Ping

Where before, Bach had been fighting against the water pressure on his husk’s way down, all of a sudden he was quite literally falling.  That didn’t last long, though.

For a few dark and confusing seconds, the only senses Bach could hold on to were those of tumbling and the strangely intense scent of fresh strawberries.  Passive subsonic pulses emitted by his husk returned instantly with nothing but chaotic noise, far too jumbled to be interpreted by his eyes as anything but.

Giving up any semblance of control over his husk’s situation, Bach barked out what little he knew.  “That was methane,” he said.  “I assigned a familiar scent to the stuff, and just got my nostrils fried by it.”

“I know,” Haley’s voice came back to him from the next couch cushion over.   “Nothing else would be bubbling up like that.”  She must have turned away then, as the volume of her voice diminished noticeably.  “Sir Mayor, you’ve got to get your hovercraft away from there.”

“They are,” the older man’s voice replied.  After a pause, he spoke again.  “Lady Khloe?”

Bach only heard shuffling — only felt the cushion next to his rebound as a body’s weight left it.

“Khloe?”  This came from Haley.  “Come on.  It’s still more than a hundred and twenty miles away… you’re safe!”  Somewhere right about then, Bach felt more than one of the ethereal tethers snap between himself and some of the others.

With nothing but the echos of effervescence surrounding his husk, Bach risked opening a living eyelid to see went on in the room around him.  All the commotion had him concerned.  Almost at once, though, he felt dizzy — but fought past that, pulling himself upright.

Further down along the couch, Khloe had wrapped herself ‘round her knees even tighter than when he’d first come in, her head buried and shaking.  Haley stood over her, one hand occasionally reaching out for the other woman’s shoulder, only to be rebuffed.

Though he had no idea what to do about any of this, Bach stood.  At the very least, he did not want to look unconcerned.  But even as he stood, his half-ignored connection with the distant ceti husk blinked out, sending him reeling to the floor on both hands and knees.  “Gah,” he groaned.

Mayor Edgecombe was there in a blink, helping him up.  Haley watched without having left the black-haired woman who, herself, peeked out at him from above the rims of her knees.  Bach returned that gaze, meeting her swollen eyes ever so briefly before Khloe hid them again.

“Sorry,” he said once to the Mayor and then again to the rest.  “Lost my sense of balance… got disconnected from my husk.”

Haley turned to meet his eyes again.  “Is it lost?”

Bach shook his head.  “In its relaxed state, it will expel the extra water and eventually float back to the surface.  It’s not important at the moment.”  He had a question of his own, anyways.  “How long will that bubble take to surface?”

Haley replied with her own shake of the head.  “I don’t really know… couldn’t be less than a minute.  Mayor, your ship?”

With Bach on his feet, Edgecombe had wandered over by the two woman.  “Speeding away, Lady Druid.  What kind of danger are they in?”

Haley stood, seemingly frustrated with the other woman’s unresponsive cowering.  “I don’t remember seeing any thunderheads too near the ship, but with that much methane concentrated in one place… well, the passengers might pass out from asphyxia, or the whole bubble might ignite from the ship’s levitation static.  In that case, it may be violently sunk, to say nothing of the crew on board.”

Khloe pulled in on herself even tighter, whimpering almost inaudibly.  “This is sour,” she warbled the curse out with a wavering voice.

Haley returned her attentions to the other woman, hand again darting to her shoulder.  “We’re safe here,” she repeated more than once.

“What’s the matter?”  This question came from a new voice, one Bach recognized right away.

“Ol’ Sandy,” he greeted the older man.

The Representative, there only as a figment, nodded toward Bach.  “Hey,” was the whole of his greeting.  Then he turned toward Khloe.  “I heard you scream for me,” he said.  Bach assumed it had been done across the wireless, since she’d barely spoken at all, save for that one quick curse.  “What’s going on,” he asked, seeing the cluster of people surrounding his assistant.

Haley was first to answer, though she returned to fussing over Lady Kalitzakis.  “Another methane venting, Sir Congressman.  Bach was just taking a dive with one of his ceti husks for us when he encountered it… which, I guess means we found the right spot.  Sir Mayor’s hovercraft is getting the hell out of there while it still can, lest it be caught in and possibly ignite the bubble once it reaches open air.”

