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The Lazarus Effect / Эффект Лазаря (by Frank Herbert and Bill Ransom, 2015) - аудиокнига на английском

The Lazarus Effect / Эффект Лазаря (by Frank Herbert and Bill Ransom, 2015) - аудиокнига на английском

The Lazarus Effect / Эффект Лазаря (by Frank Herbert and Bill Ransom, 2015) - аудиокнига на английском

Пандора – место дислокации экипажа космического судна, будто призрак парящего в пустотах Вселенной. Планета, поверхность которой укрыта водой, таит в себе невероятную для восприятия взором жизнь. Оказывается, много поколений назад здесь был заселен последний остров. Прибывшие колонизаторы истребили большую часть ламинарий, обладающих разумом и удерживающих в сохранности хрупкую экосистему. Ламинарий самовосстановился за долгие годы после вторжения незваных гостей. Теперь пандорианцы расформировались на отдельные группы. Одни обитают в воде, другие дрейфуют по волнам, третьи предпочли надводный мир. Между жителями планеты возник конфликт, который гляди выльется в открытое противостояние. Прибытие корабля стало своего рода пришествием всевышних сил, способных рассудить все стороны. Путешественники меж тем и сами на пороге трагедии. Центральный компьютер корабля принял на себя роль Бога и желает руководить жизнями своих пассажиров. Пандора стала для них спасением и проклятием одновременно. Что ждет героев? И достигнут ли пандоровцы консенсуса?

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Название:
The Lazarus Effect / Эффект Лазаря (by Frank Herbert and Bill Ransom, 2015) - аудиокнига на английском
Год выпуска аудиокниги:
2015
Автор:
Frank Herbert and Bill Ransom
Исполнитель:
Scott Brick
Язык:
английский
Жанр:
научная фантастика
Уровень сложности:
upper-intermediate
Длительность аудио:
15:56:37
Битрейт аудио:
64 kbps
Формат:
mp3, pdf, doc

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Frank Herbert and Bill Ransom The Lazarus Effect For Brian, Bruce and Penny. For all the years they tiptoed while their father was writing. Frank Herbert For all those healers who ease our suffering; for people who feed people, then ask them for virtue; for our friends -- gratitude and affection. Bill Ransom The Histories assert that a binary system cannot support life. But we found life here on Pandora. Except for the kelp, it was antagonistic and deadly, but still it was life. Ship's judgment is upon us now because we wiped out the kelp and unbalanced this world. We few survivors are subject to the endless sea and the terrible vagaries of the two suns. That we survive at all on our fragile Clone-rafts is as much a curse as a victory. This is the time of madness. -- Hali Ekel, the Journals Duque smelled burning flesh and scorched hair. He sniffed, sniffed again, and whined. His one good eye watered and pained him when he tried to knuckle it open. His mother was out. Out was a word he could say, like hot and Ma. He could not precisely identify the location and shape of out. He knew vaguely that his quarters were on a Clone-raft anchored off a black stone pinnacle, all that remained of Pandora's land surface. The burning smells were stronger now. They frightened him. Duque wondered if he should say something. Mostly, he did not talk; his nose got in the way. He could whistle through his nose, though, and his mother understood. She would whistle back. Between them, they understood more than a hundred whistle-words. Duque wriggled his forehead. This uncurled his thick, knobby nose and he whistled -- tentative at first to see whether she was near. "Ma? Where are you, Ma?" He listened for the unmistakable scuff-slap, scuff-slap of her bare feet on the soft slick deck of the raft. Burning smells filled his nose and made him sneeze. He heard the slaps of many feet out in the corridor, more feet than he had ever before heard out there, but nothing he could identify as Ma. There was shouting now, words Duque did not know. He sucked in a deep breath and let go the loudest whistle he could muster. His thin ribs ached with it and the vibration made him dizzy. No one responded. The hatch beside him remained closed. No one plucked him out of his twisted covers and held him close. Despite the pain of the smoke, Duque peeled back his right eyelid with the two nubs on his right hand and saw that the room was dark except for a glow against the thin organics of the corridor wall. Dull orange light cast a frightening illumination over the deck. Acrid smoke hung like a cloud above him, tendrils of its oily blackness reaching downward toward his face. And now there were other sounds outside added to the shouting and the slap-slap of many feet. He heard big things dragging and bumping along his glowing wall. Terror held him curled into a silent lump under the covers of his bunk. The burning smells contained a steamy, bitter flavor -- not quite the sticky-sweet of the time when the stove scorched their wall. He remembered the charred melt of organics opening a new passage between their room and the next one along the corridor. He had poked his head through the burned opening and whistled at their neighbors. The smells now were not the same, though, and the glowing wall did not melt away. A rumbling was added to the outside sounds. Like a pot boiling over on the stove, but his mother was not cooking. Besides, it was too loud for cooking, louder even than the other corridor noises. Now, there were screams nearby. Duque kicked off his covers and gasped when his bare feet touched the deck. Hot! Abruptly, the deck pitched, first backward and then forward. The motion lurched him face-first through the bulkhead. The hot organics of the wall stretched and parted for him like a cooked noodle. He knew he was on the outer deck but stumbling feet kept him too busy covering his head and body with his arms. He could not spare a hand to open his good eye. The hot deck burned his knees and elbows. Duque caught his breath in the sudden onslaught of pain and wrenched out another shrill whistle. Somebody stumbled against him. Hands reached under his armpits and lifted him clear of the scorched bubbly that had been the deck. Some of it came loose with him and stuck to his bare skin. Duque knew who held him by the jasmine smell of her hair -- Ellie, the neighbor woman with the short, stubby legs and beautiful voice. "Duque," she said, "let's go find your ma." He heard something wrong in her voice. It rasped low in a dry throat and cracked when she spoke. "Ma," he said. He knuckled his eye open and saw a nightmare of movement and firelight. Ellie shouldered them through the crowd, saw that he was looking around and slapped his hand away. "Look later," she said. "Right now you hang on to my neck. Hold tight." After that one brief glimpse, there was no need to repeat the order. He clutched both arms around Ellie's neck. A small whimper escaped his throat. Ellie continued to push them through a crowd of people -- voices all around saying words Duque did not understand. Movement against the others peeled away chunks of bubbly from his skin. It hurt. That one look at out remained indelibly in Duque's memory. Fire had been coming out of the dark water! It coiled up out of the water accompanied by that thick, boiling sound and the air was so full of steam that people were shadow clumps against the hot red glow of flames. Screams and shouts still sounded all around, causing Duque to hold even tighter to Ellie's neck. Chunks of the fire had rocketed into the sky high above their island. Duque did not understand this but he heard the fire crash and sizzle through the body of the island into the sea beneath. Why water burn? He knew the whistle-words but Ellie would not understand. The raft tipped sharply under Ellie and sent her sprawling beneath the trampling feet with Duque atop her shielded from the burning deck. Ellie cursed and gasped. More people fell around them. Duque felt Ellie sinking into the melting organics of the deck. She struggled at first, thrashing like a fresh-caught muree that his mother had put into his hands once before she cooked it. Ellie's twisting slowed and she began moaning low in her throat. Duque, still clutching Ellie's neck, felt hot bubbly against his hands and jerked them away. Ellie screamed. Duque tried to push himself away from her but the press of bodies all around prevented his escape. He felt the hair at the nape of his neck standing up. A questing whistle broke from his nose but there was no response. The deck tilted again and bodies rolled onto Duque. He felt hot flesh, some of it warm-wet. Ellie gasped once, very deep. The air changed. The people screaming, "Oh, no! Oh, no!" stopped screaming. Many people began coughing all around Duque. He coughed, too, choking on hot, thick dust. Someone nearby gasped: "I've got Vata. Help me. We must save her." Duque sensed a stillness in Ellie. She wasn't moaning anymore. He could not feel the rise and fall of her breathing. Duque opened his mouth and spoke the two words he knew best: "Ma. Hot, Ma. Ma." Someone right beside him said: "Who's that?" "Hot, Ma," Duque said. Hands touched him and hauled him away from Ellie. A voice next to his ear said: "It's a child. He's alive." "Bring him!" someone called between coughs. "We've got Vata." Duque felt himself passed from hand to hand through an opening into a dimly lighted place. His one good eye saw through a thinner dust haze the glitter of tiny lights, shiny surfaces and handles. He wondered if this could be the out where Ma went but there was no sign of Ma, only many people crowded into a small space. Someone directly in front of him held a large naked infant. He knew about infants because Ma sometimes brought them from out and cared for them, cooing over them and letting Duque touch them and pet them. Infants were soft and nice. This infant looked larger than any Duque had ever seen but he knew she was only an infant -- those fat features, that still face. The air pressure changed, popping in Duque's ears. Something began to hum. Just when Duque was deciding to come out of his fears and join in this warm closeness of flesh, three gigantic explosions shook all of them, sending their enclosed space tumbling. "Boom! Boom! Boom!" the explosions came one on top of the other. People began extricating themselves from the tumble of flesh. A foot touched Duque's face and was withdrawn. "Careful of the little ones," someone said. Strong hands lifted Duque and helped him open his eye. A pale masculine face peered at him -- a wide face with deeply set brown eyes. The man spoke. "I've got the other one. He's no beauty but he's alive." "Here, give him to me," a woman said. Duque found himself pressed close to the infant. A woman's arms held them both, flesh to flesh, warmth to warmth. A sense of reassurance swept through Duque but it was cut off immediately when the woman spoke. He understood her words! He did not know how he understood but the meanings were there unfolding as her voice rumbled against his cheek pressed to her breast. "The whole island exploded," the woman said. "I saw it through the port." "We're well below the surface now," a man said. "But we can't stay long with this many people breathing our air." "We will pray to Rock," the woman said. "And to Ship," a man said. "To Rock and to Ship," they all agreed. Duque heard all of this from a distance as more understanding flooded his awareness. It was happening because his flesh touched the flesh of the infant! He knew the infant's name now. "Vata." A beautiful name. The name brought with it a blossoming mindful of information, as though the knowledge had always been there, needing only Vata's name and her touch to spread it through his memory. Now, he was aware of out, all of it as known through human senses and kelp memories . . . because Vata carried kelp genes in her human flesh. He remembered the place of the kelp deep under the sea, the tendrils clinging to precious rock. He remembered the minuscule islands that no longer existed because the kelp was gone and the sea fury had been unleashed. Kelp memories and human memories revealed wondrous things happening to Pandora now that waves could roam freely around this planet, which was really a distorted ball of solid matter submerged in an endless skin of water. Duque knew where he was, too: in a small submersible, which should have had a Lighter-Than-Air carrier attached to it. Out was a place of marvels. And all of this wondrous information had come to him directly from the mind of Vata because she had kelp genes, as did he. As did many of Pandora's surviving humans. Genes . . . he knew about those marvels, too, because Vata's mind was a magic storehouse of such things, telling him about history and the Clone Wars and the death of all the kelp. He sensed a direct link between Vata and himself, which endured even when he pulled away from physical contact with her. Duque experienced a great thankfulness for this and tried to express his gratitude but Vata refused to respond. He understood then that Vata wanted the deep sea-quiet of her kelp memories. She wanted only the waiting. She did not want to deal with the things she had dumped onto him. She had dumped them, he realized, shedding these things like a painful skin. Duque felt a momentary pique at this realization but happiness returned immediately. He was the repository of such wonders! Consciousness. That's my department, he thought. I must be aware for both of us. I am the storage system, the Ox Gate, which only Vata can open. There were giants in the earth in those days. -- Genesis, The Christian Book of the Dead 22 Bunratti, 468. Why do I keep this journal? This is a strange hobby for the Chief Justice and Chairman of the Committee on Vital Forms. Do I hope that a historian will someday weave rich elaborations out of my poor scribblings? I can just see someone like Iz Bushka stumbling onto my journal many years from now, his mind crammed full of the preconceptions that block acceptance of the truly new. Would Bushka destroy my journal because it conflicted with his own theories? I think this may have happened with other historians in our past. Why else would Ship have forced us to start over? I'm convinced that this is what Ship has done. Oh, I believe in Ship. Let it be recorded here and now that Ward Keel believes in Ship. Ship is God and Ship brought us here to Pandora. This is our ultimate trial -- sink or swim, in the most literal sense. Well . . . almost. We Islanders mostly float. It's the Mermen who swim. What a perfect testing ground for humankind is this Pandora, and how aptly named. Not a shard of land left above its sea, which the kelp once subdued. Once a noble creature, intelligent, known to all creatures of this world as Avata, it is now simply kelp -- thick, green and silent. Our ancestors destroyed Avata and we inherited a planetary sea. Have we humans ever done that before? Have we killed off the thing that subdues the deadliness in our lives? Somehow, I suspect we have. Else, why would Ship leave those hybernation tanks to tantalize us in orbit just beyond our reach? Our Chaplain/Psychiatrist shares this suspicion. As she says, "There is nothing new under the suns." I wonder why Ship's imprimatur always took the form of the eye within the pyramid? I began this journal simply as an account of my own stewardship on the Committee that determines which new life will be permitted to survive and perhaps breed. We mutants have a deep regard for the variations that the bioengineering of that brilliant madman, Jesus Lewis, set adrift in the human gene pool. From those incomplete records we still have, it's clear that human once had a much narrower definition. Mutant variations that we now accept without a passing glance were once cause for consternation, even death. As a Committeeman passing judgment on life, the question I always ask myself and try to answer with my poor understanding is: Will this new life, this infant, help us all survive? If there is the remotest chance that it will contribute to this thing we call human society I vote to let it live. And I have been rewarded time and again by that hidden genius in cruel form, that mind plus distorted body which enrich us all. I know I am correct in these decisions. But my journal has developed a tendency to wander. I have decided that I am secretly a philosopher. I want to know not only what, but why. In the long generations since that terrible night when the last of Pandora's true land-based islands exploded into molten lava, we have developed a peculiar social duality, which I am convinced could destroy us all. We Islanders, with our organic cities floating "willy-nilly" on the sea's surface, believe we have formed the perfect society. We care for each other, for the inner other that the skin (whatever shape or shade) protects. Then what is it about us that insists on saying "us" and "them"? Is there a viciousness buried in us? Will it explode us into