War Games

Part Two: Reynaud

I had a little bruising on my shoulders where the straps had bitten in during the high-G manoeuvres, but I wasn't about to complain. Captain Hastings had performed a rescue worthy of the legendary Ian Cormac himself, and we were both alive and well, despite having had a CTD thrown at us just before we entered U-space.

Of course, we were also kind of far from home, but I wasn't about to complain about that, either. Growing up as the Klovis heir apparent, I hadn't exactly been smothered, but there had been a distinct lack of adventure in my life. Where my peers were skydiving from orbit or doing endurance treks across Syrtis Major, the most my parents allowed me to do was get a seadapt genemod, so I could indulge in my hobby; that is, study of the evolving biology of the Pacific Basin. And even then, I had been shadowed by telefactored robots, alert for the slightest sign of danger.

I had no doubt, now, that the telefactors were only the visible surface of the security that had surrounded me, that I had been under constant surveillance from every angle, just so that I could pretend I was alone at the bottom of the ocean. The cost must have been staggering, but Mother and Father had let me go ahead with it anyway.

Ironically, the environment had supplied the greater part of the security around me; three kilometres down, unadapted humans could not come close without the aid of expensive tech, and any moving object more than a few centimetres in size would have been scanned to a fare-thee-well. It's hard to pretend to be a lost tourist when it costs hundreds of thousands just to be down there at all.

Which was undoubtedly why the snatch team had waited until I was on the surface, relaxing at the family estate. It was not so much a chink in the security, as a gradual lowering of security levels from 'high' to 'medium', given that Mother and Father were away on a lunar vacation, that heralded the attack.

I had not known much of it; my first intimation of trouble had come when I was hauled from the saltwater pool where I was trying to establish coral growth by one of our Golem security. Lacking an aug, I had to make do with a hasty explanation that a chameleoned craft had been spotted grav-planing in over the ocean, and was mere moments away.

In fact the craft that the security scanners had acquired had dropped its chameleonware deliberately, and was the decoy for the other two to hit the Sardinia estate from the landward side. Even as the debris from the first craft was still pattering to the surface of the Tyrrhenian Sea, I was being hustled toward the bunker under the main house.

But we never got there; the attackers ruthlessly used heavy weapons to mow down the Golem and enhanced humans who massed to oppose them. The security codes had been leaked, or someone had been sharp enough to infiltrate the security system and take them, because after taking out the decoy, the estate security systems simply shut down.

A highly accurate burst of railgun fire served to obliterate the Golem – his name was Lance – who was trying to drag me to cover. I ran then, not for the house but for the perimeter fence. On the other side of that was a twelve metre cliff, overlooking the ocean. Primed for a dry-land grab, perhaps they would not be able to track and capture me in the ocean, whereas I would have been in my element, and I knew every centimetre of the undersea terrain for kilometres around.

Unfortunately, they were ahead of me there as well; a stun shot caught me before I was well on my way. I passed out, and woke up aboard the Gambler's Ruin.

Captain Kramer wasn't a cruel man, but he wasn't a good man either. Neither appeals to his better nature, nor offers of a reward greater than he was likely to be getting for this job, seemed to get through to him. I was set to doing menial tasks around the ship, never getting the opportunity to get close to the controls or communications. There seemed no chance of escape, and my own personal prospects had been looking grim, given that a couple of the crew had been showing more and more of a personal interest in me.

The arrival of Geneva Hastings had overturned all of that, and I had begun to foster hope, hope that I would be allowed to return to the safe, secure boredom of normal life. This, of course, was not to be.

" … not to be," I sub-vocalised, just loudly enough for the implant micro-recorder within my left cheekbone to pick up. It was a habit I had picked up in my research trips out into the Pacific, to narrate everything I saw and heard, and sift through it later with the aid of the house AI. The recorder was extremely minimal, not even picking up vision or any sound other than my own voice, for which it was keyed, but it was also very rugged, powered by my body heat, and would probably outlast me.

Which, given our current situation, was looking more and more likely all the time.

