Whale songs groaned through the hull of the ship as Dr. Avery and the sailors played cards. The cabin reverberated to the sounds—long, tapering peals that stood hairs on end—and alchemical lanterns threw drunken green shadows against the walls. Sailors glanced around uneasily.
Avery tossed his cards face-down and said, “Well, then, lads, if no one will match me, I believe that pot is mine.”
The seamen muttered as he raked in his winnings. Some were big men, whalers, hairy and covered in tattoos. The Navy men and women tended to be slimmer, neater. The room smelled of oil, leather and cigar smoke, some of which curled up from Avery’s own cigar clamped between his teeth. He was not a large man, but somehow that made him stand out all the more. His smoke drifted around his balding head with its black comb-over and joined the cloud that stirred against the ceiling.
“That’s your fourth haul tonight,” said Janx, one of the whalers, tall and rawboned. His nose had been torn off in a whaling catastrophe years ago, and a piece of leather covered the hole where it had been, held in place by straps that went round his head. “And three without showin’ your cards.”
“Feel free to match my bet next time,” Avery said. “It has been an unusually good night, I must admit.”
It was Janx’s turn to deal, and the cards fluttered with surprising grace through his rough, scarred hands. Scars and tattoos seemed to mark every inch of his body. His shaven head gleamed in the light.
“Your luck’ll turn, Doc,” he said. “See if it don’t.”
Avery raised his eyebrows. After a look at his cards, he said, “I think not.”
The door burst open. Lt. Hinis stormed in, dressed in her environment suit, huge and bulky with its bronze helmet and grilled visor. “Doctor, come quick, we need your help. There’s been a killing.”
“Another one?” Janx said. “Damn.”
“Has the killer been caught?” Avery asked.
“No,” Hinis said. “But the patrols are out. The murder happened outside.”
Avery crossed to the wall, where with Hinis’s assistance he donned an environment suit of his own. Like hers, it resembled a diving suit of antiquity, all treated canvas, brass joinings and big brass helm. There were no true diving suits anymore, of course; no one was insane enough to use one, not for a thousand years. In the background, the whale songs bellowed louder—closer—and whalers glanced at each other soberly.
As Avery reached the door, Janx grunted, and the doctor looked back to see that Janx had flipped over Avery’s cards. A two of jades nestled against a three of fates.
Janx shook his head. “Never saw a worse hand.” He hesitated, then said, “Y’know, Doc, the killer could still be out there. Might be I should come with you.”
Avery waited while Janx shrugged on an environment suit, and they followed Hinis out into the night.
* * *
Avery braced himself against the wind. Shouldn’t have had that second bourbon, he thought as the wind battered him, dragging at his legs, tugging at his arms. It gusted up from the south, whipping mist off the waves that pitched and flung the ship like a cork. Huge and metal-hulled, a fully-armed warship in a time of war, the GS Maul plowed the dark waters, and the ocean responded with fury.
As Avery inched his way toward the stern behind Lt. Hinis, their life-lines connecting them to the gunwale, he gazed out over the sea—the eerie sea, the infamous sea. The Atomic Sea. Ever since research had begun into atomic energy some twenty years ago, people had slapped that label on it, accurate or not. Finally, more than a thousand years after the sea’s transformation, people had a name for it that wasn’t mired in superstition. And the ocean did emit radiation, at least in certain quarters. But that wasn’t why people had named it what they had. One glance explained it.
Lightning blasted from wave-top to wave-top, some bolts arcing high into the night, lancing the very clouds overhead. The whole sea roiled and bubbled, as if someone had turned up a giant stove burner on the sea floor. Occasionally a bubble as big as a boat would burst from the depths. The gas alone was enough to kill, but sometimes a stab of lightning would hit a pocket and the whole thing would go up like an Uracuth candle. It was a frothing, mad, electric sea, and the things that plied its waters were strange and dangerous.
“Look at that,” Janx said, pointing to something in the distance.
Far off, the geyser-like plumes of whales expelling water caught the star-light—beautiful, strange, and too close for Avery’s liking.
