Sample – Portal Jumpers: Darkness

The zoo sprawled on for miles in every direction. With a ring of hotels around it, it was one of the great icons of the universe, and botanists and zoologists from around the universe congregated here to study the plants and animals that existed everywhere in the universe. Troy stood with his palm on a display, letting it read to him about the family of animals in front of him. Cassie was fascinated by the plants; she said that you could see the root of all biology in the plants of a planet, but he liked the animate better than the inanimate. She was behind him talking with a keeper about the exhibit behind him, where they grew enough native plants to feed the herbivorous family Troy was listening about. He hadn’t caught enough of the conversation yet to get any of the language, but he could hear in Cassie’s tone that she had found a kindred spirit of sorts, someone who relished the details and saw cause and effect as a simple flow of the world around her.
The animals Troy was watching moved in a cluster, six feet each, rolling over each other like a common body, roving around the enclosure and testing everything to see if it was edible. They were aware he was there, but they didn’t have a prey response to him that he could tell. He had no idea if it was because they were accustomed to being in a zoo or if it was because a skinny pink creature was unlikely to have any impact on them. They were knobby, bony creatures, all exoskeleton and ligaments, green, with eyes on a pair of stalks that could see everything around them.
“Their brains are everywhere,” Cassie said, coming to stand next to him. “Local neurological capability to process image, in each foot, and then a core brain where they keep their consciousness.”
“Interesting,” Troy said.
“Is this the one?” Cassie asked. Troy smiled.
“Not if I get to keep looking.”
She laughed and leaned her head on his shoulder.
“Take your time. I promised you a field trip.”
He nodded, putting an arm around her waist and moving on to the next enclosure.
His throat caught.
“What is that?” he asked. Cassie put her hand on the pedestal and a voice started telling them all about the creature in the murky, purple water in front of them.
“That’s wrong,” she said quietly as the voice spoke. Troy hadn’t gotten the language to kick yet. “That’s wrong.”
“You want to just tell me?” he asked in English. “How do you know?”
“It’s just… evident,” she said, shaking her head. “It’s a collective. They think it’s all one creature, that you have to transport them as a single unit or risk killing it, but that’s not… really how it works.”
He glanced at her. She was staring at the rolling mass of tentacles and green shooting lights with a peculiar intensity.
“What is it?” he asked.
“This is the one,” she said, taking his hand. “I want to see this one.”
He laughed.
“I thought I got to pick,” he said as he followed her through the loose crowds toward one of the clusters of portal pads. He had begrudgingly come to recognize that, with the right power source, anyone could jump anywhere in the universe from anywhere – that he’d been lied to his entire career about the way the portal worked – but it was also generally considered polite to do such things from a specified spot. The idea of people popping in and out of existence just anywhere was disruptive, even where it had been normal for as long as anyone could remember, so they had stations that would do the jump for you, at a nominal charge.
“You would have,” she said, “if I hadn’t just seen that.”
“What is it?” he asked again.
“Something’s wrong,” she told him.
“What?” he asked. She shook her head.
“I don’t have words that work in English that could describe it. I could explain it to Jesse, but…”
“Ha, ha,” Troy said. “I thought we weren’t going to bring him up.”
“I never said that,” Cassie said.
“But we hadn’t. For two whole days, we didn’t talk about him at all.”
She frowned at him over her shoulder.
“Why would you think he should come up at least once in two days?” she asked.
“Because…” Troy said. “You never fail to talk about him.”
She sighed.
“This is our vacation,” she said. “I don’t see why it’s relevant.”
He shook his head. She might have been a hundred times smarter than him. Or a thousand, he couldn’t be sure. She still couldn’t manage to keep a relationship simple.
“Hey,” he said, grabbing her hand. She slowed. “I’m glad we did this. Really. Don’t let me spoil it.”
She grinned at him.
“Like you could,” she said. “Come on. It’s a fascinating planet.”
“You’ve been there?” he asked, stepping onto the small platform while she worked the electronics on her arm to interface with it and set up a destination.
