Free Sample Chapter Fantasy Novel
EAST OF HELL
The swash of the nightsea surf shocked cold around Heineman's legs, and he thought the people on the boat had not seen him, thought he was going to be left behind, knew he should cry out but could not find his voice.
It was Atlanta, his sister, who was already aboard the boat. She was reaching out for him, extending her hand.
"Take this," said Heineman, passing up little boy Loki's model skyship.
Atlanta took the model, tossed it down by her feet, then reached down for Heineman and dragged him aboard. She had shed her gown of blue-green silk in favour of a pair of sweaty work overalls and a sloppy fisherman's jersey of raw wool. Heineman was still in his jungle shirt and his cotton trousers. He was fearfully glad he hadn't been wearing a suit he would never have had enough self-possession to think to change outfits.
Immediately he was aboard, Heineman tried to stand, thinking to wave to the folks on shore, to give them a good eyeful of presidential candidate Heineman.
"Sit down!" yelled Dug Mantis, his weightlifting cousin, skinmaster supreme.
Hammered by that voice, Heineman sat abruptly, huddling down beside Atlanta. She had recovered the model skyship and was showing it to one of the Gan, a stranger to Heineman, though maybe Dug Mantis worked with the fellow.
Nobody asked Heineman for help, and he would have been totally unable to give it in any case: to him, the prau was an intricated mystery of shadows and flaring light, of snaking ropes and rocking water, of ribbed wood and bags of canvas. The adaptive skins, hollow tubular creatures, pulsed rhythmically, excited by the prospect of diving, of melding with humans, of blood-feeding. Flaring light glowed on the whip-thin sensory stalks which fringed their tube-openings, and Heineman saw those stalks were writhing, data-gathering with a vengeance. It made him feel sick.
Confused by the boat, frightened by the skins, shocked by the failure of the miraculous ship from Barth Banchup Bakchakris, Heineman diligently played ballast as the sail was raised, and the prau began to make its way out to the Spliars, the pinnacle-rocks which lay offshore near the southern end of Eastbeach.
As they rocked through the waves, making for the Spliars, Dug Mantis gave orders, directing operations on the prau he commanded directly, and shouting to the accompanying vessels, ordering divers to get into skins and be ready for a quick descent. His voice was harsh, loud, confident. On land, Dug Mantis sometimes got into situations where he ended up looking like a fool, an overmuscled lout or an ignorant buffoon, but the sea was his element. He was a rock on which the waters broke.
This metaphorical rock, Heineman's cousin Dug Mantis, commanded the little Jubiladilia fleet out toward the literal rocks, the Spliars. As they drew near the Spliars, a strobe beacon burst into life above the wrecksite. When they came up with the strobe beacon, they found it was held by the hands of a vug. It was Zinjanthrop!
"You took your time," shouted Zinjanthrop, hanging in the air as a disembodied head and hands. "Right! Let's get to work!"
Heineman realized that, in the time it had taken the praus to creak their way out to the Spliars, Zinjanthrop must have had himself hustled to Eastport by rickshaw, must have entered the vug machine at La Lantis, and must have free-floated his way across the darkness of the Eastern Ocean to be in time to meet them. All Heineman could think was that the rickshaw wallah must have really sprinted.
"All boatmasters report to me!" sang out Zinjanthrop. "Report all divers down, all divers up!"
As part of the job of masterminding the wreck diving operation, the old man would keep track of who was on the surface and who was down below. That was a very important job and difficult. With multiple boats and multiple divers, it was all too easy to lose someone in a wreck dive, to forget they were down there. Heineman knew as much from anecdote, but he was only now starting to appreciate how much confusion was involved in the actuality of an emergency wreck dive.
The wrecked ship from Barth Banchup Bakchakris, Chalakanesia's first skyship wreck, lay in the depths below, spilling streams of air to the surface. The wreck was huge, its swelling illuminated by steady orange emergency lights and flash red wreck-beacons. Filtering up through the water, the diffused light gave the impression that there was a great luminous monster down there in the deep.
The Zuzu Magore was intact, even Heineman was sufficiently sea-smart to tell that much. A little rubbish and wreckage floated in the bob and buck of the nightsea waves, including such incongruous oddments as a plastic chamberpot and an orange, but if the ship had torn itself in pieces there would have been much, much more. It was intact, then and, looking down, Heineman guessed that its top was probably barely three fathoms beneath the sea's surface.
"Twelve fathoms of water here," sang out Zinjanthrop. "Boatmasters, sing your divers!"