“Gorgeous, ain’t they?” said Janx. “You’d never guess what terrors they are.”
“I can imagine.”
“I remember one time years ago when one big bastard smashed me ship—killed everyone aboard, but me. I was thrown up on a strange beach, and, oh, it was a sight. Glittering black rocks far as you could see, great big mountains stretching off into the distance.”
“An island?” Avery almost smiled. Half of Janx’s stories began with him being washed up on some island.
“Aye,” Janx said. “Well, right off a band of fish-folk seizes me and drags me to their village. Dead in the center of it—”
“Almost there,” Hinis interrupted.
“Another time,” Avery promised Janx. To Hinis, he said, “Has the Captain been notified?”
Hinis nodded. “She or the X.O.’ll likely be taking a look, same as you.”
“This will be the second murder in two weeks,” Avery said. “You’re sure it wasn’t accidental?”
“Take a look for yourself.”
They rounded the last of the three great chimney stacks, and Hinis raised her lantern as she staggered up the ladder onto the poop deck. Avery’s feet slipped on the wet surface as he followed, and he looked down to see that he’d stepped on a starfish-like encrustation growing over the side of the ship. Around his foot something spurted—moved. Though it had the texture of a starfish, it was shapeless and ingrown into the deck. He didn’t pause—he was used to the various things that came up from the sea—but yanked his foot free and forced himself to go slower, reeling out the line behind him.
As they crossed toward the rearmost section of gunwale, Hinis’s lantern threw back the shadows to reveal a body lying twisted on the deck.
Avery crouched over it, having to balance himself carefully in the environment suit. The body laid on its side, back arched, blood weeping through holes in the suit and thinning in the water that pooled all around.
Avery rolled the body over and looked at the face-plate for signs of breathing, just to be sure. Nothing. Then his own breath caught in his throat.
“Paul,” he said.
The dead man stared back at him: broad-featured, clean-shaven, and familiar.
“Shit,” Hinis said. “Should have told you. I forgot you two were friends.”
“Sorry, Doc,” said Janx.
Avery tried to cover the sudden swell of grief that rose in him. He blinked his eyes rapidly. Damn it, Paul.
Taking refuge in his profession, Avery studied the holes in the suit to either side and beneath Sgt. Paul Bercka’s canister of compressed air.
“Stabbed,” he said. “Something double-sided, maybe an inch-and-a-half wide. A … A modified fleshing knife, perhaps. Looks like the killer cut the air line first, probably to disorient him. He locked him about the neck with one arm and stabbed him with the other.” Avery sucked down a deep breath, smelling metal, canvas and stale sweat—what Paul’s final gulp of air would’ve smelled like. I’m so sorry, my friend. You deserved better than this. “The murderer must be a strong man to have overpowered him,” Avery added. “I wouldn’t be surprised if the knife thrusts severed the spine. I expect that’s what I’ll find when I perform the autopsy.”
“You’ll perform an autopsy?”
Avery turned. The speaker was not Hinis or Janx but the Executive Officer, Commander Lucas Hambry, tall and strange in his suit; some sort of barnacle-like growth clung to the side of his helmet. Captain Sheridan must have sent him in her stead.
“Of course,” Avery said. “Protocol demands it.”
“You didn’t perform an autopsy on the first body,” Hambry said.
“Actually, I tried, but there wasn’t enough left of Lt. Nyers to determine much.” The sea will do that, X.O. With a sigh, Avery rose to his feet. “This time I’m afraid the cause of death is obvious.”
Commander Hambry stared down at Paul’s remains. “So it’s murder.”
“As was the case with Nyers, I’m sure of it.”
“Her lifeline was unhooked, not severed by strain. Someone unclipped it.” Something pounded behind Avery’s right temple. He needed a drink.
Janx moved to the gunwale and examined the torn lifeline. “A clean cut,” he said. “I’ve seen my share of torn lines, and this one was slashed by a blade. No fraying.”
“Perhaps the killer meant to make this one more realistic,” Avery said, “but was disturbed before he could finish.”
