Book: Еhe Farpool: Exodus



Еhe Farpool: Exodus

The Farpool: Exodus

Published by Philip Bosshardt at Smashwords

Copyright 2018 Philip Bosshardt

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PROLOGUE

SpaceGuard Center, Farside Observatory,

Korolev Crater, The Moon

May 17, 2115 (UT)

Nightfall at Korolev Crater came abruptly, too abruptly, thought Percy Marks. He stared out the porthole of the SpaceGuard Center and watched the shadows drop like a black curtain across the face of the crater wall. Korolev was a massive place, fully four hundred kilometers in diameter, with stairstep rim walls and a small chain of mountains inside. Like a bull’s eye on a target, the crater lay dead center in the rugged highlands of Farside, forever banished from the sight of Earth.

Percy Marks watched the black creep down the crater walls and ooze across the crater floor like a spreading stain. Somehow, it seemed depressing…another two weeks of night with only the stars for company. Cosmic grandeur, my ass, he muttered to himself. Give me a beach in the South Pacific and some native girls and I’ll tell you a thing or two about cosmic grandeur.

Marks was pulling late shift today…tonight…whatever the hell it was. Tending the radars and telescopes of Farside Array, scanning sector after sector of the heavens for any little burp or fart worthy of an astronomer’s interest. The High Freq array had just gone through a major tune-up last week and it was Marks’ job to give her a complete shakedown for the next few days.

At the moment, she was bore-sighted to some distant gamma-ray sources somewhere in Pegasus…where exactly he’d forgotten.

Marks took one last look out the nearest porthole and begrudged the final wisps of daylight before Farside was fully enveloped in the nightfall. At that same moment, he heard a beeping from his console and turned his attention back to the array controls.

What the hell…

Percy Marks looked over his boards, controlling the positioning of the great radars out on the crater floor and the optical and radio telescopes that accompanied them. He quickly pinpointed the source of the beeping…Nodes 20 through 24…the south lateral array…was picking up some anomaly.

He massaged the controls and tried to focus the array better, get better resolution on the target. SpaceGuard didn’t beep without reason.

A quick perusal made the hairs on the back of Percy Marks’ neck stand up. The system displayed a list of likely targets, based on radar imaging and known ephemerides. He scanned the list, mumbling the details to himself.

“ Hmmm….right ascension 22 degrees, 57 minutes, 28 seconds. Declination 20 degrees, 46

minutes, 8 seconds---“ Just as he was about to consult the catalog, SpaceGuard threw up a star map.

It was something in Pegasus. Nearly six thousand light years away. A point source of energy had just spiked. Probably a gamma ray burster...maybe even a Type I supernova, if they were lucky.

Marks studied the details. “This one’s a doozy--“ his fingers played over the keyboard, bringing all of Farside’s instruments to bear on the new source. The energy spike was showing up in all bands now: X-ray, gamma ray, infrared, even optical.

He stared for a moment at the brief flare that erupted on the screen in front of him. Must be one hell of a source.

Before he could decide what to do next, Marks was interrupted by the sound of a door opening…it was Max Lane, the shift supervisor.

“I heard SpaceGuard got something--“Lane was short, big moustache, squat legs of a former weightlifter, now going soft in the Moon’s sixth-g.

Marks showed him the readings. “I’ve got it designated Delta P. Big sucker, too.

Ephemerides point to a star we’ve got catalogued as Sigma Albeth B. Blasting out on all bands.

See for yourself.”

Lane examined all Farside’s instruments. Whatever it was, Delta P was a big gamma producer. He twiddled with his moustache for a moment. “Maybe we got us a Type I. You know, Westerlund had that theory—singly ionized silicon, thermal runaway, Goldberg radiation, and all that--“

Marks nodded. “I’ll pull up the spectra, see what kind of match we get.” The astronomer massaged the keyboard, calling up spectrographic profiles of previous supernova radiation sources.

“Anything in this sector before?”

Nada,” Marks told him. “She’s been dead as a doorstop for years. How many planets was this place supposed to have now?”

“Last I heard, at least two or three Jupiter-sized places. Check Planet-Finder…maybe we ought to run a radial velocity scan…see if anything else has happened in the neighborhood.”

They put SpaceGuard to work and the results came back in less than an hour. Marks superimposed the current velocity scan over the last one Planet-Finder had made a decade before.

Lane shook his head. “I don’t get it. Something’s missing--“ He fingered the absorption lines on the screen. “Should be a tick right there…that was supposed to be where the bigger planets were…what was that big one called?…”

“Storm, I think—spectral analysis said it was mostly ocean.“

“Yeah, that’s it. Wasn’t it here?”

Marks swallowed. “Maybe the whole shebang got swallowed. Supernova must have eaten it.”

Lane stood up and went over to a porthole, which gave onto a constricted view of the nearest arrays of the Submillimeter Interferometer, and a shadowy backdrop of Korolev crater’s steep craggy walls beyond. A triangle of blazing sunlight still illuminated the upper rim, last gasp of the lunar day.

“Maybe--“Lane shook his head, turned back to the consoles. “But this sector’s been quiet for years…SpaceGuard’s not showing anything. Now, all of a sudden, BLAM! Energy spikes all over the place. We should have seen something before…rising X-ray, rising gamma levels, something. Supernovas don’t just appear out of nowhere. They’re always burping and farting radiation for years before.”

Marks shrugged, staring at the velocity scans superimposed on each other. “If that signature’s not a micro, then what the hell is it? Other than a Type I supernova, what eats whole planets?”

The two astronomers both had the same thought at the same time.

Chapter 1

Earth

The Atlantic Ocean, near Bermuda

May 21, 2115

After the detonation, no one detected the small fleet of Coethi jumpships quietly withdrawing from the Sigma Albeth B system, having let loose a final volley of starballs, which had impacted the sun and initiated the deadly sequence of events.

Several hundred thousand Seomish, from all kels, had managed to emigrate through the Farpool to Urku…to Earth. Twenty million others had died in the End Times…the great ak’loosh. The Farpool had been destroyed…for now. The Time Twister, originally built and operated by the Umans of the First Time Displacement Battery, had now been destroyed, as had the wavemaker the Seomish had constructed from Uman schematics, to keep the Farpool going, to keep an escape route open for the doomed world of Seome. To re-create the Farpool now, another Time Twister would have to be built.

The emigrants (known among themselves as tu’kelke) had mostly traveled in lifeships and modified kip’ts to 22nd century Earth. However, some of the immigrants did not have proper control of their lifeships and wound up on Earth in different time periods…mid-20th century Earth, 16-century Earth, 28th century Earth and one small group in the Cretaceous period of Earth, just before the big asteroid Chicxulub struck, dooming the dinosaurs. None of these tu’kelke had any way of communicating with each other, or traveling, since the Farpool was gone.

In a small cave near the growing encampment of the tu’kelke at the Muir seamounts, Chase Meyer (still em’took-modified) found a familiar face in the form of Tulcheah li, half-Omtorish, half-Ponkti, working with other members of her em’kel to unpack pods and cases and make some kind of home in the dim warren of caves. They were glad to see each other and they embraced hard, first in the Uman way, then as Seomish, though Chase was only a halfling. Chase then invited Tulcheah out for a roam about the settlement.

“They’re calling it Keenomsh’pont,” Tulcheah was saying. “Kind of like ‘Little Omsh’pont’.” It had been named for the great capital city of the Omtorish, nearly destroyed long ago in a Ponkti assault.

The base of the seamount was a craggy broken land, pockmarked with caves, niches, folds, burrows and hollows, nearly four kilometers in circumference, blending into the broader Bermuda Platform, itself a flat-topped guyot thousands of feet above the abyssal plains of the seafloor. Over every fold and crack at the base of the seamount, small knots of kelke had built shelter, drawing hundreds of sheets of fibrous netting over the openings, carving out small tunnels, channels, warrens and passageways right out of the volcanic tuff of the mountain. The effect was to make the base of the Muir complex resemble a vast spiderweb or honeycomb of cells and caves.

Tulcheah pulsed the vast heaving expanse of the refugee settlement, noting how frightening the trip through the Farpool had been.

“We just made it, eekoti Chase. Our ship twisted and turned and shook and shuddered and we thought it would come apart. It was awful. Thank Great Shooki we were lucky.”

Chase could barely pulse for himself the extent of the congregation of Seomish immigrants

—Omtorish, Ponkti, Eep’kostic, Skortish, Orketish—they were all crammed together, beak to tail, in the bosom of the sea mount and her surrounding hills.

“Yeah, sometimes the Farpool is like that. But I wonder: how many didn’t make it?”

At this, Tulcheah turned somber. “Perhaps a number beyond counting, eekoti Chase. It is written that when Shooki sends the great wave, the ak’loosh, many will die.”

They roamed in silence for a time, circling above the crude camps scattered about the seamount.

Tulcheah spoke quietly, swishing her tail back and forth against downdraft currents coursing down from the upper reaches of the mountain. “See how they’re are already gathering themselves into kels? We haven’t even been here very long and the old divisions, the old conflicts, are returning. Even in new waters, we fight.”

“I guess that’s to be expected. It’s the same with my people. By the way, we don’t call ourselves Tailless. We call ourselves Humans. Get used to it.”

At that, Tulcheah smirked and bumped him playfully. “You’re both, eekoti Chase. Human and Seomish.”

And it was true. The thought of it made Chase both sad and proud at the same time. If only Dad could see me now, he told himself. His beach bum son has become a kind of intergalactic ambassador.

They soon ran into a school of Ponkti midlings, engaged in learning tuk moves and defenses from none other than Loptoheen himself. Tuk was the martial dance and close-quarters combat discipline for which the Ponkti had long been renown. Loptoheen had been the acknowledged master of tuk for as long as anyone could remember.

Tulcheah and Chase stopped to watch but it was quickly clear that the Ponkti wanted to keep to themselves.

Loptoheen growled at them. “Be off, kelke! There’s nothing here for you. And stop stirring up the waters too…these students need to concentrate.”

Tulcheah, who was half-Ponkti, barked back at him. “Litorkel ge, old Loptoheen. Calm waters to all of you.” There was a twinkle in her eye and she tried to stifle a half smile. “It won’t be long before your students give you a real thrashing.”

“Kah!” came Loptoheen’s reply. The Ponkti school moved off and was soon lost in the chaos of the settlement below.

Tulcheah and Chase resumed their roam about Keenomsh’pont. It was clear to both, though unspoken, that even in this strange and difficult new setting, the kels were organizing themselves into traditional water clans again.

Listening in to the chatter, they soon learned of the rumors of a great roam being organized by the Metahs of all the kels: Mokleeoh, Lektereenah, Okeemah and Oolandra…a roam for the purpose of settling disputes and setting conditions for how the new settlement would operate.

Already big crowds had started to gather near the edge of the settlement, anticipating the start of the vish’tu.

“We should grab a spot, eekoti Chase. Get in position, near the front. The best spots will be gone quickly.”

Chase had other ideas. “Tulcheah, it’s not leaving for a day. Maybe more. Besides, I think I know a place on the other side of the mountain.”

“A place?”

“Where we can be alone. You taught me that, you slut. There’s more to roaming than just seeing the sights.”

“I thought you came by to learn how the rest of the Ponkti are getting along.” She stopped, picked up an old scentbulb somebody had left behind and sniffed experimentally.

“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 the scentbulb and let its odors drift out.

“For the love of Shooki…that thing smells like a seamother herd…what is that stuff?”

Tulcheah sniffed indignantly at the bulb. “Home, eekoti Chase. This is all we have left…of home.”

“I’ve got something better than an old bulb,” he told her. Chase 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 lips, the way she always did. “Eekoti Chase, 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 a nearby space, a narrow fold in the rock, draped with torn shreds of fabric and fiber. It was dark inside, but the scents were strong. Chase followed.

From somewhere out of the dark, Tulcheah spoke. “Do all eekoti look so ugly as you?”

“Hey, this was some kind of surgery, remember…you know, to let me live in your world better. Normally, I’m just a stud.”

Tulcheah laughed at that. She nuzzled up under Chase’s chin with her beak. “You have funny words, eekoti Chase. You know about Ke’shoo and Ke’lee?”

As she 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.”

Tulcheah 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…these threads look like old man Terpy’t’s.” She smiled. “I’ve got an idea…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. Follow me… I’ll guide you.” Tulcheah took one arm and together, the two of them swooped up and down the hold, spinning and weaving denser strands of the frayed web, back and forth. It was erotic and sensuous, all the more so as Tulcheah rubbed herself 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. I need to find her. Back at Scotland Beach, I imagine.”

By some unseen signal, Tulcheah stopped the spinning and hovered on one side of Chase.

She nosed up and down his body with her beak, clearly looking for something, poking, probing, sniffing.

Then she stopped, looked up into Chase’s eyes. “I’m not familiar with this em’took…where is the ket’shoo’ge?”

“The what?”

Tulcheah 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 it was clear that Tulcheah 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 did to Chase.

Chase found his claspers exquisitely sensitive. The two of them formed one body and drifted softly about the tiny 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.

They had been quiet, dozing for a time, when Chase thought he heard a strange noise, just outside the hold…a sort, of whirring, faintly whooshing noise. Tulcheah was still, drifting asleep about the hold, so he gently untangled himself and pushed toward the opening.

He was so startled at what he saw that he cried out: “What the--!”

There, just beyond the opening, was a big eye. No, that wasn’t it. It was a face, grinning, leering at him with huge white teeth…it whirred and hummed and that’s when Chase realized he was staring right into the camera of a small submarine. The face was a paint job…someone’s idea of a joke, with its gaping mouth and outsized teeth, it looked like a great white shark painted right onto the nose of the sub.

The thing was maybe five feet in length, with stubby wings and spinning props at the end, a semi-transparent nose, festooned with all kinds of gear, including what were obviously cameras and imagers.

“Tulcheah! Tulcheah…get up…wake up!”

He felt more than heard the scramble of a thrashing body behind him as the female collided with his back. He could feel her breath on his neck, hovering just behind, shaking.

“What is this, eekoti Chase? A Tailless monster?”

Chase just glared back at the hovering intruder. “I don’t know…it’s some kind of sub….”

That when he noticed a logo and some reddish script-style writing on the side of the sub. He spelled it out under his breath:

WOODS HOLE OCEANOGRAPHIC INSTITUTE

Chase swallowed hard. The U.S. Navy already knew about the growing presence of the Seomish in the Atlantic. It had been a closely held military secret for months.

Now it seemed that others would soon know as well.

“Tulcheah, I don’t know how to tell you this…but I think they watched everything we just did—"

“Is it alive?”

“No, it’s a machine, like a kip’t. Looks remote control. Come on…we’d better get back to the city.”

The two of them made their way out of the hold and across a series of low ridges to the gathering of settlements that was Keenomsh’pont. Even from a distance, the murmur of the great roam now gathering could be heard.

Following at a discreet distance, the tiny sub whirred along on its propulsors, hanging back several hundred meters.

Alongside one of its bow planes, a tiny name could have been seen, if anyone had been looking: Beagle.

The roam, known as vish’tu in the Seomish language, soon got underway. Each Metah, and there were five, would have her say. First, though, a compressed history of all the kels would be recited and sung by all, then the Metahs would sing their wishes for what was to come and how the kels would be organized in their new home. For now, Keenomsh’pont would be home, but it was expected that the kels would move to their own territories and waters within the seamount complex, while exploratory expeditions were organized. Once the formal Separation was accomplished, all kels would contribute to these expeditions. After some debate, the overall effort would be led by Likteek of Omt’or, with assistance from each kel. Five teams would be assembled into a sort of Corps of Exploration, each team responsible for navigating to the farthest corners of this marine world that the Tailless called Urth, reconnoitering and surveying and collecting specimens from what they found. After about one mah of time, the exploratory teams would re-convene at Keenomsh’pont and report their findings.

The official vish’tu roam was a custom as old as Seome itself. 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 Metahs had called for kel’vishtu, to discuss and decide on how the immigrants would organize themselves in the seas of Urth. To set the right tone for the roam and the difficult decisions ahead, Mokleeoh of Omt’or had decreed that the roam would begin with a reciting of the Tillet Songs. In the earliest days of the Great Sound back on Seome, 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 kels would join in singing the Songs which drew the beasts from their hiding and enticed them to return. Tulcheah, 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 Seomish.

“We may have to take some breaks,” he told Tulcheah. “I’m not as good a swimmer as everybody else.”

“Not to worry,” she told him. “If you tire, we’ll hitch you to one of the tillet. You can come along for the ride.”

The kelke soon began gathering near the base of the seamount. Other kels soon joined in and the sea darkened with their numbers, loud and boisterous and anxious to be underway. For many hours, the kels assembled their people, until they swarmed in such multitude that the din could surely be pulsed around the world.

No one gave much thought to what the Tailless might think of all the racket.

When at last the kels had gathered and the seamounts of the valley were lost in the immense tide of people, the Metah of Omt’or sent her 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, Tulcheah took Chase aside with a beaming smile on her face.

“Mokleeoh 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 Tailless 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 Likteek and some of my own em’kel. It’s a great honor to be so close... there are so many big decisions we have to make. But eekoti Chase, you must be pure and candid in your echoes. Mokleeoh 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 time to begin came and Mokleeoh made her appearance with her full court in tow, the other Metahs right alongside: Lektereenah, Keleemah, Oolandra. The vishtu formed swiftly as they 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. Tulcheah stole a pulse at the magnificent sight: the flanks curved out of range around the end of the valley and spread out into the sea itself, in evenly stepped divisions. She imagined it as a massive seamother, poised to strike. A prodsman tapped her on the dorsal and told her to face the Metah with all pulses. From now on, she would be expected to remain in flank with the rest.

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 coral that marked the end of the valley, though it was partly obscured by the ever-present rain of silt, sloughing off the seamount. Beside each flank, a cluster of servlings hovered, ready to swoop in with pods of food. Tulcheah ate them as soon as they could be replaced. Chase, not be outdone, wolfed down everything put in front of him.

A deep trench dwindled behind them; ahead, the northern flanks of the Bermuda Platform 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 Tulcheah 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 kels’ 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, living creatures for which the Seomish had no name 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 the Bermuda Platform, Chase was exhausted trying to keep up. Tulcheah took pity on him and lashed him side-saddle to a lumbering tillet someone had managed to bring through the Farpool, 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 kels; it was a necessary interlude to the kelkemah, the story of the kels’ response to the crisis that had brought them to this strange world. Kelkemah was a detailed rendering of the kel’s daily activities…the coming of the great Sound, the cold, the great ak’loosh wave. 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 Platform and Tulcheah could pulse far into the canyon, reading the outlines of a rugged floor strewn with boulders and fallen lava domes. She got echoes of a massive school of elongated animals and wondered if they would gather around to investigate what all the noise was about. A servling streaked in front of her and Tulcheah reached out, snatching a pair of eelash pods from him. She

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.

Tulcheah was alongside, effortlessly kicking and stroking her way along. Chase could only envy her the beauty of her stroke. “You’ve never roamed in the Omtorish style, have you, eekoti Chase?”

“I’ve only roamed a few times, 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,” Tulcheah 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. The Ponkti have their way, the Skortish another.

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 exploratory teams; that was ostensibly the whole reason for the roam.

They don’t exactly dive right into a meeting, he thought to himself. Tulcheah had told him the formalities would help the set the tone for the discussions. Chase figured the Seomish just liked to have a good time, while they still could. No one knew just how the Tailless would react to learning of another intelligence on their world.

And for a time, Chase wondered about the little sub he and Tulcheah had seen.

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, followed by the histories of each kel in turn. 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 kels sang to themselves 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 waters of the mid-Atlantic.

From where he and Tulcheah roamed, Chase imagined that the vishtu had somehow grown wings. For as far as he could pulse, to their left and to their right, staggered lines of excited fish flocked. They roamed in tight schools above and below the wings. The kel itself had already started into kelkemah and the gathering hordes of dolphin, whale shark, tuna, marlin, mackerel and others answered the Song with a steady clicking and whistling of their own. Chase had no doubt that the roam was quite loud enough to travel all around the world.

Singing the kelkemah eventually quieted the beasts. They roamed now in unison with the strange visitors, curious, entranced by the words, by the hypnotic cadence. Kelkemah spoke to them in the rhythms of a distant sea they had never known 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 Tulcheah cut through the deeper vocals of the kel.

Chase thought it was her, but he couldn’t be sure. Slowly, but surely, throughout the roam, Tulcheah 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.

Tulcheah 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 Tulcheah to show him how to play the trangkor.

In time, and Chase lost all track of time, the Metahs sang out their choices for who would be assigned to each team. It was Tulcheah who bumped him and congratulated him being chosen to be part of the Omtorish team, which was to be commanded by the veteran kip’t pilot, Manklu tel himself.

“It’s a great honor,” she told him. “Manklu knows the waters like the underside of his forepaddles.”

Chase knew the pilot from previous encounters. Manklu had always seemed crusty, gruff and stern. “Yeah, but this isn’t Seome. These waters are different.”

“Then you and Manklu will make great discoveries together. Who better to guide you?”

Chase had to admit she had a point. Talking later with the grizzled old sled driver, Chase realized their initial route would take them west across the great ocean, which he was sure was the Atlantic. Once he fully understood where they were, he became excited at the prospect.

West meant they would be heading back toward North America, toward the Gulf Stream, toward places he was familiar with…seas and lands he knew.

After nearly a day, the great roam wound its way back to the gathering of makeshift settlements of Keenomsh’pont. It was there that the kelke found the strange little submersible Beagle nosing curiously about their encampment.

Informed by her vizier of the intruder, the Metah of the Ponkti, Lektereenah, was incensed.

Immediately, she summoned Loptoheen and a squad of her top prodsmen.

“Loptoheen, the intruder must be driven off at once, attacked and completely destroyed.”

It was her chief prodsman, named Plakto, who pointed out that perhaps the Seomish immigrants were the real intruders.

“These are their waters, Affectionate Metah. We came here in large numbers…maybe we’ve disrupted something. Disturbed a nest or a home.”

Lektereenah would hear none of it. “Nonsense! We have a perfect right to be here.

Shooki’s provided a path for us to come here—all this has been foretold.”

Even Loptoheen had to stifle a snicker at that. Lektereenah invoked the name of Shooki or the mekli priestesses whenever it suited her.

The Metah went on, instructing Plakto. “Gather your men. Remove that thing from our settlement. Capture it if you can. Destroy it if you have to. But remove it…I don’t want any intruders nosing around Ponkti waters.”

Plakto said, “At once, Affectionate Metah.” The prodsman scooted off and was gone.

Arriving at Keenomsh’pont, the great roam quickly dispersed and hundreds of kelke returned to their kels. Not long afterward, Plakto’s prodsmen made their move.

The little sub had first been sighted sniffing and rummaging through some of the outer rings of tents and holds of the Ponkti settlement. Not far away, over a small rise delineated by a bubble curtain, the edge of the Skortish settlement could be seen. It was here, along a sinuous ridge of lava domes that Plakto’s force set upon the Beagle, with scarcely contained fury.

From a small crevice in the Omtorish camp, Tulcheah bumped Chase with the news.

“Did you hear…that… thing…that creature…we saw. It’s inside the city now.

Lektereenah’s sent some of her prodsmen to shoo it off.”

They both saw and heard the crack and sizzle of prods being discharged. Dull light flashed beyond the hollow opening and waves of sound rolled across the lower slopes of the seamount.

Outside the hold, knots of Omtorish gathered, discussing and commenting on the intrusion.

“Serves them right,” someone muttered. “We don’t need intruders around here.”

“There may be more…we should be careful with this,” someone else said.

“We don’t know what the Tailless might do…they could bring bigger weapons.”

“These are their waters, after all--“

“Nonsense! We have a perfect right to be here.”

After a few minutes, the little valley was quiet, preternaturally quiet, as the Seomish solemnly considered the implications of what had just happened. Murmurs and whispers and clicks and whistles soon erupted, then a great cheer rumbled across Keenomsh’pont…Ponkti united with Omtorish, Skortish with Eepkostic, for once the kels seemed as one.

And it wasn’t long before the first brave souls scooted over toward the scene of the short but violent battle, circling the wreckage of the sub on the seabed, rubbernecking, cracking jokes, offering suggestions for what should be done with the remains.

Beagle now lay cold and dead, in a shallow ravine, its outer hull scarred and scorched from prod discharges, its remote manipulator arms torn off, its camera eyes smashed, the little ship shattered and still in a swirl of sediment.

Two thousand meters away, at the surface, scientists aboard Beagle’s mother ship, the research vessel Darwin, were shaken yet strangely energized by what had just happened. The expedition leader, Woods Hole marine biologist Dr. Steve Lyons spoke first, after someone reached for the monitor, still frozen with the final images of the Ponkti prod assault, and switched it off.

“Chuck, make sure we’ve got everything recorded. I mean everything. Video, instruments, depth, speed, course, water conditions. Anybody have a final position on Beagle?”

James Plath, a cetacean expert, checked the sounder data on a nearby console. “Looks like thirty-three degrees, forty-one minutes north by sixty-two degrees, thirty minutes west. Just south of the Muir seamount. I make Beagle’s depth at four thousand five fifty feet.”

“Get all the files backed up immediately. Nobody’ll ever believe any of this if we don’t have proof…and I mean lots of proof.”

A throat was cleared. It was Dr. Tamika Lefbridge, ichthyologist from Marine Biology, along to study benthic and pelagic species west of the Mid-Atlantic rift zone. “Steve, did I just see what I think I saw?”

Inside the control room below Darwin’s bridgehouse, heads were shaking and hard swallows were audible.

Lyons tried to be cautious. “Now, Tammy, don’t go jumping to conclusions.”

“I mean, they seemed intelligent. Sentient in some way. Purposeful. They came after Beagle with a definite purpose. And what the hell were those… things, those weapons, that sizzled and sparked?”

“Let’s keep the speculation to a minimum and make sure we’ve got good data…bathymetry, currents, chem analyzer readouts…just focus on the data, people. Focus on the data.”

But Lefbridge felt a lump in her throat. They all did. “Steve, you saw those structures, same as I did…they looked like tents, shelters of some kind. My God, it was like a small city down there.”

“We’ve found Atlantis, at last,” someone joked. That brought nervous chuckles.

“Yeah, right. Or the Garden of Eden.”

“Or little spacemen from Tralfamador.”

Lyons held up a hand. “Everybody, just cool it. Get back to your stations and back up everything. Let’s hold a meeting in an hour, crew’s mess. Keep your theories and wacky ideas until then. And don’t tell the Captain either…I’ll think of something.”

Tamika Lefbridge waited until everybody else had left the little cabin where Beagle had been monitored for the last few hours.

“Steve, you know we can’t keep this quiet for long. What happens when the media finds out?”

Lyons was busying himself noting down everything he could about the robot sub’s final moments on a slate.

“God help all of us, Tammy. God help all of us.”

Solnet Omnivision Video Post

@anika.radovich.solnet worldview

May 23, 2115

1200 hours

SOLNET Special Report

“A New Atlantis”

Anika Radovich reports from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, Woods Hole, MA on breaking news that a new underwater civilization of intelligent marine creatures has just been discovered in the Atlantic Ocean near Bermuda. She interviews Dr. Josey Holland, a marine biologist at Woods Hole….

“First of all, Dr. Holland, I’d like to thank you for taking the time to be with us today.”

“My pleasure, Anika. How can I help you?” Josey Holland has long blond tresses, with lighter highlights. She has a tall, somewhat long face with a radiant smile and sharp cheek bones. Today, Dr. Holland is wearing, under her white smock, a flannel shirt and jeans.

“Dr. Holland, we’ve all heard the recent news about some new apparently intelligent creatures in the seas around Bermuda. There have been reports from various sources that the creatures even have a sort of city underwater and that there have been hostile actions against humans…and that the U.S. Navy knows all about this. Is this Atlantis that has been discovered?”

Dr. Holland flashes a winning smile. She looks like a cheerleader. “No, Anika, of course not. Atlantis is a myth. It’s a great romantic story, for sure, but it’s just a story. Here at Woods Hole, we deal in facts, not myths.”

“Dr. Holland, underwater archeologists have a long record of discovering and exploring submerged cities and ruins, like Pavlopetri, off the coast of Greece, for example. Is there, in fact, an underwater city…or civilization here…something heretofore undiscovered?”

Now, Dr. Holland’s face takes on a more serious look. Her hands are almost never still but flutter around as if about to fly off. “Anika, we need to be careful with our words here and deal in what is known at this time. To your point, it is true that our remote subs have given us some evidence of seabed structures around the Muir seamount complex and surrounding areas that don’t resemble anything natural. Are they constructed things? We don’t know yet. When the first deep-sea hydrothermal vents were discovered, nobody had ever seen anything like them before…from a distance, they resembling smoking chimneys. But we now know they weren’t

‘chimneys’ at all, just fissures in the seabed, releasing superheated steam and chemicals.”

“These creatures…these Atlanteans, as some call them, you’ve already given them a name, I understand.”

Dr. Holland nods, her lean, willowy face breaking into a smile, clearly preferring to be on more factual ground. “That’s right. Tursiops digitalis…dolphins with fingers.”

Anika Radovich expresses surprise, then cocks her head into a ‘ you’re kidding me, right’

sort of look. “They have fingers? Did I hear that right?”

“Oh, yes. We’ve seen them up close enough to recognize finger-like structures at the ends of their forepaddles. This is a rather extraordinary discovery in itself. And it begs the question: since Evolution developed fingers for these creatures, what do they do with them? What caused this development? We’re asking these very questions ourselves right now.”

“Dr. Holland, Solnet viewers are asking many questions themselves. Just how intelligent are these creatures?”

“Well,” Dr. Holland takes off her dataspecs and wipes them down for a moment, clearly searching for the right words.” “I want to be very clear here. Intelligence is somewhat of a loaded word. Truthfully, we don’t yet know the full measure of their intelligence. We have some physical evidence that they construct rudimentary structures. They have a language…of course, so do whales and dolphins and many marine species. They seem to be gregarious and gather in social groups. Beyond this level, I’d be just speculating. We’re pretty early in our investigations.”

Radovich now tries another tack. The news AI in her earbud keeps reminding her that the piece needs more dramatic punch. “Dr. Holland, sources have told Solnet that the Atlanteans are pretty aggressive. We have reports that they damaged one of your own submersibles in some kind of attack. Are these creatures hostile to us? Have they interfered with anything, deep sea mining, oil and gas exploration, that sort of thing? Is this why the Navy has kept this discovery under wraps for so long?”

Dr. Holland frowns, the way a mother frowns at a child who has disappointed her. “Well, many species are aggressive, even territorial, so that shouldn’t be a surprise. As to what happened to our Beagle sub, we’re looking into all the data now. Conclusions are premature at this point.”

“What about communication attempts? Are we…or they, trying to communicate at all?”

Here, Dr. Holland’s face morphs into a thoughtful countenance. Her eyebrows arch into a sort of question mark. “Now, that’s an excellent question, Anika. Of course, many species, even most species, communicate at some level. If I may, I think you’re asking if the, er Tursiops digitalis, are capable of advanced communication, even symbolic communication. The truth is, we may never know the answer to that. Look how long we’ve been trying to communicate with dolphins and whales, trying to understand their language. They are clearly intelligent creatures, but their language is so different from ours that making the connection has proven to be extremely difficult.”

Now, Anika puts forward the question her news AI has been really nagging her about for the last several minutes. Quietly annoyed with the damned earbud, she flicks it off under the guise of adjusting her own glasses.

“Dr. Holland, what do you think the Navy’s interest is in all of this? Are they hiding something from us, in your opinion?”

Holland’s face assumes the impenetrable mask of official ‘Woods Hole’ expression. “I really couldn’t say, Anika. I’m not privy to the Navy’s research or investigation.”

“For our viewers, what’s the next step?”

“Well, we’re putting together a press conference pretty soon, with a kit for all reporters, detailing what we know so far. It’s pretty clear to me that there will have to be another, more detailed expedition to the site. Perhaps, then we can make better contact with Tursiops digitalis, perhaps even coax one of them to come close enough for more detailed study.”

“You mean capture one?”

Holland shrugs noncommittally. “That remains to be seen. We’re just in the earliest stages of our investigation.”

“Dr. Holland, thanks for being with us today.”

“My pleasure, Anika. Any time.”

Special Report Ends

Chapter 2

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute

Woods Hole, MA

May 24, 2115

Dr. Josey Holland, Biology branch chief for cetacean species, nearly tripped on the stairs as she headed up to the second-floor conference room of the McLean Lab building. She checked the time… Christ, Walter will have my head if I’m late again. She scurried down the hall to the end, took a right and burst into the small paneled room—the sign read Data Analysis 2-- out of breath, clutching a slate and papers tightly to her chest. She found her place at the end and dropped the whole armload on the table.

“Ah, Josey…glad you could join us today,” Dr. Walter Wriston muttered. “We should get started—”

Holland shot her department chief an annoyed look. He knew perfectly well why his star researcher was running late, having spent a fruitless few minutes with some pesky Solnet reporter. The eyes rolling around the table said volumes beyond Wriston’s words, but Holland could do nothing about them.

Some people called it grandstanding. Some people called it self-promotion. Josey Holland called it transparency and letting the public know as much as you could.

“I called this meeting to sort through what Beagle has given us, before her unfortunate demise…and to get something together for the press conference, which is…” Wriston checked his wristpad, “—due to begin exactly one hour from now.” The department chief rambled on for a few minutes about Institute policy regarding press conferences, which gave Holland a chance to gauge the reactions of her colleagues around the room, most of whom had already seen the Solnet vid.

They were all there, the best and the brightest from Marine Biology: Steve Lyons, always with a smirk on his face that said I know things that nobody else around here knows; Tamika Lefbridge, the Beagle pilot who’d been on duty when the creatures had attacked the sub, for that’s all you could really call it and who still had faint hand tremors, though whether from that event or her growing palsy, nobody could really say; Jim Plath, truly a legend in his own mind, but what a mind, Holland thought. It was Jim Plath who could see patterns in data and make intuitive leaps to find an answer that nobody had thought of. A royal pain in the ass, to be sure, but invaluable when faced with something like what Beagle, and by extension, all of Woods Hole, was now facing.

Wriston called up vid imagery of the Beagle surveillance and let the imagery unfold on the table screens and on everybody’s slates, all now synched to the master server.

“Pretty straightforward for most of the file,” Wriston did his own unnecessary voice-over.

Beagle sniffs around, takes routine measurements, then encounters these two—” It was Tulcheah and Chase in the narrow crevice.

“Romeo humping Juliet,” Lyons wisecracked, adding his own voice-over. “Come, let me take you to zee Kasbah…”

“Steve, really—”

Wriston waved them all silent. “All pretty routine stuff, until this—” The imagery clearly showed the approach of the Ponkti prodsmen. “Beagle had found structures that looked artificial, pods, domes, fabric enclosures, and then here comes the cavalry—”

“What are those things they’re carrying?” Tamika Lefbridge asked of no one in particular.

Holland studied the image, asked Wriston to pause the feed, then zoom in. “They sure look like weapons of some kind. Really just a rod, but what’s that little bulge at the back end?”

“Maybe a battery,” said Lyons. “Beagle really got zapped when they came up. Went haywire. Somebody forgot to put phasers on stun.”

Lefbridge took that personally. “Yeah, I am the one who was driving and I did lose control of everything. No effectors, no propulsors, nothing. I tried dropping ballast, tried blowing emergency air, nada. Couldn’t get my dog to bark or bite or anything.”

Beagle dies a glorious death,” Lyons intoned gravely.

“And no more imagery after that. We had some telemetry prior to the attack, but nothing definitive.” Wriston rubbed his jaw uneasily. “What the hell happened? What are we dealing with here?”

Holland listened to the debate, theories flying around the room like crazed gnats, and wondered herself. “To me, it’s pretty clear. There’s something intelligent down there near Bermuda.” She looked with her best disgusted face at Steve Lyons, who had been about to offer another comment. “And no, I don’t think it’s some golfer from Bermuda, trying to hole out of his water hazard.” Lyons returned Holland’s comment with a smirk.

Jim Plath was toying with something on his slate. “Maybe a new species, heretofore unknown.”

“Well,” Lefbridge decided, “that pretty much goes without saying. But how intelligent?”

“And how hostile?” Lyons said.

Wriston’s face said he had come to a decision. You could tell when his eyebrows lowered over his eyes, like a shade being drawn. “I think we should make a statement in the press conference to the effect that Beagle was lost to due to an undetermined malfunction, that the data shows the possibility of a new, aggressive species near Bermuda and that further research is needed and more expeditions are planned.”

“Bureaucratic pablum,” Lyons said. “The press will never be satisfied with that. They’re already running specials about how we’ve discovered Atlantis and all that crap.” He looked at Holland. “We all saw the Solnet vid…mind you, I think Josey did as good a job as anyone trying to steer the interview away from such nonsense, but still—”

“Thanks…I think,” said Holland.

“I’m making notes for talking points right now,” Wriston said, pecking away at his slate.

His words and scribbles started to appear on everybody’s slates at the same time. “And we don’t respond to questions or speculation about the intelligence or the intentions of this species with anything other than ‘more research is needed.’”

“What about the Navy?” Lefbridge asked. “Any word from Loomis on his meetings with the Navy?”

Wriston shook his head. “Nothing yet. No response to Navy questions either. Leave that one alone.”

Holland rolled the species’ new name around her tongue. “Tursiops digitalis…don’t you think that just invites questions? Maybe we should be asking the Navy for help. There are plenty of rumors about what they might know.”

Wriston shook his head. “Josey, this is for the Institute to decide. You know that, as well as I do. Now, to the next expedition—”

“Two submersibles for this one,” Lyons blurted out. “I’ve been doing some thinking about this—”

“Really, you don’t say—“Lefbridge teased him.

Lyons ignored her. “No, really, two submersibles. Proteus is just coming out of drydock…

she should be ready in about a week. New gadgets on her too, the latest stuff. That new spectrum analyzer’s the whiz. It’ll run circles around our older gear.”

“You said two submersibles.”

“Yeah, the other one should be Poseidon.”

“A manned ship? Is that safe?”

Lyons shrugged, called up some diagrams on his slate and ported them to everybody. “Hey, you don’t make an omelet without breaking eggs. Somebody’s got to go down and put eyes on those buggers.”

Holland took a breath. “I’ll go. I’d like to—”

But Wriston held up a hand. “Hold on, hold on a minute. We still have to run this by the Institute. Probably NSF too, if any grant money is used.”

Plath pointed in the air with a stylus. “I say we at least advise the Navy on what we’re doing. Don’t ask for their help or support but at least let ‘em know. We know they’ve got a lot of ships and probably subs in the area anyway. Alert the Feds but tell them we don’t want anyone to interfere with our next ‘interaction’ with what seems like both an intelligent and a fairly aggressive species.”

“Amen to that,” Lefbridge said.

Wriston finished his scribbled talking points and asked for comments. A few changes were made and everybody was satisfied. “Josey, you’re a vid star now. Would you do the honors?

And keep it short…less than twenty minutes.”

Holland sucked in her breath. “Sure, Dr. Wriston. Beats talking to my daughter Hannah’s special ed class.”

Lyons couldn’t resist a final dig. “And comb that hair, would you? That lock over your right eyes will have the male reporters humping their chairs in two minutes.”

Maybe we should have sent you down there instead of Beagle, Holland thought.

The meeting adjourned.

The press conference went about as well as could be expected and, to no one’s surprise, Dr.

Josey Holland handled the endless questions and the asinine speculations with aplomb and professional detachment.

She met Wriston in the Lab parking lot afterward. Holland was headed into town…

Barnstable County school.

Wriston saw the look. “Meeting with the teachers again?”

“Yes, sir. Hannah’s been acting up. I may have to pull her out, arrange for full special ed curriculum now.” A cloud came over her face. “She really misses her father.”

Wriston was sympathetic. He knew Josey and her husband Stephen were in the midst of a pretty acrimonious divorce. “Whatever…you know we’re praying for you.”

“Sure…thanks, Dr. Wriston. Hey—” the department chief had started to pull away, but Holland grabbed his sleeve, then let go immediately, a bit embarrassed. “—about the new expedition. Poseidon and Proteus. I know you want me to oversee the data analysis on Beagle but I’d really like to be assigned to the crew. I’ve done Poseidon expeditions before…my quals are up to speed on submerged missions. Steve’s right…we really need to get knowledgeable eyes on these creatures, see what they’re all about.”



Wriston took a deep breath and crossed his arms. “Actually, that same thought had occurred to me, Josey, but I didn’t want to presume on your…you know, situation, with Hannah…and Stephen.”

“Thank you, sir. I think I can manage it. I mean, this is the professional chance of a lifetime, isn’t it? Jesus…intelligent marine creatures, with fingers no less, building cities on the seabed. It’s an important time, for all of us. For the Institute, too. Would you at least consider making me part of the crew?”

Wriston smiled. “I’ll do more than that. I’ll put in the recommendation to Ops and to Riley tomorrow morning, first thing. But you and I need to sit down and have a hard talk about what your role really will be. We can’t screw this up or Washington will have our heads.”

“Yes sir, of course. I completely agree.”

Wriston headed to his car, yanked open the door. “Let’s meet for lunch tomorrow…how about 11:30…Crab Shack, over by Oyster Pond.”

“It’s a deal, sir.”

Wriston got in, started up his auto-yota and the car pulled out of the Lab parking lot on its own.

Josey Holland rubbed her hands with anticipation. She could handle Stephen and his damnable lawyers just fine. She could handle Hannah’s outbursts and her frazzled teachers just fine too.

She was less sure about diving to two thousand feet aboard the coffin-size personnel sphere of Poseidon, even though she had just finished re-qualifying two months ago. It wasn’t so much claustrophobia…the medics had disabused her of that notion right from the start. It was more…

well, what actually was it? Tons and tons of seawater pressing on every square inch of her little enclosure? Instant death seconds away? Nightmarish creatures with gaping jaws and razor teeth that reminded her of Sunday School depictions of Satan in the Garden of Eden?

Maybe it was just unease about the unknown…about what they would find on the floor of the mid-Atlantic Ocean a hundred miles northeast of the Bermuda Platform. She shook her head and headed back into the Lab, willing herself to stop seeing that last frozen frame of Beagle’s imagery, the one right before the creatures had attacked. The one where she could see the anger on their dolphin-like faces quite clearly…that and the spear-type weapons they were clutching.

Maybe the press and all their hyper-ventilation about a new civilization and Atlantis finally discovered were right. Stranger things had happened.

The Poseidon/Proteus expedition departed Woods Hole’s Challenger Docks at Little Harbor two weeks later, a bright, breezy early spring day in New England. Josey Holland was at the side railing just aft of Neptune’s bridgehouse when they cleared the channel markers at Nobska Point and headed out to sea through light surface chop.

Other crewmembers and scientists were stationed all around her on the deck, taking in their last view of land and the mega mansions dotting the Vineyard and the white shaft of the lighthouse, just nosing over the horizon. But the crew left Holland alone for it was clear to all that the marine biologist was deeply troubled by something and the long lines on her face showed it. Only a few of them knew that Dr. Josey Holland was right in the middle of a really messy divorce and had become increasingly worried about who would get custody of Hannah and Timmy.

Nobody dared voice what Holland herself was voicing in her own mind: I’m really am just running away from everything out here and there’s no denying it anymore.

Dr. Josey Holland Lifelogger Post:

I suppose I really can’t hide it from myself anymore…God knows I’ve tried. I hate to admit it but every time I look at the last images from that incident with Beagle—the one Plath and Lefbridge and everybody thinks was an attack—when I look at those faces, I see Stephen. The smirk, the sneer, the raised eyebrows that tell me he thinks he’s going to win this contest…it just makes me scream.

Yesterday, just before we all met with Dr. Wriston, I got a ping on my slate…Stephen’s lawyers have filed a motion with the court. They’re petitioning to have custody of Timmy and Hannah taken away and awarded to Stephen…can you believe that? I mean, the nerve.

Stephen’s got his job. He’s got all his clients. He’s got perks, an expense account, big office, fancy dinners with politicos all over the place. When you’re a lobbyist and a consultant, the world is yours. Arm twisting and schmoozing—that’s what he does best. He’s even doing it with the court now.

Me…I’m a scientist. I mean, look at me. I work in a lab, with marine animals. I wear a smock. I’m dirty all the time. The petition says I love my animals more than my children. Come on…really? I love Gracie and Mason and Penny and Ralph and Alice more than my kids…who would say that? Who would believe that?

I guess I have to think Stephen’s capable of getting anyone to believe anything…that is his job, after all.

Somewhere in all that legalese in the petition, I can hear Stephen’s snorky laugh: “She can’t love her own kids like they need because she spends all her time with whales and dolphins.” Beaks and flippers versus lips and bruised kneecaps.

The worst part is this expedition with Poseidon and Proteus, out to the site. The petition doesn’t say it in so many words, but I know Stephen…he’ll be in his lawyers’ ears whispering the trip is just more evidence…right in the midst of a custody battle, she goes to sea and cavorts with the fish. What does that say…huh?

What I fear most is this: there may actually be a little truth in what Stephen says. Hey, I’m not finished yet, but they’re calling me up on deck…abandon ship drill. Everybody has to muster topside. Got to go…but you know you haven’t heard the end of this.

The Pentagon

Office of the Chief of Naval Operations

Washington, D.C.

May 29, 2115

10:30 hours

Admiral Ray Davies shook hands with SecDef Jim Bergland outside the front doors of the CNO suite, while salutes snapped left and right. Davies grabbed Bergland by the arm and steered him past the oil portraits of Halsey and Nimitz and Dewey and Zumwalt and MacKenzie into office 4E2101, the CNO’s fourth-floor E-ring compound, gliding across the plush blue and gold carpet to an inner office that Davies liked to use for quiet meetings.

“I’ve got the vid footage up from Mackinac Island again, just to look for anything we might have missed before. POTUS will be here in half an hour, so I hear.”

Bergland allowed himself to be steered until Davies shut the door, then pulled free. The Secretary of Defense was a big, ruddy outdoorsy guy, with a booming voice and a crushing handshake. He was used to being in charge in this building.

“Has the President seen this before?” he asked. Flickering on screens all about the office, vid of the first meeting between Seomish immigrants and humans aboard the destroyer Mackinac Island was playing out inside that ship’s wardroom. The meeting had taken place in the middle of the Atlantic, only two weeks before, not far from Bermuda. The vid footage shot aboard Mackinac Island had been a closely kept secret ever since…that and later meetings at Fleet Forces Command Headquarters in Norfolk. Every second of it had been classified SCI Purple.

“Only snatches of it,” Davies admitted. He poured some tea for Bergland and some coffee for himself. “I want to show her the whole thing, before we get down to business. It’ll help focus her mind on what’s important.”

Bergland sipped at the steaming hot tea, wincing a bit. “And you think this is all some Russian plot? Or Chinese, maybe?”

Davies shrugged, sank back in his leather chair, which squeaked with the added weight too many years ashore had put on him. “I don’t know what to think, Jim, but I don’t see how it could be anything else. I met the characters in Norfolk and they seem legit, but… really…talking fish from outer space? Come on…I’m an old sailor and I’ve seen lots of strange things in my forty years at sea, but this tops all of it.”

Bergland strolled about the office, idly picking out books from the shelves… Halsey…The Influence of Sea Power…Full Steam Ahead…books and tablets stuck every which way in Davies’ bookcases. “You know the President will want recommendations.”

“And options…she always wants options. Here—” he handed the SecDef a slate with scribbles all over the screen. “Here’s my thinking right now…I’d like to know yours…before you know what hits the fan.”

Bergland sat himself down in a wing chair opposite the desk and scanned, mumbling to himself as he did so. “Hmmm…media coverage…the people at Woods Hole…national security site…surveillance options…more contacts…you been sleeping with this, Ray?” Bergland looked up and squinted at his CNO. He’d known Davies for decades, from the time he had been a pink-faced Lieutenant in the gunnery division of an old rattletrap tin can named Mobile.

Davies didn’t scare easily. He was calm, resolute and didn’t flap around when the bullets started flying or the boilers started blowing up. But now…Bergland just shook his head. Watching Davies watch himself in the Norfolk footage was like watching your best friend look on at his own funeral. The man was whiter than snow.

“I haven’t slept much period the last few weeks,” Davies admitted. “It isn’t so much the career impact for me…I can live with what happens to me. It’s just that I don’t want to make a mistake. None of us do. This whole thing is either one of the greatest disinformation campaigns ever perpetrated or an intelligence windfall the likes of which we’ll never see again in our lifetimes.”

“Suppose you’re right…it is the Russians. Or the Chinese. Or both. Why go to all this trouble? What do they gain by this?”

Disinformatsiya, Jim. Like I said. They’re trying to distract us from something else. Or cover up something else. Maybe they’ve made a discovery below the sea somewhere else…

could be anything…and they want to steer us away from it. Hell, I don’t know. But that’s what we have to find out. That’s the tack I’d like to take with the President.”

Bergland looked right into Davies’ hard blue eyes. “What if we’re wrong? What if this isn’t a Russian plot? What if these— characters—” he indicated the footage of the Seomish on the screen, clad in their armored mobilitors, wheezing and shifting under the weight of all their gear inside the destroyer’s wardroom—“are just what they say they are? Creatures from some other place…I mean, that is possible, Ray. It’s not an impossibility.”

Davies folded his arms over a fruit salad of medals and ribbons covering the chest of his dark blue uniform. “Then…we’re in a whole new ball game, Jim. And nothing you and I know to be true, none of our lifetime of experience, means squat. A whole new book, full of blank pages…that’s what we’re facing.”

At that very moment, a short knock on the door came and a tall, lean lieutenant commander with a blond buzzcut peeked in. “The President is here, sir…just coming on board.”

Davies got up abruptly, as did Bergland, and brushed imaginary lint off his uniform. “Okay, thanks, Chad. We’ll be right out.”

The SecDef and the CNO went right out to greet POTUS.

Dr. LaTonya Kendrick had only been president for about six months and Davies never failed to be impressed by the physical stature and bearing of the woman, when she came into the office striding like a sleek cruiser knifing through calm waters into some exotic foreign port.

Kendrick was a tall and regal ebony-black woman of striking beauty and Cameroonian descent, with fierce warrior eyes and bristly conical hair, adorned by an ivory and bone hairpiece that rattled when she turned her head. She shook hands with Davies and Bergland and the three of them soon disappeared into Davies’ inner office.

The screens were still looping footage from Mackinac Island.

“Good morning, Madame President. Welcome to the crow’s nest.”

Kendrick blinked. “I’m sorry, Admiral…the crow’s nest?”

Davies smiled. “Yes, ma’am. That’s what we call the CNO’s suite. It’s a nautical term…it means the lookout post, tallest point on the ship’s mast.”

“Lookout post…no doubt looking out for me, I would think.” She smiled faintly at her little joke.

Davies and Bergland forced a laugh in sympathy.

“Madame President, we have coffee, tea, cakes, anything you’d like.”

The President availed herself of a small cup of tea, which she poured herself. She noticed the vid screens. “Ah, yes, the first meeting with our space friends. May I—?” she picked out the wing chair Bergland had left his own slate on, which the SecDef hurriedly removed to make room. Kendrick studied the footage for several moments, saying little.

“I came here for answers, gentlemen,” she said, at last. “Recommendations on how we should approach this matter. My own national security team informed me this morning that the Woods Hole people have already sent another expedition to the…uh, site. M-1, is that what we’re calling it today?”

Davies nodded, “Yes, Madame President. Site M-1. One of our recommendations is for you…as Commander in Chief…to designate Site M-1 as a top-level national security site. Doing that gives us some options…pardon my language, ma’am, but also some additional legal cover to undertake certain surveillance and, if necessary, other missions.”

“Agreed,” the President decided. “Make the necessary arrangements and send the details to the White House. I’ll sign it today.”

“Yes, ma’am. At once—” Davies pecked out a quick order on his slate…the CNO’s commandpad and squirted off to his staff.

Kendrick studied the vid screens with a steely concentration, occasionally pursing her lips into a tight line, emphasizing her mango-colored lipstick choice that morning.

“What about the media? What do we do about all the hysteria…Atlantis and space aliens and all?”

They discussed the matter for a few minutes. Bergland offered this:

“Madame President, I think we should be reasonably transparent with the media, without revealing too much of our plans. As of now, per your orders, we’re just watching M-1 and the creatures…they call themselves Seomish, I’m told. We have extensive surveillance assets in the area, surface, sub-surface, aerial and satellite. We have additional capabilities and assets as well.

We feel…Admiral Davies and I feel…that we have the assets to deal with any eventuality at the moment. If the Seomish…make any threatening, hostile or intimidating move away from their base around the Muir seamount, we’re prepared to engage immediately.”

“On my orders, Mr. Bergland,” she reminded them both.

“Of course, Madame President. And we’re coordinating worldwide with CIA and foreign intelligence services in case the Russians or the Chinese try anything. You know, it’s just possible this is a diversion and some big move may be coming in the Pacific…or the Indian Ocean.”

Kendrick allowed the possibility. “My Igbo ancestors in Cameroon used to have a saying, gentlemen: Ukpala gbabara n'ikpo okuko na-ala ala mmuo. It means ‘the grasshopper that runs into the chickens’ nest ends up in the land of spirits.’ We need to be careful with our allies…and the Russians. Plus we have other parties…other grasshoppers…in the area. Like our friends from Woods Hole. My national security advisor thinks we should keep them away from M-1.”

“So do I,” Davies said. “If you designated M-1 a national security site, that becomes a lot easier.”

“Consider it done. I don’t want any interference with what our civilian scientists are doing…as long as it’s just observation and research. The ocean is a commons and everybody has the same rights.”

Davies had a thought. “Madame President, I’d like to propose something else as well. I’d like to try to re-engage with the Seomish. Re-establish contact. As you can see from the vid footage, several of the creatures looked a little different. That one there—” Davies pointed to Chase Meyer on the screen “—the one that looks like the Creature from the Black Lagoon…he actually claimed to be human…from Florida no less. He spoke through some kind of device, but his words, his voice…it sounded American. He’s the one who explained more or less what the Seomish want.”

Kendrick looked up from the nearest screen. “And what is it they want?”

Davies shrugged. “Basically, as I understand it, and I’m paraphrasing what Commander LaRue was told in that wardroom: the Seomish came from a world that was doomed. They came through some kind of gateway…those were the waterspouts the Navy saw all around the area.

They’re like immigrants…like Mexicans or Asian immigrants. They want to build a new home in the sea here, under the sea. They’re true marine creatures, so I’m told…except for this Chase Meyer guy. He claims to be human, just modified somehow to be able to live on their world.”

“The doomed world,” Kendrick repeated drily.

“Exactly. That’s what came out of the meeting, on board Mackinac Island and at Norfolk. I heard different variations but that’s the gist.”

“Do you believe this, Admiral?”

Davies figured the question would eventually come up. He hadn’t yet figured out an answer so he tried being honest. “Madame President, honestly, I’m not sure what to believe anymore.

I’ve met these creatures in person. Part of me, the Naval and rational side of me, says this is some kind of game. It’s a trick. A diversion. And the Russians and/or the Chinese are behind it.

I can’t prove it, but that’s what the Navy part of me says. Strategic deception.”

“And the other parts…assuming there are other parts?”

Davies shook his head, picked up a small-scale model of a fast-attack submarine off his desk, the newest Oregon-class boat and turned it end for end. “There is a small part of me that wonders…what if the Seomish are exactly what they say they are…immigrants… visitors from another place. Another world that was destroyed. It’s not likely, but it’s also not impossible.”

“And what of it, Admiral?”

Davies put the model down and stared right at Kendrick, right at her walnut-brown eyes. He could see his own reflection in them. “Then this is the greatest discovery ever made in human history and we need to take advantage of it. Before others do.”

“Like the Russians,” Bergland added.

Kendrick nodded faintly. “I tend to agree. Here’s another saying: ‘ when the vulture doesn’t hover over the sacrifice, there’s something going on in the land of spirits.’” It was clear from her posture that LaTonya Kendrick had made some decisions. She stood up and stretched herself to her full six-foot two-inch height, eye-level with Davies and Bergland. “Keep the civilians and the Woods Hole expedition under very close surveillance, but don’t interfere…yet. Try to re-establish contact with this fellow that looks like a frog…I see in the vid, there’s a girl there also?”

“Yes, Madame President. An American…she’s in diving gear in the vid. Name’s Angie Gilliam, we believe. We’ve already checked her background and story out.”

“She’s in the States?”

“Scotland Beach, Florida. She’s a high school senior and a volunteer at a hospital in Gainesville.”

“Pick her up,” Kendrick told them. “I’d like to have a more intensive interrogation of this person. Completely legal, you understand. I read the transcripts and I’m convinced she knows more than she’s letting on. Maybe she can help us.”

“She could be a valuable intel source,” Davies admitted. “I’ll contact Jacksonville District and get them on it.”

Kendrick ended the meeting. “Gentlemen, I need more information. You could be right.

This may all be just a diversion, perpetrated by our adversaries. But diversion from what? Or it may be something else. Either way, I need to know more. Jim—” she said to the SecDef, “work up a plan to take complete control of Site M-1 at a moment’s notice, on my orders. And make sure this plan has some means of rounding up all the creatures, the Seomish. Call it whatever you want…protective custody, humanitarian assistance, medical quarantine, just make sure there’s a plan: resources, everything. On my desk by tomorrow morning.”

“Of course, Madame President. I’ll bring it personally.”

Kendrick was already pulling open the door. Naval personnel and Secret Service came to attention just beyond.

“I want a daily briefing on all this, starting tomorrow at 0800 hours. Make it part of the President’s daily brief. I won’t bore you with any more Igbo sayings, but understand this: the United States will not be caught flatfooted by these developments. I want to be on top of everything at all times. I want to be able to move quickly, if circumstances warrant. Admiral,

Mr. Secretary, we shouldn’t fear immigrants, no matter where they come from. My ancestors came from Cameroon several hundred years ago, unwillingly, I might add. One of their descendants is now your Commander in Chief. Think about that today.”

LaTonya Kendrick then disappeared into a throng of escorts, Secret Service and staff, heading out into the Navy Hall and down the fourth floor of the E-ring to the flag officers’

elevator.

Bergland and Davies just looked at each other, saying nothing. Their eyes said it all.

There was one hell of a lot of work to do.

Keenomsh’pont

The Muir Seamount, near Bermuda

June 4, 2115

12:00 hours

The Neptune expedition was still two days away when the kels’ exploratory teams started off, to much fanfare and excitement. The seamount was alive with kelke as thousands gathered to cheer on their teams. The Eepkostic and the Ponkti had congregated in caves and niches and warrens and burrows along the base of the mountain, while the Orketish, the Skortish and the Omtorish had built their own encampments in folds of volcanic tuff across the seabed to the south.

Each settlement had been demarcated by bubble curtains and natural seabed topography, along with hundreds of tents, canopies and rock barriers to set itself off from its neighbors. The Metahs had decided that, for the corps of exploration, each kel would select six explorers to travel in two kip’ts. The kip’ts gathered atop a slight rise in the ocean floor, in the center of ring of venting hydrothermal smokers, forming a sort of natural stage that had become a gathering place for all immigrants in the days after the Landing.

Speeches were made, mekli priestesses blessed each team, ribbons and prizes and honors were bestowed, songs were sung and traditions observed, the ancient currents of Seome remembered, historic sounds and scents released were into the waters and all of it was a great and glorious, even raucous time, for the tu’kelke had allowed themselves few such days since arriving in the seas of Urku and by now, the tensions had already started to boil over.

Few gave any thought to what the Tailless might make of all the racket. But one who did was Chase Meyer.

Chase had been assigned to pilot one of the two Omtorish kip’ts. Manklu tel, the old kip’t driver from the days of the P’omtor Current and the Serpentine Gap, would pilot the other.

“I’m sure they can hear all this,” Chase told Manklu before they boarded their kip’ts. The Metah of Omt’or was already on her way to give final blessings and instructions to the explorers.

Manklu grunted, checking out final fittings of his own kip’t, peering into the thruster cones, checking flaps and planes and rudders, running fingers along the canopy seals. “Kah…what if they do? What can they do about it? We’re thousands…they can’t get rid of all of us.”

Chase, mindful of how many species had been hunted to extinction in the past, wasn’t so sure. “Maybe not but I’m pretty sure Humans won’t take too kindly to the idea there’s another intelligence down here. They know we’re here…we’ve already met with some of them onshore.

Frankly, I’m surprised they haven’t sent more officials.”

Manklu was publicly unconcerned. “They live in the Notwater…what would they want with us…or these waters?”

“Don’t underestimate us Humans,” Chase told him. “When there’s competition around, we’re capable of anything.”

Mokleeoh soon appeared, surrounded by her court, including her much-loved privy councilor Oncolenia. Likteek had come along too, with last minute guidance.

Likteek handed Chase a scentbulb. “Official orders. The route you must follow is here, laid out in the scents. Follow it closely, reconnoiter the seas, gather as much information as you can and record everything.” The kip’t was already crammed with blank bulbs for recording.

“It’d be easier if I had a map I could read,” Chase said. “I don’t smell scents as well as you guys.”

Mokleeoh seemed unconcerned. “Eekoti Chase, you’re still a creature of the Notwater. And these are your waters. But Manklu will guide you.”

Chase had discussed the route with Likteek over the last few days. He knew, from their experience with the U.S. Navy a few weeks before, that the Farpool had dropped all the tu’kelke in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, not far from Bermuda. The waters allotted to the Omtorish explorers was west of the Landing, west toward the Gulf Stream and North America. Chase had done most of his diving in the Gulf; only once had he and his dad Mack Meyer ventured into the Atlantic, and that had been in the seas around the Bahamas. He figured if they ever reached the Gulf Stream, he’d have some idea of where they were.

And even the possibility of going home to more familiar waters excited him.

Mokleeoh gave them her final words—something about the glory of Omsh’pont and the steadiness of the Sk’ork Current and the comforting grind of the polar ice cap floes up north—

Chase didn’t quite catch all of it—and they were off. A great cheer erupted behind them as the two kip’ts lifted away from the seabed and turned west by southwest, heading for the lower flanks of the Bermuda Platform.

Soon, the two kip’ts were alone in the vastness of the Mid-Atlantic, and only the somber moans and murmurs of distant whales accompanied them. Chase fell in behind Manklu’s sled, homed on its steady thrumming sound and let his mind wander, now alone with his thoughts.

Mokleeoh had said something that both disturbed him and made him think: You are still a creature of the Notwater, eekoti Chase. And it was true, wasn’t it? He’d gone through the em’took and most Seomish thought of him as at least partly one of them, didn’t they? Well, maybe not the Ponkti, but even Mokleeoh had made him a sort of ambassador to the Tailless…

the Humans. But what was he really? Half human? Half Seomish? Half breed, a hybrid? No longer quite the beach bum his dad was sure he was, but maybe not quite the intergalactic diplomat Mokleeoh envisioned. All he’d ever really wanted to do was play his go-tone with the Croc Boys, jam and make music. That and fool around with Angie Gilliam. Now, look at him….

His thoughts were roughly interrupted by Manklu’s gruff voice, spilling over the comm circuit. Manklu spoke with a thick accent more typical of the Skortish, a result he often said of riding the Sk’ork Current back and forth into the southern seas to Tostak and Kekah and the lava trenches and back. Chase had to adjust his own echopod to make any sense out of Manklu’s growling.

“Sounding something ahead, eekoti Chase. I don’t recognize it the echo…pretty big. Hard material, too—maybe metal of some kind.”

Chase had it too on his sounder and was equally puzzled. “Better give it a wide berth, Manklu. It’s probably a submarine of some type. We don’t want to tangle with one of those.”

Manklu steered onto a heading further south, away from the target, but the thing maneuvered to adjust its own course and slipped directly into their path. Both of them could hear the pinging of active sonar.

“It’s detected us,” Chase said. “They’re tracking us.”

But before they could maneuver again, Chase saw it. It was a sub.

It materialized out of the murk so suddenly he had to swing hard right to avoid a collision.

Manklu had swung left, and both of them passed by on either side of the thing.

Against Manklu’s orders, Chase slammed his own kip’t to a halt and swung around again, parking himself only a few dozen meters away. He peered out at their unwelcome visitor.

It was a small submersible, painted in bright yellow and black, with a bubble nose and a sail, its bow festooned with all manner of effectors, manipulators and sensor pods. There was an open sample basket protruding from the bow, like some kind of chin, and a quartet of thruster pods attached to the stern. Above the chin of the craft, Chase was startled to see faces moving in a porthole; the thing was manned. At least two humans were inside a pressure sphere and they were leering back at him even as he was unsealing his own canopy.

Eekoti Chase, get back inside and let’s be on our way. We need to give this creature a wide berth…remember our mission…remember our orders.”

“Our orders are to reconnoiter and gather information,” Chase reminded Manklu. “That’s what I’m doing…reconnoitering. There are people inside that thing.”

Against Manklu’s stern orders, Chase left his own kip’t and stroked his way over to the sub.

Stenciled on the sail was a name in block letters: P-O-S-E-I-D-O-N.

Chase positioned himself to peer into the porthole and quickly realized that one of the crewmen was female…a willowy-looking, rather lean female with long blond hair, a dimple in her chin and a comm headset around her ears. He was about to rap on the porthole and wave, try to get a dialog going, when he felt something bump him from behind.

Startled, he turned to see one of Poseidon’s manipulator arms closing in fast. He struck out, banging his hand on its effectors and quickly found himself pinned against the hull of the sub.

“Ugghh…hey…wait a…errgghhh…!” He thrashed a bit, kicked and scratched the manipulator arm and managed to loosen the pressure a bit, but by then Poseidon had started to move away and was turning about, with Chase still trapped in its metallic embrace.

They were underway, with Chase as an unwilling passenger, when Manklu realized what was happening.

“Eekoti Chase…get out…get away--!” Manklu started to exit his own sled, then stopped.

“I…can’t…I’m…like, trapped…kind of…ugghhh…pinned here.” He grunted out.

Already Poseidon was ascending, heading for the surface. Manklu was stunned at the sight for a moment, then had an idea and got back inside his own kip’t. He cranked the canopy down, gunned her jets and lifted briskly up, planing up and racing to catch up with the Human craft, now clearly heading for the surface.

Manklu bore down on the sub, intending to approach it from the side opposite to where Chase was trapped, intending to ram the beast and shake and jar it enough to give up its prey.

The impact shattered the kip’t’s bow and nearly buckled its canopy. The sub shuddered from the impact, rolled a bit, then dropped more ballast blocks from her side trays and shot upward like a bubble. The kip’t was sluggish responding to Manklu’s controls and when she finally heeled about, the sub was already breaching the surface, nosing into the Notwater and Manklu knew there was no way he could go there…neither the kip’t nor he was equipped for such a venture.

He broke off the ascent, swore loudly and circled twenty meters below the sub as it wallowed at the surface. Presently, he sounded a much larger ship approaching from the west. It droned on toward them, her keel and twin screws raking the waters with serious turbulence and Manklu found it expedient to back off, descend and watch for a few moments.

“Manklu, what are we going to do?” came a strained voice from behind. It was Kalomee, an Academy engineer from Likteek’s group, riding with Manklu on the voyage of exploration.

“The Tailless have eekoti Chase…we can’t go up there, can we? We have to do something!”

“Calm down, calm down…I’m sending a message back to Keenomsh’pont…to the Metah.

The repeaters will pick it up.”

Manklu sang out the details of what had happened, hoping that the waters of this strange world of Urku would carry the signal as well as they did on Seome. It was a simple message, describing what had happened: we were attacked by a Tailless craft…eekoti Chase tried to intervene…he was taken and is being carried away even now…we need help.

The song was sung—even Kalomee joined in—and then all they could do now was wait.

Manklu continued circling below the surface while the craft named Poseidon surfaced and was hoisted on board the larger ship, the mother ship. He even chanced a brief visit to the surface, breaching the waves and foam only a few meters aft of the big ship, momentarily caught in its prop wash, trying to see what had happened to eekoti Chase.

Meanwhile, the repeaters that Omt’or and the other kels had already deployed soon picked up Manklu’s message and passed it on, lending their own tones and harmonics to the urgency of the communication.

When she received the signal, Mokleeoh became furious. She was on a short roam about the Omtorish settlements, now burrowed well into the flanks of the seamount, so that the kelke infested every niche and fold in the great mountain, when her privy councilor Oncolenia heard the songs and brought them to the Metah’s attention.

“Affectionate Metah…they’re in great trouble…Manklu sings of a Tailless craft, two of them…and how they captured eekoti Chase…even now—”

Mokleeoh stopped her roaming abruptly and glared at her councilor. “Eekoti Chase…

captured…by the Tailless?”

Oncolenia dipped a beak. “It is so, Affectionate Metah…here are the details.” And she sang out the contents of the message. With each word and refrain, the Metah grew angrier and more agitated, until she finally stopped Oncolenia in mid-sentence, with an abrupt wave of her forepaddles.

Enough! I’ve heard enough. This cannot be allowed to stand. Eekoti Chase is vital to Omt’or, to our plans for making a home in this world. He knows the Tailless…he can secure advantages for us with these creatures.” To Oncolenia, she barked out: “Summon the Kel’em.

We’ll roam…I need to advise Oolandra, Keelemah…even Lektereenah, they all need to know this.”

“But, Metah…how shall you reply…the message is urgent…they need help.”

Mokleeoh resumed her roam with an angry snap of her tail. Oncolenia and the rest of the court hastened to keep up. They headed down slope, to the canopies of the court at the very base of the seamount, a rise of volcanic tuff mangled into strange, even bizarre shapes by the heat of nearby hydrothermal vents. Columns of steam issued from the seabed, forming a natural curtain around the Metah’s compound. Prodsmen surrounded the rise as well, lending additional security, shooing away petitioners and curiosity-seekers by the dozen.

“Tell them this: tell Manklu to continue his mission. Proceed as planned with the expedition. Stay on their original course and leave the Tailless craft. We’ll form a rescue mission to bring eekoti Chase back to us. Hurry! Get the message out immediately.”

“At once, Honorable Metah,” Oncolenia streaked off to find the Metah’s repeater and pass on the words. The repeater would take the message and put it into the proper format, and ensure that it went out at the right volume and frequency—they were still learning the characteristics of the waters of Urku—so that more distant repeaters would hear the calls and pass them onto Manklu and his team.

Meanwhile, Mokleeoh already had in mind who she wanted to rescue Chase from the clutches of the Notwater people.

She reached her own canopy and issued a rapid-fire string of commands to her guard: gather the Kel’emwe will roam around the circumference of the mountain, where the currents change and mix and the waters are m’tkel’te , rough and mixed…a rescue mission will be created…send for Kok’tek as well…he’ll lead the mission.

So the leading members of all the em’kels…the Kel’em…gathered with Mokleeoh and made a roam about the perimeter of the guyot, halfway up its rugged slopes, cruising in perfect synchrony with a minimal guard force for the region was turbulent, salty and rough, not popular with any of the kels below.

Mokleeoh had chosen these waters to have some privacy.

Kok’tek was an engineer of some fame among the Omtorish, for it was he who had befriended eekoti Angie some time ago, on Seome, when she had come through the Farpool with the mortally injured Kloosee, to let them know that Chase was being held by Ponkti renegades back on Earth. Kok’tek was clever, resourceful, determined and technically savvy. He had worked with eekoti Chase to re-start the Farpool, to rebuild the wavemaker, after the Umans had pulled out of their base at Kinlok Island. Kok’tek had a visceral understanding of the Tailless.

He, of all kelke, would be able to find Chase and bring him home.

“Name your own team, Kok’tek,” Mokleeoh told him. They were circling the mountain through the turbulent water at a pretty high rate of speed, and Kok’tek found it hard to keep up; Mokleeoh loved to roam and she was a vigorous, almost effortless swimmer. “Take whatever weapons and gear you need. Mobilitors, prods, stunners, scentbulbs…we still have some mah’jeet in capsules…you can use them if you need to…whatever you need, I will approve. But find eekoti Chase and bring him back. He’s vital to our future.”

Kok’tek dipped a beak respectfully, peeled off from the roam, and quickly collected a small special forces team of five, all known to him, expert with prods, not afraid of the Notwater, accomplished in mobilitors, physically tough and courageous, dedicated to the letter of the Metah’s words and orders.

As they departed Keenomsh’pont in a small fleet of kip’ts, Kok’tek told them: “we’re going into Tailless territory…into their waters, into their world and probably into the Notwater. All of you have done this before.”

One prodsman, Gurlik, the one with the beak bent at an impossible angle, growled, “I’m not afraid of the Tailless. They bleed and die, just as we do.”

Kok’tek admired his courage, but wondered about his judgment. “It’s fine to be brave, Gurlik, but we have to be smart as well. They’ll have the advantage, especially in the Notwater.

We have to be smarter than they are, do what is unexpected, catch them off guard, move quickly, move quietly when we find eekoti Chase…get in and sting like the k’orpuh, and get out. That’s how we’ll do this mission.”

“We’re not tekmetah in this mission…free-bonded to the Metah?” another prodsman asked.

“There’s no time to be official,” Kok’tek said. “Consider yourselves bonded to me. Your lives and your scents and your honor are mine…now, waste no more time. Mount up and get your gear ready! We move out in two minutes.”

The team, who had decided to call themselves Me’k’orpuh…meaning sting of the k’orpuh snake…departed Keenomsh’pont with little notice from the kelke and sniffed and sounded ahead to locate the Tailless fleet now many kilometers off to the west and moving rapidly toward land.

It would take many hours for them to catch up but Kok’tek now had the echoes in his ears and the Omtorish closed the distance steadily.

Aboard Neptune, Dr. Josey Holland was practically speechless when Poseidon was finally secured in the ship’s aft well deck and she clambered out onto the platform, with her pilot Rick Leventhal, brushing back her hair which clung to her forehead with damp perspiration. She gaped at the creature squirming and struggling in the claws of Poseidon’s remote manipulator, which held Chase Meyer fast to the side of the hull.

“My God, Rick…what a moment! Never in my life did I think we’d be so lucky…look at him…a live specimen!”

Leventhal grinned, slurped down something cold a technician had given him, and nodded.

“If we’d just taken photos, nobody would believe us. Photos can be faked. This… this you can’t fake.”

Holland was concerned the creature would injure itself, trying to get free. “We’d better sedate it…before we transfer him to the tank. Jeez, in all my years, in all my dreams, I never imagined such a creature could exist…what the hell is he, amphibious, mammalian, some kind of pelagic throwback?”

Leventhal 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 both of them. 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.

Leventhal 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 Neptune’s Captain, Joe Melroy, finally showed up, having made his way down from the bridge. Already, Neptune was heeling to port, picking up speed—Melroy had ordered flank speed from the engine room, in an effort to get their strange catch back to Woods Hole and into the lab as quickly as possible.

Melroy stooped down as close as he dared and studied the now-still creature.

“My God, gentlemen, what on earth have we captured here?”

Two kilometers to the southeast of Neptune’s position, the U.S.S. Juneau was running quiet two hundred meters below the surface, her screw barely turning at seven knots. Her skipper had

been studying the thermal, visual and hyperspectral imagery from their Superfly micro-drone orbiting a thousand meters overhead, watching all the surface activity aboard the Neptune. He’d seen the Poseidon surface with her unwilling catch, the thrashing and struggling beast eventually tranquilized and moved deeper into the ship, probably to some kind of tank or wet lab or pool.

Commander Sam Cartwright snapped his fingers. “Recall Superfly…I’ve seen enough.

And spool this feed for a squirt to Norfolk. This we gotta call in. And Jim—" he snagged he arm of tactical officer Jim Beecham, “add this to the squirt: what does Fleet want us to do? Keep watching…intervene…or what? I need further orders…some kind of clarification on the rules of engagement. My orders right now say ‘maintain surveillance of site M-1.’ But the situation has now changed. The eggheads from Woods Hole have moved in and are now interacting with the creatures. Does Norfolk…or Washington…want us to engage? Send it…right now.”

Beecham snapped off a salute. “Aye, aye, sir.” He disappeared through the hatch, heading for the comm shack.

Cartwright stood alongside the periscope well and stroked his chin, thinking. “Helm, come about to two eight five and make turns for ten knots. I want to follow that ship for awhile. If she’s heading home with that specimen, we may need to keep an eye on her.”

Chapter 3

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute

Woods Hole, MA

June 5, 2115

Tank B was one of several holding pools that McLean Lab maintained away from the public areas. It was just beyond the Frommer Aquarium, up at the front entrance to the building, behind locked doors and connected by a narrow channel to a smaller research pool, equipped with all the gear that Woods Hole could afford, which wasn’t much. Holland always sighed when she saw the layout inside the 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 Woods Hole’s more popular attractions. They deserved better. A lot better.

Holland supervised off-loading the creature—for some reason, she had already named it in her mind Ralph, thinking of the Kramdens and the Honeymooners—and immediately changed into her wet gear. She entered the pool and laid out all her instruments, tugging up the nanobot 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 Woods Hole’s McLean Aquarium 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. “Chordata, I’d say…that’s what it looks like to me…but this guy must be twelve, maybe fourteen feet long, weigh a ton or more. I would say definitely ectothermic…and probably vertebrate. Some kind of amphibian.”

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 echopod implant.

To Josey Holland’s ever-lasting surprise, what she had thought was a particularly tough outer skin membrane turned out to be more like a suit of some kind, like a wet suit. And surgically embedded in the neck of the suit/skin was a small device, a round pod with a flashing pair of lights winking at them.

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

Longer and bulkier than a dolphin, Ralph had a short snub 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. And the blinking pod.

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…Woods Hole may have a new exhibit. Now, we just have to wake him up and keep him alive.”

“And figure out what the hell that gadget is,” Tracey muttered. “It’s not ticking, is it?”

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 Ralph and he lapsed into a deep sleep again.

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. Some tissue damage to what looks like the caudate lobe of the liver, also suprarenal glands and gastroplenic ligaments—could be Poseidon’s manipulators did that, when he struggled so.“

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

“And there’s no blowhole,” said Tracey. “Definitely not a mammal at all. If he’s amphib, the skin may allow for cutaneous respiration.”

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

Ralph was going to need nanobotic intervention right away.

Approximately, a quarter mile from the research pool at McLean Lab, a small reservoir off what the tourist maps called Vineyard Sound began stirring in a light breeze. It wasn’t a fetch caused by wind, however. To the utter consternation of several technicians walking along a graveled path alongside Oyster Pond Road, the waters of the Sound suddenly turned quite rough, though there was no appreciable wind. Breaching the surface out of the churn of foam and froth, arose several humpback craft, riding the offshore currents along the shell-covered beach for awhile, before nosing themselves into the sand. The tops of the craft popped open and half a dozen creatures, clad in glistening black armored mobilitors, emerged, stunners and prods at the ready.

Sergeant Steve Purvis had been with Woods Hole’s Uniformed Division for seven years, half of them with the Quissett Campus 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…Steve 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.”

Purvis had never seen anything like it in all his years on Quissett Campus. One minute, scientists and lab techs and admin types were strolling along the sidewalks, chowing down sack

lunches at the gazebo or spinning wild-hair theories to each other in animated talks under the elm trees and the next moment, five or six wackos who looked like creatures from the Black Lagoon were waddling up out of the Sound, scaring the bejeezus out of everybody.

Procedure said you issued challenges: Halt! Drop your weapons! Get on the ground!

Procedure said you gave the perps a chance to surrender. Procedure said you called for backup if the situation looked dicey and then you moved in carefully. But when Purvis’s throat went dry as the creatures appeared, he forgot all about Procedure.

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

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

The crowd pulled back about fifty feet, while Purvis 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 ones were mostly in the water, smaller in size, but still—now one of them removed something from a side pouch and aimed it in the general direction of the pedestrians.

Purvis 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 what the hell was that device in its hands?

Purvis got on the radio, ringing up Dispatch.

“Kitty, this is Quissett Two-Five…I got some kind of disturbance down here on Oyster Pond Road…I don’t know how to describe it…I have fired several rounds—need backup immediately…and something else: would you call Division? They’ve got more firepower…we may need some of that down here…and hurry!”

That’s when the Omtorish team lit off their suppressors.

A strong eye-blinding light went off, followed by a deafening BOOM! It came again, the light and the BOOM! Civilians nearby were stopped in their tracks and squealed as if the sound had injured them. Up on the side of the road, two more arriving officers had been knocked to their knees by the concussion, but got up. One of them—it looked like McNulty—regained his senses and went after the creatures. And now there were at least half a dozen…Purvis stared dumbfounded as more figures emerged from the waves, at least half a dozen, all clad in the same strange gear, armored gator skin was what it looked like.

Kok’tek ordered more suppressing fire. “Spray the area, Klatko! Keep them down…

Pelspo, get the stek’loo out and send it up! We need to sniff out eekoti Chase quickly…before the Tailless overwhelm us!”

Pelspo was just dragging himself up out of the water and trying to stabilize himself in his mobilitor. “Kah--!” he muttered to himself. “It’s so hard to move these blasted things.” But Kok’tek wanted surveillance, so he got himself upright, then dug the stek’loo out of its egg-shaped pod and flung it into the air.

Its wings snapped out smartly and the device spun up its bi-rotors and took off, climbing quickly into the sky, sniffing for the scent trail of eekoti Chase. To Officer Steve Purvis, still lying on his side, his ears ringing and bleeding, his head pounding from the suppressor burst, the sight of the pterodactyl-like creature swooping and diving and careening overhead made him figure he was dreaming some nightmare horror show of a dream. Presently, as Purvis struggled

to stay conscious, he squinted out of one eye and saw the flying beast from a million years B.C.

began to circle meaningfully and intently over the roof of the McLean Lab building, a few hundred yards up the hill. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the assault team of sea monsters

—for that’s what they looked like—begin to move out, clambering awkwardly up the sand hill toward Oyster Pond Road, the squad arrayed in perfect diamond formation with weapons trained outward at every compass point.

