Authors: Frank Sheldon
Tags: #sea, #shipboard romance, #whale intelligence, #minisub, #reality changing, #marine science
Bell looked pensive. “They are pale pink,
however. The shade is at best delicate. This doesn’t fit Matthew’s
description of purple and magenta. Pen?”
“There’s nothing in any files I could locate
about a gray whale this color. We have a multitude of records of
whale sightings over the last three hundred years. Many of the
captains in the old whaling days kept detailed logs and would note
“Scammon noted an albino or two,” Bell
“White, yes. Purple, no,” she said. “There
are also the native American hunters who have had contact with
these mammals for centuries. I did a search of a few databases this
afternoon on all this. I should have included porpoises and
dolphins, I guess, but for whales ‘purple’ didn’t come up at
“I figured that would be the case,” Matthew
said. “It’s so hard to remember. I find myself forgetting it again
quickly. Like a dream.”
“You sound like you have doubts,” Penny
“Of course I have doubts, who wouldn’t? But
the captain of my fishing boat said it wasn’t a whale, period. He’s
been out there over fifty years. I’ve never heard him say anything
he didn’t mean.”
“What did he mean, then?”
“I don’t know. He never spoke of it again.
Almost like it didn’t happen.”
He looked at the father and daughter, who
both sat as still as monks, and tried to cover a growing
frustration with having to defend something he could not even
“Listen,” he finally said. “Did you ever
feel the hair on the back of you neck stand up? Straight up? When
that whale looked at me, I was terrified. It felt like she looked
into me, saw me, saw everything about me. I’ve never had anything
remotely like that happen before. It affected everyone else on the
boat as well. I don’t know why they can’t remember, but forgetting
seems to be part of it. I don’t know exactly what happened, but I’m
Penny and her father looked at each other
for a long time.
“We do believe you, Matthew,” Bell said,
“and like you, we don’t understand the experience you had yet.
However, there are a few new pieces to the puzzle, since I spoke to
you this morning. Harold had a call from the Air Force. He had
notified them of the anomaly we experienced with our tracking.”
Bell glanced at Harold’s report on the sea chest that served as a
coffee table. “His premise was that the Air Force might have been
doing some tests that threw our signals out of kilter. He got a
call back much faster than in the past, and they had endless
questions, but no answers. Furthermore, they wanted all the
recorded data we had on the incident.”
“I called Harold’s Air Force liaison myself.
To say their interest was acute wouldn’t be an exaggeration. I
never got anything like a definite statement that our anomaly had
anything to do with their testing something, just a slew of
official-speak about security and ‘it would be premature at this
stage,’ and so on. I didn’t tell them about your sighting, since
they didn’t ask.” Bell smiled at this. “After all, you were not
working for the Point at the time, were you? They said they would
get back to us soon, and I feel they will.”
The phone rang.
“I’m expecting a call from Andrew Thorssen
. They were on the way to find Lefty, to
verify the location to see if she had really changed position so
abruptly. Excuse me.”
He picked up the phone. “Yes. Put him
through.” There was a pause and then, “Martin here, Andrew. Well
and good enough. I’m going to put you on the speaker. Yes. Matthew
Amati who I told you about earlier. Pen is here as well. That’s
right, hold on.”
Bell searched for and finally pushed the
“Go on, we’re all listening now.”
“Glad you made it home, Penny.” The voice
was low and resonant even over the phone. Matthew had never met the
Captain, but had seen and heard him many times on the old
documentaries of the voyages of the
“Thanks,” Penny answered. “We’re all ears,
“We made contact just before dark. Didn’t
have much light to get any visual. It’s Lefty, though.”
Matthew looked at Penny, who looked at Bell.
Her father nodded slowly and said, “Anything else?”
“We were able to confirm the identity of
some of the other grays before dark. Decided not to use lights.
Didn’t want to disturb them. Still following their usual route to
their Arctic feeding grounds. Some unusual behavior.”
