Illustrations by Mark Fults

The two men walked along the beach, hands crammed into the pockets of their windbreakers. The older man cursed.

"Shit, I forgot how cold Massachusetts is in April!"

The younger man laughed. "That's what you get for hanging out in Corpus Christi all year long."

The breeze ruffled the older man's hair. It looked like a cresting wave that had wandered from the surf. "I'm too old to deal with the snow and ice any more."

The old man kicked a piece of driftwood. "Guess what movie I went to see with my granddaughter?"

"Around the World in 80 Days?"

"Hah! That's what I wanted to see, but you know how teenagers are. She wanted to see 'The Creature Walks Among Us".

The younger man stopped and laughed. "Hilarious. Isn't that like the third Creature from the Black Lagoon movie?"

The older man grinned. "You need to see it. Right up your alley."

The younger man pulled his hands out of his pockets and rubbed them together. "Admiral, I know you didn't come all the way up here to chat about cheap horror movies."

"I hope you don't mind my dropping in so suddenly," said the Admiral. "I know it hasn't been all that long."

"Long enough. A year, almost, since Marie passed away. It's OK." He forced a smile. "What's the problem, sir?"

"We've got a real poser on our hands, here. Something there is that's neither fish nor fowl. You're the only marine biologist I know who was nuts enough to also study engineering in college. I also know your record of working with the Massachusetts State Police as a consultant."

"You mean what I picked up in forensics helping them with stiffs in the drink?"

Both men chuckled. "I'm forming a little board of inquiry, here, and I need you to head the team."

Tom bent down and picked up a shell. He skimmed in into the surf. "Did you come through Annapolis on your way here?"

"Why, yes, Tom." The old man's eyes blazed. "And Nevada, too."

That got to Tom. He stopped walking, eyes no longer quite so blank. "God damn. How big of a can of worms did you go and open?"

The Admiral took off his hat and scratched his head. "Oh, no, son, not us. The Brits. The Royal Navy found something they'd like us to have a look at."

Tom frowned. The solemn, hypnotic boom and roar of the waves echoed between sender and receiver. "How dangerous is it?"

"Not at all, that they can tell--so far. It's all in the implications."

"Strategic?"

Again, that fire in the Admiral's eyes. "Yes, if you consider outer space in your strategic planning."

Tom lowered his voice. "They think it's extra-terrestrial?"

"Sure looks like it. They found some kind of craft floating off Tristan da Cunha. Looks to be an alien capsule, complete with bodies."

"Were they recovered?"

"Yes. They may have been alive when the Limeys tried to grab them, but something went wrong. The capsule was apparently pressurized. It was compromised in the recovery attempt, and---" He spread his big fingers. "Boom."

Tom took a deep breath. "Any theories where they're from?"

"Just grasping at straws, at this point. Word around the campfire is that they must have come from some kind of water-based planet." The Admiral chuckled rustily. "Why the hell else would they have used the middle of the South Atlantic for a landing zone?"

"Where's the thing now?"

"In a Royal Naval Academy research facility on Tristan. They're not too keen on moving it yet. MI-6 is just about busting a gut trying to keep it out of the papers.

Tom turned towards the dunes and began to churn uphill.

"I may be a little old for this," he called behind him. "But I'm still game. Let's go."

"You're too old?" The Admiral laughed and clapped him on the back when he caught up. "All right, then. We're on a flight at seventeen-hundred. How fast can you pack?"

#

"Commander Chadwick, this is Tom Brooks from the States. He's the hired gun we've brought in to head your special team."

Chadwick grasped Tom' hand firmly, looking him straight in the eyes. The Commanders' eyes were steel-blue and set deep in a ruddy, horsey English face. "Admiral Dillard's briefed us about you, Tom. Says you're the best there is."

Tom smiled. "I just have an unusual combination of skills. But good to hear."

"Tom was top of his Engineering class at Annapolis. He later decided to switch fields to Marine Biology."

"Impressive," the Commander said dryly. "I believe Admiral Dillard had apprised you of the fact that the Royal Navy appointed me to supervise this operation, so you are nominally under my control."

