(Characters from the “Plastic Little” anime are the property of their creators.)
Nichol shook his head rapidly from side to side; it kept him awake but made him dizzy. He reached for what was left of the cup of orange juice Mei had brought up from the galley hours ago. That should keep him awake until the end of his watch. That was only a few minutes away, anyway. It had been just another quiet night, turning into another quiet dawn, and Nichol, like most of the rest of the crew of the ChaChaMaru, was running on automatic.
Wait. That was a blip on the sonar, right? But there’s nothing there now. A hallucination? No; there it was again. But that’s…wrong. Nichol looked at the blip, and kept looking. He brought out a book showing the various shapes of other hunter ships, military vessels, civilian cargo vessels; anything manmade that sailed the cloud-seas. No; the profile didn’t fit them. Then the rest of the book: all the marine life that swam through the cloud-seas of Yietta. The old captain had compiled this book, and never took out a single profile, even if it had been reported as having gone extinct. “You never know,” the old captain used to say. He used to say that a lot, even when Nichol was five years old and his father was navigator under the old captain.
Again. It’s on the screen again. Check it. No doubt. Nichol didn’t have to worry about staying awake now. “Mei!” he shouted into the intercom.
“Yes?” Mei answered from her room just off of Sick Bay.
“Could you wake up Captain Tita, please? She’s gonna want to see this!”
“This isn’t another school of dolphin, is it?” she said sleepily.
“No, no! This is great! She won’t believe it!”
“Won’t believe what?” Mei could hear the voice of engineer and munitions expert Balboa. “What’s so important…” Balboa’s words broke off. There was silence, then a low whistle. “Mei, get our captain ready. And hurry! We may miss our chance!”
“Is it that important, Balboa?”
Mei heard Nichol burst in: “It’s better than important! It’s, it’s…”
“Alright,” Mei chuckled. She went down the corridor to the captain’s quarters and just walked in without knocking. Mei was the only member of the crew with that privilege. But then, she and the captain were the only women on board.
Mei walked through the captain’s study to the bedroom. Letting light spill in from the study, Mei went up to the bunk and pulled back a corner of the blanket. It revealed a foot. She smiled, shook her head and pinched the big toe.
“Wake up, Tita. They want you on the bridge.”
The leg that was still under the blanket reared back, then kicked the covers off. The seventeen-year-old captain was half-awake; her eyes squeezed shut, her mouth in a wide-open yawn. She had worn only a tee-shirt and panties to bed, and the shirt had crept more than halfway up her torso. She sat up, and the shirt slid back down to cover her more properly.
“What’s the problem?”
“I don’t think it is a problem. But Nichol and Balboa want you to see something.”
“Did they say what?”
“No, but they sounded very impressed.”
“Fine,” Captain Tita said, rubbing her eyes. “Give me five minutes.”
Mei left Tita’s quarters. She thought she had time to go to the galley for something to drink on her own way up to the bridge.
Tita Mu Koshigaya pulled off the tee-shirt and—as she had every single morning in recent months—stared critically at her breasts in the mirror. Never mind that some of the stupid perverts on the ship, namely Nichol and Roger, risked life and limb to see her undressed; Tita was convinced that her breasts were too small and that no boyfriend would ever be interested in her. But, as she did every morning, she gathered up her self-doubts and threw them aside, along with the tee-shirt, yelling “SCREW IT!” at the top of her lungs. It was an effective morning ritual; it helped her focus on whatever needed to be done that day.
She slipped into the one-piece hunter body suit, closing up its series of zippers, clasps and snaps. It offered thermal protection in extreme cold; buoyancy if one fell overboard, and was even tough enough to stop small arms fire at point blank range. Fortunately, she only needed the suit to do that three or four times so far. Then she tied on a sweatband; her only attempt to gain any control over her unruly head of chocolate-brown hair.
In exactly the five minutes she had asked for, Tita was stepping onto the bridge of the Pet Shop Hunter ship ChaChaMaru. “What did you find, Nichol?”
“See for yourself.” Anyone could tell by looking at him that he was bursting at the seams to tell her, but he wanted her to discover whatever-it-was for herself. She looked at the sonar. Then she stared at the sonar. “Is this right?”
“I checked the circuits myself before you got here,” Balboa nodded. “It’s right.”
“How long ‘til visual contact?”
