Short story by Peter Spencer

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The year is 2065.

The place: Northland, NZ.

*

“Is this seat taken?”  The voice was quiet and patient.

Anna Medway looked up at the speaker, a woman in her mid-twenties who was head and shoulders taller than herself, blond, blue eyes, with a calm, thoughtful demeanor.

“It’s free, Miss,” Anna said, smiling.  The stranger’s company was welcome.  Anything would be better than sitting here for three hours, alone with her memories.

“How far are you going?” the woman asked as she sat down.

“Wangaree,” Anna said, unsure how to pronounce her destination.

“Ah, you mean Whangarei?” the woman asked.

“Is that how you say it?” Anna asked.  She blushed slightly as the woman gave a quiet chuckle.  “It’s just that I landed an hour ago at Mangere, so I thought…”

“The spelling and pronunciation are different,” the woman said.  “Maori words catch visitors all the time, it’s nothing to be ashamed about.  You’re not the first person who’s had trouble and you won’t be the last…”

“Anyway, my name’s Kate Fisher,” the woman said, to put her host at ease.

“Anna Medway.”  Anna extended her hand, which she usually found discomforting.  Kate Fisher shook hands with her and asked what she did.

“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you, Kate,” Anna said drily, which made Kate all the more curious to know.

“Go on, Anna,” she said.  “You can’t shock me with anything…”

I very much doubt that, Anna thought, keeping her musings to herself.  “Alright, Kate,” she said, “but don’t say I didn’t warn you.  I’ve spent the last ten years as a mercenary, fighting the Islamists in the Swamp War in western Siberia.”

“Good God,” Kate said, putting hand over heart.  “I’d no idea…”  Heavens, you must be a lot older than you look, she thought.

“Well, I guess you wouldn’t, Kate,” Anna said.  “It isn’t as if I look the part.”

“Come to think of it…” Kate said, looking at Anna appraisingly, “there’s something…”

“Yes, I know, there’s something about me that should’ve warned you,” Ann said, tight lipped.  Many past conversations had foundered at this point.

“Oh, it’s not so much that, Anna,” Kate replied.  She looked Anna over from head to toe as Anna stared back at her with narrowed eyes and levelled brow.  Anna was wiry, only five feet tall, looking as tough as hickory.  Short, jet black curly hair, flinty gray eyes, high cheekbones, a narrow well formed nose, full lips and a strong chin.

“It’s just…I don’t know how to define it,” Kate went on, struggling to put her finger on the issue.  “There’s an air of barely restrained ferality about you, Anna,” she said.  “Just beneath the surface, an ocean of bitter memories, if you want pure honesty.”

Anna was also studying Kate.  Her straight blond hair curled at the nape of her neck.    Cornflower blue eyes in a face that spoke of a quiet, peaceful nature.  A dark blue scarf with white polka dots to keep the cold from her neck.  She wore a warm, comfortable, old style tweed riding jacket and dress, with sensible shoes.

More at home in 1865 than now in 2065, Anna guessed shrewdly.  Here was someone who valued a slower, more relaxed lifestyle.  South Pole to my North, she thought.

“Well spoken, Kate, and your openness is appreciated,” Anna said.  “Very true, as you will discover.  There was fighting further north from here, so I’m told?” she asked, to divert Kate’s attention away from her own history.

The hydrofoil had left Waitamata Harbour and was turning into Rangitoto Channel, about to start heading north along East Coast Bays.

“Yes there was, quite considerable fighting,” Kate said.  “Before my time, but I have a good knowledge of it.  The story is complicated and extremely bloody.”

“Speaking of that, was it part of the Bloody Quarter?” Anna asked.

“Near the beginning of the Bloody Quarter, Anna,” Kate said.  “New Zealand didn’t get involved in the war directly at that stage, for we had other problems.  One of the major volcanoes down south had been showing signs of activity.  The government of the day decided to shift thousands of people out of the way of any potential threat, so they went ahead and brought most of them up here.  They were planted in a vast tent city on a broad strip of land that stretched east to west between the coasts, just north of the Brynderwyns to just south of Whangarei.  At the same time, they sent a small military unit up north to Maungataniwha Range, where they built a small fortress in Maungamuka Gorge.”

They were passing through Whangaparaoa Channel, skirting west of the small forested island of Tiritiri Matangi.  Their direction changed a few more points eastward.

“This being to guard against any possible invasion?” Anna asked.

