“The Singularity Whales”
by Timothy Mudie
There were always boats on the Charles—crew skulls, sailboats, duckboats showing around tourists—but the barge-like ferry carrying Renee and a couple hundred other commuters across to the Cambridge side was new, set up just two days ago since there was no way the trains could get across the newly-bombed Longfellow Bridge. No one had even taken credit. Some bombings it seemed like there weren’t even reasons for, like it was just a deadly combination of fatalism and boredom. Of course, the fatalism mixed with so much those days that who knew what the next combination would be. The imminent end of the world does bring out the crazies.
A crane was perched on another barge, this one anchored by the gap in the bridge. It was still creakily fishing cars out of the water, picking out the big pieces before dredging. Maybe they’d go all-out and dredge up the myriad crap that had gotten swept into the river when the waters rose despite everyone’s best efforts. Boston had been spared the devastation of really low-lying coastal areas—Pacific islands, the Low Countries, New Orleans—but a rising sea level swamps all coasts. Oil from submerged concrete had leached into the water, garbage that had casually been tossed on the side of the road and accumulated for years had floated into the river, become waterlogged and sank to the bottom. The previous efforts at dredging the Charles had been half-assed and most people assumed that the nanos had eaten anything left, but she didn’t buy it.
As if to prove her right, two kids were sitting on the dock the ferry was approaching, their little legs dangling off the side. Laughing happily, they tossed an empty two-liter bottle into the water. A dolphin shot from the dock and caught it with its nose, pushing it back to them and flipping it to their waiting hands.
Renee stared at the dolphin as the ferry pulled into the dock and the crowd began pushing toward the exit ramp. As the first feet clanked onto the wood the dolphin swam off, headed toward open water. Or maybe it was just going to join its friends. Since the waters had risen and even more since the nanos had been dumped in, dolphins had been venturing into the vastly expanded Charles. You could even see some smaller whales in the harbor and in the summer humpbacks and right whales out in the bay. She and a professor she’d dated her first year of teaching had spent a romantic afternoon on a beach in Duxbury sipping wine and listening to the snuffling spouts.
She shuffled along with the crowd of commuters, letting herself be carried along off the boat and down the ramp. The panhandlers and proselytizers who slummed around the Kendall station exits had quickly learned where to go and the usual crowd of them waited, hands out either asking for change or shoving pamphlets at people. Renee recognized some of them; the anti-immigrant woman, the the-end-is-near man with his sandwich board covered in pictures of flames and skeletons. Even he was relatively tame compared to the real death-cultists, the ones who believed the world was ending no matter what so why not sprint to the end. It was almost certainly one of those groups who had bombed the Longfellow. A scruffy, hip-looking man with the look of a graduate student stood out, perhaps it was the calm with which he handed out his flyers. As she passed, he handed one to her with a simple, “Here you go,” and she was on her way.
It had the same basic look as any flyer of pamphlet—folded in thirds, most of the writing on the inside, but with a picture of a whale taking up the whole front. Maybe a blue whale, she thought, but wasn’t sure. Definitely one of the bigger ones, the ones with the baleen instead of teeth so they could filter plankton from the ocean. It always amazed her how the biggest animals had evolved to take advantage of the smallest, part of the beauty of evolution. She had just opened it, a glance showed something about reversing the warming, but just then her phone started vibrating so she crumpled the pamphlet up and threw it in a recycling can she was passing.
She slid her finger across the phone’s screen to unlock it and pressed Receive.
“Hey, Mom,” she said as she tried to angle her way out of the mass of people and towards her apartment.
“Hi, honey,” her mother replied, “Are you home from work?”
“Walking,” she said, passing some Deniers with their ubiquitous Everything is Fine signs and pamphlets. She ignored them, not even looking when they tried to shove a flyer into her free hand. As soon as she was past them, she turned toward Mass Ave; just a couple blocks to her apartment now.
“Oh, well, I wanted to talk to you about your sister. Should I call back?”
“What about her?”
“Oh, you know me, I’m just worried,” her mother said, “Why don’t I call you back in ten minutes?”
“How bout I just call you when I get home? That okay?” she asked. “It’ll be less than ten minutes.” In fact, it would be less than five, but she wanted a few minutes to change into more comfortable clothes and maybe pour herself a glass of wine. As usual, it was hot out and a cold white wine would go down good. She had an Indian chardonnay that was supposed to be good, from the new coast.
“Okay,” her mother said, “I’ll talk to you in a few minutes. Love you.”
“Love you, too,” Renee said, and hung up.
