Startide Rising sample chapters
The first phase of the fight was a free-for-all. A score of warring factions scratched and probed at each other, exploring for weaknesses. Already a number of wrecks drifted in orbit, torn and twisted and ominously luminous. Glowing clouds of plasma spread along the path of battle, and jagged metal fragments sparkled as they tumbled.
In her flagship, a leathery queen looked upon viewscreens that showed her the battlefield. She lay on a broad, soft cushion and stroked the brown scales of her belly in contemplation.
The displays that rimmed Krat's settee showed many dangers. One panel was an overlay of curling lines, indicating zones of anomalous probability. Others pointed out where the slough from psychic weapons was still dangerous.
Clusters of lights were the other fleets, now regrouping as the first phase drew to a close. Fighting still raged on the fringes.
Krat lounged on a cushion of vletoor skin. She shifted her weight to ease the pressure in her third abdomen. Battle hormones always accelerated the quickening within her. It was an inconvenience which, in ancient days, had forced her female ancestors to stay in the nest, leaving to stupid males the fighting.
No longer, though.
A small, bird-like creature approached her side. Krat took a ling-plum from the tray it proffered. She bit it and savored the juices that ran over her tongue and down her whiskers. The little Forski put down the tray and began to sing a crooning ballad about the joys of battle.
The avian Forski had been uplifted to full sapiency, of course. It would have been against the Code of Uplift to do less with a client race. But while they could talk, and even fly spacecraft in a pinch, independent ambition had been bred out of them. They were too useful as domestics and entertainers to be fated anything but specialization. Adaptability might interfere with their graceful and intelligent performance of those functions.
One of her smaller screens suddenly went dark. A destroyer in the Soro rearguard had been destroyed. Krat hardly noticed. The consolidation had been inexpensive so far.
The command room was divided into pie sections. Krat could look into every baffled unit from her couch of command. Her crew bustled about, each a member of a Soro client race, each hurrying to do her will in its own subspecialty.
From the sectors for navigation, combat, and detection, there was a quieting of the hectic battle pace at last. In planning, though, she saw increased activity as the staff evaluated developments, including a new alliance between the Abdicator and Transcendor forces.
A Paha sub-officer poked its head out of detection sector. Under hooded eyes, Krat watched it dash to a food station, snatch a steaming mug of amoklah, and hurry back to its post.
The Paha race had been allowed more racial diversity than the Forski, to enhance their value as ritual warriors. It left them less tractable than suited her, but it was a price one paid for good fighters. Krat decided to ignore the incident. She listened to the little Forski sing of the coming victory -- of the glory that would be Krat's when she captured the Earthlings and finally squeezed their secrets out of them.
Klaxons shrieked. The Forski leapt in alarm and fled to its cubby. Suddenly there were running Paha everywhere.
"Tandu raider!" the tactical officer shouted. "Ships two through twelve, it has appeared in your midst! Take evasive maneuvers! Quickly!"
The flagship buckled as it, too, swerved wildly to avoid a spread of missiles. Krat's screens showed a pulsing, danger-blue dot -- the daring Tandu cruiser that had popped into being within her fleet -- which was even now pouring fire into the Soro ships.Curse their damnable probability drives! Krat knew that nobody else could move about as quickly as the Tandu, because no other species was willing to take such chances!
Krat's mating claw throbbed in irritation. Her Soro ships were so busy avoiding missiles, nobody was firing back!
"Fools!" Krat hissed into her communicator. "Ships six and ten, hold your ground and concentrate fire on the obscenity!"
Then, before her words reached her sub-captains, the terrible Tandu ship began to dissolve on its own! One moment it was there, ferocious and deadly, ranging in on a numerous but helpless foe. The next instant the spindly destroyer was surrounded by a coruscating, discolored halo of sparks. Its shield folded, and the cruiser fell into itself like a collapsing tower of sticks.
With a brilliant flash, the Tandu vanished, leaving a cloud of ugly vapor behind. Through her own ship's shields, Krat felt an awful psychic roar.
We were lucky, Krat realized as the psi-noise slowly faded. It was not without reason that other races avoided the Tandus' methods. But if that ship had lasted a few moments longer...
No harm was done, and Krat noted that her crew had all done their jobs. Some were slow, however, and these must be punished....
She beckoned the chief tactician, a tall, burly Paha. The warrior stepped toward her. He tried to maintain a proud bearing, but his drooping cilia told that he knew what to expect. Krat rumbled deep in her throat.
She started to speak, but in the emotion of the moment, the Soro commander felt a churning pressure within. Krat grunted and writhed, and the Paha officer fled as she panted on the vletoor cushion. Finally she howled and found relief. After a moment, she bent forward to retrieve the egg she had laid.
She picked it up, punishments and battles temporarily banished from her mind. In an instinct that predated her species' uplift by the timid Hul, two million years before, she responded to the smell of pheromones and licked birthing slime from the tiny air-cracks which seamed the leathery egg.
Krat licked it a few extra times for pleasure. She rocked the egg slowly in an ancient, untampered reflex of motherhood.
There was a ship involved, of course. All of his dreams since the age of nine had dealt with ships. Ships, at first, of plasteel and jubber, sailing the straits and archipelagos of Calafia, and later ships of space. Toshio had dreamt ships of every variety, including those of the powerful Galactic patron races, which he had hoped one day to see.
Now he dreamt of a dinghy.
The tiny human-dolphin colony of his homeworld had sent him out with Akki riding on the outrigger, his Calafia Academy button shining brightly under Alph's sunshine. It started out a balmy day.
