Planet of Tranquility
As he mentally prepared to accept a bio-adaptation device, John ran his hand through his hair, brushing it out of his eyes. Then he noticed the ssHreana woman gazing at him, her eyes reflective. “Am I missing something?” he asked, puzzled.
‘I was remembering Maureen saying something to me just before she left with the expedition. It was about your hair, and how young you looked with it a bit longer than you normally wear it,’ Murreena explained.
John gazed at her, pondering the revelation. He had considered his over long hair as just another manifestation of his stress disorder. Up until recently, he hadn’t really cared one way or the other. And Maureen thought it made him look younger? “I was thinking what a nuisance it was falling in my face like this,” John told her with a wry smile.
Silverado sat on his shoulder, cheeping merrily and tugging on his dripping hair. ‘Easier to hang on to,’ the zanling quipped.
“Now I really will have to cut it,” John retorted, staring into his friend’s golden eyes. He couldn’t hide a glint of amusement and Silverado squeaked brightly. Turning back to Murreena, he said, “I believe I have a device that needs to be...uh attached.” He felt his heart beating faster and mentally cursed his fears. This was not the time for his mind to play games with him or for his determination to turn to so much jelly. John was irritated that despite all of his sessions with Grilong, there were still anxieties that he had to consciously turn aside.
“Dad, it’s quite painless. I know you’d rather Mom were here, but I’ll be happy to help, even if it’s just moral support,” Judy said softly.
John gazed at her, considering. The water still dripped down her shoulders and Mark, from the vantage point of the carrier strapped to her chest, played with her wet hair, causing the droplets to fly everywhere. “No, princess. I think I’d rather do this alone, but I appreciate the offer,” he said lovingly.
Murreena led him toward a side room. It appeared to John that this room had been altered for the purpose of attaching the adaptation devices; it almost had the appearance of a doctor’s office, clinical and sterile. ‘John, sit down while I prepare. Judy is right, it is painless and once installed, it regulates the body in making the necessary changes. Has Maureen told you the principles behind this type of invention?’
John walked to the observation port and watched various species of aquatic life skipping through the coral. He turned and observed Murreena pulling various items from a cabinet, including a small, palm-sized rectangular module that he recognized as the bio-adaptation device. “She tried to, but I really don’t remember much of what she said. Only that it caused a mutation to biological processes that exist deep in human genes.”
‘Yes, it is too complicated to explain the whole process now, but gill-like formations and functions are present in most humanoid species, including the species who lose those functions during the gestation period. This mechanism causes various organs to revert to those earlier functions, such as being able to obtain oxygen through the use of gill-like organs or bio-adapted lungs. And because you will be pulling oxygen from the water you are breathing, your body will always be pressure-normal with your surroundings. That is something that was not possible to totally accomplish with a rebreather.’
“That sounds easy enough,” he answered and then sobered immediately. “Shall we get on with it?”
While relieved that there were no flashbacks such as John had previously experienced, Murreena felt a slight nervousness in her friend that was not just from anxiety for his wife. She wished she didn’t have to force him into something he still wasn’t quite ready for, but it couldn’t be helped. The danger to all of their loved ones was too great to back down now. Reaching into the cabinet, she pulled out a vial and a small syringe. Regardless of his pride, John would not be able to totally accept the mechanism in his present anxious state.
The professor walked back to the window. “So I’ll be able to go into depths that the marine scientists back home just dream about, right?” he bantered. “Jacques Cousteau, eat your heart out,” he added, pushing the persistent memories out of the forefront of his consciousness. He had to do this, it was imperative to find the expedition, to find his wife and son and son-in-law.
‘I assume you are referring to a marine scientist on your Earth? Yes, you are correct. This Jacques Cousteau would benefit greatly by using this device. Please sit down, John. I cannot do this if you are nervously pacing. In fact, one of the conditions of the implanting is for the recipient to be completely relaxed and calm. You are neither,’ Murreena said, taking John by the arm and guiding him to the contoured chair. He noticed the syringe in her hand, and shot her a look that was rife with irritation. ‘John, we don’t have time to do this slowly. The syringe only contains something meant to relax you enough to accept the device. It will last for about an hour with no residual effects.’ Silverado perched on the back of the chair squeaking his encouragement.
With a sigh, John acquiesced, nodding. Now was not the time to ‘tough it out.’ Immediately, he felt the prick of the needle in his shoulder, and a gentle flow of soothing lethargy coursed through his body. “By the way, Jacques Cousteau would benefit from this device only if he was alive,” John quipped as he slid a bit deeper in the chair, his body thoroughly relaxed. He felt Murreena’s musical laughter flowing through his brain.
