The Dorsal Wake
“This ship is a special circle of The Inferno.” I basked in Titan’s incandescence, my condensed breath veiling the bubble of the Blowhole’s dome. I reminded myself that I could’ve stayed Earthside, risking unemployment or prison. Working in Reproductive Medicine on a planet plagued by waves of religious fervor was tricky business. My only option was to head for space, which meant working for Ceti Corp.
Could prison be worse than the past year with Nils and Misha? Than the dehumanizing restrictions in my new career as a Mediator?
I rubbed at my throbbing temples. I’d been practicing the chanting and drumming that was part of the Mediator training. Despite what the Orcas said, I’d yet to experience emotional tranquility or spiritual enlightenment.
The Captain’s Cajun Curse came screaming through our aural implants. “Voila merde! Where are my shields – we’re in Saturn’s rings. All hands, prepare . . .”
The inexorable hand of inertia crumpled me into the observation dome, the moon’s orange glow replaced by the cold blue decompression alarm.
* * *
“Incoming message from Base.”
“Put it through aural, Daniel,” the Captain said.
“Ceti Company Ship Dorsal Wake, this is Ceti Company Base. We acknowledge your SOS. We are disappointed you will miss the rendezvous.”
The message continued, “Mediator Callas consults with the Board . . .”
Chatter about the Mediator whose disregard for humanity was legend drowned out the next part.
“. . . be advised that the only crew ship is six weeks from Titan. If necessary, the research vessel Kelp Dancer can reach you in two weeks to pick up the cargo, but it cannot carry standard humans. As usual, your pay will be docked for the cost of mounting the rescue, and for damage to the ship or cargo.”
A pipe leading from engineering carried a muffled “son of a bitch.”
“To avoid this, attempt repairs and continue your mission. Ceti Base Prime out.”
* * *
“Dr. Liu, the cargo?” The Captain’s question snapped me out of the reverie I had reestablished with Titan. I switched from external to cargo feed on my retinal implant and was blasted by shrieking alarms.
“In three weeks the backup generator will give out and they’ll thaw.”
I imagined the tiny embryos flopping like fish stranded on a shoreline. Serves them right.
“Damn. How ’bout us, Misha?”
“Captain, we have five weeks of food and water on quarter rations. If we begin right now, we might make six. Our air will get bad near the end, too.”
“Dr. Liu, can we do less than quarter rations for six weeks?”
Fingertips chewed to the bone.
“I don’t recommend it.”
I slid a hand through my hair to calm myself in a futile gesture when my hand came away with a clump of black curls.
I blinked and they were gone.
“We took a year’s worth of radiation when the shields fell. I have pills to cover us for that dose, but they won’t protect us from another micrometeoroid hit.”
The Captain ignored me and asked Nils. “How are the shields holding up?”
“Don’t listen to her. The power failure in the shield generator was a fluke, probably caused by a power surge when the doctor was doing a diagnostic on cargo.”
My frustration flashed into a riptide of anger.
“That’s a lie, and you know it. Admit you followed the ‘recommended maintenance schedule’ instead of risking your pay for spending ‘unnecessary funds’ on the ship.”
“Says the woman who talks to herself . . .”
“Tuat t’en grosse bueche! We are all responsible for the safety of the ship. I need solutions, people. What about propulsion? Any chance for repair?”
Nils sighed, “I’ve stabilized power, but our main engines are out and we can’t do anything but keep the ship in orbit.”
Misha cleared her throat. “I think we can re-purpose the main engines to improve our environmental systems. I can get us six weeks, maybe more. But it means sacrificing much of what is left. We’d have to put down on Titan.”
Nils spluttered, “Now, sweetheart, I don’t think . . .”
She cut him off. “Maintaining orbit won’t do us any good if we starve to death. You screwed this one up, Mr. Sigurdson. I can fix it.”
Daniel spoke up after a few seconds of silence. “I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m willing to pay anything to get out of here. Let’s call Base and ask them to send a ship now.”
