Octavia’s short fiction has appeared in a number of markets, including Cosmos, Strange Horizons, and Apex magazine, and been BSFA and Sir Julius Vogel shortlisted. A novella, The Ghost of Matter (Paper Road Press, Wellington, 2015), is about Ernest Rutherford.
“To me, exploring the natural world though a scientific lens is one of the particular joys of science fiction. I really enjoy using scientist characters to illuminate how I feel about science; the feeling as well as the fact of it.”
When the world ended, he didn’t notice.
Observation was a necessary quality in a scientist. Accurate, detailed, objective recording of data.
You could say I failed on all accounts, he would say later. I could tell you in return that I had an excuse – not much of one, it’s true, but distance covers a multitude of sins.
Light was different in the kelp forests. Flickering, shadowed, tinted by sea water and there was always such silence in the diving.
He always used to dive when he was troubled. Somehow the light and the silence and the kelp together insulated him from the world above, cleared his mind and left it floating in shallows.
Strange, he thought, that it should work so well when he was trying to escape not just the world, but its ending.
Of course, I won’t go diving on my own, he’d said. What kind of fool do you take me for?
He’d done it before, though it wasn’t something to brag about – not when he wanted to look responsible, not when funding was at stake. But now there was no-one to report to, no-one who’d care if he didn’t come back.
Why not dive alone, then?
He could never have believed it: how hard it was to fathom apocalypse when alone in the middle of the ocean. That was his place, when the world ended: studying kelp parasites on the Chatham rise, with the islands in view and he’d not stepped foot on them for weeks.
When finally he did understand what had happened, he stayed there. There was research to complete. He didn’t know if there was anyone left who’d read it (and it wasn’t such a hot topic to begin with) but he couldn’t think what else there was to do.
He’d never meant to be out there alone. There was a partner, Johan, who had the office next door at the university, and the two of them were meant to spend the summer on the water. But Johan’s wife had had a miscarriage two days before they were to depart. He couldn’t leave her.
I’d meant to be back in time for the birth, Johan said, but the birth was four months early and the child too small to survive. This wasn’t the way I wanted it.
There was no apology for pulling out. He didn’t expect one. Of course you have to stay, he said. Don’t worry about a thing. I can handle it. It was too late to get a replacement, but he could handle the boat by himself, could manage even though the days would be long.
It won’t be for all of it, Johan said. A couple of months. I’ll get there for the back half of it, fly out to Chatham. Maybe I’ll bring Cass with me. She can stay on the islands, or on the boat with us.
It’ll do her good, he said. Relax in the sun, eat some fresh fish. It’ll do you both good.
It might have, too, had they been able to come. Had the world gone on.
He smashed the radio. It was a deliberate act, and he had to work himself up to do it. Better that way, he thought. Hope was too painful.
After seeing what the virus had done to Chatham, he’d called and called – for the navy, the hospitals, the police. Search and Rescue. He’d thought at first that he should stick around. Close to the shore, so he’d be able to tell who came what he’d seen, and far enough away that he might avoid contamination himself, if he wasn’t already infected. That possibility kept him from heading home. Whatever it was that had taken out Chatham, he couldn’t be responsible for taking it back to the mainland.
When emergency services never answered, he started calling for anyone at all.
Eventually he smashed the radio and felt nothing but relief. He’d spent too much time in tethering, afraid to step away from it lest he go into the waters and miss it spark into life and sound.
There’s no-one coming, he said, and his hands were bruised for he’d smashed it with his fists, broken fingers and sliced his palms open on hard edges and metal. No-one coming.
He washed his hands in sea water, saw the blood bloom fresh away. Wondered what it would call; wondered if it mattered.
He dreamed of houses that had been empty, when their inhabitants had been able to leave them. He dreamed of doll houses, with the dolls sprawled at awkward angles, their postures plastic and artificial. He dreamed of Chatham, when he’d gone ashore all unsuspecting and come back to the boat as a living man – perhaps the only living man, and all his dreams were nightmares.
He dreamed of looking back from the safety of his boat and there were grains of sand on his feet and no footprints on the beach.
He dreamed of absence.
Don’t start diving till I get there, Johan told him. I don’t want to lose you, too. Just take surface samples, get them over first.
Anyone would think I’ve never been on a boat before, he said. He’d fully planned to dive anyway, even by himself, though he’d be careful with it, for kelp was easy to get lost in, to tangle and confuse, and there was more than kelp in the waters at Chatham. A foolish plan, but he’d not be able to resist when the alternative was eight weeks floating on a boat, by himself, and the water tempting before him.
