Banner Art: This Charter, Earth

This Charter, Earth:
Book Three

by

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Contents:
Inland Swim
Big Gulp
The Fugitive
Home Invasion
Cross Hairs
Some Night Fishing

My site signature.

Dear Dr. Veregge,

We regret to inform you that the reports are accurate. Dr. Ochoa's boat was discovered, tethered to a buoy and filled with rain water. The state of the boat and the lack of key diving equipment suggest that she intentionally left the boat months before it was located. The evidence further suggests that, contrary to diving best practices, she dove alone. Coast Guard divers found an extensive assortment of research equipment systematically dispersed around the buoy's anchor, but no sign of her has been found. Interviews with the dive shops she frequented indicate that she was inadequately equipped for those depths.

  • — Message from the United States Coast Guard read by
    Dr. Gloria Veregge before deleting.

Inland Swim

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Oceans are never silent. Above, waves immerse all things in a sighing, hissing haze punctuated by roaring, crashing storms. Beneath, rocks crush rocks, magma flows and geysers spew, filling every depth with pops, chugs and hums. Throughout, creatures voice their life-songs. To nature's enduring orchestra, the surface-walkers added their passing racket.

Shadows crossed this background, heard long before a multitude of eyes in the dark below dimly glimpsed fleeting silhouettes far above. A school of bluefin tuna rose toward shallow depths, bellies full of deep prey. Their swimming silver sides glimmered darkly in the violet-blue light cast down from the distant dappled surface.

She slowed to approach from the dark behind-beneath, wearing deep red colors no eye could see in that light. Her presence altered subtly as it silently swept through. In an instant, half of the school vanished in passing and she turned toward her destination. Behind her, a broad thick cloud of blood and oil spread as faintly glittering scales tumbled into the abyss. The survivors swam on, oblivious to the passage of death not native to Earth. They felt more than heard a faint bloop-pop as her flying-blades formed a class-5 turbulence engine. She vanished after not quite appearing. In the vacant waters behind, sharks searched in vain for the meat that went with all that blood.

Three huge sets of three arms shot forward in turn, unfurled their flying-blades, and shaped with every stroke the waters that rocketed her through faster than any fish. Most star-faring folk scoffed rather than attend dubious tales of godlike monsters, refusing their existence as anything other than wild exaggeration. Not even the few who knew them suspected their speed through space or how fast this one swam north and west of Bermuda's drowned remnants toward Virginian shores.

At length in her travels, the character of the ocean noise changed. Motive caching answered a question unasked by Stroma's Second, Xochiquetzal. She acknowledged the obliging message and reported to the coalition through the totality they shared, I am approaching the continental shelf. I shall be swimming inland soon.

Though totalities could be as real as real can be, this one was conversational; suspended at the edge of their thoughts, informing without intruding upon the moment. Stroma's coalition was scattered throughout Earth's shallow oceans, but in this totality, they shared Xochi's senses and the occasional thought she cared to share.

The latest report was not shared as a thought. Some matters were better said or shown than known. She knew most of the coalition were Abyssal and Middle Kingdomers — unfamiliar with shallow issues. They shuddered when their arrays translated Xochi's Shallow-Kingdom creole into terms they understood:

inland — waters within land

Though a Middle Kingdomer, the expression neither baffled nor bothered their Prince. Stroma's favorite games were based on the Shallow Kingdoms' checkered past. He knew the thrill of swimming and crawling through waters barely deep enough to keep his body awash, as the first hint of blue in the twilight east warned of Satan's dawning. These, as nearly all his thrills, were confined to totalities. Blue sun or white, fertile males were too valuable to risk beaching, which was a sad way to destroy a coalition.

After initial security sweeps, they dispensed with the usual security measures — namely assembling a shoal for a palace to protect their Prince. There were no unknowns — no lurking thieves or assassins. The planet held few creatures that could harm a nymph, let alone a prince. Surface-walkers might manage some mischief, but they were almost exclusive to the surface and the orbits of their rocky worlds. Though their robots swam everywhere, they saw nothing, even when they occasionally collided with some careless outer-sphere consort.

Outside of Xochi's totality, Stroma noticed Samsara's arrival to their little gathering. She gave everyone a cheerful wave as her collapsing engine flung her clear of its dying turbulence. She turned and swam for their spaceship, parked nearby at about six hundred meters (as surface-walkers reckoned depth). She was his Seventy-fourth, and the chief instigator of this enterprise — tricking him into a long ago totality of Earth. There, he learned something of himself, of Earth and of its surface-walkers.

What drew his attention from Xochi's adventures was Samsara's apparent loss of mass. Vitality was one of Samsara's hallmarks. She was the last he'd expect to look wane. Samsara had even plumped since she became of-the-flesh. Soon after they reached Earth, she swam off to explore on her own. Now, here she was — all gaunt flesh and weary skin showing distracted patterns. Her presence in yesterday's totality had been far heartier. On another branch, one's self-image inevitably differed from reality.

He flung his princely, shorter arms in her direction and swam close enough to ask with confidential skin, whispering in worried colors, Are you all right?

Never better, she said with voice and skin. Her emphatic answer came far too quickly to convince him. She noticed that concern lingered in his presence, so she added, Truly, my Prince. I have had so much fun that I've neglected myself frightfully. That's all. Yes, I'm simply not quite myself. Her skin laughed as if reminded of some joke.

Stroma knew something wasn't right. She felt wrong. This was Samsara, but somehow second-hand; as if she was elsewhere, coaching someone small to act like her. It confused him greatly.

Feeling his disquiet, Samsara told him with every presence of honesty, I'll be fine after I take some supplements from the ship's stores, and then invite some herring to supper.

Disbelieving, he slipped a branchlet into her gill ring to feel for himself. Her digestive system was idle, but her hearts' strong presences convinced him more than anything she had said. Though reassured, he felt compelled to ask, You'll rest too?

Certainly, once your little prince settles in. Speaking of which, I believe Xochi has reached the continent, Samara said, returning his attention to Xochiquetzal's totality, Yes. That is shore noise she hears. She's new to how Earth's oceans sound, but I have briefed her. She'll know.

They watched Xochi rise to within sight of the Earth's sun. How Stroma envied her! It wasn't nearly as bright as their own harsh blue giant. That sun he never saw, but he did this little white star. It was a pleasant, if novel, experience. His Middle Kingdomer skin was not equipped for shallow living, but for some silly reason, he felt like he missed this star, now that they had shifted operations to what passed for middle depths in Earth's meager oceans. This planet would make such a marvelous colony for Shallow Kingdomers. Fortunately for the surface-walkers, that wasn't allowed by their charter. Otherwise he surely would have taken liberties. He imagined sunning himself a few meters under, with surface-walkers gawking down, and he complaining, You're in my light.

