Jijo's ocean stroked her flank like a mother's nuzzling touch or a lover's caress. Though it seemed a bit disloyal, Makanee felt this alien ocean had a silkier texture and finer taste than the waters of Earth, the homeworld she had not seen in years.
With gentle beats of their powerful flukes, she and her companion kept easy pace beside a tremendous throng of fishlike creatures -- red-finned, with violet gills and long translucent tails that glittered in the slanted sunlight like plasma sparks behind a starship. The school seemed to stretch forever, grazing on drifting clouds of plankton, moving in unison through coastal shallows like the undulating body of a vast complacent serpent.
The creatures were beautiful... and delicious. Makanee performed an agile twist of her sleek gray body, lunging to snatch one from the teeming mass, provoking only a slight ripple from its nearest neighbors. Her casual style of predation must be new to Jijo, for the beasts seemed quite oblivious toward the dolphins. The rubbery flesh tasted like exotic mackerel.
"I can't help feeling guilty," she commented in Underwater Anglic, a language of clicks and squeals that was well-suited to a liquid realm where sound ruled over light.
Her companion rolled alongside the school, belly up, with ventral fins waving languidly as he grabbed one of the local fish for himself.
"Why guilty?" Brookida asked, while the victim writhed between his narrow jaws. Its soft struggle did not interfere with his train of word-glyphs, since a dolphin's mouth plays no role in generating sound. Instead a rapid series of ratcheting sonar impulses emanated from his brow. "Are you ashamed because you live? Because it feels good to be outside again, with a warm sea rubbing your skin and the crash of waves singing in your dreams? Do you miss the stale water and moldy air aboard ship? Or the dead echoes of your cramped stateroom?"
"Don't be absurd," she snapped back. After three years confined aboard the Terran survey vessel, Streaker, Makanee had felt as cramped as an overdue fetus, straining at the womb. Release from that purgatory was like being born anew.
"It's just that we're enjoying a tropical paradise while our crewmates --"
"-- must continue tearing across the cosmos in foul discomfort, chased by vile enemies, facing death at every turn. Yes, I know."
Brookida let out an expressive sigh. The elderly geophysicist switched languages, to one more suited for poignant irony.
* Winter's tempest spends
* All its force against the reef,
* Sparing the lagoon. *
The Trinary haiku was expressive and wry. At the same time though, Makanee could not help making a physician's diagnosis. She found her old friend's sonic patterns rife with undertones of Primal -- the natural cetacean demi-language used by wild Tursiops truncatus dolphins back on Earth -- a dialect that members of the modern amicus breed were supposed to avoid, lest their minds succumb to tempting ancient ways. Mental styles that lured with rhythms of animal-like purity.
She found it worrisome to hear Primal from Brookida, one of her few companions with an intact psyche. Most of the other dolphins on Jijo suffered to some degree from stress-atavism. Having lost the cognitive focus needed by engineers and starfarers, they could no longer help Streaker in its desperate flight across five galaxies. Planting this small colony on Jijo had seemed a logical solution, leaving the regressed ones for Makanee to care for in this gentle place, while their shipmates sped on to new crises elsewhere.
She could hear them now, browsing along the same fishy swarm just a hundred meters off. Thirty neo-dolphins who had once graduated from prestigious universities. Specialists chosen for an elite expedition -- now reduced to splashing and squalling, with little on their minds but food, sex, and music. Their primitive calls no longer embarrassed Makanee. After everything her colleagues had gone through since departing Terra -- on a routine one-year survey voyage that instead stretched into a hellish three -- it was surprising they had any sanity left at all.
Such suffering would wear down a human, or even a tymbrimi. But our race is just a few centuries old. Neo-dolphins have barely started the long Road of Uplift. Our grip on sapience is still slippery.
And now another trail beckons us.
After debarking with her patients, Makanee had learned about the local religion of the Six Races who already secretly settled this isolated world, a creed centered on the Path of Redemption -- a belief that salvation could be found in blissful ignorance and non-sapience.
It was harder than it sounded. Among the "sooner" races who had come to this world illegally, seeking refuge in simplicity, only one had succeeded so far, and Makanee doubted that the human settlers would ever reclaim true animal innocence, no matter how hard they tried. Unlike species who were uplifted, humans had earned their intelligence the hard way on Old Earth, seizing each new talent or insight at frightful cost over the course of a thousand harsh millennia. They might become ignorant and primitive -- but never simple. Never innocent.
We neo-dolphins will find it easy, however. We've only been tool-users for such a short time -- a boon from our human patrons that we never sought. It's simple to give up something you received without struggle. Especially when the alternative -- the Whale Dream -- calls seductively, each time you sleep.
An alluring sanctuary. The sweet trap of timelessness.
From clackety sonar emanations, she sensed her assistants -- a pair of fully conscious volunteers -- keeping herd on the reverted ones, making sure the group stayed together. Things seemed pleasant here, but no one knew for sure what dangers lurked in Jijo's wide sea.
We already have three wanderers out there somewhere. Poor little Peepoe and her two wretched kidnappers. I promised Kaa we'd send out search parties to rescue her. But how? Zhaki and Mopol have a huge head start, and half a planet to hide in.
Tkett's out there looking for her right now, and we'll start expanding the search as soon as the patients are settled and safe. But they could be on the other side of Jijo by now. Our only real hope is for Peepoe to escape that pair of dolts somehow, and get close enough to call for help.
It was time for Makanee and Brookida to head back and take their own turn shepherding the happy-innocent patients. Yet, she felt reluctant. Nervous.
Something in the water rolled through her mouth with a faint metallic tang, tasting like expectancy.
