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Far Horizons All New Tales From the Greatest Worlds of Science Fiction 17


  We modern neo-fins are spoiled. It will take us years to get used to living in the elements, accepting whatever nature sends our way, without complaining or making ambitious plans to change the way things are.

  That human side of us must be allowed to fade away.

  PEEPOE

  She made her break around midmorning the next day.

  Zhaki was sleeping off a hangover near a big mat of driftweed, and Mopol was using the sled to harass some unlucky penguinlike seabirds, who were trying to feed their young by fishing near the island’s lee shore. It seemed a good chance to slip away, but Peepoe’s biggest reason for choosing this moment was simple. Diving deep below the thermal layer, she found that the distant rumble had peaked, and appeared to have turned away, diminishing with each passing hour.

  It was now, or never.

  Peepoe had hoped to steal something from the sled first. A utensil harness perhaps, or a breather tube, and not just for practical reasons. In normal life, few neo-dolphins spent a single day without using cyborg tools, controlled by cable links to the brain’s temporal lobes. But for months now her two would-be “husbands” hadn’t let her connect to anything at all! The neural tap behind her left eye ached from disuse.

  Unfortunately, Mopol nearly always slept on the sled’s saddle, barely ever leaving except to eat and defecate.

  He’ll be desolated when the speeder finally breaks down, she thought, taking some solace from that.

  So the decision was made, and Ifni’s dice were cast. She set out with all the gifts and equipment nature provided—completely naked—into an uncharted sea.

  For Peepoe, escaping captivity began unlike any human novel or fantasholo. In such stories, the heroine’s hardest task was normally the first part, sneaking away. But here Peepoe faced no walls, locked rooms, dogs, or barbed wire. Her “guards” let her come and go as she pleased. In this case, the problem wasn’t getting started, but winning a big enough head start before Zhaki and Mopol realized she was gone.

  Swimming under the thermocline helped mask her movements at first. It left her vulnerable to detection only when she went up for air. But she could not keep it up for long. The Tursiops genus of dolphins weren’t deep divers by nature, and her speed at depth was only a third what it would be skimming near the surface.

  So, while the island was still above the horizon behind her, Peepoe stopped slinking along silently below and instead began her dash for freedom in earnest—racing toward the sun with an endless series of powerful back archings and fluke-strokes, going deep only occasionally to check her bearings against the far-off droning sound.

  It felt exhilarating to slice through the wavetops, flexing her body for all it was worth. Peepoe remembered the last time she had raced along this way—with Kaa by her side—when Jijo’s waters had seemed warm, sweet, and filled with possibilities.

  Although she kept low-frequency sonar clickings to a minimum, she did allow herself some short-range bursts, checking ahead for obstacles and toying with the surrounding water, bouncing reflections off patches of sun-driven convection, letting echoes wrap themselves around her like rippling memories. Peepoe’s sonic transmissions remained soft and close—no louder than the vibrations given off by her kicking tail—but the patterns grew more complex as her mind settled into the rhythms of movement. Before long, returning wavelets of her own sound meshed with those of current and tide, overlapping to make phantom sonar images.

  Most of these were vague shapes, like the sort that one felt swarming at the edges of a dream. But in time several fell together, merging into something larger. The composite echo seemed to bend and thrust when she did—as if a spectral companion now swam nearby, where her squinting eye saw only sunbeams in an empty sea.

  Kaa, she thought, recognizing a certain unique zest whenever the wraith’s bottle nose flicked through the waves.

  Among dolphins, you did not have to die in order to come back as a ghost…though it helped. Sometimes the only thing required was vividness of spirit—and Kaa surely was, or had been, vivid.

  Or perhaps the nearby sound-effigy fruited solely from Peepoe’s eager imagination.

  In fact, dolphin logic perceived no contradiction between those two explanations. Kaa’s essence might really be there—and not be—at the same time. Whether real or mirage, she was glad to have her lover back where he belonged—by her side.

