The whale, or whatever it was, hung in a kind of reverse suspension. It took a while for the Crew to understand what they were looking at.
Two dozen great strips of canvas, each anchored to the ground, looped up, over, and around the massive beast. It swayed slightly in the breeze.
It was floating four stories off the ground.
The Crew watched as a half dozen young scientists walked around under the thing, monitoring it. Its eyes were half-closed and lifeless, but the brilliant yellow and blue stripes all along its body slowly pulsed as it breathed.
“What the fuck is that?” Abe asked.
The scientists studying the whale heard this and saw the five hunters standing at the edge of the forest clearing. After some back and forth between them, one of them nodded and jogged over. He was tall and thin and, like the rest of the team, young.
“Hi!” he said once he’d reached the Crew. “Was that your ship we saw a few minutes ago?” He was smiling broadly.
“Yep,” Cabot said. “Hope we didn’t disturb the, uh. . ..”
The scientist turned and looked at the whale. “Oh, no. No, he’s sedated. He’ll be like that for another couple of hours.” He turned back and looked at Cabot and the Crew, smiling sheepishly. “No, it was mostly, ah, us you freaked out.”
Parnell smiled. “Sorry, man.” In spite of being heavily armored and eight feet tall, Parnell’s smile was disarming.
The young scientist nodded, relieved. “Yeah well, your ship didn’t look like a pirate ship and you ah,” he pointed to Parnell, “you do not look like Corp Pirates.”
“We are not,” Cabot said.
“You look like Griffin Hallsey,” the young man said, pointing to Griffin.
“Pure coincidence,” Griffin said.
“Oh, really?” the young man said, confused. “Huh.” He pointed at Bucket. “We don’t need any repairs, so uh….”
“We’re looking for Caira Diaz,” Abe said.
“Oh, uh,” the scientist looked at the whale behind him before turning back. “Is she, uh, in trouble or…?” he left the sentence hanging.
“We need a science specialist for a job,” Cabot said. “We’d like to make her an offer. Strictly above board.”
“We pay taxes,” Parnell said, crossing his arms, his grin growing larger as though enjoying a private joke.
“Um, ok.” The young scientist look flustered but lacking any other apparent option, he pulled his messenger out of his pocket and tapped on it.
“Caira, are you live?”
“Yes Francis, you know I am!” a voice came back. It crackled, as though coming from a great distance.
“There are some people here want to talk to you,” Francis said.
“What?” the voice said flatly.
“I don’t know. . .,” the young man said, looking at the Crew, “I don’t know how else to say what is happening right now. There are people, here, who want to talk to you.”
“To me?!” the voice crackled from the messenger. “Tell them I paid off my student loans!”
The young man smiled weakly at Cabot and turned half around, bringing the messenger close to his face. “Will you just get out here!” he hissed.
“Give her a second,” the young man said to Cabot. “This can be tricky.”
He turned to look at the floating whale and watched in anticipation. The Crew stepped forward, also watching, wondering what they would see.
After a few moments stillness, the whale inhaled deeply and then spasmed, like a cough. There was a wet sound and from somewhere on top of the whale, a small figure shot into the air. A tethered line looped behind her, connecting her to the whale. Her arms flailed and body spun for a second before landing on top of the beast.
The figure, tiny at this distance but obviously a woman, stood and began using the tether to rappel down the side of the whale, eventually using the tether like a zip-line to descend the fifteen meters down to the ground.
She strode toward them. Her white exo-suit was covered in blue goop and they couldn’t see her face.
“Caira Diaz,” Francis said. More an explanation than an introduction.
When she was closer, she pulled her helmet off. She tried to wipe sweat from her forehead, but managed only to smear the blue goop into her black hair.
"Wow!" she said, tucking her helmet under her arm. "Someone get a picture of this: 'How I spent my summer vacation.'”
Francis hooked a thumb over his shoulder at the Crew. “That’s them,” he said.
“Hi!” Caira addressed the five hunters. “Who the hell are you?”
“If you can catch ‘em like that,” Abe ignored her question, pointed to the whale-thing, “why not just bring it down to the ground? Make it easier to poke.”