Only soon the weather darkened, and the sky all around became the same color as the water. The sea grew bilious, then black, then changed to vacuum, and suddenly there were stars everywhere.
He worried about air. Neither he nor Akki had suits. It was hard, trying to breathe vacuum!
He was about to turn for home when he saw them chasing him. Galactics, with heads of every shape and color -- long, sinuous arms, or tiny, grasping claws, or worse -- rowing toward him steadily. The sleek prows of their boats were as lambent as the starlight.
"What do you want?" he cried out, paddling hard to get away. (Hadn't the boat started out with a motor?)
"Who is your master?!" They shouted in a thousand different tongues. "Is that He beside you?"
"Akki's a fin! Fins are our clients! We uplifted them and set them free!"
"Then they are free," the Galactics replied, drawing closer. "But who uplifted you? Who set you free?"
"I don't know!? he screamed. "Maybe we did it ourselves!" He stroked harder as the Galactics laughed. He struggled to breathe the hard vacuum. "Leave me alone! Let me go home!"
Suddenly, the fleet loomed ahead. The ships seemed bigger than moons -- bigger than stars. They were dark and silent, and their aspect seemed to daunt even the Galactics.
Then the foremost of the ancient globes began to open. Toshio realized, then, that Akki was gone. His boat was gone. The ETs were gone.
He wanted to scream, but air was very dear.
A piercing whistle brought him around in a painful, disorienting instant. He sat up suddenly and felt the sled bounce unhappily with the motion. While his eyes made a blurred jumble of the horizon, a stiff breeze blew against his face. The tang of Kithrup greeted his nostrils.
"About time, Ladder-runner. You gave us quite a scare."
Toshio wavered, then saw Hikahi floating nearby inspecting him with one eye.
"Are you okay, little Sharp-Eyes?"
"Um...yes, I think so."
"Then you had better get to work on your hose. We had to nip it to give you air."
Toshio felt the knife-edged cut. He noticed that both hands were neatly bandaged.
"Was anyone else hurt?" he asked as he felt through his thigh pocket for his repair kit.
"A few minor burns. We enjoyed the fight, after learning you were all right-t. Thank you for telling us about Ssassia. We'd never have looked there had you not been caught.
"They are cutting her loose now."
Toshio knew he should be grateful to Hikahi for putting the misadventure in that light. By rights he should be getting a tongue-lashing for rashly leaving formation, and almost losing his life. But Toshio felt too lost to allow himself even gratitude to the dolphin lieutenant. "I suppose they haven't found Phip-pit?"
"Of him there's been no sign."
The slow rotation of Kithrup had taken the sun past what would look like four o'clock, Earth time. Low clouds were gathering on the eastern horizon. There was a choppiness to the water that had been absent before.
"There may be a small squall later," Hikahi said. "It may be unwise to use Earth instincts on another world, but I think we have nothing to fear...."
Toshio looked up. There was something to the south... He squinted.
There it was again, a flash, and then another. Two tiny bursts of light followed in quick succession, almost invisible against the sea glare.
"How long has that been going on?" he gestured toward the southern sky.
"What do you mean, Toshio?"
"That flashing. Is it lightning?"
The fin's eyes widened and her mouth curled slightly. Hikahi's flukes churned and she rose up in the water to turn first one eye, then the other, toward the south.
"I detect nothing, Sharp-Eyes. Tell me what you see."
"Multicolored flashes. Bursts of light. Lots of..." Toshio stopped wrapping his air hose. He stared for a moment, trying to remember.
"Hikahi," he said slowly. "I think Akki called me during the fight with the weed. Did you get anything over your set?"
"No I didn't, Toshio, But remember, we fins aren't yet so good at abstract thought while fighting. T-try to recall what he said, please."
Toshio touched his forehead. The encounter with the weed wasn't something he wanted to think about. It all blended in with his nightmare, a jumbling of colors, noises and confusion.
"I think... I think he said something about wanting us to keep radio silence and come home... something about a space battle going on?"
Hikahi let out a whistling moan and flipped out of the water in a backward dive. She was back immediately, tail churning.
* Go the other way -- then up! *
Sloppy Trinary. There were nuances in Primal Delphin which Toshio, of course, couldn't understand. But they sent a thrill down his spine. Hikahi was the last fin he would ever have expected to slip into Primal. As he finished wrapping his air hose, he realized with chagrin what his failure to tell Hikahi earlier might have cost them all.
He slapped his faceplate shut and flopped over to press the buoyancy valve on the sled, checking simultaneously the telltales on his helmet rim. He ran through the pre-dive checklist with a rapidity only a fourth-generation Calafian colonist could have achieved.
The bow of the sled was sinking quickly as the sea erupted to his right. Seven dolphins breached in a spume of water and exhaled breath.
"S-s-sassia's tied to your stern, Toshio. Can you shake your leg?" Keepiru urged, "Now is no time to dawdle making up t-t-tunes!"
Toshio grimaced. How could Keepiru have fought so hard earlier to save the life of someone he ridiculed so?
He remembered the way Keepiru had torn into the weed, the desperate look in his eye, and the glow it had taken on finding the sled. Yet now he was cruel and taunting as ever.
A sharp blast of light flashed in the east, searing the sky all around them. The fins squealed almost as one, and immediately dove -- all except Keepiru, who stayed beside Toshio -- as the eastern cloudline spat fire into the afternoon sky.
