by McCamy Taylor
"There is no instance of a country having benefited from prolonged warfare."
Sun Tzu, The Art of War
"During the terrestrial era, clear distinctions were made between "dry land" and ocean. However, if a 20th century cartographer went back in time to the late Pleistocene, he would not have recognized the world's shorelines. In 10,000 B.C., sea levels were 300 feet lower and much of what the people in 1990 A.D. would have considered "ocean" was dry land -- inhabited dry land, since coastal communities offered easy access to food and water. As the world warmed and glaciers melted, sea levels rose, forcing many from their homes. No wonder "flood" myths were common all across the globe during the rise of the early great human civilizations.
"The fear of having to endure another such upheaval almost certainly contributed to the rapid acquisition of new technology. Throughout the history of this planet, cataclysm has been the trigger for advancement. Repeated mass extinctions have wiped out up to 90% of living creatures at a time -- and made the remaining 10% that much stronger and more competitive. We see this best in the 21st century, when humanity acquired the ability to destroy itself and all other life on the planet.
"Global warming and the rising of the earth's artificially low sea levels was greeted by many as another cataclysm. Never mind that many of their cities were built upon sedimentary rock, i.e. old seabed. Like the mythological hero, Noah, humans looked for ways to preserve their species. They used their advanced technology to manufacture new, improved amphibious humans who could survive under water..."
From Selkirk Sandros's dissertation, Cataclysmic Change and the Rise of Militarism in the 21st Century
Chapter 1. Light Sea
Captain Selkirk Sandros pulled himself from the clear emerald ocean onto a bit of dry, sandy rock and coughed up a lungful of salt water. The first breath was always the worst. Searing cold in the back of his throat. Pain like a hundred tiny knives as his ribs expanded. His heart seemed almost to stop --
And then lurch forward with a sickening thump. Next came the shivering. That usually lasted five to ten minutes, until the moisture evaporated from his skin. The sun began to bake his shoulders. He ran his fingers through his damp mane. His sleeveless grey honzame body armor chafed at his groin and inner thighs. Irritably, he plucked the material away.
He squinted up at the sky. Perfect blue, not a cloud in sight, the sun a fiercely glowing ball of yellow fire thirty degrees above the horizon. It would be another hot day for those forced to labor on dry land. Carefully, he began to pick his way across the line of rocks that ran to the shore. The flesh on the soles of his feet was tender. Many people wore ray skin shoes when they ventured out of the water. However, he needed to be able to feel where he was stepping, otherwise he would end up back in the ocean, and this close to shore, the tide could dash the strongest swimmer against the rocks.
Deadman's Rock was the only piece of dry land in the Sea of Three, and it was aptly named. The remnant of a dying volcano, it was lifeless, except for turtles, reptiles and a few stunted trees. Twice a year, red banded dragon-petrels landed on the island as part of their annual migration. The rest of the time, it was the headquarters of the glassmakers guild. Day and night, their forges raged as they tried to slake the people's thirst for glass tiles and windowpanes -- essential building materials for the submerged city known as the Arcunus Reef Confederation, ARC for short.
Selkirk wrinkled his nose at the acrid smell. Finding combustible material was difficult in the Sea of Three. If all the trees on the tiny island were felled for firewood, they would feed the forges for a month at most. And without its trees, the rock would be completely at the mercy of the summer monsoons. Fortunately, the guild engineers had discovered a way to tap the hot, sulfurous gas which accumulated below the surface in magma pockets. This provided a near endless source of fuel -- and also produced thick clouds of nasty smoke. The glassmakers wore masks and goggles, but these could not filter out all of the poisons. Tumors of the face and throat were one of the occupational hazards of making glass.
The stink kept most visitors away, except for the military, which had a promontory fort located at the island's southern edge. Here, meteorologists kept watch for storms and tsunamis. Here, too, soldiers guarded the entrance to the ARC military academy, a submerged city built into the volcanic island's southern slope, at the border between light and dark sea.
It took Selkirk a few minutes to find his land legs then half an hour to reach the fort. He picked his way carefully between the stinging nettles. He was more afraid of these than he was of the island's snakes, which, though venomous, were slow moving compared to their aquatic cousins. He passed two glassmakers who were hauling sand towards their forge. They waved at him, and he waved back. He was panting now. Climbing the steep slope of the island's northern edge was hard work for one who usually traveled by swimming. He had to use different leg muscles to walk. And the force of gravity was not balanced by his body's natural buoyancy as it was in water. They said that people who spent months out of water got used to it. Selkirk hoped that he would never have cause to test that for himself. He did not like the way his eyes felt, as if there was something noxious in them, forcing him to blink over and over. And his lips and mouth felt parched.
The fort, a single story building flanked by twin towers, was perched on the edge of a sheer cliff not far from the mouth of the volcano. The guard on duty recognized Selkirk and waved him through. He paused in the shade for a moment to catch his breath and get a drink of water. Moisture loss through perspiration was a serious problem for people who ventured onto dry land.
"You going to the military academy?" the guard asked. The language of hums, clicks and grunts which people used underwater was too soft to be heard well on land, so he repeated his question using sign language. "Can you carry a message down there for me?"
"Sure." Selkirk placed the thin, inscribed shell tablet in his pack.
The only access to the fort from the south was by way of a narrow path that had been carved into the cliff face by ancient terrestrial animals that walked on four legs. Going down was easier than climbing up. However, the journey was nerve wracking. Without the ocean to buoy him, Selkirk was subject to the whims of wind and gravity. One false move, and he would end up crushed on the rocks below. Another half hour passed. Finally, he reached the cove. The sun baked black volcanic sand was hot against the soles of his feet. Hard to believe that anything lived on dry land by choice. Too hot by day, too cold by night -- no wonder the word dry was a euphemism for dead.
He paused at the ocean's edge. The water was clear blue-green, flecked with a few white waves. No sign of predators, just the spinner dolphins which guarded the marine approach to the cove. ARC's enemies were the masters of the deep, but on deadland, their rudimentary lungs and massive bulk made them as helpless as babies -- which was why access to the military academy was restricted to those who arrived at the cove by land.
Selkirk whistled. The mercenaries' squad captain leapt from the water and did a double spin. Welcome it clicked. Selkirk responded in kind. Then he exhaled. Eyes wide open, he dove into the ocean.
A shower of tiny bubbles rose from his skin, momentarily clouding the water. His mane -- a lank clump of dark auburn on dry land -- frilled out behind him covering his head and back with blood red fringe that swayed in the gentle ocean current. His gills unfurled. The delicate membranes on either side of his throat and chest were pale pink, in contrast to his sun darkened skin. He had spent the last fourteen moons in light sea, where the average water depth was twenty meters. Over a year of soft living, with regular meals and no predators to disturb his sleep. People lining up to shake the hand of Captain Selkirk Sandros, war hero. Women throwing themselves at him. Children begging for stories. Fourteen months in paradise --
And when a job offer came, he could not wait to leave.
The slope of the island's southern face was steep. It took him only moments to swim from light to middle sea. The water darkened from blue-green to deep grey. Below him, the wide expanse of dark sea beckoned. He knew exactly what it would feel like to propel himself through the bathyl ocean. The way the increased water pressure would weigh him down. The cold so intense that he could hardly feel his limbs. His heartbeat would slow to almost nothing. How easy it would be to lose himself in all that silence and solitude, just a few whales, sharks and giant squids for companions --
But that was the coward's way. He had a job to do and sins for which to atone.
Though he knew the academy well, storms had changed the appearance of the submerged rocks, and Selkirk swam this way and that in the murky depths trying to find the entrance to the secret compound. He propelled himself by kicking. His arms, he kept close to his sides to cut down on water resistance. At this depth, little light penetrated the ocean, but the sea was unusually warm and fertile thanks to the hot steam vents which rose from the base of the volcano. A wide variety of creatures that fed off hydrogen sulfide rather than sunlight had taken up residence on the long, narrow rock columns. Flame worms, mussels and albino corals crowded together, creating a red, yellow and white mosaic. The water hummed with the chattering of millions of tiny, unseen snapper crabs. White flakes of sea snow drifted by on their way down to the bottom of the ocean. One day, when his gills had breathed their last, Selkirk would join them, and his carcass would nourish the denizens of the deep. He found the thought oddly comforting.
Selkirk spotted a luminous jellyfish, its translucent, stinging tentacles spread out over ten meters. Schools of anchovies swirled by overhead, a dark whirl against the light. A wild blue shark passed by, too close for comfort. It was twice as long as the captain and easily outweighed him by two hundred pounds. Automatically, Selkirk's skin lightened from tan to white mottled with red in imitation of the flame worms. He pressed himself up against one of the rock columns and remained completely still until the predator had passed. The volcanic chimney was even hotter than the black sandy beach. It left a scorch mark on his flank. He could have saved himself a burn by attacking and killing the shark. However, it was a gravid female and as such, under the protection of Erzulie, wife of Agwe, god of the sea. Selkirk's left biceps was tattooed with the veve of the goddess, a heart pierced by a sword.
As he swam deeper, freckles on his arms and chest began to glow, emitting a soft, blue light. Bioluminescence was a mark of dark sea creatures. Selkirk was the product of the unusual coupling of a light sea mother with a dark sea male. His father was a prisoner of war. His mother was a medic. Their romance was doomed at its inception, but that did not keep them from conducting a brief, passionate affair that resulted in a child.
Selkirk had his mother's camouflage and his father's bioluminescence. He had his mother's red mane, and his father's wide, dark adapted eyes. He was amphibious, possessing both lungs and gills. His small build allowed him to leave the water and walk upon dry land, but his spongy bones were flexible enough not to snap in the high pressure of the bathyl sea. When oxygen concentrations were high, his heart beat sixty to seventy times a minute. When oxygen pressures were low, he could slow his metabolism almost to nothing. His blood contained both iron and copper -- the latter was more efficient in cold water. Like his father, he was a psi-fighter, with telepathic and telekinetic abilities. Like his mother, he had a soft heart that often put him at odds with his military commanders.
Eventually, he located the cave -- little more than a crevice, really -- and he swam inside, taking care not to disturb the red frilled eel that had made its nest near the entrance. The tunnel was pitch black. Were this a covert mission, he would have navigated using sonar -- another legacy of the father he had never known. Since he was here on official business, he chose to announce his presence with a full show of biolight, which surrounded him with a soft, blue glow that made his hair look as black as his eyes and bleached the color from his skin.
A guard, armed to the teeth, confronted him before he had traveled more than ten meters into the tunnel. Like Selkirk, she wore light, flexible honzame body armor that covered her from collar bone to thigh, protecting the vital organs. She was short and muscular, with a braided mane and blue glowing circles under her small, pale eyes. A light sea women with just a drop or two of dark sea blood.
"Who goes there?" she clicked.
Selkirk showed her his armband. "Captain Selkirk Sandros, reporting for duty."
"The new instructor? Follow me. And watch out for the walls. Some of them are scorching hot."
He grimaced. "Yes, I know."
Once an obsidian mine, the underwater compound had walls as smooth as glass and narrow, easily defended tunnels. The guard propelled herself forward by crawling and kicking, and Selkirk followed.
"Here you are. The director's office."
The narrow tunnel lead to an illuminated chamber. Crystalline clusters of the luminous compound known officially as L74 and unofficially as glowlight were fixed to the shiny black walls. L74 was highly prized, because it emitted light close to the spectrum of sunlight. The chemists guild kept its formula a closely guarded secret. Gold ornaments and armor looted from some ancient ship wreck covered the far wall. The bright metal reflected and amplified the light, making the director's office seem almost sunny.
Besides being the only daughter of a wealthy antique collector and rich as sin in her own right, Commodore Emong Nami was exceptionally attractive. A pure blood child of the light sea, like most military commanders above the rank of captain, she had a slight build, prominent bones and small, blue eyes. Her deep brown skin had a silvery sheen, and her mane was pure azure, touched with gold at the tips. The only military thing about her was her uniform.
Looks could be deceiving. Selkirk had known the commodore for close to ten years. Armed with a pair of whalebone knives, she could gut a man twice her size before he knew what was happening to him. Her sunny face wore the same cheerful expression whether she was handing a soldier a medal or sending him on a suicide mission. A long time ago, Selkirk had fancied himself in love with her. For two months, they were engaged to be married. The decision to separate was a mutual one, and they had maintained friendly relations ever since. However, Selkirk knew better than to trust her. Emong Nami was a political creature before all else. High command was grooming her for a top position within the ARC military, and any one or thing that got in her way would be cut down like kelp trees in the path of the tsunami for which she was named.
"Captain Selkirk Sandros reporting for duty, sir."
"Cut the formal crap." Emong had always been a fast swimmer. One moment, she was on the far side of the room, and the next, she was beside him, her arms wrapped around his waist, her mouth glued to his. "How've you been, Sel?"
She held him at arm's length and examined him. "Still having nightmares?"
"Yeah." He had forgotten how beautiful she was. The scent of her, the swell of her breasts against his chest and her hips beneath his hands -- it was almost enough to make him forget the horrors of war. Almost.
"You're too soft. For the military, I mean." She took the sting out her words with another long, deep kiss. "Being a teacher suits you better."
"So my therapist says. That's why I'm here."
Her small, blue eyes were like those of a predatory bird contemplating its next meal "I thought you came to see me."
Being Commodore had its privileges. Emong could unbutton her uniform and wrap her legs around the new instructor's waist without fear of being disturbed. Making love was too nice a term for what they did. They had been apart for almost a year, and their rutting was fast and furious, over almost before it began.
Later, over a dish of roe and kelp, Emong told him about his assignment. "Make no mistake, these aren't students in the ordinary sense. The only reason they're here, in a military school rather than a prisoner of war camp is because of their age. Child soldiers can't be tried for their war crimes. They have to be offered rehabilitation."
Her expression hardened. "No, I don't think you do. You think your dark sea blood will help you win their trust. Well forget it. These kids don't know how to trust. Most of them were kicked out of their pods. Orphans with no family bonds. Or else, their families were slaughtered, and they were forcibly conscripted into the dark sea army where they were turned into cold blooded killing machines. The only way for them to win favor was to be bigger, badder and meaner than the next soldier. No time for love -- your companion one moment might be your meat shield the next. And, to top it off, after losing their souls and probably their sanity in the service of their country, they were abandoned."
"Why keep them here? The war is over. Why not send them home?"
"Believe me, we've tried. The dark sea doesn't want them. 'Unstable', they're called. 'A menace.' And, of course, some of them have mixed ancestry. Where they come from, light sea blood is considered a taint."
Selkirk considered replying that the same was true -- in reverse -- in the supposedly more civilized light sea. However, he had more important things to think about at that moment. Thanks to the psionic gifts which he had inherited from his father, Selkirk could almost always tell when he was being lied to, and the commodore was lying to him now. But lying about what? He could have read her mind, but using telepathy on a superior officer without permission was a court martial offense. So instead, he watched her face closely, looking for clues. "I have no teaching experience. Why did the military hire me, an amateur?"
"Because the last two 'professional' teachers didn't last long. The first died from a crushed chest. The other is in the psycho ward. Catatonic."
Selkirk's expression did not change. He was afraid of many things but not of dying. "In other words, they want a teacher who is bigger, badder and meaner than these students?"
Next morning, Selkirk met his students.
They were ushered into the brightly illuminated conference room, one by one. An armed guard hovered in the doorway. First came Maremoto, a typical bathyl sea dweller, big and muscular with rust red coloration that would make her almost invisible in blue biolight. Only her small, light colored eyes and close cropped pink coral mane hinted at her mixed heritage. According to her file, she was kicked out of her pod at the age of six after she maimed another child who had made fun of her tiny eyes. At nine, she volunteered to join the dark sea army, and she was put on the front line, where she soon distinguished herself as a skilled -- and ruthless -- hand to hand fighter. The average life expectancy of dark sea child combatants was about nine months. She survived five years, before being captured in one of the final skirmishes of the war. She was fourteen now, bigger than most light sea men and much, much stronger.
Selkirk introduced himself.
"Go fuck yourself," she said. When this did not elicit a response, she switched to hand signs. "Do you know how many people I've killed?"
He resisted the urge to reply Fewer than me.. "Tell me."
And so, she described each of her kills in gruesome detail, starting with the first. "A kid named Pearl called me 'Squint-eye.' I clawed out her eyes and shoved them down her throat, then I -- "
Next came Jorges. "Call me Ghost."
Most bathyl humans were red or black. Ghost's skin was clear, almost translucent as were his muscles, nervous tissue and cartilage. Like a shark, he had no bones other than his teeth. His body was hairless. He wore no uniform, and his heart, liver, kidneys and intestines were clearly visible. He had no lungs, no genitals -- not in the usual sense of the word. If and when he decided to reproduce, he would do it asexually, through budding, like a coral. Cut off his arm or leg and he would regenerate it, like a starfish. Of all the genetically modified humans who lived in dark sea, his kind were the most perfectly adapted. However, in exchange for their extreme specialization, they had lost the ability to survive out of water.
Some light sea scientists claimed that glass humans were not human at all. And maybe they were correct. However, they could do most of the things that humans did -- including murder. Jorges -- Ghost -- was six when he was forcibly conscripted into the dark sea army.
"How did you get your nickname?" Selkirk asked.
Ghost rolled his eyes. "How do you think? 'Spook', 'Whitey', 'Jellyfish', 'Ghost.' I got called all those names. Of them, 'Ghost' sounded the best."
"Really? I thought it might have something to do with the work you did for the dark sea military. 'Ghost' is a euphemism for 'assassin' in ARC."
The boy chuckled. "Same in dark sea. My specialty is psi-ops. Fill the target with despair, make him do something stupid like cut his own throat or attack his own squadron. What's your specialty, Teach?"
Selkirk pretended not to understand him. "I did my thesis on the history of war."
"Then you've come to the right place, because I am the history of war."
Abruptly, the classroom vanished. Selkirk was standing on the bottom of the abyss. The seabed was barren. Not a living thing in sight. Above, only darkness which all the biolight in the world could never penetrate. He knew without understanding how he knew that he was the last person on earth, the last of his kind. He imagined how his blood would look as it flowed from his jugular vein, a black plume in the cold, blue dying light --
Selkirk was expecting the attack, so he was not completely unprepared. He shook off the illusion. "You're very good. Have you thought about joining the ARC military? You wouldn't have to be an assassin. Someone with psi skills like yours would make a good therapist.
"But I like killing," Ghost protested. "It's what I'm good at." His eyes narrowed. "You're good at it, too."
There was no point in lying. "But unlike you, I don't like doing it."
"You sure about that?"
Umi was a child of the goddess La Sirene. A mermaid with a pair of fused flippers instead of legs, she could swim three times as fast as ordinary humans, but out of the water she would be as helpless as a beached whale. Like Ghost, she shunned clothing, and every detail of her body was clearly visible in the bright glowlight. Long blue-green hair floated behind her like a cloud of sea weed. Her skin was a slightly paler shade of aqua, freckled all over with tiny blue lights. Selkirk tried hard to avoid looking at the dark blue mossy hair that formed a triangle below her navel. While most humans used camouflage or protective coloring to hide themselves, the mermaids used an altogether different strategy. They secreted pheromones designed to charm their enemies.
"Are you married?" she asked.
"I don't -- "
"Do you have a girlfriend? A boyfriend?"
Her musk was almost overpowering. It was difficult to think clearly. " Do you?"
"Maremoto thinks she's in love with me."
"I want to hear about you, not Maremoto. What do you want to get out of this class? What are your dreams for the future?"
She threw back her head and laughed. She smelled like moonlit water at the first high tide of spring, when the urge to mate became almost unbearable for light sea adolescents --
She is fifteen Selkirk reminded himself. A child. Deliberately, he recalled the horrors of war, and soon he was able to think clearly again. "How did you come to join the dark sea military? I thought mermaids were pacifists."
For just a moment, a hint of real emotion -- sorrow -- showed behind her large, dark eyes. Mentally, she was unguarded, and Selkirk caught a glimpse of her home, a mermaid settlement built among the ruins of a submerged terrestrial city. The buildings were almost completely covered by coral and algae, except for one small square black marble structure -- a temple of La Sirene. Mermaids dressed only in their long blue-green hair tended the goddess's shrine. A statue carved from jade watched over them. The goddess' eyes were wide and serene, and her lips formed a gentle smile as if to say I love every one of you, no matter what your sins.
People from both light and dark sea went to the mermaids when they were troubled. For a token offering, they were allowed to confess their crimes and given absolution. Like the sea itself, La Sirene accepted everything and rejected nothing.
Into this Eden came a band of pirates. They killed the adults and took the children to sell into slavery. Because of the war, fighters were in greater demand than prostitutes, and so the kidnappers ended up selling their merchandise to the dark sea army. Umi was given a choice. Become a camp follower—a whore -- or become a killer. She chose the latter.
Years of military training kept Selkirk's face expressionless, but his thoughts were in turmoil. Humans left dry land and returned to the sea in order to escape from their long history of violence -- violence directed at the earth and violence directed at each other. Using long lost technology, they had created their own successors, children endowed with the special abilities that they would need to survive in the different regions of the ocean. The Exodus from land to sea occurred a thousand years ago. How was it that the death taint that came from living on dry land -- deadland, the realm of the Baron, Lord of the Dead -- still clung to them?
Unexpectedly, Umi leaned forward. Mouthing the words so that the guard would not overhear, she said "I'm very strong you know. I can crush a man's chest with my arms. And then I suck out his eyes. You'd like that, wouldn't you? I know I would. Imagine how your eyeballs will feel sliding down my throat." She closed her eyes and licked her lips. "Lovely."
The last pupil assigned to him was Kilydd, a young shadow hunter from the deepest part of the bathyl sea, at the very edge of the abyss. Every bit of him was black, from his smooth, almost featureless face to his wide, round eyes to his sharp gleaming teeth to his long, muscular barbed tail. He had no mane -- the human residents of the deepest oceans were hairless. Selkirk knew without looking that there was webbing between the boy's toes. Similar webbing between the fingers was usually removed at birth in order to improve manual dexterity. When he swam, he kept his arms and legs close to his sides and used his powerful tail to propel himself forward. If he and Umi were to race, the mermaid would win, but not by much.
Shadow hunters had one other dark sea adaptation, one that only two other bathyl species possessed -- crimson biolights. The red denizens of the dark sea, which were invisible by ordinary blue light would be clear to him, while they would see him only as a small patch of red light -- not threat at all. If he stayed very still and waited for them to swim past, they would not even suspect that he was there until his powerful hands closed around their throats, crushing their gills and suffocating them.
At fifteen, he was already a head taller than Selkirk, and he would continue growing for at least fifteen more years. By the time he was twenty-five, his soft, deep sea adapted skeleton would be too weak to support his bulk out of water. Gradually, his lungs would atrophy, and he would become completely dependent upon his gills for respiration.
Selkirk's father must have looked a lot like Kilydd. He tried to imagine what had attracted his light sea mother to the huge, dark alien creature who had been her patient. Was it the large eyes that made his face seem strangely childlike and innocent?
"One of your parents was a shadow hunter," Kilydd said, his dark gaze fixed upon Selkirk's face.
Lucky guess. Unless... "You're a telepath?" Telepathy and telekinesis, both rare among light sea humans, were relatively common in the dark sea, especially among the shadow hunters. In the cold, low oxygen environment of the bathyl, where human metabolism slowed, psionic powers could mean the difference between survival and becoming a sperm whale's lunch. Light sea scientists were divided over the question of how the terrestrials bio-engineered humans with telepathy rivaling that of the giant squids and krakens. Some claimed that they had discovered suppressed material in the human genome, a remnant of some distant era when psi powers were key to the species' survival, before individuality and the creative spirit it fostered became more important than the ability to think and act as a group. Others speculated that kraken genes had been inserted into some of the aquatic humans. The latter theory was popular with those who claimed that dark sea denizens were not entirely human.
"I can smell my own kind. Why are you here?"
"Fishshit. You're a killer, like me. Did they send you to get rid of us? If you hurt any of my friends I'll hunt you down and gut you. That's a promise." His smooth dark face wrinkled in a scowl. "What are you smiling for? I mean it!"
"I know you do. That's why I'm smiling."
"Yes, and yes."
Kilydd's threat got the attention of the guard, a middle aged man missing a leg. He swam over to Selkirk's side. "You need anything, Captain?" he asked, glaring at the young shadow hunter.
"No, Adad. We're doing fine."
Adad grunted. "Let me know if he tries anything. He's a real killer, that one." He returned to his post beside the doorway.
There was a question Selkirk had to ask. Of the four students, Kilydd seemed the one most likely to give an honest answer. "The teachers before me --?"
The shadow hunter's expression did not change. "Yeah, we did that."
Kilydd shrugged his shoulder and looked away.
"You asked if I was sent here 'to get rid' of you. Did the other teachers try to get rid of you?" When that did not elicit a response, Selkirk added "I hear there used to be six students in this class. What happened to the other two?"
Kilydd snarled, baring his teeth. They gleamed in the bright light like rows of black pearls. "Don't they keep records around here?"
"I don't want the official report. I want the truth."
The blood showed behind the young shadow hunter's eyes, red now in the warm water that surrounded the volcano. If he returned to the cold water of the deep, his blood would quickly switch to blue as iron containing hemoglobin was replaced by copper.
"They didn't tell you anything, did they?" Kilydd snarled. "Someone must think you're a real hot shot killer, strong enough to take on all four of us at once. Either that, or they want you dead. Which do you think it is?"
Definitely telepathic. Selkirk could feel the boy's thoughts trying to unravel his. Deliberately, he concentrated on the time he brushed up against a jelly fish, the way the pain shot up his leg. And then the relief almost like euphoria when his mother applied the anti-toxin to his skin and the pain faded, leaving behind the endorphin rush.
His mental defenses were perfect. So why did the young shadow hunter's eyes widen? Why did he bare his sharp black teeth --?
Selkirk had only a half second warning before the psi blast hit, but that half second was enough to save his life. He threw up his defenses. He braced himself against the storm. It struck like a tidal wave and left him stunned, drained, with the taste of iron in his mouth. He reached up and wiped his nose with the back of his hand. Blood. Just a trickle and the bleeding stopped almost at once, but if this had been dark sea, it would have been enough to attract sharks and other predators.
Selkirk's throat was too tight for him to speak. "Why? Why did you do that?" His hands fumbled the words. He felt as if he had been taken apart, joint by joint and then strung back together using sea urchin spines.
"You're a bloody murderer. You deserve it."
How? How did he know? Selkirk had been careful to keep that far from his thoughts, buried beneath so many layers of trivia that the boy would never find it. So, how did he know about Chatterton Reef?
"The guard, you idiot," Kilydd said impatiently. "He knows all about Captain Selkirk Sandros. Hero Captain Selkirk Sandros. And he can't hide his thoughts for shit."
The guard! Psi attacks of that magnitude could not be focused. Anyone within a certain radius -- usually fifteen to thirty feet -- would feel the shock. Selkirk swam to the guard's side. At first glance, he appeared unharmed. However, when Selkirk waved a hand before Adad's eyes, he did not respond. A shake of the shoulder got the same result. He checked his pulse. Slow and regular. And his gills were still unfurled. But there was always the possibility of brain damage. They would not know for certain until the initial shock wore off --
Selkirk's dark sea blood was boiling. Over the years, his temper had gotten him into plenty of trouble, and he had rarely faced provocation like this. Before the war, he would not have allowed such a crime to go unpunished. Before the war...
Before the war, he had believed that violence could solve things. Before the war, he had been taught that all problems could be dealt with if you only knew who or what to kill.
He swallowed his anger. His fists unclenched. He opened his mind. He opened it completely, in a way that he had never done before, not even with his therapist. He opened his mind and allowed himself to remember Chatterton Reef.
He was tracking a band of dark sea guerilla fighters. For almost two moons, they had terrorized the tiny, isolated light sea communities outside ARC, leaving a path of death and destruction in their wake. Their most recent target was a shrimp farm, where even the children were murdered, their bellies slashed open, their intestines left swaying in the water like fronds of ruby red sea kelp.
Selkirk had tracked the killers over miles of open ocean, swimming against the currents to hide his smell. Finally, he discovered the dark sea warriors hiding in the caves beneath Chatterton Reef. One of the ghost reefs, where no animal larger than krill could survive, it was a barren, beautiful wasteland of brightly colored coral growing atop a massive ruined tower. From time to time, humans attempted to settle the reef. Invariably, their children were stillborn and the adults sickened and died. This led the priests of Agwe to conclude that the windowless tower was sacred to the Lord of the Dead, perhaps even a mausoleum. The place was considered taboo by light sea dwellers.
The ghost reef was the perfect hideout for a roving band of guerillas. Since it was daytime, most of them were drowsy or asleep. After dispatching the sentries, a pair of trained hammerhead sharks, Selkirk approached the caves. He advanced with the gentle forward flow of the waves and paused each time the water ebbed, so that no one would detect a change in the current. His biolights were extinguished. Sunlight through the pale aquamarine water provided all the illumination he needed. His scent was unlikely to give him away. He smelled like his dark sea father. If the guerillas noticed, they would assume that he was one of their own. The hardest trick was masking his anger. If his killing intent was detected, his prey might fight back or -- worse yet-- flee, and so he stilled his mind, until his thoughts became the water lapping gently over the sleeping soldiers. One, two, three...fourteen, fifteen.
It was as easy to kill fifteen as one with a psi blast. Concentrate on the rage center of his brain, a few millimeters behind his right eye. Clear a path through his mind -- for Selkirk, the image of swimming down a dark tunnel was always effective when he wanted to focus his thoughts. There, just a few meters up ahead. A narrow chink in the rock through which light could be glimpsed. Pull back and then slam his head forward, smashing the wall. The chink became a fracture. Light—almost blinding -- poured in and then was lost.
All fifteen minds were quiet now. Dead, mostly likely, but he could not afford to assume anything, so he swam forward and turned over the nearest body and almost died himself from shock when he saw the face, the so very young face of a child staring up at him sightlessly. In a panic, he darted from corpse to corpse, stirring up a cloud of sand. Children, all of them, mixed breed children armed with knives and spears. The guerillas had left no survivors so no one suspected that they were child soldiers. Selkirk relived the shock, the grief, and Kilydd, a telepath relived it with him --
"You son of a bitch," Kilydd swore. "I don't want to see this." Despite his size, his huge, dark eyes made him seem very young, and for a moment Selkirk almost regretted what he had just done. Almost.