Then the boatmasters began to cry out names, each name accompanied by a splash as a diver hit the night sea, descending to depths made luminous by the bloody lights of the skyship's flaring wreck beacons and the liquid amber of its emergency lights. Twelve fathoms was well within the safe working limit of divers who owed genes to the Mer, particularly when their own resources were supplemented by those of the adaptive skins. But depth was not the danger. The dangers would be from torn metal, burst steam pipes did they have steam pipes in a skyship like this? and ropes and other debris, and caustic chemicals and oil.
Don't even think about the sharks!
So thought Heineman.
"Hold this!" said Dug Mantis, passing Heineman a diving rope. "Don't let go! Pay it out! Don't let it get slack! Hold onto it until I tell you otherwise!"
Heineman nodded. He understood. Dug Mantis was going to dive himself, and the rope Heineman was holding was going to be his safety rope. Dug's torso was already shrouded with the black tube of an adaptive skin. Dug's silverwhite skin gleamed in the night, visible through the vetavetch, the tailored holes cut in the adaptive skin at the level of his floating ribs.
"Heineman," said Dug, with a note of warning in his voice. "Don't screw up. I'm relying on you."
"I won't," said Heineman, who was hurt to realize how low he stood in his cousin's esteem.
Then Atlanta cried out, for Zinjanthrop's benefit:
"Diver down! Dug Mantis down!"
"Dug Mantis down," shouted Zinjanthrop, acknowledging, confirming.
As Dug lowered himself into the water, Heineman realized, with a pang of jealousy, that Atlanta had been appointed boatmaster, replacement commander while Dug Mantis dived.
Dug reached up for the end of the lead-weighted rope Heineman was holding, a coiled rope to which gel-lights had been tied at body-length intervals. Heineman would have to be careful not to get those gel-lights snagged on something as he paid out the cordage.
"Don't let go, now!" said Dug, sharp-voiced from the sea's wallow, the flux of light and darkness, the night swell's rhythm.
Heineman nodded, acknowledging, confirming.
"It's night," said Dug, as if apropos of nothing.
Night? For a moment, Heineman groped for meaning, confused, baffled, and frightened at being confused. Then he realized what his cousin was driving at. Standard operating procedure: don't trust to nods and handsignals in the dark. Confirm all orders by voice.
"I won't let go," said Heineman, as fiercely as he could, fierce as little boy Loki affirming his manhood in the face of his grandfather's teasing.
Dug grinned, then submerged.
With rope-end in hand, Dug at first allowed himself to float face-down in the space between the prau's outrigger and hull, adjusting, acclimatizing, orientating himself. His shoulder-length white hair floated in a halo, eerily lit by the light from below, by bulging orange and pulse-bleeding red.
Then he dived.
Heineman paid out the rope as his cousin took it downward. When the rope went dead, Heineman pulled in the slack. He knelt in the prau, his fingers listening to the rope as a fisherman listens to a fishing line.
The rope jerked once, savagely. It was Dug, down below, making sure Heineman got the message: listen up, cousin! Then there was a pause, then the rope was tugged, distinctly, five times. Which mean what?
Heineman realized he could remember only a handful of the salvage codes.
"Five," said Heineman, speaking to the night.
His sister Atlanta answered him:
"He's anchored the rope to something solid."
Graced with that knowledge, Heineman then needed to do nothing but wait, fingers forever on the rope, waiting for an emergency signal, the call for help.
It was all at least half-familiar to Heineman the rocking rhythm of the night sea, the lights of the neighboring praus, the splash of divers, the glimmer of gel-lights descending to the depths, the cadaverous boat-crew faces lit by light from below. He knew all this at least by anecdote, for the work of his Family was the work of the sea, diving and salvage, rescue and wreck-work, pressure and depth. Some of his earliest childhood memories were of being on the beach when the boats departed and returned, and of listening to the wild stories told afterwards over feasts of beer and barbecue steaks.
But never before had he actually been on an emergency dive or a salvage job, so it was new to him, and he lost track of the passage of time, too intent on detail to have a firm grasp of the whole. After a while, the pain in his knees told him he had been keeling on wood for a long time, but he had lost track of time in the numbness of the night cold, in the hypnotic rhythm of the sea-rocked stars.
Heineman was so focused on the rope, on his duty to Dug Mantis, that he scarcely registered the fact that survivors were being brought up alive from the depths coughing, gasping, hacking out the occasional word of need or despair, one rescued foreigner from Hell screaming in livid agony as an adaptive skin was torn away from his flesh. The Family Jubiladilia was good at what it did was the best. With such knowledge a part of the deepest fabric of his being, Heineman accepted the rescue-success as a given, and concentrated on his duty: the rope.
