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Excerpt: ‘A Darkling Sea’

Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from the first chapter of James Cambias’ “A Darkling Sea,” which is reprinted here with permission of the author.

Henri and Rob didn’t talk much on the way to the vent community. Both of them were paying close attention to the navigation displays inside their helmets. Getting around on Ilmatar was deceptively easy: take a bearing by inertial compass, point the impeller in the right direction, and off you go. But occasionally Rob found himself thinking about just how hard it would be to navigate without electronic help. The stars were hidden by a kilometer of ice overhead, and Ilmatar had no magnetic field worth speaking of. It was barely possible to tell up from down — if you had your searchlights on and could see the bottom and weren’t enveloped in a cloud of silt — but maintaining a constant depth depended entirely on watching the sonar display and the pressure gauge. A human without navigation equipment on Ilmatar would be blind, deaf, and completely lost.

At 0500 they were nearing the site. “Passive sonar only,” said Henri. “And we must be as quiet as possible. Can you film from a hundred meters away?”

“It’ll need enhancement and cleaning up afterward, but yes.”

“Good. You take up a position there —” Henri gestured vaguely into the darkness.


“That big clump of rocks at, let me see, bearing one hundred degrees, about fifty meters out.”


“Stay there and do not make any noise. I will go on ahead toward the vent. Keep one of the drones with me.”

“Right. What are you going to do?”

“I will walk right into the settlement.”

Shaking his head, Rob found a relatively comfortable spot among the stones. While he waited for the silt to settle, he noticed that this wasn’t a natural outcrop — these were cut stones, the remains of a structure of some kind. Some of the surfaces were even carved into patterns of lines. He made sure to take pictures of everything. The other xeno people back at Hitode would kill him if he didn’t.

Henri went marching past in a cloud of silt. The big camera was going to be useless with him churning up the bottom like that, so Rob relied entirely on the drones. One followed Henri about ten meters back, the second was above him looking down. The laser link through the water was a little noisy from suspended particulates, but he didn’t need a whole lot of detail. The drone cameras could store everything internally, so Rob was satisfied with just enough sight to steer them. Since he was comfortably seated and could use his hands, he called up a virtual joystick instead of relying on voice commands or the really irritating eye-tracking menu device.

“Look at that!” Henri called suddenly.

“What? Where?”

Henri’s forward camera swung up to show eight Ilmatarans swimming along in formation, about ten meters up. They were all adults, wearing belts and harnesses stuffed with gear. A couple carried spears. Ever since the first drone pictures of Ilmatarans, they had been described as looking like giant lobsters, but watching them swim overhead, Rob had to disagree. They were more like beluga whales in armor, with their big flukes and blunt heads. Adults ranged from three to four meters long. Each had a dozen limbs folded neatly against the undersides of their shells: walking legs in back, four manipulators amidships, and the big praying-mantis pincers on the front pair. They also had raspy feeding tendrils and long sensory feelers under the head. The head itself was a smooth featureless dome, flaring out over the neck like a coal-scuttle helmet — the origin of the Ilmatarans’ scientific name Salletocephalus structor. Henri’s passive microphones picked up the clicks and pops of the Ilmatarans’ sonar, with an occasional loud ping like a harpsichord note.

The two humans watched as the group soared over Henri’s head. “What do you think they’re doing?” asked Rob when they had passed.

“I am not sure. Perhaps a hunting party. I will follow them.”

Rob wanted to argue, but knew it was pointless. “Don’t go too far.”

Henri kicked up from the bottom and began to follow the Ilmatarans. It was hard for a human to keep up with them, even when wearing fins. Henri was sweaty and breathing hard after just a couple of minutes, but he struggled along. “They are stopping,” he said after ten minutes, sounding relieved.

The Ilmatarans were dropping down to a small vent formation, which Rob’s computer identified as Maury 3b. Through the drone cameras Rob watched as Henri crept closer to the Ilmatarans. At first he moved with clumsy stealth, then abandoned all pretense and simply waded in among them. Rob waited for a reaction, but the Ilmatarans seemed intent on their own business.


A rock is missing. Broadtail remembers a big chunk of old shells welded together by ventwater minerals and mud, just five armspans away across-current. But now it’s gone. Is his memory faulty? He pings again. There it is, just where it should be. Odd. He goes back to gathering shells.

“ — you hear me? Broadtail!” It is Longpincer. He appears out of nowhere just in front of Broadtail, sounding alarmed.

“I’m here. What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” says Longpincer. “My own mistake.”

“Wait. Tell me.”

“It’s very odd. I remember hearing you clattering over the rocks, then silence. I recall pinging and sensing nothing.”

“I remember a similar experience — a rock seeming to disappear and then appear again.”

Smoothshell comes up. “What’s the problem?” After they explain she asks “Could there be a reflective layer here? Cold water meeting hot does that.”

“I don’t feel any change in the water temperature,” says Longpincer. “The current here is strong enough to keep everything mixed.”

“Let’s listen,” says Broadtail. The three of them stand silently, tails together, heads outward. Broadtail relaxes, letting the sounds and interference patterns of his surroundings create a model in his mind. The vent is there, rumbling and hissing. Someone is scrabbling up the side — probably Sharpfrill with his jars of temperature-sensitive plants. Roundhead and the quiet person are talking together half a cable away, or rather Roundhead is talking and his companion is making occasional polite clicks. Two others are swishing nets through the water upcurrent.

But there is something else. Something is moving nearby. He can’t quite hear it, but it blocks other sounds and changes the interference patterns. He reaches over to Smoothshell and taps on her leg. “There is a strange effect in the water in front of me, moving slowly from left to right.”

She turns and listens that way while Broadtail taps the same message on Longpincer’s shell. “I think I hear what you mean,” Smoothshell says. “It’s like a big lump of very soft mud, or pumice stone.”

“Yes,” Broadtail agrees. “Except that it’s moving. I’m going to ping it now.” He tenses his resonator muscle and pings as hard as he can, loud enough to stun a few small swimmers near his head. All the other Company members about the vent stop what they are doing.

He hears the entire landscape in front of him — quiet mud, sharp echoes from rocks, muffled and chaotic patterns from patches of plants. And right in the center, only a few armspans in front of him, is a hole in the water. It’s big, whatever it is: almost the size of a young adult, standing upright like a boundary marker.


Henri was completely gonzo. He was rattling off narration for the audience completely off the top of his head. Occasionally he would forget to use his media star voice and give way to an outburst of pure cackling glee. Rob was pretty excited, too, watching through the cameras as Henri got within arm’s reach of the Ilmatarans.

“Here we see a group of Ilmatarans gathering food around one of the seabottom vents. Some are using hand-made nets to catch fish, while these three close to me appear to be scraping algae off the rocks.”

“Henri, you’re using Earth life names again. Those aren’t fish, or algae either.”

“Never mind that now. I will dub in the proper words later if I must. The audience will understand better if I use words they understand. This is wonderful, don’t you think? I can pat them on the backs if I want to!”

“Remember, no contact.”

“Yes, yes.” Back into his narrator voice. “The exact nature of Ilmataran social organization is still not well understood. We know they live in communities of up to a hundred individuals, sharing the work of food production, craft work, and defense. The harvest these bring back to their community will be divided among all.”

“Henri, you can’t just make stuff up like that. Some of the audience are going to want links to more info about Ilmataran society. We don’t know how they allocate resources.”

“Then there is nothing to say that this is untrue. Robert, people do not want to hear that aliens are just like us. They want wise angels and noble savages. Besides, I am certain I am right. The Ilmatarans behave exactly like early human societies. Remember I am an archaeologist by training. I recognize the signs.” He shifted back into media mode. “Life is difficult in these icy seas. The Ilmatarans must make use of every available source of food to ward off starvation. I am going to get closer to these individuals so that we can watch them at their work.”

“Don’t get too close. They might be able to smell you or something.”

“I am being careful. How is the picture quality?”

“Well, the water’s pretty cloudy. I’ve got the drone providing an overhead view of you, but the helmet camera’s the only thing giving us any detail.”

“I will bend down to get a better view, then. How is that?”

“Better. This is great stuff.” Rob checked the drone image. “Uh, Henri, why are they all facing toward you?”


“We must capture it,” says Longpincer. “I don’t remember reading about anything like this.”

“How to capture something we can barely make out?” asks Broadtail.

“Surround it,” suggests Smoothshell. She calls to the others. “Here, quickly! Form a circle!”

With a lot of clicking questions the other members of the Bitterwater Company gather around — except for Sharpfrill, who is far too absorbed in placing his little colonies of temperature indicators on the vent.

“Keep pinging steadily,” says Longpincer. “As hard as you can. Who has a net?”

“Here!” says Raggedclaw.

“Good. Can you make it out? Get the net on it!”

The thing starts to swim upward clumsily, churning up lots of sediment and making a faint but audible swishing noise with its tails. Under Longpincer’s direction the Company form a box around it, like soldiers escorting a convoy. Raggedclaw gets above it with the net. There is a moment of struggling as the thing tries to dodge aside, then the scientists close in around it.

It cuts at the net with a sharp claw, and kicks with its limbs. Broadtail feels the claw grate along his shell. Longpincer and Roundhead move in with ropes, and soon the thing’s limbs are pinned. It sinks to the bottom.

“I suggest we take it to my laboratory,” says Longpincer. “I am sure we all wish to study this remarkable creature.”

It continues to struggle, but the netting and ropes are strong enough to hold it. Whatever it is, it’s too heavy to carry swimming, so the group must walk along the bottom with their catch while Longpincer swims ahead to fetch servants with a litter to help. They all ping about them constantly, fearful that more of the strange silent creatures are lurking about.


“Robert! In the name of God, help me!” The laser link was full of static and skips, what with all the interference from nets, Ilmatarans, and sediment. The video image of Henri degenerated into a series of still shots illustrating panic, terror, and desperation.

“Don’t worry!” he called back, although he had no idea what to do. How could he rescue Henri without revealing himself and blowing all the contact protocols to hell? For that matter, even if he did reveal himself, how could he overcome half a dozen full-grown Ilmatarans?

“Ah, bon Dieu!” Henri started what sounded like praying in French. Rob muted the audio to give himself a chance to think, and because it didn’t seem right to listen in.

He tried to list his options. Call for help? Too far from the station, and it would take an hour or more for a sub to arrive. Go charging in to the rescue? Rob really didn’t want to do that, and not just because it was against the contact regs. On the other hand he didn’t like to think of himself as a coward, either. Skip that one and come back to it.

Create a distraction? That might work. He could fire up the hydrophone and make a lot of noise, maybe use the drones as decoys. The Ilmatarans might drop Henri to go investigate, or run away in terror. Worth a shot, anyway.

He sent the two drones in at top speed, and searched through his computer’s sound library for something suitable to broadcast. “Ride of the Valkyries?” Tarzan yells? “O Fortuna?” No time to be clever; he selected the first item in the playlist and started blasting Billie Holiday as loud as the drone speakers could go. Rob left his camera gear with Henri’s impeller, and used his own to get a little closer to the group of Ilmatarans carrying Henri.


Broadtail hears the weird sounds first, and alerts the others. The noise is coming from a pair of swimming creatures he doesn’t recognize, approaching fast from the left. The sounds are unlike anything he remembers — a mix of low tones, whistles, rattles, and buzzes. There is an underlying rhythm, and Broadtail is sure this is some kind of animal call, not just noise.

The swimmers swoop past low overhead, then, amazingly, circle around together for another pass, like trained performing animals. “Do those creatures belong to Longpincer?” Broadtail asks the others.

“I don’t think so,” says Smoothshell. “I don’t remember noticing them in his house.”

“Does anyone have a net?”

“Don’t be greedy,” says Roundhead. “This is a valuable specimen. We shouldn’t risk it to chase after others.”

Broadtail starts to object, but he realizes Roundhead is right. This thing is obviously more important. Still — “I suggest we return here to search for them after sleeping.”


The swimmers continue diving at them and making noise until Longpincer’s servants show up to help carry the specimen.


Rob had hoped the Ilmatarans would scatter in terror when he sent in the drones, but they barely even noticed them even with the speaker volume maxed out. He couldn’t tell if they were too dumb to pay attention, or smart enough to focus on one thing at a time.

He gunned the impeller, closing in on the little group. Enough subtlety. He could see the lights on Henri’s suit about fifty meters away, bobbing and wiggling as the Ilmatarans carried him. Rob slowed to a stop about ten meters from the Ilmatarans. The two big floodlights on the impeller showed them clearly.

Enough subtlety and sneaking around. He turned on his suit hydrophone. “Hey!” He had his dive knife in his right hand in case of trouble.


Broadtail is relieved to be rid of the strange beast. He is getting tired and hungry, and wants nothing more than to be back at Longpincer’s house snacking on threadfin paste and heat-cured eggs.

Then he hears a new noise. A whine, accompanied by the burble of turbulent water. Off to the left about three lengths there is some large swimmer. It gives a loud call. The captive creature struggles harder.

Broadtail pings the new arrival. It is very odd indeed. It has a hard cylindrical body like a riftcruiser, but at the back it branches out into a bunch of jointed limbs covered with soft skin. The thing gives another cry and waves a couple of limbs.

