By Ana Sun
I wheel my serving cart and solar generator onto the aft deck of Lion’s Tooth, my vintage canal narrowboat, just as the November sun sneaks over the horizon. A moorhen is calling, summoning the day to begin. The waters of the Serpentine, which was once a lake, laps at the frosty, grassy banks of Old Hyde Park. With much of London permanently flooded, it now flows uninterrupted into the River Thames. The trees in the distance are mired in the morning mist, but I have a clear view of the hedgerow that hides the entrance to the docks, giving our moorings a nice bit of privacy.
A perfectly peaceful morning, just the way I like it.
I set out the spice mill I use to grind roasted dandelion roots, the key ingredient in a brew I serve my customers. It is the closest thing to coffee available to us now. Towards the east, Big Ben chimes a four-note melody; quarter past seven.
There is a familiar rumble as Raj’s cruiser pulls up alongside Lion’s Tooth. Every morning, I make a bet with myself which of my old-time customers, Raj or Valentina, will show up first. Looks like Raj wins today.
“You’re totally clockwork, Fleur.” Raj grins at me. Hopping over from his boat to mine, he’s careful to sidestep the pots of dandelions dotted around the deck and a red admiral fluttering in their midst. “How you open the same time every day without owning a timepiece is beyond me.”
“I tell the time by a dandelion’s shadows,” I say, chuckling. I am lying, of course. Who needs fancy tech when I have Big Ben’s chimes? Modern technology is a waste of nature’s resources, I steer clear of that stuff where I can.
I hear footsteps on the jetty. Val is making her way down, her jet-black hair tied up in a bun, unlike my mousy locks which I always hide under a headscarf.
“You’re late, mate!” Raj calls out to her.
Val makes a rude gesture at him. He laughs.
This is how our mornings usually begin. What better way to start the day, than a conversation with friends over a cup of dandelion brew?
I turn around to prepare the infusions. Something catches my eye. A boat I’ve never seen before slithers into the Serpentine. Unlike mine, its cockpit is covered, presumably connected to the main cabin. The small deck on the bow looks like an afterthought. There are no windows— it’s all black. It has no running lights, surely a safety hazard if you ask me. It’s ugly and fascinating the way oil slicks are.
“Seen that colossal craft parked at the mouth of the Thames?” Val asks. She makes it across the plank that bridges my boat to land.
“That one?” I point to the strange vessel.
Val squints. “Nope, much bigger.”
“Could it be the annual Christmas shipment?” Raj pulls out some kind of device from his pocket to check the news. “It’s come early.”
I glance at the sleek black thing in the water. It’s headed our way. What is it?
Val settles on her favourite stool. “That ship gets bigger every year. S’pose those who need their turkeys gotta have it.”
I stay out of this conversation, letting them debate the day’s news. Unlike Raj, I’ve always avoided tech to tap into newsfeeds; my customers’ gossip is enough. The Christmas ship typically crawls through the Thames around the first predicted frost. I’d better start the annual forage soon.
I scoop some dandelion root into the mill, along with my secret blend of spices. I press the button. Nothing happens.
Val is quick to catch me out. “You gotta plug it in, love.”
They laugh, and I let them. How I miss my old hand grinder. When something is made slowly with love, it tastes better. I pour the grounds into my brewing vessel. A drop or two of lemon oil, a slosh of boiling water.
I check the mystery craft, it has stopped a few boat-lengths away. I ignore it.
The moment I express the dark liquid into a jug, we smell the sharp tang of citrus and the rich earthiness of spices. I lift the jug high and arc the fragrant brew into warmed cups without spilling a drop.
“So good,” says Val, taking a first sip.
These are the moments I love best.
Just as Raj waves from his cruiser to leave and Val departs on foot, the black boat pulls up. Its engines are unbelievably silent. My pulse quickens. How does it drive? Does it submerge? How do you even board the thing? Then I see the windows— small rectangles on either side of the craft fading from dark to clear. The thinnest of lines appears around one of them before it slides outwards. I hold my breath.
