear massive pressures, and possess great strength—all so they could help the survivors after the disaster when machines wouldn’t be enough. But instead they developed heightened levels of rage and loathing, bloodthirst and barbarity. And they turned on us.
Their sole aim is to destroy. They’re incredibly sly. In the water a genetically designed transformation takes place. The layer of skin acting as gills is an undetectable permeable design—making them even more dangerous to us. They’ve proven a truly terrifying mistake that humans have been paying for ever since.
Only last year one of them seized the opportunity to take innocent lives when a submersible caught in an earthquake hit trouble. Instead of aiding the family of four, an Eyeball caught the Anthropoid using specialized tools to cause vehicular damage. Within moments the sub’s body had been pierced, and by all accounts the family inside succumbed to the pressure before the water had even filled the vessel.
If it weren’t for Prime Minister Gladstone’s relentless efforts to find and stop the Anthropoids, many more lives would be lost to the deadly creatures. As if the natural environment isn’t enough of a threat already every time we’re out there.
“No need for a cab, Jeeves, I have Tabby’s sub. Have you run today’s search of Papa’s files? I submitted what you’ll be looking out for.”
“I have indeed, and nothing to report, Miss Leyla. Anything else?”
I sigh. “Keep running the daily scans, please.”
There has to be something in them that can help prove Papa’s innocence—even though the connections . . .
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