"So what do we do now?" I asked out loud. I was fairly sure that Sean had detected the recorder, and had relayed the fact of it to Captain Hastings, which was probably why neither of them had queried me mumbling to myself.

Captain Hastings turned to me, her eyes slightly unfocused in the manner one learns to recognise as the mark of someone viewing aug projections in the mind's eye. "We get closer, but we do it carefully. Sean's picked up some extremely odd readings, and I want to see what the hell's going on before we stick our noses in and maybe get them chopped off."

I frowned. "Didn't you say this was a pre-runcible culture?" I knew, of course, when the Skaidon-Craystein experiment had taken place; it wasn't due to happen for another hundred seventy-nine years. "Surely they don't have anything capable of detecting us, even if we cruise in on AG."

"I wouldn't be so sure, lad," the AI responded. "Just to be thorough, I ran a complete battery of sensor scans, even for signals that should not normally be present in the here and now. Most such were absent. But this one is why Geneva and I were conferring while you updated your diary."

I let the reference to my recorder slide by while I focused on the image that Sean now projected up before the chainglass forward viewport. It was the planet, now half an AU away, that to all intents and purposes looked like the Earth where I had grown up. Minus, of course, the accumulated results of half a millennium of civilisation. And plus … I stared. On every continent except Antarctica, clustering where cities seemed to be located, were hundreds of thousands of tiny blue dots. Some of them were moving, visibly, across the face of the world.

"What is that? It looks almost like … "

"No 'almost' about it," Captain Hastings told me grimly. "Earth or not, five hundred years in the past or not, that place is lousy with U-space disturbances. And I have no idea what's generating them. So before we make contact, before we even show ourselves, I really do want to get a closer look, see what we're dealing with."

It didn't make sense; I couldn't work it out. My nictitating membranes slid across my eyes and back; I felt my fin-crest erecting in my consternation, the blood vessels expanding to release waste heat to the air. "But … U-space technology means runcibles. And they didn't get invented this far back."

"As far as we know, kid," Captain Hastings corrected me. "But something's generating all those signatures, and I need to find out what."

We crept closer, using the Moon for cover. Captain Hastings had a couple of drones on board – nothing sapient, each one telefactored by Sean – but she didn't want to release them too soon. The AI kept updating the scans, but could not find any active devices on the Moon, in lunar orbit, or even anything significant in Earth orbit. Dumb satellites only, with less processing power than in my implant recorder.

I made myself useful by unstrapping and going back to the minuscule galley that had been crammed into the Bond James Bond. Captain Hastings preferred a New Carth blend of Darjeeling tea, whereas I mixed myself up a cocoa drink that Sean assured me was utterly free of caffeine. My genemod form has few drawbacks, but caffeine is one of them; it makes me violently nauseous.

Once Captain Hastings was sure that we were totally hidden from Earth by the bulk of its primary satellite, she gunned the fusion engines; we fell swiftly toward the cratered landscape below. The grav-plates compensated for the surge of acceleration; the drinks barely rippled in their cups as we powered straight down, seemingly to our inevitable destruction.

Not that I was worried; in the short time that I had known Captain Hastings, I had formed a strong impression of her. She was stubborn, fearless, competent, professional, and possessed a distinct sense of humour. I also suspected that I was forming a crush on her, not in the least bit hindered by our different ages. But that aside, I knew full well that she was neither careless nor suicidal, and that she knew the performance of the Bond James Bond to the last decimal point. So I relaxed, and drank cocoa, while the surface of the Moon leaped up at us.

With barely a kilometre to go, the ship's nose eased upward, pulling us out of the vertiginous dive. In a holomovie, the struts would have groaned and lights would have dimmed; perhaps a minor system would have blown, sputtering sparks across the cabin. But nothing like that happened here; I felt perhaps a little heavier, the result of the grav-plates not being able to disperse quite all of the pseudo-Gs of the pullout, but nothing to worry about.

By the time we reached level flight, we were hammering along at about three hundred yards above the undulating surface of Farside. The AG balanced the weaker pull of the satellite below us, and the fusion thrusters drove us along at speeds that would surely have seen us fined to a fare-thee-well, had Captain Hastings tried the same stunt in the same place in our time. She grinned at me; I grinned back. Despite the fact that we were not technically breaking any laws, this was fun.