Man, Purvis told himself, this is no circus troop. These guys are pros.

When the next suppressor burst came and the sky filled with a deafening white light, everything became a blur and Purvis passed out again.

Kok’tek led his rescue team steadily toward the building above which the stek’loo circled, having picked up the scent trail of eekoti Chase. He was mildly surprised at how effective the suppressors had been, having leveled everything around them in a several hundred-yard radius.

He knew it was only a matter of time before the Tailless mustered greater forces. They would have to hurry.

Eekoti Chase was somewhere inside this building and the Metah had charged him with rescuing the half-breed and spiriting him back to sea, back to Keenomsh’pont.

I hope this is worth it, Kok’tek told himself. He heard, then saw, the small fleet of more police cars screeching to a halt down the road and ordered all suppressors and stunners to be discharged at once. The Omtorish were well protected in their mobilitors but the deafening BOOMS! shattered windows and set off sirens up and down the street. Bodies littered the road and grounds as the Omtorish team crept forward, their suit motors whirring and straining in the full gravity of Notwater.

For good measure, Kok’tek had Klensbok hang back at the rear-guard position and let loose a full discharge of mah’jeet. Nobody knew if the toxic bloom of tiny creatures would even have any effect on the Tailless but the fog of the discharge would at least make them cautious about approaching any closer.

Kok’tek reached the entrance of McLean Lab and easily forced his way in. Four more team members followed, while Klensbok and Potok stayed outside to protect their rear.

Inside, Kok’tek crept along the corridors, following the stek’loo’s cries and screeches until they came to a corridor labelled Research Pool: Authorized Personnel Only. He fired one burst of his prod, and the door sizzled and smoked, and he was able to kick his way in. Two more Omtorish followed immediately, sweeping their prods and stunners across every sector.

There were three Tailless inside. Two female and one male. They stood frozen in terror at the sight of the Omtorish and slowly raised their hands. Not understanding the gesture, concluding that it was in fact a threatening move, one Omtorish fired his prod. It hit the male, who crumpled immediately to the pool deck, twitching and shaking as he writhed on the wet tile.

The other Tailless immediately went to their comrade and bent to help.

Kok’tek had the only echopod but it was tuned to address and receive words from eekoti Chase. He gestured to his troops who then moved on the females and forcibly shoved them both into a corner of the room, where they cowered and whimpered in fear.

In the pool, Kok’tek saw the eekoti, limp and floating in some kind of sling. He waded into the pool, and released Chase from restraint.

Eekoti Chase, are you all right?” It was clear that the half-breed was only semi-conscious, having been heavily sedated by the Tailless bastards. He lolled and drifted, his head wobbling around as Kok’tek carried him up and out of the pool. The chief prodsman motioned for his troops to assist him and they hung at each side of Chase, supporting him as they exited the pool.

Back in the corridor, stepping around more Tailless who shrank down and cowered in humps along the walls, Pelspo made a hand gesture and the stek’loo abruptly returned to his shoulder, folding and stowing its winds and powering down its rotors with a defiant screech, whereupon Pelspo crammed the creature in its storage pod and resumed helping Chase limp and stumble his way back to the front gallery of the Lab building.

They left the McLean Lab, picking up Klensbok and Potok, and saw immediately that the Tailless had recovered and were moving on their position in great numbers, surrounding and flanking them so that the route back to the beach and the Vineyard Sound was now cut off.

“We’ll have to fight our way back!” Kok’tek announced. He quickly took stock of the situation, realizing with dismay that fighting in the land of Notwater was really a two-dimensional affair and they were restricted to surface operations. Combat in the sea was inherently a three-dimensional matter, where you could dive and ascend and get around flanking maneuvers much more easily. They hadn’t trained for combat in this strange world. Nobody had.

Then he had an idea.

“Pelspo, get the stek’loo out again. Now!”

At once, Pelspo withdrew the now-dormant creature. “Power up?”

“Yes, yes, at once. Power up! And bring me your suppressor. That mah’jeet sack too!

Hurry!”

There was a momentary scramble, made easier by the extreme caution with which the Tailless were making their approach, creeping forward bush by bush, parked car by parked car, ever tightening the noose around the front of the Lab.

Kok’tek knew they had to hurry. He spat out orders left and right.

“Give the mah’jeet to the stek’loo…pull the draw, so it will spill when he takes flight.”

“But, Kok’tek…there are still mah’jeet inside—we’ll be--”

“I know, I know…but we’ll use the swarm as cover. Here, Klensbok, give me your suppressor.” Kok’tek took the weapon and secured it to the stek’loo’s beak; the creature resisted but eventually gave in, resigned to carrying the device around its face. “Now, when it turns to follow us, I’ve set the suppressor to fire, maximum discharge. It’ll sweep everything around here, us included.”

“We’ll be knocked down, Kok’tek. We’ll never—”

“It will work,” Kok’tek insisted. “It has to work. All we need is some cover to make it back to the water.”

He made sure they had Chase firmly in tow, checked the rest of his force, then gave the signal. Pelspo twisted his mobilitor hand just so and the stek’loo leaped into the air.

“Now! Go…move quickly!” The force hustled across the road, just as the Tailless opened fire. Klensbok was hit, and went down heavily. Pelspo hung back to attend to his comrade but Kok’tek yelled at him.

“Leave him…we can’t stop! Keep going…keep going…go…go…go!”

The stek’loo, as expected, turned to follow the rescue team and when it did, the momentum of the turn opened the draw of the mah’jeet sack. Swarms of the toxic creatures spilled out, raining purple death down on the Tailless, though no one really knew if the poisons were fatal to Tailless. But it made effective cover, that and the suppressors going off all at once.

The Tailless quickly took cover and retreated, and Kok’tek used the moment to rally his force through the striped arms of the security gate, across Oyster Pond Road and down the sand embankment toward the waters of the Sound.

They slid and stumbled and dragged Chase past a small cottage with a sign reading Shore Lab and plunged into the waters. Small arms fire from the hill behind them peppered the waters with zings and hisses as a fusillade of rounds poured into the water.

Kok’tek sniffed and hunted for their kip’ts and found them all buried nose deep in the seabed, right where they had been left. The team got Chase into one of the sleds—he seemed to be gradually regaining consciousness—and loaded their gear, then themselves as well, and at Kok’tek’s signal, powered up their jets and scooted off the sandbar and headed deep.

It was a two, maybe three-day trip, back to Keenomsh’pont and it was only when they found deeper water and set the sleds to sniffing out their destination, eventually picking up the trail as a faint essence of familiarity in an ocean of unknown, that Kok’tek finally began to relax and let the fatigue and accumulated stress wash over him.

They had done it, somehow, some way. It had been close, too close. Kok’tek knew how vital eekoti Chase was to Omt’or and to the Metah. Now they had him and during the long voyage south to the Muir seamount, he wondered how many more times they would have to battle the Tailless to maintain the kel and their very lives on this strange, even threatening world.

We’ve invaded their territory, he told himself. They react as we would, just trying to protect their families, their communities, from us, from beings they don’t understand. We’re the outsiders.

Maybe the Metah was right. Eekoti Chase was their best hope, maybe their only hope, for dealing with the Tailless.

There had to be some way for the Humans and the Seomish to get along and live together on this peculiar and perplexing world of Urku.

Department of Homeland Security

Washington, D.C.

June 9, 2115

0930 hours

Seth Cameron had been Secretary of Homeland Security for only six months, but he had found the job just challenging enough and intriguing enough to keep his interest focused away from his real love, which was sailing, preferably on the ocean in his sixty-five foot beauty of two-master Devil May Care. At least, most of the time his interest was inside the office behind a two-acre desk and period furnishings that the Department bestowed on its top executive in compensation for having to deal with one crisis after another.

Honestly, six-foot swells and sea state five and a twenty-knot following wind were way better than this.

Cameron looked up at the FBI Director Jesse Hill and the Navy Secretary John Roark and took his glasses off, wiping them down idly with the end of his tie.

“This is legit? I mean…this really happened? It wasn’t a stunt or some protest thing or a movie being made?”

Hill pursed his lips and reviewed the Boston station chief’s report. “One dead, ten injuries, one critical…I’m pretty sure this was no moviemaker. I don’t know whether they were Russian divers or terrorists or some other nutcase with an agenda, but they basically made an amphibious assault on the Quissett Campus like professional soldiers, had a definite target in one of the buildings, located and secured their target and withdrew, using weapons and tactics that would have been worthy of the United States Marines.”

Cameron studied police dronecam video that had been made of the whole affair. “What about these outfits…and their gear? Foreign made, you think?”

Hill shrugged. “Hard to say. People on the scene said it might have been diving gear. It was the weapons that got everybody’s attention.”

Cameron said, “I heard…some kind of sound and light stun field. Any theories? Could these jokers have been Russians?”

John Roark knew that Cameron had no knowledge that the Navy had been contact with the Seomish for several months. He debated to himself what to reveal, and what not to, then went ahead, against his better judgment and against the SecDef’s explicit instructions. Now that the sea creatures had come ashore and actually assaulted people, the Bureau needed to know about this.

“Seth, I have to admit something here. I’m pretty sure we know who these folks are. You know all those stories in the news lately about sea creatures, new Atlantis, an intelligent underwater civilization?”

“I’ve followed them, yes.”

“That’s who’s on the vid. They’re called Seomish, so I’m told by our Navy people who’ve met with them.”

Cameron practically fell out of his chair. “What? Met with them? When did this happen?”

Roark related how the Navy had tracked the Seomish about their settlement near Bermuda and how they had finally been able to meet with them, first aboard a destroyer, then briefly at Fleet Forces Command in Norfolk.

“Bergland, the SecDef, had this all classified SCI Purple. Only the President and a few others know about them.”

Cameron was just shaking his head. Hill looked blank in disbelief. “Sensitive and compartmented…I love it. Apparently, I’m the last to find out. You’d think the Secretary of Homeland Security would be in the loop.”

Roark went on. “Now there’s been this assault. The Bureau needs to be in on this. And we’d better let the White House in on the details as well. If the Seomish start moving against our people or facilities, at sea or on shore, we’ve got a different problem. From the earliest meetings with the Navy, we heard that they were supposed to be a peaceful race.”

Hill said, “So the news is right…this is another race? Another species…never before discovered? This is insane.”

Roark said, “We don’t know how they came to be…that’s still to be learned. But they’ve got technology…and weapons…that make them a people to be reckoned with. Now the Woods Hole people have stuck their noses in this affair. The Navy’s been keeping the Seomish settlement…city…base…whatever it is, under pretty close surveillance. Woods Hole showed up with all their ships and grabbed a live specimen. There are some who think this ‘assault’ was actually a rescue mission…the Seomish coming after one of their own. On-scene reports from police indicate they went straight to the building where their comrade was held and sprung him out. After that, they vanished…back into the sea.”

Cameron threw up his hands. “This is just great. If these creatures hadn’t come ashore and killed some people and wrecked a major scientific institution, I guess I would have never known they even existed. You gotta love sensitive compartmented information….” He stopped when a chime on his wristpad chirped. Cameron studied the message, frowned and sighed deeply. “And here’s the best part—” he tapped at his wristpad. “It’s from Friedkin, the President’s chief of staff. POTUS wants us in the Oval Office in an hour.”

LaTonya Kendrick came into the Oval Office like the Igbo tribal princess she often tried to be in public, all statuesque and striking and strutting, almost gliding across the gold-colored carpet. She nodded faintly to everyone she passed: Seth Cameron, John Roark, Jesse Hill, SecDef Bergland, the CIA’s Dr. Kristol. The one visitor who she’d never met before caught her eye immediately and Kendrick paused in front of Dr. Josey Holland and sized up the marine biologist as a lioness would study her prey from a distance.

Finally, POTUS took a seat behind her massive oak desk, the Resolute desk, that had populated the office for the better part of three centuries, a one-time gift from Queen Victoria to President Rutherford B. Hayes. She twisted the bone and ivory trinkets in her hair idly.

“I just watched vids of the…er, incident at Woods Hole, gentlemen…and Dr. Holland.” She turned to face the biologist, seated on a cream-colored divan to her right. “Doctor, it seems like your talking fish friends…what is they call themselves--?”

“Seomish, Madame President. They call themselves Seomish.”

“Yes, of course…Seomish. It seems like the situation has changed. We’re no longer dealing with just an interesting scientific discovery…not when they come charging up out of the ocean and kill our people. Dr. Kristol---you had something you wanted to say?”

Edwin Kristol had been CIA Director for almost ten years now—through three administrations—and had been highly regarded and aggressively non-partisan—for all of that time. The former president of Harvard scrolled down some files on his wristpad and, with POTUS’ permission, ported them to everybody in the room. Kendrick studied the files on a slate at her desk.

“Madame President, I must emphasize the extreme sensitivity of this information and respectfully request that none of what I’m about to say leave the room—”

“Yes, yes, Edwin…we all know about your penchant for excessive secrecy. What is it?”

“Just this—” Kristol cleared his throat, “Madame President, we have to consider that what happened at Woods Hole is not an isolated incident.”

“Edwin, I’m scanning what looks like reports and scraps of reports. Explain.”

Kristol exchanged a brief nod with Bergland, the SecDef. The nod said: go ahead…we all agreed on the bonafides of this intel. “Madame President, there’s a growing consensus among my analysts and Mr. Bergland’s people that these sea creatures---these Seomish—are inherently hostile…maybe even allied with the Russians or the Chinese. You can see from the reports that there have been scattered instances of other encounters with these creatures. Fishing trawlers, freighters, naval and research vessels, even sporting boats and yachts and many of these encounters have resulted in injury or significant damage to property. Frankly, the frequency of the encounters is increasing rapidly and the severity of each encounter, the degree of damage or injury, is also increasing. The consensus among my people is that they’re testing us, testing our defenses and our responses to provocation. For what purpose, the data don’t really say but—”

“Probably a major military operation of some kind,” Bergland blurted out.

POTUS caught Dr. Holland squirming uncomfortably on her divan out of the corner of her eye. “You wish to add something, Dr. Holland?”

“Yes, ma’am. With all due respects, this analysis is utter nonsense. I’ve met the creatures themselves…at least, the one we caught near Bermuda.”

“The one they came after—” Kristol reminded everyone.

“We don’t know that,” Holland protested. “We had the creature, the subject, in our research pool at Woods Hole. I did some preliminary exams myself…this creature seemed distinctly

different from the others. He actually came to us, when we were diving aboard the Poseidon, curious, as if he wanted to communicate.”

“And you grabbed him,” said Seth Cameron. “Probably precipitating an international crisis.”

Kendrick steepled her hands under her chin. “And what did your exam show, Dr. Holland?”

Holland took a deep breath, checked some facts on her own wristpad. “I brought the results with me here. It seems that this creature was basically amphibious. Able to breathe in both air and water…it’s called cutaneous respiration. They can breathe through their skin. The creatures who came out of the Sound and entered the McLean Lab building didn’t seem like the same type…from reports and from what I witnessed, they were encased in some kind of armored suit, like a diving suit. We don’t have good information on what they’re like. It was too…chaotic, ma’am, at the time.”

“Are we dealing with more than one kind of creature?”

Holland wasn’t sure herself. “I don’t know, at this time, Madame President. We don’t have enough information to make any conclusions. That’s why we need to establish good communication with them, get them to trust us, build some kind of relationship.”

Roark scoffed at that. “Unlikely, if they take it upon themselves to come up on land and assault our people. I tend not to trust people who do that.”

“They were just trying to rescue their comrade,” Holland protested. “I’m sure of that.”

That caused POTUS’ well-highlighted eyes to lift. “Really? You just said we don’t have enough information to make judgments about their nature…or their motives.”

Holland tried to reply, but POTUS cut her off. “Doesn’t matter. We’re dealing with bigger issues here. I’m making a decision that we need to communicate the intelligence we do have to our allies, probably to NATO, to UNIFORCE, to our friends.” She saw the pained look on Dr.

Kristol’s face. “Don’t wet your pants, Edwin…we’ll make sure your sources and methods are protected. But this seems to have become a global problem and we need global answers.”

Kristol volunteered more background, raising his hand. “Madame President, this may be relevant: diplomatic sources are telling us that a number of nations are forming their own investigations. I’ve got indications from sources in China, Japan, Russia, Brazil. One media source…I believe it was Asahi Shimbun in Tokyo…termed this a ‘strange evolutionary outbreak of intelligent marine creatures.’”

“Maybe there’s a way to combine our investigatory resources,” POTUS proposed. There was a nodding of heads around the Oval Office. “I think we need to take this to the UN.” She consulted something on her slate. “Where’s Humango today…ah, right in New York. She can vidcon in.” She motioned her Chief of Staff over. “Fried, get Lucille Humango on the line. I’ve got a job for her.”

“At once, Madame President.” Art Friedkin rushed out of the Oval Office to set up the connection.

Moments later, the solemn, rather jowly face of the UN Ambassador flashed up on everybody’s wristpad. Humango was a lifelong diplomat and her cheeks and eyes showed un-re-sculpted bags that she kept to emphasize her experience and wisdom to all around her. Josey Holland blinked at the face she was seeing. Jeez, lady, try some nanoderm, why don’t you?

POTUS launched into the details of her idea, which she hashed out with her visitors in the Oval Office. Holland listened to the proposal with a growing sense of dread. The Seomish were about to become international pariahs, in her mind. They needed to be studied. Treated with care. Sensitivity. Approached with some understanding, even a little dignity. She had come to

believe that she and Rick Leventhal had been wrong in grabbing the Seomish creature at Muir seamount like they did. They were just trying to protect a comrade, she told herself. They were just reacting like we would. But then that thought actually made her shiver slightly. If the Seomish really did react like Humans, this whole encounter could turn ugly in an eyeblink.

It was happening right now, right before her eyes. She shook off the feeling that somehow, she had been transported from the Oval Office to the Barnstable County Courtroom and there was Stephen and his lawyers sitting nearby, so smug and sure of themselves, carefully enumerating every flaw and deficiency she’d ever shown as a wife and mother.

Josey Holland shook the image from her mind and tried to focus on what LaTonya Kendrick was instructing her UN ambassador to do.

The proposal made sense, in a cock-eyed sort of way. A new agency was to be created at the UN…something called UNCSBI. United Nations Commission on Sea-Based Intelligence. It was Navy Secretary Roark, a devout student of acronyms, who labelled the contraption

‘UNISEA.’ Everyone liked the sound of that.

As the discussion rolled through the details of how the agency would work and who would be appointed, Josey Holland had an idea. Like a schoolgirl, she shyly raised her hand.

“Yes, Dr. Holland? You have something?”

“Madame President, I have a recommendation for who should head up this agency, this UNISEA. Someone very well qualified.” It was important that UNISEA have a scientist at the top, rather than a politician or an admiral.

“Who do you have in mind?”

“He’s a world-renowned Japanese marine biologist. Dr. Keko Satsuyama…actually, a long-time colleague of mine.”

Nobody had any objections, to Holland’s great surprise.

President Kendrick approved the proposal to be put before General Assembly immediately.

Dr. Lucille Humango had her orders and she signed off the vidcon.

A week later, the formation of UNISEA was formally approved by the General Assembly and a new agency was born, headed by the esteemed biologist Dr. Satsuyama, who worked from his position as Distinguished Chair of Marine Biology at Waseda University, Tokyo. Satsuyama agreed to take the post after some last-minute arm-twisting by Holland.

His first order of business as new head of UNISEA was to schedule a trip to Woods Hole.

Dr. Josey Holland Lifelogger Post:

I guess we really have entered a new world now. It’s funny how your life can change so completely, so suddenly, almost like a phase change…you know: like ice to water to vapor and back. One minute you’re noodling along doing basic research on social dynamics of cetacean species, interesting but at times, sleepy stuff and the next minute, you’re in the midst of some international crisis, with the UN and the President and the military and even the friggin’ CIA, for God’s sake.

I guess I have ‘Ralph’ and his Seomish friends to thank for that.

I think the idea behind UNISEA is a good one. We need a coordinated response to the Seomish. I guess my biggest worry is that we’ll react emotionally, feel threatened and won’t think through what is happening: a new intelligence on Earth, a marine intelligence, heretofore undiscovered…do you think that’s threatening to a lot of cherished and well-established beliefs?

Is the Pope catholic?

Of course, when I learned that the Navy had already encountered the Seomish, even met with them, and kept it all a big secret, I wasn’t surprised. To them, anything different is a national security threat. I’ll have to admit I’m secretly admiring of any intelligent race that thinks enough of its members to organize and carry out a rescue mission; that’s what happened in Woods Hole. We should never have taken that live specimen. That was a mistake and I’m sure Dr. Satsuyama would agree.

Between this and the divorce, I don’t really know where my head is these days. I wish I could somehow ‘rescue’ Hannah and Timmy from Stephen and his lawyers…now there’s a true national security threat.

I find my thoughts shifting by the moment from the Seomish and all the promise we have of a relationship with a new intelligence, all the wonders we can learn, the mysteries we can unlock and what’s happening in the Barnstable County Courthouse. Stephen thinks I’m unfit to be a mother, that I’ve abandoned my children for dolphins and whales, that somehow I love sea creatures more than Timmy and Hannah. I won’t even dignify that with an answer…I mean, really!

But sometimes, like this morning standing in front of the mirror, before we went down to Washington, I will admit to feeling overwhelmed by all this…it’s like a movie projector in my head, with flickering images of ‘Ralph’ and the Seomish, interspersed with images of Stephen and that sneer on his lips, to images of Hannah and Timmy, to those frog-people waddling across Woods Hole to the Lab building…it’s all mixed up. I guess I am too.

My real concern is that the formation of UNISEA is just political cover and the politicians and the military people will be running the show behind the scenes. I’m afraid for the Seomish.

I’m afraid for us too. Encountering someone who looks different and sounds different and smells different from you, someone from outside the ‘tribe’ or the family, always brings out the worst in people.

I wish I knew what was going to happen…it’s getting pretty hard to hold it together lately….

Chapter 4

Gainesville, Florida

June 19, 2115

2315 hours

Angie Gilliam and Sheila Shivers usually got off their swing shift at University Hospital just after 11 pm every night and often stopped by the Omelet House diner on the Gulf Highway for eggs and bacon, maybe pecan pancakes too, on the way back to the Coconut Cabana apartments.

Tonight, they were both tired and drained. It had been an exhausting day on the 3rd floor, what with the old man in 310 passing away, and the family wailing and carrying on all over the hall, not to mention Mrs. Van Dyke and all her endless requests and complaints from 317…honestly, the woman could drive paint to curl off the walls.

So they went straight back to the Cabana, both intending to drink something, take a hot shower and fall into bed straight away.

But when they saw the dark unmarked car in the parking lot and two dark-suited men got out and approached them with that official you’re in big trouble look, they knew that none of this would ever happen.

One man was taller, rather gaunt actually, with a severe face that looked like it had been nanodermed by a surgeon in a hurry—his nose didn’t quite line up with his eyes—and the other man was shorter, stocky, fair-haired with large, almost feminine lips—Angie wondered momentarily what it would be like to kiss those lips, but quickly disabused herself of that idea.

“Miss Gilliam?” asked the short one.

“I’m Angie Gilliam,” Angie said.

Sheila was alert for trouble, her hands already reaching into the pocket of her light jacket—

the scrubs didn’t have much for pockets—for the spray, said, “Hey, we’re just nurses…we don’t have anything you’d—”

Crooked Face interrupted, “We’re not robbers, ma’am. That’s not why we’re here.”

“Then why are you here? It’s late and we’re both beat.”

Crooked Face seemed ready to take charge, raising a hand to cut off his partner. “I’m special agent Scanlon, FBI. This is—” he waved at his accomplice, “Mr. Levy…ONI. We just want to have a word with Miss Gilliam.” Automatically, they both produced official-looking badges.

“ONI? What the hell’s that?”

Now Big Lips—aka ‘Mr. Levy’ spoke up. “Office of Naval Intelligence, ma’am. We’d like for Miss Gilliam to come with us…we just have a few questions we want to ask.”

“So, ask.” Angie said.

“Not here,” Scanlon said, looking around. “We want you to come with us…the Federal Building downtown. It’ll be more comfortable, for all of us.”

Now the hairs on the back of Angie’s neck bristled. “Am I under arrest or something?”

Sheila tried to stick up for her young intern. “Look…I don’t know what this is all about but maybe I should get the resident manager out here.”

Scanlon tried to defuse the situation. “No need for alarm…it’s all routine. Just some questions. But we don’t want to do it here. In town, at our office. Nobody’s under arrest.”

Angie took a deep breath. Something inside told her: this has got to have something to do with Chase and what happened at that Lab in Boston. She really didn’t want Sheila to get mixed up in all this.

“It’s okay, Sheila. I think I know what this is about. Where are we going, again, so my roommate will know….?”

“Federal Center on East University Avenue, in Gainesville. The Bureau has an office there.

Think of this as an office visit, if you’d like.” Levy pursed those big lips into a faint smile, almost a smirk, amused at his own little joke.

“Yeah, right,” Sheila said, “This won’t hurt a bit—Angie, honey…are you going to be okay?

You don’t have to go, you know. You’ve got rights…I can call Barney and get him out here…he can deal with these jokers.”

Angie waved her off with more confidence than she really felt and she knew perfectly well Sheila wasn’t fooled. “No, honestly, I think I know what this is about. I’ll be okay…won’t I?”

“We’ll bring her right back,” Levy said. “This won’t even take an hour.”

Sheila relented and watched her roommate and intern climb willingly into the back seat of the sedan. It sped off, lights out, into the night.

Sheila Shivers rubbed her tired eyes and massaged an aching back and shoulders. “This is one girl that really needs a hot shower.” And a couple of fingers of that Absolut vodka afterwards.

She went inside the apartment and double-locked the door.

The Federal building on East University was in a part of town long known as the Duckpond.

It was a non-descript eight-story steel and marble thing, with fake Corinthian columns out front, a sort of semi-Parthenon and probably some unknown government architect’s salute to ancient Greek majesty and proportion.

The Bureau offices were on the top floor.

Levy and Scanlon showed Angie into a small room with a table and four chairs. There were obvious cameras and sensors along the ceiling. Angie sipped gratefully at a surprisingly good hot coffee and played with a tray of doughnuts as she analyzed her surroundings. She had seen enough cop shows to imagine that one wall—probably the one opposite her—was a big one-way mirror.

Girl, get a grip…this is not a cop show.

Scanlon and Levy both came in, minus their jackets, and both carrying slates. They sat down.

“Okay, Miss Gilliam…” Levy, the ONI guy was first up to bat, “you’re here because you’re connected with a national security case we’re investigating. We know you’re involved with Chase Meyer. What’s the nature of the relationship?”

Angie nibbled at a doughnut. “Is this about that situation up north? The lab place?”

“In a way. Are you and Mr. Meyer…close?”

“He’s my boyfriend, if that’s what you mean. Shouldn’t I have a lawyer or something?”

Scanlon said, “Miss Gilliam, that won’t be necessary. You’re not being charged with anything. You’re not under arrest. Answer our questions fully and you’ll be out of here in an hour, maybe less. Promise.”

Angie looked at both of them and didn’t believe a word of it. But, as her Mom always said: when in doubt, just tell the truth. Too bad Dad didn’t buy into that, she thought sourly. The dirtbag left us when I was five…hooked up with that whore in Tallahassee.

“Okay, yeah, Chase and I are, like, friends, okay. Maybe a little more.”

“And where is Mr. Meyer now?”

Here Angie had to think. Honestly, she didn’t really know. Except that she did. She’d seen the vids of the Woods Hole incident. It was Chase they had come for. She was certain of it, because Chase did that to people.

“Sir, I don’t know exactly where Chase is. That’s the truth.”

“Your boyfriend, Miss Gilliam, is mixed up in this case with the sea creatures. We think he’s with them, maybe aiding and abetting them.” Now, it was Scanlon’s turn and his mix-mastered face took on a more ominous, Halloween-like look. “We are talking possible espionage here. National security stuff.”

Angie laughed to cover the audible gulp she couldn’t quite hide. “Espionage? Chase…no way. This is…you’re not really serious, are you?”

Levy didn’t smile. “Very serious, Miss Gilliam. You could be an accessory to a class A felony under federal law. Is your boyfriend with the sea creatures? Is he working for them…or maybe the Russians or the Chinese?”

Scanlon chimed in. “Tell us what you know, from the beginning.”

Angie sniffed. If I told you, I wouldn’t believe it. She went through the details of how she and Chase had met: the shared classes at Apalachee High, the robbery at Turtle Key Surf and Board, where his Dad was wounded in the holdup, the surgery at the hospital, how Angie, as a Red Cross volunteer, had befriended Chase when he seemed so disconsolate. She tried to give them every excruciating detail she could think of, really overwhelm them so they’d be satisfied with that and not ask her questions she couldn’t answer, like was Chase one of the Seomish and had he really taken her on a six thousand-light year trip through a wormhole to an ocean world.

She still wasn’t sure that had actually happened but Chase kept insisting that it had…or it would…or it might…or something like that.

“Chase Meyer is not a foreign agent,” Angie turned their accusations around and threw them right back. “He’s not working for the Russians. He’s working at the board shop, after school.

He’s in a lot of my classes. We’re just dating…that’s all. And honestly, I don’t know where he is now.”

“But you could contact him, couldn’t you?”

She shrugged. “I don’t have a number to call or text or ping, if that’s what you’re asking. I know where he lives. I know where the shop is. He usually…calls me. Or comes by the apartments. His Dad is out of recovery, back home now. I imagine he spends a lot of time with his Dad…he should be doing that.”

“You have his address?”

From memory, Angie rattled it off. “Rainbow Court, Scotland Beach, Florida. It’s just off Winter Valley Road.”

She was pretty sure Crooked Face and Big Lips already knew that.

“Okay, Miss Gilliam,” said Scanlon, “here’s the deal.” He pointed to the row of sensors on the ceiling. “While we’ve been questioning you, we’ve been analyzing you. All remotely, of course: skin conductance, cortical and cerebral transients in your brain, speech concordances and waveform deconstruction, even facial micro-twitches. See this slate here—” he turned up the tablet so Angie could see the screen. “Know what it’s telling me…it’s telling me you’re hiding something. You’re not telling us everything. All these squiggly traces and lines tell me there’s more, and your body is working overtime to hide that fact. Shall we start over now, from the beginning?”

Angie swallowed hard and didn’t try to hide it. Probably the damn sensors could hear that too.

So, she related to Scanlon and Levy just what Chase had told her…not quite everything and not that she believed all of it anyway. But Scanlon’s sensors confirmed her skepticism and that made Crooked Face relax a bit. Levy sat nearby, hands rubbing his chin, occasionally checking his own slate, quiet and impassive.

“Chase calls them Seomish. We already met with the Navy, aboard that ship and at Norfolk.

There’s not much more I can tell you. I don’t know where Chase is. I don’t know what the Seomish want or even where they came from. Chase is probably with them somewhere.”

“Modified…by this—“Levy checked some notes, “this em’took or whatever procedure?”

“I think that’s what it’s called.”

Now Scanlon leaned forward on his elbows. He tried to put on a sort of grandfatherly face but it didn’t quite work. Still Halloween. “Miss Gilliam, you’re mixed up in this, perhaps through no fault of your own, but you’re involved. That means we have to be involved. To be perfectly blunt, you’re in danger. The Russians and the Chinese know about the Seomish too and not just from the media. As one who is close to Chase Meyer, and we are intensively hunting for Mr. Meyer right now, you’re a potential target for foreign powers. You could be kidnapped, seized, held hostage—I’m not trying to alarm you—but the Russians and the Chinese are every bit as interested in Chase and the Seomish as we are. You could be a way for them to gain access to the Seomish, to their technology, their knowledge, their weapons, and we can’t allow that. I’m afraid…well, the term is protective custody.”

Angie’s eyes flashed angrily. “Then I am under arrest. You lied to me.”

“No, protective custody isn’t the same thing. I want you to sign some forms and then I want you to come with us, tonight, to Washington. We’re putting you up in an isolated place—a secure place--where you’ll be safe, while we look for Mr. Meyer. And there will probably be more questions too. I’m sorry, but it has to be this way.”

Angie’s shoulders slumped. She figured there was no point in objecting or resisting. She wiped a tear from her eye: her whole life was over, there was no use denying it. The track team at school and another chance to make the state finals. The clinic where she hoped to get on as an admin girl, even a nurse assistant. Community college and a nursing career, since they really couldn’t afford college. Angie saw all of it swirling down the drain just like her dark red curls when she went to Lola’s for a new hairdo.

She shrugged. “Whatever—” She swore silently at Chase. You got me into this, buster and when I get my hands on your neck-- She loved Chase, she really did…sort of, but honestly, sometimes….”Can I just call my Mom? Or Sheila?”

Scanlon smiled that Freddy Krueger smile again. “Don’t worry, we’ll inform them. You’re not in trouble, Miss Gilliam. This is for your protection, believe me.”

The three of them left that next morning, before 4 am, from the Gainesville airport. It was some kind of government plane. They landed in DC at National Airport about sunup. It was going to be a hot day in the Nation’s Capital. Angie figured they’d be carting her off to some dungeon or massive stone-walled prison in the middle of nowhere; she was resigned to wearing light blue or orange felony pajamas and trying to find something that fit her track-star lean body, with the cute butt and the great legs.

She was pleasantly surprised when Scanlon and Levy escorted her into a nice Marriott hotel in Pentagon City, next to a mall and a Metro stop. The room, on the fourth floor, was nothing

special but it was spacious and comfortable. And securely locked. When they left her alone, she tried the door. No way she was getting out of this place. It was a prison. Carpeted with matching blinds and fresh linens and plenty of media devices to occupy her, but still a prison.

Levy had said they would be back in a few hours. It was okay if she ordered a room-service breakfast.

“On Uncle Sam’s tab,” the ONI agent said cheerily.

She flopped into bed and stared at the ceiling tiles. She had a brief image of herself knotting some sheets together and rappelling down the side of the hotel to get away, then laughed out loud at the idea.

Not this girl. Chase, you scumbag beach bum---

Alone and increasingly uneasy, Angie tried the TV remote. News flickered onto the screen, another Solnet special report….

SOLNET Special Report

“Sea Aliens Allied with Russians?”

Lucy Kwan reports from Hamilton, Bermuda on a breaking story that the Sea People—the Atlanteans, as some are calling them—are now in the process of developing an alliance with the Russians.

“Good morning. I’m standing on Front Street overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, along the southern shore of Bermuda, looking out toward the underwater settlement that is home to the Sea People. Solnet has learned, through local sources here in Bermuda, that there has been a significant increase in Russian naval and maritime activity, surface and underwater, in and around the settlement and in the waters around Bermuda. These sources claim to have intercepted communications traffic, signals traffic, indicating a growing interest by the Russians in this area, that can only be attributed to the discovery of the New Atlantis settlement. These sources have told this reporter that analysis of the radio traffic virtually proves that the Sea People have hostile intentions toward human beings and that the Russians are working behind the scenes to strike an alliance with them to further their own agenda in their on-going confrontation with the United States and the West.

“As most of you know by now, and as if to confirm our sources’ analysis, in the last few days, elements of the Sea People have made a coordinated assault on the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts. There was one fatality and numerous injuries during this attack…we go now to correspondent Anika Radovich at Woods Hole—

Police dronecam video footage appended here…Video Post 227.1—


“…you are watching actual footage of the assault by the Sea People on people and facilities of the Woods Hole Institute. This is Anika Radovich, reporting…we’re standing here with Woods Hole police chief Darrell Gaston. Chief Gaston, can you explain what we’re seeing here--?”

“Surely…well, the attack came at approximately eight o’clock in the morning, as you can see from the time stamp. Dispatch observed, through normal monitoring of security cameras and drones, that a small force of five or six aliens, Sea People, emerged onshore from Vineyard Sound. There—you can see some of the craft they used to approach the shore…we’ve asked the

Navy to provide us with some intelligence on these craft. To date, though, we’ve gotten no response.”

“What happened after the creatures were detected, Chief Gaston?”

Gaston rubs his mouth nervously. “Well, um, our campus patrol on duty engaged the creatures, right on the beach. They used some kind of sound stunning field…our patrol was immediately disabled. That’s where Officer DeWitt was killed…she apparently took a direct hit from an electrical weapon of some kind…she was burned over most of her body, right there on the beach.”

Radovich is sympathetic. “You were unable to stop the assault at that point with what you had on hand?”

Gaston nods numbly, his face blank. “Correct, ma’am. The creatures used both electrical weapons and this sound stunner to push back all our attempts to engage. My on-scene commander ordered his people to fall back and assume defensive positions along Oyster Pond Road…you see that on the footage. The creatures then moved out from the beach in close-rank squad tactical formation…these were professional soldiers, in my opinion.”

“Chief Gaston, did you at this time call for backup…or assistance?”

Gaston nods quickly. “Oh, yes, ma’am…we asked Dispatch to alert our SWAT units, even the Massachusetts State Police and the National Guard. But events on the ground were moving pretty fast.”

“What happened next?”

Gaston watches the footage unfold. “Here, you see them moving on the McLean Lab Building. We learned later that Woods Hole had recently captured a live specimen from the Sea Peoples’ settlement out in the ocean and brought it to the Lab…we did not know this at the time.

Apparently, the creatures had a mission to rescue this specimen and withdraw with him— it—in their custody. The footage shows them entering the building. A few moments later, they emerge, with this specimen—”

“One of their comrades, perhaps?”

Gaston shrugged. “Possibly, who knows? At this time, our backup was beginning to arrive and take up positions along Oyster Pond Road and also around the Carriage House and Bell House buildings. We were, at this time, trying to flank and surround the creatures and prevent them from escaping.”

“But they managed to break through.”

Gaston looks glum. “We took more casualties here, from their stunners and electric weapons, so did the State Police. We just didn’t have a good answer for those weapons. We did however, manage to kill one of them, on the beach at the beginning of the attack—”

…Angie Gilliam had been watching the newscast when the vid footage from the police dronecam zoomed in on the Sea Creatures’ retreat from the Lab. She sat up abruptly.

Oh my God—” Angie put a hand to her mouth. It was Chase. It had to be. She’d recognize that big ugly frog on steroids anywhere…the spade head, the webbed feet, the dorsal fin…it was Chase. The Sea People had come for Chase. It was Chase who’d been captured.

She barely heard the rest of the newscast, where Anika had finished her interview with Chief Gaston and Lucy Kwan had resumed reporting from Bermuda. Kwan’s words rang hollow, nearly unheard in the hotel room, as Angie pulled a bedsheet up to her face:

“…sources are also indicating, and this is not yet substantiated, we’re working on this angle now—that there are solid plans within the Defense Department, specifically, the Navy and the

Marines, to form a special forces unit. The mission of this special unit would be to penetrate and

‘render harmless’ this underwater base, not more than fifty miles north of where I’m standing now…to keep the Russians and the Chinese from gaining any advantage with the Sea Creatures.

Already the National Security Advisor has been observed—”

But Angie Gilliam barely heard any of the story. A special forces mission? Chase, captured, then rescued? Penetration…the Russians…the Chinese…render harmless….

Angie paced about the hotel room, still clutching a pillow for comfort. She tried the window. She tried the door.

They were all locked.

Chase wasn’t the only one who needed rescuing.

Special Report Ends

Chapter 5

Seomish settlement Keenomsh’pont

Near Bermuda and the Muir Seamount

June 30, 2115

1315 hours

Kok’tek and the rescue team brought eekoti Chase back to Keenomsh’pont safely and, after a brief examination by healers from the Academy, he was pronounced unhurt and fit. Likteek showed up after the healers were done and shooed them out of the warren of caves that the Academy had appropriated for its own use. The caves were well up the western flanks of the seamount, just below the zone of the m’eetor’kel, the zone of the rough cross-currents. The turbulence outside gave the scientists and researchers some extra privacy for critical experiments and studies.

Chase was preparing to leave when Likteek showed up. The old scientist hung by an unused beatscope that someone had managed to smuggle through the Farpool at the last minute.

“You were fortunate, eekoti Chase. The Tailless didn’t do injuries…did they try to examine you?”

“They probably did,” Chase admitted. “I was out a lot of the time, unconscious. They sedated me. But everything-“ he examined himself critically, his webbed hands and feet, his forepaddles—“everything seems to be here. Everything seems to work. I’m just not sure if they’re really my people…anymore.”

“You’re needed here…but some kelke thought you might decide to stay with your own people. We didn’t know—”

Chase interrupted him. “I was trying to communicate with them when I saw that little sub.

They didn’t react the way I thought they would.” He drifted about the exam hold and studied the array of instruments along the wall: beatscopes, sound probes, ocular magnifiers. Academy people were forever gathering new things and rigging up odd contraptions, most of which Chase had no idea what they did.

“Are you trying to leave the hold…I don’t think you’ve been officially released yet.”

Chase stopped. “I wanted to find Tulcheah…I just wanted to see her…again.”

“Ah, yes…that makes sense. Tulcheah is half-Ponkti…she has certain—shall we say

‘ways,’ of providing comfort. A healer in her own right—” Likteek laughed at his own little joke.

“No, it’s not really that but—”

Likteek held up a forepaddle. “It’s not important…I came to tell you that the Metah has commanded you to appear before her and the Kel’em. Just after midday roams.”

“The Kel’em…must be important. What’s this about?”

Now it was Likteek’s turn to drift about the hold and examine instruments. He picked up a sonic probe and examined it. “I’m not supposed to say…”

“Come on, Lik…it’s me… eekoti Chase. What would the Metah want with a half-breed like me?”

“I hear talk. Whispers, really…you know repeaters can’t keep quiet, even off duty. The waters around here carry voices well. Mokleeoh has put a proposal to the other Metahs…all of them. She thinks there should be an overall leader, a kind of overseer for all our dealings with

the Tailless. Someone who can represent all the kels before the Tailless…so we speak with one voice. Otherwise, the Tailless will learn of our divisions and exploit them.”

Chase thought it was a good idea. “Seems reasonable. Who did she have in mind…

someone wise and learned like yourself?”

Likteek put the probe back in its wall niche. “Hardly. She proposes you, eekoti Chase. She has put that before the Kel’em and now all the Metahs know of this. Mokleeoh wants you to become kel’metah.”

Chase figured the echopod in his skin implant had somehow garbled Likteek’s words.

Sometimes it happened. “I’m sorry…I thought you said—” but he stopped, for he didn’t need to pulse to see that Likteek was deadly serious. You could tell it with Likteek when his dorsal went rigid and his beak turned dark and his eyes hardened to black balls.

“Um…Likteek…surely…you must be pulling my…er, fin, or leg…or something. This is a joke, right? Omtorish humor…it’s got to be.”

“Let me explain what the term kel’metah means. Perhaps this is a phrase your echopod is not translating properly. You have an encyclopedia feature on your pod—”

“Ah, yes, I do.” Chase knew that if he could spit out the sonic command properly, which was not so easy—“kkklllqqqkkklll—”

Nothing happened. The echopod implanted in his neck remained silent. Chase looked up sheepishly. “I still have some troubles with this thing, I guess.”

“Allow me,” Likteek came forward, uttered a guttural string of commands.

“Kkkkkkllllllqqquuuq…”

Instantly, Chase heard the pod chirp in his ear. The soft voice came, explaining what Likteek had commanded:

The organization of the kel is the most important hierarchy of all. Each kel differs slightly in certain details but major similarities remain. For simplicity’s sake, the House of Omt’or will serve as a good example.

Omt’orkel claims a line of unbroken, uncontaminated descent from Omt’or, Daughter of Shooki and from its First Mortals, Kreedake and Pomel. Since descent is figured matrilineally, the eldest female of the kel is the nominal head of the family and thus chief of state, designated the Metahshooklet, or Metah (the One who lives in God). In most instances, the Metah designates a younger person to take responsibility for major decisions. In Omt’or, this choice is traditionally the eldest and most sexually productive female of the largest em’kel.

Each em’kel selects one male and one female to represent its interests before the appointed chief, who is called the Mektoo. The combined assembly of em’kel representatives is called the Kel’emtah, or Kel’em (literally, the “family of the Mother”). It meets once every mah in each city of the kel and all kelke (citizens, members of the family) have the right to petition the Kel’em at these gatherings for redress of grievances.”

Chase listened awhile longer, then managed to turn the thing off. He’d never really gotten the hang of commanding his echopod to give up facts and figures.

“This tells me about the Metah, like Mokleeoh and Lektereenah. But you mentioned something called Kel’metah.”

“Exactly,” Likteek said. “Only once before in recorded history has there been Kel’metah. It came in the Epoch of Ma’ket, many thousands of metamah before us. A great mah’jeet bloom swept the world.”

“The toxic critters?”

“Exactly. No single kel could fight the mah’jeet off…they covered the entire world, all the waters. So the kels gathered and appointed a Kel’metah…a kind of grandmother, if I understand your words…to coordinate our actions. Eventually, the kels were able to cooperate enough to disperse the bloom and restore the waters. This took a long time.” Likteek seemed somber at the memory. “Many died. To this day, we monitor the mah’jeet closely for any recurrence.”

Chase said, “Well, there shouldn’t be any of that here, not on Earth. Of course, we have sharks and other things.”

“Yes…we do have much to learn about Urku. Now, my eekoti friend, we must get you ready to meet with the Metahs in assembly. There will be a ceremony, then a great roam, if it can be organized. After that, you will join with each Metah in turn.”

Chase wondered what ‘join’ actually meant. His echopod offered no other definition.

“What do you mean ‘join’?”

“As you join with Tulcheah…and other females. I believe you say ‘coupling’?”

Chase swallowed hard. “You mean, we—” he wiggled his body back and forth.

“Yes, this is the meaning. A great honor. After this, you will be named Kel’metah.”

Great tribal chief, Chase thought to himself. I hope Angie doesn’t hear about this. And really, the prospect didn’t exactly appeal to him. Mokleeoh was attractive enough, if a bit mature. He knew Lektereenah was fiery and vigorous. But the others: Oolandra, Okeemah…he didn’t know them all that well, except by name and reputation.

“Likteek, I’m not sure about all this. Me, Chase Meyer, eekoti Chase, a kind of super-Metah? There must be lots of people better qualified than me…like you, for instance.”

“Not so,” Likteek insisted. “You are not of any kel, though you spend much time with Omt’or. The kels…and the Metahs…all trust you in a way they don’t—and can’t—trust anyone else, certainly not each other. True, there is no obvious threat we face, except that of Urku in general. But the Tailless…the Umans, your people, Chase, we don’t understand them and we don’t know what they think of us. As Kel’metah, you can speak for us with the Umans. You must do this…if you don’t—” here, Likteek looked away. Even as poorly as he pulsed, Chase could tell the despondent anxiety that had come over the scientist “—then we have no future here.”

Chase sucked in his breath. “I’ll give it a try. That’s all I can do. But I need to go see Tulcheah…right now. I need her for—well, let’s just say we’ve become soulmates.”

Likteek was puzzled as the word soulmate didn’t translate well, but Chase just laughed.

“Don’t worry about it, Lik. It’s just an expression. I’m off now…gotta go find Tulcheah.” And he left the Lab caves and headed outside, sniffing and pulsing as best he could, pushing through knots of people as he hunted his soulmate down.

He found Tulcheah with her own em’kel—he’d never been able to pronounce it—two-thirds of the way up the slopes of the seamount, on the other side of the guyot, from the Lab, nestled in the brow of an outcrop shaped like an upturned hand, a human hand. It was partitioned with bubble curtains and cradled a small hydrothermal vent in the very ‘palm’ of the hand, that gave a fizzy quality to the water, as well as lending heat and some smoky silt to the nest.

Chase nosed his way carefully through the bubble curtain. What else could you do? There weren’t any doorbells. Inside, the mostly female em’kel was engaged in some kind of bite-the-tail horseplay and Chase found himself knocked and bumped and shoved aside several times as he came in.

The females noticed him and stopped their circling, then came at him, playfully nipping.

One said, “Looking for Tulcheah, eekoti? Sniffing a good time, is that it?”

Chase came deeper into the berth hold and spied a stacked layer of small coves on the other side of the vent column, a writhing snake of smoke and heat right in the center. Through the silt and turbulent water, he could see most of the coves were occupied. Couplings and nuzzlings were the order of the day. In the dim light, he could see bodies flash and tumble inside the coves. Grunts and chirps and squeaks filled his ears.

Jeez, it’s a whorehouse. No wonder Tulcheah’s always ‘on.’

A voice whispered in his ears. “She’s up there, center top. But Kaleema’s there too. You’ll make a fine trio—”

Chase scooted off and found Tulcheah where the female had indicated. The Ponkti-Omtorish halfling was cuddling with another female—said to be Kaleema—herself an athletic younger girl, decorated with some kind of necklace of teeth around her front dorsal and ritual scarring along her sides.

Tulcheah sniffed when Chase appeared. “Don’t be shy, eekoti…come in, come in. There’s room. Kaleema likes your smell.”

I’ll bet, Chase thought. “Tulcheah, can we talk? You and me? Maybe, away from here?”

Something like a heavy sigh escaped her mouth and she roughly shoved Kaleema out of the cove with a grunt. Kaleema growled and clicked in annoyance, glared at Chase, pulsed him good and stalked off, swimming with exaggerated strokes to the other side of the hold.

Chase stuck his head inside. The smell was overpowering.

“Come, come. I know what you want…it’s written all over your insides. The water’s warm in here, just right.”

“I need to talk with you. Maybe a little roam…outside?”

Tulcheah was half Ponkti, half-Omtorish but she wore her feelings where even a Uman male could figure them out. Chase didn’t need to pulse her to see the exasperation…and the disappointment.

“What…my smells aren’t good enough for you? Eekoti want everything their own way.

Chase, you surprise me. All the time. Maybe that’s why I like roaming with you…and coupling.

Someday, you’ll have to show me what Tailless males do for their mates.”

Not physically possible, sweetie. “No coupling right now. There’s something I want to discuss with you.”

Tulcheah turned momentarily serious. “That you’re about to become Kel’metah? Is this it?”

“How did…oh, never mind. Come on…let’s go outside.” Nothing stayed secret for long among the Seomish.

So they left the em’kel hold and scooted off to more distant waters.

Chase stroked as hard as he could but Tulcheah was a vigorous swimmer and effortlessly shot through the turbulent waters that burbled around the upper reaches of the Muir seamount.

She toyed with him a bit, circling back from time to time, nipping at his feet and sides, until at last she had pity on him and slowed down for his sake. They orbited the seamount until they reached the summit eddies, still hundreds of feet below the surface, where the waters and the currents mixed in rough, chaotic flow and the upper flanks of the mountain were studded with folds and overhangs carved out by the scouring of the waves over eons of time.

Here, Tulcheah stopped beneath one overhang and grabbed Chase by his feet, pulling him close. One forepaddle found his claspers and he shivered with delight. He tried to fight her off,

but not really…the feeling was so intense and she knew just where to touch and where to pull.

He let the ecstasy go on for awhile, but she noticed he wasn’t participating so much, so she stopped after a time and cocked her head.

“You really are troubled, eekoti. I can pulse it. In Ponk’t, we say m’opuh jee’ot…your bubbles are at war with themselves. What is it?”

Chase tried to collect himself. “Tulcheah, I don’t know. This whole kel’metah business…I don’t think I’m the right one. They should pick somebody else.”

Tulcheah nuzzled her beak around his face and lips. Chase had a mental image of a shark eating a frog and quickly put that out of mind. “There is no one else. The kels are always fighting each other. They can’t agree on anything.”

“But I’m not like you…look at me. I’m half Seomish and half human.”

“It’s because you are not like us…that’s why the kelke trust you. Look at me. I’m half Ponkti and half Omtorish. Not really accepted by either kel. Be proud of what you are and accept that Shooki has brought you to this point. The currents go where they will…even on Urku.”

“Yeah, on Urku…we say Earth…people don’t get along very well either. This kel’metah ceremony…Likteek said I had to make love with all the metahs, one after another.”

This brought what Chase thought was a smile to Tulcheah’s face, though with Seomish females, you could never tell.

“And this does not please you…” the timber of her voice, translated through his echopod, changed noticeably, going lower. “It’s said that Lektereenah is quite the lover…perhaps you should be concerned.”

Was that a laugh, he heard? Or maybe a snort?

“It’s not funny. I’ve never done this before…I don’t know what to do.”

Now Tulcheah was curious, continuing her sniffing and nuzzling around his face and neck.

Once in a while, she rubbed against a clasper…accidentally on purpose, he was sure. Tulcheah knew exactly what she was doing.

“Your females, they please you in many ways?”

“We do it differently here. Hard to describe, kind of.” He thought back to the times he and Angie had made love in his canoe in Half Moon Cove. When you caught the swells just right and the rhythms matched, oh my God…

Tulcheah pressed the point, so Chase gave her a little show and tell about how such things were done among the Tailless. The em’took modifications had altered too many things to show her everything, but he tried to get the idea across.

Tulcheah’s face showed something like disbelief. “Such should not be possible. Tailless are so different…and now you…not quite Tailless, not quite Seomish. What shall we do with you? A whole new world to explore and we don’t need an expedition to do it.”

“That’s my whole point, Tulcheah. I’m not the same as I was. And I’m not like you either.

I’m lost in two worlds.”

“You are still eekoti Chase. Unique. There is no one else like you.”

“Yeah, on Earth or Seome.”

They talked and nuzzled for a while longer, then Tulcheah said, “We must get back to Keenomsh’pont. The ceremony starts at the Metah’s platform soon.”

They swam together back to the other side of the seamount and followed the crowds.

Mokleeoh’s servlings dressed and groomed Chase for quite some time, in a sheltered alcove just off the platform. They washed his skin, picked out dirt and silt, anointed him with all kinds of perfumes and ointments…for a time, Chase figured this was what the pharaohs went through.

Nothing too good for this boy. Then he realized all the attention was at least as much for the Metah as for him.

The vizier, Oncolenia, came to the alcove and sniffed him up and down, instructing a few changes: a little primping here, some more oil there, brush that back and see to it his eyes are stroked to a fine gloss, before pronouncing herself satisfied.

They led Chase out to the platform and, much to his surprise, fitted him into a little sling. It was sort of like a knapsack, or a papoose, and before he realized what was happening, Mokleeoh herself appeared, decorated, ritually scarred, wearing necklaces of beads and teeth around her dorsals, fringes of something around the wrists of her forepaddles. She sniffed inside the sling.

“Eekoti Chase, this is a special moment for Omt’or. Not since the time of Ma’ket have the people of Seome asked for Kel’metah. Now—” she looked around, swept her forepaddles in a wide circle, indicating the crowds pressing in on them and the looming bulk of the seamount beyond, “—we are in a different place. The waters of Seome are gone. We swim in new waters…the waters of Urku. But we are Seomish…here we are of Omt’or. These things must not die. The kelke have asked for a great leader to come forward…you are the Kel’metah, eekoti Chase. The currents say this. The mekli say this…I’ve consulted with them. Today, this decision is made and the bond is forged. All the Metahs are here—” that’s when Chase realized she was right. In the front of the crowd, surrounded by prodsmen and more servlings, he spied Lektereenah, some sort of half-smile on her face, and Oolandra and Okeemah and the others.

They were all there. “—you will consort with each to seal the bond.”

With that, the sling with Chase inside was attached to Mokleeoh’s underbelly and they were off. Mokleeoh was a vigorous swimmer in her own right and a few prodsmen escorted them away from the platform. They set course for the upper flanks of the seamount, the chaotic zone, Chase soon realized.

Oh, this should be fun, he told himself.

But before they reached the realm of the crosscurrents, Mokleeoh had done something to the sling and cinched it up tighter, closer to her own body. Chase felt the overwhelming bulk of her mass right in his face. Then he felt fingers groping along his sides, hunting, probing, until at last, they found the—

Chase figured maybe this wasn’t so bad after all. The shivers came, along with the exquisite pressure, almost electric, he contorted and shuddered, in spite of himself. It went on for quite a few minutes, then a thought came to him:

I should probably do something to give her a little pleasure back. But he realized he had no idea what to do. What the hell do I know about Seomish physiology? Chase had coupled with a number of Seomish females; they were pretty promiscuous people, but he’d really spent more time with Tulcheah. Maybe if I do the same thing I do with Tulcheah…how different could they be? He didn’t know what else to try. Now where is that area…that really sensitive area--?

So he concentrated on doing what he and Tulcheah always did and was gratified to find Mokleeoh’s body beginning to quiver, even in mid-swim, to oscillate and undulate like a great wave was washing through her. For a brief moment, her great body went rigid. All the flexing and supple muscular contractions stopped and Mokleeoh was a torpedo in the water. They coasted on momentum alone and Chase could feel the thrashing currents of the chaotic zone in right his face.

Bingo. I think I just did something right.

Then, as suddenly as it started, the rigid posture relaxed and Mokleeoh resumed her strong stroke again, and they were whipped and yawed by strong currents as she reached the summit of her ascent along the seamount and nosed over into a steep dive, Down they went and down further, swooping along the seabed and Chase caught a glimpse of rock islands, coral beds, strange patches of sea anemone and long tubular things waving in the prevailing currents. Then he saw faces. At first one or two, then a dozen, then more dozens.

They were coursing their way back toward Keenomsh’pont and the kelke and in a few minutes, they nosed up to the very platform they had left. The roam had taken maybe five minutes, perhaps more, and in that time, Chase had learned more than he had in the previous few months…or mah, as the Seomish liked to say.

He had learned the most intimate things, about himself and about the Seomish. It was as Mokleeoh had said: the currents go where they must go. As the servlings undid the catches of the sling and released him, he felt a certain---it was so hard to put into words—a certain strength, a certain force, a vigor that he’d never felt before. It wasn’t just the coupling. It was more.

For the first time, Chase Meyer felt more Seomish than Tailless. Maybe it was the sex.

Maybe it was the swim, with the musky odor of a big Seomish female right in his face. Or maybe it was the oils and ointments. The Seomish were great chemists. He couldn’t be sure they hadn’t put something in the oils to make this happen.

Regardless, Chase scrambled out of the sling and stuck his chest out and there was a great roar among the assembled crowd, honking, squeaking, clicking and bellowing so loud he couldn’t hear himself think. He saw Tulcheah somewhere in the back and thought to move through the crowd toward her.

Then Lektereenah appeared right next to him. And her servlings had their own orders.

He wasn’t Kel’metah quite yet.

The whole process lasted a day. There were roams and couplings, and meals and snacks, and more roams and speeches and singing and cavorting about, and it was all a very dizzying, disconcerting, breathless affair for Chase Meyer. The Ponkti Metah, Lektereenah, had an entirely different procedure. This time, her servlings didn’t fasten Chase into a sling but tied him directly to Lektereenah’s underbelly, which was like being fastened to a small whale, as the Metah was a large female. The fibers weren’t tight and, in a way, it was almost fetal, except for the smell. Lektereenah smelled like overcooked fish.

They headed off, in a completely different direction, away from the seamount and Keenomsh’pont entirely. For many minutes, Lektereenah said nothing and Chase, who was literally along for the ride, satisfied himself with the rhythmic undulations of her skin and flukes.

Lektereenah was much younger than Mokleeoh and it showed in her stroke, which was powerful and smooth.

He felt like he was riding an underwater jet.

Could have used you on some of those wreck dives Dad and I took a few years ago.

They headed out along the rock-strewn seabed, curving abruptly to avoid patches of tubular plants and small hillocks of volcanic tuff, then crossed over a deep chasm, a ravine. Lektereenah plunged down the sheer face of the cliffside into the ravine and presently they came to a cave opening several hundred meters down. The water was cold and dense and Chase’s em’took gills had some difficulty with the pressure. Lektereenah burrowed inside the cave. Then he felt the

fibers holding him secure come loose. The Metah had freed him. Chase drifted off and bumped his head on a low ceiling, then looked back at her, a bit puzzled.

“No coupling, Affectionate Metah?”

The Metah regarded him coolly.

Even in the near total darkness of the cave, he could make out some features of the Ponkti metah. Real Seomish would be pulsing like crazy in the dark, but Chase didn’t trust his own reading of the echoes, though the em’took had given him the sound bulb to do pulsing. He preferred to use his eyes, when he could.

Lektereenah was silvery white below and light gray on top. Most Ponkti females were like that. She had the characteristic V-notch in her flukes, long, delicate fingers, a short, petite beak, churning, turbulent gas bladder, even fruity natural scent. The smell reminded Chase of one of Angie’s perfumes… Jasmine something-or-other.

“We couple later. Now, we must talk. Eekoti Chase,” her insides were bubbling so violently, even Chase could tell. For sure, something was bothering her. “—you will be Kel’metah before the day is done. I ask a favor of you now, before you’re overwhelmed with petitions.”

“Overwhelmed. Honorable Metah, I’m not real sure about this Kel’metah business. I don’t know what to do, what to expect.”

This made her laugh, a short, sharp honk of bubbles. “You’ll feel like a pal’penk covered with fleas. Bites everywhere, pinches, kisses, requests, bruises and tail slaps…I doubt if you’ll sleep for days, before the kel’ke get through with you. Kel’metah is the One Who Speaks to God, to Shooki Himself. I brought you here so that we may talk, before all this happens.”

“You said you wanted a favor?” Chase felt like a city hall politico now, dispensing favors to his voters. Fix this pothole. Pave this street. Repair this sign. Great. Just friggin’ great. I’ll be the mayor of this motley crew.

Lektereenah turned serious and hovered motionless, her black button eyes boring in on him.

“The Ponkti have their own repeater nets now. The waters of Urku are different but I sent them out just after we landed. They’ve spread throughout all seas. Now I hear distressing news from our repeaters.”

Chase had thought that the songs of the repeaters could be heard by everyone. That was supposed to be their very purpose. “I haven’t heard of any distressing news. And I didn’t know Ponkti repeaters had been deployed.”

“We Ponkti do what we have to. Omt’or and the other kels have ruled the seas for too long back home. Now, in our new world, it will be different. But that’s not why I wanted to talk.”

Chase was cautious, suddenly very aware that Lektereenah was blocking the cave opening.

He was trapped and he felt it. “What do you want from me?”

“Just this, eekoti Chase. Ponkti repeaters have sung of a growing conflict in one of the distant seas. Already, even as we speak, even as we participate in the corps of exploration, Ponkti settlers are building a new capital in this distant sea.”

“You don’t waste much time,” Chase observed. “I thought the kels were supposed to gather after the expeditions came back, and then decide who would go where.”

“The Ponkti do what we have to do. If we wait and let the other kels decide what they’ll give us, Ponk’et will have nothing but scraps. This way, we determine our own fate. Here, on Urku, on your world, eekoti Chase, I’m determined that the rules will be different. But there is now conflict between your people, Tailless people, and our Ponkti settlers. Chase, when you are

confirmed Kel’metah, I want you to go to this distant sea and mediate the conflict. Help my people. Help my kel’ke make a capital, a real home in these waters.”

Now Chase fully understood Lektereenah’s bribery for what it was. Her face and eyes glared at him and she went on, sweetening the pot.

“You may ask for anything…you’ll find we Ponkti can be very generous. Couplings with any of our females. Personal prodsmen, beyond what Kel’metah is given. Priority on the repeater nets. Riches from the potu sacks we brought with us. Your own staff, your own berth and hold spaces. Whatever you like, eekoti Chase…ask for it and I will make it happen.”

Okay, Chase told himself, this isn’t happening. How did I get into this? More to the point, she was blocking any escape he might have been planning. Keep calm, keep cool….

“Affectionate Metah, I never asked for this. I don’t want to be the great leader, the Kel’metah. I just want to help out, help out my Seomish friends. I’m not even Seomish…I’m human. Tailless.”

Lektereenah regarded him coolly. “You are more Seomish than you realize. More Omtorish than even you understand. The Ponkti only ask one thing: that you recognized historic injustices against us and that you are fair.”

With that, she came to him and engulfed him with her forepaddles. Fingers explored his body and soon found his claspers.

Chase remembered very little after that.

They returned to Keenomsh’pont and, one after the other, Chase roamed and coupled with the remaining metahs: Oolandra, Okeemah, Kolandra. Each was different in her own way. Each brought demands of her own, for her kel, for her people. When it was done, Chase figured he knew how a big-city mayor felt, petitions and demands from every quarter, unceasing.

Apalachee High and working in the surf shop had never prepared him for any of this.

He understood from Oncolenia, Mokleeoh’s vizier, that there would eventually be a ceremony to complete the installation of the Kel’metah. Oncolenia was an older female, who knew from memory the entire history of Omt’or, word for word, and most of the other kels as well. Her servlings plied Chase with gisu and ertleg and portions of what looked like tuna…

something Chase had a little familiarity with, bringing back memories of raucous fishing and beer-drinking binge-parties in the Gulf, seeking big game fish to show off and mount as trophies.

“What does this ceremony involve?” Chase asked between bites. They were sheltered beneath a small platform near the Metah’s quarters, protected from petitioners and sight-seers by a squad of prodsmen ringing the area.

Oncolenia saw to it that Chase got plenty to eat and drink. “These ceremonies have never been done in recent history. The last was from the time of Omt’or herself…Omt’or, Daughter of Shooki and her offspring Kreeda’ke and Pomel.”

Chase dredged up a faint memory of some kind of history lesson he had barely listened to from his echopod. “Weren’t they the First Mortals?”

Oncolenia seemed pleased that Chase remembered. She absent-mindedly groomed his face as he ate, removing scraps and wiping his mouth, a grandmotherly set to her lips. “Very good, eekoti Chase. Very good…this you remember. Kel’metah must know these things.”

“I never was all that good at History.”

“The Kel’metah wears the necklaces that Pomel wore; necklaces of potu and pal’penk teeth.

They haven’t been removed from their pods in thousands of mah. Then there is the ritual scarring, just along your dorsals…it’s very important.”

Chase stopped chewing. “Scarring. Like a tattoo, you mean?”

“Exactly, if I understand how your pod is translating. The markings show your rank as First Speaker, over all the kels. And you will have a court of your own…you will need some coaching and teaching, eekoti Chase. Kel’metah must show proper ke’shoo and ke’lee at all times, his bubbles must be pure. The people will pulse you deeply. The Kel’metah must have proper echoes. All this will be done by the mekli priestesses. Even now, they’re getting ready.

But first you must rest…here. I will see that you’re not disturbed.”

Oncolenia conferred with prodsmen chief of the guard, then did something with the bubble curtains surrounding the small quarters. The bubbles fizzed and thickened as she vanished.

Chase looked on forlornly as she departed.

I think I’d rather be dusting T-shirt racks at the Turtle Key Surf Shop. He smiled ruefully at the thought, knowing his Dad would never have believed that.

After some heated discussion and arguing, Chase managed to secure permission to leave his

‘prison’ for a time and go hunt down Likteek. He found the old scientist just inside the Lab’s warren of caves, fiddling with a balky soundbulb.

Likteek was startled at his appearance. “I didn’t think you should be seen with ordinary kelke…not until the ceremony…the teng’kloosh.”

“Yeah, well they let me out for good behavior, I guess. Lik, I need some answers.” Chase explained how the roamings and couplings had gone, then described Lektereenah’s demands and scarcely veiled threats.

Likteek put down his soundbulb and flippered about the small cave in thought. “Chase, you will encounter this often, as Kel’metah. The people want a leader. Even the metahs and the Kel’em councilors recognize that someone has to speak for all of us. We’re alone in this new world, we’re just a small band of immigrants in the vast seas of Urku. If we aren’t united and strong together, we may perish…Shooki has even foreseen this. The mekli have talked of this, reading in the ancient echobulbs the words of our ancestors.”

“Lektereenah talked of conflict, in some far-off distant seas. Lik, I want to go see this for myself and listen and try to help. Not for Lektereenah’s reasons. For the very reasons you just mentioned. Believe me, humans have hunted thousands of species to extinction. I know enough history to know that. Anything we don’t like, we eliminate. And you’re right: the immigrants, the tu’kelke, are in danger. If humans see you, or us, as a threat, they’ll just try to eliminate the threat. That’s what we do. Lik, my Dad never thought I would amount to much, but he did try to teach me and my brother and sister to do the right thing. Is there any way I can listen to the repeater songs and messages from the Ponkti and Skortish exploring teams and get them translated? Maybe I could figure out where they went and what’s happened? If I could understand what this conflict is about, maybe I could go there and kind of talk...you know, mediate. Negotiate. We have to find a way to live with the humans. If we don’t, the Seomish have no future. Not on Earth.”

Likteek said, “All the kels have their own repeaters and message types. But it should be recorded somewhere, even by us Omtorish. Repeater songs are heard by everybody. If I can get the messages, I can get them translated.”

Chase went back to the Metah’s quarters to prepare for the teng’kloosh. A few hours later, Likteek was escorted into the court chamber by two prodsmen. He carried a single echobulb, which he activated. The quarters were filled with staccato chirps and squeaks, honks, whistles

and grunts. Chase felt a vague sense of rhythm to the noise, but looked on blankly as Likteek nodded silent, his eyes closed, absorbing the messages. When it was done, he opened his eyes.

“This bulb contains all the repeater songs for the last three days. The messages from the Ponkti and Skortish explorers fill only a few minutes. They speak of the farthest seas, of skirmishes with Tailless forces, of constant interference with their attempts to construct a small settlement…it even has a name: T’kel’rok. Named for a valley near Ponk’t, back on Seome.”

“That’s what Lektereenah said. That they were already building settlements. I thought the kels weren’t supposed to do that until after the Separation.”

Likteek agreed. “That was the public agreement, yes.”

Chase winced as the servlings applied the last of the tattoos to his back, a series of ritual scars and markings along his dorsal fin. “Ouch…watch it, okay?” He shoved the servlings aside, but let one of them lay the necklaces of potu pearls and pal’penk teeth around his neck, arms and fins. When they were done, Oncolenia appeared and inspected Chase from head to foot, pronouncing herself satisfied.

“You’re finally ready,” she murmured, a slight catch in her voice. “The platform is ready too. Eekoti Chase, now is the time. All others—” she glared at Likteek and the servlings, “must leave.”

A detail of prodsmen accompanied Chase outside and they ascended the nearer slope of the seamount to a small promontory a few hundred meters above the seabed. The waters were brisk, the currents were strong and Chase could barely see anything. But he sensed the thousands gathered below…an undulating, rippling wave rolling and swirling around the base of the mountain, lending a living, breathing, excitable quality to the seabed.

Oncolenia introduced Chase to three repeaters who would convey his first words to the gathering and then far and wide across the seas of Urku. She gave their names but Chase’s heart was pounding so hard he barely heard them.

Then Oncolenia retreated and he was alone on the promontory. He’d never done well in Public Speaking at school. Snatches of the Gettysburg Address came to mind… four score and seven years ago. No, don’t do that. A Croc Boys song came to mind… we’re all just livin’ in the dark…groping around to do our part…No, not that either. Plus he didn’t have his go-tone to strum. This isn’t the senior prom, you idiot.

In the end, Chase Meyer just said what was on his heart. Stumbling at first, his mouth dry and his heart racing, Chase wondered what the U.S. Navy would think, for he was sure they were nearby, listening. They would be part of the audience as well.

“Tu’kelke,” he began, “I just want to speak a few words. When I first came to Seome, one of the first words I learned was ‘kel.’ I was told it means family. Although there are many kels, there is one tu’kelke…there’s one family. We have to be strong and united as a family. We have to care for each other. We have to nurture each other. If we don’t, the humans, the Tailless, will destroy all the kels. I know this because I’m not like you. I’m part human. I know what humans do. Somehow, some way, the kels have to get along and cooperate. And then, united as one family, we have to learn how to live with the humans. They live on the land. The Notwater. We—you—live in the sea. We ought to be able to get along. We have to get along.

My job…with your help…is to find ways to do that.”

Even as he spoke, schools of silvery fish fluttered by, right in his face, and he wound up flailing at them, slapping them away. Not very leaderlike, he figured, but what could you do?

And then he heard it, welling up from below.

It wasn’t a roar so much as a chorus. A million voices in synch, clicking, whistling, honking, bellowing, grunting and chirping…it sounded like forest full of birds gone berserk. For a moment, he wasn’t sure, then he realized it was the assembled tu’kelke, as one, raising their voices and his echopod couldn’t keep up with it all, couldn’t translate it all and the thing gave up and quit.

Out of the swirl of schooling fish and the cacophony welling up from below, the chief of the prodsmen guard appeared and gently escorted Chase down from his promontory. Bodies flashed by and bumped them but the prodsmen were expert at clearing a path and he soon found himself back at the Metah’s canopy, Mokleeoh’s quarters. Likteek was there too, an excited look on his face. He had a soundbulb in one hand.

Mokleeoh indicated the scientist. “Likteek insisted on seeing you. He was most insistent…I have always found it wise to hear out my Kelk’too lab people…Likteek, speak now—”

The scientist held up the bulb. “Repeaters captured this just a short time ago. It’s a Tailless message…part of one. We thought you should hear it…perhaps you can tell us what it says.”

He activated the bulb and a scratchy, but recognizably human voice filled the tent. It was in English too, accented in some way, but understandable.

“… near a reef called the Reed Banks. The disturbance is thought to be related to the new species recently discovered in the Atlantic, a new marine species of some intelligence.

Oceanographers in Beijing have noted that the species seems to be spreading rapidly and is now in the eastern Pacific in significant numbers. Already the Peoples’ Liberation Navy is assembling a force to investigate and engage the intruders, who are trespassing on sacred Chinese territory….”

The words brought a chill to Chase’s neck. Em’took-modified, he wasn’t sure if there were any hairs to stand up, but it sure felt like there were.

Now what Lektereenah had said, what she had demanded, was beginning to make sense.

Chase knew enough geography to know that Nan Zhongguo Hai was the South China Sea.

Listening to the words longer told Chase that the Ponkti and the Skortish explorers were building a settlement in or around the Reed Banks of the South China Sea and that the settlement was seen to be infringing on Chinese territorial waters. The announcer added that Russian and Japanese officials were seeing similar encroachments in their own sensitive territorial waters.

This had to be the conflict Lektereenah had been referring to.

Chase told Likteek to replay the recording again, then made a decision. “Lik, I need to go there…now. We need to get a small team together, some from every kel, and make the trip. I can talk with the Tailless, and the Ponkti too. Maybe I can defuse the situation, before it gets out of hand.”

Mokleeoh seemed moderately incensed that Chase was bypassing her but the Kel’metah could do that, in an emergency. She offered the help of the Omtorish court.

“You shall have all the kip’ts and supplies you need, Kel’metah. My engineers and technicians will provide everything.”

“Come on,” Chase said to Likteek. “Let’s go to the Lab. I need navigators and pilots too.

We’ve got to plot a course to the South China Sea...the fastest possible route.”

Likteek gathered up his bulbs into a sack. “Is this a great distance, Kel’metah Chase? Many days?”

“Many, many days,” Chase told him. It’s on the other side of the world.”


Chapter 6

The South China Sea

Reed Banks

July 15, 2115

0800 hours

Chase and the Kel’metah’s force entered the South China Sea two weeks after leaving Keenomsh’pont, following repeater signals steadily broadcast from the new Ponkti settlement, now being built off a reef called Reed Banks. They found the sea a land of varied topography, with an oblong bowl-shaped depression in the center--a sub-basin it was called on the charts, dotted by a scattering of seamounts in the center, and ringed by hills, ridges, mountains, reefs and banks around the periphery. In places, the central basins were four to five thousand meters deep.

The Chinese had long called the sea Nan Zhongguo Hai. They viewed it as Chinese territory and when the Ponkti started erecting a small settlement near the Reed Banks, they decided to act.

The Seomish expedition consisted of three kip’ts. One was piloted by Chase, with Likteek along to sample and study the seas for Omt’or. A second kip’t was driven by Loptoheen, at the insistence of Lektereenah. “Ponkti will talk with Ponkti,” the Metah had said, “and no one else.”

Chase found it expedient not to argue. The third kip’t was piloted by Manklu tel kel: Om’t, a long-time acquaintance of Chase and a veteran kip’t driver whose knowledge and experience would surely come in handy.

The trip from Keenomsh’pont to T’kel’rok, as the Ponkti called their crude encampment, took nearly two weeks. Here, Manklu’s experience paid dividends, as he was able to sniff out the faint trail of scent from the Ponkti and Skortish explorers and unerringly navigate through unfamiliar waters all the way into the South China Sea. Sea conditions varied from near polar ice south of Africa to temperate, even tropical waters across the Indian Ocean and through the Malacca Straits. Turning north along the Malay archipelago brought them into waters heavily populated with clownfish, puffer, roundhead and jack and thick with fantastic and colorful beds of brain coral and intricate reefs thick with anemone.

They homed on the scent of the Ponkti settlers…” smells like tillet in heat,” Loptoheen liked to say and found the settlement wedged at the base of a massive sandbank that the human maps called Iroquis Reef. The small fleet of kip’ts nosed down and warily circled the scattering of tents, berthpods and canopies before alighting outside the camp onto the sandy seabed, among dense swarms of black and orange angelfish.

Loptoheen got out and nuzzled his kelmates and they talked for awhile. There were five Ponkti and several others at T’kel’rok. Loptoheen said they were Skortish. The camp commander was called Gozu…a distant relative of Loptoheen’s, in fact.

Gozu described their predicament. Loptoheen translated from the Ponkti dialect, but Chase’s echopod had trouble keeping up.

“The Tailless harass us constantly. Even now…there, you can see it—” Gozu pointed off beyond a gently waving bed of sea grass. Chase hadn’t noticed the small sub before. “—they watch us. Sometimes, they approach with their strange craft and try to interfere with construction…Kezmek here-“he indicated one of the Skortish, “lost two fingers the other day.

The craft has arms that grab and pinch. You can’t get away. We had to amputate Kezmek’s fingers to free him.”

Likteek drifted closer to the sub, against strict warnings from Gozu and Loptoheen. It resembled the craft they had encountered near Keenomsh’pont weeks before, the one that had ultimately grabbed Chase. Chase went after the scientist to keep him from doing anything stupid.

“Don’t get too close,” he warned Likteek.

“I’m just studying their ship,” he replied. “Plus, I’ve got this—” He held up a small pod in his forepaddles. Chase recognized the signaler.

“What are you planning to do?”

Likteek paused at some sea grass and they partially hid themselves in the undulating stalks, as the Tailless craft had started up. Now it was coming directly at them.

“I was hoping to give them this, so we could begin to communicate. We can’t have relations if we can’t talk.”

They both hovered nervously as the sub approached. Likteek was right; it did resemble the one they had seen at Keenomsh’pont. It was a small craft, with a stubby sail atop a teardrop hull, enclosing a pressure sphere, with portholes. Both of them could see faces and movement inside; there seemed to be several creatures operating the sub. The bow was festooned with all manner of effectors, manipulators, grabbers and claws surrounding an intricate sample basket below the

‘chin’ of the sphere.

Ten meters separated them from the ship when it stopped. Cautiously, against Chase’

wishes, Likteek edged out of his hiding place and stroked toward the sub. In one motion, he flippered by at a tangent and dropped the signaler pod in the sample basket and scooted off, diving back into the sea grass as fast as he could. Chase breathed easier when Likteek returned.

It had been a courageous, even foolhardy, thing to do, but it had worked.

They watched in fascination as the sub’s manipulator arms closed on the pod, lifted it out of the basket and brought the device up to a porthole. Faces peered in the porthole.

“They’re examining it,” Chase said. “Wondering what it is.”

“Here, I’ll turn it on,” Likteek said. He had the sister signaler in his other hand and honked sharply at the thing, activating it with sound commands. It whirred, vibrated and then hummed.

Ten meters away, the signaler in the sub’s manipulator did the same thing.

It so startled the humans that the manipulator nearly dropped the pod. Presently, the sub turned about and motored off, its propulsors spinning gently, trailing bubbles in its wake. Soon it was gone.

“I just sent a message,” Likteek said. “I used the Tailless language algorithms you recorded a long time ago and sent this: WE MEET. Several times. I don’t know if they’ll understand.”

“Come on,” Chase said. He guided Likteek out of the sea grass. “Let’s get back. We may be getting a signal from them soon.”

They didn’t have long to wait. As the settlers and the visitors were dining on a catch of red-breasted wrasse, Likteek’s signaler went off. It hummed and beeped several times, a series of whistles and grunts and barks that Chase’s echopod could barely translate.

“What does it say?” he asked. He wiped fish entrails from his mouth, sucked on gisu fruit for the juice and dove back into what was left of the meal.

Likteek checked with Loptoheen on the message. “I think it says something like FOLLOW

SUB…or FOLLOW KIP’T. It seems they want us to accompany some craft to their own kel.”

It was Gozu who heard the familiar whir of the little sub nearby. Startled, he grabbed a prod while the Skortish grabbed sound grenades and they slipped out from beneath the canopy. They

halted when they realized the little sub was scarcely fifty meters away, easing forward, its manipulator arms retracted.

Gozu was already waving his comrades to take up flanking positions but Likteek warned them off. “I think they want us to follow. Chase—”

Chase came up. “Why me? I’ve already been snagged by one of these bastards once.”

Likteek said, “You’re half Tailless. You know how they think. Why don’t you get a kip’t started up? I think they want us to follow them…at least, that’s what the signaler said.”

Loptoheen was opposed. “It’s a trap. They want us where they can grab us, just like eekoti Chase.”

Likteek corrected him. “Kel’metah Chase, Loptoheen. Remember who you’re talking to.

Even the Ponkti agreed to this.”

