Fluke, or, I Know Why the Winged Whale Sings Chapter 21~22

Fluke, or, I Know Why the Winged Whale Sings Chapter 21~22

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

I Lick the Body Electric

The Maui sunset had set the sky on fire and everything in the bungalow had taken on the glowing pink tone of paradise – or hell, depending on where you were standing. Clay dismembered the bird and put the severed pieces on a platter to transport them to the grill.

“You’ll need something to bring those in on,” Clair said. Her dress was a purple hibiscus-flower print, and the orchid she wore in her hair looked like lavender dragonflies humping. She was dicing pickles into the macaroni salad.

“What’s wrong with this?” Clay held up the plate with the raw chicken.

“You can’t use the same plate. You’ll get salmonella.”

“Fine, fuck it,” Clay said, tossing the plate into the yard. The chicken parts bounced nicely, breading themselves with a light coating of sand, ants, and dried grass. “When did chicken become like plutonium anyway, for Christ’s sake? You can’t let it touch you or it’s certain fucking death. And eggs and hamburgers kill you unless you cook them to the consistency of limestone! And if you turn on your fucking cell phone, the plane is going to plunge out of the sky in a ball of flames? And kids can’t take a dump anymore but they have to have a helmet and pads on make them look like the Road Warrior. Right? Right? What the fuck happened to the world? When did everything get so goddamn deadly? Huh? I’ve been going to sea for thirty damned years, and nothing’s killed me. I’ve swum with everything that can bite, sting, or eat you, and I’ve done every stupid thing at depth that any human can – and I’m still alive. Fuck, Clair, I was unconscious for an hour underwater less than a week ago, and it didn’t kill me. Now you’re going to tell me that I’m going to get whacked by a fucking chicken leg? Well, just fuck it then!”

He didn’t know where to go, so he came back in and slammed the screen door behind him, then opened it and slammed it again. “Goddamn it!” And he stood there, breathing hard. Not really looking at anything.

Clair put down her knife and pickle, then wiped her hands. As she came toward Clay she pulled a large bobby pin from the back of her hair, and her long, thick locks cascaded down her back. She took Clay’s right hand and kissed each of his fingertips, licked his thumb, then took his index finger in her mouth and made a show of removing it slowly and with maximum moisture. Clay looked at the floor, shaking.

“Baby,” she said as she placed the bobby pin firmly between Clay’s wet thumb and index finger, “I need you to go over to that wall and take this bobby pin and insert it ever so firmly into that electrical outlet over there.”

Clay looked up at her at last.

“Because,” she continued, “I know that you aren’t mad at me and that you’re just grieving for your friends, but I think you need to be reminded that you aren’t invulnerable and that you can hurt even more than you do now. And I think it would be better if you did it yourself, because otherwise I’ll have to brain you with your own iron skillet.”

“That would be wrong,” Clay said.

“It is a cruel world, baby.”

Clay took her in his arms and buried his face in her hair and just stood there in the doorway for a long time.

Amy had been missing for thirty-two hours. That morning a fisherman had found her kayak washing against some rocks on Molokai and had called the rental company in Maui. A life jacket was still strapped on the front of the boat, he said. The Coast Guard had stopped looking already.

“Now, let me go,” Clair said. “I have to get that chicken out of the yard and rinse it off.”

“I don’t think we should eat that.”

“Please. I’m going to cook it up for Kona. You’re taking me out.”

“I am?”

“Of course.”

“After I stick this in the outlet, right?”

“You can grieve, Clay – that’s as it should be – but you can’t feel guilty for being alive.”

“So, I don’t have to stick this in the outlet?”

“You used foul language at me, baby. I don’t see any way around it.”

“Oh, well, that’s true. You go get Kona’s chicken out of the yard. I’ll do this.”

On the second morning after Amy was lost at sea, Clay walked to the seaside, a rocky beach between some condos north of Lahaina – too short for morning runners, too shallow for a bathing crowd. He stood on an outcropping of rocks with the waves crashing around him and tried to let pure hatred run out of his heart. Clay Demodocus was a guy who liked things, and among the things he had liked the most was the sea, but this morning he held nothing but disdain for his old friend. The sapphire blue was indifferent, the waves elitist. She’d kill you without even learning your name. “You bitch,” Clay said, loud enough for the sea to hear. He spit into her face and walked back home.

