Saturday, August 11, 2012

Swallower of Ghosts

Rain was bad. The sea, worse. The wet unavoidable. Even in searag slickers and oiled bucket hats, the cold damp reached skin, chilled bones. And in these forever months when breath plumed thick as fog from covered mouths, the frigid wet gave death. From the open boat, three fishermen worried about the fate of the distance stranger floundering on the white-capped leaden waves blown high and angry by the oncoming storm, the captain more so as he turned his face to the east, marking the cleft in the crater wall where the sea drained as a river into the plain beyond, a landmark he was wrung to pass.  

Dgord returned his squinting eyes to the drowning man, strained to see beyond the dripping brim of his hat where slanting lines of rain robbed the eyes. The man had stopped thrashing, was likely dead, his weak pings autonomous, nothing more than a beacon. The captain's thick gloved hands clamped the edge of the vaka, the deep hull where the men hunched in the wet. Pulling the dead from the sea was never pleasant; corpses were pregnant with worms, even for the newly dead.

Verca had been the first to receive the beacon as he hauled in the writhing net full of pale sponge-eel from between the leeward akas that stretched to the outrigger. He had shouted alarm, and soon he, Dgord, and Jeiu, had linked and triangulated the source. They argued; Dgord hesitant, for the man floated just beyond the Never Go. Verca stressed their duty to retrieve the seamen before it was too late to give his soul to the sky. The captain knew the lore of monsters was no excuse not to give succor. The dying stranger was a mariner, and a mariner found was a mariner returned, whether Atuka kept his ghost or not.

They tacked the fishing proa toward it, the wind battering their faces.

They saw the body. Learned the man's name was Savan in the data pulse of his implant's ping. But where was his boat? Had it sank? Had the man been pushed from another? Neither of the fishermen saw evidence of any other craft. The rain and mist hid the coastline. Hid other boats. No flashing mast beacons anywhere to be seen. Dgord thrust a hand into the drier inner pocket of his greatcoat and removed the spyglass. He held the clear plank up across his eyes, its corner clips worn and broken so he couldn't affix it to the hanging brim of his dripping hat. The scratched and scuffed surface came alive, and though he cycled through increasing magnifications, he saw nothing but the dark, foamy sea. He lowered his arms and returned the glass. There should be a boat. A wreck at least. Could the fishing acoustic array painted on the bottom of the hull have the power to find the man's vessel? They could only try.

Jeiu also twisted around, anxious eyes scanning the choppy horizon as the bow lifted and fell, erupting spray that joined the cold rain. When no evidence of Savan's boat could be found, the young man turned a nervous face to Dgord, looking for explanation and comfort. Verca also turned to his captain. Nothing needed be said. What happened to the man's boat could happen to them. They too would become home to worms. Or worse.

Jeiu rigged the lines to turn the sail out of the wind, slowing the proa and bringing the outrigger close to the man; he would be out of reach over the high walls of the vaka. He wound the ropes tight around the capstans as Verca stepped around him, pulled free the aid kit from aft stowage, and removed the fast-hot in the urgent hope the man wasn't dead. He shoved the silvered folded square into his pocket. In the spraying swells, Dgord and Verca climbed out of the longhull and inched across the forward crossbeam, gripping the rope against the swaying craft. They stepped onto the tightly meshed net drawn taunt across the akas along the edge of the outrigger. Frantic but skilled hands snug in waterproofed gloves clipped tethers from their harnesses to rings screwed along the ama at the net's edge. The men reached down into the icy black-green water and heaved Savan aboard.

Dgord and Verca brushed away disgusting worms seeking to burrow into the man's exposed skin. Savan was alive. Barely. Verca steadied himself on the net and shook the blanket out. He and Dgord wrapped Savan, the heat from the foil seeping through their heavy gloves. Savan's wet face was a pale as dying sponge-eel, his lips blue. Wet dark curls clung to his forehead. His body shivered under the men's hands. He had no hat. His coat was not a mariner's. Or a dockman's. It didn't even appear weatherproof, its style strangely foreign—vintage. He had no business being out here. Dgord felt a shameful stab of anger. The barter he would lose because of this fool!

Dgord looked toward the main hull, wondering how or if they could get Savan over to it. He saw Jeiu's head pivoting, looking for what was not there. Perhaps Savan would tell them what happened to his boat. All three of the men were tuned to the acoustic array; the presence of a sinking boat was not felt. The craft must have sunk deeper than the reach of the nets. Dgord wanted to probe the ill-fated craft for clues. Had it sunk through neglect as he hoped? Or had it submerged from attack as he feared? There were things in the deep water of this loathsome world.

