Matt struggled with the scuba gear while Veronica lit a cigarette. He wrinkled his nose as his wife exhaled, and the smoke wafted over. Beyond the jetty, the beach was lined with black volcanic rock and palm trees.
The dive boat pulled up alongside them, and the skipper killed the engine. ‘Bula!’ he said, flashing them a perfect white smile. ‘Welcome to Taveuni Diving. I’m Niko. It’s about thirty minutes to the dive spot, so we’ll arrive just before dark.’ He helped Matt and the other divers load their scuba equipment on board.
Soon the boat took off. Matt admired how the ocean shimmered like a blue opal, the flecks of colour flashing in the fading sun. After about a minute, he saw Veronica light another cigarette.
‘Sorry, no smoking,’ Niko said, his dark eyes looking up from the wheel. She pouted and waited until Niko wasn’t looking to flick the butt over the side. Matt shook his head.
‘So … newlyweds?’ asked Niko.
‘No,’ Matt said, ‘we’re here for our anniversary.’ And last-ditch attempt at our marriage…
‘Ah, Fiji is the place for a romantic holiday. Is this your first visit?’
‘Yes, but I’ve wanted to dive at Taveuni for years. We even brought new BCDs for it. So far, the dives at Vuna Reef, Fish Factory and the Great White Wall have been incredible.’
‘Yes, you’ve been diving every second since we arrived,’ Veronica remarked.
Matt tried to ignore the jibe, but the heat rose in his cheeks. So far on this holiday, they had done everything she had wanted. There was no way he was missing out on any of the dives now.
‘Why do you think we’re here?’ he asked. ‘It’s why you got your ticket.’
Veronica screwed up her face and stared across the water. He watched her, feeling his insides twist. It was just like her to try and get out of something she didn’t want to do.
Niko let out an embarrassed smile. ‘Well, you picked the perfect time to stay. The manta rays have come early this year.’
‘Are they dangerous?’ Veronica asked.
Niko chuckled. ‘No. They’re beautiful creatures and most revered on this island.’ He looked over at Matt, ‘When was your last dive?’
‘A few hours ago.’
Niko whistled, ‘Have you cleared your surface interval?’
‘Yep, all good,’ he lied. By his calculations, he’d be fifteen minutes short when they hit the water, but then he was using enriched oxygen. More oxygen meant less nitrogen and less chance of decompression sickness.
The boat picked up speed, and they passed a small village close to the shore. The dwellings were small corrugated houses, each one with a lush garden and colourful washing hanging outside.
‘God, could you imagine living like that?’ Veronica whispered.
Matt’s nose wrinkled in disgust. He studied her out of the corner of his eye, trying to remember when she’d become so precious. It had been a subtle and slow transition, he realised, with his wealth giving her a taste for the good life.
The last of the sunlight slipped behind clouds on the horizon. Niko pulled up the vessel and killed the engine.
The boat bobbed up and down, as Matt and Veronica went through the checks for their scuba gear. Niko dropped a floating pontoon into the water, fitted with spotlights to attract the plankton.
‘Remember, do not touch the manta rays,’ the dive leader, Lucas, was telling the group. ‘Even the smallest nick to their mucous coating can result in their sickness and death.’ He started handing out black torches to the eight other divers.
Matt adjusted his buoyancy vest and spat into his mask, rubbing the plastic to stop it from fogging up. He fitted the mask and regulator, then stared out across the ocean. His skin prickled in anticipation of the dive.
Moments later, he was falling backwards into the warm water. As he descended, his eyes quickly adjusted to the gloom. He signalled ‘OK’ to Veronica, and she signed back. The group assembled around Lucas before swimming out a short distance and settling onto the ocean floor, waiting.
A large animal appeared in the distance, its giant black wings flapping gracefully in the water. As it came closer, its body became partially illuminated by the spotlights. At four metres long, the manta ray dwarfed them in size. The elongated shape reminded Matt of the Starship Enterprise, and he couldn’t help but grin. It swam close to the group and suddenly did a 360-degree barrel roll, causing several of the divers to flinch. Matt gasped, but the manta ray was merely putting on a display, evidently used to tourists. He glanced over at Veronica and watched her stare at the magnificent giant, transfixed by its every move.
The acrobatics continued, and more manta rays joined in until six were swooping and gliding, twisting and somersaulting, gorging themselves on plankton drawn like moths to the flame. His heart rate quickened. The manta rays were coming even closer now, and he could see the wide, elongated funnels they had for mouths, perfect for engulfing their prey. As they pivoted, their white underbellies revealed black-spotted patterns and enormous gills. He fumbled with his underwater camera and started taking shots.
The dance of the manta rays was becoming hypnotic. Out of the corner of his eye, Matt caught a glimpse of a smaller juvenile making loops over the top of Veronica. As he turned around to take a photograph, she waved at him then reached out and touched the ray.
God, no, thought Matt, as he frantically signalled to her. But it was too late; the animal fled. He watched Lucas swim towards Veronica, holding up his palm for her to ‘stop’. Matt shook his head; it was just like Veronica to do whatever the hell she wanted.
Suddenly the largest manta ray appeared and swooped down, deliberately aiming for Veronica. Lucas swam out of the way, but Veronica was knocked backwards onto the rocky seafloor. Matt froze in horror as the manta ray doubled back around and swooped again, its wings now moving with speed.
