Three days after the gently rocking skyscrapers of the floating city of Ketu vanished over the horizon, it looked like the storm was about to break.
Ordinarily, if the sea might soon turn choppy, even the big trawlers wouldn’t cast off. A little fishing boat like the Janus had no business anywhere past the breakwater. In fact, Captain Dalain had sent out a message as soon as the news broke, saying that she would take only volunteers. Well, everyone was on board now. A sea empress had been spotted surfacing near the eastern kelp farms, and the hunt was on, no storm was going to keep them flopping on the wharf like a stranded jumpfish.
Xomsa looked out across the unending ocean. Neptune was what they called her world, a title with no meaning as far she knew. "Water" would have been a better name. More meaningful. As any Neptunian would tell you, water can hold hidden dangers, and hidden treasures.
She scanned the black, jittery waves, wishing she could see into the depths. The Janus lurched, and one of her crewmates appeared, heaving over the side.
"Hey Xam," Mikhail said, wiping his mouth as the tiny atoll of his spew floated away behind them. He was from rust-red Mars, a place with almost no moisture at all, if that could be believed. Xomsa had seen pictures, but even so, it stretched the imagination. What would it be like, the ground static, the air dry, the smell of dirt replacing the permeating odor of salt and living things? She was convinced she would hate it. Even on Earth, which her mother told her had seas bluer than the sky, the people lived on hard rock.
"Still getting my sea legs," Mikhail said wearily. He looked older than he was, with a graying beard and bags under his eyes. Xomsa patted him on the shoulder.
"It's been three years," she replied, "the postman must have lost them."
Mikhail rested his head on the bulwark. "That big goddamn fish better be worth it."
Xomsa turned her eyes back to the dark fathoms, squinting against the drizzle that preceded rain. "It will be, if we catch it."
She hoped they would. Her stomach felt tight, like when she swallowed too much seawater. The lights of a hundred other fishing boats bobbed in the mist, fanning out in every direction. God, she hoped it would be the Janus that finally ran down the empress.
Mikhail leaned forward, clutching his gut. "Dalain wants you," he groaned.
"Where is she?"
The beleagered sailor pointed belowdecks. "Galley." A line of vomit fell from his open mouth.
"Thanks," she said, giving him a last pitying pat. Making sure her knife belt was secure on her waist, Xomsa went below.
Most fisherman on Neptune carried hook knives, curved, vicious blades that they kept in sheaths of bloatwhale leather. They kept them out of tradition, for the most part, since they had only one use: to slice open the egg sacs on a sea empress's back and gain access to the priceless gems within. The amniotic fluid of an empress was useful for manufacturing anti-aging medicines, and in high demand with the system’s elite. There had been a time when any fisherman could expect to retire after a few such harvests, going home to live comfortably on whatever globe they hailed from, or else buy a bigger boat to harvest even more. Back then, flotillas of empresses criss-crossed the globe by the millions, but today they were vanishingly rare. Xomsa had never even met anyone who’d seen one in person. Dalain claimed she had, when she was young, but Dalain claimed a lot of things.
"I'm here, Captain," Xomsa declared as she climbed down into the cramped galley. Dalain was sitting on the narrow table, sharpening her hook knife. An angry, star-shaped scar adorned her cheek where a bloodfish had nearly gotten her once, years ago. Omar, the burly first mate, was seated at the table, checking his own blade and drinking the celebration whiskey; maybe, Xomsa reflected, a little prematurely.
"Yes!" Dalain looked her up and down appraisingly. "How would you like to be the harpooner?"
"The harpooner?" Xomsa stiffened. “Me?”
"You know how it works, right? You've used it on hydras, and bloatwhales."
"But... I'm not as good a shot as Omar."
The captain glanced over at the hulking seaman, who was pouring himself another glass. "Omar will need to be ready to cut. I can't have Mikhail do it, and Raleigh is sonar. You're a good shot, you can do it."
Xomsa thought she was tough, wiry from a lifetime at the Ketu docks, but even so, she could see Dalain's point.
"I'll still get my chance at an egg, won't I?"
"Of course, of course," Dalain dismissed, "but we've got to string her up, first."
"We will," Omar said without looking up from his glass, "it's my birthday this month. I'm feeling lucky."
Xomsa wished she shared his confidence. The ball in her stomach only constricted further. "What if I miss? Or I don't get a solid hit?"
Dalain shook her head. "Don't talk like that. Go up and see how Raleigh is doing. Tell her I want good news."
Xomsa nodded and left them, climbing up to the bridge, where plump little Raleigh was watching the sonar screen avidly, headphones on her ears. Like Mikhail, she hadn't been born on Neptune, but rather Triton, the planet's brightest moon.
