David Brin's STARTIDE RISING

Startide Rising sample chapters

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FROM THE JOURNAL OF GILLIAN BASKIN:
     Streaker is limping like a dog on three legs.
     We took a chancy jump through overdrive yesterday, a step ahead of the Galactics who are chasing us. The one probability coil that had survived the Morgran battle groaned and complained, but finally delivered us here, to the shallow gravity of a small population-II dwarf star named Kthsemenee.
     The Library lists one habitable world in orbit, the planet Kithrup.
     When I say "habitable," it's with charity. Tom, Hikahi, and I spent hours with the captain, looking for alternatives. In the end, Creideiki decided to bring us here.
     As a physician, I dread landing on a planet as insidiously dangerous as this one, hut Kithrup is a water world, and our mostly-dolphin crew needs water to be able to move about and repair the ship. Kithrup is rich in heavy metals, and should have the raw materials we need.
     It also has the virtue of being seldom visited. The Library says it's been fallow for a very long time. Maybe the Galactics won't think to look for us here.
     I said as much to Tom last night, as he and I held hands and watched the planet's disc grow larger in one of the lounge ports. It's a deceptively lovely blue globe, swathed in bands of white clouds. The night side was lit in patches by dimly glowing volcanoes and flickering lightning.
     I told Tom that I was sure no one would follow us here -- pronouncing the prediction confidently, and fooling nobody. Tom smiled and said nothing, humoring my bout of wishful thinking.
     They'll look here, of course. There were only a few inter-spatial paths Streaker could have taken without using a transfer point. The only question is, can we get our repairs finished in time, and get away from here before the Galactics come for us?
     Tom and I had a few hours to ourselves, our first in days. We went back to our cabin and made love.
     While he sleeps, I'm making this entry. I don't know when I'll have another chance.
     Captain Creideiki just called. He wants both of us up on the bridge, I suppose so the fins can see us and know their human patrons are nearby. Even a competent dolphin spacer like Creideiki might feel the need from time to time.
     If only we humans had that psychological refuge.
     Time to put this down and awaken my tired fellow. But first, I want to jot down what Tom said to me last night, while we watched Kithrup's stormy seas.
     He turned to me, smiled that funny way he does when he thinks of something ironic, and whistled a brief haiku in dolphin-Trinary.

* The stars shake with storms
     * The waters below roll thunder --
          * Still, are we wet, love? *

     I had to laugh. Sometimes I think Tom is half dolphin.

PART ONE: Buoyancy

"All your better deeds
shall be
in water writ..."
 
-- FRANCIS BEAUMONT and JOHN FLETCHER

1. Toshio

     Fins had been making wisecracks about human beings for thousands of years. They had always found men terribly funny. The fact that humanity had recently meddled with their genes, and taught them engineering, hadn't done much to change their attitude.
     Fins were still smart-alecks.
     Toshio watched the small instrument panel of his seasled, pretending to check the depth gauge. The sled thrummed along at a constant ten meters below the surface. There were no adjustments to be made, yet he concentrated on the panel as Keepiru swam up alongside -- doubtless to start another round of teasing.
     "Little Hands, whistle!" The sleek, gray cetacean did a barrel roll to Toshio's right, then drew nearer to eye the boy casually. "Whistle us a tune about shipsss and space and going home!"
     Keepiru's voice, echoing from a complex set of chambers under his skull, rumbled like the groaning of a bassoon. He could just as well have imitated an oboe, or a tenor sax.
     "Well, Little Hands? Where is your sssong?"
     Keepiru was making sure the rest of the party could hear. The other fins swam quietly, but Toshio could tell they were listening. He was glad that Hikahi, the leader of the expedition, was far ahead, scouting. It would be far worse if she were here and ordered Keepiru to leave him alone. Nothing Keepiru said could match the shame of being protected like a helpless child.
     Keepiru rolled lazily, belly up, next to the boy's sled, kicking slow fluke strokes to stay easily abreast of Toshio's machine. In the crystal-clear water of Kithrup, everything seemed strangely refracted. The coral-like peaks of the metal-mounds shimmered as though mountains seen through the haze of a long valley. Drifting yellow tendrils of dangle-weed hung from the surface.
     Keepiru's gray skin had a phosphorescent sheen, and the needle-sharp teeth in his long, narrow, vee mouth shone with a teasing cruelty that had to be magnified... if not by the water, then by Toshio's own imagination.
     How could a fin be so mean?
     "Won't you sing for us, Little Hands? Sing us a song that will buy us all fish-brew when we finally get off this ssso-called planet and find a friendly port! Whistle to make the Dreamers dream of land!"
     Above the tiny whine of his air-recycler, Toshio's ears buzzed with embarrassment. At any moment, he was sure, Keepiru would stop calling him Little Hands and start using the new nickname he had chosen: "Great Dreamer."
     It was bad enough to be taunted for having made the mistake of whistling, when accompanying an exploration crew of fins -- hey had greeted his absentminded melody with razzberries and chittering derision -- but to be mockingly addressed by a title almost always reserved for great musicians or humpback whales... it was almost more than he could bear.
     "I don't feel like singing right now, Keepiru. Why don't you go bother somebody else?" Toshio felt a small sense of victory in managing to keep a quaver out of his voice.
     To Toshio's relief, Keepiru merely squeaked something high and fast in gutter Trinary, almost Primal Dolphin -- that in itself a form of insult. Then the dolphin arched and shot away to surface for air.
     The water on all sides was bright and blue. Shimmering Kithrupan fish flicked past with scaled backs that faceted the light like drifting, frosted leaves. All around were the various colors and textures of metal. Morning sunshine penetrated the clear, steady sea to glimmer off the peculiar life forms of this strange and inevitably deadly world.
     Toshio had no eye for the beauty of Kithrup's waters. Hating the planet, the crippled ship that had brought him here, and the fins who were his fellow castaways, he drifted into a poignantly satisfying rehearsal of the scathing retorts he should have said to Keepiru.
     If you're so good, Keepiru, why don't you whistle us up some vanadium!" Or, "I see no point in wasting a human song on a dolphin audience, Keepiru."
     In his imagination the remarks were satisfyingly effective. In the real world, Toshio knew, he could never say any such thing.
     First of all, cetacean vocalizings were legal tender in countless spaceports. And while it was the mournful ballads of the larger cousins, the whales, that brought the real prices, Keepiru's kin could buy intoxicants on a dozen worlds merely by exercising their lungs.
     Anyway, it would be a mistake to try to pull human rank on any of the crew of the Streaker. Old Hannes Suessi, one of the other six humans aboard, had warned him about that just after they had left Neptune, at the beginning of the voyage.
     "Try it and see what happens," the mechanic had suggested. "They'll laugh so hard, and so will I, if I have the good luck to be there when you do. Likely as not, one of them will take a nip at you for good measure! If there's anything fins don't respect, it's a human who never earned the right, putting on patron airs."
     "But the Protocols..." Toshio had started to protest.
     "Protocols my left eye! Those rules were set up so humans and chimps and fins will act in just the right way when Galactics are around. If the Streak gets stopped by a Soro patrol, or has to ask a Pilan Librarian for data somewhere, then Dr. Metz or Mr. Orley -- or even you or I -- might have to pretend were in charge... because none of those stuffed-shirt Eatees would give the time of day to a race as young as fins. But the rest of the time we take our orders from Captain Creideiki.
     "Hell, that'd be hard enough -- taking brown from a Soro and pretending you like it because the damned ET is nice enough to admit that humans, at least, are a bit above the level of fruit flies. Can you imagine how hard it would be if we actually had to run this ship? What if we had tried to make dolphins into a nice, well-behaved, slavey client race? Would you have liked that?"
     At the time Toshio had shaken his head vigorously. The idea of treating fins as clients usually were in the Five Galaxies was repulsive. His best friend, Akki, was a fin.
     Yet, there were moments like the present, when Toshio wished there were compensations for being the only human boy on a starship crewed mostly by adult dolphins.
     A starship which wasn't going anywhere at the moment, Toshio reminded himself. The acute resentment of Keepiru's goading was replaced by the more persistent, hollow worry that he might never leave the water world of Kithrup and see home.

