4440 words, short story
Law of Tongue
The fact that they insisted we keep calling them “killer whales” should really tell you something. The orcas of Puget Sound are vicious in negotiations.
“Listen,” I say. “The talks are in two weeks. We can’t just throw away months of work when we’re so close to the finish line.”
The old matriarch spyhops once to get a good look at my face and then slips back under the boat, where the keel-mounted mic picks up her pops, rasps, and whistles.
“I may throw away whatever I wish.” The translation streams through a clunky pair of orange over-the-ear headphones. The synthesized voice is flat and computerized, giving me the impression I’m talking to a robot.
Sometimes, I’m not so sure that I’m not talking to a robot, honestly.
The whale’s scarred dorsal fin slashes out of the water and submerges again.
She says, “Find my granddaughter and I will arrive in Puget at the appointed time.”
“The ocean is a big place, ma’am.” I pinch the bridge of my nose and hope to trade an exasperated glance with Ify, my fixer-in-training. But he’s staring at the whale in total and utter fascination. He’s still just a kid, fresh out of grad school. He’s got stars in his eyes.
I address the matriarch. “Without any leads, finding your granddaughter is going to be close to impossible.”
She replies, “She is with the vagrants. I know it.”
Ify pipes in, “The Pacific transients have a huge range. They could be anywhere. Is she maybe wearing a tag we can track? Or—”
I physically shut his mouth with my hand.
The killer whale rises to the surface and blows an angry jet. “The Southern Residents do not accessorize with man-things.”
Before I can say anything to stop her, she dives deep beneath the surface.
I let out a short exhale. “Ify?” I say.
“Just let me do the talking, okay?”
We’re halfway up the California Hillway by the time my calls get through.
“I thought you said we shouldn’t talk for a while.”
This might get delicate. I put my hand to the receiver and smile politely at Ify before leaving our cabin and making a beeline for the observation deck. It’s empty.
“Hey. I’m sorry for calling like this.” Shadows pass over the windows of the deck as the maglev weaves over and under the rolling hills. The sea legs I earned out in Monterey come in handy here, in this ocean of needlegrass and wildrye.
Yung answers after a long pause. “It’s fine. What do you want to talk about?”
“You’re still at NOAA, right?”
His voice is clipped. “You need something from me. Mayor’s business?”
No sense beating around the bush.
“Granny K’s granddaughter is missing.” I know Yung’s a bleeding heart for orcas. It’s sweet in a thick syrupy sort of way. Maybe that’s why I used to like him. “She thinks something might have happened to her.”
“What, like poachers?”
“Maybe.” But probably not. They were ancient history. Business tends to dry up when all your customers get prosecuted. But they made for a good nemesis.
“Fuckers.” Yung sighs. “Okay, how can I help?”
“Hold on.” I pull up Grandmother K’s pod information and swipe open the file on the youngest granddaughter. “Tippop.” I send Yung’s address a set of recorded vocalizations and put the phone back up to my ear. “The hydrophone array stretches all the way up North America, right? Can you run a search for these calls? Sometime in the last week.”
“The hydrophones are for research, Shaina. Not for enforcing an underwater surveillance state.”
“I’m not surveilling, I’m looking for a distress call.”
There’s a rustle over the speaker, like Yung’s just switched which side of his face the phone is on. A resigned exhale. Then three mouse clicks.
“There’s a search running,” he says.
The train peeks through Loma Mar and I catch a glimpse of tides spilling over the reef dam that splits Half Moon Bay. The ocean is foaming and violent out to sea, but inside the Pan-American Kelpwall, the waters are mirror-still and blinding in the sunlight.
It’s going to be a bright day.
The boat that takes us out of Kaktovik is a twin induction engine catamaran that runs as silent as an ice floe. There’s almost no interference when we dip the hydrophone into the freezing Alaskan water.
“There’s a lot of calls, but I’m not getting any translations,” Ify says, a gloved hand up to his earphone.
Our guide pulls the rudder in the direction of the nearest killer whale vocalizations. “It’s not dialed to this dialect,” he says. Jaco’s a local, and no stranger to the pods that run amok around here. “Tune it to another one. You might get a little dropout, but that’s fine.”
“Oh, wait,” Ify says. “There’s something else there, too. It’s not orca.”
I put an earphone up to my head, trying to keep as much of my face under the shawl as possible. Among the clicks and whistles and the chatter of my own teeth, there’s the sound of a violin being played with a fistful of barbed wire.
“It’s a bowhead,” I say. “I think they’re hunting it.”