The sled finally sank, but in the last instant Toshio and Keepiru saw a hurtling battle of giants.
A huge, arrowhead-shaped space vessel plummeted down on them, pitted and fiery. Wind-swept trailers of purple smoke boiled out of great gashes in its sides, to be flung back into the needle-narrow shock front of its supersonic flight. The shock wave warped even the shimmer of the great ship's defensive shields, shells of gravity and plasma that sparkled with unhealthful overload.
Two grapnel-shaped destroyers dogged it no more than four ship lengths behind. Beams of accelerated anti-matter flashed from each of the trefoils, hitting their mark twice in terrible explosions.
Toshio was five meters below the surface when the sonic boom hit. It slammed the sled over, and kept it tumbling amid a roar that sounded like a house caving in. The water was a churning maelstrom of bubbles and bodies. As he struggled with the sled, Toshio thanked Infinity he hadn't been at the surface to hear the battle passing by. At Morgran they had seen ships die. But never this close.
The noise finally settled down to a long, loud growling. Toshio got the sled righted at last.
Ssassia's sad corpse still lay tied to the rear end of the sled. The other fins, too scared or prudent to go above, began taking turns at the small airdomes that lined the bottom rim of the sled. It was Toshio's job to keep the sled still, not easy in the churning water, but he did it without a thought.
They were near the sloping western edge of a huge, grayish metal-mound. Sea-plants grew at intervals along its side. They looked nothing like the strangle weed, but that was no guarantee.
More and more, Toshio was coming to dislike being here. He wished he was home, where the dangers were simple, and easily handled -- kelp klingers and island turtles and the like -- and where there were no ETs.
"Are you all right?" Hikahi asked as she came by. The dolphin lieutenant radiated calm.
"I'm fine," he grumped. "It's a good thing I didn't wait any longer to tell you about Akki's message. You have every reason to be mad at me."
"Don't be silly. Now we head back. Brookida is fatigued, so I've lashed him under an airdome. You will forge ahead with the scouts. We'll follow. Now t-take off!"
"Aye, sir." Toshio took his bearings and pushed the throttle. The thrusters hummed as the sled accelerated. Several of the stronger swimmers maintained pace alongside, as the mound slowly receded on the right.
It had taken them five minutes or so to get started. They were barely under way before the tsunami hit.
It was not a huge wave, merely the first of a series of ripples spreading from a point where a pebble had plunked into the sea. The pebble happened to be a spaceship half a kilometer long. It had plunked, at supersonic speed, a mere fifty kilometers away.
The wave jerked the sled upward and sideways, almost shaking the boy off. A cloud of sea debris, torn-up plants, and dead and living fish whirled about him like clods in a cyclone. The roar was deafening.
Toshio clutched the controls desperately. Somehow, against incredible momentum, he managed slowly to drive the prow of the wave front. Just in time, he thrust out of the curling, downward circulation and sent the tiny craft flying along the direction the current wanted to go. Eastward.
An ash-gray form speared past him on his left. In a flash he recognized Keepiru, struggling to keep control in the churning waters. The fin squeaked something indecipherable in Trinary, then was gone.
Some instinct guided Toshio, or perhaps it was the sonar screen, now a mess of jumbled snow, but still bearing the faint, fading traces of the terrain map it had shown only moments before. Toshio forced the sled to bear left as hard as possible.
The emergency-power roar of the engines changed to a scream as he suddenly slewed hard to port in desperation. The huge, dark bulk of a metal-mound loomed ahead! Already he could feel undertow as the wave began to form breakers to his right, curling as the cycloid rode up the sloping shore of the island.
Toshio wanted to cry out, but the struggle took all of his breath. He clenched his teeth and counted as terrible seconds passed.
The sled drove past the cliff-like northern shore amid a cloud of bubbles. Though he was still underwater, Toshio could look downward a dozen meters to his right, and see the lower beach plants of the island. He was riding in the center of a tall mound of water.
Then he was past! The sea opened and one of the deep oceanic rills lay below, dark and seemingly bottomless. Toshio slammed the bow planes forward and vented his tanks. The sled plummeted faster than he had ever dived before.
His stern pulled forward precariously. Toshio passed clouds of falling debris. Darkness and cold came up at him, and he sought the chill as a refuge.
The valley sloped as he brought the sled to a quiet depth. He could sense the tsunami rolling above. Sea plants all around waved in an obviously unaccustomed manner. A slow rain of falling rubbish drifted down on all sides, but at least the water wasn't trying to beat him to death anymore. Toshio flattened out his dive and headed toward the valley center, away from everything. Then he let himself sag in an agony of bruised muscles and adrenaline reaction.
He blessed the tiny, man-designed symbiotes that were right now scavenging his blood of excess nitrogen, preventing narcosis raptures at this depth. Toshio cranked the engines down to one-quarter, and they sighed, sounding almost relieved. The lamps on the sled's display were mostly green, surprisingly.
One telltale caught his eye -- it indicated an airdome in operation. Suddenly Toshio noticed a faint, singing sound; it was a whistling of patience and reverence.
* The Ocean is as is as is --
an endless sigh of dreaming --
* Of other seas that are that are --
and others in them, dreaming -- *
Toshio snapped on the hydrophones.
"Brookida! Are you okay? Is your air all right?"
There was a sigh, tremulous and tired.
"Fleet-t-t Fingers, hello. Thank you for saving my life. You flew as truly as any Tursiops."