There was no way to move Savan into the vaka. They couldn't carry him across the thin crossbeams. There was no crane, the proa too small. They could net him and pull him aboard the longhull, but the man would slip into the cold water again. The fishermen sided against the risk.

"I will stay here with him," Dgord said, taking his own measure of welcome heat from the blanket and placing his large hat over the man's face. He pulled the deep hood of his slicker over his head.

Verca and Jeiu pulled the lines to swing the sail, shunting the small boat back toward the camp.

Minutes later, warmed, Savan stirred. Dgord felt the man's electronic queries and answered. Savan tried to sit up but the captain hushed him, leaned over and lifted the brim of his hat so he could see the man's eyes, his center of gravity swirling, jostled as the proa cut through rough waves. "I thought Atuka had taken you," Dgord said to him.

Savan wondered at the words but caught the meaning riding on the old man's narrowcast, a glimmer of horrors in the water. "You have no idea." They spoke different languages, but universal concepts flowed between them. On the net near the narrow outrigger, they rose and fell hard, drenched in cold rain and sea spray, water as dark as night.

"What happened to your boat?" Dgord's words were short and clipped, like the choppy waves.

The old mariner's language protocols shuffled through Savan's mind, a dialect old even when the Calisenne were at the height of their empire. He sent Dgord his language in return. They would speak their own tongues, yet understand each other. "There is no boat." He sat up then, the old man holding him firmly, setting the slipping fast-hot about his shoulders. Savan adjusted the hat, rain curtained off the brim. He found the world around him drained of blues, the muddy sulfurous sky almost black where the smear of dark clouds occasionally thinned. The bottom of the clouds roiled, all around them the gray steel of rain. The boat headed toward a distance huddle of dim lights, amber speckled with blue, buildings beyond the shore.

"No boat," Dgord coughed. "You fall from the sky?" Frowning. Ludicrous. A passing plane would be obvious under the low cloud deck. Perhaps it was simple confusion from the cold.

Savan looked back from whence they came, from where they pulled him aboard. "I need to go back."

"No, no." Dgord soothed. "It is the shock of the ordeal." He squeezed Savan's shoulder. "There is warmth and dryness at camp. That is where we go. That is where you need to go. To get out of these wet clothes."

"I dropped something."

Dgord smiled pleasantly at the insanity. "When you fell from the sky?" He noticed Verca and Jeiu watching intensely.

Savan shook his head. "I didn't fall from the sky."

The man's mind was coming back. "So there was a boat," Dgord said, nearly clinging to the rescued man. "What happened? Where you attacked? Was it Atuka?"

The fishing captain's transmitted fears stole into Savan. He hung for a moment parsing the old man's context. "As I said, there was no boat." His hand stumbled along his outer thigh, to the hard stone in his pocket. "And yes, it was Atuka." Tired and thirsty he closed his eyes in surrender, the blanket too hot.

Dgord trembled and looked to his crew for support. They concentrated on the sonar but felt nothing around them except the sporadic cluster of eel.

The storm encroached as all storms do. The rain slew sideways hard as needles. The proa rode nauseous waves, cresting and falling, its bow slapping and thudding. The outrigger lent its stability. Verca and Jeiu sat huddled behind the deep walls of the vaka, occasionally stealing glances at their captain and the stranger, exposed on the net.

Dgord kneeled over Savan as water collided against them, through the net from below as well as above and around. There was no difference between the spume and the rain. All was freezing water everywhere. The old mariner worried about the fast-hot. It wouldn't hold its temperature forever. Already he could feel the heat growing cooler. The ever-present storms were never a concern, but they must get the man to shore, out of the rain, and out of his wet clothes, or the hypothermia would not be abated.

Distant thunder. A hollow single boom. It took more peals before Dgord realized something was not quite right about the sound. It came not from the west, from the heart of the storm, but from the south, from the coast. From the settlement, the shanties of Cratertown. He looked over his shoulder towards the sound. There! A pinpoint of blue-white in a corona of fire burned through the rain and mist. A sound like cannon volley followed.

That was no thunder.

The captain yelled to Verca, "See if you can raise someone! Find out what is happening!"

