4070 words, short story
A lifetime of sailing and Sefa had never got used to the thrill of it, to the wide blue spill of horizon, and how it held in the world. He’d stood in storms and calm weather and every stage in between, stood against salt railings and on decks so heaving he could barely keep his feet, and each time it astounded him—the sense of space, the certainty that, with no land in sight, ocean was all there was of the world.
“I should have been a poet,” he said. “Thought about it even, when I was fifteen or so.” He smirked, hands cupped ’round the mug of early morning mint tea. “Couldn’t rhyme to save my life.”
“I didn’t think poems needed rhymes,” said Carina. She was just being polite; Sefa had seen the small shelf of verses, all well-thumbed, when he’d come aboard to be introduced to Tangaroa’s captain. He’d known then that they’d get along.
“Yeah. I had dreams of putting them to music. Something to get myself a boyfriend,” he said. “But I couldn’t sing either, not for shit. It kind of put paid to any delusions of romantic grandeur.”
“From what I hear out of port, you don’t have any problems in that department.” Carina grinned at him. “Don’t make that face. What my crew gets up to in their private lives is no business of mine. Just don’t cause any drama on board and we’ll be good.”
“Happy crew, happy ship.”
“Does it make you happy, this job?” A staple question, the one he’d decided on as a way to take the measure of his subjects. Three decades of reporting and this was his first assignment on a naval ship. They all had their embedded reporters, although those reporters were constantly rotated through so that any loyalty that developed, any friendships, were less likely to corrupt journalistic integrity. Happiness, he thought, was the key question. Not because of the answer, but because he wanted to know whether consideration was given to the question, or whether the response was an automatic one. Either answer would tell him something, but Carina hesitated before replying. “Not always,” she said.
“Care to expand on that?”
“You’ll understand when you’ve been out here long enough,” she said. “I’m not trying to be cryptic. But you’re no use to me—no use to any of us—if you come out already influenced. I’d rather you see for yourself.”
“I can always ask the rest of the crew,” Sefa pointed out.
“And they’re free to answer,” Carina replied, but he caught the flash that said she had noticed his skepticism. Not that it was skepticism, really, for he couldn’t fathom a ship where speech was bound about with nets, but he wanted, again, to see her reaction to his intimation and judge thereby. “Truly they are,” she said, and her smile was all disarming admission. “Half of them aren’t Navy anyway. We always carry civilians. Working scientists mostly, but there’s the occasional artist as well, and if there are any two groups you can’t order to shut the hell up it’s those two.”
“Have you ever tried?”
“I wouldn’t lower myself,” she said.
There were three times on the voyage that Sefa wished for someone to order him into silence. It would have saved him the salt horror of deciding when to look away.
He was used to the Morrow. They were coastal creatures, mostly—at least, they were coastal when he saw them because his had been a life spent on the coast. There was a seal colony near his home; only a small one, but well protected and slowly growing.
“Of course I know they’re at sea, too,” he said. Following out after the dolphins, keeping them clear of danger. And he’d known, theoretically, that naval ships had their own packs. He’d seen them below decks, in the massive saltwater pool, cosseted by scientists like Stanley who kept them monitored and fed.
“They don’t seem to behave like the ones I know,” he said.
“Naval packs are bred separately,” said Stanley. “They lack the, uh, nurturing capability of the others. A lot of the Morrow are attached to specific populations,” he explained. “They act as guardians to established colonies or pods. These are more generalized. They’re assigned to one of the border marine stations out in the deep ocean. At any one time, half of the Morrow assigned to any particular station rotate through the naval ships like this one.”
“I’ve seen them swimming alongside,” said Sefa. The Morrow loved to play in the Tangaroa’s wake, or to play in the bow wave, their gleaming mermaid bodies sleek and plump and lethal. They always seemed to pop up, too, in the evening, when the ship’s officers and most of the rest of her crew gathered on the deck to sing to the sea. Shanty songs and ocean hymns, devotionals that rang out over the water.
“This crew has all got incredible voices, have you noticed?” he said.