Tom smiled. "Old England meets New England, huh? I believe we'll get along fine."

The Commander didn't seem to get the witticism. "Um. . . Right. Very good. This way, gentlemen."

The Commander led them down a clean white hallway and through double doors. "Time for a first look at our subjects."

They followed him through the green-and-white maze of the lab wing, and through a hissing airlock into a pressurized exterior room with two double doors beyond that. The Commander closed and locked these behind him, quickly flipping a wall switch that threw harsh light onto an inner sanctum beyond a thick window.

In the center of the room, a vast steel table with drains on either side was littered with large black shards of the broken sphere. Tom got close to the glass, peering in and glancing back and forth quickly at the other two men. "Amazing. Looks like obsidian! About. . .twelve feet in diameter. Curiouser and curiouser."

Admiral Dillard pointed to the two plastic trays beyond the shattered sphere. Tom looked carefully, looked again, and tried to swallow the lump in his throat. It wouldn't go.

Floating in oddly-colored brine, the decapod creatures in each tray were over three feet long.

"Didn't someone once say 'jumbo shrimp' is an oxymoron?" The Admiral laughed. The Commander wasn't amused.

#

The person who first spotted the sphere was local shrimp fisherman Richard Swain. He had assumed when he saw the craft--from its shape and color--that it was a derelict mine left over from WWII. "One time, we had a big Japanese one in the net, and we had to call you blokes before," he told Commander Chadwick. "The old Nip mines, they've come over on the sub-Antarctic currents from the South Pacific for years."

"Since when is a mine twelve feet across?" Chadwick snapped back as he handed him an envelope with some hush money.

Swain shrugged. "I didn't get close enough to see how big it was. Wot should I do, Captain Bligh, knock up to see if anybody was home?"

At the time of the discovery, the HMS Portland was only two hundred miles away on a run from Ascension Island to St. Helena. It made a quick diversion and landed at Edinburgh, Tristan's only settlement, the following morning.

In light of the prevailing currents, Commander Chadwick was flabbergasted to find Swain's "mine" at the same coordinates where he'd found it. He tagged it with a new gadget, an American radio buoy. When he heard this later, Tom winced; his good friend Dr. Bill Bascom invented that buoy. "God, what Bill would give to be here," he later thought. "But I know the CIA doesn't trust him."

Chadwick sent a few of his first mates out a Zodiac craft to reconnoiter the sphere, at which point "mine" became an obvious misnomer. He ordered the men to bring the object ashore.

They set up the Zodiac's platform on a ledge of jagged basalt, Chadwick said. As the sphere rose and then rolled onto the ledge, it struck an outcropping and exploded in a shower of hot water and foul gases.

#

Tristan da Cunha is 30 miles in circumference, but has only one settlement of 300 people. Most of the volcanic island is uninhabited. The Royal Navy hastily built their underground lab on the far west peak of the island, inaccessible by overland means. Commander Chadwick operated from his frigate, and the team was brought in by helicopter.

Her Majesty's Navy gave Tom a brain trust of three assistants with heavy security clearances and credentials to match--and sometimes surpass--his own.

Jenny Acres was one of the first women accepted for the Royal Air Force, a native Liverpudlian whose specialty of late was plane crashes far out at sea. When she was recruited for the project, she it "a respite."

Andries Phinney was an Afrikaner whiz kid on loan from the University of Port Elizabeth in South Africa who specialized in Cryptozoology with a particular emphasis on Coelacanth habitats.

Fritz Halpert was a young and promising German grad student, a biochemist specializing in non-aerobic life systems.

Tom had a good 30 years on all three, and eyed them warily when the Commander introduced them all around. As they prepared for their first work session in the lab, he tried to crack jokes like any Bostonian, if only to break the ice.

"We're a regular United Nations," he quipped as he scrubbed up at the big sink in the antechamber outside the "clean room."

Phinney scowled as he pulled on a splatter proof eye-shield with a latex hood. "I hope we get a damned sight more done than Hammarskjold's Flying Circus," he shot back.

Acres slid her vermilion ponytail into the hood and snapped it on with one go. "Amen to that," she told Phinney, as she clapped Tom on the back. Tom looked at where her hand had been, fumbling for his own gloves.

