Toshio finished the job quickly, with the unconscious ease of long practice. He was worried about Ssassia, a gentle fin who had always been kind and soft- spoken to him.

'Hikahi,' he said as the leader swam past, 'do you want me to call the ship?'

The small gray Tursiops female rose up to face Toshio. 'Negative, Ladder-runner. We obey orders. Spy-sats may be high already. Set your speed sled to return on auto if we fail to survive what is in the sssoutheast.'

'But no one's seen any big animals…'

'Thatt is only one possibility. I want word to get back whatever our doom… should even rescue fever strike us all.'

Toshio felt cold at the mention of 'rescue fever.' He had heard of it, of course. It was something he had no desire at all to witness.

They set out to the southeast in skirmish formation. The fins took turns gliding along the surface, then diving to swim alongside Toshio. The ocean bottom was like an endless series of snake tracks — pitted by strange pock-holes like deep craters, darkly ominous. In the valleys Toshio could usually see bottom, a hundred meters or so below, gloomy with dark blue tendrils.

The long ridges were topped at intervals by the shining metal-mounds, like hulking castles of shimmering, spongy armor. Many were covered with thick, ivy-like growths in which Kithrupan fishes nested and bred. One metal-mound appeared to be teetering on the edge of a precipice — the cavern dug by its own tall drill-tree, ready to swallow the entire fortress when the undermining was done.

The sled's engine hummed hypnotically. Keeping track of his instruments was too simple a task to keep Toshio's mind busy. Without really wishing to, he found himself thinking. Remembering.

A simple adventure, that's what it had seemed when they had asked him to come along on the space voyage. He had already taken the jumpers' Oath, so they knew he was ready to leave his past behind. And they needed a midshipman to help with hand-eye work on the new dolphin ship.

Streaker was a small exploratory vessel of unique design. There weren't many finned, oxygen-breathing races flying ships in interstellar space. Those few used artificial gravity for convenience, and leased members of some client species to act as crafters and handmen.

But the first dolphin-crewed starship had to be different. It was designed around a principle which had guided Earthlings for two centuries: 'Whenever possible, keep it simple. Avoid using the science of the Galactics when you don't understand it.'

Two hundred and fifty years after contact with Galactic civilization, mankind was still struggling to catch up. The Galactic species which had been using the aeons-old Library since before the first mammals appeared on Earth — adding to that universal compendium of knowledge with glacial slowness had seemed almost god-like to the primitive Earthmen in their early, lumbering slowships. Earth had a branch Library, now, supposedly giving her access to all of the wisdom accumulated over Galactic history. But only in recent years had it proven to be much more a help than a confusing hindrance.

Streaker, with its complex arrangements of centrifugally held pools and weightless workshops, must have seemed incredibly archaic to the aliens who had looked it over just before launch. Still, to Earth's neo-dolphin communities, she was an object of great pride.

After her shakedown cruise, Streaker stopped at the small human-dolphin colony of Calafia to pick up a few of the best graduates of its tiny academy. It was to be Toshio's first, and possibly last, visit to old Earth.

'Old Earth' was still home to ninety percent of humanity, not to mention the other terrestrial sapient races. Galactic tourists still thronged in to gawk at the home of the enfants terribles who had caused such a stir in a few brief centuries. They were open in their wagering over how long Mankind would survive without the protection of a patron.

All species had patrons, of course. Nobody reached spacefaring intelligence without the intervention of another spacefaring race. Had not men done this for chimps and dolphins? All the way back to the time of the Progenitors, the mythical first race, every species that spoke and flew spaceships had been raised up by a predecessor. No species still survived from that distant era, but the civilization the Progenitors established, with its all-encompassing Library, went on.

Of the fate of the Progenitors themselves there were many legends and even violently contradicting religions.

Toshio wondered, as just about everyone had for three hundred years, what the patrons of Man might have been like. If they ever existed. Might they even be one of the species of fanatics that had ambushed the unsuspecting Streaker, and even now sought her out like hounds after a fox?

It wasn't a pleasant line of thought, considering what the Streaker had discovered.

The Terragens Council sent her out to join a scattered fleet of exploration vessels, checking the veracity of the Library. So far only a few minor gaps had been found in its thoroughness. Here a star misplaced. There a species miscatalogued. It was like finding that someone had written a list describing every grain of sand on a beach. You could never check the complete list in a thousand lifetimes of a race, but you could take a random sampling.

Streaker had been poking through a small gravitational tide pool, fifty thousand parsecs off the galactic plane, when she found the Fleet.

Toshio sighed at the unfairness of it. One hundred and fifty dolphins, seven humans, and a chimpanzee; how could we have known what we found?

Why did we have to find it?