Meanwhile, Xochi heard the ocean floor's echo come up drastically once she passed the verge of the continental shelf, forcing her to shallow up with it. A few hundred eyes saw the bottom nearly as plainly as hundreds more read the surface waves that told tales of a passing storm and the afternoon sun's passage toward the horizon. Without asking, motive caching pre-configured her arms' nerve bundles for another reflex set. The instant she felt crowded, she abandoned her hydraulic engine, swimming at a considerably reduced speed. Minutes later, an arm's branch nearly broke surface as another's flying-blade gouged mud. Reflexes reconfigured and she flattened her profile to ungulate over the shallow slope like one of Waters' carpetworms or Earth's stingrays. Because she didn't know the way in, she chose the four-to-five profile (four arms ahead and five behind) for maneuverability. Going back, she'd know the way, so she'd use three-to-six for speed.

Approaching the Chesapeake, Xochi stopped to deploy her surrogates. They streamed out of her mouths as she sang to them with equal exuberance, Out you go, girls!

Stroma laughed, watching her tiny escorts zip about, overjoyed with their release from confinement. Xochi was a notoriously prodigious — though single-minded — creator of surrogates. Being on a strange planet certainly didn't change her ways. Her girls were ninety-three identical, amphibious female human surrogates. Some were new to life in any form, but most were veterans who had previously occupied bodies of creatures suiting her needs in Waters' depths. They were essentially human because they had to pass as human if they surfaced. Otherwise, their design conformed to Xochi's notions of perfection.

Knowing precisely where they were and where they were going, their driver implants sped them through the waters to their mistress's vanguard into the bay. An extra surrogate tried to follow, but a branchlet grabbed his ankle and shoved him, complaining, back into the mouth at that branchlet's base. With a sufficient interval between her and hers, she slinked after, broadcasting a loud low-frequency warning that would keep any living thing well out of her way. Of all else, her girls would warn.

She scolded her mouthful as she slipped over the first of many Chesapeake tunnels, Neil Stroma! Please have another tuna cake and be quiet! Rest! We have another hour until sunset. You'll get plenty of exercise then.

The surrogate caught the pellet offered up that mouth's digestive tract. He filled her array's interface with complaints even as he greedily stuffed his mouth. It was a treat worthy of any gourmet's pallet, but most surface-walkers would have declined the offer if told the recipe. It was minced and partially digested tuna — scales, bones, and all — yet no surface-walker could have faulted either its flavor or its nutritional value.

Xochi felt the antics of the presence in that mouth with amusement even as she avoided an artificial obstacle in the bay's York Spit Channel and then turned up the submerged Susquehanna Valley. Stroma's little boy was such a prince. It didn't feel right to send a boy to do a girl's job, but Stroma wouldn't be denied. Perhaps she should create some boys to compare with her girls. She would have asked Lakshmi, who knew better since she had five of that sex, but she was of a rival clique. The matter wasn't important enough to cede points that might needlessly promote rivals.

Xochi made every effort to follow the deepest channel up the bay. This minimized the chances of hitting debris or technology, but that was inevitable in any shallow mission. At least it wasn't the salt cascades and radiation of a bad-season mission in Waters' shallows. Unlike Stroma, her adventures were not totalities to pause when things got sticky.

Samsara had been in the bay. Xochi could almost smell her as time and again her observations proved true. Even her predictions of where sediments would shift were correct. Xochi praised her through the coalition's public totality, Samsara has made this easy.

Doris admonished her friend testily. Backwater, that's easy! Don't confuse knowing the way with swimming it! More calmly she belatedly added, Samsara's contribution is noted. Anxious for her Co-Centrum, Doris picked at her branchlets until their implants complained of damage. After that, she hugged herself with several arms while watching Xochi zig-zag up the Chesapeake's drowned valleys, occasionally snatching an injured surrogate who, in their haste, swam into something their mistress could now avoid. Her rescued surrogates were disappointed that their part in the game had ended, but their mistress filled them with praise for their bravery, promising more adventures.

In the privacy of their own totality, Stroma and Samsara watched a map tracking Xochi's seemingly reckless progress through the Chesapeake. Not daring to distract his Second, he complained to Samsara instead, She's going too fast! She'll get hurt!

Samsara's unconcerned skin said, Her surrogates might, but she won't.

Stroma had experienced the Chesapeake himself, but of course only in totalities. He knew there were moving obstacles that couldn't be mapped: floating and drowned drifting logs; surface-walker traffic; and buoyed, swimming and drifting robots. Though she could make as much racket as she wanted on departure, her sonics on approach were passive. That meant her surrogates had to locate every threat by sight, sound, and presence. In those murky waters, even ninety-three couldn't do that in such little time, yet her progress continued unabated and without incident.

Stroma anxiously asked Samsara, How does she do that? Can all Shallow Kingdomers do that?

Her skin laughed as it replied, No. Not all Shallow Kingdomers can do that. She's not Co-Centrum by chance. You'd do well to study her. She is a truly remarkable person, though some in the outer spheres call her Me-two-me-too.

Stroma had seen the expression in Waters' World Array, lampooning his Second's unfailing support for every decision made by Doris, his First. There was an element in all societies that craved the distraction of scandal and controversy. These chronic pessimists abhorred harmony and consensus as boring lies. Few knew his First and Second as well as he. Many of Doris's ideas were actually Xochi's. There were disagreements, but in private. Resolved, they remained private. Those who didn't know better merely thought they did.

In another branch, Co-Centrums were often members of rival cliques. When she first joined the coalition, Xochi was a rare loner who kept herselves to herself. With all her surrogates, she seemed a clique unto her own until she joined Doris to prevent Kadru and hers from threatening Doris's position.

Though Stroma knew of the expression, knowing that someone of-the-flesh had said that outraged him. Reverting to voice, he asked, Sister-consorts call her that? Who?

A few, yes. Never mind who. Their clique was never important. Samsara gestured toward the map and said with voice, Watching this, I imagine the best of them are reconsidering their judgment and shall seek new friends. The rest shall stay outside where their talents belong.

I take it that you're not going to tell me Xochi's secret?

How should I know her secret? Samsara asked innocently.

Stroma laughed, You know everyone's secret.

He was reassured when something of Samsara's usual presence sparkled until she coyly asked, Even yours?

Humor fled Stroma's skin as it slowly answered, Especially mine. You had me pegged before I knew you as you.

Then trust me to know you wouldn't like it if I told you Xochi's secrets.

Knowing he wouldn't like the answer, he reluctantly asked, Why?

My Prince, no good answer is known without good questions. Find them yourself. Besides, if I told you Xochi's secrets, wouldn't you wonder if I would tell of what may link mother and brothers?