"And Adad didn't want to get caught in the middle of a psi battle. Next time you feel the need to fight, let me know, and I'll reserve one of the sparring room. Now help me get this man to the infirmary."
For their first lesson, Selkirk chose a classic military text, Sun Tzu's The Art of War.
Their classroom was really just an oversized closet. Located on the lowest floor of the compound, it had no artificial lights, no furniture, no plants. Selkirk chose the room, because its size gave him an excuse to dismiss the guards, who were stationed at the other end of a long, narrow tunnel, well out of range of any psionic attacks should he and Kilydd end up sparring again.
His students watched him warily. By now, they had heard about what had happened that morning, and they were wondering why Kilydd was still among them and not locked away in an isolation cell.
" 'All warfare is based upon deception,'" Selkirk recited from memory. Books had to be hand engraved, and therefore they were much too fragile -- and expensive -- to be used in an undergraduate classroom, particularly with students as unruly as his. "Can anyone tell me what that means? Ghost?"
In the dim blue biolight, the glass boy's internal organs looked black. He would be all but invisible in the bathyl. "Never tell the truth if you can tell a lie instead."
Umi objected. "If you tell too many lies, you'll forget what you've said and give yourself away. It's better to tell the truth whenever you can." In the near darkness, the biolights scattered across her body looked like stars in the night sky. Her scent filled the tiny room, a soothing fragrance designed to ease the tension.
"Good point. Maremoto?"
"Fuck you." She uttered the words without any real feeling. Her arm was around the mermaid's waist. With her free hand, she toyed with Umi's long, blue hair.
The young shadow hunter's expression was stony. "This is a waste of time. We already know how to fight. Tell us something we don't know."
"Like how to get out of this fishshit academy."
Selkirk recalled another line from Sun Tsu If your opponent is of choleric temper, seek to irritate him. He counted to ten. Then, smiling, he asked "If you left this place, where would you go? Do you even have a home to return to?"
It was a cheap shot. Kilydd's sneer said as much.
"'The Commander stands for the virtues of wisdom, sincerity, benevolence, courage and strictness,'" Selkirk quoted. "Which virtue is most important in a commander and why?"
"Wisdom," said Ghost.
"Benevolence," Umi replied almost simultaneously. "If your leader doesn't want what's best for you, then you can't trust him."
The glass boy objected. "All the good intentions in the ocean don't matter if he acts like a dumb ass and gets you killed."
"You're both wrong," Maremoto said. "Courage is most important. The commander leads by example. If he acts scared, then his soldiers will be timid, too. A fierce army needs a fierce leader"
Her companions seemed almost as surprised as Selkirk to hear her speak. He had assumed that Maremoto would be the most difficult of his pupils to reach. Apparently, she loved warfare more than she hated him.
He beamed at her. "Very good. Very good, all of you. Those are all excellent answers. Kilydd, would you like to make the case for sincerity or strictness?"
The shadow hunter folded his arms across his chest and pointedly stared at the ceiling.
Selkirk's expression was serene. "No? How about this one? 'He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight.' Kilydd? Anyone?"
"Don't get into a battle you know you can't win," Maremoto said.
"Wait until the right time to strike." This from Ghost.
"Some battles can't be won by fighting. Sometimes you have to try other tactics. Like making the enemy fall in love with you." Umi batted her eyes at Selkirk.
"Again, you all make good points. And I think we have just proved another of Sun Tzu's tenets. 'Just as water retains no constant shape, so in warfare there are no constant conditions.' A successful military leader uses many different tactics, not just one or two. The art of command is knowing when to advance and when to retreat, when to fight and when to call a truce. Good work. Class is dismissed. No, not you, Kilydd. We need to talk."
Ghost looked at Kilydd. The shadow hunter nodded his head almost imperceptibly. The two communicated telepathically. Selkirk could not make out what was said, but the glass boy seemed reassured. He left the classroom, followed by the mermaid. Maremoto went last.
"If you hurt Kilydd, I'll kill you," she snarled.
Selkirk waited until they were out of earshot. "You have good friends."
"We watch each other's backs." Kilydd eyed him warily. With Umi gone, the room was much darker, and he was little more than a shadow. Even his aura was suppressed. He was being careful to give nothing away.
Deliberately, Selkirk opened his mind to show that he had nothing to hide. "More than that. They look up to you."
Restlessly, the shadow hunter propelled himself up to the ceiling and then back down to the center of the classroom, where Selkirk floated, as calm and unmoving as a statue carved in stone. "Why did you take the blame for what happened this morning?" Kilydd asked. "I almost killed that guard."
"We were sparring. Adad got caught in the crossfire. Since I'm the instructor, it was my responsibility to make sure that no innocent bystanders were hurt. That's what I put in my report. Adad's fine. The doctor says it's just a concussion. He'll be back on duty in a week."
"Like I care."
"But you do care. That's what I can't figure out. You act like you don't give a damn, but you do."
The shadow hunter's tail began to twitch, and his crimson biolights flared. In dark sea, it would have been a challenge to duel. Deliberately, Selkirk dropped his gaze. He felt rather than saw Kilydd relax.
"You had your chance to kill me this morning," the boy said. " After what I did to the guard, you could have done it and called it self-defense. Why didn't you?"
Despite the heat from the volcanic gases that rose through the citadel's walls, Selkirk suddenly felt very cold. "Did the other teachers try to hurt you?"
"They were fucking assassins, yeah. Two of my friends died protecting me. I just naturally assumed you were another killer sent by ARC to ghost me."
The shadow hunter was telling the truth. Or at least, he believed that what he was saying was true. "Why? Why would ARC want you dead?"
"You really don't know? What did they tell you when they gave you this job?"
"I was hired to teach a group of refugees. Child soldiers that the dark sea no longer wants. They said my mixed blood would give me something in common with you. However, your blood's pure. There's no way dark sea would abandon you. And Ghost and Umi -- they're valuable military assets."
Unexpectedly, Kilydd grinned, baring sharp, black teeth. "Don't forget Mare. She's got hidden talents."
"Hidden talents? Like what?"
"Ask her yourself."
"At least tell me why ARC is keeping you here. Are you a hostage? Are they trying to recruit you? Do they want you to spy for them?"
The shadow hunter shook his head. "You really don't know, do you? What's the most valuable commodity in the ARC. Hint, we are sitting right beneath it."
"Glass? This is about glass?"
"Indirectly, yeah. This volcano is dying. It's got maybe one good eruption left, and after that happens, its fires will burn out. The glassmaker guild is going to need a new energy source. What are they gonna use?"
"Trees from where? Besides this island, there's no dry land for hundreds of miles."
"They could dry kelp."
Kilydd threw back his head and laughed. "I'm from dark sea, and even I know that kelp doesn't burn hot enough to melt sand. The guild needs something that will burn hot."
"I give up."
Kilydd glanced over his shoulder. The doorway was empty. "Black oil,"
Selkirk's eyes widened. "Black death --!"
"Shhhh! There's black oil in dark sea. The well was capped off a millennium ago, but the oil's still there, waiting to be released. All ARC has to do is scrape away some barnacles and then open the valves."
"You're wrong! You must be! "
"I wish I was. It's my uncle. He became regent when my father died. Then, he married my mother." Kilydd scowled. "Since then, he's been king in all but name. It was his idea to offer ARC black oil, in exchange for certain...concessions during the truce negotiations. ARC is keeping me here, because they know if I go back home, I'll put a stop -- "
He would have said more, but at that moment, the Commodore's secretary, Aegir appeared. He was a young man, with sun tanned skin and a blue mane, big and muscular the way that Emong liked her lovers. Had he overheard their conversation? His face registered only boredom.
"Captain Sandros." He saluted. "The Commodore says if classes are over for the day, she wants to see you in her office."
Later, Selkirk mouthed to Kilydd. He did not wait for an answer.
Emong was livid "What possessed you to spar with a student in a place like that? Adad could have died! Do you have any idea what kind of stink that would've caused? You're supposed to be civilizing those kids, not teaching them how to fight."
Selkirk was too preoccupied to do more than nod his head. If Kilydd was correct -- and the boy was telling the truth, at least as he knew it -- then she must be disappointed that he had not killed the shadow hunter. Just how much did she know? Her mind was wide open. As a pure blood child of light sea, she had no psionic defenses at all.
What he was about to do was forbidden. If anyone in ARC military found out, his career would be over. Before Chatterton Reef, the threat of court martial would have been enough to deter him. Now, he knew that there were some things more important than medals and promotions.
"I'm sorry," he said contritely. "I allowed myself to be provoked. A teacher should never fight with a student, except in sparring practice. It won't happen again."
Emong's face betrayed nothing, but her thoughts were a different matter. He sensed impatience, frustration, worry that she had gone too far. She chose her next words carefully. "I'm not telling you not to defend yourself. Agwe knows those kids are dangerous. They've killed one teacher and destroyed another. Do whatever you have to do to keep yourself safe." Do your job, soldier she seemed to be telling him with her small fierce blue eyes. Just try to keep the collateral damage to a minimum.
Selkirk felt sick to his stomach. He could not believe that this was the same woman he had once loved. The war had changed her, as it had changed so many things -- including himself.
When he was a boy, isolated from the other children because of the dark sea "taint" in his blood, ARC's military had welcomed him. The characteristics that made him freakish in the eyes of civilians were powerful assets for a soldier, especially one who might be called upon to fight in the cold, dark waters of the bathyl. His teachers at the academy had lavished praise upon him, and in return, he had become fiercely loyal to the army --
But there were some things even the most loyal soldier could not do.
The ARC military academy had a fine collection of books on ancient history. Selkirk spent the rest of the evening in the library, researching black oil, more commonly known in light sea asblack death.
Three centuries before the Exodus to the ocean, land dwelling humans discovered black oil. It obsessed them, the way that gold had obsessed their forebears. They went to war for it. They stabbed their allies in the back for it. Eventually, they destroyed the earth -- and almost destroyed the oceans, too. As the seas rose, their homes vanished. In a last ditch effort to save their own kind, they reshaped themselves as aquatic creatures and returned to the sea, where all life began. And the sea, in her infinite mercy, accepted her repentant children and allowed them to prosper.
Selkirk tried to imagine the world as it was back then. Thanks to the power of black oil, humans flew like birds. They even sailed to the stars. They built huge cities, the ruins of which could still be found in shallow water. Terrestrial man was inventive. He used the black oil to fashion clothes, medicines and finally machines that could create life -- and destroy it. A whole island evaporated in a cloud of smoke. A million people turned to ash and cinder. It was the era of the Baron, Lord of the Dead. Humans could not kill each other fast enough. They prayed for the end of the world --
And then Agwe, Lord of the Sea said Enough, and He swept away the Baron's unholy empire.
Selkirk found other, even more disturbing accounts of the terrestrial era. People dug wells in the oceans, ignoring the fact that storms, waves and earthquakes made the sea bed unstable. The wells sprang leaks. Black death poured into the ocean, tainting the water, killing fish, birds and corals. Dead and dying animals washed up upon the shores. People wept for them. But that did not stop them from digging more deep sea wells.
He wondered what the civilians of ARC would say when they discovered that their military was conspiring with the glassmakers to reopen those old wounds. Would they call it an affront to Agwe? Or would they cheer the prospect of cheaper glass?
He would have to tender his resignation first. And resign his commission. Emong would want to know why. He would tell her that he was still having nightmares. It was the truth. He almost looked forward to becoming a civilian again. He could do volunteer work at the hospital his mother had founded. Maybe take up gardening or breed jellyfish.
First, he would have to tell Kilydd. The boy would be relieved to know that someone was trying to help him. And of course, once word got out that ARC was holding a dark sea prince captive, the assassination attempts would stop...
The librarian interrupted him. "Sir, there's someone here to see you. A young person."
Selkirk laid down the tablet he had been reading and swam into the study hall. At this hour of night, the room was deserted and dark.
"Who's there --?" He felt rather than saw Ghost approach. "What are you doing here? Where's your guard?"
The glass boy smirked. "The guards are for Mare and Kilydd. Umi and I -- we're no threats. They let us go pretty much anywhere we want."
In fact, Ghost and Umi were the most dangerous of the four students. With her ability to charm and his psionic powers, they could do almost anything -- like convince the guards that they were harmless. "What do you want?"
Be quiet and let me do the talking. Ghost moved neither his lips nor his hands. The words simply appeared in Selkirk's mind. You're about to do something very stupid. It won't work out the way you think it will.
Hush! Mare's a precog. Whatever it is you're thinking about doing don't! Aloud, he said "I was wondering if I could read that book you were quoting in class today."
" 'The Art of War'? Certainly, I'll have the librarian pull it for you." Maremoto a precog? Did ARC military know? Probably not or they would have included the information in his briefing.
Ghost repeated his warning. Do nothing. Got it? We've already got a plan. Anything you do will just jeopardize it. We can talk more tomorrow in class.
It took hours for Selkirk to get to sleep that night, and when he did, he dreamed about Chatterton Reef. This time, the dead children had the faces of his pupils, Ghost, Mare, Umi and Kilydd. He tried to revive them, but their bodies kept falling apart. He was chasing after the glass boy's severed head when he woke.
It was still several hours before dawn. He decided to go for a swim in the open ocean. The water was dark. The only things stirring at this hour were a few nocturnal predators, mostly eels and octopi, and, of course, the dolphin guards. He greeted them, and then he began to swim, using sonar to navigate. It took him two hours to complete a lap around the island. Halfway through his journey, an earthquake caused the water to shake. It was a mild tremor, common enough in this part of the ocean. When he returned to the academy, he discovered that the teachers and students had slept through the quake. He had breakfast in the mess hall, then he swam down to the basement classroom, where his students were waiting for him.
Someone else was there, too, the Commodore's secretary, Aegir. He wore civilian clothes, but he held himself like a military man. "Commander's orders, sir. She wants an independent observer present at all times when you are teaching." Noting Selkirk's scowl, he added "It's for your own protection, sir. In case anyone tries to claim that the pris -- the children have been mistreated."
Selkirk could think of a lot of things he wanted to say, staring with Get the hell out of my classroom. However, the secretary's presence meant that Emong was suspicious. Maybe she had heard about Ghost's visit to the library. So, he settled for grumbling "We're going to need a bigger classroom."
If the Commodore's secretary had worn a sign proclaiming himself to be an ARC spy, he could not have been any more obvious. Maremoto and Kilydd were particularly tense and quiet. Umi smiled and flirted with him, which made Mare even more furious. Ghost teased him by projecting a series of salacious -- and sometimes obscene -- images involving the Commodore, which soon had the young man blushing. But he remained at his post.
Selkirk began the lesson where he had left off yesterday, with Sun Tzu. " 'If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles'" he quoted. "Would anyone care to elaborate?"
The glass boy's hand shot up. "Too easy. It means knowing your own strengths and weaknesses and the strengths and weaknesses of your opponent. For instance..." He gave Aegir a sly, sidelong glance. "This guy looks pretty harmless. But if you knew that he was a telepath, you'd be a lot more cautious around him."
Clever boy. "Too easy, huh? How about this one. 'The onrush of a conquering force is like the bursting of pent-up waters into a chasm a thousand fathoms deep.'"
Promptly, Ghost replied "If you aim to win, you mustn't give the enemy any opportunity to defend."
"You mean attack quickly?"
"Not necessarily. It could also mean back him into a hole. Make him believe that he's out of options. Basically, if you can convince the other guy that he's going to lose the battle, then you've already won, even before you make your first move -- "
Maremoto, who had been staring fixedly at Aegir's face, suddenly jumped as if she had been stung. She grabbed at the wall. Her eyes had a glazed, unfocused look that was at odds with her usual demeanor. Umi slipped her arm around her waist and murmured something reassuring in her ear.
Without missing a beat, Ghost continued. " Thanks for having the librarian pull the book for me last night. I was especially struck by part ten, the section on terrain. One line in particular. 'If you know Heaven and know Earth, you may make your victory complete.' He emphasized the word "earth" very slightly.
A moment later, the walls of the citadel began to shiver. Another mild earthquake, the second that day. The spy, Aegir was so delighted by the discovery that he had just made -- Maremoto could predict earthquakes -- that he failed to notice the look which Selkirk and Ghost exchanged.
Soon, the glass boy mouthed.
"Soon" came that night.
During supper, there was a third minor tremor. The staff and students who were gathered in the mess hall laughed about it. Food was thrown. The head cook, a serious looking woman with thick forearms and a perpetual scowl, soon put a stop to that.
After supper, Selkirk swam to the library again, hoping that Ghost would join him. Instead, he was interrupted by a guard whose name he had trouble remembering, though they had served together on the dark sea front for almost half a year. Atkonartok, that was it, Atkon for short. He was a small, round man with tiny, slanted black eyes in a full moon face. Good at dice, not so good in battle.
"Captain Selkirk! Sir! It's the prisoners. They're fighting. It's pretty bad. I think that red girl may be dead. The Commodore said to call you."
Maremoto dead? Had ARC sent a second assassin? Swimming at full speed, Selkirk hurried down the narrow, winding corridors that lead to the lowest level of the academy, where his students were housed. Long before he reached them, he smelled blood. Dark sea blood, iron with a hint of copper.
The final corridor dead ended at a heavy steel gate with the letters USS Amelia still barely visible at one corner. Salvage from an ancient ship wreck, like most of the metal objects in the ARC. The door was locked. Atkon's hands fumbled with the key. Selkirk grabbed it from his hands and turned it in the lock. The metal door swung open
The interior of the room was a mess. Plants had been uprooted, tables overturned, statues smashed against the obsidian walls. Ghost and Umi were cowering in the far corner. Maremoto floated in the middle of the room, motionless. The front of her uniform was torn and dark with blood. Kilydd hovered over her, his fists clenched, his face a snarling mask of fury. Again and again, his powerful tail smashed her lifeless body --
No, not lifeless. Her blood was still flowing, and her gills were unfurled. She was wounded but not dead yet, though she soon would be if Kilydd was not stopped.
Selkirk propelled himself forward. A head butt to the solar plexus brought the shadow hunter to his knees. He got his arm around the boy's throat in a choke hold. 'Get Maremoto to the sick bay," he told Atkon. "Ghost and Umi, you go with -- " He cursed as Kilydd's tail whipped his legs, opening a nasty gash on his shin.
Between the three of them, the guard, the glass boy and the mermaid managed to propel Maremoto out of the room and into the corridor. Selkirk waited for ten seconds, and then he relaxed his choke hold. Kilydd slipped out of his arms. The young shadow hunter's gills were working hard, and his red biolights were bright, but there was no malice in his expression.
"You're bleeding." Kilydd swam around the room searching the floor, until he found a strip of fabric -- a honzame headband. "Hold still." His big hands were surprisingly deft and gentle as he tied a bandage over Selkirk's lacerated shin.
"What the hell was that all about? You could have killed her!"
"Don't be ridiculous. It would take more than that to kill Mare. And it worked, didn't it? The door's open."
"So? There are at least six guards between here and freedom. You'll never -- "
"Hush." Kilydd was watching the floor. "Do you feel it? It's coming."
"The volcano. It's getting ready for its last gasp. Maremoto said there would be three small tremors, before the eruption."
"Eruption? We have to warn -- ."
The tremors were much stronger this time. They were followed by a tremendous crash. Selkirk was thrown to the floor, where he barely missed being impaled on a plant stand.
Kilydd grabbed him by the collar and hauled him into the corridor just moments before a huge chunk of the floor exploded upward hitting the ceiling with an impact that sent a cloud of debris their way, including tiny, razor sharp shards of obsidian.
Selkirk did not need the boy's warning. The dark room had suddenly become bright. Red hot lava was beginning to seep through the cracked floor. The magma would soon be followed by superheated water vapor. If they did not get out of there fast, they would be boiled alive.
Though they swam at full speed through the narrow winding corridors, the heat seemed to be gaining upon them. Selkirk knew that he was slowing the shadow hunter down, and he signaled for him to go on ahead. Instead, Kilydd fastened his arm around the captain's waist and used his tail to propel them both forward, just ahead of the steam bubbles. Another corner, and suddenly they were surrounded by cool, fresh ocean water. Where the outer wall of the corridor should have been there was nothing. A section of the southern face of the military compound was gone. That must have been the crash. They were safe. And free. Before them stretched miles of cold, black ocean.
Kilydd did not hesitate. He dove, his powerful tail propelling him down and away at a tremendous speed.
Somewhere overhead, one of the mercenary dolphins clicked a query.
Who goes there?
Selkirk deliberated less than half a second before replying. Captain Selkirk Sandros, ARC Military and Sergeant Atkonartok. We're going to look for survivors.
Understood came the sentry's answer.
Selkirk kicked off from the tunnel's edge and followed the shadow hunter into the bathyl sea.
Chapter 2. Dark Sea
Selkirk was an experienced tracker. He had little trouble following Kilydd's trail, even in the cold, dark water of the upper bathyl. Low temperatures and high pressure made him swim more slowly, of course, but the shadow hunter was similarly handicapped.
Occasionally, he came across a deep sea predator. A diving sperm whale gave him a bad scare. Though the bull was hunting for giant squid, a man would also make a tasty meal. The captain's telepathy saved him. He projected the image of a calf. The whale seemed puzzled by his presence, but it soon lost interest and returned to the hunt, leaving Selkirk to continue his slow, solitary journey across the barren floor of the midnight sea.
No corals grew here, no plankton or kelp. Except for sea urchins and a few other echinoderms, the ocean floor was bare. Down here, living things fed off corpses and detritus.
No surprise then, that Selkirk finally caught up to Kilydd feasting on the remains of a dead whale alongside a brown shark, scores of lamprey eels and innumerable small, albino crabs. The shark was large for its kind, and the captain watched it warily. However, the massive whale was more than enough to satisfy the beast's appetite. It tore off huge hunks of white flesh and gulped them whole. The eels nibbled more daintily, their ribbon-like black bodies slowly undulating.
Kilydd had improvised a bone knife, and he used the jagged blade to cut off a slice of belly meat which he tossed to Selkirk. "Eat up."
"You knew I was following you?"
"Of course." His dark eyes were as wide as a grown man's palms. He appeared so guileless at that moment that Selkirk almost let down his guard. Almost.
Slowly, almost imperceptibly, Kilydd was drawing closer. In a few minutes, he would be near enough to lash his powerful barbed tail at Selkirk. His aura was uncharacteristically calm. He was either completely comfortable in the captain's presence -- or he was a damned good stealth fighter.
Selkirk was careful to keep his own aura cool, too. However, his psionic defenses were up, and he kept one eye on the shadow hunter. "I covered for you. The dolphin mercenaries noticed when you left the academy. I told them you were one of the guards, looking for wounded survivors." If Kilydd was like him, he should be able to tell the difference between a lie and the truth.
The young shadow hunter's expression did not change, but he stopped his slow advance. "If you aren't here to take me back, then what are you doing?"
Trying to make up for Chatterton Reef, he almost said. But Kilydd would reject the notion that he shared anything in common with those young, dead soldiers. They were victims. He was a survivor. They were fodder. He was a man who would one day be a dark sea king.
No, that was unworthy of him. Kilydd was fiercely loyal to his friends. Even his "attack" on Maremoto was an act of kindness. Had she been locked in that cell when the volcano erupted, she would have been vaporized. The same for Ghost and Umi. Kilydd had made sure that they were far away, in the infirmary, when the final quake struck. It was a miracle that he had made it out alive. And then, with freedom right in front of him, he had put his own safety at risk in order to save his enemy.
"I owe you my life," Selkirk said.
Kilydd seemed to accept that. He began to hack at the whale carcass. His stomach was already distended, but in the bathyl you never knew when or what your next meal might be. Selkirk gorged himself, too, stopping only when he felt the last bite of food stick in his throat.
They rested briefly, back to back to conserve body heat, and then they continued their journey. Kilydd had discarded his honzame body armor, and he moved almost effortlessly through the water, thanks to his tail. Selkirk had to work hard to keep up with him.
"You should get rid of the hair," Kilydd told him. "It slows you down."
Cut his mane? That would be like gouging out his eyes. He used the hair which ran from his scalp to the base of his spine to detect minute changes in the current as well as changes in velocity and direction when swimming. And, of course, since his mane floated in the water, he always knew which way was up, even in the midnight sea. He explained this to Kilydd.
The shadow warrior grunted. "Admit it, you're proud of it. You like looking like a frilled shark. My best friend growing up was a frilled shark," he added unexpectedly. "She was brown with a red tail. You remind me of her, a little."
Selkirk supposed that this was progress, of a sort. A few days ago, he was Kilydd's mortal enemy. Now, he was his pet. By the time their journey was over, the two of them would probably be best friends -- assuming that they both survived, which was highly unlikely.
"Do you have a plan?" he asked.
"Yeah, gut my uncle and strangle him with his intestines." Kilydd bared his teeth. "But if you mean have I figured out a way to get my throne back, the answer is 'no.' You're the strategy expert. What do you suggest?"
"For starters, you can't go home alone. It would be too easy for someone to kill you before you get there."
The shadow hunter gave him a look which seemed to say Killing me will be anything but easy. "So you suggest I look for allies?"
"It's too bad you left Ghost behind. He would be a great help."
Kilydd chuckled. "Who says I left him behind?"
"You're heading towards a rendezvous?"
""Supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy's resistance without fighting'. Is there any better way to win a battle without fighting than with telepathy?"
Of course, Kilydd would be familiar with Sun Tzu. As the son of a dark sea king, he had probably studied all the great military strategists. "'Thus, what enables the wise sovereign and the good general to strike and conquer, and achieve things beyond the reach of ordinary men, is foreknowledge,'" Selkirk quoted. "I guess Maremoto's your foreknowledge. What about Umi?"
"'Hold out baits to entice the enemy.'"
"So, what am I? The 'converted spy'? What did Sun Tzu say about them? Ah, I remember. 'It is essential that the converted spy be treated with the utmost liberality.'"
Kilydd snorted. "Don't flatter yourself. You're the emergency food. In case I get hungry and need a quick snack."
They navigated using sonar. For the most part, the sea around them was pitch black, but occasionally, a light would appear in the distance, like a single star in the night sky. Anglerfish, glow eels, lightening rays -- these were just a few of the creatures that hunted with the aid of bioluminescence. A rare rainbow siphonophore with stinging nets almost twenty meters wide created a hypnotic display with its pulsing red and blue biolights. One of the most lovely -- if deadly -- dark sea creatures, it was often cultivated by the human residents of the deep, who called them "roses' after the extinct terrestrial barbed flower so often mentioned in ancient songs and poems.
Now that he was no longer preoccupied with tracking the shadow hunter, Selkirk had plenty of time to think. It was not too late for him to turn around and return to the academy. He could say that he lost Kilydd's trail. Emong would find him another job, teaching ordinary cadets. Maybe he would finally have a chance to write that textbook on military strategy. Eventually, he would marry and have a family --
No. No children. A man who had killed children had no business raising them. Or teaching them. There was only one thing he was good for, and that was fighting. At least if he stayed with Kilydd, he would be fighting for a good cause.
His thoughts turned to strategy. "What if Ghost and the others can't escape? How long do you plan to wait for them?"
Kilydd dismissed the question impatiently. "They're no use to ARC as prisoners. Light sea will let them go, hoping that they'll lead them to me. And even if they don't, there's no way they can keep a telepath, a precog and a siren locked up."
"You're saying you could have escaped at any time? So why didn't you? Why did you wait for the volcano to erupt."
"That was Maremoto's idea. She said there was something we had to do, before we could leave. Someone we had to meet."
"Me?" Selkirk guessed.
"That's right. At first, I thought I was supposed to kill you, for what you did to those kids at the ghost reef."
"But you didn't."
"I couldn't. I tried, but you didn't die. And then -- "
"And then?" Selkirk prompted.
"And then it just didn't seem like the right thing to do."
"So you let me live on a whim?"
Kilydd gave him a dark look which seemed to say Keep bugging me like this, and I may change my mind.
Now Selkirk had even more to think about. Had Agwe set him on his present course? If so, he had no choice but to see this thing through, even if it meant becoming a traitor to his own country. He touched the tattoo on his left bicep and silently thanked Erzulie for giving him this chance to atone for Chatterton Reef.
Since no sunlight penetrated the deep water of the bathyl, day and night were much the same on the ocean's floor. However, many of the animals which dwelled here had biological clocks, and at sunset, they ascended to the surface to feed. Selkirk and Kilydd followed them. To the captain's dark adapted eyes, the moonlight through the water was dazzling. Above him, the world was wavering silver and grey. Below, all was dark. Automatically, his belly, chest and face lightened, while his back turned almost black, the most effective camouflage in the open ocean.
The warm water allowed them to pick up their pace. From time to time, Selkirk poked his head above the surface of the ocean and searched the distance for any sign of pursuit. His biggest worry was the ARC's spinner mercs. However, there was no sign of dolphins. Near dawn, he spotted a clump of uprooted giant kelp bobbing on the waves. They ate their fill from the fish which came there to spawn, then they took turns sleeping in the shadow of the kelp island. When night fell, they resumed their journey, accompanied now by a hammerhead shark which had attached itself to Kilydd.
Not all shadow hunters were shark charmers. Those that possessed the trait were said to be the descendants of a boy called Mano. Orphaned by a typhoon, he was discovered by a whale shark and raised to adulthood without ever encountering another human being. Since no shark -- not even the gentle filter feeding whale sharks -- raised their own pups, the story was probably a myth. Selkirk suspected that shark charming was a telepathic skill. Or maybe an acquired trait, since so many shadow hunters kept sharks as pets, raising the pups along with their own children.
In the next few days, the hammerhead proved to be a valuable companion. Twice, it located bait balls which Selkirk would not have detected. When the two men slept, it kept watch. These were services that dolphins often performed for ocean travelers -- for a price -- and the bottlenose gang which they encountered on the fourth day of their journey objected loudly to the shark muscling in on their operation. Selkirk put a stop to their brawling by projecting a telepathic image of a pod of orcas. As the bottlenoses fled, they wished the travelers a happy death in the jaws of the killer dolphins.