The Captain grunted approval. “Daniel, tell Base that we can’t repair the damage, and that cargo is running on backup, so we request the Kelp Dancer immediately to pick up the cargo. We can hold out for six weeks for human crew ship to rescue us, but not much longer. We’ll have to accept the cost.”
I watched the inscrutable surface of Titan swirling below in my retinal feed, wondering how I would ever be able to pay off my debts to the Company.
* * *
Misha staggered into the medical pod two hours later, blood streaming down her face from a gash in her scalp.
“Ceiling-panel-fell-on-me-I’m-not-his-girlfriend-you-know,” gushed out of her mouth.
She sat on the exam table and started again. “I mean, well, we were sleeping together, but he’s not really my type. We haven’t had sex in months – if you could call what we did sex to begin with.”
She smoothed a wrinkle out of the exam table. “I, um . . . overheard you talking in the Blowhole, and I realized that you two used to be together. If I knew I wouldn’t have, well, you know. I wondered why you never seemed to like us, but I thought you were . . . anyhow, I hope that you don’t hate me.”
I picked up a bottle of disinfectant and a wad of gauze. “This will hurt a little,” I said, pouring the disinfectant on her head to flush the wound.
She gasped, and I felt a tiny bit of satisfaction at her discomfort.
“Did he tell you why we broke up?”
“He wanted me to take a job on Base. He said that he needed me to be ‘a warm body at port’. I needed a ship job for the hazard pay, or my family Earthside would end up in prison – or worse – because of my debts.”
“Oh. His salary wasn’t enough?”
I laughed while mopping the wound. “That’s what I asked. He said that I had to pay my own debts, and he wasn’t about to support ‘deadbeat refugees.’ That’s when I realized I had mistaken his bravado for strength.”
“Yeah. He’s a coward and a selfish bastard,” she said, and we laughed.
The loneliness of my self-imposed separation from the crew and upcoming separation from humanity waiting for me on Enceladus lifted from my chest, borne away by our shared laughter.
“Hold this and keep pressure,” I put her hand up to the gauze, turning to fix up another bandage.
“Where did you grow up . . .?”
My question was cut off by a hiss and whoosh of air. I turned to see Misha crumple sidewards onto the exam table, a small red blossom expanding at her temple, the bulkhead hissing where air was escaping into space.
The exam room turned blue as the decompression alarms wailed on, the blood spreading below Misha’s pale face shined a liquid black.
* * *
“Merde. We have one window for safe atmospheric entry. All hands, descent in two minutes.”
I struggled the entire time to strap myself into an acceleration chair, clumsy in a bulky decompression suit. I tightened the harness and turned my head toward a porthole just in time to see Saturn’s shimmering rings slip into view.
The ship had turned its broad black belly to Titan and began to vibrate, a low hum that quickly engulfed everything.
“Titan, if you are going to eat us, please let it be quick.”
The rings slid from view replaced by a creamy haze. The repair kit I had used on the holes in my bulkhead bounced off of my helmet followed by a rain of objects I hadn’t time to stow away.
Compression screwed my entire body down as the ship plummeted. The vibration increased until a shudder rippled through the ship, rattling my bones like a bell.
A roar filled the ship as we hit the dense atmosphere, drowning out my scream. I tapped into the visual feed.
“Fuck, ohfuckohfuckohFUCK!” The brilliant corona of our shock wave filled my retinal display, a coruscating glory of burning death.
My eyes said I was falling forward into fire, while my body told me I was falling back into the soft padding of my chair. I vomited from vertigo, my eyes squeezed shut in futile denial of the feed.
After an eternity of cacophonic hellfire, an unholy banshee shriek rose to a painful pitch then died when the ship’s nose leveled off. I opened my eyes when the glowing halo dimmed, replaced by a ruddy mélange below, the indistinct abstract landscape superimposed over the cubist minimalism of the ship’s interior.
