Earth was millions of light years and memories away from this cold, distant corner of the universe where the Leviathans liked to roam and Founder devices floated silent and dark. Melody was even further away, escorting one pregnant Leviathan that had decided to split off from the main herd and was now wandering her merry way to…?
“I’m just saying that the term ‘herd’ doesn’t really fit. A group of Leviathans should be called a pod.” Rosa’s voice crackled through the group transmission they shared.
“But they’re not whales.” Zuva’s deep, smooth voice was like velvet, and on long, lonely nights she often sang to them and the Leviathans.
They weren’t whales, not really. Melody flipped her small ship around to get a better look at C-377 (fondly called Swallowtail for the gold and black markings along her fins). The long and serpentine silvery-grey bodies did make them look a bit like water dragons of old Earth mythology. At the same time the large head with its gaping maw was more whale-like, and certainly the graceful, rainbow colored fins that ran down the length of their bodies and ended in a spray of ethereal colors brought to mind flowers and faery wings.
They were beautiful, the way they flew through space as easily as birds flew through the air and dolphins spun through the water. It was a shame that their bodies were so valuable. The bones were made up of extremely rare and expensive minerals and the skin could be turned into a lightweight and incredibly tough fabric that was useful for ships. But the real value lay in the strange silver fluid that Leviathans used as blood. It could be repurposed as a form of potent fuel that could power starships and space stations. Leviathans had given humans the means to reach the stars and further, but at the cost of their own lives. Now the species was nearing extinction and humanity was having to find new sources of energy. Alternative energy sources were available, like the neuro-fusion core that the Stingers used, but they were far more expensive.
Too bad most people don’t care about completely eradicating one of the few, exclusively space-dwelling species we’ve seen, just as long as they get that exclusive flight to Mars for shopping for cheap. Melody flew closer to Swallowtail’s luminous ‘eyes.’ They weren’t really eyes, just two massive, glowing clusters of bioluminescence on the head that appeared to serve more as a way of communication. Leviathans used the forest of tendrils and tentacles covering their mouths and the undersides of their heads for navigation and sensory perception. The black market used the head fronds as a supposed aphrodisiac, though Melody was certain that everyone knew it was a crock.
“Make up new name for many Leviathans.” Tiki’s strange, warbling voice made it sound as if the Alaran was trying to speak and swallow water all at once. Given that she was an amphibious lifeform from Aran, it was entirely possible.
Melody frowned, tipping her Stinger closer toward Swallowtail’s eyes. “What’s wrong with just calling them a herd?” she said, even as she maneuvered her small, agile ship toward the cluster of barnacles that were starting to cover up part of one eye.
“It is boring,” Keiko said in her strange, clipped voice. The odd accent marked her as one of Section 8’s victims, children who had been raised and molded to be tools of the government. Keiko was one of the few who had managed to break the programming. “You are getting pretty close, Mel — what do you see?”
“Swallowtail got some barnacles on one eye. I’m gonna scrape them off if she’ll let me.”
LEaP, (Leviathan Escort and Protection) had designed the Wasp class fighter ships (Stingers) to not only protect but also care for their Leviathans. Care of one’s Leviathan included scraping barnacles. They weren’t truly barnacles, but some sort of space equivalent: a creature that attached itself to the Leviathans’ skin and could cause potential problems if enough gathered in one spot. Leviathans didn’t use their eyes like planetary creatures did, but they didn’t like having barnacles grow on them either. Melody activated her scraper, basically a miner laser, and slowly moved closer to Swallowtail’s eye while flashing a sequence of purple and blue lights from the front of her Stinger.
The pale gold eye dimmed slightly, then the gold bled to lavender with blue flashing spots. Swallowtail was smart and old; she knew that they were there to protect and help her. There was a row of tendrils along the underside of her eye like long, multicolored eyelashes. Melody waited until the tendrils curled away before flying close enough to begin lasering off the barnacles. She kept a close watch on the color and light of Swallowtail’s eye — a flash of red and white usually indicated pain or discomfort and that would result in an eye tendril slapping her Stinger away.
“Poor girl got eye boogers again,” Zuva crooned. “Always the right eye too.”
Melody gritted her teeth as she tried to maneuver the laser under one particularly stubborn barnacle. “I hate that you call them ‘eye boogers.’”
