Book: The Farpool



The Farpool

The Farpool

Published by Philip Bosshardt at Smashwords

Copyright 2016 Philip Bosshardt

Smashwords Edition, License Notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was purchased for your use only, then please return to Smashwords.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

Chapter 1

It is better to conquer yourself than to win a thousand battles. Then the victory is yours. It cannot be taken from you, not by angels or by demons, heaven or hell.

Buddha

Scotland Beach, Florida

June 5, 2121

8:30 pm

Angie Gilliam squirmed a bit more but it was no use. Something sharp was pinching her butt. The weight of Chase Meyer on top of her made it hurt like crazy.

Ouch…that hurts like hell…what the hell are you doing?”

“Sorry…just trying to…it’s the Cove. Water’s choppy today—“

Angie twisted and contorted herself to ease the pressure. That was better.

“Maybe this wasn’t such a great idea, huh?”

They had packed a meal and grabbed a boat from Turtle Key Surf and Board—that was Mack Meyer’s shop, Chase’s Dad. They had puttered along the coast off Shelley Beach until they came to Half Moon Cove—they always did it in Half Moon Cove—and found a secluded spot a few dozen meters off shore…right under some cypress trees. Always smelled great there.

Then Chase and Angie wolfed down their sandwiches, dialed up the right music on Chase’s wristpad so they could slam some jam properly and settled down to business.

That’s when the wind fetched up and the Cove got way choppier than it usually did. Most of the time, you could lay a place setting on top of the water and have dinner like home, it was so placid. But not today.

“Ouch…look…let’s give it a rest, okay…something’s not quite right…”

Chase groaned and pulled out of her, cinching up his shorts as he did so. He lay back against the side of the boat, and turned the volume down on his pad…whoever it was screeching on that go-tone needed a few more lessons. He checked the growing waves beyond the Cove and that’s when he spied the waterspout.

“Jeez…look at that!”

Angie pulled up her own shorts, ran fingers through her dark brown page-boy hair and sucked in a breath.

“Wow---that’s so wicked--“

There was a strange, wave-like agitation on the horizon just beyond the Cove, maybe a few kilometers out to sea, past Shell Key, easily. For a few moments, a slender multi-hued waterspout danced just above the waves, like a gray-green rope writhing and hissing on the horizon. It only lasted a few moments, then it collapsed. There was a calm period, then the ocean began seething again and became more agitated than before. Waves piled into the Cove, nearly upending the little boat. Before long, another spout had formed, all in an odd sort of rhythm.

Angie shuddered, wrapping her arms around her shoulders. The air had become noticeably colder and a breeze had picked up, blowing onshore. “Maybe we should get out of here…you know, like head back—“

Chase shook his head. “This is weird…I never saw anything like that. Could be a storm or something. Let’s go check it out.”

“Don’t be an ass—just let’s go back to the pier, before that thing starts up again.”

But Chase was already firing up the outboard. He untied the boat from the cypress knee they always used as an anchorage and steered her out of the Cove, heading for open water.

“Chase—what the hell are you doing…you can’t get near that thing…it’s a tornado, for Chrissakes! Go back to the pier.”

“I just want to see what’s causing all those waves…that’s not normal…just a little further out…I’m not going to do anything stupid.”

Yeah, like I never heard that before, Angie told herself. She knew better than to argue.

They’d already argued that afternoon anyway, mostly over little things. Angie told him she wanted to go full time with Dr. Wright’s clinic when she graduated from Apalachee. Chase just shrugged. I want to make something of myself, she told him. What she didn’t say, because she didn’t have to was: you should too. But that was a lost cause.

Chase steered them further out to sea, through heavier chop, and Angie got more and more nervous.

“Chase, I’m sorry I said what I did…if you want to work at the shop—“

But his eyes were on something else. “Hey...what the hell is that?”

A pair of silvery shapes nosed out of the water just a few meters off their starboard bow.

Rounded humps, slightly scaly, even plated like some kind of suit.

“Dolphins?” she offered. “At least, they’ve got enough sense to leave the area.”

“Those aren’t dolphins…too big. Maybe some kind of whale—there they are again—“ He stood up, letting the tiller go for a moment and pointed. Waves nearly knocked him overboard and he fell heavily right into Angie’s lap. They both rolled and scrambled to get back up.

Two glistening humps were less than ten meters away, riding along the surface. They were easily twelve to fifteen meters long, multiple dorsal fins, but the skin was all wrong. It wasn’t like anything Chase or Angie had ever seen. The skin wasn’t smooth, but textured, almost plated, as if the creatures were encased in some kind of armor. Spouts of air blasted into the sky as they glided along.

“What’s that…some kind of cage--?” Angie spotted something following the creatures. She realized it was attached; they were towing some kind of enclosure.

Chase saw it too. “I don’t know…but that’s a dolphin…look inside the cage.” He steered the boat alongside the convoy, holding off about five meters. Thrashing about inside an open-grill enclosure was a bottle-nose dolphin, maybe a calf, perhaps two meters in length. It banged and crashed inside, trying to get out. The other creatures in the armored suits were towing it, toward some kind of seething vortex that was churning up the surface of the Gulf, less than fifty meters away.

“Chase, maybe we ought to—“ But before Angie could complete her sentence, the convoy stopped dead in the water. One creature circled back, managing the cage with its beak and forepaddles. The other creature nosed further up out of the water, showing its entire forebody. It had forepaddles like a dolphin but the paddles had fingers, and grasped in the fingers was some kind of barbell-shaped device. The creature slapped back down in the water and began circling their small boat, now rising and crashing down on waves spiraling off the vortex nearby.

“Chase…Chase, what’s happening—“

Chase Meyer stood up and struck out at the creature with the end of his paddle. He missed and nearly went overboard. The paddle slipped out of his hand and went into the sea. “I don’t know…maybe they’re some kind of shark—I never saw anything like—“

That’s when the circling creature reared up again and aimed the barbell at their boat. There was a bright flash. Angie fell backward into the boat, landing on the picnic hamper, which crumpled.

Chase staggered, then was blinded again by another bright flash. Everything went dark. He pitched forward, clipping his chin on a bench and fell awkwardly into the bow. A dark tunnel opened up and he quickly lost consciousness.

A loud horn kept blaring and bleating and Chase fought his way back to something like a dull stupor. His chin hurt, and there was dried blood—he could taste it and feel it as he wiped his face. He sat up, wobbling around as the waves bounced the little boat back and forth. A big wall blocked out the early evening sun, now setting to the west. The wall had a big red stripe on it.

With a start, he realized he was staring at the gunwales of a Coast Guard cutter. He could dimly make out the words Medford on her sides.

Moments later, Angie came to. She sat up with a jolt, wide-eyed at the ship hove to less than twenty meters away.

“Jeez…what happened…where are we?”

That’s when they saw the raftbots circling their small boat. The drones circled them for a few minutes, gauging distance, then closed in and looped towline over the bow end of their boat and took them in tow.

Five minutes later, the raftbots had towed them into the cutter’s well deck. Crewmen secured their boat and helped Chase and Angie out. They were whisked above decks to a sick bay crammed with beds and equipment. Corpsmen checked them out, head to toe.

After the examinations, Chase and Angie were escorted by two bearded yeoman to a room along a narrow passageway on the Medford’s main deck. It turned out to the captain’s stateroom.

“Stay here and don’t try to leave,” one yeoman told them. “Cap’n will be by in a few minutes.” They shut the door. Chase tried the lock—it was unlocked—but he could hear movement just outside. They were under guard.

“Guess we’re stuck,” he muttered. Angie was pale, still groggy from passing out. They sat down in adjoining chairs. She leaned her head on his shoulders.

“I don’t feel so good,” she admitted. “Everything’s swimming…just kind of dizzy.”

“I wonder—“ Chase stopped in mid-sentence. The door opened. It was Captain Rainey.

The Medford’s commander came in, shutting the door behind him. He was tall, with a buzzcut and gray temples. A faint line of moustache arced over his lips. The moustache twitched like a mouse.

“Corpsman said you two will be okay…mind telling me what you were doing out in such rough seas? There were all kinds of weather warnings this afternoon.”

Chase started to tell them about the whirlpool and waterspout they had spotted, and the two armored fish with their cage and their— device, whatever it was—but something made him stop.

“Must have been the current, sir. We were just picnicking—“

“In the Cove,” Angie added. “We were heading back and—“

“Yeah, it was that current—“ Chase looked over at his girl friend. His eyes said: Don’t…not yet.

Captain Rainey took a peek out a nearby porthole. “We’ll be docking in a few minutes.

Both your parents have been notified. I want you to make a statement when we get to shore. My exec will take you to Security—you can have something to eat and drink there--“ With that, Rainey left the stateroom, shaking his head. “Teenagers….”

The Medford put in at her dock at Apalachee Point Coast Guard Station ten minutes later.

The ship’s executive officer was a jolly, barrel-chested nearly bald officer whose name plate read Dennison. Lieutenant Dennison was mainly interested in food, from his description of what awaited them.

“Oh, you’ll love it,” he told them, as they headed down the gangway to the pier. “This time of night… wow…doughnuts, bagels, sandwiches, Coast Guard coffee, that’ll grow hair on your chest…excuse me, ma’am…just follow me—“

They wound up at the Security shack, a small cabin just inside the main gate off Spencer Road. Lieutenant Melvin Betters was the base Security Officer. Just as Dennison had said, a table full of sodas, coffee and cookies and sandwiches occupied one corner of the conference room. Chase wondered if everybody rescued got the same treatment.

Chase and Angie’s parents occupied the other corner.

Maggie Gilliam was a chestnut-haired woman with too much makeup. She melted when she saw Angie and ran over, crushing the daylights out of her daughter.

“Oh, honey…honey…are you all right? Are you hurt?” She looked over at Betters. “She’s gonna be okay? My baby—“

Betters nodded. “They both checked out fine aboard ship.”

Chase smiled sheepishly at his Dad and Mom. Mack Meyer had a full black beard-it was something Chase was still working on, unsuccessfully—and tattoos up and down his arms. Mom Cynthia was tall and wiry, short blond hair, almost ascetic—she did marathons and triathlons almost every weekend, it seemed to Chase. Mack frowned, his arms crossed.

“Did you mess up my boat, son? I told you to take care of that boat, didn’t I?”

Chase swallowed. “The boat did fine, Dad. Nothing’s wrong with the boat, okay?”

Cynthia Meyer brushed Chase’s hair back from his eyes. That one lock would never stay back. “Are you hurt? Are you okay…you did check them out--?” Her eyes went from Betters to Dennison and back. “They’re not hurt--?”

“No, ma’am. The ship’s corpsmen did the exams. They seemed to be fine.”

Mack studied his son. “Mm-hmmm…mind telling me what happened, son?”

Chase described what they had seen: the strange whirlpool and churning in the ocean, the waterspout, the armored fish and their captured dolphin, the device-thingy that had flashed at them. “I blacked out after that,” he told them. He looked over an Angie, whose fingers groped for his and entwined their hands. “Her too—I don’t know what it was—“

“Oh, Chase, you can’t—“

Mack wasn’t buying it. “You were drinking, weren’t you? Or doing scope or something---

that’s what it was.” To Lieutenant Betters: “You find any drugs or beer on board my boat? And where is it anyway…I rent that thing out three times a week…this is going to cost me a bundle, isn’t it?”

“Dad, listen, will you? We saw some kind of…I don’t know…fish, creatures—“

“They weren’t dolphins,” Angie added. “But they had captured a dolphin…it was in that cage…did you see the cage?”

Betters shook his head, picked up a paper from the table. “Report says nothing about a cage.

Your boat was towed in, Mr. Meyer. You can get it back, after we do an inspection, the usual paperwork. It’ll be down by the dock.”

Mack Meyer scowled at Betters, then shook his head as he studied his youngest son. “I thought I taught you better than that, Chase. You don’t go fooling around at sea, especially when the weather’s so dicey.”

“But Dad, we saw creatures…they had a gun or something. They fired at us…you should be checking that out….”

“Maybe they were drug dealers?” Maggie Gilliam said. “Maybe they blundered into some kind of drug deal…that happens, doesn’t it?”

Betters chuckled. “It does, ma’am. But we checked the boards. There hasn’t been any activity like that around here for weeks. No, most likely they saw the waterspout that stirred up around Half-Moon Cove earlier this evening…had lots of reports about that…it was pretty impressive.”

Chase looked from Mack and Cynthia to Maggie Gilliam to Betters and back. “You don’t believe anything we’re saying.”

“Okay, son…” his Dad challenged him, “what did you see? Or think you saw-“

“I told you…two fish…they looked like dolphins but they were bigger. I don’t think they were whales or orcas or anything. Their skin was different…it was like they were wearing armor or a suit or something.”

“And that gun—“ Angie added.

“Yeah, it was…it looked like a barbell, two globes, one on each end of a bar. They aimed it at us…I don’t remember anything after that.”

Mack Meyer’s eyes met Lieutenant Betters. “Your men see anything out there?”

Betters shook his head. “Just the boat, floating around. There were some strong rip currents about two kilometers off shore of the Cove…that’s normal when a spout comes through.”

“But we saw it!’ Chase pleaded.

“You’re going to see the inside of your bedroom…that’s all you’re going to see,” Meyer warned him. “You’re grounded, for a month.”

“But, Dad—“

“You too, Angie,” decided Maggie Gilliam. She liked the Meyers. Chase was a good kid, if a bit impulsive. It didn’t take much imagination to figure what they had been doing.

Angie’s face was a mask of pain. “Mom, we didn’t do anything wrong.”

“There’s something out there that needs investigating,” Chase told them. “That’s what you should be doing…not persecuting us for just telling the truth.”

Cynthia cut in. “Chase, nobody’s persecuting anybody. It’s just that—“

“Eight hours a day in the shop,” Mack decided. “Every day and I mean Sundays too. That’s what this little affair comes down to. First order of business tomorrow: clean up that boat and get her shipshape to rent out…that’s money, son. That’s food on the table and you’re an employee. Start acting like one.”

Betters signed off their releases and shook hands with the Meyers and Maggie Gilliam.

Mack Meyer said, “Sorry to have bothered you, Lieutenant. My son knows better. Or he will know better after this.”

Betters said, “I’m just glad they’re safe. This is what we’re here for.”

The kids were hauled out of the Security shack and off into waiting cars. As Chase climbed into the back seat of his Dad’s Jeep, he said, “Dad, will you listen to me? Something’s out there…something weird.”

“Yeah…well, it won’t be you…not for the next month. This ain’t Jaws, kid and I’m not buying it. You work for Turtle Key Surf and Board, you conduct yourself like an adult. Maybe after some hard work and long hours, you won’t be seeing any more armored fish with ray guns.

Just tourists and their dollars, that’s all that matters now.”

Chase sank back in the seat, glum and dejected. He watched Angie and Maggie Gilliam speed off in her convertible. Their house was a bungalow-cottage kind of place, up by the Gainesville Highway, on Fairwinds Trail. The Meyers occupied a ranch style prefab on Rainbow Court, maybe a fifteen minute walk from the shop.

Chase Meyer closed his eyes as they drove home. Mostly it was to avoid having to look at his mother, who just stared at him over the back of the front seat, like he was an exhibit or something.

Waiting to see if I’ll grow horns or something, he decided. Physically, he knew he and Angie were okay. They were just fine. But what had they seen? Had he imagined it after all…

maybe all the waves and the winds and the excitement over the spout? Maybe it was a small pod of orcas, after all. That had to be it.

But even as he said that to himself, he knew it wasn’t true. First chance he got, he was going to grab a boat, maybe even some scuba gear from the shop, and check out that area outside Half Moon Cove for himself.

He wanted to have a closer look at that barbell weapon too…sport fishermen would just die for a gadget like that.

Chapter 2

Seome

Omsh’pont, kel: Omt’or

Time: 764.2, Epoch of Tekpotu

The lifeship jetted out of the Farpool in a blinding light, a roaring rush of deceleration, throwing Kloosee and Pakma hard against the cockpit windows. Caught in the whirlpool, Kloosee rammed the ship’s rudder hard over, while firing her jets to counteract the centrifugal force of the spin. For a few moments, they were both pinned sideways against the cockpit, until the force of the jets shoved them through the core of the whirlpool and out into calmer waters.

Pakma breathed hard, wiping her beak with her hands. She checked the instruments.

“Sounding meetor’kel water, Kloosee….rough water but visibility improving. I can pulse ahead…looks like we’re home.”

Kloosee fought the lifeship controls to bring them into a stable attitude. “Thank Shooki we came through that one…a rough ride, rougher than most. How’s our cargo doing back there?”

Pakma checked behind. A cargo pod was in tow, connected by line to the aft end of the ship. The captive dolphin from the Terran seas was inside, thrashing about, frightened, perhaps even injured.

“Pod’s still there…I don’t know how he’s doing…maybe we should stop and check.”

Kloosee shook his head, gently massaging the controls with the tips of his forepaddles. “No time…we’re behind schedule as it is…now if I can just find that blasted kip’t station….”

The lifeship slowed down poking through the murky waters of the upper Ponkel Sea, riding faint currents for a few moments. Kloosee hunted methodically for the station where they had docked the kip’t; the sled was the only way they would get back to Omsh’pont. The lifeship was just for transit through Farpool. It would never survive the rough currents of the trans-Serpentine route.

Finally, the beep-beep-beep of a contact sounded through their headsets. “There…that’s our ride home…sounds better than a tillet baying.” He dove toward the signal, which emanated from a narrow ledge carved into the side of a seamount. They would park the lifeship there, secure the vessel and transfer everything to the kip’t, including their cargo pod. After that, several hours of cautious maneuvering to get beyond the whirlpool fields and the two travelers would be headed home at last.

Pakma exited the ship, once Kloosee had brought them to a complete stop at the dock. She immediately went back to the cargo pod and unhooked its line, murmuring soothing nonsense at the bottle-nose dolphin as it snorted and banged against the cage.

“Come on, little one…come on…just a little while longer…I know the water’s different here…this place is colder, saltier, rougher than your homewaters…but we won’t be long….”

She secured the tow line to the cleats on the aft end of the sled, while Kloosee powered up the vehicle and grabbed an ompod shell out of a sack for a quick bite to eat. “Got some gisu here…

you want one?” He pulled out the fruit, jammed a hole in it with his beak and began sucking and slurping the pulp loudly. “Mmm—I’m starving—“

“Leave me one inside…I’ll just be a minute…our little traveler’s spooked…I’m trying to calm him down now.”

“Use the drug…the kelt…that’s what it’s for.”

Pakma tried calming the creature, running her own forepaddles against its flanks, murmuring an old tune she learned as a midling. “There…there…it’s okay…I think he’ll be all right, just a little shaken from the ride.”

“Aren’t we all?” Kloosee powered up the kip’t and tested its control surfaces and jets.

“Come on…we’ve got two thousand beats to cover and we’re late as it is.”

“All right, all right…let me secure this thing.” Moments later, Pakma drifted up into the cockpit, pulled the hatch down and secured herself. “Okay…now where’s that gisu--?”

They lifted off and Kloosee put them into quarter-speed drive as he sounded ahead for the line of opuh’te that enclosed the seamount. He knew the Time Twister was above them, slamming the water with its displacement nodes like a great fist, and the whirlpools infesting the waters around Kinlok Island were just a side effect of the Twister, minor details the Umans who operated the weapon paid no attention to, but the sound and the vibration were steadily rendering much of Seome’s ocean uninhabitable. The Umans found time to negotiate with the Seomish when it suited them, which wasn’t often and the damage the Twister was doing to their world was of little concern to them.

It made Kloosee angry but there wasn’t anything he could do about it now and he forced himself to concentrate on navigating their way through the vortex fields ahead. The only good thing about the Twister was that one of the vortexes had mutated long ago into a wormhole in space, a tunnel to other times and places, a conduit even to the homeworld of the Umans themselves, they had learned. That one they called the Farpool.

It was a rough, shuddering, jolting ride through the vortex field but Kloosee had done it before and brought the kip’t out into the colder, calmer waters of the Ponkel Sea in good order.

Pakma finished off her gisu, sucked on another one, and promptly dozed off to sleep. Kloosee pulsed her briefly and could sense her belly full and satisfied. He wished he could say the same for himself.

It was going to be a long ride back to Omsh’pont and the project labs.

The Pomt’or was the northern arm of the great Pom’tel Current and it was the only current that directly led to the gap in the Serpentines they would have to negotiate, the gap that led to the Omt’or Current and the long slog across the abyssal plain of Omme’tee to Omsh’pont…and homewaters. To get there from the Farpool and the Time Twister meant a long tedious trip through the northwest Ponkel Sea. The waters were cold, dense and sluggish away from the Current, stagnant far to the south at the equator and brimming with foul-tasting and dangerous mah’jeet fields, so thick in patches no kip’t could get through without clogging its jets. But there was no quicker way to the Serpentines and the gap.

Kloosee’s plan was to cross the Ponkel until they had reached the junction of the Pomt’or and Tchor Currents, then turn south through unsounded waters, paralleling the northernmost arc of the Serpentines, hunt for the gap until they felt the first faint tugs of the Tchor Current, then scoot through the gap and ride that underwater river across the abyssal plain. Then he would home on the seamounts surrounding Omsh’pont City, listening for repeater signals and the murmuring voices of the oot’stek, until the echo layer brought them safely into local waters.

That was if all went well….

Kloosee was glad that Ponkel sounded calm today, litor’kel was how you said it, he remembered. The bottom pulsed fifty or so beats below them, thick with mud and hidden, from time to time, by a tricky ootkeeor layer of warmer water. The thermals of the northern seas sometimes played havoc with kip’t navigation and even the locals sometimes got lost in the churning sediment and confusing echoes of the area. Kloosee was confident he could make it;

he’d come this way for the first time in his Circling many mah ago, so the complex echoes didn’t bother him. It was just as well that Pakma was asleep. She pulsed like the Farpool itself when she was scared.

The kip’t slid easily through the trackless waste and outside the vast swirl of the Pomt’or Current, the sea was as barren as any sea in the world. The water was a clear blue-green, almost sterile of life but for the ever-present gruel of the ertesh, thin and oily in this area. Few creatures found it appetizing enough to school here.

Far to the north, off their starboard quarter, Kloosee could read the faint echoes of the polar ice pack itself. The Pillars of Shooki were up there. He frowned, thinking about that. Someday, perhaps—

They traveled alone for hours, droning on and on, through the Ponkel, while Kloosee occupied himself with savoring comforting smells from a favorite scentbulb he had opened up, scents that spoke of faraway places and great adventures: the Klatko Trench and the seamother feeding grounds, the tchin’ting forest south of Likte Island, the caves of the Ponkti…Kloosee had always loved these scents. They were like warm water, soothing, comforting, old friends. Like old kel-mates.

Pakma began to stir from a drowsy nap, stretching and flexing herself in the cramped cockpit. Kloosee checked his sounder, noting they weren’t far from the point where the Pomt’or and Tchor Currents separated, a place of rough churning water. The kip’t was no more than a hundred beats from the turbulent T’kel’rok zone when they came upon a furious battle between a hungry mesodont, scavenging through a field of scrubby bushes at the bottom and a seamother it had startled. Kloosee braked quickly and steered the kip’t toward a dome of rock that poked above the mud, unwilling to risk the attention of the seamother Puk’lek when she was angered.

Pakma was now fully awake. Her insides bubbled nervously. She and Kloosee pulsed in awe at the fierce struggle.

The seamother had a considerable advantage in quickness. Her favorite weapon was her tail, ribbed with spikes and deadly. Back and forth, the tail thrashed, scraping the tough hide of the enemy. The mesodont lashed out with sharp pincers, seldom striking its target, but persistent enough to avoid a direct attack.

They skirmished for nearly an hour, each trying to wear the other down. The seamother tried several times to lunge in and flip the mesodont over with her tail but each time caught a pincer in the side and had to retreat. The waters frothed with blood and viscera and still they fought on.

The battle raged in near stalemate until the nightwaters came. Both creatures were exhausted, yet fought automatically, as if guided by unseen hands to destruction. The mesodont had lost three of its eight legs, pincers and all, while the seamother bled freely from deep gashes in her belly and head. One eye was shut, ripped out and scabbed over. Squeals of pain and anger had long since been replaced by a deathly chittering, clicking away the last moments of life.

Somehow, despite its crippling injuries, the mesodont mustered enough strength to burrow so deeply into the mud that it became impervious to continued attack. The seamother was enraged by this and tore furiously at the mud and silt but not fast enough to catch up. Soon, only a bruised gray hump was all that protruded from the mud. With that, the seamother bellowed forlornly.

Twisting her broken body, she bounded for the surface, several hundred beats above them.

The waters of the Orkn’tel were clear enough to see when she breached it in an explosion of

foam and bubbles. The paroxysm of anger lasted for several minutes, then suddenly, the seamother was quiet. She drifted at the surf ace, dragged by waves toward some distant shore, unknown to the Seomish. They pulsed in fascination at the sight.



Kloosee spoke first, after a moment’s reflection.

“When they die, they seek Notwater. That’s homewaters to them…like the Umans.”

“Amazing,” was all Pakma could say.

Kloosee waited a few more moments but the way seemed clear and he lifted the kip’t on its jets and resumed their journey. “I haven’t see Puk’lek in these waters before. She was well south from her normal feeding grounds.”

“Probably the Sound from the wavemaker,” Pakma surmised. “Everybody’s trying to get away from it.”

Kloosee piloted them on, toward the Serpentine gap and the rough waters where the great currents split apart, the P’omtor continuing west and the Tchor slicing through the gap toward the abyssal plains to the south, toward Omsh’pont and home.

Pakma turned about her cockpit sling and watched the cargo pod dangling behind them. For the moment, their captive was quiet, floating without motion in the enclosure. She wondered what it thought about the seamother. Was it even still alive?

“Kloosee, those creatures we saw, the ones in the Notwater…they seemed pretty intelligent.

Don’t you think? I’m wondering if we shouldn’t get a specimen the next trip.”

“Assuming Longsee approves another trip.” Kloosee was concentrating on bearing the kip’t toward the left, fighting through tricky cross-currents. “The last few times, we’ve always brought back the same creatures…they seem intelligent, but they don’t add much to the project.

I don’t think they’re going to help us very much…Longsee told me that himself.”

“The ones we saw that came after us…the Tailless…did you see their eyes, Kloos? They had that look, you know…that sparkle…like that ‘ I don’t know what you are but I’m curious’

look. We’ve always used curiosity as a measure…maybe we should be looking elsewhere. Are you going to say anything to Longsee…those Tailless did try to attack, after all. Good thing you had the blinder… that knocked them out.”

Kloosee steered them deftly toward a huge V-shaped notch in the Serpentine. He slowed down and let the faint fingers of the Tchor current grab them, first shaking them like an angry fist, then hurling them through the decline. The kip’t sounded ahead, tasting turbulence and the sled shuddered as it passed through the gorge. Steep craggy flanks surrounded them, not visible in the heavy silt and murk, but Kloosee knew danger was near and he was careful with the controls, adding just a touch of rudder or jet as needed. Pakma held her breath…one little eddy, one little bump, a few seconds drift in the wrong direction—

Only when the water calmed did both of them catch a breath. Kloosee checked the sounder…clear ahead and the rocky seafloor was opening up and spreading out, giving onto a steep tongue of seafloor that led straight down to the Omme’tee, the vast abyssal plain that covered much of the central Omt’orkel Sea.

The seamounts of Omsh’pont were now less than two hundred beats away.

Kloosee had been thinking about what Pakma said. He liked Pakma; they had a lot in common. Sure, she wasn’t too keen about joining his em’kel; but she was strong and smart and she had her own ideas about things. She was an artist with the scentbulbs….people still talked about her first big show, the Puk’lek it was called. Really, it took something special to do that.

He knew Pakma had learned to create and appreciate scentbulbs from an early age. One of her first accomplishments as a scentbulb artist was to capture and catalog scents from seamothers

who occasionally wandered into Omtorish waters in small packs. In this, she exposed herself to considerable danger, but she was able to obtain scents and smells from seamothers in a variety of states: eating, sleeping, copulating, in distress, fighting. The traces were in the waters of the Om’metee, south of the traditional seamother feeding grounds…not far from where they were now. Technically, the waters were off-limits, but Pakma ignored the regulations.

That’s what Kloosee liked about her. He was attracted to Pakma, so he always liked to say, because she was so sure of herself. She was gifted, and she knew it. She was strong willed and he liked that too. He particularly enjoyed sparring with Pakma, physically and intellectually, though Kloosee knew he himself was no great intellect.

“I am going to tell Longsee what we found,” he decided. “The project’s not going anywhere…the Mektoo are getting restless. And if the Metah decides to stop supporting us…”

he let that lie where it was, not wanting to finish the thought.

“I just hope they let us make another trip…and the Umans don’t do anything to mess with the Farpool…they don’t even realize what we’ve found.”

“No, and we should keep it that way. The Umans can fight their wars, if they want. Leave the Farpool to us….”

They both grew more and more excited as the echoes of their home became stronger and clearer. Presently, the towering seamounts of Omsh’pont sounded strong and sure and when the murk cleared, the great city finally lay before them. Kloosee slowed the kip’t down to approach speed and homed on the signals from the Kelktoo lab, occupying several domes and pavilions along the southwest ramparts of the central mesa of the city.

“Homewaters—“ breathed Pakma, taking in a big gulp. She savored the scents and odors and whiffs and aromas of everything she had grown up with…the accumulated wisdom and noisy clamor and clashing pulses of the only place she had ever called home.

Omsh’pont…heart and soul, the shoo’kel of life itself. Calm and clear waters everywhere you pulsed.

Litorkel ge,” she breathed.

Kloosee had to agree. It was a hoary old saying but it was comfortable too. “Litorkel ge—“

They drifted toward the landing pads of the Kelktoo labs.

By sight, Omsh’pont could barely be seen in the silt and murk of the central sea of Omt’orkel, but even a cursory pulse would betray the outlines of a great city. The main axes were wedged in between towering seamounts, held, as it were, in the bosom of the mountains atop a flat mesa-like plateau in the middle.

Pulse in any direction and you would learn of domes and pavilions and floatways and more domes, interspersed with cylindrical structures and pyramids and cones, a geometric forest of cubes and humps and tent-like coverings, all of it crammed and pungent with noisy, honking, bellowing, clicking, snorting life…that was Omsh’pont, the city of Om’t.

The Kelktoo was the largest and most influential of all the em’kels…the traditional house of learning with its academies and labs and observatories and institutes and societies and foundations and studios. The project leader was none other than Longsee lok kel: Om’t, a name that evoked respect in every sea around the world.

Kloosee and Pakma parked the kip’t and supervised lab attendants as they unhooked the cargo pod and steered it off to a nearby conservatory for initial exams and feeding. The two of them headed for the floatway leading to the Lab itself, situated under an array of tents and canopies halfway up the outer flanks of the seamount T’or, the tallest sentinel in the city.

Longsee was studying something under a beatscope when they arrived. He looked up, pulsed them happily and they all hugged like long lost friends.

“How was it, going through Farpool this time? I’ve heard it’s getting rougher…harder to navigate…did you come out at the right place and time?” Longsee’s innards bubbled like a steam vent; he did that when he was excited and the old Director didn’t get excited about much lately.

Kloosee told him. “It was rough…you have to be very precise how you control it. We were able to hit our target within a few weeks and close to our location…but it was close.”

Longsee understood. “Instabilities are growing. We’ll need to do more analyses, do a better job at predicting how it operates. Probably the Umans are doing something with their weapon that’s affecting it.”

Pakma added, “That’s what we want to talk to you about…the Umans.”

But Longsee was already focused on other things. The project director was single-minded in wanting to learn more about the home world of the Umans…it was only by chance the Farpool had made that possible. “You’ve brought back more specimens I see.”

Kloosee looked at Pakma. “The same type. Only one this time. We had trouble with the breathing pod…the creature didn’t want to use it, so we had to sedate him. Now—“Beyond the canopy of the lab, they could see their captive inside the containment tank, part water, part Not-Water, circling and probing the tank confines restlessly. The structure was an enclosure built out from the side of the seamount. “—this specimen seems to be male, possibly very young.”

Longsee was already moving in that direction. “Let’s see—tell me about the capture…did you talk with it?”

The three of them floated to the containment hold. The transparent pen was filled with treated water, but air captured from Seome’s atmosphere, the Not-Water, had been added to the hold, as the captive was an air-breathing creature.

They couldn’t pulse directly through the structure, so they listened to its squeaks and whistles, and watched.

Longsee ventured a question. “You had no conversations?”

Pakma felt sorry for the thing. “We don’t understand its language at all. It’s not like anything here…maybe it’s not so intelligent after all.”

Longsee adjusted some controls, bringing up the bio-luminescent lighting to full. “That’s still to be determined…from what I can tell, the specimen is of the same category as others you’ve brought back. It’s just a matter of analyzing the sounds it makes—“

“They seem to use no tools we can find…they live in open water, in small groups—that’s true—but they have no observed technology, no communities like ours, no obvious civilization of any type,” Kloosee said. “Longsee, we both saw something that made us think these creatures are not the most intelligent beings on the planet of the Umans.”

Longsee turned sharply. He pulsed Kloosee, finding only shoo’kel, calm and controlled. No lies, no deceit there. “What are you saying? That there’s another species?”

Pakma related what had happened with the Tailless people in the surface craft, how they had assaulted Kloosee with a long rod. “We had to suppress them…they were interfering…but they were like the Umans here, true beings of the Not-Water. It was their eyes…the intelligent way they looked at you—the way they reacted…I think this should be investigated.”

Longsee was skeptical. “We’ve always believed the klek were the dominant people on that world…the most intelligent. But I’ve been discussing this with the Mektoo and I have to admit there are those on the council who think these klek you’ve been bringing back have so far

exhibited nothing like the sentience or intelligence of a level that could be helpful to us. There was even a proposal to show the Umans one of these klek and ask their opinion. I think that is a bad idea, personally—“

Kloosee was dubious. “The Umans think of us as really intelligent pets, no more. We won’t get anything from them.”

Pakma wanted to press the issue. “The creatures that attacked us…whatever we call them—

I think we should propose a mission to capture one or more of them…bring some back for study.

They do resemble the Umans, in a lot of ways.”

Longsee watched the klek circling, nosing at them through the glass, staring, wondering at them. It was clearly a curious creature. But the language—much more study would be needed, much more time. It was time they didn’t have.

Longsee seemed to have come to a decision. Kloosee and Pakma both could tell. The Director pulsed like the rough waters of the Serpentine gap when he had to make a decision, weighing all the pros and cons, judging all sides. No shoo’kel inside Longsee…he was a turbulent cauldron that never showed externally…that was always calm and placid. But inside—

when you were a director of a project directly authorized by the Metah and her council, you could get away with that. It was bad form, even offensive, for most Omtorish, but Longsee was never one to follow convention. Kloosee had always liked that about him.

“I’ll take this up with the Mektoo. You’re both right…we seem to be at a standstill in what we can learn from the klek. But more study will need more time. The Metah is already impatient…the wavemaker, the Sound, it’s getting worse. And the Umans don’t care what they’re doing to the waters…they’re fighting their war and we’re no concern of theirs. But, Kloosee—“ Longsee came over and drifted directly beside him, “the lifeship will need modifying…how large are these creatures?”

“Like the Umans, in every way. A fraction of beat in length, similar width and mass.

They’re full breathers of the Not-Water….”

Longsee was already figuring out the details. “The lifeship and the kip’t will have to modified to accommodate that. Do you think you can do that? Can you bring back a specimen or two?”

Kloosee said, “It can be done. But I’ll need your help. And the lab. The more mass we add to the lifeship, the greater the instabilities inside the Farpool.”

“Yes,” said Longsee, now warming to the idea. “Yes, yes…we must work on this. I have a technician—Tamarek lu, you know him, I think…he can help. He’s very good with these things.

Tamarek can fashion anything…just give him the right tools.”

“Then you’ll take this before the Metah?” Pakma asked. She eyed the klek circling and circling, anxious, she could tell, though they couldn’t pulse the thing directly. Poor thing. It’s lost, frightened.

“Of course. We have no choice. The Umans won’t listen to our problems. They won’t even talk with us anymore. ‘ It’s the War…we have a mission…you’re just exaggerating.’

Already there’s talk of building some kind of sound shield to cover up the wavemaker, even talk of making an attack on the Tailless base at Kinlok…Bikloo ank tried that many mah before, but the mission failed. Time is growing short…no, I’m sure the Metah will listen. And if she decides, the Mek’too will have to go along.”

Kloosee tried swimming alongside the klek as it made a circuit, swimming along the front of the hold. Curious, even annoyed, the creature stopped short and nosed up to the glass. It has sad eyes, Kloosee thought. Forlorn, even. Captured by strange beings like us. Prisoner in a

strange sea. Maybe the Umans feel the same way. Stuck on Seome, a world they don’t like, fighting a war they didn’t want, against an enemy they don’t understand. Neither side really understanding what the other side needs.

Just like this klek, he decided.

Longsee was as good as his word, taking the request for a new expedition to the Metah and her council. Debate was limited; they could all hear the Sound and feel the vibrations from the wavemaker. Already, seams of rock from the seamounts had been loosened, falling and damaging structures inside the city. Much of Omsh’pont’s life was conducted outside anyway; people roamed and chatted, but not so much now. Life in the largest city of the kel was muted, people were depressed, conversations were hurried, clipped, pulses were becoming useless, you couldn’t tell what anyone was thinking or feeling anymore.

It was the same throughout the world. Even the ootstek, the repeaters who roamed between the kels, passing messages on that didn’t reflect properly, were muted and their voices muffled and subdued, lost in the clamor that the Uman weapon created.

The Metah, Iltereedah luk’t, was a vigorous older female of nearly two hundred mah, arthritic and stiff in places but much loved and respected by all. She had only one question for Longsee and his entourage.

“These eekoti you speak of…you say they resemble the Umans at Kinlok? Can they help us with the Umans…speak with them…convince them to move the wavemaker?”

Longsee tried to keep shoo’kel. You didn’t go before the Metah with your insides bubbling like a steam vent…calm and cool, that was the answer.

“Honorable Metashook’let, the travelers tell me this. We think the Farpool takes us to the homeworld of the Umans, but back in time, many metamah back, so that the eekoti they observed are like ancestors, perhaps like our Five Daughters with Shooki.” It was protocol to address the Metah in highly stilted, formal language…Longsee had to think about the forms and what to say and how to say them. “Their words are similar, so their language must be similar. If we could bring back a specimen or two, it’s possible they could talk with the Umans…that would make communication much easier. Then we could convince them of the damage the wavemaker is doing.”

Iltereedah considered that, methodically pulsing Longsee and his assistants from the lab, one by one, seeking deceit, other purposes, the telltale bubbles of doubt. She found none and so approved the expedition. Kloosee and Pakma would make the trip.

Longsee then accompanied the two of them to the em’kel Tu’klek, on the far side of the city, to meet the master craftsman Tamarek lu. It was a sobering excursion through Omsh’pont, through the floating spheres and domes and platforms and canopies, all stayed with guidewire and cable to the seamount, a three-dimensional lattice of enclosures and domiciles and shops and berthing spaces and restaurants, now largely empty of the usually gregarious roamings of the people. The water was m’eetor’kelte, rough and turbid, not good for strolling around.

So the citizens stayed away, roaming in the lee of the seamounts and beyond, seeking calmer water.

Tu’klek was a small em’kel, the shop tucked in the folds of the seamount Meta’shpont, a small cave-like place dimly lit with luminescent bulbs drifting like seaweed. Tamarek lu ran the place with a small force of interns and apprentices, hovering over his charges like a stern father, never pleased, barking at their mistakes, offering faint praise for jobs well done.

He and Longsee nosed each other and pulsed formally. Tamarek scrunched up his face at what he got back.

“Longsee, you’re upset. Or excited, maybe. I see it. Look at all that commotion inside you…what’s got you so riled up?”

The Lab director explained what had happened, the Metah’s approval of a new expedition, the modifications that would be needed to the transfer pod.

“These creatures, Tamarek…we’re calling them eekoti for lack of a better word…they breathe Not-Water. Hard to believe, but it’s true. Kloosee here, and Pakma, saw them on their last trip through. And they’re going back. We’re hoping they can bring us a few specimens.

The Metah thinks these eekoti can help us with the Umans at Kinlok.”

Tamarek chewed on that for a moment. “Yes? I’ll believe that when I see it. Umans are like k’orpuh, only not quite as long and slimy. But they’ll sting you given half a chance. You want a new transfer pod, eh? Let’s see what we can do—“

The next few days were taken up with Tamarek and his crew building and testing a new pod that could be towed through the Farpool by the lifeship, a habitable space suitable for creatures that only breathed Not-Water. While Longsee worked with Tamarek, and Pakma drifted away to visit old friends somewhere in the higher spaces of the seamounts, Kloosee decided to look up an old em’kel-mate…Tulcheah kim. It wasn’t a roam he wanted. Or a chat over old times.

Kloosee wanted something more, something closer. A coupling like they used to do.

He found her in the em’kel’s berth space, occupying herself with a scentbulb. She seemed pleasantly surprised to see him and they nuzzled for a few moments.

“Well, look at you,” she teased, circling to inspect her visitor. “I never expected such a famous kelke to come nosing around his old homewaters…all sleek and shiny. And such happy bubbles, my word… litorkel ge, old friend.”

Kloosee let her have her way. “Calmwaters to you too, Tulcheah. I wanted to see you.

Pakma and I are going back—“

Tulcheah stopped him with a playful poke in the sides. “I know that…nothing stays secret around here for long, you know that. How’s Pakma…I hear she couples like a fat pal’penk.”

Kloosee knew it was best to let Tulcheah get all the ribbing and jealous sneers out of her system. You could pulse the envy inside her…no one could hide all those bubbles.

“I won’t dignify that with an answer. Pakma’s a good person. She’s smart, lots of stamina…I’d like to see you in the Farpool, Tulcheah…you’d be plastered all over the lifeship, screaming the whole time.”

Tulcheah played at being hurt. “So try me. I’ll make the trip. I’m not afraid of the Farpool.”

“That’s not why I came.”

“I know why you came…it’s written all over your insides. A blind tillet could see it halfway around the world. What makes you think I’m in the mood?” Tulcheah held up her scentbulbs; she had a tray of them and she was methodically opening and inhaling each one.

“For the love of Shooki…the whole place smells like a seamother herd…what do you think you’re doing?”

Tulcheah sniffed indignantly at a bulb. “Pleasing myself with old odors…these are from childhood…remember when you used to chase me around the Torsh’pont, pinch my tail and belly?”

“I’ve got something better than old bulbs,” he told her. Kloosee swam up close and bumped her. “Look, I’ve got to get back to Tamarek’s place…how about we—“

But she put a hand to his mouth, fondling his beak, the way she always did. “Kloosee, you never change. Come with me, o’ great and famous traveler. I’ll show you things you never imagined—“ And she slapped her tail at him, disappearing into a small cleft in the space, a narrow fold in the rock. It was dark, but the scents were strong. Kloosee followed.

They made love for hours.

A day later, Longsee and Tulcheah and a small crowd of onlookers watched as Kloosee and Pakma loaded up their kip’t with supplies. Tamarek made sure the new pod was secured with towline to the kip’t. The trip to the Farpool would take many days.

The privy councilor to the Metah was also there, one Encolenia mek’t. She represented the Metah and her council.

“Our prayers are with you, Kloosee ank and Pakma tek. You have a long journey ahead of you and what you’re doing is critical to Omt’or, indeed to all the kels. Litorkel ge, both of you.

The Metah hopes and prays that you will be successful in your mission. Bring us eekoti who can help us.”

Pompous old windbag, thought Kloosee as he boarded the kip’t. Pakma was already in the rear cockpit. The new pod was attached. The lifesuits and other gear were refurbished, now with new mobilitors, like legs, like the seamother’s limbs, Kloosee suggested, to give their lifesuits ground mobility in the Not-Water. “You’ll waddle like a pregnant seamother,” Tamarek described them. “But at least, you can move around.”

Longsee had one last word of advice. “Don’t be heroes. You’re not immortal, Kloosee.

Omt’or needs you both to come back, alive and in good health and with eekoti specimens if you can. But don’t jeopardize yourselves for a specimen. Others can make the trip after you.”

Not if I can help it, Kloosee thought. He lived for the chance to explore Not-Water; it had been in his blood since childhood, since the Circling, since he’d seen seamothers breaching the surface like drunken revelers. Nobody’s taking this away from me.

Kloosee closed and sealed the kip’t cockpit. He waved at the assembled crowd, then fired up the sled’s jets and rose on the current, climbing swiftly through the domes and floats of Omt’or, past the Torsh’pont until they felt the first tugs of the Omt’chor Current.

They would have to tack and beat against that current to reach the P’onkel Sea and the Farpool.

The trip would take days and there was no guarantee the great vortex would even be there when they arrived, not if the Umans continued to tweak and adjust their Time Twister weapon.

Both of them were grim and silent as Kloosee steered them past the seamounts and set course for Ommetee and the abyssal plains to the north. He tried to occupy his mind with more pleasant things: the smell and taste of Tulcheah kim, the gisu and tongpod he’d gorged on the evening before, the swoosh of the water against the kip’t cockpit.

But he was troubled and he couldn’t say why. Just a feeling. Maybe a foreboding sense that this would be a different kind of journey. And the knowledge of how much Omt’or was depending on them….that was a lot of responsibility to put on someone the kelke called an outsider, a loner, a tchuk’te who liked licking icebergs more than pulsing his family.

That hurt. But it was probably true. Kloosee shook himself out the funk and tried concentrating on his instruments, on the tug of the current, on the echoes that gave him their course.

Three days to the Farpool. He knew he would do a lot of thinking in that time.

Chapter 3

Scotland Beach, Florida

July 20, 2121

5:30 pm

Traveling through the Farpool was like no other trip Kloosee and Pakma had ever taken before, though they had made the trip five times now. It was hard to describe. Spinning in a great vortex, being pinned to the side of the lifeship. Blinding light, strobing and flickering and flashing until your eyes hurt. The roaring sound. The weight of centrifugal force, the smells…of your own fear, your own sweat, your own body waste coming out—

It was getting rougher every time, a jolting, jarring, shuddering ride and when it was over, you slammed to a halt and had to spend a few moments collecting yourself, cleaning yourself up, trying to regain your senses and get the blood going again, reminding yourself to breathe again.

Kloosee had the knack for how to manipulate the Farpool—really, it was a matter of where to press, where to turn and roll the lifeship, when to thrust and when to back off. Again and again, he had shown he could hit their targets in time and space with very little error.

They slammed into the eekoti waters with a blood-draining deceleration and Kloosee fought the lifeship controls to bring them out of the spin. The lifeship rolled nearly upside down before he had the thing stable and shooting out of the core of the whirlpool. As soon as they were clear, he punched up the forward jets and brought the craft to a complete stop. They drifted, settling gently toward the seabed.

“Check the pod, Pakma…hope we didn’t lose it coming through—“

Pakma tek craned around in her cockpit and examined the fittings. “She’s still attached…

connections look good. I don’t pulse any exterior damage. Inside, it’s hard to tell…I’ll have to get outside and take a peek.”

“Let me find us a quiet spot first—“

Kloosee fired up the jets, massaged some kinks out of his forepaddles and hunted along the sandy seabed for a place they could tie up. The lifeship pinged ahead and all around—now something was in front of them, a few beats. It was a dark pile, dead ahead.

The pile was like nothing either of them had ever seen before. Misshapen, jumbled metal structures jutted at an angle out of the seabed. It was an irregular pile of junk but there were plenty of edges and corners the lifeship could be secured to. Kloosee jetted down and hovered just next to the pile, then settled them gently onto the bottom. He cut the jets and secured ship’s power. The instrument panel went dark.

“Glad we wore our suits this time,” he muttered, climbing out of the cockpit. “I’d be all black and bruised from the ride.” Eekoti water was always too warm for his taste, salty but clear, onk’kel’te was the word here. Not like Seomish waters at all.

The two of them wrestled the lifeship into position, then Pakma uncoiled the tie-line and secured the ship to the junk pile. Tying the line, she noticed some words on a dented metal panel: it said Chevrolet. Perhaps a warning to others, she surmised. They would have to work at deciphering the eekoti written language, though the echopods might work for translating voice.

Time would tell with that.

Clad in their lifesuits, puk’lek’te was what Tamarek lu had called the new designs, they headed off toward shallower water, following the gentle rise of the seabed.. Kloosee had to

laugh at the word; it meant ‘seamother limbs’. Tamarek had insisted they could venture into the Not-Water and waddle around just like seamothers on the beach.

That should be good for a few laughs.

Cruising along the seabed, which was remarkably flat, sandy and clear, Kloosee became aware of just how quiet Pakma had been. She’d been that way through the whole trip, even before, during the ride up from Omsh’pont. Something was bothering her; he could pulse turmoil inside of her…even through the lifesuit, the bubbles were jumbled and fizzing and crashing about. But she said nothing and even drifted off several beats away, like she wanted to be alone, paralleling his course.

Finally Kloosee could stand it no longer. He veered closer, pulsed her once more—the bubbles and turmoil were still there—and pulled up alongside. She made no move or any reaction to his presence. It was like she was roaming in a dream…on auto.



“Pakma, something’s bothering you…you haven’t said five words since we got here. Are you sick? Are you upset…I’m pulsing a lot of turbulence inside…I need you whole and well for the mission—“

At first, she said nothing, but drifted away again, opening up a half beat between them.

Kloosee got mad and slapped his tail, sending him sharply toward her, then he crossed in front of her and she had to pull up quickly to avoid a collision.

“Watch where you’re going,” she said sharply. She went on and Kloosee hustled to stay up with her.

“What’s wrong? You’re upset…and you’re not doing a very good job of hiding it…

Longsee would throw a fit…you know how he is about keeping shoo’kel.”

Pakma seemed resigned to having Kloosee right next to her. He tried nuzzling at her belly, but she slapped him away. “Don’t do that, okay?”

“What is it…did I say something wrong?”

Pakma suddenly pulled up abruptly and stopped. She hung vertically in the water, clad in the suit like a forlorn baby in its birth shroud, and glared at him. “She’s all over you, you know.

I can smell her every time you come close. It’s cloying…it’s like overripe tong’pod… the really mushy kind.”

Immediately, he knew she was talking about Tulcheah, about their coupling in Omsh’pont.

“Pakma, Tulcheah and I are em’kelmates. We’ve been together for dozens of mah, since we were kids. It was nothing…just a little hello. I pulsed her sad, a little needy and did what I had to to…em’kels are like that.”

“You didn’t have to spend so much time there. I thought we were---“ But she didn’t say it.

Instead, she gave an abrupt tail slap and plunged ahead, nosing along the sea bottom.

Kloosee hustled after her. “Pakma…Pakma, wait up…you know how I feel about you…the mission depends on us…we have to get along…we’re comrades here—“

Pakma shimmied and scraped along the sand, intentionally throwing up a cloud of silt in his face. “I thought we were more than that—“

“We are…we are…you know, you could join the em’kel too…Putektu’s open to anyone.”

“Sure, all you ever do is talk about Not-Water, about seamothers, waddling around like drunken puk’lek…what am I supposed to do…Not-Water’s like hell…we’re not supposed to be there. Shooki warns against it…it’s death for anyone…your em’kel just likes to stir up trouble, Kloosee, that’s all it is. And you won’t be happy until every female in Omt’or is clinging to your tail. I’m not that desperate.”

With that, Pakma scooted up toward the surface, now only ten beats above them, and breached in a spray of foam, taking a look around.

Kloosee went after her, doing likewise.

They rode the surface waves for a few minutes, now grateful for the lifesuits, though Kloosee felt awkward and constricted, the way he often did in Not-Water. Maybe it was just a reaction. Not-water was ee’kootor’kelte, the pressure was too low to sustain life, it was death and damnation. Pakma was right about that.

Not only that, but it was bright up here too. Blinding bright. Painfully bright. Kloosee breached and immediately tuned down the darkness setting of his helmet visor.

The beach was ahead. Eekoti were strolling along. Some were in the shallows, playing in the waves, splashing and laughing. Small vessels throwing off plumes of water jetted back and forth; they’d have to watch out for those.

Kloosee decided now was the time.

He reached the shallowest rise in the bottom and actuated his mobilitors, the puk’lek’te, that would give him and Pakma ground mobility. Then he reared up, placing his full weight on the limbs, standing in several feet of water and wobbled unsteadily back and forth before the stabilizers kicked in.

He waved his arm limbs back and forth. He had seen eekoti do that. Longsee surmised it was a form of greeting. He couldn’t pulse anything. Then he pushed forward through the waves and approached the beach. Behind him, more hesitantly, Pakma was doing the same.

It was so painfully bright he had to dial down the helmet several more notches.

Kloosee kicked and splashed through the waves, trying to imitate the smaller eekoti.

Longsee had recommended that: similarity and parallelism in gestures may make them more comfortable with your presence. He had recorded bulbs on the subject.

Now, Kloosee saw many eekoti scattering, running away from him, waving and screaming, flinging sand everywhere. What was going on? He turned to check Pakma; she was just clambering up onto the beach.

When he turned back, he spotted one eekoti who wasn’t fleeing. This one was taller, probably an adult. He was running toward them, waving some kind of handheld device, perhaps a welcoming gift.

Shots rang out. Loud, popping noises: one, two, three, four of them. Sharp cracks.

Kloosee felt a sharp pain in his side. He reached for the pain, and found the lifesuit had been holed, life-giving water was already spilling out, a steady stream. Then another shot came and more sharp pain. Kloosee’s limbs buckled and gave way. He fell headlong into the sand.

As he fell, he saw Pakma was in trouble too…she was staggering sideways, pitching forward and she fell as he did, heavily, awkwardly, plowing face first into the sand.

What had happened? Was it the eekoti? Was it the lifesuit?

Kloosee struggled to move, but the water was leaving him and already breathing was hard…

they had backup systems but—the hole grew darker, larger and he soon disappeared into the black tunnel, slipping into unconsciousness, spinning spinning spinning and was sucked in.

Sergeant Carl Wolcott had been with Scotland Beach’s Uniformed Division for seven years, half of them with the Beach Patrol Squad. It was interesting work, interesting in the same sense his pathologist friend Wally Ng talked about dead bodies…conversation you didn’t want to have at the local coffee shops, not if you wanted people to stick around. Cops and pathologists…Carl

had often joked with Wally about what it would be like to attend a pathologist convention, with all the slide shows and the jokes and the conversations in the hallways over bagels and coffee.

“Yeah, probably like a proctologist convention,” Wally always came back. “I’d pay not to attend one of those.”

Wolcott had never seen anything like it in all his years on the Beach Squad. One minute, kids were building sand castles and teenagers were necking and Moms and Dads were dipping Junior in the kiddie waves along Shelley Beach and the next moment, two wackos who looked like creatures from the Black Lagoon were waddling up out of the ocean, scaring the bejeezus out of everybody.

He’d fired several shots and the creatures…things…whatever the hell they were—had gone down fast. Now they lay writhing in the shallows and beachgoers were starting to gather.

“Stay back! Stay back…it’s still moving—get way back there!”

The crowd pulled back about fifty feet, while Wolcott crept forward, his gun still in firing position. The nearer creature was moving, it sounded like squeals or clicks or something, thrashing about in the sand and water, flinging up dirt as it writhed. The farther one was mostly in the water, smaller in size, but still--

Wolcott came up. What on God’s green earth--?

The beast—for that was what he had started calling it in his mind—was not a dolphin. It wasn’t a shark. It had legs and arms and what looked like armor plating. It had holes in the armor and water was spouting out of the holes. The beast squealed some more. And the smaller one down by the waterline actually seemed to be whimpering.

Wolcott got on the radio, ringing up Dispatch.

“Kitty, this is Beachside Two-Five…I got some kind of disturbance down here on Shelley Beach…I don’t know how to describe it…I have fired several rounds—need backup immediately…and something else: would you call Gulfside? That’s the Aquarium…we may need one of them down here…Shelley Beach, just a hundred yards west of Turtle Key Surf and Board—“

Ten minutes later, Scotland Beach PD’s Beach Patrol Squad had mustered four officers.

They surrounded the beasts, laying down strips of crime scene tape to form a defensible perimeter. Two officers—Vang and Nettles—were working the crowd, trying to keep the curious back out of the way.

A small pickup from the Aquarium pulled up. A woman in blue scrubs jumped out of the passenger’s side. Wolcott recognized her. Dr. Josey Holland, Aquarium chief veterinarian.

Holland was tall, gawky, long blond hair—she wore some kind of denim wrap around her scrubs.

She jogged up, went right to the larger beast and knelt down.

“Careful, Doc…it’s still alive—I dropped it with two shots—“

Holland was poking and probing around its neck, or what she thought was a neck. “Barely alive…I’ve never seen a creature like this before---not a dolphin, not a porpoise…and this skin, it looks like—“

“Armor,” volunteered Wolcott. He hovered over her right shoulder, fingers tickling the handle of his revolver, just in case.

Holland made a decision. “We need to get both of them into the med pool. I’m calling Nautilus.” She pecked a few keys on her wristpad, spoke into it and added, “Hurry, will you…

these creatures are dying fast…we need to get them stabilized—“

Ten minutes later, a specially outfitted flatbed truck came grinding along the beach, easing past the growing crowd, hand-waved on by several officers to the downed creatures. It was the

Aquarium’s Nautilus…mounted on top of the flatbed was an open water tank, a fiberglass pool like you might find in a backyard, but big enough to hold large marine animals in a wet environment, while they were in transport.

“Come on,” Holland said, lifting the larger beast’s legs, “help me get ‘em up and in.”

Wolcott looked on doubtfully. “You want us to actually grab that thing?”

“I want us to get him and his buddy into the tank, Sergeant. They’re dying…you can see that, hell, you can hear it…hear that wheezing? He needs to get into some water—“

So Wolcott, Nettles, Vang and Joiner helped, along with some burly beachgoers, including one bearded pot-bellied fellow in a wetsuit about three sizes too small. Pot-belly wouldn’t pass for a body-builder but he seemed strong as Hercules. Single-handedly, he hoisted the limbs of the smaller creature and dragged it through the sand to the truck.

Fortunately, there was a small lift at the rear.

As soon as both creatures were safely in the tank of the Nautilus truck, Holland climbed in the cab and motioned the driver to go. Wolcott decided he’d better follow; he worked out an alternate duty shift with the other officers and ran for his motorcycle, parked up next to Lumpy’s Crab Shack by the dune fields. Seconds later, Wolcott’s police bike was pulling in behind the Nautilus, as it skidded out onto Citrus Boulevard, heading for Duncan Street and the right turn into the Aquarium lot.

Inside the cab, Holland was thinking out loud, as much to herself as to her driver, vet tech Rob Stauffer.

“We’ll have to put them in Tank B, Rob. And get the med pool going, make sure it’s up to temperature, salinity, O2, you know what to check—“

“Yes, ma’am. What are those things…some kind of orca?”

Holland just shook her head. “Hell if I know…we may have a new species here…Meier will love that. But first things first: we have to get them stabilized. Wolcott said he fired several rounds. And I saw multiple entry wounds in that skin…that’s the craziest skin I’ve ever seen.

Contact Joe Earl too…he’s not a marine animal guy, but he‘s got a pathology background, he knows animal surgery…he may have some ideas.”

They turned into the Aquarium parking lot and headed for the back entrance.

Tank B was one of several holding pools that Gulfside maintained away from the public areas. It was just beyond the Penguin Pavilion and Swamptown, behind locked doors and connected by a narrow channel to a smaller surgical pool, equipped with all the medical gear that Gulfside could afford, which wasn’t much. Holland always sighed when she saw the layout inside the med pool suite. If only we had more donors, she would say to herself, and to anyone else who would listen. A few more rich benefactors. And about a hundred million in loose change would help. Then we could really fly.

She felt sorry for the dolphins in the Dolphin Gallery and the belugas and the penguins and seals and especially, Ernie, the tiger shark, who was one of Gulfside’s more popular attractions.

They deserved better. A lot better.

Holland supervised off-loading the creatures—already she had named them in her mind Ralph and Alice, thinking of the Kramdens and the Honeymooners—and immediately changed into her wet gear. She entered the medpool and laid out all her instruments, tugging up the medbot unit, with its containment tank full of nano-critters and a control panel, even a small joystick for flying through the innards of her marine animal patients. Holland wasn’t too sure about driving the small flotilla of medbots and surgicytes—she’d skipped the detailed training

the manufacturer offered because Gulfside wasn’t the Georgia Aquarium or the Shedd Aquarium and money didn’t grow on trees.

Holland helped her intern Tracey Rook and her technician Rob maneuver Ralph into the pool, positioning him as best they could in the float sling, then securing the animal with straps and hooks.

Rob just shook his head, looked up quizzically. “Tursiops truncatus, do you think, Doc?”

Holland shook her head, sizing up the animal with her hands and fingers. “Doesn’t look like it to me…but this guy must be twelve, maybe fourteen feet long, weigh a ton or more.”

Tracey Rook sniffed and ran her fingers lightly over the skin. “This skin is weird…feels like chitin, like some kind of composite—“

That’s when they found the fasteners.

To Josey Holland’s ever-lasting surprise, what she had thought was a particularly tough outer skin membrane turned out to be a suit of some kind, like a wet suit. By pushing and pulling, struggling and heaving, grunting and straining, the three of them were able to pull the suit off Ralph and see what the creature really looked like.

Tracey put hands to her mouth. “My God—“

Longer and bulkier than a dolphin, Ralph had a beak, a melon, forelimbs and rear limbs, like a dolphin. He had dorsal fins, in fact two of them. Tail flukes. Medial notch in the rear flukes.

But it was the hands. The forelimbs, with fingers. Six in all, a thumb and five metatarsals.

No one said a word for a full minute. They all just stared in awe.

Holland took a deep breath. “Okay… so we have a new species here…Gulfside may have a new exhibit. Now, we just have to keep him…and his mate—alive.”

Ralph was starting to thrash about in the sling, so Rob immediately pulled up the anesthetics shelf. It hung down from an articulating arm over the pool. “What do you think, Doc? Sodium pentathol with halothane?”

“I’m thinking…I’m thinking…let’s see, I make him about a ton…two thousand pounds, make it three, set the dose for that. And let’s do a separate dose cocktail of fentanyl and sevoflurane. Right there, anterior to the pectoral fin—“She indicated a spot below one of Ralph’s fins. “Hopefully there are veins nearby—“

Tracey was pulling up another piece of gear. “I’ll get URI ready.” URI was the Ultra Resonant Imager. “If I can fit the thing over top of him—“

Anesthetic was administered to both Ralph and Alice at the same time. From an exterior view, it seemed that Ralph’s injuries and wounds were more severe. “We’ll start with him,”

Holland decided.

The scanning was done in silence, only briefly interrupted by a few mmm’s and wows and a lot of head scratching and throat clearing. Someone threw in a ‘ What the hell is that?, too.

Holland did her dictation to URI’s recorder. “I’m seeing things I have no idea what they are…lesions in what I think is the reticulum…possible enteric vein damage…if this is the stomach area like I suspect. Extensive tissue damage to what looks like the caudate lobe of the liver, also suprarenal glands and gastroplenic ligaments—“

“Those could be shell fragments in and along the pyloric sphincter,” offered Rob, studying the images. “Severely detached mucosae—“

“And there’s no blowhole,” said Tracey. “Neither of them—they’re not mammals at all.

Pure water creatures.”

“At least, we won’t have to worry about aspiration. Let’s get the big one prepped immediately. I’ll fire up the bots.”

Ralph would need surgical intervention right away.

The medbot insertion went well enough and Holland quickly warmed to the task. It’s like learning to ride a bicycle, she told herself. Except I don’t recognize anything in here…Still she was determined and she set to work grimly, cauterizing, slicing, re-sectioning, stitching and patching, using the bots and a handful of other endoscopic tools.

The surgery lasted almost two hours. When she figured she was done and Ralph was sown up and the bots had been extracted, she told Rob to lower the float sling.

“I want him completely submerged while he recovers. Leave him in the sling. And get Alice prepped too.”

The surgery on Alice was less involved; her wounds were less severe. Holland finished with her in an hour and ordered the same post-op procedures.

Two hours later, Rob stood next to Holland in the medpool, putting instruments away and securing the containment cylinder, the URI probe and the instrument trays.

“Now we wait,” Holland muttered. “We’d better get cleaned up.”

“I’m thinking this is a completely new species,” Rob said. “Think what that could mean for us.”

“Yeah, a media circus, probably. Also papers and recognition for us, for the aquarium, for everybody.”

She changed into dry clothes and went back to the pool deck alongside the medical pool.

Both creatures were still heavily sedated, secured in their float slings, their wounds heavily bandaged, still connected by wire and tube to life monitors hanging in a basket overhead.

Holland sat down on the pool deck and pulled up her knees, resting her chin on them.

Who are you? she asked herself. What are you? A body similar in proportion to Tursiops, a bottlenose dolphin, but bigger. Fore and rear limbs, tail flukes, two dorsals.

And limbs with fingers. Actual prehensile digits, eerily similar to human hands. How could Evolution have developed that in a water environment…what did they do with those hands?

Her musings were interrupted by Dr. Joe Meier, the Aquarium director, who came into the med pool suite a short time later. Meier was tall, mostly bald, dorky glasses forever perched on the end of his nose. He was the picture of distracted academia, even down to the corduroy jacket with elbow patches.

Meier just stared at Ralph and Alice for a minute, shaking his head. “Incredible…just incredible…Josey, how intelligent do you think these guys might be?”

Holland sucked on the tip of her finger. Her stomach growled, reminding her she hadn’t eaten anything for dinner.

“Very, Joe. URI scan showed a brain-to-body weight ratio greater than any cetacean, greater even than you and me. We did some PET scans…even severely injured, there was a hell of lot of glucose uptake going on…oh, they’ve got brains, all right. They think and act with intention, I’m sure of that. I just don’t know what their intention is.”

Meier went over to a table in the corner. The ‘suits’ they had removed from Ralph and Alice were laid out on the table, along with scales and probes from the Lab. He poked at the

‘helmet’ of one suit, using a set of tongs to nudge it along.

“What the hell do you make of these…extra skin layers?…maybe they shed skin like my German shepherds.”

Holland got up and came over. She put on some latex gloves and fingered the ‘helmet,’ with its clear, beak-shaped casing and interior network of fine, almost delicate tubes.

“Look at these tubes, Joe. This isn’t skin. It’s just what it looks like…some kind of suit.

External protection you put on and take off. Rob and Tracey scanned this thing from one end to the other…it’s got valves and gears and pumps and some kind of motors, things we have no idea what they are…it’s a pressure suit, something designed and worn, like astronauts wear.”

Meier looked sideways at Holland. “Josey, what are we dealing with here? Nazi frogmen from sunken U-boats? Extraterrestrials? Survivors from Atlantis?”

Holland shrugged. “I don’t know….I really don’t know. But Ralph and Alice don’t belong here, I’m sure of that. They came here, for a reason. I don’t know where they came from. And I don’t know the reason. But I hope to learn…we’ve been handed one of the greatest scientific discoveries in history…right in front of us. We have to move carefully on this, do the science the right way, document everything….”

Meier nodded. “This has to be great for the aquarium. Especially these suits…what an exhibit that’ll be…I’ll get the curators to work on it tomorrow, first thing. Just think of it: a whole new theme for next year. I can see it now—“ he put his hands up to show an imaginary marquee in the air. “— Visitors from an Alien SeaBe a Part of History…all the donors and benefactors will wet their pants trying to get in on this…Jeez, the merchandising alone will—“

Holland cut him off. “Joe, the science has to come first. I don’t want anything to mess up the science.”

“Maybe you don’t, but let me remind you what I said at last month’s staff meeting: Gulfside is hurting financially. We need money. We need visitors. We need everything…hell, you yourself said you need more equipment in the lab…microscopes, scanners, spectrometers, all those gizmos cost money and we don’t have it. Look at ‘em, Josey…Ralph and Alice…I like the names, by the way…we can use that…. They’re a floating gold mine, better than Sea World, better than Animal Kingdom, better than Disney World. We play our cards right and we’ll be swimming in dollars. The blunt truth is we have to do something to raise our profile and draw more tourists in, or Gulfside will close.”

Holland waved him away. “Joe, I know all that. We all know that. I’m just saying we should go at this carefully, plan things, do the science right from the start. I’d like to not have a circus just yet…hell, Ralph and Alice may not even survive the night. I know nothing about where they came from, what they eat, how they live. All that’s got to be researched and documented.”

“Yes, yes, of course you’re right…nobody’s arguing that. But we’d better make use of what’s dropped into our laps here, and do that right too, or there won’t be an aquarium here next year for you to do your precious science in.”

So they both waited and watched, both hoping for good things from Ralph and Alice, each in their own ways praying that the creatures survived the night, and made a full recovery.

Josey Holland knew that the days ahead would be trying ones.

Chapter 4

Scotland Beach, Florida

July 23, 2121

9:00 pm

Word of the newest ‘acquisition’ at Gulfside Aquarium got around Scotland Beach pretty quickly. There were different versions of the story going around, but the basics seemed stable enough: two new marine animals, likely dolphin variants, had been discovered by police on Shelley Beach and they had been wearing spacesuits. Chase Meyer first saw the story on Beach Bum, a local web site covering town news and activities. He practically didn’t breathe at all, reading the post and looking at the images, then he read it again twice to make sure he hadn’t misunderstood.

It was real. The same creatures he and Angie had seen after that spout churned up the ocean a few weeks ago, a Saturday it had been.

He texted Angie immediately. Did you see it…new critters at aquarium?

All he got back, after a few minutes, was: OMG.

They met half an hour later at the end of Angie’s street, just beyond the circle at Fairwinds Trail. Chase had ridden his turbo bike up from his Dad’s surf shop.

They kissed for a moment. “Did you see ‘em on the Net?” Chase asked.

Angie nodded. “You think they’re the same things we saw Saturday?”

Chase said, “I don’t know. But I intend to find out. Come on…let’s head down to the aquarium.”

Angie demurred. “I just got home from school. And I’ve got a four-hour shift at the clinic…plus Mr. Lott’s loaded me down with homework—I can’t—“

“Come on, Angie…this could be important—“

“Oh, so a job and homework’s not important—“

Chase had that look. “Angie—“

She held up a hand. “Don’t, okay. Just, don’t….” she fretted for few seconds, not sure what to do with her hands. “Chase—honestly, sometimes…here, let me put this bag up—“ she ran off to the house to drop off her bag, tell her Mom what was up. Chase occupied himself with his wristpad, scanning the news stories as they broke: new dolphins at Gulfside…captured on the beach…tourists frightened as police shootout injures animals….

Angie came running back out of the house and hopped on the back seat of the bike.

“I gotta be back in an hour…no lie. The Clinic’s short today…Dr. Wright told me—“

“No sweat…I just think we ought to check this out. I bet those dolphins are the same ones that fired at us.” He scratched off down Grove Street, fishtailing past the high school and the Citrus Grove Shopping Center.

“Hey, try not to kill us in the process!” she yelled over his shoulder.

They made it to the aquarium in five minutes.

Chase paid both their admissions and they hustled through front entrance, hurrying past light, late afternoon crowds at the Dolphin Gallery, past the Penguin Pavilion, the Seal Stage and

Swamptown, until they came to a door leading to staff offices and labs. The sign said STAFF

AND EMPLOYEES ONLY. Chase tried the door. Locked.

That earned them a scowl from a docent nearby, dusting off railings around the diorama exhibit that fronted Swamptown. Angie always shuddered going by this exhibit; it was filled with creepy, crawling things with eighteen legs. They were all stuffed—mummified, she liked to say—but she shivered just the same.

The docent was Mr. Weems, white-haired and wrinkled more than a shirt left out in the rain, retired from a million years in the drugstore business. “Can’t go in there, kids. Can’t you read the sign?”

Chase towered over Mr. Weems. He didn’t mind using his height to advantage. “We just want to talk with Dr. Holland. She’s still the vet here, isn’t she?”

Weems shrugged, parked a chin on top of a broom, glaring up at Chase. “One of them.

Why’d you want to see her?”

Chase made up some story about catching a fish off Half Moon Cove that he wanted her to identify. Angie just rolled her eyes and bit her tongue.

Weems thought about that. “I can call her on this here phone…but it’s late…she’s probably already left for the day—“Weems rang a number on the departmental phone. He said a few words, sort of chuckled, but it came out like a bad cough. Then he hung up. “Got one of her interns. Dr. Holland’s here, but she’s busy. The intern’s coming out—“

A moment later, Tracey Rook pushed through the door. She was red-haired, her hair tied back in a pony-tail, stuck through the back of a Tampa Bay Rays baseball cap. She was wearing a white lab jacket over faded jeans.

“What’s this about, Roy?”

Weems told her. Chase added a few things, then Angie spilled the whole story. Tracey looked on skeptically. “That’s a pretty tall tale, kids.” Tracey was almost a kid herself. Chase thought she was cute, maybe twenty-five at most. Calling them kids was a bit much. “Tell you what, I’ll talk with Dr. Holland, see what she says. Our new guests, Ralph and Alice, are in the recovery pool. They’re not supposed to have visitors…it could be pretty distressing, what with them being shot and all.” Tracey disappeared back inside the staff corridor, then returned less than a minute later, with a what can you do? look on her face.

“Doc says you can watch them from the door…five minutes max. And don’t say or do anything. We don’t want to startle them…they’re a bit skittish.”

She led the teenagers down the hall and through a set of double doors at the end.

The recovery pool was about the size of the lap pool over at Apalachee High, a place that Chase knew well, from years on the swim team. Dr. Holland was stooping by the side of the pool, testing the water chemistry with some kind of gadget. She looked up, came over.

“I heard from Mr. Weems you may have seen Ralph and Alice before.”

Chase related the story. Angie studied the fish circling warily in the water, one after the other. They eyed the humans with each orbit of the pool. “The creatures we saw had some kind of armor on, like a suit or something.”

That made Josey Holland turn abruptly. “A suit? Like a space suit?”

“I guess. It looked like armor, like it was plated. If these are the same guys, they look a little different, smaller.” She could also see the med bandages on the sides of both Ralph and Alice, where Dr. Holland had done the surgical incisions.

Holland said nothing about the suits she had cut off. “Come on in…I want you to take a closer look…make sure these two are who you saw last Saturday. Stop at the railing there…I’m not sure how they’ll react…you’re somebody new to them.”

Chase and Angie came in. Immediately, Ralph stopped circling and poked a beak above the water, eyeing both of them with careful scrutiny.

Angie felt a chill. She had seen those eyes before. It was—“Chase…look at him…look at his eyes---it’s one of them—“

Chase felt it too. He stayed at the railing, but every muscle was screaming go closer. He watched as both Ralph and Alice paused in their circling, poked beaks and eyes above the water and studied the two of them, cocking their heads first one way, then the other. For a few moments, Chase and Angie stared, nearly eyeball to eyeball, with Ralph and Alice, as if something unknown, perhaps unknowable, had passed between them.

Josey Holland had seen the entire exchange. “You all seem to know each other. Are these the two you saw before?”

Chase nodded. “I’m sure of it, Dr. Holland. Just outside the Cove…it was after that waterspout…you know, the water was real choppy.”

“I didn’t want to go out there,” Angie admitted. She wrapped her arms around her shoulders, remembering. “It was rough, scary. But, Chase…well, that’s how he is—“

Chase told them about the enclosure that Ralph and Alice seemed to be towing.

This intrigued Holland. “Enclosure? What kind of enclosure…can you describe exactly what you saw?”

They did.

Holland shook her head, looked at Rook. “Tracey, check back with the police…see if there’s any mention of an enclosure in their report.”

The intern ran off to an office. Holland motioned Chase and Angie to follow her. She led them outside the pool deck, and shut the door behind, locking it. “I want to talk more with you two, but I can’t right now. I’ve got a meeting with the Directors in ten minutes…look, can you both come back tomorrow, say in the afternoon?”

Angie told her, “Well, I’ve got school. And I work at Dr. Wright’s clinic most afternoons…

I might could get off if I ask nice.”

Chase kicked at some imaginary dirt on the floor. He jammed his hands in his jeans. “I got a job too….Turtle Key Surf and Board. But my Dad owns the place…I can get off.”

“Good. Come by any time after four p.m. Just call me up on my cell—“ she fished for a card and gave the number to Angie. “We need to have a talk.” With that, she escorted them both back down the hall and out into the Swamptown exhibit area. Mr. Weems was still sweeping and dusting. “Tomorrow—“ she told them.

They both promised and hurriedly left the aquarium.

Back inside, Josey Holland deposited her own lab coat in her office and went to the Directors’ room at the end of a cross hall. Dr. Joe Meier was already droning on about the year’s financials and shot her an accusing you’re late look. Holland avoided his stare and took a seat.

“—as I was saying, the notoriety surrounding Ralph and Alice has had the effect of bumping up our turnstile count and gate proceeds the last few days. We’ve put out press releases in a number of outlets and the St. Pete Times is sending a whole crew over tomorrow morning. Plus we’ve got something else up our sleeves that only a few people know about. Josey, tell them about the suits—“

Holland described the suit-like coverings she had cut off Ralph and Alice, earning more than a few raised eyebrows around the table. Holland thought she could see actual dollar signs in some of their eyeballs.

“There could be a film…a documentary, even—“ one Director said. It was Ed Givens, who owned the Reedy Top Drugstore, down on the south side of town.

“Or a special exhibit…with a higher admission fee,” someone else said.

Holland could see they were off and running, smitten with the financial potential, and little care for scientific protocol. She tried reminding them about the need to go slowly, to document everything, to involve peers and other marine biologists but it was like telling dogs not to dive into a pile of treats. After a while, Holland zoned out from most of the conversation, catching only swatches of words: we’ll need a new wing…couldn’t we start an exchange with other aquariums…we could have a show, like Sea World, animal actors, that sort of thing….

Holland was intrigued with the reaction of Ralph and Alice to the teenagers…what were their names again? Chase and Angie. Nobody had had that kind of effect on them; mostly the two had just circled endlessly, restlessly around the recovery pool. It seemed increasingly likely that the teen-agers had encountered their guests before, off Half Moon Cove as they had said.

Maybe there was more to the story than Chase and Angie were letting on.

Holland gathered up her things after the Directors meeting and was heading out the door when Meier intercepted her.

“This is a great day for Gulfside, Josey,” he told her.

Holland looked sour. “The Board’s more interested in exhibits and finances than anything else.” She headed out of the Board room and went down the hall, toward the recovery pool and medical suite. Meier hustled to keep up with her.

“You should be too, you know. We’re not doing so great. If we plan this right and do our homework, Ralph and Alice could be the greatest thing ever to happen to Gulfside.”

“I think so, too, Joe, but probably not in the same way.”

“You heard about the World Aquarium. London’s sending a few people to take a look at our new guests. They’re proposing an exchange.”

“Really.” Holland pushed into the lab and snatched her lab coat off, flinging onto her desk chair. “So we’re going to show off Ralph and Alice before anyone’s had a chance to figure out what they are? Science gets kicked off the bus before it even leaves the station…why am I not surprised?”

“Hey,” Joe said, “I’m a scientist too, you know. They’ll be plenty of time and place for research…in fact, that’s what London’s proposing…a joint research program.”

Holland said nothing. Instead, she went to the door that led to the pool, staring through the window at the circling animals. “They’re both recovering fast, thank God. Pretty much a miracle, since I had no idea what I was doing.”

Meier put a hand on her shoulder, then withdrew it when Holland looked sharply at him.

“You did a great job…we’re lucky to have you. Hey, I want to do what’s right for them too.”

“What’s right is for us to study them for a few months, then release them…that’s what’s right.”

Meier looked like he had swallowed a beach ball. “Don’t talk like that…you scare me. In fact, I wanted to ask you: when can they be released to the exhibit hall?”

Holland had known that was coming. “In a few weeks, I suppose…we really don’t know how they’ll react to the others…it’ll have to be Tank B, I’m afraid. I’m hoping they socialize with the other cetaceans okay.”

“Well, they did come from the ocean, didn’t they? I mean, it’s not like they’ve never seen another dolphin.”

But Holland wasn’t paying Meier any attention. A thought had just come…something about those suits Ralph and Alice had been wearing. She headed for the lab, an idea forming in the back of her mind.

Chase Meyer liked to meet Angie right when she got off shift from the Wright Clinic. He managed to finagle his own hours at the surf shop so he could ride his bike up Citrus Boulevard to the highway, stop for a candy or a soda at the gas station there and hang out in the Clinic parking lot until Angie got off.

It was usually about nine when she came skipping down the stairs to the parking lot.

They kissed a long time. Chase wanted to fool around, but Angie pushed him away.

“Don’t, okay…it’s been a long day. Take me home.”

Chase pouted. “Hey, what gives? That’s not like you.”

“I’m tired…you would be too, if you worked like a dog…school all day, homework when I can find the time, the Clinic and everybody crying and whining…I just need some peace and quiet…actually I need a beer and a hot shower.”

Chase revved up the turbo and Angie climbed on. “Just so you know—“ he called back to her, as they sped out of the parking lot, “I work too. On my feet all day at the shop, handling those boards.”

“Yeah, right, a hard-working beach bum. I know the type.”

Chase didn’t take her straight home, but took a roundabout route down Grove Street.

Gulfside Aquarium was at the southeastern end of the big circle that was Grove Street. He slowed the bike and pulled into the aquarium parking lot. The place was closed and staff were drifting out to their cars.

“Why’d you come this way? I told you to take me home.”

Chase stared up at the complex, which had been designed by some architect to resemble a series of rolling waves, cast in concrete and steel, not entirely successfully, Chase thought.

“We need to get inside somehow, when we can be alone. Go see Ralph and Alice. Ang, they’re not dolphins. They’re something else. You know they recognized us yesterday.”

Angie got off the bike and did some stretching, working the kinks out of her neck and shoulders. God, she missed being on the track squad. What I wouldn’t do for a couple of sets about now… a few laps would really feel good. But there was no time—

“I know. But it’s just a coincidence.”

“Is it? I wonder…I think we should find a way in…go visit ‘em. It’d be so cool—“

“What, now? Are you just slightly insane? The place’s closed.”

“Not now…tomorrow night…I think I know a way in.”

“You mean, like break in…Chase, I swear, you’re just like your Dad…juvenile delinquents, both of you….I mean, really, breaking into an aquarium...?” Angie sat down on the asphalt, hitched her knees up to her chest. “I could see breaking into a liquor store, or even a drugstore, but the aquarium?”

But Chase was like a dog with a bone, when he got an idea. Already, he was working his way closer to the side of the building, nodding agreeably to staff who were leaving, checking garbage cans like he was the custodian. Soon enough, he was lost to view, having already buried himself behind some holly bushes lining the beach side of the place.

Angie sighed, imagining herself under the stinging hot needles of the shower, curling up in bed with her wristpad for some show, maybe an episode of The Buckinghams—she loved to study the costumes and period dresses—then sighed again. Chase could be so—what was the word? She couldn’t even think of the right word.

Annoyed and increasingly irritated with herself and with pretty much everything else, she got to her feet and went after him. Honestly, Chase

She caught up with him at a small landing directly behind the aquarium. There was a service drive leading around from the parking lot and some loading docks. There were also large-diameter ventilation ducts. Angie eyed those and silently willed Chase to forget that idea.

No way was she climbing through a ventilation duct.

But her boyfriend had already found a way to jimmy open one of the loading bay doors, managing to force it up enough for the two of them to crawl under.

Chase looked back. “Well, what are you waiting for? Come on, girl.”

Angie hesitated. “This is wrong. It’s breaking and entering…I can’t—“

But Chase had already disappeared. She could hear him bumping into cans and things in the darkened loading bay. She was pretty sure he’d never had a second thought about anything in his life. Just do it.

Angie sucked in a breath. She was already practicing excuses and alibis in her mind.

Mother, forgive me…I used to be a good girl but I just got in with the wrong crowd. Then she dropped to her knees and crab-walked underneath the loading bay doors and was in.

It wasn’t long before the whirring of a security bot nearly scared the bejeezus out of her.

She tripped and fell heavily on her side. It was Chase who had tripped her. He yanked her behind some crates, holding a finger to his lips. Shhhh! Infrared detection, he mouthed.

They were both as still as they could be, while the bot puttered along the floor, scanning left and right, a trio of big red lights winking on and off on top of its domed head. When it had rolled into another storage room, Chase motioned for them to get up… quiet! …and pad toward a large set of double doors as fast as they could. The doors opened and they found themselves in a utility hall. They both let out a big breath, gulping in air.

“Look, we’re on video and that can’t be helped,” he told her, pointing up to the red eye of a video camera in a pod in the corner. “But I think I can explain this…we saw someone breaking in and we were just following them—“

“Chase,” Angie whispered, “nobody’s going to believe that. What if there’s another bot?”

“That’s the least of our worries. That’s a Ranger Mark Five, if I’m right…we’ve got two of them at the shop. They’ve got infrared and motion detection, but you can fool ‘em if you’re quiet and move slowly. They’re pretty stupid…now, hmmm, which way to the creatures—“

Angie knew that Chase had an uncanny sense of direction so she trusted him, after she had gotten over the fact they were now two burglars clearly on video breaking into Gulfside Aquarium. Soon enough, his homing instincts took over and he was sliding along the hall, until they came at last to a heavier gauge door. It was locked.

“Now, what—“

Chase spied a drainage channel at the bottom of the wall next to the door. He stooped down, jimmied the duct and found it loose. “Here, help me with this—“but he didn’t really need her help, for after a few minutes’ tugging and shoving and pushing and pulling, he had managed to work the duct far enough to one side to just fit his head through the opening. He got down on his knees and with a lot of straining and pushing—she thought he was stuck in the wall for a

moment and wouldn’t that have been fun to explain to the police?—he managed to work his entire body through and was gone.

“Come on…” she heard the voice issuing out of the opening. A hand stuck though. “I’ll pull you—“

Yeah, right.

But she managed to slide through the opening, being narrower and smaller than Chase, and found herself in another hall, this one reeking of antiseptic and alcohol. She nearly gagged on the smell.

It was the clinic.

Chase was already at the end of the hall. “They’re here… look! Right in there--!”

Angie stood on her tiptoes and looked through a window in the door. A pool was visible on the other side. The same pool Dr. Holland had taken them to…and there they were.

Ralph and Alice. Both creatures were circling slowly in endless orbits around the pool, stirring waves gently across the water.

They found the door unlocked. Chase pushed through and Angie, after a moment, followed.

Lighting was dim in the recovery pool deck, only lamps on the tile walls were on. Chase went to the pool edge, certain that the creatures had seen him. The larger one he presumed was Ralph. Ralph stopped circling and came to the pool wall, poking his beak above the water, clicking and screeching at him. Behind him, Alice loitered, making tight circles around the stairs.

Angie thought they resembled dolphins more than anything else, larger, but similar in proportion. They were both grayish tan in color, sleek and supple skin, with twin dorsals and tail flukes like dolphins. But it was their forelimbs that most intrigued her. The limbs were webbed with what looked like fringes, like cowboys wore on their chaps and shirts. And the limbs had hands, with fingers—

It gave her the creeps.

“Chase, maybe we should—“ but she stopped, her eyes widening in horror as Ralph rose halfway out of the water, and proceeded to hand something right to Chase. “…oh my God—“

It was a small fist-sized object, oval, rounded at the top. Ralph had extracted it from a small pouch in his belly; neither of them had seen that. His hands had six fingers, delicate fingers, and they grasped the object with a dexterity she could hardly believe.

Chase stooped down to the water’s edge and took the object. It was like a small can, with domed top and bottom.

“Chase…watch out…please, don’t—“ But he had already taken possession of the object.

He stood up and examined it. Angie came up and squinted at the thing in his hand.

“What is it?”

“I don’t know—“ he shook it slightly, then nearly dropped the thing when it started to glow…a dim red glow emanated from within. The outer case was almost translucent and a single red light shone from within.

Ralph suddenly became agitated, slapping the water with his tail flukes. He clicked and chittered and screeched, slapping the water again and again. Alice soon joined in. The fracas lasted half a minute, then Alice sped off to circle the pool more vigorously. Ralph stayed by the stairs. He shoved up gouts of water, slapping with his forelimbs, clicking again and again.

Chase thought it expedient to back away from the edge, Angie right on his shoulders.

“What’s wrong with them? What are they doing?”

“Ralph’s upset—“ then Chase heard it. Something, a whispering susurration, began issuing from the object. He almost dropped the thing. “What the--?” He shook the can again, brought it up to eye level. Now the red light had grown stronger and sharper. He peered in, seeing nothing, then brought it to his ears. He could clearly hear something.

“Sounds like gibberish to me,” he said. Similar to the clicking Ralph and Alice were doing, the can emitted a steady stream of sounds: clicks, whistles, grunts and chirps. He shook his head, then noticed Ralph trying to mimic his head shakes. Ralph waved his forelimbs, hands extended and Chase somehow knew that the creature wanted the object back. Cautiously, he approached the pool.

“Maybe it’s a bomb…it sounds like it’s ticking,” Angie decided. “We ought to get out of here right now—“

“I’m not so sure.” Gingerly, Chase handed the object back, placing it carefully in Ralph’s outstretched hand. The fingers, they seemed so—

Ralph seemed to nod and took the can, ducking back under the water. Alice stopped circling and came alongside, both of them hovering just inches beneath the water surface. Even though the dim light was refracted, Chase could tell they were doing something with the object. The dim red light cycled through more colors before finally settling on an orangish glow. Ralph surfaced. He handed the object back.

Chase was intrigued and a little wary. But this was so cool, working with dolphins like this, dolphins with hands. He took the object back, watching Ralph’s hand and beak movements carefully.

Here…you want me to do this…like this…up here?… He raised the can to his ears again.

This time, the whistling and chirping had stopped. Now… my God! He could hear snatches of something…sounds …like words….like—

Understand…voice…to your…can…hear…your voice…(unintelligible…) can you…my voice…

Chase practically dropped the thing. It was a machine. A translator. Voice recognizer, whatever.

“Angie…come over…listen…you can hear…they’re speaking words….”

Cautiously, Angie bent her ear to the device. Even as she listened, she could see Ralph drop under water. Bubbles peppered the surface. Clicking. Whistles. Chirps, like a radio.

“It’s a radio,” she decided. “Like an earpod…or a player, Chase. They’re singing—“

Chase listened more. He knew a thing or two about music, having fronted for the Croc Boys for two years now, a whiz with the go-tone. But this wasn’t singing, not exactly. It was more…

“They’re not singing. They’re talking…this gizmo’s translating all those whistles and screeches…listen—“

And deep inside, Angie knew he was right. It gave her a chill.

Now, the pod was glowing from within with a warm orange radiance. Chase told her it was warm to the touch; she verified that herself, then her curiosity overcame everything. “Let me listen—“

Chase gave her the pod. …you can…can…hear my voice….can understand what…say--?

Both of them nodded. “We understand some words…yes, I hear your voice…can you understand me?” Chase sat down on the edge of the pool. Angie hung back by the stairs, still listening, squinting, trying to make out more.

is called…echo…pod…my voice…your voice…together…can you hear what I…

“Yes!” Chase practically shouted. He grabbed the pod back from Angie, spoke into it.

“Yes, I hear your words…you talk…I mean, you can actually talk--?

Ralph raised his beak above the water, slapped the water.

…’derstand you…echopod need adjust…give me…hand …pod me…

Chase looked up at Angie. “He wants the pod back.”

“Maybe it needs work.”

Chase gave Ralph the pod. The creature ducked under the water again, did something once more with the device. Alice scooted away and began circling again. Finally, the pod’s light had changed from orange to almost a yellowish tint. Ralph surfaced, hoisting the pod with his right flipper-hand-thing and handed it back.

By now, Chase knew what to do. He grasped the pod carefully and raised it to his ear.

Ralph had ducked under again, yet both of them could hear the clicking and grunts and chirps bubbling up out of the water. Alice had chimed in too.

And out of the pod poured a steady stream of words.

…adjust made…you hear better now…?

Chase shivered from a chill that went down his neck and nodded. “Much better. Who are you? Are you dolphins? Where did you come from?”

Ralph seemed agitated by that and began circling in synch with Alice, the two of them orbiting the small pool in perfect unison.

not this world…many beats distant…there is the Farpool…we come for—

But the words stopped and that’s when Chase and Angie both heard the clatter of something at the pool doors.

Bots!” Chase cried. “They’re back…we gotta get out of here—“ He dithered a second, then tossed the pod back into the water. Ralph retrieved it immediately. “Come on--!” He grabbed Angie’s hand and they went to a small cabinet alongside the mechanical room in the corner of the pool deck. “Hide back here…as soon as they come in, make a break for it…run like hell for the door. And cover your face—here—“ he handed Angie his handkerchief, which she held out with two fingers and winced. “So the recognizer can’t get an image of your face—“

At that moment, the doors to the pool deck burst open and two Ranger sentry bots rolled in, scanning and clanking as they rolled across the slick tile.

Chase did a silent count for them. One…two…three…NOW!

They scrambled from their hiding place and streaked for the open doors, slipping and sliding on the wet tile. The bots whirled quickly and detection beams shot out. Lights strobed and flashed on their domed heads. Restraint mesh fired into the air with an audible whoosh. A mechanical voice boomed out: “HALT, INTRUDER, HALT! STAY WHERE YOU ARE!”

But Chase and Angie managed to elude the bots and ducked out into the hall. They headed for the drainage channel they had come in by and they didn’t stop running until they had burst out of the aquarium altogether and made tracks in the wet grass for Chase’s turbo, still parked by the holly bushes.

Chase kick-started the bike and they sped off into the night.

Chapter 5

Scotland Beach, Florida

July 24, 2121

11:30 pm

“Chase, it’s too dangerous. I mean, we almost got caught last time.”

Angie pulled her hands away from Chase as they came to the end of the pier at Turtle Key.

Jet skis and windsailers and hoverboards skittered across the turquoise waters between Shelley Beach and the Key. Late afternoon thunderstorms were building off shore and already, veins of lightning could be seen on the horizon.

“Where’s your sense of curiosity…I mean , jeez, Angie, talking dolphins. Ralph and Alice were talking to us. We have to go back…find out who they are…where they came from. Don’t you have any sense of adventure?”

“Not if we get zapped by those bots…or wind up in jail. Don’t you have any sense in that thick head of yours? Doesn’t breaking and entering mean anything to you…you must have heard it before.”

They headed back up the beach, avoiding the pulpy mass of jellyfish and rotted tree limbs and other debris washed up on the tide. Angie stepped through the sand carefully… this stretch of beach is starting to look like a landfill, she said to herself.

“Oh, yeah, sure, of course there’s a small risk…I can’t say that’s not true. But we did it before…as long as we stay away from the bots….actually, I have an idea about that—“

Angie was firm. “No. Understand? I’m not breaking in to the aquarium again…I don’t care if they turn out to be Santa Claus and his elves.”

The surf shop came up and Chase knew his dad would have his hide if he took any longer on break. He grabbed Angie by the shoulders and gave her quick peck. “What’s gotten into you, girl? You used to be all for this kind of stuff.”

She let him kiss her, then put both hands on Chase’s broad shoulders. “It’s called growing up, jerk. I have a job…so do you and, by the way, here comes your Dad. I have responsibilities.

I want to do well in school so I—“

“What…go ahead and say it: so you don’t wind up working in a T-shirt shack on the beach.”

Chase held up his hand when she tried to protest. “I know…I know…I’m supposed to make something of myself…get a job, be a lawyer, a stockbroker, whatever…that’s what Mom always tells me. Hey, did it ever occur to you that maybe I’m actually an explorer at heart, like Columbus. Like Cousteau. People like that. I don’t see me sitting behind a desk, Angie. I just don’t. The world’s bigger than an office. I have to get out, see things, live things. You should too.”

Angie just sighed. Another peck, this time on the forehead; she spied Mack Meyer with a scowl coming up right behind his son, about to do something fatherly, like spin Chase around and quick-march him back to the shop. She smiled and backed away. “Text me later, big explorer man.”

And with that, Chase was lost to the clutches of his father and the two of them headed up through the dunes and the sea oats to the surf shop…and back to work.

Angie went home, knowing she would probably give in anyway. Chase did that to her.

This time, it would be after midnight.

***

The excuse was the sleepover already planned at Gwen Sandiford’s house on Saturday night. Maggie, Angie’s mom, admonished her daughter. “Now don’t ya’ll give Mrs. Sandiford any problems…behave yourselves.” She said that with a faint look of bemusement, fully aware that they would do no such thing. Teen-aged girls, Maggie just shook her head.

And it was near midnight, after an evening of chick flicks and popcorn and a few pillow fights, that Angie finally slipped out of the house. “It’s just Chase…” she told the girls. Gwen nodded with a knowing smile. Chase was cute for a guy. They would have a good time tonight, she was sure.

Chase was waiting on his turbobike down the street. They sped off for the aquarium. Angie figured it would have been easier to go necking behind the Piggly Wiggly.

Chase told her he had studied the sentry bot situation and all of Gulfside’s security practices.

“That old docent, Mr. Weems, you know how much he likes to talk, show off and things. He spilled everything, the old dork. He just likes to show off.”

Angie wondered why she had ever agreed to go along.

They got to the aquarium and Chase parked the bike in some bushes along the service drive.

The two of them entered through the loading bay in the back, as before. The door was still partially loose, enough for both of them to squeeze under. Then came the drainage channel along the utility corridor. Here, Chase checked underneath, listening carefully for the whir of the bots. He smiled back.

“I got ‘em timed now…I spent a lot of time here the last few days, checking things out.”

Angie sniffed. “Instead of doing your actual job at the shop.”

“Hey, this is science. This is exploring, like Nat Geo.”

“Right. This is a crime and we both know it…just get on with it. I’m cold, standing out here—“

They slipped under the drainage channel and headed for the recovery pool room. As before the door was unlocked.

Ralph and Alice were still in the pool, now dimly lit, circling endlessly.

Must be pretty boring, Angie decided. Chase was his usual bull-in-a-china-shop self, coming right up to the edge of the pool and squatting down.

Ralph had noticed them and swam up to the edge. His beak came up and he chittered and clicked and whistled, with what looked like some kind of greeting. Behind him Alice, rose up too, slapping the water with her flippers.

Ralph handed the pod to Chase, who put it to his ears.

My voice…your voice….understand?....this is (screeeh!)(kloook!)…derstand? I speak…

you hear….?

Chase felt his throat go dry. Angie listened in too, pinching herself to make sure she wasn’t dreaming.

“I kind of understand…you’re breaking up…lots of strange sounds—you understand me?”

Ralph slapped the water hard with his beak and shook his forepaddles. Chase didn’t know what all that meant but it looked happy.

…I understand you…can…you…help? We want…to…depart…leave…this water….

Chase understood that and Angie nodded at him; she had heard Ralph’s translated words.

“That makes sense, doesn’t it?” she said. “Look at this place…it’s a like a jail…a watery jail.”

Chase had about a million questions. “This thing—“he held out the pod, “—what do you call this? Some kind of translator?”

Ralph clicked and grunted and words spilled out of the device.

...called…echopod…your voice is my voice….my voice is your voice…this you understand…?

An echopod. Chase ran the words over his tongue. It sort of made sense. He looked at Angie, who seemed distracted, listening for something.

Bots? she mouthed.

Chase listened too. He nodded.

“Ralph, we have to hide for a few minutes…security bots are coming…we’ll be right over there, behind the tool cabinets…don’t say anything, okay?”

Ralph seemed to understand. He resumed circling and Alice followed behind, sweeping around and around the small pool in near perfect synchrony. Moments later, the double doors swung open and a bot with a red light on its dome came trundling in. By that time, Chase and Angie were well hidden.

The bot scanned all directions, rolled forward, scanned some more, then did a complete sweep of the pool, completely ignoring Ralph and Alice. They might as well been part of the furnishings as far as the thing was concerned. It was programmed to seek and apprehend humans and it looked only for humans, or their thermal, acoustic or olfactory signatures. The bot rolled back to the doors, sniffed and sensed some more, then, seemingly satisfied, rolled out of the room and the doors swung shut.

Chase took a deep breath. “Good catch, Ang…that was close. One of us should listen up at all times.” They went back to the poolside.

“I thought you had this figured out?”

“I do…I was just---I don’t know…pre-occupied…I mean, this is so cool…talking with dolphins.”

“Or whatever they are.”

The conversation went on. Chase put the pod up to his ear.

“You’re not from around here, are you?”

Ralph and Alice both rose up out of the water and balanced themselves on their tail flukes, holding the position for a few minutes. Chase and Ralph just eyed each other carefully.

…called…Seome…(shcreeehhh!)…we say litorkel ge… calmwaters for you…we look…or help…help from your world….

“Help…what kind of help? Are you saying you came from another world?”

Ralph acknowledged that. He described the mission that he and Alice had come to complete.

perhaps echopod… will not translate… but…a great noise, sound, vibration, we say azh’tu…or is Pul’ke…a great bad thing…an evil…destruction….

And Ralph proceeded to describe things, things that when Chase thought about it later, seemed like a dream, a really bad dream. Angie held her hands to her mouth, listening, scarcely believing the scratchy words that came out of the echopod.