violence against the excluded others? Oh, Islanders exclude; this cannot be denied. Our jokes betray us. Anti-Mermen jokes. "Merms," we call them. Or "pretties." And they call us "Mutes." It's a grunt word no matter how you sound it. We are jealous of Mermen. There it is. I have written it. Jealous. They have the freedom of all the land beneath the sea. Merman mechanization depends on a relatively uniform, traditional human body. Few Islanders can compete under middleclass conditions, so they occupy the top of Merman genius or the depths of its slums. Even so, Islanders who migrate down under are confined to Islander communities . . . ghettos. Still the Islander idea of heaven is to pass for a pretty. Mermen repel the sea to survive. Their living space benefits from a kind of stability underfoot. Historically, I must admit, humans show a preference for a firm surface underfoot, air to breathe freely (although theirs is depressingly damp) and solid things all around. They produce an occasional webbed foot or hand but that, too, was common all down the lineage of the species. Merman appearance is that of humans for as long as likenesses have been recorded; that much we can see for ourselves. Besides, Clone Wars happened. Our immediate ancestors wrote of this. Jesus Lewis did this to us. The visible evidence of other is inescapable. But I was writing about Merman nature. It is their self-proclaimed mission to restore the kelp. But will the kelp be conscious? Kelp once more lives in the sea. I have seen the effects in my lifetime and expect we've just about seen the last of wavewalls. Exposed land will surely follow. Yet, how does that subtract from this nature that I see in the Mermen? By bringing back the kelp, they seek to control the sea. That is the Merman nature: control. Islanders float with the waves and the winds and the currents. Mermen would control these forces and control us. Islanders bend with things that might otherwise overwhelm them. They are accustomed to change but grow tired of it. Mermen fight against certain kinds of change -- and are growing tired of that. Now, I come to my view of what Ship did with us. I think it is the nature of our universe that life may encounter a force that could overwhelm it if life cannot bend. Mermen would break before such a force. Islanders bend and drift. I think we may prove the better survivors. We bear our original sin in our bodies and on our faces. -- Simone Rocksack, Chaplain/Psychiatrist The cold slap of a sudden wave over the side snapped Queets Twisp full awake. He yawned, unkinked his overlong arms where they had tangled themselves in the tarp. He wiped the spray from his face with his shirtsleeve. Not yet full sunrise, he noted. The first thin feathers of dawn tickled the black belly of the horizon. No thunderheads cluttered the sky and his two squawks, their feathers preened and glistening, muttered contentedly on their tethers. He rubbed the circulation back into his long arms and felt in the bottom of the coracle for his tube of thick juice concentrates and proteins. Blech. He made a wry face as he sucked down the last of the tube. The concentrate was tasteless and odorless, but he balked at it just the same. You'd think if they made it edible they could make it palatable, he thought. At least dockside we'll get some real food. The rigors of setting and hauling fishing nets always built his appetite into a monumental thing that concentrates could support, but never satisfy. The gray ocean yawned away in all directions. Not a sign of dashers or any other threat anywhere. The occasional splatter of a sizable wave broke over the rim of the coracle but the organic pump in the bilge could handle that. He turned and watched the slaw bulge of their net foam the surface behind them. It listed slightly with its heavy load. Twisp's mouth watered at the prospect of a thousand kilos of scilla -- boiled scilla, fried scilla, baked scilla with cream sauce and hot rolls . . . "Queets, are we there yet?" Brett's voice cracked in its adolescent way. Only the shock of his thick blonde hair stuck out from under their tarp -- a sharp contrast to Twisp's headful of ebony fur. Brett Norton was tall for sixteen, and his pile of hair made him seem even taller. This first season of fishing had already begun to fill in some of his thin, bony structure. Twisp sucked in a slow breath, partly to calm himself after being startled, partly to draw in patience. "Not yet," he said. "Drift is right. We should overtake the Island just after sunrise. Eat something." The boy grimaced and rummaged in his kit for his own meal. Twisp watched as the boy wiped the spout nearly clean, unstoppered it and sucked down great gulps of the untantalizing brown liquid. "Yum." Brett's gray eyes were shut tight and he shuddered. Twisp smiled. I should quit thinking of him as "the boy." Sixteen years was more than boyhood, and a season at the nets had hardened his eyes and thickened his hands. Twisp often wondered what had made Brett choose to be a fisherman. Brett was near enough to Merman body type that he could have gone down under and made a good life there. He's self-conscious about his eyes, Twisp thought. But that's something few people notice. Brett's gray eyes were large, but not grotesque. Those eyes could see well in almost total darkness, which turned out to be handy for round-the-clock fishing. That's something the Mermen wouldn't let out of their hands, Twisp thought. They're good at using people. A sudden lurch of the net caught both of them off-balance and they reached simultaneously for the rimline. Again, the lurch. "Brett!" Twisp shouted, "Get us some slack while I haul in." "But we can't haul in," the boy said, "we'd have to dump the catch . . ." "There's a Merman in the net! A Merman will drown if we don't haul in." Twisp was already dragging in the heavy netlines hand-over-hand. The muscles of his long forearms nearly burst the skin with the effort. This was one of those times he was thankful he had a mutant's extra ability. Brett ducked out of sight behind him to man their small electric scull. The netlines telegraphed a frantic twisting and jerking from below. Merman for sure! Twisp thought, and strained even harder. He prayed he could get him up in time. Or her, he thought. The first Merman he'd seen netbound was a woman. Beautiful. He shook off the memory of the crisscross lines, the net-burns in her perfect, pale . . . dead skin. He hauled harder. Thirty meters of net to go, he thought. Sweat stung his eyes and small blades of pain seared his back. "Queets!" He looked from the net back to Brett and saw white-eyed terror. Twisp followed the boy's gaze. What he saw three or four hundred meters to starboard made him freeze. The squawks set up a fluttering outcry that told Twisp what his eyes were barely able to confirm. "A hunt of dashers!" He almost whispered it, almost let slip the netlines creasing his rock-hard palms. "Help me here," Twisp shouted. He returned to the frantic tugging at the net. Out of the corner of one eye he saw the boy grab the port line, out of the other he watched the steady froth of the oncoming dashers. A half-dozen of them at least, he thought. Shit. "What'll they do?" Brett's voice cracked again. Twisp knew that the boy had heard stories. Nothing could match the real thing. Hungry or not, dashers hunted. Their huge forepaws and saberlike canines killed for the sheer bloody love of it. These dashers wanted that Merman. Too late, Twisp dove for the lasgun he kept wrapped in oiled cloth in the cuddy. Frantically, he scrabbled for the weapon, but the first of the dashers hit the net head-on and their momentum rocked the coracle. Two others fanned to the sides, closing on the flanks like a fist. Twisp felt the two hard hits as he came up with the lasgun. He saw the net go slack as slashing claws and fangs opened it wide. The rest of the hunt closed in, scavenging bits of meat and bone thrown clear of the frothy mess that had been a Merman. One dasher nipped another and, primed to kill, the rest turned on their wounded mate and tore him to bits. Fur and green gore splattered the side of the coracle. No need wasting a lasgun charge on that mess! It was a bitter thought. Islanders had long ago given up the hope they might exterminate these terrible creatures. Twisp shook himself alert, fumbled for his knife and cut the netlines. "But why . . . ?" He didn't answer Brett's protest, but toggled a switch under the scull housing. One of the dashers froze not a meter from their gunwale. It sank slowly, drifting back and forth, back and forth like a feather falling on a breezeless day. The others made passes at the coracle but retreated once they felt the edge of the stunshield on their noses. They settled for the stunned dasher, then thrashed their way out to sea. Twisp rewrapped his lasgun and wedged it under his seat. He switched off the shield then and stared at the ragged shards that had been their net. "Why'd you cut loose the net?" Brett's voice was petulant, demanding. He sounded near tears. Shock, Twisp thought. And losing the catch. "They tore the net to get the . . . to get him," Twisp explained. "We'd have lost the catch anyway." "We could've saved some of it," Brett muttered. "A third of it was right here." Brett slapped the rimline at the stern, his eyes two gray threats against a harsh blue sky. Twisp sighed, aware that adrenaline could arouse frustrations that needed release. "You can't activate a stunshield with the lines over the side like that," he explained. "It's got to be all the way in or all the way out. With this cheap-ass model, anyway . . ." His fist slammed one of the thwarts. I'm as shook as the kid, he thought. He took a deep breath, ran his fingers through the thick kinks of his black hair and calmed himself before activating the dasher-warning signal on his radio. That would locate them and reassure Vashon. "They'd have turned on us next," he said. He flicked a finger against the material between thwarts. "This stuff is one thin membrane, two centimeters thick -- what do you think our odds were?" Brett lowered his eyes. He pursed his full lips, then stuck the lower lip out in a half-pout. His gaze looked away past a rising of Big Sun come to join its sister star already overhead. Below Big Sun, just ahead of the horizon, a large silhouette glowed orange in the water. "Home," Twisp said quietly. "The city." They were in one of the tight trade currents close to the surface. It would allow them to overtake the floating mass of humanity in an hour or two. "Big fucking deal," Brett said. "We're broke." Twisp smiled and leaned back to enjoy the suns. "That's right," he said. "And we're alive." The boy grunted and Twisp folded his meter-and-a-half arms behind his head. The elbows stuck out like two strange wings and cast a grotesque shadow on the water. He stared up across one of the elbows -- caught as he sometimes was reflecting on the uniqueness of his mutant inheritance. These arms gangled in his way most of his life -- he could touch his toes without bending over at all. But his arms hauled nets as though bred for it. Maybe they were, he mused. Who knows anymore? Handy mostly for nets and for reach, they made sleeping uncomfortable. Women seemed to like their strength and their wraparound quality, though. Compensation. Maybe it's the illusion of security, he thought, and his smile widened. His own life was anything but secure. Nobody who went down to the sea was secure, and anybody who thought so was either a fool or dead. "What will Maritime Court do to us?" Brett's voice was low, barely audible over the splashings of the waves and the continued ruffled mutterings of the two squawks. Twisp continued to enjoy the drift and the warm sunlight on his face and arms. He gnawed his thin lips for a blink, then said, "Hard to say. Did you see a Merman marker?" "No." "Do you see one now?" He listened to the faint rustle across the coracle and knew that the boy scanned the horizon. Twisp had picked the boy for those exceptional eyes. That, and his attitude. "Not a sign," the boy said. "He must've been alone." "That's not likely," Twisp said. "Mermen seldom travel alone. But it's a sure bet somebody's alone." "Do we have to go to court?" Twisp opened his eyes and saw the genuine fear in Brett's downturned mouth. The boy's wide eyes were impossible moons in his unstubbled face. "Yep." Brett plopped down on the thwart beside Twisp, rocking the little boat so hard that water lapped over the sides. "What if we don't tell?" he asked. "How would they know?" Twisp turned away from the boy. Brett had a lot to learn about the sea, and those who worked it. There were many laws, and most of them stayed unwritten. This would be a hard first lesson, but what could you expect of a kid fresh from the inside? Things like this didn't happen at Center. Life there was . . . nice. Scilla and muree were dinner to people living in the Island's inner circle, they weren't creatures with patterns and lives and a bright final flutter in the palm of the hand. "Mermen keep track of everything," Twisp said flatly. "They know." "But the dashers," Brett insisted, "maybe they got the other Merman, too. If there was another one." "Dasher fur has hollow cells," Twisp said. "For insulation and flotation. They can't dive worth a damn." Twisp leveled his black eyes at the kid and said, "What about his family waiting back home? Now shut up." He knew the kid was hurt, but what the hell! If Brett was going to live on the sea he'd better learn the way of it. Nobody liked being surprised out here, or abandoned. Nobody liked being boat-bound with a motor-mouth, either. Besides, Twisp was beginning to feel the proximity and inevitable discomfort of the Maritime Court, and he thought he'd better start figuring out their case. Netting a Merman was serious business, even if it wasn't your fault. The fearful can be the most dangerous when they gain power. They become demoniac when they see the unpredictable workings of all that life around them. Seeing the strengths as well as the weaknesses, they fasten only on the weaknesses. -- Shipquotes, the Histories Except for the movements of the operators, and their occasional comments, it was quiet in Sonde Control this morning, a stillness insulated from the daylight topside beneath a hundred meters of water and the thick walls of this Merman complex. The subdued remoteness filled Iz Bushka with disquiet. He knew his senses were being assaulted by Merman strangeness, an environment alien to most Islanders, but the exact source of his unease escaped him. Everything's so quiet, he thought. All that weight of water over his head gave Bushka no special concern. He had overcome that fear while doing his compulsory service in the Islander subs. The attitude of superiority that he could detect in the Mermen around him, that was the source of his annoyance! Bushka glanced left to where his fellow observers stood slightly apart, keeping their distance from the lone Islander in this company. GeLaar Gallow leaned close to the woman beside him, Kareen Ale, and asked: "Why is the launch delayed?" Ale spoke in a softly modulated voice: "I heard someone say there was an order from the Chaplain/Psychiatrist -- something about the blessing." Gallow nodded and a lock of blonde hair dropped to his right eyebrow. He brushed it back with a casual movement. Gallow was quite the most beautiful human male Bushka had ever seen -- a Greek god, if the histories were to be credited. As an Islander historian by avocation, Bushka believed the histories. Gallow's golden hair was long and softly waved. His dark blue eyes looked demandingly at everything they encountered. His even, white teeth flashed smiles that touched nothing but his mouth, as though he displayed the perfect teeth in that perfect face only for the benefit of onlookers. Some said he had been operated on to remove webs from fingers and toes but that could be a jealous lie. Bushka studied Ale covertly. It was said that Mermen were petitioning Ale to mate with Gallow for the sake of beautiful offspring. Ale's face was an exquisitely proportioned oval with full lips, widely spaced blue eyes. Her nose, slightly upturned, showed a smooth and straight ridgeline. Her skin -- perfectly set off by her dark red hair -- was a pinkish translucence that Bushka thought would require salves and ointments when her duties took her topside into the harsh presence of the suns. Bushka looked past them at the giant console with its graphic operational keys and large screens. One screen showed brilliant light on the ocean surface far above them. Another screen revealed the undersea tube where the Lighter-Than-Air hydrogen sonde was being prepared for its upward drift and launch into Pandora's turbulent atmosphere. A thin forest of kelp wavered in the background. On Bushka's right, a triple thickness of plazglas also revealed the