Antarctica starts here

Travel runs in the family. My matrilineal ancestors took the red ship from Hobart; the patrilineals rode Starlifters from Christchurch. Instead, I merely fly an aeroboat over Aotearoa, the three islands: the Fish, the Canoe and finally Te Punga, the anchor. That last island has different names, depending on time and conquest. Stewart called it after himself; then it became Rakiura.

I descend through a long white mass of heavy cloud to find a dull-grey sea, flat as a road. I cut my speed, angle down, and the boat’s big feet hit water. I brake, in the harbour of a giant anchorstone, mythologically speaking.

Like every landmass on Earth, the island had been larger, but replacing what is now underwater are pontoons, or floating isles of vegetation. Also in the harbour are a navy patrol vessel, fishers, the local cruisers and yachts, and what seems a cross between a whale boat and Noah’s ark. All have sails, old tech revived.

The coastguards board next, armed. After the mandatory ID check, they whisk me off to meet the harbour-master. The uniform patch says Singh, but he introduces himself as Rewi. He is impressively bearded and bulky but tense as a knot. His gaze reads me, the locs, the visible tatts, set to still.

I hide in plain sight, colourfully.

‘Welcome. The port AI is talking to your boat’s AI now.’

‘Sure.’ Standard procedure.

‘But I go for face to face. In-tu-i-tion,’ he adds. From his sudden preoccupation I can tell the background checks have begun, feeding to an optic chip.

‘Well, Jay Hendricks Noble, you have quite a history.’

He doesn’t know the half of it, I hope.

‘I don’t meet many with Antarctica on both sides. McMurdo and Mawson. Two slices of the Pie.’

Which everyone wants a piece of, thus the nickname, even if it sounds odd in his bearded mouth. A big ice-cream pie, as long as it freezes.

‘America and Oz, and proud of it.’ A family tradition, even if I proved the black sheep. For a while.

He focuses briefly on the here-and-now. ‘Your tattoos. They’re ferny.’

I make them move briefly in response. If it distracts him from examining my past closely, all the better.

Koru? You Kiwi as well?’

‘No, but you’ll know about my exchange year in Otago.’

A grunt, then a long pause. Now he whistles a scrap of tune, one I know well. John Cale, the perennial fave. I just hope he doesn’t know what it’s about. ‘Some vintage sounds you’ve uploaded!’

‘Songs for the sky-road.’

Rewi has got distracted. He concentrates, as another burst of information comes through, before responding. ‘But ’nuff of music. See, my business, ancestral business if you like, is who’s doing what around the Pie.’

Again he says it with an upward inflection. Then I think I get it: ‘When you say Pie you mean pia? Your family tradition?’

A nod. ‘My mum says nobody can prove a mythic ancestor. But it doesn’t stop you liking someone as crazy-brave as Ui-Te-Rangiora.’

The old ethnographic controversy. The Polynesians took their canoes all over the Pacific, even to the Auckland islands, over four hundred miles south. Did they also discover Antarctica, a thousand years before the Europeans? What was meant in the legend by Tai-uka-a-pia, comparing the sea to pia, arrowroot? The best a Rarotongan could manage for his first ice? He saw something, even if his canoe was made of human bone, a fantastical flotation.

The feed interjects again, this time insistently, for his eyes cross. ‘Mind shutting up while I finish the infodump? I gotta check your employers. They’re newbies.’

Because the CEO put in the lowest tender for this gig. Intentionally.

Silence, then he whistles again, this time tunelessly. ‘Some serious tech there.’

Minutes pass, then Rewi emerges from the feed. Something seems resolved, in part, though he remains tense.

‘So, Ms Jay, you’re into history, tech and icy travel: Tierra del Fuego, Alaska, three years of Sakhalin.’

A coastguard looms in the doorway.

‘Know your Russki?’ Rewi adds.

Now that comes from left field.

‘Da! Reasonably. From science talk to Mat—that’s swearing.’

A slight grin. ‘And Spanish?’

‘Better, though Argentinian.’

‘Then we might borrow you.’

Ah, a further test.

‘Vessel in distress, got towed in yesterday. We got fifteen in Internment, pretending they don’t understand a word. Translate tech comes out screwy but seems some sorta Russian. Young Hamish behind you did a school exchange in Chile, he says there’s Spanish there.’