  I’ve missed you, she thought.

  Anglic wasn’t a good language for phantoms. No human grammar was. Perhaps that explained why the poor bipeds so seldom communed with their beloved lost.

  Peepoe’s visitor answered in a more ambiguous, innately delphin style.

  * Till the seaweed’s flower

  * Shoots forth petals made of moonbeams

  * I will swim with you *

  Peepoe was content with that. For some unmeasured time, it seemed as if a real companion, her mate, swam alongside, encouraging her efforts, sharing the grueling pace. The water divided before her, caressing her flanks like a real lover.

  Then, abruptly, a new sound intruded. A distant grating whine that threatened to shatter all illusions.

  Reluctantly, she made herself clamp down, silencing the resonant chambers surrounding her blowhole. As her own sonar vibrations ceased, so did the complex echoes, and her phantom comrade vanished. The waters ahead seemed to go black as Peepoe concentrated, listening intently.

  There it was.

  Coming from behind her. Another engine vibration, this one all too familiar, approaching swiftly as it skimmed across the surface of the sea.

  They know, she realized. Zhaki and Mopol know I’m gone, and they’re coming after me.

  Peepoe wasted no more time. She bore down with her flukes, racing through the waves faster than ever. Stealth no longer mattered. Now it was a contest of speed, endurance, and luck.

  TKETT

  It took him most of a day and the next night to get near the source of the mysterious disturbance, pushing his power sled as fast as he dared. Makanee had ordered Tkett not to overstrain the engine, since there would be no replacements when it wore out.

  “Just be careful out there,” the elderly dolphin physician had urged, when giving permission for this expedition. “Find out what it is…whether it’s one of the derelict spacecraft that Suessi and the engineers brought back to life as decoys. If so, don’t mess with it! Just come back and report. We’ll discuss where to go from there.”

  Tkett did not have disobedience in mind. At last not explicitly. But if it really was a starship making the low, uneven grumbling noise, a host of possibilities presented themselves. What if it proved possible to board the machine and take over the makeshift controls that Streaker’s crew had put in place?

  Even if it can’t fly, it’s cruising around the ocean. I could use it as a submersible and visit the Great Midden.

  That vast undersea trench was where the Buyur had dumped most of the dross of their mighty civilization, when it came time for them to abandon Jijo and return its surface to fallow status. After packing up to leave, the last authorized residents of this planet used titanic machines to scrape away their cities, then sent all their buildings and other works tumbling into an abyss where the slow grinding of tectonic plates would draw the rubble inward, melting and reshaping new ores to be used by others in some future era, when Jijo was opened for legal settlement once again.

  To an archaeologist, the Midden seemed the opportunity of a lifetime.

  I’d learn so much about the Buyur! We might examine whole classes of tools that no Earthling has ever seen. The Buyur were rich and powerful. They could afford the very best in the Civilization of Five Galaxies, while we Terran newcomers can only buy the dregs. Even stuff the Buyur threw away—their toys and broken trinkets—could provide valuable data for the Terragens Council.

  Tkett wasn’t a complete fool. He knew what Makanee and Brookida thought of him.

  They consider me crazy to be optimistic about going home. To believe any of us w
ill see Earth again, or let the industrial tang of its waters roll through our open jaws, or once more surf the riptides of Ranga Roa.

  Or give a university lecture. Or dive through the richness of a worldwide data network, sharing ideas with a fecund civilization at light-speed. Or hold challenging conversations with others who share your intellectual passions.

  He had signed aboard Streaker to accompany Captain Creideiki and a neo-dolphin intellectual elite in the greatest mental and physical adventure any group of cetaceans ever faced—the ultimate test of their new sapient race. Only now Creideiki was gone, presumed dead, and Tkett had been ejected by Streaker’s new commander, exiled from the ship at its worst moment of crisis. Makanee might feel complacent over being put ashore as “nonessential” personnel, but it churned Tkett’s guts to be spilled into a warm, disgustingly placid sea while his crewmates were still out there, facing untold dangers among the bleeding stars.

