Copyright 2000 by Paul S. Gibbs. All rights reserved. Any reproduction, reuse, reposting or alteration, without the express written permission of the author, is strictly prohibited. This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to any person, living or dead, is purely coincidental.




"I don't understand these people," Kevin Pao observed sourly. "They're human, for God's sake--or they used to be. How can they even consider selling out to the Jellies?"

Captain Thunumm shook his ponderous head sadly. "Human they are indeed, Lieutenant," he said, "but not members of the Alliance."

"And," Commander Abrams put in, "with very little reason to be loyal to their ancestral home."

In five weeks aboard Yerba Buena, I had been included in the daily officer's briefing exactly twice before. Some engineers I knew would have regarded that as a deadly insult--but not me. Ship's operations were none of my business, after all, and I was just as happy not involving myself in them. But even when I did attend, it cannot be said that I was truly included. The reason why had nothing to do with my species; there were plenty of non-humans aboard, if no other Sah'aarans. Rather, it was the color of my uniform. Simply that. The only spot of grey in a sea of green, it set me apart from the battleship's crew--on a number of levels.

There were seven of us ranged around the Tactical table that morning: three humans and four non; six hardened warriors, and one who had never been within a dozen light-years of combat, and hoped never to be. The only thing we all had in common, I suspect, was a strong desire to be elsewhere.

The captain looked slowly around, his gaze touching all of us in turn. "Obviously, this mission is not the cakewalk we all expected," he said. "I have hyperzapped the Admiralty for instructions, but it will be a week at minimum before I receive a reply. In the meantime, ladies and gentlemen, we're on our own. It's entirely possible that we will have to act as negotiators--needless to say, an unfamiliar assignment for this ship and crew. And that being the case, I think it would be a very good idea if we all acquire a thorough understanding of this world and its people. Commander Abrams?"

Directly across from me, at the computer terminal, the first officer cleared her throat. Sixty-three years old, on the verge of retirement, Sarah Abrams was one of those unfortunate (or perhaps fortunate) officers who never achieve ship command. Which was not a reflection on her competence--Abrams was nothing if not competent--but rather on her temperament. To be a captain, requires a particular brand of toughness, even callousness, which few can manage without self-destructing. She wore her pure-white hair in a severe bun at the back of her head, and a fine net of wrinkles parenthesized her piercing pale-blue eyes. That morning, as usual, her face wore an expression of weary disapproval.

Tapping keys, she threw a series of charts and graphs onto the smaller screens, while in the center of the array the largest viewer continued to show the planet; quiet, blue and cloudless. "Lands-End is approximately the size of Terra," Abrams said. Briefly I wondered why she was giving this report; but a moment's thought made the answer obvious: she was filling in for the Scispecs Yerba Buena didn't have. "But its slightly closer orbit results in higher average temperatures. As we have all noticed, on the entire planet there is just one small parcel of dry land, an island some four hundred kilometers long and three hundred wide. The remainder is covered by a single immense ocean, averaging three hundred meters deep. The water is fresh and remarkably pure; in many areas it is drinkable without treatment. With no significant land-masses, the oceanic and atmospheric currents circulate freely, resulting in an average surface water temperature of twenty-two degrees worldwide. The axis of rotation is nearly perpendicular to the orbital plane, so there are no seasonal variations to speak of. With one exception: at present the planet is nearing aphelion, and is experiencing the calmest weather of its year. At perihelion, increased solar gain in the equatorial region causes ferocious currents and gigantic tropical storms, lasting for weeks."

Once again she touched keys, bringing up an image of the planet's one and only continent. From orbit it resembled an arrowhead: a sharp, narrow triangle pointing due south. Around its edges ran a thin band of green, interrupted at wide intervals by greyish polygons: cities, or at very least settlements. From that coastal fringe the land rose sharply toward a brown and barren central peak topped by a deep circular depression.

"Obviously this continent, or island, is volcanic in origin," Commander Abrams went on. "The mountain--Discovery Peak--is twelve hundred meters high, and shows a clear caldera at its summit; but the volcano is quite extinct." She created a tiny red pointer and directed it toward the island's northern edge. "This shore is extremely rocky and precipitous, with cliffs more than a hundred meters high. Below them lies the deepest known oceanic trench on the planet, some two thousand meters. The eastern and western shorelines are much gentler, and are interspersed with good harbors. The planet's largest settlement, the seat of its government, lies here, at the southern apex. The island is situated approximately four degrees above the northern tropic, and therefore escapes the worst of the 'summer' storms.

"The population of the planet as a whole is two hundred and fifty thousand," Abrams concluded, "but only ten thousand amphibians make their permanent homes on the island."