As she approached her apartment she saw two teenage girls loitering in front of the apartment building three doors down, one furtively smoking a cigarette and looking around constantly. Further down the road, a man in a corduroy blazer hurried down the street, surely sweating in the heat. As Renee got closer to her building, the girl caught sight of her, dropped the cigarette, and watched as she walked up to her door. There was a flyer sticking out of her mailbox and she wondered if the girls had left it there. Either a menu or yet another polemic, she thought. Once she was closer her suspicions were confirmed; the blue whale’s head was just visible. She plucked the flyer from the mailbox, rummaged for the rest of her mail and went inside.
The moment she was in the door she dropped her tote bag from her shoulder and slipped out of her shoes. Even though they were sensible—she had never been one for heels—she was glad to take them off and let her feet breathe. She dropped the mail and flyer on the table by the front door and proceeded into the apartment. It was roomy enough for one person, though by no stretch of the imagination opulent. The tiny entrance way opened up into the living room, which branched out into a bedroom, bathroom and small kitchen. She walked immediately to the bedroom and changed into a pair of cotton pants and a tee shirt. As she headed to the refrigerator for the wine, she tapped her phone, dialing her mother’s number.
She picked up on the first ring. “Hi, honey,” she said. “Thanks for calling back so soon.”
“Of course. So, what’s up with Jo?”
Before her mother answered, the doorbell buzzed. Renee ignored it, pouring a glass of wine to the brim.
“Oh, it’s just . . . She’s quiet and two days in the last week she hasn’t called.”
“Jo calls you every day?” The doorbell buzzed again, this time accompanied by the garbled hiss that meant someone was speaking into the screen, though neither audio nor visual had worked since long before Renee had moved in.
“Every day. And she cancelled our lunch for this week too.”
Jesus, Renee thought, I’m a terrible daughter. She had an urge to apologize, but simply asked, “Did she say why?” The doorbell buzzed a third time. Renee could swear that this time the hiss sounded angry.
“No, she just said that she had to cancel, but she was fine and not to worry.”
“Mom,” she said, “I’m real sorry, but can I call you back later? Someone’s buzzing the door and won’t let up.” After another apology, she hung up with her mother, took a slug of the wine and hurried down the stairs.
It was the two girls, the one who had been smoking wearing an impatient scowl. The other girl had a wide smile and was bouncing slightly on her heels. Renee put on her own most put-out look and cracked the door just enough so that she could speak through it, but didn’t say anything. The smiling, energetic girl had short blonde hair and delicate features, like an elf in a movie. The other girl had long dark hair and would probably be very pretty if she smiled, but Renee got the feeling that she didn’t do that very often.
“Miss Baum?” the smiling girl chirped, and when Renee nodded, she continued, “Oh, that’s so great! If you have a minute, I was hoping I could ask you a couple questions about your sister Joanna.”
What could these girls possibly want with Jo? Maybe they were fans, but Renee couldn’t imagine anyone liking her sister’s music enough to track her down. Cautiously, she asked, “What sort of questions?”
“Do you know what your sister is up to?” the sullen girl asked. “Do you know the sort of people she is associating with?”
Renee suppressed a smile at the girl’s schoolmarmish tone and over-annunciation as she shook her head. “I can’t say I do. Musicians, I would assume.”
“This is serious, Miss Baum,” the smiling girl said earnestly. “The people your sister is spending time with, they’re bad people.”
“Terrorists,” the sullen girl broke in.
The smiling girl nodded ruefully. “You sure could call them terrorists, Miss Baum. We don’t know exactly what they’re planning, but they’re trying to scare people. Trying to make them think the world is dying when really everything is going to be fine.”
“You’re Deniers,” Renee said flatly.
“We just tell it like it is,” the sullen girl said as the smiling girl nodded vigorously.
Renee rolled her eyes. “I have nothing to say to you.” She started to close the door, but before she could, the smiling girl stuck her foot in the way.
“Miss Baum, it’s important that you find out what your sister is doing and tell us. We can stop her.”
“We will stop her,” the sullen girl added.
Renee glared at them. “Move your foot,” she told the smiling girl, who stepped back from the doorway. “I don’t want you coming here again.”
She slammed the door, took three deep breaths, and stomped upstairs. The wine sat on the counter, barely touched. She took out her phone and navigated to Joanna’s website and her list of shows. There was one that night at some bar near the Cambridge and Somerville border. She looked longingly at the glass of wine for a moment, picked it up and swigged the whole thing back in two big gulps. So much for a relaxing night in.
It was a nice bar that Joanna was playing in, more of a pub really. Certainly it was better than the last place Renee had seen her play, some dive downtown where the floors were sticky and the patrons were obviously more interested in getting blind drunk than listening to folk music. Her sister’s star must be on the rise, she figured.