"Here," said someone.
It was Atlanta, his sister, shoving something at him, coffee, one hand for the rope and one for the mug, the coffee hot, the smell intense, in all his life coffee had never smelt so hot or tasted so good, a richness of warmth which made him realize how late the night was, and how cold he was.
Seeking to ease his cold and cramping flesh, Heineman shifted from kneeling to squatting, from squatting to sitting, and was kneeling again when he realized Dug was standing beside him. Dug had come to the surface without signaling on the rope, must have come up on the other side of the prau, Heineman hadn't noticed him, hadn't heard what he had said, but he had said -
"What?" said Heineman. "What was that you said?"
"You've got to go down," said Dug.
"What?" said Heineman, again, not understanding, not wanting to understand.
"We need you, Heineman! You've got to do down!"
Dug Mantis was bleeding. He had torn his scalp on jagged metal while rescuing men from the wreckage of the Zuzu Magore, and, quite apart from the matter of the injury, he was clearly exhausted.
Heineman could not escape his duty, and so pulled himself out of his clothes and allowed himself to be helped into an adaptive skin, crying out as it mated with his flesh, as it drove its tendrils into his body, matching its blood supply with his.
"Heineman," said Atlanta impatiently, "stand up, and stand still."
He stood up, feeling smothered by the encumbering embrace of the adaptive skin, feeling heavy, claustrophobic, crushed. Atlanta tugged at the skin, making sure his floating ribs were exposed by the vetavetch, the vital cutaway holes. Water sloshed around in the bilges of the prau's V-cut hull, the boat groaning as the creaking swells lifted it and dropped it, emphasizing to Heineman the fact that he had left the stability of land for the cold evolutions of water, that he had been displaced from his favoured element, cast out to the night and the sea. He felt small, weak and cold fit more for hospitalization than for heroism.
It was Atlanta again, and this time she had a gel-torch, a cold bubble of blue-green light hanging from a rubber strap. She looped the strap round his wrist, and tied it tight so he could not lose it.
"This is the ship," said Dug, holding a child's model of the Zuzu Magore, the very same model which Atlanta had earlier given to little boy Loki.
"Yes," said Heineman, not understanding the significance of the model.
"It's slightly canted over, like this," said Dug, tilting the model. "The side that's higher, there's a rip. It's torn. You can get in down here."
Dug pointed, indicating with his finger.
"Yes," said Heineman.
"Go down the rope," said Dug, meaning the salvage rope which Heineman had previously been monitoring. "You're at the bottom. Got it? Good. Hang on the rope. Face the ship. The rip is to your left. Swim left, and toward the ship."
"It'll be dark."
"The ship is alive with light," said Dug. "It spills. Like vomit. Out of the hole. It's spilling out of the hole, like vomit. You'll find it."
"We think there are still men inside the ship," said Dug. "When you find one, you'll have to get out of your skin. Then get him into it."
Heineman understood. The foreigners trapped underwater were not of the sealines, and so could not escape from the ship without the help of the adaptive skins, the biological exterior lungs which, for Family divers, served merely as a supplementary source of oxygen.
"It's not easy," warned Dug. "These bloody foreigners, they've never seen a skin in their lives. Half of them think we're sea monsters or something. Half these people are fighting us, they're not the easiest people to rescue."
"But we've got to try," said Heineman, as if hoping that someone would contradict him, would absolve him from his responsibility.
Instead, Dug gave him a dirty look, as if he had read the cowardly subtext of Heineman's statement all too clearly.
"Where do I look?" said Heineman, scrambling to recover his cousin's esteem.
"Look at this," said Dug, still demonstrating with his model. "The ship is like three doughnuts sitting on top of each other, and, and capped by half a tennis ball. On top of the tennis ball there's a carbuncle."
"Got you," said Heineman.
"We've just about searched the two bottommost levels, it's hard to be sure, but we think we've got everyone out of there. I'm detailing people to check. You, you go to the topmost ring, the topmost doughnut."
"Do I have to go in through the bottom?" said Heineman. "Can't I get in through the top?"
"The rip is in the bottom," said Heineman. "There are emergency exits, but they won't open against water."
"Why not?" said Heineman.
"Go ask the man who built the thing," said Dug, who never had patience with stupid questions.
Then someone handed Heineman a pair of reef boots. He pulled them on, then climbed out onto one of the outriggers of the prau, and jumped.
The command came to him out of his memory:-
Float, of course, yes, he had to float, to orientate himself, to give himself time to get used to the water.
- Speed kills! Hurry is the worse thing!
