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[Five Jaduras Earlier]
*What strange fate brought me,
*Fleeing maelstroms of winter,
*Past five galaxies?*
*Only to find refuge,
*On a forlorn planet (nude!)
*In laminar luxury!*
So he thought while performing swooping rolls, propelling his sleek gray body with exhilarated tail strokes, reveling in the caress of water against naked flesh.
Dappled sunlight threw luminous shafts through crystal shallows, slanting past mats of floating sea florets. Silvery native creatures, resembling flatjawed fish, moved in and out of the bright zones, enticing his eye. Kaa squelched the instinctive urge to give chase.
For now, he indulged in the liquid texture of water sliding around him, without the greasiness that used to cling so, back in the oily seas of Oakka, the green-green world, where soaplike bubbles would erupt from his blowhole each time he surfaced to breathe. Not that it was worth the effort to inhale on Oakka. There wasn't enough good air on that horrid ball to nourish a comatose otter.
This sea also tasted good, not harsh like Kithrup, where each excursion outside the ship would give you a poison dose of hard metals.
In contrast, the water on Jijo world felt clean, with a salty tang reminding Kaa of the gulf stream flowing past the Florida Academy, during happier days on far-off Earth.
He tried to squint and pretend he was back home, chasing mullet near Key Biscayne, safe from a harsh universe. But the attempt at make-believe did not work. One paramount difference reminded him this was an alien world.
a beating of tides rising up the continental shelfa complex rhythm tugged by three moons, not one.
an echo of waves, breaking on a shore whose abrasive sand had a strange, sharp texture.
an occasional, distant groaning that seemed to rise out of the ocean floor itself.
the return vibrations of his own sonar clicks, tracing schools of fishlike creatures, moving their fins in unfamiliar ways.
above all, the engine hum just behind him...a cadence of machinery that had filled Kaa's days and nights for five long years.
And now, another clicking, groaning sound. The clipped poetry of duty.
* Relent Kaa, tell us,
* In exploratory prose,
* Is it safe to come? *
The voice chased Kaa like a fluttering, sonic conscience. Reluctantly, he swerved around to face the submarine Hikahi, improvised from ancient parts found strewn across this planet's deep seafloora makeshift contraption that suited a crew of misfit fugitives. Clamshell doors closed ponderously, like the jaws of a huge carnivore, cycling to let others emerge in his wake...if he gave the all clear.
Kaa sent his Trinary reply, amplified by a saser unit plugged into his skull, behind his left eye.
* If water were all
*We might be in heaven now.
*But wait! I'll check above! *
His lungs were already making demands, so he obeyed instinct, flicking an upward spiral toward the glistening surface. Ready or not, Jiyo, here I come!
He loved piercing the tense boundary of sky and sea, flying weightless for an instant, then broaching with a splash and spume of exhalation. Still, he hesitated before inhaling. Instruments predicted an Earthlike atmosphere, yet he felt a nervous tremor drawing breath.
If anything, the air tasted better than the water! Kaa whirled, thrashing his tail in exuberance, glad Lieutenant T'sht had let him volunteer for thisto be the first dolphin, the first Earthling, ever to swim this sweet, foreign sea.
Then his eye stroked a jagged, gray-brown line, spanning one horizon, very close.
He stopped his gyre to stare at the nearby continentinhabited, they now knew. But by whom?
There was not supposed to be any sapient life on Jijo.
Maybe they're just hiding here, the way we are, from a hostile cosmos.
That was one theory.
At least they chose a pleasant world, he added, relishing the air, the water, and gorgeous ranks of cumulus hovering over a giant mountain. I wonder if the fish are good to eat.
* As we await you,
* Chafing in this cramped airlock,
* Should we play pinochle? *
Kaa winced at the lieutenant's sarcasm. Hurriedly, he sent back pulsed waves.
* Fortune smiles again,
* On our weary band of knaves.
