With a stutter the little black Hyundai’s engine gave out. Gemma fought the wheel as the traveler dropped back over loose rock on the steep driveway. Gemma cursed. Why did her grandmother have to live all the way out here anyway? Without even a decent spotline or phone.
Gemma had been up here so many times with her father at the wheel. He’d never liked her driving, had told her never to attempt the hill on her own. But here she was. Instead of being able to say to him “Take that, you” it looked like he’d been right.
Gemma ratcheted on the brake and got out of the traveler.
To her right, across the dark ocean, gray-black clouds rose in rows like a set of gravestones. She saw a squawk of lightning, didn’t need to count the seconds. The storm would arrive before nightfall anyway. The normally rich blue, almost transparent sea became an oily deep green, like dying moss, under the storm front.
The stormy sea reminded her that it might have been an accident. There might not have been anyone else involved. She wanted to believe that, wanted to think it had all been innocent, but part of her hung on, imagining skullduggery. Was that the word?
The wind rolled in and from the trunk Gemma retrieved her sou’wester, the yellow fabric smelling of new polyethylene. The jacket’s inner was soft pelted fabric and it slipped on easily over her old tee-shirt.
Abandoning the uncooperative vehicle, Gemma started walking up the rocky drive.
By the time Gemma reached Grandma Masie’s place the storm’s leading edge was already sending its tendrils high overhead. She wondered if she might have to stay the night. Perhaps, given circumstances, she should stay the night anyway.
A plane buzzed low–lower even than her grandmother’s house–out over the bay, crossing the headland: racing the storm. Gemma watched, guessing it was Mack, who ran three of the six planes out of Cedar Bay, and owned shares in the other three. He always seemed to be taking someone up sightseeing, or training. Gemma waved, knowing she would be too tiny to see from this far off. The plane continued on in the direction of Cedar Falls, engine thrumming.
“Hi Gran,” Gemma said, coming around the side of the house, seeing Masie sitting on the verandah. She had a webtrace loom in her gnarled hands, weaving something conical. A lampshade? How antiquely cute.
“Gemma,” Masie said, setting the loom aside and standing. The loom slipped off the polished wooden table and fell to the decking. “Oh, clumsy!” Masie said. She bent and retrieved it as Gemma stepped up.
“Grandma? Are you all right?”
Masie laughed. “Eyesight and fingers,” she said, putting the loom firmly in the middle of the table and wriggling her fingers at Gemma. “Hips, knees. And hair. At least this thing’s still nimble.” She tapped her temple.
Gemma smiled and hugged her grandmother, taking in her scent of roses and linen and skin cream.
There were flowers in the garden along the front of the porch. Among roses and glenbrooks from Earth, there were tall Vega lilies that beaded with crystals along their petal rims, and puffy deep crimson and skin-pink haritoshan pansies. “You’re going to get yourself in trouble with all these off-world imports, Grandma.”
Masie nodded. “The constabulary has far better things to do than chase up an old woman with a few illegal plants.”
It was almost a tradition between them, for Gemma to point that out. She’d been doing it since she was six, learning to be a good girl.
Now it felt more like another way of avoiding the topic.
“Coffee?” Masie said. “Almost black, one malitol, right?”
“Grandma, I’ve got something to tell you. You should sit down.”
Masie blinked, her dark eyes glistening. She glanced down at the loom, then back at Gemma. “I’ll flick the machine,” Masie said. “You can tell me over coffee. And cookies.” It was almost as if the old woman knew it was bad news coming.
“Grandma.” Gemma didn’t want to wait, it was hard enough dealing with it herself. Grandma, your son is dead. My father. Dead.
Gemma had a flash of memory. Turning thirteen, just five years until adulthood, thrilled that on Earth kids had to wait until twenty-one, only to have that anticipation of adulthood diminished by her father’s explanation: “The Earth year is shorter. They’re still basically the same age.”
She’d known that all along, but hadn’t put it together in her head until that moment. The realization that for every seven birthdays she had, other kids had eight seemed, to her teenaged mind, so unfair. He’d been sympathetic, but still shrugged.
She bit her lip, missing him.
“Chocolate chip,” Masie said. “You love those. Come in.”
Gemma glanced out over the garden. There were divots in the lawn as if someone had removed some heavy garden furniture. Beyond, the clouds continued to roll.
She followed Masie into the kitchen. “I’m not six anymore, Grandma.”
“Really? Didn’t you just have your sixth birthday?” She stopped in the doorway. With a grin she said, “It seems like yesterday.”
The kitchen had changed itself to a lavender hue, almost violet. The ceiling had gone a pastel blue. Masie tapped the coffee maker and it leapt into action, molding a cup right away and plugging its tube into the side of the refrigerator.
“Two,” Masie said. “Two coffees. Black but for one drop of milk. And double sweet.”
“Roger that,” the coffee maker said. Steam hissed from its slim chimney as it molded another cup and closed its doors.
Gemma raised her eyebrows. The little machine had a new vocabulary. “You redecorated?” she said.
“Good grief,” Masie said. “The whole house is on the fritz. I want a white kitchen.” She looked at the ceiling and yelled, “WHITE KITCHEN!”
The walls flickered, went white for a moment and changed back to lavender.
“See,” Masie said. “I’d get someone up here, but everyone complains about the trek. Your father keeps telling me I need to move into town to see out my twilight years. It’s become something of a mantra for him.”
The coffee machine spluttered, specks of hot water spitting from the seals and alighting on its chrome facing.
“I’ll get you a new coffee maker,” Gemma said, finding the words coming far more easily than those she really needed to say.
“Well, I like this old Wego.” Masie turned. “What I could use is one of those utility spinner things. One of the robots that can repair things like this.”
The machine bleeped, and a door on the front panel opened revealing the two steaming cups. Masie put them on the breakfast bar. “Usually I like watching the sunset from the verandah, but it’s getting cool and stormy out so I hope you don’t mind sitting here.”
Gemma got onto a stool and sipped. She winced. Far too bitter.
“It’s bad, isn’t it?” Masie said, and for the briefest flash Gemma thought she meant the news she was bringing.
“I’m definitely getting you a new machine.”
Masie smiled. She asked how Gemma had come, and Gemma explained about the breakdown on the drive. “I didn’t dare drive on.”
“You have to stay the night,” Masie said. “We can get Jim O’Connor up here in the morning to tow you out.”
“It’s fine, Grandma. I can just back around. It’s all downhill from there.”
Masie nodded, unconvinced.
Gemma stared at her grandmother’s lined face. She seemed older than her seventy years, some of the lines around her mouth and eyes like old worn trenches. Her hair was as white as a book’s screen, but her hazel eyes could have been those of any of Gemma’s friends. Inquisitive, bright.
Masie licked her lips. “But you’re not here to just pass the time of day, are you?”
Gemma gave her head the faintest of shakes.
“Is it Theo?” Masie never called her son Theodore, or Ted, always Theo.
Gemma sniffed and burst into tears.
The guest room smelled of linoleum and glue, as if Masie had actually had someone out to lay a new floor. The room was filled with things Gemma remembered from growing up. Mobiles, porcelain figures from a dozen worlds, building bricks.
They’d visited every few weeks, usually with a sleepover. Her father would stay in his old room and she would sleep in here.
She imagined his ghost, walking the hallway.
Later she was woken by the storm charging across the house like a million unleashed beasts. The rain clattered on the old roof, the thunder made the windows rattle. Gemma crept downstairs for a glass of water and found her grandmother sitting in an armchair, pulled right up to the front window, watching the jagged lightning strikes out over the bay.
Gemma stood for a moment before going back up to bed.
She remembered the first time he’d taken her out on a boat away from the shallows or the reef. She’d probably only been eight or nine. A fun day out.
The ocean so big, the strip of land like a model of an island, dangling on the horizon. The water had been so different. At first she’d hung over the side, watching, but as the water darkened from its welcoming, cool transparency to a full and impenetrable dark, she’d crept back away into the middle of the boat, almost huddling against his side as he watched ahead.
Her stomach had clenched as if it was twisting like an old dishrag. He’d slowed to let her throw up over the side, given her a flask of water to rinse out.
When he’d finally stopped the boat and put on his gear, she’d refused to get in.
“Come on,” he’d said. “It’s safe.”
But she’d shaken her head and clung to the seat. Her father had paddled around for a while, vanished under the surface for a panicky ten minutes before coming back aboard with some plastic vials filled with seawater. He’d sat, labeled them with a black marker and stowed them in an aluminum case.