“Damn,” Sandy barked out.  “We’ve not really even so much as started to clean away the debris from the first set of waves… and now another?”

Haley stood straight again.  Though Khloe remained curled into a ball, she at least had stopped whimpering and convulsing.

“Sandy,” she said, dropping any attempt at formality, “yesterday’s tsunami did not result directly from the eruption of bubbles, but from a slide of loose sediments.  We probably should be prepared for more waves.  Get people away from the shorelines, yes, but don’t be surprised if nothing comes of it.”

“Such a retreat is something in itself, regardless of how necessary it is,” the congressman countered almost angrily.

Haley shot back in kind.  “Sir, this will be an ongoing problem.  As long as the sea water continues to warm, this is a scenario that may repeat itself in any or all of the oceans, at any time.  And if large amounts of methane are going to be discharging into the atmosphere, warming things even further, then this is going to be an increasing trend.  I’m sorry if this is inconvenient, but people may not be safe living along any coastline for any time in the foreseeable future.”

Her shoulders had stiffened incrementally with each word.  Though she held her hands behind her back, from where he stood behind that confrontation, Bach could see her wrists bent backward, knuckles clutched so tight as to have flushed nearly white.  She was angry, and visibly doing her best to control it.

The congressman backed down, figment hands held palms forward in mock surrender.  “I can understand that,” he replied deferentially.  “I did not mean to suggest that we should not evacuate our shorelines.  It’s just been… I mean, ever since you three left us here, things have been tense on the mainland.  All the world’s news feeds are ablaze, and much of it with speculation and misinformation.”

As if to add to the drama behind the brief altercation, there came a sudden flash from the southwest.  All save the congressman jerked about, catching the tail end of what looked to be dull red tendrils of dying flame climbing upwards into the upper atmosphere.  "What's that?" he asked, unable to see this room and its surroundings as any more than figments to him.

Bach whipped his head around, searching people’s faces.  “Sir Mayor?” He asked after the man who’d last had contact with the hovercraft, and with half a voice at that.

“Hold on,” Edgecombe told everyone.  Even Khloe had poked her head up to look his way — along with the rest, having had the same terrible thought as Bach, no doubt.  “Damnation,” he then cursed with great volume.

Haley moved toward him quickly.  “Distress pings?”

“Yeah,” the Mayor replied.  “Four.”

Bach could not help but ask, “Out of how many?”

Mayor Edgecombe looked as though he couldn’t physically decide between relief and his own personal level of distress.  “That’s the ship’s full tally,” he answered.  “So they’re all alive, but…”

Haley interjected.  “But, they’re all in trouble.”

The Mayor only nodded.  At that, Bach could not bear to wait any longer.  Almost diving for the comfort of the same couch still occupied by the half-panicked Khloe, he was already projecting his awareness out across the gulf.  He half-heard his name called, but spent every bit of his focus on finding the lesser of his two cetacean husks.  Even if the ship had been sunk, the husk itself should have… and, there it is!  He threw himself into its empty mind without so much as a second thought.

All became water, as if Bach hadn’t had enough of the stuff already.  Still, light streamed down all ‘round him except just off a ways behind him.  There the shadow of the hovercraft’s bulk sent rays of darkness streaming through the water beneath it.

Haley’s voice spoke softly, but startlingly close to Bach’s living ear.  “Are you out there?  Oh!  Sorry.”  She apologized as he jerked away in surprise.

Even as he spread this wing-fins wide, capturing as much water as he could and literally pulling himself forward, Bach also drew off a portion of his consciousness to answer her back.  “Yeah,” he said.  “I came in maybe ten meters down… ship’s on the surface just a bit ahead of me.”

“It is intact?”  The Mayor’s disembodied voice sounded a bit further off than Haley’s had.

“I can’t tell that it’s not,” Bach replied.  He didn’t see any obvious wreckage up there.  “There’s small junk floating nearby,” he added as he got close, “but the ship does look like it’s all there.  Actually, it is upright even.”

“That could be good,” Edgecombe replied.