LTA launch base with Mermen swimming around it. Some of the swimmers wore prestubes for oxygen, all encased in their tight-fitting dive suits. Others carried across their backs the organic airfish that Islander bioengineering had pioneered for sustained work undersea. We can produce it, but we cannot have the freedom of the undersea in which to use it. Bushka could see where the leechmouth of an airfish attached itself to a nearby Merman's carotid artery. He imagined the thousands of cilia pumping fresh oxygen into the worker's bloodstream. Occasionally, a worker equipped with an airfish vented carbon dioxide in a stream of drifting bubbles from the corner of his mouth. How does it feel to float freely in the sea, dependent on the symbiotic relationship with an airfish? It was a thought full of Islander resentments. Islander bioengineering surpassed that of the Mermen, but everything Islander genius produced was gobbled up in the terrible need for valuable exchange. As I would like to be gobbled up. But there's not much hope of that! Bushka suppressed feelings of jealousy. He could see his reflection in the plaz. The Committee on Vital Forms had faced no trouble in accepting him as human. He obviously fell somewhere near the Merman-tip of the spectrum. Still, his heavyset body, his small stature, the large head with its stringy dark brown hair, thick brows, wide nose, wide mouth, square chin -- none of this came near the standard Gallow represented. Comparisons hurt. Bushka wondered what the tall, disdainful Merman was thinking. Why that quizzical expression aimed at me? Gallow returned his attention to Ale, touching her bare shoulder, laughing at something she said. A new flurry of activity could be seen at the LTA launch base, more lights within the tube that would guide the sonde on the start of its journey toward the surface. The launch director at the control console said: "It'll be a few minutes yet." Bushka sighed. This experience was not turning out the way he had expected . . . the way he had dreamed. He sneered at himself. Fantasy! When he had been notified that he would be the Islander observer at this launch into the realm of Ship, elation had filled him. His first trip into the core of Merman civilization! At last! And the fantasy: Perhaps . . . just possibly, I will find the way to join Merman society, to abandon poverty and the grubby existence topside. Learning that Gallow would be his escort had fanned his hopes. GeLaar Gallow, director of the Merman Screen, one who could vote to accept an Islander into their society. But Gallow appeared to be avoiding him now. And there had never been any doubt of the man's disdain. Only Ale had been warmly welcoming, but then she was a member of the Merman government, a diplomat and envoy to the Islanders. Bushka had been surprised to discover that she also was a medical doctor. Rumor had it that she had gone through the rigors of medical education as a gesture of rebellion against her family, with its long tradition of service in the diplomatic corps and elsewhere in the Merman government. The family obviously had won out. Ale was securely seated among the powerful -- held, perhaps, greater power than any other member of her family. Both the Merman and Island worlds buzzed with the recent revelation that Ale was a major inheritor in the estates of the late Ryan and Elina Wang. And Ale had been named guardian of the Wangs' only daughter, Scudi. Nobody had yet put a number on the size of the Wang estate, but the senior director of Merman Mercantile had probably been the wealthiest man on Pandora. Elina Wang, surviving her husband by less than a year, had not lived long enough to make serious changes in the Wang holdings. So there was Kareen Ale, beautiful and powerful and with the right words for any occasion. "Delighted to have you with us, Islander Bushka." How warm and inviting she had sounded. She was just being polite . . . diplomatic. Another burst of activity rippled through the workers at the console in Sonde Control. The screen showing the surface emitted a series of brilliant flickers and the view was replaced by the face of Simone Rocksack, the Chaplain/Psychiatrist. The background revealed that she spoke from her quarters at the center of Vashon far away on the surface. "I greet you in the name of Ship." A barely suppressed snort came from Gallow. Bushka noted a shudder pass through the man's classic body at sight of the C/P. Bushka, accustomed to Islander variations, had never made note of Rocksack's appearance. Now, however, he saw her through Gallow's eyes. Rocksack's silvery hair flared in a wild mane from the top of her almost perfectly round head. Her albino eyes projected at the tips of small protuberances on her brows. Her mouth, barely visible under a flap of gray skin, was a small red slit abandoned without a chin. A sharp angle of flesh went directly back from beneath her mouth to her thick neck. "Let us pray," the C/P said. "This prayer I offered just a few minutes ago in the presence of Vata. I repeat it now." She cleared her throat. "Ship, by whose omnipotence we were cast upon Pandora's endless waters, grant us forgiveness from Original Sin. Grant us . . ." Bushka tuned her out. He had heard this prayer, in one version or another, many times. Doubtless his companions had heard it, too. The Mermen observers fidgeted at their stations and looked bored. Original Sin! Bushka's historical studies had made him a questioner of tradition. Mermen, he had discovered, thought Original Sin referred to the killing of Pandora's sentient kelp. It was their penance that they must rediscover the kelp in their own genes and fill the sea once more with submerged jungles of gigantic stems and fronds. Not sentient, this time, however. Merely kelp . . . and controlled by Mermen. The fanatical WorShipers of Guemes Island, on the other hand, insisted that Original Sin came when humankind abandoned WorShip. Most Islanders, though, followed the C/P's lead: Original Sin was that line of bioengineering chosen by Jesus Lewis, the long-dead mastermind behind today's variations in the human norm. Lewis had created the Clones and "selected others re-formed to fit them for survival on Pandora." Bushka shook his head as the C/P's voice droned on. Who is surviving best on Pandora? he asked himself. Mermen. Normal humans. At least ten times as many Mermen as Islanders survived on Pandora. It was a simple function of available living space. Under the sea, cushioned from Pandora's vagaries, there was a far greater volume of living space than on Pandora's turbulent, dangerous surface. "Into Ship's realm I commend you," the C/P said. "Let the blessing of Ship accompany this venture. Let Ship know that we mean no blasphemy by intruding ourselves into the heavens. Let this be a gesture that brings us closer to Ship." The C/P's face vanished from the screen, replaced by a close-up of the launch tube's base. Telltales on the tube tipped left to a slow current. At the console to Bushka's left, the launch director said: "Condition green." From the prelaunch briefing, Bushka knew this meant they were ready to release the sonde. He glanced at another of the screens, a view transmitted down a communications cable from a gyro-stabilized platform on the surface. White froth whipped the tops of long swells up there. Bushka's practiced eye said it was a forty-klick wind, practically a calm on Pandora. The sonde would drift fast when it broached but it would climb fast, too, and the upper atmosphere, for a change, showed breaks in the clouds, with one of Pandora's two suns tipping the cloud edges a glowing silver. The launch director leaned forward to study an instrument. "Forty seconds," he said. Bushka moved forward, giving himself a better view of the instruments and the launch director. The man had been introduced as Dark Panille --"'Shadow' to my friends." No overt rejection there; just a touch of the specialist's resentment that observers could be brought into his working space without his permission. Bushka's Mute-sensitive senses had detected immediately that Panille carried kelp genes, but was fortunate by Pandoran standards because he was not hairless. Panille wore his long black hair in a single braid --"a family style," he had said in answer to Bushka's question. Panille displayed a countenance distinctly Merman-normal. The kelp telltale lay chiefly in his dark skin with its unmistakable undertone of green. He had a narrow, rather sharp-featured face with high planes on both his cheeks and his nose. Panille's large brown eyes looked out with a deep sense of intelligence beneath straight brows. The mouth was set in a straight line to match the brows and his lower lip was fuller than the upper. A deep crease rolled from beneath his lips to the cleft of a narrow, well-defined chin. Panille's body was compact, with the smooth muscles common to Mermen who lived much in the sea. The name Panille had aroused a historian's interest in Bushka. Panille's ancestry had been instrumental in human survival during the Clone Wars and after the departure of Ship. It was a famous name in the Histories. "Launch!" Panille said. Bushka glanced out the plaz beside him. The launch tube climbed beyond his vision through green water with a backdrop of sparsely planted kelp -- thick red-brown trunks with glistening highlights at odd intervals. The highlights wavered and blinked as though in agitation. Bushka turned his attention to the screens, expecting something spectacular. The display on which the others focused showed only the slow upward drift of the LTA within the tube. Brilliant lights in the tube wall marked the ascent. The wrinkled bag of the LTA expanded as it lifted, smoothing finally in an orange expanse of the fabric that contained the hydrogen. "There!" Ale spoke in a sighing voice as the sonde cleared the top of the tube. It drifted slantwise in a sea current, followed by a camera mounted on a Merman sub. "Test key monitors," Panille said. A large screen at the center of the console shifted from a tracking view to a transmission from the sonde package trailing beneath the hydrogen bag. The screen showed a slanted green-tinged view of the sea bottom -- thin plantations of kelp, a rocky outcrop. They dimmed away into murkiness as Bushka watched. A screen at the upper right of the console shifted to the surface platform's camera, a gyro-stabilized float. The camera swept to the left in a dizzying arc, then settled on an expanse of wind-frothed swells. A pain in his chest told Bushka that he was holding his breath, waiting for the LTA to break the surface. He exhaled and took a deep breath. There! A bubble lifted on the ocean surface and did not break. Wind flattened the near side of the bag. It lifted free of the water, receding fast as the sonde package cleared. The surface camera tracked it -- showing an orange blossom floating in a blue bowl of sky. The view zoomed in to the dangling package, from which water still dripped in wind-driven spray. Bushka looked to the center screen, the transmission from the sonde. It showed the sea beneath the LTA, an oddly flattened scene with little sense of the heaving waves from which the LTA had recently emerged. Is this all? Bushka wondered. He felt let down. He rubbed his thick neck, feeling the nervous perspiration there. A surreptitious glance at the two Merman observers showed them chatting quietly, with only an occasional glance at the screens and the plaz porthole that revealed Mermen already cleaning up after the launch. Frustration and jealousy warred for dominance in Bushka. He stared at the console where Panille was giving low-voiced orders to his operators. How rich these Mermen were! Bushka thought of the crude organic computers with which Islanders contended, the stench of the Islands, the crowding and the life-protecting watch that had to be kept on every tiny bit of energy. Islanders paupered themselves for a few radios, satellite navigation receivers and sonar. And just look at this Sonde Control! So casually rich. If Islanders could afford such riches, Bushka knew the possessions would be kept secret. Display of wealth set people apart in a society that depended ultimately on singleness of all efforts. Islanders believed tools were to be used. Ownership was acknowledged, but a tool left idle could be picked up for use by anyone . . . anytime. "There's a willy-nilly," Gallow said. Bushka bridled. He knew Mermen called Islands "willy-nillys." Islands drifted unguided, and this was the Merman way of sneering at such uncontrolled wandering. "That's Vashon," Ale said. Bushka nodded. There was no mistaking his home Island. The organic floating metropolis had a distinctive shape known to all of its inhabitants -- Vashon, largest of all Pandora's Islands. "Willy-nilly," Gallow repeated. "I should imagine they don't know where they are half the time." "You're not being very polite to our guest, GeLaar," Ale said. "The truth is often impolite," Gallow said. He directed an empty smile at Bushka. "I've noticed that Islanders have few goals, that they're not very concerned about 'getting there.'" He's right, damn him, Bushka thought. The drifting pattern had seated itself deeply in the Islander psyche. When Bushka did not respond, Ale spoke defensively: "Islanders are necessarily more weather-oriented, more tuned to the horizon. That should not be surprising." She glanced questioningly at Bushka. "All people are shaped by their surroundings. Isn't that true, Islander Bushka?" "Islanders believe the manner of our passage is just as important as where we are," Bushka said. He knew his response sounded weak. He turned toward the screens. Two of them now showed transmissions from the sonde. One pointed backward to the stabilized camera platform on the surface. It showed the platform being withdrawn into the safety of the calm undersea. The other sonde view tracked the drift path. Full in this view lay the bulk of Vashon. Bushka swallowed as he stared at his home Island. He had never before seen this view of it. A glance at the altitude repeater below the screen said the view was from eighty thousand meters. The amplified image almost filled the screen. Grid lines superimposed on the screen gave the Island's long dimension at nearly thirty klicks and slightly less than that across. Vashon was a gigantic oval drifter with irregular edges. Bushka identified the bay indentation where fishboats and subs docked. Only a few of the boats in Vashon's fleet could be seen in the protected waters. "What's its population?" Gallow asked. "About six hundred thousand, I believe," Ale said. Bushka scowled, thinking of the crowded conditions this number represented, comparing it with the spaciousness of Merman habitats. Vashon squeezed more than two thousand people into every square klick . . . a space more correctly measured in cubic terms. Cubbies were stacked on cubbies high above the water and deep beneath it. And some of the smaller Islands were even more condensed, a crowding that had to be experienced to be believed. Space opened on them only when they began to run out of energy -- dead space. Uninhabitable. Like people, organics rotted when they died. A dead Island was just a gigantic floating carcass. And this had happened many times. "I could not tolerate such crowding," Gallow said. "I could only leave." "It isn't all bad!" Bushka blurted. "We may live close but we help each other." "I should certainly hope so!" Gallow snorted. He turned until he was facing Bushka. "What is your personal background, Bushka?" Bushka stared at him, momentarily affronted. This was not an Islander question. Islanders knew the backgrounds of their friends and acquaintances, but the rules of privacy seldom permitted probing. "Your working background," Gallow persisted. Ale put a hand on Gallow's arm. "To an Islander, such questions are usually impolite," she said. "It's all right," Bushka said. "When I got old enough, Merman Gallow, I was a wavewatcher." "A sort of lookout to warn of wavewalls," Ale explained. "I know the term," Gallow said. "And after that?" "Well. . . . I had good eyes and a good sense of distance, so I did my time as a driftwatch and later in the subs . . . then, as I showed navigational ability, they trained me as a timekeeper." "Timekeeper, yes," Gallow said. "You're the ones who dead-reckon an Island's position. Not very accurate, I'm told." "Accurate enough," Bushka said. Gallow chuckled. "Is it true, Islander Bushka, that you people think we Mermen stole the kelp's soul?" "GeLaar!" Ale snapped. "No, let him answer," Gallow said. "I've been hearing recently about the fundamentalist beliefs of Islands such as Guemes." "You're impossible, GeLaar!" Ale said. "I have an insatiable curiosity," Gallow said. "What about it, Bushka?" Bushka knew he had to answer but his voice was dismayingly loud when he responded. "Many Islanders believe Ship will return