Stroma hid his dismay behind protocols that filtered extreme emotions. It was one thing to suspect she knew, but hearing Samsara all but name his shameful fear nearly unnerved him to the point of violating their customs of toilet:

Princelink.

About twelve hundred cycli ago, the Mazca Conglomerate sold a genome profiler that was supposed to increase the chances of giving birth to a prince. At first, it did.

Everyone who could afford the profiler had princes. Unfortunately, the descendants of those princes and their sisters never had another prince in their bloodline. There was a stigma against those who became known as Mazca's Inheritors. After all, what was the point in inviting someone into a coalition who couldn't possibly have a prince and bring the coalition the consequent prestige? Thyme was one extremely rare exception. The lawyer proved so valuable that she was not only invited into the coalition, but was quickly promoted to Fourth.

His problem was that his mother had two princes: himself and his brother, Phragmites. The chances of any consort conceiving two fertile males were nearly beyond astronomical. He hoped his brother was as simpleminded as he thought, or he too would have suspected. Part of him wished he were that way — better to not suspect one's own mother of selling their future for temporary glory. Otherwise, perhaps he would have been as prolific as Phragmites.

He was fertile and mature, but spado — not once aroused into experiencing a single copular. Well, no copular, no nymphs, no Princelink stigma for his descendants. Yet, how many enneads before his consorts would renounce their affiliation and reject his flesh? At least they'd eventually have children — and perhaps princes — in another coalition. He'd simply be stuck with the Queen Mother, as she well deserved.

At one point, he swam away rather than live a life of shame. He didn't get away, though he thought he did. Instead, he was captured in a fantasy of Samsara's design: a totality whose scope was practically a life lesson.

In it, he had fled to some out-of-the-way world called Earth. In that totality, he suffered thirty-some lonely years as his own surrogate. This is how Neil Stroma began. Samsara — posing as his upstairs neighbor, Eva Wu — taught him there was no escaping who and what he was. However, there was an alternative for which he was by then eminently qualified to exploit: Earth.

Before Samsara, all of his consorts were his mother's choice. Samsara was the first of his choosing. Together, they convinced the coalition to apply for a charter for an Earth-based way station. As surface-walkers would say, they all jumped at the opportunity. The charter took precedence over their onerous commitments to his mother's conglomerate. Upon Samsara's recommendation, they invited three shippers — Athtart, Megaira, and Yami — and their ship into their coalition. There was resistance to Megaira's inclusion because she was yet another Mazca Inheritor. Samsara convinced them to accept her, and they won the charter. Now, here they were, far from Waters and his mother, but he still felt her branchlets:

Princelink.

Seeking distraction, he said to Samsara, Xochi is approaching the Mattaponi Channel.

The Big Gulp

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Mike stood on his neighbor's floating dock, feeling his age with autumn's end. The day's seasonably semitropic heat retreated from the sunset shadow crawling down the Mattaponi. Another flock of geese arrived from distant latitudes where ice spread in scattered, thin sheets across the Arctic Ocean, littering temperate northern shores with piles of shattered ice crystals.

Twilight was nearly at hand. It was by far too early for a late winter's frost, but autumn whispered a kindly warning to cherish what warmth may come before its arrival. The setting sun's east-flung shadow blew a fickle breeze that stirred Mike's back hairs, making him wish he had a shirt as he helped secure Steve's boat for the night.

The resident old-timer, Steve was born and raised on the banks of the channel, descended from a long line of King William County farmers. His great-grandfather remembered this land before the sea spilled up from the York Channel into what was then a river valley, flooding the river's banks and surrounding pasturelands. Since then, the Bennett's traditional family business was leasing prime tropical waterfront property.

For the past three years, Steve and his wife, Jean, had spent no more than half there. Unless boredom forced them to globe trot on the pretext of visiting old friends — former business associates — they generally spent summers high in Colorado's mountains, wintering in this corner of the Chesapeake. The way Steve grumbled about not having anything to do, Mike imagined he would soon abandon retirement to keep what he killed once more rather than sniffing crusty old scalps.

Caught daydreaming, Mike fumbled the rope. Its weight dragged the end off the dock and into the water. Shaking his head, he knelt to retrieve it. Closer to the water, he noticed the light was right for him to see the bottom. There, he saw sunglasses lost last month. Clearly within reach, he forgot the rope and reached beneath until fingers caressed silty bottom. As his hand swam around the drowned sunglasses, Mike vaguely heard seagulls crying above the sound of lapping waves slapping docks.

Meanwhile, Steve looked up from his rope work and listened. Something felt wrong, though everything seemed right. Finishing his knot, he sat back on his ankles and looked around, trying to figure out what had him suddenly on edge. He turned to see how Mike was doing and nearly laughed. The big hairy guy looked like a bear, so why not fish like one? Hearing birds cry, Steve looked up and down the channel.

Mike felt his fingers close around the sunglasses. Smiling, he set to bring them out. About the time the elbow surfaced, the water rattled his arm as methane belched all around the dock. Unnerved, Mike flung his arm out of the water, flipping onto his back with superstitious panic. Tingly fingers forgot the sunglasses, but Mike remembered when they splashed on the dock's other side. The sky above his grimacing face filled with screaming birds. There were so many, he closed his mouth for fear that one might drop something.

Steve rose to his feet while every waterfowl in sight sprang into the air as if attacked. Raucous geese and swans managed the fastest launches he had ever seen from waters that rippled oddly in dimpled standing patterns covering even the waves that broke against his dock. Outraged seagulls cried, terns called, and ducks squawked. Some nearly struck him as they flew blindly inland away from the trembling waters. A movement caught his eye. He looked and stared, blink, took off his glasses, and stared again. His mouth opened and closed without so much as a breath passing his lips. Finally he shouted, Good Lord! Mike! Look at that!

Distracted from his fright, Mike rose to his feet to see what had shifted Steve's baritone to high tenor. The setting sun glinted vivid red streaks off an enormous blue-green swell, coming up the bay like a mighty gulp through the Point's thirsty throat. Ahead of it, panicked fish leapt skyward, landed, and skittered down the sides as fast as they possibly could. The water around it undulated, hinting at something immense swimming past on an errand more important than any fish, fowl, or man. A huge striped bass jumped into Steve's boat, flopping about while more fish struck pier, boat, and floats in blind panic around them. The apparition passed — beyond their sight, around the channel's bend. Seconds later, the floating pier bucked and bobbed with the arrival of its wake to their shores. The standing dimpled ripples vanished, and the waters stopped tembling.

Above the creaks and bangs of everything afloat bucking at the end of their ropes, someone nearby hollered, What the hell was that?

Shaking his dripping tingling arm, Mike echoed that question, What was that?

Steve still stared after the vanished swell, lost for an answer and seemingly disappointed.