Remembering these axioms, Heineman floated face-down in the shark-dark sea. The adaptive skin was no burden whatsoever now that he was supported by the salt of the sea. The water was cold against his flesh, cold against his floating ribs, which were naked to the sea thanks to the vetavetch, the patches cut from the adaptive skin.
As Heineman floated there, fissures gaped open between his adaptive ribs as his gill-slits opened. His water-lung, the water-breathing organ centered beneath his naval, sucked in the sea and began to process oxygen from the water. He could feel its unthinking pulsing, a sensation he had always hated. It felt like an alien organism was living in his flesh. As a child, he had imagined his water-lung to be a kind of octopus, and so hated its independent life that he never took a bath, restricting himself to showers, or, at times of peak neurosis, to a quick sponge-down.
Control that was the thing. The water-lung was not under volitional control. Heineman owed genes to the sea, tracing one side of his ancestry back to the Mer. He belonged to the sealines: and, in the manner of his kind, had no control over the functions of his water-lung. It inevitably started functioning as soon as he was immersed in water: it was an automatic survival reflex.
Floating there in a night sea which was awash with red light and with orange, feeling his water-lung function, Heineman almost bashed his head against the prau's outrigger. It was dangerous to stay on the surface. Besides he realized everyone must be watching him. They would know how long it took himself to nerve himself up for the plunge, to follow the rope and its blue-green gel-torch marker-lights down to the depths. He was orientated, he was ready, and to wait further would be cowardice.
Heineman dived, found it hard to fight his way down and realized he still had air in his lungs. It took an act of will to exhale, to void his lungs, and he felt a moment of irrational panic when his lungs were empty. But its was the right move. He no longer needed that air: it was simply so much inconvenient buoyancy. He was okay, okay, was all right, for the adaptive skin was processing air from the seawater, and, with the help of his own water-lung to supplement the skin's activity, he could work underwater all night if he had to.
With the air gone from his lungs, Heineman found it easy to swim down into the depths, down and down toward the luridness of steady orange and blinking. The salvage-rope was always there to guide him if he needed it. He could not lose it in the seas of night, thanks to the gel-lights which were tied to it at body-length intervals. He would be okay as long as he kept thinking of the lights, forcing from his mind all thoughts of the ominous unlit depths of ocean beyond the misty nimbus of the wreck-lights.
He reached the end of the rope, which was tied roughly to a seabottom boulder. In front of him was the hugeness of the flanks of the Zuzu Magore, the ship's curves bulging like three gigantic rolls of fat set one atop the other, the doughnut flanks a whale-great luridness of orange, interspersed with the red pulse of wreck-beacons, the spasms of their pulsing as vivid as the breaking of eggs.
As Heineman swam toward this hallucinatory monstrosity, he felt or thought he felt the pressure of a great wave rolling overhead. He felt dizzy. Maybe he was afraid. And maybe he was lost, for he was already hard-put to remember the instructions he had been given, how to find the rent
But there it was! Impossible to miss a huge tear where the ship had ripped itself open on one of the rocks of the Spliars. That was his way in. He could get in.
Don't think about it. Just do it.
Heineman knew he would go mad if he thought about it. He was alone down here, down in the depths, a shark-vast darkness waiting for him beyond the nimbus of the watery lights, and, in front of him, no telling what.
Just take it moment by moment. One moment, then the next.
So thinking, Heineman swam into the ship, entering via the rent, finding the aquarium interior of the Zuzu Magore to be lit by the same orange light which outlined its exterior. That orange light gleamed in floods on the hardpolish ceramic tiles of the floor of one of the ship's chamber's.
As if Heineman's entry into the ship had been a signal for failure, a cue for disaster, the orange lights fluctuated, then abruptly faded down to something close to darkness. There was just sufficient light to see by. Heineman glanced at the gel-light on his wrist. It would be enough to get him out alive if all other lights failed. He had no excuse to stop.
Heineman swam through the wrecked hullside chamber, gained a corridor. The corridor curved away to where something gleamed a dull red, like a huge squid's eye, waiting for him. But squid didn't have red eyes. Did they?
The orange ship lights strengthened without warning, making the faint red disappear. Eye? What eye? It must have been sheer imagination.
Just your imagination.
Heineman had to believe that, otherwise he could not go on. For reassurance, he glanced again at the gel-torch strapped to his wrist. He hung in the water, hung in the corridor, imprisoned, enclosed, listening, as if hoping to hear someone tell him what to do. He heard a sea-boom slap of water punching air somewhere in the depths of the ship, a pumping gurgling of air bleeding, an amplified aquarium sound suggesting the scurry of a billion bubbles, a high-pitched whine like that of a bearing overheating, and a jibbering arrhythmical thumping from a machine which had torn loose from its task and was destroying itself somewhere in the surrounding mechanical maze.