That old trickster Maui had been sitting on a rock nearby watching, and he laughed at Clay’s hubris. Maui admired a man with more balls than brains, even a haole. He cast a small blessing at the photographer – just a trinket for the laugh, a trifling little mango of magic – and then he headed off to the great banyan tree to fog the film of Japanese tourists.

Back in what was now only his office, Clay dug Amy’s resume out of his files and made the call. He braced himself, trying to figure out how, exactly, he was going to tell these strangers that their daughter was missing and assumed to have drowned. He felt sad and alone, and his elbow hurt from the jolt of electricity he’d taken the night before. He didn’t want to do this. He reached for the phone, then stopped and closed his eyes, as if he could make the whole thing go away, but on the back of his eyelids he saw the face of his mother as he had last seen her, looking up at him out of her barrel of brine, “Make the call, you pussy. If anyone knows how not to get bad news, it’s you. Part of loyalty is following up, you sniveling coward. Don’t be like your brothers.”

Ah, sweet Mama, Clay thought. He dialed the phone – a number with a 716 area code, Tonawanda, New York. It rang three times, and the recorded operator came on, saying that the number he’d reached was not in service at this time. He checked it, then dialed the next number down, which also turned out not to be working. He called Tonawanda information for Amy’s parents, and the operator told him there was no such listing. At a loss, he called Woods Hole Oceanographic Center, where Amy had gotten her master’s. Clay knew one of her advisers, Marcus Loughten, an irascible Brit who had worked at Woods Hole for twenty years and was famous in the field for his work in underwater acoustics. Loughten answered on the third ring.

“Loughten,” Loughten said.:

“Marcus, this is Clay Demodocus. We worked together on – »

“Yes, Clay, I bloody know who you are. Calling from Hawaii, are you?”

“Well, yes, I – ;

“Probably, what, seventy-eight degrees with a breeze? It’s seven below zero Fahrenheit here. I’m out installing bloody sound buoys in a monthlong blizzard to keep right whales from getting run over by supertankers.”

“Right, the sound buoys. How are those working out?”

“They’re not.”

“No? Why not?”

“Well, right whales are stupid as shit, aren’t they? It’s not like a supertanker is quiet. If sound was going to deter them, then they’d be bloody well deterred by the engine noise, wouldn’t they? They don’t make the connection. Stupid shits.”

“Oh, sorry to hear that. Uh, why keep doing it then?”

“We have funding.”

“Right. Look, Marcus, I need some information on one of your students who came out here to work with us. Amy Earhart? Would have been with you guys until fall of last year.”

“No, I don’t know that name.”

“Sure you do, five-five, thin, pale, dark hair with kind of unnatural blue highlights, smart as a whip.”

“Sorry, Clay. That doesn’t fit any of my students.”

Clay took a deep breath and trudged on. Biologists were notorious for treating their grad students as subhuman, but Clay was surprised that Loughten didn’t remember Amy. She was cute, and if Clay could judge from a night of drinking he’d done with Loughten at a marine mammal conference in France, the Brit was more than a bit of a horndog.

“Great ass, Marcus. You’d remember.”

“I’m sure I would, but I don’t.”

Clay studied the resume. “What about Peter? Would he – »

“No, Clay, I know all of Peter’s grad students as well. Did you call to confirm her references when you took her on?”

“Well, no.”

“Good work, then. Abscond with your Nikons, did she?”

“No, she’s missing at sea. I’m trying to contact her family.”

“Sorry. Wish I could be of help. I’ll check the records, just to be sure – in case I’ve had a ministroke that killed the part of the brain that remembers fine bottoms.”

“Thanks.”

“Good luck, Clay. My best to Quinn.”

