4:4: “Whale Falls”, by Steven Mohan, Jr.

4:4: “Whale Falls”, by Steven Mohan, Jr.

To anyone else, the dim green ghosts that haunted Maryanne’s facemask would’ve been imperceptible, but she’d been down in the darkness and silence a long time. She’d grown accustomed to the eternal night of the abyssal plain.

Her suit’s onboard computer remembered the new whale falls and painted their dusky picture in three dimensions. It was just VR, of course. There was no way to know if the two immense corpses had shifted while she slept, or if they’d attracted an Architeuthis which even now waited to take her in its arms and tear through her armor with its beak.

She stopped, drew a deep breath of oxygenated perfluorocarbon, and savored the sensation of liquid filling her lungs. God, she’d been down here a long time.

A giant squid wasn’t the only potential threat. The falls could’ve attracted anything. It just wasn’t smart to blunder around in the dark. She should’ve turned on her external lights, bathed her suit in the deep’s feeble green glow.

But these were stage one falls not even a month old. Crabs and fish would come to feast on the flesh, and Maryanne was tired of sulfur-tainted clams. She stepped forward without turning on her lights.

The alchemy of death had transformed the whales into giant hills of flesh. They were California grays, the larger about forty tons, the smaller a quarter of that. The placement was unusual, the bodies had fallen side-by-side, separated by only sixty yards. Maryanne couldn’t avoid the conclusion that this had been a mother and her calf.

She leaned against the baby’s head and felt the soft, rubbery flesh through the molded substrate of her suit.

What killed you, little one?

When she’d been at 9° North, she had occasionally heard the deep, mournful call of a whale far above. Living grays never dove down to the abyssal plain, but sound traveled far in the cold, dense water and sometimes their whistles and groans filled the blackness. It had been an eerie sound at first, the keening of unseen behemoths, but after a time Maryanne learned to draw comfort from it, like the familiar creaking of a house settling for the night.

But 9° North had been a long time ago. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d heard a whale song.

Maryanne placed one gauntleted hand over her facemask, secured the VR display, and slowly raised the brightness of her interior light until her eyes adjusted to quarter power. She dropped her hand and blinked on her external lights. Dozens of ghost crabs, colored pale green by the abrupt light, darted away. Her hands drifted forward (even after all this time she still felt like she was moving in slow motion) and snatched them up, dropping crabs in the sample bag clipped to her belt.

Her hands closed around a large specimen and she held it up. The crab was a foot across if it were an inch. Its legs thrashed madly and one claw grasped impotently at her armor. She traced an index finger across the crab’s pale green carapace.

“My, you’re a big fellow, aren’t you?” she whispered.

The crab turned bone white, as if the green were an illusion washed away by the sea. Maryanne started and dropped the crustacean; it scurried to safety.

She wheeled.

Light stabbed through the Stygian darkness. She blinked back tears. It wasn’t the green phantasmal glow of the deep’s living things. It was a bright halogen beam, white and pure, fashioned by the hand of man.

She’d lingered too long, distracted by the beauty of her garden. They had found her.

———•———

It was the nausea that finally got to Maryanne as she sat in her darkened stateroom staring down at a chart of the East Pacific Rise and the ugly grease-pencil “X” someone had drawn through 9° 50′ North. She’d learned to endure the tension headaches and the sweating (heat pushed through her body like a wave, even when she wore the slimmest bikinis modesty allowed), but she wasn’t used to an ocean that rolled.

She went to the lone porthole in her stateroom. R.V. Maurice Ewing bobbed on an ugly, frothing sea. Angry waves crashed over the ship’s bow, and the darkening sky heralded a storm. Maryanne staggered to her desk, put her head down, and focused on not throwing up.

Someone rapped on the door. (She could never bring herself to call it a “hatch.”) It opened a crack. “Maryanne,” said Robert softly. “You’re not trying to sleep are you?”

“It’s okay.”

He stepped into the stateroom and closed the door behind him. “You wanted to see me.”

He looked at a section of the wall above her right shoulder. Doctor Robert Ng of Woods Hole was a big man, easily six three and two twenty. He wore his glossy black hair short in front but long in back. She saw his face clearly in the darkness, but there wasn’t enough light to pick up the hazel-blue mix of his eyes or the spray of freckles across his nose.

For a second, her hands fluttered in front of her until she forced them to her sides. “Have you thought about my proposal?”