He didn’t tell Johan that. No sense worrying the poor bastard, not when he was still so full with grief, dazed by it, and with more to worry about than a colleague in far waters. Adding to his troubles would be cruelty.
It was always a gamble, the wetsuit and tank. More so when the oxygen ran out and he took to using a snorkel instead, if only to avoid tying up at the small dock and making the trip into the small leavings of habitation on the island, the bloody remains of it.
He couldn’t smell corpses on the ocean, couldn’t run risk of contamination. If there was anything left that could contaminate him. His biology was limited to algae, to the salt and acclimation of it. He knew nothing of viruses, of public health, the sick and seeping chemistry of apocalypse.
Fitting, then, that all the health he had to care for now was his own. That was where the gamble came from – bad enough to risk the wetsuit and snorkel without a buddy, but he’d done it before and was competent in waters.
The real risk came from outside, from bodies more suited than his to the sea.
He wasn’t sure, when he dived, if he was hoping for them or not. They wouldn’t have meant to be so, but the sharks of Chatham might be a mercy. They might be something for him to give himself up to.
Great whites, and him with the white flag, or the feather.
Below the surface he flinched at shadows.
In a kelp forests there was nothing but shadows. The long blades shifted with the waves, and the light that came through was interrupted.
He pulled himself back onto deck, heart pounding. His foot tangled briefly in kelp. He felt the tug, felt the pressure.
He screamed and screamed. When his foot came loose he tumbled over the deck, tucked his ankles under him and lay like a turtle, still screaming.
There were five stages of grief, he knew. Or was it seven? Denial, bargaining, acceptance … he couldn’t remember the rest.
There was nothing with which to bargain.
The boat had been stocked for two. He’d planned to land and take on more supplies when Johan came, but he’d gone to shore once and that was enough while there was still fuel, still power from the solar batteries to run his equipment, so he ate carefully, preserving.
He used the ocean for supplements. The time he didn’t spend with the kelp he spent fishing.
I suppose there’s no need now for limits, he said, but each fish he caught he measured and the smaller ones went back. It was automatic, that behaviour, and he’d been throwing fish away for weeks before he noticed he was doing so.
When he did notice, he didn’t stop.
Is this morality? he thought. To be the last, and do the unnecessary anyway? Or have I become so much habit?
It seemed a thin thing to leave the world, habit.
He tried eating it. People did, he knew: the tips, mostly, because they were youngest and still tender, had not yet been turned leathery by waves. He sliced them off with a pocketknife, sliced them with hands that were softened and opening up with salt, that were sore and bleeding from dry cracks.
The tips were saline on his tongue: a concentrate of ocean, the taste strong and acrid and vivid in his mouth. Too much left him dehydrated in ways even raw fish did not, so he ate in silvers only, held pieces in his mouth and chewed gently, sucked at them as if they were cud, meditative.
His blood was salty too, when he licked it from stinging palms, from the split flesh between his fingers.
Salt, he noted in his journal, in the borders of his records, tasted of nothing but grief.
The kelp was thick and it was strong. It didn’t rip easily away from its substrate, not like him who floated on the ocean, who had nothing but anchors to keep him in one place. Any holdfast he might have had had been eaten away by virus.
Rock gave way sometimes before holdfasts did. He’d seen the kelp, washed up or floating with a chunk of rock attached to the base, and he’d wondered how strong the waves had been to tear it up. More often, he’d seen holdfasts eaten away, weakened by parasites – by worms and by molluscs, even, though shellfish had never been his interest.
He’d come to study parasites of another kind, those that caused galls, eukaryotic. He’d wanted to map the spreading of them around the islands, from one population to another. But the study had been limited – enough for two, over a season of summer months.
He began to study the worms, to bring them up and put them in alcohol. To build a survey. If he didn’t work, he wasn’t a scientist any longer.
Without science, there was nothing left.
Anger, that was another of them. One of the stages of grief.
He waited to feel it.
He never did.
Instead he cried so much he lost his voice and then he cried more, silently, for fear. He’d been alone enough now to feel his voice a comfort. It might be the only one he ever heard – come out as he had, onto the ocean without a mate, ignoring the buddy system and thinking it would be alright.
If his voice left, there’d be nothing.
When the tears were gone, he promised himself that he’d never cry again. When he felt the urge, he’d put on his wetsuit and take his snorkel and dive, and the silence of the kelp forests, the sense of insulation, was a balm.
When his voice came back, after three days of scratchiness and heat, he opened up the last of the beers and sat on the deck under the stars, wrapped in a sleeping bag.