Verca reached into a pocket and pulled out the radio booster. The red flat bar came alive in his hand. He pressed the soft raised icon for the Dock Master and waited for the call to be answered. He linked the broadcast to Dgord and Jeiu. The Dock Master's panicked voice erupted in their ears. Verca asked what was going on.

"Bright flashes of light are sucking everything up. Houses. Trucks. People," the unseen man shouted, distressed by the confusing loss he witnessed.

Death. Settlers. Neighbors . . . friends. A cold shroud settled over their hearts.

Verca's nervous thumb pressed an icon shaped like a simple eye. The Master's vision pulled from his implants bloomed on the booster's glass face. "Show us," Verca implored.

"Don't ask me to watch," the man cried out. New thunder boomed.

"We must know," Verca shouted back. "Perhaps we can do something."

The spyglass in Dgord's pocket shuddered and he fished it free. Rain dappled its surface as it showed a view down the dock from the window of the Master's shack. He could see panic among the people. No one knew where to go to seek safety and shelter. Trucks sped here and there, their drivers equally confused. The Dock Master whimpered. A sudden flash appeared near the great iron smelter and the signal burned out in a wash of white noise. Thunder sounded. Fast heartbeats later, the Dock Master's optic captures streamed over. It was as if great gales were pushing things to that one speck of brilliance. Shanties were pulled from their foundations, the flying metal glowing red, orange, and white as it vanished into nothing. The boom followed when the millisecond spark snuffed out. Dgord replayed the terrible scene slower; he had to understand what was happening. He saw running people snatched up into debris and sent into oblivion. There! The red poncho so bright among the drab coats and slickers . . . was that Ondrey's niece? One moment running for her life, the next ripped away into—nowhere. His heart nearly stopped. The ache was real in his chest. He put a hand to it. He looked away from the horror on the spyglass and saw Savan sitting up, staring at him with the weight of the world across his shoulders.

"It's my fault," Savan said. "I must stop it."

"What is killing them," the captain shouted sudden rage and fear casting his soul into turbulent waters.

"A teleported quantum state," Savan answered knowing the fisherman was likely not to understand. The puzzled old man winced at the next call of thunder. Savan stared at the water beaded and caught in the seaman's wiry beard. "The fabric of spacetime is folded upon itself," he explained. "Like a cloth clenched in the fist. A hypernodal weapon, it pulls everything to it."

Dgord grabbed the man's lapels and jerked him forward. "Who does this? Why?"

Before the saved man could answer, Jeiu's alarmed shout froze Dgord's blood. "Atuka!" The young man pointed aft from whence they came. The captain shut off his reception of the Dock Master's dizzying visual feed and thrust the spyglass above his nose. He saw the gray hump breaking the choppy surface of the water. A mass of tentacles. A bundle of serpents.

"There's your answer," Savan said.

To disbelieve was a mercy. Some things could not have happened as they were thought to have happened. The heart seeks alternative answers and the mind relents. But it could not relent now. Questing tendrils sniffed the air and they were not sponge-eels.

Atuka. All the great mysteries in the dark depths were Atuka. Some—probably most—were the great eels daring to feed at the surface. Wild stories were told inside tents around the fire ring, mugs of bock splashing hands and wetting mouths. Wetting brains. Stories of Atuka, the great eel capsizing small boats, trying to feed on the overboard fishermen. Strange mouths boring strange holes into flesh not meant for strange stomachs, or what passed for stomachs in such strange creatures. They were called Atuka, but they were not Atuka.

They were not the sleeping god. They were not the sleeping god roused from troubled slumber rising to exact chaos in the wake of its anger. Few had met this Atuka, and survived.

Dgord's one hand hung onto Savan as if the man were a life-ring. The life-ring hadn't done Haidren any good. His younger cousin. . . .

His wizened father and the elder fishermen had told Dgord that it couldn't have been the old god, for he had come back and the old god took all. Was this not true? They convinced Dgord that he had been mistaken. Easy for a boy to do.

Smooth and calm the sea had been that day. Long bands of cloud had torn apart. Through the wide gap, sunlight came in as if escaping through the open door of a blast furnace. It lent the world an eerie rose tint, the sky gray and black around the edge of the sun, wonderfully different from the oppressive dripping iron clouds. The boys, Dgord and Haidren, stopped their fishing to watch what they had never seen before, the long shimmering reflection of the sun playing back and forth across the tops of the windblown waves. They had seen lights on the proas at dusk do this, but never the sun. The pure majesty of it. Dgord never felt more alive in his life experiencing the spectacle before him.

