We arrived at the Whulj in the early morning, quiet periwinkle light gradually shifting to a looming grey. Waves rolled in the wind like dark, breathing hills. As children, we were taught at school that the Whulj used to be much smaller. Centuries ago, before the Great Sinking, hilly lands lush with trees and rocky beaches housed millions on their shores. I gazed out upon a horizon of nothing but opaque black waters and tried to imagine a city like the ones depicted in my history classes’ holo-texts. In my mind’s eye, glassy skyscrapers and cement buildings lay against a backdrop of rainclouds and blue mountains, but here in  reality there is still only sea.  

Kiki approached my side at the viewing area and rested her elbows against the railing. “Not too different than how it is back home, is it?” 

I smiled. “We’re still some miles away from the bay. We’re not gonna see any land for a while.” 

“Captain wanted me to let you know that we’ll be stopping soon. We’ve got about half an hour before we gotta be suited up.” 

I hummed in acknowledgement, and we continued to watch the waves together for a moment in quiet.  

Kiki is pleasant company, her presence a relaxing weight in the space. I was startled out of our easy silence when she squinted and said, “What’s that?” 

I followed the line of her pointed finger and scanned the water.  

“What, that red patch there?” I asked. 

“Yeah.” 

“I think-“ 

“That’s the algae, isn’t it?” 

“Mm-hm, I think you’re right.” 

A string of tension wound itself into the air. There, right in front of us, was our mission. Kiki slipped her hand into mine and squeezed. I rubbed my thumb gently over hers and sighed.  

“Let’s go suit up.” 

*** 

It was my and Kiki’s first voyage off of the Rig since graduation. In our last year of training, news broke out about an invasive species of red algae that threatened the habitat of our Southern Residents. Thousands of people across the Platform Network signed up for clean-up missions immediately. It was the first thing Kiki and I did the day we finished our certifications. 

Kiki piloted the mini sub while I sat at vacuum control. Detached from the ship and scuttling through the water, we proceeded underwater through the darkness and extracted the algae. The filtration system whirred as swirling red filled the tank within the hull. Outside the windows of the sub, the water remained a steady and infinite depth. In every direction, a profound blue stretched into nothingness. Despite growing up in a floating city, the ocean remained unfathomable to me. 

As we plunged deeper into the abyss, large shapes began to emerge within the water. Decrepit buildings from humanity’s Rot Era bloomed into view, tall skeletal structures standing still within a midnight void. Red stains painted the sides of what was left of the concrete, splotchy as blood. Statuesque trees were companions to the ruins. Solemn in their narrow stances, their needly branches only slightly swayed in the murky current.  

The area was too tight for the arms of the sub to safely navigate, so I donned my oxygen mask. Attached to the sub through the cord hooked to my belt, I exited the vehicle and swam to the largest swath of algae. An extension of the filtering-vacuum in one hand, scraping tool in the other, I scratched away at the red gunk. As I worked, one spot revealed remnants of a graffiti tag. White and yellow gradations of paint remained soaked into the concrete, all these hundreds of years later. I traced a gloved finger over the curve of a  sprayed line.  

“Ren!” Kiki’s voice crackled over my earpiece. “You gotta get back here!” 

The urgency of her voice shot a jolt of anxiety through me. “What is it?” I radioed back. 

“Q’ellhólmechen!” she exclaimed, and I finally recognized her tone of excitement as joyous rather than frightful. “They’re here!” 

I sped through the water, following the cord back to the mini sub. When I reached the vehicle, Kiki was standing against the front window. I swam up and placed a hand against the glass. She whipped her head around to the side and met my gaze, and I saw in  her deep brown eyes the same twinkle that lit her face when we graduated. With a wide grin, she mouthed, “Look!” and gestured in the direction she was facing.  

Daylight danced in the water as beams, shifting with the waves. Within the blue glow, I spotted them: what ancient sailors called killer whales. Our Southern Residents swam in the distance, gliding in the water with grace. I counted four that I could see, bodies moving in elegant lines. After a second, I noticed a fifth, smaller body beside one of the orcas. I gasped – it was a calf! I adjusted my earpiece’s sensitivity until I could hear the pod’s echolocational clicks. Kiki and I watched, enraptured, as their images sank deeper into the blue background, until finally they disappeared from view. When I turned my attention back to Kiki, she was still observing the water; her palm pressed up against the glass, aligned with mine.