Abruptly, she cut the drive, and we coasted ahead, surfing on the AG. Tiny inconsistencies in the gravitational constant of the Moon provided wobbles and bumps, which gradually slowed us down. "Nearside coming up," she announced, and Sean provided a globe of the Moon, with us as a red dot, approaching an invisible terminator line in the moonscape ahead of us.

We drifted forward; the terminator slid beneath us.

And the Earth slowly rose.

With the merest application of forward thrusters, we hung motionless over the lunar surface, while the Earth depended in the void before us, just above a distant line of craggy mountains. I stared at it; so beautiful, so close. Homesickness arose in my heart, and I pushed it down. This might be an Earth, but it wasn't my Earth.

"Can I get surface imagery?" I asked. "None of the anomalous readings, just the actual globe."

"Certainly, lad," Sean agreed, and the partial globe formed before me, formed from the visual data that Sean had gleaned. "You know, before this is over, we might need to fit you with an aug."

I glanced up. "You've got one, here?"

"We do," Captain Hastings replied, as she undoubtedly studied a virtual image of the same globe I was looking at, but from within her virtual workspace. "But we'll hold off on that. Don't want you falling afoul of your grandfather."

I nodded. "He does get a bit crusty. But I've only got two years to go. By then I'll need it, if I'm going to get into the really intensive study projects."

"Study?" she asked absently. "I would have thought you'd be preparing to take over the family business."

I snorted. "Not until I've passed my first century. I'm to get all of my 'enthusiasms' out of the way first, as Mother and Father put it. Also, that sort of thing apparently gives me 'valuable life experience'." My tone of voice, as I turned the globe with hand gestures in the air, made it clear what I thought of that phrase.

"Some of it more than others," agreed Hastings dryly. "Whoa, that's interesting."

"So's this," I responded, framing my fingers and then pulling them apart to get a closer look at the surface of the Earth. "This is … wrong."

She blinked, her nictitating membranes flickering across her eyes almost too fast to see. "What's wrong?"

"This is the Japanese island chain," I told her. "There are supposed to be three main islands. Hokkaido, Honshu and Kyushu."

She looked more closely. "I count two."

I nodded. "That's because Kyushu isn't there."

She blinked again, more slowly. "Not there?"

"He's correct, lass," Sean put in. "The entire landmass has been displaced downward by roughly a thousand metres. I'm reading faint traces of what must be corroding buildings and other items in the area."

Captain Hastings' eyes were wide. "It wouldn't be too hard to do something like that back home," she muttered. "But how would they do something like that here?"

"Uh, some sort of natural disaster?" I ventured, then paused. "No, wait, it can't be. That never happened in recorded history."

"It's not the only disaster that's happened here," Sean noted. "I'm picking up areas of higher than normal radiation, devastated cities, some that look abandoned or nearly so. Some coastal areas look like they've been hit by highly concentrated weather effects. Far more than should be normal."

"Okay, that's weird," I agreed. "What did you find, Captain?"

"Eastern horizon, Sean," she stated quietly.

My globe disappeared, and the entire chainglass screen vanished behind the holopic thus created. It had depth; I felt that I could reach into it. It was the edge of the world, to the right-hand edge; what would be the 'east', if we were on the ground. There was a speck there, hanging above the atmosphere.

"What is that?" I asked. "A satellite?"

In answer, Sean zoomed in; the picture rotated, and we were looking at it. Or rather, her.

I had no idea of scale, but what we were seeing was a woman, or something that looked like a woman. She had wings growing from her back, like an angel, or like an avidapt on a low-grav world or orbital habitat. But that was where it broke down; the wings had other wings sprouting from them, at odd angles and sizes. There was no symmetry, and when I tried to make sense of it, my head began to hurt.

"That's no satellite." Captain Hastings kept her voice low, despite the fact that we were in a spaceship cockpit, surrounded by vacuum, four hundred thousand kilometres away from the thing. "I'm not surewhat it is, but it's a locus of some of that U-space disturbance. A big locus."

"It looks like a woman," I burbled inanely, my brain obviously deciding that I had to say something.

"It's four metres tall, lad," Sean informed me. "It's alive, or at least animate, but there are no organic life readings from it. Nor AG. Despite the fact that – hang on!"

Instinctively, I grabbed for the arm-rests, and not a moment too soon. Sean rolled the Bond James Bond inverted and slammed on full AG, which resulted in us dropping out of the lunar sky considerably faster than a rock would fall on Earth. He rolled us out of the death dive bare metres from the rocky terrain, and slowly lowered us to the ground. As our landing gear crunched down, Captain Hastings carefully placed her cup on the console.

"What was that all about?" she asked conversationally.

"When we began discussing the anomalous being," Sean told us, "it was slowly revolving around its axis. It slowed to a halt, and then turned its head. To look directly at us."

"At us," she repeated flatly. "That's impossible. You were running full chameleonware."

"I was, but it didn't seem to matter," confirmed Sean. "Here, I'll show you."

Up in front of the screen, he place the recorded holo-image. It showed the female winged figure, slowly turning. Stopping. Turning her head. There could be no mistaking it; her viewpoint was directly towards us. Sean stepped the recording forwards, one-tenth of a second at a time, until the image was cut off by the mountains now hiding us from Earth. The last clear picture of the thing showed something that sent chills down my back.

She had smiled.

"What were you saying just before we ducked for cover?" asked Captain Hastings. I handed her a fresh cup of tea, and a plate of reconstituted cookies, and she smiled her thanks at me.

Settling down in my own seat, I buckled my lapstrap before sipping at my cocoa. The desolate landscape rolled away beneath us as we skimmed over the surface, seeking a point of view near the lunar north pole.

"I was going to make a comment to the effect that the entity's orbital speed and altitude did not match with a stable orbit," Sean replied. "It should have been travelling much faster, if it was even the density of foamed plastic. There was no AG trace; I couldn't see how it was staying up."

"I get the strong impression that we should not get in that thing's way," stated Captain Hastings. I didn't disagree. "Not least because it picked us up from our AG trace from nearly half a million klicks away. But also that it spotted us, knew it had scared us, and smiled about it."

"And, of course, because it's a huge locus of that U-space disturbance," I noted.

"That too," she agreed.

"How are the drones going?" I asked.

"They're clear of the Moon now," Sean replied; he was flying them, as well as the Bond James Bond. "I'm sneaking peeks at the entity, but it does not appear to be noticing them. At least it's not turning to look at them."

"Maybe it's sensitive to people looking at it, thinking about it," I suggested.

"I've heard of stranger things," agreed the Captain. "I've seen stranger things."

"I fought in the Prador wars," Sean commented, his voice unusually subdued. "And I heard the rumours about what happened to the Occam Razor. I don't know what we're facing here, but I suspect that it might be at least equally problematic."

Chills ran down my back again. I hadn't been around for either event, but I knew enough about the Prador Wars, at least, that if that entity scared Sean, then I had every right to be terrified.

"So what are we going to do?" I asked. Vaguely, I recalled asking that same question before we had begun our approach to this version of Earth.

"We record as much as we can," Captain Hastings decided. "We check over the U-space engine. We make a run for it as soon as we've got all the data we can, or if that thing makes a move toward us. And we see if we can't transit back home, running the solution in reverse."

"That's technically possible, lass," Sean told us a heartbeat later. "But for one tiny problem."

"What's the problem?" she asked, an edge to her voice.

"The U-space engine," he reported. "I've had a sub-mind running a diagnostic on it ever since we emerged. It's found damage from the entry stresses. Some components we have. Some we can rig. And some we don't have and can't rig."

She looked irritated. "Can we jury-rig from something else on the ship?"

"No, lass," he told her. "We're lacking the materials, and the manufactory doesn't have the wherewithal to smelt the available raw ore to make said materials."

"Fuck," she growled. "Rock, meet hard place."

