A tentacle shot out of the dark water, wrapping around Viktor’s leg and yanking him off his feet. Her hand grabbed for his, and she heard him scream as his wrist slipped through her fingers. Behind him, the water was boiling and frothing as something writhed beneath the surface. She lunged, trying again to grab her brother before he was dragged beneath the surface. She screamed his name and then —
“Natalya. Natalya.” Someone was shaking her. Her eyes snapped open. A moment later, a light came on, and she closed them again against the sudden brightness. “Natalya?”
She forced herself to take some deep breaths, then slowly sat up. “I’m alright.” She exhaled. “I’m alright.”
Greg nodded, then gently rubbed her back. “I’ll make some coffee.” He rose and stepped around Adele.
Adele wheeled herself all the way into the room. “Sorry, sugar.” Adele came over and patted her hand. “I heard you yelling but I couldn’t get into my chair and…”
“Why are you apologizing for…” She glanced down at herself, then promptly grabbed the covers and yanked them up to hide her breasts. “Shit.”
“It’s not the first time he’s seen you topless.” Adele shrugged. From the kitchen, a few banging sounds could be heard.
“Six years old and playing in the sprinklers doesn’t count.” Natalya sighed. She could tell her face was crimson. “I’m going to buy some pajamas.” She stuck her tongue out at Adele. “Just not old lady ones like yours.”
“Hey…” Adele pointed at her nightshirt. “Don’t knock Minnie Mouse.” She guided the wheelchair back, then turned it toward the door. “I’m going to go rescue Greg from the coffee machine.”
“I’ll be there in a minute to start breakfast.” Natalya sighed. “After I commit seppuku from humiliation.”
He stared at the contraption in front of him. There was a sledgehammer in the garage. He could toss this thing onto the driveway, a few quick blows, then — “You may not kill my coffee machine.”
“Where the fuck do you put the coffee in?” He didn’t turn to look at Adele.
“Get out of the way and watch.” She wheeled over and opened the drawer.
Greg looked over her shoulder. “Seriously?” There were approximately twelve different containers inside. “Do you not just have coffee?”
“Barbarian.” He couldn’t see her face, but he could tell she was rolling her eyes at him. She measured the grounds carefully, then added them to a spot on the coffee machine, pressed approximately ninety buttons, then started doing something loud with milk and bubbles. “You have an engineering degree and can’t make simple coffee.”
“I can make simple coffee.” He started into the kitchen, only to immediately get shooed back out by Natalya. “Grounds. Hot water. Drink.”
“Barbarian.” Natalya gave him an affectionate smile as she took bacon out of the refrigerator. “So, do we get to see the boat today?”
“Tomorrow. Give the paint time to dry.” He took a seat at the table, well out of their way. He’d intended to just get a motel room, but they’d insisted their guest room was far more comfortable. Monstro had certainly thought so. The dog was still sprawled on the bed. And the girls certainly put together a better spread than any ‘free breakfast’ he’d get. Natalya was making homemade biscuits. “It’ll be ready for a shakedown cruise on Friday if you two want to come.”
“Oh, absolutely.” Adele begin pouring coffee and adding various other things to the cups.
“I was going to ask, actually.” Natalya smiled over her shoulder after him. “I’ve got a new underwater camera drone I need to test at depth. Might ask you to go over it as well, see what improvements you can make”
“Can do.” Part of him wanted to ask her about the nightmare, but he was fairly sure he knew what it had been about. She’d cried out her brother’s name. “This for your thesis?”
“Yes. Though they are talking about adding a sea combat category to the local battle-bots club.” Adele brought over the tray of drinks. While Natalya started making eggs, Adele glanced up at him and lowered her voice. “Thanks for not saying anything about her being, you know…”
“You know…” He blinked.
“She was really embarrassed about…” Adele stared at him for a moment, then snickered. “And you didn’t even notice.” Adele gestured at her own breasts.
It took him a second to realize what she meant, and he winced. “Little sisters don’t have breasts or other things.” He took a drink of the coffee to hide his discomfort. Technically, they weren’t related, but he’d known both girls since they were still in diapers. They might as well have been his little sisters. “Especially when they are both seven-and-a-half.”