Makanee swung her sound-sensitive jaw around, seeking clues. At last she found a distant tremor. A faintly familiar resonance, coming from the west.
Brookida hadn't noticed yet.
"Well," he commented. "It won't be long until we are truly part of this world, I suppose. A few generations from now, none of our descendants will be using Anglic, or any Galactic language. We'll be guileless innocents once more, ripe for re-adoption and a second chance at uplift. I wonder what our new patrons will be like."
Makanee's friend was goading her gently with the bitter-sweet destiny anticipated for this colony, on a world that seemed made for cetaceans. A world whose comfort was the surest way to clinch a rapid devolution of their disciplined minds. Without constant challenges, the Whale Dream would surely reclaim them. Brookida seemed to accept the notion with an ease that disturbed Makanee.
"We still have patrons," she pointed out. "There are humans living right here on Jijo."
"Humans, yes. But uneducated, lacking the scientific skills to continue guiding us. So our only remaining option must be --"
He stopped, having at last picked up that rising sound from the west. Makanee recognized the unique hum of a speed sled.
"It is Tkett," she said. "Returning from his scouting trip. Let's go hear what he found out."
Thrashing her flukes, Makanee jetted to the surface, spuming the moist, stale air from her lungs and drawing in a deep breath of sweet oxygen. Then she spun about and kicked off toward the engine noise, with Brookida following close behind.
In their wake, the school of grazing fishoids barely rippled in its endless, sinuous dance, darting in and out of luminous shoals, feeding on whatever the good sea pressed toward them.
The archaeologist had his own form of mental illness -- wishful thinking.
Tkett had been ordered to stay behind and help Makanee with the reverted ones, partly because his skills weren't needed in Streaker's continuing desperate flight across the known universe. In compensation for that bitter exile, he had grown obsessed with studying the Great Midden, that deep underwater trash heap where Jijo's ancient occupants had dumped nearly every sapient-made object when this planet was abandoned by starfaring culture, half a million years ago.
"I'll have a wonderful report to submit when we get back to Earth," he rationalized, in apparent confidence that all their troubles would pass, and eventually he would make it home to publish his results. It was a special kind of derangement, without featuring any sign of stress-atavism or reversion. Tkett still spoke Anglic perfectly. His work was flawless and his demeanor cheerful. He was pleasant, functional, and mad as a hatter.
Makanee met the sled a kilometer west of the pod, where Tkett pulled up short in order not to disturb the patients. "Did you find any traces of Peepoe?" she asked when he cut the engine.
Tkett was a wonderfully handsome specimen of Tursiops amicus, with speckled mottling along his sleek gray flanks. The permanent dolphin-smile presented twin rows of perfectly white, conical teeth. While still nestled on the sled's control platform, Tkett shook his sleek gray head left and right.
"Alas, no. I went about two hundred klicks, following those faint traces we picked up on deep-range sonar. But it grew clear that the source wasn't Zhaki's sled."
Makanee grunted disappointment. "Then what was it?" Unlike the clamorous sea of Earth, this fallow planet wasn't supposed to have motor noises permeating its thermal-acoustic layers.
"At first I started imagining all sorts of unlikely things, like sea monsters, or Jophur submarines," Tkett answered. "Then the truth hit me."
Brookida nodded nervously, venting bubbles from his blowhole. "Yessssss?"
"It must be a starship. An ancient, piece-of-trash wreck, barely puttering along --"
"Of course!" Makanee thrashed her tail. "Some of the decoys didn't make it into space."
Tkett murmured ruefully over how obvious it now seemed. When Streaker made its getaway attempt, abandoning Makanee and her charges on this world, the earthship fled concealed in a swarm of ancient relics that dolphin engineers had resurrected from trash heaps on the ocean floor. Though Jijo's surface now was a fallow realm of savage tribes, the deep underwater canyons still held thousands of battered, abandoned spacecraft and other debris from when this section of Galaxy Four had been a center of civilization and commerce. Several dozen of those derelicts had been re-activated in order to confuse Streaker's foe -- a fearsome Jophur battleship -- but some of the hulks must have failed to haul their bulk out of the sea when the time came. Those failures were doomed to drift aimlessly underwater until their engines gave out and they tumbled once more to the murky depths.
As for the rest, there had been no word whether Streaker's ploy succeeded beyond luring the awful dreadnought away toward deep space. At least Jijo seemed a friendlier place without it. For now.
"We should have expected this," the archaeologist continued. "When I got away from the shoreline surf noise, I thought I could detect at least three of the hulks, bumping around out there almost randomly. It seems kind of sad, when you think about it. Ancient ships, not worth salvaging when the Buyur abandoned Jijo, waiting in an icy, watery tomb for just one last chance to climb back out to space. Only these couldn't make it. They're stranded here."
"Like us," Makanee murmured.
Tkett seemed not to hear.
"In fact, I'd like to go back out there and try to catch up with one of the derelicts."
Tkett's smile was still charming and infectious... which made it seem even crazier, under these circumstances.
"I'd like to use it as a scientific instrument," the big neo-dolphin said.
Makanee felt utterly confirmed in her diagnosis.
Captivity wasn't as bad as she had feared.
It was worse.
Among natural, pre-sapient dolphins on Earth, small groups of young males would sometimes conspire to isolate a fertile female from the rest of the pod, herding her away for private copulation -- especially if she was about to enter heat. By working together, they might monopolize her matings and guarantee their own reproductive success, even if she clearly preferred a local alpha-ranked male instead. That ancient behavior pattern persisted in the wild because, while native tursiops had both traditions and a kind of feral honor, they could not quite grasp or carry out the concept of law -- a code that all must live by, because the entire community has a memory transcending any individual.