"Uh," I ventured.

She turned to face me. "What?"

"Down there," I told her, gesturing toward the currently-hidden Earth beyond the moon. "Hundreds of thousands of U-space disturbance traces."

Her face closed up in something approximating pain. "Please tell me you're not suggesting that we … "

Sean cleared his electronic throat. "The lad has a point," he observed. "Our best chance of repairing our U-space drive might very well rest with whoever or whatever is generating all that disturbance down there."

Captain Hastings set her jaw. If I didn't know her, I would have said she looked adorable. Instead, she just looked tough. "So you're saying we have to go down there."

"So it seems."

"And talk to the locals."

"Probably a better idea than just taking what we want."

"And survive long enough to get the parts made, the engine repaired, before we can figure out what sort of jump we need to do in order to get home."

"A succinct description of the task at hand."

Captain Hastings smiled slowly. "Well, then. Let's figure out how to do it."

Hours passed, during which time I folded down a bunk in the rear of the ship and took a nap; it had been a wearying day. Captain Hastings seemed to be able to get by on Darjeeling and recon pastries; she spent the time conferring with Sean via aug while they went over the data that the drones were collecting.

When I woke, I felt somewhat refreshed, although I was suffering from a nagging headache. Not having to worry about having one's erstwhile shipmates trying to sneak into one's bunk area was a huge relief, although some part of me wished that Captain Hastings would. Not that she thought of me in that way, of course. I was just a callow, inexperienced kid to her. While she'd probably never gone through this exact situation, it was likely that she had been in tight scrapes before now, and was far more ready for it than I was. I just hoped that I wouldn't get too much in the way …

"Lad, we're about ready to go down. Something seems to be happening."

I sat up immediately. "Okay, Sean, thanks. I'll be there straight away."

Splashing water on my face, and drinking a litre straight down, woke me up more, and the headache started to fade; I hadn't realised how dehydrated I was. I didn't have as big a problem with that as amphidapts did, but it wasn't a great idea for me to go without drinking for any length of time.

"What's happening?" I asked, heading forward to the cockpit.

Captain Hastings didn't look around as I strapped myself in; I noted that she had all straps fastened, so I did the same. "Once we got a full globe, Sean did a search for other coastline anomalies," she told me. "Good catch on that, by the way."

My crest lifted momentarily in the closest I could come to a blush, but she was already continuing. "Honolulu, in Hawaii, is more or less underwater as well. Newfoundland has likewise been submerged. And there's a really strange one, on the northeast coast of the United States; a whole section of coastline is entirely at odds with our maps of the area, around the region of New Hampshire."

"Some sort of catastrophe?" I asked, my mouth dry despite the water I had ingested.

"We can't be sure," Sean noted. "I accessed the local data grid; you may recall that they used to call it the Internet. No indication that this particular area was ever any different to the way it is now. There are other geographical oddities around the world, but that's the most striking one. However, there's more."

"Of course there is," I agreed. "What's the bad news?"

Captain Hastings turned to glance at me; she half-smiled before replying. "We have a line on what's causing the destruction. Including what sank Kyushu and Newfoundland, and caused a lot of death and devastation elsewhere. There are three creatures that the locals call 'Endbringers', for reasons that will become readily apparent. Every few months, they appear, destroy property and kill people., before they are driven away."

"Endbringers," I repeated. "No, that doesn't sound ominous at all. What do they look like?"

"Brace yourself, lad," Sean told me. "We've already encountered one." And not at all to my surprise, the image of the winged woman went up on the screen. Flanking her were two others; a blocky thing that looked vaguely like a cyclops-eyed ursidapt with insane combat mods, and a lizardlike thing with a weird flat face and a long whippy tail. A human form beside them gave me scale, which didn't comfort me at all; any one of them could stomp me into paste.

"Driven away?" I asked. "By what?" If these things can devastate cities and sink landmasses, what would they have here that can drive them away?

By way of answer, a picture came up on the HUD; this was a 2D image, obviously a recording. Humans, in imaginative costumes. Flying. Emitting brightly-coloured energy from their hands.