“That’s what my mom called them.” Rosa piped up. She shared many stories about her family, her mother and grandparents and numerous siblings and cousins, even though they had all been slaughtered during the Crel Invasion. Mel thought it strange to be so willing and forthcoming with memories that surely had to hurt.
The eye tendrils had started to move closer and red flickered in Swallowtail’s eye, indicating the end of her patience and this impromptu grooming session. Melody spun her Stinger around and moved away, grateful for the smooth, swift design that allowed Stingers to move so quick and agile. They needed that extra speed and agility when it came to defense. While the Stingers were equipped for battle, they were still small compared to the giant Titan class ships poachers liked to use. Zuva called the ships ‘Butchers,’ and that was what they were in all honesty. Massive, hulking monster ships designed for only one purpose; to hunt down and butcher Leviathans.
Alongside the group transmission was a channel for listening in on the inhuman frequencies of the Leviathans. Computers and communication tech translated the Leviathans’ songs into something more comprehendible for human and humanoid ears, but it was still startling to hear the strange, eerie moans emanating from the speakers. Melody couldn’t help but shiver as Swallowtail let out a particularly high-pitched moan, the red flashes in her eyes growing as her tendrils curled tight against her head. She was afraid.
“Look sharp,” Melody said as she activated shields and powered up weapons. “I think Butchers are incoming.”
Swallowtail had already started to pick up speed — despite their great size and intimidating appearance Leviathans were not aggressive. They would keep trying to run away from the Butchers rather than fight. Swallowtail didn’t need to fight — she had the Stingers to protect her. Melody smiled grimly as her sensors picked up one Butcher ship coming in fast. No doubt they could see the small cluster of ships around the Leviathan and thought they were no threat. It would be the last mistake these Butchers ever made.
“One ship, but it is big. T-7 upgraded Titan model.” Keiko began listing off specs. “Plasma cannons and laser cutters. Plus quantum torpedoes.”
“Hard to hit small fast targets with torpedoes,” Zuva said.
“No, but they might use them on Swallowtail, so we’ll need to knock those out,” Melody replied. “Zuva, Tiki, I want you to target the torpedo bays and then plasma cannons. Any torpedo that gets launched needs to be blown up fast. Lily and Belle, stay close to Swallowtail. Red and Mei are playing pests–keep them busy while Rosa and I cripple the ship. Keiko, give them the talk and keep an eye on their communications.”
“On it.” Keiko sounded distracted as she started to hack into the Butchers’ communication channel. “Attention poachers, you are violating Universal Coalition Code 36 Section C in the aggressive endangerment of a protected species. The Leviathan Escort and Protection service reserves the right to use deadly force if necessary.”
Melody tuned out the rest of Keiko’s words, a bunch of legal mumbo jumbo that LEaP liked them to use just to cover all their bases. It didn’t really matter – the UC had condoned the use of deadly force to protect the Leviathans, certainly the Butchers weren’t above using deadly force on anyone who stood in their way.
The Butchers would never leave a hunt anyway, despite the warnings; Melody had a better shot at activating a Founder device with her words than being able to talk the Butchers down . Already the Butchers had begun firing on them, sharp and deadly laser cannons spitting out bright blue streams of energy across the dark. Swallowtail’s high-pitched cries dropped to a low rumbling as she picked up speed, but Leviathans were slow moving creatures and humanity had developed engines and machines that could move far faster than any living creature. She couldn’t outrun the Butchers, but she didn’t need to.
Melody and her crew were here to protect her.
The smaller, faster Stingers dodged lasers and shot down torpedoes. Melody spun her Stinger around and over the larger ship, focusing on trying to disable the engines and ultimately power down the Butcher ship. A streak of laser fire passed by out of the corner of her eye, barely missing her ship as she stabbed at the controls and sent the Stinger into an inverted spiral. Down, down and down as close as she dared to the other ship, with Rosa close behind. The shields were up, preventing them from getting their target. But those powerful shields would prove to be the Butcher’s downfall.
“Found it,” Rosa said. “Right near the fourth thruster, starboard side.”
“Start targeting,” Melody replied, zoning in on weak spot that Rosa had found.