A clean-shaven man with dark hair leans out, flashing a smile with perfect teeth.
“I hear you serve a mean dandelion brew.” His accent is not from these parts.
I really shouldn’t judge people by how much unnecessary tech they surround themselves with.
“Sure,” I reply. “Any preference?”
He shrugs. “Surprise me.”
Ah, one of those. I force a smile.
I turn to the serving cart, and I hear him land heavily on my deck. I should tell him to tread softly on old Lion’s Tooth but the words stick in my throat.
“I’m Adriyel,” he says.
I tell him my name.
“I can see you grow your own.” He points at the abundance of dandelion plants around the solar panels on my roof, and the ones flourishing in neat pots on the deck.
“These are for decoration.” For some reason, I laugh. “People expect to see dandelions on the boat; what I use for brewing is foraged.”
“Oh?” He seems genuinely interested. “Is that why your boat is called Lion’s Tooth?”
Now I’m smiling. “Yes, dent de lion. Dandelion.”
“Refers to the shape of the leaves, doesn’t it?”
He must be the sort who won pub quizzes. As I place a steaming cup in front of him, he pulls out a small object from his pocket. It resembles a large insect, complete with a pair of wings, three sets of legs and antennae.
My smile fades. A light on its back turns from yellow to green. I shiver a little. Its wings start to whirr, making a horrible buzzing noise. All of a sudden it flies into my face. I stumble backwards, nearly tripping over my cart.
Adriyel laughs. “You needn’t be afraid, it’s just a data collecting drone.”
Steadying myself, the sense of dread rises in my chest as the thing soars towards my dandelions.
“What’s it doing?!”
“Just assessing the health of the flowers. We use a bunch of these to map the overall condition of flora in the area.”
Assessing? It’s a flying weapon! I take a deep breath, trying to regain composure.
“Won’t they upset the real bees?”
Adriyel shakes his head. “They don’t interfere, they just observe.”
I raise an eyebrow. He taps something on his wrist, and the abomination flits back and lands precisely at his feet. He turns the drone upside down and switches it off. My insides tumble, I feel queasy.
“My boat is a research lab,” he explains, between sips of brew. “My team and I are doing a study here until Christmas.”
That explains the snazzy boat. This can’t be good. This is precisely the time of year bees need to gather for overwintering. Anything that disrupts their pattern will be disastrous.
“Interesting,” I say.
I know exactly what I’d do if I see one of these in the wild. I’d quash it.
It is mid-afternoon by the time I make it to Hampstead Heath. As a child, I’d go with Mum by the overground to Gospel Oak and walk through Parliament Hill out to the Heath. I was very young when we’d come to London as climate refugees. It had been possible to amble from one end of London to another. The city was already flooded then, but the water continued to rise. These days, only the higher areas are still walkable.
The easiest route is to sail eastward through the Thames then up to North London, where the waters meet the ancient canal in Camden Town. I moor Lion’s Tooth and head up to the Heath on foot.
The good thing about dandelions? They grow everywhere. I prefer to gather the ones which grow near the shade of trees, they tend to be less bitter. But I can’t get to my favourite foraging spot. A rope cordon extends out from the nearest tree into the field and back around the far side. The metal posts which secure the segments of rope have some kind of indicator, each flashing a silent warning. Whoever installed these hadn’t bothered to put up a sign. Maybe these posts have an embedded message that I don’t have a device to read with? Well, to hell with that.
I step over the rope. No alarms blare. Right, it’s just normal rope with over-engineered posts. From my knapsack, I take out a worn hemp bag and trowel. I get to work.
I have just filled my bag when I hear some buzzing coming from under the trees. I recognise that sound. I glance up, and I see them: a dozen small flying drones. My head starts to spin. Deep breath. No need to be afraid of them, Adriyel had said.
The drone closest to me settles on a wild pansy. Slowly, I move towards it, but stop a few feet away. It doesn’t react. How dumb are these things? No matter what Adriyel says, they will confuse the real pollinators. Bile rises up, burning the back of my throat. No, research or not, I can’t let them ruin the habitat like this. We’ve all suffered enough.
I walk right up to the drone and smash it ping-pong style with my trowel. I think I might have missed, but the thing falls out of the air, landing onto the wet earth with barely a sound.
I bend down to collect it. Its light is blinking yellow. Seems like I might have dislodged one of its wings, but other than some scratches, it appears to be intact. I turn it off like I’d seen Adriyel do it, then stick it in my coat pocket.
Right. Next. I crouch, and sidle towards another drone that’s sitting on a fennel flower. I swipe at it. The noise of metal colliding is satisfying. It hits the ground, and I crunch it with the heel of my boot. I spot a third drone, but it takes flight when I get closer. Maybe these things are smart after all?
Suddenly there is a louder buzz. Behind the trees I see more of them gather in a tight formation. They are heading towards me. The third drone I was aiming for spins around and circles back. Oops.
Clutching the bag and trowel close to my chest, I make for the rope as fast as my legs can take me. The buzzing gets closer, but I dare not look back. Something twitches in my left leg. My calf starts to cramp. Oh no. I limp-run towards the rope, a sharp zap on my shoulder makes me yell. Rats, they sting.
Another drone reaches my arm. The shock bolts through to my hand and I clench my fist to not drop the trowel. This could hurt a lot. The rope is not far now and I dash for it. My left foot catches on something. The sky swings around and my face lands on the grass, something thorny grazes my cheek. My foot is throbbing.
I brace for the onslaught. Then I hear the buzz dissipating behind me as the drones apparently decide to leave me alone. I flex my left leg. Good, don’t think I broke anything. I push myself upright and glance behind me. The machines have gone back to doing whatever they were supposed to. Huh, they are cleverer than I thought. Maybe they have been designed to withstand attack by overly-curious fauna, of which I suppose I qualify.
I bunch my hands into tight fists. Next time, I’m bringing a net.
A long blast from a ship’s horn jolts me awake. Another blast tears through the air a minute or two later. The signal for a big ship travelling in low visibility. Is that the Christmas boat?
My head feels heavy, my limbs might as well be made of lead. I drag myself onto the deck, taking a moment to think. There is another dandelion patch down south in Kingston. It tends to be muddier and less pleasant, but I can’t afford to skip a season’s forage, especially during these precious days just after the first frost.
The ship is lumbering up the river, a large shadow blotting out the horizon. It’s stacked so high with crates, there are safety lights at the topmost edges. Oh no, it’s obstructed the exit of the Serpentine. I sigh. There is no way I can head south safely this morning. I might as well open shop.
I install the plank for customers like Val who prefer to visit on foot. Then I stroll up the docks to stretch my legs before the day gets busy.
Once on the jetty, I turn back to admire the river view. Lion’s Tooth is glorious in the half-light, the gold detailing I’d meticulously painted on the gunwale back in spring glints as it catches the lamplight from the docks. My heart swells with warmth. My boat, my home.
The entrance to the docks is hidden in a gap within a hedgerow, so only the locals know where it is. I open the gate and stop short. There is a cordon right in front of the hedgerow. This isn’t like the one I’d encountered on the Heath— there are several rungs of wires between the poles. It spans so far either side of the entrance, I can’t see where it stops.
I feel a prickle on the back of my hand. I jump. It’s only a peacock butterfly, but we must have surprised each other. Before I can shoo it away, it lands on one on the wires. There is a sizzling noise. I gasp. The butterfly tumbles onto the grass, twitching once, twice before going completely still.
Electric fences? Why? Beyond the boundary, I hear the now-familiar buzz of drones. Adriyel’s drones. My stomach churns. There, I see them, hovering over the last of the season’s wildflowers. Anger rises in me, my blood boils.
I study how the poles have been impaled into the soft earth. Can I disable them? Whoever installed these hadn’t dug proper holes, the grass around the fence is a mess. But that gives me an idea.
I hurry back down to Lion’s Tooth and grab a pot of dandelions and my trusty trowel. Working fast, I dig my flowers in so they brush the bottom rungs of the fence. I’m not sure if one pot will be enough, so I do the same with a second lot. Then I take my watering can. There is a soft hiss as the water touches the wires. The result is actually pretty. Would it work? I hesitate. The wet weeds should disable the fence— or render it less powerful. Either way, it will take them ages to find the cause of the short. Hah, take that.
I squint and search for the drones. The one closest to me seems confused, pausing mid-hover on a hawkbit, the light on its back blinking yellow. Same for the rest. Well, maybe they will just stay that way until their batteries run out.
I set up shop for the morning. I ask a few regulars about the cordoning, but no one knows anything. I make up my mind; after I return from Kingston tomorrow, I’ll file a complaint at City Hall. This can’t go on.
“Hello,” a voice rings out suddenly over my shoulder.
I yelp in surprise. It’s Adriyel.
“Sorry.” He smiles at me, but I’m not feeling charitable.
I turn my back to him to prepare his brew. My silence must have been uncomfortable, because out of nowhere, he asks, “You don’t open in the afternoons?”
“I’m not a robot.” I scoff.
He stays mum.
After a time, I can’t hold it in any longer. “So you know all about these cordons then?” Irritation creeps into my voice. “I ran into one in North London yesterday while foraging, and now there’s one here.” I point towards the hedgerow.
He creases his brow. “These may have been set up by my team. I only build the drones.”
“Have they taken over all common land in London?”
“It’s a short-term study so we’re trying to be quick—”
“Did you know they blocked our exit?” My voice has gotten several notches louder.
He looks shocked. “Maybe they didn’t see the hidden entr—”
“I’m filing a complaint tomorrow,” I cut him off. “You guys are in trouble. You’re disrupting—”
“Wait!” Adriyel looks blank. “What?”
“How can I run my business if you’ve—" I’m shouting.
“Fleur!” His voice is raised too. “Don’t you get the news? We’ve told the authorities about this months ago. It’s been approved.”
That shuts me up. Is this all my own fault? Did no one think to mention this to me? No one remembers that dandelion brew doesn’t appear out of thin air. I could have contested this...months ago? Oh dear.
His lips form a thin, thoughtful line. “I’ve lost a couple of drones since yesterday. You wouldn’t happen to know about them?”
My cheeks feel suddenly warm.
His gaze bores through mine like a diamond drill. “You were foraging, you said?”
I lose it. “Do you even understand what you’re doing? There’s no such thing as ‘observing’ nature without disrupting it!”
He leans back, his face unreadable.
I can’t stop now. “I’m sick of the likes of you...you arrogant buggers who think you are independent of the world we live in. It’s this kind of outlook that got us into this climate mess in the first place...”
This is all coming out in a gush. I’m surprised at myself.
He throws both his arms up in the air. “This is stupid, we’re on the same side. We just approach things differently—”
“Nature is not your playground!” My voice rings out across the docks.
He waves one hand at me, as if dismissing a fly. Then he is back in his boat, shutting his non-door behind him as he pulls away.
My body is shaking. What have I done? Yelling at a customer isn’t a done thing. I look away as his boat slides into the centre of the Thames, swallowed by the morning fog.
I bury my hands in the pockets of my coat. My fingers bump against something hard. I pull out the broken drone and hold it up to my eye. Better not turn it on, or Adriyel might get an indication on whatever he wears on his wrist. I straighten its lopsided wing, which clicks back into place. If only relationships could be mended so easily.
Third time lucky, I tell myself, as I push Lion’s Tooth away from the mooring in the early hours of the following morning. It’s dark, but I know her so well that I don’t need a flashlight to find my way around. Despite her age, Lion’s Tooth’s upgraded engine hums quietly as we cut through the water. My plan is to beeline across the Thames, so by the time I get to Kingston it’ll be just after sunrise. The air is still; most boats have their generators off at this hour.
About halfway across the river, I think I spot a shape in the dark. Another boat? I pull back on Lion’s Tooth’s throttle, in case I must steer clear. I pick up the radio and try the open channel.
“This is Lion’s Tooth on 16 calling unidentified craft. Are you in distress? Over.”
No response. I let a minute pass and repeat my message.
There is a crackle, then—
Adriyel? What’s he doing out here? My heart sinks. I don’t want to face him, but if he’s in trouble, I can’t leave him here.
“Lion’s Tooth? This is Black Magic.” I hear him take a deep breath. “My engine stalled and won’t restart, but I’m fine. Request assistance. Switch over to 68 to coordinate? Over.”
“Lion’s Tooth switching to 68.” I flip our comms channel.
A loud horn blasts. It’s close, too close. I scan towards the west and see the Christmas ship bearing down upon the Thames. It won’t have time or space to turn. But I cannot speed up, not while I can’t see exactly where Adriyel is. Who the hell paints their boat black?
“Shit—” Adriyel’s voice croaks over channel 68.
I call into the radio. “Can you see me?”
“Yes! I’m about thirty degrees to your starboard...”
Narrowboats are not meant to be fast. While Lion’s Tooth steers well, I won’t have a lot of room for error. I swing the tiller and pray that I won’t actually hit his craft or miss it by half a mile. This is hard enough during daylight, but in the dark?
I switch back to the open channel and hail the commercial ship. They respond immediately.
“Leviathan to Lion’s Tooth. We see you and we’re slowing down. Can you move out of the way? Over.”
“There’s another vessel in distress— I’m picking up the crew first!”
“Another...?” The captain of the ship sounds confused. “I don’t see...”
Then I hear him swear. You’re really supposed to keep obscene language from channel 16.
“Lion’s Tooth, we’ll veer port side. Please move as fast as you can!”
Two short blasts from the ship’s horn confirms it’s changing course to avoid us. The light coming from the Leviathan is at the wrong angle. I still cannot see Adriyel.
“Black Magic, can you turn your lights on? Over!” I adjust the tiller based on my estimate of where he might be.
“Negative!” he calls back. “Battery fault! Over!”
Suddenly, the thought hits me like a sackful of sand. I forget all protocol. “I have one of your drones!”
Surely the device Adriyel wears on his wrist still works?
“One of your drones, I have it! Can you set up a homing signal?”
I fish the drone from my pocket and switch it on. I hope this thing has enough battery left in its frightful body. Its wings whirr and it hovers out of my hand, its green light blinking bright in the dark.
“I’ve got it!” says Adriyel.
The little drone flies forward. Gosh, it moves fast.
The Leviathan sounds another horn blast. It’s loud. My ears ring. It’s so close now, the lights of its topmost containers look like stars in the sky.
There, I see it, the light from my boat finding Black Magic’s stern.
“Get ready to jump!” I tell Adriyel over radio.
My boat starts to sway. Leviathan’s wash is raising waves, a rising wall of water heading straight for us.
Adriyel hesitates. I lose patience. “You must jump! I can’t slow down or we won’t outrun the ship!”
“But my research—”
“Won’t be any good if you’re dead!”
The captain of the Leviathan hails me. “Lion’s Tooth, we no longer have visual on you. We’ve turned but the tide—”
I ignore him, my eyes searching for Adriyel. He’s on the skinny deck of Black Magic, hanging tight onto its side. I stabilize Lion’s Tooth against the tide and counter-crash of Leviathan’s wash. Somehow, I manage to get my topside alongside his. He tries to balance, waiting for the right moment to jump. The sides of our boats swing up and down. The waves have gotten bigger now. I watch his foot slip. Oh no. But the next moment, he grabs the gunwale of my boat and steadies himself.
“Now, Adriyel!” I’m shouting over the radio and into the air. There is a loud crash. He’s fallen onto my front deck. Lion’s Tooth rocks wildly— but she holds.
