The Song

By Erinn L. Kemper

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 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.

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