Journey Beyond the Sea

by Geron Kees

Chapter 3

The wind tore through the gray day, propelling Vespris onward. The sails made no noise, being stiff with their loads of air, leaving just the slim whisper of the hull cutting through the water as the ship leaped ahead. The ocean itself was dotted with whitecaps, and some sizable chunks of ice now, though the latter were still of a distance apart to make speed here less than a reckless venture.

There was no white line along the horizon this day, the gray sky being fully lowered to cap the world in every direction. Benteen's star was several shades whiter than the sun that warmed Old Earth, and so even a gray day on this world was less than somber. The dark gray at the horizons lessened as the clouds soared overhead, until the sky to sunward was a light gray gem, glowing with the power of the distant fires beyond the billowing facade. Poets of Old Earth would have sighed in wonder, and written lengthy verses to describe the mysterious dark-light sky, striped and swirled with every shade of gray. But those who sailed the waves on Benteen took such a view for granted, and seldom let their attention be taken, save for to glance briefly above and say, perhaps, that it was quite a pretty day, indeed.

Jem was following along as Til Majors explained the equipment to him, pointing out what each mechanism did and the order in which it was used. The mounts were all tied into the scanners, and processor-aimed and controlled, removing from the shotsman the necessity of actually aiming anything. The mounts had different heads on them, which revolved to bring to bear whichever tool was needed at the moment. Each tool had its own magazine, which held varying amounts of munitions, depending on the function of each.

"This is actually a simple process," the man said, smiling at Jem. "We basically wish to convince a very large, very wild beast that wants nothing to do with us to come close enough to the ship that our machines can kill it and capture the carcass. Our job, in conjunction with Master Terpin at the helm, is simply to locate and pursue the animal, make the kill, and to bind the carcass to Vespris. Once that is done, Deera will take over from us. She and her little helpers will remove the exterior appendages of the beast --"

"The tentacles and the snorkel," Jem supplied, to which Til nodded.

"-- and then the ship's crane will hoist aboard what is left and take it below to the processing room. There, Deera will process the carcass, and the meat will go into the freezers. Very simple, as I said."

Jem smiled. "It sounds funny to use the word 'simple' in conjunction with dragging a monster weighing many tons from the sea, and then carving it up into dinner steaks for the freezers back home."

"Nevertheless, it is actually not a terribly involved process, because so much of it is automated." Til cocked his head at Jem. "How's your history?"

Jem gave a little shrug. "Not bad. I mean, I have a standard education, and I also like to read."

"Uh huh. Know what whales are?"

Jem frowned, thinking hard. "Um...weren't they large sea life of some kind on Old Earth?"

Til smiled. "They were, indeed. We are something in the way of descended from those that used to hunt whales, before it was decided that it was something people no longer wished to have done. It was a grisly business, most definitely."

Jem turned to look at the harpoon guns aimed over the side. "And this isn't?"

"Not in the same way." Til sighed. "The killing of any creature is a grisly business, admittedly. But people these days generally do not believe in killing anything that we don't need for food. The hunting of whales on Old Earth was in part for food, but there was an enormous industry surrounding the killing of the creatures, and the most profitable was actually the harvesting of the blubber - the layer of fat just below the skin - and boiling it to extract oil, which was then used for lamplight and the lubrication of machinery in the early industrial age. The bones of the creatures were saved and carved into decorations, or used in making all sorts of things. Very little was wasted."

Jem nodded. "I think I read something about that. They so severely over-harvested the creatures that they nearly made them extinct."

"Pure, naked greed, Jem. They did not need the beasts for food as we need orx here. Old Earth was teeming with food animals and plants. There was actually an interval where the oil produced from whales was very much needed; but once the technology was created to draw and refine fossil fuels from the ground, there was no excuse to keep hunting them. Questions also arose as to the intelligence of the whales, the idea finally taking hold that just because whale intelligence was different from any we understood, did not make it inferior. Yet the practice of harvesting them persisted by some nation-states well into the technological age, almost up until the time of the signing of the Compact On the Right to Life."

Jem gave a low whistle. "And did the...the whales...come back?"

"Yes. After the Compact was signed, a great many earth creatures on the brink of extinction came back. But it was a near thing for many of them."

Jem pointed at the harpoon guns. "The way they did it was messier than the way we do it?"

Til looked briefly uncomfortable.. "There is nothing nice about killing, Jem. We do it because we need to eat. Your father is a mountain hunter, correct?"


"The animals he hunts are food animals, despite being predators in their own rights. Back on Old Earth, most food animals were not predators. But Benteen seems to lack the mild-mannered sort of beasts that might be domesticated and raised for food. So we hunt the few predators here that we find to be palatable. Your father gains extra income from the pelts of several of these beasts, as well."

"It would be a waste not to take them, once the animal has been killed," Jem pointed out. "The meat is the primary goal, but the skins also have value on the market."

"Exactly. But suppose the meat of these creatures was not edible, and your father simply killed them for the hides and left the meat to rot?"

Jem gasped. "That would be wasteful. would be wrong. We have perfectly good synthetics we can make clothing from. The skins are a bonus to the food meats, but no reason to kill the animals for on their own."

Til emitted a pleased sigh. "We are the products of a revised set of cultural ethics, Jem. Humans once did not think as we do today."

Jem licked his lips nervously, and looked anew at the harpoon guns. "We hunt orx for food."

"Yes, we do. And it's important to remember that orx do not fill the same biological niche here that whales did on Old Earth. Whales were largely placid beasts, harming no one. Orx are aggressive predators, extremely dangerous, even more so than the deadliest of the sea predators back on the homeworld. And, their numbers here are far in excess of what the whale species ever managed back on Old Earth. Still, we try to be humane, and make it quick and painless for the orx. But we have made this into an industry of sorts, and I have to wonder what will happen to it should we one day find that we no longer wish to harvest these beasts for food."

