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New Atlantis

It looked like a toy village -- a cluster of brightly coloured plastic houses climbing up a hill beside a wide river. Filling the space where there should have been a street was a grey plastic tube.

"It's a pilot project of the Submersible Cities Research Centre at the University of Eastern Australia," Robbie said. "You know the way most of the cities of the world will be underwater within a century because of rising sea levels. The idea is, rather than having to move, they can adapt to the new water levels, and enjoy the amenity of an aquatic environment." The phrasing sounded very rehearsed and not Robbie, but Kathy knew why.

"I gather this is one of Des's projects?" she said.

Robbie nodded. "He wanted to call it Desville, but I think it's going to be New Atlantis."

"Why's he involved?"

"He's trying to shift a stack of land on the coast where the local council has banned building because of the higher sea levels. This is to prove to them that building there will be okay, even if it does flood."

"But using someone else's money."

"Of course."

Kathy looked up the hill. "Why here? It's dry land."

"Now it is. In a few hours, it won't be." Robbie pointed down at the river, where the current was starting to flow upstream and the water was lapping at the lowest houses. "There's a big tidal range here. When it's up, it'll cover most of the houses."

"Won't they leak?"

"That's why they're plastic. It's waterproof. Carbon-fibre reinforced, so it's strong and will take knocks from any debris the river brings down. And that's why the road is enclosed, so people can get up the hill without drowning."

"Do the houses have to be so garish?" Kathy said, grimacing at the bright colours.

"That was a design decision," Robbie said. "We could have faked brick or stone or anything else, but we wanted people to see that it was a new, exciting material with great potential."

Kathy frowned as she inspected a nearby yellow wall -- not smooth and glossy but dull and pitted. There was a high tide mark further up where the pitting stopped. She ran a finger down the wall and looked at the resulting yellow powder. "So why the stucco effect?"

Robbie looked embarrassed and tried to turn away, but Kathy fixed him with a glare.

"We don't know what it is," he said reluctantly. "It's not in the design. We think it must be acid or something in the water. We've done dozens of tests, but we can't find anything. It's probably not important."

Kathy shook her head. "I think it is important," she said. "I don't think your plastic housing will work."

Robbie glared. "Why?"

Kathy grinned. "Submersible Cities isn't the only research centre at the university. There's another one, just upstream from here. For biological control of aquatic waste. The plastic bags and bottles that are endlessly chucked into waterways and then choke the birds and fish. They're developing bacteria that eat plastic. They've been testing them in this river before going world wide." She inspected the pitted wall again. "Looks as if they're doing a good job."

Copyright D.W. Walker, 2016


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