He sang, to hear himself. All the old favourites. Dave Dobbyn, Crowded House. Better Be Home Soon. Goldenhorse, Anika Moa, The Mutton Birds. Anchor Me.
Johan was the mechanical one. He would have been able to fix the radio.
Good thing he wasn’t there, then, for it would be a wasted effort with no-one to call.
Sometimes he would float instead of dive: lie on his back in the kelp, feel it rising and falling around him with the tide. If he closed his eyes, it was as if the ocean was breathing about him, the kelp brushing up against his flanks, up against his fingers. Tangling in his limbs, and it didn’t bother him as it had.
Instead, it made him feel less alone.
Sometimes he’d even float there at night, when he couldn’t sleep and the moon hung heavy above him. It felt less like breathing then – the water chill and numbing, but it rose and fell and the kelp was cool about him and he couldn’t see anything but stars.
Couldn’t see, either, if there were fins about him and at first it made his heart beat harder in his chest, a reverberation that was counterpoint to tides.
Then he just got used to the waiting.
He got used to the taste of fish, too. Got used to it raw even, and that was a new thing for he’d never liked sushi, never wanted to eat fish that was any less than smoked.
It tasted of the sea, and if salt had come to mean grief to him then this was transformed, over time, into brine and fish-flesh and home.
He expected to die there, on the sea. And that was alright, because the sea had been home, once, a place of evolution. It was not so terrible to come home, to find it a place of extinction as well.
He saw the first of them from corners, from the side of his eye and with the kelp shifting between them.
Sunset, and that was no time for diving, but it tinted the water, made the light golden as it came through the bull kelp, and he liked to submerge there, with silence all about him, with the long kelp blades slippery under his hands. Just beneath the surface, his head barely covered by water and anchoring himself to algae.
He didn’t see all of it. Kelp was between them – between the thin envelope of his flesh, between the tail and the long shaded body, the lazy propulsion. Perhaps if he’d seen the fin first there would have been panic, but there was only stillness, the golden light, the kelp. The shark passed before him in pieces … three metres, four, and then the length of it was past him and passing on, not circling back.
There was an HPLC machine on the boat. It wasn’t equipment that he used often; he had bad memories of postgraduate work where the machine failed and he had to do his thesis experiments over again, camping overnight at the lab at Portobello to work the machine in the small hours, in the dark where he could see his own reflection in the windows, the glass made shadowed before him.
He began to take samples of kelp for more than parasites, for more than the tender tips and chewing. It was more physiology than ecology, but he remembered the algal production of sunscreen, the mycosporine-like amino acids that protected the kelp from radiation, from the southern strength of ultra-violet.
It’s not as if I’ve got anyone to tell, he said, anyone who needs the results. It didn’t stop him. His science might have become an insular thing, individualist, but it gave him direction, kept him sane, though that might have been its only purpose.
It wasn’t as if there was any importance to it now. If apocalypse had done nothing else it had stopped the production of pollutants; it had given the environment a chance to recover.
The ecologist in him might have appreciated that, had his capacity for appreciation survived what he’d found on Chatham.
When he floated in the water now, his heart was steady within him. He lay with the kelp spread about him and closed his eyes to sun and stars, to the potential of destruction.
If they come for me I’ll never know, he thought. There’d be a hard sharp blow from below, there’d be teeth and blood and tearing.
It would be over quickly.
He could never quite decide if he wanted that or not, but when he opened his eyes and saw the boat in the distance, saw how far he’d floated while his eyes were shut … he’d always swum back to it.
What if one day I don’t? he thought.
Sometimes he took up driftwood from the water, when it passed by and he could reach out, snag it from the kelp and shake the water from it. He spread it over the deck, let it dry in the sun and bleach to the colour of old bone.
When the wood was dry he used it to build evening fires, when the water darkened to the colour of sky and it was a risk, but only a small one, for he built the fires small and on metal, fed them little pieces of drift and skewered fish over them, overlaid the taste of ocean with charcoal, with warmth, and if he had come to prefer it raw, the act of cooking had become an act of remembrance, a monument to what had been lost.
The fires were never large. He never cooked more than a mouthful, a slim ritual, for his meals were sunshine things, taken at midday, through the long afternoon hours when the fish bit and his skin darkened behind the fishing line.
He had them now, rituals. Fire and songs and kelp, the things that anchored him.
He dreamed of empty oceans, of floating on the waves with the boat old beneath him and no sight of land. He dreamed of wetsuits and snorkels, of falling backwards into water and searching in vain for kelp, for algae of any kind.