Jem nodded. "Like if we find they are smarter than we originally thought."

Til frowned at that. "I don't think that will be the case. I've been doing this for twelve years, and I pay close attention to the science involved. Orx have been studied to death. Their brains, their bodies, their habits, their limited social structures, and their capabilities. They do not meet the criteria for intelligence on any level above what they have always been assigned. They're animals."

"But we haven't been able to study them as closely as we might need to in order to determine that, have we? They won't be captured alive, and their young perish quickly in captivity."

Til looked adamant. "Yet they have been examined in minute detail in their physical forms. Biologists have all agreed that their brains are not complex enough for high-order intelligence."

"But some people say they're smarter than we think," Jem persisted.

The older man finally smiled. "You've been watching too many sea adventures on the view, lad. Orx are apex predators in this environment, used to being top dog. They are superb hunters, and elusive as prey. But they have not demonstrated so much as one iota of understanding of humans, other than to have learned that we are even more dangerous than they are. Your father's mountain beasts have learned the same thing, and no one is claiming they are secretly plotting against us in their spare time."

Jem laughed at that. "So you think the story of orx attacking Chregar is wrong?"

"I didn't say that. But a change in behavior is not an automatic indication of intelligence. Life adapts to new situations all the time. My primary argument against orx being intelligent is that if they were, they would not have waited five hundred years to take a stand against us."

"But something is going on."

"I agree. But we don't know what yet, and so we wait." Til pointed at the new mount aft of their position, with the mounted laser head, that Mister Sharples and Mila had installed at Jem's suggestion. "I happen to think that was a good idea, under the circumstances. Taking precautions is a sign of intelligent thinking."

Jem grinned, and then moved closer to the man as he began to describe the harpoon guns and their interaction with the display. "You already know something about this, I take it?"

"Yes, sir. I had access to my godfather's visual manuals, some of which covered this equipment."

Til smiled. "Okay...first thing. Please call me Til. The only people we call 'sir' around here are Master Terpin and Mister Sharples, and that's simply an acknowledgement of both men's experience at sea."

"Okay. It's just the way I was raised."

The man laughed. "It's the way we were all raised, Jem. There's that revised cultural ethic again. But in a working environment, among crew, it is not needed." He nodded. "I usually play that by ear, myself, and use the honorific mostly before I've been introduced to someone, and for the truly advanced in age. Now let's look at this hunting head here."

Til patted the compact device, which was scarcely a half-meter in diameter. "You have four different devices within the revolving head. Each can be brought to aim in under a second. The computer aligns the desired head with the barrel, which provides initial guidance. The barrel contains a low-power electromagnetic rail gun, and the output velocity can be regulated by the computer. A simple air injector forces the projectile into the rail gun."

Jem nodded. "I know the thing is fast."

"It's definitely that." Til tapped the cylinder, and then touched the mount beneath. "This is all made from ironwood. The mount is bolted directly into the ironwood framework of the deck supports beneath us, using ironwood fasteners. Each mount is rated to handle fifty-five tons of lateral force, and that does not include a fifty-percent safety margin built in. But it needs that kind of strength, to be completely dependable and safe for this kind of work." He smiled. "Frankly, there isn't an orx alive that could break an ironwood mount, so the ratings they give them are more for the engineers than for you and me."

He next patted the four slimmer barrels beneath the main barrel, mounted side-by-side in a row, and which were a part of the mount itself. There was a small head at the back of each barrel, through which finely-braided black lines as thick as Jem's little finger exited, rolled around glistening runners, and disappeared downward into holes in the base of the mount.

"These contain the capture lances. Each head has four, so that - with eight mounts on each side of the ship - you have thirty-two capture lines. You won't need them all for a single orx, ever, and for most captures of average orx you will only need one mount. I usually run two mounts for any orx that masses over fifteen tons, just so there's a safety factor."

Jem nodded. "How will I know if I have speared an orx over fifteen tons?"

Til patted the mount again, and then pointed at the large curved display. "Strain gauges on each mount record the amount of lateral force being applied along the capture lines.
Believe me, you'll know very quickly."

"Okay." Jem indicated the row of mounts. "If I only need two even for a big orx, why do we have so many mounts on each side of the ship?"

"We have eight mounts because, once the capture lines go out from any one head, that head is committed to the capture of the one speared orx. There have been situations in the past where the ship has run up on several orx at once, or a large family unit, as many as eight or nine orx. The extra heads are there so that the hunt can continue once capture lines from one head have been fired."

"Is that common, to find a family unit in one spot?"

"Not really. We don't harvest immature orx, ever. The sonar can identify the size of an orx with great accuracy, and the returns for those too young to harvest will appear as red circles with a yellow letter 'X' inside. These will not be targeted, and you need not worry about them. But some orx stay with the family unit well into maturity, and their size will easily give them away. It's not uncommon to find several adult bulls or cows still moving along with the family elders and the youngsters."

Jem frowned. "I wish they were called something other than families."

Til laughed, but nodded. "I understand, believe me. Orx family units have a tendency to flee immediately, to protect the youngsters, even though we never target them. And once you are in an ice field, it's easy enough for them to escape. Lone adult orx are common - or at least, they have been up until now - because once an orx is large enough to be able to fend for itself, they tend to hunt alone so that they do not have to share. Orx have healthy appetites, and four or five of them hunting together can decimate an entire super-school of fish and still be hungry. So they spread out, so that each gets a full belly. They can stay in contact with each other over vast distances using low-frequency calls, and so even if they range far and wide, they still can get back together at the end of the day."

