'Try it and see what happens,' the mechanic had suggested. 'They'll laugh so hard, and so will I, if I have the good luck to be there when you do. Likely as not, one of them will take a nip at you for good measure! If there's anything fins don't respect, it's a human who never earned the right, putting on patron airs.'

'But the Protocols…' Toshio had started to protest.

'Protocols my left eye! Those rules were set up so humans and chimps and fins will act in just the right way when Galactics are around. If the Streak gets stopped by a Soro patrol, or has to ask a Pilan Librarian for data somewhere, then Dr. Metz or Mr. Orley — or even you or I — might have to pretend we're in charge… because none of those stuffedshirt Eatees would give the time of day to a race as young as fins are. But the rest of the time we take our orders from Captain Creideiki.

'Hell, that'd be hard enough — taking brown from a Soro and pretending you like it because the damned ET is nice enough to admit that humans, at least, are a bit above the level of fruit flies. Can you imagine how hard it would be if we actually had to run this ship? What if we had tried to make dolphins into a nice, well- behaved, slavey client race? Would you have liked that?'

At the time Toshio had shaken his head vigorously. The idea of treating fins as clients were usually treated in the galaxy was repulsive. His best friend, Akki, was a fin.

Yet, there were moments like the present, when Toshio wished there were compensations for being the only human boy on a starship crewed mostly by adult dolphins.

A starship which wasn't going anywhere at the moment, Toshio reminded himself. The acute resentment of Keepiru's goading was replaced by the more persistent, hollow worry that he might never leave the water world of Kithrup and see home.

* Slow your travel — boy sled-rider *

* Exploring pod — does gather hither *

* Hikahi comes — we wait here for her *

Toshio looked up. Brookida, the elderly dolphin metallurgist, had come up alongside on the left. Toshio whistled a reply in Trinary.

* Hikahi comes — my sled is stopping *

He eased the sled's throttle back.

On his sonar screen Toshio saw tiny echoes converging from the sides and far ahead. The scouts were returning. He looked up and saw Hist-t and Keepiru playing at the surface.

Brookida switched to Anglic. Though somewhat shrill and stuttered, it was still better than Toshio's Trinary. Dolphins, after all, had been modified by generations of genetic engineering to take up human styles, not the other way around.

'You've found no t-traces of the needed substances, Toshio?' Brookida asked.

Toshio glanced at the molecular sieve. 'No, sir. Nothing so far. This water is almost unbelievably pure, considering the metal content of the planet's crust. There are hardly any heavy metal salts at all.'

'And nothing on the long ssscan?'

'No resonance effects on any of the bands I've been checking, though the noise level is awfully high. I'm not sure I'd even be able to pick out monopole-saturated nickel, let alone the other stuff we're looking for. It's like trying to find that needle in a haystack.'

It was a paradox. The planet had metals in superabundance. That was one reason Captain Creideiki had chosen this world as a refuge. Yet the water was relatively pure… pure enough to allow the dolphins to swim freely, although some complained of itching, and each would need chelating treatments when he got back to the ship.

The explanation lay all around them, in the plants and fishes.

Calcium did not make up the bones of Kithrupan life forms. Other metals did. The water was strained and sieved clean by biological filters. As a result, the sea shone all around with the bright colors of metal and oxides of metal. The gleaming dorsal spines of living fish — the silvery seedpods of underwater plants — all contrasted with the more mundane green of chlorophyllic leaves and fronds.

Dominating the scenery were the metal-mounds, giant, spongy islands shaped by millions of generations of coral-like creatures, whose metallo-organic exoskeletons accumulated into huge, flat-topped mountains rising a few meters above the mean water mark.

Atop the islands the drill-trees grew, sending their metalripped roots through each mound to harvest organics and silicates from below. The trees laid a non- metallic layer on top and created a cavity underneath the metal mound. It was a strange pattern. Streaker's onboard Library had offered no explanation.

Toshio's instruments had detected clumps of pure tin, mounds of chromium fish eggs, coral colonies built from a variety of bronze, but so far no convenient, easily gathered piles of vanadium. No lumps of the special variety of nickel they sought.