"Half a degree port," she announced, and the Janus edged itself over the appropriate amount, groaning aginst the swirling ocean. Rain tapped the cabin's wide windows.
"Hey," Xomsa said, looking over the focused technician's shoulder at the sonar screen. It was buzzing with pings. "A school?"
"All sorts of fish living on 'er, under 'er, around 'er. The empress's court," Raleigh said. Then, quietly, "At least, that's what we’re bankin’ on."
"She's close?" Xomsa's pulse quickened.
"Hopefully," Raleigh said, grabbing the radio from over her head. "Janus to the dingy little rowboat trying to pull up ahead of us, we will hit you. Move."
The other ship, which was not in fact a rowboat but nevertheless smaller than the Janus, didn't respond. Raleigh grunted and clicked on the radio again.
"That you, Taibo? I'm not kidding, get out of the way."
Taibo's boat, if that's whose it was, gave no indication that they had heard Raleigh's warning. The deck was busy with activity, sailors dashing back and forth, brandishing hook knives.
"Wait..." Raleigh hung the radio up, "Alright girl, let's pick up the pace."
With a deep rumble, the fishing boat's engines automatically kicked into a higher gear. After a few moments a huge shape appeared on Raleigh's screen.
"Those bastards!" Raleigh murmured, then snatched the radio again, clicking over to the ship's intercom. "I see her, Captain, I see her!"
Xomsa was already down the ladder, kicking open the hatch to the deck. The wind hit her like a slap, the chilling rain had soaked right through her in seconds. Waves were already spilling onto the deck, flowing over her feet and down into the hold. It was nearly impossible to see, but she could make out enough to confirm her fears: the searchlights of the other boats were already converging on their position.
Hand over hand, Xomsa pulled herself along the railing toward the bow. Jumpfish shot out of the water by the hundreds, their silvery skin flickering with every flash of lightning. Something writhed against her leg, a bristling aquatic thing the likes of which she'd never seen, but just as quickly as it had come it was gone, washed over the side.
Finally, she was at the ship's nose, where the harpoon gun waited for her to grab hold. The Janus cut through the towering swells, they washed over her, threatened to carry her into the fathomless depths. But she held the gun's handles tightly, and her fingers slipped easily into the triggers.
Ahead, there was nothing but sheets of rain and flickering lights. She tried to quickly brush the water from her eyes, but it didn't help. She’d been in such a hurry, she hadn’t thought about grabbing her rain goggles. Stupid. She’d have to go back for them.
Something hit her shoulder, and she assumed it was oceanic flotsam, but when she felt it again she looked around. Mikhail was there beside her, clad in full rain attire, shouting through the gale. Another pair of goggles dangled from his clenched fist.
Xomsa nodded gratefully and pulled them over her eyes with one hand. Her vision clearing, she realized Omar and Dalain were on the deck as well, gazes locked over the bow.
The other boat, Taibo's or not, was tipping on its side, its knife-wielding crewmen disappearing into the inky waters. A single cable extended from its starboard side into the sea, attached to the monster that was just now surfacing.
And what a thing it was. Two, three, four times longer than the Janus, light pulsing electrically up and down the length of it, great fronded head surging up from the deep like a rocket. Countless luminous egg sacs grew across its wide back, a forest of flame.
It was so beautiful.
A sudden blow to her arm made her yelp. Dalain pointed at the empress frantically. Xomsa swiveled the gun on its turret, bringing it to bear, doing her best to center it between two patches of eggs. She took a deep, waterlogged breath, and pulled the trigger.
Any harpoon gun worth the salt that corroded it was loaded with two kinds of ammunition: one, which simply extended a cable to tether the boat to whatever was being harpooned, and a second, that carried with it a bouquet of instantly-expanding balloons, meant to keep prey from diving. Useful for other titans of the deep, and hopefully enough to keep a fully-grown sea empress from pulling them down to wherever it sheltered. Otherwise, Xomsa reflected, they'd be chow for the bloodfish.
The harpoon hissed from the gun, airbags blossoming violently. The empress bellowed, a long, low howl that Xomsa felt in her teeth. She took aim again, closer to the head, locking a cable harpoon into place. She fired.
And missed. Dalain smacked her arm again. Already another boat, this one a trawler almost as long as the empress, was catching up to them. It wasn't equipped for this sort of hunt, Xomsa knew, but its crew outnumbered them ten to one.
Fingers slipping, she hurried to cut the wasted harpoon loose and draw another from the gun’s quiver. Dalain and Mihail helped her, keeping it from dropping struggled to attach the cable and slide it into place. By the time it was locked and loaded, a crowd of bobbing searchlights was beginning to gather. Not wanting to give herself time to overthink it, Xomsa quickly aimed and pulled the trigger.