Butcher ships used a dual shield system, with double and occasionally triple shields cycling over their ship. However, there was always an overlap where the multiple shields met, usually around the thrusters, to prevent overloading the system where the energy fields met. Almost like fault lines on land, two massive land masses pressed up against each other created cracks at a point where one could press deeper and trigger an earthquake–or break through with repeated firing at the weak point. Rosa had already started firing on the gap, her tiny ship weaving in and out between laser fire while spitting out photon bolts–highly powerful explosives that had a short range with a massive kick.
Melody joined in, her targeting screen already lighting up the shield gap point with red. “How long till it breaks?”
Rosa sounded grim. “It’s a double shield, so this will take longer. I wish more Butchers were dumb enough to keep with the triple shields.”
“Or like that one ship with four,” Melody said. Laser fire streaked by close enough to set off alarms, the shrill noise making her grit her teeth as it drilled straight through her skull. Without looking away from the screen, she flipped the alarms off with one hand, while continuing to blast at the weak point.
“Considering how spectacularly that Butcher ship exploded, I do not think many others will try,” Keiko said. “They are ignoring Red and Mei and targeting Swallowtail.”
“Mei, help us break the shield, we can’t disable weapons till we get it down. Everyone else keep Swallowtail safe. Initiate Star-net maneuver.”
There was a chorus of affirmatives as the rest of the Stingers began to weave a complicated pattern around Swallowtail, using ships and photon bolts to create a sort of net around the Leviathan. Not to contain, but to protect, preventing the torpedoes from reaching her. Melody focused on trying to take down the shields, the words and voices of her team becoming background noise as all she could hear was the shuddering whomph-whomph of the photon blasts and the bright flare of light from the shields every time they hit.
But she didn’t miss Red’s Stinger getting hit. She could hear the sudden fizzle and pop of Red’s comm overloading with the electrical surge from damaged systems. She could see out of the corner of her eye the bright point representing Red’s Stinger suddenly veering off, flaring red as emergency systems were activated.
“Mei, help your partner,” Melody said. “We’re almost through.”
“I got her.” Mei’s soft voice was nearly lost in the cacophony of alarms and battle noise, but Melody knew that she would take care of Red.
A few more blasts and then there was a bright starburst of light filling the viewscreen as the shields overloaded and failed. The Butcher ship frantically began firing faster, filling the dark with sharp streaks of laser fire and golden bursts of exploding torpedoes, but once the shields were down it was the end game for them. The Stingers maneuvered quickly and efficiently, reflexes and skill honed by countless battles. Torpedo bays and laser cannons were destroyed and the engines were knocked out, leaving the massive ship operating on emergency power and bare minimum life support. Melody could see the gigantic ship listing to one side, lights going dim as it powered down and tried to conserve what little energy it had left.
Swallowtail was safe, for now.
Keiko set up an emergency beacon as they conducted emergency repairs on Red’s Stinger (she was fine, just a little bruised) and they left the Butcher behind. If the poachers were smart, they would be gone before the UC sent anyone to help. Most poachers managed to escape; despite their warnings LEaP didn’t like using lethal force unless necessary. Melody couldn’t help but think it would make their job a lot easier if they simply killed them all anyway. The poachers would be back. They always came back. There was too much money at stake to let a few crazy women stand in their way.
“Yes!” Tiki’s voice was gleeful. “We destroy the penis-heads.”
Melody smiled; Tiki had discovered that humans liked to use terms for genitalia as insults and she was thrilled with that. It didn’t help that her species had upwards to five genders, which most Alarans viewed as something close to a hermaphrodite. Calling Tiki ‘female’ wasn’t entirely accurate, but it was as close as one could get with an Alaran and Tiki didn’t mind. From what Melody understood, Tiki had been banished from her home-world, though she had never said what had led to her punishment.
“Dick-heads, sweetie,” Zuva said.
“Or cock-suckers. That’s a good one,” Rosa laughed. “El cabrón.”
“Stop it, we don’t need to corrupt her.” Melody dabbed at the sweat on her forehead and unbuckled her harness. Even though the battle had lasted less than half an hour, she felt as if she had been strapped to that chair for days.
She floated away from the cramped cockpit in easy, fluid movements, moving almost as gracefully in zero-g as Swallowtail did. The Stinger was small, just barely big enough for one person, but it was practically her home. Even the LEaP home base, Savanna, didn’t feel as comfortable and…safe as her Stinger felt. She called her Stinger Sojourner though she didn’t tell the others that. They were all free to name and customize their Stingers, but Melody didn’t want them to know that sentimental part of her that gave names to an inanimate object. That soft part, the fragile side that could break if she showed it.