“Well, to tell the truth,” Balboa grinned sheepishly, “we’ve been holding back, trying not to scare it away. We’ve been waiting for your orders. It’s not like we see this every day.”
“We need to make a visual sighting. Get us as close as you can, and surface as fast as you can, but don’t scare it off.” With that, Tita ran for the ladder.
“She doesn’t want much, does she?” Nichol muttered to Balboa.
Tita reached the top of the ladder and closed the airlock. From there, it was just a matter of climbing one more ladder and going through one more hatch to the ChaChaMaru’s conning tower. She checked their depth; still 100 meters to the surface. She knew those top 100 meters had the swiftest and most treacherous currents. Still, she thought she could risk it with a secured bungee cord...
“Better take two cords, Captain,” said the voice behind her.
There in the shadows was Mikhail, the oldest member of the crew, but sometimes just as big a discipline problem as Nichol, especially after he’d gotten some vodka under his belt.
“Why are you hiding like that, Mikhail?”
“Because I knew you’d try some damn fool stunt like going onto the tower while we were still surfacing. I thought you kept me around to save you from yourself.”
“But, Mikhail, have you heard…”
“Of course I heard; that’s big news and this isn’t such a big ship. Still, we have enough to do without having to pull you out of trouble.”
Mikhail didn’t say it; he didn’t have to. Captain Tita knew that Mikhail had led the search for her father, the previous captain of the ChaChaMaru, missing at sea and presumed drowned. He wanted to avoid the comparison between father and daughter, and spare her feelings.
The ship gave a shudder and a lurch, then leveled out on the surface of the Yiettan gas-ocean. “Well,” Mikhail said jovially, “that point’s academic now. Thanks for waiting.”
“Thanks for making me wait,” Tita smiled. They went up onto the conning tower.
They were in the middle of the ocean. Clouds stretched all around them, their particles reflecting back bits of light from the sun which was halfway above the horizon. Tita picked up the intercom. “Where is it, Nichol?”
“Look about 5 degrees starboard. It looks like it’s going to break!”
And it did. As Tita and Mikhail watched, the surface of the clouds was ripped silently apart as a leviathan vaulted out of the sea and into the air.
Tita stared wide-eyed as a little girl. “Awesome!” she whispered.
Mikhail started to weep at the beauty. “I never thought I’d live to see another Terran Blue.”
As soon as the giant mammal dropped into the cloud sea again, Tita seemed to remember herself. She grabbed the intercom. “Are we getting all this on video?”
“Live and in color,” Balboa’s voice crackled back. “She’s a beauty, captain.”
“Yeah,” Nichol added, “but some of these life-sign readings are a little strange.”
“Let me see them, please,” Mei said, politely but firmly pushing Nichol away from the monitor. After a minute she straightened up. “They’re not really strange, Captain, as long as you realize she’s about to give birth.”
“WHAT?!” Every jaw on the ship dropped.
“Yes,” Mei smiled, “she’s very close to it. Should be sometime later today.”
The gigantic mammals of the sea have always been a mystery, no matter on what world they were found. There seemed to be no way to completely account for their evolution, and some cultures simply took it for granted that they were intergalactic travelers who had lost the way to get home. But here they were on Yietta, and the crew was about to witness the birth of one of the rarest species of sea mammal…
“Captain! Something about 2 kilometers astern, but closing fast!”
“I’m afraid to ask, but who is it?” Mikhail asked the intercom.
Balboa’s voice crackled out: “I don’t have to tell you, old man. You figured it out.”
“Damn.” Mikhail muttered under his breath. “What do we do now, Captain?”
“There’s not much we can do. We have to close in on the Terran Blue. If the Iocasta tries to hail us, don’t answer. We might buy some time if we pretend to have a broken radio.”
“She won’t go for it. We all know that. Captain,” Balboa ventured, “let’s try hailing them first. Maybe we can talk them out of doing anything stupid.”
“We’re talking about the Iocasta,” Nichol muttered.
Tita and Mikhail descended to the bridge. No sooner were they back than the radio crackled to life. The static gave way to the voice of a woman who sounded very pleased with herself. “I know you see it, ChaChaMaru. You’re practically on top of it. Are you going to claim it or not?”