Captain Thunumm gazed at her curiously with a cocked inner eye. "Where do the others live, then?" he asked.

Abrams began to answer, but I beat her to it. I'd been doing some research myself, in my copious spare time. "The vast majority of them live on mobile floating platforms," I said. "Some as large as a medium-sized Terran town. The inhabitants exist by fishing, and by farming plankton and algae. What mining and manufacturing there is, takes place on the slopes of Discovery Peak."

"I'm very curious about these people," the captain said. "Are they entirely the result of genetic engineering? Or are surgery and prosthetics involved as well? Dr. Chiiriss?"

To my left, the tall, taciturn physician stirred, uncrossing his long bony arms. I still remembered the relief I felt when I learned that Yerba Buena had a Centaurii chief surgeon. I usually entrusted my health to Sah'aaran doctors; but when that wasn't possible--and it seldom was--I'd gladly settle for a member of the Alliance's other founding species. Especially one like Chiiriss, who had more than a hundred and twenty years of experience. Towering over everyone else in the room except of the captain, the good doctor probably massed little more than me. His skinny, vaguely reptilian body was covered from narrow head to three-toed feet with interlocking avocado scales, and vestigial feathers of iridescent green encased his upper arms and chest, his waist and thighs. His long, stiff tail was bunched uncomfortably against the wall. He opened his beak and hissed, and a split-second later the silver disk affixed to his chest translated those sounds into Terran.

"Of those two hundred and fifty thousand," the translator said flatly, "approximately one quarter are unaltered humans. The majority, some one hundred and ninety thousand, are true amphibians. They are capable of remaining submerged indefinitely, and can attain depths of up to seventy meters with no more equipment than a light wetsuit. While underwater, a flap within the throat closes off the larynx, preventing water from entering the lungs, and the nasal passages close off as well. The blood which ordinarily flows through the lungs is diverted to the gills via greatly-enlarged carotid arteries." Chiiriss paused. "Did I say that they can remain submerged indefinitely? That is not strictly true, because they can neither eat nor speak underwater. Their hearing is also greatly compromised by the flaps which close off their ears, to protect the interior structure from pressure. Their eyes also possess protective membranes, but are much less impaired underwater."

The captain chuckled like a pot of porridge boiling over. "That's all very interesting, Doctor," he said. "But it doesn't answer my question."

"Pardon me, sir," Chiiriss said, his translator's tone suddenly a trifle flatter. His beady black eyes flashed. "I have researched this matter as thoroughly as possible, given this ship's limited resources. It appears that the modifications are entirely a product of careful genetic engineering. And that is not all: the changes have been rendered both permanent and almost entirely inheritable. The full compliment of amphibious traits are present in more than ninety-five percent of births."

"And in the other five percent?" Commander Abrams asked curiously.

"Fetal microsurgery," Dr. Chiiriss replied, "followed by gene therapy. Evidently these people are quite determined to remain amphibious."

Abrams nodded. "That jibes with what I've learned about their culture," she said. She took a deep breath. "I'm afraid this isn't the model society--at least as the Alliance defines it. It's more like an oligarchy. Those sixty-five thousand normal humans are very much an underclass. It's overly-dramatic to call them slaves; but they are ineligible to vote, to hold office, or even to own property. Marriages between normal humans and amphibians are forbidden as well--and immigration, either in or out, is prohibited."

A brief, indignant stir went around the table. "Did the Alliance know any of this," I heard myself ask, "when they chose to locate a refueling facility here?"

Captain Thunumm sighed. "I don't know, Commander," he said. "But I rather expect they did. And if so…well, it's hardly the first time expediency has overridden idealism."

Only too true, I thought darkly. I turned to Abrams. "You say these people have little reason to feel loyalty toward Terra," I said. "Why?"

As usual, she glanced at the captain for permission before she replied. Many members of Yerba Buena's crew did the same when talking to me--and sometime during my second week aboard it ceased to offend me. Well, mostly. "As Dr. Chiiriss indicated," she said reluctantly, "our research facilities aren't the best." Her face twisted into a brief grimace of contempt. "This isn't a Survey ship. But from what I've been able to gather, the original amphibian colonists were more or less exiled from Terra. The records don't go into detail, but they mention something called the 'Atlantis Project.'"

With those words, I understood. A historian I am not, but nevertheless I understood. I began to reply, but the captain cut me off with an impatient slashing gesture. "Their history doesn't concern me," he said firmly. "What does, is the situation we're facing here and now. Lieutenant Pao raised an interesting question: what do these people stand to gain by an agreement with the Chrysaoans?"

