The ocean was black and cold and it went on for ever and ever.
Down at this depth, where no light from above ever reached, the cold and dark and the intense pressure filled the universe. Down at this depth, the sun was a myth, and the stars not even that. Here, nothing had changed in millennia, and nothing ever would.
There was life here, too. The creatures that lived at these levels belonged here, and knew nothing else; they lived and died here, knowing nothing of light but the occasional glow of a predator’s phosphorescent organs, of the world above with its green waters, its algae and plankton, and the play of sun and moon on the waves.
It swam through the darkness, hunting.
It had eaten earlier, but that had been long ago, and it was hungry again. It knew its prey was down here, somewhere, monsters with gigantic eyes and tentacles lined with flaying hooks. It did not fear them, because they were nothing more than slashing, writhing food.
It scanned the darkness as it went, not with its vision, for there was nothing to see by; as it undulated through the water, its enormous head beamed sound into the dark, in pulses which echoed faintly back. The echoes were information, building up a picture of the world before it just as clearly as though it were high noon.
Ignoring the cold and the enormous pressure on its body, it hunted.
Suddenly, there was an echo, far in the distance, fuzzy and uncertain, but large, quick-moving. It turned, its great head questing, clicks and pings rushing away into the cold. The echoes came, stronger now, clearer, and it banked, turning, swimming faster now. The prey, suddenly aware of it, was trying to get away, the sound-image of its shape twisting and writhing as it desperately attempted to get to safety.
The prey didn’t have a chance.
Sound was not just a pathfinder for it; sound was a weapon. It switched, no longer clicking and pinging in search patterns. Now it sent out hammer-blows of noise, meant to smash into soft prey-tissue, stun it, and keep it from escaping while death rushed at it from the darkness.
As always, so it was this time. The prey twisted, trying to move to one side, but it was slow now, semi-conscious. Even so, it fought back hard, lashing with its hooked arms and stripping away skin and the soft tissue beneath. It could not fight long.
Satiated, the hunter swam on, till the other need that drove it became insistent, and would no longer be denied. Pressing down with its tail it began to rise, in a curve which took it out of the world of freezing cold and the eternal dark.
Far above, the sunshine and the air were beckoning.
“No,” Hansen said. He sat back in his chair and crossed his arms on his broad chest. “No,” he repeated. “I can’t do this. Sorry.”
The man across the desk seemed unperturbed. “Now, if it’s a question of money –“
“Money, yes, we need money,” Hansen said. “But this you ask me to do, it is not possible.”
“But you do own a whale catcher, don’t ye?” The man glanced at the picture on the wall by way of confirmation. “The Svend Foyn. Is that not her?”
“Yes, but I don’t use her for hunting. I only use it for tourists in season, to look at the whales. Nothing more. Now if you’ll excuse me –“
The man across the desk didn’t make any move to rise. “How much do you make, as you say, taking tourists out in season? Not nearly enough, I’m thinking, to pay the bills. Am I not right, Captain Hansen?”
It was on the tip of Hansen’s tongue to lie, but of course the man was right. The evidence was all around him, from the crack in the windowpane to Hansen’s own jacket hanging on the wall, with its scuffed sleeves and wilting collar. “How much I make isn’t the issue,” he said curtly. “I am not going out hunting, not for any money in the world.”
“But I am not asking you to,” the visitor said. He was still watching Hansen calmly, as though the repeated refusals had made no impression on him at all. “I am not asking you to start...hunting...again. I told you what I want to do.”
Hansen turned his chair to one side and looked out of the window. It was a depressing sight, the iron girders of dockyard equipment, splashed with gull guano, against a grey sky. “It does not exist,” he said.
“It does, and you have seen it.” The man’s voice was definite. “That is why I picked you.”
Hansen glanced back at him. “Who told you I’d seen...something?”
The other man shrugged slightly, his heavy shoulders moving just enough to raise the mane of hair that spilled from his head. “I have – sources. It does not matter who told me. But you have seen it, man, have ye not?”
Hansen turned back to the window. “I don’t know what I saw. Could’ve been a wave, or a hunk of ice – it could have been anything. I never got close enough for a better look.”
“Oh?” The visitor leaned across the desk, his eyes gleaming. “And why not? Since you take tourists out for a living, new things should interest you, should they not, Captain?”
Hansen frowned. “Somehow, I didn’t want to. It...wasn’t something that attracted me to have a closer look.”
