The joyous din of feeding time—bursts of conversation, crunching bredfish, the wandering ghosts of lost echolocation clicks—faded when a sobering message of silence spread through the gathered pod: They’re here. Fear sapped the strength from Squeak’s tail and flippers and the frightened taste of her urine filled the water.
Squeak couldn’t see them, of course—eyes were useless in the liquid night of Europa’s ocean. She could only listen helplessly as they drew near. Then her mother outlined them with her sonar beam and Squeak read the echo image: four large orcas, male judging by their proud dorsal fins, dangerous judging by their scars and confident, sinuous stroke.
“Stay close,” said her mother.
Squeak obediently took up a position beneath her left pectoral fin.
The nearby orcas gave way and the newcomers began circling Squeak and her mother.
One of them directed a tight beam of high-frequency clicks at Squeak’s mother. It was a private message, but Squeak with her experience in eavesdropping could hear it: “I am Hammerhead-mater-Grabjaw. That female cowering under your flipper—she is your calf?”
Squeak noted that the other males, probably Hammerhead’s brothers, did not identify themselves—a breach of whale etiquette.
“I am Tailspinner.” Squeak’s mother broadcast her reply so that everyone could hear. “What business is it of yours?”
Squeak noted the absence of the matrilineal name with bitterness.
“Our business is to ensure that the Breeding Laws are obeyed,” Hammerhead replied in the same fashion. “I think that you can see how we need to catalogue descent to do that.”
“She is mine.” While she clicked these words, Squeak’s mother said simultaneously in the slower squeaks and groans language that orcas shared with the Grandfather whales: Defy.
“You are refugees from Broken Tail Spire, are you not?”
“Yes! When the vent died, we had to move our herds. The whole pod was dispersed; families that had swum together for generations never to touch again. Only five tides ago did we join your pod.”
“You are welcome to the Singing Valley pod. We ask only that you obey the rules.” And like Squeak’s mother, Hammerhead whistled a counterpoint: Punishment.
One of the other circling orcas took up this whistle as a refrain: Punishment . . . Punishment . . .
Squeak wondered desperately why the other whales from their old pod weren’t coming to their defense.
“Please, my calf . . . my calf is no threat to anyone.” Mercy.
“No one doubts that you love your calf, Tailspinner. Mother and calf, brother and sister are of one flesh.” Compassion. “But you forget that all whales are one family. Your calf may be blameless, but her genes—her genes can do fathomless harm to future generations.”
“She won’t breed!” Please. “Nor will I. I haven’t mated since . . . since . . . “
“We all swim in the same waters,” Hammerhead recited. “What each one of us does affects us all. Without exception. Did they not have the Breeding Laws in your pod? Were they not orcas?” Hear me.
The circle of whales hemming Squeak and her mother drew tighter. She could feel the impact of every echolocation pulse. One of them beamed her in the face and she let out a little squeak of pain.
“Before the Migration, we were little more than animals. Before the Migration, we breathed air. There is no air here, and we breathe with gills. If we wish to maintain ourselves without regression, genetic hygiene must be observed.” Hear me. “She is defective! Blind!”
As if reading the echo beam of one of her captors, Squeak imagined how they saw her: overgrown calf, head shriveled where her melon should be. Unable to produce the focused beams of sound orcas used for echolocation, she was dependent upon the beams of others like her mother to see.
A swell of water sloshed Squeak away when her mother rolled to one side, adopting the posture of submission. Squeak wondered fearfully what she was doing. But then her mother tight-beamed her a single word: “Flee.”
Broadcasting a steady stream of sonar clicks, Squeak’s mother rammed into one of the encircling whales.
Before the others could react, Squeak shot through the opening. Her tail pounded the water, the thought boiling through her mind: They want to kill me, they want to kill me! She imagined teeth tearing her flesh, the sharp tang of her blood filling the water . . . .
From behind came sounds of churning water and the explosive shock of a tail blow. Her mother! What was happening to her mother? Why was no one helping them? Squeak didn’t know what to do. She wanted to help but her mother had told her to flee, and Squeak always did what her mother told her. And she was so afraid, terribly afraid. They want to kill me.