She took a seat at the bar away from the stage and ordered a Harpoon Oktoberfest from the friendly, clean-cut bartender. He smiled at her as he delivered it and she smiled back. She tried to tell herself it wasn’t flirting—she had to have ten years on him if she had a day—but what the hell. She savored the first sip as it hit her tongue and traveled down her throat, malty with just a touch of hops, not too sweet at all. She felt bad for the rest of the country who couldn’t enjoy Harpoon’s array of beers anymore. Just after the nanos had been dumped in the oceans, but before their work had started taking effect, the original brewery had finally succumbed to the water. It didn’t sink, exactly, but ocean had slowly seeped under it until there was no more foundation left and the walls just toppled. The company had set up shop further inland, but production had been drastically reduced. It was a common enough occurrence. Hell, the whole Seaport business area was submerged up to the fifth floor of most buildings. And if the nanos really had failed and the world was warming again, then she supposed those too would crumble and fall.
Glancing at the clock above the bar confirmed her suspicions: Jo was running late. Either she hadn’t arrived yet or the place actually had something resembling a backstage. More likely—if experience was any guide—the backstage was a ratty basement smelling of stale beer and weed. Still, any semblance of legitimacy had to be grabbed a hold of for the struggling artist. Hell, even Renee herself had bragged about her first “office” at Emerson even though it had originally been the English department’s storage closet, a fact that her more pompous colleagues rarely neglected to mention.
Eight-fifteen came and went, making Jo a solid fifteen minutes late. It wasn’t as if there was much of an audience to hold in suspense; sure, the bar was mostly full, but it was small. At most, Renee estimated it could fix sixty people. Finally, a few minutes before eight-thirty, she came through a door in the back of the bar by the stage and sauntered up to the microphone, which she flicked on with her thumb.
“Hi,” she beamed, grabbing her guitar and taking a seat on the stool someone had set up for her. She was wearing a peasant blouse and a long flowing skirt that looked so familiar Renee was pretty sure Jo had taken it from her. Once she was seated she began picking at the strings, double-checking that it was tuned, Renee guessed. “Sorry I’m late.”
The crowd applauded and Jo launched into a song, one Renee recognized from her first album. Sometimes she felt silly calling them that—it wasn’t like she was on a label—but she did listen to all of them.
Over the next hour Jo played all her, well, standards, Renee supposed. The songs that the people who knew her music wanted to hear. People were swaying along to slower songs and bopping their heads to fast ones. She even caught a few people mouthing the words. Maybe Jo was building up a fan base after all. At one point, Renee was pretty sure Jo noticed her, catching her eye and smiling, but she didn’t say anything. When Jo finished and retreated back behind the door the crowd cheered until she came back, giving a little curtsey before resuming her seat.
Renee caught the bartender’s attention as Jo launched into her encore. As she took a sip of her beer and turned back to watch, Renee realized the song wasn’t an original, but couldn’t place it. Then Jo began a new verse. “Baby,” she sang, “I’m a big blue whale.” And it hit Renee—it was an old Sublime song, from when their mother was a kid. She’d loved Sublime, Bob Marley, anything with a mellow groove, and had played them for Renee and Joanna countless times growing up. Jo had pulled this one out from way back. Two hundred years maybe? Not many in the crowd seemed to know it, though she saw one young guy lip-syncing along. Next thing you knew, she’d be singing sea shanties.
Once that song was over, the crowd remained settled. Maybe Jo always gave one and only one encore. Renee had to admit to herself that she hadn’t been to see her sister play in a long time.
She sipped her beer slowly and waited for Joanna to emerge from the back. After twenty minutes, she was ready to tip back the last of the drink and head home, but just then Jo flounced through the door. She smiled wide and thanked well-wishers as she made a beeline right for Renee. So she had seen her after all.
“Hey, little sister,” Renee said.
“Hey, loser,” Jo replied with a smile, “Thanks for coming. To what do I owe the honor?”
“How do you know I didn’t just want to see you?”
Jo cocked an eyebrow.
“Fair enough,” Renee laughed. “Actually, I’m here ‘cause of Mom.”
Now it was Jo’s turn to laugh. “Oh God, what now? Is this because I cancelled lunch?”
“You know her so well.”
She sighed, “It’s nothing, I had a date. It’s just it came up at the last minute, and I figured what the hell, I go to lunch with Mom practically every week.”
“So why didn’t you just tell her?”
“Oh come on. It was a first date and I was already wicked nervous. Talking to Mom’ll make that any better?”
“Fair enough,” Renee said. “Can I tell her then? She’s going to keep worrying.”
Jo shrugged. “Sure. It didn’t go all that great anyway.” She leaned over the bar and waved her hand. “Here, let me grab you a drink. What’re you having?”
They talked for another quarter hour or so then Renee begged off to go to bed. They hugged and Jo went off to her adoring fans.
Thinking what the hell herself, Renee gave the bartender a little smile and wave and left. It was almost ten-thirty, too late to call her mom, but she’d give a full report tomorrow. And after that she would find Joanna the next time she flaked out and follow her. Because she knew her sister and she knew that she was lying through her teeth.
