Elizabeth Barrette (ysabetwordsmith) wrote,
Elizabeth Barrette

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Poem: "The Hottest Blood of All"

This poem is spillover from the October 2, 2018 Poetry Fishbowl. It was inspired by a prompt from [personal profile] curiosity. It also fills the "blood" square in my 9-30-18 card for the Fall Bingo fest. This poem has been sponsored by [personal profile] lilliane and [personal profile] curiosity. It belongs to the Aquariana thread of the Polychrome Heroics series.

WARNING: This poem contains graphic content likely to upset many readers. This is hardcore hurt/comfort. Hankie warning! WARN ALL THE THINGS! Highlight to read the warnings, some of which are spoilers. It contains an emergency call for Dr. G, drunken boating which kills the human pilot and a mother whale and injures the human passenger and whale calf, Steel and Moderato freaking out, and the calf is hysterical, a teleporter arriving in Dr. G's bathroom before he's dressed, pain and panic, orphan calf crying for his dead mother, Steel has trouble being gentle when he is this upset, painful family memories, trust issues, blood in the water, fear and grief, creative medical application of superpowers, graphic medical details, gender and dexterity challenges of bull whales feeding a calf who isn't weaned yet, awkward conversation about what to do with the yacht and how to make good decisions for an orphaned calf, discussion of majority in whales, dealing with Steel's difficult past, Graham is upset too just hiding it well, flashbacks, contagious trauma, vomiting, vulnerability, asking for help and getting it, privacy issues, and other mayhem. Please consider your tastes and headspace before deciding whether this is something you want to read. This poem contains a major plot development, though, so skipping it would leave a big gap.

"The Hottest Blood of All"

[Saturday, April 4, 2015]

It was a little after 6 AM.
Graham had just gotten up,
and was still brushing his teeth,
when his smartphone rang with
one of the emergency tones.

He hurried to rinse his mouth,
and then picked up the phone.

"We need your help," Aquariana said.
"Some drunken jerk ran over a pair of whales.
The yacht is damaged. The mother whale
and the pilot have both died. The calf and
a human passenger survived with injuries."

"How can I help?" Graham said at once.

"The calf is hysterical and he's bleeding
like a stuck pig. Steel and Moderato are
trying, but they can't handle him like this,"
said Aquariana. "Moderato is freaking out
and Steel is -- I don't know, but I think
something is wrong with him. Please,
can you come here and help?"

"Do you need me as a counselor
or a doctor?" Graham asked. "I don't
have any training in cetacean biology,
although I've done some research
since meeting the whales."

"Either, both, I don't know,"
Aquariana said. "Just come."

"Okay, it should take me
less than five minutes to get
a teleporter," Graham said.

"This is the Maldives, I
have one right here with
me," Aquariana said. "Go."

A woman appeared next to
Graham and squeaked, "Woah,
sorry, dude! I didn't know that
you weren't even dressed."

"Just give me a minute
to throw on some clothes
and then grab a go-bag,"
Graham said as he tugged
his bathrobe tighter. "You
can wait in the book nook."

The teleporter slipped out.

Graham hurried into a t-shirt
and shorts, put on practical shoes,
then slung the bag over his shoulder.

He messaged his family to let them
know where he was going and why.

"I'm ready to go," he declared as
he stepped into the hallway.

"I'm Jumpship," the woman said.
"Take my hand, and I'll drop you
on the sling boat with Aquariana."

Graham took her hand, and
a moment later they landed on
the wet, swaying deck of the Qasim.

"Thank you so much for coming,"
Aquariana said. "They're over here."

Steel and Moderato were huddled
near the side of the sling boat.

Between them, the baby sperm whale
was barely fourteen feet long, and
slender beside their vast bulk.

The water foamed pink with blood,
and as the calf thrashed and screamed,
Graham could see several parallel gashes
across his back just ahead of the fin.

"Steel, Moderato? It's Graham,
I came to help," he called.

Help! Moderato yelled.
The calf is panicking. We
can't hold his mind or body
too tight without hurting him, he's
too strong and he's fighting us

"Okay, I'm here and I'll do
what I can for the calf and
for you," Graham said.

Help the calf first, Steel said.
I can take care of myself.

"Patch me through to him,"
Graham said. "I know how
to deal with panicky children."

He is terrified of the sling boat,
but we need that boat and
the two landers who help
said Moderato.

He is terrified of the landers
too, and well he should be, since
some of them just murdered
his mother,
Steel added.
The calf could hurt you.

"Then can you buffer me
a little bit?" Graham asked.
"I just need him to feel who I am
and how worried I am for him,
so I can help him calm down
enough to accept more help."

We can try, Moderato said.

With a rush of something
salty and wet, Graham
could hear the calf.


The clattering, moaning noises
suddenly made painful sense.

"I hear you, little one,"
Graham said. "You
want your mama."

The long squall cut short.
Who are you? Where are you?
I hear you in my head. I can't
hear you in the water.