Revenge, I thought instantly; but the captain apparently had something more tangible in mind. "My guess would be raw materials," I said. "Metals, ceramics, and polymers. Commander Abrams mentioned the mining operations on the slopes of Mount Discovery. As rich as those mines have been, they can't last forever. And the only alternative is extremely difficult, extremely hazardous deep-water mining. The Alliance has no doubt offered the Lands-Enders the usual package: protection, representation and a market for their exports. I'd say the Hegemony has upped the ante."

Captain Thunumm nodded. "You may be right, Commander," he said. "So far Governor Odyn hasn't attempted to reopen negotiations; she knows it would be pointless to do so until I've received new orders. And that leaves us with little to do but wait. Lieutenant Saunders, have you made contact with the construction barges yet?"

To the doctor's left, almost at the foot of the table, my friend the Compcomm looked up hurriedly from his palm-reader, on which he had been scribbling notes since the meeting began. Somewhere in his mid-twenties, with sandy hair and large, expressive brown eyes, Preston Saunders might someday live down the derisive nickname "Bordie." Or maybe not: two years in the Patrol was probably enough to brand him for life.

"Only one so far, sir," Saunders said. "The Port Costa. They have acknowledged our signal, and will remain in the Montauk system until further notice. The Antioch has not yet responded."

The captain blinked. "That's rather strange."

"Yes, sir," Saunders agreed. "It's possible there's a defective satellite in the relay chain. Or a solar storm blocking transmission."

"Possible, yes," Thunumm murmured uncertainly.

"We are continuing to transmit every half hour," Saunders went on. "As per standard procedure."

The captain nodded. "Excellent. Notify me immediately when the Antioch responds."

"Yes, sir."

Thunumm glanced around. "Most of you are aware how much I dislike waiting," he said. "I also hate feeling like a 'sitting duck,' as the Terrans say. A situation which forces me to do both is nearly intolerable." His gaze shifted to the compact, black-haired human across from Saunders. "Lieutenant Pao, your tactical report please?"

At twenty-three, Kevin Pao was extremely young for a Tactical-Security crew chief--and he knew it. Like many young officers (including a certain furry engineer, at the beginning of her career) he tended to disguise inexperience with over-enthusiasm. He frowned down at his palm-reader, his dark, heavy-lidded eyes narrowing in concentration. "The latest sweeps show no other vessels in the system, Captain," he reported. "This star supports five hypertunnel nodes, ranging from five light-minutes to three light-hours from our present position. We are continuing to monitor them all, as our orbit permits, but if a ship were to enter through the farthest, it would of course be some time before--"

The captain interrupted, sounding amused. "I'm well aware of the speed of light, Lieutenant," he said. "Weapons status?"

Pao grinned wolfishly. "All torpedo launchers operational and ready," he said. "Forward and aft particle-beam emitters also show ready. Anti-radar measures, chaff and thermal decoys available at your discretion."

"Very good, Lieutenant," Thunumm said, and he meant it. I can only assume that an inordinate fondness for weapons must be a "male thing"; obviously it's not exclusively a human trait. "And our engineering status, Commander Kzzk?"

The smallest--and quietest--member of Yerba Buena's crew sat between Abrams and Pao; if "sat" is the correct term. Her black, segmented, multi-legged carapace was curled into a tight ball in the chair, with the obligatory seatbelt somewhere in the middle of the coil. Above her wasp-thin waist her thorax and head stood proudly erect, half a meter above the table, topped with enormous multifaceted silver eyes and long droopy antennae. Her four short arms, with fingers like bundles of twigs, were crossed over her hard-shelled chest. A Xerxian (or, as her people proudly and defiantly called themselves, a "Roach"), our Techspec crew chief hailed from the farthest-flung world in the TCA. Her Terran was slightly buzzing, but surprisingly clear--especially when you consider that she had neither lungs nor vocal cords.

"The enginezz are currently on orbital zztandby," she said. "All other zzyzztemzz one hundred perzzent. I can break orbit with lezz than a minute'zz notizze."

"Excellent," the captain said. He glanced around. "All right, ladies and gentlemen," he said. "We all know our jobs. Dismissed."

I reached for the buckle of my seatbelt, but Thunumm laid a tentacle across my arm. "I'd like you to stay for a moment, Commander."

I remained seated, waiting in silence at the others trooped out. Even after the door had closed, leaving us alone, the captain remained silent, gazing down at his palm-reader. Finally he looked up at me, rubbing tiredly at his inner eyes. "In all my years in the Navy," he said, "this is the first time I've ever been tempted to cut and run." He shook his head. "I almost wish it was possible. Something about this situation doesn't feel right, Commander."

