In December, around the time that would’ve once been Christmas, the tide brought in car parts, most so waterlogged they were unusable. Whiti almost cried when she found a fully intact fan motor, but the rust damage to the armature was too extreme; it was holding together but she knew it wouldn’t last under stress. The solar panels at the old Department of Conservation station had been damaged in a hailstorm and it was well beyond her capabilities to fix them. They weren’t producing enough to keep the batteries topped up. If the power went out, the freezer went out, and if the freezer went out, then she had no way to store the fish she’d been able to catch. All that meat wasted and, despite her best efforts to keep their numbers stable, she had no idea how much longer fishing would be viable. Despite total radio silence from the mainland, the pollution in the water kept getting worse.
The fan was plastic though, not large enough to catch wind, but—
There was an old electric motor on one of the kayaks. The propeller had been smashed to pieces on a rock two weeks back, but the engine itself was still good: car fan on the kayak engine, find somewhere to dig a trench where water would run downhill, let the water turn the blades and put power back into the engine. Hardly a hydro plant, but it would do, and if she had anything on the Mohu Maha—the end of the world at the end of the world—it was an abundance of water.
It had been almost two years since the last transmission from the mainland, and nine months since the rest of the rangers had set off across the ocean for Invercargill. They should’ve returned a long time ago, but of course they hadn’t. Nothing came from the world-that-was any more. Whiti had taken to calling it that: the world-that-was. She knew, of course, that the world never really ended, that an apocalypse wasn’t an end so much as a change of state, ice into water. Her tupuna had lived through apocalypse after apocalypse and come out the other side alright; if you could survive the English, you could survive anything. She didn’t even know whether there were English left to survive, of course. As things had gotten worse, they’d all learned that nationhood was held together with scrap and prayer, just like everything else.
Summer had unfrozen the ground enough for her to dig the trench, but it was still slow going; each time the shovel’s blade cut into the hard earth, it cost her calories she knew she couldn’t spare, another equation she couldn’t balance. As she dug, she thought about things she missed, how she’d give all the fish in the freezer for a handful of grated cheese and a can of lukewarm beer.
It took all day and some of the night. Her clothes were soaked through with sweat, and she couldn’t tell whether it was from exertion or just a sign of the times, even the last stop before Antarctica growing hotter. She cut open the casing to access the wiring, and when she hooked it up to the grid, she swore the lamps got just a little brighter. She stumbled back to the cabin half asleep, where she carefully put the shovel away and was about to set down for the night when she saw the sail.
For a moment she thought it was some trick of the light through motheaten lace curtains, but she pulled them back and it remained steadfast, a little white triangle on the horizon. She tried looking through binoculars but, between the night, the swells, and the distance, she’d have had about as much luck making out Australia as she did spotting any crew. Still, crewed or not, a seagoing vessel was something she could use. It didn’t seem to be getting closer, and it was too far out to trust that the tide would bring in. Only one thing for it: despite her aching arms and the chopping sea, she grabbed her paddle and raced down to the kayak, dearly regretting cannibalizing the engine. She’d found a replacement propeller after all, but it was too late for regret. The only path was forward.
Her arm muscles screamed with each cut of the paddle as she powered forward, prow right into the waves, each wave followed by a sickening weightlessness before the hull crashed back down. She lost track of time, lost how many times she nearly lost her grip on the paddle. By the time she reached the vessel, she was so weak she could barely lift herself out of the kayak.
It was a catamaran, nice one too, the sort of thing the Queenstown nouveau riche had thought they’d ride out the apocalypse on, that they used to park on a hill on Central Otago and joke would be on the beachfront soon enough. No sign of crew. She tied onto the hull, then struggled out of her seat and clambered aboard. No getting back to the island tonight, not in her current state, but the cat’s cabin seemed largely intact.
She opened the door and gagged as the smell hit her. The entire cabin reeked of salt and vomit. The occupant wasn’t dead, though it was hard to tell at first. She had curled up in the fetal position on the bunk. She was so thin that each shallow breath rattled her body. It seemed like the girl had been drinking seawater for God knows how long, though clearly not quite long enough to kill her.