But modern, uplifted amicus dolphins did have law! And when young hoodlums occasionally let instinct prevail and tried that sort of thing back home, the word for it was rape. Punishment was harsh. As with human sexual predators, just one of the likely outcomes was permanent sterilization.
Such penalties worked. After three centuries, some of the less desirable primal behaviors were becoming rare. Yet, uplifted neo-dolphins were still a young race. Great stress could yank old ways back to the fore, from time to time.
And we Streakers have sure been under stress.
Unlike some devolved crewmates, whose grip on modernity and rational thought had snapped under relentless pressure, Zhaki and Mopol suffered only partial atavism. They could still talk and run complex equipment, but they were no longer the polite, almost shy junior ratings she had met when Streaker first set out from Earth under Captain Creideiki, before the whole cosmos seemed to implode all around the dolphin crew.
In abstract, she understood the terrible strain that had put them in this state. Perhaps, if she were offered a chance to kill Zhaki and Mopol, Peepoe might call that punishment a bit too severe.
On the other fin, sterilization was much too good for them.
Despite sharing the same culture and a common ancestry as Earth mammals, dolphins and humans looked at many things differently. Peepoe felt more annoyed at being kidnapped than violated. More pissed-off than traumatized. She wasn't able to stymie their lust completely, but with various tricks -- playing on their mutual jealousy and feigning illness as often as she could -- Peepoe staved off unwelcome attentions for long stretches.
But if I find out they murdered Kaa, I'll have their entrails for lunch.
Days passed and her impatience grew. Peepoe's real time limit was fast approaching. My contraception implant will expire. Zhaki and his pal have fantasies about populating Jijo with their descendants, but I like this planet far too much to curse it that way.
She vowed to make a break for it. But how?
Sometimes she would swim to a channel between the two remote islands where her kidnappers had brought her, and drift languidly, listening. Once, Peepoe thought she made out something faintly familiar -- a clicking murmur, like a distant crowd of dolphins. But it passed, and she dismissed it as wishful thinking. Zhaki and Mopol had driven the sled at top speed for days on end with her strapped to the back, before they halted by this strange archipelago and removed her sonar-proof blindfold. She had no idea how to find her way back to the old coastline where Makanee's group had settled.
When I do escape these two idiots, I may be consigning myself to a solitary existence for the rest of my days.
Oh well, you wanted the life of an explorer. There could be worse fates than swimming all the way around this beautiful world, eating exotic fish when you're hungry, riding strange tides and listening to rhythms no dolphin ever heard before.
The fantasy had a poignant beauty -- though ultimately, it made her lonely and sad.
The ocean echoed with anger, engines, and strange noise.
Of course it was all a matter of perspective. On noisy Earth, this would have seemed eerily quiet. Terran seas buzzed with a cacophony of traffic, much of it caused by her own kind as neo-dolphins gradually took over managing seventy percent of the home planet's surface. In mining the depths, or tending fisheries, or caring for those sacredly complex simpletons called whales, more and more responsibilities fell to uplifted 'fins using boats, subs and other equipment. Despite continuing efforts to reduce the racket, home was still a raucous place.
In comparison, Jijo appeared as silent as a nursery. Natural sound-carrying thermal layers reported waves crashing on distant shorelines and intermittent groaning as minor quakes rattled the ocean floor. A myriad buzzes, clicks and whistles came from Jijo's own subsurface fauna -- fishy creatures that evolved here, or were introduced by colonizing leaseholders like the Buyur, long ago. Some distant rumbles even hinted at large entities, moving slowly, languidly across the deep... perhaps pondering long, slow thoughts.
As days stretched to weeks, Peepoe learned to distinguish Jijo's organic rhythms... punctuated by a grating din whenever one of the boys took the sled for a joy ride, stampeding schools of fish, or careening along with the load indicator showing red. At this rate the machine wouldn't stand up much longer, though Peepoe kept hoping one of them would break his fool neck first.
With or without the sled, Zhaki and Mopol could track her down if she just swam away. Even when they left piles of dead fish to ferment atop some floating reeds, and got drunk on the foul carcasses, the two never let their guard down long enough to let her steal the sled. It seemed that one or the other was always sprawled across the saddle. Since dolphins sleep only one brain hemisphere at a time, it was impossible to take them completely by surprise.
Then, after two months of captivity, she detected signs of something drawing near.
Peepoe had been diving in deeper water for a tasty kind of local soft-shell crab when she first heard it. Her two captors were having fun a kilometer away, driving their speedster in tightening circles around a panicked school of bright silvery fishoids. But when she dived through a thermal boundary layer, separating warm water above from cool saltier liquid below -- the sled's racket abruptly diminished.
Blessed silence was one added benefit of this culinary exploit. Peepoe had been doing a lot of diving lately.
This time, however, the transition did more than spare her the sled's noise for a brief time. It also brought forth a new sound. A distant rumble, channeled by the chilly stratum. With growing excitement, Peepoe recognized the murmur of an engine! Yet the rhythms struck her as unlike any she had heard on Earth or elsewhere.
Puzzled, she kicked swiftly to the surface, filled her lungs with fresh air, and dived back down to listen again.
This deep current offers an excellent sonic groove, she realized, focusing sound rather than diffusing it. Keeping the vibrations well-confined. Even the sled's sensors may not pick it up for quite a while.
Unfortunately, that also meant she couldn't tell how far away the source was.
If I had a breather unit... if it weren't necessary to keep surfacing for air... I could swim a great distance masked by this thermal barrier. Otherwise it seems hopeless. They can use the sled's monitors on long range scan to detect me when I broach and exhale.
Peepoe listened for a while longer, and decided.