“I hope for your sake you’re not including me in that,” Stanley replied. “If you are, your ears want checking.” Sefa had to admit the truth of it. He’d stood next to the man during the choral sessions before, and the experience had been a less than tuneful one. There was a reason Stanley only hummed along.
“It’s part of their training. The naval training, I mean. Tone-deaf and you wash out. The Morrow don’t like it.”
They slinked up to the ship when the singing began, the Morrow, some swimming beside with an absorbed expression come from crooning, some scaling the outer hull with their claws to press their faces against the hull, rubbing their cheeks against the metal and swaying. They sang along too, sometimes, but if there were words in their singing, Sefa couldn’t make it out. They sang as the whales sang, long sustained notes that raised the hair on the back of his neck. Sefa shuddered, listening to them, thinking of long hunts and howling, of salt hymns and blood.
He’d tried singing badly after that, to see what would happen, been as off-tune as he knew how. It was an annoyance he’d never have dared with a coastal pack; provoking the Morrow on the edge of a guarded pod tended to have unfortunate results. Aboard the Tangaroa there were no seals to protect, but even so the Morrow closest to him, wrapped around the railing not five meters away, had woken from a semi-somnolent croon, bared her teeth, and hissed at him. He’d persisted for a few seconds, but when the Morrow began to claw across the railing toward him, Sefa had promptly shut up and gone to hide behind the rest of the crew. The Morrow subsided, glaring at him, tail thumping against the deck in displeasure.
It had been his first personal experience of their volatility, so suited to the ocean. The Morrow visited the ship’s pool occasionally, but they had free egress to the ocean, had learned to manipulate the lock—“The extent of their mechanical interest, I’m afraid,” said Stanley. “I wish we knew more about their mechanical ability, but there’s no way to induce them to work through the utter boredom it apparently inspires.” They preferred the sense of space and purpose outside of the hull, liked to play and practice and show off in the open waves.
“They look like they’re hunting each other,” said Sefa, leaning in fascination over the railings to watch a violent game below.
“It’s only for mock. Keeping their hand in, for when we come up against the real threat.”
“Keeping their claws in, more like,” said Sefa, wincing in sympathy at one particularly vicious strike.
“Mate, you haven’t seen anything yet.”
He hadn’t—but he did. The Tangaroa changed course one morning, came about early and hard and with speed. A low bell rang from beneath, and the deck vibrated under him. It rang once, just once, but the Morrow immediately stopped their play and began to flank the ship. Their expressions, when Sefa could make them out beneath the surface skin of water, were hot and greedy.
The foreign fishing vessel, when they came upon it, never had a chance. The bell rang again and again, and the Morrow swarmed.
Knowing was different than seeing. Sefa puked his guts out, and even some of the experienced sailors looked away, though Carina, further along the deck, did not. The poachers were ripped apart, were gobbled and guzzled and died screaming, in chunks. When the Morrow finished gorging themselves on flesh, they began on the encroaching vessel, ripping it to shreds with their big, clawed hands. They scuttled it within ten minutes, and ten minutes after that all Sefa could see, floating on the waves, were splintered pieces of wreckage, the odd mutilated body part, and a thin curtain of dead fish. Their silver bodies glinted briefly in the sunlight. He recognized the narrow-tailed trevally, the yellowy green stripes of kōheru, and most of what he saw was far too small to be caught.
“Bring half of it aboard,” said Carina, disgust in her tone at the dead. “And any body parts you can find. The Morrow can eat them later. Leave the rest for the sea.”
“How can you bear it?” he asked her.
“You know how. Aotearoa is the only real marine reserve left in the world. The only ones left with a functioning ocean ecosystem to protect. This is the price. I bear it,” she said, “because the alternative is worse.”
There was an inhumanity to ocean choices that Sefa found hard to fathom. His instinct, when Tangaroa received a distress call, was to answer—but there was another boat out there, a fishing boat and one of theirs this time, which was off-course and did not answer to hails.