Everyone looked at Balboa; he just held up his hands and shook his head, whispering “I don’t want any part of this.” Tita grabbed the microphone: “What is there to claim? Just another orca.”
“Come on, Tita, you know you can’t bluff me on this one. We both know it’s a Terran Blue.”
“Actually, you shouldn’t say “it”. The whale’s a she, and she’s going to give birth any time now.”
“Well, this is our lucky day. We won’t have to fight over it. I mean, her.”
“Come on, Captain Ikialos.” Tita stressed the “captain” as if it was an insult. “The Guild has rules about how to treat pregnant animals.”
“The Pet Shop Hunters Guild isn’t out here in the middle of the cloud-sea. The Guild doesn’t have standing orders from a half-dozen millionaires for a live Terran Blue. And any one of those fat cats could set us and our crews up for life. Two whales means there’s enough to go around.”
Mikhail grabbed the microphone away from Tita. “A pregnant female means that there’s a male Terran Blue out there somewhere that’s the father. That’s three that we know about. If you take away the mother and child, then the Terran Blues have that much less of a chance of increasing on Yietta.”
“It’s not my lookout that the Guild doesn’t know how to breed them in captivity.”
Tita grabbed back the microphone. “Nobody knows what they’ll do in captivity! There have never been enough of them!”
There was silence for a few seconds. Then the voice came back: “I’m tired of this conversation. Tell Balboa I’d like to talk to him again. In the meantime, you’d better not get in my way when I come for my Blues.”
There was a click, and static over the radio. Mikhail turned it off and spun to face Balboa. “How did you ever get involved with Sasha Ikialos, and can’t you make her see things our way?!”
“We went through this. I didn’t know she was a Pet Shop Hunter. And that’s the way she always acts. She thinks she can get the edge on you.”
“She may be right this time. What are we going to do?” Mei’s question hung in the air.
Tita knew that she had to make the decision, and had only a few seconds in which to make it. “Balboa, where’s Roger?”
“His watch ended at 0100. He’s probably still asleep.”
“Wake him up. You two have to work on the containers.”
Mei stood up. “Tita, you’re not serious.”
“We don’t have a container big enough for them. We’ll have to combine two by taking out a wall. Then we get the Terran Blue in here. Unless the Iocasta wants to blow us out of the clouds, and lose their Guild license, they can’t touch the whales while we have them. And there’s nothing in the Guild rules that says we can’t let an animal go once we’ve caught it.”
“A pregnant animal. You brought that issue up yourself, Tita.”
“That’s why I need you in the containment area, Mei. We’re not breaking the rules if the ship’s medical officer is keeping an eye on her while we have her.”
“But what’s the point?” Nichol demanded. “We let the whale go, and the Iocasta picks her up.”
“That’s why we have to be careful how to play this out. We have to convince the Iocasta that we’re selling the Terran Blue, then when they’ve gone away, we let them go.”
“Preferably on the other side of Yietta,” Mikhail nodded.
“Alright. Nichol, where’s the Iocasta?”
“It’s off sonar now. It held still when she cut the transmission.”
“Balboa, do you think she’s still there?”
“Not a chance. Sasha…er, Captain Ikialos would wait until she was out of sonar range, then sweep wide toward the Terran Blues. We have one advantage. Like us, they don’t have a container big enough on the Iocasta. They’ll have to rig up something. Until they do, they’ll try to keep us from moving on them, but that’s all they can do.”
“Then get Roger and get started. The rest of us will help if you need it, but we’ve got to have a double container ready in one hour.”
“But that’s impossible!” Nichol shouted.
“So is a family of Terran Blues,” Mikhail nodded. “I’ll help with the container, Captain.”
“Just call me in thirty minutes and let me know what’s going on.”
“I do not believe this.” Roger was pulling rivets from the bulkhead that separated two cargo containers. “We have to tear this wall down?”
“And as fast as possible.” Roger had been muttering to himself, and didn’t expect Balboa could hear him.
“And we’re doing this to bring a Blue in here?”
“You saw the video.”
“Oh, I believe THAT part,” Roger said as he bagged the last rivet, and he and Balboa kicked loose part of the wall. “But will it fit through the door?”
Balboa’s brows furrowed with concern. “It can’t.”
“I hope I’m not the first person to figure that one out.”
“We all know there’s only one way to get something that big into the container. We’ll have to jettison engineering.”