“What difference dick or penis?” Tiki asked, spawning a huge debate over the various words for ‘penis’ and which ones were better.
Melody grabbed a squeeze pouch of water, the cool liquid refreshing and silken across her tongue. She wanted to join the celebration, but it was hard to celebrate when there was a larger problem looming on the horizon. Bigger than any Butcher, far more dangerous than all the poachers was the fact that Swallowtail was pregnant.
A Leviathan hadn’t given birth in nearly a century.
It was the ‘night’ shift. Stingers were on autopilot while the pilots slept in shifts. Melody always took the first and last shift as team leader. She preferred to stay awake anyway–too many dreams, too many nightmares. They always came late at night, while she was vulnerable and weak, not on guard to keep the memories at bay.
Some memories weren’t all bad. Like the ones of her childhood, her loving family, images and scenes of Earth where she grew up. Her teenage years, when she turned into the ‘beauty’ of the family. With her long slender legs, smooth silken dark brown skin and the delicate curve of her neck, she had many heads turning every time she walked into a room. Her face was perfect with large, liquid dark eyes and full lips. But it was her hair that had been her pride and joy: a shade of brown so dark it was nearly black, with crimson highlights that shone in the sun and tight springy curls that would wreathe her face like a cloud when she unbound it. She had kept it long in intricate braids, weaving ribbons and beads into it until she had a crown framing her oval face and beautiful features.
Her husband had loved her hair too.
Acid filled Melody’s throat and mouth at the thought, the memory, of her husband. Calling him ‘husband’ had been a kindness, a requirement that he had made of her. That he had demanded of her, one of his many demands, and none of them she had been able to refuse. A captive couldn’t refuse her captor. Captor…that was a better name. Prisoner, that was what she had been too. Not a wife. A prisoner.
Earth had expanded fast once faster than light travel had been achieved. Many planets had been colonized, growing rapidly in population. Humans grew and spread out across the universe like a fungus or a disease. Something that couldn’t be cured and could barely be contained. But one problem did slow down humanity’s spread: the imbalance of gender in the colonies.
Many colonies had far more men than women, despite the UC’s attempt to send as many people out as possible. Melody was sure it was men who thought up that…solution which led to her being kidnapped. Bound and taken to a distant planet she had never even heard of at the tender age of 18. Tied up and presented to her husband like a gift, an object that had no say or opinion in the matter.
She later heard that he had paid good money for a ‘pretty one.’ Not that the price mattered to her. What mattered was she was stranded in a distant place with no way to contact family or friends, surrounded by people who thought she should be happy of all things. Happy to be contributing to humanity’s great strides into the galaxy, happy to be using her womb like all women were supposed to, giving birth and creating more humans to keep the disease strong and virile.
Except Melody failed in that.
“I can hear Swallowtail muttering to herself,” Zuva said, interrupting Melody’s downward spiral into the past.
Melody shook her head, running her hands across her bare skull as she checked the comm. Swallowtail was making a series of pops and clicks, normal Leviathan ‘muttering.’ She smiled. “Sleepy girl.”
“Here baby girl, momma gonna sing you a lullaby.” Zuva opened the channel they used for Swallowtail and began to sing.
It was the Alarans who had developed a way to translate humanoid noises and sounds into something Leviathans could ‘hear’ and vice versa. Their species understood how different environments could warp and change soundwaves and how to best work around that. It was human music that Swallowtail seemed to like best, particularly Zuva’s voice. Then again, everyone liked Zuva’s rich, velvety voice that turned every word into something decadent and luxurious. Every syllable was a plush jewel dropped down onto the diamond studded darkness as Zuva sang a lullaby to the Leviathan.
“Ehuhwe nyarara mwana,” Zuva crooned. “Ehuhwe nyarara mwana.”
It was beautiful and it made Swallowtail stop her muttering, the Leviathan falling silent as she listened to Zuva sing to her. A lullaby, one Zuva had sung to her own children when they were little. Melody could remember that clearly. Zuva had been another prisoner, except she had quickly given birth to twins, a boy and girl, and soon after another little boy. Just like they had wanted, but Zuva hadn’t been subdued or submissive. She had been the one who had gotten them out, along with her babies, finding a way to survive the experience and escape. Practically dragging Melody along with her because by then Melody had given up.
