EP569: Safe Harbour (Artemis Rising 3)


Artemis Rising returns to Escape Pod for its third year! This month-long event highlights science fiction by women and non-binary authors. We have five original stories this year that range in topics from biotech to far-flung A.I, virtual reality, and nanotech.

AUTHOR: Kristene Perron

NARRATOR: Divya Breed

HOST: Mur Lafferty

ARTIST: Ashley Mackenzie

about the author…

Kristene is a former professional stunt performer for film and television (as Kristene Kenward) and a self-described fishing goddess. Pathologically nomadic, she has lived in Japan, Costa Rica, the Cook Islands and a very tiny key in the Bahamas, just to name a few. Her stories have appeared in Canadian Storyteller Magazine, The Barbaric Yawp, Hemispheres Magazine, and Denizens of Darkness. In 2010 she won the Surrey International Writers’ Conference Storyteller Award. Kristene is a member of SF Canada. She currently resides in Nelson, BC, Canada but her suitcase is always packed.

about the narrator…

Divya is a lover of science, math, fiction, and the Oxford comma. She enjoys subverting expectations and breaking stereotypes whenever she can. Her short stories have been published in various magazines, including Lightspeed, Mothership Zeta, and Daily Science Fiction, and her writing appears in the indie game Rogue Wizards. Her debut science-fiction novella, Runtime, was released by Tor.com Publications in May, 2016. You can find out more at www.eff-words.com or on Twitter @divyastweets.

about the artist…Ashley Mackenzie

Ashley Mackenzie is an artist and illustrator based in Edmonton, Alberta. She was born in Victoria, BC and grew up between Vancouver, BC and Edmonton, AB. After studying online for a year through AAU in San Francisco, Calif., she moved to Toronto to pursue a degree in Illustration at OCADU. Though she loves the challenge of creating complex conceptual illustrations and finding new ways to navigate ideas, visually she also enjoys making concept art and decorative illustration. When not drawing, she can be found reading, playing video games or thinking about her next project.

 

Safe Harbour

By Kristene Perron

It begins with breath.

In. Wrap my hand around the handle at the bow of the kayak. Out. Drag the boat across the rocks. In and out, in time with the low moan of the fog horn in the distance. I welcome the grey of dawn though my muscles ache from the damp and cold.

Ten years since I set foot on the shores of Barclay Sound, since I smelled the salty sweet decay of the open Pacific. The blood pulses in my veins and no matter how hard I fight it a single word rises from the depths like a corpse: home.

My foot hits a patch of kelp, slippery as oil. There’s nothing to grab but, as I fall, my hands grope anyway. Knee hits rock, followed by hand, and a stab of pain—physical, for a change—pierces right through me.

Shit!” I say. Sound swallowed by the mist and the water.

Shit, I hear echoing back inside my brain. No, not hear, feel. Sense? See? I’ve never known how to describe it. Whatever it is, it comes as both a question and an accusation and a warning.

I stand and wipe the gravel from my hands and knees. I’m bleeding but that’s unimportant. She’s out there. She’s alive. If not for the fog, I might have seen her spray from shore. This is a good sign. Isn’t it?

A final scrape and the kayak is floating. I pick up the faded yellow and purple life jacket, with its orange safety whistle caked with dirt, and toss it up on the rocks. I won’t need it today.

I look to the shore and everything in me breaks.

I can do this. I can do this. I can do this.

We can do this.

It all begins with breath.

*

Why not greys?”

You think they would be easier, don’t you?” Dr. Subas smiles and I try not to be dazzled by the contrast of white teeth against caramel skin and the hint of a refined British accent.

Not the whales but the location. Humpbacks are only beginning to return to Barclay Sound; their appearances are sporadic. But there’s a resident population of greys, sixty-eight at last count, and they’re approachable,” I say.

The dock creaks beneath us from the wake of an approaching dragger, which has returned to the harbour empty.

I detect some bias, Miss Ripley,” Dr. Subas says. “Ballenas amistosas? Friendly whales? Confess, when you go out without the tourists, you like to stroke them, do you not?”

It’s all delivered cartoonishly, over-the-top, a playful tease, but at the same time I detect a challenge. Dr. Subas is a “real” scientist and I am nothing more than a tour guide profiting from the human tendency to anthropomorphize wild animals.

