This evening near the end of our shift the sun cracked like a brilliant orange yolk over the horizon. Bushard was standing next to me at the rail, and I told him it reminded me of the radiant and cold northern sunsets of my youth. He conceded that it would be possible to see it as beautiful, if only he could forget that beyond the twilit sand we could see was an operatic expanse of more sand. If he could erase this particular moment in history, have chosen another industry, and could, in fact be someone other than himself, he said, then yes: beautiful. I told him that was the uplift I’d been looking for. He shrugged and replied it wasn’t his job to cheer me up.
Tuva, my sister, you know me! I am long gone; your anger is justified. I left you when I could have stayed, when you needed me most, and my guilt has tugged at me like a living thing as we’ve crossed these dunes, looking for the bounty we have slowly come to realize may no longer be here. My messages to you go unanswered, but still I write, as if to underscore my own solitude and give shape to this expedition. These notes are addressed privately to you as well as myself; I feel compelled to put everything down. Will you read them? Years from now, will any of this make sense? At the very least I hope to find a friend in this log; and if not you, then perhaps someone else will consider these jottings of note. Perhaps I will even find fame in an obscure journal of history. I’m dating these entries; there’s no reason for everything to come to nothing. The light has gone, the room is asleep. Let’s begin.
My name is Lewis Dagnew, low crewman and spotter aboard the shipper-tank Halcyon, a tight-sleeper in an iron fo’c’sle, and one of thirty men to cast our lots and try our luck amidst the rolling dunes and oppressive heat found in the territory known as the Desert Gulf of Mexico. We left terra firma—packed dirt—over a year ago, and came to pin our fortune on the sliding sands; a fevered prospect, thus far an elusive hope. In the Halcyon’s case, fortune means a full hold; and we are here, a million miles from home, surrounded by a basin of sand four thousand miles wide, for one reason only: to spot, lance, and render dirwhal, that sand-diving beast, that dirt-drinking mass, that oil-saturated slow-poke who gave rise to an industry that not too long ago supported the energy needs of the entire southern biosphere.
According to a normal timetable for an expedition like ours, we should’ve been off the sand months ago. Instead, we’ve pushed farther and farther out, treading concentric and ever-widening circles that place us well outside of the historically teeming hunting grounds. The heat during the day is constant and unyielding, the temperature yet to dip below one hundred and thirteen degrees, and our daily sweep has come to feel like a slow grinding scuttle across the floor of an arid oven. We’ve been issued sun-suits for the UV, but they do little to mitigate the heat. At the end of our deck shifts we go below, peel the heavy suits from our skin, and make jokes about being basted in our own juice.
We are, it seems, alone on the sand. In the galley there’s a poster that explains how the pay structure works. It’s titled: Envision Success. But there have been no true dirwhal sightings, no trumpet’s call. Instead we compare heat-induced hallucinations of dirwhals breaching just off the bow and slipping back into the sand, never to be seen again.
In the early months, we glimpsed other shipper-tanks cresting over the far dunes, but at that distance it was unclear if they were friendly vessels or not. We steered clear, and they disappeared like memories. Tuva: I would say that this state of isolation and disappointment dovetails with my general constitution and the luck I’ve had so far in life. But I am resolved to think of this voyage as more than a series of setbacks, even as the majority of the crew has begun to fret about the apparent barrenness of our surroundings. I am not here to sound the depths of my self-pity; I am here to push past the vagueness of my limited accomplishments. This morning, Renaldo caught me holding this journal and suggested I bind the pages and title it the Denouement. But why not assume that tomorrow will bring us what we’re looking for? Tonight I said as much to Bushard before lights out.
“A dream is a wish your heart makes,” he said, then turned his back to me and pulled his pillow over his head.
The Halcyon is a G Model 7 Kermode shipper-tank—one of the last in a series to roll out of Detroit before the invasion shut those factories down during my father’s generation—equipped with modified sand-treads and a flat metal deck. We are a slow-moving factory, an ungainly vessel that serves both as a hunting ship and a one-stop bio-processing plant. Our bow curves like a shovel, and is weighted for equal distribution at the contact points with the porous sand that surrounds us. The bridge rises abruptly, perpendicular, straight up, and is well windowed to aid with spotting. Stem to stern measures one hundred eighty feet, the length of three full-grown dirwhals laid head to tail. Mid-deck there’s a portable try-works—three huge iron cauldrons perched atop industry grade burners—where all our rending will theoretically occur. The cutting instruments—bizarrely curved, long-handled pole-knives so sharp you can’t help but imagine slipping them through flesh—are lashed under the portholes for easy access.
From a distance, the overall impression the ship gives on the sand is that of a single and colossal iron shoe. Our hold, now empty, is a cavernous double-deck capable of storing the rendered bio-matter of anywhere between four to six hundred mature dirwhals. At four RPMs, the engine roar of the Halcyon is deafening; at six it’s like confusion opening in your skull. Below deck it’s a Minotaur maze of close corridors and low-ceilings, poorly-lit passageways that dead-end for no discernable reason. The buggy-steerers, mates, and coopers: they’ve each got their bunks aft, walls decorated with posters and postcards. Our Capt. Tonker’s got his king’s quarters. The rest of us sleep in the bow near the engine, where there is little relief from the motorized churn of our generators.
Today the plan had been to send a small group out in the buggies to explore the grounds to the south of us. I had been eager to leave the ship, but at the last minute one of the coopers decided he wanted to go, and I was forced to into another eight hours of watching the sand from the hoop-rig near the stern. The buggies—we have four of them, small six-wheeled dune crawlers, each equipped with shock-prongs and a large sand-visor—zipped over the sand and away from the Halcyon with the buzzing speed of small insects. No one waved.
Of the dirwhals I have yet to see I know this: they are large beasts, well-toothed, long and finned, with a wide head that tapers to a flat tail, but their skin is the color of coal, which makes them easy to spot against the dunes. They have been known to attack shipper-tanks, but they are no match for the ordnance in our bomb-lances, and accounts of dirwhal aggression are at this point little more than spook stories, things of the past. It’s possible they’ve evolved to fear and avoid us. It’s more likely, though, that as their numbers have dwindled they have simply moved further out into the basin, and as a result the hunting strategy aboard the Halcyon is straightforward: wherever they go, we follow.