* Slow your travel -- boy sled-rider *
* Exploring pod -- does gather hither *
* Hikahi comes -- we wait here for her *

     Toshio looked up. Brookida, the elderly dolphin metallurgist, had come up alongside on the left. Toshio whistled a reply in Trinary.

* Hikahi comes -- my sled is stopping *

     He eased the sled's throttle back.
     On his sonar screen, Toshio saw tiny echoes converging from far ahead. The scouts returning. He looked up and saw Hist-t and Keepiru playing at the surface.
     Brookida switched to Anglic. Though somewhat shrill and stuttered, it was still better than Toshio's Trinary, Dolphins, after all, had been modified by generations of genetic engineering to take up human styles, not the other way around.
     "You've found no t-traces of the needed substances, Toshio?" Brookida asked.
     Toshio glanced at the molecular sieve. "No, sir. Nothing so far. This water is unbelievably pure, considering the metal content of the planet's crust. Hardly any heavy metal salts."
     "And nothing on the long ssscan?"
     "No resonance on the bands I've been checking, though the noise level is awfully high. I'm not sure I'd be able to pick out monopole-saturated nickel, let alone the other stuff we're looking for. It's like trying to find that needle in a haystack."
     It was a paradox. The planet had metals in superabundance. One reason Captain Creideiki chose this world as a refuge. Yet the water was relatively pure... enough to allow dolphins to swim freely, though some complained of itching, and each would need chelating treatments back on the ship.
     The explanation lay all around them, in the plants and fishes.
     Calcium did not make up the bones of Kithrupan life forms. Other metals did. The water was strained and sieved clean by biological filters. As a result, the sea shone all around with the bright colors of metal and oxides of metal. The gleaming dorsal spines of living fish -- the silvery seedpods of underwater plants -- all contrasted with the mundane green of chlorophyllic leaves and fronds.
     Dominating the scenery were metal-mounds, giant, spongy islands shaped by millions of generations of coral-like creatures, whose metallo-organic exoskeletons accumulated into huge, flat-topped mountains rising a few meters above the mean water mark.
     Atop the islands drill-trees grew, sending metal-tipped roots through each mound to harvest organics and silicates, depositing a non-metallic layer on top and creating a cavity underneath. It was a strange pattern. Streaker's onboard Library had offered no explanation.
     Toshio's instruments detected clumps of pure tin, mounds of chromium fish eggs, coral colonies built from a variety of bronze, but so far no convenient, easily gathered piles of vanadium. No lumps of the special variety of nickel they sought.
     What they needed was a miracle -- one enabling a crew of dolphins, with seven humans and a chimpanzee, to repair the ship and get the hell out of this part of the galaxy before their pursuers caught up with them.
     At best, they had a few weeks to get away. The alternative was capture by any of a dozen not-entirely-rational ET races. At worst it could mean interstellar war on a scale not seen in a million years.
     It all made Toshio feel small, helpless, and very young.

     Toshio could hear, faintly, the high-pitched sonar echoes of the returning scouts. Each distant squeak had its tiny, colored counterpoint on his scanner screen.
     Then two gray forms appeared from the east, diving at last into the gathering above, cavorting, playfully leaping and biting.
     Finally one of the dolphins arched and dove straight down toward Toshio. "Hikahi's coming and wants the sssled topside," Keepiru chattered quickly, slurring the words almost into indecipherability. "Try not to get lost on the way up-p-p-p."
     Toshio grimaced as he vented ballast. Keepiru didn't have to make his contempt so obvious. Even speaking Anglic normally, fins usually sounded as if they were giving the listener a long series of razzberries.
     The sled rose in a cloud of tiny bubbles. When he reached the surface, water drained along the sides in long, gurgling rivulets. Toshio locked the throttle and rolled over to undo his faceplate.
     Sudden silence was a relief. The whine of the sled, the pings of the sonar, and squeaks of the fins all vanished. A fresh breeze swept past his damp, straight, black hair and cooled the hot feeling in his ears. It carried scents of an alien planet -- the pungence of secondary growth on an older island, the heavy, oily odor of a drill-tree in its peak of activity.
     And overlying everything was the slight tang of metal.
     It shouldn't harm them, they'd said back at the ship, least of all Toshio in his waterproof suit. Chelating would remove all of the heavy elements one might reasonably expect to absorb on a scouting trip... though no one knew for sure what other hazards this world might offer.
     But if they were forced to stay for months? Years?
     In that case the medical facilities of the Streaker could not deal with the slow accumulation of metals. In time they would start to pray for the Jophur, or Thennanin, or Soro ships to come and take them away for interrogation or worse -- simply to get off a beautiful planet that was slowly killing them.
     It wasn't a pleasant thought to dwell on. Toshio was glad when Brookida drifted alongside.
     "Why did Hikahi have me come up to the surface?" he asked the elderly dolphin. "I thought I was to stay out of sight below in case there were already spy-sats overhead."
     Brookida sighed. "I suppose she thinkss you need a break. Besides, who could spot as small a machine as the ssled, with so much metal around?"
     Toshio shrugged. "Well, it was nice of her."
     Brookida rose up in the water, balancing on a series of churning tail-strokes. "I hear Hikahi," he announced. "And here she isss."
     Two dolphins came in fast from the north, one light gray in appearance, the other dark and mottled. Through his headphones Toshio heard the voice of the party leader.