"That ship we saw must have crashed! If that's what it was you can bet there will be aftershocks! Maybe we'd better stay down here a while. I'll turn on the sonar so others can come for air while the waves pass." He flicked a switch, and immediately a low series of clicks emanated into the surrounding water. Brookida groaned.
"They will not come, Toshio. Can't you hear them? They won't answer your call."
Toshio frowned. "They have to! Hikahi will know about the aftershocks. They're probably looking for us right now! Maybe I'd better head back...." He moved to turn the sled and blow ballast. Brookida had started him worrying.
"Don't go, Toshio! It will do no good for you to die as well! Wait until the waves pass-s-s! You must live to tell Creideiki!"
"What are you talking about?"
"Listen, Sharp-Eyes. Listen!"
Toshio shook his head, then swore and pulled back on the throttle until the engine died. He turned up the gain on the hydrophones.
"Do you hear?" Brookida asked.
Toshio cocked his head and listened. The sea was a mess of intonation. The roar of the departing wave dopplered down as he lay there. Schools of fish made panicky noises. All around came the reports of rockslides and surf pounding on the islands.
Then he heard it. The shrill repetitive squeals of Primal Delphin. No modern dolphin spoke it when fully in command of his faculties.
That, in itself, was bad news.
One of the cries was clear. He could easily make out the basic distress call. It was the earliest Delphin signal human scientists had understood.
But the other noise... at least three voices were involved in that one. It was a strange sound, very poignant and very wrong!
"It isss rescue fever," Brookida groaned. "Hikahi is beached and injured. She might have stopped this, but she is delirious and now adds to the problem!"
"Like Creideiki, she is an adept of Keneenk... the study of logical discipline. She would have been able to force the others to ignore the cries of those washed ashore, to make them dive to safety for a t-time."
"Don't they realize there will be aftershocks?"
"Shockss hardly matter, Sharp-Eyes!" Brookida cried. They may beach themselves without assist! You are Calafian. How can you not know this about us us? I thrash here to go and die answering that call!"
Toshio groaned. Of course he knew about rescue fever, in which panic and fear washed aside the veneer of civilization, leaving a cetacean with only one thought -- to save his comrades, whatever the personal risk. Every few years the tragedy struck even the highly advanced fins of Calafia. Akki had told him, once, that sometimes the sea itself seemed to be calling for help. Some humans claimed to have felt it, too -- particularly those who took dolphin RNA in the rites of the Dreamer Cult.
Once upon a time the Tursiops, or bottlenose dolphin, had been about the least likely cetacean to beach itself. But genetic engineering had upset the balance somewhere. As the genes of other species were spliced onto the basic Tursiops models, a few things had been thrown out of kilter. For three generations human geneticists had been working on the problem. But for now the fins swam along a knife edge, where irrationality was a perpetual danger.
Toshio bit his lip. "They have their harnesses," he said uncertainly.
"One can hope. But is it likely they'll use them properly when they are even now speaking P-primal?"
Toshio struck the sled with his balled fist. Already his hand was growing numb from the chill. "I'm going up," he announced.
"No! You must not! You must guard your safet-ty!"
Toshio ground his teeth. Always mothering me. Mothering or teasing. The fins treat me like a child, and I'm sick of it!"
He set the throttle to one-quarter and pulled up on the bow planes. "I'm going to unlash you, Brookida. Can you swim okay?"
Toshio looked at his sonar. A fuzzy line was forming in the west.
"Can you swim!" he demanded.
"Yesss. I can swim well enough. But don't cut me loose near the rescue fever! Don't you risk the aftershocksss!"
"I see one coming now. They'll be several minutes apart and weakening with time. I'll fix it so we rise just after that one passes. Then you've got to get going hack to the ship! Tell them what's happened and get help."
"That's what you should do, Toshio."
"Never mind that! Will you do as I ask? Or must I leave you lashed up!"
There was an almost unnoticeable pause, but Brookida's voice changed. "I shall do exactly as you say, Toshio. I'll bring help."
Toshio checked his trim, then he slipped over the side, holding onto the rim stanchions with one hand. Brookida looked at him through the transparent shell of the airdome. The tough bubble membrane surrounded the dolphin's head. Toshio tore loose the lashings holding Brookida in place. "You're going to have to take a breather, you know."
Brookida sighed as Toshio pulled a lever by the airdome. A small hose descended, one end covering Brookida's blowhole. Like a snake, ten feet of hose wrapped around Brookida's torso. Breathers were uncomfortable, and hindered speech. But by wearing one Brookida would not nave to come up for air. The breather would help the old metallurgist ignore the cries in the water -- a constant, uncomfortable reminder of his membership in a technological culture.
Toshio left Brookida tied in place by a single lashing. He pulled himself back onto the upper surface just as the first aftershock rolled overhead.
The sled bucked, but he was prepared this time. They were deep, and the wave passed with surprising quickness.
"Okay, here goes." He pushed the throttle forward to max and blew ballast.
Soon the metal island appeared on his left. The screams of his comrades grew distinctly louder. The distress call was now pre-eminent over the rescue fever response.
Toshio steered past the mound to the north. He wanted a give Brookida a head start.
Just then, however, a sleek gray figure shot past, just overhead. He recognized it at once, and where it was headed.
Toshio cut the final lashing. "Get moving, Brookida! If you come back anywhere near this island, I'll rip your harness and bite your tail in half!"
Brookida dropped away and the sled turned sharply. Toshio kicked in emergency power to try to catch up with Keepiru. The fastest swimmer in the Streak's crew was heading straight for the western beach. His cries were pure Primal Delphin.