They had come to Earth from an ocean planet, a place called Seome. They had come through something they called Farpool…”…that must have been the spout we saw,” Angie decided. “Remember how it looked…how long it lasted--?”

Chase nodded, holding up a hand for quiet, to let Ralph’s words continue pouring out. Alice joined in too. The pod translated her screeches and whistles with a slightly higher pitch.

They needed help. The best Chase could make out, Ralph and Alice had made several trips through the Farpool, each time capturing creatures from Earth’s oceans, dolphins, whales, other

cetaceans, believing that these were the most intelligent beings on Earth. But their captured dolphins could not survive well in the waters of Seome, nor could they do anything about this terrible noise, sound or vibration, that was slowly destroying their world.

Now Ralph and Alice had come back with a new mission, to contact what the pod translated as Tailless People of the Notwater…the creatures that lived on land, breathed air.

“That’s us,” Angie realized. “They came to contact us—“

Chase bent forward and barely touched Ralph’s forepaddles. “We call you Ralph and Alice…some old TV show, I heard. You have real names?”

Ralph ducked under the water for a moment, then came up quickly, splashing Chase in the face. He didn’t seem to mind. The echopod spit out more words and sounds.

…I am…Kloosee…other is…” More splashing. …is Pakma…

Chase formally introduced him and Angie, motioning his girlfriend to come closer. Angie squatted down, let Chase guide her hand to Ralph…Kloosee’s…forelimb. They touched.

Alice…Pakma…joined in.

For a brief moment, all four of them had touched.

litorkel ge…this means calmwaters for you…we pulse that…you are not shoo’kel …many nerves….

“I am kind of scared,” Angie admitted. “I mean, it’s like really creepy…sitting here talking with dol--, or with you, I mean.”

Chase listened for the approach of the bots, hand motioned Angie to go check the corridor.

She balked at first, then gave in. She peeked through the double doors, saw nothing and came back. “I didn’t see anything…but for all I know, they could be right outside the door. Maybe you should—“

But Chase was too intent on his newest friends.

“What kind of help do you need, Ralph…I mean, Kloosee?”

What came out of the echopod was a story that Chase and Angie could scarcely believe.

Interrupted only by occasional visits from security bots, the teenagers listened spellbound to every halting, scratchy word they could make out.

Kloosee and Pakma had come from a world that the echopod translated as Seome. It was an ocean world. Their entire civilization was underwater; the world had only a few islands that poked above the surface. But for many years—as the Seomish reckoned time…it came out as sounding like mah—a devastating sound had been slowly destroying their civilization. The acoustics and the vibrations came from a machine. Kloosee called it a wavemaker. It was sited at the ocean surface, near an island he called Kinlok. The machine was a weapon being used by another race of airbreathers. Tailless People of the Notwater, the Seomish called them. The Tailless were fighting a war with an unseen enemy and their weapon created destructive waves, vibrations, deafening sounds that made life unbearable for the Seomish.

…we have talks…we talk with…Tailless…to stop sound but they listen no…they fight war but we are casualties…

Angie thought the story was sad and depressing. “Can’t you just attack these airbreathers…

destroy the wavemaker? I mean, after all, it is your home, isn’t it?”

Pakma’s voice came through the echopod, higher pitched. Angie could see the female was becoming agitated, her forelimbs fluttering, her beak slapping the water. Both of them spent most of the time beneath the pool surface. They were not airbreathers, she realized. Below the water, they chirped and whistled and clicked and grunted in a steady stream.

…we have attacked…Tailless have suppressor weapon…we paralyze and must retreat...talks have no end…they say war must go on…enemy they call Coethi….

Chase was curious. “You said you came here through something called the Farpool…is that the waterspout we saw a month ago? I didn’t see any spouts the last few days.”

This time, it was Kloosee who tried to explain. The male circled the recovery pool once, then poked his beak up, showing them what looked like an enigmatic smile, crinkly, almost mirthful eyes that made him look like he was about to tell a great joke.

(shkreeeeh)…Farpool is a tunnel…we say opuh’te… we enter pool and travel…great distance….great time…the wavemaker makes Farpool….

Chase didn’t quite understand. “You’re saying the wavemaker, this weapon that’s creating such a terrible noise, also makes this Farpool. Is it like a whirlpool…a vortex?”

Back and forth the words flew, haltingly out of the echopod along with untranslatable screeches and chirps, until at last Chase and Angie understood. The wavemaker created dozens of whirlpools as a side effect of its operation. One of the vortexes was especially long lasting and had turned out to be, in effect, a wormhole in time and space. The Seomish had discovered this by accident and they had lost many brave citizens trying to tame the Farpool and explore its possibilities. The Tailless were aware of the Farpool but they didn’t care. Their weapon and their war was all that interested them. It came out, from Pakma, that the Tailless regarded the Seomish as little more than intelligent pets.

By accident, a team of explorers had used the Farpool once and wound up on Earth, some years ago, as best Chase and Angie could figure out Seomish timekeeping. In Earth’s oceans, they had encountered dolphins, whales and other intelligent cetaceans. Thinking that dolphins were the dominant intelligent life on Earth, they had ‘imported’ some of the creatures, only to find the dolphins didn’t fare well in Seomish waters and had no way to help them in their conflict with the Tailless. The possibility of intelligent life in the realm of the Notwater had not been seriously considered…until now.

That’s when Kloosee admitted he and Pakma were on a mission to bring back specimens of these strange creatures that lived in the Notwater, creatures that had technology and inexplicable devices and seemed intelligent enough to help the Seomish.

we must succeed…time is small… opuh’te grows stronger and some kels abandon their ancestral homes…many die…

Angie was sympathetic. Chase wasn’t sure.

“This is all…what’s the word…so incredible. Hard to believe, Kloosee.—what can we do?”

“I believe them,” Angie blurted out. For several years now, she’d had worked at Dr.

Wright’s clinic. She had a sense about these things. Even when she’d been a Red Cross volunteer at Creekside Medical, she could tell about patients. That’s where she’d met Chase, after his Dad had been wounded in the holdup at the surf shop. You could tell when a patient was making stuff up…and when they weren’t. You could see in their eyes, how they wouldn’t look right at you, and their lips…how they got licked a lot. Angie studied Kloosee’s face. Sure, he looked a lot like a dolphin, but the eyes didn’t lie. They were desperate and you could even hear it in their tone of their words, not the words themselves, but the sounds behind them…what was the word: plaintive, sorrowful, mournful, even a little melancholy. Some patients wanted to live so badly you could taste it. Some wanted to die. Some were fighters. Some were quitters.

Kloosee, and Pakma too, were fighters. She was sure of that.

…we pulse you not shoo’kel …there is dis…belief…in what is said…you wish help…yet…

It was true. Chase had to admit it. The whole thing seemed like a dream. “I don’t know what we can do. I think I believe what you’re telling me. And what the hell is this… shoo’kel, thing anyway…that keeps coming out of the pod. What does it mean?”

…(shkreeeh) to explain… shoo’kel means…balance…inner calm…I will release Kelk’too here…

Kloosee dipped below the water and did something with his own pod. Instantly, the pod in Chase’s hands changed color, flashing from a warm soothing orange to a bright blue-white.

Chase was so startled he almost dropped the thing. But now there were words coming out…

calm, monotone words, and he realized it was explaining something, like a dictionary….he put the pod back to his ear tentatively, listening cautiously.

The desirable state of keeping one’s inner fluids in balance so that any pulse of you is clean and regular. Any other state is vulgar or obscene. A form of personal honor and dignity.

Control of excessive emotion is necessary to efficient and accurate pulsing. Also used in a general or universal sense to mean tranquility, peace, the natural order of things, stability, etc.

Chase looked at Angie. “What did he do…now it’s coming out super clear and understandable. “

“It’s like Google,” she agreed.

“You believe what they’re saying?”

Angie sat back on her butt, even though the pool deck was wet, and drew her knees up. She watched Kloosee and Pakma watching them. “I can’t put it into words, Chase, but I’ve got this feeling. I think they’re telling us the truth.”

Chase shrugged. “I’m leaning that way too. But I don’t know what we can do about it.”

Just then, Kloosee joined in the conversation. It was clear he had heard and mostly understood what they were saying. They’d have to be more careful.

…travel with us…come through Farpool…to Seome…I will prove truth…you will see yourself…

Angie’s eyes widened. Go through the Farpool? Go into one of those water spouts? No way. She saw the look on Chase’s face.

“You can’t be serious, Chase--” The way that scar above his right eye—the one he’d gotten in the fishing accident—started reddening…that meant he was thinking. Angie thought of it as a light bulb going off… do not interrupt…serious thought underway here….”—I mean, it’s nuts.

It’s insane. He’s asking us to go into one of those spouts…we’d never survive—“

All the same, she could tell Chase was giving the idea some thought. “One thing: we don’t breathe water. Angie and me…we’re not fish, like—well, anyway, we breathe air. We couldn’t survive on your world.”

But Kloosee had answers for all their questions. …I have seen breathing gear…you have equipment….

Chase thought. “You mean scuba gear…yeah, there is that. My Dad’s PADI-certified. I’m not old enough yet…but mostly I know everything…even been down to a hundred feet—“ he said proudly.

“I’m not certified,” Angie said. “And I don’t want to be—“

Then Pakma told them something that made their blood run cold. …there is a (shkreeeh) procedure…the em’took …you breathe as we do…and as Tailless…

Chase was intrigued. “You mean amphibians…I think….”

…a to modify…your body and lungs and mind…like us…but also like Tailless….

Angie screwed up her face. “Eeewww! Amphibians…we’d be like frogs.”

“I don’t know, Ang…it’d be a great adventure…better than cave diving, even.”

“You can have your cave diving. And besides, we both have jobs. I’ve got school.”

Then, Kloosee became even more agitated, splashing them both. …help us leave…this place…escape…go away to Farpool…

Chase said, “We could at least do that. Dr. Holland… I don’t think she has any idea of what’s she’s got here.”

“Chase, we can’t…I mean the aquarium….”

But the discussion soon took on a momentum of its own and Angie found herself giving in and agreeing, even as every cell in her mind said no.

The big question now was how would they survive such a trip? How could they live in an underwater world?

“Chase, I’m not going—“but before she could finish, the doors to the recovery pool burst open. This time, the sentry bots were accompanied by a human being…a Scotland Beach police officer. He shined a flashlight directly at them.

For the next week, both Chase and Angie were grounded. Chase’s Dad, Mack Meyer, increased his son’s hours at the shop. Now, he was working from 9 am to 9pm, closing up the shop with the assistant manager Jorge.

“Seems like the only way to keep you out of trouble, son.” Mack said. He inspected the shelf cleaning and stacking work Chase had been doing and re-doing for the last few hours, a bleak sort of penance. When Chase started to argue, Mack held up a hand. “I don’t even want to hear it. There’s no excuse you can lay on me that I haven’t heard. You and that girl were in Gulfside after hours, harassing the animals, helping yourselves to God knows what---just keep sweeping. I’ll tell you when you can stop.” Mack stalked off.

It went on like that for five days.

Late at night, the two of them texted each other:

What’s your punishment, A?

Stay in the house and do homework, except for when I’m in the clinic.

I’m going to find a way to get back inside the aquarium.

Just drop it, okay? The cops said no charges…for now. That doesn’t mean forever.

Kloosee and Pakma need help.

Yeah…so do we. What can we do?

We can let them go, free them from the aquarium.

I’m not breaking in again. I’ve already got a record.

You’re thinking of college.

I’m thinking of staying out of jail.

A, soon as you can, go to Gulfside. Normal hours. See what you can find out about the locks and gates…I’ll find a way to slip out. I think there’s a channel that comes from the ocean right up to the aquarium.

You’re going to set them free?

It’s the right thing to do.

I don’t like going there. Mom has me on a short leash.

Try.

Ok…I’ll swing by on my way home from school tomorrow.

I can walk down Sandy Beach on my lunch break. I’ll check out the canal.

So plans were made and Chase went to sleep that night with visions of a great adventure bubbling in his head. He believed what Kloosee and Pakma had told them. He was pretty sure Angie believed most of it too. This was way better than working twelve hours every day in the Turtle Key Surf and Board Shop. Chase lay in bed with his arms behind his head. He had taken off his wristpad, but programmed the thing to project scenes from movies and TV shows he liked. One of them was an old Disney film: Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, a great adventure, lots of action, sea beasts, a submarine, fabulous scenery. Chase watched the film for about the millionth time, but now it had a resonant power he’d never felt before.

Kloosee had called their world Seome. An ocean world. A whole civilization beneath the waves. And, more importantly, a serious problem threatening them. He envied Captain Nemo, cruising around underwater in the Nautilus, living free of laws and restrictions and homework and shop hours and sweeping off the front steps and straightening up the shelves and, worst of all, taking inventory on Sunday afternoons. Jeez, that really sucked.

Chase knew he had already made up his mind that he would take up Kloosee on his offer.

He would go with them through the Farpool. He wouldn’t stay long; after all, the Seomish apparently came and went at will. His Dad needed help at the shop and Chase felt a faint glimmer of guilt at leaving him behind, but it would only be for a short jaunt. Just to see Seome.

Maybe he could help out. Some kind of terrible sound….

But first, there were some practicalities. Kloosee and Pakma had to be set free, which meant that he and Angie had to understand how to get them out of the aquarium. They would have to check out things over the next few days, when they could grab a few minutes here and there.

Fortunately, the shop was only a ten minute walk down the beach to the aquarium.

Then there was the matter Kloosee had raised. How they could survive in a world where everybody lived underwater? Chase knew there was only one answer to that: his Dad’s scuba gear. Mack Meyer was PADI-certified as a dive leader and instructor. Turtle Key regularly organized and conducted dives every month of the year, often to some underwater shipwrecks about five miles southwest of shore. Chase had made dozens of dives and assisted his Dad on many of them. He didn’t have full open water certification but he knew the gear and he knew what he was doing.

The problem would be Angie. She’d done some diving but she was a novice and not all that keen on it. Chase didn’t know if he could convince her to take a longer trip, through some kind of whirlpool, with a pair of talking, obviously intelligent fish. It was crazy, when you said it that way.

But he intended to try.

By the beginning of the following week, restrictions on both of them had been eased. Angie agreed to meet Chase after school. He sped up to the parking lot on his turbo and found her chatting with Doreen and a few other friends on the front steps of the gym building.

Doreen was a short, busty brunette, with a perpetual smirk. “Hi Chase…held up any banks lately? You gonna take Angie back to the Cove this week?” She stifled a wicked chuckle and the other girls snickered.

“Doreen—“

Chase pointed to his back seat. “Hop on. We need to talk.”

She did, placing her bag in the rack on the back of the seat. She pulled on a headset and now they could talk even over the road noise.

Chase gave the other girls his best jackpot –winning smile and scratched off out of the parking lot, making sure to fling some gravel at the girls as he did so.

They motored over to Willie Pete’s at Citrus Grove and took an outside table under striped awnings. Both ordered loaded dogs and fries, with a pitcher of beer.

Chase poured them both frosty mugs full, loudly slurping the head off his drink. “What have you found out?”

Angie sighed. She really did love Chase. It was hard to say why exactly. Maybe because he was so…oh, what was the word?— little boy. He really did look like a surfer dude, with his faint blond beard and moustache, the lock of hair that was forever dropping down in his face, sea-blue eyes, that scar above his right eye that drove other girls wild, and the chin dimple. He had a way of smiling that reminded Angie of a five-year old kid with his hands in the cookie jar…not quite a smirk, but a knowing kind of faint grin that meant he knew he was caught and he didn’t really mind it.

Chase was wiry strong but he had an artistic, musical side. He could slam jam with the best of them and those long fingers could pluck tunes on the go-tone enough to just melt your heart.

Angie had to admit she didn’t mind hanging with the Croc Boys on some of their gigs. It made her feel special and gave her more ammunition in the never-ending games with Doreen and the girls.

She told him all the details she had learned. She had even made a list and drawn up some sketches.

“There’s a utility room, just outside the pool where we were…the rehab pool. All the controls are in there.”

“I bet Mr. Weems told you this.”

“Who else? The man does like to talk. Anyway, there’s a gate at one end of that pool. It opens onto what Mr. Weems called a connector channel, a narrow waterway…Mr. Weems even showed it to me.”

“What did you do, pull out a boob or two? I’ll bet he was drooling like a—“

“Chase-- seriously….what are you: five years old?”

“Sorry…um, you said a connector channel….”

She showed him on the sketch, running her fingers along the route in and out of the recovery pool suite. “Then there’s more gates and locks. But the controls are in that same closet, he told me. These outer gates open into what he called the aquarium channel—“

Chase snapped his fingers. “I saw that…just the other day. It’s a little canal, maybe ten meters wide…can’t be that deep, maybe waist deep. Runs all the way down to the sea, right by the Sandy Beach Pier…you know that gazebo with the roof half off?”

“Yeah, I know it. So there’s a direct path from the recovery pool to the sea.”

“Exactly.” Now Chase rubbed his blond stubble. The scar was turning red. Angie knew he was thinking.

“What’s going on in that little overheated brain of yours?”

“Just this: now we have a way out for Kloosee and Pakma. We just have to find a time.”

Chase took Angie’s fingers in his, rubbed them gently. “And get you some diving gear.”

“Chase, I don’t know…I’ve been thinking. This really isn’t such a good idea. I mean, would you give it a little thought, already? This isn’t Disney World we’re talking about.”

“What the hell do you think I’ve been doing, practically night and day. Look, I got it all figured: I can dive and use scuba gear fine and I got my own set at home. My birthday present

last year. We got lots of sets at the shop, but I need you to try on some gear, get fitted, then we need to practice a little…probably the public pool over near The Landings—“

Yuck…that place’s all slimy and covered with—“

“Don’t sweat it…it’s just a little practice…you need to know more about regulators, buoyancy devices, how to buddy breathe, get in and out of your gear, clearing your mask…a hundred little details. Angie—“ he saw the skeptical look on her face; when she pushed her curls back like that around her ears, Chase knew she was having serious doubts. “—Angie, you can do this. You’ve already done it before.”

She shook her head. “I don’t think I want to do this. There’s school and—“

Chase squeezed her fingers. “Think about it. Just think about it, will you? We’ve always talked about going away from this sleazebag town…really getting away, maybe going up north, or out west…Texas, Colorado…this’ll be even better. Just a short trip. I promise: we’ll come right back. And we’ll both see cool stuff, places nobody’s ever been before….”

“It sounds dangerous and that Farpool thing—“

“It’s dangerous around here…look what happened to my Dad…held up, shot in the leg, right in his own shop.”

Angie didn’t have an answer for that. “Give me a day to think.”

“One day,” Chase decided. “Kloosee and Pakma need help. They need out. We have to do the right thing.”

Angie half chuckled at that. “Yeah, if only I knew what the right thing was.”

After they finished their beers, he took her home on his turbo, kissed her as meaningfully as he could and went back to the shop.

Dad’ll have another hissy fit if I’m late again. He ran several red lights on the way back.

Chase made the final decision on timing. Three days. They would have to communicate that to Kloosee and Pakma, which meant another break-in at the aquarium. In the meantime, Chase arranged to meet Angie after school—she had wrangled a day off from the Clinic, much to her Mom’s displeasure. They met in the parking lot. Chase’s turbo had bags full of scuba gear.

They headed for the public pool at The Landings, entering the development off U.S. 19 at the Fanning Springs turnoff. The pool was a 50-meter, Olympic size facility, but poorly maintained by the complex. A dozen kids and several adults were cavorting in the shallow end when they pulled up.

Angie wasn’t new to scuba gear or diving and got her fins, mask, tank and regulator on in good order. The two of them went straight to the bottom of the pool.

For the next hour, Chase had Angie demonstrate basic scuba diving procedures. She swapped tanks with Chase, did a little buddy breathing, demonstrated that she knew all the gear: mask, fins, regulator, buoyancy control device, weight belt, dive watch and knife, using all her gauges. She demonstrated controlled ascent and descent, some basic water skills and rescue techniques. When Chase was satisfied, they surfaced.

Angie pulled her mask up, snorted some water. “How’d I do?”

“Good. You know what you need to know. Now, let’s get changed. I want to head over to the aquarium.”

“Don’t you have to be at the shop…you know— your job?”

Chase shook his head. “Dad went to Orlando today, picking up some T-shirts or something.

Jorge’s taking care of the store this afternoon. I’m supposed to be back by eight, to help close up, do the books, clean up and so on.”

They changed in the pool locker rooms at the clubhouse, stuffed their gear in bags and took off on Chase’s turbo for Gulfside, a ten-minute drive.

Chase paid their admissions and right away, they learned some good news.

Kloosee and Pakma, aka Ralph and Alice, had been moved. No longer in the rehab pool, the two Seomish ‘dolphins’ were now a star attraction at Gulfside, cruising around the larger pool of the Dolphin Gallery. Some of the original residents had been moved out—Chase presumed to the rehab pool- so that their friends mostly had Tank B—the Dolphin Gallery—to themselves.

Two Atlantic bottle-nose animals stayed behind, sniffing and swimming curiously behind their Seomish visitors.

Then came the bad news. Mr. Weems came over with his broom and pan when he saw Chase and Angie standing in the small crowd around the windows.

“Got ‘em moved just last night,” Weems offered. “They’ll be stars for a few days, then it’s bye-bye for them.”

Chase looked up abruptly. “Bye-bye…what do you mean bye-bye?”

Weems shrugged. “They’re taking a trip. London. Piccadilly Circus and all that. Dr. Meier worked out an exchange with the World Aquarium there. Ralph and Alice will be gone for six months, then they come back here.”

Chase looked at Angie. “When do they leave, Mr. Weems?”

“Day after tomorrow.” Weems picked up his broom and pail and went on about his business.

Chase felt a chill. “We have to talk with them.” Even as he was thinking what to say, he noticed Kloosee—Ralph—pull up next at the surface of the pool by the railing and poke his beak out. Pakma came up alongside. In a smooth, barely noticeable gesture, partly hidden by Pakma’s tail flukes, Kloosee placed an echopod on the side of the pool. Chase looked around.

Nobody else had seen what happened. He reached down and scooped the device up. He turned and motioned for Angie to stand closer, so he could hide what he was doing. There were a few kids at the Dolphin Gallery, but it was getting on toward dinner time and crowds were thinning out. The aquarium would be closing in two hours.

Chase placed the pod next to his ear. A blue-white glow emanated from inside.

you help us…(shkreeeh)…help leave this place…return to Farpool…

Apparently, they didn’t know of the planned exchange. Chase told Kloosee what he knew and what they had learned. He whispered into the pod, ducking behind Angie, whenever kids or other patrons came near. To all intents and purposes, he seemed to be talking on a small phone.

“It’s happening day after tomorrow. But don’t worry…we did a little snooping…Angie did.

We know how to spring the gates. There’s a water channel all the way down to the Gulf.”

Kloosee tossed some water and plunged back into the pool, clearly agitated. He swam several circles with Pakma , clicking and chattering, before coming back to the railing.

…we have tchee’lum…a pod for transfer…with kip’t…you and friend ride pod…

Chase knew Angie couldn’t hear the words. He leaned over and whispered in her ear.

“He’s saying they have some kind of pod we can travel in…but we still need our scuba gear.”

Angie stared straight ahead. “Swell. Chase, we really should talk about—“

make time now…make time now…Pakma and I ready….

Chase could sense their impatience even without the echopod’s rough translation. “He wants us to set a time…but how do we tell them the time?” Chase snapped his fingers. An idea.

“Midnight. We know how to get inside…just the bots we have to watch out for.”

“Chase, I’m not breaking into this place again…ever. I don’t want to go to jail…you heard what the cops said.”

But Chase was thinking. How to tell Kloosee the time? “Wait…don’t they change the lighting in here over night?”

“How should I know?”

Chase gave Angie the echopod--she stashed it in her cutoff jeans for a few minutes, while Chase hunted down Mr. Weems. He had made his way to the other side of the Admissions Pavilion and was spearing and sweeping trash and dusting along the railings of the Seal Stage.

Chase asked him what happened to the lights when the place was closed.

Weems didn’t think the question odd at all and was happy to oblige. He described the lighting cycle. “Then, just before the sun comes up, I dunno…maybe two hours before we open

—see those orange lights up there? They come on. Sodium vapor, those are. Lot of lights, all around the edge. They help to—“

“Thanks, Mr. Weems…thanks a lot—“ Chase hustled off before Weems could even finish his sentence.

Chase took back the echopod, waited until a small family had browsed their way past, and told Kloosee what to look for.

“Right when those orange lights come on…should be about seven in the morning…one of us will be at the gate controls. There’s a utility closet back in Recovery. We’ll open all the gates, if we can, and out you go. Just follow the water channels…all the way down to the ocean.”

Kloosee seemed to understand. … you have equip…for Notwater…breathe in the tchee-lum…

Chase was getting better at picking out words from all the scratches, chirps and whistles.

“We have breathing gear, if that’s what you’re asking. Once you’re out of the aquarium, wait for us. One of us will be down on the beach. The other will have to get out of the aquarium, without getting caught.”

Kloosee nodded his beak vigorously up and down, spraying them with water. Some kids nearby saw the gesture and started laughing, coming over.

…you keep echobulb…(shkreeeh)…two light…cycle…we are…we ready….

With that, Kloosee clicked and sprayed the approaching kids. Pakma came over and let them touch her dorsal fins, then joined Kloosee in cruising the large pool that was Tank B. The kids laughed and clapped with enjoyment. Kloosee and Pakma had watched the dolphins in the tank perform stunts for the Tailless People…backflips, leaping out of the water, tail-balancing and fluke flips. They tried a few of them and the kids went wild with glee.

Chase said,” Come on. Let’s get out here.”

Angie reluctantly let her fingers fold into his. “Mister, you and I have one hell of a lot to talk about. You’re nuts if you think I’m breaking into this place again.”

They gathered outside at Chase’s turbo and had it out, sitting down together on the curb at the far end of the parking lot. Angie hooked her arm in his.

“Chase, I know you want more out of life than working in a surf shop forever. I know you want get away, see the world, be an explorer…but this isn’t the way to do it.”

Chase stared down at the asphalt. “Angie, do you believe what Kloosee and Pakma—Ralph and Alice—are saying? Do you believe any of this?”

Angie unhooked her arm. “I don’t know what to believe anymore. It’s crazy. We saw a spout a month ago. We saw some…I don’t know—fish, dolphins, whatever, something we’d

never seen before. They fired something at us. We blacked out. Woke up with the Coast Guard.

They all said we dreamed it up. Maybe we did. Maybe this is all a dream. Now, we’re breaking into the aquarium, we’ve both got a police record and we’re talking about letting these creatures out of the aquarium…and following them out to sea. Doesn’t that sound slightly nuts to you?”

Chase nodded. “When you put it that way, it does. But, Angie…this is real. It’s as real as you and me sitting here.”

“So what are you going to do? What are we going to do?”

Chase shrugged. “I guess I don’t think about things too much, do I? Just sort of react, do things. Mom said once I was like Baxter, like the dog we had for so many years. Bark and chase and poop and eat…that’s what he did. But Angie—“he turned, took her hands in his, “—this is real. I can’t explain it. I just feel it. Remember when we first met…my Dad in the hospital, all shot in the legs and stomach, he was dying, you know. The doctors wouldn’t say it in so many words, but I knew…you could see it in their faces. And you were there—“

Angie said, “I remember. You looked like a scared little puppy…I felt so sorry for you. I just wanted to comfort you, make it all better—“

“I wanted to go back, move the clock back, so the holdup hadn’t happened. But I couldn’t…I felt so helpless. Without you—“ Chase picked up a loose piece of pavement, chucked it into the bushes, scattering a few squirrels. “—without you, I might have done something…no, I would have done something. Probably something stupid.”

“Chase, I don’t want you…or me…to do something stupid. I don’t think letting those creatures out and following them to wherever—out to sea somewhere—is a good idea. It might even be stupid. Chase—“ she squeezed his hands back, “we’ve got something good now, don’t we? We love each other…we’ve got each other. If we do this, all that may be gone.”

Chase stood up abruptly, tinkered with some gear and straps on the back of the turbo. “Dad wants to me to come in and be a partner in the shop, learn the business.”

“Is that what you want?”

Chase shook his head. “My head says yes. My heart says no. I don’t know which to follow. But I do know one thing: Kloosee and Pakma are real. That echopod in your bag is real

—“ He watched as Angie pulled the device out of her bag and turned it over and over in her hand. “We’re not dreaming that. You don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow…you never know. We’ve got our whole lives…yeah, we don’t want to make mistakes and ruin our lives, but you know what Dad told me: he said don’t be afraid of tomorrow. Life is full of mistakes. The biggest mistake is not making mistakes…that means you’re not living. He said he thought a lot about that in the hospital… maybe I should give up the shop, join a shrimper crew, go back to construction and carpentry…but he wanted to own his own business and you had to take risks to make dreams come true. I think about that a lot.”

Angie could see where this was going. “It’s a big risk, we’re taking here. I’m not sure I can do this. I’m scared…I don’t want to leave all this behind…the good and the bad. There’s Mom and the track team—“

“And homework and Mr. Winans’ Algebra class—“

“—and Dr. Wright…God, he’s given me so much at the clinic…all the opportunities-- “

“Then there’s getting home at nine dead tired, and more homework—“

Angie pulled him back down to sit beside her and put fingers to his lips. “Shut up, already, will you? I do the thinking around here, remember? What about sweeping out the shop and straightening up the shelves and balancing the books at midnight every night? Is that you’re future? Chase, you can be so much more. I can too, but I have to be here to do that…I want to

be a doctor…or at least a nurse assistant. But I have to go to school and that means money and good grades…and a lot of work. If I’m off with you on some hare-brained adventure like a Nat Geo film, I can’t do that.”

“So you’re not coming tomorrow?”

“I didn’t say that…oh, Chase—“ She gave him a kiss on the cheek. “I want us to work.

But I want to have a life too.” She pointed out beyond the bushes and parked cars to the faint white line of the incoming surf. “And it’s not out there.”

She could see by the streetlamp that the scar above his eye wasn’t red at all. Whatever thinking had been going on was over. His lips told the truth. A decision had been made.

“Angie, I’m going. It’s something I have to do. If I don’t, I’ll be in that shop forever…I know me. I need something like this kickstarter here on my turbo…a kick in the seat.”

In that moment, Angie knew she would give in and go too. For better or worse, they were a pair. His life and her life were all tangled up like spaghetti. If you tried to unravel spaghetti, what did you have: long strips of nothing. Mush it all up and pour sauce on it, and then you had something you could eat.

She knew they were about to try one hell of a sauce tomorrow.

“Okay.” That’s all she said. That’s all that would come out.

Chase got on the bike. With only a slight hesitation, Angie plopped her butt in the rear seat and got comfortable, fastening her arms around his waist. She always liked to tickle him a little when she did that and she did that now.

He reached back and pinched her on her thigh.

“I’ll be at your place at five a.m. sharp. With all the gear.”

“Should I pack anything…I mean, it’s sort of like a camping trip, isn’t it? I always hated camping.”

Chase kickstarted the bike and let the engine rumble for a moment. They both put on their headsets.

“Pack whatever you think you need. But be ready at five. I’ll be up the street, by that van that’s always on the street…by the corner.”

She nodded, said nothing.

Chase gripped the handles and they scratched off down the parking lot, skidding slightly on loose gravel, as he turned out onto Duncan Street, heading across town to take her back home.

Angie was glad she had a helmet on while she was riding with Chase. The faceplate covered the tears that had started streaming down her cheeks.

Chapter 6

Scotland Beach, Florida

July 25, 2121

5:10 a.m.

Chase was fidgeting nervously until Angie finally showed up, hustling quickly along the curb from the Gilliam house toward the parked van. She had a bag full of something— Angie, really, do you need half the house?— and she broke into a trot when she spotted Chase and the bike. He had hidden it next to the van, pretty much out of sight from the street.

“You’re only ten minutes late, girl.”

She hissed at him, intentionally slapping the bag against him. ‘Yeah…well, it’s not every day a girl goes off diving into some whirlpool at sea. It’s all my makeup, if you must know.”

They both laughed at that. Angie never wore makeup.

Chase drove them down to Sandy Beach and parked the turbo next to the pier. They unloaded all the scuba gear.

“I’m going to hike up to the aquarium alongside the canal…no sense bringing my bike up there…somebody’ll be looking for it. I told Kloosee to be ready when those sodium lamps come on inside. Should be about seven.”

Angie was dressed in cutoff jeans and a T-shirt. She slipped out of her flip-flops and began sorting out the tanks, regulators, weight belts and other gear. “How are you getting back?”

Chase shrugged. “Run like hell, I guess. Or maybe swim.”

She looked at the tanks. “Have we got enough air, you think?”

“I’ve been wondering about that, too.” He shrugged. “I’m trusting our friends to help us out on that. Well…here goes—“ He kissed her on the forehead and turned to run off, but she grabbed his hand and pulled him back for a longer kiss.

“You know I’m skipping school today for this.” She rubbed his hair and the side of his face, feeling that burr of a beard.

“I can see you’re pretty upset about that.”

“No, really, I’m okay. I’m ready. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I trust you. I don’t know why, but I do. I want to be with you, like always…even…” she indicated the sea.

“—even out there…wherever we wind up—“

“Just get the gear ready, okay. Hey, I love you too. You’re good for me.”

She pouted a little. “Thanks. Get going, you jerk.”

He scrambled up through the dunes, squeezed through a row of hibiscus and scaled a fence, snagging and ripping his T-shirt in the process. Soon enough, he landed at the loading docks and went to the bay they had used before. The roll-up door was still loose and he slipped inside as easily as before.

They really should get that fixed, he muttered. You never know who might be breaking in.

His biggest concern was security…not just the bots and the lights and motion detectors but the fear that something had been added, something he didn’t know about. He would have to be careful.

But nothing seemed to happen. He made the service hall, knowing full well he was probably on video and setting off all kinds of alarms. There ahead were the double doors to the main exhibit hall, but he didn’t need to go out there. The Waterflow System control panel

should be to his right…he consulted his wristpad for guidance: Angie had taken a series of pictures when she had scoped out the area a few days before. He studied the pix, looked around in the dim lighting….

There.

He went down the hall and found the panels. They were even labeled WATERFLOW

MANAGEMENT SYSTEM.

He studied Angie’s photos. Yep…this was the place.

Quickly, he set to work. He had already studied the gates, locks and general layout of Gulfside’s waterflow system over the last few days. Now he studied a small hand-scribbled list of settings he’d cobbled together. It seemed to match the panel, which was actually a large touchscreen mimic panel.

The panel was conveniently laid out in a schematic view, showing all tanks, lines, valves, pumps and gates. Chase had practically memorized the settings he needed to open the Dolphin Gallery all the way down to the sea.

He studied the layout and began touching buttons on the screen.

Right away, the thing asked for a log-in and password. Crap, he muttered, though he had expected just such an obstacle. He had several possibilities he could try and right away made it through the log-in using Dr. Josey Holland’s initials…a reasonable guess that turned out to be correct.

Now for the password. Chase was no hacker but he knew a few and they had always said start with the obvious…the word password and variants of that. So Chase did.

He was rewarded more quickly than he ever dreamed possible. The password turned out to be PssWd01.

Really, he half laughed at how easy it had been. You guys need a little more training in better security procedures around here. But he was in and that was all that mattered.

Now, Chase began setting up the valves. B1 OPEN. C2 OPEN. A1 and A2 both OPEN.

L1 and L2…those were the lock valves. A small window opened next to those valve labels, giving him the option to select a Fill Time. He selected Max.

Now for the final step. G1 and G2 were gate valves that opened the waterway to the aquarium channel and then to the sea itself. He pressed G1 OPEN, but when he pressed G2, he got a warning screen.

OPEN TO SEA…PRESS OK TO PROCEED.

He pressed OK.

At that very instant, a warning klaxon sounded throughout the hall. Emergency lighting on the walls began flashing like strobes. He didn’t know if it was his valve setup or if he had triggered another alarm. He didn’t intend to wait and find out.

Chase streaked back to the loading dock and slid under the door. Outside, more lights were flashing and horns going off. He heard shouts…they didn’t come from bots. People…probably police…were coming. He could hear shouts and footsteps, doors opening and slamming. The loading dock was bathed in floodlights.

And through it all, he heard the sound of rushing water. Water was flowing rapidly through nearby channels…the connectors and aquarium channels were emptying into the canal. He ran toward that sound and had to stop short, nearly plunging into the foaming, hissing water in the channel.

In the glare of the floodlights, and the first faint orange glow of sunrise, he could see humps glistening in the water. Humps and fins and flukes. The Dolphin Gallery was now fully open

through a series of locks and gates all the way down to the Gulf. And the residents of Tank B

were noisily honking and clicking and chattering their way downstream, toward the canal and the ocean.

He hoped Kloosee and Pakma were among the crowd.

Voices interrupted his efforts to locate the Seomish.

“POLICE! GET ON THE GROUND NOW! KEEP YOUR HANDS OUT---GET ON THE

GROUND!!”

He heard the footsteps and saw half a dozen men backlit in the glare of the lights, scaling the fence, running, shouting, waving things.

Chase looked back. There was no going back. He looked at the rush of water in the canal.

The decision took only a split second and the hell of it was he had almost expected this…he had come semi-prepared with swim jams underneath his shorts. He stripped everything off but the jams and executed a perfect racing dive into the canal waters.

Right away, he was bumped and thrashed by bodies and shapes fleeing the aquarium. The water was relatively clear, but cool, very salty and thick with bodies…flippers, fins, flukes flashed by and he found himself pummeled and knocked about, until all he could do was let the stream carry him on. Once or twice, he poked his head up for air, but mostly he stayed submerged and went with the flow.

He could tell when the ocean was near. The water changed, it became rougher, saltier, slightly murkier. And the press of bodies began to thin out.

Chase took a chance and dug in his heels to stop his forward motion, clawing at the dirt walls of the canal to slow down. He lifted himself half out and found himself falling into sand…

beach sand.

He had made it down to the beach. Then a shout, more feet plowing and kicking and stumbling through the sand.

Angie’s hands helped him to his feet and he coughed and gagged and spat water for a few moments until he got his breath.

“Where…what…?”

“Come on…” she yelled. “They’re in the surf…in the waves…waving at us. Get up!”

Chase struggled to his feet and saw that Angie already had her gear on. He floundered around, finding his own gear: flippers, mask, heave up and slip on the tanks, check out the regulator and mouthpiece. Adjust weights. Dive watch. Buoyancy packs.

Up on shore, beyond the dunes and the sea oats, they could hear voices, shouts, they could see flashlights waving.

“STOP! STAY WHERE YOU ARE…GET ON THE GROUND RIGHT NOW!!”

Chase peered out past the surf line. He could see fins circling. It had to be Kloosee and Pakma…Scotland Beach hadn’t seen a shark sighting in years. But still—

He grinned at Angie and grabbed her by the shoulders. “This is it! You ready?”

She nodded, slipped her mask down. “Ready as ever. Let’s go!”

They plunged into the surf and kicked and scrambled their way through the breakers until they found deeper water. They didn’t look back and soon ducked under.

There was a surprising amount of light for early morning and the sea was clear, the seabed sand and silt calm and generally undisturbed. Right away, they ran into Kloosee and Pakma, huge hulking shapes easily noticed by their unusual forepaddles, paddles with hands and fingers.

They didn’t have the echopod and both Chase and Angie could hear the two Seomish chirping and whistling and clacking away. They were saying something, indicating something

with their hands, but Chase didn’t understand a thing. Finally, Pakma swooshed by and stopped, manually placing Chase’s own hands on Kloosee’s tail flukes. By her motions, she wanted Angie to grab hold of her flukes the same way.

They’re giving us a ride, he thought. How convenient. I w onder where we’re going.

But he didn’t spend long thinking about that. He grasped Kloosee’s tail flukes firmly and hung on.

The four of them headed out to sea buddy-style, toward deeper water.

The trip lasted half an hour and Chase had no real idea where they were or where they were going, though he had dived these waters often the last few years. He looked in vain for something familiar…a rusting car hulk, a discarded stove, an ancient refrigerator, some sunken boulders. But he saw nothing.

Then, almost without warning, they entered a shallow depression ringed with a fence of blue-white coral and he saw something he had never seen before. There was the usual jumbled pile of car bodies in the center of the depression. But off to one side, anchored with some kind of line, floated a most curious sight.

It was a vessel, a vehicle of some kind, bearing more than a slight resemblance to a midget submarine. The vessel was attached at the stern by tow line to another vessel, an egg-shaped vessel with double rows of fins.

Chase had a feeling he knew what the purpose of the egg-shaped vessel was.

That’s our ride to…wherever we’re going.

Almost as if he read Chase’s mind, Kloosee circled the two vehicles and eventually brought them to a stop above the egg-shaped craft. With his forelimbs, he did something to a small panel on top and a hatch yawned open. Kloosee pointed and Chase understood he was supposed to enter the craft, which was barely large enough for one person, let alone two.

Pakma did the same with Angie and after a few moments, with both Seomish pointing and clicking and whistling and grunting and chirping, the teen-agers had figured out how to position themselves inside, head to toe, each facing in opposite directions.

Like babies in a mother’s womb, Angie thought, but she quickly banished that kind of thinking.

There were harnesses and Chase figured out how to slip into them and secure them. You had to contort yourself like a gymnast, but it was doable. It occurred to him that the compartment and the harnesses weren’t really designed for bipedal, air-breathing humans.

Inside the cramped compartment, there was a small panel ahead of them, below twin portholes. The panel was clearly some kind of control station, though its buttons and switches weren’t designed for human hands. The controls were more like the round end of a spoon, a series of narrow bowl-like depressions made for pressing with something other than fingers.

While Chase studied the panel, Kloosee fiddled with another set of controls near the hatch.

Angie had noticed a double row of small pod-like containers ringing the perimeter of the compartment.

I wonder….she said to herself. They didn’t have an echopod for translating and could only puzzle at Kloosee and Pakma’s gestures and clicks and whistles. Most of the time, the Seomish managed to make their meaning clear.

Kloosee patted Chase on his head and backed out of the compartment. At once, the hatch swung down and was locked. Moments later, the pod-like containers began to spew bubbles.

Initially a steady stream of bubbles, the pods soon were discharging something at high pressure.

The stream of bubbles became a torrent, then a flood, enveloping the entire space.

Chase closed his eyes. What are they doing now? Maybe this wasn’t such a great idea.

Alongside, he could feel Angie squirming too.

The compartment was smothering them with bubbles but it wasn’t long before Chase understood.

Air. It was air. Kloosee had called it Notwater.

The compartment was being filled with air at high pressure. And sure enough, the water level began to subside, first at their heads, then dropping slowly but steadily below their faces, their necks, their shoulders.

When it was done, there were still several centimeters of water left in the bottom of the compartment, but now they could breathe.

Cautiously, Chase removed his mask and mouthpiece and took a breath. It was air, stale, smelling like iron filings and ozone, but breathable air. He nudged Angie and she took her gear off too.

Whew…that smells good. What the hell is that odor?”

Chase sniffed. “Must be the filters. Thank God they thought of this…I wasn’t sure what we were going to do when our tanks ran dry.”

Angie squirmed some more, wriggling to get comfortable. “I don’t think I like this place…

where are they taking us? Maybe this wasn’t such a—“

But she choked off her words for in that moment, the little craft began to move, jerking and gyrating into motion. Chase stuck his head as close to the porthole as he could.

“We’re underway…we’ve just lifted off the sea bed…I can see that tow line. Kloosee and Pakma must be in the sub up ahead…now we’re off. But to where?”

Angie just shuddered and tried to relax. “How do we know they’re not going to kill us…or eat us?”

Chase squinted out through the dense convex lens of the porthole. The scene outside was heavily distorted. “We don’t actually.”

“Great. That’s just great.”

“Well, we sprung them from the aquarium. They sort of owe us. I guess we have to trust

‘em.”

“Somehow that doesn’t make me feel any better. Can you see anything? There’s no porthole at my end.”

Chase hmmm’ed. “We seem to be headed out to sea…the seabed’s dropping off…getting deeper. I can’t see that far. Just the tail of that sub.”

They traveled at a steady clip for nearly half an hour.

Both Chase and Angie had drifted off into a light doze when a faint tug on the side of the craft startled Chase awake.

“Angie…Angie, wake up. Something’s happening—“

She stirred. “What is it?”

“I don’t know, but it feels like we’re moving sideways.” Chase plastered his nose to the porthole, trying to make something out. “It’s silty out there. Dark too. Deeper water. You feel that?”

Some kind of force was pushing them sideways in the water. At the same time, the compartment picked up a light shuddering vibration, gyrating like a top at the end of a string.

“Yeah…what’s happening?”

“I don’t know, but I think we’re on the outer edge of some kind of vortex…the water’s all rushing sideways, dirt, pieces of things…I can’t really make it out.”

“God, I hope it’s not a spout.”

The force began to increase, a centrifugal force that soon shoved them to one side of the compartment and pressed them hard against the walls. Worse, the compartment began a slow roll, a rotation that didn’t remain slow for long, but picked up rate at a steady clip.

Soon, they were spinning enough to become disoriented and dizzy.

“Chase…my stomach…I don’t feel so—“

Angie’s words were suddenly lost in a bright flash of light, a searing, painfully white strobing light that flooded the compartment and blinded Chase.

Ow…I can’t see—“

The spin kept accelerating and moments later, Chase and Angie passed out.

Early morning beachgoers at Scotland Beach were treated to an incredible sight offshore, just before dawn. Backlit with the orange glow of sunrise to the east, a thin ropy waterspout formed several miles off Half Moon Cove. As the spout danced and skipped across the waves, a bright pulse of light emerged from the sea and vaulted heavenward along the length of the spout, followed by a series of light pulses, as if the spout were sucking buckets of light right out of the ocean.

The light pulses disappeared into low-hanging clouds and vanished, leaving only a faint iridescent flicker, like a silent lightning discharge.

Moments later, the waterspout collapsed into the sea and the ocean returned to its restless heaving.

Unknown to the residents of Scotland Lake, Chase Meyer and Angie Gilliam had just been catapulted six thousand light years across the Galaxy and several hundred years into the future.

Chapter 7

Seome

Omsh’pont, kel: Omt’or

Time: 765.5, Epoch of Tekpotu

Nine months before he was catapulted into the Farpool, Chase Meyer had been riding his turbobike along the Gainesville Highway, coming back from a visit with his recovering Dad at Creekside Hospital, when the bike hit a pothole in the highway. Chase lost control and somersaulted over the handlebars. When he thought about this later, he realized just how much time had slowed down in those few airborne seconds. Like his Dad always said: “It’s not the fall that hurts, it’s the sudden stop at the end.”

So he had been airborne and basically weightless for a few seconds—not uncomfortably so

—then his tumbling body had slammed into the ground inside a culvert adjoining the highway.

Days later, when he and Angie talked about the experience, Chase mentioned that going through the Farpool was like that: moments of peaceful weightlessness, almost a dreamlike quality, except for the bright strobing lights outside the porthole and then the sudden stop.

It was like having a horse kick the crap out of you. Or maybe driving your bike headfirst into a brick wall at eighty miles an hour.

The lifeship shuddered and hurtled out of the Farpool in a flash of light, a roaring rush of deceleration, knocking Kloosee and Pakma hard against the cockpit windows. Still trapped in the vortex, Kloosee rammed the ship’s rudder hard over, while firing her jets to counteract the residual force of the spin. For a moment, they were both pinned sideways against the cockpit, until the force of the jets shot them through the core of the whirlpool and out into calmer waters.

Pakma breathed hard, wiping her beak with her hands. She checked the instruments.

“Sounding meetor’kel water, Kloosee….rough water but visibility improving. I can pulse ahead…looks like we’re home.”

Immediately, they could both hear and feel the throbbing beat of the wavemaker. Kinlok Island and the huge machine were less than ten beats away, to the west.

Kloosee fought the lifeship controls to bring them under control. “Thank Shooki we came through that one…a rough ride, rougher than most. How’s our cargo doing back there?”

Pakma checked behind. The tchee’lum, the transfer pod with Chase and Angie inside, was still in tow, connected by line to the aft end of the ship. The pod gyrated slightly as Kloosee settled the connected vessels into a smoother ride.

“Pod’s still there…I don’t know how they’re doing…maybe we should stop and check.”

Kloosee said, “And the Notwater. We should surface, let them re-charge the flasks. Plus you should give them the echopod.”

Pakma agreed and Kloosee steered the lifeship upward toward the surface. He breached within sight of the humped mountains of Kinlok.

Pakma left the cabin and went back to the tchee’lum, cycling open the hatch. The two vessels rolled and wallowed in heavy surf and Kloosee had to battle the currents to keep them at the surface. Pakma held her breath, poked her head above and popped the hatch. Moments later, she spied a head…it was the male named Chase. He thrust himself up, squinting in the spray and seemed startled at the nearby metallic flanks of the wavemaker, less than two beats away,

rounded humps with the conical caps of its time displacement nodes looking like small reefs in the water. Waves crashed against the wavemaker’s arms and the lifeship rolled and bobbed unsteadily.

Pakma cruised just below the surface, took a breath and popped her head up. Chase jumped at the sight, then realized who it was. Pakma reached out with her hands and gave Chase an echopod. Grateful, he snagged it from her and disappeared below the hatch.

Pakma ducked down into the water to get a breath---it hurt her gills to heave in too much of the Notwater—and started to explain.

Chase heard the whistling and chirps and finally managed to activate the echopod. Its warm orange glow seemed comforting. Inside the pod cabin, Angie managed to contort herself enough to partially sit up. She squeezed through the hatch, sticking her own head out, took a deep breath of the stinging air and promptly took a wave of seawater in her face. Coughing and gagging, she slipped back inside.

Chase said, “There…I think it’s working…can anyone hear me? Chase Meyer calling anyone…this is Chase Meyer on--“

The echopod screeched and blasted them with noise until Chase figured out how to set the volume to the right level.

(shkreeee…)understand me…I am Pakma…do you hear my voice—

The words were shrill, whistling, barely audible over the background rush of sound, but both teenagers heard them. It was the most welcome sound they had ever heard and they laughed out loud.

“Yes…yes, I hear you! I understand you…who is this--?”

…am Pakma…I am alongside the tchee’lum …below water. Surfaced to give you Notwater…re-charge flasks….

Chase looked puzzled at Angie. “What do you--“

Then Angie snapped her fingers. “They put us on the surface to give us air…she must mean put more air in those bottles—“ she indicated the ring of containers at the base of the cabin.

“Yeah…. hmmm, how do I do that? On Earth…we use compressed air to fill our tanks. But I don’t see a compressor—“

Angie pried one of the containers loose and worked it up through the hatch. Chase took it and almost immediately dropped it. The thing started moving, its outer surface morphing until something that looked like a mouth with lips had formed on one side. Holding the container away from his face, Chase saw the lips form a puckered sort of shape and realized in that moment that the thing was literally sucking in air, like you’d suck in air yourself.

“Oh my God,--“ Angie shook her head. “It’s like a little creature…it’s taking in air—“

One by one, with brief instructions and encouraging chirps from Pakma, Chase and Angie manage to work every container—there were several dozen—off of their mounts, hoist each one through the hatch, let the container draw in air on its own and re-attach it to the cabin walls.

When they were done, Pakma said … you have Notwater for the trip…enough to last…

“Where are we going?” Chase asked, through the echopod. He was beginning to get a feel for how to tune and adjust the translator. “And what the hell is that…that machine thing on the horizon…it’s just pounding away out there—“

Pakma surfaced for a moment, sticking her beak and forepaddles out of the water. Like dolphins, the Seomish had a face that always seemed amused, with a broad crescent of a smile.

Pakma thrashed her beak up and down. The echopod chirped again and both Chase and Angie drew near.

we travel…three (days)…go Omsh’pont…our home. We must find kip’t, re-connect tchee’lum to kip’t…the wavemaker you see…makes great Sound…destroys all…we need your help….

After some discussion, Pakma agreed to allow Chase and Angie to don their own scuba gear, and exit the pod. Pakma shut the hatch and led the teenagers below the surface, hauling themselves along the tow line to the lifeship. Kloosee was at the controls. Chase and Angie squeezed inside, with Chase trying to form words into the echopod. He found that by pressing the echopod to his throat—an old diver’s trick he’d learned from his Dad—he could form the words well enough and get the signal through the echopod. The Seomish seemed to understand.

Pakma climbed inside the pod and Kloosee steered the lifeship below the surface, probing and sounding for the kip’t station nearby. They would need the sled for the trip home.

Chase found the throbbing sound painful, even deafening this close to the wavemaker. The water among the vortex fields was turbid and choppy and Kloosee had all he could do to keep the lifeship on course, homing for the kip’t station.

He dove toward the signal, which emanated from a narrow ledge carved into the side of a seamount. They would park the lifeship there, secure the vessel and transfer everything to the kip’t, including their cargo pod. After that, several hours of cautious maneuvering to get beyond the whirlpool fields and the four travelers would be headed toward Omsh’pont at last.

Chase winced at the booming of the wavemaker. How do they stand this, he wondered? He pressed the echopod to his throat, tried to form a question.

“How do you put up with this noise? It’s deafening.”

Kloosee’s reply was scratchy…. the Sound….also vibration…destroys our homes and cities…we call this mee’torkel’te …rough water…hurts ears…many problems…need your help….

Angie indicated by hand motions that she wanted the echopod. She imitated Chase, pressing the pod to her throat.

“How long has this sound been going on?”

Kloosee guided the lifeship steadily deeper, pinging for the kip’t station. Finally, he got the signal he was seeking and steered them toward the side of a huge underwater cliff. A niche came into view through the murky water. Tucked into the niche was a small sled with an enclosed cockpit. Kloosee brought them to all-stop abeam of the niche.

the Sound and the wavemaker…many mah…we tried shielding in past…shield failed…the Umans do not listen…

Angie wondered. What the hell’s a mah? She would have to ask about that later.

Kloosee indicated they should exit the lifeship. He sprung the hatch and Chase and Angie emerged cautiously into the water.

Jeez this is cold, Chase thought. Dirty as hell too. The water was dense; he had no idea how deep they were but the pressure on his ears was building. He tried the old Valsalva technique—pinching and blowing and it helped. Then he made sure his feet were straight down and his head straight up. How the hell do they see anything? Then he answered his own question: they don’t see. They don’t have to. They can range and ping with their own sound.

No wonder this blasted machine causes such problems, he realized. He glanced at Angie as she came out. She seemed to understand, shaking her head, trying to clear her own ears.

Under Kloosee’s guidance—Pakma had also emerged from the transfer pod—several bags and satchels were moved from the lifeship into the kip’t. The tow line was unhooked and re-attached to the sled. Kloosee slithered inside the kip’t and powered up the vessel, then gently

maneuvered it out of its niche and into open water, hovering just beyond sight, while Pakma drove the lifeship into the cradle and parked it.

When all the cargo transfer and maneuvering was done, the kip’t was attached by tow line to the tchee’lum and the lifeship secured in its parking bay.

Kloosee started chirping and chattering and Chase put the echopod back to his ears.

Pakma tek rides in tchee’lum… you ride with me…

Chase and Angie squeezed themselves into the sled cockpit, as best they could. Behind them, Pakma disappeared back inside the pod.

Chase pressed the echopod against his throat, forming a question. “Can we see this machine, this thing that’s causing such a ruckus?”

For a moment, Kloosee didn’t respond. He was concentrating on steering the kip’t away from the cliff. Chase wondered if his word ‘ruckus’ didn’t translate.

Then… will try to approach wavemaker…surface water is rough…secure yourselves…

And with that, Kloosee pressed forward, accelerating the kip’t with its propulsors. The sled angled nose up and Chase could see the surface above them, light streaming down in translucent shafts. Something like kelp or seaweed draped itself over the cockpit as they rose and Kloosee waggled the sled a few times to throw it off. The sea was filled with the stringy mass drifting in huge clouds just below the surface.

Suddenly they breached in an explosion of foam, into a world of gray and gloom, with rising swells and rough choppy surf, bobbing like a paper cup in a hurricane. Above the surface, the ocean was roiling in heavy surf and gale-force winds slammed them up one wave and down another. Kloosee did the best he could to keep them at the surface.

pulse that direction… he pointed with an armfin off to the right…( shkreeeah) wavemaker creates mee’torkelte …many, many opuh’te …many vortex…

Chase and Angie strained to see. An island was on the horizon, its cliffs partially obscured in heavy mist. The cliffs seemed to rise out of the water at a vertiginous slope, a rugged shoulder of gray-brown rock, slick with moss.

But it was what lay off to the left of the island cliffs that caught Chase’s attention. He grabbed Angie’s shoulder and pointed.

What he had first mistaken for a whale or another island was in fact no such thing. A dark hump emerged from the surface, poking above the waves and arching out of the water at a shallow angle, rising to a low apex some distance away, veiled by the ever-present mist that never seemed to lift. The part of the machine above the surface was a vast, squat cone, patterned with blister-like bumps from the water’s edge to the apex and completely around its circumference. Directly above each bump, the mist swirled in sparkling convolutions, forming spiral rainbows that seemed to expand as they curved overhead and disappeared into the gray of what Kloosee always called the Notwater.

Angie burbled into the echopod. “What is it?”

Kloosee answered… it is a weapon…the Umans fight their war with this…it affects time…

creates opuh’te …you say vortex…many vortex…one vortex is the Farpool….

Angie thought she had misheard. “Did I hear you say ‘humans’?”

Kloosee fought the kip’t controls for a moment, then decided it was best to submerge. The sled was made for underwater travel and the ride was decidedly smoother below the waves.

we say Tailless People of the Notwater…they call themselves Uman…theory may be descendants of your race…many thousand mah in your future…

Angie looked at Chase. He hadn’t heard the echopod and had no idea what Kloosee was saying. She would have to explain later.

Umans? Humans? Descendants? They had come through the Farpool and traveled a long way in time from Scotland Beach…Angie was beginning to have a sickening feeling. Suddenly, she wanted to go home. Be with her Mom. Work afternoons at Dr. Wright’s clinic and chug down Loopy Juice at Citrus Grove with Gwen and her other friends.

Girl…this is nothing like Scotland Beach. She handed the echopod back to Chase.

“Kloosee, where are we going? How long?”

Kloosee had already steered them into deeper waters, almost black waters from the lack of light at this depth. The pulpy strings of the weed had dissipated and a faint pinging sound, interspersed with clicks and pulses, could be heard. Chase realized Kloosee was steering them by sound alone, kind of like sonar.

That made sense.

we ride P’omtor…two hundred beats…then turn toward Serpentines…Likte gap…rough water…six emtemah…you say…two days…

Two days, Chase sank back in his little niche, looked at Angie. I hope our air holds out. He now knew they were completely at the mercy of Kloosee and Pakma.

Kloosee’s plan was to cross the Ponkel until they had reached the junction of the Pomt’or and Tchor Currents, then turn south through unsounded waters, paralleling the northernmost arc of the Serpentines, hunt for the gap until they felt the first faint tugs of the Tchor Current, then scoot through the gap and ride that underwater river across the abyssal plain. Then he would home on the seamounts surrounding Omsh’pont City, listening for repeater signals and the murmuring voices of the oot’stek, until the echo layer brought them safely into local waters.

That was if all went well….

After a few hours aboard the kip’t, Chase found himself dozing off and half-dreaming of some cave diving he and Stokey Shivers used to do.

Around the beginning of ‘14, Stokey and Chase had been exploring caves out along a ridge off Coral Road. Underground were some partially submerged limestone caverns. Chase had been warned against this by Mack, his father. They had scuba gear, but found they didn’t need it. They dared each other to veer off the main cave branch into an unknown and unexplored branch, known locally as Crocodile Corner, or colloquially as ‘The Croc.” They promptly got lost.

Stokey became very frightened. But Chase viewed it as a simple matter of figuring things out. He remembered he had been tinkering with Bailey, his old pet flying drone, after his Dad had given it to him. He had added some voice recognition routines and some olfactory sensors.

Now, lost deep inside The Croc’s Corner, he yelled at the top of his voice, even with the echoes, in the hopes that Bailey the Flying Dude would detect his voice, and his scent, and come to rescue them. And, after a few hours of listening to Stokey’s sniffling and whining, Bailey did come and found them and led them out of the Coral Road caves and Croc’s Corner.

Thank God for Bailey.

Mack and Cynthia were elated to finally have Chase home safe and sound. They had smothered him with hugs and kisses. Then they paddled him good and sent him to his room. He was grounded for three months. After that, he began drifting apart from Stokey, though a complete break took several years.

I could use old Bailey about now, he figured. He put the echopod to his throat.

“Kloosee, excuse me…about these Umans. You said they’re fighting a war. That the sound machine is a weapon. But who are they fighting? Why is the machine here?”

Kloosee had been concentrating on his controls, probing, sounding ahead, hunting for the faintest tickle of the Tchor current.

Umans fight enemy we cannot see…beyond Notwater…

“Somebody offworld,” Chase decided. “Why do they fight? What’s this big weapon do for them?”

Kloosee seemed intense, distracted, even a little upset by the question. His armfins shook as he manipulated the kip’t through cross-currents. Outside the bubble cockpit, Chase couldn’t see a thing.

…Umans fight to fight…we do not know the enemy…wavemaker affects time…Umans use it to sweep enemy from this area…control this area…time is changed…distorted…

Chase gave that some thought, checked his air gauge. Less than three hours. He would have to talk with Kloosee about that.

“So they can manipulate time somehow…is that how this Farpool works?”

Kloosee slowed the kip’t, changed their heading slightly. Chase noticed the controls had no lights, gauges or anything he could recognize. Small circular membranes vibrated at different frequencies, filling the water inside the cockpit with a symphony of beeps, clicks, whirs, whistles and chirps.

Control completely by sound, Chase realized. Cool.

…Farpool is opuh’te …a whirlpool…you say vortex…there are many…it is a passage to your world…from Seome…ah…(shkreeee)…there they are…

“There…what--?”

But Kloosee was busily maneuvering the sled. Chase soon saw why. They had located and fallen in behind a herd of large, bulbous fish, dozens of them, gliding majestically through the murk. Chase could only make out a few in dim outline. Each one was several times their size, like a giant sunfish on Earth, but with distended bellies and longer tail flukes.

“What are those, Kloosee?”

…tillet…this is a regular run…pack animals…carry goods from kel to kel… tilletshook’let is ahead of us…the lead animal…I will activate your pod…

Chase motioned Angie to come closer, hoping she could hear as well. The echopod was not only a translator but an encyclopedia as well. It spoke in neutral tones….

…the tillet is a pack animal used mainly for transporting cargo. It is about one-tenth beat in length, black on top and white on the bottom, with a belly pouch for storing goods and products. The tillet is a fairly docile beast, engineered to herd and home on oot’stek repeater signals and travel many thousands of beats completely untended. There is a worldwide ban on hunting the tillet , as they are extremely valuable in commerce among the kels….

Angie looked at Chase. She had managed to hear enough to get the idea and nodded back.

Kloosee explained further… we follow tillet through the Gap…they know the way, know the currents…they will guide us…

Chase found the beasts fascinating, especially the fact that they travelled long distances completely untended.

They settled into a steady droning cruise a few hundred feet behind the last of the animals, vibrating slightly in their wake as they cruised the Pomt’or Current across the northern waters.

Occasionally, the control panel made higher pitched pinging sounds. Kloosee explained that the sled was detecting loose pack ice to their north. The polar ice cap wasn’t far away.

Chase was about to inform Kloosee that he and Angie didn’t have much air left, when Kloosee suddenly stiffened and started playing his fingers over the sound membranes on the control panel. Ahead of them, the kip’t sounded treacherous currents. Two tillet were directly ahead of the sled, their pouches bulging with cargo, yet they had shown no signs of fatigue. But now they were starting to lag behind the rest of the herd. Even Chase could hear their nervous clicks. Their tails, normally supple and whipping back and forth, had become stiff and rigid.

they are afraid of something…perhaps the cross currents around the T’kel…the mountains bend up ahead…but that should not affect them…something else…

That was Pakma…from the transfer pod they were towing behind. She had been communicating with Kloosee from the beginning.

Kloosee slowed the kip’t even more. The tillet off to port seemed ready to bolt. It was a massive creature, a quarter beat or more in length and fat through the middle, with its genetically engineered cargo pouches protruding just aft of its pectorals. The pouches quivered with a peculiar rocking gait that indicated anxiety, as the tillet undulated alongside and ahead of them.

Like the rest of the herd, it was trained to follow the scent of the pack leader and never strayed more than a fraction of a beat from the pack. Now, however, something was frightening them.

A sharply sloped ridge came into view and Chase and Angie were both awed at the near-vertical slopes of the mountain chain. T’kel, Kloosee called it. He nosed the sled upward to clear the tops of the summits. As he did so, the sled’s sounders got as better angle on some movement just beyond the nearer peaks, in a ravine. A burst of clicks exploded inside the cockpit—the sounders couldn’t cope with all of them. Kloosee cut the jets completely, just in time to see both tillet break and scatter, lumbering away from the kip’t as fast as they could.

They left a trail of terrified squeaks behind.

“Kloosee!” Pakma’s voice came through the echopod loud and clear. “Kloosee, look!

Ahead of us--!”

Pakma’s cry filled the cockpit with horror. Rising from the ravine was a dark swarm of mah’jeet.

They billowed out of the mountains, staining the sea a deep crimson, swelling like a wave across the crests of the hills. It was as if the oceans had shuddered, and shaken trillions of dirt clods loose. The swarm spanned the whole of T’kel’s outthrust slopes, for as far as they could pulse in either direction.

“It’s a full bloom of them!” Kloosee cried. He re-fired the jets, to back them out before they drifted into the middle of it, but he had waited too long. The tillet had distracted him and now the jets were getting clogged. They sputtered and died off noisily.

Their own momentum was carrying them into the very heart of the bloom. Already, streaks of crimson had splattered the bubble of the cockpit. Frantically, Kloosee flushed the intakes with water from inside, then shut them tight. That helped to expel any of the creatures that might have drifted into the circulator. But they were closed off from a fresh source of water now; the supply in the cockpit was litor’kel and useable, but it wouldn’t take long for it to foul, with the circulator off. Three people would deplete it in less than a day, even if two of them were breathing Notwater.

He had no propulsion. They were at the mercy of whatever stray current might come along and it seemed they could not avoid drifting deeper into the bloom. There was an agonized silence—and the scent of helplessness—as the kip’t went deeper and deeper. Soon, the veil had been drawn. Mah’jeet crushed against them, crinkling, scraping, grinding, the weight of trillions

upon trillions of them squeezing the cockpit, bleeding their deadly purple toxin in rivulets over the bubble.

They were trapped in a sea of death. The slightest leak would be fatal and Kloosee and Pakma both soon imagined scores of them. Every thump and hiss and click and whistle of the kip’t was magnified, the sound reflected off the mah’jeet veil back into the little craft.

Kloosee listened, dreading what he knew had to come, avoiding the frightened stares of their human passengers. How big the bloom was he couldn’t say. It might reach for hundreds of beats, maybe thousands of beats, along the spine of the T’kel. It might be only a local upwelling, a result of the seething volcanoes to the south. He forced himself to remain calm, to hear none of the sounds that played around them. It was critical that he recall what he knew about the creatures. If he could distract Chase and Angie from their worrying too, they would all have a much better chance to survive.

unicellular microscopic organisms… he told Chase, sounding to his own ears like an encyclopedia… the mah’jeet cluster in vast fields in equatorial waters, often near active ve’skort, where they can feed on rising columns of mineral-rich water…

Angie spoke into the echopod, folding her hands around Chase’s as they both clutched the device. “Are they dangerous?”

Kloosee was watching the spreading purple stain slowly envelop the cockpit bubble…

mah’jeet are mildly irritating to most Seomish in small numbers…but they tend to swarm…in large numbers, they are deadly…

He told them through the echopod that the toxin worked on the nervous system. It could cause convulsions, breathing difficulties, heart attacks and finally death. In these concentrations, the slightest exposure to the toxin that oozed outside the cockpit would kill them in minutes, if not sooner.

Kloosee hoped the explanations would help but he pulsed the humans and he saw they were verging on panic. He knew that mah’jeet patches could be enormous, and last for many mah in some places. They were known to horde along the southern rim of the Ork’nt and in the Pulkel waters. But T’kel was thought to be free of them, at least of the larger patches. That was why tillet pack trains often used these waters. The Pomt’or current should have swept them away from these ridges. But it hadn’t.

He had no way of really knowing where they were, or where they were going. The kip’t sounders worked, barely, but the constant low clicking was deceptive. If they had drifted deep into the patch, it was likely the mah’jeet themselves were so thick they would affect the echoes.

And even if he had known precisely where they were, he could have done nothing.

The kip’t jets were effectively dead.

Pakma’s voice came through the cockpit, emanating from the transfer pod they were towing.

She seemed on the verge of panic herself, which surprised Kloosee.

“What can we do, Kloos? Is there anything…are we going to—“

“Pakma, be quiet. You pulse like a lost pal’penk…you’ll frighten the humans.” Kloosee studied the useless instruments before him. Idly, he tried the throttle; it burbled, sputtered, gagged, then quit. Nothing he did could make it work again. “The jets are completely clogged.”

“We’re trapped, aren’t we?” Pakma said it with a strained calm in her voice.

Kloosee hesitated before replying. He glanced back at the humans. Chase and Angie were clearly worried…he could pulse that in their guts, with all the churning and bubbling, though he didn’t know if humans reacted the same way as Seomish.

“For the moment,” he finally replied.

Pakma was inside the transfer pod at the end of the tow line but the two of them could still talk. She seemed satisfied by Kloosee’s answer. “Shooki has turned the currents against us.”

Kloosee wanted to argue but decided against it. Pakma was like that. Arguing with her would change nothing and he couldn’t change her mind anyway. He was glad the humans couldn’t eavesdrop on their conversation.

“Is there nothing we can do?” she went on.

“Pakma, the way I pulse it, we have several choices. There is a possibility that we haven’t drifted very far into the mah’jeet patch. We might still be on the fringe of it. I don’t know that for sure. But it’s possible.”

“You think we could roam through this…you’re crazy, Kloos. You can’t mean that. Look at the poison.” Inside the cramped confines of the pod, Pakma rubbed the porthole gingerly with an armfin, as if she were afraid it would burst on contact. “Death flows all around us.”

The echopod chirped. It was Chase. “Anything we can do to help? Are we stuck here?”

Kloosee turned to regard the taller male human. … we have encountered mah’jeet…very deadly…must stay inside…work on getting us out…

Chase could see how the purple stain had now completely covered the kip’t cockpit bubble.

“Kloosee, I don’t want to bother you but Angie and I are down to about two hours of air…what you call Notwater. Is there another supply onboard somewhere?”

Notwater in containers in pod…(shkreeeah)…we cannot leave kip’t while inside mah’jeet patch…working on getting us out….

In other words, leave me alone and let me think, Chase said to himself. He caught the look on Angie’s face. She was scared and her face mask and mouthpiece couldn’t hide it. He tried to put up a brave front but Angie wasn’t fooled. She held his hands tightly.

Kloosee turned back to their predicament and contacted Pakma. “I have something in mind.

It involves a grave risk…it might not work.”

“What is it?”

“Remember how I flushed the circulator when he first entered the patch? To keep any ‘ jeet from seeping in here? I had to use this water to do it. We lost a good bit doing that but it gave us some time.”

“How much do we have left…the pod is separate from your supply anyway.”

Kloosee did some quick checking. He sniffed the water for pressure, then said, “Since I had to turn the circulator off to seal the bubble, we have no intake of fresh water now. I’ll consume all the oxygen in the water in about a day, maybe less. The pod isn’t even being re-circulated at all.”

“A day,” said Pakma. “A day to dream. If we had tekn’een, we could remember everything, re-live it, in a day….”

“I want to do more than re-live it. I could try flushing the circulator again, with this water.

If we aren’t too deep in the patch, the force of the water being expelled might push us out of it.

Of course, it might push us in deeper as well. And we’d have less water than before. That’s the risk.”

Pakma contorted herself in the cramped confines of the pod, pressing up against the porthole to see out. She wondered what the humans thought about all this. “The bloom’s too thick.

Even if you used all the water in the kip’t, the mah’jeet are too dense. We wouldn’t move a quarter beat, if that much.”

“Well, there is another way. An alternative.”

“Yes…?”

Kloosee ran his fingers over the circulator handle, feeling it give slightly. He was keenly aware how closely the humans were following everything he did. “I could flush the cockpit more slowly….”

Pakma thought she had misread the sounds. The bloom did distort echoes. “You mean….”

“It wouldn’t take that long. But we have to both agree.”

Pakma was stunned at the very idea. “After all we’ve worked for…all you’ve worked for, how could—“She couldn’t even complete that thought.

There was a heavy silence between them. Trillions of mah’jeet suckled against the cockpit bubble, mashing themselves into a viscous fluid that was patiently crushing the bubble out of shape, deforming its structural pattern, dissolving chemical bonds. An opaque screen of purple had cut off virtually all light, leaving the kip’t and its attached pod in darkness. Inside both, the water was warm and suffocating, rich in the scents of fear.

“What about our guests? This isn’t fair to them, is it?”

“No, it isn’t. But we all knew there was a risk in doing this.”

The low, delicate chittering of the kip’t sounder stopped, then thumped.

“It doesn’t seem fair, Kloos…maybe it was wrong to take them…they don’t know—“

Again, a thump, something massive. Thump-thump.

“—Pakma, you’ve known me long enough to know that—“

A louder thump-rattle. A series of them. Whump-thump.

Pakma was deathly hoarse. “What…is that—“

THUMP-thump. THUMP-thump. Kreeee…kkkthump….

“Pakma, be still…be quiet…I think—“

They both listened for a few moments to the sounder. The thumping continued, interspersed by muffled screeches and whistles. A burst of bubbles erupted in Kloosee’s belly. He smiled at the feeling.

“It’s the tillet. It has to be.”

“The tillet?”

“We were following them, remember? They sensed the mah’jeet before we did and bolted.

Now they’ve come back. They must have taken a liking to the scent of this kip’t…it’s familiar to them.”

Pakma could neither see nor pulse anything out of the pod’s porthole. She hoped Kloosee was right. “How can they survive inside the mah’jeet bloom?”

“They can’t. We must be near the edge, like I hoped. Otherwise, the sounder would be useless too.”

“Then, there’s no way they can help us, is there?”

Kloosee thought for a moment. “Maybe there is. I don’t know if it will work though.”

Pakma’s voice seemed firmer, like she had made a decision. “Kloos, we don’t have the luxury of selecting our risks, do we?”

“No.”

That seemed to strengthen him.

“Pakma, we shouldn’t delay about this. The humans are running low on Notwater. We need to surface, help them recharge their supply.”

Pakma could pulse the kip’t interior even from the pod, though the echoes were jumbled, mixed human and Seomish. Still, she knew Kloosee well enough; his returns always stood out.

“You’re thinking of a thought-bond, aren’t you?”

Kloosee admitted that he was. “But these tillet are Orketish. They bond differently from ours. Everything is different: the pulse-width, their way of thinking, their codes of cognition.

We’re not Orketish. The tillet might not respond. Even if one of us could make a bond, it would be fragile and uncomfortable, maybe even frightening to them.”

“So what do you have in mind?”

“I don’t know if any of the tillet would give up its life for someone not of their kel. But if we could somehow entice one or several of them to penetrate the mah’jeet swarm, with enough speed, they might bump us hard enough to knock us out of the swarm before they died.” He stopped, realizing what he was saying. Tillet were valuable animals; it was likely that someone had spent a long time binding these animals, perhaps to the very point of making a life-bond with them—that was not so unusual. Losing them, even a few, would be a bitter and painful loss.

Their deaths might even be transmitted across the sea, though that seemed impossible.

Pakma pulsed her concern and Kloosee couldn’t ignore it. “We don’t have a choice, Kloos.

I’m sure the bondmaster, whoever he us, would understand.”

Kloosee listened to the thumps again. Pakma was right. Each time the tillet crossed the sounder beam, it pealed its outline to them, beckoning them. If they escaped the mah’jeet, Kloosee promised himself that he would seek out the bondmaster for these tillet and beg his understanding. Yes, even being shame-bound would be proper, he decided.

I’m half-Orketish myself…I know how these animals think. “Okay, here goes….”

Think as the Orketish would think. Yes. Now, comes the scent, the slightly salty water of the Orkn’tel. Very pungent, you could sniff it even on the Omtorish side of the Serpentines. The boundary seas were always shifting, weren’t they?

But first you have to reach. You have to find the current. Great Ork’lat runs in our veins, swift and pure. The world is only a tributary.

Think as the Orketish would think.

Patience. The Ork’lat is eternal, after all. Place a finished potu pearl in the Current of all Currents. Let it drift and think no more of it. When the time is right, when Ork’lat wills it, the potu will come home. Pulse alertly! It comes from the other direction. The same pearl, untarnished by outkel odors, untouched and undiverted, the same pearl has ridden all the rivers of the world. Ork’lat protects it. Ork’lat brings it home.

Think as the Orketish think.

Tell me, Pakma: do you ever tire of roaming in the boundary seas? Repeaters are so restless.

They need so much t’shoo, but that’s wrong. No! Smother that. It’s not as we think. Love is our tradition. Ke’shoo for all, kelke or not. Can you pulse the smoothest echoes, and let all the rest be stilled? That is Ke’shoo. Pulsing for the tender, for the delicate, for the sublime. Pulsing for the heart.

Think as the Orketish would think.

Have you ever sniffed raw potu? No current ever brought a more elegant, more glorious scent. That is the scent of this kel. Reeking of potu, that is Ork’et. The measure of things. The prize, the treasure, the vortex of azhpuh’te. The center around which all revolves. Shooki carved us from potu, cleaved a living being from the gemstone itself and named her Ork’et, the Daughter. And even today, in the dim light of glowfish, Orketish skin flashes with the alabaster luster of the pearl.

Think as—

Who’s there?

Patience. Self is a piece of Noobit keeoh. Self pulse his pulses, hear his echoes, scent his smells.

--drifting with no feeling; it’s a ticklish touch you have—

Is this Noobit? My bondmaster? Koo’shet fails this one.

I am bondmaster. Listen to me…I am…am bondmaster…you hurt me. What is that? You ache for scent? Is that it? I feel lost. Sore.

Kip’tscent is gone, where is kip’tscent? Self gulps need for bondmaster. This one sniffs no kip’tscent.

Kip’tscent is here. Listen to me. I am bondmaster. Kip’tscent is trapped. Mah’jeet bloom has kip’tscent. You can sniff. You can help.

Self gulps no bondmaster. Koo’shet weak. Hurtsting. Hurtsting. No bondmaster.

Listen to me. You must help. Kip’tscent is in danger.

Noobit binds self to kip’tscent.

Self can help free kip’tscent. Self must enter mah’jeet and find kip’tscent. Kip’tscent will fade, disperse. You must stop it. Bring us out—

Hurtsting.

No, don’t fade. Stay. I am bondmaster. Don’t leave us, kah, don’t leave us now.

Self gulps bad koo’shet. Mah’jeet hurtsting.

Listen to me. Self? Kip’tscent will end. Kip’tscent will die. Help us. Bondmaster will die.

No.

Yes. Noobit knows. Ask Noobit. If kip’tscent dies, self will die. Kip’tscent is trapped in mah’jeet. Self must recover it, quickly. Before it ends….

Self will die.

--I have no words for this feeling—

Self bound to kip’tscent.

--it is like being hollow, all my blood rushing out—

Self?

--like the lash of a thousand prods, ripping at me—

Self? Self!

--like the ertleg’s claw raking me from inside, like the scalding—

Something heavy slammed into the kip’t, jolting them hard. Kloosee shouted. The bubble had cracked. A trickle of purple squeezed in. But the kip’t was moving, there was no doubt of it.

They were bumped and bumped and bumped again. Outside, even the thick mah’jeet couldn’t muffle the agonizing shriek of death.

More purple dribbled in, coagulating into spheres, drifting about in the bubble. The bumping had stopped. Kloosee dared not breathe—had he imagined it? He shook himself out of the bondtrance and felt his tail flukes go numb. A sphere of the toxin had brushed him.

Frantically, he thrashed it off before it could dissolve into his skin. Already, the dizziness….

But it was true. The mah’jeet were thinning out, sliding off the bubble like sheets of tissue.

A veil was lifted and he could see the craggy cliffs of the T’kel. The sight made him smile, laugh and Pakma soon joined in from the pod aft of the cockpit. Even the humans seemed amused, though they couldn’t know why. All that barren rock, that brown and gray mud, was more beautiful than all the fields of eng he had ever seen.

Still, they weren’t completely free of the mah’jeet. Faint webs still clung to the bubble, holding them in the swarm. Knots of purple filaments drifted nearby. They had stopped moving and if they didn’t act now, the natural motions of the swarm would suck them back in deeper.

Kloosee shivered; some of the poison had already entered his bloodstream. He tried the kip’t jets. Nothing. They were so close, yet still within the grasp of the mah’jeet. Something…

there had to be something he could do.

They had one chance. He was shuddering, growing more numb every second. So far, the humans hadn’t been affected, but Kloosee could see they were both confused and scared. He reached out and felt the circulator handle in his hand. It would take the last of their breathable water and if it didn’t work….

He twisted the handle, to open the water intakes. He could taste the oily excretions of the mah’jeet inside the bubble now. One of the humans, the female, started to panic, thrashing about. The male held her tightly, trying to comfort her. Kloosee’s pulses were erratic. His vision blurred. But he couldn’t worry about the humans now. Still, he felt for the handle.

He pushed it in.

The first second was the longest. Kloosee was sure it had not moved. It had been jammed shut by the weight of the mah’jeet and wouldn’t budge.

The next second brought him the truth.

The force of the kip’t’s water being expelled kicked them hard. The craft spun slowly, tangling in the tow line to the transfer pod, and seemed to fly apart all at the same time. Kloosee succumbed to the drowsiness but not before he tasted the welcome saltiness of T’kel water rushing over his beak.

They were drifting freely now, away from the mah’jeet. Something massive darted by in front of them but Kloosee didn’t have the strength to focus on it. Instead, he pulsed that they were sinking. T’kel will catch us. T’kel will

The kip’t finally came to rest on a narrow ledge.

It was a tillet, nosing at his beak, that had awakened him. Kloosee spent a few minutes testing different parts of his body. Mah’jeet poison in that concentration should have been fatal.

But everything seemed all right. He wriggled out of the kip’t and shook himself vigorously.

That’s when the human male showed up right in front of him.

Chase had the echopod. He pressed it against his throat.

“Are you all right…we thought you were dead—“

Kloosee reached out and pressed his armfins on the human’s shoulders. He pulsed worry inside the creature; you could see it in his gut, with all the bubbles churning.

almost was…pulse worry…you are concerned….

“Uh…well, yeah…Angie’s down to about ten minutes’ air. Me…about five minutes.

Kloosee…we need to go up. Surface. We need air.”

Kloosee understood. The Tailless breathed Notwater, strange though that sounded. He sounded around, saw Pakma climbing out of the pod’s hatch.

“Pakma, we have to leave…if I can get the kip’t working. The Tailless are out of Notwater…we have to surface. Get back inside and I’ll try to get us off this ledge.”

“Kloos, are you all right? I saw you still for a long time—“

“Stung by mah’jeet, I was. I’m fuzzy-headed but I am okay. Come on—“

Kloosee herded the two humans back inside the kip’t cockpit, while Pakma returned to the pod. She dogged its hatch shut.

When we surface, I’m switching places with the humans. They should be riding in this thing.

Kloosee fired up the kip’t jets, which sputtered into life, lifted them away from the ledge and carefully skirted the outer shoals of the mah’jeet bloom. The rounded humps of two dead tillet could be pulsed just inside, floating aimlessly, slowly being decomposed by the creatures.

They saved our lives and gave their own, he told himself.

The kip’t angled upward and headed for the surface.

Topside, the surface was in heavy rolling surf. It was nighttime on Seome and fierce winds and sheets of salt spray their only welcome. Kloosee put the kip’t and its pod on the surface and stayed submerged while the humans popped the hatch and stood up in the cockpit. Even through the distortions of faint light in the water, Kloosee could see them heaving in great gulps. On his own Circling many mah before, he’d felt Notwater in his gills. It burned like hell. But the humans needed it to live.

By using the echopod and frequent gestures, Kloosee got Chase and Angie out of the kip’t and aft to the pod, switching places with Pakma, who came forward. By this time, Chase had an idea how to manipulate the air flasks that looked like faces. You had to squeeze them in the right place and the “lips” sucked air in and stored it in some kind of vesicle. Chase tried to cram as much of Seomish salty air in as he could.

“We’re going to need it,” he told Angie. When Kloosee told him the flasks were at capacity, he nodded and laid a hand on Kloosee’s head.

The Seomish male made something resembling a bemused smile.

now you have Notwater…enough to reach Omsh’pont…

“How far is it?”

Kloosee’s face wrinkled in thought. “Half mah…a day or more, to you… shkreeah…stay in sshhh…pod—“

So they stayed in the pod.

Kloosee made sure the hatch was shut. He went back to the kip’t, closed himself in with Pakma and fired up the sled’s jets. They angled down and soon were in darkwaters.

Inside the pod, Angie started to cry softly.

They were both wedged in so tightly they could hardly move. “Ang…what is it? Have you got enough air…anything hurting?”

He could feel her body shaking with sobs. “Noooo….I…it’s just….oh, Chase, what have we done? Where are we? I think I want to go home.”

Chase tried to take a deep breath. Seomish air had a burned smell to it, like ozone, like after a thunderstorm at Scotland Beach. He twisted enough so they could face each other.

“That’s probably not happening today…I’m not sure where we are…but it sure as hell isn’t Half Moon Cove.”

“Maybe this wasn’t such a great idea, huh?”

Chase said nothing. He twisted around more, so he could peer out of the porthole. It was black as night. Occasionally, a streak of light erupted out of the darkness, smearing itself against the porthole.

“I can’t see a thing.”

“Where are we going?”

Chase shrugged. “I don’t know. Kloosee called it Omsh’pont…something like that. It must be a city. But we have a problem.”

“A problem…what do you mean?” Angie sniffed, wiped her eyes. They were red and puffy.

“Well, we have air, for the moment. But Kloosee and Pakma are marine creatures…

people…whatever. They don’t breathe air like we do. So I’m guessing this city’s underwater.

But we still need air.” Chase rubbed stubble on his chin. He should have shaved this morning.

“I guess Kloosee’s got something in mind…he and I need to talk. I love scuba diving but I don’t want to live my life that way….”

Angie said no more and they both soon drifted off to a fitful doze, rocking gently as the kip’t towed the pod deeper and deeper into Omt’orkel Sea.

Unseen by Chase and Angie, Kloosee was fully alert at the kip’t controls, hunting for faint currents that crisscrossed the upper Serpentines and fed through the Gap. Once they had transited the Gap, they could make a speed run across the Om’metee abyss to the seamounts that surrounded Omsh’pont. Then they would be home.

And some decisions would have to be made about the humans.

Kloosee was glad that Ponkel sounded calm today, litor’kel was how you said it, he remembered. The bottom pulsed fifty or so beats below them, thick with mud and hidden, from time to time, by a tricky layer of warmer water. The thermals of the northern seas sometimes played havoc with kip’t navigation and even the locals sometimes got lost in the churning sediment and confusing echoes of the area. Kloosee was confident he could make it; he’d come this way for the first time in his Circling many mah ago, so the complex echoes didn’t bother him.

The kip’t slid easily through the trackless waste and outside the vast swirl of the Pomt’or Current, the sea was as barren as any sea in the world. The water was a clear blue-green, almost sterile of life but for the ever-present gruel of the ertesh, thin and oily in this area. Few creatures found it appetizing enough to school here.

Far to the north, off their starboard quarter, Kloosee could read the faint echoes of the polar ice pack itself. The Pillars of Shooki were up there. He frowned, thinking about that. Someday, perhaps—

They traveled alone for hours, droning on and on, through the Ponkel, while Kloosee occupied himself with savoring comforting smells from a favorite scentbulb he had opened up, scents that spoke of faraway places and great adventures: the Klatko Trench and the seamother feeding grounds, the tchin’ting forest south of Likte Island, the caves of the Ponkti…Kloosee had always loved these scents. They were like warm water, soothing, comforting, old friends. Like old kel-mates.

Pakma’s voice startled him. “I hope Longsee has some ideas on how we can sustain the humans.”

“You mean Notwater…just before we left, I heard some talk about modifying a lifesuit, so Tailless could use it…maybe Longsee’s ordered that to be done. They need something like that.”

Pakma smiled. “You want to use these Tailless to go into the Notwater yourself, don’t you?

I pulse it in you…Kloos, you can’t even hide it.”

“Why should I hide it? That’s why I formed my own em’kel. Putektu has one goal: open up the Notwater for everybody. We could be like the seamothers, Pakma…just think about that.

Able to live and work and play in our own world and above it.”

“You’re obsessed with seamothers.”

“I guess you’re right. But they know things we don’t…we can learn from them. And it’ll help us with the Umans.”

Pakma made a face. “Kah, I’ll never understand Umans. Ugly beasts, all of them. And you think these Tailless are related? Maybe ancestors.”

Kloosee concentrated on driving the kip’t. “That’s my theory. We’ll see what Longsee says.”

Pakma shivered. “I wish we hadn’t brought them with us…they’re more trouble than they’re worth. How much further? I’m bored.”

Kloosee knew how to fix that. Even without trying, he could pulse Pakma’s insides.

Something was bothering her. “Half a mah, at most. Ke’shoo and Ke’lee, as they say. Come here….” He twisted about and slid up close to Pakma and after a few moments, they coupled, while the kip’t bore itself on through the trackless wastes of the abyssal plain, surging ahead on auto.

They both grew more and more excited as the echoes of their homewaters became stronger and clearer. Presently, the towering seamounts of Omsh’pont sounded strong and sure and when the murk cleared, the great city finally lay before them. Kloosee slowed the kip’t down to approach speed and homed on the signals from the Kelktoo lab, occupying several domes and pavilions along the southwest ramparts of the central mesa of the city.

“Homewaters—“ breathed Pakma, taking in a big gulp. She savored the scents and odors and whiffs and aromas of everything she had grown up with…the accumulated wisdom and noisy clamor and clashing pulses of the only place she had ever called home.

Omsh’pont…heart and soul, the shoo’kel of life itself. Calm and clear waters everywhere you pulsed.

Litorkel ge,” she breathed.

Kloosee had to agree. It was a hoary old saying but it was comfortable too. “Litorkel ge—“

They drifted toward the landing pads of the Kelktoo labs.

The kip’t slowed down as it maneuvered into the center of Omsh’pont and homed on the project labs at Kelktoo. The twists and turns soon brought Chase and Angie to fully awake.

Angie yawned. “Where are we? Feels like we slowed down. Can you see anything out there?”

“Friggin’ porthole’s too small,” Chase muttered. “I see lights, long beads of lights. And some shapes: a few spheres, tubes, pods. Looks like these lights are some kind of bioluminescence. I wonder if they have electricity.”

Angie saw one of the air flasks make a face at her. Its lips pursed into an “O” and it expelled a heavy sigh. Then the lips fluttered and the face seemed to disappear. Involuntarily, she shuddered at the sight.

“How’s our air, Chase?”

Chase looked around at the circumference of flasks. “As long as their cheeks, or whatever the hell they are, are puffed out like that, we have air. I see a few that have gone flat.”

“Like that one just did.” She pointed at the flask that had sputtered its last breath.

Just then, the echopod chirped and squeaked. Chase pressed it to his ear.

It was Kloosee.

this is Omsh’pont…we travel to Kelktoo…not long…there is Notwater pod for you…

“What’s that?” Chase asked.

you will pulse this in the near….

Chase told Angie, “He says they’re taking us to a Notwater pod…something new, I gather.

Just for us.”

Angie’s stomach gurgled. “I’m hungry. Maybe they have tacos.”

The kip’t slowed almost to a halt. Chase looked out and saw that Kloosee was maneuvering to settle their pod onto some kind of landing pad.

“It looks like a big mushroom, split open at the top. Or a giant hand, with fingers sticking up. Cool…..”

The pod was deftly placed in the center of the “palm” and tow line released. Chase saw the sled jet off into the murk and, as it did so, the fingers of the hand slowly began to close.

“Angie, look—“ he shifted aside so she could see. “The fingers are retracting, like a big fist closing.”

Angie watched as their little pod was completely enveloped in the bigger pod. The view became dark outside the porthole and the little pod rocked slightly.

“Is it eating us?”

“I don’ know—“ then the echopod erupted. Chase and Angie both listened.

open pod hatch…you are in Notwater pod…

Cautiously, Chase did as Kloosee had taught him, cycling the hatch grip. He pushed up and water flooded in. But there was air…breathable air…stale, with the burned smell he had come to associate with this world, but nonetheless air….

Grateful, he squeezed up and out. Then he helped Angie out of the pod and they stood shivering and drenched together in the palm of the great hand, standing on some kind of soft, tissue-like floor inside the Notwater pod.

That’s when Chase realized the fingers that had closed around them were translucent. He could barely make out lights outside. And eyes. Armfins and flukes, dozens, scores of them.

They had an audience, staring in at them.

“It’s like a zoo cage,” Chase muttered. Or an aquarium.

Angie sat down and wrapped her arms around her shoulders. “At least, we can breathe. But I want something to eat. Maybe one of them—“ she indicated their audience—“…with some tartar sauce.”

There was some kind of commotion along the side. The echopod chirped. It was Kloosee…

with Pakma. They were at the edge of the enclosure, waving.

Chase dragged Angie over to the translucent flap. “We’re both hungry, Kloosee. Is there something we could eat?”

Kloosee drifted down and produced something in a small sac. He pressed it against the translucent finger. Chase and Angie both watched in amazement as the finger contorted and twisted around its axis, revolving and carrying the sac inside their enclosure. Almost no water squeezed through.

The sac was dropped at their feet.

is called tong’pod…crack legs…eat tissue….

“Sort of like a crab,” Chase decided. He sat down next to Angie and they set to work. The meat inside the tong’pod legs turned out to be sweet tasting…and slightly narcotic. Soon enough, Angie pitched over and fell asleep, curled up like a baby.

Chase fought sleep for as long as he could, but he could hold out no longer. He lay back and passed into a deep, dreamless slumber.

Chase startled awake and jumped half a foot at the sight of the grotesque creature lying next to him, staring at him. It had scaly, armored skin, with a blade-shaped head and two forelimbs, at the end of which were some kind of manipulators, in fact a whole kit of them. The legs were flukes, with open ports… what on earth….

The echopod squeaked nearby. It was Kloosee. In fact, Chase could see Kloosee waving at him through the translucent fingers of the pod walls.

lifesuit…we call kee’too …you live in water…climb into suit and close….

Chase looked up skeptically. Huh? Climb into that? How the--?

That’s when Angie woke up. “EEEyyyeeeww--!” Fast as she could move, she started backing away on all fours, scrambling as quickly as she could. “Chase….Chase…what is it--?”

By now, Chase had become more intrigued than frightened. Looking closer, he could see it was a machine, a device, though it looked just like a living creature, something like a mix of the Creature from the Black Lagoon and a turboscooter.

“Ang…hold up…don’t lose your breakfast…it’s just a suit…they must have stuck it inside when we were out.”

“A sss…suit—“ Angie didn’t stop backpedaling until she was a good twenty feet away. She bumped her head against the finger-walls of the pod and sucked in her breath. “It looks so….”

“I know…” Chase crawled toward the thing. “Kloosee called it a lifesuit…crap, you know what this thing is? It’s the suit we saw them wearing off Half Moon Cove, when we saw that spout. Remember all the armor plating?”

Angie nodded weakly. “Yeah, but it looks alive—“

“It’s made that way…here, let me try something…. “ Chase touched the skin of the suit experimentally. It felt rough and scaly to the touch. Tough stuff, he told himself. “Must be designed to hold an atmosphere, or something breathable.”

Slowly, bit by bit, guided by cryptic instructions over the echopod by Kloosee and Pakma, Chase managed to find a seam along the spine of the suit, which split apart as if slashed with a sword. He stuck his head up through a neck dam, found the fit tight but workable, then climbed completely in. Kloosee explained how to close and seal the kee’too.

press along opening…find small pads…press pads…kee’too will contract and seal….

Chase did that and was startled, momentarily panicked, when the suit did exactly as Kloosee had described. Pressing against a series of small finger pads, contractile fibers along the spine stitched the suit shut. He worked his head up into the blade-shaped helmet.

“Now what…how do I control this thing--?”

kee’too controlled by sound…make sound like this…(shkreeah)…clickclickclickclick…

krrrrr…this activates kee’too….

Chase listened carefully. “Kloosee, you’ve got to be kidding…oh, well, here goes—“ He tried making some of the same sounds Kloosee had given him. At first, there was nothing. Then his legs involuntarily straightened out and the attached flukes started oscillating, dolphin-kick style, as if he were swimming.

“…don’t think I want that…” he grunted.

Kloosee did something…he heard it over the echopod…wait, there was no echopod. He’d left it outside. But Kloosee’s voice came through some kind of headset inside the helmet.

Kloosee managed to stop the dolphin-kick and the suit was quiet.

“Thanks…I don’t think I could have taken much more of that—“

He looked out through the slit-eyes of the blade-helmet and saw Angie gingerly approaching. On impulse, he swung his huge armfins around and growled at her, leaning forward menacingly.

“Grrrrrr!”

Angie jumped five feet. “Stop that! Are you okay in there? Can you breathe?”

“I can breathe okay…don’t ask me how. But I can’t control anything…it’s like the thing has a mind of its own.”

For the next hour, Kloosee and Pakma worked with Chase, and later with Angie, to explain how the kee’too worked.

The lifesuit was controlled with sounds and scents. Chase eventually found a small control panel inside the helmet, just below his chin. More controls were on the armfins. He learned that the echopod translated Kloosee’s description of the legs as mobilitors…multi-purpose propulsors, suitable both for water and Notwater…that is, land. With some experimenting and practice, Chase found he could waddle around inside the pod like a drunken penguin. Kloosee assured him the mobilitors would work equally well in water.

For Angie, learning took longer, but she was determined she could do anything Chase could do. She wasn’t going to let a guy beat her at anything. So, she sucked up her breath and stuck her head inside. It smelled like mothballs and Angie had a brief memory of trying on her Mom’s dresses and gowns one rainy afternoon in Scotland Beach in a closet that smelled just like this.

Chase had said the suits could also be controlled by scent. She wondered, started to pecking at her chin controls with her chin and wound up pirouetting into the pod walls like a klutzy ballerina, which she had once been as a child.

Well, this sucks…maybe I shouldn’t touch anything in here….

Kloosee worked with both of them, with great patience and, not a little humor, to make sure the humans could manage their new gear.

It was Pakma who observed: “At least, they’re not afraid to try. You can pulse the change…

especially the female. I sense shook’lee now…not so much fear…more a curiosity.”

“They want to be with us… tet’ee’ot, I pulse that too. Cooperation, fellowship…this is good…very good…they’re learning. ”

Longsee lok had come to the edge of the pod. He pulsed through the walls, was thoughtful.

“They seem intelligent. Already, I pulse tet’ee’ot as well. We need their help. When we pulse shoo’kel, that’s when they’ll be ready.”

Kloosee knew it was bad form to disagree with the Kelktoo master but he couldn’t help it.

“Maybe we shouldn’t expect so much of them. They’ve got a lot to learn. They’re Uman or at least related. But we shouldn’t think of them as anything more than that.”

Longsee always hated coming outside into the thudding of the great Sound. Even as they watched the Tailless gain some kind of mastery over their lifesuits, he could also sense the thin streams of rock rolling down the distant seamount peaks, loosened by the ever-present vibrations of the Uman weapon up north.

“We don’t have the luxury of being so particular. Time is short. Other kels are abandoning their homes and cities, hiding out in caves. There are those around the Metah who want that here. We’ve got to make the Umans understand…bring these creatures to the labs at once….as soon as it’s safe.” With that, Longsee darted off, snapping his tail flukes to get back under cover.

The water around the Notwater pod was growing murkier and siltier every day. One by one, the crowd that had gathered to stare at the Tailless began to drift away Kloosee told Chase and Angie to button up their lifesuits. … you have Notwater inside…do not worry…be of litor’ke…calm and serene…we open pod…Pakma and I will guide you…

“Wait…what? Hold up, will you---? But Chase could only stare in disbelief as water began rushing through the gaps in the pod fingers, quickly filling their small pocket of air, roaring, foaming and hissing until they floated with it right up to the top, where the fingertips began parting….

“Chase… Chase…I can’t—“ Angie panicked but moments later, her voice was drowned out.

Incredibly, the lifesuits seemed to know what to do. Even as the water thundered into the pod and enveloped them, the suits sealed themselves shut. Chase found he could breathe the burned air just fine…take a small breath, then another, there, see? You’ve got air.

“Angie…Angie, just breathe normally—“ He didn’t even know if she could hear him. But a quick look through the narrow slit in his helmet showed she was fine, her eyes wide and her arms thrashing about, but otherwise fine. Finally, she got herself under control and let the suit take her where it wanted.

Both of them found themselves propelled forward, with gentle undulations of their flukes and some judicious waterjet props providing the kick.

Two figures swam into view. It was Kloosee and Pakma. Kloosee made gestures and Chase understood he was to use his chin controls. In time, he found the echopod switch.

