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Return to Kiribati

by Alexandra Porter

Only the cold, untwinkling speck of a space station pierced the darkness between the thinning cumulus and the churning ink-black sea.

The storm sail billowed and creaked, water thundered like rapids between the three hulls, and Kraken hydrofoiled a metre clear of the water, slicing through the detritus of coconuts and disintegrating plastic that had been whipped into a seething broth by the Pacific cyclone wind. My eyes combed the ebony veils for signs of pursuit, but the outcasts’ ramshackle vessel couldn’t have made it through. We sailed alone once more.

“Argo, thanks for keeping us safe”, I finally breathed with relief.

“That is my primary function, and what the storm-runner models were designed for, Captain.”, the ship’s computer replied in calculated soothing tones.

“Did you notify the GOPs yet?”

“The Global Ocean Protectorate has been informed of the presence of pirates.”

“Genius! So glad I paid extra for the deluxe system.”

“Actually, you just received another message from CircularSeas regarding arrears in rental payments. I have reviewed the accounts. May I suggest that you cease accepting rum and strawberries as payment?”

“Well, you may suggest that. But who would turn down a strawberry daiquiri after six months of desalinated water?”

“I would.”, he replied flatly.

“Okay. But it also doesn’t help that no one ever wants to visit Kiribati. I guess after the nuclear testing it just never made it onto the tourist map…” My thoughts drifted into uncertain waters.

“Despite my superior programming, human behavior remains a mystery to me. Why are we heading for Tarawa Atoll?”

My mind whirled, directionless, like a coconut in the cyclone, hoping one day to rest on solid ground.

“I just wanted to make sure it was still there…”.

The hatch snapped open. It was my mother, Calista.

I always took the night watch. It gave me time away from Calista, who had traded in her small blue algae business to buy a new pair of ‘dancing knees’ and pay the deposit and first months’ rent on Kraken as my Ocean Guardian graduation present. Turned out she couldn’t afford the retirement eco-cruise ship. So the day I set sail on my first trade run she showed up at the dock wearing an enormous floppy straw hat, carrying four suitcases of mumu dungarees and a micro-farming kit, accompanied by Lorenzo, I think his name was, waving and shouting “Surprise! We’re your first passengers!”

It was a fine day for sailing, and the impractical hat barely made it out of Portsmouth harbour. Likewise, Lorenzo, who disappeared not long after.

“Genevieve! Have you seen the bioluminescence? It’s simply divine”, cooed Calista. “Did you log the sighting yet, or shall I?”

“It’s all yours”, I replied.

Don’t get me wrong, I was glad to have my mother on board. She was an expert at recruiting passengers, and had a rather magical way of making Perfect Protein taste like it wasn’t made in a test tube.

“I couldn’t sleep through that tempest! But thank Gaia, the stars are coming out again now… Did I ever tell you that when I was a girl growing up in London I never saw the stars. Even after your grandparents fought to get the ecocide laws introduced in the 20s, it took another 10 years or more to clear the smog.”

“Yes, you did, Cali.” I wasn’t tired of her stories, they gave me perspective.

There was a thrumming and wailing that sounded like mermaids performing opera inside a tidal power installation. Some 30m off the starboard bow the surface of the water was rippling with mechanical strokes, and there following close behind, framed in the moonlight, were the finned arches of three whales.

“Imagine if it were a family of blue whales and a pod of common dolphins”, I dreamed aloud.

“Well,” my mother considered, “Maybe one day the rewilding trials will succeed. Whilst there’s frozen genetic material, we have hope.” A note of sadness briefly tainted her voice. “I’ll log the sighting. Would you say that were two adult humpbacks and a calf following the seasweeps?”

“I think so”, I replied, “Humpbacks seem to love the plankton and clean water the sweeps spit out.”

“Do you know a humpback mother whale produces around 500 litres of milk a day? She’s the super Mama” she mused, wistfully. “I still remember breastfeeding you… You used to bite!”

“You know I’m 42 years old?!”

“Yes. And I will always be your mother, even if you refuse to call me Mum since we moved onto this boat.” She hesitated, and then it came spilling out. “So… Do you ever think about having children?”

“Not anytime soon! Besides, I don’t think it’s safe having a baby aboard.”. I found myself oddly defensive. She’d never asked me that before.