At the sound of her voice, Robert turned a little so he was almost looking at her. He fiddled with the zipper of the windbreaker he wore over his sweater. “I’m sorry about the smoker.”

The tension in his jaw told her everything she needed to know.

“Not sorry enough, I see,” she said softly.

“Have you downloaded Soto’s most recent paper?” he snapped.

Maryanne refused to be maneuvered into another discussion on global climate change. “There’s another smoker further north.”

“He’s documented a six-degree rise at McMurdo.”

Unfortunately Robert refused to be maneuvered out of another discussion on global climate change. That was the problem with being bull-headed: if you met someone equally determined you tended to talk past each other.

Maryanne sighed. “No, I haven’t read Soto’s most recent paper.” She’d been working twenty-hour days, trying to document everything she could before they pulled out.

Before the smoker died.

“Look, Soto’s research doesn’t matter. What I’m trying to-“

Robert exploded. “Increased temperature means increased rainfall. The Ross Ice Sheet is melting. That much fresh water dumped into the Southern Ocean will disrupt the thermo-”

Maryanne held up her hands. “I do have a doctorate, Robert.”

He drew a deep angry breath and visibly calmed himself. “Then you know what it means if we lose the thermohaline circulation. Everything from plankton to the organisms that feed on them will be impacted. A rerouted gulf stream means Europe freezes. Warmer water in the IO will cause plague in south Asia. That’s why Soto’s research matters.” Robert shook his head. “NOAA’s pulling all grants for deep sea research so they can focus on climate change. Can you blame them?”

“Robert, this is my life,” she shot back, “so don’t ask that question.” She had no friends except those as obsessed with marine biology as her (and no one was as obsessed with marine biology as her). There was no place for a lover either, not when a man’s touch felt like fire on her skin.

He took a step back and concern shaded his features. “Look-”

“No, you look.” She took a deep breath. “You have a strong marriage and two beautiful children, and I…” What? Six years before the only family she’d ever known had arrowed into the Colorado plains four miles short of DIA’s foul-weather runway. “I don’t,” she finished.

He moistened his lips. “The smoker’s not my fault, Maryanne.”

“No, but-” She’d known this might happen, had even planned for it, but it was bitterly disappointing still. “Would another three days make that much difference?”

“Hurricane Dora is moving in. We need to leave.”

“It’s early for cyclonic storms,” she said.

“Yeah, ain’t global warming a bitch.”

Maryanne looked up at him. “How long?”

Robert’s eyes must have adjusted to the darkness because his gaze seemed to meet hers. “Seven hours.”

Seven hours. That couldn’t be right. “W-what? You can’t-“

“It’s a category five, Maryanne.” His voice was gentle. “Alfred‘s already locked down in his cradle. You’ll recover the blind. We’ll launch Antoine as safety backup. Once we have the second Alvin and the blind locked down, we’ll set course for San Diego.”

Seven hours and then San Dog.

She’d known the smoker was dying. The Earth was healing the wound that pumped life-giving heat and sulfides into the ice-cold water of the deep. But this was so sudden, so brutal.

“I made myself a freak to be here. Robert, I don’t think-” she swallowed. “I don’t think I can-”

He knelt and placed an impossibly warm hand on her arm. “I know it’ll be hard to undo the mods. But we’ll all support you, everyone on the team.”

Undo the modifications. She hadn’t thought about that.

She’d gone through too much to give up her mods.

Gut-wrenching sickness when they reshaped her genes to express an antifreeze-building protein. Spells of fever chills punctuated by hot flashes as they coaxed her body into accepting a new, lower core temperature. And the PFC. No matter what clever stories her cortex devised, her reptile brain knew that breathing liquid was drowning.

Robert assumed she was worried about the long, painful process required to reverse the modifications. But it wasn’t pain and discomfort that frightened her. No, her terror grew out of the realization that they’d never let her come back.

She drew a deep, shuddery breath. “Let’s get this over with.”

———•———

The light winked out. Maryanne stared at where it had been, unsuccessfully trying to calculate distance. It’d been four years since she’d last seen real white light and there was nothing to provide scale.

But they were close.

Suddenly she was running, loping across the sea floor in giant, slow-motion strides that kicked up clouds of red clay and calcareous ooze. She had to get to the blind. She had to get away.

