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.
The Untimely Death of Chi Danh: Tales From The Whale Four
Chi felt the sweat pouring down the sides of his face. Even back on Earth, he’d never worked this hard, even under the most strict supervisors, even on the hottest days of the harvest. Sweat collected across this forehead and ran down his nose. He hacked again, cutting another chunk out.
“You have to stop soon,” Tammerson said. Chi turned, if only to take a breath, and watched as his apprentice pulled the cage out of the hole. She was strong, stronger than he’d ever been, forged into strength by a childhood on The Whale. Chi was the opposite. A fairly recent arrival, he’d been resident ten years. To the Whaleborn and the older arrivals, he was still soft.
The cage was full of ivory and Whale flesh. Tammerson heaved it over the edge of the hole and, when it was secure next to her on the surface, she looked down again.
“The Whale is thin at his point,” she said, “can you not feel the cold?”
The cold. Chi snorted and returned to his labour. Everyone born on The Whale said the same thing whenever the heat supplied by their prison faded a little. It was cold, therefore the void was near. Death was just a short tunnel away through the walls. But it was trash. There was nothing different between this part of The Whale and any other. And right now, given the heat he was generating from his endeavours, Chi couldn’t feel any difference in temperature.
With each swing of the pickaxe, he carved more tough flesh from The Whale. He knew the truth, he knew that it was all a lie. He’d heard the rumours when he was on Earth — vast internment camps, work camps, gulags — all designed to break the human spirit and make them conform. It was easy for him to ignore those stories when they were happening to other people. He was relatively free to whore and drink and gamble as much as he liked. Something, though, had landed him in this prison. He’d annoyed the wrong person at the wrong time.
It had taken him ten years to realise that this wasn’t some space create keeping him captive. It was the state, the same state that executed his brother and imprisoned his father. He was the only family member to conform, and yet he was still being punished for an indiscretion that he knew nothing about.
He was fed up of it. The rules, the so-called dangers, the warnings. They were too much. They weren’t real.
Don’t go down that tunnel, the Grubs will kill you. Don’t go down that tunnel, the 3Marax will kill you. Don’t go down that tunnel, the Reedor will kill you. Some days he was surprised not to see posters on the wall advertising how great the Prime was and telling everyone to work for the common good.
He swung the pickaxe again. The flesh came away and he squatted to pick it up.
Even this wasn’t convincing, he thought, turning it over in his hands. It couldn’t be an animal they were trapped in. The flesh was too hard, too unforgiving. They could dig through it, chop away at it and refine it into other products, and yet they were expected to believe that it was part of a huge monster. Wouldn’t something feel the amount of damage they were doing to it? Wouldn’t it try and stop them tearing it apart from the inside?
This was a workcamp. This was a mine.
Somewhere in the sky above them, hidden in the walls of The Whale, humans were watching them work. Humans had put all this together, kidnapped people from around the world as part of some kind of massive science experiment, and forced them to mine what they’d convinced everyone was some kind of bone. They even called it ivory. It was probably dangerous. It was probably giving them all cancer.
“Tammerson!” he shouted.
Her head appeared at the edge of the hole.
“Throw the cage down,” he said. “I’ve dug out some more.”
“No,” she said.
“That’s an order, apprentice.”
“I know what you’re doing.”
“Straight down, like that? You’re not mining.”
The ground beneath him shifted following her words. There was no point trying to make her see the truth, he knew. She’d been too young when she arrived, only about eight. Her memories of Earth were faded, as unreal to her as they were vivid to him. When she was young she’d hung around with the Whaleborn, played their games and become immersed in their bullshit. She wouldn’t understand.
“Look,” he said, “I have a feeling we’ve only just scratched this ivory strand. The further down we go…”
“The further down you go the more likely you are to die,” she said, “here.”
A rope, made of one of the composites that the Reedor sold to Gepetto in exchange for ivory, swirled as it fell down toward him. Looking at it, holding it in his hands, convinced him all the more that the world he was living in was a lie. How could was it that a race of aliens no one had ever seen would be so good at creating all sorts of useful goods? It was too convenient.
He inspected the fibres of the rope, looking for something that would remind him of Earth. This wasn’t Whale flesh. This was good old fashioned nylon, made in a factory in Bangladesh or Vietnam, not by aliens in a workshop on a giant living creature in space. It just didn’t make any sense.
He swung the pickaxe again, striking further into the flesh. There was a shudder as the ground moved again.
“Please, Chi, stop,” Tammerson said.
“You don’t see,” Chi shouted over his shoulder, “you don’t know what people are capable of.”
“Killing yourself isn’t the answer,” she said.
“Killing myself?” He laughed. “Quite the opposite.” I’m setting myself free.”
And he swung the pickaxe once more.
This time when he made contact there was a shudder. The tool was stuck like it was being held in. He planted a foot either side of where his latest strike had hit and pulled as hard as he could. Around him everything started to shake. He heard Tammerson yell something, but the noise was cut off.
He’d made it. The other side of the mine. Soon he’d burst through like a mouse escaping a trap, and would tell his story to everyone. He’d be famous, he’d be the man who took down The Whale and the bastards who were keeping people in such inhuman conditions.
With a heave, he pulled the pickaxe free. Air rushed around him. This was the surface, this was freedom.
He looked at Tammerson, his victory assured.
But she wasn’t there.
There was a layer of flesh covering the top of the hole.
He struggled to catch his breath. The air wasn’t rushing in around him, it was rushing out.
He was cold.
He looked down. The hole he’d made widened, the flesh peeling away.
With a burst of air, Chi was shot into space.
The stars around him shimmered. But all he could feel was the cold.
And as he spun in the void, all the moisture in his body freezing in an instant, he could see The Whale in all its glory.
And he knew.