The alien, unorchestrated noises emphasised to Heineman that he was in a strange place. This was a ship from the west, from Barth Banchup Bakchakris, ruling city of the Chasms of Hell. This ship was the product of an advanced high-technology society which had precious little in common with his own. Wrecks were always dangerous, but this one particularly so, because it was a fresh wreck, a wreck still in the process of dying, a wreck where machines and processes were still at work, a wreck which might roll or settle or burst or sunder, a wreck which he had every reason to fear.
He glanced back. Looking back through the hullside chamber, he could see the night sea, luridly lit by the hull's exterior orange emergency lights. Nobody else was visible.
Nobody would know.
He could run. He could turn tail and run, swimming away from all this, daring no further, venturing no risk of boiling water, chancing no encounters with red-eyed monsters.
He could not go back.
He would not go back.
Conscious of the members of his Family waiting on the prau above, conscious of the expectations of his sister Atlanta, his cousin Dug Mantis, his grandfather Zinjanthrop, Heineman began to swim down the curving corridor, looking for a companionway, a set of stairs leading upwards. He knew there were such stairs, he had seen them in little boy Loki's model skyship, the model was true to life, or so he hoped.
He paused, realized he was floating by a red light one of the cold everburn lights which mark the locations of fire extinguishers. He had seen such lights in La Lantis, and should have known it for what it was. How could he have thought it an eye? He had almost allowed himself to be panicked by a fire-extinguisher light!
Know this. I know this. This ship.
So Heineman thought to himself. It was half-true. The ship from the Chasms of Hell was not entirely strange. He had seen just such a fire extinguisher in La Lantis, had seen just such an cold-burning emergency light. But La Lantis was a research facility, a shore facility, not a ship. And La Lantis was in working order. This was a wreck.
Heineman saw a gel-torch up ahead. One of his fellow divers? The light moved slightly. Was the man waving?
As Heineman closed with the diver, he found the man was dead, the waving motion being generated by the faint flux of water within the hull of the wrecked airship.
Who are you?
Thus thought Heineman, rolling the body over, rolling it in the bath of orange light, the light seeming colder and colder as he rolled the body, seeking the face, fearfully afraid that it would be someone he knew. But it was nobody. A stranger.
Then Heineman realized that one of his fellow divers must have tagged this lifeless corpse with the gel-torch to mark it for later recovery. Well why not recover it now? Here was his excuse! He could take this corpse and go.
But Dug would ask him about the living.
Heineman touched the dead man with his hand, touched the fine skeins of hair which floated free in the water. Then he started to swim past the blundering obstacle. The corpse rolled to embrace him as he passed. His hand brushed its face. He pushed it away, feeling the hardness of teeth against his fingers. Then he had got past the thing.
Somewhere, there was a loud bang, its rhythms thumping through the water, making Heineman's head hurt. He found himself momentarily disorientated, unsure of which way was up. His mouth was foul with the taste of stress, of fear. He sucked in seawater, and found that tasted worse. It had a chemical taste which reminded him of burnt plastic. And this stuff was being cycled through his own flesh, going straight into his own water-lung!
Heineman spat out the seawater, then floated, allowing himself to cool and calm. Then he deliberately made himself look back at the free-floating corpse.
It reminded him of something.
Heineman tried to think, then remembered. A long time ago, Glan Gleneth Soba Lubamacasta had held a debauched party, and toward the end of it Heineman had seen two men in the swimming pool at the House Lubamacasta, playing drown-the-duck with a blow-up woman, an obscene doll. That was what the corpse reminded him of.
Come on. Get going.
So thought Heineman. He felt he was getting cold, and knew it was not his imagination. The adaptive skin was helping keep him warm, since its cladding helped keep in warmth, and since chemicals from the skin's blood supply had entered his own blood, raising his metabolism to help his body generate extra heat.
But, even so, Heineman was losing heat to the sea, since his water-lung was sucking in a continual stream of water. As his water-lung processed oxygen from that wash of pulsing water, heat fled his flesh for the ocean. Heineman was being sea-cooled by the very process which let him breathe beneath water.
Heineman swam on down the orange-flooded corridor. Mosaic by mosaic, the hardpolish ceramic tiles slipped away beneath him. Tesselated patterns of squares, triangles, rhomboids, equi-whatever-they-were. Geometry. Trigonometry. He had never liked that. Arithmetic had always been his preference, even as a child. He liked arithmetic, abominated geometry. He particularly hated circles. He was disturbed by the nature of pi, 3.14 whatever it was, something to do with the ratio of the circumference to the something. Why couldn't it just be plain three?