She ran for a long time, fleeing headlong into the near-perfect darkness, pulse pounding in her ears, lungs struggling to extract oxygen from PFC. Then she tripped and the abyssal plain came up to meet her.

———•———

Pain pulsed in Maryanne’s temple, dragging her back to consciousness. She groaned and pushed herself up. What happened?

The light.

She was on her feet again, turning in a circle, scanning the darkness for the threatening light.

Nothing.

Where was she? She’d been running and… Maryanne screwed her eyes shut. She’d tripped.

She studied the sea floor. She saw it then, a large, familiar jawbone, half-buried in the muck.

Of course. There was a stage three fall a couple miles from the blind. In her panic she must’ve stumbled into it. She dialed her exterior lights to full power, blinked them on, and it was there.

The spinal column was twisted into a graceful S. The vertebrae retained their processes and the ribs formed a recognizable cage braced against the seafloor. She licked her lips. This skeleton looked Saurian to her, as if it were a refugee from the Jurassic rather than a simple whale. Hagfish swarmed around bones encrusted with clams, mussels, and limpets. Maryanne walked slowly, careful not to crush the ubiquitous brittle stars that coated the ocean bottom. Her passage kicked up a cloud of amphipods: tiny crustaceans the size of fleas.

Maryanne dialed her exterior lights back down to quarter power. A constellation of dim green lights appeared in the darkness: organisms trying to see or be seen.

Her onboard told her the blind lay 2.2 miles away. It represented safety if she got to it in time. If not…

At full speed, the blind only made a fraction of a mile per hour, not fast enough to outrun an Alvin. If she led them to it she was done.

A six-foot gulper eel wriggled toward her, attracted by her lights. Its long, stringy body supported a huge head with a hinged jaw. The eel’s tiny eyes sat all the way forward on its snout. Maryanne waved at it, and the jaw shut with the clap of a wooden box closing. It turned and was gone in aninstant.

Here in the garden, with the creatures of the fall going about their business, it was hard to believe men were hunting her the way she’d hunted the crabs.

She heard a distant, uncertain sound. It might have been the whisper of water on water, the burble of current, but…

“Maryanne.”

She was instantly on her feet. The voice was garbled, twisted by distance and growler technology, but it was real and there was something familiar…

“Maryanne, answer. Are you down here?”

They were getting closer. She looked around for some avenue of escape. The barren plain offered nowhere to hide and since she couldn’t go for the blind she had nowhere to run either.

She would have to be clever.

That was all right. She’d been clever before.

A flicker of motion caught her eye and she turned. Scorching white light blinded her. Maryanne shielded her eyes with her forearm. She made out a pair of shadowy figures.

“Maryanne, is that really you?”

SONAR comms was an imperfect science. Converting a human voice into an electrical current and back again severely distorted it. The result was so garbled early submariners had called comm sets “growlers.” For all that, Maryanne instantly recognized the voice.

It was Robert’s.

———•———

The ocean’s disquiet buffeted her as she drifted down. Forty feet below the surface and she felt the coming storm. This one would be a monster.

She looked up. Antoine rocked just below the surface, manipulators folded beneath its gleaming white hull like arms.

A heavily distorted voice said, “I have a green board.” That was Josef. He and Ibrahim had drawn Alvin duty.

“Begin descent.” Robert’s voice sounded almost normal. Ewing‘s growler employed a compensation algorithm that used sound velocity profile data to adjust its signal.

The submersible slipped beneath the bright surface. Its orange conning tower was the lone flash of color in the blue sea.

Maryanne glanced down. Darkness lay below her. She’d set her fall rate at eight feet per second, which was pushing the edge of the safety protocols, but Robert would hopefully attribute the fast descent to her concern over the storm.

A minute passed. Another. Maryanne checked the depth readout. 1079 feet. Fourteen percent of the way down. Not nearly far enough. She bit her lower lip. She couldn’t change her fall rate without it showing up on telemetry. She hugged her knees to her chest and tucked her body into a ball to minimize drag.

She checked her depth. 3470. That meant Antoine was near three grand. That should’ve been enough.

She had adjusted the breaker in Antoine‘s main bus to trip at half the normal current. As the submersible descended, it’d draw more amps for lights and heaters until the breaker went. The submersible would go dark and quiet. And it would fall.

Eventually emergency power would kick in, Josef would order an emergency ascent, and that would be that. No big.