Impatient for a response, Mike prodded him with another question, Was it a submarine?

Steve laughed. Shaking his head, he explained, No way. A submarine that big would be crazy traveling submerged up this part of the bay at that speed. He paused as his expression sobered. In a soft voice, the retiree mused, I don't think that was a wave. He pulled his waterproof notepad computer from his shorts for some quick browsing. Steve ignored its display since it was linked to his exec-class Gossamer implants. A legacy of his C-suite career, its fine scars covered scalp, face and hands. He blinked up displays only he could see until he handed Mike the notepad so that he could watch. Steve muttered, It came with the tide, but there's nothing to account for that surge.

Mike looked up from Steve's notepad and asked, What about the birds?

Steve's left hand blocked the setting sun as he squinted after the vanished enigma. He said, Damned if I know. They must have felt something unusual, sitting there in the water. The flooded land is settling. We nearly lost some property a few years ago to a landslide. I doubt if the resulting wave would resemble that hump of water.

Mike, remembering what happened to his arm and the methane bubbling from the muddy bottom, contemplated legendary omens that presaged vanished polar ice and temperate lands turned to tropical coral reefs. Shaking himself, Mike said with a reluctant shrug, I don't know. A landslide makes some sense.

Perhaps. I might be crazy, but I can't shake the feeling that this was an animal. Those fish sure thought the channel had gotten mighty crowded. As he spoke, the waters calmed, the birds settled, and the empty fatalism that was retired life returned with a vengeance. Steve's spirit rebelled, grasping after the most exciting thing to happen since his granddaughter's birth. With a sudden grin, he said, If this is an animal, and it's not crazy or stupid, it's sure to come back. Hey, Mike, let's take our boats out in a few hours and wait for it.

Mike watched Steve returning the gasping trophy-sized striper safely back into tame waters, while he remembered old apocalyptic superstitions. It was getting dark fast. He imagined meeting that thing again — out there, in the bay, at night. Shaking his head emphatically, he said, You must be kidding!

Hell, no! I'm too bored to be kidding! Please don't tell Audrey anything more than we fancy we saw a sea monster. Don't tell her about the fish and birds and whatever else might excite her. She'd tell Jeanie and spoil things. Tonight, I'm for some fishing!

The Fugitive

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The surrogate instantly changed direction, heedless of the passing startled natives. Alone again, he remembered his skin's clandestine protocols. A rippled pattern slowly tumbled across his skin, obscuring his outline as he stopped to sidestep into a convenient shadow. An instant later, a police drone passed overhead. Its sensors swept over him without seeing him as anything it should report.

There were no sirens, but he listened to a chorus of searching pursuit decrypted from police datacomm, Central, this is Car 21. We've lost contact at the park. The suspect is a nude black male, covered in some kind of clear oily gel, tall, extremely slim build, and bald all over.

Car 21, what do you mean by 'bald all over'?

I mean no hair — sin pelo — anywhere.

Is he armed?

Negative, Central. The suspect is not armed but is considered dangerous. Also, we disagree with dispatch's description of him as disoriented. We lost the suspect after he ran through a crowd without knocking anyone down.

Car 21, how did you lose him? Are your trackers okay?

Central, the drones are fine. Replay our feed. You'll see that infrared wouldn't lock. The crowd was hotter than the target.

Affirmative, 21. Am reviewing your feed. Have you compressed it?

Negative, Central, that's the actual speed.

No one could move that fast — and through a crowd —

Another voice from Car 21 said, Someone should tell him that. Witnesses said he felt like cold fish swimming past them. Others said his skin crawled as he shimmied through the crowd.

No. This... this can't be right, Central said absently, evidently replaying their feed. The suspect can't be that cold. Are you sure he's not wearing military surplus?

Negative. That's not camo. He's just a naked skinny slimy sorta guy.

Camo defeats infrared and blurs what it can't hide.

I know camo, Central. As you can plainly see by our feed, his profile was not blurred. He's not wearing anything except a smile —

Another voice chimed in, Seemed to be enjoying himself, as a matter of fact.

Car 21, have your visors and drones tested when your shift ends. Central to all cars near the Channel, public disturbance suspect is still at large on foot. Last seen at —

Neil Stroma ignored the rest, as a police car suddenly passed him in plain sight beside a street he intended to cross. He froze on the slim chance they wouldn't see. No such luck.

The eight-wheeler dropped its retracted wheels as it screeched to a stop in the intersection and spun around on differential braking and steering. The car and its occupants stared at him. He grinned back. A report informed him that this car had two veteran officers and an experienced dog.

Officer Stan D. Odessa dryly commented, Well, there's our boy.

His senior partner, Officer Martina Rodriguez de Goldstein, agreed with the same bland tone, Yep. Bad, bad boy. I think we can safely say he's not Jewish.

Neil's personal array scanned Rumford's map. His interface's half-imagined, half-remembered presence spun around him as an organic protocol said in an alien artificial language, Recalculating He gave them a casual wave and vanished down an alley too narrow for the car.

Martina quickly sketched a search pattern on the dash's display of their location. She said to their car in a clear commanding tone used for voice input, Options — Tracking — Drone.

The car answered with a female voice designed to be heard over sirens and horns, Drone tracking ready.

My map for path. Launch tracker.

Tracker selected and launched, the car said as a wastebasket-sized drone launched itself from behind the car's suddenly flashing lights. After briefly orienting itself, it vanished down the alley.

The tracker followed the suggested path while its sensors swept the alley for any sign of heat or bipedal movement. Monitoring its progress with their visors, they recognized a rat and several sleeping birds. To their surprise, there was no trail of infrared patches that bare feet should leave.

By this time they were out of their car. Stan shouted, Damn! Just like Allen said! He hated running down alleys because the suspect could wait in ambush. Sure, the tracker was watching, but judging by their experience thus far, trackers were useless. He some took comfort in that the perp, being naked, was unarmed. He smiled, remembering they had an answer — smarter than any robot. Shep would find the perp for sure. The car opened its backdoor to release their dog.

Martina adjusted her visor's augmented reality setting for motion detection as she reported, Central, Car 17 pursuing public disturbance suspect on foot. Our car will rendezvous and shadow us from Wilson and Maple. Tracker failed to locate the suspect, Central. After a breif pause, she answered a question from Central, No, he didn't seem tired. He seemed quite confident, in fact.

Stan had Shep out and ready to go. He wished his dog had another name, but Shep didn't answer to anything else. There were certainly worse names for a police dog. He pointed into the alley and commanded, Seek! as the car drove itself away to wait for them, or the suspect, at Wilson and Maple. Shep sneezed and hesitated with head cocked and ears laid back. Stan thought his dog was going to refuse until he ran into the alley without so much as a bark.