…we go to Kelktoo…to lab…meet project master…I will guide…

Kloosee reached for something on Chase’s right arm and depressed switches Chase hadn’t even seen. A staccato series of clicks and screeches sounded inside the helmet. Then his tail flukes started up again, dolphin-kicking like he’d never been able to do in swim meets. They moved off together, Angie and Pakma alongside, out of the pod, whose fingers had now peeled back like flower petals, and off into the murky waters.

Chase couldn’t see much through the helmet eye slits but he heard a steady pinging, along with a symphony of clicks, squeaks, grunts and chirps. Fully sound-controlled, he realized.

Cool. And something liked sonar. The lifesuit was like a little ship, like a midget submarine.

With legs.

Though he couldn’t see much, he felt the presence of life all around him. Cubes and spheres, pods and strange glowing filaments flashed by. He wondered if Angie could hear him and tried just speaking in a normal tone of voice.

“Angie…Angie, can you hear me? This is so cool… look at this place. They’re all around us…look at those light filaments…what are they?”

“I can hear you—“ Angie was in the other lifesuit, jetting along just behind him. “Wow…

this is like a submarine…it does what it wants. I can see some things. Look at all the fish—“

Indeed they were enveloped in vast throngs of Omtorish residents, roaming in knots and groups across the mesa that served as the center of the city, a flat tableland between towering seamounts, dense with canopied pavilions, strange coral shapes, lighted tubes and a dizzying variety of platforms, spheres, globes, pyramids, every kind of shape imaginable, some secured by lines to the seabed, some attached to the sides of the seamount, so many that the mountains seemed to heave and throb with life, as if they were alive themselves.

Ahead of them, other creatures swam, including Kloosee and Pakma. Chase had trouble distinguishing one from another. And even as they headed for some place called Kelktoo, Chase had seen how other swimmers joined their little group for a few moments, then peeled off to disappear, only to be replaced by still more swimmers.

A gregarious place, Chase decided. Everybody’s out for a stroll, just like Shelley Beach and Turtle Key on a Saturday afternoon back home.

“Angie, how’s your suit? Can you breathe okay?”

Her voice sounded like it was coming out of a barrel. “The air smells and tastes funny, but I seem to be breathing okay. Chase, I have no idea how to control this thing, what anything does. I don’t even see any controls….”

“It’s all controlled with sounds, Kloosee told us. We’ll have to learn how to make the same sounds they do.”

“Swell. Like learning a new language. I’m still hungry, by the way. And I have to pee—“

They followed Kloosee and Pakma across the breadth of Omsh’pont until they came to the base of one of the huge seamounts. Uncommanded, Chase’s suit began a shallow dive. He peered out the narrow eye slits. They were heading for what looked like a coral reef, but lit up with bioluminescent light, strings of light.

Approaching the reef, Chase could see it was a structure of some kind, open to the sea, filled with throngs of swimming, cavorting, Seomish residents. Maybe they work here, he surmised.

There were dozens of platforms at every level, each one an organic-looking thing lined with rough, scaly walls, but every shape you could imagine: pillows, hats, sponges, beds, brains, a kaleidoscope of structures all hanging off the side of the seamount.

The echopod in his suit clicked. It was Kloosee. … Kelktoo here…we go lab…meet kelmaster and engineers….

They entered the Kelktoo along one side, swam through a maze of corridors and tubes and floatways until they came at last to an inner vault-like chamber, a chamber lined with undulating tubes on the floor and walls, and a small group attending some kind of equipment on mushroom-shaped tables in the center. One entire wall appeared to be an enclosure almost like the Gulfside Aquarium galleries. Indeed, when Chase looked closer, inside the gallery were two animals that looked suspiciously like bottlenose dolphins.

Maybe from an earlier trip, Chase thought.

The Kelktoo was the largest and most influential of all the em’kels…the traditional house of learning with its academies and labs and observatories and institutes and societies and foundations and studios. The project leader was none other than Longsee lok kel: Om’t, a name that evoked respect in every sea around the world.

Longsee came over to greet them. He was smaller than Kloosee and Pakma, wrinkled in the face, with some mottling and stippling around his beak and fins.

This guy’s a lot older. A supervisor, perhaps, Chase said to himself.

Longsee circled Chase and Angie with great curiosity, pulsing what he could, examining them from head to toe. He had directed that modified lifesuits be made available for the humans.

Now, he scrutinized the work of the lab techs.

“Most curious, these creatures. From what I can pulse and see, they could well be ancestors to the Umans here.”

Kloosee always found it expedient to agree with the kelmaster. “That’s was our thinking, too. Pure land-dwellers, pure creatures of the Notwater.”

“Mmm…” Longsee said. “That would be of interest to you, wouldn’t it, Kloosee. Thinking of making off with these specimens to your own em’kel, I imagine. Well, not just yet. There’s a lot of study to be done here first. They can speak, I presume. Equipped with echopods?”

Chase had been listening to the guttural words of the kelmaster, coming through his own suit echopod.

“Yes, sir…we understand you, sort of.” The kelmaster’s voice sounded like a distant rustling wind. “We can speak. I’m Chase. This is Angie.”

Longsee stopped abruptly. “Strong vocals from this one. And I pulse anxiety, nerves, some confusion—“ he confronted Kloosee. “You have instructed them in shoo’kel? I won’t have such turmoil messing up my lab. That would be a disgrace. To Chase: “You understand why you were brought here?”

Chase struggled to answer. “We came with them---Kloosee and Pakma. We wanted to see your world. Kloosee said you needed help—“

Longsee considered that. “This is the truth. You’ve heard the great Sound…felt the vibrations?”

Chase indicated they had. “We saw the wavemaker when we got here. It’s making a hell of a racket—“

Longsee started circling again, restless. “We understand you don’t know our words…

perhaps the translation…but if I pulse correctly, you feel what we feel. The agitation, the trauma, the pain we cannot endure…already, many have left. Omsh’pont is dying. Many kels are dying.” Longsee stopped directly in front of Chase, peered into the eye slits of the lifesuit, as if trying to find something there. “We brought you here because you are Uman, perhaps ancestors to the Umans at Kinlok.” Longsee didn’t know whether to address the thing’s head, or pulse its gut. How do you talk with these Umans, these Tailless beasts?

He tried to explain the project to them.

“We want the Umans to shut down their wavemaker. The Sound is destroying our way of life, destroying everything. Our cities, our kels, our ancient caves, our economy, everything. No doubt you’ve seen this—“

Chase said they had. “I felt it myself. How do you stand it?”

Longsee said, “We’ve endured, for some mah now. But no more. We need relief. You were brought here because you are Uman, you can talk as Uman, with the Umans. The Sound devastates us. We try to talk with the Umans but they won’t listen. They think of us as pets, as curiosities. They make sport of trying to catch our people, take them up into Notwater….this must stop. We have designs for a soundshield, even designs for the wavemaker that reduces the sound, but the Umans pay no attention. They tell us: “We’re fighting a war here…we don’t have time for experiments…this weapon has to work or your world is lost….”

Chase wasn’t sure what to say. Kloosee had alluded to needing some help. Now it was staring them in the face. “I’m not sure what we can do…or what you want us to do. These Umans…who are they, exactly? What are they?”

“We have a theory,” Longsee said. “The Farpool is a passageway from our world to your world. But it’s also a passageway in time. Our time is not the same as your time. Our theory is that you and your people are ancestors of the Umans at Kinlok. We don’t know how great the time difference is, but that’s why you were brought here…to negotiate with your own people.

We want you to go to Kinlok…you came through the Farpool near there…and plead with the Umans…shutdown the wavemaker. Can you help us?”

Chase looked at Angie. In her lifesuit, she looked like some kind of amphibious monster.

“Sure…we’d love to help. I don’t know what we can do, but if there’s anything—“

Kloosee spoke now. “First you must undergo some modifications.”

Chase was wary, not sure he understood what had come through the echopod. “What kind of modifications?”

Kloosee explained. “To be able to survive and communicate better in our world.”

Longsee added, “It’s a surgical procedure…we call it the em’took. You will be able to breathe and eat and live as we do. Your lungs will be modified, your arms will grow fins as we have—“

Angie’s eyes grew wide. “Uh…I’m not so sure about this…Chase?”

Chase let her grasp his hand with hers. She tried to intertwine their fingers, but it was awkward. “This procedure…how long does it take? What’s involved?”

Kloosee darted forward and did something to some nearly invisible buttons on Chase’s forearm. Inside his helmet, the echopod erupted in a stream of words, some incomprehensible, but some he could understand. Chase realized Kloosee had put his echopod into something like encyclopedia mode….it spat out a description of the Em’took….

“The Em’took begins by placing the subject in a sort of cocoon, a variant of the lifesuits.

“The procedure lasts about 2 days and is largely automated.

The subject is not conscious during the procedure.

“Seomish science has perfected this technique to enable Umans to visit Seomish in their natural habitat, but very few have done this.

“Most Seomish who must visit Not-Water prefer to remain unmodified and use their lifesuits to survive out of the water.

“The modification procedure entails some risk. It is considered more or less permanent. Reversing the procedure entails heightened risk.

“Seomish science uses a combination of surgical (bacterial) and pharmaceutical steps to do the modification.

“The name of the modification cocoon or lifepod is em’took, a variant of the Seomish word for a berth or living space, also connoting a place of new birth. Also the name of the entire procedure.

“The procedure uses bacterial or microbial technology to accomplish most modifications.

“The em’took procedure has multiple (7) stages:

a. Internal organs (intestines, pyloric caeca, stomach, kidneys, spleen, liver, heart, swim bladder) Known as the Intook.

b. Skeletal and vertebrae modifications. Known as the Vertook.

c. Reproductive organs. Known as Potook.

d. Immune system. Known as Sitook.

e. External organs (gills, skin, scales, fins) Skor’took.

f. Sensory organs and tissues (eyes, olfactory, lateral line, etc) Boltook.

g. Head, brain, neural systems (central nervous system, cerebellum) Metook.

“Seomish medical technology is largely based on use of genetically modified and programmed bacteria and microbial organisms.

“The em’took begins with a genetic sequencing and a neural scan. After the sequencing and scans, the bacteria and microbes are selected and ‘tuned’ to match the recipient. The sequencing and scanning process is known as vish’tu.”

Both Chase and Angie heard the description over their echopods. Chase looked at Angie.

Her face seemed pale white.

“This…uh, procedure…the voice said it was not reversible. That means, like, permanent?”

Longsee indicated that was so. “We recommend the em’took. You will live as we live.

You will be one of us. This is, of course, your choice. If you choose the em’took, you won’t be able to live in the Notwater unassisted anymore. You must use these lifesuits to survive. The procedure may or may not be reversible…it’s never been tried. If you wish to return to your own world—“

“We do,” Angie blurted out. “This is all fascinating. But we’re human beings…what is it you call us—“

“Tailless People of the Notwater,” Pakma suggested She could pulse Angie getting quite agitated and had to turn away. To churn and burn like that was bad form, it was an insult. They had so much to learn—

“I don’t know,” Chase said. He looked from Longsee to Kloosee to Pakma and back. It was getting a little easier to tell them apart, especially Longsee. He was visibly older. “This is a big step…it’s a lot to ask. We want to help. Couldn’t we just stay as we are? Talk with these Umans as we are? It’d be hard to talk with them if we’re modified.”

Longsee said, “The em’took could be done after you meet with the Umans. However, you would have to live in the lifesuits for this time. The em’took, if it’s successful, will make life better for you.”

Chase tightened his squeeze on Angie’s hand. “I think we need to talk about this…between us. It’s an awfully big step.”

Longsee pointed to a small pod-shaped enclosure on the other side of the pavilion. “You can stay there. Inside that em’kel, you won’t need the suits.”

“Like the Notwater pod we were in before…jeez, there’s so much to learn. Just give us a little time,” Chase begged. “We’re both tired and a little hungry.”

“And overwhelmed,” Angie added.

“Of course,” Longsee said. “Eat and rest. Then roam with Kloosee and Pakma…it’s our custom and our joy. The water is silted…and there is the Sound. Perhaps beyond the Tor’shpont, the sound will be less. But Omtorish water is famous for being vish’m’tel…a fast current, a smooth flow.”

With that, Kloosee and Pakma led Chase and Angie into the Notwater pod that would be their home. Like the larger pod they had inhabited earlier, it resembled the open palm of a hand, with fingers folding in to seal the enclosure and the same face-shaped air sacs spotted around the perimeter to give them breathable air.

Once inside, pressurized with air, Chase managed to wriggle himself out of the lifesuit. He helped Angie with hers. It was like backing out of a small closet in the dark.

They sat together on the warm, slightly vibrating floor pads and held hands in silence for a long time.

Finally, Angie looked over at Chase. “We’ve got a lot to talk about, don’t we?”

Chase nodded, deep in thought. “It’s a big decision, for sure,” he agreed. He spied a rack of tong’pods along one wall. “I say we eat first and talk later.”

Chapter 8

Seome

Omsh’pont, kel: Omt’or

Time: 765.6, Epoch of Tekpotu

Angie wasn’t sure exactly when they had really made their decision. She only knew that somehow a decision was made and it didn’t make any sense but there it was.

Chase never missed a meal and he attacked the tong’pod with great energy, cracking legs, sucking out the meat, slurping and sucking on his fingers.

“Only thing we’re missing is butter,” he said with meat dribbling down his chin. “Try some, you’ll like it.”

But Angie just wasn’t that hungry. She watched the shapes and shadows drifting by the translucent walls of the pod, walls that looked like fingers jammed together.

“Look at them, staring at us. It’s like we’re the ones in an aquarium now. I guess that makes us even.”

Chase sucked on another pod…Kloosee had called it gisu. It tasted like orange, sweet, a bit tart. Refreshing. He finished off five of them. “At least, we have plenty to eat.”

“Is that all you can think about? Chase, I want to go home. I don’t like this place. It gives me the creeps. I miss Mom. I miss Dr. Wright’s clinic and all the patients. I miss working out with my girlfriends at the track, running laps, laughing and cutting up. We need to get out of here. Go back through that Farpool or whatever it is.”

“We just got here. We’ve hardly seen anything. Where’s your sense of adventure?”

Angie just stared at her boyfriend. She really did love him but honestly, sometimes—

“Chase, remember when we talked about what we wanted to do with our lives? It’s called the future.”

“Sort of—“

“I wanted to be a doctor. You know… help people.”

“Angie, look around…these people need help. They just asked for our help. You can start helping right here.”

Angie spluttered. She went to the walls, glared at the passersby and stuck out her tongue.

Several paused in their ceaseless roaming and stared back through the veil.

“People…give me a break. Look at them. They’re not people. They’re fish. I don’t know about you, but no way am I going through that procedure Kloosee mentioned…that em’took.”

Chase licked off his fingers and got up. He went over to her and put his arms around her waist. “Angie…we’ve got to think this through.”

“Oh, yeah, like you’re the brains of the outfit. You’re the one who got us into this. Just get me home…that’s all I want.” She twisted out of his embrace and wrapped her arms around her shoulders. She began pacing around the Notwater pod, poking into the pliable walls, jabbing at eyes staring back at her from the other side. “This place gives me the creeps.”

“What do you think Kloosee and Pakma were thinking when they got shot by that cop on the beach? Just minding their own business—“

“And scaring the crap out of people on the beach….”

“They took one hell of a big risk showing up like that. They did it because they were desperate. You’ve been outside…you’ve heard that blasted noise. Look what it’s doing to their

world. I don’t know how they stand it…it’d drive me nuts. And the Umans, whatever they are, they don’t want to listen. Maybe we can do something good here. Just once, Angie…just once I want to do something more than take inventory every Sunday afternoon at the surf shop.

Something more than dust shelves, unload trucks, put T-shirts on hangers. There’s got to be more to life than that.”

Angie stopped her pacing and glared back at him, hands on hips. “You could go to college.

You could enroll in Net tutoring, make something of yourself, you know. We’ve talked about this like a million times.”

“That’s not what I am. I wanted to go with Kloosee and Pakma because…I don’t know,

‘cause it’s what I am. Kind of like an explorer. There’s two things I like, I mean besides you—“

“Hey, thanks for including me.”

“No, really…I like the ocean and I like techjam, playing my go-tone with the Croc Boys.

Maybe I’m just an artist. I’d like to find a way to combine them. But the surf shop—Dad wants me to go in with him as a partner—that’s not me. No way. Plus, maybe cave diving. That’s a rush…going into places nobody’s ever seen before. A little bit dangerous…”

“A lot dangerous…you almost didn’t make it out that one time—“

“Yeah, but it’s so cool.” Chase got up and went over to the translucent wall. “I don’t know, but I feel like I’m supposed to be here. I want to go through with that procedure.”

Angie was unconvinced. “Not me. I don’t want to be some kind of monster or freak. I don’t want to look like them—“ She gaped back at faces staring at the two of them. “I like my long legs and cute butt. I like my perky little curls.”

“I still think your face looks like a chocolate swirl cookie. Cookie—“

Flip,” Angie shot back. It was a nickname from years ago, because he had such big feet.

Chase was a natural swimmer.

“Well, suit yourself. I thought we were a team. Me…I’m doing it.”

“Chase, just get me home. That’s all I want now. I don’t think we can help these people.”

So they stood there along the walls of the Notwater pod, glaring and pouting at each other.

When Chase started to stick his lower lip out like a five-year old, Angie knew it was all over. In spite of herself, she burst out laughing. Then the laughs became tears. She let him cradle her and sobbed for a few minutes.

“I’ll tell Kloosee we’re ready,” Chase said quietly.

And that’s how life-changing decisions were made.

The em’took procedure would be conducted in the Kelktoo chambers. After Chase had let Kloosee know they were going through with em’took, a pair of bed-like cocoon pods were situated just outside the Notwater pod. Through the echopod, Kloosee explained what they were to do. Longsee and Pakma joined in.

“Open the em’took by pressing on the side…you’ll feel a series of bumps—when they’re both open, lie down inside, face up. Fold your arms over your chest. Then relax…we’ll do the rest.”

Chase said, “I thought we’re supposed to be unconscious…anesthetized, before you start.”

The echopod whistled. A different voice came through, older, harsher, gruffer. It was Longsee.

“After you lie down inside, contractile fibers will unfurl and extend. They will envelop your body. The fibers have sharp tips. You won’t feel it but the tips will inject a potion. You will sleep. And when you wake up, the em’took will be done. If all goes well—“

Angie shuddered, held tightly to Chase’s shoulders. “Ugh. If all goes well…I wish he hadn’t said that.”

“I think we understand,” Chase said. He looked at Angie. They kissed for a moment, then both took a deep breath together, like they often did going overboard before a dive. That made them laugh.

“Just like going under,” she said, laughing, to keep from shivering.

Then, the two em’took cocoons began squeezing their way between the wall segments, like they were being excreted into the pod. They did look like beds, big oblong beds, encased in some kind of scaly outer covering. Chase decided they looked like gigantic watermelon halves, even down to the black seeds scattered around the interior.

Angie made a face. And the two of them lay down carefully inside their pods.

For a long time, nothing happened. Chase dozed off, then awoke hearing a faint whistle. He sniffed something, it smelled like oranges. Then he noticed a faint mist issuing into the pod.

This is like being in a coffin, he thought. He’d been cave diving in tight spots like this, so he told himself he could get through it. But he wondered about Angie; how was she doing? The mist thickened. He didn’t know it but the mist contained the first wave of programmed bacteria.

The bacteria would begin the em’took process, penetrating into his nose, his mouth and eyes, burrowing into his skin, breaking down tissues and bone and cartilage, rebuilding structures to make him more compatible with Seome.

The em’took begins with a genetic sequencing and neural scan. After the sequencing and scan, the bacteria are altered and ‘tuned’ to match the recipient. The sequencing and scanning process is known as vish’tu, which in the Seomish language means a journey or a roam about the sea. The name of the modification process is also used in the Seomish language to mean birth or living space, connoting a place of new birth.”

Of course, Chase didn’t know any of this. His echopod described the process in detail, but the voice was soft and staticky and he wasn’t listening. Instead, he grew sleepy. Angie was already asleep inside her own pod.

That’s when the dreams came.

It was Stokey Shivers who'd gotten them both into this fix…Stokey and nobody else. He was always daring Chase, daring him to do stuff. " Betcha can't do this, huh? See if you can top this, wise guy."

Chase had gotten sick of it, but he couldn't very well back down, now could he? A boy's got to stand up for himself. Got a reputation to protect.

Around the beginning of the year 2114, Stokey and Chase were exploring caves out along a ridge off Coral Road. Underground, partially underwater limestone caverns. Chase had been warned against this by Mack, his father. They had scuba gear, but found they didn’t need it.

They dared each other to veer off the main cave branch into an unknown and unexplored branch, known locally as Crocodile Corner, or colloquially as ‘The Croc.” They promptly got lost.

So that's how come they wound up lost that cold winter afternoon in the cramped and clammy dead end branch of a tunnel they'd found in the back of the Croc. Chase liked caving--

only wise guys called it spelunking, for God's sake. He liked it a lot. You could go places nobody had ever seen before. You could be by yourself, except that was a bad idea. You always went caving with a buddy, so if one of you got hurt, the other could help out or go get help.

It was after school, and Stokey had dared him to go into their favorite cave at the back of Crocodile Corner, down there where the streambed petered out, go into that last unexplored branch that they'd named Yawning Mouth a few years ago, because that's what it looked like.

Chase didn't really want to but then Stokey was good at pestering and whining and making a scene. So they went.

Inside Yawning Mouth, they took the dark branch and traveled down, down, down, deeper into the earth, through dripping stalactites and slippery limestone, playing their flashlights back and forth, making funny faces at each other in the dim yellow light, or shadow puppets on the veined walls.

They'd been going down for a good hour, when Chase figured Yawning Mouth was a bit deeper than either one had bargained for. So they stopped. They tried to get their bearings.

They tried to backtrack and see the path they had followed.

But they couldn't see anything. Then the flashlight died.

That's when they knew they were lost.

Stokey Shivers, because he was Stokey Shivers, started whining.

"Now what, wise guy? Now what are we going to do?"

"Shut up," Chase said. "I'm trying to think."

There was about five minutes of silence, broken only by the drip-drip-drip of water from somewhere above them. The air was cold, kind of raw and damp, and the stone ledge where they had stopped was slippery. It dropped further down ahead of them, but without the light, neither boy wanted to move an inch forward.

"Chase--?"

"What?"

"I think there's a cliff ahead of us. This ledge seems to slope down pretty fast."

"Yeah…I know."

"Are you still thinking?"

"Trying to." Stokey had the slightest stutter to his voice. He was growing up; sometimes, he squeaked and sounded like a bird.

"What are we going to do?"

"I don't know yet." Chase probed the nearest wall with his hands, running his fingers along its damp glassy surface. He swung further and managed to knock Stokey in the side of the face.

"Sorry…I was just trying to get a feel for what's around us."

"We're stuck here, aren't we?"

"Maybe. You're the turdwipe that caused all this. If you hadn't dared me, we wouldn't be here."

"I'm afraid…didn't you bring your squawker?"

"Me? I thought you did." Squawkers took a hack off the locator sats in orbit. You carried them in your pocket and they chirped out where you were, right down to a few feet.

"Jesus…what are we going to do?"

Chase was increasingly aware of the quaver in Stokey's voice. It wasn't puberty or anything like that now. It was fear, probably panic. But cavers never panicked. You got hurt when you panicked.

Cavers thought things through.

"I got an idea-" Chase said. "It might not work--"

"What is it?"

He'd been tinkering with Bailey the last few weeks. Dad didn't know about it; Mr. Meyer would have been furious if he had. You didn't go tinkering with stuff without Dad's permission.

Mack Meyer was the best damned inventor Scotland Beach, Florida had ever seen. The shed out back was full of inventions…you could hardly get in the door without stepping on one.

Bailey was Chase's favorite. A microflyer--they'd called it drone a long time ago. Powered by the sun. No bigger than a hummingbird, with a quantum brain, all kinds of attachments--

wings that could flap so fast they were a blur, a real-life jet, some small props--man, Bailey was a hot rod, no doubt about it.

Late at night, when Dad had gone to bed and the house was real quiet, Chase Meyer would fling open his second-floor window and summon Bailey from the top of the shed. He had a nest or a docking station up there. He'd taught Bailey to respond to some whistles, some basic voice commands. Lately, he'd found an olfactory program on the WorldNet, picked up some gizmos around the shed, paid or filched the rest from the store, and cobbled up a basic sniffer nose for the dude. He trained it to search out and home on certain smells, especially his own. Wasn't that a hoot? Bailey trained to sniff him out like a bloodhound, ferret out his own bad breath and body odor.

He figured, after some tests, the dude could sniff him out from as far away as several miles.

Not bad for a kid inventor. Dad would have been proud. Dad would also have whipped him to Tampa and back for messing around with Bailey too. But Bailey had become his best friend, especially while Dad recovered from the gunshot wounds. Late at night, hours after he called Bailey into his room for a chat, he'd drift off to sleep, then awaken just enough to catch the micro-drone hovering gently in the corner with his big red eye winking on and off softly, or maybe just perched on the old Navy trunk at the end of the bed, quietly whirring in sleep mode.

Chase told Stokey about Bailey and his new sniffer. "I don't know if it'll work this far underground. I really don't know what his maximum range is. But we have to try it."

"Sure, man, sure, try it. Let's try anything."

So he shouted out the magic words--he'd programmed Bailey the Dude to switch the sniffer on and off by voice command, and then winced as the echo cascaded all around them like an amplified drunk, finally dying off into distant whispers of his words.

"BAILEY…BIG NOSE… big nose…big nose…b-I-g…n-o-s-e…b…i…g…n…o…s…e…"

After that, they waited. And as they waited, Chase learned just how big a crybaby Stokey Shivers really was. If they ever got out of there, he was for sure going to put some distance between himself and Stokey Shivers. By the time an hour had passed, Stokey's sniffing and sniveling was about to drive Chase mad.

They lost track of time. Maybe two hours had passed, maybe five or six. Both boys had drifted in and out of a semi-conscious daze. It was Chase who heard it first…

In between creaks and groans of the cave walls, and the steady drip of water, a faint buzzing could gradually be made out. More like a whirring, like a blender. Chase suddenly came to, and sat up, straining to make out the sound. Slowly, infinitesimally, it grew more audible, though at first the whirring faded in and out.

Then, the buzz grew quite distinct and he was sure. It was the Dude. Bailey the Flying Dude had been systematically searching up and down tunnels and branches, homing on the distinctive aroma of Chase’s bad breath and body odor. Before he could scramble to his feet and call out, a dim but familiar red light came winking out of the gloom, materializing in mid-air like a ghostly apparition.

Bailey hovered ten feet above them, winking like a firefly, his props and motor whirring with satisfaction. If he'd been a dog, his tail would have been wagging.

" Bailey…you old dude," Chase laughed out loud. He wanted to hug the bot.

From that point on, it was a simple matter of following the winking red light, up and up and up and finally out of Crocodile Corner’s Lost Tunnel. An hour later, when Stokey and Chase had emerged into the cold sweet-smelling night air, they silently hugged each other.

Chase Meyer sure was glad he'd disobeyed his Dad and inserted that olfactory program after all.

For pretty much his whole life, Chase had always been told he had a vivid imagination. But nothing he and Stokey saw or imagined in the caves at Croc’s Corner ever remotely resembled what he saw when he woke up from the em’took.

This time, he knew he wasn’t dreaming.

As a child, Angie had always been a serious person, committed and dedicated to whatever task she was working on. She was extremely imaginative even as a very young child and often spent hours amusing herself with the VR slate (the oculus) and the holopod and 3d printer, creating and populating imaginary worlds. She showed abilities as a filmmaker and writer/storyteller that impressed her Mom a great deal.

One of her favorite imaginary worlds was one she called Principia, full of kings and queens, fairy princesses and dragons and lots of horses. Angie always loved horses. Some of her own work with the oculus involved creating and animating all kinds of horses. She had two imaginary horses, Lucy and Lucky, that she used a lot as imaginary creatures in her stories.

When Angie was four, her father Horace abandoned the family, for another woman. The family was living in Gainesville, Florida at the time, and Horace was a professor at the University of Florida. He taught American History and Political Science. The younger woman was named Cecilia Fortnoy and she worked as an assistant staff aide to the Florida Governor in Tallahassee. Horace became interested in her because he seemed to gravitate to woman who were “important” or doing important things in his eye. Being around powerful people or celebrities always fascinated Horace. Maggie, working in Gainesville as a waitress at a fast-food restaurant (Venetian Feast) couldn’t fill this need. They divorced in summer 2106 and Maggie had to take a second, later a third job, to make ends meet.

Angie was devastated. She felt totally abandoned.

Working so many jobs to put food on the table, Maggie Gilliam (she kept her married name) was always tired and irritable. Angie saw what this did to people. One of the effects of Maggie having to work so hard and being tired and cranky all the time, was that Mom no longer had time to play games or do puzzles with her kids. This made Angie feel lonesome and she retreated into her imaginary worlds even more. At the age of six, starting school and Net Tutor, she was already writing and illustrating her own Principia stories.

But nothing she had ever imagined for Principia ever came close to what she saw when she woke up from the em’took.

This time, Angie knew she wasn’t dreaming.

About a year before he and Angie went through the Farpool, Chase read an article in Wikipedia about the old sci-fi movie The Creature from the Black Lagoon.

The Creature’s appearance was based on old seventeenth century woodcuts of two bizarre creatures called the Sea Monk and the Sea Bishop. The Creature’s final head was based on that of the Sea Monk, but the original discarded head was based on that of the Sea Bishop.

“In the film, the eyes of the Creature were a fixed part of the rubber construction of the suit.

The actors who played the part of the “Gill Man” could barely see, if at all. In the second film, the eyes were replaced with large, bulbous-fish-eyes, to assist in the actor’s vision.”

Chase opened the top of the em’took pod and sat up. What he saw reminded him of that old movie…he was sure he was still dreaming. He started to lie back down but a voice spoke to him, a familiar voice.

“Hey, it’s me… .eeeggoddd…what the hell…? Yuck….!”

It was Angie. No it wasn’t. It was the Creature. No, that wasn’t it either. It was something his brain had conjured up from the slime-pit of old nightmares….

“Angie--?”

They both clambered up and sat on the edge of their pods.

“You look…disgusting…like…is that really you? I mean, God…Chase…you look like a frog on steroids….something from Nat Geo…maybe the Galapagos….”

Chase started feeling around, his face, arms, legs. There weren’t any mirrors. But if he looked anything like Angie—

She had a blade-shaped head, rising out of a scaly, armored chest and shoulders, her neck draped with folds and flaps of loose skin. The flaps fluttered when she breathed… gills, he figured out at last. She’s got gills, for God’s sake.

Her arms had several rows of fins ending in fingers, like a normal hand, but more fingers than she should have had. He blinked, not sure he was seeing right, then wiped his own eyes and jumped half a foot, realizing he had the same thing.

Jesus, Mary and Joseph…what’s happened to me?

He stepped off the edge of the pod and looked closer at Angie. She flinched as he approached.

Angie had two legs, like normal, but her legs had flukes at the bottom, multiple rows of them, and even her midsection had fins. As he gazed at her from the side, he saw a large dorsal fin along her spine, and a distinct fold in the skin on either side, the fold extending from her neck to her feet. Lateral line, he surmised. All fish had them… it helps them locate movement and vibration… he knew that from fishing off Half Moon Cove with his Dad .

“Don’t come any closer…you make me sick.”

“I guess I look the same…Angie, look at us! We’re amphibians! I’m breathing air…you’ve got gills, fins, you’re a fish.”

“You’re a freak…Chase, I don’t like this…can we—“

But she stopped when the roar of rushing water came bursting through the walls. The fingers of the pod walls had parted and a wave slammed into them. In seconds, the entire pod was drowned and both of them scrambled to hold on to something.

Don’t hold your breath, Chase signaled her, for he had just then figured this was something the Seomish had planned. If they were truly amphibious, this was one way to find out.

Cautiously, Chase let out a breath and inhaled.

For a few seconds, as fluid entered his lungs, he panicked, flailing and cartwheeling in the water. But…then…no, it was okay…it was all right…he could…just relax…take a breath…

breathe in…breathe out…that’s it…it’s okay…breathe in…breathe out….

Through the silty water, he could make out Angie’s body, shaking, panicking as well. He kicked and swam to her, holding her by the arms, hand-gesturing to her.

Breathe in…slow breaths…breathe in and out…slowly…that’s it

By stroking her neck, he managed to calm her down and saw with satisfaction she was getting it, she was sucking in water, she was breathing, and her face lost that wild glaring look.

It was hard to tell when your face resembled something from a child’s nightmare. But she looked better. She wasn’t thrashing around so much.

Finally, she sort of half-smiled, half-nodded.

I’m okay now…I think…she mouthed at him.

Shapes materialized out of the murk. Right away, Chase realized it was Kloosee. Pakma and others followed. A circle soon formed around them.

Chase felt vibrations in his head, then the voices came out of the static of his echopod, lots of voices, overwhelming sounds, a symphony, a cacophony of sounds, honking, bellowing snorting and clicking, from all directions.

“Ahhhh…what a racket!”

Kloosee swam over and looked directly at Chase. “( Skreeah)…you hear me? You understand me?”

Chase nodded, or tried to nod. “Yeah, I hear you…barely. But there’s so much noise—such a din…it’s like I hear everything—“

Kloosee said, “You do hear everything. We Seomish live in a world of sound. And your companion--?”

Pakma was helping Angie get used to her own transformation. She drifted about aimlessly for awhile, shaking her blade-shaped head from side to side, trying to find something she could focus on.

“It’s like a party…everybody’s talking at once…what’s that pounding in the background…

it’s giving me a headache?”

Pakma told her, “It’s the Sound. The wavemaker. We live with this commotion all the time.

We can’t take much more.”

Angie understand the Sound now in a visceral way. “I see what you mean.”

Kloosee inspected Chase’s gill slits. They seemed to be working okay. “You can breathe okay? No problems?”

Chase said,” Yeah, it’s really weird…but I can. This is like no scuba gear I ever dived with.

Angie--?”

“Me too…I have to breathe slowly…but it’s working…somehow….don’t ask me to explain it. Can we still breathe air?”

Pakma said, “You can. You are adapted by the em’took for water and Notwater.”

Chase couldn’t get over the hubbub all around him. It was clear the Seomish lived in a complex sound environment. The water was always dark and murky, but they could hear everything.

“Try pulsing me,” Kloosee suggested. “You can do that now. A ping of sound…right here

—“ he clutched his midsection, between his fins.

“How do I do that?”

“Like a cough…from the back of your throat…expel water. You can shape it with your mouth and nose---like this—“ Kloosee made an exaggerated snort. Chase didn’t feel anything.

But Kloosee sort of half smiled, kind of like a grimace. “I pulse confusion…many bubbles…

much confusion, nervous…anxious…your bubbles are totally chaotic, Chase.”

Chase tried the trick, snorting at Kloosee. The echo came back an even return, calm, maybe undertones of humor, even some laughter…he couldn’t quite—

“Wow…this is going to take some getting used to…it’s like I can hear what your stomach’s doing. I just don’t know what it all means…you ate something heavy last night?”

Kloosee laughed, laughed in the Seomish way, a snort and half giggle. “Om’pod shells…

too many of them. They were delicious.”

“Chase,” Angie was trying the pulsing out for herself. “Chase, this is wicked…it’s like I can see right through things…right inside. Pakma…she’s like a fountain…she’s burbling and gurgling like a baby inside.” Angie smiled at Pakma…”—it’s a happy sound…or echo or whatever—“

“Try maneuvering now,” Kloosee suggested. “Kick off and use your flukes. A few laps around the pod—“

Chase did that. He found it a breeze. “Wow, man…better than flippers in the pool. I could burn up the laps with this. Why didn’t I have these when I was on the swim team?” Indeed, Chase found it took only a few kicks, a few rolls and strokes, to streak from one side of the pod to the other. He could barrel roll, stop short, streak off in any direction…no effort at all.

Angie did the same thing. The two of them did a few laps together for their audience.

“Like Fred Astaire,” Angie decided. “With flippers.”

Chase pulled up next to Kloosee. He pointed to his head. “Is there any way I can filter some of this noise out. It’s driving me nuts…everybody’s talking at once. There must be thousands of voices in my head.”

“Ten million, give or take,” Kloosee told him. “And that’s just Omsh’pont. All of the kel…

perhaps twenty million souls. Beyond the Torsh’pont, the seamounts, if you drift with oot’stek, that is the repeater layer, you can hear all of them. During the em’took, a modified echopod was placed in your skull. I can show you how to tune it. First, you must learn how to activate the echopod. It’s on right now.”

“So how do I turn it off?”

“Say this: kkkllliiikkk….”

Chase tried it. Angie was listening too and also tried. Nothing changed.

“I still hear a racket.”

“Try again… kkkllliiikkk….”

Once again, Chase clicked out the sound. “Kkkllliiiccckkk…Kkkllliiigggkkk… damn it!

It’s not working.”

Kloosee laughed. “Our language is so different from yours. And now, with em’took, your vocal cords are changed. Listen to me carefully…. kkkllliiikkk.”

Chase tried again. Then Angie blurted out, “I think I did it. I don’t hear much…like a cloak over everything.”

“Say it again…kkkllliiikkk.”

Angie repeated the phrase. “Now all that racket’s back. What did I just do, Kloosee?”

“You turned your echopod off and back on again.”

Chase was getting frustrated. “If she can do it, I can do it. Kkkllliiikkk….” Then, as if a switch had been thrown, the noise all around died off. “Hey, I did it! Everything’s muted. I did it!”

“I envy you,” Pakma said. “Being able to shut off the Sound. We can’t do that. We hear it all the time, even when we sleep.”

Kloosee offered more explanation. “Your echopod, which we call ot’lum, has other features. It translates. And it speaks knowledge. All you have to do is ask…ask in the right way.”

“Cool…like a Net connection. Show me.”

“Turn on the pod,” Kloosee told him.

Chase tried the activation phrase. “Kkkllliiikkk…” The cacophony came again, undergirded by the pounding drone of the distant wavemaker. “Okay, it’s on…now what?”

“Ask a question.”

Chase thought for a moment. “Okay… em’kel…what is an em’kel?”

The answer came immediately, in a high whiny nasal sort of voice. “Shkreeahquery:

‘em’kel’…the em’kel is the basic social subdivision of the Seomish kel. It is a difficult concept to define because it is so broad and flexible. Simply stated, an em’kel is any subgrouping that considers itself distinct from the kel at large…ask also of family, waterclan, tribe…shkreeah….”

Chase could scarcely believe it. “That’s really cool…like my own personal wikipedia.”

Kloosee had an idea. “Since you asked of the em’kel, I should take you to Putektu.”

“What’s that?”

“My em’kel…it’s on the other side of the city. In this way, I will introduce you and your companion Angie to a great Seomish custom…the vish’tu…the roam.”

“I’m up for it,” Chase said. He checked out Angie. “You okay?”

Angie was still experimenting with her own echopod. “Yeah, I think…now, if I could just shut this damned thing off again…that drone’s driving me nuts.”

“Come,” Pakma said, “let’s roam…together.”

The four of them lifted off the pod floor, now open to the sea, and kicked off. Chase and Angie found they could easily keep up with Kloosee and Pakma.

Stroking easily, they headed away from the Kelktoo chambers, away from the side of the towering seamount and out over the vast city of Omsh’pont.

Though the seas of Seome were generally murky and dark, Chase could still see beads and strings of lights defining a vast metropolis like lighted veins and arteries. Bioluminescence, he reminded himself. Floatways, braces, struts, all kinds of structures were dimly lit in the murk.

Chase realized for the first time that the Seomish didn’t need sight and vision so much in their world. Theirs was a world of sound and scent. What they couldn’t see they could hear or smell.

This was going to take some getting used to.

“Kloosee,” he asked, “how deep are we here, in the city?”

“If you mean from the Notwater interface, we are over two hundred beats below.”

“What’s a beat?”

Kloosee told him, “Look it up.”

They swam on across the city, Chase and Angie following in the wake of Kloosee and Pakma.

Angie found she could see very little. Beads of lights, shapes materializing out of the gloom, bodies in motion, a dizzying profusion of forms and ghostly shadows flitting in and out of view.

“Pakma…Kloosee…we can’t see much back here.”

Pakma said, “Your eyes are adapted as ours are. Use your sounder.”

“My what—what’s a sounder?”

Pakma explained. “All Seomish have a soundbulb…we project sounds, perceive the echoes.

That’s how we locate things, how we navigate. The em’took gives you an artificial soundbulb.”

“How do I use it?”

“You must make this sound… kkklllooossshhkkk….kkklllooossshhkkk.”

Angie said, “You’ve got to be kidding.” She made several tries, alternating between something that sounded like a snort and a laugh. Finally, with Pakma’s help, she got it.

She was overwhelmed by what came back….an orchestra of sounds, every imaginable note and tune and bleep and click and whistle and chirp and squeak. Her head spun with it all and she couldn’t make any sense of it all.

“Wow…” was all she could say. “That’s like sonar…Chase, we could use this when we go wreck diving.”

Chase agreed. “I’m trying it too…it’s going to take along time to figure this out.”

Pakma laughed. “For us…millions of mah.”

Kloosee led them across the city, between floating pavilions and forests of spheres and cubes and pyramids and things that seemed like overgrown mushrooms and gigantic coral reefs.

Presently, he announced they were approaching their destination.

“This is Meta’shpont…Putektu has chambers above the echo layer…just follow me….”

Chase and Angie realized they had crossed most of the city and were now near the base of another towering seamount. Their sounders produced a strong monotone echo…whatever Meta’shpont was, it was big. Gigantic.

They ascended up the slopes of the mountain until Kloosee found a narrow crevice. He squeezed in, and the others followed. Though it was dimly lit inside, Chase could see and sound enough to understand they had entered a confusing and labyrinthine warren of caves.

There were others inside, working, sleeping, eating and one couple copulating.

Hmmm, Chase thought. Different sense of privacy here. I’ll have to remember this for future study.

Angie said nothing.

Kloosee led them deeper, twisting, turning, rising and descending until they came to a larger chamber. There he introduced them to Koloh tom.

Kloosee explained that Koloh was a repeater. When Chase and Angie seemed puzzled, he let Koloh himself explain. The repeater was a smallish Seomish male, but with powerful forefins and flukes. It was evident from even a casual probe that Koloh was an exceptionally strong swimmer.

“I am oot’stek…a living repeater,” Koloh told them. “I roam on certain courses and headings, listening for messages and news that come from the kels, messages reflecting off the deep sound channel…we call it the oot’keeor. Most of the time, the signals reflect cleanly, and they can travel for hundreds of beats. But just to be sure, the oot’stek re-broadcast the message in their own voices…we sing the messages and pass them on.” Koloh snapped his flukes with pride. “It’s a lonely life…but it gives us time to think and imagine. And to dream.”

“A living phone system,” Angie marveled.

“Koloh has a magnificent repeater’s voice,” Pakma said. “His voice is among the best known and loved through all our seas.”

Chase probed around the chambers and found work platforms, something that resembled a swaying harness, tables that seemed like coral reefs, wall niches where other em’kel members seemed to be sleeping or studying or doing other things…truthfully, Chase had no idea what they were doing.

“How many of these em’kel are there, Kloos?” he asked.

“Ah, now you ask a difficult question,” Kloosee replied. “The number changes… em’kel are always forming and dying off, re-forming and changing.”

Pakma gave it some thought. “I can name some of the older ones…of course, there is Kelktoo.”

“The House of Knowledge,” Chase remembered. “Like an academy.”

“Very good,” Pakma said. “All Seomish learn and study for many mah in their Kelktoo.

There is Anuk’te…the young ones like that.”

“My favorite!” Kloosee announced. “Sex day and night…but you have to be compatible, thirty to eighty mah old.”

Pakma ignored him. “Mak’tovede…they enjoy gourmet cuisine, especially the tong’pod…I believe you’ve had that.”

Chase said, “I did. Strong, spicy taste.”

“Indeed. Mak’tovede has many ways to prepare tong’pod. Then, there’s Pelspo’tu…they enjoy driving and racing their kip’ts…you’ve ridden in the kip’t.”

“Don’t forget Eniklish’ke…the sporting em’kel, they play tonk’ro and arctoss all day and night.”

“And one of my favorites…Ve’kasto…all female…they just enjoy roaming together, chatting. There are hundreds of em’kel…the number is always changing.”

“My em’kel, Putek’tu is a special one…Pakma is not even a member…she can enter because she’s with me.”

“What’s so special about this one?”

Pakma answered, cutting off Kloosee in mid-sentence. “They have this strange idea that the seamothers know things we don’t…they want to live in the Notwater, play with the seamothers.”

Kloosee was annoyed. “That’s not quite it. Putektu believes the seamothers are related to us somehow…our goal is to develop the ability to survive for long periods in the Notwater, maybe someday to live there…and learn.”

“It’s a foolish dream,” Pakma decided. “Don’t waste your time here with these romantic fools.”

Chase could see this was a sensitive subject between them. Better not touch that nerve again. “Sounds like a bunch of clubs…you don’t have families…mother, father, brother, sister, like that?”

“We have mothers and fathers,” Kloosee said. “But at age three mah, every Seomish child moves to the Kelk’too. From this time on, the mother and father have no responsibility for their child…upbringing and learning is the within the Kelk’too. This lasts for about five mah. After Ke’tuvish’tek…the Circling…the young male or female is free to join or create any em’kel he wants to.”

“Circling…” Chase tried out the Seomish word. Ke’tuvish’tek. “I must ask my echopod what this is. You’ve both done this.”

“We have,” Kloosee and Pakma said in unison. Koloh agreed with them.

Then Kloosee interrupted. “Longsee is arranging an audience with the Metah herself. We will go before her this day and explain what your mission here is. She must approve.”

“The Metah…?”

“The eldest female of the kel,” Pakma told them. “Metashooklet. The One who lives in God. She is our leader.”

“Cool,” Chase said. “And our mission is to meet up with these…Umans, you call them…

and get them to stop making all this noise?”

“Longsee believes the Umans will listen to you…his theory is that your race are direct ancestors of the Umans.”

“But we don’t look human anymore,” Angie pointed out. “We look like you…or something other than human.”

Kloosee had thought of that very point and raised the issue with Longsee before the em’took procedure. Maybe we should introduce them to the Umans as they are. But Longsee was adamant. They would be given the opportunity to be modified so as to make their life on Seome more bearable.

The truth was no one was sure they would ever be able to get back to their homeworld through the Farpool.

Kloosee had not discussed this with Chase and Angie yet. Truth was, he wasn’t sure he knew how to even raise the subject.

Though neither Chase nor Angie could distinguish one sound from another, Pakma presently announced that Longsee had signaled them. The Metah was ready for an audience.

They left Putek’tu and headed away from the Meta’shpont, down and further down to the very base of the seamount, then out across the confusing maze of floatways and reefs of Omsh’pont to some kind of open plaza, a place vaguely pyramidal in the center of the city.

The Metah’s chambers were near the apex of the pyramid, a platform open on all sides, draped with beads of lighted filaments. It was dark inside, but a circle of glowing coral defined the center of the space.

The Metah drifted serenely over the circle of coral, flanked by armed prodsman.

Chase and Angie followed Kloosee and Pakma inside. Longsee lok was already present, with others the humans didn’t recognize.

The Metah, Iltereedah luk’t, was a vigorous older female of nearly two hundred mah, arthritic and stiff in places but much loved and respected by all. Chase was awed by the arrangement of lighted filaments. He whispered through his echopod, not realizing that all could hear everything.

“Angie…this place looks like Citrus Grove Shopping Center, a week before Christmas.”

“Shhh, show some respect, you jerk!” she hissed back. “It’s the Queen.”

Iltereedah regarded them with cold eyes. Wrinkles and lines radiated out from her beak and face, the beak ritually scarred with cryptic symbols and notched rings.

“These are the eekoti who came through the Farpool?” the Metah asked.

“Most Affectionate Metah,” Longsee spoke up, “these eekoti were brought through by Kloosee and Pakma. They come to help us. Help us with the Umans.”

The Metah made a sudden flip of her tail flukes and started circling, methodically pulsing Longsee and his assistants from the lab, then Chase and Angie, one by one, seeking deceit, seeking other purposes, the telltale bubbles of doubt. She found none.

“Disgustingly ugly,” she pronounced, after returning to her position above the circle of glowing coral. “You have fashioned ot’lum for them?”

“Yes, Affectionate Metah,” Longsee answered. “The lifesuit works. And they have undergone the em’took…it is necessary that they look like this. They have to survive in our waters and the Notwater. “

Now, the Metah addressed Chase and Angie directly. Chase’s echopod screeched, then settled down to a scratchy translation that Chase could barely make out.

“You have agreed to help us with the Umans…you do this of your own free will? I pulse nerves, anxiety…things trouble you, both of you. Tell me this—“

Chase looked around, started to reply, but Angie beat him to it.

“Your Honor…ma’am…we’re just normal people. We came with Kloosee and Pakma because…because, we felt sorry for them. They weren’t treated right on our world. They told us what was happening here. Chase and I thought…well, maybe we could help.” She reached for Chase’s hand, or his flipper, or whatever…and squeezed it. “We didn’t expect things like this…

with us all changed, looking like—well, we didn’t expect it. We want to help. But I’m not sure what exactly we can do—“

Here, Kloosee spoke up. “Affectionate Metah, we asked the eekoti to speak with the Umans at Kinlok. Convince them to shut down the wavemaker. We thought, since they are of the same race—“

The Metah interrupted, “This is an unproven theory…there are many theories—“

“Yes, yes, of course, Metah, but it was thought by our scientists and engineers that the Umans would listen to their own kind—“

Iltereedah considered that. “The expedition is ready…supplies, the kip’ts, the special equipment?”

Longsee said they were ready.

Iltereedah decided. “We have no choice. Omt’or is dying. Seome is dying. The noise and the vibrations are constant, the wavemaker is unrelenting. And the Umans speak of greater threats…of something called a sun, a great light in the Notwater and a weapon that kills this sun…they say Seome is doomed anyway…we must do something. Thus I approve the expedition. Go with my blessing, eekoti. And the prayers of all Omt’or. Litor’kel ge to all of you.”

Longsee led them out of the Metah’s chamber. Outside the great pyramid, they headed back to the project labs at the Kelktoo.

“She’s worried,” Kloosee observed. “Understandably.”

“The Ponkti want to attack the Umans,” Longsee said. “That’s all they understand. But they’ll just get killed in greater numbers…we’ve got nothing to stop Uman suppressors.”

“What’s Ponkti?” Angie asked.

Kloosee said, “The Ponkti are members of another kel, the other side of the world. It’s called Ponk’et…they’re all hotheads. They talk tough, make threats, fight all the time. No, we have to work with the Umans, not fight them.”

“How many kels are there?” Chase asked. He tried keeping up with the Seomish as they darted and cruised among the minarets and buildings dotting the center of Omsh’pont. It was hard; the Seomish were great swimmers and why shouldn’t they be?

“There are five great nations…waterclans,” said Pakma. “You’re in Omt’or now. There is also Ponk’et, Sk’ort, Eep’kos and Ork’et. They occupy the five great seas of Seome. Of course, Omt’or is the greatest of all.”

“Of course,” said Angie. “Pakma, I have a request.”

“What is it?”

“These echopods we have…you said once they can translate, work like an encyclopedia and they can record. Is that true?”

“Of course. I can show you how to do that.”

“Good,” Angie said. “I want to start a journal…kind of an ‘Angie’s Unbelievable Adventure’ diary. Can you help me do that?”

“I’ll help you while the kip’ts are being loaded.”

“Great.”

A day later, Longsee and a large crowd of onlookers watched as Kloosee and Pakma loaded up their kip’ts with supplies. There would be two kip’ts. The trip to the Farpool would take many days.

The privy councilor to the Metah was also there, one Encolenia mek’t. She represented the Metah and her council.

“Our prayers are with you, Kloosee ank and Pakma tek. And with the eekoti, especially.

You have a long journey ahead of you and what you’re doing is critical to Omt’or, indeed to all the kels. Litorkel ge, both of you. The Metah hopes and prays that you will be successful in your mission. Make the Umans understand what they must do…otherwise, we have no future.”

Pompous old windbag, thought Kloosee as he boarded the kip’t. Pakma was already in the other one.

Longsee had one last word of advice. “Don’t be heroes. You’re not immortal, Kloosee.

Omt’or needs you both to come back, alive and in good health. If you encounter any Ponkti, stay out of their way. They don’t speak for us…the Metah is trying to organize a meeting with other Metahs…make a common front against the Umans. Let the eekoti speak with them…I’m sure the Umans will listen to their own kind.”

I’m not so sure about that, Kloosee thought. Still, he always lived for the chance to explore Notwater; it had been in his blood since childhood, since the Circling, since he’d seen seamothers breaching the surface like drunken revelers. Nobody’s taking this away from me.

Kloosee closed and sealed the kip’t cockpit. He waved at the assembled crowd, then fired up the sled’s jets and rose on the current, climbing swiftly through the domes and floats of Omt’or, past the Torsh’pont until they felt the first faint tugs of the Omt’chor Current.

They would have to tack and beat against that current to reach the P’onkel Sea and the Farpool.

Angie’s Journal: Echopod 1

Well, so here I am, dictating this journal. I hope I’ve got the thing working right…Pakma showed me how it works. This is really crazy, you know. Here I am, dressed up, changed somehow, so I look like a circus freak from Sea World and we’re traveling halfway across this ocean world called Seome to speak with some more humans who are somehow destroying this very world. I can’t even come close to understanding it. And, really, I’m not sure I want to go on this little adventure…I’m kind of homesick. I miss Mom. I miss Dr. Wright and the Clinic and working with all the patients. Most of all, I miss my bestest friend Gwen…so this is for you, girl.

“At least, Chase is here. He seems to be really into all this, but then I always said he’s part fish anyway. That’s what the Seomish are…really intelligent fish. Oh, Gwen, you wouldn’t believe what we’ve seen…whole underwater cities, ships, submarines, glowing coral…they really are intelligent and clever people…fish…amphibians…whatever they are….

“We seem to be getting mixed up in their politics as well…they have tribes, or clans.

They’re called kels. And they don’t get along that well…they have conflict on how to deal with these other humans. By the way, these other humans…the Seomish call them Tailless People of the Notwater—isn’t that a hoot?—are up on some island way up north. We’re heading there now. These guys are operating some kind of machine that makes an awful racket in the ocean.

A weapon, I think. They’re fighting a war with another race…another planet, I guess. The Seomish don’t seem to understand all that, or they don’t care. They just want this noise and

vibration to stop…it’s really hurting them. The Seomish want us to talk with the humans and make them shutdown the machine.

“I don’t know how well that will go but I do know one thing: after we make this trip, I want to go home. Back through the Farpool…boy, is that a ride! And I want to get changed back too…I don’t like looking like some kind of giant frog. I miss checking out my cute little butt in the mirror and my long legs…these scales are the worst. They hurt when you touch them.

“I asked Pakma and Kloosee about all this…going back, getting unmodified and so forth.

They haven’t answered me straight so far…I think they’re more worried about this little mission.

“But first chance we have, I’m going back…even if I have to go by myself. That worries me a little. I don’t think Chase wants to leave just yet. This was supposed to be a short trip, just to help out Kloosee and Pakma. Deep down inside, I think Chase would like to stay here, become one of them.

“Not me. I guess we’ll deal with that when we have to. But I’m worried about it, Gwen. I really am.

“That’s it for now. I’ll try to keep this journal going…get some other sounds. Pakma said there’s a way to record visual and scent impressions too. I have to record this. You’d never believe it, Gwen, if I didn’t.

“Until next time…Angie, out.”

End Recording

Chapter 9

Seome

Omsh’pont, kel: Omt’or, and en route to Kinlok

Time: 766.1, Epoch of Tekpotu

“It’s called the Pulkel,” Kloosee told Chase. Kloosee steered the kip’t in a wide southerly circle out of Omsh’pont, cruising first directly south over the dim chasm of Shookengkloo Trench, then more easterly toward the jagged range of cliffs and canyons known as the Serpentines. Soon enough, the first ramparts of the chain began to show themselves, initially as streaks of blips and bleeps on the kip’t sounders, then more ominously as a massive gray-brown presence, indefinable in shape except for the open seas beyond that it blocked. “A place of great turbulence, but going that way allows us to catch the Pom’tel Current and make a faster trip. If we can get through—“

Chase was fascinated with the kip’t’s controls. “Maybe I could help out with the driving…if this trip takes several days. Have you got any maps I could study?”

Kloosee laughed. “You eekoti use your eyes more than we do. Our maps are made of sound. Patterns of echoes, beats and reflections…that’s how we navigate. Someday, I must teach you.”

Chase seemed to snort and wheeze a little. “Sorry… it’s these gills. The water seems different in here…guess I’m still getting used to this.”

Kloosee adjusted something on the control panel. “We keep the water in our kip’ts tchor’kelte…calm but cold. I’ve made a change that should help.”

“Thanks… I’ll be glad when we can go back to our old selves. I know Angie will be too.”

Kloosee said nothing to that.

He slowed and brought the kip’t around to follow a parallel course to the northwest, easing the sled more and more to his left so that it drifted over the shallower slopes of the ridge. Behind them, Pakma was in control of the second sled. She altered course to follow. When they had found a narrow stream of smoothly flowing water, vishm’tel as it was known, they let the current take the nose of both kip’ts and then each settled back. Kloosee rested his hands lightly on the bow plane and rudder handles.

The Serpentines cut a ragged, sinuous course across the bottomlands of Seome. They started in the far northwest, in the Omt’orkel, the home sea for Kloosee and Pakma. For three thousand beats, the chain twisted from west to east across the world, bisecting the Omt’orkel with its steep slopes, vertical cliffs, deep canyons and trenches and crumbling, boulder-strewn intermountain plateaus.

Just north of Lik’te, the planet’s largest island, a kink appeared in the ridge. Like a broken bone, the Serpentines veered sharply to the southeast, zigzagging around Lik’te and splitting the sea diagonally in two as it crossed the equator. It was here, in the sluggish equatorial seas that the Serpentines merged with another great chain of peaks, the Ork’nt, slicing in from the east like an enormous scimitar of rock and lava. The intersection zone was the scene of some of the most violent, unpredictable and deadly storms and currents anywhere on Seome, above or below the sea. It was called, simply, Pulkel—the Death Waters.

“If it’s so stormy,” Chase asked, “why are we going that way?”

Kloosee’s answer was simple and direct. “It’s faster. We have to convince the Umans to shut down the wavemaker as soon as possible…or all the kels will die.”

Chase stared moodily out of the bubble cockpit at the terrain flowing by beneath them. The summits of the peaks here had been eroded over the ages by the swift trans-ridge currents they were now riding and so each peak was a rounded dome, fissured in places from the heat of expanding crust beneath the floor but otherwise nearly featureless. A steep escarpment littered with the trails of ancient lava spills and rock slides sloped away to their right, eventually flattening out into a broad table of ooze that stretched for hundreds of beats before itself slumping into the abyssal plain far to the east.

The ride was smooth and uneventful for hours and when night came to Seome, what little light that filtered down from the surface fell off and was replaced by the eerie glow of a trillion luminescent bottomfish. Chase watched as chains and loops and swirls of light, of all imaginable colors, paraded before and beneath them. The two of them stared in rapt silence as the stately ballet proceeded.

Streaks of red dots twinkled among pirouettes of orange and violet and were scattered by glowing green diamonds. Triangles of scarlet wove tiny filaments of light, forming curls and bows and networks of lace. On occasion, a few of the lights would brush the cockpit of the kip’t and their radiance would dissolve into terrifying, nightmarish shapes, beasts with gaping mouths and lancelike tendrils, gleaming eyes and teeth like knives. There were tubes and spheres, with horns and raked fins, and tails longer than the kip’t itself, and when each one showed its face, Chase would shudder, then smile, and remember the diving stories he had learned as a child from his Dad.

The sparkles and splashes of color continued for awhile, but faded away to only a rare, faint burst and finally to the black oblivion of night. Though he could see nothing around them, when Kloosee let him, Chase could feel in the control handles the approach of Pulkel. The current they had been riding was full of little eddies and bumps now and their ride was no longer so smooth. Every few minutes, a weak but perceptible tremor could be felt in the handles and Kloosee told Chase that Pulkel had sensed them and was reaching out. There were other, easier but longer routes to Kinlok Island they could have taken but each would have required weeks and a constant struggle against strong currents flowing the wrong way. The route through the southern trans-Serpentines was daring enough to challenge the most skilled kip’t pilot but it was far quicker and Kloosee wanted to make it into the Ponk’el Sea before the currents shifted to the south again.

Now was the time to prepare for entry into Pulkel so Kloosee let the sounder probe the nightwaters. A splotchy, staccato burst of bleeps and beats, scratches and chirps filled the cockpit and the echoes began clicking and whining madly, indicating general turbulence ahead.

Chase could make nothing out of the cacophony and had to rely on Kloosee to describe what was happening. For a few moments, Kloosee ignored the signals and listened carefully for what he knew must be sweeping across their path.

“The clicks are the echoes of cavities of rough water, m’eetorkel’te we call it, and the whines are the collisions of pressure waves.”

“I’ve got a lot to learn,” Chase decided.

Sure enough, in between the staccato tapping and the whine, a thin, whistling hiss could be heard, faint but audible, and growing by the moment. Kloosee listened with a rising sense of anticipation; there was the feeling of extraordinary, indescribable pressures, just barely contained, a feeling of a monster now awakening, stirring after a long slumber.

These, he knew, were the azhpuh’te, the real whirlpools, the deadly submarine funnels that lurked in the canyons and trenches of the intermountain zone. They could strike in an instant and swallow a fleet of kip’ts without trace and they had done just that all too often in the past. They were not going to try and brave the azhpuh’te; only a fool would do that. But Kloosee needed to know the general heading of the storm bank in order to adjust his and Pakma’s course. Their ride would be rough enough, just skirting the edges of it.

He listened for many minutes, letting Chase hear the sound too, which by now had become something more than just a hiss. It was a tormenting wail now, a forbidding roar of power that seemed trapped between an agonizing howl and a muted rumble. Kloosee held the shaking rudder handle with one hand while tuning the sounder, trying to find the boundaries of the zone.

It covered a wide swatch of the waters ahead.

They both heard Pakma’s voice crackle over the circuit. “I believe azhpuh’te is angry today, Kloos.”

He brought the kip’t to a new heading west of their present course, and Pakma followed right behind, though the new course would still take them around the whirlpools…he hoped.

“We’re hemmed in by the mountains,” he announced. “I can’t find a clear path through.”

A short distance behind, Pakma listened to the voice of azhpuh’te herself for a moment, then said over the comm circuit, “Take us as close to the cliffs as you can and descend a few beats or so.”

“But it’s too narrow for us down there.”

“Kloos, have you lost your kip’t driver’s sense…it’s also too narrow for azhpuh’te. We may just find a little tunnel of calm water next to the face of the cliffs, where the funnels can’t form.”

Kloosee ground his teeth and decided she was right, putting the lead sled into a shallow dive, easing down carefully as the grip of Pulkel tightened and began to shake and buffet them.

Several times, he fought off violent cross-currents and wild ascending columns of water that slammed into the belly of the kip’t. The azhpuh’te screamed in the speakers but Kloosee gripped the handles tightly and drove them deeper and deeper. He let the portside sounder guide him ever closer to the sheer wall of rock racing by, unable to see or pulse it but straining to hear the steady ping of echoes. Outside, the pressure had increased and was squeezing them tightly. The kip’t groaned and grumbled but held.

With a patience that would have been admirable in any kip’t pilot and was therefore all the more remarkable in Kloosee, he let the nose of the kip’t find its own way…a trick he had learned apprenticing under Manklu tel many mah ago…. They were pinned in a narrow corridor of relatively calm water, no more than half a beat from the hard vertical face of the cliffs, a few beats beneath the funnels somewhere above them. Each tiny tremor, each bump and shake and vibration worried Kloosee and he had to force his hands to relax around the control handles to avoid catastrophe. He could feel the tension churning in his stomach but there was nothing he could do about it and he was secretly glad that eekoti like Chase hadn’t yet learned how to pulse properly. It would have been too embarrassing…bad shoo’kel.

For what seemed an excruciating length of time, Chase and Kloosee said nothing to each other and dared only a few necessary breaths. Time had solidified and frozen them in a trance; the only things they were aware of were sounds, most of all the wail of the funnels, crashing by overhead. All else save a shrill, almost inaudible whistle had blended with azhpuh’te, a deep and terrible chord.

It took several minutes for Kloosee to burst out of his trance and realize what that whistle was telling him. The tunnel was collapsing ahead of them; azhpuh’te was closing in, squeezing

the waters around them. He trained the sounders on the spot and the echoes confirmed his fears.

They didn’t have a moment to lose.

He knew he couldn’t put the kip’t into the whirlpools at his present depth; the pressures would crush them into junk if it didn’t smash them into the cliffs first. He had to bring them up.

If they were lucky, the canyon would widen and they would be able to sneak over the tops of the cliffs, unless they had already entered the Pulkel. If they had, they would not find the summits anywhere underwater; all along the equator here, the Serpentines soared far overhead and poked their craggy peaks well above the surface, creating a necklace of small islands.

Kloosee pulled them up sharply, almost losing control. At Pakma’s advice, he eased even closer to the cliffs, using the side sounder to hunt for a slope that wasn’t quite vertical, evidence of the broadening. The skin of the kip’t crinkled as they rose but no break in the flat wall could be found and when the sounder told them that azhpuh’te had managed to pinch off the rest of the tunnel, he knew their fortunes had finally run out.

With a firm pull on the rudder handle, Kloosee nosed the kip’t hard to the right and in an instant, the azhpuh’te had them.

Sometime afterward, it seemed to Kloosee that they had started a rapid spinning at that point, for once they had entered the whirlpool, all of them had lost consciousness for awhile then came to, dizzy and sick, and pinned tightly to the sides of the cockpit. A pair of leaks had sprung just behind Kloosee and cold, high-pressure water was flowing into the cockpit, stirring up things.

Kloosee grimaced at the taste of the water; it was tchorkelte, numbing cold and painfully dense, with too much salt. He could only imagine what it must feel like to the eekoti, though behind him, Chase said nothing. He grabbed the controls and tested them. They wouldn’t budge at all at first and he was afraid they might shear off from the kip’t if he tried to force them. At least, they hadn’t been torn off yet.

He didn’t know where Pakma’s kip’t was and heard nothing over the circuit. Had they been slammed into the cliffs? Had they been crushed into twisted junk? Slowly, with just the slightest nudges of the bow planes, Kloosee was able to slow their spin to a manageable rate.

His muscles ached from being pinned for so long and he massaged them for awhile. Outside, the black void now showed streaks of color, an occasional smear of red or orange mixed with the white froth.

“Are you okay back there?” Kloosee asked Chase.

Okay…for…the…moment…” it was a grunted reply, forced out against the centrifugal pressure of the spin.

Kloosee gingerly tried the rudder, squeezing the handle hard to overcome the forces acting on it. Each time, he would shove the handle a little further and each time, it would snap back to its original position when he let up. But there was something there, he had felt a shudder. A cavity, perhaps, or a stray current. Whatever it was, it seemed like the only hope they had.

He spent the next few minutes trying to find it again. There it is. He felt the handle shudder a little more with each push. Somehow, he had to slide the kip’t toward it, without losing the rudder, without losing what little stability they had and to do so before the current was yanked back into line by the stronger currents around it.

Slowly, cautiously, with firm but precise taps on the handle, Kloosee slipped the nose of the kip’t into the stream. I can do this, I know I can do this. He’d seen Manklu tel do things like this many times when he was a midling, apprenticed to the famous kip’t pilot. Kloosee inched the nose of the kip’t into the stream. Suddenly, they shot forward. Azhpuh’te grabbed the kip’t and

shook it violently and the acceleration pushed Kloosee down hard into his cradle, but he held onto the handles. The little sled shuddered and groaned and rocked madly for a few seconds, then another current caught it and sucked it forward.

Now, he had to fight the controls. The whirlpool would suck them in tighter and tighter, pressing them down and eventually grinding them into the rocky floor below. Desperately, he hauled back on the bow planes to keep them level and leaned on the rudder to force the kip’t to the outer periphery of the vortex. The handle fought back, gouging his hands, but Kloosee pulled with all his strength and prayed to Shooki that the planes wouldn’t break off.

For a single awful instant, it seemed as if nothing was happening. They were careening sideways through a raging vortex, a maelstrom of crushing waves and churning, white froth, slipping, rolling and spinning all at once. They bucked and crested each wave as it rolled by and Kloosee could only hope that the funnel was not taking them back toward the cliffs.

Where is Pakma? He didn’t have time to worry about it but the thought surfaced anyway.

He was nearing the limit of his strength and his arms were weakening. The kip’t trembled and a crunch jarred them so hard that his hands were wrenched from the controls for a moment. He heard a groan from behind; the eekoti might have been knocked out. But he didn’t have time to check. It was as if they had stopped, right in the middle of the storm, and lay poised on the brink, ready to slide backwards or spring forward to freedom. The controls were soft, having no bite, and Kloosee held his breath. When they lurched forward again, he gave all he had to give.

The kip’t shook and quivered like a pain-crazed animal, then took a final wrenching kick from azhpuh’te.

A cool silence followed—it seemed deafening to them—and Kloosee slumped against the bulkhead while the kip’t drifted in waters stained with purple and red, the remains of mah’jeet hordes that had been sucked down from the surface into the funnel. The sight of it made him laugh. He sucked up some of the warm water that had penetrated through the leaks around the cockpit and giggled deliriously for a few moments, while the kip’t found calmer waters and settled down.

He knew they would have to stop somewhere and fix those leaks. They couldn’t head into polar waters up north with leaks like this.

Now concerned for his passenger, Kloosee twisted around and pulsed into the rear compartment. The eekoti named Chase seemed to be conscious, at least, and Kloosee whispered thanks to Shooki for that. And as he watched, Chase opened his eyes and slowly waved some of the fresh water now streaming into the cockpit toward his gills. He saw Kloosee watching him and smiled back. Or maybe it was a grimace; he could never tell after the em’took procedure what his muscles would do. A weak voice crackled over the voice circuit.

“What happened?”

“We were lucky,” Kloosee told him. “Azhpuh’te didn’t want us today. Now, let’s go find Pakma.”

He checked the sounders first. Nothing. Then he realized that azhpuh’te had carried them north for hundreds of beats, out of the Pulkel but not exactly where they would like to have been.

The sounder showed that they were well to the east of the Serpentines, essentially still in Omtorish waters, though the region was disputed. They would have to track back to the west and re-cross the Serpentines again, following the Ork’lat, in order to head north and find the Pom’tel Current. It was that vast circular river of fast-moving water that would carry them further north, straight to the Pillars of Shooki…and to Kinlok Island.

He made the necessary course changes and eased them back down to a good cruising depth.

Then the sounder beeped. Kloosee checked. It was a solid return. It could be loose rock. Or it could be—

“That was quite a ride you took us through, Kloos—“ came a familiar voice over the circuit.

It was Pakma. Kloosee pinged and located them two beats to port. He homed on the signal and soon enough, the other kip’t came into view. It had somehow survived the battering of azhpuh’te, none the worse for wear.

“How’s Angie?” Chase asked. “Is she okay?”

A hoarse but familiar voice rasped over the comm circuit. “I’m fine, Chase…a little bruised. But okay.”

Kloosee said, “We’ve got a leak here. I’ve got to stop somewhere and seal it before we go further. The Pon’kel Sea is too cold to operate a kip’t with a leak.”

“I sounded a small rise a few beats ahead…put your kip’t down there.” Pakma led the way and Kloosee followed. Presently, they came to a broad uplift in the seabed, a mound surrounded on all sides by gently undulating strands of tchin’ting. Kloosee felt the current was mild enough here to undertake some repair work.

Both kip’ts settled on to the top of the mound.

“I can help,” Chase offered. He was grateful for any reason to get out of the cramped confines of the kip’t cockpit.

“The repair kit is behind you,” Kloosee said. Chase found it and the two of them set to work scraping down the bubble joint around the cockpit and applying sealing tape.

Meanwhile, Pakma and Angie left their own kip’t. “Follow me,” Pakma said. “I need to collect some raw tchin’ting…my supply is running low.”

Angie kicked her way out of the cockpit. It felt good to stretch and kick around a bit. She did a few easy laps around the sled. “I’m still getting used to my---whatever it is. My new body, I guess. What is that stuff…that tchin’ting?”

Pakma had borrowed a small satchel and drifted down to hover over the tops of the tchin’ting beds. She started snatching and snipping, pulling strands of the long, stringy plant into her sack. “Tchin’ting is a weed…I hope that translates okay. “

“You mean kind of like kelp?”

“I think that is a good comparison. It grows mostly in warmer waters. Kind of unusual to see it here, on the border of the Ponkel Sea. We harvest it after it’s grown for a full mah…it’s a waxy, pasty substance that we mix in with other foods as an extender or filler…especially fleshy foods.”

Angie went closer to examine the tchin’ting field. She found the individual stalks spindly and serrated along one side, with small purple buds at the top. She watched the way Pakma was collecting, grabbed some herself and the two of them headed back to their kip’t.

“I’m hungry,” Pakma announced. She circled alongside Kloosee’s kip’t; he and Chase were hard at work, applying sealant to their cockpit flanges. “Want anything to eat?”

“Later,” Kloosee said. “I want to finish this first. Save us some pods.”

Pakma and Angie went back to their sled and shut themselves in. Angie felt better in the filtered water of the cockpit; the colder Ponkel waters made breathing hard…she was still getting used to her gills. She tried not to think about where she was…hundreds of meters below the sea, breathing water like some glorified flounder. Really, this is insane, she told herself. I know this is a dream and any minute now, I’ll wake up in Mr. Lott’s Geometry class and he’ll be asking me a question about Venn diagrams.

“Try this…it’s not to eat, just smell. It’s ot’lum… a scentbulb.” Pakma handed Angie a small fist-sized pod.

Angie took a whiff…and jerked her head back. Whatever it was, it just about made her head fly off her shoulders. A strong, musky odor filled her nostrils.

“What is that?”

Puk’lek…seamother. I work with scentbulbs…as an artist. I compile different smells and odors, mix them together…I’m still working on this one. What do you think?”

Angie scrunched up her nose. “An artist, huh? With smells. Cool. Um…I guess it’s fine.

It smells like Chase’s clothes after he’s ridden his bike in the rain.”

“You know Chase a long time?” Pakma was setting out a small spread of bulbs and pods…

these smelled much better.

“Oh, yeah—“ Angie took an experimental whiff of one pod. It was gisu, ripe gisu. Fruity and sweet. She took a bite. “Hey, I‘ve had this before…not bad. About Chase: we’ve known each other for years. Since we were kids.”

“Kids? No translation for that…explain?”

“Children…very young people.”

Pakma understood. “Yes. We say midlings. You like Chase. I can pulse this. When you are together, I pulse you in harmony with each other.”

Angie munched on the pod for a few moments. “Pakma, when you say ‘pulse,’ what exactly are you talking about? Sounding and listening for echoes?”

“Exactly.” Pakma opened more pods and speared several for herself, using her beak. She sucked loudly on one particularly juicy pod. “I pulse…I send sound waves out and they come back. I can hear your stomach now…it gurgles and growls…you like gisu…I can hear this. We Seomish pulse each other all the time. We know what each other has eaten, how each other feels, you can’t hide anything in pulsing. You know Shoo’kel?”

Shoo’kel…is that a name? Is that someone?”

“No, shoo’kel is peace, tranquility. Here…make the sound of knowledge…

kkkkllllooossshhhkkk, as I showed you. Your echopod will explain—“

It took Angie several tries but she managed to activate the little wikipedia feature of her echopod. The usual whiny, nasal voice filled her ears….

“… shoo’kel…the desirable state of having one’s inner fluids in complete balance, so that any pulse of you by someone yields a clean, regular echo. Any state other than shoo’kel is considered vulgar or obscene. Shoo’kel is a form of personal honor and dignity. Control of excessive emotion is necessary to efficient and accurate pulsing. Also, used in a general or universal sense, to mean tranquility or peace, the natural order of things, stability….

Angie nodded that she understood. “So this shoo’kel is like being at peace with yourself?”

“That is one explanation. Seomish see and hear much…sometimes, too much. Without shoo’kel, we would be overwhelmed with echoes and sounds…sometimes we are anyway. As with you, kah-Angie, I pulse you have no shoo’kel when your Chase is nearby.”

Angie had to smile at that. “You mean does my heart go all fluttery when he’s near…I guess. We’re in love. We’ve dated for several years…I’ll have to explain that if I can. We talk about getting married—“

Pakma had a grin on her bemused face, it practically split her whole face. “Even now, you talk of Chase and I pulse many happy bubbles…no shoo’kel with this. This is a happy echo of Chase.”

Angie said, “I guess you could say that. We make happy bubbles. I like that. What about you? You and Kloosee? You’ve known each other a long time?”

“Many mah.” Pakma munched thoughtfully. “We are not in the same em’kels, however.”

“What about your families…are there families here?…you know, Mom, Dad and the kids.”

Pakma explained. “When a child is born, it stays with the mother until four or five mah.

The father does not stay with the child. After that, the child enters the Kelk’too. The em’kels are our real families.”

Angie gave that some thought. “It’s almost like there are no families…like the whole community is the family.”

“I pulse that this is true.”

They both chewed on several more gisu bulbs in silence.

“Chase and I love each other,” Angie said. “I suppose we’ll get married some day. We’ve talked about it. But I’m in no hurry. I love Chase but sometimes—“ she picked at her gisu for a moment. “—it’s just that he…I don’t know, I wish he was a little more ambitious. He already graduated and now he works with his Dad. A T-shirt shack on the beach. Can you believe that?

He doesn’t aspire to anything greater…except he wants to be an explorer. Sometimes…I don’t know—Pakma, about guys, I mean. Are you and Kloosee going to get married?”

Pakma didn’t understand and Angie had to explain about marriage. After awhile, Pakma seemed to grasp the concept.

“We have no such thing. The em’kel is our family. But anyone can join. We join and leave all the time. Kloosee’s em’kel is called Putektu. They have one goal: learn how to live in the Notwater.” Pakma made a face of disgust. “I can’t understand that. Nobody can…it’s senseless. A waste of time. And Shooki commands us to avoid Notwater.”

“Shooki is God?”

Pakma indicated yes. “Shooki is God, life, all there is, father of all the kels. All Seomish live in the middle waters.” Pakma was reciting something she had long ago memorized.

“Bounded by Ke’shoo and Ke’lee. Love and life. The two eyes of Shooki. Longsee lok and other elders and wiser kelke say our future cannot be in the Notwater. Shooki forbids it. In fact, the opposite is true: we learn more by concentrating on understanding our past, exploring the cave cities of the ancients, listening to their echopods, sniffing their scentbulbs, than we could ever know roaming around in the Notwater.”

“But don’t the Umans live in the Notwater? And so do Chase and I. The Farpool takes you into the Notwater.”

“Yes,” Pakma admitted that was true. “That is our dilemma. We can’t live in the Notwater.

Notwater is Death. We can’t survive there. But we have no future unless we learn how to survive there…or defeat the Umans.”

Angie was about to say something, but Kloosee came up. “I’ve got the kip’t fixed. We’d best get underway again. Have you two got your kip’t ready? And I’d love some of that—“ he filched one of Pakma’s gisu pods and speared it expertly, slurping out pulp and juice.

Pakma looked at Angie. Men! Their eyes said it all.

The kip’ts were powered up again and Kloosee resumed the lead position. Pakma drove her own kip’t just beyond the wake of Kloosee’s sled. After everyone had eaten, they said little to each other, preferring to watch the endless beauty of the sea sweeping by. The Pom’tel current carried them along at a brisk pace.

Kloosee piloted his kip’t expertly across the southern reaches of the Ponkel Sea, drawing on his experiences with Manklu tel, the famous kip’t pilot from long ago. The current took them

over the flat, weed-choked T’kwan plains, over dense stands of wild blue tubegrass, through the edges of mah’jeet blooms—these were given a wide berth—schools of redhump and pocketfish, all the while approaching the great northward bend in the Ork’nt. Despite the scenery and despite a few terrifying moments when they wandered into a school of dazzling glowfish, twinkling every color of the spectrum and nearly into the maw of a hungry eelot that had come up from the depths to feed, none of them found much to talk about. Angie thought a lot about what Pakma had told her and about how her own relationship with Chase seemed to find eerie parallels in Pakma’s with Kloosee.

Must be a universal problem, she decided. Both Chase and Kloosee wanted to go places they shouldn’t go, see things nobody had ever seen before. Well, Chase, you got your wish. And you dragged me along with you.

Their silence gave way to reverence when Pom’tel carried them around the majestic bend in the mountains. There beneath them, on a small wedge of a plateau sheltered from the current by Ork’nt’s twisting bluffs, an eerie, half-lit forest of ting coral stretched away into the distance, a prelude, Kloosee knew, to the subterranean gap that would take them away from the familiar currents of the Ork’nt out over the steep face of a decline and into the bitterly cold waters of the middle Ponkel.

From their cockpit, Kloosee and Chase could see a phantasmagoria of shapes and colors.

There were long blue spindles where the ting had coalesced around weeds growing out of the bottom and lumpy pillows where it had clustered around boulders from the mountains. Twice, they noticed the dazzling spirals of brain coral, each time nestled securely in between shoulders of fallen rock. As they streaked on toward the T’kel’rok gap, they passed over row after row of convoluted ting branches, long, coiled arms of blue and green, raised as if in salute.

The sight of it made Chase uneasy and curious at the same time.

“They look like individual fingers from this distance. Each one pointing upward, toward the surface.”

Toward the Notwater, Kloosee didn’t have to say. Where we must go.

They made the gap at the end of the next day. Kloosee carefully guided both kip’ts out of the grasp of Pom’tel and descended toward a narrow gash in the seafloor that led into the gap.

There was no light at this depth and despite the sounder’s echoes, he felt vaguely uneasy. The walls of the valley converged to a tiny oval of black ahead and he slowed them almost to a stop.

They summoned all their courage and entered the tunnel.

The transit lasted several hours…several hours of total darkness.

After what seemed like forever, they emerged from the gap into the numbing cold, gray-black waters of the middle Ponkel and, in spite of the bleak surroundings, Kloosee was glad to be heading up, toward the open sea and light. He understood now what might have compelled the ancient Seomish to leave their claustrophobic caves. Maybe they felt constricted after all that time. Maybe they were just cramped and had to get out. Kloosee understood that; he’d felt it himself, from his midling days. Living in such close spaces couldn’t be comfortable. The mind was molded by its surroundings; how could the ancients have wondered about the open sea when they couldn’t even pulse more than a few beats?

The kel of the Ponkti themselves were a clear example of that. For as long as anyone could remember, they had clustered together in a single subterranean city and seldom ventured far from it even in disasters. All of their history and culture was contained in that one network of caves; in a real sense, the Ponkti had never evolved beyond that stage. They were throwbacks to the pre-migration phase of Seomish history. No wonder they were so suspicious of everyone else.

Kloosee shared none of this with Chase, who appeared content to study the scenery and the beat echoes on his panel, trying to fathom the structures that reflected their constant pinging.

Instead, Kloosee sounded the approach of a decline some fifty beats ahead of them. He steered them around a strong upwelling and a dense bank of silt before finally reaching the first of the slopes. They had a long climb ahead of them to find a gap through the range of hills so he throttled back the jets and let the kip’t settle as close to the mud as he could Behind them, Pakma did the same.

Ahead of them, a low ridge of mountains loomed large and rugged, a fence of saw-toothed gaps and rounded peaks cresting a plateau in the distance.

“Through this gap,” he finally explained to Chase, “we catch the northern arm of the Pom’tel current. After that, it’s a straight path to the Pillars and Kinlok.”

“How long?” Chase wanted to know.

“Perhaps a tenthmah…a day or so, to you.”

Kloosee sounded ahead, looking for a gap in the range, but instead of the steady bass echo he expected, he got something else in return. The mountains seemed to be moving. There was an unmistakable shift in the echo, a flurry of halftones. Something was in motion about ten beats above them and it couldn’t be the mountains.

He sounded no rockslide and the waters were too calm for a seaquake. Sounding again, he couldn’t imagine what it was, except huge. The echoes weren’t rock, the pitch was too high for that and the frequencies too complex—it was flesh, no doubt about that. He slowed up just a bit, reading the outlines of the echoes and then he knew. With a shudder of excitement and foreboding, he knew.

Puklek. The seamother. An entire herd of them.

Sometimes called Kelm’opuh, the destroyer of nations. Sometimes called Ke’shoovikt, the One who flows against the Current. Always feared. Always respected. And never, in a thousand thousand mah of known history, understood.

“We’re trapped!” Kloosee yelled. “Get down in your cradles as far as you can and pray!”

They had somehow blundered into seamother feeding waters, unmarked and unsuspected, and now they were caught in the middle of a rising herd of serpents.

Kloosee shut off the jets and Pakma did likewise. Now they were both stopped in the water.

The beasts were everywhere, above and below them, on all sides, scores of them. A series of waves rocked the kip’ts. Kloosee and Chase couldn’t always see them clearly and though Kloosee knew well the story of the Skortish repeater who had stared a seamother in the eye and was turned into a spineless globbula groveling in the mud.

The kip’t sounders told them that the herd had just finished feeding. They usually ate makum, a slim barracuda that liked to school in the protected valleys of the mountains, especially in subarctic waters like this. Kloosee could tell from the echoes they were satiated and now they were heading for the surface, churning up the water and sweeping along anything that got in their way. He could feel them all around; now the best they could hope for was to stay out of their way, rise with them and pray the herd didn’t close ranks anymore and crush them to death.

He was exhilarated and frightened at the same time. It was like riding the crest of a great wave, or wallowing in the mouth of a whirlpool. The waters frothed with the steady beating of flippers and the kip’t rose with them, buckling in the turbulence.

Chase was mesmerized. He could almost reach out and touch them. Never had he seen anything like this. They were right on top of the kip’t, no more than a few beats away, just beyond sight in the dark waters but close enough to trap the sled in their wakes.

They had run into the herd nearly an hour west of T’kel. If all the stories were true, the herd would soon leave the water altogether, once they had made the surface. Kloosee knew that T’kel possessed several peaks that nosed just above the water—he wasn’t sure if they were nearby—so it was possible the seamothers would beach themselves on those tiny spits of land. No one had ever seen the phenomenon, mainly because no one had ever been able to survive the Notwater.

No one until Kloosee and Pakma and the coming of the Farpool.

It seemed like they would witness the spectacle whether they wanted to or not. Pakma realized it at the same time as Kloosee did and the thought scared her.

“Can’t we do something?” she shouted over the circuit. “We’re going up! The kip’t won’t stand it!”

She was right, of course, but it was already too late. Their kip’ts weren’t built to operate in the high waters; already they were creaking and flexing under the reduced pressure. Kloosee wasn’t worried for himself but for the eekoti, Chase and Angie, and most of all, for Pakma.

Chase and Angie were creatures of the Notwater, but now, after the em’took, who could say?

Yet if he tried to jet his way out of the herd, he would likely frighten the serpents and wind up crushed to death.

They were caught in the middle with nowhere to go but up.

As they ascended, Kloosee struggled to keep them away from the flailing tails and flippers.

It was much like when they had run through azhpuh’te a few days before. They were in the midst of a crushing maelstrom of currents, being kicked, pulled and shoved in all directions at once. A seamother displaced a lot of water just floating. When she was in flight, it was said, all the oceans heaved.

“Looks like we’re caught in the middle of them!” Chase yelled over Kloosee’s back.

Kloosee said, “For the moment…I don’t want to startle them…we could be crushed…we’ll just have to ride it out—“

Unable to sound clearly for direction, Kloosee had to rely on other means of fixing their location. For the first time, he felt a sharp pain in his midgut, the first sign that they were approaching the surface. He heard a groan over the circuit—Pakma wasn’t up to this, though the eekoti could survive. He clenched his teeth. Could they survive?

They had one chance to survive and it was something old Manklu tel, the ancient kip’t driver, had once taught him. Ke’tee. Kloosee was rusty on the techniques; he’d last used them during his own Circling many mah before. He didn’t know whether the trance would work against the effects of low pressure but they had to try it. The eekoti couldn’t operate the kip’ts.

He didn’t know if they would get another chance.

Ke’tee!” he yelled to Pakma. He could barely pulse her kip’t; the thrashing of the seamothers was steadily driving it further and further away. “Use the Ke’tee! It should help!”

He knew Pakma had never really mastered the art, but they had to try…it was their best chance.

Maybe their only chance.

Pakma grunted and Kloosee heard her murmuring the chants, panting, straining the words out, moaning with pain as her gut swelled. The midling who undertook the Circling needed Ke’tee for the long, lonely days he would spend alone in the open sea, with no one but himself to rely on. It was a body and mind discipline, a system for early warning. It was a way of giving the mind something to do when it might otherwise manufacture illusions out of boredom.

Kloosee repeated to himself the chants as he remembered them: I am the Water, let my blood dissolve,

I am embraced, calmwaters in the sea;

I am free-bound, Arm of Shooki;

Stir not Azhtu , stir not Death, lie silent

At the bottom.

My way is ahead and peacemind is with me.

Ke’tee always helped when there was pain to fight. It made you more aware of the body’s whispers—the pressures, the blood flowing, the muscular contractions. You could control them, with enough contractions. But you had to fight to stay under.

He listened carefully, hearing the slurred chants coming from Pakma. Stay in it, he told her silently. Notwater’s like a powerful jaw, ready to clamp down. You can beat it if you’re strong enough. “Don’t give up!” he shouted. “If they can do it, so can we!”

He wondered if the seamothers had anything like Ke’tee. Probably, they didn’t need it.

They were hybrids, at ease in either world. In that way, they were like the eekoti, like Chase and Angie. Both could go from the crushing pressures of the deepest trenches to the giddy spaces of Notwater in minutes and suffer no ill effects. He envied them that. And if they had bred any offspring up there, like the tales said, then such creatures would be as different from the Seomish as it was possible to be.

The surface had to be near. He could both feel it and see it now; a diffuse green light above them. For the first time, he caught more than just a glimpse of one of the seamothers.

Behind him, he heard Chase suck in his breath. “My God---“

She was just below them, all mouth and snout and black eyes. If she had chosen, she could have swallowed them whole. Never had he been so close.

No more than three beats separated the kip’t from her reptilian head. They could see each rib in the broad, veined crest that crowned that head; the crest shook with each stroke of her huge paddles. From nose to tail, the seamother averaged maybe five or six beats—this one seemed larger than that.

They could see her horned and spiked tail too, whipping back and forth like a wave. Her flanks were a rippling mass of silvery-white, mottled with gray and also with scars from innumerable battles she had fought. Blemishing the otherwise smooth skin were dozens of tiny, tube-shaped scapet, symbiants who scavenged off the remains of the seamother’s meals.

He barely had time enough to notice all this before their kip’t was smashed by the forepaddles of another serpent and tossed out of the water altogether.

They hurtled across the surf like a mad wing-walker before slamming into a roaring wave.

The impact stunned Kloosee and Chase both, even before the kip’t crashed back into the water.

Another jolt nearly split the cockpit.

For several minutes, their kip’t was thrashed about at the surface, knocked by the forepaddles of each serpent as it surfaced. The seamothers slapped the water with loud thumps, bellowing happily in the spray.

The fracas continued for quite some time, long enough for Kloosee to lose consciousness a couple of times. The ride from Omsh’pont had exhausted both of them and even Ke’tee hadn’t helped that much. He heard nothing from Pakma and Angie but didn’t have the strength to

worry about it. He felt like a mudball swept up in vishm’tel, like a helpless particle in the sea’s fastest current.

Chase was trying to squeeze past Kloosee into the driver’s cradle, but the thrashing of the kip’t made that impossible. “Maybe I can help…move a little and I’ll take the controls—“

But it was useless. They were bounced from one hump to another, from tail to tail, thumped and thoroughly beaten. Kloosee no longer fought the pain but now welcomed it. It would be so nice to give in, to succumb, just for a moment. Only a moment. He was so dizzy, weakening fast, the cramps were tightening…wrenching his stomach…swelling up…ready to…burst….

Blind with pain, he didn’t at first realize it when the sea had finally calmed and the thunder subsided. It seemed like a hopeless wish… don’t give in to it…but no, it was true. They were floating, drifting, pitching lazily with the waves and he was so tired, so very, very tired….

Gradually, Kloosee regained some sense of where he was and, though he ached from beak to tail with racking throbs, he was able to catch a brief glimpse of a magnificent sight.

The entire herd had moved away, still on the surface, happily splashing its way toward a band of low peaks sitting on the horizon. All he could see was a glistening white shoal of humps and necks and crested heads, bobbing away from them, immersed in a light mist that refracted light into a faint rainbow of colors. Long, rolling swells slapped against the side of the kip’t. A violent storm was building and the wind whipped the water into a foaming froth.

The stories were true. The seamothers were heading for land.

“Pakma! Look!”

A weak voice replied, “Get us back under…Kloosee…it’s not safe up here….”

He was nearly unconscious himself but Kloosee was enthralled at the view.

Chase marveled at the sight. “On Earth, these would be monsters…nightmares…people would tell stories for generations about this—“

“Here too,” Kloosee admitted. “It’s incredible…we’re seeing something that our storytellers have wondered about for millennia.” He paid no attention to the hoarse groans coming over the circuit. Pakma didn’t have the stamina that Kloosee did.

He remembered all those tales of serpents and demons of the Notwater and how he had been enchanted by them. They were living those stories right now, watching a herd of seamothers roll toward the rugged slopes of T’kel, honking, wheezing, filling the Notwater with spray, and he was every bit as joyous as they were—awed and thrilled and moved by it all, all at the same time.

He heard Pakma’s voice in the distance, scratching out something he couldn’t understand.

He felt his own eyes bulging, and his stomach ballooning. A cramp convulsed him, squeezing out a cry of pain, but he fought it down and gasped for breath. Not now! I…can’t…leave…

now….

The waves thundered and broke over the kip’t cockpit. Swells many beats high lifted them up and flung them down hard. A dense spray flecked the bubble and made seeing difficult.

Above, the huge puffy masses he had noticed on his earlier trips were no longer white or yellow.

Now, they boiled in heavy grays and blacks, rippling and surging overhead like a reflection of the water itself.

A deafening crack split the sky and Kloosee craned his neck to see.

“Wow!” yelled Chase. “Great lightning…just like the Gulf!”

Even as they watched, another boom rattled the waters and a vivid white vein of light streaked through the Notwater. It held for an instant, then vanished, illuminating the masses with

jagged branches of light, so that it seemed he could see the very insides of Notwater, ripped open for inspection.

There was something marvelously alive in all of it. Below, the waters were steady, the currents unvarying, the mountains and trenches and plains unchanging. That’s the way all the kelke liked it. But here, a mountain could be built and demolished in an instant; there was energy here, raw and uncontained, here the energy of an entire civilization could be expended in a futile effort to re-sculpt the sea.

It was like the Notwater he and Pakma had seen so many times on the world of the eekoti, but not like it at the same time. Here, he gaped at things he could see when the waves lifted them high over the water: towers and domes and obelisks of water; long, writhing mountains and crumbling pillars; huge, crashing ramparts and cliffs, all of it water, held for a split second in a pose of splendor, then just as quickly destroyed in an avalanche of foam.

“Uh…Kloosee…anybody there…hello…?”

He might have died right then and there had not a weak voice interrupted his reverie.

It was Angie.

“…we have a problem here…hello…anybody there—“

“Yes—“ Kloosee replied. He could not see Pakma’s kip’t anywhere. Was it even on the surface? “Yes…what—“

Angie must have heard his reply. “Kloosee, is that you? Pakma’s…I don’t know…passed out or something…she’s not moving, she’s slumped over the panel—“

“Where are you?”

“I don’t know…we’re on the surface….I can’t see anything…those serpents have moved off.—“

Kloosee started sounding, finding only intermittent returns. Notwater was a lousy medium for sounding. But there was something there…a blip…a shadow of a return. Kloosee wrestled the kip’t around toward that heading…whatever it was, it was below the surface but not far…

several beats away…and moving off toward the islands on the horizon.

Kah, t’alp’te Pul’ke! What have I…Shooki, help us!”

Kloosee took one last look and let the image sink in. Sheets of water were beating down on them now. Somehow, he had to get their kip’t started up again, find Pakma’s kip’t.

He tried the jets but they sputtered in the Notwater. A numbing ache was tearing at him from inside; his eyes were too swollen to focus on the instruments. There was only one thing he could try.

Struggling with his last shred of strength, and with Chase’s help, he forced the bubble of the cockpit open as far as he could wedge it. He needed water, cold, dense, salty water over his face and gills. He couldn’t get to Pakma if he passed out. And Chase—

A harsh blast of Notwater scraped his gills, burning them. But the heavy seas spilled over the lip and into the cockpit as he had hoped and the kip’t was soon flooded. It sank quickly plunging down through layer after layer of cold, salty water, while both Kloosee and Chase clung to their cradles to keep from being sucked out. Kloosee drifted in and out of consciousness while the water cooled and grew denser. He didn’t know how deep the Ponkel was here but a faint pulse told him the bottom wasn’t far away.

He felt something push him aside and didn’t resist. It was Chase, maneuvering to get at the controls. Chase, with his long arms, somehow managed to take control of the kip’t and slow their descent. They were still headed down but the trajectory had flattened out noticeably.

The kip’t hit bottom and gouged into a sandy headland, buried nose first. Cold, sweet m’eetor’kel water swept through the cockpit and Kloosee raised his head slightly to let the flow wash over his beak. It was the finest water he had ever tasted. Choking with laughter, he collapsed in the cradle.

He was buried in a deep cave, fighting for breath. The water was seeping out and he struggled to escape, before he suffocated. He could feel Notwater in his gills and he coughed blood, rasping hard to expel it. Then something warm held his beak and he opened his eyes.

It was Chase’s hand.

“How do you feel?” came the voice.

Kloosee blinked. He let his eyes rove for a minute, before realizing they were still in the kip’t, still buried in the sand.

“Like a seamother swallowed me.”

“Here, eat this.” A ripe gisu was waved under his beak. He let Chase pop it into his mouth.

It was tart but good. After a few more bites, he could feel a little strength returning. He groaned and lifted himself off the cradle.

“Hey, man, don’t exert yourself. You’ve lost a lot of…something, I’m sure.” Firmly, but gently, he pushed Kloosee back into the cradle. He resisted, but not very convincingly.

“Pakma…Angie…what about them? Where are they?”

Chase sat back, waved some of water over his own gills. It did taste better than the air topside. Maybe he was becoming more Seomish. “I think they went to the bottom like we did…

I think they landed nearby. I’ve tried the radio thing. But nobody’s answering. I’m worried.”

Kloosee struggled up and situated himself in front of the controls. “We’d better look around. “

“Can you do this?”

Kloosee powered up the sled, found the jets working, but they sputtered into life before settling down into a smooth flow. “Can you? We’ve got to find them. Pakma’s not as strong as I am…she doesn’t hold up in Notwater. I think this is her first time.”

“What a sight,” Chase seated himself in his own cradle, automatically made sure the bubble was secure. He’d seen Kloosee do it, so he had an idea. He wanted to have a go at the controls of the sled… this is way cooler than my turbo…but Kloosee seemed stable enough.

They backed out of the sand and lifted away from the bottom. Kloosee started pinging as they began searching for the other kip’t. A few minutes later, he had found them, likewise buried in a cloak of silt and sand a few beats away.

Pakma was just waking up. Angie had been nursing her and feeding her as Chase had done with Kloosee.

Kloosee left his own kip’t and nosed his way over to the cockpit of the other sled. He found Pakma groggy, but okay. Some food and some rest time was all she needed.

Pakma nuzzled with Kloosee. “You gave up your precious Notwater to come looking for me…I would never have thought that of you, Kloos. Sometimes, you surprise me…just not often enough.”

“You’re pulsing pretty tired, Pakma…fatigued even. Maybe we should stay here for awhile.

This water is tchor’kel’te, cold but calm. Rest and food, that’s what we all need.”

“No,” Pakma waved him away. “No, we’d better get going. Seamothers… Puk’lek…that was a coincidence, wasn’t it? You didn’t deliberately steer us into a nest, did you?”

Kloosee pretended to be hurt. “Me? I would never do that…true enough, Notwater fascinates me. But deliberately…?”

“Sorry. I guess we were lucky.”

“Very lucky. And Chase here…he took over the kip’t when we went down…kept us from being damaged when we hit bottom.”

Chase grinned. Or grimaced, you couldn’t tell when you looked like a gigantic frog. Angie laughed, in spite of herself.

Pakma stroked Angie’s foreflukes. “Angie too. She figured out how to call for help. And she got the cockpit open, so I could get a breath of real water…she saved my life.”

Angie tried what she thought was a shrug. She wasn’t sure it came out that way.

“Hey, what am I…window dressing? This girl’s no bumpkin…I’m the real deal. It just took me a few minutes, that’s all. I figured everything out.”

