A Rumor of Oilheads
A Legend from the Strength of Old
By Mark VanTassel
Erde Date: 960 (Earth 1940)
Breach hung head down, face to the darkness. His heart thudded, and between beats he listened.
It was quiet tonight, and moonlight filtered down in streaks. He saw a fish hurry past, then a great tailfish followed. He wondered which would get what they wanted tonight--a meal, or another day.
A crack from a nearby mountain rumbled through him, telling him that the firestone would hit the water again soon.
When the news came, it was faint from the distance, and tinted with elation.
“We have escaped. The floaters pursue our cousins.”
“May air fill your lungs, and squid fill your mouth,” Breach rumbled back.
Once they had ruled the world, going where they wished, when they wished. Except for the arid places, of course. Then the floaters came, shapes of driftwood with little specks of life on them. The specks brought teeth, and sometimes their bite caused one of the people to cease their songs.
It was the way of things. Everyone needed to eat. Some of the people filtered tiny things from the water, others went into the darkness for larger meals. It only made sense that the specks ate too.
At first it was easy to avoid the floaters. They ventured small distances from the arid places, then returned to their dried out homes. Over time, however, they became a problem. There were more of them every year, and the floaters grew larger. The specks brought larger and larger teeth, and more of the people fell to their hunger.
When the floaters began making multi-day voyages over the great places the elders finally decided to oppose them.
Crush was Breach’s grandfather. He had ceased the song quite a number of seasons back, but Breach remembered his tales of breaking floaters, and specks struggling in the great places.
For a time it seemed like balance had been achieved, but specks hated balance. The elders weren’t sure what to make of the change, except to keep the people away from the new floaters and their thunder teeth.
There would be a splitting sound, with a flash of light, and then something would strike one of the people. The tooth would lodge deep, and a long strand of weed would hold them. More flashes, more teeth, and it was seldom that anyone stricken managed to escape.
“Great floaters, ten days swim, in the direction of daybreak, from the bright island where the turtles gather. They continue toward the dawn.”
Breach digested the news. Gone were the days when guards like Crush could disperse the floaters. The specks had ceased to bring driftwood into the great places, and now the floaters were huge and made from something cold and hard. You could break your head trying to drive them away.
“Thank you, Gulp. I will spread the news to any who will listen,” Breach replied.
* * *
Travis tapped the left side of his sonar headset. It had a bit of a loose connection, but the hint of vibration was enough to restore sound in that ear.
“Contact, west northwest, maybe eighty miles,” he said.
Griggs walked over to the sonar station. He was the captain, the owner, and the fly in the ointment for many researchers around the world. The son of a steel baron, he had nearly unlimited funds. It was the constant trade in conspiracy theories that kept him from the respect and attention he desired.
“Oilheads?” Griggs asked.
“Yes, sir,” Travis said. “I got a hint of some at great range. Not clear enough to be certain, but I think they are out there. This one appears to be talking to them.”
Griggs believed in whale language. Whales were the second most intelligent species on Erde, according to him, and the path to harmony aboard the Discovery was to give the boss what he wanted. Thus the anthropomorphization of whales.
Discovery was custom-built. It had three masts, so that they could sail without making undue noise, but they also had a pair of diesel engines and twin screws that allowed them to travel quickly even if the wind was calm. Frankly, it was a dream job. Even if the captain was nuttier than a squirrel family reunion.
They made a slight course correction, bringing the ship onto an intercept vector with the source of the local whale songs. Travis didn’t believe in it, but Griggs said that there were oilheads, and then there were Oilheads. Everyone knew about oilheads. They had the finest natural sonar in the world, and they dove to crazy depths hunting squid and who knew what else.
What had them on the water was Oilheads. The whaling logs were full of sightings of a species of oilhead roughly twice the size of the oilheads everyone knew. The general belief was that this larger species might be extinct, simply exaggerations of the normal oilhead, or that whaling prevented the poorly understood animals from reaching full size.
Travis thought the third possibility was the most likely. Oilheads were known to live ninety years, and there were suspicions that they could live much longer if left in peace.
“How big do you think he is?” Griggs asked. He gripped Travis’ shoulder and leaned over like he might be able to hear the sounds himself.
“Not sure, sir. They make sounds too low for me to hear. You can see at least some of that on the plot. It’s a powerful sound, but even the ‘small’ ones can do that.”
