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The Lazarus Effect w-3, Page 2

Frank Herbert


  He made a wry face as he sucked down the last of the tube. The concentrate was tasteless and odorless, but he balked at it just the same.

  You'd think if they made it edible they could make it palatable, he thought. At least dockside we'll get some real food. The rigors of setting and hauling fishing nets always built his appetite into a monumental thing that concentrates could support, but never satisfy.

  The gray ocean yawned away in all directions. Not a sign of dashers or any other threat anywhere. The occasional splatter of a sizable wave broke over the rim of the coracle but the organic pump in the bilge could handle that. He turned and watched the slaw bulge of their net foam the surface behind them. It listed slightly with its heavy load. Twisp's mouth watered at the prospect of a thousand kilos of scilla - boiled scilla, fried scilla, baked scilla with cream sauce and hot rolls ...

  "Queets, are we there yet?" Brett's voice cracked in its adolescent way. Only the shock of his thick blonde hair stuck out from under their tarp - a sharp contrast to Twisp's headful of ebony fur. Brett Norton was tall for sixteen, and his pile of hair made him seem even taller. This first season of fishing had already begun to fill in some of his thin, bony structure.

  Twisp sucked in a slow breath, partly to calm himself after being startled, partly to draw in patience.

  "Not yet," he said. "Drift is right. We should overtake the Island just after sunrise. Eat something."

  The boy grimaced and rummaged in his kit for his own meal. Twisp watched as the boy wiped the spout nearly clean, unstoppered it and sucked down great gulps of the untantalizing brown liquid.


  Brett's gray eyes were shut tight and he shuddered.

  Twisp smiled. I should quit thinking of him as "the boy." Sixteen years was more than boyhood, and a season at the nets had hardened his eyes and thickened his hands.

  Twisp often wondered what had made Brett choose to be a fisherman. Brett was near enough to Merman body type that he could have gone down under and made a good life there.

  He's self-conscious about his eyes, Twisp thought. But that's something few people notice.

  Brett's gray eyes were large, but not grotesque. Those eyes could see well in almost total darkness, which turned out to be handy for round-the-clock fishing.

  That's something the Mermen wouldn't let out of their hands, Twisp thought. They're good at using people.

  A sudden lurch of the net caught both of them off-balance and they reached simultaneously for the rimline. Again, the lurch.

  "Brett!" Twisp shouted, "Get us some slack while I haul in."

  "But we can't haul in," the boy said, "we'd have to dump the catch ..."

  "There's a Merman in the net! A Merman will drown if we don't haul in." Twisp was already dragging in the heavy netlines hand-over-hand. The muscles of his long forearms nearly burst the skin with the effort. This was one of those times he was thankful he had a mutant's extra ability.

  Brett ducked out of sight behind him to man their small electric scull. The netlines telegraphed a frantic twisting and jerking from below.

  Merman for sure! Twisp thought, and strained even harder. He prayed he could get him up in time.

  Or her, he thought. The first Merman he'd seen netbound was a woman. Beautiful. He shook off the memory of the crisscross lines, the net-burns in her perfect, pale ... dead skin. He hauled harder.

  Thirty meters of net to go, he thought. Sweat stung his eyes and small blades of pain seared his back.


  He looked from the net back to Brett and saw white-eyed terror. Twisp followed the boy's gaze. What he saw three or four hundred meters to starboard made him freeze. The squawks set up a fluttering outcry that told Twisp what his eyes were barely able to confirm.

  "A hunt of dashers!"

  He almost whispered it, almost let slip the netlines creasing his rock-hard palms.

  "Help me here," Twisp shouted. He returned to the frantic tugging at the net. Out of the corner of one eye he saw the boy grab the port line, out of the other he watched the steady froth of the oncoming dashers.

  A half-dozen of them at least, he thought. Shit.

  "What'll they do?" Brett's voice cracked again.

  Twisp knew that the boy had heard stories. Nothing could match the real thing. Hungry or not, dashers hunted. Their huge forepaws and saberlike canines killed for the sheer bloody love of it. These dashers wanted that Merman.