“Well, I mean, we could,” Caira said. “But how would they get back up? They spend most of their time in the water, they only use their hydrogen ballasts to surface and fly when they mate. Grounding them freaks them out and they vent all their hydrogen. They get stranded and. . .die. So we either study them in the water, which is fine until you want to understand this whole mechanism,” she half-turned and waved at the floating whale, “or you wait until mating season and….”
“They vent hydrogen?” Parnell asked, looking with awe at the giant beast.
“Yeah!” Caira said. “It’s spectacular, you should see it. HUGE gouts of flame. We used to think it was a weapon for fighting other bulls, but I think we’ve basically proved it’s just a mating display,” she looked at Francis, now standing well behind her, who nodded in agreement.
“That’s why they call ‘em fire whales,” Griffin said.
“Yes it is!” Caira said. “Well, the scientific name is balaenavia ignis. First thing Catalog does, name every. . .thing.” She was looking at Griffin. “You look just like Griffin Hallsey.”
“I am Griffin Hallsey.”
“You are Griffin Hallsey,” Caira said, eyes wide. “Wow. Well, then you know what you are talking about because if I recall correctly you hunted a bull whale back before we really knew anything about them.”
“I did, I did. Wasn’t much of a hunt, turns out. Mostly a photo op, but the press we got earned us a ton of funding.”
“Yeah,” Caira said smiling. “Funding, tell me about it.”
She looked genially at the five hunters, nodding as though they were already friends. As though everyone was her friend.
“So what are you uh…,” she stopped and pointed at Parnell. "That looks like a Berserker Suit," she said.
“Yep,” Abe said. Parnell nodded.
“You’re a Rage Trooper?” Caira asked. “I thought they scrapped that program.”
“They did,” Parnell said. “Suit didn’t work.”
“I sorta fucked with it a little,” Abe said, and slapped the metal of Parnell’s suit. “It won’t kill the man inside no more, just hurts like hell.”
Caira nodded. “So you’re a strange group of people, that’s what I’m learning.”
“My name’s William Cabot,” Cabot said. “This is Abe, Griffin you know, Parnell....”
“Parnell,” Caira said, frowning. “Parnell the Rage Trooper. James Parnell,” she said, finally.
Parnell stopped smiling. His face lost all expression.
“Didn’t I read about you on the line?” she asked. “James Parnell, captain of The Sword. I remember everyone talking like you were the bad guy.” She was frowning, trying to remember.
“The Sword wasn’t his fault,” Abe said automatically.
“Don’t believe everything you read on the line, Ms. Diaz,” Cabot said with a smirk. “That was a while ago, anyway. These men work for me now.”
“Well, you found a Catalog team. If you wanted to impress me,” Caira said, “it’s working. How did you, ah. . .how did you do it?”
“We have a lot of resources,” Cabot said.
“Hi,” the robot standing next to him held up a metal claw and rotated it in imitation of a friendly wave.
“Your repair drone just said ‘hi’ to me,” Caira frowned, pointing at Bucket.
“It’s called ‘being friendly,’" Bucket explained.
Caira stared at Bucket, her mouth open.
Bucket’s single blue eye turned to Abe. “I read about it in a book,” he said.
“Bucket,” Cabot introduced. “He’s my partner.”
“Your partner is a Vok-class repair drone?” Caira asked. "Why would someone need a repair drone that talks?"
"He's an AI," Abe said.
Caira pointed at the drone again. "No way. No way can you stick a reason core in that chassis."
“I’m a Yudkosky Thought Box,” Bucket explained. “My reason core is in the Laurie-Anne. But this repair drone is sturdy, mobile, and easily modified."
"Wow," Caira said. "You stuck a Rank-Rajat Mind in a ship. Cool."
"It ain't that cool," Abe said.
Caira nodded. They all stood around for a few moments, Francis watching from a discreet distance.
“So,” Caira said eventually, “what do you want?”
“I need a science specialist for a job out on the rim,” Cabot said.
“Job, what kind of job?” Caira asked, looking at the Crew, trying to imagine what kind of job they might be suited for.
“Ok,” Caira nodded, “and what is that?”
Cabot explained. His explanation only made Caira more confused.
“I think you got the wrong Caira Diaz.”
“I want the best,” Cabot said. “That’s you.”
“That’s me?” Caira asked, surprised.
“You’re the youngest Team Leader in Catalog’s history,” Cabot said.