  A voice broke in from the outside, before his thoughts could spiral any further toward self-pity.

  # give me give me GIVE ME

  # snout-smacking pleasure

  # of a good fight! #

  That shrill chatter came from the sled’s rear compartment, causing Tkett’s flukes to thrash in brief startlement. It was easy to forget about his quiet passenger for long stretches of time. Chissis spoke seldom, and then only in the throwback protolanguage, Primal Delphin.

  Tkett quashed his initial irritation. After all, Chissis was unwell. Like several dozen other members of the crew, her modern mind had crumpled under the pressure of Streaker’s long ordeal, taking refuge in older ways of thought. One had to make allowances, even though Tkett could not imagine how it was possible for anyone to abandon the pleasures of rationality, no matter how insistently one heard the call of the Whale Dream.

  After a moment, Tkett realized that her comment had been more than just useless chatter. Chissis must have sensed some meaning from his sonar clicks. Apparently she understood and shared his resentment over Gillian Baskin’s decision to leave them behind on Jijo.

  “You’d rather be back in space right now, wouldn’t you?” he asked. “Even though you can’t read an instrument panel anymore? Even with Jophur battleships and other nasties snorting down Streaker’s neck, closing in for the kill?”

  His words were in Underwater Anglic. Most of the reverted could barely comprehend it anymore. But Chissis squawled from the platform behind Tkett, throwing a sound burst that sang like the sled’s engine, thrusting ever forward, obstinately defiant.

  # smack the Jophur! smack the sharks!

  # SMACK THEM! #

  Accompanying her eager-repetitive message squeal, there came a sonar crafted by the fatty layers of her brow, casting a brief veil of illusion around Tkett. He briefly visualized Chissis, joyfully ensconced in the bubble nose of a lamprey-class torpedo, personally piloting it on course toward a huge alien cruiser, penetrating all of the cyberdis-ruptive fields that Galactic spacecraft used to stave off digital guidance systems, zeroing in on her target with all the instinct and native agility that dolphins inherited from their ancestors.

  Loss of speech apparently had not robbed some “reverted” ones of either spunk or ingenuity. Tkett sputtered laughter. Gillian Baskin had made a real mistake leaving this one behind! Apparently you did not need an engineer’s mind in order to have the heart of a warrior.

  “No wonder Makanee let you come along on this trip,” he answered. “You’re a bad influence on the others, aren’t you?”

  It was her turn to emit a laugh—sounding almost exactly like his own. A ratchetting raspberry-call that the masters of uplift had left alone. A deeply cetacean shout that defied the sober universe for taking so many things too seriously.

  # Faster faster FASTER!

  # Engines call us…

  # offering a ride…#

  Tkett’s tail thrashed involuntarily as her cry yanked something deep within. Without hesitating, he cranked up the sled’s motor, sending it splashing through the foamy white-tops, streaking toward a mysterious object whose song filled the sea.

  PEEPOE

  She could sense Zhaki and Mopol closing in from behind. They might be idiots, but they knew what they wanted and how to pilot their sled at maximum possible speed without frying the bearings. Once alerted to her escape attempt, they cast ahead using the machine’s deep-range sonar. She felt each loud ping like a small bite along her backside. By now they knew exactly where she was. The noise was meant to intimidate her.

  It worked. I don’t know how much longer I can keep on, Peepoe thought while her body burned with fatigue. Each body-arching plunge through the waves seemed to take more out of her. No longer a joyful sensation, the ocean’s silky embrace became a clinging drag, taxing and stealing her hard-won momentum, making Peepoe earn each dram of speed over and over again.

  In comparison, the hard vacuum of space seemed to offer a better bargain. What you bought, you got to keep. Even the dead stayed on trajectory, tumbling ever onward. Space travel tended to promote belief in “progress,” a notion that old-style dolphins used to find ridiculous, and still had some trouble getting used to.