Watch all of it, it wouldn't last long. The winds carried the clouds and they would soon close, and the sun sank fast and would hide behind those clouds once again. The boys laughed in their delight, their nets forgotten.

Their position drifting.

It was fast, unlike a sponge-eel. The evening had been pure magic, a heartbeat later, pure hell.

Dgord only knew that the front of the boat had lifted with tremendous force, as if a hand full of blasting caps had gone off underneath it. Haidren wind-milled through the air, his surprised face comical. The boat settled with such a jolt that Dgord was thrown forward, hitting his head on the cross span plank that served as a seat or a step. The sun forgotten. A hand to the sudden pounding ache. Fingers slick with blood. Haidren yelling. Screaming.

A creaking. Then a pop-crack of wood. A black tentacle pulled the ama apart, shattered it. The proa listed, the crossbeams dipping, the vaka tipping onto its side.

His cousin screaming.

Dgord scrambled for aid kit, slippery fingers worrying the lid. The life-ring inflated as it spun through the air. The water was turbulent. Things moved in it. Dark things. The sail had caught the water. The weight of the mast pulled the boat over. Dgord saw the cleft where the great sea drained out into a great river. Never go past it. Never go past it.

Never go past it.

Dark worms crawled in the bottom of the hull. They grew longer. They were coming through the hull. Questing wriggling things boring through the composite hull as it were made of smoke. Dgord scampered up, a foot on the leaning mast, seeking refuge on the exposed sidewall of the vaka. There could be no refuge. He had been screaming for some time. His throat hurt.

Haidren was silent. Red clouded the water near the life-ring.


Serpents uncoiled and coiled through the red spreading cloud. They had opened Haidren. Questing wriggling things. They opened and opened until there was nothing left to open. A lifeless-ring bobbing on the churned water.

Nothing left to return home. Nothing to left to honor on the pyre. No means for a spirit to rise to the heavens through sputtering rain on the defiant column of smoke and ash.

The spyglass slipped from the captain's fingers, disappearing into the water. The old man's knees unhinged. To disbelieve had been a mercy, the truth now a curse devouring him from the heart outward. Dgord's eyes were locked across the waves, to the erupting thrashing mass. "Your fault," he barked. He could not bring his eyes to Savan's face for fear he would see a man responsible for his cousin's death, though he was far too young to be held accountable. "Tell me how!"

Savan shivered under the failing fast-hot, his hand fumbling around a pocket against his drenched thigh. "What I say, you must believe me." He paused to catch his breath. The captain let his chin fall, his rain speckled face holding the terrible ire of an ancient sea god. Savan spoke again as an applause of thunder reached them. "Underwater, there is a portal . . . a hatch to . . . a vessel of some sort. I came through it. I thought I could go through it undetected, but the . . . carapace failed. The gravimetric tensor was too—"

"What are you talking about!" Dgord's eyes pleaded for sanity. The flashing and pealing of the terrible hypernodal weapons increased tempo.

"I escaped to close it," Savan stammered against the growing chill. The blanket was fast becoming another useless wet thing. "I dropped the . . . key, when the carapace failed. It will close the hatch. And keep the Atuka inside."

Dgord sank into himself. The key lay at bottom of the Crater Sea. Useless while horrible creatures rendered horrible death. When will the flash come near them and take them away, swallowing them into the netherworld beyond? The old man felt the weary cost of his long life and wanted to slip beneath the waves, to fill his hurting chest with icy water. No pyres for any of them. This was truly an evil world.

Savan's words shook him back. "I can get the key with the carapace," he said, pale naked fingers struggling with the flap of the pocket.

"How," Dgord asked, eyes wide, hope fighting against the cringe of distant thunder. "Did you not drop the carapace too?" His eyes agreed with his memory; there was no shell enclosing Savan by any stretch of the imagination.

"Pocket," the man stammered between clattering teeth. "Dormant in my pocket." The fisherman's eyes went to his hand. "Take it out. Or we all die this day."

Dgord stripped a hand free of its glove, the cold biting across his skin. He unsecured the flap and reached into the damp pocket. His fingers closed on a curiosity. A ball the size of a hen's egg. He withdrew the mystery. It lay in his hand pale as an egg, rain sliding off its surface. The captain squeezed it with gnarled fingers fearful it would slip away in the rocking and crashing of the proa.

"Give it to me."