He gulps. “Maybe we should back off until they’re done? We don’t want to interrupt dinner.”
“Smart, Ify.” He flashes a hopeful smile. “Normally I’d agree with you, but we’re running against the clock as it is. We should gun for it this time.” His smile fades.
Jaco adjusts his sunglasses and throttles the boat. We speed off in the direction of the hunting grounds.
It takes us about an hour and a half to get a positive match on Tippop’s calls, and another good hour to home in on her exact location. The place is a sunlit wasteland of thick floating ice, and soon we have to stop. We must be somewhere off the northern Canadian coastline, by now.
Jaco taps my shoulder, “Do you know how to watch for closing ice floes?”
I shake my head and he purses his lips. “This is as far as we’ll go, then.”
Still no sign of Tippop, or the pod of killer whales she’s gotten herself hitched to. We can’t turn back now. Not after nearly three hours in the biting cold.
“What’s the risk if we keep going?” I point. “I see an opening over there.”
Jaco’s smile is lopsided. “The risk is that we get crushed.” He slaps two mittened hands together and flashes crooked teeth.
We wait there in front of the ice wall for twenty minutes and I start to shiver in my seat again. Ify scoots closer and I feel the warmth roll off of him.
“I’m cold too,” he says. His hands are shaking, but he’s listening too intently to notice. “They’re getting closer. I think they’re coming to us.”
I take a peek over the side of the boat, watching for fins or white streaks. There’s nothing there. The water laps gently against the fiberglass of the hull, rocking us from side to side.
Then the ice floe next to us explodes. There, under the crack: the head of a massive bowhead whale breaking through the surface. A jet of hot steam escapes its head and I picture dragons at the edges of ancient maps.
“Hold on!” Jaco leans towards the waves rushing in from the crashing ice, and Ify and I hold on for dear life.
The boat gets caught on a wall of cresting water and sweeps out to sea.
I grit my teeth and hold on. Ify loses his grip but I grab his wrist and pull his hand back to a handle. He clenches his fists and his eyelids tight.
Jaco’s on the rudder, spinning us to face away from the wave. He surfs us out, calm and collected, and that’s when we see them. A group of whalers on a boat of sealskin and caribou bone, paddling towards the broken floe with harpoons raised and long iron rifles. Beneath them, a pack of orcas streaks out like wolves.
One of them has to be Tippop.
“Turn us around!”
Jaco obliges and we’re on the whalers’ tail. The bowhead’s disappeared.
The orcas swoop under the frigid murk and up it comes again! The ice breaks and steeples over the creature’s skull, falling away as it tries to escape whatever black and white monsters it’s seen below.
The whalers take their chance: a pair of them throw harpoons and lance it behind the blowholes, and a third levels a rifle at its struggling head.
The bowhead whale’s skull is a massive twenty-ton sledge, a pyramid of bone and muscle shaped by millions of years of evolution to be nature’s answer to the nuclear-powered icebreaker. It’s capable of crashing through two feet of ice and is covered with the thickest blubber of any animal alive or dead.
Its head splits open like a ripe melon.
Ify vomits over the side of the boat. I pat him on the back, but I doubt it helps.
The whalers tow the whale’s carcass fifty meters and anchor it to a landlocked slab of ice, and then they float. There’s the chant of what might be prayer or maybe just gratitude, and in front of them, the water churns with the black and white masses of killer whales on the move.
The water around the whale’s body darkens to a deep red. Sea-wolves, through and through. They feast with abandon.
“You’d think they’d feel a kind of kinship,” Jaco says. “Being whales ‘n all.”
I keep patting Ify as he blows chunks off the side.
“Killers are dolphins, not whales,” I say. “Different taxonomic families.”
“Oh,” he says, pretending that makes a difference.
The churn stops, and we can take the boat in closer. Ify bobs the hydrophone in the water and listens for calls—they’re all down there, somewhere.
“Welcome!” says the rifleman from the skin boat. “You’ve just witnessed the first kill of the season.”
I’m glad the shawl hides my distaste for the festivities.
“Congratulations,” I say. “My name is Shaina Williams. I’m with the Mayor’s Office of Interspecies Affairs in Seattle.”
“I’m Nanuq,” he says. He makes a sign and his crew begins to disembark, hoisting the whale’s half-eaten carcass onto the ice. It’s missing its lips and tongue. “How can I help you?”
“We’re looking for an orca from the Southern Resident community. We think she’s part of the pod that’s with you.”
“Yeah, she said to expect someone like you,” he says, looping a length of rope. “She’s made her choice. She’s staying here with us this season.”
