The Song

A powerful near future story about two people on a whale-processing rig: one a researcher, the other a worker—and the discovery they make by listening to whale song.

 

 

Whale song echoed through the water in long, wistful moans. A pod calling to one another, repeating the same refrain.

Dan paused in his inspection of the pier and floated at the ten-meter mark. A slight chill filtered through his wet suit and he tucked his gloved hands into his armpits to keep them warm.

Beyond the steel lattice that supported the oil rig—repurposed and renamed SeaRanch 18—ranged the twilight murk of open sea. No hulking shadows drifted along the edges of visibility. If the whales came within eyesight, their song would give him one bitch of an earache.

Pods rarely ventured near the rig. Some orcas had been acting up, but that was in a distant feeding ground. And sharks only circled in when the cowboys harvested a whale to process and package for transport. With no active orders, it was a good time for Dan to do a round of maintenance.

Whale music had a weight to it, a ponderous, profound theme. The deeper notes resonated in his tissue and filled him with sweet nostalgia. A stuttering creak swept through—the slow rocking of a porch swing, a patio door caught in a summer draft. Then, the soft groan of settling into freshly laundered sheets for a long, long sleep.

Bright chirps punctuated the song today. Humpback calves, perhaps, learning to sing like their fathers.

Dan ran his hand along one of the steel legs that anchored the rig to the ocean floor. Bits of metal sloughed from the surface and drifted off in ashy motes. A few taps with his dive knife made a dull thud, rather than the cheerful ping of healthy steel.

“Good thing I didn’t wait ’til the scheduled check. We’ve got evidence of corrosion. Might be time to replace the magnesium.” He spoke into his headset.

Crackling static came back as Marge from maintenance replied. “Corrosion on Support One, got it.”

He’d already inspected the lower docks that floated around the rig like tentacles. A bit of scraping and painting would get them up to snuff.

Then the whales had started to sing, drawing him deeper into the water where the music compelled him to stay.

“If the block of sacrificial metal has failed, it’s earlier than usual. Probably not pure enough magnesium. Or the connection to the legs is failing. I’ll check the other three, see if there’s any deterioration there.”

He swam to the next leg. Solid. Same as the last two.

“Looks like the problem is with the connection to the first. Easy fix. Lucky we caught it early.” He pictured Marge up there in her blue coveralls, pen clutched in her paint-stained fingers, adding to her list of things to keep her team busy.

The whale song drifted away as he ascended.

At five meters, he paused for a decompression stop—nothing but the click and puff of his own breathing to keep him company. He continued up, swallowing and wiggling his jaw back and forth until his eardrums popped, relieving pressure before the ache turned to pain.

 

Norwegian-based High North Alliance claims the carbon footprint resulting from eating whale meat is substantially lower than that of beef. One serving of whale meat contains 181% of your daily intake of iron, and 55% of your daily intake of B12. It is low in fat and cholesterol. As of 2010, fluke meat cost up to two hundred dollars per kilogram, more than triple the price of belly meat.

—Dr. Suzanne Anderson, How Do You Like Your Whale?

 

Dan stopped to grab some lunch in the mess before heading to his quarters for a shower.

Swimming always made him hungry. When he was a kid in tadpole class, he wouldn’t get out of the water until the very last minute. Floating on his back, he’d relish the weightlessness, the other children’s splash and chatter bubbling around him. His mother’s frowning face would appear over him, her mouth moving, words muted. She’d always bring a big bag of snacks for his post-swim refueling. In his teens, a round of fevers and ear infections kept him out of the water until he thought he’d dry up. Alien voices strained toward him, as though rising from aquatic depths. He spent solitary days in his room writing lines for poems he never completed, words that filtered through his muddied thoughts but never merged.

Alone, alone, alone, alone.

Adrift, adrift, alone, alone.

When he first started diving he’d worried the scarring on his eardrums would keep him from deep-sea work, limit his earning potential. Luck was on his side there. Only once, after his wife died, had his ears started buzzing, sounds fading in and out. Stress-related deafness, the doctors said when they suspended his dive license and sent him to the company shrink. He was relieved when his hearing came back after her funeral.

Mess tray in hand, he walked the line. Baked beans, mac and cheese, chicken strips, pickled beets, mushy peas. Comfort food from the freezer or a can. Three weeks since they’d seen any fresh produce. Two weeks since they’d brought in relief staff.