“Dork.” Adele poked him in the arm, but smiled.
Xue sat back, watching the tank. It was the size of a railroad boxcar, and in fact had started its life as one. One panel had been replaced with specially treated bullet-proof glass, giving him a clear view of what it contained. The top had a hatch sealed with a grate, and water was sloshing out as the inhabitant of the tank swam furiously back and forth. Other than the inhabitant, the tank contained little. There was less than an inch of sand on the bottom, and a few small plants. Nothing to block the view. Nothing the inhabitant could use as a weapon. The filtration system was behind another grate, denying the inhabitant any access to it.
Taking his eyes off the tank’s inhabitant was difficult. The creature was fascinating. Its tail was far less delicate than the trailing fins made it look, as the creature had proved by using said tail to crush one of the handlers against the side of the tank. The blow had been powerful enough to destroy several of the handler’s internal organs, leaving the man to die a slow and painful death. He’d been the more fortunate of the two foolish enough to be unwary around the creature.
“Incredible.” His secretary stood behind him, staring.
“Isn’t it?” Xue smiled. “More than worth its’ weight in gold.”
“Does he have a name?” She glanced down at him.
“I’m sure it does, but it doesn’t speak our language.” He took a deep breath. “We will have to teach it, enough to understand simple commands.” He laughed. “The handlers call it the sea devil.”
“He’s both more and less human looking than I expected.” She tilted her head. “He looks…” She gave a small shake of her head. “Vicious.”
“It’s a predator, my dear.” It took only one look at the creature’s mouth to prove the truth of that statement. The face looked human, until you looked at the teeth. Sharp teeth, designed to rip and tear. The spines along it’s back and tail looked decorative, but it had proved well able to use them as weapons. The idea of facing a creature like this in the open water was terrifying. It was dangerous enough in the tank.
His eyes went to the iron collar around its neck. The light on it was blinking green. He smiled, then tapped a button on the remote. The light flashed yellow once. The creature’s furious back and forth movement paused, then continued again. “What did you do?” Genna looked over at him.
“I gave it the command to go to the crate.” He frowned. “It is a remarkably slow learner.” He hit the button again. If he hadn’t been looking, he would barely have noticed the creature flinch. The collar would have chimed, letting the creature know it was to go to the hatch. A handler was waiting. He sighed. “It will, however, learn.” He hit another button.
The collar flashed red, and the creature’s body began to convulse. The fins and tail began shifting in color as it they thrashed. And even through the water and the glass, he heard the creature scream.
Natalya lifted the wheelchair into the boat. Rather than try to figure out a gangplank, Greg had just picked her up and carried her onto the vessel. “Wow.” Adele grinned at him. “It looks great.” It was starting to look more yacht than fishing boat. Frankly, she was a little surprised he could handle a ship this size by himself.
“Thanks.” He set her back into the chair, then offered her a life vest. When she narrowed her eyes, he narrowed his right back. “Rules are rules.” He snapped his fingers at Natalya. “You too.”
“Got it, captain.” Natalya gave him a playful salute, then threw a life vest at him as well.
When he put it on, she sighed, and put hers on as well. “Alright, captain, the science officer taking over the bridge now.” She grinned.
“This way…” He wheeled her most of the way, then helped her shift from the chair to the console. She couldn’t really drive the vessel from this location, but she could monitor the equipment. She started setting up and securing the laptop for the drone. “So, if I’m the captain and you’re the science officer, what does that make Natalya?”
“First mate, of course.” Natalya brought the cooler in. “I also brought real food.”
“I’ll start getting us on course.” He headed back up.
“How are things looking?” Natalya came to look over her shoulder.
“He’s got a decent underwater camera setup already. That will help.” She pointed at the screens. “Depth finder, other stuff.” She tapped some buttons. “This is just a field test though. We are going to need more crew for the rest. At least a couple more divers. Greg is sweet for helping but we can’t ask him to do all the work.”