“We can make it safe” she reassured. “ And I could do all the babysitting. It wouldn’t make much difference, you never sleep at night anyway”.

“Cali, your idea of safe is renting a shoreline house because it’s cheap and picturesque and then it’s washed away in the first storm… Your idea of safe is holding a cocktail party during a wet bulb event that killed 40,000 people… Your idea of safe is encouraging Dad to lead an anti-nuclear protest at a power plant defended by the Privs’ militia…!”

As I spat out this last drop of venom I didn’t know I’d been storing, I realised I’d gone too far.

“The cocktails were medicinal, alcohol-free, and we didn’t know the wet bulb was coming. No one did…” Calista began to object.

“I’m sorry, mum. All I meant to say is that there is nowhere safe. It’s like you always said, ‘nature shows no mercy.”

Tears glistened on Calista’s aging, high cheekbones as she turned away wounded, and fearing I may be right. I stared on, out to sea, wishing for all the rum and strawberries in the world that I was wrong.

The whale song reached a crescendo of desperate melancholy, as five tall ebony blades rose slowly out of the water like tombstones. A family of killer whales were on the hunt.

Far ahead, a line of lights faintly shimmered across the brightening horizon, which meant that Tarawa Atoll, at least, had weathered another year of storms.

We followed the seasweeps in towards one of the decommissioned oil rigs that circled the atoll. Seaweed crops covered the supports like the shaggy legs of a gargantuan woolly mammoth, and the rig platforms swarmed with figures in overalls processing plastic back into black gold. The island’s mangroves blazed a fierce green, ignited by the rising sun. They bathed their buttress roots like a crowd of toddlers in the shallow turquoise waters, binding sand to rock, whilst the Mother tree stood proud and tall, guarding the fragile earthen heart of the atoll. Making for land, I dropped the black solar sails and folded the floats in a vain attempt to sneak past the vine tangled dome of a WW2 gun that took aim at approaching ships.

Betio harbour was bustling with industry much like any other I’d been to, only in a particularly organised manner. Calista checked her blue and white highlighted hair, before hopping lightly onto the dock. In a swish of patched, tie-dyed hemp and big sunglasses she was off into the throng with her merchandise bag, like a teenager on a field trip.

“Cali!” I called after her. “No more payment in soft fruits!”.

“Ok dear. I’ll be back by 6PM local time. I have a virtual therapy session I don’t want to miss.”

“Is that you giving the therapy, or receiving?”

She winked mischievously, “I think a bit of both.”

My tiredness had reached a level that sleep couldn’t fix, at least not until I’d taken a dip to clear my head. I grabbed a swimsuit and ran to catch the beach before the flotsam of the cyclone-made landfall. Little had changed since I was last in Tarawa, save for the trees growing taller, and a few more rigs.

But here and there I passed storm scars; a swathe of mangrove trees blown down, a house-raft run aground, and everywhere people working hard to repair them. It seemed to me like the island’s strength was not in its foundations of shifting sands, but in the communities that were holding it together.

I stopped at a bathing pool by a honeycomb of floating houses, each with a roof garden and a pontoon for tying up canoes. I knew this spot well enough to dive in without looking. Pausing a moment to breathe in the memories, I leaped and dived down, deep into the water, not caring in that reckless moment how far from safety I may have strayed.

Suddenly something strong and smooth wrapped around my ankle and pulled me down. Thrashing and kicking the thing away, in that blurry blue world I saw the tattooed legs and flippers disappear in a burst of bubbles. Reaching the surface I gasped for air and faced my assailant. My fear-driven anger melted away to slack-jawed surprise. It was Timon.

“Crocodile!” he shouted with a smile that extended wider than his face.

He circled me, his hands tracing the flock of swallows that extended from my right elbow to between my shoulder blades. One bird for every 40,000 nautical miles. I was planning for them to reach the other elbow, but plans could always be changed.

“How are you Gen? I see you’ve added a few more birds to the flock. You know swimming here you have to watch out for sea kraits. Those snakes have gone crazy since the reef transplant. They’re mainly a problem on land though. Don’t worry, I’ll go shake your clothes out for you.”

