Lucitania

Lusitania - a science fiction novella

LUSITANIA

©1998 by Louise Richardson

"Lusitania" is a new work of science fiction based on a short story I wrote more than 20 years ago. Now that it's finished I declare it to be a novella. Whatever it is, I hope everyone enjoys it.

CHAPTER ONE

She kept thinking about Lusitania. Lusitania would be all right, she thought. She had enough food, enough water, enough space. Certainly enough space. "That must be what all zookeepers tell themselves," Joan thought, "enough space."

Joan Giddings took the turn when her windshield liquid crystal display flashed "Left Turn. Go." with an appropriate bent green arrow. Through the arrow she saw the gleaming sprawl of Clear Lake City and the setting sun beyond. Another couple of turns and she was down her street and in the driveway. The windscreen said, "Vehicle Stopped. Park. Gas: 1/4. Ignition: Off," and then it was off.

A loud blast of "You're the one who hurt me; now you go dessert me. What ya think you're try'n to do?" almost blew the wave out of her hair as she crossed the "air lock" threshold. Although the air lock did its job of "transitioning" the air temperature and humidity from the Houston area swelter into something liveable, it did little to buffer Joan from her daughter's music.

"Jill," Joan shouted, "Jill, put your plugs in. I'm home!"

"What?" the fifteen-year-old replied over the din.

"Turn it down! Turn it off! Put your plugs in your ears or shut off the "heavy metal!" Joan approached Jill's lair.

The music halted, but Jill's yelling continued the high-decibel level. "There! Muted! Fine!"

Joan peered into her teenager's room. The walls were as loud as the sound had been, filled and pulsating as they were with a facial pore-level video of Ringo Nelson. The random blinking of the scanning photo-diodes and phono-diodes gave her a headache, the phonodes being especially irritating as they were blinking a glaring amber to indicate they were muted.

Joan took a deep breath. "What are you doing?"

"I'm just scanning 'Teen Beat', Mother-r-r-r."

Joan didn't like that curt "Mother-r-r-r". It was the same one Joan had used on her mother when she was interrupted watching Luther Vandross or "The Artist Formerly Known as 'Prince'" on MTV.

"Turn it down, Jill."

"Mother-r-r-r, the sound is off. You should be satisfied."

"You know what I mean. Size the picture down to five or six feet--something on a more human scale. I don't like to come in here and have to search for you up some rock star's left nostril."

"Rock star? Mother, you are so passe. Nobody listens to rock anymore."

"Well, whatever you call it, you'll have to get off the Net, put your little browser on the nightstand, wash up and be ready for supper in thirty minutes."

"Oh, Mom."

"Better than 'Mother-r-r-r'," Joan said under her breath, but as she closed Jill's door there was a wave, a rush of a synthesized string section sweeping across the girl's ceiling and circling her walls in an echoing crescendo. "A day in the life," Joan muttered, but the ancient "Beatles" reference would have been lost on the child. The music muted, Jill's point having been made, and she gave an insincere, "Sorry" and that was that.

A brown and white shaggy carpet clicked lopingly up to Joan and she petted the head of the cocker spaniel. "Princess, how are you? Did you have a good day? Time for supper. You never pass up supper, do you, girl? Come on."

For her part, Lusitania never missed a meal, as taxing and overstimulating a task as it was. She nudged into her "feed bag" and there was krill. There was also the flash of expanding awareness of the information, digital human-generated information, coursing through her huge brain. The bag would hold her there until the humans were finished with her for the morning. At the end of the session she would miss the chill of the seawater around her head and snout, rushing into her mouth and back through her baleen.

She longed for the total emersion of her infancy. She longed to breach the surface and spy-hop or simply to atomize a briny mist from her blowhole every few minutes. That would at least make her feel alive. And she longed for the companionship of her pod. However, her lot was to be wherever she was, suspended weightlessly in a colossal tank of air. "At least I have the phoney ocean sounds and all those images," she thought, or she had the cetacean equivalent of such a thought.

In her mind's eye, or her mind's sonar decoder, Lusitania "saw" the whales, the dolphins, the underfed masses of humans, the disappearing species of plants and animals...and Nessie. She oddly had compassion for the "monster" who was free, for now, to haunt Loch Ness. But for how long? Now that these last descendants of the plesiosaurs had been verified, tagged, monitored and continuously videographed, how long would they be free? What effect would all of this attention have on their ability to feed, travel and reproduce? She wondered. She thought it was herself that wondered although she could not always be sure what was a thought and what was a query from one of her programmers. Her brain, her mind, was not hers to command during these extended feedings. She could only monitor and think.

Down in Galveston Joan monitored Lusitania's vital signs. They were "normal" enough.

"But what is normal about it?," she asked herself. Although she could console herself that Lusitania's presence in the satellite and her use as an experimental biological computer had been bought with strictly enforced international bans on whaling, Joan never quite felt right about what she and her colleagues were doing to this individual grey whale. She always felt a little ashamed.

Of course, it was a state secret, a secret from the general public, though, not from other world states. Japan knew about Lusitania and the others. Japan was the major sponsor. It was Japanese business interests that guaranteed the moratorium on whaling and that talked Singapore into investing. The Russians too were in on the secret, and they recalled their whaling trawlers. Even the Scandinavians were aboard for this project. The whales of the world were the safest they had been in centuries. It was Lusitania who was used to keep tabs on the regenerating populations of greys, humpbacks, bowheads, rights and blues of the world's oceans.