Except it should’ve happened by three thousand feet.

Maryanne clenched her jaw. If she’d miscalculated, and the Alvin sank much farther, there might not be time to recover before it hit bottom. Antoine was a tough little customer, but if the submersible slammed into the seafloor systems would be damaged and leaks would form.

And if she knew Robert, he’d deploy Alfred. If people were trapped on the bottom, Robert would put the second Alvin in the water, even with a hurricane bearing down on them.

How many lives was she gambling? Josef and Ibrahim, the second Alvin’s crew, everybody if the storm caught Ewing.

She looked at the depth readout. Based on her own depth and assuming Josef was descending at the standard seven feet per second, Antoine had …

Ten minutes.

How long would it take to recover after the breaker tripped? Emergency backups should come on automatically, but would Josef have the presence of mind to immediately blow ballast?

She looked up. Antoine was a lonely blue star in the deep’s eternal night.

“Come on,” she whispered. “Come on.”

Her gaze drifted down and then back up. Eight minutes. Maryanne tasted bile at the back of her throat. She couldn’t let this happen. “Ewing, this is Evans.”

“Go ahead, Maryanne.”

She swallowed. How was she supposed to tell him? “I don’t-“

The light winked out.

“Shit.”

“What is it, Maryanne?” asked Robert sharply.

“I’ve lost visual contact with Antoine.”

“Josef? Are you there, Joe?” asked Robert. “Ibrahim? Antoine, this is Ewing. Respond.”

Maryanne bit her lip.

“Antoine, this is Ewing. Please Respond.”

Seven minutes.

“Joe, please.”

“We’re here, Robert.” The growler signal was twisted and gravelly, but Maryanne heard the edge of panic in Josef’s voice. She looked up and saw the blue light far above her.

“Status,” snapped Robert.

“Lost power,” croaked Josef. “Took a sec for backup to come on.”

“Emergency ascent,” said Robert.

“Already rising.”

“Thank God,” whispered Maryanne.

“Storm’s getting worse,” said Robert. “Recovery’s going to be a bitch. Maryanne, how much-” He paused. “You’re still descending.”

She started. “What?” She tapped the emergency hover button on her left wrist. The hiss of pressurized nitrogen and the sudden jerk of neutral buoyancy signaled that she’d stopped.

“You violated safety protocols,” shouted Robert. “During a submersible casualty the diver immediately goes into emergency hover.”

“I’m sorry,” she said honestly. Maryanne owed him that much at least. “I was worried about Josef and Ibrahim.”

Robert’s voice softened. “We’ll discuss it later. Begin your ascent.”

Her eyes flickered to the depth readout: 5637. “Are you sure that’s the right call?”

“We don’t have time to preflight and launch Alfred, not with the storm coming and Antoine waiting to be recovered.”

“I’m seventy percent down. I’ll be on the bottom in five minutes.”

“That’s a negative.”

“Robert, if we don’t recover the blind now, we won’t get another chance.”

“We’ll come back after-”

“They won’t let you come back,” said Maryanne bitterly. “Not when every penny is needed for climate research.”

“I won’t compromise your safety.” Robert’s voice was hard.

“It’s fifty-six hundred feet to the ship and only two thousand to the blind. If safety’s really the issue you’ll send me down.”

She knew she’d won when he paused. “Be careful,” he whispered.

Maryanne closed her eyes and resumed her descent.

———•———

Robert? After all these years. “What do you want?”

“My God, you’re really alive.”

Maryanne felt a twinge of guilt. She hadn’t been prepared for the mixture of sadness and relief that broke in his voice.

“So this is her.” said the other man. His voice was as thin and dry as paper. Maryanne wondered if he were the muscle.

“Yes,” Robert whispered.

“Can you cut the light?” asked Maryanne. “It’s a bit bright for the abyssal plain.”

The second man sighed, but the light cut out, leaving Maryanne blinking away red spots. She dropped her arm. “Who are you?”

“Aaron Cardif,” said the second man.

“But what do you do? Psychiatrist, security, what?”

“I’m an accountant.”

Maryanne’s laugh was skeptical. “Really?”

“It’s true,” said Robert.

“What’re you doing here?”

“Penance,” said Cardif.

Her eyes readjusted and she realized the men wore what looked to be wet-suits and facemasks, hardly appropriate attire for an environment where thirty-four degrees was balmy and pressure was several hundred atmospheres.

