She’s searching the ship—peering around plastic algae tubes, rifling through the detritus of other people’s lives so she can furnish her own—when her flashlight plucks out a floating figure, fetal in the dark. A corpse? Never mind. It’s not what she is seeking. Best to grab whatever she can find and go. Since leaving Earth, she has learned that shoring up her indifference is the only way to deal with bodies that hang forgotten in space like so much trash. Beneath the figure’s helmet, a mouth contorts, and her grip on the flashlight wavers. Leave it, she tells herself, even as she drifts closer. It’s a child. A boy, perhaps, though the spacesuit makes it hard to tell for sure. She draws nearer and his eyes bulge and his bluish lips part to expose stubby yellow teeth; against his visor, his breath pulses white like spray. She can almost hear his gasps, the tortured whine of his lungs searching for oxygen. “Mama whales lift their young to the surface to breathe,” Ma once said. Beside their boat, the blowhole erupted, showering them in warm, sun-touched brine. The ocean had been alive then. So had Ma. Lowering her flashlight, she fishes for her spare O2 bottle and shoves it into the boy’s suit. When she was twelve, Ma had snuck her into the local aquarium and taught her how to use a baby bottle to feed a small beluga whale. Its black walnut eye had stared at her. It had been orphaned and was among the last of its kind. The boy’s chin jerks, his cracked lips stretching into a surprised “O” at the injection of fresh oxygen. She watches his exhalations and waits for the seconds to lengthen between each cloud of breath before gathering him in her arms and pushing off the metal deck. As they surface into the black, their helmets touch, and his breathing rushes into her ears. He is crying. Angling their bodies towards her waiting shuttle, she rests her helmet against his as if their foreheads could touch, and when she does, his sobs ripple through her, eddying across her skin like small whirlpools on the water before the waves part and reveal the whale hidden beneath.
Lacey Yong is an emerging Chinese-Canadian writer. She writes speculative fiction and creative nonfiction and her work has appeared in Prairie Fire, Lammergeier, Minola Review, and JMWW. She is working on her first YA steampunk novel. Twitter: @lacey_yong.