That reminder brought only a savage growl from the Ponkti tuk master. “We don’t recognize such things out here. These are Ponkti waters now. But to keep everything calm, I’ll get a kip’t.” He waved Gozu and his men back. Two kip’ts were brought up, as they watched the sub hovering. The humans made no effort to move any closer.

They boarded the kip’ts, Chase and Likteek in one, Loptoheen and Gozu in the other.

Kezmet and the rest would stay behind to guard the settlement and their supplies and weapons.

“I don’t trust the Tailless at all,” Loptoheen spat over the comm circuit. “I’d sooner trust a mah’jeet plague. At least, you know what you’re getting into.”

Despite their concerns and suspicions, the kip’ts approached the sub, which turned about and motored off toward the northwest. Chase and Loptoheen drove their kip’ts at a respectful distance, but kept in contact. It wasn’t hard for the kip’t’s sniffers to follow the scent of the Tailless craft.

“Smells like dead pal’penk,” said Loptoheen sourly.

They traveled for what seemed like several hours, saying little, but keeping a watchful eye on everything around them.

Chase nervously eyed the seabed rising steadily as they maneuvered toward what he had no idea. The topography became rougher, less sandy, with fewer plants and grass, and was noticeably more rugged and folded, the terrain dotted with pillows and boulders and slabs of dark rock streaked with veins of a white substance.

“We’re heading for some large land mass,” he told Likteek. “I don’t know exactly where we are but whatever it is, it’s big. Maybe an island.”

“Surface traffic is increasing too,” Likteek observed. “Quite noisy around here.”

But they kept in contact with the small sub and continued on.

Presently, Likteek noticed his small beatscope at the bottom of the cockpit going haywire.

“There’s a strong magnetic field nearby, very strong.”

The little sub headed for the surface and Chase did likewise, after making Likteek climb awkwardly into his mobilitor. He had to remind himself that the scientist was no amphibian as he was, no em’took procedure had ever been done on the researcher and, if Likteek had his way, none ever would.

Notwater, even proximity to Notwater, was deadly to Seomish. Even Loptoheen would have to be mindful of that. The other kip’t stayed well below the surface, while Chase let the bow of his own kip’t breach and looked around, as they wallowed in the wake of the sub.

They were approaching an island, a major naval base, from the looks of it. Later, he would learn that the Chinese called the base Longpo. It seemed to be a submarine base. Astern of them

lay a small enclosed jetty with low buildings. Had he been able to read the Hanyu script of the Chinese characters, he would have learned that the jetty was a submarine de-magnetizing facility. To his left, submarines were moored at several piers, a huge open-truss bridge crane hovering over one as supplies and stores were loaded onboard.

He had let Likteek steer the kip’t, always keeping the sound and scent of the small sub ahead of them. As they steered through the harbor area, they passed several small patrol craft, which circled and followed them from astern, like a dog herding sheep. Sailors manned deck guns on each patrol boat.

Escorts, Chase realized. We’re being escorted somewhere. He told Likteek to stay on course and maintain speed and distance. “Don’t do anything stupid…or sudden. Tell Loptoheen that, too.”

Likteek’s voice was sardonic. “Perhaps you should tell Loptoheen this. You are Kel’metah, after all.”

They were being steadily escorted and when he studied their surroundings, he saw where.

Looming ahead of them was large hill covered in green vegetation and at the base of the hill, right at water’s edge, were two tunnel openings.

An underground tunnel, Chase muttered. “There must be a submarine base inside that mountain.”

He dropped back to his seat and took back control of the kip’t from Likteek, who relinquished it gladly.

They submerged and then Loptoheen called up on the comm circuit.

“This is a trap. We shouldn’t go in there,” he warned.

“You may be right, but we don’t have much choice,” Chase replied. “Keep your weapons primed and ready. We just want to talk, if they’re willing to listen.

The two kip’ts entered the tunnel, warily, slowly, still following in the wake of the little sub.

The tunnel was hewn right out of the rock bowels of the mountain, with stalactites reaching down from the ceiling above and up from the seabed below. A series of closely-spaced straight lines striped the rugged walls of the tunnel. Coring lines for explosive charges, Chase realized.

The tunnel had been blasted and excavated right out of the innards of the mountain.

The light level had fallen off inside the tunnel but was now brightening again. They were coming to some kind of open space. The little sub surfaced. Chase and Loptoheen elected to stay below, but even through the shimmer of the water above them, they could tell that they had entered a vast cavern hewn right out of the interior rock of the hill.

By mutual consent, Chase and Loptoheen brought both kip’ts to a complete stop, hovering alongside a sheer cliff sculpted from rock that led up to a series of wharves and piers above them. A massive craft lay dead ahead.

“Probably a submarine,” Chase said. “And a big one. We’re inside an underground base.”

“Like being inside a seamother,” marveled Likteek. He studied his sounders, sniffers and the beatscope, trying to record everything. Chase smiled: a dedicated scientist to the end.

“What now, Kel’metah?” Loptoheen’s voice sneered at them from the other kip’t.

“Let’s get out and surface,” Chase decided. “Carefully…you and me. Bring your weapons.

I’ll bring an echopod.”

The dock area was lined with machine shops, an optical shop, more workshops, a munitions bunker, well-guarded by marines , and more offices. Submersible operators Xi Zhilin and Guang Kejiang had finally emerged from the small sub—it was called DragonfishLong yu in Chinese…they wiped sweat from dirt-streaked faces and headed out along the pier, looking for

something cold to drink. Just as they barged into the dock office, a commotion erupted from alongside the pier, somewhere aft of the boat. Xi stopped in the door, then stepped back out.

The waters at the entrance to the pen seemed to be boiling and foaming. Something was surfacing…Xi’s stomach did a backflip when he realized it was one of the tiny craft that had been following them for several hours. The Americans had followed them somehow, after days of playing cat and mouse with Dragonfish. They’d photographed the strange underwater base, pinged it with active sonar, sniffed the waters for telltale emissions. They’d even shot at the thing.

Then the creatures had dropped off some kind of signaling device. After some fumbling and cursing, they’d finally seen and understood the message, in English. WE MEET. After consulting with Commander Jiang at Ops, they had been given permission to try to draw the creatures out and escort them to Longpo base. And now they were here, right inside the main compound.

It had to be the Americans. Or maybe the British. And incredibly, they had followed Dragonfish right into the submarine pens at Longpo.

A nearby marine officer shouted. “Shoot! Fire! Drive them off!”

Even his comrade Guang was spooked by the sight, grabbing a pistol from a yeoman, and peppering the water with shots. Others joined in the fusillade and soon the sub pen echoed with weapons fire. Men yelled. Sailors and marines and dock hands scurried along both sides of the pier, raking the water with fire, seemingly with no effect.

The little craft submerged again but didn’t go far. It glided further into the pen, looking just like a small whale, dorsal fins, stubby forward flukes, its supple body whipping back and forth. It approached the larger boat, known as the Xichang. She was a fast-attack boat in the PLA Navy.

Xi had a thought. Maybe it was just a whale that had followed them, confused, hungry, lost.

It had happened. Or maybe they were American saboteurs.

The craft or whale paused at a small diving platform, suspended over the edge of the dock.

Already, inside the dive shop windows, two men half-clad in dive gear had poked their heads out; they would have been inspecting the outer hull of the Xichang in another hour, looking for leaks, dents, loose fittings, mangled valves. Now, they ducked back into the shop amidst the volley of rounds flying around the pen.

The water around the dive platform foamed vigorously and two heads poked above the water’s surface. The heads were beaked, rounded and plated as if armored.

Xi finally saw them and sucked in his breath. Qianshuiyuan, he decided. American frogmen, combat divers, carried to Longpo to sabotage the boats. They had to be stopped.

Others saw the frogmen. They scurried to the side where the dive platform was suspended, momentarily stunned at the sight of the divers hauling themselves up onto the partially submerged platform.

Only when the first diver came fully in view, standing erect, did Xi realize this was no American frogman.

Wo de shangdi…Zhe shi shenme?” What the hell--?

The diver was much taller or longer than any human Xi had ever seen. Easily three meters, if not more. The dive suit resembled a dolphin from its mid-section up, complete with beak, eyeholes, forelimbs and odd appendages he had no idea what they were. Below the mid-section, were two legs, seemingly mechanized, for they moved with a jerky, mechanical action that belied the natural look of its forebody. One of the forelimbs held some kind of device. It was

cylindrical with a horn-shaped opening at one end. The diver aimed the device at the startled men.

A shot rang out. Then more shots, and soon the gunfire was continuous. Marines crept along the ladders and scaffolding, trying to get into better position. But the shots seemed to have no effect. The frogman was armored, it seemed and the impacts were visible, as the diver twisted and turned to evade the fire, but he continued scaling the dive platform. And another head was emerging from below the water next to him.

Then came a brilliant flash of light, followed by several deafening sound pulses. Xi staggered back, blinded, instantly nauseated, vomit rising in the back of his throat. He pitched forward onto the deck, barely caught himself and shuddered and shivered as more booms reverberated around the pen. Windows rattled and shattered and there was a momentary stillness around the dock. Men lay sprawled everywhere, groaning, their ears bleeding, clutching their faces and eyes.

The Ponkti travelers, Loptoheen and Gozu, emerged fully from the dive platform and surveyed the carnage, climbing up onto the deck. Gozu had a slight leak in his suit, the result of scores of rounds from the Tailless weapons, but was otherwise unhurt. Loptoheen was unscathed. They tested their mobilitors and found they could maneuver in this odd world of Notwater, kicking and shuffling along step by step. Both trundled forward along the edge of the pier.

That’s when Chase surfaced and saw what was happening.

Ahead of them, a door opened. The door sign read in Chinese... Base Commander. Two men stepped out, instantly startled at the sight of the Ponkti visitors. One was Admiral Hu Zhejiang, commander of the Longpo naval base. Hu had gray white buzzcut hair, with sandy gray sideburns, thinning on top and a trim graying moustache. He had just arrived from Beijing, a fact-finding and inspection mission from the Navy General Staff. The other was Fei Wang, the dock master, who had ducked into the nearest office when the fusillade had begun.

Now, the two Chinese and the two Ponkti stared at each other for a long moment. To Hu, the visitors looked like dolphins with legs, somehow thrown up on land and seeming to be lost.

They looked around nervously, checking everything. The flag officer had no sidearm, though instinctively he reached for the holster that he had left in his office. Fei was also unarmed.

Gozu pointed the sound suppressor at both men and their hands went up quickly. The Chinese started backpedaling, but Fei stumbled over a ladder and went down hard, then slid flailing off into the water with a loud splash. He scrambled to find something to grab onto, but Gozu handed his weapon to Loptoheen and dropped into the water beside Fei, grabbing the Tailless under his arms. The Ponkti flippered them back to the dive platform and deposited a coughing and gagging dockmaster over the railing. Fei coughed up water violently and sucked in huge gasps of air. Then Gozu climbed back to the deck.

Hu noticed a small pod-shaped device that Loptoheen was removing from a belt around his midsection. He flinched, started backing…another weapon?

But Loptoheen beckoned him to stop, using the gestures he had learned from the eekoti Chase many mah before. The Ponkti withdrew the device and held it out, offering it to the admiral.

Hu slowly put his hands down. “What? You want me to take this…is that it?”

Loptoheen shuffled forward a few steps on his mobilitors, earning another flinch from Hu.

Cautiously, the Chinese officer reached out and took hold of the pod.

It was a small fist-sized object, oval, rounded at the top. The sea creature 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 they could hardly believe.

“Shang jiang…watch out…please, don’t—“But he had already taken possession of the object. He stood up and examined it. The dockmaster came up and squinted at the thing in his hand.

“What is it? Is it a bomb?

“I don’t know—“Hu 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.

The sea creature—Hu still thought of them as qianshuiyuan, —frogmen-- suddenly became agitated, flapping the air with its arms. He clicked and chittered and screeched, slapping the air again and again. The other creature soon joined in. The fracas lasted half a minute.

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

“It seems upset—“then Hu 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 the qianshuiyuan were doing, the can emitted a steady stream of sounds: clicks, whistles, grunts and chirps. He shook his head, then noticed the taller creature trying to mimic his head shakes. The creature waved his forelimbs, hands extended and Hu somehow knew that the creature wanted the object back.

Cautiously, he approached, still hovering on the edge of the deck.

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

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

The creature seemed to nod and took the can. The other creature joined him in examining the object. Hu could tell they were doing something with the object. The dim red light cycled through more colors before finally settling on an orangish glow. He handed the object back to the officer.

Hu was intrigued and a little wary. Maybe it was an American trick, this qianshuiyuan with the talking can. But this was unique, working with dolphins like this, dolphins with hands. Or whatever they were. Had the Americans bred and trained these creatures, maybe equipped them with armored suits and weapons? He took the object back, watching the creature’s hand and beak movements carefully. In the back of his mind, the creature reminded Hu of a math teacher in school, one dour old Mr. Li.

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…

Hu practically dropped the thing. It was a machine. A translator. Voice box… whatever.

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

Cautiously, the dockmaster bent his ear to the device. Even as he listened, he could see ‘Mr.

Li’ become a bit more agitated. Clicking. Whistles. Chirps, like a radio.

“It’s a radio, Admiral,” Fei decided. “Like a small radio. They’re singing—“

Hu listened more. He knew a thing or two about music, having fronted for clubs and karaoke bars all over Shanghai for years. But this wasn’t singing, not exactly. It was more…

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

And deep inside, Fei knew he was right. It gave him a chill. To think that the Americans…

or the British--

Now, the pod was glowing from within with a warm orange radiance. Hu told the dockmaster it was warm to the touch; Fei verified that himself, then his curiosity overcame everything. “Let me listen—“

Hu gave him 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?” Hu sat down on the edge of the deck, a few meters from ‘Mr. Li’ and the other creature. Fei hung back by a nearby ladder, still listening, squinting, trying to make out more.

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

Shi!” Hu practically shouted. He grabbed the pod back from Fei, spoke into it. “Yes, I hear your words…you talk…I mean, you can actually talk--?

‘Mr. Li’ raised his beak, squeaking and chirping rapidly, forelimbs waving wildly.

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

Hu looked up at Fei. “He wants the pod back.”

“Maybe it needs work.”

Hu gave ‘Mr. Li’ the pod. The creature dropped off the edge of the deck, splashing into the water again, did something once more with the device. The other creature stayed on the pier.

Finally, the pod’s light had changed from orange to almost a yellowish tint. ‘Mr. Li’ surfaced, hoisting the pod with his right flipper-hand-thing and handed it back.

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

‘Mr. Li’ had ducked under again, yet both of them could hear the clicking and grunts and chirps bubbling up out of the water. ‘Li’s accomplice—Hu had mentally labeled him ‘Mr. Qi’--

had chimed in too. Li and Qi—Net comics often used by the Ministry of Public Security to entertain and instruct the home audiences…that made Hu smile. If they could only see their namesakes now.

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

…adjust made…you hear better now…?

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

‘Mr. Qi’ suddenly stepped off the platform to join Li in the water, with a big splash.

‘Mr. Li’ seemed agitated by that and began circling alongside the hull of the Xichang, the two of them orbiting the small space between boat and dock in perfect unison.

not this world…many beats distant…there is the Farpool…we come for…build home new

But the words stopped and that’s when Hu and Fei both heard the clatter of something behind them.

Two Zhongguo Renmin…Chinese marines—had crept out of a nearby machine shop and were even now leveling their weapons at the creatures in the water.

Hu shouted. “Meiyou…Meiyou! Hold your fire! Don’t shoot!”

The marines crept forward until they stood abreast of Hu and Fei.

One of them, a hai jun xia shi… a petty officer, aimed his carbine at the two creatures in the water. “Admiral , what are they? Enemy spies? American divers?”

Hu carefully nudged the barrel of the marine’s rifle away. “I don’t know yet. They’re not Americans…or British. They’re not qianshuiyuan, at least not as we understand it.”

Fei clambered back up on deck, still dripping wet from his fall into the water. “Dolphins in armor, that’s what they are …and with legs… impossible.”

Hu stooped to the edge of the deck. ‘Mr. Li’ gestured for him to hand back the strange pod again. Hu did so and the creature ducked below the water again, working with ‘Mr. Qi’, apparently making more adjustments to the device. The interior light cycled through red, yellow and amber before settling on a muted gold color. The creature returned to the surface and handed the thing back.

“Who are you?” Hu asked. “What are you?”

Now Chase scrambled up onto the dock himself, startling everyone and said, “They’re Ponkti. This one is Omtorish…all of them Seomish. Me…I’m—” Well, that could wait. “We just want to talk about your harassing them as they build their village…out there.” He waved a finned arm toward the tunnel opening…toward the sea.

The marines raised their rifles again but Hu waved them back. He squinted at Chase, blinked, as if he couldn’t believe what he was seeing. “You…you speak…English…that thing translates you into English?”

Chase indicated that it did. “Not so well. I’m not like the others…I’m actually an American…Scotland Beach, Florida. See, I went to their world, went through this procedure….”

Admiral Hu suddenly felt a bit faint. He rested against the door to the machine shop, staggered a bit. First, armored dolphins with guns. Then a giant frog-monster that spoke English.

Hu Zhejiang blinked hard and wished he were anywhere but here. Perhaps at Tiger Lilly’s on the Bund in Shanghai, hoisting a mai tai.

Slowly, bit by bit, Hu teased out the barest shreds of understanding. For the next few minutes, he pinched himself again and again, telling himself, over the chirps and whistles and grunts, squeaks and clicks of the pod-thing, that nobody at Headquarters in Beijing would ever believe this.

The stand-off lasted nearly an hour, with the three dolphins periodically dipping back into the water, for it was increasingly clear that they were creatures of the water. The frog-monster didn’t seem to need that and wound up speaking for all of them. Hu didn’t understand any of it.

Somehow, by the gods of war, the Fleet had come into contact with a new kind of intelligence…

an intelligence not of this world, talking fish with weapons. Not American frogmen. Not British divers. Not trained animals, though there had been rumors about that.

Creatures from another place…perhaps from another world, as science fiction writers had often surmised. It was incredible. It was beyond imagining. But that seemed the best, maybe the only explanation.

The frog-monster called himself Chase. He described how the Navy had been harassing and interfering with the Ponkti efforts to build a small base at Reed Bank. How the Ponkti and thousands of others had come through some kind of gateway from another world, a world that had been destroyed. How they were refugees on Earth, trapped in the Earth’s oceans trying to build new lives in unfamiliar waters.

And how the PLA Navy had fired on them and pursued them and stalked them, even killed some, trying to drive them off.

“They are just refugees,” Chase insisted, hoping his echopod was making a passable translation. He wondered at the incredulous looks staring back at him, wondering if the looks were because of his words or because he looked like a giant frog. Maybe a little of both.

Finally, Admiral Hu recovered enough composure to stand up and fix his uniform, straightening his sleeves, his epaulets and a chest full of medals and ribbons.

“The Reed Bank is Chinese territory. You…your people…are trespassing on sacred Chinese territory. We have an inherent right to defend ourselves.”

“Excuse me, sir, but how can open waters and the seabed be someone’s territory?”

“It’s our exclusive economic zone,” Hu said. “Oil drilling. Gas deposits. Fishing. Mineral beds. This belongs to the Peoples Republic and we will defend it, just as international law permits.”

Now Loptoheen interrupted. “Nah…shkreeah…qqkkk…we also have right to live…we defend kelke…people…from attack. We… kkklllqqq…destroy kip’ts…subcraft….”

Chase wished the Ponkti tuk master would just keep quiet. It was a delicate moment and he was no diplomat. None of them were.

This seemed to irritate Hu. “My ships have already been damaged by your weapons…your sonic weapons. You must leave Reed Bank. You must leave Nan Zhongguo hai…what you call South China Sea at once.”

Loptoheen wouldn’t stay quiet. He moved forward, his mobilitor motors whirring and squeaking, then stopped when the marines leveled rifles at his head.

Kkkklllqq…shkreeah…Ponkti retreat no one…no threat moves us…we fight ready…” He started to reach for a prod holstered along the hip joint of his mobilitor, but one of the marines fired at once…a short burst from his Type 71 carbine.

The rounds spun Loptoheen around, not penetrating the mobilitor, but knocking him backwards until he cartwheeled into the water with a loud splash. The second marine was already raising his own weapon when Chase decided it was time to act.

Chase lunged forward at the second marine just as he discharged his carbine. The rounds sprayed upward, hitting the rock ceiling of the wharf area, loosening a seam of rock chips, which showered down on all of them. Chase crashed into the marine and the two of them fell heavily to the deck. Chase ripped the weapon away, then scrambled on all fours back to the edge of the wharf.

Come on…get below! Let’s get out of here!”

Likteek had remained in the kip’t, with its canopy down and sealed but he had sensed the danger above and started the powerup procedure moments before, quickly getting the jets up to speed. Gozu dropped into the water with Chase and headed with Loptoheen for their own kip’t.

In seconds, both sleds were turned about and speeding along the wharf’s edge toward the tunnel opening.

Automatic weapons fire slashed into the water behind and above them, with some rounds spanging off the kip’t hulls but no damage was done and Chase followed Loptoheen deep, to the very bottom of the slip. They made the tunnel and weaved their way around rock arches and stalactites, heading toward the open sea.

Moments later, they felt the currents and swells of open water and emerged into the bay of Longpo base, easing around the front jetties and heading out to sea.

It was only then that Chase allowed himself a much-needed breath. “Well, Lik, that went well, don’t you think? So much for my career as a diplomat.”

Likteek growled. “It seems as if the Tailless don’t wish to talk.” When even Kel’metah couldn’t make something good out of the situation, what hope was there? “The Ponkti should have waited to build their camp…until all the kels could meet and make decisions.”

By a brusque signal over the comm circuit, Loptoheen and Gozu informed Chase that the Ponkti would be returning to T’kel’rok, their crude encampment at Reed Bank. “We will fortify our base…and be ready for the Tailless when they return.”

“We could have worked this out,” Chase came back. He was angry at Loptoheen. Ponkti had never been known for patience…or nuance. “Both sides could have had something to take away…but you jumped the gun. Loptoheen…this isn’t one of your tuk matches. Humans are different.”

“They will soon understand what Ponkti are capable of. Already, Gozu has signaled our repeaters. More Ponkti will be coming. T’kel’rok will live.”

You’re outmanned and outgunned, you stupid shark, Chase thought but didn’t say. There was no convincing Loptoheen to back off when he smelled blood. The trouble was there would soon be plenty of blood for everyone…and most of it would be Seomish. If the tu’kelke couldn’t find a way to get along with humans, they had no future on Earth.

No future at all.

Chase told them he and Likteek would return to Keenomsh’pont. The trip would take days and Chase wasn’t sure he could find the way. But Likteek was pretty clever with sound and scent.

“Follow the repeater songs,” the scientist told Chase. “That will lead us to Keenomsh’pont.”

Chase did that. It was during the long, boring stretch across the sea lanes of the Indian Ocean and the south Atlantic that an idea came to him. He didn’t share it at first with Likteek.

Likteek would never have approved anyway.

A day’s ride out of Keenomsh’pont, Chase asked the scientist if he knew where they were and could he find the way home from this point?

“Surely,” Likteek replied. “The scents are more familiar. The repeaters’ voices are strong.

Just home on that. Why do you ask?”

Chase had struggled with how to say this. Great leaders like the Kel’metah weren’t supposed to desert the people in their hour of need. It was cowardice. Fear. No backbone.

Weak knees. Whatever…he could even hear his Dad’s accusing voice in the back of his head…

can’t I count on you for anything, Chase…but Chase knew this was something he had to do.

“I’m dropping you off here, Lik.”

“Here…why? We have another day’s ride to reach—”

“I know. I know. But I have to go home. Scotland Beach, if I can find it. I have to see Angie. I don’t know if I can find my way. But, Lik, I have to try.”

Likteek pulsed him deeply and saw the sadness, the longing that Chase could never hide, not even from himself. He knew it was truth he was pulsing. There was nothing he could say that would change Chase’ mind, so he didn’t try. Kel’metah always kept his own council. It was written in the ancient scents.

“How long will you be gone? The people need you, Kel’metah Chase.”

“Don’t call me that. After what Loptoheen did, I don’t deserve it. The people should elect somebody else. I’m not the right person. I resign.”

“Such is not possible. You know this…you have the blood of all the metahs in you now.

Leadership is not a choice for you. It is ak’loosh, destiny, like the great wave. You cannot hide from this, Kel’metah Chase.”

“Yeah, I know. You’re probably right. But I have to do this.”

He brought the kip’t to a rest atop a small fold in the seabed, a bare and spartan plateau surrounded by ridges and mountains along the mid-Atlantic rift. Reluctantly, Likteek got out, insisting that he would follow the repeater songs, that he would be okay. Chase felt overwhelmingly sad, like he was abandoning a favorite dog.

But he had to do this.

“I know I can’t forget the tu’kelke, Likteek. For better or worse, I’m one of you, even if I’m not really. Hell, I don’t know what I am. All I know is I want to see Angie, eekoti Angie.”

“Ah, this longing…I pulse now the reason,” the scientist said. “Ke’shoo and ke’lee are in your blood, Kel’metah Chase, though you deny it…it’s there and stronger than ever. You are becoming more and more Seomish every day.”

“Yeah, that’s what worries me…love and life.”

They said goodbye and Likteek disappeared, homing resolutely in the faint harmonics and rhythm of the repeaters’ songs. Like a beacon, Chase was fairly sure they would guide the old researcher back to familiar waters… back to Keenomsh’pont.

He didn’t want to think of the alternative…Likteek circling endlessly in the trackless mid-Atlantic, lost, dazed, confused.

No, that would not happen. It couldn’t happen.

He powered up the jets and settled onto a course he had mapped out in his mind, developing the details as they returned from the South China Sea. Chase knew that all kip’ts had powerful, sensitive sniffers and sonar systems. If he worked them carefully enough, he figured he could probably home on the burbling and friction of the distant Gulf Stream. And once he’d found that, he could track along the edges, opposite to the current and eventually make his way to the Gulf of Mexico.

And after that, it was a straight shot to Scotland Beach, Half Moon Cove, Turtle Key and home.

He hoped.

Scotland Beach, Florida

July 20, 2115

Midnight

They had agreed to meet at Shelley Beach, around midnight. Finding Angie had been hard, much harder than Chase expected and for a while, he was worried, really worried. The last time they had met, Chase gave her a signaler he had taken from the remaining devices in Likteek’s lab…there were only a few. He showed her how it worked.

“I’ll activate it when I’m near. When it goes off, be at Shelley Beach, if you can. Maybe an hour later.”

“This is so cool,” Angie remarked. “We’re like spies or something.”

That had been a month ago.

Now it was dark and mostly deserted along the beach when Chase cautiously poked his head above the waves. He didn’t see anybody but this time of year, summer…tourist season…

vacations…couples humping under blankets…late-night beach walks…you never knew what you might find.

He felt a pressure wave wash against him and stepped aside just as a large mother sea turtle surfaced and scrambled up through the loose white sand to lay her eggs, mooing softly.

He didn’t see anybody at all but the lights of the town were still bright—probably a circus or carnival going on late, down by Apalachee Beach Park. The lighthouse by the Coast Guard station still strobed its warning out to sea in rhythmic pulses.

But no Angie.

Maybe she hadn’t seen the signaler. Maybe it didn’t work.

He was about to head down to the waves, gently lapping onto the shore, when he heard something and stopped. A whistle. A cough. Someone clearing their throat. He squinted through the town lights and then saw a shadow, moving cautiously down from the sea wall, moving toward him.

“Chase…Chase…is that you--?”

Angie!” He stumbled and scrambled toward her and they stopped several feet apart, wanting to hug but separated by the barrier that was Chase’s appearance. Angie wore shorts, a T-shirt and sandals. Her hair a slight reddish tint Chase hadn’t seen before. But those legs…

those track star legs…it was Angie, for sure.

“I thought you didn’t get the message.” Chase said. He reached out a hand and Angie didn’t flinch when he touched her hand. For a brief moment—

“I almost didn’t. Oh, Chase…I was headed to the hospital—Sheila went to get the car and I heard it. Chase, there’s been so much to—”

“Shhh!” He thought he heard footsteps, soft voices, and grabbed Angie by the arm.

“Someone’s coming…let’s go out.” He pulled and she relented and they waded out into the waves, low waves, the temperature of bath water, typical summertime Gulf waves.

They went out up to their waist, watched the couple stroll by, paying them no attention, and stayed there, rocking gently in the surf.

He looked at her, all inhibitions about touching now gone. “God, it’s good to see you.”

Angie had already started crying softly. She did that a lot lately. “Chase, they questioned me. They took me to Washington.”

“Who questioned you?”

“The police. The FBI.” She related the entire affair, almost day by day. “They said I knew about the sea people, the Seomish. They said I knew where you were. They’re convinced the sea people are a threat. Chase, it was terrible…I was in a hotel…they wouldn’t let me leave…

said I could be prosecuted. They talked about Russians…national security…they think the Seomish—and you—and working for the Russians.”

This made Chase mad. “Assholes. Did they torture you?”

Angie sobbed. “No, stupid. It’s not like a vid show, you know. But they questioned me a lot. It was bad enough. They wanted me to find you.”

“Did you tell them anything?”

“What could I tell them? I don’t know anything. They already knew about when we met with the Navy. But now…there are so many sea people. People are scared. Suspicious. Chase, I think they may be planning something…some kind of attack.” Unbidden, she fell into his arms, no longer caring about his scaly, armor-like skin.

Chase wanted to hug her but he was mindful of the way he looked and felt to her, even in complete darkness at midnight, and grabbed her by the shoulders instead. “Angie, we’ve got to be smart about this.” He told her about being elected Kel’metah and what that meant, most of which he didn’t really understand. “Angie, it’s like I’m a governor or something. Or a king, even. I didn’t want it. But the metah said I was perfect for the job. It was because I’m not like them, but still partly like them, that I was perfect. Angie, they’re just like us. They fight. They

don’t trust each other. But they’re scared. They feel all alone. I tried to convince them they needed to stick together…try to work with humans. If they don’t, it’s not going to end well. We humans are afraid of what we don’t understand. Afraid of others who are different. And the Seomish are really different. They’re afraid too. Neither side can talk to each other.”

Angie buried her face into the tough hide of his shoulder. Her voice was muffled, but clear enough. “Chase, how did you…and me…get involved in this? And you’re saying we’re somehow going to go to their world, their planet? How can that be if it was destroyed?”

“I don’t understand it myself. It’s the Farpool. It’s a gateway. A time machine. I came back to a time before we first went to Seome. That trip’s still coming…soon in fact. But the Seomish, the metah, Likteek, all my friends, they came to Earth—through the Farpool—from a later time…after their sun went belly up.”

“Well, at least that clears that up,” Angie lied. She shook her head and looked up at the spade-shaped head and frog’s face that was her boyfriend. “Chase, I don’t know about all this Farpool and Seome and stuff. I barely know you. One minute, we’re in Mr. Winan’s class trying to do Venn diagrams and the next moment, we’re caught up in some kind of intergalactic plot. Some days, I think this is just a vid I’ve fallen into and I’ll wake up and be little ol’ Angie Gilliam again and I’ll have track practice, and homework, and volunteer at the hospital and all that normal stuff. But then when the FBI takes me to Washington and sticks me in a hotel room and asks me about a bazillion questions that I can’t answer, I know it’s not a vid show…it’s real.” She squeezed his shoulders. “And I’m scared.”

“Me too.” Guys weren’t supposed to say things like that, but he did it anyway. He’d always tried to be truthful, more or less, with Angie.

“Chase, do you and I really have a future…together, I mean? I don’t know about—“now she pulled out of his arms and wrapped her own arms around her shoulders, letting the tepid waves slap up against her chest, aware of how her T-shirt now clung and showed everything, but not really caring..”—about all this anymore. Look at you…I mean you look like a bad sci-fi movie. But I know it’s real and not makeup…that’s what scares me. I don’t understand any of this.”

“I don’t either, Ang and that’s the truth. I have a lot of friends among the Seomish. And they need me. I know that. Now, that they’re here, they really need me a lot. It’s…I don’t know…it’s like I’ve become somebody. I’m not just Chase Meyer, beach bum, anymore. That’s what Dad thinks. He looks at me and sees a T-shirt shop flunkie. Maybe a dive partner, once in awhile. But basically a beach bum. When I look at me, I used to see that too. But now I see more and I’m not just talking about this—” he patted his scaly, armored skin, “—I’m talking about being Kel’metah. Kind of like being an ambassador. A go-between. Now, I’ve got something important to do…I am somebody important, at least to Likteek and Tulcheah and Manklu and the Metah and all the rest. The Seomish came to Earth as refugees and they need someone who’s knows the terrain. And that’s me. Remember when we studied Lewis and Clark and all their exploring? They had that Indian girl as a scout—”

“Yeah, I do remember that…Sacajawea something or other. I also remember how you kept passing notes to Becky Malone too…you two were exploring all right but it wasn’t the North American wilderness.”

“Never mind that. But don’t you see, now that I’m somebody other than a beach bum, somebody important, at least to the Seomish---it’s like I can’t really go back.”

“Chase, you’re not Seomish.”

“I know. But I’m not really human either. Don’t you see that? I’m in between. A half-breed or something.”

Now, Angie pulled away completely and began making her way to shallower water, letting the waves slap against her. She wiped hair out of her eyes…it was a mess now and she’d have to do something about that before her next shift at the hospital.

“Chase, I’ll be honest. We need to be honest with each other. I’m not too keen on being mixed up in all this ‘marine civilization’ or sea people thing. I want my old life back. I want to go to track meets with Gwen and the others and beat Winter Valley High for once. I want to graduate from school. I want to be a nurse…or maybe something more, if we can afford it, which we can’t. I’ve got plans. A life to lead. I’d—" she turned back, standing now in knee-deep waves, kicking at the water, “—I’d like to think…I used to think…that life included you.

Now—” she looked down at the swirling water, “—now, I’m not so sure.”

Chase stumbled and thrashed after her. “What are you saying?”

“Just this: I want you to look into going back through this em--…em…--”

Em’took?”

“Yeah…that. This procedure. This modification whatever…that made you look like—” she fumbled for the right words, “—like a frog on steroids. You said it could be reversed. You even said I did it once… but that was in the future. If that’s true…or was true…or will be true…that means you can do it too. I want you to do that. Chase—“she held out a hand and he grabbed it and for once, the slimy, scaly yucky thing didn’t feel so bad, “—Chase, I just want you back.

The old Chase I used to know.”

He didn’t say anything because…what was there to say? Angie had made her wishes known, known perfectly clear.

Chase agreed to look into the possibility, but not knowing how hard he would really look. It was all so complicated. He wasn’t sure what he really wanted. Just like Dad always said…

you’ll be a beach bum forever because that keeps you from having to make a decision.

Maybe Mack Meyer was right, after all. Chase smiled inwardly. The older he got, the smarter his own Dad seemed to be.

“Angie—”

“Chase—”

They kissed, sort of, gently, lip to lip. For Angie, who closed her eyes and tried to think of something else, it was like kissing a wicker basket. They held hands, sort of, though that was better, like squeezing the claw end of a hammer. Then they separated. Chase turned about, looked back and said, “Pay attention to your signaler, Cookie.” He knew she hated that. He always liked to tease her about her face reminding him of a chocolate swirl cookie.

“Get rid of that skin problem, Flip,” she called back, teasing him back. His friends had long called him that, in reference to the obvious fact that he could swim like a dolphin, including a famous one from past vid shows.

Chase took one last look at the girl who’d finally been able to explain Venn diagrams to him, then dove headlong into an oncoming wave and was gone.

Angie sloshed her way back up onto the beach, muttered something unintelligible to a couple sauntering by, and climbed the sea wall. Sheila’s car, the one she had supposedly borrowed for a run down to the convenience store, was right where she’d left it.

She climbed in and sped off back to Gainesville and the Coconut Cabana apartments. She winced at the sight of her face and hair in the rear-view mirror and decided to spend the time the

drive would take letting the auto system operate the vehicle itself, along Gainesville Highway to the apartment.

She figured she could somehow make something presentable out of that hair if she just had enough time. If Sheila saw her like this, there’d be no end of questions for the rest of the night and nobody would get any sleep.

Not that she was likely to nod off anyway, not after what had happened tonight.

Chapter 7

Seomish settlement Keenomsh’pont

Near Bermuda and the Muir Seamount

July 21, 2115

0430 hours

For Lieutenant Commander Rick Gage, the nickname ‘Barracudas’ seemed singularly appropriate for the baddest kickass special ops team in the whole Navy UWAT family. UWAT

3—Underwater Assault Team 3—had won every challenge and marksmanship and underwater combat drill this side of Jupiter for the last several years and, as C/O and mother hen to these magnificent bastards, Rick Gage was prouder than a first-time mother of all of his men and women. When word had come down from Fleet, with detailed orders following, that UWAT 3

had been chosen lead and tip-of-the-spear for a special ops assault on the Sea Peoples’

underwater base north of Bermuda, Gage was both proud enough to burst his buttons and a little sobered by the magnitude of what lay ahead, what they were ultimately facing.

And now, H-hour was only a few minutes away.

There were two UWAT teams, UWAT 3 and UWAT 4, also known as the Tigersharks. The plan was simple enough to describe. The assault teams would travel from their mother ship, the fast-attack U.S.S. Oregon to a position about a mile south west of the Sea Peoples’ settlement.

Two mini-subs would be discharged, Felix One and Felix Two, each bearing the nine members of their respective teams. Felix One would approach from the south, along a vector that allowed them maximum cover until the last moment. Felix Two would approach from the north, from the other side of the Muir seamount.

Diversionary feints and small-scale attacks would be performed by the remoras, the remote autonomous robotic drones, of which the operation would use five. The remoras would, at the synchronized moment of H-hour, launch probes around the periphery of the settlement, set off stun and depth charges and provoke maximum chaos well away from the assault teams’ approach vectors. If all went well, the diversionary attacks would pull any Sea Peoples’ defenses toward them, clearing a route into the heart of the settlement for the actual assault teams.

Equipped with electric stingers (the troopers like to call them ‘Eel prods’), additional stun charges and limpet mines, more remoras, satchels of a toxic dispersant called ‘Mad Mist,” and more containers of smart fog, programmable nanobotic swarms that would disassemble any built structures the teams encountered, the combat divers planned to make several spiraling approaches into the compound, destroy any and all structures they could, deal with any resistance and exit along the escape vector to rendezvous with Felix One and Two, which would relocate autonomously to the exfiltration coordinates while the assault was underway.

While Lieutenant Commander Rick Gage recognized there were about a million things that could go wrong with the whole stunt, he was guardedly confident that UWAT 3 and UWAT 4

had been well trained and could pull off the mission with maximum chances of success and minimal casualties. Intel could provide only rudimentary data on possible defenses and weapons the Sea Peoples possessed…but such was the nature of war. Few war plans ever survived first contact with the enemy anyway and Gage was certain the Barracudas could handle anything they encountered.

Now the time had come to prove that.

Go…go…go…go!” Gage watched as his troops rapidly and efficiently exited Felix One’ s lockout chamber and lit off their Diver Propulsion Units, known as DIPs to the troopers,

whirring away from Launch Point in a blur of waves and bubbles. The Barracudas spread out into approach formation, line abreast, spaced ten meters apart, as they closed on their target.

Team leader Chief Petty Officer Justin Honeycutt checked his sounder echoes and got a solid lock on the first structures along the settlement’s perimeter. That would be their target, as soon as the remoras did their job. He settled onto a steady cruise speed of four knots, hugging the blocks and hills of volcanic tuff, sweeping around thatches of kelp and sea grass and arrowing through the farthest fields of hydrothermal smokers, their twisting columns of smoke corkscrewing toward the surface several hundred meters overhead.

So far, so good, Honeycutt told himself. He checked his dive chronometer, figured the Tigersharks would be well underway by now and did a quick scan on his helmet head-up display, noting depth, oxygen left, mixture setting, weapons status and other indicators. Any moment now, the first stun charges from the advance remoras would be going off. When they heard that and felt the shock waves, Honeycutt knew that was Bingo time, the time for the big charge into the Sea Peoples’ home.

Honeycutt didn’t, indeed couldn’t have known, that the approach of the minisubs Felix One and Two had already been detected by Ponkti repeaters circling several kilometers beyond Keenomsh’pont. Word had been quickly passed to the Metah Lektereenah and defenses marshaled for what had long been suspected, for the treachery of the Tailless could never be underestimated.

“Release the puk’lek!” Lektereenah had commanded and her chief prodsmen scurried off to open the gates of the seamother enclosure and let the beasts loose. In addition, several details of Ponkti prodsmen, soon accompanied by Skortish squads already alerted to the danger, began deploying to blocking and flanking positions along a low ridge that paralleled the approach route of the enemy. Armed with blinders, stunners and sound grenades, the defensive force bided their time, easily sounding the approach of the Tailless force. It was hard to hide something that sounded like a freight train to the Seomish troopers.

As soon as UWAT 3 had passed by the outer sounding fences, the Ponkti acted. Sound grenades were lobbed right into the middle of the force, detonating with a concussive BOOM!

that deafened all the divers. Immediately, their attack formation discipline was disrupted as ear drums were burst, equipment shattered and valves and seals loosened. An explosion of bubbles with arms and legs flying soon enveloped the area.

Then the Ponkti let fly with a barrage of blinders. The explosion of light seared eyeballs, disrupted instruments and destroyed whatever was left of formation tactical discipline. The stricken divers of UWAT 3 were scattered, slammed and barrel-rolled into a chaotic jumble of thrashing and flailing bodies.

The lead Ponkti prodsman honked out a command for a swarming and enveloping response and the prodsmen charged into the middle of the melee, prods sizzling with rapid-fire discharge while the divers fought back with their Eel prods, fists, knives, spear guns, anything they could use. Close-quarters combat underwater was all about position and leverage and the combat divers of UWAT 3, well trained and ruthless though they were, were no match for the swimming and lunging ability of well-armed Ponkti prodsmen. Surrounded and outgunned, the Tailless divers were hopelessly overmatched by scores of Ponkti and Skortish defenders, well-equipped with stunners, blinders, prods and toxic scentbulbs, all of which steadily overwhelmed the resistance of the humans.

When a pair of seamother calves appeared from out of the murk, honking and bellowing and thirsty with the scent of blood, the Ponkti and the Skortish withdrew and let the beasts finish off the attackers.

It wasn’t pretty and the waters were soon choked with blood and viscera and entrails.

The attack of the Tigersharks of UWAT 4 fared no better, on the other side of Keenomsh’pont. Early intel for the UWAT teams had given the divers an approximate idea of what the Sea Peoples’ settlement would look like, visually and more importantly, on sonar: a hilly seabed and lower flanks of the seamount dotted with tent-like structures, pod things floating free, with some attached by fiber to the sea bed and others drifting loosely. Caves and burrows along the flanks of the seamount were covered with fabric nets and surrounded by odd ‘bubble curtains,’ while additional structures surrounded many of the hydrothermal vents, evidence, said the geniuses at ONI, of an effort to capture the heat and the minerals of the smokers for industrial and possibly domestic use.

The Tigersharks were certain they knew what to expect, what they would encounter, but they hadn’t counted on the coordinated response of the Omtorish and the Orketish, from that part of the settlement. Literally seconds after the Shark’s remoras had lit off their stun charges and the divers had moved out in formation from Felix Two, the Omtorish had guided a trio of seamothers into their path. The Orketish, for their part, had lobbed a volley of sound grenades into the midst of the Sharks’ formation, scattering and disrupting their tactical discipline, while the seamothers, now fully enraged by the sound bursts, waded in and began tearing Tailless divers limb from limb, in one case, swallowing a hapless diver whole, his suited legs kicking wildly as the puk’lek engorged herself on a new and unexpected meal.

When the seamothers were done and the waters above Keenomsh’pont were thick with heads torn off, chewed-up torsos, pieces of legs and arms and a blood-soaked mist drifting down over the settlement, the Omtorish let loose a small swarm of mah’jeet to finish off the intruders and mop up any entrails. The mah’jeet had been specially designed and bred to seek out Tailless flesh and when satiated, they would burst open and the contents of their digestive sacs would be dispersed in the prevailing currents.

After half an hour, what was left of the Tigersharks was essentially the fading scent of their own fear and entrails, spreading like a fine film over everything on the far side of Keenomsh’pont.

Lieutenant Commander Rick Gage knew the mission had failed and pulsed out the Fall Back signal to all troops. He wasn’t sure how many were left and he hadn’t heard anything from Bostik and the Tigersharks since H-hour started.

The whole damn mission had somehow gone belly-up and for that, Gage was both mad and sad, mad at ONI for failing to accurately discern the defenses they would be facing and the weapons and tactics the Sea Peoples would put up, and sad for the senseless loss of life, the irreplaceable loss of well-trained combat divers that the Navy had spent millions on recruiting, testing and preparing for missions just such as this.

Gage waited for ten minutes at the outer lockout chamber of Felix One but only one other diver from the Barracudas ever showed up: Seaman Rodrigo Sanchez, and he was badly cut and trailing a stream of blood from penetrations of his hydrosuit. Sanchez struggled with Gage’s help into the lockout, nearly out of oxygen, and cycled through into the pressure compartment of the sub.

“Just lie still, Sanchez, will you? Stop shaking so much—”

“… can’t …help…it…so…cold…Skipper,” the diver dribbled words out of his mouth, along with more blood, while Gage activated the repairocytes inside Sanchez’s body with a small pulse device, which he passed over the injured areas. As soon as he was sure the bots would stanch, then suture up any internal tissue damage, Gage crawled up to Felix’s main panel and got the propulsors turning. He didn’t set a course just yet, anywhere would do as long as it was well away from here and as fast as possible.

When Felix lurched to a start and was soon humming along at her emergency speed of ten knots, Gage set the bow planes on EMERG ASC and lay back on the deck in a pool of his own sweat and blood. He dimly heard the insistent beeping of the sounder, warning him of a large moving object dead ahead, but he didn’t care anymore. He just wanted to rest, to gulp in huge swallows of precious oxygen, let the fans cool his face and settle back into the blissful peace of those who had somehow miraculously escaped violent death.

He was only semi-conscious when Felix One barreled right into the gaping maws of the seamother that had tracked them up from their seabed departure point.

From a kilometer away, Chase Meyer was appalled at what he had just witnessed. He had heard the explosions, seen the flashes of light, the detonations of sound, and winced as the seamothers attacked the human divers. The whole affair lasted half an hour and once the humans had been driven off—their surface ships were still circling the area overhead and small subs prowling several kilometers away—and the seamothers corralled into their holds, Chase maneuvered his kip’t carefully through the screen of prodsmen guards and drifted over the settlement, examining the extent of the damage.

The worst of it was along the outer rings of camps, mostly Ponkti to the south and southwest, Omtorish to the north, along the seamount. The interior tents and holds and canopies and shelters and bivouacs and other structures that had been erected, were mostly intact, though the seamount itself was still shedding tons of rock and mud down its steep slopes.

Many of the outer structures had simply been flattened or blown apart by the human depth and stun charges. In the Omtorish and Orketish zones, past the ever-present bubble curtains that the kels had set up to denote their territories, the continuing slide of mud from the seamount had destroyed hundreds of caves, warrens, niches and burrows, many occupied by refugees from Omt’or itself.

Chase grew anxious as he surveyed the extent of the damage in this sector and decided to hunt down the Kelk’too, the Lab and its surrounding pavilions. He drove his kip’t toward where the Lab spaces should have been, wary of the slow-motion slide of rock all around and found many of the caves buried in several meters of silt. Still, the Lab was open and a flurry of activity heartened him as he left the kip’t with its nose buried in a small declivity.

One of Likteek’s assistants came scooting up, glad to see Chase. It turned out to be Klatko, a young intern just finished with his Circling when the great emigration had begun. Klatko nuzzled Chase around the face and chest, in the Omtorish way, until Chase finally grabbed him by the fins and held him off.

“Klatko, you’re all right. It’s good to see you. Any idea where I can find Likteek?”

Klatko’s flanks bore recent scars but the boy still had the energy of a dozen midlings.

“We’re just pulling everything we can out of the caves, eekoti Chase…I mean, Kel’metah Chase.

A lot was damaged, it’s true. The Tailless surprised us…” he looked up at the looming bulk of the seamount, towering over their heads, “and the explosions have set off slides that we can’t stop. Likteek says we’ll have to leave these slopes until the slides stop.”

“I’m sure. And I can help. But where’s Likteek now?”

Klatko thought for a moment. “He took a small team up— there—” he pointed upslope, to the seamount’s chaotic zone of cross-currents above them, near the summit. “They’re looking for ways to stop the slides.”

“Thanks. Keep up the good work.” Chase kicked himself up and followed the steep flanks of the mountain toward the top, dodging larger boulders and streams of rock crashing down the sides.

He pulsed upward several times and got an echo he recognized and stroked toward it.

The echo turned out to Likteek and his party. They were wedged into a small hollow, protected from the slide until it began petering out.

The scientist motioned Chase into the hollow with them and made quick introductions.

There were two others: Terpy’t and Ponti, both Lab assistants. Terpy’t was a beatscope expert that Chase had met before.

“We’re probing the ground here,” Likteek explained. “This rock is different from Seome.

It’s denser, harder. It shouldn’t be sliding so much. We’re trying to find out why.”

Ponti piped up, “We have an idea to seed the slopes with tchin’ting, if we can get it to grow.

It could stabilize the ground.”

“Good idea,” Chase remarked. “Lik, what about casualties…in Omt’or? I surveyed the damage coming in.”

The old scientist held up a small rock, licking it with his tongue, pulsing it with a critical probe. “Not so bad. A few em’kels lost people. And many injuries. The Metah is roaming around the zone now, taking notes. All the metahs are supposed to meet later today.” Likteek placed the rock back carefully into the cave wall. “In some ways, we were lucky. The Tailless came upon us so suddenly…we didn’t have much warning. Thank Shooki for the Ponkti…I never thought I’d be saying that. Their prodsmen were brave…fearless, even ferocious. Ponkti are like that. They drove the Tailless back…they and the seamothers.”

“I heard.” Chase felt like he needed to apologize for the treachery of the humans. The Seomish were just trying to make a new life for themselves, in a new world. “I’m sorry for what happened. I don’t know what provoked this attack. We should meet with the humans…the Tailless again.”

“Unofficially,” Likteek told him, “that’s what the Metah wants to do. This isn’t the first incident or provocation either. I sometimes wonder if Seomish and Tailless can ever get along…

the two sides don’t understand or trust each other.”

Chase had to agree. “Humans don’t get along with each other. They fight all the time.

Faced with something they don’t understand, something unfamiliar, humans lash out. But I’ve seen that on Seome as well.”

“True enough,” Likteek admitted. “But tell me, Kel’metah Chase…do the Tailless have any notion of ke’shoo and ke’lee, as we do?”

This made Chase think. “Love and life? We…humans…understand those ideas. To a human though, family, tribe, clan, nation…those are the really important things. That’s what humans will fight and die for. Not unlike kels…but even stronger. Humans can’t pulse each other like you can. They study each other’s faces, expressions, gestures, things they can see, to try to judge what others are thinking. Is this human a friend or a threat? We have religions, like you have Shooki, that try to teach us to get along, to respect one another, even love one another.

Those beliefs are common, even popular. But they’re not always followed.”

“Perhaps we have more in common that either side realizes. Come…we should get back to the Lab.” Likteek and his assistants gathered more specimens, stuffing rock and mud into sacs and pods, with Chase’ help.

They waited a few more minutes for the slide to abate and when it seemed safe, Chase led them through the curtain of falling debris and they descended downslope into the bowels of Keenomsh’pont itself.

After he helped Likteek put away their specimens and ascertained that the Lab was still functional, he went in search of Tulcheah. He found her helping some Ponkti kelke rebuild their shelters on the other side of the settlement. Tulcheah was half Ponkti herself and she was belting out an old Ponkti repeaters’song with the others as they labored to remove debris from the shelter, bucket-brigade style.

When she pulsed it was Chase, she pulled away and they nuzzled. Chase found Seomish nuzzling a pleasurable form of ‘kissing,’ as long you liked the kisser. When the rest of the brigade came by to nuzzle too, which was a normal Seomish form of greeting, Chase wasn’t so fond of the practice. It was rather like being licked by a pack of dogs. Still, as Kel’metah, he had to put up with it.

Chase pitched in to help the cleanup. “How much damage happened here?”

Tulcheah went back to humming her repeater’s tune and soon the others got into the rhythm.

“Some of the shelters burst…” she said.

“Shock waves,” offered one of the Ponkti. “It rolled through this little valley…the cliffs focused the energy. You can see a long line of burst shelters and torn tents.”

Chase had noticed the damage looked like a small tornado had torn through the camp. He’d seen similar destruction paths in central Florida during spring and summer thunderstorms.

“Can it be repaired? Do you need any help from other kels?”

A heavy-set Ponkti male at the front of the line, handling the biggest pieces, snorted in derision. “Ponkti need help from no one—”

“Don’t talk to Kel’metah like that…we can always—”

And the argument flared right there, with all of them passing chunks of debris to one another, sniping at one another, swearing and spitting in the Ponkti way. Tulcheah soon became embarrassed at the display. She left her position and pulled Chase aside.

“Don’t mind them. They’re tired, sore and mad at what the Tailless did.”

“I don’t doubt it. I didn’t want to cause any trouble…just to find out if anyone here needs help. I know the Skortish would send a party if asked. Maybe even the Omtorish—”

Tulcheah sniffed. “Oh, I doubt that. The Omtorish think of us as pets…and not very bright ones at that.”

“Tulcheah, you know that’s not true. Omtorish are proud people, that’s true but—”

“You think Ponkti aren’t proud?”

Chase moved to tamp down the raw feelings that clearly were barely contained among the Ponkti. “Look, I don’t know about this Kel’metah business. I didn’t ask for it and I don’t want it. I’m just trying to do the right thing…if I could ever figure out what that is. Jeez, Tullie, you people argue and fight like humans. Worse, even.”

Now Tulcheah was clearly annoyed with him and she went back to her spot in the cleanup detail, tossing debris along angrily as quickly as she received it.

“Kel’metah Chase—“the way she said it, Chase’s echopod fairly dripped with sarcasm. He hadn’t known the device could convey feelings like that…”—if you really want to do the right thing, then make the Tailless stop harassing us. Make them leave us alone.”

A chorus of honks and squeaks along the line agreed with Tulcheah’s words. It wasn’t the first time Chase had felt the tug-of-war between his human side and his em’took-modified Seomish side. He felt helpless, trapped, confused. He wondered what his Dad, Mack Meyer, would do in a situation like this. Then he scoffed at that thought: Mack Meyer would have grabbed a beer and a cigar, guzzled and smoked, and stalked off, muttering and swearing to himself.

Mack Meyer had never been one to let an argument or a decision get in the way of a beer.

The truth was Chase was appalled by what the humans, the U.S. Navy and their allies, had done. He thought they had an understanding with the humans, an understanding about what the Seomish were doing, why they were here. At least, at Keenomsh’pont, the Seomish weren’t bothering anybody. These were supposed to be in international waters here in the mid-Atlantic, to Chase’ way of thinking. It was true the Ponkti had run afoul of the Chinese in the Pacific, but then the Ponkti did that. Chase was confident something could be worked out. The Skortish and the Orketish were a mystery. He didn’t know what seas or oceans their explorers had ventured into.

With a sigh, as he lifted heavier pieces of rock off a flattened shelter canopy, Chase realized he would probably hear from them as well. Being Kel’metah was like being referee in a hockey game…or more appropriately, chaperone at recess on the school playground.

A few minutes later, the cleanup brigade was interrupted by the appearance of a detail of the Metah’s prodsmen. The vizier herself, old Oncolenia, was with them. She singled out Chase and came over to the debris pile.

“Her Affectionate Majesty Mokleeoh loh, requests your appearance at her quarters at once.

The prodsmen will escort you.”

Chase had thought that the Kel’metah was supposed to be above such summons, but apparently not. The prodsmen and their prods brooked no argument. Conscious of the scorn and stares of the Ponkti, Chase meekly fell into line and the escort was off.

He found it somewhat of an effort to keep up, but Chase was determined he would show no weakness now.

If they want me to be Kel’metah, I’ll show ‘em what the old boy can do.

Mokleeoh was in her quarters, a rather large canopied depression in the seabed, surrounded by bubble curtains, a few hydrothermal vents corkscrewing their smoke columns upward and a sentinel of rock stands that time and currents had twisted and sculpted into fantastic, even tortured shapes…serpents’ heads and anguished faces, all backlit with the ethereal glow of eel-like k’orpuh snakes wrapped around them like garlands.

Oncolenia showed him inside, then withdrew quietly.

Mokleeoh seemed lost in thought, idly flippering her way around the enclosure. From time to time, she selected a scentbulb from a shelf, sniffed it perfunctorily and put it back.

“I have a mission for you.”

“Affectionate Metah, is this a mission for Kel’metah? Or me as eekoti Chase?”

That seemed to get the Metah’s attention. She came to an abrupt stop. A faint smile spread across her face. “Of course, you are Kel’metah. It would be inappropriate for me, Metah of Omt’or, to give you orders. This mission is a request…think of it like that.”

Yeah, the kind of request the drill sergeant gives to his recruits at boot camp, Chase figured.

“What kind of mission?”

Mokleeoh started her ceaseless roaming again, though at a slower pace, circling the room and Chase orbit after orbit. He felt like she was sizing him up.

“I want… I request…that you make a trip. The Tailless have issued a communication that we received by repeater a short time ago. They want to meet with us. With our representatives.

They mentioned you, by name, I might add.”

Chase shrugged. Figures. “What do they want? And where is this meeting?”

Here, Mokleeoh barked a sharp whistle and, as if by magic, Oncolenia appeared from outside the enclosure, pushing through the bubble curtains with an inquisitive beak.

“Yes, Affectionate Metah?”

“Bring the echopod of the message.”

“At once, Affectionate Metah.” The vizier disappeared for a moment, only to return bearing a pod wrapped with the Metah’s seal. Mokleeoh took it, activated it and gave it to Chase.

“Listen…for yourself.”

Chase held the pod to his ears. It was in English, though he found he could trigger Spanish, French, Chinese and Russian translations by turning the pod this way or that.

It was a sort of invitation. Chase played the thing several times to get the details. The human UNISEA group wanted to meet with him and any designated assistants in five days. The meeting would take place at Woods Hole, Massachusetts…that made Chase wince, with his memory of being held captive like some prize game fish in the aquarium there…and the purpose of the meeting was to discuss ways to improve relations between the humans and the Seomish.

Chase gave the pod back to Mokleeoh. He explained what was being asked.

“The Tailless want to talk. I think the fact that their little attack was driven off has given them reason to re-think their position. They want me and anyone else I need to come to Woods Hole—that’s where that little sub took me when they grabbed me—and meet with this UNISEA…some kind of official body, I guess. They want our ideas and demands. They want to know what needs to be done to improve relations.”

Mokleeoh was circling more vigorously now, stirring up complex cross-currents, buffeting loose items on the shelves. Some of them drifted off, so that a small vortex of loose items swirled after her.

“Lektereenah thinks this is a trap. An ambush. Oolandra thinks it’s a ruse of some kind.”

“What do you think, Affectionate Metah?”

Mokleeoh was quick to reply. “I think we have no choice but to meet. Kel’metah Chase, it takes no wisdom to see that we are strangers in these seas. We’re outnumbered. Probably outgunned, despite the last engagement. We’ll never have peace and be able to make a life here if we can’t come to some kind of understanding with the Tailless. Already I hear talk among the kelke: some want to re-enter the Farpool and go somewhere else. Is that even possible? There is no Farpool now. Some want to have all Seomish go through em’took like you and become more like the Tailless. Is that possible? As for me, I want to preserve what is best in our culture…our language, our traditions, our foods and sports and beliefs…I don’t want us to lose those things.

But it’s clear to me, at least, that we must meet with the Tailless and try to work out our differences. Kel’metah Chase, since you are now Kel’metah, I can’t order you to make this trip.

But I implore you: you should do this. Make them stop the harassment. Lektereenah doesn’t want you to go. Oolandra and Keleemah…they haven’t made up their mind. Their own people argue about this. But you are part Omtorish. Omt’or is home kel to you, or that part of you that remains Seomish.” Mokleeoh stopped abruptly again and stared right at him, an almost childlike look of wonder on her face, as if it were Christmas morning and an unexpected gift were in hand.

“I appeal to that part of you, Chase.”

It was the same look Chase remembered, as a child, seeing on their old hound Benji, whenever Benji knew something was coming, he didn’t know what, but the expectant ears, the quirky set to his mouth, you just couldn’t disappoint Benji when he gave you that look.

But these weren’t dogs, or pets. Chase shook his head. This is insane. These are Seomish people. They’re my friends. They took me and Angie in once, made their home our home, accepted us into their families, warts and arguments and all.

How could he not do as the Metah asked?

Chase sucked in a breath. He remembered what he had promised Angie, just a few days ago. The words came flooding back into his head, like an echopod unspooling its contents, word for word…

“... this procedure. This modification whatever…that made you look like—” she fumbled for the right words, “—like a frog on steroids. You said it could be reversed. You even said I did it once… but that was in the future. If that’s true…or was true…or will be true…that means you can do it too. I want you to do that. Chase—“she held out a hand and he grabbed it and for once, the slimy, scaly yucky thing didn’t feel so bad, “—Chase, I just want you back. The old Chase I used to know.”

All he could do now was nod slowly at Mokleeoh’s request. Chase wanted to be anywhere else but here.

Chapter 8

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute

Woods Hole, MA

July 25, 2115

1330 hours

The first meetings between UNISEA representatives (led by Dr. Satsuyama) and the Seomish contingent (led by Kel’metah Chase) were to be held in a musty old museum building off Woods Hole Road next to the Challenger Annex. The museum was a seldom-visited single-story wood-sided building, vaguely Cape Cod in look, and near Little Harbor and the Coast Guard station. The UNISEA diplomats felt that proximity to such a body of water as Little Harbor would make it easier for the Sea People to come and go as needed…it would give them a sense of normalcy in what was otherwise expected to be a tense and stressful place.

Dr. Satsuyama watched the arrival of the Seomish from the museum’s parking lot, along with Dr. Josey Holland.

“I never thought I would ever see anything like this,” the Japanese biologist muttered. “It’s like a dream.”

“Or a nightmare,” Josey Holland remarked. “I keep having to pinch myself.”

They both had come out to the parking lot when the first Seomish ships arrived. The things looked like small humpback whales, surfacing in the harbor near the Coast Guard lighthouse, then beaching themselves on the sandbars on the near side of the marina. Once ‘parked’, the two ships popped their hatches and the Seomish contingent climbed awkwardly out.

There were three who emerged, and several others who stayed behind, inside the ships. The three who emerged included the one who looked like some kind of giant mutant frog. The other two were clearly encased in armored suits that gave them some kind of mobility and life support on land.

The three who emerged made their way onto the beach, a bit unsteadily, then clambered across the sand dunes, over the sea wall and across the bike path and walkway that circled the harbor. Once they had made the grass lawn that fronted the museum, they encountered a phalanx of campus police, Massachusetts State Patrol and National Guard troops, lining the edges of the lawn, guns drawn and ready.

Nobody was taking any chances.

The three Seomish waddled slowly across the lawn—Holland was sure she could hear the faint whir of some kind of motors—and approached the parking lot. Dr. Satsuyama bowed deeply, made some greetings and with hand gestures, indicated the trio should follow him.

Holland and a few other UNISEA and Woods Hole officials followed up the rear.

Inside the conference room, a U-shaped arrangement of tables and chairs had been set up, with pitchers of water, pads, pens and slates. The Seomish trundled into the room, stared for a moment, then stood stoically along one wall. None of the arrangements were of any use for them.

“They won’t be able to sit down,” Chase explained. To Satsuyama and Holland, his voice coming out of the echopod sounded tinny and mechanical, albeit recognizably American. “Their mobilitors don’t work that way. We’ll just stand.”

“As you wish,” Satsuyama said. He and Holland stood for a moment, then seated themselves. The UNISEA director made some introductory remarks, which Chase responded to, then the meeting got down to its real business.

“We met before,” Chase said to Holland. “A month ago…in another building.”

Holland reddened slightly. “Yes, sir...I have to apologize for that. We didn’t know—I mean, it was only later that—”

Chase waved it off. “It was my fault. I just hope we can make some kind of agreement here…so both sides will understand each other better.”

Satsuyama decided candor and honesty would be the order of the day. “Why have you come here? Have your people always been here…perhaps we just didn’t know about you before?”

Chase explained briefly about the Farpool and the Kel’vish’tu. “Their world was dying...their sun was dying. The Farpool made it possible to come here, just in time. “

Manklu tel kel: Omt’or was one of the negotiators. Pakto klu kel: Sk’ort was the other.

Manklu spoke, slowly, letting his own echopod translate for the Tailless.

Shkreeah…many were lost. Zzzhhh…we had no choice….”

Holland nodded. “So you immigrated…to Earth? That must have been…awful…

frightening…”

“How many are you?” Satsuyama asked.

Chase gave them a figure. “The Seomish just want to be left alone. To rebuild their lives here.”

The UNISEA director considered that. “Several hundred thousand? This could present a problem.”

“Why? The settlement—they call it Keenomsh’pont—is in international waters. There’s no place else for them to go…the Farpool is gone.”

“Not all your immigrants are in the Atlantic,” Satsuyama said. “The Russians and the Chinese have told me that some of your…er, people…have moved into territorial waters in the Pacific.”

Chase knew firsthand that this was true. “They wanted to explore the oceans…learn about the new world.”

“It’s not their world,” Satsuyama said. “True, your main settlement is in international waters but even so, there are…concerns that have to be addressed. To have so many traveling unchecked around the oceans…this could cause troubles.”

“What troubles?” Chase asked. “Whales and other creatures roam the oceans at will.

Nobody has any problem with that.”

“I guess the problem is that some see your people as a threat. You are an intelligent people.

You clearly have technology. You have weapons. You’ve already assaulted my people, in fact, right here. The Chinese have already said you’re interfering with fishing and oil and gas extraction. These settlements are in their exclusive economic zones…the Law of the Sea clearly prohibits—”

Now Manklu became somewhat agitated. His mobilitor creaked and whirred as it shifted to keep him in balance. “You took one of our people— eekoti Chase was taken hostage. Any kel would react the same way. We protect our people.”

Satsuyama held up a hand. “Please…please…we must be patient with other. It’s clear there have been misunderstandings. Perhaps, we should start with a simple statement of demands. I will make a list of what we want…what we humans want in these matters. You do the same.

We’ll compare lists and see where we can come to agreement. I’ll bet there are many areas where we have compatible interests.”

Chase explained the offer and Pakto and Manklu agreed. The Seomish chatted among themselves, on some frequency beyond the echopod, and Satsuyama gathered his own negotiators around one end of the table to do likewise.

Josey Holland’s wristpad then chirped. “I have to take this,” she announced, frowning at the message details. Christ, Stephen’s attorney…of all the times. She left the room and went out onto the porch, overlooking the grass lawn. There, she pulled up the vid and spoke for a few minutes with her own attorney, practically yelling at times. After a few minutes, she punched her wristpad off and decided to wait awhile before re-entering the room.

Jesus Christ, what next? A petition to declare me unfit…the jerk…. It wasn’t Stephen that always got her riled up, or his troglodyte attorneys. She could handle Stephen. It was the fear that he could yet wind up with custody of Timmy and Hannah. She paced the porch for a few seconds, clenching and unclenching her fists. That just could not happen. No way she would ever let that happen. She toyed with the idea of arranging for the kids to be kidnapped, just to get them away from Stephen…maybe send them off with the Seomish to their city beneath the sea. The idea of it, once it came up, was laughable.

I’ve been watching way too many crime vids, she figured. Still, it was a thought.

Inside the room, Chase, Pakto and Manklu gathered at one end of the room, per Satsuyama’s suggestion, to hash out what they wanted from the humans.

“They have to let us build our kels,” Manklu was saying. “The Tailless don’t live in the sea.

Why do they care if we build a home in their oceans?”

Chase shrugged, a useless gesture in his current form, but he couldn’t help it. “Humans are like that. We’re…they’re…territorial, just like Seomish. You didn’t want Ponkti or Skortish trespassing in your waters. In fact, you fought constantly about that. The Ponkti are in somebody’s territory, with their new village T’kel’rok. The Chinese aren’t happy about it.”

Pakto was subdued. “We need the mekli now. They know what Shooki wants. They have the ancient scentbulbs…they can interpret and advise us.”

Chase glanced over at Satsuyama and his people. They were huddled as well, gathered around several slates at the other end of the table, pointing, arguing.

What was the right thing to do here? I’ve never been in anything like this before. Working in a T-shirt shack on the beach didn’t exactly prepare you to be intergalactic ambassador. Sure, sometimes the Croc Boys argued with each other…over how to carry a song forward, how to do the harmony, who should lead, who could riff. Disputes like that were usually resolved by playing the song different ways, listening to the sound, hashing it all out over a few beers, and trying again.

But Manklu and Pakto didn’t do beer. And he figured Satsuyama didn’t either. Jeez, the guy looks like a scarecrow with a rod up his ass. And what’s with that smile…it must be welded on.

The meeting resumed a few minutes later. Chase took a lesson from his practice jams with the Croc Boys as a guide.

“My…er, colleagues here, say they would like to consult with the kel, with their advisors, before committing to anything. Could we, like, adjourn for a few days and come back together?

Maybe one of you or some of you could come to Keenomsh’pont and meet the Kel’em…even the Metah. You could see how these people live.”

Satsuyama squinted like he was sitting on a nail and was about to argue, but Josey Holland, who had come back in, spoke up.

“I think that’s a very good idea, don’t you, Keko? The Seomish might feel more comfortable in familiar surroundings.”

Satsuyama was about to say something but the others around the table nodded and there was a chorus of nods and general assent to Holland’s idea. In the end, the Japanese biologist was outnumbered.

“I’ll put it to the UNISEA Council,” he offered. “It’ll be up to them…and to the Security Council as well. That’s all I can do.”

Holland pressed the point. “I think I can speak for Woods Hole in saying that such a meeting—under the sea, as it were—would offer a lot of possibilities, not only diplomatic but scientific as well. If the two sides could get to know each other better, I’m sure we can find common ground for some agreements.”

Satsuyama knew when he was beaten. “Then, it’s settled. We’ll adjourn this meeting, and I’ll contact the Secretary-General and make the case. To our Seomish delegates, I’d like to say thank you for coming and we do have your signaler device, I believe…we have a way of being in touch?”

Chase explained how the device worked and by common consent, Josey Holland was given the responsibility for keeping the signaler and acting as point of contact. She cradled the pod-shaped thing in her palm and watched in fascination as first Chase, then Manklu sent signals to it. It vibrated and chirped and squeaked and changed colors and Chase explained all of it to her slowly and carefully.

“Seems simple enough,” she decided. The signaler fit nicely in her purse. It seemed about the size of a baseball, but oblong, with control studs and small vibrating knobs along one side.

“When the color turns orange inside,” Chase told her, “just hold it up to your ear. You should hear the message. Hopefully, the translator will work and you’ll understand.”

The meeting broke up and, as Manklu and Pakto made their way in their mobilitors outside, Holland drew Chase aside at one end of the porch. Satsuyama and his delegates were crowded around Manklu and Pakto, touching their mobilitors while the Seomish demonstrated how the suits worked, actuating various motors and effectors, much to the glee of the delegates.

Holland turned to study Chase from close up. “So you’re really human…under all that skin and hide?”

“Florida born,” Chase said. “Scotland Beach…the Lost Coast.” He’d already explained about the em’took procedure.

“May I touch it”

“Sure.”

Holland ran her fingers across the skin of his torso, feeling the scales and bumps and ridges that formed his outer shell. “I didn’t get to study this before…when your friends showed up.

This must have taken some really unique technology…to do something like this.”

“I guess. I don’t really understand it myself. The Seomish say it can be reversed…it’s not easy but it can be done. In fact, my girlfriend, Angie Gilliam, had that done.”

“She was altered…same as you?”

“She was but she wanted to go home so the Seomish were able to change her back…that’s all in the future. I don’t fully understand that either, but the Farpool was a sort of time machine.”

“So you say. I’d really like to learn more about this…this em’took business. And about your people…the Seomish. How they live, how they work and play. What interests them, that sort of thing.” Her face turned apologetic. “And I’m sorry we grabbed you with Poseidon.

That’s was wrong.”

“It hurt too, but we worked it out. Excuse me, Dr. Holland, for saying this but you look like something’s bothering you. Is it all this—?” he indicated the crowd around Manklu and Pakto…

the National Guard troops prone and in position with their weapons trained…the crowds gathering along Woods Hole Road, behind metal fence barriers, the signs and placards.

Holland looked around ruefully. “This is becoming a circus, for sure. No…I…it’s just…

you know, some family problems. My husband—”

Something in her voice caught Chase’ attention. A bit of a catch in her voice, some emotion flaring like a match, then quickly suppressed. Angie did that sometimes….

“Your husband…is he sick or something?”

Holland smiled. “In a manner of speaking. We’re getting a divorce. He’s trying to take the children from me.”

Chase was sympathetic. “Bummer. My girlfriend Angie…her dad ran off and abandoned the family. I guess I never had to deal with that.”

“Look…may I call you Chase--?”

“Sure.”

“—Chase, I meant what I said back in that room. I’d really love to come see your settlement. Meet people. For a marine biologist, this is about as close to heaven as I can expect.”

Chase watched Manklu and Pakto waddle down to the kip’ts, still wallowing in the waves of Little Harbor. Coast Guard boats formed a protective arc around the sleds. “We could probably make room in one of the kip’ts. But the water…and the pressure…I don’t know.”

“I’m scuba qualified. Open water, down to five hundred feet.”

Chase shook his head. “Keenomsh’pont is on the sea bed. Probably five thousand feet down. But I have an idea.”

“What is it?”

“Let me talk with Manklu. If he and Pakto could double up in one kip’t, you could ride with me. Those two are waterbreathers. Me, I can do both, water and air. I could pressurize my kip’t with air and you could come along. Trouble is, you’d have to stay in the kip’t the whole time. I mean the pressure alone—unless-“ Chase suddenly thought of something. “I don’t know whether it will work…it depends—”

“What is it?” Holland was instantly intrigued. She just couldn’t pass up this kind of chance.

“Well, back on Seome, there was something called a Notwater pod…I don’t know the Seomish words. It was a pressurized space, filled with air. Angie and I used it, before I became em’took. The Seomish also have something called kee’too…I think that translates as lifesuit or something like that. But if they brought a Notwater pod along, or could build one, we could drop you into the pod from my kip’t and you could put on the lifesuit and maybe that way you could roam around and see things…meet people…with me as your guide, even.”

Holland was already heading inside. “Let me talk with my boss Dr. Wriston. Can you wait a minute…wait for me?”

Chase saw that Manklu and Pakto were already climbing into their kip’t. “Sure. I’ll go talk with the others.”

Chase ambled across the bike path, down the sea wall and sand bank and had a few words with Manklu. From the museum parking lot, Holland called up Dr. Walter Wriston on her wristpad and explained her proposal.

The department chief’s face showed obvious annoyance on the little screen. You could always tell by the eyebrows…they lifted like little question marks.

“Josey, this is insane. We need to talk about this. You’ve got responsibilities right here…

the cetacean hearing project, there’s that seminar at Princeton you’ve got to get ready for, the Florida conference—”

“I know, Dr. Wriston, but think of it: this is the chance of a lifetime. The chance for Woods Hole to really shine and dance with the top institutions on earth. Look, I don’t know who or what these Seomish creatures really are. Nobody does. But if I can lead Woods Hole into a really close relationship with them, gain their confidence, learn their secrets, the Institute can write its own future for a generation. Think of the papers. The conferences. Think of the grants and the funding…NSF will be showering money on us after this. Okay, maybe that’s a stretch but still—”

Wriston just shook his head. “Josey, you’re like my pet cocker spaniel Prissy with an old t-shirt…you just won’t let go when you’ve got your teeth into something. What about the...er, you know…the divorce? Stephen and the kids?”

Holland took a deep breath. She was not going to let Stephen and his blood-sucking lawyers take this away from her. One of her assistants, Rita, even thought she was using the Seomish as an escape…a way of avoiding her responsibilities to Hannah and Timmy, a way of avoiding having to deal with a difficult situation.

Damn you, Rita. I don’t need this right now.

She looked back at the little screen on her wristpad. Was it her imagination or had Dr.

Wriston’s face suddenly morphed into an avuncular, almost grandfatherly look?

“Dr. Holland, it’s against my better judgment. This isn’t the right way to do science and you know it. There will be about a million questions and I don’t have answers for all of them. There will probably be inquiries. People will question my competence. The board will want my hide, if this blows up.”

“But you’ll send me off with all your misgivings and some blessings as well?” Holland asked hopefully.

Was that a crack of a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth? Holland held her breath and squeezed her fists together so hard they hurt.

Wriston pursed his lips. “Bring back a Nobel prize, young lady. And stay out of trouble, will you?”

They both had a good laugh at that. Wriston signed off.

Holland went back to the lawn above the sea wall. Chase was ambling back up from the beach.

My God, he does look like walking gator, she told herself. She explained her talk with the department chief.

“I just have to get a few things from my office. Won’t take ten minutes.”

Chase could see the woman was so excited she was dropping papers and clips left and right.

True, I do have that effect on females, he told himself. But out loud: “Don’t be too long. Manklu wants to cross the continental shelf and get deep before the sound channel shifts again. There are thermal inclines out there he doesn’t know that well.”

“Just be a sec, Chase.” She reached out for his hand, which he extended, and she squeezed it. It was scaly and yucky and clammy, but she didn’t flinch or seem to mind.

Chase didn’t mind either. Even Angie closed her eyes when they touched. Chase watched Josey Holland bound across the parking lot to her lab and office in the McLean building and wondered.

She really is pretty cute, he decided, but then put that thought out of his mind. The logistics of hosting a human female at Keenomsh’pont were going to take some real thinking and figuring out before all this was done. Best to concentrate on that for now.

The trip out to the settlement at Muir seamount took the better part of three days. In that time, Chase and Holland talked a lot and laughed even more.

The first echoes of Keenomsh’pont had just come into range when Holland shivered at the strange, almost moaning sound that seemed to fill the seas around their little fleet.

“What on earth is that? Doesn’t sound like any cetacean song I’ve ever heard before.”

“Those are the repeaters,” Chase told her. “Back on Seome, repeaters roamed the seas between the kels picking up messages and sending them on. They were a whole social group, kind of like a union, with their own traditions and practices. The Seomish have continued that here…but they tell me the waters are different. They’re having to learn new methods.” Chase scanned his echo sounder board, listened to the staccato clicks and whistles of the sonic controls.

“Ah, that sounds familiar. We should be almost there.”

Holland peered out of the sled cockpit. “How can you tell? I can’t see anything but black.”

“I recognize the pattern of sounds. That’s how the Seomish navigate…by sound and scent.

We’re almost six thousand feet deep here. You won’t see much of anything.”

Holland nodded, impressed. “Of course, that makes perfect sense. Where are we going?”

Chase didn’t answer for a moment, concentrating on maneuvering the kip’t first one way, then another, corkscrewing above Keenomsh’pont as he searched for one particular set of echoes.

“I just received a signal from the Kelk’too…that’s the Academy. They’re guiding us in, pretty much automatically. We’re in luck…they do have a Notwater pod and they’re setting it up now. With any luck, this kip’t will follow the homing signal and put us down right inside the pod.”

“What’s a Notwater pod?”

“You’ll see. Hang on.”

The kip’t slowed almost to a halt. Holland looked out and saw that Chase 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 deftly landed in the center of the “palm” and, as it did so, the fingers of the hand slowly began to close.

“Dr. Holland, look—“ he shifted aside so she could see. “The fingers are retracting, like a big fist closing.”

Holland 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’t think so—" then Chase’ echopod erupted. They both listened.

open pod hatch…you are in Notwater pod…

Cautiously, Chase did so, cycling the hatch grip. He pushed up and water flooded in. But there was air…breathable air…stale, but nonetheless air….

Grateful, he squeezed up and out. Then he helped Holland 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 Holland realized the fingers that had closed around them were translucent. She 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,” she muttered. Or an aquarium.

Chase instinctively wrapped his arms around her shoulders. “At least, we can breathe here.

But I want something to eat. Maybe we can get some tong’pod…“ he indicated their audience

—“…with tartar sauce.”

There was some kind of commotion along the side. The echopod chirped. It was Manklu…

with Likteek from the Academy. They were at the edge of the enclosure, waving.

Chase dragged Holland over to the translucent flap. “We’re both hungry, Manklu. Is there something we could eat?”

Manklu drifted down and produced something in a small sac. He pressed it against the translucent finger. Chase and Holland 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 told her. He sat down next to Holland and they set to work.

The meat inside the tong’pod legs turned out to be sweet tasting…and slightly narcotic. Soon enough, Holland pitched over and fell asleep, curled up like a baby.

Chase had eaten tong’pod before. He waited until he was sure Dr. Holland was fully asleep, then worked with Manklu and the others to ready a lifesuit for their human visitor.

Holland startled awake and jumped half a foot at the sight of the grotesque creature lying next to him, staring at her. 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….

After a few minutes to calm down and get her bearings, Holland became more intrigued than frightened. Looking closer, she 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.

“Dr. Holland…hold up…don’t lose your breakfast…it’s just a suit…we brought it inside while you were out.”

“How long was I out? What happened to me?”

“Maybe an hour. You were just exhausted, I guess.”

Holland 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. “It’s designed to hold an atmosphere, or something breathable.”