to forgive us." "And when will that be?" Gallow asked. "When we regain the Collective Consciousness!" "Ahhhh, the old Transition Stories," Gallow sneered. "But do you believe this?" "My hobby is history," Bushka said. "I believe something important happened to human consciousness during the Clone Wars." "Hobby?" Gallow asked. "Historian is not a fully accredited Islander job," Ale explained. "Superfluous." "I see. Do go on, Bushka." Bushka clenched his fists and fought down his anger. Gallow was more than self-important . . . he was truly important . . . vital to Bushka's hopes. "I don't believe we stole the kelp's soul," Bushka said. "Good for you!" Gallow really smiled this time. "But I do believe," Bushka added, "that our ancestors, possibly with kelp assistance, glimpsed a different kind of consciousness . . . a momentary linkage between all of the minds alive at that time." Gallow passed a hand across his mouth, an oddly furtive gesture. "The accounts appear to agree," he said. "But can they be trusted?" "There's no doubt we have kelp genes in the human gene pool," Bushka said. He glanced across the control room at Panille, who was watching him intently. "And who knows what may happen if we revive the kelp to consciousness, eh?" Gallow asked. "Something like that," Bushka agreed. "Why do you think Ship abandoned us here?" "GeLaar, please!" Ale interrupted. "Let him answer," Gallow said. "This Islander has an active mind. He may be someone we need." Bushka tried to swallow in a suddenly dry throat. Was this all a test? Was Gallow actually screening him for entry into Merman society? "I was hoping . . ." Again, Bushka tried to swallow. "I mean, as long as I'm down here anyway . . . I was hoping I might gain access to the material Mermen recovered from the old Redoubt. Perhaps the answer to your question . . ." He broke off. An abrupt silence settled over the room. Ale and Gallow exchanged an oddly veiled look. "How interesting," Gallow said. "I'm told," Bushka said, "that when you recovered the Redoubt's data base . . . I mean . . ." He coughed. "Our historians work full-time," Gallow said. "After the Disaster, everything, including the material from the Redoubt, was subjected to exhaustive analysis." "I would still like to see the material," Bushka said. He cursed himself silently. His voice sounded so plaintive. "Tell me, Bushka," Gallow said, "what would be your response if this material revealed that Ship was an artifact made by human beings and not God at all?" Bushka pursed his lips. "The Artifact Heresy? Hasn't that been . . ." "You haven't answered my question," Gallow said. "I would have to see the material and judge for myself," Bushka said. He held himself quite still. No Islander had ever been granted access to Redoubt data. But what Gallow hinted . . . explosive! "I should be most interested to hear what an Islander historian has to say about the Redoubt accounts," Gallow said. He glanced at Ale. "Do you see any reason why we shouldn't grant his request, Kareen?" She shrugged and turned away, an expression on her face that Bushka could not interpret. Disgust? Gallow directed that measuring smile toward Bushka. "I quite understand that the Redoubt has mystical implications for Islanders. I hesitate to feed superstitions." Mystical? Bushka thought. Land that once had protruded from the sea. A place built on a continent, a mass of exposed land that did not drift, the last place inundated in the Disaster. Mystical? Was Gallow merely toying with him? "I'm a qualified historian," Bushka said. "But you said hobby . . ." Gallow shook his head. "Was everything recovered intact from the Redoubt?" Bushka ventured. "It was sealed off," Ale said, turning once more to face Bushka. "Our ancestors put an air-bell on it before cutting through the plasteel." "Everything was found just as it was left when they abandoned the place," Gallow said. "Then it's true," Bushka breathed. "But would you reinforce Islander superstitions?" Gallow insisted. Bushka drew himself up stiffly. "I am a scientist. I would reinforce nothing but the truth." "Why this sudden interest in the Redoubt?" Ale asked. "Sudden?" Bushka stared at her in amazement. "We've always wanted to share in the Redoubt's data base. The people who left it there were our ancestors, too." "In a manner of speaking," Gallow said. Bushka felt the hot flush of blood in his cheeks. Most Mermen believed that only Clones and mutants had populated the drifting Islands. Did Gallow really accept that nonsense? "Perhaps I should've said why the renewed interest?" Ale corrected herself. "We've heard stories, you see, about the Guemes Movement," Gallow said. Bushka nodded. WorShip was, indeed, on the increase among Islanders. "There have been reports of unidentified things seen in the sky," Bushka said. "Some believe that Ship already has returned and is concealed from us in space." "Do you believe this?" Gallow asked. "It's possible," Bushka admitted. "All I really know for certain is that the C/P is kept busy examining people who claim to have seen visions." Gallow chuckled. "Oh, my!" Bushka once more felt frustration. They were toying with him! This was all a cruel Merman game! "What is so amusing?" he demanded. "GeLaar, stop this!" Ale said. Gallow held up an admonitory hand. "Kareen, look with care upon Islander Bushka. Could he not pass as one of us?" Ale swept a swift glance across Bushka's face and returned her attention to Gallow. "What're you doing, GeLaar?" Bushka inhaled deeply and held his breath. Gallow studied Bushka a moment, then: "What would be your response, Bushka, if I were to offer you a place in Merman society?" Bushka exhaled slowly, inhaled. "I . . . I would accept. Gratefully, of course." "Of course," Gallow echoed. He smiled at Ale. "Then, since Bushka will be one of us, there's no harm in telling him what amuses me." "It's on your head, GeLaar," Ale said. A movement at the Sonde Control console caught Bushka's attention. Panille was no longer looking at him, but the set of his shoulders told Bushka the man was listening intently. Ship save them! Was the Artifact Heresy true, after all? Was that the great Merman secret? "These visions causing so much trouble for our beloved C/P," Gallow said. "They are Merman rockets, Bushka." Bushka opened his mouth and closed it without speaking. "Ship was not God, is not God," Gallow said. "The Redoubt records . . ." "Are open to several interpretations," Ale said. "Only to fools!" Gallow snapped. "We are sending up rockets. Bushka, because we are preparing to recover the hyb tanks from orbit. Ship was an artifact made by our ancestors. Other artifacts and things have been left in space for us to recover." The matter-of-fact way Gallow said this made Bushka catch his breath. Stories about the mysterious hyb tanks permeated Islander society. What might be stored in those containers that orbited Pandora? Recovering those tanks, and really seeing what they contained, was worth anything -- even destruction of the Ship-God belief that sustained so many people. "You are shocked," Gallow said. "I'm . . . I'm awed," Bushka replied. "We were all raised on the Transition Stories." Gallow pointed upward. "Life awaits us up there." Bushka nodded. "The tanks are supposed to contain countless life forms from . . . from Earth." "Fish, animals, plants," Gallow said. "And even some humans." He grinned. "Normal humans." He waved a hand to encompass the occupants of Sonde Control. "Like us." Bushka inhaled a trembling breath. Yes, the historical accounts said the hyb tanks held humans who had never been touched by the bioengineering machinations of Jesus Lewis. There would be people in those tanks who had gone to sleep in another star system, who had no idea of this nightmare world that awaited their awakening. "And now you know," Gallow said. Bushka cleared his throat. "We never suspected. I mean . . . the C/P has never said a word about . . ." "The C/P does not know of this," Ale said. There was a warning note in her voice. Bushka glanced at the plaz porthole with its view of the LTA tube. "She knows about that, of course," Ale said. "An innocuous thing," Gallow said. "There has been no blessing of our rockets," Ale said. Bushka continued to stare out the porthole. He had never counted himself a deeply religious person, but these Merman revelations left him profoundly disturbed. Ale obviously doubted Gallow's interpretation of the Redoubt material, but still . . . a blessing would be only common sense . . . just in case . . . "What is your response, Merman Bushka?" Gallow asked. Merman Bushka! Bushka turned a wide-eyed stare on Gallow, who obviously awaited an answer to a question. A question. What had he asked? Bushka was a moment recovering the man's words. "My response . . . yes. The Islanders . . . I mean, about these rockets. The Islanders . . . shouldn't they be told?" "They?" Gallow laughed, a deep amusement that shook his beautiful body. "You see, Kareen? Already his former compatriots are 'they.'" The touch of the infant teaches birth, and our hands are witness to the lesson. -- Kerro Panille, the Histories Vata did not experience true consciousness. She skirted the shadow-edges of awareness. Memories flitted through her neurons like tendrils from the kelp. Sometimes she dreamed kelp dreams. These dreams often included a wondrous hatch of hylighters -- spore-filled gasbags that had died when the original kelp died. Tears mixed with her nutrient bath as she dreamed such things, tears for the fate of those huge sky-bound globes tacking across the evening breezes of a million years. Her dream hylighters clutched their ballast rocks in their two longest tentacles and Vata felt the comforting texture of rock hugged close. Thoughts themselves were like hylighters to her, or silken threads blowing in the dark of her mind. Sometimes she followed awareness of Duque, who floated beside her, sensing events within his thoughts. Time and again, she re-experienced through him that terrible night when the gravitational wrenching of Pandora's two suns destroyed the last human foothold on the planet's fragile land. Duque repeatedly let his thoughts plunge into that experience. And Vata, linked to the fearful mutant like Mermen diving partners on the same safety line, was forced to recreate dreams that soothed and calmed Duque's terrors. "Duque escaped," she muttered in his mind, "Duque was taken away onto the sea where Hali Ekel tended his burns." Duque would snuffle and whimper. Had Vata been conscious, she would have heard with her own ears, because Vata and Duque shared the same life support at the center of Vashon. Vata lay mostly submerged in nutrient, a monstrous mound of pink and blue flesh with definite human female characteristics. Enormous breasts with gigantic pink nipples lifted from the dark nutrient like twin mountains from a brown sea. Duque drifted beside her, a satellite, her familiar dangling in the endless mental vacuum. For generations now, the two of them had been nurtured and reverenced in Vashon's central complex -- home of the Chaplain/Psychiatrist and the Committee on Vital Forms, Merman and Islander guards kept watch on the pair under the command of the C/P. It was a ritualized observation, which, in time, eroded the awe that Pandorans learned early from the reactions of their parents. "The two of them there like that. They'll always be there. They're our last link with Ship. As long as they live, Ship is with us. It's WorShip keeps them alive so long." Although Duque occasionally knuckled an eye into glaring wakefulness and watched his guardians in the gloomy surroundings of the living pool that confined them, Vata's responses never lifted to consciousness. She breathed. Her great body, responding to the kelp half of her genetic inheritance, absorbed energy from the nutrient solution that washed against her skin. Analysis of the nutrient betrayed traces of human waste products, which were removed by the sucker mouths of blind scrubberfish. Occasionally, Vata would snort and an arm would lift in the nutrient like a leviathan rising from its depths before settling once more into the murk. Her hair continued to grow until it spread like kelp across the nutrient surface, tangling over the hairless skin of Duque and impeding the scrubberfish. The C/P would come into the chamber then and, with a reverence touched by a certain amount of cupidity, would clip Vata's locks. The strands were washed and separated to be blessed and sold in short lengths as indulgences. Even Mermen bought them. Sale of Vatahair had been the major source of C/P income for many generations. Duque, more aware than any other human of his curious link with Vata, puzzled over the connection when Vata's intrusions left him with thinking time of his own. Sometimes he would speak of this to his guardians, but when Duque spoke there was always a flurry of activity, the summoning of the C/P, and a different kind of watchfulness from the security. "She lives me," he said once, and this became a token label inscribed on the Vatahair containers. In these speaking times, the C/P would try prepared questions, sometimes booming them at Duque, sometimes asking in a low and reverential voice. "Do you speak for Vata, Duque?" "I speak." That was all they ever got from him on this question. Since it was known that Duque was one of the hundred or so original mutants who had been conceived with kelp intervention and thus bore kelp genes, they would sometimes ask him about the kelp that had once ruled Pandora's now-endless sea. "Do you have memory of the kelp, Duque?" "Avata," Duque corrected. "I am the rock." Interminable arguments came out of this answer. "Avata had been the kelp's name for itself. The reference to rock gave scholars and theologians room for speculation. "He must mean that his consciousness exists at the bottom of the sea where the kelp lives." "No! Remember how the kelp always clung to a rock, lifting its tendrils to the sunlight? And the hylighters used rock for ballast . . ." "You're all wrong. He's Vata's grip on life. He's Vata's rock." And there was always someone who would harken back to WorShip and the stories of that distant planet where someone calling himself Peter had given the same answer Duque had given. Nothing was ever solved by such arguments, but the questioning continued whenever Duque showed signs of wakefulness. "How is it that you and Vata do not die, Duque?" "We wait." "For what do you wait?" "No answer." This recurrent response precipitated several crises until the C/P of that time issued an order that Duque's answers could only be broadcast by permission of the C/P. This didn't stop the quiet whispering and the rumors, of course, but it relegated everything except the C/P's official version to the role of mystical heresy. It was a question no C/P had asked for two generations now. Current interest centered much more on the kelp that Mermen spread far and wide in Pandora's planetary sea. The kelp was thick and healthy, but showed no signs of acquiring consciousness. As the great Islands drifted they were seldom out of sight of a horizon touched by the oily green flatness of a kelp bed. Everyone said it was a good thing. Kelp formed nurseries for fish and everyone could see there were more fish these days, though they weren't always easy to catch. You couldn't use a net amongst the kelp. Baited lines tangled in the huge fronds and were lost. Even the dumb muree had learned to retreat into kelp sanctuary at the approach of fishermen. There was also the recurrent question of Ship, Ship who was God and who had left humankind on Pandora. "Why did Ship abandon us here, Duque?" All Duque would ever say was: "Ask Ship." Many a C/P had engaged in much silent prayer over that one. But Ship did not answer them. At least, not with any voice that they could hear. It was a vexing question. Would Ship return? Ship had left the hyb tanks in orbit around Pandora. It was a strange orbit, seeming to defy the gravitational index for such things. There were those among Pandora's Mermen and Islanders who said Vata waited for the hyb tanks to be brought down, that she would awaken when this occurred. No one doubted there was some link between Duque and Vata, so why not a link between Vata and the dormant life waiting up there in the tanks? "How are you linked to Vata?" a C/P asked. "How are you linked to me?" Duque responded. This was duly recorded in the Book of Duque and more arguments ensued. It was noted, however, that whenever such questions were asked, Vata stirred. Sometimes grossly and sometimes with only the faintest movement over her vast flesh. "It's like the safety line we use between divers down under," an astute Merman observed. "You can always find your partner." Vata's tendril-awareness stirred to the linkage with genetic memories of mountain climbers. They were climbing, she and Duque. This she showed him many