“It was Privates Barris and Wathin, Doctor, who found the body,” said Hinis. “They were on patrol. The sergeant had come out to check on ‘em and make the rounds. He’d already spoken with them and moved on. Wasn’t till they finished their tour of the starboard boats—some drift-jellies had been nesting in ‘em again, you know how it is; sometimes their poisons can eat through the metal—that they headed back to stern and found …”
She gestured to Paul.
“Did they see any sign of the killer?”
“No, Doctor. I was there when they gave their report.”
Suddenly, bells tolled throughout the ship. Avery’s head snapped up. His first horrified thought was that Octunggen submarines had found them.
The ship’s intercom blared: “ALL MEN TO YOUR STATIONS. THE WHALE MEET IS BREAKING UP. REPEAT, THE WHALE MEET IS BREAKING UP. WHALERS PREPARE. GREATEST LEVIATHAN BEARING PORT. TURNING BROADSIDE TO PORT. BOATS AWAY IN THREE MINUTES. REPEAT: BOATS AWAY IN THREE MINUTES.”
“I better get goin’,” said Janx, and lumbered off.
“Be careful,” Avery called after him.
Hinis flashed an excited smile. “Finally! We bag one of these bastards and we can go home.”
“If there’s any home left,” Commander Hambry said. “The Octunggen were advancing through the Pass last we heard, remember.”
“There’s still a home,” she insisted.
“I’m sure there is,” Avery said. “And if we can bring back a whale, it’ll be there for a little while longer. Lieutenant, I need you to move Sgt. Bercka to the medical bay. I’ll perform the autopsy as soon as I can, but at present I need to be on hand in case of injury.”
“Of course, Doctor.”
Avery set off toward amidships, Commander Hambry at his side.
“About damned time, don’t you think?” Hambry said. “I thought that whale meet would never end. How long can they sing their stupid songs to each other, anyway?”
In his mind’s eye, Avery still saw the broad face and friendly eyes of Paul Bercka. The eyes stared, glassy and still. He shook himself.
“Too long,” he said.
The Maul and its sister ships had been following the gathering of whales for weeks, waiting for them to disband so as to make hunting one or more easier. Normally the whales that plied the Atomic Sea were vicious and mad, driven by pain and fury, too irascible even to tolerate members of their own species. But, every now and then, they would congregate. They would sing, they would mate, and the bulls would fight each other for the females, sometimes to the death. Avery knew Captain Sheridan had been hoping to pick up just such a casualty in the meet’s wake, but the whales had not been accommodating. The rest of the whaling fleet had followed along, too, vultures after carrion. Part of Avery still found it strange that the Navy would devote so much time and so many resources to whale hunting when Ghenisa was on the verge of being overrun by Octung, but Octung’s advance was precisely why harvesting a whale—and its precious energy-filled lard—was so important.
Hustling whalers beset Avery and Hambry as they reached amidships, the whalers crossing to the harpoon racks to retrieve their instruments. Janx, tall and broad even among the other whalers, selected his own personal harpoon, the notorious Nancy, which boasted what looked like but could not possibly be a bronze head. Its shaft had been shattered and replaced countless times, but that head had slain dozens of whales; their bones had chipped and pitted every bit of it. Dead by Nancy was such a common phrase in the navy that in recent months it had extended to every walk of a sailor’s life, not just on the Maul but the fleet as a whole. Whether grievously tired, sore or hung-over, a sailor might say “I’m dead by Nancy” or “Nancy take me”.
Avery saw Janx touch the spear to his helmet and hold it there for a moment, as if communing, before moving off with the others.
The sailors readied the boats and affixed the whalers’ life-lines. Despite himself, Avery felt a smile creep across his face as the boats, laden with cursing whalers, lowered to the toxic black waters. Lightning arced from wave-top to wave-top, one bolt striking a boat—sparks flew high over the sea—but the specially-wrought craft splashed down unharmed. A hiss of steam coiled up from its hull. The sailors gave a hurrah.