Save-the-whale extremists had bombed the last transport before it even left dock, no survivors. The Free Willy and Hear Their Cry, Don’t Let Them Die! signs hadn’t done much to dissuade SeaRanch staff. Equipment sabotage and bombings were another story. SeaRanch was having trouble finding workers willing to risk the trip. Nobody knew when the next transport of relief staff would come.

Not that Dan was complaining. The money was good, his account climbing into seven figures now. He was no longer saving for a house with room to grow, away from the city, where a kid could actually play outside—his wife’s dream, not his. But he continued saving, mostly out of habit. Maybe he’d think of something to do with the money. A dream of his own. And, really, he had nothing calling him back to land—just an empty apartment with a half-eaten box of cereal in the cupboard and the TV remote perched on the arm of his foldout sofa. Better than the mess he’d had to clean up when his wife took permanent leave. He’d already forgotten the exact color of her eyes and the way her skin smelled after they’d made love. Almost.

A bump from behind and Dan’s lunch plate skidded close to the tray’s curved edge.

“Shit, sorry. I thought…” One of the new scientists, easily identified by her green coveralls, caught the dinner roll that tumbled from Dan’s tray. “I assumed you’d moved along. I’m a total klutz.”

“No worries, doc. Just daydreaming. You can have that one.” Dan grabbed another dinner roll and moved off in search of an empty table. He picked one in the far corner of the room and set his glass and utensils in their proper spots around his plate. Knife blade-in, bottom of the fork in line with the rest.

“Mind if I join you?” The scientist had followed him to the table. She bit her lip as she waited for him to swallow his first bite of pickled beet.

Dan nodded and cleared his throat. “Be my guest. Mi mesa es su mesa.”

“Cheers. Seems like most of you guys prefer to eat alone. Really, everyone here is pretty antisocial. I expected a lot more, you know, camaraderie.” She dragged her fork through her beans, leaving a winding river behind. “My name’s Suzanne.”

Suzanne.

Suzanne with the youthful face

And winter-grey hair.

Suzanne who smiles shyly,

Gazes at me with hazel eyes

Awaiting my reply.

“Dan.” He resumed sawing at a chunk of stew meat on his plate.

“You think that’s whale?” Suzanne pointed with her fork at his meal.

Dan gagged on the mouthful he’d just taken, then washed it down with vitamin water. “Good lord, no. We don’t eat that here. This stuff’s a protein substitute. Tough as leather for some reason.”

“Interesting. I’ve been catching up on the rules. You’re not supposed to give the whales names, individualize them. And yet you don’t eat them. Kind of a mixed message.”

Dan shrugged. “Whale meat’s too valuable for us lowly types. That’s part of it. The rules are there for a reason. Like we’re not supposed to call the processing area the ‘kill floor,’ but what the hell else ya gonna call it? It’s not like we tickle the whales until they turn into steak.”

Suzanne blew a soft gust of air out her nose. Not quite a laugh.

I bet she has a great laugh.

“How ’bout you? A fan of whale meat?”

“I have eaten it.”

Not really an answer. Dan pushed the lumpy stew around his plate, appetite gone. “So, you on whale-food production, or the plastic filtering project? I heard they managed to extract a hundred pounds of particles yesterday.”

“I heard that, too. Nope. I’m an animal behaviorist. Here to assess recent changes in communication patterns. You in whale processing?”

“Welder. Mostly underwater. Used to work the oil rigs all over the Pacific until that work dried up.” He tore up his bun and dipped it in some beet juice. “Now it’s just the SeaRanch rotation. But since we’re stuck here they’ve got me working topside, too. How’d they get you in?”

“Snuck me over on a chopper from a research station down near Chile. I was there for a few months. The chopper never made it back to base.”

Dan prodded the stew with his bun and the beet stain turned brown. “The military’s out hunting, I heard. Until they wipe out that ecowarrior cell, you’re probably stuck here with the rest of us.”

“Okay by me. You guys have a decent brain-scan lab; a few tweaks and I’ll have it set up right. Going to interview the survivors from the whale attack last week when they get back from patrol—see what they think instigated the attack. I can’t believe they’ve sent those guys out already.”

“We’re in an all-hands-on-deck situation. A bit of roughhousing from one of the pods shouldn’t keep anyone from work.”

“Is that what they’re telling you?” Frown lines gathered between Suzanne’s eyes. “Roughhousing?”

Dan nodded. A needle of unease pricked his spine.