In the spotter’s manual, there is a color page delineating dirwhals by genus. Eight of twelve are crossed out, and two of the remaining four don’t render into usable energy. According to the timeline provided, hunting began in earnest forty-seven years after the Shift—the same year the Gulf drained and Further North re-froze—and it’s taken us all of three generations to thin out what at first seemed an unlimited resource and the solution to all our energy problems. They are known to burrow under the sand to avoid the sun, but they sleep and feed on the surface. It’s been established that running an electrical current through the sand rouses them, but each day we send buggies to plunge a charge, and so far the pronging has yet to reveal anything at all.
Months ago, I telecomped my sister—yes, you, Tuva—that things here weren’t so different from home: no perceivable seasons, weather that drives you into yourself, the illusion of unlimited space, shifting loyalties, petty grievances that burrow and sprout unexpectedly into meadows of resentment. That’s nice of you to say, my father comped back. I asked to speak to directly to you, and he told me you weren’t interested in coming on the line.
I could have insisted. I could have explained myself more clearly. Instead I cut the connection. Later, Renaldo told me I had a message. It read: Everything is worse. I stared at your message for an hour, typing and erasing different versions of a single apology before giving up and resolving that tomorrow, or the next day, I would try again. I never did. Weeks went by. Months. And now I’ve been informed that we are out of range for communication with anyone outside of the basin.
Of note: there is no wind here in the Gulf, and the stillness is eerie. Yesterday, Renaldo mentioned that up in the hoop-rig, high above the deck and away from the engine noise, he had the sensation that we were the only moving thing for miles. It felt, he said, like he was the last man in the universe, cut loose from the earth, drifting through a painting.
This morning, Capt. Tonker summoned all hands to the aft-deck. We gathered, and he stood above us on the bridge, brow furrowed against the sun. He’s a terse man, not given to conversation. He’s made it clear that he will brook neither dissent nor opinion. Those of us in the bow see him rarely. But what he had come to tell us was now that we were moving further and further into the basin, those on watch were to be spotting for two things: dirwhals, and other shipper-tanks, which, given our current location, would most likely belong to the Firsties. A collective groan, followed by hissing, went up among the crew. Protection kooks, someone explained to me when I asked who the Firsties were. Bushard added: kamikaze environmentalists; degenerates; cultists; criminals. Capt. Tonker held up his hand for silence.
Their aim, he said, is to put us out of a job. Shipper-tanks have been dodging Firsties for years, and between them and Capt. Tonker it’s a pointed circle of antagonism. He went on to explain that as the number of dirwhals has decreased, the number of preservationists active in the dunes has tripled, and their aim is the disruption—sabotage—of expeditions like ours, either by the violent immobilization of licensed shipper-tanks or by provoking us into firing on them. The law is on our side, he said, but they care nothing for the law. He ground his fist in his palm, and asked us how we felt about such heartlessness? So, his order: spot the Firsties, and report them, but under no circumstances were we to engage, even if provoked. They had cameras, they wanted us to fire on them, and they would stop at nothing to manufacture an incident, even if it came at great cost to their organization. He asked us if we understood. We answered: yes, of course.
No one knows how old Capt. Tonker is, but we know from the coopers that as a young man he’d been mate aboard a small fleet of shipper tanks during the Great Hunt of ’78: the hinge-creak moment when it became clear just how lucrative the dunes could be. He’d been aboard a buggy doing a routine sand-prong, and whatever charge they sent down roused the earth itself. An entire dirwhal colony came to the surface. The lances were still rudimentary in those days—plagued by poor penetration and ordnance malfunction—but it didn’t matter: by the end of the second day, so much unrendered viscera had been spilled that his buggy had trouble finding traction in the sand. They were cutting and cooking for weeks. Flames licked the try-works and illuminated the night sand, where the dead dirwhals were rolled together like pallets of log, awaiting their turn at the cutting platform. They were their own sun, a pulsar of energy that incinerated for twenty-four hours a day, and even so some of the dirwhals they lanced fell rotten before the buggies could pull them to the docks. The voyage had lasted all of two months, and taken them no more than two-hundred miles into the Gulf. With the payout he got, he bought an island off the Canadian coast. Afterwards he was made Captain, and re-christened his ship the Halcyon.
“Ah, the good old days,” Bushard said when he heard the story. “Renaldo, answer me this: where have all the flowers gone?”
Renaldo shrugged. “Tonker’s got em all,” someone said back.
I see that four weeks have passed since my last entry. Every day we wake up, scan the dunes from the deck of the Halcyon for movement, and see none. The only news delivered on Thursday came after Renaldo ran a lance check and discovered that half of them were temporarily inoperable on account of disuse. “That matters why?” Tom, one of the coopers, had the misfortune of saying as Capt. Tonker emerged from the steerage. To our great pleasure, he was demoted on the spot; to our displeasure, he now sleeps with the rest of us in the bow. “Every downside has a downside,” Renaldo told him when he complained that he was sick of sleeping with those of us he considered below his station. “Welcome to the melting-pot.”
Tuva, a question: how long do you stare at something before you realize it isn’t going to change? How long before you understand your own misfortune to be something other than a series of bad breaks? Here is my memory of home: long, dark days; a small-efficiency trailer; an expanse of frozen tundra; my inability to set anything in the right direction; a growing desperation that would not quiet. During the winter we slept in our boots. Our father moved us there, following a job, from Vancouver: you were five, and I was six. Every morning, he kicked around the kitchen, then put on his goggles and one-piece and hopped the bus that took him to the upland digging grounds, where he worked on a crew that removed layers of barely melted permafrost using outdated and rusty scalping equipment.
When we asked him what he was doing there, he replied: digging a hole. Eventually the plan was to erect a rig and burrow the mantle for mineral reserves, but Standard had union problems, and the rig, always coming, never showed. The union called new arrivals like our father clod-kickers and line-breakers, and appeared to be happy to let our town crumble under the weight of its own hopelessness. People like our dad called the union guys motherfuckers, and sidled up the bar to make plans of his own that always came to nothing.