There are other capable candidates. If you think I’m—”

Apologies. Deep and profound.” His hand is on his heart. Sun reflects off the gold band I have tried to ignore since our first introduction. “You are perfect.”

I tell myself not to read into the last statement but my cheeks burn, even in the chill of early April.

Besides, you have already presented a suitable humpback candidate,” he continues. “Whale number twenty-seven. You call her ‘Scarlett’, isn’t that right?”

She’s a hopeless flirt,” I say. “Even so, she’s not always out there. It could take weeks to spot her, let alone catch her in a playful mood.”

You will find me immensely patient,” Dr. Subas says and I believe him.

We finish our coffees and he runs through the procedure again. I’ll be under general anesthetic for most of it. Next up will be a period of acclimatization and testing as the nanites go to work on my brain. I understand the theory, and the parameters of the experiment feel familiar enough, even with my minimal post-secondary schooling, that I’m only mildly intimidated, but inside I am as giddy as a six-year-old.

I am going to communicate with a whale.

I realize you have signed the necessary documents to satisfy my employer’s legal concerns, but I want to make sure you understand the risks, on a human level,” Dr. Subas says.

Brain damage, cognitive degeneration, psychosis, I could be left a vegetable,” I say. “Would you do it, if you were me?”

Yes,” he says. “Oh, yes.”

Dr. Subas sheds his corporate, scientific skin for a fleeting moment, and in that moment I know I’m going to find a way to sleep with him. We all have our addictions.

The first raindrops hit. He flinches, I don’t.

Get used to it,” I say. “There’s a reason trees grow out of rocks here.”

Yes, I have done some research. Tell me, is Ucluelet the Indian word for ‘rains two hundred days a year’?”

First nations, not Indian, I think but I don’t correct him. “It means safe harbour.”

Is that how you think of this place, Miss Ripley?” he asks.

Sometimes. And you can call me Jenn.”

My polite smile rises and falls. I know Dr. Subas’s employer has done a thorough background check on me. Lumeric can’t leave anything to chance. Even so, this man I’ve only met in person today knowing everything about my past unbalances me more than any ocean waves.

Perhaps we should seek safe harbour from the elements, while we have the luxury, Jenn,” Dr. Subas says. “You may call me Peter, if you wish.”

I cock my head. He’s seen this reaction to his name before, obviously—the transplanted foreigner.

But most of my friends simply call me Subas,” he adds.

Subas it is,” I say and gesture for him to follow me.

Now,” he says, “tell me all about Scarlett and the rest of your whale family.”

Family. Yes, that’s what they are.

*

You have to hold still. So still. Like this.

Crouched down, I do my best to draw a picture in my mind, a picture of stillness, of a person in a kayak, sitting peacefully. I hope she can see what I mean—I’ve never mastered this aspect of the language.

Dylan does not answer. She’s rocking back and forth at the water’s edge. Her fingers trail over the sand like miniature explorers. As always, her eyes look past me. I wonder if she has ever seen me. Really seen me, the way normal people see one another.

Dylan, please listen,” I say. Futile from the start. “We’re going on a trip, in the water.”

Back and forth, back and forth, the tempo of her rocking increases.

I draw another mind picture—me in the back of the kayak, she in the front, me paddling, her sitting calmly. Maybe she senses my fear. After the incident at the border—

Mother.

The word lands in my head like a brick thrown through a window.

A sharp intake of breath does nothing to stop the tears. My impulse is to wrap my arms around her, around my child, and kiss her. I want to thank her for this one miracle. One good miracle. But then the other word comes.

Daughter.

Not from Dylan. Not from me.

I look out over the misty water and I want to scream, SHE’S NOT YOURS!

But I am done with lies.

*

What are we doing?” Subas asks.

Managing expectations,” I say in a robot voice.

He squints at me—June has surprised us with an abundance of sun and the water reflects it like a mirror—and then he smiles. Along with the brilliant white teeth are a series of creases around his mouth that appear whenever he smiles. I’ve mapped them all.

I have a good feeling today,” I say.

You have a good feeling every day,” Subas says.

The boat comes off a big swell and the movement catches him by surprise. Two months and he has yet to get his water legs. He falls forward and I catch him. We laugh but do not pull apart. He looks right in my eyes.

Can you see them in there? Your little nanite babies?” I ask.