 

The shower head sprayed Dan with a fine mist. Another thing that the rig lacked—decent pressure.

Water, water, everywhere,

But nothing from the sink.

At least it was hot. His feet tingled and turned red as they warmed up. Dan scrubbed mint shampoo into his scalp. The pipes pinged and gurgled. Then from somewhere deep in the plumbing came a foghorn cry. Dan stopped scrubbing and strained his scarred ears to listen.

Nothing. Just the hiss of the showerhead.

He grabbed the bar of soap and lathered his chest. Again, the plaintive call followed by a low bovine moan, then a reverberating chirp, louder this time. Pipes heating up? The dock rubbing against the rig’s legs?

The faucet screeched as he cranked the shower off. In the silence, nothing sang.

 

Female humpbacks will often make friends with a female from another pod. Once a year she reunites with her old friend. It’s a quiet reunion. The two females float along, side by side, eating together and taking pleasure in the company. Females who establish these kinds of friendships are healthier and birth more calves each year.

—Dr. Suzanne Anderson, Herding Humpbacks

 

Unable to sleep, Dan paced the decks. A clear night full of stars. He had a regular circuit. Once around the main, take a ladder, around the next deck twice, then up and around again. He’d descend in reverse, working his way back, ladder by ladder, to the bottom. Twelve repetitions was the most he’d ever done of his circuit. Winding himself down until he could sleep without dreaming.

When he reached the top deck, he stopped. Suzanne leaned against a rail, gazing out over the night sea. The moon cast her hair in a ghostly halo. The breeze ruffled the fabric of her coveralls in a whisper of feathers.

Suzanne leaning out over the water,

Pressing into the cool air’s caress.

“Heya,” Dan called out, dismayed when she jumped a little. He hadn’t meant to startle her.

She turned, and frowned when she saw him, but it was a welcoming frown. “Hey, yourself. Couldn’t sleep?”

“Nightmare. Equipment failure, slow suffocating death. If I believed in that whole self-fulfilling prophecy stuff I’d be done with diving.”

“I can never remember my dreams, at least not what happens. Just sounds.”

Dan grasped the railing beside her and looked down into the inky foil of the night sea. “Sounds? Like what?”

She shrugged and turned away. “You know, it’s actually a couple pods acting up. Three different species. The attack on the harvesting boat the other day—those were orcas. But today a poacher alert came in and a patrol chopper went for a look-see. It flew low over some humpbacks, or what they thought were humpbacks, but it turned out to be a mix. Blues and humpbacks. What do you make of that?”

“That isn’t usual?”

“Nope. They dropped an underwater drone in. Recorded chatter. Literally. The humpbacks were singing, like they do, and the blues seemed to be listening, and responding.” Suzanne continued, talking more to herself than anything. “I’m going to add the sound files to my catalogue, as well as the visuals. See if we can get a match.”

“A match on what?”

“Behavior and specific bits of information. To translate more of their language.”

Dan raised his eyebrows. “So you’ve had some luck with that?” Part of him wanted to know what the whales were singing about, and part of him didn’t.

“Sure. Mostly with the chatter. One phrase that means ‘come’ or ‘follow.’ They say ‘over here’ a lot. The song is a whole other thing. We’re going to go dart a couple this week. Then I’ll be able to monitor brain activity. Throw that in with the sound files and behavioral patterns. We might see what’s happening out there.”

A light blinked from the darkness of the horizon and they paused to listen to the hum of a boat going by.

On the deck below, a door squealed open and two women in lurched out onto the walkway. They wore carver-staff coveralls—purple to camouflage blood-splatter without being morbid. Arm in arm they staggered along, singing a slurred version of an old song, repeating only the words they knew, over and over, to the familiar melody.

“Oh Danny Boy, oh Danny Boy, oh Da-ah-ny…”

Suzanne waved down at them, but the women didn’t notice.

She gazed back over the sea, her smile touched by sadness. “We were seeing some of that at the research station I came over from, too. People feeling the stress. Drinking to blow off steam. That and people taking permanent leave, you know. Must be worse here.”

“I guess. Can’t fire those two, even though they’re ignoring the rules. Eventually they’ll run out of booze, and then we’ll have a worse problem.” Statistically, carvers were most likely to take a header over the rail or hang themselves from the pipes, according to the shrinks.

Suzanne nodded. “Seen that, too.”

Dan had never had a friend on the rig; didn’t see the point, what with people always coming and going. Another thing the shrinks considered a problem. But for him it made sense. If you got attached, you’d miss the person when they were gone. That’s when you felt lonely.