The gun hissed for a third time, drawing the cable out behind it. When it suddenly went taught, the crew of the Janus threw up their arms, their cheers barely audible above the roar of the storm. Below even that, Xomsa thought she could make out the baritone wailing of the empress.
With speed greater than she would have credited such a colossal creature, the empress shot forward, kept aloft by the airbags that rode her back like parasites. The cable was drawn out from the gun with a whine, and the Janus's engines kicked into overdrive in an effort to keep up. Now, as with their usual quarry of hydras and bloatwhales, it was a matter of waiting for their game to exhaust itself.
They raced over the surging waves, foam spraying. Taibo's capsized boat had cut loose, leaving them alone, their competitors eating their wake. Omar whooped, twirling his shining blade, and even Mikhail seemed to laugh as raindrops pelted them like rocks. This, usually, was the part of the hunt Xomsa revelled in. No other time did she feel so alive as when they were pulled, skipping, across the water by some gigantic monster, flying over Neptune like jumpfish. For some reason, though, the joy tasted sour.
Finally, the empress made one last attempt to dive, momentarily pulling the airbags beneath the surface before erupting toward the frothing clouds. Gradually, the empress herself emerged, rising island of sluggish bioluminescence. A forlorn groan sounded on the wind. Xomsa noticed the lights pulse more quickly as the Janus came to a stop only a few yards away from the creature's slowly-blinking string of eyes.
With a hollar, Omar leapt over the side, swinging down the cable with the curve of his knife to land among a jostling grove of men-sized sacs. Though the rain was starting to abate, the sea was still uneasy, and he nearly fell several times before managing to stand. Dalain tossed him a net, which he dragged over the nearest sac, fastening it tight before going to work sawing it free.
Dalain went down after him, and Mikhail followed. Xomsa watched from the deck. Soon, the other ships had closed in, harpoons lancing down into the blubbery, fiery flesh, flashing knives trailing quickly after them. In what seemed like seconds the beast was entirely circled by crowding boats, her back swarming with hacking, hooting figures. Others, whose ships couldn't squeeze in, dove into the water and swam, eager to partake in the pillaging. They emerged like phantoms, bathed in glowing blood.
"Glad I got to see one before I died." Raleigh remarked, suddenly standing by the bulwark. Xomsa nodded. "Make sure they get me an egg," said the stout technician, turning away and going back into the boat. Xomsa nodded again.
Over the course of what felt like days but could not have been more than an hour, the empress was robbed of her eggs. Sacs burst and eggs flowed like oil. Fishermen, glowing up to their elbows, lugged as much as they could carry back to their vessels, leaving a landscape of bloody stumps behind them. Dalain, Omar and Mikhail returned, white smiles showing through faces bright with blood, bright like Triton, and they ordered Xomsa to help them pull a net full of eggs up onto the deck. She complied, numb, and before she knew what was happening they cutting the net to let their ill-gotten gains roll across the deck, leaving gleaming trails on the drenched wood.
Then, as quickly as they’d arrived, the ships were pulling away, blaring their horns goodbye, and Dalain joyously waved them off.
"We're rich!" She shouted happily, "We're all rich! The sky is clearing, and I've got a boat full of empress eggs to keep me fat and happy until it die! Raleigh, take us back to Ketu!"
Xomsa was still standing at the gun when the empress's sluggish pulsing finally stopped. At the edges, splashing bloodfish were already going to work.
"Hey, Xam," Dalain said, making Xomsa jump. She turned.
"This one's yours," the old sailor said, placing a knee-high egg at her feet. A dark shaped writhed within, a miniature empress. "See? Didn't I tell you?"
"That's 'Captain Dalain'. Don’t say I never did anything for you! After this, you can afford your own boat!"
Xomsa smiled well enough to satisfy the captain, who held her hook knife to the sky. "I need a drink!" She declared, hurrying below. "Omar, pour out the whiskey!"
Back in Ketu, they would be celebrated. They'd be heroes. Xomsa and her egg would quickly be separated; some buyer would swoop in, doubtless offering far less than what the egg was worth, but still more money than she had ever seen in her life. After that, it would be gone, and at least she'd never have to think about it again.
The little empress stirred inside. It was amazing, how small it was. Xomsa rolled it down into the frigid brine of the bilge.
There she kept it hidden. Mikhail moved back to his rusty orb. Raleigh bought a trawler. Omar drank his way through every bar and brothel in the city in a weeks-long birthday bender before finally crashing in a cell, and Dalain retired, leaving the Janus tied to the wharf. She was confused when Xomsa asked to be allowed to stay on it, but she didn’t object.
Xomsa spent all of her free time with the egg. She sang to it. She told it about the blue seas of Earth. She described its mother, more beautiful than the stars, with a court grand enough to make the King of Ketu jealous. She told it she was so, so sorry.
Then, finally, late one moonslit night, it hatched.