Jem nodded. "Okay, I'm with you so far."

"Great. Now, let's look at the different projectiles we have on the cylinder head. You have drogues, shockers, prods, and trackers. We'll take them in order of use, okay?"

Jem nodded.

Til smiled. "If you're on the open sea, you won't often need a tracker. Our sonar is quite efficient enough to track orx anywhere in clear water. But among pack ice, the orx like to slip beneath the ice and escape. Sonar can lose them in an ice field, so if you are pursuing in ice, always hit the target with a tracker first thing. That implants a tiny transmitter in the beast's thick hide, which we can easily follow, no matter where it goes under the ice."

"Right. I remember reading that the range was fifty kilometers, too."

"Yes. Once you get a tracker on an orx, he will eventually be yours, providing he is not beneath thick pack ice where we cannot reach him." Til frowned, patted another head. "Once you're on top of an orx, you want to slow him down. While Vespris is faster on a straight-line course than any orx, the beast's water jets make them far more maneuverable, and they can change direction in an instant. We cannot match that maneuverability, and so you want to deprive the orx of as much of that ability to change direction as is possible. So you hit them with a dozen or so drogues right away. These projectiles bury themselves in the hide and deploy barbs to anchor themselves. Then they fire out a tiny carbon fiber filament line, at the end of which is deployed a parachute a meter in diameter, made of a single layer of graphene. The chutes are self opening, and they stretch in response to being pulled trough the water, increasing the volume of water they capture. As an orx moves about, their drag factor is considerable. A dozen successful implants provide a ninety percent reduction in an orx's mobility factor."

Jem stared at the harpoon gun with new admiration. "Hearing about these things is one thing, but seeing them in action - I can't wait to see how it all goes."

Til patted him on the shoulder and smiled. "Takes me back to my own first day, Jem. But you'll see them in action, soon enough."

Jem nodded. "And the prods? That's for when they try to dive, right?"

"Exactly. Prods are very simple. Orx can fill their air bladders and dive to depths of three hundred meters or more, which makes them much harder to capture. We use prods to bring them back up. These are simple munitions, designed to pass the orx and dive beneath him. At that point, micro-charges are detonated, which results in an overpressure wave and an extremely unpleasant acoustical pressure wave, both of which are intolerable for the orx. They come up very quickly when you seed the water beneath them with prods."

"You can also fire them beyond an orx, to turn him back towards the ship?"

"Yes. The magazine for the prods holds the most rounds, as the munition is the tiniest of the four. You'll have a hundred shots, and find you will never need even close to that many."

"I got it. So these first three devices can be considered pre-capture tools, then?"

"Very good, Jem. Yes, all of these are used before you get lines on an orx, preferably to bring the beast nearer to Vespris. And now for that. Once you are within range of an orx, you fire your capture lines. These are self guided, but they only have a range of about a thousand meters due to the limitations of the capture line length. It takes a substantial amount of force to deploy even a tiny rocket-powered missile dragging a kilometer of lightweight carbon fiber line. The rail guns give them great impetus, but they lose some part of that forward momentum once they enter the water, and the rockets are so small that they exhaust their propellant very quickly. A thousand meters is all we can manage and still strike the orx with enough force to bury the missile head deeply into the flesh. Once there, the head deploys barbs, and is seriously hard to dislodge. Once you have four lines into an orx, you can start reeling him in."

"I imagine he will not come willingly, "Jem said. "That's what the shockers are for, right?"

"Right. Once you implant capture lines, you hit the beast with a half-dozen shockers. These are also self-guided once they are in the water, and propel themselves deeply into the flesh of the head of the beast, and immediately discharge their superconducting capacitors. The voltage and amperage is sufficient to fry the brain of most orx, and then you are simply reeling in the dead carcass."

"Couldn't you shock them first, and then hit them with capture lines?"

"Yes, you could. But an orx uses its air bladder to assist with buoyancy, and upon death they constrict and expel their air loads immediately. An orx carcass can sink unbelievably quickly under the right circumstances, and you want to avoid losing one for that reason. Nothing more senseless than to kill an animal and then fail to harvest it."

Jem grimaced. "It is pretty grisly, isn't it?"

Til nodded. "I actually like what I do, Jem, and I can because I see the necessity of what we are doing. We have to eat. Orx are a food animal, in my book." He sighed then. "But do I enjoy the killing part? No. I wish there was another way. But colonists on Benteen were set up to eat the closest chemically-matching foods. Fully ninety-percent of the plants and animals available here are toxic in some way to the human body. The rest would be unhealthy in an Earther's belly, and not nutritious enough to keep him going. Our ancestors were subtly altered at the genetic level to accommodate us to what little can be safely eaten here." He turned, and gazed out over the sea. "So orx are food, and that's the way it is."

"And you don't think they're somehow smarter than we have realized?"

"No. Life forms on this world are uniformly unpleasant, Jem. Only the fact that nature here somehow missed the concept of wings has allowed humans to even consider settling the place at all. If some of the things that live in the warm lands could fly, I think humans would have moved on to find another world to colonize. There has been no sign of an intelligent species among all the killers this world boasts. Some pretty crafty animals, yes. But craft is a necessary survival trait here. We have seen no evidence of creatures like us, that's for sure."

"I've read all that stuff, too," Jem said. "Our biology people say there's nothing here like us. But sea life is a lot harder to study than land life. I just hope there isn't something they missed."

Til shook his head. "If orx are intelligent, I haven't seen it in their behavior, as they seem not to have learned anything about evading us in five centuries. Most higher animals think in some fashion; but complex thought is not evident in orx behavior. They basically swim, eat, and multiply, and they're surrounded by only slightly less nasty sea life that are all doing the same thing. It's an extremely harsh and competitive environment. Our technology has made us the nastiest guy at the dinner table, and only that fact has allowed us to thrive here."