Dgord pressed the egg into Savan's waiting palm. The man closed his trembling fingers around it. A whiteness began to seep out from between the man's fingers as if the egg had ruptured and its pale ichor burst forth. The new liquid spread and thinned over Savan's skin, over his clothes, lumpy as the material bunched under the contracting milky carapace until it smoothed. Heat baked from bleached flowing matter as it raced up his arm. Wisps of steam rose in the cold air. The envelopment spread lightning fast and soon the sea captain blinked at a man dipped in white chocolate. His eyes and ears were featureless blisters. His nose and mouth finely meshed, gauzy.

Savan slipped the cooling fast-hot away from his shoulders, handing the bunched blanket to the mariner. The carapace heated him, lent him a renewed power. Yet, he could feel the sickness in the covering, waxing faults incurred by damage at the portal's spherical opening. The Stranger could only spare so much of the exotic matter from his own carapace. Savan had been told it would be enough to escape.

Dgord's mouth moved, to express the astonishment pressed into his face. Savan cut him off, pointing toward Jeiu's sighting. "I need to get closer. The carapace is damaged—"

The captain shook his head and winced at another volley of thunder. Haidren had been opened. "No. I cannot do that. You'll have to jump in here. Swim back." He glanced over to the vaka, to the men with waiting faces. No harm should come to them from his hands. "The wind carries east and that is where we will go." His tone warned heavy with finality.

Savan grabbed the man by the shoulders. "The carapace is damaged! I will not survive the swim, even under its motive power. We must get closer. To near where you pulled me aboard."

Dgord's head swung to and fro. "The Atuka!" There was more to say, but his throat tightened, choked on the unspoken words, leaving him gasping.

"Everyone will die—including us— if we don't stop them," Savan shouted, the carapace amplifying his voice.

Dgord recoiled, from the loudness; and from the truth. He knew these things. Yet his mind mired in the horror and pain. Of red water and wriggling things. Of the guilt of being left alone to carry the testament back to shore. He saw the bright reflection of the hypernodal weapon in the glossy white carapace. Stood rigid against the following peal. Perhaps they would all die this day to stop many more deaths . . . how many had it been? Perhaps that was why he had been spared and Haidren not, to be here to save this man with his incredible though impaired technology, to deliver him into evil so that he may battle it by his own means, to shut a hatch, a door, a conduit of death. Dgord knew that if he died here, he had done his life's duty.

It would be worth it.

The captain turned to his men. They waited with anxious faces. Jeiu uncertain, fearful. Verca resolved, ready for action. Ready to help. Always trustworthy and dependable. Verca nodded under his dripping bucket hat.

Dgord sighed, the weight pouring out of his soul. "Shunt around," he called. "To the Atuka!" Verca and Jeiu exploded into activity pulling the lines and setting the sail.

The squall mustered the sea into an angry froth. Under normal conditions, the sail would be furled and the cover stretched over the top of the long hull, the men huddled inside bathed in dim light as the proa rocked and lurched, waiting out the worst of the storm. Instead, all three fought the sail to keep the defiant little boat on course to the sea monsters hidden behind tall waves. Hats and overcoats became useless weights in the torrent. The idea of dryness was folly. The wet came in. Chests were soaked. Buttocks clammy. Irritable and sore, they fought the lines, the wind, and the wrath of the weather that tried to push them away from certain death. Frenetic lightning branched across the sky, billowing clouds burst with demonic light. It was like being inside a bell when the thunder called.

Questions of why Cratertown was being assaulted resounded in the back of Dgord's mind. He had had no time for them. His throat burned raw from shouting repeated commands over the din of heavy rain. The overhead cannonade drowned out the attack on the settlement, the bombardment seemed to wane, each following burst coming longer after the preceding one. Turning, he found Savan through the sheets of water, "Are they stopping! Is it over!"

"No," the man shouted back over his shoulder as he assisted Jeiu. "They are assessing a response."

"From who," the old man wondered aloud. Certainly not from the settlement. The rope slipped in his gloves, he held it tighter, feeling the strain in his wrists, the ache in his elbows.

Savan hesitated as the proa shifted, the outrigger lifting from the waves, streaming white foam. The men leaned, groaned against the tension in the lines that threatened to pull them elsewhere. "From an enemy they wish to rouse." It was all he was willing to divulge.

Verca fought with the captain to keep the sail in the wind. "What's that have to do with us," the man shouted, sharing Dgord's concerns.

Savan helped Jeiu wind a line around a capstan. "One respects human life, the other has no regard for it. The Atuka are using your people to bait their enemy into a confrontation."

