You need a relatively clear space approximately 12 inches by 24 inches to play solitaire. I had a dimly lit submarine control panel with about 10 inches by 16 inches with a nasty slope, very bad for card playing. There was some thin adhesive vinyl stripping for sealing access panels tucked in a repair kit to my left. I took three short strips, stuck them to the com panel and shuffled my cards.
The sound of the cards thwipping against the panel made my passenger start up again.
"We're not being rescued," he stated. His voice was high and reedy with panic
I turned my head and looked at Ensign Greene. The boy was about a micron away from being a major liability.
I thought for a moment about explaining the Solitaire Theory of Rescue: If you are ever in a tough spot, start to play solitaire. Eventually someone will come along to tell you to play the red seven on the black eight, and you can ask them to bring help. I thought better of it, doubting the kid would appreciate the humor.
I played the red seven on the black eight without any miraculous help. It occurred to me that I hadn't said anything to Greene to help him over this rough spot.
"You're probably right." I replied.
"So, that's it. We're going to die!" The kid didn't take affirmation of his conclusions as comforting. I'd have to file that one away.
"Yes, but not today." That seemed to help him. It was absolutely factual. The Orca class submersible would keep us alive, barring medical emergency, for at least three days. We'd die on Thursday.
Maybe, just maybe, when Greene gets calmed down, he'll start thinking like a scientist and see the wonder of the situation.
After all, it's not every day one gets swallowed by a whale.
A little over a year ago (In subjective time, twelve years ago by the calendar) Gene called me to a meeting with Harvey Wu, director of the International Cetacean Institute. I was puzzled, as I had no interest whatsoever in dolphins, whales and the like, but when Gene calls, you come. Those of us who were there in the beginning knew that 'There was only one Gene and he is his own prophet'. He lived up to that reputation.
I found them at a corner table at a local seafood dive near Caspian Station's main aquaculture facility, near the outer hull of the space station. It was a nice place, on a third-floor roof; open air - as open as you can be on a Stanford Torus - good view; just enough noise wafting up from the street to be charming, not enough to be annoying. Of course they only served fish, and only Tilapia at that. These were still the rugged barnstorming days, after all, we weren’t fully established yet.
Gene beamed his megawatt smile at me. "Bob! Good to see you!" He paused to introduce Harvey, and then launched into the patented Gene sales pitch. He was Seventy-five (Subjectively), but he had the limitless energy and enthusiasm of a twelve-year-old.
"I have a challenge for you. As you probably already know, we've discovered that the Gagarin whale..."
"Whaleoid", Harvey corrected, blissfully unaware that he'd just interrupted the High Lord Grand Poobah of the entire known universe.
"...Whaleoid", Gene paused. "The Gagarin Whaleoid is remarkably similar to the cetaceans down on Earth." I knew nothing of the sort, but was along for the ride.
He continued: "Harvey here believes if we had a mating pair of Whaleoids here on Earth, we might discover some clues and get some genetic material that would help replenish the whale population here."
At this point, Dr. Wu launched into a lecture about the astounding genetic similarities between Earth and Gagarin's cetacean life. He started to ramble into panspermia territory, even making an unintentional pun about 'panspermia whales'.
I sat waiting for the part that would concern me. As Dr. Wu ran out of steam, Gene studied me for a moment, and then said, "Bob, I want you to catch us some whaleoids."
I did not expect that. I blinked rapidly, trying to come up with a response that wouldn't destroy my career. My mind raced, simultaneously trying to figure out what to say while at the same time working on an actual plan to accomplish this horrifyingly large challenge.
"I don't know what to say, sir." Honesty usually worked for me. Usually.
"Well, I know that you are a capable young engineer and a fine officer, and this is a daunting and experimental project. I don't expect perfection, just your best effort" That was it, then. I was committed.
I'd never even been fishing.
It was six months later by my biological clock, 1.2 decades later by the objective one. I was in a sub. I was hunting for a card. Where was that red five? Red five, red five! Greene was chattering something about a girl back home or some nonsense. I really didn't know what to say. I wasn't going to bring up Asia, my once-and-former love... that still burned inside of me. I sure as shooting wasn’t going to bring up Emily, my once-and-former rebound. I'm not sure whether I was embarrassed, ashamed or still in love. Asia left me for a lawyer. I rebounded by dating Emily, the lawyer's daughter. It was messy, awkward and eventually very sad.
No, no, no! Stay focused! Don’t let your thoughts drift to that. It’s not like it matters, it’s not like you can change it. Both of them are twelve light years behind you, you’re never going to see either of them again.