Slowly, bit by bit, guided by cryptic instructions over the echopod by Likteek and Manklu, Chase managed to find a seam along the spine of the suit, which split apart as if slashed with a sword. He helped Holland stick her head up through a neck dam, found the fit tight but workable, then helped her climb completely in. From outside the Notwater pod, though Chase’

echopod, Likteek 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 Likteek had described. Pressing against a series of small finger pads, contractile fibers along the spine

stitched the suit shut. He mimed for Holland what she should do and following his instructions, she worked her 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. “Likteek, you’ve got to be kidding…oh, well, here goes—“ He tried making some of the same sounds. At first, there was nothing. Then Dr. Holland’s legs involuntarily straightened out and the attached flukes started oscillating, dolphin-kick style, as if she were swimming.

“…don’t think you want that…” he grunted. Holland jerked like a spasmodic robot.

Likteek did something…Chase heard it over the echopod. Likteek somehow managed to stop the dolphin-kick and the suit was quiet.

Holland was grateful. “Thanks…I don’t think I could have taken much more of that—“

She looked out through the slit-eyes of the blade-helmet and saw Chase gingerly approaching. On impulse, she swung her huge armfins around and growled at him, leaning forward menacingly.

“Grrrrrr!”

Chase 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, Likteek and Manklu worked with Chase and Josey Holland, to explain how the kee’too worked.

The lifesuit was controlled with sounds and scents. Holland eventually found a small control panel inside the helmet, just below her chin. More controls were on the armfins. She learned that the echopod translated Chase’s description of the legs as mobilitors…multi-purpose propulsors, suitable both for water and Notwater…that is, land. With some experimenting and practice, Holland found she could waddle around inside the pod like a drunken penguin. Chase assured her the mobilitors would work equally well in water.

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….

Likteek worked with both of them, with great patience and, not a little humor, to make sure the human could manage her new gear.

It was Manklu who observed: “At least, she’s not afraid to try. You can pulse the change….

I sense shook’lee now…not so much fear…more a curiosity.”

“She wants to be with us… tet’ee’ot, I pulse that too. Cooperation, fellowship…this is good…very good…she’s learning.”

Likteek was curious about this human and had come to the edge of the pod. He pulsed through the walls, was thoughtful. “She seems intelligent. Already, I pulse tet’ee’ot as well. We may need her help. When we pulse shoo’kel, that’s when she’ll be ready.”

Manklu 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 human or at least related. But we shouldn’t think of them as anything more than that.”

Likteek told Chase to help Holland button up her lifesuit. … you have Notwater inside…do not worry…be of litorkel ge…calm and serene…we open pod…Manklu 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—“ Holland 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, Holland’s suit sealed itself shut. Holland found she could breathe the burned air just fine…take a small breath, then another, there, see? You’ve got air.

Chase watched the whole process with some amusement, recalling his own terror when he and Angie had gone through the same procedure on Seome…but that was a long time ago, on a world long gone….

“Dr. Holland…Dr. Holland, just breathe normally—“ He didn’t even know if she could hear him. But a quick look through the narrow slit in her 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.

Holland found herself propelled forward, with gentle undulations of her flukes and some judicious waterjet props providing the kick.

Two figures swam into view. It was Manklu and Likteek. Likteek made gestures and Chase understood he was to help Holland use her chin controls. In time, she found the echopod switch.

…we go to Kelktoo…to lab…meet project master…I will guide…

Chase reached for something on Holland’s right arm and depressed switches she hadn’t even seen. A staccato series of clicks and screeches sounded inside the helmet. Then her tail flukes started up again, dolphin-kicking like she’d never been able to do in swim meets. She and Chase then moved off together, Likteek and Manklu alongside, out of the pod, whose fingers had now peeled back like flower petals, and off into the cold, murky waters.

Holland couldn’t see much through the helmet eye slits but she heard a steady pinging, along with a symphony of clicks, squeaks, grunts and chirps. Fully sound-controlled, she realized. Cool. And something liked sonar. The lifesuit was like a little ship, like a midget submarine, like Poseidon. With legs.

Though she couldn’t see much, she felt the presence of life all around her. Cubes and spheres, pods and strange glowing filaments flashed by. She wondered if Chase could hear her and tried just speaking in a normal tone of voice.

“Chase…Chase, 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—“ Chase was nearby, jetting along just behind her. “Your suit is like a submarine…it does what it wants. Now you can see some things. Look at all the fish—“

Indeed they were enveloped in vast throngs of mainly Omtorish residents, roaming in knots and groups across the ridge that served as the center of the Omtorish quarter of Keenomsh’pont, 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 Manklu and Likteek. Holland had trouble distinguishing one from another. And even as they headed for the Kelktoo, Holland 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, she decided. Everybody’s out for a stroll, just like Quissett Beach on a Saturday afternoon back home.

“Dr. Holland, how’s your suit? Can you breathe okay?”

Her voice sounded like it was coming out of a barrel. “Hey, just call me Josey, okay? 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. You’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 Manklu and Likteek across the breadth of Keenomsh’pont until they came to the base of the huge seamount. Uncommanded, Holland’s suit began a shallow dive. She 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, Holland 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, she 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 her suit clicked. It was Likteek. … 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 Woods Hole Aquarium galleries. Indeed, when Holland looked closer, inside the gallery were two animals that looked suspiciously like bottlenose dolphins.

Maybe from an earlier trip, she 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.

Now Likteek came over to greet them. He was smaller than Manklu, wrinkled in the face, with some mottling and stippling around his beak and fins.

“These are our labs. Here, we study all the fascinating things your world shows us.”

Holland was amazed. “You seem to have made quite a home here, from what I can see. Did you really come from another world, like Chase says?”

This provoked an explosion of laughter around the kel space. The scientists and technicians chortled at her words. Likteek explained.

“It has been a long journey. Many didn’t make it.”

Holland drifted about the lab spaces, examining equipment, continually amazed at the beatscope, the other instruments, specimen sacs, echopods full of notes. She was particularly interested in a rack of scentbulbs. Likteek opened one for her and Holland was amazed that even through the lifesuit, she could smell the scents.

“Very powerful…what is it?” she asked.

“Puk’lek,” the scientist told her. “You would call it seamother…very large beasts. Our Ponkti ‘friends’ brought some calves here before the Kel’vishtu…against everyone’s wishes, I might add.”

Holland finally stopped circling and regarded Chase, Likteek, Manklu and another technician also in the lab. “This is all so…I don’t even have words for this. Amazing.

Fascinating. Mind-blowing. Chase said your world was destroyed.”

Likteek dipped a beak and looked sad. “It is true. We had warning. We had time. But the kels fight among each other. We didn’t heed the warnings. We didn’t take time to prepare.

When the end came, the great ak’loosh, it came quickly.”

“Most didn’t escape,” Manklu added. “Many of my own em’kel, in fact.”

Chase did some figuring. “The estimates are that about two hundred thousand came through the Farpool. Millions died.”

This brought a somber feel to the gathering. “I’m sorry for that,” Holland said. She was still getting used to her lifesuit and to hearing translated voices through her echopod, with all its screeches, clicks and whistles. Instinctively, from time to time, she tapped at her helmet, trying to get a clearer reception. Chase smiled at the gesture; he’d done the same thing long ago, before the em’took procedure.

Now Holland really studied her audience. They’re bigger than Tursiops, she told herself , but shaped similarly. Possibly ungulate. Dorsal fins, forepaddles, flukes. But the fingers…my God, six of them.

“Just how big a settlement are you going to build here? My people…we humans…are kind of concerned about sharing Earth with another intelligence. That hasn’t happened for millions of years. We don’t know what to think about it.”

Chase started to reply but Likteek interrupted. “The kels wish only to live here in peace.

We came because we had no choice. If we hadn’t come through the Farpool, our people would cease to exist.”

“It was survival,” added Manklu. “Any people, all living creatures, struggle and do what they must to survive.”

“Well, with UNISEA, at least we have a way of meeting and discussing our differences. I just hope both sides will use this method and not threaten each other.”

“Humans can’t agree on anything,” Chase said. “We fight all the time.”

“As do the kels of Seome,” Likteek added.

“Some of your… kels, is it…? are building settlements in territorial waters of humans,”

Holland noted. “In the Pacific, for instance, our Chinese delegates say this is happening. Your people are encroaching on critical fishing areas, interfering with oil and gas exploration.”

Chase said, “I’ve already been to those waters. We tried to negotiate, but the Chinese wouldn’t listen. I don’t really know what to do. There have been incidents, skirmishes, that sort of thing.”

Manklu stroked about the lab in agitated disgust. “We will certainly defend ourselves.

Tailless will find we know how to do that quite well.”

“Like you came ashore at Woods Hole and assaulted so many humans, just a short time ago?” Holland said. “There was no need for that.”

Manklu was incensed. “What were we supposed to do? You had Kel’metah Chase…our new leader. Should we just swim in circles while our people are taken from us?”

Holland was about to respond but suddenly the entire lab space jerked and shook violently, thrashing the water into furious, clashing cross-currents. Waves slammed Holland sideways,

driving her headfirst into the scentbulb rack. Bulbs flew in all directions and soon the small cavern was thick with drifting instruments, chunks of rock and other gear.

Ak’loosh!” yelled Manklu, himself driven awkwardly into a teetering instrument stand.

“An earthquake!” Chase cried. “Look out--!”

A seam of rock loosened from the wall and fell onto Likteek, pinning the old scientist against the floor.

Chase and Manklu rushed over and began pulling rock chunks and sediment piles away.

Likteek moaned a bit, but seemed unhurt. They got him free in a few moments, while Holland watched in horror.

The chamber shook more but the walls stayed intact.

“We’d better get out of here,” Manklu said. “Come…quickly….”

The three of them wound their way back through the twists and turns of the entrance and emerged into a rain of silt outside. Behind them, the huge seamount was shedding and sloughing off gouts and seams of rock and mud, tons of it, all sliding down the slopes, crushing tents and holds and small camps at its base. Soon dozens of small structures had been buried.

And still the seabed shook and waves rolled across Keenomsh’pont, lessening in intensity but triggering yet more slides and destruction as they erupted.

The waters above the settlement were thick with panicked kelke, great swarms schooling and milling and roaming about. Even Holland could hear the cacophony of bleats and whistles and clicks, an anxious din overwhelming everything. Silt was thick in the water and pulsing was almost impossible.

It was Chase who noticed a growing disturbance from the other side of Keenomsh’pont, beyond the central ridges that bifurcated the village. A swelling knot of people were heading in that direction. Almost without thinking, Chase and Manklu turned toward the clamor, after making sure Likteek would be okay. Chase helped Holland activate her own feet propulsors, and the biologist was able to keep close and keep up with them, jetting alongside Chase as he stroked for the disturbance.

Pushing through the throngs, Chase soon found the source of the commotion. A vast swirl of kelke had surrounded a large slowly moving object nosing just above the seabed a few hundred meters beyond Keenomsh’pont’s outer perimeter bubble curtains.

It was a submarine.

Chase swallowed hard as he watched the angry crowd set upon the ship with tchin’ting fiber nets, sound grenades and prods. It was like vids Chase had seen of whalers from hundreds of years ago, stalking and harassing whales until they were worn down, exhausted and could be harpooned.

“What are they doing?” Holland asked. She really couldn’t see much beyond a few meters from her helmet. “I hear a big crowd, a lot of commotion.”

Chase was grim. “It’s a submarine. I don’t know whose. My echopod’s just catching a little of the screaming but I think they believe the submarine caused the landslides and tremors.

They’re really pissed. Right now, there are several hundred people trying to wrap a fiber net around the propeller.”

“What--?”

Even as he watched, dozens of Omtorish, Ponkti, Skortish and Eepkostic had drawn a huge net over the propeller and prop shroud of the submarine. The boat maneuvered slowly, and in moments, the prop was fouled and the sub ceased forward way, slowly settling down to a bumpy and precarious landing on a rock overhang beneath it.

Others swarmed quickly to the now-immobile boat and discharged prods into its hull, set off sound grenades and it was then that Chase sensed a massive presence moving into position just the other side of the submarine.

“My God… seamothers!” he hissed. “How could they let them--?”

It was Ponkti handlers who had released the puk’lek. There were two of them, settling their massive bulk into position just above the submarine sail, sniffing and bumping at the masts and antenna poking above the fairwater structures, chewing on bow planes still extended. One seamother repeatedly headbutted the base of the sail, and eventually stove in the outer hull enough to create a small stream of bubbles.

Chase realized what was happening. Below the sub’s outer hull, the seamother had created enough damage to hole the pressure hull. Now, the stream of bubbles became a torrent, then a sheet of furious bubbles and the submarine crew tried an emergency blow, forcing high-pressure air into her ballast tanks in a vain attempt to gain enough buoyancy to ascend to the surface.

This only made the seamothers mad and their huge mass and continued poking and prodding kept the boat pinned to the seabed. Kelke darted in from time to time, avoiding the massive tail and powerful flukes of the beasts and set off sound grenades and prod discharges.

Chase was growing increasingly nervous. He told Josey Holland what was he was seeing, hearing and pulsing.

“They’ve got the sub propeller all tangled in fiber, Dr. Holland…Josey. There are about a hundred people surrounding the boat, with grenades and electric prods. But the worst thing is the Ponkti…or somebody…released two seamothers and they’re keeping the boat pinned to the bottom. And they’re attacking and bumping that sub and now they’ve caused some kind of leak.

Seems to be getting worse every minute, too. The crew must be going crazy inside.”

“What are seamothers?”

“Oh, they’re like serpents…or dragons. Big suckers. Mean too. I’m afraid for the crew of that sub. The seamothers and all the other attacks have caused some kind of leak.”

“You’ve got to help them, Chase. You’ve got to do something.”

“Like what…I’m nobody. There are hundreds of people trying to destroy that boat. And the seamothers—”

“Didn’t you tell me you were elected as some kind of big chief or leader? Can’t you make them stop…or help that crew?”

Chase shrugged, a useless gesture but he couldn’t help it. Holland was right, he knew. I am Kel’metah, for all that’s worth. Sometimes, his Dad’s voice came to him at times like this.

Chase, stop picking your nose and do what’s right. You’ll never go wrong if you just do what’s right. As a young kid, Chase had often thought of Mack Meyer as an arrogant dictator, a sort of Gulf Coast Hitler meting out discipline and punishment to all who crossed him. Not only that, he had seriously hated his Dad’s guts. But as he had grown older, Chase realized that somehow, some way, his Dad had gotten smarter and smarter about life.

Okay, Dad, you win. Chase told Holland to stay put. “I’m going in there, see what I can do.”

Holland agreed. “I’ll hold onto this bush…whatever it is.”

“Looks like some kind of coral or something. Don’t let go…there are still tremors and tricky waves around here.”

“Don’t worry…just do what you can, Chase.”

Right. There are only about a million things that could go wrong with this stunt.

He stroked off and dove into the throng, working hard to stay on course, against strong, shifting, chaotic currents, not to mention hundreds of agitated Seomish.

Deep inside the melee, he could pulse the deafening cascade of bubbles emanating from the submarine, in several places…at the base of the sail, where one seamother continued butting and tearing at the hull plates and forward near the bow. The ship was settling bow down at a steady rate and seemed about to slip off her perch at any moment. The rock overhang onto which she had settled arched out over a fairly deep ravine, easily several thousand meters deeper and if she slid off, the submarine would likely head bow first into that gully.

Chase brought himself to a stop in the midst of the melee, where he was knocked and kicked and shoved sideways up and down by streams of angry attackers. Prod discharges sizzled through the water and Chase occasionally felt a faint tingle from the currents. Sound grenades went off in the distance, momentarily deafening him, but he shoved and battered his way deeper into the frenzied crowd and soon began shoving back.

Several Omtorish attackers recognized him and quickly formed a protective barrier around Chase with their bodies.

“It’s eekoti Chase…move aside!”

“It’s Kel’metah…give way! Stop!”

“Make space…make a hole…move away and let Kel’metah speak!”

For a moment, Chase felt like he was riding some mad, out-of-control merry-go-round, with the swirl and tumult of feverish, hysterical roamers flying around him so fast they were a blur.

But moment by moment, the blur lessened and individual kelke came into view. The waters swirled and silt thickened but in time, Chase found himself at the very center of an agitated, anxious but mostly still crowd, hovering in concentric rings, waiting for him to say something.

What do I say now? Working in a T-shirt shirt shack on the beach had never prepared him for this. Let’s see: four score and seven years ago…nope, not that. Yesterday, December 7, 1941…a date that will live in…nope…ask not what your country…

Chase knew he could only be himself.

“Kelke…stop now! Pull back…all of you…right now! Leave that submarine alone. And let’s herd those seamothers back to their pens. There are people inside that craft…people kind of like me. Humans. Tailless. They deserve to live.”

Now voices erupted out of the crowd…angry, enraged, wrathful voices, bent on vengeance.

“The Tailless cause the mountains to shake. They make destruction…ak’loosh in our kels…

m’pul’te…the water burns…we can’t live like this—”

Agreement swelled like a big wave, rolling outward, slamming into Chase’s face.

“Listen to me…there are people in trouble in that submarine. Pull your nets off! Put down your prods and grenades. If we don’t help them, they’ll die, right here in front of us. You want that? They breathe Notwater. We have to help them get to the Notwater… up there—” he pointed upward, “—to the surface.”

“Shooki wants them to die…all of us do.”

Now the words came more easily to Chase. “If they die, what do you think will happen?

More Tailless will come. Many more. More than you and with great weapons. They’ll destroy Keenomsh’pont. Is that what you want? We have to find a way to live with the Tailless…it’s their world and we’re the intruders.”

He saw a rather husky Omtorish male emerge from the crowd and come forward. He was easily fifteen feet long, muscular and young, full of confidence, probably fresh from

ke’toovish’tek…the adolescent’s circling of the world…in this case back on Seome. He circled Chase slowly, a menacing scowl to his face.

“Who says we have to stand back and let ourselves be attacked by these pal’penk? We’re just trying to survive here…and why are we here anyway?”

Chase saw others drifting forward. Okay, this isn’t looking good…maybe I should back off.

Then he remembered what happened when you did that in high school….

“Guys, the Farpool brought you here. It was set up that way. Earth…Urku…has oceans.

Lots of water. Humans live on the land…in the Notwater. This was the best place. But it’s not really your place. If we can’t get along with the Tailless, they’ll destroy you…all of us. Believe me…I’m part Tailless myself…humans have hunted species to extinction many times in our history. You’re outnumbered. If we can’t find a way to get along, it’ll happen again.”

A hundred meters away, Josey Holland clung to a coral reef, hearing just enough scratchy words through her echopod, including some of Chase’s, to make out what was happening. She had a hard time believing what she was hearing…or seeing.

I must be dreaming. Talking fish. Cities below the sea. Arguments over who should be here and why had they come here anyway. Holland pinched herself. No, this is plenty real enough and somehow this young man Chase is in the middle of it all.

She willed her thoughts to Chase. The submarine, the submarine…there are people dying inside that ship….

Chase seemed to have the same thought. Beyond the gathering, the submarine teetered on its rocky perch, streams of bubbles issuing from several hull breaches. A strong wave could send it over the edge, deeper into the ravine. All around, landslides and mudslides continued, while chaotic currents washed across the seabed, picking up rocks and chunks of coral, a blizzard of debris surging across the settlement.

Now, calmer heads seemed to be prevailing.

“What do you want us to do, Kel’metah?” someone said.

“We have to defend ourselves…we have a right—” came another voice.

“They don’t want us Ponkti as enemies…we’ll see to that right now!”

Chase decided to do what he had seen the Metah Mokleeoh do when making public statements. Seomish liked to roam. I’ll roam.

He stroked his way around the center of the gathering, intentionally passing close by the inner circle of faces, close enough to brush against them, trying in some strange instinctive way to be a little intimidating, taking up their ‘space,’ making them react to him. Hey, it worked in the school yards and hallways at Apalachee High.

“The first thing we’re going to do,” he told them, “is to help the people in that submarine.

Pull those nets off the props and free it up. You, you and you—“he selected some vigorous looking males, Ponkti by the looks on their faces—“get something to patch those leaks. Those men will die if they can’t get to the surface…I don’t want to hear from humans that there are things Ponkti can’t do. Move, man… move!”

Momentarily stung by the crisp orders coming out of Chase’s mouth, the Ponkti hesitated a moment, looked in puzzlement at each other and then set off toward the small collection of huts and tents that comprised the Ponkti part of Keenomsh’pont. Minutes later, they returned with several sacs of mah’jeet, dangerous, toxic creatures that had an affinity for swarming and coagulating around objects of interest.

Chase drew back, while the crowd dispersed, then seemed to get with the spirit and set to work untangling the submarine’s props. Soon, the seven-bladed shaft began spinning, at first hesitantly, then more smoothly.

At the same time, gangs of Ponkti males, assisted by Omtorish and Skortish midlings, not to be outdone or shown up by their peers, approached the hull breaches with their mah’jeet sacs.

Carefully, the sacs were emplaced and held fast with thick residue, then draws were pulled and the dangerous cloud of organisms released. Entrained and agitated by the streams of bubbles, the organisms clung to the breaches like a strong handgrip, slowly, but surely reducing the size of the leaks and eventually shutting off the flow of escaping air altogether.

Chase knew how toxic and deadly mah’jeet could be to Seomish bodies, so he watched the midlings carefully, but they were cautious and precise in their movements and backed well away from the clinging clump of stinging creatures before they became fully agitated.

Nobody knew how humans would react to mah’jeet and Chase was pretty sure nobody cared either.

Chase hovered and drifted about, darting in and among the hundreds of gathered kelke, making sure there were no fights or conflicts that could erupt and spoil his little project of putting angry minds to cooperative work.

As long as they’re preoccupied with this, they might think less of getting into trouble…or doing something stupid with dozens of surface ships now gathering over their heads. He had heard the repeater’s songs in the last few minutes and knew that submarine rescue forces were even now converging on the area.

“If we can get that sub to the surface,” Chase told Holland when he found her still clinging to the coral reef, “all those ships up there won’t be as likely to come down here and make mischief among the Seomish.”

Holland had marveled at Chase’s diplomacy. “That was pretty brave of you, Chase…what you did out there. You got them competing among themselves and focused on that, rather than picking fights with humans.”

“Yeah, well I was pretty good at diverting attention in school…at least long enough for me to get away. I figured it might work here.”

They both watched as the submarine began to rock back and forth on the overhang, then with a mighty explosion of bubbles, she lifted off and planed upward, beginning a slow, awkward ascent to the surface.

A great cheer erupted among the Ponkti and Skortish and Chase could see some playful head butting and spearing going on as the ‘rescuers’ celebrated their accomplishment. More importantly, the mah’jeet swarms didn’t slough off the hull as it rose, but stayed clinging to the still-seeping leaks and streams of bubbles.

“It didn’t hurt that they seemed to want to do what Kel’metah commanded,” Chase remarked. “I don’t know what I would have done if they hadn’t.”

“What exactly is a Kel’metah?”

Chase shrugged. “Sort of cross between a drill instructor and a nanny, I think. But we’re not out of the woods yet…the repeaters are already singing of a great many ships converging on this area…probably a rescue force. What needs to happen now, is for the humans to stay up there on the surface and let the Seomish cleanup this mess and rebuild their camps.”

Holland was developing a growing respect, even affection, for Chase and she decided not to try hiding it. “Chase, I don’t know quite how to say this but I’ll just go ahead: you have some marvelous abilities. You’re brave, decisive, but patient, even curious…no, wait…let me finish…

I think there was a reason that metah person picked you to be a leader. I mean, think about it: if I’m to believe what you say, you’re human too, but modified somehow. I can’t pretend to understand that. Yet you’re respected by all these… people... down here. You’re like a natural leader and you seem to have a real empathy for what they’re going through, coming here like refugees. I think they sense that too. That’s why they did what you wanted with that submarine.

Chase, you did say you have a girlfriend, didn’t you?”

“Oh, yes…Angie Gilliam. Back in Scotland Beach. We had a lot of classes together.

Now…well, I’ve graduated…I’m working with my Dad at the Turtle Key Surf and Board Shop.

At least I was. Angie and I met at a hospital…my dad was hurt in a holdup at the shop, shot in fact. He’s going to be okay…in fact, he should be home now. I need to go see him. But I met Angie for real while she was a volunteer at the hospital. We realized we had had some classes together at school.”

Holland watched the swirl of Seomish passing by all around them. Recovery activities were already underway and teams were hard at work hauling debris away, rolling boulders off tents, clearing the seabed, re-erecting huts. It was clear that the Seomish were an industrious and resourceful people, when properly led. Maybe Chase was what they needed.

“Can I be honest with you?”

“Sure,” Chase said, a little puzzled.

“My husband and I are getting a divorce back home…that’s Woods Hole. Massachusetts.

We’re in a pretty bitter custody battle over our two children. Timmy’s my son, he’s five. And Hannah my daughter is eight. Hannah’s a challenge. She’s a Downs girl, so there are special needs and challenges raising her. My husband and his blood-sucking attorneys are trying to have me declared unfit to be a mother…they say I’ve abandoned them because of my work. I mean, look…that’s ludicrous on the face of it. Yeah, I love my work, but it’s not true I’d rather be with my fish and my dolphins than Timmy and Hannah.”

Chase didn’t know quite what to say to all this. “Dr. Holland, I’m sorry about that. I know it must be hard.”

“Josey, please…I was just thinking…well, kind of hoping, really, that you—” But she was interrupted by a pair of Omtorish workers who came by with a question. Both of them bore electric prods, weapons that had been used against the sub.

“Kel’metah, we hear from repeaters of a great force gathering above us. Shouldn’t we form a defense…prepare to attack if they come after us?”

Chase could see that both were males, midlings, and were likely part of the group that had gone after the submarine. He knew he had to tread carefully with these two. Even with his limited pulsing ability, he could tell they were agitated, primed, ready to take on anything.

“Go find your em’kel and help them clean up the mess. Help them rebuild their huts and camps. I know about the Tailless fleet above us. When the time comes, I will command a team to deal with the Tailless.”

He could see they weren’t satisfied with his answer—it was clear they really wanted to bash somebody bad—but it was better to put them to work on something constructive. They hesitated, looked at each other, pulsed Chase and finally gave in, unwilling to confront the authority of the Kel’metah…for the moment. They scampered off into the gloom.

Chase was relieved and turned back to Holland. “You were saying--?”

Holland definitely wanted to get to know Chase better. She wanted to know more about the Seomish, their history, their culture, their whole civilization. What did they do when there was a

custody battle over their children? Did they even get married? Josey Holland’s thoughts swirled and clashed like the currents at the base of the seamount.

“I was saying…uh, that I should probably be getting back to Woods Hole. I need to inform Dr. Satsuyama and UNISEA about what’s going on.”

“I thought you wanted to see more of the settlement. Meet more Seomish.”

“I do but…well, getting relations straight between humans and Seomish is way more important now. Tensions are getting worse. If conflict is to be avoided, Chase, both sides will have to meet more often and work out some kind of accommodation. After that’s settled, researchers like me will have time to study our new neighbors.”

“You may not know this but there are tu’kelke…that’s the Seomish word for refugees…that are setting up settlements and camps in other seas…the South China Sea, the Indian Ocean and the northern Pacific. The Metahs all agreed to set up a kind of corps of explorers from all the kels and some of them have found these distant seas to their liking.”

Holland understood. “We’re hearing about that on the surface. You can bet the Russians and the Chinese will be opposed. Chase, there really should be a moratorium on new settlements until some kind of territorial regime can be worked out.”

“Actually, I agree with you but it’s kind of beyond my level. I guess I understand how politicians feel with me being Kel’metah. I can suggest things but I can’t lead the kels somewhere they don’t want to go. It’s the Ponkti that are behind a lot of these other settlements.

They were oddballs even on Seome. All the kels want their own territories and waters.”

“Not so different from humans,” Holland said.

Chase and Holland looked at each other for a moment, saying nothing. Holland was clad in a Seomish lifesuit, which made her look like a dolphin with a spade-shaped helmet. Chase looked like a gator with legs and arms.

“Chase, I have to admit something. I like you. What you’ve done…that’s really pretty awesome. Joining this society, so different from ours, even going through that procedure to become one of them. You should have been an anthropologist. Maybe I should do that too.”

“It is different from working in a T-shirt shack on the beach,” Chase admitted. “I don’t know if my dad and mom would be proud of their son, or not. Dad wanted me to join the business full time, as a partner. I don’t know…I just couldn’t see it. I always wanted to make my own way. Actually, I kind of liked making music with the Croc Boys…being a musician and jamming on my go-tone kind of appealed to me. Then came the Farpool. That changed everything.”

Holland found Chase’s way of thinking appealing…just follow your dreams…if you want something, go for it. But there was still Hannah and Timmy…and the divorce. Sometimes, when you followed your dreams, you ran into a brick wall.

“Come on…let’s go hunt down a kip’t. The trip back will take several days. We’ll need provisions, too. Manklu’s an old kip’t driver…he’ll know where we can find one.”

Chase helped Holland light off her propulsors and they jetted about the still-recovering Keenomsh’pont for awhile, until Chase scared up a sled. It was a long-range model, too, plenty of room for two and all the supplies they would need.

“I really need to let the Metah know where we’re going,” Chase told her. They located the Metah’s pavilion in the center of the Omtorish camp, hard by an intricate terrace of rust-colored coral beds that surrounded the canopied platform like fingers of a hand, but Mokleeoh wasn’t there.

“Affectionate Metah is on vish’tu, attending to the kelke,” the vizier Oncolenia told them.

Chase introduced Josey Holland. “She’s a scientist, like Likteek. She’s also with UNISEA.”

Oncolenia didn’t bother to hide her disgust. “She’s Tailless. That’s all I need to know.”

Chase had come to expect such treatment from gruff old Oncolenia. To Holland: “Don’t bother with this one…she’s like somebody’s crotchety old grandmother. A real fussbudget.

Please inform Affectionate Metah that Kel’metah is also on vish’tu, roaming back to Woods Hole. I’m taking Dr. Holland home.”

Chase started to scoot off but Oncolenia sniffed indignantly. “Are you forgetting something, eekoti Chase?”

“Huh? Oh, yes---pardon—” He came up to Oncolenia’s wrinkled gray face and nuzzled her right in the beak, nose to nose.

Holland choked back a chuckle. Her cocker spaniel Prissy did the same thing.

Chase departed, explaining, “Seomish custom. They have a phrase here…it explains a lot about how the Seomish live. It’s Kee’shoo and Ke’lee. Means love and life. Let’s go load up.”

“A rather unique kind of bonding ritual,” Holland theorized. “Fascinating.”

A few hours later, the kip’t bearing Chase and Dr. Josey Holland lifted away from the landing pads alongside the seamount and headed toward the surface.

For a few moments, Holland stared out of the cockpit at the intricate pattern of the settlement dwindling below them, festooned with garlands of lights and growing like a bacterial colony along the slopes of the guyot.

It won’t be long before they cover the entire mountain side, she told herself. They’re industrious, resourceful and determined. We’ve just got to find a way to live with these people and not be afraid of them. Study them, work with them, partner with them. We always destroy those who are different, those we can’t understand.

She tried out in her mind several opening phrases for an upcoming paper, a paper that if all went well would fall like a bombshell on the marine biology community. Who knew, maybe there could be a prize or two in it as well. She was anxious to get back to the Lab and get started. And she did have plenty of vid footage from this trip to help her out.

“I’m taking us up to the surface,” Chase informed Holland. “I want to see what happened to that sub. But we’ll have to be careful…the repeaters say there’s a lot of traffic up here.”

They breached carefully, in rolling waves, in a bright sunny day and found themselves in the midst of a small fleet. Ships of all sizes rode at anchor all around them. Many of them surrounded a patch of sea that seemed empty until Chase drove them a bit closer. Then they saw the submarine, attached by cable and tow line to one ship. The sub rode so low in the water they could barely see her topside hull and sail. Sailors and crewmen handled more ropes, cable and line fore and aft of the sail.

“Looks like they’re getting ready to tow her. I hope the crew’s okay. What’s that writing or name on the side of the tow ship?”

Holland squinted through the cockpit. She’d removed her helmet when Chase pumped real breathable air into the kip’t and was grateful beyond words for the smell of real air.

“It’s not English…looks Cyrillic…maybe Russian…. Vor…Vorkuta, maybe.”

Chase hmmm’ed. “Russian, huh. Figures. The Ponkti and the scum who attacked her down below didn’t know they were dealing with a Russian sub.”

“That can’t be good,” Holland agreed. “At UNISEA, the Russian delegates are usually the most vociferous, always wanting to obliterate these new camps and villages, the ones in their waters. They’re touchy about them…claim they’re just spying for America.”

“Russians and Ponkti,” Chase just shook his head. “What a combination…they deserve each other.”

“Let’s go home,” Holland said. “I don’t like being around these creeps any more than necessary.”

“Your wish is my command,” Chase said.

He drove the kip’t smartly below the waves, studied the sonic display on his board for a few moments and then set course for the west. Little Harbor, Oyster Pond and the Woods Hole campus were a good two-day cruise away.

Twelve thousand miles to their east, Admiral Hu Zhejiang studied his Russian colleague carefully. Morskoi Flot Admiral Anatoly Melekhin reminded Hu of a spicy onion from some of his wife’s Szechuan dishes: bruised, white, crumbly and flaky with many layers concealing a bitter core inside. Melekhin indicated a 3-d map display gracing the table in the fourth-floor conference room of the Pacific Fleet headquarters building, a neo-Stalinist wedding-cake monstrosity alongside Vladivostok’s oily brown Zolotoy Rog.

“Then we are agreed, are we not?” Melekhin was saying. “The plan is set. Our fleet will furnish four submarines and two destroyers, with one missile cruiser and an assault force of five thousand morskaya pekhota…naval infantry. Frontal Aviation out of Khabarovsk will furnish air cover for the operation…the Fiftieth Air Regiment, to be precise.”

“Agreed,” said Hu. “The PLA Navy will furnish four submarines…Qin-class. They will be accompanied by two destroyers, two cruisers, a frigate and half a dozen fast-attack craft, corvette-style. Our own naval infantry will number two thousand.”

Da. With this force, we’ll put a quick end to the American spy sea people infesting our waters. You’ve seen the latest intelligence…the fish are spreading like a virus…already, the settlement in the Sea of Okhotsk is moving day by day toward Kirovsky on Kamchatka. Fishing is disrupted…our shrimpers are afraid of them already, with their sound weapons and stunners…

it won’t be long before they encircle Kamchatka completely. It’s a bold Western plot and Moscow won’t stand for it. My orders are specific: get rid of them and use whatever force is necessary.”

Hu was sympathetic. “We’ve had encounters with the fish people at Reed Banks, in the Nan Zhongguo Hai, the South China Sea. We’ve even had meetings with them. It’s like dealing with talking lobsters. You have a name for the operation selected?”

“I do,” said Melekhin. “Operation Bich.”

Hu smiled. He knew a smattering of Russian from previous exercises and dealings with Meehan’s colleagues. “Operation Scourge. Very appropriate for removing an infestation from our waters.”

The two flag officers then concluded their negotiations and briefings with a toast.

Dr. Josey Holland Lifelogger Post:

I’m posting this while Chase and I are en route back to Woods Hole. I don’t know exactly where we are…I’m not real sure Chase does either; he seems to struggle and swear at the controls a lot…but we must be somewhere in the western North Atlantic. I’m sure we’ll get back to Woods Hole somehow.

My respect for Chase…and his Seomish friends…grows every day. My God, what they have been through…if even half of it’s really true, I can’t imagine what it must have been like. I like

Chase, okay…maybe that’s not quite accurate. Maybe it’s a little more than ‘like.’ But he’s just a kid really. Barely out of his teens. He has an innocence I find touching and the kind of energy I can only dream of having…he claims to have come from Florida, working for his dad at a t-shirt shack on the beach and now look at him: he’s a kind of tribal chieftain for all the water clans of the Seomish refugees. And he’s a half-breed on top of that. They must have sensed the same thing I have: Chase is the real deal. Sincere, concerned, upright, kind of cute, even. He looks just like a blond surfer dude.

The research possibilities with the Seomish are mind-boggling: marine biology, anthropology, sociology, technology, ethics…the list goes on. If we don’t wind up killing these poor people first, we’ll be studying them, maybe even working with them to explore the oceans, for generations.

I don’t know…maybe it’s the contrast that intrigues me, attracts me. Moths are attracted to light and they die trying to figure it all out. Maybe that’ll happen to me too. Yeah, I’m bitter over what Stephen and his lawyer-leeches are trying to do, trying to take Timmy and Hannah away from me. It’s insane, it’s criminal. Talk about ethics…the lawyers have none. Hell, even the mollusks in the aquarium have a better sense of right and wrong.

Two things scare me and since I really can’t see much out of this sled cockpit, I’ve had to wallow in them for hours back here. First, we may lose the greatest chance we’ve had in a million years to get to know and learn from people really different from us, radically different…

if we don’t destroy them first. Second, I may lose my son and daughter to a system that’s about as fair and impartial as the earthquake that almost destroyed the Seomish settlement at Muir seamount a few days ago.

Maybe I’m not so good a mother after all. With the Seomish and all the new possibilities…I just don’t know anymore. But I am mother to Timmy and Hannah. They wouldn’t be here without me, would they?

Okay, so I’ll admit to some real affection and maybe even a feeling of solidarity with the Seomish who’ve emigrated from a doomed world and what they have gone through. Nobody likes them, except for me, nobody wants them and the world is trying really hard to get rid of them.

Lawyers…and politicians uber alles. Maybe if we could get the Farpool back, we could send them somewhere, like right into a black hole.

I do know one thing…and it looks like Chase is getting stuff to eat out of his pods right now…that boy does like to eat…I’m resolving right here and now to do everything in my power to make sure the Seomish survive. That we don’t hound them and harass them and drive them to extinction like we have so often before with other species.

We have so much to learn from them, I’m sure of it. I have so much to learn. On this trip, Chase has been trying to explain what the Seomish are really like as people. There’s something called Ke’shoo and Ke’lee…love and life. Seomish philosophy. I want to learn all about that, how they live together, how they get along, how they resolve disputes, how they fight and make up.

Yeah, we really do have a lot to learn from them…an awful lot indeed.

Chapter 9

Solnet Omnivision Video Post

@anika.radovich.solnet worldview

August 5, 2115

2230 hours

SOLNET Special Report

“Bermuda Divers Witness Assault”

Anika Radovich interviews Anson Locke, CEO of Bermuda Marine Salvage, and Andrew Lynn, dive team crew chief, about what both men heard and witnessed several days ago…an apparent military assault on the camps of the Sea People near Bermuda…

“First of all, Mr. Locke, I’d like to thank you for taking the time to be with us today.”

Locke is sandy-haired, craggy-faced, weathered with too many years at sea. “Surely.

Anything we can do to help.”

“Mr. Locke, you and your dive chief reported to the Bermuda Post several days ago that you had witnessed some kind of underwater military operation in the vicinity of the Sea Peoples’

base on or around July 1. Is that correct?”

“It is, ma’am. Andrew here and me were running a salvage operation about fifty kilometers east of Bermuda at that time. Freighter called Dominion Queen…Widberg Line, I believe. She went down two years ago and several insurance companies have contracted with us to recover some valuable parts, some industrial gear and some documents. That’s our job.”

“It’s been a pretty smooth operation, too,” Lynn added. Andrew Lynn is tall, gawky, with a long face and long curly blond hair. He has a noticeable scar along his chin. “Fairly deep so we use special dive gear. Over a thousand feet down, she is. It’s given us a chance to air out our new drones…the Mantas.”

Radovich is intrigued. “Your report mentioned the Mantas. This is something new, these drones?”

“Not totally,” says Lynn. “Just a new model. But they’re slicker than snot, pardon my French, ma’am. They dive deep, stay down forever, great range, more tools than a garage mechanic.”

“Sturdy too,” Locke adds. “They’re already making my job a lot easier.”

“Tell our viewers what you saw…and heard.”

Now, Locke runs a hand through thinning hair. “Well, we’re on a dive, see…fairly straightforward. We’ve got two Mantas going and me and Andy here are down there with ‘em. We use the Mantas to go inside the freighter and see what’s what. It can be kind of dangerous in places like that.”

Lynn picks up the story. “We heard some explosions to our west…not too far away.”

“How many explosions?”

Locke looks over at Lynn. “I’d say…maybe four or five….”

“Something like that. Big ones, powerful blasts. We both figured that was odd. The maritime notices said nothing about construction work in the area. There aren’t any gas lines we know of…no reports of unexploded ordnance cooking off or anything like that.”

“What did you do then?”

“Well, we know these waters around Bermuda pretty well so we detached one of the Mantas to go investigate. She headed over and got some pretty good footage and audio…we have it here.”

Radovich turns to a nearby display. “Let’s have a look….”

Append Video Segment 227.2:

The UWAT troops rapidly and efficiently exit Felix One’ s lockout chamber and light off their Diver Propulsion Units, whirring away from Launch Point in a blur of waves and bubbles.

The Barracudas spread out into approach formation, line abreast, spaced ten meters apart, as they close on their target. The dive leader checks his sounder echoes and gets a solid lock on the first structures along the settlement’s perimeter. That would be their target, as soon as the remoras did their job. He settles onto a steady cruise speed of four knots, hugging the blocks and hills of volcanic tuff, sweeping around thatches of kelp and sea grass and arrowing through the farthest fields of hydrothermal smokers, their twisting columns of smoke corkscrewing toward the surface several hundred meters overhead.

As soon as UWAT 3 passes by the outer sounding fences, the Sea People act. Sound grenades are lobbed right into the middle of the force, detonating with a concussive BOOM! that deafens all the divers. Immediately, their attack formation discipline is disrupted as ear drums are burst, equipment shattered and valves and seals loosened. An explosion of bubbles with arms and legs flying soon envelopes the area.

Then the Sea People let fly with a barrage of blinders. The explosion of light sears eyeballs, disrupts instruments and destroys whatever is left of formation tactical discipline. The stricken divers of UWAT 3 are scattered, slammed and barrel-rolled into a chaotic jumble of thrashing and flailing bodies.

Then, the Sea People attackers honk out a command for a swarming and enveloping response and they charge into the middle of the melee, prods sizzling with rapid-fire discharge while the divers fight back with their Eel prods, fists, knives, spear guns, anything they could use. Close-quarters combat underwater was all about position and leverage and the combat divers of UWAT 3, well trained and ruthless though they were, are no match for the swimming and lunging ability of well-armed defenders. Surrounded and outgunned, the divers are hopelessly overmatched by scores of defenders, well-equipped with stunners, blinders, prods and toxic scentbulbs, all of which steadily overwhelm the resistance of the humans.

When a pair of seamother calves appear from out of the murk, honking and bellowing and thirsty with the scent of blood, the Sea People withdraw and let the beasts finish off the attackers.

It isn’t pretty and the waters are soon choked with blood and viscera and entrails.

End Video Segment 227.2

Anika Radovich swallows hard at the scene of carnage, dim and hard to distinguish in the murk at several hundred feet down but the clouds of blood and body parts can’t be ignored.

“Mr. Locke…Mr. Lynn, what in your opinion are we watching here?”

Locke shuts off the vid footage, which is about to loop and display again. Nobody wants to see the blood and body parts again.

“Well, we ID’ed the divers as Navy UWAT…Underwater Assault Teams. I’ve known a few in my time and they’re pretty courageous souls, most of them. This was some kind of military operation, I guess.”

“Against the Sea People?”

Lynn nods solemnly. “Sure looks like it.”

“Those big beasts…what were they, Mr. Lynn?”

Locke and Lynn both shrug, looking at each other. Locke speaks.

“Well, that’s the sixty-four million dollar question. “They weren’t whales. They look like the dragons my daughter Jamie’s got in her ebook at home. She draws dragons and serpents and things like that—she’s got a real talent, too—but honestly, that’s what they looked like.”

Locke thought of something. “We steered one of the Mantas toward one of those beasts but the damn thing ate our little robot…just swallowed her whole.”

Lynn acknowledged the loss of the expensive drone. “The buggers have a long, spiky tail, a head with crests and horns. They’re almost like the sea beasts sailors used to talk about centuries ago…Neptune’s revenge and all that.”

Now Radovich consults her notes. “Mr. Locke…Mr. Lynn…the evidence suggests that what you both witnessed was some kind of military operation conducted against the Sea People.

In your opinion, what was the result of this operation?”

Locke snorted. “Well, you saw the beasts, same as we did. The explosions. The lights. The arms and legs torn off. I’d say they failed to achieve their mission objectives…unless their objective was to get ripped apart like dinnertime meals by these monsters.”

Lynn nodded in agreement. “Complete unmitigated disaster, that’s what I’d call it.”

Radovich stared at both men. “Gentlemen, thanks for taking the time to be with our viewers today.”

“Yeah, sure…any time.”

SOLNET Special Report Ends

Solnet Omnivision Video Post

@lucy.hiroshi.solnet.worldview

August 5, 2115

0030 hours

SOLNET Special Report

“Interview with Dr. Keko Satsuyama”

Correspondent Lucy Hiroshi reports from UNISEA Headquarters in New York, with an interview with Dr. Keko Satsuyama, Director of UNISEA, on recent developments involving the ongoing encounter with the Sea People….

The interview begins in Dr. Satsuyama’s fortieth-floor office, overlooking the East River.

It’s a cloudy, drizzly day and little can be seen outside, save for ever-present aircabs buzzing across the sky, to and from destinations across Manhattan.

“Dr. Satsuyama, thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule to be with us today.”

Keko Satsuyama is mid-forties in age, slight of build, with a short, black unruly lock of hair over his right eye. His ears stick out like an elephant and close friends call him “Ha,” meaning the Blade. He wears thick, recent-vintage dataspec glasses and is one of the foremost marine biologists in the world, a lettered graduate from Tsukuba University.

“Of course, Ms. Hiroshi…a pleasure any time.”

“Dr. Satsuyama, are you aware of the recent news that the United States has in the last two weeks conducted some kind of military operation against the Sea People…an operation that apparently failed in its objectives?”

Satsuyama looks sad, removes his dataspecs and wipes them down. “Yes, unfortunately, I am. A regrettable incident. I’m not sure what exactly motivated this operation as the Sea People, as you call them, have evidenced little aggressive intent toward us, to my knowledge.

I’m aware of the incident at Woods Hole, of course, but many of us think the Sea People were just rescuing one of their comrades…there may have been some justification for their actions.”

“Would you care to comment further on this news? Are we at war with the Sea People?”

Satsuyama chuckles. “No, no, of course not. I’m sure this is some kind of misunderstanding. Not unexpected when dealing with the unknown. We humans are not particularly empathetic when dealing with others…our own history shows that. By the way, the official name of the Sea People is Tursiops digitalis…that’s what we’re calling them.”

Hiroshi consults some notes on her slate. “My information is that they call themselves Seomish…something like that.”

“Yes, we’re still learning about their language, their communications.”

“Dr., Satsuyama, your record shows that you made a major discovery back on ’08, when you were a consultant to the Brazilian oil firm Petrobras. Isn’t that true?”

“Yes, it is. Petrobras had partnered with a company called Sea Logistics to create a research group called Trident. We were investigating indigenous marine life and fossils in the vicinity of a new oil and gas field off the coast of Brazil…the Lula Fields at Santos Basin. The company was beginning to drill in this area and wanted a good record of what was in the seabed around the boreholes.”

“You discovered a previously unknown species of fish…something thought to have become extinct millions of years ago?”

“We did.” Satsuyama smiles broadly, glad to recall the times. “We found a living example of a prehistoric fish we named Mesocanth, a direct descendant of the Triassic Period saurichthys.

It was supposed to have been extinct for 250 million years. Its closest modern relative was a sturgeon. This was unprecedented.”

“It changed your career, Dr. Satsuyama.”

“Indeed.”

“Dr. Satsuyama, what do you think of recent studies showing up on Solnet that seem to

‘show’ the Seomish…the Sea Peoples…are actually descendants of the original Atlantis?”

Now the UNISEA Director turns serious. His forehead shines with beads of sweat, even though the office is a comfortable seventy-two degrees.

“Ms. Hiroshi, I’m afraid I must label such so-called studies as little more than fiction. In Japan, we have a word… lyarashi…it means bullshit…poppycock. That’s what these stories and studies are. Atlantis is a great myth from the classical era, but it’s a myth. I deal in facts. The Sea People are most definitely not from Atlantis.”

“How would you describe the current state of relations between the nations of Earth, humans in general, and the Seomish?”

Satsuyama chooses his words carefully. “Ms. Hiroshi, in all honesty, I would have to characterize such relations as strained. There have been significant misunderstandings between humans and Seomish and a regrettable number of, shall we say, ‘incidents’ around the world recently. Your viewers undoubtedly know of some of these already: Woods Hole, the South China Sea, the recent military actions near Bermuda. The whole purpose of UNISEA is to develop good relations with the Sea People, relations based on mutual respect, confidence-building measures, we have a whole panoply of diplomatic measures we can and should use. We have an extraordinary opportunity here to learn from a wholly new species, a completely new culture and that can only enrich Humanity if we do this properly. The most important thing we can do right now is to continue to meet regularly with these people…and we have to remind ourselves that they are indeed intelligent people, albeit quite different from you and me…and explore our differences and work out accommodations in this way. This really is the best way.”

“Dr. Satsuyama, do you actually think the Sea People came from another world through some kind of gateway to Earth? Many people…and polls consistently show this…many think this actually happened.”

Satsuyama sucks in a deep breath. “Lucy, I will have to defer comment on those polls until we have better information. Let me say this: the odds of an extraterrestrial origin for Tursiops digitalis are extremely remote. Nature and Evolution have given us wonderous and amazing things right here on Earth, over the billions of years of time they’ve had to operate. We should look to the simplest, most likely explanations first, before indulging in wilder forms of speculation...Occam’s razor and all that.”

“One final question, sir…Solnet has received information from highly placed sources in the U.S. government that there is an on-going process of intelligence swapping and strategic coordination developing between the U.S, China and Russia for the purpose of dealing with the Sea People. Our sources say that President Kendrick has in fact overtly authorized such cooperation and that the U.S. is taking the lead in this effort. Could you comment on these allegations?”

“No, I am not a party to any such discussions but I would say this: if these rumors are true, then talking and negotiating has to be a good thing…much better than trying to force our ideas and laws and traditions on the Sea People by military means. There’s no question in my mind that the Sea People are an intelligent people, however they came to be here, with a history, a culture and a technology that we have just barely begun to understand. I would hate to see the possibility that we could learn from each other and enrich each other destroyed by suspicion and misunderstanding and just plain paranoia and fear of the unknown, fear of the Other. We can do better than this. Ms. Hiroshi, we have to do better than this.”

“Thank you, Dr. Satsuyama, for taking time to be with our viewers today.”

“My pleasure. Any time.”

SOLNET Special Report Ends


Chapter 10

South China Sea

Reed Banks

August 10, 2115

0650 hours

As the combined task force of Russian and Chinese surface ships and submarines descended on the growing Ponkti settlement, nearly twenty ships in all, the fog bank thickened and lowered to the sea surface, making safe navigation that much harder, causing the task force to slow to less than ten knots and spread out to avoid collision.

The task force commander, Russian Admiral Aleksandr Neverin, sucked hard on the foul-smelling cigarette as he stood in stiff, stinging winds on the weather deck of his command ship, the missile cruiser Irkutsk, and watched the shadowy outlines of nearby ships struggling to keep station and make way toward their target. Operation Pobeda (Victory) was about to commence, a rather contrived affair to Neverin’s way of thinking. The operation involved several dozen surface ships and several submarines, both Chinese and Russian.

Morskoi Flot is more than capable of handling this entire mission itself, he muttered to himself. But the Chinese had insisted on participating and the target was in their waters anyway.

In less than five minutes, if all went well, the target…the illegal settlement of the Sea Peoples off Reed Banks in the South China Sea…would be so much rubble and debris.

The door to the bridge opened. It was Irkutsk’s skipper, Captain First Rank Sokolov.

“Target acquired, Admiral. Dead ahead, ten thousand meters. Depth is two hundred forty meters.”

“Inform Admiral Hu we are ready. Are they at position Red yet?”

“Last position check showed they were about five minutes away. There is something else, Admiral…from the Komsomolsk.”

“What is it?”

“Sonar contact, sir…of an unusual nature. There is no strong evidence of any defenses being mustered by the Sea Peoples. But Komsomolsk sonar is reporting an unusual return on their passive low-frequency net.”

Neverin stubbed out his cigarette and began lighting another one. Sokolov helped with the light, cupping his hands around the lighter, a difficult task in the prevailing twenty-knot wind.

“What kind of return?”

“They’re not sure, sir. It seems to be a large swarm-like mass, diffuse and dispersing slowly. Could be some kind of small explosion, but there’s no sound signature of any explosion.”

Neverin thought a moment. Previous engagements with the Sea Peoples had shown them to be clever, resourceful and full of surprises. Prudence and tactical sense dictated caution, but Neverin knew Moscow was seven thousand kilometers away and the apparatchiks weren’t known for prudence or common sense anyway.

“Tell Komsomolsk to proceed as planned. Execute Phase A. Send a message on Raduga-Net that we are engaging.”

“At once, Admiral.” Sokolov ducked back inside the bridge.

A kilometer ahead of the cruiser, at a depth of two hundred meters, Komsomolsk eased forward at eight knots, ready to prosecute Phase A per Neverin’s command. Captain Second Rank Leonid Barzin was nervous, checking and re-checking with Sonar for any evidence the Sea Peoples were responding, or even knew they were there. Barzin’s eyes darted about the Conn…

the helm and planes station were operating normally, their depth was steady, speed eight knots on heading one two five degrees. Diving Officer Borodin glanced anxiously back at Barzin, ready to execute any maneuvers required to prosecute the target. Komsomolsk’s twin 21-inch forward tubes were already loaded with warshot, two Shkval rocket-assisted torpedoes…safeties off and presets loaded. Her outer doors were open and the boat was ready to shoot.

Barzin was both pleased and a little edgy that the Admiral had chosen his boat to be the tip of the spear. If all went according to plan, Komsomolsk would fire her first load at the target in less than a minute…assuming the solutions held up…and her Chinese counterpart Xichang, two thousand meters abeam of her, would follow up one minute later.

And the Sea Peoples’ illegal camp would be vaporized into atoms and dirt clods.

“Ten seconds to position Red, sir,” came a voice. It was Komsomolsk’s XO, Sidorov, standing by the periscope well, reading off the count. “We’re ready, sir.”

“Very well. Plot the solution and give me the count.”

“Five…four…three…two…one…Mark!”

“Fire one!” Barzin said.

Komsomolsk rocked slightly as the torpedo shot out of its tube in a slug of high-pressure air and lit off her rocket motor.

“One away, sir. Good launch.”

“Fire two!”

Another whoosh and a slight rocking in the boat.

“Two away, sir. Ballast compensating…maintaining depth…maintaining trim.”

“All stop! Load shots three and four. Prepare countermeasures for my command. Now we wait.”

Komsomolsk drifted to a halt, two thousand meters from the Ponkti settlement off Reed Banks.

“Conn, Sonar…the Chinese are firing now. I make two shots…twin jets…on their way.”

They didn’t have long to wait.

The first sound was a near double blast explosion as Komsomolsk’s shots detonated over the settlement. The Xichang’s shots detonated less than thirty seconds later.

The Shkval torpedoes held within their warhead an explosive compound known as Vzryvnoy-1, a TNT-derivative, some forty kilos of it. Along with the effect of the Chinese Flying Dragon torpedoes, the combined blast forces generated shock waves that rolled like a magnitude-7 tremor across the sandy soils of Reed Banks.

The Seomish settlement, composed of both Ponkti and Skortish contingents and now known to all as Ponkel’te, was flattened and swept away as if made of paper. One Ponkti engineer, Kasmik tu kel: Ponk’et, immediately recognized what had happened. The inhabitants of Ponkel’te had heard the approach of the Chinese and Russian submarines, and their surface task force, and had already begun evacuating the tu’kelke from the settlement as fast as they could.

Most of the residents—there were less than a hundred in all—took cover in a series of hollows south of the main settlement, itself a compact campground of tented and sheltered huts and weirs. When the torpedoes detonated and the ak’loosh waves rolled across the seabed, all of the

structures erected were quickly ripped away and scattered in a roiling cloud of silt and debris.

Kasmik and Telspo, a fellow Ponkti settler, both hunkered down in their protective hollow, while chaos and destruction rained down on top of them, shock waves hammering them from all directions.

“What about the enclosure?’ Telspo asked. “Nobody else knows what we’ve found…the m’jeete will escape…the things will be everywhere.”

Kasmik was furious. “The Tailless don’t know what they’re doing, the bastards. Even the Metah doesn’t know. We’ll have to wait until it’s clear, then check the enclosure. I doubt if it’ll hold in these shocks…contact Potop… see if he can tell what the Tailless are doing.”

Telspo scooted out from their burrow and shot off into the dense fog of silt, sliding and slithering as best he could in the chaos of the shock waves.

At least, the waves seem to be dying off, Kasmik told himself. After watching Telspo fight with the currents, he decided to try it himself. He listened carefully for a few moments, heard the faint whine of the Tailless submarines, now moving off, it seemed, and pushed off into the maelstrom, more anxious than ever to find out whether the strange creatures they had encountered south of the settlement a week before, creatures they had tried to contain in a fiber net enclosure, had gotten loose.

The Ponkti had labelled them m’jeete, a contraction of the word mah’jeet, though they were not like the toxic plankton-like creatures that had infested so much of Seome and from whose seasonal migrations, the kels had been keeping time for countless eons.

No, the m’jeete were quite different. Almost mechanical. Small machines, smaller than silt particles, that swarmed in huge clouds and seemed to be issuing from a narrow rift in the seabed that was perpetually thick with clouds of them.

Not only that, but the m’jeete seemed to have a corporate mind of their own, a sort of swarm intelligence, for not long after their presence had been discovered, Telspo himself had noted the things seemed to be constructing an odd, conical structure above the rift from which they were issuing. It was Telspo who had found that the structure affected the waters nearby in much the same way as the great Tailless wavemaker back on Seome. The cone generated and spun off dozens of funnels, whirlpools and vortexes in its vicinity and when Telspo dropped some rocks into one of the vortexes as an experiment, the rocks disappeared in a flash and were gone.

Telspo reported this and the Ponkti and Skortish roamed about Ponkel’te in puzzlement, trying out various theories to explain the phenomena.

It was Kasmik who remembered the words of eekoti Chase, long ago recorded in an echopod somewhere, as he explained how the Tailless wavemaker worked and what the Tailless did with the infernal device.

Kasmik rummaged in the cargo and gear pods they had brought from Keenomsh’pont and eventually found the echopod of Chase’s voice. They all listened.

“… the Tailless…the Umans at Kinlok Island…are a military unit. That’s what the wavemaker is…it’s a weapon. They’re fighting an enemy that lives far away, not here in the waters of Seome. The enemy are called the Coethi. Both the Umans and the Coethi use devices like the wavemaker to travel in time, back to the past, forward to the future. They fight each other to determine who will control all these currents and streams of time. From what I’ve been able to learn, the Coethi aren’t like the Tailless at all, nor like you. They’re machines…really small machines. They group together in big swarms….”

Kasmik looked up when Chase’s words were heard. “Do you think maybe--?”

Telspo couldn’t believe it. “Somehow, they came through with us.”

Potop agreed. “They used the Farpool…the same as we did. Eekoti Chase said he was worried about this…now it’s happened.”

Kasmik felt a cold shiver. “Now they’re loose…we’d better get everybody away from the rift, away from that cone.”

“Somebody should tell the Metah what’s happened. Sing it out to the repeaters.”

And when they saw that the small swarm of m’jeete, once enclosed in its net, had now been freed by the damnable Tailless weapons and were now expanding, swelling out of the rift, growing and replicating exponentially right before them, they panicked and gathered the rest of the settlers.

For the swarm had already formed up into an expanding cloud, a dark mass shaped eerily like a clenched fist in the shadows of the raining silt, and had begun slowly but steadily moving off in the direction of one of the submarines.

Kasmik, Telspo, Potop and the rest of the settlers gathered together quickly into a tightly linked roam and headed in the opposite direction. No one knew what the m’jeete were truly capable of. No one wanted to wait and find out.

They roamed together east of Reed Banks for many minutes and didn’t stop until they were many kilometers away, losing themselves in a dense forest of kelp. They stopped there. Kasmik found that one of the Skortish…Skaman lo kel: Sk’ort…had had the presence of mind to follow in one of the kip’ts. The remaining settlers hung there and listened.

What they heard sent chills down their backbones.

The main body of the m’jeete swarm had been attracted by the density and sound of Xichang, the Chinese submarine, now cruising off from the ruins of Ponkel’te after launching her torpedoes and completing her part of Operation Pobeda. The Qin-class boat had been coming about to a new heading and had started to plane upward to a radio mast depth of thirty meters when the first tendrils of the swarm fell upon her.

Unknown to the doomed crew of Xichang, the m’jeete swarm was composed of countless trillions of nanometer-scale autonomous robotic devices, linked together into a sort of single entity, possessed of great computational power and the ability to replicate and disassemble any structure it encountered. The swarm fell upon the outer hull plates of the Xichang as a swarm of flies might congregate around livestock in a field and, because it was so programmed, began immediately deconstructing the molecular structure of her hull plates.

At a depth of two hundred meters, the first hull breach was all that was needed. Her pressure integrity lost, the hull of Xichang explosively imploded in a rending, sickening screech of HY-alloy steel and her bulkheads collapsed shortly thereafter.

The crew burned alive in the scalding inferno of compression and Xichang quickly lost way, lost trim, lost all of her internal pressure and began sinking toward the seabed several thousand meters below, still enveloped in the death grip of the m’jeete swarm.

Five minutes later, the crumpled wreckage of the submarine slammed bow first into the sandy bottom of Reed Banks and lay still, shrouded in the death mist of the bots and occasional streams of bubbles issuing from the last collapsing pockets of air.

All of this heard by the survivors of Ponkel’te, kilometers away. It was also heard by the terrified crew of Komsomolsk, less than two kilometers to the west.

“Let’s get out of here!” yelled Komsomolsk’s captain Barzin. Sonar had reported details of what all of them had already heard with their own ears. “Come about to zero eight five degrees.

Make turns for thirty knots. All ahead, flank speed! Sonar, anything--?”

Sonar came back after a short pause. “Negative, Captain. The swarm’s not following us.

It’s still hovering around the Xichang…what’s left of her. Reading large diffuse mass two thousand meters astern of us…that’s the swarm. Nothing around us or ahead of us.”

Barzin scarcely breathed and held on as the boat came about sharply, her deck rolling sharply into the left-hand turn. “We’ll clear the area first, then advise Admiral Neverin what happened. I want to put several kilometers between us and that…cloud or whatever it us, before we head up. Fleet needs to know about this too. It looks like the Sea People have weapons we didn’t even know about.”

Komsomolsk settled into her run and steamed away at flank speed from the carnage of Ponkel’te and the Chinese submarine.

All of this was heard by the Ponkti and the Skortish as well.

The argument went on for hours, as arguments often do, but Kasmik was the ranking tu’kelke, by virtue of his standing with Loptoheen’s tuk em’kel and finally exerted his authority.

The settlers had been roaming around and around the kelp forest for half the day and the sound of the Russian submarine and its surface fleet was growing dim and distant with each passing hour.

Kasmik issued orders. “Telspo, you and Potop take Skaman and the kip’t. Follow the Tailless craft, the submarine. Find out where they live. Report back. This kind of attack can’t go unpunished. We have to show the Tailless that we live in these waters too and we have a right to live as we please.”

None of the Ponkti doubted Kasmik’s authority but the Skortish were more cautious.

Skaman spoke up.

“We should inform our Metahs before doing anything. Sing it to the repeaters…we’ve got good voices here.”

“And the Kel’metah… eekoti Chase…he should know. He knows about the Tailless…and the m’jeete too. Let them instruct us what we should do.”

Kazmik bumped Skaman off the roam. The two of them stopped short, and faced each other beak to beak. The others gathered around, tense and anxious.

“This is exactly what I would expect from Skortish scum. Lazy, indolent trash…what do you expect from kelke who live beside a trench…that’s where all our garbage goes, did you know that?”

Skaman was about to spear Kasmik right in the face but cooler heads prevailed. Potop separated the two. “Stop…both of you. Stop this. You act like midlings. Lektereenah would have both of you shame-bound for something like this. Let’s talk this out—”

So they talked. Kasmik and Telspo were all for following the Russian submarine to its home. Potop and Skaman, the Sk’ort, held out for getting orders from the Metah, both Lektereenah of the Ponkti and Okeemah of the Sk’ort.

Kasmik could pulse from the surrounding crowd that he was outnumbered, despite his nominal authority. Reluctantly, he gave in,

“Okay, have it your way. We’ll advise the Kel’metah, Chase. Who has the best voice around here?”

That turned out to be a Skortish settler named Kwala, a female. Kwala was smallish, but with a large head and mouth. Her beak was short too but she had a deep, rich voice that boomed out like a pal’penk in heat.

The settlers decided on a message and Kwala headed off to find the sound channel and sing out the words.

In the meantime, Kasmik and Telspo inventoried what weapons they had taken with them in the last frantic moments of escape from the wreckage of Ponkel’te.

Kasmik was determined to make the Tailless pay for what they had done.

Likteek told Chase about the distant message from the Ponkti settlement, playing the echopod he had recorded of Kwala’s voice, greatly dimmed by distance from the far seas. They were in the lab, with several others, all of them agitated, distressed upon hearing the news.

“Tailless worms,” one tech muttered. He swept around the small vault-like cave, knocking specimen jars and instruments off the shelves, earning a sharp rebuke from Likteek.

“Kah…we can’t trust them…we should never trust them.”

“The Ponkti should retaliate… I wouldn’t blame them.”

Chase said, “This is bad news...really bad news. Not only the attack itself but what the Ponkti seemed to have discovered. Likteek, somewhere in your cabinets of echopods may be one I recorded when I met with Dringoth and Lieutenant Golich at Kinlok Island, when the wavemaker—the time twister—was there. It recorded what they told me about their enemy…the far enemy that was not on Seome—”

Likteek helped Chase shuffle through stacks and racks of echopods and scentbulbs…the precious reservoir of knowledge they had managed to bring through the Farpool.

“Maybe this one,” suggested Likteek, pulling a pod down from a high shelf. He handed it to Chase.

Chase thumbed the studs on the bottom. “We’ll see…here, let’s listen….”

So what does this Time Twister do?” Chase asks. He examines some of the instruments and controls, until Acth:On’e intervenes and politely shoves him away.

Dringoth shrugs. “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 pats a rack of gear. “This baby keeps Halo space clean, free of Coethi and other nasties.” His face darkens. “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 jumps 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 is 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 says. “The sound, the whirlpools—“

“—the vibrations and waves,” Chase adds. “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 scoffs. “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 has an idea. “Maybe you could work with the Seomish…re-design your Twister. Relocate it somewhere else. Aren’t there other worlds around this sun?”

Golich gives an exhausted sigh, like he is 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 complains.

“They’re not that stupid…they keep losing crashers and time ships in this sector…they’ll put two and two together. “

Dringoth waves 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 just can’t do what you want….”

Chase thumbed the echopod off and held it with both hands. “From what the repeaters are saying about the Ponkti attack, the Coethi must have somehow come through the Farpool during the Great Emigration. They…or at least some of them…are here now, right here on Earth.”

Likteek was picking up and replacing gear that had been knocked off by the wayward tech.

“The Ponkti speak of a swarm…this must be the Coethi. Small, very tiny creatures, like our mah’jeet…in fact, they call them m’jeete.”

“They could be just as deadly,” Chase said. “The Umans back in Seome said they were like little machines, smaller than bacteria, like viruses. They form huge swarms in space, light-years across.” He stopped, realizing that Likteek really had no concept of space or light-years. “They come from the really far seas, Lik. And they’re powerful enough and dangerous enough to have damaged your sun badly enough to cause it to explode. If the Coethi are now here on Earth, every living thing, us and the Tailless, are in danger.”

“We must take this to the Metah,” Likteek decided. “Maybe even to the Kel’em themselves.”

Chase was forced to agree.

When the Kel’em met for deliberations, it was normal Omtorish practice for the assembly to go on a roam. Chase always found this practice curious…it was like having Congress or a state legislature set out on a nature hike when time came to make decisions.

Chase had once told Angie this wasn’t such a bad idea. “It gets them out into their world, where they can see and hear for themselves what’s going on.”

In order for Chase to able to keep up with the kel elders on a roam, he was given a waterjet device grown from baby tillet and bio-modified. He strapped the thing on and when Mokleeoh and her advisors set off, Chase found he could use the jet’s undulations, muscular contractions and ink expulsions to keep up, more or less.

Mokleeoh hummed to herself for awhile, as the small convoy, escorted by a squad of prodsmen, cruised back and forth around the perimeter of the Omtorish quarter of Keenomsh’pont, still rebuilding from the Tailless attacks and the earthquakes. Huts were being erected practically on top of each other and additional niches, hollows and burrows carved and dug out of the hard volcanic tuff that littered the seafloor and lower seamount slopes with boulders of every shape and size.

Mokleeoh finally came right to the point. Chase’s echopod translated her words, with only an occasional stutter.

“The question is what should we do. If what Likteek and Kel’metah Chase say is true, there is great danger for all of us. Should we antagonize the Tailless more and help our Ponkti and Skortish brothers and sisters? Or should we let this incident pass and allow the Ponkti to deal with the situation as they decide themselves?”

“Affectionate Metah…” Likteek stroked hard to keep up. The scientist was no longer a young kelke and the roam was hard work. “Affectionate Metah… the Kel’metah Chase and I both believe that the swarm the Ponkti have discovered poses the greater threat. The Tailless may not know of this threat…I don’t claim to have full understanding here, but the swarm…the Coethi, as I am told they are called…come from a future time…the descendants of the Tailless today, when they came to Seome many mah ago, were engaged in battles with this enemy. Now, they are here and we feel the Tailless don’t know or recognize the threat—”

One councilor named Mongu spat disgust. He roamed two levels behind the Metah herself, but his voice was easily heard over the swish of the water.

“It was the Tailless who brought this menace to Seome. Why should we help them? Let them fight this enemy…it’s not our fight.”

Another councilor disagreed. It was Parek, a noted arguer from the debating em’kel.

“Except that it is our fight now, honored Mongu. We live on Urku, same as the Tailless. We face the same challenges now, don’t we?”

Mokleeoh let the debate go on for a time, then had one of her prodsmen bring Chase forward, to the head of the roam, where all could hear.

To Chase, flying at the head of a convoy of Seomish on full roam was like riding a jet ski off Scotland Beach in the middle of the summer. It was both exhilarating and a little nerve-wracking at the same time. The prodsmen helped him keep up, adjusting his waterjet for best speed.

“Kel’metah, you’re part Tailless,” Mokleeoh said. “Should we inform the Tailless of this discovery, inform them of what we know of this great enemy or not?”

Put that way, Chase figured this was really no place for a beach bum to be, somehow making life and death decisions for a whole civilization of refugees. Better to put price codes on

T-shirts and boogie boards and sunscreen than this. Really, what could he say…that hadn’t already been said?

But it was clear that Mokleeoh, and her Kel’em of advisors and councilors and elders expected him to say something…something profound and insightful and really deep.

“Uh, guys…I’m not sure, actually. The Umans on Seome spoke often of the Coethi.

They’re like tiny little bug-machines, gathered together into really big swarms and colonies, just cruising around the galaxy, making trouble. The Umans built the time twister—the wavemaker

—just to fight them off. If I remember right, both the Umans and the Coethi could travel across time…they had their own versions of the Farpool. Possibly, that’s how they got here. I think we sort of have to tell the Tailless—the Umans of this time period—what they’re up against.”

The Kel’em argued this for many kilometers, and Chase had no idea where the roam was taking them. He could see little, save for the moving mass of silvery flesh all around him. The sound and the rush of the water and all the arguments, some of them quite heated, made him feel like he was trapped in a closet…like when his sister Joanna had stuffed him in coat closet when he was five and blocked the door shut. They both got a good spanking for that.

Likteek offered an idea. “If we inform the Tailless of this new danger, are we not then obligated to help them fight it?”

“No!” came a chorus of answers from somewhere in the rear.

The very idea caused no end of debate and argument and squabbles and quarrels.

By the time the roam was over and the procession had returned to the Metah’s quarters, a consensus had formed. Mokleeoh spoke to all.

“For the moment, it is agreed that we will say nothing to the Tailless about the nature of this new enemy. Kel’metah Chase has agreed to review all the relevant echopods for more information about the m’jeete. I will consult with the other metahs and present our position.

From that, we’ll create a new strategy for handling this matter.”

There seemed to be broad unanimity about this course of action. Likteek and Chase returned to the lab to locate any echopods that seemed useful.

Not far from Mokleeoh’s quarters, two Ponkti had hidden themselves among a tangled bed of coral and seagrass, surrounded by a small herd of pal’penk cows. To nearby Omtorish, they seemed only bonded handlers, herding the small gathering to and from a nearby pen, resting for a spell while the animals munched placidly on the grass. But they were in fact, spies from the Ponkti Metah Lektereenah, sent into the Omtorish quarter to listen to the talk among the kelke, to catch the drift of what concerned the community.

One was a well-disguised tuk master, a protégé of Loptoheen himself. His name was Tarko. His fellow herder was a Ponkti midling, Karak, who had just completed his own Circling back on Seome when the time of the Great Emigration had come.

Tarak had good ears. “You heard Kuala’s songs from the far seas. Our brothers have found something, something useful, perhaps even new allies in these m’jeete. Now the Tailless attack them. The bastards want what the Ponkti have.”

“Then let them fight for it,” Karak boasted. Ponkti midlings were like that, all puff and bluff and show, until they had to learn the tuk. Then they calmed down and learned how to bend that restless energy to something useful. “We should show them what Ponkti do to spineless worms who savage our homes.”

“We will,” Tarko said. “We will. But Lektereenah wants useful intelligence first. You heard what I heard…Kel’metah Chase’s voice?”

“I did, tuk master. The Omtorish want to keep this to themselves, leave the Tailless in the dark. They won’t fight with us. It’s up to Ponkti to seek revenge…make the Tailless pay for what they have done to Ponkel’te.”

“The Sk’ort will help us,” Tarko was sure. “Come on, let’s get back to the Metah…she needs to know what we heard. Kah, stupid Omtorish…they can’t roam without blabbing everything.”

Tarko and Karak then rounded up their small herd of pal’penk and headed off, toward the bubble curtains that defined the border of the Omtorish and Ponkti quarters.

Soon, once the Tailless had been taught a lesson, there would be no more ‘quarters’

separating the kels. Ponkti…and Skortish, too, if they behaved, would have a new home…in the far seas.

But first plans would have to be made to locate and destroy the Tailless base, the base from which the attack on Ponkel’te had been directed…a place the Tailless called…’ Vladivostok’.

Kel’metah Chase knew none of this.

For several days, Ponkti and Skortish prodsmen and tu’kelke made their plans. The Ponkti metah, Lektereenah, convened a war council away from the settlement, in a small ravine several kilometers away. She named Loptoheen to head the special force that would teach the Tailless a serious lesson and set up a guard around Ponkel’te to protect what the Ponkti had discovered.

“The m’jeete can be of great use to us. Nobody can take this away from us. Only the Sk’ort know of the secret and I can control Okeemah. Take your prodsmen and stunners and any equipment you need. Ponkel’te is our future, Loptoheen. Things will be different here on Urku.

Here, the Ponkti will decide their own fate and live as we wish to live. No kels, and no Tailless can stop us.”

Loptoheen pulsed how determined and resolute Lektereenah was and so there was no use arguing. Ponkel’te was a long trip, in the far seas and the waters of Urku were strange and still mostly unknown to all Seomish. Then there were the Tailless themselves…creatures of Notwater who nonetheless seemed to take great umbrage whenever Seomish kelke tried to build anything in these cursed waters.

Loptoheen consulted with Yaktu tom, the Sk’ort chief prodsman, on weapons and tactics and who should be in the special force.

Yaktu was middle-aged, muscular, scarred with bruises and cuts from a lifetime of insults and challenges. Like all Skortish, he seemed at first glance slow and lazy but Loptoheen knew otherwise. What passed for indolence and indifference masked a keen mind and quick wits. No one trifled with Yaktu.

“Sk’ort will provide two kip’ts,” he announced. “Three prodsmen and three stunners will ride in them. One kip’t will stay at Ponkel’te, where we’ll assist you in guarding the camp, while our people build their own homes and the other kip’t will be part of your attack force…your muh’pul’te.”

This satisfied Loptoheen. “The Ponkti will bring three kip’ts, with five stunners and five prodsmen. Our kip’ts are bigger; we’ll carry prods, stunners, scentbulbs, mah’jeet sacs and even k’orpuh to use against the Tailless. We’ll work out the tactics on the way…the trip takes several mah…it’s a long way.”

Yaktu eyed the Metah and her court, and her privy councilor riding herd on the secretive gathering. “What about the others: the Omtorish, the Eepkostic, the Orketish? What do they know about this?”

Loptoheen sniffed. “They know enough. The Kel’metah Chase knows we’ve discovered the m’jeete and he knows of the Tailless attack on Ponkel’te. But the Omtorish are spineless.

They want to talk with the Tailless, negotiate, roam in consort with them and smooth things over.

Kah, it won’t work. Tailless are animals…no different from seamothers. They understand strength and force, determination and resolve. It’s always the same. When strength is called for, leave it to the Ponkti to do the job.”

Yaktu glared back at the aging tuk master. “And the Sk’ort.”

“Indeed. Gather your men and gear and meet me in half a mah, other side of the mountain.

We need to depart so that nobody else knows what’s happening. And keep your repeaters quiet, for once. They can’t be singing out everything they hear and see, not with this mission.”

Yaktu was uneasy. “Loptoheen…I don’t know…to interfere with repeaters…that isn’t done…under normal circumstances.”

“Who said these were normal circumstances? I’m sure both our Metahs will approve it.

Now…go—”

Yaktu scooted off toward the Skortish quarter. For his part, Loptoheen was happy to let Lektereenah deal with the questions and concerns of the kel elders. Ponkti were used to following orders. The questions wouldn’t last long. The honor, indeed the very future, of the whole kel was at stake.

In the meantime, the tuk master would select his men carefully and assemble their weapons and equipment. In many ways, Loptoheen looked forward to the engagement. The Tailless were a perfect enemy; it was easy to hate them, since no one really understood creatures of Notwater.

They were monsters, albeit with powerful weapons and a tendency to shoot first, but still soulless beasts. Even the seamothers had more honor than Tailless worms.

That gave Loptoheen an idea. Maybe there was a way to bring along a few seamother calves on the mission. Loptoheen stroked off toward Keenomsh’pont, deep in thought, mulling over the possibilities.

Seamothers were also creatures of Notwater. They could live below the sea and above it.

And the Seomish had already used them to defeat the most recent Tailless attack on Keenomsh’pont.

It was an appealing idea, Loptoheen thought. A pair of seamothers stalking through the Tailless city like the beasts they were; even calves could do a lot of damage. Combine the terror that would produce, with Skortish and Ponkti prodsmen clanking about in mobilitors, spraying electric fire from their prods…Loptoheen almost smiled. He could taste the panic and fear of the worms already.

Port of Vladivostok, Russian Federation

August 20, 2115

0735 hours

The port of Vladivostok was thick with fog and the sound of ship’s horns when the Ponkti-Skortish special force entered the outer bay, the Zolotoy Rog. There were six kip’ts in all, with one towing two large mesh enclosures, each holding one somewhat rambunctious seamother calf.

The force maneuvered along the seabed of the port to avoid all the surface traffic and probed ahead until they came to a set of bridge pilings, sunk in concrete caissons near a rocky bank, that sloped up to the surface.

Here, Yaktu’s troops unleashed the seamothers and prodded them away. Honking and bellowing, curious about their strange surroundings, the puk’lek bounded eagerly toward the surface, breaching the bay waters in an explosion of foam and froth, just landward of the mainland side of the huge Russkiy Bridge.

The ferry Belyayev was passing just beneath the main span of the bridge when passengers along the portside railing witnessed the sudden appearance of the seamothers.

Shouts erupted immediately.

“My God…Holy Father… Morskiye zmei…sea serpents!”

“Look at that…get back! Get back!”

The beasts had surfaced just off a wharf where the ferry was heading for a landing. There were two. One after another, the creatures climbed the wharf pilings and stood for a few moments at the ferry landing, nosing around, sniffing, tasting things. One seamother careened into the pavilion where scores of passengers awaited the ferry, knocking the slate roof off the structure. Panicked passengers fled in all directions, enraging the other seamother.

Both beasts stalked off the wharf, crashed through some fencing, toppled statues of Alexander the Great and headed between two warehouses and a customs house, for Alexandrovsky Street beyond, with its vast Archangelsk Square, statuary gardens and harborfront promenade.

While the seamothers rampaged across the harbor area, Skortish and Ponkti kip’ts gathered beneath the same wharves, now empty of any traffic as the Belyayev had already turned about and sped at high speed back to her point of departure. The Skortish prodsmen, led by Yaktu, were first to emerge, followed quickly by several squads of Ponkti, led by Loptoheen himself.

One after another, the prodsmen lit off their mobilitors, rose to the surface and landed upright on the pilings under propulsor power.

Spotted by a squad of harbor police, the Skortish were first to react.

“Stunners…open fire!” commanded Yaktu.

The entire wharf area was bathed in a blinding white light, followed by the concussive BOOMS! of sound grenades. Windows and lamps shattered. The sound and light pulses scattered the harbor police and created an opening for the Ponkti to advance.