"Who is this enemy?" Jeiu said, his rain washed face pale.

Savan was spared surrendering an answer. A brilliant flash popped several meters to port, wind and water screamed into the distortion, the clap deafening. Another imploded behind them farther away.

We're done for, Dgord thought. Atuka would find them and they would be sucked into oblivion.

"Press on," Savan shouted to the huddled men. "We're almost close enough."  

"They're gonna kill us," Jeiu screamed, his hands frozen around the line he held.

"The carapace is denying them an accurate target fix," Savan assured. "They can't hit us."

"And when you go under," Dgord asked, letting the question hang.

Savan looked the old mariner in the eye. "Then they'll be coming for me."

Hypernodal discharges popped all around them, the shoreline settlement forgotten in the face of immediate threat. Inner ears felt fat and numb, rang their droning tones under the assault of whip-crashing thunder. They neared the place they had pulled Savan aboard. Even without visual landmarks, they could feel the position in their linked geospatial awareness.

In the distance, dark questing forms writhed, bursting forth from the surface of the sea, and crashing again. The storm raged, its malevolent heart passing overhead. Savan stepped out onto the rising and falling aka, gripping the hand line and swaying. The key to closing the portal was down there somewhere. He had a vague feeling of its position. If the carapace wasn't damaged, he would know where with certainly. If the carapace wasn't damaged he could call the key to him.

But fate wouldn't have it that way, and he must surrender to fate's arms.

Fate reached in the form of a violent serpent exploding through the bottom of the hull, a blur of dark motion. Jeiu saw it out of the corner of his eye, as it sprung up between himself and Verca. It wound around Verca's left leg and opened it. The fisherman screamed and toppled. Dgord jumped to his aid as blood mixed with the sea water burbling up through the clean hole in the bottom of the vaka.

The flash of the implosion came from above. Dgord felt lifted from his feet. His hat disappeared from his head. The rustling sail screamed in fury. The thunderclap seemed to release him. The top of the mast and much of the sail was gone, its devoured edge a trail of smoking embers.

Savan's eerie white form bent over Verca. The man clutched below his left knee with both hands, arms trembling, his breath hissing through his teeth. The serpent had released him and drew back, it upper body bursting open into a hydra. Savan grabbed the beast as Jeiu and Dgord dragged Verca abaft in the limited space. Someone yelled about a tourniquet.

Savan was aware of the quiet war being waged between the exotic matter of the carapace and the hydra form that lashed out. The minor Atuka was nothing more than a scout, pin-pointing their location for the hypernodal weapon and a distraction to keep him busy. The carapace disrupted its biological bonds and the creature fell apart into millions of tiny wriggling disassociated worms. His chest heaved. The victory was not solely his. The carapace suffered further corruption. He had to act now.

He threw a leg up over the railing of the vaka as Jeiu pushed by to fight the gushing leak in the hull with an adaptive plug.

Dgord was at his face. "Do you know what Atuka means," the sea captain yelled. Savan hung on the edge, ready to plunge, the carapace mask emotionless, glistening in the wet. "It means swallower of ghosts."

Savan shuddered and slipped over the edge.

And sank. Fast. Deep portions of the carapace shaped spacetime, built a lattice of mass.

The immediate undersea world brightened in color-corrected infrared and microwave. The depths of the sea remained dark, darker yet. Occasionally there came the flitter of a sponge-eel darting by, or the languid flag-like mat of searag. And everywhere the floating tiny bodies of creatures that pursued or provided food. There in the murky distance, the sinusoidal motions of Atuka racing toward him.

Not Atuka. Leviathan. The inhabitants of galactic nebula, veils of light impenetrable dust spanning hundreds of light-years. The star makers. World movers. The old ones.

Still he sank, the oxygen filter labored, corrupted. Faulted. Savan's chest grew tight, his breath shallow, quick, his mind dizzy. The carapace collected the breath of his exhaling, not allowing a single bubble to escape, finding a use for the raw material of his body. He sank and sank, the enemy drew nearer.

A brilliant flash of light and he was pulled in the rapid current of sea water toward the short lived and utterly destructive puncture in reality. The carapace disturbed the leviathan senses, but for how long? More flashes, like underwater lightning. A hit and miss strategy. The pressure waves jostled him violently.

The key lay below him in perpetual gloom. He could feel it across his whole body like a lover's pulse at his lips. He was close enough to register the device, its cloistered mind tentatively uncoiling in Savan's. He beckoned it to come, felt it lift from its sediment tomb.