I see—” A beep interrupts him and we both turn to the monitor set up inside the cabin.

It’s her. It’s Scarlett!” I say. Not clapping my hands is as close to managing my expectations as I get at this moment.

About two kilometers off the stern,” Subas says. Another beep. “Heading right for us.”

Before the next beep, I see her spray. Low and powerful, the water droplets from Scarlett’s exhaled breath catch the sun in rainbow prisms.

It has been six weeks since we finally managed to find whale number twenty-seven, five since the successful implantation of the nanite-capsule. After that, we could track her but she was too far offshore to follow. I worried the impact of the shot had scared her away for good but then, a week ago, she headed back in, toward the few schools of herring that remained along the coast.

Come on, Scarlett, that’s my beautiful girl,” I say. My hands grip the gunwhale at the stern.

Focus, Jenn,” Subas says. “Remember the protocol.”

Yes, Dad.”

He tch’s but it’s all in play. From the way he stares out at the water, I know he is every bit as excited as I am.

The next spout is less than fifteen meters off our stern, which I see clearly as we crest another large, gently rolling swell.

With all the self discipline I can muster, I clear my mind and think one clear word.

Stay.

I picture the word written in black letters on white paper. I picture an image of a humpback whale completely stationary beside a boat. I say the word aloud inside my brain. Stay. Stay. Stay.

I’d argued for something less aggressive—hello, or welcome, or even friend. Subas had patiently explained the necessity of his word. Stay was both a means of communicating and a command that, if this crazy experiment worked, would help us maintain the necessary proximity for study.

So, stay it was.

Stay.

A dark back surfaces, gleaming in the midday sun.

Stay.

And then she goes under again and disappears beneath the boat.

Stay. Please stay.

Another spout. This time it carries across the deck, misting Subas and I both.

Starboard. starboard!” he says.

I follow his finger and see Scarlett’s body stretched out on the water’s surface. She is logging, the way whales sometimes do when they rest, bobbing up and down near the surface.

Stay. Thank you!

I’m not supposed to think other words. For the integrity of the test, we need to stick to one single directed thought for the first encounter.

For ten long minutes, Scarlett logs and I think my word at her. Subas records his observations while a fleet of waterproof cameras capture the entire scene. Through it all, I am a kid in a toy store who has been ordered to keep her hands at her sides and not speak.

When Scarlett finally submerges and heads away from us, I spin to face Subas, smile tearing at the corners of my mouth.

We did—” I stop, stumble forward, head spinning.

Easy,” Subas catches me by the elbows and holds me in place. “Is it your head? Are you dizzy?”

Yes. No. I…”

You are crying.”

She spoke. Scarlett spoke to me.”

Subas’s hands grip more tightly. “What did she say?”

I had not heard the word. I had sensed it. Felt it. Seen it in ways I could not explain even to myself. But it had come through clearly in a voice and a thought not my own.

A tear rolls into my smile. “She said, stay.”

*

Dylan’s hair reacts like mine in the humidity, curling mercilessly, puffing outward in a ball of confusion. Ten years I have brushed and combed and fought with that hair and she has not once cried or yelled as I used to with my mother. Ten years and I still do not understand why my daughter screams if you hug her and yet can tolerate the torture of combing out knots.

She sits in front of me, in the front cockpit of the kayak, perfectly still, just as I had shown her in my head. We are far enough from shore now that even my strong swimming skills will not save us before hypothermia sets in.

The water is calm but I can see ripples on the water’s surface and soon we will be out of the shelter of the islands and the kelp beds.

A roar overhead signals a passing jet, shrouded behind the fog, and a chill passes through me.

Is someone up there watching a monitor, noting the telltale blip, searching?

I dip the paddle in harder now, against the fatigue of weeks on the road, running, hiding, rationing candy bars and water. Hurry. I have to hurry before they find her.

Hurry.

Two voices come as one now. Two thoughts already joined.

*

I’m drunk. I’ve only had one glass of wine but buckets of endorphins flood my system. I tell the story over and over, I’m telling it again. Subas’s smile remains kind and radiant.

You know this—talking to a whale—is like every childhood dream of mine come true? You know that, right?” I say. “How do they do that?” I touch my head and imagine I can feel the nanites in my brain.

You’ve read all the material I sent you,” Subas says.

I wave my hands in wild protest. “I know, I know but—”

Let’s avail ourselves of the fresh air, shall we?”