I think it's getting closer... but slowly. The source must still be far away. If I make a dash now, I won't get far before they catch me.
And yet, she daren't risk Mopol and Zhaki picking up the new sound. If she must wait, it meant keeping them distracted 'til the time was right.
There was just one way to accomplish that.
Peepoe grimaced. Rising toward the surface, she expressed disgust with a vulgar Trinary demi-haiku.
* May sun roast your backs,
* And hard sand scrape your bottoms,
* Til you itch madly... *
* ... as if with a good case of the clap! *
She sent a command over her neural link, ordering the tools of her harness to fold away into streamlined recesses, signaling that the inspection visit was over.
The chief of the kiqui, a little male with purple gill-fringes surrounding a squat head, let himself drift a meter or so under the water's surface, spreading all four webbed hands in a gesture of benediction and thanks. Then he thrashed around to lead his folk away, back toward the nearby island where they made their home. Makanee felt satisfaction as she watched the small formation of kicking amphibians, clutching their stone-tipped spears.
Who would have thought that we dolphins, youngest registered sapient race in the Civilization of Five Galaxies, would become patrons ourselves, just a few centuries after humans started uplifting us.
The Kiqui were doing pretty well on Jijo, all considered. Soon after being released onto a coral atoll, not far offshore, they started having babies.
Under normal conditions, some elder race would find an excuse to take the Kiqui away from dolphins, fostering such a promising pre-sapient species into one of the rich, ancient family lines that ruled oxygen-breathing civilization in the Five Galaxies. But here on Jijo things were different. They were cut off from starfaring culture, a vast bewildering society of complex rituals and obligations that made the ancient Chinese Imperial court seem like a toddler's sandbox, by comparison. There were advantages and disadvantages to being a castaway from all that.
On the one hand, Makanee would no longer have to endure the constant tension of running away from huge oppressive battlefleets or aliens whose grudges went beyond Earthling comprehension.
On the other hand, there would be no more performances of symphony, or opera, or bubble-dance for her to attend.
Never again must she endure disparaging sneers from exalted patron-level beings, who considered dolphins little more than bright beasts.
Nor would she spend another lazy Sunday in her snug apartment in cosmopolitan Melbourne-Under, with multicolored fish cruising the coral garden just outside her window while she munched salmon patties and watched an all-dolphin cast perform Twelfth Night on the tellie.
Makanee was marooned, and would likely remain so for the rest of her life, caring for two small groups of sea-based colonists, hoping they could remain hidden from trouble until a new era came. An age when both might resume the path of uplift.
Assuming some metal nutrient supplements could be arranged, the Kiqui had apparently transplanted well. Of course, they must be taught tribal taboos against over-hunting any one species of local fauna, so their presence would not become a curse on this world. But the clever little amphibians already showed some understanding, expressing the concept in their own, emphatic demi-speech.
## Rare is precious! ##
## Not eat-or-hurt rare/precious things/fishes/beasts! ##
## Only eat/hunt many-of-a-kind! ##
She felt a personal stake in this. Two years ago, when Streaker was about to depart poisonous Kithrup, masked inside the hulk of a crashed Thennanin warship, Makanee had taken it upon herself to beckon a passing tribe of Kiqui with some of their own recorded calls, attracting the curious group into Streaker's main airlock just before the surrounding water boiled with exhaust from revving engines. What then seemed an act of simple pity turned into a kind of love affair, as the friendly little amphibians became favorites of the crew. Perhaps now their race might flourish in a kinder place than unhappy Kithrup. It felt good to know Streaker had accomplished at least one good thing out of its poignant, tragic mission.
As for dolphins, how could anyone doubt their welcome in Jijo's warm sea? Once you learned which fishoids were edible and which to avoid, life became a matter of snatching whatever you wanted to eat, then splashing and lolling about. True, she missed her holoson unit, with its booming renditions of whale chants and baroque chorales. But here she could take pleasure by listening to an ocean whose sonic purity was almost as fine as its vibrant texture.
Reacting to a faint sensation, Makanee swung her sound-sensitive jaw around, casting right and left.
There! She heard it again. A distant rumbling that might have escaped notice amid the underwater cacophony on Earth. But here it seemed to stand out from the normal swish of current and tide.
Her patients -- the several dozen dolphins whose stress atavism had reduced them to infantile innocence -- called such infrequent noises boojums. Or else they used a worried upward trill in Primal Delphin -- one that stood for strange monsters of the deep. Sometimes the far off grumbles did seem to hint at some huge, living entity, rumbling with basso-profundo pride, complacently assured that it owned the entire vast sea. Or else it might be just frustrated engine noise from some remnant derelict machine, wandering aimlessly in the ocean's immensity.
Leaving the kiqui atoll behind, Makanee swam back toward the underwater dome where she and Brookida, plus a few still-sapient nurses, maintained a small base to keep watch over their charges. It would be good to get out of the weather for a while. Last night she had roughed it, keeping an eye on her patients during a rain squall. An unpleasant, wearying experience.
We modern neo-fins are spoiled. It will take us years to get used to living in the elements, accepting whatever nature sends our way, without complaining or making ambitious plans to change the way things are.
That human side of us must be allowed to fade away.
She made her break around mid-morning the next day.
Zhaki was sleeping off a hangover near a big mat of driftweed, and Mopol was using the sled to harass some unlucky penguinlike sea birds, who were trying to feed their young by fishing near the island's lee shore. It seemed a good chance to slip away, but Peepoe's biggest reason for choosing this moment was simple. Diving deep below the thermal layer, she found that the distant rumble had peaked, and appeared to have turned away, diminishing with each passing hour.
It was now or never.
