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This is a short story or novella, written before 1995.

A crew of aliens is attempting to kill a dangerous space monster. The creature damages their ship, leaving it with reduced firepower, and ship and monster land on Earth.

The aliens encounter a whaling ship and deduce what the harpoon gun is for. While the crew sleeps, they sneak aboard and upgrade the harpoon, tethering it to the chassis using an extremely strong cable. When the crew awake, they wonder "what kind of whale" they are being prepared for.

The creature attacks, and the whalers fight for their lives using the harpoon. They manage to subdue the creature with help from the alien ship, and the aliens finish it off.

The aliens' law requires any human who sees them to be killed to keep their existence secret, but the captain decides to let the whalers live, and abducts them instead.

The story is bookended by a description of the whaling ship floating, abandoned and badly damaged, with no clue what had happened to it.

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    I saw a movie a few years ago with a similar plot, set in Viking times. Outlander, starring Jim Caviezel. Jun 15, 2023 at 17:08

1 Answer 1

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This is Not Only Dead Men (1942) by A. E. van Vogt. The collection it appears in, Bug-Eyed Monsters, is available to borrow on the Internet Archive.

The aliens sneak aboard the ship and upgrade the harpoons and the cable (relevant excerpts extracted):

With a gasp he snatched at his revolver and took aim at the exposed back of the lizard where it was now bending over the strong dark cable that attached the harpoon to the ship.

[...]

There was, of course, that business of their oil being rendered useless and the curious affair just now, the thing coming aboard for the single purpose of studying the harpoon gun.

[...]

"Look, cap'n, the dirty beggars have cut our harpoon cable. And they’ve left us some measly copper wire or something in its place. Look at the junk."

Wardell took the extended wire blankly. The whole affair seemed senseless. He was conscious of the gunner‘s voice continuing to beat at him:

"And the damn stuff's all over the place, too. There's two other harpoon sets, and each set is braced liked a bloomin' masthead. They bored holes in the deck and ran the wires through, and lashed them to the backbone of the ship. It wouldn't be so bad if the stuff was any good, but that thin wire — hell!"

The part that should seal it for you is the quote you remember. It's said almost verbatim:

Amazingly, it [the cable] wouldn't cut. He strained with his great strength, but the wire only looked vaguely shiny, and even that might have been a trick of light. Behind him, somebody said in a queer voice:

"I think maybe we got a bargain. But what kind of a whale are they getting us ready for?"

Wardell stood very still, startled by the odd phrasing of the words:

He straightened, cold with decision. "Men," he said resonantly, "get your breakfasts. We're going to get to the bottom of this if it's the last thing we ever do."

It ends just as you remember: by law the aliens are required to kill the humans because "low-degree planets should be protected from contact", however the alien chooses to abduct the whalers instead:

Dorno’s soft, hissing voice made a quiet design of sound against the silence of the spaceship cabin: “The regulations are designed to protect the moral continuity of civilization, and to prevent a too literal interpretation of basic laws by time-calloused or thoughtless administrators. It is right that low-degree planets should be protected from contact, so vitally right that death is a justifiable measure against those who glimpse the truth, BUT—”

Dorno smiled, said: “When important assistance has been rendered a Galactic citizen or official, no matter what the circumstances, it is morally necessary to the continuity of civilized conduct that other means be taken to prevent the tale from spreading—

“There are precedents, of course," Dorno added quietly. “Accordingly, I have been plotting our new course. It will take us past the distant sun of Wodesk, from whose green and wonderful planets Earth was originally colonized.

“It will not be necessary to keep our guests in a cataleptic state. As soon as they recover from the effects of the silver gas, let them... experience the journey.”

A short synopsis from this review on Goodreads:

In ‘Not Only Dead Men’ a whaling ship encounters an alien craft and is enlisted in the hunt for the Devil-blal; a space-borne deadly creature, which has landed in the Earth’s ocean. Unfortunately, humans who learn of the existence of galactic society have to be silenced – permanently.

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    Thanks, I recognised a few of the phrases there, so I'm convinced this is the one. Jun 15, 2023 at 13:12

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