“I am?” Caira turned to Francis, who pursed his lips and nodded at her.
“Huh,” she said, turning back to the Crew. “Not sure I knew that.”
“It’s not about youth, Ms. Diaz,” the robot, Bucket, said. “You were made Team Leader because you were the best and the brightest.”
“That’s what we’re looking for,” Cabot said.
Caira scratched her hair which, thanks to the blue goop in it now, tried to stick to her hand and stood out at a strange angle when she was done.
“Listen, ah, I’m flattered. I really am. But I’ve got a job. My parents basically disowned me when I left Earth. I spent three years working a microscope waiting for this,” she pointed at the ground. “Catalog is not easy to get into, and we just got started. So, I mean maybe we can talk after, but ‘after’ is like ten years from now.”
“I understand,” Cabot said, though he made no motion to leave.
“I’m sorry you came way out here,” Caira said. “Tracking us down had to be a huge pain in the ass.”
“It wasn’t hard. Your Celestial supervisor gave us your location after we explained what we wanted you for.”
“He did? X’iang said that? That doesn’t sound like him. Was he shouting? How did you find him? I can’t even talk to him half the time.”
“Bucket tracked him down on the line. He said you were free to come with us, as long as you filed your reports under the Celestial Catalog imprint. He also said you wouldn't be able to accept the Nordita retainer, but I didn’t think that would matter to you.”
“That doesn’t matter to me,” Caira agreed.
“No, I didn’t think it would,” Cabot smiled. “I thought mostly you’d like to be the first person to give an official, scientific name to everything on Shear.”
“Shear,” Caira said. It wasn’t a question.
“Yep,” Cabot said. “The ‘jewel of the arm.’”
Caira turned and looked at Francis. His eyes had lit up. He mouthed the word “Wow!”
Caira strode away from the crew.
The five hunters stood there, watching Caira Diaz walk back to the Catalog team’s camp.
“Is that a ‘no?’” Abe asked.
“She seems like she’d be exhausting to work with,” Griffin observed. Francis nodded emphatically.
Eventually, she walked back to the Crew. She had a full pack strapped to her back, several articles of clothing slung over her shoulder, an open duffel bag in one hand, and a book in the other.
“If you want to think about it, we still have. . .,” Cabot began.
“I don’t need to think about it,” Caira said, and handed the book to Cabot.
He took it and looked at it. The title was printed across the top, the author’s name across the bottom.
Field Guide to the Far Arm By Franz Sigmund Luekhart, Ph.D
Cabot looked at Parnell and shrugged, handed the book to the taller man.
“Read the last page!” Caira said as she set the bag on the ground and started stuffing her clothes into it.
Parnell opened the book to the last page and read. After a few moments he said, “Ah.”
He cleared his throat. “But the jewel,” he intoned, “which as yet I have not attained, is Shear. That most earthlike of worlds in the Arm. This volume must be considered incomplete while she eludes my grasp.”
Caira slung her pack over her shoulder. “He died,” she said, “before he got out there. That book,” she nodded at the book in Parnell’s hand, “was what made me want to be a biologist. While the other kids were reading about wizards and space knights, I was rereading the Field Guide again.” She used her thumb to point at the whale over her shoulder. “You know who gave that thing its binomial name? Page 446.”
Parnell frowned, and flipped to the page, read it. “Wow,” he said, looking at Cabot.
“I actually got to meet him,” she said, taking the book back, “at a conference on Earth. He was amazing. He never said. . .we didn’t talk about Shear but I sort of. . .I always felt like he was telling me. . .,” she stopped. Unzipped her bag and tucked the book into it before zipping it up again.
She looked at the Crew. “Anyway,” she said, and turned to Francis. “You’re in charge, Francis!”
The tall, thin young man nodded with a rueful grin on his face. “Ok,” he said. “I understand.”
She walked past Cabot and his hunters. “Let’s go!” She strode off into the forest behind them.
“Where’s your ship?” her voice came out of the woods.
“That was easy,” Abe said to Parnell as the Crew followed her into the trees to the Laurie-Anne.
“Cabot knows what to say to people, man.” Parnell was impressed.
“You got a scientist,” Griffin said, walking next to Cabot. “You need a field medic.”
“I know,” Cabot said, smiling. “One thing at a time.”