‘But twisted outa shape,’ volunteers the coastguard, who still looks teenage.

Rewi strokes his beard. ‘Hairiest bunch I ever saw, and I do have a bathroom mirror. And a great-uncle on Dad’s side who could answer to Rapunzel.’

Hamish laughs and Rewi shoots back: ‘I can say that but you can’t!’

‘They’re hairy all over?’ I ask.

‘Wouldn’t wanna check.’

I also laugh. ‘I’m remembering a vintage book, real old. They could be Esquimaux.’

Hamish and the harbourmaster exchange glances.

‘Ain’t that rude?’

‘So is Kanaka. In the book that’s what these Esquimaux are.’

‘Oy!’ says Hamish, ‘they look nothing like! Either of ’em!’

‘The writer would now say Austronesians. Your cuzzies. Inhabitants of Antarctica.’

That is bait and Rewi takes it.

Long ago, a retired statesman imagined the future, including much of his political dreams.

Anno Domini 2000 appeared in 1889, a unique feminist, Imperialist utopia. Being pro-Suffrage, Sir Julius Vogel made women rule the world. Here are clean energy and air travel. Poverty has gone, with no eugenics, a fashionable preoccupation then. Sadly, Vogel knew nothing about conservation, far less climate change. Yet being a fair-minded man, who as a Jew described himself as Asiatic, he included the Esquimaux:

The Antarctic Esquimaux were evidently of the same origin as the Kanaka race. They spoke a language curiously little different from the Maori dialect, although long centuries must have elapsed since the migrating Malays, carried to the south probably against their own will, found a resting-place in Antarctica. Nature had generously assimilated them to the wants of the climate. Their faces and bodies were covered with a thick growth of short curly hair, which, though it detracted from their beauty, greatly added to their comfort. They were a docile, peaceful, intelligent people. They loved to come up to Stewart’s Island during the winter and to return before the summer made it too hot for them to exist, laden with the presents which were always showered upon them. They were too useful to the traders of Stewart’s Island not to receive consideration at their hands.

It amuses Hamish most. He has a doodlepad, very low-tech compared to the model I concealed very well before I left Seattle. When we visit the pub for some necessary supplies, I see him superimposing curls on faces, his, and others I guess to be friends or enemies.

Hamish as Esquimaux ancestor? His descendants need not evolve hair.

My simulation begins with darkness.

‘Night Sky One, midwinter.’

Stars and planets appear on the screen, scattered sizes and brilliancies.

‘Tree trunks next.’

Vertical, uneven lines of black slowly arise, thick and slender, old growth and saplings.

‘Branches now!’ Like veins they spread across the screen. The background foliage I draw with a manual override, scribbling for the sheer pleasure of creation.

Next, soundtrack: a forest at night, with mutant mosquito whines, shrew squeaks, the rustle of leaves.

‘Animate. Soft breeze.’ The foliage gently tosses.

‘Animate. Flyer sequence.’ Silhouettes now occlude the stars, insects and what could pass for birds. The loop repeats, and each time I grin at the pièce de résistance: a predator catching a large dragonfly on the wing.

‘Close Flyer sequence. Night Sky Two.’

The screen morphs into polychrome shimmer, green, pink, yellow light. It has various names: aurora australis; Rakiura, and its translation ‘glowing sky’. The light exposes all my omissions. Into manual mode again, I granulate the tree bark, add ferns, above them leaves like great green feathers.

‘Run Chase sequence.’ It begins with distant splashing through swamp water, then crunching on the forest floor, nearing. Two bulky forms come into view, hunter and hunted, bigger and smaller.

‘Slo-mo!’ They pass, but again my deficiencies jar. More work needed. ‘Return to Night Sky One!’ does occlude my faults, even if reducing the pair to shadow puppets. The pursuit was based on stock footage of a dog chasing a rabbit, but amplified, transmogrified, with anime eyes.

I may never achieve complete satisfaction here. Unlike with the trees.

‘Close Chase. Replay Night Sky Two.’

When the colours return, I savour them, returning to the exchange student I was, sky-watching in my Oodiebag, surrounded by Southland bush. Before the fires came. Sometimes I might watch until the rising sun banished Rakiura.