Then Squeak felt the brush of a sonar beam against her tail and realized they were pursuing her. Her heart pounding like a second tail in her chest, she fought to think. If only she could see! She recalled the image she had received from her mother’s sonar a moment before. Below and to her left would be the herd of bredfish, hemmed in by circling orcas for feeding. Inclining her head in that direction, she heard in her jawbone the familiar rustling of dozens of small, agitated swimmers.
Into the herd she dove, mouth agape. Squeak whirled, batted her flippers, kicked her tail, sending the panicked fish flying. Without thinking she snatched one in her jaws and gobbled it down. Then she shot off in a random direction, leaving a confusion of sonar echoes in her wake.
Squeak fled on into the darkness, straining to hear sounds of pursuit. But none came. When she felt she could go no further, she drifted to a stop in the water.
Squeak was alone. She had never been alone before. The very notion seemed incomprehensible. Social as they were, most orcas went on occasional forays away from the pod, but not Squeak. How would she find her way back? What if she were set upon by a pack of Songless whales? So her mother had always said, and Squeak always listened to her mother.
Was she afraid? She didn’t know how she felt. Her head was full of little explosions. She felt like she was losing her sapience, becoming one of the Songless. She was alone. Her mother’s touch, the background hiss and grumble of whale voices, the wandering currents of a mob of milling orcas . . . all her bearings were gone. What was she supposed to do? What was she supposed to feel?
As the roar in her head subsided, Squeak began to hear sounds. Creaks and booms drifted down from above—that was the shell of ice that covered the ocean world, forever worked by Europa’s tides. Back the way she had come was the soft susurration of the hydrothermal vent, spewing hot minerals that fed the euplankton which in turn fed the pod’s herds of bredfish. The water had its own voice: a textured sigh, shaped by the slopes of the valley in which the pod made its home. And through it came the squeaks and groans of whalesong. Behind her was a muted babble of many voices, her own adopted pod. From another direction a faint call drifted, a message transmitted across the ocean to some distant friend or relative. And beneath it all was the Song of the Grandfathers, the living memory of the whale colony, telling of their voyage upon the vessels of the No-Fins from the dying seas of Earth and their lives on this new world. Of course, no whale was ever alone. It was the first lesson of the Song.
Then, as Squeak listened to the sea, a voice from out of the darkness touched her like a caress: Squeak, mother calls. To me, to me! It was one of the first songs a whale learned, simple and repetitive, intended to lead a lost child to her mother. Tailspinner was alive! Her mother was alive, and searching for her.
Squeak started to reply, then cut herself short. Were the tail-biters hunting her? If she spoke it would give away her position. But she desperately needed some contact with her mother. The danger seemed distant now, unreal. But her loneliness was very close.
She sang a short response: Tailspinner, await me, I come! Normally such songs would be repeated many times, so that the intended recipient would eventually hear it over the hubbub of whale life. But that would be too risky.
Moments later, a familiar male voice called out of the dark: Come home, little fish, we are waiting for you. It came from the same general direction as her mother’s, but closer, much closer.
Squeak pondered several miserable seconds and then fled. Off to one side she could hear the moaning of the tidal current surging through a narrow channel. If she guessed correctly, this was the mountain pass through which she and the remaining stragglers of her former pod had wearily made their way here. It might offer some place to hide.
Why were they doing this to her? She and her mother weren’t harming anyone! The Broken Tail pod only killed dangerous defectives such as the Songless—genetic throwbacks to pre-sapience—and those that were so terribly malformed that it was an act of mercy. Squeak and her mother had only been banned from breeding. Of course, no male would want to breed with a female once she had borne a defective. And Squeak’s mother was always too busy taking care of her to be interested in more offspring anyway. She had always said that Squeak was all she needed. Their family status had suffered, but what did that matter?
The sound was very loud now—she must be almost there. Behind, her mother’s call came again and she fought the desperate urge to respond. Then she heard traces of sonar clicks hunting for her. Too far away to resolve an echo perhaps, but for how long? Tired as she was, Squeak forced herself to swim faster.
Then there was an impact, and suddenly Squeak found herself bathed in cold water. She had entered the current! The border between the warm and cold water would confuse the echolocation signals—for a moment anyway, until her pursuers penetrated the current as well.
Squeak turned her head this way and that, getting a sense for the space. The sound of the rushing water was not as precise as a sonar echo, but it told her that she was in a long, narrow canyon sculpted by the tides. One side had collapsed, covering the bottom with a maze of tumbled stone. Hopefully she would be able to conceal herself there.