Jem grinned. "That, and staying away from the equator."

Til's eyes widened briefly, and he laughed. "Definitely, that." He nodded. "But someday, given enough time for our numbers to increase, and our technological base to expand, I can see us even being able to hold our own there, too. The chief problems with the life in the warm lands and seas are their size, power, ferocity, and numbers. Even with our best weapons, the sheer numbers of the enemy there are too much to counter with our current ability to project force."

Jem frowned. "My dad says we will not be able to move off our continent to any of the others for another five hundred years, at the least."

"That's a good guess," Til agreed. "We've basically mastered the coastline of New Australia, and the northern sea around it, though our numbers are still not enough to call the dominance permanent. But give us another five centuries, and this will be a human world, albeit still a wild one."

Jem laughed. "I've been in the mountains, and pretty far inland with my dad. If you saw what it was like there, you wouldn't be so quick to say that we're in control here."

"We are in control here," Til reaffirmed. "New Australia, at least, is safe for humans in the places we live. Yes, the southern coastal towns need walls between them and the inland areas. But those walls have been steadily moving outward since day one. Eventually they'll all meet, and then we'll have won."

"The Compact on the Right to Life forbids us to exterminate the things here we don't like," Jem reminded.

The shotsman looked surprised. "Oh, I agree with that one hundred percent. What will eventually happen, Jem, is that the walls we currently live behind will one day be around the inland, instead of around us. Our lives are totally wrapped up in the coastal and mountain areas. The great central plains and forests, where most of New Australia's nastiest life forms live, will one day become a preserve. Only the northern ironwood forests are of use to us, and it's too cold there for most of the nastiest inland lifeforms to survive. The only beasts we have to compete with there are the same ones that live in the mountains. And we've been pretty good at dealing with them."

"So far."

Til gave a brief nod. "Yes. So far. But they do avoid humans, anyway."

Jem grinned. "So far."

The shotsman rolled his eyes. "Are you going to let me win one of these, or not?"

"Yes, sir," Jem returned, grinning.

Til opened his mouth, closed it again, and then smiled. "It's going to be a pleasure working with you, Jem."

* * * * * * *

"I'm learning a lot," Nico said enthusiastically, as they munched on the mid-day meal. "Mya has a lot of experience. How she can go off and get married is beyond me."

"I guess she and her bondmate have a plan," Jem considered. "A lot of people want kids. They need to devote time to that, at least for a number of years. How would it be if your parents had had you, and then run off to sea for months at a time afterwards?"

"I'd have had a difficult time, I imagine. Maybe a good idea we have rules about raising kids, huh?"

"That's why they're there," Jem agreed.

Nico smiled at him across the table. "And how are you doing with Til?"

"I like him. And, like Mya, he has a lot of experience. I'm learning, too."

Nico gave a little sigh. "Jem...whichever of us gets this post...can we still share a cabin together?"

Jem paused in his eating. "Sure. Did you think that would split us up?"

"I didn't know." Nico smiled. "I'm happy it won't."

Jem looked around the room. Til and Mya had a table to themselves, so that they could discuss their next steps in training the boys. Jem had a feeling that the two were trying their very best to see that both Jem and Nico got the same level of training, so that the decision on who got the shotsman position would be a fair one.

Those two were engaged in talk, and not watching. Jem leaned closer to Nico and lowered his voice. "Do you want a relationship with me?"

Nico only wasted a moment looking surprised. "I think I'd like that, yes."

"Okay. I think I'd like that, too."

"Is it that simple?"

"It is, for me."

Nico sighed. "And you've never done this before?"

"No. I've been close to a couple of people, and I've wanted to...but we never got to this point. Have you?"

"No. I mean, not really." Nico shook his head. "I've never been attracted to anyone so quickly or so strongly, as I am to you."

Jem had to agree with that. His brief crushes on others had started slow and built. But he had hit it off with Nico amazingly quickly. That had to be a signal that this was special.

It felt special.

Jem smiled. "We'll talk more about it later, okay?"

Nico looked pleased. "Okay."

After lunch, they were back to their training. Til ran Jem through a mock hunt, running practice routines in the display, and watching how Jem dealt with them. They were only partially true to a real hunt, as Vespris did not actually move as the display showed, nor were real capture tools wasted firing at phantoms. But how Jem reacted was shown in the display, and it was exciting for him, and he could almost imagine the great beast below, trying to elude them.

In three runs he made two captures, with the third phantom orx escaping only because it dived beneath thick ice in the display before Jem could get a tracker on it. Til grinned at him after the last run, and nodded sympathetically. "I've been there myself, Jem. One thing you must never do is berate yourself over the one that got away. We all lose them in ice, at one time or another."

"That one took off very quickly," Jem replied. "He was in the sonar display for less than five seconds before he vanished."

"Correct. To be honest, a veteran shotsman would probably have had time to get a tracker on him. But considering you're new at this, you've done extremely well. Let's do a few more practice runs, okay?"

Jem grinned, feeling good about himself. "Okay,"

This time, Jem was quick to tag the orx with a tracker, as the display for the run was littered with fragmented pack ice. Again the beast dived, and disappeared from the sonar; but this time a clear tracking signal allowed the vessel to maneuver around the ice, and the eventual outcome was another capture. Jem took a breath, and grinned as the captured mock beast was hoisted aboard Vespris.

Til looked pleased. "You definitely learn from your mistakes, Jem. Well done."

On the other side of the deck, Mya was running Nico through similar practices. Jem looked over, and saw Nico looking his way. He waved and grinned, and the other boy responded in kind. Jem sighed, looking forward to their discussion later.