As I laugh too loudly, Subas takes me by the elbow and I let him lead me out of the lounge, onto the small deck that looks out over the black cliffs, rocks crusted with mussels. No waves tonight, even the Pacific is happy.

The glass railings are cloudy, white splotches mark the deck where gulls have passed. I haven’t been inside the Blue Edge Resort since the year it opened and even then I’d only come to gawk. The Chinese investors who took it over, along with half the town, promised to return this place to its former glory but so far there’s been no change. Oh well, everything falls apart eventually, I guess.

Tell me again,” I say.

We’re shoulder to shoulder, elbows on the railing, gazing out at the water. I can feel him considering, weighing his profound knowledge of the technology against my limited understanding and the giddiness of the moment.

Think of the nanites like your body. A finger, on its own, is useless.” He runs his finger over mine, from tip to base. “Add more fingers, a thumb, a hand, an arm…”

He touches each part as he names it and I want him to go further, to name more.

Connect them all,” Subas says. His finger traces up my neck and I shiver. “Add a brain to give them order, and you have an organism capable of envisioning, designing, and constructing the Eiffel Tower, the Egyptian pyramids, the atomic bomb.”

His hand on my head like a proud parent.

The nanites are like this,” he says. “Individually, unimportant. Useless. Joined—to each other and to you—they can perform miracles.”

Like communicating with another species,” I say.

You are communicating,” he says, his hand does not move from the back of my head. “The nanites merely facilitate the communication. Copy your thoughts, transmit, and receive. Those in the whale are the same. They want to connect, are designed to do so. The only barrier now is language.”

But we’re joined,” I say. I am all heartbeat.

Just as you dreamed.”

*

There’s a slight chop now and I curse myself for not asking Aiden to pack the kayak with spray skirts. At least one for me. Not that I had a lot of options. I was lucky that Aiden Frank remembered me and was willing to trade. The tribes on the island had long been suspicious of outsiders but since the occupation and the Columbia River conflict, more and more were turning reserve land into armed fortresses.

Fucking Chinks on one side and Yanks on the other,” Aiden had said.

He didn’t ask where I’d gotten the twelve gauge shells from. I would have just lied anyway.

What’s wrong with the kid?” Aiden asked.

Dylan had been rocking again, making the wailing noises that soothed her.

Autistic,” I lied.

She yours?” Aiden said.

You didn’t see her.” I stepped in front of Dylan as if I was a magician. As if, when I stepped away, she would be gone and a tiger or a flock of doves would have taken her place.

A light came on from behind a heavily curtained window.

You gotta go,” Aiden said. He didn’t point the shotgun at me but his eyes said he would if he had to.

What about my boat?” I asked.

Dylan wailed more loudly and I could tell the noise disturbed our reluctant host. I wanted to tell him it disturbed me, too.

I’ll leave it at Itatsoo, by the old trail,” Aiden said.

How can I trust you?”

You can’t,” he said. “Ain’t that a bitch?”

I saw the irony but I didn’t laugh.

*

Subas peers through the blinds and flops back on my bed.

In the civilized world,” he says, “people require sunscreen in August.”

Fogust,” I say. “I warned you.”

I roll away from him and reach for my t-shirt on the floor but he pulls me back, kisses me, and tucks one of my disobedient curls behind my ear. “Have you given any more thought to my suggestion?” he asks.

Since yesterday afternoon, staring at a blue line on a plastic stick, I have given too much thought to his suggestion.

You’re married,” I say.

Separated.”

Not divorced.”

Yet.”

You still wear the ring,” I say.

With his right hand, he pulls the ring off his finger and rests it on my naked belly. “Well?” he asks.

You don’t owe me anything. It was an accident. Hell, I was on the pill, the odds are… what? A billion to one?”

Zero point one percent, with perfect use. Five percent with typical use,” he says.

I don’t know how to win with him. Father figure, the shrinks would say. Have said.

I can’t keep it,” I say. “I signed a contract. Pregnancy voids that contract. And…I love what we’re doing. Even if all we’re getting is echoes or mimicking from Scarlett, I love being able to feel that connection. I’ve only got a few more months left, I don’t want to walk away now,” I say.

Subas places a finger on my lips and shakes his head. “I am very good at keeping secrets.”