Those were pleasant days. When the sun was up, they rested, and Selkirk slept more soundly than he had since Chatterton Reef. At night, they swam. The exercise helped him work off the flab he had developed during his months of soft living after the war.
Thanks to their shared telepathy, he and Kilydd could communicate effortlessly and with complete candor. They soon stopped trying to disguise their emotions. What was the point of putting on a brave face when you suddenly came up against a giant squid or a great white shark, if your companion knew that you were scared shitless? They shared war stories, reminiscing about near brushes with death, consoling each other over the horrors which they had witnessed. It had been a very long, very bloody war, and though Kilydd had only fought during the last two years of the conflict, in that short time he had experienced more tragedy than most people encountered in a lifetime.
"I joined up to get away from my uncle. It was supposed to be a safe job carrying messages back and forth from the front. But the first platoon I visited suffered a surprise attack right after I arrived. A company of dolphins overran their base. Dolphin attacks were always the worst. They didn't just kill, they ate the corpses. Since they weren't humans, it wasn't considered a war crime."
The dark sea used sharks in much the same way, but there did not seem much point in mentioning that. Selkirk was familiar with the bloodthirsty savagery of light sea's dolphin mercs. To thirteen year old Kilydd, the sight must have been like something out of a nightmare.
"The mercs took out the C.O. in the first wave, so the camp was in an uproar. No one knew who was in charge. I ended up organizing the retreat. And the counter attack, that night. That's where I met Ghost. He was doing recon, but after that he switched to covert ops. Eventually Umi and Mare joined us. Our specialty was disrupting supply lines. If dolphin mercs don't get fed, they desert."
When they were not swapping war stories, Selkirk entertained his young companion with ancient tales from terrestrial earth, and Kilydd recited poetry of all things. The shadow hunter was surprisingly well read for a dark sea denizen. During a brief truce, his father had hired a light sea tutor to drill him in the classics. "On the theory that it's good to know everything the enemy knows. Dad thought Hashtaal would teach me how Alexander the Great overran the Persian Empire. But she did her thesis on End of the Terrestrial Era literature. 'I pass like night, from land to land' -- -that's from a poem about a sailor who angered Agwe by killing a sea bird. As punishment, he was forced to wander the deadlands warning people that their civilization was doomed."
Kilydd was like a different person when he discussed ancient literature. Selkirk did not know whether to smile at his youthful enthusiasm or cry that so much of that youth had been wasted in a bloody, senseless war.
Towards the end of the sixth night, the ocean depth diminished sharply, a sign that they were nearing one the many submerged islands that dotted the Sea of Three. In ancient times, this had been an archipelago, home to sailors and fishermen, which was why Agwe had blessed the place, even before the Exodus. While the rest of the world worshipped gods of fire, thunder and earth, in the Sea of Three the ocean had always been supreme.
Eventually, they reached an ancient harbor where wrecked ships were piled one upon another like corpses in a mass burial. They searched until they found one boat that was more or less intact -- meaning that it still had a hull. The dark recesses of the ship were empty, except for a few squids, eels and lobsters. They found an unoccupied corner and settled down to sleep.
At dusk, they resumed their journey. Kilydd's shark had encountered a herd of hammerheads, and it chose to join them, though not without a wistful backward glance at its human friend. They skirted the submerged fishing village and followed the ocean floor as it sloped downward. Towards dawn, the bathyl grew unusually warm. Though Kilydd said nothing, Selkirk sensed his excitement. They must be nearing their goal.
"There." The young shadow hunter indicated a cluster of underwater steam vents to the south. The grey plumes were too regularly spaced to be natural. This was one of the manmade vent communities created by the ancients in their never ending quest to find new ways to power their machines. Though terrestrial civilization ended almost a thousand years ago, the steam vents kept pumping heated water and minerals up from the ground. The long, slender chimneys were covered with red and white tube worms which thrived on the hot sulfur. Fields of yellow mussels surrounded the vents. The mussels fed cephalopods and crustaceans. The larger animals were hunted by sharks and humans. Such areas were invariably inhabited.
As they neared the steam oasis, a ribbon of red and brown detached itself from the shadows and began swimming their way. A frilled shark. An unusually large frilled shark. Its small, emerald green eyes were fixed on Kilydd. The closer it came, the more excited it got. It closed the last twenty feet in a sudden lunge, wrapping its eel-like tail around the young shadow hunter's legs.
So this was Kilydd's "friend", the one that Selkirk reminded him of. "Does she have a name?"
"Yes. Shark. Shark, this is Selkirk. I know he looks tasty, but you can't eat him, understand?"
Shark began chasing the shadow hunter's tail.
"You never change, do you?" Kilydd gazed affectionately at the frilled shark. Selkirk had never seen him look so happy.
"Is this your home?"
"Better than my home. I was fostered here."
Of course. Dark sea infants were seldom raised by their parents. For one thing, their tiny bodies were too vulnerable to the cold of the deep bathyl. And with all the territorial wars that were fought among the different dark sea clans, "home" was likely to be a battlefield.
So, Kilydd had grown up in a steam vent oasis. Very likely, he had helped his foster parents harvest mussels and crabs. He might even have encountered light sea traders. The lessons in fighting and military strategy would have come later, when he was big enough to return to his parents' home.
It was clear that Kilydd had nothing but happy memories of the place. He swam eagerly towards a cluster of limestone buildings near the southernmost vent. Shark held back, as if reluctant to share him with his foster parents. Or -- -
"Kilydd!" The shadow hunter was too far ahead to hear his name called over the roaring of the vents. Selkirk sent a telepathic message. Anyone looking for you would check this place first.
Kilydd's shoulders tensed, then he surged forward. His aura changed from sunny yellow to storm grey. Had he seen something? Sensed something? Selkirk tapped into his telekinetic power in order to catch up to him. He arrived at the farmhouse just moments after the shadow hunter, his heart racing and his head pounding. What was that charnel house smell? He swam towards the source of the stench. By blue biolight, he saw the white, bloated corpse of a woman impaled upon a whalebone spear. Her eye sockets were empty. The bones of her arms and legs showed in places where fish had chewed through the meat of her limbs. Her belly was hugely distended, and the flesh stretched this way and that as if she was struggling to give birth to a deep sea monster. Something dark poked its head between her ribs. Eels had taken up residence within her, and they were slowly devouring her from the inside out.
No, no, NO! The silent, anguished cry seemed to come from the ocean itself.
Selkirk swam to Kilydd's side. The shadow hunter was wrestling with the corpse of a man which had been similarly impaled. His biolights were bright crimson, and his aura was pitch black.
"Kilydd -- "
Three shadows detached themselves from the limestone farmhouse. Dark sea warriors lying in wait for the prince. Two held tridents. The third carried a net. So they had orders to capture Kilydd. Too bad for them. Had they been told to kill him, their job would already be done. The prince was completely unguarded in his grief. Two psi blasts could have finished him off.
Selkirk did not hold back. He aimed a telekinetically enhanced kick at the closest man's head, crushing the base of his skull. As the trident fell from the assassin's hands, the captain grabbed the weapon and plunged it into the second man's gills, releasing a cloud of blue, copper rich blood into the water. The third assassin, he slowly strangled with his own net, applying just enough pressure to render him unconscious. He could not die, not until he had told them everything he knew.
Kilydd had other ideas. His tail whipped forward. The barb entered the unconscious man's chest and emerged through his mouth. His blood was also blue. They could not have been in these warm waters long. The man and woman on the whalebone stakes had probably been dead for three, maybe four days at most. Had someone at the academy notified dark sea of Kilydd's escape? It looked that way. For the message to arrive so quickly, they must have used dolphin couriers.
Kilydd would blame himself. Selkirk watched him warily, trying to decide on the safest way to disable the young shadow hunter if he went berserk. Both mental and physical attacks had their advantages -- and risks.
Shark sensed its human friend's anguish and rage. It tore a huge hunk of flesh from the belly of the third assassin and spit it out -- fighting not feeding behavior. Again and again, it struck, until the dark sea warrior was in pieces and the sea around them reeked of fresh blood. Soon, scavengers appeared, eels and small sharks.
For Kilydd, the most dangerous moment had passed. He wrapped his arms around Shark and pressed his face against the creature's smooth, brown flank. Its scarlet dorsal fins shimmered in the shadow hunter's red biolights.
Tentatively, Selkirk laid his hand on Kilydd's shoulder. "Are there any other families around here?"
Without looking up, Kilydd pointed towards the northernmost steam vents.
"We should look for survivors."
When he received no answer, Selkirk set off on his own to explore. Shark would alert Kilydd if strangers approached. Now that the first paralyzing moments of grief were over, the young shadow warrior would be glad to have someone to kill.
The captain found two more houses, both recently abandoned, but no corpses. The other residents of the vent community had either fled, or they had been driven away to prevent them from warning Kilydd of the trap.
Selkirk found a black honzame work vest in one of the empty houses along with a pair of finely crafted obsidian knives. He stripped off his light sea military uniform, and with it, he shed his last ties to ARC. Emong had killed Kilydd's foster parents as surely as if she had impaled them herself. Kilydd's uncle could be excused for what he had done. Family feuds were a way of life in the dark sea. But light sea lived by different rules, and the young shadow hunter was supposed to be under the commander's protection.
On the way out of the house, he caught a glimpse of his reflection in a mirror. By blue biolight, his red mane looked black. On impulse, he drew one of the razor sharp knives and sliced cleanly through his hair, leaving a short fringe that ran from his scalp down to the small of his back. Now, he really did look like Shark. Without his mane, he felt curiously light, as if those few ounces of hair had been a huge weight.
Kilydd had rescued the corpses of his foster parents, and now he was arranging the three dead assassins on the whalebone stakes. "I shouldn't have killed that last one," he muttered when he saw Selkirk. "I could have impaled him alive and left him for the eels and sharks."
From the shocked grimaces on the dead men's faces, anyone who stumbled across their corpses would assume that this was exactly what was done to them. Kilydd had even tied their arms and legs together to make it look as if they had been bound before death to prevent them from struggling.
"We can't wait here for Ghost and the others," Selkirk said.
The captain was relieved. He had expected Kilydd to insist that they lie in wait for the soldiers who would be dispatched when this lot failed to return with their prisoner.
"Did you choose a second rendezvous in case --?"
Kilydd gave him a withering looks. Do you think I'm an imbecile? it seemed to say. "Two days southwest of here. A ghost reef. No, not Chatterton," he added in response to Selkirk's expression of horror. His lips twisted into a bitter smile. "I still haven't thanked you properly for sharing that memory with me."
In dark sea, comrades often shared their grief telepathically. Selkirk would have felt less than a man had he refused. He lowered his guard and let the shadow hunter's early childhood memories pour in. For the most part, they were happy. That only made the recent memories more horrendous. By the time Kilydd severed the telepathic link, Selkirk felt as if he had been to hell and back several times.
They swam through the rest of the day and most of the next night. Kilydd was now armed with a dagger, which he wore strapped to his leg. Shark was never more than a few feet away from its human master. When a giant squid got too close, the shark bared its fangs and unfurled its scarlet fins. Its fighting aura was almost palpable. The squid squirted a cloud of luminous ink before fleeing. In the slowly fading blue-white glow, Kilydd resembled a mosaic Selkirk had once seen of Mano, the shark-boy, sleek and black.
At dawn, before they slept, Kilydd thanked Selkirk for saving him.
"Just returning the favor."
"Fishshit. All I did was pull you out of a fire. You killed for me."
"Killing's nothing for a soldier."
Kilydd gave him a look which said I know you better than that.. "You're good at hand to hand. When I'm king, I think I'll make you the captain of my guard."
Impossible to tell if he was joking or serious. Some of both perhaps. They swam into a cave and slept back to back while Shark slowly circled their hiding place. Before Selkirk drifted off, he recalled a story of ancient terrestrial warriors who pair bonded in order to increase their courage on the battlefield. Was the thought his own or Kilydd's?
Was there a difference?
At first glance, the ghost reef seemed like paradise. Its fore reef was home to ten foot tall pale gold pillar corals, massive boulders of aquamarine brain coral and a branching labyrinth of bright pink staghorn coral. Lavender sea fans swayed gracefully. Pastel tinted sea anemones dotted the reefscape. The zooplankton was so thick that in places the water had the consistency of milk. Algae covered every rock, and clumps of sea grass offered shelter. The only thing missing was fish. Ordinarily, a reef this lush would be home to many different types of tangs, butterflies and angelfish. Each anemone would have its own clownfish. Crustaceans -- crabs, lobsters, shrimp -- would be busy gathering food. Sharks would rest upon the ocean floor, waiting for night to fall so that they could resume their hunt.
When a reef this fertile was devoid of higher predators, it was called aghost reef. Such places were usually associated with submerged terrestrial cities. Orange and yellow metal plaques decorated with archaic symbols were often found buried beneath the sand. Occasionally, a sign painted with a skull and crossbones -- one of the veves of the Baron, Lord of the Dead -- was uncovered. From this, it was assumed that the Baron or His followers had cursed these areas, so that Agwe could not claim them.
From time to time, human settlers would try to cleanse the ghost reefs of their unholy taint. But no matter how many prayers were said, their children were invariably stillborn or misshapen. Such colonies rarely lasted more than a few years. And when the settlers left, they took the Baron's curse with them. Sterility, early death -- these were common among those who tried to claim the ghost reefs.
It was a good choice for a backup rendezvous. No one would think to look for a dark sea prince in such a place. Several uneventful days passed as they waited for Ghost and the others to arrive. Kilydd would have preferred more excitement, perhaps. With the death of his foster parents fresh on his mind, he tended to brood whenever there was nothing to occupy his thoughts. Since he had an inquisitive mind, he distracted himself by pestering Selkirk with questions.
"Is it true the moon wasn't always blue?" the shadow hunter asked one night as they floated at the surface of the ocean watching the familiar glowing lapis lazuli orb rise in the sky. One by one, stars appeared forming summer constellations—the Pilot, the Shark, the Colossal Squid.
"So they say."
"'Perfect pearl that rules the sea, guide my lover back to me.' That's from a poem
Hashtaal had me read. Another poet called the moon an "amber hand". And I've seen it compared to a silver mirror and a golden shield. But look at it." He lifted his hand from the water. His arm was as long as Selkirk's leg. There were still traces of the webbing that had once connected his fingers. "Blue and white. Clouds and sea. What happened?"
"Do you want the official version or the scientific explanation?"
The shadow hunter grimaced. "I know what the priests say. The moon was so devoted to the ocean that Agwe gave it an ocean of its own."
"They might be right."
"Yeah and maybe the moon is made of cheese, whatever the hell that is."
"Cheese was a fermented food made from milk," Selkirk told him. "It was calorie rich and nonperishable, so it made a good food source, especially for armies on the move."
Kilydd chuckled. "Is there anything you don't know? So tell me, Scholar Sandros, how did the moon turn blue?"
"It's a long story."
"We're not going anywhere."
Where to begin? "You know that there were two Great Floods?"
"Yeah. The first one happened when all the ice in the world melted."
"The ocean rose a couple of hundred feet. There was still plenty of dryland. But, unfortunately for the terrestrials, most of their big cities were built on the coast. A billion people were left homeless -- "
"A billion people?" Kilydd echoed incredulously. "Deadlanders must have bred like anchovies. I can't even imagine that many people."
"They say that overcrowding was a big problem. Most of the world was covered with ocean even a thousand years ago, before the floods. After the first rise in sea level, the drylanders started looking for new places to colonize. Some of them set their sights on the ocean, and they began to breed people with gills, like you and me. Others went to the moon in order to escape the rising water."
"And that's why the moon is blue?"
"I'm getting there. Back then, the moon was a desert. Since people need water in order to survive, the colonists had to bring it up from the earth in ships, a slow, costly process. Then, someone had an idea. Why not get water from one of the ice comets that circle the sun? They located one that was not too far away, and they sent rocket ships to change its course, so that it would pass close to the moon and earth. Once it was close enough, they fired projectiles at it, hoping to break off a few big chunks of ice that could be hauled back to the moon. But something went wrong -- "
"Did anything ever go right when the deadlanders were involved?" Kilydd interrupted. "Let me guess. Most of the water ended up on earth, and that's how the second Great Flood happened."
"That's right. For months comet fragments bombarded the earth. When the ice melted, it poured into the sea. The sudden rise in sea level caused freak storms. Even inland cities were flooded. Reports from that time describe several years of more or less continuous rain. Without sunshine, plants and trees died. Those who weren't crushed by comets or killed in the floods began to starve. There were mass suicides. Some resorted to cannibalism. Those with money left for the moon."
"Looking for revenge?"
"Looking for a place to live. While earth was being bombarded by huge pieces of ice, a few fragments made their way to the moon. Suddenly, there was water. That meant the lunar colony could support more people. It grew rapidly, at the same time that terrestrial civilization was coming to an end."
"Sounds totally fucked up to me. Do you suppose they've ruined the moon and moved on to some other planet? Or are they still up there, looking down on us?"
"No one knows. They say that the face of the moon has changed in the last thousand years. Some claim that humans are still up there, building cities and machines."
"What if they decide to come back?"
Selkirk grimaced. "Pray they don't."
"My tutor, Hashtaal claimed that deadlanders secretly hated their lives and longed to go back to the oceans. She said that was why they caused the temperatures to rise and flooded the earth. But if they loved the sea so much, why did they try to destroy it? Deadlanders built the ghost reefs. And they dug black oil wells in the ocean. They murdered sharks for their fins. And the humpbacks still sing about the time when they were almost hunted to extinction."
Selkirk considered the question before replying "Maybe it was envy for something they could never have. Or regret. The Resurrectionists claim that humans were originally aquatic animals. Adam and Eve left their reef lagoon after a seagull tempted Eve with the promise of flight. The bird claimed that if she spent a night out of water, she would grow wings and feathers, and then she would be master of the skies as well as the sea. But instead, her gills withered, and the next day she was unable to rejoin her husband, Adam in the lagoon that had been their only home -- "
"'So, he followed her onto the shore.'" Kilydd quoted. "'And the kraken Michael stood guard over the gates to the ocean, and he said unto them "You will know death a thousand thousand times before you return home."' We have Resurrectionists in dark sea, too. 'And unto a woman shall be born a fish, the son of God. And by this sign, you will know that the aquatic kingdom is come.'"
"Speaking of aquatic kingdoms, how much support does your uncle have?"
"Hard to say. The war was very, very unpopular."
"I thought dark sea warriors live to fight."
"To fight each other. Over territory. The problem with the light sea war was no one was sure what we were fighting for."
Selkirk considered this a moment. "ARC claimed we were protecting our allies, the dolphins. Then, we were protecting the squids and krakens, who aren't our allies but suddenly we were told they ought to be. And of course, there was the economy. The weapons guild employs a lot of people, including a lot of retired military. After what you told me about black death, I'm starting to wonder if the glassmaker guild was behind it all. "
Kilydd looked disgusted. "Do you think people were this stupid in the terrestrial era?"
"Oh, I'm sure of it."
In the distance, a humpback whale began to sing. Selkirk tipped his head back, submerging his ears under water so that he could better appreciate the thrills, clicks and deep groans that characterized its song. A thousand years ago, such beasts faced extinction. Now, it was their terrestrial predators who were gone.
" 'We have lingered in the chambers of the sea, by sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown, till human voices wake us and we drown.'" Kilydd quoted once the whale song was over. "A terrestrial wrote that. What do you suppose he meant by 'drown.'"
"Suffocated. The way a dolphin suffocates if it gets trapped in an underwater cave."
"Yeah, that makes sense. Sometimes I try to imagine what it must have been like to be a deadlander. Always trapped on a little bit of rock, waiting for the sky to send rain and the sea to bring fish. I think I know why they built flying machines. They must have envied the birds which could go where they wanted. But I don't believe the Resurrectionists. I don't think that humans left the oceans in order to learn to fly. That came later, after they had spent a long, long time staring up the sky." Abruptly, Kilydd dove into the water and headed towards the open ocean. Shark followed.
Selkirk remained where he was, treading water with his face exposed to the night air, trying to understand the sorrow and despair of those for whom the ocean meant death by drowning.
Selkirk woke to the sound of humming. Though his internal clock told him that it was day, the water overhead was dark. Something the size of a sperm whale was hovering over him. Since there was nothing in the Sea of Three larger than a sperm whale, his first thought was that one of the great beasts had gone mad, as they did from time to time, and it was trying to beach itself on the ghost reef.
"What the fuck?" Kilydd exclaimed. He rubbed his eyes. "What is that thing?"
"You tell me. I don't know this part of the ocean."
"I've never seen anything like it in my life."
The whale was smooth and grey with bright white biolights -- except whales did not possess biolights, and nothing in nature had bioluminescence of that brilliance and color. The glare made it difficult for Selkirk to make out details. Which side was the head and which was the tail? Why was it so cold? A whale that large should have warmed up the water. And why were its thoughts so quiet? Human telepathy was generally effective on whales, dolphins and all other sea mammals. Was it dead?
"Does it have a heart charge?" he signed to Kilydd. Like some species of sharks, shadow hunters had the ability to sense the electrical currents generated by living creatures, making it easier for them to find their prey in the darkness of the bathyl.
Kilydd grimaced. "It's alive, but it doesn't feel like any kind of whale heart I've ever felt. More like a nest of eels. A very big nest of very angry eels. Oh shit! It's getting closer."
They both ducked. The belly of the "whale" scraped against a particularly tall piece of pillar coral. The sound it made -- a screech followed a low, deep hum -- reminded Selkirk of the noise shipwrecks made when the ocean's floor shifted. That was when he knew.
"It's a boat," he signed.
"A boat?" The shadow hunter frowned. "What's it doing up there?"
Good question. Someone must have raised a ship from the bottom of the ocean -- but why? Selkirk's mind raced through the possibilities. It was one of the legendary ghost ships, full of undead sailors who served the Baron. It was an aquatic version of the Trojan Horse, a vessel filled with soldiers who would emerge from their hiding place to slaughter an unsuspecting light sea community while it slept. Smugglers were using it to transport stolen goods which they did not want anyone to see. No, none of those possibilities explained the lights fitted to the vessel's hull. Why go to so much trouble to illuminate a reef that could be seen clearly in the bright light of day? Someone was looking for something. Or someone.
"Hide," Selkirk whispered to Kilydd.
The young shadow hunter bared his teeth. "I'm not afraid." But he retreated to the shadows.
The ship's lamps were too bright to be glowlight. And the light was a slightly different shade of yellow. The chemists guild would be furious when they learned that they had competition. Unless this was their work, in which case the ship must be under the control of light sea. Selkirk had not heard of any military projects that involved the use of boats, but he was relatively low on the chain of command --
"Look!" Kilydd pointed.
Two man sized creatures entered the water in a cloud of bubbles. They were hairless and black with wide webbed feet, like shadow hunters, but instead of tails, they had humps on their backs. No, not humps. Cylindrical backpacks. Tubes ran from the packs to the divers' mouths. Liquid food? One of the divers sucked on the mouthpiece. Moments later, a stream of bubbles rose from his nose. The backpacks were full of air. Where they using it for buoyancy?
"Deadlanders." The word was barely a whisper.
Selkirk turned to Kilydd. "What was that?"
The shadow hunters' pupils were red with blood. On the battlefield, eyes like those meant that someone was about to die. "They're deadlanders. Air breathers."
"Impossible. Terrestrial humans are extinct. That's common knowledge."
Kilydd gave him one of his withering looks which said The common knowledge doesn't mean shit to me.
The two strangers were sifting through the ruins with the aid of a box which emitted soft clicks, like the sound crabs made when they snapped their claws. From time to time, the crab's clicking would accelerate. It seemed to be guiding them, though to what Selkirk could not imagine. Were they witches? Dark magicians in the service of the Baron? The crab might be a familiar.
A section of coral was cleared, revealing a low, sandstone bunker, a ruin of human design which had withstood a thousand years of storms and waves. A tomb most likely. The ancient terrestrials were very particular about the way they disposed of their dead. Using a crowbar, one of them forced open a rusted metal door. The crab within the box went wild. The diver signaled to his companion, who swam through the doorway. A few minutes later, he returned with a sand encrusted container about two feet long. Carefully, they scraped away some of the grime, revealing a central black circle fanned by three blunt tipped triangles on a yellow background. The Angel of Death was the common name given to that design, since it looked vaguely like a human figure with wings.
As Selkirk and Kilydd watched from the shadows, the two divers uncovered a half dozen such containers. Each was tied to the end of a rope and hoisted to the surface where it vanished.
"Where's Shark?" Kilydd demanded suddenly.
Selkirk had forgotten about the frilled shark. The beast seldom left the shadow hunter's side. Had it heard the approach of the ship and fled? Unlikely. It was a brave fighter and fiercely protective of Kilydd. More likely, it had gone to investigate.
Kilydd had the same thought. Before Selkirk could stop him, the young shadow hunter swam clear of the coral cave and pushed off from the sea floor. He shot up to the surface, a blur of black.
Cursing under his breath, Selkirk followed him. There was a clump of seaweed overhead. He used it for cover as he stuck his head out of the water. Automatically, his face turned dark green. Anyone on the boat looking in his direction would see weeds, nothing more. It took him a few moments to accustom his eyes to the bright sunlight. Squinting, he peered at the boat. The exposed portion was about eight feet high, with a flat top. Numerous poles pointed towards the sky, but there were no sails. How did they propel the thing?
Selkirk eased the seaweed forward, so that he could get a better look at the ship's inhabitants. Creatures that looked vaguely human were walking back and forth across the deck carrying the salvaged containers. The men had wiry hair across the lower halves of their faces which obscured their necks. However, the women and children's faces were hairless, and their throats could be seen clearly. The flesh below their chins was smooth and brown -- no hint of gills.
Kilydd was correct. These were terrestrial humans. What the hell were they doing in the Sea of Three a millennium after their extinction?
Still no sign of Shark. Selkirk followed Kilydd as he dove under the ship and emerged on the other side. There, they found the frilled shark entangled in a net. Unable to swim, the beast was slowly suffocating. Worse yet, three of the hairy humanoids were attempting to haul the net out of the water. Their vocalizations reminded Selkirk of the calls of dragon petrels, though deeper in pitch and with more variation. Did those strange sounds have meaning? He swam closer. Kilydd's killing intent was so fierce that it drowned out almost every other human thought, but if he concentrated, Selkirk could make out a few images. One of the men was fantasizing about sex. The woman in his daydream had curiously flat, misshapen breasts. Another, the biggest of the three was considering the best way to skin Shark. The third was thinking that his child had just taken her first steps. Through that man's thoughts, Selkirk saw a tiny infant no more than twelve months old tottering along the boat's deck on stubby little legs. Impossible. No child that young could walk. Children had to be at least five or six in order to support their own weight out of water. No one seemed to notice Kilydd's anger, meaning that their telepathic skills must be weak --
Suddenly, a dark form leapt from the ocean and landed on the deck of the ship in the middle of the trio. As one, they dropped the net and fell back, but not before Kilydd lashed at the big burly man with his barbed tail. Crimson blood spurted from the wounded man's thigh. His screams distracted his companions, allowing the shadow hunter to slice through the net with his knife, freeing Shark.
Released from its prison of ropes, Shark raced through the ocean. Selkirk and Kilydd were right behind it. They did not stop until the sea floor dropped, at which point they headed towards the cool dark water of the upper bathyl. The encounter had left all three of them badly shaken.
"Maybe those were monkeys," Kilydd suggested as he searched Shark for injuries. "I read about them in a book. Hairy creatures that look like men."
"I listened to their thoughts. Those were human thoughts."
Shark had a six inch long gash on its left flank. Kilydd pressed his hand to the wound to staunch the flow of blood. His biolights began to glow, and his tail twitched dangerously. "Bastards," he swore. "We should go back."
"And do what? Kill them? You saw how many of them there were."
"Yes, but they're weak. One psi blast would take them all out."
Selkirk squared his shoulders. "There are women and children on that ship. I'm not killing any more children."
"You're too soft," the shadow hunter said contemptuously. "They tried to kill Shark."
If Selkirk wasn't 'soft' as you put it, he wouldn't have helped you escape from ARC.
Neither of them had sensed Ghost's approach. In the darkness of the bathyl, his clear, translucent body was less substantial than a shadow. If not for Kilydd's red biolights, which illuminated the glass human's internal organs, he would have been completely invisible. His psionic shielding was perfect. He even managed to disguise his scent, warmth and the subtle alterations in the current as the ocean water flowed around his body.
For the first time in days, Kilydd grinned. "I was afraid you weren't going to make it." He peered over Ghost's shoulder. "Where's Umi and Maremoto?"
"We split up. I laid a false trail, then I gave ARC the slip."
The shadow hunter scowled. "I told you to look after them."
"It's not my fault Mare couldn't make the rendezvous. You need to learn to pull your punches, big guy. Three fractured ribs, a bruised lung, a cut this long -- ." He spread both hands. "She and Umi are gonna take it nice and slow. We'll meet in Alexandria, in the underground. So, what have you two been up to besides not murdering women and children?"
Shark nudged Ghost with its tail. It had an unusually large monkfish clamped between its jaws. The glass human accepted the offering, and the four of them shared a meal, while Kilydd told his friend about their journey to the steam vent oasis. When he got to the part about finding his foster parents' bodies, words failed him. Selkirk took over.
"Someone tipped Kilydd's enemies off. They knew that he was coming, so they laid a trap. It might have worked, too, if he had been alone."
The shadow hunter's grief was almost palpable. Selkirk felt Kilydd's loss viscerally, and he knew that for a psionic as sensitive as Ghost it must be much worse. How did glass humans deal with all the misery?
"That explains why the place was swarming with soldiers," Ghost said finally. "They found your handiwork. They couldn't figure out how one teenaged shadow hunter was able to kill three seasoned assassins."
Kilydd cut away one last bit of monkfish with his knife, then offered the carcass to Shark. Eels had appeared. They plucked stray bits of flesh from the water, while keeping a wary eye on the frilled shark. "Mr. 'I don't kill women and children' took them out. I just arranged the bodies."
Ghost gave Selkirk an appraising look. I knew you were a killer, he told the captain telepathically. Aloud, "What did you do to the people on that ship to get them so freaked out?"
"You were at the ghost reef?"