"My name is Graham Finn.
Some people call me Dr. G,"
he said. "I'm not in the water.
I'm up here in the boat."

The calf started wailing again.
Don't hurt me! Don't hurt me!

Well, that was inevitable, but
Graham wasn't about to lie
to him. That would only
make matters worse.

"I'm not going to hurt you,"
he promised. "I'm here to help.
I'm friends with Steel and Moderato.
They can tell you that not all landers
are the same. Some are bad. Some are
good. Most are in between. Ask them."

Graham could hear the groaning,
clucking conversation of the whales,
and catch just the edge of the mental flow.

Moderato says landers are fun, the calf reported.
Steel says they're dangerous and not to trust them.

"Moderato has lots of lander friends," Graham said.
"Steel has been hurt by landers many times. People
will tell you things based on their experiences, but
you have to make up your own mind. Do I
feel like a good person or a bad person?
Touch my mind, gently, and find out."

The calf was clumsy, but it wasn't
much worse than getting jumped on
by Graham's own children when
they were too upset or excited
to be careful with their feet.

At least he was slowing down,
more squirming than thrashing now.

You feel different, the calf said.
Maybe not as bad as the others?

"Okay then, we can work with that,"
Graham said. "Now watch what I do.
Think about whether I'm being gentle
or rough, helping or hurting. Then
choose what you want to do."

The calf just grumbled at him.

"Let's start with something easy,"
Graham said. "I've told you my name.
Do you want to tell me your name?"

The reply was not a word but an image,
or a memory, of the calf bonking his head
against a cliff until a piece chipped off. He
grabbed it and played with it, flipping it
through the air like a strange frisbee.

"Stone? Game?" Graham guessed.

His name is Shale, said Steel.
He is too young to know how
to frame it properly yet

"Thank you for translating,"
Graham said. "Hi, Shale.
I'm pleased to meet you,
though I wish it wasn't
at such a sad time."

I want my mama!
Shale wailed again,
broadcasting his misery.

"Of course you do, Shale,"
Graham said. "Your mama
can't be with you anymore, so
other people will take care of you
now. We won't leave you alone."

He could feel the fierce waves
of protection and possession
rolling out from Steel, and
even Moderato seemed
concerned with the calf.

Shale whimpered again,
pressing against Steel.

The surge of molten grief
from Steel made Graham hiss
in surprise and pain, but it was
gone as quickly as it had come.

They'd have to deal with that later.

"We're here, Shale," said Graham.
"You don't have to deal with this alone.
My mam died a long time ago, and
I still miss her. I've just learned
to keep her in my memories."

A mental snuffle felt like
someone blowing in his ear,
making Graham shake his head.

Did someone kill her too? Shale said.

"No," Graham said, "but bad people
killed my da and my two older siblings
when I was very young. My mam was
left with just me and my twin brother."

He offered Shale images of his family,
wishing he had more of his da than just
warm arms and whiskers and Irish lullabies.

There is more, Steel whispered. I could
show you the rest, if you want to see

"Another time," Graham begged. He
wanted that, desperately so, but if Steel
brought up buried memories of dead relatives,
then Graham would fall apart, and now
was absolutely not the time for that.

As you wish, Steel said. The calf
is calming down enough that
Moderato can knock him out

"No!" Graham said. "If we
do that, he'll never trust
any of us again. Give me
a little more time and
I can talk him into it."

As Shale slowed down,
the adrenaline would wear off,
and he'd start to feel the injuries
that he was mostly ignoring so far.

Shale is still bleeding, said Steel,
sounding worried. That is not good.

"I know it's not good, but it doesn't look
immediately life-threatening," Graham said.
"You're a whale and I'm not, though. Am I wrong?"

"You're not wrong," said the man beside him.
"I'm Dr. Caspian Barlough. The calf's back is
a bit of a mess, but it's nothing that can't be
mended, and he's not going to bleed to death.
I'd like to get him up here sooner rather than
later, though. There are sharks around."

I will deal with any sharks, Steel said grimly.
His feelings churned with old fear and grief.
The blood ... there is so much blood in the water.

I think Dr. Barlough is right, said Moderato.
This is bad but it does not seem killing-bad.

"Shale, people are worrying about you,"
said Graham. "How are you feeling?"

I miss my mama, Shale said as he
rubbed against Steel. My back hurts.

"I bet it does," Graham said. "The boat
cut your back. It's still bleeding.
Will you let us fix it for you?"

The calf dove under Steel's fin.

Steel promptly dropped under him
and pushed Shale back to the surface.

You cannot dive like that, Steel scolded.
Bending your back could make it worse.

"He's right," Graham said quickly. "If you
pull on a cut, it can tear open wider.
Nobody wants that to happen."

My back really hurts, Shale whined.

"Will you let me take a closer look at it?"
Graham said. "We don't have to do
anything else yet. I'll just peek at it."

All right, Shale said, although Graham
could hear the tremble in his mental voice.

