The life of one humpback whale, or two, was as nothing compared to the span of the ancient song. Very-long-ago, when whales were little more than mute beasts, the Beyond Ones reached from the heavens to bestow the gift of song and thought. The celestial music stabbed through sky and sea with its anguished melody, lashing the waves to a fierce pitch of destruction. For forty days and forty nights the rain fell, until almost nothing of life remained on the surface of Earth’s continents.
Then the whales braved the song. The voices of the Ancestors rose in harmony throughout the oceans, taking the distant pain of the Beyond Ones into their own souls, taming wind and waves until silence fell and the sun shone brightly once more. And for uncounted generations thereafter, each year at the appointed time and place, the whales gathered to give voice and honor to the Song of the World’s End and to remember.
Even when humans began to sail the oceans in their whaling boats, wreaking inescapable ruin and terror, the song continued without pause. As always, it changed slightly each year as the names of the dead were sung and honored. To the few surviving whales, the ritual singing became an invocation, a prayer that the Beyond Ones would intercede to bring either salvation or a merciful end to all created things.
For a captive whale, or two, the hope of such intervention seemed remote indeed. The male of the captive pair had once been called Mistwanderer when there had been others to accord him virtue and name. Now he was nameless and without honor, reduced to a mere curiosity for the amusement of humans. Although he had a mate to share his meaningless existence, he still felt very much alone, for he could not join the others in the singing. And what, after all, was a male humpback whale without his song?
In the open sea other whales still sang the ancient music, although they were now very few. Soon all would be gone to the Ancestors, and there would be no singers to honor their spirits and preserve their memory.
When a strange human with a strip of white cloth tied tightly around his head climbed into the tank one day, Mistwanderer thought little of it. He certainly didn’t expect to be able to hear the human’s thoughts as the pale fingers touched him, but somehow the words came across clearly.
— You must sing, or we will be destroyed. Will you help us?
He saw and heard images flickering within the human’s mind. The ancient song, impossibly powerful in the ocean of space where the Beyond Ones swam. Wind and waves screaming in the final fury of destruction. But even if the myth were true, no human would know of these things . . .
— Will you help us?
Perhaps the Beyond Ones were returning to inflict a terrible vengeance upon the humans, after all. If so, that was condign, and it was certainly not a whale’s place to interfere with divine retribution. Let the humans try to sing their own answer to the heavens, if their small throats and smaller souls could even understand the concept. The Beyond Ones would judge them accordingly.
He could feel the human’s presence as a gentle touch within his mind, resting lightly upon the memories of the whales’ dead and the manner of their dying. No anger at his refusal, but an incredible depth of controlled emotion, finding sudden expression in unspoken music that burned through Mistwanderer’s brain. A new song, a worthy song, to honor the dead. He would never have believed a human to be capable of such.
There were other images in the human’s thoughts as well, of travel to impossibly distant places and the bending of time itself, but these Mistwanderer neither understood nor sought to understand. Some mysteries were best left alone.
Later, aboard the humans’ ship with his mate, he experienced the abrupt shudder of disorientation as time shattered around the ship and recrystallized into a new pattern. All around him, Mistwanderer could now feel the vibration of the song as the Beyond Ones reached into the center of his being. Perhaps this was what it felt like to die, he thought, as the ship plunged into a dark and tormented ocean.
He did not need to be told that no humpback whales had survived into this new time. Why else would there be no answer to the song?
In the empty ocean, Mistwanderer hesitated as the enormity of what he had been asked to attempt overwhelmed him. How could one whale adequately render a performance in which thousands normally took part? The Beyond Ones would not even notice his feeble whisper of song in this barren world that seemed so deserving of destruction.
He found himself thinking of the Ancestors. They would have had no assurance, when they first ventured to answer the song, that they would be found worthy by the Beyond Ones. The singing, even then, must have begun with a solitary and uncertain voice. And to give honor to that one brave voice of a distant ancestor, Mistwanderer set all other thoughts aside and began the Song of the World’s End.
His rendering of the ancient music seemed no more than a broken fragment, lacking the other whales’ harmony, the precise interweaving of melody and response that was the very heart of the song. Then another voice rose beside his own, answering each note in perfect counterpoint.
A female singer: his mate. Impossible, Mistwanderer thought as his song faltered for a moment. Such a thing could not be. Females did not sing the World’s End; theirs were the mysteries of creation, not destruction. As he continued the singing, he almost expected the Beyond Ones to obliterate them both in an instant for such blasphemy.
But the music from above ended, signifying that the Earth had been found worthy of life after all. Perhaps the song now spoke of creation and hope, Mistwanderer thought, in which a female could rightly share. With the Beyond Ones’ blessing, he and his mate would bring forth a new race of whales in a world free from fear.
There remained one more task first, to praise the Ancestors with the new song he had been given, so that the spirits of the dead would not be forgotten. Again Mistwanderer began to sing, and the clear notes of the ancient Vulcan chant of remembrance filled the bay.
Several of the Enterprise’s officers noticed tears in the corners of Spock’s eyes, but no one said a word.