Kloosee made sure Pakma was going to be okay. “We’d better get going. I’ll have to hunt around to find the Pomtel--.”

He stopped in mid-sentence, listening carefully. “I don’t hear the Sound…the wavemaker.

Do you?”

Pakma listened. “Nothing. The wavemaker is quiet.”

“Maybe the Umans turned it off. But they could turn it back on again. If I can find the center of the Pomtel current, we can’t be that far from Kinlok.”

“Let’s go,” Pakma said. She pushed Kloosee away and began securing their cockpit bubble down.

Kloosee and Chase went back to their own kip’t.

Together, none the worse for wear after their encounter with the seamothers, the two kip’ts lifted off the bottom and turned toward the north. Kloosee pulsed ahead and soon enough, found the reassuring echoes of the great northern river known as the Pomtel Current.

They headed north, toward the Pillars of Shooki, toward the polar ice pack… toward the Farpool and the Time Twister.

Chapter 10

Seome

Kinlok Island, T’kel District

Time: 766.2, Epoch of Tekpotu

The Pillars of Shooki lay at the very top of the world. Surrounded by vast sheets of floating ice, far to the north of the Ponk’el Sea, the shrine sat at the very edge of the polar ice cap itself.

A swift but narrow current, the Pomt’or, rushed by some two hundred beats to the south, curving across the bleak Northern Hemisphere until it split apart near the island of Likte.

The Pomt’or was the northern arm of the Pom’tel and it was the only current that directly approached the Pillars. Moreover, according to Kloosee, it was the fastest and safest way to reach Kinlok Island. To get there would still require a tedious trip through the eastern Orkn’tel.

The waters there were dense and sluggish, stagnant at the equator, and brimming with foul-tasting and dangerous mah’jeet fields, so thick in patches that no kip’t could get safely through without clogging its jets.

“I don’t want to go through mah’jeet again,” Pakma decided. Nobody did.

But there was no quicker way to the Pillars…and to Kinlok.

The seas east of the T’kel ridge were unknown to Kloosee. Even Pakma could help him little here; Omtorish kelke seldom crossed the ridge and had never sounded these waters completely. There were rumors surfacing out of the kel Ponk’et of renegade kels that inhabited these waters, kels that had split off from one of the great families thousands of mah before, but there was no proof of them. There were even rumors that these outcast kelke were descendants of the seamother herself, though Kloosee tended to discount that.

Kloosee’s plan was to cross the Orkn’tel until they had reached the junction of the Orkn’t and the T’kel, then turn north into these unsounded waters, paralleling the ridge until they felt the first faint tugs of the Pomt’or. That current would take them to the very edge of the ice cap. The Pillars of Shooki, and beyond them Kinlok Island, could be reached from there.

Kloosee was glad that Orkn’tel sounded calm, litor’kel, today. The bottom pulsed fifty or so beats below them, thick with mud and hidden from time to time, by a tricky layer of warmer water. The two kip’ts slid easily through the trackless wastes. Inside the vast swirl of the Great Ork’lat Current, the Orkn’tel was as barren as any sea in the world. The water was a clear blue-green, almost sterile of life but for the ever-present gruel of ertesh, thin and oily in this sea. Few creatures found it appetizing enough to school here.

From time to time, they would pulse a school of eelot below them. They were fearsome-looking beasts, with huge, billowing heads and maws so wide that could have swallowed a kip’t whole if they had had the stomachs to digest it. The eelot’s body was more whip than flesh and covered with nearly invisible prickle hair. It could emit a paralyzing substance from these hairs and Kloosee was careful to give the school a wide berth. From their distance, the eelots looked like rubbery globes but that was deceiving. Fortunately, they preferred the bottom waters.

They traveled for the better part of another day with Kloosee and Chase taking turns in their kip’t at the controls. It was clear to Kloosee that the eekoti male called Chase was becoming more and more used to his new form and appearance; no more raspy breathing, sucking or coughing. Kloosee, and later Pakma over the comm circuit, regaled the humans with stories from Omtorish mythology, stories they had learned from their earliest days as midlings.

Kloosee told them about Kreedake and Pomel, the First Mortals, and how they had come to life in the midst of a terrible storm, azhpuh’te it was called, spun out of the very substance of the water itself, and how they chased each other the world, before settling on the edge of the Om’metee plain near Likte Trench. Kreedake and Pomel made love for six metamah, burying their offspring in caves carved out of the sides of Likte. Thus was born the Omtorish race.

Then the two kip’ts were silent for a while. It was Kloosee who interrupted Chase’s thoughts as the human drove the kip’t along the heading Kloosee had given him.

“Chase, I haven’t given thanks for how you helped us on our last visit to your world.

Without you…and your eekoti healer, we would have died.”

Chase shrugged. At least, he thought it was a shrug. You couldn’t tell after em’took. “You mean after you were shot by that cop on the beach? Yeah, I guess Dr. Holland did pretty much save your life. Both of you.”

Kloosee considered that. “On my world, when someone is greatly indebted, the holder of the debt usually offers shame-bonding to repair the relationship. But you’re eekoti…we cannot expect that of you. It would be wrong to expect that.”

“No, no…it’s okay. I want to learn. I’m on your world…I want to follow your ways. What is this shame-bonding?”

Kloosee tried to explain. “This is the act of binding oneself to the will of someone you have hurt, in order to make amends for denying them Ke’shoo and Ke’lee. Kind of an apology…a way of allowing the one in debt some honor.”

Chase concentrated on keeping the kip’t centered in the current. Some tricky cross-currents were trying to push them off-course; Kloosee had warned him that might happen.

Ke’shoo and Ke’lee…I’ve heard that before. It means love and life.”

“More or less. Fertility and friendship. You are learning—“

“So what would I have to do if we did this shame- bond?”

Kloosee said, “Anything I asked.”

“Wow…that could mean a lot, couldn’t it? Yeah, no question that cop shouldn’t have blasted you like that…but I can kind of see his point, you know? He didn’t know what you were. He was just trying to protect his people… eekoti, I guess you call us, on the beach. I’d say it was an accident. Still, I want to do the right thing. How do we do this shame-bond? What do I do?”

Kloosee spent a few minutes helping Chase adjust his course. He was still unsure of the controls; they weren’t meant for eekoti hands.

“I would like you to consider staying on Seome…forever. Make your life here. Putektu needs you. There’s so much we could do together. You know things I don’t. Here, I know things you don’t.”

Chase was honored. Still, he decided it was best to be cautious. Already, he and Angie had witnessed instances of kel politics. He didn’t want to get sucked into something he really didn’t understand. “This Putektu…this is your em’kel, isn’t it? Like your family?”

“It is, exactly that. You learn well, eekoti Chase.”

“It’s a great honor…what you’re asking me. I mean, to be accepted into your world, with Angie and me both outsiders. Off worlders, I guess. I want to help with your problems…the Sound, these Umans. But that is asking a lot. Me, I’d probably be okay with it…maybe not forever, but I like to see new places, do new things. Angie…” Chase tried a shrug again, then gave up, realizing the gesture would mean nothing to Kloosee…”—Angie, I’m not so sure. She

came along, mainly because of me, I think. We’re pretty much in love…someday, I expect we’ll get married, have kids and all that.”

“Excuse me…what is this marriage, you speak of? I search my pods and find nothing—“

Chase laughed. “I’m not sure you have anything like that here. From what I’ve seen and heard, you don’t have husbands and wives.”

“Our lives are in the kel…and the em’kel.”

“And ya’ll sleep around a lot too, I’ve noticed. Not that this is a bad thing—I mean…there is Ke’shoo and Ke’lee, right?”

“We are not attached to one individual for long times, if that’s what you mean. Pakma and I are good friends, we couple as all Seomish do. We enjoy each other’s company. But she’s not of Putektu.”

“Pakma’s not in the same family…em’kel. Is she in a different em’kel?”

Kloosee’s voice became softer, almost tired. “I try to interest her in Putektu…but she doesn’t view exploring the Notwater, discovering the secrets of the Puk’lek, the seamother, the way we of Putektu do. Pakma has her own em’kel…it’s called Ot’lum Tek’ek. They are devoted to the arts…scentbulbs.”

“Pakma’s an artist? I had no idea.”

“It’s true. Pakma loves creating and enjoying scents. She has an artist’s temperament and she likes to experiment. That’s why, as a midling herself, she once went into the seamother waters to gather their scents in ways nobody had ever done before. She was slightly injured but she used this time of injury to gather scents related not only to the local caves and T’kel but her own scent response to this time of injury. Her bulbs would later become very inspirational and popular as other Seomish fans used them to help them through times of stress. Pakma called these bulbs “Opuh’tee Kek’ot,” which means literally “my whirlpool mind.”

Chase figured he needed to learn a little more about Pakma…there was just so much he needed to learn.

He was about to ask more, but an insistent beeping distracted them. The kip’t sounders were indicating something.

Chase threw up his hands. “Now it’s beeping at me…what do I do? I didn’t touch anything, I swear—“

Kloosee checked some instruments. “Kinlok Island is near. I recognize the echo…let me take over.”

The two of them swapped positions, awkwardly and Kloosee spoke briefly, in a tongue that Chase couldn’t decipher, about something.

“We will slow and ascend near the surface. I told Pakma I would activate the signaler in a few moments.”

“The signaler…is this like a radio or something?”

Kloosee indicated it was a communication device that had been devised to enable crude exchanges with the humans. “Like you, the Umans respond to sound. But they live in the Notwater. Their understanding of sounds, the sounds they use to communicate, we cannot make.

Nor can they make sounds we understand. The signaler is a type of echopod, like you have used, for us to signal the Umans and talk with them. It has a great range. We talk from below the water. The Umans talk from the Notwater.”

“Long-range, like. I get it.”

With that Kloosee brought their kip’t to a dead stop. Pakma did likewise. The water had lightened considerably, though it was still turbid and silty. But even through the murk, Chase could just make out the faint outlines of a craggy slope in the distance.

That was Kinlok Island, Kloosee told him.

And the Sound of the wavemaker was deafening here. The pulses of the Time Twister had been growing louder by the day and more uncomfortable. Now, it had reached a point of being particularly uncomfortable, like when the Croc Boys had their woofers and tweeters tuned wrong in a jam session. Chase now understood in a visceral way why the Seomish were so desperate to stop the Twister.

If I can help them, I’ve got to try, he told himself. Angie may not like that. But it’s the right thing to do. For the moment, this place is our home too.

But he wanted to learn more about these Umans.

Kloosee drove their kip’t upward, toward the surface. The waters became rough and turbulent in the coastal zone of the island. Pakma followed behind.

A few beats from the Notwater, with the Sound hammering the water like a fist, Kloosee stopped. He extracted the signaler from a small pouch. It looked just like an echopod, with several horn shaped protrusions on one end. Kloosee pressed the signaler against the sled’s cockpit bubble and activated it.

At first, Chase heard nothing. Kloosee explained that the signaler worked on sound. It emitted pulses of a certain frequency that the Umans had recommended.

“I’m telling the Umans that we wish to meet. I’m telling them we wish to discuss matters of great importance…that we have new kelke to introduce…that the new kelke offer ideas on how to alter their machine so it doesn’t have destructive effects. We’ll see what they say.”

Chase heard nothing. All he could hear, all he could concentrate on, was the wavemaker, the Uman Time Twister, slamming the cold waters with thundering pulse after pulse, rattling his teeth, jarring his whole skeleton.

Jeez, how do they put up with this crap?

The answer wasn’t long in coming. Chase saw the signaler buzz as if it were a trapped bird.

Kloosee interpreted the buzzing, with a frown.

“They say they will meet with us. For a short time only. The usual place. It seems there are developments with their enemy. A new threat approaches so the meeting must be short.”

Chase wondered just what threats were gathering. “What’s the usual place?”

Kloosee said, “The boundary…water and Notwater…we have no word for this—“

“Ah, yeah…you mean the beach?”

“That must be it. I’ll add that to our dictionaries.”

So Kloosee drove them to the surface. A gale was blowing topside. Towering waves crashed over them and the kip’t wallowed like a sick whale, rolling in all the froth and foam.

Winds screamed. It was daylight…barely, but to Chase it seemed more like twilight. Or maybe dawn. It was hard to tell.

Moments after they had breached, Pakma and Angie did likewise. Kloosee and Pakma had already exchanged ideas on how to go about the meeting.

Kloosee steeled himself for the low pressure of Notwater. He grunted out: “When I open the cockpit, climb out. I’ll close it after you and submerge. Pakma is doing the same. Meet Angie on this ‘beach,’ as you call it.”

Chase was just glad to help. He understood, now in a more personal way than ever, why this was so important.

The bubble hissed and yawned open. Quick as he could, Chase scrambled over the side and nearly drowned in the waves, before finally regaining stability. He pawed and clawed his way through heavy surf and soon found himself barreling face first into a pile of rock and gravel.

It was the beach. He dragged himself up onto the rocks and saw a shape in the mist to his left, doing the same thing. That’s got to be Angie. He went to her, still momentarily shocked at her lizard-like appearance. They both looked like mutant frogs from a sci-fi flick, grown large and menacing. But that didn’t matter know.

Standing up a bit unsteadily in the gale, Chase spied shapes moving on a nearby ridge. He assumed this was the Uman party. There were three.

He trudged off, Angie in tow, and stopped at the base of the ridge. All three Umans had weapons trained on them. Suppressors, Kloosee had told him. Paralyzing weapons. He stopped and held out his hand, not sure exactly what to say, or how it would sound.

“Hey…uh, we’re humans! We need to talk! Can you hear me? Can you understand me?”

Nobody had informed the Umans that the Seomish representatives would be humans that had undergone the em’took. One Uman, the one in the middle, took a few steps forward. The others trained their weapons.

A guttural voice rang out, barely audible over the roar of the wind.

“Stay where you are! Come no closer!”

Chase heard the words, muffled but distinguishable and nearly cried out. God Almighty…

that’s English! Accented, with some odd phrases, but it was English! He started forward but in that moment, a Uman opened fire with his suppressor.

The jolt knocked Chase flat on his back. For what seemed like hours—time had congealed to a crawl—he couldn’t feel or hear anything. He couldn’t hear anything. Nothing would move.

He could breathe, more or less. But his legs and arms…nothing.

Then a face appeared, followed by another.

The first was Angie. A frog’s face, but somehow, he knew it was her.

Chase! Chase, are you all right…are you hurt?” She squatted down on her haunches and bent to nuzzle him, clucking over him. Hovering behind her shoulders, the Uman in the middle peered down.

His face was formed of hard cheek planes, with a bit of a double chin. Even some dimples, looking almost comical in a frame of gray-white buzzcut hair with sandy gray sideburns.

“I told him not to come up---here, wave this under his nose.” The Uman handed Angie a small perforated ball. She did as instructed, waving the ball back and forth under Chase’s nose and face.

Presently, feeling returned. Slowly, then more feeling, like a spreading stain, until after what seemed like days, Chase found he could sit up. His whole body tingled. His hand and feet shook uncontrollably.

Unsteadily, leaning on Angie, and now with help from the other Umans, Chase got to his feet. They led him to small cut in the ridge, more or less protected from the winds, and there he sat down on gravelly ground again, trying to clear his head. He noticed just how cold the wind was, ice-flecked and biting, and was glad for the tough hide the em’took had given him.

The Umans all gathered around Angie and Chase.

“The message said you were Uman,” said the one who had first come down from the hill.

“You don’t look like anything I ever saw in Uman space. What are you…something from Hapsh’m? Majoris, maybe? Acth:On’e…you ever see anything like these two?”

The tallest Uman had a blade-shaped head. Two eyes, but they were further apart than the first Uman.

“I haven’t, Ultrarch-Major. Not in many terr…maybe they’re Coethi spies…I could believe that.”

Chase held up a hand. His own webbed hand startled him for a second. “No, no…we’re humans, just like you. Earth. We came here with friends, Kloosee and Pakma. The Farpool brought us.”

The Ultrarch-Major cocked his hand. “You mean that vortex these buggers keep talking about…that’s just somebody’s wet dream. A fairy tale.”

“No, no, it’s true. We came from Earth. Our Earth. Scotland Beach, Florida…it’s just a little north of Tampa…Clearwater…got great beaches, believe me.”

The Ultrarch-Major rubbed his chin, looked at his compatriots. “Earth? Urth? The motherworld…that’s not possible. It’s quarantined. Too dangerous now…all those timestreams converging….the Corps had to isolate them. The Coethi stick their grubby little snouts in one of these main timestreams, we’re finished. No more Urth. Corps had to cut them off, completely.

Believe me, it wasn’t easy. Controversial, too. But it was the right thing to do…somehow, the brass blundered into a decent tactical decision for once. What do you want to talk about…I haven’t got all day.”

Chase decided he would stand up, no matter how hard it was. Angie helped him. The suppressor had weakened everything in his body and he felt like jelly. He leaned against her and felt nauseated and dizzy, but he was determined. He stuck out a webbed hand, assuming a handshake would be understood.

“I’m Chase…Chase Meyer. This is Angie Gilliam.”

The Ultrarch-Major recoiled for a moment, then reached out just enough to rub fingers with Chase’s webbed, oily hand. He flinched, but he seemed to understand the gesture as a friendly one.

At least, that hadn’t changed.

“Ultrarch-Major Monthan Dringoth, First Time Displacement Battery. These are my officers: Captain Acth:On’e and Lieutenant Golich. Come on…we’ve got Coethi crashers and cruisers nearby, closing fast on this base… let’s hurry this up.”

“Right. Well, see, my friends…Kloosee and Pakma, they and all the Seomish are being hurt by this sound your weapon, your machine makes. It’s destroying their world. It’s wrecking everything down there—“he pointed to the ocean. “Everything in the oceans, all their cities, their economies, their families. I came...we came…to ask, beg you to shut it down. Turn it off.”

Dringoth looked puzzled. “First you tell me you came from Urth through one of those blasted vortexes…that’s crazy in itself. Then you tell me there are cities and families and whatever down there underwater. That’s crap. The creatures here are just like my pet wing-walker…smart, yes, but just animals. Pets. Beasts. There aren’t any cities down there…what are you, cracked? Fall into one of those whirlpools, did you?”

Acth:On’e laughed out loud, spitting and slobbering as he did so. When he breathed, you could hear a faint hiss. “It’s a trick, Ultrarch-Major. They’ve taught these buggers tricks, like you teach your pets to speak, fetch things, lie down. Just a trick.”

“We’re not pets!” Chase insisted. “Hey, man, I’m as human as you. I look like a frog

‘cause we went through a procedure…the Seomish wanted us to be able to survive here as they do. We breathe Notw…I mean, air. Just like you.”

“They are breathing air,” said the Lieutenant Golich. “I’ll give him that.”

Dringoth glared at Chase. “What did you call these creatures?”

“Uh…Seomish? This world is Seome.”

Dringoth snorted. “We call this hellhole Storm. In fact, one of your ‘friends’ damaged our Time Twister several terr ago and we had to abandon the place. But Timejump Command said we had to come back and patch the thing up.” Dringoth peered skyward for a moment, shielding his face from the stinging sleet. “Don’t know how long this sun’ll hold up, though. She’s already taken more than a few starballs. We came back because we were ordered too…took a minor miracle to get the Twister up and running again. Now, a Coethi fleet is bearing down on us as we speak, popping in and out of different timestreams…we can barely track the bastards.

No way are we shutting the Twister down now. That’s suicide, even for your friends.”

Chase tried to follow Dringoth’s argument but it was hopeless. “What is this Twister…is it a weapon?”

Dringoth had trouble hearing them. The wind screamed across the beach, flinging sleet and salt spray in their faces. It was Golich who suggested they retreat to the hut on the ridge. The hut turned out to be filled with equipment, tracking gear for the Time Twister.

“Sure it’s a weapon,” the Ultrarch-Major replied. He fixed himself a mug of something steaming hot to sip. “The Twister is what we use to keep Coethi from entering this sector of the Halo…Halo-Alpha. Keeps ‘em from bollixing up timestreams from here to Sturdivant and back.

That’s our mission. You say you’re both Uman?” Dringoth squinted, twiddled with a tuft of moustache, looked Chase up and down. “You don’t look like anything I’ve ever seen.”

“Maybe something from Gibbons’ Grotto,” Golich suggested. “The Hollows and all that.”

Chase assured the Major that he and Angie were quite human. “We look like this because we went through a procedure-I can’t pronounce it—to help us adapt to living here, in the sea.

I’m from Florida. Earth.”

“Me too,” Angie chimed in. She wondered if they had somehow fallen into a sci-fi flick.

“Greetings from Earth.”

“Urth.” Dringoth pronounced it slightly different. He had a faraway look on his face, pulled himself up a chair from underneath a small control station, turned it around and sat in it backward. “Hmmm. Never been there. Like I said, it was quarantined. Timejump had to shut down all timestreams to keep Coethi from infecting the Heartland.”

“So what does this Time Twister do?” Chase asked. He examined some of the instruments and controls, until Acth:On’e intervened and politely shoved him away.

Dringoth shrugged. “Got a singularity engine at the core. It reaches out several parsecs from here and flings anything it finds out of local space-time. Sends it off to who knows where…other side of the galaxy. Maybe other side of the Universe. We don’t understand it ourselves. Timejump just gave us the basics. First Time Displacement Battery just operates and maintains the thing.” He patted a rack of gear. “This baby keeps Halo space clean, free of Coethi and other nasties.” His face darkened. “As long as you people stop trying to damage it, that is. We’re having to fight off the Coethi and the local life too. It’s getting old.”

“I’ve made skimmer trips out to Big Mama myself, plenty of times,” Golich jumped in.

“I’ve seen all those whirlpools. Twister does that. Leakage effects. We used to enjoy herding fish and whatnot into the vortexes and watch ‘em being accelerated out of space time…lots of fun but it got old. Anything to pass the time on this hellhole. Never seen this Farpool you speak of, though.”

Acth:On’e was openly skeptical. “It’s pretty hard to believe one of these whirlpools could become a wormhole…I guess it’s possible. But then I’m no scientist.”

“Your weapon is destroying this world,” Angie said. “The sound, the whirlpools—“

“—the vibrations and waves,” Chase added. “The Seomish brought us here to talk to you.

You’ve got to turn off the Time Twister…they actually call it the wavemaker. It’s making rubble out of their cities—people are dying….”

Dringoth scoffed. “I don’t believe any of it. Even if there were actual cities and whole civilizations under the sea here, it wouldn’t matter. We have a mission and we have our orders.

A Coethi fleet’s been sighted in Halo space the last few days and is probably bearing down on us right now. They know we’re here. They may have even more effective starballs. If the whiz kids at T2—Timejump Intelligence—are even close to being right, the sun up there—Sigma Albeth B-- is doomed. So is this world, unless we can keep yanking Coethi ships into forever with the Twister.” Dringoth’s hard blue eyes bore in on Chase and Angie. “So you see: if I really do what you want, you’re dead. We’re all dead. And Coethi occupies Halo Alpha and Uman settlements start going poof. We’re planning on a better outcome.”

Angie had an idea. “Maybe you could work with the Seomish…re-design your Twister.

Re-locate it somewhere else. Aren’t there other worlds around this sun?”

Golich gave an exhausted sigh, like he was explaining this for the millionth time. “Strategy says the Twister stays here on Storm. It’s preposterous. You want reasons, I’ll give you reasons.

How about strategic location in the Halo? Storm’s right there. How about the stability and cooling properties of the oceans here? Perfect for the Twister. How about concealment possibilities…when we rebuilt the Twister, we made it look more like some of the islands around here.”

“Except the Coethi already know we’re back here on Storm,” Acth:On’e complained.

“They’re not that stupid…they keep losing crashers and time ships in this sector…they’ll put two and two together. “

Dringoth waved them all quiet. “It’s all academic anyway. The Twister’s all that stands between Uman bases in this sector and Coethi overrunning everything. Military necessity dictates the Twister remain operational and located where it is. I don’t like it any more than you do. Believe me, nothing would please me more than to abandon this sewer of a planet and get out of here. We did that once. But Timejump sent us back…pretty much for the reasons Mr.

Golich just outlined. I’m sorry…we can’t do what you want.”

Nothing Chase or Angie could say would change Dringoth’s mind. For Chase, this was almost as bad as being stuck in a cave with Stokey Shivers. He wanted to learn more about the Twister but the Umans were cautious about details. Even then, an idea was forming in the back of his mind. Sabotage. He figured Kloosee and Pakma’s people had tried that. But it was like a dog trying to figure out how to get a box of treats down from the top shelf of the pantry. In other words, don’t count on it.

Dejected, Chase told Angie they should return to the kip’ts. “We should talk with our friends,” he said.

Dringoth stood up. “We’re not staying here a second longer than we have to. The signaler said these fish-people wanted to meet me. Now, we’ve met. I’m taking my staff back to the compound.”

Golich opened the door and the winds rocked Chase as he stepped out into the gale. Sleet stung his face and Angie hunched over, using him as a shield. They waddled down the slope of the ridge to the beach, picked their way among the rocks and salt pools and dove headfirst into the water. It was cold, thick was ice, but at least it was calmer.

Kloosee sounded their approach and swam over, lightly bumping into Chase’s shoulder. He led Angie back to Pakma’s kip’t and then accompanied Chase to theirs.

With the cockpit down and sealed, Chase explained what had happened.

“We failed completely, Kloos. They wouldn’t even listen. I wanted to show them something of what the Twister’s doing, but they weren’t even interested. They’re just soldiers.

They’ve got a mission and they’ve got orders and that’s that.” Chase sucked on an overripe gisu Kloosee had given him, swirling the tart juice in his mouth. It tasted bitter and he put it down.

“I guess we failed. What do we do now?”

Kloosee thought. “For now, eat and rest. I’ll get us away from Kinlok, put us on the other side of the island, so we can get away from the Sound. That pounding makes my head hurt.”

“Then what? Do you have any ideas?”

Kloosee was grim. “Not at the moment. We’ll have to return to Omsh’pont. Meet with Longsee, maybe others. They may have ideas.”

“We can’t just give up,” Chase said. He wasn’t even aware of the fact he had said we. But Kloosee smiled faintly at the word. Chase Meyer, eekoti, was becoming more and more Seomish every day.

He wasn’t sure whether that was a good thing or not.

Kloosee started up the jets, communicated briefly with Pakma on a proposed course away from Kinlok, and turned them toward deeper seas, heading south away from the wavemaker, away from the Farpool. Away from their best chance to stop the wavemaker from destroying everything.

It was going to be a long ride back. Everyone was depressed and gloomy, even fatalistic about what the future would now bring.

Chapter 11

Seome

Omsh’pont, kel: Om’t

Time: 766.3, Epoch of Tekpotu

Back in the great city of Omsh’pont, the travelers wound their way through a blizzard of sediment and silt loosened by the waves and the Sound, and entered the warrens of the Kelktoo.

There, after some rest and a short roam to get the kinks out, an audience was organized with the Metah and her staff. Longsee handled the details.

Elders from throughout Omt’or were invited to the Metah’s chambers. It was quickly established that destroying the wavemaker, sabotaging the Time Twister, was suicidal. Seome risked destruction from the enemy of the Umans, the Coethi, if that were done. Other ideas would have to be considered.

The Metah’s chambers were at the apex of the central pyramid in the center of the city, between the seamounts. Longsee lok was there, so was Tamarek lu from one of the builders’

em’kels. Tulcheah kim was there too, an advisor to the Metah. She stationed herself as near to Kloosee as she could, slyly studying him from a distance. Kloosee pretended not to notice.

Pakma did notice.

It fell to Longsee to explain the failure of the eekoti mission to Kinlok.

“The Umans are recalcitrant,” Longsee admitted. ‘They’re more concerned about their own enemy. They refuse to shut down the wavemaker.”

The Metah, Iltereedah luk’t, sniffed at the news. She drifted serenely over her bed of glowing coral, pulsing all around, looking for deceit, anxiety, fear, calm, anything to gather a sense of what her people were saying and feeling. Shookel was nowhere to be found. No one could say there was any balance in the inner lives of the kelke these days.

“I thought as much. You have other ideas? I’ve already ordered evacuation plans to be developed. With this—“she indicated the steady rain of dirt falling outside the platform, the rubble tracks on the seamounts, the drone and beat of the Sound, “Omsh’pont will be unlivable in a short time.”

“Most Serene Metah,” Longsee waggled his armfins, indicating Tamarek should come forward and join him. “We have some ideas for your consideration.”

“Don’t hold your tongue, Longsee…now is not the time.”

“Yes, Affectionate Metah…there are two possibilities. Tamarek and others from many em’kels have been working on a new material…it’s a dense weave of tchin’ting fiber—Tamarek, bring it up, let everyone see it--.”

Tamarek lu pulled out a swatch of the material and it was passed around from one elder to another. There were many comments, some curses, some amazed faces.

“We propose to build a shield out of this material,” Longsee explained. “Tamarek indicates it can be fabricated in great quantity, but we’ll need help from other kels—especially the Ponkti.

They know tchin’ting better than anyone.”

Iltereedah clucked. “That could prove difficult. I’m sure Tulcheah will agree with me on that. Go on.”

“Yes, Metah…a great shield could be built of this fabric and the shield lifted into place around the wavemaker. We’ve done studies and tests at Kelktoo. The tests show we can reduce

the sound and the vibration, all the acoustic damage, really, by many magnitudes. However, a means of lifting and securing the shield will have to be devised. Tamarek here has some ideas.”

The Metah let that idea circulate among the elders for awhile. She studied the gathering.

Pulsing such a large crowd, you could easily get a sense of what they were feeling. She gathered a lot of echoes: some worried, some afraid, some were defiant, ready to go to war, some confused. There seemed to be no consensus. Then she saw Kloosee and Pakma— and there was Tulcheah kim working her way toward Kloosee, the slut— and their eekoti friends. They had strange names: Chase and Angie. Tailless People were all strange.

“Longsee, let’s ask your eekoti friends what they think. Maybe they have ideas.”

Longsee tried not to take that as a comment on his own idea, but motioned Kloosee to bring the eekoti forward. Chase and Angie were conveyed to a place before the Metah.

She pulsed both of them, even leaving her place above the coral bed and circling them like the predator she had once been. They pulsed strange. It was always hard to get a reading on Tailless people. Their insides bubbled like a steam vent, but you couldn’t get a sense of what it all meant…all that churning and burning, were they really that disturbed inside? Finally, Iltereedah went back to her coral bed and gave up.

“You eekoti have been to Kinlok. You’ve talked with the Umans…you’re related to them, after all. Can we work with them? Why can’t they see what they’re doing to us? If the Sound doesn’t stop, we’ll have no choice. Either we go to war or we die.”

Chase listened carefully to the echopod translation, glancing at Kloosee and Longsee from time to time, wondering if he understood, if he should respond, and what did one say to the Metah anyway?

Kloosee encouraged him with some gestures.

“Your Majesty…I’m… we’re…just visitors here. We know little of your ways. I did talk with the Umans. That’s already been said. They’re not interested in talking. They’re fighting a war. Unless we…you…can help them with that, they won’t listen.”

“Affectionate Metah,” Longsee found it politic to intervene, “we could offer to work with the Umans.’

“Work with the Umans…how? More negotiations…that hasn’t worked yet.”

“Perhaps if we take a different approach, a more united approach…Tulcheah kim deals with other kels, she can speak to this as well.”

Tulcheah kim was head of diplomats for the Metah. “Only the Orketish and the Ponkti have any interest in dealing with the Umans. The Eepkos, the Sk’ort… kah, let them be. Let them disintegrate.” Tulcheah wasn’t shy about her opinions.

The Metah was interested in hearing more from Chase. “What do you eekoti think of this?

Can we work with the Umans at any level? Is there anything we can offer?”

Chase had no idea how he was supposed to answer that. Back home, he’d never voted. His Mom chided him on that, but talking politics was like going to the dentist. You avoided it as long as you could and only went when something hurt. Still, here they were, being asked their opinion, on matters of state and war and diplomacy. It was nuts. He and Angie hadn’t been on Seome more than a few weeks at most; and, by the way, he still didn’t understand the time keeping system here.

“Your Majesty—“ how did you address the Metah?—“maybe we…you... can work with the Umans in some way. Offer to help move the Twister. Maybe there’s another island they could use…or even another planet in this system—“ he stopped, seeing the puzzled looks on the elders.

Longsee knew something of other worlds, as did Kloosee and Pakma, but the others…Chase learned there was little point in pursuing that line of thought. But the Metah had asked—

Longsee pointed out something that needed to be considered. “Metah, our eekoti friends have a unique perspective...we think they’re actually related to the Umans in some way, strange as that may be. But if we damage or destroy the wavemaker...assuming we could even do that…

or cause it to be shut down, then the Farpool itself will cease to exist.”

“This is true,” Tulcheah agreed. “And other kels have not yet had a chance to explore it, test it…already the Ponkti are jealous—“

Kah, “spat one elder, “the Ponkti are jealous of their own shadows.”

“Nonetheless,” Tulcheah went on, “we should be careful in doing anything that shuts down the Farpool, before we’ve all had a chance to see what it’s capable of. Other kels think Omt’or is keeping all the secrets for itself.”

Oh, this is just great, Chase thought to himself. Now, we’re right in the middle of Seomish politics. I’d rather have a tooth pulled. With help from Kloosee, Chase was able to drift quietly back into the crowd, while the elders debated and argued and swore at each other. It wasn’t hard for Chase to see that tempers were rising.

His echopod chirped. Though it was hard to distinguish in the general commotion of the discussion, Chase thought he had heard Angie’s plaintive voice in the background.

“Chase… Chase…can you hear me? Is that true? Are they really going to shutoff the Farpool?”

Chase whispered back. “Angie…Angie, is that you? Can they hear us?”

“I don’t know…there’s such a racket. They’re all arguing over something. Chase, what about the Farpool…if they—“

“I know, I know. I don’t think they’ll shut it down…that’s our way home.”

“Chase, we did all we could. I want to go home…can we just get out of here now--?”

“Shhh…I think they can hear us.”

The Metah was speaking. “I see no choice but to involve the Ponkti. They know how to work with tchin’ting fiber in quantity.”

Tamarek was appalled. “Honorable Metah, we can work with tchin’ting as well as any Ponkti…already, I’ve fabricated many beats worth…come to the em’kel…I’ll show you.”

But Iltereedah had made up her mind, snapping her tail flukes abruptly. “No, we must have all the kels together…Omt’or, Ponk’et, Ork’et, the Eepkos, the Skort. It’s too big a project for one kel. The Umans won’t be able to ignore us if we’re together.”

Tulcheah, who was Ponkti by birth, concurred, amplifying the Metah’s words. “No one kel can monopolize the Farpool.”

“May I remind the Most Affectionate Metah,” said Longsee, “that the wavemaker, the Uman machine that is wrecking our world, creates the Farpool. If we aren’t careful, damage to the wavemaker will shut down the Farpool…we’ll lose access to other places, other times. And our eekoti friends—“ He didn’t have to go further. All eyes were on Chase and Angie.

The Metah pulsed Chase, then Angie. “I pulse turmoil…concern…if I read the echoes right.

You worry about the Farpool?”

Chase had to be prodded by Kloosee to reply. When the Metah addresses you… answer.

“Yes, that’s right, Your Majesty. The Farpool is our way home. We want to help here.” He took Angie’s scaly arm in his. “But someday, we both want to go home.”

Iltereedah’s face was a mixture of feelings. Chase wasn’t sure how to figure it. In the dim lighting, she had a pig’s snout. From other angles, she had a kind of bemused smile, a look that

said I know all about you. He didn’t yet know how to pulse the insides of his Seomish friends.

He’d tried before, but all he got back was a blast of echoes, a disjointed pattern that made no sense. And how kosher was it to pulse the Metah anyway? Wasn’t that rude? The Seomish didn’t seem to have any secrets. They could see right inside you…they knew what you were feeling, what you had just eaten, whether you were anxious or calm. Kloosee had talked about Shookel. Inner calm, inner tranquility. Chase figured maybe that was just good manners. Keep your insides steady and calm so you don’t annoy the hell of everybody around you.

The Seomish all placed a lot of emphasis on shookel.

“This we understand,” said the Metah. “Eekoti are not of our world. It’s not fair of us to involve you in our affairs. I don’t want our eekoti guests to be pawns in a struggle between the kels.”

“Honorable Metah, “Longsee said, “perhaps the eekoti can help us with the shield project.

They can talk with the Umans. They are Uman, in a sense. The other kels will listen to them.”

“Perhaps,” sniffed the Metah. “I will compose a formal message—Tulcheah here will help me—to the Metah of Ponk’et. Lektereenah kim. I know her. She’s brash, yes, but she’ll listen to reason…especially if it comes from the eekoti. Longsee, oversee an expedition. Gather your engineers, your craftsmen and spinners and weavers. Be ready. If Lektereenah’s agreeable, we’ll send this expedition to Ponk’et and know we have the best people working on the shield.”

“At once, Honorable Metah.”

Chase wanted to ask just what it was the Omtorish expected him and Angie to do. He glanced at Angie. Were they pawns? Worse, were they like circus freaks, exhibits in some aquarium turned inside out? He felt a growing sense of helplessness. Like they were being sucked into one of the whirlpools…like going through the Farpool, with no way of knowing where they would end up.

He resolved to have a word with Kloosee and Pakma when the gathering was done.

The Metah slipped away from her coral bed and headed toward the edge of the platform, out into the heavily silted waters beyond. She was immediately flanked by Tulcheah and other staff, and well-guarded with armed prodsmen.

“We will build a shield with the Ponkti and the other kels and protect ourselves from the sound that way. If the shield doesn’t work, then the eekoti must go before the Umans with an ultimatum: stop the wavemaker or die.”

Roaming just a quarter beat behind the Metah, Tulcheah kim thought to herself: Ponk’et must take control of this project. We have the right. Omt’or can’t have the Farpool to itself forever. If Omt’or can bring eekoti to Seome, Ponk’et can use the Farpool to bring even greater treasures. Omt’or won’t rule the waves much longer.

Then she swallowed that thought abruptly, sensing one of the prodsmen closing on her. He had pulsed something menacing, something that shouldn’t ever exist in the presence of the Metah. Tulcheah forced her insides to show shookelnothing here but calm and serenity, my good soldier. Nothing but peace and tranquility here. Long live Iltereedah luk’t….

The prodsman eventually veered off and resumed his guard position on their starboard flank.

He kept a wary eye on the chief of diplomats.

And the Metah’s official entourage was off again on vish’tu, another formal roam to inspect the city and its beleaguered residents.

Chase joined Kloosee and Pakma with Longsee as they headed back to the Kelktoo. He knew Angie was glaring at him with both eyes.

He didn’t look over at her. He was determined he wasn’t going to show anything less than total courage . I can do this. We can do this. It was like when he made his first dive with his Dad to the hundred foot depth, right off Round Reef, a few miles from Scotland Beach. His ears ached and he was freezing and his stomach was churning. But he kept giving thumbs’up signs to his Dad, determined to make the Old Man proud of him.

This was a chance to make something of himself. Angie wanted that too. She was always saying things like you can’t sell T-shirts forever, Chase. Get a real job. Make a life. I don’t want to live my life with a beach bum.

No, the Seomish didn’t think of him as a beach bum. They were counting on him, counting on them, to help with the Umans, with their machines and their conflict. Maybe, when it was all over, Kloosee and Pakma would erect a statue, give them medals of honor or something.

Wouldn’t that be cool? A statue on Seome: For Courage and Commitment Beyond the Call of Duty. For Selfless Devotion to Service.

He’d take a picture of it and plaster it all over his bedroom walls back home, so Dad would have to see it every time he burst in unannounced, yelling at him about something at the shop.

If they ever got back home.

Angie’s Journal: Echopod 2

Well, so here I am, dictating this journal again. I don’t know what’s gotten into Chase.

Honestly, sometimes…I just don’t understand that guy. Gwen, I love him. I’m sure of that. But every time I think I’ve figured him out, he surprises me. And not always in a good way either.

“Chase doesn’t want to really go back, through the Farpool. Oh, he says he does. I think he says that for me, just to keep me pacified. Me, I’m homesick. I want to eat waffles in the morning, not this sour fish thing they call gisu . I want to look in the mirror at night and see my brown curls that won’t stay in place, not see some scaly lizard creepy thing that looks like a reject from a bad horror movie. I want my own bed. I want to run laps with you, girl…

remember how we used to do that after school? Hook up with the cross-country team, stick our butts out when we passed by the football team practicing?

“God, I miss all that. Just put me down that Farpool and I’ll take my chances. I try to talk with Chase about this, but he’s not listening…he just nods and smiles, you know…like guys do.

The zombie look…I really want to slap him when he does that.

“Gwen, now things are really getting serious around here. The families—they call them kels—don’t like each other. I guess it’s politics…I don’t know. One kel thinks Kloosee and Pakma’s kel are monopolizing the Farpool…the best I can make out. Chase and me, we’re like pawns. We’re like some great prize. Can you believe that?

“Now, there’s a big project to put up some kind of shield. Kloosee says nobody knows what that’ll do to the Farpool…it might stop the thing altogether. That would suck. How would we get home then?

“Oh, Gwen…I don’t want to stay here. I don’t want to be marooned here. When I ask Pakma about changing back, undoing the modifications to my body, going back through that procedure—she doesn’t give me a straight answer. She says it’s complicated. And it’s more than just the procedure that makes it complicated. Now, I think Chase and me are like exhibits in a zoo…they’re arguing over us, what to do with us, how to use us. That makes me nervous.

“Anyway, I’m just trying to put my thoughts down…sorry if I sound a little down. I guess I am, sort of. I want to record everything, sights, sounds, scents. Pakma said she would help me,

but they’re all so busy. There’s another trip coming. Some place called Ponk’et. They don’t get along too well with Omt’or, from what I gather. And the Metah—that’s like their Queen—has a female on her staff who’s from this other kel…at least partly. Nobody trusts her, but she’s got the ear of the Queen.

“Gwen, there’s so much I can’t show you or even describe. The Seomish can read each other’s insides, the bubbles, the echoes. It’s like they can read your mind. Nothing is secret around here. But I haven’t learned how to do that yet. I’m not even sure I want to…can you imagine that? Me and Chase reading each other’s minds and stomachs. Yuck…he loves Mexican too. That’s more than I want to know.

“Gwen, Pakma’s come for me, so I have to sign off. I’ll keep the journal going on this little trip…I guess we’ll be seeing things we’ve never seen before….just like Nat Geo.

“Swell. I can hardly wait.

“Anyway…until later, girl. Angie out.”

End Recording

Chapter 12

Seome

Omsh’pont, kel: Om’t and Ponk’t, kel: Ponk’et

Time: 766.4, Epoch of Tekpotu

With the shield project underway, Longsee worked with Kloosee and Pakma to have Chase and Angie join the expedition as apprentices, becoming part of a formal team of engineers, craftsmen and weavers who would journey to the city of Ponk’t, on the far side of the world.

There, the Omtorish and the Ponkti would hopefully cooperate on completing the shield and then ferrying it north to Kinlok Island and the Time Twister.

Not everyone was in favor of this arrangement.

So it was that a formal message went out from Omsh’pont, from Iltereedah, Metah of Omt’or to Lektereenah, Metah of Ponk’et. The message proposed a joint effort, to design and build a shield to dampen or eliminate the destructive effects of the wavemaker. The message proposed a joint expedition to Kinlok to put the shield in place.

Our two nations have much to gain from this endeavor, Iltereedah had said. Unity in the face of this grave threat is the only way we can succeed. It is imperative we put aside our differences and present a strong, common face to the Umans.

Tulcheah kim, the Metah’s chief diplomat, helped the Metah write the message. When the thing was done, it was Tulcheah who saw to it that the message was conveyed through the ootkeeor, properly formatted for the repeaters who would sing the song of the proposal across the seas of Seome, across the Omt’orkel and the Sk’ortel, across the Serpentines to the Ponk’el Sea.

The Metah Iltereedah didn’t know that Tulcheah had composed her own private message to accompany the formal one. The annex Tulcheah had composed was coded for the ears of a single Ponkti citizen, one Loptoheen tu, Master of Tuk and military advisor to Lektereenah.

Magnificent, courageous, undefeated in tuk, Loptoheen would understand what was happening…

and he would make sure Ponk’et could take over dealings with the Umans when the shield failed…as inevitably, it would.

Tulcheah planned to be at his side, roaming with the great master himself, when that happened.

The Metah of Ponk’et made her reply soon enough and it was affirmative. Ponk’et would concede to join the Omtorish effort, though not without some stipulations. Outfitting and equipping the expedition proceeded and twelve kip’ts were made available for the journey.

Chase and Angie would ride in one of the lead kip’ts with Kloosee and Longsee, had who gathered up his courage and stamina for what he knew would be arduous trip. Longsee seldom left the confines of Omsh’pont, but his knowledge of the shield design was needed and he was directed to join the crew by no less than the Metah herself.

“I’d sooner lower myself into the volcanoes of the Sk’ort than show up in Ponk’t,” he grumbled, but there was nothing he could do in the face of a direct order.

Kloosee would pilot the lead kip’t. Only he and one other craftsman had ever been in the vicinity of the central city of the Ponkti. Ponk’t was well hidden and even Kloosee wasn’t sure exactly of its location.

When Chase learned of this, he asked Kloosee about it.

“The Ponkti are isolated. They like it that way,” Kloosee explained, as he was loading up his kip’t one day. “They live like hermits. They’re suspicious of everyone, even themselves.

Use your echopod…it can tell you all the details. Personally, I’m not sure why we need the Ponkti for this shield. We can do this ourselves. I think Tulcheah has stolen the Metah’s ears and convinced her the kels should cooperate. The Ponkti complain all the time that we Omtorish monopolize the Farpool, that we’re actually working with the Umans, that we plan to dominate all the seas and make slaves of the other kels. Kah, it’s all nonsense. Let the Ponkti be…that’s my opinion.”

Chase decided to let his echopod explain more….

the great, ice-cold northeastern sea is called the Ponk’el and it is home to the kel:Ponk’et. Bounded on the north by the polar ice-pack, to the east by the ridge T’kel, to the south by the ridge-chain Ork’nt and to the west by the sinuous Serpentine, the Ponkti are an aloof, relatively militant and generally untrustworthy kel… that made Chase smile…”Jeez, I wonder who wrote this stuff,” he asked… the Ponkti usually keep to themselves, preferring to refine their well-known martial skills . They are renowned as the originators and masters of the deadly dance art known as tuk. The Ponkti believe that they are doing God’s will by preserving their isolation and self-sufficiency. The Ponkti believe that the future will bring a great upheaval, a giant, globe-circling wave called ak’loosh , which will destroy all kels. They are preparing to meet this apocalypse….

Chase listened a while longer, decided the echopod was simply spewing some kind of Omtorish propaganda and went back to helping Kloosee load up and check all the kip’ts. He was uneasy as he finished securing gear to the aft cargo sling of their sled…more and more, it seemed like he and Angie were being sucked into kel politics, becoming pawns or worse in some greater struggle. The thought that he and Angie might become prizes in some clash between the kels troubled him. But he decided not to confide any of this to Angie. She was already morose enough about the trip.

“So how many Ponkti are there?” Chase asked Kloosee. He swam alongside his friend as Kloosee roamed the length of the kip’t convoy, examining fastenings, checking cargo pouches, playing with nosy pal’penk who had drifted over in curiosity, verifying seals and hatches and jets and circulators.

“Maybe twenty-five million kelke in all,” Kloosee said. “No one really knows. And the Ponkti certainly won’t tell anybody. “

“One of the weavers…I think his name was Kobo tel or something like that—said the Ponkti live in caves.”

Kloosee continued his leisurely roam, checking every detail, every nuance of the convoy sleds. Chase struggled to keep up. “I’ve heard that too. I’ve never been there but the rumor among the kip’t drivers and the pal’penk herders is that the Ponkti are concentrated along the divide between Ork’te plateau and the T’kel’tong decline, some kind of interconnected caves there. There are whirlpools and chaotic currents around there too, so we’ll have to be careful.”

“Don’t you have maps? GPS? Navigation aids, things like that?”

“I pulse what I know. The echoes I have up here—“ he tapped his beak and head. “And the scents also. We’ll find them. Nobody smells and farts like the Ponkti.” With that, Kloosee snapped off a sharp tail slap and moved smartly away.

Kloosee deemed distracted, even distant. Chase figured he’d better leave his friend alone.

I guess he’s got a lot on his mind right now. Chase turned about and went back up the length of the convoy again, looking for Angie.

Kloosee roamed for a few more minutes, then on a whim, dove back toward a warren of caves halfway up the Torsh’pont seamount. Here was Putektu, his own em’kel. Family. Home.

Familiar scents. He plunged into the caves and found his way to his own berth. There, he extracted a pair of scentbulbs from a shelf and activated one.

The sharp tangy smell of seamothers in heat filled the berth. Kloosee tried as best he could to relax for a moment…the scents brought back favorite memories, ascending toward the surface, caught up in the chaos of a seamother heard seeking Notwater…it was magnificent, it wondrous, it made him shiver just to think of it, the harsh light, the low pressure, the pain in his gut as his insides tried to burst…you had to be insane to love seamothers and their realm but Kloosee did love it and he would never apologize for that.

Deep into the olfactory daze that scentbulbs brought on—it was even a bulb that Pakma had done and given him as a gift—Kloosee was startled when a familiar face came nosing into his berth.

That smell was familiar. He knew that pulse when it echoed back.

Tulcheah kim.

“Pakma give that bulb to you?” she asked, nuzzling Kloosee’s beak. She invited herself in and straight away began nosing her way along Kloosee’s flanks, rubbing his pectorals, his flukes, his belly….

“Tulcheah, stop. Please don’t do that now. I’ve got a long journey ahead and I need some rest.”

“Not feeling too good about the trip, is that it?” Tulcheah teased him. “Wondering if you can even find Ponk’t?”

“I’ll find it…I’ve roamed Ponk’el before.”

Tulcheah slipped away and circled the small berth space, intentionally knocking scentbulbs and utensils off the shelves. Faint currents carried them toward the opening and Kloosee snapped them up with annoyance.

“You know the Metah asked me to join this expedition too.”

Kloosee went back to his bulb, waving it in her face before sniffing the seamother scents himself. Her face wrinkled in disgust and she shoved it away.

“I heard. You manage to insinuate yourself into just about anything.”

Tulcheah sniffed, feigning indignation. “I’m half-Ponkti. Iltereedah knows that. She doesn’t think the Omtorish can pull off this shield by themselves. They need help from real tchin’ting weavers. Plus I can find the city…I lived there as a midling.”

“Until they kicked you out.”

Tulcheah approached Kloosee again, that hurt look on her face. She was an athletic female, though small in stature. Smooth and supple alabaster skin, delicate armfins, strong tail flukes, big eyes…Tulcheah was a lot of things. But she was never boring, never predictable. She delighted in surprising people.

“I left Ponk’t on my own…I wanted to see things. Maybe live a little. What’s wrong with that? At least, I don’t spend all my time roaming around philosophizing, like the Omtorish.”

“You got tired of living in caves like some ancient mudworm. The rest of us left caves thousands of metamah ago.” He bumped her away again and she veered off angrily.

Tulcheah pulled up sharply at the entrance and glared back at Kloosee. She looked around at all the shelves and niches filled with scentbulbs. Putektu, Kloosee’s em’kel, hoarded scents and especially treasured scents of the Notwater, something Tulcheah professed she would never understand.

“What is all this stuff anyway? Pakma’s work, I’ll bet. You can’t seem to get enough of that fat pal’penk.”

“Not all of it,” Kloosee said. “Other kelke do bulbs too, you know.”

Tulcheah grinned. She pulsed Kloosee…already, she could see the telltale stream of bubbles fizzing inside…she was beginning to have an effect, she could pulse that now. “You always liked my scent…here, have a whiff—“ She scooted over, sideswiped him around the beak. “Can’t get enough of that, Kloos…how about it? One last time, before the trip starts…you know, for good luck. Before we have to keep shoo’kel for everybody.”

“The Metah should never have allowed you on this expedition. Nothing but trouble, that’s what will happen.”

Tulcheah shifted into advisor mode now. “The Metah shouldn’t keep the Farpool to herself.

There are other kels, you know. They have as much right to know and use the Farpool as you do. I’m chief of diplomats…I have to deal with this all the time. And the Umans…by Shooki, she’ll be signing an alliance with them in no time. That’s what this is all about, Kloos. Can’t you see it? Keeping the Ponkti away from the Farpool, from the Umans, from your precious little eekoti visitors. Keep the Ponkti in their caves…they can’t do any harm there. We’ll see what the Ponkti can do once they build this shield and fix all your mistakes.”

“That’s where you’re wrong, Tulcheah. The Umans don’t care about the kels or our differences. They care about their blasted machine…fighting off some enemy beyond the Notwater, who knows what they care about. Now, we’ve got Chase, we’ve got Angie. They’re Uman too, or almost Uman. We can speak their language. Know their culture. Learn from them. Live among them.”

Tulcheah laughed, started to dart outside, then stopped and came back, hanging at the entrance like some malevolent dreamthing. “Kloos, you’ve spent too much time with those bulbs …it’s made you mad. Listen to yourself…living among Umans. Living in the Notwater.

That’s the sort of stories they tell midlings…or maybe in Omt’or, they tell them that. Not in Ponk’et. “

“No? In Ponk’et, you just fight each other all the time. And everybody else too.”

Tulcheah was more serious now. “The Metah needs me. This expedition needs me too.

You know that as well as I do.” She looked around at all Kloosee’s scentbulbs. “Why don’t you get rid of all this stuff, especially Pakma’s crap. We don’t leave until tomorrow.” Her voice lowered and she bubbled at him mischievously. “I’ll be back later…we’ll do this right. Pakma will never be able to treat you the way I do.”

“I’m sure of that,” Kloosee said. “And thank Shooki for it, too.”

With that, Tulcheah hummphhed and sped off into the murk.

The expedition left Omsh’pont the next day, to great fanfare from the kelke of the city.

Kloosee knew a lot of hopes were riding on the outcome. If they could get the shield built and placed around the wavemaker, the sound should be greatly reduced and the vibrations dampened enough to make life livable throughout all the seas of Seome. If the expedition failed…well, Kloosee had never put much stock in Longsee’s idea but it was beginning to echo around the kel anyway, whispered in hushed tones, clucked over in the em’kels and the cafes, scoffed at and embraced and discussed in a thousand corners and niches of the great city, even sung about on lengthy roams about the plains and hills surrounding Omsh’pont.

Use the Farpool. Emigrate from Seome. Populate the oceans of the eekoti world…from what Kloosee and Pakma had brought back, it was doable. It was at least thinkable. A mass

exodus, a few at a time, through the Farpool—as long as that vortex-wormhole held up and the Umans didn’t do anything stupid. Abandon Seome…now that was truly unthinkable. Yet, Kloosee had to admit, even the unthinkable was now beginning to be thought about.

No, he told himself, that could never happen. By Shooki, the shield had to work. The Umans had to give in. The two sides, and all the kels, had to get together and make this work.

There was no other way.

So the expedition cruised off the Torsh’pont seamount, twelve kip’ts in all, and was soon lost to view. Kloosee, Longsee, Tulcheah, Tamarek, Chase and Angie and others. Pakma stayed behind. There was little she could contribute to the effort and the Metah wanted everyone’s focus on building and installing the shield.

Tulcheah went along to smooth things over with the Ponkti. That brought a snorting laugh to Kloosee as he turned the kip’t to its northeasterly heading and felt along gingerly for the first faint tugs of the Sk’ork Current. They would have to negotiate that southward flowing river of water before they could transit the Serpentine gap and spill out into the broader Ponk’el Sea.

Relying on Tulcheah to smooth things over with the Ponkti, with anybody really, was like kissing a pal’penk right in the mouth. You did it when you had to and you held your breath when you did.

Kloosee settled in for the long first leg, the ride up to the Serpentines. On the sled cockpit dashboard, he had placed a small scentbulb from his em’kel…more Notwater reminders. They were going there and he was both glad and a little anxious about it. This would help get him in the mood.

Behind him, Chase and Angie said nothing.

But Longsee, the old Kelktoo leader, was not amused. “You don’t have to rub my nose in it,” he muttered. “Turn that thing off. I’ve got work to do back here.”

Kloosee chuckled quietly at that. Minutes later, Longsee was snoring, sound asleep.

They had cruised for several days along the lip of the Ork’te Divide, searching for some sign of Ponk’t in the abyssal wastes but without success. Kloosee knew from the descriptions of the repeaters and from Tulcheah’s insistent directions, that the Ponkti capital lay just over the edge of the plateau, where the broad tongue of land called the T’keltong’tee met the plain in an overthrust cliff. Somewhere in that junction lay the entrances, probably well hidden by thick beds of sediment and rock. Beneath the crust lay the vast underground caverns of Ponk’t itself.

Kloosee dropped the lead kip’t down to a half beat above the mud, leaving a tail of silt behind him as he slowed for a closer look at a suspicious slump in the area. The kip’ts following behind had to dodge and weave through the silt clouds as best they could to avoid collision, which led to great deal of grumbling but fortunately, no accidents. The city portals were supposed to be underneath a shelf which thrust out over the decline and which was nearly invisible even a few beats away. Finding it was going to be hard, Kloosee could see that already and Tulcheah, murmuring and dictating over the comm circuit, wasn’t much help either. This was the way the Ponkti wanted things. Kloosee imagined that Ponkti kip’ts and repeaters had the benefit of knowing where exactly to pulse. Uninvited visitors weren’t so fortunate.

“They have to know we’re coming,” Kloosee said, to himself, as much as anyone. “The city has to be somewhere along this ridge. “Maybe we passed over it.”

The comm crackled with Tulcheah’s snarly voice. “If you’d listened to me, we would have turned at that last ridge and headed south.”

Kloosee didn’t answer. If I listened to you, I’d be your third armfin.

Longsee was sullen, glowering out of the cockpit bubble at the bleak surroundings. The waters were murky with silt and the ooze seemed to extend forever in all directions. Not a single ting bush or weed broke the monotony. He shuddered.

“What a desolate wasteland. Can’t you pulse through this stuff?”

“It’s too deep,” Kloosee told him. He let the kip’t settle gingerly on top of the mud. It sank a bit before holding. “I think it would be better if I got out and did a little roaming. We must be near the city by now.”

“A little roam would do all of us some good,” Chase said. “It’s cramped back here,”

Chase helped Kloosee lift the cockpit bubble and the two of them emerged from the sled.

Chase did a few spins around, just to get the kinks out.

Kloosee wandered off, looking for some sign of the Ponkti city. Behind them, the rest of the convoy had halted as well. Others were getting out, stretching, chattering, pulsing the strange surroundings. He had traveled three beats away and had turned around to head back when he thought he saw something move, not far from the kip’t. Chase was headed that way too…he hadn’t seen it. When he pulsed more closely, the sediment moved again.

Kloosee pulsed around for a few seconds, finding only echoes from a distant mountain range, then he rushed over to the disturbance, wondering if it were a signal, or a door. He probed the upper layers with his hands. Curious, Chase drifted by and studied the scene.

“Find something, Kloos?”

“I’m not—“

In an instant, they were on him, on both of them. Chase and Kloosee were both surrounded before Kloosee could pull his hand out, entangled in a sticky web of white tendrils, almost before they could take a breath. Longsee and Angie had been caught too; through the tendrils, he saw them struggling furiously.

“K’orpuh!” Kloosee yelled. “Get back…get back--!”

“Kloosee…” it was Tulcheah, rushing up. “—get…away!”

Kloosee could feel their fuzzy skin brush his fins as they wove a cocoon around him, pulling the filaments tighter and tighter. A choking cloud of silt swirled around him. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Chase fighting and flailing.

“Don’t struggle!” he told Chase. “They’ll just pull tighter—“

“What the—“

Even through the murk, he occasionally caught a quick glimpse of their snake-like bodies.

They darted in and out of his vision like fat, mobile weeds, slick and gray as the silt itself. He knew they carried a fatal electric charge but so far he had escaped any jolt. They could also extrude a tough fiber and encase a prey in seconds. That seemed to be their goal.

Kloosee heard Angie’s voice, muffled but terrified, somewhere nearby. She’s going to be stung, he thought, crying out like that. He tested the cords encircling him and found them pliant but strong. There was nothing he could do for the others now. And with their stingers primed and ready, it would have been suicide for Tulcheah or Tamarek or any of the others to try to get him out.

They had blundered into a k’orpuh hold and had little choice for the moment. Soon enough, the snakes would finish wrapping them up. After that—

A few minutes later, almost on command, two of the k’orpuh slipped their tails through the cords and started to pull. The cocoon lifted from the floor and he was on his way—where he couldn’t say. He saw Chase in the same predicament and decided to settle down for the ride.

Better to wait for the right moment, he thought. He hoped Chase understood that too.

He couldn’t see where they were going and could only hope it wouldn’t take long to get there. He pulsed other k’orpuh nearby, dragging their cocoons with them.

“Angie! Longsee! Are you hurt? Where are you?”

There was no reply; perhaps, they had only been stunned. Kloosee made himself believe that. With any luck, once in the hold, the k’orpuh would gnaw through the fibers and he would be able to escape and help them. He tried pulsing to see what was ahead but the k’orpuhs’

motion broke up his echoes.

For a long time, there had been rumors among the repeaters and kip’t pilots that the Ponkti had found a way to train the k’orpuh to act as guard animals around Ponk’t but Kloosee had always discounted those stories as unproven. The k’orpuh were notorious for being unreliable, not to mention deadly, much like the Ponkti themselves. The only known breeders were the Eep’kostic, who raised the snakes in the south polar waters for their skins and for sport purposes.

It didn’t seem likely they would trade their secrets to the Ponkti.

The cocoon bobbed along for awhile until Kloosee became fatigued. He should have been more careful…he should have known better—he had led the convoy right into a feeding ground of the snakes—but it was too late for that now.

Suddenly, he thought he saw shapes ahead of them, moving shapes, just beyond pulsing, headed their way. Kloosee struggled in the cocoon to find the leverage to probe the dim gray more carefully. He wasn’t mistaken. Five bodies were approaching and each pulse made him more certain they were Seomish—in fact, probably Ponkti. In a few minutes, they came into view.

They were Ponkti soldiers—there was no question about that. Each of them wore heavy harnesses behind their dorsals. They were armed with prods. Two of them carried long metal prods as well, insulated at the grip, and they used these to poke the k’orpuh away from his sack.

The k’orpuh buzzed and slithered around the ends of the prongs for awhile, but at last, they sulked off, burrowing beneath the sediment. Kloosee thought to explain their mission to Ponk’t but it was clear the prodsmen were in no mood to listen. He said nothing as one of the prong-carriers hooked his device through the cords of the sack and dragged him along, much as the k’orpuh had done. Through the veil of the sack, he saw Chase getting the same treatment. And beyond, he pulsed others in the convoy coming up. Maybe Tulcheah could explain—

But the prodsmen would not be dissuaded from their duty. They had traveled perhaps ten beats or so when the sediment beds that had seemed to stretch to infinity dropped away abruptly.

They drifted out over a precipitous slope that fell below them into a deep canyon, buried under scores of beats of silt. Slowly, they descended, the entire convoy now shepherded along by more prodsmen, and Kloosee watched wide-eyed as the cliff inexorably gave way to a row of dim recesses in the rock face, cave mouths he presumed, all arranged in a ragged line across the cliff.

The prodsmen bore all of them toward one of the openings. They reached it and the prodsmen pushed the sacks containing Kloosee and Chase through ahead of them.

It took a few minutes for Kloosee to adjust his eyes to the darkness and while he did, he pulsed about the cave to learn more.

It was more of a narrow tunnel, he soon found out, roughly rounded at the ceiling and, not unexpectedly, filled with baffles, false chambers and row upon row of slender metal cones lining the walls. A stunning field, he surmised, to kill anything that got this far into the city.

The prodsmen dragged and pushed the k’orpuh sacks and the rest of the Omtorish convoy through several tortuous turns, then up to the edge of a long sloping ramp. An oval of pale amber light glowed at the foot of the ramp and Kloosee pulsed a very large cavern down there, beyond it.

The soldiers nudged the sack down the ramp, along with the others, and they came at last into the heart of the city of Ponk’t.

Kloosee’s first impression was that he had somehow made a complete circle and returned to the open sea. Yet it couldn’t be for here was life in greater abundance than he had ever seen before. Dense, teeming, raucous and restless, more crowded even than Omsh’pont, before the coming of the Sound.

The light was low and pulses were useless with so many people, but Kloosee could feel the size of the place. Even as crushing as the mass of life was, he could still sense the spacious dimensions. There had been rumors about this for a long time. Longsee himself had told him once that Ponk’t was like a great vishtu, a roam so large it boggled the mind. And he had also said there were cavernous chambers the size of small oceans here, dozens of them, buried under the plateau, all connected like the radii of a starfish. Pulsing as far as he could, Kloosee found that even Longsee’s description didn’t do justice to the sight.

For his part, Longsee himself seemed speechless as he bumped and bounced along behind Kloosee. Behind Longsee, others from the convoy had been ordered out of their kip’ts and were being herded further into the city by ever-vigilant prodsmen.

As the prodsmen took them deeper and deeper into the city, they passed through innumerable scent fields. The presence of the Omtorish aroused considerable curiosity and the soldiers had to fight to clear a path at times.

They were taken to the very bottom of the cavern. They drifted down through layer after layer of roaming citizens, through holds and berths made of sheer tissue that parted for their passage, then closed again, through squabbling em’kels and solemn lectures, prodigal feasts thick with the aroma of tongpod and ertleg, games of kong’pelu and tonkro, debates, sexual couplings, tuk matches, a fight and myriad other scenes.

They followed the spine of a pillar that buttressed one wall, passing in their descent, hundreds of small, dark recesses, cavities, niches and hollows at every level, all of them full to bursting with kelke. Kloosee, with Chase and Angie nearby, never grew tired of the extraordinary diversity of life in Ponk’t, even though they traveled for what seemed an hour or so. Always, when he thought he had seen everything, another sight would replace it almost immediately and he would have to watch that too and study it. And there was no way they could take in the entire pageant at a single glance; it was far too complicated, shifting, much too spontaneous for that. Kloosee knew that Chase and Angie had many questions. He also knew he didn’t have any answers. All he could hope to do was see what came before him at the moment and let it leave whatever impression it would on his mind. He couldn’t make sense of it now.

But he also knew that somehow, some way, the Ponkti and the Omtorish would have to overcome their mutual suspicions and cooperate if there were to be any chance of defeating the Umans and ridding Seome of the hated wavemaker.

They were bearing the convoy toward a group of canopies at the bottom, delicate pastel structures that seemed to drift slightly in the prevailing currents. As they approached, Kloosee could see that the canopies were attached by cords to flat stone foundations on the cavern floor.

Hundreds of Ponkti streamed in and out from beneath them and the entire area seemed to be the focus of great attention.

His escorts let the k’orpuh sack hit the floor with a hard bump, then cut the fibers of the sack with stubby knives. While they sawed through the tough cords, Kloosee craned to see what was happening beneath the canopies.

His first impression, confirmed with Chase who was nearby, was that it was a fight, but a closer look showed that such was not the case. Though it was difficult to see through the swarming bodies that flitted in and out, Kloosee was able to see enough to realize that he was witnessing the ancient art of tuk, the ritual dance discipline that was virtually unique to the Ponkti.

When he was finally free at last from the sack, he saw Chase hovering a short distance away, flexing his arms. Angie was there too. They spotted Kloosee and darted over.

“Are you all right?” Kloosee pulsed them both for injuries, until a burly prodsman separated them with an abrupt wave of his weapon.

Kloosee backed away. “I’ll live,” he said. “What about you?”

Chase was rubbing a pinkish welt on his left arm. “Just a little sting—nothing serious.

Where’s Longsee?”

A partially muffled voice replied, “Over here.”

They all turned and saw him helping a prodsman rip away the remnants of his cocoon. A head emerged and stared in amazement at the scenery around them.

“I have a feeling we’re not in Omsh’pont anymore, eh Kloosee? Help me out.”

Kloosee took him by the arms and brushed the last fibers off. He pulsed the old teacher and satisfied himself that Longsee was unhurt. He looked up, found the nearest soldier and went to him.

“We’ve come from Omt’or…here to work with your tchin’ting weavers. Here to build a great shield. Your own Metah knows of this—“

The prodsman said nothing but gestured with his weapon toward one of the canopies.

Longsee pulsed the soldier and found him remarkably quiet and well-disciplined inside.

Unusually calm considering he had just handled one of the sea’s deadliest creatures. He decided it would be prudent to respect the Ponkti.

They were herded together, the entire convoy, and conveyed toward the canopy where the tuk match was still in progress. Ponkti swarmed around them as they approached but the prodsmen held them back. Chase noticed that most of the people seemed very correct in their actions and in complete control of themselves—Kloosee had pulsed around and let that be known— very unlike the Omtorish, he added. Perhaps it was the influence of arts like tuk, but whatever the explanation, he was impressed with this feat of self-mastery. It was like pulsing an army of identical reflections.

In the center of the main canopy, the crowds were thickest, huddling around a large, blubbery female of medium-gray skin. Not surprisingly, the Metah Lektereenah kim, was the center of slavish affection—an unending stream of Ponkti filtered down from outside the cavern and paid their respects by nudging, kissing and stroking her. She was dining on stuffed pal’penk, from the aroma of it, while studying the tuk match before her. A young servling brushed her tail flukes.

Chase and Angie watched as the prodsman worked his way through the line of admirers and, reaching the Metah at last, told her of their captive visitors. She showed no reaction at all, but merely shooed the horde away. At her command, the prodsman beckoned Kloosee, Chase, Angie and Longsee to approach.

Right away, Kloosee noticed a radical difference. He could easily pulse that Lektereenah was a fickle, nervous woman—her innards seethed without pause. He had thought the Ponkti would admire shoo’kel more in their Metah, but either she was so popular that she could do as she pleased or the Ponkti held their leaders to different standards. In any case, she paid them little attention when they arrived; indeed, the presence of non-kelke worried her attendants more than her. They quickly erected a partition of sheer tissue around the Metah, then scattered to the corners of the pavilion and scowled at the visitors.

Longsee was the first to speak. “I am a scientist, Affectionate Metah. An Omtorish scientist. You’ve received a message, a proposal from the Metah of Omt’or, Ilteeredah, to purchase tchin’ting fiber and cooperate on building a great shield.”

She seemed not to have heard and continued munching on a rib of palpenk. In front of them, one of the tuk players scored a dramatic blow against his opponent, stunning him with a sharp tail-slap. The move brought forward a chorus of honks and cheers from the people around them.

At last, Lektereenah deigned to notice them.

“I have received Iltereedah’s proposal. But you are no doubt tired from a long journey. You will eat.” It was not a request and Longsee stood aside to let the Metah’s words be carried out.

Almost instantly, the canopy was full of servants, grabbing them by the arms and tugging them toward a basin in front of the Metah, where pal’penk portions were piled high. But instead of leaving them to eat, the servants proceeded to clean and groom everyone in the convoy with their beaks and with fine brushes. Kloosee tried to smother a smile at Chase’s reaction: already, he had stretched out and was directing the brushes to the sorest places.

“I could get used to this,” he told them.

Angie just sniffed. “Yeah, well don’t expect me to do the same thing when we get back to Scotland Beach, Your Highness.”

“It is a long ride from Omsh’pont,” Lektereenah said. “We have not had visitors from Omt’or for twenty six mah. The attendants will help you to relax, unwind. Kip’t traveling is so tiring, is it not? Such tiny craft. I’m not at all sure that we need them. There are better ways to travel.”

Longsee tried to protest. “Affectionate Metah…we have so much to discuss…the shield…

the project—“

But Lektereenah would hear none of it and turned away. The servants closed in and Longsee was soon enveloped in their capable hands.

Chase was pleasantly surprised to find that the brushes were coated with a narcotic relaxant.

The odor was unfamiliar but the effect was most welcome. Even the beaks of the servlings seemed special. Each of them knew just where his muscles were knotted and just how much pressure to apply. He shivered with comfort, only dimly aware of Angie and the others.

Lektereenah went on, talking and chewing pal’penk at the same time. “Before the kip’ts, people used to roam from kel to kel, freely, with no machines to help them. Imagine that. Oh, of course, they sometimes rode tillets—you know, we still ride them around here—but even so, it’s not the same. I suppose the Orketish don’t breed them anymore.” She studied her visitors out of the corner of her eye. Each was dazed and semi-conscious, mumbling inaudible things. The servling attending Chase drove her hands deep into his flesh, pinching him as she did so, uttering soothing nonsyllables, feeding him pal’penk. When she looked up at the Metah, Lektereenah nodded silently and she resumed her attentions.

“They are such gentle animals,” Lektereenah went on. By now, her voice had settled into the same monotonous drone as her servants. All around them, kelke watched the entrancing with hushed fascination. Slowly, but surely, Kloosee, Longsee, Chase and Angie were losing control of themselves. Only Tulcheah was unaffected. She stared grimly at the entrancing, not daring to approach the Metah. Lektereenah ignored her.

“Reliable too. When I was only a midling—that was not so long ago—I was on a roam to T’kel’rok and got sick. Bad waters, you know; terribly onkelte in there. And my tillet brought me back to Ponk’t by itself, saved my life in fact. The most amazing thing. Do you know I took that tillet for a pet later; the breeder was going to slaughter it for food but I persuaded him to let me keep this one. They’re cannibals in captivity, but you must know that already.” She paused, staring at Longsee, her eyes hard.

“Tell me: why do you wish to purchase tchin’ting fiber? Why should we cooperate with you on this shield…the Umans aren’t enemies of Ponk’et.”

Longsee muttered something.

“Speak louder. What’s your interest in Ponkti fiber?”

“We’re under attack…Aff—Metah. There …is a…a, ah, there is a great sound. Wrecking Omsh’pont, all of Omt’or, all of the world, really. We need fiber for a shield—“

“A sound? What kind of sound? Explain.”

Kloosee answered this time. “The surface. A great sound near the surface. Aliens…

Umans…the Notwater…there’s a wavemaker that is…ah, it is—“

Lektereenah frowned. In front of her, another tail-slap brought murmurs of appreciation from the crowd. The tuk match filled the waters with distant grunts and groans, while Lektereenah puzzled over the answers.

“Is this the truth?”

A servling spoke up. “I believe it is, Affectionate Metah. There was something on ootkeeor about disturbances near Kinlok…and Kok’t and other cities were being damaged. The repeaters mentioned a sound…much vibration and sound.”

“That seems unlikely. Repeaters spread falsehood as well as truth.” To Kloosee, she spoke sharply. “The sound—this project Iltereedah mentioned—is this why you have come? There are no other reasons?”

Kloosee seemed to be coming out of his daze. When the servling reached to put him back under, he fought her off and shuddered. He blinked at the crowd staring at him.

A prodsman came to restrain him but Lektereenah waved him off. Her voice had now lost its droning quality and she directed the servlings to leave.

“Now you are more rested. Refreshed. Here.” She reached through the gossamer veil and handed Kloosee a short section of bone. “Eat this.”

He sucked at it for a few moments and felt better for it. His head cleared enough to focus and he passed the bone on to Longsee.

“What happened to me?”

Lektereenah smiled coldly. “You were all exhausted. My servants are skilled at refreshing weary travelers.”

“I feel much better. Thank you.”

“It was stated that you wish to purchase tchin’ting fibers here. Iltereedah’s message talks of a great purchase and designs for this shield you speak of.”

Kloosee nodded. Longsee then chimed in, explaining in detail to her about the Sound and how Kloosee had first encountered the Tailless People at the surface. “Omt’or is under attack…

we all are, most Affectionate Metah. We have designed a shield to stop the sound from doing any more damage but we need great quantities of fiber to build it, to give us time to prepare an assault on the wavemaker…to rid the world of the Umans.”

Lektereenah had now resumed her pose of indifference. The tuk match was reaching a climax and both players were landing blows now.

“Why should I care what happens to Omt’or…or Ork’et?” she replied. If it’s to the fortunes of Vish that a kel owes its suffering, then so be it. Shooki is not to be questioned. It would be wrong for us to interfere.”

“Most Affectionate Metah,” Longsee said, “we’re desperate. Maybe it is Shooki who punishes us. The point could be argued but maybe it’s so. It could also be Shooki’s wish that Omt’or be punished to test the Ponkti.”

Lektereenah bubbled apprehensively at that. She didn’t bother to conceal it. “How do you mean?”

“Maybe Shooki wishes to test Ponkti feelings about Ke’shoo. You’ve got a reputation for being aloof and isolated, having no interest in the other kels. Now, with the Tailless and their weapons, all the kels are threatened.”

“We’re ready for akloosh. That’s Shooki’s plan for the world.”

“Then we hear his Voice differently, Affectionate Metah.” Longsee knew he was risking the whole purpose of their trip in antagonizing Lektereenah this way, but he had no choice. She was excitable as well as coarse; who could really say how a Ponkti would react?

“I think not. We’re not as isolated as you think. We listen to ootkeeor and all the repeaters.

We hear what’s going on. We know what you think of us.” When one of the tuk players scored a jarring blow to the head of his opponent, she honked in appreciation, encouraging her court into similar applause. “It’s the same with all of you. So many mah, epochs even, of Omtorish superiority, in everything—you can’t even conceive of anyone else having influence. You’ve been so arrogant, so contemptuous, so certain of yourselves for so long, that you think the rest of us are like pets to be trained, if only we’ll listen and obey. But that’s going to change—it’s already changing—and the time will come when Omt’or will be left behind…in the most literal sense.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean that when akloosh comes, your opinions and comforts will be useless. Ponkti ways will dominate the seas. People will flock here in desperation, because only here will survival be possible. Why do you think the Pillars of Shooki are in Ponkti waters? Maybe this attack you speak of is the beginning of akloosh. It would be pointless for Ponk’et to waste assistance on a doomed kel. And all kels are doomed, Longsee. This you know, even if you won’t speak it.”

Longsee could pulse that he was losing the argument. He looked helplessly at Kloosee and Tulcheah. Then Kloosee had an idea.

“Most Affectionate Metah,” Kloosee began, “there are some important articles in a holdpod we brought with us. It’s in the kip’t outside. If one of your prodsmen could retrieve the pod, I’m sure we could come to an agreement.”

Lektereenah seemed annoyed by the request but she ordered the pod to be found and brought to the pavilion. They watched the end of one tuk match and the start of another before the prodsman returned, bearing the pod. Kloosee took it, released the catch and extracted the echopod inside, the pod containing Iltereedah’s instructions, careful not to expose the potu pearls to view. He shut the pod quickly.

“Most Affectionate Metah, this echopod holds our instructions for this occasion. The voice is that of Iltereedah, Metah of Omt’or. If you will consent to listen, I think you’ll understand our problems.”

Lektereenah seemed distracted by the furious action of the tuk players. She waved her armfin and Kloosee took that for permission to start the echopod.

There was an immediate hush in the pavilion. The heavy blows of the tuk players could still be heard in the distance, but the Metah’s court had fallen silent in order to listen.

In the background, the shriek of the Sound was clearly audible, though muffled, an ominous undertone to the shouts and panic that were louder. Voices slipped in and out of hearing, most of them hoarse, strained, worried. The anxiety and the tension of the first hours of the Sound’s coming came through clearly and both Kloosee and Longsee were secretly pleased when they began to pulse those very same feelings in the servlings and attendants around them.

Sympathetic reaction, Kloosee thought. Lektereenah showed no emotion outward, but inside, she was boiling. She would never be able to ignore something like this.

At last, the husky, hesitant voice of Iltereedah won out. Lektereenah stilled her stomach to listen more closely, as the Metah invoked the mercy of Shooki on the travelers and then calmly authorized Longsee to speak for her in any negotiations. She decreed Longsee and Kloosee both as tekmetah—arms of the Metah—and again beseeched Shooki to show them safe passage. With that, Kloosee switched the pod off and waited for the reaction.

There was a low murmur among the servlings, quickly cut off by Lektereenah.

“The noise in the background, that is—“

“The Sound, Affectionate Metah,” Kloosee interrupted, “the Sound of the wavemaker.”

Lektereenah ignored his boldness. “Iltereedah speaks of an evacuation.”

Longsee spoke up. “That’s true, Metah. The ancient city of Kok’t, in the south Ork’et sea, was evacuated to the seamounts surrounding the valley. It was the only place sturdy enough to withstand the waves.”

Lektereenah looked around at her court, pulsing each one in turn. Their concern was plain enough. Her own agitation was too violent for even Kloosee to pulse. She closed her eyes wearily.

“I’m distressed to hear these things. Akloosh is necessary, it’s coming—we all know this—

but I’d hoped it would be… kah, Shooki will never forgive me this weakness.”

Sensing victory, Longsee said, “We’ll pay well, Metah, for fifty racks of your tchin’ting fiber. This is the best way to weaken the Sound, with your fiber, woven into a great shield and placed beneath the wavemaker. Iltereedah has explained all this.” He took the holdpod and opened it again, this time pulling back the shell completely, so that everyone could see the bags of pearls. “In potu.”

Lektereenah’s eyes widened at the sight and she drifted over to examine one of the bags herself. Longsee drew the string for her and emptied the contents into her hands. Lektereenah rolled some of the jewels between her fingers, then held them up to the light. A prodsman nearby grabbed a skittish glowfish and held it up by her hand.

“All we ask, Affectionate Metah, is the right to negotiate with Ponkti weaving em’kels. As you can see, we’re able to pay a fair price.”

Lektereenah scrutinized her visitors carefully. “Fifty racks is a lot of fiber.”

“The shield must be large enough to completely cover the wavemaker,” Kloosee told her.

“The machine is like a large metal island.”

Lekterenah was thoughtful. She avoided Tulcheah’s pleading stare… what do you want me to do, Metah? Lektereenah willed her insides to calm down, unsuccessfully, Kloosee noticed.

She was too vigorous for that and he felt a sense of momentary kinship with her. Keeping Shoo’kel was no easier for her either.

“That much tchinting can be difficult to handle,” she said. “Ponkti have been working it for ten thousand mah. Maybe you’d like to hire some of our best weaving em’kels, instead of trading with them.”

“I appreciate your generosity, Metah. With your permission, that is one reason we made this journey.”

“Then you may go and seek them out. I’ll dispatch someone from the court to supervise negotiations. Prodsmen! Show our guests to the emtoo of Halkling. Understand me well: I give permission for you to talk. Omtorish merchants have taken advantage of Ponkti traders too often in the past. Final approval of any exchange will be mine.”

“It is understood, Affectionate Metah,” Longsee said.

“All of you are declared tekmetah, arms of the Metah, by Iltereedah?”

“Yes, Metah.”

“Then act like it and show some affection.”

Her rebuke startled them. Ponkti were nothing if not direct. Longsee darted forward and placed a light kiss on her flanks. Then he backed away but Lektereenah grabbed his armfin and held on to it.

“If that is an example of Omtorish refinement, then it’s clearly in the world’s best interest that Omt’or be destroyed. In Ponk’et, we’re not afraid to show our feelings.”

Longsee accepted the criticism with a chastened pulse…and barely submerged irritation.

His eyes found Kloosee’s as he backed off.

After Kloosee had nuzzled her for a moment, she straightened him up and pulsed him deeply.

“You’re different from the others, aren’t you? I get an echo more refined than normal for Omtorish.”

“I’m half Orketish,” Kloosee admitted.

“And daring by nature, I would guess. Perhaps we may talk of Omt’or and Ork’et sometime.”

“Metah, I would surely welcome the prospect.”

Lektereenah studied Chase and Angie, hanging in the rear of the entourage. “These two…

they’re not Omtorish either, I see. This is a costume?”

Kloosee said, “No, Metah, they’re guests. They come from…a kel far away. Not of this world. They are related to the Umans, Tailless people from their world. They came through the Farpool…to help us.”

Lektereenah scooted over to Chase, circled him completely and admitted her pulsing made her confused. “He doesn’t pulse like Omtorish…these are coverings of some type?”

Kloosee explained the em’took procedure. “This was the only way these Tailless people of the Notwater could survive on our world. This one is Chase. That’s Angie, there. They came to help us…help us deal with the Umans.”

“I see…what I pulse are echoes I can’t explain. Confusion, perhaps. Anxiety…especially from that one—“ she indicated Angie, “—a little indecision…things I don’t have words for.

These visitors…they are part of your expedition?”

“They are,” Longsee interjected. “It’s a sort of exchange, with the eekoti…that’s what we call them. A cultural and scientific exchange—“

Now Lektereenah addressed Chase directly. “You do speak, don’t you, eekoti? What have you say about all this?”

Chase didn’t know what to say. He looked from Longsee to Kloosee to Tulcheah hovering in the background. Help me, guys.

“Your Majesty—“ he wasn’t sure of the right honorific, “—we’re just guests. We just want to help out. Kloosee and Pakma—she’s not here today—they came to Earth. That’s our home.

They asked for help. So we said we would help.” Chase looked around at the assembled court, and the Omtorish visitors. How did I ever get into this? Now, Turtle Key Surf and Board doesn’t seem so bad…boy, you wanted to be a great explorer but this….

Lektereenah seemed satisfied for the moment. “They seem harmless enough. If Iltereedah blessed this expedition, then we Ponkti will treat them with respect. Their needs are the same as yours?”

Longsee indicated that they were. “We understand their needs. For some time now, we’ve been visiting the eekoti world, conducting this exchange. We’ve--“

Here, Lektereenah immediately interrupted. “And such exchanges must involve more than just Omt’or. We know about this Farpool. Ponk’et won’t be denied the use of this resource. I have made that clear to Iltereedah…any help we give you must be returned. We expect you to assist us in our own Farpool expeditions when this wavemaker is neutralized.”

Longsee started to reply but thought better of it. Lektereenah was already changing the subject again; she flitted from one train of thought to another. Longsee found it unnerving.

“I pulse that you’re still of appetite. It must never be said that Lektereenah kim ignores Ke’lee. You have the right to demand satisfaction of me…of any Ponkti.” She turned to the prodsmen who had escorted them in. “See that they are fed properly. From the Metah’s stocks.”

As they were leaving, Lektereenah gave a stern look to Tulcheah, a look that couldn’t be ignored. Come to me when they rest. We must talk. Tulcheah then disappeared with the rest of the Omtorish. After they had left, Lektereenah turned to a nearby servling. “What a story. I suppose the Omtorish have something in mind they don’t want to reveal yet. Some plot, I suppose. Kah, they must think I pulse like a blind woman.”

“But why would they send travelers tekmetah to spy, Metah?” asked the servling. “To be discovered would be terribly embarrassing to any Metah. To be associated with something like that—“

“Makes no sense,” Lektereenah finished for her. “That’s what bothers me. My dealings with Iltereedah have been sparse; I don’t know her as I should. That’s why Tulcheah is so important…she’s my ears and eyes. She pulses for me…she’ll let us know what’s really going on there.”

“Shall I let the affections resume?”

“No. Not just yet. There may be undercurrents I don’t pulse accurately here. Bring me the echopod record of any repeater transmission where Iltereedah’s voice appears.”

“Where shall I bring it, Metah?”

“To the tuk match. I want to visit Loptoheen.”

Trailing an entourage of supplicants, petitioners and admirers, Lektereenah left the pavilion and crossed over to the canopy of the tuk match, which was still in progress. A path was cleared for her and she slid into position just outside the screen.

Loptoheen tu was having a difficult time of it. His opponent was younger and quicker but he didn’t have Loptoheen’s strength or experience. The audience demanded not only adroitness and agility, but also a proper adherence to the canons of moves that were part of tuk. Loptoheen was a stylist as well as a veteran; he knew what made excellence in the art. While Lektereenah and the others looked on, he drew on all his reserves of experience.

Tuk demanded intense concentration of its artists. There were thousands of minutely choreographed moves in each set, moves composed of complex patterns of thrusts and jabs, counterpointed by feints, reversals and whip-like snaps of the tail. The practitioner had not only to maintain position and execute perfectly from memory all of these moves, but also to do so in such a way as to prevent his opponent from performing his sets. In an actual match, such efforts required speed and agility, for only at certain designated points in the performance, between sets and during some reversals, were preventive thrusts allowed. The performer who reached those points first, could throw a punch or a slash and interrupt the opponent who lagged behind. And the one who finished first won.

Chase and Angie had prevailed on Kloosee to let them come to the match. “I just want to see how the locals live,” he insisted. Angie added, “It’s for my journal.” Kloosee gave in and found that the prodsman assigned to guard them was reluctant, but a few potu pearls eased his concern. Now, the three of them occupied a crowded corner at the very back of the canopy.

Their eyes widened when the Metah herself showed up, surrounded by her staff.

Chase was mesmerized by Loptoheen’s lightning quick thrusts and moves. “I want to learn how to do that.”

“I don’t think the Ponkti will let eekoti join in,” Kloosee argued. “It wouldn’t be right…no shoo’kel.”

Chase was disappointed. “What is it with this shoo’kel? Everybody’s so concerned about appearances.”

Angie just rolled her eyes, then realized that nobody could tell she had done it, looking like a lizard thing the way she did. “That’s the way he is, Kloos. Always go, go, go. I don’t know what to do with him.”

Kloosee watched Loptoheen and his opponent advance through the formal tuk moves and thrusts, admiring their form. “Shoo’kel is simply peace, tranquility, inner calm. It’s something we all strive for…a kind of perfection but we don’t often achieve it.”

Angie said, “Peace and inner calm…something Chase doesn’t know a whole lot about.”

“Hey, I can be calm,” Chase retorted.

“Sure you can. Chase, they’ve got radar. Or sonar or something. They can see right through each other. If everybody was as messed up as you are, there’d be nothing but confusion.

It’d be like me reading your thoughts. Or you reading mine.”

“God help us.” Chase definitely didn’t want that. “I just want to know more about how they live. Go native…whatever you call it. We came here to help. Kloos, I’m not sure how much we’ve helped.”

Hearing that, Kloosee was thoughtful for a moment. “I think you can help best when we deal with the Umans. As for ‘going local,’ be careful of the Ponkti. They’re not like us Omtorish. You can’t trust them.”

Chase started to say something but felt Angie’s fin on his. Her eyes, even shrouded like a lizard’s, were unmistakable. Don’t, okay? Just don’t. We’ve got a lot to learn about the culture here. Zip it for now.

Chase reluctantly had to agree. Angie was probably right. But they were missing an opportunity. He resolved not to let any more opportunities like this slip by. And he really did want to learn how to lunge and thrust and move like those tuk players.

It was only a training match that Loptoheen was engaged in but he found his partner a willing opponent and able to deliver savage blows almost at will. Loptoheen had been tukmaster of the kel once in his career and then declined and made a triumphant return. He didn’t give up easily. With the crowd on his side, he bore down and worked through his sets with mechanical smoothness until at last he could deliver a few blows of his own. And with these blows, Loptoheen’s superior strength showed. Time and again, at the preventive points, Loptoheen slammed his opponent with his tail or speared him with his beak, until at last, the younger one was worn down and couldn’t complete the match. He backed away, to jeers from the audience, and conceded to Loptoheen.

The screen was lowered and re-strung for another match while he rested. In the interlude, most of the crowd had left the vicinity and were roaming elsewhere. That left Lektereenah and Loptoheen together under the canopy, watching the attendants work.

The Metah made sure Kloosee and the eekoti had moved away, no doubt heading back to their kip’ts. “You’re getting old,” Lektereenah teased him. “Even sparring partners are too much for you now.”

“Don’t believe it,” Loptoheen wheezed. He gingerly applied cold disks to his skin, to stop the swelling of several bruises. “Hekto’s still learning his craft.”

“He learns well. You must be an outstanding teacher.”

Loptoheen smiled at her. “I suppose I am at that. What brings you over to see a sparring match? Don’t the kelke give you enough affection?”

“Shut up! Don’t be so insolent. I received some interesting visitors a while ago. Nonkelke. Tekmetah-bound, at that.”

“Tekmetah? Where are they from? What’s happened?”

“They’re Omtorish, it turns out. With eekoti visitors…like the Umans at Kinlok, so I’m told. Ugly freaks, if you ask me. They pulse confused, anxious, it’s hard to pulse them for long.

Something to do with that disturbance we heard about. Evidently, all the destruction is being caused by some kind of strange machine at the Notwater. That was the explanation given anyway. They brought the eekoti here to help them…through the Farpool. That big whirlpool interests me more and more. We could make use of it.”

Loptoheen stopped applying the cold disks and pulsed the Metah carefully. “If we understood how to use it. From what I hear, the Omtorish try to keep that knowledge close. You act like you believe all this nonsense.”

“Don’t speak like that to me, Loptoheen. I won’t stand for your patronizing, not today. As a matter of fact, they came to Ponk’et to trade for tchinting fiber. They want to build some kind of shield against this Sound…we don’t hear it much down here. But above the seabed, they say it’s wreaking havoc everywhere. The repeaters even talk of it.”

“I’m surprised at you, Metah. How could you give any credit to this? Have you nothing to do but follow Omtorish rumors and stories?”

“I’ll cut out your tongue if you speak to me that way again. They’re offering to trade in potu, Loptoheen. I’ve seen the pearls myself.”

Loptoheen was skeptical. “And how far do you think you can trust the Omtorish? Why even bother with them? Let akloosh take care of it.”

“I’ll tell you why,” said Lektereenah. She waved the tuk attendants away from the arena.

They were momentarily alone. “Because akloosh is in the future and I am speaking of what we could do now. Suppose we use this opportunity to break Omt’or’s monopoly of the potu trade.

Suppose we gain knowledge of how to use the Farpool for Ponk’et…travel far and wide to other seas, bring back eekoti who could help us. Think what that could mean. When akloosh does come, we’d find Ponk’et in such a dominant position that Seome would flow our way for ten thousand metamah. Maybe forever.”

“You dream like a midling, Lektereenah. Your predecessor wouldn’t have been so gullible.

Or naïve. Honestly, I sometimes feel like you’d destroy shoo’kel for the whole world, if it got you what you wanted.”

Lektereenah stiffened with anger. She shot out at Loptoheen and speared him with her beak.

He winced and threw her off, not really surprised, and smirked at her.

“Keminee wouldn’t have been so impulsive either.”

Lektereenah spoke now in a cold, thin voice. “You remember what happened the last time you crossed me.”

“Very well,” Loptoheen said. “I didn’t think a Metah should be doing things like that.”

“But when I had them bury you alive in that cave, for trying to intimidate the Kel’em into changing the laws of succession, you were frightened, for the first time in our life. You didn’t think I would go that far, did you?”

“A needless display. It’s not enough for you to have the power of a Metah. You’ve got to intimidate everyone else with it too. Keminee was more subtle.”

“Keminee is dead! I’m the Metah now—me, Lektereenah kim! Kah, I hear her voice everywhere I go! Even her scent lingers!” She realized that her screaming had attracted the attention of some uninvited roamers. She pulsed them angrily until they darted off, then looked back at Loptoheen. “Forgive me. But comparing me with Keminee infuriates me. I know it’s wrong but I wish there was a way to scatter her old scents. I mean no disrespect by that. Only that I think it’s important to be able to forget things that should be forgotten. And when I bring the Farpool to Ponk’et, such things will be forgotten.”

“No doubt, it’s the tekne’en drug. Keminee felt it was a burden too. But the Metah has no choice.”

“I know that. In any case, I can do better than Keminee.”

That assertion intrigued Loptoheen. He took her armfins and held them together. “Just what do you have in that ever-devious mind of yours?”

Lektereenah smiled and pulled away, pleased with herself that she had captured his fascination again. She went to the center of the tuk arena and waited for him to return, slowly, reluctantly, enjoying his mounting curiosity. “Learning two things: the secrets of the potu. And learning the secrets of the Farpool. I can bring both to Ponk’et. Then you’ll forget all about Keminee.”

Loptoheen stopped at the edge of the arena. He refused even to pulse her any longer.

“Listen to me before you argue. The Omtorish want to buy tchinting fiber from us. To build their precious shield. We can use that. They’ve even admitted—Iltereedah said so in her own voice, her own echoes—that they’re desperate and when I suggested they might like to hire some of our weaving em’kels to construct and emplace the shield, they liked the idea. But suppose a few of our kelke were not just tchinting craftsmen. One in particular I’m using as a spy inside their project. Suppose they were curious enough to do a little roaming about Omtorish waters and among the expedition as they put up the shield. Might they not accidently come

across the secret techniques of the potu? And the secrets of the Farpool…how the Omtorish predict its timing, how they use it, how they go through and back and somehow survive.

Especially, what they see on the other side. Perhaps I could even suggest that the fiber used in the shield be woven in such a way as to ensure the shield’s collapse at a strategic moment. The confusion would make obtaining the knowledge less risky…and perhaps the Umans will even reward us for that.”

Loptoheen circled the arena restlessly—you could pulse him thinking—his stomach a mass of bubbles. He stopped by a feeding pit and reached in, pulling out a tongpod claw, which he sucked on thoughtfully.

“Lektereenah, this is too dangerous. Wouldn’t it be better to leave the Omtorish to Vish. Do you think even for a moment that it’s so simple to acquire something they’ve guarded jealously for so long? No. There’s no sense in hurrying akloosh. It will come. What can we gain from this that will not be ours after the akloosh?”

“You’re pretty timid for a tuk master, Loptoheen. And ignorant. You live with Keminee’s scent because she was afraid of you. I’m not. The tuk players had real power in the kel when she was Metah but now the tuk dancers are only one among many em’kels. To have so little influence…doesn’t that gall you now?”

“We tuk’te have survived many Metahs. This whole plan interests you because it makes your scents stronger than Keminee’s. You’re afraid of her effects on the kel and she’s been dead for fifteen mah. Lektereenah, you ask the impossible. A strong scent is eternal. You can’t scatter the past; you can’t make the kelke give up part of themselves. Keminee, Eelandrah, all of them exist. You can’t destroy them no matter what you do. You can only join them.”

Lektereenah let her insides seethe with anger. It would have been safer to pulse an explosion. “Not only the Metah will benefit from all this,” she hissed. “but all of Ponk’et. The kelke will abandon all other scents and memories when I’m done, you can be certain of that, Loptoheen. I want to enjoy the fruits of akloosh now and not when it pleases Shooki.”

“Lektereenah—“

“Be silent for once and listen to me!” She glared at him, daring him to pulse back. “You will pose as my select tekmetah, responsible for this mission of assistance to the Omtorish. The em’kels will be under your authority—and you under mine. You’ll see that as much information about Omtorish potu culturing techniques as possible is obtained, surreptitiously, if you can.

And you will see that this great shield they want to build never works. It must fail at a strategic moment.”

“I can’t offend Shooki by doing this.”

“Then I will see that you are stripped of the title tuk master and shame-bound to me for the rest of your life. I know you too well, Loptoheen. You live for tuk—that’s your whole life.

Speak of memory to me and as you do, remember how it was when I disciplined you. Has time weakened that humiliation? The injured pride? You lost shoo’kel for many mah over that, didn’t you? Personally, I don’t think you’d survive that kind of disgrace again. Do you?”

Loptoheen roamed a great distance from the arena, so far in fact that Lektereenah had difficulty pulsing him. He turned about and came charging back, swooping by a half beat or so from the Metah. He flippered to a violent halt.

“I’ll do what you want— this time. And when it’s over, Affectionate Metah, tuk’te will take this to the kelke. I’ll see to it that ootkeeor is flooded with the truth. Repeaters will sing of nothing less. The people will know everything.”

But the threat had no effect on her. “By that time, the wealth of the potu will have long since turned their minds from such matters. And we will own the Farpool.”

Loptoheen hovered overhead, poised as if to strike. His dorsal was rigid. “You’re a menace to the future, Lektereenah. The kelke won’t put up with this much longer. I’d be saving shoo’kel if I killed you here and now.”

Lektereenah enjoyed the scent of fear. She rose to meet him and they bumped beaks.

“There’s no stronger scent than that of a martyred Metah.”

After Loptoheen had left, Lektereenah summoned Tulcheah to the Metah’s chambers. The half-breed Ponkti came zooming up to the pavilion from deep in the rear of the vast cavern. It was clear she had been coupling, with more than one male, Lektereenah decided. A mixture of musky scents…not altogether unpleasant. Strong males, too, she figured. Tulcheah liked strong males.

“Tulcheah kim, since you try to mate with anything that has a pulse, I have a mission for you that should be just perfect.”

Tulcheah always had an energetic pulse, as if she were a motor that could not be turned off.

Even drifting still before the Metah, she quivered with energy, ready to burst out on a roam, strike ahead, pulse new things. “What is it, Affectionate Metah?”

“I already know how you feel about that Omtorish shark Kloosee. I know you two couple frequently when you’re in Omsh’pont.”

“Affectionate—“

Lektereenah held up an armfin to shut off the debate. “Don’t bother denying it…anybody can pulse it. I want you to take your…talents, shall we say, and use them for the good of Ponk’et…for once.”

Tulcheah was confused. “How, Metah?”

“The Omtorish visitors…the eekoti…one of them is male. I’m not sure which one. You’ll have to find out.”

“It’s the larger one, Metah…very strong, very muscular. A lot of females—“

“Yes, yes, I know all that. I want you to seduce this eekoti male. Become friendly with him. Make love with him.”