Without speaking to her, he’d started the boat, turned around and they’d driven back in silence except for the hum of the engine and the smacking of the waves.
The ocean was just not her thing.
Masie made pancakes.
“Maple syrup?” she said, pushing a thick-walled glass flask across the table. “Canadian maples. They’re growing them on the northern peninsula now. Cablehope or Glisten, one of those towns.”
“Grandma. They haven’t found his body yet.” Gemma poured the silky amber liquid, making spirals around the top of her pancake stack.
“That doesn’t surprise me. How deep was he?”
“A hundred and fifty meters. On a whale fall.”
“Isn’t there a record? Don’t they record everything?” Masie cut pieces from her own stack and ate. In the background the coffee maker spluttered, a slightly higher-pitched sound than the evening before.
“Yes. He had on-board recorders, with a shore-based backup, which he linked, but the link got broken. There’s data on the…” Gemma broke off with a sniff. She had to look away. Through the dining room window she was faced with the rising hill behind the house, covered in bright yellow gorse and myriad invasive clovers, throwing their three-leafed tips through the other plants’ spines. They all glistened with drops from the previous night’s rain.
Masie put her hand on Gemma’s. “It’s all right.”
Gemma looked around, almost angry. “Why aren’t you sad? Your son! He’s dead.”
Masie nodded. “Gemma, please.”
Gemma stood up. “Parents are supposed to die first. Not the children. You’re not supposed to lose a child. But you’re not even upset.” Even as she spoke, Gemma remembered seeing Masie watching the storm.
“So now you feel abandoned,” Masie said. “Your mother left, and now your father.”
“She walked out. She had a choice.”
Masie nodded. “I bet you’re thinking he had a choice too.”
Gemma considered this. Nothing could have kept him from going into the water. It was his life. She remembered as a kid finding out that most of her friends’ parents hated their jobs. Her father was the opposite, loved everything about his work, but mostly the opportunity to become submerged.
Was that a choice? Could he have done anything else? If she’d asked would he have stopped? And then, how would she have felt? To be the one who took him out of the water.
“No,” Gemma said. “He didn’t have a choice. But he could have been more careful.”
Masie smiled. “Perhaps it’s better to die doing something you love?”
Taking a breath, Gemma sat. She wiped her eyes and pushed some pancake through the sea of syrup.
Masie put her hand out again. “Gemma. I’m heartbroken. How could I be otherwise?”
“You don’t show it.”
“Not in the way you expect, I suppose.”
The coffee maker bleeped and the doors opened. Masie stood, retrieved the cups
Gemma took another spoon of malitol from the table and sprinkled it in. Masie was right. She wasn’t showing any sign of sadness the way Gemma would expect.
“You’re angry,” Masie said. “Surprisingly so, though perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. I always knew what he was doing was risky. Deep sea diving, figuring out those creatures. Very risky. Especially with a child to raise.”
“He was doing what he loved.”
“I’ve got something for you,” Masie said. “Let me go find it.”
Gemma smiled as her grandmother went up the stairs, remembering being a child and losing her doll, giving up on ever finding it. “I’ve looked everywhere,” she’d told Grandma Masie, tearful. Jemima was lost forever.
“Apparently not,” Masie had said. “If you’d looked everywhere, then you would have found it. Don’t just look. That’s what men do. You should find. Look behind things and under things. When you look in a drawer, don’t just root around, take everything out and put it all back. That way you know the thing’s not in there. Trace your steps, remember where you went. Don’t just look: find.”
And of course they had found Jemima, tucked in behind a sofa cushion under a rug. Young Gemma had clutched the doll, tearful again.
Masie came back down with a photo of her father. “Learning to swim,” Masie said, passing it over.
Gemma looked, swiping through the series of images and movers. Theo thin and white-chested in his trunks, standing at the edge of the pool. Jumping in. Clutching the side, shivering. Scrambling out.
“At first he was scared of the water,” Masie said. “But he got used to it. More than that. I think he decided he had something to prove.”
Sitting on the side kicking his legs. Staring angrily at the picture-taker. Lying on his back in the water, gasping.
“I guess he sure did prove it,” Gemma said, thinking that ultimately he was right to be scared of the water.
“Yes he did.” Masie took the photo back.
“We used to fight about it,” Masie said. “Back when he was young, before you were going to school. I told him he could do it all with remotes anyway. I mean, he’d shown me robot submersibles. When I was publishing, everything was done by remotes.”
Masie looked over Gemma’s shoulder. Gemma knew she was looking at the shelf of awards and certificates, and the kernels that held her publications. Dr. Masie Abrique had been a meteorologist, working to shape the understanding of Stinngaser’s weather. Gemma remembered her grandmother talking about how it was one of the last real sciences. “Every planet is different. So many variables.” She’d always said it half-jokingly. Her papers were published on a dozen worlds. Places like Mason and Clock and Yellow One Yellow. Her ideas applied to local weather prediction.
“I went on flights,” she said now. “It is simply extraordinary. Pillars of clouds rising up from broad streaky plains, vast thunderheads expanding as the jetstreams swipe their tops into dagger blades. Chasing the sunset as fast as we could, watching the golds and salmons as they chandeliered through a billion high-altitude specks of ice for an hour or more.”
Gemma said nothing.
“But it didn’t come back to the science. Back on the ground I just worked with the data from the balloons and kites and things. Turned that into something useful.”
Gemma couldn’t imagine that. Even the way her grandmother spoke of the clouds belied her intrigue. No wonder her papers engaged her peers. She opened her mouth to say as much, but Masie spoke first.
“I guess we ought to have a funeral,” Masie said. “Or some kind of service.”
Gemma closed her eyes. She wished Masie felt like she did, wished she would at least show it. “I’m going to find him,” Gemma said. “I’m going to find him and find out what happened.”
Masie blinked. “Oh, are you now?”
At the institute Gladys, the administrator, gave her access to her father’s files. The building was an old herring shed and it still stank of the canning process. Despite calling itself The Cedar Bay Institute of Oceanography, Stinngaser, the outfit was really little more than some secondhand equipment from the fisheries industry, two underpaid and over-taxed grad-students and Gladys.
“What do you think of the building, huh?” Gladys said, leading her along the short, damp hallway to her father’s office. There were old pictures on the wall, some of them with busted optics, of flying fish soaring and the Stinngaser dolphins fighting off predators.
Gemma tapped the corner of one of the pictures and the jam freed up; the tail-dancing whale turned and fell into the ocean with a mighty splash.
As she’d driven in she’d seen the new building nearby. Going up fast, covering an acre or two, robots clambering all over, exuding mesh and surfaces. Noisy and smelling of oil and cordite.
“A new gym?” she asked. “Basketball stadium?”
“Fisheries,” Gladys said. “The Daily Quota Responsible Company. Putting up a new processing plant.”
“After abandoning this place?”
“Well, that’s ten times bigger. Modern. Some contract to supply fish oil and scales off-world. Clock? Somewhere with one of those strange names.”
“Always something like that,” Gemma said. Despite calming down since seeing her grandmother, this made her wonder again about foul play. The industry and her father had butted heads more than once, chucking each other down in the media. One man against the bullying corporate. The sites loved it.
Gladys tapped the office door and it shushed aside. Right away Gemma was back in her father’s world. They’d only had this building a few years, but it was filled with his shambolic collections. Piles of old printouts and paper books, stacked on dusty, dead readers, with rib bones and skulls dangling on top like cranes or teeter-totters. The shelves held murky jars with dead creatures preserved inside: a striated pentapus; a fluffy nudibranch; Kaller’s baby shark with its two mouths, one on top and one below; a dozen others she didn’t know the names of.
On his workbench her father’s practically antique fancalc pointed straight up at the ceiling like a miniature tower. The old-style computer came alive, the fan spreading, as Gladys tapped the open surface. “I don’t think it matters now,” she said as she hacked the fancalc’s password. Gladys chewed cherry gum as she spoke, tossing the wad side to side in her mouth. “I think this place is closing. I’m looking for another job. Probably in Cedar Falls.”
The two communities were separated by a steep hill–part of the same geography that created Masie’s overlook–and a swampy plateau. Cedar Falls had a population of close to fifty-thousand, Cedar Bay less than a thousand. Gemma always thought it was weird that cedars grew in neither place.
“Someone else will take over,” Gemma said. “Dale or April.” Both studying for their doctorate under her father. “They’ll find another supervisor at CFU.”
“But they’ll move to CFU. We always had a stringbean budget, so without your father we’re done. No disrespect.” Gladys stopped chewing, put her hand over her mouth.