“Nope,” she said. “But we’ve seen exactly one animal from there, and it was pretty cool, right?”
“And?” Troy asked. She grinned at him again.
“Just imagine what else could be there,” she said, putting her hand on the little globe that finalized the transaction.
And the zoo was gone.


“I can’t see anything,” Troy said.
“Just relax for a minute,” Cassie said. “It’s dark.”
He shook his head, feeling like his head was under a blanket. There was a moment of panic, two, and three, as he had that same sensation he’d had when he was in school, testing his ability to deal with rapid light transitions. He was just so slow to transition, and the world, when it finally did show up, was out of focus and frantic.
“I can’t see,” he said.
“You can,” she said. “They misunderstand.”
He put his hand on his hip, finding the gun holstered there, and took a breath. He was an officer of the American Air Force, a decorated graduate of jump school, and while he hadn’t made it into the jumper program, he was uniquely equipped to deal with it.
If he could see.
“Pull your blood pressure down,” Cassie said. “For heaven’s sake, Troy. I can hear your heart beating.”
“This is why they failed me, Cass,” he said. “I can’t see in the dark.”
“You can,” she said. “Your optic nerve has more pressure on it than a normal one, and it makes the images you get back from your eye look funny, because you’re seeing your own pulse in it, but there’s nothing wrong with your eyes. Slow your pulse down and get your blood pressure under control, and just relax a minute. If they’d understood, they might have been able to figure it out.”
“Figure what out?” he asked, putting an arm out carefully. He needed to know what was around him. Balance was hard, when you couldn’t see, and he didn’t want to tip and run into something he should have known was there.
“That you can see just fine in the dark, and in deeper dark than most humans,” she said. You just have to get it together and manage it.”
He shook his head.
“I don’t see anything.”
“It’s purple,” she clued. “Look for purple.”
He took a steadying breath, putting his arm out toward her voice and finding her shoulder there, right where it should have been.
The hardest light for him to see. The shortest wavelength, it bounced off of the healthier cones in his eye, they said, and only got picked up by the ones focusing on a very narrow band of light frequencies, ones that required a lot of energy to get in focus. It had sounded like voodoo when they’d explained it to him as a teenager, and he’d purposely avoided having anyone explain it to him as an adult, because it was just adding insult to injury. It was why he hadn’t been a jumper, and that was all there was to it.
He took another breath, and Cassie came to stand next to him, wrapping her arm through his.
“It’s pretty,” she said.
He closed his eyes.
He was here. The great creature from the zoo was around here somewhere, too. He wanted to see that.
He heard water.
Just the soft flow of it, and the plinking noise of drips, echoing.
“We’re in a cave,” he said.
“We are,” she said, still waiting.
He moved his feet along the ground, finding rough, hard terrain that felt rocky and sounded like sandpaper.
“Pumice?” he asked.
“Good guess,” she said, “though it probably isn’t volcanic. I’d guess it’s more a formation pattern that got eaten away by an acid phase at some point.”
“Acid,” he said. “How long a phase?”
“Decades, if not longer,” she said.
There were shooting lines of purple ahead of him. It looked like his heart beat, but it wasn’t at the right pace.
“What is that?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” she said. “Are you ready to go?”
“How deep is the water I’m hearing?” he asked.
“Couldn’t tell you,” she said.
“You can’t see, either?” he asked.
“Water absorbs the entire visible spectrum within about thirty feet, under the best of conditions,” Cassie said. “Best conditions, these aren’t.”
“Deep,” Troy said. “I don’t want to fall in.”
“Come over here,” she said, leading him forward. He heard the splash as his feet hit water, and his stomach revolted, like walking over a grate in a city sidewalk, the sense that you were going to fall, even though it was clearly evident that you weren’t.
“Take your shoes off,” she told him. He squatted, untying his shoes and rolling up the cuffs of his pants, then pulling the shoes off with his toes. He found Cassie’s fingers against his as he tried to recover them, and she took them from him, slinging them over his shoulder a moment later, the laces tied together.
The rock here was smooth, with just a slight sense of being sandy.
