Octavia Cade’s climate-change thriller The Stone Wētā is a claustrophobic story about how the web of connections between working scientists can be used to preserve research that could save our planet – or to hunt down the scientists themselves.
In the excerpt below, climate operatives have begun to disappear and one woman – who uses the code name the Fish-scale Gecko – fears she might be next.
“There’s got to be a contingency,” said the Sand Cat, in the first days after the first woman disappeared. “If one of us is found out.”
“We can’t just wait to be picked off, one by one,” argued the Japanese Sea Star. “We need a way to hide women as well as information.”
A necessary conversation, but one which had made the Fish-scale Gecko shudder. She was a creature of heights and canopy. Most of the data she’d heard of, the rumours of other women and the hiding places they chose, was a lot closer to underneath, and she didn’t enjoy her claustrophobia.
“How can we even know,” she said. “We’re not spies, not really. None of us! It’s guesswork and instinct and we’re trying.” Doing well even, for women faced with work they weren’t trained for, gritting teeth and getting on. “And if someone panics and runs off before they should, if they think they’ve been recognised and haven’t, all they’re going to do is draw attention. It’s better to stay put,” she said. “Our advantage is that we know our own communities. We’ve all got neighbours, colleagues.” People who knew them, who would come to help if they heard screaming, who might recognise a wrongness.
That had been the Sand Cat’s recommendation right from the start. “I don’t need the reminder,” she said.
“I think you do,” said the Fish-scale Gecko. But she said it kindly, because that first disappearance meant they had blood on their hands, all of them. Every woman involved, who had chosen to be involved, who had come in believing that they knew the risks. “And I’m the one who’s asked them to do it,” said the Sand Cat. “Even when it’s not me personally, it’s someone who can be traced back to me.”
“I’m not doing this for you,” said the Fish-scale Gecko. “This isn’t a cult of personality. I got involved to protect the science. I’d like to think I’d be doing that whether I knew you or not.”
And that was the truth – but it was also true that it was easier to be brave as part of a group. And all of them, everywhere, were just a few small strands away from being cut off from that group, from a compromise that had to see data moved elsewhere. “It’s knowing whether or not you’ve been compromised that’s the problem,” she continued. “It’d be easy if we knew for sure. But if we don’t know… if we’re left alone, all of us, someone’s likely to panic.”
They’d do it with the best of intentions. Sacrifice themselves, even, to lead the threat away, but intent didn’t mitigate outcome and that sacrifice, made before time, could be a long and costly one.
“I will not tell women they have to stay and even die if they are afraid, or if they are found,” said the Sand Cat. “I will not do it.”
“I don’t think you understand,” said the Fish-scale Gecko. “No-one ever said that you had to ask. We knew what we were getting into, all of us.” It was presumption to speak for them all, she knew, but no-one could bury data – literally bury it – without thinking of the need, and of what the acknowledgement of that need implied. “You have tapped into a population that tends to understand equations,” she said. “One life against the climate?”
They all had homes. They all had places that they loved.
“It’s not your place to make that decision for us,” she said. She might have to run, one day. She might not. She might have to leave everything behind, shed her old life and start again in a harsher world, but advice or not, friendship or not – conspiracy or not – that decision was hers to make.
Their physiological escape mechanisms mean that the fish-scale gecko is very difficult to catch. Even a loose grip causes it to shed its skin and run for cover, and captured specimens are often damaged in this way, making investigation of entirely intact geckos a rarity. Even capturing them with wads of cotton is insufficient to prevent damage.
Jealousy. Indecision. The awareness of threat, both to herself and to science. It was hard to do nothing, hard not to want to recreate the bonds she’d felt while working with others.
She worked in the park as well, of course. Eco-tourism, introducing people to trees and lemurs, the organisms of an island life; a slow move to economic and environmental stability. The Fish-scale Gecko had colleagues there, a community there, and she enjoyed working with them. What they were doing was valuable; it would provide long-term benefits. But it was all open, lacking entirely in secrecy, and that tore at her, left her shamed.
Do I feel this way because there’s more that I could be doing, or because I miss the excitement of it, the danger?
In the end her greatest difficulty was plausibility, because she could almost convince herself that a return to conspiracy had rational support. But that, she knew, was a reasoning supported by ignorance.
The Fish-scale Gecko didn’t know how many climate operatives were in Madagascar, if any. She might be the only one. Might be the only one left in the entire region, all of south-east Africa. The numbers changed depending on circumstance and risk, and she knew that the Sand Cat had to keep sourcing more and more people for her network as more of them were compromised.
I might not be able to be as active as I’d like, thought the Fish-scale Gecko, but maybe I might be able to find someone who can.
It was a risk. If she were being watched, on the chance she might lead them into caches then she’d be watched if she were meeting someone as well, and even if that meeting could be explained away for other reasons the suspicion would only be slightly ameliorated.