"Damn you, Keepiru. Stop!"
The sled sped quickly, just under the water's surface. The afternoon had aged, and there was a reddish tinge to the clouds, but Toshio could clearly see Keepiru leaping from wavelet to wavelet up ahead. He appeared indifferent to Toshio's calls as he neared the island where his comrades lay beached and delirious.
Toshio felt helpless. Another aftershock was due in three minutes. If it didn't beach the dolphin, Keepiru's own efforts probably would. Keepiru came from Atlast, a new and rather rustic colony world. It was doubtful he had learned the tools of mental discipline studied by Creideiki and Hikahi.
"Stop! If we time it right we can work as a team! We can miss the aftershocks! Will you let me catch up?" he screamed. It was no use. The fin had too much of a head start.
The futile chase frustrated Toshio. How could he have lived and worked with dolphins all his life and known them so poorly? To think the Terragens Council had chosen him for this tour because of his experience with fins! Hah!
Toshio had always taken a lot of kidding from fins. They kidded all human children, while protecting them ferociously. But on signing aboard Streaker, Toshio had expected to be treated as an adult and officer. Sure, there'd be a little repartée, as he'd seen between man and fin back home, but mutual respect, as well. It hadn't worked out that way.
Keepiru had been the worst, starting right off with heavy sarcasm and never letting up.
So why am I trying to save him?
He recalled the fierce courage Keepiru had shown in saving him from the weed. There was no rescue fever then. The fin had been in full control over his harness.
So, he thinks of me as a child, Toshio realized bitterly. No wonder be doesn't hear me now.
Still, it offered a way. Toshio bit his lip, wishing vainly for an alternative. To save Keepiru's life he would have to humiliate himself utterly. It wasn't an easy thing to decide, his pride had taken such a beating.
With a savage curse, he pulled back the throttle and set the bow planes to descend. He turned up the hydrophones to maximum, swallowed, then cried out in pidgin Trinary.
* Child drowning -- child in danger! *
* Child drowning -- child's distress *
* Human child -- in need of savior *
* Human child -- come do your best! *
He repeated the call over and over, whistling through lips dry with shame. The nursery rhyme was taught to all the children of Calafia. Any kid past the age of nine who used it usually pleaded for transfer to another island to escape the subsequent razzing. There were more dignified ways an adult called for help.
None of which Keepiru had heard!
Ears burning, he repeated the call.
Not all Calafian kids did well with the fins. Only a quarter of the planet's human population worked closely with the sea. But those adults were the ones who learned how to deal with dolphins. Toshio had always assumed he'd be one of them.
Now that was all over. If he got back to Streaker he'd have to hide in his cabin... for at least the few days or weeks it took for the victors of the battle over Kithrup to come down and claim them all.
On his sonar screen, another fuzzy line of static was approaching from the west. Toshio let the sled slip a little deeper. Not that he cared. He continued to whistle, but he felt like crying.
# where -- where -- where child is -- where child is? where #
Primal Delphin! Nearby! Almost, Toshio forgot his shame. He fingered a rope left over from Brookida's lashings, and kept whistling.
A streak of gray twilight flashed past him. Toshio gathered his knees under him and took the rope in both hands. He knew Keepiru would circle below and come up the other side. When he saw the first hint of gray hurtling upward, Toshio launched himself from the sled.
The bullet-like body of the dolphin twisted in an abrupt, panicky attempt to avoid collision. Toshio cried out as the cetacean's tail struck him in the chest. But it was a cry more of glee than pain. He had timed it right!
As Keepiru twisted around again, Toshio flung himself backward, allowing the fin to pass between himself and the rope. He clamped his feet around the dolphin's slick tail and pulled the rope with all the will of a garroter.
"Got you!" he cried.
At that instant the aftershock hit.
The cycloid clutched and pulled. Bits of flotsam struck him as suction tossed his body in alliance with the mad, bucking dolphin.
This time Toshio felt no fear of the wave. He was filled with a fierce battle lust. Adrenaline seared like a hot flux. It pleased him to save Keepiru's life by physically punishing him for weeks of humiliation.
The dolphin writhed in panic. As the shock rolled past them, Keepiru cried out the basic call for air. Desperately, the fin drove for the surface.
They breached, and Toshio just missed getting blasted by spume from Keepiru's blowhole. Keepiru commenced a series of leaps, gyrating to shake loose his unwelcome rider. Each time they went underwater Toshio tried to call out.
"You're sentient," he gasped. "Damn you, Keepiru... you're... you're a starship pilot!"
He should he doing his coaxing in Trinary, but it was no use trying, when he could barely hold on for dear life.
"You pea-brained... phallic symbol!" he screamed as water slammed against him. "You over-rated fish! You're killing me, you goddamned... The Eatees own Calafia by now because you fins can't hold your tongues! We never should have taken you along into space!"
The words were hateful. Contemptuous. At last Keepiru seemed to have heard. He reared out of the water like an enraged stallion. Toshio felt his grip tear loose, and he was flung away like a rag doll, to hit the sea with a splash.
Only eighteen cases were known, in the forty generations of dolphin uplift, in which a fin attacked a human with murderous intent. In each case, every fin related to the perpetrator had been sterilized. Still, Toshio expected to be crushed at any instant. He didn't care. He had realized, at last, the cause of his depression. It had come to the surface when he was wrestling with Keepiru.