“You’ve got some warning, if you walk carefully, where the edges are,” Cassie said.
“I’ve got no sense of balance,” he said. He had seen the trials, where they tested the number of people who could balance on one foot with their eyes closed. The results were hysterical and depressing, depending on how you looked at them.
“You do. You just have to trust it,” Cassie told him. “It’s the second-guessing that gets you into trouble.”
“What am I seeing?” Troy asked, blinking and trying to force the shooting lines of purple into focus. They were closer here, a quick disturbance in the dark, definitely something outside of himself.
“Communication, I think,” Cassie said. “Here.”
She put something in his hand, cool and wet, and a moment later a faint purple shot across it.
“It’s biological,” she said, “but I don’t think it’s alive. That’s what they had wrong at the zoo. The links between them aren’t a part of them in the way they think.”
He wanted to ask how she knew, but that was as pointless as any other time he’d asked her how she knew something, since she’d become Palta. She just did.
“Why is it fluorescing?” he asked.
“Talk it through, Rutger,” she said. He sighed, feeling the fiber in his fingers.
“In this much light, there’s not much likelihood that there are things that are evolved to see it,” he said. “I hate to guess that it’s coincident, though, because bioluminescence is hard. You don’t just do it on accident. So something’s gotta have some kind of luminary receptacle around here. Whatever is on the ends of this thing probably doesn’t need to know what’s going on, not by watching it. Would it? Could you send a signal in light? We do that?”
“Not bad,” she said. “Keep going.”
“It could just as easily be electrical, though,” he said. “Odds are it is electrical, underneath, triggering a chemical reaction that illuminates, so it’s got to be for the benefit of something outside of itself. Angler fish?”
Cassie laughed.
“I like that one better,” she said. “Keep going.”
“Do I need to put this back down?” he asked. “Am I killing something?”
“From the look of it, not any more than you’d be hurting something by breaking a spider web, but the dry probably isn’t good for it,” she said. He squinted, trying to get his eyes to tell him more, but there it was, just the brief flashes of purple.
“There are a lot of them?” Troy asked.
“If you could see,” Cassie said.
“How often do they go off?” Troy asked. “Do you see prey organisms?”
“No,” she said. “But I don’t know that I would. The water is pretty salty and… you know, it’s dark.”
He laughed.
“It is.”
As she said it, he could smell the salt. Foreign and yet familiar.
“So if it isn’t to catch something,” he said, “what would it be for?” He paused, feeling the water on his fingers, a comforting sensation. “To tell something it’s there,” he said.
“Symbiosis is my guess,” Cassie agreed. “Probably sending communication back and forth between any number of organisms, but trying to attract others, either of the same species or of a compatible one.”
Troy stood, the feel of water rolling up and down the tops of his feet and the slight motion of the air around him all there was for him to take in.
“Can we go up to the surface?” he asked. “Where I can see?”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Cassie said quietly.
“Why?” he asked.
“Let’s talk water cycle,” she said, putting her arm through his and walking slowly through the shallow water.
“Okay,” he said. “Sun evaporates surface water, which hits cold air up high and condenses and then freezes, eventually hitting enough atmospheric turbulance to create large enough particles to precipitate.”
Simple enough. He’d learned that before he’d gone to jump school.
“What if there is no sun?” she asked.
He blinked at the darkness.
“The world is frozen,” he said. “Probably without an atmosphere, so everything that doesn’t freeze just boils away.”
“I know that’s what we normally assume,” she said.
“What other option is there?” he asked.
“You ever wonder why the Earth’s core spins?” she asked.
“I thought we were talking about water,” Troy said.
“Sure,” she said. “But it’s all part of the same system, isn’t it?”
“Water and the core?” he asked.
“Water, magnetic field, energy cycle,” she said. “They’re all tied together.”
Energy cycle. He wasn’t sure what she was referring to. There were lots to pick from, but at the end of the day, they were all solar, except…
“Cassie, are we on a massively radioactive dark planet?”
He heard her grin in the void of other noises.
“Now, tell me about the water cycle,” she said.


They continued along in the shallow water, following what Cassie said was the slow drift of water.