Everything that Renee knew about spying came from old movies, especially the noirs of the mid-twentieth century. But those always made it look easy—you just waited for the person you were following to come out of their house and then followed. Simple as that. Unfortunately for Renee, spying on Jo had proven to be much more complicated.
For one thing, she was clearly worried about being followed, checking behind her as much she could without falling off her semi-motorized bike. It was a popular model, the same as Renee’s, which stored energy generated by pedaling for future use in a tiny engine. They were great for getting around; people would pedal until they came to a hill or simply got bored and then ride. What they weren’t great for was following people. Renee had only been in a car a handful of times and never even considered buying one—the only cars with low enough emissions to still be legal were far too expensive for a college professor—but being inside one would have made her feel a lot less conspicuous. Anyone could be behind the tinted windows of a car, but if Joanna saw her bike, she’d know it was Renee in a heartbeat. She’d be “made,” as they called it in the old movies. Those ones from the golden age of cinema two hundred or something years ago. By that guy. Scorsese, she thought his name was.
As far as Renee could tell though, Jo didn’t see her and just kept riding to her shadowy rendezvous. For a while she rode down Mass Ave, dodging in and out of pedestrians and other bikers, passing the storefront that the Deniers had set up as a sort of recruiting center. Posters of happy couples sitting on sunny beaches, groups of friends playing on soccer on tree-lined fields, exhausted farmers reclining on their tractors in front of endless waves of grain and corn. Of course, none of the posters showed sunken cities or inhabitants of the islands that had been completely overtaken or the freak blizzards that could wipe out an entire harvest’s worth of crops in two long days. “Don’t worry,” two of them were shouting as bikers zipped by, “Everything is fine!” Not wanting to draw attention to herself, Renee restrained the urge to flip them off. Of course, simple rudeness wouldn’t have fazed them; more than one Molotov cocktail had been heaved through their front window. To some extent, she understood the temptation Deniers had to delude themselves, even before the nanos. Once those had been injected into the biosphere and it looked like they would actually be everything they promised—clean the air, convert waste and pollution into water vapor and algae, repair the injured world and maybe even make it better—lots of people celebrated, Renee included. And then, of course, the nanos stopped.
Suddenly, Jo took a sharp right turn. Renee slowed to follow, noticing that they were entering the MIT campus. Many of the older trees had died, oaks especially, but new saplings had been planted and were stretching upward. There were a few students walking or pedaling around, but the crowd was much thinner than Mass Ave and Renee worried again about being spotted. When Jo turned onto a footpath then off it and down a grassy hill, she wasn’t sure she could even keep up without blaring her presence. She paused at the edge of the path and just watched her sister pedal away between two brick buildings and past the library.
Renee didn’t know what these buildings were. Labs she assumed. Wasn’t everything at MIT labs? Just rows of buildings filled with beakers and microscopes and Petri dishes. It was where the nanos had come from, after all. Where some enterprising scientists and their graduate assistants had made—birthed? grown?—the tiny pollution-eating critters.
The smell of smoke interrupted her thoughts. Acrid smoke, like burning garbage. Ahead of her, Jo seemed to smell it too and pedaled faster. Renee looked up and saw smoke rising from behind a row of buildings and noticed that the sky was unnaturally bright. She pumped her legs faster to keep up with Jo, but still lost her when her sister made a sharp cut around a corner. Renee sped around it herself and immediately pulled up short. Maybe two hundred yards in front of her, down a tree-lined walking path, a brick building was entirely engulfed in flames. A small crowd stood around it, many on their phones, presumably calling 911. The fire already covered the upper three quarters of the building and looked to be moving toward ground level.
Jo hadn’t stopped riding. In fact, it seemed to Renee like she sped up even more. A bike rack stood in front of the glass double doors of the building, and Joanna skidded to a stop in front of it and hopped off her bike in one fluid motion. Frantically, she ran down the rack, flipping through the row of bikes like they were files in a cabinet and she was trying to get to Z. When she reached the end of the rack, she ran back to her bike. Renee hung back and just watched, hoping she blended into the crowd. Just in front of her were three Deniers, two men and a women, probably on campus to pass out their pamphlets. She could tell, because all three were wearing matching tee-shirts with that ubiquitous and maddening slogan on the back: Everything is fine. For a moment, Renee thought she saw two teenage girls walking away, one blonde and one brunette, but they quickly melted into the crowd. Stop being paranoid, she told herself. They’re kids.
Once Jo was on her bike, she took off, this time not even bothering to look back or check that she wasn’t being followed. And it turned out that Renee didn’t have to follow her very far, anyway. Joanna reached the Charles and turned right, following it for less than five minutes before she stopped at the end of a short pier, one that was probably used for crew squads. Renee held back, hoping she was hidden in the shadows of a pine tree. She scooted closer to it, using the bristly needles as camouflage.