Tulcheah seemed even more confused. Was the Metah joking? “Metah, I’m not sure whether we’re—“

“Nonsense…you’ll figure out a way. Bring the eekoti completely under your charms. Find out how this Farpool works. How does it operate? What must be done to go through it…and come back. Ponk’et must pull this treasure away from Omt’or. You can help.”

“Affectionate Metah…I don’t…I’m not sure what to say—“

“Don’t be such a prude, Tulcheah. You have certain natural talents. Natural charms.

Kloosee likes you. Make sure the eekoti does too. That’s all you have to do.” Here, Lektereenah turned stern. “And bring back what you learn of the Farpool to me personally. Is this understood. You will be tekmetah…an arm of the Metah. An official mission…I’ll register it with the council.”

Tulcheah bowed and swam off, not sure exactly how to go about what Lektereenah wanted.

Seduce Chase? What would Kloosee think? Of course, he didn’t have to know. But getting the eekoti away where she could work her magic… that would take some thought.

Tulcheah roamed many laps around the caverns and niches of Ponk’et that day, deep in thought. The Metah had given her a mission.

Then, suddenly an idea came to her.

Construction of the great shield began immediately. Lektereenah organized an assembly in a small canopied space just below the cavern ceiling. She wanted all the parties to get to know one another.

“It’s a great undertaking,” she droned on for a few minutes. “Ponk’et has many craft em’kels. Of course, we’re proud to assist our neighbors the Omtorish in their time of need.” She indicated Loptoheen, in one corner of the platform, which was surrounded by prodsmen and curious swimmers from throughout the city. A steady buzz filled the area. “This one you must know. He is tuk master of all Ponk’et. He speaks for me at all times. Over there is Shoneeohnay pik’t. She is also tuk master. A skilled threadcarrier too. You’ll need her.” A young female of slender build and dark gray flukes dipped her beak to acknowledge. Her eyes momentarily locked with Chase’s. Nearby, Tulcheah stiffened with annoyance.

“The others are from Cheeoh, for the most part. One of our best fabric em’kels; the tissue that is transparent is one of their products. You call it mong. You may pulse them if you like.”

The Metah had everyone present introduce themselves. The names were said and pulses exchanged—Kipto, a placid sort; Okeemah, rather quirky inside—her stomach was a parade of bubbles; Oolandrah, careful and meticulous; Telpy’t, an arguer—you could tell it from the eruption of bubbles when he was pulsed. The Omtorish learned that this one was also a trangkor player, a minstrel from the musical em’kel Tanklu’tong.

Kloosee and Longsee made introductions from the Omtorish side and both noticed more than a casual interest from Tulcheah and Shoneeohnay in Chase. Even Angie noticed it, though she wasn’t sure what she was noticing.

“Chase,” she whispered through her echobulb, “those two over there…if I didn’t know better, I’d say they’re smiling at you. Are you giving off some kind of scent or something. They act like they’re in heat.”

Chase had noticed it. “Don’t be ridiculous,” he whispered back. “It’s your girl vibes, that’s all.”

“Yeah, well don’t get too close…I don’t like the looks of those sluts.”

That’s when Chase realized just how jealous a girlfriend could really be.

It was quickly decided that the Omtorish would accompany Shoneeohnay and several others to the weaving em’kel Cheeoh. The guild was located in narrow crevice-like opening about halfway up the side of one hill that formed part of the cavern wall. The guild chambers were partially recessed into the craggy walls, but platforms extended out and gave more space to the work of the weavers. Great nearly translucent mats of fiber hung from racks mounted in rows all around the edges of the platforms. Glowfish drifted lazily throughout the space, giving dim light to the scene and baffles lined the platform edges to eliminate echoes or errant pulses while the delicate work of the weavers went on.

Kipto was the master weaver and he explained what the others were doing and why the tchinting fiber would work well for the shield.

“It’s light, as you can see, and very strong, like the seamother’s hide, if we do our job right.”

That got Kloosee’s attention. “We lay up multiple strands in different directions and secure the ends with these knots, then cement them with k’orpuh blood. Simmered right---you see the vats over there—it makes a perfect adhesive. But then you must know that already.”

Chase nudged Kloosee. “Isn’t there some way Angie and I can help out?” Kloosee seemed uncomfortable with the request, but raised the question with Kipto. “My eekoti friends want to learn how to weave…they want to help. Is there something they can do?”

That’s when Shoneeohnay darted forward with an idea. “This one can carry fiber through the racks with me. Threadcarriers can always use extra guides.”

Longsee was startled by the exuberance of Shoneeohnay but Chase was up for the idea. The Ponkti craftsperson took a stretch of the fabric in her beak, then kneaded it with her fingers and handed it to Chase. He took it, found it light and strong, very sheer.

“This is strong enough for a shield?”

Shoneeohnay dipped her beak. “It’s stronger than you think, eekoti. We’ll weave a basic pattern. Follow me—“With that, she was off to a cavern wall, carrying the knotted end of a fiber in her beak. She stopped short of the wall, made an abrupt turn, then pirouetted upward, then downward in a series of corkscrewing spirals that made Chase dizzy just to watch. Kipto, the weaving master, and Loptoheen stifled smiles and chuckles. Shoneeohnay came zooming back and landed right next to Chase.

“That’s called the elt’chee spinner…it makes the knots extra strong. Think you can do that?”

Angie frowned as Chase started off, carrying his knotted end of the fiber in both hands. He kicked and pushed, not as sleekly as Shoneeohnay, but doggedly trying to follow the same pattern. Chase’s fiber went back and forth to the wall, then up and down, twisting and turning, and when he was done, his end of the fabric was a complete tangled mess.

In spite of herself, Shoneeohnay laughed. “It’ll come with practice…here, let’s try something simpler. Perhaps, your friend--“ She gestured to Angie, who at first hesitated, then took a separate knot and tried it herself.

In minutes, the humans were looping and spinning, whizzing back and forth, steadily weaving together a corner of tchinting fabric with Ponkti weaving spins and moves.

“Not bad,” Chase told Angie, as she completed one loop and started on another. “At least, you’re not all fiddle fingers like me.”

Angie was determined that the Ponkti female wouldn’t monopolize Chase’s attention. “I just hope our end of the shield holds up.”

So they went resolutely to work, helping Kipto and Shoneeohnay and other weavers get to work on pulling tchinting fiber into swatches of tough fabric, knotting the ends and building larger and larger stretches of the shield. Both Chase and Angie were glad to finally be doing something to help.

And as Chase found Shoneeohnay’s antics more and more attractive, another weaver became more and more jealous of what he saw. It was Telpy’t, the onetime minstrel and arguer.

His insides fluttered with annoyance and he didn’t even bother to hide the bubbles. Others noticed but no one wanted to argue with the arguer.

Telpy’t decided right then and there that he would have to put a stop to this budding romance.

Work proceeded around the clock on the shield, with all of Cheeoh and other em’kels involved in some way. After an initial period of wariness, other Ponkti joined in; word quickly spread throughout the city that something was being done to stop the great Sound and before long, so many were involved that someone was working on the shield at all times.

Kipto and the other weavers were grateful for help from the Omtorish and amused at the antics of the eekoti, but he insisted that only Ponkti be allowed to work with tchinting, which they let hang from bolts in the wall. They were secretive about their methods, allowing few to enter the cave niche where the fabric sheets were coming together. Kloosee found himself annoyed by this and tried to persuade the Ponkti to let the Omtorish help out in the final assembly but without success. They were clannish and aloof inside the weaving em’kel.

“Like a family,” Kloosee told Chase one day. “They have their secrets and they want no one else to know. They don’t trust us Omtorish. And you—“ he indicated Chase and Angie as they roamed about the em’kel spaces, “you two are famous. They’re curious about you.”

Angie was just trying to keep up. Roaming with Kloosee was an effort; he was a way better swimmer even than Chase.

“I think we’ve become celebrities, Kloos. That’s the way they look at us…like we escaped from a zoo…or an aquarium.”

“As it was for me and Pakma on your world,” Kloosee reminded them.

It was a kind of fame and notoriety that Angie figured she could do without. She had already confided to one Ponkti female—Oolandrah was one of the threadcarriers—that she was beginning to miss home, Earth and Scotland Beach. Especially her mother. Oolandrah listened politely, but seemed not to understand.

Now, I’m like stuck here in this giant aquarium, modified for life like a big frog. She wondered about her future, hers and Chase’s and the future of the Seomish. They fought constantly among themselves. Then they made love. It made no sense. How could they relate that way? And they could almost see right through each other; you couldn’t hide anything here.

Sure, she and Chase had arguments. Sure, they always made up. But this—this was truly wicked.

And then there was Chase, panting after some of the females like a dog in heat. What was up with that? One night, semi-alone in their emtoo pod—nobody was ever truly alone on Seome

—Chase confided that he and Kloosee were hatching a plan. They were going to sneak in to the secretive Ponkti hold where fabric final weaving took place and see just how the Ponkti worked their magic.

“Why?” Angie complained. “It’s their place…let them run it like they want. What will you gain by annoying them like that?”

Of course, Angie knew the real reason Chase wanted to slip inside the hold. She knew that was where Shoneeohnay did most of her work. Even Tulcheah knew something was up and she still had the Metah’s commands to seduce Chase, though Angie didn’t know that. The truth was Chase was too popular to get close to and wouldn’t stay still long enough to be seduced.

Tulcheah would have to find a way to get Shoneeohnay out of the picture.

For many days, Kloosee had told Chase he was curious about what went on inside the Ponkti weaving hold. “There should be no secrets on a large project like this…it’s important that we all trust each other and learn from each other.” He had studied their activities for days, watching Chase learn from Shoneeohnay, noting that the only time most of the weavers left the hold was when another rack of tchinting was needed from the racks along the cavern walls. He was determined to find out just what it was the Ponkti were doing inside the hold, what secret techniques they were using to spin such strong fabric. For his part, Chase was equally determined, for something else.

So they waited for the right moment, and one day, it came. Kloosee and Chase hovered a short distance from the edge of the platform where the initial weaving was done and watched

Kipto lead a pack of them off into the far reaches of the vast cavern city, and when they were beyond pulsing range, the two of them slipped inside.

They were startled to find the hold was not unoccupied. Tulcheah and Shoneeohnay were inside, carrying thread in complex patterns back and forth across a rack. Terpy’t was there too, knotting and crimping.

Kloosee pulled up short upon entering. “I didn’t know anyone was here. Litorkel ge. I didn’t mean to intrude.”

Terpy’t held thread ends in his beak. “You’re not permitted here…the prodsmen should have—only Ponkti—“

Kloosee spied a web dangling from the ceiling. “What’s that?”

Suspended above them was a fine web of tightly spun filaments. It covered the entire ceiling, from the entrance to the sleep niches in the back. Kloosee forgot all about courtesy and drifted up to examine the web, Chase right behind him.

“You’re not permitted—“ Terpy’t shot out from his position and tried to bump Kloosee away. But he stopped short before hitting him and glared nervously. “You should leave now—

you’re Kloosee ank, aren’t you? This is wrong. If Loptoheen returns—“

Kloosee could pulse that Terpy’t was quite old. Tulcheah and Shoneeohnay went about their thread carries while keeping a close eye on the visitors. “Terpy’t, don’t flutter like that.

You’re shaming Ponk’et like that… Litor’kel.” Kloosee stuck his beak into the web to test it, causing an eruption of bubbles inside Terpy’t. “I’m just curious.”

Terpy’t dropped his end of the thread and took Kloosee’s fin by the hand. He pinched it until Kloosee reacted.

“I’m sorry for that but you can’t stay here any longer, Kloosee.”

“What are those little red humps along the filaments?”

“Kloosee—those are terpoh colonies—please, before Loptoheen returns. Otherwise, we’ll all be punished.”

Chase prodded one of the clumps experimentally. Kloosee examined the reaction. “It has a hard shell…how do you control them?”

Kloosee!” Terpy’t draped his arms around himself and bubbled in embarrassment. Even Tulcheah and Shoneeohnay had to turn away. Even through the screen, Kloosee could pulse the mess. It was disgusting, even sickening. Still, he continued.

“Terpy’t, old man, stop that. We’re not hurting anything.”

Terpy’t gathered himself into a ball and stared glumly out. “Nonkelke irritate the waters with their scents. The terpoh become erratic and make filaments that won’t last. They’ll know you were here.”

Kloosee was fascinated. The Ponkti were as careful with their terpoh knowledge as the Omtorish were with potu. “But how do you control them?”

Terpy’t closed his eyes and settled to the floor, where he groped for the end of the thread.

He hoisted it up in his beak and made ready to continue his rounds, gesturing to Tulcheah and Shoneeohnay to start up again. “They’re programmed…engineered to follow a pattern.”

“Amazing. Self-awareness for such a small organism. Maybe they’re smarter than we are…see how they work together? No bad pulses to distract them. No sense of the shoo’kel.”

“The currents say you disrupt things.”

Kloosee suddenly felt sorry for what they had done. He went to Terpy’t, gliding alongside.

“There are many currents. Some dominate. Some don’t. I don’t want to see you suffer…maybe a little roam outside…we can talk, pulse, take the waters together.”

“I have work to do, Kloosee.”

“Look, I don’t want to make trouble. I want to make this right. Ponk’et and Omt’or have to work together, like the terpoh. Loptoheen will never know we were here. Chase, you stay here, learn what the threadcarriers do. Terpy’t and I will roam…come on, old one—“ Gently, he removed the thread end and knot from Terpy’t’s mouth and guided the old knotter outside the hold. The two of them disappeared into the distance and were gone.

Chase drifted about the hold, examining the web and keeping a close eye on Shoneeohnay and Tulcheah. They both dropped their threads and came over, playfully bumping Chase.

It was Tulcheah who spoke. “Do all eekoti look so ugly as you?”

“Hey, this was some kind of surgery…you know, to let me and Angie live in your world better. Normally, I’m just a stud.”

The females laughed at that. Tulcheah nuzzled up under Chase’s chin with her beak. “You have funny words, eekoti Chase. You know about Ke’shoo and Ke’lee?”

As Shoneeohnay bumped him again and rubbed herself along his side scales, Chase said,

“Love and life…I think I understand it. You like to have a good time.”

Shoneeohnay pulled up and stared into Chase’s eyes. She had black button eyes, and they gleamed in the faint light. “You pulse anxious…no need for that. Just relax…we carry thread for old man Terpy’t, that’s all…here, I’ll show you. Take this knot in your mouth—“ She gave Chase an end of the thread.

Chase stuffed the filaments in his mouth. It tasted like rope. “Like this?—“he mumbled.

“Hold on to it and pull. Tulcheah and I will guide you.” Each female took an arm and together, the three of them swooped up and down the hold, spinning and weaving dense strands of the web, back and forth. It was erotic and sensuous, all the more so as the females rubbed themselves against his sides with each cycle.

Blast this scaly skin…I’m getting turned on…can’t feel what I

The mat of fiber grew thicker as they made turn after turn.

Tulcheah asked, “Where is the other eekoti? Female is this one?”

Chase was in a heavenly daze and had to shake himself to clarity. “Huh, oh…Angie? Yeah, female. A girl. My girlfriend…yeah.”

“And where is this eekoti Angie?”

“Right now, I really don’t know.”

By some unseen signal, Tulcheah and Shoneeohnay stopped the spinning and hovered on each side of Chase. They both nosed up and down his body with their beaks, clearly looking for something, poking, probing, sniffing.

Tulcheah stopped, looked up into Chase’s eyes. “I’m not familiar with this em’took…where is the ket’shoo’ge?”

“The what?”

Shoneeohnay laughed. “All of us have ket’shoo’ge…how do you translate this?…little lover…maybe, small… em’too… love hold?”

“Hey, mine isn’t that small, if you’re asking. Hell, if I know…this skin is so scaly…I don’t really know where—“

Then Tulcheah found it.

Later, after they had coupled, Chase remembered seeing something on Nat Geo, a vid or something, about how fish had sex. Many females just ejected eggs into the water. The males ejected sperm. The eggs got fertilized…end of story. But some marine animals had specialized organs called claspers. That’s when things got interesting.

Tulcheah had found Chase’s claspers. The Omtorish, in their infinite wisdom, had designed the em’took procedure so that the Lizard Man that Chase had become would have claspers.

And both Tulcheah and Shoneeohnay knew what to do with claspers.

When Chase and Angie made love, the best time for Chase was in the little fishing boat in Half Moon Cove. You had to have lots of blankets to make a soft landing. It was awkward at times…you had to be clever and inventive on how to use the space—but when the boat was rocking in the swells and you had the right rhythm…it was … really awesome!

That’s what Tulcheah and Shoneeohnay did to Chase.

Chase found his claspers exquisitely sensitive. The three of them formed one body and glided softly about the weaving hold, occasionally getting entangled in the webs, tearing them, pulling them apart.

Terpy’t won’t like that, someone hissed. More giggles and laughter. And bubbles. Lots of bubbles. Bubbles and claspers…that was the key.

Chase was in heaven.

So they glided and undulated and rolled and bubbled and poked and tickled and rubbed and squeezed and Chase thought he was going to die, the feeling was so intense. Thank God for em’took! he told himself. It was the first time he was really glad he looked like a giant frog.

Those wacky Omtorish really did know what they were doing.

Through it all, Chase thought he imagined Tulcheah whispering in his ear: tell me about the Farpool…how does it work…how do you survive it?

That’s when Terpy’t and Kloosee returned to the hold.

Terpy’t knew immediately what had happened. He saw the torn web filaments dangling from the ceiling. He saw Tulcheah and Shoneeohnay coupled with Chase, drifting down toward the floor. He fluttered in anger. Then he went straight for Chase.

The fight wasn’t much of a fight. Terpy’t was enraged and speared Chase right in the side with his beak. Hard. Again and again.

“Ouch! Hey…don’t…that hurts!”

Terpy’t came at his face with his hands and Chase reacted instinctively, pushing Terpy’t away, boxing the old weaver, grabbing at his beak, thrashing him about.

Kloosee tried to intervene, to separate the two but he couldn’t. Terpy’t was holding on tight and Chase was pummeling him in the face again and again and again…

It took five prodsmen to separate them…with their prods.

The electric shock stunned Chase into a stupor. The hold swam crazily in circles and he found himself convulsing with spasms as one prodsmen shocked him over and over. He lost consciousness and when he woke up, he was restrained in some kind of netting, just like when they had been brought into Ponk’et itself. Two prodsmen carried the mesh bag into which he had been dumped out of the hold.

They didn’t stop until he was unceremoniously stuffed in a small opening in the seamount walls, a dark hole, still enmeshed, and tied to a stake in the walls. There he hung, suspended and bobbing at the entrance, like the old stocks of Pilgrim days, he imagined, for everyone to see and everyone to pulse and bump into.

After an hour of that, he figured he knew how a volleyball felt. Or a punching bag.

How long he slept or was unconscious, he couldn’t say. He had no sense of time. But when a small crowd began to gather around his restraint mesh and dozens of prodsmen assembled in a semi-circle to form a barrier around the crack he was tied to, he knew something was up.

Finally, the Metah herself, Lektereenah kim, showed her face.

She circled the opening, sizing him up. “Well, eekoti Chase…what am I to do with you now?”

“Your Majesty,” Chase tried to explain, “this is all a big mistake. Really. I never meant to cause any trouble…Kloosee and I just wanted to know how the weaving was done—“

Lektereenah was stern. “Harvesting and weaving the tchinting is one of our greatest secrets.

You’ve violated many laws…I can’t even name them all: entering the weaving hold without escort, attacking a Ponkti female, witnessing how the tchinting is handled—“

Attacking?” Chase was incredulous. He struggled against the restraint mesh but it was useless. “I didn’t attack anybody…the two females came after me.”

Loptoheen came into view. He was a powerfully built Ponkti male, though older than the Metah. His armfins and tail flukes spoke of crushing strength. And he was quick; Chase had seen that in the tuk match.

“Affectionate Metah…perhaps this is a time for wisdom. Nothing would speak of the magnanimity of the Metah more, her wisdom and compassion, than to show leniency toward our unfortunate eekoti visitor.”

For a long moment, Lektereenah glared at Loptoheen. Chase thought she might just bite his beak off. Then she recovered her composure.

“Perhaps you’re right, Loptoheen.” She nosed up closer to Chase, stuck her beak through the mesh and enjoyed poking and prodding at him for a few moments. “Eeekoti Chase, there are many punishments that apply here…do you know of these?”

Chase could only imagine. Actually, he couldn’t imagine. The truth was he didn’t want to.

Maybe the echobulb didn’t translate her words correctly. Punishments?

“Uh, no, Your Majesty…I’m not-“

Lektereenah was pleased at the fear and anxiety she pulsed in him. That could be useful, when the time comes. “I could order you to be stung by the k’orpuh, until you pass out. Until you convulse, drown in your own vomit and die. That’s one punishment the Metah can order in cases like this.”

Chase didn’t much like the sound of that. He’d seen what the k’orpuh could do when they first reached Ponk’et.

“Or in extreme cases, where the greatest penalty is applied, I could order that you be banished forever…to the Notwater. For Ponkti, for all Seomish, that is death.” Lektereenah found some humor here. “Of course, for you, it would be life. You’re from the Notwater, are you not?”

Chase didn’t quite know what to say. He didn’t want to say anything and risk nudging her one way or another.

“However, as my advisor Loptoheen suggests, and in the interest in better relations with our Omtorish cousins—“ here the Metah made a slight nod toward Kloosee and Longsee, “I have decided I will release you into the custody of your kelke. I insist, however, that proper justice be applied by our Omtorish cousins to this matter—“ Lektereenah whipped her tail and darted away, cruising smartly outside the restraining cave, making all the spectators back away, carving out a space for herself. Prodsmen jostled with the crowd for a few moments. “Release the eekoti—“

Two prodsmen came forward and cut an opening in the mesh. Chase squeezed out and fumbled his way, paddling and kicking, toward Longsee and Kloosee. Lektereenah followed him, poking and probing at his sides as he swam.

“See that Omtorish justice is swiftly applied to this one…he’s insulted all of Ponk’et.” She stopped short when she saw Tulcheah hanging off in the distance. “And violated the sanctity, even the purity, of our kelke.” Tulcheah covered her insides with her arms in shame. To fail the Metah was—

Longsee was stern as Kloosee wrestled Chase into submission and held on to him.

“Affectionate Metah…Omtor’s justice will be swift and sure. This eekoti will understand that he has done Ponk’et a grievous wrong.”

Nearby, Angie drifted up next to Chase and whispered in his ear, through the echopod.

“Way to go, Casanova. You’ll wind up getting us all killed.”

After that, the Metah left and the prodsmen spent the next few minutes dispersing the crowd.

Despite the misunderstandings, scraps and occasional insults between Omtorish and Ponkti, the shield grew visibly every day, until it covered fully a third of the vast cavern and had to be folded and pinned together, to keep from dragging the floor. When it was finished, it would stretch six beats on a side and be manipulated with draw cables at each corner, with a steadying cable in the center. Longsee’s plan, worked out with Kipto and other Ponkti weavers and engineers, was to take four kip’ts with them to Kinlok Island and use them to raise the shield into position. A fifth kip’t would then attach it to the wavemaker.

The shield was substantially complete by the end of the emtemah of Shookeem. Longsee was secretly pleased at the way the Omtorish contingent had finally been accepted into Ponk’et, as more or less equals, slowly at first, with a great deal of suspicion, then with increasing trust as pulses became more familiar and shoo’kel re-asserted itself. “The shield is worth it just for this,”

he told Kloosee one day. “To bring the kels closer together in the face of a great threat…that is most satisfying.” Kloosee wondered how long it would last. And he kept a close eye on Chase, whose affections for Shoneeohnay and Tulcheah, had not subsided.

Angie was more and more annoyed with her boyfriend.

The kelke of Omt’or and Ponk’et shared their meals with increasing frequency, swapped stories and lies, slept together and even competed in the games which always seemed to be springing up. Not that there weren’t disputes and an occasional argument. No subject seemed to touch off more conflict than the question of which kel was superior in the practice of Ke’shoo and Ke’lee. But these arguments had perplexed thinkers for thousands of mah.

When the shield was finally done and been checked for rips and tears, the kelke working on it were jubilant. They got up dozens of games in as many different sports to celebrate. Even Chase got involved, when Kloosee was challenged by some of the Ponkti to a match of kong’pelu. Though there was still much work ahead of them, he relented to the pleas and jeers of the others to join, and finally Longsee had to relent and allow it.

When Ke’shoo and Ke’lee were ignored, so said Longsee paraphrasing the old saying from Shooki, serpents took over and drove one to despair.

It was time to regain the proper shoo’kel for the hard days ahead.

So Chase took part. That’s when Angie retreated to one of the Omtorish kip’ts and wouldn’t come out.

Angie’s Journal: Echopod 3

Well, so here goes, Gwen…I’m dictating this journal again into my echopod…if it’s working. Sometimes, this pod thing goes haywire but I think I’ve got the hang of it.

“Oh, Gwen, you won’t believe what we’re doing here. I don’t believe it myself. There’s this big machine north of here, making a hell of a racket. Really, Gwen, it’s destroying the cities and the lives of the Seomish. I hear it too…vibration, a steady drone and some thumps. Mountains are crumbling. Buildings are falling down. Its driving everyone nuts, me included. So the Seomish have devised some kind of shield to wrap around this machine. The thing is all the tribes…kels, whatever…have to cooperate. And, Gwen, they fight like all the time, like teenage girls.

“We’re leaving for a trip up north tomorrow…I don’t know what will happen. I do know one thing. I want to go home. Bad. I miss Mom. I miss you, girl…I miss our jogs down to Turtle Key and back. I miss hanging out at Citrus Grove. All the late night jam and vid parties, in our T-shirts and underwear. This machine is near the Farpool, so I’m told. Maybe I can convince Chase it’s time to bring this little adventure to an end and go home. We could just jog on over and slip through…of course, they’d have to change me back. Gwen, you wouldn’t believe what I look like now…the Seomish modified us to live here, to survive here. Chase and I both look like gigantic frogs. And I can’t get a straight answer on whether we can be changed back…I don’t think they really want us to go back. We’re like celebrities here. They actually fight over us.

“Speaking of Chase…well, he’s living up to his name again. Doesn’t matter whether it’s fish or mammal…if it’s got a tail, he’ll ‘chase’ after it. Chase has found a few females he likes…

that makes me feel really swell. Honestly, Gwen, sometimes…I could just—

“Now, he’s really done it…I think he must be chasing somebody else’s girlfriend…and he got into a fight about it. Honestly, you can’t make this stuff up….they sort of arrested him and this one tribe where we’re currently located was going to charge him, I think, but then they decided not to and turned him over to the Omtorish…that’s our friends, Kloosee and Pakma’s tribe. It’s all very confusing. We’re supposed to keep Mr. Don Juan on a short leash so he doesn’t cause an incident again…I mean, really, c’mon, man….

“Of course, one minute, I’d like to kill him. The next minute, I love him. Maybe it’s the em’took procedure that modified us. Although, Chase has always had a roving eye…that hasn’t changed. In a way, I suppose that’s good. Here we are jillions of miles from home, living like frogs with a race of talking fish and Chase is still good ol’ Chase. Maybe I should be reassured…after I kill him.

“Gwen, gotta go now. They’re getting ready to load up the sleds for the big trip. Me, I’m just looking forward to going home. I swear, somehow, I’m going into that Farpool. I’ve had the strangest craving for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich…they don’t have those here.

“I’ll keep this journal going as long as I can…until next time, girl, keep on trucking and keep running those laps.

“So, okay…this is Angie Gilliam, over and out.”

End Recording

Chapter 13

Seome

Ponk’t, kel: Ponk’et

Time: 766.6, Epoch of Tekpotu

The day of departure finally came. The Metah, Lektereenah kim, arose in her well-guarded chambers and immediately pulsed the excitement of the city, which had built steadily to a barely contained frenzy by the time the day had come. The shield had been removed from its pins alongside one seamount and laid out across the seafloor outside the city the day before and Kipto and Longsee had spent the night checking out the kip’ts and the attachments of the netting. By the time Lektereenah arrived with her official entourage, the pilots were already on the scene and a sizeable audience had assembled, including some kelke who had just arrived from the south, from Eep’kostic waters, having learned of the shield and the project from repeaters in their own seas.

Lifting the shield away from the floor was a spectacular sight. Even in the darkened waters outside the cavern city of Ponk’et, it was an awesome spectacle, a vast rippling wing taking flight. Once they were underway, it was clear there would be continuing problems with keeping the thing steady; the Ponkti had woven the tchinting so closely that it caught every stray current, great or small, and billowed out, making Kloosee’s job as a lead pilot one of frustration and reflexes. Anticipating what the shield would do next as it swelled and flapped required an intense concentration on the state of the water and close coordination among the kip’ts.

Kloosee worked the center cable in one kip’t; he was accompanied by another kip’t nearby, a Ponkti sled piloted by Yaktu and Ocynth. Together, the two kip’ts formed the leading element of the expedition.

Somehow they managed to keep the shield under control.

With the Metah’s blessing and an endless parade of speeches and toasts, the expedition finally got underway. Chase and Angie rode with Kloosee in one lead kip’t. Longsee was directly behind, with a Ponkti driver in another.

They had only traveled fifty beats or so, on what would be a three-day journey, when Angie announced to everybody onboard she wanted to go home.

Chase was really put off by her timing. “Angie, now’s not the time. We’ve got this shield to put up. We have to help out…that’s why we came.”

“I don’t care,” she said. “We’re already helped out…isn’t that so, Kloos?”

Kloosee acknowledged. “You have helped, that is true. But the great problem remains…the wavemaker, the sound, what the Umans are doing to our world. We need all the help we can get.”

“But what if the Umans object to this shield…what if it interferes with their big weapon?”

Kloosee had a grim look…at least, Angie thought that’s what it was. With Seomish, they always looked like they had a bemused grin. You have to pulse inside to see what they were really thinking. And Angie didn’t know how to do that….she didn’t even want to do that.

“Then we will have to take matters further…possibly some kind of assault on their base.

The Umans have smaller weapons that paralyze our people…we’ll have to defend against that somehow…no, the shield is best.”

Angie wasn’t going to be put off. “Kloos, isn’t the Farpool nearby…near the Uman island?”

“Yes,” he admitted. “Perhaps twenty beats…it’s one of many opuh’te…what you call whirlpools.”

They were all crammed into the kip’t cockpit, Kloosee piloting, Chase in the middle, Angie in the rear.

She had been giving this a lot of thought. She wasn’t going to be dissuaded now. “I want to go back through the Farpool. After your shield is put up, take me to the Farpool. I want to go home.”

For a moment, there was dead silence inside. Only the rush of water could be heard as Kloosee drove them north by northwest, riding the great Pom’tel Current to the edge of the ice pack.

Finally, Chase said, “Angie, we need to talk about this—“

“What’s there to talk about, Chase? We came here to help Kloosee and Pakma. I think we’re done here. We’ve done all we can do. I want to go home.”

Kloosee let the eekoti argue for awhile. They argue like we do, he thought. He could pulse what was inside them. Chase annoyed. Angie…now there was a mass of bubbles, fear, anger, anxiety, nerves, undercurrents of resignation and panic there too.

“Angie, look at us…we look like lizards. The Omtorish will have to un-do all the modifications…that’s not so easy, is it, Kloos?”

Kloosee admitted that was true. “Unless the em’took can be reversed, the Farpool won’t change you back. You’ll be returning to your homeworld as you are…a creature of the seas.

Chase is right.”

You didn’t need to pulse to hear the rising tone of panic in Angie’s voice. “But you can do that, can’t you, Kloosee? You can convert me back…to what I was…what we were?”

Kloosee decided to answer that carefully. He felt the vibration of waterflow in the control handles of the kip’t. They were in the very midst of the current, sweeping north toward Kinlok Island. A squadron of kip’ts followed behind and the shield itself was behaving better, carried on specially-made struts between several kip’ts. It flapped and undulated in the current but didn’t tear or come loose. One more day, maybe more….

“What you ask, Angie, has never been done before.”

“Never been—“ Angie spluttered. “What exactly do you mean, Kloos…I thought this em’took was a common procedure, like a gall bladder or something.”

“No, you and Chase are the first…we’ve done experiments. Small animals, like pal’penk calves…that sort of—“

What! We’re the first…do you mean to say Chase and me are like lab rats? Like experiments?”

Kloosee had to force himself to look away from all her fluttery bubbles and echoes. “The em’took is well understood. We’ve done it many times…just not in reverse. That’s never been done.”

For a moment he thought eekoti Angie was going to explode. Whirlpools and vortexes were calmer.

Then: “I don’t care. I don’t care. I want to go home. When your shield is up, take me to the Farpool. I’ll take my chances there.” She tried to glare at Chase but there wasn’t enough room in the sled to turn around and all she saw was the back of his neck…his scaly, crusty, slimy neck.

“Angie, we really need to talk about this.”

But such a talk would not come now. Chase found that no matter what he said or did, Angie wouldn’t change her mind. He sensed that their relationship had changed, in some important,

even fundamental way. Maybe it was Tulcheah and Shoneeohnay. Maybe she was jealous…

there were times when Angie could be really bitchy and she even admitted that, in her quieter moments. Chase figured what she was asking was suicide. That made him sad, even depressed.

Kloosee and Pakma both had implied that ‘going back,’ going back through the em’took would be difficult. Nothing was impossible but it was risky.

Chase didn’t want to turn around. He didn’t want to look into Angie’s eyes; he could feel them cutting into his back like daggers as it was. He was sorry for what had happened to their relationship…maybe it had been his fault. They had even talked of marriage once… but now—

But Chase wanted to see the shield installation through and he knew Kloosee needed him.

The Metah had approved them being part of the expedition.

In some way he couldn’t quite verbalize, Chase felt he belonged here. He belonged on Seome. No, he wasn’t Seomish. He would never be Seomish. He was from Earth… eekoti, Kloosee called them. But he wasn’t quite that either.

He and Angie were hybrids now, almost mutants… caught between worlds. Not Seomish, not human. Something in between. Angie was having a hard time with that. Chase was more focused on the task at hand.

“You always live for the moment, don’t you?” she had once asked of him, one night when they were parking and necking in the lot behind the Citrus Grove Shopping Center, behind the Piggly Wiggly. “No thought for the future…for what you might want to be. What you might want to do ten years from now. Doesn’t that bother you at all, Chase?”

“No,” he had told her. “It doesn’t bother me ‘cause I like to be surprised by each day.

Every day, a different adventure, a different mystery, something new and unexpected.”

“Chase, life isn’t just one adventure after another…it can’t be. It’s responsibility. It’s growing up. Getting a job. Raising a family. Going to church.”

But life, on Seome, was an adventure. And then, in that moment, Chase knew for sure that he would not be following Angie back through the Farpool…at least, not right away.

And that brought something like a tear to his eye. Even after the em’took, tears were still possible.

He was glad Angie couldn’t see them.

Kloosee had piloted the convoy of kip’ts for two days when the first direct pulses of the wavemaker and Kinlok Island came back, jumbled, mixed with the current and the scores of whirlpools that the wavemaker always spawned, but there nonetheless, higher pitched than the death beat of the Sound itself, but unmistakable. He planed upward, ascending toward the first faint tendrils of light of the Notwater and tried to sound ahead, sounding to discern their position and their rate of approach.

By the time they had risen some twenty beats, the shifting bottom currents had given way to a steady, brisk flow of warmer water from the surface—the first effects of the wavemaker. Here, the kip’t pilots carrying the shield found that the shield wanted to sag badly and in order to avoid tearing it, Kloosee directed that the kip’ts arrange themselves so as to approach the huge machine edge on. This was harder than he expected for the strong currents made maneuvering tricky—

any movements were enormously magnified by it—and only the most cautious adjustments could be made.

After some discussion, they adopted a strategy that had Kloosee and Habloo carrying the high side of the shield, with Ocynth and Yaktu at the rear. Kloosee slacked off a bit and let the center of the shield drop down, to even out the top, then cut back the kip’t jets to let Habloo do

most of the lifting. The dangerous oscillations began to dampen out once they had settled into this attitude.

Kipkeeor was live between them and Kloosee listened to some of the comments on the communication channel, translating occasionally for Chase and Angie.

“I hope this kip’t is well sealed. Something’s crinkling behind me.” That was Habloo; an accomplished pilot, he’d never been anywhere near the surface.

Another voice came: “Throttle up a bit, Habloo. You’re dropping behind.”

“Kloosee, I’ve got it on my sounder,” Habloo said. There were a few muttered exclamations, then “Kah, ket’alpe. It’s a huge beast, isn’t it?”

“And all metal,” said Kloosee, recalling his own pulses.

“It’s deafening,” said Ocynth. “A constant explosion.”

“Whirlpools around the edges,” Kloosee explained. He had to find a new comm channel to be heard over the thumping. “Don’t get too close to those.”

“Imagine what the sound would be like in the Ponk’el Sea.”

“You’re right about that,” said the Ponkti pilot Ocynth. “Ponk’el is so cold and dense that it would be magnified many times. How have you stood it for so long?”

“Ponkti aren’t the only ones with courage.”

“Look!” cried Habloo. “Look above!”

The waters had lightened considerably, from a dark brown to a pallid gray-green and the surface was now visible as a hazy film above them. A large school of wing-walkers skittered across their view, thousands of silvery darts slicing first one way, then another. The buffeting of the wavemaker had picked up as well and the turbulence rocked the fleet of kip’ts as they approached.

“Incredible,” someone breathed.

“Beautiful,” whispered Chase. “In its own way. Now I see what you meant, Kloosee. I was too scared to appreciate this when we ran into that seamother herd. Almost like a vision. And the light—“

“Is the Farpool nearby?” asked Angie.

“It is. My first impression, too,” Kloosee replied. Their kip’t shuddered for a moment, as another wave washed through the formation; he steadied the craft with a careful but firm hand.

“Notice there aren’t any luminescent creatures around. That was the theory, that the light of day came from swarms of organisms at the surface and when they slept, night came.”

“Haven’t you heard about suns and stars?” Chase asked.

“Some still believe the light comes from creatures in the Notwater,” Kloosee admitted.

The school of wing-walkers shot up out of the water in unison right in front of them and then re-entered in a cloud of bubbles. Several times they did this, each time in perfect formation, and when they splashed back into the water, it was like a giant hand plunging into the sea.

“Majestic,” came Yaktu’s voice. “I thought I had pulsed everything.”

They were within fifty beats of the surface now and moving inexorably toward the wavemaker. The curvature of its vast surface was becoming apparent from the sounder echoes.

Swift cross-currents brushed them and the shield reacted by bunching up its slack parts like a pleated hide. Kloosee had them stop the ascent and start cruising in a wide circle toward the machine. They pounded through several fronts of waves.

Conversation fell off as the thumping grew stronger and became a reverberating boom.

They entered a realm of bubbles, of cascading froth and lost sight of each other. Kloosee had

planned an approach from the side of the Shookengkloo Trench, to avoid being sucked into the whirlpools before they could emplace the shield. He hoped to come upon the wavemaker from the side, almost at the surface, before descending again to get into position. In that way, they would expose themselves to the hazardous whirlpools…and Uman suppressor fire…for the briefest period of time.

For the truth was, no one knew how the Umans, the Tailless People of the Notwater, would react.

Tense moments crawled by, with the thunder broken only by an occasional burst of static from kipkeeor. The sounders had become unreliable as they neared the surface and leveled out—

the water was too turbulent for consistent pulses. Kloosee waited for what felt like an eternity, while the noise grew ever more rattling, strengthening, gaining with each passing second, as if it were a living thing, a beast clawing, taking over, filling every space of the world, even taking hold of the mind and the heart and magnifying each tremble across a thousand beats of sea. He was waiting for a feeling, a notion that the wavemaker was just ahead, and when that feeling came, they would drop quickly and dart into the midst of the whirlpools, ready to throttle the machine for good.

“There it is!” someone cried.

And, sure enough, through a curtain of white foam, the bare face of the bowl loomed, its hard gray outlines softened by wave after wave of bubbles. Beyond and below, the whirlpools whirled madly, including the Farpool somewhere out there, black tubes twinkling with faint flashes of red and blue light. “Gateways to chaos,” Kloosee mumbled to himself. Curious, he trained a sounder on the region. No echo at all. Somehow, the whirlpools or whatever they were, absorbed every pulse. Yet they sparkled like the nightmarish beasts of the deepest sea, hypnotic and deadly.

Kloosee heard murmurs of awe from Chase and Angie but tore his attention from the whirlpools long enough to notice that the platform seemed bigger than on their first visit. Riding lower in the water, as if it had gained weight. An appalling thought occurred to him: was it possible the Tailless People had the power to consume all the water of the ocean? Longsee himself had long theorized about the machine, though the Tailless insisted it was a defensive weapon. No, of course not, he told himself. Nothing could consume the ocean. That was the kind of thought you had after eating too much gisu. It was absurd. The world was the world.

Shoo’kel could not be flaunted, not even by the Tailless. The currents were unchanging.

It was the sound, it had to be. Now it was affecting his thinking. He had noticed it before, the last time they had approached the wavemaker. Odd little specks of thought, transient flashes that made no sense. The whirlpools distorted his ideas of time and space but he could fight that.

Otherwise, the wavemaker had changed little; there was the same sense of massive bulk, of brutal forces at work, heedless, devastating and relentless.

“Let’s go down,” Kloosee told the others.

They eased the shield through a bank of turbulence, giving it enough slack to keep it from tearing. As they descended again, Kloosee kept a close watch on the guide cables connecting him to the shield. He didn’t want the kip’t to become entangled.

They found a level about thirty beats below the lowest of the whirlpools, where the kip’ts could hover in control. The shield was stretched to smooth out any folds. Only by running the jets at full power and keeping a good angle on their bow planes could they maintain their position in the powerful suction field.

Kloosee detached his own craft from the guide cable and maneuvered around the edges of the shield, checking the adhesive pads by which he planned to attach the sides to the wavemaker.

If all went well, the force of the suction would help keep the netting in place and if the pads held, the machine would be crippled.

Everything seemed in order. Kloosee talked by hand signal with each pilot, making sure they knew what to do. Timing was critical; each pilot had to hold his end of the shield in place long enough for Kloosee to get around and press the pad down. Any slippage and the whole shield might be lost, dragged into one of the whirlpools and them with it. Kloosee had refused to describe the experience to any of them; only Longsee knew the story and he didn’t fully believe all of it. That was just as well. If any of them really knew what the whirlpools could do, Longsee might never have convinced them to risk the attempt.

Kloosee gave the order to rise. He stationed himself beneath the shield, ready to move when first contact came. Even through the tchin’ting mesh, he could feel the suction pulling them upward and he knew that each pilot must be running his jets hard by now, just trying to keep the whole thing stable. Seeing the shield stretched by the suction for the first time, he wondered if the mesh would hold. The Ponkti had been adamant about doing the knitting in secret. He had no way of knowing if their methods, or even their motives, were sufficient.

The strain of the mission was telling on him and Kloosee winced as a sharp pain stabbed in his side. A faint taste of mah’jeet water startled him. There weren’t any of the creatures around that he could pulse; they couldn’t have survived among the whirlpools, so close to the wavemaker, anyway. Still, he intended to check the circulator when they got back to Omsh’pont. There did seem to be an oily taste to the water in the cockpit, though Chase and Angie had said nothing.

From time to time, Kloosee would slip out underneath the shield, checking the accuracy of their approach. Only minor corrections were needed. There wasn’t much chance they would stray from their course anyway—the whirlpools would make sure of that.

Their rate of ascent picked up steadily—they couldn’t be more than ten beats below the first of the whirlpools. This was the trickiest part. Somehow, they had to maneuver the shield past the vortexes, without losing anyone, and put the corners in exactly the right spot, so that the netting would hang suspended beneath the wavemaker, stopping the intake of water and deadening the sound.

It was all incredibly risky, with no end of things that could go wrong, but it had to be done.

Kloosee held his breath, his mind throbbing from the annoyingly acid water filling the kip’t, and gripped the controls tightly.

They raced on toward the wavemaker.

With the shield between his own kip’t and the wavemaker, he was able to slow his ascent more successfully than the others, but even so, his maneuvering power was limited. And he could tell they were almost there by the taut bulge of the shield above him. He held his planes down as far as they could go and nudged the rudder. The move shot him out well to the side and nearly into the midst of a spinning whirlpool, just in time to see the impact.

It all happened so fast that it was only later that he could capture the memory of the moment.

He had a clear view of one kip’t, Habloo’s as it turned out, when it momentarily disappeared into one of the cavities. He was horrified at the sight.

In a fraction of an eye blink, he saw Habloo’s kip’t disintegrate as it passed through the whirlpool. First the bow and the sounder dishes. Then the bubble of the cockpit and Habloo himself. Finally, the main body of the kip’t—the rudders, jets, everything. Sucked into the void,

spun into a burst of phosphorescence…then nothing. A few sparkles followed, revealing in silhouette the faint outlines of what had entered the whirlpool, then those too faded.

The shield on Habloo’s side started to sag and buckle, but before he could even react, Kloosee saw Habloo re-emerge from another whirlpool a few beats beyond. It was the same process, except in reverse. First, nothing. Then, a whorl of light, coalescing into solid matter.

The prow of the kip’t. Then the cockpit, the rudders, the jets. Habloo himself. All of it sliding out of the whirlpool as if from behind a veil.

The instant he was free, Kloosee screamed into kipkeeor, “Habloo! What happened? Are you all right?”

His reply was nearly drowned out by the Sound, but Habloo seemed to ask, “What are we doing back here again? We put the shield up yesterday.”

Kloosee had no time to puzzle out the question. Habloo was safe, or seemed to be.

Meanwhile the shield was rapidly drifting askew in the suction field. In another minute—

“Habloo!” he yelled, to get the pilot’s attention. When he had, he motioned furiously for him to grab the edge of the shield before it dragged them all into the whirlpool. Confused, Habloo hesitated. He’s stunned from the experience. Kloosee jetted over, skirting the fringes of a whirlpool that lashed out at him, and bumped Habloo’s kip’t with his own. The impact worked. Habloo shook himself and stared out in a daze at Kloosee. After a few seconds of gesturing, Kloosee made him understand the problem.

He watched as Habloo shot over to the falling shield and scooped up one edge with his kip’t’s claws. He rammed his side of the shield up against the wavemaker, pinning it against the metal. Yaktu and Ocynth followed and the shield was soon draped under the bowl, billowing out as it settled.

Kloosee hesitated only a moment, then closed his throttle and went to work.

He had the most trouble with Habloo’s end. Habloo hadn’t caught enough of the netting to get all of his pad onto the metal—half of it had torn away when he had snagged it and the tchinting was unraveling around the pad. Kloosee swore at the Ponkti weavers. Stubborn

‘penks. What did they really know about weaving tchinting anyway? He did what he could and, after the pad was pressed firmly down, he prayed it would hold. He couldn’t spend any more time with this corner; there was no telling how long the others could hold their ends.

In turn, he came to Ocynth and Yaktu, helping each secure the adhesive pads and pressing them firmly against the netting, which seemed to hold.

There was still one more corner to go, but Kloosee had no choice. He signaled his intentions to Yaktu, who acknowledged, and then moved in perilously close to a slender, fluctuating whirlpool spiraling off the wavemaker. This one whipped about like an angry serpent and Kloosee slid gingerly around it.

He got the final corner secured in no time and as he turned the kip’t about, he felt faint and dizzy, but happy. The wavemaker groaned a bit, then the whine died down to a low drone.

Tchinting absorbed the sound well. If only the shield would last.

They had done it. They had beaten the sound and overcome the technology of the Tailless.

There was a comforting hush in the waters around them, despite the murmur of the machine.

And before another minute had passed, the murmur was overwhelmed by a steadily rising chorus of clicks and whistles: the sea’s children coming home again. Kloosee drank deeply of the racket and let the fatigue of the last few days wash over him.

“Boy, the silence is deafening,” Chase said at last. “That shield makes quite a difference.”

“It’s a great day for all of us,” Kloosee admitted. He signaled the other kip’ts to rendezvous at a previously agreed upon point, a stubby seamount ten beats south. Longsee wanted to go over final details of the installation and set up an inspection schedule. Kloosee turned the kip’t about and headed for the site.

And Angie wondered just how close they really had been to the Farpool.

After Longsee’s meeting, the expedition crews celebrated. They dined on gisu and tong’pod, ertleg and clams. Stories were told, wild stories and lies, followed by drinks and much laughter, then even bigger lies. Couples paired off and mated in the shadows of the seamount.

And overhead, the small craft of the Tailless People sped back and forth at the surface, no doubt investigating, checking, trying to figure out what had happened to their machine.

Longsee pulsed the skimmers warily. Over a leg of tillet, he said, “It won’t be long before they come down here. They’ll figure out what happened.”

Ocynth, the Ponkti pilot, offered to form a guard force. “I’ve got experience as a prodsman…I can fight the bastards.”

“Sure,” said Habloo, “you can fight their suppressors with your little prods…that would be like me trying to bite a seamother. We need a better plan.”

That’s when it was decided that Kloosee would make a reconnaissance run around the perimeter of the wavemaker.

“See if the attachments are holding,” Longsee advised him. “I don’t want to risk too many of us when the Tailless are buzzing about like that. It’s too dangerous. Take the eekoti with you; they could be useful if you encounter a Uman. See what they are doing. And see if the shield will hold. I don’t want to head back to Omsh’pont—“ he made a slight nod to Ocynth and the other Ponkti, “or to Ponk’et if the shield is damaged or in danger of failing. We have to be sure

—“

So Kloosee set out in his kip’t alone, along with Chase and Angie. They covered the ten beats to the edge of the wavemaker in good time, noting just how much reduced the sound was now, and how many of the whirlpools had vanished too.

“Maybe the Umans turned their machine down,” Angie suggested. “I don’t hear that much now…just clicks and whistles.”

“That’s normal life, returning to the area,” Kloosee told them.

They cruised a few beats below the vast bowl of the wavemaker, noting how the shield stayed taut in most places, though a few ripples concerned Kloosee, especially at one corner.

“I should check that,” he decided. He brought the kip’t to a halt, nosing its bow into a small crevice at the peak of a low seamount, just below one edge of the shield. A small thatch of white, worm-like plants undulated in the swift crosscurrents. Above them, the water was light green and turbulent, waves and froth crashing back and forth through the gap between the machine and the seamount.

“Stay inside,” Kloosee told them. “I’ll only be a moment. I want to see why those ripples are growing…we may have an edge or a corner that’s come loose.” He lifted the cockpit and scooted out. He left the bubble open as he disappeared upward.

“Chase, how far away is the Farpool?” Angie’s question didn’t so much surprise him as annoy him.

“I don’t really know. And don’t get any ideas. Kloosee said stay here. We don’t know how the Umans will react. They could start shooting at us any time.”

Angie clucked. “You have an overactive imagination…I’m getting out—“

“Angie…don’t—“

But he couldn’t stop her and before he knew it, Angie Gilliam had slipped out of the kip’t cockpit and kicked off into the distance. Cursing and swearing, Chase lunged out himself and tried to follow her.

He swam and kicked and pulled for a few minutes, tried pulsing to no avail—the wavemaker and the remaining whirlpools made that impossible—but got nothing.

That girl…what on Earth…or Seome…was she thinking? He knew Angie was depressed, a bit upset, homesick and anxious about what they were doing here. We just need to talk, the two of us, heart to heart. Maybe coming through the Farpool with Kloosee and Pakma wasn’t such a great idea after all.

The vast bowl of the wavemaker still dominated the waters. There was plenty of light topside—as much as there ever was on Seome—and Chase knew the surface was only a short distance up. It’d be great to see the surface, he told himself. The waves, the sky, a little land.

He did miss it, more than he realized. He could tell looking up that the surface was rough and choppy, though how much of that was the machine, he couldn’t say. The Uman Time Twister was a vast structure, with effects everywhere.

He considered surfacing, just for a moment, but movement ahead caught his eye. He tried pulsing again— just can’t seem to get the hang of that—but his eyes caught movement and he veered off. Something near the shield. Two figures…not Uman, but Seomish.

He stopped short. It was Tulcheah. And one of the Ponkti weavers…Kepmet, he seemed to remember.

Tulcheah and Kepmet each carried small pouches. They were extracting something from their pouches and fixing it to the shield netting, to a series of knots along one fiber weave.

Tulcheah heard him approaching and stopped.

Eekoti Chase…I recognize the echo…you sound confused, worried, anxious…can I help?”

Chase greeted Kepmet, who backed away and disappeared from view, around a bend in the shield.

“I was looking for Angie…she left the kip’t…we came up here with Kloosee, some kind of inspection he wanted to do. Have you seen her…I mean, pulsed her?”

Tulcheah came right up to Chase, nuzzled his face with her beak. Her armfins stroked his arms.

“She’s nearby…but not too close…that’s good, isn’t it, Chase. You and I…we can be alone…don’t worry about Kepmet…he’ll go about his business, he won’t bother us. There is a small ertleg hollow near here…they won’t bother us, they’re all off mating…we can—“

Chase politely pushed her away, noting the pouch she held contained something alive. It was wiggling and kicking inside. “Tulcheah…don’t, okay? I like you…I mean…well, just don’t. And anyway, what’s in that pouch?”

Tulcheah stopped her nuzzling and with a quick tail snap, circled Chase in a tight orbit and came back to face him. She was disappointed. Even Chase could tell that. “To refuse Ke’shoo and Ke’leeeekoti Chase, surely you know I’m offended. This pouch—“ she held it out for Chase to look inside, “is full of ter’poh. See how they squirm…just as you squirm.”

Inside, the pouch was filled with small plankton-like creatures, all shapes and sizes, all of them oozing some kind of black jelly-like substance.

“What are they?”

Tulcheah sort of laughed, cinched up the pouch and slung it on a web belt she was wearing.

“Kepmet and I are also inspecting…we’re fixing a knot. The ter’poh help solidify and

strengthen weak joints and seams.” She studied him with big curious black eyes, pulsing him. “I don ‘t understand you, eekoti Chase. You show me interest—I can pulse the echoes right inside you—yet you pull away. Very confusing.”

Chase turned away. “Tulcheah, can I hide nothing from you? You have an advantage with all your pulsing. I don’t have time for this right now…I’m looking for Angie.”

“Ah… eekoti Angie…you have coupled with her?”

“If you mean have we had sex, the answer is yes…not that it’s any of your business.”

Just then, Tulcheah turned sharply and peered off into the distance. She had heard or sensed something. A form materialized, growing larger. Someone was coming. Tulcheah stiffened, tucked her pouch further out of sight.

It was Angie.

“I saw movement over here-“ she told them. “I thought…Chase—“ Then she realized Chase wasn’t alone. She recognized Tulcheah. “Oh, it’s you….”

“You wandered off so I went looking for you…we need to head back. Kloosee’s loading up the kip’t. After all the inspections, we’re heading out. Heading home.”

Tulcheah pulsed the two of them together, decided it was something like love. “Perhaps we’ll meet again, eekoti Chase. When we can be alone—“

Angie sniffed at that. “Have I interrupted something between you two…I can go away…

maybe even find my way back to the kip’t—“

“Angie—“

She scooted off. “Don’t ‘Angie’me, Chase Meyer.” She headed off and Chase decided he’d better follow. It wasn’t hard to get lost beneath the wavemaker. Though the Sound was now muffled and occasionally even vanished, there were still small whirlpools and vortexes, if you weren’t careful.

Chase shrugged. “Sorry—“ He headed off after Angie.

They finally made it back to the kip’t and found Kloosee outside loading some gear.

Kloosee clucked in ways the echobulb couldn’t translate. Chase figured it was some kind of expletive.

“I was just about to come looking for you two.”

Chase said, “Angie kind of wandered off…and I went looking for her.”

“I did not just wander off. I was…like, inspecting the shield.” Even as she said that, Angie knew how lame it sounded. But she decided defiance was her best defense. Fortunately, Chase let it drop. She’d have it out with Chase later.

Kloosee didn’t pursue the matter, though it was easy to pulse that both eekoti were nervous, anxious…something was clearly bothering them. Perhaps, an argument…they had a lot to learn about shoo’kel…he’d have to spend some time teaching to keep their insides under control, like any good Seomish.

“The expedition is preparing to move out,” Kloosee announced. “There are last minute inspections going on…as soon as those are completed, we’ll depart. It’s a long trip back to Omt’or…or in some cases, to Ponk’et.”

So Chase and Angie helped out, gathering equipment and loading it aboard their kip’t. For good measure, he and Kloosee roamed a few beats up and down their side of the shield, which hung in a billowing wave below the vast Uman machine.

“It seems to be holding,” Kloosee explained. He nosed along the woven seams, picking and checking knots and seams every few beats. “I’d never be able to get this close to the wavemaker

without the shield. There are many more whirlpools…get too close and you vanish forever. It almost happened to Habloo.”

Chase was intrigued. “You told me this big mother is some kind of weapon for the Umans.”

Kloosee acknowledged that. “They say they are fighting an enemy far beyond the Notwater…another world. I don’t know that much about it.”

Chase wanted badly to surface…just to see the sky and land once. “Can I go up? To the surface…I kind of miss it.”

Kloosee pulsed that the eekoti male was being truthful. “Only for a moment. I’ll continue checking along this weave. When I come back, be here. We have to leave soon.”

“You got a deal.” With that, Chase kicked his way upward, toward the light. Clearly, it was daytime and he was heartened as the light brightened with each stroke. But the surface was further away than he realized.

He breached at last and found himself pounded about in rough surf, rolling waves crashing and frothing over his head as he bobbed about, kicking just enough to stay up. He was exhilarated at the sound and the spray and, for no good, reason, yelled out at the top of his voice.

There was a light fog but the sun shone through it…Sigma Albeth B’s warmth apparent even this far north. He could see the curve of the great dome that was the Uman machine, the wavemaker, arcing into the mist above, disappearing like a planet of its own. Beyond the curve of the dome, a brown spit of land was barely visible. Kinlok Island, he figured.

They had been there only a short time ago and he wondered if the Umans were even aware of the big shield that had been secured to their machine. He saw no boats, no aircraft, no hoverships or skimmers, no activity that would indicate awareness. It was like the wavemaker existed for its own purposes.

Chase bobbed and stroked around at the surface for awhile longer. He’d always loved the sea. As a very young child, his father had often taken him surfing and boarding out in the Gulf; it was one of his earliest memories.

But he decided he’d better get back. When he submerged and began stroking and pulling his way toward the kip’t, his ears were suddenly pounded by a loud booming pulse of sound.

The wavemaker… something had happened…the shield—

He was momentarily stunned, losing all sense of where he was. The sound was a painful throb, a blast wave that knocked him sideways, then cartwheeling end for end, like a giant hand slap. It pulsed and boomed and throbbed and droned.

What the hell--?

Gradually, with effort, Chase stabilized himself and recovered enough to claw his way through the water back to the kip’t. There was chaos everywhere, bodies and kip’ts thrashing about, colliding, entangling.

Through it all, he could see that just ahead of them, the shield was slowly unraveling, unspooling from the wavemaker. It was coming apart, splitting along its seams, as if some giant scissors were cutting the fibers.

Kloosee shouted over the din. “Get in the kip’t! Angie’s already inside! We’ve got to get away from here, put some distance between us and the machine!”

Chase did as he was told. The booming pulses were painful, needles driving into his ears.

Once, when he was ten years old, Chase had been swimming in the Gulf alongside his father’s boat and decided to investigate some odd and colorful coral banks on the seabed. They were deeper than he realized. When he reached them, his head and ears felt like they were going to explode. He nearly passed out. His father had nearly killed him after that. “You were damned

lucky, kid, you didn’t burst an eardrum. You have to prepare before you pull something like that…don’t ever do that again.”

The boom of the wavemaker, now becoming uncovered, was a hundred times worse than that.

Chase squeezed into the kip’t, behind Angie, and Kloosee secured the bubble cover and fired up the jets. Other kip’ts were nearby and as a single formation, they cruised deeper and south from the wavemaker, until twenty or thirty beats had passed by. Kloosee found a small iceberg, just calved off the ice pack, which had drifted south. He nosed around its jagged underwater stalactites of ice and parked the kip’t in a broad crevice opposite the wavemaker, so that the berg partially blocked the throbbing din and crash of the sound.

“The shield is rupturing,” Kloosee said grimly. “It’s separating from the machine…we’ve got to get back there and fix it.” He got on the kipkeeor, the comm circuit, and talked with Longsee, who was in a nearby kip’t.

Longsee’s voice came back strained, almost hoarse. “It’s too dangerous. With the shield coming down, the whirlpools are back, many opuh’te, too many. You could be caught in a vortex. Maybe the Umans have done something.”

The next hour was chaotic and confusing, as Omtorish and Ponkti accused each other of failing in their duties. Several kip’ts bumped and collided and Kloosee wondered if the collisions were really accidents. Most of the expedition had gathered in the lee of the iceberg.

Taunts and threats and warnings flew back and forth, across kipkeeor, even in person, as workers tussled and fought each other. Loptoheen, tukmaster of Ponk’et, had to intervene several times.

Longsee was the expedition leader and he struggled for a long time to regain order among the expedition crews, finally separating Omtorish and Ponkti members completely. It seemed the only way.

“Their natural suspicions are coming out,” Kloosee told Chase and Angie. “This is bad.

Ponkti and Omtorish don’t need much to start a fight.”

“Why do they fight so much?” Chase asked.

“Enmity goes back a long way,” Kloosee told them. He had anchored their kip’t to the iceberg by wedging the nose into a small crevice. The stern of the sled waggled in the currents.

“The kels argue over territory, origins, food and resources, access to currents, everything. It seldom breaks down into actual combat…we’re too much alike for that, but still they argue. I just wonder what happened to the shield…why did it rupture?”

Chase remembered that he and Angie had come across Tulcheah and a Ponkti weaver at the netting a short time ago. He mentioned this to Kloosee, who was instantly intrigued.

“What were they doing?”

Chase said, “I don’t really know…I was just looking for Angie, she—“ but he felt a kick in his rear and changed the story –“anyway, Tulcheah was there with another Ponkti guy—I didn’t know him—and they were putting something, some kind of black jelly-like substance, on several knots of the netting.”

Kloosee questioned Chase closely. “Describe exactly what you saw.”

Chase did. Kloosee considered what Chase had said. “I’d better let Longsee know what you saw. There were inspections going on at several sites around the shield, but this doesn’t sound like an inspection to me.”

So Kloosee used another kipkeeor channel, a different frequency, to discuss the matter with Longsee. Presently, Longsee’s kip’t hove into view, having quietly maneuvered closer to them.

It was clear from the sound of his voice that Longsee considered the news very grave.

Longsee left his own kip’t and came over. Kloosee opened the bubble cockpit. “This is a serious matter. I want to inspect the shield the best way we can, while we’re still here. You’ll head one of the teams. Ocynth and Kepmet will head teams of Ponkti weavers. We’ve got to find out what happened, see if it can be repaired. The sound’s worse than ever. If this goes on, everything, all the kels will suffer, even Ponk’et.”

Chase and Angie were firmly ordered to stay in the kip’t. Kloosee left with Longsee. They were gone for what seemed like forever. Chase could tell the passage of time roughly by the shifting shadows on the side of the iceberg. By the time Kloosee returned, the shadows at moved to the opposite side. Must be late in the day, Chase told Angie. They had both napped lightly in the time before Kloosee and Longsee returned. When they did, Chase could tell immediately that both were grim and determined.

Longsee said nothing and left for his own kip’t.

“There will be a meeting,” Kloosee said finally. “We found ter’poh residue on several knots of the shield. It ate through the knots, dissolved them. It had to be put there deliberately.

Ter’poh isn’t found in these waters—too cold.”

“So what are you saying?” Chase asked.

“It was sabotage,” Kloosee said. “A deliberate action. Someone wanted the shield to fail. It was inevitable once the ter’poh was in place. They secrete a solvent, very thick, black in color.

Ter’poh are often used as solvents in our work.”

“That’s what Tulcheah was putting on the shield netting,” Chase said. “It was black, like a jelly.”

“So it would seem,” Kloosee agreed. “Longsee’s meeting now with the Ponkti leaders, with Ocynth and Loptoheen and the others, to decide what to do.”

“Why would anyone do this?” Angie asked. “Everybody suffers with this sound. It affects everybody. Why would anyone want the shield to fail?”

Kloosee said, “I don’t know. Tulcheah, if she’s involved, is Omtorish by birth. She is of our kel. But she’s also half Ponkti…she’s always been different. Independent. Strong-willed.

Her shoo’kel’s different, she pulses not like most Omtorish. She doesn’t go on vishtu—“

Vishtu…you mean the great roams?”

“Exactly. She used to roam with the kel but she always got pushed to the rear and she didn’t like that. Now—“ Kloosee took a deep breath, a sad breath Angie thought, “now, she won’t go.

She stays behind in her berth, sniffing scentbulbs. Tulcheah’s sad, caught halfway between being Omtorish and Ponkti…I feel sorry for her.”

Chase was thinking of his own encounters…all the ways Tulcheah had tried to seduce him, making Angie jealous. “A gold-digger…that’s what we call females like that.”

Angie smacked him. “Chase, really—“

“It’s true,” he argued.

Kloosee seemed sad, but resolute. “Longsee and the Ponkti are setting up a kind of hearing…we call it kel’em. It means representatives of all the em’kels here get together. They’ll look at the evidence, question Tulcheah. I can go, since I’m with the em’kel, Putektu, back in Omsh’pont. But you two can’t. You’ll have to stay here.”

Angie said, “What will happen?”

Kloosee wasn’t sure. “I don’t know. I heard that several people died when the shield ruptured. If Tulcheah did something to cause that…she is Omtorish. She’ll have to face justice in Omt’or. The Ponkti won’t like that. But your own kel determines what will happen to you.”

Kloosee made sure his eekoti guests were relatively comfortable, had food and promised to stay inside the kip’t. “Many opuh’te around…whirlpools. It’s too dangerous for you to leave.

You must stay here.”

They promised. But Angie knew that somewhere not far away was the Farpool. She began to imagine ways of locating it. But she said nothing of this to Chase. After Kloosee left, they napped and cuddled.

And the great sound thumped and beat and droned on.

The expedition leaders created a space for a hearing by using several kip’ts to carve a small opening in the underside of the iceberg, a sort of niche into which a small gathering of people could fit and which was relatively protected from the worst effects of the wavemaker.

The light of the Notwater was failing overhead and darkness crept over the waves as the hearing got underway. Tulcheah and Kepmet were both present. Two Ponkti prodsmen and two Omtorish craftsmen secured the hearing from any unwanted visitors. Arktet em was one of the Omtorish guards. He was well regarded by all, having been a key designer of the lifesuits that Kloosee and Pakma had worn when they first came to Earth.

They all eyed each other suspiciously. Longsee led the Omtorish contingent. Loptoheen headed the Ponkti side. The two of them glared at each other.

“We have no Metah here,” Longsee said. “This hearing is not official.”

“And no tekne’en drugs,” Loptoheen complained. “How can we be sure of anyone’s memory without tekne’en?”

“We have Tulcheah…the accused. She can speak,” Loptoheen reminded them.

“But can we believe her?” Longsee replied. “Tulcheah may be half Ponkti but she is kelke of Omt’or. She must face Omtorish justice.”

“What evidence do you have, Longsee? That of an eekoti male…what good is that? This is just a poorly disguised attempt to smear Ponk’et, to keep us from working with the Umans, learning about your precious Farpool. You can’t monopolize the Farpool forever. The day will come when Ponkti explorers will enter the Farpool as well.”

Longsee could well pulse a rising tide of anger around them. “The eekoti male can tell us what he saw. The knots failed because of ter’poh…that much has been established.”

There were snickers and chuckles among the Ponkti over that.

Loptoheen affected a diffidence he didn’t really feel. The Metah Lektereenah’s words still echoed in the back of his mind. “Then bring the eekoti here. It’s not normal, but we have no objection.”

Longsee sent Arktet to retrieve Chase.

They returned a few moments later. Chase looked bewildered, nervous. His insides churned and many turned away in disgust. Eekoti could never keep shoo’kel properly.

Loptoheen came right up to Chase’s face, an intimidation tactic he often used in tuk matches, before the bell rang. “Eekoti, tell us what you saw.”

So Chase described how he had left Kloosee’s kip’t, went looking for Angie and came across Tulcheah and another Ponkti, how they had been applying some substance to the netting, what it looked like.

“I don’t know what it was,” he told them. Chase looked around. He was surrounded by Omtorish and Ponkti people, arrayed in concentric circles, all of them clicking and squeaking and whistling and grunting, sounding so fast his echobulb couldn’t keep up. It was a cacophony that rose and fell, trilled and shrank to a whisper, almost in unison. “But that’s what I saw.”

Loptoheen was abrupt. “Tulcheah didn’t explain what she was doing?”

“She said she was strengthening the knots in that section of the net.”

Here, Loptoheen snapped about in triumph. “You see? This is a normal practice.”

Longsee would have none of it. “Ter’poh aren’t used to strengthen fibers…we know at least that much.”

“And what, really, do you know about Ponkti weaving techniques? For ten thousand metamah, we’ve been working with tchin’ting fiber.”

And so it went, back and forth, argument after argument. Kloosee told Chase, to one side, that no one could beat Longsee in argument. Debate was his specialty. Loptoheen grew frustrated. Tensions rose. The prodsmen circled nervously, trying to keep order.

Finally, to maintain shoo’kel, it was agreed that Tulcheah would accompany Longsee and the rest of the Omtorish party back to Omsh’pont. The matter would be put to the Metah, Iltereedah, and a decision would be made by her.

Kloosee and Chase returned to their kip’t. Angie was inside, dozing off.

“We’re returning to Omsh’pont,” Kloosee announced. “No decision has been made. The shield is still unraveling, pulling away. The sound, as you can hear, grows daily. This whole expedition has failed and Longsee will have to explain why to the Metah.”

Angie could sense the sadness in Kloosee…maybe she could even pulse it. She’d been trying to do that for some time, now the echoes were beginning to make some sense. There were patterns. The recognition that she could detect feelings from pulse echoes sobered her. My GodI’m becoming one of them. That wasn’t what she wanted to happen.

“What will happen now, Kloos?”

Kloosee was securing everything inside the cockpit, powering up the jets. Their kip’t would be in the lead, on the long trek back to the Omtor’kel Sea, and home.

“There’s nothing we can do here. The shield can’t be fixed…and the Ponkti won’t help anyway. There’s too much suspicion, too much bad feeling. Tulcheah is under suspicion as a saboteur…she’ll face the Metah. Chase will also have to stand before the Metah…he witnessed something that bears on the case. I don’t know what will happen after that. With no shield, the sound will destroy everything.” Kloosee backed the kip’t away from its niche in the ice and turned them about. All around them, other kip’ts and craft gathered into convoy formation…

shapes flitting by in the frothy green water, barely discernible. They jetted off and the kip’t rocked, then settled down to steady droning cruise speed. They went deeper and the light fell off. Kloosee negotiated ice chunks expertly and soon enough, they felt the first faint tugs of the Pomt’or Current.

Kloosee was thinking out loud. “I suppose the Metah will have several choices. Either assemble a force to attack the Uman base. We’ve tried that before…there were many casualties.

Or try to negotiate with them. That hasn’t worked either. Negotiating with Tailless people is like negotiating with a tillet. They treat us like pets, like animals.”

“And we didn’t have any luck either,” Chase remembered.

It was a long glum ride back to Omsh’pont. And Chase was uneasy for the whole trip. Now he would be intimately involved in a major case of Seomish justice. You will stand before the Metah and speak what you have seen, Longsee had told him. Could they imprison him? Could they charge him with something? The more he thought about it, the more anxious he became.

Even Angie could see that.

They spent a lot of time during the long ride in each other’s arms. Maybe Angie’s right, he told himself. Maybe they had done all they could do and it was time to go home.

For a day and a half, Chase’s emotions boiled and bubbled so violently, that Kloosee finally had to say something.

“You are kelke, Chase…don’t fret so much. You’re family now. Part of Omt’or. “

Chase didn’t know whether to be thankful for that…or fearful.

Chapter 14

Seome

Omsh’pont, kel: Om’t

Time: 767.2, Epoch of Tekpotu

Angie knew that Chase’s audience with the Metah Iltereedah was her best chance to get help. She wanted to go back through the Farpool. She wanted to undo the em’took procedure, and get her long legs and cute butt and page-boy curls back. She wanted, desperately, so bad she could taste it, to go home and hug her Mom and run laps around the track at Apalachee High with Gwen Sandiford.

Now she was just mad. Longsee had told her that none of this was possible…at least not any time soon. Iltereedah had ruled that very day: the hearing and the trial of Tulcheah would take precedence.

Even amidst the cacophony of the sound and its relentless turbulent pounding, all of Omsh’pont was abuzz over the matter of the half-Ponkti weaver. What would happen to her?

What should happen to her?

The Metah had been reluctant to furnish an expedition to take Angie back to the Farpool but when Longsee pointed out that studying the effects of what was left of the shield on the Uman machine would be useful, she relented. She questioned Angie closely about her decision, summoning both Angie and Chase to her chambers atop the central seamount of Omsh’pont.

“I do not understand this request,” Iltereedah said. “It makes sense that eekoti would want to return to their home kels, if they had only come for a short stay. But you have both gone through em’took. Eekoti Angie, even if you go back through the Farpool, you will still be…as you are. And Longsee has told me that there is no assurance that such a trip will take you back to your own time and place. Explain this to me.”

Angie always found the Metah’s chambers an intimidating place. Nowhere else in Omsh’pont did she feel so out of place, so obviously different from everybody else. The Metah was always surrounded by aides and staff…the canopied pavilion was even now draped with extra coverings and shielding to screen out the wavemaker’s vibrations as much as possible.

Iltereedah hovered gracefully atop a broad flat pedestal that looked like a natural stone formation, almost a coral reef in itself, multi-hued, dazzling with textures and shapes and gilt-edged petals, almost like a tiara or a chandelier.

“Your Majesty—“ Angie replied, not sure how one really addressed the Metah, “—I don’t know if you have a word in your language for homesick, but that’s what I am. Chase and I came here with Kloosee and Pakma to try to help. I don’t think we can do much more to help. I want to go home and be with my people. Chase—“she glanced over at him—their eyes didn’t meet, couldn’t meet. Something had happened, now the spark seemed to be dying, and that made her sad. Still—“Longsee told me that em’took couldn’t really be reversed. I’m not sure I fully understood that when we went through it. But it doesn’t matter…even unmodified, I want to go back. I’m willing to take the risk…even if Chase isn’t.” There…she had said it. It hurt like hell to say it, but the words were out there now and couldn’t be recalled.

The Metah took the moment to leave her nest and circle the pavilion. She pulsed Angie, finding only sadness, determination, her words matched the echoes. Iltereedah pulsed Chase as

well, sensing in the eekoti male confusion, anger, resignation…it was hard to tell with these odd creatures. They couldn’t hide anything, had no concept of shoo’kel.

“And you, eekoti Chase, what have you to say about this? You must stay…there is the matter of Tulcheah. You’re a witness. But you and eekoti Angie seem shoo’lee…I pulse something like affection here. A small core of affection, to be sure, but it’s there.”

Chase felt his throat go dry. Now that Angie had said it….

“Your Majesty, I love Angie…I’m not sure why she—“ He looked over at her, all scaly and reptilian. Was it really Angie? Had their relationship changed that much?

The Metah seemed to sense the conflicting feelings. You couldn’t hide echoes like that.

“This is against my better judgment. But I will approve a trip to Kinlok, for eekoti Angie to go back through the Farpool. The eekoti have done much, endured much, to help us. Now, perhaps, we can help you. Longsee will see to it that the proper outfitting is done. And a lifeship will be made available. The shield has failed. We must seek another solution and something may yet come of this trip. Eekoti Angie…you understand that the em’took procedure cannot be reversed…not easily. You could die.”

Angie wouldn’t look at Chase. She couldn’t look at Chase. Not now. If she did—

“Your Majesty, I understand. Kloosee and Pakma have explained. I still want to go home.”

“Very well,” Iltereedah decided, “it will be done.” She nodded to her aides and they whispered the proclamation into small echobulbs. Later that day, the Metah’s words would be broadcast throughout Omsh’pont on the sound layer, and by repeater to a wider audience throughout the Sea.

Chase and Angie were dismissed. With an official escort from the Metah, they roamed together silently for awhile, heading back across the city to the Academy labs at the base of the T’orshpont seamount. A steady rain of debris, rubble and mud sloughed off the seamount and swirled like a dirty fog above the city, the effects of the Uman machine up north, of the sound that could not be shielded.

They said nothing to each other.

The newly approved trip would consist of a single kip’t, towing a lifeship. Amanh tel, an engineer with Longsee and the Academy would pilot the kip’t. Pakma tel would come along as well and train Angie on operating the lifeship. Angie was quickly reminded of how much she had to re-learn…just making the right clicks and sounds to control the lifeship was harder than she remembered. But she was glad to see Pakma again and they embraced when she showed up at the kip’t shop, nuzzling each other in the Omtorish way.

“I’m glad you’re coming along, Pakma. It’s good to have someone I know.”

Pakma pulsed the eekoti female. Her normally bemused smile wasn’t there. She could sense the sadness roiling inside Angie.

“You’re not happy, eekoti Angie. I can see that. We all pulse it. This is a distressing and unhappy time for you.”

Angie had to admit that. “I’m sad to leave all my Seomish friends behind…especially you and Kloosee. We’ve grown to know each other so well…you’re like family to me. It’s been special…what we’ve had together.”

“But your real family is not here, eekoti Angie. You wish to return to your own world.”

“Yeah, that’s true…I miss my Mom, my friends. Especially Gwen.”

Pakma and Angie watched several technicians outfitting and checking the sled for its long journey. Supplies and small pouches were laid in, fastened to the inside of the kip’t. The jets were fired and tuned. Circulators tested. Control surfaces exercised.

Eekoti Angie, you do understand that em’took can’t be easily reversed. Longsee said to try it might be fatal. Perhaps the Farpool will take you back to your world. But it may not be the same time and place. And you will be different. You will not be the same as before…this concerns you, I can tell this.”

“If you mean…do I realize I’ll look like a giant frog, I do. I don’t care. The Farpool will make it right. I’m sure of it. The Farpool will put me back.”

Now, Pakma was truly sad for it was clear that eekoti Angie did not fully understand.

“There is no proof of this…Longsee himself has said such a change is unlikely, probably impossible.”

But Angie was undeterred. “Pakma, I just want to go home, that’s all there is to it.”

And Pakma could pulse that it was true.

The kip’t departed the very next day—Amanh, Pakma, and Angie, with the lifeship in tow.

Before lifting away from the dock at the Academy, Chase and Angie said a tearful goodbye. At least, they thought it was tearful. With their modified bodies, you couldn’t tell if there were really tears. But they hugged and rubbed noses anyway

“Are you sure about this?” Chase asked her.

Angie, aware that others were watching and probably studying them like lab rats, nodded, whispering into Chase’ echopod-enhanced ear: “I’m sure. I just need to go home, and be home.”

“Even looking like this…you know what’s going to happen, Ang. You’ll be scooped up and wind up in a zoo…or worse. You don’t even know if the Farpool works in reverse.”

Angie looked at Chase. He really did look like a frog, with jowls and bulbous eyes. She had to laugh a little . I look the same way. “I know. I don’t care. I just can’t stay here any longer, Chase. It’s not me. It’s not even—“she wanted to say human, but some inner sense told her not to “—it’s not right. I came along ‘cause I wanted some adventure too. I guess…I don’t know…I guess I didn’t think it would really happen. I thought we’d leave the aquarium and fool around at sea with Kloosee and Pakma and that would be that. I never dreamed---“

“You know I’ll come home…some day. Just not right now. I have to do this. Kloosee, Pakma, all of them, they need help. Ang, I can help them. I know I can.”

Angie pressed fingers into his rough, scaly cheeks. The eyes are still Chase. Em’took didn’t change that. “I know that. Let’s don’t make this any harder than it is, okay? Just come back as soon as you can.”

Chase heart sank. It was the way she said that. “You’ll be there? You’ll be…I mean, you know…us—“

Angie put fingers to his big lips. “Shhh. Just come back—“

With that, she climbed into the kip’t. Pakma pulled the cockpit bubble down. Amanh revved the propulsors and in a cloud of bubbles, the kip’t and lifeship were off. They disappeared into the rain of silt and swirling dirt in seconds and were gone.

Chase went back inside the Academy em’kel. His heart was in his mouth. He felt like crap and was momentarily overwhelmed with sadness, wondering if he would ever see Angie again.

He had to believe he would. He told himself that, out loud, over and over again. It would happen.

Pakma had told Angie the trip would take five days. Amanh would pilot the kip’t south, paralleling the outer bands of the Sk’ork Current, around the southern flanks of Likte Island, then across the equator into the vortex fields of Pul’kel, to catch the great sweep of the Pom’tel

Current. Its counter-clockwise movement would then take them around the Ponk’el Sea, past the Pillars of Shooki and the edge of the polar icepack to the region of the azhpuh’te, the whirlpools and the Farpool. Kinlok Island and the Uman base wouldn’t be far away.

As Pakma described it, Angie thought: this is like going around your ass to reach your elbow. But the currents of Seome were the currents of Seome and she figured Amanh knew what he was doing. After Angie had left the kip’t and hopefully ridden the lifeship into the Farpool, Amanh and Pakma would continue on to reconnoiter Kinlok and the surrounding seas, collect measurements on the sound and vibration and recon any weaknesses in Uman operations that could be used in future attempts to rid the world of the hated wavemaker and its Tailless operators.

Conditions were growing steadily worse everywhere. Even Angie could see that. Despite wanting to go home, she did fear for the future of her Seomish friends.

The three of them spent many hours in silence, as Amanh drove them southeast across the great abyssal plains of Omt’orkel toward the lower Serpentine. There wasn’t much to see. The water was black, flecked with brief bursts of luminescence as small creatures lit off when the kip’t disturbed their feeding. Once, they came upon a field of flickering lights, moving slowly a few beats below them.

“Ter’poh,” said Amanh as they passed over the moving river of light. “They glow like that when they feed.”

Pakma laughed. “Omtorish mothers tell their babies that the ter’poh will come if they don’t eat all their meals…we all grew up afraid of them. But really, they’re pretty harmless…unless they clog our jets. Amah will keep us a safe distance away.”

“Sounding the Southern Gap ahead…maybe thirty beats,” Amanh told them. The sounder echoes flickered on some kind of screen on the sled’s instrument panel. “I’ll slow us down—“

They reduced speed to navigate the narrow chasm and the waters became turbulent and frothy, cross-currents mixing in a maelstrom of crashing flows. The kipt and lifeship waggled and whipsawed and careened until Amanh brought them down to a creeping speed, just barely making enough way to overcome the water’s resistance.

Finally, when Angie was sure they would be dashed against steep escarpments on either side, an invisible current reached out and grabbed them, pulling them through the gorge into the Ponk’el Sea. Ahead, the conical shapes of the Ork’nt range were dim shadows and they were buffeted by choppy waves and clashing currents as they picked up speed again.

“It’s like roaming through Omsh’pont during vish’tu,” Amanh mentioned. “When everybody gets out and roams, you can’t go anywhere…people are thick as stew. You have to twist and turn and slide and slither…the Pul’kel is like that. Vortexes and whirlpools everywhere, right on top of each other. Normally, we wouldn’t come this way, but if you can get through, the Pomt’or Current will take you up north quickly. We need to get to the Farpool as fast as we can…no one knows if it still works the same way…or even if it’s still there.”

This made Angie anxious and Pakma pulsed it right away. “You mean the Farpool might disappear? I thought it was a permanent disturbance.”

Pakma chose her words carefully; she didn’t want to say something that would upset Angie any more. They still had several more days jammed together inside the kip’t.

“Longsee thinks the Farpool is just an especially strong whirlpool…something the Uman machine, the wavemaker, creates as a side effect. He doesn’t think the Umans are even aware it exists…or if they are, they don’t care. Here—“ Pakma pulled out an echopod from a pouch

inside the cockpit and activated it. “Longsee recorded his own findings some time ago…listen

—“

“One of these whirlpools is especially deep and intense. In this whirlpool, the twist field has spun off a sort of miniature or daughter wormhole. It isn’t very big. It isn’t very stable, fluctuating daily in intensity and location. But it will send objects that enter to other places, other places different in both time and space.

We call this mother of all whirlpools the Farpool. By accident, we’ve learned that at certain times of the year, under certain conditions created by operating the Time Twister, the Farpool can send small objects…a few explorers and their gear…to other places and times. We believe one of those places turned out to be the home world of the Umans themselves.

In effect, we have learned how to travel back in time and space to the ancestral home planet of the Umans. The Umans don’t know this. And they don’t care, as they are engaged in running duels with local forces of their mortal enemy, whom they call Coethi.

Using the Farpool to reach other places and return to Seome requires exquisite timing and control of the whirlpools generated by the Twister. Use of the Farpool is basically at the mercy and sufferance of the Umans and how they operate the Twister. But we have learned much. We’ve catalogued the conditions we need and built an algorithm to help predict when these conditions will occur. When the right conditions appear, we know to be ready to enter Farpool.

There have been several occasions when Farpool didn’t work as we predicted. In all these situations, the travelers failed to make it to their destination, or failed to return to Seome. Where or when they went is unknown. When this has happened, we have memorial services and try to learn what went wrong. This process has led to our ability to predict and manage how to use the Farpool. In recent months, we have been able to reliably go and return from the Umans’ homeworld.

And no one outside of Omt’or, especially the Ponkti, knows any of this.”

This made Angie thoughtful for a few moments. “What will happen if the Farpool isn’t there? Is there no way to make sure it works?”

Pakma tried soothing her. “Eekoti Angie, we must trust in the benevolence of Shooki in this matter. The currents will be as the currents will be. If we reach the Farpool and there are obvious problems, you don’t have to go through. You can come back with us to Omsh’pont…

see your mate Chase and be happy with us…wherever we wind up.”

That didn’t make Angie feel any better. “First of all, Chase is not my mate. And what exactly do you mean… wherever we wind up?”

“There is talk—“ and here Pakma paused, for Amanh had given her a stern look from his pilot’s position “—that we may leave our homes. Go elsewhere, through the Farpool.”

Angie hadn’t heard this before and she was intrigued. “Where would you go? Where can you go?”

“Oh, there is great conflict and debate about this…in Omt’or, in all the kels…even Ponk’et.

One of the reasons Kloosee and I came to your world was to learn if it is livable…for us. You have vast oceans, many waters, like our world. The waters are different, but there are proposals

—“ Here, Amanh spoke sharply.

Eekoti should not know of this, Pakma tek. The Metah has pledged us all-“

But Pakma wouldn’t be dissuaded. “I don’t report to you, Amanh tel… eekoti Angie should know this. There are proposals…serious proposals, even plans, to emigrate. From our world to yours. Seome to your Earth. Live in your waters. Kloosee and I were there in part to observe, collect information, take measurements…a kind of surveillance.”

Angie’s head swam with the idea. “Emigrate to Earth…all of you? Through the Farpool…

could that even be done?”

“There is talk among the scientists…ways to do this…but we haven’t discussed this with the kels. But you must promise not to reveal this when you go home. The project could be jeopardized.”

Angie’s head churned with all kinds of thoughts. The Farpool…mass migration…alien invasion…jumbled images of bad science fiction movies erupted. She wasn’t sure what to make of all this.

“I had no idea, Pakma. But your secret is safe with me. I just want to be home.”

Pakma asked about Angie’s family, about her em’kel.

“If I understand the idea of em’kels right, we don’t really have an equivalent back home.

We have families…mother, father—mine ran off with another woman, the jerk—brothers…I have one brother. We’re related, blood lines and all that. I guess the closest thing we have to your em’kels is like a club…or a team, like the track team at school. Gwen and I are 200-meter girls on the track team.”

Pakma didn’t really understand but she could pulse that discussing her ‘family-em’kel’

made Angie calmer, quieter, more controlled. It was a good subject for discussion.

“Don’t get me wrong,” Angie went on. “I’ll miss you and Kloosee…and Longsee and even Amanh here. I’ve got lots of friends here…I’ll always remember you. It’s just that—well—“

Angie shrugged. “Home is home. And I’m sure Chase will come home too…when he’s ready.

That boy thinks he’s a great explorer…this has been the adventure of a lifetime…for both of us.

I’ve never dreamed—“ She struggled for the right words—“well, I mean, I never had any dreams like this. It’s been like a dream to me.”

The remainder of the trip across the Ponk’el Sea was spent like this, Angie struggling with conflicting feelings, should I really do this, I need to do this, I should stay and help Chase, they need us, but what can I really do and I miss Mom and Gwen so much— everything ran together and she just couldn’t sort it all out and Angie found herself glad when Amanh announced that the first faint outlines of Kinlok Island and the whirlpools was now dead ahead, maybe a hundred beats.

“Time to get you into the tchee’lum,” Pakma announced. The bulbous, fish-shaped lifeship had been their companion since leaving Omsh’pont, towed behind like an unwilling pet. Amanh sounded ahead—they could all hear and feel the steady drone-beat of the wavemaker filling the waters—and soon located a small range of rubbly hills along the seabed, where they could shelter for a few moments and Angie could make the transfer with little risk.

Amanh put them down on the seafloor. The water was a deep green, streaked with shafts of light from above, and thick with broken ice. Mah’jeet fields were nearby but moving away.

Pakma unsealed the bubble and Angie immediately felt the numbing cold of the polar waters.

She made the switch in quick order, not wanting to stay exposed to the icy waters any longer than necessary. Once she had wedged herself inside the tiny craft and strapped in, Pakma went over the controls one more time.

“You must make the right clicks and whistles to control tchee’lum…you’ve done this before, eekoti Angie. You have controls for the propulsors, the planes and rudder, the stabilators and the interior. You can vent the cockpit here—“ she brushed several controls with her armfins

—“and re-fill here. You have communications, some navigation…it won’t work on your world.

And you don’t have to navigate to the Farpool itself…Amanh will steer us as near as he can and when tchee’lum is caught in the vortex, he’ll cut the towline and you’ll be pulled in. Just stay centered as best as you can and hold on…you’ve been through this before.”

Angie swallowed hard. Am I really doing this? “I remember…it’s like riding about a hundred Space Mountains—“ When Pakma looked puzzled, Angie went on,” A kind of sport on my world…we do it for fun.”

“We will miss you, eekoti Angie.” Pakma had an unmistakable look of sadness on her face.

Her normally faint smile was now clearly a frown. Even Angie could tell that. And in her own fumbling way, she could ‘pulse’ the upset echoes inside her. She reached out and stroked Pakma along her beak.

“Me too, Pakma. Maybe we’ll see each other again.” She had no idea how or when such a thing might happen, but it seemed like a good thing to say.

Pakma understood and brushed an armfin against Angie’s rough, scaly, lizard face. “I hope that em’took can be reversed. Perhaps your own healers can do this—“ With that, she closed the bubble and Angie heard the swoosh of the self-seal as the bubble settled into its grooves.

She was all alone now, in more ways than she cared to realize. But before she could feel sorry for herself, the lifeship jerked upward. Amanh had started up the kip’t and the towline strained with the weight. Soon enough, Angie’s tiny craft was in motion too, wallowing like a drunken whale in the wake of the kip’t.

They headed north, into the whirlpools, toward the Farpool.

The buffeting became noticeably stronger and Angie tried to see out but the little lifeship had only a tiny forward porthole and she couldn’t see much. On her instrument panel, Pakma had powered up all the dials and gauges…most of them completely foreign to Angie. Screens chirped and clicked, lines and waves danced across displays and vertical indicators bobbed up and down…none of it meant anything to her. She had forgotten everything Pakma had just gone over and now hovered helpless and frozen inside the tchee’lum, afraid to touch anything.

I’ll just have to trust Pakma and Amanh, she muttered to herself. And God too.

There was a strong jerk at the front of the lifeship and a feeling of being cut loose. She stained to see ahead and thought she saw the tail end of the towline whipping by the porthole.

Probably Amanh’s cut me loose. I’m on my own now. Here goes

The lifeship started shaking like a wet dog, buffeting, rocking, careening, bouncing back and forth. She had a strong feeling of being accelerated forward, like something powerful was pulling the ship in, like she was being swallowed, going down some giant’s mouth.

Then the spinning started, faster and faster, until Angie began to see only a narrow tunnel ahead— gray-out is what fighter pilots called it—pulling too many g’s—and her mind was filled with scraps of thoughts…the last homework assignment Miss Poynter had given them in Algebra

II..that time she had tripped over the final hurdle in the regional finals of the 200-meter event…

catapulting her into the air, she felt like she was spinning until her face and chin slammed into the track and she woke up from the impact in the school infirmary with a mild concussion…there was that time she and Chase had been canoeing off-shore, near Turtle Key, and there was a hurricane out in the gulf—they had disobeyed all the red flags and headed out and gotten into surf they couldn’t handle and that big-ass wave had turned them bow for stern, right in the air….

All these things hurtled through what was left of Angie’s consciousness. With her last glimmer of thought, she remembered that night when Mom had come home from working at the Venetian Feast restaurant, all tears streaking down her face to say that Dad had left…no note, but she knew where he was and he wasn’t coming back…she wanted to kill the guy right then and there for tearing up Mom like that—

And then the Farpool grabbed her completely and pulled her in and she had no more thoughts for a very long time.

Chapter 15

North Pacific Ocean

220 miles west of Port McNeill, British Columbia

October 20, 2122

5:45 am

When she came to, Angie’s first impression was like when she’d been riding back of Chase on his turboscooter and they’d run though a giant pool of rainwater covering Winter Valley Road, near that wide turn coming out of Croc’s Corner. It was much deeper than either of them realized and the scooter started hydroplaning and sliding across the top of the water, slamming them forward with sudden deceleration so hard she thought they were both going to be thrown off into the culverts.

Coming out of the Farpool was like that, only about a million times worse. The blinding roar of deceleration slammed Angie against the ship’s forward bulkhead

“Ouch! That hurts like hell!” she told herself. The little craft spun and gyrated for a few moments as it slowed down, then began drifting, gently settling downward bow first.

Had she made it? Was this Earth? The Gulf, maybe?

She craned her neck trying to see out of the tiny porthole but there was only dark.

When all the ship’s motions had dampened out, Angie repeated Pakma’s instructions on cycling the hatch. With effort, she managed to spring it open. Cold water flooded in and she sucked in her breath.

She tried to squeeze out and wound up stuck. Panic set in. She kicked and thrashed, felt her heart pounding like a jackhammer. Jesus--! Then she kicked some more, hammered with her fists… what if I can’t get out…how will I eat?… just the thought of it made her hungry. She’d developed a taste for Seomish gisu and tongpod…surely none of that would be around.

Finally, with a great straining heave, she managed to kick loose and tumbled out of the lifeship cockpit. The little craft was scorched and streaked with something… is that what I just came through?

She kicked and pulled and talked to herself. Steady girl…you know how to swim…you know how to do this…don’t panic…just do what Chase always says…think happy thoughts…only his happy thoughts…oh, never mind that—

She pulled upward, instinctively seeking the surface. This doesn’t really look like the Gulf.

The Gulf was always clear, aquamarine or turquoise, sandy sea bed. She couldn’t even see the seabed and the water was dark, cold and heavy.

As she approached the surface, she heard something thrashing and honking in the water nearby. She wasn’t alone. She stopped for a moment. Then she realized it was a whale…she could sense its massive bulk close aboard. Angie kicked away from the noise and soon realized she was ascending through a gathering of whales. The water was turbulent, frothy, thick with bubble columns. Somehow, she had blundered right into the middle of them.

She breached the surface and found herself in heavy surf, with whitecaps spuming off the roaring wave tops. Winds whipped at her, but she thrashed around, mesmerized at the sight of all her whale neighbors spouting, breaching, slamming tails and flukes against the water, lifting geysers of spray into the air.

Maybe I’d better get out of here, before I get crushed. She dove back down, sensing that the pod was slowly moving off. Still hungry, she soon fell back to the rear of their formation, barely able to make out their undulating tails. She kicked and pulled hard and decided to try to follow them.

Clearly, this was not the Gulf of Mexico.

Captain Will McKinley stood against a door on the forward weather deck of the Kitticut and tried for the fifth time to light his cigarette. Fortunately, his first mate, Gallagher, was nearby and came to the rescue, cupping his hands around McKinley’s stiff fingers.

Both men were still shaken from what they had just witnessed.

“Never seen a spout like that, Gil…quite a sight that was.”

Gallagher, first name Gil, agreed. He lit his own cigarette. “Never this far north, eh? Like something out of the tropics. Sky split open, crack of lightning. It’s a wonder that pod didn’t scatter to the winds. They got up a good frenzy but they seem to be settling down. Shall I order the boats out?”

“Yeah, give the order. It’s a small pod but we might have some good ones in there. Tell the shooters to brace themselves, though. This is some fierce chop.”

It was just then that first mate Gil Gallagher, of the whaler Kitticut, out of Port McNeill, British Columbia, lead ship of the Robson Line and always loaded to her gunwales with good meat after a run, saw the ghost, the apparition, for that’s what he would insist on calling it in all the reports and debriefings that would follow.

“Cap’n…excuse me, sir…but what the hell is that?” Gallagher pointed to a form just breaching the heavy waves off their starboard bow…not a whale, not a porpoise, but something else altogether, something the two officers had no words for.

McKinley, who didn’t really mind being called “Mount—“ behind his back by the crew, peered hard at the body, the form, riding low in the surf. It was human-like in size and scale, but amphibious in appearance. Dark gray, mottled on its back, fins and flukes, but also legs and arms. And the head—

“Crikey…it looks like a bad movie…what is that? Mermaid? Monster? If I didn’t know better—“

But Gallagher was already on the bridge talker. “Shooters, all shooters, to the starboard bow! Man your stations! Shooters, all hands forward now! Target… two hundred meters abeam of the ship—“

A flurry of activity around Kitticut’s foredeck produced half a dozen men with high-powered rifles, now assembling among the capstans and bracing of the ship’s foredeck.

“Jesus!”

“God in…it’s a monster…!”

“Some kind of turtle--?”

Gallagher made his way down. “Take your best shot, gentlemen. Let’s see if we can capture that beasty and bring her in…no one’ll believe it otherwise.”

Men settled their weapons down. Presently, shots rang out, dozens, then scores of shots, as the whaleboat crews unloaded, trying to hit the ‘apparition’, but the ship was rolling and pitching too heavily for anything like a clean shot.

Gallagher went up to the bowsprit and leaned out, trying to get a better look. God Almighty, the beast looks like a raptor…like something from the past. All scales, reptilian head, fins and flukes, black button eyes….it’s a friggin’ nightmare!

“Sir--!” it was Sebastian, the Inuit crew chief. “Maybe the nets…if we could get close enough--!”

Gallagher figured it was worth a shot. He hand signaled to McKinley, still up on the bridge deck. The Captain seemed to understand. While Kitticut broke off her whale chase for a few moments and maneuvered toward the beast, Gallagher and Sebastian organized a net crew. The men sprang open lockers on the foredeck, hauled out seine nets and other rigging and loaded the mortars with shot, fastening the net anchors around the mortars. At the first mate’s signal, three mortars boomed out and flung netting over the side of the ship. The range was near perfect on their very first try and the netting descended over the thrashing beast, just as McKinley heeled Kitticut sideways toward their target. The ship slopped and careened for a moment, while the net crews worked furiously to secure the net ends, cinching up the snare by its halyards.

The beast was caught…and a great cheer went up on deck. Now, winches were started up and bit by bit, the net was hauled shipward…as the beast thrashed and flailed and struggled and cried out.

Gallagher lit another cigarette, as he helped straighten one end, trying to keep the net from tangling. By the time the winches had brought their prize catch alongside and began hoisting it on board, crewmen were already backing away from the still-thrashing beast, as it kicked and squealed and lashed out. A few kicked back at the thing, one threw a bucket.

Gallagher had the sense to go find a locker and withdrew a small gun. He loaded the magazine with several tranquilizer darts—the tray label read Impact-Actuating Inoculating Hypodermic Syringe—Maropitant citrate. He shoved several crewmen aside and cautiously approached the beast, still writhing and squealing in its snare on the deck.

It looked like a gigantic frog to Gallagher. Spade-shaped head like a little dinosaur, long legs with feet and fins, arms with hands and fingers…it was trying to tear at the netting with its fingers. It was strong too, several crewmen ventured too close and were knocked backwards by its kicks and slashes.

Gallagher crept up, took aim and fired several times, once into the stomach, several times into the chest and neck.

The tranquilizer began to take effect a few moments later. The beast’s kicks and flails began dying off, becoming more and more intermittent, weaker, slower, until finally, after what seemed like forever, it lay still and quiet, dripping salt water puddles onto the deck.

That’s when Captain McKinley finally showed up, having made his way down from the bridge. Already, Kitticut was heeling to port, picking up speed—McKinley had ordered flank speed from the engine room, in an effort to catch up with what was left of the pod of right whales they had been about to process.

McKinley stooped down as close as he dared and studied the now-still creature.

“My God, gentlemen, what on earth have we captured here?”

Two days later, Kitticut put in at Dock 4, south terminal of Port McNeill’s harbor, loaded with whale meat, tons of oil and baleen and something else that seemed to put men at a loss for words to describe it, something that had to be seen to be believed.