He was now at the time of life where he craved close companionship. Pursuing a relationship with any of the few girls and boys he had liked before had been nearly impossible to accomplish, due to Jem's rigorous hunting schedule with his father. Having someone right here on board ship to share time with, whose schedule matched Jem's, might prove to be the fateful situation he had been seeking.

Til noted the exchange, and smiled. "You like Nico, I take it?"

"Yes. We're considering a relationship."

Til nodded. "You two seem to work very well together. I hope that will maintain after the selection is decided."

"It will." Jem smiled. "We've both decided to take whichever position comes to us. It isn't permanent, and we both know that."

Til sighed. "Ah, I'm glad. Happiness in any line of work is important, in my book. Vespris excels because her crew is generally very content. Master Terpin runs a tight ship, but a happy one, as they used to say in the old days."

Jem laughed at that. "You seem to have an interest in history."

"Oh, I do. Humans have been on the seas for a very long time, Jem. The nautical history of Old Earth is simply endlessly fascinating."

"I know. I read once that ancient ships were entirely crewed by men. I've wondered what they did for companionship before the Compact was signed, and everyone's rights assured?"

Til laughed. "Before the Compact was signed, it was still illegal in some Earthly jurisdictions for same-gender relationships to be formed. But they had them, nonetheless. Humans have always displayed a willingness to defy laws they consider unjust."

"They used to have some funny beliefs back then," Jem agreed. "The Compact on the Right to Life is the most important document that humans have ever written."

"There we are in complete accord, Jem. All life has a fundamental right to exist. All intelligent lifeforms have a right to freedom, happiness, and security in their beliefs, so long as those beliefs do not threaten the safety or security of others. Once it was agreed that humans held the top spot on Old Earth, it became obvious that we were bound by conscience to act in a custodial manner towards our planet, and all the life upon it. It took some doing, but the Compact has become so central to our way of thinking that, even here, one-hundred and ninety light years from our point of origin, we still embrace it as the guiding force in our lives." Til smiled. "That's that revised cultural ethic thing, once more."

Jem looked over at Nico again. The other boy was engrossed in something that Mya was saying, but he seemed to feel Jem's gaze, and his eyes lifted, and his face lit in a brief smile.

Jem sighed. "I cannot imagine not being allowed to pursue a relationship with someone I am attracted to, and who is attracted to me, based solely on the fact that we are both the same gender. It makes no sense."

"No." Til sighed, and patted Jem on one shoulder. "We've come a long way, Jem. First on our own world, and then out among the stars. Maturity is a battle to attain, but I do think we are getting very close to it these days."

"Let's hope. We still don't know why contact was lost with Old Earth."

Til rolled one shoulder. "Perils of interstellar travel, I think. It wouldn't be the first time that the nullspace gravitational Righoff lines between parts of space have shifted. Remember Brinker Two-Four? The very first Earth colony. Those people had barely been settled on that planet before there was a shift in the Righoff lines, and the route from Earth to their star system closed down. They were left on their own for over a century with far less than we had when our contact was broken, before new lines were discovered, and a route reestablished. Yet they managed to survive." He shook his head. "It's been three hundred years since the last ship from Old Earth arrived. We are three times farther out from Earth than Brinker-Two-Four was. Reestablishing a Righoff route here may take some time. But they'll be back, eventually. I feel they will, Jem."

Jem looked briefly at the cloud-banded heavens above them, and nodded. "My father says the same thing. It is not in the nature of our kind to abandon those in distress."

Till laughed. "Are we in distress?"

"Maybe. If something happens to threaten our orx hunting. It looks to be a hard winter coming. We'll need all the supplies we can get."

"We'd just be vegetarians for the winter, after the mountain meats were depleted. The thermal houses are overflowing with grains, vegetables, and fruits. We'd survive, Jem. Have no doubts about that."

Jem nodded, and grinned. "I'm willing to wager that most people would be ready to jump barehanded on the first siffle that came into view after the snows retreated, though."

"Oh, no doubt. We're omnivores by habit and constitution, and meats have always been a large part of our diets. But we can survive on what we grow, even if we don't entirely like it."

They ran several more practice rounds, and Jem performed well on all of them. Til seemed pleased, and by the time the afternoon had grown long, Jem had racked up a very enviable score of successes.

"You're a natural," Til told him, as they shut down the practice panels in the big display. "If Nico is anything like you, making a choice is going to be very difficult."

That made Jem feel good inside, although he did toss a quick look across the deck at Nico. He trusted the other boy to be good on his word that the outcome of their competition would not change things between them. Yet Jem could not suppress a small feeling of guilt that he had performed so well. Better than Nico? Only a comparison of their reaction charts would show, and that was something that Til and Mya would not share until it was time for the selection to be made.

Jem took a deep breath and released it slowly, deliberately relaxing himself. He glanced at the sky, and then at the sullen-looking sea around them. Vespris still cut a nearly silent path across the water, indifferent to the nature of the world about her. The ice had closed in a bit, with more of the floating chunks passing by on either side, though there was still more than enough room between them for the ship to travel without reducing her speed. They were far to the north of New Australia now, in waters that should be thick with orx.

And yet, they had not spotted a single one.

Jem looked at Til. "With all we've been doing, it's just registering with me that we haven't seen a real orx yet."

The man frowned, and also quickly surveyed the surrounding sea. "It is a little odd. I don't think I've ever come this far north without seeing a single one of the beasts." He shrugged then. "There's still time. We haven't been out a week yet, and I've had voyages in the past where it took that long to encounter the first orx. We'll see them before long. We're in their home waters now."

"What happens if we come upon them at night?"

"Moira has the con then. She would alert us, and we would report here to our stations as quickly as possible. Daylight is not a requirement for capturing orx. It makes it easier on us humans, because that's the way our eyesight works. But to our machines, one is as good as the other."