His partner noticed the delay. She asked, Is he okay?

Stan nodded and said, Yeah. He just doesn't like the scent.

Martina led the chase with stunner drawn. Pew! she said before they traveled more than two meters, I don't like it either. It's like someone dumped fish and fruit in here!

Stan shrugged as he trotted after his partner. He didn't smell a thing.

Shep shivered inside with fear as soon as he entered the alley. He went in because a human he loved above all pointed there and said, Seek. Like any good pack member, he obeyed.

Humans were his usual prey, but he knew by the scent that this was no human. Though vaguely humanish, it smelled different. That strangeness made him afraid. Shep did not like being afraid, so he simply let curiosity lead him by his nose into the dark.

He paced back and forth in search of an oddly fresh yet tenuous scent trail. It played with him like a toy thrust under his nose only to be shaken and tossed away for fetching. Challenged, he ran down the alley and into the small plaza beyond.

The trail abruptly ended.

Shep growled, remembering his fear. As he sniffed about for any sign of his prey, two sopping feet landed on either side as hard cold arms and ankles gripped him painfully.

Having just entered the alley, the police heard Shep yelp. The telemetry from his dog's camera showed a violent blur that made Stan heartsick. His dog was in trouble. SHEP! he shouted as he raced ahead of Martina through the alley.

They emerged on another street where their car met and followed them as they continued on foot. Shep was nowhere in sight. Stan urgently blinked up the map in his visor for their location and superimposed his dog's locator. Martina must have been doing the same thing. She pointed at an alley up the street opposite. The camera wasn't showing Shep's usual running view, but the locator indicated Shep was moving regardless. They both drew the same conclusion and quickened their pace; the perp was running away with their dog.

This alley connected to a small brick-paved public square surrounded by shops closed for the night. Stan grunted when he saw the lighting. He thought they'd find the suspect in a poorly lit area. Perhaps the perp knew that it wouldn't have mattered to their visors. The running man's bald head would show up like a flare on infrared. Then again, Car 21 said infrared didn't work on this one.

They didn't see Shep, but his tracer indicated that he was behind one of several huge plascrete tree pots. That's where they headed as they panned their visors back and forth for sign of the suspect. Nothing. As they approached that spot, they split up with drawn stunners, passing on either side with room to react if surprised.

Neither Shep nor the suspect was there, but they found the dog's harness. Stan examined it and shouted, It's torn! How could anyone tear that?

Since Shep's tracer was implanted, they soon found the dog sprawled unconscious on his side. He was shivering and breathing hard. Stan cussed as he knelt beside his dog and snatched up a metallic sliver. How the hell did he get Shep's tracer out and without blood?! He laid a hand on his dog's throat. Seemingly reassured by his master's touch, Shep relaxed and sighed as if dreaming.

Martina continued to look out for the perp as she asked, How is he?

He's not shivering anymore, but something oily is in his fur. His breathing sounds better. Stan saw his dog's eyes open. Ah, he's awake. How you doing, Shep? he asked rhetorically as the dog got up and shook his matted fur into a semblance of canine decorum.

Shep looked at them with alert ears and cocked head before he turned and ran away with astounding speed. Though their police cruiser launched all drones for a grid search, neither the perp nor their dog could be found.

It had all happened so fast. Until they replayed their visors, they didn't realize that Shep appeared just as cold as the perp to their infrared cameras.

Home Invasion

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Viscous clear oil dripped thickly from Neil's thighs and back as he crouched in the shadows, spying on a white house trimmed in yellow and brown. What made this house attractive was the absence of a site status query in the Public Safety logs. This indicated that their security was not fully active. Someone had been careless.

This house was built within the past half century. The walls, windows, ceiling and doors were shielded to prevent passing thieves from electronically casing it for burglary. They also had active walls — intelligent tiles. Each tile consisted of a touch-sensitive display, multi-core processor, memory and optical routing that communicated with the rest of the house's tiles. Collectively, they acted as a massive processor and interactive display for everything from work to games, to security, to decoration, to lighting.

All this shielding and electrical activity interfered with his sense of presence. Fortunately, the household's firewall and his implant array got along fine after a mild disagreement, giving him full access. In an instant he knew everything the house knew about its inhabitants.

This house was owned by Mr. Joel Golden and Ms. Valerie Golden. He was a business consultant who worked mostly from home. She was a lawyer who did more downtown legwork, but otherwise also worked from home. Both accounted for the heavy-duty tiling in the home gym. They had two nearly mature offspring. The elder was Pam Golden, who studied business economics, management and boys in the local college. Berry Golden would graduate from high school in spring, worrying Joel with his lack of interest in anything except games and eating. Physically and mentally, their health appeared in good order. They would weather an invasion fairly well. Stroma agreed — they were ideal hosts.

Neil told the house not to announce him as it unlocked the door for him. While he maneuvered toward the house's entrance, Neil witnessed through its sensors a toilet flush and cycle through its bidet functions shortly before watching Valerie Golden leave the first-level bathroom for the stairs. Formerly stealthy skin shifted into dizzy combat patterns.

Inside that house, Joel Golden heard his wife ask as she climbed the stairs, Did you find it yet?

He sighed, No. Not yet.

Valerie stopped and crouched on the stairs, peering below the ceiling to say, Just ask them to send you another.

He had considered that. Authenticating a new key was easily done, but tomorrow morning somebody — rather than something — was bound to know from the logs that he had lost them. Joel answered reluctantly, I'd rather not.

She shook her head and muttered, Men, before disappearing upstairs.

Joel ignored her and returned to his search. He couldn't find the codes he needed and it was driving him crazy. He had a hectic day, riding technicians who spent more time skylarking with his daughter than replacing the house's antiquated security. Pam was positively basking in their covert stares and whispered comments.

What possessed him to forget scanning the codes with his notepad? Well, he was a bit preoccupied with the long talk Pam needed about her burgeoning sexuality. What could he say? Remembering all the fun he had in college, having a college girl for a daughter was no fun at all. He should tell her all about that, with Valerie to translate his fumbles into the appropriate female terms. Pam needed to know it all. She wasn't a child anymore. That was the problem!

For the fifth time, he retraced his steps. This time, he had a stand-in for the object of his angst in hand. He stood where it all started: at the main entry's terminal, where the technician tersely explained the new system's finer details before abandoning him with that accursed paper. What next? Well, he was hungry and went to the kitchen to fetch an empanada. Remembering that, he followed a fresh trail of memories.

Pam was deep in girl-talk at the kitchen table, clutching her notepad with both hands as she chord-keyed something unspeakable to her friends. She grimaced meaningfully for the camera above the blank display between her thumbs. Unknown to Joel, she flipped her headset from AR (augmented reality) to VR (virtual reality) mode to block him out.