Peepoe had hoped to steal something from the sled first. A utensil harness perhaps, or a breather tube, and not just for practical reasons. In normal life, few neo-dolphins spent a single day without using cyborg tools, controlled by cable links to the brain's temporal lobes. But for months now her two would-be "husbands" hadn't let her connect to anything at all! The neural tap behind her left eye ached from disuse.
Unfortunately, Mopol nearly always slept on the sled's saddle, barely ever leaving except to eat and defecate.
He'll be desolated when the speeder finally breaks down, she thought, taking some solace from that.
So the decision was made, and Ifni's dice were cast. She set out with all the gifts and equipment nature provided -- completely naked -- into an uncharted sea.
For Peepoe, escaping captivity began unlike any human novel or fantasholo. In such stories, the heroine's hardest task was normally the first part, sneaking away. But here Peepoe faced no walls, locked rooms, dogs or barbed wire. Her "guards" let her come and go as she pleased. In this case, the problem wasn't getting started, but winning a big enough head start before Zhaki and Mopol realized she was gone.
Swimming under the thermocline helped mask her movements at first. It left her vulnerable to detection only when she went up for air. But she could not keep it up for long. The Tursiops genus of dolphins weren't deep divers by nature, and her speed at depth was only a third what it would be skimming near the surface.
So, while the island was still above the horizon behind her, Peepoe stopped slinking along silently below and instead began her dash for freedom in earnest -- racing toward the sun with an endless series of powerful back archings and fluke-strokes, going deep only occasionally to check her bearings against the far-off droning sound.
It felt exhilarating to slice through the wavetops, flexing her body for all it was worth. Peepoe remembered the last time she had raced along this way -- with Kaa by her side -- when Jijo's waters had seemed warm, sweet, and filled with possibilities.
Although she kept low-frequency sonar clickings to a minimum, she did allow herself some short-range bursts, checking ahead for obstacles and toying with the surrounding water, bouncing reflections off patches of sun-driven convection, letting echoes wrap themselves around her like rippling memories. Peepoe's sonic transmissions remained soft and close -- no louder than the vibrations given off by her kicking tail -- but the patterns grew more complex as her mind settled into the rhythms of movement. Before long, returning wavelets of her own sound meshed with those of current and tide, overlapping to make phantom sonar images.
Most of these were vague shapes, like the sort that one felt swarming at the edges of a dream. But in time several fell together, merging into something larger. The composite echo seemed to bend and thrust when she did -- as if a spectral companion now swam nearby, where her squinting eye saw only sunbeams in an empty sea.
Kaa, she thought, recognizing a certain unique zest whenever the wraith's bottle nose flicked through the waves.
Among dolphins, you did not have to die in order to come back as a ghost... though it helped.
Sometimes the only thing required was vividness of spirit -- and Kaa surely was, or had been, vivid.
Or perhaps the nearby sound-effigy fruited solely from Peepoe's eager imagination.
In fact, dolphin logic perceived no contradiction between those two explanations. Kaa's essence might really be there -- and not be -- at the same time. Whether real or mirage, she was glad to have her lover back where he belonged -- by her side.
I've missed you, she thought.
Anglic wasn't a good language for phantoms. No human grammar was. Perhaps that explained why the poor bipeds so seldom communed with their beloved lost.
Peepoe's visitor answered in a more ambiguous, innately delphin style.
* 'Til the seaweed's flower
* Shoots forth petals made of moonbeams
* I will swim with you *
Peepoe was content with that. For some unmeasured time, it seemed as if a real companion, her mate, swam alongside, encouraging her efforts, sharing the grueling pace. The water divided before her, caressing her flanks like a real lover.
Then, abruptly, a new sound intruded. A distant, grating whine that threatened to shatter all illusions.
Reluctantly, she made herself clamp down, silencing the resonant chambers surrounding her blowhole. As her own sonar vibrations ceased, so did the complex echoes, and her phantom comrade vanished. The waters ahead seemed to go black as Peepoe concentrated, listening intently.
There it was.
Coming from behind her. Another engine vibration, this one all-too familiar, approaching swiftly as it skimmed across the surface of the sea.
They know, she realized. Zhaki and Mopol know I'm gone, and they're coming after me.
Peepoe wasted no more time. She bore down with her flukes, racing through the waves faster than ever. Stealth no longer mattered. Now it was a contest of speed, endurance, and luck.
It took him most of a day and the next night to get near the source of the mysterious disturbance, pushing his power sled as fast as he dared. Makanee had ordered Tkett not to over-strain the engine, since there would be no replacements when it wore out.
"Just be careful out there," the elderly dolphin physician had urged, giving permission for this expedition. "Find out what it is... whether it's one of the derelict spacecraft that Suessi and the engineers brought back to life as decoys. If so, don't mess with it! Just come back and report. We'll discuss where to go from there."
Tkett did not have disobedience in mind. At least not explicitly. But if it really was a starship making the low, uneven grumbling noise, a host of possibilities presented themselves. What if it proved possible to board the machine and take over the makeshift controls that Streaker's crew had put in place?
Even if it can't fly, it's cruising around the ocean. I could use it as a submersible and visit the Great Midden.
That vast undersea trench was where the Buyur had dumped most of the dross of their mighty civilization, when it came time for them to abandon Jijo and return its surface to fallow status. After packing up to leave, the last authorized residents of this planet used titanic machines to scrape away their cities, then sent all their buildings and other works tumbling into an abyss where the slow grinding of tectonic plates would draw the rubble inward, melting and reshaping new ores to be used by others in some future era, when Jijo was opened for legal settlement once again.
To an archaeologist, the Midden seemed the opportunity of a lifetime.