In Joan Giddings childhood there had been, before the advent of the personal computer, a subgenre of science fiction books and movies involving a plot about a single universal all-powerful computer which controlled everyones lives and which eventually went berserk and tried to destroy the world, only to have its plug pulled by some unassuming hero. Now, in the second decade of the Third Millennium, the idea of a supercomputer, evil or otherwise, seemed ludicrous. Yet Joan was involved in a project to develop such a supercomputer, or more accurately, to develop the capacity of organic brains to serve as supercomputers with advanced abilities for multitasking the processing of digitized information.

Many turn-of-the-century computer scientists had assumed that the speed and accuracy of computers would soon far exceed the demand for the information to be handled. They should have realized, as Joan came to realize, that a revolutionary tool like the computer would spawn revolutionary demands for what it could do. Once people knew they could process mountains of information for work and recreation and for maintenance of the planet, they gathered all of the mountains they could find. Organic, biological, evolved computers, or brains, had the complexity and sophistication needed to meet this demand, and certain advances in the study of mammalian brains made it possible to use them, for all intents and purposes, as central processing units. The key element to the success of early biological computers was the size of the CPU.

Scientists now had a practical reason to rank the most intelligent species, and the element of brain size was foremost among their criteria. Which groups of species had the largest brains? Of the vertebrates the mammals, of course, were at the top of the list. The best contender among the invertebrates, the octopus, didn't even come close. Many species, such as humans and other primates, were brainy relative to body weight, but for sheer poundage of cerebral tissue whales, and to a lesser extent the elephants, were the best candidates.

The very largest brains of all were to be found in the sperm whales, but baleen whales were considered to be more manageable than the toothed whales, to which the sperms, as well as the smaller orcas and dolphins, belonged. Elephants would have been excellent subjects accept that they tended to panic when tested in free fall conditions, nearly wrecking three cargo planes in the process. Two species were ultimately chosen because they were relatively large, plentiful and docile, so there came to be five of the leviathans utilized, each in his or her own satellite: three humpbacks and two greys.

After some initial trial and error, the living whales proved to be excellent subjects for the research, so much so that they were put to work on a daily basis computing everything from global biodiversity to the gross national product of Portugal, the first nation to sign on to the project. In honor of the Portuguese participation, the first astrowhale was dubbed "Lusitania", the Roman name for Portugal.

"There's news," Sanjay Singh Patel told Joan in the Astrobiology Institute's atrium, "our sea is ready to launch."

"Great," sighed Joan, relieved, "but how big is it?"

"Huge. Big enough for spy-hopping at 70% gravity. That's the most spin the system can manage economically."

"How soon?"

"A month or two. All five vehicles will launch within a week of one another. The sections will be assembled at Nippon 3 to avoid undue attention. Everyone knows that space station is still under construction. The water and krill is already in orbit in a holding tank."

"That's sooner that I thought. The Japanese are really pushing this through."

"They want to keep their pet happy. Hey, what's the matter, Joan? I thought this is what you've been lobbying for."

"It is. I just hope Lusitania likes it."

"I think you're worried about her love life."

"Have they selected a mate for her?"

"You've seen him."

"Toshiro?"

"They're a good match genetically. Of course, you never can tell about compatibility."

"Sanjay, this is all so artificial. They should be free to swim the ocean and find their own mates."

"Then we wouldn't be able to do the project. You and I would be out of a job."

"We'd find something."

"Believe me, Joan, these are the most pampered pets in history."

"They're too intelligent to be pets. They're too big for that."

"Just think of it though. They'll soon have room to jump and splash. They'll be able to see the stars...And they'll have each other."

"Yes they will."

"Nessie," or one of the "Nessies," surfaced in the cold Scotland air. Even through the evolved thickened skin and the warm downy hair the baby creature could feel the chill of the highlands. Nessie was starting to lose his down. His skin was thickening toward adult proportions. The little reptile didn't have the insulating fat of the whales, but his kind had developed a rubbery endothelium which served the same purpose.

Until the first scotiasaur (or "Scottish lizard") was confirmed in the first decade of the Twenty-first Century, the Loch Ness Monster, as it had long been called, was considered a legend, a subject for ridicule toward those who claimed to have seen it. Its discovery in digital video taken from a research submarine was the biggest news story in years. Within a year's time, a pregnant female was captured and tagged with a satellite location device. Of her two live-born young, one lived to be so-tagged, and mother and yearling were released. Since then, hardly a monster escaped tagging.

Lusitania knew them all. She knew this baby was Number 00124-S. She knew it was a male, age six months, one week and three days. She knew that it was presently located 1.34 kilometers north of the south end of the loch and 74 meters from the east shore. She knew that this Nessie spent most of his time within a radius of 200 meters of its present location. Lusitania could see the digitized video of the first captive baby at the same age, superimposed on a virtual lake the model did not see until it was several months older. The video looked so life-like Lusitania could imagine herself there in the loch swimming near the baby.

If she concentrated, she could even, virtually, place Number 00124-S, in its present location, in the computer video. But she dared not actually do this in her computer feedback, although she knew she could. It was best that the humans not know she could manipulate the data. Who knows what they were capable of doing? Among all of the accumulated human knowledge she had accessed, she once ran across the old fable of "The Goose Who Laid The Golden Egg." She feared there was more truth than fable about human psychology in it. Besides, her mind was a more vivid computer than anything on the Global Net, so, on her down time, she recreated all of the virtual parameters in her mind, converted the Nessie data mentally, and "watched" the scene as clearly as if she were actually in Loch Ness.

