The message impeded upon the gray man’s notice unbidden. With the faintest suggestion of an interface, it rose up before him through his O-A. In an earlier age, it might have appeared as:
RE: Unity Sensor Station 43.11.0/97_89.13.56/41 (SUNPRAIRIE)
Signal ceased SUNPRAIRIE 112103z_11_10_AU76
The gray man smiled; he signed the memorandum with his characteristic mental gesture and began preparations for the destruction of Malila Chiu.
She floated in the mid-depths, feeling the freedom of her movements and enjoying the surge of her predatory impulses. For a moment, she rippled the chromatophores along her 4-meter length in pleasure; alternating bands of scarlet and dark green pulsing up and down the sleek winged shape of her body might have mesmerized an unwary prey. Her body bore no insignia, mark of age or gender. She returned her skin to the pattern of the hunt: the dappled dark ripples of the sea below on her upper surface and, the light chop of the sea above coloring her underside. She paused to listen. Even motionless, her appearance flowed second by second; sensors discerned the light falling upon them and mimicked the surface opposite to match.
She tasted the salinity, the pressure, the faint rhythmic surge and flow of the waves above her, the incessant heave of the sea’s current and…her prey. She calculated the heading needed and in the instant of thought, sent her winged diamond shape pulsing through the middle depths. Her skin, adapting to the flow of water streaming over it, let her slip along with barely a pressure wave. The designers of her avatar had subjugated all functions to the hunt. She had left behind her need to feed, excrete, breath or pity. Her animal predecessors could have never imagined how she saw in many dimensions of sight, sound, touch and taste, allowing her sea-avatar to harry, hunt and kill even the largest animals on the diminished planet
Reaching her selected rendezvous, a location in space that, in time, would become a killing ground, she coasted to a halt. Although she had nothing as awkward as a mouth to disrupt her sleek envelope, she smiled. The prey was still oblivious of her, making its cacophony of clicking and splashing in the distance. It was time. She started to mimic a sound that had not been heard since the Meltdown. She stilled, waiting for the one animal aggressive enough to leave the others and give chase.
She could hear the pod surge nearer and noted with satisfaction the change in the timbre of their calls, the urgency becoming a silver thread of bloodlust in the noise. Once separated from the others, she could attack and kill her massive opponent unmolested. The beast would be expecting a flailing and disabled squid. Instead, it would find a stealthy, merciless and alien killer. In the very moment the whale paused in consternation, she would thrust forward into his vital organs and severe the huge conduits of the heart.
She thrummed again and could now tell that all the animals had stopped-except one. She again smiled her bodiless smile and waited, listening to the rapid thrust of her prey’s tail as it forced the sea to part in order to attack her. He, they were always males, seemed by the noise to be the largest animal she had ever taken. She moved down and to the side, away from her decoy sound, increasing the sonic signature of her prey, and reset her chromatophores to render herself a mere ellipsis in the flow of water around her.
It was only then she remembered to re-engage her sound filters. Passively listening for her prey, her sensors were sensitive to the most distant sounds, but now she needed protection from the din of combat. In the instant of thought, she felt herself attacked. A crescendo of rapidly focused clicks, the concussions of sound hit her; it seemed to flatten her sleek shape, encasing her in a miasma of noise. Had she had internal organs the detonations would have disabled her and the echo alerted her prey. She drifted in the currents, trying to reorder her sensors. Realizing she could no longer hear, her courage in tatters against an invisible opponent, she sprinted away.
Even as she fled, she felt the huge black shape streak by, its narrow jaws agape into the volume of ocean from which she had just escaped. Seeing her huge opponent steadied her, somehow. She was turning to pursue when her returning sensors made her look below. Perhaps, her panic visualized in the featureless depths the coming attack of the second whale.
It was no wonder she had thought the sonic signature was so large; the whales were hunting as a team. She had no strategy to confront them. She again sprinted aside as the second sperm whale, the greater of the two, rushed past, his wake tumbling her into confusion again. She righted herself with difficulty this time and now had no idea as to where the huge predators had gone… or from whence they would come again. She considered abandoning the quest, but an unsuccessful hunt would condemn some of her fellow citizens to a cold and hungry winter…and her to tedium.
Other than the sharp beak at the leading edge of her body, she had no other weapons; her defenses were stealth, speed and cunning; she fled in a series of random sprints. Desiring to reduce her avatar’s sonar signature, the designers had eliminated the squid’s suckered and barbed arms in favor of her sleek shape. Moreover, her handlers wanted the hunt to be remorseless with no thought of retreat. Her dilemma was the same as every predator: if she tried for a killing blow on one adversary, she would be open to attack by the other. Disabled to fight, she would be unable to flee; winning a single battle wounded would be a death sentence.
Out of the buzzing of her returning hearing, she felt she could detect a murmur that might be the rushing charge of one of the large whales. A thought gave her sudden confidence. Edie, her metaphract, had quoted her once: “If things go south, think sideways.”
It would depend on timing.