She had been beautiful, but not strong.
“Ehuhwe nyarara mwana.”
Melody pulled out a breakfast ration of something that was supposed to taste like eggs with toast and jam. It did have a berry taste to it, like strawberry flavored goo, and it looked like melted cheese. She waited until Zuva stopped singing, the Leviathan silent as they drifted quietly through space, following Swallowtail…to where? And what happened when it was time for Swallowtail to give birth? No Leviathan had ever been recorded giving birth. Certainly, the species was long lived, but they clearly reproduced in a similar fashion to humanoids. So, what happened when Swallowtail’s time came? And why had the Leviathans stopped giving birth in the first place?
“Did you hear the final count from the ultrasound?” Melody hesitantly broke the silence.
“28 babies.” Zuva sounded proud. “She’s gonna be a good momma.”
“If they all make it,” Melody said, instantly hating herself when the words fell out and broke open in the peaceful silence the lullaby had left behind. “I’m sorry…I’m just worried. We don’t even know how Leviathans…do this.”
Zuva was silent for a long time, long enough for Swallowtail to start muttering. “When I had my first two, I didn’t know what to expect,” she finally said softly, her words a melodic harmony to Swallowtail’s mumbling. “And when I had my third, I was still nervous. It’s…everyone tells you that the body knows what to do and it’s instinctual. But humans are more than instinct. We overthink everything.”
“Yeah.” Melody laughed nervously. “I guess I don’t have to worry about overthinking it.”
“Baby, I’m sorry.”
Melody shook her head even though Zuva couldn’t see her. It was all instinct and reflex. “Don’t, I never wanted kids before and I certainly don’t want them after…after that. It was their luck that I turned out to be barren, eh? They go to all the trouble and expense to kidnap me and I can’t even give them kids.”
“That bastard didn’t have to keep you after they found out.”
“Oh, he had to,” Melody said bitterly. “He had paid too much money for me, too much pride. And I had humiliated him. He was never gonna let me get away after that. It was only because of you that—”
Zuva interrupted Melody. “Don’t. It wasn’t just me; it was you too. It was Susanna and Winnie, it was Joy and Michelle and Kai. We all did it, we all escaped those bastards like I told you we would.”
The shine of the small window staring out into space caught Melody’s eye. She could see her reflection, that same oval face with its perfect features. Except she was different, her head bare of its crown and her right eye crisscrossed with scars. The crimson glow of the cybernetic implant replacing her right eye glowed balefully in the window, a point of red, a drop of blood to forever remind her of how she had bled and lost everything.
Now instead of hair, tattoos covered her skull, markings and symbols she had gotten at Savanna. Most of the women in LEaP had tattoos. Within her team, they all shared a tattoo of an elephant walking across a crimson sun with the word “Akashinga” stamped along the bottom to remind them of the origin of LEaP and the women who had come before them. The legacy they continued, though now instead of patrolling the grassy wildland of the African savanna, they flew through space alongside the iridescent sides of Leviathans. Many women of LEaP ended up getting an Akashinga tattoo to remember and honor the original Brave Ones.
Melody had other tattoos as well, ten names listed across her right forearm.
They glowed red when touched; the ones who had bled too much, but never forgotten for the blood they had shed. Melody absent-mindedly stroked one finger across the names, watching the letters flare a bright, lurid red against her dark skin. There were scars there too, wrapped around her wrist just below the names, matching the other scars on her left arm and the ones encircling around her neck. There had come a point when he had stopped caring about marring her beauty, once it had become clear how badly she had humiliated him with her useless body.
“I know what you’re thinking, Mel, and stop it.” Zuva’s voice sounded sharp through the comm.
Melody smiled despite herself, turning away from the window to bring up a view of Swallowtail on her viewscreen. “How do you know?”
Zuva snorted. “Don’t try to hide it, we’ve known each other for over a decade now.”
“And a long one it’s been.”
“Brat,” Zuva laughed. “So, tell me about your girl, the one at the waystation.”
“Noel?” Melody winced at how easily her name had slipped from her lips. “She’s…she’s good.”
“She treating you good?”