Just now, I had no leisure to run the program in real time, for a sustained view of those leaves dancing in a wonderland of light. My default setting in the simulation was midwinter solstice, the longest of Antarctic nights. Dawn was weeks away and there was work to do.

Like travel an ocean away, to make something ancient live again.

Internment is one of the artificial islands in the harbour, completely fenced over. Within is what seems an extended family group, the men having beards bigger than Rewi’s. They wear identical coveralls, the women also long skirts and headscarves.

As Rewi ushers me in, with an armed Hamish at the rear, the group eddies like weed in water. I know what I look to them, the other, the modern world, a woman taller than their men, wearing the pants, my head uncovered. And worse. Did I mistake it, or did I hear something which might translate as Daughter of Ham? The oldest woman crosses herself. That looks wrong, I think, then: Aha!

I bring vodka from the pub’s extensive cellar. Sitting on the floor, I set out a tray with several small glasses, and fill them from the bottle, all plastiform per prison regulations. The vodka is authentic, Cyrillic on the label. I drain my glass, then push the tray over to what, from the longest beard and the air of authority, must be the patriarch, the leader.

Russian has a range of greetings, many inappropriate here. Welcome? They are hardly well come. Nor can I use the military-style greeting. I eye the Patriarch, try to recall talking with Babushkas.

‘Sudar’ batyushka … ’ Sir Father. I will guess he is a Priest.

Silence, then a baritone response. The beard muffles, thick as the accent, with expressions that sound out of history books. I’m not a translator by trade, and getting what the Patriarch says processed into something understandable to Rewi is hard work. I could swear from sheer frustration, but if I slip into the best idiom I know for that, Mat, I’ll lose him completely. At least the Patriarch has accepted the vodka.

‘I’m going to drop a word,’ I say out of the corner of my mouth to Rewi. ‘Watch for the reaction. Starovery.’

‘You got it,’ he breathes back. ‘Meaning?’

‘Old believers. Russia’s answer to Amish, but Orthodox. In their own way.’

The Patriarch speaks again, in that infuriating archaic Russian.

‘He says they flee persecution.’

‘We know the refugee conventions,’ says Rewi. I translate, thinking: Starovery know all about persecution. I wonder how to explain quickly, but then someone I take to be the Patriarch’s grandson speaks:

‘Vuestro acento es terrible.’

Your accent is terrible. Well, I’ve had worse. I continue, this time in Espagnol, with Hamish riding shotgun. The young Starover’s Spanish at least is modern if heavily dialectal, maybe Chilean.

‘What are you doing here?’

He confers with the Patriarch, responding: ‘God’s work.’

Your God, I do not say.

‘In an Ark? Like Noah?’

‘Not that sinner. We make new Jerusalem.’

I think: As divided as the Old Jerusalem?

‘Where are you going?’

‘Sur,’ says the boy, without consultation.

Hamish at this point loses it, stamping on the floor. ‘They want a slice of the Pie, just like everyone else!’

I say in English: ‘They only want to be Esquimaux, given time.’

A woman, baby on hip, leans forward, speaks to the Patriarch. I catch one important word: zerno.

I think: I am nothing like these people, and yet we have a common ground.

‘What’s that?’ says Rewi.

‘Grain, or seed.’

‘We searched their hold. Translate this: We have to incinerate it, biosecurity regulations.’

And when I do, all hell breaks loose. Lucky my non-traditional female skills include being good in a fight. Even so, Hamish has to fire over their heads to end it.

That little affray finally trumps Rewi’s residual but perfectly correct suspicions. We might never be mates or pals, but bros-in-arms suffices. Together with the all-clear from the port’s AI, I am now free to break several major laws.

Although I venture into the world’s worst waterways, the weather AI predicts calm, persisting. Next morning the sun emerges, feeding the panels on my aeroboat’s wings. Some kids paddle out on boards and canoes as I prepare for departure, curious and cheeky.

‘Eh, who gave you the black eye?’

‘A Russian.’

They have a vintage childhood here. Maybe not for much longer, as the pilot cutter passes, heading towards the distant silhouette of an unmistakeable warship. The ark bobs at the end of its chain, mad hope dashed. The Starovery had drifted on the currents, disabled, saved only by lack of storm. Their God had looked after them, but only so far. I hoped they wouldn’t follow tradition and self-immolate.