Jem had not considered that until now. Hunting in the dark? "How will we know to report?"

Til laughed. "You won't be able to miss it. A rather insistent tone will play in your cabin. Moira will announce the sonar hit, and request you to report."

Jem looked up then, and saw Nico and Mya coming towards them. Mya waved at Til. "Are you finished for the day? If not, we won't disturb you."

Til smiled. "No, we're about done here."

Nico came to stand next to Jem, and the two smiled at each other. Til watched them a moment, smiled himself, and then took Mya by the arm and started her towards the weather door to belowdecks. "I want to make a suggestion or two on the next phase of the training, if you don't mind."

"Since when have I minded? You talk, and I'll argue."

They both laughed, and then their voices faded, and then Jem and Nico were alone.

Jem sighed, and moved to the railing, and leaned against it, feeling the cold breeze against his face. If it got much colder, they would need to wear protection for their skin every time they came outside. Everyone had a polar mask for winter use, a thin membrane only several molecules thick, that fit the face like a glove and was nearly invisible. Jem's had served him well in the mountains with his father, and it would serve him well here, too.

Nico came to stand beside him, and the two boys looked out upon the gray seas. In the near distance, large chunks of pancake ice swept past, while the far distance held the taller, more mountainous shapes of true icebergs, more sedately making their ways south on the current. Beyond even them were gray mists full of rain, lowered from distant clouds, that spun and curled over the horizon like wraiths.

"It's beautiful," Nico said, his voice just above a whisper. "I've waited a long time to be here."

Jem nodded. He had seen pictures of the seas on Old Earth, calm and sparkling beneath a sky an unheard of blue in color. Although he had seen wisps of blue in the sky of Benteen before, he could not recall a single day where that odd color had stretched from horizon to horizon, as it obviously had done on Old Earth. Jem had thought the picture beautiful, but in an utterly alien fashion - one that did not speak to him of home.

The skies of home were every shade of gray and white, and sometimes a deep yellow or gold. On occasion he had even seen wisps of red at sunrise or sunset. But never a blue sky, anywhere.

Nico leaned against his shoulder, and smiled at him. "Feel like a game of Marksman after dinner?'

"Sure. I need the practice to keep up with you."

"I'm looking forward to our talk," Nico continued.

Jem turned to look at the other boy, could see the interest and liking in Nico's eyes. It made him want to smile, while at the same time filling him with a certain awe that this had happened between them so quickly. Jem had come to the sea to find...what? He had some half-formed notions of adventure and exploration, both backed by a deep desire to know this world and learn its secrets. That Nico was one more secret, one more adventure, waiting to be explored, delighted him. Who would have thought this could happen to him?

"I am, too," Jem said. "I think there will be much to say."

Nico smiled, and gave a little sigh. "Are you hungry?"


Nico nodded. "Then let us eat, and then retire to our cabin to play the game."

Jem laughed, seeing more than one game to be played in their future. "I'm with you. Let's go."

* * * * * * *

Jem sat on the small sofa before the view in their cabin, and fidgeted while Nico took his shower. Jem had gone first, washing himself carefully beneath the warm spray from the shower head, and then had dressed himself in a comfortable one-piece bed suit, powder blue in color, designed for sleeping. It consisted of a short-legged bottom of soft, stretchy material, which continued midway up his torso and then split into two straps that went up and over his shoulders and down his backside, to blend back with the bottom just above the base of his spine.

They were wonderfully accommodating to sleep, feeling barely there at all, and easy to get into. You simply stepped into the legs and pulled them up, and shrugged the stretchable straps over your shoulders. What was equally wonderful was that they disguised nothing, hugging the body fondly over every curve and detail, leaving only the barest minimum to the imagination.

And they also could be removed just as quickly as they were put on, which Jem was considering right now, among other things.

His head was abuzz with conflicting thoughts and emotions, all clamoring for his attention at the same time. Was this happening too quickly? Should they have gotten to know each other better? Would he be able to do this without messing up? Would Nico like him as much as he hoped? And would he like Nico as much as he hoped, too?

Jem wavered back and forth between doubt and assurance, knowing at some primary level that this was what he wanted, but feeling on other planes of his being that this was the most reckless thing he had ever done. People's emotions were not something you played with. Jem's every sense claimed an interest in Nico, and told him at the same time that the interest was returned. But some small sense of doubt over what they were doing refused to stop nagging him, and Jem had to close his eyes and take a breath, and force his nerves to quiet and leave his thoughts alone.

You'll be fine. Stop worrying.

He heard the shower cut off, and took another breath, nodded to himself, and turned his eyes to the door to the head. Nico would be drying himself now, first his body, and then his hair. And then maybe he'd run a brush through it, to put it back into place. Next he would be brushing his teeth, and perhaps seeing the same nerves that Jem was feeling, in his own eyes within the mirror. And then he would be stepping into his own bed suit - a bolder color than Jem's, a vibrant crimson with gold trim - and then he would be opening the door--

The door to the head opened, and Nico stepped out. He looked over at Jem, and Jem did see the faint traces of nerves and doubt in Nico's eyes. It made him smile, and relax. If Nico felt the same way as Jem, then they simply had to be doing the right thing.

The other boy took a breath, bit momentarily at his bottom lip, and then walked over and stopped before Jem, and smiled down at him. "Ready to play?"

Jem could not help but to stare at the other. Every detail of Nico's body was there to be inspected. It was beautiful, and exciting, and made Jem's heart beat faster within his chest. He nodded, and patted the sofa cushion next to him. "Have a seat."

The cabin had been designed for two occupants, and so had the sofa. But the cushions were broad enough for comfort, so that two people seated there would not feel crowded together. Unless they wished to be, that is.