“Upstream or downstream?” Troy had asked.
“Good question,” she’d said. “On a solar-based water cycle, I’d go downstream, because I’d be looking for a great big pool of water that creates a stable life source for large populations, but I’m not convinced that’s what we’d find here. It’s possible, of course, but it’s also possible that we’d find a series of caverns going ever downwards and siphoning off more and more water from the source and absorbing it for the deeper heat sources to re-charge it and send it up again.”
“You think that’s how it works?” Troy asked.
“As good a theory as any,” she’d told him.
“So we’re going upstream,” he said.
“That’s where the stable water is,” Cassie said. “And it might even be warm.”
“About this radioactivity,” Troy had said, and she laughed. And that had been the last of the conversation about it.
The darkness was all-enveloping, still, and Troy relied on Cassie for every step.
“There are definite phases,” she said at one point.
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“It looks like they have seasons,” she told him. “There might be five or six more feet of water during peak flows, and there’s a kind of a line that nothing lives above. Seems likely that’s their low tide.”
“What would cause that?” Troy asked.
“Haven’t the foggiest,” Cassie told him. He turned his head at her and she laughed. “What? You expect me to know everything, standing in a dark cave on a planet I’ve never been to before?”
“Well… yeah,” he said. She usually did.
“Well not this time,” she said with an audible smile.
“Jesse is rubbing off on you,” Troy said.
“I’m Palta,” she answered.
The darkness was maddening, just the feel of the water on his feet and Cassie’s arm on his elbow. He tried to listen for anything that would be helpful, but the dripping, echoing off of every wall sounded close and far away all at the same time, and other than that, there was nothing but the rustle of water against his feet.
“Stop here,” Cassie said. He had no idea how long they’d been walking.
She let go of him, and again he struggled not to tip over. It was silly. He had two feet under him and military training.
It was just dark.
And yet, there was this constant threat that the world was just going to come up at him, and he’d never see it coming.
There was a splash.
“Cassie?” he asked. His voice echoed back at him off of the rock and the water. He focused, and he could just pull the flashing purple lights out of the black; they’d never left them. There were a few more noises, things slipping in or out of the water, maybe, and then, in the darkness, he was quite certain.
That was breathing.
“Cassie?” he asked again quietly, finding the knife in his pocket that Cassie had advocated over the gun. Good thing. No telling how many times a bullet might ricochet in a space like this one.
“Who’s there?” he asked.
The breathing continued on, even, cool, somewhere off to his right.
“I’m armed,” he said, absurdly. Was he really? Against someone who could see in the dark?
The standoff continued for several more minutes, and the high alert was beginning to hurt, when there was another loud water noise.
“Ah,” Cassie said. “I should have seen that coming. At ease, airman.”
Troy let his arm drop to his side, unaware it had risen so high, and he put the folding pocket knife back away. There was a burbling noise that his implant recognized as language, but it was too brief to even start taking meaning out of it. He was aware that his implant was poorly exercised compared to the true jumpers; he could decipher most Earth-originated languages, but it took him a lot longer to get languages on foreign planets than it would have, a jumper.
There was another quiet noise, and Cassie’s hand touched Troy’s arm.
“You trust me?” she asked.
“Do I have any choice?” he asked.
“We’re swimming,” she said. “When was your last water trial?”
“School,” he said. She sighed.
“I did this with the Adena Lampak,” she said. “So I remember. But this is forward.”
“Why are we here, Cass?” he asked. Something in her voice told him that this wasn’t just about a game.
“They need us, Troy,” she said quietly. “I don’t know why or how, yet, but they need us.”
He nodded at the darkness.
“Let’s go, then.”
She took his hand and eased the shoes off of his shoulder.
“You’re going to want to do this in your boxers, I think,” she said. He wasn’t wearing that much for clothes, really, just a button up shirt and slacks, but he could see her point. If speed was going to have any importance at all, water-logged clothes were the enemy.
“I’m just going to pretend you can’t see me,” he said. She snickered.
“You’re the one who could never figure out why I kept coming home half-naked,” she told him.