The dock was lit only by an electric lantern at the end to prevent boats from crashing into it. Even at this time of night, you could expect to see some boats on the river, generally little one- or two-person skiffs that served as water taxis for those who didn’t want to deal with the bridges. After the bombing, Renee guessed that business would be booming. No pun intended.
It was a larger boat than the rest that pulled up the dock, though, a good twenty-footer with a covered cabin and two rows of seats in the back. Probably there was a crawlspace in the front where you could store gear. It looked like the sort of boat you would take fishing, but not so far out that you couldn’t see shore. Two men were standing on the back, and at least one had to be up driving. The boat idled, but didn’t tie up and then Jo had grabbed the outstretched hands of the two men and was climbing aboard, taking a long last look around as she did. Renee prayed the pine tree hid her. The sun had been down for maybe an hour and it was shadowy, but not pitch dark. When Jo stepped all the way onto the boat and its engines kicked to life, Renee realized she had been holding her breath and let it out in a puff.
She checked her phone. Six-forty-five. At ten past seven it started to rain, light but cold; a spring rain, and it made her wish she had worn something more than just a polo shirt and thin pair of cotton pants. By seven forty-five she figured she couldn’t get much wetter and sat down. The pine needles made a patchy umbrella over her, scattering the rain onto her in unpredictable splashes. At nine, when the boat still hadn’t come back, Renee gave up and rode her bike home.
Even though it was nearly noon, Renee’s head was still pounding the next day as she sat in her cramped office chasing sips of syrupy-sweet coffee with long draughts of water. It was her second large coffee of the day—both Dunkin Donuts regulars, with more milk and sugar than actual coffee—and she had been to the water cooler to refill her bottle a good half dozen times. Still, all she wanted to do was put her head down on her desk and sleep. She struggled to connect one word’s meaning to the next as she graded the modernism papers. It was officially her office hours, but she prayed no students would actually show up.
When she had gotten home the previous night, she knew she should just grade some papers and go to bed, but her annoyance and fear—she was sure she saw the teenage girls again as she pedaled away from the pier—drove her to the mostly-full bottle of chardonnay in her refrigerator. By the time she noticed that it was mostly empty, she didn’t much care about what state she was in for office hours anymore. She told herself she didn’t much care about Joanna’s stupid secret, that it was probably just something banal—drugs, a married man—but she couldn’t shake the feeling that Joanna and her friends had gone off to do something important and exciting and left her behind. She remembered the feeling from high school, which just saddened her further. She remembered how, even though Joanna was three years younger she was the one who got invited to parties, the one who dated a steady stream of guys starting her freshman year. The one time Renee went to one of the parties—someone whose parents had left and had managed to buy cheap beer and cheaper off-brand vodka—she had spent most of it standing with her back to the stove, only getting attention when her butt accidentally turned on the gas stove top.
Her eyelids were drooping and her head was following when two sharp knocks on her door frame jerked her upright. Blinking rapidly to try to wake herself up, she turned to the student.
It was Joanna, herself holding her own familiar orange-and-purple-and-white Dunkin Donuts cup. “Jesus,” she said, plopping herself into the chair opposite Renee’s desk, “I thought I was up late.”
“I bet,” Renee answered, bringing the coffee to her lips for another merciful sip.
“Seriously,” Jo elaborated, “You look like crap.”
Renee didn’t answer, but returned to the papers without actually focusing her eyes on them. There was a long silence as she pretended to scan the papers, feeling Jo’s eyes on her the whole time.
Finally, Joanna said, “I saw you last night. What do you know?”
Renee lifted her head to see her sister’s dark brown eyes peering over the lid of her coffee cup. She felt like Jo should have been smoking, though she had only seen her smoke a cigarette or two in high school and she claimed she never liked it.
“I don’t know anything,” Renee claimed. “You like boats, I guess.”
“You weren’t there when we got back. I hope you didn’t wait long.”
“Not too long,” Renee said, though she felt a chill go up her back thinking about the cold rain. “Just until I was sure you weren’t coming back soon.”
“I’d apologize, but you shouldn’t have been following me anyway.”
“Are you kidding me?” Renee burst. She took a deep breath and composed herself, but still couldn’t keep from hissing her words. “Do you have any idea what you’ve gotten into?”
“I’m a big girl, Renee,” Jo said, a hint of little-sister petulance creeping into her voice. “I don’t need you babysitting me.”
“It’s not babysitting when I’m getting dragged into your shit. I have no idea what’s going on, but there are Deniers following me, threatening you. I’m seeing these girls everywhere. And you won’t even tell me what you’re actually up to. Who were those people last night?”
Jo put her cup down on the table and rubbed her eyes with the heels of her hands. Finally, she pulled them away and looked Renee straight in the eye. “Okay, don’t freak out because everything is fine now, but,” her voice dropped, “I had cancer.”