Take-off cleared, I farewell the kids with a flourish of my waving tatts. The aeroboat ascends, keeping a safe distance from the warship. That flag says bad news. Somebody else wants a slice of the Pie, besides the French, Russians, and my ancestry, American with all its mixings, and Ozzie. Humans abhor blank spaces on maps, they seek to people them: explorers brown and white, Sir Julius Vogel, the Starovery. My DNA met in Antarctica, but I never feel entitled, only protective. Though I am filling that space too, it is with nothing human.

Beneath me now stretches nothing but blue, with the occasional billow. Underneath that, something covert heads for a rendezvous, its tech almost as magical as a bone canoe. When the firm’s AI pulled my CV out of the Net, it wasn’t only for my experience. Sure, I could oversee networks of complex sensors measuring the changes within a whirling mass of water. I had also pedigree and history, though their preoccupation was deep history, the land below the ice. Attitude, that helped, and commitment, to a project with a very long timeline. I thought I’d hid the illegals well, smuggling snow and ice, cocaine and meth, white as tropical pia. The AI found that too. They recognised that my tatts were more than stylised ferns, what they really were, hidden in plain sight—my personal stake in their project.

Behind the firm is a series of shell companies, untraceable. If I stuff up, I will be just a renegade, expendable. But with danger comes compensations. That evening I anchor in a sheltered bay, on an island uninhabited but with several names, depending upon the claimants. No matter: I have clearance, eco and political. I lie on soft moss, staring up at the first clear night sky since Aotearoa. Rakiura blazes gloriously above me, far better than my simulation. Reality ever trumps the virtual world.

Where skyline and aurora meet, I imagine silhouettes, feathery foliage. The tree which bore them likely grew here, it was everywhere once. Unlike the dinosaurs, it survived the bolide at Chicxulub, by being as far away as possible. The fossilised pollen, first called Dilwynites, seemed the only trace, though unconnected to any living plant. Then a relative on the Australian side of my ancestry climbed down a gully near Sydney and made a rediscovery. Because of that, the trees and I carried the same name, and I wore the image of their leaves under my skin, as tatts.

I look down at the sea. That way lies work, maintaining sensors, their transmission of data. Coriolis and the lack of landmass kept the Southern Ocean cold, but maybe not for much longer—and I don’t mean in geological time. This island might become just rocks protruding from water increasingly warm, no place for trees.

I look due south, to where forests had grown, successfully and immemorially. The leaves had danced in the wind, granulated bark fell to the forest floor, cones released their pollen to fertilise seeds, saplings in an unbroken lineage. If seeds lie beneath the ice, then they are likely not viable. Idiots on cruise ships with packets of primroses, and the Starovery, they all want to garden Antarctica. My employers planned instead rewilding, restoration.

Even if we couldn’t survive, we could aid something far older than us humans. They loved richly carbonated air, they could survive the dark in dormancy. An ark, an undersea drone, is heading south. My task is to find its cargo a home, where sensors would open a  cryogenic greenhouse only in ideal conditions, when I am dead and gone.

The tatts are my truth, as are the leaves I drew in the simulation. Here had been their home and would be again. Wollemia nobilis, the pinosaur, the great survivor which had witnessed dinosaurs, ice ages, and mammals ruling the world. I stare up at Rakiura, again picturing feathery leaves against that glowing sky. A fine sight, but one I will never witness beyond my simulation. Others will, I hope. No dinosaurs but maybe Esquimaux?

Before I sleep, I play a song from my personal soundtrack years ago, in my illegal days, which Rewi had whistled to me. I knew it was about cocaine, but also the snow within us, the frozen sea of human kindness. If I could make reparation for what I had done, what my species had done, then I would. Once more I played it to conclusion, the whispery Welsh voice, the final line, the title:

‘Antarctica starts here.’

A New Antarctica.


With thanks to Professor Roland Sussex and Dr Anna Mikhaylov of the University of Queensland, and Silvia Canton Rondoni for idioms and translations.

Lucy Sussex

Lucy Sussex is a writer and editor, with an enduring interest in feminist dystopia and utopia.

More by Lucy Sussex ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays