Startide rising, p.1

Startide Rising, page 1


Startide Rising
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Startide Rising

  Startide Rising

  David Brin




  Streaker is limping like a dog on three legs.

  We took a chancy jump through overdrive yesterday, a step ahead of the Galactics who are chasing us. The one probability coil that had survived the Morgran battle groaned and complained, but finally delivered us here, to the shallow gravity well of a small population-II dwarf star named Kthsemenee.

  The Library lists one habitable world in orbit, the planet Kithrup.

  When I say "habitable," it's with charity. Tom, Hikahi, and I spent hours with the captain, looking for alternatives. In the end, Creideiki decided to bring us here.

  As a physician, I dread landing on a planet as insidiously dangerous as this one, but Kithrup is a water world, and our mostly-dolphin crew needs water to be able to move about and repair the ship. Kithrup is rich in heavy metals, and should have the raw materials we need.

  It also has the virtue of being seldom visited. The Library says it's been fallow for a very long time. Maybe the Galactics won't think to look for us here.

  I said as much to Tom last night, as he and I held hands and watched the planet's disc grow larger in one of the lounge ports. It's a deceptively lovely blue globe, swathed in bands of white clouds. The night side was lit in patches by dimly glowing volcanoes and flickering lightning.

  I told Tom that I was sure no one would follow us here -- pronouncing the prediction confidently, and fooling nobody. Tom smiled and said nothing, humoring my bout of wishful thinking.

  They'll look here, of course. There were only a few interspatial paths Streaker could have taken without using a transfer point. The only question is, can we get our repairs finished in time, and get away from here before the Galactics come for us?

  Tom and I had a few hours to ourselves, our first in days. We went back to our cabin and made love.

  While he sleeps, I'm making this entry. I don't know when I'll have another chance.

  Captain Creideiki just called. He wants both of us up on the bridge, I suppose so the fins can see us and know their human patrons are nearby. Even a competent dolphin spacer like Creideiki might feel the need from time to time.

  If only we humans had that psychological refuge.

  Time to put this down and awaken my tired fellow. But first, I want to jot down what Tom said to me last night, while we watched Kithrup's stormy seas.

  He turned to me, smiled that funny way he does when he thinks of something ironic, and whistled a brief haiku in dolphin-Trinary.

  * The stars shake with storms

  * The waters below roll thunder

  * Still, are we wet, love?

  I had to laugh. Sometimes I think Tom is half dolphin.



  All your better deeds

  shall be in water writ ..."


  1 ::: Toshio

  Fins had been making wisecracks about human beings for thousands of years. They had always found men terribly funny. The fact that humanity had meddled with their genes and taught them engineering hadn't done much to change their attitude.

  Fins were still smart-alecks.

  Toshio watched the small instrument panel of his seasled, pretending to check the depth gauge. The sled thrummed along at a constant ten meters below the surface. There were no adjustments to be made, yet he concentrated on the panel as Keepiru swam up alongside undoubtedly to start another round of teasing.

  "Little Hands, whistle!" The sleek, gray cetacean did a barrel roll to Toshio's right, then drew nearer to eye the boy casually. "Whistle us a tune about shipsss and space and going home!"

  Keepiru's voice, echoing from a complex set of chambers under his skull, rumbled like the groaning of a bassoon. He could just as well have imitated an oboe, or a tenor sax.

  "Well, Little Hands? Where is your sssong?"

  Keepiru was making sure the rest of the party could hear. The other fins swam quietly, but Toshio could tell they were listening. He was glad that Hikahi, the leader of the expedition, was far ahead, scouting. It would be far worse if she were here and ordered Keepiru to leave him alone. Nothing Keepiru said could match the shame of being protected like a helpless child.

  Keepiru rolled lazily, belly up, next to the boy's sled, kicking slow fluke strokes to stay easily abreast of Toshio's machine. In the crystal-clear water of Kithrup, everything seemed strangely refracted. The coral-like peaks of the metal-mounds shimmered as though mountains seen through the haze of along valley. Drifting yellow tendrils of dangle-weed hung from the surface.