They must’ve undergone more severe mods than she had, and seven years ago hers had been state of the art. They couldn’t be here just to find her. “You never answered my question.”

The men glanced at each other. “We’d like to ask you to come back,” said Cardif.

“Ask?”

“We’re here to look after your best interests,” he said.

She studied the eyes behind his facemask. Wrinkles radiated from the corners. Was he old or were the wrinkles a result of his mods? “That sounds vaguely threatening.”

Cardif snorted.

“I’d be happy just to know why,” said Robert gently.

“I tried to explain it to you once before, Robert,” said Maryanne sharply. “You didn’t get it then. Why do you think you’d understand now?”

“You owe it to me to at least try.”

“I don’t owe you a damn thing.”

“Good to see you haven’t lost your charming personality,” muttered Cardif.

She turned on him. “Do you have children, Mr. Cardif?”

He flinched. “No.”

“Then you wouldn’t understand.”

“Because no one’s ever experienced loss but you.” The bitterness in his tone surprised her.

“Who are you?”

“That’s enough, Maryanne,” said Robert, anger tightening his voice. “There’s a lot you don’t know.”

“What? Did Soto publish another paper?”

Robert’s head jerked back as if he’d been slapped.

She folded her arms and waited, but neither man spoke for a long, uneasy moment. “How’d you find me?” she finally asked.

“It took two years, but when I got the resources together, I sponsored another expedition to 9° North.”

“You mean Woods Hole sponsored another expedition.”

Robert shook his head.

“But that-” She stopped. “That must have been thousands of dollars.”

“I had to find out what happened. Especially after I almost lost Josef and Ibrahim.”

The twinge of guilt became a stab. “Yeah. About that. You know-”

“I know.” Robert’s voice was hard.

“You shouldn’t have come.” Her tone answered his.

“But we did,” said Cardif. “Once Robert realized you might be alive, he scanned the ocean bottom until he found the blind.”

The blind. Could they really know where it was? Her heart hammered in her chest. No. Cardif was bluffing, trying to draw her out. “How clever.” She fought to keep the uncertainty out of her voice, hoping the growler would disguise what she couldn’t cover up.

“It’s time to come back,” said Robert.

“Wait. Listen first.” She knelt in the ooze and placed a hand on a bunch of vesicomyid clams. “This fall is technically a stage three, Robert.”

He pointed to the fuzzy orange caterpillars swarming over the bones. “Polychaete worms are characteristic of stage two.”

“Stage two?” asked Cardif.

He clearly wasn’t there for his biological expertise.

“Whale falls pass through three stages,” said Maryanne. “Stage one falls attract large scavengers: crabs, fish, even deep-water sharks. There’s thirty tons of organic material in the average fall and they get the better part of it.

“Second stage is smaller scavengers,” she nodded at the worms, “cleaning the bones of all traces of flesh. This generally takes a year.”

“It has to be stage two if there are polychaetes,” said Robert.

Maryanne shook her head. “Robert, this fall was well into stage two when I first surveyed it three years ago.”

“That’s not possible.”

“See for yourself. There are plenty of stage three organisms: tubeworms, vesicomyids, Idas washingtonia.”

“I hate to be obtuse,” said Cardif, “but…”

Maryanne glanced at the chronometer readout painted on the inside of her facemask with green photons. It had been an hour since she’d first seen the light. How long could they stay down? “During stage three, the bones themselves are dissolved for the sulfides they contain.”

“This is what makes the falls so critical,” said Robert. “Vent organisms cluster around black smokers, but eventually the vents close and the ecosystem dies.” He carefully avoided looking at her. “Because they may be separated by hundreds of miles, there is no mechanism for organisms to migrate from vent to vent, except-”

“Whale falls,” said Cardif.

“That’s right,” Maryanne said. “Falls provide the only other extant source of sulfides on the ocean bottom. They serve as stepping stones in the dispersion of vent organisms.”

“But this…” Robert shook his head.

“This is something new,” said Maryanne. “Last time I surveyed this fall it supported a quarter of a million animals of 400 species.”

“Twice the number of species and an order of magnitude more animals,” said Robert. “How can that be?”

“Let me get this straight,” said Cardif, “you’re seeing a lot more biodiversity than you expected?”

Maryanne ignored him. “This is a garden, Robert. Can you explain what’s happening here? I can’t and I’ve been here three years. There’s some factor that has caused life to blossom.”