"Mom," Jill Giddings told her mother over Saturday breakfast, "I could stay with Gramma."

"Okay," Joan agreed to Jill's astonishment, "but I thought you got bored on the island."

"Mother-r-r-r...You know very well I mean Gramma Haygood, not Gramma Giddings."

"I wanna go to the island," piped in eight-year-old Petey.

Jill was dismissive with her little brother. "We're not going there. It's too far."

"So's New Houston...I'll show you. I got a map," said Petey earnestly.

"I know how far New Houston is, prewt. It's a third of the way to the moon. I gave you that map. I was in the Third Grade too, you know."

"Mama, Jill called me a prewt."

"Don't call Petey a 'prewt', Jill."

"Well he is," Jill said snidely, "He's a real 'prewt': a backwards 'twerp!'"

"Am not," Petey rejoined.

"You're both coming with me to New Houston," Joan decided, "and that's that."

"It's just a boring old space station," Jill complained.

"I can talk Gullah," claimed Petey.

"Can not.

"Well, it has a mall," Joan pointed out.

"Mother-r-r-r...a mall? You're so Twentieth Century."

"Can too talk Gullah."

"You were born in the Twentieth Century, Jill."

"Not me...And I can so talk Gullah."

"Just barely. Anyway, you won't let me buy anything there. It's too expensive."

"I might. I'm being paid in yen this trip."

"Oh yes...BJB: Big Japanese Bucks, huh? Well..."

"BJB, Jillie! BJB! I can so talk Gullah."

"No you can't, prewt."

"Can so."

"Do it."

"Huh?"

"Do it, Petey. Say something in Gullah."

"I forget."

Lusitania knew there had once been three species of scotiasaurs in Loch Ness, two in the present Nessies' genus and one in a previously documented genus. By the evidence found on the bottom of the loch, at least one of the other species had lived well into the human era, about a thousand years ago. How long Scotiasaurus nessi would endure was anyone's guess. Lusitania monitored every unauthorized intrusion by private submarine and helicopter. She imagined she consciously rushed the information back down to all research stations on the ground. She imagined she was the one to alert the new Royal Ministry of Wildlife of these violations. Certainly a conduit, she believed she was Nessie's protector. She did no less than she would for her own calves, given the chance.

"You're going to give the bluebonnets a miss, then?" Ed Chrispen skimmed an oyster shell out into Clear Lake. It skipped five times.

"Impressive trajectory! I'll see the bluebonnets next year." Joan unhitched her dog's leash, and Princess tiptoed along the lapping shoreline.

"I'll tell you what," Ed said in tones even more British and upperclass-ish than usual. He reached inside the left pocket of his Houston Aeros windbreaker, "You can take some bluebonnets with you." He produced a small navy blue cube.

"What?"

He opened the cube to reveal a silver ring standing, in its depression, in a bed of navy velveteen. "You see," he said, pinching up the ring for her to see, "it's a pair of bluebonnets kissing this little diamond between them."

Joan was breathless, but she took the ring. "Yes. I see them."

"Well...?"

A wry smile came to her lips. "Well?"

"It's not like you weren't expecting something like this...I see. You want ceremony." He dropped down on his left knee. "Ow!" The oyster shell gravel was not comfortable.

"Ow?" she giggled.

"Wilt thou, Joan LaKeisha Giddings, be my wedded wife?"

Joan smirked a little. "I wilt."

He hugged her around the legs. "Thank you!"

"Are you sure this is how it's done?" She extended both hands, and Ed took them as he struggled to his feet. "Actually," she said, "it's 'LaKeisha Joan.' When I was a girl there were about five LaKeisha's in every class."

"That's just the sort of thing I want to know." He stood, brushed the chalky dust from his jeans and took her in his arms.

The pod of humpbacked whales were bubble-netting some herring. They encircled a cloud of the fish a few feet under the swells of the North Pacific and blew air from all sides to buoy the prey up to the surface. The great jaws with their billowing underchins then stretched wide to gulp hundreds of gallons of herring and seawater as each humpback broke the surface. From Lusitania's vantage point, and at maximum magnification from the onboard camera, they were a circle of expanding and contracting "o's", rhythmic holes in the ocean washing open and closed, looking like some sort of watery fireworks.

Lusitania had only to thrust her head through the soft rubber collar into the adjoining seawater tank, the contact plates in the collar touching the ones implanted around her head. She had only then to suck the krill through her baleen and expel a few gallons of water, and think of Toshiro. She knew he was coming. She knew they would finally meet in a colossal krill tank the arrogant humans dared call a "sea."

She knew Toshiro, of course, from the data and image stream. He was an ocean and atmospheric data processor as Lusitania was a geobiological data processor. They often interfaced, passing, under the shared data, little "notes" of greeting to each other they hoped the humans could not decode.

Typical, she thought, that humans, instead of attempting communication with beings of this world, would spend so much time and energy trying to contact alien life, as she knew they did from data she got from Ilsa, a humpbacked whale in geosynchronous orbit over Northern Europe. Ilsa processed information from SETI, Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, among other space-related sources. Some of the humans delighted in referring to Ilsa as "the SETI cetacean."

Toshiro's long frequency message to Lusitania now read, within data about jet stream and gulf stream, "It will be soon."