I dragged my attention back to the cards. Meanwhile, Greene was keeping up both sides of the conversation quite well on his own.
For the next eight weeks, I wrestled with Operation Big Fish. As I saw it, the challenge was two pronged: One, how do you catch an alien whale and Two, once you've got it, how do you move it?
Whales had been moved overland for about a century, maybe longer. That part of this little experiment could be boiled down to some basic engineering in applying existing practice to spaceflight. The real hard skull-sweat was how to actually find and catch Moby and Mobette.
I wish I could say that all my concentration was devoted to the project, but I was a bit distracted. I wouldn't even mention it if Emily - this was before I shipped out, and effectively dumped her, or course - hadn't given me the solution to Question One on the agenda: how to catch a whale? Sex, obviously.
I needed a sexy whale suit. Or a suit that whales would find sexy. Specifically, I needed a small submarine that could behave like a female whale or whaleoid in heat... or whatever it is whales do. This was actually easier than I thought it'd be.
For years, Yoyodyne propulsion had made two-person Dolphin craft. These tiny, two man subs looked like and swam like dolphins. I needed one that acted like a humpback in heat. I met with the engineers at the company and found they already had a couple of larger prototypes that they were going to market to the whale watcher societies. I asked if it would be good publicity to be a part of the effort to bring back a breeding pair of whaleoids from Gagarin. They replied by giving me one of their prototypes; and explaining some of the issues they'd had with it. Apparently, I was not going to be able to breech properly by blowing the ballast tanks. They were working on the issue, but had no set date for resolution. I honestly didn't care, as long as I could imitate mating behavior in the sub. They raised their collective eyebrow and replied in the affirmative. I wasn't about to remind them that it'd be a quarter century before they could cash in on that publicity. Earth folk can never seem to really wrap their brains around the basics of interstellar travel and relativity.
So we loaded the “Orca 1” into a shuttle along with some heavy duty sound transducers and recordings of mating whale calls.
I thwipped the last card into place. Ensign Greene was babbling on about dying again, and it was getting irritating. This sub would seat eight (nine if you put someone in the bathroom…no, wait, the navy guys call it a ‘head‘), and at two, I was finding it crowded.
Suddenly, we were buffeted by something large and solid. Greene turned white. I shined a light at the rear of the sub and examined the image the camera sent back. A tentacle, or tendril, or something (don't ask me, I'm not a biologist) was wrapped securely around our tail section. Several more were snaking from the inside of the mega-whale's mouth to entangle us. It occurred to me that we had not even been swallowed yet- and that this may be the big gulp.
I spent most of my trip in the shuttle bay, outfitting three shuttles with boosters so that they could lift while filled with water, and hopefully, whaloids in the water. I figured that once we got the 'Loids, we could put them in a couple of the "Economy size" shuttles and keep them there until we arrived at Earth. I kind of wished that I'd told Asia about this project; she would've liked it. Despite all she’d put me through, I felt sorry for her. The man she’d left me for had come to a bad end. I still missed her. I expected that I always would. Another side effect of relativity: broken hearts and grudges can last for centuries.
I tore acceleration couches out of the shuttles so that I could fit whales inside of their cramped quarters. The good news about the shuttles is that their launch stacks were already ridiculously overpowered for their mass. If they hadn't been, there was no way I could boost that much water into orbit around Gagarin. And I needed to do it slowly- It would be disappointing to do all this and find that whaloids couldn't handle acceleration.
Disappointing and a huge mess to clean up.
I was braced against the forward controls, waiting for the tentacles to whisk us down the whale-killer's gullet. The Orca I's frame was groaning and I was praying to the god of carbon composites ( I believe that would be Vulcan's brother...) that she would not spring a leak. Surprisingly, rather than slide backwards, we were being pushed forward, towards its mouth. The maw opened wide... and then wider, unhinging it's lower jaw and pushing us out into the ocean water. I was a bit disappointed; I had already worked up a plan for getting out of Jumbo's mouth- but never look a gift horse in the... nevermind.
We were still stuck. Jumbo was shaking us, as if he expected something.
It dawned on me. We weren't being freed. We were bait.
Once I landed, the Gagarin Navy assigned Greene to me because I needed a third hand coming out of my ear. He wasn't completely useless, but he did ask annoying questions.
"Why are we refitting cargo shuttles instead of using tankers?"
"Because," I replied, "Tankers lift at six gees. Water is non compressible. Whales are."
"Wouldn't the water act as a cushion?"