The suit budded jets off his calves to propel him toward the surface. Responding to the key, the carapace bent his arm back, opened his fingers. It slipped into his hand, a simple cylinder of dark, dull matter, one end cupped as if to hold a small ball, one no larger than the suit when condensed. The portal . . . the device would draw the strange hatch to itself, closing it, holding it closed. Savan thought only of the surface of the water and breaking it. He shot upward, his world spinning.

The leviathan swarmed near. The ghost swallowers. The sea around him exploded with their questing bodies. The carapace put forth great effort to repel the creatures. His chest burned for air as tendrils dark as oil coiled around his ascending form. Determined filaments exploited growing weaknesses in the gleaming carapace, penetrated, and sought his flesh. They would open him from inside the protective shell. Savan's only relief was that the portal was coming, called to the mysterious doorknob in his hand, and the key that would lock it shut. The carapace at his hand flowed around it, enclosing so that only its cupped aperture remained exposed.

Atuka stole into his mind, a frost laden logic. A mind that touched him before on the small planetoid whipping around Rhaul Nine Idolta, where he and Captain Hershanien Mercator found the portal, the leviathan bursting forth and enveloping him, pulling him into the nightmare surrealism beyond. A mind whose thoughts were terrible quakes of fury. I will destroy you all. It gives the Interloper great pain. . . .

Savan struggled against the weight of the leviathan. The surface was a shimmering verdigris silver beyond reach. Beyond sanctuary. He thought of the interloper, The Stranger, the one on the other side of the portal that helped him escape, the one that had stolen the vessel.

Thief! Usurper! Meddler! I will vanquish him. I will vanquish you. . . . The leviathan's mind consumed Savan; its domain fell away into indeterminate depths, as wide and vast as the empty cosmos, as timeless as eternity. The enormity of it left Savan on the beach of screaming insanity. I will vanquish the apaxan. They cannot hide forever. I will stop them. And the Interloper—

Its hate resounded through Savan; his stomach tightening as he groaned anguish, a flow of bubbles erupted from the carapace's filter. He felt water at his mouth. Let it be quick when it comes.

The leviathan's agitation mounted. Savan screamed through the pain of its invasion into his body. He felt it's sense of urgency, its hope against doubt of its battle. It knew the portal came. Like the opening door to a cage. Through the murky distance it plowed. Two meters in diameter, the density of the water would not slow it.

He and the Atuka felt the pressure wave of the portal as it moved to intercept them. Savan could feel it below and to the side of him, covering great distance in seconds. The sea rumbled. He saw it visually now. The surface of the portal was a folded layer of spacetime, gravitationally destructive. It pulled water apart into plasma. The sea boiled across its surface. The carapace and the entwined serpents of the leviathan wouldn't let him feel the scald. Only the suit and the similar technology woven into the leviathan's bodies were able to cross that threshold, repelling the forces and letting matter pass.

Pass into what he would never understand.

The portal shrank as it raced toward them, a ball of hot glowing gases at odds with the cold dark water around it. Savan and the leviathan fought for control of the key. The man's lungs burned for oxygen, his body wasted, manipulated by the carapace that itself wound down. The vertiginous surface seemed so far away, impossible to reach. The tentacles of the beast had clogged his jets. No longer rising, no longer drifting, but sinking again.

Savan wanted to rest in the peaceful void that called, a siren's whisper against his ear. Into sweet surrender where his troubles would vanish like sunburned morning mists. His oxygen starved brain reeled. Parts of the carapace began to slough off; his skin broiled in the superheated water. The pain flared distant, an old spark from a dying fire.

Pin-pricks of brilliance danced across his vision. He thought it was his own gasping eyes for a moment, but the leviathan occupying his mind churned in surprised annoyance, in some semblance of pain, a mere warning that something was wrong. The battle had been enjoined. The Stranger from beyond the portal opened tiny hypernodals, expertly manifest across and inside the twining serpent bodies of the Atuka. They went off like strobe flashes, a twinkling eruptive froth. The leviathan roiled under the assault, and for a moment, the key held open the portal, a globe that would fit in the hand.

The Atuka released him as they fragmented, withdrawing the worms from his body. Savan scrambled upward to the promise of air, into the cooler water. The carapace pulled what was left of itself to his head, his face, where its only need would be to supply him oxygen.

