Read Far From The Sea We Know Online

Authors: Frank Sheldon

Tags: #sea, #shipboard romance, #whale intelligence, #minisub, #reality changing, #marine science

Far From The Sea We Know (9 page)

The large binocular video setup was in
continuous movement, always realigning with the whales.

“With the rolling of the ship,” Becka said,
“we’ve had a hell of a time keeping the array pointing in the right
direction, even with new tracking algorithms. Still some bugs in
this thing. The sea’s supposed to calm down later, which will make
it easier. Try looking through here.”

She had not pointed to the binocular array,
but to another set of eyepieces extending out from the console on
an arm with swivels.

“Doesn’t matter which way they’re pointed,”
she said.

“Essentially,” Ripler added, “you will be
reviewing the high resolution video feed from those binoculars on
the tripod. What we see on the screen, but in stereo. New
technology. Just try it, and we won’t have to bore you with complex
explanations.”

Matthew bent over, peered into the eyepieces
and saw an amazingly clear video image of the lead whales, with a
complete sense of depth and life.

“It’s so sharp!” Matthew said. “I’ve heard
of these systems. Didn’t know you could get them yet.”

“We got lucky,” Ripler said. “This one’s a
new test model. And as Becka mentioned, it’s still far from
perfected. Not as automatic as the specs would lead one to believe.
Becka keeps it on course, and on this screen I make sure all the
readouts are functioning properly and the perimeters stay
optimized. It’s supposed to do all that automatically, but we’ve
found it still needs some shepherding. It does a good job of
staying on target by itself in light seas, but needs considerable
manual finesse on a day like this. In a year or so, they tell us,
the system will be able to operate completely unaided.”

“Great, I guess.”

“This is a game-changer, but don’t worry,
we’ll still have lots to do. Notice that it also tracks the
target’s exact location, water depth, and time of day.”

“Plus air and ocean temperatures,” Becka
said. “Water constituents from plankton counts, pollutants as well
as the potential to analyze just about any data, on demand.”

Ripler nodded. “And anytime we do or test
anything, anywhere, the data all go back into a central system.
Every instrument reading on the ship, including this video feed,
does that now. All the real time data is available whenever we play
back the video, because all the timing data are digitally encoded
and coordinated. Or maybe the term is ‘embedded.’ I’m not as much
of a techno-geek as I probably sound.”

Denials notwithstanding, the glee in
Ripler’s voice as he gushed over the hardware was plain. There was
still much of the boy in him—he looked so unused. Matthew’s lab
partner at school had told him that Ripler had finished college
early and entered the graduate program at the Point when he was
only nineteen. Now, he couldn’t be much over twenty-one.

“It’s all wonderful,” Matthew said, “but
don’t you find, at least at times, that the technology gets in
between you and what you’re observing? I mean, you lose the
immediacy.”

Ripler glanced up then back down, but not
fast enough to hide a slight sneer.

“I see you’ve been listening to ‘Captain
Nemo.’ Or Doctor Martin Bell, to you and the world. But to answer
your question: not at all. The data we’re able to gather and
instantly cross-reference is, quite frankly, way beyond anything
done before. Knowledge accretion will accelerate to the point where
almost any question can be answered quickly. We’ll be able to build
incredibly complex models from a mass of accurate data.”

Ripler gave a little laugh. “And it doesn’t
hurt a bit that we get some grants from the company who makes this
gear.”

“Jack was the main force behind getting this
equipment for us,” Becka said.

“With strings, I’m sure,” Matthew could not
stop from adding.

Ripler shook his head and laughed again.
“Using their stuff is a de facto endorsement, which means everyone
else will have to have it, and that obviously benefits the company
that makes it. Marine science does not come cheap. With this gear,
we are light-years ahead of where we were even two years ago. This
is the future, not standing on a pitching deck, squinting at the
horizon. Even after we’re long gone, anybody will be able to use
the data we’re gathering right now, and go on a virtual field trip.
And this data may not be available much longer, after all.” He
looked at the whales on his screen. “They’ll all be gone before the
end of the century.”