She was mad at him for his lack of faith. While in college, guys were cute but good only for flirting. Now her eyes glanced between her friends' chatty faces and the vast collage of nude males cast across the notepad's interface in her headset's 3D display.

Joel shook his head, seeing some damage on the headset's frame. Those were her third set this year. If she broke this set, she'd pay for the next or do without. Doing without wouldn't be at all convenient or fashionable. At least she was past her grade-school passion for painting fake Gossamer implant scars and acting like she was blinking through imaginary store catalogs.

There was Barry, leaning against the counter with seemingly nothing better to do than watch his older sister's antics with condescending amusement. That ended the instant the oven beeped. Joel shook his head as he watched his son pull out a fresh little loaf of bread. Barry's appetite was constantly pushing the phrase instant mix to the limit. He was surprised Barry let the instant-rise dough quick-bake. At least he was far from being a couch potato.

Joel slapped himself in the head, remembering there was someplace else he went before going to the kitchen. Starting over, he returned to the security terminal in the hall. Shaking the paper in his hand, he racked his mind until suddenly he remembered: the bathroom! With any luck no one had recycled it.

As he turned away, he heard the front door's knob turn behind him. Hadn't he locked that? Joel looked up and saw a tall, dark naked man enter his home, boldly shutting the door behind him though he clearly saw Joel standing there with his surrogate paper. The intruder's complexion flicked and rippled as if drenched in flaming alcohol. Dumbfounded, Joel stood and stared while in the kitchen Barry blandly asked Pam, Where's the olive oil?

Neil sprang at him the instant the door latched, fastening a cool stinging hand around his neck as his body pinned him against the wall. Where their torsos met, coiled stingers lanced out from Neil, embedding themselves deep within the chambers of Joel's franticly beating heart. Full of exotic psychopharmaceuticals and implants, Joel slumped to the floor as Neil Stroma spun and ran for the kitchen. Wall and ceiling tiles forgot their usual routines, imitating the surrogate's dazzling skin.

Momentarily distracted by the walls' bizarre behavior, Pam saw Neil first and screamed. Before her brother could turn, Neil snatched him up to fling him across the table into Pam's lap. Neil had a firm hold on both as together they landed on the floor in the corner.

Seconds later, Neil stood, wiping his mouth backhandedly. A recoiling stinger belatedly reeled itself back under the skin of his left inner thigh. In addition to a vicious jab in the face, Pam had torn a gill slit, but everything was neatly sutured with only a few drops of blood and implants lost.

Neil paused briefly to consider the injuries. This also felt different from the totalities, but simple pain didn't freak him out as much as his first attempt at pulling air into his chest. Claire Lakshmi told him, Forget about it and move on. Her pragmatic tone calmed him and he did exactly as she said.

Now the problem was dizziness and ringing ears, but that was the hyperoxidant giving him a bad case of hyperoxia: oxygen poisoning. The tunnel vision he hardly noticed because seeing didn't matter much, but the nausea made it difficult to avoid tossing Xochi's tuna cookie.

Neil met Valerie on her way at the top of the stairs. His momentum carried them into the hallway. Minutes later, Valerie opened her eyes and looked around in mild confusion. She calmly asked a complete stranger, What happened, Neil?

Smiling, Neil helped her up as he explained, We sort of ran into each other.

I guess we did, she said, absently smiling as she straightened her oil-smeared clothes, finding nothing remarkable about that or his appearance. What she did find remarkable was that she smelled something like peaches and fish. How odd.

Neil prompted Valerie's freshly implanted memories. You were saying something about visitors?

At first bewildered, her face lit up as she said, Oh yes! Thanks for reminding me! She turned and shouted downstairs, We're due for visitors. Time to wash and clean up!

There were footsteps on the stairs and the rest of the Golden family arrived on the scene. Neil said to Valerie, Mrs. Golden, I'm afraid I have nothing to wear.

Don't you worry about that, she said, looking him up and down. I'm sure that Joel or Barry would have something that'll fit — if a bit loosely.

I do! Barry eagerly volunteered, seeing an opportunity to rid himself of some old unpopular clothes. His parents simply had no sense of style.

Barry raced off and the parents left for their bedroom, giving Pam just enough time to lean against Neil and say, I could just eat you, Peaches! Someday I'll undress you with more than my eyes! She kissed him, backed away and ran off giggling, leaving Neil and Stroma bemused. College girls.

At least now he knew that to humans he smelled like peaches — a fair description of Stroma's scent. He'd mask that to fit in. Surface-walkers did not smell like titans.

Stroma urgently reminded his surrogate, Clean up, Neil. You don't have much time.

Stroma quickly picked through Goldens' minds for the house routine regarding guest accommodations and passed it along. Neil turned down the hall while Stroma searched the family's minds for a good cover story for Neil's presence in the Golden household. Finding something suitable in Joel's memories, he composed and forwarded a biography for the coalition's hacker, Kirtibandha, to enter into the appropriate governmental databases. Neil and Stroma made several quick entries in the family's memories concerning an old classmate Joel never knew and his son's happy arrival as their guest.

Stepping into the shower cold and black blooded, still dripping the occasional dollop of oil, Neil stepped out warm, wearing a Mediterranean complexion. By that time, everyone else was cleaned up, straightening everything around the house as if there was nothing unusual in finding fishy mucus in the oddest places. Neil went to Barry's room and found everything Barry didn't want piled on his bed for Neil to pick through. Warm blooded and chilled by the air conditioning, he quickly dressed and carried everything that fit him into the guest bedroom. Once he put his cloths away, he went to the downstairs bathroom and fetched the paper Joel had been searching for. He handed it over, saying, I found it, Mr. Golden.

Joel's eyes lit up and he laughed, Thank you, Neil! I've been driving myself crazy over that! Where'd you find it?

The bathroom.

Joel groaned and struck his own forehead, The bathroom, of course! Let that be a lesson, Neil. The first place you go is the last place you look.

As Joel walked off to activate the new security system, Neil said, I'll try to remember that Mr. Golden.

Pam grabbed his arm, tugging him into the kitchen and to his seat at the table he had somehow managed not to break after tossing Barry across it. The temporary ruse of visitors coming had left his hosts' minds, but Kirtibandha's Little Knot protocol indicated that the police were alerted by Pam's friends.

Joel returned, feeling much better once he had armed the security system. He had a nagging feeling that something wasn't right until Neil had reminded him of that small detail. He returned to his seat at the kitchen table across from Neil, who was delighting Pam and Barry with tales of their fathers' adventures in college. Neil intentionally made some mistakes for Joel to correct by recounting his false memories of a nonexistent classmate. It was too bad Andy had died. He would have liked to tell him what a charming young man Neil had become.