I followed him out of the water. As he pulled on a shirt, leaving it open at the front I noticed he’d gained a new tattoo. It sat awkwardly, I thought, above the traditionally inked zigzag lines on his torso; a desert island with two palm trees in garishly bright colours, as if the island were levitating over waves.

“I’m ok” I managed to reply. “Same old sea, passengers, cargo, Calista… And you? How is life in Kiribati?”

“Life here is good and even better for seeing you.” He said, shooting me another warming smile. “We’ve had some bad storms the last two years and had to dredge and rebuild three islands. One of them was the Sponsor’s.”

“And they rebuilt his island first, right?”

“No, as a matter of fact she insisted we work on the other islands first.”

“Intriguing” I said. “Perhaps you could tell me about it over a drink?.”

Walking down the steps into the subterranean shade of the Bunker Bar, my eyes took a while to adjust. The air was warm and musty with the scent of sweat and seafood.

Timon was talking animatedly, plucking ideas out of the air and gripping them between his hands.

The seawall project had expanded under new funding, he had been elected onto the council, and one day he hoped to run for president.

We found a seat and ordered. “Enough of politics. Tarawa is self-sufficient, but what happens to you at the next food shortage?”.

“Oh, we’re ok, what with mum’s microfarm and we’re now dabbling in mycology”.

“And insects?” he suggested, raising an eyebrow.

“Not yet! Though it beats me why eating mold is somehow more civilized than bugs. No, honestly, we’re just one duck short of self-sufficiency”.

“That can be arranged” Timon laughed and slapped my arm. “Now I have a small favour to ask. A boat of kids was picked up by a windjammer cruiseship a few weeks ago. Turns out the Marshall Islands had a school washed away… I was wondering if you could take them home?”

“Timon, I’d love to, but right now I can’t even pay my rent.”

“It sounds like you need a Sponsor!” Timon always had a solution.

“I’m sorry but I can’t take handouts from a Priv.”

“Privilege isn’t a bad thing if it’s used to do good. I should know, I’m engaged to a ‘Priv’! Honestly, I think you’d like her.”

At these words I felt my heart burst open and flood upwards, choking in my throat. “Actually I think you went freediving with her the last time you were here.” He added.

“Hang on… There’s no way Nauri is a Priv!”

“Her father died two years ago, and it turns out he was very rich. Anyway, I have to run now. I havea Council meeting. No more living on ‘island time’ I’m afraid.”

He stood up to leave and fixed me with his kind, dark eyes. “Like I said, I know a good Sponsor”.

I struggled to speak with so much bitterness to swallow.

“Well, I bet she doesn’t have an engagement tattoo across the middle of her chest.” I blurted out.

“No, she doesn’t…” He admitted, his lips curling, suppressing a thought. Then he leant in to whisper “hers is somewhere else…”.

I watched him skip up the steps where the blinding sunlight was streaming in. It illuminated a miniature Milky Way of dust that drifted slowly down to impact soundlessly on the sandy floor.

Then the young waiter arrived at the table with a plate of farmed tiger prawns. My mouth watered, but what I wanted wasn’t on the menu. I sent it to the plastic harvester sat nearby, still in her overalls, bags under her eyes as dark as the night she’d been working through.

“Get her a drink as well” I added as I pressed a bag of coffee beans into his hand and two stainless steel teaspoons I’d dived from a wreck. He looked at me confused. “They can be melted down” I explained, before heading out into the unforgiving midday sun.

The third day dawned calm and bright, and fair winds beckoned. Timon and Nauri had been in more meetings but sent their regards.

“Welcome aboard…” I faltered in front of my blank-faced passengers, wondering if they were any good at poker. “Please don’t touch any buttons”. I paused again, trapped in the gaze of a dozen pairs of wide eyes, and a malevolent-looking duck whom I later named Lorenza.

“Oh, and especially don’t flush the toilet near land because it converts our waste into sea fertilizer, simulating the flocculant of a blue whale.”

Eleven confused faces turned towards the tallest boy. “What she means is if you press this button the boat will poo like a big fish”.

The eruption of laughter startled Lorenza, who flapped about and ejected her own fertilizer across the deck, sending the kids hopping and shrieking after it.

“Calista, no more payments in water fowl”.

My mum laughed then too, tears glistening on her high cheekbones, and it reminded me that having children aboard really wasn’t safe. But then again, nowhere ever was.