Everything we owned was leased, and leveraged against an eventual payout. I spent my free time trying to avoid the other kids in town, who needed someone to pick on, and had chosen me. I didn’t put up much of a fight. I flinched when doors shut. I slipped when running. My forehead was an oil-slick. You haven’t spoken in four days, my mother said when I was twelve. I corrected her, and told her it had been fourteen.
But bad as it was for me, Tuva, I know it was worse for you. The upland diggers, most without families, wore their loneliness like wolves. You turned twelve, and our mother became distracted and agitated. You turned thirteen, and it was like all the air had gone out of the room. The other kids turned their attention from me to you. After you’d been groped at school for the umpteenth time, my mom took us to the principal. He looked concerned, but eventually shrugged, turned to me, and asked me where I’d been while all of this was happening. I showed him my torn jacket and a patch of bloodied scalp, and told him there was nothing I could do about it. Well, he said. He cleared his throat and made a gesture like his hands were tied. After that, my mom took you out of school, and forbade you from leaving our property after four pm. Above the door to our trailer, there was a sign mom had needle-pointed during one of her near-depressions. Home is Where The Heart Is it read. I remember you hard kicking your boots on the steps. “Who needs a heart?” you said, before going inside.
It won’t be like this forever, I told you. It’s not so bad.
“For you,” was your reply.
Then, when you turned seventeen, two grown men who showed up at our trailer, demanding to see you. Our mother, through the door, told them our father would be back any minute. They said: we don’t care. They swore, they kicked the door; eventually they left, said they’d be back. Mom called the police. They never came.
And where was I during all of this? Under the couch, with you, Tuva, holding your hand with my eyes closed from fear. And then, as soon as you could, you left.
I don’t know what happened to you while you were gone, I don’t know where you went. I only know that a year later, when you returned, your eyes had changed, and I left as soon as I could.
Three days ago, a shout from the high-hoops roused us from sleep. Bushard spotted it: a shipper-tank, the first we’ve seen in months.
The ship—the Waker 4—was on her way back to the mainland, and our rendezvous was short. Over the last seven months, they’d seen a grand total of four dirwhals, of which they’d lanced two. Before that, they’d spotted, but not lanced, three. All told, they’d been on the sand for two years. They’d seen a cluster of Firsties, but hadn’t been confronted in any meaningful way. They’d been called home by their backer, who’d lost his shirt outfitting them and finally pulled the plug. Not that it mattered; by the time that call came in, both of their buggies had broken axels, the ship had flaked rust into their water supply, and the first mate had fallen deathly ill. The expedition was over. Twelve days ago, as they pulled line for home, they’d seen a few black painted shipper-tanks patrolling the distant dunes, watching their retreat like gleeful crows.
I see now it’s been five weeks since my last entry. February passed like a dream of heat. March is no better. We’ve seen no activity in the basin save for the crew of the Waker 4, which slipped out of sight the following morning like a ghost-ship, a mirage in the dunes. Our solitude is beginning to feel overwhelming. No messages go back and forth between us and the mainland. The sun-suits we’ve been issued seem to be near the end of their shelf-lives, with elbows threadbare and zippers filled with grit. I’ve developed a rash on my inner thigh, and have sewn extra fabric on the inside of my pants to ease the chafing and keep out the sand.
I haven’t kept up here. I see it’s been many days since my last entry. My rash has healed, leaving only slight discoloration across my leg. But Tuva: today was the day we’d given up waiting for, and an account seems not only necessary but verging on the joyous.
It began this morning with an alarm—one of the mates announcing he’d seen irregular sand activity off the stern. In no time it became clear that what he saw in the distance was no trick of the over-heated mind, but an honest spout—a dirwhal’s gritty exhalation; a playful fluke of dirt—and no sooner had we crowded the rail than the beast breached full, exposing its length before disappearing once more below the surface and burrowing a large and sucking indention in the basin’s floor.
It was nothing short of chaos on deck. Half of us were without our sun-suits, the other half stood dumb and awestruck. This creature was enormousness itself, more viscerally alive and mobile than I’d thought possible. We watched as it surfaced again: a dark stain against the sand, winding its rounded bulk across the basin floor, rolling sideways rather than cutting in a straight line as I had always imagined it would move. I could make out its rear flukes against dunes as it dove again. There was a mad scramble for the munitions locker. There was banging, yelling; gear dropped; gear found. All the while, Capt. Tonker stood atop the rear-deck shouting instructions into a megaphone that no one, in our rush not to be left behind, heard. Space or no we jostled into the buggies, were lowered from the rail, fired up the engines, and took off in the direction of the thing itself.
What was going through my head at the time I can’t say. In my memory, oft replayed, it feels as if I were travelling through a tunnel, though we had been below open sky. Sand peppered my visor, and kicked up behind us in twin arcing flumes. Bushard was in one of the other three buggies. I held my bomb-lance to my chest, tip pointed overboard to minimize the damage caused by accidental misfire as we careered across the flat expanse. All of us leaned forward into the wind; everyone crowded the bow. The creature surfaced again, and this time lay atop the sand as if sunning itself. And though we were moving as fast as the buggies would carry us, our progress felt excruciatingly slow. We all feared the same thing: that the monster would slip away quietly, never to be seen again.
When we were within darting distance, the beast dove once more, leaving a large, sand-sliding crater in its wake. We cut our engines. No one spoke. It was so quiet you could hear the sand running over itself as it filled the crater, a high-pitched desert whistling that brought to mind nothing so much as the wind-sound I remembered from my youth. I felt hot, but understood that the heat was inside my suit, was coming from me. My heart pumped as if I’d been running.
The order came to prong the sand. Tom jumped from his buggy, and drove the hollow aluminum staff into the lip of the crater. As soon as he was back aboard, one of the mates juiced it. There was an electric buzzing, the sand hopped, but other than that, nothing. The seconds passed like minutes. Again, someone shouted. The voltage was recalibrated, and the mate hit it again.
At that point there arose from the sands a muffled shriek, and from behind where we had parked came a sound like the earth squishing open. We turned in time to see the dirwhal leap his enormous bulk directly out of the sand. For a moment in his breach, he crossed the sun, hung in the air, and we were in shadow. Then he landed like a hammer of God directly on top of the second-mate’s buggy, which disappeared below his belly with a muffled and sickening thud of dust.