“That, and also to keep the two populations of Maoris apart,” Kate said.  “There was an immense amount of bad blood between them.  The refugees were all from areas where the local tribe had raided and killed along the coasts about two hundred years before.”

“Doesn’t make much sense to bring them together like that,” Anna said.

“The government didn’t have much choice in the matter,” Kate said.  “The alternative was to send them all to Australia, but that was out of the question.  The Australians were less than pleased with the idea when it was broached, partly because most of the refugees were Maori.  They just didn’t want them there, for obvious reasons.”

“I can guess,” Anna said scathingly.  “I heard that they counted the Aborigines as fauna rather than people as late as the 1960’s…it doesn’t overly surprise me that they’d reject any idea of hordes of Maori refugees being sent over there.  They would’ve just put them in internment camps anyway, just like they did with all the others.”

They were passing the seaward coastline of Kawau Island, with Flat Rock to starboard and Tokatu Point some distance ahead to their port side.

“The woman they chose for the job of building the fort was a young officer, Colonel Sharia Apsley,” Kate said.  “She completed the fort in record time and sat down to wait for developments.  The government had no illusions that they could stay out of the war for too much longer, because things were really buzzing way up north.”

“I’m told that Indonesia and Malaysia weren’t too impressed with the Chinese giving the Uighurs a hard time,” Anna said.

“That’s it,” Kate confirmed.  “They started causing trouble for China, with inevitable results.  China sorted out Malaysia in short order, which made the Indonesians furious.”

“Why invade the northern parts of Australia and New Zealand, though?” Anna asked.

“The Indonesians saw both states as Christian interlopers in a region where we didn’t belong, in their opinion.  Hence their unpleasantness…to put it politely.”

“How did the trouble start in China originally?” Anna asked.

“The terrorist group Isis were pushed out of Syria and Iraq eventually, by early 2018,” Kate explained.  “They’d already established themselves in Mindanao in the Philippines the previous year, helping the local Islamist groups in a major siege there.  They moved up into China and began helping the Uighur people, who had revolted against the Han.”

“This was fairly normal, I’ve heard,” Anna said.

“These revolts weren’t seasonal,” Kate said wryly, “but by no means unusual either.”

The ferry passed Tokatu Point and began the long run across Omaha Bay towards Cape Rodney in the blue distance.

“Isis made the situation a lot worse though, obviously,” Anna said.

“Their vicious brutality raised the latest rebellion to a new level, so I’m told,” Kate said.  “The Chinese reaction was total annihilation of the Uighurs in many areas, hence the hot response from the Indonesians and Malaysians.  People from all over the Islamic world, but particularly from those two nearest countries, began joining the rebellion to help the remaining Uigher folk.  The Chinese in their turn let the Indonesians and Malaysians know that they were extremely displeased with this.  When diplomacy didn’t work, force was employed instead…but by that stage, Indonesia and Malaysia had already made a nuisance of themselves elsewhere, as I pointed out earlier.”

“There was an invasion of the Northern Territory in Australia and the city of Darwin was bombed,” Kate said.  “They also bombed all the major towns and cities along the Queensland coast, as far south as Brisbane.  Having done so, they invaded…”

“They chose unwisely, I take it?” Anna asked, hearing Kate’s hesitation.

“They misjudged their own capacity, I suggest,” Kate said.  “Invading Australia is no easy matter, as you’ll know if you’ve ever seen a map of the place.”

“Lots of places to get lost,” Anna said drily, “and many different unkind ways to die.”

“Exactly, Anna,” Kate said.  “Hence the Indonesians deciding to concentrate their main attention on invading Northland in New Zealand.  They saw this as the easier option than Australia, despite the far longer supply lines needed to support an invasion.”

The ferry passed Cape Rodney.  Away in the cloudy west they could see the high points of the farthest northern point of Coromandel Peninsula.  To the northeast the high stack of Little Barrier Island stood straight up out of Hauraki Gulf, with its surrounding cliffs making landing all but impossible.  Further away to east of north, the far larger island of Great Barrier sat on the horizon.  Away to the north sat the Hen and Chickens Islands.

“Did they misjudge even here, Kate?” Anna asked.  “The locals up north here wouldn’t have been too happy having their peace and quiet disrupted.”

“Not too happy would be putting it mildly, Anna,” Kate said with a chuckle.  “They were incandescent when the Indonesians come onshore.”

“Guerilla war is the best path here, I see,” Anna said shrewdly, looking at the coast and the rugged interior as they sped across the northern waters of Hauraki Gulf.