“You must come back.” Cardif’s voice was colder than the icy waters in which they stood, and there was strength strung through it like the carbon chain embedded in the crystalline structure of polysteel.

Maryanne turned on him. “Everywhere we look we see the signs of man’s hand on the Earth,” she said savagely. “Science documents the holocaust sweeping through the ecosphere. I’ve found a place that’s unexpectedly alive, and I want to study that for awhile.” She turned to Robert. “I’m staying.”

Robert shook his head. “Please, Maryanne.”

“I knew you wouldn’t understand,” she said bitterly.

Her eyes flickered to the chronometer. Seventy-one minutes. If she could stall them, convince them to leave without her, she might have time to move the blind.

“We need you,” Robert whispered.

Maryanne snorted.

“It’s obvious we’re not going to resolve this quickly,” said Cardif. “Perhaps we could discuss it somewhere more comfortable.”

“I-” Maryanne began. He was fishing for the blind’s location. His face was perfectly blank behind his clear mask, but his eyes pierced her. If she agreed to discuss the situation there, they’d just outwait her. No, she had to keep the blind’s location a secret. “I have work to do. We can talk as well here as anywhere else.”

Cardif nodded. “You and Robert talk as long as you like, but I’m an old man.” He pointed to the southwest. “You don’t mind if I borrow your blind do you?”

He was walking in the right direction.

“Wait.”

Cardif stopped and turned.

If he got to the blind without her, he’d lock her out. Her choices were rapidly dwindling. “All right. Let’s talk.”

———•———

Maryanne settled to the bottom and glanced up. She prayed that Josef and Ibrahim had survived her little trick.

Then she flicked on her light and looked around.

There are places on the ocean’s bottom where the Earth is wounded, where tectonic forces have torn away her skin and blood seeps from her body. Water superheated by magma pours from these wounds and mixes with the frigid water of the abyssal plain, precipitating great billowing clouds of iron sulfide that drive the engine of life.

Unfortunately, like any living organism, the Earth eventually heals herself.

She knelt and buried a palm-sized disc in the ooze. A red LED display synched to her onboard started counting down. She had fifteen minutes.

The magma cooled as it rose, leaving behind a complex structure of interconnected chimneys, a bizarre pipe organ crafted of stone. Sulfur deposits tinted the structure dirty orange. Smoke rose haltingly from the chimneys, reminding her of candles guttering out.

A forest of worms surrounded the smoker, their scarlet bodies peeking out from pale white tubes. Hidden among the worms, blood-colored shrimp with glowing eyes mingled with colorless crabs. Tiny siphonophores nicknamed dandelions for their golden color and flowery shape drifted on the mild current.

It was beautiful, unique.

Doomed.

No smoke meant no sulfides, and sulfide-based chemosynthesis was the food chain’s anchor. Without it there could be no worms and dandelions, no crabs and shrimp.

Maryanne turned her back on the vent and walked toward the blind. It crouched in the darkness, a rock-encrusted mechanical crab the size of an RV. She placed a hand on its polysteel hide and felt the hum of electricity. The blind was coated with a piezoelectric paint. The crushing pressure of the deep provided an endless power supply.

She pulled herself up and into the lock, secured the door, flipped a lever made of stainless, and waited as the blind’s computer pumped the water out.

The inner door clicked open.

“Link to the blind’s computer.”

Her onboard flashed “DONE” on the inside of her facemask.

With a blink she downloaded a very special program into the blind’s computer. The software put a timer up on the polyglass of the forward port and slaved it to the disc’s time index. The program flooded the maintenance bay, dumped selected spare parts into the deep, and hid its actions from Ewing. The telemetry the ship received would show the blind in normal standby mode with one critical exception.

She initiated the suit removal procedure. Her onboard drained PFC from her helmet and replaced it with air. Equalizing pressure hissed when she undogged the helmet and pulled it off.

The blind’s interior wasn’t much more than her bunk, a closet-sized bathroom, and the status board. All she needed was a place to eat and sleep between forays into the deep.

“Ewing, this is the blind.”

“I’ve got you, Maryanne. Status?”

“The air’s a little stale.” She glanced at the board. It looked exactly like it had when she last left it: an unbroken sea of calm green lights. “I’ve got a red on ballast two.”

“Specify.” Concern tightened Robert’s voice.