It’s possible we heard the call not to fire. It’s possible in our haste we ignored it. The moment before impact, I saw a flash of razor teeth, a perfectly smooth gullet; a breath-smell that was like ammonia wormed up my nose. Then twelve bomb-lances landed more or less simultaneously, and burrowed their tips in its skin. We had been instructed to aim for the head. In our enthusiasm, we did not. The bombs concussed; the center of the beast atomized into a red and white mist, and we fell back in wonder at what we’d done.
Immediately we’d known the chance of survival for our friends was negligible—if they had not been crushed and killed instantaneously by the dirwhal’s crashing bulk, the explosion from our lances would certainly have finished them—but we also knew enough to try. Bushard and I affixed chains to the dirwhal’s flukes. The mates hoisted the carcass onto the sled. As we moved that great body, we saw our three companions, half-buried in the sand. It was impossible to tell if it was their blood or the blood of the dirwhal we were seeing. That somewhere below the boredom of our expedition lay tremendous risk was something we’d forgotten, or stopped considering, or purposely ignored. Renaldo sat down hard in the sand. The rest of us removed what we could from the crushed buggy, zipped most of that in bags, and we set toward our ship. We were greeted by those still aboard the Halycon as if we’d conquered Rome.
The cutting and rendering will last for the majority of the next few days, and will require all hands. Capt. Tonker has scheduled a funeral for three days from now, and instructed that the remains of those lost be kept in cool storage. He mentioned that in all of his years on the sand, he’d never lost a member of his crew. It is difficult to tell if this has touched him in anyway at all.
Too tired to relate much of the day. Everything is taking longer than it should, no doubt because many of us have never set foot on a cutting platform, let alone performed such grotesque surgery. Every part of the ship smells as if it’s been brined with vinegar and putrid rot, a stench is so overpowering and permanent seeming that we’ve taken to wearing our sun-suits below deck to mitigate the odor.
In order to render properly, the meat must be cut clean from the carcass and the flanks hoisted aloft. From there, the small cutters flay those strips into lift-able squares, and feed them in correctly measured amounts onto the belt so the works aren’t overwhelmed and are able to render at the appropriate temperature. The blue flame from the burner flowers at the base of the cauldrons and licks the sides with such ferocity that we have to ladle in shifts to avoid collapsing from the heat.
This evening, Bushard, along with some of the other hands, expressed concern that something might be wrong with our catch. When Tom cracked the head-case, there’d been a hissing sound, which was followed by a geyser of liquid the color and consistency of cream long gone off. Everyone in the immediate vicinity became sick. Eventually the foul-spout subsided, but it took an hour for anyone to feel well enough to venture near the head in order to butcher it. There was discussion about whether the head would cook or not, given its strangeness; and if it did, whether it would contaminate the other batches when mixed in at the cooper’s station. Capt. Tonker, however, waived his hand, and told Bushard the next time he wanted to waste his afternoon, to come find him in his quarters, where he’d be taking a nap.
All things considered, everyone is in good spirits. Renaldo informed me that even though we’re now in one of the further circles, near the outer edge of the hunting grounds, for the last few days we’ve been receiving transmissions from outside the basin. I asked him if there were any messages for me. He shrugged, and said there was a backlog. When I checked myself, my box was empty. “No news is good news,” Bushard told me. I nodded. I must have looked upset. “I’m just trying to help,” he said, and walked away.
I’ve written to my sister with the news of our catch, and am now awaiting a response. I sit, now, in the galley near the telecomp, transcribing my thoughts in this log. For the last two hours I haven’t written a word. Members of the crew come and go. Tuva, if only you would write I could fall asleep. It wouldn’t even matter to me what you said. Describe your misery. Tell me about the cold. Call me a coward for leaving. Be angry at the world for providing you with a brother who could not protect you. Tell me you will never forgive me. Anything would be better than nothing.
Tradition holds that after an expedition’s first catch, the mates and steerers buggy a mile from the ship and her illuminated works to make a show of celebration. In our case, it would also serve as a send-off to those we lost in the hunt. At dark, those of us remaining aboard gathered near the hoops and bow-struts to watch them go. At an agreed-upon signal, they crossed their lances, and fired into the sky. According to this ceremony, wherever the furthest dart lands is where we will find our next dirwhal.
Seeing this tonight, I became so full of emotion that I had to grip the rail to steady myself. It wasn’t sadness for those we lost. It wasn’t relief that we had finally begun our journey in earnest. It was odd and expansive, a mysterious state that turned almost as quickly as it rose, to the point where all I could say about it now was that it felt like pity crossed with exultation, and as the lances blazed up on the distant sand I pushed as far back in my memory as I was able and conjured an image of family happiness inexplicable even to myself.
“Watch my arm,” Bushard said. I was holding it. I apologized, and made my way below.
Four weeks have passed since my last entry, and in that time a bout of misfortune has found the Halcyon. One of the coopers put the gris through a series of tests, determined it had in fact contaminated the batch, the whole of which was now unusable. In an attempt to find new hunting grounds, we’ve pushed further out into the basin, into relatively uncharted sand, and as a result, have had a our first run-in with the Firsties. They appeared two weeks ago, three small and fast moving shipper-tanks cresting over the dunes. Most of our crew were in buggies running charges miles to the south of us; those of us left aboard were not prepared to fend the Firsties off. The struck quickly and retreated. The damage was one inoperable buggy, a tar-bomb affixed to one of our treads that didn’t fire, and a series of unwanted leaflets that were launched from a distance and rained over the deck. We are now posted on watch twenty-four hours a day to guard against further raids, but have yet to see any further evidence of their ships on the dunes. No tread tracks, no transmissions, nothing but the damage to our ship to indicate they had ever been here.
In addition: three days ago, one of the mates fell from the bridge while repairing navigational equipment, and was buried without fanfare.