“Cassie, you came home a fish, once,” he said.
“I told you, I prefer to think of it as an eel,” she answered, taking his shirt. He handed her his pants, leaving his socks on because they wouldn’t slow him down any and they’d give him fractional protection against kicking sharp rocks in the black.
Under water in the dark.
That pressed in on him for a moment as Cassie walked him slowly into deeper water.
If he lost her, he was toast.
“Can you see underwater?” he asked.
“If I need to,” she answered. “It’s here. You should jump in and kinda get your legs under you, and then… You know how to follow a wake?”
“Hmm?” he asked, finding his toes curling an edge of some kind. He was knee-deep in still water.
“I need to know you’re behind me,” she said. “I could tie your pants to my leg and have you hold onto the other end, but that’s got too many ways it goes wrong.”
And if he lost her, he was toast.
“Right,” he said. “And you think I should be able to tell you’re ahead of me because the water is moving.”
“Maybe,” she said. “I don’t remember if I’d have been able to do it.”
“I don’t want to count on it,” Troy said. He carefully sat down, his body reacting to the cool of the water. It wasn’t bone-chilling cold, and he realized it had been warming as they’d been walking. Cassie had been right. He thought he’d get used to it, after a minute.
“How far is it?” he asked.
“I don’t think you should think about that,” Cassie said. “It’s far.”
“Well,” he said. “It is what it is. What do you think?”
“You have a good, strong breast stroke, right?” Cassie asked, sitting next to him with her shoulder against his.
“Ha ha,” he said. He heard her laugh as she turned her head away from him.
“I will just leave you here, Rutger,” she said.
“Will not,” he answered. He slipped off of the ledge and the water went up over his face before he bobbed back up. It wasn’t out of control, it was just… It was strange, how primordially frightening it was.
Cassie had been right; it took him a minute to get his legs limbered to keep him stable in the water.
“You ready?” Cassie asked.
“Yeah,” Troy said. “As I’m gonna be.”
“Just stay close,” she said. “I’ll keep just ahead of you and off to one side. Don’t worry about hitting me or anything. You swim as hard as you can without over-cooking it and we’ll come up on the other side.”
“Reassuring,” he said. “You sure you don’t have a flashlight hidden on your arm somewhere?”
“Like Iron Man or Inspector Gadget?” Cassie asked. “Go-go gadget flashlight?”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Troy said.
“My dad liked old cartoons,” Cassie said. “Never mind. I couldn’t do it, anyway. Everything here is so sensitive to light.”
“What?” Troy asked. “Never mind. If we’re going to do this, let’s just do it.”
She jumped in next to him and there was a moment of pause.
“All right,” she said. “Couple of deep breaths, then when you’re ready.” There was a hand on his shoulder. “We’re going this way.”
He breathed easily for a minute, then two long, slow, deep breaths, two deep, quick ones, then he filled his lungs all the way and, against every instinct, he put his head underwater.
Damn, he trusted Cassie a lot.
He swam, long, powerful strokes, trying to coast in between them. He felt Cassie alongside of him, just below, and he adjusted his angle to go deeper in the water, feeling the pressure on his ears. Another small adjustment down, and the water got colder. There was still no light, no noise. Just the water past his ears, his own swimming noises, his own heart beat. Cassie moved ahead of him and he sped up just a little, trying to keep himself at her hip. When his hand found her knees, he sped up again. Three strokes and he hadn’t found her, and he panicked.
He edged to the right, but she still wasn’t there. He thought about stopping, but he had no idea if he’d make it if he stopped in the middle. His head bumped rock and he stalled, putting his arms up above his head and dropping his legs, trying to figure out where he was supposed to be going. The pressure of the water was too high, and there was no light to guide him. He had no idea how much water was below him. Did he follow the rock up or down? Which way was forward. He pushed himself along the rock with his hands, looking for anything that would guide him, let him up, let him up!
An arm grabbed his wrist roughly and he struggled to get flat again, to swim. He had to keep moving.
It was far.
What did that mean.
It had to be close now.