Just then, Bach breached the ocean surface.  Afternoon sunlight blinded him momentary, until the feed from the husk’s myriad eyes scaled way back.  “Almost… to,” he began to relate just before bumping into the side of the hovercraft.  “Yeah, it’s upright.  Hold on,” he then added.  “I’m going to see if there’re any pings in the water.”

Just then, he felt a virtual tether attach to his bond with the distant husk.  “Sorry,” Haley injected almost immediately thereafter.

Bach didn’t mind having a second set of eyes behind his, and said as much.  Bach quickly swung his husk’s head from side to side while clinging to the edge of the hovercraft.  Right off, one figment distress beacon appeared in the water quite a ways behind the ship itself.

“You said there were four,” Bach asked with his living voice.

“Yes,” returned the Mayor.  “I still see them out there.”  The old crazy-haired man must be looking on from another perspective entirely, as Bach only saw the one.

“Look up,” Haley told him.  Sharing the husk’s eyes as he did, she could see only what he could.  “They’re probably still on the ship,” she added.

Bach looked up and, sure enough, the remaining three figment signals — bubble-like icons pulsing with disparate colors and frequencies — were well above him and likely scattered across the ship’s deck.  “Yeah, I see them,” Bach related to those in the room.  “Two yellows and an orange on deck… and the one off in the water is also a yellow.”

“Sour,” Haley cursed half under her breath, if still awfully close to him.  “No choice but to prioritize the orange ping.”

“Right,” the Mayor added.

Well, this could be difficult, Bach thought to himself.  Pushing away from the ship’s smooth hull, he swam first ‘round back, and then fully around the ship a second time.

“This is your ship, Sir Edgecombe?”  It looked like it, but this time he could find no ladder that led up the side.

“Yes.”

“I don’t see any way up,” Bach explained.

“Ladders must be withdrawn,” the Mayor suggested before he must have turned aside to say, “can you patch me back in?”  Bach could hear the difference in the volume of his voice.

Bach couldn’t hear any reply, but even as he prepared to try the only thing he could think to do under the circumstances, he felt another presence fall in behind his senses.  If he’d not gotten used to it a long time past between all the work he and his father had done with many a husk, he might have thought it an odd sensation.

Not ten seconds later, a third entity joined as well.  Perhaps Khloe hadn’t wanted to be left alone with a bunch of senseless peers so high up in that crystal-walled tower.

Sucking in all the water he could, Bach pushed his way downward — so far, in fact, that the ship’s silhouette above became almost indistinguishable from the general greenish haze.  That’s where he stopped his descent and hung neutral for a moment.  “I’ll make a jump for the railing,” he announced to no one in particular.

Bach imagined himself inflating his stomach — a mind-to-mind parallel for the husk expelling all the water it had taken in on his way down.  The act immediately had him quite a bit lighter than the surrounding water.

Even as he slowly began to rise, he again stretched those great fin-wings of his and clipped them backwards with vigor.  The upwards jolt sent a strange sensation of motion through him.  Though sluggish at first, each beat of his tentative limbs added to his upward momentum.

Quickly enough, the hull of the ship above grew distinct again, if only moments before he burst past it and through the water’s surface.  Momentum carried him well into the air, though it was all he could do to force these strangely jointed limbs to simultaneously reach out with the claws at their mid-length without the long wing fingers getting in the way.

Bach missed, long claw fingers just barely scraping the railing, and overshot the height of the deck by more than he’d expected.  For a moment, he hung suspended in the air.  With his fin-wings already half extended, Bach pitched himself forward through the crest of his jump from the water, then reached out for a second go at the railing which.

This time, he did catch it firmly.  Gravity taking its toll, his heavy husk of a body swung downwards before slapping hard against the side of the ship which then rocked with the sudden jolt.

“Got it,” Bach declared after hanging on for a few seconds.  The rail had bent alarmingly in bearing the sudden force of his fall, but it held.  Given the unusual strength in these artificial arms, Bach’s pulling himself up and over the railing proved to be of little challenge.

“There’s one,” Haley’s voice came to him.  Bach also heard something akin to a murmur, probably from Khloe, though he could make no more out of it than that.