The result is such that our spirits, having momentarily lifted, are now deeply plunged. Annoyance and chagrin, the twin poles of our previous and collective emotional lives aboard the Halcyon, have given way to a disgruntled fatalism that no one is proud of and no one can shake. Thus far our expedition has amounted to this: we lanced a sick beast, boiled him down, and poured him back into the sand. Talk in the fo’c’sle is of a cursed voyage—the lingering stench of the dirwhal our unlucky, haunting talisman—but even as that superstition is passed around out of boredom and desperation, we know better. Years ago, someone discovered that the dirwhals crowding the Gulf could be rendered into usable energy, and made a fortune. After that, anyone who was able to scrape a shipper-tank together and get backing made his way to the sands. After that, expeditions became longer, to account for the travel time it took to reach new hunting grounds. Now, a generation later, anyone who puts on a sun-suit and stands for hours on deck like we do is forced to confront what Bushard has recently taken to calling the natural limit of optimism—as in, what’d we expect? The history of the world is the history of diminishing returns. You hunt something to the verge of extinction, it stays dead. It’s not a curse, it’s history getting the better of us; it’s simply time catching up.
Two days ago, someone taped up one of the Firstie leaflets on the back wall of the toilet-stall. It’s titled: It’s Not Too Late To Take Responsibility For What You Are Doing. It encourages us to return home and join their cause as spokespeople. There’s a contest going to see who can scrawl the most realistic looking dick on it using only the letters provided.
“It does seem like something you wouldn’t want to wrap your mind around, doesn’t it?” Bushard said.
I asked him: me in particular?
He shrugged, and gestured out the porthole to the empty sands as if further proving a point that escaped me.
The plan, as far as it’s been explained to us, is to continue the expedition until either a full hold or a mechanical problem turns us around. The terrain has changed. The yellow sands have given way to more orange-ish, and packed, dirt. It’s become noticeably hotter. Those who have been on hunts before are unsure whether we’ve gone beyond the pale, considering we are now outside of traditional hunting grounds altogether. “What pale?” Renaldo said at dinner tonight. “Were we ever even in the pale? Did I miss an important part of this expedition?”
“Dirwhals are people too,” someone said in a basso-profundo voice. “Dirwhals. Are. People. Too.”
Heavenly days: a phrase my father took to saying on reflex when confronted with news he didn’t want to hear. Heavenly days, as he was cut from his logging job and moved us up north, trading one untenable situation for another. Heavenly days, as the rig was continually delayed. Heavenly days, when we woke up with half an inch of ice on the inside of the windows of our trailer, and my mother broke the glass trying to chip it off. Heavenly days, as the walls began to shrink and groan and we turned on him for his inability to see our situation for thin soup it was: increasingly hopeless, wrecked, dead-ended, and dangerous.
He’d learned it from his father, who’d worked his whole life aboard a rig in the tar-sands until he was sent home with an evaporating pension and a breathing problem. Heavenly days. You say it right, it comes out as an expression caught somewhere between surprise and an acceptance of the inevitable—simultaneously the cushion to absorb the hammer blow, and the hammer blow itself. We can’t stay here, my sister whispered to me through a hole she’d cut in the partition that separated her space from mine. She’d been crying. Something will happen, don’t worry, I’d told you, because I could think of nothing else to say.
On account of the difficult terrain, Capt. Tonker has limited the amount of ground the Halcyon covers on any given day. He’s split the crew into discrete units, each responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of one of the ship’s buggies. Every morning we’re sent out widely in different directions for recon; as we hit designated areas, we run shocks into the sand to see what turns up. Nothing ever does. This afternoon, we buggied so far out we lost sight of the Halcyon completely. “Would it be such a bad thing,” Renaldo said, after our third prong did nothing besides bring clods to the surface, “if we just drove this buggy home?”
When no one responded, he folded the map one of the mates had handed us into a small paper crane and flicked it into the basin. Then he apologized, and retrieved it.
Formally we’ve been told our supply of food will last another two years without restock; at our current budgeted fuel expenditure, we’re looking at another three. Four days ago, one of the engineers mentioned that the ship-master at the loading dock had pleaded with Capt. Tonker to leave some supplies for the rest of the fleet; his response had been to fire the engines and wave the guy off. Those of us in the bow are in caustic awe of the foresight evident in this display.
Tomorrow will mark the one-hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the first dirwhal sighting. At the urging of the second-mate, the coopers have planned a comical re-enactment of the scene, complete with sewn costumes and an impersonation of Capt. Tonker, who was not there in body, but was in spirit. It’s more the idea of Capt. Tonker, we’ve been told. A broad sketch. Someone has hand-drawn playbills, and passed them around. The play will be called: I Was There At The Beginning: An Industry is Born. Under the title, there’s a ferocious looking dirwhal, drawn with human hands, holding the business end of a bomb-lance to its own head.
“I’m front-row on this,” Renaldo said when he saw the bill.
“Save a seat for me,” Bushard replied.
Tuva: this afternoon, finally, I received your message. Is it the only one you’ve sent? Have you sent more, and have they been lost somewhere in the gulf that separates us now? In this message you asked if I remembered much about the time before we moved. Your only memory, you wrote, was of an afternoon at a public swimming pool that either you’d dreamed or had, in fact, existed on the first floor of our housing complex. We stood, the two of us, near the edge of the water. I’d been afraid to jump, but said I would follow you, as soon as I saw it was safe. You didn’t know how to swim, but felt there wasn’t a choice in the matter: it was jump, or disappoint me. You jumped, and sank. Eventually the lifeguard pulled you out, sputtering and heaving for your own life. And when you opened your eyes, you saw that I hadn’t moved from the edge. Your question: was that something I remembered too?
I went to answer, but the line was down. One of the mates informed me that the telecomp was on a delay. It was impossible to say when your message had come in. My options were to either record something, and on the next signal it’d be sent out, or continue to stare at the machine looking like the world had ended.
“You know those people who blame everyone else for their problems?” Bushard said later, when I complained to him about the state of our transmission equipment. “You’re those people.”
I asked him: who else should I blame? He replied that at least I was in good company here in the bow: our own iron den of inequity and complaint.
“Cry about it,” someone said, from the bow.
“That’s the spirit,” Bushard said back.
Last night I had a dream that rather than treading in wide circles, we were being pulled in a straight line across the desert by a cord that was visible only at night. The dark, sloping ridges in the distance shrank rather than grew as we approached. In my hands I held my visor and sun-suit, and was panicked to find myself topside without my lance. I turned to someone I thought was Bushard, and was surprised to see it was you, Tuva, who had joined me on deck. You handed me a bowl of soup, and then another. My gratitude was overwhelming. As I went to thank you, you turned your head so I was unable to see anything but your hair and the side of your face. When I woke, I was weeping. Someone in the bow found this funny, and I stood, ready to pull whomever it was apart at the seams. It took four people including Bushard to calm me down.