He dreamed of fishing and never-biting, of empty lines and the absence of driftwood. He dreamed that he slid naked into the water and opened up his wrists to the salt, the last final attempt to call another living thing, but the kelp was gone and all the fish with it, all the sharks, and he dreamed himself drained, a floating husk that lived on alone with everything dead about him.
His body became a hard thing under the sun: bony and brown, all the desk-softness melting off. It gave him pleasure to see it, though the pleasure was a dim thing, removed.
It looked nothing like the others, his body. It didn’t leak or swell, didn’t plump up and seep with corruption, with the encroaching scent of rot.
He could see all the bones through skin, all the tendons in the backs of his fingers.
It made him want to eat more.
It made him want to eat less.
Had the fish not tasted of the ocean, had the kelp not been salt in his mouth, he wouldn’t have eaten at all.
When he floated in the kelp, he never dreamed.
Not of Chatham, with its houses empty of anything but disillusionment and death. Not of the university, with its corridors and lecture rooms deserted and echoing. Not of Johan, and the rigidity of his face when he’d last seen him, painted with the fragments of a loss that might have been mercy.
He didn’t dream of anything.
The shark watched him through the kelp. He could see its massive body, see the pale belly and the black eyes and the way that it circled – a lazy circling, curious.
He kept his face to it, turning, treading water. It had been a long time since he’d screamed when his foot caught in kelp. All the fear had leached from him, leached into the ocean and left his body a dehydrated crust.
Do you want to eat me? he said, honestly curious. He thought not – a great white was an ambush predator, would have come on him unawares from below. And he was skinny, so skinny. No caloric match for a fur seal.
Not hungry, then. Perhaps only curious.
It was beautiful, he thought. Not the beauty he preferred – no blades or sunlight shading, not stipes and air bladders and the heavy ribbon lengths of it. But beautiful still.
He found it comforting, that beauty remained.
When he woke, the first thing he saw was the boat.
We saw your fire, they said. Last night. We had to come, to see what it was. We couldn’t go past without following up.
There were two of them. They looked like sisters. We are sisters, they said. I guess that makes us lucky. To still have family left.
I’ve had too much salt, he said. Too much sun. But it was early morning still, the air cool enough that he couldn’t explain them away through sunstroke.
He thought he was hallucinating not because of the sisters, but because of their boat. He knew a research vessel when he saw one, and to have science stumble on him in this way made him untrusting.
We’ve been following the sharks, they said. Tagging them, mapping migration routes. We’ve been out for months. When it happened we were out of all touch. We didn’t know what to do, where to go. So we kept following them.
There’s a large population of great whites at Chatham, they said. You must have seen them.
Science. Something to put their backs against, something to give them purpose.
I wonder how many of us are left, they said. We’ve been thinking. We can’t be the only ones. Science tended to remote places as well as centralities. That’s what saved us.
The tyranny of distance, he said. He sang for them. Split Enz, and they sang with him. Six Months in a Leaky Boat.
Thank fuck we’re not leaking, they said.
Make Sense of It.
I Hope I Never…
We can’t be the only ones, they said. There’s Scott Base. DOC workers – down on the sub-Antarctic Islands, maybe. Cut off at Ulva – wasn’t there an island where they kept kākāpō?
Cold places. They shivered when they talked of them. They were from the Bay of Islands, originally. And we’ve come down the migration route from Tonga, they said. Following the sharks. We’ve their route all mapped out now, they said.
Can we tell you about it?
Their skin was round and soft, smoother than stipes and saline. It didn’t matter; he couldn’t get it up anyway.
I don’t want to feel alive, he said. I can’t afford it. If I have to get used to being alone again, it just might kill me.
You could come with us, they said, but he couldn’t. There were still readings to take, still measurements.
I have to work, still, he said. Amino acids, parasites, ecology. The kelp. The kelp.
Can I tell you about it?
He’d lost his laptop long ago – left in on the deck one evening and the rain got in. He woke from nightmares to scrap, was just grateful for old printouts. He did his drafts and calculations on their back, on the bright swathes of writing paper he’d taken from Chatham during that terrible disembarkation.
When the pages were of no more use to him, covered in scribbles and second-best wording, he settled them on the ocean surface and let them float away: pink and yellow and white, and on the margins and in the spare spaces were fragments of lyrics.
He gave them clean copies of what he had; papered over his galley with the circulations of sharks.
When they asked him his name, he had to stop and think. Only a few months, but the world had changed in those months and there was nothing left of the man who’d existed before, who’d gone out into the ocean and expected to return. There was nothing left of him but kelp.
That’s my name now, he said. Kelp.
First published takahe 87