Yet here I am, talking to Suzanne.

The laughter and song turned to gagging and heaving as the women took turns vomiting into the chop below. Then they hugged, slapped each other’s backs, and resumed singing. A slamming door cut off their song and returned the night to silence.

Moonlight fell in a silver swath across the water. Waves slipped over and were consumed by the boundless deep. Beside him, Suzanne breathed out a long sigh.

 

The struts that supported the hydraulic lift on the kill floor showed some minor cracking in the welds. Dan did a full inspection and made the call. Shut it down. Give the butchers a break. Everyone was supposed to call them carvers, but Dan didn’t think of them that way.

Marge from maintenance helped him hoof down fresh tubing and all his welding gear.

He lined his tools up: measuring tape, pencil, grinder, spare disks, gloves, mask, welding rod, wire brush, hammer.

“If you need a peon,” she said, “I’ve got a few slackers who could come down right now. Otherwise, let me know when you’re done and I’ll send the paint crew.” Marge gazed out the open bay door at the grey-cast sky. “You good?”

“Yeah. No need to send anyone. Just have to replace a few pieces. I’ll cut them myself.”

His assistant, Brian, had gone for shore leave on the last boat, and the replacement never made it.

Maintenance was supposed to back him up, but everyone avoided working the kill floor if they could, with its massive adjustable saws and their diamond-honed blades, the long-handled traditional knives clipped to the wall, gleaming, ready for custom orders.

Marge sniffed the air and wrinkled her nose. “Man, I wish tech would come up with some kind of cleaning product that gets rid of the stink, you know? Forget about new butchering techniques. Who cares about cost-effective ways to debone a whale? Those people have a shit-ton of money to spare.”

Rumor was one of those TV chefs had designed an enormous fryer. He would cook a narwhal inside an orca inside a minke. Tables were priced at something like a hundred thousand a head. Proceeds were supposedly going to the plastic filtration project. A worthy cause. Dan pictured a crystal-chandeliered dining stadium. Massive steaks delivered to the linen-draped tables by forklift. CEOs, celebrities, and socialites carving delicate mouthfuls from dripping chunks of perfectly seasoned meat. His stomach lurched.

“I’ll keep the bay doors open, air it out for the painters.”

She slapped Dan on the back. “Well. I’ll leave you to do your thing. This place gives me the heebies.”

Her footsteps rang hollow blows and she hummed a melancholy tune that was cut off when the interior door thudded shut—the melody so like the groans and sighs of whale song that echoed through his dreams.

A chill wind funneled in, flapping the fabric of his grey coveralls as Dan marked spots on the struts that needed replacing.

The platform would submerge for the harvesters to drag in their catch, then hoist the whale and pulley it forward across rollers, conveyor-belt style, to the equipment for butchering and packaging. The floor itself was a no-skid steel grating that let fluids drain away. Processing whales involved lots of fluids.

SeaRanch butchers worked to thumps against the rig’s legs as sharks, drawn by blood, swarmed and thrashed over bits of flesh that fell through to the sea below.

Today only the crackling buzz of Dan’s welder and the shrill wail of the saw blade ripping through metal vibrated the kill floor.

 

The song of the humpback can be heard up to twenty miles away. Beluga whales love to listen to music and can imitate human speech—sometimes so effectively that divers working in aquariums have surfaced, convinced someone is yelling at them from the deck.

Dr. Suzanne Anderson, Whale Notes: Music of the Deep

 

“See these groups of sounds. That’s a phrase.” Suzanne pointed to a graph on her monitor. Her headset lay on the control panel, and whale song leaked out. “The males repeat these phrases—together they make up a song. Other males in the pod sing the same phrases, not in a chorus or anything. Echoing the pattern, like a round.”

She picked up an orange that rested next to her keyboard and held it to her nose. One side of the fruit had turned brown, the skin hardened in a dark continent. It had been weeks since fresh fruit had been brought to the rig. Dan missed the tart bunches of green grapes he’d take back to his quarters to snack on while he filled in his dive log. The orange must have come with her.

Dan rocked in the swivel chair next to hers. “Can we listen to it?”

She unplugged the headset, and the room filled with the aquatic opera. A rippling tide of goose bumps rose on Dan’s flesh. He recognized the song. The same one he’d been hearing all week. During dives, in the shower, in his dreams.