Her fingers parted his hair behind his right ear and John felt the coldness of the device as the circlet settled gently around his head. But there was no constricting pressure, and, thankfully, there were still no flashbacks to haunt him. With a slight smile, he felt what was going on, but wasn’t worried about it. A very slight pinprick of pain gave evidence of the device’s activation. Slight dizziness came and went almost immediately. John next felt a heaviness settle into his lungs, a heaviness that made him gasp a bit for air. It didn’t worsen and he looked up at Murreena. “I believe your device is working,” he murmured.
After a few minutes, Murreena pulled out another device that looked a great deal like Maureen’s diagnostic tool, and held it near his body. ‘Yes, all evidence indicates a smooth transition. Are you ready for your first excursion as a water-breather?’
“Yes, the sooner we take off after Murwon and Maureen, the better,” he said, pulling himself to his feet. A peculiar weakness seemed to have settled in, different from the lethargy that the drug had induced. Holding on to the back of the chair, he looked at Murreena for an explanation.
‘John, the feeling of weakness is a result of the change in your lungs and circulatory system. The mutation now allows for oxygen to be taken from the water more efficiently than from the air. You will be able to stay out of the water for short periods of time, as I can, but the air you are breathing now is not getting to your bloodstream effectively. You are somewhat oxygen deprived, especially with the recent change. Your system will stabilize, but we will soon need to go out.’
“Then let’s go.” John suddenly found Murreena at his side and was grateful. His legs felt rubbery and his ears were ringing. He allowed himself to be guided out of the little room and to the airlock. Penny suddenly appeared at his other side, making sidelong glances at him, concern in her eyes. “I’m fine, Penny. Just need to get out for a bit of fresh air,” he told her with a smile. Penny giggled in relief.
As the airlock filled with water, John unconsciously held his breath, knowing it was silly under the circumstances, but unable to prevent the involuntary gesture. Finally, his lungs released the trapped air and he sucked in the surrounding water. The feel of the water rushing into his lung cavities was also strange and he floated motionless for a moment, getting used to it. After a short while he became acclimatized and felt the weakness dissipate. He swam around the reception building watching the fishes and other aquatic animals with the fascination of one who is not inhibited by tanks or similar gear.
Penny and the lizards swam nearby. ‘How do you like it, Daddy?’ she asked.
‘It’s... different,’ he replied slowly, trying to assess just how he did feel. ‘But the freedom of movement is incredible.’
‘Oh, I knew you’d love it, Daddy!’ John not only felt Penny’s joy, but Judy’s as well. Tendrils of color and wonder flowed among their thoughts and John realized that he was picking up Mark’s emotions as well. Then tiny feelings of worry began to infringe on his relaxed state of well-being, and John turned to Murreena, also conscious of his own anxieties for his wife and family.
‘Murreena, we need to prepare to leave. I know you said that my body is adaptive to changes in pressure, but what about cold and light?’ John asked. ‘And speed. I doubt right now, I could sustain a long swim, especially a fast-paced one.’
‘You are right, John. You will need to wear special swim gear to protect your body from the cold. Our outer layer of skin protects us from extremes in cold, but the device has it’s limitations, it can’t do that for you. You will also need to wear a mask, which is made to help you see well in dark conditions. We have scooters that will get us to the site very quickly. The others swam, pulling a sled, which could hold the scientific equipment. That is the reason that they went slower,’ Murreena explained.
John nodded and headed toward the building’s airlock. Once inside, he posed the next question that had come to his mind. “What about the zanlings? It’ll be quite deep for them.”
‘If they choose to travel with us, they will be provided with a small habitat, similar to the bubble your grandson was in before being implanted with the device. It will allow them the means to feed and to get air without going to the surface. Now, let us go to Korellis. I must inform the Homeplace podmaster of your findings. We will gather our supplies and leave before the first rest cycle.’ Murreena explained.
Suddenly sensing strangely morose thoughts emanating from Mark, John was disturbed. Calling on Silverado to help him, John gathered his grandson close to him and tried to make sense of the thoughts in the baby’s mind. There was none of the bright inquisitiveness usually accompanying Mark’s thought processes. Images of Don, Maureen and Will prevailed, along with darker colors, as though they were enveloped in a dismal fog. The baby began fussing and kicking in his arms. Judy watched, alarm evident in her features as well. She was well attuned to her son’s moods, and was very easily picking up his dark thoughts.
‘Danger, John. Baby senses danger for Don, Maureen and Will. Flitter feels it, too. We must hurry.’ Silverado sounded desperate.
With happy squeaks, the zanlings played tag inside their bubble habitat, causing it to bump against Don’s thigh. ‘All right, you three, cut it out. We’re out to conduct experiments, not see how well you can imitate my son,’ he admonished them. There was laughter in his thoughts, though. Maggie turned her luminescent eyes on him and cheeped softly. Carefully she eased her way out of the membranous airlock and swam toward Maureen. Nova and Jimmy Doolittle remained inside, perusing the airlock and then settling down together at the bottom of the bubble. ‘You two are going to get a bad reputation for being lazy little bums, you know,’ Don told them.