Clay cringed. It turned out he really wasn’t up for bearing bad news. “Will do, Marcus. Good-bye.” Clay hung up and resumed staring at the phone. Well, he thought, I knew absolutely nothing about this woman that I thought I knew. Libby Quinn had already called (sobbing) to say that they should have some kind of joint service at the sanctuary for Nate and Amy, and that Clay should speak. What was he going to say about Amy? Dearly beloved, I think we all knew Amy as scientist, a colleague, a friend, a woman who showed up out of nowhere with a completely manufactured history, but I think, because she saved my life, that I came to know her better than anyone here, and I can tell you unequivocally, she was a smart aleck with a cute butt.

Yeah, he’d need to work on that. Damn it, he missed them both.

Clay decided to kill the day by editing video: time-eating busywork that supplied at least an imaginary escape from the real world. The afternoon found him going through the rebreather footage he’d taken on the day the whale had conked him, for the first time going past the point where he was unconscious, just to see if the camera picked up anything usable. Clay let the video run: minutes of blue water, the camera tossing around at the end of the wrist lanyard, then Amy’s leg as she comes down to stop his descent. He cranked the audio. Hiss of ambient noise, then the bubbles from Amy’s regulator, the slow hiss of his own breathing through the rebreather. As Amy starts to swim to the surface, the camera catches his fins hanging limply against a field of blue, then Amy’s fins kicking in and out of the frame. Both their breathing is steady on the audio track.

Clay looked at the time signature of the video. Fifteen minutes when the motion stops. Amy making her first decompression stop. On the audio he hears the chorus of distant singing humpbacks, a boat motor not too far off, and Amy’s steady bubbles. Then the bubbles stop.

The camera settles against his thigh and drifts, the lens up, catches light from the surface, then Amy’s hand holding on to his buoyancy vest, reading the data off his dive computer. Her regulator is out of her mouth. On the audio there’s only his breathing. The camera swings away.

Ten minutes more pass. Clay listens for Amy’s breathing to resume. The motion from her hooking into the rescue tank on the rebreather should move the camera, but there’s just the same gentle drift. They move up. Clay guesses maybe to seventy-five feet. Amy is doing another decompression stop, doing it by the book, despite the emergency. Except he still can hear only one person breathing.

She pulls him to more shallow depth. The frame lightens up, and the camera swings around, the wide angle showing Clay’s unconscious form and Amy kicking, the regulator out of her mouth, looking at the surface. She hasn’t used the bail-out tank on Clay’s rebreather, and she hasn’t taken a breath for, as far as Clay can tell, forty minutes. This can’t be right.

He listens, watching until the time signature shows sixty and the tape ends – the entire thing having been dubbed to the hard drive. He rewinds it on-screen, slowing down when the camera shows anything but blue, listening again.

“No fucking way.”

Clay backed away from the monitor, watching as the video ran out again and froze on the image of Amy holding him steady at twenty or so feet down, no regulator in her mouth.

He ran out the door, calling, “Kona! Kona!”

The surfer came shuffling out of his bungalow in a cloud of smoke. “Just tracking down navy spies, boss.”

“Where did you guys put the rebreather? The day they took me to the hospital?”

“She’s in the storage shed.”

Clay made a beeline for the bungalow they used to store dive and boat equipment. He waved Kona after him. “Come.”

“What?”

“Did you guys refill the oxygen or the bail-out tanks?”

“We just rinsed it and put it in the case.”

Clay pulled the big Pelican case off a stack of scuba tanks and popped the latches. The rebreather was snug in the foam padding. Clay wrenched it out onto the wooden floor and turned on the computer that was an integral part of it. He hit buttons on the display console and watched the gray liquid-crystal display cycle through the numbers. The last dive: Downtime had been seventy-five minutes, forty-three seconds. The oxygen cylinder was nearly full. The bail-out air supply was full. Full. It hadn’t been touched. Somehow Amy had stayed underwater for an hour without an air supply.

Clay turned to the surfer. “Do you remember anything that Nate showed you about what he was working on? I need details – I know in general.” Clay wasn’t sure what he was looking for, but this had to mean something, and all he had to fall back on was Nate’s research.

The surfer scratched the dreadless side of his head. “Something about the whales singing binary.”