  Too late, Twisp dove for the lasgun he kept wrapped in oiled cloth in the cuddy. Frantically, he scrabbled for the weapon, but the first of the dashers hit the net head-on and their momentum rocked the coracle. Two others fanned to the sides, closing on the flanks like a fist. Twisp felt the two hard hits as he came up with the lasgun. He saw the net go slack as slashing claws and fangs opened it wide. The rest of the hunt closed in, scavenging bits of meat and bone thrown clear of the frothy mess that had been a Merman. One dasher nipped another and, primed to kill, the rest turned on their wounded mate and tore him to bits. Fur and green gore splattered the side of the coracle.

  No need wasting a lasgun charge on that mess! It was a bitter thought. Islanders had long ago given up the hope they might exterminate these terrible creatures.

  Twisp shook himself alert, fumbled for his knife and cut the netlines.

  "But why ... ?"

  He didn't answer Brett's protest, but toggled a switch under the scull housing. One of the dashers froze not a meter from their gunwale. It sank slowly, drifting back and forth, back and forth like a feather falling on a breezeless day. The others made passes at the coracle but retreated once they felt the edge of the stunshield on their noses. They settled for the stunned dasher, then thrashed their way out to sea.

  Twisp rewrapped his lasgun and wedged it under his seat.

  He switched off the shield then and stared at the ragged shards that had been their net.

  "Why'd you cut loose the net?" Brett's voice was petulant, demanding. He sounded near tears.

  Shock, Twisp thought. And losing the catch.

  "They tore the net to get the ... to get him," Twisp explained. "We'd have lost the catch anyway."

  "We could've saved some of it," Brett muttered. "A third of it was right here." Brett slapped the rimline at the stern, his eyes two gray threats against a harsh blue sky.

  Twisp sighed, aware that adrenaline could arouse frustrations that needed release.

  "You can't activate a stunshield with the lines over the side like that," he explained. "It's got to be all the way in or all the way out. With this cheap-ass model, anyway ..." His fist slammed one of the thwarts.

  I'm as shook as the kid, he thought. He took a deep breath, ran his fingers through the thick kinks of his black hair and calmed himself before activating the dasher-warning signal on his radio. That would locate them and reassure Vashon.

  "They'd have turned on us next," he said. He flicked a finger against the material between thwarts. "This stuff is one thin membrane, two centimeters thick - what do you think our odds were?"

  Brett lowered his eyes. He pursed his full lips, then stuck the lower lip out in a half-pout. His gaze looked away past a rising of Big Sun come to join its sister star already overhead. Below Big Sun, just ahead of the horizon, a large silhouette glowed orange in the water.

  "Home," Twisp said quietly. "The city."

  They were in one of the tight trade currents close to the surface. It would allow them to overtake the floating mass of humanity in an hour or two.

  "Big fucking deal," Brett said. "We're broke."

  Twisp smiled and leaned back to enjoy the suns.

  "That's right," he said. "And we're alive."

  The boy grunted and Twisp folded his meter-and-a-half arms behind his head. The elbows stuck out like two strange wings and cast a grotesque shadow on the water. He stared up across one of the elbows - caught as he sometimes was reflecting on the uniqueness of his mutant inheritance. These arms gangled in his way most o
f his life - he could touch his toes without bending over at all. But his arms hauled nets as though bred for it.

  Maybe they were, he mused. Who knows anymore? Handy mostly for nets and for reach, they made sleeping uncomfortable. Women seemed to like their strength and their wraparound quality, though. Compensation.

  Maybe it's the illusion of security, he thought, and his smile widened. His own life was anything but secure. Nobody who went down to the sea was secure, and anybody who thought so was either a fool or dead.

  "What will Maritime Court do to us?" Brett's voice was low, barely audible over the splashings of the waves and the continued ruffled mutterings of the two squawks.

  Twisp continued to enjoy the drift and the warm sunlight on his face and arms. He gnawed his thin lips for a blink, then said, "Hard to say. Did you see a Merman marker?"


  "Do you see one now?"