Roger’s black skin seemed to get just a touch paler. “How does the Captain feel about it?”
“Mikhail just gave her the basics, but she understands that it’s the only way.” They both understood that this would be a rough maneuver for the Captain emotionally. Six years ago, to save the ship, her father jettisoned Engineering; he was never seen again.
“Are we gonna have time for a move like that? I understand your lady-friend on the Iocasta is breathing down our necks.”
“Look, I’m not saying this again! She is not…” Balboa stopped. He was letting Roger upset him, and they couldn’t afford it today. “We had…an understanding. But then it turned out she was using me. I won’t let myself be that stupid again.”
That’s right, Roger thought to himself, say what you want and you think I’ll believe it. But I know our little Captain’s got you by the…
“What’s your progress?” Tita’s voice cut through the intercom.
“We still have one section of wall to move,” Balboa answered. “All the rivets are out; it will only take a minute.”
“Do it in half a minute, then get up here fast!”
“What’s that all about?” Roger asked.
Balboa heard the engines of the ChaChaMaru grow louder and felt the deck start to vibrate. “Looks like the race just started.”
“But they don’t have room on the Iocasta, do they?”
“Probably. Maybe they just knocked out some walls, too.”
Balboa came onto the bridge from belowdecks. “Why the rush?”
Nichol looked up from a calculator. “The Iocasta just came back on the scope, on a top speed intercept course. I guess they solved their problem.”
“And ours is just beginning. Mikhail!” Tita shouted into the intercom.
“In position, Captain,” Mikhail answered.
“Nichol, where is the Blue?”
“She’s been headed steadily southward since she breached. I’ve kept us 500 meters behind.”
“Mikhail, Nichol: be very careful. We’ll only have one chance and we wouldn’t want to hurt her.”
The ChaChaMaru began to close on the Terran Blue whale, which swam ahead of them as if she were unconcerned about being followed. When they were only 200 meters apart, the entire nose section of the ship swung out and to the side.
“Hold it steady, Mikhail.”
“Everything’s fine, Captain, as long as our guest doesn’t do anything foolish.”
“Speaking of foolishness,” Roger asked, “what’s the Iocasta doing?”
Balboa checked the scope. “Still closing. About 300 meters behind us now.”
“Speed it up, Nichol.”
“I don’t want to scare… Damn! She’s diving!”
Mikhail’s voice crackled over the intercom. “Don’t worry about me! I can hang on! Follow her!”
The ChaChaMaru did just that, following the great cetacean under the surface of the cloud-sea.
“Balboa! Are they still following us?”
“They’d closed to 250 meters, Captain, but that dive threw them off a bit. They’re back to 300 meters, but they’re still following us.”
“Come on,” Tita muttered under her breath, “stop for a minute and get inside. We’re with you.”
The whale, however, put on a burst of speed, diving deeper and faster into the clouds.
“Tita, what’s wrong?” It was Mei on the intercom. She’d gone down to the container to keep an absurdly small eye on the whale, when and if they got it on board.
“She’s just being temperamental,” Tita answered back. “We should have her in a minute.”
“If we don’t lose Engineering first!” Nichol shouted. “She’s diving straight into a thunderhead!”
Sure enough, the whale seemed to be making straight for a dark mass within the cloud-sea; a mass that occasionally gave off ominous tongues of lightning.
“No you don’t!” Tita said, racing to the ladder. “Not twice on the same ship!”
“Stop, Tita!” Balboa yelled. “What are you doing?!”
“I have to make sure Mikhail is alright. Pull out and slow down! We’ll worry about the whale later.”
“But what about the Iocasta?” Roger asked.
Balboa checked the scope. “Looks like the thunderhead scared them off as well; they’ve come to full stop about 500 meters back.”
Tita didn’t wait to hear the rest. She raced through the corridors, finally finding the airlock to the newly-expanded container. She put on a mask and bit down on the attached NitrOx cylinder, cursing the slowness of the airlock. Finally she was in. She slammed the door, then, spotting an I-beam that was part of the skeleton of the ChaChaMaru, she started toward the opening hand over hand.
The nose of the ship had swung open like a misshapen door. Mikhail was waiting inside the nose, where he had been prepared to fire small rockets to close up the ship once the whale was aboard. But that was now a secondary concern. The thunderhead was causing the Engineering section to vibrate on its improvised hinges, and lightning licked at the hull once or twice.