Captain Lafayette’s announcement split my battered skull. “I’m shooting for a polar lake to soften our landing, but it’s going to be a hard one. Hold on.”
The unfocused canvas beneath us rendered into red mountains, brown valleys, and black lakes as we sped toward the surface. Too fast. I shut off the feed.
Several wrenching maneuvers, and then I was pushed back again by a sudden increase in velocity. I felt the landing engines fire, though their siren scream was overwhelmed by the shriek of metal and the sounds of the end of the world. My forehead cracked into my helmet on the final slam forward.
Through my blood-and-vomit-smeared faceplate I watched the surface gradually slip from view, the porthole filling with black ooze as we sank into our ethane tomb. My view wavered and twisted as tears joined the blood streaming down my face, my nostrils clogged with my own reek.
* * *
The odd thing about facing death repeatedly and surviving it is that begins to erode your barriers about everything in-between.
“Everyone alive?” Relief that I was not the only one to survive flooded me when I heard the Captain’s voice, and for Nils and Daniel as they checked in.
It bled away when I checked the cargo’s status.
“Captain, we lost a backup generator. The cryos have a week.”
The silence that followed stole the rest of my elation. “Daniel, send another SOS. We need the Kelp Dancer, now.”
I untangled myself from my suit and the wrecked medical pod to treat the crew’s injuries.
Afterward, I returned to the Blowhole, frustrated that I had nothing to do but wait for Base to reply. The cramped space and curving dome above making the space feel as though I was a message shoved into a bottle carelessly cast into the sea, waiting for someone to find me.
I hit the switch that slid the shutters open. The dome was coated in black swirling filaments. Switching to the external view in my retinal feed showed the lake enveloped the entire ship, its omnipresence animated with undulating currents that suggested hidden horrors, seemingly alive and resentful of our presence.
I escaped the pollution of Earth, only to die in the largest hydrocarbon sea in the solar system. For whales.
I startled when the reply came from Base directly through my aural. My retinal clock showed six hours had lapsed as I had lain mesmerized by the slithering goo.
“CCS Dorsal Wake, this is Ceti Base. Our condolences on your loss. The Board decided that we cannot reach you in time to save the cargo. We have called off the CCS Kelp Dancer. The salvage ship CCS Spyhopper is still six weeks out, if you can survive until then. If not, we will pass any last messages you would like to send to your loved ones, along with your assets, once your debts and salvage costs are remunerated.
“The Board mourns for their lost children. Ceti Base Prime out.”
Cold laughter filled the Blowhole. I rolled to my side, the bulkhead blurring behind the tears cresting my eyes.
Darkness pressed down through the dome. I swallowed against the creeping sensation that the alien ocean was crushing me.
I found the switch to close the shutters, then pulled myself together to confront the cause of our destruction.
But I wasn’t the only one who wanted to have a word with them.
“Nils, stop!” The chair he threw at the cryo chamber missed and hit the wall, breaking into several pieces.
He looked over his shoulder where I stood frozen with one leg through the cargo pod hatch. “Anna, don’t get in my way. These little fuckers deserve to die.” He picked up a broken chair leg for another strike.
I carefully pulled my other leg in. “You have a point there, but they didn’t do it, Nils. Their parents didn’t wreck the Earth. Hell, our grandparents were the ones who started this, playing God with DNA. They’re the ones who made the Orcas, then our parents’ generation let the whales take over the Company.”
“Dammit!” He threw the chair leg but it missed again. He slammed his fist into a crate, the impact padding wrapping around his fist and sucking it in.
I edged in front of the cryos. “Hasn’t there been enough death, already?”
“What the fuck do you think you are doing?” The Captain bellowed as he clambered into the cargo pod. The much larger Cajun restrained Nils just as he pulled his arm free. I sighed as the Captain dragged him screaming out of the cargo pod.
“The sins of the parents are visited upon their children,” I said to the Orca embryos.
The cryo chamber’s serene lights mocked me.
Part of me regretted stopping Nils, and part of me wished I wasn’t inclined to oppose him in everything . . . because.