Ripler’s face clouded over for a moment. His
concern seemed genuine, and his pessimism was not unfounded.

“We’d be crazy not to use it,” he said,
gesturing toward the array. “So get used to it or get out of the
way.”

“Don’t forget yesterday,” Becka said.

“I’d rather like to forget, if you don’t
mind.”

Matthew looked at Ripler, who had again
become absorbed in making fine adjustments to the array. It was not
the time to press him on whatever had happened yesterday, but he
noted the point for later.

“If you’d like to view anything since we got
here,” Ripler said, “the files are down in the lab. Use the
backups, please. Everything we have is there and as good as we
could make it. Can’t update with anything on shore, however, as
Doctor Bell doesn’t want Internet access on the ship, for some
unfathomable reason.”

“Well, the cost,” Matthew said.

“Even a fool should know by now it is the
future. We could have a satellite downlink for a tiny fraction of
the money that goes into the mini-sub, his favorite toy, but he’s
afraid we won’t get enough exposure to the raw elements or
something. Foolish.”

Ripler suddenly smiled. “I’m sure you’ll see
the whole picture, with time. Check the files we made
yesterday.”

“For now, I’d like to follow in real time,
but I’ll definitely take a look later. That holding tank they’re
putting together: are you planning to make some captures this
trip?”

“Certainly not! Those days, thank God, are
over. Our good Captain Thorssen used to do that, by the way. Before
he saw the error of his ways, I’m sure. You know, bring ’em back
alive, man against nature. Capturing dolphins and small whales for
the amusement of tourists. You didn’t know?”

“No.”

“Back when he was much younger and before he
had some kind of ‘encounter’ that supposedly changed his life. Part
of his myth, anyway.”

Ripler glanced over to the tank. “Sometimes
we come across the orphaned or the injured: whales, seals, and
further up north, walruses. We save a few, learn something from the
others. Many die. That tank is a new one, bigger. Perhaps that will
help…”

His voice trailed off and he stared at his
screen. The muscles in Ripler’s face pulsed. As much to break the
spell as anything, Matthew asked, “Do you ever get a break?”

“What? Oh, yes, but we only have four teams,
and it’s fairly tiring, especially with everything else we’re made
to do. Matthew…”

His voice trailed off again, but he was
smiling.

“Yes?”

“Could we talk, later when I’m off?”

“Sure. That would be great. Anytime.”

 

Matthew spent the rest of the afternoon on
the decks, watching the whales. Sometimes he checked the video
tracking system, but he relied mainly on his own eyes and
binoculars. The rhythmic swimming pattern of the whales was
hypnotic. Despite their enormous size, they moved like a school of
fingerlings, totally in tune with each other. This was completely
without precedent. Gray whales did not behave this way.

Yet, the lack of purple coloring on the lead
whale had put doubt in his mind. Wouldn’t that fact put doubt into
the minds of the others leading them to conclude that was out of
his depth at the Point? With that fear-tinged thought settling like
mud to the bottom of his own sea of doubt, he walked every
centimeter of the decks, as if scanning the whales from different
viewpoints would somehow let him see what he was missing.

He glanced at his watch. It was almost four,
so he headed down a passageway to the galley for coffee. As he was
halfway through a huge mug, Jack Ripler strolled in.

“I just got off, Matthew. This a good time
to talk?”

“Sure. Have a seat.”

“It would be better topside.”

“Lead the way, then.”

They climbed the narrow stairway, the sounds
of their feet clanging out of synch on the metal treads. Ripler
headed for the aft deck on the port side and leaned on the railing
before abruptly starting to speak. “I’ll get right to the point,
Matthew. I don’t believe your story.”

“How much of it have you heard?”

“Not the whole thing, but I was told about
this supposed instantaneous travel. I don’t believe a word of
it.”

Matthew did not want to lose his temper, and
forced his attention into his breath in an attempt to steady
himself. His face, however, burned.

Ripler smiled and shook his head. “Calm
down, I’m not saying you’re lying.”

