Gillian is in fourth grade, and in the margins of her composition book, while Mrs. Nicholas drones on about some boring war, she is drawing whales and stars.
She always draws them the same way, not creating the image so much as perfecting it. The whale has a long, fluted throat and is showing its baleen. She hunches her shoulders tightly as she makes the little ripples along the flukes, just as it shows in Sea Mammals of the World, the almost unliftably heavy book in her dad's study, which she takes down to look at as often as he'll let her. She doesn't ask him every day like she wants to, because she doesn't want to see his eyes roll, doesn't want to hear him sigh: Whales, again?
Patiently she adds the stars, not just above the whale, but all around it. She tries to make each star perfect, the way she knows to draw them: Up down, left right left. Some of them come out with uneven points, and she patiently erases and draws them again, tongue between her lips in concentration.
Mrs. Nicholas's ruler slaps down onto Gillian's desk with a loud crack that makes her jump. The star is ruined, its line slicing across the page, crossing out her whale.
"Miss Taylor, I believe it was only yesterday I had you writing lines for not paying attention when I am speaking. Do you need to do it again?"
Everyone is turned around in their seats and looking at her, their faces eager for her humiliation, cruelly amused.
She is seventeen, in the basement with the lights out, hugging a pillow tightly to her chest and letting the light of the television turn the room a deep blue. This is the first time the finback whale has been seen and filmed underwater in the open sea, the narrator reminds her. Painted with rippling sunlight from above, the whale moves with ease and confidence, more curious than afraid. The diver carefully takes hold of the dorsal fin, and Gillian holds her breath. He whips past the camera at tremendous speed, carried along by something more powerful than a riptide, swifter than a shadow.
The sea whispers to her through her headphones; she doesn't want anyone else to hear this. She's learned not to share what she loves, to keep it hidden, safe from judgement. When she hears the voice of Jacques Cousteau, it is like he is speaking only to her, his gentle accent in her ears — the only other person on this planet who understands.
He is free in the three-dimensional world of the sea, and we are not. So it is with a sense of envy that we watch the finback return to the deep.
When the diver releases his grip, the whale turns downward and vanishes into his gray-blue world, so remote that he may as well be rocketing into the depths of outer space. The diver looks lost and forlorn, arms outstretched, reaching for what can never be possessed.
George and Gracie arrive at the Cetacean Institute the day before Gillian's 29th birthday. That entire week, Gillian doesn't go home at all. How could she go back to her apartment, dry and empty, and leave these calves — these children — here alone?
She tells her colleagues she's going to sleep in her office, but instead she lies here on the threadbare carpet beside the tank. It's so peaceful here at night, with no distracting human voices. Everywhere around her is the deep and heavy sound of water, embracing her, thrumming like the very heartbeat of the world.
She awakens in the middle of the night, and sees that Gracie is awake too, drifting close to the window, her dark eye wide and curious. Gillian smiles, drawing up her blanket under her chin. She is nervous for them — nothing like this has ever been tried — but she tries not to let it show, hoping Gracie can't read her that easily.
As Gillian's eyes begin to fall closed again, as she and Gracie lie side by side with only glass between them, she finds herself relaxing into a strange, warm comfort, as though Gracie is the one watching over her, and not the other way around.
Gillian is thirty-five when the spaceship comes. It feels right that it should happen now, at what Dante called the midpoint of our life's way, the age he was when he saw heaven and hell. Sitting beside Commander Uhura as she scans for the whales' frequency, Gillian keeps waiting to be afraid, but what could frighten her now? She's lived half her life on an alien world already.
"You know," Uhura says quietly, "even if this works, it's probably a one-way trip. We don't normally go flitting from century to century."
"That's okay," she answers, the corner of her mouth quirking nervously. "I never really fit in here anyway."
Uhura glances at her sidelong, questioning.
"I mean, I was always kind of a nerd... Do you guys even use that word anymore? Someone who gets made fun of because they like math, or science...?"
Her hands moving deftly over the glowing console, Uhura chuckles. "You mean like how they thought I was weird for having notebooks full of made-up languages and translations of Klingon poetry?"
Gillian presses her lips together hard, and nods, not sure if the tears that threaten to well up are sadness or joy.
"I wouldn't worry, Dr. Taylor," Uhura says, turning a dial with a knowing smile. "We like those kinds of people here."