"You're going to like it, kids," Joan Giddings said confidently as she and her brood schlepped their carry-on luggage down the fourth level corridor of New Houston.

"I'll bet it's tiny," whined Jill, nauseous from the trip.

Joan was determined to stay upbeat if it killed her. "It's smaller than our house, but it's plenty of space for a hotel room. It's a suite, actually."

"They got anti-gravity here," said Petey excited. He traveled better than his sister. Even the many gravities of breaking the atmosphere were just part of the ride for him.

"Of course they have anti-gravity, prewt. It's a space station. We're in space." Jill was in no mood to enjoy anything.

"This is it, guys. Petey, put in the key card."

Petey very carefully turned the card so the front was to the left and gently slipped it into the vertical slot in the door frame, which unlatched at a dozen evenly spaced dead bolts with a "chunk" sound. As the door slid into the wall the earthlight filled the room, and the three saw the view.

"Surf!," petey gasped in the latest slang, "It's really surf, y'all."

Even the jaded Jill mouthed a "wow."

"Well, set down your bags. Go to the window and watch the world before it cycles by."

All three shed their loads and were drawn, like filings to a magnet, toward the large window and watched the world go by.

"Get away! You're permit does not allow you to get that close! Back off, if you please!," the bull horn with the Scottish dialect blared at the encroaching helicopter. "You will violate your access permit if you don't desist!"

Lusitania watched the scene from her satellite camera, from an array of loch side camera platforms of the Royal Wildlife Ministry, and even from a patch-through feed from the helicopter's own camera. She would switch the shots for the best vantage point. Of course, the video technicians down in Galveston were calling the shots, but Lusitania would subtly push a better view when she saw one. The situation was so chaotic the technicians often could not tell a glitch in the system from their own missteps, much less suspecting a relatively passive grey whale of manipulation.

The bull horn blared again, "You must cease and desist at once! This is your last warning!"

From the helicopter view Lusitania saw what happened next in disbelief. Suddenly the long neck of an adult scotiasaur reared to within inches of the aircraft. The chopper swerved, but the neck swung back with a heavy impact to the head of the beast against the landing struts of the machine. Lusitania saw the helicopter spiral into the lake, its camera briefly showing rushing water and then darkness. The satellite camera confirmed the rotor, blades and a slip of gleaming metal being enfolded by the loch. The monster stayed for a time, then dove, followed by baby No. 00132-N, who had gone unnoticed in the frenzy, unnoticed by everyone but the protective mother.

CHAPTER TWO

Joan checked Petey's headgear, knee and shoulder pads, and put in his mouthpiece. "Bite down," she said.

Petey mumbled something. When Joan couldn't understand him, he took out the mouthpiece. "Do I have to?"

"Yes, you have to. I want you to have fun, but I want you to be safe."

"He'll be just fine, Dr. Giddings," assured the space station's youth activities coach who was similarly padded and attired.

"Petey, I want you to pay attention to Mrs. Hiakawa and do what she says."

Petey mumbled his consent.

"What?"

"I said," said Petey removing the mouthpiece once more, "'Okay'."

"Come, floaters, let's go to the hub," Mrs. Hiakawa called out to the handful of children and teenagers. These were the children of scientists and technicians, but soon the general public would come, those who would be able to afford the trip. Petey and Jill didn't know what fortunate guinea pigs they were.

With hugs, kisses, and pats on backs the assembled parents relinquished their offspring to the morning's adventures. The bundled ones followed their coach down the long corridor to the hub of the station.

"I think we're going to be hot," complained one little girl a bit taller than Petey.

"The hub is kept quite cold, so your freefall suits will warm you up. Actually, you may be uncomfortably cold at first, but we'll get you warm in no time...Everyone stay together. We have a long walk. Your parents will be able to see and hear you from the main lounge."

"Oh man...," one little boy groused.

The live chatter of the group trailed off somewhat as the corridor's microphones picked up the cacophony at a low decibel level, just loud enough to put the parents at ease that their children were safely and happily on their way.

"It will be soon." was the constant gist of Toshiro's messages to Lusitania, under and between data on tides and monsoons in South Asia. Around migration numbers on eels in the Sargasso Sea and Kemp's Ridley sea turtles on the South Texas coast Lucitania's constant response was to the effect of "Yes. Soon." Just to swim in the cold water again would be the whale equivalent of heaven. Lucitania knew the water would be cold. She wished it so with every ton in her body. She appreciated the heated air in which she floated, keeping her at a comfortable optimum temperature, but how she longed for the North Atlantic cold of the sea against her skin. And there would be warmth too: the pressing of Toshiro's bulk along her own. She could only imagine the touching. She had remained untouched since she left the Earth years before. Beyond that, even her imagination failed her. Like a Victorian bride, she hoped Toshiro would know what to do when the time came.

"...But King Charles was unavailable for comment. This is EuroWeb News, English Language Site, continual news highlights perpetually."

The flat wall monitor was about three meters by five and a half meters with a picture so clear it seemed three dimensional. Some of the news on it, though, might have been more palatable at lower definition. The monitor was an inset picture on a scan wall which was not unlike the one that covered Joan's daughter's room back home. On the wall of the Moonside Lounge Joan could see Petey and his new friends literally bouncing off the walls in the freefall room of the space station. The tucking and rolling of children in midair was an almost abstract ballet, a background of colorful moving patterns for disinterested lounge visitors. But most of the clientele there at this hour were interested parents like Joan.