I'd learn so much about the Buyur! We might examine whole classes of tools that no Earthling has ever seen. The Buyur were rich and powerful. They could afford the very best in the Civilization of Five Galaxies, while we Terran newcomers can only buy the dregs. Even stuff the Buyur threw away -- their toys and broken trinkets -- could provide valuable data for the Terragens Council.
Tkett wasn't a complete fool. He knew what Makanee and Brookida thought of him.
They consider me crazy to be optimistic about going home. To believe any of us will see Earth again, or let the industrial tang of its waters roll through our open jaws, or once more surf the rip tides of Ranga Roa.
Or give a university lecture. Or dive through the richness of a worldwide data network, sharing ideas with a fecund civilization at light-speed. Or hold challenging conversations with others who share your intellectual passions.
He had signed aboard Streaker to accompany Captain Creideiki and a neo-dolphin intellectual elite in the greatest mental and physical adventure any group of cetaceans ever faced -- the ultimate test of their new sapient race. Only now Creideiki was gone, presumed dead, and Tkett had been ejected by Streaker's new commander, exiled from the ship at its worst moment of crisis. Makanee might feel complacent over being put ashore as "non-essential" personnel, but it churned Tkett's guts to be spilled into a warm, disgustingly placid sea while his crewmates were still out there, facing untold dangers among the bleeding stars.
A voice broke in from the outside, before his thoughts could spiral any further toward self-pity.
# give me give me GIVE ME
# snout-smacking pleasure
# of a good fight! #
That shrill chatter came from the sled's rear compartment, causing Tkett's flukes to thrash in brief startlement. It was easy to forget about his quiet passenger for long stretches of time. Chississ spoke seldom, and then only in the throwback proto-language, Primal Delphin.
Tkett quashed his initial irritation. After all, Chissis was unwell. Like several dozen other members of the crew, her modern mind had crumpled under the pressure of Streaker's long ordeal, taking refuge in older ways of thought. One had to make allowances, even though Tkett could not imagine how it was possible for anyone to abandon the pleasures of rationality, no matter how insistently one heard the call of the Whale Dream.
After a moment, Tkett realized that her comment had been more than just useless chatter. Chissis must have sensed some meaning from his sonar clicks. Apparently she understood and shared his resentment over Gillian Baskin's decision to leave them behind on Jijo.
"You'd rather be back in space right now, wouldn't you?" He asked. "Even though you can't read an instrument panel anymore? Even with Jophur battleships and other nasties snorting down Streaker's neck, closing in for the kill?"
His words were in Underwater Anglic. Most of the reverted could barely comprehend it anymore. But Chissis squawled from the platform behind Tkett, throwing a sound burst that sang like the sled's engine, thrusting ever-forward, obstinately defiant.
# smack the jophur! smack the sharks!
# SMACK THEM! #
Accompanying her eager-repetitive message squeal, there came a sonar image crafted by the fatty layers of her brow, casting a brief veil of illusion around Tkett. He briefly visualized Chissis, joyfully ensconced in the bubble nose of a lamprey class torpedo, personally piloting it on course toward a huge alien cruiser, penetrating all of the cyber-disruptive fields that Galactic spacecraft used to stave off digital guidance systems, zeroing in on her target with all the instinct and native agility that dolphins inherited from their ancestors.
Loss of speech apparently had not robbed some "reverted" ones of either spunk or ingenuity. Tkett sputtered laughter. Gillian Baskin had made a real mistake leaving this one behind! Apparently you did not need an engineer's mind in order to have the heart of a warrior.
"No wonder Makanee let you come along on this trip," he answered. "You're a bad influence on the others, aren't you?"
It was her turn to emit a laugh -- sounding almost exactly like his own. A ratcheting raspberry-call that the masters of uplift had left alone. A deeply cetacean shout that defied the sober universe for taking so many things too seriously.
# Faster faster FASTER!
# Engines call us...
# offering a ride... #
Tkett's tail thrashed involuntarily as her cry yanked something deep within. Without hesitating, he cranked up the sled's motor, sending it splashing through the foamy white-tops, streaking toward a mysterious object whose song filled the sea.
She could sense Zhaki and Mopol closing in from behind. They might be idiots, but they knew what they wanted and how to pilot their sled at maximum possible speed without frying the bearings. Once alerted to her escape attempt, they cast ahead using the machine's deep range sonar. She felt each loud ping like a small bite along her backside. By now they knew exactly where she was. The noise was meant to intimidate her.
It worked. I don't know how much longer I can keep on, Peepoe thought while her body burned with fatigue. Each body-arching plunge through the waves seemed to take more out of her. No longer a joyful sensation, the ocean's silky embrace became a clinging drag, taxing and stealing her hard-won momentum, making Peepoe earn each dram of speed over and over again.
In comparison, the hard vacuum of space seemed to offer a better bargain. What you bought, you got to keep. Even the dead stayed on trajectory, tumbling ever onward. Space travel tended to promote belief in "progress," a notion that old-style dolphins used to find ridiculous, and still had some trouble getting used to.
I should be fairly close to the sound I was chasing... whatever's making it. I'd be able to tell, if only those vermin behind me would turn off the damned sonar and let me listen in peace!
Of course the pinging racket was meant to disorient her. Peepoe only caught occasional sonic-glimpses of her goal, and then only by diving below the salt-boundary layer, something she did as seldom as possible, since it always slowed her down.
The noise of the sled's engine sounded close. Too damned close. At any moment Zhaki and Mopol might swerve past to cut her off, then start spiraling inward, herding her like some helpless sea animal while they chortled, enjoying their macho sense of power.
I'll have to submit... bear their punishment... put up with bites and whackings 'til they're convinced I've become a good cow.