* Welcome, friends, to Ifni's Shore. *
It might seem presumptuous to invoke the goddess of chance and destiny, capacious Ifni, who always seemed ready to plague Streaker's company with one more surprise. Another unexpected calamity, or miraculous escape. But Kaa had always felt an affinity with the informal patron deity of spacers. There might be better pilots than himself in the Terragens Survey Service, but none with a deeper respect for fortuity. Hadn't his own nickname been "Lucky"?
Until recently, that is.
From below, he heard the grumble of clamshell doors reopening. Soon Tsh't and others would join him in this first examination of Jijo's surfacea world they heretofore saw only briefly from orbit, then from the deepest, coldest pit in all its seas. Soon, his companions would arrive, but for a few moments more he had it to himselfsilken water, tidal rhythms, fragrant air, the sky and clouds....
His tail swished, lifting him higher as he peered. Those aren't normal clouds, he realized, staring at a great mountain dominating the eastern horizon, whose peak wore shrouds of billowing white. The lens implanted in his right eye dialed through a spectral scan, sending readings to his optic nerverevealing steam, carbon oxides, and a flicker of molten heat.
A volcano, Kaa realized, and the reminder sent his ebullience down a notch. This was a busy part of the planet, geologically speaking. The same forces that made it a useful hiding place also kept it dangerous.
That must be where the groaning comes from, he pondered. Seismic activity. An interaction of miniquakes and crustal gas discharges with the thin overlaying film of sea.
Another flicker caught his notice, in roughly the same direction, but much closera pale swelling that might also have been a cloud, except for the way it moved, flapping like a bird's wing, then bulging with eagerness to race the wind.
A sail, he discerned. Kaa watched it jibe across the stiffening breezea two-masted schooner, graceful in motion, achingly familiar from the Caribbean seas of home.
Its bow split the water, spreading a wake that any dolphin might love to ride.
The zoom lens clarified, magnified, until he made out fuzzy bipedal forms, hauling ropes and bustling around on deck, like any gang of human sailors.
...Only these weren't human beings. Kaa glimpsed scaly backs, culminating in a backbone of sharp spines. Swathes of white fur covered the legs and froglike membranes pulsated below broad chins as the ship's company sang a low, rumbling work chant that Kaa could dimly make out, even from here.
He felt a chill of unhappy recognition.
Hoons! What in all Five Galaxies are they doing here?
Kaa heard a rustle of fluke strokes Tsh't and others rising to join him. Now he must report that enemies of Earth dwelled here.
Kaa realized grimlythis news wasn't going to help him win back his nickname anytime soon.
She came to mind again, the capricious goddess of uncertain destiny. And Kaa's own Trinary phrase came back to him, as if reflected and reconverged by the surrounding alien waters.
* Welcome ...
* Welcome ...
* Welcome to Ifni's Shore.*
Existence seems like wandering through a vast chaotic house. One that has been torn by quakes and fire, and is now filled with bitter, inexplicable fog. Whenever he manages to pry open a door, exposing some small corner of the past, each revelation comes at the price of sharp waves of agony.
In time, he learns not to be swayed by the pain. Rather, each ache and sting serves as a marker, a convenient signpost, confirming that he must be on the right path.
His arrival on this worldplummeting through a scorched skyshould have ended with merciful blankness. What luck instead hurled his blazing body from the pyre to quench in a fetid swamp?
Since then, he has grown intimate with all kinds of suffering, from crass pangs to subtle stings. In cataloging them, he grows learned in the many ways there are to hurt.
Those earliest agonies, right after the crash, had screeched coarsely from wounds and scalding burnsa gale of such fierce torment that he barely noticed when a motley crew of local savages rowed out to him in a makeshift boat, like sinners dragging a fallen angel out of the boggy fen. Saving him from drowning, only to face more damnations.
Beings who insisted that he fight for his broken life, when it would have been so much easier just to let go.
Later, as his more blatant injuries healed or scarred, other types of anguish took up the symphony of pain. Afflictions of the mind.