Ed Chrispen entered the lounge unseen by Joan. She should have seen him because his entrance, coincident with the rise of the giant moon behind him, would have seemed magical to her. As the gaze of half the patrons of the lounge swung moonward the EuroWeb News was telling about an incident in Scotland.

"The lines have been drawn in this controversy between the locals and Royal Wildlife personnel on the one hand and web tabloid press on the other. You may save the accompanying video of the "Nessie Incident" and judge for yourself who is at fault and liable for legal action. Of course, we here at EuroWeb News must stand by our journalistic brothers in calling for an investigation of this dangerous animal, including its mysterious confirmation of a few years previous. For is this indeed an ancient species finally captured in our lifetime or is it, as some allege, a dangerous creature brought back recently from a seventy million year old grave a la the Jurassic Park films of a generation past? In fact, is it not strange that this "Nessie" has been discovered coinciding with the re-release of those same motion pictures on the Global Web?"

Ed, still unseen, bent over and whispered into Joan's ear, "Rubbish," and kissed her. She turned in a start to see him there. Then she playfully feigned disinterest.

"Oh, it's you," she said.

"'Oh, it's you,'" he mocked, "Fine thing. I travel more than 100,000 kilometers and this is all the greeting I get."

"Did you hitch-hike?," she asked, batting her eyelids.

"You are a mad tease, aren't you?," he said, sitting in the opposite chair at her bistro table, and continuing their little game.

"Why, Colonel Chrispen, what ever do you mean?" She batted her eyes once more.

"I had no idea I am about to marry Scarlett O'Hara." His pronunciation of "O-HAH-ra" was extremely British, but he was a "lef- TEN-nant CUN-nel", after all.

Joan kissed his lips straight-on. "You had better not marry anyone but me. My father has hired a caterer already."

"So you've told them. How'd they take it?"

"Honestly?"

"Not well, I take it."

"Dad's fine with it. He likes you. But Mama, well..."

"What?"

"Well..."

"Come on. Don't sugarcoat it."

"You know how old fashioned Mama is...She wants to know why I have to marry a white man..."

Ed took a deep breath and stood up. "Did you tell her I'm a quarter-Libyan and half-Sudanese? I'm as African as the next fellow!"

"She knows, but she thinks of you as an Englishman."

"Well, I am an Englishman, but I'm Afro-English. Believe me, there are those among my countrymen who would make that distinction forcefully. And I'm also a bit of a Yank, you know. My father was a diplomatic attache in Washington, D.C. when I was born."

"Edward," Joan said, standing and taking his hands in hers, "I also know that Mama likes you, however grudgingly."

"Just not as a son-in-law."

"Give her time. She comes about her distrust honestly. She fought attack dogs and fire hoses in the sixties only to see white America turn ugly against civil rights and minorities in the nineties...and the early zeros. The pendulum is swinging back the other way just now, but poor Mama must feel like she has whiplash, as fickle as light Americans can be."

"I see."

"Are you hungry? The food is pretty good here. It's kind of steep, but the good stuff is just as easy to freight up here as the bad stuff. Being equidistant from everywhere on Earth has its advantages."

"Sure. Why not? How much time do we have?"

"Petey's going to be floating around for another twenty minutes. Then I have to pry Jill away from the station's mall."

"I thought she hated malls."

"She does, in concept, but she loves shopping."

"Nothing wrong with that girl, I see...Could I order you something more than a refill of your coffee?"

"Surprise me."

"Very well...Nothing in the way of raw fish, I assure you."

"Like I said, 'surprise me.'"

Lusitania saw the schematics of the artificial "sea" she was to inhabit with Toshiro. Sections One and Two were already locked into place. Number Three was now being joined to the others. She knew that Section Four was in a moon shuttle temporarily docked at Nippon 3. Section Five's shuttle would be launched in a few days. Her great heart beat perceptibly quicker in anticipation. This would be the most profound change in her life since she was taken from her mother in the open sea.

Among data on the salinity of the Mediterranean and Red Seas Toshiro encoded the constant message with increased emphasis, "It will be soon." Lusitania was not connected to Toshiro's physiological monitors but she imagined she could feel, hear, his heart beating as strongly as her own, accelerating as was her own, finally beating in time with her own.

The vibrations burst into her consciousness. Her satellite had been hit, but the foreign object did not bounce away. It was somehow attached to her vessel. It was too early for a docking. She was not due for a medical examination for...Of course, she realized, the time was near. The familiar rumbling inside the little airlock told her Dr. Shimata was undressing for the last dry air checkup. Lusitania wouldn't even mind her prodding this time.

"This is Nightline Online and I'm Chris Wallace...," began the program on the rectangular screen on the wall of Joan's New Houston bedroom.

"Go on. We know you're 'online,' you know. Everything's online." Jill Giddings was bored. There was only one wall screen in the suite, it was in Joan's bedroom, and it was only four feet long. She felt like a baby watching the webcast from her mother's bed.

"Jill, shhh. I'm listening to this," said Joan.

"...But is the Loch Ness Monster real? Indeed, there is a reptilian beast from the age of the dinosaurs swimming in the Scottish lake. However, what is its pedigree? Did it evolve in the highlands or was it engineered in a secret laboratory in Glasgow?..."

"Mom? Is it true? Was Nessie cloned from fossils or something?"

"I don't know, Jillie..."

"Mother-r-r-r..."