I am so happy, and so frightened, that I do not ask the most important question. I tell myself that the nanites in my brain will degenerate naturally, as they were designed to do. In six months, there won’t be a trace left in my system.

One connection will end and another will begin.

*

Scarlett is in my head but it’s a one way conversation, like listening in on someone else’s phone call—one that drifts in and out of your native tongue. It’s Dylan she wants to communicate with. I’m just the carrier and always have been.

The wind is getting stronger; it’s all I can do to keep us from capsizing, but the fog has lifted. I know where the spray will appear before it does. The thrill of that sight is gone.

Everything falls apart, eventually.

When Scarlett surfaces, I consider changing my mind. What if I’m wrong, after all? My research has been imperfect. I’m well aware of the holes in my knowledge, the unfortunate outcome of living two lives.

But then she puts the word into my head. The only one she knows I’ll understand.

Stay.

*

Four steps from the front door, I stop. More steps every time. Soon, the predictable breakdown will happen before I get out of the car.

It isn’t his fault. It isn’t anyone’s fault.

The lies I tell myself aren’t working like they used to. I take several deep breaths, the kind I learned before giving birth to Dylan.

I stare at our spotless entranceway with its low-impact xeriscaping. Zero-scaping, as the neighbours call it, which is a word I think only Californians could have invented. I look down at my feet, toes naked and exposed. I miss my rubber boots.

More breaths, I cross the short distance, and open the heavy door.

I’m home,” I call cheerfully. “Everybody miss me?”

No one answers. I wander through the rooms with their obscene amounts of light, with their brushed metal and reclaimed wood furniture, with the little signs on all the windows warning the bad guys that we have a state of the art security system. I shuck off my flip flops and pad up the bamboo stairs. I hear voices from Subas’s workspace.

Voices. Not his voice and screaming, not his voice and silence, but two voices speaking at a normal tone.

I enter into a miracle.

Dylan’s three-year-old legs dangle from Subas’s desk. Headphones adorn her ears. She is smiling.

What…?” I say.

Come, come,” Subas waves me forward. When I’m close enough he takes my hand and squeezes.

Dylan chatters away in a language I can’t understand but she is speaking. My daughter speaks. I reach for the headphones but Subas grabs my hand, shakes his head, and points to the image that comes out of the desk.

Waves of sound rise and fall. I recognize the pattern a moment before he taps the sound icon on the desk’s display.

Whale song.

Oh my god,” I say and cover my mouth with a shaking hand.

As I said, the doctors were wrong,” Subas says.

All I can say is oh my god, over and over, while tears fall. My knees grow unsteady as I witness my child happy and communicating for the first time in her life. I don’t dare hug her but I wrap my arms around my husband.

For a minute, I’m immersed in joy. For a minute, I’m a proud mother just as I’d imagined.

After that minute, the implications sink in.

How long have you known?” I ask.

Subas meets the accusation with his usual calm assuredness. “I believed she might not respond until much later, until her brain was more fully developed.”

So they did have an effect. You promised…you swore that my nanites wouldn’t harm the fetus. You said—”

I said,” he glances at Dylan and deliberately lowers the volume of his voice. “I said your nanites would not harm the fetus. They did not. She’s not harmed.”

She’s not normal!” I hiss the words in a whisper.

Calm down,” Subas says.

No, I won’t. I’m responsible for this.”

This? This is our daughter. Why do you resist that?” He gestures a hand to Dylan who continues to grin and babble gibberish.

I want the truth, all of it,” I say.

Subas sinks down into his seat; he rests his hands on the arm rests, and looks away from me.

No, Jenn, you have never wanted the truth. You wanted someone to look after you, to tell you what do to and when and how, and I have done all that. This is not a movie. I am not the villain who will now spill his dark and terrible plans for world domination,” he says. “You can love your daughter for who and what she is, or you can leave. Alone.”

I have never heard this tone from him. Never seen this face—so stern, so unyielding.

Everything is spinning. I’m going to vomit. My mouth gapes like that of a dying fish.

I asked you—before you injected me—if you would do it,” I say.

Yes, oh yes.

His smile is sad but without pity.

There. I have my answer. Nothing was an accident. The nanites were designed to join. His and mine.

Think of the nanites like your body.

I look at Dylan. A host. Not my daughter. Theirs.

Take them out,” I say.