It hadn't been his inability to go home that had hurt, these last few weeks. It was another fact he had not let himself think of since the battle of Morgran. The ETs... the extraterrestrials... the Galactics of every stripe and philosophy which were chasing Streaker... would not settle for hunting down the dolphin-crewed ship.
At least one ET race would have seen that the Streak might successfully go into hiding. Or they might imagine, erroneously, that her crew had succeeded in passing the secret of her discovery to Earth. Either way, the logical next step for one of the more amoral or vicious Galactic races would be coercion.
Earth might be able to defend herself. Probably Omnivarium and Hermes, as well. The Tymbrimi would defend the Caanan colonies.
But places like Calafia, or Atlast, must be captured by now. They were hostages, his family and everyone he had known. And Toshio realized, he blamed the fins.
Another aftershock was due any minute. Toshio didn't care.
Pieces of floating debris drifted al1 about nearby. Not more than a kilometer away Toshio could see the metal-mound. At least it looked like the same one. He couldn't tell if there were dolphins stranded on the shore or not.
A large piece of flotsam drifted near him. It took him a moment to realize that it was Keepiru.
Toshio treaded water as he opened his faceplate.
"Well," he asked, "are you proud of yourself?"
Keepiru turned slightly to one side, and one dark eye looked up at Toshio. The bulge at the top of the cetacean's head, where human meddling had created a vocal apparatus from the former blowhole, gave out a long, soft, warbling sound.
Toshio couldn't be certain it was just a sigh. It might have been an apology in Primal Delphin. The possibility was enough to make him angry.
"Can that crap! I just want to know one thing. Do I have to send you back to the ship? Or do you think you can stay sentient long enough to help me? Answer in Anglic, and make it grammatically correct!"
Keepiru moaned in pure anguish. After a moment of heavy breathing he finally spoke, quite slowly.
"Don't sssend me back. They're still calling for help! I will do what you ask-k-k!"
Toshio hesitated. "All right. Go down after the sled. When you've found it, put on a breather. I don't want you hampered by need for air, and you need a constant reminder!
"Then bring the sled up near the island, but not too close!"
Keepiru flung his head up in a huge nodding motion. Yesss!" he cried. Then he flipped and dove into the water.
It was just as well Keepiru had left all the thinking to him. The fin might have balked if he'd caught onto what Toshio had in mind to do next.
A kilometer to the island; there was only one way to get there fast and avoid a scramble up the slanting, abrasive, metal-coral surface. He checked his orientation one more time, then a drop in the water level told him that the wave was coming.
The fourth wave seemed the gentlest by far. He knew the feeling was deceptive. He was in water deep enough so that the swell came at him as a gentle lump in the ocean, rather than a crested breaker. He dove down into the hump and swam against the direction of motion for a time before rising to the surface.
He had to gauge it just right. Swim back too far and he wouldn't reach the island before the following trough arrived and pulled him out to sea again. To remain at the front of the wave would be to body-surf a vicious breaker onto the beach, undertow and all.
It was all happening too fast. He swam hard, but couldn't tell if he had passed the peak of the wave or not. Then a glance told him that it was too late for remedial measures. He flipped around to face the looming, foliage-topped mound.
The breaker started a hundred yards ahead, but the island slope rapidly ate away at the wave as bottom dragged the cycloid into a crested monster. The peak moved backward, toward Toshio, even as the wave hurtled upward onto the beach.
The boy braced as the crest reached him. He was prepared to look down on a precipice, and then see nothing more.
What he saw was a cataract of white foam as the wave began to die, Toshio cried out to keep his ear channels open, and started swimming furiously to stay atop the churning tide of spume and debris.
Suddenly, there was greenery all around. Trees and shrubs which had withstood the earlier assaults shook under this attack. Some tore loose of their moorings even as Toshio flew past them. Others stood and flailed at him as he hurtled through.
No sharp branch impaled him. No unbreaking vine garroted him as he passed. In a tumbling, tossing confusion he finally came to rest, somehow hugging the trunk of a huge tree, while the wave churned, and finally receded.
Miraculously, he was on his feet, the first man to stand on the soil of Kithrup. Toshio stared dazedly at his surroundings, briefly not believing his survival.
Then he hurriedly opened his faceplate, and became the first man to lose his breakfast on the soil of Kithrup.
"Slay them!" The Jophur high priest demanded. "Slay the isolated Thennanin battlecruisers on our sixth quadrant!"
The Jophur chief of staff bowed its twelve-ringed trunk before the high priest.
"The Thennanin are our allies-of-the-moment! How can we urn on them without first performing the secret rituals of betrayal? Their ancestors will not be appeased!"
The Jophur high priest expanded its six outer sap-rings. It rose high upon its dais at the rear of the command chamber.
"There is no time to perform the rites! Now, as our alliance finishes sweeping this sector, as our alliance has become the strongest! Now, while this phase of the battle still rages. Now, while the foolish Thennanin have opened up their flanks to us. Now may we harm them greatly!"
The chief of staff pulsed in agitation, its outer sap-rings discoloring with emotion.
We may change alliances as it suits us, agreed. We may betray our allies, agreed. We may do anything to win the prize, agreed. But we may not do so without performing the rituals! The rituals are what makes us the appropriate vessels for the will of the ancients! You would bring us down to the level of the heretics!"
The dais shook with the high priest's anger.
"My rings decide! My rings are those of priesthood! My rings..."
The oration-peak of the pyramidal high priest erupted in a geyser of hot, multi-hued sap. The explosion spewed sticky amber liquid across the bridge of the Jophur flagship.