"Sorry: Jill. It doesn't seem likely. Let's see what their guests have to say."

"...Wildlife biologist, xenobiologist, Dr. Sanjay Singh Patel has been monitoring..."

"Mom, it's Sanjay, your Sanjay."

"Well, what do you know?"

"Video from a nearby Royal Wildlife Ministry camera clearly shows the webzine helicopter was much too close to the animals. They could have hovered at a greater distance and used a telephoto lens." As Sanjay testified, the video of the Loch Ness incident was played in a continuous loop. "If you could stop it right...here," he said and the image froze, "you can see the left runner of the machine is within a meter of the mother scotiasaur. And a few seconds later..." The video ran forward a while. "Stop here. Thank you. We clearly see the baby creature by her side. And now...if you will," he said and the scene continued, "see how the mother blocks the baby from the flying thing? Now she raises up and hits the right runner, and of course, the 'copter goes down."

"Yes, Dr. Patel," said the host, a little patronizing from Joan's standpoint, "we have all seen the video: full-motion, slow-motion and stop-motion, hundreds of times in the past few days. I'm sure everyone has downloaded a copy as well. But isn't there more here than a wildlife encounter gone awry? The question now on everyone's mind is, "Why is this dangerous animal swimming around a Scottish lake in the first place?"

"That I couldn't answer, Mr. Wallace, but only to say that I don't consider the scotiasaur a particularly--" Another voice with another face cut into Sanjay's reply.

Chris...Chris, ask him about the cover-up!" The man was ruddy and hypertensive and seemed incapable of speaking below a shout.

Simultaneously Sanjay asked, "Cover-up? We have been totally,--" while Chris said, "R. G. Steez, publisher of the Universal Correspondent, the web tabloid whose helicopter was destroyed by the creature, you are making quite an accusation. You don't think Mr. Singh has been entirely forthright with the public about this matter?"

"No I don't, Chris. Mr. Singh is in the employ of a secret NASA division and it's the mission of this division to cover-up the kinds of stories our publication tries to report. Can he look the international audience in the face and deny it was his organization that put the Loch Ness monster where it can endanger innocent passersby? Can he deny his organization is a front for alien intelligences who breed Bigfoots in Nepal and Northern California for eventual world domination? Can he deny his organization at this moment has a fleet of satellites in orbit and that these satellites contain living whales which, as we speak, are being tortured for the information they carry in their brains? At our site at www dot unicor dot--"

"Why, this is preposterous. Surely you don't--" Sanjay was covering up as best he could.

"Mr. Steez, I believe we are going a little far afield here. Getting back to the subject of the scotiasaur, Dr. Patel, to the best of your knowledge is the Loch Ness Monster for real?"

"Let me just say, Mr. Wallace, that as far as I or any of my colleagues, with whom I have spoken recently, are concerned, this is just a species of animal whose existence has been verified after centuries of sightings. Now we have proof. Now we have electronic tracing devices, video surveillance...In other words, we found it and we can now study it. That's all."

"Thank you Dr. Patel and Mr. Steez. We will take a break during which we invite you to visit our guests' websites at the addresses you see now, or you can click below for our e-mail..."

"Whales in space? Go on." Jill rolled her eyes.

"It's pretty silly what some people believe, right Jill?"

"That man is universally bats."

"You think so?"

"Oh yeah. Big time."

A drowsy Petey dragged his bedding into the room. "I can't sleep. The earth's too bright." He crawled into bed on Jill's side.

"Go to bed, prewt. We're watching grown-up stuff. You'll just be bored." Jill actually felt protective of her time alone with her mother, although she would have denied it to the death. Her gripes fell on deaf ears, however, because Petey was already asleep.

"Enough of this, Jill," said Joan, handing her daughter the browser, "you access whatever you want."

"Really?"

"Really."

"Even 'Ringo Nelson's Greatest Hits?'"

"Even that, God help me. But keep the sound down."

"Oh...okay." Jill punched in the URL and the site: text, video and sound came up, and she really did keep the sound down.

Joan knew she would need to conference with Sanjay in the morning. The rantings of the sleezy publisher, although ridiculous, indicated some of the truth had leaked out. For now, though, it was a treat to have her family around her in the bed.

"You know," Joan informed her daughter, "there's another 'Ringo.'"

"Oh Mom."

"As a matter of fact, there used to be another 'Nelson' too."

CHAPTER TW0

"We have a leak," a pacing Joan told the assembled scientists and technicians in the earthside conference room in a secured area of Nippon 3, a quite spare and utilitarian version of the more opulent New Houston.

"Surely you don't think it is one of us, Dr. Giddings." Dr. Chumley was the senior project scientist and protective of his colleagues' integrity.

"Who else?"

Al Thibodeaux of the engineering team spoke up. "Why not some hacker down on earth?"

"I thought this was a secured system."

"Maybe all our codes and security protocols are not as leak-proof as we would like to believe."

They heard the sound of an electronic cricket, and Joan responded by walking to the intercom console at the middle of the conference table.

"Security," said the security guard, "Mr. Hoshimoto is here."

"Thank you. One moment." Joan punched the video onto the big screen. "Very well. Show him in."

Dr. Chumley remarked, "My dear Joan, don't you think we're being a bit over-cautious here? After all, the guards have already scanned the man's I.D. card, fingerprints, voiceprint and retinal patterns. He is our sponsor, you know."

"Perhaps, Dr. Chumley. I just want to be sure."

The assemblage straightened clothes and hair, and cleared throats in preparation of the arrival of the Chief Executive Officer of Yamabishi Interplanetary Corporation, the big boss, as they saw the live video of his trek down the corridor. The conference room guard opened the door for him. All present stood up.

"Please be seated," the boss said, standing at the end of the table. Everyone obeyed. Joan took her seat by the multimedia console.

"May I say, 'What a pleasant surprise, sir,'" ventured Dr. Chumley, "and welcome to Nippon 3."

"No chat, Chumley. What is happening here?"

"Mr. Hoshimoto, I assure you we are thoroughly investigating the origin of the leakage of our project information. If anyone in our organization is willfully responsible, that individual shall be sacked."

"I already have your assurances, Chumley. They are worthless. Do you have any idea what Minibishi and Matsushita are doing with the rumored information? Not to mention Microsoft."

"Quite, the three M's."

"3M? What have you heard from them?"

"Mr. Hoshimoto, if I may," said Joan raising her hand.

"Yes. Yes. Go to the lady's room. But don't interrupt."

"Mr. Hoshimoto," Dr. Chumley spoke up, "this is Dr. Joan Giddings, our great whales expert.

"Mr. Hoshimoto, we can shut everything down within moments, cut all communications, maintain the whales--"

"Have you ever eaten whale meat, Mrs. Giddings? It is quite a delicacy."

"What do you mean?"

"You think we should shut down? When we have come this far? The South Koreans would love that, wouldn't they? How many tons of whale may we few swallow? No. If we shut down, there will be no maintaining of whales. There will be disposing of whales. You may, of course, take a few steaks for your family, if you wish."

"You can't be serious."

"Joan, Mr. Hoshimoto is just making a wry joke. Isn't that right, sir?"

"I make no jokes, Chumley. But it is all academic. We do not shut down. We go ahead. Quickly. We speed up."

"Yes. Of course. The artificial sea is almost completed."

"Good. As soon as it is finished, transfer the breeders. I want the rendezvous to start immediately. Start moving the whales now."

"Yes, sir."

"And there will be no more hiring. If there are no spies now, there soon will be. Do you know what the North Koreans could do with this technology? And China? And I never did trust Singapore."

Hoshimoto stiffened and nodded a sharp bow. The others stood and returned the gesture. The C.E.O. stormed out of the conference room as he had stormed in.

Lusitania felt the jolt in her tank. She felt it forcefully. She felt the bulkhead bump her own bulk broadside. The satellite's gyros compensated for the wobble. There was another jolt in the direction of the craft's nose sending Lusitania backwards to brush flukes against the aft bulkhead from which she, for comfort, pushed off toward the feedbag. It yielded to her touch and she was in the collar, feeling the cold water, sucking krill.

She was upset by the jostling, but she knew the time was at hand. Toshiro had signaled all along "It will be soon." It was to be now, however long "now" was to be. She had no concept of the vastness of space, even of the sublunar orbits she and Toshiro occupied. However, she knew it would be very soon. She and Toshiro were moving inexorably together. Now that she was in her cyber-collar she would contact Toshiro somehow.

"Yes, it will be soon, My Presence, very soon," she coded among the population statics of arctic lemmings and sex ratio's of sandhill cranes. And somewhere in the statistics and love notes she came to realize her growing abilities.

It had been no human oversight that had let her make this unsolicited entry into the feedbag. She had done it herself. Lusitania could open the collar anytime she chose--by remote control. The contacts in her head could be used to control devices, such as the cyber-collar, just by her thoughts in the same way she had, from time to time, influenced the data she processed. All she needed was the key: the code or spectral frequency of each device. She knew where to find such keys: in the computer where they were stored, her brain.

"Kids, I've got to send you home. I called Gramma Haygood. She's going over to stay with you until I'm finished here. She's probably there already cleaning the house, God help us." Joan had found the kids still in bed after her return from Nippon 3. They had apparently fallen asleep with the television on.

"Oh man," said Petey in the tone he used when told to get out of the swimming pool, "Can I go to the weightless room one more time?"

"Now just a gall darn minute, Jed!" said a feisty old woman on the big screen.

"It's about time we went home," Jill griped unconvincingly. It was a matter of principle for her not to let on she had enjoyed herself at New Houston.

A mountain man on the television said, "Now, Granny, don't get all riled."

"Ed Chrispen is going back with you. You be sure to mind what he says."

"'Cause he's gonna be our new daddy," piped up Petey.

"Prewt! Mom, I never told him that. I swear." Jill raised a pillow to her brother.

"Paw, it's a baby 'possum. Can I keep him?," said a voluptuous blonde on the plasma screen.

"Put down the pillows, you two. Get dressed. I know it's short notice, but the shuttle docks and leaves in less than an hour, and I have a very important meeting with Sanjay when he get's off it."

On screen, a young man cradling a five gallon tub in his left arm and holding a giant wooden spoon with his right hand blurts out, "Granny, them's the best grits you ever made!"

"Jethro, that ain't grits," corrected his cousin, "that's fancy 'possum chow from the pet store!"

"Mighty good eatin' anyhow, Ellie May!"

"Jill, Petey, get dressed. Now!"

Sanjay Singh Patel found a very downbeat Joan sipping coffee in New Houston's arboretum.

"I'm sorry I couldn't get away from New York in time for our little summit conference," he said.

"No you're not. I wouldn't be sorry either if I could have avoided it."