“It may be damaged,” said Carina. She shared a troubled look with her first officer.
The distress call had come from a small boat of refugees. “They are certainly damaged,” Sefa argued, but he was overruled.
“But we’re the closest!”
“Yes. To both.”
He couldn’t understand it; refused to attend the singing that night. Carina came to stand with him, staring out in the direction of those they’d abandoned. “Not easy, is it?” she said.
“How can you bear it?” he asked again.
“Pretty bloody badly, to be honest,” said Carina. “But I bear it all the same.”
A day later the Gloria floated before them, every line of her perfect, clean, and well-cared for. The Crow gleamed above, the mechanical figure tasked with monitoring catch limits, and Sefa squinted at it, frowning.
“Your Crow isn’t transmitting,” Carina said, radioing the other boat. Her face was blank, completely without suspicion, although there was a tightness about the eyes that indicated caution.
“Something’s buggered, I don’t know what,” was the frustrated response. “The quota assessment works but not the rest of it. My engineer can’t figure it out.” Though of course no engineer could do too much without opening the shining cranium of the Crow, and that, on the ocean, was an action that would not be tolerated because the only reason to interfere with a Crow was to make it turn its face from overfishing. “We’d appreciate a hand if you’ve got one, Tangaroa.”
“Stand by, Gloria.” Carina cut the transmission. “What do you think?”
“She’s got the codes alright. Everything checks out, Captain,” said her first officer. “But I thought she came in two weeks ago.”
“Could have been for an injury rather than meeting their catch,” said Carina. “That’d allow them to go back out. Radio through to Reinga and check. I want to know if that fishing boat is ours.” But their transmission, too, was a sudden failure.
“It could be jamming. Crows have malfunctioned before,” said the engineer. “But not very often. Only twice I’ve ever heard and both of those were after lightning strike. I’m not seeing any such damage from here.” He shook his head. “There’s something doesn’t feel right.”
It was the mention of marks that made the connection. “I know that Crow,” said Sefa, surprised. “The Gloria’s Crow. That’s not it.” He’d spoken into a moment of silence, and the entire bridge stilled around him.
“What do you mean?” Carina’s voice was sharp.
“My previous assignment was on the Dancer. A fishing boat—I wanted to spend more time at sea. Thought I’d better, because I knew there was a spot open on the naval rotation, and I wanted the experience.”
“Tick tick, Sefa.”
“Yeah. One of Dancer’s sailors used to work on Gloria. She kept up with her former coworkers. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but she sent me a photo, not ten days ago. She knows I’ve an interest in Crows; all that independent observation. They’re like journalists that way. Anyway, Gloria painted their Crow. Not completely—but designs down both arms. Sea-arms, she called them. Wave patterns like tattoos, all done in blue.”
“Shit. So that Crow is out of date, is what you’re saying. You’re certain?”
“The Gloria Crow could have had the designs removed. It’s a new thing, decorating the Crows for the boats. It could have just been for practice.”
“No one practices on a Crow,” said Carina, grim with the certainty of it. “If the Gloria’s captain used paint, then she meant to.” She shook her head, her mouth pressed tight and angry. “That boat’s a fake.” Beneath that cool response, Sefa heard the dull underwater sound of bells.
“Wait,” he said. “Stop! Just for a minute. You can’t . . . ” and he trailed off, because the Tangaroa could, and because she was meant to. Because ecosystem was threatened, and that came before all, and there was no mercy any longer for overfishers.
Carina clapped him on the shoulder just a few moments before he had to put his head between his knees. “Thanks for your help, Sefa. We might have been taken in if it weren’t for you.”
It didn’t help that she brought him mint tea afterward, tea that had been thoroughly laced with alcohol. “I just said it,” he said. “It just came out. I didn’t mean for you to kill them.”
“Drink your tea,” she said. “And if you’re going to choke on guilt, don’t. They knew what they were doing when they come to our waters.”
“I thought I did as well,” said Sefa.
