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.