'Acknowledged,' he said at last. Underwater, his voice was a muted buzz. The consonants came out slurred. 'How far away is the nearest contact?'

'Five AU, sssir. They couldn't get here for at leasst an hour, even if they came hell-bent.'

'Hmmm. Very well, then. Remain in condition yellow. Continue your observationsss, Akeakemai.'

The vice-captain was unusually large for a neo-fin, thickbodied and muscular where most of the others were sleek and narrow. His uneven gray coloring and jagged teeth were marks of the Stenos sub-racial line, setting him and a number of others aboard apart from the Tursiops majority.

The human next to Takkata-Jim was impassive as the bad news came. It only confirmed what he had already feared.

'We had better inform the captain, then,' Ignacio Metz said. The words were amplified by his facemask into the fizzing water. Bubbles floated away from the tall human's sparse gray hair.

'I warned Creideiki this would happen if we tried eluding the Galactics. I only hope he decides to be reasonable, now that escape's become impossible.'

Takkata-Jim opened and closed his foodmouth diagonally, an emphatic nod.

'Yesss, Doctor Metz. Now even Creideiki must recognize that you were right. We're cornered now, and the captain will have no choice but to listen to you.'

Metz nodded, gratified. 'What about Hikahi's team? Have they been told?'

'I've already ordered the prospecting party back. Even the sled might be too much of a risssk. If the Eatees are already in orbit they might have means to detect it.' 'Extraterrestrials…' Metz corrected, automatically professorial. 'The term 'Eatee' is hardly polite.'

Takkata-Jim kept an impassive face. He was in command of the ship and its crew while the captain was off watch. Yet the human treated him like a fresh- weaned pupil. It was quite irritating, but Takkata-Jim was careful never to let Metz know how much it bothered him. 'Yes, Dr. Metz,' he said.

The man went on. 'Hikahi's party should never have left the ship. I warned Tom Orley that something like this might happen. Young Toshio's out there… and all those crewfen, out of contact with us for so long. It would be terrible if anything happened to them!'

Takkata-Jim felt he knew what was really on Metz's mind. The human was probably thinking about how terrible it would be if any of Streakers crew got themselves killed away from his sight… out where he was unable to judge how they behaved for his behavioral and genetic studies. 'If only Creideiki had listened to you, sssir,' he repeated. 'You always have so much to say.'

It was a little chancy, but if the human ever saw through Takkata-Jim's respectful mask to the core of sarcasm, he never gave it away.

'Well, it's nice of you to say so, Takkata-Jim. And very perceptive. I know you have many things to do now, so I'll find a free comm line and awaken Creideiki for you. I'll break the news gently that our pursuers have followed us to Kithrup.'

Takkata-Jim gave the human a deferential nod from high body stance. 'That-t is kind of you, Doctor Metz. You do me a favor.'

Metz patted the lieutenant on his rough flank, as if to reassure him. Takkata-Jim bore the patronizing gesture with outward calm, and watched as the human turned to swim away.

The bridge was a fluid-filled sphere which bulged slightly from the bow of the cylindrical ship. The main ports of the command center looked out into a murky scene of ocean ridges, sediment, and drifting sea creatures.

The crew's web-lined work stations were illuminated by small spotlights. Most of the chamber lay in quiet shadows, as the elite bridge personnel carried out their tasks quickly and almost silently. The only sounds, other than the swish and fizz of recycling oxywater, were the intermittent click of sonar pulses and terse, professional comments from one operator to another.

Give Creideiki his due, Takkata-Jim told himself. He has crafted a finely tuned machine in this bridge crew.

Of course, dolphins were less consistent than humans. You couldn't tell in advance what might cause a neo-fin to start unraveling until you saw him perform under stress. This bridge crew performed as well as any he had ever seen, but would it be enough?

If they had overlooked a single radiation or psi leak, the ETs would be down on them quicker than orcas upon harbor seals.

The fins out there in the prospecting team were safer than their comrades aboard ship, Takkata-Jim thought somewhat bitterly. Metz was a fool to worry about them. They were probably having a wonderful time!

Takkata-Jim tried to recall swimming free in an ocean, without a harness, and breathing natural air. He tried to recall diving in deep water, the deep water of the Stenos, where the big-mouthed, smart-aleck, shore-hugging Tursiops were rare as dugongs.

'Akki,' he called to the E. L. E radio operator, the young dolphin midshipman from Calafia. 'Have you received confirmation from Hikahi? Did she get the recall?'

The colonial was a small Tursiops variant of yellowish-gray coloration. Akki replied with some hesitation. He still wasn't used to breathing and speaking in oxywater. It required a very odd dialect of Underwater Anglic.