He was swimming, flat, again, with Cassie’s feet hitting his shoulder as she swam, just a tap, tap, tap at the rhythm of her dolphin kicks. She hit his elbow once and he adjusted.
It had to be close.
Surely she would know he couldn’t go further than this.
Not further than this.
Not further than this.
His lungs ached and his body insisted it was time to pull his head up, to find the surface.
The surface was up. That’s where it always was. You just had to go find it.
Discipline and trust kept him going forward as his body revolted, squeezing the air out of his lungs in preparation to take a new breath.
He would breathe water. Soon.
He could only hold it out a few more instants.
He was squeezed so hard.
There was splashing ahead and he made for it, his ears breaking the water into warm, vibrating air, and he gasped for breath.
Cassie’s arm caught around his chest and flipped him onto his back, holding him flat in the water for a minute as he breathed. He wiped his face and found he was looking at blurry lights.
“Take it easy,” she said softly into his ear. “You sound like a cow in dry brush to them.”
“Them who?” he asked when he could, wiping his face again. He pulled away from Cassie. “I’m okay.”
“You didn’t move like you were okay,” she said. He ignored this. With the water out of his eyes and a normal in-and-out of air into his lungs, he found that he was in a cave, maybe twenty or thirty meters across and four or five high. All around him there were cords flashing light, greens and blues and purples, the same fine membranes he’d felt in the water, from the looks of them.
“What are they?” he asked, marveling at the light show all around him.
“Best guess?” Cassie asked. “They’re a signaling apparatus they use between civilized cave systems.”
“I thought we agreed that no one was going to be able to see, in this murk,” Troy said, taking in the evidence to the contrary, just there in front of him. How could they see? How would they make that kind of a leap?
“They don’t,” Cassie said, “not as such. Not the way you and I would describe it. But with the right pattern of lights and the right sensing organs…”
She turned her head, the glimmers of lights making it possible to see her, but not clearly, not her expressions.
“They don’t like us,” she said.
“They haven’t even met me,” Troy complained, and she laughed.
“No, they consider it rude to be walking around invisible. They hear about as well as you’d expect, for that being their primary sense, and they can also see thermal variants, I think, which should put a big flashing beacon on us, but…”
And then Troy saw what she was talking about.
There was a creature just a few feet away from them, standing in the shallows of the water, bedecked in the flashing membranes. He wore them wrapped around his body and over his head, dripping from his arms and almost like the fringe of a shawl behind him.
“Yeah,” Cassie said. “We’re going to need to get dressed before they’ll work with us.”
He scrambled up onto the ledge and shook himself out, waiting as Cassie did the same.
“We could keep this if you want,” Cassie said, “but I don’t think the gun is going to do you much good and the clothes are just going to get really musty really fast, as wet as they’d stay.”
“You’re saying you want me to just go wandering around in my skivvies,” Troy said. “Are you trying to make a point?”
“Up to you,” Cassie said with a quiet smirk, handing him his shirt and pants.
He looked around, feeling silly for being self-conscious. He struggled into his shirt and then spent a full minute trying to get his pants legs untangled enough to get into them. Cassie watched mercilessly. She was different as a Palta.
“Now what?” he asked, finally, standing.
“Now we identify ourselves,” she said.
“How do we do that?” he asked. In the portal program, they avoided low-technology planets, ones where human arrival was modestly likely to alter the local mythology or belief systems. They considered it immoral to influence young species by simply popping into existence, to they hadn’t really done the work to establish how to interact with just such species. While Troy had to admit he couldn’t tell solely by appearance that this was a low-tech species, he had a hard time believing anything else.
“They can’t see us,” Cassie said. “So we adopt a visible persona.”
“Who do they think we are?” Troy asked.
“Strangers from far away,” Cassie said, quiet for a moment. He looked at the creature, under the bands of flashing lights, a pot-bellied creature with no discernible eyes, short arms, solid legs, and a stubby, wedge-shaped tail. He was taller than it was by maybe six inches.
“How do they survive?” Troy asked.
“They’re better swimmers than you are,” Cassie said, teasing. “Don’t underestimate them.”