“No prob,” Maryanne said. “Just the strain gauge.” The strain gauge warning light on ballast two was perpetually illuminated by a ground fault. She glanced at the timer.

“I thought you fixed that short.”

“I did, too. We’ll get it when we get her back up.

“Maryanne …” Robert’s voice was faint, as if he’d turned away from the pick-up. He was studying her telemetry. “You have your helmet off.”

“Yes.” The counter showed thirty seconds. Twenty-nine. Twenty-eight.

“That light indicates a sizeable deformation of the ballast tank, if it collapses-”

“It’s just a short.”

“What if it’s not?”

She snorted. “You try wearing armor twenty hours a day.” Ten seconds left.

“Maryanne-”

“Damn it, Rober-”

The roar of detonation interrupted her. Simultaneously, the Trojan horse she’d loaded into the blind’s computer cut all comms with Ewing.

Maryanne bent over the panel and grasped the joystick. The blind rose on its legs and slowly skittered away from the dying smoker at 9° North.

———•———

They crowded together in a space designed for two. Maryanne took the chair in front of the status board. Robert glanced around and finally sat on the bunk. Cardif stood.

Maryanne took her helmet off, but left the armor on. The men pulled off their hoods and masks. She frowned. They weren’t breathing PFC.

Robert’s face was thinner and more angular than she remembered and he wore his hair in a crew cut that was graying on the sides. He looked older.

Cardif was older still. His watery blue eyes were set in a wrinkled face and his hair was stringy and white. His face was drawn.

Robert shivered. “It’s cold.”

“Not much warmer than the ocean,” Maryanne said. But, she thought, how can he be cold if he’s been modified to survive on the abyssal plain in a wet suit?

Cardif wrinkled his nose. “What’s that smell?”

Robert looked at him. “If you eat clams and shrimp from falls you have to expect sulfur.”

“Are you hungry?” Maryanne asked.

Cardif paled.

She shrugged. “Suit yourself.”

“Doesn’t sound like a balanced diet,” he managed.

“I have supplements.”

“The supplements will run out,” said Robert. “So will your spare parts. Especially since you dumped most of them at 9° North to make us believe the blind imploded.”

“I’ll manage,” said Maryanne tightly.

“All of which is beside the point,” said Cardif.

“Then what’s the point?”

“That you’ll want to come home.”

She shook her head. “I am home. There’s nothing for me up there. Robert should’ve told you I have no family. I was an only child and my parents died in a plane crash ten years ago.”

“I know about your parents,” said Cardif softly.

“Then you should know nothing matters more to me than my work.”

“Nothing matters more to you than the sea,” corrected Cardif. “You abandoned your work when you risked the lives of your colleagues and stole a multi-million dollar piece of equipment.”

Maryanne said nothing.

“That’s why you’ll want to leave.” Cardif tossed her his hood.

She caught it. It was cool and pliable in her hands.

“Some new kind of Gortex. So what?” Even as she said it, she knew it couldn’t be true. Nothing as insubstantial as Gortex could protect a man from the abyssal plain unless he were no longer a man. And here Robert and Cardif sat, shivering from the cold, gulping air, behaving like men.

Cardif shook his head.

“It’s woven from carbon filament and embedded with nanites,” said Robert. “It expels CO2, admits oxygen, and blocks water. It’s perfect at the molecular level so it’s incredibly strong.”

“Strong enough to withstand tremendous pressure,” Maryanne guessed.

Both men nodded.

“And Maxwell’s Demon keeps the cold out,” said Robert.

She closed her eyes. “Anyone can come to the deep.”

“And anyone will,” muttered Cardif. “There are going to be tourists. Perhaps even theme parks. Disney on the abyssal plain.”

Maryanne scowled at him. “You’re trying to manipulate me to get the blind back.”

Robert shook his head. “Woods Hole wrote it off two years ago. I’m sure there’s an insurance company somewhere that cares, but I don’t. I didn’t spend all those sleepless nights worrying about the blind.”

Cardif jerked his head towards the hood in her hands. “Don’t you get it? Even without the blind you can stay.” He paused. “But you shouldn’t.”

She tried to swallow, but her mouth was dry. “None of this makes sense. Why would tourists come to the bottom of the ocean?”

“Because.” Robert’s voice creaked with pain. “There will come a time when only the abyssal plain-” He stopped, drew a deep breath, and looked down. When he looked up his eyes were shining.