None of that galled Peepoe as much as the final implication of her recapture.
I guess this means I'll have to kill the two of them.
It was the one thing she'd been hoping to avoid. Murder among dolphins had been rare in olden times, and the genetic engineers worked to enhance this innate distaste. Anyway, Peepoe had wished to avoid making the choice. A clean getaway would have sufficed.
She didn't know how she'd do it. Not yet.
But I'm still a Terragens officer, while they relish considering themselves wild beasts. How hard can it be?
Part of her knew that she was drifting, fantasizing. This might even be the way her subconscious was trying to rationalize surrendering the chase. She might as well give up now, before exhaustion claimed all her strength.
No! I've got to keep going.
Peepoe let out a groan as she redoubled her efforts, bearing down with intense drives of her powerful tail flukes. Each moment that she held them off meant just a little more freedom. A little more dignity.
It couldn't last, of course. Though it felt exultant and defiant to give one more hard push, the burst of speed eventually faded as her body used up its last reserves. Quivering, she fell at last into a languid glide, gasping for air to fill her shuddering lungs.
Too bad. I can hear it... the underwater thing I was seeking... not too far away now.
But Zhaki and Mopol are closer still....
What took Peepoe some moments to recall was that the salt-thermal barrier deadened sound from whatever entity was cruising the depths below. For her to hear it now, however faintly, meant that it had to be --
A tremor rocked Peepoe. She felt the waters bulge around her, as if pushed aside by some massive creature, far under the ocean's surface. Realization dawned, even as she heard Zhaki's voice, shouting gleefully only a short distance away.
It's right below me. The thing! It's passing by, down there in the blackness.
She had only moments to make a decision. Judging from cues in the water, it was both very large and very far beneath her. Yet Peepoe felt nowhere near ready to attempt a deep dive while each breath still sighed with ragged pain.
She heard and felt the sled zoom past, spotting her two tormentors sprawled on the machine's back, grinning as they swept by dangerously close. Instinct made her want to turn away and flee, or else go below for as long as her lungs could hold out. But neither move would help, so she stayed put.
They'll savor their victory for a little while, she thought, hoping they were confident enough not to use the sled's stunner on her. Anyway, at this short range, what could she do?
It was hard to believe they hadn't picked up any signs of the behemoth by now. Stupid, single-minded males, they had concentrated all of their attention on the hunt for her.
Zhaki and Mopol circled around her twice, spiraling slowly closer, leering and chattering.
Peepoe felt exhausted, still sucking air for her laboring lungs. But she could afford to wait no longer. As they approached for the final time, she took one last, body-stretching gasp through her blowhole, arched her back, and flipped over to dive nose-first into the deep.
At the final instant, her tail flukes waved at the boys. A gesture that she hoped they would remember with galling regret.
Blackness consumed the light and she plunged, kicking hard to gain depth while her meager air supply lasted. Soon, darkness welcomed Peepoe. But on passing the boundary layer, she did not need illumination any more. Sound guided her, the throaty rumble of something huge, moving gracefully and complacently through a world where sunshine never fell.
He had several reasons to desire a starship, even one that was unable to fly. It could offer a way to visit the Great Midden, for instance, and explore its wonders. A partly operational craft might also prove useful to the Six Races of Jijo, whose bloody war against Jophur aggressors was said to be going badly ashore.
Tkett also imagined using such a machine to find and rescue Peepoe.
The beautiful dolphin medic, one of Makanee's assistants, had been kidnapped shortly before Streaker departed. No one held out much hope of finding her, since the ocean was so vast and the two dolphin felons -- Mopol and Zhaki -- had an immensity to conceal her in. But that gloomy calculation assumed that searchers must travel by sled! A ship on the other hand -- even a wreck that had lain on an ocean floor garbage dump for half a million years -- could cover a lot more territory and listen with big underwater sonaphones, combing for telltale sounds from Peepoe and her abductors. It might even be possible to sift the waters for Earthling DNA traces. Tkett had heard of such techniques available for a high price on Galactic markets. Who knew what wonders the fabled Buyur took for granted on their elegant starcraft?
Unfortunately, the trail kept going hot and cold. Sometimes he picked up murmurs that seemed incredibly close, channeled by watery layers that focused sound. Other times they vanished altogether.
Frustrated, Tkett was willing to try anything. So when Chissis started getting agitated, squealing in Primal that a great beast prowled to the southwest, he willingly turned the sled in the direction she indicated.
And soon he was rewarded. Indicators began flashing on the control panel, and down his neural-link cable, connecting the sled to an implanted socket behind his left eye. In addition to a surge of noise, mass displacement anomalies suggested something of immense size was moving ponderously just ahead, and perhaps a hundred meters down.
"I guess we better go find out what it is," he told his passenger, who clicked her agreement.
# go chase go chase go chase ORCAS! #
She let out squalls of laughter at her own cleverness. But minutes later, as they plunged deeper into the sea -- both listening and peering down the shaft of the sled's probing headlights -- Chissis ceased chuckling and became silent as a tomb.
Great Dreamers! Tkett stared in awe and surprise at the object before them. It was unlike any starship he had ever seen before. Sleek metallic sides seemed to go on and on forever as the titanic machine trudged onward across the sea floor, churning up mud with thousands of shimmering, crystalline legs!
As if sensing their arrival, a mammoth hatch began irising open -- in benign welcome, he hoped.
No resurrected starship. Tkett began to suspect he had come upon something entirely different.
Her ribcage heaved.
Peepoe's lungs filled with a throbbing ache as she forced herself to dive ever deeper, much lower than would have been wise, even if she weren't fatigued to the very edge of consciousness.