Why not three?
So thought Heineman, arbitrarily puzzling about mathematics. Then he realized he was thinking about mathematics to distract himself from the moment, from the reality of the wreck. That was fearsomely dangerous. Inadvertent inattention was bad enough, but wilful inattention was positively suicidal.
Heineman hung in the water, trying to center himself, to focus on the reality of his surroundings. Up ahead, he saw a green light. Again, he was reminded of La Lantis. In the public library at La Lantis, every exit was marked with a green light, as was every emergency stairwell. He suspected this light would mark a companionway.
He was right.
Heineman gained the companionway and swam upward, winning through to the second level of the Zuzu Magore, which was much like the lowest level. No need to search this Dug had said the first two levels had already been searched. It was the third level that Heineman wanted. A linking companionway went straight up to that third level. He took it.
Once in the third level, Heineman began to search room after room. In the very first chamber, he found something floating in the centre of the room, a pinkness rimmed with white. He realized it was a set of false teeth. He left them there, floating in the fluctuating light.
He felt as if he had been in the wreck a long time, so long that he half-imagined that his very skin was turning orange in the orange emergency lighting. He was alarmed at the manner in which that internal illumination periodically swooned, plunging the ship into a darkness which would have been utterly utter, but for his gel-torch. Still. The gel-torch would be enough for his needs, even if the light failed altogether.
He kept searching.
In some rooms, Heineman found air pockets, dank with the sea-slop, foul with the smell of alien chemicals. He rose to one such air pocket to find his own reflection staring back at him from a mirror. A grotesque sight it made. Wearing the adaptive skin, Heineman looked like a kind of two-legged black-skinned seal with a corpse-pale human head and arms to match. The vetavetch, the specially tailored holes in the flanks of the adaptive skin, revealed the gaping fissures between his floating ribs, the membranous tongue-fleshed chasms which went down to his water-lung. Heineman shuddered, gave a quick look round, then dived.
In the very next chamber, he found a set of free-floating false teeth, and realized he had made a complete circuit of the ship's third, uppermost doughnut ring.
That was it.
Or was it?
On top of the three rings, on top of the stack of three quoits, there was half a tennis ball (the great observation deck) topped by a carbuncle (a bar for first-class passengers). Heineman wanted to deny his knowledge of those details. But he had spent a whole day playing with little boy Loki's true-to-life model, incessantly lecturing lesser mortals on its intricacies with the result that what he knew he knew too well to deny.
Reluctantly, Heineman found a companion way and made his way up into the observation deck, one single dome with a spiraling central staircase which led up to the bar.
The great dome of the observation deck was flooded, a vast volume of contained water, a huge aquarium drenched with orange light. There were corpses in the aquarium, five of them, floating loose-limbed. But there were no airpockets. Heineman saw a crack in one of the huge sheets of glass which constituted the walls of the dome. All the air was gone.
Slowly, slowly, Heineman swam through the aquarium, checking. Now that he was free from the claustrophobic network of chambers and corridors down below, he felt almost at ease. He noted details, saw the touches of luxury. The hardpolish ceramic tiles of the lower levels had been abandoned in favour of a lushness of carpet. There were pictures on the walls, pictures of volcanoes, and sulphur streams, and shoreside lava flows, and other scenes typical of the geography of the Chasms of Hell.
His inspection completed, Heineman looked upwards, looked up to the top of the spiraling central staircase. Up there was the bar for first-class passengers, the carbuncle on top of the observation dome.
The last thing.
So thought Heineman, and felt stronger now his task was almost over. Once he had checked out the carbuncle, the whole ship would be clear. He could claim one of the corpses as proof of courage, proof of effort, and start making his way out of here.
Much comforted by that thought, Heineman swam up the spiral of the central stairway which led up, up and up to the first-class bar. The ship-lights failed altogether as he made the ascent, but he still had the gel-torch which was strapped to his wrist, and that was sufficient.
Heineman broke water in the carbuncle, in the bar. There was an air pocket here. He breathed darkness, pulled himself out of the water, felt broken glass grate beneath the toughness of his reef boots, heard a wine glass shatter. The air was dank, dirty, thick, hot, hard to breathe.
"Get away from us!"
The fearful voice from the dark so startled Heineman that he almost panicked and fled. He peered into the dark, and realized there were three men there. One had armed himself with a broken bottle. All were scrabbling back as if trying to get out through the walls.