Avery hurrahed, too. For a moment, he wished he were down there, adrenaline coursing through his veins, seaspray splashing his face-plate, right in the middle of all that excitement and importance. The lard from a single good-sized whale could stave off the army of Octung for a day or more.
The whalers manned the oars, and the little boats bobbed up and over the heaving waves, headed away from the Maul. Ship-to-whale projectiles could be used in an emergency, but only then, as a whale would be drawn to any vessel that fired on it. In the distance, the animals’ occasional plumes of mist shot high up into the night, geysers of steam and poisons, the plumes growing further apart as the whales separated. The pilot had aimed the Maul at the largest animal and then turned sideways to it.
It was very close.
The whale barreled straight toward the boats. Avery’s desire to be down there vanished in an instant, and he uttered a prayer under his breath for the men’s safety.
The whale slipped beneath the surface. The boats slowed, and the whalers stood and coiled their arms, ready to hurl their harpoons. Where had the animal gone? The whalers remained steady, but Avery could imagine their sweat, their fear, their rapid breaths fogging their face-plates.
The whale erupted right under one of the central boats. It flung the craft high into the air and the men inside it flew in all directions, lifelines moored now only to splinters. The men struck the water and sank. Their heavy suits dragged them down. Only two managed to fling their lifelines to nearby boats in time to save them.
Before the whale submerged, Avery saw it, and he felt the blood drain from his face.
The whale had blossomed from the sea like a dark god, a mountain, mist spraying everywhere, its great jaws open, sharp teeth gleaming. Several whalers vanished between those jaws along with what was left of the boat. As the spray spread away from it, the light of the two visible moons shown down on the whale, revealing a horror covered in boils and stalks, milky blind eyes staring out from its sides. Its fins sprouted many and jagged, at odd places from its body, some ending in things that might be teeth. Sharp protrusions jutted from its flanks along with curling, groping tendril-like appendages. Some actually grew through the milky eyes. The whale’s real, functional eyes glared madly, rimmed in pustules and scars and barnacles.
Then, with a huge splash that rocked the nearby boats, the leviathan vanished from sight—but not before three or four harpoons sailed through the night and embedded in its sides and underbelly.
For several breathless minutes the boats bobbed up and down on the waves. The men that had been flung from their destroyed craft reeled themselves in and with help from their mates scrambled aboard the boats. Avery hoped their suits hadn’t ruptured.
The whale returned. It opened its huge, tooth-lined maw and shot toward another boat—the one Janx occupied. Avery felt suddenly cold. Janx had become something of a mascot to the Maul, and the crew adored him. Were he to die so would the ship’s morale. Not only that, but Avery liked the big whaler.
Visible from far away, Janx stared up at the whale, harpoon cocked and ready. He did not throw, although the men to either side of him hurled theirs right into the whale’s oncoming head.
It drove on.
With a thunderous crack, it smashed the boat to splinters, devouring several of the whalers instantly and plunging beneath the waves with such force that one of the nearby boats capsized in the swell. There was no sign of Janx or the other whalers that had been on the destroyed boat.
“Damn,” Avery said.
Hambry snorted. “Maybe he’ll find his nose in the afterlife.”
Mist blew across the sea, and somewhere a few leagues off a burst of lightning must have struck a gas bubble, as a furious ball of orange and white expanded over the water. Expanded, then faded. By its light Avery saw one of the other ships of the line, several leagues to the east, he couldn’t tell which one. The night was too dark for him to see any of the other ship’s boats, though they must be out there, too, hunting, hunting. The whole fleet would be scrambling.
The whale emerged from the depths.
This time it breached more slowly, and for a moment Avery thought it had grown arrogant, that it would leisurely move to destroy the remaining boats. As if it had heard his thoughts, it swam toward the nearest one, and the men there braced themselves, ready to throw their harpoons.
The whale closed in, mouth agape, but for some reason the men didn’t throw. As it neared them, its mouth began to close, and its tail slowed.
Limp, the whale drifted, carried by momentum, until finally it reached an utter stop.