Someone had given the beast-thing the name Nessie, for any Scotsman would have been proud to have corralled such a catch in the deeps of Loch Ness itself. McKinley had already informed the Robson Line dock dispatcher that Kitticut was bringing in a full catch and something unusual as well.

Less than an hour after the whaler had tied up to Dock 4, calls had been placed to the Vancouver Aquarium. The dispatcher had talked for ten minutes with Dr. Justin Fort, marine biologist in residence. Fort was on his way to Port McNeill an hour later.

It was nearly seven o’clock when Justin Fort pulled his pickup truck into a parking spot outside the Robson Line terminal above the dockyards. Fort hustled into the offices, going over in his mind the words he had heard from the dispatcher five hours before: monster…

prehistoric…looks like a dinosaur…scaly…reptilian…like nothing we’ve ever seen….

Fort was already writing the introduction to the paper he knew would come out of this when Captain McKinley and Robson’s operations manager Vic Casey showed him into the storage locker, where the….thing, creature, whatever it was…had been placed for safekeeping.

Fort stood in disbelief alongside a shallow pool, surrounded by mesh netting and wire barriers. In the water lay Nessie, for that’s what everyone had come to call the find.

“That ain’t no Pacific cod we brought back, Doctor,” McKinley remarked. “Looks like a nightmare sea beast to me.”

“Or something akin to an Ichthyosaurus…some kind of refugee from the Triassic,” said Fort. He unfastened his wristpad and started taking photos.

Casey held up a hand. “Whoa, whoa there Dr. Fort…this is Robson property. I’ll have to ask you to stop with the photos.”

Fort took a few more and slipped his wristpad back on. “Right…sorry. Just a reaction…this is really extraordinary. Tell me again where you caught this—“

“Nessie,” said McKinley. “We’re calling her Nessie.” McKinley described the details of the catch.

Casey already had a calculator open on his own wristpad. “I’m guessing the aquarium is interested. We can talk terms in my office, if you’ll just—“

Fort was mesmerized by the sight of the thing. “Just look at it…reptilian head, but no real tail flukes…it’s amphibious, adapted for land and water. And the hands…it’s got fingers, fins…

it’s a hybrid…an evolutionary throwback. I’ll bet this line went extinct two hundred million years ago. To think a specimen could have survived this long-“

Casey cleared his throat. “Right…as I was saying, Dr. Fort, Robson’s more than happy to work with the aquarium on details. We just need to talk terms here—“

It was only with great effort that Casey was able to pull Fort away from the storage locker.

They spent half an hour in Casey’s office. Fort sent his photos to the aquarium director. Calls were made, texts were exchanged, donors and sponsors contacted. After an hour, Fort was authorized to make an offer.

Casey hemmed and hawed and finally, after some haggling, a price was set.

“Now, we just have to work out the matter of getting Nessie down to the aquarium.”

Fort already had the details worked out. “We’ll have an animal transporter here first thing to tomorrow. Nessie’s amphibious, so we need to keep her in a wet environment. Can’t say if she’s a mammal or what exactly, so let’s replicate the conditions you’ve maintained in the locker for the time being. I’d like to make a quick examination, if I may.”

Casey was already printing out the final pages of the contract of sale, licking his lips over what this little extra transaction would add to their month’s catch. A nice little bonus for me and the officers, at the very least, he imagined.

Fort and Casey signed. Casey buzzed for one of the plant catchmasters to escort Fort back to the locker. “You’ve got half an hour, Dr. Fort. Then we’ll start getting Nessie ready for her little trip south.”

***

Nessie was placed initially in the Graham Amazon Gallery at the aquarium. Room had to be made for the new exhibit, so other snakes, spiders, birds and lizards were temporarily re-located.

Fort arranged to make a full physical exam of their newest attraction, while she was still sedated.

Fishermen use way too much of that Maropitant citrate, he thought. The poor thing’s been knocked out since Kitticut put into port.

He and two vet techs performed the exam, taking notes and snapping pictures the whole time.

They didn’t realize that Nessie was awake and conscious the whole time.

Angie waited a decent interval, until the last of the vet techs had left the gallery, then opened her eyes further and tried to take in her surroundings. She was in a large pool of some type, warmer than the ocean. Fake trees and vines hung low over the water…it was, after all, the Amazon Gallery, though she didn’t know that. Mists shrouded some of the side decking. The pool was an elongated double-oval shape, large enough to take a few strokes but definitely not the Gulf of Mexico.

Where the hell am I? Then it came to her: this is a freakin’ aquarium, just like Scotland Beach. But this wasn’t Gulfside, no way.

Somehow the Farpool had deposited her in another place. And she had no idea what time she was in, and no way she could see to find out. Aquarium galleries didn’t post calendars for their exhibit animals.

Pretty depressing, all in all. But maybe it was cosmic justice. Kloosee and Pakma had wound up in an aquarium on their last visit to Earth. They’d been shot and treated as monsters, then treated as lab rats, before she and Chase had sprung them free.

Jeez, now I’m an exhibit. In a freakin’ aquarium, for God’s sake. Angie was depressed at the thought. I’m must look like a dinosaur or something to them, with all these scales and skin and all.

She figured the best thing was to try to explain things, explain to somebody just who the hell she was and how she had gotten there.

A door to the gallery opened and light blazed in. It was one of the vet techs. Or maybe it was a custodian. She didn’t really care.

Now’s my chance. Angie staggered to her feet—the pool wasn’t really that deep—and slogged her way through the water to the edge. The custodian hadn’t seen her yet; he was untangling a pail and a mop.

She reached the edge, found a point of purchase, and started to haul herself up over the edge, calling out to the man as she did so.

“Hey…hey…I’m human…it’s not what it looks like--!”

The custodian whirled about, stood mouth open at Angie crawling dripping and hissing out of the ersatz swamp water and immediately dropped his pail and mop. He stared dumbfounded for a moment, then streaked for the still-open door, screaming at the top of his lungs.

Jesus…it’s escaping…it’s vocalizing…it’s getting loose--!!”

The custodian fled the gallery. That’s when Angie saw two silhouettes blocking the door he had just gone through.

She immediately recognized a security guard by the gun in his hand. The other figure was Dr. Maureen Corley, veterinarian on duty that evening.

“Help me…can you help! I’m…my name’s Angie--!”

Dr. Corley put her hands to her mouth. She had just finished reading Justin Fort’s examination notes on the proto-ichthyosaur the aquarium had just purchased from some whalers up at Port McNeill. She had planned to come down to the gallery later that evening and make a few notes of her own….maybe a few pictures…they’d look great at the conference in Seattle next week.

“Oh, my God---it’s trying to vocalize---“

The security guard lifted his gun, but Corley put her hand over his arm.

“Don’t shoot, Joe…let me get some tranquilizer…” she hustled off for a moment, then came back with a tranquilizer gun herself. She loaded one of the darts and aimed at the creature’s chest.

“Please don’t shoot me—I’m just--!” Angie pleaded. She took another step, then felt the first dart hit, sinking in just below her neck. In seconds, the world turned gray and she dropped to her knees, then pitched forward, slamming her chin on the tile floor of the gallery.

In her last few wisps of consciousness, Angie saw Dr. Corley and the guard approaching cautiously, creeping forward step by step, a Glock and a tranquilizer gun both trained on her.

I came all the way back for this, she thought as the black closed in. Maybe this wasn’t such a great idea after all. Chase, if you’re—

Then there was nothing.

Chapter 16

Seome

Omsh’pont, kel: Om’t

Time: 767.4, Epoch of Tekpotu

Chase learned that the hearing to determine the fate of Tulcheah kim was set for the next day. He asked Kloosee about Seomish law and justice…how did that work? Kloosee said it varied from kel to kel. To learn more about law and justice in Omt’or, Kloosee told him to consult his echopod.

Chase kloooshk’ed and klooooshk’ed until he finally got the thing to work….

Omtorish law is officially codified in the mind and memory of the Metah. The Metah regularly consumes a special substance, called tekn’een, to improve her memory and recall.

The theory is that since all laws and decrees come from the Metah, only she can determine if they have been broken.

“Judicial proceedings against law-breakers are normally overseen by the Metah and her staff. In practice, decisions are often left to the staff or the Metah’s chief of state, known as the Mek’too. The council of em’kel representatives, known as the Kel’em, offers advice and counsel on legal matters and in the event punishment is necessary, will perform this duty.

“The most common form of punishment is either exile or a form of officially sanctioned silence, called jee’ot. In extreme cases, execution can be decreed, either by live burial or more commonly by flotation, where the offender is forced to the surface. Such cases are rare.

“Om’torkel claims a line of unbroken, uncontaminated descent from Omt’or, Daughter of Shooki….”

Chase fiddled with his echopod, trying to turn the thing off. Finally, he managed to click, grunt, and whistle well enough to force the echopod into silence.

“Well, that’s pretty much more than I wanted to know,” he murmured to himself. He went looking for Kloosee.

The summons from the Mek’too came shortly afterward. A messenger from the Metah had appeared outside the em’kel chambers. Kloosee received the bulb and played it for everyone, all had gathered around to hear. Chase was commanded by the Metah to appear in her lawgiving chambers the next day.

“These chambers are inside the pyramid,” Kloosee explained. “I’m summoned too.

Longsee as well. We’ll go together.”

Chase spent a restless night in the em’kel of Putektu, tossing and turning in his sleep niche.

He was cold, tired, a little hungry and anxious. He wondered how Angie had fared, going back through the Farpool. Had she made it? Was she back on Earth? Or was she…somewhere, who knew where… else? He tried covering the niche opening with its netting but to no avail.

Omsh’pont was always a restless city, even with the return of the great sound, and its residents roamed and squawked at all hours. Several females came nosing by but Chase found he wasn’t interested. They darted off, disappointed.

Finally, a fitful sort of sleep descended on him.

Chase was startled awake by Kloosee himself.

“Eat now,” Kloosee told him. “We must be at the lawgiving soon.”

Chase made himself as presentable as he could—there were no mirrors in Omsh’pont and he knew he looked like an iguana on steroids anyway—then he gulped down some clams and pods while drifting around an oval bed of pinkish-white coral –the em’kel’s main gathering spot. It was a custom of Kloosee’s em’kel to drift quietly in orbit around this structure as members ate and talked. Still groggy and anxious, Chase found himself bumping into others as he drifted about. There was something like grumbling when that happened, but Chase found he really didn’t care.

Kloosee, Longsee and Chase set out across Omsh’pont shortly afterward. The city was as busy as ever, with thousands of kelke roaming about. Chase had often wondered if any work was ever done here. The Omtorish seemed a gregarious sort, much given to strolling about, chatting, eating and copulating.

I could get used to this sort of lifestyle, he kept telling himself. It’s a beach bum’s dream.

But he was still depressed and he knew why.

He missed Angie.

A squat pyramid dominated the seabed near the center of the city, surrounded by multiple levels of pavilions and floating platforms, all connected in one way or another. The pyramid itself was a squat formation, leveled off at the top into a canopied open space that was the Metah’s public plaza. Kloosee had told him that the pyramid was honeycombed with caves, niches, compartments and chambers.

“The lawgiving is below the plaza,” he remarked, as they approached the upper slopes of the pyramid. They reached an outer perimeter of glowing coral, denoting the Metah’s chambers, and there a squad of prodsmen checked their identities, pulsing each of them carefully, repeatedly, to make sure.

Finally, a single prodsmen motioned for them to follow. The trio entered the pyramid through an opening below the coral fence and followed a confusing warren of corridors, passages and tunnels, until they came at last to a larger cavern, hollowed out of the pyramid interior.

More glowing coral circled the cavern in concentric bands, while glowfish drifted in knots about the space.

The Metah, Iltereedah luk’t, floated serenely over a small pedestal that looked like an open palm. White tube-like plants formed the fingers, waving gently in the prevailing currents. A gathering of officials huddled in one corner of the oval space, murmuring to themselves. As they came into the lawgiving chamber, Chase could sense an undercurrent of tension. The knot of officials stirred uneasily and tails and flukes whipped and snapped in obvious discord.

Iltereedah wasted no time in bringing the proceedings to order. Chase listened first to the tone of her voice…all grunts and squeaks and clicks and whistles, then to the echopod translation. He decided the Metah was solemn and brusque this day.

“…have taken the tekn’een. My memory is fully enhanced. Nothing will be forgotten.

Nothing will be overlooked. I will consider all sides of this case, all the details. After this, the bonding will proceed.”

Chase turned to Kloosee, who whispered in his ear, much to the displeasure of a nearby prodsman.

“It’s the thought-bond,” Kloosee told him. “The Metah will merge her own mind with the witness and probe deeply, to ascertain if what the witness says is true.”

Chase had a sinking feeling. “Who’s the witness?”

“You are.”

Several officials—Chase later learned that they were the Kel’em, official representatives of all of Omt’or’s em’kels, came over to Chase and Kloosee. Gently but firmly, they nudged Chase away, forcing him toward the Metah’s bed. Chase drifted up before Ilteeredah and regarded her with scarcely concealed dread.

Iltereedah spoke. “I pulse anxious feelings, eekoti Chase. The thought-bond is part of our law. My staff will give you something to calm you—“At her words, one aide dispensed a small round bulb into Chase’s hands. With his own hands, the aide mimicked that Chase was to squeeze the bulb contents into his mouth.

He did so. It tasted tart, stinging his tongue a little, but not altogether unpalatable. Not bad.

Then his tongue went numb and his mouth seemed frozen in position. He tried to speak but nothing would move. Bubbles dribbled out of his mouth. Unseen hands pushed him further forward, into the Metah’s bed. Soon, he found himself below Iltereedah, enveloped in her massive gray bulk, like a baby suckling. Her armfins and tail flukes pinned him in position.

Eventually, she pressed her entire bulk on top of him, smothering him.

At first, he couldn’t breathe. It was like those pillow fights he’d had as a child with Kenny and Jamie, the kind where you couldn’t breathe and you were laughing so hard your sides hurt.

Only this time he wasn’t laughing.

The Metah was an older female but she had considerable bulk. He thought about the first time his Dad had taken him diving to the hundred-foot level, how heavy and cold the water was, pressing in, how he’d fumbled with his BC, his regulator, his weights, trying to maintain depth, not go any lower. The water was an oppressive shroud, engulfing him, squeezing him, penetrating everything…that’s what it felt like.

Chase figured he was dreaming, woozy and out of control. Sometimes he had dreams where he was flying over some landscape…Scotland Beach, some strange desert he’d never been able to identify, Jupiter, Mars or whatever sci-fi movie he’d most recently seen. But this dream was different. In this dream, he was swimming, speeding through the water with a strength and power he’d never imagined.

He smelled things, blood here, tchinting beds, mah’jeet blooms far off, the tart sting of a ripe gisu pod. He felt the rush of water flowing against his flanks, felt the temperature differences, the salt, the silt, the rough currents…it was like he had a map in his head. He could sound things, see inside of things, know when a friend was happy or sad, reading the echoes like a book.

Chase realized he was somewhere else…he was inside Iltereedah now, he was Iltereedah.

Somehow, their minds, their senses, had merged…he was experiencing Omt’or and the lawgiving as Iltereedah sensed it. For the very first time, he knew what being Seomish truly meant. It meant family, warmth, belonging…cocooning, knowing everybody and everything, tasting everything. It meant joining, unity, harmony, concord, shoo’kel and a hundred other feelings he had no words for. Now he felt them and knew them for the first time—

There seemed to be an echo…no, that wasn’t quite it. More of a beat, like a musical cadence…pounding in his head. The beat goes on….and on and on. Now it’s expanding, filling his mind, he can’t get rid of it…it’s swelling, taking over everything. The beat was a pulse.

Like an old submarine movie, he was being pinged. Yeah, that’s it. Active sonar. Right full rudder. Target five thousand yards…match bearings and shoot…no, that still wasn’t it.

Chase realized somebody, some thing, a person, was messing around in his mind and he was powerless to stop. Opening drawers in the file cabinets of his memory, asking questions, examining things… what the hell is this?

Then, it stopped. As suddenly as it had come on, it ceased. And the warmth and the joining resumed again. He felt drowsy and light-headed. In time, he fell asleep.

The thought-bond was over.

When Chase woke up, he was back in Kloosee’s em’kel, back in the close confines of Putektu’s cave. Shapes darted by. Echoes sounded and reverberated off the cave walls. A face materialized in front of his eyes.

It was Kloosee. He offered Chase some pods to suck on. They tasted good.

Chase was still a bit groggy. “What happened…did I do okay?”

Kloosee was presently joined by another em’kel member…the name Kleko came to mind.

Kleko was huge, older, massive in girth. His face loomed like a continent in front of Chase.

“The thought-bond is done. The Metah has made a ruling.”

Chase finished his pod and asked for another one. Kleko produced a small basket full.

Chase devoured all of them.

“What happened? What did she decide?”

Here, Kloosee was clearly anguished, pained. “Tulcheah is guilty. The Metah determined that what you testified was the truth. Tulcheah…and another Ponkti male not here in Omt’or sabotaged the shield. The substance they applied caused the shield to fail at that point.”

“So what happens now?”

Kloosee darted off and circled the cave, bumping into several others. Chase tried pulsing his friend…it came back echoes of confusion, concern…something like pity…Chase wasn’t sure he was reading the echoes right.

“Tulcheah must die. She is to be banished…to the surface. To the Notwater.”

At first, the thought didn’t register fully with Chase. “That’s not so…” then he realized that for Seomish with no lifesuits, Notwater was death.

“You’re upset,” Chase said simply.

Kloosee wouldn’t stop circling. He had to move to make sense of his feelings. “I am. You pulse correctly, Chase…you’re learning. Tulcheah is with the Kel’em now. They’re preparing her for the ascent. It happens tomorrow, when the currents are right.”

Now Chase was sad too. Seomish law, Seomish justice…he’d had his first taste of it.

“Didn’t she defend herself…you know, like have a lawyer or something? To argue against the judgment?”

Kloosee finally ceased roaming and drifted sadly by the cave entrance. Kleko eased past him with his empty basket and they were alone…an unusual occurrence on Seome, Chase realized. “I’m listening to the echobulb translate…if I understand your word ‘lawyer’

properly…we have no such thing. The Metah is the law. She makes the law. She decides the law. She determines when the law has been broken…and how the lawbreaker will be punished.

It’s been decided.”

“So that’s that?” Chase remembered snatches of the thought-bond. For a very brief moment, he had been the Metah…or at least, been joined with her. It brought a chill to him and he shivered.

Kloosee said, “Yes…the matter is closed. Only the banishing happens now. The Metah has called a meeting of the Kel’em for right after Tulcheah ascends. What to do about the wavemaker and the Umans…that will be discussed.”

Chase still felt sleepy. “I guess that thought-bond took a lot out of me, Kloos. I need some rest.”

Kloosee nudged him back into the sleep niche. “Stay here…I’ll see you are not disturbed.

You’re coming with me to the Kel’em tomorrow. We will roam together, about the city. Big decisions have to be made.”

But Chase was half a sleep anyway. The world shrank down to blurry view of the cave walls. Then there was nothing.

The official vish’tu roam was a custom as old as the world. Its origins were lost in the murky currents of the past, unclear and shrouded by the mythical tales of the ancient cave-dwellers. It was very much in the traditions of Ke’shoo and Ke’lee and Shoo’kel, and typically involved two roamers, although custom did not dictate any set number. Entire em’kels, or even whole kels, were known to conduct their business in vishtu, on roams that might last from a few hours to a few days, and range over thousands of beats.

The beauty of the vishtu was that it encouraged great physical exertion. That was good in itself but it also helped unblock other channels of communication like scent and gave them a chance to work. Sharp disputes often arose on roams but the vishtu seemed to blunt them.

Something happened to kelke who roamed in vishtu; they were more congenial and flexible. It was the physical beauty of the landscape, in the opinion of many, that accounted for this. Others insisted that it was the muscular exertion involved—the body and the mind were one and sustained effort was needed to ease the roamer into a trance where he could merge his personality with his fellow roamers. More likely, the magic of vishtu was due simply to what was called t’shoo, a feeling of sliding through the water, brushed by currents and tingling from beak to tail, spiritual orgasm it might be called. Vishtu was all these things.

The Metah had called for kelvishtu, to discuss and decide on what Omt’or, and eventually the other kels, could do about the Umans and their war machine. To set the right tone for the roam and the difficult decisions ahead, Iltereedah had decreed that the roam would begin with a reciting of the Tillet Songs. In the earliest days of the Sound, most of Omt’or’s tillet and pal’penk pack animals had scattered to the boundaries of the Omt’orkel Sea in fear. In order to attract and gather them again, a great roam would be put together, a roam lasting several days.

All the kel would join in singing the Songs which drew the beasts from their hiding and enticed them to return. Pakma, because she was possessed of a beautiful singing voice, was given the task of instructing all nonkelke in the forms and rituals of the Song. It was expected that all would accompany the kel.

Chase wasn’t so sure he could keep up with such vigorous and efficient swimmers as the Omtorish.

“We may have to take some breaks,” he told Pakma and Kloosee. “I’m not as good a swimmer as everybody else.”

“Not to worry,” Kloosee told him. “If you tire, we’ll hitch you to one of the tillet. You can come along for the ride.”

Omt’or’s millions soon began gathering near the base of the seamount Shooksh’pont, this despite the deadening drone and beat of the Uman sound from up north. Other kels had asked to join in and Iltereedah had relented. They made the journey from across the Orkn’tel, from as far away as the Eeskork and the icewaters, from the Pulkel and from breakaway em’kels near the Skortish boundary. The sea darkened with kelke, loud and boisterous and anxious to be underway. For several days, the kel assembled its people, until they swarmed in such multitude that the din could be pulsed around the world and the other kels knew Omt’or as a single powerful echo.

Only the Ponkti decided not to participate.

When at last the full kel had gathered and the seamounts of the valley were lost in the immense tide of people, the Metah sent her Kel’em councilors among them with the protocol of the roam. There were moments of great excitement and disappointment, waiting to learn how the em’kels would be arranged, who would roam with whom, who would be separated, who favored, who would roam nearest the Metah and who at the tail. The clattering of potu pearls changing hands was quickly followed by the buzz of the prodsman’s prod, to keep the bribery within bearable limits. When it was done, Kloosee took Chase aside with a beaming smile on his face.

“Iltereedah has honored you with a flank just one beat behind hers. You’ll be able to hear and pulse everything that is said. I hear from some of her servlings that she thinks you can deal with the Umans better than anyone. She may even ask you to roam with her for a time.”

“You’ll be up there with me, I hope,” Chase said.

“One flank ahead, along with Longsee and some of my em’kel. It’s a great honor to have Putektu there...we do know important things about the Notwater. There are so many big decisions we have to make. But eekoti Chase, you must be pure and candid in your echoes.

Iltereedah demands that. Remember what I’ve taught you about shoo’kel.”

“Steady as she goes,” Chase repeated. He knew he still had a lot to learn about all this pulsing business.

The great day came and Iltereedah made her appearance with her full court in tow. The vishtu formed swiftly as she paddled serenely toward the head of the roam. A hush rolled through the crowd like a strong current and there was furious commotion behind them as the kelke pulled themselves together. Kloosee stole a pulse at the magnificent sight: the flanks curved out of range around the end of the valley and spread out into the Omt’orkel itself, in evenly stepped divisions. He imagined it as a massive seamother, poised to strike. A prodsman tapped him on the dorsal and told him to face the Metah with all pulses. From now on, he was expected to remain in flank with Longsee.

They set off at a slow pace, allowing the crowds behind them to catch up. The Metah led them through a dense bed of brilliant blue ting coral that marked the end of the valley, though it was partly obscured by the ever-present rain of silt. Beside each flank, a cluster of servlings hovered, ready to swoop in with pods of food. Kloosee ate them as soon as they could be replaced. Chase, not be outdone, wolfed down everything put in front of him.

Shookengkloo Trench dwindled behind them; ahead, the southern limb of the Serpentines could barely be pulsed. Once out of the valley, good ootkeeor water could be felt for hundreds of beats in any direction. That would make the discussions and the decisions easier. The vishtu murmured in anticipation and Kloosee noticed that all of the servlings had now vanished.

A high ringing shriek from the Metah was the signal. The sound channel magnified the shriek into a crescendo of shrill notes, pealing away in the distance. Another shriek met the first overtures of the full vishtu, deep, melodious harmonies building majestically to a deafening bellow, a wail sliding across the ocean, reverberating around the world, the kel’s way of saying

“Here we are.” Tillet and pal’penk could never mistake the sound, even as it clashed with the Uman noise.

The first call was soon repeated, with higher pitch and the waters shook with the cries.

From the bottom, eelots and scapet and kiplet stirred and listened carefully; great schools massed beneath the vishtu, following it across the sea. The first melodies of the Songs were repeated,

once, twice, three times, lamenting the kel’s loss. Omt’or mourned the days of loneliness, with sorrow and pain. Her lost herds would hear the moans and return to still them forever.

The overtures lasted for the better part of a day and by the time the vishtu had reached the first slopes of Eeskorkloo Trench, Chase was exhausted trying to keep up. Kloosee took pity on him and lashed him side-saddle to a lumbering tillet, who managed to keep up barely and seemed increasingly annoyed to have such a dead weight on its back.

The next part of the Songs dealt with the history of the kel; it was a necessary interlude to the kelkemah, the story of Omt’or’s response to the crisis of the Umans. Kelkemah was a detailed rendering of the kel’s daily activities…the coming of the great Sound, the destruction, the shield, its failure. Through this, it was believed, the missing beasts would pulse how important they were and come back to their duties. After kelkemah, the refrain of the laments would follow.

And the stage would be set for what was sure to be a vigorous discussion of what to do next.

To Chase, it seemed lengthy and involved but it had a beauty and dignity that was way beyond pounding out some decision in a conference room back home.

But first, the vishtu would eat. The roam curved along the spine of the Trench and Kloosee could pulse far into the canyon, reading the outlines of a rugged floor strewn with boulders and fallen lava domes. He got echoes of a massive school of elongated animals— peektots, from the strong bounce of his pulses—and wondered if they would rise from the Trench to investigate what all the noise was about. A servling streaked in front of him and Kloosee reached out, snatching a pair of eelash pods from him. He bit into one and swallowed hungrily. Chase was right behind, busily chewing on a tough spiderstalk.

“At least, we don’t lack for things to eat,” Chase said between bites.

Pakma was alongside Kloosee, effortlessly kicking and stroking her way along. Chase could only envy them the beauty of their stroke. “You’ve never roamed in the Omtorish style, have you, eekoti Chase?”

“I’ve never roamed period. Back home, we talk walks sometimes. But nothing like this…I can’t imagine all of Scotland Beach going for a stroll on the beach. There’d be too many fights.”

“Ah, we have that as well,” Pakma admitted. “Other kels do vishtu differently. Some say all the furnishings distract from a good roam. Enhanced scents and echopod narratives and argument add nothing to it, according to others. But we Omtorish like our way best.”

“So do I,” Chase agreed. “You get to see a lot.”

Soon enough, the kel finished eating and began the Echoes of the Histories. Chase began to wonder if the Metah would ever raise the issue of the Umans and their machine; that was ostensibly the whole reason for the roam.

They don’t exactly dive right into a meeting, he thought to himself. Kloosee had told him the formalities would help the set the tone for the discussions. Chase figured the Omtorish just liked to have a good time, while they still could. With the Uman menace growing, no one knew if such a thing as vishtu would ever come again.

So the songs went on. From the birth of the Omt’orkel Sea to the metamah of Tekpotu, the life of kel Omt’or was celebrated. Metahs were praised, the greatest scents described, famous repeaters remembered. The Eep’kostic Aggression was retold and the mah’jeet plagues and the beginnings of potu culturing. The kel sang to itself a litany of the ages, romantic and sad, bold and adventurous, all the thousands of mah of remembered history gathered together in an intricate ballad. Nothing was forgotten and to help refresh its memory, servlings cruised up and down the fringe of the roam with open scentbulbs. Chase found the scents cloying, even

overwhelming, but others around him seemed to enjoy them. The rich, tangled skein of odors soon engulfed him with feelings he had no words for.

Maybe I’m becoming more and more Seomish, he realized. If only Angie could be here, to see and experience all this. But that only made him sad.

The vishtu continued its swift procession through the cold icewaters of the south Orkn’tel.

Somewhere beyond the pulse line of the ice floes, the Eep’kostic lived, burrowed into caves carved from the ice itself. They drifted with the polar currents, an enigma to the entire world.

The land of the k’orpuh, Kloosee told Chase. Treacherous and bleak. Just the thought of an ocean of tchor’kelte water made him numb.

A shout erupted from behind them and Kloosee turned to see. He pulsed the reason almost immediately.

A long, ragged bank of weary animals was rising from a ravine a few beats south of them.

Hungry tillet, coming home. The kel exploded in a great outburst of cheer, shouting at them, coaxing them, momentarily frightening them until the strong, clear voice of the Metah was heard, drawing them back into the Songs. The beasts listened for a few moments, as the kel slid by, then gradually fell into formation with the vishtu, forming new flanks above and below them, content just to pulse something familiar.

Even as he watched this, Kloosee and Chase pulsed more tillet schooling around them, on all sides, rising from the seafloor many beats below. He pulsed down and thought the floor was alive; waves of silt and mud rolled by, giving way to more waves of tillet and pal’penk and stek’loo and all manner of Omtorish domestics. The water was thick with them and the kel had to slow to make its way.

The beauty of the Song was soon lost in the din of the reunion. The vishtu itself threatened to break apart, as thousands of beasts sought out and found their old masters. Chaotic pulses screeched around them. Only the prodsmen were able to restore order, darting in with their weapons to push away the delirious animals. To Chase, it looked like a football Saturday in Gainesville or Tallahassee, only noisier. The prodsmen managed to form a precarious barrier around the roamers, while the tillet skipped along the edges, probing, bumping, jostling, pressing in to join them. The confusion went on for hours but gradually a form of order was restored.

It made a majestic sight.

From where he and Chase roamed, Kloosee imagined that the vishtu had somehow grown wings. For as far as Kloosee could pulse, to their left and to their right, staggered lines of excited tillet flocked. Pal’penk roamed in tight schools above and below the wings, barely able to keep up despite losing much of the fat the herding em’kels had put on them. The kel itself had already started into kelkemah and the tillet answered the Song with a steady clicking and whistling of their own. Kloosee had no doubt that the roam was quite loud enough to travel ootkeeor around the world. They were like a colossal k’orpuh, lumbering across the ocean, enveloped in a shroud of scavengers.

Singing the kelkemah eventually quieted the beasts. They roamed now in unison, entranced by the words, the hypnotic cadence. Kelkemah spoke to them in the rhythms of the sea and they listened. Even Chase found himself drifting off at times, only to be bumped from behind by the next flank. He was tired and exhilarated at the same time and grateful for the experience. The Omtorish were already beginning to accept him as kelke, even though he looked like a freak to them. Somehow the Song affected him, though he understood none of it and he realized that he remained outside the magic of the words—the rest of the kel was fully immersed in the drama.

Somehow, despite the thousands and thousands of bodies surrounding him, he felt more alone than ever, just listening.

Then, suddenly, the high shrill voice of Pakma tek cut through the deeper vocals of the kel.

Chase thought it was Pakma, but he couldn’t be sure. Slowly, but surely, throughout the roam, Pakma had assumed the role of a Leading Voice. Her voice was at once strident and taut and penetrating at the same time, full of subtle undertones and overlaps, and in time, they began to carry the full weight of the melody of kelkemah for much of the middle flanks.

Pakma never strayed far from her trangkor, bringing the instrument to gatherings of em’kels, to meals, on roams, plucking a note here or there to make a point or emphasize a statement. Chase couldn’t help but think of his own jam sessions with the Croc Boys back in Scotland Beach, plucking out notes on his favorite go-tone, slamming down roof-raising verses of their only hit Lovin’ in the Dark. That was Angie’s favorite too.

The instrument was part of her, another limb, only one that gave off the most delicate, yet melancholy notes. Chase decided then and there he would get Pakma to show him how to play the trangkor.

The Metah led the roam out of the icewaters and across the breadth of the swift but narrow Orkn’tel current, a tributary of the Ork’lat. Almost immediately, the seas changed. The Ork’lat circulated warmth from the equator and the first tingling of the tropical currents were most welcome by the fatigued, benumbed vishtu.

The roam itself was now fifty beats wide at the head and nearly two hundred to the rear. It took hours for a message to travel that distance by word of mouth; there was no other way. It was impossible to focus the pulses of so many thousands of echobulbs and so the spoken word was the only reliable way of knowing anything.

A growing sense of anticipation had been building through the kelke for hours; even Kloosee had sensed it. Something is happening up front…something is coming, eekoti Chase.

The Metah will speak. The Metah will hold council with the Kel’em. The Sound and the Umans will be discussed. Decisions will be made.

About time, Chase thought to himself.

The Metah had been asleep in an emtopod drawn by twenty tillet when she was gently awakened by a young servling, who rode on the crest of the pod while Iltereedah stirred and opened her eyes. She was exhausted from the roam and it was the first rest she had permitted herself. Momentous decisions were about to be made. She had wanted rest but sleep had been difficult.

When Iltereedah saw the face of the servling, though she motioned for the girl to squeeze in beside her. The ‘ling did so, with exaggerated deference and care. She nestled until Iltereedah had had enough. Then the Metah exited the emtopod and her shrill voice carried far and wide, as a great hush descended over the leading flanks of the roam. The word was quickly passed : be quiet, she speaks, listen for the voice. It took an hour for the entire roam to hear this.

Chase’s echopod translated only some of her words, but there was no mistaking the tone of Iltereedah’s voice. Kloosee quietly filled in the gaps.

Kelke, we must decide. The Umans bring nothing but death to Seome. The soundshield has failed, thanks to the Ponkti—“ here there was a definite undercurrent of anger and menace

—“so we must determine what is to be done. I have talked with the Kel’em, with all the em’kels…it has been decided that Omt’or will lead an expedition to negotiate with the Umans.

We have eekoti among us…he is part Uman, part Omtorish. He can speak with the Umans—“

here Chase’s heart did a double-thump—“we offer this: a joint effort to dismantle the great machine at Kinlok Island and re-locate it, re-build it on islands called the Torsh’pont…this is further away, north of the Serpentines. As the machine is further way, the sound will be accordingly reduced. An expedition is being formed—“

Chase listened for many minutes, as Iltereedah went on. His echopod skipped and screeched, trying to keep up. Kloosee listened and translated as well. Chase’s pulse started racing.

He, Chase Meyer, was to be right at the center of the new effort.

Well, kid, you always said you wanted an adventure…maybe this isn’t quite

As best he could make out from Kloosee’s translation, the new plan was to confront the Umans with an ultimatum: let us help you dismantle the Time Twister and re-build it elsewhere…or else. A great force would be formed and a desperate final assault would be the scarcely veiled fist behind the ‘or else.’

Naturally, the Kel’em argued. Kloosee translated some of the arguments…

What of the other kels…what do they think of this?

What of the Ponkti…the expedition will have to cross the Ponk’el Sea…they will object…

Do our engineers really know enough to take apart and re-build the Uman machine…

The Umans will never agree to this…

The Umans treat us as we treat the pal’penk…like well-meaning, lovable pets….

The Umans will defend their base…we’ve already suffered casualties…

And what of the Emigration Project…perhaps we should spend our resources on that, building more ot’lum, the lifeships, concentrate on better understanding of the new world…

It was this last argument which got Chase’s attention.

“Kloosee, this Emigration Project…this is a real idea? Not just a fantasy…you’re actually working on this?”

The roam had turned and was now making its way back toward Omsh’pont. The return journey would take many hours, almost a day.

Kloosee was slow to answer and Chase wasn’t sure he had heard the question. Sometimes the echopods didn’t quite make the connection.

Finally: “Emigration is a real proposal, eekoti Chase. It comes from several em’kels in Omt’or…one of them is the Kelktoo, Longsee’s people. It’s been studied…is being studied as an alternative. No one really wants to do this. Seome is our home. But the Umans may leave us no choice. And there are so many unknowns—“

Chase pondered that, clinging firmly to the tillet he was riding as it banked hard left. The vish’tu swung around to a new heading and he soon saw why. Ahead were the dim outlines of the Lower Serpentines. Already strong currents were making the waters turbulent. The Likte Gap was near.

“I think my people might object to having so many millions of Seomish suddenly show up in our waters. There could be problems. All kinds of conflicts.”

“There is no doubt of that,” Kloosee admitted. Coming through Chase’s echopod, Kloosee’s voice sounded suddenly weary, as if this were a subject that had already been thrashed and beaten to death. “The reaction of Umans to our presence is one of many concerns. If relations between us and the Umans here is any guide, we may expect resistance…probably strong resistance.”

“Kloos, I don’t know what the Metah expects of me in this…I don’t know anything about how that wavemaker works. I really shouldn’t be at the center of this expedition….I’m just a visitor.”

“You are Uman, eekoti Chase. You’re like them. You know them, you think like them. As far as the engineers are concerned, Longsee has assured the Metah and the Kel’em that the Kelktoo have a full understanding of how the Uman machine works, how it is put together, and how to dismantle it. These arguments are just for show…the Kel’em always want to have their say before the Metah. They think they can impress their own em’kels by doing this.” Here Kloosee actually turned slightly from his stroke and drifted back to be closer to Chase and his ride. Kloosee stroked the beak of the tillet as he pulled alongside and swam with them. “You have the most difficult job.”

“So what’s my role in all this?”

Kloosee looked straight at Chase and pulsed only something like curiosity, maybe even a sense of anticipation. No fear, no anxieties. The eekoti was truly holding shoo’kel…that pleased Kloosee but he didn’t mention it.

“Your job, eekoti Chase, will be to convince the Umans to agree to our proposal. Convince them to work with us.”

Chase knew in his heart that this was what the Metah had said. He wondered if the echopod translation wasn’t accurate. Now he knew it was all too accurate.

Just when I’m starting to feel like one of them…now they want me to be Uman…or human…

or whatever, again. Angie would pitch a fit. But she’d be secretly proud of me, after she finished killing me.

Chase said nothing to Kloosee for many hours after this revelation. The great roam beat its way back toward the city of Omsh’pont like a single vast organism, many beats long.

Arguments continued. A few fights erupted, as the roamers were growing more and more fatigued. The drone and beat of the Uman sound soon filled the waters again, giving Chase a relentless headache.

When the towers, seamounts and glowing floatways of the great city came into view, Chase had made up his mind.

He had come to Seome because he was intrigued. Because he wanted to make a difference.

Maybe Angie was right. The world… his world…didn’t need another beach bum. Mack Meyer could always sell more T-shirts and boogie boards. What the world needed… this world now…

was someone to save them from themselves. The sentencing of Tulcheah still weighed heavily on his mind. The suspicions of the Ponkti. The isolation of the other kels. The territorial disputes. The destruction caused by the Uman machine. Chase realized, as Kloosee gently led his tillet-ride away from the roam toward the cave home of the em’kel Putektu, that along the with the Umans and their machine, forces were gathering that might yet precipitate a world-wide conflict, perhaps even war, among the kels. According to Kloosee, it had happened before and there were many who thought it would come again.

Chase didn’t think of himself as a great leader or any kind of savior. Angie would have laughed at that. But events seemed to be conspiring to push him to the front of the growing conflict. It was all a great swirl in his mind as Kloosee led him inside the cave home of Putektu and scrounged up some food for them. Tulcheah, the Uman commander Dringoth, the wavemaker, the cavern city of Ponk’et, their tuk matches, Pakma and her music and scentbulbs.

By the time he had bedded down in his sleep niche, fatigued and sleepy from two days’ hard swimming and some riding on the great roam, Chase had come to a decision.

He had come to Seome to help. The Seomish, at least the Omtorish, thought he could help them in their efforts to rid the world of the Umans. In some ways, he had become a kind of celebrity. Way better than making the Top 40 with the Croc Boys, he told himself.

He missed his go-tone and Pakma’s music, strange though it sounded to his ears, had re-kindled that sense of loss. He missed Angie and pepperoni pizza and taking long walks on the beach at night and making it with Angie in a bass boat off Half Moon Cove.

But he wasn’t going to miss this. No sir. Not this time. Maybe in some ways, his whole life had been preparation for this one moment in time.

In any case, when he got back home to Scotland Beach, if he got back home, he’d have one hell of a story to tell the kids at Apalachee High.

Chase drifted off to a fitful sleep after that.

And the monotonous drone and pulsing din of the Uman wavemaker went on, bit by bit, slowly but surely tearing apart the lives and homes of his Seomish friends.

Chapter 17

Seome

The Northern Ponk’el Sea

Time: 767.9, Epoch of Tekpotu

Halfway to Kinlok Island, the Omtorish expedition was set upon by a scout force from Ponk’et. The attack came on the fourth day, well within the holy waters of the Pillars of Shooki, and it came without warning, from a convoluted series of hills and ravines known as the T’kel Ridge that fronted the great shrine along the northern Ponk’el Sea.

Such violence inside the holy waters in the very shadow of the Pillars was considered the worst apostasy that could be imagined.

The Pillars of Shooki lay at the very top of the world. Surrounded by vast sheets of floating ice, far to the north of the Ponk’el Sea, the shrine sat at the edge of the polar ice cap itself. A swift but narrow current, the Pomt’or, rushed by some two hundred beats to the south, curving across the bleak Northern Hemisphere until it split apart near Kinlok Island.

The Pomt’or was the northern arm of the Pom’tel, and it was the only current that directly approached the Pillars. To get there meant a long tedious trip through the eastern Orkn’tel. The waters there were dense and sluggish, stagnant at the equator, and brimming with foul-tasting and dangerous mah’jeet fields, so thick in patches that no kip’t could get through without clogging its jets. But there was no quicker way to Kinlok Island.

The scout force consisted of twenty Ponkti prodsmen, in formation. They quickly surrounded the small kip’t formation and closed in.

Kloosee turned the kip’t nose on to the closest prodsmen. He accelerated and tried to ram his way through. But the prodsmen were quick and skirted the speeding sleds. Several prodsmen slashed at the kip’t as it went by and the electric charge shot through the sled’s frame.

In an instant, Kloosee was stunned into a stupor, Chase too. Pakma, only slightly injured, managed to control the sled and brought them to a halt just before smashing into the side of a cliff.

In moments, the Omtorish had emerged from their sleds and engaged the Ponkti force.

Chase shook off the worst effects of the shock.

“Don’t you have weapons?” he yelled into his echopod.

Kloosee produced a ceremonial scimitar from the back of their sled. Another kip’t, this one piloted by an Academy scholar named Lohket had an older prod, one unused for several mah, barely full of charge. He appeared out of the murk, brandishing the thing as if were a seamother’s beak.

“We have these!” Kloosee yelled back.

That’s when Chase figured they were in trouble. “Try to distract them—“ he told Kloosee.

“I’ll circle around, see if I can get behind them.”

Kloosee wasn’t buying it. “Eekoti Chase…there are too many…you can’t—“

But Chase was already gone. Kloosee feared for the eekoti’s life. There was no way the human could expect to out-maneuver a squad of ten, maybe more Ponkti prodsmen. It’s was madness. It was suicide. But he had no choice. Kloosee motioned for Lohket and the others to charge at the Ponkti, swinging what they had, in an attempt to give Chase a chance.

They closed the distance in seconds and the melee erupted in a shower of prod zaps and thrashing tails and swinging armfins. The water boiled with fury and combat, made worse by a steady rain of ice shards and chips drifting down from bergs and ice floes at the surface.

Chase found himself on the other side of a large stalactite of ice projecting down from above. An idea suddenly came to him: the ice itself. It was hard. It was sharp. If he could just break off a few pieces…they’d make great weapons themselves.

He tugged and pulled on the shards, until at last one broke off, jagged and cocked. Just in time, he swung around, backpedaling to avoid the Ponkti prod which flashed out and nearly swiped against him.

Can’t let that touch me.

He lunged and managed to spear the side of the Ponkti attacker, drawing a stream of blood.

The Ponkti withdrew, recoiled and came at Chase again.

They struggled for leverage. The Ponkti was bigger, quicker, more efficient at moving. But Chase was determined and for each slash of the prod, he managed to make a lunge and strike the larger attacker. Soon, the water was stained with blood and Chase was beginning to find more and more openings. Some of the schoolyard brawls he’d joined in at school came back to him.

Then there was a deafening explosion. The shock wave came like a slap in the head and punch to the gut. Chase reeled, stunned, and found himself momentarily drifting, his head spinning, his ears throbbing. He caught a glimpse of his Ponkti adversary and saw a huge gray mass, barely moving, equally dazed.

Moments later, both combatants had recovered enough to regain the fight. The Ponkti swiped and thrashed with the prod and once managed to brush Chase’s scaly skin. The shock jolted him but somehow, he managed to recover. Just as he was about to lunge again, another explosion thundered in the water, slapping them both with fists of shock waves. Chase and his assailant both went reeling.

That’s when Chase saw what he was sure was a dream…materializing out of the ice-choked debris. An apparition floated before them, tiny and serene, almost petite. Pure white skin and delicate fins that seemed more like tissue. Her beak was knobbed at the point and Chase sensed tingling again—like the k’orpuh, like the Ponkti prod, clearly she carried voltage.

In her tiny hands, she held a small fist-shaped object, oval, with projections at each end.

The apparition shook the object and another deafening explosion came, a boil of bubbles and froth and heaving shock waves that flattened Chase and drove him deeper. The Ponkti prodsman was nowhere in sight.

Kloosee’s voice came stuttering over his echopod.

Eekoti Chase…back away quickly! It’s one of the priestesses. One of the mekli—let go of your weapon--“

The Ponkti had already done likewise, warily drifting at the outer edge of visibility. Chase was dimly aware that the entire fight had stopped and all the fighters were coiled and poised, but no one made any movement.

Kloosee drifted up beside him and physically dragged Chase away, relieving his fingers of the ice daggers he had fashioned. .

His echopod chirped. “This is one of mekli priestesses. We’re inside the holy waters…the Pillars of Shooki. The mekli won’t let the fight continue…we’ve done a terrible thing.”

Chase was still recovering his senses. His ears rang like a bell. “Didn’t they start it?”

“It doesn’t matter. Now the mekli have put a stop to the fight. We’ll have to accompany her…make recompense to Shooki. Look…they’re all around us.”

And Chase saw that Kloosee was right. Dozens of the whitish figures hovered above, below, all around them, each bearing the strange oval suppressors.

“They can detonate the water,” Kloosee explained. “It’s a chemical reaction…closely guarded by the mekli. They enforce the shoo’kel here. The mekli will let nothing disturb these waters. Only the most serene are permitted.”

“But why—“ Chase had about a million questions. “The other guys attacked us—“

But the circle of mekli was already closing in on them, herding both Ponkti, Omtorish and Chase into a tighter group. Kloosee didn’t object. The Ponkti seemed resigned. Chase decided it was expedient to go along.

“Where are they taking us?” he asked Kloosee.

Kloosee seemed a bit nervous. Something came through Chase’s echopod that didn’t translate. Then: “Inside the Pillars, I think.”

“What’s going to happen to us?”

“I don’t know.”

And with that, the circle of mekli priestesses, with their grenades and a line of fearsome-looking spearfish behind them, nudged their captives into motion. Above them, the ice floes groaned and screeched as the bergs bumped against each other. And beyond all of it, the Uman sound droned on.

Chase found the pace easy enough to keep up with, despite his scaly suit and webbed feet.

The ice pack played strange tricks with the light. It coalesced in patches, forming apparitions that frightened and confused them at the same time. Schools of scapet and tooket swirled in the twilight. Thick clouds of sediment rolled along the bottom, obscuring everything.

And the huge floes rained chunks of ice down on them from above.

The captives bore on for what seemed like hours. The sameness was monotony, agony, even misery. They seemed stuck on the same course, wedded by sheer exhausted numbness to a heading that never changed. Beat after beat of frozen tubegrass and ice mounds. Unending hail from above. Nothing living, save for themselves. Only ice and ice and more ice: ice kels, ice kip’ts, ice tillet, ice ompods. The image of it burned in their minds, searing their vision into a gray-white void. For a brief instant, Chase felt himself falling, as if a whirlpool had reached out and grabbed him. He welcomed the giddiness gladly—it was something he could still feel. It washed over him like the great currents themselves, strong, overwhelming, a wonderfully delicious feeling of helplessness.

And then, there it was.

The berg was so large that it blocked a clear view of anything beyond, refracting most of what little light there was off its chalky white slopes. But even with that, the presence of a vast structure, dense and hard, could be felt.

They slowed their approach and came into the holy waters of the Voice with hushed awe.

Chase watched the reactions of both the Ponkti and Pakma and Kloosee and the rest of the Omtorish. Guess I’d better act the same way. The Pillars rose up out of the silted bottomland like legs of rock. Cruising near the seafloor, the captives and their guards circled the Pillars completely, gulping in the scented waters voraciously. There seemed to be no way in. After several circuits, they halted and settled in a clump of tubegrass half a beat away.

The mekli seemed to be waiting for something, perhaps a signal.

Then it came. High on the side of the nearest Pillar, a ring of bubbles swirled around the edge. The stream was emanating from a narrow elliptical crevice. One of the mekli separated herself from their guard detail and poked her beak into the crevice.

In that moment, powered by some device Chase couldn’t see, the entire side of the Pillar grated and groaned and started moving to one side. The mekli entered. The captives were herded inside after her.

Kloosee pulsed gently. He had never been here before. Inside, steep ramparts scattered echoes in all directions. Chase hung close by, watching his friend’s amazed reaction. A complex network of chapels, crypts, cells, catacombs and other chambers would be dimly sensed. Above the ramparts, heavy bedrock foundations loomed like a crest, tapering out of sight as they extended upward into the Pillars. It was a tight and uncomfortable wriggle to get inside. Chase hesitated, then squeezed through.

They were in a tiny cave, sectioned by a post in the middle that seemed to have buckled. It was dark—the only light came from glowfish trained to float through the corridors in set patterns, casting their spectral copper light in diffuse ovals in the bare stone walls. They went half a beat or so, then came to an intersection. More corridors merged in the crossing, leading out in every direction, above, below, and beside them.

“Where are they taking us?” Chase whispered into his echopod.

Kloosee’s voice came back hushed, strained. “The Judging Chambers, I suppose. Be quiet.”

They could have taken any of the corridors, but the mekli leading the convoy chose one passageway that angled off on the other side of the post. It was soon apparent that the corridor wasn’t really a corridor at all, rather more like a tunnel, low and cramped. Chase could barely kick his legs. It was quite uncomfortable—he could hear someone behind, maybe one of the Ponkti, grumbling at the effort, hard even to get a full breath in such close confines, but the discomfort was alleviated somewhat by a savory blend of scents that filtered through the waters, an amalgam of smells that would have really been delightful if he had been able to breathe more deeply.

Chase tried a pulse—it sounded more like a bad cough, earning a glare from several of the mekli—and found that the tunnel widened a few beats ahead. There was more light too—

glowfish he was sure, since the mekli seemed to abhor anything artificial inside the Pillars. But it was pitch black in the tunnel. Almost like a burrow, hollowed out down through uncounted spans of time, the tunnel sides had been worn completely smooth, for which they were all thankful. Otherwise, they would have skinned themselves badly.

Chase heard Pakma’s voice on his echopod. “The water is so still,” she said.

Kloosee agreed. “It must be the shape of the chamber…pulse how it damps out any currents.” He thrashed an armfin to disturb the water. Sure enough, the waves died out in seconds. The chamber crossing was designed to maintain an imperturbable tranquility.

Indeed, the Pillars pulsed much like a womb. Pakma was the first to notice that and say it.

All her life, Pakma had heard stories from pilgrims about the serenity of the place, the warmth, the concord, the strong bond of Ke’shoo that it made with all comers. Nothing was unaffected.

That explained the constricted spaces and the pleasant scents: the mekli had re-created the ancient womb of the cave cities here. Like Old Kengtoo, they had preserved in sharp redolence the scents of the first days, down to the most ethereal details. The Pillars mirrored and embodied the timeless aspirations of all Seomish: Ke’shoo and Ke’lee and Shoo’kel, the inward eye blind to anything beyond the immediate concerns of family and kel.

Their mekli guard detail herded them on, through one maze after another, indifferent to the discomforts of the trek. The lead priestess could be heard swooshing well ahead of them, leading them deeper and deeper into the Pillars, into the Quarter of Melodies, where the shape of the

caves altered the quality of their sound. There seemed to Chase to be no meter to it, only the vaguest sort of melancholy, yet the water whispered with definite musical tones. Wonder what the Croc Boys would make of this place as a venue? he thought. The tunnels had now widened the deeper they went into the Pillars, making it easier for him to keep up with everybody else.

They traveled an endless and confusing course through the tunnels; all the time, it seemed to Chase, they were ascending. On occasion, the faintest, fleeting tinkle of notes rippled by them, like delicate chimes being gently tapped. There would be voices too, or what seemed like voices, whispers just beyond hearing, though Chase sometimes thought it was no more than the ever-present swish of the water. They were herded through fairly large caverns as they ascended, caverns dimly lit with glowfish and among the shadows, Chase could make out faces: forlorn, sepulchral, and weary.

“Pilgrims, resting after their journey here,” Kloosee told him.

Through narrow tunnels and rock-hewn chambers, the guards and the convoy followed the mekli. Kloosee knew well that the Pillars of Shooki did not stop at the surface; they extended well beyond, far into the Notwater. They were still ascending, traveling the convoluted labyrinth of corridors, occasionally coming upon larger caves and crypts, and he wondered. How far would they go?

Tradition had always said the Judging Chambers were near the pinnacle of the Pillars.

The mekli brought them to the edge of a cliff, at the end of one of the tunnels. Even as they approached, they could pulse through the opening that the cavern beyond was deep and wide, and filled with fast-rising columns of water. It was at the core of one of the Pillars, hollow from its bedrock foundations to its majestic pinnacle high above the surface.

The mekli priestess then lunged from the cliff and caught one of the streams. It whisked her away from the opening and carried her upward. She soon vanished beyond an overhanging ledge.

Prodded by the guards, one by one, the Ponkti and the Omtorish captives launched themselves into the midst of the currents.

The water was both brisk and exhilarating. It carried them rapidly along, past other landings and portals, sweeping them toward the summit of the Pillar. Kloosee and Pakma both tried pulsing in the direction they were heading—seven full beats later, the first echoes returned. A tiny ring of white light capped the heights.

The mekli was somewhere above them, no more than a blip in the pulse. Her tail was dimly silhouetted against the brighter background. Below them, the trunk of the cavern spread out into the vast hills from which the Pillars had been formed. The walls beneath the bottommost shelf of landings widened to an immense grotto, the floor of which was covered in exquisitely sculpted stalagmites.

But as they rose further, the radiance from the top washed out all other detail.

A blinding white blaze enveloped them. The light of Notwater, Kloosee realized. Painful, penetrating, it cascaded down and streaked the water with shafts of luminous blue-green.

Kloosee clutched at his eyes; Chase did likewise. They throbbed from the exposure and he found they were useless. Opening them, he saw only a shimmering glow.

He pulsed and found the top of the tower near, a beat or so away. Even as he tried to sort out the confusing echoes, the lifting current slacked off and they drifted aimlessly for a minute, barely touched by the fringe of the current. Other currents dispersed here too; it was a gathering point for entry to the Echopods.

Another tunnel, this one smooth like a pipe, bent around in a wide sweeping curve. They were wriggling straight up and the waters murmured to them with a mischievous stealth. Voices, hushed and furtive, sprinkled the pauses in their own swishing. The tunnel straightened, leveled out and the mekli slowed down, whispering for silence from the captives and guards. Now the voices were clearer, sharper. The Echopods. Distinct accents. Inflections. Someone trilling, arguing. A bass reply, deep and ponderous. An aria. A flurry of oratory, crisp and pointed.

The passageway widened abruptly and suddenly, the voices were everywhere, swelling in unison, falling away, crackling and whistling, a chorus softly floating. In the next moment, the chorus faded and the voices rose again in argument, thousands of them, strident yet gentle, firmly commanding, clashing, conflicting, filling the Chamber with incessant chatter. Kloosee felt Chase and Pakma bump him behind. He opened his eyes.

The glow was dazzling, resplendent in shades of amber, gray and white. It is Notwater, Kloosee breathed. The light streamed into the Chamber from all sides, as if the water itself were ablaze. Despite the intensity, Kloosee held his eyes open to see and wonder.

The Chamber itself was oblong. Panels of some transparent substance wrapped the walls.

The floor was arrayed with rows of cells, each of which contained one echopod. More cells lined the walls between the panels. Open holdpods swayed from the ceiling, their bowls carrying scentbulbs. Om’pshoo was the scent predominating, aromatic and sweet. That brought a smile to Pakma. She had worked with this scent before. The waters were litor’kel and shoo’kel, and the Voice of the Echopods steadfast. Shooki’s Voice.

But it was what he saw through the transparent walls that made Kloosee tremble.

They were now above the surface, in this Chamber of Echopods, thrust like a sharp blade right into the very heart of the Notwater. Though the glow of the day was fierce, Kloosee blinked in amazement at the view. Even Chase seemed speechless at the sight before them.

Beside them, Pakma and other Omtorish and Ponkti stared in mute fascination. Kloosee had seen Notwater before, the first time was the Circling, when as a midling he had made the great voyage of passage and snuck up to the surface for a peek. He thought himself accustomed to its mutable and marvelous scenery. But this—the Pillars of Shooki revealed aspects of that dry and harsh world he could never have imagined.

All about the Pillars, the bleak and desolate white of the polar icecap stretched to infinity. A solid flat plate, littered with mounds and hillocks and wind-shaped edges, frozen and silent.

Above, a hoary sheet of gray clouds scudded by. Kloosee gasped at the sight while Pakma gouged at her eyes. Something moved. The hillocks had legs—a head—a spiked tail—

Puk’lek,” Pakma whispered.

It was true. The entire convoy stared in wonder as hundreds of seamothers, half-buried in snow, reared themselves and shook the powder off their backs. As one, they marched past the Pillars, honking, bellowing loudly, heading for a fissure in the ice on the other side of the Pillars.

It was half-hidden by the snow-dusted bulk of the towers, but even so, the beasts could be seen waddling into the frigid blue waters, wallowing for a few minutes, then submerging in a spray of foam.

There were now several mekli in the Chamber, along with the guards. The mekli were attending the Echopods, listening, arguing their interpretations of the Voice. All the pods seemed active together and the sayings, parables and utterances of pak’to Shooki were at once both confusing and reassuring. Their own mekli beckoned them deeper into the Chamber and slowly, prodded by the guards, they complied.

“This is the Judging Chamber,” she told them. “Listen to the Voice. The Voice will soothe you. Let it enter you and fill you with the right shoo’kel. The waters of this Chamber are the standard. Shoo’kel here is correct for all kelke, everywhere in the world. Now, speak the truth to me…why have you come to the Pillars and disturbed these waters with violence in your hearts?”

The Ponkti spokesman was called Poklu lin, a muscular fellow, with scars along his face and beak. “Ke’mekli, I am free-bound to Loptoheen tu, tuk master and tekmetah to Lektereenah, Metah of Ponk’et. We have a simple mission: we were commanded to intercept any attempt by Omtorish kelke to negotiate and work with the Tailless…the Umans at Kinlok. We heard this group coming—“ he indicated Kloosee and the rest of the Omtorish “—so we engaged them.”

Kloosee spoke up, without permission. “We have a right to talk with who we want…the Uman machine threatens everybody…we’re offering a way to move the machine elsewhere, so it doesn’t disturb our kels… all our kels,” he emphasized, glaring back at Poklu.

Poklu was ready to respond, but the mekli held up her hands. “Talk no more. Listen to the Voice, instead.”

Poklu held his tongue. “Ke’mekli, what does the Voice say? We can’t hear it here.” He glared at Kloosee with scarcely disguised contempt. “There’s too much noise.”

“O’ my loo’sheen, the most wondrous things.” The mekli pulsed with radiance. “It speaks of love and shoo’kel, the balance of all seas. Of Ke’shoo and Ke’lee and every virtue. The Vish currents and destiny. The Dialogues. The reciting of charms and beatitudes. The Be’shoo’keen of principal ecstasies. The Voice is profound and fluent, for truth is like Seome itself, inexhaustible and imperishable.”

Kloosee wanted to press home his point. “Seome is in danger, ke’mekli. Even Poklu can’t deny that. The Ponkti even have a word for it: akloosh. That’s what we face from the Tailless, the aliens, if we can’t convince them…and help them move their machine.”

Poklu exploded in fury. “Who says the Omtorish are the only ones who can help—“

Kloosee came back. “Your soundshield failed. Your own agents sabotaged it—“

Poklu made to lunge at Kloosee but stopped when he saw the mekli produce a sound grenade in her hands. “Omt’or can’t monopolize the Farpool, ke’mekli. The Umans know things. The Omtorish want to keep that knowledge to themselves…it’s always been like this. Keep the Ponkti in their caves…keep them ignorant. Now, the other kels have a chance…it’s not just Ponk’et. The Sk’ork, the Eep’kostic…they think as we do. Let—“

But the mekli would listen to no more argument. “You’ve both infected the sacred waters.

The Voice speaks, even now. Judgment is made…there is no alternative, no middle ground here.

Both sides must be consumed…”

Before Kloosee could answer, another mekli intervened, a younger one. She darted forward into the center of the gathering and waved her armfins abruptly, scattering those nearest to her.

A few scowled indignantly and sulked at the interruption, but this mekli had prevailed, had heard the Voice more clearly, and assumed the right to address them. She extended herself to full length—she was graced with the most supple of skins, a polished veneer of milky gray that shone like porcelain in the brilliance of the Notwater light. Kloosee pulsed her and envied her self-control.

“This argument is both curious and troubling,” she began, twitching at Poklu. “We find no solution in the pods that can be deciphered. That doesn’t mean Shooki has no answer—only that he conceals it from us now. That is Vish. But Puk’lek is a different matter. Here, the Voice is ambiguous, telling us in one instance that she is to be feared and respected, a shield against the intrusions of the aliens, and in the other instance, that she may serve us in ways both great and

small. There is room for either interpretation. It’s clear, though, that what you desire, Kloosee ank, does exist. The Voice speaks quietly and eloquently of the value of maintaining shoo’kel.

Your method, a way of talking and persuading and convincing and even debating, the Voice is convinced that this is the way. Understand me: the Voice is firm in saying that no kel, nor single kelke, may possess what the Umans have. That is Vik’t. But to engage the aliens, to talk with them, offer help to them…this the Voice finds appropriate.” This young mekli now darkened when she addressed Poklu and the Ponkti contingent. “On the other hand, the Voice cannot allow the waters to be disturbed. Poklu lin, what you do, though done through bonding with your superiors, cannot continue. The Pillars are for thought, reflection, tranquility. The Voice cannot be misinterpreted on this: disturbances must be smoothed out, they must be dampened out quickly…or no one will hear anything. Puk’lek will have these kelke now—“she swept her armfins in an arc, indicating all of the Ponkti captives.

Even before Poklu could respond, the guards had moved in and thrown a large mesh netting over the group. Someone shoved Chase out of the way…it was Kloosee, backing away from the circle of mekli which now closed on the doomed Ponkti. There was a swirl of thrashing and struggle but it was useless. Poklu fought briefly but was stung into silence by a mekli who administered a sting from a small creature she kept in her hands. The rest of the Ponkti glared out from behind the mesh, sullen and grim. Guards secured the net and began hauling it toward one of the translucent walls. Beyond and below them, at the foot of the Pillar, seamothers trundled back and forth across the icescape, butting heads, bellowing and honking, feeding, sensing a meal. A light snow began to fall, softening the scene.

Chase hadn’t seen it before, but the wall had a small hatch embedded in it. The guards positioned the netting with all the Ponkti inside in front of the hatch. One of the mekli came up and spoke to the captives.

“Kesh, ke t’shoo’lee opmah…Tekmah puk’lek vish tchuk’te.”

Chase’s echopod tried to translate. “Shhkkrreah…judgment is final…the seamother keeps our waters undisturbed.”

With that, the seams of the hatch split apart and the hatch opened. Water flowed briskly into a small outchamber beyond the wall, almost like a pouch made of rock. The guards shoved the netting with the Ponkti inside through the hatch and into the outchamber. Then the hatch was closed.

“What’s happening?” Chase whispered to Kloosee, who waved him silent. Still mystified, Chase watched as the mekli stuck her beak into a round horn-like opening beside the hatch, whistling and clicking, issuing some kind of strange commands.

At that moment, the outchamber opened to the Notwater. The netting plummeted from view and slid down the outside of the Pillar, rolling and tumbling and bouncing all the way down to the ice below, directly into the gaping mouths and salivating jaws of the seamothers gathered there.

The seamothers flailed and thrashed and bellowed and churned almost as one in their efforts to consume this unexpected dinner. Chase shuddered at the sounds issuing up from the icecap…

teeth clicking, claws slashing, cries and screams and then…silence. Only the sounds of ravenous eating.

The seamothers had begun to consume the doomed Ponkti.

The mekli turned back from the hatch. Her face was sad, but set with a hard edge of determination. “So it is that disturbing leads to disturbing. Pak’to Shooki is now satisfied.”

“Jeez, she killed them, dumped them right into the seamothers’ mouths—“ Chase could hardly believe his eyes. “Why did—“

Kloosee murmured to Chase quietly, making sure to show only a pleasant demeanor to the mekli, “They violated the holy waters by attacking us. They disturbed shoo’kel. Keep quiet, eekoti Chase—“

The mekli now took an interest in this unusual creature of the Omtorish. She whipped her tail and came to float directly in front of Chase, then reached out her arms and hands and felt his face. “You are not Omtorish…tell me, talkative one, from what kel do you come?”

Chase looked helplessly at Kloosee and Pakma. He didn’t know what to say. Kloosee tried to intervene.

“He is eekoti, ke mekli. Not of these waters. He visits us through the Farpool. In fact, we were on our way to talk with the Tailless People…their machine is destroying everything…even here, I see the effects. We want to make an offer to the Umans…help them dismantle and relocate their machine.”

This made the mekli sad. “This is true. Shooki tells us that ak’loosh is coming. A great wave will circle the world, and all will be destroyed. Perhaps the Tailless are his instruments.”

Then Chase had an idea. “Hey, maybe the mekli could help us. You know, like talk with the Umans.”

The very mention of the aliens chilled the waters in the Judging Chamber. All the mekli were too disciplined to react carelessly but Kloosee sniffed a distinct odor of dismay at the idea.

The younger mekli hissed at them. “Do not say this before Shooki.” Her tail curled in scarcely controlled anger. “Shoo’kel is the measure of all things. If the currents have brought us visitors, then we are bound by the Voice to extend Ke’shoo to them…” she glanced back at the walls, where below the carnage was continuing “…The Echopods say that all intelligent beings are Seomish, that they are due our respect, even our affection. Yet you speak to disrupt this.”

“The eekoti wants only what’s best for the kels,” Kloosee tried to explain, throwing a dark glance back at Chase. Keep quiet, my friend, before we all get in trouble. “He is Uman himself…we think he can talk with them, explain to them why they must move their machine.”

Now the older mekli weighed in. “It is the aliens who have upset shoo’kel. Yet we are bound here to remain in serenity and dignity. To venture into the Notwater…as you’ve described, to talk with these Tailless People of the Notwater…no, that is proscribed by Shooki.

We’re all life-bound here, bound to serve the One Who Makes the Currents Flow. To venture into the Notwater upsets the balance. Yet, to stop these destructive effects, you say you must venture into the Notwater…the Umans are creatures of the Notwater. You would restore balance by upsetting it further…this is a paradox, a flaw of logic. This reasoning is absurd, is it not?”

Her words upset the other mekli and now they were divided on whom and what to believe.

One of them went to a niche in the floor and put her head to it; inside, an Echopod murmured its recorded wisdom. She manipulated the knob on the pod head, tuning it, advancing it several tracks. Immediately, the tone of the Voice shifted, fading to nearly inaudible sibilants. The other mekli detected the change and crowded around the pod, straining to ferret meaning from the sounds. They listened for a time, expressionless, then argued over what they had heard.

Other parts of the Voice rambled on, discoursing on ethical problems and history, but the mekli ignored them. What they wished to know was there, in that one pod, and they debated it for many minutes.

Finally, the older mekli spoke to Kloosee and Pakma. “We are troubled by all this, as you can see. But we should not detain you any longer. The judging is done, Shoo’kel is

maintained…serenity for you and success in your journey. The guards will show you out. We know that in his time, pak’to Shooki will tell us what he wants us to know. In the meantime, we’re confident that Shooki is even now readying the great ak’loosh, the great wave that will re-make everything, change all the waters, destroy all who bring disturbance. From this, in its time, new life will grow.”

At a subtle signal from the mekli, the guards escorted Kloosee, Chase and the entire Omtorish contingent back through the twisting labyrinth of tunnels and caves, spiraling out and down and back to the outer doors of the Pillars. The trip took an hour.

Outside, in numbing ice-flecked waters, Kloosee was finally able to locate their small fleet of kip’ts, strewn about on the seabed. Minor repairs were needed, some adjustments made and provisions laid in from the rich ertleg beds that were abundantly huddled around a hot vent a few beats away from the Pillars.

The expedition got underway, somber at what they had witnessed, grimly determined to reach Kinlok and present an ultimatum to the Umans.

Chase wanted to talk, but both Kloosee and Pakma seemed distant, even sad.

Jeez, just when I thought I had these guys figured out…they talk about balance and tranquility and shoo’kel and all that…but their form of justice is pretty harsh. Tulcheah gets banished to the surface…the Ponkti thrown like meat scraps to those serpents. Angie would probably throw up seeing all this…

Suddenly, Chase was overwhelmed with an aching need to see Angie again. He knew the Farpool was near. Maybe there was a way—

The expedition slowly but steadily made its way on toward Kinlok, not sure of what they would find there…or what really they could do.

Angie’s Journal: Echopod 4

Well, so here I go again, Gwen…I’m trying this echopod thing…I hope it’s working.

Sometimes, this pod thing goes haywire but I think I’ve got the hang of it.

“Oh, Gwen, you won’t believe what’s happened to me. I came back. No, really, I did. I came back through that Farpool…man, that’s better than Space Mountain. Definitely an E-ticket ride. At least I made it.

“Only problem is I wound up in the wrong ocean…and I have no idea what time this is…

“Oh, yeah…one other minor detail…I still look like a frog on steroids. I hope we don’t run into each other. You’ll faint dead away…these scales are worse than any acne we ever had. But it is me…Angela Haley Gilliam.

“Once I landed or splashed down or whatever you call it, I realized I didn’t know where the hell I was…I managed to hook up with some whales…that was cool, and then I ran into a whaling ship. They shot me, Gwen…some kind of stun gun or something. I was their prize catch, can you believe that? Hauled me onboard and I wound up in some aquarium…that’s justice for you…just like Kloosee and Pakma…they’re our friends from Seome.

“So here I am, in a big pool in an aquarium swimming around in circles….BORING. I wish Chase was here. He knows everything…he’d know what to do. I tried to tell ‘em I was a human being---just a real bad case of acne, but they shot me again…I guess that’s what humans do when they find something they don’t understand.

“Their stun guns make you sleep and make your head hurt for like two days. I’m better now. But not really. I’m stuck here. I have no idea how to get out or make them understand me.

Every time I try to talk, they shoot me. It’s like they don’t want to know anymore…they made up their minds I’m a monster and that’s that.

“Gwen, I don’t know if you’ll ever get these messages. If there was a way I could drop this echopod off in the ocean, you know like a bottle, maybe you’d get it.

“Hey, that gives me an idea…what if I ‘accidentally’ drop this pod thing on the side of the pool. Maybe one of the staff here will see it and pick it up…maybe that’s how I can communicate with them.

“Hey, thanks Gwen…I’ll get started right away on putting together some kind of message…

introduce myself and all. Of course, who knows if they’ll believe me. I don’t believe me myself…

when you think about where Chase and me have been, what all we’ve seen.

“By the way, I wonder how the boy genius is doing…probably setting up a T-shirt shop on Seome…that would be just like him…once a beach bum, always a beach bum.

“I do miss him though. Chase…I actually do love you. I had to do this…wait, I’m talking to Gwen, not Chase. Sorry about that.

“Gwen, if you get this message, start googling all the aquariums. One of them has a new star attraction. It’s me .

“I’ll keep this journal going for as long as I can…until next time, girl, see if you can beat my last time in the 440…bet you can’t, you slug…my god, what thunder thighs you have…

“So, okay…this is Angie Gilliam, until next time…uh, over and out.”

End Recording

Chapter 18

Seome

Kinlok Island

Time: 768.2, Epoch of Tekpotu

Kloosee drove their kip’t upward, toward the surface. The waters became rough and turbulent in the coastal zone of the island. Pakma followed behind in a separate kip’t. The remainder of the little fleet stayed below the surface.

A few beats from the Notwater, with the Sound hammering the water like a fist, Kloosee stopped. He extracted the signaler from its pouch. Kloosee pressed the signaler against the sled’s cockpit bubble and activated it.

At first, Chase heard nothing. Kloosee explained that the signaler worked on sound. It emitted pulses of a certain frequency that the Umans had recommended.

“I’m telling the Umans that we wish to meet. I’m telling them we wish to discuss matters of great importance…that we have new ideas on how to alter their machine so it doesn’t have destructive effects. We’ll see what they say.”

Chase heard nothing. All he could hear, all he could concentrate on, was the wavemaker, the Uman Time Twister, slamming the cold waters with thundering pulse after pulse, rattling his teeth, jarring his whole skeleton.

Jeez, how do they put up with this crap?

The answer wasn’t long in coming. Chase saw the signaler buzz as if it were a trapped bird.

Kloosee interpreted the buzzing, with a frown.

“They say they will meet with us. For a short time only. The tracking hut on the hill.

Where we were before. It seems there are new developments with their enemy. A new threat approaches so the meeting must be short.”

Chase wondered just what threats were approaching.

Kloosee drove them to the surface. A gale was blowing topside. Towering waves crashed over them and the kip’t wallowed like a sick whale, rolling in all the froth and foam. Winds screamed. It was daylight…barely, but to Chase it seemed more like twilight. Or maybe dawn.

It was hard to tell.

Moments after they had breached, Pakma did likewise. Kloosee and Pakma had already exchanged ideas on how to go about the meeting.

“We brought one kee’too, it’s in Pakma’s kip’t. I’m going with you, eekoti Chase.”

At first, Chase didn’t understand. Then he realized Kloosee was describing the same lifesuit he and Angie had first used when they arrived. “Can you get around on land with that thing?”

“Yes, it has many features. Once I put it on, the mobilitors will propel me forward.”

Chase and Kloosee debated the meaning of the word that his echopod had translated as

‘mobilitor.’ In the end, Chase figured ‘legs’ would do just as well.

Once Kloosee had the lifesuit on, Chase thought he looked like a cross between a submarine and ‘Diver Dan.’ The thing had both propulsors for in-water maneuvering and it did have two legs, each powered by water held under high pressure.

The two of them waddled up onto the beach, staggering against fierce wind gusts. Ahead of them on a sand ridge was the tracking hut. Several Umans stood outside. They had suppressor guns but no shots were fired.

Chase noticed that both Umans kept their weapons trained on him and Kloosee as they made their way up the sand hill. At the top, Chase attempted a sort of half wave. He stopped when a gun was leveled right at his face.

Don’t want to go through that again. I come in peace…that was all he could think of, but he didn’t say that. Instead, he spoke and let the echopod do the translating. He wondered what his voice sounded like.

“We want a meeting…can we meet here?”

One of the Umans was the same blade-headed officer they had encountered before. Captain Acth:On’e. The second Uman Chase realized was Lieutenant Golich.

Brusquely, the Umans gestured with their weapons. Inside. Chase and Kloosee waddled into the tracking hut and found Ultrarch-Major Dringoth sitting at a table, poring over a display that he had unrolled and laid out for inspection. Objects on the display had a life of their own, moving about like bugs on a newspaper. The Ultrarch-Major stabbed the edge of the display with an index finger. The bugs stopped.

Dringoth looked up and squinted at the two of them.

“Well, what do you two freaks want now?” He looked closer at Chase. “Aren’t you the one who speaks English? Your signaler said this was urgent.”

Kloosee motioned for Chase to begin. “Sir, we have new proposals…to help with your machine. Modifications to make it less destructive.”

Dringoth snorted. “It’s a weapon…it’s supposed to be destructive. What are you talking about now?”

“We have a plan to help re-locate your machine…there are other islands, away from the cities—“They had brought echopods detailing the plan, to dismantle the wavemaker and re-build it elsewhere. Now, Kloosee laid out a trio of echopods and activated them. The voices were high-pitched, almost nasal, but recognizably English, though interrupted with clicks, squeals, honks and other untranslatable noises.

Dringoth’s eyebrows went up. “Is this a joke? I’m not relocating anything. Look, we’re running a weapon battery here, trying to fight off the Coethi…in fact, there are enemy jumpships nosing around this sector even as we speak. We’re already going to threat level one as it is. We may have to engage any minute now.”

Chase waved at the murmuring echopods. “Please, sir…if you would just listen…we have engineers with us, all kinds of tradespeople. More can come—

For a few minutes, Dringoth leaned back in his chair and put his feet up on a console, listening. Acth:On’e and Golich stood nearby, smirking, whispering to each other. Golich chuckled, pointed at the still-wet lifesuit Kloosee was wearing. They could all hear the motors and mobilitors humming, trying to keep Kloosee upright, the way the Umans were. Golich called him a clown.

Finally, Dringoth had had enough. He slammed his chair back down. “We’re very busy right now, trying to keep tabs on all the targets Sector keeps sending us. The Coethi are close…

hell, they could pop out of a timestream and let fly starballs at any time. Anyway, this is all academic…Sector would have to approve of your plan…and that won’t happen in the middle of an engagement.”

“Totally infeashhh…ible” slurred Acth:On’e. “Never work.”

Golich scoffed. “Hell, your own world will be undefended from Coethi attack if we take the Twister offline. Did you ever think of that? There’d be one hell of defensive hole in this sector of the Halo.”

Almost as if to emphasize what the Umans were saying, an alarm started beeping at a console behind Dringoth. Instantly, the Ultrarch-Major whirled his chair around, pecked at some keys. “Just like I thought…timestream H-4499, one…no, looks like three jumpships…jeez, right on top of us—“

“I’m on it, sir,” shouted Acth:On’e. The Captain bent to another console, studied the displays, tapped some more keys.

The entire hut shuddered as the Time Twister slew around to engage the enemy ships.

“T-buffers tracking…tracking….” said Golich. “I’ve got ‘em bracketed…target solution coming up, Major.”

Dringoth said, “Field stabilizing…just a little closer…Golich, you may match bearings and fire when you’ve got the solution.”

Outside the hut, across the ten kilometers of the Time Twister’s base, scores of hemispherical caps rotated in unison. Intense whirlpools churned up the waters around the vast machine as her generators spun up to grab a slice of spacetime and pinch it just enough to snap the Coethi ships across the galaxy.

Then, Acth:On’e slammed his console. “Starballs! One…no, now three launches…three starballs in the sky….headed this way—“

Dringoth looked back at Kloosee and Chase. “Best take cover now, while you still can.

Once those buggers hit, the sky will light up like an inferno---“

Already an intense light glowed through the tiny windows of the tracking hut. Outside, the sea was rising in the bay and swept over the beach with scalding, hissing breakers, quickly washing the Kloosee’s kip’t out to sea, swamping the sled. Beyond the headlands, heavy swells boiled and dense hot mist soon blanketed everything. The Omtorish who remained behind soon found the water too hot to stand and backed away, diving deeper to find colder water. A dull red glow glinted off the rock cliffs behind the hut, diffusing in the mist like a false sunset.

Within the hour, the first starball would impact Sigma-Albeth B, the sun. Already, it outshone the sun; in a quarter of the sky from which Sigma Albeth never gleamed, a broad swath of light burned a blinding radiance.

Against all common sense, Chase used the commotion to slip outside. The Umans paid no attention. They were preoccupied with operating their weapon. Even as he clung to the doorframe, bracing himself against hot gales sweeping up from the beach, Chase shielded his eyes and glanced skyward, as close as he dared into the fiery disk of Seome’s sun.

Though he couldn’t be sure, he thought there were black spots darkening the disk of the star.

Whether by clouds or something else, the level of daylight momentarily lessened. It returned a few minutes later.

Dringoth hastily excused himself and left the hut, sprinting across the sand dunes now whipped with furious winds, back to the Battery command post. The Twister was now active and whirlpools all around Kinlok were spinning up, deepening and roaring into foaming, frothing cavities.

The Omtorish who had remained behind in the water backed off further, to avoid being sucked in.

The battle raged for nearly an hour, with the sky flaring, then darkening, as Sigma Albeth took hit after hit. The Coethi starballs were clearly doing damage to the star. Great damage was also done to the waters around the island.

Soon, Acth:On’e and Golich fled the hut and Chase and Kloosee were alone. They hid beneath tables for awhile, then during a lull in the bombardment, when the winds had died down

to a series of gusty tempests, they left the hut and scrambled back into the water. They were picked up by two kip’ts reconnoitering the island from afar. Pakma was piloting one of them.

For over a day, while the battle raged in the skies above them, the small fleet cruised through tempestuous waters around the island, diving deeper when the sky flared and the waters hissed, then rising near the surface when it cooled and calmed, signaling the Umans when they could.

For many hours, there was no response.

Finally, a brusque answer came back from the Umans. Meet at the hut. We must talk.

The hut was in ruins when Kloosee and Chase climbed the molten remains of the sand dunes and poked their heads inside. This time, only Dringoth was there, kicking idly at ruined banks of equipment, picking up loose wire, brushing sand and sea salt from his consoles. The hut had no roof and a hot wind howled overhead. The sky outside seemed like a gray veil, almost twilight.

Dringoth was solemn. “We lost two with this one…Leeve and Serapius. Good soldiers, both of them. Casualties of war…I really hate that phrase, you know? “ Dringoth stared blankly out to sea, watching the surf pile up around the headlands that guarded the bay. “Casualties of war…there it is again…voidtime does that to people. I lost another friend that way—an Elamoid fellow, you know how they are, half machine and half lizard. We blipped into voidtime together and both took a hit from a Coethi timecrasher. I blipped back to truetime. He never returned.”

Dringoth relived the experience and sighed. “I guess three hundred plus terrs in voidtime is enough sacrifice for any warrior. Timejump shouldn’t keep sending them out like that.”

Chase and Kloosee both noticed that most of the echopods were still intact; in fact, Dringoth had lined them up a rickety table and was fiddling with the controls.

Chase asked,” Have you examined our ideas, Major?”

Dringoth stared blankly at one pod, turning it over end for end in his hand. “I’ve listened to most of them. You know the Twister will have to be taken down for quite some time, taken offline. Acth:On’e figured out what happened…one of the starballs leaked fusium into your atmosphere. You know they’re mostly made of the stuff. That’s what incinerated everything.

Twister took substantial damage from the waves and the wind. We won’t be defending anything for awhile…Sector’s already sending maintenance crews but it’ll be weeks before they can get here. Meanwhile, Halo-Alpha’s wide open—“


Kloosee stared through his lifesuit helmet at just how much damage had been wrought.

The hemispherical caps that were the twist field nodes of the machine had been wrenched off the top, and many now floated like so much flotsam among other debris in the waters off Kinlok.

“We’ve brought many engineers with us. Many tradespeople. Perhaps we can help…if you would consent to dismantle your machine and rebuild elsewhere…we have a place in mind.”

At that, Dringoth looked up, as if hearing them for the first time. He had a quizzical look on his face. His gray buzzcut was streaked with dirt and sweat, in spite of a cold wind whistling through the hut.

“Is that some kind of suit you’re wearing?”

Kloosee tried to explain about the lifesuit but the echopod translator made a mash of his words. “The kee’too allows me to survive in your world, the Notwater. It allows me to breathe, move about, manipulate things, communicate.”

Dringoth took that in. “So there really are cities down there, under the surface?”

Chase spoke. “Hundreds, Major. There are millions of Seomish. A whole civilization, you wouldn’t believe—moving your machine would save all of them. You should come below with us…I could show you things you’d never believe in a million years.”

Dringoth continued playing with the echopods. “I don’t know what to believe. Let’s suppose, for argument’s sake, that I put your idea to Sector. They’ll have to approve it. They’ll want to send their own people...some are already coming. And Coethi’s still around…Timejump Command will want to flood this sector with jumpships, try to clean up the major timestreams.

Provide some kind of defense for Halo Alpha. Look, I’ll be honest with you two—“ he fluttered his hands, searching for the right words “—whatever you are…I’m skeptical. But I’ll put the idea to Sector and see what they say. That’s all I can do.”

Chase and Kloosee both agreed that the offer was fair. They left the hut and headed out to sea, boarding the kip’t piloted by Pakma. The other kip’ts of the fleet hovered nearby.

“Well, what did they say?” Pakma asked.

Kloosee pulsed something more than curiosity behind her question…the bubbles were complicated, the echoes mixed and turbulent. Anxiety, maybe? Resignation, blended with a touch of hope?

Eekoti Chase may have convinced the Uman commander to ask his superiors about our plan. Maybe it takes a Uman to know a Uman, I don’t know. We’ll know shortly. In the meantime, keep your distance from the island. The waters are still boiling. And what’s in those pouches back there…I’m starving.”

The three of them munched on gisu and ertleg, with some crab legs thrown in. Chase was hungrier than he realized.

“Something’s bothering you, eekoti Chase,” Pakma told him, as she sucked on a fruit bulb.

“I can pulse it…what is it?”

Chase just shook his head. “I can’t hide anything from you two.”

“You echo like a midling,” Kloosee told him. “You haven’t yet learned the Omtorish trick of masking what should be masked.”

“Well, you’re right, I haven’t. I was thinking about the wavemaker, how it sort of creates and maintains the Farpool. If Major Dringoth shuts down the wavemaker, won’t the Farpool stop working?”

Kloosee admitted that such was likely. “Longsee…in fact, most of the Academy, think the wavemaker creates all the whirlpools, including the Farpool. I don’t understand it. Probably nobody does. But yes, I’d say you’re right. The Farpool will vanish once the wavemaker is stopped.”

Now, Chase got right to the point. “If you help the Umans re-build their machine, will the Farpool come back? Will it re-appear again?”

Kloosee now understood what Chase was driving at. “Our understanding of the Farpool and how it works is imperfect. This is a question for Longsee. In my opinion, with help from the Umans, we can re-create the Farpool when the wavemaker is re-built.”

Chase had made up his mind. “I want to use the Farpool again, before it’s shut down. I want to see what’s happened to Angie.”

Kloosee and Pakma looked at each other. No words were spoken. They weren’t needed.

Echoes and pulses were enough. Perhaps Longsee would be better at explaining the situation to him.

But before either of them could say anything else, the signaler buzzed. It was Dringoth. He wanted to meet again. At the hut.

Sector and Timejump Command had approved the Omtorish plan. Dringoth’s message was simple and direct.

We need to work out the details. At the usual place…we’ve partially re-built it. Come at once.

Chapter 19

Kinlok Island and Scotland Beach

Time: (Seome) 768.2, Epoch of Tekpotu

(Earth) November, 2122

Within two days, the dismantling project was well underway. The 1st Time Displacement Battery had a complement of ten Umans, in addition to Ultrarch-Major Dringoth. The Omtorish fleet consisted of ten kip’ts, carrying nearly thirty members of that kel.

Neither side had ever really believed in the existence of the other.

When the entire kip’t fleet surfaced outside the bay, floating among the wreckage of dozens of chronotron pods, Lieutenant Golich remarked to Captain Acth:On’e on the sight.

“After nearly twenty terr in the Corps, I thought I’d seen everything. Talking fish…driving boats.” Golich just shook his head, wondering if there was any bug juice left in the crews mess.

The hut on the sand ridge overlooking the bay became the de-facto headquarters of the mission. Dringoth told Chase, Kloosee and, now, Pakma, that rounding up the chronotron pods was the most important step needed at the beginning.

“They’re irreplaceable. The pods generate the twist field. Without the pods, the Twister’s a big pile of metal.”

So, the Omtorish fleet set to work corralling all the pods which wave and wind action had torn off the top surface of the Twister and littered across the waters around Kinlok. That job took a day. When they were done, a large tchin’ting fiber net had been draped across the waters of the bay, inside of which clanked and jostled most of the damaged pods.

Kloosee mentioned that it was like herding pal’penk into their pens. “Except you don’t have to feed them and talk to them.”

The Time Twister itself was a vast, twelve-kilometer pie-shaped structure, segmented into quarters, moored to the seabed with stout anchors and surmounted with hemispherical caps, which were the chronotron pods. Fully operational, the machine resembled an enormous inverted dinner plate, studded on top with dimples and balls. The entire apparatus was linked by thick ganglia of cables to the island itself, for power and command and control. The hut where most of the conferences and planning took place housed tracking instruments. The control center was housed in a bunker like structure on the other side of the island, nestled in a small ravine near the summit.

The project was planned to gather all the repairable chronopods together, so the Umans could sort out what worked and what didn’t. Those that could be repaired would be. Those that couldn’t would be discarded and Sector would have to furnish replacements. The Time Twister was still operating, although at a reduced level of effectiveness.

“There are still Coethi ships in the sector,” Dringoth explained one day. “Even damaged, the Twister can still yank the bastards to the other side of the galaxy if they come within range.

The Halo still needs us…thank God for that. We may be damaged but we still pack a pretty good punch…just staying up and operating will keep the Coethi honest.”

Chase was curious about how the Twister worked. Golich took him on a little tour of the command shack one day, just for the novelty of showing off a ‘monster’ to his Uman comrades.

He enjoyed watching them jump out of their seats, then waved everybody back.

“It’s okay…he’s one of the fish. And he speaks English too…imagine that.”

Golich explained the Twister’s operation.

“The Time Twister is designed to manipulate space and time over short volumes of space.

Any object caught in the Twister’s field of influence is accelerated out of the existing space –

time field and flung through a wormhole into unknown and hopefully very distant reaches of space, perhaps even into other universes.” Here, Golich called up a display of the machine on a nearby console. Chase moved closer, causing other crewmen to scatter abruptly, backing away from Golich’s ‘monster. The Lieutenant just smirked and went on.

“The Twister contains a naked singularity at the core of its field. Fifty-five terr ago, we learned how to use existing stars and their extreme gravitational fields to compress matter enough to create such a singularity. The distorted space-time field around this singularity core of the Twister is known as a twist field.

“Our engineers now have a way of creating, maneuvering and regulating the effects of the twist field. This is done through a screening field and a series of filters known as twist buffers, or just T-buffers.

“Like a nuclear power plant with its core always on, but regulated by control rods, the Twister is also always on. The singularity engine at the core, once created and activated, can’t be turned off. But it can be regulated through a series of T-buffers. These moderate the twist field. The control station manned by these crewmen here essentially operates a system of T-buffers.”

Chase thought about the Farpool. “You said one of the side effects of the Twister is all the whirlpools around here, in the water.”

Golich agreed. “We’ve seen those. Just side effects, as you say. Your own people—what are they called--?”

“Seomish…actually, these kelke are Omtorish—“

“Yes, certainly…they told us about the whirlpools. Frankly, we use them for sport. The twist field pinches spacetime just enough to create these vortexes…harmless enough, I suppose.

Sometimes, when we’re bored we catch fish and throw ‘em in…just to see what’ll happen.”

“One of those vortexes is a whirlpool we call the Farpool.”

Here, it was Golich’s turn to seem perplexed. “And you say this Farpool can fling you across time and space…even back to Earth? We had no idea. Not that it would have mattered…” Golich looked up, seeing through the roof visions of the Coethi enemy. “We have our own mission here.”

Chase agreed. “It can. The Seomish call this mother of all whirlpools the Farpool. By accident, they’ve learned that at certain times of the year, under certain conditions created by the Time Twister, the Farpool can send small objects…a few Seomish and their gear…to other places and times. One of those places turns out to be Earth itself. Home…Scotland Beach.

That’s how I got here.”

“You told me they brought you here.”

“I came willingly. In effect, the Seomish have learned how to travel in time and space, at least to Earth.

Golich frowned. “We heard that Urth had been quarantined…too dangerous to expose them to Coethi attack. An awful lot of strategic timestreams converge at Earth…the Corps had to shut them off.”

“The Seomish are pretty smart, Lieutenant. They’ve catalogued the conditions they need and built an algorithm to help predict when these conditions will occur. When the right

conditions appear, they know to be ready to enter Farpool. That’s how my friends, Kloosee and Pakma, wound up on Earth.”

Golich still found it hard to believe. “You know nobody around here really buys this. They still think your friends are a bunch of freaks…some kind of talking fish. But what’s happened the last few days---helping us round up the pods, helping us segment and break down the foundation, severing the mooring lines, the support cabling…no pet fish could do that. I mean, just look at you…you look like a bad dream, something I’d see after eating too much of the slop they call food around here. Too much bug juice.”

“It’s that procedure—I can’t even pronounce it--“

Golich held up a hand. “I know, I know. You told me. But still-“

Now Chase asked the question he really wanted to ask. “You’re going to keep the Twister operating as long as you can?”

“We have too…this sector of Halo Alpha depends on us.”

“And the whirlpools will still be there?”

Golich shrugged. “I suppose so. Why--?”

“That means the Farpool will still work.”

“If you say so.”

Chase knew what he had to do. Kloosee and Pakma both had parried his questions about going back through, seeing Angie again. Now, he thanked Golich for the tour of the command shack and scrambled back across the rubbly terrain of Kinlok to the sand dunes overlooking the bay. The Omtorish fleet was mostly submerged, now helping tie off and secure the Twister’s mooring lines. Several kip’ts still lolled in the shallows of the bay, while their crew made repairs and stowed provisions.

One of them was Kloosee’s. Chase hiked down to the water’s edge.

Kloosee and Pakma were still in their lifesuits. They were shoving the kip’t out into deeper water. Chase came up, gave them a hand.

“Can I talk to you?” Chase asked.

They managed to get the kip’t off a sandbar and then all three of them climbed in. Kloosee drove the kip’t toward one of the Twister’s mooring cables, anchored to the seabed. The Twister was still operating so the concussive booms of the chronopods slammed the water. But Kloosee had lined the cockpit with seaweed strands, partially muffling the noise.

“We’ll have to use mah’jeet to sever the mooring cables,” he decided. “They should be able to eat through the fibers, given enough time.”

“Kloos, I want to go back through the Farpool. It’s not far from here…I know we’ve discussed… tried to discuss this. I want to see how Angie’s doing.”

Kloosee settled the sled on the sea bottom, opened the cockpit and slipped out to examine the cable anchoring. Pakma and Chase followed.

Pakma spoke up. “Eekoti Chase, we don’t have a lifeship with us. You can’t go through the Farpool without a lifeship.”

Now Kloosee weighed in. “The Metah would have to approve. The Farpool is risky. We don’t send people through without preparing, consulting the Academy, talking with Longsee.

His scientists have learned how to time the Farpool, minimize the risk.”

Chase was not be deterred. “One of these kip’ts would do. Sure, maybe with some modification…I’m willing to risk it. It’s my life anyway. And the Farpool’s nearby.”

Now Kloosee turned from the mooring cable and regarded Chase grimly. He could pulse the echoes of determination inside the eekoti. Theirs weren’t so hard to read. Chase and Angie

had both been open books, hiding nothing. They didn’t yet know the Omtorish way of layering echoes and bubbles, the art of concealment and subterfuge.

“Chase, this is a bad idea. We need you on the project. You know the Tailless, you think like a Uman, you are Uman. You can help us keep the misunderstandings under control. To move the wavemaker, Uman and Omtorish have to work together. Look at you…you’re part of both worlds. You’re Uman, yet with em’took, you live among us. There’s no one else like you here.”

Pakma added, “Chase, it’s just that we can’t afford to lose you…and you’ve been through the Farpool, so you know how dangerous it can be. We can’t even be sure you’ll get back to the right time and place. And there is the em’took…to reverse this is also dangerous.”

“It’s never been done,” Kloosee admitted.

“I don’t care. Can you at least ask the Metah? Ask Longsee? See what they say? I mean, it’s great that I’m needed, that I can help. But—“ here Chase struggled to find the words, hoping the echopod would convey what he meant, maybe even fill in where he had no words to describe a feeling, “—I’m not really like you. This— thing—“ he indicated his modified body, with its scales and armor and ridges and projections and gills and—“—lets me live with you. But you know I’m Uman…human, I should say. I like helping. I like learning about your kel, your world, the Pillars, the seamothers, even the Ponkti scumbags. But I can’t stay here forever…I’m not sure I want to. Hell…I don’t know what I mean. Does any of this make sense? Is it coming through the pod okay?”

Now Kloosee and Pakma looked at each other. Thoughts passed between them, not by words. Only the echoes inside spoke volumes. They pulsed each other and they understood.

“I’ll find Longsee,” Kloosee said at last. “I’ll see what he says. If he agrees that a kip’t can be modified and go through the Farpool with a decent chance of surviving, then maybe you can do this. But we still need the Metah’s approval.”

Now, Chase showed them just how much he had learned living among them. “You’ve got repeaters with us…I know one of them…Pekto something or other. Can’t they send a signal…

like call home, through that deep sound channel?”

Kloosee had to admit this was true. “Longsee, first, Chase. Here, help me with this sack…

careful…it’s got mah’jeet inside. We’ll wrap it around the anchor bed and let them eat their way through the sack…and then the cable.”

Longsee was intrigued by the prospect of modifying a kip’t for a Farpool trip. “We’ll have to strengthen it, seal it better. Kloosee has some ideas.’

Chase was encouraged. “Then you think it can be done?”

Longsee was examining a piece of a chronopod that had been torn off and sunk into the sea.

The scientist had located a small grotto behind a bed of coral and set up a temporary location there, from which to help oversee the dismantling. The drumming of the wavemaker was audible, but muffled and more bearable.

“It can be done, eekoti Chase. The question is should it be done. The Farpool is variable…

it intensifies. It relaxes, almost like breathing. The wavemaker creates all azh’puhte…all the vortexes, including the Farpool. The Umans have changed the way the wavemaker operates.

We don’t know what effect this change will have on the vortexes. It might not work at all. It might send you somewhere other than what you want.”

“I’m willing to take the chance. Will you help me?”

Something in the way Chase spoke, though the echopod did the translating, made Longsee look up. He pulsed Chase deeply. Resolve, fortitude, grit, strength. All the echoes were there, though Umans didn’t reflect like anyone else. Longsee could see that Chase meant what he was saying and, worse, would likely try the trip even without approval. He didn’t want that on his conscience.

“I will help you,” he decided. “But we must put this before the Metah.”

They hunted down Pekto kim, a veteran Omtorish repeater, who had come with the expedition because of his navigation skills and knowledge of the northern seas. Pekto was working with a small group on releasing mooring cables for the wavemaker foundation.

Longsee worked with Pekto to formulate the message.

“It’s has to be done a certain way,” Pekto explained to Chase. “The format is very structured. Repeaters like me have to sing long and loud, so the message can’t be very long or complicated. Simple is better. Other repeaters who hear the message and sing it on further expect messages to done the right way.”

Chase listened through his echopod to the words that Longsee and Pekto composed. He didn’t begin to understand all of it, but the echopod itself had told him about the repeaters who were so important to long distance communication….

the long-distance, deep sound channel is called ootkeeor ….low frequency sounds can be reflected through this channel for distances of hundreds of beats…all kels maintain a force of living repeaters whose job is to roam the seas along this sound channel and listen for news, warnings, signals, various messages, anything that needs to be communicated across great distances…the ootstek hear these messages and re-broadcast them in a manner similar to songs…messages must be formulated according to strict guidelines….

“What’s it like being a repeater?” Chase asked.

Pekto was a muscular fellow, older with some gray mottling, but possessed of powerful tail flukes. “We’re all great swimmers,” he boasted. “We can swim forever, against any current, any kind of condition. But what’s it like?” Pekto thought a moment, put down his mah’jeet sack and let himself drift slightly. “Lonely. That’s the best word for it. You’re out there in the far seas, all by yourself, nothing but seaweed and pal’penk and coral beds for company. It’s stressful too…you have to listen carefully, all the time. You can’t miss anything. You have to concentrate and that wears you out. Sometimes, we repeaters just have to shut ourselves down, drift with the current, take a long sleep, to get our strength back. Ah, but we have a great life, we do. The Serpentines, the Pillars of Shooki, the volcanoes, the Likte Trench, we see it all. Every repeater is a great story-teller. When we retire, that’s all we do. Suck gisu, get drunk and tell stories.” Pekto bellowed out a hearty laugh. Then he got down to work with Longsee to compose Chase’s message.

The message described for the Metah what Chase wanted to do. When it was done, and translated for Chase, he agreed with the content. “I just want to see Angie again…I’m willing to take any risks…I know the Farpool can’t always be predicted.”

Longsee gave the finished pod to Pekto. “Eekoti Chase, what you’re doing is very brave…

maybe even foolish. But we understand the pull of your own kel…we’ll see what the Metah says.”

Chase asked, “Pekto, how do you send this message now?”

Pekto explained. “I have the bulb with the message. I memorize it while I’m traveling to the nearest point of oot’keeor…a few hundred beats south of here. From there, I orbit inside the sound channel, each leg about fifty beats and I sing the message of the pod, your message. Over

and over again. I sing it for a day. Then I come back. Other repeaters will hear it and pass it on.

