To better gauge the oncoming storm, Caleb stepped out of the enclosed cabin and removed his breather, allowing the raw air to touch his face. Knowing not to breathe, lest the toxic combination of ammonia and chlorine sear his throat, he felt the prickle of acid on his skin and took a tiny portion of the atmosphere into his nose.
He smelled and tasted the storm as he looked ahead at the glowering deep green clouds. Decades of sailing the skies and tracking the pods of whales across the endless cloudscape told him more from that curtailed breath than all the instrumentation in the bridge behind him and he knew where his quarry would surface.
A shudder ran through the vessel as the keel slipped into a stronger current and Caleb gripped the rail with his crude bionic arm, which replaced the original, lost many years before in a prior hunt. A tremor of rage passed through him with the memory and he felt the pain as his arm had been torn messily from his body, his blood mingling on the deck with the blood of the whales.
Forcing himself to concentrate on the moment, he looked at the replacement with detachment. It was a bulky construct, strong and durable but showing signs of wear and innumerable repairs, much like the vessel he stood upon, the buoyancy schooner Shinatobe. He had inherited the vessel from his mother who had inherited it from her cousin before her and so on and so on for generations. Indeed, it was likely that almost everything aboard the vessel had been replaced over time, with only the original titanium hull remaining, partly because of its solid construction and partly because on a cloud world such as this, large amounts of metal were infinitely rarer and thus, more costly than on a world with an accessible solid surface.
The bitterness at the loss of his arm and the dilapidated state of his vessel was shrugged off with a wry laugh at the idea that both reflected their owner, a ramshackle collection of repairs and make-do remedies held together with stubbornness and little else.
The laugh was a mistake as he inhaled more of the raw atmosphere than was healthy and he held back a hacking fit of coughing until he had re-secured his breather mask. Leaning against the rail until the wracking shudders had passed, he watched the emerald thunderhead grow before his eyes while the denser layer of cloud below seemed to deepen in colour from a pale lavender to a deep violet.
The cloud-plankton which gave the denser clouds their colour were always drawn to storms as they fed on both the solution of chlorine and water that passed for rain on this world and the massive lightning discharges which such storms created. Such a gathering of plankton would attract the whales, so Caleb stepped back into the bridge and set a course for the storm before hailing a message to his crew in the belly of the ship, advising them to make ready for action.
As the ship turned beneath him, Caleb slipped into a reverie. His family had been whale stalkers for as long as they had been on Osse, setting out from the floating port cities to ply the cloud tops and track the pods of the various breeds of Nephoceti – the cloud whales.
The Nephoceti were hunted for many reasons. Their flesh was a delicacy across the system and their pelts made versatile and durable garments while their bones, buoyancy glands and blood had scientific and industrial value. As such, there was a lot of credits in hunting them and there had to be given the dangers inherent in attempting to kill and retrieve the corpse of a creature that could be dozens of metres long and many tonnes in weight, with the rest of their pod in the vicinity while operating in the problematic atmosphere of a gas giant.
Yes, it was difficult, bloody work but so long as there was a demand, the hunters would hunt.
Behind the storm cloud, he could see the moon Uinen hanging in the night sky, like a shining beacon of blue sea and green land, speckled with clean, white cloud. So like Old Earth but so alien to those who had chosen, from a list of poor choices to make their homes on planets and moons so much different to the homeland, to adapt to these hostile surroundings and make a new world their home. The sailors of Osse were now sundered in distance and custom from the moisture farmers of Set and the deep miners on Nidalvir but they all shared that bitterness as the hand their ancestors had been dealt.
Seeing Uinen in the sky was always a reminder that his people were considered backwards, as others lived in comfort and plenty on the jewel worlds of the system, rich, powerful and safe while they struggled against inclement worlds and alien hazards just to survive.
Caleb shook himself out of this choleric mood as they approached the storm, steering the Shinatobe to ride high on her keel to give him a higher perspective to see where the whales would break the surface. As he did so, a massive lightning bolt shimmered out of the storm cloud and pierced the lower layer a hundred metres to port, burning a hole in the cloud and revealing the carmine flank of a rising Nephoceti and all of a sudden the cloud tops were broken by a dozen or more dark shapes as the cloud whales rose to feed.
This was a mature pod, of plankton feeders with half a dozen calves of less than ten metres length and at least one matriarch almost as long as the hundred metre long Shinatobe. The whales were born pale, almost white and gradually develop a deeper red colour as they age due to absorbing the pigments in the purple plankton that they feast upon and the matriarch was a dark crimson, almost blending into the violet clouds as she surfaced to take a gulp of the lightning attracted plankton.
Suddenly a harpoon arched over the Shinatobe and fell just short of the matriarch, disappearing into the clouds. Caleb looked up and saw the sleek, silvered profile of a commercial whaler, probably based on one of Uinen’s orbital stations heaving into position above him and angling to get between the schooner and the whales.