More than I deserve, Melody thought as she said, “We’re good. Don’t worry, she…she understands.”
Once Melody had fit her name, she had been like a bright and happy song. Now she no longer sang at all, her voice broken along with her spirit by what had happened. She had escaped, but every day she couldn’t help but think that she would never leave that planet. Too many pieces of herself had been left behind, torn out against her will and lost forever.
“We have another Founder device coming up,” Keiko said.
Melody shivered. What the Founders had left behind did not inspire awe or fascination with her. Instead the massive alien tech made her feel small and vulnerable, facing something so incomprehensible that scientists still couldn’t begin to even figure out how to turn the machines on, much less what they did.
For some reason, Swallowtail was leading them all deep into Founder territory. The ancient alien race had left pieces of their tech and buildings all over the galaxy. Hell, some of it had even been found on Mars, but there was one distant part of the quadrant where you could find more complete remnants of their civilization. And it seemed like Swallowtail was heading straight into the heart of it. That made Melody uneasy, not necessarily the Founder part, but the fact that they had passed out of official UC territory and beyond the ragged edges of civilized space and into the unknown.
And the Butchers kept coming.
It was not uncommon to have an attack once a day now. Keiko had managed to pull up a communication between the poachers about Swallowtail’s pregnancy. Apparently, Leviathan fetuses and amniotic fluid were beyond priceless on the black market. There was a bounty on her head and on them as well, the ‘LEaP Bitches’ that kept her safe.
“Looks like a part not whole,” Tiki said. “Broken maybe.”
“Hard to tell with Founder shit,” Rosa replied. “We can’t begin to figure out what their stuff did much less if it’s broken or not.”
“Founder devices are not broken,” Keiko responded brightly. She had a thing for Founder lore. “Scientists know that much. We just can not figure out how to turn it on.”
Swallowtail led them close by the Founder device, her long body undulating through space gracefully. She flew so close that the device’s dark surface reflected the shimmering colors glowing along her sides. Leviathans were huge, hence their name, but next to the Founder device she looked so small. Almost like a minnow swimming alongside the massive dark side of an ancient sea monster. Limbs and tentacles reaching out into space, dark and frozen, yet still ominous in their very appearance.
The Leviathan began to moan, red flashing in her eyes as she spun closer to the Founder device. Melody knew that particular song. “Butchers incoming.”
They took formation, surrounding Swallowtail as she cried. Melody couldn’t help but feel pride in the smooth and rapid responses of her team. All of them working like pieces of a whole, seamless and perfect. Most days Melody felt shattered, cracked and barely holding it together. But when she was working, fighting, she was one piece of a whole. She was whole, surrounded by people who understood and had her back. Women who had proven that they would fight hard to protect what they loved. A team that would fight to protect her if they had to. She would never be a prisoner again.
The Butchers came into view and Melody’s blood ran cold.
“Oh damn…we got three ships,” Keiko said in a high, tight voice.
“They’re firing!” Zuva shouted.
“Rosa, Keiko, help me get down the shields on the first ship. Zuva, try to see if you can lead Swallowtail closer to the Founder device — try to use it as cover. The rest of you keep the torpedoes from reaching her. Go!” Melody gritted her teeth and sent her Stinger flying toward the lead Butcher, her blood no longer ice as it started to burn in her veins.
Torpedoes and lasers painted the dark expanse in bursts and streaks of light and color. Warning sirens screamed at Melody as one bright flash of blue laser fire streamed past her ship so close that it made the Stinger shudder. Too close, she shut off the alarms and focused on getting the shields down while trying to avoid being shot down in the process.
“Keiko is down!” Rosa’s scream sent chills down Melody’s back. “She’s…she’s gone!”
Melody bit her lip until she could taste blood, using that coppery taste and sharp pain to ground herself even as she sent her Stinger spinning around a burst of laser fire and down close to the Butcher. “Rosa, focus. We have to get the shields down.”
“Rosa! We have a job to do. We have to protect her. Protect Swallowtail.”
“Affirmative,” Rosa sobbed
Melody wanted to cry herself, but there was no time for that. It wasn’t the first time she had lost someone in battle and it would not be the last. They had told her as much at LEaP when she had been given command of her own team. She would lose people, lose team-mates, but she couldn’t afford to lose her Leviathan.