* Flame-fluked I -- Hikahi call you *
* Dorsal listening -- ventral doing *
* Laugh at my words -- but first obey them *
* Gather at the sled -- and listen! *

     Hikahi and Ssattatta circled the rest of the party once, then came to rest in front of the assembled expedition.
     Among mankind's gifts to the neo-dolphin had been an expanded repertoire of facial expression. A mere five hundred years of genetic engineering could not do for the porpoise what a million years of evolution had for man. Fins still expressed most of their feelings in sound and motion. But they were no longer frozen in what humans had taken (in some degree of truth) to be a grin of perpetual amusement. Fins were capable now of looking worried. Toshio might have chosen Hikahi's present expression as a classic example of delphin chagrin.
     "Phip-pit has disappeared," Hikahi announced.
     "I heard him cry out, over to the south of me, then nothing. He was searching for Ssassia, who disappeared earlier in the same direction. We will forego mapping and metals search to go and find them. All will be issued weaponss."
     There was a general susurration of discontent. It meant the fins would have to put on the harnesses they had only just had the pleasure of removing, on leaving the ship. Still, even Keepiru recognized this was urgent business.
     Toshio was briefly busy dropping harnesses into the water. They were supposed to spread naturally into a shape suitable for a dolphin to slip into, but inevitably one or two fins needed help fitting the small nerve amplifier socket each had just above the left eye.
     Toshio finished quickly, with the unconscious ease of long practice. He was worried about Ssassia, a gentle fin who had always been kind and soft-spoken to him.
     "Hikahi," he said as the leader swam past, "do you want me to call the ship?"
     The small gray Tursiops female rose up to face Toshio. Negative, Ladder-runner. We obey orders. Spy-sats may be high already. Set your speed sled to return on auto if we fail to survive what is in the sssoutheast."
     "But no one's seen any big animals..."
     "That-t is only one possibility. I want word to get back whatever our doom... should even rescue fever strike us all."
     Toshio felt cold at the mention of "rescue fever." He had heard of it, of course. It was something he had no desire to witness.

     They set forth in skirmish formation. The fins took turns gliding along the surface, then diving to swim alongside Toshio. The ocean bottom was like an endless series of snake tracks -- pitted by strange pock-holes like deep craters, darkly ominous. In the valleys Toshio could usually see bottom, a hundred meters or so below, gloomy with dark blue tendrils.
     The long ridges were topped at intervals by the shining metal-mounds, like hulking castles of shimmering, spongy armor. Many were covered with thick, ivy-like growths in which Kithrupan fishes nested and bred. One metal-mound appeared to be teetering on the edge of a precipice -- the cavern dug by its own tall drill-tree, ready to swallow the entire fortress when the undermining was done.
     The sled's engine hummed hypnotically. Keeping track of his instruments was too simple a task to keep Toshio's mind busy. Without really wishing to, he found himself thinking. Remembering.
     A simple adventure, that's what it had seemed when they had asked him to come along on the space voyage. He had already taken the Jumpers' Oath, so they knew he was ready to leave his past behind. And they needed a midshipman to help with hand-eye work on the new dolphin ship.
     Streaker was a small exploratory vessel of unique design. There weren't many finned, oxygen-breathing races flying ships in interstellar space. Those few used artificial gravity for convenience, and leased members of some client species to act as crafters and handmen.
     But the first dolphin-crewed starship had to be different. It was designed around a principle which had guided Earthlings for two centuries: "Whenever possible, keep it simple. Avoid using the science of the Galactics when you don't understand it."
     Two hundred and fifty years after contact with Galactic civilization, mankind was still struggling to catch up. Species which had been using the aeons-old Library since before mammals appeared on Earth -- adding to that universal compendium with glacial slowness -- had seemed almost god-like to primitive Earthmen in their early, lumbering slowships. Earth had a branch Library, now, supposedly giving her access to all wisdom accumulated over Galactic history. But only in recent years had it proven more help than a confusing hindrance.
     Streaker, with its complex arrangements of centrifugally held pools and weightless workshops, must have seemed incredibly archaic to the aliens who looked it over just before launch. Still, to Earth's neo-dolphin communities, she was an object of pride.
     After her shakedown cruise, Streaker stopped at the small human-dolphin colony of Calafia to pick up the best graduates of its tiny academy. It was to be Toshio's first, and possibly last, visit to old Earth.
     "Old Earth" was still home to ninety percent of humanity, not to mention the other terrestrial sapient races. Galactic tourists still thronged in to gawk at the home of the enfant terribles who had caused such a stir in a few brief centuries. They were open in their wagering over how long Mankind would survive without the protection of a patron.
     All species had patrons, of course. Nobody reached spacefaring intelligence without intervention by another, older race. Had not men done this for chimps and dolphins? All the way back to the time of the mythical Progenitors, every species that spoke and flew spaceships had been raised up by a predecessor. None still survived from that distant era, but the civilization the Progenitors established, with its all-encompassing Library, went on.
     Toshio wondered, as just about everyone had for three centuries, what the patrons of Man might have been like. If they ever existed. Might they even be one of the species of fanatics that had ambushed the unsuspecting Streaker, and even now sought her out like hounds after a fox?
     It wasn't a pleasant line of thought, considering what the Streaker had discovered.
     The Terragens Council had sent her to join a scattered fleet of exploration vessels, checking the veracity of the Library. So far only a few minor gaps had been found in its thoroughness. Here a star misplaced. There a species miscatalogued. It was like finding someone had written a list describing every grain of sand on a beach. You could never check the complete list in a thousand lifetimes of a race, but you could take a random sampling.
     Streaker had been poking through a small gravitational tide pool, fifty thousand parsecs off the galactic plane, when she found the fleet.
     Toshio sighed at the unfairness of it. One hundred and fifty dolphins, seven humans, and a chimpanzee; how could we have known what we found?
     Why did we have to find it?
     Fifty thousand ships, each the size of a moon. That's what they found. The dolphins had been thrilled by their discovery -- the biggest derelict fleet ever encountered, apparently incredibly ancient. Captain Creideiki had psicast to Earth for instructions.
     Dammit! Why did he call Earth? Couldn't the report have waited until we'd gone home? Why let the whole eavesdropping galaxy know you'd found a Sargasso of ancient hulks in the middle of nowhere?
     The Terragens Council had answered in code.
     "Go into hiding. Await orders. Do not reply."
     Creideiki obeyed, of course. But not before half the patron-lines in the galaxy had sent out their warships to find Streaker.