Under Loptoheen, a squad of Ponkti prodsmen waddled toward the same gap the seamothers had taken. Kasmik, Telspo and Potop each emerged into the open, paused momentarily to get their bearings, pulsing vainly up and down the street for targets, then under the tuk master’s direction, they split apart and crossed Alexandrovsky heading into the statuary garden.

Half a kilometer west of them, a small concrete cube of a building housed the armory.

Inside, Major Alexander Desyanov was running a briefing of the 59th Battalion, 55th Naval Infantry Division. Assignments were being handed out and duty rosters completed for the next month. The coastal troops had harbor patrol, port security and public protection duties throughout this section of Vladivostok. The ‘Black Berets’ were a proud and illustrious outfit, having recently honored centuries of glorious war dead in an elaborate public ceremony at the statuary garden and a parade up and down the promenade.

Before Major Desyanov could launch into a well-rehearsed and (he hoped) rousing closing speech to the troops, someone shouted from the back. Completely ignoring bearing and protocol, men streamed to the windows, gesturing and shouting at something outside.

Desyanov was momentarily nonplussed by the breach of discipline and thought to shout orders to his men to return to their seats but the sudden intensity of their reaction gave him pause. He went to the windows.

There down the street, just coming nicely into view around the corner of the old Admiralty building was one of the seamothers, looking for all the world like a dinosaur had somehow come to life from the front gallery of the natural history museum downtown.

Desyanov swallowed hard, blinking in the sunlight even now trying to burn through early morning mists.

What in the name of Peter the Great

But it was when the Major of Coastal Troops saw the first Ponkti prodsmen waddling along behind the beast, weapons at the ready, discharging their prods at unsuspecting pedestrians and curious shopkeepers opening their shop doors, that something clicked inside…a lifetime of soldier training and amphibious exercises and tactical drills and academy training. The soldier inside Desyanov burst to the surface and orders escaped his lips in rapid-fire fashion.

“To the gun lockers!” he barked. “Repel the intruders! Assemble at the front door…we’ll work out the formation!”

In the back room of the armory, the gun lockers were sprung open and dozens of OTS-19

assault rifles and Vena 120-mm mortars were distributed, their handlers sprinting across the briefing room to the front entrance. Someone unlocked a suitcase containing Orel 7, an autonomous robotic drone, which was handed off to her launch and ops crew, along with the Berkut-2, ground patrolbots. Powered up and quickly checked out, the autonomous sentries were checked for full magazines and oriented to follow the troops to their rally point at the door. They clanked off behind the tide of rushing men, now programmed to confront any threat their algorithms recognized. No one took time to wonder how their algorithms would react to the seamothers.

Desyanov deployed his first squads to cover both sides of Alexandrovsky Street.

“Use the shops!” he told them. “Use the doors, canopies and signs for cover. Advance a few meters at a time. Don’t silhouette yourself…watch your shadows.” All proper urban combat tactics the Battalion had practiced as recently as two months before.

But the Russian marines were unprepared for what came next.

At a signal from Loptoheen, who led the Ponkti barely twenty meters behind one of the seamothers, Kasmik released the first of the mah’jeet sacs. The toxic bloom of deadly micro-organisms burst out of containment and was caught up in breezes coming up from the harbor, swelling rapidly into a faintly iridescent cloud that drifted along the street and soon enveloped Desyanov’s forward patrols.

Men crumpled almost immediately, clutching at their throats, their rifles clattering to the street as they twisted and pitched heavily to the ground, slowly stung and asphyxiated by the organisms. Those still twitching when the Ponkti approached were quickly dispatched by bursts of electric prods, while more blinders were lit off ahead of the Ponkti advance.

To add to the confusion, Loptoheen ordered scentbulbs to be set off. Telspo and Potop did the honors, one on each side of the street. The bulbs were opened and a powerful stench soon permeated the lower end of Alexandrovsky Street.

Remaining marines of the 59th stopped their advance immediately, not bothering to set up their mortars and crumpled to the pavement, choking, coughing and vomiting as the overpowering odors clung to everything and thickened in the breezes.

Major Desyanov watched from the armory in horror as his men, all well trained and dedicated marines, were cut down piecemeal by the intruders. Those not shocked into unconsciousness by the prods, asphyxiated into convulsions by the mah’jeet and incapacitated by

the scentbulbs were forced to retreat back up the street, eventually taking cover inside a bank at the turn onto Gogol Street.

Desyanov ducked back inside the armory and hustled to the phone room. Division had to know about this. Gerasimov had to send more troops, more weapons, APCs, amphib tanks, more of everything.

Vladivostok was under assault by something unearthly, something from a child’s nightmare, something they had no defenses for.

The Major swallowed hard, finding no saliva in his throat at all, as he rang up Division headquarters.

At the other end of Alexandrovsky Street, indeed throughout the harbor area of Vladivostok, the results of the Ponkti and Skortish advance created similar results. The scenario was much the same in every direction, along all the streets radiating outward from Archangelsk Square.

Seamothers took the lead as four-legged shock troops, sweeping the streets of all early resistance, followed up by stunner and blinder volleys to lay down a deadly field of force and light that seemed impermeable to all human sensors. Unlucky pedestrians, shop keepers, early morning customers, ferry passengers, and occasional policemen unfortunate enough to be caught in the advance were knocked flat by mah’jeet swarms or otherwise convulsed by strong toxins and incapacitating agents from Skortish scentbulbs.

A spreading wave of death, dismemberment and terror surged outward and there seemed nothing able to stop the onslaught.

Six thousand kilometers away, in a second-story studio in downtown Honolulu, Solnet newsdrone operator Karen Michell blinked at her board, seeing alerts and alarms and warning messages pop up on her board from every direction. Solnet maintained a small fleet of newsdrones all over the world, autonomous uavs circling across the globe at stratospheric altitudes, sniffing for emissions and signals of any type that might indicate trouble, or at least something newsworthy.

One drone, KA-3388, had been cruising serenely along lower jet stream winds at an altitude of eighty-five thousand feet above the Kuril Island chain between lower Kamchatka and Hokkaido, Japan, when the drone’s sniffers caught a ‘whiff’ of emergency comms erupting out of Vladivostok, comms blanketing way too many frequencies to be normal traffic…almost some kind of panic response.

The algorithms that operated KA-3388’s sensors, electro-optical, all-azimuth electronic scanners, even olfactory and visual light spectrometers, twitched instantly with the first eruptions and fired off notifications to its base in the Mauna Loa Building along Ala Moana Boulevard.

Mitchell put down her sushi box lunch for a second and studied the displays.

“My God…what’s this…is there a volcano going off or something?”

A quick perusal of the board showed that no volcanic activity had lit off KA-3388’s sensors, as sometimes happened on the orbits of these birds, owing to the fact that several volcanoes dotted Kamchatka and were known to burp and fart with tiresome regularity.

No, this was different and Mitchell quickly saw the signals were human, and they were coming from downtown Vladivostok, in fact around the harbor area.

Instinctively, she commanded the drone to alter course, change altitude to get out of the jet stream and head for the source.

Twenty minutes later, watching the harbor scene around the port of Vladivostok come steadily into focused view, Mitchell swallowed hard and forgot all about her sushi lunch.

Zooms of street level showed what could only be described as staggering levels of destruction.

Descending now to only a few thousand meters above the streets, easily avoiding Russian air-defense drones and defenses, KA-3388 streamed up and down street after street, following a pre-planned surveillance pattern Mitchell had initiated as the drone approached the city.

What she saw so stunned the operator that she almost forgot to make sure all this was being recorded for later play on one of Solnet’s channels.

“My God…what is this…somebody make a film or something—” she muttered. Mitchell commanded KA-3388 to drop lower, down to a hundred meters altitude and scoot along one of the boulevards…her nav window called it Svetlanskaya Street.

Now filling the view was one of the seamothers, trashing a kiosk of some kind, chewing off rooftops, knocking over a bus and demolishing storefronts, while in the distance, Russian marines backpedaled in retreat, firing wildly at the beast. For a moment, Mitchell was sure she was watching some kind of automated movie prop but the look of terror on the soldiers’ faces and the sheer scale of the destruction changed her mind.

“What on God’s green earth--?” she now made sure she was recording every nano-second of what the newsdrone was seeing. As she looked closer, she realized the huge lumbering beast was accompanied by strange-looking soldiers, advancing slowly along both sides of the street, discharging some kind of electrical weapons, setting off grenades that seemed deafen anyone and everyone around.

“The Sea People!” she realized. “The Sea People…they’re attacking…my God, look at that!” Mitchell had seen a closeup of one of the Ponkti prodsmen clad in full mobilitor, looking for all the world like The Creature from the Black Lagoon, as it waddled and stumbled down the street. She quickly realized there were others; she counted four in view at the moment. Mitchell pressed a button, summoning her supervisor. Moments later, Herb Calin poked his head inside the room.

“Got your alert…what’s up?”

Mitchell showed him the feed from KA-3388. The super hit his head on the door jamb, he was so startled. Calin came in and squatted next to her, transfixed by the scene.

“We need to go live with this, Karen…I’ll notify Ops Two and get us a channel pronto—”

“And another drone, if you can, Herb. There’s more going on around the ferry landing.”

Unseen by either reporter, Major Desyanov had retreated to the armory building when the first seamother appeared on Alexandrovsky Street. He unlocked the command post and went to a special comm station, connecting in seconds with Theater Command Headquarters in Nakhodka, about twenty kilometers to the south. After shouting obscenities at the bull-headed duty sergeant, Desyanov was able to find a duty officer with enough rank to get some air support into the area.

The officer promised two Antonov transporters in less than an hour. “Fully armed, full complement of Su-44 autodrones…that’s seventy-two in all. Is that sufficient, Major? I’ll have to clear this with General Smolny, you know.”

Desyanov wanted to reach into the phone and strangle the lot of them at Theater.

“Lieutenant, I don’t care if you have to ask your mother and your great aunt, just get me those drones…get them into the air right now! We’re pinned down by...I don’t know what the hell they are, exactly. Sea People, I assume. They’re decimating my men and the harbor police aren’t helping…they’ve vanished, the cowards. There are beasts the size of buildings stalking

the Embankment and port area and ground troops with weapons we can’t hold up against…sound grenades, electric something-or-others…just get me air support, damn you!”

Moments later, two lumbering Antonov four-engine transports were winging their way north from Spassk Dalniy airfield toward the port of Vladivostok.

Appearing half an hour later in partly cloudy skies directly above Russkiy Island and the Golden Horn Bay, the Antonovs soon established themselves in tight circular orbits about the port complex, after ascertaining that there were no aerial threats to their arrival. Each Antonov then cycled open several bay doors in its belly, disgorging scores of the autodrones, each of which looked like flying mantas, each armed with four air-to-ground missiles, a fully-charged railgun and a fully primed particle beam weapon under its nose.

The autodrones swarmed into formation and tasted thermal emissions from the combat zone below them, now partially enveloped in smoke from dozens of fires and burning vehicles.

Autonomous in operation yet now linked into swarm formation, the drones dropped down to engagement altitude and raked the streets with missile and beam fire, crisscrossing the area in a complex attack pattern derived from algorithmic analysis of the evolving threat on the ground.

One seamother was hit immediately, and fell to her sides, mortally wounded, bleeding from dozens of wounds, her hind legs nearly shot off, her spiked tail slamming the ground in waves of pain. The creature waggled and twitched, bellowing forlornly and keeled over on her side, expiring her final ragged breaths in a bloody froth of air.

Behind the dying beast, Loptoheen sensed the presence of a new threat above them…noting the high-freq whine of the drones as they buzzed the column of Ponkti prodsmen and raked the streets with concentrated fire. It was clear that they had done all they could do. Lektereenah’s orders were simply to teach the Tailless a lesson they wouldn’t soon forget.

Loptoheen halted their advance, took cover in the shadow of a great marble and bronze statue and sized up the tactical situation. The plaque at the base of the statue read “Memorial to the Fighters for Soviet Power in the Far East,” but Loptoheen didn’t know that. He cared only for completing their mission and getting his fighters out of the Tailless city safely, with minimal casualties. Already they had lost one seamother and Potop was several blocks back, severely wounded, perhaps already dead.

This is far enough, he decided. We’ve done enough damage to get their attention.

Loptoheen liked to compare things to tuk matches. This assault reminded him of a classic spear and slash move all tuk’te learned from a young age; the Ponkti word was shook’rok, meaning beak to tail. You used shook’rok when your opponent was quick, maybe too quick and left himself vulnerable to countermoves.

Shook’rok was what Loptoheen figured they had done to the Tailless in this city.

“Prodsmen, fall back!” he ordered over the signaler circuit. The whistles went out, over the sound of roofs crashing and drones buzzing and prods zapping and the remaining soldiers halted their slow advance and turned about. Building by building, using whatever cover they could find from the autodrones overhead, the Ponkti began a slow but steady tactical retreat, back to the port.

“What about the Sk’ort?” someone asked.

Loptoheen let a drone whiz by and wheel off into the sky, before scooting as fast as he could to another pile of storefront rubble. “Yaktu has his orders from Okeemah, same as we have from our own Metah. He does what he does. As for us, we fall back to the sea.”

And slowly, building by building, the Ponkti did just that, eventually reaching the Embankment and the ferry piers with no further casualties. They had to leave Potop behind, but

Telspo retrieved the signaler and Potop’s prod before clicking goodbyes over the prostrate form of his fallen comrade.

The Sk’ort were nowhere to be seen and Kasmik opined they had already perished in the autodrone assault from the air.

“Notwater…” he spat, as they assembled at the end of the pier, measuring the distance of the drop down to their kip’ts, which rode at the surface like drunken turtles. “I don’t wish to see it again…in my life. Notwater is for animals and beasts, not for me.,”

“Or me,” agreed Kasmik, adjusting his mobilitor to lift him above the wooden planks and lower him to the water.

With that, the remnants of the Ponkti squad disappeared below the waves and boarded their kip’ts. Loptoheen guided them along the bed of the harbor and out to open sea.

They were silent for awhile, wondering about the fate of the second seamother, and their Skortish comrades.

“Only Shooki knows,” Loptoheen told them. “Maybe now, the Tailless will leave us alone…let us re-build Ponkel’te and live our lives in these cursed waters.”

Telspo was thoughtful. “It was better back home, wasn’t it…in our seas? In the Ponkel sea, where you could actually taste the waters and breathe free…riding the Pul’kel ridge on swift currents…I can pulse it now.”

“Save it,” Loptoheen decided. “We have a long ride home. And Lektereenah will want a report. Get me an echopod…we need to put down everything we saw and did. Something tells me we haven’t seen the last of the Tailless.”

The UNISEA director was sitting on the edge of his chair, in his thirty-fifth floor residence at the Secretariat Building, watching the vid from Solnet, nearly spilling his drink, when his wristpad chirped. Keko Satsuyama lost control of the wineglass as he was answering the call.

It was Dr. Josey Holland, from Woods Hole. It was late…or early, depending on your perspective…just shy of four a.m. When Satsuyama saw the caller was Holland, he pressed REC

immediately. That’s when the Cabernet spilled all over the carpet. He ignored it. Oscar the housebot would clean it up.

Holland’s face was lined with worry…and lack of sleep, from the looks of her.

“Did you see it, Keko…the vid from Russia? The Seomish have attacked…it’s still going on now!”

Satsuyama had been watching nothing else for the last hour, as the newsdrone feed went live all over the world, overlaid with commentary from Solnet reporters and special contributors from Washington to London to Moscow.

“I’ve been watching. We’ll have to convene a special meeting, first thing in the morning…I guess it’s already morning now. The Council has some decisions to make.”

Holland was distraught. “This is terrible, what’s happening. How could they do something like this? Don’t they realize stunts like this only make it harder? All they’ve done is given the military and the scare-mongers more ammunition. Now, it’ll be a hundred times harder to sit down and talk things out.”

Satsuyama agreed, turning for a moment to gratefully accept another glass of that rather bland Sauvignon from Oscar. “Agreed. We do have that signaler device your friend Chase gave us, but it’s at my office downstairs. Maybe it’s time to activate it…try to meet with them before the Sea Council descends into hysterics, which will surely happen by midday at the latest.”

Both of them paused a moment to listen to the voice from the Solnet feed….

“…are reporting now that elements of Russian marines and other coastal troops are advancing on the port now…steadily shrinking the pocket in which the Sea People seem to be trapped. There have been unconfirmed reports of street-to-street fighting and additional serpent-like beasts coming from Golden Horn Bay, or at least being sighted, but these are not yet substantiated. However, it does seem to our expert commentators that Russian air support—the National Air Defense Force, in Russian PVO Strany, the autodrones and their covering fire—

have turned the tide and it seems to be only a matter of time before the Russian authorities take full control of—”

The Solnet reporter went on, but Satsuyama ignored it and went back his vid call with Holland. “Dr. Holland, I’m going to activate the signaler immediately. I’m not sure what will happen, but we have to get ahead of events, or the whole matter will spiral out of control and we’ll be helpless to affect anything.”

“We need to have a meeting with the Seomish right away,” Holland agreed.

Satsuyama signed off and took a lift downstairs to his twentieth-floor office. He unlocked the cabinet where the device Chase had given him was located. It looked like an enlarged egg.

The Director felt for the slight bumps on the bottom. Press the middle one, Chase had told him.

Press it three times.

Satsuyama didn’t pretend to understand how the signaler worked…something about ultra-low frequency sounds or something like that and he didn’t care about anything but whether it worked. He picked up the device and thumbed the small button…three times.

Then he sat down at his desk to work out a list of talking points…and details of the speech he knew he would have to make to the Sea Council…explaining why they were meeting at all with murderers and butchers.

Tulcheah had come for Chase while he was helping a small Omtorish em’kel re-build a small gathering of huts for them to live in. The building material was a mix of tchin’ting fiber net and small chunks of volcanic tuff. Somebody in Likteek’s lab had found a way of carving and shaping the tuff, after it had been quarried, into brick-like blocks and so the huts had begun to resemble gray-black igloos to Chase. The em’kel was grateful for the attention of a celebrity like the Kel’metah. For his part, Chase was just glad to be doing something to help out, something other than trying to act as a referee between kels.

That’s when Tulcheah had shown up.

“Roam with me, o’ great Kel’metah. I found some sweet waters not far from here.”

Chase had never been able to say no to Tulcheah.

They headed away from Keenomsh’pont, past the outer bubble curtains and the nearer repeaters into deeper waters. Presently, the seabed began to flatten out, becoming sandier and less rocky and starting sloping upward. Chase knew from his study of the local topography that they were approaching the Bermuda Platform.

“Look!” Tulcheah exclaimed. She indicated a thick school of fish swerving in unison back and forth ahead of them, darting forward as if they were a single body. They were a blur in their motions, but Chase realized they were witnessing Atlantic blue marlin in a vast school, with their spear-shaped beaks and long dorsal fins, hundreds of them in formation.

Beautiful…just look at them!” Tulcheah admired their form and speed. “Like they’re bred for this. They roam so well it looks like a single creature—like our vish’tu, except for all the jostling and the arguments. Come on…let’s follow them!”

Before Chase could object that there was no way they could keep up, Tulcheah had surged forward and caught up to the rear of the school. She snapped left, then right, then left again, closing right up into the tail of the school, seemingly effortless in her athletic strokes.

With a sigh and a grunt, Chase lit off his own water jets—devices Likteek’s engineers had devised, adapted from the annular flagella of the Seomish scapetfish—and sped after her, surprising even himself that he was able to close the distance.

One thing all Seomish loved was the roam. The echopod definition came to his mind as he fell in next to Tulcheah, words he had practically memorized…

…”One of the oldest customs of the Seomish, the vishtu or companionship roam, is very much in the traditions of Ke’shoo and typically involves two people although there is no set number. Roams can last anywhere from a few minutes to a few days, even longer, with the average being a few hours. Debate and talk is usually discouraged during the roam in order to let the physical beauty of the landscape work its magic. Often a prelude to some intense, emotionally draining activity, such as sexual intercourse, the fine points and protocol of a roam are learned by Seomish at an early age…”

The two of them stroked along, barely keeping up with the fleet of marlin, through waters salty and strange, and Chase was amused that after awhile, their unwilling fellow roamers seemed to accept them and even opened up a small gap for he and Tulcheah to enter…if they could keep up.

For many minutes, Chase let the jets do the work and concentrated on steering and maintaining proper separation…a few times, he butted into the rear caudal of a nearby marlin, which scree’ed and chittered and moved aside, annoyed for a moment.

He was enjoying the symmetry and the rhythm and even the poetry of so many silvery-blue bodies all moving as one when something, some unexpected movement, caught his eye…to his left. Some kind of collision had occurred, a bad one and the chaos radiated outward like a spreading wave.

What the--?

Chase and Tulcheah both slowed down and dropped out of the roam, while the main body sped on. They saw the problem right away.

A single marlin had become ensnared in a thin line, a line dropping down from the surface.

There was something at the end of the line and the marlin had clamped his teeth around it and that’s when Chase realized what was happening. He didn’t even have to look above them…he could already hear the rumbling vibration of the motors.

They had roamed into range of a sportfishing boat and the marlin had seized bait at the end of one of the lines. Now it was caught.

“Come on!” Chase said. “Let’s help it out—”

He and Tulcheah swam over and, with Tulcheah holding the squirming body, Chase gingerly felt around inside the creature’s mouth, located the barbed hooks sticking out of a blue and silver head…a large doll’s eye leering back at him from the center of the lure. Carefully, Chase removed the lure and the fish darted off to rejoin its colleagues streaking off in the distance.

“What happened?” Tulcheah asked, examining the lure carefully.

Chase explained about sportfishing. “The humans…the Tailless above us in that boat—drop lines with lures like this at the end. They try to attract and catch the fish, reel them in…show them off as trophies.”

Tulcheah made a face. “How barbaric.”

“I’ve got an idea…let’s have a little fun with these clowns.”

“What are you--?”

Tulcheah watched in amazement as Chase took the lure and carefully placed it in his own mouth. It had a weird taste and he tried not to think about it too much. Once situated, he gave the line a few short sharp tugs, then relaxed his body. Immediately, the line tightened, the slack disappeared and it began moving…upward.

The fishermen at the other end had a catch and now they were reeling their prize in.

Chase clamped his teeth hard around the lure and let the line pull him upward. When he was just below the surface, he removed the line from his mouth, still holding it and with a mighty kick, breached the surface and made as big a splash as he could, rising as far as he could, so the fishermen could get a good look at a real ‘monster.”

At the stern of the Marlin Madame twin-engine cruiser, Lou Ransom was so startled at the sight of the creature that had erupted out of the water, that he knocked over his beer can and let go of the line. His chair vaulted backward and he fell with a hard thud to the deck, spluttering, scrambling, screaming.

“Guys! Guys…take a look…it’s that monster…it’s…God…what the hell is that?”

Just for good measure, Chase stroked over to the boat, and made to climb her gunwales, even managed to plant a scaly, armored leg over the side, enjoying the panic that had swept the boat when he saw someone emerge from the belowdecks cabin with a rifle.

Uh oh…better get out of here.

He dropped back into the water just as the riflemen let fly a volley into the water. Rounds peppered the water, zinging and hissing in tiny contrails of bubbles as he sank quickly from view. He chuckled as he descended into the depths and felt the warm touch of Tulcheah’s fins on his back.

“What a show!” he chortled. “They won’t forget that catch…the one that got away.”

Just then, he realized Tulcheah had stiffened and floated perfectly still alongside him.

“Chase, did you hear that?”

“Hear what?”

“Repeaters…one of ours. Omtorish alert song…” she listened more closely, though Chase could only hear the rumble of Marlin Madame above them, as the cruiser circled warily, looking for more signs of the ‘sea monster.’ “It’s an alert…some kind of signal…a signaler…from the Tailless…the Kel’em wants all on roam to return. We have to get back.”

“A signaler…from the Tailless?” Then Chase remembered. He had given one of the devices to the UNISEA delegates, to their Director. “It’s probably important. Can you guide us back…I’m kinda lost.”

Tulcheah pulsed the anxiety inside him and laughed. “Eekoti Chase…or should I say ‘Great Kel’metah?’ A great one is never lost…even in the far seas. Hold on—” she stuck out her tail flukes, “and turn up your jets. I’ll take us home.”

They stroked off and made it back to Keenomsh’pont in no time.

The Metah Mokleeoh had come with Oncolenia and the rest of her court to the lab and was in talks with Likteek when Chase and Tulcheah returned. Prodsmen escorted them through waves of curious onlookers to the caves.

Likteek explained. “We received the signaler notice a short time ago…it was set in panic mode…whether deliberately or not, we couldn’t tell. Listen—” he activated the echopod that had recorded the signaler’s low-frequency tones.

Chase listened. All he could make out was a stream of squeaks, clicks and whistles. He looked at Likteek puzzled.

“I can’t make anything out of it.”

Likteek translated. “They want to meet with us…it’s the emergency tone. Did you explain to the Tailless how the signaler is used?”

“I did. Maybe I didn’t explain it well.”

Likteek was sympathetic. “Or maybe you don’t understand it yourself. In any case, it’s clear the Tailless want to meet.”

Chase was thoughtful, eyeing Tulcheah for a moment. He could tell, without even pulsing, what she wanted.

“I’ll bet they want explanations for what the Ponkti and the Sk’ort did to that Russian city.”

Chase knew the news was all over the repeater nets, worldwide. “They’re mad or puzzled or something.”

Mokleeoh was agitated, clearly upset with Lektereenah and her Ponkti contacts. “There was no reason for them to attack the Tailless…the Umans. This will make relations only more difficult for all of us. Kel’metah, you must do something.”

“Me? I don’t have any brilliant ideas, Affectionate Metah.”

Mokleeoh bore in on him. “Eekoti Chase, you are elected Kel’metah. All the kels disagree on how to deal with the Umans. You must decide for us…it’s your duty. Do we fight? Do we talk?”

Chase always hated it when events converged to make him the center of the conflict. What am I, some kind of great intergalactic diplomat? I’m a beach bum. My own family says so. He didn’t say any of this but looked helplessly from Mokleeoh to Likteek to Tulcheah.

Likteek was sympathetic. “Kel’metah, we all pulse the anxiety inside you…nobody could hide that. Perhaps a roam—”

Mokleeoh, always up for vish’tu, seconded that idea. “Come…the exertion will smooth out your thoughts…ke’shoo and ke’lee will come…you will think more clearly.”

“Thanks…thanks all of you, but I don’t need that. My head works differently. What I need is my go-tone…strum a few chords, pluck out a few notes. That’s what helps me think.”

Likteek offered an idea. “We have trangkors here…some were brought in the kel’vish’tu, the Emigration. Perhaps, these—”

“No, it wouldn’t be the same. No, something’s bothering me…it’s what the Ponkti discovered in the far seas…a place we humans call the South China Sea.”

Mokleeoh said, “You refer to the m’jeete?”

“Yes, that’s it. The Umans, when they were at Kinlok Island back on Seome, called them the Coethi. One of them, this Lieutenant Golich I mentioned, even gave me some details on what they knew of the Coethi. I’ve got to find those echopods—”

“A formidable enemy, from what I remember,” Likteek said.

“That’s the issue. That’s what’s bothering me now. Ever since the Emigration, the kels have been fighting each other. I know that isn’t exactly news. Now the kels are fighting with

the humans. But the Coethi, if what Golich and the Umans said is true, are the greater enemy. If they’re here, however they got here, we really should tell the humans about them. They may not fully understand what we’re dealing with…I don’t think the Ponkti really understand the danger they’ve uncovered.”

“If we tell them,” Likteek thought, “are we not then obligated to help the humans get rid of this menace?”

Mokleeoh scoffed at that. “The kels can’t agree on anything. I have roamed and talked with Lektereenah, with Okeemah and Oolandra, all the Metahs, about what has happened in the far seas. The Metahs can’t agree. If the Metahs can’t agree, the kels will never agree…already Lektereenah is making plans to take all Ponkti away from here and lead them to Ponkel’te, in the far seas, once it’s rebuilt. This will only make matters more difficult for all of us.”

“It seems we are at an impasse,” Likteek said, somewhat mournful. “A difficult decision…

who is the greater threat: the Umans or the Coethi?”

Mokleeoh was firm. “This must be for the Kel’metah to decide. It is so written in our history…Kel’metah makes the decisions for all the kels.”

Chase wanted to throw up his hands but he didn’t. No way they’ll understand that gesture.

“How did I get myself into this…where is it written in your history books that a beach bum-rock singer becomes the Great Leader? This is insane.”

Likteek motioned Tulcheah over and the two of them nuzzled Chase around the face and neck, sort of a Seomish way of kissing and consoling. At first, he had always been reluctant to engage in this…a physical form of ke’shoo and ke’lee…but now—

“The currents carry us where they will,” Mokleeoh said. “This is what Shooki tells us.”

“That doesn’t really help a lot,” Chase came back. I guess there’s no getting away from this. Maybe, if I could just toss a coin…but in the water, a coin just drifts around, tossed by currents.

But we can’t keep drifting around.

“Okay, folks, I’ve made up my mind. Don’t ask me to explain how. Likteek, you and me and maybe two others go to New York. We meet with the humans, this UNISEA group. And we tell them about the Coethi…in fact, we offer to help them contain or defeat the Coethi.

Maybe an external threat like this will help bring humans and Seomish together…it’s worth a shot, don’t you think?”

Mokleeoh shot across the lab like she had been stung by k’orpuh. “Kel’metah has made the decision…this must go out immediately.” She stopped alongside Oncolenia. “Assemble the Kel’em, all of them, here, now. They should know of this.” To Chase, she added, “Whatever you require, I will approve.”

Chase was startled by the sudden burst of activity. But it felt good. The motion inside the lab space stirred the waters, invigorating everybody. Jeez, my little decision did this…if I could just pat myself on the back—

“We’ll need a couple of kip’ts, Affectionate Metah. I’d like Likteek to come with me.

Maybe Tulcheah too and one of the scientists.”

“It is done,” Mokleeoh ordered. She made sure Oncolenia had recorded her words in a pod.

“One more thing,” Chase remembered.

“Anything, Kel’metah—”

“I need echopods. We have to find the pods that record what Lieutenant Golich told me about the Coethi…the humans need to hear it. After all, it was recorded by one of their own descendants.” Chase then had another idea. “And I’d like to have more echopods…could I take

a few that describe your own history…the history of Om’tor and the kels on Seome? Maybe that’ll convince the doubters that Seomish are a real people, with a real history, a real culture.”

Mokleeoh gave the order to Likteek. “The Kelk’too is assigned to this full-time, Likteek.

All other work stops. See to it that Kel’metah has what he wants.”

“Of course, Affectionate Metah.”

“The Tailless are not our enemies,” the Metah went on. “The m’jeete are the true enemy. If Lektereenah thinks that she and the Ponkti can control these creatures and use them, they will surely fail.”

Chase shuddered at the prospect of what they were facing. “If humans and Seomish can’t cooperate on defeating or at least containing the Coethi, all life on this planet is in danger, humans and Seomish. The kels have already lost one world. They’re not going to lose another one, if I have anything to do with it.”

Chapter 11

New York City

The East River

August 27, 2115

1830 hours

It was Keko Satsuyama’s idea to build a new conference structure to meet the Seomish, something they would feel more comfortable in. UNISEA and the Sea Council normally met in the UN complex at East 42nd Street, within the confines of UN Plaza. Now, however, Satsuyama looked on as finishing touches were made to a floating pavilion just off the East River pier, a hundred meters out into the sluggish river, a canopied structure anchored to the riverbed twenty meters below, surrounded on all sides by partitions but open to the water and the elements.

Today, the day of the first real conclave, it was raining and the towers of Roosevelt Island were barely visible in the mist, along with the looming bulk of the Queensboro Bridge overhead.

Satsuyama blinked mist out of his eyes and cinched up his rain coat further. It was mild, but windy along the waterfront and he eyed Dr. Josey Holland standing next to him on the pier, doing likewise.

Holland shivered in the chill. “We use to call this weather something only the ducks would love.”

Satsuyama smiled faintly. “Ducks and Seomish delegates. Hopefully, this will make them feel more at home…ah, look, isn’t that one of their craft now, surfacing just beyond the pier?”

Two rounded humps had appeared just off the pier. The two Seomish kip’ts circled the pier for a moment, while the UNISEA director communicated with Chase by signaler. It was a crude method but after some confusion, the kip’ts maneuvered inside the floating pavilion and docked there. Satsuyama, Holland and the rest of the Sea Council then boarded small boats themselves for the short ride out to the conference pavilion.

The pavilion was closed on three sides with partitions and open to the sea on the fourth side.

A tarpaulin-like ceiling covered the structure, creaking and ruffling in the breezes. Rows of benches with built-in desks lined the three closed sides. Chase brought the kip’ts into the center of the inner pool, docked to a column there and popped the hatch. He climbed out, looking for all the world like a bad dream, an alligator with an enlarged head and mechanical legs. Likteek and the remainder of the Omtorish contingent exited the sleds and began a slow, stately orbit of the pool beneath the surface of the water.

Dr. Josey Holland noted there were three other Seomish delegates, besides Chase.

Chase’s voice came through the local echopods like a tinny whine.

“You sent us a signal. You wanted to meet. I assume this is about the recent attacks.”

Satsuyama had practiced his opening remarks for several days.

“Yes…recent…events in the Pacific have made it very clear that we must work out some kind of agreement—a treaty—delimiting territories and codes of conduct between humans and Seomish.”

Chase had already decided it was best not to try and defend what the Ponkti had done. “The kels of Seome, all of them—” he lied about this part, “—sincerely apologize for what happened.

However, I should note that much of the motivation for what happened is a reaction to your own attacks on our settlements at Keenomsh’pont.”

Satsuyama figured this would come up. “Yes, we understand this. There is much to deplore in the conduct of both sides. We’ve drawn up a treaty that we’d like you to examine. The treaty provides a mechanism for both sides to meet and work out disputes and conflicts. It also outlines territories that would be under the control of the parties.”

Holland had been involved in some of the treaty work. “We’ve created a safe zone around your city at Bermuda. And we can create other safe zones around other settlements, if you like.

We just need to know where to draw the lines.”

The Russian council member, whose name was Severin, spoke up. “These zones must not interfere with our fishing rights. Or our oil and gas exploration.”

“Or our legitimate security interests,” added the Chinese delegate. He scowled back at Holland and Satsuyama.

Now a new voice came out of the echopods. It was Likteek.

“Your lines and zones mean nothing to Seomish kels. The seas go where they will. The currents flow where they will. Shooki tells us that all the seas are one. And you live in the Notwater…the seas are foreign to you. For us, they are home. The seas are life to us.” To emphasize his point, Likteek raised his beak and head above the water’s surface and made a few splashes. A stream of angry clicks and squeaks filled the air.

Josey Holland raised a point. “That may well be but I’ve been to your main settlement. I’ve talked with Chase here. I know that you also have territories, just as we do. I’ve seen your bubble curtains. I even know that your ‘kels’ fight over territories.”

Chase was afraid this would come up. He’s already confided too much in this human scientist. “There is truth in what you say, but we come here not only to talk but to bring a warning.”

“A warning?” growled Severin. “What kind of warning?”

“Is this a threat?” asked the Chinese delegate.

“It’s a threat to all of us,” Chase said. “Before the most recent attacks, human ships and divers interfered with a Ponkti settlement in the Pacific. The Ponkti have made a major discovery there…something we all should be concerned about. Something that threatens all of us.”

The Chinese delegate was skeptical. “The only threat is what the Sea People are doing in our territorial waters.”

“Not true,” Chase said. He had been sitting atop the kip’t as it rode at anchor inside the pavilion pool. Now he stood up, his full seven-foot height startling some of the nearer delegates.

“I’ve brought proof. In these echopods. Just listen…the Ponkti have discovered something that affects all of us…and we have to cooperate to stop it.”

With that, Chase reached into the cockpit of the kip’t and withdrew a small echopod. It was the recording he’d made of Lieutenant Golich’s explanation of their Coethi enemy, at the shack on the beach at Kinlok Island, on Seome. It seemed like a million years ago. He fumbled with the controls for a moment, then a voice came booming out, a human voice…

“First off, the Coethi are thought to be a race of sentient semi-robotic aliens whose main weapon against our forces is something we Umans called a starball. It is directed against the sun or star of a targeted Uman planetary system. The only known defense is our Time Twister. When a starball enters or is pulled into the twist field of a Twister, it is flung out of local space-time into the farthest reaches of the Universe.

Umans and Coethi are contending for influence and territory in a region of the Milky Way known as the Galactic Halo.

The main-sequence star Sigma-Albeth B, your own sun, is near the center of a key sector of the Halo. It has four planets, one of them this place, a place we call Storm. You call it Seome, I believe. Seome is an ideal site to build and operate our Time Twister to defend this sector, known to us as Halo-Alpha. The sector is above the plane of the galactic Orion Arm, in which most of Uman space is located, including the home solar system.

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 we Umans are in their way.

The Coethi are a distributed intelligence. They are a swarm of nanoscale robotic elements several light years in extent, drifting through space.

The basic element of the Coethi is a nanobot. An autonomous, nanoscale assembler/disassembler of incredible sophistication and complexity.

Nobody knows how the Coethi came to be, not 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 our T2 intelligence experts is 4-5 billion years old.

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 Earth combined. It’s a thinking sentience, whose true environment is interstellar space.

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.

Within this Archive is information indicating that the Coethi originated on an actual homeworld, somewhere in the M75 cluster in Sagittarius. Our intelligence data show that their homeworld was destroyed by a nearby supernova and the surviving elements were dispersed into space in a sort of interstellar diaspora. As humans reckon universe time, this happened at least 4-6 billion years ago, at a time when the Universe was approximately 7 billion years after the Big Bang.

There is no known head or leadership group or body. The main part is something T2

calls the Central Entity.

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.

Part of the Coethi swarm is organized as a vast logic array or processor, capable of quantum computation on a stupendous scale. Effectively, this could be considered the Central Entity. T2 calls it a sort of galactic scale CPU. But the truth is that the Coethi are a true collective entity whose behavior evolves from relatively simple rules applied to a vast congregation. Most sentience and observable behavior emanating from the Coethi is emergent from the complexity and scale of the nanobotic connections.

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. At least not yet.

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.

In order to get their heads around the idea of the Coethi, some descriptors our T2

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.

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.

The Coethi can manipulate quantum states of 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.

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 target star or sun.

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.

When the echopod recording had come to an end, Chase added a few words.

“The Seomish came through the Farpool, what you call a wormhole or gateway, not long ago. They landed near Bermuda. They had to come because their own sun was dying, threatening to go supernova, likely because of Coethi attack….”

Likteek paused in his ceaseless roaming about the pool and poked his head above the water, his beak and forepaddles animated for all to see. The echopods tried to keep up the translation, but the scientist’s whistles and grunts came thick and fast.

Shkreeah…we think…the m’jeete…the Coethi…came with us. Some were… zzzhhh…

embedded…attached to our ships…to our people.”

“This is what the Ponkti may have discovered in the South China Sea,” Chase added. “If this disturbance is the Coethi, then we’ve got a real problem. A big problem.”

You didn’t need an echopod to translate the wave of skepticism flowing about the pavilion.

Nobody wanted to take this seriously.

An American scientist from California was openly dubious. “Time-traveling bugs from space…you’ve got to be kidding.”

But the Chinese delegate was more thoughtful, for he had seen some of the reports from Admiral Hu’s operation against the Ponkti base. “Perhaps we should investigate this phenomenon further. An exploratory mission—”

Chase listened to mutterings from below the water, Likteek and Yaktok denouncing the treachery of the Tailless and was glad the echopods didn’t pick up any of that. Somehow some way, a new alliance between the Seomish and the humans would have to be hammered out. But how? After Keenomsh’pont and the South China Sea and Vladivostok, neither side trusted the other.

How the hell did I get into this? Chase wondered. Whenever the Croc Boys had a fight, usually over girls or somebody’s messed-up idea of lyrics for a new song, the best way to hash out their difficulties had been over a few beers at Croc’s Corner, a little dive on Coral Road just outside Scotland Beach city limits.

Maybe there was a way….

Chase looked down at the interior of the kip’t. The more he thought about it, the more the idea made sense. Who didn’t like exhilarating rides…it was part of every child’s DNA.

Well, these clowns are sure acting like kids…maybe…if I put it the right way….

He waved to get Dr. Satsuyama’s attention; an ominous clamor had settled over the delegates as he did this.

“Sir…sir…can I speak? I’ve got an idea….”

Apo Island

Luzon, the Philippines

August 28, 2115

1245 hours

For Dr. Hector del Compo, the trip up the Yemanha River came at a particularly bad time.

Work was piling up at the Ministry, his eldest daughter was set to be married in less than two weeks, and the Deputy Minister had just rejected his choice to head up the public health lab, the dolt. So when UN BioShield advised the Ministry of some kind of ‘disturbance’ in the vicinity of Apo Island, “unusually high nanobotic activity” was the way the report had phrased it, del Compo gritted his teeth and organized a quick expedition to see what BioShield had detected.

Maybe it would be a distraction from all the politics back at the Ministry. After all, it wasn’t every day you got a message from BioShield that some kind of mass casualties had occurred way upriver in the black heart of la selva, the rain forest that covered the western two thirds of Apo Island.

“Esta aqui?” came a voice from the back of the boat. It was Montoya, sergeant of the Guardia Nacional detail that was accompanying the scientists from the Ministry upriver. “The village is nearby, no?”

Del Compo watched the coffee-colored waters of the Yemanha River slide by. The two-boat fleet had chugged nearly four kilometers upriver from Afalamos, heading for the last known encampment of Xotetli Indians, a place called Apomosa, the locus of the ‘disturbance’ according to BioShield. The sun was high in the sky—it was just after noon locally—but the light had fallen off in the dense canopy of wiry pandanus and tapang trees, now forming a cathedral arch over the sluggish river.

“Just around the bend, Sergeant,” Del Compo called out. “Let’s maneuver closer to shore.”

Montoya waved acknowledgement, then barked, “Watch for logs and shoals! De reche

steer toward the shore!”

The two boats slowed and shifted course, their props thrumming and churning water as the helmsmen turned them to starboard. The prow of the lead boat nosed around the curve of the shoreline, through swarms of buzzing insects and the first crude thatch lean-to’s of the Xotetli village came into view, perched on a shelf of cleared ground. Smoke issued from a smoldering fire in the center of the circle of huts.

Montoya snapped off more orders and the boats were poled to the river banks, their engines turned off. The Guardia detail climbed out and quickly secured a perimeter around the village, nosing briefly into the forest, poking bayonets and mag weapons into the huts, looking for anyone.

One soldier, Corporal Quinones, gave a shout.

“Aqui…aqui! Pronto!...” The corporal waved the others over.

Del Compo scrambled over the makeshift gangway and clawed his way up the bank. The village of Apomosa was little more than a collection of crude thatch huts and log lean-to’s, gathered in a circle around a firepit that was still smoldering.

Even as del Compo and his fellow scientists approached, they could see the legs of prostrate humans, sticking out of the huts.

Texeira bent to examine the nearest body. Quinones shone a flashlight on the face of the Xotetli Indian….it appeared to be a young male, otherwise healthy and uninjured, but indisputably dead. He had died with his eyes open. The young male was covered with painted tattoos and his lips and nose were pierced with tiny bone ornaments.

“What happened?” asked del Compo, noting at least four other males lying nearby.

“I’m not sure, but—“Texeira turned the body over, looking for lividity and other signs of external trauma. “No open wounds…poison, maybe.” They both knew the Xotetli fashioned curare for their darts and arrows from the leaves and stems of chondrodendron vines.

“Gonzalez!” del Compo called back to the boat. “Bring the equipment…we need to do an autopsy.”

Gonzalez waved back, then hoisted up a crate and lugged it on shore, carrying the crate up to the village.

As the scientists set up, Montoya and his detail did a quick reconnaissance of the village and surrounding jungle. He came back after a few minutes, his face grim and pale.

“Profesor…the whole village…they’re all dead—“

“What?’

Montoya unholstered his own pulser and pointed it toward the huts opposite the firepit.

“Come…see for yourself—“

Del Compo went with Montoya around the village, where the rest of the Guardia detail…

Herrera, Uruguin, Fuentes and Goncalves…were systematically probing every hut and bush, turning up bodies by the dozen, slumped, sprawled and folded in every conceivable position.

Del Compo bent to examine an older man, maybe the curaca, or chief. He was adorned with a complex cape of vines and strips of tree bark. His face was hidden behind a mask of feathers—when del Compo peeled the mask back, he saw a middle-aged face staring up at him, eyes open. His lips and cheeks were noticeably blue.

The exam was interrupted by the sound of a heavy thud. Del Compo and Montoya both turned, and saw two of the soldiers had dropped to their knees, and were having trouble breathing…both were heaving deeply, gasping for air.

Del Compo got up and went to Herrera and Uruguin. “What is it? What’s wrong—what is it?”

Uruguin was young, his eyes wide. His hands fluttered about his chest. “I don’t know…I can’t breathe…my lungs…no air…” He gurgled and throttled, then pitched onto his side, his mouth working up and down like a fish out of water.

Del Compo bent down to examine the soldier’s face. It was turning pale, somehow he wasn’t getting enough oxygen. He started to probe around the soldier’s mouth, but stopped, feeling light-headed himself. Startled, he stood up abruptly.

“Texeira—“

The chemist had already uncrated the autopsy-bot and had set it to work on the dead man by the firepit. The bot attached itself to the man’s chest and neck with programmed efficiency and extended forceps and probes as it deftly sliced into the corpse.

“Texeira…the air…it’s bad! There may be an underground leak, toxic gases venting—“

Texeira nodded, quickly reading results from the bot. “Asphyxiation, senor Profesor…I thought so…blue lips and cheeks. The CO2 level’s way too high in his bloodstream...if this thing is right, it reads better than twenty kilopascals.”

Del Compo was now coughing as he came over. Others too…Montoya was already tending to Uruguin, even as two more Guardia soldiers collapsed.

“Hypercapnia…there’s too much carbon dioxide around here,” del Compo croaked.

“That’s…that’s not all,” said Gonzalez from the shoreline. He was struggling with more instruments, taking measurements from the riverbank. He swayed dizzily, then clung to a vine of strangler fig for support. “The air…she’s crazy…look at this! Not just the carbon dioxide is loco…it’s everything. Chlorine…fluorine…methane…this isn’t normal air, profesor! It’s crazy

—“

“Poisoned--” Del Compo breathed out. His own lungs were on fire. “Something’s in the air…we’ve got to get out of here!”

Montoya signaled for the detail to return to the boats. The soldiers stumbled, coughing, clawing at their faces and chests, as they fell down the riverbanks and into the boats.

Del Compo sucked, coughed and wheezed as he helped Gonzalez get his gear back aboard.

Montoya helped his own men and the boats were started up, their engines chugging against the water. Moments later, the craft eased out against the current, heading further upriver. Against Sergeant Montoya’s wishes, del Compo wanted to track the boundaries of this ‘bubble’ of bad air.

“If I’m right,” he wheezed, panting for breath, “it’s some kind of rogue nanobotic action, altering the air right here.”

“Or maybe toxic gases,” suggested Texeira. His face was still pale and beaded with sweat and he sat heavily in the stern, still gasping for breath. “---venting from an underground reservoir.”

The fresh breezes helped and by the time the detail had rounded the next bend, the worst of the toxic air seemed to have fallen behind. Del Compo and Gonzalez studied their instruments, increasingly uneasy at what they were finding.

“A zone of death,” Gonzalez said. “All around Apomosa…maybe that’s what killed the Xotetli.”

Del Compo nodded, studying the low hanging clouds that were scudding over the tree tops.

“A protected tribe…gone. Maybe it was loggers…or ranchers.” There had been incidents before.

“Or worse,” added Texeira, mopping his forehead with a wet handkerchief.

Gonzalez tuned the detectors. “It doesn’t make any sense. Look, profesor…at the riverbank, the air quality is poor…even the basic percentages are all wrong. See—?” he pointed to several displays on the instrument face. “Ozone levels practically at zero, partial pressure of oxygen falling, CO2 rising…”

The small fleet rounded the bend and Montoya shouted aft. Del Compo followed his pointing arm.

On the riverbank, were more Xotetli, apparently dead, draped over fallen tree stumps and sprawled at the foot of trees. Ten or more bodies. Animals too. The decaying carcass of a sloth lay half buried in the muck.

“…but here in the middle of the river…the air improves.” Del Compo saw he was right.

The instruments reflected it…oxygen and nitrogen levels approaching normal, the further they got from the banks.

Del Compo signaled to Montoya. “Pull up to that grotto!” he yelled over the wind noise. A dank cavern of limestone overhung the river ahead of them and to the left, covered with boughs of moss and fallen branches of screw pine. To Gonzalez: “Watch the instruments as we approach.”

The boats eased landward, bouncing through a small hydraulic foaming around a tree stump and nosed toward the cavern. Bats screeched inside, fluttering the air, with the drone of a thousand wings.

Del Compo felt light-headed as they bumped against the limestone outcropping. The instruments didn’t lie…even as he watched, the oxygen levels had begun falling off. Carbon dioxide had already risen well beyond fifteen kilopascals, high enough to impair judgment.

Trace constituents were all wrong, like some kind of pall of pollution had fallen over the grotto…it was crazy.

Ashore, when their eyes had grown accustomed to the gloom of the lighting, animal carcasses by the dozen littered the bare rock sides of the limestone cliffs.

Something was altering the air and, in his imagination, del Compo thought he heard the faint keening whine of nanoscale robots above the screech of the bats. Gonzalez was right…a bubble of noxious, deadly air was swelling up from this grotto and around the village of Apomosa, killing every living thing as it expanded outward.

A gas vent underground, perhaps? It had happened before, and killed thousands in Africa two centuries before. A new strain of virus, mutated or genetically altered to affect air molecules themselves….was that what BioShield had detected?

Or perhaps a baby reservoir of nanobots sown by unscrupulous ranchers and loggers, trying to clear another swath of Apo Island for future production.

The soldiers were already coughing and gagging and del Compo realized with a start that they’d have to vacate the area and come back with the right protective gear…and the Guardia Nacional as well. They didn’t have the equipment to fight this.

“Let’s go back!” del Compo decided, rubbing the temples of his head. He had a fierce headache splitting the back of his head, like needles being driven into his skull. “Downriver…

head back to Afalamos!”

Montoya gave the order gratefully but before the two boats could turn about, the river water began foaming and bubbling between them, sending huge waves washing over the gunwales.

Something thrashed just below the surface and as Corporal Fuentes bent over the rail to investigate, a pair of mottled green arms breached the surface and wrapped themselves around the soldier’s neck.

Instantly, Fuentes was pulled from the boat and into the midst of the foaming water!

“Fuentes! Uruguin!” Montoya stumbled as the creature bumped against the boat, rocking them sideways. The sergeant scrambled across the deck, fumbling for a weapon, a machete, a pulser, anything—

At the same time, more creatures breached the surface, snagging the second boat with their arms—tentacles—trunks…it was hard to see in all the foaming, thrashing water.

“Watch out!” yelled Texeira, as del Compo lost his balance, thudding heavily to the deck.

He slid to the railing, as the boat tilted, just as a third creature reared up in a spray of water, and for a second, the profesor was face to face with the black button eyes of a demon from the depths of Hell itself.

It was taller than a man, but thinner, vaguely human in general shape, with a leathery head bristling with black fuzzy hair. Tiny slit eyes dripped or oozed black silt from the riverbed and below what passed for a neck, five or six arms or appendages flailed against the side of the boat with the ferocity of a crazed beast.

“Demonio!” yelled one of the soldiers. The crack of magpulser fire stitched a line of death across the chest of the demon and it fell back with keening whine, more black oozing from the gaping wound across the bony breastplate of its chest. It sank quickly beneath the water, even as del Compo scrambled to his feet.

All around and between the boats, the demonio had surged to the surface, thrashing and slamming against the two boats, pitching and tossing them as if they were small rafts. Soldiers stumbled and clung to whatever they could find. Fuentes was gone. He’d never surfaced. As del Compo watched, Uruguin took dead aim with a pulser at the face of one, trying to climb aboard the boat from the stern, and sliced a slash of black death across its bony head. It screeched and clawed at the air for a moment, then pitched backward into the river.

“There’s dozens of them!” Herrera yelled.

“We’re outnumbered!” someone else screamed.

Montoya was already ducking into the pilothouse, gunning the engine of his boat, while Gonzalez was nearly pulled from his perch along the starboard rail. Green mottled arms wrapped themselves around his legs and were pulling him inexorably toward the edge.

‘Help! HELP ME!!...”

Del Compo dove for the nearest thing he could find…a fire ax mounted on a bulkhead behind the pilothouse. He scrambled forward and swung with all his strength, striking the green arm with the ax edge.

Black fluid exploded in the air as he severed the arm from Gonzalez’ leg. From the side of the boat, a bony head appeared momentarily, its face scrunched up in pain, as it reached out for something else.

Again, del Compo swung the ax like a halberd and struck the creature on the side of the head, cleaving its skull with a sickening thud. It clawed the air, thrashed wildly, then slipped off the gunwales and slid beneath the water.

“GET US OUT OF HERE!” del Compo yelled at the top of his voice. Headache still pounded his own skull, though the demonio seemed unaffected. Texeira had made it to the pilothouse and was already turning them downriver, even as the engines rumbled to life.

But the water all around them was thick with the creatures.

“There must be hundreds!—“

“We’re surrounded--!”

Pulser fire stitched and ripped the air, as beams crisscrossed the small grotto. Del Compo saw two more demonio clambering aboard their own boat, as Texeira rammed the throttles forward. They clawed their way up onto the stern deck well and began crawling like huge, dripping spiders up the incline of the stairs. Twenty feet away, from the stern of Montoya’s boat, Corporal Quinones saw what was happening.

He took dead aim with his own weapon and let fly a magpulse at point blank range, burning off half the creature’s back and head.

It reared up in pain and lost balance, pitching sideways into the river, where it was promptly struck by the surging bow of the boat.

The second creature scuttled forward a few more feet, but this time del Compo and Gonzalez were ready, with fire ax and fathoming pole. As soon as the creature scuttled within range, they attacked.

Del Compo managed to sever two of its appendages by the time Gonzalez had clubbed the thing into a semi-conscious stupor. It slid back down the stairs and lodged in a seething heap in a corner of the deck well, oozing life. Neither man saw the ragged stumps where its tentacles had been hacked off…starting to regrow, starting to regenerate.

The other boat pulled alongside, with Quinones and Fuentes both taking dead aim at the still moving creature.

“WAIT!” yelled del Compo. “Don’t shoot…!”

“Are you loco, profesor…this thing is the devil itself!”

“Don’t shoot…” del Compo held up his heads. “Maybe we can tranquilize it, immobilize it.

I want to take it back to the city. To my lab.”

The two Guardia soldiers looked at each other, each thinking the same thought. El profesor es loco… They shook their head, partially lowered their weapons.

“At least the air’s getting better, eh?” shouted Texeira from the pilothouse. He dropped the throttle and the boat slowed, with Montoya’s boat slackening off as well.

Soon the small flotilla was chugging downriver at a more managable ten knots. Montoya directed his pilot, Private Uruguin, to bring them alongside. When the boats were only a few feet apart, he leaped to the deck of the scientists’ boat and landed on all fours. He stood up and regarded the wounded demonio shaking and moaning in the deck well. A blurry cloud, like a horde of flies, buzzed around its severed stumps.

“We can’t take that thing back with us…too dangerous,” Montoya decided. He withdrew his own pulser sidearm and dialed it up to maximum, taking aim at its oozing head.

“Don’t shoot it,” del Compo pleaded. “Let’s restrain it, throw some netting over it.

Gonzalez…you have serum in that kit of yours? Maybe we sedate it.”

“They already killed one of my men,” Montoya said. “I can’t take a chance.”

Del Compo jumped down from the catwalk and stood between Montoya and the creature. “I can. My job is to find out what’s happened at Apomosa. And what killed all the Xotetli.

Something’s going on and it triggered BioShield. This…creature…may be part of the answer.”

Montoya was doubtful but he holstered his weapon and glared down at the creature.

“It’s truly demonio, just like Herrera said. “Face of the devil, if you ask me. We should dump it in the river, where it belongs…where it came from.”

The same strange keening whine he had heard before now seemed louder, more insistent to del Compo. Is it my hearing? A burst eardrum? It came from the direction of the creature.

Flies, he realized. Hordes of river flies…or mosquitoes. He didn’t see that both stumps were being steadily re-formed, below the swarm of insects.

“I’m not sure where it came from,” del Compo said.

“It didn’t seem affected by the bad air,” Gonzalez observed. “Not like we were.”

“I don’t know what happened back there, at Apomosa,” admitted del Compo. He found himself a perch and sat down wearily to study the creature. “But this…this thing… it has to be part of the answer…I’m sure of it.”

That’s when he realized the keening buzz he’d been hearing for the last hour wasn’t flies at all.

Solnet Omnivision Video Post

@anika.radovich.solnet worldview

July 30, 2115

1200 hours

SOLNET Special Report

“Dante’s New Inferno?”

Anika Radovich reports from Haikou, Hainan Island, China on breaking news that a new underwater menace has just been discovered in the South China Sea, not far from Hainan Island. She interviews Dr. Li Kejiang, marine biologist from the Guangzhou Institute for Marine Biology….

“Dr. Li, I want to thank you for taking time to be with our viewers today.”

Li, white-haired and somewhat frail, sips steaming hot tea from a cup, smiles enigmatically through a wreath of steam. “My pleasure, Ms. Radovich. I trust our Chinese hospitality has been acceptable for you?”

“Yes, Dr. Li…it’s all been very nice. Dr. Li, I’d like to start with some disturbing reports Solnet has been getting from various sources here in China and the Pacific Rim…reports that some kind of major discovery has been made in the South China Sea…on the seabed.”

Li’s smile fades abruptly. “Yes, I’ve seen these reports. I want to be careful and precise in what I say and the way I describe this.”

“What can you tell our Solnet viewers, Dr. Li?”

“Well, as you and your viewers know, there have been some…shall we say incidents

between elements of the Sea People and forces of the PLA Navy. These incidents stem from the indisputable fact that some factions of the Sea People are attempting to build an illegal base of operations in our southern seas…the Nan Zhongguo Hai, as we say. Our forces have engaged each other…there’s no hiding that.”

“Have there been casualties, Dr. Li? Major destruction? Solnet is receiving reports from the UN, from BioShield and various scientists, that an unusual number of seismic tremors and earthquakes have developed in the region.”

“This is all true,” Li admits. “I can report to you that our PLA Navy and our oceanographic people have detected some unusual structures on the seabed. These are in the vicinity of the Reed Banks…these small reefs and atolls are, of course, Chinese territory, so naturally we are sensitive to any illegal activity in this area.”

“What kind of structures?”

“We’re investigating that now, Ms. Radovich. Our people are also detecting an increased level of thermal and electromagnetic emissions, around this structure. Such emissions are consistent with a localized source, some kind of reservoir, of nanoscale, or at least, very small robotic elements. Nanobots, if you like.”

“Nanobots? Are you sure of this? Solnet is even now investigating reports of increased nanobotic activity in a number of locations around the western Pac Rim.”

Li smiles enigmatically. “Well, it’s well known that we here in China are one of the world’s leading nations when it comes to research and development in nanobot technology.”

“Then this is one of your projects, at the Reed Banks?”

“That is not something I can confirm or deny, at this time. We are still investigating the phenomena.”

“Dr. Li, is this discovery…this structure you talk about and the nanobotic activity nearby…

is this in anyway responsible for the tremors, the climatic upheavals we’re hearing about…

unusual vortexes and waterspouts in the ocean, increased storm activity, zones of toxic air? Just the other day, reports came in from our Manila bureau of poisonous clouds enveloping some islands to the west of the Philippines.”

“Yes, I heard these same reports. We really can’t say, Ms. Radovich, at the moment.” Li knows perfectly well that the PLA Navy is intensively exploring what was happening at Reed Banks and there were all kind of theories…even wild speculation…about the phenomenon. “The best I can offer you is that our people are looking into the phenomenon from many angles and as soon as we have something to report, we’ll let our public authorities put that out.”

“Then there’s no truth to the rumors that your Navy has discovered some kind of time machine, run by aliens, on the sea bed and that you’re cooperating with them to learn how it works?”

Now Li is genuinely amused at the reporter’s words. Western journalists…really…he shakes his head and purses his lips with a grandfatherly cluck of disapproval. “Ms. Radovich, I’m a scientist. I deal in facts. I can confidently report that we have discovered no such thing, nothing quite so dramatic as that. Most likely, we’re either dealing with some kind of natural phenomenon, like the hydrothermal vents when they were first discovered. Or we’re dealing with someone illegally dumping reservoirs of active nanobots in this area, perhaps in an attempt to force China out of her territorial seas and disrupt our fishing operations and oil and gas exploration. That’s what is most likely. Anything else is just speculation and, quite frankly, science fiction.”

“Thank you, Dr. Li, for taking the time to be with us today.”

“My pleasure, Anika.”

Once the interview was over, Li said goodbye to the Solnet reporter and went hurriedly to his own office, overlooking the port of Haikou and the cantilevered span of the Century Bridge, where he poured himself a stiff drink of baijiu and sat down heavily in a chair, sweat beading up on his forehead.

Li supposed the interview had gone about as well as he could expect. He only hoped the Public Security Bureau found nothing in his words to arouse their suspicions.

The truth was that what the PLA Navy and the Guangzhou Institute had uncovered in recent days was surely one of the greatest discoveries ever made in the history of mankind.

And he also knew that the growing level of cooperation between the Chinese and the Ponkti in exploiting this discovery was way too explosive to ever let out.

The White House

Situation Room

Washington, D.C.

August 31, 2115

1030 hours

President LaTonya Kendrick fiddled with the bone hairpiece jingling at the ends of her black braided hair as she listened to the briefing being given by the SecDef. Jim Bergland hated going over the gruesome details of the UWAT assault on the Sea Peoples’ base near Bermuda but it had to be done.

“Total casualties are fourteen, Madame President, with four KIA across both teams. The Barracudas and the Tigersharks were basically shredded as effective forces. The Sea People had weapons and tactics we didn’t expect…” here, Bergland looked disgustedly over at General Kent Hartledge, the Director of National Intelligence, “—there seems to have been some gaps in our intelligence.’

Hartledge wasn’t one to take criticism of “my guys” lying down. “Just to be clear, Madame President, the Seomish are what we call a hard target. The environment alone makes capturing signals and surveillance extremely difficult. The targets have some kind of bubble screen that scrambles our sonar. Most other signals intelligence channels are useless in water. Frankly, they know a hell of a lot more about what happens to sound in water than we do.”

Kendrick stopped fiddling with her hair and sat up abruptly in her chair. Her elbows dropped firmly on the top of the Resolute desk in the Oval Office. Her brown eyes bore into Bergland and Hartledge.

“Gentlemen, I don’t like this at all. Not at all. You’re telling me we can’t even secure Site M-1, with all our weapons and technology…that we’re being defeated by a race of talking fish, or whatever the hell they are? This is just unacceptable. The news is full of stories about how the Russians and especially the Chinese are working out deals of their own with these animals. I can’t accept this at all. What are our options now?”

Bergland sniffed. “Limited, Madame President. We could try another op against their base.

Of course, as the General will admit, the chances of being successful, of ‘bending’ them to our will as it were, seemed to have diminished. The Sea People seem to be effectively spreading their influence around the world’s oceans. I’ve seen the same stories as you…we’re not sure what the Chinese may have found or what they discussing with the Sea People.”

Hartledge consulted a slate, filled with up-to-the minute intel from satellites, drones, nanobotic swarms masquerading as flies, human spies and a variety of other sources. “The data we have on the Chinese, Madame President, support no conclusions as yet. We have signals intel from sources in and over the South China Sea, as well as sonar data from submarines in the area, that the Chinese, possibly allied with one faction of the Seomish, may have developed some unknown and very powerful ways of modifying the environment.”

Kendrick turned to the third person sitting before her in the Oval Office. Dr. Sheila Westerlund had been head of NOAA for only a year but it had been an eventful one, especially the last month. At this exact moment, she wished she were pretty much anywhere but here… I took one hell of a big pay cut to leave CU Boulder and the Lab to come to work in this meatgrinder, but she didn’t say that.

“You must have something on this, Dr. Westerlund.” It wasn’t a question.

Westerlund cleared her throat. “I do, Madame President. NOAA has been monitoring the reports and satellite data on several zones of—” how could she say this?—“—unusual environmental disturbances, especially in the southeast Asia area and the western Pacific.

Growing zones of toxic air in the Philippines, rapidly spreading deforestation in the Central Highlands of Vietnam, seismic reports on the growing frequency and magnitude of earthquakes, evidence of shifting tectonic masses below ground.”

Kendrick was thoughtful. “Solnet is reporting there are continuing high-level alerts at UN

Bioshield, something about excessive nanobotic activity…what the hell is that all about?”

Westerlund nodded. “The alerts indicated nanobotic activity over and above the lawful amount was occurring in northwest Philippines, some—“ here Westerlund checked her notes—“

fifty miles upriver from the district capital on Apo Island. BioShield contacted the Philippine Ministry of Public Health and the Interior Ministry. Some native tribes suffered extensive casualties, to this moment, unexplained. In fact, I have some vid of a news conference the inspectors had with BioShield…right here—” she ported the files from her slate to everyone else in the Oval Office. Soon they were all studying their slates as the vidfile loaded and launched.

The first image was of Dr. Hector del Compo.

Del Compo was a compact, dark-haired man, with steel-rim glasses. He consulted some notes off-screen.

“The results of our inspection were surprising,” del Compo noted. “I’m sending the compiled data now.” A new squirt off the satellite refreshed all screens and several plots and graphs materialized into view.

“BioShield data showed the center of this perturbation was in the vicinity of a small Indian village called Via Verde. The territory is along the Yemanha River in upper highlands of Apo Island. This territory is home to a small tribe called Xotetli…or, I should say, was. The Xotetli

were a protected tribe, basically Bronze Age forest-dwellers which the Filipino government was trying to protect from ranchers and loggers.”

A BioShield inspector named Kraft cut in gruffly. “Doctor, BioShield has a mandate to search for airborne nanobotic mechanisms and that’s all. We don’t want another pandemic like Serengeti scourging the world. If BioShield was tripped, some kind of nanoscale mechanism was in play, replicating in the area.”

“I thought the same,” del Compo admitted. “When we arrived at the site, our investigators noticed right away a sort of aires viciado, a kind of bubble or zone of toxic air had developed. In and around Via Verde, the Xotetli tribe had all died, of asphyxiation. Scores of them. We did auto-autopsy on several and discovered the symptoms you see on your screens…hypercapnia, blue lips and cheeks, excessive concentrations of CO2 and other toxic gases in their blood and lungs.”

“Excuse me, Doctor…” Another BioShield rep spoke up. “You said the entire tribe had died?”

“We found no survivors. The air in and around the village and along the riverbanks for several kilometers up and downstream was composed of gases in the concentrations I have displayed here…as you can see, toxic levels of fluorine and chlorine, carbon dioxide and reduced levels of oxygen and nitrogen.”

“This doesn’t make any sense,” Kraft studied the data. “Normal air is seventy-eight percent nitrogen and twenty-one percent oxygen. This is all cock-eyed…are you sure your instruments are calibrated, Doctor?”

“Perfectly,” del Compo said. “The air even affected me and my inspectors. We had to vacate the area…it was too dangerous for us there. No, the data are real, gentlemen. There is a bubble or zone of toxic air over Apo Island and the surrounding jungle and it’s expanding outward. We’re not sure where the source is, though some evidence suggests it’s in or around a grotto of caves further upriver, a place called Sepulveda. We tried to go there but we couldn’t

—“

Kraft raised a bushy eyebrow. “You suspect what, exactly, Doctor…an illegal nanobotic reservoir?”

“Possibly, General. Whatever it is, it’s changing the air in that whole area, and every living thing, Xotetli Indians, jungle life, everything, is being affected. Mass casualties are piling up along the riverbanks. Several villages downstream have already reported floating corpses in the water.”

Kraft checked with someone behind him and returned to the screen. “UNIFORCE confirms that atmospheric perturbations were detected in the area you’re talking about, Doctor. Satellite and aerial ‘bot inspection have characterized the phenomena as a ‘toxic cloud’ spreading outward from Apo, altering the composition of the atmosphere, breaking down ozone and other molecules. “So far, it’s said to be a relatively small-scale event, but whatever it is, it’s resistant to nanobotic intervention to this point. BioShield has deployed enforcement nano into the area with no effect…”

Westerlund ended the vid. “Madame President, we’re not sure, and neither is BioShield, about what we’re dealing with here.”

“Is it possibly related to what the Chinese and the Sea People are doing?” Kendrick asked.

“I can answer that,” interjected Hartledge, consulting his own slate for notes. “We know from our sources that the Chinese, possibly with the help of this one faction of Sea People, have discovered something on the seabed of the South China Sea, some kind of structure. The exact

details of what has been discovered aren’t fully known, but it seems to be some kind of reservoir of nanobotic devices…we don’t know if it’s something the Sea People developed, or the Chinese developed, or maybe it’s indigenous…we just don’t know yet. But there are people in BioShield who are telling me that this nanobotic reservoir is expanding—rapidly—and that it’s responsible for the environmental and climatic changes we’re seeing in the area.”

This made Kendrick’s eyes blink a few times. “Really, General? Dr. Westerlund, do you agree with this analysis?”

Westerlund was first and foremost a scientist. She liked to deal in facts and evidence. “It can’t be ruled out, Madame President. It is true that we’ve seen a so-far-unexplainable increase in seismic activity, atmospheric disturbance and similar effects.”

“What about all those waterspouts ships have been reporting…some kind of meteorological phenomenon?” asked Bergland.

Westerlund shrugged. She realized such a gesture wasn’t very scientific, but it couldn’t be helped.

“Possibly, we just don’t have enough data yet.”

Kendrick sighed. Scientists…and their data. “I can’t wait for all the data to come in. You scientists will analyze this to death. I have some decisions to make here.”

Bergland spoke up. “Madame President, if I may, we may not have all the data in, but it seems to me that there’s something going on between the Sea Peoples and the Chinese. We need to know what that is and what threat does it pose to our interests. If the Chinese have some new technology they’ve gotten from the Sea Peoples and they can now modify the environment at will—” Bergland sat back, pleased at his own analysis—” I don’t have to tell all of us here what that could mean. The possibilities for mischief, for extortion, are endless, even mind-boggling.”

Kendrick folded her arms and sat back in her chair, crossing her statuesque black legs as if to emphasize her decisiveness. “Agreed. Options, gentlemen?”

Bergland raised his hands, a six-year old trying to get the teacher’s attention. “I have one, Madame President.”

Kendrick tried to hide a condescending smirk at the SecDef’s antics. “Go ahead, Mr.

Secretary.”

“I propose a joint Russian-American special operation. Call if Operation Vector Eye. I even have the details right here—” he held up his slate. “We join forces with the Russian Navy…the Morskoi Flot—to send a small force to the South China Sea and investigate these strange goings-on. On-scene ground truth is bound to be better than all of General Hartledge’s signals analysis and whiz-bang technology.”

“If the Russians will play ball,” Hartledge said caustically.

Kendrick knew she needed to be decisive in this matter, especially in front of these testosterone bags. “Okay, I like it. Approved. Get with State on how to present this proposal.”

Hartledge wasn’t going to be outdone by some twerp at Defense. “Madame President, there is something else we could do.”

Kendrick had visions of her poll numbers going south in a hurry if she didn’t handle the ‘Sea People Crisis’ right. “And what is that?”

“We’ve used this civilian, the girl Angie Gilliam, before as a sort of spy-covert operator, inside the Sea Peoples’ base. She’s tight with this Chase Meyer character. I propose we basically suborn Ms. Gilliam to go inside the Bermuda base as a human spy…since, as the Secretary so eloquently points out, ground truth is always preferable—and act as a source for us from there. Call it Operation Pearlstone, if you like.”

Kendrick sniffed. “The Attorney General said that what we did with Ms. Gilliam before was barely legal and now you want to do this? What’s the justification?”

“National security.”

Kendrick looked doubtful but acceded to the request. “Okay, I’ll approve it if the A-G

approves it. Operation Pearlstone…where’d you come up with that?”

Hartledge smiled faintly. “When you cause just enough irritation in a clam, you can get something beautiful and lasting as a result.”

Kendrick stifled a chuckle. “If you say so, General. Operation Pearlstone it is.”

Three hours later and nine hundred miles to the south, FBI agents Donovan and Olens knocked loudly on the door to Unit B-6 at the Coconut Cabana Apartments in Gainesville, Florida. After a moment’s discussion through the door, Angie Gilliam opened up and beheld two federal badges in her face.

She took a deep breath and wished to God she were anywhere but here. “Let me get a few things, please—"

Hainan Island

The South China Sea

August 2, 2115

The Chinese quickly learned, through their own sources, what the American and the Russians were planning. One of their sources was none other than Ponkti tuk master Loptoheen tu kel: Ponk’et himself, who had come to the PLA Navy base at Longpo to work out details of their budding alliance.

By signaler arrangement, the Ponkti delegation had come to Longpo to meet with Chinese officials and discuss possible arrangements between them. Loptoheen piloted a single kip’t into the underground submarine pens and parked the ship in an occupied slip. He had two passengers: one was a Ponkti engineer-scientist named Yakto.

The other passenger was the Metah herself, Lektereenah kim. The Metah had come to make sure that any arrangements benefited the Ponkti profitably and to finally meet “these strange Tailless creatures.”

A movable lift platform had been built into the side of the pier and it was onto this lift that Loptoheen settled the kip’t. The lift could be raised or lowered into and out of the water. After previous meetings, it had been Admiral Hu Zhejiang’s idea to create such a platform for meetings. “The Seomish are marine creatures,” he had argued. “They prefer to be around water.

It’s not easy for them to get around in their suits.” The platform would enable the Ponkti to be partially submerged and so even in full mobilitors, most of their weight would be offset by the suits’ buoyancy.

Hu was certain the Ponkti would appreciate the arrangements. That alone might make them more amenable to Chinese overtures. Hu was keenly interested in everything he could learn about the nanoscopic creatures infesting the seabed around the Reed Banks, creatures that were at least in part autonomous robotic agents able to swarm and assemble molecular structures at high-speed, creatures that had already begun to assemble odd conical devices on the seabed, creatures that had already filtered away from their reservoir, emerged from the sea and affected the ocean and climates in nearby lands.

Accompanying Admiral Hu were numerous others, among them Dr. Li Kejiang of the Guangzhou Institute and Dr. Chu Zuwon from the Academy of Sciences in Beijing.

Hu watched in rapt fascination as the kip’t canopy slid back and three Ponkti emerged, clad in full mobilitors. They stepped awkwardly out of the kip’t and two of them ducked immediately under the water, taking a few experimental laps around the perimeter of the platform. Loptoheen spoke first, his words translated and amplified by echopods.

Skreeah….we appreciate this---” he indicated the mobile lift platform. “Affectionate Metah, Lektereenah kim kel: Ponk’et, greets you. She must move about for… zzzhhh…some time…to adjust to our suits---”

Admiral Hu introduced his people, wishing especially that Loptoheen would come to know the scientists there. Both Dr. Li and Dr. Chu bowed deeply, clinging over the pier railing to study Loptoheen as if he were a lab specimen.

Lektereenah emerged from her little jaunt. The echopod now blared a different voice.

Kah…I hate these suits…you come into water talk we--?”

Hu smiled apologetically. “Sorry, Madame…your Majesty.” How did you address someone of high rank among these creatures? “Neither of my scientists can swim well. Is there anything else we can do to make you more comfortable?”

Lektereenah swore, but the echopod only translated static and buzz. “Make… zzzhhh

agreement…alliance with Ponkti…we say kel’tet in our speak….”

Hu agreed. He pulled out a small slate, examined the text. “I have done as your Loptoheen requested and recorded by voice our conditions and proposals. You wish to examine now?”

Lektereenah indicated yes and the Admiral handed Loptoheen the separate echopod he had been given, hopefully filled with voices explaining the nature of the proposed alliance, as the Chinese saw it.

Then Hu was momentarily startled with the three Ponkti immediately ducked under the water, with the proposal pod and started roaming about the submarine pen. The Admiral swallowed his security concerns—there was a new Chengdu-class fast attack boat two slips away, with experimental sonar resistant coatings that he knew were highly classified, but Hu said and did nothing, aware that the Sea People could examine these things any time they wanted and probably knew more about sound and sonar than any human on Earth anyway.

The Ponkti scooted and roamed about the pen for a few minutes, playing and listening to the recorded and translated voices of the Chinese on the echopod. Lektereenah made a counter offer and the details were recorded on the same pod.

Presently, all three Ponkti surfaced. Loptoheen handed the pod back.

Skreeah…some changes made we…you listen--?”

Hu took the pod, shook the water off, and said, “We’ll study it.”

The Chinese retired to a small room off the pier…it had been the machine shop but had been renovated and outfitted as a sort of command post for meetings with their new allies. After ten minutes, the Chinese made small changes, gave the pod back to Loptoheen and the Ponkti roamed and discussed and in this way, final arrangements of what Lektereenah had called kel’tet were worked out.

Lektereenah emerged from the water and stood close to the railing. She gave the pod back to Admiral Hu and their hands touched briefly, lingering in the touch, while Hu and the Metah stared across at each other…Chinese and Ponkti, Tailless and Seomish, eyeing each other across a gap of thousands of light-years and generations of time, both dimly aware of the manifold choices and paths Evolution sometimes took.

Lektereenah’s voice issued from her echopod, full of clicks and whistles, squeaks and grunts.

“We understand… zzzhhh…not Tailless ways. Ponkti pulse to know… ke’shoo and ke’lee is our way…we sound and listen….”

When Hu looked puzzled, Dr. Li intervened. “Admiral, I’ve studied their culture, what we know of it. The Institute has contacts at UNISEA, and also at Woods Hole and Scripps.”

Hu blinked, smelling the decaying odor of fish on the Metah’s breath. For a few moments, the Admiral and the Metah eyed each other, like boxers trying to stare down an opponent, though the Ponkti ruler whistled and clicked the whole time.

I could have much guanxi in the Party if this works out, Hu told himself. His eyes watered in the stench and smell. A clear path to the Central Committee, maybe even the Central Military Commission.

“What do your contacts tell you?” Hu asked.

“The Sea People are creatures of sound. Their eyes aren’t so good.”

Hu snorted. “It seems as if she was measuring me for a casket, with her eyes.”

“No, no, all those clicks and whistles…she’s trying to read you by sound. Only sound works differently in air. That’s probably why she seems a little puzzled.”

Hu shrugged. “Do these echopod gadgets really work? Do they understand us?”

Li said, “We feel that they do, at least at some level. As to ke’shoo and ke’lee…well, we have theories, but most of us feel the Sea People engage in physical contact a lot, much more than we do. Perhaps it has to do with that.”

Hu continued glaring at Lektereenah, who wobbled a bit in her mobilitor and began easing herself back down into the water. “Well, I’m not going to pet her on the head, if that’s what you’re suggesting. In fact, I want to ask some questions.”

“I would suggest just asking directly. The taller one—” by this, Dr. Li indicated Loptoheen

—”seems to understand us better.”

Hu straightened up at the railing and turned to face Loptoheen. “Very well. I want to know more about these creatures they’ve discovered near Reed Banks, and those structures they’re building.”

Loptoheen seemed to understand. Now, only the Ponkti tuk master stood above the water.

Lektereenah and Yakto were fully submerged, taking off on short jaunts around the submarine pens from time to time.

Shhkreeah…we call them m’jeete. Though they machines are, they remind us mah’jeet…

the small organisms that poison our waters.”

Hu asked, ”Where do these… m’jeete…come from? Did you bring them here…to our territorial waters?”

Loptoheen disappeared below the water for a moment, consulted with Yakto, who produced another echopod. Loptoheen surfaced, handed the device to Hu.

“Explains for you… m’jeete come from far seas—”

Hu took the pod and activated it, as Loptoheen had shown him. Voices tumbled out, barely discernible, now translated into Mandarin Chinese, a decent enough translation, the Admiral thought. Dr. Li and Dr. Chu gathered closer to listen….

“First off, the Coethi are thought to be a race of sentient semi-robotic aliens whose main weapon against our forces is something we Umans called a starball. It is directed against the sun or star of a targeted Uman planetary system. The only known defense is

our Time Twister. When a starball enters or is pulled into the twist field of a Twister, it is flung out of local space-time into the farthest reaches of the Universe.

Umans and Coethi are contending for influence and territory in a region of the Milky Way known as the Galactic Halo….”

The three Chinese listened with rapt attention to the echopod that Tulcheah had surreptitiously made of Chase’s own recording. She had given it to Lektereenah before the Metah had departed Keenomsh’pont. Tulcheah had always found it laughably easy to distract Chase…he had learned well the Seomish ideas of love and life, especially the love part.

Hu’s eyes widened. “These creatures came from another world, from another part of our galaxy…is that what I’m hearing here?”

Li agreed. “It seems to be, Admiral. The Sea People think the m’jeete…the Coethi…came through the gateway when they all emigrated here from their home world. Imagine that…a race of sentient nanobots…a swarm light-years across.”

“And the device…it manipulates time…did we hear that correctly?” asked Dr. Chu. She brushed back some bangs from her forehead. “Maybe it’s the translation—”

Loptoheen understood some of what they were saying. “Shhkeeeah…truth believe we…the m’jeete roam as we do…through the megamah, through time.”