  I should be fairly close to the sound I was chasing…whatever’s making it. I’d be able to tell, if only those vermin behind me would turn off the damned sonar and let me listen in peace!

  Of course the pinging racket was meant to disorient her. Peepoe only caught occasional sonic-glimpses of her goal, and then only by diving below the salt-boundary layer, something she did as seldom as possible, since it always slowed her down.

  The noise of the sled’s engine sounded close. Too damned close. At any moment Zhaki and Mopol might swerve past to cut her off, then start spiraling inward, herding her like some helpless sea animal while they chortled, enjoying their macho sense of power.

  I’ll have to submit…bear their punishment…put up with bites and whackings till they’re convinced I’ve become a good cow.

  None of that galled Peepoe as much as the final implication of her recapture.

  I guess this means I’ll have to kill the two of them.

  It was the one thing she’d been hoping to avoid. Murder among dolphins had been rare in olden times, and the genetic engineers worked to enhance this innate distaste. Anyway, Peepoe had wished to avoid making the choice. A clean getaway would have sufficed.

  She didn’t know how she’d do it. Not yet.

  But I’m still a Terragens officer, while they relish considering themselves wild beasts. How hard can it be?

  Part of her knew that she was drifting, fantasizing. This might even be the way her subconscious was trying to rationalize surrendering the chase. She might as well give up now, before exhaustion claimed all her strength.

  No! I’ve got to keep going.

  Peepoe let out a groan as she redoubled her efforts, bearing down with intense drives of her powerful tail flukes. Each moment that she held them off meant just a little more freedom. A little more dignity.

  It couldn’t last, of course. Though it felt exultant and defiant to give it one more hard push, the burst of speed eventually faded as her body used up its last reserves. Quivering, she fell at last into a languid glide, gasping for air to fill her shuddering lungs.

  Too bad. I can hear it…the underwater thing I was seeking…not far away now.

  But Zhaki and Mopol are closer still.…

  What took Peepoe some moments to recall was that the salt-thermal barrier deadened sound from whatever entity was cruising the depths below. For her to hear it now, however faintly, meant that it had to be—

  A tremor rocked Peepoe. She felt the waters bulge around her, as if pushed aside by some massive creature, far under the ocean’s surface. Realization dawned, even as she heard Zhaki’s voice, shouting gleefully only a short distance away.

  It’s right below me. The thing! It’s passing by, down there in the blackness.

  She had only moments to make a decision. Judging from cues in the water, it was b
oth very large and very far beneath her. Yet Peepoe felt nowhere near ready to attempt a deep dive while each breath still sighed with ragged pain.

  She heard and felt the sled zoom past, spotting her two tormentors sprawled on the machine’s back, grinning as they swept by dangerously close. Instinct made her want to turn away and flee, or else go below for as long as her lungs could hold out. But neither move would help, so she stayed put.

  They’ll savor their victory for a little while, she thought, hoping they were confident enough not to use the sled’s stunner on her. Anyway, at this short range, what could she do?

  It was hard to believe they hadn’t picked up any signs of the behemoth by now. Stupid, single-minded males, they had concentrated all of their attention on the hunt for her.

  Zhaki and Mopol circled around her twice, spiraling slowly closer, leering and chattering.

  Peepoe felt exhausted, still sucking air for her laboring lungs. But she could afford to wait no longer. As they approached for the final time, she took one last, body-stretching gasp through her blowhole, arched her back, and flipped over to dive nose first into the deep.

  At the final instant, her tail flukes waved at the boys. A gesture that she hoped they would remember with galling regret.

  Blackness consumed the light and she plunged, kicking hard to gain depth while her meager air supply lasted. Soon, darkness welcomed Peepoe. But on passing the boundary layer, she did not need illumination anymore. Sound guided her, the throaty rumble of something huge, moving gracefully and complacently through a world where sunshine never fell.