"Only if you like your cushions over your face, smothering you. See, the weight of the water over the whaloids would increase in accordance with the acceleration. We are accelerating 100,000 kilos of water. In one G, the pressure at the bottom of the tank is about what you'd expect at the bottom of a swimming pool. At six gees, not so much. And the acceleration is in the direction of the skinny part of the tank. So instead of two meters of water above you at one G, there is about six meters at six gees. The pressure would be...uhm..." I trailed off as I did the math in my head, "36,000 grams to the cubic centimeter. Unpleasant."
I waited for Greene to reply. When he didn't, I filed him under "marginally useful" and went back to work. Although my math was technically correct, being under an effective six meters of water really wasn't a big deal, especially for a cetaceanoid. I also conveniently left out buoyancy. It was really just a slightly more complex Cartesian Diver problem, but Greene hadn't spotted the flaws in the reasoning. Or worse yet, he was cowed by my presentation. I really don't have much use for people who don't challenge me.
Asia wouldn’t have spotted the sloppy math, but she would've challenged me on the basic idea.
Tankers actually might've been better suited for this sort of thing, but I ruled them out as being slightly cramped for a long journey, no light, no way to properly circulate air and water, and very hard to get food into and waste out of.
And I was really enjoying tearing the crap out of two luxury shuttles. I had been irritated about a lot of things lately, Asia leaving; Gene effectively booting me of the CSS Archangel so I could be the Whale Ferry; the entire premise of the Whaloid mission which had every earmark of a "make work" project. What the heck was the point of all this, anyway? I never figured it out, but there was some speculation on the Bahman (My new ship) that it was a Public Relations move, something to help the earth folk get past their resentment at the recent unpleasantness, even though that was entirely their fault.
Anyway, I really don't think Gene expected me to succeed. I know for a fact the crew of the CSS Bahman didn’t because several of ‘em told me so.
I'm all about defying expectations.
This thing that grabbed us - whatever it was - was beyond huge, a whale larger than any whale ever seen on any planet. When it opened its mouth and dangled us like a worm in front of its gigantic maw, I sent out the two wired "minnow" probes to take a look at it. I had been wrong about it being a whale: it didn't look like Moby Dick at all. It was a sea-serpent right out of Lovecraft's nightmares. Something like this - something this big - would have to eat whales to survive...
How does an elephant trap a monkey? Climb a tree and make a noise like a banana.
We needed to make some noise.
"Greene! Load up the female whalesong and run it at full blast!"
"Shouldn't we be trying to make a break for it?" I paused. Escape probably was possible at this point... "No. But I want you to have a very high frequency tone ready to go next in the external audio transducers" I gunned the Orca's engines, to make Sammy the Sea Serpent's tiny brain think that we were a real whaloid. (I mean, how smart could it be--- we couldn't have tasted like a whale, now could we?)
After what seemed like forever, but couldn't have been longer than ten minutes or so, I saw several dark shapes moving in the water. The lure worked. "There be whales down here," I muttered to myself, content that there were tastier meals that us to be had.
I put my hand over the transducer control.
And I waited.
Waited to see the whites of the whaloid's eyes...
And I hit the button.
The concept of the transducer is that it uses whatever medium it's attached to as a "speaker". Submerge one in the ocean, and you can literally rock the world. We stunned every sea creature within two kilometers. Whale killer, Whaleoids, fish, plankton, a dozen species of alien Gagarin weirdness. all floated to the surface.
We had to surface ourselves, having been protected from the stunning sound waves by noise cancelling software run through internal transducers. After all, having our only defense used against us is about as senseless as the myth of the Boomerang- I mean, how smart is it to engineer a weapon that comes back to you at full speed?
Greene quickly called in the Navy and the Space Force, who brought in the shuttles as we picked four likely specimens from the pod of whales that floated up; we hoped we had two male and two female. We couldn't quite be sure: not everyone keeps the equipment in the same place. We pushed the lucky winners of the planetary whale lotto into the half submerged shuttles, plugged breathing tubes into their blowholes, pumped more water into the tank chambers and sent them on their way. The shuttles could barely lift, but my engineering held, and we watched as they blasted towards orbit.
I sat on the hatch of our submarine and stared at the whale-killer serpent. It was a hideous, frightening, ghastly nightmarish beast. If I smoked, this would be a good time for a cigarette. I noticed my hands were shaking.
"What are you gonna do?" Greene asked presently
"I'm thinking about killing it." I replied. That was years ago, now.
You want to know a secret? I'm still thinking about killing it.
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