“Oh, most definitely,” Kate said.  “The war of the flea is most effective in Northland, as the Indonesians and Malaysians found eventually, very much to their respective costs.”

“I did some study of New Zealand before deciding to come down here,” Anna said.  “The country up north is even more vertical than down here.”

“Indeed so,” Kate said, “as you’ll find if we ever go up there.”

The ferry passed Bream Tail, at the southernmost end of Ocean Beach.  Off to their port beam was the jagged shark tooth of Sail Rock and beyond, Taranga Island, known as The Hen.  Some miles north of the Hen lay the Marotere Islands, known as The Chickens.  Directly to their north lay the high buttresses of Mount Lion and Bream Head.  The long coastline of Bream Bay curved away to starboard.

“How large was the military force up in Maungamuka Gorge, Kate?” Anna asked.

“Just over one thousand people, Anna,” Kate said.  “They had to rely on help from the local population of Northland, which led to many atrocities on both sides, as you can well imagine.  The Indonesian and Malaysian military gave no mercy and expected none, nor were they disappointed on that score.  Neither the Maoris nor the Europeans up here gave any quarter to anyone they met.  Northland became a killing zone.”

Passing the magnificent massifs at the mouth of Whangarei Harbour, the hydrofoil now docked at the floating quay of One Tree Point.  Kate had a flash of intuition that this cold, bleak place was going to become very important over the next few years.

“Would I be right in thinking that you’re not all that distressed about the current way of things, Kate?” Anna asked directly, gauging her reaction as they docked.

“The rise in sea level is terrible, of course,” Kate said.  “It’s just something we have to live with.  There are a lot of people who regard it as a dystopian nightmare, but I don’t agree.  If you’re asking whether I’m unhappy about most technology on Earth going back a century or so, then to be honest I’m not all that fussed about it, no.  Life was so frantic when I was a child, even when I was a teenager.  It’s a strange amalgam of ancient and modern, I’ll admit, but things are much quieter now that so many have left.”

“So what brings you up north, Kate?” Anna asked, as they disembarked from the ferry and adjusted their balance ans they stepped onto the swaying dock.

“I’m actually going up to Whangarei to listen to a speech this afternoon,” Kate said.  “I’m planning to start a job up there as well, but the speech is the real draw.”

“That must be some speaker, Kate, to pull you all the way up here,” Anna said.

“She’s the Prime Minister of the northern state, Sarah Murray,” Kate said.  “She’s going to be explaining a new programme of building.  To be honest,” she added ruefully, “you don’t make too much cash as an artist.”

“Better to make ends meet with a real job, then?” Anna said wryly.

“Exactly,” Kate admitted with a rueful smile.  “Got to put food on the table…are you looking for work yourself, Anna?”

“Yes, I am, Kate,” Anna said.

“Well then, come along with me to the meeting,” Kate invited.  “There are thousands of jobs on offer, I hear.”

“The sea’s risen about four metres by now, hasn’t it?” Anna asked.

“So it has, which is why it now takes three hours to get from Auckland to Whangarei,” Kate said.  “There was a time when it took an hour less.  The main road has been shifted inland quite a way west, making it longer to get there.  Also, of course, with the rise in sea level the floor of Whangarei valley has been flooded.  It was never very high above sea level anyway.  It’s so much easier to get up north by boat these days.”

“So the only connection between the different parts of the North Island is by sea?”

“Exactly, there’s no other way,” Kate confirmed.  “No safe overland route, anyway.”

“And this building programme…?” Anna asked, having a good idea of what it entailed.

“Something about high country havens, whatever they are,” Kate replied.

“How many people live up here in the north, Kate?” Anna asked.

“About two million,” Kate said, “if you count the area from just south of the Bombay Hills up to North Cape.  Then there’s the area from Palmerston North to Wellington. That contains another million people.  The entire South Island holds one million…”

“And the rest?” Anna asked.  “I assume there’s been some emigration?”

“About another two million have left, Anna,” Kate said.  “Heaven only knows where they’ve all gone, though I assume it’s the new colonies of Mars.  Everyone is fleeing from Earth as fast as they can, out to the Flying Cities of the asteroid belts…”

“Understandably, given the circumstances,” Anna said.

Anna and Kate made their way to the Town Hall.  The building was still well above the reach of the tide.  The meeting was well attended, although the city had far fewer people than in its heyday.  Within ten minutes of their arrival, Prime Minister Sarah Murray strode onto the stage.  Tall, statuesque and attractive, she gained instant attention from everyone in the hall.  Standing nervously before the microphones, she ran her hands over her shoulder length mane of glossy black hair.