"I got there just after you left. Fifty-six people, every one of them scared as shit, except for the babies. Something about a sea monster, part man, part crocodile that tried to take a bite out of someone's leg."
"They would be me." Kilydd bared his teeth. "They tried to kill Shark."
Ghost chuckled. "Silly them. I stuck around for a bit to get information, that's why it took me so long to catch up with you. They're deadlanders. I've heard rumors about them from pirates and smugglers. Never expected to actually meet them."
"Did you find out what they're doing here, in the Sea of Three?"
" They're after some kind of fuel. Not black oil. Something worse. They're almost as scared of the stuff as they are of the crocodile-man, but they need it to run their machines. I took a good, long look into their minds. There are a lot more of them. Out there." Ghost indicated the ocean to the south. "Living on boats and what bits of deadland they can find."
"So? They're weak. And they don't have gills. They'll never be a threat to dark sea."
Selkirk hoped that Kilydd was right. But, just in case, he decided to do a little research when they reached the city of Alexandria.
Chapter 3. The Library of Alexandria
In the Sea of Three, Alexandria was the place to go for information. Built on the ruins of a high elevation terrestrial city near the southernmost boundary of the ARC, it boasted a tower that rose twenty stories above the surface of the ocean. Here, the ARC kept its library. The oldest texts, ones made of ink printed on pressed wood pulp, animal skin and papyrus were stored on the upper ten floors, in water tight darkened rooms. Only the most senior librarians were allowed to handle those volumes. The academic collection was housed in the floors immediately below. Here, scholars could read miniaturized books printed on something even more precious than paper -- microfilm. When the world ocean began to rise, the terrestrials transcribed their most important documents onto salt resistant clear plastic, in hopes of preserving their knowledge. The print on these documents was so tiny that it could only be deciphered with the aid of a magnifying lens. Anyone enrolled in graduate school or with a doctorate could view these texts. The general public was restricted to the lower floors of the tower, where books inscribed on shell, glass and tile were available.
Though people came from all parts of the Sea of Three to study at the library, a shadow hunter and a glass human would stand out too much, particularly if ARC military had offered a reward for their capture. Selkirk, on the other hand, could blend in easily. And the library staff knew him, since he had done much of the work on his thesis here.
The lobby on the 79th floor was just as he remembered it. The big glass windows let in filtered sunlight, and the ceiling was dotted with jars of glowlight. People swam to and fro, some with arms full of books, others with clay tablets which they used to take notes. The walls were covered with mosaics, the largest of which depicted the original Library of Alexandria being consumed by fire. Everyone knew the story. Terrestrial terrorists had destroyed the largest cache of information which the ancient world possessed, because the books disputed their own story about the origin of the world.
Selkirk checked in at the front desk, where he was given a special pass and a stack of clay note tablets along with a bone stylus. The clerk was friendly. A quick scan of her thoughts confirmed that she had no idea that he was an AWOL soldier. As far as she was concerned, he was Scholar Sandros, a specialist in ancient history.
The number on Selkirk's shell was 82. Regular library patrons used the old elevator shafts to swim from floor to floor, but since the top floors of the building were dry, the captain had to use the stairs. As always, the first few breaths of air were the most painful. He leaned against the wall until the dizziness passed. Climbing the steps was a slow, laborious process that left his legs aching. Twice, he slipped and almost fell. No wonder the terrestrials were so mad for machines. Out of water, the human body was a weak, puny thing.
As his skin dried, a residue of salt was left behind. Soon, he began to itch, especially under his arms and around his groin. He resisted the urge to scratch. That would only make it worse.
Floor 82, terrestrial applied science and technology was almost empty. The librarian on duty, a slender light sea woman with a dark green mane inquired politely about his area of study. Her skin had the dry, crinkled texture that came from spending too much time out of water. She had a habit of licking her lips that made her resemble a snake. Her vest was knee length and made from bits of ancient green and yellow plastic woven together with kelp thread. Light, durable and brightly colored, plastic was a favorite material for nonmilitary clothing in the ARC. Luckily, terrestrials had left plenty of it behind.
"I'm doing a comparative analysis of the environmental hazards associated with terrestrial era energy production," Selkirk said.
The librarian, whose name tag read Thalasa, peered at him over the top of her magnifying spectacles. "Which century?"
Using a borrowed pair of magnifying goggles, Selkirk scrolled through the documents.
He had heard so much about black oil in school that he had not realized that 21st century terrestrial man used many other energy sources. Almost anything that could be burned was fuel for them. A naturally occurring stone called "coal" was a popular choice. He was surprised to find methane mentioned as a fuel. Cold water oases in the bathyl and abyss were rich in methane, which nourished huge fields of mussels and the fish and crustaceans which fed upon them.
Selkirk was scrolling through a document entitled Clean Fuels? when he stumbled upon an illustration of four tall, white conical towers without windows or doors. The tower that loomed over Chatterton Reef had a similar shape. He read the caption. "Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Plant." A cross check netted him "Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Plant Meltdown". From there, his reading lead him to Chernobyl, Fukushima and Diablo Canyon. What he read about the disasters at those three plants made his cropped mane stand on end.
Selkirk rejoined Kilydd and Ghost at their prearranged rendezvous in the tunnels under Alexandria. Once used for public transportation, the underground was home to a thriving black market where almost anything could be bought or sold -- including canisters that the captain now recognized as containing nuclear waste, which were often sold alongside poisonous shellfish and old, human bones, two items of particular interest to dark magicians. Did the sellers have any idea what they were peddling? Did the buyers? A hex crafted from spent nuclear fuel and secretly placed in an enemy's home could have devastating effects.
Selkirks pulled his companions aside and, using hand signs, he explained to them what he had learned. Or rather, he explained to Kilydd. Ghost got the information directly from Selkirk's mind.
Deadlanders are fucking crazy. The glass human projected the thought.
"They have a death wish," Kilydd agreed. "Let's hope they hurry up and finish themselves off -- again."
The ganjifa dealer shuffled the tiles. Selkirk selected five of the small discs at random. While pretending to examine his hand, he probed the thoughts of his three opponents. The eye patch which he wore as part of his disguise allowed him to focus on the left eye -- the "blind" one -- and shut out visual stimulus that might interfere with his telepathic vision. Two of the players had drawn trash, but the third had two pairs, Dolphins and Tridents -- tens and threes. Selkirk folded his paired Fish. The waitress refilled his plate of pickled mackerel.
Next hand, Selkirk got luckier. He had a pair of Mermaids, and the player to his left had Neptune and a Full Moon. The latter was usually a winning hand, but the third player folded a Neptune and the other had a Full Moon. Selkirk made enough from that round to pay for lodgings through the end of the week. He played a few more hands, losing a tiny sum on each so that he could leave the table with "Looks like my luck's turning bad. That's all for me, tonight."
Almost immediately, an old woman took his place. The casinos in the Alexandria underground were always busy around the new moon, when smugglers brought in their contraband under cover of darkness.
Selkirk cashed his chips. The pink maned girl behind the counter wore a breastplate made from whalebone carved to resemble two coiling serpents. Their golden tongues were artfully arranged so that the creatures appeared to be licking the young woman's nipples. The White Snake claimed to be under the protection of Damballah, god of the skies, and its serpent logo was everywhere, in the form of mosaics, statutes and a pair of albino pythons displayed in a tall glass jar filled with preservative.
The usual assortment of pickpockets and cut throats loitered in the alley outside the old subway car which housed the White Snake. The first night Selkirk played ganjifa, he had made a point of nearly crippling the man who tried to mug him. Now, the thieves called him Soldier and steered clear of him. They had a nickname for Kilydd, too -- Killer. So far, three idiots had decided to challenge the young shadow hunter in hopes of increasing their prestige as fighters. One survived the battle, but only because Ghost intervened.
"I felt sorry for him," the glass human had explained afterwards. "His girlfriend's pregnant."
In the underground, it was common knowledge that the three of them were on the run from the law. But, since over a quarter of the people who lived in the old subway tunnels beneath Alexandria had criminal records, no one thought to ask what they were wanted for. Fortunately, ARC had not considered the possibility that the dark sea prince would go anywhere but straight home, so there was no reward being offered for him here. Selkirk had not been reported AWOL, either. It was likely that ARC assumed him dead at the hands of the shadow hunter and his body lost somewhere in the abyss. Even if they suspected the truth, they were not likely to publicize the fact that Captain Selkirk Sandros, decorated war hero was now a deserter and traitor.
He swam through the markets. For those shoppers who did not possess biolights, illumination was provided by caged glowing jellyfish brought up from the deep. They did not last long in the warm, low pressure water of the underground, but they were cheaper than glowlight, and once they died, they could be eaten. The wealthiest light sea shoppers had attendants from the bathyl, children specially bred to have brilliant blue biolights. Tourists from dark sea often brought their pet sharks with them. Only the most desperate thief would attack someone protected by a hammerhead.
Now that the war was over, shadow hunters were not uncommon. A skilled fighter could find work as a bodyguard or in the wrestling arena. Selkirk swam over a stadium where two battle scarred dark sea veterans were pretending to be engaged in a fight to the death. It was all for show. The men's auras lacked killing intent. However, the civilians in the audience were enthralled by the spectacle. These were the people who had followed the war from the safety and comfort of their homes, celebrating each "victory" and mourning each "loss" in the same way that they cheered on the "good" wrestler and booed the "bad" one.
After picking up a few supplies in the market, Selkirk returned to their lodgings. Another subway train, this one so old that it had been abandoned by the terrestrials long before the Exodus, the wooden interior walls had rotted away and the glass windows had been looted, leaving a steel frame which was almost transparent in places from rust. Partitions made of leather divided each car into four apartments. Selkirk shared a tiny room with Kilydd, Ghost and Shark. There was barely enough space for each of them to stretch out full length to sleep, one stacked above the other. They could have saved their money and slept in the tunnels, but the frilled shark tended to get nervous when strangers got too close to its sleeping master.
Shark was loitering outside the apartment house, a sign that Kilydd had company. Mehr, the masseuse who lived next door had taken a liking to the young shadow hunter, and she sometimes visited him between her clients. A mermaid whose legs had failed to fuse, she looked a bit like Umi, with the same blue-green hair and pale aqua skin freckled with blue biolights. Since ocean water circulated freely between their two apartments, her musk was almost overpowering, especially when Selkirk tried to sleep.
At first, Selkirk had worried that Kilydd was being corrupted by the older woman. What if he became infatuated with her, as boys so often did with their first lover? What if he tried to take her home with him to the dark sea? However, he learned from Ghost that the prince already had a harem with two wives and four concubines. One of the wives had given birth to the shadow hunter's first child -- a daughter -- two years ago. Selkirk, who had not kissed a woman other than his mother until he was nineteen, did not know whether to feel jealous or appalled.
Lately, Mehr had been trying to seduce Selkirk, too. He had resisted, on the grounds that a teacher ought to set a good example for his students. However, he could not get the image of the White Snake clerk's cleavage -- deep brown against ivory bone -- out of his thoughts. He wondered what she felt each time the serpents' golden tongues pressed against her nipples. He thought about returning to the casino to ask the clerk what time she got off work. But too many things could go wrong with that plan. Maybe she was married. Maybe she preferred women.
"Selkirk," Mehr called. "Is that you, honey? Come on in."
To hell with setting a good example. He pushed aside the leather curtain and swam into the tiny apartment. The mermaid was massaging the muscles of Kilydd's neck and upper back. The shadow hunter appeared indifferent to the light sea captain's presence.
"Are you just going to float there?" Mehr pouted. She caught him by the leg and pulled him close. He ended up tangled in her long, silky blue-green hair. The presence of Kilydd, so close that he could feel his body heat against his back, should have inhibited him, but Mehr's musk outweighed every other concern. Soon, he was encircled by her arms and legs. It had been weeks since his brief encounter with Emong. Part of him wanted it to last longer, if only to keep the shadow hunter from laughing at him later, but Mehr was skilled, and she knew how to get a customer off quickly. Heart racing, he buried his face in her hair. Her fingers brushed his short mane. From Mehr, Selkirk sensed affection mixed with triumph -- she had finally caught him. From Kilydd, he sensed --
No, better not to think about that. He let the warmth and the gentle motion of the water lull him to sleep. Chatterton Reef was waiting for him. Would he ever dream about anything else? This time, he was one of the young dark sea guerillas, sleeping in the arms of his companions. A red frilled shark swam over and under him, round and round like the eye of a tropical storm. An octopus was hammering at his brain with a piece of rock--
Selkirk blinked. The octopus became a glass human, barely visible in the muted blue biolight.
There's someone here you need to meet.
Ghost had not been idle during their weeks in Alexandria. He was in charge of recruitment. The trick was finding veterans so desperate for work that they would sign onto a risky venture but not desperate enough to betray Kilydd's band to the ARC for money. Alexandria's underground was full of both types.
The latest prospect was a mixed blood woman barely out of her teens. Small boned, big eyed, a scattering of bioluminescent freckles on her forehead, skin pale grey with only minimal camouflage. She wore her black mane long, in the light sea style. That and her skimpy, skintight outfit told Selkirk at a glance that she had been reduced to selling sexual favors, now that no one needed her fighting skills.
"This is Yam. She was with the Third Infantry. Her specialty is hand to hand. Yam, this is Selkirk. Show him what you can do."
Her large, dark eyes darted from Selkirk to Kilydd, who was lounging with his back against the subway car, watching. Shark was curled up at his feet. "I'd rather fight him." She pointed at the shadow hunter.
"Too bad," said Selkirk. "Before you get to challenge the boss, you have to get through me. Can you fight in those clothes?"
Yam bared her teeth. They were sharp and black. Somewhere in her ancestry, there was a shadow hunter. Her eyes were fixed on Selkirk's head, but her kick was aimed at his knee. The captain let her connect to see what she would do once she had the advantage. Her next kick was telekinetically enhanced and aimed at his solar plexus. He evaded it easily.
"Enough foreplay. Come at me like you mean it."
With a growl, she launched herself at him. Her aura was dark grey -- a killing aura. But she had enough sense not to aim for any vital organs. They did not need fighters who would lose control in the heat of battle.
Altogether, they had recruited seven fighters -- eight counting this one. With Maremoto, Umi, Ghost and Selkirk that gave Kilydd an army of twelve against his uncle's two hundred. However, among those two hundred would be some whose loyalties lay with the crown prince rather than his uncle. They just needed to be reassured that his was not a lost cause.
Ghost had concocted a cover story in case anyone from ARC noticed their little group. Kilydd and Selkirk were recruiting bit players for their acting troupe. Their specialty was terrestrial era tragedies, so they needed skilled fighters in order to stage the battle scenes. This gave them an excuse to practice sparring. All the soldiers had to do was toss out a few archaic lines, such as "The Devil take thy soul!" or "A touch, a touch, I do confess" as they grappled and dueled. Ghost had even acquired a copy of Hamlet carved on thin sheets of royal crab shell. Selkirk did not ask where he got the book. He knew its value. If he saved his salary as a captain for ten years, he would not be able to afford such a treasure.
When strangers inquired about the progress of their play, Ghost and Kilydd would recite the lines of Hamlet and his father's ghost.
Ghost: '"Murder most foul, as in the best it is;
But this most foul, strange and unnatural."'
Kilydd: '"Haste me to know't, that I, with wings as swift
As meditation or the thoughts of love,
May sweep to my revenge."'
The shadow hunter had a way of saying the word "revenge" that sent chills down the spine. The significance of his choice of Hamlet was not lost on Selkirk. If sheer hatred could win a battle, Kilydd's uncle would already be dead.
Besides Yam, Ghost had recruited five more seasoned combat fighters. The twins, Yagmak and Bulut were light sea veterans. Born conjoined at the head, each lacked an ear -- Yagmak the left and Bulut the right. Their blue manes and dusky coloring were identical, however their faces were mirror images. Yagmak did all the talking for the pair, but his brother was the better fighter. Since the number two was associated with the Baron, Lord of the Dead, twins were considered bad luck, and no one in their lobster farming community had protested when the boys ran away to join the army at the tender age of sixteen. Six years later, all they knew was war. A distant dark sea ancestor had bequeathed them faint biolights and bones flexible enough to withstand the intense pressure of the deep bathyl.
Bagyo was another veteran with a grudge against light sea. The peace treaty gave dark sea control over ancient shipping lanes which his family had scavenged for almost forty years. Deprived of his livelihood, his father had killed his wife and then himself in a fit of despair. Now Bagyo had to support two young sisters by selling his services as a bodyguard. He was convinced -- perhaps rightly -- that light sea had abandoned his family, because they were Resurrectionists. Or maybe, they were victims of racial discrimination. With his smooth, black skin and wide eyes he could have been Kilydd's brother, if only nature had given him a tail. He had no biolights, but he made up for it with highly developed sonar vision.
Pinyin and Chong were lovers. Born into rival dark sea families, they left home after Pinyin's family tried to force her into an arranged marriage. Since both of them had black manes and rust red complexions, they were commonly mistaken for brother and sister. They were kicked out of the dark sea army after Chong killed his C.O. for propositioning his wife. In light sea, subordination like that would have merited more than a mere dishonorable discharge, however in dark sea, blood feuds were so common that murder was more or less accepted, as long as the murderer could offer a good reason. In contrast, many petty crimes such as theft were capital offenses.
In addition to the six fighters, Ghost had found an experienced battlefield medic, a middle aged dark sea man named Sumpf with a shady history that he refused to divulge. Since no one could keep a secret from a glass human, Ghost knew all about the man's "crimes", and he assured Selkirk that they were inconsequential.
"He's embarrassed," Ghost explained. "Once he gets to know you better, he'll probably tell you himself."
The final member of their band was Loch, a telekinesis expert. A pure blood light sea woman with pale pink hair and silvery skin, she looked a bit like Emong. Like Sumpf, she had a shady past which she refused to discuss. Again, Ghost vouched for her, though he warned Kilydd not to make any sexual advances towards her. "You don't want to know what she did to the major who tried to rape her." She could make water freeze or boil just by thinking about it, and, despite her light sea physiology, she could swim in the bathyl, thanks to her ability to control the pressure and temperature of the sea around her. During the war, she was a valuable asset for the ARC. After the fighting was over, her telekinesis -- usually a dark sea ability -- made her a freak.
In their mock rehearsals, Loch usually took the part of Ophelia. Sumpf, being the oldest among them, got the role of Polonius. Selkirk, who had the entire play memorized, filled in where needed -- which lead Kilydd (Hamlet) to give him the nickname, Mother Gertrude. Everyone else was an "extra", meaning that they spent the time sparring. The weapons and armor which Ghost managed to procure from a military surplus shop at no cost were "props". He also came up with money for wages.
"You don't want to know," the glass human said in response to the question in Selkirk's eyes. "Trust me. The people I got this gold from will never miss it."
Selkirk was reassured to learn that Ghost was targeting the rich. Only later did it occur to him that the glass human's words might have a different meaning. Maybe his victims would not miss their money, because they were dead.
Bagyo turned out to be a decent psi fighter. Selkirk was giving him special lessons one evening when Ghost sent a telepathic message. They're here!
Maremoto looked skinnier than Selkirk remembered her, but she was in good spirits. Spending a month in the company of the woman she loved had mellowed her. She even embraced Selkirk. Umi had not changed at all. She was still beautiful and seductive.
"Here." Maremoto tossed a leather pouch to Kilydd. "A souvenir."
The shadow hunter opened the bag and pulled out a human head. He held the trophy high so that everyone could see the tiny eyes, hairy chin and smooth neck. The dead man had no gills. "Where did you get this?"
"About three days' swim south of Swallow's Rift." The Rift was located near the southwestern boundary of the Sea of Three. "Some fucktards put up a barbed fishing net. Show them what it did to you, Umi."
The mermaid extended her right arm. A pink laceration ran from her wrist to her elbow, marring her otherwise perfect aqua skin. "Do you think it will leave a scar?" Her flippant expression was at odds with her memories. Through her unguarded thoughts, Selkirk watched as the mermaid...
...swam towards a ribbon of stars which glimmered and faded as they were tossed upon the waves. A fishing net, ridiculously long, studded with bits of razor sharp metal. The water around her smelled of copper, iron and fear. Squids, rays and too many different types of fish to name performed a macabre dance, turning, twisting, thrashing in the net.
A cry of pain and terror, not human. Umi turned. An infant dolphin had become entangled in the net and was drowning. Its mother tried frantically to free it. Cautiously, Umi approached the mother-child pair. "Let me help," she clicked while secreting soothing pheromones. Umi held the baby still while Mare cut the net. In the process, the mermaid's arm was injured. Blue blood blossomed from the wound like an anemone. A nearby grey shark, attracted by the scent of death, went into a feeding frenzy, and Maremoto had to cut it down to save her friend. Meanwhile, all about her, living things died in the slowest, most painful way imaginable. If she labored all day and night, she could not free them all. And still the waves brought more victims.
With a cry of fury, Maremoto sawed the net in two. The severed ends sprang apart, further ensnaring the dying, but at least no more would be added to the grisly catch. After binding Umi's wound with black kelp to staunch the bleeding, she tended her own small nicks and cuts. It was at this point that the fishermen appeared, armed and ready to kill...
Mare scowled. "After I cut Umi free, I waited for the fishermen to come back. Killed the bastards and tied their corpses to their own net. I hope their buddies find them before the sharks finish them off."
Sumpf examined the severed head. "Were they all like this? No gills, I mean."
"Yeah. Bunch of fucking deadlanders. Look at this." She pulled a metal knife with sharply serrated edges from her vest. "I'll say this for the deadlanders. They know how to make weapons. One of them had a gun that fired metal darts. Almost nailed me with it. Too bad he dropped it when he was trying to stuff his intestines back in his belly."
"Sounds like you had fun." This from Ghost.
Maremoto grinned. "Yeah, just like the old days."
Sumpf peered inside the severed head's mouth and nose. The tongue was unusually thick and muscular. He pried back its eyelid's. The deadlander had peculiar eyes, small and pale with a wide circle of white around the iris. "Did you get the impression they could see?" he asked Maremoto.
"Yeah, more or less. They had lights with them. Not glowlight and not jellies. Something different. Brighter. Once they dropped those, they were as good as blind."
Sumpf used a knife to peel some of the scalp back from the skull. "Were all their bones this hard?" He tapped on the skull with the blunt edge of the blade.
"Probably. They were a lot heavier than they looked."
Bagyo watched the dissection with a combination of fascination mixed with fear. "I thought deadlanders were a fairy tale."
"So did we, until we met some a few weeks ago." Selkirk described their encounter with drylanders at the ghost reef.
"Kilydd was right," Maremoto declared after hearing his story. "You should have gone back and finished them off."
Umi changed the subject. "I'm starved. Who do I have to fuck around here to get a meal?"
Other members of the "acting troupe" had begun to appear. Ghost send Pinyin and Chong off with some money, and they returned with a whole tuna big enough to feed a small army. The surgeon sliced the fish and served the first pieces to Maremoto and Umi. One by one, the residents of the neighboring apartments appeared, attracted by the sounds of laughter and the smell of fresh tuna. Umi and Mehr performed a duet. Though the masseuse lacked a mermaid's tail, she had been blessed with a siren's voice, and the pair brought the company to tears with the old ballad Pirate Jenny. Next, Selkirk and Kilydd acted out the dueling scene between Hamlet and Laertes. Then, Ghost and Kilydd performed a scene from Othello. Though they did not deviate from the script, the glass human played Iago's part in such a way that he became a scorned lover. His "My lord, you know I love you" was so impassioned that Selkirk could not imagine how he had failed to notice before that Iago did not hate Othello. He loved him too much to share him with Cassio and Desdemona.
When the party was over, Mare and Umi borrowed Mehr's room, and the masseuse joined Selkirk and Kilydd. As the sun rose over Alexandria, signaling a new day, the captain fell asleep in the mermaid's arms, lulled by the sound of her heartbeat. For the first time in almost a year, he did not dream about Chatterton Reef.
If Kilydd had his way, they would have headed straight for his dark sea home to confront his uncle. However, Ghost was their strategist, and he insisted that they gather allies. So, their first stop was the kingdom of Kilydd's second wife, Hectal, the mother of his child.
Kilydd's father-in-law, King Tlaloc reigned over Xipe Sound, a man-made deep water channel between two fertile reefs. Xipe was renowned for culinary delicacies, in particular its fish sauce made from fermented sand lance intestines. Xipe umami was a staple even in light sea, where it was used to impart a savory flavor to bland foods, and black marketers had made a fortune smuggling the sauce into the ARC during the war. The botanists of Xipe also grew some of the highest quality medicinal algae in the Sea of Three, including spirulina, wakame and hijike. The last was said to increase male potency. King Tlaloc, who at eighty-five had ten wives, twenty-five legitimate children and innumerable bastards was a testament to the algae's effectiveness.
Hectal was his twenty-second child, born shortly before the king's golden jubilee. Her political marriage to Kilydd was arranged a few days after the shadow hunter's birth, when she was seven. They met each other the day before their wedding. Though theirs was a marriage of convenience, Kilydd spoke fondly of her.
When the prince went off to war, his pregnant bride returned to her father's kingdom. There, she gave birth to a child, Atla. Father and daughter had never met. Shortly after the girl's birth, Kilydd was captured by light sea and imprisoned in the ARC military academy.
Though a member of the dark sea confederation, Xipe was on friendly terms with light sea, and many of its citizens were of mixed blood. As Kilydd's company swam through the kelp forests which surrounded the kingdom, they saw children with brightly colored manes playing hide and seek among the towering green fronds. The royal bastards were easy to spot. King Thaloc had a peculiar form of protective coloring. Like an orca, he was black across the back and white in the front. It was a dominant trait, so all his children were two toned. This type of coloring provided a protective advantage near the surface of the ocean, which caused some of the other dark sea kings to call Thaloc a "lighter" behind his back.
The sun dappled emerald green water of the kelp forest ended abruptly as the ground fell away. Xipe sound was an artificial waterway dating from the terrestrial era. Originally a canal designed to link an inland lake to the sea, the bottom of the sound was so deep that no sunlight ever reached it. Flanked on two sides by shallow water, the kingdom had access to all the best that light sea had to offer with plenty of fish and greenery to feed its population and a sheltered warm water environment where infants could be raised safely. The canal, on the other hand, was cold and dark, its seabed littered with wrecked ships many of which had been converted into dwellings.
As Selkirk descended to the bathyl, the pressure and cold made his limbs grow heavy. His psi abilities, on the other hand, increased. Did the terrestrials who created his dark sea ancestors foresee this effect or was it a happy coincidence? In a world without light, enhanced telepathy allowed him to distinguish easily between friend and foe. Selkirk was aware of his companions -- their heartbeats, their unshielded thoughts and emotions. Their surgeon, Sumpf was suffering pain from an old back injury. Loch was watching Kilydd's back, and Bagyo was watching Loch. Kilydd was thinking about his wife, recalling the last time he had seen her, when she was pregnant. Only Ghost and Yam were unreadable. For some reason, Yam kept her guard up whenever Selkirk was around. He suspected that she hated him and did not want to let him know for fear of being kicked from the company.
The umami factory was located at the northern end of Xipe sound, far from the palace. Here, fish were gutted and their intestines were sealed inside cement jars along with salt water and a secret mixture of spices known only to the brew master and the royal family. The jars were buried in sand for months. Once their contents were properly aged, they were carried to the surface and the liquid was decanted into smaller vessels fitted with siphons which allowed cooks to draw off the desired amount of the precious seasoning with their mouths and spit it into food as it was being prepared. Rumor had it that a half dozen virgins -- young women from noble families -- were the only ones allowed to flavor King Thaloc's food.
The stench of rotting fish made the area immediately surrounding the factory almost uninhabitable, and therefore only the poorest citizens dwelled here. Their homes were flimsy tents constructed of braided kelp stretched over whalebone. Too poor to afford glowlight or even jellyfish pets, they relied upon their own biolights for illumination. Most of the adults were at work in the factory, but a few old women and young children watched Kilydd and his party pass.
Next came the city's middle class district. There were not enough wrecked ships here to meet the demand for housing, so apartments had been carved into the limestone walls of the canal. Those with dark sea blood chose dwellings near the floor of the ocean, while light seaers preferred the caves near the surface. This part of Xipe sound was so deep that the residents near the bottom could not see those living at the top. The result was a two tiered city. Tame sharks were common in the lower level. Several times, Shark got into fights with other beasts which came too close to its master.
The nobles lived in the southernmost part of the canal, far from the fish sauce factory and its stench. They made their homes in ancient, wrecked ships, many of which were several times bigger than blue whales. The king's palace was an ancient behemoth twenty stories high, with thousands of separate rooms. Afloat, it would have resembled an island more than a ship. It had been repaired so many times over the years that it looked like an abstract mosaic, the hull a motley of steel, concrete, glass and limestone.
Glass humans were rare even in dark sea, and many feared them, because of their reputation as tricksters and conmen. Therefore, Ghost masked his presence, until they reached the palace where he told the senior guard politely but firmly that Prince Kilydd had an appointment to see the king, who would be most displeased if his important guest was forced to wait.
A few minutes later, King Thaloc's telepath appeared. An old dark sea woman with the king's coloring and snow white hair, she ignored everyone except Ghost. "Jorge! What have you been doing to the guards? Do you want to get them fired?"
The glass human bowed his head in greeting. "Chimalli. How are your grandchildren?"
"Don't change the subject, young man. What kind of tricks are you up to? Prince Kilydd is a prisoner of war."
Kilydd swam forward. "Not any longer. I've come to see my wife and daughter."
Chimalli peered at him doubtfully. A glass human could make a tuna look like a man.
"You're welcome to read my thoughts," the prince told her.
"No need. I recognize your aura." One by one, she examined the members of their party. At Selkirk, she paused and her smooth, white brow wrinkled. You smell like death she thought at him.
He had nothing to say in his own defense. What she said was true.
"Don't tease Selkirk," Ghost told her. "He helped Kilydd escape."
The old woman made a sour face. "Once a killer always a killer. But then, the same could be said for all of you, except for the doctor." She indicated Sumpf. "Wait here." She swam back into the castle. A few minutes later, she returned with a much younger woman.