times. Her memories, shared with Duque, showed a spectacular world of the vertical that Islanders could barely imagine and holes did not do justice. Only, she did not think of herself as one of the climbers, or even think of herself at all. There was only the line, and the climbing. First, we had to develop a landless life-style; second, we preserved what technology and hardware we could salvage. Lewis left us with a team of bioengineers -- both our curse and our most powerful legacy. We do not dare plunge our few precious children into a Stone Age. -- Hali Ekel, the Journals Ward Keel looked down from the high bench and surveyed the two young petitioners in front of him. The male was a large Merman with the tattoo of a criminal on his brow, a wine-red "E" for "Expatriate." This Merman could never return to the rich land under the sea and he knew the Islanders accepted him only for his stabilizing genes. Those genes had not stabilized this time. The Merman probably knew what the judgment would be. He patted a damp cloth nervously over his exposed skin. The woman petitioner, his mate, was small and slender with pale blonde hair and two slight indentations where she should have had eyes. She wore a long blue sari and when she walked Keel did not hear steps, only a rasping scrape. She swayed from side to side and hummed to herself. Why does this one have to be the first case of the morning? Keel wondered. It was a perverse fate. This morning of all mornings! "Our child deserves to live!" the Merman said. His voice boomed in the chambers. The Committee on Vital Forms often heard such loud protestation but this time Keel felt that the volume was directed at the woman, telling her that her mate fought for them both. As Chief Justice of the Committee it was too often Keel's lot to perform that unsavory stroke of the pen, to speak directly the unutterable fears of the petitioners themselves. Many times it was otherwise and then this chamber echoed the laughter of life. But today, in this case, there would be no laughter. Keel sighed. The Merman, even though a criminal by Merman ruling, made this matter politically sensitive. Mermen were jealous of the births that they called "normal," and they monitored every topside birth involving Merman parentage. "We have studied your petition with great care," Keel said. He glanced left and right at his fellow Committee members. They sat impassively, attention elsewhere -- on the great curve of bubbly ceiling, on the soft living deck, on the records stacked in front of them -- everywhere but on the petitioners. The dirty work was being left to Ward Keel. If they only knew, Keel thought. A higher Committee on Vital Forms has today passed judgment on me . . . as it will pass judgment on them, eventually. He felt a deep compassion for the petitioners in front of him but there was no denying the judgment. "The Committee has determined that the subject" -- not "the child," he thought --"is merely a modified gastrula . . ." "We want this child!" The man fisted the rail that separated him from the Committee's high bench. The security guardians at the rear of the chambers came to attention. The woman continued to hum and sway, not in time with the music that came from her lips. Keel leafed through a stack of plaz records and pulled out a sheet thick with figures and graphs. "The subject has been found to have a nuclear construction that harbors a reagent gene," he reported. "This construction insures that the cellular material will turn on itself, destroying its own cell walls . . ." "Then let us have our child until that death," the man blurted. He swiped at his face with the damp cloth. "For the love of humanity, give us that much." "Sir," Keel said, "for the love of humanity I cannot. We have determined that this construction is communicable should there be any major viral invasion of the subject . . ." "Our child! Not a subject! Our child!" "Enough!" Keel snapped. Security moved silently into the aisle behind the Merman. Keel tapped the bell beside him and all stirring in the chamber ceased. "We are sworn to protect human life, to perpetuate life forms that are not lethal deviants." The Merman father stared upward, awed at the invocation of these terrible powers. Even his mate stopped her gentle swaying, but a faint hum still issued from her mouth. Keel wanted to shout down at them, "I am dying, right here in front of you. I am dying." But he bit back the impulse and decided that if he were going to give in to hysteria he'd do it in his own quarters. Instead, he said, "We are empowered to carry out measures in the extreme to see that humankind survives this genetic mess we inherited from Jesus Lewis." He leaned back and steadied the shaking in his hands and voice. "We are in no way refreshed by a negative decision. Take your woman home. Care for her . . ." "I want one . . ." The bell rang again, cutting the man short. Keel raised his voice: "Usher! See these people out. They will be given the usual priorities. Terminate the subject, retaining all materials as stated in Vital Form Orders, subparagraph B. Recess." Keel arose and swept past the other Committee members without a glance at the rest of the chambers. The grunts and struggles of the heartsick Merman echoed and re-echoed down the corridors of Keel's anguished mind. As soon as he was alone in his office, Keel unstoppered a small flask of boo and poured himself a stiff shot. He tossed it back, shuddered and caught his breath as the warm clear liquid eased into his bloodstream. He sat in the special chair at his desk then, eyes closed, and rested his long, thin neck against the molded supports that took the weight of his massive head. He could not make a lethal decision as he had done this morning without recalling the moment when he, as an infant, had come before the Committee on Vital Forms. People said it was not possible for him to remember that scene, but he did remember it -- not in bits and sketches, but in its entirety. His memory went back into the womb, through a calm birth into a gloomy delivery room and the glad awakening at his mother's breast. And he remembered the judgment of the Committee. They had been worried about the size of his head and the length of his thin neck. Would prosthetics compensate? He had understood the words, too. There was language in him from some genetic well and although he could not speak until growth caught up with what had been born in him, he knew those words. "This infant is unique," that old Chief Justice had said, reading from the medical report. "His intestines must have periodic implantation of a remora to supply missing bile and enzyme factors." The Chief Justice had looked down then, a giant behind that enormous and remote bench, and his gaze had fixed on the naked infant in its mother's arms. "Legs, thick and stubby. Feet deformed -- one-joint toes, six toes, six fingers. Torso overlong, waist pinched in. Face rather small in that . . ." the Justice cleared his throat, "enormous head." The Justice had looked at Keel's mother then, noting the extremely wide pelvis. Obvious anatomical questions had lain unspoken in the man's mind. "In spite of these difficulties, this subject is not a lethal deviant." The words issuing from the Justice's mouth had all been in the medical report. Keel, when he came to the Committee as a member, fished out his own report, reading it with a detached curiosity. "Face rather small . . ." These were the very words in the report, just as he remembered them. "Eyes, one brown and one blue." Keel smiled at the memory. His eyes --"one brown and one blue" -- could peek around from the nearly squared edges of his temples, allowing him to look almost straight back without turning his head. His lashes were long and drooping. When he relaxed, they fuzzed his view of the world. Time had put smile wrinkles at the corners of his wide, thick-lipped mouth. And his flat nose, nearly a handsbreadth wide, had grown until it stopped just short of his mouth. The whole face, he knew from comparisons, was oddly pinched together, top to bottom, as though put on his head as an afterthought. But those corner-placed eyes, they were the dominant feature -- alert and wise. They let me live because I looked alert, he thought. This was a thing he, too, sought in the subjects brought before him. Brains. Intelligence. That was what humankind required to get them out of this mess. Brawn and dexterity, too, but these were useless without the intelligence to guide them. Keel closed his eyes and sank his neck even deeper into the cushioned supports. The boo was having its desired effect. He never drank the stuff without thinking how strange it was that this should come from the deadly nerve runners that had terrified his ancestors in the pioneer days of Pandora when real land protruded above the sea. "Worm hordes," the first observers had called them. The worm hordes attacked warm life and ate out every nerve cell, working their way to the succulent brain where they encysted their clutches of eggs. Even dashers feared them. Came the endless sea, though, and nerve runners retreated to a subsea vector whose fermentation by-product was boo -- sedative, narcotic, "happy juice." He fondled the small glass and took another sip. The door behind him opened and a familiar footstep entered -- familiar swish of garments, familiar smells. He didn't open his eyes, thinking what a singular mark of trust that was, even for an Islander. Or on Invitation, he thought. The beginnings of a wry smile touched the corners of his mouth. He felt the tingling of the boo in his tongue and fingertips. Now in his toes. Baring my neck for the axe? There was always guilt after a negative decision. Always at least the unconscious desire for expiation. Well, it was all there in the Committee's orders, but he was not fool enough to retreat into that hoary old excuse: "I was just obeying orders." "May I get you something, Justice?" The voice was that of his aide and sometimes-lover, Joy Marcoe. "No, thank you," he murmured. She touched his shoulder. "The Committee would like to reconvene in quarters at eleven hundred hours. Should I tell them you're too . . . ?" "I'll be there." He kept his eyes closed and heard her start to leave. "Joy," he called, "have you ever thought how ironic it is that you, with your name, work for this Committee?" She returned to his side and he felt her hand on his left arm. It was a trick of the boo that he felt the hand melt into his senses -- more than a touch, she caressed a vital core of his being. "Today is particularly hard," she said. "But you know how rare that is, anymore." She waited, he presumed, for his response. Then when none came: "I think Joy is a perfect name for this job. It reminds me of how much I want to make you happy." He managed a weak smile and adjusted his head in the supports. He couldn't bring himself to tell her about his own medical reports -- the final verdict. "You do bring me joy," he said. "Wake me at ten-forty-five." She dimmed the light when she left. The mobile device that supported his head began to irritate the base of his neck where it pressed into the chair's supports. He inserted a finger under the chair's cushions and adjusted one of the contraption's fastenings. Relief on his left side was transmitted to irritation on the right. He sighed and poured another short dash of boo. When he lifted the slender glass, the dimmed overhead light shot blue-gray sparkles through the liquid. It looked cool, as refreshing as a supportive bath on a hot day when the double suns burned through the clouds. What warmth the tiny glass contained! He marveled at the curve of his thin fingers around the stem. One fingernail peeled back where he had snagged it on his robe. Joy would clip and bind it when she returned, he knew. He did not doubt that she had noted it. This had happened often enough, though, that she knew it did not pain him. His own reflection in the curvature of the glass caught his attention. The curve exaggerated the wide spacing of his eyes. The long lashes drooping almost to the bend of his cheeks receded into tiny points. He strained to focus on the glass so close in front of him. His nose was a giant thing. He brought the glass to his lips and the image fuzzed out, vanished. Small wonder that Islanders avoid mirrors, he thought. He had a fascination with his own reflection, though, and often caught himself staring at his features in shiny surfaces. That such a distorted creature should be allowed to live! The long-ago judgment of that earlier Committee filled him with wonder. Did those Committee members know that he would think and hurt and love? He felt that the often-shapeless blobs that appeared before his Committee bore kinship to all humanity if only they showed evidence of thought, love and the terribly human capacity to be hurt. From some dim passageway beyond his doors or, perhaps, from somewhere deep in his own mind, the soft tones of a fine set of water-drums nestled him into his cushions and drowsed him away. Half-dreams flickered in and out of his consciousness, becoming presently a particularly soothing full-dream of Joy Marcoe and himself rolling backward on her bed. Her robe fell open to the smooth softness of aroused flesh and Keel felt the unmistakable stirrings of his body -- the body in the chair and the body in the dream. He knew it was a dream of the memory of their first exploratory sharing. His hand slipped beneath her robe and pulled the softness of her against him, stroking her back. That had been the moment when he discovered the secret of Joy's bulky clothes, the clothes that could not hide an occasional firm trim line of hips or thighs, the small strong arms. Joy cradled a third breast under her left armpit. In the dream of the memory, she giggled nervously as his wandering hand found the tiny nipple hardening between his fingers. Mr. Justice. It was Joy's voice, but it was wrong. That was not what she said. "Mr. Justice." A hand shook his left arm. He felt the chair and the prosthetics, a pain where his neck joined the massive head. "Ward, it's wake-up. The Committee meets in fifteen minutes." He blinked awake. Joy stood over him, smiling, her hand still on his arm. "Nodded off," he said. He yawned behind his hand. "I was dreaming about you." A distinctive flush darkened her cheeks. "Something nice, I hope." He smiled. "How could a dream with you in it be anything but nice?" The blush deepened and her gray eyes glittered. "Flattery will get you anything, Mr. Justice." She patted his arm. "After Committee, you have a call to Kareen Ale. Her office said she would arrive here at thirteen-thirty. I told them you have a full appointment sheet through . . ." "I'll see her," he said. He stood and steadied himself on the edge of his desk console. The boo always made him a little groggy at first recovery. Imagine the medics giving him their death sentence and then telling him to knock off the boo! Avoid extremes, avoid anxiety. "Kareen Ale takes advantage of her position to presume on your good nature and waste your time," Joy said. Keel didn't like the way Joy exaggerated the Merman ambassador's name: "ah-lay." True, it was a difficult name to carry through the cocktail parties of the diplomatic corps, but the woman had Keel's complete respect on the debating floor. He was suddenly aware that Joy was leaving. "Joy!" he called. "Allow me to cook for you in quarters tonight." Her back straightened in the doorway and when she turned to face him she smiled. "I'd like that very much. What time?" "Nineteen hundred?" She nodded once, firmly, and left. It was just the economy of movement and grace that endeared her to him. She was less than half his age, but she carried a wisdom about her that age ignored. He tried to remember how long it had been since he'd taken a full-time lover. Twelve years? No, thirteen. Joy made the wait that much more right in his mind. Her body was supple and completely hairless -- something that excited him in ways he'd thought he'd forgotten. He sighed, and tried to get his mind set for the coming meeting with the Committee. Old farts, he thought. One corner of his mouth twisted up in spite of himself. But they're pretty interesting old farts. The five Committee members were among the most powerful people on Vashon. Only one person rivaled Keel, with his position as Chief Justice -- Simone Rocksack, the Chaplain/Psychiatrist, who commanded great popular support and provided a check on the power of the Committee. Simone could move things by inference and innuendo; Keel could order them done and they were done. Keel realized, with some curiosity, that as well as he knew the Committee members, he always had trouble remembering their faces. Well . . . faces were not all that important. It was what lay behind the face that mattered. He touched a finger to his nose, to his distended forehead, and as though it were a