'I'm… sh-sorry, Vice-Captain, but there's no reply. I checked for a monopulse on all… ch-channels. There's been nothing.'

Takkata-Jim tossed his head in irritation. Hikahi might have decided that even a monopulse reply would be too much risk. Still, confirmation would have taken from his back an unpleasant decision.

'Mm-m-m, sir?' Akki tipped his head down and lowered his tail in respect.


'Ah… shouldn't we repeat the message? There's a chance they were distracted and missed it the firsh… first time…'

Like all dolphins from the colony planet Calafia, Akki was proud of his cultured Anglic. It apparently bothered him to have trouble with such simple sentences.

That suited the vice-captain fine. If there was one Anglic word that translated perfectly into Trinary, it was 'smartass.' Takkata-Jim didn't care for smartass midshipmen.

'No, comm-operator. We have our orders. If the captain wants to try again when he gets here, he's welcome. Meantime, attend your possst.'

'Heth… er, aye aye, shir.' The young dolphin spun about to return to his station, where he could breathe from an airdome instead of gulping water like a fish. There he could speak like a normal person while he awaited word from his closest friend, the human middie out in the wide, alien ocean.

Takkata-Jim wished the captain would come soon. The control room felt closed and dead. Breathing the fizzing, gas-charged oxywater always left him tired at the end of his shift. It never seemed to provide enough oxygen. His supplementary gill-lungs itched with the irritation of defied instinct, and the pills — the ones that forced extra oxygen into his system through his intestines — always gave him heartburn.

Once again he caught sight of Ignacio Metz. The whitehaired scientist clutched a stanchion, with his head thrust under a comm airdome to call Creideiki. When he finished he would probably want to hang around. The man was always hovering nearby, watching… always making him feel he was being tested.

'I need a human ally,' Takkata-Jim reminded himself. Dolphins were in command of Streaker, but the crew seemed to obey an officer more rapidly if he appeared to have the confidence of one of the patron race. Creideiki had Tom Orley. Hikahi had Gillian Baskin. Brookida's human companion was the engineer, Suessi.

Metz would have to be Takkata-Jim's human. Fortunately, the man could be manipulated.

The reports on the space battle were coming in faster on the data displays. It seemed to be turning into a real conflagration over the planet. At least five big fleets were involved.

Takkata-Jim resisted the sudden urge to turn and bite something, to lash out hard with his flukes. What he wanted was something to fight! Something palpable, instead of this hanging pall of dread!

After weeks of fleeing, Streaker was trapped at last. What new trick would Creideiki and Orley come up with to get them away this time?

What if they failed to come up with a plan? Or worse, what if they contrived some squid-brained scheme that could only get them all killed? What would he do then?

Takkata-Jim mulled over the problem to keep his mind busy while he waited for the captain to come and relieve him.

4 ::: Creideiki

It had been his first really restful sleep in weeks. Naturally, it had to be interrupted.

Creideiki was used to taking his rest in zero gee, suspended in moist air. But as long as they were in hiding, anti-gravity beds were banned, and sleeping in liquid was the only other way for a dolphin.

He had tried for a week to breathe oxywater all through his rest period. The results had been nightmares and exhausting dreams of suffocation.

The ship's surgeon, Makanee, had suggested he try sleeping in the old-fashioned way, drifting at the surface of a pool of water.

Creideiki decided to try Makanee's alternative. He made sure that there was a big air-gap at the top of his state-room. Then he verified three times that the redundant oxygen alarms were all in perfect order. Finally, he shrugged out of his harness, turned off the lights, rose to the surface and expelled the oxywater in his gill-lung.

That part was a relief. Still, at first he just lay at the air-gap near the overhead, his mind racing and his skin itching for the touch of his tool harness. It was an irrational itch, he knew. Pre-spaceflight humans, in their primitive, neurotic societies, must have felt the same way about nudity.

Poor Homo sapiens! Mankind's histories showed such suffering during those awkward millennia of adolescence before Contact, when they were ignorant and cut off from Galactic society.

Meanwhile, Creideiki thought, dolphins had been in almost a state of grace, drifting in their corner of the Whale Dream. When men finally achieved a type of adulthood, and started lifting the higher creatures of Earth to join them, dolphins of the amicus strain moved fairly easily from one honorable condition to another.

We have our own problems, he reminded himself. He badly wanted to scratch the base of his amplifier socket, but there was no way to reach it without his harness.

He floated at the surface, in the dark, awaiting sleep. It was sort of restful, tiny wavelets lapping against the smooth skin above his eyes. And real air was definitely more relaxing to breathe than oxywater.

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