Dr. Li slammed a fist on the railing. “Just imagine it, Admiral! Listen to what they’re saying… that device they’re building on the seabed could be a time machine. Time manipulator… shijian caoxong qi…a time travel device. Such a thing should be theoretically impossible…but Hawking and others have…I can’t believe it.” Li bubbled like a child at New Year’s.

“We have to learn more about this,” added Chu, more soberly. “For science, for the Academy—”

“For the Party…and for China,” said Hu, carefully. “This must be kept close, for now.

Only a few should know. If this recording is right, the Sea People, at least some of them, know a lot about these little robots. Perhaps we can learn much.”

Loptoheen squeaked loudly, excitedly. “Shkreeah…Omtorish work with other Tailless, use m’jeete to dominate all.”

Hu seemed puzzled, but after a few more exchanges with Loptoheen and Lektereenah, nodded. “He’s saying there are other Sea Peoples, other factions, that want to use these creatures and their machine to control all Sea Peoples. We can do the same…don’t you see? With this technology and what we can learn from the Sea People, and these tiny robots, China would be first among all nations. Think of the possibilities: time travel to other places and times….”

Dr. Li was still skeptical. “Such should not be possible…we’re talking shiguang jiqi…time traveling ships? Preposterous.” He shook his head firmly, looked at Chu, who was less skeptical and openly curious. “This isn’t within the bounds of known physics, is it, Dr. Chu? I’m just a marine biologist.”

Chu shrugged. “We speak of many universes, multi-verses, membranes of spacetime…who knows what’s possible? Look at what these tiny robots are already doing to the local climates and seas.”

Hu was enamored of fantastic possibilities, and great power in the storied halls of Beijing.

He could easily envision his own career trajectory accelerating like a rocket, all the way to the

top. “If this is true, we could travel back to Ming-dynasty China, reverse centuries of stagnation and humiliation, send Admiral Zheng He on even more expeditions, even meet the Great Seafarer himself.”

Li was still dubious. “Perhaps we should temper our fantasies a bit. Learn more about this race of tiny robots. These people seem to want to cooperate…the research possibilities are endless.”

The Ponkti and the Chinese continued to talk, as well as they could and additional ideas were discussed and debated. In the end, it was agreed that Loptoheen would help the Chinese setup a continuing series of expeditions to the main seabed reservoir of the m’jeete, to study the robots and their time machine, if it was such a thing. For their part, the Chinese would help the Ponkti complete their new settlement at Ponkel’te and offer no more resistance to the existence of the Ponkti in their Nan Zhongguo hai…the South China Sea. Indeed the Chinese would furnish proper building materials and tools for the Ponkti to make their new home and would provide military escort and protection when Lektereenah decided the day of the great move would come.

Admiral Hu managed to produce some rice wine from a nearby commissary and offered a toast.

“To our new friends...a long and prosperous and mutually beneficial relationship, cordial relations and lasting amity between our peoples. Ponkti and Chinese both know what it means to be lap dogs to other peoples. But the humiliations have ended and together, we will be stronger than all of our enemies combined.”

Loptoheen and Lektereenah listened intently to the translation of the Chinese words, and wondered what it all meant. They said good-byes and re-entered the kip’t, which Loptoheen expertly lifted away from the platform and piloted gingerly down the submerged tunnel into the open waters of Longpo Bay.

When they had found deep waters and were on course for Ponkel’te, Lektereenah spoke quietly.

“I don’t trust any Tailless, Loptoheen. Not for a moment. You can’t pulse them…they’re opaque to us.”

“Mutual self-interest…that’s the best foundation for an alliance, for any kel’tet,” Loptoheen said. ”In tuk, you can’t strike a winning blow unless you are balanced, aligned, in flow with the currents. What I fear, Affectionate Metah, is that the Tailless are not our real enemy. The m’jeete…that is our adversary. Even the Tailless of our time, the Umans Chase called them, feared the m’jeete. I hope we have not unleashed another great wave upon ourselves…ak’loosh comes when Shooki decides.”

Lektereenah spat. “Kah, Loptoheen you’re an old, superstitious man. Shooki is for frightening the midlings and the children and the gullible. We make our own waves. It is as the Tailless commander said: a chance to be stronger than the Omtorish, strongest among all kels. A chance to rule the seas here as we never could on Seome. If it takes a great wave to bring this about, then so be it.”

UNIFORCE Headquarters

The Quartier General, Montparnasse

Paris

September 5, 2115

0800 hours

General Wolfus Linx had been UNSAC—United Nations Security Affairs Commissioner—

for nearly two years now and in that time, he had faced down many threats across the multiple theaters and conflict zones of the world, but never in that time had he encountered anything quite like this.

Linx was a short, heavy-set man with piercing blue eyes and a shiny bald head. His moustache looked like something that had escaped from the Black Forest. He had the rigid bearing and countenance of a Prussian field marshal, which a distant ancestor had once been.

Now, however, he could only bring a weary scowl to the news he had been presented and the decisions he was about to make. Linx’s office was on the sixtieth floor of the Quartier General. If not for the hordes of jetcabs flitting by the picture windows outside, the UNIFORCE

Director could have enjoyed a spectacular view of the Eiffel Tower. As it was, his office was filled with all manner of ghosts, wraiths and avatars drifting about, waiting for the meeting to begin.

Linx checked the time. “The purpose of this meeting,” he intoned, “is to ascertain what is going on in the southwest Pacific and determine whether UNIFORCE intervention is warranted.

Are we all here now?”

A chorus of ayes and yes’s came back. Hovering nearest to Linx’s desk was the avatar of Rene Camois, director of the UN’s BioShield program. Opposite the desk, in one corner of the spacious suite, a small throng of avatars chatted among themselves…the UNISEA Sea Council.

Dr. Satsuyama spoke for them.

“We’re ready, General.”

Pipe and cigar smokers all, Linx noted sourly. One of the few advantages of using avatars.

“Very well. Mr. Camois, give us the raw data.”

Disembodied data blocks drifted about the room, winking on and off as the BioShield director highlighted them.

“You all know about the disturbances in the South China Sea in recent weeks. Bioshield has determined that a large and growing reservoir or source of illegal nanobotic activity has developed at these coordinates—” he highlighted with floating arrows a small map of the area,

“—off the Reed Banks. The source of the disturbance is not presently known…what you’re looking at is real-time signals, sonar and video surveillance of the disturbance zone. What is not in question is that the size, spread, concentration and operation of such a large formation of nanoscale robotic elements is in violation of UN resolution 885 and pertinent containment laws and regulations.”

“It’s the Sea People,” said one of the Sea Council delegates. “Has to be…we know they’re building a base in that area.”

“Which violates our territorial waters,” added Cao Zhilin, the Chinese delegate to the Sea Council. Cao was a thin woman with severe black hair, cut way too short for Linx’s taste. She chain-smoked nervously, aware that the Foreign Ministry in Beijing had charged her with diverting any UNIFORCE operations from the Nan Zhongguo hai at all costs.

Satsuyama was at pains to keep the Sea Council focused on the matter at hand. “Dr.

Camois, what about environmental disturbances in the area. We’ve all seen the news about climate irregularities.”

“Indeed,” said Camois, “Atmospheric disturbances have been detected by BioShield drone and satellite sensors from Bangladesh all the way to the Philippines. There seems to be a zone of toxic air, with concomitant loss of marine and land wildlife, centered on the Reed Banks and

spreading outward in a roughly concentric advance from that point. The rate of advance of this disturbance is itself quite disturbing…on the order of tens of kilometers every day. It’s BioShield’s determination that these climatic variations---substantial increases in CO2 levels, alterations in chemical makeup of the air, species die-offs in unprecedented numbers in the Central Highlands of Vietnam and along the Mekong River and its tributaries—these variations are a direct result of the increased nanobotic activity levels. We’ve asked UNIFORCE to examine our data and to send enforcement teams into the region to confront this source and stop it.”

Satsuyama had a question. “Assuming the source of these disturbances is the nanobotic eruption at Reed Banks…I think the data are inconclusive on this, but assuming for the sake of argument, General, what would UNIFORCE do next?”

Linx fiddled with his moustache. “Normal procedure is to form a Detachment Alpha from units of Quantum Corps. We would then ingress into the area and perform tactical recon of the engagement zone. If what Dr. Camois says is true, our ANAD units would engage the source with counter-nano and all necessary measures to control and contain the offenders. We have more than enough force to do this…High-Freq radio weapons, magpulsers, beam weapons, every Alpha Detachment brings a pretty decisive arsenal to the table. I’m confident we can stop this source with what we have.”

Cao, the Chinese delegate, spoke up. Her avatar floated over to Linx’s desk. “China is opposed to UNIFORCE intervention, at least at the Reed Banks. The Nan Zhongguo hai is sovereign territory of the People’s Republic. We strenuously oppose any interference from outside forces in our waters.”

The Russian Sea Council delegate, a white-haired diplomat named Kerensky, snorted.

“Perhaps it’s China that is the source of all this nonsense, eh? With their uncontrolled experiments in molecular high-speed nano? Military-grade nano is forbidden…we have containment laws and regulations to stop this nonsense. What is it my Chinese friends are hiding?”

Cao flushed. “My country has an inherent right to self---”

Linx cut them off. “That’s enough, you two. My office is not a kindergarten playground.

Dr. Camois, anything else?”

Camois’ avatar checked with someone behind him and then returned to face the others.

“BioShield confirms that atmospheric perturbations have been detected throughout the area we’re talking about, General. Satellite and aerial ‘bot inspection have characterized the phenomena as a ‘toxic cloud’ spreading outward from Reed Banks and Apo Island in the western Philippines, altering the composition of the atmosphere, breaking down ozone and other molecules. “So far, it’s said to be a relatively small-scale event, but whatever it is, it’s resistant to nanobotic intervention to this point. BioShield has deployed enforcement nano into the area with no effect. Frankly, we need UNIFORCE’s bigger guns.”

“Director,” asked Satsuyama, “are we dealing with a natural outbreak or some kind of rogue

‘bots somebody let loose?”

“That’s unknown at this time, Dr. Satsuyama. Perhaps, my deputy Emmanuel Neckar, has something to add.”

Camois’ assistant was a precise, almost effeminate bureaucrat. “UN BioShield has been receiving reports for several days now, actually reports, data, even imagery from multiple locations around the world. We’re getting reports of similar atmospheric disturbances, in places like Tibet, the south Pacific, the Antarctic, the Congo basin in central Africa.”

“What kind of disturbances?” Linx asked.

“Similar to what’s being reported here,” Camois consulted some background material, squirted it off the satellite to Paris. The master display showed a map of the world, with the areas mentioned highlighted. “Constituent gas concentrations all mixed up, oxygen and ozone levels dropping, carbon dioxide levels rising, pressure fluctuations…BioShield is reporting nanobotic activity in or near all spots, so we think that’s the cause. Who or what’s behind it—“

Camois looked up and shrugged, visibly frustrated even as an avatar. “The Director General’s meeting with the Secretary-General this evening, 1900 hours our time.”

Linx studied the displays, trying to make sense of it all. “There’s no obvious pattern. What makes all these places so special?”

“Unknown, General,” said Camois. “We running routines now to try and match a pattern, possibly predict any further outbreaks. So far, the public’s unaware of the disturbances, except in the affected areas…the media haven’t sniffed this one out yet, at least not in detail. There have been speculative reports on Solnet, so they know something’s up. But the problem seems to be growing.”

“It must be the Sea People,” Kerensky suggested, hoping someone had evidence to the prove the point he couldn’t make.

“A distinct possibility,” Camois agreed. “General, we need to raise the alert level here. The Commissioner will undoubtedly make the same request formally.”

Linx was reluctant to admit there was something that UNIFORCE couldn’t handle, especially when a mandated mission like atmospheric patrol was involved, but he agreed.

“It would be best,” he admitted. “I’m thinking we may need to go beyond BioShield and send in a special ops team…one of my ANAD units. I’m not sure BioShield can handle this.”

Camois took that grimly. “Very well. I’ll recommend to the Director General that we go to UNICON Plus. General, with your permission, I’d like to play a vid segment we recorded from investigations made by the Philippine Ministry of Health a few days ago. One of their inspectors, a Doctor Del Compo, took a team to Apo Island and nearly died when they encountered these effects. He’s online now.”

Linx nodded grimly. “Proceed, Dr. Camois.”

The air was soon filled with a slightly grainy vid file, seemingly materializing out of nowhere, like a bad dream.

An animated image of Hector Del Compo came into focus, pixellating slightly around the edges, saying, “--The Ministry’s team encountered more than just atmospheric perturbations, gentlemen. We also ran into some kind of strange organism…the men have taken to calling them demonio…in the river near Via Verde.”

“What kind of organism?” Linx asked.

Del Compo was physically located in a conference studio at the Ministry’s headquarters in Afalamos, the capital of Mondoro province. He turned from the screen a moment, then fed a separate embedded video stream into the data feed. Moments later, all screens were refreshed with new imagery, this time of one of the riverine creatures the expedition had captured.

A ripple of anxiety washed through Linx’s office as the imagery became clearer. Avatars moved away uneasily from the fluctuating boundaries of the vid.

“It’s vaguely humanoid,” del Compo narrated over the imagery. “It has radically modified lungs, and as you can see, extra appendages. We’ve scanned all of its internal structure as well, in some detail.” Ghostly images appeared, outlining the results of the scans. “There are the lungs, all four of them. Something that we’re calling a heart, or circulatory pump, and there are

other organs we haven’t puzzled out yet. Interestingly, it has no brain or central cognitive-processing center that we can detect.”

“Demonio…” Linx mulled over the word. “Little devil. And no brain…what the hell is it?

An animal of some type?”

Del Compo chose his words carefully. “I want to be precise in what I am saying here: the demonio is not an organism in the conventional sense. In the sense, General, that you and I are organisms. Properly speaking, it is a colony.”

“A colony--?”

“A colony of endosymbiotic structures, somewhat similar in appearance, external structure and apparent function to our ANAD mechanisms.”

Linx’s mouth dropped open. “ANAD? You mean—“

Del Compo nodded. “A very advanced colony of apparently designed and programmable mechanisms, small as a virus, but with extraordinary capability—here, I’ll show you what I mean.” The doctor directed someone off screen with a flurry of Spanish. “I’ve got imagery…

this is a Quark Flux image of one of the devices here.”

The image flickered and a separate, somewhat grainy image of a polyhedral structure filled the view. The structure was festooned with grapplers, hooks, extended chains of polypeptides, bristling with molecular tools.

“I’ll be damned,” Linx muttered. “What on God’s green earth are these doodads?” He squinted at the image, measuring a fuzzy protuberance on the 3-d image using his fingers as a caliper.

“Off hand, I’d say something like a fullerene hook,” Camois said. “Perhaps the same as your ANAD, only it seems to have a lot more complicated set of radicals at every end. How does it stay like that?”

“We don’t know,” del Compo admitted. “I had the same question. Bond energies should make this structure fly apart, but it doesn’t.”

“We’re looking at some very advanced nanoscale engineering here,” Linx said.

“The Sea People?” thought Camois. “Do they have technology like this?”

“Possibly, but this…this is so far beyond what we’ve ever seen of their culture so far,” said Satsuyama. “It’s hard to believe the Sea People would or even could, do this. My interactions with them have convinced me that they’re reasonably peaceful people… in fact, they want us to leave them alone.”

“General, these bots are organized and held together somehow in a colony that vaguely resembles something humanoid. These demonio, as we call them, are nothing more than a collection of autonomous nanoscale assemblers, ANADs, if you will. And here’s what’s really strange: all the internal structures you see in the internal scan are perfectly designed, if I can use that word, to adapt this creature to living inside these zones of altered atmosphere.”

Del Compo’s words hung in the air for a few moments, until the full import of what he had said sunk in.

“Is this a new species?” Camois asked. “Some branch off the human evolutionary line? Or some kind of experiment by the Sea People?”

“Or are we being invaded…maybe colonized ourselves?” Kerensky said.

Del Compo shook his head. “Unknown at this time. It’s my belief, however, that these atmospheric alterations, whatever their source, and the existence of the demonio, are related.”

“Did one cause the other?” Linx asked.

“We don’t know, General. That’ll require more investigation.”

Deputy Camois had heard enough. “This tells me we’ve got a crisis on our hands and it’s growing fast. If what happened at Via Verde spawned or was somehow created by these…Sea People creatures…then what the hell is happening at all the other sites BioShield has detected?

This could explain why BioShield is detecting heightened nanobotic activity. Maybe we’re detecting these colonies.”

“I’ll get tasking from the DG and SG, before the night is over,” Linx promised. The investigation mission will be assigned to Quantum Corps and our ANAD units.”

The meeting went on for awhile longer, but no one seemed to notice that the Chinese delegate, Cao Zhilin’s avatar, had assumed a static, almost frozen position in the corner.

Unknown to the others, Cao had placed her avatar in a default mode and left the conference.

Physically located at the UNISEA suite of offices in New York, she shutdown the live link to Paris and switched to another link that was open…a chat link to the Foreign Ministry in Beijing.

Carefully, Cao spoke a warning to what she knew were likely dozens of interested parties online, monitoring her chat link for updates on the UNIFORCE conference.

Cao wrote cryptically, in Chinese kaishu script: Proceed quickly with investigation…UNIFORCE expedition is coming….


Chapter 12

Reed Banks

The South China Sea

September 10, 2115

1100 hours

A combined effort to investigate the structure being assembled by the Coethi on the seabed floor of the South China Sea had to be hurriedly organized, since the UNIFORCE expedition would soon flood the area with ships, submarines, drones and divers, all armed to the teeth and ready to engage anything that looked vaguely threatening.

To keep unwanted visitors away as long as possible, Admiral Hu Zhejiang arranged for the PLA Navy to cordon off a hundred-square kilometer region of the seas surrounding the Reed Banks. Night and day, Yang-class destroyers, cruisers and Song-class submarines patrolled the area, dodging the waterspouts and increasing ferocity of storms, to keep the Ponkti and Chinese engineers and scientists from any outside interference.

PLA nanoscale combat units also joined the effort, dispersing across a wide swath of the ocean from Hainan Island to the Palawan Basin, to ferret out any attempts at covert surveillance or penetration from UNIFORCE ANAD units at molecular scales.

For Dr. Chu of the Beijing Academy and Dr. Li of the Guangzhou Institute, the main focus of their efforts would concentrate on the strange, vaguely menacing time manipulator, the Shijian caoxong qi, as the Chinese translated from the Ponkti tongue, at the center of all the disturbances. From all sensor data they could analyze, the Coethi bots, or m’jeete to the Ponkti, seemed to be assembling the thing according to some pre-programmed plan. Torrential thunderstorms and hordes of waterspouts and vortexes had been sweeping the sea for days now and Dr. Chu was grateful to finally be submerged, aboard the Academy’s research submersible Kunming, safe, stable and away from all the violence topside.

A volunteer detail of scientists from the Academy had agreed to come to Reed Banks and test the device and its properties by sending first unmanned, then later manned ships into the main vortex. The ships were called shiguang jiqi and were based on designs the Ponkti themselves had provided, from their Farpool transit ships.

Kunming closed on the vortex fields surrounding the structure carefully.

The small submersible was operated by the Guangzhou Institute. Dr. Chu and Dr. Li were aboard, along with the pilot, an oval-faced kid named Yang from Xiamen, not far from the Institute and the remote arm operator Xi Linping, an expert not only with the arms but also with operating Kunming’s squad of autonomous drones, carried piggyback in racks along the top of her hull.

Her forward sample basket had been rigged to carry the most important cargo of all: a small containment vessel from the Academy in Beijing. Inside the vessel were xiao zhanshi, the ‘tiny warriors’ of a nanoscale swarm of robots, with a master replicator and starter swarm of daughter elements. Chu was the acknowledged expert on nanobots in China and she hoped and prayed that the tiny warriors would be able to engage the Coethi swarm that surrounded the time manipulator and penetrate them well enough to allow the sub to approach the device. The plan was to approach the time manipulator and insert a small test capsule into its main vortex and see what happened next.

If events matched theory, the test capsule would disappear completely from view and be gone. It would then be up to Chu and the Academy physicists to prove that the capsule had been snatched away into some kind of wormhole, some kind of gateway to other times and places, as the Ponkti insisted it would.

Kunming was not alone in her approach to the device. Loptoheen, Lektereenah, Yakto and a small gathering of Ponkti and Skortish kelke roamed alongside the sub and stayed in communication with her crew through a modified signaler, modified with echopod translating devices so that the Ponkti and the Chinese could converse and signal each other, although the signaler was a low-frequency device, capable only of simple strings of words.

Now the signaler chirped with an incoming message. Li picked up the pod and used its control studs to turn up the volume, so all could hear over the rush of the turbulent waters around them. Kunming was cruising slowly at five knots, at a depth of two hundred meters along a sandy spine of the shoals above as she homed on the time manipulator.

“Shkreeah… m’jeete ahead…” came a squeaky, clicky voice over the circuit. To Li, it sounded like the larger Ponkti male, the one who went by the name translated as Loptoheen. “…

mee’tor’kel water…very rough… opuh’te…many opuh’te…”

Li consulted some notes on a slate, notes he had been making about the language of the Sea People. He looked up in triumph with a smirk. “Opuh’te…that means whirlpools…or vortexes…I think.”

“Congratulations, Dr. Li,” Chu said sourly. “We can already see and feel them.”

“I’m slowing us down,” said Yang. “Ask your friends how far away we should stop.”

Xi studied the sonar board. “Get as close as you can…my tiny warriors have some fierce cross-currents to navigate to get to the perimeter of that swarm.”

Li put the question to Loptoheen through the signaler. The answer came back a few moments later.

“…one beat…half-beat…stop and hold position—”

Li did some calculating. “Their distance measurement is based on sound waves. A beat is one wavelength of their reference pinging sound…I make it about fifty meters, maybe less.”

“Too far,” complained Xi. “It’ll take a whole day for my little guys to approach their target.

They’re just nanobots…they’ve got a jillion atoms and molecules to cut through.”

Li told Yang to set the stop distance at twenty meters. Outside Kunming, Loptoheen was startled to see the Tailless craft continue its approach past the point he had recommended.

“Stupid Tailless…they don’t know what they’re doing with these m’jeete.”

“Neither do we,” noted Lektereenah.

Finally, Kunming came to a complete stop, her side thrusters whirling madly to maintain position in the tricky currents.

Ahead of them, the sea was a blur of waves and silt and foam, as a ring of vortexes danced and throbbed around the circumference of the conical structure that was the time manipulator.

Loptoheen had listened carefully to the echopods Tulcheah had stolen from the Omtorish back in Keenomsh’pont, records stolen when she had tranquillized eekoti Chase into a stupor after a night of violent coupling. Chase had recorded how the Umans at Kinlok Island on Seome had described their own wavemaker, their own time manipulator, the very machine that generated the Farpool itself. It was Lektereenah, and her chief scientist Yakto, who had theorized that the m’jeete device worked in a similar way.

If the Tailless were brash and courageous enough to want to test that notion, Loptoheen thought, so much the better. “They can do the testing for us, save us the effort,” Lektereenah decided.

So a joint program of testing and analyzing had been worked out with the Chinese.

At the very center of the vortex field, the Coethi bot swarm was assembling something that looked like two dinner plates pressed together. Resting on the seabed in a shallow depression, the time manipulator spanned nearly a hundred meters in overall diameter. Atop the ‘dinner plates’ were concentric rings of blisters around the circumference of the structure. From each blister, a corkscrew of bubbles and swirling water issued. According to the echopods the Ponkti had provided, each column was a small vortex, a sort of partial wormhole.

Chu decided to test that notion. She ordered Yang to all-stop. “We’ll let one of our drones make the first approach.” While Xi Linping readied the drone for launch, Chu and Li studied the forest of vortexes all churning some fifty meters ahead of them, a turbulent, foaming zone that rocked Kunming in its wake.

“There are dozens of them,” Li noted. “It appears that the bots are building a symmetrical array of those blisters all around the circumference.”

Chu checked her own control station, showing status of the ‘tiny warriors’ now contained in the front compartment of the sub. “Perhaps when they’re done, the vortexes will somehow merge, creating a more intense vortex. That would seem reasonable.”

Li nodded. “What seems reasonable to us may be different for them. They appear to be bots but, if the Ponkti are right, they came from another place and time. We don’t know what they’re up to. We should proceed with caution.”

“We know what effects they’re having…all the storms topside, the bubbles of toxic air…

thousands of people are affected. We have to stop this here and now…we have orders from Beijing, from the State Council. Now is not the time to be cautious.”

“True but I’m afraid the military people are pushing too hard. They see what these bots are capable of and they want the same capability. And they think the Ponkti can help give it to us…

I’m telling you it’s a recipe for disaster.”

Xi called out, “Xiao zhanshi ready in all respects, Dr. Chu. All I need is your order to launch. It would be helpful if we could move in a little closer.”

“Let’s see what happens with drone first. Release the drone, Xi.”

Xi complied and Kunming rocked slightly as the manta-shaped ship lifted away from their top hull. Her motors whirred, sending back a corkscrew of bubbles and she soon sped off and was soon lost to view.

“I’ve got video,” Xi announced. “Sonar too. Closing on the first bank of vortexes--.”

The crew watched as the image careened and vibrated. Xi managed the drone course and speed with small joysticks. “Picking up currents, really strong currents, attempting to compensate—”

The image stabilized for a few moments, then the shudder picked up again. This time, it was clear the drone was trapped in the current and was being pulled inexorably into the vortex.

The image spun crazily and was soon washed out in an explosion of foam and bubbles.

“I’ve lost control--!” Xi said. “I can’t pull her out—”

The last seconds of video seemed like they were caught in a dizzying, crashing maelstrom of foam and froth. The image careened in a spinning tornado of water and Xi finally gave up, raising his hands from the joysticks with an ‘ I got nothing’ gesture.

The image was a blur…then…the signal was gone.

“Give me the final data,” Chu said. Xi reported what the drone had experienced, the last fatal seconds of her speed, spin rate, centrifugal force, structural strains. He blinked. “That can’t be…it says the drone was stretched to nearly half a kilometer in dimension…not possible. She would have broken apart….and the speed—look at the velocity figures--”

Chu and Li studied the readouts on Xi’s panel. “Two hundred thousand meters per second…your instruments are in error, Xi. Run a diagnostic…see if something corrupted the signal.”

Li snapped a finger. “It might make sense if what the Ponkti say is true. A true wormhole in space. If the drone entered a true wormhole, we might get readings like this.”

Chu made a decision. “We must drive the Coethi bots away so we can get closer, run more tests. Those are our orders. Xi, prepare to launch the first lot. Yang, can we get any closer?”

The pilot shook his head. “I can’t safely maneuver around those smaller whirlpools. If we get too close, the same thing could happen to us.”

“Okay, Yang, stop here.” Kunming came again to a full stop, hovering nearly sixty meters from the outer edge of the time manipulator. Through the forward portholes, they could see what looked like clouds of silt and sediment drifting across the slopes of the ‘dinner plates.’

Li checked their instruments. “Now reading high thermals dead ahead, off-scale high.

Acoustics and electromagnetic interference rising rapidly…all the signatures of nanobotic activity. Whatever they are, they’re slamming atoms like crazy.”

“I just hope our Xiao zhanshi can deal with them. We’ve worked on these bugs of ours for ten years, tweaking configuration controls, effector designs, propulsors.”

“A true test of the Academy’s design,” agreed Li. He’d spent the better part of the last decade with the bugs, designing, testing, re-designing, wondering. “Okay, Xi, prepare to launch the bugs from here. After launch, we’d better back off. Nobody knows what will happen when our tiny warriors engage the Coethi.”

Chu said, “We should inform our Sea People friends. Let them know we’re about to engage.”

“I’ll send the signal,” Li offered. He manipulated the signaler, got the ON tone and spoke slowly and carefully into the device, hoping his words would be understood.

Outside Kunming, Loptoheen and Lektereenah had taken up position behind a rocky hillock nearby. They heard the signaler and puzzled out what the Tailless were about to do.

“They’re planning to release their own m’jeete,” Loptoheen said. “They don’t know what will happen. They warn us to take cover.”

Lektereenah could hardly be still. “Think of it, Loptoheen…if the Tailless succeed in driving off the m’jeete, we could have our own Farpool device…just for us. Ponkti could come and go to any place or any time, thousands of mah into the past or the future. This has to be kept from Mokleeoh and the Omtorish. We could even change history, manipulate events so that the Ponkti rule the seas. All of Seome becomes Ponkti waters.”

Loptoheen knew Lektereenah never missed a chance to dream outlandish fantasies.

“Begging the Metah’s pardon, but remember that Seome is no more. Our world is gone…we’re here because we had to come here,”

“Stupid tu’kelke” said Lektereenah. “Don’t you see? If we can use this Farpool like the old one, we could go back to Seome in an earlier time. Re-arrange events to suit us.”

“Yes, and we would still have to deal with the Tailless and the same enemy we see here…

the m’jeete. The Coethi.”

“Look!” cried Yakto. “There they go--!”

They watched as Kunming’s forward compartment bay discharged the leading elements of the xiao zhanshi. The ‘tiny warriors’ were nothing but a diffuse cloud of nanoscale robotic devices, like a small puff of silt, all configured to grapple with the Coethi bots and disassemble them.

The Ponkti watched in fascination as the cloud drifted on picowatt propulsors, through the vortex fields, homing on the cloud of Coethi bots still busily assembling structures atop the manipulator. The approach would take many minutes.

Neither the Ponkti nor the Chinese had any idea how the Coethi would react to the approach of the tiny warriors.

Sea Council Pavilion

UN Plaza

New York City

August 11, 2115

1500 hours

Day after day of meetings at the conference pavilion had been fruitless and Chase was discouraged beyond words. His idea to take a small select group of scientists on a kip’t journey to the Ponkti settlement and let them see the problems up close had gone nowhere.

“They prefer talking and arguing to actually doing something,” Chase told Dr. Josey Holland, who had come down from Woods Hole for the last few days of speeches and presentations. “I don’t get it.”

Holland was sympathetic. “That’s the way politicians and diplomats are, Chase. All talk and no action. Lawyers are like that too.”

The two of them were alone inside the pavilion, the afternoon session having wrapped up shortly before. All of the Sea Council delegates had left in their launches for the mainland piers, in the shadow of the UN Secretariat Building. Only Chase and Holland remained. Beneath the waves, just outside the pavilion, Likteek waited impatiently aboard their kip’t, several dozen meters down and hovering just above the riverbed. He’d informed Chase that the Metah had already signaled then to return to Keenomsh’pont immediately but for some reason, Chase was delaying, spending time with the Tailless female. Likteek fidgeted, amusing himself with some new scentbulbs he had just filled from the East River waters…scents that brought faint nausea to his senses.

How can anything intelligent live in the midst of such garbage? he wondered. And what’s taking eekoti Chase so long anyway?

Chase found Josey Holland fascinating, in a difficult-to-explain way. She had long blond hair, with highlights. Sparkling, almost effervescent blue eyes. A dimple in her chin. High forehead. Completely different from Angie Gilliam but there was just something about her…

maybe it was because they could talk so easily, seemingly about anything.

“I just wish I could picture what you looked like before the…whatever-it’s-called procedure,” she was saying. Holland was sitting on the edge of a bench, her shoeless feet dangling in rather chilly East River water.

Chase floated on his back alongside the benches, arms tucked behind his head. “You mean what I looked like before I turned into a frog on steroids?”

“Well, not exactly…you know what I mean. What did it feel like, going through this procedure?”

Chase closed his eyes, letting faint currents sweep him around the interior pool of the pavilion. Eventually, with a few kicks, he returned to her dangling legs, intentionally nudging them with his huge spade-shaped head.

“Ah, yes, the em’took. It was wild, Dr. Holland.”

“Hey, just call me Josey. I really do want to know. Can you describe it?”

Chase thought for a moment. “I remember it quite well. I never went through anything like it before. For a long time, nothing happened. I kinda dozed off, then awoke hearing this faint whistle. Everything smelled like oranges. Then I noticed a faint mist issuing into the pod.”

“You were in an enclosed space of some type? Were you scared?”

“A little. I kept thinking…t his is like being in a coffin. I’d been cave diving in tight spots like this, so I told himself I could get through it. But I wondered about Angie; how was she doing? The mist thickened. I didn’t know it at the time but the mist contained the first wave of all those programmed bacteria. The bacteria would begin the em’took process, penetrating into my nose, my mouth and eyes, burrowing into my skin, breaking down tissues and bone and cartilage, rebuilding structures to make me more compatible with Seome.”

“Do you have any details on this…I’m really interested,” Holland told him. “I recently co-authored a paper on reversible endosymbiotic transformations. It’s something I’ve seen with certain marine species, certain mollusks.”

“The Seomish gave me an echopod that explained everything. I still have it but it’s back at Keenomsh’pont. I remember parts of it though…let’s see--” Chase paddled over to her bench and draped his arms over the edge. “--The em’took begins with a genetic sequencing and neural scan. After the sequencing and scan, the bacteria are altered and somehow ‘tuned’ to match the recipient….in this case, me. 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, meaning a place of new birth.”

Holland was reaching for her purse. She extracted a small vial. “Go on, Chase…I’m listening.”

“Sure…of course, I didn’t know any of this. My echopod had described the process in detail, but the voice was so soft and staticky and I wasn’t really listening. Instead, I grew sleepy.

Angie was already asleep inside her own pod. That’s when the dreams came.”

“You had dreams. Do you remember any of them?”

“Not really, but when I came to, I woke up looking like this…like that old vid The Creature From the Black Lagoon.”

Holland laughed at that. “I think you’re…I mean, it’s fascinating. Chase, didn’t you once tell me you thought this process, this em’took, could be reversed?”

Chase looked up at the biologist. “I know it can. My girlfriend Angie had the same procedure but she wanted to go home, go back to what she was before. The Seomish were reluctant. They said it hadn’t been done before. But they did it…at least in another timestream, it was done.”

“What about you?”

Chase shrugged. “I don’t know. I think about it once in awhile, going back to the old Chase. Angie wants me to do that…the Angie I know here and now, I mean. But I haven’t made up my mind. See, the Seomish…they count on me now. They made me a kind of leader

—”

“The Kel’metah…isn’t that what it’s called?”

“Exactly…Dr. Holland…I mean, Josey, you’re catching on fast.”

“There’s so much I want to learn. What would you say if I told you there may be a way to reverse this procedure here?”

Chase closed his eyes, still hanging off the end of the bench. “I know Angie would like that.

Me…well, the Seomish kind of look up to me. I’m somebody important to them. I’ve never been important before…I mean, sure, I can play my go-tone with the Croc Boys and all, and there are always groupies around. But to be important…that’s when they ask what you think.

That’s when your opinions and ideas are important.” Now Chase became thoughtful, burying his face in his arms. “Nobody ever did that for me before. It’s always been ‘clean up that shirt rack.’ Or ‘sweep out that storage room.’ Or ‘count those T-shirts.’ Somehow, I’ve become mixed up in all the Seomish concerns, all their conflicts, all their ways of living. I like it but I’m not really one of them. I guess I have mixed feelings about going back to what I was before.”

Holland was sympathetic. “That makes sense, Chase. But you can still help me, with my research. Let me take a sample of your DNA—” here, she held up the vial and removed a small cotton swab. “From inside your mouth—if I could analyze the genetic structure of this modification, I might be able to offer you some options. There are known to be some marine species, pelagic and benthic species, who are endosymbiotic but who have demonstrated the ability to reverse the process, become less symbiotic. I’m thinking your process could shed some light on the genetic details.”

Chase opened his mouth and Holland dabbed the swab inside, noting the massive molars and incisors ringing his lower jaw. Wouldn’t want to get caught in those, she told herself. She pulled the swab out and stuck it in a sterile capsule, which she then put back in her purse.

“You could actually change me back, to the old Chase?”

Holland shrugged. “I’m not promising anything.” Jeez, if I could only change Stephen back to the man I married, instead of the monster he is now…wouldn’t that be great? “The Institute has a vigorous research program in this area, both gene swapping and editing and even some nanobotic interventions. I’d like to look into this, see what’s possible.” Holland cupped her hand under Chase’s scaly, armored chin, peering into eyes that were clearly human. “And I’d like to know more about the Seomish, too. Chase, I’ll be honest with you. I am married but my husband Stephen and I are getting a divorce. It’s pretty nasty. I have two kids that I’m trying like hell to keep with me, but it’s a battle. My work at the Institute and now, with you and the Seomish…it’s all that keeps me sane these days. It’s the only way I can keep my head from blowing up…I just get so mad at the lawyers, at Stephen, at the judges, the whole system. You know what they say? They accuse me of being a part-time mom. The lawyers have the nerve to say things like “she’s more interested in her fish than her children.” Things like that. I don’t know—” Holland released Chase’s chin and sat up on the bench, her feet tucked under her. The words came out like knife blades. “—maybe there’s even some truth to that. There is a part of me that would like to chuck all of this and just dive in with you and become Seomish. I’d have to have my kids with me, of course, especially my daughter Hannah…she’s special needs but I really love her to death. I want to learn all about you, about your people, the Seomish. What they eat. How they make love. About their beliefs and traditions. A lot of people are frightened of the Sea People. Not me. I know one…I know you. I just think there’s a lot we could learn from each other. Humans and Seomish. But it looks like the hotheads and the monsters are in charge right now…here and in the courtroom too.”

Chase wasn’t sure what all that meant or that he even wanted to know all that Holland had poured out.

“I need to discuss this with Angie. She and I have some decisions to make about this.”

Holland seemed distressed that he was leaving. “Where are you going now? What will you do?”

“The Ponkti have encountered something in the Pacific, in the South China Sea, that they can’t handle. They think they can but trust me, they can’t. The Seomish all came through the Farpool to Earth, including me, a few months ago. I think we brought along an unwelcome visitor when we came through. And now, this visitor is about to wreak havoc on everything…

even back on Seome, the Umans couldn’t fight them off. I doubt humans from this time stream can either. So we’ve got to deal with that…humans and Seomish, working together. That’s the only way we can beat the Coethi, if we can beat them.”

“You’re talking about all the weird weather in the Pacific, all the storms, the toxic clouds--?”

“Exactly. But before I go back to Keenomsh’pont, I want to go see Angie. Dr. Holland, I’m not sure I want to be changed back. Part of me does and part of me doesn’t. Angie and I have to talk about this.”

Holland got to her feet. “I understand. I hope you’ll take it like this, Chase: you could be part of an extraordinary experiment if I can push this research further. Call it a crazy vision if you want but I see a time, not so far off, actually, when we can modify people to become almost amphibious, like you, able to go from land to sea and back. A reversible transformation. If I can figure out how Seomish scientists did this, maybe I can make it work here. Maybe that’s how Seomish and Humans learn to get along together.”

They said good-bye and Chase submerged and was gone, seeking the kip’t with an impatient Likteek hovering near the river bottom. He climbed in and they headed south, out of the East River, then east toward the Muir seamount and Keenomsh’pont.

Chase was already fleshing out the details of his plan. First, he would take Likteek back to the Lab at the settlement. Then he would borrow the kip’t for a more important trip.

This trip would take him back to Florida. Back to Angie.

Josey Holland watched the creature she had come to know as Chase disappear and stared at the waters for a moment. She had a vial of his DNA. With some intense study and some experiments, she thought there was a chance, maybe a sliver of a chance, but a possibility she could figure out what the Seomish scientists had done to make a Florida beach bum into a walking, talking alligator. And if she could figure that out, maybe she could reverse-engineer the process and devise a way to make the transformation both repeatable and predictable. From that, papers and awards and accolades, even Nobel prizes would surely come flooding her way.

If the fish doctor can’t save her marriage, maybe she could still save the world. She put all her stuff into the small launch tied up just outside the pavilion and started up the engine.

Puttering across the choppy waters of the East River toward the dock and UN Plaza, she started to cry softly and almost ran into the side of a Circle Line tourist ferry chugging down the river toward Battery Park.

She just could not get the image of Hannah and Timmy out of her mind.

Gainesville, Florida

September 18, 2115

0545 hours

Angie Gilliam had laid awake practically all night, going over and over in her mind the words Chase had sent her on the low-frequency signaler thing he used to communicate.

I’m coming…the creek behind the apartments…six o’clock…before the sun comes up….

She couldn’t sleep and so she had gotten up quietly, careful not to disturb the neighbors, and thrown on an old robe and some slippers. She padded out of the third-floor apartment at Coconut Cabana, headed downstairs and through the breezeway out into the wet grass and through hibiscus and azalea bushes to the creek that ran alongside B Building. She sat on her butt, knees drawn up and waited, watching and listening carefully, alive and twitching nervously at every sound, fully aware that more than once adult gators had been sighted sunning themselves on these very banks.

A slight fetch stirred the creek waters, and it wasn’t the wind. There was no wind. Angie stiffened, ready to spring away fast in case something showed up she wasn’t expecting.

But it turned out to be Chase after all.

He scrambled up onto the bank and came plodding over to her, then grabbed her by the shoulders and mimed a little kiss. Angie found it best to close her eyes and pretend her boyfriend didn’t look like something from a bad dream.

“You scared you me, you slimebag. I thought you were a gator, or maybe a croc.”

“I am.”

“Very funny.” She spread out a few towels on the wet grass and they sat down, or in Chase’s case, reclined as well as he could. It was still dark but a faint orange glow stained the horizon through the trees. Frogs croaked and crickets buzzed all around. Otherwise the air was still and heavy. “I brought these. Wouldn’t want you to get your slimy butt dirty, you know.”

Chase lay back and stared up at the stars. Somewhere up there, beyond sight, was the expanding supernova shell of Sigma Albeth B…and the remnants of Seome.

“Don’t you have to go to work, Ang?”

She sniffed, lay back with her arms crossed. “I’m on swing shift this week. Sheila’s left already…she’s coming later to give me a lift. You know, Chase, I only have two more weeks at the hospital. School starts in two weeks…God, I can’t believe it… me a senior.”

“Yeah, that’s wicked. But I don’t miss it.”

Angie turned to face him. “Your message said you wanted to talk about something. Is this about the prom next year?”

Chase chuckled. “Not exactly but it could be involved.” Now, he sat up straight, listening.

“Angie, I just spent some time with this Dr. Holland…Dr. Josey Holland…you know…the biologist.”

That brought a little frown to her face, which she quickly hid. “You’ve mentioned her…the fish doctor, right?”

“Yep, that’s her. She took a sample a few days ago.”

Angie was suspicious. “What kind of sample?”

“Some kind of DNA sample. I already told her about how you were modified like me, by em’took, and how you wanted to go back but the Seomish kept putting you off and then how they finally did it. So we know it is possible to reverse the em’took procedure.”

Angie blinked. “You’ve said this kind of stuff before. I’ve never done anything such thing…Chase, you sure this isn’t some kind of dream or something?”

“It’s no dream, Angie. Trust me. The real explanation is that what I’m talking about hasn’t actually happened yet. We came through the Farpool, me and the rest of them, to an earlier time.”

Angie sighed. Sometimes Chase just didn’t make any sense, like most boys. “If you say so.

So…what did the fish doctor say?”

“That it might be possible to reverse the em’took here, on Earth. Change me back to my handsome old self.”

This made Angie bite her lip. “Chase, tell me something: you like this fish doctor, don’t you? You do talk about her a lot.”

Chase looked over at Angie. “She’s interested in the Seomish…the Sea People. She just thinks I’m a good way to learn more about them.”

Angie rolled her eyes. “Mm-hmm.”

“No, really, she’s a scientist. She seems pretty understanding about the whole situation too, even sympathetic. She wants to help…there’s a lot of conflict between humans and the Sea People now.”

“I’m sure. Anything else I should know? You going to take the fish doctor to the prom too?”

Her tone of voice made Chase wince. “Are you jealous, Angie? Tell me that’s not so.”

Now Angie sat up and wrapped her shoulders in her arms. There was a freshening breeze coming off the creek and it stirred the waters in spreading ripples.

“Chase, listen to me. I want you to do whatever you think you have to do. You’re a big boy now. You’re out of school. You’ve got a job… had a job, that is. If Dr. Holland thinks she can change you back, I want you to do it. Don’t do it for me. Do it for yourself.”

“I am doing it for you, damn it! Why do you think I came here?”

Angie stood up and walked down to the creek bed, dipping her toes in the brackish waters…

something she would never have done normally. “Chase, if you’re asking me if I want you to be changed back, the answer is yeah, I do. Very much. But after that, I just don’t know—”

“About what?”

“About… about us, you knucklehead.” She wiped a tear from her eye. Damn it…she was not going to cry now, not now. “I just don’t know about this Dr. Holland…you and this Dr.

Holland. You think she’s legit…you think this is safe?”

Chase shrugged, then realized nobody could see such a gesture dressed up like an overgrown frog. “I don’t know. I think so. I’m willing to try it. I just don’t know though—”

“About what… us?”

“No, about what the Seomish will think. If I go back, I can’t live among them, work with them, laugh with them, fight with them, the way I have been. They probably will kick me out as Kel’metah…Angie, somehow, some way, I’ve become important to them. Me, Chase Meyer, important to someone…can you believe it?”

“Hey, idiot, you’re important to me. It’s just that—” She came back and stooped down beside him. “Honestly, I don’t want to lose you to that fish doctor. Just be honest with me, okay? Do you have any feelings for her? Do you love her?”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Ang. Dr. Holland is a scientist. She wants to help the Seomish. I want to help the Seomish. It’s just that…” Chase rolled over on his stomach, his dorsal fin catching light from the parking lot lamps “…I don’t know if I can help them if I get the em’took reversed. If I do that, I’m just like you…like Dr. Holland, like all humans. Now…I’m different.

Now, I’m somebody special to them.”

“So this is between me and the Seomish, is that it? Chase, do you even hear yourself talking…you don’t even make any sense any more…not that there’s anything new about that.

Maybe you should just go find your go-tone and crank up a song. You’re much better at that much.”

“Hey thanks…that’s not such a bad idea at that. I could be the mascot too…a real Croc Boy.”

“Very funny….be serious, for once, you bum. Chase, this is your decision. I can’t make it for you.”

He reached out and cautiously touched her on the ankle. She didn’t recoil like she usually did. That was a good sign, wasn’t it?

“It’s your decision too, Angie. That’s why I wanted to meet. You’ve got a say in this.”

That made her feel a little better. She sat down and wriggled her butt a little closer, not quite touching. You really didn’t want to rub up against something as slimy and icky as that. Chase watched her out of the corner of his eyes, wishing his eyelids wouldn’t flutter like they did…

em’took gave you a second eyelid to see better underwater but…he really did want to check out those great legs once again.

“Chase, I want you to give this procedure a try, if you think it’s safe, if you think the fish doctor can pull it off. I don’t want to lose you, to some untried medical thing or to some older woman using you for her own reasons. That’s the honest truth.”

“Okay, I can live with that. I think I really do want to go through with this…actually, I’m ready now. The Seomish…they can make their own way. And I could still help ‘em in a way.”

“Just promise me this: when the time comes, I want to be there with you, during this procedure, whatever it is.”

“What about school and the hospital?”

Angie poked him. “I’ll think of something. Just promise me you won’t try to do this by yourself.”

Chase blew a kiss at her and they sort of embraced, as well as scaly, armored reptilian skin would let them embrace. “It’s a deal. I guess I’d better go now…before the sun comes up.

People will be looking out their windows wondering why you’re chatting away with a gator.”

He got up and ambled down to the creek, looking back. “I’ll contact you when it’s time.

Keep your signaler around, Cookie.”

She smiled. “Hey...just stop trying to annoy me, Flipper. But let me know.”

They waved good-bye and Chase waded into the creek, eventually submerging and gliding just below the surface. He did look just like a gator, his big snout creating a V-shaped wake as he rounded the turn and was gone.

Angie watched for a few more moments as the ripples of his forward motion died off and the creek was finally still.

Honestly, she told herself as she went back to the breezeway and the stairs, I must be dreaming. None of this is actually happening. Sheila’s given me something and I’m hallucinating.

Back inside 3-B, she closed and locked the door, and went to the bathroom to get ready for a shower. On the kitchen counter, she spied the letter the agents had left with her a few days before. That was no hallucination and it was better that Chase know nothing about it.

For the simple truth was that Angie Gilliam was not working any swing shift at University Hospital today and not for quite a few days to come. She knew she had to hustle that morning.

The flight from Tampa to Hamilton, Bermuda was due to leave in less than three hours. She didn’t want to go. She wanted to work her shift as a Red Cross volunteer on the 3rd floor at the hospital and joke around with Sheila and the other nurses, maybe ogle a few of the cuter interns

and come home. But none of that was going to happen, not now, and it really was all because of Chase, because of the fact that she knew Chase, had a relationship with him and somehow that had become a national security issue.

The Agency people had convinced her that she had to do this because if she didn’t, she could be charged as an accomplice to espionage, or some ridiculous thing like that. She wanted to tell her mother about the whole thing, maybe get a lawyer, but they didn’t have that kind of money and the robo-lawyers they could afford weren’t all that swift, she had heard. So she stayed quiet and as she turned on the shower and let it run to get some hot water, Angie Gilliam tried to imagine just how it was that a temporary Red Cross intern at University Hospital, a rising senior at Scotland Beach’s Apalachee High, a notable track star and she did have some medals and damn near unbeatable times in the 440 and 880 events, just how it was that such a promising young talent could wind up coerced and finagled into becoming a spy for Uncle Sam.

That didn’t make any sense, did it?

She craned her face up into the stinging hot needles of the shower and let the mission particulars run through her mind again: you will travel at Agency expense to Hamilton, Bermuda, where you will sign up as a new crew member with Bermuda Marine Salvage. You will be taken on a dive two days later. You will ‘wander off’ and disappear from the dive team and feign some kind of distress. The dive team will not be able to locate you. They will report you are presumed to be lost at sea, a diving accident. Agency divers will be nearby to deal with any real contingencies. In your ‘distress,’ the mission presumes that Sea People thought to be in proximity will rescue you and take you to their camp. You will record and later provide all available intelligence on their activities, their force deployments, their defenses, and any unique technologies that seem pertinent to the mission…you will then—

Angie let the steaming hot water dribble over her face for a long time. Yeah, right. The hell of it was she was no longer so anxious about becoming a spy. She was way more apprehensive about that damned fish doctor and her supposed procedure…a procedure she was sure had only one end result in mind.

Angie decided right then and there that there was no way she would ever let anyone else get their fish hooks into Chase Meyer.

Dr. Josey Holland Lifelogger Post:

As soon as I got back to the Lab at Woods Hole, I started looking into every reference I could find about marine endosymbiosis and genetic techniques, CRISPR methods, all that stuff.

I contacted Dr. Ryne Falkland at the Autonomous Systems Lab down at Northgate University and asked him to send as much as he could about medical nanobotic interventions, configurations, controls, intervention strategies, everything.

It’s really pretty exciting to think that there might be a way to reverse this procedure Chase Meyer has talked about, this thing he calls em’took. I even have one of the Sea Peoples’

echopods where there’s some kind of description of the process but I’m having a hard time deciphering it. Seomish science is so different from ours, with its emphasis on chemistry and biological methods and scent and sound techniques. Theirs is an aquatic culture and so everything they do and make is done through chemical or micro-biological means. They may be hundreds of years ahead of us in these areas…and, of course, their whole science is keyed to their home world.

I’d love to go to Seome but Chase insists it doesn’t exist anymore.

Okay, I’ll admit it…I’m fascinated by the Sea People…the Seomish. This is just such an incredible research opportunity. Right after I came back to Woods Hole, I stopped by the aquarium to say hello to Bennie and some of the other cetaceans. Bennie’s my favorite and I can’t help now looking at him with new eyes, wondering just what kind of society and culture does he really come from? Evolution works in such strange ways, but maybe the same evolutionary pressures that made Bennie also work on other worlds too. We know that killer whales have group-specific dialects. We know that sperm whales babysit one another’s young.

We know bottlenose dolphins—Tursiops-- cooperate with other species. This is all well correlated with brain sizes…we know that much, but how much of that correlation can be extended to group hunting, complex vocalizations, dietary richness and geographical range?

Somewhere out there in deep space, Evolution has worked to create this fantastically capable marine species of Sea People who can travel through space, who come rescue their comrades when we grab one for a specimen, who clearly have very advanced technology…are these people in any way related to our own cetacean species? Is there any evidence of similar evolutionary results on Earth? That’s what I want to find out.

I guess if I were truthful, there’s more than just scientific interest here on my part. Chase is a very interesting young man, however he wound becoming modified. I really only have his word and this echopod to provide any evidence that he’s telling me the truth. Maybe Chase is just some kind of hybrid species, half-mammalian, half-cetacean, caught in the middle.

Evolution continues to amaze us with its diversity, its robustness, its will to survive and thrive…

if I had any questions about Evolution’s capabilities before, I don’t know…just look at Stephen and his lawyer-leeches. Now there’s a group of misfits if ever there were any.

How much of my feelings for Chase is really for Chase and how much is really sympathy, even a sort of love, for the Sea People and what they’ve been through, what they’re going through right now? I don’t know the answer to that. I don’t even want to ask the question.

Yeah, I have a growing attachment to the Seomish, no doubt. I’m sure Dr. Wriston and Steve and Tamika would all say I’ve just got a soft heart, along with a soft head, for endangered species. I’ll own up to that.

There was a time last night, lying in bed thinking, staring up at the ceiling tiles in my apartment, when I imagined what it would be like to actually be Seomish, to go through the same procedure Chase apparently did and it was a pleasant sort of reverie…with all that’s going on today, conflicts with the Sea People, conflicts with Stephen and the courts over custody, fear of what might happen with Timmy and Hannah, I can’t help but admit to a growing disgust with everything human these days. We haven’t really covered ourselves with glory in our dealings with the Sea People, even here at the Institute and as for the judges and the court system, well—

Now, I’ve got to develop a plan of attack on reversing this em’took procedure, test out some theories on the right approach, what should be genetic, what part nanobotic, can bacteria or certain viral vectors be used instead—the echopods talk about something that sounds like bacteria--. Endosymbiosis is a very complex process here on Earth…the literature on this is so vast, it’s cosmic in scope. There are all kinds of examples: rhizobia, actinomycete bacteria, single-cell algae that live inside corals, certain nitrogen-fixing bacteria, it’s a long list. Are we talking mutualism, commensalism, parasitism, or what? In fact, the evolution of all Eukaryotes may well have come from symbiotic relationships among competing bacteria billions of years ago. Ach…so much to learn.

I even have a name for my proposed new technique: conicthyosis . Do you like that?

Reversing ‘fish’ symbiosis.

Who knows if any of this is even possible or maybe it’s just a wet dream of a frustrated marine biologist.

Chapter 13

Keenomsh’pont, near Bermuda and

Reed Banks, the South China Sea

September 21, 2115

The Ponkti and the Chinese were now faced with a basic and stark conundrum: both peoples wanted the Coethi time manipulator to be completed and to work, but for very different reasons.

Neither wanted to deal with the Coethi themselves, whatever they were, in fact, by mutual consent, destroying the alien swarms or at least isolating and containing the damn thing was considered to be the best course of action.

President Li Lingshan stood alongside the dock inside the Longpo Naval Base’s underground submarine bunker and watched the Sea Peoples’ small submersible surface and maneuver toward the pier. Li was flanked by most of the State Council from Beijing and fully aware that the predators and vultures among them were watching him closely for any signs of weakness. It was common knowledge at the highest levels of the Chinese government that the Sea People had made some kind of extraordinary discovery in the South China Sea…”our sea,”

Li had told the Party Congress just last week and the only question was how best could China exploit this discovery, and could the Sea Peoples be really trusted? Opinion was divided on this matter but Li had come down firmly on the side of working out some kind of alliance with the aliens and jointly exploring the nature of the discovery.

For if even half of what Li had been told about the time manipulator was true, the People’s Republic would soon be in possession of a most marvelous prize, one that would move the Middle Kingdom into the front ranks of all nations on the planet…maybe even beyond.

The kip’t scraped softly against the wharf piling and moments later, the top hatch opened.

Li had never encountered the Sea People before…Dr. Fei Liang from the National Academy insisted that these visitors were known as Ponkti…a faction or tribe of the greater family that had somehow emigrated to Earth through the Farpool gateway. Two individuals emerged, clad in their armored mobilitor suits and they clambered awkwardly up the platform ladder to the dock.

Their voices came through the translator as scratchy, high-pitched, nasal and whiny. One called himself Loptoheen tu kel: Ponk’et.

Li soon realized that the other alien was female—one Lektereenah kim kel: Ponk’et—and she was called Metah. A sort of President of this particular tribe.

Li bowed faintly and ushered the two Ponkti into a small meeting room that had been created from a nearby machine shop. The Ponkti scuffled and shuffled in their heavy suits. As Lektereenah passed by, Li caught a brief glimpse of her face inside the helmet. It sent a chill down his back.

They really were fish-like in appearance, with beaks and fins and tail flukes. Only the mobilitors allowed them to survive out of water.

Li thought briefly of his now-deceased father, who had long been a commercial fisherman out of Tianjin…what would his esteemed father have thought of all this? Negotiating important treaties with talking fish? No doubt the elder Li would have had his nets and hooks at the ready.

The negotiations were slow and somewhat arduous. Translation was slow and the Ponkti were uninterested in the documentation that had been set before them.

Shkreeah…we pulse and read in this way,” Loptoheen had said. “Kah, your sounds…your scents…this tells us what we must know.”

Dr. Fei explained to Li and the State Council that the Sea People had never developed writing as this was normally understood. “It’s all acoustic, sir…communication by sounds.

We’ve determined they have an echo-locating and ranging system. We think they can send sound signals, sort of like sonar, and read the echoes. Even out of water, we think they can do this.”

Fei’s explanation gave Li pause. The thought that these armored fish might be able to see the poached eggs and noodles he had eaten for breakfast that morning was a bit unnerving. Li pushed his papers aside.

“Very well…I’ll summarize our position this way. China wants an alliance of equals.

We’re interested…very interested…in this device my scientists have been calling Shijian caoxong qi—some sort of time device, I understand. We want to explore its possibilities and potentials, as I am told you do. If this device works as we think it does, we can send teams of explorers back to the great days of Imperial China and change time streams to prevent the centuries of humiliation we have suffered at the hands of the West from ever happening.

Perhaps even accelerate the travels of the great Admiral Zheng He.”

Now Lektereenah spoke. Her voice was softer than Loptoheen, mediated as it was through the echopod translator, but Li detected an undercurrent of steel there.

“It is so with Ponkti…. kkzzhhh…on Seome, even on this world Urku, Ponkti… zzhhzzhh

treated we are as poorly. Ponkti wish only to control their own fate….”

The discussions went on for a time. Dr. Fei described what was already happening two hundred kilometers south of the base, at the Reed Banks.

“For many years, we have been working on developing our own controllable nanoscale robotic swarms, our xiao zhanshi or tiny warriors. These are molecular assembler/disassembler devices. The Americans have similar devices; they call them ANADs. The creatures that apparently came with you through the gateway are of a similar nature…swarms of tiny warriors of unknown design, unknown capabilities. Even as we speak, our xiao zhanshi are engaging these creatures...I believe you call them… m’jeete?”

Both Lektereenah and Loptoheen seemed to understand. Fei went on.

“We believe our tiny warriors can move the m’jeete away from the time manipulator. Or at least isolate and contain them well enough for us to move in and began researching the device.

Of course, this must be done so that the environmental effects of the enemy are stopped…already we have suffered flooding and severe storms along southern Hainan and Guangxi and Fujian provinces. And the earthquakes…Xiamen has suffered extensive damage already. Our efforts must succeed. Once this is done, assuming it is done, we want to develop a protocol for how to conduct this research. You have ideas as well?”

For quite some time, awkwardly at first, but then with greater facility, the Ponkti and the Chinese worked out a program of research for how to deal with the Coethi time manipulator.

Loptoheen removed a new echopod from a side pouch and offered it to Fei. “Zzhh…from Omt’or…we have information on Tailless fight with m’jeete…on Seome. This helps….”

Fei took the pod and studied it. “We’ll listen…perhaps this will help.”

Lektereenah said, “Ponkti are like pal’penk…treated as pets. Omt’or, Eep’kos, all kels…

think us animals…slow, stupid, we fight in tuk…now Ponkti here use m’jeete to travel other place and time.”

President Li seemed to understand. “China has also suffered much at the hands of the imperialists.”

The details of the arrangement were laboriously worked out. Fei watched as Li put his signature to some document and she wondered if the Ponkti even knew what had been agreed to.

They understood sounds and scents, not printed documents. They seemed almost as aggrieved as Li portrayed the Chinese but still she wondered. If China couldn’t trust other nations, what made the President think she could trust a race of talking fish?

But she said nothing for the truth was that the Ponkti needed the Chinese and the Chinese needed the Ponkti. It was a marriage strictly of necessity.

Lektereenah and Loptoheen returned to their kip’t, submerged and were gone in moments.

Li stood along the railing watching and then turned to Fei.

“How is the operation at Reed Banks going? Any word from Admiral Hu?”

Fei motioned for an assistant. “I’ll check—"

Once out of the submarine tunnel and maneuvering into deeper water, Lektereenah said,

“These Tailless are different, are they not, Loptoheen? They wish to use the m’jeete device, as we do.”

“For different reasons. I don’t trust them, Affectionate Metah. But we need them. The m’jeete we can’t defeat without help. And we don’t want Mokleeoh and the Omtorish or the other kels to know too much about what we’ve found here.”

“Agreed. The Tailless will push the m’jeete back for us. After that, we’ll go back to Keenomsh’pont and gather all Ponkti together. We’ll come back here and leave this cursed world Urku for some other time and place. Send a message to the Kel’em…encoded. I don’t want anyone else to know about this: We vish’tu in five mah…all tu’kelke of Ponk’t. A great decision is upon us. Send that now.”

Loptoheen spoke the words into the repeater bulb and the message went out across the Ponkti repeater net encrypted as the Metah had commanded. Picked up and re-transmitted in the lyrical dialect of the repeaters, the words moved rapidly across the Indian Ocean and the southern Atlantic and arrived at the Muir seamount several days later.

What Loptoheen didn’t know was that the Omtorish had long ago deciphered the Ponkti code. When the songs and words Loptoheen had sent finally arrived at Keenomsh’pont, Omtorish repeaters routinely recorded its contents and forwarded them on to Mokleeoh’s staff.

The details were quickly decrypted and translated and made available to the Metah of the Omtorish in a few hours.

Mokleeoh listened grimly. She was furious at what she heard.

A dim blue-white phosphorescent glow suffused the sea directly ahead of Kunming, washing out all other seabed detail. Dr. Li Kejiang and Dr. Chu Zuwon stared raptly at the fires of nanoscale combat playing out a hundred meters ahead of them. Beside them, Xi Linping had driven the tiny warriors directly into the heart of the Coethi swarm. Though the master bot of the warriors had been well programmed on nanoscale combat tactics and was thought to be capable to prosecuting the engagement autonomously, Xi liked to keep tabs on how the battle was going.

He selected an acoustic viewing mode on his board and after a few moments of blurred and confusing chaos, a grainy image settled down and the Kunming crew stared in fascination at life in the world of molecules and atoms.

"In we go," Dr. Li said.

Xi was impatient. He decided to do a little piloting himself and pulled up closer in his seat, flexing his fingers, grasping the side stick controllers.

"That's our target, Dr. Li. Dead ahead--" Xi could scarcely contain himself. Piloting the tiny warriors into battle always made his blood run hot.

"Closing…eight thousand microns…" he breathed. "I'm aiming for that cliff between the clusters, okay? After transit, I’ll send the rep command. I don’t want to get caught short if I run into bad guys."

Dr. Chu acknowledged, manning the template controls. "Replication starts just after transit."

The master bot—sometimes, as a joke, they referred to it as “The Chairman,”-- grabbed a phosphor group and pulled it aside, then squirted through into the cluster of molecules. At once, the imager was filled with long whippy chains of molecules.

"Carbons--the place is thick with them--" came a voice behind Xi. It was Dr. Li.

"Exactly," Xi said. He tweaked a stick controller, sending the ‘Chairman’ hurtling toward the target.

"Sounding pressure change," Chu said. Hello? What the hell was that? "We may have company… ready your defenses."

The assault convulsed out of the tangle of atoms in a frothy blur. An army of Coethi assemblers fell on the Chairman and his brood with little warning.

" Mechs! "

"I see 'em!" Xi cut the master bot’s speed in half; instinctively, he lunged for the config controls. "Make a cage…effectors out max!"

"I'm sending it!" Chu shouted. On a side panel of the IC control, she punched out commands to reconfigure the swarm, with a shield of fullerene arms, bristling like a porcupine.

"That should do the trick."

A single command to the master bot would multiply the swarm in seconds. Xi was probing by feel alone, eyes fixed on the imager, his fingers twitching over the keyboard, eager to grab a stick but not just yet. He forced himself to be still, let the situation evolve. Beside him, Chu smiled in spite of herself. Code and stick men were all alike. Trigger-happy by nature.

Like Sun Tzu once said, know the enemy and know yourself; then you shall not fear even a hundred battles.

Like a dog sniffing fear, Xi chose that very moment to trigger the ‘Chairman’s’ attack.

"Replicate now!" he yelled.

Chu toggled the rep switch and the imager screen careened and shook with the ferocity of a trillion trillion assemblers grabbing atoms.

Now ten meters away, moving toward battle on picowatt propulsors, the Chairman detected the instruction. The entire operation took only a few seconds. In that time, the rep cycle was executed one quadrillion times:

Sever perimeter covalent bonds

Unfold lattice atom chains

Re-position carbon groups

Extract valence electron and attach to last carbon group Assemble hydrogen group at attached valence electron

Position carbon group at hydrogen atom

Increment counter for next carbon group

The swarm of Chinese mechs closed with Coethi and flung themselves against the enemy.

Newly armed, the Chairman seized a phosphor group on the nearest mech's effector and twisted atoms until the bonds broke. Liberating thousands of electron volts, the disrupter zapped the enemy mech and shattered its outer shell, ripping off probes left and right. Coethi shuddered and spun with the pulse, then re-engaged to fight off another bond snap. It was a maneuver Xi had practiced a hundred times in the sim tank back at the Institute.

Across the seabed, trillions of replicants duplicated the same tactic.

"Take that!" Xi was exultant, twisting his sticks left and right. His fingers flew over the controls, managing config, pulling more molecules to add shielding, all the while fighting off thrusts and slashes from the enemy mechs.

The water churned and burned and frothed with furious combat.

Yet unseen by anyone, a small force of Coethi mechs had detached from the main formation. Faintly detected but not really noticed, the force exited the primary swarm and beat its way at flank speed toward the Kunming, now less than ten meters away. The approach of this detached force was so slow that it never triggered any alarms.

Xi, Chu, Li and Yang stared at the speckling blooms of light winking on and off…the imager captured the sound and fury of nanomech battle and converted the acoustic waves to visual. It was like watching some mad kaleidoscope of swirling dots, washed with brilliant daubs of color.

"Like a thousand battles of Verdun," Li said. "All in a space the size of a walnut.

Incredible--"

"Reading high heat signature," Chu reported. "The grid's registering something like a hundred thousand picojoules, and rising."

Xi acknowledged the figure. "This vortex is emitting like a supernova." He refreshed the imager with more data.

And still unnoticed, the small detached force of Coethi mechs had reached its objective.

Slowing to transit the outer layers of the submarine’s HY-200 steel hull, the force passed through the lattice clusters and surfaced like a fleet of miniature subs inside the tetrahedral matrix of carbon and silicon molecules. There they floated for a few seconds, until the replication order came.

It was damned frustrating, dealing with one bot after another but Xi tried not to show it.

He'd tried several tactics to find out what Coethi was doing as it built structure and continued fitting out the time manipulator but this swarm was smarter and more aggressive than any he’d ever encountered before, seemingly always one step ahead of them. When Xi tried to outmaneuver, the enemy swarm countered. Every maneuver seemed to be anticipated; it was quickly evident that Coethi was programmed to defend itself and wouldn't give up control of its swarm without a fight. And to make matters worse, he'd been unable to grab an enemy mech for analysis.

It was Dr. Li Kejiang who saw the pressure spike from the compartment sensors, a fraction of a second before the swarm breached the last critical threshold of structural integrity.

"Ah…Xi, something seems to be--"

At that moment, Kunming’s hull gave way and thousands of tons of seawater poured in at a velocity high enough to incinerate the air.

The submersible crumpled like a paper cup and her interior pressure was explosively expelled in a huge tortured bubble. Frantic cries and screams were strangled before they could be heard.

The entire crew died in less than two seconds.

A hundred meters away, Lektereenah, Loptoheen and Yakto were startled by the convulsive violence of Kunming’s demise. They watched soberly as the wreckage descended slowly to the seabed, trailing corkscrews of bubbles as her interior bulkheads were steadily mangled in a tortured rending of metal and carbon polyfiber.

“The Tailless craft is destroyed,” Loptoheen said.

The three of them shot over to the wreckage as it settled to the bottom and nosed about the debris. Bodies crushed by the pressure drifted about.

“They’ve all died,” Lektereenah decided. “Their craft protected them but it collapsed.”

“The m’jeete, Affectionate Metah…perhaps we should withdraw,” Yakto warned. He had seen a shapeless cloud of what looked like silt moving toward them. The cloud was backlit with the fires of nanobotic activity, looking like a miniature thunderstorm moving across the rock outcrops. “The enemy creatures are heading for us.”

The three Ponkti left the Kunming behind and headed off toward Ponkel’te.

“The Tailless above will know what happened,” Loptoheen said. “Others will come.”

Lektereenah stroked hard, saying nothing for awhile, content to let her thoughts come as they would, pumping through her mind with each stroke of her fins and flukes. Yakto and Loptoheen struggled to keep up.

Half a beat away from the Ponkti settlement, the Metah had made up her mind. “We can’t do this ourselves. Contact the repeaters. I want to send a message.”

“What kind of message, Affectionate Metah?”

“A plea for help. Send it without code, to all kels. If we are to make use of the time manipulator, we need the Omtorish, the Orketish, the Sk’ort, everybody. We can’t defeat the m’jeete ourselves and the Tailless are worse than useless.”

Loptoheen replied, “At once, Affectionate Metah…I’ll get the echopods and you can record the message.”

Twenty-five thousand beats away, Chase and Tulcheah were cruising leisurely back and forth through a realm of steam vents, a short distance outside Keenomsh’pont, when Tulcheah pulled up short and stopped. She hovered, listening.

“Did you hear that?” she asked.

Chase stopped too. “Hear what? I don’t hear anything but these vents sizzling and popping.”

“Repeaters…a different kind of message—” she strained to make out the words, mouthing what she could make out….”—it talks of a great disaster…the Tailless have been defeated…the m’jeete expand …Ponkel’te had to be evacuated…Kel’metah, it’s a plea…the Ponkti need help.”

The two of them went straight back to Keenomsh’pont, to the Labs and there encountered Likteek, an echopod already in hand. The scientist held up a fin.

“I’ve already got it here,” he told them, showing off the pod. “It’s a repeating message…I was on my way to see the Metah…she’s summoned the Kel’em. You too. Come along—”

Chase left Tulcheah inside the Lab and followed.

Mokleeoh had convened the Kel’em, the council of Omt’or’s elders, near an elaborate coral bed that looked to Chase like two racks of antlers engaged in some kind of struggle. The Metah’s quarters were set off by bubble curtains and well-guarded by a small detail of nervous prodsmen.

Others were assembling as Likteek and Chase arrived.

Mokleeoh played the echopod recording Lektereenah’s message for all to hear.

“We knew the Ponkti were building other settlements. We knew they had discovered an unusual nest of creatures—the Ponkti call them m’jeete—near their settlement. And some kind of machine, similar to what the Umans had back on Seome…a time device. Kel’metah Chase

—” she acknowledged Chase hovering nearby—"has explained that he thinks this device works in a similar manner to the great wavemaker, perhaps on a smaller scale. If so, that means the device can create a small Farpool, azhpuh’te, a whirlpool and gateway to take those who enter to other times and places. But Lektereenah can’t defeat the m’jeete by herself or with her Tailless allies…they ask our help. They ask for all kels to help. We must debate…and decide.”

Telpy’t the Arguer was always good for a caustic comment. “Let the Ponkti drown in their blood, that’s what I say. Why should we help them…they attacked Omsh’pont with Tailless weapons. They took the mekli priestesses hostage and invaded the sacred waters of the Pillars.

They’re an insult to all of us…let them be.”

A chorus of assent circled the gathering. As the debate went on, the Metah’s servlings circulated among the elders, providing ertleg claw and tong’pod for refreshment. Chase availed himself of a generous portion of everything, earning a disapproving look from Likteek.

Chase shrugged, muttering, “A hero’s gotta keep up his strength.”

Another elder—Chase didn’t know him—spoke up. “Yet we’re all Seomish, aren’t we?

The kels have their differences. But this isn’t Seome. Urku’s a new world, new ideas, new ways of thinking and relating. Maybe we should send help.”

Now Likteek cut in. “We know nothing of the m’jeete. Until we have data, we shouldn’t make a hasty decision.”

Telpy’t spat. “Likteek, you’ll be collecting ‘data’ until the day you die…even beyond if you can. Let the Ponkti strangle on their own mess.”

Throughout the discussion, Mokleeoh munched thoughtfully on ertleg and drifted quietly at one edge of the gathering, hovering over some coral branches in such a way as to scratch her underbelly. Two servlings soon came forward to help the Metah scratch an itch she couldn’t reach. Chase had long ago grown accustomed to the sight of Seomish nuzzling and licking each other even as they met in solemn conclave and made grave decisions.

Kind of like the President and his Cabinet crawling all over the floor of the White House, licking each other’s behinds, he had once explained to Angie. Disgusting and mesmerizing at the same time.

Now Mokleeoh turned to Chase. “Perhaps Kel’metah has something to add.” She shooed her servlings off and they scooted out of sight.

Chase had always been somewhat intimidated in Kel’em meetings. It was like being in Sunday School, and being told to recite Bible verse in front of everybody. Still, the Metah had asked.

“Maybe we should look at this a different way,” he told them. “Maybe the m’jeete can’t be defeated by any kel. Maybe we should work with the Tailless and form a joint mission to do this. Think of it like this: my descendants, the Umans we encountered back on Seome, were in a battle with these same creatures, the Coethi. They knew how to fight them. What if we go to the Tailless and propose this…some kind of joint operation to isolate and contain the Coethi? I’m sure the Tailless have weapons and technology we can only dream of. If we work together, instead of fighting each other, we achieve two things. First, we have a better chance of beating back or at least controlling the Coethi. Second, we develop ways of working with the Tailless and cooperating with them to do things together. The Ponkti have inadvertently given us a great opportunity. Seomish and Humans face a common threat. We have to work together if we expect to defeat it.”

There was grumbling and arguing and catcalls among the Kel’em, but Mokleeoh pulsed the elders and detected some semblance of agreement as well. As usual, the elders were divided.

Telpy’t represented one faction. “Lektereenah thinks only of herself. It’s a trap…they want something from us. We can’t trust them.”

“What choice do we have, old Telpy’t?”

“The Umans destroyed our home…why should we help them?”

“The m’jeete may destroy their home, if we don’t…are you so blind?”

The arguments raged back and forth for many minutes, until finally Mokleeoh bleated out:

Enough! That’s enough. I’ve made a decision.”

Slowly, reluctantly, quiet came to the gathering, broken only the distant hiss of steam vents and the bubble curtains.

“We’ll do as Kel’metah Chase says…contact the Tailless. Arrange to work with them. This is their world, after all. They surely have a vested interest in protecting their own world…of which we are now a part, whether we like it or not. Somehow, some way, we must learn to work with the Tailless. Kel’metah, can you signal your contacts at once?”

Chase agreed that he would use the signaler and try to arrange a meeting to map out a response to the menace that was even now expanding across the western Pacific.

After the Kel’em was dispersed, Chase hunted down Tulcheah and found her with her own em’kel, putting away tools and supplies from an expedition to the other side of the seamount.

She pulsed a great deal of worry inside Chase and came over to nuzzle.

But Chase was in no mood and shoved her away. Tulcheah was hurt.

“No shoo’kel today, is that it? Not very friendly for Kel’metah. Perhaps you are ill?”

“No, that’s not it at all. I’m sorry, I’ve just got a lot on my mind. “He explained what Mokleeoh had tasked him to do. “I’m free-bound to do the Metah’s will but it’s not going to be easy.”

“You know how to operate the signaler, don’t you? What’s the problem?”

Chase helped her place sacs and pods of fish they had caught on racks around the small cave. “It’s not the signaler…it’s the signal. The message. Sure, Seomish and Human should be cooperating. We have to. I don’t think Humans realize the real nature of the Coethi threat…

remember these are ancestors of the Umans that came to Seome. What I’m afraid of is that Humans, at least some Humans, won’t make any distinction between the Coethi and the

Seomish. They see all of it as a threat and this gives them a chance to wipe out everything…us and the Coethi. That could happen, Tulcheah. It’s a real possibility.”

“Then you must make them understand, oh great Kel’metah.” She began nuzzling again and this time, Chase didn’t resist.

Chase knew she was right but that didn’t make the idea any easier to swallow. “How the hell does a beach bum just out of high school get into something like this? All I ever wanted to do was play my go-tone with the Croc Boys and make music.”

Tulcheah was almost eerie in the way she could pulse Chase and understand his innermost thoughts. “You have the largest stage of all now, Kel’metah Chase. Is this not what you dreamed of…to play before the largest audience?”

Chase sighed. Tulcheah’s beak always knew the perfect spot to nuzzle. “I guess but what if I mess up…what if I miss a note…what if I don’t get the key just right?”

“The answer is litorkel ge, Chase. Calm waters. The best answer is vish’tu…the roam.

Let’s roam…it’ll do you well.”

They coupled a bit, finding a small niche away from the rest of the em’kel, and when they were done, they left the cave and headed out to circle Keenomsh’pont and listen to the sounds and pulses of the camp all around them.

Chase was glum but it wasn’t the Metah’s orders that made him so dispirited. It was what he and Angie had decided a few days ago…that Chase would let Dr. Josey Holland try to medically, surgically, nanobotically, reverse the em’took modifications he’d been living with for so long. Once the process was done, he knew he would no longer be able to relate to Tulcheah, to Likteek, to the Metah, to any of them, in the same way.

And that made him sad.

And so it was that, after struggling with a decision he had promised Angie he would make and struggling with an order from the Metah herself, Kel’metah Chase finally knew what he had to do.

Chapter 14

Solnet Omnivision Video Post

@lucy.kwan.solnet worldview

September 23, 2115

1750 hours

SOLNET Special Report

“China’s New Allies”

Lucy Kwan reports from Zhanjiang, south China, on breaking news that a new underwater assault force, a UNIFORCE task force, is now approaching the center of the disturbance that has been generating storms and waterspouts and bubbles of toxic air across southeast Asia and the western Pacific in recent weeks.

“I am reporting from a mobile Solnet broadcast center in this ancient Chinese city on the details of a large-scale military operation that UNIFORCE is apparently conducting in the South China Sea, an operation that is on-going even as we speak, an operation conducted in coordination with elements of the Peoples Liberation Army and Navy.

“Zhanjiang is a prefectural capital in this part of Guangdong Province and looks out over the gulf of Leizhou to the distant shores of Hainan Island to the south. Not far from our position here, the PLA Navy operates a large naval force out of Longpo Naval Base.

“I’ll try to describe our setup here first…we’re working with a drone operator out of Manilla, Theo Garcia, who is running an underwater newsdrone for Solnet, a drone called REMUS. The REMUS drone is currently underway at a depth of two hundred meters, heading south, so Theo tells us, toward the site of the disturbance. We’re about two miles or so but already we’re getting sonar indications of a large formation, probably UNIFORCE UWAT teams moving into position.

“Our sources in Paris tell us that UNIFORCE will shortly engage the target with combat nanobotic swarms, ANADs they’re called. That stands for Autonomous Nanoscale Assembler/Disassemblers. The purpose of the assault is to surround the target site, said to be some kind of machine that is generating all these disturbances, and render it harmless.

“Sources within UNIFORCE have told this reporter that the target is a swarm itself, a large and growing concentration of nano-robotic elements that apparently came through to this world from the same location as the Sea People. It’s unclear whether the Sea People brought them along or whether this is some kind of unexpected development. In any case, according to our sources, UNIFORCE will attempt in this operation to isolate and contain the alien swarms and allow other agencies and organizations to begin the process of cleaning up the environmental mess that these unwanted visitors have caused…”

the image from Solnet shifts to a low-light level scene, illuminated and computer-enhanced from sonar returns…a cloudy, silty ocean lies ahead…with flickers and pinpricks of light going off seemingly at random…there are steep hills and sand banks on both sides of what seems to be a shallow ravine or valley…

“…ah, now we’re beginning to see something…Theo, can you clean up the image anymore?

No…Theo says we’re at max resolution right now…REMUS is unable to approach any closer…

apparently it’s receiving warning signals from UNIFORCE elements to stay at this distance, so we’ll have to reconnoiter from this position…Theo, perhaps we could just navigate around the combat zone at a safe distance for a better perspective….”