In a few days, the message will arrive at Omsh’pont.”

“Like an old-timey telegraph,” Chase observed. Then he realized nobody had any idea what he was talking about.

As Pekto had predicted, the Metah’s response came back three days later. During that time, Chase helped Longsee, Kloosee and Pakma with unfastening the wavemaker’s mooring cables, splitting open the section seams of the great machine and rounding up the rest of the chronopods.

The Umans were reasonably helpful and there were daily meetings on the beach at Kinlok.

Chase was the designated intermediary, so he learned many details of the plan to break down the wavemaker and transport it hundreds of beats to the west, across the northern Serpentines, riding the Omt’chor Current, to an island chain and seamount known as T’orshpont. He began to learn more about Ultrarch-Major Dringoth in these briefings…just what kind of person he was and how he had come to command the 1st Time Displacement Battery.

He didn’t want to be there. Dringoth was a lifer. He came from a military family, as did many residents and colonists of Keaton’s World. After a brief stint as a commercial ship captain with Keaton’s Transport and Storage, he had joined the Time Corps’ Timejump Command. He needed something more than boring freighter duty from one world in the Keaton’s World star system (the sun was called Sturdivant 2180) to another, and to other worlds in the borderlands between the Lower Halo and the Inner Spiral (Centaurus Arm).

Dringoth always imagined himself a military expert and sought out experiences that would have some hope of bringing recognition, glory and fame. He came from a family where the parents, Pyotr Dringoth and Natalya Dringoth, were famous in their fields of expertise. Pyotr was a great explorer of backwater worlds and satellites in the outer system of Sturdivant 2180, which had some twenty planets and thousands of moons and satellites. The only more famous person on Keaton’s World was General Oscar Keaton himself, who lead the colony-founding expedition (“First Fall”) to Sturdivant’s fifth planet several hundred terr before Monthan Dringoth was born. Pyotr Dringoth was best known as the discoverer of the great underground ice labyrinth called the Hollows, part of the icy satellite called Gibbons Grotto in the outer system of Sturdivant. This dwarf planet was hollow inside with thousands of kilometers of caves, caverns, grottoes, mazes and warrens.

Monthan’s mother, Natalya Dringoth, was a biochemist and neuro-engineer, perhaps best known as the discoverer/creator of scope, a mildly addictive compound that has become essential for preparing Umans (and other sentient beings) for mind uploading, a process known as The Switch.

With two famous parents and some overachiever siblings, Monthan had to get out and left home for Frontier Corps at an early age, signing onto a freighter crew making the rounds of Sturdivant’s worlds. Initially, a robotics’ mate, he worked his way up over a number of years into positions of command. Ten terr after joining the Corps, he went through officer candidate school (OCS) (on Telitor, a nearby world of the star-sun Delta Recursa III). About five years after that, he was given command of small corvette called Lalande, which he skippered for another five terr, until a navigation error under his command caused the corvette to crash into a small asteroid in the Boru system. Extensive damage to the ship led to an investigation and Dringoth was found to be negligent and at fault. He was cashiered from Frontier Corps.

About this same time, new developments in temporal science and engineering led to new technological breakthroughs allowing Umans to travel through time for limited excursions. Not

long after these developments, Umans learned of a new threat in the Inner Spiral and Lower Halo sectors of the galaxy. A race of machine-like swarm entities called the Coethi had also developed a means of conducting temporal operations and were beginning to alter time streams around outlying Uman settlements in such a way as to eliminate these Uman settlements from ever having been established…changing the very nature of space-time and the historical record.

Umans had to counter this threat immediately. A new military force was set up, known as the Time Corps.

Monthan Dringoth, now cashiered out of Frontier Corps and trapped in a dead end job on Sturdivant Eleven as a mining camp cook and bot repairman was immediately intrigued by this new development. He plotted to join Time Corps, mainly as a way of getting off Sturdivant Eleven and making a name for himself, independent of his famous parents.

He volunteered for service with Time Corps and signed a contract after spending nearly seven terr on Sturdivant Eleven. After passing the physical, he was sent to recruit camp on Poona-Peona, where he nearly died in physical training, after a serious fall in the Escape and Evasion course. But he recovered and did well enough as a recruit (known as nogs to everybody) to get out of Basic. His first assignment was to Hapsh’m, where he served as a systems mechanic for a small detachment of time troopers, who rode special vehicles (jumpships) into alternate time streams to hunt down, engage and destroy Coethi scouts and troopers, who were trying to alter the time streams.

Dringoth distinguished himself in one detachment mission (Operation Galactic Hammer) when a small detachment of jumpships returned to base and the base came under immediate attack from Coethi scouts who had hidden in the ships (morphed into human-like creatures) and returned with the Umans. The Time Corps base at Hapsh’m was in a hell of a fight, but Dringoth was able to rally a small force of mechanics, cooks, armorers, and office staff, including some bots, to counter-attack and destroy the Coethi, though some did escape back into another time stream. For this effort, Dringoth was awarded a Distinguished Valor medal (DVM 3rd class with star clusters) and promoted to Top Sergeant. Not long after that, he applied for Time Corps OCS

and was admitted on probation (due to academic deficits). The school was at the Time Corps base on Byrd’s Draconis.

As an OCS cadet, Dringoth was an average student academically, but was good in sports and other competitions. Dringoth was always a competitive person, always driven to achieve and differentiate himself as an achiever from his illustrious parents. He always tried to take the most difficult route to achieve anything, so no one could say he had an easy time because of his name.

He became an Academy legend for his exploits in many victories in the game of bangball.

Fresh out of the Academy, as a newly minted Ultrarch-Lieutenant (Academy graduates were always given the title Ultrarch in their commissions and ranks, to denote alumni), Dringoth’s first assignment was as engineering officer of a Time Corps jumpship called Pollux. The mission of ships like Pollux was to cruise in and out of time streams hunting down and engaging Coethi ships and scouts and hopefully destroying them. Jumpships also patrolled especially critical time streams, such as the streams when certain bases and colonies were established in the Lower Halo and Inner Spiral. It was vital that these time streams remained unaltered.

Dringoth served with some distinction aboard Pollux, and later aboard another jumpship Majoris, where he served as executive officer. This was the same Majoris that almost singlehandedly engaged and ran off a whole squadron of Coethi jumpships in Strategic Time Stream S-4487, known as the Battle of the Gauntlet. Majoris was basically destroyed but Dringoth and some of her crew survived and were marooned in Time Stream S-4487 for days

before being picked up by another jumpship. It was Dringoth who kept most of the group alive and together during this time. Although he and the survivors suffered grievous injuries, he received a Legion of Merit medal for this.

Dringoth knew firsthand what it was like to be marooned in alternate time streams.

During his recovery and rehab, Dringoth was approached by Time Corps senior leadership about receiving his first command: that of a Time Displacement Battery. A new defensive weapon had been developed in Time Corps labs. It was called a Time Twister. It was conceived and developed as an area weapon, able to defend large parcels of space and many time streams simultaneously. It was designed to be installed and defended and operated by a static crew on a given planet or satellite. The Battery would have primary defensive responsibilities and missions for a given sector of space.

Dringoth was hesitant but when a promotion of two grades, all the way to Ultrarch-Major, was dangled in front of him, he agreed. Here was a chance to really distinguish himself from his parents and get out from under their illustrious shadow, which was already beginning to happen.

Plus, he would have the honor of commanding the lead Time Twister battery in a new command, known as Timejump Command. Dringoth figured he could almost write his own book.

He agreed. After some initial training and familiarization with Time Twister ops (he helped develop the CONOPS and wrote some of the doctrinal materials), he led his first Battery crew to a newly scouted world in the Sigma Albeth B system, an undistinguished and dreary backwater oceanic world known to Umans as Storm. The planet and the star system were strategically located in the Lower Halo region known as Halo-Alpha. It was a vital crossroads between Uman settlements in the Halo and the Inner Spiral.

So it came to be that Ultrarch-Major Monthan Dringoth and his crew of ten, with a jumpship called Cygnus at their disposal and the Mark 1 version of the Time Twister, an untested weapon upon which much hope was being placed, settled onto a small island called Kinlok on this wet hellhole of a world aptly known as Storm.

It wasn’t long before they realized they weren’t alone.

A day later, Pekto returned to the Omtorish camp near Kinlok with the Metah’s response, all the way from Omsh’pont. He located Longsee and gave him the pod on which was recorded the very words of Iltereedah luk’t. Longsee called for Kloosee, Pakma and Chase to attend the listening.

The Metah’s words were clear: Chase would be allowed to go back through the Farpool.

Kloosee and Pakma would not accompany him; they were needed to work with the Umans and besides, nobody knew if the Farpool even worked the same way anymore. Iltereedah didn’t want to risk losing key people until the transit system could be proven again.

Moreover, to assist Chase in this trip, two members of the current expedition would accompany him. They were both guard-prodsmen. Pulkor rik and Veskort tu were summoned by Longsee to the gathering and told of the Metah’s command. They would assist in preparing a kip’t for the trip. Normally, special ships had been used for travel through the Farpool, but none were available and Longsee was reasonably certain a kip’t could be sealed and modified so that it would survive the trip.

The next day, Chase was introduced to Pulkor and Veskort.

Both were husky, middle-aged males, strong swimmers. They had guard and security duties and one had handled himself well against the Ponkti assault at the Pillars. Now they had been

assigned to help partition the sections of the wavemaker foundation…some strength was required for this and the Umans were particular about how it should be done.

Pulkor seemed eager for the adventure. “I’ve never been through the Farpool before…never even seen it.”

Veskort wasn’t so sure. “It makes me dizzy, just thinking of it. What if we don’t come back…you said the wavemaker created the Farpool. Now, the Umans are shutting down the wavemaker. How do you know the thing even works?”

Kloosee was honest. “We don’t. But Longsee here believes the basic functions will last unless the wavemaker is completely shutdown. That won’t happen for quite some time. You should be back before then.”

Veskort was skeptical and somewhat jealous that Chase had such influence with the Metah.

“He’s not one of us…he’s eekoti. Why can’t he do this himself?”’

Longsee explained the reasoning behind the Metah’s instructions. “The Metah fears Ponkti influence. Already, they’ve tried to stop us. They want the Farpool for themselves. There are rumors they’ve worked out a deal with the Umans, although the Umans don’t admit such. Your job is to make sure the Ponkti don’t interfere with the Farpool.”

Veskort sniffed at that and darted off with one annoyed slap of his tail. “We should just forget this Farpool and focus on strengthening Omt’or. That’s the best way to keep the Ponkti under control…if we’re stronger than they are, the Ponkti can’t make mischief.”

Longsee was thoughtful. “Don’t be too sure of that. If the Ponkti wind up in control of the Farpool, all of Seome will be under their influence. And all of your prods and muscles will mean nothing then.”

Veskort didn’t reply.

A kip’t large enough for three was found and modified and sealed. The work took several days. Longsee was adamant that the Umans would not know or be told of this little side trip.

When the kip’t was ready and provisions laid in, Kloosee attached it by towline to another kip’t.

Chase climbed in, riding in the front, with Veskort and Pulkor behind. Chase had some idea how to use sounds and clicks from his echopod to control the sled plus he had been through the whirlpool before.

Pulkor and Veskort and their prods were unwilling passengers, ordered to accompany Chase by the Metah. Longsee also gave them empty echopods and told them to record what they saw and heard.

“Each trip is another piece of the puzzle,” Longsee told them. He made sure Chase wasn’t around. “We learn more and more about the Uman world, about its waters, its currents, its indigenous life, with each trip. We may have to emigrate there, if the Umans continue to bring war to our world. The Metah wants a full reconnaissance of their world. She wants to know if it’s really suitable for mass migration…assuming we can keep the Farpool operating.”

Pulkor honked. “Kah, we’re better off saving this world…wipe out the Umans, wipe out the Ponkti…they’re all mah’jeet anyway…they’re a menace to everyone. These trips are a waste.”

Longsee said, “You prodsmen are all alike…if it bothers you, stick a prod in it and kill it.

But the Metah’s got a bigger view of the situation. You’d best do as she commands…for this mission, you’re both tekmetah…free-bonded to Iltereedah. Keep that in mind.”

Chase could tell that Pulkor and Veskort were both sulking the whole way out to the field of whirlpools.

Well, this is going to be fun, he told himself. Still, he had to do it. He had to find out what had happened to Angie. And if two Omtorish prodsmen were miffed because they were ordered to come along, so be it.

The trip to the Farpool took only a few short hours.

Chase found controlling the kip’t an adventure, owing in part to being unfamiliar with the controls—controls based as much on making certain sounds as anything—and his lack of navigating expertise. The field of whirlpools surrounding the outer edges of the Uman machine was easy enough to find. All you had to do was let the turbulent currents pull you in. But then Chase had to make sure they stayed out of the smaller vortexes…he eventually learned to skirt the edges of the things and almost ride the waves from one to another, a rough sort of surfing but underwater.

Then the kip’t control panel started pinging and clanging at him and Chase realized it was an alarm that Kloosee had set up to guide them right to the Farpool itself.

Ahead of them, he could see only blue-green sheets of bubbles and foam. But the strong pull of the maelstrom was unmistakable and they were soon caught in its clutches and speeding toward the core of the rotation.

“Hang on, guys… here we go--!” he yelled.

Behind him, he felt the body of Pulkor tense slightly. Behind him, Veskort seemed to be mumbling something…perhaps an Omtorish prayer. The sled rocked and shuddered and shimmied like a wild pony as it was inexorably pulled closer and closer. The bubbles and foam turned to a white crashing froth…

…and in a blinding flash of light, they were in….

Whenever he and Angie talked about the experience, Chase mentioned that going through the Farpool was like riding Space Mountain at Disney: moments of peaceful weightlessness, almost a dreamlike quality, except for the bright strobing lights outside the porthole, and the wrenching neck-breaking turns and then the sudden stop.

It was like having a horse kick the crap out of you. Or maybe driving your bike headfirst into a brick wall at eighty miles an hour.

The kip’t shuddered and hurtled out of the Farpool in a flash of light, a roaring rush of deceleration, knocking Chase and his passengers hard against the cockpit windows. Still trapped in the vortex, Chase knew enough to ram the ship’s rudder hard over, while firing her jets to counteract the residual force of the spin. For a moment, they were pinned sideways against the cockpit, until the force of the jets shot them through the core of the whirlpool and out into calmer waters.

Several minutes passed before Chase recovered enough consciousness to remember Pulkor and Veskort tucked in behind him. He made sure his echopod was working, then—

“Hey, you guys okay back there? Everything still attached and working?”

It was Veskort who replied—he had a guttural way of honking and grunting that was unmistakable.

Shhkreeeh…I think I have many broken bones—“

Then Pulkor chimed in. Chase felt him stretching and flexing behind him. “Eekoti Chase…

everything in my body hurts…is this normal…the Farpool does this?”

Chase had to concentrate on bringing the kip’t fully under control. He wrestled with the controls, clicking and clanking and honking as best he could, but not having that much effect.

Blast these sound controls! You had to make just the right sound, the right volume and frequency… Jesus, I’ll never get the hang of this! Fortunately, the ocean water dampened their

wildest gyrations and soon enough, they were cruising slowly through dark, cold waters, toward

Toward he had no idea where.

Chase decided they’d better come to a full stop, maybe even surface and see if he could figure out where they were. He informed his passengers of this.

Veskort was nervous about the idea. “Notwater…this is a bad idea, eekoti Chase. Notwater is forbidden.”

“Yeah, but that’s Seome. This isn’t Seome.”

Chase planed the little ship upward anyway, toward blue-green light and the surface.

He heard no further complaints from his passengers about being so close to the Notwater.

When the sled breached the surface and rolled in the swells and waves, Chase saw it was daylight, early morning from the sun angle.

It was a refreshing, even inspiring view.

But it wasn’t the Gulf.

He decided against opening the cockpit, owing to Veskort and Pulkor not having any protective gear. Instead, he let the little sled drift with the prevailing currents. Initially they were in a light fog but the sun soon burned that off and that’s when he saw several ships…

fishing trawlers from the looks of them, with tall masts and stout deckhouses and nets cast in all directions.

“Fellows, I’m not sure where we are exactly but there’s no way this is the Gulf. The water’s too dark and those look like mountains in the distance.”

It was Pulkor who observed, “Longsee said the Farpool can’t always be predicted…the algorithms aren’t perfect.”

“And the Umans have changed the way they operate,” added Veskort. He was clearly uncomfortable being so close to the Notwater, a low moan and something that sounded like nervous humming filled Chase’s ears.

“Well, maybe so, but we need to know where we are. I’m heading for those mountains.

Land can’t be too far away and there are several ships nearby too.”

Veskort was cautious. “We should avoid the ships, eekoti Chase. We don’t know how they might react.”

“Good idea. Plus I don’t exactly look like anything they’ve ever seen,” Chase replied.

“We’ll go below.”

He planed down to thirty meters depth and headed for the sound of the ships, passing under two of them. Chase had finally begun to gain some comfort with the kip’t controls, just making the right series of clicks and honks and whistles would cause the jets to speed up or slow down, the planes and rudders to turn. It wasn’t exactly natural but when an insistent beeping informed him the seabed was close and rising, he knew they were near the shore.

He surfaced the kip’t and found himself riding along the crest of a long breakwater. A sign and a signal buoy bobbed nearby. It said: PORT MCNEILL HARBOR…SPEED 5 KNOTS…NO

WAKE ZONE.

He steered them around the end of the breakwater and found a sandy spit just below some wharves. He beached the kip’t there.

“I’m going topside,” Chase told his passengers.

“This is not a good idea,” Veskort insisted. “We should at least wait until there is less light.”

But Chase was not to be dissuaded. “I’ll just pop out and head up…maybe I can find something to show were we are. I won’t be long.”

After some discussion about water conditions—it was Veskort who pronounced the harbor water of Port McNeill as p’omor’te…turbid and salty…”tastes like ertleg guts,” he said sourly, Chase was able to devise a way to crank open the sled and slide out quickly, while Pulkor cranked the cockpit shut again, thus preserving as much of the original conditions as possible.

“Wish me luck,” Chase said. He slipped overboard, the Omtorish prodsmen jerked the cockpit hatch shut and he was off, kicking his way toward the bright lights of the surface. He breached beneath a wharf, clinging to barnacle-encrusted pilings, while waves slapped him back and forth.

Now what? he wondered. If I climb out, looking like a gigantic frog, somebody’ll start screaming and the guns and knives will come out.

Cautiously, he stroked out from underneath the wharf and found himself abreast of the stern planes of a small fishing trawler. Conveniently, she was drying her nets and most of the gear had been slung overboard. It seemed like climbing up the net, if it would support his weight, was the best option.

So he climbed.

He clambered onboard the deck and stood dripping, looking around for a moment. Nobody was in sight. There was a small deckhouse ahead, only a few steps, but before Chase could get there, he heard a voice from behind. A crewman had spotted him—

“Hey…Jesus Christ… heywhat the fuck?…get away…hey…get out of here…go on--!”

The crewman was a short, stout, heavily bearded man, a cigar stub in the corner of his mouth, brandishing a stick, and he came at Chase with the stick, swinging it back and forth. It clipped Chase on the arm and stung momentarily but Chase realized his outer scale and armored skin was pretty good protection. Instinctively, he lunged at the crewman, knocking the stick from his hands. His assailant stopped short, his mouth agape and turned to run.

Chase was on him in a second, hoisting the man over the railing. He went headfirst, flailing and screaming, into the water.

Now, I’ve done it. Chase was momentarily paralyzed…which way to go? The rest of the crew would be coming, already doors and hatches were slamming open, feet were drumming on the deckplates, clip-clopping down from the bow. He stepped momentarily into the deckhouse and his eyes were immediately caught by a poster taped to the annunciator panel…and to a picture on the poster.

It looked just like him!

On impulse, he snatched the poster and stuffed it in his mouth. How could the crew of a fishing trawler—but he didn’t have time to figure that out. Shouts filled the air.

Chase saw faces, more faces, the crew was gathering fast. He saw something flash by the door entrance…a gun muzzle, then a speargun.

Chase took a few deep breaths, with the crumpled poster still in his mouth— can’t swallow it, don’t swallow it!— then tore open the deckhouse door, pushed wildly at several bodies blocking his way, and fled for the railing. He reached the edge and heard something whistle by his ear. Someone had fired and more missiles were coming. One grazed his shoulder.

He levered himself over the side and went headfirst into the water.

He kicked and pulled to go deep, just as a few bullets hissed into the water, making little contrails of bubbles as they entered. Somehow, he managed to avoid being hit. He groped and swam and stroked until he found the relative safety of the wharf pilings.

There…he saw the kip’t. Veskort and Pulkor were still inside, looking like sardines in a can. He pulled up short, waved at them and Pulkor popped the sled canopy. As quick as he could, Chase climbed and squeezed in, then the canopy was dogged shut and latched around him.

He clicked and honked as well as he could and somehow the kip’t controls responded. The sled scooted off, scraping the wooden pilings and the harbor seabed, before Chase managed to get enough control to steady them.

They cruised out of Port McNeill harbor unmolested, though there seemed to be a flurry of boat activity overhead.

Soon, they were headed out to sea again, to the relative safety of deeper water.

That’s when Chase let the kip’t drift for a few moments and scanned the poster.

Vancouver Aquarium

Come See It!

Terrors of the Deep

See Sheena…The Prehistoric Princess

Six-Month Engagement

In the Main Ocean Gallery

9:00 am to 7:00 pm everyday

Chase studied the images and sucked in his breath. It was Angie! It had to be…he’d recognize those dorsal fins and scaly armor anywhere.

Then he almost laughed out loud. He explained it to Pulkor and Veskort.

“Guys, we didn’t land in the Gulf. Vancouver…this has to be the Pacific.”

The description meant nothing to the two prodsmen. “You know where your eekoti friend is?” Pulkor asked.

Chase said, “I’ve got a pretty god idea. Come on…let’s surface…maybe we can figure out where we are from the sun angle.”

By crude dead reckoning and sighting, Chase determined that the Farpool had deposited them in the eastern Pacific, not far from the coast of British Columbia. Vancouver couldn’t be that far away, south from the sighting.

“I’ll skirt the coast…with any luck, we’ll pick up a lot of ship traffic. We can follow them in.”

Several hours later, Chase had managed to steer the kip’t to a position just west of the main channel, just outside Stanley Park, on the English Bay side. They surfaced briefly and followed the contour of the seawall and biking trails that led around toward Third Beach and the Lions Gate Bridge. The aquarium was situated on a rocky headland near the bridge, looking from offshore like a collection of huge seashells mounted on a ridge. Pedestrians walked along the hiking paths cut into the hillside and Chase could see an outdoor pavilion where more people congregated.

“Angie’s in there, somewhere,” told his passengers. “Somehow I’ve got to figure a way to get inside and find her.”

“Perhaps there is an entrance from the sea,” Pulkor suggested, hoping there wasn’t. This eekoti was a strange beast and he already regretted the assignment from the Metah to accompany Chase. The world of the Umans, to judge from their waters, was dirty, noisy place, not suitable

for intelligent life. Pulkor told himself that Longsee and his engineers should abandon any thought of emigrating to this world.

“Maybe you’re right,” Chase agreed. “But I’ll have to wait until night…if I show up on the shore looking like this—“he thought back to what had happened when Kloosee and Pakma had done the same thing off Scotland Beach…the police officer had opened fire immediately, people ran screaming in all directions.

So he parked the kip’t beside an underwater cave, just half a kilometer south of the bridge.

There was a steady flow of ship traffic beneath the bridge, passing between English Bay and Burrard Inlet. Stanley Park was a small peninsula, sticking out of the north shore of the city proper. The cave would mask their presence well.

Now more or less hidden from the Umans, Chase went out with Pulkor and Veskort to reconnoiter the area…and to find something to eat. They found clam beds nearby, or what Chase thought were clams…not greatly different from ertleg. Veskort was hungry enough to give one a try, pulling off a leg and sucking the meat out. He made a slight face, but pronounced it edible.

They gorged on the clams.

“Once it’s dark, I’m surfacing again,” Chase told them. “I’m going ashore to try to find a way inside the aquarium.”

So they rested for a few hours.

Dark came quickly and Chase planed the kip’t upward toward the surface. He breached near the bridge pilings, then scootered along the shore until they came to the headland beneath the aquarium. By now, Veskort and Pulkor had grown more accustomed to the proximity of Notwater; as long as the kip’t was kept filled with water, they seemed okay. Veskort was always anxious as they approached the surface, clicking and wheezing nervously. Pulkor was calmer.

Chase found a narrow inlet and stopped the kip’t just offshore. He discussed what they would do next. After some discussion, it was decided that Chase would exit the kip’t from deeper water and swim to shore. Pulkor would pilot the kip’t back to the cave, if they could find it. In one hour, the Omtorish prodsmen would return to the same inlet and Chase would be there, ready to be picked up.

It was as good a plan as any.

Chase climbed out and headed ashore. Behind him, the kip’t disappeared out of sight quickly, no doubt heading for colder, deeper water. The Omtorish were nervous enough in Uman waters. Surrounded by land and Notwater, they were mortified.

Chase crept up onto the beach. He saw no one and began climbing the rock cliff as best he could. Here, he found his outer skin armor helpful, for the crags and folds of the rock were sharp and the footing uncertain. Finally, he made the top ground, alongside a bike path.

No one was coming, so he hoisted himself upright. Looking around, he was on a narrow path cut right into the rock hillside. Bikers and hikers had an impressive view of English Bay below, where the surf hissed and crashed against more rocks.

He scrambled along the bike path and followed it to the outer fencing of the aquarium, which he scaled easily. He found himself in a parking lot, well lit and saw a truck was following the driveway around from the front of the complex.

Chase hid behind some bushes. The truck was pulling a trailer. Chase stared in fascination at the diorama mounted on the trailer. It was an underwater scene, made out of faux coral and plastic sea flowers, with a variety of creatures—animatronic and robotic, he would learn later—

stuck in a variety of poses about the display. Most of the creatures seemed, in the parking lot lamp light, to be menacing and threatening a pair of small children, themselves animatronic

figures. There were several creatures that bore a resemblance to he and Angie. There were two whales, standing upright improbably on hind legs, almost a comical view of things. A few fake squids and octopi, rounded out the display. Lights above winked on and off, a litany of horror films and vids from the past… Moby Dick…The Beast from Twenty Thousand Fathoms…

Creature from the Black Lagoon….

Workmen climbed out of the truck cab and helped guide the driver as he backed the trailer-diorama into a small garage. As Chase watched, the garage doors came down. Nobody came out again. It seemed as if the garage was connected to some part of the aquarium interior, perhaps a workshop.

That gave Chase an idea. He made his way back to the shoreline and waited for Pulkor and Veskort to arrive in the kip’t.

“It’s some kind of exhibit,” Chase explained. “They trot it out during the day, out front of the aquarium, I guess. At night, they wheel the trailer back inside. That’s my way in.”

Pulkor tried to follow the echopod translation. It was clear that he didn’t fully understand what Chase was describing.

Eekoti Chase, what will you do inside?”

Chase hadn’t really given that much that. “If Angie’s in there, I’ve got to figure a way to get her out. We managed to release Kloosee and Pakma from a similar place in Scotland Beach.

Maybe that will work here too.”

Veskort was skeptical. He clicked and wheezed and Chase’s echopod couldn’t keep up.

Most of it came out like noise.

Shkreeeah…. kkkkllllccckkk….if eekoti Angie does not want to come back?”

Chase got the gist of the question. It had troubled him too. He wasn’t sure where their relationship stood.

“I have to see her. I can’t explain it better than that. You know…ke’shoo and ke’lee…life and love. We love each other…we always talked about getting married…how do you say it…

bonded something or other—“

Pulkor was sympathetic. He nuzzled his beak around Chase’s nose…a common Omtorish endearment. “We are tekmetah to help you, eekoti Chase. But I do not know if we can go back through the Farpool….or if we can even find it.” This made Pulkor sad. “Here you are in homewaters. We are visitors.”

Aware of proposals to emigrate from Seome, Chase said, “Someday this may be your homewaters too.”

Veskort spat. “Kah, it’s a bad idea…Longsee—“ His whole body shuddered with disgust.

“Some kelke have dreams that should stay dreams.”

The three of them occupied the rest of the daylight hours by reconnoitering the bays and inlets around Stanley Park, recording scents and sounds, taking measurements. Chase had never been to Vancouver, the Pacific or to Canada, for that matter. They ate clams and slept, cavorted with local dolphins—Veskort pronounced them crude beasts “—like Ponkti, but without prods…” As the sun dropped, Chase piloted the kip’t back to the small inlet they had first visited and hovered just below the surface of the water.

“Wish me luck,” he muttered as he climbed out.

Pulkor said, “Shooki is with you, eekoti Chase.” The cockpit hatch was closed and sealed, the kip’t scooted off into deeper waters and Chase stroked for the surface and the rock-strewn

beach below the headland. Breaching, he took a quick look around, spying a few bicycles on the trail above. Otherwise the headland and cliff seemed unoccupied. He climbed out.

Chase found that by scrambling from bush to bush, he could make the roadside and soon disappeared into a hedge. He heard a distant voice and peered out.

A man in some kind of preposterous green fish suit was waving a placard back and forth at bikers and hikers and the occasional airboard as they streamed by. Squinting into the afternoon sun, Chase could just make out the words on the placard:

Terrors of the Deep

Come see Sheena

Goosebumps and Ice Cream at 4pm

Pavilion Entrance

On impulse, Chase rose up out of the hedges and walked deliberately toward the man in the fish suit. The sign-waver spotted him, froze momentarily, then slowly put down the placard and backed away, fear growing on his face.

“It’s okay, man…I’m your replacement.” Chase wondered what that sounded like, coming out of his echopod.

The man said something like: “Jeez, what the f—“, then wheeled about and fled down the side of the road. He didn’t look back.

Chase picked up the sign, waved it at some passing power walkers and didn’t miss a beat.

The walkers were two young girls. They giggled and waved back shyly.

Now to work my way toward that exhibit. He slowly maneuvered himself to the front entrance of the Vancouver Aquarium, spotted the marquee, displaying words that mimicked what he had first seen on the flyer from the fishing scow, and when he figured no one was looking, he clambered into the exhibit and found himself a comfortable sitting position, directly below a robotic man wielding a trident.

He didn’t have long to wait.

The sun had just dropped below the cliffs when a truck pulled up. Two men got out, secured a chain to the trailer upon which the exhibit was mounted, smoked and chuckled a few moments, then got back in the truck. The exhibit trailer lurched and jerked and was soon rolling along behind the truck.

They turned into a driveway and went around back of the aquarium, where the trailer was backed into the same garage he had seen the day before. The men secured the trailer and some gear, smoked some more, popped a few cans of something, then lowered the garage door and disappeared outside.

Chase waited a few minutes to be sure he was alone. When he was sure, he extricated himself from the clutches of the man with the trident and hopped down onto the garage floor.

There were two doors in the corner, both locked.

Chase soon found a crowbar in the bed of the truck and popped one of the doors. He crept inside, still brandishing the crowbar. It led into a series of workshops and utility lockers. Past the inner door, he found himself in a long curving corridor, lined with tiles done up to resemble scales and waves…a true marine look.

How tacky, he thought. Even Gulfside doesn’t do that.

There were signs posted for him to follow: Tropic Zone, the Wild Coast, Clownfish Cove.

He wondered where they might have put Angie. Then he heard something. Gulfside used sentry bots for nighttime security. Perhaps Vancouver did too. Chase found a closet and hid.

Once the hall was clear again, he stepped out, now acutely aware of the security cameras above, and how exposed he was. He studied the visitor maps— You Are Here—and decided to check out both the Graham Amazon Gallery and Treasures of the B.C. Coast.

He found Angie lolling in the shallows of the Amazon Gallery.

Stifling a cry, Chase splashed into the water and knelt down. Angie startled awake and jerked back, then realized who it was. They looked at each other for a moment, all scales and fins and armored skin, then hugged tightly. They thought to kiss, but each found the other’s face so disgusting, they couldn’t.

“Chase…how…where…how’d you find me--? Chase…oh, it’s been so—“

He put a hand to her mouth. “Shhhh! There are sentry bots around…keep quiet!”

They both partially submerged in the waters while wheels trundled outside the gallery.

Chase assumed there were cameras watching everything, but the bots passed by the gallery and didn’t come in.

Finally, Chase pulled Angie up out of the water. They hugged again.

“How did you—?

Chase said, “It’s a long story. I was worried about you…what happened?”

Angie told him about how the Farpool had deposited her in the north Pacific, how she had followed a pod of whales, how she’d been anesthetized and brought to the aquarium. “I’m their prize exhibit…can you believe it…just like Kloosee and Pakma. Chase…you really do look disgusting. Get me out of this place.”

“I plan to. I came with two fellows from Omt’or. Pulkor and Veskort. They’re prodsmen, kind of like police or something. We came in a kip’t.” He explained how they had found out where she was. “The kip’t is just offshore. We’re supposed to rendezvous just below that cliff, other side of the bridge. We agreed they’d be there every day just after sunset. What time is it?”

Angie attempted a shrug, then realized nobody could tell if she was shrugging. “How should I know? I look like a frog on steroids.”

Chase spied a clock on the wall. Near sunrise. “Come on. We can make it while it’s still dark outside. We’ll just have to hide until sunset tonight, then get into the water.”

They waited until they were sure the sentry bots were not around, then clambered out of the pool. Padding as softly as they could, Chase led her back to the garage, where he showed her the aquarium exhibit and diorama.

“They roll this out to the front entrance every day at opening. It’s supposed to attract more visitors. At night, they roll it back inside here. I hid there—“ he pointed to a clump of fake rocks, and the “man” with the trident. “—right below Diver Dan there.”

The two of them crept carefully out of the garage and made their along the edge of the driveway to the aquarium front entrance. A huge sign, now dark, proclaimed the aquarium’s new exhibits and operating hours.

Angie sniffed. “I hope they charged extra for me.”

Out on the highway, Chase had an idea. “It’s a good couple of miles along this road back to the bridge. We’re bound to run into traffic if we walk. But look…there are weeds and brush along the side. What say we make like salamanders and sort of crawl, you know---through the weeds.”

Angie tried to make a face, then gave up. They dropped to their hands and feet and started slithering through the grass.

“I hope there aren’t snakes in these weeds,” she said.

Chase was ahead of her, wriggling his scaly ass back and forth like an alligator. “If there are, I’m not sure who’ll scare who. You look pretty frightening.”

For that, he got a pinch right in the rump.

They made it to the bridge and slithered down the rocks and grass to the stony spit of land that passed for a beach. Chase saw that the sun was already peaking over the tops of the cliff to the east of Park Drive. At least, no cars or trucks were coming.

“We’d better hide here, Angie. Make yourself invisible…just cover yourself with weeds and brush…here, I’ll help you.”

They spent the next ten hours like that, buried in high grass along the north shore of Stanley Park, fighting off flies and fleas and gnats and other things that made Angie cringe. The irony that she looked like an enlarged version of many of the creatures wasn’t lost on either of them.

They cuddled, sort of, and talked.

Finally, Angie said, “I’m thirsty.”

“Well, I don’t have a canteen. Swallow a few times. It’ll go away. Hey, did they feed you right at the aquarium?”

“Oh, sure…some cod, some herring, whole fish too. I thought I might ask for some fillets with French fries, but I didn’t.”

Chase sat up on his side, propped on an elbow, chewing on the stem of a grass blade. The sun overhead was warm, not hot, and low, hidden partly by clouds scudding by overhead. It looked like rain.

“Hey, Cookie—“ he knew perfectly well she hated that sobriquet. “—I was worried about you. I came back, to see if you wanted to come back. To Seome, I mean.”

Angie lay back in the grass and watched the clouds roll by. “I’m glad you came back, Flip.

Really I am. I don’t know what I was thinking…I wasn’t expecting to wind up like this. I sort of thought I’d be okay going back through the Farpool. But I want to stay here…it’s home. I just want to be home.”

“You’ll have to come back if you want Kloosee and Pakma and the Omtorish to change you back…go back to what you were. It won’t happen here. Reversing the em’took can’t be done here.”

“I know that,” Angie said softly. She felt something like a tear forming in the corner of her eye— jeez, now I’ve got actual crocodile tears. “But that place, Seome, Omt’or, Ponk’et…it’s so…so---“ What was she trying to say? “So different. I mean I like Kloosee and Pakma and me were getting close…I guess I sort of miss her. Learning about the scentbulbs and all. But there’s so much conflict there, Chase. It’s like a war could break out any day. And the Umans. And that machine…how do they live with that noise?”

“I don’t know,” Chase said. “There is a plan to emigrate here, occupy Earth’s oceans, come through the Farpool and set up shop right here…the Pacific, the Atlantic.”

What?”

“It’s true. It’s controversial…nobody’s said anything official. But the guys with me, Pulkor and Veskort, they’re supposed to take more measurements, do some recon, that sort of thing.”

“Chase, tell me the truth. You like living on Seome, don’t you? You want to stay there, make a life there, don’t you?”

Now Chase was quiet. Offshore, a small boat puttered by the rocky beach…early morning fishermen hunting schools of something. They both lay back down in the weeds, reasonably sure they couldn’t be seen. Above them, horns honked. Traffic was building by the hour along Park Drive. Hikers and joggers could be heard too, clip-clopping along the trails.

“I don’t know. Really, I’m not sure anymore. I like trying to help Kloosee and Pakma…

it’s…, I don’t know…it’s like I have to prove something. Dad thinks I’m going to follow him into the shop business. Hawking T-shirts and giving scuba lessons. There are times I can dig that, but most of the time, I want more. On Seome, it’s like…I’m somebody other than Mack Meyer’s son. I’m important. People listen to me. I have ideas and they listen. That’s never happened before. So yeah, I’d kind of like to stay.”

Angie rolled over and stared right into his eyes. “Then we have a problem, don’t we? You and me, I mean. Chase, do you love me?”

Now Chase tried out several answers before opening his mouth. “Of course, I do…you know that. I want us to work…be together.”

“We can’t do that…not if you’re on Seome and I’m here. Even if I go back and get unmodified---or whatever, I still want to come home. Scotland Beach…Florida…that’s home. I can’t stay on Seome anymore…not for long. I came with you because I thought it’d be a great adventure…it sure beats Algebra II and World History and Mr. Winans. But I miss Dr. Wright and the Clinic and running with Gwen and my girlfriends. I want to go to school. I want to be somebody too. I can’t do that on Seome.”

Chase decided to focus on practical things. The other stuff was just too…hard to deal with

—“You still have to come back to get fixed. I mean…you know, unmodified. The em’took.”

“Christ, you make it sound like I’m a cat about to be neutered. Chase, what are we going to do? You know that song the Croc-Boys sing—‘ Lovin’ in the Dark’?”

“I know it. I wrote part of it.”

’When you pitch it too fast’—“

“… ’you wind up dropping the pass’…yeah, yeah…what about it?”

Angie sat up, looked right into Chase’s eyes. Then she closed her eyes. She didn’t want to see the gray scaly thing that he’d become. She wanted to see what she remembered: the faint blond beard and moustache, the blue eyes, the scar above the right eye due to a fishing accident, the chin dimple and the big, floppy ears.

“Chase, that describes us. We’re going too fast. We’re dropping the pass.”

But he didn’t want to hear any more. “Look, the sun’s already gone down. I’ve got to get back to Pulkor and Veskort. I came back for you, to bring you…well, maybe not exactly home, but you know…back to Seome. So…you coming or what?”

Angie sighed. It always ends like this. Whenever there was a decision to be made, it couldn’t be made simply, with no argument or fuss. No, there had to be drama, pain, tears, fights, stomping off. And in the end, she always gave in. That’s what Chase did to her.

“Let’s go.”

The two of them slithered through the grass, down the rocky slope, then dived into the cold waters of Burrard Inlet. They swam at a gentle pace past the pilings of Lions Gate Bridge and headed for deeper water.

Chase finagled with his echopod until he was sure Angie could hear him okay. They stroked side by side for a few minutes, until they were west of the Park, abreast of Third Beach and headed out to sea.

“We agreed to meet just after sunset, a few miles off shore. I’m supposed to swim in a big circle and they’ll home on me.”

“Just so we don’t get eaten by sharks or speared by fishermen,” Angie said.

They swam in circles for nearly an hour, with Chase grumbling under his breath “Where are those bozos, come on, come on, we haven’t got all day….”

Angie had to smile at his mutterings, while she was dodging curious schools of cod and herring that swam alongside them. Patience had never been one of Chase’s strong points.

It was fully dark and cold when something bumped against Chase’s legs. Afraid it was a huge tuna, or halibut or who knew what, Chase kicked out but realized that his foot had struck something harder than flesh or skin.

It was the nose of the kip’t. Barely visible inside the cockpit, Pulkor and Veskort had found them. By prearranged signal, the kip’t drifted down to the rocky seabed and lodged itself between two banks of coral. Chase led Angie down and introduced her to his Omtorish colleagues.

Angie found Pulkor much like Longsee, with exaggerated politeness and a disarming, almost bemused smile on his face. Veskort was another matter. Typical soldier, thought Angie.

Prodsmen were all alike. Gruff, curt, perpetual scowl, though how she knew that she could never explain, even to herself. They all look alike, she told herself, though she’d been around enough Omtorish and Ponkti and Eep’kostic people to detect subtle differences, even when she couldn’t really ‘pulse’ them like she was supposed to.

“Is the Farpool still there?” Chase asked. Somehow, with some grumbling and mumbling, the three of them managed to make room for Angie, who was jammed in the rear like a bag of gisu shells.

“I can still hear it,” Pulkor insisted. “The tone is different…we should hurry. The vortex may be collapsing.”

“Then get going,” Chase decided. That earned him a derisive grunt from Veskort, who was piloting.

They spent the better part of ten hours homing in on the unique sound signature of the Farpool. Pulkor described it as like a whistle, higher than most whirlpools, owing to its intensity.

It was that whistle that was lessening in intensity with every passing hour.

Both prodsmen agreed that it was foolish to even consider sending more kelke through the wormhole until the thing could be stabilized. “And that depends on the Tailless People,” Pulkor added. “And you,” he added, meaning Chase.

Chase decided to bring up the phantom proposal that everybody knew about but no one would acknowledge…emigrating from Seome.

“Do you think our oceans are hospitable enough for you to make a home here?”

Veskort honked. “Never. Too cold. Too salty. We call it p’omor’te—disgusting, if you ask me.”

“He means turbid,” explained Pulkor. “There is much sediment in these waters. Perhaps…

if we had more time to explore, we could find suitable regions. Most Omtorish would suffocate here…or throw up. The currents are rough too, like the Pom’tel, maybe worse. This idea must be discussed thoroughly. And more data gathered.”

“But if your sun goes dark, all life on Seome will cease. Then you may not have any choice.”

Pulkor granted that. “True enough, but if we can keep the Farpool operating normally, we can go to many worlds, many times and places. It’s just a matter of understanding the Farpool, really, predicting it, controlling it, using it wisely.”

Kah,” spat Veskort as he turned them slightly to left. The kip’t was cruising along at a good clip, occasionally rocked by currents and crossflows. “Having my guts scrambled inside a vortex…who wants that? I’d rather stay on Seome and take my chances. We can defend ourselves, with the right weapons.”

In time, the currents became rougher, with greater energy and a definite direction. Pulkor announced that the Farpool was near.

I guess I’m going back, one way or another, Angie thought. She decided it was probably for the best. But she planned to push for Longsee and his scientists to undo the em’took, put her back the way she had been . I don’t care about the risk. I don’t want to live like a circus freak anymore.

She said none of this to Chase. But she didn’t have to. His look at her meant he knew just what she was thinking.

Veskort struggled with the controls, working the planes and rudders and stabilitors as hard as he could, trying to stay in the center of the rapidly growing tunnel they were being inexorably drawn into. All around them, foam and froth and bubbles and every imaginable species of fish came barreling past, caught up in the spin of the vortex and sucked onward into its roaring mouth.

Soon, the little kip’t began a slow spin, which only increased, despite everything Veskort did. Angie felt something hot rising in the pit of her stomach. She didn’t want to throw up but the vortex was tossing them about like a feather in a hurricane…she’d lived on the Gulf Coast of Florida long enough to have gone through several of those.

Then came the banging as the clashing currents threw them one way then another and before she could brace herself, they were in, grabbed as if by a giant hand and spun madly to blinding velocity…she didn’t remember it being like this…was something wrong…were they all going to die?

Angie tried to scream out loud but the tunnel was collapsing and her vision blurred and then she passed out.

Chapter 20

Dispatch #12.175.222

HQS. War Staff Timejump Command

Transto: Ult.-Maj Dringoth, CDR 1st Time Displacement Battery Coded

Commandstar was briefly attacked by a Coethi jumpship six milliterr ago and partially disabled. TACTRON has assigned me to damage analysis and I must tell you, Dringoth, it is extensive. Coethi was able to momentarily displace the ship back to a time when it was still under construction. TACTRON countered with a shift in voidtime to another timestream but not before the destruction had spread. I don’t have to describe to you the explosive effects of such instantaneous displacement.

The result is that Commandstar is unable to provide any assistance in drawing Coethi vessels into your range. We are currently shifting through voidtime at a very slow rate that makes us extremely vulnerable to another attack, while repairs are being made. We may even have to re-enter truetime for awhile. TACTRON’s war programming prohibits the unnecessary risking of Commandstar, so for the time being, you will have to rely on your own scanning for protection. I realize what a burden that puts on your system but it cannot be helped, believe me.

We are barely functional here. I even lost approximately 3% of my own core data, which is uncomfortable, in case you were wondering.

The fact that Coethi was able to match our random timejump sequence and make such an attack has caused great disruption here. TACTRON has assigned some URMEs to compute the probability of recurrence but unfortunately, entropy prevails in the information flow, so analysis is impossible. I know of some URMEs who are refusing to submit to TACTRON’s dictatorship (calculating that TACTRON’s obsession with the timejump sequence prevented it from analyzing more productive defense strategies—like the Time Twister) and many are expending valuable processing time on the formation of pseudo-organic emotional structures. This, of course, is fruitless and I have not succumbed to the temptation. We have much more important uses for that information.

But it would be inaccurate of me to describe the summation of morale as anything but desperate panic. TACTRON has suspended engineering work on all additional Time Twisters, pending the completion of repairs to Commandstar. You are on your own, Dringoth. The base at Storm is the only effective defense in this part of the Halo and TACTRON is ordering all jumpships and chasers to assemble in the protected zone around Sigma Albeth B. The Twister will have to serve as our main redoubt until Commandstar is functional again. Until then, Coethi will be able to roam the rest of the Halo at will.

It is a tremendous gamble, Dringoth. Many URMEs are not certain that TACTRON has correctly computed the probability of our survival, with only one Time Twister for defense. I need not remind you how imperative it is that the Twister perform as designed over the next few decaterrs. Any failure could be catastrophic to the Uman cause.

TACTRON computes P = 1 that Coethi will unleash a barrage of starballs once our strategy becomes obvious.

There will be no further dispatches from me until Commandstar is within your displacement perimeter.

URME 101 (Unit Reserve Memory Entity)

Endtrans

End Code.

Seome

Kinlok Island

Time: 768.4, Epoch of Tekpotu

They came through the Farpool in a teeth-jarring, bone-rattling crash, pummeled and pounded and bounced from one side to another. Chase was afraid the kip’t would come apart; it had never really been designed to transit a wormhole.

The deceleration slammed all of them against each other and the sled shook and shimmied as it plowed into colder, denser water…the waters of the Ponk’el Sea. Straight away, several leaks sprung, with numbing ice-cold seeping in through half a dozen cracks.

“I’m freezing back here!” Angie cried out.

“Me too but there’s nothing we can do…just hold on to me.” Chase felt her fingers clawing into his back and for once was glad he had armored skin now.

Veskort wrestled with the planes and rudders and eventually managed to whip them past the whirlpools surrounding the Time Twister until they had reached calmer water.

Pulkor shook with nervous tension as his prodsman friend guided them through tricky crosscurrents and turbulent froth. Finally, they slowed down.

Kah, I don’t want to do that again…this kip’t’s ready to be junked.”

Pulkor said, “At least, we got through…the Farpool’s still working. This looks like where we left from.”

When the steady drone and beat of the Time Twister reverberated throughout the cockpit, they all knew they had come back to the same time and place.

Chase had been nervous, wondering if the Umans would do something with the Twister that might affect the Farpool. From here though, everything seemed the same.

An hour’s navigation brought them to the project site, near one of the Twister’s mooring cables. It was a shallow ravine, wedged between small hills, festooned with shattered lava tubes and strange dark pits along the seabed. Scattered across the ravine were scores of tents and platforms, where the Omtorish worked on their part of the dismantling project. Huge fiber nets swollen with collected chronopods were tied to stakes in the seabed. Other sacs contained mah-jeet and other creatures used to break down the machine’s foundations.

Veskort drove them to a larger tent on a rise overlooking the ravine. There, Kloosee and Pakma and other kelke were helping wrestle a chronopod inside.

They were overjoyed to see Chase and Angie again.

Ke’shoo…ke’shoo!” cried Pakma. She helped Angie squeeze out of the kip’t and nuzzled and nosed her up and down, pulsing happiness along with some fatigue, and a touch of sadness.

“I’m so glad you came back…how are you… litor’kel ge!”

Chase and Kloosee nuzzled each other in the Omtorish way, beak to beak, with whistles and clicks and screeches in between.

“We barely made it back,” Chase admitted. He thanked Veskort for some remarkable piloting skills. The prodsman grunted, pointing to the battered cockpit.

“We were lucky…look at that. It’s a wonder the cockpit wasn’t torn right off…this sled’s ready to be scrapped.”

Chase winced at the beat of the wavemaker, so nearby. “Sounds like nothing has changed. I guess I’m glad…at least the Farpool worked.”

“Here,” Kloosee placed Chase’s hands alongside the chronopod. “Help us with this…

Longsee’s inside. He wants to take a look at one of these Uman devices…see how it works.”

Pakma and Angie swam off to another tent. Pakma wanted to hear Angie’s latest echopod journal and show off some new scentbulbs. Chase, Kloosee and Veskort helped wrestle the chronopod inside the tent.

Longsee was inside, hovering over a small sling. They managed to nestle the pod into the sling. Longsee then saw Chase.

“Thanks to Shooki, praise be unto him…at least, you made it back…things have changed, eekoti Chase. The Umans are reneging on their agreement…it’s bad…we must talk…you have to go see the Uman commander soon—“

“What’s happened?” Chase asked. “The wavemaker sounds as loud as ever—“

Longsee tried to explain, even as he nosed and poked around the chronopod, trying to find a way inside. “We must learn how these things work…in case the Umans leave.” Presently, he found a tool that looked like a multi-pronged claw and was able to prise his way in. The interior was crammed with boards and chips and small spheres enmeshed in some kind of gel.

Longsee went on. “You’re not mistaken…right after you left, we got notice on the signaler.

Eekoti Dringoth wanted to talk. I went up, hovered just below the surface…communication was poor and there were misunderstandings…that’s why we need you. If I understand correctly, the Uman enemy—the Coethi—have returned. Attacks continue. The great sky-light grows darker every day, so they say…I haven’t seen it… eekoti Chase, I’m an old man. To be so near the Notwater…” he scrunched up his nose and shivered, shaking his tail “…it’s hard. It’s painful.

You must go talk with the Umans and learn what has happened. Dringoth says they can’t shut down at this time.”

They poked around the insides of the chronopod for awhile, then Kloosee said he would take Chase to the surface, to Kinlok. They would signal the Umans, request a meeting right away.

Later that day, Chase found himself slogging through windswept pools of water on the beach and trudging up the sand hill to the small hut that had been their preferred meeting place.

Outside, two Umans stood grimly by: Dringoth and Golich. They seemed to recognize Chase and hurried him inside.

The Umans sat in chairs beside instrument consoles. Chase leaned against a table.

Dringoth seemed pre-occupied, anxious. “Like I told your friends, the Coethi are back.

Sector Command sent orders not to shut down just yet. We’ve got some housecleaning to do, trying to sweep the bastards out of this sector. Already, they’ve starballed the sun twice…she won’t take much more. My exec thinks she’s might even go supernova one day…I don’t want to be within a hundred light years if that happens. And Coethi have infested dozens of timestreams around here as well. They’re like rats…they’re everywhere and we’ve got to clean ‘em out.”

Chase felt like he’d been put into a difficult position. On the one hand, the fact that the Twister was still operating made the Farpool still navigable. He might not have made it back to Seome otherwise. On the other hand, the Umans had agreed to relocate the blasted machine and the longer that took, the more damage to kels around the world.

This is like being a diplomat. What the hell do I know about being a diplomat? I’ve been selling T-shirts the last few years.

“How long will this…cleanup…take?”

Dringoth looked at Golich. “How old is the universe…it’s easier to answer that. Coethi has somehow managed to come up with hordes of new jumpships and they’ve infiltrated all kinds of strategic timestreams, really important ones, critical ones. If we don’t do our part, TACTRON

says we may have to concede the whole sector…maybe the whole Halo.” Dringoth spat on the ground. “That’ll do wonders for my career, you know.”

“Can you get some help…from this Sector Command?”

Golich cut in. “Maybe you don’t understand what kind of enemy the Coethi are…Ultrarch-Major, maybe we should show him the intel file, all the studies, the after-action reports.”

Dringoth had a perplexed look on his face. “I’m sorry, son…I’m just having a hard time believing I’m having this kind of talk with a big frog…yes, of course, Lieutenant, get the file.”

Golich produced a small tab from his uniform pocket. He finagled with it to output a voice that would describe the enemy, something compatible with Chase’s echopod. Then he activated it. Chase heard this:

1. The Coethi are (thought to be) a race of sentient semi-robotic aliens whose main weapon against Uman forces is something called a starball. It is directed against the sun or star of a targeted Uman planetary system. The only known defense is a Time Twister. When a starball enters or is pulled into the twist field of a Twister, it is flung out of local spacetime into the farthest reaches of the Universe.

2. Umans and Coethi are contending for influence and territory in a region of the Milky Way known as the Galactic Halo.

3. The main-sequence star Sigma-Albeth B is near the center of a key sector of the Halo. It has four planets, one of them Storm. Storm is an ideal site to build and operate a Time Twister to defend this sector, known as Halo-Alpha. The sector is above the plane of the galactic Orion Arm, in which most of Uman space is located, including the solar system and its strategic timestreams T-1 to T-99.

4. The Coethi originated in the Perseus Arm and view the Halo sectors as convenient ways to expand their territory and influence into the Orion and other arms in this quadrant of the galaxy. But Umans are in the way.

5. The Coethi are a distributed intelligence. They are a swarm of nanoscale robotic elements several light years in extent, drifting through space.

6. The basic element of the Coethi is a nanobot. An autonomous, nanoscale assembler/disassembler of incredible sophistication and complexity.

7. Nobody knows how the Coethi came to be, even the Coethi themselves. As an organized superorganism of bots several light-years in extent, they have existed for a substantial fraction of the age of the Universe. Best guess by Urth scientists is 4-5 billion terr old.

8. The Coethi are a true superswarm of vast proportions. In size and extent and connection density, it exceeds the complexity of all the human minds that have ever lived on Urth combined. It is a thinking sentience, whose true environment is now interstellar space.

9. There is an archive of knowledge within the Coethi, a sort of computational cloud or main memory, which retains all information ever created or experienced by the swarm.

10. Within this Archive is information indicating that the Coethi originated on an actual homeworld, somewhere in M75 cluster in Sagittarius. The data show that the homeworld was destroyed by a nearby supernova and the surviving elements dispersed into space in a sort of interstellar diaspora. As Umans reckon universe time, this happened at least 4-6 billion terr ago, at a time when the Universe was approximately 7 billion terr after the Big Bang.

11. There is no known head or leadership group or body. The main part is called the Central Entity.

12. Nanobotic elements of the Coethi engage in some specialization to ensure that the swarm survives and the Central Entity is maintained. Bots can specialize in such tasks as logical processing, communication, maintenance, archiving and memory, internal transport, navigation, world-seeding, orientation, etc.

13. It’s not too farfetched to consider the Coethi as a sort of galactic brain, although it certainly doesn’t encompass the entire Milky Way galaxy.

14. But the Coethi have an Imperative of Life which compels them to grow and expand the swarm. Ultimately, they want to unite all world-based instances of swarm life which they have seeded into a giant, galaxy-spanning swarm or hive mind (like a neural network or computational cloud). To the Coethi, this is the Imperative of Life itself. The Imperative of Life is that life absorbs chaos from the Universe and adds or builds structure or order.

Life is anti-entropic.

15. In order to get their heads around the idea of the Coethi, some descriptors our scientists have used have been: galactic brain, interstellar neural network, computational cloud, galactic internet, and universal web. The basic organizing principle or topology of the Coethi is unknown and can only be speculated about.

16. The general physical dimensions of the Coethi swarm have been estimated to vary anywhere from a few billion kilometers in breadth to several light years. Cosmologists

say that very few organized structures in the Universe are that big. Astronomers point to some nebula, gas and dust clouds, even black holes as objects of that dimension or larger. There are some cosmologists who question whether the Coethi swarm is truly alive in a traditional sense. Even biologists say the proven existence of the Coethi stretches the definition of life and sentience nearly to the breaking point.

17. The Coethi can manipulate quantum states at the subscale fine structure of space itself to communicate and affect matter at great distances. As one scientist says, “If the Universe were a great quilt, the Coethi can yank on a fiber at one end and untie a knot at the other.” Their ability to use quantum entanglement as a means of manipulation is eons ahead of Umans’ ability to understand, let alone emulate.

18. The Coethi launch a starball weapon by amassing vast, concentrated quantities of what Uman scientists call fusium. They concentrate the fusium and focus it using part of the main swarm, then launch the starball at a star or sun.

19. The starball affects the balance between outward pressure of fusion in the star’s core and its gravity. Basically, the starball slows down or inhibits the fusion reactions so that gravity slowly wins out. The star collapses and may, if massive enough, go supernova.

20. Voidtime is the Uman name for transit ‘channels’ through space-time to other space and times. It’s a sort of intermediate space between alternate timestreams. For over four hundred centiterrs, Umans have been able to travel back and forth in time. So can the Coethi. If the Coethi breach Uman voidtime channels, they play havoc with official timestreams and change Halo history. They could locate Commandstar and destroy Uman presence in all Halo sectors, if this continued. Coethi vehicles and weapons used for these probes and assaults in Uman voidtime are called time crashers.

21. Vehicles for making this transit between alternate timestreams are called jumpships. The process is called a timejump. Much of the War has been fought between Coethi and Uman jumpships in voidtime and in and among alternate timestreams.

22. Uman strategy now is to prevent the Coethi from expanding into Halo-Alpha and also from penetrating the official timestreams that could cause catastrophic damage to the Halo past and destroy Uman presence in this sector. 1st TD operates the Time Twister to defend against these possibilities.

Chase looked up when the audio ran out. Golich and Dringoth studied his face, not knowing how to interpret how something that looked like an alligator would react.

“You see what we’re up against. I’ve got to keep the Twister online, at least until we get more ships into the area. After that, we can talk. Sector Command can make a decision. But without Commandstar—“ Dringoth’s voice trailed off, unwilling even to explore that possibility.

Chase said he understood, though he really didn’t, and said he would carry the news to the Omtorish, hovering just offshore. He made his way awkwardly down the sand hill and dove head first into the water. The kip’t was nearby.

Chase explained what Dringoth and Golich had told him. “We’d better go talk with Longsee.” Kloosee said little but he could pulse the dejection inside Chase…flat echoes, dead bubbles, there was no hiding it. He turned the kip’t about and headed for the project site a few beats away.

And the Time Twister continued its pounding for the whole trip.

Discussions were muted, solemn, even resigned around the encampment. Chase knew without being told that there was now a hard limit on how long he and Angie could stay. He looked about for Angie and eventually found her trying to sniff a collection of scentbulbs that Pakma had given her. She was inside a small canopied enclosure, next to a staging area for coils of tchinting fiber. Chase poked his head under the flap and saw Angie making faces as she tried to understand what the scents meant. Finally, seeing Chase, she decided to give up analyzing the bulbs and just sniff.

Chase told her what he had learned. “As soon as the Sector is cleared of Coethi ships, the Twister can be dismantled and re-located. Longsee says they’re going to mount it on the T’orshpont seamount.”

“Where’s that?”

“The other side of the world, other side of the Serpentines, up north. The noise will be blocked by the mountains and won’t be as strong. The thing is that once it’s dismantled, nobody knows for sure what will happen to the Farpool and the wormhole. Longsee says it’ll probably collapse.”

Angie put down the scentbulb she had been smelling. “Then I can’t get back. Chase, we can’t let them do that. We can’t—“

Chase grabbed her by the shoulders, tried staring into those green reptilian eyes. In spite of himself, he shuddered. But it was Angie…somewhere in there.

“Hey, I know that, I understand… don’t go ballistic already. We just have to make a big decision.”

Angie tore herself loose from his grasp and lay her snout on a table laden with bulbs. She sniffed, one after another. “You mean about the procedure…the em’took?”

“Yeah…you want to do it, don’t you…go back to like before?”

Angie couldn’t deny it. She waved a bulb in front of her face and winced. It smelled like hog piss. “I want to be Angie…the human Angie. I want to go home and be a teenaged girl again. What’s wrong with that?”

Now it was Chase’s turn to sniff a few bulbs. Most of them made him nauseated…the odors and smells were concentrated inside and very powerful. He scrunched up his face, put the bulbs back.

“Nothing. Except you heard Kloosee before. It might not work. It’s risky. You could die.”

“I don’t care. I’ll take that chance. This… life, it’s not for me. Chase, what’s happened to us? We seem to be drifting apart.”

“I know. I don’t like it either. But I’ve got to stay here. They need me here. They don’t yell at me here. I’m somebody other than Mack Meyer’s son here. That means a lot to me.”

Now Angie looked at him, really looked at him. He had a face like a gator…and just the thought of that brought back bad memories. Her Dad had been a prof at the University of Florida. A different kind of gator. Then he ran off with that harpy Cecelia whateverhernamewas.

“Chase, remember when we first met. Algebra, tenth grade. Mr. Winans—“

“Yeah, old Wino. But I was a junior.”

Now Angie reached out and they touched hands, scaly reptilian hands. She closed her eyes and now they weren’t freaky frogs in a waterworld anymore. Now, if she thought hard enough, they were back at the Easter sock hop and dance and Chase was with the Croc-Boys and even then, he looked like a lost little surfer boy, blond curls in his eyes, deep tan, crooked smile trying to act grownup.

“I first saw you at the hospital, Chase. Your Dad was recovering from that holdup at the shop. You looked so lost, so forlorn. I felt sorry for you. But you stuck that chin out and that told me you weren’t going to let it get you down.”

“I was scared,” he admitted. “Nothing like that had ever happened to me before. I didn’t know what to do, I felt so helpless—“

Angie decided not to open her eyes. She liked the images that were coming to her. “At the Easter dance, you kissed that Valerie girl. We had a fight.”

Chase grinned. She didn’t see it, but she could ‘feel’ his grin, just the way his face twitched.

“She was a lollipop…I don’t know what I was thinking. She was a roadie, hung around with the Boys all the time. It never would have lasted.”

“You shouldn’t have kissed her…practically right in front of me, you know.”

“Angie—“ his voice, modulated by the echopod, seemed to turn serious. “I don’t want you to die. I thought you were glad to come back with me…why did you come back, anyway?”

“That’s easy…I want to get modified again. I want to be me again, not--- this—“ She finally opened her eyes.

“You want to go home.”

“I want to go home. Don’t you?”

Chase shrugged. “Not just yet.”

They were quiet for a moment, then their reverie was interrupted by Kloosee, who burst into the tent. He was clearly agitated, his tail whipping from side to side.

“Have you heard?” Kloosee asked.

“What is it?” Angie said. “What’s wrong?”

“The repeaters are singing of a great landslide, near Omsh’pont. Great destruction, a whole seamount collapsed…it’s the wavemaker…all that noise and vibration. It’s all over ootkeeor.”

“In Omsh’pont?” Chase tried pulsing his friend, but it was chaos, bubbles on top of bubbles, frenzied echoes. He’d never seen Kloosee like this before.

“Near by. Longsee knows about it. Pakma, too. We’re leaving in a few hours. There’ll be a small group left behind, with the signaler, in case the Umans want to talk. But most of us are going back.”

Angie was shocked, saddened and hopeful all at the same time. She was sympathetic.

“Kloos, that’s terrible. Was anybody hurt?”

Kloosee could hardly stay still. “The repeaters don’t say…the songs just tell of the landslide and the destruction. From what I’ve heard, it sounds like many injuries, perhaps many died.

Shooki has judged us.”

The three of them discussed the news for awhile, then Kloosee said he had to go. “I’ve got to get our kip’ts ready. You’ll both ride with me and Pakma…we have a larger kip’t. But I’ve got to get provisions, make sure the ones staying behind know what to do.” Kloosee’s face was a grim mask, no longer the slightly bemused smile so many Omtorish maintained. “I have to find Pekto…he’s a repeater. I want him to ask for more details before we leave.”

“Where’s Pakma now?” Angie asked. A thought had just occurred to her.

“She’s with Klekor and some others…they’re gathering gisu, ertleg, anything they can find for food. It’ll take us three days, maybe more, to get back to Omsh’pont. Longsee’s trying to find out if the Metah survived, or any of her court.”

Angie said, “I need to find Pakma. Point me in the right direction.”

They left the tent and Kloosee took Angie to a field over the top of some low hills, surrounding the ravine. The water was bitterly cold but in the distance, Angie could see a small gathering of kelke, hovering over a bed of plants that sprouted from cracks in the lava tubes, plants warmed and enriched by minerals seeping up from below the crust.

Pakma was there with two other females, Keeko and Opont, collecting seed pods from the plants and rooting in among the lava tubes for crab and gisu. Angie cruised up.

Shoo’lee, eekoti Angie,” Pakma murmured. She nuzzled Angie under the neck, a manner of greeting Angie still had trouble getting used to. “You’ve heard the news…the repeaters are so sad…so terrible—“

“I heard,” Angie admitted. “Kloosee said we’re going back.”

“Yes, this is true…we’re gathering gotlak here for the kip’t…you haven’t had this before, have you? Tastes like spicy ertleg.”

“Uh, Pakma, do you think you and I could, like…kind of talk. I want to ask you some things.”

Pakma looked at her with curiosity, pulsing something she couldn’t quite make out.

“Surely…here—“ she handed her sack to Keeko. “These two will continue…we’re leaving very soon, you know. You and I will vishtu…we can roam about the hills here—“

“Sure…but you’ll have to go slow…I’m not that great a swimmer.”

Pakma took her hand and said, “Come, let’s go.”

With a hard tail slap, Pakma scooted off and Angie kicked to try and keep up. Soon, they were beyond sight of the gotlak beds, cruising over broken lava tubes and rubbly mounds of long-cooled magma that looked like bread loaves to Angie, what she could see of them. Small chunks of ice drifted by overhead.

They roamed for a few minutes. Then Angie asked a question.

“Pakma, you know I want to go home. You know I want to change myself back, go through the em’took again.”

Pakma was sad. “Yes, I have pulsed this…you have great distress over this. But this is a great risk. No one has ever gone back through em’took…and survived. You are welcome here, among my kelke. Stay with us.”

“I can’t, Pakma. But Chase wants to. We disagree all the time. My question is this: do you ever have a situation in your relationships when one of you wants something and the other wants something else and you can’t get through that, you can’t get over it?”

For a few moments, Pakma said nothing. They roamed further, Angie struggling to keep up with Pakma’s effortless stroke. It was cold and dark and Angie could see little.

Eekoti Angie, you have been all over our world, have you not?”

“A lot of it, yeah, I have—“

“Then you know there are many currents in our world. The Omt’chor, the Sk’ork, even the Ponk’el Currents. Many cross currents too. There are places where the currents clash, where the water is…we say mee’tor’kel…I hope your pod translates that okay.”

“It comes through as rough, turbulent. I get the idea.”

Eekoti Angie, we Omtorish, all the kelke are like this. Currents and cross-currents. It is better to flow with the current than against it. We call this shoo’kel. You know this phrase?”

Pakma let Angie grasp hold of her tail, so she could keep up. “I think so…my pod calls it clear water, calm water…even something, oh, yeah. God light. That I don’t understand exactly…but I get the picture.”

“When currents clash, eekoti Angie, even inside of us, even between us, all Omtorish, even the Ponkti, are raised to do whatever is needed to keep shoo’kel…to stay in balance. You cannot read the inner echoes of others as we can…you don’t pulse as we do.”

Angie gave that some thought. “Maybe not quite like you…but we read faces, body language. We have words. We study eyes, how a person’s lips and mouth change. That tells us a lot about what they’re thinking.”

Eekoti Angie, when there is conflict between kelke, each must do what is needed to restore balance. Shoo’kel…the smooth current…flowing with the current…we strive for this. You understand?”

Angie said, “I think so. So you think I should do what Chase wants, whatever it takes to keep our relationship going?”

“No, this I did not mean. Our relationships are different. We are not bonded for life in the same way…you call this marriage.”

“Chase and I aren’t married, Pakma.”

“But when you talk of eekoti Chase, I pulse shoo’kel inside you…currents don’t lie. They’re swift and straight when you talk of eekoti Chase.”

“I guess I can’t hide anything from you, can I? Maybe Chase too.”

Pakma said, “To keep shoo’kel, that is the most important thing to us. Between kelke, among the em’kel, among the larger kels. We don’t always achieve this. But this we strive for.”

They had circled the small ravine and returned to the small fleet of kip’ts. Overhead, ice floes seemed to be thickening. Pakma told Angie they should find Kloosee and help with loading and provisioning.

Shoo’kel is greatly disturbed in Omsh’pont…the repeaters sing of great destruction. We need to leave very soon.”

Angie allowed that she understood that much very well. Pakma and Kloosee just wanted to go home.

So did Angie. But she also understood that she and Chase seemed to have crossed some kind of irrevocable line. They had differing ideas on just what home meant.

The trip west and south took the Omtorish fleet most of three days. It was crowded in the kip’t, with Chase piloting, Pakma directly behind him. Chase and Angie squeezed into the aft end of the cockpit, nearly cheek to cheek. It was uncomfortable and strained for both of them.

They said little, were exaggeratedly polite to each other and for hours on end, were each lost in their own world. Angie closed her eyes and tried to sleep. But she was so blasted freakin’ cold, she could only shiver and even the warmth of Chase nearby didn’t stop the shivers.

They crossed the Serpentines through the Likte Gap, a rocking, rolling roller coaster ride that briefly scattered the kip’ts and seemed to loosen the tongues of everybody. When Kloosee

had brought the sled under some semblance of control, Chase asked how far away was Omsh’pont now?

“A hundred beats, maybe a little more,” Kloosee said. “Already, we can hear the murmurs of the kelke…it’s chaos…panic there.”

“You can actually hear sounds from the city?”

“We can… ootkeeor is strong here in this part of the Omt’orkel Sea. Many voices, distress…

anguish…wails and cries…very sad…we must hurry.”

Chase was left to wonder what a city under siege and destruction would sound like.

They crossed over a range of hills Pakma had called Kip’tor and finally came into the great valley of the Metah’shpont. Right away, though the wavemaker sound was slightly muted, Chase could see dense clouds of floating debris drifting over the city. Rubble and rock rained down in a never-ending hail and he could tell where the broad shoulders of the Metah’shpont had slumped, losing half its southern promontory, presumably to the vibration and acoustic assault of the Uman machine. An entire shelf of rock and half the face of the seamount had collapsed onto the floatways and pavilions and canopies and burrows below, burying fully a quarter of the city in mud and silt.

Everywhere, Omtorish kelke clustered in knots and crowds, some roaming aimlessly, wailing and crying, others digging through the growing mounds of mud for loved ones, prized possessions, a favorite scentbulb or pod, some old piece of furniture.

Kloosee talked by ootkeeor with Longsee who was in another kip’t half a beat behind. They agreed to steer the fleet to the Kelktoo, the project labs on the side of the seamount opposite the Metah’shpont. Longsee wanted to see how much damage the labs had suffered.

Kloosee wanted to find his own em’kel, the Putektu. Pakma wanted to find hers. But they went on toward Kelktoo and found it intact.

The two of them headed for the floatway leading up to the Lab itself, situated under an array of tents and canopies halfway up the outer flanks of the seamount T’or, the tallest sentinel in the city, itself undamaged by the tremors and landslides. Longsee and several others pushed ahead and nosed into the warren of passages and corridors that made up the Kelktoo.

Inside, all was chaos. Equipment and pieces of equipment drifted through the floatways and corridors. Longsee nearly ran into the wreckage of a beatscope as he ducked and swerved through the debris.

Technicians and engineers and researchers were gathering their gear, hunting down loose parts, squeaking and honking and bellowing at each other.

Chase’s echopod couldn’t make sense of all the jabber…finally, it gave up and started emitting a low monotone. A nearby technician helped him fix it.

“It’s a disaster,” Longsee said. He darted about, one way, then another way, agitated, angry, nearly overwhelmed, fluttering his armfins, squeaking in anguish. “We’ll never get this fixed

—“

Kloosee dived in and helped corral as much of the drifting gear as he could.

A voice issued up from the outer platform. “The Metah’s coming…she’s coming this way--!”

Longsee, Kloosee and the others went back down the floatway, dodging wreckage and debris, bumping into one another in their efforts to slip outside. A huge gathering of the kelke presaged the arrival of Iltereedah and her entourage.

Outside, the vast grid of Omsh’pont was nearly obscured by the silt and rain of floating debris. The collapsed seamount at the far end of the valley was still shedding rubble and hills of mud lined the farthest districts of the city, burying homes, shops, gardens, everything. In among the suspended clumps of wreckage, knots of people moved about, poking and sniffing, trying to find their own belongings. To Chase, it looked like a gigantic underwater yard sale.

The Metah cruised silently, grimly inspecting the damage, surrounded by a phalanx of prodsmen and staff, but still beset with petitioners and kelke imploring her help, her prayers, her support. She paused to grieve and commiserate with everyone who approached.

Angie saw her big chance and without warning, took off, whipping past Chase, Longsee and Kloosee, diving into the melee. She pushed and shoved her way through the growing knot of people, until at last, she came face to face with a determined pair of guards, prods out and ready to sting.

“Your Majesty… Your Majesty—“ she called, hoping her pod was working. With all the bellowing and grunting and whistles and squeaks and honks, it was hard to tell if she could be heard. “Your Maj…excuse me, sir…Your Majesty…a word, please…I need to see you!”

Iltereedah had been sympathizing with a pair of youngsters, patting them on the head, nuzzling beaks, when her eye caught the commotion that Angie was causing. Chase and Kloosee were right behind her, but more prodsmen barred their way.

The Metah waved her hand. “Let her pass…you are eekoti, are you not?”

Angie came up. She didn’t really know how to act before the Metah. Do I bow or curtsy or what? She settled on folding her hands into something like a prayer steeple. The Metah’s voice came through her echopod as a screeching whine, until Longsee helped her tune it. The racket of a city on the verge of mass panic had overloaded its circuits.

“Your Majesty—“ how do I say this?—“ Your Majesty, I am eekoti. I’ve enjoyed being here, meeting so many people, seeing everything…” Just get on with it, girl, you’re not writing a postcard here “… I want to go back to my home world…I want to go through em’took again…

be my old self again—“

She waited while the Metah listened carefully to what her echopod was producing.

Iltereedah’s face was hard to read, part grandmotherly lines, part quivering mouth, part sympathetic nurse, part firm monarch.

Finally, she spoke. “Eekoti Angie, what you ask is not possible. Longsee, come here beside me—“

Longsee was allowed to approach, brushing past the prodsmen with a half-sneer on his face.

“Tell her, Longsee. The em’took is not reversible. Once done, it cannot be undone.”

Longsee wanted to be careful in what he said. To contradict the Metah in front of her court

“Affectionate Metah, this is the truth. Reversing the em’took has never been successfully accomplished….it is very risky…so many factors…so many variables. I can’t imagine how it could succeed.”

Iltereedah seemed convinced. “There, you see? From the mouth of one of our greatest scientists. This would be suicide. Shooki would not forgive us if we did this.”

But Angie wasn’t going to be dissuaded. “Your Majesty, yes…Longsee has said that.

Others have said that. But I must return home. I’m willing to take the risk.”

Now Iltereedah seemed more concerned. Lines around her eyes and mouth tightened. “We have offended you, eekoti Angie? Is this what has happened? Yes, conditions are bad, it’s true

—“ she swept her armfins around, indicating the city and the wreckage that blotted out

everything, “but we are a hospitable people. We live ke’shoo and ke’lee…you say love and life…you are unhappy here, not treated well?”

Angie waited until the full echopod translation came through. How could she say this?

Iltereedah was concerned, even upset, that an honored guest had been mistreated, that her guest did not find life in Omt’or satisfying and fulfilling. “No, Your Majesty, I’ve been treated well, very well, no complaints at all. It’s just that…it’s not home, see, and I want to go home. I want to be like I was before—“

Now Iltereedah nosed right up to Angie, nuzzling around her face, her neck, her abdomen, reading inner echoes, pulsing and studying what was there, seeking deceit, other purposes, the telltale bubbles of doubt. She found none of this. Iltereedah backed off. “I pulse only loneliness in you, eekoti Angie. Sadness, perhaps…you’re hard to read and there’s so much racket around.

Maybe some melancholy too.”

Angie admitted she felt all these things. “I can’t hide them, Your Majesty. I miss my family…my kelke.”

Iltereedah seemed to understand. She had made up her mind. “Longsee, reversing the em’took…this has never been tried before?”

Longsee said, “It has been tried before, Affectionate Metah, with test animals…baby tillet and pal’penk. It wasn’t successful…we tried different approaches, different mixes of bacteria and different sequences, different organisms and scans. We couldn’t get the results we wanted.”

“But this has been tried before?”

“Yes, Affectionate Metah.”

Iltereedah now looked at Angie sternly. “Eekoti Angie, I give my approval to this effort.

Longsee and his scientists will do what they can. The results—“ she looked around at the gathering, pulsed questions, doubts, some impatience with this pushy visitor named Angie—“…

the results will be what they are…what Shooki allows.”

With that, Iltereedah darted off and her prodsmen hustled to keep up. Like a single-minded organism, the petitioners that had crowded around her moved along too, continuing their supplication, their requests and begging.

Kloosee gently pulled Angie out of the way. They pushed through the crowd and went back to the Kelktoo and its wrecked labs.

Longsee and Kloosee took Angie aside. “This is very risky, you know that. Are you sure you want to do this?”

Angie looked at Chase. Only it wasn’t Chase. What she saw looking at him was some kind of freak. She convinced herself it wasn’t Chase.

“I can’t stay here, Chase. I don’t belong here. You don’t either. But that’s for you to decide. Me…I have to go home. And I want to be me again. I have to try.”

Longsee pulsed her thoroughly, reading and studying the echoes inside. He decided she was telling the truth. He turned to an assistant—his name was Klektor.

“Get the em’took bed out…put it there.” Longsee indicated a recessed corner of the lab.

“We’ll have to secure the door, to keep debris from floating in.”

The coffin-like pod was wrestled into the lab and put into place. Longsee reminded Angie of what the process would involve. Behind him, Chase hovered nervously.

“After you lie down inside, contractile fibers will unfurl and extend. They will envelop your body. The fibers have sharp tips. You won’t feel it but the tips will inject a potion. You will sleep. And when you wake up, the em’took will be undone. If all goes well—“

Angie shuddered, reached out to touch Chase’s fingers. “Ugh. If all goes well…I wish he hadn’t said that.”

“I think we understand,” Chase said. He looked at Angie. Their fingertips touched for a long time. She lay down inside gingerly.

“Just like going diving,” she said, laughing, to keep from shivering.

Then, the em’took cocoon began squeezing her between its wall segments, tightening its hold on her sides.

Angie made a face and lay back carefully inside the pod, wriggling to get more comfortable.

For a long time, nothing happened. She dozed off, then awoke hearing a faint whistle. She sniffed something, it smelled like oranges. Then she noticed a faint mist issuing into the pod.

This is like being in a coffin, she thought. The mist thickened. She didn’t know it but the mist contained the first wave of programmed bacteria. The bacteria would begin the em’took process, penetrating into her nose, her mouth and eyes, burrowing into her skin, breaking down tissues and bone and cartilage, rebuilding structures to reverse the original modification.

She decided to listen again to her echopod describe the procedure, just to give her brain something else to focus on.

The em’took begins with a genetic sequencing and neural scan. After the sequencing and scan, the bacteria are altered and ‘tuned’ to match the recipient. The sequencing and scanning process is known as vish’tu, which in the Seomish language means a journey or a roam about the sea. The name of the modification process is also used in the Seomish language to mean birth or living space, connoting a place of new birth.”

Of course, Angie didn’t know any of this. Her echopod described the process in detail, but the voice was soft and staticky and she wasn’t listening. Instead, she grew sleepy.

The last thing she remembered was an image of her and Chase making out in his bass boat off Half Moon Cove That and the dancing of waterspouts too numerous to count, all along the horizon.

As Angie slept, the echopod continued its explanation, since she had forgotten to turn the thing off. Beneath the closed hatch of the pod, a gentle voice whispered what was happening:

“The em’took procedure has seven stages:

a. Internal organs (intestines, pyloric caeca, stomach, kidneys, spleen, liver, heart, swim bladder). This is known as the Intook.

b. Skeletal and vertebrae modifications. Known as the Vertook.

c. Reproductive organs. Known as Potook.

d. Immune system. Known as Sitook.

e. External organs (gills, skin, scales, fins). Known as Skor’took.

f. Sensory organs and tissues (eyes, olfactory, lateral line, etc). Known as Boltook.

g. And finally, the head, brain and neural systems (central nervous system, cerebellum). This phase is called Metook.”

The entire procedure would take two days.

As the em’took was progressing, Kloosee and Klektor, with help from Pakma and others, wrestled the pod into the Notwater chamber. The chamber had to be assembled and mounted just outside the Kelktoo spaces, now fully exposed to the rain of debris and the steady drone of the wavemaker. But it couldn’t be helped. There was no room inside the lab.

Once the Notwater chamber was up and operating, it was pumped dry and filled with air.

Then the em’took pod, with Angie still inside, was inserted and fastened down. When Angie awoke, she could then emerge into a breathable atmosphere compatible with her biology.

That was the plan.

Chase followed Longsee and Kloosee about the lab, helping them to clean up trash, re-sort equipment, re-stow gear, always with questions. What could happen? What could go wrong?

What will she look like?

Finally, Longsee had pity on the anxious eekoti. “Chase, only Shooki knows what will happen. The organisms are programmed and designed to do their job. We’ve taken every precaution we can take…if the scan is bad, if the sequencing is bad, if the took’te are corrupted, we’ll know soon enough. Be still and let us work.”

Chase knew there was no way he could do that so he held his tongue and busied himself with helping others. And when the tension and the waiting became unbearable, he left the Kelktoo and spent time with Kloosee just roaming about the damaged city. They said little on these short jaunts.

Finally, the time came. Em’took was over. Chase asked to be inside the Notwater pod when the cocoon was opened…in fact, it was Longsee who instructed him on how to do that.

At Longsee’s signal through the translucent curtain of the Notwater chamber, Chase pressed the controls along the side and the pod hissed and began slowly coming open.

Inside, as the top split apart—it seemed to take forever as the fibers parted-- Chase saw first a pair of hands, no longer scaly, but faintly blue in the cold, then an arm, then another arm…

again no scaly armor visible so far…just a fine bristle of hair.

His heart missed a beat. Now the cocoon came fully open. Angie’s eyes blinked, her face was momentarily in shadow, then he saw her.

It had worked! The em’took reversal had worked. Chase grinned so wide, he felt like his face would split in half. He reached in, seeing her eyes flutter and open fully.

She was more beautiful than he remembered. There were a few things not quite complete.

Her hands still had some light webbing between her fingers. Her ears weren’t quite right.

Maybe it was the light.

Angie hoisted herself up on her elbows. Chase bent down to give her a kiss, but she turned her head.

Eeeewww! Get away from me, you slug!”

Chase had forgotten what he looked like. Still, he held her hand. The em’took reversal had worked, mostly.

“How do you feel?”

Angie yawned, stretched. “Like I just ran a marathon. My head hurts, my hands and feet hurt, my ears hurt…everything hurts. Is there a mirror around here?”

“No…but you look fine. The procedure worked. Longsee, Kloosee…they made it work.

You’re back to looking as hot as ever.”

Angie made a face. “I don’t look like a whore, do I?”

“No more than usual. Come on…get up…we’ve got to get you into this lifesuit. Longsee wants to flood this pod as soon as possible.”

She struggled to her feet and swayed a bit unsteadily, as she let Chase zip her into the bulky lifesuit. He checked connections and regulators…the suit was Seomish design but it was still diving gear. Chase was good with diving gear. She lowered the helmet down on her neck ring and they made sure it was fast. Chase knocked on the side of her helmet, Angie gave him a thumbs up. That’s when she realized there were eyes staring at them, from just beyond the translucent veil that was the outside wall of the Notwater pod.

Just like a zoo, she told herself. Girls are always on display, even here. Especially when they’re naked and hot like me.

Chase gave a hand signal to Kloosee, hovering just outside the hatch. Moments later, the wall fibers contracted and water became pouring in. The pod was flooded in minutes and the walls peeled back like the fingers of a big hand opening.

Chase led Angie out and the two of them made their way back inside Kelktoo. Longsee and his scientists wanted to study their handiwork…pleased that the reverse em’took had gone so well.

“It’s a breakthrough for us,” Kloosee admitted. “Now we know em’took can be accomplished in both directions. That’ll make living in other seas easier, for everybody.”

“You mean like the seas of Earth?” Chase asked.

Kloosee didn’t reply to that.

Unknown to the Kelktoo staff, who spent hours with Angie, examining everything from head to foot, the Metah Iltereedah had quietly made her way from her court-pavilion, now partially covered in mud, to a small em’kel wedged into a narrow cave halfway up the T’or seamount, across the great valley and away from the worst of the landslides. The em’kel was called Ot’lum Tek’ek, which means “Scent Memories.” This em’kel was devoted to making, enjoying and distributing scentbulbs throughout Seome. Pakma was the star artist of this clan.

Iltereedah came alone, almost unrecognized, in all the chaos of thousands evacuating buried homes and finding shelter, cleaning up and sorting, crying and circling in a daze through the unending rain of silt. Omsh’pont had been grievously wounded by the quakes and tremors and Iltereedah could scarcely believe what she pulsed.

She showed up at the entrance to the em’kel and was immediately recognized there.

Lokeesh kar, another scentbulb artist , quickly hustled her inside.

“Affectionate Metah…we didn’t know you were coming…an unexpected pleasure…can I get—“

Iltereedah waved him quiet. “Is Pakma tek here? I need to speak with her.”

“Yes, yes…of course, Affectionate Metah, of course…I’ll get her.”

Pakma showed up right then, momentarily flustered at the Metah inside their own tiny em’kel.

Iltereedah got right to the point. “I came because of your reputation, Pakma tek.” She didn’t have to explain…everybody knew what Pakma did well. Pakma had learned to create and appreciate scentbulbs from an early age. One of her first accomplishments as a scentbulb artist had been to capture and catalog scents from seamothers who occasionally entered Omtorish

waters in small packs. In this, Pakma often exposed herself to considerable danger, but she was able to obtain scents and smells from seamothers in a variety of states: eating, sleeping, copulating, in distress, fighting. These traces were in the waters of the Om’metee, south of the traditional seamother feeding grounds. Technically, these waters were off-limits, but Pakma ignored the regulations.

Her scentbulbs became famous throughout Om’tor and other kels as part of an updated catalog of seamother culture and biology. The bulbs were known as the Puk’lek (literally, Seamother Smells).

Iltereedah went on. “Pakma, I want you to create a new set of scentbulbs for me… Puk’lek scentbulbs. Seamothers in heat, ready to copulate. I want twenty of them. You can do this?”

Pakma circled the anteroom silently, thinking. She pulsed Iltereedah and could clearly see she was anxious, maybe it was the tremors and quakes, so many died, so many injured. Now, seamother bulbs?

“I can do this…but it will take time. Maybe three days.”

Now Iltereedah seemed especially intense. Pakma pulsed her and the echoes slammed back.

The Metah was wound up tighter than a tillet’s neck. “The eekoti female is going back to Kinlok, back through the Farpool. Tomorrow. A small expedition. I’m sending the eekoti male, plus Longsee and Kloosee, and ten others. You too. All of you will be tekmetah…my eyes and ears. We bond today…the ceremony will be on top of T’or—“ here the Metah seemed saddened by all the destruction around them, “at midday.”

Pakma wasn’t surprised. “It takes time, Affectionate Metah, to make the bulbs. Why so many?”

Iltereedah now seemed resolved. She had made up her mind. Abruptly, she waved off the others gathered around and they scooted off, though not far. “The eekoti male will speak once more with the Tailless people, with their commander. Once the female has gone through the Farpool, the wavemaker must be shutdown, and the dismantling must proceed. If the Tailless refuse, I want you to lay a grid of Puk’lek bulbs around the machine. Make them strong, Pakma tek. Strong and powerful. Irresistible.”

Pakma considered what Iltereedah was asking. “It’s dangerous, Affectionate Metah.

Scentbulbs of puk’lek in heat will attract more puk’lek…the seamothers will come in force, stirred up, ready to fight.”

Now Iltereedah smiled. “I’m counting on exactly that. If the Tailless will not shutdown their machine, the seamothers will do it for them…permanently.”

Now Pakma understood the Metah’s reasoning. It was bold. It was risky. It might start a war with the Umans, a war Pakma wasn’t sure the Omtorish or any kel could win. It might further damage the seas. It might even be suicide.

“At once, Affectionate Metah. The whole em’kel will get to work…here, come Lokeesh…

bring me some blank bulbs. We have much work to do.”

Iltereedah left.

The expedition got underway three days later, ten kip’ts in all, engineers, craftsmen, technicians, herders, spinners, handlers, pullers, drivers, prodsmen. Plus Chase and Angie, riding with Kloosee and Pakma in separate kip’ts. Angie’s lifesuit was too bulky to allow her to ride with more than one companion. Pakma drove their kip’t. Angie wedged herself in back and slept much of the time.

She was sad and exhilarated at the same time. How was that even possible? Sad to be leaving Seome and Pakma and all the friends she had made on this waterworld. Sad to be leaving Chase…sad for what might have been. They had talked about getting married, even having kids…it was always three, not one or two. They had dreamed of honeymooning in the South Pacific, some nearly uninhabited tropical paradise, living like castaways for weeks on end.

They had talked of getting Angie into med school, though that seemed at least as far away as the other side of the galaxy. They had even talked of Chase buying out his Dad’s shop and setting up a chain of stores…they had tried out different store names: Half Moon Novelties, Apalachee Gifts, even The Turtle Shop and spent hours and hours designing their web page and merchandise brands and logos.

Now…it would never happen. That made her cry and Angie shed tears for awhile. Pakma seemed to understand, and sympathized with her.

But some of the tears were tears of joy too. She was going home. Going home for good this time.

If the Farpool could be made to work one more time.

The rest of the trip passed by without incident and soon the expedition cruised into the icy polar waters of the northern Ponk’el Sea. The beat of the wavemaker was somewhat irregular though as irritating as ever. Pakma wondered out loud if the Umans were getting ready to shut down the machine, or had altered how it worked.

“I hope it hasn’t affected the Farpool,” Angie said nervously.

Pakma drove her kip’t alongside Kloosee’s. A repeater link was opened. Kloosee’s voice came through scratchy and chirpy.

“I received a message, on the signaler. Longsee sent a message from us. The Umans will meet us at the usual spot.”

Angie knew what that meant. The small hut on the sand ridge overlooking the beach.

They were there in a short while.

Angie decided she would go along with Chase. Kloosee, Longsee and the others stayed with their kip’ts, hovering just below the surface of the bay.

Chase and Angie clambered through the surf, Angie nearly losing her balance in the lifesuit, as rough waves pounded the beachhead. Once they had made land, they climbed the rock cliff, stumbling and following the narrow trail they always followed. Dringoth and a few others were at the top.

No pleasantries were exchanged as the Umans ushered them inside.

Dringoth got right to the point.

“Sector Command wants a detailed schedule. They’ve now approved shutting down the Twister, subject to military necessity. A squadron of jump ships is within a few days of this system. Once they’re nearby, and setup to protect the critical time streams, we can take the Twister off line. Then our people will work with your…er, fish people, to begin breaking down the machine.” Dringoth pulled out a small tablet. It displayed a map of Seome. “Show me again where the Twister will be moved…I’ve got to send the coordinates to Sector, so they can synchronize operations and re-calculate how the Twister will work in its new location.”

Golich was just shaking his head. “This is insane…to shut down a major defensive system just because it bothers the local ‘fish.’ We should have our heads examined. We’ve got Coethi ships all around us, sniffing up and down all kinds of time streams and we can’t defend them all as it is. Now, this—“

Dringoth shut off the discussion. “Lieutenant, you know as well as I do the Twister needs repairs, serious repairs. It’s on its last legs as it is. Shutting down for a re-location doesn’t affect anything…in fact, it gives us a chance to do some upgrades. That’s Sector’s take on this…that’s what we have orders to do. So that’s what we’re going to do.”

Chase showed them on the map tablet where the Omtorish had proposed to rebuild and re-assemble the Time Twister. “It’s still near the polar ice cap. Likte Island is surrounded by deep underwater canyons and ravines. The currents will carry the sound and the vibration away from populated areas.”

“Wait a minute--” Angie interrupted. Golich and Dringoth were both a little startled that there was a human voice inside the lifesuit. To them, the lifesuit resembled the modified outer reptilian thing that they knew as Chase. “—what about the Farpool? You can’t shut down the Farpool just yet.”

Chase explained Angie’s concern to the Umans. “She wants to go home. We can’t shut down until she’s gone through the vortex.”

“Back home…to Urth?” asked Golich, incredulous. “Likely there’s nothing left. Time stream 001…didn’t we see something on the boards about that, Major?”

“The place is quarantined,” Dringoth explained. “Timejump Command has pinched off all known time streams…a lot of them converge at 001…to keep the Coethi from wrecking the home planet. You’ll never get through.”

Chase said, “If I understand how this works, the Farpool will take her to a time and place well before your time. Hundreds of years before. We’ve been using it to go back and forth to our own time…you know, the twenty-second century.”

Dringoth scoffed. “It probably won’t make any difference what time you’re aiming for. But it’ll take a day or so to shutdown anyway. Sector says I can’t go offline until the relief squadron contacts me…I haven’t heard anything yet. But you’d best get moving. Sector is nervous about this whole shutdown as it is.”

For the next hour, Chase and Dringoth went over the details of the shutdown and dismantling project. Chase had brought several echobulbs, most with Longsee’s translated voice, to verbally explain how the Omtorish would proceed. Dringoth and Golich listened skeptically, then patiently replied to each step of the effort, recording into a blank bulb that would be translated back into Longsee’s tongue.

In this way, over several meetings that day, the Umans and the Omtorish eventually came to an understanding of what needed to be done, in what order and by whom.

Through it all, Angie grew more and more nervous. She didn’t want anything to happen that would keep her from going home.

As they made their way down the rock cliff to the beach, she pulled Chase aside. They found a narrow ledge overlooking the bay and sat there. Surf crashed and hissed below them.

“So, this is it, huh?” Chase asked. He didn’t look at her. He couldn’t see much anyway.

Angie was hidden inside the lifesuit. His hand groped for hers, but stopped short.

“You don’t have to talk like that, you know.” Her voice sounded slurred and chirpy coming through the lifesuit speaker. “Don’t make this any harder than it is.”

“Well, what do you want me to say…you’re going home. I’m staying here.”

Angie finally found his fingers with hers. They intertwined. Even between the lifesuit gloves and his own scaly frog digits, there was something.

“You could come too. Nobody’s keeping you here, Chase. It’s your decision.”

“Yeah, I know. I guess I will someday. You know, Longsee and Kloos talk about this emigration thing…everybody going through the Farpool to Earth, living in our oceans. I’m not sure how well that’ll go over.”

Now Angie looked at him, really looked at him. They had both changed and it wasn’t the em’took procedure or the lifesuit or anything you could see. It was inside.

“The Farpool may not even work anymore, after I go through it. If that big machine shuts down, won’t it disappear?”

Chase shrugged. “Probably. But Longsee’s worked out a plan…we can build another machine, at least enough to create another Farpool.”

“But nobody can say for sure it’ll work, or work the same way.”

“No.”

Angie now squeezed his hand. “Chase, what’s happened to us? We came here for…what?

Adventure, to see the sights, help Kloos and Pakma….I don’t even remember why we came. I miss my mom. I miss Gwen and running around the school and flirting with the boys and ice creams at Citrus Grove and—“

“Making out in my canoe…” Chase sort of giggled. It sounded more like something struck in his throat.

“Yeah, even that. Throwing sea shells at each other on Shelley Beach….Chase, we had a future. We had plans. I was going to be a nurse. You were going to be a—“

“It’s okay, you can say it. A ‘bum.’ A beach bum. Selling T-shirts and boogie boards for the rest of my life…crap, Angie, I don’t understand it myself. When I came here, when we were trying to help Kloos and Pakma, I felt something just clicked. Something popped into place. I could see myself working here, helping out. Here, on Seome, I wasn’t Mack Meyer’s kid anymore. I was somebody. A celebrity. A hero. I like that. I like being somebody. I like being somebody needed.”

Now Angie sighed, but she knew Chase couldn’t hear it. She had warm tears in her eyes but no way to wipe them inside the lifesuit. They streamed down her cheeks and she was glad Chase couldn’t see them. “I needed you…I’m pretty sure I did, Chase.”

“You said you did. Does that mean you don’t anymore?”

For a few moments, Angie said nothing. “Don’t ask me that, Chase. Now’s not the time.”

“So when is it time? You’re leaving. We won’t see each other again.”

She didn’t want to hear that, even to think that, though a small part of her mind said it was true, it had to be true, but it just couldn’t be true. It was all so confusing. Leaving some one was like leaving part of yourself. It would have been easier to leave behind an arm or a finger or maybe—

No, she would not follow that line of thinking. Focus on what was ahead. Getting home…

back to Scotland Beach. Seeing her mom. Telling bad jokes with Gwen. Seeing all the patients at Dr. Wright’s clinic. Graduating from Apalachee High and getting her life started. She had always imagined Chase would be there too. They’d start their lives together…that was the plan.

That had always been the plan.

Now—it was like she had to go back to the starting blocks again in the 400-meter…after a false start. Line up again, get in your crouch, get comfortable, get a good feel of the blocks, relax…breathe deeply and wait for the gun.

“We’d better get back,” Chase said. “Kloos and the others are waiting for us.”

Reluctantly, because she didn’t want to think any longer about the images rolling through her mind, she got up, unfastened her fingers from his and together, one after another, they gingerly picked their way down the cliffs to the beach.

They dove into the first big wave—they’d often done that off Shelley Beach and Turtle Key

—but this was different. This wasn’t the warm bathwater of the Gulf. It was ice cold, salty, murky and the Uman Time Twister pounded like a never-ending headache.

Yet it was that same headache that had created the Farpool. And that was the way home.

And she knew in that moment when their heads went below the waves that she was ready.

Longsee had decided that two Omtorish kelke she didn’t know would accompany Angie through the Farpool. Their names were Cheeoray tek and Mapulte tom. Both were engineers with the Academy, the Kelktoo.

“We need more study of the new world,” Longsee announced as they all boarded their kip’ts for the short ride out to the vortex field. In fact, an extra kip’t had been brought along, a three-person sled, crammed with supplies and gear, especially hardened and sealed just for the trip.

“Temperatures, salinity, currents and pressure distribution…food sources, all of this must be cataloged.”

Chase and Angie looked at each other. Both had the same thought: the Omtorish were making serious preparations, getting ready to move large numbers of kelke to Earth. They didn’t know if Earth would be ready. The idea had never been discussed. But it was a safe bet there would be consequences if hordes of Seomish started showing up in Earth’s oceans.

The kip’ts cruised around to the other side of Kinlok Island, where a field of drift ice filled the waters with jagged deep-lying projections, stalagmites from the surface. Kloosee parked his kip’t among the drift ice bergs and the other kip’ts surrounded it. For the moment, they were shielded from the worst of the noise.

Now, Angie and her passengers moved to their newly hardened kip’t. Gear and supplies were loaded aboard, pods of gisu and ter’poh and tong’pod, and fluids to drink. Enough for three of them.

Transferring from one sled to another, Chase and Angie bumped into each other.

Automatically, they embraced, and Chase hooked a leg around the kip’t’s rudders, to keep strong currents from driving them off. The water was dark, ice-cold and he could feel Angie shivering inside her lifesuit.

“I guess this is good-bye,” Angie said. She knew it was Chase inside that reptilian face, somewhere. She closed her eyes, bringing his blond surfer boy face to mind, ignoring the reality of what floated before her. “Chase, I—“

He put a hand to her helmet, where her mouth was. “Shhh…don’t, okay? Let’s just hold each other. Don’t say anything.”