magic gesture his hand called up a clear image of those other faces, those four old justices. There was Alon, the youngest of them at sixty-seven. Alon Matts, Vashon's leading bioengineer for nearly thirty years. Theodore Carp was the cynic of the group and, so Keel thought, aptly named. Others referred to Carp as "Fish Man," a product of both his appearance and his bearing. Carp looked fishlike. A sickly-pale, nearly translucent skin covered the long narrow face and blunt-fingered hands. The cuffs of his robe came nearly to the tips of his fingers and his hands appeared quite finlike at first glance. His lips were full and wide, and they never smiled. He had never been considered seriously for Chief Justice. Not a political enough animal, Keel thought. No matter how bad things get, you've got to smile sometime. He shook his head and chuckled to himself. Maybe that should be one of the Committee's criteria for passing questionable subjects -- the ability to smile, to laugh . . . "Ward," a voice called, "I swear you'll daydream your life away." He turned and saw the other two justices walking the hallway behind him. Had he passed them in the hatchway and not noticed? Possibly. "Carolyn," he said, and nodded, "and Gwynn. Yes, with luck I'll daydream my life away. Are you refreshed after this morning's session?" Carolyn Bluelove turned her eyeless face up to his and sighed. "A difficult morning," she said. "Clear-cut, of course, but difficult . . ." "I don't see why you go through a hearing, Ward," Gwynn Erdsteppe said. "You just make yourself uncomfortable, it makes us all uncomfortable. We shouldn't have to whip ourselves over something like that. Can't we channel the drama outside the chambers?" "They have their right to be heard, and the right to hear something as irreversible as our decision from those who make it," he said. "Otherwise, what might we become? The power over life and death is an awesome one, and it should have all the checks against it that we can muster. That's one decision that should never be easy." "So what are we?" Gwynn persisted. "Gods," Carolyn snapped. She put her hand on Keel's arm and said, "Walk these two dottering old gods to chambers, will you, Mr. Justice?" "Delighted," he said. They scuff-scuffed down the hallway, their bare feet hardly more than sighs on the soft deck. Ahead of them, a team of slurry workers painted nutrient on the walls. This team used broad brushes and laid on vivid strokes of deep blue, yellow and green. In a week all the color would be absorbed and the walls returned to their hungry, gray-brown hue. Gwynn positioned herself behind Keel and Carolyn. Her lumbering pace hurried them on. Keel was distracted from Carolyn's small talk by the constant lurch of Gwynn's hulk behind them. "Do either of my fellow justices know why we're meeting just now?" he asked. "It must be something disturbing because Joy didn't reveal it when she told me about the appointment." "That Merman this morning, he's appealed to the Chaplain/Psychiatrist," Gwynn snorted. "Why won't they leave it be?" "Curious," Carolyn said. It struck Keel as very curious. He had sat the bench for a full five years before a case had been appealed to the Chaplain/Psychiatrist. But this year . . . "The C/P's just a figurehead," Gwynn said. "Why do they waste their time and ours on --" "And hers," Carolyn interrupted. "It's a lot of work, being the emissary to the gods." Keel shuffled quietly between them while they reopened the ages-old debate. He tuned it out, as he'd learned to do years ago. People filled his life too much to leave any time for gods. Especially now -- this day when the life burning inside him had become doubly precious. Eight cases appealed by the C/P in this season alone, he thought. And all eight involved Mermen. The realization made him extremely interested in the afternoon meeting with Kareen Ale, which was to follow this appeals hearing. The three justices entered the hatchway to their smaller chambers. It was an informational room -- small, well-lit, the walls lined with books, tapes, holos and other communications equipment. Matts and the Fish Man were already watching Simone Rocksack's introductory remarks on the large view-screen. She would, of course, use the Vashon intercom. The C/P seldom left her quarters near the tank that sustained Vata and Duque. The four protrusions that made up most of the C/P's face bent and waved as she talked. Her two eye protuberances were particularly active. Keel and the others seated themselves quietly. Keel raised the back of his chair to ease the strain on his neck and its support. ". . . and further, that they were not even allowed to view the child. Is that not somewhat harsh treatment from a Committee entrusted with sensitive care of our life forms?" Carp was quick to respond. "It was a gastrula, Simone, purely and simply a lump of cells with a hole in it. There was nothing to be gained by bringing the creature into public view . . ." "The creature's parents hardly constitute a public viewing, Mr. Justice. And don't forget the association of Creator and creature. Lest you forget, sir, I am a Chaplain/Psychiatrist. While you may have certain prejudices regarding my religious role, I assure you that my preparation as a psychiatrist is most thorough. When you denied that young couple the sight of their offspring, you denied them a good-bye, a closure, a finality that would help them grieve and get on with their lives. Now there will be counseling, tears and nightmares far beyond the normal scope of mourning." Gwynn picked up at the C/P's first pause. "This doesn't sound like an appeal for the life form in question. Since that is the express function of an appeal, I must ask your intentions here. Is it possible that you're simply trying to go on record as establishing a political platform out of the appeals process?" The nodules on the C/P's face retracted as if struck, then slowly re-emerged at the ends of their long stalks. A good psychiatrist has a face you can't read, Keel thought. Simone certainly fills the bill. The C/P's voice came on again in its wet, slurpy fashion. "I defer to the decision of the Chief Justice in this matter." Keel snapped fully awake. This was certainly an unlikely turn of argument -- if it was argument. He cleared his throat and gave his full attention to the screen. Those four nodules seemed to hunt out the gaze of both his eyes and fix on his mouth at the same time. He cleared his throat again. "Your Eminence," he said, "it is clear that we did not proceed with this case in the most sensitive fashion. I speak for the Committee when I voice my appreciation for your candid appraisal of the matter. Sometimes, in the anguish of our task, we lose sight of the difficulty imposed upon others. Your censure, for lack of a better word, is noted and will be acted on. However, Justice Erdsteppe's point is well made. You dilute the appeals process by bringing before us matters that do not, in fact, constitute an appeal on behalf of a condemned lethal deviant. Do you wish to proceed with such an appeal in this case?" There was a pause from the viewscreen, then a barely audible sigh. "No, Mr. Justice, I do not. I have seen the reports and, in this case, I concur with your findings." Keel heard the low grumbling from Carp and Gwynn beside him. "Perhaps we should meet informally and discuss these matters," he said. "Would that be to your liking, Your Eminence?" The head nodded slightly, and the voice slurped, "Yes. Yes, that would be most helpful. I will make arrangements through our offices. Thank you for your time, Committee." The screen went blank before Keel could respond. Amid the mutterings of his colleagues he found himself wondering, What the devil is she up to? He knew that it must deal with the Mermen somehow, and the itch between his shoulder blades told him it was more serious than this conversation suggested. We'll find out how serious soon enough, he thought. If it's bad, the appointment will be for me alone. Ward Keel had done a little psychiatric study himself and he was not one to waste a skill. He resolved to be particularly attentive to detail when he met later with Kareen Ale. The C/P's intrusion coincided with the Merman ambassador's appointment too well -- surely more than coincidence. Actually, I think I'll cancel the appointment, he thought, and make a few calls. This meeting had best be on my time, on my turf. How cruel of Ship to leave everything we need circling out of reach above us while this terrible planet kills us off one by one. Six births last nightside, all mutant. Two survive. -- Hali Ekel, the Journals Feeling the warmth of the suns through the open hatch, Iz Bushka rubbed the back of his neck and shook himself. It was as close as he could let his body get to a shudder in the presence of Gallow and the other men of this Merman submersible crew. Pride made me accept Gallow's invitation, Bushka decided. Pride and curiosity -- food for the ego. He thought it odd that someone, even someone as egocentric as Gallow, would want a "personal historian." Bushka felt the need for caution all around him. The Merman sub they occupied was familiar enough. He had visited aboard Merman subs before when they docked at Vashon. They were strange craft, all of their equipment hard and unforgiving -- dials and handles and glowing instruments. As a historian, Bushka knew these Merman craft were not much different from those constructed by Pandora's first colonists before the infamous Time of Madness that some called the "Night of Fire." "Quite a bit different from your Islander subs, eh?" Gallow asked. "Different, yes," Bushka said, "but similar enough that I could run it." Gallow cocked an eyebrow, as if measuring Bushka for a different suit. "I was on one of your Islander subs once," Gallow said. "They stink." Bushka had to admit the organics that formed and powered Islander submersibles did give off a certain odor reminiscent of sewage. It was the nutrient, of course. Gallow sat at the sub's controls to one side and ahead of Bushka, holding the craft steady on the surface. The space around them was larger than anything Bushka had seen in an Islander sub. But he had to avoid bumping into hard edges. Bushka had already collected bruises from hatch rims, seat arms and the handles of compartment doors. The sea was producing a long swell today, gentle by Islander standards. Just a little wash and slap against the hull. They had not been long into this "little excursion," as Gallow called it, before Bushka began to suspect that he was in actual danger -- ultimate danger. He had the persistent feeling that these people would kill him if he didn't measure up. And it was left to him to find out what "measuring up" might mean. Gallow was planning some kind of revolution against the Merman government, that much was clear from the idle chatter. "The Movement," he called it. Gallow and his "Green Dashers" and his Launch Base One. "All mine," he said. It was so explicit and unmistakable that Bushka felt the ages-old fear that crept up on those who'd dared record history while it happened all down the ages. It had a sweaty side. Gallow and his men were revealed as conspirators who had talked too much in the presence of an ex-Islander. Why did they do that? It was not because they truly considered him one of their own -- too much innuendo indicated otherwise. And they didn't know him well enough to trust him, even as Gallow's personal historian. Bushka was sure of that. The answer lay there, obvious to someone of Bushka's training -- all of that historical precedent upon which to draw. They did it to trap me. The rest of it was just as obvious. If he were implicated in Gallow's scheme -- whatever that turned out to be -- then he would be Gallow's man forever because it would be the only place he could go. Gallow did indeed want a captive historian in his service, and maybe more. He wanted to go down in history on his own terms. He wanted to be history. Gallow had made it clear that he had researched Bushka --"the best Islander historian." Young and lacking some practical experience, that was how Gallow rated him, Bushka realized. Something to be molded. And there was the terrifying attractiveness of that other appeal. "We are the true humans," Gallow said. And point by point, he had compared Bushka's appearance to the norm, concluding: "You're one of us. You're not a Mute." One of us. There was power in that . . . particularly to an Islander, and particularly if Gallow's conspiracy succeeded. But I'm a writer, Bushka reminded himself. I'm not some romantic character in an adventure story. History had taught him how dangerous it was for writers to mix themselves up with their characters -- or historians with their subjects. The sub took an erratic motion and Bushka knew someone must be undogging the exterior hatch. Gallow asked, "Are you sure that you could run this sub?" "Of course. The controls are obvious." "Are they, really?" "I watched you. Islander subs have some organic equivalents. And I do have a master's rating, Gallow." "GeLaar, please," Gallow said. He unstrapped himself from the pilot's seat, stood up and moved aside. "We are companions, Iz. Companions use first names." Bushka slid into the pilot's seat at Gallow's gesture and scanned the controls. He pointed to them one by one, calling out their functions to Gallow: "Trim, ballast, propulsion, forward-reverse and throttles, fuel mixture, hydrogen conversion control, humidity injector and atmospheric control -- the meters and gauges are self-explanatory. More?" "Very good, Iz," Gallow said. "You are even more of a jewel than I had hoped. Strap in. You are now our pilot." Realizing he had been drawn even further into Gallow's conspiracy, Bushka obeyed. The flutter in his stomach increased noticeably. Again, the sub moved erratically. Bushka flicked a switch and focused a sensor above the exterior hatch. The screen above him showed Tso Zent and behind him, the scarred face of Gulf Nakano. Those two were living examples of deceptive looks. Zent had been introduced as Gallow's primary strategist "and of course, my chief assassin." Bushka had stared at the chief assassin, taken aback by the title. Zent was smooth-skinned and schoolboy-innocent in appearance, until you saw the hard antagonism in his small brown eyes. The wrinkle-free flesh had that soft deceptiveness of someone powerfully muscled by much swimming. An airfish scar puckered at his neck. Zent was one of those Mermen who preferred the fish to the air tanks -- an interesting insight. Then there was Nakano -- a giant with hulking shoulders and arms as thick as some human torsos, his face twisted and scarred by burns from a Merman rocket misfiring. Gallow had already told Bushka the story twice, and Bushka got the impression that he'd hear it again. Nakano allowed a few wispy beard hairs to grow from the tip of his scarred chin; otherwise he was hairless, the burn scars prominent on his scalp, neck and shoulders. "I saved his life," Gallow had said, speaking in Nakano's presence as though the man were not there. "He will do anything for me." But Bushka had found evidence of human warmth in Nakano -- a hand outstretched to protect the new companion from falling. There was even a sense of humor. "We measure sub experience by counting bruises," Nakano had said, smiling shyly. His voice was husky and a bit slurred. There was certainly no warmth or humor in Zent. "Writers are dangerous," he'd said when Gallow explained Bushka's function. "They speak out of turn." "Writing history while it happens is always dangerous business," Gallow agreed. "But no one else will see what Iz writes until we are ready -- that's an advantage." It had been at this point that Bushka fully realized the peril of his position. They had been in the sub, seventy klicks from the Merman base, anchored on the fringes of a huge kelp bed. Both Gallow and Zent had that irritating habit of speaking about him as though he were not present. Bushka glanced at Gallow, who stood, back to the pilot's couch, peering out one of the small plazglas ports at whatever it was that Zent and Nakano were making ready out there. The grace and beauty of Gallow had taken on a new dimension for Bushka, who had marked Gallow's deep fear of disfiguring accidents. Nakano was a living example of what Gallow feared most. Another chanted notation went into Bushka's "true history," the one he elected to keep only in his mind in the ages-old Islander fashion. Much of Islander history was carried in memorized chants, rhythms that projected themselves naturally, phrase by phrase. Paper was fugitive on the Islands, subject to rot, and where could it be stored that the container itself would not eat it? Permanent records were confined to plazbooks and the memories of chanters. Plazbooks were only for the bureaucracy or the very rich. Anyone could memorize a chant. "GeLaar fears