Nico sat down closer to Jem than he needed to, so that their shoulders touched, and leaned forward and picked up the two controllers from the low table before them. He handed one to Jem, smiling as he did so, and Jem took it, smiling back. They placed the controllers on their heads, gently pressing the sensors against their temples and foreheads, and turned towards the view.

It activated, and avatars of themselves appeared, facing a long, darkened corridor that vanished into the distance.

"Ready?" Nico asked, and gave a gentle press of his upper arm against Jem's.

Jem nodded. "Ready."

Their avatars proceeded carefully down the corridor. While it had looked straight and infinite in length at the start, it quickly branched out and became a maze of crooked passages and sudden corners, each filled with strange growths hanging down the walls. They caught glimpses of things moving out of the corners of their eyes, but when Jem would look directly at them, he saw nothing.

Mostly. Every now and then something small skittered by in the distance, showing varying amounts of teeth and claws in passing. These creatures could be dangerous in numbers, but always ran away when on their own. Not worth wasting ammo over, definitely.

Marksman was not a complex game. It was descended from a long line of similar games, called shooters, where the premise was simple: shoot first, or die. The maze was filled with adversaries, both animal and alien, each one dangerous enough to cause death in a second. To win required concentration, quick reflexes, and patience.

Jem had never had time for such games, finding real life much more exciting. But he could easily understand how a townie boy might find such a game diverting, and had developed some small respect for it after playing a few rounds. Nico was amazing at the game, and a willing and patient instructor.

They each carried a side arm, much like the one they carried daily, with a 100-round clip of pinhead-sized explosive ammo. If you hit something living with one of them, that was usually it. Animals...monsters was the better term...died fairly easily. Some of the aliens were armored, and you had to hit them more than once, or in a critical spot, even as they were firing back at you. Jem's avatar wore body armor of its own, but it would only absorb so many hits before it failed. And there were the occasional monsters that had natural armor, or which were simply so fast or so powerful that one hit would not stop them. But you had to be aware of your ammo usage, because one clip was all you had.

The goal of the game was simply to get to the exit of the maze without dying, or running out of ammo, which was pretty much the same as dying. Nico had played the game for years, and his reflexes had seemed just unbelievable to Jem the first time they had played together. But the more Jem had played, the more he came to realize that he was sensing the approach of an enemy before it was actually visible, so that he had the barest part of a second of warning before an attack ensued. He began to do better, and Nico continued to give him tips on what to look for, and how to respond.
The game could be played competitively, with each player trying to exit the maze before the other; or, it could be played jointly, with two or more players joining forces to conquer the maze together. So far they had played together, as Jem learned the game. Nico had shown no interest yet in competing against Jem, and Jem had found that he felt the same way. So far, most of the enjoyment Jem had received from the game had been from playing it with the other boy.

The average round lasted about an hour, and one round was all they had played each evening, leaving time to read and talk. Jem was delighted to find that Nico was not a danger drama addict, and that he had no desire to be glued to the display view all evening, every evening, watching some of the ridiculous adventures and thrillers that so many townies seemed to love. Nico was more like Jem in what he liked than he was different, and that easy blending of their interests had quickly drawn them closer.

Marksman was never the same twice. It was a very intelligent game, synthesizing new conditions and new adversaries with every play. Still, there was something common about all the scenarios, in that Jem could somehow feel an attack was about to happen. In this way he had come to at least be able to hold his own with Nico, if not quite match the other boy's amazing reflexes.

"There," Nico said, pointing to a side corridor. "That one, I think."

Jem had learned to trust Nico's instincts on direction. He had an uncanny knack for determining the right sequence of passages to lead them from the maze. Jem's avatar nodded in response to his own gesture, and followed Nico's avatar into the new passage.

Something jumped at them from a dark alcove in one wall, and Jem had barely managed to bring his pistol up when Nico fired. The thing, a riot of tentacles and teeth bulleting towards them, took the round squarely and exploded, sending gobs of flesh against the floor, walls, and ceiling of the passage. Dark blood spattered everywhere, even onto the body armor of their avatars, but both boys ignored it.

Jem grinned, and nudged Nico with his elbow. "You're so quick!"

Nico laughed. "Only at some things. Other things I like to make last."

Jem couldn't stop his grin from going even wider, but didn't say anything else.

They proceeded down the passage, and then paused when they heard a strange mumbling, roaring sound, coming from ahead. Nico's avatar looked over at Jem's, and briefly canted its head forward, as if listening, and then started walking again. Jem's avatar followed, while he also listened to the sound as it grew louder and louder. There was enough light to see, but the viewing was definitely less than desirable, and so both of them were surprised when the passage suddenly opened up into a huge cavern, with glistening stalactites hanging from the darkness above. A bridge appeared before them, long and narrow, and with low rails; and from which beneath, down within the chasm it spanned, came the distant sound of rushing water.

They edged up to the start of the bridge and peered over the edge of the chasm. Far, far below, a barely visible torrent rushed by, jumping and leaping, mostly visible by the plumes of white froth it kicked up as it cascaded over a series of sharp, rocky drops. Jem gasped at the height, the view so realistic that it gave him a moment of vertigo.

Nico stepped back beside him and let the air whoosh out of his lungs. "Phew. I've been playing this game for a long time, and I've never seen anything quite like this. Must have been some great new stuff in the last update."

Jem let his eyes travel across the span, and nodded. "Looks like a trap to me. We get out to the center, and then get rushed from both ends."

Nico's avatar smiled at him. "You learn fast, Jem. That's undoubtedly what will happen."

"So do we cross?"

"We have to. There's no other way. Just keep your eyes open."