So they held each other for many minutes. Chase thought he could hear something over the echobulb…it wasn’t being translated well, but it sounded like…yep, she was crying, sobbing.

He held her tighter.

“Chase, come home. Don’t stay here. At least, come for a visit. I want to know how you

—“but she just couldn’t finish the sentence.

“I will,” he said, and he meant that. He knew it would be a while but somehow, he would make it happen.

They let go and Angie wiggled herself into the rear slingseat of the sled, right behind the bulky mass of Mapulte tom, who wheezed and chittered at the confining pressure of the sled cockpit.

Angie closed her eyes and silently prayed. Going through the Farpool with these two was going to be an adventure. She decided it was enough to be going…if they made it, if they didn’t make it…she tried to toss any concerns away, but they kept coming back…usually brought back to her by some persistent image of Chase…it was always Chase jogging along the beach, loping along easily like some two-legged horse. There was nowhere she could turn her thoughts that the image didn’t show up…it was burned in.

Kloosee closed the sled cockpit hatch. “Good luck,” he said. He backed off.

Cheeoray started up the propulsors and the kip’t emerged from its berth between the icebergs. It rocked in the cross-currents and Cheeoray drove them back to the wavemaker side of Kinlok.

Soon, they were sliding into the vortex fields.

Angie had drifted off into a light doze when a faint tug on the side of the craft startled her awake.

“Are we there yet? Is this the Farpool?”

“I don’t know, but it feels like we’re moving sideways.” Mapulte plastered his nose to the porthole, trying to make something out. “It’s silty out there. Dark too. Deeper water. You feel that?”

Mapulte was shaking. He’d never been through the Farpool before. Angie found herself unwittingly rubbing him along his rear dorsals, stroking his skin, trying to comfort him.

“Just hold on…it gets better. But it’s wild ride before it does!” Great, she told herself.

Now, I’m the expert on this thing.

Some kind of force was pushing them sideways in the water. At the same time, the compartment picked up a light shuddering vibration, gyrating like a top at the end of a string.

Cheeoray squeezed the controls as hard as he could, trying to keep them centered among wild gyrating columns of frothing bubbles, scores of narrow whirlpools, all spinning in synchrony with the greater vortex of the Farpool. It was like trying to navigate the dance floor at the Apalachee High junior-senior prom.

The force began to increase, a centrifugal force that soon shoved them to one side of the compartment and pressed them hard against the walls. Worse, the kip’t groaned and creaked and began a slow roll, a rotation that didn’t remain slow for long, but picked up rate at a steady clip.

Soon, they were spinning enough to become disoriented and dizzy.

Angie felt nauseated.

“…my stomach…I don’t feel so—“

Her words were suddenly lost in a bright flash of light, a searing, painfully white strobing light that flooded the compartment and blinded all of them.

Ow…I can’t see—“

The spin kept accelerating and moments later, Cheeoray, Mapulte and Angie all passed out.

Chapter 21

Seome

Kinlok Island

Time: 768.6, Epoch of Tekpotu

Chase knew there was a lot of work to be done at Kinlok and not much time to do it.

Ultrarch-Major Dringoth had impressed on all of them the urgency of the moment. Sector Command was nervous about the shutdown…Dringoth told Chase there were always Coethi jump ships prowling the nearer star systems and snooping along critical time streams. Sector had given permission for the dismantling and re-location of the Time Twister to proceed but just in case, a small patrol squadron from the Upper Halo had taken up station around Aleth A, another world of Sigma Albeth, a sister world to Seome. Once they were on station, Dringoth gave the order to proceed.

The Omtorish fleet set to work corralling all the chronotron pods which wave and wind action had torn off the top surface of the Twister and littered across the waters around Kinlok.

That job took a day. When they were done, a large tchin’ting fiber net had been draped across the waters of the bay, inside of which clanked and jostled most of the damaged pods.

Kloosee mentioned that it was like herding pal’penk into their pens. “Except you don’t have to feed them and talk to them.”

The Time Twister itself was a vast, twelve-kilometer pie-shaped structure, segmented into quarters, moored to the seabed with stout anchors and surmounted with hemispherical caps, which were the chronotron pods. Fully operational, the machine resembled an enormous inverted dinner plate, studded on top with dimples and balls. The entire apparatus was linked by thick ganglia of cables to the island itself, for power and command and control. The hut where most of the conferences and planning took place housed tracking instruments. The control center was housed in a bunker-like structure on the other side of the island, nestled in a small ravine near the summit.

The project was planned to gather all the repairable chronopods together, so the Umans could sort out what worked and what didn’t. Those that could be repaired would be. Those that couldn’t would be discarded and Sector would have to furnish replacements.

Once the pods, the real working elements of the Twister, were secure, the final teardown of the foundation and Twister structure could begin. That would take many days.

Through it all, Chase worked closely with Kloosee and Pakma and Longsee and a host of craftsmen from Omt’or and other kels. There was quiet talk of the possible emigration. Word had spread quickly through the workforce that two technicians had accompanied Angie back through the Farpool. Their job was to gather further intelligence on Earth’s oceans. How suitable were they for Seomish to occupy? There was much speculation about this.

Section by section, the Twister was taken apart and the sections wrapped in tchin’ting fiber and attached to powerful kip’ts, which would cross the Pomt’or Current, make the Gap through the Serpentines and be staged in a gathering place just off Likte Island, a small bay above the vast underwater canyons, trenches and ravines that crumpled the seafloor in that region. There, guided by instructions from the Umans, the sections would be assembled, moored to the seabed and bonded together. Then would come the chronotron pods. Dringoth’s crew would handle that installation.

Several days after the final disassembly had begun, a Coethi attack appeared out of nowhere.

Golich said the enemy jumpships had squirted out of a little used time stream, one thought to be isolated, a bridge to nowhere really, but how they made it to Sigma Albeth’s system in the current time stream, nobody could say. The Twister was dead, shutdown. Seome and the whole Sigma Albeth system was defenseless. Even the patrol squadron off Aleth had been caught napping.

The Coethi did what Coethi do: they launched a series of starballs, fusium bombs, at the sun and most of them made their impact in a series of eye-blinding detonations that rocked the star to its nuclear core.

Within days, the light level had begun to subside. Huge waves churned Seome’s seas, as temperature differences went extreme. Winds roared across the surface, gusting at sustained hurricane force levels. Salinity levels in the upper levels of the ocean changed as evaporation rates increased, making much of the upper reaches of the sea uninhabitable, colder, saltier, turbulent with the force of the waves above. Currents shifted course, affecting navigation, affecting the ootkeeor, the deep sound channel. Tremors and seismic shocks rocked the world.

There were many casualties, not the least of them the vast cavern of Ponk’t itself, which partially collapsed, killing thousands, sending thousands more into the open waters in panic.

Other kels were affected too. In the Orkn’tel Sea to the south, islands collapsed, underwater landslides blocked the northward-flowing Orklat current, effectively isolating the Orketish from the other kels.

For many, it was worse than the Uman machine, which had gone silent, as it had been fully disassembled and the great convoy bearing the sections westward to the Likte Trench had been scattered by ferocious surface cyclones.

Kloosee and Chase did what they could but were grim in the effort. They had lost friends and colleagues in the Coethi attack. The hardest of all to endure was losing Longsee himself, whose kip’t had been smashed into the side of a seamount by what had been called ak’loosh, a great-globe-circling wave foretold in ages past, now circling the world, gathering strength with each circuit. Longsee and two pilots had died in the impact and Kloosee could not console himself to the loss.

Glumly, he drove his own kip’t onward, leading a small group of battered sleds through erratic currents, hunting for echoes from the Gap in the Serpentines that would put them on course for Likte Island and its deepwater canyons. The kip’ts bore several pie-shaped segments of the wavemaker, the Uman machine, along with racks of chronotron pods which would be re-installed once the new home base of the Time Twister was constructed. Other kip’ts carried or towed foundation elements, mooring cables and equipment for starting up the Twister in its new location…if they ever got there.

Kloosee and Chase took turns piloting and navigating the sled, with Kloosee sounding carefully ahead, listening intently for the telltale echoes of the Serpentine Gap.

“It’s chaos out there,” he insisted, sucking on a gisu bulb. “All the waves above, the tremors and mudslides below. I can’t get a good reading.”

It wasn’t what he said but the way he said that made Chase realize how depressed and sad Kloosee really was. There was a fatigued weariness to his voice that Chase had never heard before and he was sure it wasn’t just his echobulb translator.

“You really liked Longsee, didn’t you?”

Kloosee said nothing for a few moments, concentrating on driving the sled forward through heavy silt-laded waters. They were riding an erratic offshoot of the Pomt’or Current and Kloosee was having trouble keeping to a steady course.

From somewhere in the back of his mind, he dredged up a memory, which he related to Chase….

“In my 4th mah as a ward of Kelktoo, I left the em’kel without permission several times, once traveling as far as the island of Tostak, in the Sk’ortel. I was curious…I want to pulse new places. But I was caught by the authorities there, taken to Tostah and lectured sternly by the Kelktoo there before being turned over to the custody of an Omt’or kip’t pilot heading back to T’or. En route back to T’or, I tried to get away again but the pilot recaptured me and beat me.

Not badly…I recovered. When Longsee inquired as to the cause of my injuries after I came back, I shrugged it off as a run-in with a baby seamother…which Longsee didn’t believe but he said nothing further about it. Oh, eekoti Chase, I was impetuous and headstrong as a youth but I learned a lesson about obedience there.”

“Did they punish you when you came back?”

Kloosee forced a smile. “Longsee never questioned what had to sound like an unconvincing explanation and this impressed me. From then on, I felt I could talk to Longsee and I did so regularly. You’ve talked about two people important to you…you called them fathermother

an eekoti expression, perhaps?”

“I owe everything to them. My Dad runs a surf shop on the beach. My mom raised me and my brother and sister. I love ‘em, even though my Dad thinks I’ll never amount to anything. He wants me to go into the business with him, like inherit it and keep it going.” Chase chewed on a lip. “I pretty much don’t want to do that…and Angie…she wants me to be more, too. Kloos, I like it here…I’m kind of somebody here. Like a celebrity.”

Most of what Chase said didn’t translate well and he could see Kloosee didn’t really understand although he said he did. Chase knew the Omtorish, like most kels, didn’t allow their young to grow up with their birth parents. They joined the Kelktoo, the academic em’kel, at a young age, and were raised by teachers.

Chase wasn’t sure he could have handled that.

“I’m listening to snatches of talk on the ootkeeor—“ Kloosee admitted. The kip’t rocked and shuddered as he fought to stay with the current. Behind them, not visible in the murk, were three other kip’ts, all towing pods and sections of the Uman machine and its foundation works.

“What do you hear?”

Kloosee seemed tense in relating the stories. “It could just be talk. But there are persistent songs about the Umans…some of the repeaters are singing that the Umans are leaving Kinlok…

pulling out. One repeater reports of sighting a great spear of light, flying upward from the island…I’m not sure what this means.”

Chase had the signaler they had long used to request meetings with the Umans. Longsee usually worked the thing; Chase wasn’t sure how it worked, or if it would work across the great distance they had traversed from Kinlok. Still he had to try.

“Maybe I can find out…maybe this thing—“ he finagled with the fist-shaped device for a few minutes, eventually finding some control studs on the bottom. One after another, systematically, he pressed them. Scratchy voices erupted out of the device mixed with bursts of static and words cut-off and Chase listened. Perhaps it was a recording. None of it made any sense but there was no mistaking the tone of panic in what he heard….

“Commandstar was briefly attacked by a Coethi jumpship six milliterr ago and partially disabled. TACTRON has assigned me to damage analysis and I must tell you, Dringoth, it is extensive. Coethi was able to momentarily displace the ship back to a time when it was still under construction. TACTRON countered with a shift in voidtime to another timestream but not before the destruction had spread. I don’t have to describe to you the explosive effects of such instantaneous displacement.

“The result is that Commandstar is unable to provide any assistance in drawing Coethi vessels into your range. We are currently shifting through voidtime at a very slow rate that makes us extremely vulnerable to another attack, while repairs are being made. We may even have to re-enter truetime for awhile. TACTRON’s war programming prohibits the unnecessary risking of Commandstar, so for the time being, you will have to rely on your own scanning for protection. I realize what a burden that puts on your system but it cannot be helped, believe me.

We are barely functional here….

“Sector Command has approved your request to re-locate defensive operations to Keaton’s World, pending shutdown of your Twister….in the event Coethi enter your timestream, you must ensure no part of the Twister falls into their hands—“

“What does it tell you?” Kloosee asked.

Chase listened a while longer, until he was sure he understand what the signaler was saying.

“Bad news, Kloos. The Umans left Kinlok. Blasted off. Pulled out. With the Time Twister shutdown and disassembled, they’re re-deploying some other place, something called Keaton’s World. I don’t think it’s in this system.”

“What does this mean, eekoti Chase?”

Chase just shook his head. Maybe selling T-shirts on the beach would have been a better choice. “It means we’re on our own. The enemy of the Umans, the Coethi, are destroying your sun. If they succeed, all life on Seome will die. Your skies, your islands, your seas, all of it will go dark. It’ll freeze up. And without the Time Twister, there’s no way they can be stopped.”

Kloosee tensed up. “It’s as the mekli priestesses at the Pillars say…the ak’loosh is here. All the kels will die.”

“Even worse…the Farpool is gone. I have no way home.”

Kloosee throttled back on the kip’t’s propulsors to negotiate a narrow chasm up ahead. He hoped this was the opening to the Gap. “When the ak’loosh comes, it means Shooki is angered.

Judgment is coming. There’s nothing anybody can do.”

Now Chase knew why he had come to Seome. It slapped him in the head like a monster wave from the Gulf, the kind that often rolled onshore in advance of hurricanes, the kind the lifeguards whistled you out of the water for.

‘Oh, yes, there is, Kloos.”

“What is it?”

“We can build our own Time Twister.”

Chapter 22

Seome

Likte Trench and Omsh’pont, kel: Om’tor

Time: 768.9, Epoch of Tekpotu

Likte Island was a towering seamount, a wart on the floor of a vast range of mountains, valleys, ravines, depressions and underwater canyons. Longsee had originally proposed the island and its nearby trench system as a new location for the Time Twister because of its canyons.

“The sound and vibration will be lost in all that chaotic terrain,” he explained. “The ridges and canyons will break up the sound and dampen the effects of the Uman machine.” Now, Longsee would never see the results of his decision. The Coethi starball and its effects on the star-sun Sigma Albeth B had made the oceans of Seome rougher, colder, and saltier than ever and hundreds of kelke had died as a result. The effects fell most severely on the very young, the ill and infirm…and the elderly. Longsee had been over sixty mah in age.

The Seomish didn’t know it but their sun was dying, slowly but surely being forced off her normal sequence by the effects of multiple starball impacts, the fusium bombs banking her fusion furnaces, dampening her helium-deuterium reactions, drenching her nuclear fires with waste products that couldn’t be blown off. In time, and even the Umans didn’t know how long, Sigma-Albeth B would succumb to the gravity of her own mass and implode. And because she was many times the mass of Earth’s own sun, the collapse would surely lead to a catastrophic supernova explosion, obliterating everything in her family of planets and moons. All that would remain would be a gaseous bubble, and shrapnel from her death throes, flung into interstellar space at nearly light speed.

But the Seomish knew none of this. They were more concerned with re-assembling the Uman Time Twister, not because they cared for the weapon or its effectiveness, but because they knew it was the only way the Farpool could be regained, and the Farpool was the only way the final collapse, the great ak’loosh, could be avoided.

The Farpool was increasingly seen as the only way out, the only way to escape total annihilation.

The convoy of kip’ts bore down on Likte Island and her deep trench with all possible speed.

Chase had managed to squeeze into one of the larger sleds with Kloosee and Pakma. Like the other kip’ts, they had taken in tow several pods of material from the Time Twister, in their case, several nets full of the chronotron pods, the active mechanism of the Twister that, when powered by its singularity engine, would reach out from Likte and grab local spacetime by the throat and twist it into infinite curvature, like a fist squeezing a gisu bulb. Once the chronotron pods were in place and powered up, and the Twister foundation and components re-assembled, the Uman machine could operate as before. And the Farpool would once again open up a passageway to a new world.

Such was the thinking of Omt’or’s sled drivers as they reached Likte Trench.

Many kip’ts towed sections of the Twister’s outer casing, the vast dish-shaped structure that rode along the surface like a breaching seamother, partially exposed to the Notwater, and partially submerged. It was upon this huge dish that the chronotron pods would be mounted.

And before that could happen, the dish would have to be made fast to her foundation, itself buried in the muck and ooze at the bottom of the trench.

Much work remained to be done.

It was Pakma who voiced their greatest concern. “From what I learned, it’s this device the Tailless called the singularity engine that we have to worry about. Do we have it with us? Was it recovered from the storm?”

Kloosee was concentrating on positioning their nets full of chronotron pods into a holding spot off Likte’s southwest shore. The convoy had decided to use a shallow valley just beyond the surf line of the island as a staging place for pods, foundation and main structure elements, and all the mooring, tensioning and cabling that held the entire assembly together.

“Manklu and Lepkos said they found a heavily shielded device on the bottom, near one of the original foundation mounts…it matched the description Chase gave us from one of the Umans… eekoti Golich, I believe.”

Chase remembered when Golich had given him a device to explain how the Twister worked…”Yeah, that’s right. I recorded some of it on this bulb…” He rummaged around the cockpit and found the device, then turned it on. A voice, Chase’s voice, came out in scratchy bursts…’ The Time Twister contains a naked singularity at the core of its field. Umans have learned how to use existing stars and their extreme gravitational fields to compress matter enough to create such a singularity. The distorted space-time field around this singularity core of the Twister is known as a twist field. It’s like the warp field in Star Trek.

‘Uman engineers have developed a way of creating, maneuvering and regulating the effects of the twist field. This is done through a screening field and a series of buffers, known as twist buffers, or just T-buffers.

‘Like a nuclear power plant with its core always on, but regulated by control rods, the Twister is also always on. The singularity engine at the core, once created and activated, can’t be turned off. But it can be regulated through a series of T-buffers. These moderate the twist field…’

“So that’s my question,” Pakma asked again. “Do we have this singularity engine with us?”

“There’s only one way to find out,” Kloosee decided. “Unhitch our load here and go find Manklu.”

They did just that.

The kip’t driven by Manklu and Lepkos had stopped several beats short of the Likte Trench.

Only continued pulsing and calling enabled Kloosee to find them. They had parked the sled on a small rise overlooking the first of a series of increasingly steep ravines, east of the island. The rise was peppered with odd black columns of smoke corkscrewing into the upper waters from hot vents on the seabed. Local kelke had long called the entire region the ‘Land of the Black Smokers.” In fact, each ridge top was covered with the same smoke columns.

Manklu explained. “We were cruising along just fine, half a beat, maybe more, from the Trench when the water all around us started to vibrate. It was that blasted crate down there—“

he pointed an armfin at the bottom of the ravine. Something glowed dull red in the gloom down there, a pulsating red like a beacon. “…she was eating right through the net fibers, coming loose.”

Lepkos added, “Eating through all the towlines…we were going to lose our whole load, right into that crater down there—“

Manklu went on. “We had to cut the damn thing loose, let it drop. It was steaming, and frothing the water, vibrating like a seamother’s tail, it was coming apart---we didn’t have a choice.”

Kloosee and Chase drifted over the top of the ravine, a steep V-shaped cleft in the seabed.

“What is it? What’s inside?”

Lepkos honked. “Shooki’s wrath…mother ak’loosh…head of a seamother…who knows?

We cut her loose and got away from it—“

Kloosee and Chase looked at each other. Each had the same thought. “We’d better go down there, see what it is.”

“It may be the singularity engine,” Pakma said. “You shouldn’t try—“

But they had already nosed over the side of the rise and were headed down into the dark.

Kloosee and Chase descended into the ravine and straight away felt a strong turbulent current thrashing them as they went down. The red light became more diffuse, more of a glow, though it brightened as they approached. But it was the strong currents that made the descent more difficult.

It was like being trapped in a spiral, corkscrewing wave, not unlike the Farpool in miniature.

“Maybe we shouldn’t get too close,” Kloosee suggested.

But Chase was undeterred. “We have to be sure…if we’re going to re-build the Time Twister, we have to know—“

A few moments later, they ran into the outer boundary of a twist field. Suddenly, the water became denser, the current stronger, they were slammed by waves left and right, battered and caught in a strong grip, now being sucked downward, ever downward, an undertow had grabbed them and lights were strobing and—

For what seemed like hours, maybe ages, Chase felt himself spinning, caught in a narrow cylinder, with an endless looping vid of images flashing past, too fast for him to focus on. There were explosions and giant waves and stars detonating and crashing surf and dead silence and a kaleidoscope of crazy dreams, hallucinations, illusions and dreamlike things flitting by. It was like falling through a movie, or running through a funhouse at the circus, everything was distorted and misshapen and none of it made sense…all you could do was watch, and keep watching and hope the spinning stopped….

Then a strong force propelled him out of the cylinder and Chase found himself pinned against the rubbly slope of the ravine while all around rock and mud and silt rained down, sometimes in slow motion, sometimes sped up.

With effort, he crawled and kicked his way upward and there nearly collided with Kloosee.

They scrambled and strained to make the top of the rise and then, with a final kick and push, they both squirted free and drifted stunned and dizzy through the water.

Pakma was right there. “Are you two all right? What happened? You went down and came right back up.”

It took a few minutes for the two of them to regain their senses. Carefully, Pakma shepherded them back toward the small fleet of kip’ts. Other kelke were busy unloading their cargo nets, depositing Twister parts and mooring cable and pods full of equipment into a shallow valley.

“I think we found the singularity engine,” Kloosee finally said. He sucked at a gisu pod, trying to get some feeling back in his tail and armfins.

Chase agreed. “Whatever that was, don’t get too close. The Umans said you couldn’t turn the thing off. We’ll have to devise a way of hoisting it up into the Twister when it’s assembled.”

Now Pakma was joined by one of the repeaters from Omsh’pont, a husky loudmouth named Arktet. “He’s got a message from the Metah,” she told them.

Arktet was nothing if not persistent. He rubbed up against Pakma’s flanks, blinking at her hopefully. She tried to ignore his entreaties. “I just came from Omsh’pont…really bad that place is. Dark and full of dirt…I think the T’orshpont might actually collapse…there’s talk of it.”

“What’s the message?’ Kloosee asked. He nudged Arktet away from Pakma with a shove from his own beak. “I thought the ootkeeor was disrupted…I thought no songs could get through.”

Arktet now slapped his tail and circled them. He couldn’t stay still; repeaters were like that.

“Oh, it is…it is. All scrambled…can’t get a beat or a word through. No, I’m a courier today…I came straight from the Metah. Six hundred beats…and I’m famished. Got anything to eat around here?”

Pakma gave him gisu, just to keep him quiet and still for a few minutes. Arktet sucked and slurped loudly on a bulb. “What’s the message, Arktet?”

The repeater glared at all of them. “You don’t have to be so rude…it’s a long way…

anyway, Iltereedah has asked for all the kels to send a representative, send even their own Metahs to Omsh’pont. A big gathering, like the vish’tu. A conclave. A roam. She wants to discuss the…situation. What’s happening to the world…what can be done. And she wants these two…Kloosee and the eekoti to be there…to explain how they’ll put the Twister back to together…the wavemaker.”

“When is this vish’tu?” Kloosee asked.

“In three days. It’s to be a great gathering….”

Kloosee said, “Three days? It will take at least that long to get there.”

Arktet let gisu juice dribble out of his mouth. He didn’t bother wiping his face, but slurped loudly until he had sucked the bulb dry. “Then you don’t have a moment to waste.”

Kloosee commandeered one of the larger kip’ts and he, Pakma and Chase piled in. They sped away from the Likte valley, negotiated the vast Omt’chor Current, made the Serpentine Gap and headed out across the abyssal plain of Omt’or to the huge city. Kloosee sped up the sled to as high a speed as he dared.

They made Omsh’pont in slightly less than two days.

Chase was frankly appalled at what had happened to the city. By sight, Omsh’pont could barely be seen in the silt and murk of the central sea of Omt’orkel, but even a cursory pulse would betray the outlines of the great city.

Now, the unending drone of the Uman machine and more recently, the Coethi attacks on the star-sun Sigma Albeth B had created wave conditions that leveled much of the upper reaches of the seamounts, with a ceaseless rain of debris, rubble and silt having settled like a heavy fog over the valley.

Kloosee stopped several times to inquire about the great roam that was even now forming just beyond the seamounts. One pedestrian along a smashed floatway indicated the vish’tu would start some ten beats to the south of the Metash’pont, along the outer borderlands of the Sk’ork Current, which curved south and southwest.

“Too much noise…too much rubble and mud…too many tremors,” the pedestrian admitted.

“It’s not safe…and we have visitors from all the kels.”

Kloosee drove the kip’t to the landing pads of the Kelktoo em’kel, located halfway up the T’or seamount and parked it there.

“Come on,” he told Chase. “Most of the other Metahs are already here…the roam is starting soon.”

“Don’t we have time to eat and rest?” Chase asked. His stomach had been growling all the way from Likte.

“The servlings will bring us food during the roam. I’m already hearing things on the local repeater net…you’re wanted right away. The Metah expects you to be at the head of the formation, with her and the court. It’s a great privilege.”

They sped off, Chase completely blind because of all the silt raining down. He had to rely on Kloosee and Pakma, who pulsed their way unerringly to the flanks of a great gathering of kelke outside the valley of Omsh’pont. There was nothing to see but people, hundreds, maybe thousands, maybe the entire kel, gathered in a single curving line, some five to ten abreast, all jostling, shoving, honking and clicking, to secure their positions.

Kind of like a Croc Boys concert, Chase thought to himself. On a good night.

Slowly, as if they had been swallowed whole and were being pushed along by peristalsis, Kloosee, Pakma and Chase made their way through the gathering to the head of the roam.

Approaching the circle of Metahs, they were firmly intercepted by prodsmen.

One of them gruffly blocked their way, using his prod as a shield. “This is a protected position. You must be tekmetah to come here.”

Kloosee explained who they were. The prodsman looked doubtful but the news was passed forward and in moments, they found themselves escorted by more prodsmen through grumbling court hangers-on and privy council members, the Kel’em, to near the front of the vish’tu. There, they encountered Iltereedah herself, along with Lektereenah, the Metah or Ponk’et and Okeemah, Metah of Sk’ort. The kel of Sk’ort occupied much of the southern seas, south of Omt’or.

Lektereenah recognized Chase immediately. “This is the eekoti visitor who came to Ponk’t and stirred up my kelke, talking with the Tailless, having ke’shoo with our women, fighting our tuk artists…why should I roam with this foreign scum?”

This made Iltereedah mad. “Because the eekoti knows how to rebuild the Uman machine.

He knows how to re-create the Farpool. Treat him with respect. Ke’shoo and Ke’lee doesn’t only happen in Ponk’t.”

Chase was about to say something but Kloosee nudged him. Save it for later. Answer her questions. Don’t speak unless spoken too.

Jeez, she doesn’t look like the Queen of England, Chase thought, but he kept silent. Just keeping up with the roam was going to be hard enough.

They set out and in an hour were cruising over a rubbly plain black with silt and mud, surrounded by thousands of kelke from many kels singing the songs in unison.

Iltereedah made her appearance with her full court in tow. The vishtu formed swiftly as she paddled toward the head of the roam. A hush rolled through the crowd like a strong current and there was furious commotion behind them as the kelke pulled themselves together. Kloosee stole a pulse at the magnificent sight: the flanks curved out of range around the end of the valley and spread out into the Omt’orkel itself, in evenly stepped divisions. He imagined it as a massive seamother, poised to strike. A prodsman tapped him on the dorsal and told him to face the Metah with all pulses. From now on, he was expected to remain in flank with Chase and Pakma.

They set off at a slow pace and Shookengkloo Trench dwindled behind them; ahead, the southern limb of the Serpentines could barely be pulsed.

Before he knew what was happening, Chase found himself roughly conveyed by a phalanx of burly prodsmen forward, up to the very head of the roam. There he found himself in the midst of all the Metahs, Iltereedah, Lektereenah, Okeemah, Oolandrah, all of them fronting the great vish’tu as it wound its way south by southwest.

Iltereedah spoke, her voice strong and powerful. Behind her, the Songs had fallen off to a rhythmic chant.

Eekoti Chase, you came as a guest to Omt’or. Now we depend on you. Now we need you.

You’ve become kelke with us. What can you tell us of this great machine we’ve acquired?”

Now Chase looked over at Kloosee, who was vigorously stroking alongside.

Thank God for this cow, he told himself. I’d never be able to keep up. He patted the back of the tillet, which twisted and turned to keep up with the roam. It seemed to know what to do even if he didn’t.

“Your Majesty—“ How did one address the Metah? “—the Time Twister has been brought to Likte…we have all the parts, all the components. Now we just have to put them together.”

It was Lektereenah, Metah of Ponk’et, who spoke now. “You can do this, eekoti? You have the knowledge to re-assemble this infernal device?”

Chase wondered how he had come to this point. Jeez, what am I…chief engineer? I sell T-shirts….” Your Majesty, the Umans…the Tailless…gave me a small memory tab awhile ago…it explains how the machine works. With this, I think we can put the Twister back together and make it work.”

Which, of course, was absurd. He had no idea how to put the Twister back together. The engineers and craftsmen and technicians and herders and spinners and other experts from Omt’or, indeed from all the kels, would have to do the work. But what else could he say? He was on a big stage, surrounded by people…kelke…he couldn’t very well say no, could he? He hadn’t felt like this since the Croc Boys’ first gig, that high-school dance at Apalachee, so long ago. The birds were jumping up and down in his stomach.

Lektereenah considered this. She was one of the younger, smaller Metahs. Maybe middle-aged, supple, muscular, even athletic. Kind of like Angie, with fins and a tail…yeah, he’d always liked Angie’s tail—

“Our Ponkti technicians—“ the echobulb translated Lektereenah’s words as technician—“

will help you.”

“Yes,” said Okeemah, the Sk’ortish Metah. “Yes, we all want the Farpool working again.

Time is running out.”

Now Iltereedah was clearly worried. “Eekoti Chase, it’s vital the Farpool work as before.

Your world…this place known as Urth…it is a world of water, as is ours?”

Finally, something he could answer. “Yes, yes it is, Your Majesty. Our world is mostly water…maybe seventy percent. There are continents…big islands…that’s where my people live.”

“And there are kelke in these waters, no?”

Chase gave that some thought. “There are fish, many species, living creatures adapted to the water. But no intelligent---“ No, he didn’t want to say that, exactly. Dolphins, whales, even octopus, they were pretty smart, weren’t they? “There’s room for many kelke,” he finally blurted out. Now I sound like a diplomat. He flashed on the Statue of Liberty: give me your tired, your poor, your wretched masses….

What was he getting himself into here? Could be even speak for the rest of the planet?

Iltereedah went on. “We all agree…all the Metahs have come to agreement on this. The Uman machine must work as before, at least enough to make the Farpool work. Eekoti Chase, you must tell us what you need. People, supplies, perhaps the proper scents, all of our echobulbs…I’ll command the Kelktoo to make these available…all our knowledge.”

“And ours too,” said Lektereenah and Okeemah, almost simultaneously. The other Metah’s chimed in as well.

“But first, it has been decided,” Iltereedah said. She pulsed Chase deeply, finding anxiety, nerves, confusion…perhaps that was the way of Umans—“you must become tekmetah…an arm of the Metah.”

Chase had heard the phrase before. “Uh…what actually does that mean?”

He would find out when the great vish’tu completed its circuit of the equatorial seas and returned to Omsh’pont, nearly a day later.

“What does this thing called tekmetah involve?” Chase asked Kloosee, when they were back in Omsh’pont. The two of them had retired to a small cave-like chamber at the base of the T’or seamount, where Putek’tu, Kloosee’s em’kel, had quarters. “What do I have to do?”

Kloosee was preparing a meal for all of them, crab, ertleg stalks, bulbs of stew. “Your echobulb should explain. Turn it on.”

So Chase activated his bulb’s dictionary function and listened…

“Tekmetah - The act of spiritually binding any member of the kel to the will of the Metah for a specified period of time. Basically a contractual relationship entered into for the purpose of doing something the Metah would rather not be associated with. Free-bonds can be used for anything but have come to be employed in espionage and intelligence work in modern times, thus a certain social stigma results from the public knowing a person is bound this way. Failure to carry out the stipulations requires the bound one to take his own life in shame. The bond is cemented by consuming a vial, called a pot’l, of the Metah’s blood. The incentives are many: loyalty, patriotism, special favors from the Metah….”

“Take his own life…you’ve got to be kidding?” Chase switched off the bulb, helped himself to ertleg claws and sucked loudly. Others gathered around and there was a jostle of smacking and sucking and chomping around the platform.

“It’s a formality,” Kloosee said. “Being tekmetah means you become an agent of the Metah. You have duties, certainly, but as tekmetah, all kelke are bound by law to help you and give assistance, anyway they can. It’s a great honor, eekoti Chase.”

Chase was dubious. “if you say so. When does this happen?”

“First thing tomorrow.”

The ceremony was held at the Metah’s pavilion, on a small hill in the center of the city, a hill nearly obscured by rain and silt, dark and slowly being buried in mud. Strong cross-currents had knocked down some of the baffles that had once encircled the pavilion and the small and select audience had trouble staying in position.

Iltereedah was there, as were most of her court and the em’kel leaders from around the city, known as the Kel’em. Chase was conducted to a small position alongside Iltereedah. One difference in this ceremony was the presence of other Metahs…there were five of them lined up

behind Iltereedah. Kloosee had said this was unusual, even special, signifying the importance of the occasion.

Chase swallowed hard. The birds started flapping around his stomach again.

For some time, Iltereedah made a speech. It sounded like a cross between a song and a chant. Chase let his echobulb translate but even the translation didn’t make any sense. It sounded like Iltereedah was giving them all a history lesson, reciting a long list of every important moment in Omtorish history—

…the Eepkos plot…the Pillars of Shooki…a great potu shortage…in the spirit of the Peace of Tekpotu…mah’jeet blooms…the Boskeldic wingcraft….”

Chase decided that politicians were ever the same, whether on Seome or on Earth.

Finally, the time came for him to swallow the pot’l, a vial of the Metah’s blood. Iltereedah handed him the tube and showed him how to unseal it. Chase looked around. They were all looking right at him, expectant faces, half-smiles, frowns, anticipation, disgust, concern, hope…

it was hard to tell from the faces. Seomish faces always looked the same.

He swallowed the blood and gulped it down, then gave the vial back.

Mostly, it seemed to have little immediate effect. It was warm, recently drawn, a bit salty, thick and brassy in taste. Not too bad…but it wasn’t exactly a shrimp taco.

Then he felt momentarily faint and had to be helped to a small pedestal nearby. He was briefly nauseated, and not sure how regurgitation worked in his new body, but it passed. The faces swam and blurred and for a time, he was back on stage at Apalachee High again, this time it was the prom and he was plucking at his go-tone, the rhythm coming easily, he was nailing each note and he was concentrating on the faces up front, there was Angie, only he didn’t really know her well, but she was cute and he winked at her and through some kind of signal neither of them understood, it was arranged that she would turn up backstage after the set and that was the beginning of that—

Then the next thing Chase knew, he was back at Kloosee’s em’kel chamber and being fed strong gisu to suck on.

“Wow…what the hell happened…did I pass out or something? Did I make a mess?”

Kloosee and another em’kelmate fed him more gisu. “You took the Metah’s blood…now you’re tekmetah. How do you feel?”

Chase felt like he’d swam across the entire Gulf of Mexico. “Well, it’s sort of like a hangover….you sure I didn’t gulp down a whole bottle of tequila?”

A few hours later, Chase had recovered enough to take a short roam outside with Kloosee.

They cruised gently along the slopes of the T’orshpont seamount, visiting, chatting with neighbors, nosing into and out of small caves and niches.

Kloosee seemed troubled. Chase noticed it. “What is it, Kloos? Did I do something wrong?”

“No, but in order to lead the expedition back to Likte and oversee the rebuilding of the Uman machine, you have to be inducted into an em’kel. The Metah wants you to be part of Kelk’too, the academic em’kel, the house of learning.”

“You said ‘lead’ the expedition. When did I become the leader?”

Now Kloosee chose his words carefully. “The Ponkti don’t trust us. Even the Eep’kostic don’t trust us. With the waves and the tremors and the seas changing, everything is in turmoil.

Eekoti Chase, you’re Uman. The Metah thinks a Uman must lead this project. She believes you think as they do, that you’ll know how to proceed.”

Chase pulled up short and Kloosee circled back. They drifted for a moment, face to face, or more correctly, snout to beak.

“Kloos, I don’t know anything about how to put this machine back together. I’m no engineer. Doesn’t your Metah understand that?”

“It doesn’t matter. It’s kel politics. You’re eekoti, an outsider. From the Notwater. None of the other kels trust each other. There’s no shoo’kel anymore. No good feelings. The akloosh is upon us and every kel is fighting for every advantage, trying to grab whatever they can. You have to lead this.”

Chase thought about his Dad. Nobody ever believed Chase Meyer would ever be anything other than a beach bum. Even Mack Meyer put him to work at the Turtle Shop to keep him from winding up in the gutter…he’d said that enough times. Now, the Omtorish wanted him to lead a project to rebuild some time machine and bring back the Farpool. Maybe selling T-shirts wasn’t so bad after all.

“So what do I have to do?”

Here Kloosee indicated they should continue the roam. He brought the two of them to a small ledge higher up on the seamount, not far from the summit. Canopies and tents and domiciles dotted the slopes. Kloosee pointed out over the city with a sweep of his armfin. Chase couldn’t see much, just shapes and hints of shapes identifying the tubes and floatways, domes and pavilions and platforms, some shattered in mudslides, many covered in silt.

Kloosee explained. “Every midling, at age twenty mah, must do ketuvish’tek. It means the Circling. It’s a coming of age ceremony. Only after this, can a young kelke join an em’kel…or start one of his own.”

“A circling…sounds difficult. You’re saying I have to do this. Kloos, I can’t see two feet in front of me. How could I go anywhere?”

“The normal ketuvish’tek requires a midling to circum-navigate all the seas, the entire world.

No kip’t either. He collects specimens to prove where he’s been. He encounters predators and must fight them off. It’s a journey, eekoti Chase. A journey of stamina and dedication. When the midling returns, if he returns, he’s ready for adult life.”

“Well, Kloos, if I attempted to circle your world without a kip’t, even with a kip’t, I’d get lost in ten minutes.”

Now Kloosee nudged Chase playfully around the chest, pulsing the growing anxiety fluttering inside. “You don’t have to circle the world. Just Omsh’pont. Circle the city, outside the seamounts, and return. Then you can become Kelk’too. Then, as tekmetah, you’ll be a natural leader for the expedition to Likte…the other kels will respect you. They will follow your directions. Chase, it’s the only way. It’s the Omtorish way. You must do this.”

“Like I said, I can’t see two feet in front of me. I’ll wind up at the bottom of that big trench.

Or eaten by some creature.”

Kloosee said, “You have an echobulb. I’ve taught you how to pulse. Use the bulb.”

“I can’t read the echoes. I can’t even hear them. Kloos, you and I are good friends. I’d do anything for you. But this—“ Chase squinted through the murk. He still couldn’t see anything.

“Then I will teach you.”

“I assume you’ve done this Circling. What happened with you?”

Kloosee seemed embarrassed. “I used my ketuvish’tek to approach the Notwater. And I did it…I breached. I was out of the water. It was…incredible…like nothing I’d ever experienced before…I can’t describe it.”

“So what happened?”

“I almost died. Then I was arrested by a Ponkti prod squad…but that story is for another time. Now, we must teach you to become fully Seomish…like us. To do that, you must pulse and live by sound.”

And over the next few days, Kloosee took Chase on short roams around the city, into and out of the city and off into waters unknown to Chase, all to get him used to navigating by sound, pulsing with his bulb and listening to the echoes and learning how to interpret them.

On the third day, Chase said, “I guess I’m as ready as I’ll ever be. Kloos, I’d only do this for you.”

“You are doing this for all of us. Chase, you are the bridge. You are the best hope we have.”

“How’s that?”

Kloosee replied, “Our world is dying. You can surely see that. The Metah, my em’kelmates, all of us, we talk of emigrating. Of the Farpool. Of Urth and what it’s like. I’ve been there, me and Pakma, so they listen to what I say. But it’s sad. It depresses me…I struggle to maintain shoo’kel in this…balance, tranquility. The days of shoo’kel are gone. Now we must roam to a more distant sea…your sea, eekoti Chase. And the Metah believes you are the only one who can do this.”

“Jeez, Kloos, what am I…Moses? I don’t think I can lead anybody.”

“In this you are wrong. Other kelke listen to you. When you are Kelk’too and you pulse like the rest of us…even the Metahs will follow you.”

Now the full import of what Kloosee was saying hit home. Chase swallowed hard. Just a little trip around the city. A stroll, a roam, a jaunt. And then he’d win his merit badge and join the scouts…no, that wasn’t quite it.

This was for real. He tried not to think about. But the thought that the other kels, the other kelke, all his Omtorish friends, the Ponkti prodsmen, the cool and aloof Sk’ortish, all of them, would follow his orders, do what he said do, go where he said go…Chase didn’t have words for the feeling. In English or in Seomish.

Ketuvish’tek. The Circling. The whole point of the Circling was to come back to where you started a changed person, a man of new stature and bearing.

Chase knew his Dad, Mack Meyer, would never believe any of this.

The day of the Ketuvish’tek came and Chase was nervous and didn’t try to hide it from Kloosee.

“I don’t take anything…no kip’t, no tools, no weapons?”

“Nothing,” Kloosee said. Other kelke from Putek’tu surrounded him, nosing at him, nipping at him, pulsing, jostling. It was all part of life in an em’kel. They tussled like brothers and sisters on a family trip. “The starting point is on the other side of Metash’pont…the other seamount. We go there now.”

The starting point proved to be a small cliff high up on the slopes of the mountain. Chase was stunned to see a large crowd gathered about the area. It was like the start of a great race.

“They’re not all here for me?”

“They are, eekoti Chase. They’re even betting on the outcome.”

Chase found that amusing, and in a way, strangely motivating. “Well, some of them are going to be disappointed. Wish me luck.”

“Remember what I taught you. Read the echoes. Listen to how the echoes fade and grow stronger as you move. Form a picture in your mind. Then follow that picture.”

Chase almost laughed. The only picture in my mind is the day Dad took me scuba diving and we made the hundred- foot level. And in a way, the whole affair was like that.

Chase kicked off.

He grunted and worked his echobulb as Kloosee had shown him. Echoes came back and he struggled to form an image of what they were telling him….

Okay, slope over there…more slope…now it’s going down…still more slope…whoops, no echo…okay, that’s open space, a gap maybe…wow, these currents are strong…uh oh, what the hell’s that? It’s moving…coming toward me, better slip sideways…hope it’s a tillet…they’re like cows…now it’s past…what’s that…more distant echoes, broken echoes…maybe that’s the city…jeez, this is kind of tiring….

By keeping a running commentary on what the pulse echoes were telling him—he hoped—

Chase found he could keep his focus on the task at hand. He figured his path probably looked like a drunken circus clown wobbling around an arena but he didn’t care. Kloosee had said he had to keep the distant, jumbled echoes—those were the city buildings on the plateau—to his left, always to his left. If he did that, he would be moving in a circle and in the right direction.

So he concentrated on that.

The whole trip seemed like it took days. He saw in his mind, and heard in his ear, a kaleidoscope of echoes…things he had no idea what they were…screeches, honks and bellows, whistles, grunts, chirps, lots of those, then more screeches.

Finally, he came to a place where there was a strong echo off to his left, it seemed like a slope, and a veritable symphony of honks and shouts and then, before he knew it, hands and fins and other things were grabbing him and pulling him. He resisted for a moment, then opened his eyes.

Somehow, he had managed to circle Omsh’pont, in a circuitous, laughable, sloppy, fumbling way and make it back to the starting point on the slopes of T’orshpont.

And there was Kloosee, grinning in spite of himself, honking with the others, butting and slapping Chase sideways.

He’d never made a trip before that ended in such a joyous, riotous uproar.

“You did Ketuvish’tek!” Kloosee nudged Chase repeatedly, horsing around with him. “Just like a midling…”

“—he made the Circling…I don’t believe it,” said another kelke, a muscular fellow with gray slashes around his dorsal. He honked with delight.

“Amazing,” said others.

“Impossible for a Tailless kelke.”

They roughed with Chase for a few minutes.

“Did anyone lose money on a bet?” Chase asked. He was grinning as broadly as his armored face would let him. “Did anyone clean up…beat the house?”

Kloosee said, “It doesn’t matter. You did it…that’s all that matters.”

They all sucked on gisu and made bad jokes. Most of them Chase couldn’t figure out.

“What’s next?” he asked.

Kloosee turned more serious. “Now, we go to Kelk’too. You are inducted into the house of learning, the most prestigious em’kel in Omt’or. Longsee would be proud.”

“Yeah” said Chase. “I miss old Longsee. Nobody can fill his shoes…er, fins…er, whatever.”

Kloosee and Chase left the area and made their way through heavy, jostling crowds and silt so thick they couldn’t pulse or see, through tricky currents and tremors on the seamounts, to the academy.

Inside, Kloosee gathered around many of the kelke. An older member, Tamarek lu, came up, with a small amulet on a fiber loop. He handed it to Kloosee.

“I remember Kloosee had one of these,” the old technician said. “We gave it to him for finishing his own Ketuvish’tek. He was so proud—do you remember?—I thought his mouth would split.”

Chase took the amulet and felt it. It was rough, not polished, with dozens of edges and facets. “Like a medal of some kind?”

Kloosee explained, taking the loop and draping it around Chase’s neck. “I have one. So does Tamarek. It creates a unique echo when you pulse it. The amulet identifies the wearer as Kelk’too. Every em’kel has their own…see?” Kloosee felt at his own forward dorsal. Sure enough, a similar stone amulet was tightly looped at the base of the fin. In fact, there were several.

“What is that other amulet for?”

Kloosee said, “It’s Putektu. The em’kel I founded. Chase, I want you to join, after you become Kelk’too.”

“So what do you do?”

Now Kloosee warmed to his explanation. “Putektu wants to learn the secrets of the seamothers. We study them, follow them, measure them. Try to understand why they rise to the Notwater so often…what they do there, where they go. We want to know why. Eekoti Chase, you’re a creature of the Notwater too. You belong in Putektu.”

Chase smiled in spite of himself. “Kloos, you sound like a car salesman. Or a Boy Scouts leader. I’ll stick with Kelk’too for now.”

Tamarek rattled off a rapid-fire stream of clicks that Chase’s echobulb couldn’t translate.

He seemed agitated.

Kloosee honked back at him and they argued for a few moments.

Chase was curious, a little apprehensive. The Omtorish all seemed fidgety, anxious lately.

Quick to snap at each other. He’d seen the same thing all about the city.

“What was that all about, Kloos?”

Now, Kloosee turned serious. “He was reminding me that we have to be at the Metah’s chambers very soon. All the Metahs will be there.”

Chase was always nervous around higher authority. “What’s it about?”

Kloosee said, “The Metahs want to know your plans for rebuilding the Uman machine. Restarting the Farpool.”

That’s when Chase fingered the amulet now wrapped around his neck. The stone ring gave him a gravitas he didn’t feel. Plans? What plans? How did I become the main man here?

From selling T-shirts on Shelley Beach to saving a world of intelligent fish from a sun about to go blammo…Chase’ head spun.

Angie, I don’t know where you are now, but I need help.

They left for the briefing. Kloosee had to practically drag Chase along with them.

Chapter 23

Seome

Above Likte Trench

Time: 769.3, Epoch of Tekpotu

Chase was tekmetah to the Metah of Omt’or, now a free-bound, credentialed subject of Her Majesty Iltereedah, sworn into Kelk’too, and given the mission of re-creating the Farpool, and saving the whole planet. It was a job he didn’t ask for. It was like when his Dad had told him he was going to be doing inventory every Sunday afternoon at the shop. Chase hated doing inventory. Sunday afternoons were for beach-combing. Diving. Swimming. Flirting.

Anything but inventory.

They had a big machine to put together. And nobody knew, least of all Chase Meyer, if the damn thing would generate another Farpool or not.

It was kind of like doing a set with the Croc-Boys. You started a number, you finished it.

No halfway stuff. The go-tone only made music if you plucked it, if you stayed with it. Even when your fingers were cut and bleeding and your wrists ached from all the practice, you stayed with it.

Chase had to talk himself into his new role as chief engineer, project manager, head kelke and General of the Army. He knew he wasn’t up to any of those roles. But you stayed with it.

That’s what the Croc-Boys always did.

The assembly expedition returned to Likte and resumed work. A small contingent of workers had been left on site when Chase and Kloosee had gone back to Omsh’pont. Now, as Chase’s kip’t nosed over the edge of the chasm of Likte Trench, he saw the sections of the Twister laid out like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle on the seabed, slings and nets full of chronotron pods, mooring cables, foundation pads, all the parts that somehow, they had to put back together.

Not to mention raising the singularity engine in its crate from the bottom of the trench, the thing that powered the Twister.

Straight away, the workforce set to work.

For many days, they worked long hours. Chase was everywhere, using the memory tab Lieutenant Golich had given him, to guide the process… put this here, attach that there, plug this into that and I think these fit like this...only when fatigue set in and he could no longer keep his eyes open, did Chase relent and rest. He slept every night, fitfully, in the back of Kloosee’s kip’t. But never more than a few hours and when he could no longer sit still, driven by the knowledge that so many kelke, indeed the Metah herself, and probably the whole planet and all its kels, were depending on him, he left the kip’t and sometimes roamed alone about the worksite, just watching.

Seome had become a gigantic Turtle Shop and he was now the manager. He didn’t know if he liked it or not but he’d discovered more about himself in these days than for his whole life before. Reserves of strength and stamina, reserves of resourcefulness, a well of determination and pure grit that no one, least of all Chase Meyer, ever knew was there.

First came the foundation pads, buried deeply in the seabed and supported by rock and anchors securing them to the hard limestone of the Likte plain. After the foundation pads were in place, anchors for mooring cables were set in place. Then the sections of the Twister’s outer shell and casing were towed by kip’ts and attached to the cables. Fasteners were a puzzle. The

Umans had left some but the Seomish didn’t like them or understand them. Instead, a paste mixed of korpuh blood and sand was used to secure the casing sections to the mooring cables.

“Very strong,” insisted one Sk’ortish engineer. “Flexible and tough…we use them for pal’penk trains…the animals can still maneuver but it gives them enough room to move with the currents.”

Chase had little choice to but to let the kelke with the real knowledge do their jobs. Chase’s First Rule of Management: get good people and get out of the way. He figured if he ever got back to Scotland Beach, he’d lay all this management knowledge on his Dad and get that T-shirt shop humming like his old Suzuki bike.

After the casing sections had been towed into place and fastened to their moorings, the sections had to be joined together. More korpuh blood paste. Then came the chronotron pods, rounded up from their holding nets and positioned on top of the Twister, the part that rose above the surface. Here Chase, a creature of the Notwater, did much of the precision work, shoving and heaving the pods into their mounts and securing them with korpuh paste and an odd Orketish joint called seamother’s teeth. Not actually teeth, though Chase wondered, but composite hinged claws and grabbers that clenched opposing sides of a structure just like a mouth filled with teeth clenched its prey.

After many days of exhausting work, it was time for a brave crew to dive into the deepest part of the Likte Trench and retrieve the singularity engine.

Chase decided that he would lead the crew. To help him, he chose Kloosee and two others: a Ponkti weaver named Kuktor and a Sk’ortish technician named Yaktu. And right away, Chase saw that there would be problems. Kuktor and Yaktu couldn’t get along.

It started when the crew was staging a vast sling and float device. The sling was woven of tchinting fiber, Kuktor’s specialty. The Ponkti weaver was very protective, even defensive, of his work. Yaktu struggled with the fiber, trying to bend it far enough to form a knot of sorts, something to cinch up two ends and close a loop so the sling could be fastened to a float. The plan was to attach the sling ends to the singularity engine pallet and float it out of the trench, indeed all the way to the surface. There, Chase and Kloosee, clad in a lifesuit, would climb up onto the Twister deck, drag the pallet to the central core tube of the Twister and deposit the engine in its bay there.

“This blasted fiber’s too tough,” Yaktu complained. “The weave’s too tight…I can’t bend it. If you’d done your job right, this wouldn’t be happening.”

“If you knew anything about tchin’ting,” retorted Kuktor, “you’d know where to make your bend. Nothing wrong with the fiber…it’s the joiner who doesn’t get it!”

The argument had been flaring for hours, until Yaktu couldn’t take it anymore. He dropped his end and went right at Kuktor and a full-fledged brawl ensued. Before Chase heard it and came as fast as he could, more had joined in. A cat fight of tumbling, slashing, stabbing bodies flashed before him. Grabbing several others, Chase waded in to the tussle, got a beak in the face, and was slapped silly by someone’s tail. It took Ponkti prods, strong words, curses and determined referees from Eep’kos and Sk’ort to finally break the fight up.

The battling kelke separated reluctantly and hovered nearby, glaring at each other. Chase stayed in the middle.

“That’s enough! Enough of this…all you guys do is bicker and argue and fight.” He hoped his echopod was conveying his disgust with the whole situation. “You want to come with me to the Notwater and see with your own eyes why we’re here? Your world’s falling apart. That sun up there’s dying. The water’s getting colder, saltier. Stop this bitching and moaning and

jabbing at each other…you guys aren’t enemies. The real enemy’s up there—“ he pointed toward the Notwater. “The real enemy’s the assholes who slammed your sun. Don’t you get it…no sun, no Seome. How about a little shoo’kel, for once, huh?” He didn’t even know if he’d used that word right, but at least no one was snickering. “Now, let’s get back to work and get this job done.”

Little escapades like this happened every day.

The singularity engine was gingerly floated out of the trench and rose like a fistful of whirlpools up toward the surface. Chase and Kloosee, along with Yaktu and Kuktor, helped guide the ascent, pulling and manipulating on steering cables, to keep the thing straight. Still fastened to its pallet, the engine couldn’t actually be seen for all the foam and froth its currents generated. Rising steadily, the engine looked like a big mobile water drain, currents and waves and white-hot steam bubbling in a stewpot of turbulence. It seemed to be sucking in all the water around them and Chase ordered all non-essential kelke to back off a good distance.

When the pallet broke the surface, it vented and hissed and crackled like a lightning bolt, churning the seas around it for dozens of meters. Yaktu had designed a hoist arrangement to haul the crate up onto the Twister deck and across its outer shell to the core tube at the apex of the huge dish-shaped structure. The maneuver took several hours but when the singularity engine was unhooked and slid off its pallet into the tube, Chase, Kloosee and Yaktu all cheered, though their cheers were muffled from within lifesuits.

The wormhole generator slid down roughly into its tube, still crackling, venting and hissing and was gone.

Now, to hook it all up, Chase told himself, and flip the ON switch.

While precariously perched on the slope of the Twister deck, some twenty meters above the surface, Chase took a moment to study his surroundings.

It was clear, in comparison to his last trip topside, that the light level had dropped considerably. Seome was always cloudy but this was more like twilight. The winds howled and the surf was rough, throwing ten-meter waves over the edge of the Twister deck. Chase couldn’t see Seome’s sun through the gray scud but, if this was midday—and there was no way to tell, really—then the amount of light trickling through had fallen off. He knew what Golich and the Umans had told him…that the Coethi enemy had done something to the sun and it might not survive long. The Coethi starball weapon knocked stars off their normal sequence, sending them to their deaths, often by supernova if they were big enough.

And the effects of the damaged star-sun Sigma Albeth B on Seome were already well apparent to everyone.

Kloosee struggled to hold on to cleats and other projections on the Twister deck. Chase heard a muffled shout. Kloosee was pointing through heavy surf. Chase looked. It was a seamother, several in fact. Their slick gray-black humps floated like small islands, perhaps a few hundred meters away. And, as Chase watched, they made no movement at all.

Kloosee dragged himself up to Chase’s level, near the apex. “They’re dead, both of them.”

It seemed to be true. There was no apparent life in the beasts. “A sad time,” Kloosee’s voice came through the echobulb with emotion. “They are magnificent beasts, even if dangerous.”

Chase knew Kloosee’s own em’kel had been created to study the creatures. “Perhaps, once the Farpool is working, we can find a calf and take it through. See how it does in your oceans.

Pakma would like that too…she could create more scentbulbs…listen to Puk’lek bellowing in new seas. She’d like that.”

Chase thought the idea unlikely. The two of them clambered down off the Twister deck, submerged and returned to the work crew.

Re-building the Twister took several more emt’emah, maybe a month, by Chase’s reckoning. There were more fights, insults, brawls and there were days when Chase felt like something between a referee and a harried mother. But through it all, the Twister came together, the singularity engine ticked over in its core and, at last, the day came when the first startup test was planned. Everything seemed ready.

A control center of sorts had been constructed inside a small cavern, really a collapsed lava tube, just above Likte Trench. Cabling to the Twister was run and the machine was ready to be powered up. Chase drifted nervously about the control center, with his chosen startup crew, carefully selected to make sure no kel was slighted or insulted. He had become much more nuanced and sensitive to kel politics since leading the Twister project.

Kloosee was there, along with Tamarek, longtime friend of Longsee. From Ponk’t, Loptoheen, the grizzled tuk master was also present, growling and scowling like usual. The other kels also were represented.

The plan was to perform the powerup procedure that Chase had extracted from Golich’s memory tab and carefully monitor the results. For safety’s sake, the rest of the crew had been ordered back several beats, in case the Twister hiccupped or did something unexpected.

Kloosee gave the word. Power from a bank of eel-like, specially bred k’orpuh was applied.

The singularity engine was engaged. Then on the Twister deck several beats above them, on the surface, the chronotron pods began to turn.

For many minutes, as the Twister spun up, the waters above Likte Trench grew turbulent, crashing and foaming and bubbling as great forces were slowly uncaged and released. The first vortex columns appeared shortly afterward and soon became white-hot, steaming caldrons as the pods jerked spacetime into their clutches and the waters flashed with immense, barely contained energies.

Loptoheen was exultant. “Pul’kel…” he whispered. “Our first whirlpools…we’ve done it!”

Just then, a Sk’ortish weaver popped into the control cavern with news of the results. “Lost our first tillet,” he told them. “She wandered into a pul’kel and vanished. It works…it works!”

“The big question is the main vortex,” Chase told Kloosee. “The Farpool. I don’t know where it’ll form…or even if it’ll form.”

“We should send out scouts to look.”

“Good idea.”

A dozen scouts were rounded up and given the hazardous duty. Chase gathered them around the cavern entrance.

“The vortex fields are forming. But I don’t know if the Farpool has formed yet. We have to find it, see what it’s doing.”

“I’ll go,” Pakma offered. “I’d like to study this phenomena, measure the scents they produce, maybe capture some in a bulb.”

Kloosee started to object, but Chase overrode the objection. “It may come in handy,Kloos.

We need to learn everything we can about the Farpool…how it forms, how it works, how stable is it, even what it smells like. We may need all that. But Pakma, be careful out there. All those vortexes, they’re treacherous. Give them a wide berth…don’t get too close.”

The scouts were dispatched.

Pakma traveled with two others, both Eep’kostic natives, from the southern seas, both males, Koktee and Rokka. They set out, skirting several smallish whirlpools dancing over the top of the Trench like watery wraiths. Currents were strong and confused; slipping through the tricky tides and waves and surges of the vortex fields took nimble swimming and strong flukes.

“There’s something strong up ahead,” said Koktee. “Feel it…it’s already dragging us in.”

The three of them pulled hard to navigate through the battering of whirling columns of water, all of them spinoffs from the startup of the Twister. Each vortex reached out in turn, clutching at them, knocking themselves sideways, upside down. It was a tight squeeze,

“Watch out for that one!” yelled Rokka. A massive tornado of water appeared out of nowhere. It seemed to split the sea top to bottom, twisting and corkscrewing like a thing alive.

Pakma and Koktee were too late. Each was caught in the whirlpool.

“I’m trapped!” Pakma cried. She whipped one way, then another, stroked as hard as she could but it was no use. The vortex squeezed and pummeled her and pulled her steadily into its spinning maw.

Koktee was no better off, though he was stronger. They were embedded in a forest of whirlpools, new ones forming left and right, appearing and disappearing in seconds, as the Time Twister’s chronotron pods grabbed spacetime and yanked it. The whirlpools were an inevitable side effect of the Twister’s operation.

For a minute, Pakma thought she would be able to pull free. She slammed her tail and armfins as hard as she could. Almost there…almost…but she couldn’t quite break free. She couldn’t relax either; with every breath, the whirlpool column pulled her closer.

Finally, the wormhole won and Pakma disappeared in a flash into the core of the spinning, writhing tube. Seconds later, Koktee vanished also.

Only Rokka survived. Stunned, his heart pounding, he turned about and swam as hard as he could back toward the Trench and the control center in the cavern. He was out of breath and shaking when he arrived.

When Kloosee realized Pakma was gone, “swallowed by opuh’te,” Rokka forced out, between great gulps, he was disconsolate. Chase questioned Rokka about what he had seen, where they had been, was this the Farpool? Rokka shook like a scared dog, Chase thought, and had to be calmed down by others. Chase went to Kloosee, who circled outside the cavern mindlessly, restlessly.

“Maybe she’s just displaced, thrown somewhere nearby. I’ll get a search going,” Chase offered.

Kloosee just kept circling. He was making Chase dizzy, watching him, trying to keep up.

“It’s no use. Every one of the opuh’te is a little farpool. You called them wormholes. Openings to other places, other seas, other times. She’s just gone—“ he couldn’t finish the thought.

Chase wished he could talk without the echobulb but it was useless. He reached out to try and soothe his friend, but Kloosee wouldn’t stop, wouldn’t slow down. If anything, he orbited about the front of the cavern even faster, words and fragments of words spilling out.

“She was always shoo’kel, eekoti Chase…full of ke’shoo and ke’lee. She was a great pulse….she was great with the scentbulbs…that was her art. Full of life. Now—“

“Kloos, she was my friend too.”

But Kloosee wanted no part of any of them. He scooted off into the murk, heading somewhere, anywhere. Chase tried to keep up, afraid his friend might wander into a whirlpool, by mistake or on purpose…he didn’t know.

But there was no way he could keep up.

“Leave him alone,” someone said behind Chase. It was Loptoheen, the Ponkti tuk master.

“Omtorish are like that…death upsets shoo’kel…upsets the balance, the serenity. Ponkti don’t react the same way.”

For a long moment, Chase glared at the old tukmaster. “Humans… eekoti…are like that too.

Dying is the end. Finality. I guess we’re more like the Omtorish.”

Loptoheen did something that Chase had always regarded as a sort of shrug, the way he hunched his armfins. “To Ponkti, death and life are a great circle, like the Pomt’or Current…one follows the other, one comes from the other. Where you have one, you have the other.”

Chase now felt the growing turbulence and pounding of the Twister’s drone beating against the water. Proof, as if he needed any, that the Uman machine was now working in some way.

“We need to locate the Farpool, and determine if it’s operating as before. I’ll form up a scout detail and lead it myself. It has to be out there among all those whirlpools.”

But before Chase could organize the scouts, a courier appeared outside the cavern. His name was Skota and he had come from Omsh’pont, bearing an official message from the Metah.

Skota was given something to eat and drink, before revealing the message. He had memorized the words, but Iltereedah’s voice had also been recorded on an echobulb, for backup.

The deep sound channel was too unreliable for repeaters to use, so the kels had begun using them as physical couriers.

“Her Most Affectionate Majesty, Iltereedah luk’t kel: Om’t, is on her way to the Likte Trench, to the project site. She arrives in two days. Other Metahs travel with her, along with their courts. The Kel’em of Omsh’pont travels too. They come to see what progress has occurred here.”

The Metah? Chase wished Kloosee were around, but his friend hadn’t come back yet…he was off on some kind of grief roam, off by himself. I need Kloosee, Chase thought. What did one do to prepare for a visit by the Metah?

Loptoheen offered some suggestions. “She will want to see the control station. This cavern muffles the sounds outside. Make this space fit for Iltereedah. Assemble food…Iltereedah will want gisu, ertleg, all the pal’penk fin you can find, maybe tong’pod too. And drink.” Here, Loptoheen leveled a stern gaze at Chase. “You and I have had our differences, eekoti. But in this project, we are kelke. I’m telling you straight. We have to work together. Iltereedah, Lektereenah, all the Metahs, they will want to see that we work as a team.”

Chase wanted to believe him. He figured he didn’t have much choice.

A few hours later, the Metah’s convoy had arrived.

Chase deputized Loptoheen and a select group from each kel represented to show the Metahs around the project site…the Twister foundation, the control station in the cavern, even watching the dance of the whirlpools from a distance. After the formal tour, with Chase glancing nervously at Loptoheen for approval and a little guidance, the officials assembled inside the control station cavern to dine.

Iltereedah snacked noisily on ertleg claws, while her Kel’em, the kel council, hovered nearby, also eating, yet doting on her every word and belch.

Chase decided to be bold. His Dad wouldn’t have been surprised. “Affectionate Metah, once we locate the Farpool, we need to test it. Send someone through, some gear too, and make sure it works as before, that they can come back through to Seome.”

Iltereedah let her half-eaten ertleg claws orbit around her head like minor planets around a sun. “I have approved a test mission. But there are conditions. There will be two ships. Each ship must have three onboard, six in all. Every kel will be represented.”

Lektereenah, Metah of Ponk’t, agreed. “It is the only way. No kel can dominate the Farpool. We all have a stake in this.” It was the way she said it that drew Chase’s notice.

Lektereenah always wore an enigmatic smile, but behind the smile lurked something more sinister. Indeed, Chase saw how she and Loptoheen made eye contact. Something had passed between them.

Oolandrah, Metah of Sk’ort, agreed. “We all agree on this. If the travelers make it through the Farpool and come back, we’ll know it works as before. The path for emigrating will be open.”

Iltereedah wanted to re-assert herself. The control station was still Omtorish territory. She gave a quick snap of her tail flukes and bounded about the control room. “Already plans have been made, eekoti Chase. Even now, cohorts are being formed in all kels. Emigration cohorts.

Materials to accompany each one are being gathered and assembled in Omsh’pont. The first pal’penk trains will be here soon.”

Lektereenah was not to be outdone. “Our Ponkti engineers are building a departure station right next to the Trench. Here, our kelke will come and be made ready for the trip.”

It all made Chase’ head spin. “Affectionate Metahs, we haven’t tested the Farpool yet. Isn’t this too early to—“

But Iltereedah would hear none of it. “Then, you must test right away. You have your assigned crew. What is the delay?”

Chase had no answer for that.

The assigned crew, carefully worked out among the Metahs, was a perfect political balance among the kels. Chase, Kloosee and Loptoheen would travel through the Farpool in one kip’t, specially strengthened for the journey and outfitted with gear for detailed exploration, measurement and reconnaissance of the far seas of Urth. The second kip’t would carry Yaktu, Habloo and Koboh, each kelke from other kels around Seome.

As final preparations were being made and provisions laid in, Lektereenah summoned Loptoheen to a quick roam deep into the abyss of the Trench, away from all the others. The steep walls of the trench somewhat muffled the sound of the Twister above them. In the black of the trench, only a few nightmarish creatures accompanied them, creatures with electric blue spines, gaping maws and stiletto teeth, bulging red eyes.

Loptoheen and Lektereenah roamed in silence for awhile. Then, Lektereenah stopped abruptly.

“You know why I summoned you?”

“Yes, Affectionate Metah. It bubbles inside you…anyone could pulse it.”

Lektereenah seethed. “Don’t be so insolent. The younger tuk players look up to you. You should be an example…of shoo’kel and respect, not insults and rudeness.”

Loptoheen had grown tired of this exchange scores of mah ago. “As you wish, Metah.”

Lektereenah said, “This mission is vital to Ponk’t. The kelke are counting on you. I’m counting on you. Don’t let me down.”

“You haven’t given me any specific instructions on how to carry it out.”

“No,” said Lektereenah. “I assumed you were resourceful enough to find a way. Just make sure that the eekoti, Chase, and Kloosee of Omt’or, don’t come back. They must not return to our seas. That will make it easier for us later…when the emigration starts.”

Loptoheen moved off at a slow pace, a deliberate snub to the Metah. “Then the decision has been made. We leave our world, everything we’ve ever known, everything we hold dear, behind. Just like that?”

Lektereenah hustled to keep up. “What choice is there? You’ve seen what’s happening…

ak’loosh is upon us. The Great Wave is here. Everything will be destroyed. Shooki’s mad. He means to bring this world to an end…so we have to find another one. The eekoti’s world is a world of seas. We can make a life there. But once we are there, Omt’or will no longer rule the seas. The Ponkti will make the rules.”

“Meaning you will make the rules—“

Lektereenah slapped Loptoheen with a sharp spank of her tail, then speared him with her beak, not hard enough to draw blood, but hard enough to get his attention.

“I’ll deal with you when we’re in the new world. Just make sure the eekoti and none of the Omtorish come back.”

With that, Lektereenah darted upward, plowing through a shower of glowbits, which blossomed in a silent explosion of light as she passed through them.

Loptoheen watched her disappear into the black void, leaving a decaying trail of glowbits, then followed her up to the top of the Trench.

If we come back at all, he told himself.

The precise location of the largest whirlpool, thought to be the Farpool, had been established the day after the Metahs had come to Likte. Now, the two specially equipped kip’ts carefully approached the vortex field, with Kloosee piloting, but Chase right behind him.

Loptoheen was their third passenger. Chase thought tuk masters were naturally courageous and fearless, but he could feel the Ponkti shaking uncontrollably behind him. The three of them were crammed into a tight space, beak to tail, with little room to move. Chase could even feel the tuk master’s heart hammering away inside his chest.

This should be fun, he told himself. Then he swallowed a bit of nervous saliva rising in the back of his own throat.

Kloosee was fighting the kip’t controls. “Tricky currents here, eekoti Chase. It’s hard to steer in these—“

“Just feel for the big pull,” Chase told him. Yeah, like I really know what I’m doing. Still, he had become something of a celebrity on this water world. He figured he’d better act like he knew what he was doing, even if he didn’t. This will either be one small step for the Seomish…

or a complete disaster. Chase didn’t know how his friends and family would react to the knowledge that another race was planning on dropping by, living in their oceans for like forever.

The potential for conflict and misunderstanding was high, probably incalculable. Yet somehow, the Metah had essentially made Chase an ambassador of sorts.

Half human. Half Seomish. And now, leading the great trek earthward, if all went well.

Chase figured he was a kind of pioneer, like with the wagon trains that headed west in America’s frontier days.

Feeling Loptoheen’s heart jackhammering away right in the middle of his back, Chase found himself wondering if there were any Indians waiting for them out there.

“I’ve got it!” Kloosee cried out. “Feel it…we’re being pulled in strongly. I can’t even steer this thing anymore.”

Chase did feel it. The kip’t rolled upside down and slammed all of them hard against the cockpit. Then the spinning and corkscrewing began.

Chase’s last thought, when the white flash exploded all around them, was: Cowabunga! I hope to hell this thing works!

Chapter 24

The Western Atlantic Ocean and Scotland Beach

August 11, 2199

8:45 p.m.

Coming through the Farpool was like the craziest, neck-snapping roller coaster ride Chase had ever ridden. Rougher than Space Mountain. Faster than Monster Kong. When you first hit the water on the other side of the wormhole, it felt like your stomach was going to fly right out of your mouth, and take your intestines along with it.

The two kip’ts jetted out of the Farpool in a blinding light, a roaring rush of deceleration, throwing Kloosee, Chase and Loptoheen hard against the cockpit windows. Caught in the whirlpool, Kloosee rammed the ship’s rudder hard over, while firing her jets to counteract the centrifugal force of the spin. For a few moments, they were all pinned sideways against the cockpit, until the force of the jets shoved them through the core of the whirlpool and out into calmer waters.

Chase breathed hard, wiping his face with his hands. He checked outside the cockpit.

“I wonder where the hell we are now?”

Kloosee managed to stabilize the kip’t and ascertained that the second kip’t, with Habloo, Koboh and Yaktu, had come through the Farpool intact as well. The two kip’ts exchanged messages, with Kloosee and Yaktu, the Sk’ortish pilot, doing most of the talking. Chase’s echobulb translated some of it.

“What’s he saying?” Chase asked. They were in a tangle of seaweed now with Kloosee trying to chop their speed to negotiate the forest of waving stalks.

Kloosee said, “Yaktu says we should get our instruments going. Both kip’ts have recording instruments to take measurements and samples of the waters here. We need to setup a scan pattern, so the instruments will have some background measurements. Already, I pulse these are different waters than we saw before.”

Chase agreed. “This ain’t the Gulf, that’s for sure.”

Loptoheen was the third person in their sled. “Perhaps your Uman machine operates differently now…it was rebuilt, after all.”

Chase was defensive. He’d led the rebuilding effort. “So what are you saying…that I screwed up?”

Loptoheen seemed puzzled until the Chase’s echobulb settled on the right translation. “No, eekoti, I am just saying that if the Uman machine operates erratically, the Farpool may operate differently as well.”

“Crap, I hadn’t thought of that. I hope we’re where we’re supposed to be…Earth…22nd century. We might be somewhere else.”

“I think this is your world,” Kloosee seemed satisfied.

“I’d really like to find out if Angie’s around, Kloos.”

Now Kloosee honked some commands into the sound controls of the kip’t. The sled settled down to a set course and speed. “I’m putting us on a spiral course for the time being. Yaktu will parallel us as we go. I’ve started the recording…now the Kelk’too will get their data.”

“Ponk’t gets the same data,” Loptoheen said. “We share everything.”

“Of course,” Kloosee said. Stupid Ponkti. “Eekoti Chase, I brought along a special instrument too, something that Pakma developed.”

“What kind of instrument?”

“Pakma loved scents. She was an artist in the scentbulb…all her scents are famous. Three mah before we went to Likte, she had worked out a new sniffer. Very sensitive…parts per trillion sensitive. She trained it on eekoti Angie’s lifesuit, just to get started. It still has that trace in its memory. I could deploy this sniffer and see if it can detect your friend.”

“Yes, yes, let’s do that.”

“Not if it interferes with our mission,” Loptoheen said. “We’re all tekmetah here…we have to get as much data as we can. The emigration councils need it. We can’t deviate from that.”

Kloosee found the Ponkti tuk master increasingly annoying. “We’ll get all the data, Loptoheen. All we’re doing is sniffing for extra traces. More data.”

But before Loptoheen could retort, Yaktu’s worried voice came over the comm circuit from the other kip’t. “Kloosee, I’m pulsing something coming this way, something big. A seamother, perhaps…we’re changing course to avoid it—“

“We don’t have seamothers,” Chase muttered. “Whales, maybe but—“

Kloosee studied his instruments. “I’ve got it…very large…dense, solid…not like anything I’ve seen. I’ll stay with Yaktu…turning now—“

The kip’t banked to starboard and took up a position a half beat off Yaktu’s bow. The two kip’ts slowed and scanned the approaching object with all their instruments.

A strong wave rocked them just as a monstrous cylindrical casing barreled right by them. It was easily scores of times bigger than a kip’t, perhaps a full beat in length. It was no seamother but it was as big. It was no animal either, but a manufactured ship.

“It’s a submarine!” Chase marveled. Gray, featureless, except for her bow and fairwater planes, the submarine droned past, seemingly an endless wall of metal. As she passed by, the two kip’ts rocked violently in the backwash of her single, shrouded propeller. Only after the submarine had put some distance between them, did the waves subside.

“Fantastic,” Chase said. “Fantastic. I never saw one this close.”

Loptoheen was intrigued. “This is a ship, eekoti? Some craft your people have built? Not a beast of some kind?”

Chase explained what he knew. “It carries a crew of eekoti, my people. They cruise around underwater, attack other ships, launch missiles, that sort of thing.”

“Then it is a weapon, “ Loptoheen questioned him closely. “Perhaps we should follow it.”

Now it was Kloosee’s turn to point out their mission. “Remember why we’re here…to take measurements and samples. Study the seas.”

Loptoheen just clicked back with irritation but he said nothing.

“I have Pakma’s sniffer deployed now,” Kloosee told Chase. “There do seem to be traces, very faint traces…Pakma tuned the scent bulb to Angie’s ot’lum, her lifesuit. Just to test it. The traces bear off to our left. I pulse a very strong current in that direction too...stronger than the Omt’chor.”

“Can we investigate?”

Kloosee turned the kip’t toward the current and advised the other kip’t what they were doing. “We’ll alter our scanning to follow this trace…perhaps the waters are different in this direction.”

Loptoheen scowled and glared out the cockpit, but said nothing. In time, mah’pulte Kloosee…in time, at the right time, you will be food for the beasts here.

The kip’t was soon rocking and rolling in the throes of a fierce underwater river. Kloosee fought the controls for awhile, then decided to change course to put them just beyond the core of the strong current. The traces detected by Pakma’s sniffer were detectable, but faint and scattered.

“I know what this current is,” Chase announced, after they had cruised for a few minutes.

“It’s the Gulfstream.” He explained it all to Kloosee and Loptoheen. “We must be going against the current, moving southwest. Now I have an idea where we are. Wow, the Farpool really put us down in another ocean.”

“The traces are almost not there,” Kloosee announced. “I’ll put us as close to this current as I can…the outer edges, but it’s stronger than my controls.”

The two kip’ts tacked against the Gulfstream for half a mah, while stopping from time to time, taking measurements, taking samples, surveying, listening and recording on blank scentbulbs. On one occasion, Habloo stopped their kip’t to chase and bag a few specimens, one he found almost too big to stuff in their specimen compartment in the kip’t belly. Chase helped out and reported he’d caught a prize-winning tuna.

After half a mah, Habloo requested a short roam with Kloosee. The two kip’ts stopped and drifted down to a sandy seabed, strewn with colorful coral and limestone arches.

“I’m pulsing a very large sea off to our left, Kloosee. I think we should split up. You continue this course. We’ll bear left and reconnoiter this large sea…take more measurements and samples, record on the bulbs.”

The two crews discussed the pros and cons and it was decided. Kloosee, with Chase and Loptoheen, would continue along the outer fringes of this great current Chase called the Gulfstream.

Only Loptoheen expressed concerns. “We must share all findings. The Metahs have agreed to this. No kel can withhold knowledge.”

Habloo seemed annoyed. He could pulse something bothering Loptoheen. For a tukmaster, he seemed awfully anxious. “Don’t worry, we’ll make copies of everything recorded. You can examine all samples. Nothing will be hidden.”

Loptoheen scowled at all of them. “It has to be this way…coming to a new world, coming to this world…there can’t be any secrets…not anymore.”

“No secrets,” Habloo agreed, heading off to his own kip’t. So what are you hiding, Ponkti?

Anybody can pulse it. But he said nothing more and soon the second kip’t had receded from view.

Kloosee drove them on. The eekoti seas were warmer here than any on Seome, except for the volcanic regions near the Shookengkloo Trench in the southern seas of Eep’kos. Sea life was abundant and varied too and Kloosee wandered if any had built kels or cities in this strange world.

Chase laughed. “None that I know of, Kloos. The whales and the dolphins are pretty intelligent. But they don’t have a civilization.”

“Perhaps we can teach them.”

Now it was Chase’s turn to feel uneasy. “You’re really coming here? I mean, I heard the Metah. This emigration…it’s for real?”

“Our world is dying, eekoti Chase. You know this. If the new Farpool checks out and operates in a predictable way and our surveys show compatible seas, the emigration will proceed quickly. The Metahs are working out the timetable even now.”

Chase gave that some thought, aware that Loptoheen, right behind him, was listening carefully to everything. “Maybe we should let somebody know at this end. You know, like the UN or the Coast Guard, or something. If thousands of Omtorish and Ponkti and Eepkostic and so on start showing up in our oceans, somebody’s going to be disturbed. Questions will be asked. There could be efforts to stop you…a lot of people will think all these new creatures are a menace, upsetting the balance.”

Loptoheen said, “We can handle that. Metah Lektereenah has already assembled a force of prodsmen to come through as the first Ponkti contingent. We can defend ourselves.”

“But that’s my point,” Chase said. “Conflict doesn’t have to be inevitable. The two sides, my people and yours, could talk. Negotiate. Set aside certain seas, certain zones, for you to live in. There’s enough room. But I’m concerned that no one knows what’s about to happen. My people, humans, don’t react too well to surprises like that.”

Kloosee agreed that talk would be helpful. “But we don’t have a lot of time, eekoti Chase.

Our sun dies more each day. You have said this. The other Umans have said this. Already are seas are changing. The great ak’loosh comes and Shooki tells us to be ready. The Farpool is our only hope.”

It was the way he said it more than what he said that made Chase sad and uneasy about what the future would bring. Humans and Seomish knew nothing of each other…at least not the humans Chase knew. He couldn’t help but remember how Kloosee and Pakma had been treated at Scotland Beach when they’d first stumbled in their lifesuits up out of the water and scared the bejeezus out of all the beachgoers. Multiply that encounter a few million times. Great migrations had caused problems and conflict on Earth for centuries. Now the greatest migration the world had ever seen was set to begin…a wholesale re-population of Earth’s oceans by a race of intelligent, marine beings from beyond Earth.

Chase, feeling Loptoheen’s armfins poking him in the back constantly, was sure the two sides weren’t ready for each other.

And somehow, he had become mixed up right in the middle of all of it.

Kloosee turned the kip’t slightly to the right as he tried to follow the still faint traces of Angie’s otlum scent. “It’s slightly stronger in this direction. I’m amazed we can detect it at all…Pakma’s sniffer is very sensitive.”

They crossed through to the other side of the great current and soon found themselves in warm tropical seas, with sandy seabeds and waters thick with schools of fish. Chase had the growing impression they had finally made their way into the Gulf itself. The waters, even to his eyes, looked more familiar. Their pulses were cluttered with the sounds of marine craft at the surface, along with vast mats of red fibers and patches of seaweed everywhere.

Dirtier than I remember, Chase thought. But I’d bet my right eye this is the Gulf. It just feels right.

A quarter mah later, Kloosee brought the kip’t to a stop, hovering over some rusting hulks on the seabed below them. Chase had a dawning suspicion that one of them was the old Chevy he and his Dad had often dived to.

“I’ve circled this area several times, eekoti Chase. The scent of Angie’s otlum seems to be concentrated here, strongest here. Beyond, the traces fade out. Perhaps we’ve reached the limits of what the sniffer can detect.”

“Can we get out? Those wrecks down there look vaguely familiar to me.”

Kloosee pulsed them himself. The echoes brought back a memory of their first trip through the Farpool with Chase and Angie, now so long ago. “And to me.”

They exited the sled and cruised around the area. Finally, Kloosee drew Chase aside, waiting until Loptoheen had receded into the distance, taking his own measurements with a suite of Ponkti instruments.

“Eekoti Chase, there’s something I must know. Tell me as a friend, we pulse each other deeply now—“

“Yeah, sure, Kloos, what is it?” Chase poked around the rusting cars and old refrigerators and wreckage he wasn’t sure what it was.

“If you find eekoti Angie, what will you do? Will you stay here? Or will you come back with me, back to our world?”

That made Chase sit up straight. The question hit him with a force he didn’t expect. “I guess you’re asking me if I’m still human or now Seomish or what, exactly.”

Kloosee circled his friend, pulsing, looking for echoes he could read. He knew Chase well, knew his insides well, you couldn’t hide much from the Seomish. In spite of himself, Chase wound up holding his arms over his midsection, as if that would stop the pulsing.

“You must decide now,” was all Kloosee said back.

Chase tried a shrug. It never worked when you looked like a frog on steroids. He didn’t know if Kloosee would even understand the gesture of a shrug. “Jeez, I hadn’t really thought about that. I’d like to see her, see how she’s doing. But would I stay?”

“The Metah is counting on you, eekoti Chase. All Omt’or is counting on you. You helped rebuild the Uman machine. You gave us back the Farpool. You gave us a future…all Omt’or looks at you, eekoti Chase, and they see a great one.”

“Kloos, I’m no hero. I can’t even hold shoo’kel like you…I can’t pulse very well. I’m not Seomish…hell, I’m not even human anymore. It’s--I don’t know what I am anymore. But I know one thing…I just want to see Angie. Can we go up…can we go up to the surface? Look around. The water’s shallow here…we may be near the coast.”

Kloosee agreed and they ascended. The Notwater was a few beats above them, brilliantly flooded in light, very warm, teeming with life.

Both of them breached, but Kloosee stayed just below, hovering in gentle surf, while Chase bobbed like a beach ball and looked around.

As he suspected, the shore was in view, although distant. He figured about two kilometers, at most. The waters were dizzy with jet skis and skiers and windsurfers and scores of people.

The sky was blue, cloudless and the sun was high, hot and bright.

If it wasn’t Scotland Beach, it had to be nearby. There was a lighthouse down near the horizon, probably Apalachee Point, if he was right. Chase watched the traffic speeding around him for a few minutes, a smile growing inside of him. It felt good to be home. Maybe that was the answer to Kloosee’s question.

Chase was unaware of what was happening below him until he felt something brush against his legs. Instantly, he thought shark! and ducked below, but it wasn’t a shark.

It was Kloosee. And Loptoheen. They were joined in a fierce battle, butting heads, spearing beaks, thrashing and wheeling furiously.

Loptoheen! Chase had never trusted the Ponkti tuk master. He dove into the melee, to help his friend.

He never saw the Ponkti swing a prod around, discharging its full charge right into his side.

Stunned into semi-consciousness, Chase rolled upside down and drifted to the surface. And below him, the struggle continued, as Kloosee and Loptoheen circled each other warily, thrusting and slapping, each trying to gain the advantage.

Chase fought to stay conscious. His whole body had gone numb.

It was a birthday party and Namma was just a day shy of ninety-four years old. That might as well have been a bazillion years old to Angela Gilliam Watson’s grandchildren, Jake and Riley. They hugged her and laughed and poked at her, as she rocked back and forth in her wicker rocking chair on the deck. The cake had only one big candle and she’d already blown it out, after making a wish. Now, she was doing what she loved most, frolicking and cutting up with the grandkids. Pretty soon, they’d go inside and have the fried chicken and potato salad that Joe and Jean Gable had cooked up and brought over for the big day.

After that, Joe’s homemade peach ice cream, hand-churned right out there on the deck, with all the kids helping out, laughing and getting salt and cream all over their faces.

It was a swell day, according to Angela and after dinner and a short movie, her son Sam and his wife Dana decided it was time for the kids to go home.

“Can’t stay that late…school’s coming up in a few days,” said Dana, as she piled the boys into the car. “And there’s Net Tutor…they’re both working on advanced math and logic.”

“And Code for Kids!” Jake and Riley both yelled from inside the car.

Sam grinned. “I’ve got ‘em excited about making algorithms and writing code. Even got

‘em a little playbot they can tinker with.”

Angela gave everybody a kiss. “I’ll just hang out with Joe and Jean for awhile. Thanks for everything…it’s always a special day when Jake and Riley come over.” And she meant that.

The car sped off. The Watson kids lived in a nice ranch-style on the other side of Highway 19, Fanning Springs.

“How ‘bout a drink and some more of that ice cream?” suggested Joe Gable. “Out on the deck…won’t be long before sunset, you know.”

Jean said, “I’ll start cleaning up. You two go on…I’ll be along.” Jean Gable was a thin brunette—not a gray hair on her head anywhere to be seen—and Angela liked it when Jean came over and they could do a little girl talk, just the two of them, Joe poured a little Zinfandel and fixed up two bowls of ice cream. They both settled into rocking chairs on the outside deck. The deck overlooked Sunset Beach, just a short Frisbee toss from the lighthouse and the Coast Guard station at Apalachee Point.

Neither said anything for a few minutes, just enjoying the freshening breeze—it had been mid-90s during the day—and chuckling at few last-minute body surfers trying to coax another ride out of what passed for surf along this part of Florida.

Presently, Angela finished her ice cream, set the bowl down and sipped at her wine. Then she sat up abruptly.

Joe was startled out of a light doze. “What—what is it? See something?”

Angela pointed out to sea. “What’s that?”

“What’s what?”

That. Those waves out there past the little boat with the flag…see where I’m pointing?”

Now she stood up, helping herself with the rocking chair arms. “Something thrashing around in the water out there. Shark maybe?”

“Not around here. Porpoise, most likely. Boats draw ‘em. They think they’re getting something to eat.”

For a few long moments, Angela watched the water churn and foam. She thought she saw something gray breaching the surface, something with a hint of fin, some tail flukes. It could be a shark. It could be several porpoises cavorting with the boat. But she didn’t think so.

A long lost memory of something that happened nearly eighty years ago came to mind and it brought a smile to Angela’s face. Joe saw it and asked.

“What are you smiling about? You look like the cat that ate the canary.”

Now Angela had started to gather up her purse. “Joe, take me out there. You got your boat all gassed up?”

Now it was Joe’s turn to look puzzled. “Out there? Now? It’s almost bedtime. Sun’ll be down in half an hour. Why’d you want to go out there now?”

Angela leaned over and patted him on his cheek. It was a weathered, pocked and scarred cheek and Joe told a different story about it every time you asked. “Humor me, old man. Call it a birthday present. Let’s get your boat and go see what that is.”

Joe Gable knew better than to argue with Angela Gilliam Watson. He told Jean about the sudden trip and the two of them ambled along a pebbled path to the next building, where the Gables lived in Unit B-17. Down the wooden plank walkway to the pier that The Landings maintained for its residents and out almost to the very end.

The twin-screw cruiser bumped and scraped along the wharf pilings as if she knew they were coming. Joe helped Angela aboard, got her seated up by the pilot house, checked a few things, then started her up. Her twin diesels rumbled into life. Two teenagers, cleaning up after a day’s sailing along the coast, were willing to help them with their moorings, catching the ropes and securing them to the deck cleats as Joe backed them out of the slip.

He steered them out of the marina, scrupulously observing the posted speed limit of five knots and the No Wake signs and headed them out into deeper waters. The sky was light, but the sun had dropped below the horizon and twilight was darkening the sea surface, which was gentle until they reached the “Bend”, where the coast line turned due south. The chop picked up smartly there and long rolling swells slapped them as Joe opened up the throttles a little.

They reached the thrashing foaming area in about ten minutes. The other boat had disappeared.

Now Angela craned forward, straining to see what was causing all the foaming and turbulence. Joe cut the throttles and let the Simple Sturgeon drift a bit, while Angela went down to the side and peered over the edge, clinging to the railing.

A small group of creatures were cavorting at and just below the surface. It almost looked like a fight. She heard honks and squeaks and clicks. They butted and slapped at each other and she thought she saw a flash of light, like an electric discharge. It could have been lightning, reflecting off the water; in August, Scotland Beach was darn near the lightning capital of the world. They didn’t look like porpoises. Or sharks either. She wasn’t sure but—

The flashback came like a slap in the face. Joe came down too and stood next to her, saying something, talking about some kind territorial dispute among porpoises, but Angela barely heard him…

She was just seventeen, just a rising senior at Apalachee High and his name had been Chase…Chase Meyer. They often made love in his canoe, not here, but further north. Half Moon Cove. Then one day, while they were pretty much naked in the canoe, they had seen…

“Seen what?” Joe was saying. “What were you about to say?”

Angela bit her lip. “I didn’t realize I was talking, Joe…I was just remembering something.”

“So I gathered. This Chase guy…an old flame?”

Angela smiled in spite of herself. “You might say that. Maybe a little more than an old flame. We talked about getting married.”

“So what happened? The dirtbag run out on you?”

Now it was Angela’s turn to wear a broad grin. “Well, you might say we had some adventures. Then…he just kind of disappeared—“

“Yeah,” Joe was chewing on a piece of straw he’d picked up from a deck chair, “boys are like that.”

“Oh, not this one—“ but she stopped in mid-sentence. One of the creatures had now come fully to the surface and was staring right at her. It bobbed in the surf, a blade-shaped head with two black, fathomless eyes, and seemingly two arms with fins on the ends of them. Angela shuddered in spite of herself. The eyes regarded her with something she would describe later as a special kind of curiosity, almost warm, kind eyes.

Damn, she’d seen those eyes before. She was sure of it. She went to her knees and stretched out a hand…the creature was not more than two meters away.

“Angela, don’t---I wouldn’t do that…you don’t know what it might do. What the hell kind of dolphin is that anyway?” Now, Joe stepped back and grabbed for a long aluminum pole he sometimes used when maneuvering around the wharf. He brought it over to the railing.

“No, Joe, don’t do that. You’ll scare it…it’s friendly…look at those eyes. I know those eyes. I’ve seen those eyes. It’s…he’s just curious.”

For a long moment, Angela wrestled with a thought that kept popping insistently into her mind and she brushed it away and tried to bury it and shoo it off just as insistently. There was no way. It simply could not be. It wasn’t possible…not now. Not after eighty years….

But the memory of her and Chase in that canoe in Half Moon Cove, the memory of seeing creatures very much like this, and the waterspout that danced offshore for much of the afternoon that hot June day off Scotland Beach…the memory would not go away and would not be swept into some closet in the back of her mind.

She could see Chase’s blond brown hair in her mind’s eye, with the wave on top, short on the sides, and the lock that he combed down over his right eye. She could see the faint blond beard and the faint moustache, the blue eyes, the scar above his right eye due to a fishing accident, the chin dimple he tried to hide, the big ears, the broad shoulders. She called him Flip and he called her Cookie, for reasons she could no longer recall.

She could see all of that as if were right in front of her right now, but when the memory faded, all she saw was the alligator-face of this creature staring back at her with obvious interest and curiosity.

In spite of a shiver, she felt a strong flood of rapturous joy washing over her. In some way she couldn’t explain, in some way Joe would never believe, she knew she had found Chase Meyer. She didn’t know how. She couldn’t explain it.

But the feeling wouldn’t go away.

“Angela, I don’t like the looks of those clouds out there.” Joe pointed out to sea. Dark thunderstorm clouds were boiling away on the horizon. Flickers of lightning strobed behind the clouds. Several clouds dipped closer to the surface of sea. A slow rotation had started up and from up in the pilothouse, as he started up the engines, Joe said something about a waterspout.

She didn’t see one. But she wouldn’t have been surprised.

The Simple Sturgeon left the scene, turned about and headed back to The Landings wharf, seeking Slip Number Twelve and the relative safety of the marina. A stronger gusty wind fetched up across the marina, and boat masts clanked and clinked around them as they put in for the night. Joe wasn’t sure what had happened to Angela. She looked like she’d seen a ghost.

Her face was almost pale but she had a broad smile on her lips, stuck on her lips like a video freeze-frame.

“Come on, old lady…you’ve had too much, of everything today. Let’s get you home and tucked into a warm bed.”

Then hiked back to A Building and Jean Gable was waiting for them at the door when they came in.

Angela Gilliam Watson was firmly put to bed, after taking all her meds and brushing her teeth. The Gables said an uneasy good night and locked the front door behind them.

Up in her single bedroom—her husband Ken had gone ahead to be with the Lord ten years before and she’d moved his bed to another part of the unit, Angela was still smiling. A great feeling of warmth washed over her and her face became flushed and red.

It had to be Chase.

Sometime the next morning, when Jean Gable came calling and no one answered the door, a great flurry of commotion erupted outside A-6 at The Landings. Duncan County EMS showed up. Scotland Beach Police sent a cruiser too. Even a fire truck came by to offer help. The paramedics checked her wristpad. The biomonitor lights were all dark.

Angela Gilliam Watson had died in her sleep overnight, in her bed, clothed in lavender chiffon pajamas and clutching a strange bulb-like object, with buttons along one side, clutching it with both hands. When the paramedics bent to check for a pulse along her neck, they could hear sounds emanating from the object, voices, squeaks, honks, clicks and grunts. Some kind of strange recording device, one medic surmised.

Angela still had a broad smile on her face when they discovered her.

Epilogue

Scotland Beach

August 14, 2199

6:45 p.m.

Joe Gable brought the Simple Sturgeon to a full stop, some two kilometers off shore, near Half Moon Cove, and dropped anchor so the swells wouldn’t drive them back toward the rocks that lined the seabed and the sides of the inlet. Dr. Michael Skellar, senior pastor of Grove Street Community Church, clutched a small Bible and walked a bit unsteadily down from the pilothouse, with Joe right behind him.

Sam and Dana Watson, Angela’s son and daughter in law, met Skellar’s eyes with a tight, meaningful smile. Sam showed Skellar Angela’s wristpad. He’d kept it in his pocket since the night his mother had died.

“She always wanted to be buried at sea,” Sam told the pastor. “Not cremated, just buried at sea, right here off the Cove. It’s even in her own words on this pad. We all listened to it.”

Reverend Skellar was somewhat perplexed. “I’m surprised she didn’t want to be buried with her husband. He’s interred at our Grove Street columbarium, you know.”

“Those were her wishes.”

The body of Angela Gilliam Watson had been enclosed in a canvas shroud. A gurney with a tilting top had been borrowed from Wilson’s Funeral Home. The shroud was strapped to the top of the gurney. Once the Sturgeon reached the site, just a few hundred meters to seaward of Half Moon Cove, the straps were released.

It was late evening offshore and the swells were picking up, rocking the boat, slapping the hull with sharp cracks. The flag stanchion and antennas clanked in the breeze. Thunderstorm clouds were boiling on the horizon and the seas were building. Lightning veined the still-blue skies between the clouds.

Sam re-fastened the wristpad to Angela’s wrist and cinched up the shroud.

They were all there: Reverend Skellar, Angela’s son Sam and his wife Dana, the grandkids Jake and Riley, sniffling and sobbing, each bearing a wicker basket of rose petals Dana had bought for them. Joe and Jean Gable stood to one side.

“Reverend,” Sam said solemnly, “I think we’re ready.”

Skellar pulled out a small Bible, its pages well thumbed, and crammed with scraps of paper.

He intoned grimly:

“Unto Almighty God we commend the soul of our sister departed, and we commit her body to the deep; in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection unto eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ; at whose coming in glorious majesty to judge the world, the sea shall give up her dead; and the corruptible bodies of those who sleep in him shall be changed, and made like unto his glorious body; according to the mighty working whereby he is able to subdue all things unto himself. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust—“

Skellar nodded to Joe Gable and Sam Watson. As one, they tilted the gurney top up and the canvas shroud bearing Angela’s body slid off into the water. It made almost no splash and sank quickly.

“Okay, kids…go ahead,” Dana prodded.

Jake and Riley took their baskets to the railing and scattered rose petals on to the water.

Waves continued building and the seas were getting noticeably rougher.

Joe Gable muttered, “Looks like quite a blow coming up. That cloud out there worries me

—“ He indicated a low-hanging dark cloud, its bottom layers dipping nearly to the sea surface several kilometers away, its boiling girth clearly rotating slowly. “Could be a ‘spout coming.”

A few solemn moments passed. At a silent nod from Sam and Dana, Joe climbed up into the pilothouse and restarted Sturgeon’s twin diesels. They rumbled to life and he turned the boat around smartly, heading out of the Cove, back along the coastline, past Turtle Key and Apalachee Point, to the marina at The Landings.

Back at Half Moon Cove, or just a few hundred meters beyond, the canvas shroud containing the mortal remains of Angela Gilliam Watson thudded end first into the sandy seabed.

Tricky cross-currents carried the shroud out toward open sea over the next few hours, rolling the canvas over and over again, until it came to rest in a shallow hollow…not far from some rusting car hulks. One of the rusting frames was an old Chevy. It had been dumped into the ocean decades before and was now cloaked with the faint white and lavender of a growing nest of brain coral.

A day later, Kloosee and Chase came up to the burial shroud. The seas above them were rough and stormy. Vortex fields had developed over the last few hours and the Farpool had re-appeared, this time in a new location, closer to shore than ever before. It danced and corkscrewed liked a drunken sailor, as Kloosee sniffed and nosed about the shroud. He compared the scents to a scentbulb he had brought along.

“It’s her,” he announced.

“It has to be her,” Chase decided. He was sad at the passing of Angela Gilliam (now Watson), but resigned to try what they had come to do.

Kloosee used his beak to tear two small slits in the side seams of the shroud. This would give him and Chase a better grip to tow the body to the kip’t, which was parked a few beats away, inside the vortex fields, not far from the spinning froth of the Farpool.

“Where’s Loptoheen?” Chase asked. He got a firm grip on the shroud through the slit.

Kloosee was on the other side. They hoisted the shroud up and began pulling and kicking, stroking with their load through the turbulence of the vortexes. Neither of them saw Angela’s hand and wrist, wristpad still attached, fall dangling out the slit opening. It trailed behind, bobbing along with the shroud.

“Loptoheen’s gone,” Kloosee replied. “Probably looking for Habloo and the others. He may even stay here. He’s injured, I know that much. I don’t know what that prod did to him.

Come on—the Farpool’s not stable. We’ve got to hurry.”

They had to twist and swerve to avoid being sucked into the smaller vortexes, each whirling column a little spinoff of twisted spacetime, each daughters of the Farpool, whic