“No!” The visitor stood up so fast his chair rocked back on its legs and almost fell over. “That is just it. Nobody wants to come close to it. It repels, I tell ye, there is something about it that repels. Now surely you remember what you thought when you saw it?”
Hansen frowned, trying to remember. What had it been like, the times he’d glimpsed it, far away in the water? “A hill,” he said at last. “It looked like a hill, rising from the waves. It looked grey, or white, with the water streaming from it.”
“Surely, then, ye know what it is?” The man began walking up and down the room. Once again, Hansen noticed the heavy limp, which seemed to grow more pronounced at every step. “You can have no doubt, man. It can be nothing else.”
Hansen stared at him. “And you mean to kill it.”
“Aye, and only it. I can have no peace till it is dead.” The man turned to Hansen and fixed him with his piercing gaze. “Now tell me – will you do this, or shall I find somebody else? Remember, I am able to pay enough to take care of your problems.”
Hansen looked at his hands on the table. Then he looked at the table itself, at the scratched surface and the broken corner which was still obvious though he’d tried to sand it smooth. He thought about the bank passbook in the drawer, and the figures in it which told their own depressing story.
“I’ll have to think about it,” he said.
From the bridge of the Svend Foyn, the grey sea merged with the grey sky in a blur with no horizon.
Hansen stood at the helm, growing more uncomfortable with the passage of every hour. The wind off the water was like a knife, penetrating even his heavy jacket, and he had long since stopped being able to feel his face. But the silent figure standing next to him showed no discomfort; leaning slightly on the rail, in order to spare the leg, he stared unblinkingly over the bow at the ocean.
“Couldn’t we have come out in better weather?” Hansen asked again, moving his numb lips with some difficulty.
The man said nothing for a while. Then he shook his head. “It is out there now. Later, it will be far, and I don’t know when it will come again.”
“How do you know it’s out there?”
“I know.” The man turned slightly away, the set of his head and shoulders making it clear that no further questions were welcome.
Hansen peered at him. Once again, he was struck by how strange the man looked, with his white hair and beard, his limp and his stilted manner of speech. He hadn’t even given Hansen a name. “It doesn’t matter,” he had said. “Call me what ye will, whatever pleases.” He had even insisted on paying the advance in cash, so that there wasn’t even a cheque with his name on it.
More and more, with every passing moment, Hansen had begun regretting the whole trip. The money already paid – and more to come, Hansen whispered to himself – had been good enough to pay off most of his debt. But the more he thought about it, the more doubts he had about the whole thing, including the compromises he’d had to make.
He’d lied to the crew, of course. That was unavoidable, but he couldn’t risk the word getting out that he was on an illegal hunting trip. Afterwards – well, he was sure nothing would happen. They’d never find the...thing...and just get back to port when the fuel ran out, or when the man standing beside him gave up, whichever came earlier. He looked at the man again, and wondered if he ever would give up. There was no indication of it.
“Do you want to go down to the cabin and have some coffee or something?” he asked. “It’s cold.”
“You go if you want,” the reply came. “I’ll stay here and watch. It won’t be long now, I’m thinking.”
Hansen looked out over the featureless grey sea. “You really think it’s out there,” he said.
“Do ye doubt that I think it?”
“But,” Hansen worked his mouth before he could pronounce the words. “But...Moby Dick?”
“Aye. The devil white whale himself.”
“How can it be alive? It’s fiction.”
The man glanced at him under one of his bushy eyebrows. His lip curled. “Fiction, aye?”
“You don’t think it is?”
“You think I’m crazy, don’t ye?” The man snorted. “But wait, before the day is out, you will see for yourself.” He turned back to watching the ocean.
Hansen shook his head. Not only did he have a delusional madman aboard, he was chasing a fictional animal.
Sighing, he wondered why he’d been stupid enough to take the job at all, money or not, and came up with nothing.
As though to drive the point home, the wind was picking up, from a whine to a whistling scream.
It had been deep, much deeper than usual, and though it was rising now, it had been troubled for some time by a growing feeling of danger.
Danger was nothing new to it. It had faced it many times, and each time it had won through. But it did not welcome danger; all it had ever wanted was to be left alone, and it did not understand why it could not be left alone.
With each undulation of its tail, it became more certain of the approaching peril. And, deep within it, something else began to grow in response.
A familiar, blazing anger.
“There,” the man said suddenly. “There he blows.”
Hansen had been down to the galley to get a flask of coffee, and had just poured a cup for himself. He turned, so quickly that the coffee splashed out of the cup, but not quickly enough. He had an impression, from the corner of his eye, of something white glimpsed for a moment, in the act of slipping below the surface. “What?”
“Did ye not see him blow?” The man’s hand was on Hansen’s shoulder, pulling him around. “There, to starboard. I told you we would see him today.”
Hansen stared in the direction he was pointing. For a long time he looked, but there was nothing. “I don’t see anything,” he said.
“But he’s there, I tell you.” The passenger shuffled in excitement, his hand reaching for the wheel. “Wait a moment and...”
He never completed the sentence. Something was rising from the water, only a short distance from the boat. At first Hansen could not understand what it was – a waterspout, he thought, but not one like he’d ever seen before. Then he understood, and gasped in awe.
“There he breaches,” the man beside shouted, but Hansen barely heard him. He was staring at the whale.
It rose and rose from the waves, as though it would never stop. Moby Dick was a living mountain, reaching for the sky; he was a god come alive, an ancient living god, a cruel god who would destroy mere humans as the result of a whim. He was an elemental force, at one with the sea which slid from his flanks, and part at the same time of the white mist hanging above. His immense head was a boulder, his flippers like swords, and his humped back like a hill of ice. As he lunged for the sky, his twisted jaw fell open, and Hansen had a glimpse of a row of teeth. For an incredibly long moment, the whale hung in the air, and Hansen knew the animal was looking at them – not just at the boat, but at them, and sizing them up as a god might puny humans who would dare threaten his domain. Then, with a crash of tons of bone and muscle on water, the animal vanished in a sheet of spray.
“Moby Dick,” Hansen whispered. His lips felt numb. “Good lord. It’s Moby Dick.”
The man beside him was hunched eagerly over the bridge railing. “He’ll come up again,” he said. “When he does, be ready to follow. And ye have the harpoon prepared?”
Hansen glanced at the harpoon gun mounted at the bow. “I said I would, didn’t I?” he replied irritably. His mind was still full of the great, magnificent animal. “You’re really bent on killing it?”
“That is what I hired your ship, did I not?” The passenger didn’t bother even to look at him. “Now look sharp, and when he blows, follow.”
“But I don’t understand,” Hansen replied. “How can it exist? It’s a fictional character.”
“Fictional, aye,” the man said. “Fictional – and yet ye saw his white hump and twisted jaw, and the irons in him, did you not?”
Hansen didn’t reply immediately. He shook his head. “I may have imagined part of it,” he said. “I mean, we saw a whale – a very large albino sperm whale. We may have imagined the rest.”
The man snorted contemptuously, and then pointed over the bows. “There.”
Hansen saw the whale at almost the same moment, the back breaking the water and the brief spume of the spout. The animal was swimming away, then, towards the open ocean. He looked up. The sky was darker than before, and the wind was picking up quickly.
“There’s a storm coming,” he said.
The other man shrugged. “So?”
“So, maybe we should go back to port and wait it out? Your whale will still be there afterwards.”
The passenger laughed, shortly. “By the time the storm’s over, the thing will be far away, and I’ll not catch up with him for years. It’s not a beast, Hansen, it’s a devil. If ever there was one.” He glanced at the sky. “It’s only a little blow, and you have a good solid ship. What are you afraid of, man?”
“I’m not afraid,” Hansen replied. “But I don’t think...” he stopped as the whale rose to the surface again.
“Follow him,” the limping man ordered.
Hansen reached for the helm.
They followed the whale the rest of the day. Sometimes it would rise to breathe so far away that Hansen would be tempted to give up the chase, no matter what the man by his side said; but then it would come up so close that it seemed they’d be within range of the harpoon gun within a couple more breaths. Once or twice he had the strange feeling that the whale was playing with him. But surely that was a stupid concept. It was a dumb beast, after all.
Meanwhile the wind picked up and the sea was so rough that the Svend Foyn was awash amidships, and rolling almost over with each wave. Even Hansen, with years of experience, was nauseated. But not his strange companion.
“There’s no turning back now,” he shouted over the wind, his voice filled with exultation, pointing to where the whale had risen to breathe, less than fifty metres away. “We’ve almost run him down.”
“The wind’s getting worse,” Hansen said, but his words were torn away from his mouth by the force of the gale. It was howling now like a live thing, as alive as the huge white animal that rose in the water up ahead. “We ought to turn back –“
“No! Prepare the harpoon gun. We almost have him.”
Hansen looked at him. The man was hanging almost over the bridge railing, pointing. His hair and beard streamed in the wind. “It’s ready,” he said, pointing down to the bow where the gun stood on its swivel. “Remember that it’s an old one, an explosive harpoon, not one of the electric models. You have to aim for the base of the head, between the flippers. Are you sure you know how to –“
“Enough! I will handle it.”
“You’d better take a life jacket,” Hansen said, handing it to him. “It’s a rough sea.”
The man grunted. Pushing past Hansen, he walked down the gangway towards the gun platform, limping slightly. A sudden wave rocked the vessel, and for a moment Hansen thought he would fall over, but he didn’t even touch the railing. A moment later, he was standing behind the gun.
Hansen looked around to try and spot the whale. By rights, the animal should have been completely exhausted by now, having been run down for most of a day, and should barely be able to even submerge. But there was no trace of it. The wind was whipping the grey sea, and the light was so bad he wasn’t sure he could make out the whale even if it did surface. But then it was the harpooner’s job to direct him now, on the final approach.
The sea was coming rougher than ever, running across, and Hansen cast a worried glance up at the sky and then at the ship itself. Amidships the deck was completely buried in the water, and while that wasn’t unusual, he had no desire to travel further in this than he had to.
“For god’s sake, old man,” he muttered to himself. “Get it done so we can go home.”
As if on cue, a shout from the bows interrupted his thoughts. He turned back to see the man at the gun waving furiously, and glaring up at the bridge. With one hand he was pointing at the starboard quarter. Hansen turned just in time to see something white roll in the trough of two waves and vanish.
Like all whale catcher boats, the Svend Foyn had a very shallow draught and was usually easy to manoeuvre, but in rough seas it made her highly unstable. As Hansen swung the wheel, the boat lurched alarmingly, and he had to shift his weight quickly to keep his footing. The man on the gun platform seemed not affected, though – arm raised, he was leaning over the breech of the weapon, looking out across the water.
“This is crazy,” Hansen said, aloud. “If he doesn’t make his shot in ten minutes, I’m taking us home, whatever he thinks. It’s soon going to be too dark to see, anyway, and...”
He never finished. Just to port of the bow, Moby Dick erupted from the waves. He breached so close that he seemed almost near enough to touch, hanging for an eternity in the air before falling in a crash of spray which struck the gun platform. Hansen, startled, swung the wheel without thinking. Already in the middle of the turn, the boat hesitated for a moment, and then, sluggishly, began swinging back.
It was then that the whale surfaced again. The man on the bow, swinging the gun one way, shouted, turning, and fired, the harpoon skimming over the sea and crashing into the water. Hansen heard the flat crack of the exploding charge.
“Did you get him?” he shouted down to the bow. “Is the harpoon –“
The next moment a wall of water struck the boat from port. It was a physical blow, of such immense strength that there was nothing Hansen could do about it. Caught by the force of the wave, the Svend Foyn was instantly buried. The heavy steel spring loaded mast dipped towards the sea, and the hull shook desperately as it struggled to come up again.
And then it was that the whale struck. Hansen had only a glimpse of the animal from the corner of his eye, as it hurled itself from the water on the high, port side. He didn’t know what it had hit, only that the additional weight was all that it needed to send the catcher boat over. With a scream, he was hurled off the bridge and into the sea. The ship rolled over, crashing down over him. Freezing water closed over his head, and he knew nothing more.
When he recovered consciousness, he was drifting on the sea, being tossed by the waves. There was no trace of the Svend Foyn, but pieces of wreckage littered the ocean near him – a plastic bucket, pieces of wood, and a diary. He reached for it, and the pages disintegrated in his hands.
Then he saw the man. He was not far away, but drifting further steadily, his arms wrapped round a chunk of wood. He was looking across the water at Hansen. The life jacket was orange round his neck and shoulders.
“Damn you, Ahab,” Hansen said, using the name for the first time. “You’ve sunk us. Damn you!”
The man shook his head. “I’m not Ahab,” he called back over the water. “I’m Ishmael.”
“I’m the one who never dies.” The words floated over the noise of the storm and wave. “The whale and I, doomed to seek each other until one of us hunts the other down and frees us both.” He shouted something else, but Hansen did not hear.
He felt the cold growing around him, and knew now that there was no way out, that though there would be a rescue, it would only find the one survivor. Turning himself round in the water, he looked out over the sea as a wave took him high.
Far in the distance, lightning was flashing. He thought it lit up a white bulk in the water, but it was hard to be sure. When he turned around again, Ishmael had disappeared.
And then he was alone, in the gathering storm, alone with the cold and the sea.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2014