"Yes, gut," Halpert mumbled, first to turn for the airlock. He was clearly uncomfortable. Tom didn't know whether to ascribe that to shyness or lack of facility with English. The airlock hissed and shut as he wheeled it closed with a mighty THWOOMP.

"All right, group," Tom said to them. "Your Marine Engineer, me, would like to get some dimensions on the ship and make some notes. I'm going to rebuild this baby on the drawing board and see how she worked. Jenny, feel free to hover. We need stress patterns, rate of explosive decompression, blunt force trauma measurements to our chitinous friends, the works. Speaking of which. . ."

Tom reached beneath the table and produced an alarmingly large med-kit tackle box, gray and featureless save for a red cross above the hasp. "Andries. Fritz. Your turn, too. Hope you brought your lobster bibs."

"Was bedeutet lobstah bib?" asked Fritz as he unpocketed a fancy scalpel laminated in plastic.

Tom shook his head. "Es macht nichts."

Jenny, who had already gone under the table, came up with two more plastic kit-boxes, vaguely labeled "BIO." They were ready to start.

#

It was quickly obvious to Tom that though the capsule was made of relatively brittle obsidian, its crafters compensated for the material's limitations by weaving strong strands of high-tensile magnesium around and throughout the entire oblate spheroid.

Jenny put the smallest pieces together at a small drafting-table in the corner, and photographed Tom's work over his shoulder roughly once every half hour. At one point, she made mention of the woven metal, which now stuck out in shredded strands from each jagged shard of the craft on Tom's table.

Tom nodded. "Clearly, these creatures came from an aquatic planet with a great deal of volcanism, to build with obsidian and magnesium together."

"Sure," Jenny said through the sable paintbrush in her teeth. She jigsaw-puzzled two maddeningly tiny pieces of black glass back together with a chipped index fingernail,

"Magnesium precipitates into nodules on our own ocean floor. Why not theirs?"

"That might explain why they dropped in near to Tristan, also." Tom added. "Perhaps their home world is water planet where the only land is volcanic. They'd be hunting for the most home-like conditions to land, sure. S.O.P."

"Don't we sit on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge?" she asked, as she removed the brush from her teeth and put it aside. She reached back for her Leica camera.

"This island is an volcano that rises out the east slope of the ridge," said Tom. "What are you finding there?"

"It's hard to tell what this stuff does," she replied. "Have we found a power source, yet, big lad?"

Tom moved down the table to a larger shard of the capsule's wall. A bubble of lead-like metal thrust out from the obsidian, clearly threaded in and looking slightly removable or, at the very least, movable in some fashion. He wiggled it out gingerly, turning it like a big light bulb.

Red lights flashed in the clean room. A pre-recorded Oxonian voice barked RADIATION. RADIATION. DECONTAMINATE IMMEDIATELY. RADIATION. RADIATION. RAD LEVEL APPROACHI...

Jenny's sprays of reconstructed glass-sculpture went hell-to-breakfast. Andries dropped his critter back into the tray with a thunk. Fritz ducked out from under Phinney's giant shadow and became a blond blur out the airlock in three seconds flat.

After a brisk hosing-down in the safe room, Tom reminded them all of the protocol for waiting twenty-four hours after a rad leak to begin again. "The integrity of the lab will be checked and evaluated. Thoroughly. This is probably a good time to catch up on reading reports. Fritz, Jenny, glad you brought those cameras. See what you get in the darkroom while we wait."

They all nodded. Andries was still wiping at his hands as though he'd caught some kind of disease.

#

Tom and Jenny used the time to review the photos of the craft taken during the recovery attempt with an instant camera the Royal Navy had brought along. "This little toy takes good pictures at sea for a land camera," Jenny quipped.

"It's called a Polaroid Land Camera because it was invented by a Dr. Land," Tom said.

"I know." She laid the photo down and rubbed her forehead. "Are you thinking what I'm thinking?"

Tom picked up the photo labeled SWAIN STILL #5 in Chadwick's hemorrhoidal copperplate. "That this thing was from a planet with a much denser ocean?"