     Toshio blinked.
     Something. A resonance echo at last? Yes, the magnetic ore detector showed a faint echo toward the south. He concentrated on the receiver, relieved at last to have something to do. Self-pity was becoming a bore.
     Yes. It would have to he a pretty fair deposit. Should he tell Hikahi? Naturally, the search for the missing crewfen came first, but...
     A shadow fell across him. The party was skirting the edge of a massive metal-mound. The copper-colored mass was covered with thick tendrils of some green hanging growth.
     "Don't go too close, Little Hands," Keepiru whistled from Toshio's left. Only Keepiru and the sled were this close to the mound. The other fins were giving it a wide berth.
     "We know nothing of this flora," Keepiru continued. "And it'ss near here that Phip-pit was lost. You should stay safe within our convoy." Keepiru rolled lazily past Toshio, keeping up with languid fluke strokes. The neatly folded arms of his harness gleamed a coppery reflection from the metal-mound.
     "Then it's all the more important to get samples, isn't it?" Toshio replied in irritation. "That's what were here for!" Without giving Keepiru time to react, Toshio banked the sled toward the shadowy mass of the mound, entering darkness as the island blocked the afternoon sunlight. A drifting school of silver-backed fish seemed to explode away from him as he drove at an angle along the thick, fibrous weed.
     Keepiru squeaked in startlement behind him, an oath in Primal Delphin, which showed the fin's distress. Toshio smiled.
     The sled hummed cooperatively as the mound loomed like a mountain on his right. Toshio banked and grabbed at the nearest flash of green. There was a satisfying snapping sensation as his sample came free in his hand. No fin could do that! He flexed his fingers appreciatively, then twisted about to stuff the clump into a collection sack.
     Toshio looked up and saw that the green mass, instead of receding, was closer than ever. Keepiru's squawling was louder.
     Crybaby! Toshio thought. So I let the controls drift for a second. So what? I'll be back in your damned convoy before you finish making up a cuss-poem.
     He steepened his leftward bank and simultaneously set his bow planes to rise, then realized it was a tactical mistake. For it slowed him down just enough for a cluster of pursuing tendrils to arrive.
     There must be larger sea creatures on Kithrup than the party had seen so far, for the tentacles that fell about Toshio were obviously meant to catch big prey.
     "Oh, Koino-Anti! Now I've done it!" He pushed the throttle over to maximum and braced for the expected surge of power.
     Power came... but not acceleration. The sled groaned, stretching the ropy strands. But forward movement was lost. Then the engine died. Toshio felt a slithery presence across his legs, then another. The tendrils began to tighten and pull.
     Gasping, he managed to twist onto his back, and groped for the knife sheathed at his thigh. The tendrils were sinuous and knotty, clinging to whatever they touched, and when one brushed the back of Toshio's exposed left hand, the boy cried out from searing pain.
     The fins squealed to each other, and there were sounds of vigorous movement not far away. But other than a brief prayer that nobody else was caught, Toshio had no time to think of anything but the fight at hand.
     The knife came free, gleaming like hope. And hope brought hope as two small strands parted under his slashing attack. Another, larger, one, took several seconds to saw through. It was replaced almost instantly by two more.
     Then he saw where he was being drawn.
     A deep gash split the metal-mound. Inside, a writhing mass of filaments waited. Deep within, a dozen meters farther up, something sleek and gray lay enmeshed in a forest of deceptively languid foliage.
     Toshio felt open-mouthed steam fill his facemask. The reflection of his own eyes, dilated and stricken, was superimposed on the motionless figure of Ssassia. Gentle as her life had been, though not her death, the tide rocked her.
     With a cry, Toshio resumed hacking. He wanted to call out to Hikahi -- to let the party leader know of Ssassia's fate -- but all that came out was a roar of loathing of the Kithrupan creeper. Leaves and fronds flew through the churning water as he sliced out his hatred, to little good as the tendrils fell more numerous about him to draw him toward the gash.

* Ladder climber -- Sharp-eyed rhymer *
* Call a fix -- for seeking finders *
* Trill sonar -- through the leaf blinders *

     Hikahi calling.
     Above the churning of his struggle and the hoarseness of his breath, Toshio could hear combat sounds of dolphin teamwork. Quick trills of Trinary, unslowed for human ears except that one brief command, and the whining of their harnesses.
     "Here! Here I am!" He slashed at a vine that threatened his air hose, barely missing the hose itself. He licked his lips and tried to whistle in Trinary.

* Holding off -- the sea-squid's beak *
* Suckers tight -- and outlook bleak *
* Havoc done -- on Ssassia wreaked! *

     Lousy form and rhythm, but the fins would hear it better than a shout in Anglic. After just forty generations of sapience, they still thought better in an emergency when using whistle rhyme.
     Toshio could hear the sounds of combat corning closer. But, as if hurried by the threat, the tentacles began drawing him back more rapidly, toward the gash. Suddenly a sucker-covered strand wrapped itself around his right arm. Before he could shift his grip, one of the burning knots reached his hand. He screamed and tore the tendril away, but the knife was lost to darkness.
     Other filaments were falling all about him. At that moment Toshio became distantly aware that someone was talking to him, slowly, and in Anglic!
     "... says there are ships out there! Vice-Captain Takkata-Jim wants to know why Hikahi hasn't sent a monopulse confirmation..."
     It was Akki's voice, calling from the ship! Toshio couldn't answer his friend. The switch for the sled radio was out of reach, and he was preoccupied.
     "Don't respond to this message," Akki went on obligingly. Toshio moaned at the irony as he tried to pry a tendril off his facemask without doing further insult to his hands. "Just transmit a monopulse and come on back-k, all of you. We think there's a space battle going on over Kithrup. Probably those crazy ETs followed us here and are fighting over the right to capture us, just like at Morgran.
     "Gotta c-close up, now. Radio silence. Get back as soon as you can. Akki out."
     Toshio felt a tendril seize hold of his air hose. A solid grip, this time.
     "Sure, Akki, old friend," he grunted as he pulled at it. "I'll be going home just as soon as the universe lets me."
     The air hose crimped shut and there was nothing he could do. Fog filled his facemask. As he felt himself blacking out, Toshio thought he saw the rescue party arrive, but he couldn't be sure if it was real or a hallucination. He wouldn't have expected Keepiru to lead the charge, for instance, or for that fin to have such a ferocious demeanor, heedless of the burning suckers.
     In the end, he decided it was a dream. The laser flashes were too bright, the saser tones too clear. And the party came toward him with pennants waving in their wake like the cavalry that five centuries of Anglic-speaking man had come to associate with the image of rescue.