It was getting dark but the ship had lights.
Graham leaned over the rail and saw that
there were three gashes cutting across
Shale's back between his head and his fin,
deep enough to show a flash of white blubber
through the blood that welled up in them.

"Shale, you have three big cuts on your back.
They need to be cleaned and closed. Then you'll
feel better," Graham said. "There doesn't seem
to be nearly as much blood as before."

I am pressing against the wounds
as best I can,
Steel said. It is difficult.
I'm not used to using my power this way

"That's very clever," Graham said. "It takes
practice to get it just right. Here, use me as
a reference, I've done it by hand for humans."

Steel searched through the offered memories
of first aid and adjusted his grip on Shale.

The calf squealed and tried to squirm
away. Stop it, that hurts! he said.

"Your back will keep hurting until
someone takes care of the cuts,"
Graham explained. "Steel is just
trying to keep your blood on
the inside where it belongs."

Shale snuffled and hiccupped
and wasn't getting a lot of air.

"Steel, that kind of breathing isn't
good for humans," Graham said. "I
doubt it's good for whales either. Can
you get him to take a deeper breath?"

Steel nudged Shale, and the calf gasped,
then started breathing more normally.

He is very young, Steel said, his voice
taut with memory. They need reminding.

"You're doing a wonderful job of it,"
Graham assured him. "Shale, how
are we doing here? Do you feel like
you can trust us to take care of you?"

Maybe, Shale said, then huffed.

"You're feeling worse, aren't you?"
Graham said. "Your body has ways
to help itself when you get hurt, but they
wear off. Come on, let us fix this. Moderato
can put you to sleep so your back will stop
hurting and you won't have to deal with
the big boat or the scary landers."

... okay, Shale said at last.

"That's all we needed to hear,"
Graham said. "Moderato, go ahead."

A moment later, the calf went limp,
and the two whales carefully propped him
on their flippers so that he wouldn't sink.

"Thank god," said Dr. Barlough.
"Let's get him into a sling now."

The sling scratches, Steel said.
I will lift him up to you. Do you
have the cradle ready for him?

"Yes, everything is ready,"
Dr. Barlough said. "Steel, can
you see the deck well enough?
If you're gentle, you can borrow
my eyes to look around."

"Or mine," Graham added.

He could feel the soft sweep of
Steel's attention roving over them,
and then Shale floated up to land
quite delicately on the foam cradle.

The cuts looked even worse
closer up, but they weren't
bleeding much at all now.

A smaller nick cut through
the leading edge of the dorsal fin.

Dr. Barlough probed around them
with his gloved hands, then said,
"Huh, I can't reach them. Steel,
can you let go of these wounds
one at a time, or it is all-or-nothing?"

I can let go one a time, Steel said.

"Okay, watch where I'm pointing to,"
Dr. Barlough said. "Let go the front one."

Blood sprayed the moment Steel let go.

Graham had to remind himself, again,
that a quantity of blood which would
have killed a human quickly was
not all that threatening to a whale.

"Yeah, that's what I thought,"
said Dr. Barlough. "There are
blood vessels that parallel the spine,
and the propeller nicked some of them.
Sheck, pass me some clamps."

A younger man handed over
the clamps, and Dr. Barlough said,
"Thanks. Check that second cut,
would you? I want to know what we're
dealing with as soon as possible."

"I'm on it," Sheck said. "Steel,
let go of the second one, please."

This time, blood welled up in
a thick stream, but without
the bright arterial spurt.

"I don't think that it's as bad
as the first one," Sheck said as
he reached down into the wound.
"I've got my hands full, though."

"If all you need is a third pair of
human hands with medical training,
I can pitch in," Graham offered.

"Yes, please," said Dr. Barlough.
"If you see a leak big enough
to get a clamp on it, do that."

"Steel, let go of the third cut,"
Graham said, then watched
as the gash filled with blood.
"It doesn't look like there is
a big leak here, just small ones."

"Here, rinse it out with this,"
Sheck said, passing him a bottle
of the numbing antiseptic that
they used for the cetaceans.

Graham washed away the blood.
"This one doesn't go as deep as
the other ones do," he said.

"Can you see any muscle at
the bottom?" Dr. Barlough said.

Graham poked his fingers into
the cut. "No, it all looks like
fat tissue -- blubber," he said.

"Then it's not very serious,"
Dr. Barlough said. "We see
whales with horrible scars, ones
you could put your whole arm into,
and they seem to swim fine."

"Without medical treatment,
the cuts won't close properly,"
Graham said, matching the edges.

"Yeah, they gape open," Sheck said.
"The skin heals over and makes like
a valley, or a row of valleys. Don't worry
about the calf, we can tack him right up."

"We have a suture gun that uses
dexflan line for the superwhales,"
Dr. Barlough said. "It works great.
That fin needs stapling, though."

They had to close the blood vessels
by hand, a tricky bit of work given
that each artery was surrounded
by a ring of smaller veins, but with
three people they managed.

Dr. Barlough closed the skin with
a suture gun that made a sharp
ka-chak, ka-chak sound which
kept making Graham flinch.

When Dr. Barlough got down
to the third cut, though, Graham said,
"Can you show me how to use that?
If I'm going to be friends with whales,
I want to know at least basic first aid
for them in case of an accident."

Sheck snorted. "Good luck with that,"
he said. "Steel just about creamed us
that time he tangled with a ship."

Graham shuddered, remembering
some pictures he'd seen in the news.

"I can show you," Dr. Barlough said.
"It's real simple, just point and click.
The important part is making sure
that the edges line up cleanly,
same as any other closure."

The tool really was simple,
just a grip and a trigger, and
it left behind a neat line of
neon blue dexflan stitches that
quickly faded to whale color.

"Doesn't hurt much, either,"
Sheck added. "We tried it on me,
once, and it felt like when I got
my belly button pierced. It hurt
way less than the last time that
I got stitches at a clinic, so I'm
sure not going there again."

"It's always nice to move up
to a better method," Graham said,
handing the suture gun back to
Dr. Barlough. "Now what?"

"Staple the fin, slather salve
over everything, waterproof it, and
he's good to go," said Dr. Barlough.
"Sheck, bring me the fin punch
and the calf-size stapler."

Graham and Sheck helped
match up the edges of the nick
while Dr. Barlough made holes
and fastened them with staples.

Sheck tapped gently at the fin.
It stayed put. "Looks good to me."

They covered all the cuts with
a layer of antibiotic and then
the sealant for protection.

"Okay, let's get Shale back in
the water," said Dr. Barlough.
"Steel, pick him up. Moderato,
let him wake up slowly, like
he would from a regular nap."

I have him, Steel said as he
scooped the calf out of the cradle
and lowered him into the water.

"The first time waking up without
his mother will be the worst,"
Graham said, memories roiling
through his stomach. "Make sure
you stay right with him to explain
that he's safe here and you will
be taking care of him now."

We will stay, Moderato said,
floating Shale on a flipper.

"What about pain control?"
Graham said. "That's important."

"Moderato, if you can handle that,
it will be a lot easier on Shale's body
than drugs would," said Dr. Barlough.
"You'll have to keep it up for a week
or two, otherwise he'll be miserable."

We will take turns, Steel declared.
It is no trouble at all to care for him.

"How're they gonna feed him?"
Sheck said. "They're both boys."

"Some human women will nurse
another person's baby," Graham said.
"We could ask if whales do the same."

"Plenty of rescue workers in my field
have bottle-fed baby cetaceans,"
Dr. Barlough said. "I can ask
to see who's available for this."

I will feed him, Steel said firmly.

"It would be hard to hold a bottle
without hands to --" Dr. Barlough said.

I have as many 'hands' as I need!
Steel snapped. A bucket clattered
across the deck in a sharp reminder.

"Easy, Steel, nobody is trying to tell you
what to do," Graham said, spreading
his hands. "We're just seeking a way
that will be comfortable for everyone."

Steel's mental voice turned tentative.
Lander bulls do it, don't they? he said.
I think I have seen them feed their babies.

"Some of us certainly do," Graham said.
"There's no reason you can't do the same.
We can figure out how to make it work."

"You might want help making the formula,
Steel," said Dr. Barlough. "That's complicated."

Show me, Steel said, then after a pause,
Yes, someone more experienced can do that.

Graham was secretly thrilled to see Steel
accepting help from humans rather than
just picking a fight over everything.

"Do you think you can handle a bottle?"
Graham asked. "It can be tricky to learn."

I thought we might fasten one to my body,
or even two, under my flippers somehow,

Steel said. The accompanying image was
vague but enough to get the gist across.

"Wetsuit material might work," said Dr. Barlow.
"There's a woman developing prosthetic gear
for underwater use -- she might help us."

"We don't need to go that far afield,"
Graham said. "I'm sure my kids would
be happy to help. It's not a complex design.
Until then, Steel can try holding the bottle
like any other tool, or ask for help if needed."

Moderato squealed a protest, and Steel
replied with a stinging mental slap.

"Gently, please," Graham said. "This is
a hard day for everyone. I know you two
disagree about the topic of tool use, but
you need to be careful not to scare Shale
with that argument. It's either a bottle
or a wet nurse, and if you fight over it,
then you will wind up hurting him."

Steel blinked out of the conversation
so quickly and completely that Graham
rushed to the rail to make sure that
Steel was still there, still okay.

We will try to be careful,
Moderato said, sounding
cranky but not hostile.

Graham changed clothes, then
sent messages to Halley and Edison,
asking them to design something for
Steel to use as bottle feeding support.

Aquariana brought him a snack,
something tuna and something fruit,
which he ate almost without tasting.

"What shall we do with the yacht?"
she asked as they ate together.

"What yacht?" Graham said.

"The yacht that ran over Shale
and his mother," Aquariana said.
"Undamaged, the Carousel would be
worth about a million dollars. It needs
some repairs, but it's still valuable."

"Okay, why does that involve me?"
Graham said. "I don't know
very much about boats."

"Maldivian law allows
confiscation of property for
victim restitution," she said.
"The owner died in the crash
and his girlfriend is frantic to get
away from here. It's not done yet,
but the yacht will belong to Shale."

"Which is a challenge because
he is too young to make decisions
that big, okay, I get it now," Graham said.
"How can I help to sort things out?"

"Help me talk with Steel," she said.
"You explain things better than I do,
and he listens to you more than he
does to anyone but Moderato."

"All right, I'll do my best,"
Graham said. "Steel? We
need to talk about a boat."

Boats are for landers. I don't
care about those,
Steel said.

"According to local custom,
the yacht from the accident now
belongs to Shale," said Graham.
"Since you're his new guardian,
that makes it your decision."

What would we do with a boat?
Steel wondered. Besides sink it for fun.

That reminded Graham that Steel had
his own awful memories about boats,
definitely a complication right now.

"Well, you could sell it and use
the money to buy something that
you do want," Graham said. "Or you
could get it fixed, then let Aquariana
and your other human teammates use it."

I never want to see that thing again,
Steel said. Neither will Shale, even if
the landers claim that it belongs to him

"That sounds like selling it would be
a good idea," Aquariana said. "I can
make the arrangements, if you wish."

You said it belongs to Shale, though,
said Steel. I do not want to take anything
away from him. What do lander parents do in
a situation like this? What would you do?

"Put it in his college fund," Graham said.
"I know that sounds unfamiliar to you, but
Shale will be one of the first whale calves
to grow up in close contact with humans.
He might like the idea of higher education."

He wouldn't be the first, Moderato said.
Siggy is studying human minds with tutors
from the Maldives National University

"That's wonderful," Graham said.
"All you really need to know is that
it's a good idea to set aside some money
for a child's education or other activities
when they get older. Some people use
theirs for trade school or travel instead of
college -- or even a downpayment on a house."

Shale does not need a house, Steel protested.

"Of course not, but he might want to buy
something else that big," Graham said.
"Maybe he'll want an island with a harbor
he can fit into, or a boat for human friends."

Steel spouted a sigh. The whale money
is all in one pool,
he said. Is there some way
to put Shale's portion in a place of his own?

"Sure, I can set up an account for him,"
Aquariana said. "It will be in his name,
but since you and Moderato will be
taking care of him, you two will have
control of it until he grows up."

"What's the age of majority for
whales?" Graham said suddenly.
"Because that just became relevant."

Aquariana rubbed a hand over her face.
"I have no idea," she said. "Physical maturity
varies depending on the species, and I doubt
we know as much about it as we think we do.
We know nothing about their culture."

"Well, there's one obvious starting point
to try," Graham said. "Steel, when can
sperm whales start having babies?"

Steel riffled a set of images at him,
not having a reference for calendars
the way humans kept track of time.

"Maybe nine to ten years for females,
but eighteen to nineteen for males,"
Graham translated. "Interesting."

"Challenging," Aquariana said.
"Males take twice as long to mature
as females. That could make legality
quite a tangle. I'll talk with the President
and see what he thinks about this."

"Thank you," Graham said. "We don't
need an instant answer, we just need
to start the ball rolling on this."

"I'll get on that," Aquariana said,
sending a message to the President.

By then, Halley and Edison had sent
several sketches of possible designs
for Steel's bottle feeding equipment.

Evidently they had researched whale milk
and calf feeding because they included options
for squirt feeding as well as direct suckling.

"Steel, take a look at these sketches
and tell me which you like," Graham said.

Steel nudged his mind, and for a moment
Graham could taste milk and fish and
something he couldn't even name.

That one, like your short sweater,
Steel said, pointing with his mind.

"Like my vest," Graham said.
"It's basically a tube with holes
for your flippers and pockets
to hold the bottles underneath."

"Anyone who makes custom wetsuits
could probably make that thing in
a few hours," Aquariana said.
"Let me make some calls."

That was one advantage of
an island nation that Aida adored:
you never had to go far to find
exotic watersport supplies.

Then Shale woke up.

I want my mama,
he said. I miss her.

"You'll always miss her, but
you'll feel less sad later on,"
Graham said. "We will help
you to remember her."

Shale just whimpered and
plastered himself against Steel.

We will sing about your mother,
Moderato said. That will help.

Not really, Steel muttered in
the undertone that meant he
wasn't broadcasting to everyone.

"Remembering your family doesn't
make you feel better?" Graham said.

I don't want to talk about it, Steel said,
shutting off his emotions with cold finality.

Steel's behavior was really starting
to worry Graham, given the parallels
to tragic experiences in Steel's past.

"Okay, you don't have to talk about it,"
Graham said. "I'm here if you change
your mind, though. This situation must
be very difficult for you to deal with."

Steel muttered a wordless complaint.

So Graham turned his attention
back to the calf. "How are you
feeling, Shale? Better than before?"

My back doesn't hurt. I can steer better.
They won't let me dive,
Shale said.

"I'm glad you feel better," Graham said.
"Steel and Moderato will make sure your back
doesn't hurt while it heals. You still need to be
gentle with your body, though. You can dive later."

I'm hungry, Shale said. Where's my milk?

"Sheck, go see if the galley has finished
the milk and the bottles," Dr. Barlough said.

Sheck trotted away, and soon returned
lugging two enormous baby bottles.

That led to a tense discussion
as Dr. Barlough and Graham
explained bottle feeding to Steel.

It took a while for Steel to learn
how to hold a bottle effectively and
for Shale to figure out how to nurse
in a slightly different position than
he was used to with his mother.

"I know this is hard, but you're
both doing great," Graham said.
"We have someone working on
a bottle holder, and that should
make this easier for both of you."

At least Moderato had quit
complaining about the bottles.

Aquariana was incredibly useful.
She talked with the wetsuit maker
who was making a bottle holder,
then made notes for the President
about majority in whales and for
a salesman about the yacht.

"Hey, do you guys want
to sell the boat as-is or
fix it first?" she asked.

Steel sent a wave of
confusion. What would
a lander do?
he asked.

"It would depend on what
they wanted," Graham said.
"Selling it now would earn
less money but go faster.
Fixing it first could earn
more money but would
take longer go through."

We never want to see it again,
Steel said. Even this boat
makes Shale feel anxious.

"He'll probably feel that way
for a while," Graham said.
"It's normal. I can help him
deal with the fear later."

"What about the yacht?"
Aquariana asked them.

"I suggest selling it as-is with
a stipulation that the buyer take it
out of the Maldives," said Graham.
"Pitch the idea that the buyer can
repair it according to their tastes,
if it needs any interior work."

"That's a good idea, thanks,"
she said. "I'll get right on that."

The tropical night drifted past
in snatches of conversation
about the practical things.

Sheck had fallen asleep on
a bench, one hand swaying
with the motion of the ship.

Dr. Barlough seemed willing
to stay up until dawn in case
his patient needed him again.

Shale slept most of the time,
exhausted by loss and injuries.
He woke up to eat periodically,
and Moderato made sure that he
surfaced to breathe as needed.

The calf still felt miserable over
the loss of his mother, but at least
he seemed eager enough to bond
with Steel and Moderato now.

"Bonding takes time," Graham said.
"It's good that you're all getting off
to a healthy start. Just don't expect
this to be smooth sailing all the way.
I'll do everything I can to support you
as you establish a new family."

Steel shivered at that idea, but
at least he didn't try to pull away.

Graham could understand why
'family' would be a touchy topic for him,
given that Steel had lost his first two
under such terrible circumstances.

Aquariana brought another meal,
curry with rice that Graham ate while
watching the stars fade slowly from
the eastern edge of the sky.

He tried to think of solutions for
the many challenges they faced,
with varying levels of success.

Shale was understandably skittish
about the sling boat and the humans.

Scary, he whimpered, trying to hide
under Moderato to avoid the boat.

That was awkward, but he wasn't
panicking anymore, so he would
probably get over it with time.

"Boats can be scary," Graham said.
"Sometimes humans get hurt by boats too.
That's why we have rules about safe boating.
The man piloting the yacht broke a rule, so
a bunch of people got hurt. The boat I'm
standing on follows all the rules carefully,
so it's much safer for us to be around."

Shale gave a querulous trill, rising to
the surface then ducking back down.

"Here in the Maldives, we are
working on updates to boat safety,"
Aquariana added. "We want to require
all boats to have safety features like
sonic alarms and propeller guards, but
that's expensive and takes time."

Moderato perked up at that.
Could we use whale money to help
pay for those things?
he asked.

"Probably so, but I thought you
didn't like tools," Aquariana said.

I don't like US using tools, he corrected.
Landers do it all the time. Besides,
I like not getting hit by boats

Aquariana chuckled. "I'll ask
about cost-sharing," she promised.

Shale was still sad and twitchy,
but the calf seemed to show
some signs of improvement.

When the sky paled in the east,
a low whistle fluted through the air,
and some of the crew started praying.

Graham listened to the lilting sounds
of Dhivehi and Arabic prayers.

?? wondered Shale, spouting.

"They're saying hello to the day,"
Aquariana explained. "This is how
Muslims start their morning. Listen,
and you'll hear the crew take turns."

"That was an adorable explanation,"
Graham said with a soft smile.

"I try to be a good neighbor,
and we have a lot of visitors,"
Aquariana said. "I learned
the lines from Muslim friends."

Shale babbled along, not really
following the meaning of the prayers,
just echoing the pretty sounds.

That was a lot better than him
panicking over humans -- whales
seemed very taken by songs or chants.

Meanwhile, Steel was getting worse,
snapping at people and leaving more than
one person with a dreadful headache.

"Enough," Graham said finally.
"Steel, please pass the bottle to
Moderato and let him take a turn
feeding Shale. You and I need to talk."

I don't want to talk about it, Steel said,
not for the first time. You told me that
I don't have to and you wouldn't push

"We don't have to talk about your feelings
or your past," Graham assured him. "We do
need to talk about how that's affecting you
and everyone around you. Right now, you're
miserable and it's spilling over onto other people.
We need a plan to fix that. It's totally okay for
that plan to involve something other than talking."

If I knew how to fix it, then I wouldn't still
feel this way,
Steel groaned at him.
His flukes threshed the water to foam.

"I know lots of ways to sort through
difficult situations and rough emotions,"
Graham said. "I use them at work."

Like what? Steel wondered, curiosity
drawing him closer despite his skepticism.

"Singing, dancing, and drawing are all
expressive therapies that don't rely
much on talking," Graham said.

I don't feel like dancing, Steel said.

"That's okay," Graham assured him.
"Breathing exercises can help people
to relax too. Sometimes what helps
the most is just having someone stay
with you when you feel sad. Has anything
that you have tried helped, even a little?"

Breathing, Steel admitted. Aquariana
and some of the others breathe with me.
It helps me feel less alone, sometimes.

"You're not alone, Steel. I'm right here,"
Graham said. "I use breathing a lot. It's
one of my favorite ways to calm down.
Let's breathe together for a while. If you
want to talk, we can, but you don't have to.
After we feel better, then we can think
about more ways to fix things, okay?"

You don't need to waste your time
on me,
Steel said. I can get by
fine on my own. I have before

"It's not a waste," Graham said.
"This isn't about just getting by,
Steel, it's about feeling better."

It's not like you need this, Steel said.

"Of course I need ways to calm down,"
Graham said. "I'm upset too, Steel. I just
know how to handle it, so right now it isn't
spilling over. Come here, I'll show you."

He unfurled the layers of shielding that he
wore to provide a nonanxious presence
to people who needed him, and let
Steel see what lay beneath.

The whale brushed against
Graham's mind, gently this time.

You hurt, Steel said, startled.

"I do," Graham said. "I lost
my father very young, and I have
children of my own now. I'm never
going to hear a baby bawling for
his dead mama and not feel like
it's tearing my heart in half."

I am sorry, Steel said. You came
here to help us, and now you feel bad

"It's okay, Steel," said Graham. "I took
this job to help people, not because
I wanted a safe and easy life."

Steel spouted. You are still here,
he said. I will breathe with you.

"That's good," Graham said.
"Okay, breathe in, deep breath.
I'll be breathing a lot faster than you,
but still slower than usual for me.
We'll think of somewhere quiet
and safe. You can lean against
my mind if you want company."

Graham let his breathing slow,
and thought about his last visit to
the Merced National Wildlife Refuge.
It had been a cloudy spring day with
meadows full of multicolored wildflowers.

Steel bumped against his mind again,
not really leaning, just peeking over
his shoulder to wonder about the colors.

"They're flowers that grow near where I live,"
Graham murmured. "The yellow-and-white ones
are Fremont's tidy-tips. The little white puffs are
blow wives. The purple balls are Indian paintbrushes.
The pale blue dots are bird's eyes. In the background,
that dark yellow patch is all California poppies."

Like the reef fish, but in the air, Steel mused,
sending an image of green-gold coral covered with
schools of yellow and orange fish. Beyond them,
the blue ocean looked almost like the sky.

"Something like that, yes," Graham said.
"It doesn't matter what you think of when
you breathe your way to calm, just that you
choose an image that feels soothing."

Steel hummed, a low note that
thrummed through the ship's hull.

I like the little fish, he said, and
the flowers in your memory.

They stayed like that for a while,
just breathing as they touched minds,
drifting on the warm tropical water.

Steel's mood rose and fell like
the waves, almost calm one moment
then roiling with grief and anger the next.

As promised, Graham didn't press him
for anything more, just waited and listened,
making a space for Steel in case the whale
wanted to share something after all.

It's the blood, Steel said abruptly.
There's so much blood in the water.
I can't stop remembering how I lost
my mother, then my mate and our calf.
It's hard for me to tell what is memory
and what is happening right now

His control slipped, and Graham
was suddenly submerged in
bright red, chunky water.

He could taste the blood.

Graham barely made it
to the rail before he threw up
over the side of the boat.

The churning memories
weren't his own, but they
were too strong for him
to push out of his mind.

Steel blinked out of the link,
so fast and hard that he left
Graham's head ringing.

The rail was rough and wet
under Graham's hands as
he heaved until nothing
came up but acid.

"Are you okay?"
Aquariana said,
her blue hand cool
and moist against
Graham's cheek.

"No," he admitted.

"What happened?"
she said. "Did Steel
hurt you? Moderato
told me that he dove like
someone was shooting at him!"

"Flashbacks," Graham said.
"Overwhelmed both of us."

"Oh, poor Steel," said Aquariana.
"Today has been so horrible for
everyone, but especially him. I'm
sorry we dragged you into this too."

"I'm not," Graham said. "I promised
that I'd help him with this stuff."

But that brought up the memory
of blood in the water again,
which left him dry-heaving
and draped across the rail.

Aquariana rubbed his back.
"Okay, but I'm still sorry that
you feel so awful," she said.

"They say the sea is cold, but
the sea contains the hottest blood
of all, and the wildest, the most urgent,"
Graham whispered, clinging to the rail.

"Let me get you some Chuckie's,
that should help," she said.

"Please," Graham said.

Aquariana trotted away and
came back with a tummy tab
to stick behind his ear, along
with water and some towels.

"I'll stay right here until
you feel better," she said.

"Thanks," Graham said,
and rinsed out his mouth.

He tried to get it under control,
really he did, but he just couldn't.

Graham lost track of how many times
he'd thrown up, and it had gotten
light while he wasn't looking.

"Do you feel any better at all?"
Aquariana asked, bringing him
a fresh bottle of water.

"No," he said. "I think
it's time for me to give up
and just go home for the ...
night, day?" He looked at
the reddening horizon.

The first golden ray of dawn
lanced over the horizon
and hit him in the face.

"Argh," Graham said, turning
away from it. "I can't keep track
of the times. Just get me
a ride home, please?"

"Of course," Aquariana said.

She made a quick call, and
soon a teleporter arrived.

"Please put me down near
a bathroom," Graham said.

He knew perfectly well that
teleporting with his stomach
already upset would make
the problem even worse,
but he needed to get home.

The trip felt like stepping onto
and then off of a floating bridge:
a dip and sway, then a thrust
up that ended with a soft bump.

Graham dashed for the toilet as
his stomach turned itself inside out
again, getting there just in time.

At least he'd drunk enough water
to have something to throw up.

The effort left him wrung out and
exhausted, though, and he couldn't
get up and down easily by himself.

So he just crouched on the floor,
resting his cheek against
the cool porcelain bowl.

He heard a soft tap on
the door, then Molly said,
"Da, are you okay?"

"Not even close,"
Graham replied.

"I'm coming in
to check on you,"
Molly warned him.

"Go ahead," he said.

Her hands were warm
and gentle as she took
hold of his left wrist.

"What happened?"
Molly asked him.

"Bad call," Graham said.
"Some trouble in the Maldives,
and Steel had flashbacks again."

"No wonder you're sick," she said.
"Chuckie's didn't help the nausea?"

"Not even a little bit," Graham said.
The tummy tab was no more than
a tacky spot on his skin by now.

"How long have you been sick?"
Molly asked, stroking his back.

Graham groped through
his murky memories.
"About half an hour."

"That's not good at all,"
Molly said. "It sounds like
you need a shot for the nausea.
Do you want me to do it, or
shall I call someone else?"

"You do it," Graham said.
"I'm running out of time until
my stomach lining gives out."

"I need to grab my big kit,"
Molly said. "I'll be right back."

Graham listened to her footsteps
going down the hall, and focused
on resisting the queasiness as
he heard her returning.

"Hold still," she warned.

He felt the gentle twinge of
the needle sliding into his shoulder,
and then her fingers smoothed
a bandaid over the puncture.

Graham's stomach lurched
and he belched, tasting acid.

"Just breathe," Molly said.
"You should feel better in
a few minutes. I'm here."

It took all his determination
to hold on long enough for
the drug to kick in and start
washing away the nausea.

Eventually he sighed.
"Think I'm done," he said.
"Give me a hand up?"

"Sure," Molly said,
bracing herself to help
him get off the floor.

She flushed the toilet
while Graham leaned over
the sink to brush his teeth,
then stepped behind him
to offer her support.

He needed it, because
he was already starting
to feel fuzzy at the edges.

"Let's get you to bed,"
Molly said, letting him
lean on her. "I'll tell
Mum what's going on."

"Thanks," Graham said
as he wobbled down the hall.
"I can't say much yet, but it'll
be family news soon enough."

"Not all bad, I hope," Molly said.

"Moderato is fine, and Steel is ...
no better than I am right now, but
he'll come out of it," Graham said.

Molly lowered him into the bed.
"I'm glad they'll be okay," she said.

"I'll be fine tomorrow," Graham said.
He knew how to handle a rough case.
"If anyone calls, let them know that."

Steel was probably blaming himself,
which wouldn't help matters at all.

"Da, stop worrying about everyone else
and get some rest," Molly said. She tugged
his shoes off and draped a Microfyne blanket
over him. "We'll take care of everything."

"Thank you, Molly," Graham said,
squeezing her hand. "Love you."

The Microfyne was already doing
its job of soothing his cares away.

Graham let it carry him to sleep.

* * *


This poem is long, so the notes character, location, and content notes appear separately.
Tags: cyberfunded creativity, family skills, fantasy, fishbowl, poem, poetry, reading, weblit, writing
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