the scars of Time," Bushka chanted to himself. "Time is Age and Age is Time. Not the death but the dying." If only they knew, Bushka thought. He brought a notepad from his pocket and scribbled four innocuous lines on it for Gallow's official history -- date, time, place, people. Zent and Nakano entered the cabin without speaking. Sea water slopped all around them as they took up positions in seats beside Bushka. They began a run-through on the sub's sensory apparatus. Both men moved smoothly and silently, grotesque figures in green-striped, skin-tight dive suits. "Camouflage," had been Gallow's response to Bushka's unasked question when he first saw them. Gallow watched with quiet approval until the check-list had been run, men said, "Get us under way, Iz. Course three hundred and twenty-five degrees. Hold us just beneath wave turbulence." "Check." Bushka complied, feeling the unused power in the craft as he gentled it into position. Energy conservation was second nature to an Islander and he trimmed out as much by instinct as by the instruments. "Sweet," Gallow commented. He glanced at Zent. "Didn't I tell you?" Zent didn't respond, but Nakano smiled at Bushka. "You'll have to teach me how you do that," he said. "So smooth." "Sure." Bushka concentrated on the controls, familiarizing himself with them, sensing the minute responses transmitted from water to control surface to his hands. The latent power in this Merman craft was tempting. Bushka could feel how it might respond at full thrust. It would gulp fuel, though, and the hydrogen engines would heat. Bushka decided he preferred Islander subs. Organics were supple, living-warm. They were smaller, true, and vulnerable to the accidents of flesh, but there was something addictive about the interdependence, life depending on life. Islanders didn't go blundering about down under. An Islander sub could be thought of as just big valves and muscle tissue -- essentially a squid without a brain, or guts. But it gave a pulsing ride, soothing and noiseless -- none of this humming and clicking and metal throbbing, none of these hard vibrations in the teeth. Gallow spoke from close to Bushka's ear: "Let's get more moisture in the air, Iz. You want us all to dry out?" "Here." Nakano pointed at a dial and alphanumerical readout above Bushka's head on the sloping curve of the hull. A red "21" showed on the air-moisture repeater. "We like it above forty percent." Bushka increased humidity in gentle increments, thinking that here was another Merman vulnerability. Unless they became acclimated to topside existence -- in the diplomatic corps or some commercial enterprise -- Mermen suffered from dry air; cracked skin, lung damage, bloody creases in exposed soft tissues. Gallow touched Zent's shoulder. "Give us the mark on Guemes Island." Zent scanned the navigation instruments while Bushka studied the man furtively. What was this? Why did they want to locate Guemes? It was one of the poorest Islands -- barely big enough to support ten thousand souls just above the lip of malnutrition. Why was Gallow interested in it? "Grid and vector five," Zent said. "Two eighty degrees, eight kilometers." He punched a button. "Mark." The navigation screen above them came alight with green lines: grid squares and a soft blob in one of them. "Swing us around to two hundred and eighty degrees, Iz," Gallow said. "We're going fishing." Fishing? Bushka wondered. Subs could be rigged for fishing but this one carried none of the usual equipment. He didn't like the way Zent chuckled at Gallow's comment. "The Movement is about to make its mark on history," Gallow announced. "Observe and record, Iz." The Movement, Bushka thought. Gallow always named it in capital letters and frequently with quotation marks, as though he saw it already printed in a plazbook. When Gallow spoke of "The Movement," Bushka could sense the resources behind it, with nameless supporters and political influence in powerful places. Responding to Gallow's orders, Bushka kicked the dive planes out of their locks, checked the range detectors for obstructions, scanned the trim display and the forward screen. It had become almost automatic. The sub glided into an easy descent as it came around on course. "Depth vector coming up," Zent said, smiling at Bushka. Bushka noted the smile in the reflections of the screens and made a mental note. Zent must know it irritated a pilot to read his instruments aloud that way without being asked. Nobody likes being told what they already know. Cabin air getting sticky, Bushka noted. His topside lungs found the high humidity stifling. He backed off the moisture content, wondering if they would object to thirty-five percent. He locked on course. "On course," Zent said, still smiling. "Zent, why don't you go play with yourself?" Bushka asked. He leveled the dive planes and locked them. "I don't take orders from writers," Zent said. "Now, boys," Gallow intervened, but there was amusement in his voice. "Books lie," Zent muttered. Nakano, wearing the hydrophone headset, lifted one earphone. "Lots of activity," he said. "I count more than thirty fishing boats." "A hot spot," Gallow said. "There's radio chatter from the Island, too," Nakano reported. "And music. That's one thing I'll miss -- Islander music." "Is it any good?" Zent asked. "No lyrics, but you could dance to it," Nakano said. Bushka shot a questioning look at Gallow. What did Nakano mean, he would miss Islander music? "Steady on course," Gallow said. Zent took over Nakano's headphones and said, "GeLaar, you said Guemes Islanders were damned near floating morons. I thought they didn't have much radio." "Guemes has lost almost half a kilometer in diameter since I started watching it last year," Gallow said. "Their bubbly's starving. They're so poor they can't afford to feed their Island." "Why are we here?" Bushka asked. "If they only have low-grade radio and malnutrition, what good are they to The Movement?" Bushka experienced a bad feeling about all this. A very bad feeling. Are they trying to set me up? Make the Islander a patsy for some of their dirty work? "A perfect first demonstration," Gallow said. "They're traditionalists, hard-core fanatics. I'll give 'em credit for one piece of good sense. When other Islands suggest it might be time to move down under, Guemes sends out delegations to stop it." Was that Gallow's secret? Bushka wondered. Did he want all the Islanders to stay strictly topside? "Traditionalists," Gallow repeated. "That means they wait for us to build land for them. They think we like them so much we'll make them the gift of a couple of continents. Keep toting that rock, slapping that mud! Plant that kelp!" The three Mermen laughed and Bushka smiled in response. He didn't feel like smiling at all, but there was nothing else to do. "Things would go much easier if Islanders would learn to live the way we do," Nakano said. "All of them?" Zent asked. Bushka noted a growing tension as Nakano failed to respond to Zent's question. Presently, Gallow said, "Only the right ones, Gulf." "Only the right ones," Nakano agreed, but there was no force in his voice. "Damned religious troublemakers," Gallow blurted. "You've seen the missionaries from Guemes, Iz?" "When our Islands have been on proximate drifts," Bushka said. "Any excuse for visiting is a good one, then. Mixing and visiting is a happy time." "And we're always pulling your little boats out of the sea or giving you a tow," Zent said. "For that you want us to keep slopping mud!" "Tso," Gallow said, patting Zent's shoulder, "Iz is one of us now." "We can't get this foolishness under control any too soon for me," Zent said. "There's no reason for anyone to live anywhere but down under. We're already set up." Bushka marked this comment but wondered at it. He felt Gallow's hatred of Guemes but the Mermen were saying that everyone should live down under. Everyone living as rich as the Mermen? There was some sadness to that thought. What would we lose of the old Islander ways? He glanced up at Gallow. "Guemes, are we . . . ?" "It was a mistake to elevate a Guemian to C/P," Gallow said. "Guemians never see things our way." "Island on visual," Zent reported. "Half speed," Gallow ordered. Bushka complied. He felt the reduction in speed as an easing of the vibration against his spine. "What's our vertical relationship?" Gallow asked. "We're coming in about thirty meters below their keel," Zent said. "Shit! They don't even have outwatchers. Look, no small boats at all ahead of their drift." "It's a wonder they're still in one piece," Nakano said. Bushka caught a wry edge to the statement that he didn't quite understand. "Set us directly under their keel, Iz," Gallow said. What are we doing here? Bushka wondered as he obeyed the order. The forward display screen showed the bulbous lower extremity of Guemes -- a thick red-brown extrusion of bubbly with starved sections streaming from it. Yes, Guemes was in bad condition. They were starving essential parts of their Island. Bushka inhaled quick, shallow breaths of the thick moist air. The Merman sub was too close for simple observation. And this was not the way you approached an Island for a visit. "Drop us down another fifty meters," Gallow ordered. Bushka obeyed, using the descent propulsion system and automatically adjusting trim. He felt proud that the sub remained straight and level as it settled. The upward display, set wide-angle, showed the entire Island as a dark shadow against the surface light. A ring of small boats dappled its edges like beads in a necklace. Bushka estimated that Guemes was no more than six klicks in diameter at the waterline. He put the depth at three hundred meters. Long strips of organics floated dreamlike in the currents around the Island. Entire bulkheads of bubbly blackened the surrounding water with dead-rot. Thatchings of thin membranous material patched the holes. Probably spinneret webbing. Bushka saw raw sewage pumping out of a valve off to his right, sure evidence that the Guemes nutrient plant had suffered a major breakdown. "Can you imagine how that place smells?" Zent asked. "Very nice on a hot day," Gallow said. "Guemes needs help," Bushka offered. "And they're going to get it," Zent said. "Look at all the fish around them," Nakano said. "I'll bet the fishing's real good right now." He pointed at the upward display as a giant scrubberfish, almost two meters long, floated past the external sensor. Half of the fish's whiskers had been nibbled away and the one visible eye socket was empty and white. "It's so rotten around here that even the scrapfish are dying," Zent said. "If the Island's this sick, you can bet the people are in sad shape," Nakano added. Bushka felt his face get red, and pressed his lips shut tight. "Those boats all around, maybe they're not fishing," Zent said. "Maybe they're living on their boats." "This whole Island is a menace," Gallow said. "There must be all kinds of diseases up there. There's probably an epidemic in the whole system of organics." "Who could live in shit and not be sick?" Zent asked. Bushka nodded to himself. He thought he had figured out what Gallow was doing here. He's brought the sub in close to confirm their desperate need for help. "Why can't they see the obvious?" Nakano asked. He patted the hull beside him. "Our subs don't need nutrient slopped all over them. They don't rot or oxidize. They don't get sick or make us sick . . ." Gallow, watching the upward display, tapped Bushka's shoulder. "Down another fifteen meters, Iz. We still have plenty of room under us." Bushka complied and again it was that smooth, steady descent that brought an admiring look from Nakano. "I don't see how Islanders can live under those conditions." Zent shook his head. "Sweating out weather, food, dashers, disease -- any one of a hundred mistakes that would send the whole pack of them to the bottom." "They've made that mistake, now, haven't they, Tso?" Gallow asked. Nakano pointed at a corner of the upward display. "There's nothing but some kind of membrane where their driftwatch should be." Bushka looked and saw a dark patch of spinnarett webbing where the large corneal bubble should have been, the observer tucked safely behind it watching for shallows, coordinating with the outwatchers. No driftwatch -- Guemes probably had lost its course-correction system, too. They were in terrible condition! Guemes would probably do anything for the offer of help. "The corneal bubble has died," Bushka told them. "They've patched it over with spinnarett webbing to keep watertight." "How long do they think they can drift blind before scraping bottom someplace?" Nakano muttered. There was anger in his voice. "They're probably up there praying like mad for Ship to come help them," Zent sneered. "Or they're praying for us to stabilize the sea and bring back their precious continents," Gallow said. "And now that we're getting it whipped, they'll be crying about bottoming out on the land we've built. Well, let 'em pray. They can pray to us!" Gallow reached over Zent's shoulder and flipped a switch. Bushka scanned the displays -- up, down, forward, aft the sub's complement of tools sprang out of their hull sheaths all glittering and sharp -- deadly. So that's what Zent and Nakano had been doing out there topside! Iz realized. They'd been checking manipulators and mechanical arms. Bushka scanned them once more: trenchers, borers, tampers, cutters, a swing-boom and the forward heliarc welder on its articulated arm. They gleamed brightly in the wash of the exterior lights. "What are you doing?" Bushka asked. He tried to swallow but his throat was too dry in spite of the humidity. Zent snorted. Bushka felt repelled by the look on Zent's face -- a smile that touched only the corners of his mouth, no humor at all in those bottomless eyes. Gallow gripped Bushka's shoulder with a powerful and painful pressure. "Take us up, Iz." Bushka glanced left and right. Nakano was flexing his powerful hands and watching a sensor screen. Zent held a small needle burner with its muzzle carelessly pointed at Bushka's chest. "Up," Gallow repeated, emphasizing the order with increased pressure on Bushka's shoulder. "But we'll cut right through them," Bushka said. He felt his breath pumping against the back of his throat. The awareness of what Gallow intended almost gagged him. "They won't have a chance without their Island. The ones who don't drown right away will drift in their boats until they starve!" "Without the Island's filtration system, chances are they'll die of thirst before they starve," Gallow said. "They'd die anyway, look at them. Up!" Zent waved the needle burner casually and pressed his left phone tighter to his ear. Bushka ignored the needle burner's threat. "Or dashers will get them!" he protested. "Or a storm!" "Hold it," Zent said, leaning toward his left earphone while he pressed it harder. "I'm getting free sonics of some kind . . . a sweeping pulse from the membrane, I think . . ." Zent screamed and tore the earphone from his head. Blood trickled from his nostrils. "Take it up, damn you!" Gallow shouted. Nakano kicked the locks off the dive planes and reached across Bushka to blow the tanks. The sub's nose tipped upward. Bushka reacted with a pilot's instincts. He fed power to the drivers and tried to bring them onto an even keel but the sub was suddenly a live thing, shooting upward toward the dark bottom of Guemes Island. In two blinks they were through the bottom membranes and into the Island's keel. The sub kicked and twisted as its exterior tools hacked and slashed under the direction of Nakano and Gallow. Zent still sat bent over, holding his ears with both hands. The needle burner lay useless in his lap. Bushka pressed hard against his seatback while he watched in horror the terrible damage being done all around. Anything he did to the controls only added to the destruction. They were into the Island center now, where the high-status Islanders lived, where they kept their most sensitive equipment and organics, their most powerful people, their surgical and other medical facilities . . . The cold-blooded slashing of blades and cutters continued -- visible in every screen, felt in every lurch of the sub. It was eerie that there could be this much pain and not a single scream. Soft, living tissue was no match for the hard, sharp edges that the sub intruded into this nightmare scene. Every bump and twist of the sub wrought more destruction. The displays showed bits and pieces of humanity now -- an arm, a severed head. Bushka moaned, "They're people. "They're people." Everything he'd been taught about the sanctity of life filled him now with rebellion. Mermen shared the same beliefs! How could they kill an entire Island? Bushka realized that Gallow would kill him at the first sign of resistance. A glance at Zent showed the man still looking stunned, but the bleeding had stopped and he had