Veronica’s eyes were wide inside the mask, and she had flattened her body against the rock. The giant manta ray plunged towards her again, this time knocking the regulator out of her mouth. She let out a muffled, watery scream and panicked, her training forgotten as her arms flailed around trying to find the air hose floating behind her.
Soon the tiny stream of air bubbles expelling from her mouth ran out. The manta ray was bearing down on her again. Lucas swam back over and jammed his spare regulator into her mouth just as the manta ray swooped. But the creature changed direction right at the last moment, sailing over the top of them and flapping off into the darkness.
Matt swam over and found Veronica sucking on the oxygen from the dive leader’s tank like it was her first cigarette in days. It took several minutes to coax her into swapping back to her own regulator. When she finally did, Lucas signalled ‘go up, end the dive now.’ Matt signalled ‘OK’, and they began to ascend, leaving the rest of the dive group behind. He watched the divers fade from sight with bitter disappointment.
At the five-metre mark, he grabbed Veronica by the arm and signalled for a three-minute safety stop. She shook her head, but he signalled ‘danger’ and wrote ‘nitrogen’ on his underwater slate. There was no way he could miss a safety stop, not when he had done so many consecutive dives.
Veronica stopped trying to ascend and shone her torch at her oxygen dial. She let out a muffled cry; it was almost empty. Matt tapped the gauge, but the needle didn’t budge. He flicked his torch up and noticed a small stream of bubbles coming from where the regulator hose connected to the oxygen tank. It must have been damaged during the attack. He swam back around to face her and signalled ‘something’s wrong’ and ‘share air.’
A dark shadow suddenly loomed up, smashing into them. Matt took the brunt of the blow and spun away, feeling dizzy. There was a sudden pain in his thigh where he connected with sharp coral. He reorientated himself and saw Veronica being dragged away, her air hose hooked on the lobes of the manta ray’s mouth. She disappeared into the darkness, her mouth open in a scream.
Matt cried out and made to swim after her, but his arms and legs were heavy, and he floundered in the water. For a second, his vision tunnelled. He blinked it away and struggled to swim, but his energy was fading. He stopped trying when he realised the manta ray had just solved all his problems.
He laughed to himself. It paid to be ready for opportunities. He was a stockbroker, after all.
Such a terrible accident…
It also paid to be thorough. It would make for a more convincing story if he were trying to ‘rescue’ Veronica, rather than surfacing immediately. As he swam away from the light of the pontoons, he realised his torch was gone. Without it, he’d soon get lost. Not as lost as Veronica. He laughed again and peered down at the hard coral. The black torch was nestled between two spikey prongs.
Matt dove down to retrieve it, but his kicks lacked power. He would need a day off tomorrow, regardless of Veronica’s ‘tragic death’. The thought brought on a giggling fit.
There was no choice but to use the last of his energy reserves to propel himself to the surface. It was getting darker, and he wondered if the pontoon had been shifted. He kicked faster, getting ready to feel the cool breeze on his face…
His fingers jarred against hard, pointy rock, splitting the skin open. He recoiled, wincing at the pain.
There was nothing but rock. He shone the torch at his depth gauge, but his vision was tunnelling again.
It read thirty metres.
He had gone the wrong way.
Matt laughed at his mistake, then noticed the thin stream of green liquid flowing out from his finger. Blood. It looked hilarious, and he laughed harder into his regulator, waving his hands in front of his face, admiring the fat, wrinkled fingers.
He kicked up from the seafloor, but instead of swimming upwards, he swam sideways and rolled over.
The laughter was so strong he was beginning to choke on the water.
Niko threw Veronica a life raft and pulled her towards the boat. He ran around to the ladder and helped her up. Violent shakes raked her body.
‘What happened?’ he asked.
She pulled off her mask, her eyes red. ‘One of them attacked me!’
‘W-what? A manta ray?’
‘Yes! It damaged my tank, and I ran out of air.’
His jaw dropped open. ‘Where’s Matt?’
‘No idea. Gutless prick,’ she spat. ‘He just watched it drag me off.’ She let out a deep sob and slid onto the deck. The tank made a loud thud on the wood.
Niko felt a jolt of surprise. The manta rays had never attacked before, and he’d been doing these tours for years. He unbuckled Veronica’s buoyancy vest and helped her to the bench to sit. After he handed her a towel, she seemed to calm down.
‘Here,’ he said, passing her a can of coke. ‘The sugar will help.’
He started shifting her scuba gear out of the way but stopped when he noticed the tank’s small nitrox sticker. ‘How many dives did you say your husband had done again?’
‘He’s done multiple dives every day.’
Niko frowned. He knew the guy was keen, but nitrogen poisoning was nothing to laugh about. ‘This tank is oxygen-enriched. Did you know you had Matt’s tank?’
‘No,’ she said and took a swing of the coke.
He stared at her for a moment. ‘I reckon he’s going to feel pretty sick without it.’
‘Oh. Well, it’s not my fault. Matt fitted our BCDs to the tanks. Not me.’
Niko narrowed his eyes. Veronica’s face twitched for just a second. Then it was gone.
Esme is a metallurgist and writer of speculative and contemporary fiction. She was selected to participate in the 2019 KSP 1st Edition Retreat, the 2020 Four Centres Emerging Writers Program, a 2020 KSP Fellowship and the 2021 ASA Award Mentorship Program for Writers and Illustrators. Her work has appeared in the Underground Writers Zine, on Spillwords and in the Night Parrot Press Three Can Keep a Secret anthology. When she is not reading and writing, she looks after her two children and garden in Perth, Western Australia.