"Kilydd!" exclaimed Princess Hectal. At twenty-two, she was even taller than her husband. Her face and chest were silvery pale. Her mane and back were obsidian black. Seen from behind, she was little more than a shadow in the darkness of the bathyl, but from the front she seemed to glow. Two pale blue bioluminescent tentacles sprouted from her forehead, one over each eye, which is how she got her nickname, Snail.
The prince extracted himself from his wife's arms. "Where's Atla?"
"With her nurse, of course. She's only two." Absentmindedly, she stroked Shark's head. "Who are these people?"
"My friends." He introduced each member of the company, starting with Selkirk. "Hectal, I need to talk to your father." He told her of his plan to reclaim his throne.
"And you want daddy to loan you troops. He won't like it. He's sick to death of war."
"So are we all. But there is more at stake than a throne." He described his uncle's plan to sell black oil to the ARC.
Her already wide eyes grew even larger. "You're kidding."
"I wish I was."
The princess returned to the palace. She was gone so long that Selkirk started to worry. What if ARC had already been in touch with Kilydd's father-in-law? Xipe traded heavily with light sea. Thaloc might not want to antagonize his best customers.
A crowd began to form, servants and nobles who had come to gawk at the king's son-in-law. At least half of those gathered had the royal coloring. Here, in the dark water of the upper bathyl, their pale faces were ghostly. A few people swam forward to greet the prince, but most held back, unsure about his status. Their pets were less shy. Shark posed a threat to the established hierarchy, and therefore it had to be examined and confronted. There were mock battles. A few fins were nipped. However, no real harm was done -- except to the already frayed nerves of the light seaers in Kilydd's party, people for whom "shark" meant dangerous predator not pet.
Finally, Princess Hectal returned with servants, two young women, both of whom had the royal coloring. "Daddy says he'll talk to you, Kilydd. Coza and Malotl will take your...guests to the kitchen and find them something to eat." She had taken the time to change her jewelry. Now, she wore a diadem of pearls on her jet black hair and a belt of hammered platinum. Like most dark sea denizens, she shunned clothing.
"Ghost, Selkirk, come with me," said Kilydd.
The princess folded her arms across her chest and frowned down at her husband. "Daddy said he'd talk to you. He didn't say anything about your friends."
Coolly, Kilydd replied "Ghost is my telepath, and Selkirk is my military adviser."
Hectal examined the light sea captain more closely. "You're part shadow hunter, right? Are you a relative of Kilydd's?"
"No ma'am," Selkirk answered politely. "I'm -- "
"Selkirk is my military adviser," Kilydd repeated, this time using his royal voice. In dark sea, arguments were commonly settled using what light sea denizens would call bullying tactics. The one with the greater air of authority usually won. Among dolphins, this was called alpha male dominance. Though light sea scientists claimed that humans had evolved beyond such behavior, during the war Selkirk had learned otherwise. Dark sea POWs were much more cooperative if they respected their captors.
Hectal shrugged. "Suit yourself."
In the centuries since it was wrecked, the palace ship had undergone many changes. Most of the interior walls and floors had been reinforced with water impervious glass concrete. Some rooms were predominantly white, others were bottle green, a few were dark brown and the royal chambers, located in the lowest part of the ship, were cobalt blue. Colorful mosaics depicted scenes from dark sea mythology. Glowing fish and non-stinging jellies, specially bred for their enhanced bioluminescence, swam freely about the rooms. They were so tame that they did not swim away, even when Shark lunged at them.
Here, as outside, servants and nobles watched the party as it swam past. Though their thoughts were well guarded, bits of their conversation could be heard. They seemed genuinely surprised to see the prince, from which Selkirk surmised that news of his escape had not reached this part of dark sea.
Hectal lead them through a maze of corridors obviously designed to slow down intruders should Xipe ever be invaded. Guard stations were strategically situated along the route to the throne room. The soldiers recognized Princess Hectal and waved them through. At the final checkpoint, Kilydd and Selkirk were required to hand over their weapons. Selkirk carried a pair of antique titanium knives which Ghost had acquired for him in Alexandria. Kilydd's obsidian blades were primarily for use as tools. His real weapon was his barbed tail.
Once a dining hall, the throne room could have housed a pod of whales in comfort. Unlike the rest of the palace, this area was brightly illuminated. Glowlight chandeliers hung from the high ceiling, and marble urns containing rare luminous anemones were spaced at regular intervals along the walls, which were covered with mosaics incorporating gold, platinum and mirrored glass to reflected the light. The effect was dazzling. Selkirk, whose eyes had become accustomed to the semidarkness, was forced to squint as he followed Kilydd towards the far end of the room, where the king of Xipe waited for them on a blue and gold lapis lazuli throne.
Most light seaers would have called the throne room's décor gaudy. In the ARC, simple lines and muted colors were favored, preferably with a glass ceiling to let in plenty of sun and moonlight while keeping out silt and sea snow. And chairs -- such as Thaloc's throne -- were considered a terrestrial anachronism. However, dark sea had its own aesthetic. In a region dominated by dark and barren landscapes, bright colors were considered cheery.
The path to the throne was flanked by guards wearing the royal colors, blue and gold, and by nobles who went naked except for their jewels. All of the courtiers and most of the guards had the king's coloring. Selkirk, who had learned in school the dangers of inbreeding, wondered at the apparent robust good health of everyone he saw. Maybe Xipe practiced infanticide, culling infants with birth defects. The barbaric practice was rumored to be common in dark sea.
As he neared the throne, Selkirk felt an unusually strong psionic presence probing his mind. Automatically, he threw up his defenses. He sensed surprise, frustration. Dark sea dwellers often underestimated his psi skills, because of his light sea coloring. There it was again, a foreign consciousness trying to find a chink in his armor. Deliberately, he recalled the time he took a knife in the gut -- the shock, the pain which made him almost faint. The psionic presence vanished.
They were close to the throne now. In dark sea, people seldom showed their age, and King Thaloc could easily have passed for thirty or forty, except for his remarkable size. He was two times as tall as the average light sea male, almost half again as tall as his son-in-law, who seemed like a child in comparison.
Kilydd was not daunted. He swam straight towards the throne, and, ignoring the armed guards, he embraced his wife's father.
The king seemed delighted to see his son-in-law. "I knew those damn lighters couldn't hold you. Some of the kings said your uncle should have offered a ransom, but I told them 'Kilydd will get out by himself. You can count on it.' Have you seen Atla yet? No? Someone go fetch my granddaughter." An adviser, a young man with the royal coloring except that his front was red instead of white whispered into the king's ear. "What? She's too young? Never mind. Kilydd can see her later." He stared fiercely at his son-in-law's face. "Hectal tells me you want to challenge your uncle. Something about black oil."
Patiently, Kilydd explained the bargain which his uncle had struck with the ARC. The old king did not bat an eye as his son-in-law described his imprisonment. Such tactics were commonly employed by rival claimants for dark sea thrones. However, when the prince got to the part about the plan to open the ancient black oil well, Thaloc's expression became grim. Only a fool would fail to realize what a black oil leak would do to the economy of Xipe, whose pure ocean water was a key ingredient in its famed umami.
"You're not making this up, are you?" Thaloc studied his son-in-law's face closely. "No, I guess you aren't. No one can lie to me, except Chimalli." He seemed to notice Ghost for the first time. "You." He pointed his finger. "If I find out you've been playing tricks with my mind, I'll have you crucified on a buoy, where the gulls can pluck out your eyes. And who the hell is this?" He glared at Selkirk.
Selkirk kept his chin high and his gaze level. "Captain Selkirk Sandros, formerly of the ARC and now military adviser to Prince Kilydd."
The old king's lips twitched. "I see a light sea jelly, but I hear a shadow hunter. No wonder we couldn't win that damn war. Too many of our own fighting for the lighters. Are you buggering my son-in-law? Is he buggering you? No? Then what the hell are you doing here?"
"Preventing an ecological catastrophe, I hope, your highness."
"A likely story."
The red and black adviser whispered into the king's ear. Selkirk caught the words 'fifteen dead' and 'all of them children' so he had a moment to prepare himself for what came next.
"Are you that Selkirk Sandros? The Butcher of Chatterton Reef." The king glared at him. "How dare you show your face here! And you, Kilydd. What were you thinking? Two soldiers from Xipe died that day, young boys who would have been a comfort to their mothers' in their old age."
Selkirk's temper almost got the best of him. He almost snapped Maybe if you paid your factory workers a living wage, their children wouldn't have to seek work as soldiers in order to feed themselves. But in the nick of time, he remembered why they were there.
The red and black courtier was obviously a spy for light sea. He had been warned that Kilydd might appeal to his father-in-law for aid, and his handlers had instructed him in various ways that he might interfere. Did ARC know that Selkirk was now traveling with the prince, or was it a lucky guess?
The angry thoughts of the guards and courtiers buzzed inside Selkirk's head, making it difficult for him to think. He had to say something to defuse the situation, before the rift between father-in-law and son-in-law became permanent. But what? An apology was out of the question. In dark sea, that would be read as weakness. Should he challenge the ARC spy to a duel? He had no doubt that he would win, but what if the young man was Thaloc's favorite nephew? That would not help Kilydd's cause.
"Your majesty," he began. 'Please don't let your grievance with me -- "
Kilydd interrupted him. "Captain Sandros has nothing to apologize for." His voice was a mixture of icy fury and contempt. "He did his duty as a light sea officer, protecting his people from a band of guerillas who were targeting civilians. If the guerillas happened to be children, I think that says more about dark sea than it does about the captain." He paused for effect. "Captain Sandros isn't just my military adviser. He is my friend. My calorio." Calorio was a dark sea term for soldiers who shared body heat while sleeping in the cold water of the bathyl, but it meant more than that. A calorio was the one who guarded your back in combat. He shared your memories, even the bad ones. "Blood brother" was the closest light sea equivalent. "If you insult him, you insult me. Selkirk, Ghost come!" He turned his back on the king and propelled himself away from the throne with a lash of his tail.
"Don't you dare speak to me in that tone!" Thaloc called. "Son-in-law or not, I'll have you gutted and left for the sharks."
At the sound of its name, Shark bristled and bared its fangs.
The beast hurried to its master's side. Ghost and Selkirk followed. They caught up with Kilydd in the hall outside the throne room. The glass human wisely kept his mouth shut. Selkirk started to speak, but a single furious glance from the shadow hunter caused the words to die on his lips.
Even Hectal was cowed by her husband. "Let's go see Atla," she suggested mildly. "While she's still awake."
Ghost kept his silence until they exited the castle, then he turned to Kilydd. Who's the red and black guy?
"A spy for ARC," Kilydd signed.
Yeah, I noticed. But who is he?
"One of Thaloc's bastards. Huit, I think."
So, what do we do now?
"We go see my daughter. And you!" Kilydd glared at Selkirk. "I know what you're thinking, and I don't want to hear another word about it." Without giving the light sea captain a chance to reply, he shot to the surface. Hectal, Selkirk and Ghost followed close behind him.
The chilly darkness of the bathyl gave way to light and warmth. Nestled among the swaying emerald fronds of the kelp forest was a cottage made entirely of glass tiles. Selkirk recognized the design. The king of Xipe had hired one of light sea's most famous architects to build his granddaughter's nursery. He recalled the squalor of the squatters' field near the umami factory, the stunted, malnourished children who had watched with dull, apathetic eyes. The children whom he killed at Chatterton Reef would have come from such a community. He couldn't decide whom he hated more, King Thaloc for the hypocritical way he defended the victims of his own greed or himself, for heaping additional misery on those who already suffered under so much misfortune.
Ghost elbowed him in the ribs. This is the first time Kilydd has met his daughter. If you spoil it for him, I'll make sure you have nothing but bad dreams for the next week.
Unexpectedly, Kilydd came to the captain's defense. "Ghost. Don't bully Selkirk. He can't help being soft hearted. When I'm king, I'll make sure that no child goes to bed hungry in my kingdom," he promised. "And no children will be used on the front lines in battle -- "
He was interrupted by three children with the royal coloring who came tumbling through a hole in the roof of the glass cottage, laughing and shoving each other. One of them, a young girl, had a tail and no mane. She was a tiny version of Kilydd, except all white in front like an orca. She even had her father's red biolights, one above each eye on tentacles like her mother.
Atla spotted Hectal, and she swam to her and latched onto her breast. With enormous eyes, she examined the strangers. Ghost seemed to intrigue her the most. She even stopped suckling long enough to point and lisp "Jelly." Then, she saw Kilydd's tail. With a crow of delight, she let go of her mother and launched herself at the shadow hunter. "Tail, tail!" she exclaimed. She showed off her own tail, then she grabbed the shadow hunter's.
Watching Kilydd -- little more than a child himself -- play with his young daughter, Selkirk could not help being envious. Maybe if he had a family of his own, he would stop dreaming about dead children. He could do what so many retired soldiers did and adopt war orphans. It would not erase the past, but it might make it easier to live with the memories.
But if he had children, what would he tell them about the war? Sooner or later they would learn the truth, that their father earned his medals for killing child soldiers. He imagined small faces gazing up at in horror, the way King Thaloc and his courtiers had looked at him. He could not do that to children, especially not war orphans.
And what about Kilydd? The shadow hunter might be willing to overlook Selkirk's sins, but other dark seaers would not be so forgiving. How many battles would the prince have to fight for his sake? How many potential allies would he alienate?
Near sunset, the servants Coza and Malotl appeared with food. The female members of their company, Yam, Loch, Maremoto and Umi accompanied them along with the couple, Pinyin and Chong. The unmarried men were visiting a brothel and would join them later. As darkness fell over the kelp forest, they had a picnic. Hectal stayed at her husband's side, and Maremoto kept a close watch on Umi. Loch entertained Atla and her young companions by making a swim bladder full of water expand and contract using her telekinetic skills. The girls were almost as fascinated by the light sea woman's pink hair as they were with her "magic."
It was a warm, clear night. Selkirk ventured to the surface to watch the stars. Soon, Kilydd followed, with his daughter on his shoulder. The shadow hunter entertained the child by reciting nursery rhymes and bits of ancient verse. Atla was too young to understand what was being said, but she enjoyed being out late at night. When her mother came to take her to bed, she cried and kicked, until Kilydd offered to tell her a bedtime story. The royal couple vanished into the glass nursery and did not return.
Sleep overcame them, one by one, until only Selkirk and Shark were awake. The light sea captain tried all the usual tricks to make himself fall asleep, like counting stars and conjugating Latin verbs, but two images kept appearing in his mind. One was old King Thaloc's angry face. The other was Kilydd, promising that when he was king no child would fight on the front lines.
Kilydd had called him his friend, his calorio. A true friend would not jeopardize a mission that was so important to so many people. If King Thaloc denied his son-in-law the troops he needed, because he objected to Selkirk, then it was Selkirk's duty to leave. He would swim back to the ARC. There, he would warn light sea of the glassmakers' plans. It would not be easy. They would try to discredit him, maybe even send assassins after him. But he was not afraid of a fight.
He slipped away near dawn. Fog covered the ocean, limiting visibility above the water to a few meters. Nocturnal creatures were searching for places to hide, while fish that hunted in the daytime were still fast asleep. At first, Shark tried to follow him, but when Selkirk said its master's name, the beast hurried back to guard the nursery where the shadow hunter was sleeping beside his wife and child.
He got about half a mile, before Ghost caught up with him. In the murky light, the glass human seemed little more than a ripple in the water, but his psionic presence was formidable. To his dismay, Selkirk discovered that his legs were paralyzed. He could no longer swim.
Ghost circled him. Kilydd said you'd do something stupid like try to leave. I'm supposed to kick your butt, but you've probably been kicking yourself already, so I'll let you off this time with a warning.
"I can't stay," Selkirk said. "I'm -- "
A liability. Yeah, yeah. I know. The Butcher of Chatterton Reef. Catchy. You think Kilydd blames you for doing your job?
"It doesn't matter what Kilydd thinks. If everyone else -- "
Wrong. The only thing that matters is what Kilydd thinks. You ought to have noticed by now that he never turns his back on his friends. Never.
As the sun cleared the horizon, the mist began to burn away. In the distance, seagulls flocked around a bit of floating debris. Their harsh cries were frenzied.
"I won't be much of a friend if I make him choose between me and his kingdom."
What makes you think he can't have both?
"King Thaloc said -- "
What a dark sea king says and what he thinks are seldom the same. Hectal is his favorite daughter. Kilydd is the father of his favorite daughter's child. Thaloc will do what Hectal wants him to do. If she wants her husband safe and sound beside her in Xipe, the old man will find some excuse to deny him troops. If she wants him back on his throne, Thaloc will support him. It won't make a bit of difference if you are here or not.
The ocean currents were pulling them towards the gulls. The birds were not diving into the ocean. Instead, they were feeding off something above the surface. A floating fish carcass? No, it was a man. He had been crucified on a wooden buoy, and the sea gulls were eating him alive. His cries were almost as shrill as the birds'. With the sun in his eyes, Selkirk could not see the dying man clearly, and so he assumed the worst.
"Kilydd!" He tried to swim towards the buoy, but his limbs were still paralyzed.
"That's not Kilydd."
"Then who --?" An image appeared in his mind. A man with the king's coloring but with a red face instead of white.
"Looks like Thaloc has made up his mind," Ghost said lightly.
Selkirk knew he was a fool to agonize over the fate of a spy. However, each time the man screamed, he felt a stab of pain, as if his own flesh were being torn away by sharp beaks. "We can't leave him like that."
The glass human rolled his eyes. "Were you really a light sea captain?"
Angrily, "We killed the enemy cleanly and quickly. We didn't torture them to death."
Ghost sighed. "If you want to put him out of his misery, I won't tell." He relaxed his telepathic grip on the captain's arms and legs.
The dying man was so close that Selkirk could smell the copper of his blood. The mass of birds flying overhead resembled a storm cloud. If he used a psi attack, both birds and humans would die. Though the sight of the gulls feeding on a human disgusted him, it wasn't their fault. They were just doing what they had to do to survive.
He unsheathed one of his knives and sent it sailing through the air. It sank into the dying man's throat. Blue blood gushed from the wound. Huit twitched for a moment, then his body went slack. The birds continued their raucous feast as if nothing had happened.
"Hey!" Ghost exclaimed. "I went to a lot of trouble to get you those knives." He swam towards the buoy. Leaping from the water, he grabbed the knife and pulled the blade from the dead man's throat.
By the time they got back, Kilydd was awake. He and Ghost communicated silently. The shadow hunter's gaze lingered on Selkirk, but he did not comment on his attempted defection. Instead, he said "Good news. Thaloc's going to loan us ten fighters. And we have three more volunteers, veterans who haven't been able to find work. A couple of them mentioned your name, Selkirk. Said they had heard you were a good fighter and that's why they decided to join up. I told them you'd test their combat skills this afternoon, so you'd better try to get some sleep while you can."
That evening, the "acting troupe" performed for the King. The play was Hamlet. In addition to playing the ghost of Hamlet's father, the glass human was in charge of prompting the players when they forgot their lines, which most of them did frequently, except for Selkirk and Kilydd. Thaloc applauded the fighting scenes and fell asleep during the monologues. Afterwards, he declared it the finest performance he had ever seen, and he publicly offered to send some of his own soldiers to act as an escort while Kilydd's company toured dark sea. It was all very skillfully done, and Selkirk, who had been brought up to believe that dark sea emphasized brute strength over strategy was impressed. Now, ARC would have to think twice before attacking Kilydd, if it did not want to offend an important trade partner. That left just Kilydd's uncle to worry about. While no one in dark sea would criticize him for ordering the assassination of a rival claimant to his throne, he had only two hundred soldiers at his disposal, and Kilydd had the whole of the Sea of Three in which to hide while word of the black oil scheme circulated through the kingdoms. When he finally attacked, Kilydd would do so from the moral high ground. Sun Tzu would have been proud.
By the time they left Xipe, the number of new volunteers had risen to five. The dark sea community had its share of former child combatants, orphans with no place to go and no skills except the ability to fight and kill. In all, Kilydd's forces numbered twenty-seven -- a far cry from his uncle's two hundred, but a considerable improvement from the four he had started out with, five counting Selkirk.
They swam in light sea by night, and each day they slept in the cold, dark water of the bathyl, where predators were few. Every evening, before resuming their journey, their troop practiced psi fighting, which was the most effective and useful type of combat in the deep. At night, when they paused to rest and feed, Selkirk gave special lessons in light sea hand to hand techniques, which, if used properly, would allow a soldier with a small build to overcome a much larger opponent. Their sharks -- they had three more now, in addition to Kilydd's pet -- made the task of feeding such a large group simpler.
The volunteers adapted quickly, but King Thaloc's regulars were another matter. They bristled at being asked to follow the orders of a former light sea captain half their size, and they considered Kilydd a child. Selkirk put a stop to their insubordination in the time honored dark sea manner by defeating their sergeant, Itzli in a no holds barred battle that left them both bloody and dazed. Once he stopped trying to establish his dominance, Itzli proved to be a level headed fighter, with almost thirty years of combat experience, most of it obtained in the sea around Xipe. He could draw a detailed map of the ocean floor terrain from memory, which proved useful in planning their route.
A week into their journey, an unseasonal typhoon forced them to keep to the bathyl for several days. While storms raged overhead, they practiced a second play, one chosen by Ghost. Oedipus Rex was another ancient terrestrial work, several thousand years older than Hamlet. The tale of a son who unwittingly kills his father and marries his mother, triggering a string of tragic events seemed like an odd choice, but the glass human was adamant.
"Dark sea audiences will love it. Plenty of tragedy. Lots of death. Selkirk, you'll play the title role."
"Because you can read." Most of their soldiers were illiterate. He thrust the text into the light sea captain's hands. A dolphin skin scroll tattooed with squid ink, the book was probably worth twice as much as their copy of Hamlet since the words had to be inscribed on the creature's skin before it was killed. In light sea, such books were illegal.
"Where did you get this? Tell me you didn't steal it from Thaloc."
The glass human's smile was angelic. "Steal is a nasty word. King Thaloc gave it to me. I was thinking about Loch for the part of Jocasta. You'd like a chance to get closer to her, wouldn't you?"
It was impossible to hide anything from Ghost. After Emong, Selkirk had vowed not to get sexually involved with a soldier again, but Loch was exactly the type of woman he found most attractive. Erotic images filled his head. Knowing that the glass human was responsible for them did not make them any less arousing.
Once the storm subsided, hunger was their most pressing problem. There was very little to eat on the ocean floor, except sea urchins and eels. Pairs of soldiers were sent off in search of food. As usual, Selkirk and Kilydd formed a team. How long would the shadow hunter continue to watch him like a mother orca? When he slept, Kilydd was right beside him, and if he went ahead to scout, the prince was never far away. The troops stopped calling Selkirk "Mother Gertrude" and started calling him the "boss' wife." This was not the worst nickname he had ever acquired. His light sea troops had been known to refer to him as "Iron Ass Sandros" behind his back. However, it was the most embarrassing.
The storm had left the ocean's surface littered with kelp, drowned birds and even a few spars of timber from ancient wrecked ships. The flotsam attracted spawning fish and the predators which fed on them. With Shark's help, Selkirk and Kilydd bagged a sunfish and hauled it back to camp. The other hunters had similar luck, and the evening meal turned into a feast. A competition between the sharks over a fish carcass lead to betting. Once the first wagers were cast, people began gambling on everything. When they starting making bets about who was the "woman", Kilydd or Selkirk, the captain suddenly remembered that his knives needed polishing. That put a stop to their nonsense.
As Selkirk was packing, Loch swam to his side. Even in the bathyl, the water around the light sea woman was warm, as if the fire of the sun flowed through her veins. "There are some words I don't understand. Can you help me?" She recited one of her lines from Oedipus.
"Professor" was Selkirk's other nickname. The captain explained the difficult passage to Loch. "Jocasta is referring to her first husband here, not Oedipus."
"Oh. That makes sense." She brushed back her pink mane. "Selkirk..."
His pulse quickened. "Yes?"
"Has Kilydd said anything about me?" she signed.
His hopes were dashed, like the turtles which dragon petrels dropped from a great height onto Deadman's Rock. "He admires your psi skills."
She blushed. "I know that. But has he mentioned me in any other way?"
"Would you like me to tell him that you're interested?"
She shook her head. The warm water which surrounded her was rich with her scent. "No, no. Don't do that. I wouldn't want to...presume. He has a wife."
Selkirk considered replying "He has two of them. And four concubines. I'm sure there is room in his harem for a fifth." But that would be cruel. "Dark seaers aren't monogamous."
She brightened at that. "Thanks." She gave him a light peck on the cheek, a sisterly kiss devoid any of romantic intent.
Chapter 4. Leviathan
A week later, they passed through kraken territory. The giant cephalopods made their home in a methane seep known in dark sea as Python and in light sea as Delphi after an ancient terrestrial city which was home to a sacred dragon oracle. Krakens were too heavy and slow to leave the bathyl, so every night, their giant squid servants journeyed into middle sea to hunt for their masters. No surprise, then, that Kilydd's troops encountered a half dozen of the beasts as they swam over Delphi. The squids watched the intruders with huge, solemn eyes. Selkirk tried to keep his thoughts friendly. The beasts were said to be telepathic. With a mantle as big as a man and tentacles up to forty feet long, they posed a serious threat, even to a company of skilled fighters.
Shark bristled and circled Kilydd possessively. "Down boy," said the shadow hunter without taking his eyes off the giant squids. "Ghost, tell them we're just passing through."
The glass human approached the largest of the squids, a female whose deep red body looked almost black in the near darkness. Her eyes were huge, easily twelve inches across. Her tentacles were tipped with blue biolights. Beside her, Ghost looked smaller than a baby. Would she recognize him as an intelligent being? What if she decided that he was just an odd looking jellyfish? Squids ate jellyfish. They ate almost everything except sperm whales and great white sharks.
Slowly, Selkirk eased one of his knives from its sheath. Though the movement was almost imperceptible, six giant eyes immediately turned in his direction. He froze.
"Easy, easy," murmured Ghost.
Selkirk let his knife slide back into its sheath. He raised his hands to show that they were empty. The beasts' stares were unnerving. What were they thinking?
The hairs on the back of Selkirk's neck rose.
Killer killer killer killer killer.
He covered his ears with his hands, but he could not stop the noise. Images of Chatterton Reef appeared before his mind's eye.Fifteen young men and women, struck down in an instant, their manes swaying in the ocean current like kelp, their eyes open but unseeing. Cautiously, scavengers approached. An eel began to nibble at a toe. A crab took a bite of an earlobe.
Behind him, Kilydd growled. "Leave him alone!" With a lash of his tail, he surged forward.
As one, the squids released their ink. The water went black. Before Selkirk could switch to sonar, they had him surrounded. He smelled rather than saw them.
"Selkirk!" It was Kilydd.
"Captain!" shouted Yam. She sounded even more alarmed than the shadow hunter.
Itzli issued a stream of commands.
A cold tentacle wrapped around Selkirk's ankle. A thought appeared in his head. Tell them to back off along with the image of a giant squid tearing a man limb from limb. The coolly inhuman voice did not belong to Ghost, but it sapped his will as only a glass human could.
"Stay back!" he said obediently.
Our masters want to talk.
He wanted to tell Kilydd and the others to get the hell out of there, but he had lost the ability -- or maybe the will -- to control what his body said or did. "Their masters want to talk." He sounded mechanical, like a puppet.
"Let Selkirk go." Kilydd was a disembodied voice in the inky blackness. "I'm the leader of this troop. Take me."
Our masters wish to speak to the killer.
"They want to speak to the killer," Selkirk echoed. The killer? What the hell? Had his reputation spread as far as the kraken kingdom? Or had the squids peered into his soul and read his guilt? He could not begin to imagine what the krakens wanted with him. Unless they intended to pass judgment upon him. But what did they care if eighteen or even eighteen hundred humans died?
"I'll show you a killer!" the shadow hunter growled. A ripple of dark psi energy passed through the water.
For the first time, Selkirk sensed fear from the squids. We mean no harm.
"They mean no harm."
"Let Selkirk talk for himself!"
The icy tentacle relaxed its grip on his ankle. Released from the squid's control, Selkirk felt disoriented, as if he had just woken up from a long, deep sleep. The ink was beginning to clear. He saw Yam watching him, her pale face contorted with emotion. He gave her a smile that he hoped was reassuring. Kilydd's expression was stormy. He would not be satisfied with a smile or even by Selkirk's assurance that everything was going to be alright. Any moment now, he would lash out, and the result would be catastrophic.
"Kilydd," Selkirk said in slow, measured tones. "You have a kingdom to protect."
"Fuck the kingdom."
"You don't mean that."
The shadow hunter bared his teeth. "'Begin by seizing something which your opponent holds dear; then he will be amenable to your will.' Sun Tzu. If I let them take you, I might as well let them have the kingdom."
"Remember the fifth major fault of a leader. 'Over-solicitude for his men.'"
"Maybe if the deadlanders had been a little more careful of the needs of their men, they wouldn't have destroyed themselves."
They were at an impasse. The giant squids were determined to take Selkirk to their masters, and the shadow hunter was equally determined not to let him go.
"What if you and I go with him?" Ghost suggested.
"No," Selkirk countered. "You're too important -- "
"Good idea," said Kilydd. He made a great show of handing his obsidian knife to Itzli. "Stay here. If we're not back before dawn, tell Thaloc the krakens have declared war against dark sea."
To call Delphi a mountain was an exaggeration. In fact, it was little more than a plateau in the middle of a vast methane cold seep. Over millions of years, countless generations of mussels and tube worms had been born and then died here, leaving behind their shells which were compressed by the high pressure of the deep into a kind of porous rock. The ocean currents had carved out tunnels and caverns, which were now home to krakens, the most highly evolved invertebrates in the world. Some people claimed that the colossal squids were more intelligent than human beings. Certainly, they lived much longer. Their queen was said to have been old when humans returned to the sea a thousand years ago.
The natural tunnels beneath Delphi were wider than those carved into Deadman's Rock. They were brighter, too, since methane nourished luminous algae which grew in clumps on the walls. Lacking sonar, the squid inhabitants relied upon their vision to help them navigate the maze of corridors which rose, fell, twisted and turned seemingly at random. In some areas, the floor was carved with a repeating pattern of spirals. In others, the ceilings were similarly decorated. Selkirk began to suspect that the shapes had meaning. Perhaps they were the kraken equivalent of writing. Or they could be magic wards -- the colossal squids were said to be powerful sorcerers.