“Come show me.” Clay stormed through the door and back to the office.

“What you looking for?”

“I don’t know. Clues. Mysteries. Meaning.”

“You gone lolo, you know?”

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

Deep Below, Bernard Stirs

About the time that Nathan Quinn had started to master his nausea in the whale ship’s constant motion (four days on board), another force started working on his body. He felt an uneasiness come over him in waves, and for twenty or so seconds he would feel as if he needed to crawl out of his skin. Then it would pass and leave him feeling a little numb for a few seconds, only to start up again.

Poynter and Poe were moving around the small cabin looking at different gobs and bumps of bioluminescence as if they were gleaning some meaning from them, but, try as he might, Nate couldn’t figure out what they were monitoring. It would have helped to be able to get out of the seat and take a closer look, but Poynter had ordered him strapped in after he made his first break for the back orifice. He’d nearly made it, too. Had dived at it just like he’d seen the whaley boys do, except that only one arm had gone through, and he ended up stuck to the floor of the whale, his face against the rubbery skin, his hand trailing out in the cold ocean.

“Well, that was phenomenally stupid,” said Poynter.

“I think I’ve dislocated my shoulder,” Nate said.

“I should leave you there. Maybe a remora or two will latch on to your hand and teach you a lesson.”

“Or a cookie-cutter shark,” said Poe. “Nasty bastards.” The whaley boys turned in their seats and snickered, bobbing their heads and blowing the occasional raspberry, which could inflict considerable moisture off a four-inch-wide tongue. Evidently Quinn was a cetacean laugh riot. He’d always suspected that, actually.

Poynter got down on his hands and knees and looked Nate in the eye. “While you’re down there, I’d like you to think on what might have happened if you’d been successful at launching yourself through that orifice. First, we’re at – Skippy, what’s the depth?” Skippy chirped and clicked a number of times. “A hundred and fifty feet. Beyond the fact that you’d probably have blown out your eardrums almost immediately, you might think on how you were going to get to the surface on one breath of air. And should you have gotten to the surface, what were you going to do then? We’re five hundred miles from the nearest land.”

“I hadn’t worked out the whole plan,” Nate said.

“So, actually, I might be looking at success, right? You just wanted to test the outside water temperature?”

“Sure,” said Nate, thinking it might be best to stay agreeable.

“Can you feel your hand?”

“It’s a little chilly, but, yes.”

“Oh, good.”

And so they’d left him there a couple of hours, his hand and about six inches of his arm hanging out in the open sea as the whale ship swam along, and when they finally pulled him up, they put him in his seat and kept him restrained except to eat and go to the bathroom. He’d tried to relax and observe – learn what he could – but then a few minutes ago these waves of uneasiness had started hitting him. “He’s got the sonic willies,” said Poe.

Poynter looked away from Skippy’s console. “It’s the subsonics, Doc. You’re feeling the sound waves even though you can’t hear them. We’ve been communicating with the blue for about ten minutes now.”

“You might have said something.”

“I just did.”

“Couple of hours you’ll be in the blue, Doc. You can stand up again, walk around a little. Have some privacy.”

“So you’re communicating with it in low-frequency sound?”

“Yep. Just like you thought, Doc, there was meaning in the call.”

“Yeah, but I didn’t think this, that there were guys, and guylike things, riding about inside whales. How in the hell can this be happening? How can I not know about this?”

“So you’re giving up on the being-dead strategy?” asked Poe.

“What is it? Space aliens?”

Poynter unbuttoned his shirt and showed some chest hair. “Do I look like a space alien?”

“Well, no, but them.” Nate nodded toward the whaley boys. They looked at each other and snickered, a sort of wheezing laughter coming from their blowholes, paused, looked back at Nate, then snickered some more.

“Maybe on their planet sentient life evolved from whales rather than apes,” Quinn continued. “I can see how they might have landed here, deployed these whale ships, and kept under the radar of human detection while they looked around. I mean, man obviously isn’t the most peaceful of creatures.”

“That work for you, Doc?” asked Poynter.

“On their planet they developed an organically based technology, rather than one based on combustion and manipulation of minerals like ours.”

