The fish shifted in a sudden surge of water, either from invisible currents or because of Howlaa’s slimy violence. I hauled back on the stick way too hard and the fish’s head tilted up, up, up, but I took a deep breath and eased it forward gently, just a touch at a time, and it settled back to the comfortably horizontal again. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been so twisted-up and worried inside. Probably right after dad died.
Wanting to take my mind off the ten million things totally beyond my control, I said, “That big sea serpent thing that went past the window – that was Howlaa?”
“In the green and scaly flesh,” Wisp said.
“But it was like a hundred feet long. How can that be Howlaa? I’m not a scientist or anything, but isn’t there some kind of law of conservation of… bigness?”
“I believe the Howlaa we see – in whatever form she takes – is not the real Howlaa. Not all of her. Skinshifters have never been extensively studied, and much about their nature is mysterious. They don’t like to reveal their secrets, and since they have a unique gift for posing as members local populations, they’re seldom even recognized. One theory holds that skinshifters are extradimensional creatures. The part of Howlaa we see is simply the part that… emerges into the dimensions you and I are able to perceive. The rest of her body – including additional mass – is somewhere else.” He went on for a while, saying things like “M-theory” and “string theory” and “brane cosmology,” and I just let it wash over me, not because I’m dumb, but because I didn’t have the background – it was like learning algebra before you can add or subtract. Jenny Kay would’ve understood it all, I bet. I felt a stab of homesickness, sort of, but it was just homesickness for Jenny. It would’ve been good to have her here with me.
Wisp must’ve noticed the faraway look on my face, because he said, “Listen: think of a shark’s fin, breaking the surface of the water, coming toward you. You can see the fin, and you can deduce the existence of the shark, but you can’t actually see the shark. You see? The fin is all that extends into your world from the water. But instead of hiding under water, the rest of Howlaa is hidden away in higher dimensions of our universe.”
“Like an iceberg,” I said. “Nine-tenths of it is underwater.”
“Apt enough, though when talking about Howlaa, a shark is a better metaphor than an iceberg.”
The airlock squealed, and I turned in my chair, wishing for a speargun or something – but then, I always had my rings and bracelets, and if I had no other choice, those would maybe let me punch somebody hard enough to make them disappear, or at least get me to safety.
Howlaa came in, looking perfectly human if extremely wet in a shadowcloth bikini, dragging what looked like some kind of green garbage bag full of bones. But when she tossed the thing on the floor, I realized it had a face, and the greasy pierogies I ate at Merrill’s rose up in my throat. I fought down the urge to puke by squeezing my hands into fists so hard the rings dug into my flesh, distracting myself with pain.
“I see you brought a souvenir,” Wisp said.
Howlaa leaned over and spat several times, expelling ropy green slime with each hacking gag. She wiped her hand across her mouth and shuddered, then caught my eye. “Sorry. Bad manners. Wisp is always telling me to be less disgusting. But Dagonites have poison in their skin. Doesn’t bother me when I’m a Manipogo – they’re immune – but I had to expel the poison from this body unless I wanted to go gangrenous from the inside out. Hop up from my chair, Randy. We should get going before the second wave arrives.”
I got up, though it meant moving closer to the corpse in front of the airlock. I’d never seen a dead person before, and this wasn’t exactly a person, but then again, it kinda was. The dead Dagonite had a bracelet of its own, seashells and smooth beads on a string, and I wondered if the jewelry had been a gift, or if the Dagonite had made it, or –
“It was us or them,” Wisp said in a low voice. “Always pick ‘us’ in that situation. Anyone would.”
“Here’s something to take your mind off the moral torment.” Howlaa reached into a pocket of the shadowcloth – a bikini with pockets? – and tossed me something like an oversized brown leather wallet. I opened it and found a creepy-looking syringe, the old-timey kind you see in horror movies set in abandoned insane asylums, all dull brass finger-holds and a needle the size of a ballpoint pen. “Jam that in Froggy’s neck and suck out some of his blood.”
“You’re right,” Howlaa said. “It doesn’t really have a neck. Just shove it generally below the head there. You’ll probably hit blood.”
“Why… would I be doing this?”
“Wisp, I have to drive,” Howlaa said crankily, and turned away, pulling levers and twisting knobs and sending the submersible fish through the lake water at high speed. Occasional green lumps bumped off the windows and spun lazily away.