Renee couldn’t speak; she just stared at her sister, mouth hanging open and tears starting to well in her eyes.
“Had, Renee,” Joanna said. “I found out I had it about six months ago. I’ve been healed for two months.”
“Healed? Like, in remission?”
Jo shook her head. “Like healed. No more cancer. I’ve never been better,” she smiled. “And it’s because of what I was doing out on that boat. Out there is where I got healed.”
The tension released from Renee’s body all at once and suddenly the tears were streaming down her cheeks.
Jo walked around the desk and hugged her. “It’s fine, I’m fine.”
The tears had stopped, but Renee was still breathing raggedly. “What does any of this have to do with the Deniers?” she asked.
“What my friends and I are doing—the people who got me healed—it’s going to change things. It’s going to fix things. You know the Deniers. Everything’s fine, no need to change anything.” Joanna shrugged. “Nobody likes being proven wrong.”
“But I’m not even involved,” Renee protested.
“And I’m sorry about that,” Jo said. “We’ve been very good about keeping our secret, so I guess that’s why they’re trying to go through you to find out. But after Friday, you won’t have to worry about them; trust me.”
She was sure Jo wouldn’t tell her; in fact, she didn’t really even want to know, but Renee found herself asking, “What happens Friday?”
For a moment it looked like Joanna wouldn’t answer, then she smiled. “How about I show you? Meet me at quarter of eight at the MIT library. Don’t be late. And wear a bathing suit under your clothes.”
“A bathing suit?”
“Just in case.”
Jo had warned her again and again to be at the MIT Library absolutely no later than quarter of eight and yet Renee had spent the past ten minutes watching a group of sparrows fighting over a miniscule chunk of bagel that hadn’t made it into the trash can at the bottom of the steps. When Jo rolled up at two minutes to eight they scattered, though by that point most of the bagel had been ripped apart and eaten anyway.
“You’re late,” Renee said.
“Nope, just wanted to make sure you were on time,” Jo answered as she hopped off her bike and began climbing the stairs. “I’ll be right back. Watch my bike?” And she ran up the stairs and into the library before Renee could answer.
She picked at the shoulder strap of her bathing suit where it was biting into her. She had assumed anything she would need to get in the water for wouldn’t need her to look good, so she just wore her most basic navy-blue one-piece. It was just the simplest of many bathing suits she owned; since the waters had risen and then since they started rising again, everyone had numerous bathing suits. There were a lot more places to go swimming these days.
Soon, Joanna exited the building with two men trailing her; they looked to be the same two from a few days earlier. As they approached, the scruffy man began slipping pamphlets into the spokes and handlebars of the row of bikes. The flyers were the same blue whale ones she had gotten the day all this started and that she had seen with increasing frequency in the days that passed. As soon as she saw the picture of the whale, Renee realized that he was actually the same guy who had handed her one of the flyers weeks ago.
“Hi,” he said to her brightly. “I’m Adam. You must be Jo’s sister.”
“Renee,” she said, extending her hand. He shoved the flyers under an armpit and shook it.
The other man, meanwhile, was alternating a surly look between Joanna and Renee. “Really, Jo?” he said. “You had to bring your sister? Tonight? Seriously?”
“She followed us the other day, Len. She knew something was up.”
“It could’ve waited. One more day and she’d’ve known anyway. Christ, this is the last thing we need. Word getting out.”
It was like the conversation was in a different language; Renee heard the sounds but they didn’t register as anything that made sense. She grabbed a flyer from the closest bicycle. It was the same as before, waxing rhapsodic about the intelligence and kindness of whales, how people could learn from them. A little out there, but definitely not the strangest flyer she’d ever seen.
Len scowled silently for another few seconds then silently turned and got onto his bike. He began pedaling away.
Adam rolled his eyes and gave Renee a smile. “He’ll be fine,” he said. “He’s just nervous is all. Let’s roll.” And the three followed Len, taking the same route Renee had followed them on earlier except that this time she didn’t have to try to hide. None of them spoke, but at one point a pedestrian chose a bad moment to try to cross the street and she heard Len sputter a gruff “Christ!” as he swerved around him. Soon they were coasting to a stop in front of the boat Renee had seen Jo leave on.
“Ready?” Jo asked her as they locked up their bikes. “No turning back now.”
“It’s already way too late,” Len said. “She passed the point of no return as soon as you brought her to the library. Come on.” And he stalked onto the boat with them following behind like ducklings.
An older man and woman were on the boat, maybe Renee’s parents’ age. They gave her a slow and cold once-over, but neither said anything. Jo pointed out a seat in the back and Renee sat as the rest of them untied ropes and pushed off from the dock. There was a seat across from her and Adam plopped himself into it and smiled at her. If everyone else wasn’t so tense, she could almost believe that it was just a pleasure cruise or fishing trip. But there was no fishing equipment on board, no coolers of beer. All she saw was a large black box by the steering wheel and a row of what she assumed were more boxes under a blue tarp.