2. Galactics

     On a ship in the center of a fleet of ships, a phase of denial was passing.
     Giant cruisers spilled out of a rent in space, to fall toward the pinpoint brilliance of a nondescript reddish sun. One by one, they tumbled from the luminous tear. With them came diffracted starlight from their point of departure, hundreds of parsecs away.
     There were rules that should have prevented it. The tunnel was an unnatural way to pass from place to place. It took a strong will to deny nature and call into being such an opening in space.
     The Episiarch, in its outraged rejection of What Is, had created the passage for its Tandu masters. The opening was held by the adamant power of its ego -- by its refusal to concede anything at all to Reality.
     When the last ship was through, the Episiarch was purposely distracted, and the hole collapsed with soundless violence. In moments, only instruments could tell that it had ever been. The affront to physics was erased.
     The Episiarch had brought the Tandu armada to the target star well ahead of the other fleets, those who would challenge the Tandu for the right to capture the Earth ship. The Tandu sent impulses of praise to the Episiarch's pleasure centers. It howled and waved its great furry head in gratitude.
     To the Tandu, an obscure and dangerous form of travel had once again proved worth the risks. It was good to arrive on the battlefield before the enemy. The added moments would give them a tactical edge.
     The Episiarch only wanted things to deny. Its task now finished, it was returned to its chamber of delusions, to alter an endless chain of surrogate realities until its outrage was needed by the Masters once again. Its shaggy, amorphous shape roiled free of the sensory web, and it shambled off, escorted by wary guardians.
     When the way was clear, the
Acceptor entered, and climbed on spindly legs to its place within the web.
     For a long moment it appraised Reality, embracing it. The
Acceptor probed and touched and caressed this new region of space with its farflung senses. It gave out a crooning cry of pleasure.
     "Such leakage!" the
Acceptor joyously announced. "I had heard the hunted were sloppy sophonts, but they leak even as they scan for danger! They have hidden on the second planet. Only slowly do the edges of their psychic shields congeal to hide from me their exact location. Who were their masters, to teach these dolphins so well to be prey?"
     "Their masters are the
humans, themselves unfinished," the Leading Stalker of the Tandu replied. Its voice was a rhythmic pattern of rapid clicks and pops from the ratchet joints of its mantis-legs. "The Earthlings are tainted by wrong belief, and by the shame of their own abandonment. The noise of three centuries shall be quieted when they are eaten. Then our hunter's joy will be as yours is, when you witness a new place or thing."
     "Such joy," the
Acceptor agreed.
     "Now stir to get details," the Stalker commanded, "Soon we do battle with heretics. I must tell your fellow clients their tasks."
     The
Acceptor tuned in the web as the Stalker left, and opened its feelings to this new patch of reality. Everything was good. It passed on reports of what it saw, and the Masters moved the ships in response, but with the larger part of its mind it appreciated... it accepted... the tiny red sun, each of its small planets, the delicious expectancy of a place soon to become a battlefield.
     Soon it felt the other war fleets enter the system, each in its own peculiar way. Each took a slightly inferior position, forced by the early arrival of the Tandu.
     The Acceptor sensed the lusts of warrior clients and the cool calculations of calmer elders. It caressed the slickness of mind shields rigidly held against it, and wondered what went on within them. It appreciated the openness of other combatants, who disdainfully cast their thoughts outward, daring the listener to gather in their broadcast contempt.
     It swept up savage contemplations of the
Acceptor's own annihilation, as the great fleets plunged toward each other and bright explosions began to flash.
     The
Acceptor took it all in joyfully. How could anyone feel otherwise, when the universe held such wonders?

3. Takkata-Jim

     High in the port quarter of Streaker's spherical control room, a psi operator thrashed in her harness. Her flukes made a turmoil of the water, and she cried out in Trinary.

* The inky, eight-armed, squid-heads find us! *
* Ripping pods of them do battle! *

     The operator's report confirmed the discovery made by neutrino sensor moments before. It was a litany of bad news, related in trance-verse.

* They scream and lust --
     To win and capture... *

     From another station came a calmer bulletin in dolphin-accented Anglic.
     "We're getting heavy graviton traffic, Vice-Captain Takkata-Jim. Gravitational disturbances confirm a major battle is forming up not far from the planet-t."
     The executive officer of the Streaker listened quietly, letting himself drift sideways in the circulating currents of the command center. A stream of bubbles emerged from his blowhole as he inhaled some of the special fluid that filled the ship's bridge.
     "Acknowledged," he said at last. Underwater, his voice was a muted buzz. The consonants came out slurred. "How far away is the nearest contact?"
     "Five AU, sssir. They couldn't get here for at leasst an hour, even if they came hell-bent."
     "Hmmm. Very well, then. Remain in condition yellow. Continue your observationsss, Akeakemai."
     The vice-captain was unusually large for a neo-fin, thick-bodied and muscular where most of the others were sleek and narrow. His uneven gray coloring and jagged teeth were marks of the Stenos sub-racial line, setting him and a number of others apart from the Tursiops majority.
     The human next to Takkata-Jim was impassive as the bad news came. It only confirmed what they had feared.
     "We had better inform the captain, then," Ignacio Metz said. The words were amplified by his facemask into the fizzing water. Bubbles floated away from the tall human's sparse gray hair.
     "I warned Creideiki this would happen if we tried eluding the Galactics. I only hope he decides to be reasonable, now that escape's become impossible."
     Takkata-Jim opened and closed his foodmouth diagonally, an emphatic nod.
     "Yesss, Doctor Metz. Now even Creideiki must recognize that you were right. We're cornered now, and the captain will have no choice but to listen to you."
     Metz nodded, gratified. "What about Hikahi's team? Have they been told?"
     "I've already ordered the prospecting party back. Even the sled might be too much of a risssk. If the Eatees are already in orbit they might have means to detect it."
     "Extraterrestrials..." Metz corrected, professorial. The term 'Eatee' is hardly polite."
     Takkata-Jim kept an impassive face. He was in command of ship and crew while the captain was off watch. Yet the human treated him like a fresh-weaned pupil. It was irritating, but Takkata-Jim was careful never to let it show. "Yes, Dr. Metz."
     "Hikahi's party should never have left the ship. I warned Tom Orley something like this might happen. Young Toshio's out there... and all those crewfen, out of contact for so long. It would be terrible if anything happened to them!"
     The human was probably thinking about how terrible it would be if any of Streaker's crew got killed away from his sight... out where he was unable to judge how they behaved for his behavioral and genetic studies. "If only Creideiki had listened to you, sssir," he repeated, "You always have so much to say."
     It was chancy, but if the human ever saw through Takkata-Jim's respectful mask to the core of sarcasm, he never gave it away.
     "Well, nice of you to say so, Takkata-Jim. I know you have things to do now, so I'll find Creideiki and break the news that our pursuers have followed us to Kithrup."
     Takkata-Jim gave the human a deferential nod from high body stance, "That-t is kind of you, Doctor Metz."
     Metz patted the lieutenant on his rough flank, as if to reassure him. Takkata-Jim bore the patronizing gesture with outward calm, and watched as the human turned to swim away.
     The bridge was a fluid-filled sphere which bulged slightly from the bow of the cylindrical ship. The main ports looked into a murky scene of ocean ridges, sediment, and drifting sea creatures.
     The crew's web-lined work stations were illuminated by small spotlights. Most of the chamber lay in quiet shadows, as elite bridge personnel carried out their tasks quickly and almost silently. The only sounds, other than the swish and fizz of recycling oxywater, were the intermittent click of sonar pulses and terse, professional comments from one operator to another.
     Give Creideiki his due, Takkata-Jim told himself. He has crafted a finely tuned machine in this bridge crew.
     Of course, dolphins were less consistent than humans. You couldn't tell in advance what might cause a neo-fin to start unraveling until you saw him perform under stress. This bridge crew performed as well as any he had ever seen, but would it be enough?
     If they had overlooked a single radiation or psi leak, the ETs would be down on them quicker than orcas upon harbor seals.
     The fins out there in the prospecting team were safer than their comrades aboard ship, Takkata-Jim thought somewhat bitterly. Metz was a fool to worry about them. They were probably having a wonderful time!
     Takkata-Jim tried to recall swimming free in an ocean, without a harness, and breathing natural air. He tried to recall diving in deep water, the deep water of the Stenos, where big-mouthed, smart-aleck, shore-hugging Tursiops were rare as dugongs.
     "Akki," he called to the E.L.F. radio operator, the young dolphin midshipman from Calafia. "Have you received confirmation from Hikahi? Did she get the recall?"
     The colonial was a small Tursiops variant of yellowish-gray coloration. Akki replied with some hesitation. He still wasn't used to breathing and speaking in oxywater. It required a very odd dialect of Underwater Anglic.
     "I'm... sh-sorry, Vice-Captain, there's no reply. I checked for a monopulse on all... ch-channels. There's been nothing."
     Takkata-Jim tossed his head in irritation. Hikahi might have decided that even a monopulse reply would be too much risk. Still, confirmation would have taken from his back an unpleasant decision.
     "Mm-m-m, sir? Akki tipped his head down and lowered his tail in respect.
     "Yess?"
     "Ah... shouldn't we repeat the message? There's a chance they were distracted and missed it the firsh... first time..."
     Like all dolphins from the colony planet Calafia, Akki was proud of his cultured Anglic. It apparently bothered him to have trouble with such simple sentences.
     That suited the vice-captain fine. If there was one Anglic word that translated perfectly into Trinary, it was "smartass." Takkata-Jim didn't care for smartass midshipmen.
     "No, comm-operator. We have our orders. If the captain wants to try again when he gets here, he's welcome. Meantime, attend your possst."
     "Heth... er, aye aye, shir." The young dolphin spun about to return to his station, where he could breathe from an airdome instead of gulping water like a fish. There he could speak like a normal person while he awaited word from his closest friend, the human middie out in the wide, alien ocean.

