I don’t want to set the stage this time.
This time, this time there is too much death, too much destruction. This time there is no happy ending.
Before I start, I just want you to know that. I just want you to know that this time there are no tricks or jokes, no fond farewells or good guys winning. This time we start and end with death.
This time everything dies.
Atna and I were floating when we got the message. The rear ramp of the Freelancer was open, and we’d EVA’d out to just…float. Float, hand in hand, untethered by gravity, unattached to a ship, unconnected to anything but each other.
We didn’t get to float often, not nearly as often as I’d like to, but the infrequency made each of these outings that much more special. It was time for me and Atna, no-one else, nothing else; just me, Atna, and the Universe.
We’d barely been floating for a half-hour when we were interrupted.
The message flashed across our HUDs at the same time, beeping out its urgency, keening to be recognized.
Space Whale spotted.
Send assistance ASAP.
The message contained an image and coordinates. Atna and I were propelling ourselves back to the ‘lancer before the image finished loading.
The image was brutal. The whale had been attacked, a dozen visible fires dotting its body, fed by the hydrogen reserves it kept in its massive frame. One of the whales massive fins was missing, crudely hacked off with a mining laser, the whales dark-grey blood boiling as it leaked out the gaping wound into the vacuum of space.
Smaller bubbles of boiling blood at the front of the whale’s frame showed more damage; at least a dozen of the creature’s front scales had been pried off, the long, sinuous nerves that had connected the scales to the whale’s nervous system stretched out, torn where they had been ripped from the scales.
Atna and I hit the loading bay of the ‘lancer running, depressurizing the whole ship to get on the move faster.
I should back up a minute.
For those of you that don’t know, Space Whales are huge, wandering leviathans, one of the few alien species we know of not tied to the surface of planets as their source of life. The whales are…they’re huge, I don’t have a better word. Bigger than an Orion, they do much the same job, but they do it more efficiently than any man-made machinery ever could.
The whales’ noses and pectoral fins are covered in huge, chitinous scales, that grow on the whales after their first century of life. The scales start harder than diamond, and only harden more over time. Some of the older whales, their armour is impervious to, well, almost anything, really.
The whales use their armour to gather food, ramming into asteroids and feasting off the debris, fueling the massive hydrogen stores they use as propellant.
It used to be sightings of the whales were a common occurrence, especially for miners deep in asteroid fields. Plenty of video can be found, shakingly taken by awed miners, watching stunned as one of the lumbering giants destroys a nearby asteroid, inhaling the shattered core.
Now though, now the whales are endangered, hunted to the brink of extinction for their scales. Material that hard…
Armour your ship with Space Whale scales, and you’ll be nigh-invincible. Pirates and other less-savoury types do it often.
Atna and I do what we can to catch them.
‘Lets go’ I say, the mic in my helmet making sure Atna can hear me clearly. We’ve just settled into the front seats of the ‘lancer, the Dum Dum.
It’s a DUR. It’s dumb. It’s…
I’ll make jokes another time.
The quick cruise to the nearest jump point, two systems to cross, three jumps total…total travel takes us around three hours.
We hardly say a word between us.
We know our history. This sort of thing used to happen on Earth, before humans ever made it to space. An organization, SeaShepherd, tried to stop the whalers. They tried for years.
All that remains of whales on Earth are dusty bones in forgotten museums, ignored remnants of an ancient era.
SeaShepherd continued though. They’re just Shepherd now, we’re just Shepherd. There aren’t many of us, but…
We won’t let what happened on Earth happen again.
We fell out of the last jump-point, hardly concerned at the bumpy trip. As we entered the system, our comms burst to life. Med teams, scientists, news teams, people were gathering, talking.
I let Atna fly while I sorted through the transmissions, started collecting more information.
Atna glanced at me, her hair swinging as she looked and looked back to her console quickly. We’d repressurized the ship a while ago, taken off our helmets, but neither of us had wanted to change out of the exo-suits.
‘It was a new mother, Atna,’ I say, still flipping through the information coming in. ‘Looks like three calves. One’s dead, the other two are missing.’
Atna nodded. She was already quiet at the best of times. Now? Now it might be days before I heard a word out of her.
‘Take over here,’ I say, swiping the comms tabs over to her console. She can fly and sift through information, and giving her more to keep busy will be good for her.
I don’t need to tell her where I’m going as I move to the back of the cockpit. The EWAR console slides out from the wall as I sit in front of it, put on the headphones, and start scanning. With any luck, it’s only been a few hours. With any luck…
‘I’ve got a ship signature here,’ I say, mostly to myself. I don’t expect a response from Atna.