Of course, if he’d offed the embryos, and if we were rescued, we’d all be facing jail, or worse. In this business, you learned quick that the Orcas are the only life that matter on these missions. It was easy to resent being expendable.
“If only we carried artificial gestation tanks, then it wouldn’t matter . . .”
I activated a search via retinal for a database I had been given in preparation for my new job as Mediator. For once, the Company’s sigil and motto, ‘Seeding Space For All Earth’s Children,’ stamped on all of their databases did not depress me.
* * *
“Are you kidding me? You want to impregnate us with whales? You are mad!” Nils screamed, spittle flying onto the galley table between us.
I ignored him. “Captain, we can hold out for three more weeks with our current air and food supply. If we tell them we were mistaken and that their embryos can make it until the Kelp Dancer arrives, they’ll take us, too, when they realize we carry their children. We can all survive this.”
“What makes you think they won’t just leave us to rot?”
“The Kelp Dancer doesn’t carry gestation tanks. If they cut them out of us, the fetuses will die, too. The whales may not want to deal with us normal humans, but the embryos are their people’s children. They’ll protect their own, even if it horrifies them to be in contact with us.”
I sent them my proposal via retinal. “Here are some schematics on artificial Orca gestation and my proposed adaptation for temporary surrogacy in human hosts. It is a simple adaptation of the current method of surrogacy used for . . .”
“C’est sa Couillon. This is foolishness, Doctor. No. It won’t work, and I certainly don’t want a whale in my . . . I’m not going to risk death so that they can survive.”
I sat back, stunned.
Daniel asked, “Come on, we have to come up with something! What if we ditch the whales? Can’t we go on ice ourselves? Are there any drugs you have to let us sleep through it?” He looked at me, desperate.
“Yes, they will die anyhow if we don’t go with my plan. But we will all be jailed or possibly executed if they find out we murdered their children.” I frowned.
I did not like where this was going.
“I do have drugs that put us into a semi-comatose state for several months. We don’t have enough IV nutrients to keep us alive that long. One of us would have to stay awake to feed and clean the others. But we’ll all be skeletal, hardly able to walk, and possibly unable to live in significant gravity ever again.”
“How do you know, Dr. Liu?” Daniel asked.
I looked him in the eye. “It has been done before. On the Bowrider. The medical officer who stayed awake chewed her fingertips to the bone.”
He looked away.
“She was my friend. Karlie committed suicide within a year, the rest of the crew were dead in three.”
Ironically, I would have killed to be rid of you all until we landed in this lake.
“That sounds like the only viable plan,” the Captain said after a minute of silence.
Nobody would return my glare. I threw up my hands.
The Captain cleared his throat and said, “I think that is what we will do. Everyone agree?”
Everyone but me nodded.
“OK. Daniel, send a message to Base. Tell them we’ve found a way to extend our time here with drugs, and that the cryos have failed. Ask them to send the salvage ship. They don’t have to know we’re using the cryos ourselves before we use the drugs.” Daniel nodded in reply.
“They’ll find out . . . ” I protested in vain at the Captain’s back as he climbed out of the galley hatch.
“It’s obvious that person has to be you who stays awake, Doctor,” Nils said, with a feral grin.
“Suppose it will be, won’t it?”
If you think I’m going to wipe your ass for six weeks, think again.
* * *
I could have killed Nils several times while he was anesthetized on my operating table. I could have killed them all, damning me to six cold weeks alone in Hell.
I didn’t. But how I wanted to make them wish I had.
* * *
“CCS Dorsal Wake, this is the CCS Kelp Dancer. We are sending Mediator Benoit down to retrieve the cargo.”
“Hygienic protocols are in place. We are prepared for Mediator Benoit,” I lied.
I pulled my legs down from where I had rested them up against a bulkhead to relieve the edema. After bidding goodbye to the demonic swirling sea above my head, I pushed to a stand and walked carefully to the airlock, aching and gravid from the large dose of hormones and drugs I took to support the triplets.