“How do you know?” Troy asked.
“Who do you think was watching you, back there?” Cassie asked. Troy suddenly felt bad for menacing it. Cassie shook her head.
“Don’t underestimate them,” she said again.
“You’ve seen them before?” Troy asked.
“No,” Cassie said, “but they embedded a help message in an animal in a zoo inconceivably far away. We don’t know who they thought they were getting, but they were trying to get someone here.”
“Trap?” Troy asked.
“You have to think it, if you want to stay alive,” Cassie told him. She spoke with the creature for a moment, and it pulled some of the dangling membranes off of its arms and from behind it, one at a time, handing them to Cassie. She took them and put one around the top of her head, a circulating purple crown, then hung more down either side of her face and down the back of her head.
“Does he grow these?” Troy asked.
“They probably do, somewhere, but they aren’t his own flesh, if that’s what you’re asking,” Cassie said, taking the next few strands to decorate Troy. He let her drape the cords of flashing lights, looking again up at the ceiling.
“It’s beautiful,” he said.
“It is,” Cassie said, saying something to the foreign terrestrial, who answered. This time Troy caught a couple of words, but not enough to really understand anything useful.
“He says that they spend much of their time setting it up,” she said. “It’s more than just art, though I don’t think I could tell you how, yet.”
“How do I look?” he asked after another moment.
“Like you’re covered in neon spaghetti,” Cassie said with half a smile. “I don’t know what I’m doing yet, but now at least they can see you.”
Troy shifted one of the strands so that the flashing green light didn’t go right past his eye and disrupt his vision.
“What do you seek?” the foreign terrestrial asked.
“You haven’t told him yet?” Troy asked.
“They don’t speak to invisible people,” Cassie said. “I haven’t talked to them any more than that.”
She answered the foreign terrestrial in a few words that seemed to indicate that they wanted to help, and the creature wobbled what would have been his shoulders, given where his head was, back and forth.
“We sent,” he started, and then there were more words Troy didn’t get.
Cassie’s answer wasn’t much better, for how much Troy could understand. He looked up at the ceiling again.
“… not good swimmers,” the foreign terrestrial said.
“… different… feet,” Cassie answered.
The foreign terrestrial made a strange, throaty noise, and then Cassie raised an arm toward Troy.
“He wants to be sure we aren’t armed,” she said.
“But I am,” Troy told her.
“I told him that. He’s asking that we disarm, as a sign of good faith.”
“But you’re armed,” he said. “That computer thing on your arm.”
“I don’t count it,” Cassie said. “It’s not strictly a weapon.”
“It’s a tool,” Troy said, taking the dripping gun from his hip and setting it on the rocky ground. “Like my knife.”
Cassie looked at him for a moment, and he tried to read her face, but it was still too dark.
She spoke to the creature, and he turned to Troy, putting out one stubby arm.
“He wants to see it,” Cassie said. Troy frowned, but he figured he could out-maneuver the creature if he needed to. He handed the knife over and the creature picked at it, squatting down to bang it on a rock a few times. There was more speech.
“… rock… weapon… help.”
“… surprise… tool…”
Cassie took the pocket knife from the creature and opened it, handing it back. His hands appeared to have two fingers, but a third muscle extended out of his arm to act as a thumb when he took the knife.
He ran this muscle across the blade and gave it back to Troy.
“He says we must have better rocks where we’re from,” she said.
“Something like that,” Troy mused, taking the knife back and putting it into his pocket.
“Are you ready?” Cassie asked.
“Are we going underwater again?” Troy asked.
“I think it’s above ground, from here,” she said. “But I can’t rule it out. I think they live in the water as much as they do in the air.”
“Awesome,” Troy said. “Is it just me, or is the water getting warmer?”
“I think we’re getting closer to the source of it, yeah,” Cassie said. “It ought to be warmer, I would think.”
The creature shuffled off and Cassie and Troy followed. He wondered what could be wrong, that they would be sending for help from somewhere else, and what kind of help they might have expected to get.
His people had better rocks.



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