She took the flyer out of her pocket and examined it again.
“Our propaganda,” she heard and looked up to meet Adam’s eyes. He pointed at the flyer. “What do you think?”
“You guys really seem to love whales.”
He looked around at the solemn faces. “Well, I’ve always loved whales at least, but the rest just more, appreciate them I guess. They understand what the . . . group is going to do.”
Adam grinned. “Oh, you’ll see. But hey, what did you think about the part about how whales have always had a deep connection to miniscule creatures? That was all me.”
“That was a nice touch,” she said. “Artistic.”
“Well sure, but not just artistic,” he said. “I mean, it’s science, you know? It’s a fact.”
The grin had never left his face. “Don’t worry. You’ll see soon enough. Just sit back and enjoy the ride.” With that he leaned back and tilted his face towards the rapidly darkening sky, his smile sliding from mirth to contentment. Renee watched the others as they stood around the steering wheel, staring ahead. By now they had left the Charles and entered Boston Harbor and it looked like they were heading further out, past the ring of islands that still remained. A couple of the lower ones had been submerged completely, but most—though smaller—still jutted above the water.
“Hey,” Adam said suddenly, pointing to their right side, “we’ve got company.” When he saw the panicked reactions from the rest of the group he quickly added, “No, no! In a good way.”
Renee focused on where Adam was pointing, but couldn’t see any boats coming toward them, not even lights. Then, just for a moment, she saw a dolphin pop out of the water before slipping back in. As it got closer she saw that it wasn’t alone; it was tough to tell with them jumping in and out of the ocean, but she guessed there were maybe half a dozen of them. Surprisingly, they didn’t look to all be the same species either. She counted four white-sided dolphins—those were common enough, trailing fishing boats and even coming into the Harbor and the Charles to scavenge—but it looked like the other two were bottlenose. She had seen countless dolphins in her life and she could never help smiling. This time was no different. As she looked around at the rest of the group she saw that they were all smiling too. I guess there’s some truth in that flyer, she thought.
The dolphins quickly closed the gap between them and the boat and began to pace it. Adam stuck his hand out and let one brush up against his fingertips, his smile getting even wider, almost beatific. Tentatively, Renee reached her hand out, but a bump made her pull it back in before she could touch one of the dolphins.
Renee saw moving lights in the distance and the boat angled toward them, as if to cut them off. As they drew closer, she saw that the lights came from a small flotilla of boats, most of them about the size of the one she was one, but two or three of them larger. One of them may have been a whale-watching boat, she thought. Once the water rose and the whales started coming in close to shore, they weren’t as necessary and many had been decommissioned and sold. Those had what looked like rows of satellite dishes spread across them; she couldn’t see into the smaller boats in the near-darkness, but she bet that if she could there would be boxes like the ones in their own.
Len had been steering the boat and he cut the engine to a putter as they drifted toward one of the old whale-watchers, occasionally goosing it to help line up the vessels. When the boats softly bumped sides, unseen people above dropped ropes down and her group lashed their boat to the larger one. All the while, the flotilla was moving. As best as Renee could tell, they were heading back toward shore.
She sidled over to Joanna. “Now what,” she asked her sister.
“Now,” Jo said, “we wait.”
“It’s . . . ” Jo paused. She was clearly enjoying this; she did always like to have a secret.
“We’re going to be, well, sort of broadcasting. And we need to make sure we reach as many people as possible.”
She was about to grill Jo further, but just then shouts rose from all the boats in such a ruckus that she couldn’t make out individual words. But everyone she could see was looking and pointing in the same direction, out toward to the ocean. She squinted, looking for more dolphins, but all of them seemed to be lounging and playing around the convoy.
“You’re wearing your bathing suit, right?” Jo shouted in her ear and she nodded. “Good. Get out of your clothes. We’re going in.”
“The water? Here?” She pictured herself bobbing alone in the open ocean as the boats disappeared into the distance.
“We’ll be fine,” Jo answered, stripping her outer layers until she stood there in a dark one-piece. Reluctantly, Renee followed suit and was soon standing there in her own bathing suit, trying not to shiver in the breeze.
“The water’ll be warmer,” Jo told her. “Ready?” And before Renee could answer, Jo had dropped over the side with a splash.
Certainly her sister wouldn’t do anything to hurt her, she thought. Besides, she was this far down the rabbit hole; what was one more little plunge? With that thought in her head, she stood against the side of the boat, gave a little hop and landed in the water.
It was warmer than the windy air, but just barely. When her head broke the surface, the wind chilled her instantly and she ducked as low as she could. Around her, she heard other splashes as more members of Jo’s group entered the ocean. It looked as though everyone was on the outside of the flotilla, floating along next to it and facing the open sea. Nobody seemed scared though, which put her more at ease.