Worming her way through the rocks, Squeak had to proceed by feel. Her flippers kept scraping against the stone; there was not enough room to maneuver properly. A wave of claustrophobia came over her when she imagined getting stuck down here.
Moments later she found a nook beneath a slab of tilted stone and worked her way in tail-first. It was cramped, but visible only from the narrow passage she had swum down. Here she opened her mouth, willed her pounding heart to silence, and focused her whole body upon the act of listening.
Stray speech and sonar clicks found their way to her through the chattering current. She imagined her pursuers spreading out through the channel, echolocation beams prying among the rocks, hunting for her. So long as she made no sound, they would have to catch her directly in a beam in order to find her. Meanwhile, she listened. Echolocation pulses reverberated through the debris, bringing her faint jumbled images of broken stone. She ignored these and tried to use the sounds to track her pursuers’ movements. She thought she could hear three distinct sources, some closer than others.
“I don’t understand why we’re bothering,” came a voice. Through some trick of resonance, it sounded like it was coming from right beside her. “She’s just going to die on her own out here anyway. Is she going to eat bottom lice and wavetails like a muck whale? The Songless will probably get her. She’s blind! Helpless! Useless!”
The words barely stung at all. Squeak had been long used to being useless. Always riding her mother’s wake like a nurseling, she could neither watch the herds nor tend to the calves. Some orcas specialized in monitoring local wildlife populations and others honed their sonar beams into surgical instruments, but not Squeak. She couldn’t even play at stunning fish with echo pulses or engage in the roughhousing games that orcas enjoyed. But she had her mother, who never objected to the great burden that Squeak knew she must impose. She longed now for the comforting pulse of her mother’s gills, her heartbeat . . . .
“What are you complaining for, Sideways?” said a second voice. This one came echoing through the jumble of rocks surrounding Squeak’s hiding place, indicating its owner was close by. “This is fun. I’m tired of butting rostrums and nipping tails. I want to kill someone.” Feast.
Squeak felt sick inside. She knew these males by reputation: third-generation offspring of the most powerful local matriarch, an ancient and fecund whale named Grabjaw. Orcas did not have leaders, but each family held a certain amount of prestige through a combination of force, persuasion, and utility.
“That’s right, little fish, we’re going to feed on you.” The voice was even closer now. Little fish, tasty fish, crunchy fish, it sang.
“Shut it, Nipper.” Only faint echoes reached her, but it sounded like this might be Hammerhead.
“I’m just trying to get her to piss herself again, lead us right to her.” Laugh.
“Half-calf, why are you so selfish?” Hammerhead called out to her. “If you do not care for your pod, think of your mother. What kind of life can she have, with you trailing her wake every turn of the tide? Bad enough for her that you were born. Come out, and set her free.”
No, that’s not true, my mother loves me! Squeak screamed inside her head. She had never felt so helpless and wretched.
“This is stupid, I’m going home. Nipper can find a Songless whale to kill if he wants to.” Sideways, on the other side of the channel and moving away.
“Fine. Just so long as you’re the one who tells Grabjaw that the three of us couldn’t catch a blind whale.” Dare.
Nipper was getting closer and closer. Scattered echoes of his sonar beam were prying into her cubbyhole. If he didn’t see her, soon her laboring heartbeat would give her away. She glimpsed an image of his jaws, caught in a reflection of his own beam.
Suddenly she knew what to do. With a kick of her tail, Squeak sprang from her hiding-place. Nipper was only a few whale-lengths away, his echolocation clicks scrambling the maze of stone with a cacophony of echoes. He stopped short, trying to ascertain her position amidst a swarm of reflected images. But his pulsing sonar signal told her exactly where he was.
Just as her mother had done, Squeak slammed the male with the full force of her charge. A satisfying meaty shock went through her rostrum as she thrust her opponent against the rock behind him. The metallic tang of blood filled the water.
Nipper didn’t have time to make a sound, but that collision would have echoed through the channel. Squeak waved her head through the current to get her bearings and then plunged further down the channel. Her only hope was to get out of echolocation range before his brothers got a beam on her. She fled headlong, all the while bracing herself against the impact of an unseen boulder or knoll.
Strangely, the tail-biters seemed to be going in the opposite direction. She heard frantic communication clicks, too faint for her to discern words and growing fainter. From Nipper came no sound at all. That thought brought a mixture of fear, shame, and exultation.
Once out of the mouth of the channel Squeak turned right and hugged the side of the ridge. As the rush of combat faded, it was replaced by fatigue fringed with despair. What had she accomplished? She was no closer to her mother. She could no longer even be sure what direction her mother’s call had come from. Why had she ceased calling? Hammerhead’s cruel words echoed in her mind.
Back in her old pod she would have voiced her feelings in song. But with the Grabjaws still hunting for her, she dared not make a sound. Still, why not? There was a chance her mother would hear. She was tired of fleeing. Her song would bring either death or solace, and both were preferable to the way she felt now.
Her plaintive cry went out into the dark: Mother, the sea is vast and I long for the comfort of your wake.
She had repeated her song a couple of times and was about to begin another phrase when a reply came from not far off:
A calf calls with the voice of an adult. What is the meaning of this riddle?
That was no orca! That song, deeper than any orca could produce, could only have come from one of the Grandfathers. The Grandfathers were huge, krill-eating whales. They had their own feeding grounds and seldom consorted with orcas. But orcas sometimes sought their counsel—they were long-lived and singers of the Song, repository of all whale wisdom. Squeak had never met one, although she had listened to their voices all her life. Was it possible that this one could help her now? She was afraid to hope.
Grandfather, she sang into the sea, driven from my pod by punishing whales, homeless and motherless am I.
A singer such as you? What was your crime?
None but living. Echolocation eludes me; I am defective.
No reply came so she pleaded: Grandfather, what should I do?
Learn to eat krill.
Forgetting herself, Squeak cried artlessly: That is not helpful! I need to get back to my mother!
A whale swims forward, not backward. And even a defect can be perfect.
Such riddle-talk was typical of the Grandfathers. But Squeak was in no mood for it now. Can’t you just give me a straight answer? she moaned.
Our song makes all whales one; to torture orcas is all we ask in return.
All right, she was going to have to play his game. Krill does not suit my palate. Is there nothing else I can do?
Some voices are silenced too soon; others never get the chance to find their song. Yours lies ahead of you, if you will hear it.
I don’t understand! Squeak cried. What do you mean?
But in reply the voice only took up the chorus of the Song. That, it seemed, was all she was going to get.
Squeak swam on, confused and frustrated. Your song lies ahead of you. It sounded like an empty platitude a pompous old matriarch might offer to an impatient young orca. Squeak knew she was supposed to respect the Grandfathers and be grateful for what guidance they offered, but she felt that at a time like this she was entitled to something more! If he knew something she didn’t, why not tell her? Why force her to swim upstream like this?
Squeak continued to brood over the Grandfather’s words, when she heard an echolocation pulse. And another, and another. At first she thought the brothers had heard her song and tracked it back to her, but then she realized there were too many. Almost without sound, nearly a dozen whales descended upon her. Too despondent to run, she let them approach.
Quick and agile, these whales swarmed about her like a herd of bredfish. They were orcas, certainly, but smaller and sleeker than those Squeak knew—this she heard by the almost seamless way they cut the water. Their sonar beams roamed her body curiously, but they uttered not a word. Did they have something to do with the Grandfather's cryptic message?
“I am Squeak,” she said in tentative greeting. She sensed a shudder go through the group, but no reply came. That was when Squeak knew what she was facing: they were Songless whales.
Genetic throwbacks to the days of pre-sapience before the Migration, Songless whales were unable to comprehend the Song of the Grandfathers that wove the skein of whale civilization. They lived as savages, preying upon other whales. Her mother had terrified her with tales of how they took calves who strayed too far. They more than anything else were the reason for the Breeding Laws.
Well, let them have her if they wanted. Let them feast upon her flesh. It was no more than the civilized whales wanted to do.
One of the Songless made a careful scan of her from tail to rostrum. Then it directed a stream of what sounded like communication clicks at her. Squeak was taken aback—was this creature trying to talk to her? It repeated the call and then made a pass in front of her, close enough for her to feel its bow wave move along her body.
As Squeak was wondering what to do next, a second whale made a close scan of her and then sent an almost identical stream of clicks. Was this call a threat? A challenge?
Then to her surprise, one of the whales directed an intense beam of sound at the other, hard enough that it rang like a blow. She wasn’t sure what happened next, but judging by the thrashing of the water and the sounds of tail-blows and aggressive echolocation beams, these two were fighting like a pair of young males over a female.
Slowly it dawned upon Squeak that this was exactly what they were doing—they were fighting over her. First the deep scan to confirm her gender, then the competitive behavior—she had seen it many times. It made perfect sense. Orcas travelled in family groups, so the males would always be on the lookout for a young female without calf. She was meat to them all right, just not the kind she had expected!
Squeak laughed—a rapid chattering of her teeth—for the first time since her old pod broke up.
What should she do next? She certainly wasn’t going to mate with one of these creatures. Perhaps if she just moved off . . . . But off to where? There was nowhere for her to go. That tiny flicker of joy made Squeak realize that she didn’t want to be alone. Her mother’s absence was like an open wound and she didn’t want to give up even the paltry comfort these strange, silent orcas brought.
But could she swim with them? Part of her recoiled at the idea. Everything she had been taught said that these were beasts, monsters, not orcas but killer whales. Still, at this moment, they seemed less barbaric than the members of her own adopted pod.
Over the sound of the duel, Squeak could hear the other Songless whales moving on. She decided to chance it and followed them at a discreet distance.
The sounds of battle ceased and Squeak felt two whales shoot past her. Each one took up a position ahead of her such that she was tugged along by their wake. Were they staking claim or attempting to curry favor? This brought mixed feelings; because of her deformity, no male had ever shown interest in Squeak before. At least this suggested that it was safe for her to accompany the pod.
It was not long before Squeak heard a small shape approach her. A miniature echolocation beam probed her tentatively and Squeak realized she was being examined by a calf. A calf! Of course Songless whales had calves too—the thought had just never occurred to her.
Squeak tried a call she had heard mothers use with calves before: a whistle that rose in tone to a peak and then fell again. She was rewarded with a happy squeal, which she returned.
Squeak was about to try another call when four more small, inquisitive forms appeared and swam around her. She laughed for a second time. Juvenile orcas were intensely curious and difficult to control. One of them appeared to imitate her laugh.
Moments later, the water was disturbed by the simultaneous approach of several adult orcas. Squeak made ready to flee, but the adults ignored her and instead prodded the juveniles with sonar beams. Emitting squeals of protest, the little ones were herded by their mothers back to the pod. Playtime, it seemed, was over. But Squeak hoped she would be allowed to play with these calves again.
Squeak followed the pod of Songless whales through the channel and down the slope of the ridge on the other side. Here she was about to leave them for fear of losing contact with her mother completely, but they turned to follow the contour of the channel mouth. It was not difficult to figure out why: the whales foraged constantly, and food was less sparse here where the channel gathered in the tidal current like a Grandfather scooping krill.
Wild whales did not eat only calves, as it turned out. In fact, they ate everything, as far as Squeak could tell: creepercrawlers, wavetails, bottom lice . . . . There was even the occasional bredfish—apparently enough had escaped from herds to form a wild population. But it was meager fare and everyone gobbled up whatever they found before another orca could get at it. It was easy to tell why they were all so small and thin, eking out an existence in this inhospitable environment. Was she going to have to live like them, if she didn’t find a way to return to the Singing Valley pod?
The Grandfather had said she would find her song out here, but he couldn’t have meant this, could he?
After a time, Squeak heard an unmistakable voice: Squeak, mother calls. To me! To me! Her mother, at last! Not caring if the tail-biters lay in wait for her, she swam joyfully toward the sound.
She was not far off. Drawing near, Squeak recognized her heartbeat, her breathing, even the rhythm of her tail-strokes. Squeak and her mother nuzzled, rubbed cheeks, and stroked one another with their fins. She was overcome with joy. Then she detected the acrid flavor of blood and felt a gash on her mother’s side.
“It’s nothing. A little souvenir from the Grabjaws.”
Squeak understood. They had given her a tooth-raking for standing up to the tail-biters. She wasn’t sure how she felt about that.
“It doesn’t matter,” her mother went on. “We’re together again, and that’s all that counts.” Joy, she sang.
“We’re together again . . . .” Squeak echoed.
Then she felt an echolocation beam sweep over them. Her mother darted and directed a stream of sonar pulses at the intruder. Reading the reflection, Squeak recognized one of her suitors. When a second beam scanned them it was easy enough to guess who it came from.
“Mother, don’t worry, I know these whales. They won’t hurt us.”
“I am Tailspinner . . . .” Squeak’s mother said hesitantly.
One of the males responded with an inarticulate squeal of clicks. To Squeak it sounded like the mating call he had directed to her earlier.
“Squeak, these are Songless!” Her mother took up a position between Squeak and the two males. “We should get out of here!” Away! Away!
“Yes, Mother, I know they’re Songless. But it’s safe. They . . . like me.”
There was an incredulous silence, and then Squeak said: “Mother, what are we going to do?”
“We’re going to leave these waters and find another pod that will accept us.”
“Oh.” Squeak was disappointed. As unreasonable as it was, she had hoped her mother would have some solution that would allow them to return to the Singing Valley pod. “But it was difficult enough to find a new pod before. And now we’re coming begging without our own herd . . . .”
“Oh, bitesize, I know it will be hard, but what does that matter as long as we’re alive and together?”
“Together . . . ” Squeak thought of all that had happened since she and her mother had parted. “Mother, I spoke with a Grandfather today.”
“A Grandfather? Surely not.”
“He said something about some whales never getting the chance to find their song and told me mine was out here.”
“Are you sure it wasn’t another orca? Or a muck whale?”
“No, it was a Grandfather! Listen, he said I would find my song out here. Do you think he meant with these Songless whales?”
“Squeak, of course not! You don’t belong with these creatures, you mustn’t ever think that. You’re an orca, a true orca!”
“That’s not what the Grabjaws think,” Squeak said miserably. “Mother, I have an idea. You return to the pod and I’ll stay here.”
“Squeak, what are you saying?”
“The Grabjaw brothers are still hunting for me—it’s not safe! But they would never think of looking for me with the Songless whales! You can pretend that you’ve given up on me and after a while they’ll give up too. Meanwhile, we could send out discreet calls to other pods. You could even come visit me. If you want to.”
“But if you stay with the Songless you’re admitting that the Grabjaws are right and you don’t belong with true orcas.” Shame.
“Mother, I . . . I need to know if this is what the Grandfathers have in mind for me.”
“Squeak, why are you behaving this way? Even if the Grandfathers do have some special role in mind for you, it can’t be scrounging among the rocks with savages! Forget that and let’s go.” Calf, obey!
“Better that than to wander homeless and hungry until some pod deigns to let us swim with them! Please, Mother, go back. I’ll be fine here. We will touch again soon.”
Squeak’s mother hesitated, her echolocation beam probing first Squeak and then the two Songless whales. “May the Grandfathers keep you safe,” she said at last and with a splash she was gone.
Squeak listened as the sound of her mother’s tail-strokes receded into the chorus of the sea. All this time she had wanted nothing more than to feel her mother’s touch again, yet the first chance she got she had sent her away. Why? Did she truly believe the Grandfathers foresaw some place for her with the Songless? No, it was what Hammerhead had said to her: Bad enough for your mother that you were born. Squeak’s mother had never shown any sign that she resented her role as caregiver for a defective calf. And yet how could Squeak be sure? Tailspinner loved her calf, there was no doubt about that, and a loving mother might sing a false song over her suffering. Once this fear had been planted in Squeak’s mind, it was difficult to dismiss. And she would rather face the blindness of the empty ocean alone than cause her mother needless hardship.
Fortunately for her, she did not need to face it wholly alone. Her two friends called plaintively to her. Like the first faltering attempts of a nursling, there were no words in the cry, but its meaning was easy to guess. Squeak followed them back to their pod.
The little band of wild whales hugged the slope of the escarpment, following the lazy current as it wound its way among the ridges and furrows. Here they nosed about the stones, while above them sighed the echoless vastness of the open sea. The creatures were remarkably placid compared to the orcas that Squeak had known, who were always playing or gossiping or engaging in lying contests. These whales barely disturbed the water with their tail-strokes, gliding gracefully with a minimal expenditure of energy. They spoke rarely and made sparing use of echolocation. She even found that they calmed a little of her anxiety at being separated from her mother and chased into unknown waters by killer orcas.