So. Communication she couldn’t do, perhaps – or not yet. Observation, though… a scientist was trained to observe, to record data and analyse. The Fish-scale Gecko knew that was something she excelled at. Not only did it allow her to navigate the forests – and worse, the karst – of the Park, to see the small plants and animals that had otherwise escaped the view of many, but it may have saved her when the realisation that she was being observed herself had dawned.
The suspicion that came upon her – always that feeling of watching, whether she was out introducing the tourists to forest, or introducing the villagers to tourists – had been too convincing to ignore, and she’d contacted the Stone Wētā, ostensibly for work purposes, and ended the relationship.
So began her silence.
She’d never be able to tell if she had been identified. She suspected not, because there’d been no follow-up, no strange questions or strange people arriving at stranger times, no actionable threat. The watching had been certain, she’d swear to that, and her escape from it a near and thin-worked thing. But it had given her a sense of watchfulness, of what it felt like to be watched. That was a sense she wanted to avoid evoking in others.
If she was going to assess the people she worked with, to discover which of them would be open to conspiracy and willing to sacrifice, she couldn’t let them know that she was doing it.
“Did you ever think this would turn out so well, when we started?” she said to one of her co-workers as they waved tourists away, chattering and happy as lemurs as they got onto their bus to be driven back to town. Said it again to the women in the villages, talking to them about their children and their futures – and again to the local officials who helped to smooth the way for new sites, new employment opportunities. “And what do you think we could do better?”
Because the fish-scale gecko is restricted to a small region in Madagascar, being primarily found in the limestone karst and nearby deciduous forest of the Ankarana National Park, it is particularly vulnerable to threats. Illegal deforestation, grazing, and mining all endanger its habitat.
The Fish-scale Gecko had always been an outdoors person. She didn’t much enjoy cities, far preferred the jagged landscape of limestone, the long stretches of forest, to noise and bright lights and the mass press of people, but that preference didn’t stop her from visiting the capital on occasion – mostly because her family lived there.
Her young cousin, especially, was a favourite. He was a cheerful little kid, had a real sense of wonder that she enjoyed and wanted to encourage. The Fish-scale Gecko had been invited down for his tenth birthday party and was eager to go. She’d ordered a telescope for him – not expensive, but enough for him to point towards Mars and dream, because the colonisation had been a marvel for him. He followed it along as much as he could, drove his parents crazy with questions they couldn’t answer.
“I want to go there one day too,” he said, and the Fish-scale Gecko had warned him that he’d have to work hard but she believed he could do it. She didn’t speak to him of what he’d leave behind, parents and siblings and her. More important, the forests of his home, the surrounding ocean. She’d have felt as if something were amputated from her if she’d have to leave them, though it was more likely, she admitted to herself, that they’d be taken away. But this was a grief far ahead of him and she couldn’t bring herself to squash his enthusiasm. Instead, she’d driven down to Antananarivo, picked up his present, let him open it and dream and smile.
“Do you think I’ll be able to see the colony from here?” he said, pink-cheeked and dancing from foot to foot with excitement as they set it up outside.
“Sorry, but it’s not that good a telescope,” said the Fish-eating Spider. “You’ll be able to see the Martian ice caps though, according to this.” The instruction booklet was spread out in front of them, but the light was fading now and she didn’t want to use a torch and get their eyes unaccustomed to the dark.
“You can see the space station from here too, did you know?” said her cousin. “Only for a couple of minutes. It’ll be here soon, you don’t need a telescope to see it either. I can show you if you like.”
“I would, thank you,” said the Fish-scale Gecko, and let herself be positioned for best viewing.
“You can see it move,” said her cousin. “There, just there! Can you see it?”
“I can see it,” she said, squinting. She’d seen it before this, but didn’t say, not wanting to begrudge him the ability to share what he’d learned. The space station was brighter than most of the stars in the sky, the sun reflecting off it most visibly close to sunset – and then it shone brighter and brighter, a small starburst of light, and was gone.
“I don’t know,” said the Fish-scale Gecko, squinting in the dark and with apprehension rising up, because she’d seen , seen the space station move out of range before and it had never ended like that, and the shock of it, the sudden looseness of her flesh, made her think that perhaps it was because this time, the ending was different.
Her little cousin had his eye pressed to the scope, was swinging it around in wide arcs trying to make himself see but the Fish-scale Gecko, pushed him gently aside, glanced once and then put the lens cap firmly on the telescope and pulled the boy inside to his parents.
“Don’t let him look through that thing again tonight,” she said.
If they turned on the news they’d soon see why. The Fish-scale Gecko didn’t need the confirmation. She didn’t need to ban the child from his toy either – the orbit would take care of the debris – but she needed a few moments alone, to look up and not away, to understand what had just been taken from her. Taken from them all.
The way station to Mars, the place she’d passed data on to, trusting it to the hands of a woman she’d never met, one who she only knew by the name of Lichen. An orbital promise of exploration, a place to look down from and see the blue planet surviving still for all they did to it.