The lights from the ship are upon us. The captain is hailing me on the emergency channel. Whatever, I’m busy right now.
“Hang on!” I push the throttle forward and hold fast onto the tiller.
Adriyel is lying flat on his back, gaping at the Leviathan. “We won’t make it!”
Lion’s Tooth and I, we have to make it out alive.
The ship looms close. Can it make a clean turn, or will it hit us before it does? I accelerate, but it’s not fast enough to fight the angle of the waves.
“Trim her up!” Adriyel shouts at me suddenly.
“Trim her up!”
I freeze, but only for half a second. Lion’s Tooth has a vintage chassis, but she has a capable engine —I’ve never tried to— How does one do this again? My sweaty fingers find the lock on the shifter and I push the throttle as far as it goes. There is a loud clank somewhere in the engine below. We lurch forward. Lion’s Tooth shoots onwards with a fresh burst of speed. It starts to bounce on the water, dangerously so.
“Go!” Adriyel cries. “Let’s go!”
My heart is beating so fast I can’t hear myself think. If the ship comes too close the wake could be enough to flip us over.
There is a spine-chilling creak as Adriyel’s boat scrapes along the side of the Leviathan. The wail of metal being crumpled then crushed. The angry waves guzzle Black Magic in one gulp. The side of the giant ship is a whisker away—
“Faster!” shouts Adriyel.
“She doesn’t go any faster!” I yell back.
But Lion’s Tooth has a lion’s courage, or a cat’s nine lives. The Leviathan passes behind us, a monstrous shadow at our backs.
I’m shaking so hard I can barely keep my hands on the tiller. I throttle down. The ship sails past as we bob in its wake. It lets out a quick horn blast. A salute, of a kind.
Adriyel stumbles over and finds me at the controls.
“I...” he starts to say. He slides back down onto his haunches.
“Thank you,” he finally manages.
I turn off the engine. My heart is still racing, my breathing is ragged but that’s a good sign, right? We’re still alive.
A week later, Lion’s Tooth and I are back in our mooring spot.
“Good morning.” It’s a voice I don’t know.
A sizable boat has pulled up alongside mine. On its deck is a petite woman with a warm smile, and a lean young man, barely out of his teens. Then there is Adriyel.
After our ordeal the other morning, I’d made us some brew. He couldn’t stomach breakfast. He decided to come with me to Kingston and watch how I forage. After a while, he wanted to help.
“It’s interesting, really,” he’d said afterwards. “How calming it is to be in contact with the earth this way, learning to read the signals that nature gives you. I’d never realized it’s not about taking everything you can.”
“Yes,” I replied. “Foraging is about respecting the balance.”
When I dropped him off near City Hall (I did file that complaint), I thought that’d be the last I’d see of him.
Having him here is somewhat unexpected.
“I’m Mae,” the woman says. “I lead the research team that Adriyel’s part of.”
I try to smile. What do they want?
“Firstly, thank you for bringing him back,” she adds.
Adriyel is scrutinizing his feet.
“I’m sorry about the loss of your research,” I say, and I mean it.
They hover expectantly, so I motion them over to my deck. The lean fellow seems the most enthusiastic. I let them settle as I prepare some brew.
“We have an idea,” Mae finally says.
Okay? What now?
“Our data is all drone-gathered, and given your foraging expertise, we’d like your help to interpret the data.”
I’m perplexed. Me? Expertise?
Adriyel gazes at me. “I’ve seen you work. If you can help us establish trends from the data we have, we won’t have to send as many drones. We’d be able to tell which patches might be healthier from year to year, especially given the unpredictability of weather.”
I don’t know what to say.
“You don’t have to decide now.” Mae is winning me over with her smile.
“No— I mean yes,” I trip over my own words. I inhale deeply. “I’ll think about it.”
I hear footsteps on the jetty. It sounds like Val’s. She will be surprised that she isn’t the first customer today. But what better way to start the day, than a conversation with strangers over a cup of dandelion brew?