recovered the burner. Nakano worked like an automaton, shuttling power where necessary as cutters and torches continued their awful havoc in the collapsing Island. The sub had begun to twist on its own, turning end for end on a central pivot. Gallow wedged himself into the corner beside Zent, his gaze fixed on the display screens, which showed Island tissue melting away from the heliarcs. "There is no Ship!" Gallow exulted. "You see! Would Ship allow a mere mortal to do such a thing?" He turned emotion-glazed eyes on Bushka at the controls. "I told you! Ship's an artifact, a thing made by people like us. God! There is no God!" Bushka tried to speak but his throat was too dry. "Take us back down, Iz," Gallow ordered. "What're you doing?" Bushka managed. "I challenge Ship," Gallow said. "Has Ship responded?" A wild laugh issued from his throat. Only Zent joined it. "Take us down, I said!" Gallow repeated. Driven by fear, Bushka's pilot-conditioned muscles responded, shifting trim ballast, adjusting planes. And he thought: If we get out fast, some of this Island may survive. Gently, he maneuvered the sub downward through the wreckage left by its terrible ascent. Plazports and screens showed the water around them dim with blood, a dull gray in the harsh illumination from the sub's exterior lights. "Hold us here," Gallow ordered. Bushka ignored the command, his gaze intent on the exterior carnage -- inert bodies and pieces of bodies glimpsed in the murk. Raw horror everywhere around him. A little girl's dancing frock with white lace ruffles in an ancient pattern floated past a port. Behind it could be seen strung out the remnants of someone's pantry, half a lover's portrait pasted against a remnant stone box: outline of a smile without eyes. Beyond the sub's hot lights, blood rolled and streamed, a cold gray fog reaching down the currents. "I said hold us here!" Gallow shouted. Bushka continued to gentle the sub downward. A well of tears brimmed against his eyelids. Don't let me cry! he prayed. Dammit! I can't break down in front of these . . . these . . . No word in his memory could label what his companions had become. This realization burned its change in him. These three Mermen were now lethal deviants. They would have to be brought before the Committee. Judgment must be made. Nakano reached across Bushka and adjusted the ballast controls to bring the sub's descent to a stop. His eyes looked a warning. Bushka looked at Nakano through a swim of tears, then shifted his gaze to Zent. Zent still held his left ear, but he watched Bushka steadily, smiling that cold-liver smile. His lips moved silently: "Wait till I get you topside." Gallow reached across Zent's head to the heliarc controls. "Take us straight ahead," he ordered. He snapped a polarized shield in place and sighted down the twin snouts of the bow heliarc. Bushka reached to his shoulder and brought his chest harness into place, snapping it closed at his side. He moved with purpose, which brought a questioning stare from Zent. Before Zent could react, Bushka kicked loose the dive planes, skewed the control surfaces to starboard and blew the rear ballast tanks while he opened the bow valves. The sub surged over onto its nose and corkscrewed toward the bottom, spinning faster and faster. Nakano was thrown to the left by the force of the spin. Zent lost his needle burner while trying to grab for a support. His body was thrown against Gallow. Both men lay pinned between hull and control panels. Only Bushka, strapped in at the center of the spin, could move with relative ease. "You damn fool!" Gallow shouted. "You'll kill us!" His right hand moving across the switches methodically, Bushka snapped off the cabin lights and all but the exterior bow light. Outside the glow of that one beacon, darkness closed in, surrounding them with a gray murk in which only a few shreds of torn humanity drifted and sank. "You're not Ship!" Gallow screamed. "You hear me, Bushka? It's just you doing this!" Bushka ignored him. "You can't get out of this, Bushka," Gallow shouted. "You'll have to come up sometime and we'll be there." He's asking if I mean to kill us all, Bushka thought. "You're crazy, Bushka!" Gallow shouted. Bushka stared straight ahead, looking for the first glimpse of bottom. At this speed, the sub would dig in and make Gallow's warning come true. Not even plasteel and plaz could withstand a twisting dive into the rocky bottom, not at this depth and this speed. "You going to do it, Bushka?" That was Nakano, voice loud but level and more than a little admiration in the question. For answer, Bushka eased the angle of dive but kept the hard spin, knowing his Island-trained equilibrium could better withstand the violent motion. Nakano began to vomit, gagging and gasping as he tried to clear his throat in the heavy centrifugal pressure. The stench became a nauseating presence in the cabin. Bushka keyed his console for display of the sub's gas displacement. Notations showed ballast was blown with CO2. His gaze traced out the linked lines. Yes . . . exhausted cabin air was bled into the ballast system . . . conservation of energy. Gallow had subsided into a low growling protest while he struggled to crawl out against the force of the spin. "Not Ship! Just another damn shit-eater. Gonna kill him. Never trust Islander." Following the diagram in front of him, Bushka tapped out the valving sequence on the emergency controls. Immediately, an oxygen mask dropped in front of him from an overhead compartment. All other emergency oxygen remained securely in place. Bushka pressed the mask to his face with one hand while his other hand bled CO2 from the ballast directly into the cabin. Zent began gasping. Gallow moaned: "Not Ship!" Nakano's voice gurgled and rasped but the words were clear: "The air! He's . . . going . . . to . . . smother us!" Justice does not happen by chance; indeed, something that subjective may never have happened at all. -- Ward Keel, Journal Maritime Court did not go at all as Queets Twisp had expected. Killing a Merman in the nets had never been an acceptable "accident" at sea, even when all the evidence said it was unavoidable. The emphasis was always on the deceased and the needs of the surviving Merman family. Mermen were always reminding you of all the Islanders they saved every year with their pickup crews and search teams. Twisp walked the long mural-distorted hallway out of the Maritime offices scratching his head. Brett almost skipped along beside him, a wide grin on his face. "See?" Brett said. "I knew we were worried for nothing. They said it wasn't a Merman in our net -- no Mermen lost, nobody that wasn't accounted for. We didn't drown anybody at all!" "Wipe that grin off your face!" Twisp said. "But Queets . . ." "Don't interrupt me!" he snapped. "I had my face down there in the net -- I saw the blood. Red. Dasher blood's green. Now, didn't it seem to you that they got us out of court too fast?" "It's a busy place and we're small-time. You said that yourself." Brett paused, then asked, "Did you really see blood?" "Too much for a few beat-up fish." The hallway let them out into the wide third-level perimeter concourse with its occasional viewports opening out onto the surging sea and the spume flying past. Weather had said there was a fifty-klick wind today with chance of rain. The sky hung gray, hiding the one sun that had headed downward into the horizon, the other already gone. Rain? Twisp thought Weather had made one of its infrequent errors. His fisherman's sense said the wind would have to increase before any rain came today. He expected sunshine before sunset. "Maritime has other things to do than worry about every small-time . . ." Brett broke off as he saw the bitter expression on Twisp's face. "I mean . . ." "I know what you mean! We're really small-time now. Losing that catch cost me everything: depth gear, nets, new stunshield charges, food, the scull . . ." Brett was almost breathless trying to keep up with the older man's longer, firmer strides. "But we can make another start if . . ." "How?" Twisp asked with a toss of one long arm. "I can't afford to outfit us. You know what they'll advise me in Fisherman's Hall? Sell my boat and go back to the subs as a common crewman!" The concourse widened into a long ramp. They walked down without speaking and out onto the wide second-level terrace with its heavily cultivated truck gardens. Mazelike access lanes crooked their way to the high railing overlooking the wider first level. As they emerged, gaps began to appear in the overcast and one of Pandora's suns made liars out of the meteorologists at Weather. It bathed the terrace in a welcome yellow light. Brett pulled at Twisp's sleeve. "Queets, you wouldn't have to sell the boat if you got a loan and --" "I've got loans up to here!" Twisp said, touching his neck. "I'd just cleared my accounts when I brought you on. I won't go through that again! The boat goes. That means I have to sell your contract." Twisp sat on a mound of bubbly at the rail and looked out over the sea. The wind-speed was dropping fast, just as he'd expected. The surge at the rim of the Island was still high but the spume shot straight up now. "Best fishing weather we've had in a long time," Brett said. Twisp had to admit this was true. "Why did Maritime let us off so easy?" Twisp muttered. "We had a Merman in the net. Even you know that, kid. Something funny's going on." "But they let us off, that's the important thing. I thought you'd be happy about it." "Grow up, kid." Twisp closed his eyes and leaned back against the rail. He felt the cool water breeze against his neck. The sun was hot on his head. Too many problems, he thought. Brett stood directly in front of Twisp. "You keep telling me to grow up. It looks to me like you could do some growing up yourself. If you'd only get a loan and --" "If you won't grow up, kid, then shut up." "It couldn't have been a tripod fish in the net?" Brett persisted. "No way! There's a different feel. That was a Merman and the dashers got him." Twisp swallowed. "Or her. Up to something, too, from the look of things." Without changing his position against the rail, Twisp listened to the kid shift from foot to foot. "Is that why you're selling the boat?" Brett asked. "Because we accidentally killed a Merman who was where he wasn't supposed to be? You think the Mermen will be out to get you now?" "I don't know what to think." Twisp opened his eyes and looked up at Brett. The kid had narrowed his overly large eyes into a tight squint, his gaze steady on Twisp. "The Merman observers at Maritime didn't object to the court's decision," Brett said. "You're right," Twisp said. He jerked a thumb upward toward the Maritime offices. "They're usually ruthless in cases like this. I wonder what we saw . . . or almost saw." Brett moved to one side and plopped himself onto the bubbly beside Twisp. They listened for a time to the thlup-thlup-thlup of waves against the Island's rim. "I expected to be sent down under," Twisp said. "And you with me. That's what usually happens. You go to work for the dead Merman's family. And you don't always come back topside." Brett grunted, then: "They'd have sent me, not you. Everybody knows about my eyes, how I can see when it's almost dark. The Mermen would want that." "Don't give yourself airs, kid. Mermen are damned cautious about who they let into their gene pool. They call us Mutes, you know. And they don't mean something nice when they say it. We're mutants, kid, and when we go down under it's to fill a dead man's dive suit . . . nothing else." "Maybe they didn't want this job filled," Brett said. Twisp tapped a fist on the resilient organics of the rail. "Or they didn't want anybody from topside to know what that Merman's job was." "That's crazy!" Twisp did not respond. They sat quietly for a while as the lone sun dipped lower. Glancing over his shoulder, Twisp stared at the horizon. It bent away in the distance to a bank of black sky and water. Water everywhere. "I can get us outfitted," Brett said. Twisp was startled but remained silent, looking at the kid. Brett, too, was staring off at the horizon. Twisp noticed that the boy's skin had become fisherman-dark, not the sickly pale he had displayed when he first boarded the coracle. The kid looked leaner, too . . . and taller. "Didn't you hear me?" Brett asked. "I said --" "I heard you. For somebody who pissed and moaned most of the time he was out there fishing, you sound pretty anxious to get back on the water." "I didn't moan about --" "Just joking, kid." Twisp raised a hand to stop the objections. "Don't be so damned touchy." His face flushed, Brett looked down at his boots. Twisp asked, "How would you get this loan?" "My parents would loan it to me and I'd loan it to you." "Your parents have money?" Twisp studied the kid, aware that this revelation did not surprise him. In all the time they'd spent together, though, Brett had never talked about his parents and Twisp discreetly had never asked. Islander etiquette. "They're close to Center," Brett said. "Next ring out from the lab and Committee." Twisp whistled between his teeth. "What do your parents do that gets them quarters at Center?" Brett's mouth turned up in a crooked grin. "Slurry. They made their fortune in shit." Twisp laughed in sudden awareness. "Norton! Brett Norton! Your folks are the Nortons?" "Norton," Brett corrected him. "They're a team and they bill themselves as one artist." "Shitpainting," Twisp said. He chuckled. "They were the first," Brett said. "And it's nutrient, not shit. It's processed slurry." "So your folks dig shit," Twisp teased. "Come on!" Brett objected. "I thought I got away from that when I left school. Grow up, Twisp!" "All right, kid," he laughed, "I know what slurry is." He patted the bubbly beside him. "It's what we feed the Island." "It's not that simple," Brett said. "I grew up with it, so I know. It's scraps from the fish processors, compost from the agraria, table scraps and . . . just about everything." He grinned. "Including shit. My mother was the first chemist to figure out how to color the nutrient like they do now without hurting the bubbly." "Forgive an old fisherman," Twisp said. "We live with a lot of dead organics, like the membrane on the hull of my coracle. Islandside, we just pick up a bag of nutrient, mix it with a little water and spread it on our walls when they get a little gray." "Don't you ever try the colored stuff and make a few of your own murals on your walls?" Brett asked. "I leave that to the artists like your folks," Twisp said. "I didn't grow up with it the way you did. When I was a kid, we only had a bit of graffiti, no pictures. It was all pretty bland: brown on gray. We were told they couldn't introduce other colors because that interfered with absorption by the decks and walls and things. And you know, if our organics die . . ." He shrugged. "How'd your folks stumble onto this?" "They didn't stumble! My mother was a chemist and my father had a flair for design. They went out with a wall-feeding crew one day and did a nutrient mural on the radar dome near the slurryside rim. That was before I was born." "Two big historical events," Twisp joked. "The first shit painting and the birth of Brett Norton." He shook his head in mock seriousness. "Permanent work, too, because no painting lasts more than about a week." Brett spoke defensively. "They keep records. Holos and such. Some of their friends have worked up musical scores for the gallery and theater shows." "How come you left all that?" Twisp asked. "Big money, important friends . . . ?" "You never had some bigshot pat you on the head and say, 'Here's our new little painter.'" "And you didn't want that?" Brett turned his back on Twisp so fast that Twisp knew the kid was hiding something. "Haven't I worked out well enough for you?" Brett asked. "You're a pretty good worker, kid. A little green, but that's part of the bargain on a new contract." Brett didn't respond and Twisp saw that the kid was staring at the Maritime mural on the inner wall of the second level. It was a big and gaudy mural aglow in the hard light of the setting sun -- everything washed a fine crimson. "Is that one of their murals?" Twisp asked. Brett nodded without turning. Twisp took another look at the painting, thinking of how easy it was these days to walk past the decorated hallways, decks and bulkheads without even noticing the color. Some of the murals were sharply geometric, denying the rounded softness of Islander life. Famous murals, ones that kept Norton in constant, high priced demand, were the great historical pieces barely applied before they began their steady absorption toward the flat gray of hungry walls. The Maritime mural was something new in a Norton wall -- an abstraction, a study in crimson and the fluidity of motion. It glowed with an internal power in the low light of the sun, seeming to boi