What they needed was a miracle — one which would enable a crew of dolphins, with the aid of seven humans and a chimpanzee, to repair their ship and get the hell out of this part of the galaxy before their pursuers caught up with them.

At best, they had a few weeks to get away. The alternative was capture by any of a dozen not-entirely-rational ET races. At worst it could mean interstellar war on a scale not seen in a million years.

It all made Toshio feel small, helpless, and very young.

Toshio could hear, faintly, the high-pitched sonar echoes of the returning scouts. Each distant squeak had its tiny, colored counterpoint on his scanner screen.

Then two gray forms appeared from the east, diving at last into the gathering above, cavorting, playfully leaping and biting.

Finally one of the dolphins arched and dove straight down toward Toshio. 'Hikahi's coming and wants the sssled topside,' Keepiru chattered quickly, slurring the words almost into indecipherability. 'Try not to get lost on the way up-p-p-p…

Toshio grimaced as he vented ballast. Keepiru didn't have to make his contempt so obvious. Even speaking Anglic normally, fins usually sounded as if they were giving the listener a long series of razzberries.

The sled rose in a cloud of tiny bubbles. When he reached the surface, water drained along the sides of the sled in long, gurgling rivulets. Toshio locked the throttle and rolled over to undo his faceplate.

The sudden silence was a relief. The whine of the sled, the pings of the sonar, and the squeaks of the fins all vanished. The fresh breeze swept past his damp, straight, black hair and cooled the hot feeling in his ears. It carried the scents of an alien planet — the pungence of secondary growth on an older island, the heavy, oily odor of a drill-tree in its peak of activity.

And overlying everything was the slight tang of metal.

It shouldn't harm them, they'd said back at the ship, least of all Toshio in his waterproof suit. Chelating would remove all of the heavy elements one might reasonably expect to absorb on a scouting trip… though no one knew for sure what other hazards this world might offer.

But if they were forced to stay for months? Years?

In that case the medical facilities of the Streaker would not be able to deal with the slow accumulation of metals. In time they would start to pray for the Jophur, or Thennanin, or Soro ships to come and take them away for interrogation or worse — simply to get off a beautiful planet that was slowly killing them.

It wasn't a pleasant thought to dwell on. Toshio was glad when Brookida drifted alongside the sled.

'Why did Hikahi have me come up to the surface?' he asked the elderly dolphin. 'I thought I was to stay out of sight below in case there were already spy-sats overhead.'

Brookida sighed. 'I suppose she thinkss you need a break. Besides, who could spot as small a machine as the ssled, with so much metal around?'

Toshio shrugged. 'Well, it was nice of Hikahi, anyway. I did need the rest.'

Brookida rose up in the water, balancing upon a series of churning tail-strokes. 'I hear Hikahi,' he announced. 'And here she isss.'

Two dolphins came in fast from the north, one light gray in appearance, the other dark and mottled. Through his headphones Toshio could hear the voice of the party leader.

* Flame-fluked I — Hikahi call you *

* Dorsal listening — ventral doing *

* Laugh at my word — but first obey them *

* Gather at the sled — and listen! *

Hikahi and Ssattatta circled the rest of the party once, then came to rest in front of the assembled expedition.

Among mankind's gifts to the neo-dolphin had been an expanded repertoire of facial expression. A mere five hundred years of genetic engineering could not do for the porpoise what a million years of evolution had done for man. Fins still expressed most of their feelings in sound and motion. But they were no longer frozen in what humans had taken (in some degree of truth) to be a grin of perpetual amusement. Fins were capable now of looking worried. Toshio might have chosen Hikahi's present expression as a classic example of dolphin chagrin.

'Phip-pit has disappeared,' Hikahi announced.

'I heard him cry out, over to the south of me, then nothing. He was searching for Ssassia, who disappeared earlier in the same direction. We will forego mapping and metals search to go and find them. All will be issued weaponss.'

There was a general sussuration of discontent. It meant the fins would have to put on the harnesses they had only just had the pleasure of removing, on leaving the ship. Still, even Keepiru recognized this was urgent business.

Toshio was briefly busy dropping harnesses into the water. They were supposed to spread naturally into a shape suitable for a dolphin to slip into easily, but inevitably one or two fins needed help fitting his harness to the small nerve amplifier socket each had just above his left eye.

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