Having so recently seen himself in a mirror, Heineman had an idea how he must look to them. Like some kind of sea-monster. Doubtless they were all strangers to Chalakanesia. Even if they had been briefed on what to expect in Chalakanesia, briefings had a way of fleeing one's head in a time of trauma.
"Get away from us!"
Heineman heard panic in the voice, heard fear. Keyed to that panic, the men started to ghost. A mob of half-substantial ghosts filled the air with thrashing blurs. But the ghosts were brief-lived, their generation the work of the panic of men close to utter exhaustion.
As Heineman had spent his entire life living on top of the metapsychic faultline, he could often accurately judge a person's condition by the quality of their ghosting and he knew that these strangers were close to physical failure. He had to do something, and quickly.
In a moment of quick decision, Heineman ripped the adaptive skin away from his body, enduring the necessary lacerating pain as its blood supply separated from his in an action which left him with thousands of tiny blood-spotted wounds. As the ghosts cleared, Heineman stood there, his naked body illuminated by the gel-torch. The enormous, lubbery, waterlogged weight of the adaptive skin hung over his right hand, writhing slightly. Heineman gave it a shake.
"It's a kind of suit," said Heineman. "You wear it, you can breathe water."
Then he realized the gaps between his floating ribs had not closed completely. Because he had just come out of the water, those gaps stood ajar, with his water-lung ready for instant action should he submerge again.
"Genetics," said Heineman, smoothing his skin beneath his fingers to make the gaps close.
That was all the explanation he thought he had time for, but the attitude of the men indicated that it was not enough. Another brief-lived ghost popped forth from one, bleated piteously, then vanished.
"Look," said Heineman, "I'm not some kind of monster from the deep, or anything. I'm not even a diver. My name's Heineman, Heineman Yakaskam, you probably won't have heard of me, but I'm a senator, a politician, you know, one of those people you like to throw tomatoes at."
One of the men grunted. A sign of intelligent life! Obviously Heineman had struck a chord. The throwing of tomatoes at politicians was, then, as much a part of the traditions of Hell as it was of Chalakanesia.
"This is a diving suit," said Heineman, hefting the adaptive skin. "Put it on, you can swim underwater. It'll get you out of here. And, hey I'm not the world's greatest salesman, but let me put this proposition to you. What have you got to lose? If you stay here, you're dead. The water's rising. I mean, I don't want to eat you or anything. I just want to help you."
Heineman had never before felt so calm, so patient, so strangely lucid. The dire desperation of the situation had completely annulled all his usual worries. When things were going well, Heineman worried inordinately about every small trifling thing which might go wrong. But this extreme situation had put things in perspective. He had adjusted his priorities, and, apart from worrying in case one of the men attacked him with a bottle, he felt perfectly at ease.
One of the three men spoke:
"Do you have any identity?"
"Identity?" said Heineman.
"You know. A Census Card. A flip-disk. A jump-start, even."
To Heineman, this reaction seemed bizarre. In Chalakanesia, most people knew most other people, and problems of personal identity really didn't arise, except in the case of people who had been shunted. So Heineman had never bothered to study the systems of identification and verification so meticulously employed in Hell, where populations numbered in the hundreds of millions made issues of identity a key to social control.
Heineman realized the man was still badly frightened, and so less than completely logical.
"Look," said Heineman, evading the issue of identity altogether, "how would you like to have a look at this thing? This diving suit, it's a biological construct, a kind of animal. Wearing this, you don't have to worry about the bends."
"The bends?" said one man fearfully. "What's that?"
Heineman realized he had made a bad mistake. In Chalakanesia, everyone knew about the bends. Those who were descended from the sealines, like Heineman, had no reason to fear any such danger, since their genetic modifications allowed them to dive as freely as seals. But normative humans like the Gan had no such immunity, and needed the protection of adaptive skins if they wanted to dive to depth.
Could he explain it?
Don't even try!
This was no time for lectures on the anatomy and physiology of diving.
"I do scuba, if that's any help," said a man all tattooed with flowers.
"No, no," said Heineman, now truly fearful of getting bogged down in explanations. "You don't have to worry about insurance," he said, using that bit of nonsense to slide around the question about the bends. Then, cutting off further comments from the tattooed man, he addressed himself to the fearful one: "What's your name?"
"Ralmond," said the fearful one.
"Ralmond," said Heineman, repeating it, committing it to memory, as if busy on the presidential campaign trail. Then, using it to confirm it and retain it: "Ralmond, how would you like to introduce me to these people?"
The others were Grindle-Joyce and Glynn, Grindle-Joyce being the one with all the tattoos.
