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Diving on the Wreck

(complete text full story - 9,830 words)
(first of three sections)

        So you want to be president. Then what is your platform? What, exactly, are you going to do for your home island of Zelzam Demaxus? And how about the island nation of Chalakanesia as a whole? Why should the people vote for you?
        This was a question which Heineman had not yet adequately addressed. Six months previously, Splinton, the best of his political advisers, had been eaten by a shark. Heineman's campaign had never quite recovered from that disaster.
        At present, Heineman's stock of political ideas was meager, and could be summarized as follows:-
        1. Yes, I agree that the mongoose is a good role model for our male children;
        2. No, having a water-lung does not make me feel superior;
        3. Yes, I agree that the government should provide price support to frog farmers, if that is absolutely necessary; and,
        4. No, I do not support the idea of a special tax on adaptive skins.
        And that was it - that was Heineman's entire political agenda. Somehow, he found it difficult to avoid the conclusion that it was not quite enough. The fourth item, in fact, might even lose him the election - and yet it was unavoidable.
        The adaptive skins were the tubular animals which allowed people to breathe underwater. Once mated with an adaptive skin, even a normative human could survive beneath the surface of the sea. Thanks to his water-lung, Heineman could do that anyway. However, even for water-adapted individuals such as Heineman, the adaptive skins conferred major advantages, armoring the body, increasing endurance, lengthening survival times and boosting effective strength.
        Unfortunately, the Family Jubiladilia - Heineman's own Family - had a monopoly on adaptive skins. (Why? Because they had their own special methods of feeding, training and caring for the skins, trade secrets which the world at large had yet to penetrate.) And the general population had the entirely mistaken idea that the Jubiladilias were, as a result, immensely rich, and were somehow concealing immense wealth from the Taxation Department.
        Hence the pressure - keenly exploited by Heineman's rivals in the presidential race - for a special tax on adaptive skins. A pressure which Heineman had to resist unless he wished for his whole Family to go bankrupt.
        "Accentuate the positive," said Heineman.
        Somehow, he had to come up with new, positive, attractive ideas. On his own. His grandfather Zinjanthrop, his political mentor, should have been helping, but had only just recovered from a devastating bout of depression.
        "The ship," said Heineman, for the ninetieth time, examining little boy Loki's scale model of the foreign skyship which had so recently arrived on Zelzam Demaxus on its trial voyage.
        Was there some political capital to be exploited from the visit of the ship?
        Previously, all attempts to use flying machines in the environs of Chalakanesia had met with disaster. The islands lay athwart the so-called metapsychic faultline, which scientists generally explained (or attempted to explain) as being (probably) an ancient weapons system deeply buried (this, at least, was the hypothesis) somewhere far below the archipelago.
        While the precise nature of the metapsychic faultline still resisted explanation (quantum theory, for example, stubbornly refused to even begin to explain it) its effects could be known of a certainty. It trashed unshielded electronic gear (and sometimes subverted even gear which had been carefully shielded with layer upon layer of thick, heavy gold); it produced the short-lived doppelgangers colloquially known as "ghosts"; and it could shunt people, displacing them in time or space (or both). (Could and did - operating at unpredictable, apparently random intervals.)
        However, the technical experts from Barth Banchup Bakchakris, the capital of the high-technology empire known as the Chasms of Hell, seemed to think they had now got on top of the problem. And if they had? If luxury skyships like the Zuzu Magore began making regular trips to Chalakanesia? What then?
        "Tourism," said Heineman.
        It was the magic word, reeking of money. Before being lunched by a shark, adviser Splinton had made heavy use of it. But why would tourists come to Chalakanesia in the first place, even if they could? To eat frogs? If reports were to be believed, you could already eat frogs in any high-class restaurant in either the Gulf of Heaven or the Chasms of Hell. Why else, then? What unique experience do we have to offer?
        "Being eaten by sharks," said Heineman.
        Yes. Great. What else?
        "Being mated with an adaptive skin. Swim underwater. See the fishes. Talk to the octopus. Meet the shark. The happy, friendly, well-fed neighborhood shark. Your friend in the wonderful underwater world of the ocean."
        Nice idea. But there was one big problem: pain. Linking your body with that of an adaptive skin was an experience which many people found frightening, embarrassing or out-and-out disgusting. But disconnecting afterwards was worse. As everyone knew, it really hurt to tear the connected bodies apart. And, somehow, Heineman could not see a bunch of affluent foreigners paying to be hurt. (Well, a few of the kinky ones, maybe. But just how big was that niche market?)
        Heineman was thinking this through - uselessly - when Zinjanthrop entered his office.