Through the lab’s speakers, the whale song sounded diminished and eerie. Suzanne had her eyes closed, and the monitor cast grey light over her weary features.

“You get any sleep last night?” Dan leaned in close so he could speak softly, reluctant to break the music’s spell. Her hair smelled like honey.

“No. I headed straight here after you left. I finished uploading my data, added it to the info your guys have been collecting. Established a link with the remote EEG.” She woke up another monitor—on it flickered an irregular-shaped circle wearing multicolored blobs of varying intensity. “Brain scans. Really different when they’re singing from when they are listening to another whale sing, or when they’re talking. Your harvesting cowboys just tagged whales from three different pods this morning; the ’bots established a link about an hour ago.”

Dan grimaced as he imagined a dart injecting a barrage of nanobots into a whale’s bloodstream, then navigating into position, spinning their organic wires, knitting through brain tissue before lighting up to interface. These maps of the whales’ brains were a real-time image of the activity. The whole thing creeped him out. Sometimes he wondered if microscopic ’bots roamed around in his bloodstream, taking readings, boring minute holes through vessel walls, riding the current of his heartbeat, to gain access to some organ or another. SeaRanch tracking their workers, like they did the whales.

Flu shots my ass.

“So, which is which?”

She hit a button and four brain-shaped balls of light projected into the middle of the room. Suzanne spun her chair around and got up. Pulses of light rippled like lightning flaring in a cloud bank. She walked through the projected scans, blooms of neon bruising her features.

Suzanne.

Sorceress of thought and sound.

“These are two orcas talking.” She held up both arms as though embracing the image. “This, a humpback singing. This one is listening to the song. This over here is a human brain engaged in singing with a choir.

“Singing, for humans, creates an emotional response. It affects the brain chemistry.”

Dan approached the brain scans of the whale singing. “I know this song. I heard it when I was diving the other day.”

“It’s what I’m hearing from whales in this sector. Different from the songs I heard when I was stationed over in the Indian Ocean. Usually each pod has their own song, but they do sometimes teach theirs to another pod. When I get some idea what they’re singing about we’ll see if it’s at all connected to the heightened aggression.”

She turned the volume down and sat back in front of her monitor to type, humming “Danny Boy” and frowning at the screen. Dan remembered his wife had done that at the beginning of their marriage—hummed songs she’d heard on the radio while she sorted laundry or repaired her vintage pop-up toaster. He couldn’t remember when she’d stopped.

The rest of the day, Dan pictured Suzanne, humming in the lab, her orange pressed to her lips, Christmas colors washing over her hair as the whales sounded their mystery out to the sea.

 

In the mess, Dan served himself a healthy breakfast of oatmeal, dried figs, and a cup of green tea. The liquid rhythm of his own chewing, punctuated by the oar-lock creaks of staffers shifting in chairs, the squeal against the floor as they slid those chairs back and forth, coming and going in their red and green and purple and blue, the thump of the swinging doors—when Dan let his gaze lose focus, let those sounds fill the space, they took on a new quality.

Sounds making phrases. Phrases repeating, joining together, becoming song.

 

The blue whale is the largest animal that has ever existed. Up to thirty meters long, heart as big as a school bus, arteries wide enough a person could float through. An elephant weighs less than their tongue. And they are getting bigger. But blue whales don’t live the longest. The bowhead whale can live more than two hundred years.

—Dr. Suzanne Anderson, Whale of a Tale: Fun Facts for Kids

 

He didn’t see Suzanne for a week. He was drawn to her, and so he avoided her. Stuck to a routine of work and sitting in his room. He filled out his dive log every night, and between entries he struggled to capture the whale song.

Patterns echo round and round.

Come. Over here.

Follow.

Round and round.

Things said but not heard,

Heard, but not understood.

Come. Over here.

Follow.

The meaning lost.

Lost.

Like a memory just out of reach, the song slipped away from him.

When he did see Suzanne, he didn’t recognize her at first. Her green jumpsuit that had once strained with the fullness of her breasts and hips now hung straight to the floor, except for a bulge in one pocket he assumed was the orange. Headphones were clamped to her ears; her hair no longer curled like sea-foam, instead it had decayed to the tallow-white cast of old bone.

She walked quickly, despite her frail appearance, and with purpose. Dan followed.

He wanted to ask if she’d managed to translate any of the whale song. His dreams continued, drawn every night on its current. He wanted to show her his poem. Together, perhaps, they could find the right words. And then maybe he could get a proper sleep.