Three weeks have passed since my last entry. There have been no further sightings of the Firsties, nor any evidence, anywhere, of dirwhals. We seem to be following a circuitous path conjured by a divining stick. The map of our progress—until someone finally pulled it down in frustration—resembled a fever dream drawn on an etch-a-sketch. The heat, as we’ve motored on, has become increasingly oppressive. When not on deck, we stand below in shifts directly in front of the cooling units, wicking the sweat from our bodies with towels nearly rancid from use. The engineers have expressed concern about wear on the injector cones, which haven’t been serviced since we left and cannot be now, considering that in order to even see them properly, the whole shipper-tank would have to be taken apart. As a result, the engine now hums at a pitch that is just shy of ear-splitting if you stand near a vent. Periodically, the sound of metal grating metal shoots into the fo’c’sle with enough force to make those unlucky enough to not have remembered their plugs dizzy with nausea
To the question of what our collective hopes are for the rest of this expedition, I’d say our answer is plain enough: we just want to get off the sand with what, after two years, we feel we’ve earned. We came here to do something very specific, and simple; something many have done before; and the fact that we still sit on an empty hold feels to us like the retraction of a promise, the very definition of unfairness. It’s a loaded deck, a cosmic rout of lousy timing. No one wants to be the last ones on the sand, the suckers who stayed to turn out the lights.
“It’s a feeling,” Bushard has said, “I find impossible to describe.” He was sitting at a table in the galley, with his head in his hands.
Renaldo him: you mean that it’s happening, or that it’s happening to us?
He closed his eyes. “I’m going to stop talking to everyone aboard this ship,” he said.
Tuva, over the course of this expedition, I have come to understand what it is like to spend your life waiting for a rig that was never going to show. Time passes, the ship never comes in; at a certain point the ruined narrative solidifies, the hidden smallness and stupidity of your ambition presents itself in toto, and there you are: a walking avatar of foreclosed possibility. It’s a dark understanding that one day is there like a weight on your neck. But Tuva, nothing is written, and there’s room for surprise. Opportunity can hulk itself from the dunes at the very moment you least expect it.
And today: the call on-deck sounded; our engines cut. We lined the port rail. The sun hit my visor like the idea of a headache spreading itself across the sand. I saw nothing. I asked what the commotion was about. Renaldo pointed.
In the far distance, a black speck. Then the sound of an engine. And then it hove more fully into view: a new model shipper-tank, outfitted with heat-reflective panels, a fly-bridge, and a full hull set atop a sleek, continuous track that made our own treads look like sand-churning windmills. As it came closer, however, it became apparent that all wasn’t well: one of their stacks was shredded, there were char marks up and down the iron sheeting on her wide bow. Someone had painted over the name of their ship, and scrawled a dripping Homeward Bound just below. The crew stood on deck, facing us. As they passed less than a hundred yards of sand separated us and we formed a brief mirror-image, a silent communion that was broken only when they finally signaled for a conversation between Captains, and Tonker retired to his cabin to initiate the transmission.
They were not Firsties, that much was plain. A smell of biological mustiness carried on the wind registered immediately. “They’re riding low,” Tom said. In fact, they were struggling to push through the sand. “You think?” Renaldo said back. Bushard tried to yell across to the other ship, but was met with silence. Their sun-suits were white, and reflected the afternoon light. They looked like ghosts, hovering at the rail. “Happy ghosts,” someone said.
We stayed at the port-rail, unmoving, for half an hour. Our new friends did the same. There was talk of disembarking on the buggies, but one of the mates hushed that idea before it took hold. Finally, with a lurch, our engines fired to life. The wheel was turned, and we made a slow arcing seventy-degree shift to the west. The stern of our sister ship gradually moved out of sight, her tremendous bridge winking a final time as it passed behind a low ridge of dunes. Capt. Tonker explained later: the Homeward Bound had found an entire pod of dirwhals, and were returning home with a full hold. There had been trouble with the Firsties, the ship was on her last legs, but they would make it off the sand.
He continued: And they have given us a parting gift—the coordinates for their proven but unsanctioned ground.
Tuva: this is a gesture rarely made between the captains of shipper-tanks. Our hope is restored. We’ve been instructed to spruce up the buggies and ready our equipment. Along with Bushard and Renaldo, I’ve pulled an eight-hour shift in the high-hoops. All told we’ll be hoisted two hundred feet off-deck. As the stand was erected and we were strapped in, someone made a joke about the view. “Repeat that please?” Bushard said.
“He said you look like three flags hoping to surrender,” Tom said.
“Tell him where to stand so it catches him in the face,” Renaldo said, as the motorized winch clenched and drew us heavenward.
The view from the hoops was staggering. I could see the sloping vanishing point of the sand in all directions, as if someone had gently pressured the horizon into a rounded dome that didn’t so much meet the sky as push into it. The sound from engines below didn’t reach our ears; their churning presence was apparent only in the vibration carried on the stilts between our legs. Everywhere I turned, the granulated vista appeared both limitless and small. In my happiness to find myself where I was, I reached for my notes and accidently dropped my binoculars. They fell to the deck like a shot-down plane.
“Good lord,” Renaldo said. “Is there anything you can’t do?”
Sighted over the last two weeks: fourteen spent lance casings; two sliding holes in the sand, which were speckled and strewn with sun-hardened biological matter; one burned out buggy that after brief inspection was determined to belong to the Firsties; three discarded sun-suits; various instruments used to measure deep-sand activity; and a collapsible reflective tent.
We are now treading in a straight-line to the west, following the coordinates we’ve been given, and moving well away from what could be called even sub-standard hunting conditions. The sand sits atop a strata of irregular rock formations, glacier-cut a millennia ago, which in segments have been exposed and balded by the wind, the presence of which is in itself a novelty considering the overall stillness of the Gulf. Two days ago we woke to a silent engine and a sound like waves crashing on the hull only to be told we were in the middle of a windstorm; when it was over, and the engines were fired once more, the sand-drift had climbed to the portholes on the starboard side. The extra care we are taking with our navigation has made our progress feel incremental.