“Howlaa doesn’t have a Dagonite in her… repertoire,” Wisp said. “But if you draw the blood, Howlaa can drink it.”
“You drink blood? I thought you were a werewolf, not a vampire.”
Howlaa didn’t answer me, didn’t even appear to hear me, just turned on some wobbly black-and-white screen on the fish’s cockpit that beeped and booped, like sonar or something.
“Howlaa can take on the form of any creature she consumes,” Wisp said. “It’s disgusting, worse even than the ordinary eating habits of the bodied, I know, but it is her way. Skinshifters can take in a genetic sample, extrapolate the entire organism from that sample, and duplicate that organism, perfect in every way.”
I looked at the back of Howlaa’s totally human neck. “So at some point… Howlaa drank the blood of a human?” Like me, I didn’t say.
“Ah,” Wisp said. “Well. In that particular situation, it was consensual. Part of a rather complex intrigue involving impersonation and espionage in the service of the Regent… but that was long ago.”
“And that woman’s been dead for eighty thousand days,” Howlaa said. “Her genes only live on in me. But, yes, most of the other bodies are things I just ate. I didn’t consume any of the Dagonites during that battle, though – just bit them dead and spat them out. They tasted awful. The blood won’t be a treat, either, but I want it.”
“Skinshifters are apex predators,” Wisp said. “Masters of disguise. Once they manage to eat one example of a species, they can blend in with the herd… or society… and prey on others at will.”
“Wolf in sheep’s clothing,” I said. I’d known Howlaa was kind of scary, that much was obvious, but somehow the total not-human-ness of her hadn’t sunk in before. Turning into a wolf, okay, werewolves are just people with a weird medical problem and a big shaving cream budget. I could relate to a werewolf. But Howlaa only looked human, and she was really something else entirely. “Are you sure you two are the good guys?”
“Definitely, in comparison to the opposition,” Wisp said. “But Howlaa only plays the predator in the line of duty these days. If she ever did otherwise, ever tried to prey on an innocent, I would step in, and stop it.”
“How would you – Oh. The body control thing.”
“It’s why we were made partners,” Howlaa said. “The Regent knew I wouldn’t like being leashed, so he sent Wisp along to make sure I behaved myself. If I tried to run – not that there’s anywhere to run on the Ax, not really – Wisp would hijack my body and walk me back to the palace for a bout of reeducation.” Howlaa turned and gave me one of her grins. “It took me decades to get Wisp reeducated into seeing things my way.”
“I owed a debt to society,” Wisp said stiffly. “I sought only to pay it off honorably, through service. But the Regent abused my loyalty, and his sovereignty, and I agreed to help Howlaa find a way out of our situation. Out of this place. Beyond the Regent’s reach, even though his reach extends into every corner of every possible universe.”
“Now that you know the terrible true nature of beastly old me,” Howlaa said, “suck out that frog’s blood, Randy. Before it spoils and starts to stink. Blood dead more than a little while is no good to me – the cells decay.”
I told myself the Dagonite was just a big frog. I’d dissected one of those in biology class, and while some of the other girls had flapped their hands and shrieked, I hadn’t seen the big deal – I mean, I’d helped my Dad cut up chicken carcasses, and frogs were probably even stupider than chickens.
Of course, this frog had a bracelet. This frog had a culture.
But it was already dead. And if Howlaa could imitate a Dagonite next time, maybe she’d have an alternative to killing them. I jabbed in the syringe and pulled back the plunger, a swirl of blackish-red fluid filling the cylinder. “Is this enough?”
“That will do,” Wisp said.
Howlaa beckoned, took the syringe, and squirted a long stream of blood into her mouth, closing her eyes for a moment as if to savor it, the way my Mom used to do with wine, before she got into the habit of guzzling the stuff instead. Howlaa’s eyes opened, and she said, “Now chuck the dead thing out of the airlock.”
“Sorry, but I draw the line at corpse disposal. Besides, you said the skin was poisonous.”
Howlaa sighed. “Only as poisonous as the skin of a mango — not a real problem unless you bite a few dozen of them to death. But fine.” She twisted more levers, and told me to take the helm again. “Don’t touch anything.”
“If I’m not supposed to touch anything, why am I sitting there?”
“Because otherwise Wisp will get nervous.” Howlaa opened the airlock and wrestled the dead Dagonite away while I sat quietly and didn’t touch anything, even when the sonar thing began to beep and boop very insistently.