She would die. Would you kill your daughter?”

How do you know she would die?”

He pauses and something black and unforgiving takes hold of me. I know. Worse, I think I’ve always known.

You’ve done this before,” I say. Once more, bile rises in my throat.

Jenn—”

Oh my god.”

Don’t be hysterical. She’s perfectly healthy and the others—”

I lunge for Dylan and, in a single motion, pull the headphones from her ears and scoop her into my arms, to safety. Subas commands me to stop but the warning is immediately drowned by screams.

In my arms, I fight the rage. Dylan thrashes and kicks, slaps and cries. Her face reddens until I think it will burst open. Her tiny hand catches my eye. The moment of distraction is all Subas needs and he pries her from my grip.

Once seated on the desk, headphones back in place, the transformation is instant. She is babbling again, happily singing with the whales.

There are no words left. My legs desert me and I am on the ground, head slowly moving from side to side, refusing to accept what I see. No, no, no, no…

I hear Subas speaking as if I am underwater. Words about my past, about all the mistakes I have made, as if I am not aware of the lives I have broken. He lies to me about second chances and opportunities to make the world a better place. Forgiveness, redemption, safety, he speaks of all these while the thing he made swings its legs and sings just like a normal girl.

He finishes with the smile that once trapped me and says, “She is still your daughter.”

No.

*

I can’t,” I say.

The fog has lifted but rain has taken its place. The drops hit the water like machine gun fire.

Stay.

Now that I’ve stopped paddling, the shivering begins. Not Dylan, she is unmoved even by the elements.

Hurry.

This time it’s my daughter’s voice in my head.

I love you. I love you. I love you. I think the words over and over. Whoever or whatever she is, I carried her in my womb, sang to her, fed her, bathed her, battled those curls. We were joined, once.

I love you. But I can’t protect you.

I reach forward quickly but in my mind it happens in slow motion. My hands grab her shoulders, tight as eagle claws. I throw my weight to one side, the kayak tips and—without a spray skirt to stop us—we slide out into the dark green water.

*

I hear him in the next room. Talking. So much talking these days. No one expected so much to go wrong so quickly.

On the wall, glowing images fill my eyes. Protestors shout at passing trucks and machinery. An image of the Columbia River. Another image of a pipeline. Tanks lined up at the border, men and women with guns. I lose track of the names of the cities and the countries and the reasons.

“… that’s only a projection. Yes. But the numbers— You have to understand—”

Subas comes back into the bedroom, putting on his coat as he walks and talks to people I have never met. He taps a button on the wall and the images disappear. Lips on the top of my head, pill dropped into my hand, and he’s gone again.

I listen to his footsteps and his fading voice. Hear the door close and the quiet purr of the car.

Screen on,” I say and the images reappear.

A submarine, whole and then in pieces on the ocean floor, shown through the grainy lens of a drone’s camera. I raise the pill to my lips. Then, an image of a whale. A humpback.

Sound,” I say. I lower my hand.

“…calling it a bizarre accident but tensions remain high in the South China Sea. Recovery efforts have been hampered by the ongoing dispute between China and Vietnam.”

I mute the feed and deliver a series of orders to the system. The screen splits into six segments. My eyes jump from one to the other until I see what I’m looking for. Once it’s enlarged, I can’t believe what I’m seeing.

Collisions between whales and ships have always happened. Tragic but accidental. If these reports are to be believed, a whale not only collided with a submarine but with enough force, and in exactly the right spot, to smash through the outer structure. Only a few species could have done that but no individual whale would have.

Stay. One simple command delivered, imperfectly, and obeyed.

Call Subas,” I say and hear a muted ringing. My thoughts, clouded for so long, rage and swirl. Snippets of overheard conversations come back to me. Talk of hosts, and biological infiltration, deniability, and possibilities.

What is it, Jenn?’ Subas’s voice echoes in the bedroom.

I remember the first time I heard that tone. How completely he had shut me out after I’d discerned the truth and demanded answers.

I’m on another call,” he says.

I need information.

Sorry,” I say with a slight slur. “Called by accident.”

Subas makes no attempt to hide the sigh. “Get some rest. I’ll be home later tonight.”

He’s gone before I can say goodbye.

The pill is still in my hand. I march to the bathroom, hold it over the toilet. Pause. I shake my head, pretend to wipe tears from my eyes, mime taking the pill for the cameras that may or may not be hidden. I palm the pill. I’ll find a hiding spot later.