"Yes." She picked up the folder of post-explosion photographs like a kid with a sore tooth, slapping her own hand away after a moment. Tom laughed.

"Makes sense, since its interior pressure was obviously so high. Perhaps it was disabled, and floating around helplessly on the surface. There's a crash site for you, dear. Imagine."

Jenny shuddered. "Have Andries or Fritz gotten anything tangible about the origins of the pilots, or are they still stuck bickering about hypothetics and scale?"

Tom looked up. "You know," he admitted, "I haven't heard a peep from either of them about it. What do you mean, scale?" Something smelled a lot more rotten than the clean room. He cursed himself for a paranoid old fool, but the sore tooth in his own thoughts wanted picking. It followed him to bed that night.

#

Chadwick's adjutant, First Lieutenant Edmiston, flipped on the microphone switch and hit "Record." He heard the low, humming room tone of the Clean Room, and the South African speaking first.

"As unfamiliar as I am with this alien biology," said Andries. "I can't say whether these creatures were alive when the capsule was compromised. But it's clear they suffered massive decompression."

Fritz sniffed and flipped the claw of Crewman #2 over with his prized scalpel. "From the blunt force at the joints, yes, but the rest is all fairly normal morphology for an invertebrate."

Tom glanced over at their workspace. Both translucent, gray shrimp-like creatures in the trays had intact exoskeletons but the inner pulp of organs and thick ichor was all badly liquefied into a nightmare of high school biology.

The decapods had no eyes, but atop their heads were translucent gray chitinous v-shaped organs. Andries looked over at Tom. "These are probably sensory organs," he told him. "Our pilot and navigator, here, probably sense infrared or EM the same way we see light."

"Fair enough." Tom had sketched a view of the craft on a graph pad. "That probably explains why the portholes were so opaque."

From her drafting table in the other corner, Jenny piped in, "Thaaank you! Because they weren't intended to admit light in any spectrum we understand. Cross that off the WTF list. Well done, Andries."

Andries bowed but said nothing; his hands were full of great gooey pumpkin-seed scoops of internal organs. He cleaned and weighed them on a digital scale. He had a small military flash-freezer beside him.

Tom noticed Fritz frowning as he went off with packets and tissue samples in either hand, picking his way gingerly through carapaces and appendages, murmuring into his tape recorder. Jenny noticed Tom looking sideways at Andries.

"What have you found, Tom?" she asked.

Tom turned back to the wreckage. "The external structure was cast in one piece, in an aquatic environment. I can tell that by the striations," he said. "That makes the case these creatures were from a water planet. But the way this thing was cast, it's like. . . they molded it. Even the threads on the battery are about Edison-era in design by our standards. It's like. . ."

"I thought the damned thing looked a little too Jules Verne for comfort. What's the score?" Jenny asked, "They've got atomics, so why is it that the whole design looks so. . . bloody. . . un-space worthy? Entering the atmosphere, obsidian would heat up to such a point that it would vaporize and blow off like dust." She stamped her foot. "But there aren't even any burns! How much can we test this rock?"

Tom smiled as he sawed off a small piece of obsidian. "I can see small bubbles in the surface of the material, which probably contain the water it was cast in. We can analyze that to determine the composition of their ocean."

She wasn't paying attention. Tom glanced at her. "What'd you find?"

"This." Jenny held up the frayed end of a wire with her gloved hand. "It wasn't in the interior of the capsule. It must have been attached to the exterior."

Tom gestured to Andries. The three of them began turning pieces around in their hands until they found where the cable had been attached.

"This thing was tethered down to something. Then the cable snapped, and it broke loose."

"That means. . ." Jenny began.

First Lieutenant Edmiston's voice on the lab com cut in. "We knew it. There's a larger craft down there. We'll commence a search. ' Ta for the confirmation, you lot. Please await further briefing."

For a while, all the four of them could do was stare.

#

It took months to examine, catalogue and store the remains of the sphere and its crew in painstaking detail. Meanwhile, the Portland patrolled, used deep-sea sonar, and churned every onboard transponder in their futile search for the "Mother Ship", but came up empty-handed.