"Wait," I protested. "Grav harnesses? Pulse weapons? I thought we'd agreed that local tech wasn't up to that."

"Not grav harnesses," Captain Hastings told me. "Nor pulse weapons. That is, to the best of our understanding, self-powered. All of it."

I frowned. "Self-powered? How does that work, exactly?"

"We're still figuring that out, lad," Sean observed, "but it seems to have something to do with the fact that each and every one of these powered humans seems to be connected to a U-space trace."

"Great," I muttered. "So they're somehow tapping into U-space as an energy source?"

"Somehow without smearing themselves all over nearby space-time, apparently so," the Captain agreed. She gestured at the screen, where the globe of Earth had been growing steadily larger all the time we'd been talking. "However, remember that anomalous area in New Hampshire?"

I had a really bad feeling about this. "Uh, yes?"

"Well, the U-space disturbances in that area have been going crazy over the last half-hour or so. In addition, the local weather patterns have been twisting out of shape, converging rainclouds over the area. This is probably not unconnected with the fact that one of our super-loci – the lizard-thing, that the locals call Leviathan – is on the move toward there. Have a look."

At her unspoken command, the screen changed, showing a section of coastline, with a city in the middle of it. There was a bright blue dot far offshore, but approaching rapidly. Filaments of blue energy curled throughout the region, almost appearing to be dragging the clouds into place.

"That's U-space ripples, right?"

She nodded. "It is. But look at the city itself, and tell me what you see."

I looked. It took me a moment to get it, but when I did, it was obvious. "Those powered humans are coming into the city. Gathering to oppose the creature."

"Aye, lad," Sean replied, his accent stronger than ever. "That they are. And from the information we've gathered, they're going to be taking approximately twenty-five percent casualties when they face that thing."

The bad feeling was back. "We're going down there to help them, aren't we?"

Captain Hastings nodded. "We are. The Bond James Bond might not be a Centurion-class, but we've still got some throw weight. And if we step in on the locals' side, it'll hopefully make them more amenable toward helping us out with U-space engine parts."

"But we're not going to force you into this conflict," Sean told me. "We can drop you off someplace first, if you wish."

I looked at Captain Hastings, and she looked back at me. "You risked your life to rescue me," I told her.

"For a large payout," she reminded me, a slight smile tugging at the corner of her mouth.

"You still did it," I insisted. "I can't stand by now. I'm in."

She smiled more widely and clasped my forearm. "Good to hear. Let's do this thing."

The clouds were gathering now, with unnatural speed, mounding up over the location of the coastal city which appeared to be the destination of the thing called Leviathan. I stared at the depiction of its progress. "It's moving fast," I commented. "Supercavitating?"

"Your guess is as good as mine," Captain Hastings replied. "Ever handled the controls of something like this?"

I shook my head. "Only my parents' grav-limo, and only with the AI watching to make sure I didn't do anything stupid."

"Hm," she replied. "Well, how do you feel about search and rescue?" She tilted her head toward the display. "I can see a lot of water coming down in a short time. And that thing looks to be dragging seawater toward shore. There might be flooding."

"Flooding, I can handle," I assured her. "I'm good for fresh water as well as salt. I dived on Europa once, and I know first aid. I can do search and rescue."

"Good," she told me. "There's a backpack filter lung in storage. Take it with you."

I frowned. "I won't be needing that," I reminded her, gesturing at my gill slits.

She smiled slightly. "I know. But your rescuees might."

"Oh." I felt stupid.

"It's okay," she assured me, clasping my shoulder briefly. "I'm making this up as I go along, too."

That made me feel a little better, but not much. I glanced at the screen. "Where's the bird woman one?"

"I have the drones tracking it," Sean told us. "They call it the Simurgh. It's currently over the Pacific, heading west."

"Good, so we're clear for a little while yet," Captain Hastings noted. "I do not want to share airspace with that thing."

"What do you think it is? What they all are?" I asked. "Some sort of rogue superweapon? Got out of control, and now it's attacking its creators?"

"It wouldn't be the first time I've seen that sort of thing," Sean observed sombrely. I waited, but he didn't elaborate. "But even with whatever's causing those U-space disturbances, I can't see them having the tech to create things like those. They're just too sophisticated."

"Anything on the grid about their origins?" asked Captain Hastings as we entered the cloud layer. Winds buffeted us; we rocked slightly. I unstrapped and went back to fetch the filter-lung.

"Nothing that I can find," Sean replied. "Most people seem to think that they're some sort of super-mutated parahuman."

I decided that 'parahuman' was what they called the costumed people with the impossible U-space connections. "You think that's true?" I queried, returning as I shrugged into the slimline harness. It wouldn't allow me to erect my spinal crest, but I could deal with that. The breather mask sat just over my right shoulder.

"Insufficient data to reach a solid conclusion," he replied briefly. "I'm cracking the local comm nets now."

As we watched, the dot neared the shore; despite our best efforts, it would reach there before we got into position. And then a huge swell of water built up and rolled in toward the city.

"You've got to be kidding me," breathed Captain Hastings, as the wall of water swept in through the shallows. "That thing can create tsunamis on demand?"

I was too shocked to even reply as the gigantic wave broke over the buildings nearest to shore. On the overlay, a mass of U-space traces abruptly disappeared from the wave's path, to pop up again farther inland.

"Did they just do a U-space jump in atmosphere, in a gravity well?"

Sean answered Captain Hastings' query. "It appears so. I would really like to know how they're doing that – oh."

"Oh, what?" I asked nervously.

"They've got an AI running the show."

"Huh," Hastings commented. "Normally, I'd say 'that's impossible', but I'm learning new definitions of the word. Try to integrate our efforts with it." She turned to me. "I've got life signs in the water. People got sucked out to sea when the wave receded. Ready to go?"

I tugged on a strap unnecessarily. "As I'll ever be."

"Good." The airlock opened both hatches at once; torrential rain attempted to blow in through the opening. The shimmer-shield situated outside the airlock for just such a purpose did its job, and the rain ran down it in heavy streams instead.

Captain Hastings reached up; for a moment I thought she was caressing my cheek, but then I realised she was pressing a tiny U-space comm into my ear. "Be careful out there."

I did my best to grin at her. "Hey, I'll just be rescuing people. You're the ones who'll be fighting the monster." Turning, I took two steps and dived out through the shimmer-shield. I emerged into open air; the heaving ocean was just twenty metres below.

For a long moment, I fell, and then I cleaved the face of a rising wave, and was under water. Near-silent dimness surrounded me; distant booming bespoke surf upon the shore. There was silt in suspension all around, brought up from the sea floor by the turbulence. My gills would not be hampered by it; I had handled worse. I hoped that Captain Hasting's filter-lung was similarly robust.

Reflexively, my hand and foot webbing extended, and my arm and leg frills rose to their full extent. My lungs emptied themselves in a rush of bubbles, and I took my first inhalation of salt water in far too long. Swallowing, I worked my jaw to kick in my cetacean hearing. The ocean around me was immediately filled with the multitude of sounds that mere human senses can never detect.

Not far away I heard what I was listening for; a human struggling to get to the surface, to breathe. Triangulating the sound, I kicked my legs and shot away.

Time to earn my keep.

End of Part Two

Glossary of Terms

AG: anti-gravity.

Avidapt: human with bird-like genetic adaptations.

Centurion class: heavy Polity warship.

Chainglass: a substance consisting of chained silicon molecules. Transparent as glass, tougher than steel plate.

Grav-planing: using AG rather than thrusters to maintain altitude.

Ian Cormac: Main character of the first Polity series. Extremely capable secret agent.

Occam Razor: a huge battleship, veteran of the Prador War.

Shimmer-shield: light, selectively permeable force field

Skaidon-Craystein experiment: a ground-breaking event where a human genius entered into direct mind-to-mind connection with an AI. This led directly to the invention of runcible technology.

Telefactored: remote controlled. A robot being telefactored is called a 'telefactor'.

Ursidapt: human with genetic adaptations derived from bear DNA