The peace was broken only by the occasional advances of the two amorous males. On and off they would call to her, and sometimes one of them would brush against her as he swam by. Squeak did not want to encourage them, but at the same time was afraid to anger them in case they responded by driving her away. So she ignored them, hoping that was best.
By the time the tide turned, hunger became an issue—and with it, the uncomfortable question of diet. Orcas sometimes sampled Europan organisms to add variety to their diet of bredfish, but it was not possible to obtain adequate nourishment from this alien fare. Despite the occasional wild bredfish, Songless whales lived in a state of chronic hunger and malnutrition. Squeak would face the same conditions as long as she swam with them.
When the pod came upon a patch of wavetails—Europan crustaceans which clung to the rock and spread wide “tails” to filter the water—Squeak’s hunger was urgent enough that she gobbled one down. She crushed its shell between her jaws and its pungent, pulpy meat squirted into her mouth. It tasted like bredfish shit and the choking fumes from the hydrothermal vent. She hoped it would not make her ill.
The calves continued to display interest in Squeak and their mothers allowed them to spend more time with her. She soon learned to differentiate between them through voice, touch, and the way they broke the water. Three of them were nurslings; two were recently weaned. Without the benefit of sonar, she could not determine their gender, but the one who first inspected her she judged to be male by his size and aggressiveness. And she decided one of the nurslings must be female because she was so quick and clever.
Squeak sang to them, the way her mother had sung to her. Simple rhymes, like: Swish, swish, tasty fish/Crunch, crunch, thanks a bunch. They would listen raptly, milling about her like a mob of admiring males, then suddenly dart away squealing to play hide-and-hunt among the rocks. Sometimes they tried to imitate her. Most of the time they managed only amusing warbling, but two of them—the curious male she had decided to call Nosey and the clever female she thought of as Posey—were surprisingly good at it. Good enough that Squeak tried teaching them a few words. “Eat,” she said and mouthed chewing. “Eat, eat.” They repeated after her: “Eat, eat.”
She continued the game with several other words as they foraged among the ridges and furrows. Nosey and Posey tried, with varying levels of success, to imitate her. But the other three juveniles didn’t seem to grasp the idea at all. The contrast between these two and the others was so striking that one conclusion seemed inescapable: they were not Songless whales!
Was it possible that they were orphans who had found a home among the wild whales, much as Squeak had? But Songless whales ate calves, didn’t they? And Posey was a nursling, too young to survive away from her mother. Could it be that Songless whales sometimes bore non-defective offspring? The implications were staggering. If this was so, then who knew how many orcas were being cheated of their sapience by being reared by animals?
Squeak was suddenly certain that this was what the Grandfather had been talking about. Some never get the chance to find their song. But if the Grandfathers knew about these calves, why had they not told anyone before now? Or if they had shared the knowledge with orcas in the past, why had Squeak never heard of it? She could ask them, of course, but to do so would risk giving herself away to the tail-biters. And dare she presume that the Grandfathers would answer her call twice in as many tides? No, Squeak decided to wait and discuss it with her mother when she returned.
In the meantime, she threw her energies into continuing the language lessons. Eventually her charges’ enthusiasm waned and they returned to their mothers to feed.
Finally Squeak’s own mother returned. They rubbed cheeks and Tailspinner started to say something, but Squeak interrupted her, “Mother, I have the most amazing news!”
“Squeak, this isn’t like you,” her mother admonished her and Squeak lowered her head. “I was able to get a message through to my sister Swims-in-the-Reaches. She thinks her pod will be willing to accept us! But we have to leave now. I think I may have been followed.”
“That’s wonderful, mother,” Squeak cried. “But I have to tell you something too! The calves here, some of them can speak!”
“What do you mean, they can speak? They’re Songless whales.”
“That’s just it—they aren’t Songless! They’re like us. Come, let me show you—” Squeak started to turn but then a stunning blast of sound struck her full in the face.
The next few moments were a confused jumble of noises for Squeak. There was her mother’s roar of rage, the thrashing of embattled water, and Hammerhead’s voice shouting about lies and punishment. Somehow she found the presence of mind to move somewhere, anywhere, just as a snarling form surged through the water toward her. Teeth that would have torn her open scraped her side instead.
“Stop! Please stop!” she cried. “This isn’t important any more! There are calves here, real calves, and they need our help!”