By the time they were finishing up, Tom worked with a shortwave tuned to the VOA. The last time he poked at the "aliens", before they were stored for good, he whistled the latest tune.

"A white sport coat, and a pink crustacean," he said as he handed the rubber back to Andres, who just looked puzzled. Before the special team's final debriefing, Tom met privately with both Commander Chadwick and Admiral Dillard. "I appreciate both of you pulling strings to give me the files on all my colleagues," he told them bluntly as soon as the door of the conference room hissed shut. Admiral Dillard leaned forward in his chair, growing curious. "You smell a rat, Tommy. What's up?" Tom turned to look fixedly at Commander Chadwick. "Where'd you dig up these people, Commander?" Chadwick puffed up. "This team was assembled by Portsmouth, my good man, far over my head. Why do you ask?" The Bostonian looked up from the file folders splashed out before him on the table. "How honest are your bureaucrats, Commander?" Admiral Dillard and the Commander shared a look. "We're listening," said the Admiral.

#

The Commander formally chaired the meeting that followed, but Tom ran it, in that same secure conference room. "I'd like Jenny to give her findings first," he said. Jenny stood and addressed the room.

"All the equipment seems to be operated on a tactile basis. No lights, and no indication of any ability to use sound. The interior of the craft held very dense brine at approximately 175 degrees Fahrenheit. These creatures came from a very dark, dense, aquatic environment."

"What about the overall technology of the craft?" asked Tom.

"It was very much like a primitive deep sea diving bell," she stated. "Alarmingly so."

"Like an old-fashioned bathyscaphe?" Tom asked.

"Precisely."

Tom looked around. "Unusual, don't you think?" he asked. "That aliens with the means to travel between worlds used such relatively primitive technology in their ocean-going capsule?"

"I'm not paid to think," said Jenny. "Just report. By the way, I'd say the atomic battery was not anomalous. These creatures must be more radiation resistant than, say, us mammals. What about it, Andries?"

The South African started to get up and speak, but Tom held up a hand. "Wait a minute, I want to go next. I have a reason for going in this order."

Andries leaned back in his chair, and steepled his fingers together nervously. Tom plowed ahead. "The capsule was designed to withstand tremendous internal and external pressures, but obviously was not meant for terrestrial transport and may have had problems coping with our low atmospheric pressure--as we saw when the crew of the Portland attempted to retrieve it.

He laid some photos on the tabletop for everyone to see. "These are enlargements of the Polaroids taken at that time." He circled a spot on three of the photos with a grease pencil. "He didn't notice it, but the capsule began to turn while he was shooting. Here you can see how the porthole comes into view." The others peered over the photos. "While it was disabled, the crew must have still been alive when it was spotted. Yet there was no indication of movement from the capsule two days later when the crew of the Portland retrieved it."

"Tommy, if there's a point here, I'm not seeing it," Admiral Dillard admonished gently. Tom held up a hand again.

"When Swain found it, it must have not drifted far. I never saw any indication it had robust propulsion systems."

"I'll confirm that," said Jenny. "It only had directional jets. Turbine type. Small and powerful, but... once more, water-based only. It must have bobbed to the surface quite recently."

The Commander spoke up. "So you are saying that it entered out atmosphere very close to Tristan?"

"Precisely. Andries, now it's your turn. What about the biology of these creatures?"

Andries cleared his throat. "They obviously evolved in an aquatic environment," he began. "Their body chemistry indicates a very saline and hot ocean with a great deal of dissolved minerals. They have the same amino acid building blocks as terrestrial life, which may be taken to confirm the panspermia theory of how life originated on Earth."

(Here, Jenny heard Tom cough into his hand, a noise suspiciously articulated to sound like "BULLshit." She stifled a smile with the back of her own hand and kept listening.)

"A gas analysis shows very low oxygen levels and a corresponding dependence on hydrogen sulphide," Andries continued. "These creatures would die if exposed to an atmosphere of the pressure and compositions of Earth's--which they did."

