[“Are you asleep yet little cat?” –
“Nearly, one more story, with pirates…” –
“I only have one with vegan pirates…”]
The Southern Pacific Ocean – the near future
Oona Aalto did not mind being called ‘grizzled’. Grizzled was a fine adjective for a sea-captain and an even one for the captain of what could be called a pirate ship. Her ship – well not technically ‘her’ ship, as it was owned by an environmental group and operated as a quasi-anarchist collective – was an Island Class patrol vessel that had once been part of the British Navy patrolling North Atlantic fisheries. These days the MY Kropotkin was dedicated to the task of harassing fishing boats, and flew a black flag adorned with a skull and crossed tridents. For a ship a career change from Royal Navy to possible-pirate was a traditional move that dated back to Elizabethan times. Ever since there was a Royal Navy there had been ships that had made the bold transition from semi-respectable representative of the British Crown to dubious renegade of the sea.
Aalto was a pragmatic and yet committed woman. She loved the sea and ‘her’ ship (although she was careful not call it ‘hers’ in public). The crew, despite their inherent distrust of hierarchy and authority, had an almost instinctive respect for her orders. It was if they sensed that she was merely giving voice to the wants and needs of the ship itself.
But grizzled or not, experienced or not, captain or not Aalto was at a loss.
The MY Kropotkin was on a mission to find (and disrupt) a ship that was hunting blue whales. The problem was that nobody had seen this ship or even had any idea of what nation it had come from. The only reason that they knew the ship had to exist was from the number of whales that had gone missing. Careful tagging and monitoring by naturalists had meant that extensive data had been collected on the recovering populations of blue whales. However, in the past six months it had become clear that significant numbers of blue whales were going missing.
Not many years ago harassing whaling boats had been a major activity for ships like the MY Kropotkin but economics and shifts in culture and had finished what international agreements had started. Whaling had ended – with no demand for whale meat or whale derived products, the whaling fleets had finally died. Of course that didn’t mean life was now perfect for the recovering whale populations. Pollution, rising sea temperatures, over fishing each had its own impact on whale populations.
A hi-tech billionaire had commissioned the MY Kropotkin – a lazy way to gain radical credibility or perhaps a PR stunt or maybe genuine guilt. The irony of a sea-based anarchist commune consuming fossil fuels on a ship paid for by a capitalist billionaire was not lost on the crew – but in the hearts they didn’t care. They were on a mission to protect the sea (primarily from over-fishing and polluters) and if guilt-tripping capitalists gave them the means to do it then so be it.
Aalto liked her crew (but again would never say ‘her crew’). They were smart and dedicated but relaxed and kept their bickering to a minimum. Most had sailed on the MY Kroptokin many times but only Aalto had been with the ship from its first voyage under that name. None of the crew from that first voyage had chosen to sail again.
Yet here they were. At sea both literally and figuratively, searching for a ship that hunted a creature nobody hunted any more. A ship that had no port at which it could off load its catch, that had no substantial financial incentive to run all the risk of hunting whales, that had no apparent presence anywhere and yet managed to find and kill blue whales. Nona stared out to sea from the deck as if challenging the mystery ship to appear.
“There isn’t any ship.” Yonatan Chihuán – technically a deckhand but unofficially dubbed The-Oona-Wrangler by the crew. When everyone else needed somebody to say something difficult or awkward or something that essentially challenged Oona’s unspoken and unofficial authority, Yonatan was the man they picked. He was a man who attracted nicknames like a magnet attracts filings – ‘Yoni’ of course and hence ‘Hey-Yoni-Yoni’, ‘Da-Jew-From-Peru’ which he claimed was his professional wrestling name, ‘Scotty’ used ironically for his utter lack of ability with anything mechanical, and the ‘Whisperer’ for his capacity to talk sense into people – in particular the captain.
Oona turned to face Jonatan. “There is a ship and we haven’t found it.”
“Simone thinks it might be a predator – perhaps a squid of some kind.”
“Seriously? We have sunk to imagining sea-monsters now?”
“Simone is a highly experienced marine biologists Oona. She isn’t just making things up.”
“She has no actual evidence of any new predator or any change in behaviour of ocean-going apex predators and the number just do not add up. We know that whales with the most recent generation of trackers have disproportionately vanished.”