‘Not a lazy little bum, just careful. Tired anyway,’ Nova informed him, his golden eyes twinkling merrily.
Don swam behind Murwon, taking up one of the lines to the sled that carried the seismic instruments they had brought along to measure activity below the ocean floor. At times it had been tedious, but the pilot had felt more than rewarded by the incredible sights along the way. While it was relatively void of sunlight this far below the surface, it was by no means pitch black. As on Earth, many of the creatures carried their own means of light in the form of phosphorescent appendages or spots on their sides. Some of the coral glowed with the cold light of myriads of tiny creatures, while a few of the plant-forms shed green or yellowish auras.
His swim mask pulled in all available light, making dim shadows more detailed. To his left, swimming almost parallel to him, was a large, lumpish looking creature, at least eight feet long and sporting a long line of bright white spots down its side. The head turned toward him and the mouth opened to show several rows of needle sharp teeth. Thankfully the mouth wasn’t big enough to take a bite out of any part of his anatomy, except his extremities, but Don kept glancing at it as he swam next to Murwon. It lazily swam away and the pilot breathed a mental sigh of relief.
‘The brivel feed mainly on torinthin, small fish-like creatures that are about the size of your fingers, Don. He was curious and wanted to know what kind of creature you were,’ Murwon explained.
‘Not as we are, but it does possess a form of semi-intelligence. I can pick up rudimentary thoughts from brivel along with emotion.’
‘How close are we to the epicenter?’ Don asked, changing the subject.
‘We are just a bit more than halfway there,’ Murwon answered. ‘There is somewhat less than a day’s cycle left to travel.’
Don had been very anxious about bringing Will along on this expedition, but was assured that the boy and his mother would be sent back at the very first sign of any danger. Maureen had planned on returning before the expedition had reached the site pre-planned by the scientists, thus keeping the boy from any possible danger. Don suspected that an equally important reason was that she was worried about John, even though all indicators and communications showed that all was well on the Jupiter II. Don noticed, however, that Maureen, as a biochemist, was totally fascinated, mesmerized and enthralled with the plant and animal life. And for that reason, he knew it would be hard for her to turn back.
The only regret she had voiced before the expedition was that John was unable to accompany them. It was his regret as well, not only because he missed John’s companionship, but he was well aware of his friend’s expertise in geophysics. Don felt grateful for the respite that John had been experiencing recently from his stress caused ordeal and hoped that soon all of that would be behind him. Everything had seemed to indicate that might be the case.
They swam along steadily, watching the reef pass slowly below them, occasionally met by other members of this dim world. As with the brivel, most were simply curious about the nature of these new visitors. Once Murwon had to chase off two shark-like predators, but otherwise the trip was a safe one.
Maureen broke into his thoughts. ‘Don, I think it’s time for Will and I to go back. We’re not that far from the site, and I also want to see if John has been able to make voice contact. Srillen will drive us back on the small scooter.’
‘Sure, Maureen. Maybe when John feels like trying out one of the devices, you two can have your own scientific expedition,’ he told her, his mental laughter causing her to smile.
She nodded and swam ahead to find her youngest child. ‘Will,’ she called.
‘With Karoc, Mom,’ came the answer. Maureen swam in the direction indicated, slowly making out the large object ahead of her as she approached. The shPhren watchman hovered just above Will, his luminous blue eyes looking off into the darkness around them. He was a huge creature, the size of a gray whale, his thin flippers giving the appearance of long arms, the tips equipped with sharp claws. Slight tendrils of worry danced in his head, and Maureen wondered what had alarmed Karoc.
All too soon she knew. Out of the dim reaches of the ocean floor, she saw figures rushing toward them on small, motorized vehicles. They were wearing bulky suits, but were clearly humanoid and definitely not ssHreana. ‘Will!’ she shouted, swimming furiously toward her son. Karoc swung his massive bulk around with surprising speed, his fins poised for battle, but the shPhren was not faster than the laser beam shooting out from the weapon one of their attackers was holding. It hit the massive creature in the midsection, slicing it across the middle. With an agonized scream, the creature slowly sank to the bottom, its phosphorescent blood staining the dim depths.
Don dropped the line of the sled and swam after Maureen. He cursed his lack of adequate weaponry, his slowness and lack of vigilance. A weapon swung toward Will and Maureen. ‘Maureen! Watch out!’ Another of their antagonists pointed a similar weapon toward him. A flash brightened the dimness, but immediately sent him into darkest oblivion.