The sea at this depth was black. Her eyes made out nothing. But that was not the important sense, underwater. Sonar clicks, emitted from her brow, grew more rapid as she scanned ahead, using her sensitive jaw as an antenna to sift the reflections.
It's big.... she thought when the first signs returned.
Echo outlines began coalescing, and she shivered.
It doesn't sound like metal. The shape... seems less artificial than something --
A thrill of terror coursed her spine as she realized that the thing ahead had outlines resembling a gigantic living creature! A huge mass of fins and trailing tentacles, resembling some monster from the stories dolphin children would tell each other at night, secure in their rookeries near one of Earth's great port cities. What lay ahead of Peepoe, swimming along well above the canyon floor, seemed bigger and more intimidating than the giant squid who fought Physeter sperm whales, mightiest of all the cetaceans.
And yet, Peepoe kept arching her back, pushing hard with her flukes, straining ever downward. Curiosity compelled her. Anyway, she was closer to the creature than the sea surface, where Zhaki and Mopol waited.
I might as well find out what it is.
Curiosity was just about all she had left to live for.
When several tentacles began reaching for her, the only remaining question in her mind was about death.
I wonder who I'll meet on the other side.
The dolphins in the pod -- her patients -- all woke about the same time from their afternoon siesta, screaming.
Makanee and her nurses joined Brookida, who had been on watch, swimming rapid circles around the frightened reverts, preventing any of them from charging in panic across the wide sea. Slowly, they all calmed down from a shared nightmare.
It was a common enough experience back on Earth, when unconscious sonar clicks from two or more sleeping dolphins would sometimes overlap and interfere, creating false echoes. The ghost of something terrifying. It did not help that most cetaceans sleep just one brain hemisphere at a time. In a way, that seemed only to make the dissonance more eerie, and the fallacious sound-images more credibly scary.
Most of the patients were inarticulate, emitting only a jabber of terrified Primal squeals. But there were a dozen or so borderline cases who might even recover their full faculties someday. One of these moaned nervously about Tkett and a city of spells.
Another one chittered nervously, repeating over and over, the name of Peepoe.
Well, at least the machine has air inside, he thought. We can survive here, and learn more.
In fact, the huge underwater edifice -- bigger than all but the largest starships -- seemed rather accommodating, pulling back metal walls as the little sled entered a spacious airlock. The floor sank in order to provide a pool for Tkett and Chissis to debark from their tight cockpits and swim around. It felt good to get out of the cramped confines, even though Tkett knew that coming inside might be a mistake.
Makanee's orders had been to do an inspection from the outside, then hurry home. But that was when they expected to find one of the rusty little spacecraft that Streaker's engineers had resurrected from some sea floor dross pile. As soon as Tkett saw this huge cylindrical thing, churning along the sea bottom on a myriad caterpillar legs that gleamed like crystal stalks, he knew that nothing on Jijo could stand in the way of his going aboard.
Another wall folded aside, revealing a smooth channel that stretched ahead -- water below and air above -- beckoning the two dolphins down a hallway that shimmered as it continued transforming before their eyes. Each panel changed color with the glimmering luminescence of octopus skin, seeming to convey meaning in each transient, flickering shade. Chissis thrashed her tail nervously as objects kept slipping through seams in the walls. Sometimes these featured a camera lens at the end of an articulated arm, peering at them as they swam past.
Not even the Buyur could afford to throw away something as wonderful as this, Tkett thought, relishing a fantasy of taking this technology home to Earth. At the same time, the mechanical implements of his tool harness quivered, responding to nervous twitches that his brain sent down the neural tap. He had no weapons that would avail in the slightest, if the owners of this place proved to be hostile.
The corridor spilled at last into a wide chamber with walls and ceiling that were so corrugated that he could not estimate its true volume. Countless bulges and spires protruded inward, half of them submerged, and the rest hanging in midair. All were bridged by cables and webbing that glistened like spiderwebs lined with dew. Many of the branches carried shining spheres or cubes or dodecahedrons that dangled like geometric fruit, ranging from half a meter across to twice the length of a bottlenose dolphin.
Chissis let out a squall, colored with fear and awe.
# coral that bites! coral bites bites!
# See the critters, stabbed by coral! #
When he saw what she meant, Tkett gasped. The hanging "fruits" were mostly transparent. They contained things that moved... creatures who writhed or hopped or ran in place, churning their arms and legs within the confines of their narrow compartments.
Adaptive optics in his right eye whirred, magnifying and zooming toward one of the crystal-walled containers. Meanwhile, his brow cast forth a stream of nervous sonar clicks -- useless in the air -- as if trying to penetrate this mystery with yet another sense.
I don't believe it!
He recognized the shaggy creature within a transparent cage.
Ifni! It's a hoon. A miniature hoon!
Scanning quickly, he found individuals of other species... four-legged urs with their long necks whipping nervously, like muscular snakes... minuscule traeki that resembled their Jophur cousins, looking like tapered stacks of doughnuts, piled high... and tiny versions of wheeled g'Keks, spinning their hubs madly, as if they were actually going somewhere. In fact, every member of the Commons of Six Races of Jijo -- fugitive clans that had settled this world illegally during the last two thousand years -- could be seen here, represented in Lilliputian form.
Tkett's spine shuddered when he made out several cells containing slim bipedal forms. Bantamweight human beings, whose race had struggled against lonely ignorance on old Terra for so many centuries, nearly destroying the world before they finally matured enough to lead the way toward true sapiency for the rest of Earthclan. Before Tkett's astonished eye, these members of the patron race were now reduced to leaping and cavorting with the confines of dangling crystal spheres.
Continue reading the conclusion of "Temptation."