It was a squally day at sea. Pinprick rain struck from clouds like looming anvils. Nipping wind riled up black and gnashy surf. Miles east, the thin eye of a lighthouse blinked through fog. The same distance west, a gasping geyser lifted from the sea, faded into mist.
In her wicker crow's nest, the lookout focused on that silvery spout, squinted through water-beaded lenses. Moments later, another geiser followed, like a damp cough. The lookout pulled her spyglass away, licked salt-chapped lips.
"Captain!" she pointed. "There she blows!"
Aside the creaking helm, shivering in a hooded pea coat wet with rain, the Captain startled. He blinked up through drops.
The Captain turned to a thin and leather-bound man at the rail. His cloth-wrapped fingers clutched a stand of tasseled pipes. "Let 'em know."
The piper nodded, spat a dollop of pink to the deck. His bellows swelled. The chanter touched vermillion lips. A drone split the damp air, layered with staccato melody. The deck erupted like a kicked anthill.
Some fifty meters astern, two gunboats* respond to the coded lilt. They put out oars, pulled to overtake their mother ship. Each sported a harpoon turret at its prow, two-ton coils gleaming with spray.
"Carboye," said the Captain, turning to his bearded helmsman.
"Aye," he nodded. Rough hands spun over the wheel. Afore, swaddled crewmen let out slack. The craft's many sails billowed, went taut. Timber and iron creaked. They matched speed with the gunboats, sailed in an inverted triangle.
"Merlcot, put out the Weeper," called the Captain.
Midway down the deck, by a set of stout-boomed cranes, Merlcot responded. "Aye!"
He and pair of sailors worked the winch of one crane. They lifted a huge cage shedding water from a three-meter tank in the deck. Some dark hulk lay inside, shifting weakly. The boom jerked. A wet hiccup sounded in the cage, miserable. Then, a sonorous wail.
Grimacing for the noise, Merlcot and company craned the thing over the gunwale, let it drop. It smashed into the waves, slowly sunk. They let it hang and drag at a depth of three meters. Even there, its cry was audible.
Somewhere to the west, a deeper cry responded, pendulous and songful. It faded, echoed over the water.
At the rail, the captain produced his own spyglass, looked out. For minutes, there was not but steel-blue chop, the snap of sails, the drone of pipes. Then, not five hundred meters out, a jet of silver from just under the surface, foamy and wide as a tree trunk. It quit, became a roiling trail of bubbles fast approaching. Another rumbling groan sounded, louder.
"He's interested," said the Captain. "Bull cachalot. A real big lad." He turned to his piper. "Tell 'em to load nine-points and run hard."
The Piper nodded. His tune grew faster, briefly fluttered to convey the coded order. The gunboats lurched ahead. Gunners clung to their swiveling harpoon guns, dashed by waves spewed over rushing prows. They fixed salt-stung eyes on the approaching bubbles.
"Get wary," said the Captain, eyes locked on the popping spume just before his gunboats. A shadow swelled beneath, breached.
A ten-meter dome of black-blue flesh rose from the water. A neckless, rubbery, walleyed thumb of a head. Its downturned maw, so wide and toothy as to easily take in either leading boat, gaped with indolent wrath. Its tiny eyes, shot with rage, rolled in their pits. It groaned, so voluminously deep as to shudder the heart and ripple the sea.
Grimacing for the cachalot's cry, the turret gunners loosed their shot. Man-length darts ripped chain through wet air, thumped feet deep into rubbery hide near eyes and gaping blowholes. The beast's scream momently pitched higher, piercingly, deepened again. Pendulous flippers of arms lifted from the sea, swatted and grabbed at the embedded darts with nubby fingers. They tangled in the chain, tugged the gunboats slowly inward.
Both gunboats, yanked and battered by waves crashing crosswise over their hulls, released the chains of their harpoons. They began to circle out of arm's' reach. On each deck, sodden, shouting crew scurried to ferry new shot to the turrets.
As the gunboats circled, the cachalot twisted, kicked, rose further. A titanic trunk of flesh emerged, taut with blubber and muscle, bit by barnacles. At ten meters in girth, it put a shadow on the sea.
"Shite," mumbled the Captain, face darkened.