A ragged cheer drifted across the waves.
Only then did Avery see, as one of the moons came out from behind a cloud, that a tall, broad figure stood on the whale’s head, leaning on a harpoon—Nancy, it must be Nancy—driven deep into the creature’s skull.
Avery laughed and clapped Hambry on the shoulder. “It’s Janx!” he said. “He’s alive! He’s alive! The bloody idiot! He must have ridden it as it went under! Ha!”
The others on the deck—there was quite a crowd—laughed and cheered. Out on the water, the whalers ringed the animal and Janx climbed down its sides to much slapping on the back.
Hooked ropes sliced the air. Sharp steel sunk deep into fatty flesh. The boats began to haul their catch back toward the Maul, the boats small and puny against the vast blackness of the whale. They searched for survivors as they went, but there were none. The whale had slain perhaps ten men.
And yet Avery could not help but feel an enormous sense of relief. With the amount of hot lard that would be harvested from the monster, the machines that powered Ghenisa’s defenses could be fueled for dozens of hours. Though other substances were used, few were as readily (if not easily) obtainable as the lard of a whale from the Atomic Sea—hot lard. Not radioactive in the traditional sense, but holding powerful concentrations of energy just the same. With the whale slain, the army of Octung might be staved off, at least for a time. Hopefully the other ships of the fleet would make kills, as well.
The whaling boats drew their prize to the Maul, and whalers and sailors coordinated tying it to the sides. A celebration broke out. Avery wasn’t sure if Captain Sheridan had called for it or not, but she certainly seemed to allow it. Janx clambered aboard and was instantly surrounded by admirers. With him in their center, men and women retreated inside, removed their suits, and were passed double rations of grog. Avery followed. Somewhere around a corner, he heard Janx toasting the dead. “Tonight they dance in the deep!” Others echoed him.
Before Avery could remove his suit and pour a glass of his finer officer’s whiskey, Ensign Tapor ran up to him. Her breath masked her face-plate, and he could just see her wide eyes behind it.
“Doctor, you must come quickly.”
Avery had just been in the process of taking off his helm. “Is it necessary?” he said. “I was just about to—”
“It’s an emergency.”
She sounds odd. “Show me,” he said.
He snapped his helmet back on, and the ensign hurried him through the air-lock and outside again. Assaulted anew by wind and mist, he grumped. He’d been looking forward to warmth and whiskey, to toasting Paul’s memory and Janx’s victory.
Overhead a great gas-squid floated against the stars, tentacles squirming, moonslight filtering through its half-translucent flesh, making it seem to glow in places with a ghostly sheen. Celebrating sailors near the bow took pot-shots at it, laughing.
Ensign Tapor led Avery to the port gunwale amidships. Ropes strained and creaked, and when Avery looked over the side, he saw that they ran from the ship to the whale, which had been tied off snugly—a huge, misshapen, cancerous growth sprouting from the Maul, its sides slip-slapping against the ship. Avery had thought all the boats had been raised and secured, but to his surprise he saw that one remained on the water directly below. It bobbed, oddly, in front of the whale’s mouth, which sagged open. Something was being lifted from the boat toward the ship’s deck in a canvas sling.
Avery’s frown deepened. “I don’t … Did that thing come from the whale’s mouth?”
He glanced sideways. Ensign Tapor stared downward at the ascending shape, but she turned to look at him, a mix of fear and wonder in her eyes. “Yes, Doctor. She did.”
“She?” Avery frowned. “A woman?” When Tapor didn’t answer, he said, “A crewwoman from one of the other ships of the line?”
“I don’t think so, Doctor.”
The body reached the gunwale, and Avery rushed over to assist the sailors in setting it down. Only then did he step back, away from it, and see it for the first time.
It was a woman, naked, breathing, with hair too long for her to be Navy, and showing no obvious signs of sickness.
“Amazing,” he said. “She should be dead. No one could survive those waters, uninfected, without a suit …”
Thunder rolled, and lightning lit up the seas. Avery hardly noticed.