‘Big ship. Orion maybe. It held here for a while, then…got it. Lets get these bastards’ I say, flipping a course over to Atna.
She hits the cruise and we’re on our way. She drives, I scan, and neither of us say a word. We’re already hours behind, and the trail is faint. I need to concentrate, need to track the trail, and she needs…
She needs something we both know I can’t give her right now. There’s no time. The Whale comes first. She’ll come later.
It takes time. Hours, really, but we start to catch up. The Dum Dum isn’t fast, but it’s faster than the whalers’ Orion, or whatever they’re flying. And they have two baby whales in tow. How they’re making it through the jump points with those, I don’t know, but…
We hit Tohil, and I spot the ship. The EWAR suite picks them up almost immediately, and I send out the relay drone almost as a reflex. It’ll head back to the nearest jump point, find the Shepherds, tell them where we are.
I shut down the EWAR suite. We don’t need it anymore. Atna’s already punching the ship towards the target as I move back to the front seat beside her, sliding up the weapons control apps as I sit quickly. It’s not long before the ship comes into visual and audio contact range. I zoom in as much as I can, start trying to get a weapons lock.
The ship’s a Reclaimer; I can make out the articulated engines, angled to the side so they don’t singe the ships fragile hostages. I can see the whales, two babies, one strapped somehow to the back of the ship, one held sideways at the front, probably clutched tightly in the Reclaimer’s front Claw.
Neither are moving.
Weapons are locked, comms are in range. I open a frequency, bash through the Reclaimer’s security, force my way onto her comms system.
‘Unidentified Reclaimer, this is the SS Dum Dum, Bounty Hunter number 036278062. You are in violation of…too many UEE regulations to list. Shut down your engines and release the whales, or we will open-fire.’
The Reclaimer doesn’t cut its engines, but it slows, and the Dum Dum closes quickly. Don’t need enhanced optics to see the whales, or the ship, anymore, though I still can’t tell if the whales are dead or alive.
‘Unidentified Reclaimer, this is your final warning,’ I’ve got a missile lock on the ship. The Dum Dum doesn’t have much, but we should be able to blow a hole or two in the Reclaimer. Or we could, if I weren’t worried about hitting the whales. We’re in a stalemate, and the Reclaimer pilot must know it. ‘Cut your engines, release the space whales, and prepare to be boarded, or I will open fire.’
We’re hundreds of meters off from the Reclaimer now, and Atna is slowly strafing around its side, hoping I can get a clean shot at it.
‘You sound real pretty, lady,’ a woman’s voice comes over the intercom. She sounds soothing, motherly.
‘I’ll say it one more time, ma’am,’ I start, but the voice from the Reclaimer cuts me off.
‘I’ve known a lot of pretty girls like you, you know,’ the motherly voice says, the inflections in the words are…off, slightly. Accent on the pretty, rather than on a lot. It’s…unsettling.
‘I’m so sorry it has to happen this way, you know, but don’t worry.’ One of the Reclaimers engines cuts out, the other hits full blast, and the Reclaimer spins towards us, faster than I would have ever thought possible.
‘It’ll all be over soon.’
The Reclaimer hits the mid-point in its turn and I watch, stunned, as its claw opens, releasing the whale,
There’s no time to move the ship, the whale’s heading straight for us, our momentum carrying us straight into its path. I grab Atna, rush us through to the cargo hold, and force open the rear ramp. Three seconds later, Atna and I are sucked out, the decompression of the hold propelling us into space.
We turn and watch as the space whale and the Dum Dum collide instants later, a wild spray of flesh and blood careening in all directions. The cockpit of the ‘lancer is crushed beyond recognition, and the space whale, if it wasn’t dead already, certainly is now.
Atna and I are well away from the collision when the Reclaimer pulls up to it, grabs it with its claw, and starts ripping the ‘lancer apart.
‘Let me tell you a little story,’ the voice of the Reclaimer starts, talking to herself. We’ve cut our comms, she can’t know if we’re dead or alive, but she continues anyway.
‘‘I remember how it started; I remember the day my life changed.’ she starts, mellow, monotonous, as if repeating by rote. ‘June 7th, 2917. I was six years old, in Primary, and our Teacher asked us a question. THE question. The most important question anyone has to answer, ever.
What do you want to be when you grow up?’
I cut comms completely. I can’t stand to listen to her, can’t stand to watch as she tears my ship apart.
I can’t stand to watch as she picks up the carcass of the whale she threw, flies off with both whales again.
I can’t stand to watch, but I do.
And then it’s just me and Atna, hand in hand, floating.
We float for a too long before the rest of the Shepherds arrive.
I don’t think we’ll go floating again for a long, long time.