3 DAYS LATER. SOUTH OF MIAMI. 6:00 AM EASTERN TIME. THURSDAY, JANUARY 29, 2026.

“Steady, Whorf, but stay alert. The charts are pretty near worthless from Key Biscayne south,” Captain Halleck said. He was comparing the air photo prints taken by the very last reconnaissance planes from USS Bush, two months before, with the old paper charts.

At the helm, Whorf was bringing Discovery into Biscayne Bay on the last of the high tide, letting it carry them in so that later the receding tide could help pull them back out. Sounding lines brought up so much muck and junk that all they really knew was that about thirty feet below them, thick muddy water became thin watery mud.

Morning wore on; when the wind shifted, the stench from the land was overpowering. Jorge relieved Whorf at eight. Not quite ready for his bunk, he went forward to see what the scientists were doing. Lisa Reyes, from Stone Lab, was fiddling with a microscope, the sort of thing that might have been a toy for a brainy eight-year-old a few decades ago. Satisfied with the light the mirror sent through the slide, she looked up, shoving stray black curls back under her bandanna. “Take a look, Whorf, and please draw.” She opened her record pad beside the microscope.

Whorf stretched his shoulder, a little stiff from four hours at the wheel, and flexed his hand. He bent carefully to look without disturbing anything; one eye saw through the scope and the other saw the page. He barely had to compensate for the rise and fall of the gentle sea. Quickly, he copied the dots, whorls, smears, and blobs his left eye saw onto the pad his right eye saw.

“Beautiful,” she said, as he finished. “Now, do you know what it’s a picture of?”

“It’s better if I don’t think of words while I draw. But that looks like—hunh. Are those E. coli?”

“Well, their ancestors were. I suspect Daybreak used them because they could pass through the human gut and spread rapidly.” She tapped the page. “And these?”

“A filament of pennate diatoms, right?”

“Right. I’m calling them Phaeodactylum morticomedentis incognans. I think I have the genus right—it’s pretty similar, anyway, to the Phaeodactylum that genetic engineers had been working with for a long time, so there would have been easily available commercial versions for Daybreak to modify. The species name just means ‘unknown dead-stuff-eater.’ The one thing we’ve established in the tanks so far is that coral love them, and that at least partly solves the mystery of what’s not here.”

Whorf asked, “What’s not here?”

“Yeah. Right over the horizon, we have a few million decaying bodies, plus hundreds of square miles of fertilized lawns and burned real estate, plus all those artificial materials that decayed—tires and gasoline, plastics and nylon, all that lawn furniture and all the polyester on the old people. All those nutrients lying out in the rain on soft, shifting soil must have washed down here. Biscayne Bay should be pretty much a brackish sewage lagoon, crawling with conventional decay bacteria and buried under algal blooms. Instead, those nutrients are being snaffled up by these diatoms that fast-track it into coral.”

“You think Daybreak meant to do that?”

“Well, it sure looks like in the next thousand years, Florida is going to get much bigger, as all those dead people and their stuff turn into coral reefs. Doesn’t that sound like a Daybreaker program?”

Whorf looked out over the barely-moving green sea. The overpowering reek brought home the realization that there was a thousand-square-mile mausoleum just over the horizon. Almost, he could imagine bony hands reaching out from the land, empty skulls staring out to sea and looking for him. “You sound like you approve.”

“I don’t approve of people being dead,” Reyes said. “Or the world being a wreck. But I do like seeing things grow.”

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