Broadtail moves toward it, trying to figure out what it is. Two creatures, maybe? And what is it doing? Is this a territorial challenge? He keeps his own pincers folded so as not to alarm it.

“Be careful, Broadtail,” Longpincer calls.

“Don’t worry.” He doesn’t approach any closer, but evidently he’s already too close. The thing cries out one more time, then charges him. Broadtail doesn’t want the other Bitterwater scholars to witness him fleeing, so he splays his legs and braces himself, ready to grapple with this unknown monster.

But just before it hits him, the thing veers off and disappears into the silent distance. Listening carefully lest it return, Broadtail backs toward the rest of the group and they resume their journey to Longpincer’s house.

Everyone agrees that this expedition is stranger than anything any of them remember. Longpincer seems pleased.


Rob stopped his impeller and let the drones catch up. He couldn’t think of anything else to do. The Ilmatarans wouldn’t be scared off, and there was no way Rob could attack them. Whatever happened to Henri, Rob did not want to be the first human to harm an alien.

The link with Henri was still open. The video showed him looking quite calm, almost serene.

“Henri?” he said. “I tried everything I could think of. I can’t get you out. There are too many of them.”

“It is all right, Robert,” said Henri, sounding surprisingly cheerful. “I do not think they will harm me. Otherwise why go to all the trouble to capture me alive? Listen: I think they have realized I am an intelligent being like themselves. This is our first contact with the Ilmatarans. I will be humanity’s ambassador.”

“You think so?” For once Rob found himself hoping Henri was right.

“I am certain of it. Keep the link open. The video will show history being made.”

Rob sent in one drone to act as a relay as the Ilmatarans carried Henri into a large rambling building near the Maury 3a vent. As he disappeared inside, Henri managed a grin for the camera.


Longpincer approaches the strange creature, laid out on the floor of his study. The others are all gathered around to help and watch. Broadtail has a fresh reel of cord and is making a record of the proceeding. Longpincer begins. “The hide is thick, but flexible, and is a nearly perfect sound absorber. The loudest of pings barely produce any image at all. There are four limbs. The forward pair appear to be for feeding, while the rear limbs apparently function as both walking legs and what one might call a double tail for swimming. Roundhead, do you know of any such creature recorded elsewhere?”

“I certainly do not recall reading of such a thing. It seems absolutely unique.”

“Please note as much, Broadtail. My first incision is along the underside. Cutting the hide releases a great many bubbles. The hide peels away very easily; there is no connective tissue at all. I feel what seems to be another layer underneath. The creature’s interior is remarkably warm.”

“The poor thing,” says Raggedclaw. “I do hate causing it pain.”

“As do we all, I’m sure,” says Longpincer. “I am cutting through the under-layer. It is extremely tough and fibrous. I hear more bubbles. The warmth is extraordinary — like pipe-water a cable or so from the vent.”

“How can it survive such heat?” asks Roundhead.

“Can you taste any blood, Longpincer?” adds Sharpfrill.

“No blood that I can taste. Some odd flavors in the water, but I judge that to be from the tissues and space between. I am peeling back the under-layer now. Amazing! Yet another layer beneath it. This one has a very different texture -- fleshy rather than fibrous. It is very warm. I can feel a trembling sensation and spasmodic movements.”

“Does anyone remember hearing sounds like that before?” says Smoothshell. “It sounds like no creature I know of.”

“I recall that other thing making similar sounds,” says Broadtail.

“I now cut through this layer. Ah — now we come to viscera. The blood tastes very odd. Come, everyone, and feel how hot this thing is. And feel this! Some kind of rigid structures within the flesh.”

“It is not moving,” says Roundhead.

“Now let us examine the head. Someone help me pull off the shell here. Just pull. Good. Thank you, Raggedclaw. What a lot of bubbles! I wonder what this structure is?”

Broadtail takes notes as fast as he can, tying clumsy knots to keep up with Longpincer. He feels elation. This is a fantastically important discovery and he is part of the first company to get their feelers on it. Joining the Bitterwater Company of Scholars is the greatest thing Broadtail can remember happening to him. He imagines great things in his future.



James Cambias looks upward

Monday, April 21, 2014

On a faraway planet, in an ocean under a kilometer of thick ice, an intelligent underwater species has formed an agrarian society and has prospered for millions of years. If you’re expecting humans to come in and ruin this peaceful story, then you’d be right. But that’s where the sci-fi cliches end in South Deerfield novelist James Cambias’ “A Darkling … 0

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