“I’m hit,” Zuva sounded strangely calm through the crackle and static of her failing comm. “Losing life support.”
“Mei, go after—”
Zuva cut her off. “No, you need…protect…tail.” Patches of static obscured some of her words. “I’m gonna…find…Founder…”
Her voice ended in a burst of fizzing static and then there was nothing. Tears streamed Melody’s face as she screamed and sent a volley of photon bolts at the shield’s weak point. The shields collapsed and grimly she and Rosa targeted the thrusters and disabled the Butcher. But there were two other Butcher ships, and they had already lost two of their own. Red and now Zuva…Melody hastily wiped her face and focused on the second ship.
Two ships were still more than they could handle, and Melody watched in horror as one torpedo made it to Swallowtail’s side. The Leviathan sang in pain, a high warbling cry, as her eyes flashed red and white. Another torpedo broke through their formation, heading straight for Swallowtail’s head.
“Stupid ball-eaters!” Tiki shouted as she sped her stinger straight into the torpedo.
The stinger and torpedo exploded in a starburst of light and heat and screams from the other women. The shields on the second Butcher ship were not falling fast enough, and now they were down three team-mates. Another torpedo clipped Swallowtail’s dorsal fin/ridge and her shrieking song filled Melody’s head until she was certain that her ears were bleeding. Melody wiped her ears and then face, feeling wetness on her skin but uncertain as to whether it was blood, sweat, tears or a combination of all three.
Another voice joined the cacophony: a message from the Butcher ship. “Surrender. All we want is the Leviathan. We will let you all go if you simply let us have her.”
Melody gritted her teeth. “No.”
“It’s insanity what you’re doing here. You’re all going to die over a dumb animal. Just let us have her and you all can live. Or try to stop us and die. Your choice.”
Just let us have her…
Just let it happen…
Run away coward…
They couldn’t win this fight. Melody could already see that. Swallowtail was doomed to die once her guardians were dead. Melody could see the Leviathan still floating close to the massive side of the Founder device, singing her song of pain and terror. Crying, as Melody had done so many nights before. Begging for help…
Melody’s blood began to boil and she gripped the controls tighter, shaking her head violently even though she knew the Butchers couldn’t see her. But her denial, her refusal, of the situation was so strong that she couldn’t simply say it.
Melody began to fire faster at the shield’s weak point, a sharp pang of pride blooming in her heart as every single woman on her team continued to fight when one could simply and easily slip away. But that wasn’t what they were here for. The Butcher ship continued to message her, trying to bargain with her, and eventually Melody blocked the channel.
Something began to ring in her ears — a message flashing across her screen. It was Zuva and it only said three words:
THERE’S A DOOR.
“What?” Melody tried to reach Zuva on the comm but there was nothing. Nothing except for that enigmatic message.
“Mel, a door just opened on the Founder device,” Mei said, her soft voice nearly drowned beneath the scream of laser fire and warning sirens. “Swallowtail and Zuva are going inside.”
Melody had only seconds to make a decision. “Follow them.”
The Stingers responded quickly, moving faster than the Butchers toward the small opening that had suddenly appeared along the massive side of the Founder device. Swallowtail was already inside, and the Stingers swarmed inside right as the door slid shut behind them.
The inside of the Founder device was a cavernous dark maw, darker than the space outside as there were no stars or galaxies to add even a little light. Melody couldn’t make out any sort of distinct shapes or form to what surrounded them. Just darkness. And in the darkness Swallowtail glowed, lavender and gold shining along her body while her eyes were prismatic rainbows
Beside one eye was Zuva, holding onto the Leviathan’s side as she floated in an emergency spacesuit.
“Mei, pick up Zuva.” Melody wanted to cry, to laugh or even scream, but instead she kept her voice calm and her hands steady.
While Zuva boarded Mei’s Stinger, Swallowtail began to glow brighter, brilliant sapphire bursts appearing amid the streaks of lavender and gold. Her tentacles twined and rippled in a strange dance as she sang, low murmuring notes and trilling high ones. The song was one Melody had never heard before, from any Leviathan.
“That’s what she was doing before the door opened,” Zuva said over Mei’s comm.
“Singing.” Zuva sounded amused. “Swallowtail sang and the door opened.”