“It’s all right.” Out the window she could see the foaming sea washing up around the stone jetty. It wasn’t stormy now, but still overcast. Just at the side of the window she could see the edge of the new building.
“I mean,” Gladys said. “I loved him in a… you know, fatherly kind of way. Brotherly. Oh my, I’m just making it worse.”
“Gladys. It’s okay.”
The administrator took a breath. The fanned out display flickered with data. “There,” she said. “We got in.” Moving quickly she tapped parts of the fan, the images responding. The word “Forget?” came up on the screen and Gladys tapped it. “All done,” she said. “You won’t need a password now, it’s all open access.” Gladys gave up her seat.
Gemma thanked her and sat. As she reached to the display, Gladys touched her shoulder. “I’m very sorry for your loss.”
“Thanks.” The seat felt hard, awkward. Worn to her father’s shape.
Gladys slipped out to the door and Gemma could sense her still watching. Gemma turned.
“Why are you here?” Gladys said.
“I want to find him.”
“I know that much. But you think it was something else, don’t you?”
“I don’t know.”
“I don’t think they murdered him.” Gladys nodded her head towards the window. “It would be too much trouble. He was a thorn, but that’s all. They’re a multi-million Yuan operation, he was a struggling researcher. They buy politicians like they buy breakfast. The sparring was just that, it never was going to have an impact on their business.”
Gemma turned back to the fancalc. “Maybe,” she said, “they didn’t know that.”
Gladys didn’t say anything else, but it was a few minutes before Gemma heard her leave.
Working on the machine she dug up his last dive, collated it with the currents and all his telemetry.
It took hours, but eventually she narrowed it down to a hundred square miles of ocean that gyred around a bay. Sitting back in her father’s seat she sighed. Far too big of a job.
She was going to need some help.
“Tell me again this idea you’ve got?” Dale Williams blinked up at her from his disheveled sofa. He was clearly hung-over, clearly short on sleep.
“Is this what you’ve been doing since my father died?” she said from his doorway. She couldn’t even step into his room, it stank so much of beer, sweat socks and yesterday’s fried food.
“This is what I’ve been doing since I left home,” he said. “We going surfing?”
“You’re a funny man. You’re still on that stipend, so get out of bed and come along.”
“What about April?”
“Tried her. She left for CFU.”
“Yeah. Well, I don’t work for you.” Dale’s voice had gone up an octave.
“Do you think they killed him?”
“Who? The fisheries? Tallon-Davis? Or Daily Quota?”
Gemma almost gasped. “You do.”
“I don’t,” Dale said. “Not a bit.”
“But when I asked you didn’t hesitate. Right away you knew who might have done it.”
“Well, who else? They’re not in that kind of business. Can you imagine the lawsuits?”
“No. Because there won’t be any. There’s no body. It’s as if he just washed away on the tide.”
“Not really. You know where he is.” Dale’s eyes widened and he stared at her, daring her to challenge him. His eyes were hazel, like Masie’s.
“I have a vague idea of where he might have gone. I’m no expert. You could help.”
Dale shook his head. “I’m hung-over, I’m tired. My girlfriend left me and I owe my best friend three hundred Yuan. Since last year, so now he’s not talking to me. My housemate, she’s… well, she’s not polite about my personal habits.”
“No surprise there.”
“And now there’s you.”
“I’m going to find him.”
“Good luck, then.” Dale flumped back down onto the bed.
“What is it?” she said. “What makes you all want to go down into it?” Down to get lost, to drown.
“You should see these things,” Dale said. “The whales. They’re not cetaceans, strictly, but they fill a similar niche. The oceans here have about twice the water volume of Earth.”
Earth, she thought. They were generations removed from the homeworld, but still talked about it as such a definitive point of reference.
“I know all that,” she said. “School. It doesn’t make sense to me.”
“But you still want to go find him.”
“I want you to find him.” She sucked air through her teeth, aware of the whistling. “I’ll be in the boat. Support.”
Dale smiled. “Sure. I heard about you in boats.”
“I was a kid!”
“And you live and work fifty miles inland. Not exactly following in papa’s footsteps.” Dale grinned. “Or flipperwake.”
Gemma opened her mouth to reply.
“Do you want something to eat?” he said. “I’m going to make breakfast. Oats or toast? I think we’ve got some jam or something. Marmalade?”
“It’s the middle of the afternoon.”
Dale rubbed his chin, and his impish grin widened. “These animals, they breathe air, but they can stay down for a couple of days. You swim with them and they’re the size of an ocean liner. Three hundred meters long, fifty across. Fins and flukes the size of football fields. And you look into their eyes and they’re looking right back.”
“My father was more interested in the dead ones.”
Dale nodded. “That you have to see for yourself.”
“Where’s your scuba gear? I’m coming in there to get you and I need to breathe.” She went along the condo’s hallway to the next door. As she pulled it open blankets and a couple of balls spilled out. The baseball rumbled off along the worn carpet. She picked up the football and hurled it through his door at him.
“All right.” He stumbled from his room. He was wearing just briefs, his chest the broad and strong chest of a diver and swimmer. Funny how she’d never thought of him that way any other time. “Have you ever dived before?” he said.
“Little bit,” she said. “Dad took me snorkeling.”
“Oh boy.” Dale sighed. He stared at her for a moment, turned around and closed the bedroom door behind him.
By the time Gemma had his gear in the back of the Hyundai, Dale had dressed and come out to the condo’s verandah. He had a torn surfie t-shirt and Sharkskins board shorts. “That my stuff?” he said.
“Your housemate said to help myself.” She hadn’t even met the housemate.
“What are you doing, Gemma? You used to be such a nice kid. Polite, friendly.”
“I’m not a kid.” Gemma opened the driver’s door. Dale was maybe two years older than her.
“Are you going looking for him?”
Another vehicle drove by, a panel van, its shimmering spheres crackling along the pavement. Gemma caught a glimpse of a schoolgirl looking out the window at her.
“I’ve got a fix on his location,” Gemma said. A tangy waft of ozone drifted, trailing the vehicle. Poor maintenance, she thought.
Dale stared and lowered his head.
“I need your help,” Gemma said.
With a glance back through his front door, Dale came down the steps to her. He rubbed his stubble, shaking his head. “What kind of a fix. That’s a big ocean.”
“What ocean isn’t?”
“Good point. Doesn’t make it any smaller.”
“Are you going to come help me? He had a transponder. I’ve got a map, I can get trackers.”
“And my scuba gear, I see.”
Gemma ran her fingers through her hair, conscious immediately that it kind of mimicked his chin-rub. “It’s not like you’re going to need it anyway.” She opened the back door and pulled out the tank and mask. “You’ve given it up, haven’t you?”
Dale didn’t say anything. He watched her as she unloaded, without making any move to help. With his equipment on the cracked sidewalk, she closed the trunk and got back into the driver’s seat.
“Hey,” he said as she shut the door.
Gemma wound down the window. “Yes.” Glad he was going to relent. Sometimes she knew how to play people.
“You know he was going deep, don’t you? That’s not snorkeling stuff. It’s special gear, with support AI on your boat. Robot subs in the water. You’re down for hours. It takes years of training.”
“So train me.”
He blinked, nodded. “I could do that.”
“But it would take years. Like I said. His body will be gone from wherever it is now.”
“We’ll keep tracking it.”
Dale shook his head. “Can’t do it.” He picked up his tank, slinging it over his shoulder. Gathering up more of his gear, he looked in the trunk. “Don’t go anywhere. I’ll be back in a minute for the rest.” He went back inside without looking over at her.
Gemma watched the dark open doorway for a second. “Home,” she told the traveler and it pulled out from the sidewalk, heading back through the town.
What had she been thinking anyway? Maybe Masie was right. Maybe she should just accept that he was gone.
The next day she hired a boat. A glassy fifteen meter arrow of a craft, with big internal jets that roared as the AI nosed into the open sea, bounding across the plane. There were moments Gemma felt like she was flying. The onboard systems kept the passage smooth, almost as if she was riding a laser.
As the boat rushed out, she felt herself trembling, remembering that first time with her father. That ocean like a vast inkwell, black and bottomless. The smell of salt and guano.
She made herself go on.
When the boat reached the middle of the area Gemma had plotted, she eased back the throttle and let the craft wallow. Around her the ocean churned, filled with cross-chop and momentary foaming crests. The water slapped against the hull. The stabilizers kept it steady.
High above, streaky, icy clouds looked like scratches in the sky. A lone orange gull glided close to the water, making occasional hooting calls.