“Really?” Bell said, an anticipatory smile
already on his lips.
“A currently unrecognized member seems to be
leading them in an extremely tight formation. Never come across
“What does this new member look like?” Bell
Matthew waited, not knowing what he wanted
“Largest gray whale I’ve ever seen, maybe
seventeen meters or more.”
“That’s still within its growth potential,”
Bell said. “At least in theory.”
“What color is it?” Matthew asked, not being
able to restrain himself any longer.
“Hard to say. The sun was going down. The
Matthew slumped, not sure whether he felt
relieved or let down.
“Was already getting dark. We’ll have a
better look tomorrow. Going to try infrared scanning tonight.”
“That makes sense. We’ll talk in the
“Sure will. Good night, all.”
There was silence as each sifted through the
“It brings in more questions than answers,
doesn’t it?” Bell said. “Still, we have now a confirmed sighting of
Lefty. If we compare another sighting we had of her two days before
yours, Matthew, it fits the original tracking data perfectly.
Somewhere between these two sightings, an unusual whale arrives on
the scene and something like a family pod is formed, rather than
the typical, random behavior of migrating grays. Then, it appears,
they take just a minute to move north a distance that would usually
take them a day or more, and go on with their migration.”
“But the leader isn’t purple,” Matthew
“Well?” Bell said as he leaned back and
glanced at his daughter. He seemed as much at ease with all the
ambiguity as he was half reclining on the couch.
Penny turned her gaze inward for a moment,
then said, “My take on it is, be careful not to discard what
doesn’t fit the picture. I have a hunch that what Matthew saw and
what Andrew reported about this lead whale still fits, despite the
seeming color discrepancy. Maybe the color was a temporary thing.
We need more time and a closer look. The Air Force’s acute interest
in Harold’s inquiry seems odd.”
“Did they in any way indicate that they
thought Lefty might have moved?” Matthew asked. “The apparent
displacement, I mean?”
“Not from their questions,” Bell said. “I
would say their concern revolved around what could throw off our
“Perhaps they’ve been having problems of
their own,” Penny said.
“Could be,” Bell said. “Or perhaps Harold
was right, and they are testing something. Matthew’s right. I doubt
if they have even considered the possibility that Lefty’s position
really shifted. At the time, the only rational thing to conclude
was instrument error, wasn’t it?”
Bell got up and slowly circumnavigated the
room. His broad smile reminded Matthew of Penny’s. He returned and
stood behind his chair, his hands resting on its back.
“I’d like very much for the two of you to go
. I need to get your impressions. I
know it’s not a small thing to ask, and I’d certainly like to go
myself, but not at this time. I want to be here when we give the
Air Force what we have to give them. I do not have a completely
good feeling after that dolphin business a few years ago.”
He looked at Matthew. “Don’t worry about
your courses. They owe me a favor over there, and I think I can
take care of it without any problem. Even get you your onboard
This would not really be making Matthew’s
life easier, but he only hesitated an instant. Still, it shocked
him to hear his own voice saying, “Yes, I can go.”
Penny did not even need to say that she was
They spoke briefly of arrangements for the
next morning. Bell called a man he knew who would come on short
notice with a floatplane. The pilot agreed to fly them north to
Charlotte Island, off British Columbia. There was a village called
Abercrombie with a cove just large enough for the floatplane to set
down. In the morning, Bell would call the Point and have them
arrange for a local from the village to take Matthew and Penny from
Abercrombie out to the
in a small boat. If all
went well, they would rendezvous about fifteen kilometers off the
“You had better be on your way home,” Bell
said to Matthew. “Get some sleep.”
As Matthew was getting his jacket on by the
front door, Margaret Bell insisted he take home the rest of the
pie. She handed it to him in a bag, already prepared.
“Makes a lovely breakfast,” she said.
This touched him unexpectedly, and he did
not quite know what to say. Finally he managed, “I don’t usually
have the opportunity for an evening with family. I’ll never forget
the wonderful meal.”