There was a flash of light and the Founder device came alive with lights glowing blue and white along the inside, machine parts starting to move and turn, and a burst of alien language filling their comms. A singing language that matched the tone and hum of Swallowtail’s song.
“Stay with Swallowtail. We may not have any Butchers in here, but we still got a job to do,” Melody said as the Leviathan began to move off toward a cluster of machines along one side.
Swallowtail seemed strangely calm, still singing and glowing as she approached a group of machines that mimicked her tentacles, long and black and gleaming with tiny white lights. Melody and the others kept watch as the machine’s appendages wrapped around Swallowtail while the alien voice over the comm continued to sing to her.
It was then that Melody and her team learned that this particular Founder device was designed to help Leviathans give birth.
“Such a good momma,” Melody crooned, watching Swallowtail groom one of her 28 babies with her tentacles.
Nearly a year old and already the babies were bigger, much bigger than the Stingers that continued to escort them and their mother. They were now beginning to dwarf the bigger ships sent by UC scientists to study them, though like any Leviathan they showed no ill-will or violent intent toward their guardians and watchers.
“Is that Monarch again? He gets dirty so easily,” Rosa laughed.
Zuva gave a throaty chortle. “Reminds me of my youngest, always covered in mud and who knows what. Did anyone hear about what happened with Viv and her team?”
Melody remembered that Viv had the honor of escorting one of the oldest Leviathans known. “They’re the ones guarding Gramps?”
“Yup, that old crochety bastard,” Zuva said with another laugh. Gramps had the distinction of being one of the few ill-tempered Leviathans. “He activated a Founder device near the Eris System. They think it might be one that stores the fuel cells.”
Once it had been discovered that Leviathans could turn on the Founder devices, the UC had become way more interested in assisting LEaP. They had been especially keen on figuring out what exactly powered the Founder devices. It hadn’t been Leviathan blood; while the Leviathans’ song could activate the devices, the machines themselves had run on a far different power source. One with rechargeable fuel cells.
The black market was about to take a major hit once scientists figured out how to incorporate the tech into their engines and machines. LEaP had been promised with having the honor of the first Founder engine ships, new Stingers to help protect the Leviathans from bitter poachers.
“Crescent is trying to eat one of the probes again,” Mei giggled.
“Jesus, not again,” Melody groaned.
“I told you all, babies like to stick shit in their mouths,” Zuva said. “I got it.”
Along with new fuel sources, they had found machines and tools designed solely for caring for the Leviathans. Apparently the Leviathans were Founder devices themselves, organic creations of that long dead race. Why and how the Founders had created the Leviathans was a mystery, but the creations had outlived the creators and now were one of the few keys that the UC had to unlocking the mysteries of the Founders. The Leviathans’ songs were the biggest key, the code that brought the Founder devices back alive and activated those ancient machines.
“The first Founder device-powered ships should be available soon,” Rosa said. “We may be out of a job.”
“We’ll never be out of a job,” Zuva snorted. “Poachers are always going to be killing Leviathans, if not for fuel then for other, stupid, reasons.”
“And there are other animals that get targeted. We might not have to protect Leviathans anymore, but there are other creatures that need protection,” Melody replied.
“Did you hear? Scientists finally decided on an official name for a group of Leviathans.” Mei piped up in her quiet and soft voice.
Melody grinned. “Did they take our suggestion?”
“Yes. A group of Leviathans is now known as a ‘choir,’” Mei said.
A choir of Leviathans, all singing their celestial songs. “Perfect,” Melody said.
There was a holo-pic on her console. It showed a smiling Melody arm in arm with a taller woman, Noel, while in the background, baby Leviathans could be seen swimming through space. Noel had coded the words ‘Proud Grandma’ into the pic and it made Melody smile to see it. Proud indeed. The first Leviathans born in almost a century, and she had been the one to help make it happen. Her and her team.
Zuva was right. They would never be out of a job, but that was okay. This was what she had to do. Something to prove that she wasn’t the weak and broken prisoner that had been dragged to freedom by her friend. Instead she was the one who protected the weak. She was the one who fought for the frail, spilled blood, and lost friends guarding Leviathans.
She was one of the brave ones.
About the Author
I am a writer/artist who was born in Florida but moved around a lot growing up. My mother is a Jamaican immigrant and growing up in West Indian culture has had a huge impact on my writing. I have one dog and two cats and currently live in Indiana.