Gemma leaned over the stern, peering into the water. It was clear and black and aquamarine and jade and black-blue all at once. She could see fish below, a school of spiny sprats darting around. Further below, just as the water became too dim to see through, there were some jellyfish. Their bulbous transparent bodies pulsed, black and green tendrils wafting.
And somewhere down there, her father’s body.
Gemma gasped, pulled herself back into the boat’s cockpit. The salty rush of air, the depth of ocean, the plain everyday continuation of the wilds all felt too much.
Later, it might have been twenty minutes, when she was done weeping, she wiped her face and instructed the boat to return to the port.
“You still have five hours rental remaining,” the AI told her. “I can show you the fjords. Beautiful waterfalls. Seals, ocean swans, the walking snapper.”
“Just take me home,” she said.
Gemma stood up at wheel, the cool air racing through her hair, occasional bursts of spray pelting her face. She couldn’t bear to look back.
Sitting in the traveler she sipped a fruity mangolion. Stimulating, but slightly too hot. She blew across it. She thought about Dale’s gear in her car. A moment there she’d lost her mind. She was never going to be able to put the gear on and go into the water.
She finished the drink, put the cup into the mangler. It bleeped a ‘thank you’ and quickly ground it up.
The traveler took her back through the small town to Dale’s place. He wasn’t home, but his housemate answered the door. Young, pretty, elegantly dressed in a kind of cross between gym wear and casual. No wonder she didn’t like Dale’s personal habits.
“He’s gone out,” she told Gemma. “I’m Sal.”
Gemma shook the proffered hand. “Do you know when he’s coming back?”
Sal shrugged. “I’ve got his fanhash if you want to give him a call.”
“Maybe I can just leave his things. I kind of stole them.”
“Yeah, he mentioned that,” Sal said with a smile. “He might have a caboose of irritating qualities, but he was surprisingly relaxed about that. I don’t know if he’s worried about getting… oh! You’re the professor’s daughter. I’m sorry about your father, huh? That’s terrible.”
“Thanks.” Gemma glanced at the traveler, the trunk open. “Really I don’t want to keep his stuff. I feel guilty. I kind of made a fool of myself, getting all het up.”
Sal smiled again. “I think he liked that about you.”
“What?” Gemma said, then realized. “Oh? Like that?”
“Yeah, like that. You can be flattered, but, you know, he gets crushes as often as I have breakfast.”
“Yeah. He had a crush on me for all of three minutes. I extinguished that pretty quick. Look, let’s get that stuff hauled inside.”
“Thanks,” Gemma said, “I appreciate it.” She was stunned to think that Dale had thought about her like that. It would be easy to let herself get distracted by something, by an affair, something to bury the emotions inside.
After they’d unloaded, exchanged fanhashes and agreed to meet for coffee sometime, Gemma drove back to Cedar Falls.
Dale. With a crush on her.
Far too distracting. She needed to concentrate, and that was just plain silly.
Still, it might be fun.
There was a message on her fan when she got home. Shinako, her work buddy. They went for coffee and tea, for meals, talked about men, about design, about fathers and family. There weren’t that many people Gemma knew who she could just talk and talk with like that. Too introverted.
“Hey, Gems,” the message said. “How’re you doing? I’m thinking of you, but we’ve got to do tea soon. Can’t leave you moping.” The fan flashed a white on green transcript, a couple of words wrong. The iware struggled with Shinako’s accent.
Gemma called right away.
“Now?” Shinako said. “Rick’s here, so I’m, well… you know. How about lunch at work tomorrow? Anyway, I don’t want to rush you.”
“I won’t be at work tomorrow.”
“Ellison thinks you will be. You should call him. I mean, I get it, but it’s been a week. Bereavement’s only three days, which is kind of crass if you ask me, but that’s in the contract. There’s that job on for Sunseekers. Big portfolio.”
Gemma hesitated. Joe Ellison had been almost fatherly in the way he ran things. Checking on her work, her social life, staying out of the way and letting her get on with designs and proposals, being a good listener when she needed to vent about some colleague or client. But he did like his rules, and did run the business with a sharp eye on the profit statements.
“Still there?” Shinako said.
“I can’t. I can’t face it.” Gemma imagined her father out there in the ocean, lost, drifting.
She would have to get back to work sometime, but not yet.
“He’ll fire you,” Shinako said when Gemma told her.
“Yeah, but he’ll hire me back when I’m ready to come back.”
“Don’t count on it. He’s getting really cutthroat now that we’ve lost Kimanner’s.”
“We lost Kimanner’s?” Gemma felt her throat clench. The big tour company was one of Ellison’s core customers. The summer promotion always carried them through. Gemma did the line work and layouts. And especially the colors.
Ships taking thousands of off-world passengers up to see the glaciers. Stinngaser was cooler than Earth, whose polar ice was long-since gone anyway, but people, apparently, romanticized the old days when ‘eco-tourists’ would watch huge icebergs calve from the sheets.
It was her job to promote the vessels as if everyone got a first-class cabin, and stress the lowest of the share-quadruple prices.
Ellison was always happy. The way she could use sunset colors across a middle-aged couple on a private balcony, the blue-white ice face almost within touching distance was beyond anything anyone else in the agency could do.
She was always happy with painting water, so long as she was never immersed over her head.
“He hardly needs you,” Shinako said, her voice seeming distant. “You need to get back here tomorrow.”
Gemma swallowed. “We’ll see.”
Shinako said something Gemma didn’t catch. Rick spoke, right near the pickup.
“Rick?” Gemma said.
“Hey Gem. Shinako can’t talk now. Otherwise occupied.”
Shinako gave a squealing giggle.
“Bye now,” Rick said and broke the connection.
Gemma sat back in the armchair and sniffed. The chair picked up her tension and rolled a massage burr up against her back.
“Stop that,” she growled, standing. She went upstairs and took a long shower.
Job or not, she thought, she was going to find him.
The datanet gave her pages about whale falls, but it was all from Earth research. No one had investigated them elsewhere, except for her father, and he hadn’t published anything yet.
He did have dozens of credits, from principle to co-writer, but all on migration patterns, physiology, even mollusks.
Journals had sent the papers on whale falls back with lengthy revisions. He’d deleted them in disgust.
Even the research from Earth was scant.
The bodies could take years to decay, in the right situations. They were huge. The size of small houses, and sometimes became almost whole ecosystems. They caught up nets and other jetsam. A lab in Earth’s Atlantic Ocean had monitored one for a hundred years, until it had broken down almost entirely, leaving patches of anemones and worms surviving on, creating their own micro-environment.
Here on Stinngaser they occured at far shallower depths than back on Earth. That alone should have piqued interest.
Facts ran by her. The deeper they were, the longer they lasted. Bones dissolved. A new kind of barnacle was found, one that had adapted from living on the whale’s skin to living in the detritus.
Gemma struggled to stay awake. She knew she’d disappointed her father by being less academic. Her grandmother and her uncle both had doctorates too, even though they were in diverse disciplines. All she had were some technical papers in drafting and design.
“Follow your passions,” he’d told her. “Always.”
“Is that what you do?”
Despite that, she still felt like she’d let him down somehow.
She read about currents, about scuba diving, about the remote submersibles he’d been using.
Facts, facts, facts.
At midnight she jerked awake, the fan display dimmed. “Too much study,” she whispered, and went upstairs to bed.
She lay a while, feeling foolish. Her job, her grandmother, Dale, even Gladys. They all accepted he was gone. Why couldn’t she?
It was still dark when her grandmother called. The bedside fan blurred up Masie’s face. The clock below read 5:30.
“Grandma?” Gemma said. “You don’t have anything to call me from.”
“Borrowed Mack’s. He’s portable.”
“Mack?” Gemma still felt blurry herself, roused from deep sleep.
“I told him to keep an eye out for Theo. While he’s flying around. I mean, while Mack’s flying around.”
“I get it. Why are you calling? It’s early.”
“You don’t want to hear from me?”
“Always, Grandma.” Gemma took a swig of water from the side table, getting a mint leaf caught in her teeth.
“Mack says he’s never going to see anything.”
“Well not in this light,” Gemma said. She pulled her curtain back, looking into the glinting lights of the city. The golds and streaky reds of sunrise were beginning to paint the sky.
The thought reminded her of her father again.
“See, that?” he would say. “Someone’s gotten a giant paintbrush from somewhere. This is our lucky day.”
He’d swing her around and around while she squealed, half-terrified he would let her go.
“Funny,” Masie said. “Good to see you’ve got a sense of humor still.”
Gemma stayed silent.
“All right. The real reason I’m calling.”