Margaret Bell smiled. “Come out again, won’t
you? That is, if Martin ever gives you any time off.” She put her
arm around her husband. “He’s relentless when he’s on to
Bell gazed at her as she spoke, obviously
still in love.
Penny began to walk away but glanced at
Matthew over her shoulder. “Good night. See you in the
“Yes. Good night.”
But she was already gone.
Matthew slept that night in a cheap boarding
house near the Point. He had an arrangement to use a small room
three or four days a week. This saved him traveling back and forth
for lectures and classes, but it never felt like home.
Just before his alarm went off in the
morning, something pulled him with a start from a troubled sleep.
Already five o’clock, but felt more like the middle of night. The
spring break had allowed him to make extra money fishing but had
prevented him from catching up on his sleep. He had already
received an extension on some of his school projects, and now he
would be missing classes. Doctor Bell’s assurances the night
before, that he would square things with his professors seemed
vague in the early light of morning. No way to back out now,
though, so he pulled himself up from bed and got ready.
He drove out to meet the floatplane,
munching on the leftover pie Margaret Bell had given him the night
before. Doubts came drifting back and took their well-worn place at
his side. How easily he had jumped on board, not taking even a
moment to think it through. Even though he had been asked to go, if
the quest proved a fruitless, it was hard to believe that there
would be no costs.
As he drove, his thoughts wandered to a trip
he had made with his parents as a boy. They had gone on a short
holiday and had taken him to the Pacific Science Center in Seattle.
He had stood for a long time, transfixed, in front of one
particular exhibit. It demonstrated the predictability of what
seemed at first to be random actions. A steady cascade of marbles
tumbled down a peg-strewn board. Bouncing in all directions off the
pegs, the marbles finally landed wherever they might. Collectively,
however, they always filled up the same space in the end: a
symmetrical shape painted on the board. From high in the middle,
the curve tapered out to nothing at the sides. The inevitability of
this outcome, repeated over and over, seemed to make a mockery of
the freedom of the marbles’ fall.
To break his mood, he scanned back and forth
along the road and adjusted the rearview mirror. The memory
lingered, however, of the pattern repeating itself endlessly, the
outcome never exactly the same, yet in some depressing way, always
Matthew turned down a small hill, slowed the
pickup and coasted to a stop. The inlet was before him, quiet in
the lingering haze. As well as being close to the Bells’ house, it
was convenient for the pilot who would be taking them north.
Leaving from here would save them valuable time, and they should be
standing on the deck of the
before the end of the
day. He looked at the cheap digital watch he had glued onto the
dashboard of his old truck, then gazed up through his open window.
He heard nothing, and saw but a few clouds that were already taking
their leave. Sunlight, breaking though in the distance, briefly
illuminated the headlands to the west.
He slowly scanned the entire inlet, enjoying
the moment of peace, comfortable to be alone until his mind
wandered back to Penny. He looked again at the watch on the
dashboard and hoped she won’t be late.
Then an arm cut through the water’s surface
from below, shimmering in the sun like liquid glass. It was Penny.
He got out of his truck and watched as she sliced through the
wavelets with long, well-paced strokes. There were no other cars in
sight, so someone must have dropped her off earlier. Now he noticed
her gear, lying in the tall grass near an outcropping of rock by
the water’s edge. She was heading straight to it.
Matthew walked over to wait for her, but she
was there before he was.
“Morning,” he said, stepping onto the small
rock ledge. “Chilly in there?”
She said nothing, seemingly oblivious to
him. How could she stand the cold? He offered her a hand, but she
ignored it and with her arms and a quick kick, sprang up out of the
water onto the rock like a seal. Her black bathing suit clung to
her body like a second skin, completing the effect. Gooseflesh
prickled her arms and legs. She looked up at Matthew, squinting
through water that ran down her forehead and face in gleaming
rivulets. Suddenly, she shook her head and hair, sending sprays of
water everywhere including into his eyes.