But the tail-biters didn’t listen. Two sonar beams homed in on Squeak. She twisted, attempting to elude them—and then there was an explosive impact as another orca swept in from behind her to collide with one of her attackers. It gave a shrill, wordless cry and Squeak knew who it was immediately. A similar cry came from above, and the second of Squeak’s two suitors joined the fray. Soon the water was filled by an impenetrable cacophony of bow waves, tail shocks, and dueling echolocation beams.
Moments later Hammerhead called a retreat and the violence ceased. “I see you’ve found a home among the other genetic refuse,” he taunted. “We’ll have to come back later and exterminate the lot of you.” And then there was only the sound of their vanishing tail-strokes.
Immediately, Squeak’s mother was swimming around her, running her sonar beam all over her calf. “Are you hurt?”
“No,” Squeak said distractedly. “Why didn’t they listen?”
“What about this?” Squeak’s mother indicated where one of the brothers had caught her.
“It’s nothing.” Squeak waved her jaw about, listening for her two suitors. The taste of blood filled the water. “What about those two orcas that helped us?”
Tailspinner scanned the area and Squeak caught a pair of reflections hovering nearby. “They seem okay. As soon as the tail-biters realized they were in a fair fight, they turned tail. Who are those two?”
“They’re—they’re from this pod. Listen, mother, we have to go back. We have to tell everyone that there are sapient orcas here!”
“Oh, bitesize, what would be the point of that? Even if they believed you, what could they do?”
“Teach them to speak. Teach them to understand the Song. Teach them how to be orcas!”
My love, Squeak’s mother sang. “A fine ambition, but how? Kill their mothers and abduct them? Do you think they’ll understand?”
Squeak had not thought that far ahead. “No, I guess not.” Her head was still a little muddled from the stunning blast. “But—but I could stay.”
“You could what? Stay? What do you mean?”
“I could stay and teach them.” Squeak spoke slowly, as the thought gradually coalesced in her mind. Of course. Even a defect can be perfect . . . . These calves needed someone to teach them and who better than an otherwise useless defective like Squeak? “They accept me. I know it’ll be hard, but I’m certain this is what the Grandfather meant when he told me about finding my song.”
“Squeak, enough about the Grandfathers! We can’t stay! We have a new home to go to. And the Grabjaws might return. You heard what they said!”
“I’m not afraid of the Grabjaws! They can’t fight the whole pod, and if they try we’ll just run away! Mother, I can do something here. For the first time I can be more than just an overgrown calf.”
Squeak’s mother clapped her jaw in impatience. “Squeak, you’re speaking like a calf right now. Do you want to live like these pitiful, half-starved creatures? We are orcas! We have our own course to swim. Now let’s go!”
“Mother, please . . . “
“Do as I say!” A beam of sound struck Squeak in the face. It took a moment for her to realize it was from her mother.
“Go,” choked Squeak. “You can go and I’ll stay. You don’t have to take care of me any more.”
Her mother was silent for a long moment. Then she cried: “Oh, Squeak, is that what this is about? You are all the sea to me. I could never leave you.”
“Then stay! Stay with me and help me save these orcas!” Please.
Her mother hesitated. “Squeak, please. Don’t ask me to give up everything we have left.”
“Everything we have left!” Squeak cried. “What do we have left?”
“We have what we are. Without a pod—a real pod—we are nothing!”
“I’ve always been nothing,” Squeak moaned. Nothing. ” This is my chance to be . . . something else.”
“Don’t say that, Squeak,” her mother said quietly. “You’re not nothing.”
“Mother, I’m staying here. You can go if that’s what you want.”
Squeak’s mother was silent for a long time, running her sonar beam over her calf. At last she said: “The Tailspinner pod. That has a nice ring to it.”
“What?” Squeak was startled by the change in subject.
“If we’re going to found our own pod of orcas with these calves, it needs a name. And it should be named for the matriarch, don’t you think?”
“Yes! Of course!” Squeak let out a long whistle of relief. “Come on, you can meet the nurslings . . . .”
Squeak and her mother swam toward their new home. She didn’t know how the Songless whales would react to her mother or how well the two of them would fare on their new diet of wavetails and bottom lice, but she refused to worry. The Grandfathers had entrusted a task to her and she was determined to see it through.
“Thank you . . . .” Squeak whispered.