As it turns out, the ocean at night without flashlights makes for poor sightseeing. My enhanced sight only extended a few meters in any direction, which forced me to rely exclusively on a scanner system that wasn’t designed to work underwater. I consoled myself with the knowledge that Thassan eyesight was worse than mine, rendering them even more blind than I was.
I guess I have to trust Lynx to do the seeing for me.
<Sorry,> Phoebe’s voice came over the com. <We tried to construct an echolocation system, but it was so situational and hard to interface that we never completed the design. I promise I’ll do better in the future.>
Dammit. I wasn’t certain if I transmitted thoughts, or Phoebe was reacting to the situation at hand. <Don’t blame yourself. How could anyone anticipate that the first mission would be aquatic night stealth? You’ve done a magnificent job thus far.>
<You mean that?>
<I am currently walking on the ocean floor without the need to breathe in order to track what may be a terrorist cell while using senses so exotic they don’t have official names. I’ve had C.O.s who woulda…> I stopped my thought, then censored myself before saying something unfortunate in front of the ladies. <Married me if I could have done this for them. DADT be damned.>
<He’s stopped,> Abernathy said. If anyone was going to catch the slip, it would have been her. Of course, she was also least likely to mention it. <Depth approximately twenty meters, roughly two hundred meters from your current location. <Change your heading by six degrees south.>
<Still haven’t gotten the hang of the GPS system. I don’t know how to tell which way south is.>
<Oh, let me!> Moments after Phoebe called out, a screen popped up in front of my eyes, like a holographic video. <We still haven’t perfected the neural interface, so we haven’t removed the default visual display mode. I promise we’ll do better with the third generation model.>
In addition to a topographical map which only showed water from a bird’s eye perspective, I had a street-level perspective which showed nothing except my target location and distance. <No rush. I kinda like the visual display, it’s intuitive.>
<But it’s so slow and inelegant compared to interfaced tech,> Phoebe whined. <Why wouldn’t you want to be able to access everything with the same ease as your natural senses?>
<I think it would be a more efficient use of your time to design new tools than worry about upgrading old ones. Making the best use of limited resources, and all that.> Besides, I still can’t control the communication relay properly, I don’t want to imagine what more software plugged into my brain might do.
<Sorry. I promise I’ll fix that, too.>
Son of a <One of those things you come to expect from untested prototypes. Better to identify and correct flaws now than later when they might get me killed.> Not that I could envision many lethal scenarios, only humiliating ones. <Now stop apologizing for things that aren’t your fault. I get enough of that from the Canadians.>
That conversation hopefully over, I knelt and drew a straight line toward the target. Moments later my energy reserves spiked, the signal that Lynx got the message. I’d told Lynx it was the surest way to know the message was sent, though in truth it was so I had a recharge available when necessary. Now that Lynx knew where to move, she’d scout ahead while I walked along the ocean floor rather than burn strength by swimming.
I had to admit, my nerves were starting to get to me down here, in near absolute darkness, unable to see more than a few meters. My whitewashed nightvision made the dark look more like one of those zombie horror games which used fog to hide everything. Every motion felt sluggish and wrong, and the plants and fish only added to the surreal experience. It may have been beautiful, if I wasn’t expecting to fight for my life down here. I kept my spear at the ready, prepared for whatever came expecting easy prey.
Forget the moon, the ocean is by far the most alien place man has ever set foot.
<What’s that noise?> Hyper-alert as I was, I dismissed the strange echo in my ears as paranoia, but asked anyway. I had long ago learned paranoid was just a fancy word for still alive.
<Dolphins,> Phoebe said. <We haven’t perfected the echolocation systems, but your hearing can detect it. You can also hear bats and elephants, but there aren’t a lot of those underwater.>
<I imagine they prefer it that…> wait, Thassans use dolphins as horses. I rolled sideways just in time to avoid a metal spear traveling far too fast to have been launched by human hands. <We got incoming!>
I brought my spear up in time to deflect another attack. Their night vision is worse than mine and I can’t see down here, how are they so damn accurate? I stepped aside to avoid a third spear coming from behind; I didn’t have echolocation, but my proximity sensors gave me more than enough warning. In fact, avoiding the harpoons may have been a waste of energy, but blue steel was ‘only’ as tough as regular steel and I wasn’t about to take unnecessary risks.
I knocked aside another spear, this time from the side. Thus far, my systems had isolated at least two Thassans harassing me, but they were staying outside my diminished underwater range. I moved my hand down to the satchel containing my share of grenades. <What will one of the flashbangs do to the dolphins?>
<Kill them,> Phoebe answered without hesitation. <They’ll survive the explosion, but suffer permanent hearing loss. No hearing, no sonar. They’ll starve or be caught by predators, if the Thassans don’t kill them first.> In her voice was the plea that I spare the animals such a fate.
Back when I was young, westerns were still a popular thing for children to watch, complete with all those scenes where they had to shoot a crippled horse. That’s the sort of shit the bleeding-hearts won’t let you put on kid shows these days. For once, I found myself agreeing with the soccer moms. My hand moved away from the bombs; the situation wasn’t dire enough for me to kill the animals yet.
I deflected another couple spears; they were coming in faster now, and the dolphins had gotten close enough for me to confirm at least five with Thassans riding them. Glad I switched to defensive mode; they’d be a real threat without the armor and defense fields. I resumed my suddenly far less boring walk toward the mission objective. Whatever hope I had for a surprise attack had just been eliminated, so now it was just a matter of drawing fire and allowing Lynx to, as she put it, do the damage.
I half-ran, half-swam for a convenient outcropping of stone covered in plantlife. Echolocation can be beaten, I just need cover. I could hear the echoes change as I used the rocks for cover, but another pair of spears came at me- one from almost straight above. They were accurate enough that every shot would have hit if not for my early warning system and superhuman reflexes.