Blunt and to the point. Nanuq might be part killer whale himself.
“You and the whales work together?” I say.
“We have a compact of sorts,” he says. “Law as old as time.”
Ify finally finishes puking and leans back in his seat.
“Law of Tongue,” he says.
I shoot him a look. “What?”
“The Aussies in grad school talked about it.” He wipes his mouth with a sleeve. “In the 1900s some whalers struck a deal with the orcas. They got the meat and blubber, and the whales got the tongue.”
Nanuq nods sagely.
“So you’re partners with the pod,” I say. “Can you convince Tippop to come home?”
He puts up his hands, “She’s her own whale. I don’t make her decisions.”
“I see. Then I’ll ask her myself.”
I take out a speaker and dangle it into the water.
“Tippop,” I say to the translator. “Your grandmother misses you. Will you come back?”
Nanuq stares at me—off-balance on the edge of my little catamaran, with a thin black wire plumbing an arctic ocean, one hand on an oversized orange earphone, and trying desperately to sound authoritative to a rebellious teenage killer whale thirty times my size—and he laughs a big belly laugh.
“Is that how you speak to them?”
I pull the earphone off and look up at him. “Yeah, why?”
He’s already pulled off his coats and skins, revealing ten-millimeter-thick neoprene clinging to his lean body, shading him matte against the wintry backdrop.
Jaco yells “Stop!” but Nanuq’s already launched himself spread-eagle, slapping against the surface of water so cold it could stop your heart.
Jaco motors towards him on pure instinct.
But before we get there Nanuq rises on the nose of an adolescent killer whale. His smiling face steams in the chill air. “Eighty percent of a killer’s communication is nonverbal,” he says.
Tippop slams her flukes against the water hard, and from the right angle, it looks like Nanuq has the swelling aura of angry seawater surging against an implacable white wall.
“Let me give you a hint as to what she said,” he chuckles, as the droplets rain down.
“You can make a deal with her,” I say. “You’re business partners. Tell her you can’t do business with this transient pod until she comes home.”
“And why would I do that, stranger?” That last word has some bite.
I try the carrot. “You’d do that because I can get you a boat just like this one.” I slap the fiberglass. “Warmer shelters. Desalination plants. Whatever you need.”
“Our home gives us what we need,” he says, shivering. “We just have to take it.”
Now I go for the stick: “You’ll help me because you are illegally hunting an endangered species and breaking about fifty different international treaties. Some nations might count this as murder.” I look him dead in his eyes. “If you don’t tell Tippop to come home, I’m bringing down the authorities.”
“You’ll do no such thing,” he says. “We’ve got twelve-hundred and seventy-three people back in town who need whale oil to warm their homes.” He jabs a finger at the sky. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the sun isn’t very strong here. Will you let them freeze?”
I shrug. “Sounds like you’ve got twelve-hundred and seventy-three reasons to comply, then,” I say.
His face darkens.
“Call your authorities,” he says. “We’ll see who aims better in snow.”
Nanuq’s pulled onto the ice by his team. A woman shoulders a long dart rifle and stares daggers at our catamaran while he gets back into his furs. A pair of men with harpoons look on impassively.
Jaco pulses the motor.
Well, that didn’t go well. I need another option.
Even if it’s a desperate one.
From the air, the American West shimmers like a green starfield.
Shining photovoltaics punctuate the vast flats of prairie clover and purple coneflower, marking bright lone plots of humanity that flow out from the emptying cities like a miniature Hubble expansion.
Our destination’s a hundred and seventy miles from the Battle Mountain Aerostat, where the veetol drops off at 10 A.M. sharp. We glide most of the way, and then the power kicks on to vector thrust us to a patch of packed dirt thousands of feet below. The doors spill us into the hot Sunbelt noon.
The cluster of buildings here is prefabbed cellcrete that was dropped by a dirigible, no doubt. They must have been planted a good year or so ago because the vegetation’s already crawling up the walls and turning the complex into a knobbly cloverleaf mound.
“Welcome to Jotham Newton,” says our host. “Our humble community.”
He has to be at least eighty years old, with a face brown and wrinkled like a raisin in the sun. His torso’s propped up by a soft-body exosuit that feeds on the grass. Chlorophyll recyclers. The thing’s solar-powered.
Other old folks mill about in the open greenery, drinking and poking at a stew boiling over the ruggedized electric heater.
“Thanks for the warm welcome,” I say, reining in my revulsion.
Jonathan Hewitt Ashbury was a poacher, retired by the time of the Urban Flight. He used to capture killer whales and sell them to the highest bidder. Now he gets to live in paradise.