The deeper they swam, the more elaborate the decorations became. Patterns gave way to relief carvings depicting scenes from mythology. A giant squid fighting a sperm whale. A kraken with its tentacles wrapped around a ship. A terrestrial dragon striking down a human knight. A winged dragon with its claws on the back of an extinct earth creature called a tiger. A feathered serpent devouring a man. A serpent coiled around a tree, offering a naked woman a sphere. An octopus giving birth to the sun and stars. Images of squids, serpents and dragons as gods and demons, the carvings so intricate that Selkirk would have assumed them the work of human artists, if not for the fact that no human beings could survive long down here, in the cold water of the abyss. Lack of oxygen was making him sleepy. Kilydd and Ghost seemed unaffected -- for the moment. But the high levels of methane in the water would eventually have an effect on them, too. How did the old rhyme go?
An hour in the kraken's keep
Will bring a sailor lasting sleep.
As the cold numbed his limbs, Selkirk's telepathic senses became more acute. Even without physical contact, he could hear the thoughts of their squid escorts. Their language was alien to him, and so he perceived whispers without meaning, shadows without form. They meant him no harm, he was fairly certain of that. But what about their masters? What did the most ancient sentient race in the ocean want with a human assassin? Whatever it was, it must be important for the krakens to risk a confrontation with dark sea. The last time the humans and krakens went to war, both of their civilizations were almost destroyed. In the seven centuries since then, dark sea humans had become more numerous and powerful -- a threat to the kraken's dominance of the abyss. Was this something about the truce? No, if they wanted to bargain with dark sea, they would have asked to speak to Kilydd, not his captain.
They came to a door, two panels of unadorned ivory that opened inwards, revealing a corridor so bright that Selkirk had to blink. He had never seen so much gold in his life. Some of it was in the form of raw nuggets as big as his head. There were life size statues of men and women, birds and animals. There were ceremonial weapons forged from gold, including spears, tridents and swords. Mixed together with these larger pieces were innumerable small objects such as goblets, crowns, jewels -- how many wrecked ships had the krakens plundered over how many centuries to accumulate such wealth?
Beyond the mound of gold there was a smaller pile of gleaming white metal -- platinum. After the platinum came stacks of jewels, divided by color. As if in a dream, he found himself swimming over a field of emeralds that gave way to rubies and then diamonds. And that was just the start. Precious gems gave way to semiprecious gems, green minerals, such as jade and malachite followed by blue-- lapis lazuli and turquoise. Then violet amethyst, red carnelian, yellow topaz. Last of all came the clear or white semiprecious gems, such as pearls and quartz crystal.
Next came machines. Terrestrial era machines, combustion engines next to printing presses next to complicated bits of colored wire and steel whose purpose he could not guess. Wood and corrosive metals had decayed over time, while plastic, glass and fine metals remained, so that some of the objects seemed oddly incomplete. Did the krakens know who built these machines and why? Or did they simply collect what caught their eye?
Glancing up, he saw a collection of a different kind. Plastic, that miraculous terrestrial substance that could survive centuries under water without losing its color or shape. The ceiling of the cavern was covered with cups, plates, toys, spoons, dolls and other objects he could not identify which were sorted by color, first red, then orange, then yellow, like a rainbow. As they swam past, the floating objects bobbed and turned before settling back into new patterns. It was a feast for the eye, the kind of display designed to please a creature whose primary sensation was sight.
By now, Selkirk should have been too confused from oxygen deprivation and methane poisoning to think straight. However, a deep ocean current brought fresh water to the krakens' treasure room. The drowsiness vanished. His senses were sharp once again, and so he smelled his hosts before he saw them. The kraken had an earthier odor than their giant squid attendants. It was the scent of a coral reef uprooted by a tsunami, part decay and part new life, and it came from the niches carved into the wall at the far end of the room. The holes varied in size. A few were barely taller than Selkirk. Others were large enough to admit a fully grown blue whale. From within the dark recesses, giant white and black eyes peered at the human visitors. At first glance, it seemed that a single, enormous hard shelled beast with dozens of eyes was gazing at them. Closer inspection revealed that each hole in the wall housed a single kraken.
A thick yellow and brown patterned tentacle emerged from the largest niche. The red female squid propelled herself forward and locked tentacles with her master. Or rather, her mistress. This was, unmistakably, the legendary kraken queen, whom some called Ayida-Weddo, the rainbow serpent wife of the god, Damballah.
Selkirk forgot his fear as he stared into eyes that had seen the first gilled humans return to the sea. There was no malice behind the queen's gaze. He sensed rather than saw Kilydd relax. As always, Ghost's emotions were a mystery.
The red squid beckoned Selkirk with her free tentacle. As her cold flesh touched his, he heard a deep, resonant voice speaking to him inside his head. The kraken queen's vocalizations produced images rather than words. He saw a sea monster, smooth and black with an oddly shaped dorsal fin and square flukes. Its eyes were burning red, and flames shot from its mouth. When its belly scraped the bottom of the ocean, it did not bleed. Instead, it was the rocks which crumbled beneath the weight of the massive beast. The sperm whale which came to investigate looked like a child in comparison. It nudged the black beast with its nose. The monster responded by spitting something about the size and shape of a barracuda from its mouth. One, two, three seconds passed. And then the sperm whale disappeared in a cloud of blood and blubber.
So vivid was the image that he was not even aware that Ghost was reading his thoughts and relaying them to Kilydd, until the shadow hunter murmured. "Leviathan. 'His breath sets coals ablaze, and flames dart from his mouth;'" he quoted. '"Strength resides in his neck; dismay goes before him. The folds of his flesh are tightly joined; they are firm and immovable. His chest is hard as rock, hard as a lower millstone. When he rises up, the mighty are terrified; they retreat before his thrashing.'"
Selkirk knew the passage, and he had to admit that it was apt. However, the beast which the kraken queen had showed them was not Leviathan or any other mythological creature, though no doubt the terrestrials were thinking about the legendary sea monster when they constructed it. As a military historian, he recognized it for what it was -- a submarine, a terrestrial era manned submersible capable of exploring the deepest parts of the ocean. A weapon designed to do the Baron's work in the realm of Agwe.
"You've seen submarines?" he asked. It was a silly question. If the queen was over a thousand years old, she would have seen all sorts of human machines.
The red squid tightened her grip on his arm. The visions became more intense. He saw modern humans, shadow hunters with their tails, light seaers with their shifting skin color and rainbow manes. The black behemoth swam among them. It knocked them aside as easily as a man might bat away a jellyfish. In its wake it left chaos and destruction.
Selkirk's eyes widened. "You're saying that there's a submarine in the ocean now? A working submarine?" He tried to recall everything he knew about the submersible ships. The most advanced models were nuclear powered. They could sail for decades, only coming up when their crews needed food and supplies.
Was this why the deadlanders were searching the ghost reefs? Did they need nuclear material to power a submarine? As a military historian, the thought of seeing such a legendary machine filled him with excitement. As a light sea captain, it filled him with dread. Up until now, he had assumed that the drylanders whom they had encountered could only make mischief on the ocean's surface. But if they had a submarine -- or worse submarines they could go anywhere, do anything. Dark sea would not be safe from them. The krakens would not be safe from them.
As if she had read his mind, the kraken queen showed him the results of a giant squid attack on the submarine. Even though their fighters came armed with metal tools, they could not breech the hull of the ship. When they tried to overwhelm the submarine with sheer numbers, they were blown to pieces like the sperm whale.
Weakness. It was not a word so much as a feeling. Everything in the world had a weakness. No matter how strong or fast or seemingly invincible a thing was, there was always something it feared. Dolphins feared underwater caves, where they could be trapped and suffocate. The sun feared rain clouds. The moon feared the bright light of dawn.
This time it was a question. Selkirk, the military historian found the answer easily. "As long as its hatches are shut, it's invincible. But when it comes to the surface, when its hatches are opened, then it can be breached. The machine itself can swim for years without stopping. The people inside are flesh and blood. They have to eat. When they come out for supplies, they can be defeated."
Satisfaction washed over him, and at that moment, he knew why the giant squids worshipped their queen. She did not rule by force or fear. Her greatest power was love. Absolute, unconditional love. He would do anything to be worthy of that love, even kill a ship full of drylanders --
His will struggled to assert itself. "No. No, I can't. They're just like you and me. They're trying to survive."
Survive? He saw the destruction which terrestrial era humans had wrought through eyes that had witnessed the atrocities. An island exploded under a mushroom cloud. The sun rose over a dying sea colored black with oil. A pod of whales, driven mad by the noise from human machines threw themselves onto a beach to die. Dolphins, sharks, giant squids and even a kraken were caught in fishermen's nets, the sentient beings butchered alongside the lawful prey as if they were all just so much meat. The skies poured acid instead of water. Coral reefs turned as white as bone. All this death at the hands of puny creatures which inhabited only a tiny fraction of the earth's surface and made up an even smaller fraction of its biomass. Until finally, the rising waters of the ocean washed over terrestrial cities, where men and women pushed and clawed at each other in their frenzy to claim the highest ground. To Ayida-Weddo, the sea's wounds were still fresh, as if they had happened just the other day rather than a thousand years ago.
Survive. Now, the kraken queen showed him the future. Human warriors would ambush the submarine when it came up to the surface for supplies. A psi fighter would drop inside, and, with a single thought, he would kill everyone. The submarine's inhabitants were drylanders. They had no psionic defenses, and so they would die instantly.
The giant squids could not do it. They could not survive outside the deep. Their smaller, light sea relatives, the octopi could breathe air for a short time, but they did not have the fighting ability required for such a mission. The limbless predators, dolphins, whales and sharks could not do it. A simple hatch would be an insurmountable obstacle to them. Only humans could kill these other humans. And Selkirk knew, with an awful sinking certainty, that if the chance presented itself to him, he would do it.
Was this the power of the kraken queen? Did her prophecies come true, because she forced them upon weaker willed creatures? Or did she only foretell the inevitable? Because it wasinevitable, much as it pained Selkirk to admit it. When Kilydd decided to accompany him into the krakens' lair, it had become inevitable. Should the light sea captain falter in this mission, the shadow hunter would not hesitate to take his place. Kilydd would do it -- and take pleasure in doing it -- even if the kraken queen, through Ghost, had not made him an offer he could not refuse.
"She says to tell you," said the glass human. "That if you do this job for her, she'll loan you enough troops to help you get back your kingdom. Sounds like a good deal to me."
A year and a half after the end of the war, Selkirk returned to Chatterton Reef. He had seen the coral and anemone encrusted conical tower so often in his dreams that it seemed like only yesterday. The reactor's shadow fell over the spot where he had ambushed the young dark sea guerillas. Since there were no large predators in a ghost reef to drag their carcasses away, their bones lay where they had fallen, comrades back to back, lovers asleep forever in each other's arms.
They had divided their company so that they could keep a constant watch on the four ghost reefs located in the Sea of Three. If Selkirk was correct, the drylanders would eventually visit all of them in their search for nuclear fuel. Directly or indirectly, the material they salvaged would make its way to the submarine. All they had to do was follow the trail.
Selkirk had intended to leave Chatterton Reef to one of the other groups. However, when they were drawing up their plans, Maremoto had one of her premonitions. "The tower," she said. "We'll find them at the tower."
"Tower?" Kilydd quizzed.
"Yeah. A big fucking tower. No doors or windows. That's where they'll be."
It was no use pretending that Selkirk did not know what she was talking about. Ghost was there. "She means the reactor at Chatterton Reef."
"Then that's where we're going." Kilydd looked at Ghost, Umi and Maremoto for confirmation. One by one, they nodded their heads. Selkirk was not given an opportunity to object. It was now a given within their group. Where Kilydd went so did Selkirk.
And so, the light sea captain returned to the scene of his greatest military triumph which was also the source of his worst nightmares in the company of former enemies who were now his best friends. Was fate mocking him? Or was it giving him an unexpected chance for redemption?
Left where they were, the bones of the fallen dark sea child soldiers would eventually end up in the hands of necromancers or black sorcerers. So, in his free time when he was not on watch, Selkirk began to construct a tomb. At first, the monument was a simple pile of rocks. However, as the days of waiting stretched to weeks, the pile grew into a small tower.
"It looks like a penis," Kilydd commented one day.
This lead to jokes. Each evening, Maremoto would ask Selkirk "How's your dick?" while Umi giggled in the background.
His dreams were oddly peaceful, considering his situation. Maybe his conscience no longer felt the need to torment him by night, since he had all day to contemplate his sins. Each stone that he laid on the monument seemed to remove a tiny bit of the weight from his shoulders. He would never forget what had happened there, but maybe, just maybe, he would find a way to live with the memory.
The monument was almost seven feet tall by the time the drylanders arrived at Chatterton Reef. Selkirk recognized the ship. It was the same one that had almost captured Shark. He and Kilydd watched from a safe distance as divers explored the submerged reactor. Now that he knew what he was seeing, it was obvious that they were wearing wet suits. They brought special tools to help them gouge a hole in the tower's wall, including one machine so loud that it drove Shark into a frenzy. It circled its master over and over again, until, finally exhausted by its own nervous energy, it partially buried its head in the sand in a futile attempt to hide.
The members of Kilydd's party kept their distance, except for Ghost, who seized the opportunity to do a little recon. "You were right," he told Selkirk when he returned from reading the divers' minds. "The fuel is for a diving ship. Big and black, larger than a whale."
"What's the payoff?"
"Protection. A chance for treasure. A new home. They have old maps. They know there was a volcanic island in the Sea of Three before the Exodus, one high enough to have survived the flood."
That would be Deadman's Rock. A few months ago, Selkirk would have been alarmed to discover that drylanders were targeting one of light sea's most important assets. Now, he did not really care who claimed the bit of land.
"And how do they deliver the goods to the submarine?"
"They don't. Not directly. They'll leave the merchandise on a raft anchored to a knoll about a hundred miles southeast of here."
"Siren's Knoll," said Selkirk. He knew the area well. An underwater mountain in the middle of dark sea territory, it had provided the light sea military with a much needed base during the war. "Excellent. All we have to do is camp at the knoll and wait for the submarine to show up."
Yam, Loch and Lohan, one of Xipe's regulars, were dispatched to tell the other squads of their plan. Umi and Kilydd, their fastest swimmers, went ahead. Selkirk, Maremoto and Ghost followed behind. Six days later, they reunited at the knoll which got its name from its shape. Seen from the north in just the right light, the submerged rock looked vaguely like a mermaid. The kelp forest which grew at its pinnacle was the siren's streaming hair.
As they got closer, Selkirk noted something floating in the water over the kelp forest. A raft, just as Ghost had predicted. A thin metal chain fastened it to the rocky structure below. It was a flimsy boat. An inquisitive whale or a strong storm wind could easily capsize it. The drylanders must expect the submarine to show up soon, he thought, if they were willing to leave their precious cargo exposed like that. Why not stick around themselves to make sure the nuclear fuel was delivered safely? Was there something wrong with the submarine? Something dangerous about it that made the drylanders living in the sailing boat hesitate to get too near?
Shark was the first to greet them. It could not make up its mind which of the three, Selkirk, Ghost or Mare it was happiest to see, so it swam in circles around all of them. Next came Umi. Maremoto launched herself into the mermaid's arms. Long, dark blue-green hair swirled around the two women. Selkirk had forgotten how good the siren smelled. Umi caught him staring, and she blew him a kiss which made him blush.
Kilydd came last. He was smiling, something that happened so rarely that even Ghost remarked upon it. "You and Umi have a good time alone together?"
Maremoto gave the glass human a fuck you gesture, then she went back to nuzzling Umi's neck.
The shadow hunter hugged Ghost with one arm and Selkirk with the other. "Took you long enough."
"That's because some of us are only human, Sharkboy," said Ghost impishly.
Kilydd bared his teeth. "Human? Tell that to the next jellyfish that tries to hump you."
They laughed and caroused like the children they might have been had the war not forced them to grow up overnight. Selkirk left them to their reunion and went to scout.
Siren's Knoll was home to numerous fish, including huge schools of pink snapper that congregated around the remains of a half dozen terrestrial era ruins. Selkirk was pleased to see that the local hogfish population was coming back. Their flesh was considered a delicacy in light sea, and the military had hunted them almost to extinction during its occupation. Now that the knoll was under dark sea control again, its ecosystem was returning to normal. They would not lack for food while they waited for the submarine to appear.
His stomach growled, reminding him that he had not eaten in over twelve hours. He returned to the others. Umi had prepared a special dish of hogfish wrapped in sea weed. She served Selkirk, then she and Mare retired to one of the numerous caves that the sea had carved into the sides of mountain.
The long, oversea journey had given Selkirk plenty of time to think of everything that might go wrong with their plan. Though his muscles ached and his mind was foggy from lack of sleep, there were a few things that could not wait. "The biggest unknown is their machines. If they managed to get a submarine working again, then they must have a pretty good understanding of terrestrial era technology."
"You're the military history expert," said Kilydd. "Tell us what we should look out for."
"First, we know they have torpedoes."
" Projectile weapons that explode when they hit their target. Or, sometimes, the explosion's delayed. Remember what the krakens showed us? The sperm whale that died? That was the work of a torpedo. Some of them are easy to dodge. Others seek out specific targets. Anything hot. Submarines aren't like other ships. They generate a lot of heat. Their torpedoes were designed to take out their biggest threat, namely enemy submarines. But they work against living creatures, too. So, when in doubt, drop your body temperature to that of the water around you.
"Second, don't expect to hear the submarine before it gets here. They were designed for stealth. Shark might be able to hear it from miles away, but we sure as hell won't. That means someone needs to be on watch at all times
"Third, though drylanders don't have sonar, their machines do. Underwater, they 'see' using sound waves. So don't assume that you're invisible to them just because it's dark. What am I forgetting? Oh yes. Radio. If they have radio, then anything one of them sees or hears, the rest of them know, no matter how far away the others are. If their sailing ship comes back for any reason, hide. If they put up a dozen barbed nets, don't touch them. If they start eating baby dolphins, look the other way. Because if they see us, they'll warn the submarine about the trap." It was getting hard to keep his eyes open. "That's enough for now. I'll draw you a diagram tomorrow of a submarine so you'll know what to expect. You have a question, Kilydd?"
"No. Not a question. I was just thinking. We were always taught that deadlanders were weak."
"They are weak. Without their machines. That's why they created us the way they did, with gills and telepathy and special psi abilities. So we would survive in their place. And then, they turned around and changed their minds about dying. Inconvenient for us, but I can't say I blame them."
Kilydd nodded. " 'The race of man flies far in dread; his work and dwelling vanish, like smoke before the tempest's stream.' That's from a poem about a mountain. Mont Blanc. White Mountain. They wanted to be like mountains and last forever. But even mountains wear away, over time. One day this knoll -- " He picked up a handful of sand and let its fall through his fingers. The water clouded and then cleared again as the sand resettled. "This rock will be sand on the ocean's floor. The sand that's down there now -- how much of that used to be mountains? And before it was a mountain -- what? What was it before that? Nothing in the world stays the same. Not even the world we grew up in. What if the deadlanders are supposed to come back? What if we're just delaying the inevitable?"
It was a somber thought. No one said a word as the sun set. Finally, overcome by fatigue, Selkirk retired to one of the caves, the one that smelled like Kilydd and Shark. This close to the surface, there was no need to conserve body heat. However, he had gotten used to the young shadow hunter's presence. He slept better when he was around.
It was a spectacular sunrise. The sky was pink streaked with lavender grey clouds. The ocean surface shimmered, the water pale silver except for the horizon line which was the color of burnished gold. Selkirk and Kilydd, who had shared the night watch, stopped what they were doing to gaze at the huge, red disc of light that hovered over the sea.
"I was five the first time I saw the sun set," signed Kilydd. "I thought it was a volcanic eruption." The shadow hunter yawned and stretched his neck. Beneath the vast sky, he seemed smaller than usual. "Shark's been acting strange."
"You think it senses something that we can't?"
Mare and Umi were supposed to take the morning watch, but neither Kilydd nor Selkirk moved from their lookout position beside the raft. Below them, the frill shark was swimming around in circles, stirring up so much sand that it was impossible to see more than a few feet through the cloudy water. Fish swam by, but Shark did not bite. Something had it spooked.
Selkirk scanned the horizon. There was no sign of the dolphin pod which had been patrolling these waters for the last four days. Various bits of flotsam dotted the sea, but no birds circled overhead. The water over the reef was calm, but in the distance waves were beginning to form. The wind, which usually blew in from the northwest this time of year, was from the south. "A storm's coming. We'll need to secure the raft. Make sure it doesn't float away."
"Can a submarine surface in a storm?" asked Kilydd.
"Yes. But if I were the captain, I'd hurry to pick up my cargo before the waves get too high."
"So we wait?"
"Yeah." As much as he respected Mare and Umi, Selkirk intended to tackle the submarine himself. There were some things the C.O. could not delegate to subordinates.
A line of dark clouds was beginning to form in the south. Kilydd, who had seldom witnessed storms, watched with a mixture of fascination and apprehension. In the deep, the only natural cataclysms were earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. "Is it true a storm can wash away an entire reef?"
"A typhoon can. But it's too late in the year for a typhoon. This is just a regular storm. It'll stir up a lot of sand and knock down a few staghorn corals, but once it's over, the reef will soon be back to normal." Unless the raft overturned and dumped its cargo into the ocean. In that case, the lush paradise beneath them would likely become a ghost reef.
Maremoto joined them. The red light of dawn intensified her ruddy coloring. Her short mane was plastered to the back of her neck. She squinted at the distant dark clouds. "What's up?"
"A storm's coming."
She scanned the southern horizon. Her smile vanished. "So that's what it is. I thought..."
"You thought?" Selkirk prompted.
"I dreamed about a black whale. I hoped maybe the submarine was coming so we could get off this damn rock."
Ghost appeared in the water at their feet. Lacking lungs, he had to stay submerged, but he could see through their eyes. The sky looks nasty.
"Mare, you and Umi secure our belongings," Selkirk signed. " The northern caves will be safest. The deeper the better."
"And if the submarine shows up during the storm?"
"Kilydd and I will handle it."
She stuck out her tongue. "You're no fun. I owe them for what they did to Umi."
Kilydd bared his teeth. "Don't worry. We'll save a couple of them for you."
"Good. I want some trophies to carry back to dark sea." She dove and swam towards the reef below.
The line of storm clouds was still distant, but the wind was picking up. The waves were now high enough to obscure their view, so Selkirk and Kilydd returned to the reef. They had positioned the hull of a small wrecked ship immediately beneath the raft, so that they would be invisible to sonar. They kept their body temperature reduced to that of the water around them so that heat seeking weapons could not target them. They limited their communication to signs. They had even scoured the reef for anything that might be a camera or recording device. There should be no way for the drylanders within the submarine to detect their presence, but Selkirk was still worried. A thousand years was a long time. Maybe the terrestrials had come up with some new technology. Maybe they had created more telepaths, like the glass humans. Maybe they had machines that could detect and read human thoughts. As a precaution, he signaled to Ghost to stay with them.
"Mask our presence, please."
Already on it the glass human replied with a grin that was just barely visible, despite the bright morning light.
A few minutes later, Mare returned with Umi. They brought food and more news. The eels, octopi and other creatures which made the caves their homes were acting as nervous as Shark. "We moved our stuff into a cave on the northern face of the mountain, just like you said," Mare signed. "There was an octopus inside, but it didn't seem to notice us, even when Umi moved its toys aside to make room for our gear."
There was room for the six of them beneath the shattered hull, as long as no one tried to move. Umi's scent had a soothing effect on all of them. Even Shark stopped circling and wrapped its long body around Kilydd's legs. Slowly, the light grew dimmer as the sky overhead went from clear to cloudy and finally to dark, stormy gray.
"It's coming," signed Mare.
"The storm?" Selkirk asked.
"I guess. Something big and dark. Ghost, you sense anything?"
Just a bunch of scared fish. And Umi's giving Kilydd and Selkirk hard-ons. Better turn down the pheromones if you want them in fighting shape.
The mermaid giggled softly.
Shhh. I'm trying to concentrate. Ghost claimed that drylanders were so easy to read that he could sense their thoughts from over a mile away. With the water dark, cloudy and choppy, he would be the first of them to notice if the submarine approached the reef. Selkirk masked his own thoughts, and he felt Kilydd and Maremoto do the same, so that they would not distract the glass human who was staring fixedly towards the north.
Something's out there. Could be a dolphin pod. Could be whales.
"Heading north, away from the storm?"
No. It's getting closer.
Selkirk and Kilydd exchanged glances.
They're still too far away for me to read their thoughts, but I can feel emotions. Anger? No, more like annoyance, the way people get pissed when they have to be around other people they don't really like but don't actually hate, either. What's the word for being scared of small places? He plucked the answer to his question straight from Selkirk's mind. Claustrophobia. And fear. Lots of fear. Fear of death. Fear of failure. Fear of fear. But they're trying hard not to show it. Afraid their fear will make the others worry.
"Sounds like a battlefield," Kilydd signed.
Yeah, except these people don't think they're heading into a battlefield. They aren't scared of what's ahead of them. They're just plain scared. Like kids whose parents beat them every day, and they don't know anything different.
Not for the first time, Selkirk wondered how Ghost was able to cope with his intimate knowledge of the worst aspects of human nature. If he suddenly developed the glass human's abilities, he would probably go mad. Or become a hermit. "You sure they're human?"
Yeah, but I can't tell yet what kind of humans. Could be light seaers. They can't mask their thoughts for shit. No offense, captain.
Ah. Now, I'm getting some actual thoughts. Mostly sensations. Lots of aches and pains. 'My stomach hurts'. 'My head hurts.' 'Will my hair keep falling out until I'm bald?' 'How much longer until I'm dead?' -- You know, I think killing those people might be an act of mercy.
Was the last for Selkirk's benefit? He knew that both Ghost and Kilydd were worried about him. "I'll be fine," he signed. "This isn't anything like Chatterton Reef." It was a lie. This was exactly like Chatterton Reef. He was about to jump into the middle of the enemy camp and use a psi blast to kill and maim indiscriminately. He wished that he could assign the task to someone else, but he was the only logical choice. He knew more about ancient terrestrial weapons than any of the others. If someone pointed a pistol or rifle at him, he would recognize the danger and know how to react.
It's getting clearer now. They're crammed inside a small space. Lots of lights, lots of metal. The stench is awful. Someone is giving orders. I can't translate what he's saying. Must be something technical. Lots of activity. Excitement. Ah, fresh air --!
Selkirk could sense the drylanders now, and from the way Kilydd started, he knew that the shadow hunter could, too. They were coming from the north.
"Umi, Mare, stay here. Ghost and Kilydd come with me."
He kicked off from the shipwreck and swam straight towards the source of the unfamiliar psionic energy. Though he had a head start, Kilydd quickly caught up and then passed him. The shadow hunter was a dark blur in the water. With any luck, the submarine's sonar would "see" him as a fish or a shark.
He smelled the submersible before he saw it. The tang of steel and another, unfamiliar odor. The water straight ahead was dark as night, but hot -- hotter than shallow water on a bright summer day, almost as hot as an underwater steam vent. As he swam into the overheated water, he allowed his own body temperature to return to normal, which let him increase his speed.
There, up ahead. Just as Mare had predicted, something that looked very much like a large sperm whale, but black all over. By Agwe, it was huge! How could two small humans hope to battle such a monster? But he and Kilydd had to succeed. If drylanders possessed such a weapon, they would become the masters of the ocean. No community would be safe. They had almost destroyed human civilization once. They could not be allowed a second chance.
The submarine was standing still, its top portion partially exposed. Kilydd headed for the surface with Selkirk not far behind. They had practiced for this attack so many times that the captain did not have to think. He automatically leapt from the water and landed on the smooth, hot surface of the ship. It was slick with water, but he had expected that. He slowed down, scrambling on all fours so that he would not slip. Kilydd was almost to the hatch. His black skin provided the perfect camouflage as he zigzagged across the surface of the submersible. Two drylanders with hairy faces were inflating a small raft. Clearly, they intended to use it to pick up the nuclear fuel. The wind and waves were making things difficult for them, and so they did not notice Kilydd until he was upon them --
And then past them. What the fuck? Kilydd's job was to disable anyone they found outside the submarine, so that the drylanders inside the ship would have no warning of the coming attack. Selkirk would drop through the open hatch and use a psi blast to knock out anyone within range. Then, Kilydd would follow him as they searched for survivors. The submarine was so large that it was likely a single psi wave would not reach the very ends of the ship.
Get those two. It was Kilydd, via Ghost. The shadow hunter disappeared through the open hatch.
Cursing under his breath, Selkirk took out the two drylanders while they were still gaping at him, open mouthed. Then, he followed the shadow hunter into the submarine. He had felt the psi blast, and so he was prepared for what he found inside. Almost.
The compartment was so tiny that Kilydd could not stand up straight. He looked like a grown up visiting a child's playhouse, except that no child's playhouse had ever been the scene of such carnage. There were bodies everywhere, some of them slumped over their workstations, others crumpled on the floor. Men and women. No children, thank Erzulie. Selkirk did a quick count. Twenty-one. A submarine usually had a crew many times that size. Where were the rest?
The shadow hunter lifted one body by the neck and held it up for Selkirk to see. The woman's face was covered with oozing sores and her scalp was almost bald except for a few patches of hair. The other crew members were in similar shape.
"Ghost was right," Kilydd said. "They were all going to die soon anyway."
It should not have made a difference, but it did. Selkirk relaxed. And then, he remembered that the young shadow hunter had just disobeyed orders, and years of military training kicked in. He glared at Kilydd. "We'll talk about your insubordination later. Ghost, how are things outside?"
Mare's got two more heads. Oh, and there are survivors, some at either end of the submarine -- -
Selkirk was already sprinting towards one door, while Kilydd moved towards the other. The captain found only dead and unconscious drylanders in the next two compartments, but when he came to the nuclear power generator, he was confronted by a couple of skinny, sickly looking bald women wielding pistols. He did not hesitate. They were dead before they hit the floor, along with the crew members in the next section, which appeared to be their quarters. Some of them were still in their bunks. All were pale and thin, with scant hair and oozing sores on their skin. The place reeked of human sweat, piss, vomit and shit.