She was just able to see the glint of the toothed jaws rising up from the depths before she acted. She launched one of her two drogue buoys and backed up mere meters from the path of the attack. The drogue-buoy jetted away before the balloon inflated. It hesitated, almost like a confused animal, before it began an increasingly rapid ascent. The careening whale, the smaller and younger male, altered his course and followed the drogue as it appeared to flee. As the great animal rushed past, she darted forward, cutting a massive slice along the muscular tail, blood spewing out of the widening red mouth of the wound. As the beast turned toward her attack, she thrust the remaining drogue-buoy deep within his still-living flesh and fled up toward the warmth and light.
The young leviathan turned to pursue his tormenter; painful as it was, the bleeding was of little consequence, his circulation already dampened for the dive. He clicked once and easily found the thin trail of cavitation rising in the water left by his attacker. A prodigious surge of his tail propelled him towards her and his jaws opened to snare his prey with the next lunge.
Within his tissue, the drogue inflated, sending a shockwave into the pressure-dense tissue like a small bomb. The whale’s center of buoyancy shifted; the drogue’s pressure and obstruction sapping his ability to propel his gigantic tail. Paralyzed, disoriented and estranged, the beast thrashed toward the surface; the drogue balloon inflating even more as he rose. Agony, red and overwhelming, captured him as his massive head broke the surface.
She stopped to lie just below the slow chop of the waves, the wounded animal thrashing near the surface, flapping its tail fluke in the scarlet water. She had now expended her arsenal of drogues, meant to keep dead whales from sinking to rot in the abysmal depths, merely to avoid the same fate herself.
She waited for the larger whale to reveal himself, but the distress of her victim reached a crescendo without the appearance of his partner. The older male, leaving the younger to his fate, might be anywhere, readying his attack. She cautiously lowered her sound filters again, building a picture of the young whale’s death throes from the cacophony of sounds. To her dismay, a sonar shadow lurked near the noise, obscured and silent near the surface. The big male was waiting, pointing his snout in her direction. He was using his wounded partner to attract and distract his prey.
The realization flashed through her; skin prickling with the twin emotions of fear and rage. Again, she considered slipping away, her top speed exceeding anything the whale might achieve. However, a strenuous and skillful fight did not fill any bellies; hunters are justified by success alone.
She regulated her buoyancy, adjusting it to become negative and slipped into the cold dark depths. Discovering a layer of seawater running toward and under her remaining adversary, she let herself drift, like flotsam, tumbling and turning. She took no action until she was almost beyond the blood plume. She righted herself and rose wraithlike until she the taste of blood almost overpowered her. Turning, flashing, bursting from the bloody cover, she abandoning pretense; she darted forward toward the cloaking sound of the dying whale.
Surprise was almost complete. As she emerged from the plume of blood, she could see the flank of the great sperm whale. She targeted him in the mid-thorax, half way from blunt head to fluke. Her quarry, sensing her at once, started turning to meet her, his jaw serrated with teeth ready to seize her. Her beak slid along the bull’s side before she could disengage and turn to protect herself from his attack. A long wound opened up and added more hot blood to the cold sea. She reversed course, pushing away from her adversary to circle around the smaller flailing animal. The great beast surfaced and, laboring, blew a plume of over-heated breath, the cold air condensing it into a tall blood-less column. There was nothing to do but circle the whales, awaiting the killing chance.
The end, when it came, surprised her. Taking her reticence for injury or timidity, the old bull rushed at her as she appeared around the bulk of his dying companion. She retreated and in her flight matched her speed to the old one’s pursuit; as he accelerated, she led him away from the blood plume. She taunted him, sometimes allowing him to approach closer if he seemed to tire then lengthening the gap to make the whale expend the greatest amount of effort and blood to keep her in sight.
At the last, his charge faltered. Perhaps convinced that she was abandoning her hunt, the old bull turned to retrace his path. As he did, she darted forward and plunged her beak into the unprotected flank. An immediate rush of hot blood rewarded her attack. She thrust on and felt her beak cut through cartilage, bone and muscle. When she felt the gush of high-pressure blood, she pulled out from the wound. The great bull spun once on his axis and was still. She swam to the still struggling younger one to dispatch him and signaled the sea tugs to recover the carcasses.
In due course, the nation would learn of her victory. The recovery of both sperm whales after combat in the open ocean would be note-worthy by itself; her status as a mere E11 added savor to the story. Hundreds of her people would toast her hunting skills over whale dinners. Rendezvousing with the boats, she watched them take the whales in tow. She was pleased.
Her power cells registering low, she signaled she wished to re-incorporate. After approval, she moved the controls in her O-A, experiencing the odd but reassuring disorientation as she departed the body of her sea-avatar.
In another trivial way, or so it seemed to Malila’s masters, Physeter macrocephalus and all the toothed whales had been extinct, on this particular planet, for the last fifty years. The sea-avatar, the whale carcasses, the surface tugs, the crowds cheering from the shore and, indeed, even the ocean evaporated as soon as Second Lieutenant Chiu re-incorporated. Technicians of the CORE submitted reports, wiped the temporary data stacks and started the next scheduled simulation.