“Oh, that is good,” said Poe.

“He’s on a roll,” said Poynter. “Unraveling the mystery, he is.”

Skippy and Scooter nodded to each other and grinned.

“So that’s it? This ship is extraterrestrial?” Quinn felt the small victory rush that one gets from proving a hypothesis – even one as bizarre as space aliens riding in whale ships.

“Sure,” said Poe, “that works for me. You, Cap?”

“Yeah, moon men, that’s what you guys are,” Poynter said to the whaley boys.

“Meep,” said Scooter.

And in a high, squeaky, little-girl voice, Skippy croaked, “Phone home.”

The whaley boys gave each other a high four and collapsed into fits of hysterical wheezing.

“What did he say?” Nate nearly snapped his neck trying to turn around against the restraints. “They can talk?”

“Well, I guess, if you call that talking,” Poe said. He exchanged high fives with Poynter at the expense of the whaley boys, who paused in their own laughter to roll the whale ship in three quick spirals, which tossed the unsecured Poe and Poynter around the soft cabin like a couple of rag dolls.

Poynter came up with a bloody lip from connecting with his own knee. Poe had barked his shin on one of the whaley boys’ heads as he went over. Strapped in, Nate concentrated on not watching a rerun of his lunch of raw tuna and water.

“Bastards!” said Poe.

“That what you expected in your race of super-intelligent, space-faring extraterrestrials, Nate?” Poynter wiped blood from his lower lip and flung it at Scooter.

Carl Linnaeus, an eighteenth-century Swedish doctor who specialized in the treatment of syphilis, is credited with inventing the modern system that is used for classifying plants and animals. Linnaeus is responsible for naming the humpback whale Megaptera novaeangliae, or “big wings of New England,” and later naming the blue whale Balaenoptera musculus, or “little mouse”: at 110 feet long, over a hundred tons, an animal whose tongue alone is larger than a full-grown African elephant – the largest animal to ever live on the planet. “Little mouse”? Some speculated that this ironic misnomer was perpetrated entirely to confuse Linnaeus’s lab assistants, as in Run out and bring me back a “little mouse,” Sven. Others think that the pox had gone to Carl’s head.

Quinn was crouched over the back orifice, Skippy and Scooter holding him by either arm, Poynter and Poe crouched before him, saluting. He could feel the texture of the opening under his bare feet, like wet tire tread.

“It’s been a pleasure, Doc,” Poynter said. “Have a great trip.”

“We’ll see you back at base,” said Poe. “Now, just relax. You’re barely going to contact water. Hold your nose and blow.”

Quinn did.

Poynter counted, “One, two – »

“Meep.”

Nate was sucked out the orifice, felt a brief chill and some pressure pushing back against his ears, and found himself in a chamber only a little taller than that in the humpback, with a fairly amused woman.

“You can stop blowing now,” she said.

“Yet another phrase I didn’t think I’d be hearing in this lifetime,” Nate said. He let go of his nostrils and took a deep breath. The air seemed fresher than in the humpback.

“Welcome to my blue, Dr. Quinn, I’m Cielle Nu;ez. How do you feel?”

“Pooped.” Quinn grinned. She was about his age, Hispanic with short dark hair peppered gray and wide brown eyes that caught the bioluminescence off the walls and reflected what looked like laughter. She was barefoot and wearing generic khakis like Poynter and Poe. He shook her hand.

“Cute,” she said. “Come forward with me, Doctor. I’m sure it’s been a while since you were able to stand up straight.” She led him down the corridor, which reminded Nate of when, as kids, he and his buddies had explored storm drains in Vancouver. It was tall enough to walk in, but not tall enough to stand in comfortably.

“Actually, Cielle, I’m not a doctor. I have a Ph.D., but the doctor thing – »

“I understand. I’m captain of this rig, but if you call me ‘Captain, I’ll ignore you.”

“I wanted to hear the humpback sing before I left. You know, from the inside.”

“You will. There’ll be time.”