“What do you think would have happened to anyone I sent over there?” she said. “They asked for help for their Crow. My engineer would have made a fine hostage. There’s more and more of them out there, pretending to be us. They’re good at it too. Stealing signals. Perfect replicas—but none of our fishing boats have the weapons hidden in the hold that theirs do. Dead men don’t witness. They would have killed you for fish if they had to, Sefa. Think on that, if you think on guilt.”
“I can still hear the screams,” he said.
“Screams are better than silence,” Carina replied. Better than empty oceans, the seas sterile and soundless beneath the waves.
One of the Morrow interrupted them then, her strong-finned arm tossing a gleaming bundle up to the deck. It was the head of the fake Crow, and inside it was all hollow, with nothing there to monitor catch.
“How much did they take?” said Sefa, but he already knew the answer. Too much, and the ocean’s a little more quiet because of it.
“You’ll be singing tonight?” he asked.
“Sefa, we sing every night.”
The boat people were blasted about the eyes, their bodies brittle and burned under sun. They didn’t have the energy to climb aboard the Tangaroa; they had to be winched up. Everyone helped: naval officers and scientists and the two refugee staff—a doctor and social worker—who were, like journalists, embedded on every naval ship for just this occurrence. Sefa saw them begin to assess the refugees, saw the scientists leave their work to bring water and blankets. There was a petty officer comforting two of the children, a lieutenant with his arms around an elderly man who couldn’t stop shaking; people who looked at the great, gleaming tails of the Morrow, their razor teeth and claws, and who had no tears left for fear.
“Imagine it,” said Carina, looking down from the deck to the pathetic little craft bobbing below, as the last of her former occupants were carried below. “Months in that thing, and everything around you sterile. There’s the ocean, and it’s just so big—beautiful, too, especially when the sun’s at the horizon. I’ve seen you on deck, watching. I do it too. But they’re looking at empty sky above and empty oceans below . . . the world must just seem emptier and emptier. I don’t know if I could stand it,” she said.
Sefa tried to picture it. Tried to picture the isolation, the despair. He’d felt shadows of it himself, on the fishing boats when no catch could be found, or the Crow deemed the schools too small to take from. But there was regeneration, still, in the fish farms, in the slow rebirth of coastal waters, in the national sanctuary and the underlying insistence on sustainability as a means of navigating crisis. He couldn’t imagine experiencing absence on such a scale, for such a length of time; he thought that if he were forced to do so he might break his heart on it.
“You wouldn’t be the first,” said Carina, and Sefa shifted his attention back to the little boat.
“Shouldn’t there have been more people?” The little vessel was far smaller than the Tangaroa, but it could have fit another two dozen if they squeezed. “I don’t understand. It’s just I’ve always seen, on the news, those pictures of overcrowded boats.”
“Going to northern Aussie, right? Or across the Med?”
“It’s a relatively short distance,” said Carina. “Aotearoa . . . if you want to get here you’ve got to sail across the largest ocean in the world. We’re at the bottom of it. It takes months, sometimes, on rickety little barges like this one.”
“So wouldn’t it make more sense to pack them in?”
“They do.” Carina’s mouth narrowed, and her voice was grim. “The people you see now, the ones we’re bringing on board . . . they’re the ones who survive. They don’t have anything to eat, Sefa. They leave their own countries because they’re starving. If they could cobble together a few months’ worth of food before they get on that piece of shit boat, they probably wouldn’t be leaving their home in the first place. And there’s no fish. No sea birds. They have barrels and those inflatable solar stills for water, but the oceans are close to empty. They can’t fish their way here. It’s not sustainable.”
“So they starve.”
“And the bodies are buried at sea.” That made sense, at least. Hideous as the journey might be, it wouldn’t improve with disease, with the decay of spoiling flesh.
“They are,” said Carina. She paused, and the look she gave him had a grief in it he could not fathom. “Eventually.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Sefa. Each other is all they have to eat.”
He spent the rest of the trip back sitting with the refugees, taking down what of their stories he could make out in the absence of translators. He helped to feed them. He helped to bathe them.