“Grandma? What?” Gemma sat up, swung her legs off the bed. The air felt cool and she pulled her robe over her knees.
“I hear you’re about to lose your job.”
“How did you hear that?”
Cedar Falls had never seemed small to Gemma. “Shinako told you?”
“She told Mack. He’s known her since his commercial days. Used to fly her father out to Chichibu Island when Shinako was a kid. Mack flew up here as soon as he could.”
“Mack flew… are you…” Gemma didn’t quite know how to ask. “Are you dating him?”
“Of course I am.”
Gemma remembered the hollows in the lawn: indents from one of Mack’s aircraft. “I should have guessed.”
Masie was moving on, Gemma thought. A new boyfriend. At her age. She must have been seeing Mack since before, but it was still uncanny.
“It’s none of your business really. You’d just try to give me advice.”
“Huh,” Gemma said. “I figure that’s why you called me, right? To give me advice?”
“Just…” Masie hesitated. “Just take care, honey.”
Gemma didn’t know how to respond.
Gemma drove right to the ocean. The sun was high by the time she got there. No sign of storms, not even any sign of clouds.
She was so angry. She couldn’t find the words to express it. Everything felt tangled up.
It had been days. Why was she feeling worse?
She walked out on the stone pier, her shoes clacking on the smooth surface. A small local trawler rocked as it came in around the breakwater, nets hanging along the transom drying, masts raised high. Gulls followed, squawking and swooping.
Gemma sat on the end of the pier. She took off her shoes and dangled her feet, the water still meters below. The trawler blew its whistle at her as it passed by. The captain waved. She didn’t know him, but she waved back. The stink of fish wafted over her.
She wondered why she couldn’t let it go.
She turned. Dale, walking along the pier. He waved. Gemma looked back out at the breakwater. Further around, at the main jetty, the trawler was tying up, a woman on the jetty shouting down at the crew. Gemma couldn’t make out the words in the distance.
“I saw your car.” Dale came to a stop beside her. “Mind if I sit?”
“It’s a public pier.”
“Yes it is.”
The woman up on the jetty rolled a big yellow mechanical arm that reached over and began pulling up dripping crates. The crew on the deck rushed around loading.
“If you want to find him,” Dale said, “and you want my help, you’re going to have to get into the water.”
“I can’t. I just…” Gemma shivered.
“Your choice. You know where to find me.”
She expected him to get up, but he stayed sitting. The gulls continued to circle the trawler. Gemma could see another boat further out, just heading in, the sunlight glinting from the waves all around it.
“Sal told me she told you I had a crush on you.”
Gemma didn’t say anything. She felt uncomfortable, wished he had just gone, left it alone.
“I did have a crush on you,” he said just as the silence was becoming unbearable.
Great, she thought, now he’s going to tell me he’s over it and that he’ll teach me how to dive so I can find Dad.
“Years ago. When I was first studying under your father. I saw you sometimes, thought you were cute.”
“Really?” She remembered when she’d first started in with her design training, seeing her father on weekends, sometimes his young students doing filing or data-runs to earn some cash.
“You don’t remember me, of course.”
“If you want to find him, you need to learn to dive. I can teach you, but I couldn’t leave that hanging.”
“Because telling me makes it so much better.” Shut up, she told herself. The poor guy probably feels embarrassed enough just bringing it up.
Now he stood. “I can get you that deep in six weeks. It’s a rush, but with the robots we can still do it safely. If you want to do it, we start tomorrow. Sunrise. Down at the research station. Bring your bathing costume.” He turned and walked back along the pier.
Gemma stood, opened her mouth to call him back, but his slumped shoulders and lowered head made him seem bruised and beaten. By the time she figured what she would say–“it’s all right, I’m flattered”–Dale was already stepping from the pier, heading for his own beat-up traveler.
She ran late.
The sun was already up as the little Hyundai screamed through Cedar Bay township. She’d blown it, she knew, and now he’d never teach her.
But there he was as she slammed the traveler into a park and leapt out.
“I’m here,” she shouted.
He stood from bending over the side of the tiny insubstantial boat pulled up into the shingle and gave a curt wave.
Stepping from the grassy strip Gemma felt like she’d crossed a barrier. The stones scraped and chinked audibly under her feet.
“Thought you’d make it,” Dale said as she came up.
Boxes like the trawler’s fish crates made a stack alongside. The boat was constructed from a series of reedy white strips. It seemed as frail as a child’s stick model.
“I didn’t know if you’d wait.”
“Seems kind of small.” Gemma put her hand on the bow, almost certain that the little boat would fall apart under her touch. It felt cold, sucking heat from her fingers. The boat’s stern seemed almost within reach. It couldn’t be more than three meters long. A boat like the one she’d hired would cut this in half without slowing.
“We’re not going far,” he said, lifting in a crate.
Gemma swallowed. She’d forgotten. They weren’t searching now. It was just lessons.
“Help me here,” he said.
When they had the boat loaded he took her back into the institute’s shed. The smell felt welcoming now, like safety. He spent an hour on principles. How the masks worked–breathe normally–how to unclip the weights, how to ride a robot to the surface, what to do if she got tangled in something, what to do if she lost her mask, how to switch to the rebreather if the extractor broke, how to switch to the ten-minute tank if the rebreather broke after the extractor broke.
“You’re trying to put me off, right?” she said with a nervous laugh.
“I’m trying to keep you alive.”
How to read the pressure gauge. How to read time–apparently it was easy to lose track with little outside light. How to stay pointing in the same direction. How to surface at the correct rate. It was like being back in the worst classes at school. The ones with the laziest teachers, more interested in imparting facts than genuine learning.
“You’ll be surprised when you get into the water,” Dale said, “by how much you’ll remember.”
She shook her head. “The opposite, I’m thinking.”
In the bay they snorkeled and she began learning how to use a rebreather snorkel to go down longer and deeper.
Within a week she was able to stay down for close to fifteen minutes.
“Progress,” Dale said. “Soon we’ll try the ocean.”
Mack put his plane into a cliff. Fifteen miles south of Masie’s house and doing three hundred and eighty knots. There was little left of the plane, and basically only DNA left of the pilot.
Masie stood stoic at the service. Exactly as Gemma remembered her when they’d formally farewelled Theo. Some of his pilot friends did a fly-past, their little planes whistling and low. There was finger food, savories and triangular pink and orange cakes. Gemma had a glass of wine, and a second, wishing she’d had neither as she put the empty glass down. She felt light-headed and she still had to get home.
“I think I’ll move to town,” Masie told her.
“You aren’t going to stay on the hill?” She felt sad for Masie, but wished that her grandmother would show more emotion. How much loss could one person take?
“Well. I realize how much I was coming to rely on him bringing me into town, bringing groceries out to me. I don’t like my own driveway.”
“I can cart your things,” Gemma said. She remembered the driveway, wondering if that was a good idea.
“No. I’ll move.”
Gemma nodded. “It will be nice to have you closer.”
Masie’s eyebrows rose. “Well. I still have to decide where to live. I don’t even know if I’ll stay here. Some of those tropical islands are very nice. Frontierre, The Keys, Dry Narumi. Good property deals too.”
Gemma was about to argue, but held back. If she hadn’t drunk too much she might have been able to order her thoughts better.
“And thank you for coming today.” Masie put her hand on Gemma’s arm. “It means a lot to me.” Masie smiled and faded away into the gathering.
Gemma went home, falling asleep on the way, waking only when the traveler bleeped at her that they’d arrived.
A week later Dale took Gemma out to a sheltered reef in his reedy boat. The sky was clear, the sea as transparent as she’d ever seen it.
They’d already practiced off the beach, but today she was going to try the full scuba set with robots. They went down to nine meters, the sea darkening.
She breathed too fast, she kicked too hard.
When she moved she dislodged the mask and it flooded. The internal rebreather tube reached for her mouth, slipping in so she could breathe.
Dale’s hand touched her shoulder and pulled her around. She couldn’t see a thing. He guided her to the surface.
“Not bad,” he said, back on the boat.
“First day.” Dale started the engine and guided them to the beach.
Gemma sat shivering. All this was beyond her. She was never going to find him, and if she ever did, what would she find? Bones?
What was she looking for really?
Gemma visited Masie. The Hyundai struggled, but made it all the way up this time. Someone had regraded the driveway.
Dale had worked her hard every day, getting her deeper, getting her to trust the robots. She still didn’t quite, but the little swimmers stuck close, monitored her, made sure she rose at the right rate. Sometimes their lensed faces seemed to be almost intelligent. Friendly.