My husband’s words of three years ago return as sharp as straight razors. I think of the images of the whale and the pieces of the submarine and I hear him say, “She’s perfectly healthy and the others—”.

The others.

I walk as if in a trance, out of the bedroom, down the hall, to the room I think of as the lab. Dylan sits on the floor across from the woman I think of as her handler. There is a glowing projection between them and Dylan’s fingers fly over its surface. The handler glances over at me, smiles politely, returns her focus to Dylan. She expects me to pass by.

I watch the scene—a child of six, playing—and try to dig up the joy I’d felt when Dylan existed mostly as an idea, inside my body. I fail.

Why do humans need to see themselves in everything? The more like us something is, the more we care about it. We slaughtered whales for centuries—I used to tell the tourists—until we learned they were mammals, intelligent mammals that love and protect their young, just like us.

Well, not like all of us.

My gaze moves from Dylan to the tables and their objects. What goes on in here? When did I stop seeing my daughter as human?

When did I stop calling her daughter?

Daughter. I think the word clearly. I see it written in black ink on white paper. I picture me with my arms around Dylan, both of us smiling.

No response—inside or out.

I spot one familiar item among the lab equipment. I step inside, grab the hairbrush with the blue body and yellow polka dots, and approach Dylan. “Do you mind?” I ask the handler.

Of course not, Mrs. Subas,” she says. I am also a child to her. More of a child than Dylan, perhaps.

I sit cross-legged and raise the bristles to Dylan’s tangle of curls. She lets me tug away at the mess. She has my terrible hair. I do not know what she thinks or feels, I cannot hug her, she will never come to me with a skinned knee or a broken heart, but we have this small thing in common. We are connected.

I will protect my family, I think, as the strands of hair slip through my fingers.

*

Cold steals the air from my lungs. I gasp, take in salt water, then cough and choke. My eyes sting and I can’t focus. But I do not let go of Dylan.

It’s pure instinct that makes my legs kick; my lizard brain demands survival. I’d prepared for the same kind of fight I’d faced just before we’d slipped across the border into Canada and the drugs had worn off but Dylan is calm in my grasp.

It could be the cold that has slowed her. My hands and feet burn, my teeth begin to chatter.

Help. I think the word.

I sense daughter.

I sense mother.

My kicks slow. I feel sleepy.

A loud blow jolts me awake. I can’t turn my head but I am aware of a displacement of water. My shoulder bumps against something solid and slick. Stay, I think.

Stay, Scarlett thinks back at me.

Some part of me is screaming, panicking, telling me I’m crazy, that I’m a murderer.

Water slaps us both against the whale again. I keep my eyes on Dylan; her lips are losing colour. She’s so small, she will go before me. I knew this but the fact comes at me now like a sledgehammer, knocking the remaining air from my lungs.

My head slips beneath the water. I kick enough to bring me to the surface but I’m losing my grip on Dylan. Her eyes are closed; her head lolls to one side.

No, no, no,” I say, choking between the words.

My clothes are heavy, they pull me down. I wrap my arms around my daughter—so small, so cold.

Let go.

The sound and shape of the thought is new. It is Scarlett, and Dylan, and someone else.

My daughter, I think. I don’t have the strength to create an image.

I’m safe. She’s safe. We’re safe.

They come as a single thought. I want to ask if it worked as I’d hoped, if the nanites had transferred all of Dylan’s consciousness before her body was no longer a viable host—as Subas would have put it. But I’m too tired. I can’t hold the thoughts in place.

I hear a loud sound in the distance. The THUP THUP THUP of a helicopter.

GO! I think it as loudly and forcefully as I can.

I slip under again, take a mouth full of salt water, come up choking.

Thank you, the new being puts the thought in my head.

Scarlett dives. She can go down hundreds of feet; she can go where people can’t touch her or use her. She’s safe.

I’m left to the tossing swell and chop, and the frigid water, but I no longer care. I hold Dylan tight to me, my daughter at last. It’s like giving birth again, I think, washed over with a warm happiness.

Her hair slips through my fingers, curls now straight in the green water. I hum an old lullaby and press my head to hers, then I’m under once more.

Mouth open, I breathe in the ocean water and I’m home.

It all begins with breath.

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