This equipment lets me fight off top tier Imbued and better warriors than any soldier I’ve ever worked, and Phoebe worries she didn’t do her job well enough. Maybe I just don’t understand women.
<Thank you. Uh. I mean, sorry. I promise we’ll fix the communication bugs.>
I would have said something, but I was too busy focusing on my attackers; the rider from above was the first to move close enough for me to get a visual. He had his feet tied together beneath the dolphin, rather than any proper saddle. With movements so rapid I couldn’t follow them in the murky light, he pulled a spear from a hip mounted quiver, placed the base in a strap of material, then launched it as if a rock from a sling. The dolphin twisted at the last moment, pointing his nose directly at me. As close as he was for the attack, I was forced to use my arm to block the shot.
Most notable, however, was the strip of material he wore over his eyes like a blindfold. <They can’t see me! They’re relying on the dolphins to point their attacks in the right direction!> I could only imagine the years of training and dedication it must have required to hone such skills.
<I know how to beat that!> I felt the tingle of a new program entering my system and reworking the forcefield. New sounds joined with the old, and the dolphins twisted around, then retreated from my scanning range. <Just one of your megaphone features.>
<Megaphone features?> I consulted my memory of the the uses of my shield on sound. Insulation settings that could improve stealth or protect against Imbued with sonic attacks. The ability to amplify my voice or… transmit sound from another source. <You’re using me as a boombox?>
Phoebe laughed at me. <Boombox? God you’re old. Also, give me some credit: your acoustics would make a movie theater jealous. And right now you sound like a whole pack of killer whales looking for a meal. Plus a fishing boat’s engine, just in case. Even if they figure out it’s an illusion, I can just make the whole area into the dolphin equivalent of a million funhouse mirrors.>
<That is damn fine work on short notice,> I said. I wasn’t certain how these dolphin riders trained, but without the dolphin’s senses they were blind down here. Though I now wonder why they had underwater recordings of boats at the click of a few keys. Oh well, questions for another day.
I knelt down again, drawing a semicircle in the dirt, then an arrow forward. A sign for Lynx to watch my back for a bit, then go on ahead of me. She was never to go out of sight of me, but her sight extended much further down here than mine did. Our role was that of bloodhound and hunter, with me as the hound following the scent until she got the visual. My power reserve climbed, and so I started forward.
We weren’t far from the tracking beacon now, only the length of a football field. Which might not sound like much, but keep in mind it might take months for divers to search an area the size of a football field, and right now I couldn’t see the goal posts from the five yard line. I just hoped Thassans didn’t cultivate other aquatic life to serve them in battle. I wasn’t a biologist, but I knew sharks didn’t hunt by sound. Though knowing my luck, they’d skip sharks and release clouds of deadly jellyfish in my face. Every step I took without resistance put me more on edge with new aquatic murder scenarios.
I found myself at the edge of a building, crafted of some materials I didn’t recognize. After a few moments the computer system identified it as a mixture of sedimentary stone, coral, and human bone crafted into some sort of brick. Topographical mapping revealed it as a large building, with frameworks of what must have been whale bones covered in corals. The serpentine arrangement led me to believe it was meant to look like a natural seabed formation from above, and a huge sea serpent from within, complete with a decorative rib cage.
<This is too advanced for Thassan technology and architecture,> Doctor Patil stated. It had been so long since he’d spoke that I thought he’d left to make phone calls. <I suspect it was created by an Imbued.>
Which means there’s a greater than zero chance that it’ll pick itself up off the ground and try to kill me. I suppose that thought would sound silly to an outsider, but the coalition set off several golem-buildings during the Gulf War. The Babylonians made hundreds of the things, and some either survived to the modern era, or were repaired by local Imbued to use as weapons against the Americans or each other.
My computer detected a number of human life signs inside the building, but couldn’t tell if any weren’t Thassan. <Lynx said this area was a sacred burial zone for them. I suppose it makes sense that their shaman would craft some sort of mausoleum for their dead. It doesn’t look like this place was meant for people to live in, though. Which is a problem: the outside walls are built like a fortress, and the inside is a single straight tube with plenty of alcoves to take cover behind. It’s a proverbial and literal death trap in there.>
<We don’t know that Vine is inside the building, but we don’t know she’s not,> Professor Abernathy stated. <Perhaps a flashbang or two will smoke the defenders out without putting anyone at risk?>
<Or they’ll kill the captives the same way they kill themselves rather than be taken hostage. Let’s trust the Assassin package to do what her powers are made for.> I knelt in the sand to write. Defenders inside. May be prison? One more burst of energy from Lynx let me know she understood.
I was about to step away, to watch and wait for Shannon to scout the building, when the darkness around us evaporated in a blue-white glow. Even the sand on my finger came alive with light. I was moving immediately, looking for any cover now that we’d lost the benefits of near-absolute darkness to work in.
<Bioluminescent algae, and lots of it,> Phoebe said. <They’re not native to the area, nor should they be on the sea bed. And they’re not real plants, so it shouldn’t be Vine’s power. They have other Imbued.>
A man appeared in front of me, too fast for even my eyes to follow. He was tall and gaunt, even compared to the swimmer’s build shared by the other Thassans I’d seen thus far. His face was covered in black and yellow tattoos which evoked the appearance of a human skull. His art used stained yellowish dye which resembled the real color of bone, rather than a bleached white. Similar skeletal art adorned his whole body, along with various artistic symbols which held no meaning to me.
He reached out one slender, bony hand and vanished. In the same instant I was sent spinning through the water, dozens of alarms fighting for my attention alongside the human body’s natural warning system: pain.