“Don’t bother,” said Cardif gently. He turned to look at her and his voice hardened. “Dr. Evans already knows the answer to her own question. She’s too good a scientist not to understand what’s causing this explosion of life on the abyssal plain.”

Maryanne found she couldn’t speak.

“You said stage two organisms were scavengers,” said Cardif ruthlessly. “Scavengers need something to scavenge. Something above has to be dying. We mapped this area while we were searching for the blind. Would it surprise you to learn that there are seventy-four whale falls within a twenty mile radius?”

“No,” Maryanne whispered.

“The tourists will come here because there’s nowhere else for them to go. The ecosystems above are dying.”

Maryanne shook her head.

“We’re working to save everything we can,” said Robert. “We could use your help.”

“You won’t save much.” She couldn’t still the tremor in her voice.

Robert shrugged.

“I can’t go back.” Her throat closed around the words, making it hurt to talk.

“It can’t last,” said Robert softly. “The abyssal plain lives off carrion, but when the oceans above are,” he hesitated, “sterilized-“

“I know,” she snapped. She looked down. “I know.”

“You’re just putting off the inevitable,” said Cardif.

She looked up at him. “Who the hell do you think you are?”

Cardif said nothing.

“Aaron is an old friend,”said Robert.

“Or more precisely, my wife was an old friend of Robert’s wife.”

“But not anymore,” she said.

“Oh, I imagine they’re still friends.” He glanced at Robert. “Though I don’t know for sure.”

Robert said nothing.

“May I tell you a story, Dr. Evans?” asked Cardif.

She shrugged.

“A long time ago, so long that diseases were still uncommon enough to have names, I had a little boy. His name was Samuel. He was four.” Cardif’s voice was clear and mechanical, each word chosen with unflinching precision. “My little Samuel contracted myelodysplasia.”

Maryanne shook her head.

“It’s a rare form of leukemia that is always fatal.”

Maryanne flinched at the word fatal, but Cardif went on without pausing, his voice cold and hard.

“When Samuel first got sick, I fought for him like a lion. I put him in the best hospital, got him the best doctors, the newest experimental treatments.

“Nothing worked.” A hint of anger grew in his voice. “He got weaker and weaker and nothing worked. Nothing. I started finding reasons-” his face twisted, and then all trace of emotion disappeared. “I started finding reasons not to go to the hospital. It hurt too much to watch Samuel die.” He swallowed, looked down. When he went on his voice was hoarse. “I wasn’t there at the end.”

“Your wife left you,” she said softly.

“Of course. I abandoned her son.”

Unable to meet Cardif’s eyes, she looked over at Robert who peered at her intently.

Maybe there came a time to leave the garden and return to the wider world. “All right,” she whispered. She turned and looked at Cardif. “How-” She swallowed. “How did your wife learn to live with the pain?”

“I don’t know,” said Cardif softly. “But I suspect it’s easier if you find the courage to say goodbye.”

She went to the forward port and snapped on the external lights. A finned octopod recoiled from the sudden brightness and released the small hatchet fish caught in its tentacles. A gulper eel threaded its way between a pair of ribs.
She placed her hand against the cold glass.

Tourists. Theme parks. This place was stillness and quiet. Reverence. The falls were sacred-monuments, cathedrals.

Graveyards.

She winced. The idea of a Disneyland in the darkness was obscene. She couldn’t live with that.

A pale white crab skittered across the mud.

Life here was opportunistic, feeding off bones in the darkness. Finding a way to survive, even in this vast marine desert.

Maryanne picked up her helmet. Yes, she’d go back, help Robert save what could be saved. Find a way to survive. How could she not?

She, too, was a creature of the whale falls.


Steven Mohan, Jr. lives in Pueblo, Colorado with his wife Jo Anne, their three children, and, surprisingly, no cats. When not writing he works as a manufacturing engineer. His fiction has appeared in Interzone, Polyphony, On Spec, and Paradox, among other places. His stories have won honorable mention in The Year’s Best Science Fiction and The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror.

The inspiration for “Whale Falls” was a National Geographic photo of a gray whale skeleton resting on the ocean bottom. These bones, which looked like a fossilized relic from the ancient past, were a banquet to the life of the deep, dark. I realized then that the abyssal plain was an alien world–but one we humans could touch.



Leave a Reply