The corridor started to widen as they moved forward, and Nate was actually able to walk normally, or as normally as one can walk when barefoot on whaleskin. This skin had a mottled appearance, whereas on the humpback it had been nearly solid gray. He noticed that on this ship there were wide veins of bioluminescence on the floor, casting a yellow light up upward that gave everything a sinister green glow. Nuñez paused by what appeared to be portals on either side of them.

“This is as good a place as any,” she said. “Now, turn sideways and take my hand.”

Quinn did as he was asked. Her hand felt warm but dry. She was a small woman, but powerfully built, he could feel the strength in her grip. “Now, we’re just going to walk as the ship moves. Don’t stop until I say, or you’ll fall on your ass.”

“WHAT?”

“Okay, Scooter, roll it.”

“Scooter?”

“All pilots are called Scooter or Skippy. They didn’t tell you?”

“They weren’t very forthcoming with information.”

“Humpback crews are a bunch of yahoos.” Nuñez smiled. “You know the type, like navy fighter pilots topside? All ego and testosterone.”

“I got more cretin than yahoo,” Nate said.

“Well, with that particular bunch, yes.”

The whole corridor started to move.

“Here we go, step, step, step, that’s good.” They were walking across the walls as the ship rolled. When they were standing on the ceiling, the roll stopped. “Nice, Scooter,” Nuñez said, obviously communicating through some sort of hidden intercom. Then, to Nate, “He’s so good.”

“We were upside down to make the transfer?”

“Exactly. You’re a smart guy. Look, these are cabins. She touched a lighted node on the wall, and a skin portal folded back on itself. Again Nate was put in mind of the blowhole of a toothed whale, but it was so big, nearly four feet across, it was just… unnatural. Lines of light pumped to life past the portal to reveal a small cabin, a bed – apparently made of the same skin as the rest of the interior – but also a table and a chair. Nate couldn’t make out what material they might be made of, but it looked like plastic.

“Bone,” Nu;ez said, noticing him noticing. “They’re as much a part of the ship as the walls. All living tissue. There are shelves and cubbyholes for your stuff in the bulkheads, closed now. Obviously everything has to be stowed for little maneuvers like the one we just performed. The motion isn’t as bad as on the humpbacks. You’ll find you’ll get used to it, and then you can move about just as if you were on land.”

“You’re right. I didn’t even notice we were moving.”

“That would be because we’re not,” said Nu;ez.

The sound of whaley-boy snickering wheezed down the corridor toward them.

“You guys are supposed to be working,” Nu;ez said to the air. “Prepare to get under way.” She turned to Quinn. “Can I buy you a cup of joe? Maybe answer some of your questions?”

“You’re offering?” Quinn felt his heart jump with excitement. Information, without Poynter and Poe’s goofing obfuscation? He was thrilled. “That would be fantastic.”

“Don’t pee all over yourself, Quinn. It’s just coffee.”

The corridor opened up into a large bridge. The head of the blue was huge compared to the humpback’s. On either side of the entry a whaley boy stood grinning at them as they passed. They were both taller than Quinn, and unlike the Scooter and Skippy of the humpback, their skin was mottled and lighter in color.

Nate paused and grinned back at them. “Let me guess – Skippy and Scooter?”

“Actually, Bernard and Emily 7,” said Nu;ez.

“You said they all were – »

“I said all pilots were named Skippy and Scooter.” She gestured to the front of the bridge, where two whaley boys sitting at control consoles were turning in their seats and grinning. Maybe, thought Nate, they always appeared to be grinning, much like dolphins. He’d made an amateur mistake, assuming that their facial expressions were the analog of human expressions. People often did that with dolphins, even though the animals had no facial muscles to facilitate expression. Even sad dolphins appeared to be smiling.

“What are you two grinning at?” asked Nuñez. “Let’s get on the way.”

The pilots frowned and turned back to their consoles.

“Well, crap,” Nate said.

“What?”

“Nothing, just another theory shot in the ass.”

“Yeah, this operation does that, doesn’t it?”

Nate felt something stirring in his back pocket and spun around to see a thin, fourteen-inch-long pink penis that was protruding from Bernard’s genital slit. It waved at him.

“Holy moly!”