"Continue fighting." The chief of staff waved the crew back to work with its sidearm. "Call the Quartermaster of Religiosity. Have it send up rings to make up a new priest. Continue fighting while we prepare to perform the rituals of betrayal."
The chief of staff bowed to the staring section chiefs. "We shall appease the ancestors of the Thennanin before we turn on them.
"But remember to make certain the Thennanin themselves do not sense our intentions!
FROM THE JOURNAL OF GILLIAN BASKIN:
It's been some time since I've been able to make an entry in this personal log. Since the Shallow Cluster it seems we've constantly been in frantic motion... making the discovery of the millennia, getting ambushed at Morgran, and fighting for our lives from then on. I hardly ever see Tom anymore. He's always down in the engine or weapons pods. I'm either here in the lab or helping out in sick bay.
Ship's surgeon Makanee has a mouthful of problems. Fen have always had a talent for hypochondria. A fifth of the crew shows up every sick call with psychosomatic complaints. You can't just tell them it's all in their heads, so we stroke them and tell them what brave fellows they are, and that everything's going to be all right.
I think if it weren't for the captain, half of this crew would be hysterical by now. To many of them he seems almost like a hero out of the Whale Dream. Creideiki moves about the ship, supervising repairs and giving little lessons in Keneenk logic. The fen seem to buck up whenever he's nearby.
Still, reports keep coming in about the space battle. Instead of tapering off, it's only getting thicker and heavier!
And we're all getting more than a little worried about Hikahi's party.
Gillian put down her stylus. From the small circle of her desk lamp, the rest of the laboratory appeared dark and gloomy. The only other light came from the far end of the room. Silhouetted against the spots was a vaguely humanoid shape, a mysterious shadow, lying on a stasis table.
"Hikahi," she sighed. "Where in Ifni's name are you?"
That Hikahi's survey party hasn't even sent back a monopulse confirmation of the recall order was now of great concern. Streaker couldn't afford to lose those crewfen. For all of his frequent unreliability outside the bridge, Keepiru was their best pilot. Even Toshio Iwashiki had a lot of promise.
But most of all, the loss of Hikahi would hurt. Without her, how could Creideiki manage?
Hikahi was Gillian's best dolphin friend, at least as close to her as Tom was to Creideiki or Tsh't. Gillian wondered why Takkata-Jim had been appointed vice-captain instead of Hikahi. It made no sense. She could only imagine that politics was behind it. Takkata-Jim was a Stenos. Perhaps Ignacio Metz had had a hand in choosing the complement for this mission. Metz was a passionate advocate of certain dolphin racial types back on Earth.
Gillian didn't write these thoughts down. They were idle speculations, and she didn't have time for speculation.
Anyway, it's time I got back to Herbie.
She closed her journal and headed over to the stasis table, where a dry, desiccated figure floated in a heavily shielded field of suspended time.
The ancient cadaver grinned back at her through the glass.
It wasn't human. There hadn't even been multi-cellular creatures on Earth when this thing had lived and breathed and flown spaceships. Yet it looked eerily humanoid. It had straight arms and legs, and a very man-like head and neck. Its jaw and eye orbits were strange-looking, but its skull still had an Earth-like grin.
How old are you, Herbie? she asked in her thoughts. One billion years? Two?
How is it your fleet of ancient hulks waited undiscovered by Galactic civilization for so long, waited until we came along... a bunch of wolfling humans and newly uplifted dolphins? Why were we the ones to find you?
And why did one little hologram of you, beamed home to Earth, make half the patron-lines in the galaxy go crazy?
Streaker's micro-Library was no help. It refused to recognize Herbie at all. Maybe it was holding back. Or perhaps it was simply too small an archive to remember an obscure race so long extinct.
Tom had asked the Niss machine to look into it. So far the sarcastic Tymbrimi artifact had been unable to cozen out an answer.
Meanwhile, between sick bay and her other duties, Gillian had to find a few hours a day to examine this relict nondestructively, and maybe figure out what was stirring up the Eatees so. If she didn't do it, no one would.
Somehow she would make it until tonight.
Poor Tom, Gillian thought, smiling. He'll be coming back from his engines, wiped out, and I'll be feeling amorous. It's a damned good thing he's a sport.
She picked up a pion microprobe.
Okay Herbie, let's see if we can find out what kind of a brain you had.
"I'm sorry, Dr. Metz. The captain is with Thomasss Orley in the weapons section. If there's anything I can do...?"
As usual, Vice-Captain Takkata-Jim was unfailingly polite. His Anglic diction, even while breathing oxywater, almost perfect. Ignacio Metz couldn't help smiling in approval. He had a particular interest in Takkata-Jim.
"No, Vice-Captain. I just stopped by the bridge to see if the survey party had reported in."
They haven't. We can only wait.
Metz tsked. He had already concluded that Hikahi's party was destroyed.
"All, well, I don't suppose there has been any offer of negotiations by the Galactics yet?"
Takkata-Jim shook his large, mottled-gray head left to right.
"Regrettably, no sir. They appear more interested in slaughtering each other. Every few hours, it seems, yet another battle fleet enters Kthsemenee's system to join in the free-for-all. It may be a while before anyone initiates diplomacy."
Dr. Metz frowned at the illogic of it. If the Galactics were rational, they'd let Streaker hand her discovery over to the Library Institute and have done with it! Then everyone would share equally!
But Galactic civilization was unified more in the breach than in fact. And too many angry species had big ships and guns.
Here we are, he thought, in the middle, with something they all want.