“What the hell are you doing here, Captain? Get back on the bridge!”
“Sorry, Mikhail. It’s not time for you to go yet.” While she talked, Tita tied two bungee cords end to end, then tied one end through a rivet-hole in the container bulkhead. She wrapped the other end around her waist, then climbed along the top of the container entrance to the hinge that still held onto the Engineering compartment.
“Don’t worry about me!” Mikhail yelled. “Tell Nichol to back up and get the hell out of here! We’re drifting into the thunderhead!”
The dark cloud was looming larger every minute. The increasingly thick ozone burned in Tita’s nostrils. Still she climbed, until she could swing herself down to the hatch to Engineering. When she landed, she tied the other end of the bungee cord to the bulkhead. Then, she slumped down to sit on the deck. “NOW you can tell Nichol to back us out of here.”
But before Mikhail could get to the intercom, a burst of lightning came from the thunderhead, squarely hitting one of the hinge plates and blasting it to pieces. Resting now on one hinge and secured only by a thin elastic cable, Engineering began to toss and pitch as the storm winds picked up speed.
“Do something!” Mikhail shouted into the intercom.
“We can’t!” Nichol answered. “If we move at all it’ll shake you loose for sure!”
Mikhail turned to Tita. “Captain, it’s been a pleasure serving under you, and your father.”
“Don’t talk like that, Mikhail.”
Tita seemed to look into Mikhail’s face; then he realized that she was looking past it, at something happening behind him… Suddenly Tita smiled. “Because it’s not over yet!”
They were both jolted off-balance by a shock to the Engineering compartment. It was the Terran Blue; somehow she had sized up the situation and nosed Engineering back into place. Mikhail grabbed the intercom. “Balboa, get down here and help me secure Engineering! Roger, make sure Nichol has enough power to get us clear of the storm!”
The ChaChaMaru eased back slowly, meter by meter, pulled by its engines and pushed by the whale. Both Nichol and the whale seemed afraid of further lightning damage but also wary of tearing the ship apart by moving too fast. After three minutes that seemed like an eternity, Balboa announced that they were out of immediate danger.
“Good piloting, Nichol. That took steady nerves.”
“Thanks, but I had help that time.”
Tita just stared at the Terran Blue, now on the ship’s video monitor. “Mikhail, how do you say “thank you” to a whale?”
“I think it would be like everything else in life. If someone does you a favor, you do them one.”
“But what could we do?”
Mei came over and stood next to Tita. “Let’s just watch and see.”
The whale went through a curious dance. First it let itself sink toward the ocean floor, only to be frightened away by the thunderhead. It would try going right, or left, or even over the thunderhead, but lightning strikes made it shy away.
“What’s she trying to do?” Nichol asked.
“You mean, where’s she trying to go,” Roger added. “She wants to get to the other side of that thunderhead, but can’t see how.”
“Then she knows something. Nichol, put up the charts. What’s she looking for?”
“Aye, Captain.” The whale now occupied a smaller window on the screen; the rest showed a map of the ocean floor at that point. “Now, what are we looking for?”
“Something a whale would care about,” Balboa said.
“There’s nothing there,” Mikhail said, “except that trench.”
“But it’s not even that deep,” Nichol replied. “Why would she care?”
“Maybe it’s a marker,” Tita said. “Maybe she needs to find it to get somewhere else.”
“So the only thing we can do is get her through the thunderhead. Does anyone know how?” Mikhail sounded doubtful that it could be done at all.
“This would be easier if we had weapons,” Balboa said.
“But we do!” Tita turned to Balboa. “Take the pulse-net and route it through the forward radar assembly. Couldn’t we cut a hole through the clouds that way?”
“That’s madness,” Balboa shook his head. “If we then tried to sail through that hole, we’d draw lightning like blood draws a shark. And you don’t want to put our new friend at risk.”
Nichol turned away from the screen. “We can’t go through the middle of the thunderhead. But what about under the bottom? Look at this.” He switched the monitor from the whale to a forward view of the thunderhead. “We may even be able to get under the cloud and into the trench without hitting it with the pulse net.”
“We can,” Balboa nodded, “but she can’t.”
“Fine. Then target the base of the cloud, just above the trench. We’ll go through, then hope she follows us.”