Just last night he’d dreamt that his wife shared his bed, her skin grey in the moonlight that spilled through his one small porthole. She lay beside him, eyes black and swirling with phosphorus, her dark hair in seaweed whorls across the pillow.

“Why are you here? I didn’t send a request for a visitor. Dan’s skin tingled with the cool wash of her breath.

She lay still, her wrists bound in the cuffs of gauze she’d been wearing when he signed the cremation order, her pearled skin threaded with dark veins.

The sheets rustled, though she hadn’t moved. She stared at him the way she always did, with sad, lonely eyes—wanting something, expecting it. She opened her mouth, her throat contracted, and out came her song. Low, hollow flute tones, like wind across a bottle top, short foghorn blasts, shuddering squeaks like skin slipping around in a bathtub, then a rasping exhale that flooded the room with the dank brine perfume of the sea.

Dan woke that morning, his porthole open, his bed dampened by sea air and sweat. Each day he rose exhausted, the whale song robbing him of a proper rest.

He hoped Suzanne could provide some insight as to why the song tormented him, trailing in his wake as he attended to his duties, day in, day out.

Suzanne stepped out onto the deck near the kill floor loading bay. Dan joined her. She didn’t notice him at first, as she leaned over the railing to look at the sea under the rig. Below them, a small pod of bowhead whales schooled around the rig legs. Suzanne put her hand over her mouth and shook her head, then looked up at Dan, her eyes wide and empty.

“What’s going on?” Dan had never seen whales behave this way.

“A special rush order came in. For meat prepared the traditional Inuit way. The pod followed the harvesters here. Attacked the boat and tried to capsize them, from what I heard.” She stalked down the hall to the kill floor.

“Hey, c’mon. Let’s go to the cafeteria—or to your lab to see what the song’s doing. If there’s any new chatter.”

“I know what the song is doing, with this pod anyway.” She tapped the headphones. “They’ve stopped singing. One or two of them had taken it up, but then the cowboys rode in and ’pooned a female. That’s why I came to check it out. No chatter at all. But their brains are flaring like a fireworks show.”

She shoved open the double doors and stepped onto the kill floor.

The flensing had already begun. Four carvers stood atop the whale, with long knives like curved hockey sticks, slicing deep into the whale’s side, the blades sliding through in long lines a few inches apart.

“She’s dead. But look at them.” Suzanne pointed down.

Through the metal grate he could see the pod that had followed the harvesting boat surge and strain for the kill floor, mouths open, before they slipped back under. Their bodies collided, stirring great spumes gone pink with blood.

As the carvers pried long slabs free and wrestled them into the shed-sized cooler containers, the whales below calmed, then dove from sight.

Suzanne cocked her head and held up a finger. “Oh. Now… one of them is singing again.” She pulled a remote screen from her pocket and tapped it. “And the blue whales out in sector thirty-eight have picked up the refrain. It still spreading, you know. More and more pods are singing the same song. Like a virus moving through the population. And those that aren’t singing are diving. Have you heard? As a group, diving and never coming up. I can’t stop it. Can’t save them.” She pulled the bud from her ear. “You want to listen? This is a pod of minke whales out near Japan. The song sounds different, they don’t have the same range. But they try. They just keep singing and singing.” She stared out the loading bay door, over the water, her unwashed hair slack on her shoulders.

Dan shook his head. He could hear the song without the headset—or feel it. A memory echo that quaked up from the metal grating, shivering through him.

“Hey, what’s with the orange?” A feeble attempt to distract himself.

Her hand went reflexively to her pocket and tapped it. “The smell helps me think. My daughter loved them. Cut up with the skin still on. She’d put a whole wedge in her mouth and smile an orange-peel smile. She never got to see whales. The ones in the zoo were long gone to breeding programs, and we lived so far from the ocean.”

“I’m sorry.” Dan almost reached out to touch her, offer some kind of comfort.

Suzanne sighed and walked away, the doors thudding shut behind her.

The carvers sliced another long strip. All but Dan were oblivious to the song.

He stared into the dead whale’s eye, a dark pool surrounded by a nimbus of blue. The butcher-shop stench of raw burger and coagulating blood still held lingering traces of the whale’s dying breaths—fish rot and sewage.

The floor seemed to surge and recede as he made his way to the door, arms out to keep balance. The phantom song thrummed in his eardrums as he lurched down the hall, away from the dead whale and the wet smack of blades through flesh. He slid one shoulder along the wall or he would have fallen in a sweaty, nauseous heap on the floor.