If not for the evidence so plain in front of us, we would surely be demoralized. But it seems that every time one of us is ready to admit that we perhaps have been led astray by some cruel practical joke played on one Captain by another, a call comes in from the hoops or the buggies that points undeniably to the aftermath of a successful hunt as well as a confrontation between shipper-tanks. All crew on deck have been ordered to remain within spitting distance of a loaded bomb-lance at all times.
Bushard’s mood has soured dramatically since our encounter with Homeward Bound. This morning he asked me if he was alone in thinking that what we were doing was, perhaps when all was said and done, a bad idea. When I asked him what he meant, he said: the whole picture—the pursuit of finite resources, the Firsties, the families hoarding their wealth in the southern biospheres, the burning wheel of industry, our participation in it. I told him that as long as I could remember I’d been too busy regretting what hadn’t happened to think much about what might. From where I was standing, at least we were going somewhere. He looked at me as if I’d missed the point. I asked him: try again.
“Nevermind,” he said, and walked away.
This morning, we sighted two desiccated and partially blown open dirwhal carcasses. In their state of decomposition, we were unable to tell their genus. Everyone, as we’ve pushed further on, has grown antsy, agitated. The sand is waffled with deep and veering tread-tracks. It’s increasingly clear that whatever went on here was less a deliberate lancing and more of an indiscriminate unleashing of explosives. We’ve been sent out in buggies for exploratory pronging, but none of those trips have turned anything to the surface.
“It’s a dead end,” Tom said at lunch. He was pushing the food on his plate into little mounds. “They’ve bombed everything out of the sand.”
“Everything they could see out of the sand,” someone said back.
After dinner, Capt. Tonker called for an all-hands assembly at the stern to tell us that within four days we would reach our destination, and in order to be fully prepared he would be pulling down the high-hoops and clearing the deck of all debris not directly related to rendering. In addition, all but two of the buggies would be lashed to the interior rail until further notice. For those of us who didn’t follow, it was explained to us that all lancing would occur from the deck of the Halcyon. What the captain of Homeward Bound had shared with him was that less than twenty-five miles away from where we stood now was a naturally occurring cove in the sand, ringed by tall ridges of rock. It would be there, if anywhere, that we would find what we were looking for, and our plan is a simple one: park ourselves in the mouth of the cove, juice the prongs, and fire as the beasts revealed themselves trying to escape.
“Easy as that?” someone behind me said.
“Easy as that,” was Capt. Tonker’s reply.
Tuva: it brings me no pleasure to write that either the information provided by Homeward Bound was faulty, or we have, somewhere, somehow, veered off-course. After four days, we saw nothing but hard sand in all directions. On the fifth day, Tonker ordered all buggies to resume patrols to the west and south of our current position. This morning, one of the engineers reported that the injectors had slipped their casing, and were now chafing against the lug-valves, which, considering those valves had already been sheered from continuous use, spelled a problem if we were at all interested in getting home. When asked how large a problem, he shrugged and spread his arms as if measuring a large box he couldn’t quite reach around. One of the mates asked him if he was sure. “I might be,” he replied, then disappeared back into the engine room.
Further complication: while on a short recon patrol, one of the buggy crews has had a run in with a group of Firsties, the first we’ve seen in months. As I write, they are on their way back to the ship with two of them. Either the Firsties had been on foot, or had left their own buggy camouflaged somewhere in the sand. The good news: we’re convinced they can tell us something we don’t know about the location of this cove, and their encounter with Homeward Bound. The bad news: lurking somewhere close is the rest of their crew.
Renaldo was on a different buggy, which, in light of the contact made, was called back. He reported there was nothing, absolutely nothing on the surface to see. The buggy carrying the captured Firsties is expected to arrive two hours from now.
Our engines have been shut off for an undetermined amount of time, and we’re sitting deep in the sand. The silence, though shot through with expectation bordering on panic, is a relief. Bushard has just reminded me that yesterday, August 28th, was my your twentieth birthday. When I asked him how he’d remembered, he reminded me I’d asked him to do so, five days ago. I am losing the thread of our expedition. I feel I have lost the thread of everything. But what should I have done? No messages go through from here, of that I am certain.
August 29, evening
At first the boys—there are two of them—told us they were alone on the sand. Then they said that just beyond the ridgeline, there was an entire fleet of re-purposed shipper-tanks, which would be coming for us shortly. Then they stopped talking altogether. We’d hauled them on deck as soon as the buggy docked. They were raggedly dressed, but wore matching boots and outdated sun-visors, dark green jackets which even in their threadbare state lent a military impression to their overall appearance. Neither looked to be older than eighteen. One of them, the smaller one, didn’t have much English, and apparently stuttered when under duress. The larger looked even more frightened. One of the coopers had zip-tied them together at the wrists, so they were back to back with each other. Capt. Tonker approached and asked if they’d been mistreated. When they said no, he punched the little one in the sternum. “Not yet, you mean,” he said.
They were separated for questioning. We were told to hold the tall one, and not let him out of our sight until Capt. Tonker called for him. The other guy, still catching his breath, was pushed below deck with Capt. Tonker on his heels. Bushard called for water. When no one moved, he went to get it himself.
While he was gone, no one said a word. Eventually the kid slumped over, and sat cross-legged with his back against the rail. His hair was cut short, and a small scar wound around his chin like a piece of white thread I kept wanting to wipe away. At some point Bushard returned with the water. The kid politely held up his hand and waved it away.
“I’ve got a question,” Renaldo finally said. “And that question is: what are you even doing out here in the first place, protecting these things?”
The kid looked down at his lap, adjusted his hands. “Someone has to,” he said. “They’re on the verge of extinction. They’ve got nothing else.”
Renaldo asked him to look around. He said: This whole basin is the embodiment of nothing else. It touches nothing at all. “That is where we part ways, philosophically,” the kid said.
“So how many shipper-tanks have you destroyed?” Tom said.
“That’s just a small part of what we do,” the kid said back.
“From where I’m sitting, that’s all you do,” someone behind me said.
The kid closed his eyes, as if no matter what came next we’d simply agree to disagree. “This is illegal, you know,” the kid finally said. “This ends it for you.”
Renaldo grabbed the cup of water from Bushard, set it down, and told him we had him on that one. Legal or illegal; teeming or desolate sands: our hold was empty. This expedition had never even started for us. So he could save his industrio-accountability speech for someone on the winning end of that particular stick. The kid reached for the water, and said he’d keep it in mind.
Suddenly there was a scramble mid-deck. Word got passed that we were to take our temporary guest to the galley, zip him to a table-bolt, and suit up. As we made our way below, the engines roared with an unholy and squealing intensity, then settled into chugging life. Later we heard what everyone else apparently already knew: that Capt. Tonker had squeezed some knowledge out of the stuttering Firstie, and that the cove we were looking for was less than seventy miles away. “Birthing grounds,” one of the mates said as he inspected our lances. “A hot-bed.”
“Heavenly days,” I said, and slapped Bushard on the back.
“Imagine that,” he replied.
Tuva, it took two days on our full-throttled engines before we spotted the walls of the cove. At first these walls were a speck on the horizon; as we pulled closer, their sheer size became more plain. They rose darkly out of the sand; smooth, deep red and sun-baked rock formations high enough to cast long shadows across the dunes. A fortress rising out of the basin, glacier cut millennia ago. They must have formed a ring four miles around. If we hadn’t seen it ourselves, we wouldn’t have believed such a thing existed.
During the night, we’d run through our equipment, checking and re-checking cartridges, sharpening cutting tools. Capt. Tonker had informed us that we would most likely meet resistance in the cove. He asked us if we were prepared to face this Firstie opposition like the men he knew we were. We nodded. We trial-fired our lances off the rail in unison, enjoying the sand-muffled concussion. Someone asked if the whole point was to not draw attention to ourselves, and as a thank you for expressing concern he was sent below to mop the latrines. As the sun broke over the sand, though, we spotted two shipper-tanks in the far distance. They were dots off the stern, half-a-day behind us. Capt. Tonker gave the engineers permission to try harder in the grease room, and ordered Bushard and me to bring the two Firsties on deck so their presence aboard would be more visible. As we zipped them to the rail, the smaller one saw where we were headed an instant before his friend did, and become inconsolable. Renaldo stuffed a face-towel down his throat.
As we neared the mouth of the cove, one of the mates called for positions. I hitched my leg over the rail, next to Bushard, and eased my finger over the trigger-guard on my lance. The sun was merciless; we felt no different. The glare and heat off the sand shimmered a water-mirage on my visor. I felt one of my ears pop, and then the Halcyon made a sharp, arcing turn, moving us into the shadow of the high stone, and we came to rest perpendicular with the mouth of the cove, using our ship to block the opening.
Set up near where rock-base met the sand was a ring of small tents. I counted four or five unmanned buggies, parked in the shade next to what looked like a copse of monitoring equipment. Half of the large cove was gridded with wire, which divided the calm sand into rectangular segments measuring roughly fifty by one hundred yards. The other half appeared untouched, even by wind: not a tread-mark, not a divot, not a single rake stroke. We stood at the rail for what felt like a small drop of eternity, expecting something to happen. Nothing did.
Bushard cleared his throat. “Would I be forgiven,” he said, “for saying this feels just about right?”
Before I could answer, a man appeared through the flaps of one of the tents. Carefully, with his hands raised and with some evident discomfort, he began limping toward us. Without his sun-suit, wearing only a vest and some sort of wrap around his waist, he looked like a lost shaman, comically out of place. “That your dad?” someone said to one of the Firsties, and got no response. When the man was within shouting distance, he stopped, and pointed. We followed the line of his finger. Scattered along the top of the rock walls were groupings of other men, who looked just like him, also unarmed. As if by witness alone they could stop us from doing what we came here to do.
Bushard put his hand on my shoulder, and nodded in the direction of the tents. A small dirwhal, the size of a buggy and lighter in color than the one we’d lanced, had surfaced and was winding its way toward our ship. It didn’t know enough not to.
The man cupped his hands around his mouth. Whatever he yelled was lost over the scream of our engines. Another small dirwhal surfaced behind the first, as if it didn’t want to miss whatever was happening. One of the men on the hill picked up a stone and chucked it down at us. It bounced harmlessly off the bridge. “I think,” Bushard said, “they’re urging us to reconsider.”
“I would imagine so,” Tom said, lifting his lance to his shoulder.
The Halcyon lurched further into position, wedging herself more firmly in the mouth of the cove; then someone cut the engines. Renaldo mentioned that the men on the ledge were hoisting a camera of some sort on their shoulders. I didn’t see it. I didn’t care.
But would it be going too far to say that as Capt. Tonker gave the order to prong the sand and run a charge I felt a fleeting but deep pang of regret? As the sand began to hum with electricity, and the man, rather than running, fell to his knees as if overcome by a great sadness, I wanted to tear at him for his stupidity and devotion. He knew—somewhere he must’ve known—this would happen; that we, or someone like us, would circle and eventually crest the dunes to take what remained from this cove. We had come near the end of an era, emissaries from an outdated industry, to squeeze water from stone. Bushard, next to me, gripped his lance like it was a lifeline. I could see he was not going to fire. Next to him the two Firsties who had led us here strained at the rail, shielding their vision, and begged for someone to help.
Tuva, years ago now, I sent a message home that indicated the scenery here could be stunning: a desolate expanse shot through with an almost alien beauty. The dunes ridged in the distance, slipped their angles, and reformed. The ground, far from being frozen, gave and depressed with each step. The sun hung in the sky and at certain hours lent the sands an appearance of a gold and undulating ocean. My intention then had been to show you that there was a world outside the one you knew. I know you received it, because in response you sent back a picture of your closed and locked bedroom door. And I know, now, that you were right. Tuva: I felt the lance kick against my shoulder. I reloaded, and fired again. For two years we’d thought ourselves the victims of history, but as we stood at the rail and marveled at the live sand below us, we’d become something else: a punctuation mark; the coffin’s nail; agents of endurance, memorable only to ourselves. I aimed for the surfacing beasts, and eventually, aimed for the men who fired back at us. We sent the bulk of our explosives into that cove, and nothing, no one, dug out.