Sure enough, though, there lay that same woman he’d seen when he’d earlier occupied the mind of the first and larger seafaring husk.  Hers was the orange distress ping, and it hovered near where she seemed to be laying sprawled atop her left arm.

“That doesn’t look so good,” the young Archdruid added as Bach pulled himself across the deck toward the fallen woman.

“No,” was all he could say to that.  Careful not to jostle the injured woman while coming around to her other side, Bach could see that she breathed with healthy regularity.  Then again, if she weren’t, the figment beacon would be blaring a bold red — or have gone grey, for as long as her wetware could last, after her passing.  Not sure what to do, exactly, Bach had to ask, “Should I?”

“Yeah,” the Mayor answered him a split second before Haley said, “Aye.”  Khloe said nothing.  In fact, Bach could hardly feel her in the back of his mind at all.

Mindful of his own strength, not to mention the awkward design of this husk’s half-wing hands, Bach rolled the blonde-haired woman onto her back.  She burst out in one brief scream of pain — at the sound of which, Bach lost all contact with Khloe’s mind — as she came suddenly awake.

The unnamed woman’s eyes were beyond wide-open with whatever bolt of pain had shot through her, and though she’d only yelled out just the one first time, her breathing came in sharp pants.

Bach instinctively wanted to look away from what he saw next.  “Oh god,” came Haley’s voice next to him, seeing the same thing.  The Mayor simply took in a sharp breath of his own.

Not only did her arm seem to be leaving her shoulder blade at a strange angle, but her forearm looked to be broken as well, though there was no obvious protrusion of bone, or much blood.  That didn’t make the sight any less a trigger of nausea for Bach, though.

Haley recovered first, telling Bach to address the woman.  “Hey,” Bach began, not quite certain of what to say.  “Are you okay?”  The question instantly struck him as stupid, but there would be no taking it back.

The woman only winced, eyes still not focusing on anything in particular.  Finally, she tried to say something.  “Wha,” was all she got out before erupting in a series of very painful looking coughs.  Following that, all she could do was sag back into his artificially winged arms, panting heavily.

“You must know her,” Haley asked, her voice seemingly pointed away from Bach’s ear.

“Oh, yes,” Edgecombe replied.  “That’s Angie Jeppesen.  She’s part of my extended staff.  Has been since before I was a mayor.”  Genuine concern coated every one of the Mayor’s brief bursts of words.

Bach immediately wished he wasn’t the only one there with authority to pilot the husk.  He had no idea what to do or say here.  “Angie?” was all he could eke out through the husk’s synthesizer.

Eyes that had been drifting around half dazed, when not clenched shut altogether, found him then — rather, found what passed for a face on his husk.  “Who… who,” she tried to say before dissembling into another fit of coughing.  Again, that brought on a tensing of pain in her frame.  With a fin-wing tucked half under her, Bach could feel this much.  “Who is that?” she finally got out.

“My name is Bach,” he told her.  “Archdruid Diaz and Mayor Edgecombe cannot speak, but can see and hear you.”

“Ask her what happened,” Haley half whispered next to his ear, as if worried that this Jeppesen woman might overhear.  She was physically closer to him than he thought…

“What happened?”

“We got knocked out of the air,” came a male voice from behind Bach’s husk.  He’d not noticed anyone approach, so this took him by surprise — as it did everyone he still felt bound to via the wireless.

Twisting his fishlike torso of a husk around while careful not to jostle the injured Angie, Bach saw a salt-and-pepper haired man of wiry build nursing what looked to be a bruise forming on his forehead.

“Something burst above us,” he continued.  “An ugly red color.  We hit the water quickly after that and I couldn’t breathe.”  Maybe only then did the man see Angie in pain-induced delirium as she lay on the deck, what with his swooping in at that moment.  “Ang?”

She turned her head toward him.  “Walt,” she breathed out.

“Hey, no need to talk,” he said while hovering over her.  “You look like you took a spill.”

She nodded to that, and probably regretted having done so, if the tensing that followed was of any indication.

“They might have been shortly oxygen deprived,” Haley suggested to those physically in the Mayor’s office.  “Ask after the other yellow ping on board.”