“Should we go somewhere private?”
“That would be wise,” I say.
I follow the strange footsteps of half-chewed clover left behind by his exosuit, into the dank coolness of the prefab complex. We sit in a study flush with sunlight. The glittering West shines behind a triple-pane slab of argon-wafered glass.
“The Mayor’s office has agreed to your demands,” I say.
Ashbury claps his hands together. “Whoo-ee,” he says. “The air around here’s lousy with transpiration, a condenser tower will get us all the agua we need and then some.” He points through the window at a hand-pumped well, painted bright red. “Ol’ Tom there can finally be put to rest.”
“What’ll you need for the job?” I ask.
“First, I need a promise that this is what the Granny really wants.”
“I told you, she said anything goes as long as it gets her granddaughter back.”
Ashbury’s smile dies. “But does she know what’ll happen?” His eyes grow hard, and for a moment he looks like he did in his mugshots, all those decades ago. “It won’t be fun for little ol’ granddaughter. Much the opposite, I’m afraid to say.”
Ify snaps, “What do you care?” I shoot him a glance and he stares back down at the carpet clover floors. “You’ve done this before without giving a single shit.”
Jonathan nods, melancholy. “I understand how you feel. But that was before I knew. What they were.”
“Sure,” I say. We need to get this moving. “Equipment. What do you need?”
“I have a list. The same crew’s all out there,” he says, pointing at the courtyard where old men too fat or too skinny drink beers out of seaweed pouches and alert each other to every bird flying through the trees. “They’re ready for one last, big show. This time on the right side.”
“Lovely,” I say, dryly. I peer down at his exosuit. “There’s no grass where we’re going. Are you going to be okay without the suit?”
A single tooth glints gold in his mouth.
“I’ll be more than okay, partner.”
We’re back in frigid Alaskan waters in the cabin of a yacht as white as frost. Ashbury’s in the captain’s chair, strapped down and in a recline, with a headset lowered down over his face.
I test my straps. “Is this really necessary?”
A gray old sailor named Klaus laughs. “Try going without,” he says.
I keep the straps tight.
Hydrophones on the keel listen for a positive match on Tippop, but even when we hear her for the first time, Ashbury doesn’t gun for it.
“The key here,” he said to us—in a slapdash briefing room put together in a commandeered zeppelin—“is to take advantage of killer whale traditions. They’ve been hunting for a long time, and they’ve been very successful.” He puffed on a cigarette hand-rolled with tobacco he grew himself at Jotham Newton. “But that makes them predictable.”
According to him, this orca ecotype forced recent pod members to be the first to rush a hunting target. It was a hard job that relied on sheer speed, and a geographic sense of where the nearest land and ice was located. It acted as both a test of mettle and a useful tactical maneuver.
Tippop would likely be the first to rush prey.
Which meant, they shouldn’t go into capture-mode until—
“Bowhead’s on the phones,” Ify says. He’s strapped into a seat a foot away from me, looking at passive sonar readings.
Ashbury flips a switch. “Prepare to submerge.”
Somewhere on the hull, pores aerate the water and the yacht falls beneath the surface and slides into the depths on silent induction props as silent as sin.
Ashbury’s in his element. I am not. Weaving between the deep blue roots of the icebergs floats my stomach into my chest, and I have to focus on a single spot in the cabin to keep from losing my lunch.
Ify listens on the phones and confirms, “Those are hunting clicks. They’re going for a kill.”
Ashbury smiles, “Okay! Brace for speed—”
But we’re already lancing through the water, curving wide around an ice floe in an arc, the gees pushing us into the seat cushions and pulling the skin down my face. Clangs of metal on metal come from somewhere in the rear of the ship, where a crewmate dispatches our payloads.
I get on the cameras as we round a column of blue ice plunging beneath the surface. Ify’s isolated some vocalizations that sound like Tippop, but I have to make sure.
A killer whale and her quarry come into frame just as we clear the iceberg: the eyespots are a match.
“Target’s good,” I say, using the phrase from the prep docs.
Ashbury speaks calmly into the mic. “Blow primaries.”
The explosives we dropped on our loop around the hunting ground blow all at once, sending bubbles of violent sound through the Arctic waters.
For a moment Tippop is frozen, and Ashbury hits the throttle and sends us shooting for her at forty knots and climbing. On the cameras, she grows slowly to full size.
She snaps out of it, sees the boat barreling towards her, and desperately sends distress calls through the water, all short pulses and fast clicks. Then she turns tail and swims like a bat out of hell.