"Well, Ralmond," said Heineman, using the names for all they were worth, "Ralmond, Grindle-Joyce, Glynn, if you don't have to go anywhere in a hurry then I'd like to do some explaining."
His jokes got no laughs, but the atmosphere was easier as Heineman launched himself into an explanation of the adaptive skin and its functions.
As Heineman had often been told by his fellows in the senate, he was a supremely boring speaker, since he never made alogical intuitive jumps. His mind had been trained in the profession of accountancy, where everything must be proved out step by step, from order form to invoice to check to bank balance. This had given Heineman an unshakable confidence in the merits of step-by-step logic.
In the face of Heineman's sheer matter-of-fact logic, his unassailable dullness, his complete lack of personal drama, the men grew calm.
"I'll go," said Grindle-Joyce at last. "I've done scuba, it's not so bad for me."
"Then help me talk Ralmond here into this diving suit of mine," said Heineman, gesturing at the lubbering tubular horror of his adaptive skin. "You stay here and keep the other guy calm."
Helped by Grindle-Joyce, Heineman was able to talk Ralmond into the adaptive skin. Then Heineman got him into the water. In politics, Heineman was no genius, but he had learnt something about getting people to do what they don't want to do. First you show them that a little doesn't hurt. Then you take them deeper.
With Grindle-Joyce assisting, Heineman got Ralmond into the water bit by bit, toe by shin then shin by kneecap, kneecap by thigh, and at last got him submerged.
"Now try it again," said Heineman. "But breathe out before you go under. Empty your lungs."
Then, skipping no step do it once, and do it right! -Heineman brought Ralmond to the surface and told him to explain the sensation to his fellows.
"It's like," said Ralmond, "it's like you were floating, and dreaming. It's painless."
Heineman guessed that Ralmond was one of those who become intoxicated when their blood streams merge with that of an adaptive skin. Such things happen. There are also a few individuals who get allergic reactions to toxins in the blood of the adaptive skins, and die. Heineman didn't like to think about that, or what might happen if this man died.
"Okay," said Heineman. "We're going to swim out of the ship now. I'll be back, or my sister will be back. It may take some time, but, believe me, my sister's worth waiting for."
This got a chuckle. Heineman didn't see that it was funny -he had never found sex amusing but Zinjanthrop had taught him the art of making dirty jokes, and in his political life Heineman routinely employed those jokes in accordance with his grandfather's protocols.
"Let's go then," said Heineman.
He wanted to hurry, now, because Ralmond was looking woozy, and Heineman guessed he was becoming so intoxicated that he might get seriously blood-drunk, or even pass out. He could do himself a lot of damage if he breathed water in the process.
Should I wait?
No! Go! Go! Go!
So thinking, Heineman took Ralmond down into the water-depths of the ship. At they worked their way down through the ship, Ralmond's actions became erratic, and Heineman guessed he was becoming seriously blood-drunk.
But Ralmond had enough self-control left to keep his mouth shut, and so sucked no water into his lungs. Ralmond's life was sustained by the adaptive skin, which acted in effect as a set of gills and did his breathing for him. Heineman was sustained by his own water-lung, which gave him air sufficient for the business of guiding his charge through the depths, though not air sufficient for prolonged hard work underwater.
Air, however, was not Heineman's chiefest problem. His problem was cold. The adaptive skin had helped keep him warm, and, with its loss, he was quickly getting chilled. The activity of his water-lung pumped a constant stream of cold seawater to his gut, and bled him of heat as effectively as if he had been harpooned with a javelin of ice.
But Heineman's strength was still holding up when they got outside the ship, where he spotted the salvage rope thanks to its gel-torches. The gel-torches were at the end of their effective life, and were burning a sickly yellow. But the rope was guidance sufficient.
Up, up they went to the surface, though it was something of a fight, for Ralmond was so blood-drunk that he was no longer properly orientated to the surface, and started fighting his rescuer.
When they broke surface, Heineman was shocked by the loudness of the night, the vigor of wave-slap and shouting, the sudden flurry of grabbing and hauling, the confusion of orders and activity. It was like waking from a slow-motion pressurized dream to the babble of a birthday party.
It was Atlanta, again. She was wearing an adaptive skin, and reef boots, and her hands were sheathed with a pair of those metal-armor gloves which are so handy for working a reef, since they allow one to handle coral and sea urchins with impunity. Heineman wished he had a pair, and was almost going to ask for Atlanta's when she forestalled him.
"Any more down there?" said Atlanta.
"Yes," said Heineman.
"How many?" said Atlanta, impatiently.
"Two," said Heineman.
"Show me," said Atlanta.
And they dived together.