I had no answer for that, so I remained silent. A moment later the captain sighed and shook his head again. "How much do you know about the Chrysaoans?" he asked.

"Not much, I'm afraid," I admitted. "I've never dealt with them. I know them mostly by reputation. They're said to be deceitful, sneaky, and treacherous. But…" I trailed off.

Thunumm cocked his head. "Yes?"

I squirmed a little. "Sir, you might know that my species has no talent for warfare. But many others in the Alliance do, or did once." I paused. "From what I've seen, in almost any conflict, the other side is always depicted as deceitful, treacherous, not to be trusted."

Thunumm chuckled thickly. "You're right, of course," he agreed affably. "It's called 'propaganda,' and it has its uses." He paused. "Commander, as I understand it, discipline works differently in the Survey and the Engineering Corps. But in the Navy we're trained to follow orders--and not ask questions. And that's exactly what I've always done. Over the last thirty years I've shot at the Chrysaoans, blown them up, blockaded them, intimidated them…but I suppose I'd have to say I've never really 'dealt' with them either. But…well, Commander, if routinely breaking cease-fires, and regarding treaties as minor inconveniences, qualifies as 'treacherous,' then perhaps we can so label our friends the Jellies. They've done all that, and more, to my certain knowledge."

He paused again, adrift in a sea of old memories. Finally he shook himself and continued. "I think your assessment of what they've offered the Lands-Enders was most likely correct. And they will bargain for what they want, if that seems the easier path. But in my experience, they have no more respect for contracts than they do for truces. Governor Odyn is playing a very dangerous game, it seems to me--perhaps more so than she herself realizes."

I nodded. "I tend to agree, sir."

"--I'm at a loss, though," he said, "to understand what the Jellies stand to gain. What would a species of low-gravity methane-breathers want with a planet that's all water?"

I shrugged. "Their ships need deuterium too," I pointed out.

The captain sighed. "True," he agreed. "And there's also the matter of territory. Up until a few months ago, this system was the proverbial 'no-man's land'--outside the boundaries of both the Alliance and the Hegemony…"

"…But now they're in the middle of a disputed area," I finished. "The Goddess help them."

"Exactly," Thunumm agreed. "And apparently Governor Odyn believes she can play both sides to her profit. But if the Jellies believe they might be outbid…I very much fear they'll decide it's easier and cheaper to take the deuterium than pay for it. And while they're at it, they might help themselves to the entire planet. They've done that before too."

He was silent for a moment. Then he went on, "When Commander Abrams mentioned these people's Terran origin, you seemed to know what she was referring to. Exactly what is--or was--the 'Atlantis Project'?"

Once again I squirmed. "I'm most familiar with the engineering aspect," I said. "But in studying that, I also learned some of the history." I shook my head. "It's not something the Terrans are proud of. It happened more than two centuries ago, about fifty years pre-Alliance. The Atlantis Project was an attempt to recreate the legendary--fictitious--'lost continent.' As a tourist attraction."

"Underwater, I assume?"

"Yes, sir," I said. "In the Aegean, off the coast of Greece. The original amphibians were created by surgery and genetic engineering, and were employed as servants, custodians…and actors. Prospective parents were promised huge payments for allowing their children to be 'converted.'"

The captain cocked his head. "So what happened?"

"Eventually it was discovered that the conversion process included indoctrination," I said flatly. "Creating the amphibians was expensive, of course, and the corporations backing the project didn't want them to leave Atlantis and go to work elsewhere as professional divers or entertainers."

"Their free will was removed?"

"In theory, yes, sir," I confirmed. "Which of course made them virtual slaves. But it turned out that the conditioning wasn't quite as thorough as the companies hoped. One of the amphibians contacted the press--and that of course ended the project. The whole thing collapsed in litigation and criminal charges." I paused. "As I said, it's something the Terrans aren't proud of. I'm not surprised Commander Abrams had never heard of it…"

"I rather think," Captain Thunumm said dryly, "that in fact she had. Which is why I cut off the discussion when I did. Well, that explains a great deal--perhaps even the amphibians' treatment of their normal-human minority. What happened after the project collapsed?"

I shook my head. "That I'm afraid I don't know, sir. Obviously the amphibians--or their descendants--eventually ended up here. But whether they voluntarily left Terra, or were 'relocated for their own good'…I don't know."

The captain nodded. "Perhaps you'll have a chance to find out," he said slyly.

I looked up, startled. "Pardon me, sir?"

Thunumm handed me his palm-reader. "I received this message two hours ago," he said. "From Governor Odyn." He quirked an inner eye. "Evidently you made more of an impression than you thought, Ehm'rael. She's invited you down for a visit."