Not friendly enough to remove her terror.
At least she hadn’t knocked her mask off again, or anything else too bad.
Her grandmother had half her own possessions boxed up, and was working on one of the boxes when Gemma came in.
“You look tanned,” Masie said.
“Spending more time outside. You’re really leaving?”
Masie took a porcelain horse from the mantelpiece and put the statue on a sheet of bubble wrap on the table. The wrap curled up, crackling as it worked, and sealed the horse in a vaguely horse-shaped package. Masie picked up the package. “I can’t really believe I’m ever coming back for these, but you never know.” She put the horse into an open box. The box made scuffling sounds as it rearranged things inside.
“I’ll miss you,” Gemma said.
“Likewise. When you’re done with your project, you should come and join me.”
“My job Grandma, I can’t just go.”
“Job? I mean your diving thing. Oh, I was going to ask if you needed some money.”
Masie sighed. “I know you didn’t keep your job. I know you’re looking for Theo.”
“How can you… all right. And you didn’t try to stop me?”
With a gesture Masie beckoned her towards the kitchen. “I’ll make coffee.”
The kitchen was white now, with a stylish black trim and occasional strips of glowing amber. The old coffee maker was gone, replaced with a simple mechanical plunger. Masie filled it with boiling water from the spigot.
“How is the training going, anyway?” Masie said.
“Slowly. I am not a creature of the water.”
“It’s an old adage, but we all are. In many ways. It will come to you.” Masie got cups. “It’s in your genes, of course.”
“I’m thinking of giving up.”
Masie was about to pour and she put the plunger back down on the counter.
“It doesn’t bother you,” Gemma said. “I mean, that there’s no body? Why am I doing it?”
Masie stared at her. “Are you talking about Mack? Maybe you want to be sure, maybe that’s all it is. The courts have enough information to declare him dead. With Mack it was different. There was…” Masie took a breath. “There were enough remains to test and prove it was him. No one’s seen your father.”
“I just freeze up. I hate it.”
“You could go inland again. Find a good job. Maybe somewhere like Carterton or Agnes. They’re as far from the sea as you can get. But how will you feel? Let me tell you: don’t leave things undone. I don’t need to see his body. He’s my son and I know what he was capable of. You, my dear, might be his daughter, but you don’t. You’ve put him in the same box with your mother.”
“No I haven’t.”
“Well, whatever.” Masie turned back to the bench and poured the coffees. “I’ve already transferred money to your account. You’ll be able to stay out of work and keep looking for a while on that.”
“I won’t let you give it back.”
Gemma smiled. “There was money from Dad, anyway. Not a lot, but I’m not going to starve.”
Masie handed her the cup. “Then use my money to pay Dale. Poor kid.”
“All right.” Gemma sipped and the coffee was good.
“Money?” Dale said. “Well that’s very cool. How much? No, that’s rude. Pay me what you think.”
“What were you doing for money anyway?”
Dale hung his head. “Well just some tutoring and spearfishing, actually.”
“So if I paid you, we could accelerate my training?”
Dale shrugged. “Sure, I guess.”
Six weeks later, a van called at her new apartment. Gemma was on the small balcony doing crunches and heard the vehicle whine along. Three men got out, two clearly the driver and muscle, the other in an unusual, exotic suit. He looked up at her, but didn’t call out. He walked across the road and after a moment she heard the buzzer ring.
Standing, she looked over the rail. “You rang my bell,” she called.
“Gemma Abrique?” He stepped back from the entry, craning his head over. Blonde, thinning hair. He looked maybe forty years old. Corporate.
“That’s me.” Now she saw the van’s livery: Tallon-Equate, Fisheries. Fresher Catch!
“I’m Diego Cutler. I’d like to talk with you.”
“You could have been more subtle. Fanmessage me.”
“Oh. That was you.” She’d blocked every message.
“Can I come up?”
Gemma considered for a moment. She knew what they were going to ask, but she had some questions of her own. “Are you armed?”
“What?” He looked genuinely perplexed.
“Are they armed?” She pointed at the other two men standing by the van. They both shook their heads.
“No,” Cutler said. “We-”
“Did you kill my father?”
Cutler waved and both the men by the van moved, stepping around behind the vehicle.
“Tell them to come out,” Gemma said. “Hey. Come out of there.” She stepped back from the balcony railing, wary.
The van drove away. Gemma watched for a moment and looked back at Cutler. “You didn’t answer my question.”
Cutler nodded. “I didn’t kill your father. We need you to stop looking for him.”
“I didn’t mean you personally,” Gemma said. She waited.
“Will you let me come up?”
Cutler pulled out a minifan and spoke at it. Gemma didn’t hear. When he was done, he looked up at her. “I’ll ask again. Please stop what you’re doing.”
The van had turned around and it whined off along the narrow road. It stopped by Cutler and the back door opened.
“Please,” he said.
“We’ll see,” she said.
“Not good enough.” He closed the door and the van drove off.
Gemma went inside and called Dale. “We have to go now,” she told him and broke the connection before he could argue.
“So they really did kill him?” Dale said as the boat motored out. Behind them came the barge covered with the robots and all their gear.
Gemma clung to the ropes. Salt sprayed her face. The water was choppier than she’d ever experienced. The continuous thwack of waves against the side jarred her. The sea was black. She threw up over the side.
“Nice,” Dale said.
“I don’t know if they killed him,” Gemma said. “But the threat was implicit.”
“They’ll know we’re out here,” Dale said. “They can track everything.”
Gemma didn’t reply.
A half hour later Dale stopped the boat and put out the motorized anchor. The machine circled, antennae shivering. Happy with its location it dived out of view, leaving a trail of bubbles.
They were out of sight of land. Dale flipped a switch on the console and half of the robots flipped themselves from the barge. They splashed and paddled over, forming up in two lines of six, bobbing near the boat.
Dale and Gemma got into their neoprene and scuba. Gemma shivered.
“You’ll be fine,” Dale said.
Gemma pointed to a trawler on the horizon. “We’ve got company.”
“Not coming towards us.”
Gemma watched the boat and pulled on her flippers. They tickled as they welded themselves to her feet and the neoprene at her ankles.
She felt bleak. This was the first real dive of the search. It seemed impossible. After all this time he could be anywhere. Nippon, or The Sandastries, or just a couple of hundred yards in the wrong direction, entirely out of sight.
A gull landed on the boat’s bowsprit. The bird flared its grey feathers at her, revealing orange and pink under the wings. It squawked. Even though it was a few meters away, she could smell its fishy stink. “Go catch dinner,” she told it and waved. The gull flew off with another squawk.
Dale jumped into the water. He ducked under and came back up. The robots gurgled in anticipation. Two of them dove.
“One thing I need to tell you,” Dale said.
“Okay.” Gemma settled her mask on her forehead, feeling the strap pinch her ear.
“We’re outside your search grid.”
Gemma swallowed. “Where are we?” She felt beaten. Even Dale, who’d been reluctantly forthcoming was now sabotaging it.
“Something I need to show you.”
“Take me to the–”
“No. If you want to go there, you have to do this dive first. We’re going down a hundred and fifty meters.”
“Nowhere in the grid is that deep.” Mostly it was no more than thirty, with a few small trenches reaching eighty.
“That’s right. Get in the water.”
Cursing him, she complied. He checked her mask and gave her a thumbs up. He plugged in the monofilament and spoke.
“I hear you,” she said.
“Great.” Tipping himself up, he vanished under the surface.
Gemma looked over at the trawler. It seemed no closer, but she was lower in the water now. Distances were deceptive.
“Come on,” Dale said. The monofilament would be unspooling, keeping them in contact.
Gemma followed. She kicked, seeing his light ahead. The robots swirled around him, leaving a double-helix of bubbles as they sped down. She knew hers were doing the same, though the bubbles would quickly run out and they would be in near darkness with only the fading cone glows of their lights.
“Why are we here?” she said.
“Something you need to see.”
“It’s better if you just see it.”
Gemma sighed, checked the readings on the mask’s visor. Pressure rising, of course. Air flow normal. Temperature eight degrees Celsius. It always got cold fast. Another ten or fifteen meters it might be as low as three degrees. The suit’s miniature heaters came on.
One of the robots swam in front of her, its oblong body curling around as it sent out a lens. She gave it a thumbs-up and it drifted out of view.
Descents were boring. Just down and down into the darkness. She couldn’t imagine the appeal to her father at all.
They passed fifty meters. She saw some glistening tendrils as a jellyfish swam by, yellows and crimsons glowed back at her. Two of the robots moved in close to the tendrils, making sure she didn’t get snared.