A horrible thought occurred to Whiti: she simply did not have the food to get this woman back to health. The catamaran would be invaluable, possibly even let her get back to the mainland. Nobody would ever know if she just . . . let the girl die. She could sail the cat to shore, then let the problem resolve itself. It would happen without intervention anyway.
Then she saw the collar, ringed with spring-loaded rods and fitted with a small wireless receiver. It was in the corner, cut through with a saw. The rods were at full extension, close enough together that she could barely fit her wrist through the middle. Whoever had held the remote control had hit the button too late. She’d known things were bad back on the mainland, the Yank billionaires in their Queenstown bunkers handing out scraps for backbreaking work. But this was something else. Surely a year hadn’t changed that much? But she’d learned the hard way how fast calamity could move.
She kept a small water bottle in the kayak. She went to get it, and when she returned, the girl was on the floor, trying to crawl. Whiti desperately needed water herself, but she put the bottle to the girl’s lips and let her empty the whole thing.
She was another Māori girl, maybe fifteen, shaky kauae tattoo on her chin that looked like a stick and poke job, big sharky kāi tahu nose that stuck out even more on a face almost totally devoid of fat. Deep bruises around her neck where the collar had dug in. Obvious muscular atrophy that seemed much more severe than could be explained just by the journey from the mainland. Once she’d drunk her fill, she crawled back up onto the bunk.
There was a second bunk across the cabin, and Whiti stared at it, swaying on her feet.
“Can sleep here,” the girl muttered.
Whiti didn’t need telling twice.
In the morning, Whiti brought the cat ashore, and carried her new charge into the ranger cabin. The girl slept for another two days, only waking occasionally to beg for water. She kicked and whimpered in her sleep, and on the second night she screamed loud enough to wake them both.
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“’m sorry,” she muttered, and Whiti did her best to act like it wasn’t a problem. Good sleep was one of the few things she’d been able to rely on during her time on the island, a resource that didn’t need to be kept track of, but it seemed like those days were over. She sighed, rolled out of her bunk, and extended a hand.
“Whiti,” she said. “’bout time we sorted that one.” The girl stared at it like she was being offered the sharp end of a knife, but then she took it and shook it so gently their hands barely moved at all.
“Nico,” she muttered, “like the tree, but like, not really.”
“Well, Nico, you brought me a boat, I feel like you can get away with a scream or two.”
It wouldn’t be one or two, of course. How many nights’ ruined sleep could she afford? How long before her hands shook too much to repair the wiring? Too tired to set the nets and empty the crab traps? And with them burning through food twice as fast, if not faster, it—
The horrible thought occurred again: Who would know?
She’d know, that’s who.
How long until you get hungry enough to reconsider?
As if sensing something in Whiti’s eyes, Nico blurted out, “I can help, Auntie. Anything you need.”
“Can you double the fish in my nets?” said Whiti. It was cruel, she knew it, but she hadn’t spoken to another human in a long time and her sense of propriety was one of the first things she’d let go of.
To her surprise, Nico tilted her head to the side. After a moment, she said, “Depends how much you’re catching, I guess.”
It took another week before Nico was able to walk.
The purifier hadn’t been able to produce quite enough clean water for them both. Whiti had been careful, but she was starting to feel the first creeping signs of dehydration as she scoured the beach for more useful scrap. She felt sluggish and irritable, stretched thin, short-fused. The catamaran was in worse shape than she’d thought; she could get it properly seaworthy with the right repairs, but it was going to take a while, and time wasn’t exactly running a surplus.
In the second week of January, she found Nico outside, kneeling by a muddy embankment near the shore.
“Look,” she said, as Whiti approached. Nico gestured with a stick at a small burrow. Inside it, there was a little fragment of white, what looked like a smooth white stone buried inside the wall.