Roger and Mikhail went down to the engine room. “This is a lot to go through for a fish.”
“Roger, how many Terran Blues have you seen?”
“This is my first. So?”
“And how old are you, about twenty years? It’s been about forty since I saw my first Terran Blue, and it’s only my second. This species isn’t just rare. It’s endangered on every planet where it’s still known to live. There’s no way to put a value on them. Now, get ready.”
The crew busied themselves with their unlikely assignment: cutting a hole through a thunderhead for the sake of a Terran Blue. Since the whale would no longer be going into a container, Mei returned to the bridge, looking over Nichol’s shoulders at instruments tracking the whale and its soon-to-be-born calf.
“The blast won’t shock her, will it?” Tita asked Mei.
“It won’t do any damage. I do wish we could warn her, though.”
“Speaking of warnings,” Balboa interrupted, “look there.” He was pointing to the wide-range sonar, which now picked up a blip on the other side of the thunderhead. “They’re back.”
Mikhail looked like he wanted to punch something, or someone. “Damn that woman! Is she trying to kill us all?!”
“Not likely,” Balboa replied. “Sasha is too shrewd a businesswoman. She wants the whale. Look at where the Iocasta is.” He reached out and switched Nichol’s sonar display to a three-dimensional array. “She’s practically touching the thunderhead. I think she figured out our little trick with the pulse-net and she’s waiting for us to sail through. Once we’re all on the other side the Iocasta could blast us, make it look like a lightning hit, and by the time we limped into port to tell the authorities, she’d have sold the Terran Blue.”
“Boy, that is so low…” Nichol was outraged.
“Well, I would have done the same,” Balboa smirked, “back when I wasn’t so law-abiding.”
“Fine,” Tita said. “If they think they can get away with it, then we should be able to do the same.”
“You don’t want to damage the Iocasta!” Nichol said. “Guild rules say that they could ask for our ship, and get it!”
“May I suggest, Captain?” Mikhail interrupted. “We don’t want to damage the Iocasta, just shake it up a little.”
“Fine. Cut the power of the pulse-net to one-half, and disperse it in a thirty-degree arc. That should give them a warning. Prepare to fire on my signal.”
A band of power shot from the ChaChaMaru into the cloud. It only lasted a second, but it was enough to disrupt the thunderhead, and those hiding behind it.
“Nichol! Get us through the trench, and let’s hope she follows us.”
The ship actually scraped the bottom of the seabed as it sailed through the trench. When they were halfway through the thunderhead, Nichol checked the rear sonar. “She’s not following us yet.”
“When we’re through, get out of the trench. She may be waiting to see if we make it.”
Sure enough, when they were out, the Terran Blue raced past them down the trench, and stayed in it.
“Nichol, it’s up to you now. Don’t lose her!”
“Aye, Captain!” Nichol nosed the ChaChaMaru down into the trench. Tita checked the video as they came out the other side; the Iocasta seemed to be at a standstill, until it slowly started up toward the surface.
Roger elbowed Balboa in the ribs. “You know the next time you meet her, you may need a grenade launcher just to get past the first hello.”
Balboa winked an eye. “She’s always been like that.”
“Hang on!” Nichol yelled, as the ship nosed down and into the trench. It had become a canyon, getting wider and deeper by the second. The Terran Blue was racing for the bottom, even as it got deeper and deeper.
“Can anyone tell where she’s going?” Roger asked. “And why it’s so damned hot all of a sudden?”
“Look down there.” Mikhail pointed to the video monitor. “There are thermal vents all over this valley.”
“Wonderful,” Balboa muttered. “If the pressure doesn’t get us, the heat will.”
“Neither is going to get us,” Tita said with absolute conviction. “It isn’t bothering the whale.” Sure enough, their quarry was racing through the depths of the canyon, skirting lava vents hundreds of degrees hotter than the ChaChaMaru was used to.
“Is she playing games with us?” Nichol asked, frustratedly trying to keep up.
“I think it’s deadly serious,” Mei answered. “We don’t know whether Terran Blues have a spawning ground.”
“Then you think Mister Blue will be there?” Tita asked.
Mei laughed. “I wouldn’t have said it quite like that, but…”
“She’s gone!” Nichol yelled. All eyes looked to the video monitor. The Terran Blue had vanished. “I swear I only looked away for a second!”