“Well perhaps some sort of animal can sense…”
“Please, Yoni. We now have to imagine not only some fictitious predator but one with a whole new set of senses? Simone is clutching at straws.”
“OK I agree Simone may be speculating a bit far from the evidence but Geral’s argument is more simple.”
“That it is the new generation of trackers that are the problem? Plausible but you’ve seen the academic papers on that and the testing has shown no issue.”
“Yes but still. If there is a ship where is it? We can’t chase a phantom forever. Seriously Oona, people are tired of this – it all feels to aimless. Look, I know what you’ve been through but not everything is down to some bad people doing bad things.’
Oona just started back at hi and Yonatan felt he had gone to far with that last remark.
“Come to the galley, Oona. Have some lunch.” Yonatan smiled to break the tension.
“OK, food but not anything green. I’m sick of green food.”
“Well then you are in luck! Debra has made something awful out of carrots!”
“You aren’t selling this well,Yoni.” Oona said with a smile.
They had barely reached the galley when Geral came running up them. “You are needed on the bridge. We may have spotted something.”
There were five crew on the bridge already, staring out a window in the same general direction.
Geral explained “We thought we could see some sort of ship, just briefly.” Oona looked in the same direction but could see nothing. “You all seem quite excited about a brief glimpse of something out on the horizon.” said Oona sceptically.
Geral shook his head “It was closer than that and for the short time we could see it, it was quite distinct and then it just…”
“…vanished” Miao finished Geral’s sentence for him.
Oona restrained herself from replying sarcastically. In truth she was unsettled. The scene on the bridge reminded her too painfully of her first voyage on the MY Kropotkin, when they had found what the news media later called the ‘death ship’. She closed her eyes briefly and refocused her thoughts to the present. She made her decision and with nothing else to go one the MY Kropotkin changed course towards the strange sighting.
It was dark when Oona woke. Disorientated by sleep she reached for the light switch in her cabin but couldn’t find it. More alert now she became more aware of her surroundings. This was not her cabin and worse she could not recall the previous afternoon or evening nor when she had gone to sleep. She stood up slowly and as she did so the walls around her began to glow softly.
“Hello” there was a window in the room and at the window there was a face. Oona looked back startled.
“Hello. You may be disorientated” the face said and Oona had to agree that she did feel very disorientated.
The walls glowed brighter and a door opened in front of her. She could see the face belonged to a tall bald thin person dressed in a white gown.
“I am Taa” they said with little expression.
“I am Oona Aalto of the MY Kropotkin. Where am I and where are my crew?”
Taa bowed their head slightly and replied “Your crew are sleeping and unharmed. Your ship came between us and the sea creature we hoped to capture. You may not recall these events as the transition and tranquillisation we performed can prevent both the forming of long terms memories and the recollection of recent events. Follow me.”
Oona looked around her. She could feel her heart beating rapidly but she knew that she had to remain calm and think clearly. She walked briskly after Taa.
“Are you…” she paused feeling both foolish and frightened “…are you an alien?”
Taa shook their head “No. You are nearly as human as I am. This is a temporal ship rather than a space ship. We can move back to points in the past.”
“How far in the future are you from?”
“A thousand years. We have grown and reshaped ourselves as a species and we have recently found a way to make journeys such as these.”
“You travel into the past and capture whales?”
“The whales have a psychic capacity that allows us to identify them across time. The beacons that you have placed on them inadvertently modulates the psychic temporal signal. As a consequence, an individual tagged whale provides exactly the data needed to make a temporal transition.”
“So the whales are what you use to travel in time? But having got here why do you capture the whales?”
“We use them to build a better time machine.”
They exited a corridor and entered a vast room. Arranged around the sides were huge cylindrical tanks. In each tank was a massive blue whale.
“Can you sense their energy?” asked Taa “I suppose you cannot. It was only a few hundred years ago that we discover the capacity to enhance our minds psychically.”
“Your technology is impressive,” said Oona “but this is monstrous. Are these whales not crying out to be released.”
“Oh yes.” replied Taa “They cry insensately. On reflection, if you could sense it then you would be overwhelmed by its force.”
“So how do you cope?” Nona struggled to keep the anger from her voice.
“It soon became clear to humanity that empathy was a problem for those of us with psychic skill. To not just guess at another persons feelings but to simultaneously know those feelings with all the force as if they were your own! It drove people made. So we learned to be within oneself and to know what an other feels but without feeling it.”