I laughed and waved when the Mediator’s black and white hygienic isolation suit came into view – the sight of a fellow human after two weeks alone exciting me as much as the prospect of rescue.
When she immediately backed up into the airlock and closed the door again at the sight of me, I felt a flash of disappointment, but I was not surprised. Her drum beat a furious syncopated rhythm and she emitted a series of ritual squeal-clicks as if to keep my polluting human presence from sullying her “purified essence.”
She pressed her helmet up against the glass, her black face furious behind the layers of glass.
I pressed the intercom button. “Where’s your hygienic suit, Doctor,” she demanded, accompanied by her drum and more “eek-eeps.”
“Oh, that. I’m part Orca now, so I figured I didn’t need it.”
I launched into my speech, rehearsed over so many weeks. Via retinal, I started the datastream detailing the rescue plan. I avoided words like “hostage” and “parasite.”
I concluded with, “For the record, the crew voted to kill the Cetacean embryos and adapt the cryo tanks for themselves, hoping to hold out long enough for a salvage ship. I was commanded to remain awake while the rest of the crew was maintained in a semi-comatose state. Once Captain Lafayette was under, I was in command. As acting Captain, I countermanded the previous order. With the eminent failure of backup power, I had no option to save the Cetacean fetuses other than placing them within our bodies.
“I’ve had plenty of time to make certain that the logs reflect these events exactly as I have stated. You have no choice but to take us to Enceladus. You carry no gestation tanks. Without the resources of a major medical center, they’ll die if you cut them out.” I patted my belly for emphasis.
She dropped her drumstick and was silent for what seemed like several minutes, calculating.
“Damn. You’ve just cost me several months in isolation,” she accused as she toggled open the airlock.
She stepped through and slid her helmet off over her beaded dreadlocks.
“Congratulations,” she said with a wry smile.
* * *
I was wrong. Titan was Purgatory. Two months in an isolation chamber undergoing “purification” with Nils is Hell.
Talking with Nils is crazier than talking to myself. Or to inanimate moons and frozen whale embryos. But he is all I have.
“You should thank me, you know,” I say as we play our drums, chanting and dancing a slow choreography, designed to purify our tainted souls.
He tries to ignore me, but the anger crawls through him until he bursts. “You impregnated me with whales! How dare you . . .”
“And you damned me to six weeks alone tending your ugly corpse. Besides, you weren’t even revived until the fetuses were in their gestation tanks. I’m the one who suffered through the drugs and the morning sickness, not you. As far as I’m concerned, we’re even.”
Nils growls, “Not by a long shot.”
“They lied about the salvage ship. Not a single ship was sent until I called for the Kelp Dancer, when they were sure they could rescue the embryos. They were going to leave us to die.”
He shuffles to a stop. “How do you know?”
“Mediator Benoit. She was bothered that they weren’t going to save us, but she couldn’t convince the Kelp Dancer’s Orcas otherwise. None of them really cared what happened to us. Once we had their attention, I made a deal.” A warning tone sounds from his collar to remind him of the rhythm.
“Here’s the best part. I reminded the Board that, in their religion, our ‘birthing’ their babies makes us the next generation’s matriarchs. I promised that we wouldn’t let the Solar System know what we’d done if they dropped the rescue and salvage fees, and gave us all bonuses and good jobs. Once we’re out of this tank, we’re Mediators. They hate it, but we win.”
He stands gaping like a fish until the gentle electrical prod from his collar reminds him of his duty. He jumps back into the dance recklessly, earning himself another shock.
I could get used to that part.
Danielle D.M. Gembala is a mother, archaeologist, and writer living in Portland, Oregon. She is grateful each day that all three occupations allow her to tell people stories, wear her pajamas until noon, and play in the dirt whenever she wants. “The Dorsal Wake” is the first piece of fiction she wrote after years of writing academic papers, technical reports, and museum signage for the National Park Service.