One manner of creature traverses these skies in as wide a variety as any airship or bird. We call them ‘whales’, though you’d be hard-pressed to classify them into a discrete species. These are the natural titans of the skies, larger than some ships and stranger than most. They shun humankind and all our noise and smoke and prefer to wander across those most remote and empty skies.
Their bodies are long and sleek and shaded gray or white or blue, in as many permutations of those colors as the skies themselves. Fins and billowing sacs of air buoy and guide them through the expanses of the world. Most are passive feeders, straining out nutrients from the air and clouds. Fewer others are predatory, smaller (relatively speaking), meaner, muscular beasts hunting down the lower serpents and birds and even snatching terrestrial animals that linger too close to the cliff lines. And, yes, perhaps a rare few man-eaters. Or so the stories go, anyway.
But of all their commonalities, it is their ability to cross through the Churn and reemerge unscathed that captures most folks’ imagination. Whales cross into the Down Below at will and are not only immune to the shredding destruction of that place, but are fueled and changed by it. As a whale ages and absorbs doses of what lies below us all, they receive an endless variety of mutations and enhancements.
Yes, enhancements. I’ve heard tell of whales that can conjure lightning and fire and shoot them at attackers or prey like elemental broadsides. Others seem to lose all sight yet can sense ships and islands hundreds of miles away. Still others become living ecosystems unto themselves, trailing the seeds and spores of life across barren skies. The stranger a whale looks, the more capable and bizarre its abilities become. Most of which you wouldn’t want to experience first-hand.
Researchers and Naturalists consider the elusive and legendary empyreans to be ancient whales, evolved and empowered by centuries, if not millennia of life. And I have on trusted authority from an old friend of mine that the mother of all titans, the Leviathan, just might be more than a loosely connected series of myths and folklore.
So, as with any great and glorious beast, people have an instinctive reaction: Hunt and kill it. And the whales provide enough of a great and varied bounty to encourage just such a behavior.
Chief among them is the blood, a pale green fluid with anesthetic properties. Properly processed, it’s an excellent medical painkiller above and beyond any herbal or chemical rival. Improperly processed, it’s a highly valuable and addictive narcotic. As usual with such things, the dividing line between the two can be blurry, often a matter of personal intent.
Whale bones have a higher weight-lift ratio than avorium, lighter in weight but far less adaptable in shape. I’ve seen ribs used in the hulls and balloons of old-fashioned airships, and teeth and other bones tessellated into mosaics. Other fragments are shaped into reliable liferings or sculpted into figureheads at the bow of an otherwise modern metallic craft.
Their meat is considered a delicacy in some cultures, usually dried and salted into jerky or brined and canned. The true connoisseur of whale meat consumes it cold and raw, the traces of blood slightly numbing the tongue and throat, your head later swimming in a fleeting echo of its full effect.
The older the whale, the higher the quality and quantity of any raw material. And given their unpredictable mutations from their friendly arrangement with the Churn, the elders are all the more dangerous the hunt, kill, and harvest.
Thus, we have the whaling industry, such as it is these days. Whalers hunt in small fleets, known as packs, consisting of a handful of quick cutters used to scout and tag and harass a quarry, and a single large lancer or freighter as the reel and kill ship. The central ship also houses all the equipment needed to drain and process the whale’s precious blood before it sours as it must be processed fresh. A mobile slaughterhouse, butcher’s shop, cannery, and drug factory.
It pays well, but it’s a dirty, dangerous, desperate line of work. You’re out in the vast expanses for weeks at a time, the only company your similarly desperate crew. Abuse and siphoning of the product is rife in many packs. The ships often must fly low and close to the Churn with all its attendant moods and dangers and elder whales are strong enough to drag a cutter down with them. Even when you make a catch, harpooned and dragged upward by lifting buoys, the beast is still alive and thrashing until the kill ship catches up and reels it in.
Just gotta hope you didn’t snag one that can breathe fire or acid, yeah?
Then there’s the fact that a single quality whale is worth fighting over, making rival whaling packs just as much a danger as the quarry themselves. When you’re that far out in the skies, with crews that hungry, and rewards that high. Well. There’s a reason whaling packs have two sets of teeth in their arsenal.
Where there’s grace and mystery, there will be avarice and exploitation. I suppose that’s just how it goes.
Copyright © Michael L. Watson 2017