        "Heineman," said Zinjanthrop. "The report. Did you file it?"
        Report? Oh, yes. The report on the adaptive skins. It had been demanded by some weird foreign outfit, the Committee for the Prevention of Cruelty to Parasites, a bunch of do-gooders based in Barth Banchup Bakchakris. Heineman had finished the report a good week earlier. In it, he had carefully explained that the adaptive skins were not parasites. Rather, they were symbionts. And, yes, they were well-cared for, and lived very, very happy lives.
        "Good," said Zinjanthrop. "It's critical. If that's not in on time then everything fails."
        Then Zinjanthrop was gone.
        It was only after his grandfather had departed that Heineman finally clicked. His campaign finance report! The next three-monthly report! It was due - when? Not tomorrow, surely. Check, check. Where's that campaign log? Here ... oh, no! Tomorrow! Well, at least Zinjanthrop doesn't know ....
        Resolutely, Heineman buckled down to work. If he worked solidly, then he could probably have the report done by three in the morning. If not, why, then he would just have to stay up all night. If the accounts were not filed on time, then Heineman would be barred from the presidential race.
        When little boy Loki looked in on the office to tell Heineman that there had been a crash, Heineman waved him away.
        "I'm busy," said Heineman.
        "But it's crashed!" said Loki. "The skyship!"
        "I'm sure it has," said Heineman, not really caring whether this was true or false.
        A crash? It had nothing to do with Heineman. No. His business was with his campaign finances.
        "Can I have my ship?" said Loki.
        "What?" said Heineman. "Oh, yes."
        He gave little boy Loki the model ship, and little boy Loki ran off, joining the other people who were racing to the beach. Heineman concentrated on his accounts, totting up the figures as fast as he could.
        "Heineman!" said his sister Atlanta, discovering him sitting at his desk, working his abacus. "What are you doing here?"
        "Working," said Heineman. "My next campaign finance report has to be filed tomorrow. That's the law."
        Yes. Heineman Yakaskam Jubiladilia was going to be the next president of Chalakanesia, or at least die trying. He might not be the world's greatest speaker, and he might be really short of political ideas, but he had a bean-counter's dogged determination. He would keep on going until the going killed him.
        "Heineman," said Atlanta, with the urgency of someone trying to rouse an unconscious casualty, "A ship has crashed."
        "Okay," said Heineman, who had never found it easy to change gears in a hurry. "So the miraculous ship from Barth Banchup Bakchakris has fallen out of the sky. So what?"
        "So people will drown," said Atlanta. "Unless rescued."
        True. Now the skyship was underwater, somewhere near the Spliars, the offshore pinnacles near the southern end of Eastbeach. Anyone still alive was doomed to die unless helped.
        "And?" said Heineman. "What's that got to do with me?"
        "First," said Atlanta, "we are from a diving family."
        "Speak for yourself," said Heineman.
        "You're my brother, and I'll speak for you too," said Atlanta, fiercely. "Second, this would be the worst of all publicity. Heineman sat at his abacus while the helpless drowned!"
        "But who would know?" said Heineman.
        "Everyone!" said Atlanta. "If you don't get up off your politician's backside and help, I'll tell the whole world!"
        "This is blackmail!" said Heineman.
        "So sue me," said Atlanta. "I'm a lawyer, I love to be sued, it turns me on. Plus I don't have to worry about legal fees."
        Heineman saw there was no way out. Well. Go to the beach, then. Put in an appearance. Be seen in public. Get associated with the rescue effort. Maybe load some gear into the praus. And then, at the earliest possible moment, slip back and return to his accounts.
        So thinking, Heineman accompanied his sister Atlanta to Eastbeach. From the beach, you could see the wavering patch of green light which marked the location of the Zuzu Magore, the fallen skyship. It was faint in the darkness, like something half-imagined.
        Already, a rescue effort was getting underway. Boat teams were dragging the praus of Heineman's Family across the sands toward the waiting sea. The prau - a type of outrigger canoe - was the vessel the Jubiladilias used for all their seawork.
        "Come on!" said Atlanta. "Help us, Heineman!"
        So Heineman threw himself into action and helped launch one of the praus. Which, inevitably, meant plunging into the cacophonous shock of the cold night surf. Fighting to stand upright against the onslaught of the jumbled darkness, Heineman was confused, disoriented.
        "Hurry up!" shouted Dug Mantis. "Heineman! Get aboard!"
        "But," said Heineman.
        "No buts," said Dug Mantis.
        Then Dug Mantis - Heineman's weightlifting cousin, skinmaster supreme - grabbed Heineman and physically hauled him into the prau. No chance of getting back to his abacus! He was being kidnapped!

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This story,"Diving on the Wreck", was first posted on the SUCCESS by DESIGN SF&F website October 2002 (ed. Howard W. Penrose, Ph.D.)(9,830 words)(science fiction).

This page is part of Hugh Cook's website,
Copyright © 2002 Hugh Cook. All rights reserved.


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