The neck was feeling better by the minute. It was beyond him what he had done to make it ache like that. Felt like someone had wrung his neck. Oh yes, he had taken a nap on the sofa.

The conversation wandered to a recent concert that featured an artist who enumerated herself for reasons she wouldn't explain. This was related to what they could watch together before bedtime. Joel said to Valerie, I still think Five was better.

Barry chimed in with a grin, So did I, Mom. What a great voice! Neil liked her too.

Oh, yeah, Five, Neil said, playing along. She was a popular artist who outraged the public norms, keeping her number alive in fan sites during creative dry spells.

Barry pursued the matter, See? That's a three-to-two vote in favor.

Pam made a rude noise. Echoing her thoughts, Valerie put her knuckles on the table, saying, Not tonight. How about that Georgian circus? What was their name, Pam? Remember? You liked the contortionist with the rings.

Before Pam could deny her mother's observations, the house public address system beeped three times, announcing: Visitors. Visitors.

Joel's notepad was in his homeoffice, so he pointed at Pam's notepad, asking, Could I borrow that?

Sure, Dad, but you're out of luck if you want my headset. Neil broke it, roughhousing with Barry.

She picked up her pad and told it: Switch users.

The notepad cleared Pam's personal interface and answered: Okay.

She got up far enough to pass him her pad as she glared significantly at Neil, who moaned, Didn't I say I'm sorry? You'll have another tomorrow. An EyeMark-67. It wasn't an idle promise. He had even ordered a set for himself, along with a notepad — simply to fit in. The coalition had surface-walker credit, trading the IT version of knives, blankets and mirrors for native trade. Useless beyond Earth, it kept the emerging surrogates solvent.

After Pam handed her father the notepad, she turned her head toward Neil and stuck out her tongue. She sat back grinning under sparkling eyes while Barry rolled his.

Pam had been flirting with him all evening. Valerie and Joel exchanging worried looks. They'd have to keep an eye on them. Unaccountably, Joel reconsidered. No, Neil wasn't the type to get into trouble. He saw his wife smile and shake her head. She had come to the same conclusion. It's amazing how in-sync they were about Neil.

As soon as the notepad recognized Joel's face it said, Hello, Joel, and fetched his preferences from the house network.

Using a tone of voice suited for voice recognition, he said to the notepad, Display visitors, and saw two police officers approaching their front door. Their visors were down, so this was either serious or a scam. His brows climbed as he commanded: Authenticate visitors. A second later, he got authentication from Police Central. They were real and this was serious. Clear front door security. I'm done.

The notepad answered, Front door security clear. You are done, as it restored Pam's standby graphic.

Joel returned the notepad as he announced, Our visitors are police.

Valerie said, Wonder what they want?

This was such a novelty that everyone went to answer the door. Stan and Martina were taken slightly aback when they saw the crowd waiting behind the door.

It had been a long night. Stan was preoccupied, missing his dog. In addition to the report on how they lost an expensive police dog, they had a huge backlog of data entry awaiting them at shift's end. Now, by the looks of things, the night wasn't getting any easier.

Martina cleared her throat and said, Pardon us, folks, but we had a call about an assault in progress at this address.

She had the database for this address on her visor. The man matching the image of the property's co-owner, Joel Golden, looked honestly confused. I don't know about any assault, officer. Their helmets' infrared stress/lie-profile feature indicated nothing unusual.

Who called? Mr. Golden asked.

I can't say who exactly. There were several reports saying they were chatting with your daughter when she was knocked over screaming and they lost her connection.

Oh! Pam said, I forgot to call back. When the police looked at her, she explained, Neil and my brother, Barry, chose that moment to show each other what big men they were. Neil pushed Barry into me and — it was all such a terrific mess. Broke my visor —

Rather than look like he had something to hide, Neil quickly chimed in, Yes, but didn't I say I'd replace it?

With the very latest EyeMark? Pam asked, grinning.

He sighed, Of course. Check your mail. It's ready for store pickup.

You're Neil? Stan asked the hairless young man in back as the young lady stuck her face in her notepad and danced in place. This one wasn't listed as a resident. That and after tonight's adventures he was highly suspicious, particularly of anyone lacking hair.

Yes, sir.

Martina asked, What's your name and address?

Neil Douglas. I live at 498 Pilsbury, New Norfolk.

Stan did a quick search. There was only one Neil Douglas listed in that area's public records. The building with that address provided emergency contact information matching the Golden household. No point in asking for a palm scan. Neil Douglas had hair in the pictures. He patted his helmet, asking, Is that a new fashion?

Neil controlled his facial skin's capillaries with a protocol. He commanded the protocol to dilate and then reset, so they'd seem to react to the question and then flat-line on the answer. No, sir, he said, explaining, I had Boyle's Syndrome. I understood it should grow back. He managed a perfect impatient tone towards the end. He had already learned a lot from his hosts.

Stan's expression softened but said nothing when he heard him mention Boyle's Syndrome. 'Better living through gene therapy' was what the advertisements claimed. Perhaps they should have studied those genes better.

As far as Martina was concerned, that was all there was to this call. Security was operating. House authentication recognized Mr. Douglas as a guest with basic command privileges. There were no signs of injuries or lies. All there was left to do on this call was say, Sorry for bothering you folks. To Pam, Martina added, Better reassure your friends, Miss. They must be worried.

Yes, I will, Pam promised, eagerly chord-keying her notepad for another party-chat. Touching the bridge of her nose reminded her that she had no visor to activate. She huffed and shook her head but happily soldiered on without it. She couldn't wait to tell her friends about her forthcoming headset.

Good night everybody, Stan said, letting a bit of fatigue creep into his voice. What a night. At least it had ended quietly. He hoped that someone had found his dog.

Goodnight, the Golden household answered in a ragged chorus that ended in several seemingly spontaneous conversations as the police turned back toward their cruiser. The door shut and locked behind their backs.

Martina said as they walked back to their car, Boyle's Syndrome! Poor kid. I hope he doesn't want children.

Cross Hairs

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The toilet flushed and its bidet cycled, washing Pam's bottom with myrtle-scented toilet water. Meanwhile, the surface-walker's droppings passed into the plumbing. There they erupted into a seething mass of writhing hairs, each wriggling free of the others.

These were implant vectors similar to those that had implanted the Goldens. These differed in that they were highly compressed and had internal random number generators that determined their fates. By their numbers, an extreme minority immediately clung to the household plumbing, as the others flowed outside into the sewer's first junction. A few more took their number's cue and clung to those pipes as the rest were swept past another junction. This process continued until the entire system between the Goldens and the sewage treatment plant had hairs snaking their way upstream, following the scents of those unaffected.