“And someone else to help you control the drones.” Natalya nodded. “I intend to do a lot of the diving myself, but yeah.” She put a hand on Adele’s shoulder and leaned in to frown at the screen. “I also want an extra computer or two so we can run tests simultaneously.” She straightened. “I’m going to talk to Greg about coming onto the project officially.”
“You are?” Adele blinked. “I thought you —”
“Yeah, I mean, he’s got the whole big brother complex thing, but he’s a skilled diver, he knows his engineering shit, the ex-Navy thing can be a real plus with Coast Guard types, he’s not stupid, and we know we can trust him.” She folded her arms. “I’ll put up with him getting a tad overprotective now and then.” She shrugged. “It’s an improvement on the ‘condescend to the little ladies’ and the ‘walking sexual harassment lawsuit’ things of the last two divers I interviewed.”
“Well, if he agrees, then…” Adele stared at the screen for a minute.
“And he knows already.” Natalya’s voice became small. “He won’t dismiss us as crazy.” She sighed.
Adele reached up to hug Natalya, and felt her friend return the hug. “No. Greg already knows we are crazy.” Natalya laughed a little. “Plus, he does come with his own ship…”
“I admit…” Natalya straightened up and looked around. “That bonus definitely crossed my mind.”
He stood, watching the creature thrash in the restraints. Its tail lashed furiously back and forth, enough that he was starting to be concerned it was going to injure itself in its frantic efforts to get back to the water. Slowly, it’s struggles started to weaken. A small smile came to his face as he watched it keep trying to fight, gasping for breath as it tried in vain to get back into the tank. It would be pissed, he was sure, that it’s only refuge was also it’s prison.
In the end, it took nearly four minutes. Then the creature shifted. The tail slowly shrank before splitting in two, forming legs. The upper body lost most of its inhuman appearance, though it was still clearly not human. The ears pointed, and he could see the gill slits along its neck. There were green and blue undertones to its skin, and its eyes were an inhuman black, like a shark. It drew a lungful of air, and went back to fighting the handlers.
“Amphibious.” Genna gave a small shake of her head as she watched the scene.
“In this form, yes. I’m told it can take a form nearly indistinguishable from that of a human, but it has thus far resisted. Until a form of communication can be established, it’s unlikely we will be able to compel it in that direction.” He leaned on his cane. “This form, however, will enable interaction.”
The handlers managed to drag the struggling creature to the prepared chamber and strap it into the examination chair. They had to bind it tightly, even strap its head into place to prevent it from trying to bite them. Xue entered after they had finished, taking a seat. The creature clearly recognized him, because it started snarling in his direction.
It was bright. Too bright. Painfully bright. His eyes hurt, and he was having trouble making out one blobbed shape from another. Yalathanil smelled the thing that had put the metal around his neck. He hissed in its direction. Sounds. They were making more of the sounds at him, but they sounded strange and distorted. Human speech, filtered through air rather than water.
They bound him to cold metal with straps that were rough against his skin. The sounds were sharp. He focused on the thing he’d been sold to. It was making noises at him. Its hair was white, and it looked more frail than the other things. Like brittle coral. There was another odor to it as well, something rotten. <If you let me go, I will kill you all quickly.>
More babbling in their strange tongue. They clearly didn’t understand a word of what he’d said, but the fact that he’d spoken seemed to thrill them. Things were secured to him, fastened to his skin with a sticky substance. The strange screen in front of him suddenly glowed, and there was an image in its center. A round circle. A sound. “Circle.”
Yalathanil started fighting at the restraints again, trying to pull the irritating things off him. The image blinked, and the sound repeated. “Circle.” He tried to free his legs, but there wasn’t enough give in the restraint for him to get any leverage. The image blinked again, and the sound repeated for a third time. “Circle.”
<Let me —>
There was a chime, and then a burning sensation everywhere the things were attached. They sent pain through his nerves, making him shake and scream. Yalathanil jerked, then went still as the sensation stopped. The image on the screen blinked again, and the sound repeated. “Circle.”