“Full stop!” Tita called to Mikhail.
“And back up the tape!” Balboa roared. “I don’t want to argue with the captain, but the ship really wasn’t built for this kind of pressure.” The ship was making buckling and groaning noises that indicated the pressure was getting too great.
Nichol meanwhile had recued the tape and was running it frame by frame. At last he shouted “Got it!” and pounded the control panel. “There’s a break in the wall to starboard. You can hardly see it at this angle.”
Their momentum had carried them just past the mark. They backed the ship up and, sure enough, found the fissure. They started down an even narrower tunnel.
“Are we going to get stuck in here?” Roger asked.
“I’d like to know whether we’ll collapse in here,” Balboa replied. “Nichol, what’s our depth?”
“It…It’s crazy,” Nichol answered. “Most of the instruments say we’re about eight kilometers below sea level, but the sonar says we’re only 500 meters from the surface.”
“You’re right, it is crazy,” Mikhail said, “unless there’s an air pocket.”
“Temperature’s dropping; pressure’s dropping.”
“Slow down, Nichol,” Tita said; “we’re coming up too fast.”
A few seconds later the passage opened up…
“What the… There are blips all around us!”
“On the surface and underneath! But…they’re all…”
“Wait until we surface,” Tita said, putting a hand on Nichol’s shoulder. “Don’t lose control of the ship.” Nichol bent over the controls, hoping that nobody could see his cheeks burning. He didn’t want to let the crew know about the terrible crush he had on the captain, although they all knew already.
By the time the ship broke through the clouds to the surface, Tita was almost at the conning tower, with the others behind her. It was a tight fit, but all six managed to fit on the tower and behold where they had surfaced. None of them spoke for five minutes.
They had come up in an underground cavern easily three kilometers across. The roof was a natural dome shape, and at the apex was a hole that at the moment let sunlight come through. Below the dome was a cloud lake, and in the lake were Terran Blues.
Thousands of them.
No living human had ever seen such a sight. The whales were everywhere. Many milled around a spot off the port of the ChaChaMaru. The water churned, then one of the whales began its whistling call. It was taken up by one, then another, until hundreds of whale songs were serenading a mother and her newborn calf.
Roger was the first to speak. “We’ve found the Mother Lode. We’re rich!”
Balboa, who had been standing at the rail, felt his knees give way as he sat down on the deck. “With the whales here, we could buy whole planets!”
“No.” Tita’s voice was quiet, but firm. “We don’t touch these whales. It would go against everything we do as Pet Shop Hunters. Anything that lives in the open sea is fair game. We have to work to catch them, and they have to work at staying alive. It all equals out in the end. But this is a sanctuary. The Terran Blues came here maybe thousands of years ago, because they knew nobody would find them. We found ours by accident; maybe there was a storm, or being pregnant confused her. But we can’t come in here and just start harvesting Blues, like this was a farm or something.
“When we get back,” she turned to the crew, “nobody says a word about this place, ever.”
“That’s a lot of money swimming around there,” Roger said wistfully.
“Not if anyone finds this place,” Mikhail spoke up. “Terran Blues are worth millions because they’re so scarce. The more Blues there are on the market, the lower the price.”
“So that means we can’t do anything?” Balboa asked.
“Why do we have to do anything? We can just watch while they swim back and…”
Nichol was cut off by a pair of whales, only a few meters off the port bow. They had been swimming near each other for several minutes, brushing past each other, belly touching belly, nose to tail. Only on this pass, they shifted position. One of the whales now sported a massive erection, which he worked effortlessly into his companion.
Tita stared at the pair, her mouth hanging open. Blood ran from Nichol’s nose like water from a faucet.
“Come on, you two!” Mikhail laughed, grabbing both their shoulders and pulling them toward the hatch. “You don’t need to get those kinds of ideas!” Nichol and Tita glanced for a moment at each other, then looked away as both their faces burned a violent red while the rest of the crew laughed.
The ChaChaMaru backtracked through the fissures, and finally resurfaced near Yietta’s southern polar cap. When they returned to land, it was with several giant rays, some electric eels, and a report that, while they had sighted a Terran Blue, the ship’s instruments had been knocked out by a thunderhead and they’d lost all trace of the animal.
And that was the official story.