Killer whales are the undisputed masters of the ocean. Sixty-five million years on the planet put them squarely on the top of the food chain. Tippop pumps her flukes and easily tops thirty, forty knots. The adrenaline must be surging through her.
But all the speed in the world couldn’t save her from—
The second set of mines blows. Flashes of yellow-white flame pump once, and then implode. The sea ice cracks and agonizing sound waves punch through the water in a wall of concussive force.
Tippop has to turn but we’re already on a trajectory to intercept. We approach from below, a mechanized orca hunting one of flesh-and-blood, venting bubbles and leaving a trail of white foam that cuts up out of the darkness like a finger of Death himself.
She makes a desperate play for the surface, and we have her.
Ashbury vectors us and positions her right on the flat of the yacht’s bow, lifting us out of the water on the backs of rapidly expanding ballasts. The water sheds off her skin and off the deck, leaving her squashed against the wood. Beached on an artificial shore.
A team of six men unstrap with practiced hands and rush out to the capture area, throwing ropes to each other and tying her down before she has the chance to muscle back into the ocean. She pleads with them, but they do their work in guilty silence.
“Ashbury!” Ify points out of a viewport. “Company!”
I see two teams of whalers paddling out on their skin boats, slinging long black guns.
I unstrap and make my way to the deck.
Ify yells, “What the fuck are you doing?”
I can talk them down. Nobody needs to get shot.
I come out with my hands up and move to the edge of the deck, and that’s when I realize how deeply fucked I really am. They aren’t carrying guns at all.
Nanuq’s smiling from his deck with a high-definition cinematic camera mounted to his shoulder and a team of professionals pulling focus and recording sound from the rear of the boat. The wrinkles spider out from behind his beetle-black sunglasses.
Son of a bitch.
“Ashbury!” I yell. “Get us to the pick-up now!”
Nanuq keeps on smiling, even as we leave him shrinking in our wake.
I wake up in a cold sweat every night since we returned Tippop to the waters of the West Coast. It’s hard to tell what an orca’s feeling from their eyes alone, but I could swear she was gleeful as she slipped into the Salish Sea.
Any night could be the night my face gets plastered over the vidcasts: face uncovered on the deck of a whaling yacht, in the company of retired criminals that had spent decades in federal prison.
On February 18th, a week before Grandmother K’s diplomatic talks with Mayor Bly, it finally drops.
I watch the video from under the covers, my breath held in my chest.
But they never show my face.
There are just wide angles of a killer whale pleading on a space-age-looking ship, and shots of it speeding into the distance.
That’s enough to get protests on the streets of Seattle, with numbers building all the way until the negotiations. The signs and slogans are written on poster boards as black and white as orca skin.
GIVE THEM WHAT THEY WANT.
KILLER WHALES HAVE RIGHTS.
FREENESS FOR ORCINUS.
Bly has no choice but to cave. Grandmother K agrees to maintain stewardship of the Sound’s marine health—in return for a fish farm chock-full of Chinook salmon.
The eggheads think it’ll do more harm than good for the local ecosystem, but it’s the only bargaining chip Bly has.
And killer whales are vicious in negotiations.
It’s three weeks later that I’m back on a boat, a hydrophone plunged into the Puget Sound.
Grandmother K’s scarred dorsal fin cuts through the water.
“How come you didn’t show my face?” I say.
“You are a known quantity,” she says, the voice tinny in my ear. “I know how to deal with you. I will continue dealing with you.”
“You do what must be done. Like a killer. You think like us.”
I ponder that for a moment.
“You pulled off quite a maneuver,” I say. “I can’t believe I fell for it.”
“It pays to be seen as a naive brute of the sea.”
My face softens. “I never said that.”
“You do not have to say it.”
I sit there for a long time. And then I stand up, step up onto the edge of the boat, and dive off the side into ten-degree waters.
She surges below me, and I get a real good look at her for the first time.
Massive, muscular. White eyespots drawn at fierce angles. Scars from battles she fought decades before I was born. Her eyes are a deep brown, and in the filtered sunlight they almost look like pots of warm honey.
She blows bubbles and wriggles her body.
I return the gesture.
And then I smile a wide smile—wide as I can muster.
She returns it, and it’s all sharp teeth.
Naim Kabir has bounced between neuroscience, machine learning, and software engineering—but his first love was telling stories. He’s been lucky enough to appear in Clarkesworld and Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and he’s been featured on the Locus Recommended Reading List. You can catch past pieces at naimkabir.com or follow @kabircreates to see new ones—and you can certainly expect new ones.