     Takkata-Jim wished the captain would come soon. The control room felt closed and dead. Breathing the fizzing, gas-charged oxywater always left him tired at the end of his shift. It never seemed to provide enough oxygen. His supplementary gill-lungs itched with the irritation of defied instinct, and the pills -- the ones that forced extra oxygen into his system through his intestines -- always gave him heartburn.
     Once again he caught sight of Ignacio Metz. The white-haired scientist clutched a stanchion, with his head thrust under a comm airdome to call Creideiki. When he finished he would probably want to hang around. The man was always hovering nearby, watching... always making him feel he was being tested.
     "I need a human ally," Takkata-Jim reminded himself. Dolphins were in command of Streaker, but the crew seemed to obey an officer more rapidly if he had the confidence of one of the patron race. Creideiki had Tom Orley. Hikahi had Gillian Baskin. Brookida's human companion was the engineer, Suessi.
     Metz would have to be Takkata-Jim's human. Fortunately, the man could be manipulated.
     Reports on the space battle were coming in faster on the data displays. It seemed to he turning into a real conflagration over the planet. At least five big fleets were involved.
     Takkata-Jim resisted the sudden urge to turn and bite something, to lash out hard with his flukes. What he wanted was something to fight! Something palpable, instead of this hanging pall of dread!
     After weeks of fleeing, Streaker was trapped at last. What new trick would Creideiki and Orley conic up with to get them away this time?
     What if they failed to come up with a plan? Or worse, contrived some squid-brained scheme to get them all killed? What would he do then?
     Takkata-Jim mulled over the problem to keep his mind busy while he waited for the captain to come and relieve him.

4. Creideiki

     It had been his first restful sleep in weeks. Naturally, it had to be interrupted.
     Creideiki was used to taking his rest in zero gee, suspended in moist air. But as long as they were in hiding, anti-gravity beds were banned, and sleeping in liquid was the only other way for a dolphin.
     He had tried for a week to breathe oxywater all through his rest period. The result had been nightmares and exhausting dreams of suffocation. The ship's surgeon, Makanee, had suggested he try sleeping in the old-fashioned way, drifting at the surface of a pool of water.
     Creideiki decided to try Makanee's alternative. He made sure that there was a big air-gap at the top of his stateroom. Then he verified three times that the redundant oxygen alarms were all in perfect order. Finally, he shrugged out of his harness, turned off the lights, rose to the surface and expelled the oxywater in his gill-lung.
     That part was a relief. Still, at first he just lay at the air-gap near the overhead, his mind racing and his skin itching for the touch of his tool harness. It was an irrational itch, he knew. Pre-spaceflight humans, in their primitive, neurotic societies, must have felt the same way about nudity.
     Poor Homo sapiens! Mankind's histories showed such suffering during those awkward millennia of adolescence before Contact, when they were ignorant and cut off from Galactic society.
     Meanwhile, Creideiki thought, dolphins had been in almost a state of grace, drifting in their corner of the Whale Dream. When men finally achieved a type of adulthood, and started lifting the higher creatures of Earth to join them, dolphins of the amicus strain moved fairly easily from one honorable condition to another.
     We have our own problems, he reminded himself. He badly wanted to scratch the base of his amplifier socket, but there was no way to reach it without his harness.
     He floated at the surface, in the dark, awaiting sleep. It was sort of restful, tiny wavelets lapping against the smooth skin above his eyes. And real air was definitely more relaxing to breathe than oxywater.
     But he couldn't escape a vague unease over sinking... as if it would harm him any to sink in oxywater... as if millions of other dolphins, hadn't slept this way all their lives.
     Disconcerting was his spacer's habit of looking up. The ceiling bulkhead was inches away from the tip of his dorsal fin. Even when he closed his eyes, sonar told him of the nearness of enclosure. He could no more sleep without sending out echolocation clicks than a chimp could nap without scratching himself.
     Creideiki snorted. Beach himself if he'd let a shipboard requirement give him insomnia! He blew emphatically and began to count sonar clicks. He started with a tenor rhythm, then slowly built a fugue as he added deeper elements to the sleep-song.
     Echoes spread from his brow and diffracted about the small chamber. The notes drifted over one another, overlapping softly in faint whines and basso growls. They created a sonic structure, a template of otherness. The right combinations, he knew, would make the walls themselves seem to disappear.
     Deliberately, he peeled away the duty-rigor of Keneenk -- welcoming a small, trusted portion of the Whale Dream.