He looked around at them with his wide gray eyes, watching their faces. "As Jenny indicated, their appendages were mostly adapted to manipulative purposes. They lived in a tactile world. Light and sound were probably of little concern to them."

Tom looked evenly at Andries. "Any guess where they originated?"

Andries stared back. "I haven't a clue. That's a question for an astro-physicist."

"Fritz?"

The German was paler than normal, an odd shade of gray like one of his teacher's beloved monstrosities. "Ja, now you are to put me on the spot, now, is it?"

Tom's face hardened in a big fake smile. "That's why we pay you the big Deutschmarks for. Was sagen Sie?"

Fritz's chair squeaked when he stood up and pushed it away, shaking a finger at Andries. "You, sir, are a fraud," he said coldly. "Did you honestly think you could get away with this?"

"I--- I---" The Afrikaner's gray eyes slitted. "I have no idea what you're on about."

Jenny saw the glance between Dillard and Chadwick. "Did I miss a memo, lads?" she inquired.

"I'm a marine biologist too, Andries," Tom pointed out. "Or did you forget that?"

First Lieutenant Edmiston was instantly behind Andries. He pinned back his arms and cuffed him quickly.

"Mr. Phinney's studies at Port Elizabeth University were funded by his father's mining consortium. I doubt anyone here has heard of PhinCo. It's a dummy company for a string of highly questionable oil ventures. I hear Daddy wants to begin off-shore drilling very shortly. In volcanic regions. Much like this one." Tom sighed. "Young master Andries here is a plant."

"Go and try to prove it in court, Kraut," Phinney addressed Fritz, who shrugged.

"Es machts nicht. Wie sagt man auf Afrikaans? Kaak et betaal?"

Phinney made a growling sound as Fritz chuckled. On the table, Tom spun around his sketchpad

"Forgive all this Agatha Christie stuff, but there is, indeed..." He looked hard at the Admiral "...A very profound point here. The drawing on the left duplicates the view of the creature's genetic material--their DNA, I think it's called--taken by an electron microscope.

The Admiral was nodding. "Singular. So. . . what's the one on the right?"

Tom shook his head very rapidly. "That one is from a deep ocean shrimp called Rimicaris Exoculata. They cluster around geothermal vents along the Mid-Atlantic ridge. And not indistinguishable. Identical."

"Panspermia, mein arsch," Fritz snorted. "These creatures originated right here on Earth."

"Jenny hit on it when she said it looked like an old-time bathyscaphe, or a diving bell," Tom said into the stunned silence. "This sphere did not originate from technology capable of interstellar travel. It was rather primitive, but so were our first attempts at deep-sea exploration."

He smiled at Jenny. "Instead of a bathyscaphe, we might call their craft an acroscaphe--designed to float up rather than sink down. Despite the high pressure, it was still quite buoyant because of the low density of water at such high temperatures--temperatures that also indicate the creatures' origins from the vicinity of these geothermal deep sea gardens."

Tom let that soak in a moment before he continued. "I analyzed the water I found trapped in the surface of the obsidian. It's plain old Earth seawater."

Andries jumped up and tried to jerk away from the Lieutenant. In three quick moves, the Afrikaner was on the floor with Edmiston's knee on his head as the crew cut young officer bellowed into his face, "DESIST!"

With a look of bored disgust, the Lieutenant hauled him to his feet. "Now pay bloody a-ten-tion."

"Thank you, Lieutenant. As I was saying, before that interruption by our young colleague, Tristan is the most isolated inhabited place on Earth. We are two thousand kilometers from St. Helena, and twenty-eight hundred kilometers from the nearest mainland--which happens to be South Africa."

Andries scowled, a bruise already forming on his forehead where it had hit the floor.

"This island is just a particularly large volcano that rises out from the Mid-Atlantic Ridge," Tom continued, "which is dotted with underwater volcanic vents."

"Oh, my God. . ." Words left Jenny for a moment, and she had to remember to close her mouth.

"Exactly," said Tom. "Apparently, in the middle of the ocean amidst the geothermal vents created by the movement of the tectonic plates--far away from the land masses-a specialized ecosystem has evolved."

