Welcome to Teranesia, the island of butterflies, where evolution has stopped making sense.
Prabir Suresh lives in paradise, a nine-year-old boy with an island all his own: to name, to explore, and to populate with imaginary creatures stranger than any exotic tropical wildlife. Teranesia is his kingdom, shared only with his biologist parents and baby sister Madhusree. The evolutionary puzzle of the island’s butterflies that brought his family to the remote South Moluccas barely touches Prabir; his own life revolves around the beaches, the jungle, and the schooling and friendships made possible by the net.
When civil war breaks out across Indonesia, this paradise comes to a violent end. The mystery of the butterflies remains unsolved, but nearly twenty years later reports begin to appear of strange new species of plants and animals being found throughout the region — species separated from their known cousins by recent, dramatic mutations that seem far too useful to have arisen by chance from pollution, disease, or any other random catastrophe.
Madhusree is now a biology student, proud of her parents’ unacknowledged work, and with no memories of the trauma of the war to discourage her, she decides to join a multinational expedition being mounted to investigate the new phenomenon. Unable to cast off his fears for her safety, Prabir reluctantly follows her. But travel between the scattered islands is difficult, and Madhusree has covered her tracks. In the hope of finding her, Prabir joins up with an independent scientist, Martha Grant, who has come to search for both clues to the mystery and whatever commercial benefits it might bring to her sponsor. As Prabir and Martha begin to untangle the secret of Teranesia, Prabir is forced to confront his past, and to face the painful realities that have shaped his life.
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I am a science fiction writer and computer programmer.
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The island was too small for human habitation, and too far from the commonly traveled sea routes to serve as a navigation point, so the people of the Kai and Tanimbar Islands had never had reason to name it. The Javanese and Sumatran rulers who'd claimed tributes from the Spice Islands would have been oblivious to its existence, and Prabir had been unable to locate it on any Dutch or Portuguese chart that had been scanned and placed on the net. To the current Indonesian authorities it was a speck on the map of Maluku propinsi, included for the sake of completeness along with a thousand other uninhabited rocks. Prabir had realized the opportunity he was facing even before they'd left Calcutta, and he'd begun compiling a list of possibilities immediately, but it wasn't a decision he could make lightly. He'd been on the island for more than a year before he finally settled on a name for it.
He tried out the word on his classmates and friends before slipping it into a conversation with his parents. His father had smiled approvingly, but then had second thoughts.
"Why Greek? If you're not going to use a local language...why not Bengali?"
Prabir had gazed back at him, puzzled. Names sounded dull if you understood them too easily. Why make do with a lame Big River, when you could have a majestic Rio Grande? But surely his father knew that It was his example Prabir was following.
"The same reason you named the butterfly in Latin."
His mother had laughed. "He's got you there!" And his father had relented, hoisting Prabir up into the air to be spun and tickled. "All right, all right! Teranesia!"
But that hadbeen before Madhusree was born, when she hadn't been named herself (except as the much-too-literal Accidental Bulge). So Prabir stood on the beach, holding his sister up to the sky, spinning around slowly as he chanted, "Teranesia! Teranesia!" Madhusree stared down at him, more interested in watching him pronounce the strange word than in taking in the panorama he was trying to present to her. Was it normal to be nearsighted at fifteen months? Prabir resolved to look it up. He lowered her to his face and kissed her noisily, then staggered, almost losing his balance. She was growing heavier much faster than he was growing stronger. His parents claimed not to be growing stronger at all, and both now refused to lift him over their heads.
"Come the revolution," Prabir told Madhusree, checking for shells and coral before putting her down on the dazzling white sand.
"We'll redesign our bodies. Then I'll always be able to lift you up. Even when I'm ninety-one and you're eighty-three."
She laughed at this talk of the metaphysically distant future. Prabir was fairly sure that Madhusree understood eighty-three at least as well as he understood, say, ten to the hundredth power. Looming over her, he counted out eight hand flashes, then three fingers. She watched, uncertain but mesmerized. Prabir gazed into her jet black eyes. His parents didn't understand Madhusree: they couldn't tell the difference between the way she made them feel and the way she was. Prabir only understood, himself, because he dimly remembered what it was like from the inside.
"Oh, you pretty thing," he crooned.
Madhusree smiled conspiratorially.
Prabir glanced away from her, across the beach, out into the calm turquoise waters of the Banda Sea. The waves breaking on the reef looked tame from here, though he'd been on enough queasy ferry rides to Tual and Ambon to know what a steady monsoon wind, let alone a storm, could whip up. But if Teranesia was spared the force of the open ocean, the large islands that shielded itTimor, Sulawesi, Ceram, New Guineawere invisibly remote. Even the nearest equally obscure rock was too far away to be seen from the beach.
"For small altitudes, the distance to the horizon is approximately the square root of twice the product of your height above sea level and the radius of the Earth." Prabir pictured a right triangle, with vertices at the center of the Earth, a point on the horizon, and his own eyes. He'd plotted the distance function on his notepad, and knew many points on the curve by heart. The beach sloped steeply, so his eyes were probably two full meters above sea level. That meant he could see for five kilometers. If he climbed Teranesia's volcanic cone until the nearest of the outlying Tanimbar Islands came into sight, the altitude of that point which his notepad's satellite navigation system could tell him would enable him to calculate exactly how far away they were.
But he knew the distance already, from maps: almost eighty kilometers. So he could reverse the whole calculation, and use it to verify his altitude: the lowest point from which he could see land would be five hundred meters. He'd drive a stake into the ground to mark the spot. He turned toward the center of the island, the black peak just visible above the coconut palms that rimmed the beach. It sounded like a long climb, especially if he had to carry Madhusree most of the way."Do you want to go see Ma?"
Madhusree pulled a face. "No!" She could never have too much of Ma, but she, knew when he was trying to dump her.
Prabir shrugged. He could do the experiment later; nothing was worth a tantrum. "Do you want to go swimming, then?" Madhusree nodded enthusiastically and clambered to her feet, then ran unsteadily toward...