* When the patterns --
     In the cycloid
* Call in whispers --
     Soft remembered
* Murmuring of --
     Songs of dawning
* And of the Moon --
     The sea-tide's darling
* Then the patterns --
     In the cycloid
* Call in whispers --
     Soft remembered... *

     The desk, the cabinets, the walls, were covered under false sonic shadows. His chant began to open on its own accord, a rich and very physical poetry of crafted reflections.
     Floating things seemed to drift past, tiny tail-flicks, schools of dream creatures. The echoes opened space around him, as if the waters went on forever.

* And the Dream Sea,
     Everlasting
* Calls in whispers
     Soft remembered... *

     Soon he felt a presence nearby, congealing gradually out of reflections of sound.
     She formed slowly next to him as his engineer's consciousness let go... the shadow of a goddess. Then Nukapai floated beside him... a ghost of ripples, ribbed by motes of sound. The black sleekness of her body passed back into the darkness, unhindered by a bulkhead that seemed no longer there.
     Vision faded. The waters darkened all around Creideiki, and Nukapai became more than a shadow, a passive recipient of his song. Her needle teeth shone, and she sang his own sounds back to him.

* With the closeness --
     Of the waters
* In an endless --
     Layer of Dreaming
* As the humpback --
     Older sibling
* Sings songs to the --
     Serious fishes
* Here you find me --
     Wandering brother
* Even in this --
     Human rhythm
* Where humans
     And other walkers
* Give mirth to --
     The stars themselves... *

     A type of bliss settled over him as his heartbeat slowed. Creideiki slept next to the gentle dream-goddess. She chided him only teasingly for being an engineer, and for dreaming her in the rigid, focused verse of Trinary rather than the chaotic Primal of his ancestors.
     She welcomed him to the Threshold Sea, where Trinary sufficed, where he felt only faintly the raging of the Whale Dream and the ancient gods who dwelt there. It was as much of that ocean as an engineer's mind could accept.
     How rigid the Trinary verse sometimes seemed! The patterns of overlapping tones and symbols were almost human-precise... almost human-narrow.
     He had been brought up to think those terms compliments. Parts of his own brain had been gene-designed along human lines. But now and then chaotic sound-images slipped in, teasing him with hints of ancient singing.
     Nukapai clicked sympathetically. She smiled...
     No! She did no such land-ape thing! Of cetaceans, only the neo-dolphin "smiled" with their mouths.
     Nukapai did something else. She stroked against his side, gentlest of goddesses, and told him,

* Be now at peace *
* It is That is... *
* And engineers *
* Far from the ocean *
* Can hear it still *

     The tension of several weeks at last broke, and he slept. Creideiki's breath gathered in listening condensation on the ceiling bulkhead. The breeze from a nearby air duct brushed the droplets, which shuddered, then fell on the water like gentle rain.

     When the image of Ignacio Metz formed a meter to his right, Creideiki was slow to become aware.
     "Captain..." the image said. "I'm calling from the bridge. I am afraid the Galactics have found us here sooner than we expected..."
     Creideiki ignored the little voice that tried to call him back to deeds and battles. He lingered in a waving forest of kelp fronds, listening to long night sounds. Finally, it was Nukapai herself who nudged him from his dream. Fading beside him, she gently reminded,

# Duty, duty -- honor is, is --
     Honor, Creideiki -- alertly
# Shared, is -- Honor #

     Nukapai alone might speak Primal to Creideiki with impunity. He could no more ignore the dream-goddess than his own conscience. One eye at last focused on the hologram of the insistent human, and the words penetrated.
     "Thank you, Doctor Metz," he sighed. "Tell Takkata-Jim I'll be right-t there. And please page Tom Orley. I'd like to see him on the bridge. Creideiki out."
     He inhaled deeply for a few moments, letting the room come back into shape around him. Then he twisted and dove to retrieve his harness.