"Bloody oath," shouted the Helmsman. "That's one tubby lad. Must be a hundred barrels."
"Bring us closer."
"Ready lances," said the Captain. The Piper conveyed this. Sailors scrambled over the deck, untied bundles of cruel lances. The ship rocked forward to circle with her gunboats.
Harpoons flashed dully as they leapt from hand to blubbery hide. Though many slipped into the sea, those that struck bit deep, jerked in the seizing flesh, drew thin dribbles of oily blood.
The cachalot beat up great craters of water, dumbly mauled at its circling foes. Over the shouts and the rush of sea, there was a hard crack of steel. A harpoon bit below the beast's armpit. It elicited a pitched wail. The sailors aboard the gunboats cried and clutched their ears. Another harpoon bit clean through one flipper and hit the head, threaded the chain clean in behind. The cachalot bellowed, lunged. The sailors of the western gunboat screamed as its shadow bore down on them.
The beast missed them, slammed into the sea. There was a crash of water. A shock of spray went up, ten meters high. The gunboats rode high on the shockwave, nearly capsized.
For a moment, there was calm. The beast was but a receding basso groan. Dual lengths of chain clicked from the harpoon turrets' spools, pulled out steadily by the cachalot's retreat.
"Well," said Carboye, the helmsman. "Looks as though the lad'll give us a nice sleighride, after all." **
The Captain frowned. Rain beaded on his knitted brows. He pulled out his glass, looked to the surrounding sea, the unspooling chains. "No," he mumbled. Some fear tinged his voice. "He's gone straight down."
At that moment, the gunships' chains ran out. With a crunch and a set of screams, each boat flipped like a toy and jerked, gutted, as its spool was yanked out down through the keel. Thrashing bodies and splintered wood bled from the wrecks.
Blood had fled the Captain's face. He looked on with bulging eyes. Amidst the wreckage, those sailors who were not still and floating were floundering, tearing at the water as if they could lift out of it. They were dashed about by frigid licks of waves, eyes fixed, rolling in terror at the dark below. On deck, their fellows rushed about, attempted to throw lines to the stranded. The piper had quit his song.
He didn't respond. Carboye shook his damp shoulder. "Captain, he'll come back for the Weeper."
Slow, the Captain peered over the rail. Below, huge bubbles welled and popped. A shadow swelled there, larger by the second. "Together, we're doomed," he said, unbuttoning his coat. He discarded it.
"What are your orders?"
The Captain shook away his coat. He stepped one boot atop the gunwale, then the other. He looked down to meet the helmsman's eye. Carboye shivered.
Some five decades past, a curious beast was harpooned off the queer and distant Gate of Sloe: A blubbery giant. A neckless, lateral-eyed thing; all bulbous, barnacled head.
The whalers who speared it dubbed it "cachalot," Island tongue for "big head." So large was the beast, they chopped off its long arms and stumpy fluke-legs, left them for the sharks. They flensed its rich flesh, yanked the ivory from its downturned maw, and split its skull for the bone.
To the whalers' surprise, there was not bone beneath that blocky dome, but a sac of warm and runny wax. Paraffin wax, they'd later learn. Three thousand liters of the stuff; a small fortune worth of the Coast's most valued fuel. ***
With this discovery, there is now no beast so precious as the cachalot. Paraffin, useful in all manor of applications, has begun to replace the longtime staple that is whale oil. It is an essential lubricant in modern machinery, a superior medium for soaps, and a candle wax of exceptional purity. When distilled into kerosene, it is an unparalleled fuel in lamps† and steam engines; the fiery emblems of Coastal modernity.
Civilization demands ever more kerosene. To satisfy its mounting thirst, whalers sail for ever-darker waters in search of their leviathan prey.
To catch a whale is no small feat. Hunters must spot a beast's spout, stalk it upon the surface, spear it, then ride out its thrashes and throes, all but gambling it flees and dies of exhaustion rather than flail and wreck their puny whaleboat.
To kill a cachalot is monumental. Simply locating one is a feat, for they are scarce and cagey, apt to learn where Littoran†† whalers prey. Cachalots will only reliably gather on the shores of far Northern fjords, where they knuckle-walk to clumsily and thunderously mate. ††† No folk will dare attack a cachalot there, for fear of being trampled.
