The dream was always the same.
I am swimming in the sea. Below the surface, breath held, I push my way forward through a liquid, blue-green world. My limbs feel clean and strong, my strokes effortlessly powerful; sunlight shimmers on the surface, far above.
On a trail of exhaled bubbles, I ascend. The sun is setting, making ribbons of color against a purpling dome of sky. Drawn by an unknown influence—my actions are neither voluntary nor involuntary, they simply are—I swim away from shore. Night falls slowly, then all at once, whereupon I experience a terrible sense of error. This is all a grand mistake. I pivot toward shore to find no lights anywhere; the land has disappeared. Panicked, I spin wildly in the water, all sense of direction obliterated. I am alone in an infinite sea.
“You don’t have to be afraid, Proctor.”
A woman is swimming next to me with a smooth breaststroke, her head held erect above the surface, like a seal’s. I cannot make out her face; her voice isn’t one I know. Yet there is something about her presence that fills me with a great calm. It is as if I have been waiting for her; at last she is here.
“It won’t be long now,” she says gently. “I’ll show you the way.”
“Where are we going?”
But she doesn’t answer. As she glides away, I follow. There is no wind, no current. The surface of the sea is as motionless as stone, the only sound the gentle swish of water passing through our cupped hands.
She gestures skyward. “Can you see it?”
A single brilliant star has appeared. It’s different from the others—brighter, more distinct, with a bluish tint.
“Do you remember the star, Proctor?”
Do I? My thoughts are diffuse, drifting like chips of straw in a current. They skip from point to point. The ocean, its impersonal, inky vastness. The star, piercing the sky like a beacon. All is known and unknown; all familiar, all strange.
“You’re cold,” she says.
I am. My limbs tremble, my teeth are chattering. She moves beside me.
“Take my hand.”
I have, it appears, already done so. Her skin is warm; it seems to pulsate with life. It is a rich sensation, powerful as a tide. It flows through my body in a wave of softness. A feeling of homecoming, of home.
“Are you ready?”
She pivots toward me. For a moment her face is revealed, but the image is too quick, unable to be retained, and then she is kissing me, pressing her mouth to mine. A torrent of sensation barrels through me. It is as if my mind and body have suddenly been linked to infinite forces. I think: This is how it feels to love. How have we forgotten how to love? The woman’s arms have coiled around me, pinning my hands to my chest. Simultaneously, I become aware that the character of the water is altering. It is becoming less dense.
“Time to wake up, Proctor.”
I wave my legs frantically to hold myself afloat. But this is useless. It’s as if I’m kicking air. I am held fast, barely able to move; the sea is dissolving, opening like a maw. Terror squeezes my throat, I cannot cry out . . .
Her voice is a whisper, close to my ear: “Look down.”
I do, and with that, I plunge. We plunge, down into an infinite black abyss, and the last thing I think is this:
The sea is full of stars.
My name is Proctor Bennett. Here is what I’ve called my life.
I am a citizen of the archipelago state called Prospera. Located far from any landmass, Prospera exists in splendid isolation, hidden from the world. Its climate, like all things about it, is entirely beneficent: warming sunshine, cooling ocean breezes, and frequent, gentle rains. Island one, known as Prospera proper, is roughly circular, covering 482 square miles. It is here that all Prosperans reside. With its shorelines of crystalline white sand, interior forests abundant with wildlife, and inland valleys of the most fertile soil, it might be mistaken for a mythological paradise. Island two, known as the Annex, is home to the support staff—men and women of lesser biological and social endowments who nevertheless are, in my experience, wholly pleasant to be around. Roughly a quarter the size, it is connected to Prospera by a floating causeway, over which these helpful citizens travel daily to perform their various duties.
The last of the three islands is different from the others, in that we know very little about what occurs there, only that it does. This is known as Nursery Isle, or, more simply, the Nursery. Protected by dangerous shoals and towering cliffs, it might be likened to a floating fortress. There is only one way in, an opening on the eastern flank of the island, through which the ferry passes—a journey that each Prosperan takes twice per iteration, once at the beginning, once at the end. I cannot say who lives on Nursery Isle, though doubtless someone must. Some people say that the Designer himself resides there, overseeing the regenerative process that serves as the foundation for our exceptional way of life.
In this lush land, free of all want and distraction, Prosperans devote themselves to the highest aspirations. Creative expression and the pursuit of personal excellence: these are the cornerstones of our civilization. We are a society of musicians and painters, poets and scholars, artisans of every type. The clothes we wear, the food we eat, the social gatherings we attend, the spaces in which we work and rest and recreate—each facet of daily life is subject to the most scrutinizing curatorial eye. One might say that Prospera itself is a work of art, a canvas upon which each of our citizens brings to bear a single, exquisitely rendered brushstroke.
What is our history? How did we come to be? To these questions I haven’t much to offer; even the year has become difficult to know. And what we know of the rest of the world’s present state is, in a word, nothing. Protected by the Veil—an electromagnetic barrier that hides us from the world, and the world from us—we are spared this dismal tale. Yet one can easily imagine. War, pestilence, famine, environmental collapse; vast migrations and fanaticism of every stripe; a world de-civilized as the earth’s peoples, sworn to competing gods, turned upon one another: such were the convulsions that inspired the Designer to build our hidden sanctuary in ages past. Rarely, if ever, do we speak of these matters, known collectively as “the horrors,” because there is no profit in it. Which is, one might say, the heart of the Designer’s genius and the whole point of Prospera: to shelter the best of humanity from the worst of it.
To leave Prospera is, naturally, forbidden. Word of our existence would threaten everything. But who could desire to leave such a place? From time to time one hears of someone—always a member of the support staff—who has foolishly attempted to journey beyond the Veil. But since none has returned, and our secret existence has remained intact, one can safely assume that these troublemakers have met with failure. Perhaps the seas have swallowed them. Perhaps they have found no world to receive them, civilization having finally consumed itself utterly. Perhaps, as in a tale widely told, they have simply sailed off the edge of the earth into oblivion.
As for myself: In my present iteration, I am forty-two years old. (Prosperans start the clock at sixteen, the approximate biological age of new iterants freshly off the ferry.) My current social arrangement, my first, is a fifteen-year contract of heterosexual marriage, renewable. After eight years together, I would say that Elise and I are generally happy. We are not the ardent lovers we once were, practically unable to keep our hands off each other. But these things soften over time, yielding at their best to an easier, more comfortable kind of partnership, and that is where we find ourselves. Our home, which Elise’s guardians paid for—given my relatively modest salary as a civil servant, I could never afford such a thing on my own—sits atop a rocky promontory on Prospera’s southern coast. Never have I seen Elise so blissfully in her element as during the two years of its construction. For hours every day, she huddled with the army of architects, artisans, and craftspeople, guaranteeing that her fingerprints lay upon even the smallest detail. I admit, my own interest was more tepid; I lack Elise’s eye for these things and would have been content to take quarters closer to town. I was also concerned about her guardians’ influence on our newly joined lives, her mother’s in particular. But the house makes her happy, and therefore makes me happy, and it’s there that Elise and I conduct our lives, all to the sound of wind in the palm fronds and the gnashing of white-toothed waves upon the beach below.