“In this country and across the entire world,” she began, “we’re facing the worst crisis in the history of the Human species.  I have no idea how bad things will get before some sort of stability is reached.  I do know that the population of the world is going to drop dramatically.  This is only the beginning of a very long and hard road.  Those few who remain on Earth are going to have to adapt, very quickly, to an extremely different world, a situation that’s going to last for a long time.”

  “Those who remain behind will need shelter, of course,” Sarah Murray went on.  “We are a lucky country, for New Zealand is largely mountainous.  We have any number of places where havens can be built, far above the reach of the highest possible tide.  Just in this area, there’s Parakiore Hill overlooking Kamo, Parihaka ridge to the east and the Western Hills at our backs.  Those of you who came in by sea will’ve passed Whangarei Heads, Mount Lion and Mount Manaia, all of which are penciled in as future haven sites.  There are about two million people to house.  The havens will have to be immense.  The efforts of all of us will be needed to make our lives bearable.”

“I hardly need tell you that we have entered the Flood Age,” the Prime Minister said.  “In the high country havens of the deep future, our remote descendants a thousand years from now will listen to fireside tales of flooded, vanished cities and lost lands.  The old refuge families will become the dream keepers, the holders of memory, the only bridge between past and future.  All parts of the landscape become imbued with some scrap of experience, some trace, however shadowy, of old human memory.  Each hill and valley, the plains, the shorelines, the quiet forests, the river bends, will all begin to accumulate a patina of ancient experience.”

“Landscape and memory intertwine,” she said, “weaving together a profound tapestry of legend and tall tale.  Thus over the centuries the country is sung and spoken into being.  The rhythm and rhyme continue forever, once begun.  Each memory, every event, will become yet another strand woven into the growing pattern.  Those who pass into eternity year by year become droplets in the ocean of souls, the great shimmering sea of unseen life.  Those who choose to come back into the physical world are sustained by this vast expanse.  The souls become interwoven with the land itself, as races and civilisations follow one another in their turn.”

“The image comes to mind of an old, contorted tree,” she went on. “A tree blasted by lightning, shaped by the prevailing wind, tough and hard-fibred.  Its roots hold tightly to the rocks, they dig deeply into the soil, they anchor the tree to the ground.  A tree which is fertilised by that richer earth that was once human, and the souls of those who feel a deepening love for the land.  Through the rise and fall of societies, the mornings of new cultures, the bright afternoons of each succeeding empire, the lingering evenings of dying and fading civilisations, we will prevail.  Through earthquake and ash-fall, storm and flood, hell and high water, the ebb and flow of oceans and people, we will endure…”

The meeting broke up; people went their various ways in the late afternoon drizzle.

“I definitely get the feeling that our Prime Minister was a preacher in her previous life,” Kate said with a chuckle, as she and Anna sat in a nearby floating cafe half an hour later.  “I must say she appeared to be running more than slightly off topic at the end there.”

“Somewhat oblique, but interesting nonetheless,” Anna said.  “On that topic, other than the Whangarei area, do you know where the havens are going to be built?”

“Northland is very rugged,” Kate said.  “There are any number of possible sites.”

“Below a certain height limit though…” Anna began.

“The PM’s got her eye on sites that are more than one hundred metres above sea level,”

Kate said.  “Nothing less, God help us, for we’d be wasting our time.”

“I was surprised to here her talk about souls,” Anna said.  “I sort of lost track of things there for a while…I’m still not sure what she meant.”

“I understand what she was on about,” Kate said.  “The succession of other people and cultures is to be expected in a small country that’s periodically prone to massive disasters.  There’s a spiritual connection to the land that people gain by long tenancy.”

“Laying down a psychic matrix of human interaction and integration with the landscape over long ages?”  Anna asked.

“Exactly,” Kate confirmed.  “From the rocks our bones, from the earth our flesh, from the rivers our blood, from the air our breath, from the eternal blue heaven our souls.  We are the land, the land is us…”

Anna looked out the window, watching a bird bring material to a new nest.  Following her gaze, Kate smiled, though her eyes were sad and her voice tired.

“True, it’s a ferocious country,” she said.  “We fill our lives with trivia; we’re distracted constantly from the things that are truly important.  All events have their season, there’s a time for every purpose under Heaven.  We’re surrounded by moments of eternity.  The new leaves flutter on the October branch, the wind whistles through the empty boughs of the July forest.  The new, fresh grass rises in September, the May blade dries.  The last leaf of autumn falls from the tree, the soft, cold kiss of the first winter snow lands on us.”

