Intro: What are the Tales From The Whale?
I’m trying something new. Each week in 2021, I’ll be building a brand new sci-fi universe. Throughout 2021, if you sign up to my mailing list, you’ll receive a weekly story based on the sci-fi world of The Whale. Each story will be under 1500 words — perfect for a quick moment of escapism whenever suits you.
Arun sat around a circular table made of the strange ivory dug straight from the creature he was stuck within. Smoother than any marble he’d known on Earth, the patterns in it fascinated him. It was as if the ivory was made from interlocking strands of hair, wrapped around each other hundreds of time until it was one, yet somehow allowed the observer to trace each strand.
In front of him was a large amount of fruit and vegetables, some of which he recognised, as well as some that he didn’t. He was surprised to find himself hungry. In the church, talking to Cliff, he’d lost track of time — not that he knew how to keep track of time in The Whale — and any thought of hunger had left him. But now, sitting down at a table, he heard his stomach grumble. He’d looked for some whiskey, or some kind of booze, but had found nothing. Surely a place like this wouldn’t be dry?
This was arrival orientation. Winter and her assistant, Laksmhi Sharma, stood between him and a dark-haired, shivering man. Arun was a bit worried about him. He didn’t speak, he barely moved, and he acted as if everything around him was toxic. The other resident of the room was a small woman named Antoinette, who was motionless, her eyes fixed on the table and her palms flat on the surface as if she was stopping it from floating off into space.
They were all wearing the same clothes made from the same material, and from what he could tell, they’d all had the same introduction from Winter.
It was Winter who broke the silence. She pointed to the bowl of food in the centre of the table.
“We get the seeds from some of the arrivals,” she said, “Every now and then someone gets swept up with a handful of seeds, or a packet hidden in their pocket. We don’t have much, but we make the best out of what we have.”
She leant forward, picked up an apple, then took a large bite.
“The other food you can see we find when we forage around the tunnels around Gepetto. Not an easy job, foraging in those places, but when the teams find something worth eating, they grab it for us.”
She rummaged around in the bowl and pulled out a furry purple ball. When she bit into it, juice — or blood — squirted across her chin. She smirked and used the back of her sleeve to wipe it clean.
“Normally we wouldn’t move you quite as quickly to this table,” she said, placing the purple ball back on the table and picking the apple back up, “but there is a slight emergency that requires you be educated at a faster rate. I know it’s a shock, and I remember only too well the emotions you’re all feeling right now, but I have no choice.”
Arun looked around. He was the only one who seemed capable of rational thought.
“Antoinette,” Winter said, “could you tell us what you were doing when The Whale took you please?”
“Hold on,” said Arun, “what’s the emergency?”
“In good time,” Josie said.
Arun laughed and leant back in his chair. The last time someone had said that to him was before he was called into a large room with a small number of people and excommunicated. People don’t to tell you bad news before you’re supposed to know it. And as his day so far had included being abducted by a massive space creature and told he’d never return home, he wondered quite how bad the news could be.
Antoinette raised her head.
“I was swimming,” she said. Her voice was gentle, unassuming, with a slight Eastern European accent. Arun noticed her voice catch as he hid emotion. “I’m a good swimmer, I always was. But Piotr asked if I could swim out to the rock and I said yes. And I made it. But on the way back, the waves got bigger, they got stronger, and I was… I remember forgetting which way was up. Then I woke up here.”
“Thank you, Antoinette,” Winter said. She turned to Arun, “and you?”
Arun debated whether to tell her the truth, that he’d been thrown off a cliff by something that possessed his sister. That he’d been kicked out of the church, embarrassed and humiliated by something that may or may not be some kind of demon. The truth, he realised, was just as ridiculous as the situation he found himself in now. It wasn’t something he was ready to share. Instead, he decided to be petulant.
“Not until you tell me why you need to know.”
Sharma, the assistant, raised his hand. Winter nodded.
“Knowing that you were about to die on Earth,” he said, “and acknowledging that fact, means that you are more likely to look on your time in The Whale as a gift.”
“A poor choice of words,” Winter said, “but the sentiment is true. I’m assuming, Arun, that you were close to death on Earth before you woke up here.”
Arun said nothing. He remembered watching the edge of the cliff moving away from him, the empty feeling in his chest as he fell. But he couldn’t say anything.
“Of course,” Winter said. “We all were. I was in a sinking car. You will find people in Gepetto who were in diving accidents or had their legs caught in a fishing net. Sharma’s grandfather was a member of the British Army — I believe?”
Sharma nodded. “World War Two. His ship was torpedoed. He was supposed to fighting in Egypt.”
“What we do here is to show you all how lucky you are to be here. That if The Whale hadn’t taken you from the sea your dead body would be getting pulled from it now, lungs full of water.”
The other man at the table jumped up.
“You call this luck?” he yelled. “You call this a miracle.”
He climbed onto the table, wobbling like a drunk guest at a wedding about to declare his undying love for the bride. Arun and Antoinette took a step backwards, arms outstretched. Sharma shuffled for the door, his notes forgotten on the table. Only Winter was unmoved, her demeanour unchanged. Arun realised that this was not a unique reaction. The man balancing on the furniture was the latest in a long line of people who reacted to their new circumstances with anger.
“I should kill you,” he said, pointing at Winter. His accent was strong and difficult to understand, but Arun placed it as Spanish, or maybe South American. “All of this, all of this lie, this is disgusting. It’s a trick, that is all, a trap.”
“What’s your name?” Winter said.
“Don’t distract me. All this is a lie, a government trap.” He turned to Arun. “You understand, don’t you? You know that this is all bullshit.”
Arun shrugged. Now was not the time to take sides with the madman.
“Please,” Winter said.
With a roar, Spaniard reached down the back of his shirt and pulled out a thin sliver of ivory. He charged at Winter, the makeshift knife raised above his head. Winter dodged the initial lunge and he fell forward onto the floor, his hand bleeding where he held the ivory. There was silence for a moment, only broken as Sharma left the room, his boots clomping down the hallway outside as he ran for help.
Winter crouched next to her would-be attacker and placed her hand on his back. She whispered something that Arun couldn’t catch. Regardless of what she was saying, he could see the man’s legs tensing. He was getting ready to attack. Winter’s body language was relaxed, she wasn’t prepared.
The time to act was now. Arun stepped forward and touched the man’s arm. There was no violence in his action, no urgency or threat. As he touched the man he whispered a quiet incantation, something taught to him when he first started studying the arcane arts.
The words were old Latin, nothing that anyone in the room would possibly understand. Even Arun himself didn’t know their true meaning. Yet he knew their purpose — to calm, to reduce anger. They called on the spirit to take control of the mind, to balance the anger within a person with the peace at the core of their soul. It was also an offer to take the burden of the negative emotions, an invitation to share the pain.
They had their desired effect.
Part of Spaniard’s mood transferred into Arun. The strength of the emotion hit him like a sledgehammer, driving him to the floor and leaving him gasping for air.
The Spaniard, who a moment ago was planning murder, fell asleep.
Arun lay back, exhausted as the room descended into silence. The floor was cold beneath him.
Winter stood over him.
“You are human, aren’t you?” she said.