To aid in the location of cachalots, whalers employ a cunning lure. A "weeper," they call it. A cachalot calf shut in a cage, made to cry, and let to hang like a shallow float alongside the whaler. Catching a weeper is easy, for newly-weaned calves will suck at the hulls of whalers, tricked by the scent of blubber rendering in the trypots within.
Weepers are enduringly effective, for even the wariest of cachalots will approach a trap baited with their own young. Not all are fools, though. A growing number come for the weeper not as rescuers snared by a ruse, but as combatants wise to whalers' tricks. They approach a whaler with intent to battle.
This is the stuff of whalers' nightmares. Ideally, the hunters strike first, mortally lancing an unsuspecting cachalot at the surface. A combative cachalot yields quite the opposite. They will take first blood as their own, often approaching a whaler at depth and staving it from below. They proceed to breach repeatedly, delivering crushing blows with heavy clubs of arms. A whaler becomes splintered, sinking wood in short order.
With every beast that meets a whaler and lives to tell, the rest grow wiser and more fatal. In their language of bellows and creaking groans, cachalots share lessons of war and vigilance.
Rumors tell of hoary, scarred individuals, singular monsters of unsurpassed age and many victories. They pass secrets of survival to the young, impede the whalers' hunt. These elder cachalots are targets like no other, legendary foes. To kill one is to strike a palpable blow for all whalers, to earn fame as a master of the sea.
For all the elders felled, and despite the development of armor plating, steam-screws, and harpoon guns, the Coastal cachalot hunt grows deadlier and more scarce with every passing year. In home waters, there are fewer beasts than every before, and those that remain are hardened and deadly.
In search of further prey, whalers turn to the place nearby cachalots were first caught: The far and forbidding Gate of Sloe, an Northernly island strait of terrible renown. For centuries, no sailor would pass through its cold and steely waters, for fear of the alien sea beyond.
Now, whalers willingly brave the Gate. They slip from the world into waters tossed by cruel, thin-aired wind and heaving with monsters. A cruel place; the home of the cachalots.
Here, whalers reap a fresh and unsuspecting crop. Faced with weaponry and tricks developed over fifty years, the cachalots of the Sloe fall like mere whales.
Paraffin flows to the Coast in unprecedented bulk. Nothing can stop it. No horror for crews locked by sudden frost and turned to cannibalism. No fear of hidden sea serpents large and as ancient as death. No fear of resurgent elders and mounting resistance.
No pity for the cachalot, for there is none.
As it happens, I rather like whales, especially old Moby, but I dearly dislike the giants of today's generic fantasy. I call this a compromise.
I've elected not to overly detail the ways of oil processing, here, nor the technicality of whalers, whaleboats, and their crew. Moby Dick is unparalleled in its descriptions of these, anyway.
This may bear some changes, in the future, but it stands for now.
* Though the term "whaleboat" is still applicable, it has gone out of fashion with the advent of heavy gunsprings. Said guns, while more effective than hand-thrown lances, are both expensive and prone to malfunction dangerously if struck. Thus, there are still many manual whaleboats on the seas.
** A sleighride is what whalers call a typical hunt. They catch a beast at the surface, spear it fatally, then let it drag their craft behind until it dies or weakens sufficiently to be finished by a long lance, known as a misericorde.
*** Paraffin and kerosene had been produced on the Coast before the advent of cachalot hunting. Supplies of requisite coal, however, were so marginally slim as to make the stuff untenably scarce. Purified kerosene makes a superior lighting oil, as it is unsurpassed in brightness and lack of scent.
† For nearly two hundred years, whale oil has served as the Coast's primary means of illumination. In the country, oil lamps are standard. In the city, modern homes are fitted with the necessary hardware to automatically feed oil to furnaces and switched light fixtures. Oil is kept in a pressurized tank in the cellar. It may be filled from an access hatch on the street.
†† "Littoran" describes any individual hailing from the Coast, be they human or otherwise.
††† Occasionally, cachalots will decide to mate in atypical places. In the Musée de Sartre, there hangs a controversial piece depicting cachalots mating explicitly against a lighthouse.