In the last compartment, Selkirk discovered something that made him forget his pity for the drylanders. Laid out on a steel table was the body of a siren, half dissected. Her flesh was still warm. The woman lying on the floor beside the table with a scalpel in her hand must have been cutting the mermaid to pieces while she still lived. Had they given the siren something to render her unconscious? He hoped so. The fact that she was not tied down suggested that she did not struggle. But there were drugs that paralyzed without rendering a man unconscious. Black magicians harvested them from puffer fish. Organs that he recognized as human and dolphin were lined up on a table in small glass jars. One of them contained the head of a shadow hunter, a young female. There was even a glass human, displayed as if he was nothing more than one of the albino pythons in the White Snake casino in Alexandria. A trophy. A thing.
Near the dead drylander, Selkirk spotted a notebook made of velum. The script was archaic terrestrial English. Over the course of a thousand years, the language had changed, but he could still decipher it. What he read within the pages of that journal sent shivers down his spine. The author had made a careful study of the various types of humans who inhabited the ocean. He or she detailed experiments using drugs, infection, radiation and other poisons, all designed to determine the easiest and most effective way to kill and control the denizens of the sea. Some of the conclusions written in small, neat print were chilling.
Their greatest weakness is the ocean itself. Poison the water which they breathe, and they succumb quickly. Biologic weapons designed to target their peculiar physiology would be ideal, but even a more generally toxic substance such as crude petroleum would have a devastating effect on the engineered aquatic population of the planet, rendering it safer for human inhabitation.
Human? Human? Did that mean the drylanders considered light seaers and shadow hunters and mermaids and glass humans and all the other engineered species animals? And what about dolphins, whales and krakens? Were they also animals to be hunted for food and sport like fish or eels?
If any proof was needed that these drylanders were dangerous, this was it. Selkirk looked around for an empty glass jar. He put the notebook inside it and sealed the lid tight.
Kilydd appeared. A quick glance around the cabin told him all he needed to know. With a snarl, he lifted the dead researcher from the floor and broke her spine across his knee. Then, he hurled her mangled corpse at the line of glass specimen containers. They fell to the floor and shattered, human brains mingling with dolphin hearts and giant squid eyes.
"Let's sink this thing and get out of here."
Sinking the submarine took considerably longer than capturing it. Selkirk could not make heads or tails of the controls. Eventually, the storm did their work for them. As huge waves washed over the ship, the interior began to fill with water. In the nick of time, Selkirk remembered that water and electrical power did not mix, and he and Kilydd evacuated just as the sparks began. With the power knocked out, there was nothing to keep the submarine afloat, and it began to sink. It ended up about a mile north of the reef. Once it settled safely on the bottom of the ocean in the upper bathyl, they placed the cans of radioactive fuel in the engine room. If the drylanders discovered the wrecked submarine at the bottom of the ocean, they would assume that it sank during the storm.
By silent agreement, Selkirk and Kilydd did not tell the others about their grisly discovery in the ship's research lab, but there was no keeping secrets from Ghost.
"So?" he asked. "What do we do now?"
Kilydd scowled. "We go home to dark sea. I get my throne back. And if any fucking deadlanders get in the way, we show them no mercy."
Selkirk could not sleep. Taking care not to disturb Kilydd, he grabbed the glass jar and swam to the surface. The sky was clear, and the moon was full and bright. The ocean's surface glittered with reflected light. He climbed onto the raft and took out the drylander's notebook.
The author was the ship's physician as well as a research scientist. Each day, she logged the names of crew members who visited sick bay along with their diagnoses. "Radiation toxicity" was at the top of almost every list. Those who happened to be near the reactor during a radiation leak got sick right away, with vomiting and diarrhea often occurring within minutes to hours. Those whose jobs seldom took them into the engine room tended to stay healthy longer, but invariably they developed symptoms. After several months, they would begin to suffer from headaches, or they would complain that their muscles were getting weak. A few of them had trouble breathing. The women reported 'irregular menses'. It took Selkirk a while to figure that last one out since aquatic women did not bleed the way that their terrestrial ancestors once did. Blood in the water was too dangerous. It attracted sharks and other predators.
One medical entry caught his eye. A woman -- not a crew member -- had given birth to an infant with gills and a tail. Subject insists she has never met, much less had sex with an aquatic. Her story remained the same under deep hypnosis. The infant was nonviable. Its lungs were hypoplastic, and when it was submerged in sea water, to see if it could survive that way, it went into right heart failure.
Selkirk silently thanked his deceased mother for insisting that he study ancient medical texts when he was in grade school. She had hoped to make him a medic, like her, and though he had discovered that his talents lay elsewhere -- he was good at taking, not saving lives -- his medical knowledge had been a boon. It is always easier to take something apart if you knew how it was put together.
If I believe the woman's story, then I am left with only one possible explanation for her child's deformities. Something altered the fetus' development, and instead of shedding its tail and gill slits, remnants of earlier stages of human evolution, it kept them. Are the plasmid vectors --
Selkirk wrinkled his brow at this one. Plasmid vectors? Plasma had to do with blood. Was she writing about a blood component?
-- that were once used to change archaic, dormant DNA into active DNA still present in the environment? Some of the early test subjects at the Richardson Labs were much like this infant.
This was followed by diagrams of tiny malformed infants, some with no arms or legs, some with deformed limbs, a few with their hearts or intestines outside their body. Some had flat heads, as if their brain was missing. Many had crooked, oversized tails.
Or is this merely a result of Darwinian trial and error? Would nature have eventually crafted a gilled human if humanity had not decided to tackle the job itself? Does that mean that a million years from now, all of us will be aquatics?
A million years? Did the doctor really imagine that her people -- the terrestrials -- would survive for another million years? No wonder they wanted to find a way to eliminate the competition. Never mind that their own scientists were the ones who created the aquatic races.
Selkirk could not help being intrigued -- even admiring—the woman who made the medical entries, which were written in black squid ink. However, spaced at regular intervals throughout the medical log were passages written in sepia cuttlefish ink which described the doctor's experiments on ocean dwelling humans. Many were performed on live subjects. She placed gilled infants in diluted ocean water in order to see what effect hypotonic water would have on their bodies. Test subjects were dissected after death, which was generally caused by swelling of the brain. The survivors were also dissected, often while still alive. She tested poisons that were designed specifically to target copper rich cold water blood or iron rich warm water blood in search of toxins that could be used selectively to kill off either light or dark sea populations. At the time of her death, she was working on a substance that would clog the gills of any aquatic who encountered it in the water but which would not harm drylanders who drank or ate it.
Selkirk felt ill after reading these sections of the journal. The callous way in which she described the agony suffered by children, most of them less than two years old, disgusted him. If she offered them any type of anesthesia or sedation, she did not record it. How did she get her hands on so many infants and children? Did the submarine attack and slaughter underwater communities and steal their young? Did they barter with pirates? Technology in exchange for research subjects? Ghost had mentioned hearing rumors of deadlanders from pirates. Selkirk made a mental note. Once Kilydd was safely installed on his throne, he would infiltrate a pirate band and see what he could discover.
Selkirk was rereading the journal, looking for answers to this mystery, when Kilydd popped his head out of the water and propped his elbows on the edge of the raft. Bathed in moonlight, he was sleek and dark, like a statue of Agwe carved in ebony. The shadow hunter was the pinnacle of human development, adapted for the most brutal, unforgiving parts of the ocean, with physical prowess that matched that of the sharks, the heightened senses of a giant squid, and the mind of a human -- and yet, to the terrestrials, he was subhuman.
"What are you doing?"
"I see that. What are you reading?"
Selkirk read aloud one of the passages written in black ink in which the doctor detailed the autopsy findings of a crew member who died from acute radiation poisoning.
"Why did the deadlanders make such devices if they're so deadly?" Kilydd asked.
"The submarine was almost a thousand years old. It wouldn't have leaked so much radiation when it was first built, when there were still spare parts and people who knew how to repair it properly. Plus the fuel they were using was mostly nuclear waste. Probably full of impurities. Kilydd..."
The shadow hunter hauled himself out of the water. The raft sagged under his weight. "Is this going to be the lecture about my 'insubordination'?' Kilydd mimicked Selkirk's light sea pronunciation. "Should I write in the sand a thousand times 'I won't rush headfirst into danger?'"
"You're a prince," Selkirk reminded him. "Agwe willing, you'll soon be a king. You have to learn to let others fight for you. If anything were to happen to you -- "
"You would be there to guard my back. As I would be there to guard yours. It wasn't a spur of the moment decision. Ghost and I discussed it in advance. We were afraid that once you got inside you'd see something that would make you hesitate. A woman or a child. You could have been killed. And I need you. You're the backbone of my army. My general."
"I thought I was going to be your captain of the guards."
"You've been promoted."
"'There are roads which must not be followed, armies which must be not attacked, towns which must be besieged, positions which must not be contested, commands of the sovereign which must not be obeyed,'" Selkirk replied, quoting Sun Tzu.
"Don't be a smart ass."
"Very well, great sovereign. What do we do next?"
Kilydd cuffed him lightly on the back of the head. "I said don't be a smart ass. We go back and collect our reward for sinking the sub. With the krakens supporting me, I'll have no trouble building an army. The only fighters shadow hunters respect more than themselves are giant squid. My uncle's gonna shit himself," he added gleefully.
A few days later, they rejoined the rest of the troops on top of Mount Delphi.
The celebration lasted two days and nights. In addition to the promised giant squid soldiers, the krakens sent food and a chest full of gold, which Kilydd shared liberally with the troops. They were now rich enough to set up businesses for themselves, but all elected to stay in the employee of the dark sea prince. For, as one fighter explained, Kilydd obviously had Agwe's favor. How else could a two man assault against Leviathan have succeeded?
Sumpf, the surgeon was delighted with the gift they brought him, the corpse of a dryland male salvaged from the submarine before it sank. While the others feasted, he dissected the cadaver, calling Selkirk over from time to time to look at each unusual feature.
"See this?" He pulled back a section of ribcage. "The heart looks normal from the outside, but look at the inside. This man had two completely separate ventricles. All the blood returning from the body goes here, to the right atria and ventricle, and from there to the lungs. Even if this terrestrial suddenly grew gills, he wouldn't have been able to survive under water, because his blood had no way to bypass the lungs. The minute his lungs filled with water, his heart would fail. This is the same kind of heart you see in birds. Great if you breathe air one hundred percent of the time. Bad if you want to breathe under water.
"And look at the skull. See how flat the occiput is?" He pointed to the back of the head. "I noticed this on the first specimen you brought me. When I sawed the cranium in two, I found an underdeveloped cerebellum. That's the part of the brain that controls learned motor functions. Terrestrials have a fully developed frontal cortex, meaning that they're probably as smart as us, but they're physically awkward.
"The hair that covers the scalp and most of the face is probably intended to protect against sunburn, since the head would be exposed at all times, even if the rest of the body was submerged in water. I understand that the females and children did not have so much facial hair?"
"That's right," Selkirk replied. Thanks to his mother, he understood most of the medical jargon the doctor was using. "But they had scalp hair."
"Hmm. Maybe the males spend more time looking up at the sky, and that's why they need the chin and lip covering. That would seem to confirm the theory that among ancient terrestrials men did the hunting while women gathered plants that grew on the ground. But such gender specialization seems terribly primitive for a species that possesses full frontal lobes..."
Kilydd peered over Selkirk's shoulder. "Having fun?"
"...but the most distinctive physical difference between a terrestrial male and an aquatic is found here." He pulled aside the clothing which covered the lower portion of the cadaver's torso. "See the penis and testicles? I found them like this, exposed. No genital pouch."
"What the fuck!" the young shadow hunter exclaimed. "You mean it's like that all the time? Hanging out like a worm waiting for some fish to come by and bite it off?"
Sumpf smiled tolerantly. "Don't forget this specimen was designed to spend most of its life out of water. The showy genitals may have served a purpose during courtship rituals, much like the fancy plumage on male birds."
This made Kilydd laugh, which attracted the attention of Maremoto. Her tiny eyes widened comically as she examined the terrestrial's penis. "Shit! No wonder they all wore clothes. And did you notice that the women's tits were all flat? Not 'flat' as in no tits. Flat as in someone swashed them flat."
"Interesting. That would be the effect of gravity," Sumpf explained. "Imagine what your own breasts would be like if they weren't constantly buoyed by the water. Lacking internal support, they would eventually begin to sag from their own weight."
Maremoto covered her breasts with her hands. "Gross!"
As the young people giggled over the corpse of the terrestrial male, Selkirk wondered if the drylanders had reacted the same way when their physician dissected sirens and shadow hunters. The thought made him angry, at first, and then, inexplicably, he became very sad. Kilydd, who understood him better than any of the others, noted the change in his emotions, and he dragged him away from Sumpf and the corpse.
"Loch and Yam want to do a four way," he signed to the light sea captain. "They know about you, me and Mehr. If you say 'no', you'll hurt Yam's feelings."
Chapter 5. House of Serpents
Kilydd's "theatre company" toured dark sea for six weeks, alternating performances of Hamlet with Oedipus Rex. The plays had been shortened and modified to emphasize the violent scenes. As Ghost predicted, both productions proved popular, especially with military audiences.
News of Kilydd's victory over "Leviathan" spread quickly. The presence of giant squids among his troops confirmed the rumors. There was also talk (all of it critical) about his uncle's plan to trade black oil with light sea. That, combined with Kilydd's natural charisma, attracted new recruits. Some were former soldiers who found it difficult to fit into civilian society. Others were younger sons and daughters who hoped to make their fortune by allying themselves with a young king. Ghost screened the applicants. Those he judged mentally unstable were rejected. Those recruited were paid in advance, in gold. The three spies -- two sent by the ARC and one by Kilydd's uncle -- were quietly murdered.
Three months after his escape from the ARC military academy, Kilydd returned home to Na Chan with an army of fifty-nine humans, twelve sharks and ten giant squids. His arrival was timed to coincide with the Feast of Serpents. The holiday assured the "acting troupe" an audience as it followed a winding path through the dark sea kingdom.
Na Chan or House of Snakes was built around a cold methane oasis. Unlike Delphi, this one was man-made. An offshore natural gas well built in terrestrial times had sprung a slow leak just as the second great flood devastated the earth. With no one left to repair the well, it had continued to ooze the colorless, odorless gas which was poison to most higher life forms but as nutritious as sunlight to certain bacteria. A thousand years after the Exodus, the Na Chan oasis nourished huge fields of golden bathyl mussels, a staple of the dark sea diet. The outer fringes of the seep, where methane concentrations were low, were covered with a peculiar species of albino tube worm that could grow up to twenty inches in length. This was where the kingdom got its name, since the white worms resembled the white snakes which were sacred to Damballah.
The kingdom of Na Chan encircled the methane oasis. Its most prominent feature was a two thousand foot tower of ancient design. Originally an offshore oil well, after the first flood the base was reinforced and the platform was converted into an underwater mansion for a wealthy oilman. After the second flood, the oilman and his family left for the moon. The mansion was occupied by refugees for a few years, before its air pumps failed. Now, little was left of the rich terrestrial's folly, except a shell of metal and concrete perched atop a tall tower the peak of which was visible for miles on sunny days.
"Amazing!" Selkirk exclaimed upon seeing it for the first time. Though "seeing" was not quite accurate. He sensed the tower using his power of echolocation. After six weeks in the absolute darkness of the bathyl, he was so used to navigating by sonar, that his mind imagined that it was seeing highly detailed black and white images. "I knew it was big, but I had no idea how big it was." Thinking If they could build something like that, why couldn't they save themselves?
In the deep, all forms of telepathy were enhanced. As the heart and metabolism slowed, the mind became more receptive to subtle signals that it ordinarily might miss. Kilydd responded as if Selkirk had spoken aloud. "'Round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, the lone and level sands stretch far away." That's from a poem called Ozymandias. 'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: look on my works, ye Mighty and despair!' I think they wasted so much time and energy building shit like that, they had none left over for the important things, like keeping their own people alive."
"But you have to admit, it's impressive," said Ghost.
"Looks like a really big dick." This from Maremoto.
"Yeah," agreed Kilydd. "Shadow hunter size."
Umi feigned alarm. "Is Kilydd really that big?" she asked Yam.
"Oh, much bigger," Yam laughed back. The mixed blood fighter was now a part of the prince's inner circle. She had cut her black hair short and darkened her pale grey skin with dye so she could hide more easily in the dark water of the bathyl. Though infatuated with the light sea captain, she had no qualms about sleeping with Kilydd as well as Selkirk. In dark sea, "share wives" were common, especially in the military, where soldiers tended to pair bond with a member of the same sex.
Loch had left their company about two weeks into their tour of dark sea kingdoms. "When Kilydd isn't making love to me, he spends all his time with you," she had complained to Selkirk. Which was unfair. The light sea captain was the prince's military strategist. But love brought out the worst in Loch. Spitefully, she added "I don't understand. If you two are so in love, why don't you just fuck each other? I don't want to be a share wife. I want to come first."
Selkirk regretted losing her telekinetic skills, but he was not sorry to see her go. She and Kilydd could never agree on anything, except sex. When he asked the shadow hunter why he had accepted the light sea woman's advances, if he found her personality so repulsive, Kilydd replied
"I did it for you. You fancied her. It's what any soldier would do for his calorio. And she got to fuck me, which was what she wanted, so everyone came out ahead."
"She wanted more than just a quick fuck."
"I know that now. She wanted to own me. And owning me meant not sharing me with anyone else, including you. Stupid woman. This isn't light sea. No dark sea king would risk losing his general over a piece of ass."
Selkirk was speechless. And then he was angry. He chewed Kilydd out in his best -- or worst -- Iron Ass Sandros style. The shadow hunter just smirked and replied
"If all the men in light sea are gentlemen, as you claim, Loch wouldn't have had to blow her C.O.'s nuts off to keep him from raping her."
No, Selkirk was not sorry to see the light sea woman go. And their army was now large enough that the loss of a single soldier was hardly felt. The giant squids alone could deter any bandits who might contemplate a raid on their war chest. With arms over twenty feet long, the cephalopods could strangle or dismember a human soldier before he got in range of their vulnerable mantles. Psi blasts did not work on them. Their brain physiology was different from that of mammals. And their telepathic powers were so highly developed that they could work as a single unit in battle, meaning that an enemy soldier did not face one pair of eyes, two tentacles and eight arms. No, he had to deal with a single mind possessing twenty eyes and tentacles and eighty arms.
Even the citizens of Na Chan who supported the regent turned out to see Kilydd's giant squid honor guard. And when they saw the young prince, now so much larger and stronger than he was three years ago, they recalled his father, who had been a popular king, much more responsive to their needs than the man currently running things. Kilydd's uncle had no real enemies -- except Kilydd -- but no real friends, either. And his decision to send every young man and woman from Na Chan to serve in the most recent war had not been a popular one. Most kingdoms only drafted a single son or daughter from each family, and those with only one child were exempt. However, the regent of Na Chan had ambitions, for which he needed a large, seasoned army. And what better way to train his troops than on the front lines of battle? Never mind that it was a war which many of them did not understand. Add to that the rumors about black oil, and it was easy to see why a crowd of young people came out to cheer Kilydd and why so many of them followed his army as it wound its way through the streets of Na Chan towards the palace.
The royal residence in Na Chan was another terrestrial artifact. A platform had fallen to the seabed during the construction of the tower over a millennium ago. Since the ocean floor was flat in this region, the building had survived the fall. Several centuries later, Kilydd's ancestors had claimed it and reinforced it with limestone. Little remained of the original structure, except for its rectangular shape. Most of the outer doors and windows had been sealed, especially those on its upper levels which were difficult to defend. Palace guards wearing the white snake emblem of the Na Chan royal family were positioned at the ground level entrances. Each of Kilydd's "actors" wore an identical armband crafted from white gold in the shape of a coiling serpent. The bands were a gift from King Thaloc. The troops sent by the ruler of Xipe wore that kingdom's emblem as well as Na Chan's, in case anyone needed a reminder that Kilydd had powerful allies.
Kilydd stopped before the castle gate. His troops fanned out behind him, but he kept his closest advisers near at hand. This was the most dangerous part of their journey. Once the prince was in the castle, his uncle could not touch him, not openly. The obligation of host to guest was taken seriously in dark sea. But until he actually swam into the stone fortress, he was fair game.
The giant squids formed a barrier around Kilydd's inner circle, a group that included Ghost, Maremoto and Selkirk -- his telepath, his precog and his military commander -- as well as Umi and Yam. The "heart and soul" of his army, Kilydd called them. "I can't afford to lose any of you," he had said in their final strategy session that morning. "ARC knows that. My uncle knows that. If he can't get to me, he'll try to get one of you." His gaze had lingered on Selkirk's face, reminding him silently of the promise which the light sea captain had made all those months ago. Though the prince had forgiven him for attempting to defect in Xipe, he had not forgotten.
As they waited outside the castle, Selkirk felt comfortable and relaxed -- a sensation that was more physical than mental. He knew that they were swimming into a situation that might prove dangerous, but in the cold, high pressure water of the bathyl, his body did not respond to psychological stress in the usual way. His pulse never rose above thirty. His arteries did not constrict. His muscles did not shiver. And therefore his unconscious mind, which was used to judging danger by a variety of small physiological clues, said All is well, even as his conscious mind warned him of possible unseen dangers.
Beside him, Kilydd appeared similarly relaxed, but Selkirk sensed his inner turmoil. He was thinking about Queen Kerrid. Mother and son had never been close -- not the way that Selkirk had been close to his own mother. The dark sea practice of fostering out noble children ensured that the maternal bond was weak. Would the queen be pleased to see her son at the head of his own army? Would she consider it an affront to her husband? Maybe she would stay inside, sending servants to greet her son -- a public insult.
Finally, the gates of the castle opened. The interior was so bright that it was impossible to see anything, but Selkirk's sonar showed him ten women, seven of them shadow hunters, two sirens and a single, small boned light sea female. In size, the shadow hunters were not much bigger than Kilydd, though their bodies were mature. Female shadow hunters stopped growing when they had their first child. The women wore carefully crafted metal and glass jewelry, much of it in the shape of coiling serpents. Noble women. From the way that Kilydd reacted, Selkirk knew that the woman in the center of the group must be the queen. She wore an elaborate tiara and a belt shaped like a snake, the head carefully positioned so that it hid her genital pouch.
Though the female shadow hunters had barbed tails like Kilydd's, they used their legs to propel themselves gracefully through the water, their hips swaying like those of their siren companions. The mermaids' scent filled the water. They were secreting the maximum possible amount of pheromones. Was this part of a trap? Selkirk had seen a platoon decimated, after a pair of dark sea sirens lulled them into a blissful stupor. He glanced at Ghost. Their telepath was immune to such chemical attacks. The glass human smiled and shook his head very slightly.
Kilydd swam forward to embrace Queen Kerrid. They exchanged formal greetings. She commented upon how he had grown, and he said that she looked lovelier than ever. The queen's thoughts and emotions were even more closely guarded than her son's.
She's worried, said Ghost. For Kilydd's sake, but also for her husband's. It's a foregone conclusion that the two of them will end up fighting. She isn't sure which of them will win. She isn't sure which of them she wants to win. She's mad at him for showing up with an army, but she's also relieved.
None of this showed in the queen's face or voice.
The formalities completed. Kilydd turned his attention to the single light sea woman in the group. "Hashtaal!" he exclaimed. He grabbed her by the waist and spun her around, stirring up a cloud of sand and silt.
By now, Selkirk's eyes had grown accustomed to the bright light pouring from the open castle door, and he could see color again. The small boned woman had smooth, even brown skin and auburn hair almost the same shade as his own. Her eyes were large and round -- dark sea eyes. Though clearly a mulatto, she wore almost as much jewelry as the queen.
Selkirk was confused. He had gotten the impression that Hashtaal was a tutor hired by the former king to teach his son ancient history. But here she was, dressed like a princess, a member of the queen's honor guard.
Kilydd never told you? It was Ghost again. Hashtaal's the official reason for Kilydd's quarrel with his uncle. Llyr thought Kilydd spent too much time on his studies. Most dark sea scholars are women. So the regent tried to fire Hashtaal. Kilydd responded by marrying her. He sensed Selkirk's unspoken question. Kilydd was eleven at the time. Hashtaal was in her twenties. It wasn't a love match, not at first. But dark sea princes are encouraged to marry young and have lots of wives, so there was nothing the regent could do about it, not without giving the impression that he was trying to keep Kilydd from fathering an heir.
"And the real reason for their quarrel?" Selkirk signed.
Llyr murdered his brother, King Dylan. Everyone knows, but no one can prove it.
Selkirk had guessed as much. The only surprising thing about the story was the fact that Llyr had let his nephew live. From what he knew of dark sea, sons were usually murdered along with their fathers, to cut down the chance of a revenge killing years later.
You're right. That's what should have happened. Except Kilydd's uncle was in love with his sister-in-law. Plus, there's a good chance that Llyr is Kilydd's father. Pay attention. Kilydd's introducing you to Hashtaal.
Kilydd's uncle was really his father? It was a hell of a thing to tell him at a time like this. His mind was buzzing with questions that he could not ask. Did Kilydd know? Surely he would have said something if he did.
Hashtaal was looking his way, her eyebrows slightly lifted. Selkirk forced his expression into a smile. "Pleased to meet you, princess" he said with a nod of his head.
"Selkirk's a scholar," Kilydd explained. "The two of you should have a lot to talk about." He was called away by the Queen, who introduced him to the wife of an ambassador from a neighboring kingdom.
"What's your area of study?" Hashtaal asked. She looked a bit like Shark, with the same brown and red coloring.
"The terrestrial era, with a focus on military history."
At this, her eyes lit up. "Same here. I did my thesis on terrestrial history, but with an emphasis on literature. The self destructive impulse that lead the drylanders to make war also encouraged them to create an enormous body of art. Have you studied the Romantic poets?"
"Kilydd's been teaching me a little."
"'Lo! I unfold my darkness, and on this rock place with strong hand the book of eternal brass, written in my solitude.' That's from Blake's Urizen. It's ironic, you see. Books were about the least eternal thing which the drylanders produced. Their sculpture was much more enduring. However, they believed that there was magic in words, especially written words. Write down that so and so did such and such, and suddenly a series of random events became a model by which to live. A law of nature. Few of them would admit to loving war, and yet they plunged headfirst into each of them, as if they had no choice -- Kilydd's calling me. We'll have to talk more later." She swam to the prince's side.
The prince's party entered the castle accompanied by the sound of singing. Queen Kerrid's sirens were accomplished musicians. The soft melody and their soothing pheromones wove a spell that relieved tension. It might almost have been an ordinary homecoming for a POW.
Like most dark sea palaces, this one relied upon narrow, winding corridors to slow down invaders. Little remained of the oil platform, except for a few bits and pieces of metal that had been incorporated into the décor. There were lots of sculptures -- the preferred art form in dark sea. Since many of these represented life sized shadow hunters, it was easy for guards to hide. All they had to do was remain completely still, and the casual observer would mistake them for more statuary. As an added precaution, electric eels were allowed to swim freely though the castle. That way, if a guest detected the electrical impulse of a human heart within one of the "statues", he would assume that it was an eel. Selkirk, who was far from a casual observer, spotted the lurkers at once, but he was careful not to let them know how much his power of echolocation showed him. Dark seaers tended to underestimate him. He wanted to keep it that way for now.
They traveled through a quarter mile of corridors to reach an interior room that was probably only a couple of hundred feet from the front gate. The throne room at Na Chan doubled as the banquet hall. The room had a high ceiling and lots of glowing jellies and fish. There were also chandeliers with glowlight -- the kingdom must be very prosperous. Or maybe the regent got a discount from his business partners in light sea.
A feast of dark sea delicacies had been laid out in the banquet hall, but Selkirk ignored the food. He made a quick tour of the room, noting each door. He also found a secret passage behind the throne, a simple, uncomfortable looking chair carved from obsidian positioned at the far end of a long, black marble table. The seat was covered with a fine layer of sea snow. He doubted that anyone ever sat there. The residents of the deepest parts of the bathyl tended to keep moving, except when sleeping -- or masquerading as statues -- in order to circulate water through their gills. Kerrid and Kilydd were slowly circling the table, pausing occasionally to sample a morsel of food or chat with a noble quest. Selkirk followed close behind them, with Yam to his left and Hashtaal to his right. He and the princess had similar coloring, which lead some of those present to mistake them for brother and sister. Good. If people thought he was a scholar, they would be less wary.
The shadow hunters were too well guarded for Selkirk to read much from their thoughts. Ghost would have been able to tell him what people were thinking. However, Na Chan had its own glass human, and the two telepaths had disappeared shortly after Kilydd's party entered the castle. Without Ghost to offer him advice, Selkirk had to rely upon his own instincts. Though he sensed no killing intent from anyone present, he knew that shadow hunters were trained from a young age to hide their emotions. Any one of the men or women in that room could be an assassin, waiting for an opportunity to plant a blade in Kilydd's heart.
There was no sign of Kilydd's uncle, the regent. The Queen explained that her husband was overseeing work on the methane fields. "Some kind of emergency. He'll be home by supper. I hear you've been putting on plays."
The prince nodded. "Terrestrial era tragedies. Hamlet. And Oedipus Rex. I play Hamlet and Selkirk does Oedipus. Are you familiar with the stories?"
She laughed and shook her head. "You're the scholar, dear, not me. But I'm sure I'll enjoy the performance."
Selkirk wished that he could get Kilydd alone. He wanted to ask him about what Ghost had said. Did the prince really intend to kill his own biological father? Did dark sea custom allow such a thing? He recalled what Hashtaal said, about stories carrying the weight of prophecy. Natural laws, she called them. No wonder Ghost had selected Hamlet and Oedipus Rex. The plays did not simply justify the murder of the regent. They seemed to demand it.
He had to talk to Kilydd, before the young shadow hunter did something that he would regret for the rest of his life.