“Sure,” Bach replied in both places at once, prompting ‘Walt’ to look up and ask, “what?”

“Oh, nothing,” Bach deflected.  “There was a third yellow distress beacon somewhere inside,” he told the middle-aged man.  “And a fourth out in the water a ways back.  Angie here is the worst off.”  He then repeated to the man that Haley and the Mayor were privy to all that he saw, though they could not speak through his husk directly.  It then occurred to Bach to ask, seeing the pale yellow beacon still active over the man’s head, “are you senseless?”

The man nodded even as he took Lady Jeppesen’s uninjured side into both arms.  “Still dizzy, too.”  Though she winced, she also leaned into the man as he pulled her toward one of the rail-side cushioned benches.

“Thanks,” she told him wearily, but obviously grateful for being able to recline on a softer surface.

Bach had to crane his body back around the other way, but saw the third figment distress signal closer toward the ship’s bow and seemingly below deck.  He pointed forward with his free arm, wing-fingers fully extended as if a short claw-finger wouldn’t have been enough.  “Can you check on the last person still on the ship?  He’s below deck in that direction.  I’ll go after the one overboard.”

“Sure,” the man replied before wandering off.

“Actually,” Bach said using only his living voice.

“Actually, what?” asked Haley and Mayor Edgecombe in tandem.

Bach did not bother to answer right away.  Instead, he cut himself loose of the smaller ceti husk and imagined himself floating above a figment seascape.  Rising upwards a ways, he could see all the ethereal beacons signifying not only the boat, but the husk he’d just left and each of the four survivors.

“I’m going to see about the other cetacean quickly,” it occured to Bach to mention.  Already, he broadened his perspective in an attempt to locate the submerged husk’s beacon.

“If that’s the case,” he heard the Mayor say, “then I’m going to see about Lady Kalitzakis here.”  Bach felt the man’s tether depart even before the old man had finished the statement.

“Right,” Bach said with only half a mind.

He continued to rise through the net layer, looking down upon the surface of the false ocean below.  He could not help but wonder how far the aeroyacht could have gotten before the burst had likely knocked out its levitation tracts.  But, then… there.

Ever so brief a contact with the larger and submerged husk brought forth a residual figment beacon.  It grayed out almost immediately, but remained as a suspended testimonial to where it had been at that moment.

“Feh,” Bach half cursed.  “The ship is too far away and is having trouble being proxy at such an acute angle through the water.”

“If it’s going to eventually rise to the surface,” Haley said, again startlingly close to his living ear, “then just leave it.”

“Yeah,” Bach agreed.

“We can get it later,” Haley added, sounding like she might be trying to comfort him, of all people.

“Yeah,” Bach just said again before he dove back into the mind of the husk still on board the ship.  No sooner had he control of the beast than did Bach toss himself off the side of the drifting yacht.

Given the distance involved, it took Bach a fair while to reach the fourth aeroyacht crew member.  He found ‘Merril,’ as the young-looking redhead called himself through chattering teeth, and set about pushing him back toward the resting ship.

When asked, the man said that he didn’t feel any unusual pains.  Instead, he’d simply woken up in the water and that that had come as something of a surprise to him after already having been shocked out of his wits by a strangely red flame that erupted not so far behind their ship.  “I was on the back deck at the time,” he described.  The poor boy couldn’t stop talking, even though he frequently had to repeat himself through bouts of chills.

By the time Bach had pushed the young man all the way back to the yacht, the only distress beacon that remained visible was the orange one — Angie’s, that is — and it still pulsed an excited orange color.  It probably would, right until some certified physician cancelled the alert.

The other two crew members had been milling about on the deck, and were there and waiting to help with hauling Merril out of the water after they’d dropped a ladder for him.  Bach followed up soon after, even wary as he was of trusting his artificial weight to the keratin ropes.

After a prompt from Haley, Bach asked the middle-aged man whether or not the ship would fly again.

“It almost started,” the man Angie had called ‘Walt’ replied after scratching the stubble on his chin.  “But there’s a pair of old electric screws on the back that’ll push us along like a seaship.  We’ll be okay either way.”