It can't just be that giant fleet of ancient ships. Something more must have set them off. Gillian Baskin and Tom Orley picked something up out there in the Shallow Cluster. I wonder what it was.
"Will you be wanting me to join you for dinner this evening, Dr. Metz?"
Metz blinked. What day was it? Ah, yes. Wednesday. "Of course, Vice-Captain. Your company and conversation would be appreciated, as usual. Shall we say sixish?"
"Perhapsss nineteen-hundred hours would be better, sir. I get off duty then."
"Very well. Until then."
Takkata-Jim nodded. He turned and swam back to his duty station.
Metz watched the fin appreciatively.
He's the best of my Stenos, Metz thought. He doesn't know I'm his godfather... his gene-father. But I am proud nonetheless.
All the dolphins aboard were of Tursiops amicus stock. But some had genetic grafts from Stenos bredanensis, the deep-water dolphin that had always been the closest to the bottlenose in intelligence.
Wild bredanensis had a reputation for insatiable curiosity and reckless disregard for danger. Metz had led the effort to have DNA from that species added to the neo-fin gene pool. On Earth many of the new Stenos had turned out very well, showing streams of initiative and individual brilliance.
But a reputation for harsh temperament had lately caused some resentment in Earth's coastal communities. He had worked hard to convince the Council that it would be an important gesture to appoint a few Stenos to positions of responsibility on the first dolphin-crowed starship.
Takkata-Jim was his proof. Coldly logical, primly correct, the fin used Anglic almost to the exclusion of Trinary, and seemed impervious to the Whale Dream that so enthralled older models like Creideiki. Takkata-Jim was the most man-like dolphin Metz had ever met.
He watched the vice-captain manage the bridge crew, with none of the little Keneenk parables Creideiki was always inserting, but rather with Anglic precision and brevity. Never a word wasted.
Yes, he thought, this one is going to get a good report when we get home.
Metz turned, and recoiled at the size of the dolphin that had silently come up beside him. "Wha...? Oh, K'tha-Jon, You startled me. What can I do for you?"
A truly large dolphin grinned at him. His blunt mouth, his counter-shaded body and bulging eyes, would have told Metz everything about him... if he hadn't already known.
Feresa attenuata, the human savored the thought. So beautiful and savage. My most secret project, and nobody, not even you, K'tha-Jon, knows that you are more than just another Stenos.
"Forgive the interruption, Dr. Metsss, but the chimp scientist Charlesss Dart-t has asked to speak with you. I think the little ape wantsss to bitch to somebody again."
Metz frowned. K'tha-Jon was only a bosun, and not expected to be as refined as Takkata-Jim. Still, there were limits, even considering the giant's hidden background.
I will have to talk to this fellow, he reminded himself. This kind of attitude will never do.
"Please inform Dr. Dart that I'm on my way," he told the fin. "I'm finished here for now."
11. Creideiki & Orley
"So we're armed again," Creideiki sighed. "After a fashion."
Thomas Orley looked up from the newly repaired missile tubes and nodded. "It's about as good as we're going to get, Creideiki. We weren't expecting trouble when we popped into a battle at Morgran transfer point. We were lucky to get away with as little damage as we took."
Creideiki agreed. "Just ssso. If only I had reacted faster."
Orley noticed his friend's mood. He pursed his lips and whistled. His breather mask amplified a faint sound-shadow picture. The little echo danced and hopped like a mad elf from corner to corner in the oxywater-filled chamber. Workers in the weapons pod lifted their narrow, sound-sensitive jaws to follow the skipping sonar image as it scampered unseen, chittering in mock sympathy.
* When one commands,
One is envied by people --
But, oh! the demands! *
The wind-wraith vanished, but laughter remained. The crew of the weapons pod spluttered and squawled.
Creideiki let the mirth settle. Then, from his brow came a pattern of chamber-filling clicks that merged to mimic the sounds of thunderclouds gathering. In the closed room those present heard raindrops blown before the wind. Tom closed his eyes to let the sound-image of a sea squall close over him.
* They stand in my road,
The mad, ancient, nasty things
Tell them "move, or else!" *
Orley bowed his head, acknowledging defeat. No one had ever beaten Creideiki at Trinary haiku. The admiring sighs of the fen only confirmed this.
Nothing had changed, of course. As Orley and Creideiki turned to leave the weapons pod, they knew that defiance alone would not get this crew through the crisis. There must be hope, as well.
Hope was scarce. Tom knew that Creideiki was desperately worried about Hikahi, though he hid it well.
When they were out of earshot, the captain asked, "Has Gillian made any progress studying that thing we found... the cause of all this trouble?"
Tom shook his head, "I haven't spent more than an hour with her in two days."
Creideild sighed. "It would have been nice to know what the Galacticsss think we found, Ah, well..."
They were stopped by a sudden whistle. Tsh't, the ship's fourth officer, flew into the hallway in a cloud of bubbles.
"Creideiki! Tom! Sonar reports a dolphin at long range, to the eassst, swimming this way at high speed!"
Creideiki and Orley looked at each other. Then Tom nodded at the captain's unspoken command.
"Can I take Tsh't and twenty fen?"
"Yesss. Get a team ready. But don't leave till we find out more. You may want to take more than twenty. Or it may be hopeless to go at all."
Tom saw pain in the captain's eye. He motioned for Lieutenant Tsh't to follow and swam rapidly down the flooded corridor toward the outlock.
This is the end of the sample chapters for Startide Rising. To continue reading, purchase Startide Rising from any store on this page.