The leviathan seemed to war with the portal. Hypernodal flashes illuminated the cloudy veils of their remains. A few tendrils disappeared into the spherical shape of the doorway. Atuka gone, it shrank and sped upward toward Savan, toward the controller.

Savan loitered in the water, gasping fresh oxygen through the gauzy mask. Felt some of his strength return. The portal shrank further, a toy ball, a fruit, an egg. It connected to the key, and the device swallowed it whole.

He'd done it!

Now if he could get the key to the hidden apaxan his duty would be complete. The surface of the sea shimmered above him like dark glass. The shadow of the proa undulated. He kicked toward it, the carapace mask hot against his face. Outstretched fingers broke the surface. His face pushed up into the brightness of the day. The carapace dissolved, spent. Savan filled his lungs through a burning throat. Then he was pulled under again.

A leviathan had held back in reserve. The edges of its whips razor sharp, thrashing, slashing. Opening.

Dgord's head wrenched around to the sound of splashing water. He saw Savan succumbing to the beast, the water carrying pink foam, his carapace nowhere to be seen. An arm denied the attack, held high, the blanched hand gripping the device.

The old sea captain grabbed the edge of the boat. He turned to Jeiu, who watched the events mouth agape, eyes wide. "Tell her I'm sorry," he said, hoping she still lived. It was almost a whisper, but the young man gazed back at him in wonder. Before Jeiu could move the old man was over the edge, into the water, hearing Verca cry out.

Dgord swam into the red sea, toward the sinking hand. Savan's mouth hung open, a horrible maw flooding with vile water. Dead eyes studied the rolling clouds above. The face submerged and the hand sank, the tip of the device disappearing beneath the waves. The fisherman struggled out of his useless raincoat and dove. Dark tendrils whipped at him, drawing lines of pain and blood across his arms. What was left of Savan was a pale beacon. He pressed on, ignoring the agony, rising above it. Fingers opened, two were cleaved at the middle knuckle. He wouldn't need them anymore. He grabbed the device. It hummed in his hand.

Kissed his mind.

Allow me to open just once, just a crack, to finish this menace.

Dgord scrambled to the surface. Legs kicking frenetically. Atuka thrashed him. He broke the water. Jeiu had managed to get the old damn proa closer. The young man's body folded over the edge, his hand reached out to pull the old man up and aboard. But the Atuka opened the sea captain as his pleading eyes fell into Jeiu's, and the device passed into the young man's hand.

Atuka swarmed. Dgord disappeared in chunks. A scream lodged in Jeiu's throat like a boulder in plumbing. He fell back into the hull, sprawling against Verca. The composite wall of the hull exploded as an angry serpent pushed through, its end a saw-blade of teeth. The device dropped from Jeiu's hand, rolled into the water filling the bottom of the vaka.

The angry mouth snapped as Jeiu screamed and scrambled up the back of the hull. Verca's hand roamed in the water finding the device. The Atuka pushed in. Tentacles reached over the edge of the hull and pulled down, tipping the boat, arcing the mast. Jeiu hung onto the boom, his frantic feet kicking at the Atuka with all his might.

Verca slipped toward the submerged edge of the hull, banging his leg and yelling in agony. He fell out, into the rolling sea. He fought to keep his head above water. The Atuka turned their attention away from the boat. He had the key. Verca shook his head to clear the alien thoughts burning inside his mind. It wanted to open the portal. It said it could finish the Atuka. The promise, sweet. He let it. Tired, he sank.

Atuka followed. Serpents reached out, wriggling filaments like boneless fingers. The monster followed the trail of bubbles escaping Verca's mouth. The fisherman noticed the dark water brighten, felt the sudden heat at the end of the rod where a small ball glowed with terrible power. The Atuka noticed it too, and tried to reverse. But the sea creature's hide sparkled from a million tiny flares, its body disassociated, disintegrated, in a black lacey veil. Then that too was gone, dispersed by the water, and the glowing hot ball retreated. Verca, too tired and bled out to move, watched the surface of the sea grow darker and darker.

The sun slipped to the broken peaks of the western crater wall, pulling the shade of night. Nothing moved on the surface of the water but the rain, the never ending rain. Jeiu screamed at the waves as he perched on the side of vaka, the akas angling to the sky. They were all gone, all swallowed by the horrible water.

Pronunciation guide.  

Dgord • D-joard

Jeiu • Jee-ew

Verca • Ver-kuh

Savan • Sa-van

 Atuka • ah-Two-ka

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