…the scene and perspective shifts again and it’s apparent that the drone is underway, moving laterally around and over some rock formations…schools of silvery fish dart to and fro across the view, while in the right corner of the image, the flickers of light have grown faster, more intense and it’s readily evident that some kind of action is going on…there is an intense blue-white undulating ribbon of light snaking crazily in slow motion through the water…the line of engagement between UNIFORCE ANAD assault swarms and the Coethi swarms…

“Although we can’t show our viewers exactly what’s going on at the point of attack, due to security restrictions, Solnet engineers have worked with UNIFORCE tactical people over the last year to provide a sort of simulation of what combat at the level of atoms and molecules is actually like—let’s take a look at that now…”

Appending and opening video segment V-338

“Interview with Colonel John Winger, United Nations Quantum Corps”, June 5, 2114

“It’s funny how combat looks when you were the size of a few atoms. I remember seeing some old vid…a movie they used to call them—of the U.S. Navy fighting in the Big War…the Second Big One. Frogmen fighting underwater. That’s what nano-combat looks like. Nothing but foam and bubbles, only it isn’t bubbles you’re seeing. It’s stringy chains of atoms that look like tree ornaments…bulbs on a filament whipping through space, cleaved by things that looked like spiky maces and octahedral balls and weird pyramids and every shape imaginable, all careening along as if blown by a hurricane.

“When you link in to see what our tiny ANAD assemblers are dealing with, you get a dizzying image coming up on your eyepiece--

--Long, whippy chains hurtling at you…a sleet of shapes of every size and description.

Cones, polygons, tetrahedrals, pieces of lattice, a junkyard of molecules streaming at you and you can even feel the battering the tiny assembler is taking. It’s like wading into the ocean surf in the middle of a hurricane. When the coupler link is working a little too well…you can feel the impacts of errant atoms and radicals, molecular junk hurtling at you, pounding and slamming into you. It’s all just whirling, colliding shapes materializing on your screen…a blizzard of polygons and snake-like carbon chains, twin-lobed oxygens careening off L-shaped nitrogens, like some kind of mad volleyball game.

“At first, you feel like you’re flying in a blizzard…shapes and images rushing at you from all directions, pummeling and washing over you. You catch glimpses of the shapes…it’s a grid, a three-dimensional lattice of quivering spheres and cones and polygons and you’re rushing through them like a high-speed film. It’s wild, really insane, what it looks and feels like.”

“Colonel Winger, what are some of the tactics and principles you have to know to successfully engage an enemy swarm at this level?”

Winger runs a hand across the top of his blond buzz cut. He closes his eyes to think.

“Well, perhaps the best answer to your question would be for me to quote and illustrate from Quantum Corps Field Manual Q1-2 on combat tactics and maneuvers…so here goes.”

The screen fills with dense rows of text, along with embedded vids and simulations…

Many viewers have asked about how Quantum Corps nanotroopers go about their business.

What sort of tactics are effective in combatting enemies in the world of atoms and molecules?

The following list details some of these tactics and maneuvers.

Deception and concealment:

Nanoscale assemblers and robots with quantum processors have the ability to make relatively quick configuration changes. Swarms can look like clouds of dust, rain storms and hordes of flies or bees, even structures like buildings, cars, etc. These config changes provide a ready-made source of deceptive countermeasures for concealment, allowing a typical ANAD unit to infiltrate and spring a surprise on even the most suspicious adversary. The Russians call this tactic maskirovka.

Feints and Diversions:

The Chinese general and strategist Sun Tzu claimed that “all war is based on deception.” Feints and diversions are part of the same toolkit. Quantum Corps uses swarms to conceal a main axis of assault, or to confuse an adversary as to where the main assault will be. This is a relatively straightforward task in nanoscale warfare. Just replicate a few trillion bots, configure them into something the enemy expects and send them in the direction the enemy is anticipating. If your intelligence is good, the enemy will react to these moves and weaken himself along another axis. The ability to replicate quickly and form swarms to resemble any structure or form gives ANAD-style units unbeatable capabilities.

Swarming attack (mass):

The use of replicated mass in nanobotic warfare is one of the simplest tactics to use.

Just slam atoms together like a drug-crazed brick mason on steroids and overwhelm the enemy with sheer mass. Nanotroopers call this a ‘Big Bang.’ The trick to succeeding with this tactic is to be able to out-replicate the enemy and fend off any defenses he may have up his nanoscale sleeve…like electron bond disrupters, etc. Although it’s often said that the best way to defeat a swarm is with another swarm, a High-Energy Radio Frequency (HERF) gun doesn’t hurt. With enough blasts of rf, any swarm can be shattered and turned into clouds of French fries falling out of the sky.

Dispersal

One of the great advantages of using swarms of nanobots in combat is the ability to pulse. Pulsing means that the normal state of affairs is for the swarm to be dispersed or scattered to resemble or blend in to the local environment. With the right signal, the dispersed bots can quickly gather together into whatever configuration or formation is needed, and slam the adversary from multiple directions at once. Bees do it. Birds do it.

And now ANAD nanobots do it too.

Entrapments and Ambushes

An ambush is a form of deception. The point is to draw the adversary into a space where you have the advantage of mass and position. Ambushes can be ridiculously easy when your swarms have the ability to configure as just about anything, a mountain, a cloud, a body of water. But all nanobotic swarms require vigorous atom-slamming to maintain structure, and thus give off acoustic, electromagnetic and other atomic effects of this activity. Thus masking your signature and controlling emissions is critical to an ambush. As Sun Tzu put it: “Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt.”

Managing Configuration Changes

Quantum Corps tactics succeed when the proper swarm configuration can be deployed in a tactically effective manner. This means the config templates and drivers have to be up to speed. It also means the bots that make up a swarm have to be designed from the outset to replicate commanded configs quickly and without error, often under combat conditions. A lot of this depends on intelligence…what do you know about your adversary? Good intelligence, good communications and effective configuration management…every tactic used by Quantum Corps has all these elements, in abundance.

These are just some of the basic tactics and maneuvers used by ANAD-style formations in Quantum Corps engagements….

A split-screen view re-appears on the screen. Lucy Kwan’s face, squinting in concentration, fills the right side of the screen. The left side is a blurry mélange of swirling colors and shapes.

“I’m sorry to interrupt the simulation and explanation but Theo has just advised me that REMUS has been able to move in a little closer…Theo, can you stabilize the image any more…?”

For a few seconds, the image is a dizzying clash of colors and shapes, weird polygons sleeting at the screen, then slowly, bit by bit, the image settles down. It’s a computer-enhanced image, an algorithmic approximation of what you would see if you could read sonar returns.

There is a bright glow, intense enough to wash out almost all other detail, at the center.

REMUS is cruising slowly, side-scanning the target from a distance of about a thousand meters. The glow throbs and pulses like a beating heart and there are fainter pulses dancing around the perimeter of the central orb…the split screen shows Lucy Kwan studying the same image with a pen idly tapping at the corners of her mouth…

“…I’m told that the bright glow is a machine of some sort at the center of the target zone.

Unnamed sources within the PLA Navy and within UNISEA have told Solnet that this machine seems to be some kind of device that manipulates time and space, possibly generating wormholes or similar phenomena that can be adjusted and used. It’s unclear to this reporter whether the Sea People had anything to do with this, though there have been reports that the Sea People themselves first appeared in our seas through just such a gateway. Again, these are speculations from a variety of uncorroborated sources. The smaller light blobs around the bright glow are said to be vortexes, whirlpools which the machine is generating…now that the alien swarms apparently have been cleared away or contained in some fashion, we can get a better picture of this phenomenon.”

Kwan goes on with her narration, as REMUS continues to circle the machine and its accompanying whirlpools from a safe distance. Small clouds pulsate with throbbing blue-white

light further away, sometimes coalescing into larger formations. These are the UNIFORCE

combat ANAD swarms returning on command to their own containment tanks. Occasionally, the bow and sail of a small submarine passes by just at the edge of the screen, sweeping up remaining remnants of the shattered Coethi force, collecting clouds of residual ANAD bots that have finished engaging the enemy and are awaiting pickup.

“This reporter should also report that sources within the Defense Ministry and the Foreign Ministry in Beijing have told Solnet that the Chinese government has detailed long-range plans for using this unusual machine, if it in fact can manipulate time and space. These sources indicate that China plans to use the machine and a developing alliance with one faction of the Sea People to dominate all of east Asia and the western Pacific, perhaps to even try to change history itself so that imperial China, that is to say Ming-dynasty China, does not turn inward and fall under Western domination as actually happened but remains a great power into present times. These sources have said that the government intends to use this machine, if possible, to return to the days of maritime glory under the Ming-dynasty Admiral Zheng He.

“Of course, Solnet can’t fully corroborate such reports as yet, but we’re working on finding additional sources and validation that such ideas are current and represent thinking at the highest levels of the Chinese government.

“Let’s take a few moments to look more closely at the Ming dynasty and what happened historically around the time of Admiral Zheng He….”

Chapter 15

Keenomsh’pont, near Bermuda

September 25, 2115

1230 hours

Chase was working with Tulcheah and others from the weavers’ em’kel, stitching together more fiber net from tchin’ting for additional habitats in the Omtorish zone when a repeater’s alarm went off. The shrieking notes were easily heard across the whole of Keenomsh’pont, above the din of hundreds of kelke at work…an alarm heard by everyone.

Dozens of kelke dropped what they were doing and immediately rushed to the edge of the settlement. Beyond the outer perimeter of bubble curtains, a hard-suited diver lay floundering and flailing among some coral banks, its boots seemingly caught in a narrow crevice.

“Look! Tailless...is it hurt?”

“What’s wrong with it?”

“It’s caught in that fissure…see how it’s struggling…maybe it’s dying even.”

Chase led the kelke to the diver. Whoever it was, they wore a hard shell atmospheric diving suit. The helmet was fogged, so he couldn’t see inside.

“Maybe it’s their rebreather,” Chase said. He placed a firm hand on the driver’s arms, trying to reassure them… it’s okay, it’s okay, we’re here to help. “Or the mixture…I’ll check the mixture.” But he couldn’t see anything wrong with the gauges or mixture controls…O2

okay, C02 levels about right. It was puzzling. Further examination showed the diver’s side thrusters seemed to be working okay.

Chase and two Omtorish midlings worked to free the diver’s feet, which took some doing.

Finally, with a few thrusts of their beaks and a lot of pulling and shoving, the rock overhang was broken off and the diver was free.

The diver popped away and only a firm hand from Chase kept the poor soul from panicking.

“Shouldn’t we take it to the surface?” someone suggested. “There are craft there…Tailless craft…they could help. And one of their drones over there--”

Flippers and fins pointed off into the murky distance. Chase could see a small craft hovering nearby, probably unmanned, autonomous. Somebody had painted shark’s teeth on the bow.

“No time,” Chase decided. “Take him to the Notwater pod in the camp…anybody got a pal’penk we can strap him to?”

“We do…we’re outfitting a train now.” The midling was young, husky male, already scarred from his Circling…one of the first to try the adolescent ritual on Urku. His name was Potok and he was proud of what he had done. Potok issued a stream of low squeaks and whistles and presently, a slow, aging pal’penk lumbered by, her belly already sagging with cargo pods and sacs. Potok and the others wrestled the diver, now resigned to its fate, onto a makeshift sling and secured him to the pal’penk’s hump. With a sharp swat on its tail, the pal’penk mooed and flippered off toward Keenomsh’pont, accompanied by a dozen kelke.

They parted the bubble curtains and cruised at a stately pace toward the Notwater pod, stashed out of the way below the Lab caves at the foot of the great seamount.

The Notwater pod was quickly unfurled and erected. It looked like a giant mushroom split open at the top. Or a giant hand, with fingers sticking up. Once the diver had been released

from the pal’penk, the pack animal scooted off and the pod’s ‘fingers’ closed around them.

Only Chase and the diver remained inside.

Now Chase helped the diver remove his helmet. When it was almost off, Chase was startled to see a female…page-boy hair…little dimple on her chin….

It was Angie Gilliam!

“My God…what are--?

Angie smiled weakly, finishing with her helmet, shoving hoses and tubes away from her face. She coughed and sat back and sighed, her eyes weak and watery.

“Hi, big guy…I guess I owe you an explanation, huh?”

“What the hell…it was you out there…and what is all this?” He indicated her hard suit, with its side thrusters, rebreather pack, all kinds of gadgets and vid cameras and gear hanging off the thing.

Angie took a deep breath. “It was their idea.”

“Whose idea?”

“The government…those agents. Actually, I think they were Navy. They wanted me to suit up and come down here, near the camp. Pretend to be in distress, so you’d rescue me.

Take me inside the camp.”

Chase frowned. “You’re a spy?”

Angie shrugged. “I’m supposed to be. But this was such a harebrained idea anyway….”

Now Chase understood. “The government wanted a spy inside Keenomsh’pont, that’s what this is. How did you…what did they do to you--?”

She reached out with her one ungloved hand and touched Chase’s arm. “They said if I didn’t help out, I could be charged. Espionage. Accomplice to something or other, just because I knew you and you were like some kind of enemy alien or something. I don’t understand it.”

Chase was growing irritated with the whole affair. “I do. The government’s concerned because some Seomish, the Ponkti, are working with the Chinese. They think the Seomish are enemies. This is a reconnaissance mission, Ang…they threatened you and made you do their job for them.”

“That’s what I’m trying to say…they gave me this suit, trained me on it, gave me a cover story…just like in the vids. I guess I’m lucky you were nearby, huh?”

“Pretty lucky. Some of the kelke wanted to take you back to the surface. And there was some kind of drone nearby…doing nothing to help out. That made me suspicious right from the start.”

“What are we going to do, Chase? I really don’t want to stay here…but I’m supposed to give them some idea of what goes on inside the camp.”

Chase sat back and thought. “We’re going to give them what they want, in fact more than they want. Then you and I have a little trip to make.”

“A trip…what kind of—” But already he was helping Angie stand up 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,” Angie shuddered. Or an aquarium. “You said we were going on a little trip.”

Chase was already putting her helmet back on, trying to align the seal with the ring inside the neck dam. “Yeah…to a place called Woods Hole. Dr. Holland said she wants to run some tests…she may be able to reverse the em’took process…make me like you again.”

Angie stopped the helmet. “You’re really serious, aren’t you? We talked about this before…there’s really a way to put you back…the old Chase?”

Chase nodded. “Yeah. She’s working on a procedure. I don’t understand it all but it involves some nanobotic actions, some bacteria stuff, some genetic stuff. She wants to run some tests first. That’s why I have to go to her lab.”

Now Angie’s face was a mixture of looks. “I…Chase, I’ve never been sure about any of this. I mean, look at you: you look like an alligator with fingers…and some kind of goofy grin

—”

“Thanks.”

“I’d be scared out of my mind if I wasn’t sure this was you—” she reached out and faintly touched the scales on his arms, feeling the rigid armfins. “But only Chase Meyer could make me laugh and cry and want to reach out and smack someone, like you. That’s how I know this is really you.”

“I think Dr. Holland looks at me as a big science project.”

Angie frowned slightly. “So do I. Do you really want to do this? I mean I want my old Chase back…don’t get me wrong. You and me—”

“I would like to take you to the prom this year,” Chase admitted. “I guess I sort of messed that up last time.”

“Yeah,” she admitted, feeling gently among the bony ridges of his chest. “Croc Boys groupies can do that. Chase, if you’re really going to do this…if you’re really going to this Woods Hole, I want to go along.”

“Sure. That’d be great. But what about your…you know, your mission. Your spying.”

Angie sniffed. “Well, I’m supposed to be finding out what the Sea People are up to. You’re sort of like a Sea People. If I follow you and make some kind of report, I guess I’m doing what they want me to do…Chase, I don’t want to get either of us in any trouble.”

“You’re coming with me,” Chase decided. He pushed her helmet down and locked it in place. Then at a signal from Chase, the fingers of the Notwater pod peeled back, allowing seawater to roar into the space. Angie clung to him for a moment, until her breather kicked in and she realized she was safe.

The two of them left the Lab caves and went hunting for a long-distance kip’t. Packing it with provisions and supplies took several hours. Before the sun had gone down topside, Chase lifted the kip’t away from its landing pads just outside Keenomsh’pont, turned them to the right heading and jetted up and away from the camp. Soon they were enveloped in dark, with only the faint lights of the kip’t controls for company.

Chase zigzagged back and forth, searching for the right scent trail, then found it and settled down for the two-day trip across the western Atlantic, bound for Nantucket Sound, Nobska Point and Woods Hole.

By arrangement with the signaler device, Dr. Josey Holland and several of her assistants were waiting on the sandy beach at Eel Pond when the kip’t surfaced. It was a warm late September afternoon and few pedestrians were around on the gravel pathways along School Street and Water Street. Holland waited anxiously for Chase to disembark and wade up onto the

beach. A hard-suited diver also climbed out of the little sled, awkwardly and trudged through the water to stand on the tiny beach alongside Chase.

Holland was surprised to see a female face emerge when Chase helped remove the helmet.

“This is Angie Gilliam, Doctor Holland. Uh, she’s my girlfriend.”

Holland nodded correctly at Angie. “I see. Well, I don’t have any accommodations here for her…maybe we can put her up at the Challenger Hotel. It’s not far.”

Angie offered a smile. “I’m just here to give Chase some support. I won’t get in the way…

promise.”

No, you won’t, Holland didn’t say to either of them. “Of course. I understand. Let’s get your gear stowed. I’ll show you the lab…it’s right up here.”

The two of them follow Holland up the slope, across a small parking lot, past a barn and into the front entrance to Redfield Lab. Holland’s intern Tracey Rook and her technician Rob followed with their gear.

They ignored the stares of dozens of white-jacketed technicians and researchers all around them as they went in.

The ground floor lab dedicated to Holland was a multi-room affair, with a surgical pool in one room, surrounded by cabinets and tables and an articulating arm that stretched out over the pool, equipped with multiple tool heads, scopes and instruments.

“Part of my examination stuff,” Holland explained, while Chase and Angie stared wide-eyed at all the equipment. “You were here for a while when I brought you to Woods Hole…probably you don’t remember any of that. I had you sedated pretty heavily. Sorry for all that…it was a mistake but we did learn a lot about you while you were here.”

“I have just a vague memory,” Chase admitted. “I guess I was an unwilling patient.” Angie just glared back at Holland.

“Let me show you the special compartment where we’ll do the procedure…after some more tests, unfortunately. I’ve got to do a thorough DNA sampling to get a baseline on you. Then I have to ‘tune’ the bots to make sure they do what they’re supposed to…you can’t be too careful with these critters, you know.”

“Given what’s been happening with the Coethi bots, I’d say that’s a good idea.”

Angie was concerned, not to mention a little jealous and suspicious of the biologist’s motives. “Dr. Holland, are you really going to infest Chase with nanobots? Isn’t that pretty dangerous?”

Holland shrugged. “It can be, unless you know what you’re doing. It’s all in the configuration of the bot swarms, in the safety protocols and containment procedures. But not to worry. We won’t be starting anything we can’t control. We’ve been doing this on other—er, specimens, probably that’s not the right word, for quite some time now.”

“She’s an expert on Tursiops and other cetacean species,” Chase said.

“I’ll bet.”

The surgical compartment was a room down the hall from the surgical pool. Inside, the room was divided in two. Behind massive doors lay the containment vault, where Chase would undergo the multiple interventions that constituted the basics of the procedure.

“I call it conicthyosis,” Holland said. “Sort of a combination of symbiosis and ichthyology, with the ‘con’ thrown in to denote reversing something. My own wording, actually. Tracey and Rob and I are already working on a paper about it.”

“This is all approved?” Angie asked. “Certified, licensed or whatever?”

Holland smiled faintly. “It’s all approved by the Institute. I’ll let you meet Dr. Wriston, our department manager. He approves all research efforts and programs in this section.”

“Then, this is all experimental.”

Holland nodded. “Yes, of course. In fact, just to be safe, I’ll have to have Chase sign some waivers before we start. Departmental…and Institute policy, you understand.”

Holland showed them the interior of the containment vault. It resembled a small apartment and was more extensive than either Chase or Angie realized, with a small bed, toilet, kitchenette with sink and fab and refrigerator, and some bookshelves. A vid screen dominated a small but cozy sitting area. Along one wall, a counter had been placed with ports above the counter for remote manipulator and surgical extension gloves to reach inside the containment zone, for samples, blood tests and short-range examinations. Around the ceiling of the compartment, vid cameras were everywhere.

“Let’s go into my office—it’s just around the corner—and I’ll run through the tests and the basics of the procedure…what to expect over the next few days. Dr. Wriston will be coming by later and there are waivers and consent forms to sign.”

The procedure called conicthyosis was scheduled to begin in two days, after more tests, interviews, waivers and paperwork. Institute lawyers even showed up at one meeting, closely questioning both Chase and Angie: did they understand what was to be done, were they fully in agreement with all the protocols involved, did they freely and of their own volition consent to any and all steps, procedures, measures, practices, techniques and actions required to carry out the procedure?

Chase and Angie rapidly grew weary of all the legalese, though they understood why it was necessary and readily signed off on everything.

Back at the Challenger Hotel, Chase was anxious to get started. Angie, staring out the windows at the Nobska Point lighthouse early one evening, was less sanguine.

“I don’t trust her,” she admitted. “It’s all…I don’t know…it’s too much…too fast. The whole thing’s experimental as hell and nobody really knows what’s going to happen.”

Chase came to her, and lightly wrapped his scaly arms around her shoulders. She didn’t flinch or move away, for which he was both surprised and grateful. Maybe….

“Ang, this is the only way I can get me back. I thought that’s what you wanted to. To be like it was between us…boy-girl, and all that. I can’t take you to the prom like this.”

Angie smiled and chuckled softly. “No, probably not, you dolt. Though there are some real slimy creeps in our class, like Eddie Volchuk, for one. Eeewww!”

“Ah, yes…Eddie. A walking acne commercial…the before part. But Ang, I know you…

there’s something else. I can see it. You just don’t like Dr. Holland, do you? What is it…the way she dresses? Her hair?”

“No, you idiot.” She swatted his arms away from her shoulders. “It’s not her hair, for God’s sake. It’s—” she shrugged, wrapped her arms around her shoulders “—it’s… her. Chase, I think Holland has the hots for you. I can see it…anybody could see it.”

“She’s a scientist. This is research. I’m the object of that research. If anything, I’m like a lab rat to her.”

“No, you’re not and you know that. It’s more. I see the way she looks at you….it gives me the creeps. That fish doctor has something else in mind besides this conicconik

whateverthehell it is. I can’t even pronounce it.”

“What…you think she’s in love with me? Ang, come on—“:

“Hey, just go lay down, will you, and watch a vid or play a game or something. Let me think. I need to sort all this out. Plus I have to contact my ‘handlers.’” She went to her purse and pulled out a small object. “—with this gadget thing.”

Chase skulked off and plopped himself in bed, lying there with his hands behind his big bony head. He knew there was no way he was ever going to win this argument.

What’s gotten into that girl? She’s turned into a jealous animal, all of a sudden.

He found it both titillating and exasperating at the same time.

Dr. Josey Holland had spent the last few days massaging config scan data, using multiple interview sessions with Chase and Angie, to fill in gaps in the scan and make a more accurate representation of what Chase—the restored Chase, should look like. The next step was to put the Config Engine to work with this digital model of Chase and see what it could create.

She had warned them both that multiple iterations might be needed. Someone had mentioned Frankenstein as a crude analog of what they were trying to do.

The big day came and Angie gathered with Rob and Tracey and Dr. Wriston, with Dr.

Holland outside the containment chamber in Redfield Lab, headquarters of the Autonomous Systems Lab. Inside the chamber, a small bed had been placed, for Chase to lie on when ‘he’ was fully restored. Just in case, electron beam injectors were primed and ready.

“We can’t violate safety protocols, even in this situation,” Holland explained.

Angie was doubtful but said nothing, while Holland scanned her board and made some adjustments. “I’ve got the Config Engine loaded now. From the scans we did of Chase before, we have lots of data. I had a quite a time massaging and tweaking and converting all that data, trying to get something clean. You don’t know it, but I’ve already run some tests…yesterday.

Things looked promising.”

Angie was curious. “What kind of tests, Dr. Holland?”

Holland was reluctant to go into details now. Clients were sometimes sensitive about these matters. “Oh, just little tests. I extracted some of the data and ran it through the Config Engine…you know, assembling small things, simple structures.”

“Of Chase? What kind of simple structures?”

“It was just a test—“

“What kind of structures, Doc?” Angie asked, a little more firmly.

Holland shrugged, went back to her instruments. “A finger here, a hand there. Really, it went well.”

Angie nearly choked. “A finger? You assembled one of Chase’s fingers? And a hand?

What are—what happened?”

“The test went fine. The Config Engine performed as expected. I examined the…er, the structures and found them well formed, molecularly correct, consistent with the templates from your data. It was…what can I say?...a finger.”

“And a hand.”

“Exactly.”

“What did you do with them?”

Holland looked surprised. Sometimes, she figured it was better if the clients didn’t know all the details. People reacted differently. “I let it go. That is, the Config Engine broke them down, disassembled them. Back into feedstock.”

Angie swallowed hard. Maybe Chase had been right. Normal couples shouldn’t be able to just conjure up limbs and fingers of their loved ones. But then again, since nanobotic assemblers had been invented twenty years ago, maybe they could. It was all very confusing.

“Okay, Doc…I guess we really didn’t need to hear about that. What’s next?”

Holland turned back to her control station. “Next is releasing the feedstock into the chamber.” She pressed a few buttons and on the monitor, a faint mist began issuing from a row of ports. The chamber quickly filled with the mist. “Just raw stock. A bunch of atoms and molecules…standard stuff…oxygens, irons, phosphorous and nitrogens…you name it.

Ingredients for the cook….” Immediately she wished she hadn’t said that. Every client reacted differently. And this one was one of the Sea People…already a celebrity.

The filling took about three minutes. “All the templates of Chase are loaded in the Config Engine now. When the previous…uh, version was scanned and disassembled, I took a memory field map of all those atoms in structure, combined it with similar data scanned from him earlier, and created these templates. We should be able to put together a new Chase better than ever, assuming the Conicthyotic bacteria have done their job.”

Angie just shook her head. “This is just creepy, Doc, hearing my Chase talked about like this. Could you just get on with it—“

“Of course.” Holland pressed a few more buttons.

Inside the containment chamber, the master assembler had just been released. The master was a nanobotic device that orchestrated assembly of feedstock atoms and molecules into whatever structures were contained in the template. The template had been developed from multiple genetic scans over the last few days.

The monitor showed a mist filling the chamber, like an early morning fog, only this mist sparkled as if a billion fireflies were embedded. The mist thickened until the bed was lost to view.

Minutes passed. Holland followed her instruments, adjusting the Config Engine on the fly.

“Threshold density,” she announced. “Memory field steady, all parameters in the green.”

The first hint of structure emerged from the fog, in the form of a faint, translucent, almost ghostly hand, alongside the edge of the bed. Fluctuations in the fog caused more structure to become intermittently visible: several fingers, part of a forearm, a brief glimpse of a knee. From these structures, Dr. Wriston silently estimated where Chase’s head and face should be and began a silent count under his breath. But nothing was visible yet.

More minutes passed. Then, Angie gasped softly. She pointed.

The barest outlines of a face materialized into view, slipping in and out of the fog like a wraith. There was the faint blond beard and moustache, the blue eyes, the scar above his right eye due to fishing accident, the chin dimple (not easily seen), the silly big ears. And the lips—and that unruly lock of hair.

“It’s him!” Angie breathed. Involuntarily, she clutched Tracey Rook tightly, leaning against the intern’s shoulder. “It’s Chase—“

“I see it…I see it.” Tracey watched in amazement as more and more structure came into view. From everything she could see, it was Chase, though Tracey had never seen the original before. She knew how the technology worked. She understood how assemblers slammed atoms together according to a template. She’d helped designed and run more configs than Dr. Wriston had ever dreamed about…working with Holland, they all had. But this…this was different.

Holland watched the monitor and her instruments carefully, making some minor adjustments. “Config still stable. No alarms…no issues. He’s coming in beautifully.

Everything within tolerances, right in the middle of the band. I’m adding more feedstock… we’re approaching minimum density…what do you think, Angie, Dr. Wriston?”

Angie let her eyes play across the prostrate form of her boyfriend, inside the containment chamber. Part of her mind told her this couldn’t be Chase…it was a 3-d sim, or a fab, a near-perfect likeness, but still a likeness. But her own feelings and Dr. Wriston’s reactions overruled that hard logic and she felt a lump in the back of her throat. It couldn’t be Chase.

But it was Chase. The original recipe.

To keep control of himself and act as he figured a department manager should act, Dr.

Wriston focused on the instruments, on the swarm inside the vault, on critiquing the process, on config stability, anything to smother all those feelings that were bubbling up. His shoulder ached from where Tracey had been clutching him and, gently as he could, he extricated himself.

“How long, Josey?”

Holland studied the board, watched as more and more of Chase emerged from the mist into solid structure. “Well, scans are showing about sixty-five percent complete. This should be done in about two more hours. After we reach target density, I’ve got to run some tests. See how stable the config is. Make sure the pattern buffers are cleared out. And we’ll spot check the config against the original memory field. That’ll be another hour.”

“This is so unreal,” Angie said. “It’s a vid, like some kind of animation. I just want to get in there and hug him to death.”

By mid-afternoon, Holland pronounced herself satisfied. Looking through the portholes of the containment chamber, Chase was lying on his side on the bed, seemingly asleep. He seemed to be breathing normally; his chest rose and fell with a rhythmic pattern.

“I think it’s safe to let him out now,” Holland decided. She enjoyed the look of anticipation on Angie Gilliam’s face. She also took a quick peek at the electron beam injectors, just in case. Subjects sometimes developed glitches and hiccups in their program during assembly. It happened. You couldn’t take too many chances. “I’m shutting down security systems. Latches coming un-done.” A few clicks, pops and squeaks sounded at the hatch. Then a hiss, as pressures equalized. Holland went over and dogged the hatch open.

With some urging and hand-signaling. Chase got up and waddled slowly, a bit awkwardly out, a sheepish grin on his face.,

”Ya’ll look like you’ve seen a ghost.” His hair was disheveled and Angie reached up automatically and brushed back that lock of hair that had a mind of its own. She let her fingers run along his blond stubble, scarcely believing it.

“Chase…it’s really you—”

“Of course it’s me…who did you expect?”

Angie grabbed both of his arms and swung them, like he was a one-year old, simply astonished to her have her old gangly Chase back, fit and trim as ever. She grinned, laughed giddily. She turned to Holland.

“Doctor, I’m…I don’t know what to say—”

Holland was grinning too. “I’d say the operation was a success.” To Wriston, “Walter, maybe you and I should talk some more about that raise…and my new lab.”

Wriston was agog at the scene. “I never thought this would work…yeah, sure, Josey. I’ll take it up with the Board…today, this afternoon.”

Holland came back to earth. “There are still some tests I’d like to do…genetic stability, bacterial counts, configuration checks, that sort of thing. After that, I’m guessing you two would like to be alone.”

Chase and Angie were oblivious. They stared into each other’s eyes and said nothing, their faces lit up with broad grins. What was there to say?

Full recovery took a week. In that time, Chase learned that the conicthyosis procedure wasn’t quite a one hundred-percent restoration process after all.

In the surgical pool, Dr. Holland watched Chase doing free-style laps with flip turns as she explained the residual effects to Angie.

“The templates I used in the Config Engine do the best they can with the existing genotype. Many of the changes are structural changes effected by the nanobots according to the Config Engine. But the bots can’t make changes that aren’t supported by the genes; for major modifications, the genes have to be altered as well. And when you start doing that, affecting the genotype, you’re in potentially dangerous territory.”

Chase stopped his set and popped up at the wall, slightly out of breath. “Wow…Dr.

Holland, I’ve never been able to do laps like this. It’s like I can still breathe underwater.:”

“That’s because you can, Chase. You have some residual amphibious capabilities.”

What?” Angie cried. “Amphib—what exactly do you mean?”

“Chase, show her your hands.”

Chase held up his hands. There was a faint fold of tissue between his fingers. “Like webbed feet, but not as much as before.”

Angie blinked hard. “I thought you said this procedure would reverse everything.”

“Not quite everything. His dorsal fin’s gone, just a slight bony ridge there now. No more armfins. Some residual webbing on his hands and toes. Structurally, the exterior mods went well, as I expected.”

“Exterior…what about interior?”

Now Holland smiled faintly. “Ah, yes…the interior. Well, you know that many amphibious species do what we call cutaneous respiration…their skin is highly vascularized and as long as its moist, they can actually breathe through their skin.”

Angie appeared dumbfounded. “Through their skin….”

“So, Chase can do this as well. Plus, he has residual gills…Chase, show her your armpits.”

Chase lifted his arms. Gill sacs were visible there, as slightly puffy bulges, flexing in and out after his exertions.

Angie nearly fainted.

“My boyfriend’s a frog…is that what you’re saying?”

“Not exactly. Chase is actually what we would call a hybridized amphibious vertebrate animal. Ninety percent indistinguishable from you and me, that is to say human. But with some additional…shall we say features. Physiologically, anatomically, he’s normal, but there are differences in his respiratory system. As I said, my Config Engine is inhibited from making changes at the cellular level that threaten the life of the subject. Based on what we had to work with, this phenotype is the best match. And as you can see—”

“As I can see…I’m getting ninety percent of my Chase back, as long as I don’t look to close and see that he’s a mutant.”

Dr. Holland sniffed. “Really, I think that—”

With that, Chase took off into another set of laps, this time a smooth and powerful butterfly stroke. He made turns and laps at a speed Angie had never seen before.

But what the hell had he become now?

When he was done, Chase hoisted himself onto the side of the pool deck and dried off.

That’s when Angie realized he was completely naked. She looked him over as he dried off and wrapped a towel around his waist.

Well, at least some things haven’t been lost….

The three of them went to Dr. Holland’s lab. Tracey and Ron were also there, armed with instruments and scopes that made Angie shudder at the sight of them.

“I’d really like for you to stay a few days longer, Chase,” Holland was saying. She sat behind her desk, called up some diagrams on her monitor and pressed a few buttons. Three-D

images materialized on top of the desk, anatomical images of Chase in varying stages of the conicthyosis process, rotating slowly. “I’d like to run some more tests, do some DNA and blood sampling, measure what we’ve got here against my Config Engine templates and tune the bots for future sessions.”

“Future sessions? I thought I was done.” Chase said.

Holland smiled. “I think for you, we’ve done about all we can do for the moment. I was thinking of future possibilities. Tracey here, my intern, thinks that with more data from you, we may be able to evolve the procedure to the point where any creature, say some of your Sea People friends, could actually be modified into something like a Seomish-human hybrid, as you are.”

That got Chase’s attention. “Really? Seomish kelke could actually be like human…by the way, they call us Tailless…among other things.”

Tracey spoke up, pointing out features of the rotating 3-d image of Chase, recorded from inside the containment compartment. “It would take some doing, of course. The Seomish are evolved over I’m guessing millions of years to a marine, underwater environment. We’d have to do extensive genetic research…and testing.”

“I’d really like to try it,” Holland went on. “Maybe you’d could convince some of your friends to come by the Lab for some tests.”

Angie was visibly appalled. “It’s like Frankenstein…what you’re trying to do here—”

But Chase held up a hand. “Maybe not. I know a few who might be willing…there’s a scientist named Likteek for one. And a female, Tulcheah…that would be interesting.”

Angie wanted to get away from Holland and the lab as fast as she could. She glared at Chase with barely concealed annoyance. “Chase, I think you need to go visit your family.

Your mom’s been worried sick for weeks…and your Dad, you really do need to go see him.”

“Of course, we can’t keep you here,” Holland admitted. “I can sign the release papers now, if you want. But more tests would be helpful.”

Tracey said, “He really should be kept under observation…for a few more days. Just to be sure.”

Angie was already hoisting Chase up by his arms, ready to march right out of the office.

“No way. We’ve got to be going…come on, Chase.”

He let her drag him right out into the hall. “I need to get some clothes, Ang. I can’t go out like this. Do you have a car?”

“We can take a botcar to the hotel. I think I saw a robe in the pool area.” They went to the pool and found it and Chase cinched it up as Angie was pulling him along.

“Hey, girl, what the hell’s gotten into you? You heard Dr. Holland…I’m not ready to be released yet.”

“Oh yes you are. You’re not staying around here a moment longer. We’re going back to the hotel immediately…away from that witch doctor and her crew.”

They hailed a robocab and rode in sullen silence all the way back to the Challenger Hotel north of the Institute along Quissett Avenue. The taxi deposited them at a Cape Cod-looking place, with steep slate roofs, gables, turrets and odd cupolas at either end.

In her room, Angie busied herself with an odd-looking device. It resembled a big seashell lined with recessed buttons along the bottom. Chase put on some more decent clothes, jeans and a T-shirt.

“What’s that?”

Angie didn’t reply at first, while she fiddled with the thing. Then: “They called it a

‘coupler.’ I just say what I’ve seen, scan it around and it records everything. Sends it off.”

“Off where?”

“To the government, silly. I’m a spy, remember. I’m supposed to report in every day.”

She aimed it at Chase, who smiled and mugged, lifting up his T-shirt to show off his abs…and his gills. Angie huffed in exasperation.

Chase flopped back on the bed and stuck his arms behind his head. He wiggled his webbed feet, watching the toes for a few moments.

“You really want to go back to Scotland Beach? There’s nothing there for me.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.” Angie finished with her scan and put the coupler back in her bag.

“Your whole family’s there. Your Dad’s just back from the hospital. You need to see him, show him you care. You do care, don’t you?”

Chase closed his eyes. He had to keep reminding himself that this was a different time stream, that things might not play out as they had before. They had come through the Farpool, Chase and the surviving Seomish, to a time before he and Angie had ever encountered the original Farpool off Half-Moon Cove. He wasn’t really sure what might happen next, how different this time stream might be. From what Angie had said, his Dad had still been shot in the holdup at the Turtle Key Surf and Board Shop. He’d been wounded, gone through surgery, survived and was now home recovering. But would the time stream play out like before or were there subtle differences? It seemed impossible to tell from the clues he could see and hear.

Maybe Angie was right. Maybe it was important to the integrity of the time stream that he make a visit to Scotland Beach. He hadn’t done this before, but in another time stream, he and Angie had already flown through the Farpool accidentally, with Kloosee and Pakma and wound up on Seome in the middle of the Uman-Coethi conflict.

And what of the Coethi? Somehow, they had come through the Farpool into this time stream themselves. What effect would that have on how events unfolded?

It was all very confusing and it gave Chase a headache.

“Okay, Ang, you win. Maybe we should make a visit. I can try to explain to Mom and Dad what’s happened. Of course, I can’t even explain it to myself. But it’ll be like the Croc Boys when we’re jamming in the studio…we just make stuff up as we go along.”

Angie stood there at the foot of the bed, hands on her hips. “So how are we going to do this, Chase? Neither of us has any money for airline tickets.”

“Oh, that’s the easy part. We go the same way we got here…by kip’t. Hopefully, it’s still there in that lagoon by the Institute.”

They packed their meager things and hailed another robocab to Woods Hole. Dashing quietly from building to building, hiding in the shrubbery and among parked cars, they made it to Eel Pond and found the little kip’t still there, still beached on a sandbar, just as Chase had left it. Checking inside, Chase determined that no one had been there, no one had messed with the controls. There was nothing anchoring the sled to the beach, no chains, no cables, nothing.

They climbed in. Chase powered up and with a little rocking back and forth, managed to slide the ship off the sandbar. They submerged and turned about, heading along the sandy bottom of Eel Pond to the narrow inlet on the opposite side. They eased through, passing Dyer’s Dock and Redfield Lab and the breakwater that extended out into Vineyard Sound.

Soon enough, they were in deep water and heading south, fighting tricky cross-currents, Chase hunting for the telltale scents and sounds of the Gulf Stream.

He figured Scotland Beach and the Florida Gulf Coast would be easily a three-day trip for them. And as they settled in for a long cruise, Chase couldn’t help the feeling that in going through conicthyosis, he had somehow lost something important, lost some connection with the Seomish people he had been so much a part of. Now, he was a true hybrid, neither human nor Seomish, but probably more human than not. He wasn’t yet sure how well he would be able to live and work and play among them in the deep sea, with its dark, cold, high-pressure waters and currents.

Some said that growing up was like this…you lost your childhood and had to learn how to make your way as an adult. You lost your em’took capabilities and somehow had to make it as almost but not quite human, a hybrid amphibian. But for Chase Meyer, the loss was deeply felt. Even Angie could see the growing lines of depression forming as wrinkles around a tight-set mouth.

Maybe just being home at the Beach will help. Maybe it’ll help both of us.

Kilometers behind them, on the second floor of Redfield Lab, Dr. Josey Holland sat at her desk, facing a loss that she simply could not voice. A loss that had no words to express or explain. Tears welled up in her eyes. She stared down at the message that had just come through on her wristpad, silently willing the words to vanish into thin air, but they stayed stubbornly real and glared back at her in defiance.

It was a final order from the Barnstable County Family Court judge, Judge Raines. The wording was burned into her mind as if by a blowtorch:

will hereafter and from now on be awarded custody of the Holland siblings, Timmy and Hannah…plaintiff will function as sole parent until such time as he re-marries or Timmy and Hannah attain the age of majority, the age of eighteen years…defendant will receive no rights of visitation and is hereby absolved of all requirements for any child support, alimony or any other form of assistance…

So there it was, in pixelated black and white on her wristpad screen. Josey Holland…

defendant!... had lost the custody battle with Stephen, thanks to his blood-sucking leech lawyers and an uncaring judge. The court ruled that Timmy and Hannah…at this, Holland wiped rivulets of tears from her cheeks— Hannah, she tried pronouncing the name of her poor special needs youngest child…Hannah would live with Stephen. Stephen, who really didn’t know the first thing about caring for the girl, who loved her almost as much as he loved his forty-foot cabin cruiser Speckled Bird, who spent almost no time with the kids and hadn’t for a decade, maybe more.

She silently mouthed the words to herself, as if by the very incantation, she could somehow rob them of any power they might have…

Divorced and childless…divorced and childless…divorced and childless….

Heart and brain surgery would have been easier.

She shut off the message on her wristpad and absent-mindedly called up another image of Chase in 3-D, rotating like a pig on a spit atop her desk, a man-child amphibian hybrid thing that bubbled with more life and energy and vitality that a thousand Stephens.

Chase, I really do envy you. Maybe I should do this procedure on myself someday. What have I got left now?

Scotland Beach, Florida

October 3, 2115

1530 hours

Chase came in through the garage door, with Angie clinging tightly to his side and ran right into his Mom in the kitchen. Startled, Cynthia Meyer dropped a pan of bread mix right on the floor. It clattered around a bit and the sound was soon replaced by the dulcet voice of a DJ

on the radio…a DJ voice Chase knew all too well. His older sister Jamie had come back from Dallas, from KPTX “Party 101 FM”, and was apparently now employed locally, reprising the same hybrid techjam sound she had been so successful with in the Big D.

Chase didn’t have long to wonder about it though for Mrs. Meyer quickly recovered her composure and flew into his arms with a crushing hug.

“Chase…Chase Meyer!” She had tears in her eyes. “When did—how did--?”

They hugged for what seemed like days.

“Mom…hey, Mom…I can’t breathe…like, let up…okay?”

She didn’t stop hugging for a very long time. “I didn’t expect you, that’s all. What are you doing here? Don’t you have a gig…or something tonight?”

“A gig…I’m not sure—” Chase looked at her, wondering what she meant. Then he reminded himself: this isn’t the same time stream. “Sure, yeah…me and the Boys.”

Cynthia Meyer looked her son over with motherly concern. “Where is it, tonight? You’ve been all over Florida these last few weeks…some place nice, I hope. Really, all those schools…the clubs…what am I going to do with you? You know Jamie’s talked about putting one of your songs on the air. She needs a disk from you.”

Chase tried to put together everything she was saying: clubs…schools…gigs…radio play…. Apparently, in this time stream, the Croc Boys were developing quite a following around the state, playing to local audiences.

Way better than my old time stream, he figured.

“And what’s with your skin, son? Are you eating right…must be those motel showers, huh?” She felt the slightly rough scaly patches that still existed on his skin, residual effects of Dr. Holland’s procedure.

No way am I showing her my gills.

“No, Mom, really, I’m okay. Angie here—”

Mrs. Meyer said, “Oh, my goodness, girl…I almost forgot about you. How are you, child?” She hugged Angie lightly.

“Just fine, ma’am. Just fine.”

“You two looked starved. There’s meatloaf in the fridge. Just made it last night. You always loved meatloaf. Angie, don’t you like meatloaf too?”

Before Angie could respond, Chase said, “Mom, where’s Dad? How’s he doing? How’s he feeling?”

Now Cynthia Meyer began busying herself with pulling dishes out of the dishwasher, inspecting them with a critical eye, drying them off further. “Oh, your Dad---you know how he is.”

“Isn’t he supposed to be resting at home, Mrs. Meyer?” asked Angie. “The doctors said

—”

“Yes, yes, of course. But you know how he is. Can’t sit still. Always under my feet, like Scamp.” Scamp was their ten-year old Dachsund. He had a bum rear leg and waddled in a zigzag pattern across the floor. “He went down to the shop this morning. I expect he’s down there now doing things he’s not supposed to…like moving shelves, sweeping floors.”

Down at the shop. Chase knew he needed to see his Dad. They had often had words since Chase had graduated from Apalachee High—working for your Dad wasn’t for the faint-hearted or thin-skinned—but he wanted his Dad to know he really had made something of himself.

“Can’t stay long, Mom. Thanks for the offer. You know—the gig tonight.” He was already dragging Angie out the door when his mother called after him.

“No laundry today…you always have laundry. I have room for another load—what about the car? Are you taking the car?”

“No, Mom,” Chase called from the street. “No laundry…we’ll just walk down to the shop…do us good. See you later, Mom.”

Mrs. Meyer was still wiping down already-done dishes when they disappeared around the bend of Rainbow Court. From there, it was a fifteen-minute jaunt down Fountain Street to Citrus, then on to Shelley Beach and Turtle Key.

The Turtle Key Surf and Board Shop looked like a dilapidated shack barely standing above the high-tide line of the beach, and the rundown look was by design. “Makes us look homey and inviting, like we’ve been here a thousand years,” Mack Meyer liked to say. To Chase, it seemed mostly corny and he figured a good blow would wash the whole place into the Gulf in minutes if one ever came along.

So far, it hadn’t.

As advertised, Mack Meyer had opened the shop and was re-arranging merchandise around the checkout stand when Chase and Angie showed up. One other clerk was there too…it was Rudy Boland, the freckle-faced kid from Fanning Springs that the Meyers knew from church.

Rudy was manning the broom and gave Chase a wave and a wink when they came in.

Mr. Meyer then saw his son and straightened up. He hobbled over on crutches—the leg wound surgery had gone fine but he’d be on crutches for several more weeks. He looked Chase up and down like some kind of drill sergeant—which he had once been in the Marines—and just shook his head.

“Your Mom just called…said you were coming down. How the hell are you, son?”

They shook hands. His grip was still strong as a gator’s jaw.

“Fine, Dad. Really…things are going well.”

“Angie…you too?”

Angie nodded. “Yes, sir. We came down to see how you were doing. I didn’t get a chance to say good-bye when you checked out of the hospital.”

Meyer shrugged. “I was anxious to get out…don’t get me wrong, I really appreciate all you and those nurses did, taking care of me and such. It’s just, you know… hospitals—”

“Believe me, Mr. Meyer, I understand. You don’t want to stay a second longer than necessary. Any pains, any stiffness in the leg? You taking all your meds?”

Meyer shook his head. “None that I didn’t have before. And yeah, I take my pills. You were a good nurse, Angie.”

“Actually, I was just a Red Cross volunteer, but thanks anyway.”

Meyer turned back to Chase. “Your Mom told me you’ve been playing dives all over the state…you making any money at this stuff?”

Chase shrugged. There was so much he wanted to say. Instead, he said, “Sure, Dad…a little. Eating money. We live cheap, me and the Boys. Tig has a trailer…we just park at campsites, that sort of thing.”

Meyer shook his head. “Some kind of vagabonds, if you ask me. Bums living a rootless existence…well, guys are like that. We gotta do what we gotta do, huh? Me, I cut lawns and did windows…I guess that’s what sent me into the Corps. That’s what you need, Chase, something like the Corps. Help you see things, get your head on straight.”

“Sir, I…” how the hell could he say this? Sir, I’ve been traveling through a wormhole in space. Sir, I’m a sort of an official with a race of talking fish. I’m actually one of the Sea People now and, oh yes, I can breathe underwater too.

He said none of that. “Yes, sir. I just wanted to see how you were doing.”

“And beg to come back to stocking shelves and pitching T-shirts and suntan lotion, is that it? Chase, I do need you here at the shop. You’ve got a lot to learn but you’ve got a good head…hell, I know that…I helped put it there, along with your mother. Someday, I’d like to turn all this over to you. You’d be in business. Respectable, even. Not like some—” he could barely say it, “-like some rock and roll bum. Tell me the truth, son: you’re not doing drugs, are you?”

Chase sighed. This was way harder than he ever imagined. “No, Dad, no drugs. A few beers, that’s all. I have to be clear-headed to do techjam, to play my go-tone.” He wiggled his fingers, then immediately hid them to conceal the slight webbing between his fingers.

Meyer rolled his eyes, went to wiping down the counter with an old rag that looked like it had once been someone’s handkerchief. “Beers, I can live with. I just don’t want you falling in with the wrong crowd.”

Oh, you mean like talking fish, Dad? He didn’t say that either. He wanted to tell his dad all about Seome and the Omtorish and the Ponkti and seamothers and the Umans and the Coethi and the Farpool but….

“I kind of like what I’m doing now…I mean, I appreciate you letting me work at the shop and all, but I need to make my own way, you know? Serving as Kel’metah to the Seomish immigrants was way better than taking T-shirt inventory on Sunday afternoons and evenings.

“I can kind of…be somebody. Be myself. Not Mack Meyer’s son but Chase Meyer…I’m still trying to find out who that is. Like Mom says…I’m a work in progress.”

Maybe it was the leg wound. Gun shots did that. Or maybe it was the afternoon sunlight shining on Meyer’s craggy face. Or maybe it was just time. Mack Meyer had always seemed a hard-edged, even cold person. He’d worked hard his whole life, nobody had given him a dime.

He’d done well in the Corps, honorably discharged, even had a few combat commendations from the Africa conflicts. He’d started Turtle Key Surf and Board from nothing, taken out a second mortgage to get it going and he’d made the shop work from sheer willpower and guts.

He wanted the same kind of life for Chase but it wasn’t a life Chase wanted. Chase had no desire to just be Mack Meyer’s son. With the Seomish, with Mokleeoh and Likteek and Tulcheah, he’d been somebody, somebody important. People looked up to him, asked his opinion of things, looked to him for guidance.

Nobody did that in a T-shirt shack.

“Dad, Angie and me…we’re going on the road again. More gigs. I gotta go now.”

Meyer seemed disappointed. Or was it resignation? Maybe a little acceptance…was that even possible? Chase had let Dr. Holland put him through conicthyosis. He’d given up all the modifications em’took had done to him…now what would his Seomish friends think? Chase felt like he was walking on a tightrope suspended over a deep canyon. If he fell on one side…

back to Turtle Key Surf and Board. If he fell on the other side, what? Trying to be some kind of leader and role model for the Seomish, talking fish who argued and fought just as much as humans ever did. And the Coethi and their time manipulator…what of that? Images of time streams and farpools and wormholes and T-shirts and boogie boards raced through his mind.

Chase felt Angie squeezing his hand lightly. Didn’t tightrope walkers carry a balance pole to stay on the rope? That’s what Angie was now…the balance pole that kept him walking the narrow rope ahead, that kept him from falling off. He squeezed back.

Meyer’s eyes narrowed as he studied his son and Angie. He seemed fatalistic, maybe even tinged with just a trace of forgiving…you could tell when his eyebrows sank back down.

“Look, I don’t know what you two are into…you gonna marry her, Chase?”

He hadn’t expected that. “Dad—”

Angie stifled a giggle.

“Hey, just asking, just asking. Like I said, I don’t know about this Croc Boys stuff…

doesn’t seem like real work to me. I don’t know what you’re into…for all I know, it may this Sea People crap—”

If you only knew.

“—but whatever it is, just stay out of trouble, okay? Promise me that. This gunshot, this robbery, maybe it’s taught me a few things. I see better what’s really important…family’s important to me. You and Jamie and Kenny, you’ve all got good heads on your shoulders. Me and your mom tried to do that much…maybe that’s all we can do. Just remember this: whatever happens, I need you here. You’ve always got a spot here at the shop. I’d rather have a grown son sweeping floors for me than lying in the gutter somewhere or begging for handouts

—”

Or flying through wormholes halfway across the Galaxy…

“Okay, Dad…Angie and me got to get going. Tig’s bringing the trailer by in an hour, right by the clocktower. We’re on stage tonight…got to practice, get some food, some rest—”

Meyer held up a hand. “Okay, go…and go with my love.” He reached out to shake hands and when Chase extended his, Meyer pulled him closer and they hugged. “And stay out of trouble, will you. For your mother and me, at least.”

“It’s a promise.”

Chase and Angie slipped out of the shop and walked absent-mindedly along the beach, heading north. Soon, they reached Half Moon Cove. Angie looked up at him.

“You didn’t bring your canoe, buster. We can’t make hay without a canoe. Where are we going anyway?”

Chase hadn’t even realized where they were. “I guess I was on autopilot…no, no canoe.

Just a kip’t, if I can remember where I put it. We’re going back to Keenomsh’pont.”

“Chase, you may not be able to survive at that depth, without the right gear, I mean.

You’ve been changed.”

“Yeah, I know. We’ll park the kip’t in the Notwater pod and borrow some mobilitors. It’ll be strange having to wear those again. I feel like I’ve lost a leg or something, going through this procedure. I worry about what the Seomish will think of me now…will they accept me?

Will they think of me as alien now…Tailless…or half and half?”

“Well, I’m not worried. You did the right thing, visiting your parents like this. I’m proud of you, whatever happens.”

“Thanks…now where the hell did I—” Then he saw a dull black carapace gleaming in the late afternoon sunlight, rolling gently among some cypress knees and branches at the mouth of the Croc’s Corner swamp, fronting out toward Shell Key and the Gulf. From a distance, it looked like a sea turtle’s shell but it was no turtle. Warm, languid waves lapped over the canopy of the little sled. “—there she is. Come on, let’s get going. We’ve got quite a hike back to Keenomsh’pont.”

They climbed in and situated themselves for the trip. Chase powered the jets up, rocked them away from the tangle of brush and vine and sought the deeper waters of the Gulf offshore.

He let the kip’t taste scents, hunting for the right course, then settled onto a southerly heading, bearing several hundred miles away toward the Florida Keys and the long rolling swells of the deeper Atlantic.

A two-day, maybe three-day trip, at least. With Angie now snoring lightly against his shoulder from the rear seat, he let the kip’t nose onto the proper scent trail and shifted to auto.

Then he sank back and closed his eyes, hearing only the faint whoosh of the water gliding over their hull. Outside, they were near the very bottom of the pelagic zone, in near total black, gliding across the eastern Gulf only a few beats above the seabed. Pinpricks of light and gaping jaws of razor-like teeth dimly illuminated were faintly visible, the only real life at this depth.

Chase knew he had a hell of a lot to think about.

Keenomsh’pont

The Muir Seamount, near Bermuda

October 6, 2115

Likteek seemed perplexed, almost at a loss for words. The old scientist stared in through the translucent fingers of the Notwater pod at someone he thought he knew well, but now there was this. How to explain this?

“Eekoti Chase, Kel’metah Chase, you never told us you were doing this…reversing the em’took. This will take some getting used to. This is—I have no words for this…you know the Metah is coming to see for herself.” Likteek expelled some bubbles in exasperation. “No one can believe this.”

Likteek’s voice seemed strained and distant, coming through echopods that were part of the Notwater enclosure. As Chase climbed into his mobilitor and helped Angie with hers, he knew there was no good answer for the scientist.

“Likteek…I can explain…it was just something I had to do—”

Eekoti Chase, this is beyond understanding…I thought you had found Ke’shoo in your life, had you not? Found Ke’lee, you were Seomish in so many ways. Now—this—”

“Likteek, let me—”

“So many respected you.”

Likteek’s words were interrupted by a stronger voice, a female voice. It was the Metah.

“Kel’metah Chase, I demand an explanation for this.”

Through the fuzzy translucence of the pod’s ‘fingers,’ Chase could see the gray-white beak of Mokleeoh, its ritual scarring plainly visible.

“Affectionate Metah—”

But she had no more use for words. “Put on your gear. We roam together, with the Kel’em.”

Chase did as he was told.

Once he and Angie were fully clad in the mobilitors, the Notwater pod walls were collapsed, slowly so as to avoid damage from the inrushing wall of water. Angie’s eyes widened but she stayed outwardly calm as the waters quickly swirled over their heads, Chase’s firm hand on her shoulders. When it was done, Chase helped her light off her propulsors and the two of them found themselves escorted by court prodsmen to catch up with the Kel’em in vish’tu. The roam was already underway and the prodsmen expertly guided Chase and Angie, now on their own jet power, to the front of the pack.

Mokleeoh was angry. Chase could see that in the way she stroked so vigorously, first this way, then that way, snapping her tail flukes with each cycle. He was glad he’d never developed much ability to pulse inside Seomish bodies…likely, it wouldn’t have been pretty.

“Kel’metah Chase, you have broken a sacred bond with the kelke. Now, who will trust you…you’re not one of us anymore…almost Tailless you’ve become.”

Chase was thankful for the propulsors. No way would he have been able to keep up otherwise. He saw or somehow sensed that Mokleeoh was deliberately leading the roam above and around the settlement, so that everyone could pulse what had happened. He couldn’t see or really hear anything, but he could well imagine the muttering below, the curses, the confusion, the disbelief. It had been hard enough to make the decision to revert back; now he’d hurt so many of them….

“Honorable Metah…I…” what could he say now? These were his friends. He had been through so much with them. Kel conflicts. Seamothers. Mah’jeet blooms. Ponkti treachery.

Taking the mekli priestesses hostage. The Tailless torpedo weapons the Ponkti had brought back from an earlier time stream. “Affectionate Metah, I made a difficult decision.”

“It is betrayal,” she decided. Nearby, Chase realized both Likteek and old Manklu, the kip’t driver, were roaming with them.

Manklu’s words were acid. “Duplicity, Metah. Infidelity. When a kip’t goes bad, we fix it. When a pal’penk strays, we re-train it…or send it away to die. This is worse. There aren’t words for this—”

“We trusted you,” Likteek insisted, huffing with the exertion.

The roam twisted and turned, often abruptly, as if the vish’tu couldn’t make up its mind what to do. Bodies appeared out of nowhere, flitted by and were gone. It seemed all of Keenomsh’pont had arisen to roam with the Metah for short distances.

Chase was determined that they understand, even though he didn’t understand it himself.

Angie somehow managed to brush a few fingers against his legs, saying I’m here, Chase…I support you.”

“I am Tailless!” he finally blurted out. “I can’t help what I am. I’m human…I’m not like you. I never wanted to be Kel’metah. I just wanted—” so what did he want? “I just wanted to

be accepted…to be appreciated…to be taken seriously.” There, he’d said it. But this wasn’t Mack Meyer stroking along just in front of him. This was Mokleeoh, Metah of Omt’or.

He felt like he’d let down his best friends. Like he’d swatted their dachshund Scamp on the behind, for nothing. Like he and Angie had been caught making love in his canoe at Half Moon Cove, which had actually happened, damn those stupid freakin’ shrimpers—

“Perhaps it is an illness,” suggested Likteek. “This happens when you spend too much time in the Notwater…a form of poisoning can occur…the blood becomes infected

--”

I’m not sick!” Chase cried out. “I made—” he lowered his voice, so that it was barely audible over the rush of the water. His echopod managed to amplify it just enough to be heard.

“I’m not ill, I’m telling you.” How many synonyms were there for guilt…blame, fault, responsibility. Were there no pills he could take? I’m not responsible for these people for Christ’s sake…I’m human. I’m Tail—I’m human, damn it!

“Now who will keep us together?” said Likteek. “The kels fight all the time, we’re pulling ourselves apart.”

Before Chase could ask the question, Mokleeoh explained. “Lektereenah made the announcement yesterday…it’s all over the repeaters, all over this cursed world. The Ponkti are leaving.”

“Leaving?” Chase said. “Leaving for where…what’s happened?”

“The Ponkti are leaving Keenomsh’pont, all of them. Most of them. They roam to the far seas…their new settlement at Ponkel’te. It is said they may try to return to Seome…through the time device…the new Farpool that the Coethi, the m’jeete have built. It’s a disaster…it can’t work.”

“Insane,” Likteek agreed.

“They will die, all of them,” decided Manklu. “I’m not really upset by it. The new farpool is untested.”

Chase felt as if something had slammed him in the head. The Ponkti, Lektereenah.

Tulcheah, perhaps? No. NO! NONONO!!

“Affectionate Metah, if I am still Kel’metah, let me prove it. Drop me off in the Ponkti quarter. Let me speak with them. They may listen…if the Ponkti leave now, who will be next?”

“Probably the Sk’ort,” Manklu said.

“The kels have to stay together,” Chase warned them. “Humans—Tailless—can’t be trusted. I should know…I’m one of them.”

“And now we know we can’t trust you either,” Manklu said.

“Listen to me…if the kels fly apart and try to live alone, separated from each other, the humans will slowly destroy all of them. That’s what we do. We hunt competitors to extinction…we always have…it’s in our blood…it’s in our history. The only way for the Seomish to survive on Earth—on Urku—is to stay together. Live and grow as one. It’s the best way, the only way.”

Mokleeoh decided. “We should let Kel’metah Chase try talking with the Ponkti…we lose nothing if he tries.” She darted off in a new direction and the roam turned in unison to follow.

There was some jostling and re-positioning as the pack settled onto a new course. After a few minutes, the Metah announced, “The Ponkti are below us…you can pulse the kelke swarming about, preparing for departure. Prodsmen, guide Kel’metah down into that stew and see that he is safe.”

“At once, Affectionate Metah.”

Strong hands grabbed Chase and Angie and steered them firmly away from the main roam.

They were diving, descending, corkscrewing deeper and it wasn’t long before Chase could see the dim outlines of a great frenzy of people flitting about, packing kip’ts, loading up pal’penk and tillet trains, shoving sacs and pods and slings of belongings about the seabed. Silt and sediment drifted about in clouds and the bubble curtains foamed vigorously, as they were near the settlement perimeter.

The prodsmen guided Chase and Angie unerringly to a small knot of people atop a low ridge, overseeing the chaos. Lektereenah was there, surrounded by her own prodsmen, who challenged the Omtorish soldiers, but let them pass when they saw Kel’metah Chase among them.

Lektereenah was hovering over a small open cargo sling, trying to decide how items should be stowed. Loptoheen was there. Chase hoped to find Tulcheah…a few moments later, the Ponkti half-breed showed up too, slyly orbiting the gathering, flirting with a few of the prodsmen.

Lektereenah greeted Chase. “I heard the repeaters’ songs. You will be Kel’metah no longer…already Mokleeoh has put out a new call, to all Metahs, all Kel’em. Eekoti Chase, you are a disgrace.”

Chase figured being called a disgrace by a Ponkti leader was like being called slimy by a mah’jeet bloom. “I came when I heard…you’re leaving Keenomsh’pont?”

“There’s nothing here for Ponkti…nothing but treachery, insults, deceit and betrayal. We had this on Seome. Here in new waters, in the far seas, perhaps Urku will give us a new chance.”

Chase went over the same arguments he’d made to Mokleeoh. “You can’t survive alone here. The Tailless will annihilate you, all of you. Maybe not today, but eventually. It’s how we are, Metah. It’s our nature.”

Lektereenah seethed. “Well, eekoti Chase, you should know. We already have agreements with Tailless allies in the far seas. Ponkti are clever. We can exploit this new alliance. They will help us develop Ponkel’te. Help us learn how to use the m’jeete device, the time manipulator. In time, I foresee the Ponkti returning to Seome someday, to our ancestral waters, in a new time, before the great ak’loosh came. Then we will truly rule the seas…there won’t be any Omtorish around to oppose us.”

Chase said, “If you pull away and live in the far seas, soon there won’t be any Ponkti either. Affectionate Metah, perhaps I’m no longer pulsed as Kel’metah, but I am human. You have no idea who you’re dealing with.”

Lektereenah was impatient to organize the roam and get going. She spied Tulcheah orbiting just above them. “Tulcheah kim, come down here. Talk sense into this poor Tailless midling. I have work to do.”

At that, the Metah scooted off to examine the preparations of her people, give them encouragement, organize the roam into proper sections for the long trip to the Pacific.

Tulcheah drifted down and confronted Chase. She tried nuzzling, but Chase would have none of it. Angie glided over to intervene as well, firmly tugging Chase away.

“To reverse the em’took,” she chided him, “such a thing has never happened before.

We’re all confused…you’re clearly ill, eekoti Chase. Just look at you in that big suit. It’s the strange currents of Urku. Strange waters, perhaps the m’jeete…or some substance.”

Chase snorted. He knew that wouldn’t be translated by the suit echopod but he didn’t care.

“Tulcheah, I’m just trying to knock some sense into these people. Don’t you understand…

you’re emigrants here. Newbies. Foreigners, on Urku. My race doesn’t take too kindly to immigrants, especially intelligent ones from other worlds. You threaten them. When humans are threatened, they lash out. They destroy what’s threatening.”

“Then we will teach them Seomish ways,” she decided. “Ke’shoo and ke’lee, they can learn this…Shooki will teach them.”

“Trust me, humans don’t know or even care one whit about Shooki. They care about territory. They care about family. They care about prospering their own kind, at the expense of others.”

Tulcheah felt her own Ponkti blood running hot. “Ponkti can take care of ourselves.

Haven’t we done this on Seome…rather than be wiped out by you Omtorish, or treated like pets?”

Now Angie interjected, “Hey, girl, he’s just trying to help you. Give you some advice.

Why don’t you just listen, for once?”

Tulcheah was incensed at her outburst. “Human females…they should learn manners.

There is really nothing more to say, eekoti Chase. Ponkti don’t respect you any more…one who becomes Kel’metah and then gives it up for… this--?” She sneered at Angie with scarcely concealed contempt. “I have work to do.”

“Tulcheah—”

But the Ponkti half-breed darted off in a huff and was gone.

“Let her go,” Angie declared. “She’s just trash…worthless slut.”

“How would you know?” Chase asked.

“Believe me, I know the type. I’ve seen enough of them around school.”

For a few moments, Chase and Angie maneuvered in and among the Ponkti as they loaded up their sleds and pack trains. Excitement, energy, anxiety, all of it was just as palpable as the currents washing across the seabed. They felt like they had been caught in an inexorable tide.

The great roam to the far seas would be departing in a short time. Already, the repeaters and the Kel’em leaders of the kel were singing the gathering songs, calling all the kelke of Ponk’t to assemble. Dozens, then scores, then hundreds of silver and gray bodies darkened the waters as the crowds descended on the edge of the Ponkti zone, spreading out laterally along the inside of the bubble curtains. Chase could hear the murmuring and the singing and the shouting and the swearing and the laughing, but his echopod couldn’t translate it all, so thick was the noise.

Finally, slowly, he and Angie made their way against the onrushing tide of people back to the Omtorish zone.

“What are we doing now?” Angie asked. They rose above the crowded lower levels of the settlement, above the tents and huts and shacks that had been home to hundreds of Omtorish from the time of the Kel’vishtu and headed without thinking toward the base of the seamount, toward the Labs and the Academy caves.

“I need to follow them,” Chase had already decided, almost at the moment he said it. “To the far seas.”

“What? Are you nuts? Aren’t we talking about the Pacific Ocean…that’s thousands of miles from here. It would take days, maybe weeks. They said you’re no longer Kel’metah either—whatever that is. You don’t have to do this. Chase, let’s go home. Let’s get out of

here. These aren’t our people. This isn’t our place. Home is back in Florida, the school, the hospital. The surf and board shop.”

But Chase wasn’t so sure. “Angie, home is where your heart is…I know that sounds corny but it’s true, damn it. I’m just not sure where my heart is. But I know I have to go with them…

maybe I can help…keep the Ponkti from trusting the Chinese and the Russians too much.

Now, we have to find a kip’t…a long-range sled. That’s the only way we’ll be able to keep up.”

Angie’s own heart sank with his words. “You told me you went through that fish doctor’s procedure for me…now this? I don’t understand you at all, Chase Meyer. Maybe that Ponkti whore’s right…you’re just sick. All this insanity has gone to your head.”

“Very possible, Ang…very possible. But this I gotta do…my dad always said ‘do the right thing.’ This feels right…look, there’s Likteek, heading into the Lab. Maybe he’ll still help us.”

Chase dove down, Angie right behind them and they cruised hopefully up to the Lab cave entrance and approached the old scientist, startling him.

Dr. Josey Holland Lifelogger Post:

Well, at least the conicthyosis procedure went pretty well, better even than I had expected.

This girl’s still got something upstairs. I haven’t completely lost my mind. It took some doing, what with all the genetic work, managing the nanobotic intervention, the configuration changes, and the bacterial templates. I don’t know who came up with the original procedure—

Chase Meyer called them Seomish-- but it became clear to me early on that the baseline genotype for the original modifications was purely marine vertebrate morphology, physiology and anatomy. The Seomish scientists did the best they could with human anatomy and physiology in creating the original procedure but it wasn’t a perfect fit, which was plainly evident from the genetics.

Undoing that turned out to be a little more straightforward than I thought and I was gratified my approach worked. Now I’ve even proposed to Chase that it may be possible, with some more tweaking, to take a baseline Seomish individual and modify its genotype to support at least amphibious physiology. Which means the Sea People could actually come ashore and live among us…imagine that.

None of this makes up for what happened the other day in Barnstable County Family Court. The judge ruled in favor of Stephen. His blood-sucking lawyers won. Stephen will now have full custody of Timmy and Hannah… my Timmy and Hannah!—and I will have only minimal visitation rights…a few hours a month. Can you believe it? From what Chase has told me, the Seomish would never do something like this…of course, he’s said the Seomish don’t even really have families. Their kids are actually raised by everyone. Maybe that would be a better system.

I don’t know what to do now. I could appeal but my own attorneys say the appellate judges rarely overturn a Family Court decision, so what’s the point? All I have now is my work to keep me going…maybe Stephen was right after all. The ‘fish doctor’ can’t be a proper mom cause she’s more interested in her fish than her kids. That was the essence of his argument. I’m penalized for doing my job and being good at it…what’s fair about that?

It all hurts in ways I can’t even begin to describe.

Dr. Wriston, Tamika, Ron, Tracey, they’ve all been pretty understanding. Dr. Wriston even offered me a week off to get my head back together. Walter means well but that’s probably the last thing I need now.

I need to bury myself in work, to anesthetize the pain. It’s either long hours at the Lab, tweaking the conicthyosis procedure or long hours with a bottle, preferably that Scotch Tracey put me on to a few months ago.

Maybe I’ll try both.

Just to show you how desperate I am, a really wacky thought came to me after Chase’s procedure was done. If I could modify the basic genotype of Chase, itself already previously modified by Seomish doctors and put him on the path to at least semi-human, amphibious-human hybrid existence, could I do the same with a normal human…like me?

Maybe become a semi-amphibious hybrid like Chase and learn to live among the Seomish people. Think of it: the possibilities are endless. We haven’t had an intelligent competitor on this planet since the Neandertals. If one developed, how would we react?

The research possibilities alone are probably worth a dozen Nobel prizes. I’d have to change my specialty from marine biology to some form of anthropology. I’d be like Margaret Mead, hanging out with the savages of Borneo. Only in this case, I’d be able to live on land and at sea and hang out with creatures from another time and place.

And hang out with Chase too, although I just spent a month making him more human than ever. But he does have that girl Angie Gilliam to consider…I don’t want to be responsible for breaking up another family again. Still….

After Family Court and judges and attorneys and Stephen’s snide remarks in court, I guess I’m willing to try something new…even something radically new.

I don’t want Dr. Wriston to know anything about this…which means I’ll have to keep double sets of notes…notes for public consumption and my real notes, if I move the research in this direction.

I need to give this whole idea of living among the Seomish more serious thought.

Chapter 16

The Reed Banks

South China Sea

October 16, 2115

0530 hours

The decision had been made and was irrevocable…a contingent of Chinese scientists—

they were called Shijian luxing zhe…time travelers…would be the first to enter the new Farpool. The decision had been made between Ponkti scientists and Chinese researchers at a series of meetings at the Longpo naval base. Since the loss of the Kunming, study and testing of the new underwater gateway had proceeded slowly, methodically and systematically, on orders from Dr. Li Jiang, of the Beijing Institute, who had been given full control of the investigation by the State Council and the military.

Dr. Li wanted no more repeats of the Kunming incident.

Li regarded the Ponkti visitors clad in their full mobilitor suits with a wary eye. Just who were these creatures, talking fish from another planet as they claimed, or American agents not-so-cleverly disguised for a bold penetration effort inside the PLA Navy’s most secretive projects? When they departed Longpo, he confided his concerns to Admiral Hu Zhejiang, the base commander.

“We keep a close eye on the Sea People,” Hu told him. “The possibility of spies among them is a real concern. We keep them under surveillance while they’re here at Longpo…do not be concerned about this, Doctor. Your job is to make sure China can make use of this new resource, this time machine, for the good of the party and the people.”

“I don’t trust them,” Li grumbled. “I don’t understand them and I don’t think we should be working so closely with them.”

Hu smiled at the biologist from Beijing, the same smile he used on his daughter when she completed a homework assignment. “They know things about this phenomenon that we don’t.

If we are to exploit the shiguang jiqi, we must learn all we can. Once we know how the thing operates, how to maintain it, how to adjust it, we can dispense with any need for them. Then China will have a resource that no one else has…imagine it, Doctor: our scientists and engineers could travel backward and forward in time and space at will. We could repair historical wrongs done to us over the centuries. We could expand Admiral Zheng He’s explorations, perhaps outdo even Columbus and ‘discover’ the Americas before the Europeans did. We could re-write history to ensure China becomes a great empire and stays that way.

And if our time travelers venture into the future, we could bring back untold wonders in knowledge and technology, wonders that would make China the greatest civilization the world has ever known. But to do these things, we have to work with the fish for awhile. So, Doctor, if you would please just do your job—”

Dr. Li Jiang despised military men almost as much as he despised the Sea Peoples. But there was little he could do about the relationship, for the moment. Beijing was calling the shots.

Dr. Li sat back in his seat in the Baodong’s control room and watched as Commander Xi Guilin ordered the submarine to all stop.

Xi barked an order. “Sonar, range to target?”

Sonar came back with, “Five hundred meters, Commander. We’re just at the outer edge of the vortex fields.”

Li tensed. “Commander, we shouldn’t approach any closer.”

“I don’t intend to,” Xi said. He flipped a switch on an overhead panel. “The main vortex is dead ahead. Yaoyuan de luke crew to their capsule at once!”

The crew of two ‘time travelers’ hustled to their small capsule. The ship was roughly spherical, with a small propulsor module at one end. It was docked to a collar on Baodong’s aft hull and the explorers, clad in light green PLA uniforms, entered through a lockout chamber in the sub’s stern compartment. Once inside, crewmen helped them secure themselves in their form-fitting seats, modified from Tianzhou spacecraft cabins, and then dogged the hatch shut and secured the time ship.

“It’s based on designs given to us by the Sea People,” Dr. Li had explained. “They have some experience, so they say, of traveling through this gateway vortex…a farpool, they have called it, if the translations are correct. I’ve seen the schematics and I must say, there seems to be some clever engineering in these little ships. I don’t know how well it will work.”

Commander Xi sniffed. “That’s why the Yaoquan are all volunteers. This is true exploration, Doctor.”

No, this is insane, Li Jiang thought, but he dared not contradict the commander.

The Baodong was not alone in her station-keeping position, for several of the Sea Peoples’

small craft hovered nearby, also just beyond the vortex fields, watching and waiting for the Chinese ship to lift away from her mother submarine and make her way on propulsor to the whirlpools now churning and thrashing and foaming like a forest of corkscrewing water columns a few hundred meters away. The waters along the seabed near the Reed Banks were turbulent and tricky cross-currents made it necessary for the submersibles to continually monitor and adjust their position. Roiling clouds of silt and sediment made visibility near zero but active sonar probes painted a decent picture for all.

The Ponkti kip’t was manned by Loptoheen, with the Metah Lektereenah in the rear of the sled. It hovered a hundred meters away, abreast of Baodong and her own seven-bladed twin propellers. Another kip’t had just taken up station off the port bow of the Chinese submarine.

Inside, Chase Meyer and Angie Gilliam rocked in the turbulence while Chase trimmed out as much of the ship’s jitters and vibrations as he could.

A sharp ping sounded from the kip’t’s pulser. “There they go,” Chase said. “The Chinese ship’s just left the mother sub.”

“I can’t see a thing,” Angie complained. “How can you tell?”

“Sonar,” Chase told her. He showed Angie the waterfall display and the acoustic image on another screen. “Just like the Seomish, this ship’s paints a picture with sound. Just watch—

here, I’ll adjust for better resolution.”

“Isn’t this kind of dangerous?”

“Very. I tried to get the Ponkti to explain that to the Chinese but something must have been lost in translation. Nobody knows how this farpool really works…or if it works at all.

The one on Seome I sort of understood. But this one…the Coethi bugs made this one. Who knows how it really works…there should be more tests. But the Chinese are anxious to use this farpool and there doesn’t seem to be any stopping them.”

The Chinese ship was called Yaoyuan de luke, which Dr. Li had proudly translated as

‘Distant Traveler.’ Li had worked with the crew to outline the general parameters of this first exploratory mission.

“Don’t take needless chances on this flight,” he had warned them. “From what we’ve learned and what the Sea People—the so-called Ponkti—have told us, you can control the distance and time of your ‘flight’ by the way you orient your ship. You’ve been through weeks of training about this.”

“We have, comrade Doctor,” said Yao Ling, the crew commander, a short, black-haired, big-eared former PLA Navy diver with narrow eyes and nervous hands. “I have every confidence in our training…Handan and I know the ship inside and out, every button and switch, every dial and gauge. We will complete the mission successfully…I’m sure of it.”

“I’m not,” Li said, but wished he hadn’t. “There are all kinds of risks. Remember your maneuvering commands. Two days back in time, no more, then return to this time, as close as you can. That’s the whole mission. Now, in with you—”

The little ship soon reached the outer vortex fields. It shuddered and shimmied and creaked and groaned with the stresses, but Yao managed to keep them on course for the main vortex, the heart of the Coethi device. Hull strains were rising rapidly but Distant Traveler plunged on, rocking and bobbing her way until she was finally and inexorably caught in the centrifugal pull of the whirlpool. Yao and Handan reported back on the comm circuit and Dr. Li, holding on to a nearby railing aboard Baodong’s control room, closed his eyes, hearing in the crew’s grunts and huffs the physical strain on the forces now building on the little ship.

“Handan…Handan, look! Feel it? Something’s happening—“

Handan stirred. “What is it?”

“I don’t know, but it feels like we’re moving sideways.” Yao 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.

“Yao…what’s happening?”

“I don’t know, but I think we’re at the main vortex…the water’s all rushing sideways, dirt, pieces of things…I can’t really make it out.”

“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.

“Captain Yao…my stomach…I don’t feel so—“

Handan’s words were suddenly lost in a bright flash of light, a searing, painfully white strobing light that flooded the compartment and blinded both of them.

Ow…I can’t see—“

The spin kept accelerating and moments later, Yao and Handan passed out.

Early morning beachgoers on Hainan Island’s southern beaches 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 kilometers off the sand shoals of Reed Banks. 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 beachgoers of Hainan Island, Yao Ling and Handan Ju had just been catapulted sixty thousand light years across the Galaxy and several thousand years into the future.

They were never heard from again.

After the loss of the Distant Traveler, Dr. Li Jiang had found it easier to persuade Admiral Hu and Commander Xi and the authorities of the State Council that a slower, more deliberate, more systematic process should be tried in exploring what the Coethi farpool could do. In a tense meeting in the wardroom aboard the surface ship Fuzhou, flagship of the Chinese task force anchored off Reed Banks, Li had conceded to Loptoheen and Lektereenah that the Ponkti should make the next steps.

The two Ponkti were uncomfortably clad in poorly-fitting mobilitors and their voices hissed and grated when the echopods finished translating.

Shhkkrreeah…our ships do this…we have…experience… kah, we come Urku in such ships... tchee’lum ships….”

“It just makes sense,” Dr. Li explained to Hu and Xi, and for the vid record he knew was being made of the meeting. Avatars of some State Council and high Party members drifted about the wardroom like disembodied ghosts. The meeting was attended by many. “Our Sea People friends apparently have experience with similar phenomena. They’ve told us that all Sea Peoples came to this world through just such a gateway…we must let them try their way now.”

Hu was the skeptic now. “China owns this. It’s in our territorial waters. We pushed those mechanized bugs into containment ourselves…we’ve lost ships and men to them, so we should have priority rights to develop and explore the farpool.”

Now Lektereenah spoke up. “… zzzhhhkkkqq…Ponkti wish to live in peace…we leave Keenomsh’pont to make our own way…Ponkti serve no one. We… zzzhhh…wish new homewaters…no more ak’loosh…no more kels…many come.”

Li seemed to understand. “Their people are departing that big settlement in the Atlantic.

They’re coming here. They want to go someplace else, sometime else. I say we let them try out this device, this time manipulator, and we can study the results from their work. Then we’ll understand this thing well enough to safely use it, to effectively exploit it.”

One avatar drifted closer. It was the Vice Premier, a high State Council member. Physically located in an apartment near Beijing, Chou Minyang was a burly, balding former wrestler with the national Olympic teams. No one had ever beaten him in the Greco-Roman fights.