There was a reason staff were supposed to stay away from the kill floor. And a reason why all the butchers had to go for regular shrink visits.

On the main deck he leaned his forehead against the cool steel rail. The vertigo, and the song, subsided as he took deeper and deeper breaths of the fresh sea air.

 

Somewhere in the ocean there is a solitary whale. Its calls transmit at a frequency no other whales transmit at. Scientists call it the world’s loneliest whale.

—Dr. Suzanne Anderson, Whale Outliers: A Natural History

 

The song had spread to all sectors in the Pacific. Speculation among the crew included theories that the whales were coordinating for attack, or escape. They were communicating with aliens. They were evolving. They were regressing.

A helicopter full of harvesters rushed to Sector 82 when the com-tech noted evasive swim patterns from one pod. Poachers. About 50 percent of SeaRanch whales had GPS chips so the company could track them and send harvesters to fill meat orders. Before the harvesters could get there, the whales had swum off, leaving a capsized boat, and a bunch of happy sharks feeding on the contents of the fish hold, as well as a few of the crew.

Rescuing poachers was not in the harvesters’ mandate, so they left the men waving up in distress, and followed the pod to make sure none had been injured. The whales had joined with two pods from Sector 85. Some breached and lobtailed up out of the water, then dove amongst the massive herd, their song thundering through the monitor’s headset so loud the tech wearing them had to cut his feed.

And that morning, the mess crew had discovered two of the women carvers dead in the kitchen. They’d each sat on a floor drain and used fileting knives on their femoral arteries, their last bottle of whiskey empty beside them.

A quick hosing down and the kitchen floor was spotless again, but the mood at breakfast was dark.

“No matter how much overtime they pay us, it’s not worth the headache. If a relief crew doesn’t show soon, I’m going to swim for it,” Marge joked, her voice flat, gaze hollow.

“I don’t know if that’s such a good idea with the whales acting like they are. I have to go under the docks to do some repairs, and I gotta say, I’m a little nervous.” Dan stirred his oatmeal, the brown sugar an inky swirl in the clotted white of powdered creamer. “Not that they’ll hurt me or anything, but if they come too close, that song’ll rip into my eardrums and rattle my brain.”

Marge spoke through a mouthful of reconstituted eggs. “What song?”

“The one they’ve all been singing. They’ve got a scientist working on it. Sink or sing. She can’t figure out the why of either. You haven’t heard it?”

“Nah. My crew’s more worried about the vandals. Someone’s been writing on the walls, using paint from our supply closet. Weird shit. About the whales and how they’re coming for us. About how they can hear us, they know what we’re planning. I have to send a bunch of my people in for eval with the shrink in case we’ve got another person itching for self-annihilation. Once they’re done with maintenance, I think they’re planning to haul the rest of the crew in, one by one, for a good shrinking. You won’t be able to skip out this time. The higher-ups are thinking we’ll start offing ourselves. So they’re watching all of us now, not just the carvers. I think, as a deterrent, they might withdraw the suicide comp package.”

Dan put down his spoon and knit his hands together, remembering his wife’s wrists, like mouths split wide, blood already dried in a blackened sheet so he had to pry her from the floor. He remembered how she was the last time he saw her alive. Remote. Fixed on something inside, already done with trying to bridge the distance between them.

The last thing she’d said to him. “I worry about you, out there on that rig. That the loneliness will catch up to you, and you’ll do something stupid.

He’d shrugged and picked up his bag, the door already open. “It’s not stupid if it’s the best option. Anyway, I could use a little alone time. I’ll see you in a few.”

And that was how they’d left it—him thinking she was nuts for worrying. He’d missed what she was really saying, just like he always did.

 

Whales seem to exhibit empathy and grief. Sperm whales once adopted a bottle-nosed dolphin who had been cast out by his pod, likely due to a spine-curvature deformity.

Female belugas, perhaps to recover from the grief of losing a calf, will make surrogate babies out of objects, carrying planks or stones, even caribou skeletons, on their heads and backs, like they would their young.

—Dr. Suzanne Anderson, Beneath the Surface: Whales as Emotional Beings

 

Dan kept an eye out for Suzanne at the mess, on deck, even down in the hold. He had a new poem he wanted to show her, folded up in his pocket. Finally, after two busy days repairing the corrosion of the rig’s leg and overseeing the tethering of a new bucket of sacrificial metal, he went to her lab.

