Moons Like Great White Whales
By Charles Coleman Finlay
28 February 2005
First one pale oval moon then another and a third breached the darkening sky. Down below, the ocean covered the entire planet. Ripples of blue stretched off to a horizon that merged with the color of the twilight sky so that the moons seemed to leap from the water.
The pilot and her companion skimmed through the atmosphere on organic wings. They had completed their survey and the planet sampling, so this flight out from the landing craft and back was purely for their own joy. They'd timed it exactly so they could see all three moons rise together.
"What do you think of that?" he said. As if he wasn't going to venture his opinion before hers.
"Just perfect." She took a sip from her drinking tube, then lifted her face into the wind as they drifted through the air.
After a while, he said, "So what can we do to top that?"
She felt like their voices were polluting the pristine world, and she wanted him to be quiet. "Let's just enjoy this moment, okay?"
"Okay." He shrugged his shoulders, enough to make a huge whomping flap with his wings.
They glided effortlessly through clear skies toward the distant beacon of their ship. The two smaller moons zipped visibly across the young planet's sky. All three were in low orbits.
Even now, it was easy to see the inevitable. Eventually the moons would crash into the planet and destroy the atmosphere, like what had probably happened on Mars. Or the big one would collide and fragment the planet into a binary system, with one living and one dead, or maybe both dying, as they revolved around each other. When the first wave of colonists came, they'd have to boost the lunar orbits until all three moons were much smaller fragments of distant light. That, or mine them for the transfer stations until only scattered dust was left.
"The moons look like white whales," he said.
"What?" She had just been thinking how they might be the only people to ever appreciate the planet as it was at this moment, without trying to change it into something else.
"You remember," he said. "What was the name of that island again, back on Earth, the one we stayed at that time? Iowa?"
"Yeah! That one. Remember that one morning there, how we floated on our backs in the water, with our ears underwater, and we heard the whales singing, deep and far away, and then later that afternoon—"
"That night," she corrected.
"—we saw them from the boat, surfacing, spouting water."
"Of course I remember." That had been their first vacation together, right after they had been paired by the psychologists in training camp for the space corps, before they went into orbit for bodymod and their first mission together. "That's when I fell in love with you."
"Yeah," he said, a little softer.
He lifted his head toward her and smiled, and she smiled back. After a moment she sighed, and turned her face away from him and toward the moons.
After a moment, he said, "Someday whales like that will swim in these waters."
"Stop it," she said.
He banked his wings, spiraling around in front of her so he could see her face. "What's wrong?"
Instead of answering, she tilted her own wings, catching the air and rising in a slow spiral away from him. He followed, and the two of them ascended in a double helix. With no landmarks below them there was no difference in the surface of the planet, but the moons seemed to grow closer, and the air thinner, until the helix fell apart and she leveled out her flight. The wind abraded her face, rubbing the bare skin around her mask and visor raw. She picked up speed until her arms and shoulders ached from the pressure of the wind. He fell in beside her and the kilometers raced by. She felt good again, happy to be with him.
After a time, he asked, "Why did you tell me to stop?"
"It's for your own good," she said, and she could feel the mask pinch her skin as she frowned. If only he hadn't spoken, the pleasure of this flight could have stretched out as far as the ocean below.
He didn't say anything.
"How many planets have we charted now?" she asked.
"Seven," he said slowly, as if he were afraid he was being tested. "Almost one per decade."
"And you love the desolation, the isolation, more than anything else," she said. "You love the way we're alone together, with whole worlds to ourselves. Whenever you start thinking about colonists following after us, changing the landscapes we've shared, terraforcing it, chopping it up into useful bits, you always get depressed."
"I like change too."
"No you don't."
"What about our last stopover? What was that called? Jerusalem? That planet was barren when they started, but they've turned it into something almost lush and beautiful."
"God, that planet was a rock. And the people there are such reactionaries." She shook her head. "How can you want change like that? To a planet like this?"
"Those moons will come down. It's going to change eventually, even without colonists. Change happens."
"It's perfect tonight! Why can't you just enjoy it like it is?" Why couldn't he just shut up?
He took a deep breath. "I've been thinking we should have a baby."
She laughed at him, and then he laughed too, and she wondered if he heard the different qualities in the sound of their laughter. "We're much too old for that," she said.
"Medically, we could still do it. I've been reading—"
As he spoke, she folded her wings back and began a long low-angle dive back toward the beacon on the ocean's surface.
He followed. "It's been so long. I can't remember what I was like without you any more. I want there to be someone that shares in both of us."
She checked the distance to the beacon on her visor. It was still far away. "If we had a child, you know that she'd grow up, and then we'd lose her. Or she'd lose us."
"It doesn't have to happen that way."
"It always happens that way. The universe doesn't need another orphan."
The two smaller, faster moons slipped behind them, diving away from them toward the far horizon. The biggest moon pressed above them now, like the top of a skull, a living blind wall that concealed unknown possibilities on the other side.
"I want to have a baby," he said. "I want to carry it."
"Things go wrong." She didn't want to lose him to some pointless medical fiasco. "Stop being so goddamn selfish! Don't you know how much I count on you?"
"We'd be glad after we did it. It'd be our legacy, some part of us that lives on."
She could feel her jaw tighten, her molars clench, and her body, conditioned to take that reflex as a threat, bristled its seldom-used defensive armament, pumped adrenaline into her system to deal with it. Before he could notice, she subvocalized a desist command, and said, a little too sharply, "I don't like this. You're scaring me."
"It scares me a bit too, when I think about it."
"So stop thinking about it."
"I can't stop thinking about it. That must mean it's really important, it's something I have to do, right?"
The tension in his voice was too much for her. The tension in her body was too much too. "Well, if you really want to do it, it's an easy procedure. All they do is let a little air in."
"They just put a needle in and blow you up like a balloon. Until you pop." When he didn't say anything, she said, "Get it? Pop?"
He caught a different gust of wind and let himself drift farther away from her.
"It was just a joke," she said.
"Let's not talk about it any more."
The wind riffled the edges of his wings, making an irritating buzz that filled the silence.
"If you really want to talk about it—" she began.
"Please please please don't talk any more." His voice snapped, pulling away, like a hand that had reached out to take hold of something and caught a flame. They were almost on top of the beacon, only a few dozen kilometers away, and she could see it spearing through the night, a cord of light and sound that wrapped round and round the planet as it turned.
She started to say something to him, but he was gone. As she scanned the sky for him, it felt like her heart was slammed suddenly between two pieces of loose machinery. She'd imagined losing him to a thousand stupid accidents. But never like this, not over something like this. She found him below. He had folded one of his wings and began an early descent without saying anything to her, a slow whirlpool spin into the dark.
Dropping her wings to her side, she went into a dive, closing more than half the distance between them, leveling out to match his own separate course. The beacon lay ahead of them now, a slow red pulse attached to the wall of the night.
"It's okay," she said.
"It's not okay."
Then he looked up and saw how close she was. He sighed, releasing some knot he'd held inside too long, and banked his wings toward her again until they were flying tip to tip, as if they were one continuous wing, in unspoken agreement again.
Alone in the whole world, they bobbed on the wind, the glittering ocean spread out over the horizons all around them and the last big moon swimming away like a great white whale.