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The Light at the Bottom of the World
By London Shah
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When sixteen-year-old submersible racer Leyla McQueen is chosen to participate in the city’s prestigious annual marathon, she sees an opportunity to save her father, who has been arrested on false charges. The Prime Minister promises the champion whatever their heart desires. But the race takes an unexpected turn, forcing Leyla to make an impossible choice.
Now she must brave unfathomable waters and defy a corrupt government determined to keep its secrets, all the while dealing with a guarded, hotheaded companion she never asked for in the first place. If Leyla fails to discover the truths at the heart of her world, or falls prey to her own fears, she risks capture-or worse. And her father will be lost to her forever.
Copyright © 2019 by London Shah
Designed by Marci Senders
Cover art © 2019 by Mike Heath
Cover design by Marci Senders
Lettering by Russ Gray
All rights reserved. Published by Hyperion, an imprint of Disney Book Group. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage or retrieval system, without written permission from the publisher. For information address Hyperion, 125 West End Avenue, New York, New York 10023.
For my fellow Pathans.
We too are worthy of taking the helm.
Hope had abandoned them to the wrath of all the waters.
The great Old World floods had done more than exile humanity to the depths of the oceanic abyss. They had also ravaged humankind of all faith and, like expiring pockets of air, sucked out any belief they would ever again live in peace.
How else could it be explained?
Ari sat deadly still, copper-skinned knuckles frozen around the submersible’s controls. The air had left his lungs; a rock, more jagged and leaden than the surrounding submerged mountains, formed inside his chest and thrust up into his throat. His eyes flickered as he absorbed the shifting deep around him.
The ocean was on fire.
They faced a tsunami of mighty vessels. Savage. More ferocious than a battery of starving barracuda. Powerful current producers, lasers, and explosives shot and rippled in every direction from the vessels’ stocky underbellies. All around, the water wrinkled as merciless weaponry pinned his people’s crafts in spheres of contained pressure. The vessels exploded before his eyes. Waves unfurled and rocked his sub. And still, he could not move.
Here, where harsh winds ravaged the ocean’s surface hundreds of feet above them, where the North Atlantic Ocean skirmished with the winding Norwegian Sea, the hostile environment had mostly protected the people of Eysturoy from them. The location had been chosen for the surrounding high ridges that shielded his community from the most perilous elements. Its wild and rugged terrain, always reduced to a dense darkness at the first sign of trouble, was often enough to deter the predatory fiends who’d annihilate his people in a fierce heartbeat.
But the adverse surroundings had proven no obstacle for the beasts today.
Huge beams floodlit the area as the hostile intruders highlighted the precipitous landscape. The revealing light accentuated every cliff, and lower down it snuck behind rooftops sitting on the submerged plateau, exposing the inhabitants. Family, friends, neighbors.
Ari peered into the vast and seething swells of the sea where the unbearable cost of the human and Anthropoid clash already drifted aimlessly within its rolling waves. Bodies. People he knew. Lance—the gentlest of all his friends. Gone.
His father’s words were merely an echo now: Trust in the community’s defenses, son. Do not leave the home—never let anger get the better of you. And his recent threat: This is your final warning, Ari. Put yourself at risk again and I will send you to Gideon’s in London.
So he was supposed to let matters continue as they were? Accept the losses?
Lance. His insides lurched. He bared his teeth and his nostrils flared.
Why must they hide? Always they were cowering in the dark hoping they weren’t discovered. Why not blow the enemy’s crafts apart, feed their bodies to the great whites?
He blinked and swallowed, his breathing raspy now. A heat burned its way through his insides, inflaming his loss. His desperation. His hands shifted on the controls.
Ari charged headlong into hell.
The Old World Heritage Society demands a respectful distance be kept from all revered ancient London sites. This respect can take a deep dive into one of those endless chasms in the wild because honestly, I just don’t understand what’s so sacred about ruins.
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 and recorded the Eyeballs’ movements—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’m not taking 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 above 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. What even was that thing? 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. And always perilous.
“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, the corners of my mouth stretched.
“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.
Praise for The Light at the Bottom of the World:
"A work of fathomless imagination."—Samantha Shannon, New York Times bestselling author of The Bone Season and Priory of the Orange Tree
"Expertly pairing catastrophe and courage, Shah tells the story of intensely personal problems in a truly perilous world. I love this book."—E.K. Johnston, #1 NYT bestselling author of Star Wars: Queen's Shadow
"A heart-racing adventure that reveals compelling and necessary truths about several critical issues of our times, while delivering all the thrills and twists of an epic quest. A stand-out, must-read book that engulfed me in its enthralling world and characters. Leyla McQueen is queen of the (under)seas!"—S.K. ALi, New York Times bestselling author of The Proudest Blue, Saints & Misfits, and Love From A to Z
"A breathtaking, hope-filled underwater adventure that always leaves room for wonder. The story is pacy, the setting lush and original, but it's Leyla and her positive, determined spirit that will really steal your heart."—Laura Weymouth, author of The Light Between Worlds and A Treason of Thorns
"Shah's debut is a fast-paced masterpiece from start to finish. Readers will fall in love with passionate, persistent Leyla as well as her secretive, swoon-worthy companion, Ari. Shah has skillfully shaped a gorgeous world unlike any those fans [of dystopian fiction] have seen before. But be forewarned: the book ends on a jaw-dropping cliff-hanger. Highly recommended."—School Library Journal
- On Sale
- Sep 28, 2021
- Page Count
- 336 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers