Southern Residents

WRITTEN BY
Brenda Cooper

ILLUSTRATED BY
Alyssa Winans

Even though Julie Pol wanted to dance, her mouth was dry with anxiety. She stood beside at least twenty dignitaries. A blue and green Ocean Research Institute and Spa (ORIAS) sign undulated above their heads, driven to movement by powerful air-recirculating fans. Julie had spent every professional favor she had to make the institute real. New building materials had been developed and refined. Environmentalists had been alternately fought and partnered with. Sincere citizens had sworn that if money was wasted here, babies would die. Perhaps they had, or would. Julie had signed approvals for so much money she could have fed all of Washington State for a year. All that for one of the greatest environmental clichés: Save the Whales.

Julie’s feet hurt from pacing all night. Nevertheless, she smiled as she shook hands and murmured thanks to current and former state legislators, the entire Whale Museum Board, the Chair of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, a famous futurist who had been fighting for the orcas for six decades, two science fiction writers and four science writers who had written books about whales, the University of Washington President, and finally, the Governor of the State of Washington. Governor Mary Liu had been the final human brick that built ORIAS. It had even been in her campaign platform. Her voice sounded warm and full of humor as she said, “Thank you, Doctor Pol. We’re grateful to you for all that your team has done to keep the Salish Sea clean.”  She reached a neat and bejeweled hand out toward Julie.

Julie smiled as she took the Governor’s hand. “Thank you.” She didn’t say that the Salish hadn’t been clean for eighty years. But it was cleaner than it had been in 2040, and given ten more years, given ORIAS, it would be better yet. “Thank you.”

The governor added, “I just heard that two more whales have been confirmed pregnant.”

That was true, although the survival rate for orca calves was still less than fifty percent. But ORIAS had been built on hope, so she merely said, “Yes. Good news.”

A beaming graduate student held up the center of a blue ribbon decorated with sea shells and handed her scissors the size of a briefcase. Two minutes later, she and the governor each used one side of the awkward scissors to snip the ribbon.

ORIAS was officially open.

Half an hour later, Julie went looking for a sink in which to dump the contents of a tiny flute of cheap champagne. In the closest lab, she noticed a young woman standing near the back, dressed in a bright blue jumpsuit that contrasted with her long dark hair and dark eyes. She had rigged up a camera and stood gesturing animatedly into it. Julie inched closer, listening. “— expensive waste of money that could be spent on feeding and housing us.”

Julie cleared her throat and the woman looked over at her, startled, her mouth thinning into a grimace.  “I’m –”

“Recording. I see that. I’m Dr. Julie Pol. I run the place. Do you have any questions I can answer for your audience?”

The young woman’s cheeks flushed red, but she glanced back at the camera and gestured for it to swivel toward Julie. “I’ve been joined by Dr. Pol, who runs ORIAS. Doctor? Are you excited to see the first hotel rooms open?”

Julie fought a grimace. The girl reminded her of the unskilled citizen reporters who had lied as they attempted to stop the sanctions on whale-watching boats. “The hotel has been slept in for two weeks to train staff. I’m far more excited about the lab work. We’re standing in the specimen analysis lab. Here, we’ll examine everything from whale poop to ocean sediment to understand the health of the Southern Resident Killer Whales.”

The girl’s lips curled up in an oversized grimace meant for her audience. “Whale poop?”

“Whale poop.  It can identify toxins in the water, tell us how well the whales have fed, and identify some diseases. We’ve been collecting whale poop for almost sixty years.”

The young woman rolled her eyes before flashing a bright, impish smile and glancing at her camera. “I need to go learn about whale poop for a while. I’ll see you all tomorrow!” She picked up the camera and flicked it off.

Julie held her hand out. “I presume you’re one of the students who won the lottery?”

“Yes.” The girl took her hand but then let go quickly and turned to dismantle her lightweight tripod. “I’m Amaria Nitel. From New Texas University. I’m a journalism major.”

There was a journalism major in the lottery-winning class? “I’ll be lecturing your group in the morning.”

“I’ll be broadcasting some of the lessons to my feed.” The girl spoke with too much confidence, as if daring Julie to tell her no.

Julie stiffened, prepared to tell Amaria broadcasts would have to be pre-approved, but Amaria interrupted her before she could get a word out. “That’s how I pay my rent and books. The college pays my tuition because so many people follow me, the admissions office says it boosts applications for on-campus work.”

Julie closed her mouth. Her own daughter, Sarai, took every opportunity to remind her that she was utterly out of touch with survival outside of academia. Life is hard, Sarai had told her just last week. You’ve never starved or been in debt. Have a heart! Julie took a deep breath. “Pleased to meet you. See that you have researched whale poop and how we harvest it before tomorrow morning. I’m sure there is a paper in your preparation packet. I put it there.”

The girl glared at her and shoved the camera equipment into her bright blue bag. Her dark hair and eyes went well with high cheekbones and carefully crafted brows. Now that she wasn’t staring into the camera, she looked lost.

Julie remembered Sarai’s statements again and promised herself she’d think about the lost part of the girl rather than her edginess.  She hadn’t taught for a few years, but had insisted that she would do one class a semester against her mentor’s advice. This girl did not remind her of why she loved teaching.

Julie poured her champagne into a nearby lab sink, put the plasglas in the recycler, and turned toward the girl. “There will be a show out the observation windows in half an hour. I’m sure your class has been invited. I can escort you in and get you a good seat.”

The girl’s eyes widened.

Julie spoke a little softer. “The robots will be there.”

“I think I should go find my classmates.”

Her classmates.  Not her friends? “I can put you with the press. You can record there. You won’t be allowed to broadcast live – that’s all licensed. But you can use it later.”

Amaria’s smile looked weak, but Julie took it for assent and led Amaria from the lab onto the observation deck. Julie had to thread through three groups of crucially important people with her head down to avoid getting trapped in a conversation. Joe Hui, the dour head of the ORIAS Press Corps, pressed his lips together in frustration when Julie said, “This is Amaria. She’s studying Journalism. Please find her a place to record.”

Joe mumbled, “There might be room in the back.”

The relief that crossed Amaria’s face made Julie pause. She had assumed any oceanography student would love being here. But Amaria looked a little queasy as she started to pull her camera gear back out.

No time to worry about it now.

Five minutes later, large curtains drew open, revealing a school of fish. Scales flashed in rainbow colors as they swam past the outside lab lights ORIAS used to augment the pale daylight that barely touched the ocean here, a hundred feet below the surface. The fish slowly revealed that they were robots; sort of a reverse fishy Turing test.

The reporters and VIPs applauded. Julie stood in front of the observation window and offered a summary of the science. “The Salish Sea is rich and diverse, ecologically significant and economically crucial. Because of our beloved Southern Resident Killer Whales, there have been microphones in Puget Sound for decades. They were valuable. They were also sparse point solutions.” Julie stopped to look around, catching eyes, hoping to convince the press ORIAS would help the world, that it was worth it. They lived in the real world, the one the frightened student had come from, the one where climate refugees fought over food scraps in tent cities.  “ORIAS is more than a point solution. Far more. It is this building, and almost five-thousand stationary sensors. It is almost seven hundred different types of mobile data collectors, seventy-two of which you just saw perform for you. That number will grow: ORIAS has partnered with the State of Washington to send toxicity data to the robots dismantling drowned structures along old shorelines. All of this data gives us hope, it gives us knowledge, and it gives us a chance to understand.” She took a deep breath, feeling the data pouring in all around her. It felt like the secrets of the sea were speaking to her. Most systems had been online for weeks in test, and today would mark the collection of baseline data. “Many of you in this room helped us reach this dream. Thank you. It’s your turn. What do you want to know?”

She and her principle scientists answered questions for an hour. By then the guests had consumed most of the food and seemed happy to catch elevators to the surface.

By the time Julie found Joe, the girl was gone. “How did our foundling journalist do?”

Joe frowned. “I had to ignore her at first. Busy with the pros. But when I got back to her, she was looking at the wall and pointing the camera at herself.”

Interesting. “She was looking away from the ocean?”

“Either she’s totally self-absorbed or she doesn’t like crowds.” He hesitated. “Or she’s scared of being underwater.”

#

The classroom was on the fourth level down, and thus below the observation deck where the opening party had been hosted. A twenty by five foot observation window occupied the upper half of the classroom wall. Fish came up to the window and peered in from time to time. When other students laughed and pointed at the finned spies, Amaria sank deeper into her chair.

At the break, Julie pulled her aside and led her out of the classroom.  “I watched a few of your videos this morning. You smile a lot in them, and you’re outgoing.”

The girl’s features were closed, but Julie had dealt with hundreds of students. She felt anger lurking behind this one’s hooded eyes, and under the anger something else. Fear?

Julie let the silence linger until Amaria couldn’t take it anymore, and blurted out, “I took this class to graduate. I don’t care about science. It sold us all up the river. Science made plastic and atomic bombs and gasoline. Science stole everything from my generation.”

Such old, stale talking points. Julie sighed and started her rebuttal. “The bomb and plastic grocery bags were both feats of engineering which seemed useful at the time. I believe the people who made those choices meant well.”

Amaria snorted. “Oil companies? Tobacco companies?”

“Well, no. But we used science to bring them down and change their behavior.”

“Fine.” Amaria’s tone suggested she didn’t agree, or care. “But how can you possibly say that saving less than a hundred whales is worth millions of dollars?”

“Saving the whales requires saving the sea. Saving the sea saves us.”

Amaria went quiet, again sullen. But the sour looks covered up something more, something Julie hadn’t touched yet. Once more, Julie let silence work until Amaria said, “Saving the sea here doesn’t stop the Texas drought or the storms.”

Julie smiled. “Everything is connected. Everything. For example, the more trees you plant where streams start in the mountains, and along the banks all the way down to the sea, the more salmon you have.”

“How do trees make salmon?”

“They make the streams richer with food for plankton which feed the sea creatures that eventually feed the salmon. If you have enough salmon, you feed both the orcas and the bears, and the bear poop feeds the trees.”

“And this connects to Texas?”

“The food webs between your seas and your land are just as complex.  I could lecture you for hours. But I have a better idea.”

Amaria actually looked interested.

“There’s an extra place in our submersible trip this evening. I’ll add you to it, and you can use that as your extra-credit lab.”

Amaria’s eyes widened and she stiffened. She pointed toward the ocean, even though they stood in a hallway with no observation windows. “You want me to go out there?”

“Yes. Yes, I do.” Clearly the girl had no idea how many classes had entered the lottery for the chance to be the first one on ORIAS, or how many grad students would give a year’s tuition to have this week. “I’ll see you at 3:00 P.M. I’ll pick you up at the end of your afternoon lecture.”  She smiled. “It’s on whale poop.”

That elicited a brief smile before Amaria turned her head away.

Was Joe right about the girl being frightened? “Please come with me on the submersible. You can record the trip.”

Still no answer.

“I’ll let you broadcast live. The only condition is that you can’t say anything bad about ORIAS while we’re out there. I can’t stop you after you leave at the end of this week, but for this week, you must be neutral or positive.”

Amaria turned her face toward Julie’s. She looked pale and her lower lip trembled. “I…”

“Surely some of your followers would love to be here? Aren’t there almost a hundred thousand of them?” Julie had asked a graduate student to look the girl up on the most recent social platforms, which had names Julie had never heard of.

Amaria swallowed. “More on good days. I can do it.”

“I’ll meet you at three. For now, break’s over. Come back to class in two minutes and I’ll tell you about the crucial role that culverts under roads in Seattle play in the orca’s lives.”

#

Julie was surprised when Amaria showed up on time and in vaguely appropriate clothes: jeans, soft-soled tennis shoes, and a long-sleeved t-shirt.  She already had her camera out, held in her hand, and she whispered into it as Julie handed her up into one of the front seats in the bright yellow sub. Julie took the seat next to her. The other two seats were stacked above them, as if the sub were an exaggerated theater. All four seats could control the sub, but at the moment control rested in the hands of Doctor Ian McDonald, a deep-water biologist. Sadhita Chopra served as copilot. She was a graduate student Julia had invited into the sub in hope that she’d connect with Amaria. Julie had briefed both Ian and Sadhita on her simple goal. Help her enjoy the sea.

The front and top of the sub were transparent, the back and sides a mixture of view screens for video, places where instruments attached, motors, and control surfaces.

As Julie strapped in, Amaria focused intently at the camera in her hand. Julie patiently plucked it free and gave Amaria a verbal tour of the sub and the proper safety lecture. In spite of the fact that they were still docked with the lights off, Amaria’s eyes slid away from the front window when Julie pointed toward it.

Julie leaned close to her and whispered, “We’re safe. It will be okay,” and more loudly to Ian, “Let’s go.”

He turned on one set of front lights, illuminating a school of mottled chinook salmon right in front of them.

A great sign. “That’s whale food,” Ian said.

Amaria gazed at her own lap.

Julie told the girl, “You can look through your camera, see if that helps.”

Amaria nodded woodenly and held her small camera up toward her face, streaming it to her phone. She watched the video of her face on the phone, trying out fake smiles. Her hand shook, which made the video shaky.

“Point the camera at the window.”

Amaria’s current smile failed but she obeyed. Julie glanced down at the display and saw eel grass streaming by.

As the sub moved off, the salmon turned all at once and schooled away. “Ian?” Julie asked. “Can you show Amaria the outside of ORIAS? She has a following that might want to hear about it. I can narrate. When we get close to the surface, maybe fifteen feet, let’s use the sensor webs to find some sea lions or dolphins.”

He snapped a friendly, oversized salute at her. “Yes’m.”

As Julie started talking, she found herself surprisingly conscious of Amaria’s camera.  No good reason – the sub had three cameras that were always on. But right now, this little camera mattered far more. “The outside surface is designed so that barnacles and other sea life will eventually grow on the parts of it that aren’t window, and there will be one robot assigned just to keep the ORIAS windows clean. So this video might be one of the last ones where ORIAS looks quite so industrial and man-made.”

When Julie stopped, Amaria spoke. “Hi guys. I see some of you are along for the ride. I’m in a sub. We’re looking at ORIAS.”

Julie narrated the various levels: maintenance, storage, and the robot shop on the bottom, which had fewer and smaller windows. Living quarters and offices, with a window in each office and bedroom. Two level of labs, including the one with the observation deck where the opening day party had been. She pointed, “You were looking out of that window yesterday. Today we’re looking in.” She waved at two students staring out of the windows and pointing at the sub. “The hotel has one level fully below the waterline and another at the mid-point. We’ve designed it to withstand up to three more meters of sea-level rise. We’re hoping for less.”

“Nine more feet?” Amaria sounded incredulous.

Finally. Some engagement. “Yes. Although as I said, we’re hoping for less. Climate is complex. But the numbers are starting to move in the right direction. We’ve been cutting carbon emissions by more than five percent a year for ten years.”

“But isn’t it still getting worse?” Amaria asked.

“Not everywhere.” A sudden warmth touched her. “Here, the balance is starting to…maybe…stabilize. We have saved a lot of sea life, and the ocean water here is some of the healthiest on the planet. We built this,” she waved toward ORIAS, “to help it stay that way.”

“I thought you built it to save the whales.”

“We did.” Julie really wanted to say we built it to save you, but she managed a more politic reply. “But to do that means healing the sea, designing quieter shipping engines, and protecting the places the whales feed. We need to help the salmon and the sea lions, and really, everything else.” She looked at Amaria, who held her little camera up and pointed it Julie as she finished, “If the oceans die, we die. There was a point in my life when I thought we might lose them.”

Amaria looked at her, her mouth a little open now, curiosity playing around the edges of her face. “Why don’t you think that now?”

Julie gestured Ian towards the shore and paused to think as the sub shifted direction. “As I got older, I realized I could help. To help, you have to believe your choices matter.  Nothing else does. The decisions people made in the past don’t matter. Humans have caused a lot of problems, but we’ve also solved a lot of them. I want to be a solver.”

Ian clapped softly.

The waters at this height were full of light.  Fish swam all around them.

Sadhita said, “Port, at four o’clock. There are three dolphins.”

“Point your camera at them,” Julie said.

“Where?”

“To your left. Can you see?”

The girl moved the camera around, missing the dolphins entirely. Julie wanted to tip her chin up and direct her gaze out of the main window.

Sadhita burst out in warm, good-natured laughter. “Now they’re in front of you.”

Ian struggled to keep the sub’s front view centered on the dolphins.

Amaria finally got her camera pointed at the small school of dolphins, which had grown to five animals. She gasped and started babbling at her phone. “There are five dolphins in front of us. They’re bigger than I thought. They are really graceful.”

The sub approached a rocky promontory. In silence, Julie pantomimed for Ian to point that way. He did, and Amaria sighed. “I wanted to keep looking at the dolphins!”

Ian said, “There’s an octopus.”

Julie spotted it right away, red tentacles moving against a background of grays and mossy greens, punctuated here and there with the purple of a sunflower sea star.

Amaria managed a furtive glance at the wall of sea life, looked away, and then back.  She dropped the phone into her lap and watched directly through the camera for the first time, leaning slightly forward and pointing.  “I see it!  Look, gang, there’s a big octopus! Its arms are longer than mine.”

From behind Amaria, Ian told the girl, “You tell me where to point this thing. See what you can find.”

Amaria whispered, “Can you go forward ten feet?”

Ian complied.

After three more sets of halting directions, Julie pointed. “That’s a brown cat shark.”

“A brown cat shark?  It’s really named a cat shark?”

Julie laughed. “Yes.”

“What was the name of the octopus?

Sadhita answered. “A giant Pacific Octopus. I wrote a paper about them once. They’re almost as smart as humans.”

Thousands of herring surrounded them, silvered finger-sized fish, scales flashing as they darted past on some mysterious errand. Amaria forgot to look through her camera. She simply sat entranced, one hand over her mouth.

Amaria’s audience was missing the herring.

Julie smiled. She could stop worrying about ORIAS. It was already working.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Brenda Cooper is a technology professional, a futurist, a writer, and an editor. She holds an MFA from Stonecoast and is an Imaginary College Fellow at the Center for Science and the Imagination, CSI, at Arizona State University. Her fiction has won two Endeavour awards and been shortlisted for the Phillip K. Dick Award. Brenda’s most recent work includes the novels Wilders and Keepers, which are stories of climate and robots set in the Pacific Northwest. Brenda lives in Washington State where she can be found riding bikes and walking dogs.