He looked around the table. "Apparently, in one small isolated and unexplored pocket, this ecology has evolved its own sentient life form."

"That explains the tether," exclaimed Fritz. "They didn't drop down into the ocean. They floated up."

"Right again. We shouldn't feel bad about not discovering them before. Ninety-five per cent of the world's sea bottoms are still unexplored. The bottom here is seven thousand, five hundred feet down."

"To be sure," Commander Chadwick interjected. All things considered, he was handling the news rather well. "But why haven't these things bobbled up to say hullo before?"

Jenny snorted. "Yes, with all the ocean traffic--and surely they've heard all the noise we make underwater?"

"Their home niche must be very small, and quite isolated," said Tom. "Just as we are here on Tristan. It's probably quite nearby. As for detecting us, remember, they don't use sight or sound."

He nodded to the Commander. "The people Andries works for apparently have information they collected in their surveys while planning to dredge for manganese."

"You're a bunch of bloody fools," snapped Andries. "Do you know who I work for?"

"You cozening son of a bitch!" Jenny shouted. "I didn't hear anyone in this room give you permission to speak, just now, so shut that great hole in your face and get ready for Robben Island! I hope you're plenty limber, for where you're going."

Andries stared, tight-lipped. The Commander made a gesture.

"Time, son," the Lieutenant said simply. "Come on, then. Rest of the show's not for you, is it?"

After he was hustled out, the Admiral turned in his chair to Tom. "What do you propose is our next move, old friend? I'd be glad to hear it. I'm at sixes and sevens, myself."

Tom dropped down in his seat and smiled as he leaned back.

"I'd say we contact the folks at Area 51," he said. "See what their protocol is for first contact."

#

MI-6 raided Andries Phinney's lab in Port Elizabeth the following morning, with the full cooperation of the South African government. By that time, Phinney was engaged in some rather unforeseen limbering exercises in a maximum-security holding cell in Jo'burg at the hands of a gigantic Zulu cellmate whose name translated roughly as "Slays His Own Lions".

British intelligence learned the elder Phinney owned a state of the art remote submersible that had snagged magnesium ribbons, the Rimicaris' form of tactile "writing".

Rimicaris-Prime was found not long later, ten thousand feet down in a previously undiscovered volcanic fissure. It was several square miles across.

A British science fiction author and physicist named Arthur Clarke (who also happened to be proficient in the new SCUBA diving system) was brought in to the team replace Phinney. With millions of dollars' worth of equipment, including a block long UNIVAC and a whole lot of magnesium, Clarke scrolled out the message of First Contact for the team to send down. Everybody held his or her breath. Commander Chadwick remained at the helm. The secret base on Tristan da Cunha was made permanent.

#

It was only a mile from where Dickie Swain first sighted the doomed Rimicaris acroscaphe, Tom and Commander Chadwick stood on the deck of the Portland. Admiral Dillard had passed away in his sleep from a bad heart only two weeks earlier. He was buried at sea with full military honors. The rest of the original team was intact.

The hydrofoil churned into the frigid South Atlantic as the handpicked scientific team stood at attention. The Commander from Her Majesty's Navy watched through binoculars as the black speedboat wasp-whined its way out to the black sphere bobbing on the waves. There was a raised platform with a winch bolted to its front. The prow platform was cinched and laden with a dull, metallic clamshell-shaped container.

On the deck, Tom held Jenny's hand in his own. She leaned up and whispered in his ear, "I can't believe this is really happening, let alone that we're here for it."

Tom nodded at the two men behind them. The young blond man's curly blond locks whipped just above his ears in the stinging salt wind. The slightly older man's thick glasses were misted with spray. "All of us," he said. "Fritz and Artie had as much to do with this as anyone."

Jenny let go of Tom's hand and sidled up to the Commander. "Any idea where that bastard Phinney is?"

"He won't see the light of day anytime soon," said the Commander.

"Serves him right," said Fritz, as he enjoyed the brisk weather.

Jenny turned to him. "Fritz, ducks, what did that mean, want you said when you had the confrontation with Phinney? Kaak et betaal?"