Caleb spun the wheel and cut across the whaler’s bow, shouting into the command tube for all hands to stations as a second harpoon was fired from the larger silver ship above and skewered the matriarch ahead of her canard flipper. A deep bass moan swelled around the ship as the matriarch cried out in agony and the Shinatobe’s foredeck quickly filled with Caleb’s crew as they readied their machines.
A flurry of harpoons issued from the silver vessel above as the commercial whalers looked to secure their grip on the matriarch, currently held only by the carbonadium cable trailing behind the first harpoon which was gradually being reeled back in and pulled taught.
Steering the Shinatobe across the nose of the whaler, Caleb saw his crew working at the mithril cutter and aiming it at the cable connecting the distressed whale to the vast silver vessel as the barrage of harpoons flew above them. He knew the dangers of this better than anyone, as it had been a harpoon impact that had cost him his arm all those years ago. Again, he felt his rage at the whalers rising, the anger that his people needed to spend their meager resources just defending their world from these ravagers, who would take the whales for profit despite the fact that the Nephoceti were a key part of the ecosystem of Osse and if their numbers fell too far, it would collapse entirely.
The fact that the commercial whalers didn’t care about this and cared even less about the casualties their brute force methods inflicted on Caleb’s people enraged him further, these preening fools who destroyed everything around them and looked down with scorn on those who tried to maintain balance.
The Nephoceti’s crew had cut through the harpoon cable and Caleb saw his first mate Shonah dive out of the way as the thick snake of metal whipped free. His moment of concern was cut short as he saw half a dozen other harpoons impaled into the matriarch’s flank as she presented her body as a shield, with the rest of the pod diving deep to avoid the hunters. Such noble sacrifice deserved to be defended and Caleb changed course to tackle the next closest cable as he saw Shonah getting to her feet against the rail and waving to signal that she was OK.
He smiled at the thought of his crew thinking to wave at him despite their peril when a massive impact rocked the schooner and he saw Shonah pitched clean over the rail and vanish into the violet depths. He looked up and realised that the commercial whaler had fired upon them and seriously damaged their upper keel, to the point where Caleb had lost full control of the Shinatobe and had to power back and let the storm and battle between the whales and the whalers race away from them.
He barked into the command tube to let the crew know what had happened and stared out over the clouds, looking to see if Shonah had inflated her buoyancy jacket to bring her back to this level, but he could see nothing except a flash of white from deep in the clouds. He looked away to see if Shonah’s beacon showed on their antiquated instruments and was about to command that the crew launch the short boat to search for her when something unprecedented happened.
A massive white shape broke the cloud tops between the embattled matriarch and the whaling vessel. It was a huge Nephoceti, easily twice the length of the Shinatobe and as it leaped, it opened it’s maw to show the pointed teeth of one of the deep divers, the species of cloud whale that fed on the even more alien creatures of the deeper layers only rarely coming to this level to bask in the chlorinated rain.
The leviathan grasped all six cables connecting the matriarch to the whaler in its gaping maw and biting down on one side severed them and freed the matriarch who hooted her thanks and dived to rejoin her pod. However, the monster hadn’t released the cables and dived itself with the cables still in its grasp.
Taken unawares, the whalers were slow to release the cables and were dragged half into the violet clouds before they cut themselves loose and started to right their vessel. As they did so, another, even larger white whale appeared out of the depths and smashed into the whaling vessel, crippling its engine unit.
The original leviathan returned and rammed the whaler as it frantically tried to gain height but instead just started spinning in lazy circles. The two white whales took turns at heading out to a distance then charging back in to attack the whaler and the vessel started to break apart. Even at this distance, Caleb saw a figure leap from a tear in the whaler’s hull and open their buoyancy jacket only for one of the deep whales to swallow them whole.
Caleb watched on in awe. Such behaviour was unheard of and while part of him felt a sympathy for the whalers, clearly doomed to one of a number of awful deaths, the persistent ache in his bionic arm and his people’s long struggle hardened his heart.
As the leviathans finished their gruesome work and the whaling ship started to lose buoyancy and sink into the violet clouds another almost gentle collision rocked the Shinatobe. Caleb looked down to see a pair of the youthful Nephoceti nosing a human figure in a half-inflated buoyancy suit onto the deck, using their broad pink noses to return Shonah to the ship.
Caleb stepped onto the deck and raised an arm in salute as the two pink creatures lifted their tails and returned to the depths. Turning to see his crew retrieving their colleague, their friend from the deck, he fingered the whalebone amulet around his neck, that had been passed down through his family like the ship and his vocation and breathed the ancient mantra of his people.
‘Stay the course, keep the balance, persevere.’
Author’s notes for this story will be published later this week, exclusive to supporters who pledge $3 or more a month on my Patreon.