“Bernard!” Nuñez snapped. “Put that away. That is not procedure.”

Bernard’s unit drooped noticeably from the scolding. He looked at it and chirped contritely.

“Away!” Nuñez barked.

Bernard’s willy snapped back up into his genital slit. “Sorry about that,” Nuñez said to Nate. “I’ve never gotten used to that. It’s really disconcerting when you’re working with one of them and you ask them to hand you a screwdriver or something and his hands are already full. Coffee?”

She led him to a small white table around which four bone chairs protruded from the floor. They looked like old-style Greek saddle chairs – no backs, organic curves, and the high gloss of living bone – but more Gaudi than Flintstone. Quinn sat while Nuñez touched a node on the wall that opened a meter-wide portal that had concealed a sink, several canisters, and what looked like a percolator. Nate wondered about the electricity but forced himself to wait before asking.

While Nuñez prepared the coffee, Quinn looked around. The bridge was easily four times the size of the entire cabin in the humpback. Instead of riding in a minivan, it was like being in a good-size motor home – a very curvy, dimly lit motor home, but about that size. Blue light filtered in through the eyes, illuminating the pilots’ faces, which shone like patent leather. Nate was starting to realize that even though everything was organic, living, the whale ship had the same sort of efficiency found on any nautical vessel: every spaced used, everything stowed against movement, everything functional.

“If you need to use the head, it’s back down the corridor, fourth hatch on the right.”

Emily 7 clicked and squealed, and Nu;ez laughed. She had a warm laugh, not forced; it just rolled out of her smooth and easy. “Emily says it seems as if it would be more logical for the head to be in the head, but there goes logic.”

“I gave up logic a few days ago.”

“You don’t have to give it up, just adjust. Anyway, facilities in the head are like everything on the ship – living – but I think you’ll figure out the analogs pretty quickly. It’s less complicated than an airliner bathroom.”

Scooter chirped, and the great ship started to move, first in a fairly radical wave of motion, then smoothing out to a gentle roll. It was like being on a large sailing ship in medium seas.

“Hey, a little more warning, Scooter, huh?” said Nu;ez. “I nearly dumped Nathan’s coffee. Okay if I call you Nathan?”

“Nate’s good.”

Moving with the roll of the ship, she made it back to the table and put down the two steaming mugs of coffee, then went back for a sugar bowl, spoons, and a can of condensed milk. Nate picked up the can and studied it.

“This is the first thing from the outside that I’ve seen.”

“Yeah, well, that’s special request. You don’t want to try whale milk in your coffee. It’s like krill-flavored spray cheese.”

“Yuck.”

“That’s what I’m saying.”

“Cielle, if you don’t mind my saying, you don’t seem very military.”

“Me? No, I wasn’t. My husband and I had a sixty-foot sailboat. We got caught in a hurricane off of Costa Rica and sank. That’s when they took me. My husband didn’t make it.”

“I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay. It was a long time ago. But, no, I’ve never been in the military.”

“But the way you order the whaley boys around – »

“First, we need to clear up a misconception that you are obviously forming, Nate. I – we, the human beings on these ships – are not in charge. We’re just – I don’t know, like ambassadors or something. We sound like commanders because these guys would just goof off all day without someone telling them what to do, but we have no real authority. The Colonel gives the orders, and the whaley boys run the show.”

Scooter and Skippy snickered like their counterparts on the humpback ship, Bernard and Emily 7 joined them – Bernard extending his prehensile willy like a party horn.

“And whaley girls?” Nate nodded toward Emily 7, who grinned – it was a very big, very toothy grin, but a little coquettish in the way one might expect from, say, an ingenue with a bite that could sever an arm.

“Just whaley boys. It’s like the term ‘mankind, you know – alienate the female part of the race at all costs. It’s the same here. Old-timers gave them the name.”

“Who’s the Colonel?”

“He’s in charge. We don’t see him.”

“Human, though?”

“I’m told.”

“You said you’d been here a long time. How long?”

“Let me get you another cup, and I’ll tell you what I can.” She turned. “Bernard, get that thing out of the coffeepot!”