“It is decided,” Chou said with finality. “No more arguments. Let the Sea Peoples try to control this time manipulator and send their own people through. But—” Chou’s face hardened, visible even with the latency of an avatar, “—they must not damage the device. They must not render the thing unusable. The time manipulator is potentially a great resource for China. We must have the chance to use it. Our people have many needs.”

The decision made, Loptoheen and Lektereenah returned to their kip’t, grateful to finally be out of the Notwater and back in the comforting pressures and currents of the sea. Even protected as they were by the suits, both found the land of the Tailless dry, irritating, even.

Loptoheen guided them deeper, away from the vortex fields, away from Baodong and along a narrow rocky defile that opened onto a broad flat sandy plain, not far from shoals called Mischief Reef. There, several hundred Ponkti tu’kelke had arrived, and the seafloor buzzed with

circling kip’ts, pal’penk nosing about, tillet baying and Ponkti arguing, roaming, laughing and fighting.

“Kekot brought the tchee’lum,” Lektereenah said as Loptoheen guided them through the chaos of the scene. “That ship is the sturdiest one…it brought me through the Farpool before. It should do.”

Eekoti Chase may be right, Affectionate Metah. Perhaps more tests are needed. Even the Tailless have become more cautious.”

Lektereenah sniffed. “Loptoheen…I’m surprised at you. Old tuk master like yourself, you never backed away from a challenge. And who said eekoti Chase is the only expert? Didn’t hundreds of Ponkti come through the Farpool, just as the Omtorish and the Eepkostic and the Sk’ort?”

“It’s not the same farpool,” he said. “We really don’t know how it works…before we try to bring hundreds of us through it, we should fully understand how it works. Otherwise…this could be suicide…the end of all Ponkti.”

“That won’t happen…not while I’m Metah. Now, find Kekot and let’s get the tchee’lum ship ready. You and I will test the farpool ourselves. Then everyone will see there’s nothing to be afraid of.” Lektereenah slapped Loptoheen on the back as he piloted the little sled. “I never thought I would live to see the day when I was bolder than our most celebrated old tuk master.”

Loptoheen just concentrated on his piloting. “Old and bold…they don’t often go together, in tuk or in anything, Honorable Metah.”

“Be quiet…isn’t that Kekot over there?”

The Ponkti transfer ship that had brought Lektereenah herself to Earth in the original Farpool was made ready for the trip. A dozen technicians and handlers went over the ship carefully, at Loptoheen’s insistence, checking valves, seals, controls, propulsors, accommodations, pulsing systems, everything. Provisions were laid in and while Lektereenah herself was inspecting the work, a prodsman came by with news.

“Affectionate Metah, the eekoti Chase, Kel’metah of Keenomsh’pont, is near…he requests an audience.”

Lektereenah looked up and pulsed the prodsman. No, he was telling the truth…no bubbles or froth hiding anything there. “Chase…he is no longer Kel’metah, I’m told. He’s been changed…no longer em’took. What could he want?” She deliberated only a moment, then,

“Escort him here.”

“At once, Affectionate Metah.”

Chase arrived in tow, along with another kelke, both in mobilitor suits. The prodsmen flanked them on both sides, weapons unsheathed and ready. Lektereenah had climbed aboard the transfer ship. Only her beak and face stuck out of the hatch. She regarded Chase and his companion warily.

“Why does an Omtorish stooge visit the Metah of the Ponkti? And who is this with you?”

She was momentarily distressed that the mobilitors blocked her pulses. To hide one’s echoes, to conceal feelings like this before the Metah…a serious breach….

Chase grabbed hold of his companion, who seemed to be having trouble staying in position.

“This is Angie Gilliam, Affectionate Metah. My friend…I think you say, ke’kel shoo’lee.”

Lektereenah seemed to understand. “Ah, a lover perhaps. How touching… eekoti Chase, why have you lost em’took… you know this is an insult to all of us.”

Chase eyed the prodsmen watching him very carefully. No sudden moves for this old boy, he told himself. “Affectionate Metah, it’s hard to explain. I am Tailless, Uman, it’s what I am and I could never be Seomish. I knew that. I always struggled with that…being not quite Uman, not quite Seomish. I was caught in the middle.”

“Now the kelke don’t pulse a friend. Respect is gone.”

That hurt. Chase said, “Seomish people will always be my friends, you know that. It’s just that—” how do you say this?—“—I can’t really change who I am. I guess…I don’t know…

maybe I was trying to run away from who I was. On Seome, with the Seomish, I was somebody.

I was important.”

“You became Kel’metah because you were different…you owed allegiance to no kel.”

“Exactly. But it was all a front. I wasn’t happy being Uman. But I couldn’t really be Seomish. My pulses were all mixed up.”

“And now?”

Chase said, painfully aware of the mobilitor suit that made him now so different. I can’t even live with them anymore without this suit, not at this depth. “Now I think I’ve accepted who and what I am. I just have to try and make the best with what I have.”

Lektereenah finished her inspection and emerged from the ship. She tried pulsing Chase deeply. “I see many things, eekoti Chase. I see confusion. I see worry.”

“I am worried, Affectionate Metah. You’re getting ready to enter that new Farpool but it’s dangerous. We don’t know what might happen…look what happened to the Chinese. There should be more tests.”

Lektereenah supervised the final loading of the ship. Stores and provisions were piled up inside, hanging or attached to every surface. Loptoheen climbed aboard and took his position in front.

“We will be the test, eekoti Chase. The Ponkti can no longer stay on Urku. The waters are too different. We long for something more familiar. Now, the m’jeete have given us a way. A path home. To Seome…a Seome of another time, before the great ak’loosh. Before the destruction. We must take this path, or we will die.”

“Affectionate Metah—”

But Lektereenah had made up her mind. “It is done. We’re all here, eekoti Chase, pulse around you. The Ponkti are ready to go. Once Loptoheen and I have prepared the way, others will follow. Once again, Ponkti will rule the seas of Seome, as it was in the long-ago.”

Chase came forward, without the Metah’s bidding. Prodsmen moved to intercept them, but Lektereenah waved them away. “Let him come—”

“I just wanted to see your kip’t. Does Loptoheen understand how to operate in a farpool…

all the maneuvers, the orientation, when to accelerate, when not to?”

“I know enough, Tailless,” the tuk master growled from the cockpit. “We Ponkti managed to make it through the Farpool before, didn’t we?”

“Loptoheen, nobody knows if this one works the same way. Let me—”

But Lektereenah intervened. “Enough! We are ready to go.” With that, the Metah took a quick pulse around. The kip’t rested on a low sandy rise in the seabed, surrounded by hundreds of clicking, squawking, grunting Ponkti, all roaming anxiously around the setting. Lektereenah sang a song from the past and her people replied, overlaying her words with mournful harmonies of their own. To Chase, the gathering sounded like a church choir, hypnotic and majestic at the same time. When the song was over, a great bleating cry came from the Ponkti around them and with that, Lektereenah disappeared into the kip’t and the hatch was sealed.

Moments later, the ship lifted away from the sand pile and motored off toward the outer vortex fields.

Inside, Loptoheen wrestled with the controls. “Tricky currents, here, Metah. I’m having trouble staying on course…the currents keep pushing us away.”

“Increase speed, then. Don’t fight it. The Omtorish always say let opuh’te do as it will.”

Loptoheen had already done that and the kip’t careened and corkscrewed through the turbulence as they homed on the main whirlpool, the deepest vortex that defined the Farpool itself. Presently, Loptoheen could feel the bow of the kip’t straighten out. The monster ahead had grabbed them and was pulling them inexorably in.

“We’re in the approach corridor now, Metah. Controls are sluggish. I pulse chaos ahead, turbulence, clashing currents. It must be the core of the Farpool. Hold on—”

Lektereenah was growing nauseated by the sudden wrenching, punishing shifts in position.

First, they were upright, then sideways, battling the currents, then upside down and right side up, like a particle caught in a tidal wave. The Farpool pulled them ever closer, ever faster, down a narrowing tunnel of crashing, foaming water, and they began gyrating like a top at the end of a long string.

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 roll that picked up at a steady clip.

Soon, they were spinning enough to become disoriented and dizzy.

“Loptoheen…this is bad…I become sick—“

The Metah’s words were suddenly lost in a bright flash of light, a searing, painfully white strobing light that flooded the compartment and blinded both of them.

“Metah…I can’t see—“

The spin kept accelerating and moments later, the two of them passed out.

The Ponkti ship jetted out of the Farpool in a blinding light, a roaring rush of deceleration, throwing Lektereenah and Loptoheen hard against the cockpit windows. Caught in the whirlpool, Loptoheen 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.

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

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

Loptoheen fought the lifeship controls to bring them into a stable attitude. “Thank Shooki we came through that one…a rough ride. I’m not sure where…or when we are.”

The lifeship slowed down poking through the murky waters of the upper P’onkel Sea, riding faint currents for a few moments.

“Can you locate us, Loptoheen?” Lektereenah asked uneasily. “The waters seem familiar but—”

“I’m trying. Pulsing all around…this sounds like P’onkel Sea waters. The echoes are similar, but there are differences. If I’m right, we landed in or near the P’omtor Current.”

Lektereenah looked around, seeing little, but noting welcome flashes of light nearby.

“Mah’jeet, Loptoheen…mah’jeet! We are home…”

“Must be a bloom…we’ll give them a wide berth. But that’s a good sign. I’m pulsing a great mass ahead, perhaps a mountain or an island. We should go up and establish our position.”

“If we came back early enough in time, the Farpool would have been near Kinlok Island,”

Lektereenah decided. “Before the Umans, before the Tailless invaders, left. Perhaps this is Kinlok.”

“We’ll pulse to be sure.”

Loptoheen maneuvered closer to the surface, where the waters were rough and treacherous.

Cautiously approaching the surface, he nosed the kip’t into crashing waves and blinding foam and spray and bobbed about in the midst of a storm, trying to pulse or listen or see anything that seemed familiar.

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. Loptoheen did the best he could to keep them at the surface.

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 Loptoheen’s attention. He pointed.

What they had first mistaken for a seamother 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 the Notwater.

Lektereenah could hardly breathe. “Loptoheen, we made it! We made it home…it’s the wavemaker!”

A driving wind pelted them, flinging sea spray and rain in sheets against the canopy. Veins of lightning crackled across the sky. For a few minutes, both of them marveled at their good fortune, to have travelled so far from Urku and landed in their home waters and even better, to have come back when the Tailless were still operating the cursed wavemaker.

“The Ponkti will rule the seas again,” Lektereenah decided. “Even if there are scattered pockets of Omtorish or Sk’ort or Orketish, with what we know, with what we can bring back from Urku…all of Seome will be Ponkti waters.”

“Metah…what is that?”

A bright light had just erupted on the horizon, rising like a sunrise over the low rounded humps of an island. They heard the low whine of the Uman jumpship and saw it disappear momentarily in a haze of whirling sand. On the ground, rockets were the rule. Displacement engines tended to drag whole planets into voidtime if they were used too near to them. A parabolic orbit was needed first, to take advantage of Sigma Albeth’s enormous gravity well.

The jumpship rode a spear of flame into the heavens and soon vanished in the clouds. The thunder of her rockets pealed across the sea and echoed off the island’s cliffs, resounding for several minutes afterward. Lektereenah let the image settle in her mind.

The sea was rising in the bay into which the currents were sweeping them and swept over the island beach with scalding, hissing breakers, quickly erasing the last evidence of the Uman camp. Beyond the headlands, heavy swells boiled and dense hot mist soon blanketed everything.

Loptoheen found the water too hot to stay any longer and he turned them back out to sea, just skirting a sand bank, itself slowly crumbling under the relentless assault of the surf. A dull red glow glinted off the rock cliffs behind them, diffusing in the mist like a false sunset.

Within the hour, the Coethi starball would reduce the entire planet to molten slag. 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. Facing it just before they submerged, Lektereenah felt the heat and radiation immediately.

“What’s happening, Loptoheen…the water is too warm…too rough… skorkel’te. There are no ve’skort here, no volcanoes in these seas.”

“I don’t know, Metah, but we should get out of here. That was a Tailless ship we saw taking off. We must have come back to the time when the Umans fled our world… when their enemy was near and they were about to be overrun—”

The kip’t plunged deeper into the maelstrom and was buffeted and rocked by strong crosscurrents. Loptoheen had trouble maintaining control.

“I can’t—”

“Loptoheen, the waters, they’re--!”

One hundred million miles above and beyond the small island and the churning seas of Seome, the star-sun Sigma Albeth B had breathed her final breath.

The spin kept accelerating and moments later, Lektereenah passed out. Only Loptoheen was left to try and steer the ship as eekoti Chase had once told him… lean this way, roll a little, pull back the stick, not too hard! “By Shooki—” he muttered to himself. “This is like riding across the top of the Serpentines, only worse….”

Had any intelligent eyes been at the surface or perched on the rock cliffs of Kinlok Island, they would have been treated to an incredible sight offshore, just before dawn. Backlit with the strange fiery red-orange glow of sunrise to the east, a thin ropy waterspout formed several beats off what had once been an ice-choked inlet. 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.

The heaving lasted exactly ten minutes. At that time, the fiery red-orange glow of the sun Sigma Albeth B, nearly opaque from view by thickening clouds, fog and spray, detonated in the skies over Seome and the supernova process began.

Within the mass of Sigma Albeth B, the onion-layered shells of its elements underwent catastrophic fusion, eventually reaching the Chandrasekhar limit of mass and began to collapse.

The inner part of the core was compressed into neutrons, causing the infalling material to bounce and form an outward-propagating shock wave. The shell started to stall in this collapse but was quickly reinvigorated by neutrino interaction across its interior. Then, the surrounding material was blasted away in a titanic rebound explosion, as the collapsing envelope of the star was

explosively ejected away, sending material out into space in all directions at speeds in excess of 70,000 kilometers a second.

Every moon and planet in the Sigma Albeth B system (there were twelve in all) was incinerated. Seome itself was quickly incinerated in an expanding shock front from the detonation.

Seome had once been home to some twenty million inhabitants, a marine civilization tens of thousands of years old. Millions were still trapped on their world when the fire from the sky came.

Several hundred thousand kelke managed to survive and made the trip through the Farpool.

Urku…Earth…was their destination and their last hope.

But two had come back…Loptoheen, tuk master of Ponk’t and Lektereenah kim, Metah of the Ponkti. They had come back through a new gateway, formed on a world they knew as Urku, formed by remnants of Coethi that had stowed away on escaping ships in the original kel’vishtu, the original escape from the doomed ocean world of Seome.

They had come back to a time only moments before Coethi starballs had finally destroyed the balance between the fusion fires of Sigma Albeth B and the vast heaving mass of her gaseous envelope.

Loptoheen and Lektereenah and all the surviving twenty million who had not made it into the final landing of the Farpool were obliterated into atoms.

No word ever came back from Seome to the anxious Ponkti who had gathered around Reed Banks. They wondered. They waited, at first patiently, then with growing concern, for a sign, a signal that the gateway was proven, that they should board their tiny ships and fly into the vortex, for it alone would take them home. They waited for news from their beloved Metah and the great tuk master that the waters of Seome were waiting, welcoming them back to familiar sights and scents and sounds, to the Pom’tor current and the Pillars of Shooki and the T’kel ridge and the seamother herds.

But no word ever came.

Chase and Angie returned in their kip’t to the task force and its surface ship Fuzhou, flagship of the Chinese fleet anchored off Reed Banks. They climbed out of the little kip’t, shed their mobilitors and were grateful to be helped aboard by crewmen along the side rails.

There they found a Ponkti prodsman named Kekot ka, chief of the Metah’s guard. Kekot was clad in a Ponkti mobilitor, along with two other Ponkti, and they all wobbled like drunken sailors down the gangway toward a hatch that led below, to the ship’s wardroom.

“God, it feels so good to breathe real air,” Angie muttered. She flinched and scowled when a sailor tried to help her down the ladder. “I can manage on my own, sailor. Just keep your hands to yourself, okay?”

They were all escorted, none too gently, into Fuzhou’s wardroom, where Dr. Li Jiang and Admiral Hu Zhejiang were waiting.

Dr. Li spoke first, addressing the three Ponkti. “I’ve seen no evidence that our Ponkti allies have survived their little foray into the whirlpool…the Farpool, as you call it.” Kekot and the Ponkti said nothing, but stood whirring softly as their mobilitors struggled to keep them upright and balanced. “Very well, Mr. Chase Meyer, have you any signals or news from the mission? Is this test also a failure?”

Chase shook his head. “This Farpool wasn’t created the same way as the original. As far as I can tell, the original Farpool was a side effect of the time twister weapon the Umans had set up

on Seome. The Umans didn’t really care about it. They were more interested in fighting off the Coethi. But the Seomish learned what the Farpool was—a gateway to other times and places—

and they learned how to use it. Later, they used it to escape when Seome was destroyed…” he looked somberly at Kekot and his friends, “at least some of them escaped. I guess Loptoheen and Lektereenah didn’t know how to maneuver properly in this new farpool…we don’t fully understand even now how it works…even with the old one, you had to be careful or you’d wind up someplace you didn’t want to be.”

Dr. Li stroked his chin, considering Chase’s words. “I can see the wisdom of your words, Mr. Meyer. We have no way of really knowing what happened to our team…or yours. In view of our lack of knowledge, I believe this new phenomenon must be studied further. More tests need to be conducted. And as this phenomenon is in Chinese waters, the Academy will of course be in charge of all tests and experiments.”

Chase felt sorry for Kekot, for all the hundreds of Ponkti still roaming aimlessly below them. They had built a crude camp they called Ponkel’te, really just an embarkation port for what they had hoped would be a migration to other places, other times. Now, with no idea what had happened to the Chinese or Ponkti teams, using the new Farpool was suicide.

Even in translation through the echopods, Chase could tell how despondent the Ponkti were.

Kekot tried to convey their thoughts.

Skrreeaahhh…zzzhhh…now there is no Metah…no… zzzhhh…place for us…no home…

kkkqqqzzhh…Ponkti roam without… gggqq…purpose….”

Chase said, “I don’t know if I’m still considered Kel’metah…but if I have any say, I promise that all the kels, the Ponkti, the Omtorish, the Sk’ort, all of them, will be involved in these tests and studies. Omt’or won’t operate this Farpool by themselves any longer.”

Kekot seemed sympathetic, though it was hard to tell encased as he was in an awkward mobilitor that clanked and hissed like a steam radiator.

KKKllllqqqggg…Urku not same as Ponkel sea…new waters…new ways… ak’loosh makes all new again.”

Chase understood. “They live in new waters,” he explained to their Chinese hosts. “New ways of thinking are called for. It’s not easy, for any of them. They’ve lost their Metah, their traditional leader and they’ve lost a key citizen too.”

Dr. Li nodded. “We’ll work with all the Sea Peoples to explore this phenomenon, as long as Chinese sovereignty is recognized. We must bring these ideas before the Sea Council. I’m sure some kind of agreement can be worked out.”

Kekot seemed lost. “Zzhh....Ponkti no place go…no homewaters…all here….”

Chase said, “Kekot, the Ponkti should return to Keenomsh’pont. There’s room there. All the kels are there. Start over…from there. I can go back with you.”

After some clicking and squeaking, the Ponkti agreed that Chase’s course of action would be acceptable. The meeting went on for awhile, while basic details of a cooperative agreement were proposed, debated and agreed to. A plan was formulated to set up a defensive screen around the new Farpool with extensive surveillance in case more Coethi came through, threatening everyone, land and sea. Two new laboratories would be built. One would be on land, a new lab at Mischief Reef. The second facility would be underwater, to be known as the Reed Bank Laboratory. The Ponkti would work closely with the Chinese in both places, and Chase managed to extract a promise from Kekot that other kels would be welcome.

To Chase, the flow of debate and agreement was heartening. To Angie, he muttered:

“They’re all beginning to see the wisdom of working together. It just took awhile.”

“And some unfortunate losses. See, you are a diplomat after all.”

With all this agreed to, it was time for Chase, Angie and the Ponkti to leave. The Ponkti slipped over the side rails of the ship and soon disappeared into the water. They would shed their mobilitors quickly enough and return to their fellow kelke, even now gathering several hundred meters below the Chinese task force. The Ponkti would soon return to their crude settlement south of Reed Banks and sort out what had happened and what to do next.

Chase told Dr. Li, “I want to go with them, or as many as will come, back to Keenomsh’pont. The other kels will give them a hard time when they return…maybe I can help keep that to a minimum. They seem to listen to me…most of the time.” He glanced over at Angie with a faint smile on his lips. “In fact, I get more respect from talking fish than from humans.”

“We must petition the Sea Council immediately, Mr. Meyer. A conference to sort all this out. Much has changed the last few weeks. The Farpool presents us with remarkable possibilities, if we use it right.”

“And if we don’t kill ourselves in the process,” Chase agreed. “I guess this Farpool, like the old one, is teaching us all new lessons.”

Li appeared to understand. “Greed and fear…two ancient scourges for humans, of any nation.”

“And any world,” Chase added.

They said good-bye and climbed into their mobilitors, helped by several of Fuzhou’s crewmen. When the suits were buttoned up, Chase and Angie climbed awkwardly down the side ladders and dropped off into the water. Chase found their kip’t quickly enough and they climbed in. The canopy was sealed and Chase jetted off in the direction of the Ponkti camp.

After they had been underway only a few minutes, Chase pulled off his mobilitor helmet and indicated Angie should do the same.

“We won’t need these for awhile.”

“We’re going back to that underwater city? I guess I need to use my coupler and report back to the spy guys. So we both don’t get in trouble.”

“Go ahead. And yeah, we’re traveling back with the Ponkti, at least with those who want to return to Keenomsh’pont. I’d like to make sure a war doesn’t break out between the kels. Jeez, these guys fight like hockey players.”

“What then?”

Chase turned partly around and took hold of Angie’s hand.

“After that, I know a little place in Florida I’d like to take you. You up for that?”

Angie closed her eyes, dreaming of orange slammies at Citrus Grove…or maybe blueberry pancakes at the Magnolia Diner.

“I thought you’d never ask.”

Chapter 17

Scotland Beach, Florida

October 26, 2115

1030 hours

Chase didn’t know that much about time streams and temporal anomalies and wormholes and things like that. He just hoped that he and Angie could get back to the Beach and somehow begin their relationship again, just like it was before.

There was good news on the ride to Scotland Beach. Angie learned, through cryptic messages on her coupler, that the CIA had finally decided to ‘release’ her from Operation Pearlstone. There were still some debriefings yet to come; her handlers indicated that men in dark suits would be coming to the Beach in the next few days to do just that. She would be contacted when they were ready.

Meanwhile, the most important matter to decide was what Angie would be wearing to the Big Dance coming up. The theme was harvest time, autumn, hayrides and pumpkins. Her head spun with all the possibilities.

The hoedown was scheduled for seven p.m. Friday night and Chase was on the card with the Croc Boys to play go-tone. He hadn’t played in weeks, so he had a lot of practicing to do and spent hours in the garage of Lenny Walsh with the Boys jamming and arranging the sets. Lenny was lead vocalist. Chase was careful to wear long-sleeve shirts to hide the bulges of his gills and as much of the scaly skin as he could. He wore dark glasses, as was his custom, so nobody could see the extra eyelids the conicthyosis procedure had left him with, but as it turned out, the Boys were their usual boisterous, joshing selves and no one noticed.

The jam went well and by Friday afternoon, they had piled all their equipment into their drummer Van Genly’s truck and hauled if off to the school. With help from Willie Davis, school custodian and a few handler bots, they got their amps and speakers and instruments set up and tuned in and when the vice-principal Mr. Willis announced over a screeching microphone the start of Apalachee High’s Fifth Annual Harvest Ball, the Croc Boys were in full uniform—

complete with Gatorhead caps—and were ready to slam.

Angie was there, decked out in tight jeans and a cutoff flannel shirt that drew more than a few eyes. In between sets, Chase had promised her he’d come down from the stage and he knew Angie normally loved to show off how well she knew members of the band. But they had had an argument the day before and as usual it seemed to be over something hardly worth the effort.

“Stop calling Dr. Holland!” Angie had stormed when they met in the school parking lot. It was customary for Chase to pick her up—she didn’t have a car and hated the RoboRides the city offered—but as they climbed onto Chase’s turbo-scooter, he could tell that she was mightily bothered by the fact that every few days, he had to text or call Holland for something about his amphib body, some side effect of the procedure that nobody had foreseen. “It’s me or that fish doctor! You decide!”

After that, she had stalked off, leaving her bag still on the turbo, and called up a RoboRide with best friend Gwen. Jesus H. Christ, she never does that, Chase told himself.

So the Harvest Ball began with some tension between the two of them.

After the first set was done and the Boys were taking a break, Lenny and Van and the rest went outside for a smoke and some sips of something Van called a ‘Crocodile Cocktail’--it smelled like jet fuel to Chase—Chase came down off the stage and confronted his girlfriend.

He didn’t much like how well she enjoyed bogeying with Teeter Gaines and some of the other boys.

“You and Teeter going well tonight?” he sniffed, with an air of nonchalance he didn’t really feel.

Angie tossed back a few errant locks of her dark russet hair and smirked. “Teeter’s a real gentleman. Treats us girls like ladies.”

“Yeah, I’ll bet. The way you two are stuck together, you’d think you’d been slathered with glue or something.”

“Don’t be an ass. And BTW, the Boys sound great tonight. You must have practiced like hell, since you haven’t done a gig in weeks.”

“Thanks…and, yes we did. Wanted to make sure every body has a great time tonight.”

Angie suddenly smiled off a few curious boys who had come trolling around and took Chase by the arm, steering him off to a poorly lit corner beside the stage. She picked up some fake straw from the floor and twirled it idly around her fingers. She tossed her head in the direction of a knot of people along one wall. “Who’s that?”

By her motion, Chase figured Angie meant the female below the big fake hay pile. She was a younger adult with long blond tresses, and some lighter highlights. Her face was tall, somewhat long with a prominent chin and nose. She had sharp cheek lines, but a pronounced dimple in her chin, which she seemed self-conscious about.

Chase frowned. The woman seemed vaguely familiar, but—“Probably one of the new teachers. Isn’t there a new class in History just started…Miss Josey or something, I heard.”

Angie’s face darkened when the teacher peered off in their direction for an uncomfortably long gaze. “She’s been eyeing you all night long, Chase. I thought she might be a chaperone…

or somebody’s mom or sister.”

“Could be,” Chase mused. She did seem familiar in ways he couldn’t quite put into words.

The body, the face—

“Well, I don’t like it. How many more sets do the Boys have?”

Chase snapped out of his gaze—she really was a riveting presence—and looked blankly at Angie. “Huh?”

“How many more sets do the Boys have tonight?”

“Uh…yeah, three more I think. We’re ending up with Lovin’ in the Dark…everybody likes that one.”

“Come see me when you finish,” she said firmly. “Gwen and a few others are taking their guys to Magnolia Diner for eggs and bacon…you’re coming with me.”

“Really…I thought you wanted to, you know…kinda shop around. With Teeter and guys like that.”

Angie just shook her head. “Don’t be ridiculous. I just don’t like the way that new teacher or chaperone or whatever the hell she is looking at you.” Her fingers pressed into his arm, with meaning. “You and me…and Gwen and the others…at the Magnolia Diner. It’ll be fun.”

“Okay…but I got a better idea…and we don’t need Gwen and the others.”

“What’s that?”

Now it was Chase’s turn to squeeze arms. “A little appetizer…before the eggs and bacon, if you know what I mean.”

Angie rolled her eyes. “The canoe? Half Moon Cove? Is that all you ever think about, Chase?”

“Pretty much. Us boys are simple creatures, you know.”

“Yeah, and so are slugs. Get back up there…the Boys are coming back in.”

She wandered off, practically glaring right at the new teacher and Chase was left to wonder about the mysteries of time and space…and high-school girls.

He sucked at his tongue as he climbed back on stage and took his position at the go-tone.

This has all happened before…he was sure of it. The Farpool scrambled time streams like a blender. All you had to do was turn one way or another, kick here, shift there and blam! you’d be in a new time stream.

He remembered a big dance from before. He remembered going to the Magnolia Diner. He remembered he and Angie at Half Moon Cove. He even remembered….

But there were differences, sometimes subtle differences. In the previous time stream, the Big Dance was a spring fling. And there was no new teacher…no Miss Josey leering at him like some kind of weird specimen.

He was still staring at the woman with scarcely concealed interest—the intense interest Angie had already noticed—trying to figure it all out when Van banged his drummer’s opening notes and before you could say shazam, Lenny was already into the next tune and Chase was about ten chords behind.

He counted a few beats and timed his entrance and when the moment came, he slid into harmony with the smooth practiced timing of a true Croc Boy.

After all, the show had to go on.

It was after midnight, but neither of them really cared about the time. Angie squirmed a bit more but it was no use. Something sharp was pinching her butt. The weight of Chase 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 tonight—“

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 few bites from the Dance and grabbed a boat from Turtle Key Surf and Board. 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 tonight.

“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 jeans, ran fingers through her 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, barely visible in the moonlight, 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. Maybe someone from Keenomsh’pont….

“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—“ Maybe some Ponkti….

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. In his final seconds of lucidity, he realized that the canoe was heaving and pitching on the outer edge of the waterspout’s vortex, balanced between forces for a split second. But the ‘spout was too strong and they were being pulled inexorably in.

A loud buzz 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. They were back in the Cove again, the boat slapping up against a cypress knee. That was the banging noise he had heard.

And they weren’t alone.

One of the creatures they had seen beyond the cove was there as well, gliding around the boat just below the surface of the water. Chase sat up abruptly, causing Angie to stir. He wasn’t sure how they had wound up back in the Cove…they had been a quarter mile out to sea when they’d first seen the creatures. They sure looked Seomish. When Angie saw the rounded silvery hump cruise by, its dorsal fin glistening in the moonlight, she started violently and almost fell out of the boat.

“What is that?” she hissed. She curled into a ball in the stern of the boat, nearly upending the little craft. “Is it…is it like a shark?”

Chase watched the creature circle them, wondering. He had the strangest impression that he knew this creature. Maybe in this time stream, Seome hadn’t been destroyed. Maybe Kloosee and Pakma and Longsee and the rest were still alive, six thousand light-years away, but still alive. It was all very confusing. Apparently in this time stream, he and Angie hadn’t been swept into the Farpool and catapulted halfway across the Galaxy to the ocean world of Seome…not yet, anyway. This time stream was like that one, only with a few differences.

He knew he’d have to be careful.

“I don’t think it means us any harm,” he said. “It’s just curious, nosing about, studying us.”

“I don’t like it, Chase…get us out of here. Maybe it’s a crocodile or something.”

“It’s not a croc…or a gator. But if you insist—” He was about to take the paddle and shove them away from the cypress knee, into deeper water, so he could start the Merc, but just then, the creature butted the bow end of the canoe with its beak and nosed it back closer to shore.

Chase was so startled he didn’t react at first, but when the creature rose up out of the water and tossed an object into the canoe, he blinked in disbelief. Angie screamed.

The creature wore a suit. That much was evident and Chase muttered under his breath…a mobilitor. It’s wearing a mobilitor. Who was it? What did they want?

“Is it…a b-b-bomb…or something?” Angie cried.

Chase recognized the echopod and scooped it up. “No…nothing like that. I believe he wants to talk with us…it’s a translating device. An echopod…don’t you remember those?”

But she didn’t seem to remember and he knew then that in this time stream, Angie didn’t know, in fact, couldn’t know about anything Seomish. She hadn’t been there yet.

“A what…what the hell are you jabbering about? Just get us out of here.”

At that moment, with the creature hovering just off the port bow of the canoe, in effect pinning them against the cypress knee, there came a screeching set of clicks and squeaks from below the water. Waves bumped against the canoe. Simultaneously, the echopod, sitting on the deck, started whirring and vibrating and moments later, a barely intelligible stream of words came blasting out.

Zzzhhssqqeekoti Chase…I…Kloosee…you come… zzzhhh…Pakma and I lost…can’t work zzhhh…Farpool….”

Angie froze at the sound of a few recognizable words. “Oh my God…it’s talking—it’s a …

how can it do that—” she squirmed and twisted away and fell thrashing and splashing right into the cove. Instantly, she bobbed to the surface and was startled when the creature named Kloosee bumped her again and again and shoved her hard toward the banks, where she grabbed a low-hanging branch and managed to pull herself out of the water. She shivered and jammed her fists into her mouth, strangling another scream.

Chase had started to dive in after her but when the creature had pushed Angie ashore, he stayed in the boat. The creature circled back, still squeaking and clicking, and the echopod chirped again, with another stream of barely understandable words….

“Shhkkreeah…come me, eekoti Chase…help Farpool…we know not a way…”

Over the whimpers of Angie, Chase made out a semblance of understanding. Kloosee and Pakma were here and they were trapped. Something was wrong with the Farpool, in this time stream, and they were stuck here. They knew Chase could navigate the gateway and they needed help.

But there was still a problem and she was sitting on her haunches sniveling and sniffing only a few meters away. Chase didn’t understand all that was going on…the time streams confused him and trying to figure it all out gave him a headache.

He picked up the echopod and began to speak, slowly, deliberately.

“Kloosee, listen to me…I can help you…but first there’s something I have to do.

Somewhere I have to be.”

The creature circled restlessly around the Cove but it seemed to understand. “Zzzhhqqkk

come this place…sun-over water…help Farpool—”

Chase promised he would. “It’s a deal. Sunrise. Right here—”

With that, the creature turned about and glided out of the cove and was gone, heading for deeper water. Chase poled the canoe closer to the shore and helped Angie get back in, still in shock, still shivering. He hugged her.

“Hey, girl, how about some eggs and bacon…my treat?”

That’s when she broke down and sobbed uncontrollably on his shoulder for a long time.

And even when he turned them about and paddled out to deeper water to start the motor, she never let go.

Everybody was at the Magnolia Diner on Highway 19 and the place was jammed, rocking and shaking with loud music, louder voices, screams and laughs and Chase was glad it was so, for Angie seemed to finally regain her composure, not to mention her color and even her jeans and cute little cut-off flannel shirt had mostly dried when they slipped into a booth and ordered the Works…scrambled eggs, bacon, blueberry pancakes, hash browns, fruit cup and piles of buttered toast, OJ and milk on the side.

Someone pulled out a flask and passed it around. Angie smiled, then chuckled and before too many minutes had passed, was laughing and joshing with the rest of them.

The encounter in the Cove seemed a long time ago…probably a bad dream, something she’d swallowed at the Dance, probably. Really, talking fish and waterspouts?

She took the flask, thought about it for a moment, then smiled weakly and passed it on.

“I’d better lay off for awhile…get my head back together,” she said apologetically. “I’ve been seeing the weirdest things since we left the dance.”

They kidded her for awhile and Chase watched Angie, wondering.

We must have been pulled into that ‘spout when we left the Cove, he told himself. This is somehow a new time stream. Somehow, we’ve been through the Farpool…in this time, me and Angie haven’t yet been to Seome. There wouldn’t be a Farpool in the last time stream; Seome had been destroyed. But in this one….

Then he realized there could be another answer: the Coethi. Perhaps even more had come through the Farpool before it was destroyed than they realized. Something like a Farpool had already been constructed in the South China Sea and the Chinese and the Ponkti were even now trying to figure out how to use it. If there were more Coethi, if there was another gateway….

“Hey, Chase—” it was Gordy Jensen, a senior and one-time basketball jock for the Eagles.

“—try some of this.” He passed along another small flask and Chase unscrewed the cap and sniffed it.

“Jeez, man…what the hell is this…kerosene? My turbo could use this.” He declined and passed the flask back.

Someone’s wristpad chirped. It was Angie’s. She studied the screen for a moment, then said softly, “My God…look at this.” She showed the pad to those around her and others began tuning into that particular newsfeed. It was a report from Solnet.

For a few moments, every eye was riveted to wristpad screens. Vid reports from the South China Sea showed a strange, inexplicable outburst of waterspouts, dozens of them, erupting one after another, roiling across that sea by the dozens.

Jensen nodded wisely. “Weather phenomena of some type. Temperature inversions, the Coriolis effect…it makes sense.”

Someone said, “Jensen, you can’t even shoot a basketball. Now you’re a meteorologist?

Give me a break.”

The banter and the kidding went on for awhile. In time, Chase became vaguely aware that distant eyes were studying him, from a booth in the far corner, by the restrooms. As nonchalantly as he could, he managed to twist around far enough to see who it was.

The last booth was occupied by a trucker, from the looks of it, a female trucker. That was unusual. The Diner had fed a lot of truckers from Highway 19 over the years. Not many of them were female.

From the corner of his eye, Chase could make out that she seemed middle-aged, heavy makeup pancaked on her face, barely covering what almost looked like scales or some kind of faint scars and green and blue tattoos up and down her neck. She wore a bulky jacket with insignia, even in the muggy heat of late October. A ball cap and sunglasses completed her attire.

He snagged the waitress when she came by with refills. Chase knew the waitress by name; her daughter went to Apalachee.

“Molly, who’s that broad in the back, in last booth? She keeps giving us the eye.”

Molly shrugged, balancing a tray of plates and glasses. “Don’t really know her that well.

Name’s Jo, I heard. Trucker, I think, from the looks of her. She’s been in here every morning for the last week or so. Why?”

“Oh, no reason…must be my imagination. She looks like someone I know, someone I once knew. Probably another time and place.”

Molly went on to other tables.

The trucker looked up and caught Chase studying her. She smiled faintly, nodded ever so slightly and went back to her newspad.

Chase started to turn back around but when he realized Jo was keeping a very close eye on him from the booth, he felt a cold chill run down his spine. With a certainty he couldn’t really put into words, he knew they were being stalked.

It can’t be, he told himself. There’s no way.

He checked his watch and then saw that the darkness outside was just beginning to fade. It would be sunrise in half an hour.

He knew he still had an appointment to keep, somewhere out there in the Gulf, somewhere beyond Half Moon Cove.

END

Appendix

Who Are the Seomish?

Two hundred thousand kelke survived the destruction of their sun. Twenty million were lost in the great ak’loosh. Those that survived made Kel’vish’tu and came to the oceans of Earth through the collapsing gateway of the Farpool. They tried to bring their customs and beliefs with them but adapting to life in strange seas was difficult. One human—in the Seomish vernacular, he was referred to as Tailless…the eekoti Chase Meyer—lived among them, knew them, understood them, even loved them.

These are his notes…

The Language

Seomish is designed phonetically to carry well in a water medium. Hard, clicking consonants are common. The ‘p’ or ‘puh’ sound, made by violent expulsion of air is also common. Modulation of the voice stream, particularly at high frequencies (sounding much like a human whistle) produces the characteristic “wheeee” sound, which is a root of many words.

Translation from Seomish to human languages like English requires some inspired speculation, since so many Seomish phrases seem to be little more than grunts or groans, modulated in frequency and duration.

Most Seomish words are grouped according to several characteristics: (1) Who is speaking (the personal); (2) who is being spoken to (the indicative); (3) state of mind of the speaker (the conditional); (4) the kel-standing of the conversants (the intimant).

Each classification has a set of characteristic pre-consonants, to indicate the nature of the coming words, etc. Thus:

1. k’, kee, t’

2. tch, g, j, oot

3. m’, p’, puh’ (both anger, dislike, distaste, etc), sh, sz (both joyful) 4.

each kel identifies itself with a unique set of capitalized consonants, like a vocal coat of arms. Example: t’milee, or CHE’oray…Seomish versus Timily or Chory…

English.

Seomish Physiology

Although the Seomish resemble dolphins and porpoises externally, they are not mammals. They are fish, true marine creatures. They average about 3 meters in length and possess two forearms that have evolved from pectoral fins into prehensile limbs approximately ½ to ¾ meter in length, with five fingers and one opposing thumb at the end of each arm.

The Seomish breathe through gills, extracting oxygen from the water that is strained through gill slits on either side of the head, which is really only an extension of the main body trunk. The body is streamlined for speed (up to 20 km/hr for healthy males at maturity) which is generated by lateral undulations of the caudal, or tail fin. The peduncle is the muscle that moves this fin.

The Seomish have two dorsal fins, one over the midsection and one just forward of the peduncle. Along with a pair of anal fins (beneath the second dorsal), a small pair of vestigial

pectoral fins attached to the forearms (above the wrist) provides anti-roll stability. The arms and the tail give maneuvering and braking power and the arms are tucked against the sides of speed.

The Seomish have evolved an internal gas bladder, dorsally located, to help them maintain buoyancy. The presence of this organ limits the depth and vertical range of their natural movement but technological developments can overcome these obstacles.

The Seomish have relatively poor eyesight, good vision not being essential in the often dark, murky waters of Seome. They have no tear ducts or eyelids.

The Seomish senses of smell and hearing are keen, however. A great deal of the standard Seomish language is concerned with scent information and is unconveyable by sight or sound.

There is an olfactory vocabulary of chemical odors that are often captured and stored in scentbulbs, called ot’lum, in the spoken vernacular.

The Seomish can smell the difference not only in body odors but in various kinds of water, according to its salt, dirt, or nutrient content. They have words for all these. Because olfactory impressions tend to disperse slowly, the Seomish do not separate the past from the present as readily as humans. Instead, they view the past as living in the present, as a shadow or ghost or alternate spirit of the present.

The Seomish sense of hearing is acute and far-ranging. Just below the mouth, at the rear of the throat and forward of the gill cavity, is a small bag-like organ, called a soundsac, or shkelt. It is an echo-location system that emits low-frequency waves that can carry for upwards of thirty to fifty kilometers, depending on the location of the deep-level sound channel (the ootkeeor, or

“discovering water”). Much of the Seomish language consists of grunts, whistles and clicks, all sounds that travel well in water.

The Seomish also possess a pressure-sensitive lateral line organ. The organ functions as a true sixth sense and is sensitive to low-frequency vibrations. It is used for short-range guidance, collision avoidance and for determining the present state of the ambient water as well as local currents.

Seomish are heterosexual and reproduce by copulation, the female bearing live young after a gestation period of about one and a half mah.

Seomish males usually live to an average age of 150 mah (see Seomish time-keeping) and females somewhat longer, 160 mah.

The Seomish have silvery-gray skin, smooth, non-scaly at maturity. They are born pinkish-white and aging gradually darkens the skin.

Average weight for a mature Seomish male is 230 kilograms. Females weigh somewhat less.

The Hierarchies: Kels and Em’kels

The organization of the kel is the most important hierarchy of all. Each kel differs slightly in certain details but major similarities remain. For simplicity’s sake, the House of Omt’or will serve as a good example.

Omt’orkel claims a line of unbroken, uncontaminated descent from Omt’or, Daughter of Shooki and from its First Mortals, Kreedake and Pomel. Since descent is figured matrilineally, the eldest female of the kel is the nominal head of the family and thus chief of state, designated the Metahshooklet, or Metah (the One who lives in God). In most instances, the Metah

designates a younger person to take responsibility for major decisions. In Omt’or, this choice is traditionally the eldest and most sexually productive female of the largest em’kel (see below).

Each em’kel selects one male and one female to represent its interests before the appointed chief, who is called the Mektoo. The combined assembly of em’kel representatives is called the Kel’emtah, or Kel’em (literally, the “family of the Mother”). It meets once every mah in each city of the kel and all kelke (citizens, members of the family) have the right to petition the Mektoo at these gatherings for redress of grievances.

In general, the Seomish are not a terribly political people. Since each member of the kel is nominally related to everyone else, questions of authority and patriotism seldom arise. The lines of power and command are clear and based on age and blood. Seomish law is officially codified in the mind and memory of the Metah, which the Seomish have learned to enhance through severe training and regular consumption of special substances designed to improve memory, called tekn’een. These are drugs devised by Seomish chemists that improve recall and recollection and permit the application of considerable information to legal and judicial problems. Only the Metah may take these drugs, which theoretically assure her infallibility.

Judicial proceedings against law-breakers are normally the responsibility of the Metah’s staff. The theory is that since the Metah made the laws—and is in effect the Law herself—only she can determine if they have been broken. The most common form of punishment is exile; the moral and social theory behind this is suspect though because it is believed that the individual cannot really ever be severed from the kel—his blood relationship persists, even into exile.

Another form of punishment is an officially sanctioned silence, called the jee’ot. On occasion, mutilation is permitted and in extreme cases, execution by live burial or floatation is practiced.

But these are rare.

Practical enforcement of the laws is usually left to the em’kel, which is legally and morally responsible for its members. Although membership in any em’kel is voluntary and theoretically anyone not in an em’kel could be above the law, in practice, the Seomish are too gregarious to be loners. Legal offenses can be dealt with by group censure, usually effective, or by taking the matter to the Metah.

The em’kel is the basic 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 sub-grouping that considers itself distinct from the kel at large.

Em’kels can be based on virtually any distinction: occupation, theological agreement, sexual compatibility, age, preferred roaming waters, mutual interests of all kinds. They form and dissolve constantly, gaining and losing members, but the underlying divisions by interest seem to persist through the ages. Like-minded people congregate in any culture. The durability of specific em’kels is remarkable. Many of them are thousands of mah in age, having developed certain customs and traditions and possessing a collective heritage that ensures their continuance.

An individual’s first exposure to the em’kel system is the mandatory five-mah membership in the oldest em’kel of all: the Kelk’too, or teachers’ em’kel, in effect, an Academy of Learning.

After leaving the Kelk’too, the Seomish child must select an em’kel to associate with, his first major decision. He soon learns that the em’kel is his family, and that he is responsible to them.

If he wants to become a legal adult, and have the right to form and found his own em’kel, the Seomish child must prepare himself for the arduous ritual of the Circling, to be attempted on the occasion of his twentieth birthday. Upon the successful completion of this rite of passage, most Seomish youth choose to change em’kels, to emphasize their new status.

Essentially, the em’kel is so organized that everyone is about equal in stature. It is customary to accord slightly more deference to the individual (or individuals) who founded the group. There are rarely any terms of membership and no penalties upon leaving. One may belong to as many em’kels as desired. Many people prefer to give their allegiance to one, however.

Behavior in the em’kel is based on the fact that all members are equal and deserve love and attention and respect. Personal problems, in matters of work, sex, health of whatever, are properly the concern of everyone and most em’kels hold regular meetings of the membership to air and discuss grievances. These are called ke’teeoh. Other topics that arise are items of discussion before the Kel’em and the Metah, matters of law enforcement and how to punish offenders, domestic matters of expenses, repairs, duties, disputes over the outcomes of games, blood relationships, roaming protocol and other projects and goals the em’kel has planned.

Most Seomish em’kels maintain a home chamber, called an em’too, where the members live and spend time when not otherwise engaged. Often, the em’too is the place of work as well as sleeping, eating, etc. The average Seomish probably spends no more than 30-40% of his day in the em’too, preferring to get out and roam.

The Five Kels

The House of Omt’or

The House of Omt’or is the wealthiest, most populous and probably the most influential of all the Seomish kels. The domain of Omt’or is the great sea Omt’orkel, bounded by the currents of Tchor and the hills of the Serpentines in the east and south, by the currents of Pomt’or and the house of ice to the west and north. It occupies most of the northwest and north central regions on the map.

Omt’or is perhaps most distinguished for the calm detachment of its people and their grace and elaborate manners, a result, it is said, of the Great Daughter Omt’or’s attempt to seduce the Father Shooki.

Omt’or has produced at least half of Seome’s scientific advances, including the development of the tekn’een drugs. However, the kel has not been as aggressive as others in applying its knowledge. In fact, other kels consider Omt’or to be somewhat arrogant and elitist. But the Omtorish seem content merely to accumulate and refine their ever-growing store of knowledge.

Their cultural achievements, especially in the scent and echo arts, are widely copied.

The House of Sk’ort

The Sk’ortel is a warm, sluggish sea that occupies the southwest part of the map. The domain of the Sk’ort is principally encompassed by this sea. The eastern boundary is the lower Serpentines and the Sk’ork current. The western boundary is sometimes disputed with the Orketish but is usually taken to be a line extending directly north and south of the vast Klatko Trench in the equatorial zone.

Many of the other kels look down on the Skortish as lazy and indolent, though this opinion is unfair. The warm and occasionally hot, slow-moving waters of the sea contribute to this feeling of enervation. The Skortish roam less often and more slowly than any other kel, many preferring to simply float with the currents. To the others, this is laziness.

The Skortish subdivide themselves into two great branches: the Tostah and the Kekah. The Tostah are the smaller of the two, residing mainly in and around the city of Tostah, near the seething Sk’ortoo lava trench. Many of them make their living harvesting the valuable coral-like material ting, which grows abundantly in the hot, mineral-rich waters. Their kel-mates, the Kekah, live hundreds of kilometers to the south among the angular ridges of Kekonk Tenk, where most of them are renowned as miners, working the immense veins of ore in the mountains and canyons that encircle that city.

The Skortish are generally indifferent to the opinions of their neighbors, particularly the Orketish. They feel that the other kels do not understand them or don’t want to. The Skortish pride themselves as great thinkers (though they have produced few great thoughts) and as connoisseurs of an elegant way if life based on physical contact rather than roaming. This puts them at odds with much of Seome.

The House of Ponk’et

The great, ice-cold murky northeastern sea is called the Ponk’el and is home to the kel Ponk’et. Bounded to the north by the polar ice pack, to the east by the ridge T’kel, to the south by the ridge-chain Orkn’t and to the west by the long sinuous Serpentine, the Ponkti are aloof, relatively militant in their outlook and generally untrustworthy. They usually keep to themselves preferring to refine their martial skills. The Ponkti are renowned as the originators and masters of the deadly dance of combat called tuk.

Because of their self-imposed isolation, little is known about the Ponkti and this adds to the climate of uncertainty and fear that has in the past led to disputes, misunderstandings, even military clashes. Despite this, the Ponkti do engage in some trade with the rest of Seome, out of necessity. Their principal economic activity is growing cultures of the industrial bacterium terpoh, which flourish in the caves of the kel’s only city, Ponk’t (Seomish industry depends almost entirely on chemical and biological means of shaping, forming and molding materials, since fire is unknown to them).

The presence of the central religious shrine of Seome, the Pillars of Shooki, is another source of revenue. The Ponkti have negotiated a contract which remunerates them for maintaining this shrine. In return, they permit kel pilgrims from across Seome to travel unimpeded through Ponkti waters to and from the shrine. Further profit is made by serving and housing these pilgrims. It’s a classic example of Ponkti hypocrisy: they are certain that Shooki ignores the prayers of the pilgrims and view the visitors as misguided but wealthy fools, ripe for the plucking.

The House of Eep’kos

This is the smallest kel and in many ways, the most puzzling. Physiologically similar to other Seomish, the Eepkostic are in fact breakaway cousins of the Skortish, but many generations of life in the frigid south polar waters have made them as different from their ancestors as they can be.

Why did the Eepkostic break from the Skortish and engineer themselves into a different people? The true answer is probably that there was a serious inter-family dispute but the evidence of it has been lost in the dense metaphors of mythical history which the Eepkostic have created about themselves and their past. Any recorded documentation of the dispute has been

eradicated and only an apocryphal legend about a vast marine serpent thousands of kilometers long which cut off a branch of the Skortish from the main body of the family for centuries because it was so long and moved so slowly remains. The story states that the stranded cousins eventually gave up hope that they would ever see their homewaters again and started a new community under the icepack. This will have to suffice as history until more facts are known.

Ever since this tale became popular, the Eepkostic consider themselves to have been singled out by God to endure ten thousand mah of punishment by isolation and that is why they live as they do. Note that both the Ponkti and the Eepkostic have formalized a system of beliefs that places each of them at the center of God’s attention, either favorable or displeased. Each kel considers itself an elect people; the Eepkostic view themselves as collective martyrs for all Seomish.

The Eepkostic are fiercely independent and protective of their isolation, much like the Ponkti. To enforce this quarantine, they have engineered an eel-like snake, called a k’orpuh, which is also raised commercially, for military and medical purposes. The chemical base of tekn’een is an extract of the k’orpuh’s blood.

The Eepkostic are proud of their differences, both physical and cultural. They feel the distinctions are marks of superiority. They are especially contemptuous of their distant cousins the Skortish, seeing in them everything that is corrupt and decadent. The harsh polar environment makes the Eepkostic more aware of the struggle for survival—how it heightens and enriches life—something that most other Seomish have never faced. Thus their civilization is not so elaborately mannered as others; their life is cleaner, simpler and more vivid. This makes them ideal candidates for extra-marine exploration.

The House of Ork’et

The domain of Ork’et is the sea Orkn’tel, bounded on the west by the lower Serpentine, on the north by the Orkn’t ridge, on the south by the broad swift Current of Ork’lat and on the east by the agreed-upon boundary with Sk’ort.

Ork’et is known for its even-tempered, profit-minded traders and merchants. The fact that Seome’s most important current, the Ork’lat, neatly bisects Orketish territory, ensures a commercial advantage that few kels possess. The Ork’lat flows halfway around the world across the southern hemisphere before disintegrating in the story inter-mountain region known as the Pulkel. The current gives the Orketish speedy access to all parts of the world and their kip’t pilots (see Glossary) are so skilled at navigating the treacherous Pulkel that they have secured a monopoly on transportation of goods there to the irritation of the Ponkti. Trans-Serpentine commerce is very much an Orketish business.

Another occupation virtually unique to Ork’et is the harvesting of the pearl-like potu, which is used as a currency throughout Seome. It follows that finance and banking services, brokerage services, production organization and related activities are principal Orketish concerns. The kel is truly a hub for transport and commerce and its merchants have a reputation, well-deserved, for persistence and aggressiveness as well as seemingly endless patience. The Orketish are less enamored of the formal way of living so admired by the Omtorish. The main distinction between the two most important and influential kels is that Omtorish are, by nature, great theorists and the Orketish great doers. The Omtorish are more concerned with the ideal, the Orketish with the practical. The people of Ork’et see themselves as the only true practitioners of Ke’shoo and Ke’lee. From this flows the rationale for their impeccable materialism.

Glossary

AK’LOOSH:

The Ponkti doctrine that predicts the end of the world by a giant, globe-circling tidal wave. According to most interpretations, the Ponkti are chosen by Shooki to survive the catastrophe, by burying themselves underground, until the danger is passed, after which they will rule the world. Ak’loosh is the reason usually given as explanation for the tendency of the Ponkti to isolation.

ARCTOSS:

A four-player game common to Omt’or in which the participants float at the corners of a square with three or more open cones in the middle. The object is too weighted balls into the cones in such a way as to amass the most points. Sometimes played with artificial current generators to stir things up.

AZHTU: In Seomish mythology, a terrible serpent granted dominion by Shooki over the Notwater, the Highwater and the Deepwater, in exchange for peace and tranquility in the Middlewater. More generally, any form of evil especially in unknown waters. There are legends of renegade kels roaming the Serpentines who worship Azhtu.

BEAT:

An echo unit of distance.

EM’KEL: A basic subdivision of the kel, usually based on mutual interest, often enduring for hundreds of mah. Em’kels are egalitarian, communal groups, in effect, families since the kel itself is too large to provide much care.

EMTEMAH:

A unit of time—one sixth of a mah (see MAH). About three Terran months.

EM’TOO:The berth space or home chamber of the em’kel. Usually a domicile not partitioned physically but by “curtains” of sound and/or scent. Em’kels often share the same housing pod or space including cooking, cleaning and other facilities but sleeping, meeting and work areas are always separate.

FREE-BOND:

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.

GISU:

A fruit plant, cultivated for its potent juice extract and tasty pulp. It can be eaten whole (the rind is slightly stimulating) but the popular way is to poke a hole and suck. The taste is tart and lingering.

HOLDPOD:

Any synthetic pod, sac or drum used to hold personal items. Often made of plastic, these vessels are among the most common of domestic utensils and are also used as luggage on long trips. The true holdpod is a small, oval egg-shaped container that opens and closes like a clam shell.

JEE’OT: A form of punishment, practiced by the kel against an offender as designated by the Metah. Fairly serious, it is a period of time in which the offender is ignored, not spoken to and treated as if he didn’t exist. The effect of this varies but it usually creates frustration at the very least and forces the recipient to examine his character in some detail.

KEK’OT: The warrior-select that each generation creates to do battle with Azhtu. A form of ritual sacrifice.

KEL:

Any of the five great nation-families—Omt’or, Ork’et, Ponk’et, Sk’ort or Eep’kos. Can also mean life itself, or water, comfort, home or any of several dozen other similar meanings. The root word “kel” is the most commonly used component of words in the Seomish language.

KE’LEE: One of the three most important moral-ethical doctrines in Seomish philosophy.

It is usually defined as sexual productivity or fertility but has acquired the connotation of appetite and satisfaction in the abstract sense over the centuries. It is a ritualized form of honor, even a form of cannibalism that is invested with a great deal more meaning than merely eating. Simply put, the Seomish believe that when they consume one of their friends, they take on the best qualities of that friend. It is considered a high honor to be asked this, a way of merging personalities so that the friendship will last forever. There are other motives for Ke’lee involving shame and disgrace but this kind of love is the main one.

KEL’EM: The gathering of all chosen em’kel representatives once each mah. Their main task is to advise the Metah on the state of opinion. In Ork’et, the Kel’em also has the authority to consider any agreements made between Orketish em'kels or between Ork’et and other kels and pass judgment. Most kels restrict the Kel’em to an advisory capacity only. It exists in Omt’or mainly to ensure that all em’kels have an equal voice before the Metah and not just the older, more established groups.

KELKE: A citizen, resident, member of the kel, people in general.

KELKTOO:

Normally the most influential em’kel in any kel. The function differs slightly from kel to kel, but in most cases, the Kelktoo is a grouping of the

most learned scholars and teachers. In effect, a school or academy of learning, the Kelktoo is the only em’kel in which mandatory membership is the rule. This holds for all kelke, for at least a few mah. Some Kelktoo also hold responsibility for research activities.

KEL’VISH’TU The Great Emigration. Derived from the root word for a roam (vish’tu), the Kel’vish’tu can be thought of as a form of exodus. The star system of Sigma Albeth B was destroyed (including Seome) when the sun detonated in supernova.

KEPIDAH:

A genetically engineered crustacean hat extrudes a soft, waxy substance that hardens over time. Used as a building material, the kepidah is one of many bioforming agents that can be programmed to create any desired structural pattern.

KE’SHOO:

The second most important moral-ethical principle. Commonly taken to mean friendship, fraternity, caring, concern for others, companionship.

Ke’shoo is the glue of the em’kel and great effort is expended on nurturing and preserving relationships, with all the intensity and enthusiasm possible. Seomish sit in instant judgment of each other’s attitudes and emotions (easy enough to do with an echo-location sense that can penetrate the body and “read” feelings and reactions) and consider it a duty to know each other in as much detail as they can. The affection and emotional well-being of a friend, according to the dictates of his doctrine, transcend all personal concerns, except where there is obvious conflict with Ke’lee or Shoo’kel. Resolving these conflicts have occupied Seomish philosophers for centuries.

KE’TEEOH:

The normal gatherings of the em’kel to air grievances, discuss plans, assign duties, etc. Often loud and boisterous, even when conducted in one of the many formal argumentative disciplines (see SHKEKTOO).

KETUVISHTEK: The ritual of the globe circling, a rite of passage that confirms Seomish midlings as adults. It occurs on or near the 20th mah birthday. The midling must circumnavigate the world, collecting rock and plant specimens as proof and return safely before he considered fully mature enough to form his own em’kel.

KIP’T:

A small, electrically powered sled, often used for transport within the kel and occasionally, for long-distance travel. Usually enclosed, with minimal comforts.

KONG’PELU:

A rigorous game, native to Eep’kos, but popular throughout Seome. Often played by teams of twenty or more, it involves the use of long blunt poles to score and defend. The object is to snap a weighted sack over the head

of as many opponents as possible. Used by the Eep’kostic as a form of combat training.

MAH:

The basic unit of time on Seome, a year. It lasts from the beginning of one mah’jeet migration cycle to the beginning of the next. Comparable to about 18 Terran months.

MEKLI: One of the Shookian priestesses, usually quartered at the Pillars of Shooki.

Although the Pillars are in Ponkti territory, the Mekli owe their allegiance to no kel. Their stations are hereditary and so they are considered to be a separate, holy family, although not large enough to be termed a kel. The Mekli claim to be descended from the Shkulee, an extinct species of fish that legend says Shooki created to provide the ancient Seomish Shkulee with omens and portents of what was to come. The skin of the was often marked in bright, colorful spiral patterns, which were studied for clues to the future.

MEKTOO:

Usually the eldest and most sexual productive female of the largest em’kel. The Mektoo is the Kel’em’s voice before the Metah and is often granted considerable decision-making authority in day-to-day matters.

Much of her work consists of arbitrating em’kel disputes and arguments.

METAMAH:

A thousand mah, an epoch.

METAH: The eldest female of the entire kel and nominal head of the family. Her full title is Metashooklet (The One Who Lives in God) and she is always the moral and spiritual leader of the kel. Some Metahs involve themselves in kel politics more than others. The Metah is considered to embody the essence of the kel and her death is a time for great mourning.

OOTKEEOR:

The deep-lying thermal, sound-reflecting layer that channels messages around the world. Repeating stations are strategically located to boost the signal as it bounces along. Depending on conditions, sounds can travel upwards of 50 kilometers unamplified in parts of Seome.

OOTSTEK:

Also known as a repeater, the ootstek form one of the most important of all em’kels. Their work is lonely and demanding, requiring them to back up the automatic functioning of the ootkeeor. Repeaters roam on station in the boundary waters between the kels and, when the ootkeeor is not working properly, it is their duty to listen for and repeat any and all messages that come through. Repeaters are traditionally possessed of magnificent voices as well as acute hearing.

OPUH’TE:

A whirlpool, a vortex.

OT’LUM:

Also called a scentbulb. The ot’lum is a device that captures and holds any kind of scent for periods that can extend into centuries. A small, plastic sphere, the ot’lum carries coded olfactory information which can be used and re-used many times before losing its potency. It is a primary means of storing information as well as a major art form.

P’TEK: (also P’TCHOOT) The unknown, the frontier, any sea that is unexplored or unmapped.

PAK’OH: A commodity agent or anyone who organizes the production of a commodity for sale. The principal work of the pak’oh is in contracting for work done by manufacturing or service em’kels and seeing that the product or service is distributed to where it is needed. Most Seomish industry is organized along craft lines so extra-em’kel agents are needed to bring production and consumption of goods together. Pak’oh also organizes themselves into em’kels and it is these groups that function as rudimentary corporations.

PUL’KE: Death, the end, finality, a state or condition of no water or that same feeling.

SCENTBULB: See OT’LUM.

SHAME-BOND: The act of binding any individual to any other for the purpose of humiliating him. Shame-bound have usually committed a serious breach of etiquette or custom, thus injuring the dignity of a person or group of persons. It is customary for the individual who has been injured to require some humiliating task of his shame-bound, the theory being that by suffering the contempt of his peers, the offender will learn the value of proper manners and the importance of personal dignity. Some kels frown on this practice.

SHOO’KEL:

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.

This is the third great moral principle that is important to the Seomish. 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.

SHKEKTOO:

One of several argumentative disciplines employed in em’kel gatherings or even in more formal assemblies. Rhetoric is a highly respected art on Seome and shkektoo is one of the higher and more respected forms of it.

Seomish employ these techniques of exchange for many reasons, among them are a great love for words and talk and a desire to keep all arguments and verbal confrontations within the bounds of propriety, thus preserving dignity. In the case of shkektoo, the exchange proceeds along a line of

rhetorical questions and interrogative suppositions, according to an ancient technique of particularizing from universal first principles.

SHOOKI: The Great Father, God, the Creator of the Ocean. Also an archaic expression for clear, calm water. Shoo’ke means literally “The Loving One.”

SH’PONT:

A truncated, flat-topped seamount (guyot) often used by kels as extra storage or living space, as well as for observation, communication, and kip’t handling. In ancient times, most kels lived underground in caves and tunnels beneath the sh’pont and as they expanded in size, gradually moved out into the open sea and built larger, free-standing cities. However, ancestral ties to the sh’pont are still strong and the seamounts are almost always the center of life for most kels.

TEKMA: A special envoy, hired for the purpose of conveying a message of great importance. Tekma are one of the most elite of all em’kels, and one of the most demanding. The couriers must be of the utmost integrity and character, as they are usually entrusted with dispatches too critical to be sent by ootkeeor. The word comes from tekmetah, meaning “Arm of the Metah.”

TEKN’EEN:

The memory drug, given most often to the Metah, for the purpose of improving and enhancing her recall of facts. Extracted from the blood of the k’orpuh.

THOUGHT-BOND: The act of mentally binding two minds so that thought may be shared.

Attitudes about this vary among the kels.

T’ING:

A valuable, coral-like material that is native to the waters of Sk’ort. Useful as an electrical material and as decorative ornamentation.

TONKRO:

An 8-player Omtorish game that involves the assembly of a complicated, open-frame pyramid structure in as short a time as possible.

T’SHOO: The feel of water flowing across one’s skin; a kind of ecstasy.

TUK:

The Ponkti martial dance believed to have originated in the days before spoken language, as a means of telling stories and teaching children. Over the ages, it has become stylized and ritualized into both an art and a combat discipline, as well as a sport. It consists of an exceedingly complex series of body movements, including kicks, tail whips and punches, that must be performed from memory in exactly the right sequence, with grace and style, in order to win.

TU’KELKE

Any of the surviving members of the Seomish kels who made Kel’vish’tu (The Great Emigration) to the oceans of Earth. About two hundred

thousand tu’kelke made the transfer through the Farpool, out of some twenty million Seomish.

TU’LE: The practice (from the word metor’tule) of doing favors and giving extravagant gifts to friends and guests. Discretion, taste and expense are the canons of judgment in these ritual gestures of affection and indulgence. The root word means “frenzied waters.”

VIK’T:

A verb form meaning “to go against the current.”

VISH:

A verb form meaning “to go with the current.”

VISHTU: One of the oldest customs of the Seomish, the vishtu or companionship roam, is very much in the traditions of Ke’shoo and typically involves two people although there is no set number. Roams can last anywhere from a few minutes to a few days, even longer, with the average being a few hours.

Debate and talk is usually discouraged during the roam in order to let the physical beauty of the landscape work its magic. Often a prelude to some intense, emotionally draining activity, such as sexual intercourse, the fine points and protocol of a roam are learned by Seomish at an early age.

Key Words Denoting Important Water Conditions

EEKOOT’ORKELTE: Water of minimum pressure for life

EET’ORKELTE:

Water with salt content too low for comfort or safety

LITOR’KEL:

Calm water, usually temperate

MEETOR’KEL:

Water of rough, mixing currents, but good visibility

M’TKELTE:

Rough, mixing water with poor visibility

MUH’PULTE:

Water infested with mah’jeet. Also called M’JEET.

OM’ORKEL:

Water of moderate turbidity, otherwise calm

ONK’KELTE:

Water with salt content too high for comfort or safety

P’OMORTE:

Water of high turbidity

P’RHUMORKEL:

Water of moderate turbulence

ROT’OOT’ORKELTE: Water under extremely high pressure

SHOO’KEL:

Clear, calm water (archaic form)

SKOR’KELTE:

Fiery hot but calm water

TCHOR’KELTE:

Ice cold, numbing but calm water

VISHM’TEL:

Smoothly flowing, fast current

EXCERPT: Now enjoy a sneak peek at the next Farpool story, entitled The Farpool: Convergence, coming to Smashwords.com and other fine ebook retailers near you in the fall of 2018….

Chapter 1

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute

Conicthyosis Lab

Woods Hole, Massachusetts

September 2, 2120

Angie Gilliam and Chase Meyer arrived at the Conicthyosis lab early in the morning, to meet with Dr. Josey Holland prior to undergoing the amphib hybridization procedure. Angie was nervous. She knew that her mother was adamantly opposed to having this procedure done, for when it was done, Angie would be an amphib like Chase, part Seomish, part human, and able to travel in and out of water, just like her boyfriend.

“You won’t feel a thing,” Dr. Holland told her. “We put you in here—it’s just like a hotel room, go ahead, take a look—and you stay there for several days while the procedure’s going on.”

Angie peered into the comfortably furnished quarters. Two rooms, a bedroom and kitchenette, with full bath and lots of screens, pads, tablets, TVs and other things to occupy her time. “And it’s called a containment chamber?”

Holland shrugged, fiddled with some russet braids of hair on her shoulders. She was amphib herself, but it didn’t really show. The skin seemed as smooth as any middle-aged woman’s.

“Unfortunate choice of words. I prefer to call this facility the ‘hotel.’ Sounds better. But yes, in here, the entire procedure will be conducted. It’s mostly automated. The only reminder that this is a lab is that bed over there…with the arms sticking out of the wall.”

“Remote manipulators,” Chase said. There were four articulating, tele-operated arms

‘parked’ in stowed position, hanging from a cabinet-like structure, with a bevy of cameras and instruments aimed down, themselves perched on arms.

“Exactly,” Holland agreed. “During the procedure, there will be times where you’ll be in that bed—fully anesthetized—while we perform certain steps. The medbot insertions, for example.”

Angie just shivered. “You said this procedure has been done many times.”

Holland said, “Here at Woods Hole, the Lab has done the amphib procedure around a hundred and fifty times. Haven’t lost anyone yet.” She winced inside and realized she shouldn’t have said that. Not everyone had the same sense of humor as her assistants.

“It’s perfectly safe, then?”

Holland nodded. “Yes, of course. But we do have some preliminary matters to attend to.

I’ll have to have you and Chase sign some waivers before we start. Departmental…and Institute policy, you understand.”

Holland took them on a short tour of the interior of the containment quarters. It resembled a small apartment and was more extensive than either Chase or Angie realized, with a small bed, toilet, kitchenette with sink and fab and refrigerator, and some bookshelves. A vid screen dominated a small but cozy sitting area. Along one wall, near the bed, a separate counter had

been placed with ports above the counter for remote manipulator and surgical extension gloves to reach inside the containment zone, for samples, blood tests and short-range examinations.

Around the ceiling of the compartment, vid cameras were everywhere.

“First, you make yourself comfortable, right in that bed,” Holland explained. “The technology is largely based on use of genetically modified and programmed bacteria and microbial organisms. We begin with a genetic sequencing and a neural scan. After the sequencing and scans, the bacteria and microbes are selected and ‘tuned’ to match yours.”

Holland was sympathetic to Angie’s growing anxiety. It was normal; you could see it in their eyes, the way their lips tightened.

“Let’s go into my office—it’s just around the corner—and I’ll run through the tests and the basics of the procedure…what to expect over the next few days. Then there’ll be all the waivers and consent forms to sign.”

Later that afternoon, Angie announced she was ready. She was already clad in a light blue hospital gown. “Looks like a grocery sack,” Chase teased it. That didn’t help.

She went into the containment quarters, gave Chase a quick peck, and watched with growing apprehension as the inner and outer doors cycled and locked themselves. Her ears popped with the pressure change.

I’m a nurse now, for God’s sake. I put people under for procedures every day. Why does this bother me so?

Maybe it wasn’t the procedure. Maybe it was the outcome…she could still hear Dr.

Holland’s words, describing the new abilities she would have as an amphib: gill sacs, cutaneous respiration, melanocytic modifications in her skin cells, tissue changes in her hands and feet, with barely discernible webbing. “I’ll look like a frog on steroids!” she complained. “I won’t be able to run laps with Gwen and the others—”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Chase told her. “You can still run and you can swim like a fish too.

You couldn’t do that before.”

Angie seemed downcast the more she heard. “I’m doing this for us, Chase. I hope you know that.”

They kissed and she disappeared into quarters.

The first steps of the procedure would be conducted in a bed-like cocoon pod in the front room of the chamber.

Holland’s voice came over a speaker on the wall. “Open the pod 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.”

Angie gingerly lay herself down inside the pod, shifting about to get comfortable. It was actually pretty cozy there, but she couldn’t stop the shakes.

“After you lie down inside, contractile fibers will unfurl and extend. It’s perfectly normal.

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 first phase will be done. If all goes well—“

Angie shuddered, wrapped her arms around her shoulders. “Ugh. If all goes well…I wish she hadn’t said that.”

“Ready, Angie?”

“As ready as I’ll ever be.”

Then, the cocoon began squeezing her slowly between its wall segments, like she was being excreted into the pod. The pod did look like a bed, a big oblong bed, 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. Those were part of the cushioning.

Angie made a face. She lay back carefully inside the pod.

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. She’d been wreck diving with Chase in tight spots like this, so she told herself she could get through it. But she wondered nonetheless. What will I really look like when this is over…some kind of mutant gator? The mist thickened. She didn’t know it but the mist contained the first wave of programmed bacteria. The bacteria would begin the process, penetrating into her nose, her mouth and eyes, burrowing into her skin, breaking down tissues and bone and cartilage, rebuilding structures to begin making her more compatible with amphibs.

Of course, Angie didn’t understand all the details. Her wristpad had been programmed to describe the process in detail, but the voice was soft and staticky and she wasn’t really listening.

Instead, she grew sleepy.

That’s when the dreams came.

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 the summer of 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 conicthyosis procedure.

This time, Angie knew she wasn’t dreaming.

The first day of waiting was the hardest for Chase. He sat for hours in the waiting room at the Lab, amusing himself with games and stuff on his pad, then for kicks programmed the pad to google articles and interviews about amphibs. Amphibs were the hottest thing now, even celebrities were doing it. It was global. It was a cultural phenomenon. Even Dr. Holland had gone through the procedure, though you had to look close to see it.

Chase’s wristpad chimed when a hit was made that matched his search criteria. He’d dozed off on a sofa and forced his eyes open to catch the vid the pad was bringing up. It was some kind of news item, something from Solnet, by the looks of it….

SOLNET Special Report

As a part of our continuing effort to bring the most compelling and newsworthy stories on the amphib phenomenon to you, Solnet Special Report sent correspondent Aimee Tolstoy to Freeburg, Tennessee, to interview the citizens of this small town and get their views on what is happening. While every news source is unique, Special Report found that the views and opinions of the people of this mountain hamlet were particularly representative of the most commonly held views across our audience.

“I’m standing here on the side of Main Street in Freeburg, Tennessee, with one of the more notable citizens of this lovely town, nestled in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains. Mr. Lanier Barnes has achieved a certain notice, some would say notoriety, for Freeburg as a result of his strongly-held opinions about amphibs. Mr. Barnes, welcome to Special Report and thanks for taking the time to be with us.”

“Well, shoot, Aimee, what’s a fellow going to do when a pretty young thing like yourself comes sashaying by. Where’d you say you were from?”

“Thank you, Mr. Barnes. Actually, Germany. Mr. Barnes, could you explain what all these people have gathered for? I see you’ve got some kind of rally going.”

(COMMAND TO DRONECAM: Altitude 20 meters. Wide-angle establishing shot…be sure to center Barnes and get the Courthouse Square and those mountains in the background…

I’ll add effects later)

“That’s right, young lady. Every day this week, we got a rally going right here on Main Street. Just look at ‘em, must be several hundred of these good folks today.”

“What’s the purpose of your rally, sir?”

“Well, we’ve been rallying and Net-blasting for some time now, trying to call attention to the gravest problem we face today.”

“Which is--?”

Barnes’ face takes on a pained look, like something he had eaten didn’t agree with him.

“Those pointy-head bureaucrats at the UN won’t enforce the danged Sanctuary Laws. You know, all the Containment Laws. Hell, we already fought wars over that, didn’t we? All the friggin’ frogheads and fish people are taking over.”

“Mr. Barnes, I am assuming you are referring to amphibs?”

“Darn right, sweetie. Frogheads. They should be quarantined, like the scum they are. We need to stick the lot of ‘em into camps, like we did to the Japs back in the 20th century…you know: enemy aliens.”

(DRONECAM IMAGE FILE 223.832: Placards and signs wave in vigorous agreement with Barnes. Other members of the rally close in around the speaker. There is some good-natured shoving and shouts of “Damn right!” “Give it to ‘em straight, Barnes!) (AR Annotation File).

“Mr. Barnes, amphibs are just people, like you and men. Changed to allow them live in water and on land…surely you don’t think of these people as enemy aliens?”

“They’re mutant frogs, all of them. I don’t think of dangerous viruses as enemy aliens either…but I don’t want ‘em around. All these frogs are eating our food, drinking our water, mating with our women…they need to be in camps.”

“Excuse me, Mr. Barnes…did you say mating with our women? I’m not aware of any amphibs accused of sexual engagements with normal—I should say, unmodified, humans.”

“Oh, Missy, you don’t know the half of it.” A middle-aged woman with short-cropped black hair squeezes out of the crowd and stands before Anika. The reporter whispers into her lip mike DRONECAM…get a close-up of this—“These frogs have been defiling our daughters and sisters for years. I know it’s supposed to be illegal, but you know it goes on. What kind of offspring could possibly come from such infernal liaisons…monsters, half-bred freaks, that’s what.”

Barnes cuts in. “We’re rallying today to get the Town Council of Freeburg to take a stand.

Here…get your friggin’ bird-camera down here and I’ll show you—“

Tolstoy sent the command and the dronecam wheeled about and descended slowly on its whirring quadrotors, hovering just over their heads. Its multiplex cameras zoomed in and Tolstoy adjusted the view she was getting on her SuperQuark glasses, pecking at a small wristpad. DRONECAM…hold there

“You’re holding up a sign, Mr. Barnes. Would you mind reading it out loud and then explaining what it’s about.”

“Surely.” Barnes held the placard so the dronecam would get a clear close-up. “It says MAKE CHASTAIN HILL A FROG CAMP! We want the Town Council to designate the whole Chastain Hill area as a sort of re-settlement camp for frogheads…er, I mean amphibs. Keep ‘em separate from the rest of us, so they won’t contaminate everything in sight.”

“Just enforce the damned Containment Laws!” came a voice from the back of the crowd.

There was a chorus of “Yeahs!” and a sea of fists waving and pumping up and down.

Aimee Tolstoy quietly instructed the dronecam to rise back to twenty meters and pan the crowd, which was getting more agitated.

“Mr. Barnes, you have referred to your followers as Hellcats. Why this name? Isn’t the official name of your movement Sons of Adam?”

Barnes sniffed, waved his hand expansively around the gathering. “We think of ourselves as normalizers. We enforce normality. Frogheads ain’t normal. We call ourselves Sons of Adam

‘cause we intend regain the way of life we used to have in this country. We plan to make life hell for these scumbugs…just like Senator Palette says.”

The black-haired lady with the placard vigorously agreed. “SOA advocates for legislation and regulations that will preserve our original heritage, what God gave us in the Garden.”

Aimee Tolstoy found it expedient to thank Barnes for the interview and back herself out of the crowd, which was closing in steadily, shouting, jeering, fist-pumping. She had started to feel smothered and hand-waved the dronecam to follow. Tolstoy retired to a street corner on the other side of Main Street, out in front of Collier’s Drug Store.

While Barnes and his followers surged like an angry mob down the street toward the town hall, she decided to add some commentary to the footage they already had.

“It should be noted that Lanier Barnes and the rallies he has been leading the last few days here in Freeburg are anything but exceptional. Similar rallies and protests exist in many countries and cities around the world, in Europe and Asia, even parts of Africa. The rallies and the demands sometimes take different forms. But the underlying animosity toward amphibs in general is the same. A deeply-felt sentiment is growing that amphibs need to be contained and even be gathered into concentration camps and isolated from society.

“Followers of the Sons of Adam fear contamination by the Sea People and by the growing popularity of amphib culture. As of today, hundreds of people around the world have gone through the conicthyosis procedure and become Seomish-human hybrids, much to the displeasure of parents and politicians everyone, especially Senator Ryan Palette, the ostensible founder of SOA. Amphib culture, the Amphib look, Amphib foods, traditions, beliefs are becoming all the rage. SOA views this as a grave threat to America and similar organizations are erupting around the world.

“Solnet Special Report always strives to be fair and objective in our reporting. Before making this trip to Freeburg, this reporter spent some time at an Amphib rally, an ‘awakening’, as they call it, just outside of London. We interviewed conicthyosis volunteers in a queue at the Westfields Market, lined up to be modified… about just why they are doing this….”

Chase’s attention was momentarily diverted by a voice…it was one of the nurses, poking her head into the waiting room.

“Mr. Meyer, the first phase is over…Dr. Holland wants to know if you’d like to speak to Angie…she’s just coming around now.”

Chase bounded to his feet. “You bet I would.” The nurse escorted him down several halls to a monitor that showed the interior of the containment quarters.

That’s when Chase got his first view of Angie Gilliam…halfway through conicthyosis.

He swallowed hard at the sight.

About the Author

Philip Bosshardt is a native of Atlanta, Georgia. He works for a large company that makes products everyone uses…just check out the drinks aisle at your grocery store. He’s been happily married for over 25 years. He’s also a Georgia Tech graduate in Industrial Engineering. He loves water sports in any form and swims 3 miles a week in anything resembling water. He and his wife have no children. They do, however, have one terribly spoiled dog named Kelsey.

For technical and background details on his series Tales of the Quantum Corps, visit his blog Quantum Corps Times at http://qcorpstimes.blogspot.com. For details on other books in this series, visit his website at http://philbosshardt.wix.com/philip-bosshardt or learn about other books by Philip Bosshardt by visiting www.smashwords.com.

To get a peek at Philip Bosshardt’s notes and the backstory on how The Farpool stories were created, recent reviews, excerpts from his upcoming books The Specter (due out in May 2018) and The Farpool: Convergence (due out in fall 2018) and general updates on the writing life, visit his blog The Word Shed at: http://thewdshed.blogspot.com.



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