“That doesn’t sound good,” Wisp said.
When the airlock opened again and Howlaa returned, once more soaked, I pointed wordlessly to the black-and-white screen. Howlaa came over, leaned down, and peered at it. “Huh,” he said. “Wisp, you remember those caves we found under here when we were after those cannibals?”
I wondered if Howlaa would be considered a cannibal if she ate something while she was in the same physical form as that something, but decided maybe now wasn’t the best time for philosophy.
“Yes,” Wisp said.
“We’d better find them, and soon.”
“Because if I’m reading this screen correctly, there’s a steam colossus standing in the water just ahead, and I’d rather not be stepped on today.”
“You can’t turn into a steam colossus?” I said. “And, you know, have an epic monster fight?”
“The colossi don’t have blood,” Wisp said. “They have… steam. They’re seven-eighths machine. I can’t possess them, either. Howlaa defeated one, years ago, when the colossus went rogue – she became small, infiltrated the mechanism, and destroyed the armored vat-grown brain inside. But it took most of a day to kill the creature, and we don’t have that kind of time.”
“There are only half a dozen colossi in all of the Nex,” Howlaa complained, making the fish turn hard to the right. “What are the odds that one would be standing around here?”
“Maybe it was coming to Merrill for repairs or upgrades. Whatever the reason, I’m sure the Regent has it looking for us now.”
“Not much chance of it finding us, any more than I could pluck a protozoa from a puddle at my feet, but if we pass too close it might have proximity sensors online… Caves it is.” Howlaa focused on the cockpit, muttering about lost time and too much distance and useless worthless jump-engines. I settled back down on my unpleasant bench, scared but also a little regretful that I wouldn’t get to see a steam colossus, whatever it was – I imagined a giant mecha robot suit, the kind you see in Japanese cartoons.
“We were hoping to cover more ground underwater – the caves will be slower – but at least they’re relatively protected.” Wisp paused. “From the Regent, anyway. They’re not particularly well-protected against the things that live in the caves.”
“They’re our brothers-in-arms, Wisp,” Howlaa said, tone full of mockery. “Brave souls standing against the Regent, determined to live as free creatures on their own terms. I’m sure they’ll embrace us with open arms. Or open tentacles. Or mandibles. Here we are.” The fish slowed in its whooshing onrush, and I leaned over to look out the windows, where something that might have been an underwater mountain or the roots of an island became clear. There were big black holes in the rock, from the size of a person to the size of a house, and Howlaa aimed the fish toward one of the biggest. Soon we were in total blackness, without even the murky light from the frozen nuclear sun above, and the fish’s interior was lit only by Wisp’s glow. The fish scraped its metal belly on rocks a few times with horrible shrieks of metal, and the sweating in the head became more of a shower.
“Tighter than I remember,” Howlaa said. “But then, I was traveling under my own power last time.”
Finally the fish ran aground completely, and Howlaa cursed and smacked the controls. “End of the line. Everybody out.” She flung open the hatch and went into the airlock without closing the door behind her, which meant we’d emerged into someplace dry, unless Howlaa had decided to drown me.
I followed Wisp out of the airlock, into your basic damp natural cavern. The metal fish was half-submerged in a pool of water and half-shredded against rock, several of its serrated teeth broken and gleaming in Wisp’s light. Howlaa hopped down to the rock, and I followed more cautiously. There were tunnels branching off from this cavern, and I hoped some of them led to light and food and maybe a place to take an afternoon nap, though I wasn’t too hopeful about any of those.
“Which way was it?” Howlaa said, but before Wisp answered, we all noticed the glows approaching from the tunnels before us, shifting blue-green specks and spirals in the dark.
“Underdwellers,” Wisp said. “The glowing lights you see are clan tattoos drawn with bioluminescent fungus.” I figured that informational moment was for my benefit.
“Recognize the clan symbol?” Howlaa asked. I couldn’t read the tone of her voice. Worry? Annoyance? Pride? The things drew closer, and now there was a murmuring from the tunnels, a sort of chittering gnashing bunch of grunts and moans.
“Yes,” Wisp said, and sighed. “I’ve seen the intelligence reports. They’re clan Kil’howlaa. A vengeance clan formed by the few Underdwellers who survived your last visit here.”
“It’s nice to be remembered,” Howlaa said, and transformed.