At seventy-five meters Dale checked in with her, asking if she was doing all right.
“Aren’t you getting my telemetry feeds?” She knew he was.
“Did the beads fix your ears?”
“Yes.” She hadn’t been this deep before. She had to trust the equipment. Had to trust Dale.
“Good.” He fell silent.
Gemma had to give herself an imaginary pinch. She, Gemma Abrique, was below the surface of the water. So far below that even if she kicked right now, as hard as she could, there was no way she could hold her breath all the way to the surface. She was entirely dependent on the equipment. She trembled.
It was cold and despite the efficiency of the suit, she was aware of how chilly it was becoming.
Ahead something loomed up. At first it was like some white disturbance in the water, perhaps a concentration of jellyfish or smaller creatures. Plankton or atomites. Another few meters and she saw there was a solidity to the thing, even as the edges seemed fuzzy. White and massive, like the tip of a curved finger, pointing to the surface. Coated with a whisper of furry tendrils and hairs.
It was thick. As wide as she was tall. Bigger than the boat they’d come out in. And this, she thought, was just the very end. Further down it must widen.
“A rib,” Dale said. He’d come to a stop and hovered in the water nearby. His robots held with him, their little propeller flippers turning slowly. “At least what passes for a rib. Their physiology is very different from ours. The bones have their own systems, almost separate from the rest of the body. Such massive bulk.”
“I read some,” she said. “Organs and circulation.”
“Good, yes. Such big creatures require simplicity and complexity at once.”
“This is one of the whales?”
Dale laughed. “Whales. It hardly does them justice. Leviathans? Behemoths? We struggled with a good name. Technically we labeled them Odonceti praegrandis, but that’s just holding, until there’s full publication.”
Gemma reached out to touch the end. She’d already dropped almost a meter below the very tip and could see the other end dropping into the darkness below. As she reached one of her robots came in close, winding one of its thin arms out.
Her gloved finger made contact. At first the bone felt squishy and she ran her finger along, leaving a trail of lighter green through it. “Algae?”
“Algae, seaweed. Worms. This is the whale fall your father was researching. We’re still a long way from the bottom.” Dale ducked and kicked on down.
Gemma tried to dig through the algae, but it was rubbery and cohesive under her finger. She kind of wanted to take the glove off and chip at the algae coating with her nails, but imagined her hand freezing immediately. She kicked on after Dale.
The bone thickened as they dropped. It became like some giant pylon. A tower on which they could mount a massive wind-turbine. The algae and weed thickened too. She saw small anemones, shimmering through blue and indigo. Tiny white and gold fish darted around, feeding on the algae. Something that looked like a barracuda swept by, arrowing through the tiny fish. Some of them disappeared into a netlike bowl that spread from the long fish’s mouth. The net closed and the fish disappeared into the gloom.
“See that?” she said. The surviving white and gold fish began to reappear.
“Predator fish,” Dale said from a few meters below. He was dropping slowly facing up, watching her. “How’s your air? You feeling comfortable?”
The depth read one hundred and ten meters. Far too deep for any reasonable rational person.
On the bone a five-limbed blob swirled along. Each of its legs curled like a snake, narrowing to hair-width whips. It crept through a miniature vertical forest of anemones and algae branches. “Pentapus,” she said.
“What’s that?” Dale said. He kicked up and touched the camera on his mask. The little instrument flickered. “I haven’t seen one of those before.” He moved close. “Not like that. Mottled body, small.”
“I guess there’s still a lot to catalogue down here.”
“Yep. We just discovered Gemma’s Pentapus.”
She smiled, reached out to touch it. The small creature seemed to burst in a cloud of red. “Oh!” She’d killed it. “I didn’t mean to.” How could it be so fragile?
“Relax,” Dale said. “Defence mechanism.” He waved his hand and the bloom dissipated. He pointed. Gemma saw the pentapus scuttling on up the bone.
“Why would the fisheries try to stop you? Surely you can discover more ways for them to make money.”
“Huh,” Dale said. “Never picked you as a capitalist.”
“Try losing your job.”
As they descended, the growths on the bone thickened and expanded. Soon it was more like a rock face with a garden than a bone at all. There was still a general cylindrical shape, but it became craggy and irregular.
“They would have us stop because we might discover something that means they have to stop.”
“Maybe we find out that they’re killing too much. Or that there’s some toxicity. Or maybe that they’re irresponsible. I can show you some of that.”
The robots’ lights played over the expanding garden of tree-like branches and bright wafting flowers. There were hundreds of fish now, darting around in loops, flocking like birds and spinning off on their own. Some of them had legs and arms with wide paddles on the end, some had long beaks. There were eyes on stalks, fish like donuts with a hole from side-to-side big enough for her to put her hand through, animals like her pentapus, but with stubby legs each tipped with double-bladed flukes.
Some of the creatures were partly luminous, with bright spots along their flanks. Likewise some of the plants, glowing and phosphorescent. It was subtle and she only noticed it in the shadow cast from the robots’ lights.
And they came in a plethora of colors; rainbows from head to tail, stripes both vertical and horizontal, some pleasing combinations of white and black or blue and orange, but others showed warnings of crimson against yellow and amber or sharp jags of icy blue against rusty reds. Chameleon fish changed colors, others had tails that were made up of clusters of green tendrils, waving in the current.
“This is what we did,” Dale said. “We’re nearly at the bottom, then you’ll see something.”
The bone–though she had to remind herself that there was a bone under all that growth–angled now, leading them inwards. Soon the whole thing flattened out. Broad leafed seaweed wafted at them, holding out long translucent pods through which she saw movement.
“Eggs?” she said.
“Sharkweed,” Dale said. “Symbiosis. I was going to write a paper on them. Still figuring that all out. I could go on for hours. This way.”
Gemma thought that it couldn’t get any more fascinating, but as they kicked along horizontally she saw more and more. The barracuda’s cousin, fat and bright, anemones the size of a dining chair, tendrils like ears of corn, schools of fish that swam in patterns like ballet troupes.
“So much color,” she said. “So deep.” She looked up into the darkness, the fish and other creatures like dust above her before the darkness closed in.
She shuddered. So deep.
She was dead, now, if something went wrong. No wonder this ocean had taken her father.
“Gemma?” Dale said. “Breathe easy.”
“It’s all right,” she said. “I’ve got it.”
Dale kicked over and looked into her mask. “We’re about at the skull. Is that okay?”
She nodded. “Yes. Show me.”
“I want to show you something else first. Hold here and let me talk to the robots.”
“Attention,” he said. “Give me the star pattern, with lights, focused out.”
Gemma heard the robots give him a series of confirmation bleeps. She saw their lights fading as they swam away.
“Attention number five,” Dale said. “Bring yourself in line.”
The light pattern adjusted. The lead two had all but vanished. Gemma could hear her own breathing. It was scary watching the robots go off like that. They were supposed to help in an emergency and down here that could happen in a second.
But she trusted Dale, she realized. Not because of anything he’d done before, but on this very descent.
“You’re all right, you know,” she told him.
He gave a little acknowledging grunt. “Attention. Come lower, bring on lights. Slow dial.”
The faint glow began to increase. Soon the lights were at their greatest brightness. It wasn’t like daylight, but the illuminated area expanded. No longer did she feel like she was trapped in a tiny bubble in darkness. That darkness receded away at least fifty meters.
It reminded her of Masie’s garden. At its most overgrown, blooming and out-of-control spring burst.
All around, across the seabed, there were young corals and lanky seaweeds. Fish, big and small, darted, alone and in schools. Some moved like clownfish in among the long fronds of anemones. Violet brittlestars the size of goats crept along the green and orange puffs of algae. Triple-shelled mollusks pumped open and closed, sluicing water through their fangs, slim filaments rippling as they drew sustenance from the tiniest particles. The barrage of colors on the urchins and shells and creeping creatures seemed like the results of an unsupervised grade-school paint war.
The thick whale ribs rose up like the arching pillars on a vast underwater cathedral, offering protection to the flock within the new light.
“Teeming,” she said. “That’s the word. Teeming with life.” She remembered her father using it once, in one of his curt conversations.
“Exactly,” Dale said. “And you have to realize that outside the body, it’s almost barren. Crabs burrowing into the mud, worms, some shellfish. Nothing like this.”
“Dad told me. One big ecosystem.”
“The question is,” Dale said, “does it last after the last of the whale has been devoured? There’s little soft tissue left. The bones still hold it together, but they won’t last forever.”