“No one is saying they definitely moved,
either,” Matthew replied, “but the transceiver coordinates of the
tagged whale out there—I’m talking about Lefty—appeared to shift
about a hundred kilometers in a minute. The shift is supported by
before and after sightings and by data from the satellite tracking
system. No one has found any way to explain this.”

“I have.”

“Then let’s hear it.”

“Okay,” Ripler said with a mild look of
amusement on his face. “One unchallenged assumption has been that
the transceiver, whose signal we picked up before and after the
event, was always the same one transmitting. I mean, that it was
the same specific piece of hardware.”

“The ID signature was the same. They all
have unique codes.”

“You mean, they are
supposed
to have
unique codes.”

“Wouldn’t it have been obvious if they
didn’t?”

“Not if the first one had been deactivated
just
before
another was started up for the first time with
that very same code.”

Matthew shook his head. “What is the chance
of one transceiver going dead, while another somehow goes on a
short time later, with the same codes?”


That’s just the point!
I don’t think
it was an accident.”

Matthew paused. So, this is where Ripler was
heading.

“You’re trying to tell me that someone
arranged to have two transceivers, one that would be turned off
while, almost simultaneously, the other was turned on?”

“Exactly. Doing this is, by the way,
technically possible. I checked.”

Matthew turned and walked to the other side
of the deck, with Ripler following him.

“Not you, of course, Matthew. I don’t
believe you’d get involved in something like this, and it doesn’t
surprise me that you’re incredulous. To come to the point, I think
you’re being used and, I must add, used in the most cynical and
underhanded way.”

Matthew could see the whales now, and he
looked out at them as if hoping he would find an answer for Ripler.
Their flukes, rising and falling in unison, seemed to be waving
goodbye and taking their secrets with them.

“But just look at them!” Matthew said. “If
their instant change of location was the only anomaly, you might
have a case, but their behavior—”

“By my calculations, these whales could have
reached the point where we first sighted them simply by swimming in
their usual way.”

“No way.”

“Oh, it’s within their established cruising
speed. Remember, over fifty-two hours elapsed between your sighting
and ours. Did Thorssen tell you that after the whales supposedly
‘transported,’ according the transceiver on Lefty, they just
shuffled around for two days in the same general area? Waiting
conveniently for us to show, I suppose. Yet when we got here, we
found them on the move again.”

“I haven’t really had all that much of an
opportunity to speak with him.”

“I’m sure he has a lot on his mind, but just
think about it. Why would they loiter here until we got here?
That’s something grays never do while migrating. Well, the answer
is they didn’t! They simply kept going until they caught up to the
place they supposedly moved to. If you look at it like that, it
would definitely be possible for them to cover the distance,
without recourse to hocus-pocus. Do the math, as they say.”

“Well, it still doesn’t add up for me, and
we saw the whales disappear from the
Eva Shay
.”

“The rest of your crew agree on that? Not
from what I’ve heard.”

“From who?”

“Doesn’t matter, you know it’s true. The
whales sounded, and your captain wanted to get back to port before
a storm. As gray whales can easily stay under for twenty minutes,
makes perfect sense to me.”

Matthew took a breath to speak, then let it
out. Ripler waited in apparent satisfaction, having scored his
points.

“Okay,” Matthew admitted, “there is still
confusion on that. It was a confusing event, so let’s stick with
what we can verify now.”

“I’ve no problem with that at all.

“All right. First, we have the completely
unprecedented behavior of these whales. This pod—”

“Grays don’t operate in pods, Matthew.”

“That’s just it!” Matthew almost shouted.
“These whales are exhibiting the same unusual behavior as the ones
I saw. And it is like a pod, and more tight and coordinated than
any I’ve ever seen. You cannot deny the extraordinary behavior we
are witnessing, they’re right in front of you.”

Matthew gestured toward the whales, but
Ripler did not even give them a glance.

“Yes, it’s fascinating,” Ripler said. “A
point for you and fairly earned. Grays do not form extended family
units, but they do seem to be mimicking something like that. Happy?
Again, I completely agree that this phenomenon is fascinating. I am
eager to study what is really going on here, but grays have
exhibited behavior changes before. For instance, the ‘friendly
whale’ phenomenon in Baja.”

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