“My daughter died in the second month,” said one of the women. “She died in the night. We couldn’t . . . I couldn’t . . . we were starving,” she said. “I didn’t tell anyone she died. I just held her against me. And my husband, he had stopped being hungry. I knew he wasn’t going to live. He knew it too. And he looked at her, and he looked at me, and we couldn’t bear what would happen to her.
“He took her over the side,” she said. “In the dark, when no one could see them go. Will you write about that?” she said.
“Yes,” said Sefa.
“Will you write about that?” said Carina. Her first officer had the watch, and she’d been taking her turn spooning soup into the mouths of people too weak to hold their own cutlery; was heading now to the mess for her own meal.
“Good. It won’t change anything—you think you’re the first? Even if we could force our way into other countries’ waters, we couldn’t take everyone. We couldn’t ever take more than a fraction. We’re a small country, fighting our way back from the same collapse as everyone else. We just don’t have the resources.”
“So what’s the bloody point?” he said, meaning What’s the bloody point of journalism, then, and what’s the point of me?
“Conservation comes with cost,” said Carina. “I don’t know what paying that cost has turned us into, but we pay it, and we shouldn’t be allowed to forget that—what we’re willing to do to keep the oceans alive.”
“That’s the point of you,” she said.
“Are you happy in your work, Sefa?” she said.
“Fuck you,” he snapped.
He regretted it, later. “I shouldn’t have said what I did,” he said. “I’m sorry. I was angry with you. It was easier to be angry with you than to be angry at everything else.”
“It’s not all your fault, Sefa,” said Carina. “I needled you. That was unnecessary too. But you are not the only one who is angry.”
Sefa didn’t bother to ask who she was angry at—or what. He knew the answer there, and it was limitation. It was the consciousness of limitation, for it must be wearing to see those like himself, who hadn’t faced the same conflict in their loyalties in any way more than the theoretical. The constant rotation of writers, always questioning, always on the brink of experiencing horror firsthand rather than at a distance, learning the ability to turn away, and always having to deal with them afterward.
Those people who were overfishing, the ones who died for it, they were starving too.
“How many times have you had this conversation?” he said.
“I’ve lost count. However many it is, it’s still not enough,” she replied. “But it is a duty, and a necessary one, so I keep doing it. In my own defense, it’s often with better humor. You caught me in a bitter moment. I’m sorry for that.”
“How do you balance it?” he said. “How can you reconcile the taking of life, how can you look away and give people like those we’ve picked up over to their deaths?”
“I’ve thought about it,” she said, “and, you know, I reckon that at bottom there’s a solid core of romanticism in it somewhere. In the life that we choose, those of us who work on the borders. The choices we make are so harsh, you wouldn’t think so, but there it is.” She smiled at him, a brief embarrassed burst. “I wanted to be a poet too, once. When I was young. The way that poetry made me feel . . . there was something almost devotional about it. But I wasn’t any good.” She waved the beginning of protest away. “No, I wasn’t. I tried for years, until I had to admit to myself that appreciation wasn’t talent. The only feeling that came close for me was the sea.”
“Yes. The same wonder, the same love. It’s not just me. Most of my officers feel the same. You’ve heard us singing.” The ocean hymns, that daily ritual of marine communion.
“When you’re in love, it’s all you can think about,” she said, and shrugged. “Some people love ideas. Some people love other people. Some manage to love more than once, or at once.”
“What do you love, Sefa?” she said.
Warrior-priests, he nearly said, but didn’t. That was a shallow love and a sudden one, born of understanding and admiration and gratitude, too—that others could take up a calling that he never could. What came out instead was unexpected.
“Horizons, perhaps,” he said, and the word was salt and familiar in his mouth. “Beauty.”
Octavia Cade is a New Zealand writer. She has a PhD in science communication, and is currently occupied writing climate fiction and writing about urban ecology. She’s won four Sir Julius Vogel awards, and was the 2020 writer in residence at Massey University. Her latest book, The Impossible Resurrection of Grief, was published in 2021 by Stelliform Press.