Fifty thousand ships, each the size of a moon. That's what they found. The dolphins had been thrilled by their discovery — the biggest Derelict Fleet ever encountered, apparently incredibly ancient. Captain Creideiki had psicast to Earth for instructions.

Dammit! Why did he call Earth? Couldn't the report have waited until we'd gone home? Why let the whole eavesdropping galaxy know you'd found a Sargasso of ancient hulks in the middle of nowhere?

The Terragens Council had answered in code.

'Go into hiding. Await orders. Do not reply.'

Creideiki obeyed, of course. But not before half the patron-lines in the galaxy had sent out their warships to find Streaker.

Toshio blinked.

Something. A resonance echo at last? Yes, the magnetic ore detector showed a faint echo toward the south. He concentrated on the receiver, relieved at last to have something to do. Self-pity was becoming a bore.

Yes. It would have to be a pretty fair deposit. Should he tell Hikahi? Naturally, the search for the missing crewfen came first, but…

A shadow fell across him. The party was skirting the edge of a massive metal-mound. The copper-colored mass was covered with thick tendrils of some green hanging growth.

'Don't go too close, Little Hands,' Keepiru whistled from Toshio's left. Only Keepiru and the sled were this close to the mound. The other fins were giving it a wide berth.

'We know nothing of this flora,' Keepiru continued. 'And it'ss near here that Phip-pit was lost. You should stay safe within our convoy.' Keepiru rolled lazily past Toshio, keeping up with languid fluke strokes. The neatly folded arms of his harness gleamed a coppery reflection from the metal-mound.

'Then it's all the more important to get samples, isn't it?' Toshio replied in irritation. 'It's what we're out here for, anyway!' Without giving Keepiru time to react, Toshio banked the sled toward the shadowy mass of the mound.

Toshio dove into a region of darkness as the island blocked off the afternoon sunlight. A drifting school of silverbacked fish seemed to explode away from him as he drove at an angle along the thick, fibrous weed.

Keepiru squeaked in startlement behind him, an oath in Primal Dolphin, which showed the fin's distress. Toshio smiled.

The sled hummed cooperatively as the mound loomed like a mountain on his right. Toshio banked and grabbed at the nearest flash of green. There was a satisfying snapping sensation as his sample came free in his hand. No fin could do that! He flexed his fingers appreciatively, then twisted about to stuff the clump into a collection sack.

Toshio looked up and saw that the green mass, instead of receding, was closer than ever. Keepiru's squawling was louder.

Crybaby! Toshio thought. So I let the controls drift for a second. So what? I'll be back in your damned convoy before you finish making up a cuss-poem.

He steepened his leftward bank and simultaneously set his bow planes to rise. In a moment he realized it was a tactical mistake. For it slowed him down just enough for the cluster of pursuing tendrils to reach his sled.

There must have been larger sea creatures on Kithrup than the party had seen so far, for the tentacles that fell about Toshio were obviously meant to catch big prey.

'Oh, Koino-Anti! Now I've done it!' He pushed the throttle over to maximum and braced for the expected surge of power.

Power came… but not acceleration. The sled groaned, stretching the long, ropy strands. But forward movement was lost. Then the engine died. Toshio felt a slithery presence across his legs, then another. The tendrils began to tighten and pull.

Gasping, he managed to twist around onto his back, and groped for the knife sheathed at his thigh. The tendrils were sinuous and knotty. The knots clung to whatever they touched, and when one brushed against the back of Toshio's exposed left hand the boy cried out from the searing pain of contact.

The fins were crying out to each other, and there were sounds of vigorous movement not far away. But other than a brief hope that nobody else was caught, Toshio had little time to think of anything but the fight at hand.

The knife came free, gleaming like hope. And hope brought hope as two small strands parted under his slashing attack. Another, larger, one, took several seconds to saw through. It was replaced almost instantly by two more.

Then he saw the place to which he was being drawn.

A deep gash split the side of the metal-mound. Inside, a writhing mass of filaments awaited. Deep within, a dozen meters farther up, something sleek and gray lay already enmeshed in a forest of deceptively languid foliage.

Toshio felt open-mouthed steam fill his facemask. The reflection of his own eyes, dilated and stricken, was superimposed on the motionless figure of Ssassia. Gentle as her life had been, though not her death, the tide rocked her.

With a cry, Toshio resumed hacking. He wanted to call out to Hikahi-to let the party leader know of Ssassia's fate — but all that came out was a roar of loathing of the Kithrupan creeper. Leaves and fronds flew off through the churning water as he sliced out his hatred, but to little good, as the tendrils fell more numerous about him to draw him toward the gash.

* Ladder climber — Sharp-eyed rhymer *
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