He chuckled. "It's an old saying, it means 'shit and pay!' It's the same in German and Afrikaans. I guess the whole expression rhymes in English, too: 'Shit and pay, you screwed up today!'''

The hydrofoil zipped back to the frigate in a booming wash of spray. Several brawny midshipmen jostled a block and tackle and brought the clamshell onto the deck of the HMS Portland.

At that, the Commander's brisk young adjutant led "Artie" forward. The crew immediately deferred, moving back around the object in formation. With a hardware store jemmy, Artie pried the container open in several places. He reached in and carefully unspooled what looked like a strand of silver seaweed. He stood ramrod straight in the wind, his raincoat snapping in the breeze like the Union Jack.

His fingers danced over the ribbon as he peered intently--an odd combination of Braille and sight reading. Everyone on the deck waited for the message.

"Yes, yes, of course," he mumbled after a moment. The spell was broken. "Just as we thought. 'Greetings and salutations', and all that. I've. . . First Lieutenant!"

The adjutant's heels almost clicked together. "Let's see that little tape-recorder. I'll transcribe it here."

"Very good, sir."

"I wish the Admiral was here to see this," Jenny said into Tom's ear.

Clarke declaimed into a tape recorder Lieutenant Edmiston held out. "Standard exchange of salutations. Greetings and peace upon you, and all that."

Tom looked at Jenny and smiled. "Can you imagine what we'll be able to accomplish through this?"

"If we establish some kind of dialogue, we can have mutually beneficial cooperation," he said. "They can spread out from their small territory and colonize the deep sea ocean bottom, an environment completely hostile to us."

"In return for their cooperation," he said, looking at the Commander, "we can offer them our advanced technology."

"It's still dicey how the public will handle this," the Commander said out the side of his mouth. The Commodore cleared his throat. Everyone shut up.

"Hmm. . .rather standard exchange of social pleasantries. . . . Don't want to get to the point too soon. Typical. Some bland interrogatories about our current atmospheric conditions."

Fritz began to chuckle and slapped the railing. "Mein Gott!" Jenny and Tom both looked at him. "Don't you get it?" he laughed. "They want to know... 'How is the weather up there?'''

Jenny looked up at Tom. "You don't think they're being sarcastic, do you?"

"Hell if I know," Tom answered, "But sarcasm is one of the higher intellectual functions. They may be smarter than we think."

"We might want to be careful they don't outsmart us, then," said the Commander. "I do hope we're doing the right thing."

"Better us than Phinney's father," said Tom.

"Quite right," said the Commander. "Any way round, their cozy world is about to end."

He leaned towards Tom. "You said the ecology of these deep sea geo-thermal vents is a rich and comfortable environment, at least to them."

"I would say, considering how they apparently have evolved," said Tom, "it will some day seem like the Garden of Eden to them."

The Commander stopped and looked hard at him. "A very interesting metaphor, Mr. Brooks," he mused. "Then what do you make of the fact that, in the story of our Garden of Eden, we were evicted because of the meddling of a reptile?"

Tom blinked and looked back and forth between the new ocean and the blind man talking into his recorder.

"That's quite an observation, Commander," he said with some deliberation. "I may have underestimated you."

The Commander nodded towards the sea. "Let's not underestimate them."

#

A mile and half below on the sea bottom, the cable that ran from the supermersible craft that had delivered the message fed coordinates into a coral pin-pad lying atop a thick slab of black glass. The carpet of rippling pins heaved and buckled to create a 3-D image of the creatures looking down at the camera from their mobile metal reef. The Autarch's chief scientist ran his sensory appendages across the raised surface with unconcealed excitement.

"The device works quite well, Highness," he said with his forelegs. "It has created an image which not only gives an impression of what the empty, blinding surface is like, but also how the dwellers there may see their surroundings."

The Autarch spoke by touching swimmerets with his scientist, a series of gestures usually reserved for cordial relations. "Well done, loyal and faithful servant."

"My pleasure and duty," the scientist, who knew his business, replied smartly. "Is it your will that we continue to monitor these creatures?"

The Autarch leaned back down on his carapace, pushing his tail comfortably back.

"Why not? In time, they may make fit subjects."

THE END