But there was no time for private conversation. Kilydd had been away from home for years, and he had a lot of catching up to do. Every time Selkirk thought he might get a chance to speak to him, some third cousin showed up, and then Kilydd had to tell the same stories all over again. How he had escaped from the ARC military academy. How he had defeated the Leviathan. Sumpf showed off the deadlanders' heads, which he had preserved by wrapping them in a special kind of kelp that retarded decay. He demonstrated the malformed heart. Some people were fascinated. Others were repulsed. All agreed that something had to be done -- "something" meaning war.
"We have to protect ourselves," exclaimed one woman.
"They destroyed the world once," said the man at her side. "We can't let them do it again."
Which was how all the great wars started, Selkirk thought. Defend God, the King, the economy, our way of life -- defend it by rewriting the rule which said Don't kill.
"'The horror'," Kilydd had said, one night when the two of them were alone together, gazing at the stars. How long ago was that? Eight weeks? Ten? "That's what a deadland author called it. Something so awful, he couldn't put a name to it, so he called it 'The Horror.' It happened while he was away at war. One of those nasty wars over black oil or gold that deadlanders were always fighting. He was there. He was part of it. He saw how greed turned perfectly rational, sane people into monsters. And when he got home, he couldn't talk about it. Not at first. He even lied to a widow. Told her how noble the war was, how just the cause and how fine the soldiers fighting it. But later, he found that he could get no rest if he didn't relive the memories, and so he became like the Ancient Mariner, telling the tale over and over, picking at the scab, so the wound could never heal, because there are some things we can't let ourselves get used to."
And Selkirk had thought how odd it was that a fifteen year old boy from dark sea had just summed up in words exactly what he had gone through since the end of the war. Sometimes, Kilydd seemed wise beyond his years, a common enough trait in those blessed with the power of telepathy.
But what kind of wisdom told a man to kill his own father?
"I hear you're a war hero," said Hashtaal. "Chatterton Reef was it? I suppose you know about Thomas Chatterton. No? He was a poet. Killed himself at the age of seventeen. For two hundred years, terrestrial artists and writers celebrated him. Not for his body of work, mind you, though it was quite good for one so young. He embodied the common end of the terrestrial era notion that the world was killing its best and brightest -- as if the same world had no part in the production of those disillusioned artists. They weren't rebels, you see. They weren't the voices of dissent. They were the voices of their age, an age that was suicidal -- "
"Sorry to interrupt." It was Ghost. "Time to get ready. The regent's on his way back. We're doing Oedipus first, then Hamlet." Silently Watch out. Something's going on. Llyr's telepath is making it impossible for me to read the minds of ten of the guests and servants. That means at least one of them is up to no good and the rest are decoys.
They would need to assign guards to watch over the ten.
Already done. You'll know Llyr right away when you see him. He lost an eye in the war. Not the recent war. The one before that. Wears an eye patch.
The center of the banquet hall was being cleared. They would perform their plays there. A storage area served as their dressing room. Most of the players were already in "costume" -- meaning the troops were armed with tridents and blades which they ordinarily would not be allowed to carry into Na Chan's throne room. The giant squids had been granted admission, since they were to play the Chorus, projecting images rather than reciting lines, a bit of casting that critics in other bathyl cities had called both "brilliant" and "distracting". If Kilydd was anyone but the crown prince, palace security would have shut down their performance before it even started.
Altogether, the two plays took up the better part of three hours to perform, even with most of the soliloquies abridged, so as soon as word reached the throne room that Llyr was back in the castle, they began Oedipus Rex. Sumpf had just reached the famous line
"'Our ship of State,
Sore buffeted, can no more lift her head,
Foundered beneath a weltering surge of blood.'"
When a big shadow hunter wearing an eye patch entered the throne room. His crown was fashioned out of white gold, in the shape of a serpent biting its own tail. He wore similar bands around each upper arm.
Out of the corner of his eye, Selkirk saw Llyr kiss his wife on the brow and then turn his attention to his nephew. He held out his arms. Kilydd froze. For a moment, all eyes in the room were on the prince and the regent. Would Kilydd cause a scene by refusing to embrace his uncle? Shadow hunters were too well trained to show their emotions, but Selkirk sensed a mental sigh of relief as the prince allowed himself to be hugged.
It was Selkirk's turn to speak. The performance continued without interruption. He wished that he could observe Llyr's face. What would he make of the play? On its face, it seemed innocent enough. A young man (unknowingly) kills his father, assumes his throne and marries his mother. The gods become angry. The king is punished. The end.
However, another reading was possible. A young man kills his kinsman, marries his widow and steals his throne. In that case, the play could be read as a criticism of Llyr, who was king in all but name. Before their arrival in Na Chan, Selkirk had assumed that this was the message Kilydd and Ghost were trying to convey when they selected the ancient Greek tragedy.
Now that Selkirk knew that Kilydd's paternity was in doubt, he realized that there was a third possible interpretation. A young man (unknowingly) kills his father, an act for which the father bears responsibility, since he tried to kill the boy as an infant. Violence begats violence. Though Oedipus' hands were the ones that struck down Laius, it was the old king himself who bore responsibility for the tragedy that befell his family. Now, some of the modifications which Ghost had made in the original text made sense.
The implications of Hamlet were much more clear. Since his part in this play was relatively minor, Selkirk had a chance to study Llyr's face as he watched the performance. He looked as if he had eaten something that did not agree with him. At one point, he turned as if to leave the room, but his wife caught him by the arm and whispered something in his ear. He looked up, and his single eye met Selkirk's.
Light sea would have warned the regent about Selkirk. Llyr would know about the captain's skills as a military strategist and fighter. Selkirk was a bit like the poisoned sword at the end of Hamlet. Only a few of the principles were aware of exactly how dangerous he was, and none of them could admit to their knowledge without revealing their own dark secrets, in Llyr's case, his business dealings with the ARC.
He wondered what ARC had said about him. What information did they give the regent to use against him? The Chatterton Reef bombshell had proved to be a dud. Dark sea revered fighters, especially good fighters, and now that the war was over, that's all that Selkirk was to most of them.
"Anything new to report?" he signed to Ghost during one of the intermissions.
Damn telepath's blocking the Queen and all her ladies.
"Could be a diversion."
Yeah, probably. But we can't take any chances.
Ghost rolled his eyes.With his telepath glued to his side? You'll learn more from looking at his face than reading his mind. You're on.
It was the final act. He and Kilydd would duel with a blade that his character, Laetres knew was poisoned, which meant he had to fight as if his life depended upon it. During terrestrial era performances, the actors would have used swords, an archaic weapon that was seldom used in the ocean, where stabs and thrusts were more effective than swinging motions and where the greater reach of a spear more than made up for its slight increase in weight over a rapier.
They had chosen tridents for this performance. Selkirk deliberately kept his movements slow and clumsy. Usually, his duel with Kilydd got the crowd excited, but this time they looked so mismatched that many members of the audience grew bored and started talking. Kilydd raised an inquisitive eyebrow. Selkirk glanced at Llyr. Better to let the regent think that the light sea captain's fighting skills were rusty. The prince nodded his head very slightly. I understand.
At the end of the performance, "the dead" pried themselves off the ceiling, where they had been floating, apparently lifeless. Hand in hand, the acting troupe took a bow.
"Splendid!" declared the regent. He had his emotions under perfect control. Smiling amiably at his nephew/stepson, he said "You must be hungry. Let's eat."
This feast was even more elaborate than the one earlier in the day. In addition to at least twenty different dishes incorporating the local golden mussels, there was tuna, lobster, caviar, marinated prawns, as well as a variety of live seafood. Servants circulated with trays containing delicacies, like thin slices of puffer fish, one of Kilydd's favorites, and whale blubber which, the guests were assured, came only from whales which had died of natural causes. At least the palace chef had the good sense not to serve dolphin.
One of the queen's women, a shadow hunter named Meryn offered Kilydd puffer fish sashimi that had been artfully arranged on a jade platter. Most fugo came from farm raised puffer fish, which were bred to be almost poison free. However, if the wild variety was served—by accident or design -- the flesh could be toxic.
Selkirk signaled him. Be careful.
The prince paused in the act of lifting a third morsel of the snow white fish to his mouth. He murmured something to the woman who was serving him. She froze.
Selkirk swam to the prince's side. "Let me see that."
Meryn held the jade platter out of his reach. "The Queen ordered this dish prepared especially for the prince." She was a tall, imposing woman, bigger than Kilydd.
"Did she?" Kilydd pretended to smile. "How sweet of her. Mother," he called. "Thank you for the fugo. It's delicious. You must try some." He snatched the platter from the now panicked matron's hands and swam towards the Queen.
"Your majesty! Don't!"
All eyes turned to Meryn. She covered her mouth with her hands, aghast at what she had just done. Frantically, she glanced at the regent. Attention immediately shifted to him. In the half second it took to get his emotions under control, his face showed alarm, relief and then anger. Alarm as the morsel of food lingered on his wife's lips. Relief when she set it aside uneaten. And finally anger, as he realized that the noblewoman had just revealed to everyone in the room that Kilydd had been served poisonous fish.
Kilydd touched his lips. Numbness was the first sign. He grimaced as a wave of nausea gripped him. Doubling over, he began to vomit.
Llyr quickly regained his composure. "The prince has been poisoned. Arrest that woman!" he ordered the guards. "Question the chefs! And call the doctor!"
Llyr's physician was close at hand—almost as if he had known that his services would be required. Selkirk blocked him when he attempted to examine the prince. "We have our own physician. Sumpf! Get over here."
"Tetraodont poisoning," Sumpf concluded after checking the prince's eyes, heart and reflexes. "How long ago did you say he ate puffer fish? That's odd. I've never seen the symptoms come on this quickly."
Though visibly weakened, Kilydd could still talk. "You did this!" he declared, staring at his uncle. His crimson biolights flared. "You poisoned me!"
"Nonsense! You're delirious. Someone take him to his room."
Immediately, the giant squids surrounded the prince, creating a protective barrier.
The queen's sirens tried to defuse the situation by releasing pheromones. And Llyr -- or more likely, his telepath -- was projecting the thought A terrible accident to any mind open enough to receive it. Even Selkirk, who had seen the truth with his own eyes, began to wonder if they had over read the situation. Maybe it was all just a terrible accident...
Abruptly, the mood of the room changed. Ghost appeared. Hovering between the prince and the regent, as insubstantial as a beam of moonlight in the water, he pronounced his judgment. "Murderer." As grim and solemn as the ghost of Hamlet's father. The word resonated through the room. The guests whispered to each other, glancing furtively at the prince and then the regent. No one seemed willing to say what they were all thinking, but the mood changed. People dimmed their biolights, as if trying to make themselves as inconspicuous as possible. Many edged closer to the door, in case the argument between the two men turned into a battle. Soldiers on both sides adopted fighting stances.
"Murderer!" Kilydd declared thickly. "I demand justice! A duel."
Impatiently, Llyr replied "What? You're going to fight me? Look at yourself boy. You're in no condition for a duel."
With a visible effort, Kilydd lifted his chin and threw back his shoulders. Though physically smaller than his uncle, his aura was much stronger. At that moment, it was a killing aura, black streaked with bolts of lightening. He bared his teeth. "If you've sent me to Hell, I'm taking you with -- " His tongue fumbled the next word. Abruptly, his head fell forward and then jerked backwards as he began to convulse. The seizure lasted several minutes and left him limp and unconscious. Selkirk caught him under one arm and Sumpf got the other.
"Do something!" the captain hissed to the doctor.
"There's no cure for tetraodont poisoning. All I can do is offer supportive care and hope that his body clears the toxin."
"You mean he's going to die?"
"It's possible. Time will tell."
Selkirk's military training ran deep. Though he felt as if someone had plunged a knife into his heart and given it a cruel twist, he kept his voice steady. "Take him to his room," he told Maremoto and Umi, two people whom he knew that he could trust absolutely. "And take Shark with you." The fringed shark was swimming around its master in a panic. In a moment, it would bite someone. "Have two of the squids stand guard. And Yam." He forced himself to smile, for her benefit, otherwise she would worry and insist upon staying by his side. "See that Sumpf has whatever he needs." To Ghost, he sent a silent message to neutralize Llyr's telepath in whatever way he deemed necessary.
The pain in his chest intensified as he watched one of the squids gather Kilydd's limp body into its arms and carry him from the banquet hall. The next time he saw the prince, he might be dead. He wanted to follow Umi and Mare. He wanted to be there in case Kilydd woke up. But there was something he had to do here.
Selkirk turned and glared at Llyr. The icy cold which had gripped him was replaced by fire. Rage boiled up, like hot magma demanding release. He pointed at the regent. "I challenge you. Here and now. As Kilydd's calorio."
Llyr's surprise was genuine. "Are you mad? I'm the regent. If you want a brawl, one of my men will be happy to teach you how shadow hunters fight," he added contemptuously.
"Are you refusing the challenge?"
The regent stiffened. Duels were a fact of life in dark sea. To refuse one could be interpreted as cowardice. Or guilt. Very carefully, so that all could hear, he replied "Look at yourself, man. You're half my size. It wouldn't be a duel. It would be a slaughter."
"I'm the Butcher of Chatterton Reef," Selkirk reminded him.
Llyr made an impatient gesture. "A dozen children surprised in their sleep." So light sea had briefed him about Selkirk.
"I killed the three men you sent to murder Kilydd's foster parents. Three shadow hunters."
That got the attention of the crowd. More importantly, Queen Kerrid took note. "You said those were terrorists. Disgruntled soldiers angry at being discharged after war. Those were my foster parents."
"Be quiet, woman!"
The Queen bristled. "Don't you dare speak to me in that tone!"
"You're hysterical. Guards, take the Queen to her chambers."
"Don't touch me!" Kerrid glowered at the palace guard who attempted to lay his hand on her forearm. The shadow hunter jerked back, as if he had been stung by a lion fish. "I'm the Queen, damn it!" These words were addressed to her husband. "Not some concubine you bought in Abercarn. And Kilydd's my son."
"Then go to him. Nurse him the way a mother should."
"Don't tell me what a mother should and shouldn't do! I married you so that you'd protect him from upstarts who wanted to steal his throne. And now you've killed him. You've killed my son. If Meryn hadn't warned me, I would have eaten the same poisoned fish. Was that part of your plan? Get rid of both of us?"
"Kerrid, believe me___"
Contemptuously, she turned her back on him. "Come!" she told her ladies. As they swam past Selkirk, the Queen said "Kill him. For Kilydd. For me."
Her words were repeated around the room. The guests drew back, clearing a circle around the regent and the light sea captain.
"Are we going to do this?" Selkirk asked Llyr. "Yes or no?"
"You'll die," the regent said.
"Yes or no?"
"Have it your way. Yes, I'll fight you. Since you made the challenge, I get to choose the weapons. I pick hand to hand. No weapons."
It was a trick. A shadow hunter was never without a weapon, since his barbed tail was his most valuable tool in combat. "Fine."
"I suggest we wait until my nephew's condition -- "
"Here and now."
The guests' minds were unguarded. Through their eyes, Selkirk saw himself, impossibly small and frail next to the regent. They expected to see him slaughtered, and they were ambivalent. While their loyalties should have been with Llyr, they had come to the castle to welcome the prince home. Kilydd was now ill, a victim of puffer fish poisoning. Something had gone wrong in the kitchens of Na Chan castle, and the regent was the man in charge. Even if he was not personally to blame, honor demanded that he accept responsibility.
"Here and now," Llyr agreed. "But no armor. It's too easy to conceal a weapon."
Selkirk stripped off his honzame body armor. "Satisfied?"
"I'll be satisfied when I have your head on a pike." And then, the regent did what any shadow hunter would have done when confronting a light sea opponent. He released a psi blast so powerful that the guests closest to the combatants flinched. Had there been any light seaers nearby, they would have dropped like fish during red tide.
Selkirk, who was expecting the attack, just grinned. "Is that all you've got?"
Enraged, Llyr lunged for him. The light sea captain, smaller and more agile, evaded the barbed tail, and grabbed the shadow hunter from behind. With his knee, he delivered a telekinetically enhanced blow to Llyr's lower spine. A fully grown, adult shadow hunter's bones were his weakness. The terrestrials had designed them specifically for dark sea, meaning that their skeletons were light and flexible. The older -- and bigger -- they got, the weaker their bones became. Excellent for the high pressures of the lower bathyl and abyss, not so good if they wanted to leave the ocean and walk on dry land. And not so good if their opponent in hand to hand combat was a psi fighter, skilled in the use of telekinesis.
The pain must have been excruciating, but Llyr was too well trained to do more than grit his teeth. With a snarl, he wrenched himself free, and executed a circular attack that increased the force with which his tail struck. However, his control had been affected by the blow to his lower spine, and once again Selkirk was able to dodge the killing blow and get in a second hit, this time a kick to Llyr's chest. Shadow hunters did not have a breast bone, just cartilage. Sometimes a sharp blow to the heart could interrupt its electrical current, causing it to stop beating for a few moments. If one were very, very lucky, the heart might rupture, which meant instant, sure death.
Luck was with Llyr at that moment. He shrugged off the blow to his chest as if it were the merest jellyfish sting. "Kilydd won't thank you for killing me. I'm his father."
"Fathers don't try to kill their sons."
"And sons shouldn't try to kill their fathers." Llyr dodged a second blow aimed at his chest and delivered a quick counterblow that opened a gash on Selkirk's leg. The blood which oozed into the water was blue, which elicited comments from those observing the battle.
"So it's true," said the regent. "You're half shadow hunter. That explains it." He paused, waiting for Selkirk to ask Explains what?. When the captain did not rise to the bait, Llyr added "I knew a woman in light sea. Years ago, when I was a prisoner of war. A nurse. She had your coloring."
"A lot of people have my coloring." The laceration on Selkirk's leg was deep. Luckily, the cold slowed the bleeding. However, he had to be careful. If he overused the limb, the flow of blood would increase, and anemia was a lot more dangerous in dark sea than in light.
There were other things he had to be careful of, things like his memory. His mind kept trying to recall something his mother had told him years ago about his father. I hope they were able to save his eye --
No! He wouldn't go there. Couldn't go there. Not with so much depending upon the outcome of this battle. Not just Kilydd's life. The lives of all the young dark seaers who had seen their innocence shattered on the battlefield. This was not just for the prince or Mare or Umi or Ghost. This was for the children at Chatterton Reef.
The intense cold was his ally. Despite the pain in his leg and the loss of blood, Selkirk's mind was sharp. Sharp as one of his titanium knives. The voice of memory was replaced by reason. Or maybe it was Ghost. He's fucking with you.
Llyr smiled, a tight lipped nasty little smirk that set Selkirk's teeth on edge. "She cried when the war ended. Said she was pregnant. I would have taken her back to dark sea with me, but she wouldn't have survived here."
Son of a bitch! And then Selkirk remembered a line from Sun Tzu "Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant." It was a tactic that had seldom failed him when he was battling dark sea opponents who were much larger and stronger than he was.
"Are you saying you're my father?"
"I'm saying I might be your father."
That caused a stir among the noble guests. Some of them tried to get closer in order to hear better, but the giant squids had set up a perimeter around the two duelists in order to keep anyone from interfering in the fight.
Selkirk pretended to be stunned by the words. Llyr took advantage of his apparent weakness to deliver another blow to his injured leg. The captain evaded. He caught the shadow hunter's tail between his legs in a scissor hold and gave it a twist that pulled Llyr off balance. One, two, three quick blows to the solar plexus delivered in rapid succession caused the larger man to double over, clutching his stomach.
Llyr grunted. "You fight like a petty thug."
If your opponent is of choleric temper, seek to irritate him. "I fight to win. You fight like a beached whale. Aren't you ashamed? You're getting your butt kicked by a light sea jelly."
Llyr growled and launched another psi blast, this one noticeably weaker than the first. Selkirk pretended to be stunned, and the regent followed up with a twisting lunge, which exposed his back. This time, the light sea captain went for the neck at the base of the skull. It was a risky move, since all the regent had to do was snap his tail back to pin his opponent. But the first blow to the spine was still having an effect. Llyr's control was off. Though the tail connected, the barb missed. Meanwhile, Selkirk felt the cartilage and weak bone give way beneath his elbow.
Llyr roared, a sound of pain and fury. His body stiffened and then collapsed, like a jellyfish out of water. Selkirk had bruised his spine. Helplessly, the regent floated, unable to defend himself as the light sea captain snapped his neck, severing his spine completely. Then, a final blow to the nose, delivered at just the right angle to drive the bones into his brain.
Llyr was not dead yet. His gills were still working. And blue blood was flowing from his broken nose. However, even if he survived his head injury, he would be paralyzed from the neck down. The kind thing would be to kill him quickly, cleanly. But Selkirk was not feeling kind at that moment. He turned his back on the dying man. He swam towards the nearest of the squids.
"I want to see K -- the king," he said, deliberately raising his voice so that everyone in the room could hear. "Take me to him."
With a squid on either side of him and one bringing up the rear, Selkirk left the banquet hall. He felt no regret for what he had done. He had already forgotten Llyr. All that mattered at that moment was making sure that Kilydd was alright, and if he wasn't, at least he would die knowing that his death had been avenged.
Each dark sea kingdom had its own way of disposing of its dead. In Na Chan, the priests of Damballah raised albino eels which fed exclusively on the flesh of the departed. Once a season, on the feast day of the Serpent God, the fattest of the eels were slaughtered and served to the citizen of the community. In this way, the dead were reunited with their families, friends -- and enemies. It was particularly important that those who had fought against the departed in life embrace them in death. Otherwise, the priests explained, dark sea would end up like the terrestrial empire, torn apart from within.
"We must not blame the deadlanders," said the priestess, an albino shadow hunter. "Without the sea to connect them one to another, they could never really know each other. They could never share their friends' joy. They could never share their own sorrow.
"Imagine what it would be like to be born inside a small jar," she said. "As you grew, you would hear muffled sounds from outside, but the noises would seem unreal, like dreams. For you, the world would be the tiny bit of space within the jar. 'Life' would be pain -- pain in your elbows, when you accidentally struck them against the jar. Pain in your spine from being hunched over all your life. You would breathe your own piss and shit, until it seemed that the world was nothing but piss and shit.
"That was the world which the deadlanders sought to destroy. And from the ruins of that hell, they gave birth to the dark sea kingdoms. Always remember that we are the deadlanders. Little parts of them live on within us. And much as we might like to separate the parts -- keep the 'good' and throw out the 'bad' -- they are us, and we are them.
"May Damballah bless you and bring you joy in this new season."
The citizens of Na Chan attended the ceremony naked. Even the nobles left off their jewels. Selkirk, who had grown used to the dark sea custom of going without clothes, put away his knives and joined the crowd of shadow hunters who stood in line to receive communion. Few mulattoes attended the service, but he had a very good reason to be there. Someone close to him had died. For months, he had tried to rationalize away the pain, but no matter how many times he told himself Get over it, the ache still remained. And so, he had decided to try the dark sea way. If he could not shed his pain, maybe he could accept it.
It was his turn now. The priestess, an old, albino shadow hunter was bigger than he was. They were all bigger than him, in Na Chan, except for the children. He had gotten used to looking up. When he was around someone his own size -- like Yam -- he felt like a giant.
The priestess recognized him. "Damballah welcomes you, my child." She offered him a morsel of raw flesh. As he swallowed, she laid her hand on the back of his neck. Leaning close to him, she whispered "Remember the dead, but take care of the living."
The living. Yam, whom he loved now almost as much as she loved him. Maremoto, who had foreseen that he would battle Llyr and kill him. Umi, whom he would never stop desiring, even though he would never act upon those desires. Ghost, who was so much wiser than he was, though the glass human was years younger.
And the dead. The children who had died at Chatterton Reef. The comrades who had died during the long war with dark sea. His mother, who could never forget her dark sea lover. His father, who had forgotten his light sea lover all too easily, until the past came back to haunt him with a vengeance --
For Llyr was not lying when he claimed that Selkirk might be his son. He had been a prisoner of war. His wounds were treated in the hospital where Selkirk's mother had worked.
It shouldn't have mattered. He had grown up never knowing the man. Llyr was a murderer who killed his own brother and then tried to murder his nephew/son. He was a tyrant who sent young people off to die -- some of them at Selkirk's hands. He was so consumed by greed that he contemplated opening a black oil well. He was --
Ultimately a coward. All his ambitions and desires stemmed from fear. Llyr had wanted to make himself safe. Unassailable. And in the process, he killed himself.
A familiar, friendly hand ruffled his short mane. Kilydd was not wearing his crown today. Shark was beside him. "How are you doing, brother?"
At that, Selkirk smiled, just a little. He had destroyed a man who might be his own father, but in the process he had gained a brother. The old priest would say that was the way of Damballah, whose emblem was the white serpent which swallows its own tail.
"Hashtaal's looking for you. She just got a package from Alexandria."
"Books?" Selkirk asked.
Kilydd rolled his eyes. "What else?" He squeezed the light sea captain's upper arm. "You need to eat more. You're losing weight."
"You're just getting bigger."
Sumpf was waiting in line. They paused briefly to chat with him. Both of them owed the doctor an enormous debt. While Selkirk was busy killing Kilydd's would-be murderer, Sumpf had been saving his life.
"It was the rapid onset of symptoms that made me suspicious," the doctor had said afterwards, when his patient was mending. "Tetraodont poisoning is more gradual. And seizures are unusual. I examined the puffer fish sashimi. The fish itself was safe. Farm raised -- you can tell by the color -- properly prepared. Someone had added a poison, one much more likely than puffer fish poison to be fatal in small doses. Fortunately for Kilydd, it was a poison with an antidote."
Meaning that the Queen would have survived even if Meryn had allowed her to sample the poisoned fish, since the palace physician had the antidote ready. But the queen's woman knew only that the fish was "bad" and that it was to be served to the prince and no one else.
Despite her loyalty to her queen, her treason against the prince had earned Meryn execution, and her flesh had fattened the eels that were served that day. So had the body of Llyr's physician. Llyr's telepath, Amado had been fed to the sharks -- one of the few ways a glass human could be killed, since they could control the mind of most mammalian assassin. However, he was not dead, not completely. Before he died, he had been allowed to clone himself, and "the child' was being raised by Ghost. The smaller glass human followed the larger around the kingdom like a pale shadow copying everything he did.
Ghost and young Amado were floating in line behind Umi and Mare. Mare was letting her mane grow out. She and the siren had adopted a five year old war orphan, a girl with red and black dark sea coloring but small, bright blue eyes.
Selkirk had considered adopting, too. However, there were still things he had to do. Now that Kilydd's throne was secure, he planned to investigate the possibility of ties between the drylanders and pirates -- deep undercover work that would leave no time for him to raise a child.
"Have you gotten any leads yet?" asked Kilydd.
"When do we leave?"
"You mean 'when do I leave.'"
They had had this argument before. Kilydd insisted that wherever Selkirk went, he was going too. It was, the light sea captain turned general suspected, a ploy designed to keep him from going anywhere. But he would go mad if he stayed too long in Na Chan, attending court functions and telling war stories to children.
"You can't get away from me, brother. We were destined to meet. Mare said so. And we'll be together until the day we die."
"Which may come a lot sooner than either of us want if you insist upon putting yourself in danger. You're the king. You have responsibilities."
Kilydd bared his teeth. "Fuck responsibility. I want to see the world -- all of the world -- before I get too big to leave the deep."
"'But a kingdom that has once been destroyed can never come again into being; nor can the dead ever be brought back to life.'" Selkirk quoted Sun Tzu.
"'The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction,'" Kilydd shot back.
Selkirk's brow furrowed. "That's not from The Art of War."
"No. It's William Blake. I know what a horse is. Or was. But what's a tiger?"
"A terrestrial animal. Bigger than a man. Dangerous, like a great white shark, but with finger and toenails like knives in addition to its fangs. Covered with red and black stripes, for camouflage when hiding in the grass."
Kilydd nodded. "Sounds a lot like a shadow hunter. Did the deadlanders design them, too?"
"No, they evolved on their own."
"Meaning that humans didn't invent violence. We just improved upon it."
A depressing thought.
"My spies in light sea tell me that the deadlanders have made contact with the ARC." Kilydd tossed this bombshell casually, as if it was the merest court gossip of no more significance than who was fucking whom that week. "They're offering to trade technology for dry land."
"The glassmakers guild is said to be interested. So's the military," added the young King.
Meaning it no longer mattered what contacts the drylanders might have with pirates or smugglers. If they had opened official relations with ARC, they would soon discover who had sunk their submarine. Would they attempt to court dark sea, too? Or would they declare war?
Selkirk studied the faces of the dark seaers who were gathered in front of the palace. They had barely started to recover from the last war, and now another loomed on the horizon. Not fair was his first thought. But when had life ever been fair? As long as humans lived upon the earth, there would be conflict, territorial squabbles, competition for resources. War.
There had to be a way to stop it. There just had to be. The alternative was too bleak to contemplate.
Kilydd held out his hand. Selkirk gazed down at long, tapering black fingers with minute traces of webbing. His own hand was more classically human, with a broad palm, big knuckles and vestigial claws -- fingernails.
They clasped hands. Shark swam around and around their legs, weaving a figure 8. High atop Na Chan tower, luminous jellyfish were released from leather sacks, thousands of them at once, the culmination of the Festival of Serpents. Slowly, the blue-white lights sank towards the dark bottom of the ocean, like a thousand falling stars. The crowd made appreciative sounds. Children swam to gather up the non-stinging jellies. The Queen's sirens began to sing.
"Long live the king," someone called, noting Kilydd's presence among them.
"Long live the peace," was the young king's reply.
Quotations from Sun Tzu's The Art of War, Samuel Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, T.S. Eliot's The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock, William Shakespeare's Hamlet and Othello, Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, The Book of Job, Percy Bysshe Shelley's Mont Blanc and Ozymandias, William Blake's Urizen and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Joseph Conrad's The Heart of Darkness
© 2011 McCamy Taylor
Bio: McCamy Taylor is, of course, Aphelion's reigning Serials / Novellas (fiction longer than 7,500 words) Editor. She is also the author of many stories and articles that have appeared in Aphelion and various other publications too numerous to list here. Her most recent fiction contributions to Aphelion were the fantasy short story Gone to Abaddon and the science fiction novella Impact Event, both appearing in the December 2010 / January 2011 issue.
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