“How old?” she said. In the light she saw some kind of net caught up in one of the farthest of the ribs. The net waved in the slight current, smaller bones and flesh caught in its weave.
She wondered if the fisheries had prevented the publication of her father’s work. It wouldn’t be the first time something like that had happened.
“We think about thirty years since the animal died. We estimate five years before enough of the skin and tissue had gone before higher life forms took hold. We probably won’t be around long enough to see what happens when the bones finally go.”
“My father.” His research was all over now.
“Yes. You should come and see the skull.” Dale called the robots back and kicked away.
Gemma watched as the light faded. The dark rolled in, hiding the magnificent garden away. She hung in the water for a moment longer, the robots paddling by her.
Seeing this, she wondered how important it was to find him. She felt like she might be closer to understanding him.
The skull was the size of her condo block. It lay on its side, twisted from the main body. Dale explained how it must have fallen. Like the base of the ribs, it was covered in myriad different kinds of life, all packed in and jostling for position.
“There must be others,” she said as they swam around. She saw something that looked like a plastic basket, wedged in against a cluster of limpets. At first she thought it was another kind of plant or animal, but she saw the metal clasp and broken braided line tied to it. A crab pot.
“Hundreds,” Dale said. “If not thousands. But it’s a big ocean. This is the only one we’ve found so far.”
He still spoke of her father in the present tense, she thought. Still includes him in part of his routine.
She wished she had that.
“I need to show you this last thing,” he said. “It might be scary.”
“I’m fifty stories under the ocean’s surface. I’m already terrified out of my wits.”
“You’re doing great.”
He was right, she realized. This felt so calming. This amazing animal here, giving life so long after death.
“I guess I am,” she said. “I understand why you brought me here.” After this, the search for her father was going to be mundane, depressing. Swimming grids across that bland wormy and crabby mud.
No, she decided. She was definitely going to find him. Not just look, but find. Masie would tell her there was a difference.
“You don’t yet.” Dale swam in front of her. “We’re going inside the skull. This is different to open water diving, all right? You’ll be in a confined space.”
Right away she felt her heart rate increase, her breathing speed up. “Maybe another time.”
“We should do it now.”
“I haven’t trained.”
“Nothing can train you for this.”
“If it’s so dangerous…” she trailed off.
“Trust me,” Dale said.
She swallowed. She felt hot. The suit felt constricting. She wanted to be back with the robots’ lights throwing the garden into its brilliant Monet of color and radiance.
“Attention,” Dale said. “Cavity swim, regular lights, optimum care.”
The robots swam around them, forming into a line like ants and descending along the side of the skull. Dale took her hand.
“Just follow along. We’ll get out the moment you feel uncomfortable.”
“I feel uncomfortable.”
Dale didn’t let go, though she knew she could pull her hand away anytime. Below a huge hole became visible, a black notch in the skull’s side. The robots trailed into it, lights blazing. Dale brought her around to the hole, only a couple of meters wide. It curved away from them.
“Like the cetaceans back on Earth,” Dale said, “these guys breathe air and have blowholes at the top of their skulls. Nostrils.”
“Some nostril.” When you’re the size of a football stadium, you’re going to need massive pipes, she thought.
“We’ll swim through. It’s about four meters and then we’re in the big cavity.”
Gemma trembled. “The brain.”
“That’s right. Not usually connected, but it broke through at some point. If you panic, just relax, the robots will know what to do.”
“All right.” It was far from all right, but she followed him in.
“Attention, minimum propulsion. Drift. Steady only.”
The robots bleeped their acknowledgment.
The tunnel felt claustrophobic. She felt like she was swimming into a narrowing storm water drain. There was still growth on the walls, strong and as vibrant as out in the main part of the whale fall.
“Attention,” Dale said. “Dim. Quadrants.”
The light faded. With her own lights–still as bright–she saw how the tube opened up to other narrow side tubes. Didn’t the animals sing complex tunes to each other all around the planet? It would take a powerful, complex system create those deep sounds and send them half a world away. She imagined the ear canal being even more complex.
“Here,” Dale said.
The tube broadened and came to an end, letting into a bigger cavity. Dale shifted in, turned so he was hanging upright. He held his hand out to guide her in.
The robots hung in a circle, their lights low.
“The braincase?” she said. She trembled. If only she could have told her father how many fears she had dealt with today.
“Yes,” Dale said. “Go easy with your movements. The water is very clear here, but it’s still easy to stir it up.”
She could see that. Inside the volume it seemed like the robots were weightless in clear air. They might be in orbit, drifting over the nightside in the dark. Inside she imagined the hole could swallow Masie’s house. It might be five hundred cubic meters.
The walls were festooned with gray-green streamers of algae. From the roof hung broad stalactites the color of eggshell. “The skull is thick?” she said. “These are some kind of animal that devours the bone?”
“Exactly.” Dale’s voice sounded distant, reserved.
Careful not to move too fast and stir things up, she turned to face him. His face seemed sad.
“What?” she said.
“Look.” He lifted his arm and pointed downward.
Again slowly she turned and looked.
“Attention,” Dale said. “Gradual lights half.”
The robots wound up the brightness and she saw it right away.
The central bowl at the bottom of the cavity bloomed with as great a variety of animal and plant life as outside in the main area. But there was something else.
Black and tubular. An abandoned dive suit.
Gemma gasped. She pulled with her arms, drawing herself down. “My father’s?” She could see a line spiraling along the suit’s arm, from wrist to shoulder, spaced with big vicious barbed hooks.
“They did kill him?”
“An accident, I think. Come closer.” Dale swam with her, coming right down to the bottom.
One of the pentapusses shot out, tentacles spinning. It vanished through a hole.
Gemma saw the bones.
“You need to breathe easy,” Dale said. “If you get off-scale I’m going to take you back to the surface.”
She kicked closer, aware that she would be roiling detritus, spoiling the perfect clarity.
It was a ribcage, and a clavicle and shoulder blade. Part of the spine. Flesh still clung to parts. A small stalked barnacle had rooted itself in the sternum, shell turning slowly, a series of tongues rippling out from the narrow opening. She saw others, a worm, some fish swimming through the gaps. A big red anemone where her father’s heart would have been.
She couldn’t repress a whimper.
“All right?” Dale said.
“You knew,” she whispered. “You knew all along, and you led me to believe that I still had to search.”
Dale didn’t reply.
Gemma turned on him. “You could have brought me straight in here. Actually, no. You could have brought him to the surface. We could have had a proper burial.”
“Yes,” he said. “All of those things. You’re right.”
She wanted to hit him. She wanted to cry, to curl up in a ball on her bed with the door locked and never come out. Instead here she was stuck at the bottom of the ocean. Stuck inside the skull of some giant cadaver.
Right next to her father.
Right where he’d died.
Right where, she realized, he should be.
“Can we turn the lights down again?” she said. “I think I need a moment.”
Dale gave the order and the light dimmed. She sensed him moving back.
For a moment, she looked at where her father lay. Despite everything, this was, she knew, the perfect resting place.
A school of white tiny-bodied fish with big tails swam through. Each one had a circular black spot right in the middle of their side.
Some glistening bubbles rose up from the algae where her father’s skull lay hidden. A starfish crawled slowly down one of the stalactites. Each limb was as thick as her father’s fingers had been, and each was a different color.
It took almost fifteen minutes before she felt ready to leave.
“I need a photograph,” she said.
“Of course. Just tell your mask.”
She’d forgotten. “All right,” she said when it was done. “Take me back to the boat.”
The dents in her grandmother’s lawn from Mack’s landings had been filled. Gemma watched the bright horizon. Tall white thunderheads lined the wall of the world. Not ready to rain, just holding and swirling. A fresh off-shore breeze tousled her hair.
“It does seem odd,” Masie said beside her, “to have a second service.”
“But this time we know.”
Masie nodded. She had the photograph, a single still image of the barnacle. It was enough, after Gemma had told her grandmother the story. To take a photograph of Theo’s bones seemed too morbid.
“It seems a good symmetry,” Masie said. “Study them, lie with them.”
“I’m glad Dale didn’t bring him up,” Gemma said.
“Dale’s a smart guy. Single?”
Gemma laughed. “Yes. Keep your distance.”
Masie laughed with her and put her thin hand on Gemma’s arm. “Time to let him go.”
Gemma took the other side of tissue-paper print of the barnacle and together they lifted their hands.
“Bye Dad,” Gemma said.
Masie didn’t say anything and together they let go.
The breeze grabbed the translucent page, lifting it up swirling and twisting, carrying it out over the ocean.