Whiti wouldn’t have given it a second thought, but she gasped when she realized. An egg. Some sort of seabird? Her mouth watered and she took a step forward, but Nico brandished the stick at her and shook her head. “We need to wait until it hatches and starts to fledge,” she said. “It’s no good to eat yet, just gristle and bone. April through May though, they’ll start getting big and adventurous, and that’s when you grab them. Keep an eye out for more burrows. If there’s one tītī nesting down here, there are probably more. Good meat on them, and I reckon you could do something clever with the rest nē?”
The down would be good for clothes, blankets, pillows. She wondered whether the bones were too brittle to work with. The wings would be useless but she could potentially make a small precision blade out of the breastbone, depending on the size of the bird. She’d snapped her last X-Acto blade months ago.
They staked the earth near the burrow with a tree branch and wrapped a piece of flax around the top, then spent the morning looking for more burrows. Nico seemed to have an eye for it. She wasn’t strong enough to cut or place the stakes, but she would periodically vanish and come back with armfuls of flax branches and leaves.
“Bring less,” said Whiti, wearily.
“Auntie, there’s heaps,” said Nico.
“That’s not the problem. You’re burning energy you don’t need to. Do only what’s useful.” What she didn’t say was: You’re barely standing and the last thing we can afford is another convalescence period. If you go down, I’m not getting you up again.
“I thought you said you wanted more fish.”
Whiti screwed up her face. Bit of a non sequitur, she thought. Her confusion obviously showed.
“Nets,” said Nico. She dumped the flax on the ground and crossed her arms. “But whatever, you’re the genius ay, all those bloody machines, you figure it out.”
She clearly intended to stomp off but didn’t have the energy for it. Instead she swayed back and forth as though the earth beneath her was unstable.
Whiti’s head spun and, as she stood up, a sudden wave of dizziness almost took her feet out from under her. It was all too much, every moment of her life on the island meticulously measured and executed just to survive. She was shouting without realizing it.
“Do you know how much it took to save your ungrateful ass?” she spat. “For what? Three hundred calories and some shitty hollow bones in three months’ time? You cost more than you earn, girl. Go die then, go die, just do it somewhere that I find your body before the crabs.”
Nico was staring at her, pupils dilated, a tremor in her voice. “You know who you sound like?”
Whiti’s mind flashed back to the collar. It had been well made, some really clever bloody engineering, for such an awful purpose. No evil quite like a good mind set to bad work. She couldn’t even imagine what the mainland looked like, another bloody apocalypse, ice into water and everybody’s drowning.
“You want to live?” said Whiti.
“Is that a threat?” Despite her obvious fatigue, Nico was suddenly standing up straight, on the balls of her feet, ready to run or fight. A sharp rock seemed to have materialized in her hand. Whiti hadn’t even seen her pick it up. She must’ve had it in a pocket all along, ready for the worst. The girl had been through hell and was still kicking.
“No, no, look,” said Whiti. “I want to live, and for that to happen, I need your help. And you need mine. I’m fucking scared, I’m treading water but I can’t do it much longer. I’m a great engineer but a shitty hunter so . . . you stock the fridge, I keep it running. Deal?”
She extended a hand and took a step forward. Nico raised the rock, held it high for a moment, then took a step back. She dropped the rock and it hit the mud with a dull thunk. She didn’t shake Whiti’s hand, but she picked the flax back up.
“Yeah nah, I can make us another net ay,” she said. “And you? We need more clean water, do . . . do something. I dunno. The purifier in the cat wasn’t working but you’re a clever one, make it happen.”
She hadn’t even thought to ask whether the catamaran had a purifier. Probably a wee under-the-sink job with the rubber falling to pieces. But fuck it, better than nothing.
“Gotcha,” she said. “And thank you.”
Nico didn’t reply. She walked away from Whiti backward, cautiously, until she’d disappeared from sight over the hillock.
Truth was, they couldn’t afford to fight. Fighting wasn’t what happened when resources ran truly low. It took a lot to go to war. It was just another luxury they couldn’t afford.
Whiti sighed and set off for the catamaran, and was—not for the first time—grateful for what the tide brought in.