  Keepiru's gray skin had a phosphorescent sheen, and the needle-sharp teeth in his long, narrow, vee mouth shone with a teasing cruelty that had to be magnified ... if not by the water, then by Toshio's own imagination.

  How could a fin be so mean?

  "Won't you sing for us, Little Hands? Sing us a song that will buy us all fish-brew when we finally get off this sssocalled planet and find a friendly port! Whistle to make the Dreamers dream of land!"

  Above the tiny whine of his air-recycler, Toshio's ears buzzed with embarrassment. At any moment, he was sure, Keepiru would stop calling him Little Hands and start using the new nickname he had chosen: "Great Dreamer."

  It was bad enough to be taunted for having made the mistake of whistling when accompanying an exploration crew of fins -- they had greeted his absentminded melody with razzberries and chittering derision -- but to be mockingly addressed by a title almost always reserved for great musicians or humpback whales ... it was almost more than he could bear.

  "I don't feel like singing right now, Keepiru. Why don't you go bother somebody else?" Toshio felt a small sense of victory in managing to keep a quaver out of his voice.

  To Toshio's relief, Keepiru merely squeaked something high and fast in gutter Trinary, almost Primal Dolphin -- that in itself a form of insult. Then the dolphin arched and shot away to surface for air.

  The water on all sides was bright and blue. Shimmering Kithrupan fish flicked past with scaled backs that faceted the light like drifting, frosted leaves. All around were the various colors and textures of metal. The morning sunshine penetrated the clear, steady sea to glimmer off the peculiar life forms of this strange and inevitably deadly world.

  Toshio had no eye for the beauty of Kithrup's waters. Hating the planet, the crippled ship that had brought him here, and the fins who were his fellow castaways, he drifted into a poignantly satisfying rehearsal of the scathing retorts he should have said to Keepiru.

  "If you're so good, Keepiru, why don't you whistle us up some vanadium!" Or, "I see no point in wasting a human song on a dolphin audience, Keepiru."

  In his imagination the remarks were satisfyingly effective. In the real world, Toshio knew, he could never say anything like that.

  First of all, it was the cetacean, not the anthropoid, whose vocalizings were legal tender in a quarter of the spaceports in the galaxy. And while it was the mournful ballads of the larger cousins, the whales, that brought the real prices, Keepiru's kin could buy intoxicants on any of a dozen worlds merely by exercising their lungs.

  Anyway, it would be a terrible mistake to try to pull human rank on any of the crew of the Streaker. Old Hannes Suessi, one of the other six humans aboard, had warned him about that just after they had left Neptune, at the beginning of the voyage.

  "Try it and see what happens," the mechanic had suggested. "They'll laugh so hard, and so will I, if I have the good luck to be there when you do. Likely as not, one of them will take a nip at you for good measure! If there's anything fins don't respect, it's a human who never earned the right, putting on patron airs."

  "But the Protocols ..." Toshio had started to protest.

  "Protocols my left eye! Those rules were set up so humans and chimps and fins will act in just the right way when Galactics are around. If the Streak gets stopped by a Soro patrol, or has to ask a Pilan Librarian for data somewhere, then Dr. Metz or Mr. Orley -- or even you or I -- might have to pretend we're in charge ... because none of those stuffedshirt Eatees would give the time of day to a race as young as fins are. But the rest of the time we take our orders from Captain Creideiki.

  "Hell, that'd be hard enough -- taking brown from a Soro and pretending you like it because the damned ET is nice enough to admit that humans, at least, are a bit above the level of fruit flies. Can you imagine how hard it would be if we actually had to run this ship? What if we had tried to make dolphins into a nice, well-behaved, slavey client race? Would you have liked that?"

  At the time Toshio had shaken his head vigorously. The idea of treating fins as clients were usually treated in the galaxy was repulsive. His best friend, Akki, was a fin.

  Yet, there were moments like the present, when Toshio wished there were compensations for being the only human boy on a starship crewed mostly by adult dolphins.

  A starship which wasn't going anywhere at the moment, Toshio reminded himself. The acute resentment of Keepiru's goading was replaced by the more persistent, hollow worry that he might never leave the water world of Kithrup and see home.

  * Slow your travel -- boy sled-rider *

  * Exploring pod -- does gather hither *

  * Hikahi comes -- we wait here for her *

  Toshio looked up. Brookida, the elderly dolphin metallurgist, had come up alongside on the left. Toshio whistled a reply in Trinary.

  * Hikahi comes -- my sled is stopping *

  He eased the sled's throttle back.

  On his sonar screen Toshio saw tiny echoes converging from the sides and far ahead. The scouts were returning. He looked up and saw Hist-t and Keepiru playing at the surface.

  Brookida switched to Anglic. Though somewhat shrill and stuttered, it was still better than Toshio's Trinary. Dolphins, after all, had been modified by generations of genetic engineering to take up human styles, not the other way around.

  "You've found no t-traces of the needed substances, Toshio?" Brookida asked.

  Toshio glanced at the molecular sieve. "No, sir. Nothing so far. This water is almost unbelievably pure, considering the metal content of the planet's crust. There are hardly any heavy metal salts at all."

  And nothing on the long ssscan?"

  "No resonance effects on any of the bands I've been checking, though the noise level is awfully high. I'm not sure I'd even be able to pick out monopole-saturated nickel, let alone the other stuff we're looking for. It's like trying to find that needle in a haystack."

  It was a paradox. The planet had metals in superabundance. That was one reason Captain Creideiki had chosen this world as a refuge. Yet the water was relatively pure ... pure enough to allow the dolphins to swim freely, although some complained of itching, and each would need chelating treatments when he got back to the ship.

  The explanation lay all around them, in the plants and fishes.

  Calcium did not make up the bones of Kithrupan life forms. Other metals did. The water was strained and sieved clean by biological filters. As a result, the sea shone all around with the bright colors of metal and oxides of metal. The gleaming dorsal spines of living fish -- the silvery seedpods of underwater plants -- all contrasted with the more mundane green of chlorophyllic leaves and fronds.

  Dominating the scenery were the metal-mounds, giant, spongy islands shaped by millions of generations of coral-like creatures, whose metallo-organic exoskeletons accumulated into huge, flat-topped mountains rising a few meters above the mean water mark.

  Atop the islands the drill-trees grew, sending their metalripped roots through each mound to harvest organics and silicates from below. The trees laid a non-metallic layer on top and created a cavity underneath the metal mound. It was a strange pattern. Streaker's onboard Library had offered no explanation.

  Toshio's instruments had detected clumps of pure tin, mounds of chromium fish eggs, coral colonies built from a variety of bronze, but so far no convenient, easily gathered piles of vanadium. No lumps of the special variety of nickel they sought.

  What they needed was a miracle -- one which would enable a crew of dolphins, with the aid of seven humans and a chimpanzee, to repair their ship and get the hell out of this part of the galaxy before their pursuers caught up with them.

  At best, they had a few weeks to get away. The alternative was capture by any of a dozen not-entirely-rational ET races. At worst it could mean interstellar war on a scale not seen in a million years.

  It all made Toshio feel small, helpless, and very young.

  Toshio could hear, faintly, the high-pitched sonar echoes of the returning scouts. Each distant squeak had its tiny, colored counterpoint on his scanner screen.

  Then two gray forms appeared from the east, diving at last into the gathering above, cavorting, playfully leaping and biting.

  Finally one of the dolphins arched and dove straight down toward Toshio. "Hikahi's coming and wants the sssled topside," Keepiru chattered quickly, slurring the words almost into indecipherability. "Try not to get lost on the way up-p-p-p ...

  Toshio grimaced as he vented ballast. Keepiru didn't have to make his contempt so obvious. Even speaking Anglic normally, fins usually sounded as if they were giving the listener a long series of razzberries.

  The sled rose in a cloud of tiny bubbles. When he reached the surface, water drained along the sides of the sled in long, gurgling rivulets. Toshio locked the throttle and rolled over to undo his faceplate.

  The sudden silence was a relief. The whine of the sled, the pings of the sonar, and the squeaks of the fins all vanished. The fresh breeze swept past his damp, straight, black hair and cooled the hot feeling in his ears. It carried the scents of an alien planet -- the pungence of secondary growth on an older island, the heavy, oily odor of a drill-tree in its peak of activity.

  And overlying everything was the slight tang of metal.

  It shouldn't harm them, they'd said back at the ship, least of all Toshio in his waterproof suit. Chelating would remove all of the heavy elements one might reasonably expect to absorb on a scouting trip ... though no one knew for sure what other hazards this world might offer.

  But if they were forced to stay for months? Years?

  In that case the medical facilities of the Streaker would not be able to deal with the slow accumulation of metals. In time they would start to pray for the Jophur, or Thennanin, or Soro ships to come and take them away for interrogation or worse -- simply to get off a beautiful planet that was slowly killing them.

  It wasn't a pleasant thought to dwell on. Toshio was glad when Brookida drifted alongside the sled.

  "Why did Hikahi have me come up to the surface?" he asked the elderly dolphin. "I thought I was to stay out of sight below in case there were already spy-sats overhead."

  Brookida sighed. "I suppose she thinkss you need a break. Besides, who could spot as small a machine as the ssled, with so much metal around?"

  Toshio shrugged. "Well, it was nice of Hikahi, anyway. I did need the rest."

  Brookida rose up in the water, balancing upon a series of churning tail-strokes. "I hear Hikahi," he announced. "And here she isss."

  Two dolphins came in fast from the north, one light gray in appearance, the other dark and mottled. Through his headphones Toshio could hear the voice of the party leader.

  * Flame-fluked I -- Hikahi call you *

  * Dorsal listening -- ventral doing *

  * Laugh at my word -- but first obey them *

  * Gather at the sled -- and listen! *

  Hikahi and Ssattatta circled the rest of the party once, then came to rest in front of the assembled expedition.

  Among mankind's gifts to the neo-dolphin had been an expanded
repertoire of facial expression. A mere five hundred years of genetic engineering could not do for the porpoise what a million years of evolution had done for man. Fins still expressed most of their feelings in sound and motion. But they were no longer frozen in what humans had taken (in some degree of truth) to be a grin of perpetual amusement. Fins were capable now of looking worried. Toshio might have chosen Hikahi's present expression as a classic example of dolphin chagrin.

  "Phip-pit has disappeared," Hikahi announced.

  "I heard him cry out, over to the south of me, then nothing. He was searching for Ssassia, who disappeared earlier in the same direction. We will forego mapping and metals search to go and find them. All will be issued weaponss."

  There was a general sussuration of discontent. It meant the fins would have to put on the harnesses they had only just had the pleasure of removing, on leaving the ship. Still, even Keepiru recognized this was urgent business.

  Toshio was briefly busy dropping harnesses into the water. They were supposed to spread naturally into a shape suitable for a dolphin to slip into easily, but inevitably one or two fins needed help fitting his harness to the small nerve amplifier socket each had just above his left eye.

  Toshio finished the job quickly, with the unconscious ease of long practice. He was worried about Ssassia, a gentle fin who had always been kind and soft-spoken to him.

  "Hikahi," he said as the leader swam past, "do you want me to call the ship?"

  The small gray Tursiops female rose up to face Toshio. "Negative, Ladder-runner. We obey orders. Spy-sats may be high already. Set your speed sled to return on auto if we fail to survive what is in the sssoutheast."

  "But no one's seen any big animals ..."

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