Their mode of locomotion kept them immaculate as they maneuvered through sewage and past the traps of the city's many sinks, tubs, showers and toilets. The numbers determined whether they stayed in the traps or slinked out to linger near drains, on toilet bowls or seats, or across the floors. All awaited the approach of fresh hosts.

A toilet lid came up, briefly flooding the bowl with light until a shadow fell with the slight shudder of weight resting upon its seat. Several hairs felt a presence above the cool clear water. There was no scent in the cascading excrement to indicate the presence was a host. Their metabolism shifted from low to high as they sped through the water and leapt for the hottest spot, which indicated the best blood flow.

Bull's-eye.

Dr. Charles Morgan Triebel felt an itchy prickle and made a face. He left the hotel's bathroom after applying ointment and washing. By that time, he was yet another closely monitored entry in an exploding titan database of vital statistics.

Some Night Fishing

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On the banks of the Mattaponi Channel, Mike stood with his wife, Audrey, and Steve's wife, Jean, as they watched a flotilla of small boats gather in steadily growing numbers at the middle of their corner of the bay. Even at this late hour, it seemed like no one was sleeping on either side. Lights were everywhere. It was like Christmas night, but without the fireworks. The general consensus was that something was going to happen. There were rumors that big media was on hand. Though there were plenty of amateur camera drones buzzing around, no one saw anything professional. That didn't mean they weren't there. A few police and Coast Guard boats kept an eye on the gathering. They generally kept their distance after receiving absurd reports linked to posts about a sea monster that included pictures and streamed video.

Steve was out in his boat with a growing number of intrepid, if foolhardy, weekend sailors. Mike was neither. Sure he wanted to see that thing again, but he didn't care to be on top of it — especially at night. He waited onshore with the wives, trying not to say much about the thing they came out to see and Steve's current location. Seeing the crowded bay, Audrey and Jean were getting uncomfortably curious about what really happened earlier. He couldn't resist Audrey for long, so he hoped that something glorious but harmless would happen soon.

The Mattaponi Channel narrowed at the point before widening north and south. Lights on boats and on shore rendered every ripple perfectly visible. He had no doubt they would see it if it came back. Despite the late hour, it was such a nice night that no one really felt like giving upon waiting for the Big Gulp, as some laughingly called it. Everyone settled in, chatting and trading good-natured barbs across the tame waters. A few had their fishing tackle out — more from habit than interest in catching something.

Mike judged them all idiots and prayed for their safety.

By this time he was full of pineapple soda and considered a quick trip inside. Then he heard the all too familiar sound of birds screaming and crying in the north. Moments later, birds all around took flight, adding to the growing melee. Mike heard those in the bay shouting.

Here it comes!

It's acomin' now!

It got quiet for several seconds before he heard the sitting ducks out there give quick and loud reappraisals of their locations.

Holy crap!

Let's get the hell out of here!

Shortly after that, a pandemonium of horns and sirens.

Oh, my God!

Head for shore!

There was a growing ragged chorus of: Go! Go! Go!

Turn on your navigation lights you idiot!

He saw and then heard boats colliding. There were no casualties, as the boats struck each other before building up much speed. Over the din, Mike heard police or Coast Guard loudspeakers calmly advising an orderly and courteous evacuation to the nearest shore whilst the people at their boats' helms enthusiastically led by example.

Words became outraged shouts and frightened screams as Big Gulp plunged under the heaving, fleeing boats. Mike thought things sounded pretty bad. They looked even worse because of the darkness, with the water mound obscuring half of the boats from sight. Steve's wife, Jean, was seriously upset. Mike considered saying something, but Audrey already had an arm around her as Jean screamed over the water, Stevie! My God, Stevie! Get out of there!

Out in the channel, Steve was too busy dodging boats to answer anyone. In the dark, the water mound appeared bigger and faster than before. This time red, green and white navigation and searchlights glistened off the approaching hill of water as boats slipped off all sides — lifting them up and dropping them with its passage. In under a minute it had passed the Point to its southern extreme, leaving a thick creamy fishy scent — but Steve Bennett had gone with it.

His boat vibrated heavily as it surfed the surge's leading edge, engine screaming. The few that had the time to see him go thought him a hell-bent daredevil. In fact, he was hunched over from the sudden acceleration upward — too afraid of capsizing to turn off the swell's side.

Flickering light shined from below, caughting his eye. Looking down, beyond the surface on either side, Steve saw something immense shining with a writhing alien snowflake's symmetry. Where the boat's wake hadn't disturbed the waters, he saw winged tentacles locked in a loose basket weave, undulating at a seemly impossible rate as its huge central body passed under him. Then he spotted back-lit shadows, seemingly investigating his boat. At first the boat's wake distorted their form beyond recognition, but then their outlines came too close for the waters to confuse. To Steve's horror, he realized the shadows resemblanced humans. They swam without swimming — arms by their sides. The shadows and shining winged tentacles passed, leaving his boat pitching and bucking in the trough and wake without quite tipping over. The waters' vibrations dwindled to nothing as the apparition passed from sight, leaving him alone in the quiet dark after.

Jean was bawling her eyes out on the end of their pier until she heard Steve shout, Jeanie! Jeanie, I'm alright!

Angrily dashing tears from her face, she yelled with relieved fury, Not when I get my hands on you, Steven Richard Bennett the Third!

This was the second time Mike had heard Jean call Steve that. He didn't care to remember the first. Steve was caught teaching a chesty beauty in one of those split-strap bathing suits how to close haul a catamaran.

Jean changed her tune when she saw her husband come up shivering and clench-jawed, with a wide-eyed expression and vomit splattered across half the boat. She ran to him and helped him out of the boat, both in tears now. Several minutes passed before Steve noticed Mike — several minutes more before he spoke.

I — He sniffed and swallowed and tried again, I saw — it, and smelled — it, when I was on top. He breathed and sighed before repeating, I saw it, Mike.

Though he didn't doubt Steve by his shocked expression, Mike had to ask, How could you have seen it in the dark?

Steve ground the palms of his hands into his eyes, crying, It shined!

Shined?

Yes, it shined — impossible colors dancing with impossibly wild and wonderful patterns all over its body and tentacles. They're burnt in my eyes still. It was so beautiful that part of me wanted to jump overboard and hug it. He stopped crushing his eyes, but held them there, sighing again. Then he bawled, But that's not the worst of it! as he now waved his hands with palms up in the direction he came from.

His wife tried to calm him as she asked, What is it, dear?

Jeanie! I saw people with it!

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© Copyright 1993 - William F. Prine. All rights reserved under United States copyright law and international copyright treaties. Do not reproduce without prior approval.

© Derechos de Autor 1993 - William F. Prine. Todos los derechos reservados conforme a de la ley derechos de autor de Estados Unidos y los tratados internacionales de copyright. No reproducir sin autorización previa.