Abruptly, the excited chattering dropped off. Renee heard an explosive snuffle—a blowhole. There was a whale somewhere. More than one, she realized, as the snuffles became a small chorus. They were getting closer.
She felt it before she saw it—a wall of displaced water insistently pushing against her lower body. And then it surfaced just yards from her face. Renee backpedaled in the water until Jo grabbed her elbow and steadied her.
“It’s fine,” she said. “Trust me, Renee. She cured my cancer.”
Renee couldn’t speak. She wasn’t sure whether to stare at her sister or the whale that had supposedly saved her. It wasn’t a right whale, with its telltale barnacle-covered face, that was certain. Definitely a baleen whale though. Finally, she managed to get three words past her lips: “What is it?”
“She’s a blue,” Joanna answered. “Biggest animal that ever lived.”
“And . . . it cured you?”
Before Joanna could answer, Renee felt something rush over her body, like a warm tingle, mixed with a sense of well-being. Almost like after having just enough wine after a hard day. Maybe with a massage thrown in. Her muscles felt loose, but strong. She could feel her blood flowing through her veins and arteries, smooth and unimpeded. Her head was clear; it was like should could feel and control the firing synapses. A hum rose from the water.
“It’s pretty great, right?” Jo said, bringing Renee’s focus back, but the feeling stayed.
“Is that the whale? What is it doing?” Though they had been treading water for several minutes, Renee didn’t feel tired. In fact, she felt like she could keep going all night.
“It’s not exactly the whale,” Jo answered. “A while back, some researchers looking into the nanos disappearing off one of the Florida islands were contacted. They found the nanos. No one knows what happened, really. Maybe some nanos bonded with one or a couple, but it spread. That’s why they aren’t cleaning things up anymore. They’re part of the whales.”
“Part of the whales?”
Jo laughed. “You know I was never much of a student. I don’t know. The nanos keep them healthy, make their sonar stronger—that’s how they can communicate. What you felt before, that was her connecting to you.”
Almost like a computer network, Renee thought. And why not. She didn’t understand how her phone worked either, but it didn’t stop her from calling people or looking something up. And she did still feel amazing.
“Go ahead,” Jo said, “swim over there. We’ve got a minute.”
“You go first.”
Jo gave her a shove to her back and she floated a few inches closer to the whale. She looked back at Jo, who flashed a thumbs up. Her little sister, and here she was with all the answers. Renee turned and paddled closer to the whale, her body shivering. But she hadn’t felt cold since the whale sang.
One last stroke and she let herself float into the wall that was the whale’s side, just behind its immense but thoughtful-looking eye. Her bare feet slipped against its skin; it was like a wet raincoat, sturdy, but pliable and rubbery. The whale sang, just two notes, starting high and dropping to a bass, which it held. The sound literally felt like it was washing over her, caressing the most primitive systems of her body. That was the nanos, she supposed.
The whale began to move, pumping its tail with glacial slowness. It eased past her, allowing her to sort of skip across its fluke as she moved closer to the tail. All the while, she kept her hands on it, sliding them along with her. She and Joanna had been scared of the dark when they were kids—both of them—and it brought back memories of them fleeing down the moonlit hallway to their parents’ room after a bad dream. She glanced behind her and saw Jo watching, though it was too dark and she was too far away to make out any expression.
As the tail passed out of her straining fingertips, the whale gave it a flick, as if to wave goodbye, and swam directly in front of the largest boat. Renee saw people dropping cables over the edge and two of the people jumped down to join the whale. Meanwhile, Jo had swum up to her and taken her by the elbow again, this time steering her back toward their own boat. Once there, they hung on to the edge, watching the whale. It had been joined by countless dolphins and Renee counted three other large whales around the large boat. There could be even more on the other side. She imagined the scene going on all over the world. Hundreds, maybe even thousands—blues, humpbacks, rights, fins, sperms—of the whales left in the world meeting up with sympathetic humans, their songs being amplified and broadcast along the coasts and sweeping inland like a tidal wave. She didn’t think people would be scared, not if the nanos made them feel the way they made her feel. With time, people would probably forget how it had happened, just taking for granted that they could survive in their world, no matter what they did to it, that nothing was unfixable. But hopefully that wouldn’t come for a long time, not until things were better, until everything really was fine.
Around her, and in every bay and gulf and inlet around the world, machinery turned on and began to hum. And the whales started singing.
Timothy Mudie was born and raised in Worcester, Massachusetts, but now lives outside Boston, where he is a book editor. His fiction has been published or is forthcoming from The Colored Lens, The Worcester Review, Spinetingler, Space Squid, The Fifth Di…, and several other magazines and anthologies. In 2013, he was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.