5. Tom Orley

     A tall dark-haired man swung one-handed from the leg of a bed, a bed that was bolted to the floor in an upside-down room. The floor slanted over his head. His left foot rested precariously on the bottom of a drawer pulled from one of the inverted wall cabinets.
     At the sudden yellow flash of the alert light, Tom Orley whirled and grabbed at his holster with his free hand. His needler was half-drawn before he recognized the source of the disturbance, cursed slowly and reholstered the weapon. Now what was the emergency? He could think of a dozen possibilities, offhand, and here he was, hanging by one arm in the most awkward part of the ship!
     "I initiate contact, Thomas Orley."
     The voice seemed to come from above his right ear. Tom changed his grip on the bed leg to turn around. An abstract three-dimensional pattern swirled a meter away from his face, like multicolored motes caught in a dust devil.
     "I suppose you would like to know of the cause of the alarm. Is this correct?"
     "You're damned right I do!" he snapped. "Are we under attack?"
     "No." The colored images shifted. "This ship is not yet assailed, but Vice-Captain Takkata-Jim has announced an alert. At least five intruder fleets are now in the neighborhood of Kithrup. These squadrons appear now to be in combat not far from the planet."
     Orley sighed, "So much for quick repairs and a getaway." He hadn't thought it likely that their hunters would let them escape again. The damaged Streaker had left a noisy trail, slipping away from the confusion after the ambush at Morgran.
     Tom had been helping the crew in the engine room repair Streaker's stasis generator. They had just finished the part calling for detailed hand-eye work, and the moment had come to steal away to a deserted section of the dry-wheel, where the Niss computer had been hidden.
     The dry-wheel was a hand of workrooms and cabins that spun freely when the ship was in space, providing pseudo-gravity for the humans aboard. Now it lay still, this section of upside-down corridors and cabins abandoned in the inconvenient gravity of the planet.
     The privacy suited Tom, though the topsy-turvy arrangement was irksome.
     "You weren't to announce yourself unless I switched you on manually," he said. "You were to wait for my thumbprint and voice i.d. before letting on you were anything but a standard comm."
     The swirling patterns took on a cubist style. The machine's voice sounded unperturbed. "Under the circumstances, I took the liberty. If I erred, I am prepared to accept discipline up to level three. Punishment of a higher order will be considered unjustified and rejected with prejudice."
     Tom allowed himself an ironic smile. The machine would run him in circles if he let it, and he would gain nothing by asserting his titular master over it. The Tymbrimi spy who had lent the Niss to him had made it clear that the machine's usefulness was based upon its flexibility and initiative, however irritating it became.
     "I'll take the level of your error under advisement," he told the Niss. "Now, what can you tell me about the present situation?"
     "A vague question. I can access the ship's battle computers. But that might entail an element of risk."
     "No, you'd better not do that quite yet." If the Niss tried to inveigle the battle computer during an alert, Creideiki's bridge crew might notice. Tom assumed Creideiki knew about the presence of the Niss aboard his ship, just as the captain knew that Gillian Baskin had her own secret project. But the dolphin commander kept quiet about it, leaving the two of them to their work.
     "All right, then. Can you patch me through to Gillian?"
     The holo danced with blue specks. "She is alone in her office. I am placing the call."
     The motes suddenly faded, replaced by the image of a blonde woman in her early thirties. She looked puzzled briefly, then her face brightened with a brilliant smile. She laughed.
     "Ah, visiting your mechanical friend, I see. Tell me, Tom, what does a sarcastic alien machine have that I don't? You've never gone head over heels so literally for me."
     "Very funny." Still, her attitude relieved his anxiety. He had been afraid they would be in combat almost immediately. In a week or so, Streaker might be able to make a good accounting of herself before being destroyed or captured. Right now, she had all the punch of a drugged rabbit.
     "I take it the Galactics aren't landing yet."
     Gillian shook her head. "No, though Makanee and I are standing by in the infirmary just in case. Bridge crew says at least three fleets have popped into space nearby. They immediately started having it out, just like at Morgran. We can only hope they'll annihilate each other."
     "Not much hope of that, I'm afraid."
     "Well, you're the tactician of the family. Still, it might be weeks before there is a victor to come down after us. There will be deals and last-minute alliances. We'll have time to think of something."
     Tom wished he could share her optimism. As the family tactician, it was his job to "think of something."
     "Well, if the situation's not urgent..."
     "You can spend a while longer with your roomie there -- my electronic rival. I'll get even by going intimate with Herbie."
     Tom could only shake his head and let her have her joke. Herbie was a cadaver -- their one tangible prize from the derelict fleet. Gillian had determined that the alien corpse was over two billion years old. The ship's mini-Library seemed to have seizures every time they asked what race it once belonged to.
     "Tell Creideiki I'll be right down, okay?"
     "They're waking him now. I'll tell him I last saw you hanging around somewhere." She gave a wink and switched off.
     Tom watched the place where her image had been, and once again wondered what he had done to deserve a woman like her.
     "Out of curiosity, Thomas Orley, I am interested in some of the undertones of this last conversation. Am I right in assuming that some of these mild insults Dr. Baskin conveyed fell into the category of affectionate teasing? My Tymbrimi builders are telempathic, of course, but they, also, seem to indulge in this pastime. Is it part of a mating process? Or is it a friendship test of some sort?"
     "A little of both, I guess. Do the Tymbrimi really do the same sort of..." Tom shook himself. "Never mind about that! My arms are tired and I've got to get below. Have you anything else to report?"
     "Not of significance to your survival or mission."
     "I take it you haven't managed to coax the ships mini-Library to deliver anything on Herbie or the derelict fleet."
     The holo flowed into sharp geometries. "That is the main problem, isn't it? Dr. Baskin asked me the same question thirteen hours ago."
     "And did you give her a more direct answer?"
     "Finding ways to bypass the access programming on this ship's mini-Library is the reason I was put aboard in the first place. I would tell you if I had succeeded." The machine's disembodied voice was dry enough to desiccate melons. "The Tymbrimi have long suspected that the Library Institute is less than neutral -- that the branch Libraries sold by them are programmed to be deficient in subtle ways, to put troublesome races at a disadvantage.
     "The Tymbrimi have been working on this problem since the days when your ancestors wore animal skins, Thomas Orley. It was never expected we would achieve anything more on this trip than gathering a few shards of new data, and perhaps elimination of a few minor barriers."
     Orley understood how the long-lived machine could take such a patient perspective. Still, he resented it. It would be nice to think something had come of the grief Streaker and her crew had fallen into. "After all the surprises we've encountered, this voyage must have served up more than a few bits to crunch."
     "The propensity of Earthlings to get into trouble, and to learn thereby, was the reason my owners agreed to this mad venture -- although no one expected such a chain of unusual calamities as befell this ship. Your talents were under-rated."
     There was no way to answer that. Tom's arms had begun to hurt. "Well, I'd better get back. In an emergency I'll contact you via ship's comm."
     "Of course."
     Orley let go and landed in a crouch by the closed doorway, a rectangle high on one steeply sloping wall.
     Dr. Baskin has just passed word, Takkata-Jim has ordered the survey party home," the Niss spoke abruptly. "She thought you would want to know."
     Orley cursed. Metz might have had a hand in that. How were they to repair the ship without looking for raw materials? Creideiki's strongest reason for coming to Kithrup had been the abundance of pre-refined metals in an oceanic environment accessible to dolphins. If Hikahi's prospectors were called back the danger had to he severe... or someone was panicking.
     Tom paused and looked up. "Niss, we must know what it is the Galactics think we found."
     The sparkles were muted. "I have done a thorough search of open files in this ship's micro-branch Library for any record that might shed light on the mystery of the derelict fleet. Aside from a few vague similarities between the patterns we saw on those gigantic hulls and some ancient cult symbols, I can find no support for a hypothesis that the ships we found are in way connected to the fabled Progenitors."
     But you found nothing to contradict it, either?"
     "Correct. The derelicts might or might not be linked with the one legend which binds all oxygen-breathing races in the Five Galaxies."
     "It could be we found huge bits of flotsam of no historical significance, then."
     "True. At the other extreme, you may have made the biggest archaeological and religious find of the age. The mere possibility helps to explain the battle shaping up in this solar system, indicative of how many of the Galactic cultures feel about events so long ago. So long an this ship is the sole repository of information about the derelict fleet, the survey vessel Streaker remains a great prize, valued by every brand of fanatic."
     Orley had hoped the Niss would find evidence to make their discovery innocuous. Such proof might have been used to get the ETs to leave them alone. Otherwise Streaker would have to find a way to get the information to Earth, and let wiser heads figure out what to do with it.
     "You keep contemplating, then," he told the Niss. "Meanwhile I'll help keep the Galactics off our backs. Now, can you tell me..."
     "Of course I can," the Niss interrupted again. "The corridor outside is clear. Don't you think I would let you know if anyone were outside?"
     Tom shook his head, certain the machine had been programmed to do this now and again. It would be typical of the Tymbrimi. Earth's greatest allies were also famous practical jokers. When a dozen other calamitous priorities had been settled, he intended taking a monkey wrench to the machine, and explaining the mess to his Tymbrimi friends as "an unfortunate accident."
     As the door panel slipped aside, Tom grabbed the rim and swung out to drop onto the dim hallway ceiling below. The door hummed shut automatically. Red alert lights flashed at intervals down the gently curved corridor.
     All right, he thought. Our hopes for a quick getaway are dashed, but I've already thought out some contingency plans.
     A few he had discussed with the captain. One or two he had kept to himself.
     I'll have to set a few into motion, he thought, knowing from experience that chance diverts all schemes.
     As likely as not, it will be something totally unexpected that turns up to offer us our last real hope.

Continue reading Startide Rising.