The darkened room wore the bitter perfume of fresh orange peel. Suzanne’s movements as she worked the controls on her keyboard seemed sluggish.

“The song isn’t translatable. At least not in human terms. I kept thinking it must be instructions, locations, something like that… but now I think it’s emotion. How can we comprehend what goes on for whales on an emotional level? Is it anger? Sadness? Regret? Any sense we make of it is likely anthropomorphism or projection. A mirror of ourselves.” Her words slurred together. She leaned in close to the display, squinting at the dots that littered the oceans of the world, pods migrating through their territories, but not free.

“I brought you some tea.” Dan held out the cup, but she ignored it.

He pushed some papers aside on her desk and set the cup and his poem down next to the orange, its skin torn open to expose the brownish pulp of inner flesh.

“The aggressive behavior has ceased; did you know that? I’ve looked at old research done when rats become overpopulated. First aggression, even toward each other, cannibalism, then pathological withdrawal.” Her words came faster, fueled by her frustration. “They become despondent. Don’t eat, except in the company of other rats. Infant mortality climbs as high as 96 percent. Or there’s the learned-helplessness experiments done on dogs, who would eventually just lay down and whine when they realized there was nothing they could do to stop the shocks.” She wiped her eyes and looked at her fingers as though surprised to find them dry. “Now most pods are singing the song. But there are new anomalies. An entire pod up north beached itself. Another in Australia… more reports of cows diving as they deliver their calves. Too low for the babies to make it to the surface in time for the air to touch their skin and get them breathing. At least ten calves in three different pods… birthed, then drowned in the past two days… trying to determine if these pods are singing the song. It appears they aren’t.”

When she stood, she tilted to the side, almost fell, but grabbed the back of her chair, knocking it against the table. Tea sloshed from the cup onto his poem. His words blurred and bled through, merging in a dark stain.

Dan moved to help Suzanne. She waved him off.

“This is the limbic lobe.” She extended her hand into one of the projections; a sputtering blue light bloomed and died on her open palm. “Emotional expression, empathy, the formation of memories. This one’s an orca. The lobe is proportionally much larger than in humans, made up of three different parts. I was seeing a lot of activity that suggested anger, fear, frustration. Or the whale equivalent. Not anymore. I don’t know what this is. Acceptance. Despair. Surrender.”

The chair shifted as Suzanne slumped against it, the wheels sliding away. Dan caught her around the waist and helped her to the floor.

“What did you take?” He felt her wrist for her pulse, a light, irregular flutter. Her skin, cool and spongy with sweat, had a grey cast to it, as though filtered through underwater dusk. “I’ll call the medic. Hold on.”

“No, no, no. Really.” She pulled her hand free and gazed up at the EEG readings. They rippled with light like storm clouds. “All the wonder, the joy, it’s gone. It’s too late. We’ve eroded their spirit. There’s nothing left for them but to sing until harvest time. You don’t need to stay. But please, turn up the volume before you go.”

Dan moved to the instrument panel. He hesitated, hand over the com-link. Instead he turned up the song until it quaked in his stomach, drummed along his spine.

Then he sat on the floor beside Suzanne and took her hand. He closed his eyes for a moment, listened to the music. Creaks, groans, echoing calls, asked then answered. The whales singing together. For one another. With one another.

The song may be all they have, but they have it. They have something. They are not alone.

“I’m here. I’ll stay with you.” He spoke into her ear and squeezed her hand tight.

Suzanne took a slow shuddering breath, her eyes glassy reflections of the storm above. She didn’t squeeze back.

Feeling foolish, but knowing he must, Dan joined in the song, attempting the rumbling moans—like tectonic plates rubbing against one another in a slow dance—the bright chirps. His voice rose to meet the whale’s music, his throat ached as he strained to match it, note for note.

No words for the song. Just sounds. Sensations.

He imagined the song ringing down the rusted piers, vibrations transmitted through water, calling the whales. He turned up the volume until the floor shuddered and rippled. Perhaps the whales were already here, bodies pressing against metal, calling to him.

Suzanne’s expression changed from puzzled to one full of sadness and wonder as she slipped from here to gone.

Dan and the whales’ voices surged together, their song carrying her over to the deeps.

Text copyright © 2019 by Erinn L. Kemper.
Art copyright © 2019 by Mary Haasdyk.

citation

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