“Sunrise and sunset,” Kate went on,  “golden dawn light and purple dusk shadow, the emergence of the myriad stars as the night sky darkens.  The waves forever break on the shores of the world, the rippled sand is left by the tidal flow.  There is an everlasting continuum of life, from the remote past into the deep future.  The Supreme Soul shelters and sustains the host of souls, diamond flashes of living light who are all born from the Great Mother.  We are merely one of the manifold patterns, a single thread in the web of Nature that brings the worlds together throughout the Universe.  Despite everything, I still see hope for us.”

That evening they took a room at the Grand Hotel for a couple of nights.  The hotel was an old paddle wheel river steamer that had been turned into a gigantic houseboat. The ten decks each had fifty cabins port and starboard divided by a central companionway.  The decks were numbered from highest to lowest, with Anna and Kate in cabin 54 of the tenth deck, on the even numbered port side.  Just above the waterline, they could hear the water lapping quietly against the hull.

The en suite cabin was four metres by six and had two beds, set against each bulkhead.    Each bed had a small side table with a flexible stemmed lamp for reading.  A kitchenette provided coffee sachets, teabags and small cereal boxes.  The bedroom itself was only four metres square; the rest was taken up by the shower cubicle and bathroom.

“Time for a shower, I reckon,” Anna said.  “I’ve been travelling all day.  I could do with a wash before bed.  Care to join me, Kate…and save water?” she added, chuckling.

“Don’t mind if I do, Anna,” Kate said, stretching away tiredness.  “It’ll relax me nicely.”

Seeing Anna naked for the first time, Kate noticed immediately the intricate tattoos that trailed down the entire length of her arms and legs, from shoulders to wrists and from hips to ankles.  Privately Kate was shocked, though not surprised, to see how many minor scars Anna had on her body.  Guessing her thoughts, Anna said drily that it was a hard world out there in the war zones.

“You’ll have plenty of time to get used to the sight, Kate,” she added.  “We’ll be in each others’ company from now on, I daresay.”

In the shower together, Anna kissed Kate and hugged her.

“Thanks for helping me, Kate,” she said.  “I’d’ve been lost without your guidance.”

Kate doubted very much whether Anna would be lost even on Mars, let alone anywhere on Earth, but kept the thought to herself.  She leaned down and kissed Anna’s cheek.

“Glad to help, Anna,” she said.  “Share knowledge if you have it, I reckon, and God knows I’m familiar enough with this place to make myself useful to travellers.”

“There used to be another Grand Hotel, Anna,” Kate said as they sat down together at the small table with cups of Milo before settling in for the night.  “That was before the big earthquake that tore Whangarei to pieces.  Before my time by miles…I’m only 23 years old.  The Land Splitter, they called it.  It broke East Shore away from Northland in one fell swoop…it dropped the floor of the harbour and Whangarei by a couple of metres.  There hadn’t been an earthquake like that in Northland for over a thousand years.  A full century of sea level rise was accomplished in a few minutes.  Even after the tsunamis had done their damage and retreated, the next high tide just rolled in over the ruins.  As a big city, Whangarei is finished.  As a pair of small settlements on either side of the strait, it continues.  As you see, though, few permanent buildings, for the sea is still rising.  Most buildings have been replaced by houseboats, moored to the nearest tree.  Until the tide rises far enough to drown the roots of the tree and the boats have to shift their moorings yet again…and so it goes.”

“Where was it, this Grand Hotel?” Anna asked.

“In the centre of town, down by the main bus terminal next to Rose Street triangle,” Kate said.  “It used to be called the Criterion, but the name was changed to The Grand after Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip stayed there during their official visit in 1953.”

“Anything left of the old building now?” Anna asked.

“Not much, just some broken walls,” Kate said.  “Neap tides expose them occasionally, as with all the rest.  The ruins of Whangarei are known now as Sunken City.”

“Along with many others, indeed,” Anna said pragmatically.

“New Zealand is only a small ship in a vast ocean, Anna,” Kate said.  “There are a lot more ships out there, sinking slowly.  Some countries have disappeared already, others will follow…”

*

Peter Spencer was  born in London in February 1953 and has just retired.  Both his parents were New Zealanders. Peter spent a year in the Waikato and another year in the King Country working as a farm labourer, and five years spent at University down in Auckland and Wellington between 1995-2000. Peter says he has lived up in Northland most of his life, worked in a number of jobs in Northland as well, mostly labouring.

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