“Alright,” Bach replied, even as he felt the last of the virtual tethers leave him — that is, a moment before Haley must have grasped his living shoulder.

“Come back,” she half whispered to him.  “But tell them first that if they end up treading surf, then let us know so we can send another ship to see to Angie.”

“Okay,” he said to both parties at once before focusing his next comment solely through the husk’s synthesizer.  He relayed the message and excused himself from their virtual presence.

Popping his living eyes wide, Bach pushed himself upright off the sofa, and stretched.  Haley hovered near him while the Mayor was off doing much the same for Khloe.  She looked very tired to him in that moment, and more than a little wild-eyed.

That’s when Haley, having seen Bach return to them, turned upon Mayor Edgecombe.  “I would suggest rarifying all surface or low-altitude travel anywhere above continental dives.”

“Dives?”  The Mayor apparently understood her use of the word about as well as Bach had.

Haley threw up her arms.  “I’m too crypt right now to recall the proper term.  I mean to say; where the continental shelves drop away into the oceanic depths.”

The Mayor looked downright incredulous.  “That’s like blockading every continent on the planet all at once!  And for how long?  Indefinitely?”

Haley turned to look out toward where the newest bubble had erupted somewhere right along the lip of the horizon.  “I didn’t say to end all traffic… just advise reduction down to the essentials.  It’s not as though this kind of order is enforceable anyways.  Get the word out that sliding over these regions has been identified as a new hazard… that any and all traffic should proceed at their own risk.”

“Fine enough,” Mayor Edgecombe huffed out.  “Lady Kalitzakis,” he began as he turned back toward her, “do you think you can help me spread this work amongst the other bobble-heads out there?”  He reached out a hand, which she took in order to stand.

“I could use something to do,” she said weakly.  It was apparent to Bach that she had something else on her mind still.  “Is there to be another tidal wave?” She asked.

Haley scowled, but not at the other woman, per se.  “That’s a misnomer… tidal wave, that is.  As far as a potential second tsunami, it is possible.”

No sooner had she admitted this, then Khloe nearly fell back into the couch again, buoyed only by the Mayor’s grip.  Haley shot out both arms in some kind of gesture likely meant to forestall any further worry.  “No!  Even if there is another, we cannot be harmed here.  Tsunami only become a serious danger in shallow waters… approaching land.  It would pass right under us here and we would not even feel it.”

Khloe looked eased, if only slightly.

“Anyhow,” Haley continued.  “As I’d said before, after one collapse, the sediments have already shed their unstable aspects… so I don’t think it is very likely going to do more than burp up more methane.  That’s still a problem we have to deal with, sure, but another killer wave generated from this same spot, no.  I think the odds are against it.  Somewhere else… sometime soon, maybe.  Regardless, this city as close as anything is to the incident, so if we watch the kelp garden for a disturbance, we’ll know if there’s another longitudinal wave within… I dunno, fifteen minutes, I think.”  With that, she gave the Mayor a look, to which he nodded.

The older man must have called out across the wireless as, almost at once, one of his assistants cracked the door and poked his head into the office.  “Sir Mayor?”

“Please get someone down to the under-gardens, if someone isn’t there already, and have 'em watched.  Right now or sooner, if you can manage it.  If anything strange happens before…” he paused, summoning up a floating figment of a clock.  “If anything happens before four sharp, have whomever it is notify this office at once.”

Haley jumped in with her own instructions.  “I don’t want to discount a delayed slump,” she said to the assistant.  “Please arrange for a revolving detail to observe the kelp from here on out.  Recruit any who are already permanent under-garden staff, maybe even civil cetaceans, before pulling people off their regular duties.”

The young man in the doorway nodded, then looked over to the Mayor who gave his confirmation.  “Will do,” the assistant said before adding something of his own.  “By the way, Sir… Lady.  Someone’s been waiting out here for a while now.”

“Oh?” asked Mayor Edgecombe.

“Yes, sir.  Dinner delivery for a Bach… um,” the young woman in the door paused and pulled her head out and back into the main room.  Popping her head in once again, she added “Kavanagh.”

“Oh,” Bach exclaimed as he pushed himself up from the sagging sofa cushion.  He’d completely forgotten!