They started across, walking at a brisk pace. The sound of the water rushing below echoed ominously about the cavern, a guarantee that they would not hear anything coming at them. Nico led the way, while Jem watched their rear.

Despite Nico's assurance that it was indeed a trap, they got most of the way across before anything happened. They were a scant fifteen meters from the end of the crossing when something large appeared, moving rapidly along the far edge of the chasm, obviously intent on cutting them off. Jem couldn't see exactly what it was; just that it moved incredibly fast and was a lot larger than they were. He cast an eye back over his shoulder, and was mystified that their retreat was still secure at this point.

And so he was witness to the half dozen large, many-legged creatures that suddenly descended on fine, glistening strands from the stalactites above them, to land on the bridge, sever their links, and charge towards them.

"Behind us!" Jem yelled, turning and falling to one knee. He brought up his pistol and fired one shot at the leading beast, only to see it explode against a thick, chitinous shell. The creature slowed, and a crater appeared in the armor; but then the beast surged forward, followed by its mates. Jem understood then that he would need to hit the exact same spot several times, and took careful aim for the next shots. He let loose three, and the charging creature briefly disappeared in a cloud of white smoke. That smoke quickly parted, to reveal the downed carcass of the beast sliding toward him. It stopped then, lifeless, briefly blocking the way of those behind it.

Jem chanced a look over his shoulder, and saw Nico also down on one knee, firing at a tall horror now coming at him across the bridge. Whatever it was, it was all black, showing only the glistening arc of a huge mouthful of teeth at the top of its column-like body. Nico's shots were slowing the beast, but by no means stopping it.

That was all the look back that Jem dared. The fallen beast's follower had wasted no time in extending a set of great, claw-covered appendages, which slapped harshly against the dead beast, and then bit in. With one mighty surge of motion the dead beast was lifted, and thrown over the rail. And then the horde was once again racing towards him.

Jem took aim again, steadied his arm, and released another four shots. Again there was a series of explosions, just barely audible over the rush of water from below, another cloud of smoke, and then another lifeless body blocking the way. Jem again tossed a look back over his shoulder. The great beast confronting Nico had stopped now, its huge mouth chomping at the air, while sections of its lower body were being blasted away by Nico's pistol. Nico had moved closer to the creature, leaving a gap between himself and Jem, and Jem briefly wondered if that was wise, before turning back to confront his own attackers.

The next one in line had just tossed the body of the former leader, and once again the remaining force was charging forward. Jem again placed four careful shots, and again the way was briefly blocked. And once again he turned his head to look back at Nico. The great column of the dark creature's body seemed to be leaning forward, ready to topple. And then it did just that, the great mouth full of teeth opening in a death spasm as the beast fell.

Nico jumped to his feet and danced backwards away from the falling body, and Jem was just about to turn back to confront his own attackers, when he spied a writhing black shape at the rail of the bridge behind Nico. Another tentacle appeared, and then another, wrapping themselves about the thick railing; and then they tightened, and a great, gray beast hoisted itself over the railing from below and landed on the bridge between Jem and Nico.

For a second, Jem froze in disbelief. He could sense his own attackers to his rear, closing in again. But the new creature had turned towards Nico, and that boy's avatar was about to dance backwards straight into its waiting claws. There was no time to think, no time to waste. Jem stood and swung about, took aim, and fired at the back of the creature about to grab Nico's avatar. The beast shrieked terribly as the rounds exploded against it, and writhed, and then fell and lay still.

At the same moment, something powerful grabbed Jem's avatar from behind, and lifted it high. There was a cracking sound, which echoed as if inside Jem's own skull...and then darkness.

Beside him on the sofa, Nico whipped off his controller and turned to face him. "I don't believe you did that!"

Jem blinked, his own sight returning, and slowly reached up and pulled his own controller from his head. The display froze, and then went dark. The sound of the rushing water remained for a moment, and then, it, too, ebbed away.

For a moment, Jem and Nico just stared at each other. Nico's eyebrows were knit together in shock and concern. His eyes moved slowly back and forth, looking first into Jem's left eye, and then his right.

Nico leaned forward, closed his eyes, and placed his forehead against Jem's.

"You gave your life, to save me," Nico whispered. He dropped the controller, and his hands came up to gently grasp the sides of Jem's head. "That was just...amazing."

" was all I could do," Jem stammered, still shocked, himself, at the turn of events.

Nico pressed his cheek against Jem's, causing Jem to gasp in his next breath. For a moment there was nothing in the world but that warm press of skin against skin; and then Nico pulled back and looked at him, his face so close now that there was only one possible thing Jem could do.

He kissed him.

Nico's eyes widened as he saw it coming; but then his hands pressed a little more firmly against Jem's cheeks, and then the other boy was giving as good as he got. Jem felt a surge within him, a sense of desire that he had never felt before. He laughed softly, and pushed his face against Nico's, let his hands caress Nico's shoulders; and then he was laying back and pulling at the other boy. Nico came willingly, climbing atop Jem as he lay back on the sofa and swung his legs up to stretch out.

The feel of Nico atop him caused a sudden throb in Jem's middle, and he wrapped his arms around the other boy and hugged him close.

Nico lifted his head a moment and kissed the tip of Jem's nose. "Wouldn't the bunk be better?"

Jem nodded, but was unwilling to break the spell that had settled upon them by getting up. He pulled the other boy back down against him, and rubbed his palms down the warmth of Nico's bare back. "Maybe...probably. But it can wait...until later."

Nico sighed. "Okay. What's next?" His voice was quiet, ready.

Jem gave a soft laugh, and squeezed Nico again. What, indeed? This was all as new to Jem as it was to Nico. The idea of that pleased Jem, though, that this was a now a voyage of discovery for them both.

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