The plot was a device that recorded sound frequencies. It scrolled paper over a platen, and the machine drew on it with a pencil. They could see the range of frequencies, and the time spent at the lowest. Compared to actually hearing the sounds, the plot was a terribly limited way to detect whale songs.
“Doesn’t greater size equate to longer vocal chords?” Griggs asked.
“Maybe, sir, but the lowest bass I’ve ever heard was scarcely three feet tall.”
Griggs took a step back and studied Travis. “Is that true?”
“Yes, sir. Every word.”
“Hmm. Perhaps there is another way to estimate size via voice.”
“You tell me what to listen for, and I’ll do it, sir.” Travis managed to get the words out without a hint of sarcasm. Griggs really was a terrific boss. He paid well, he paid on time, and the galley was stocked with better food than any sailor would expect.
* * *
“Grasper, moving up from the deep. Eleven days’ swim morningward from the bright island. It will surface tonight.”
The voice belonged to Plunge. He was the oldest of the people, and Breach had not heard from him in years.
“Thank you, Great One. Why do you not take it for yourself?”
“It is mighty.”
That brought Breach out of his communication trance. A grasper too large for Plunge?
The old one expected it to surface. They only did that when they were sick. If it was so big Plunge wouldn’t even attempt it when it was in a weakened state, it must be incredible.
* * *
Travis yawned and stretched. It wasn’t like him to wake before dawn, but his body refused to be still.
The surface of the sea was calm, with just a hint of swell. The Discovery was moving with just a bit of sail, and the temperature was pleasantly cool.
Travis leaned over the rail and looked into the water. An eye the size of his chest looked back.
He pushed himself away from the railing, and then a tentacle at least two feet thick curled over the railing.
Travis backed away, fell, and scrabbled backward as the tentacle searched for him. Discovery rolled several degrees toward the monster as it pulled on the railing.
“Get a camera,” Griggs screamed from the bridge.
Of course he wanted a camera. Who cared about a sonar operator?
Discovery groaned. Men poured onto the deck. A tentacle grabbed one and dragged him overboard, screaming. Travis increased the speed of his backward scrabble.
Another man went over the side, oddly quiet. Travis’ back hit something slimy. Then he was pulled over the side into the water.
* * *
Breach came up on the grasper with some caution. It was the biggest one he’d ever sounded. Worse, it was trying to climb onto a floater.
For one choice, taking a grasper even Plunge turned away from was exciting. For the other choice, he was a sentinel. How this floater had gotten so close was a mystery, but revealing himself to the specks was highly discouraged.
Then the strangest thing happened. One of the specks was pulled into the sea, and it called for help. The cry was desperate and almost incoherent from bubbles and splashing, but Breach understood.
Breach surged forward. The sprint to the floater was short, and then he bit down on the tangy meat of the grasper. It might have been weakened by age or illness, but it was a giant of its kind. Tentacles wrapped around him. Claws from the suckers bit into his flesh. Breach clenched his jaw and rolled in the water, tearing flesh.
The grasper responded by giving him its entire attention. All ten arms wrapped around him, trapping his forefins and ripping at his skin.
Breach opened his mouth, creating suction, and pulled a bit of the grasper in. One bite at a time he fought down the largest meal of his life.
The grasper was frantic. Ink filled the water. Tentacles clutched at him. It would have been terrifying, but Breach had been in the deeps many times. This might be a giant, but it was still just a grasper. The solution was to bite and gulp until the threat was gone.
* * *
Water filled his mouth and nose. The light was still dim, and Travis struggled until his lungs burned. Then a massive shape passed him. The squid went mad, and all at once he was free in the water.
Locating upward took some work. By the time he knew which way to go, he wanted to gulp in air, but he forced his panicked body to swim the thirty or forty feet to the surface first. The water was murky with blood, and he realized it was the oilhead’s, as it struggled with the squid.
That first gasp of air wasn’t enough. It could never be enough. He flailed at the surface, frantic to breathe.
A hundred feet away a massive shape broke the surface, and Travis looked into the eye of the largest oilhead he had ever seen. There was no way to make an accurate assessment of its size, but it was clearly larger than any oilhead in historical records.
There was a portion of their song that Griggs insisted meant, ‘Thank you.’ Travis dipped his head into the water and sang, hoping the great creature would hear.