  He listened to the faint rustle across the coracle and knew that the boy scanned the horizon. Twisp had picked the boy for those exceptional eyes. That, and his attitude.

  "Not a sign," the boy said. "He must've been alone."

  "That's not likely," Twisp said. "Mermen seldom travel alone. But it's a sure bet somebody's alone."

  "Do we have to go to court?"

  Twisp opened his eyes and saw the genuine fear in Brett's downturned mouth. The boy's wide eyes were impossible moons in his unstubbled face.


  Brett plopped down on the thwart beside Twisp, rocking the little boat so hard that water lapped over the sides.

  "What if we don't tell?" he asked. "How would they know?"

  Twisp turned away from the boy. Brett had a lot to learn about the sea, and those who worked it. There were many laws, and most of them stayed unwritten. This would be a hard first lesson, but what could you expect of a kid fresh from the inside? Things like this didn't happen at Center. Life there was ... nice. Scilla and muree were dinner to people living in the Island's inner circle, they weren't creatures with patterns and lives and a bright final flutter in the palm of the hand.

  "Mermen keep track of everything," Twisp said flatly. "They know."

  "But the dashers," Brett insisted, "maybe they got the other Merman, too. If there was another one."

  "Dasher fur has hollow cells," Twisp said. "For insulation and flotation. They can't dive worth a damn."

  Twisp leveled his black eyes at the kid and said, "What about his family waiting back home? Now shut up."

  He knew the kid was hurt, but what the hell! If Brett was going to live on the sea he'd better learn the way of it. Nobody liked being surprised out here, or abandoned. Nobody liked being boat-bound with a motor-mouth, either. Besides, Twisp was beginning to feel the proximity and inevitable discomfort of the Maritime Court, and he thought he'd better start figuring out their case. Netting a Merman was serious business, even if it wasn't your fault.


  The fearful can be the most dangerous when they gain power. They become demoniac when they see the unpredictable workings of all that life around them. Seeing the strengths as well as the weaknesses, they fasten only on the weaknesses.

  - Shipquotes, the Histories

  Except for the movements of the operators, and their occasional comments, it was quiet in Sonde Control this morning, a stillness insulated from the daylight topside beneath a hundred meters of water and the thick walls of this Merman complex. The subdued remoteness filled Iz Bushka with disquiet. He knew his senses were being assaulted by Merman strangeness, an environment alien to most Islanders, but the exact source of his unease escaped him.

  Everything's so quiet, he thought.

  All that weight of water over his head gave Bushka no special concern. He had overcome that fear while doing his compulsory service in the Islander subs. The attitude of superiority that he could detect in the Mermen around him, that was the source of his annoyance! Bushka glanced left to where his fellow observers stood slightly apart, keeping their distance from the lone Islander in this company.

  GeLaar Gallow leaned close to the woman beside him, Kareen Ale, and asked: "Why is the launch delayed?"

  Ale spoke in a softly modulated voice: "I heard someone say there was an order from the Chaplain/Psychiatrist - something about the blessing."

  Gallow nodded and a lock of blonde hair dropped to his right eyebrow. He brushed it back with a casual movement. Gallow was quite the most beautiful human male Bushka had ever seen - a Greek god, if the histories were to be credited. As an Islander historian by avocation, Bushka believed the histories. Gallow's golden hair was long and softly waved. His dark blue eyes looked demandingly at everything they encountered. His even, white teeth flashed smiles that touched nothing but his mouth, as though he displayed the perfect teeth in that perfect face only for the benefit of onlookers. Some said he had been operated on to remove webs from fingers and toes but that could be a jealous lie.

  Bushka studied Ale covertly. It was said that Mermen were petitioning Ale to mate with Gallow for the sake of beautiful offspring. Ale's face was an exquisitely proportioned oval with full lips, widely spaced blue eyes. Her nose, slightly upturned, showed a smooth and straight ridgeline. Her skin - perfectly set off by her dark red hair - was a pinkish translucence that Bushka thought would require salves and ointments when her duties took her topside into the harsh presence of the suns.