“You rid yourselves of emotion?”
Taa turned to look at Oona “Not at all! I cherish my own emotions. No we simply learned not to care about the emotions of others.”
“Seriously that is fucked up. You couldn’t live like that. Society would collapse.”
“We have long life now and access to resources you cannot imagine. There are very few people in the world now and it is true that we tend to live alone apart from our pets.”
“More intelligent animals, even sentient aliens we have encountered in our voyages.”
“Is this some kind of zoo?”
Taa smiled “No, I hoped to build something I could truly experience and I had other purposes too.”
“You’ve dulled yourself so completely that now you need this monstrous prison just so you can feel things! You have’t escaped from the feelings of others – you’ve just desensitised yourself to the point of absurdity.”
“Perhaps.” Taa nodded “Your words are not knew ideas to me. It has occurred to me that humanity erred – that we traded our capacity for empathy for a gift that is of no use without others to share it with. So I thought to reconstruct how we once were but it proved fruitless. The only solution would
be to find unenhanced humans from the past. Hence my temporal ship. The first trip naturally was the hardest but with each excursion my capacity to move through time has improved. This trip was particularly fortuitous as it presented me with the opportunity to find some genuine unenhanced humans such as yourself.”
Oona ran her fingers through her gray hair and looked around the vast room again.
“I truly do not comprehend what you are doing. I can see that is terrible but I feel pity as well. This…” she waved her hands at the huge tanks “…this is wrong but you can’t even see it. It is like your inability to hear how evil it is has pushed you to worse acts just because you can barely catch a hint of something – a sound or a hint of something and you want to hear what it is but that thing you can’t quite hear is your own sense of guilt.”
Taa nodded. “You may be right. It may be guilt is exactly the thing missing from my life. If it is then this is what I will ask of you. Return ‘guilt’ to me. Make it so that I am the first human in hundreds of years to feel guilt. Do this and I will return these animals to your seas and your crew to its ship.”
Oona nodded. “I will do this.”
Taa took Oona to a pair of chairs at the far end of the hall. They both sat, facing each other.
“Here your feelings will be amplified by the powers of the whales. I will open my senses to the fullest so that my mind can be shaped by yours. You must recall to me your feelings. Something strong, something that hurt you, something that hurt deep.”
Oona closed her eyes and spoke:
“It was the first voyage of the MY Kropotkin. We had tailed a vessel for a couple of days. It looked like an old Russian factory ship but it was behaving oddly. We kept our distance but we assumed we knew that we where their and where ignoring us – pretending to be doing nothing until we got bored and went away. They weren’t fishing or doing anything.
Well the weather took a turn for the worse and we had to stop tailing this factory ship. I didn’t even think about it. I think one crew member had suggested that perhaps the ship was in trouble but there had been no distress signal.
After the storm we moved on. We had a tip off about a ship involved in dumping radioactive hospital waste at sea. We set off to look for that ship. After a couple of weeks of fruitless searching we ran across that Russian factory ship again.
We could see it was in a bad state. It had taken on water and was listing to one side. We approached cautiously. Myself and five other members of the crew boarded the ship.
The crew were all dead. Nothing mysterious – the ship had a tiny crew, too small to run a ship that size properly and certainly not enough to catch and process fish – at some point they had all died of food poisoning. They had all eaten the same tainted meat and died. I don’t think any of them were Russian. The ship apparently had been sold for scrap some years ago and yet here it was out at sea.
The death of the ships crew was tragic. When they first fell ill they should have radioed for help but instead they kept quiet. We couldn’t work out why at first. They were clearly engaged in something illegal but it wasn’t illegal fishing and it was a poor choice of ship for dumping waste.
I was the one who went below to hold.
Hundreds of people dead. Refugees being smuggled inside the ship. Locked in. They hadn’t eaten the tainted meat. They died because their food and water ran out. They were trapped. With the crew dead nobody brought them food. When the engines stopped the pumps for the freshwater stopped.
I don’t know if we could have saved them. Perhaps if we had approached that ship when we first saw it. It wasn’t what I saw that stayed with me but the thoughts of those last days of the people trapped in the ship.”
Oona opened her eyes. Taa looked back. “I shall return the whales to the sea and your crew to the ship.”