  Bushka looked past them at the giant console with its graphic operational keys and large screens. One screen showed brilliant light on the ocean surface far above them. Another screen revealed the undersea tube where the Lighter-Than-Air hydrogen sonde was being prepared for its upward drift and launch into Pandora's turbulent atmosphere. A thin forest of kelp wavered in the background.

  On Bushka's right, a triple thickness of plazglas also revealed the LTA launch base with Mermen swimming around it. Some of the swimmers wore prestubes for oxygen, all encased in their tight-fitting dive suits. Others carried across their backs the organic airfish that Islander bioengineering had pioneered for sustained work undersea.

  We can produce it, but we cannot have the freedom of the undersea in which to use it.

  Bushka could see where the leechmouth of an airfish attached itself to a nearby Merman's carotid artery. He imagined the thousands of cilia pumping fresh oxygen into the worker's bloodstream. Occasionally, a worker equipped with an airfish vented carbon dioxide in a stream of drifting bubbles from the corner of his mouth.

  How does it feel to float freely in the sea, dependent on the symbiotic relationship with an airfish? It was a thought full of Islander resentments. Islander bioengineering surpassed that of the Mermen, but everything Islander genius produced was gobbled up in the terrible need for valuable exchange.

  As I would like to be gobbled up. But there's not much hope of that!

  Bushka suppressed feelings of jealousy. He could see his reflection in the plaz. The Committee on Vital Forms had faced no trouble in accepting him as human. He obviously fell somewhere near the Merman-tip of the spectrum. Still, his heavyset body, his small stature, the large head with its stringy dark brown hair, thick brows, wide nose, wide mouth, square chin - none of this came near the standard Gallow represented.

  Comparisons hurt. Bushka wondered what the tall, disdainful Merman was thinking. Why that quizzical expression aimed at me?

  Gallow returned his attention to Ale, touching her bare shoulder, laughing at something she said.

  A new flurry of activity could be seen at the LTA launch base, more lights within the tube that would guide the sonde on the start of its journey toward the surface.

  The launch director at the control console said: "It'll be a few minutes yet."

  Bushka sighed. This experience was not turning out the way he had expected ... the way he had dreamed.

  He sneered at himself. Fantasy!

  When he had been notified that he would be the Islander observer at this launch into the realm of Ship, elation had filled him. His first trip into the c
ore of Merman civilization! At last! And the fantasy: Perhaps ... just possibly, I will find the way to join Merman society, to abandon poverty and the grubby existence topside.

  Learning that Gallow would be his escort had fanned his hopes. GeLaar Gallow, director of the Merman Screen, one who could vote to accept an Islander into their society. But Gallow appeared to be avoiding him now. And there had never been any doubt of the man's disdain.

  Only Ale had been warmly welcoming, but then she was a member of the Merman government, a diplomat and envoy to the Islanders. Bushka had been surprised to discover that she also was a medical doctor. Rumor had it that she had gone through the rigors of medical education as a gesture of rebellion against her family, with its long tradition of service in the diplomatic corps and elsewhere in the Merman government. The family obviously had won out. Ale was securely seated among the powerful - held, perhaps, greater power than any other member of her family. Both the Merman and Island worlds buzzed with the recent revelation that Ale was a major inheritor in the estates of the late Ryan and Elina Wang. And Ale had been named guardian of the Wangs' only daughter, Scudi. Nobody had yet put a number on the size of the Wang estate, but the senior director of Merman Mercantile had probably been the wealthiest man on Pandora. Elina Wang, surviving her husband by less than a year, had not lived long enough to make serious changes in the Wang holdings. So there was Kareen Ale, beautiful and powerful and with the right words for any occasion.

  "Delighted to have you with us, Islander Bushka."

  How warm and inviting she had sounded.

  She was just being polite ... diplomatic.

  Another burst of activity rippled through the workers at the console in Sonde Control. The screen showing the surface emitted a series of brilliant flickers and the view was replaced by the face of Simone Rocksack, the Chaplain/Psychiatrist. The background revealed that she spoke from her quarters at the center of Vashon far away on the surface.