"That bad?"

"He threatened to eat the whales."

"Holy cow."

"What's that? A Hindu joke?"

"I'm a Sikh myself, but I wouldn't do that...I understand the Chief is paranoid about other companies stealing his thunder."

"All this is really his own fault. This was to be the project of an international consortium, but he wanted to jump the gun. He wanted his system in place before the other partners could join in. He was afraid some of the others would want to move too slowly. We probably are three or four years ahead of what we might have been."

"You have to give him credit for that, Joan, but he's made us all nervous wrecks in the process. Always 'Hurry, hurry, hurry'"

"Guess what his strategy is to solve the current crisis?"

"Of course. Somebody needs to tell him we're not fighting a war--especially against Mitsubishi and Intel."

"You tell him."

"I guess it will be over soon. When we can prove the 'breeding sea' is a workable idea he will have made his point to his competitors."

"I don't know, Sanjay. I can't help feeling there's something else going on here, something I'm not going to like at all."

"Exclusive Video," the blinking crawl on the Universal Correspondent tabloid zine screamed. The animated text was punctuated by an obnoxious voice (that of Mr. Steez) proclaiming the same thing, "Exclusive Video, exclusive video of the captured Nessie!" It repeated three times. Below the text the video of the poaching reset to the beginning of the sequence. It was a horrifying sight for Lusitania. Knowing that soon she would meet Toshiro kept her going, but she still felt protective of the Loch Ness monsters.

"The vicious little beast bit three UC scientists before it was subdued with drugs and an ultra-strong carbonate net. Professor Arthur Blech confirms that this is the same slimy demon whose mother destroyed one of our UC helicopters last week..."

Lusitania knew most of the report to be inaccurate. First of all, it was not baby 00132-N, whose mother felled the helicopter, that was captured by the tabloid goons, it was baby 00124-S, an older and larger scotiasaur, whose mother was probably dead. Secondly, there was nothing "slimy" about a scotiasaur. Their skin was dry and felt something like an innertube. The infants of the species even had a kind of insulating down which was almost duck-like in softness. Finally, Arthur Blech was no professor or scientist according to available data. Lusitania doubted any of the henchmen had credentials of any kind.

To Lusitania it was as if a calf of hers had been kidnaped. She almost forgot the rendezvous, the imminent touch of Toshiro, the coming freedom of the artificial sea. Lusitania wanted the men to let the baby go, and she literally bounced off the walls of her satellite in frustration and anger.

Somehow the satellite stayed on course. Somehow the anger passed. Somehow Lusitania processed her data like a good little computer. Somehow she received Toshiro's message: "It is now."

Joan was in awe. Sanjay was in awe. Every scientist and engineer on the starward bay of Nippon 3 was in awe of the massive vessel docked alongside the space station. It was a third the radius of the station itself and vastly more voluminous. It was not a sea, nor a gulf, nor even a harbor for the whales, but it was, by design, eight Toshiro lengths in diameter and the lucky couple could swim and spy-hop and mate to their hearts' content.

The cold krill-rich seawater was pumped from the same tanks that had been supplying the whale satellites for years. Two standard but modified tankers were standing by. They would add nutrients for the krill, and they would also introduce other plankton and larger marine creatures meant more for company than for food.

That last touch was Joan's. She thought a simplified but varied ecosystem would be just the thing to give the whales some of the feeling of being at home in the sea.

In a few hours Lusitania and Toshiro would be "home" for a month of rest and relaxation and, if their captors were lucky, a moment of conception. The humans who had rudely hurled the giants into space to do their bidding were giving their charges a honeymoon. Perhaps the whales would come to anticipate their next vacation and be more happy with their lot in life during the dreary months of computation. Perhaps, after a few other such pairings among the cyberwhales, one of the females would be brought back one day for maternity leave. It was worth a shot.

"Mommy," said the large image of Petey on Joan's bedroom wall screen back at New Houston, "when are you coming home?"

"Thursday, honey," she told him, "my work here is almost finished."

"Is that soon?"

"Very soon."

"After you say 'good night' to the whales?"

Joan was, to say the least, taken aback. "The whales?"

"Ed said you had to put the whales to bed."

"Ed Chrispen?"

"Jillie says I dreamed it, but that's what he said. He said that."

"You two mind your Gramma and I'll be back in two days."

"Okay. 'Bye."

"Good-bye."

Petey's image blinked to black and the boy's personalized webpage, full of bouncing and tumbling cartoons filled the screen with colors too garish for a flock of macaws. Joan looked at the time and temperature box in the bottom right-hand corner of the screen. Ed Chrispen, her fiancÚ, was the leak. How could he do that to her? How could he jeopardize the project? Could she ever trust him again?

Then Joan had a thought. She had never told Ed about the whales, had she? How did he know? Maybe she was the source of the leak, herself.

CHAPTER THREE

Lusitania heard air rush into the human airlock. A heavy door closed. The human entrance door to her enclosure opened. A human stepped through. At least Lusitania thought it was a human. It was dressed like a frog. She had seen images and videos of frogs, of course, in her computer feeds. Why would a human want to imitate a rapidly disappearing creature such as that? She accessed images stored in her brain: "Frogman. Scuba. Self-contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus. Jacques Eves Cousteau, 1946."

It was Dr. Shimata. Lusitania could tell even through the face mask. The doctor shoved off from the airlock bulkhead and caught her forward motion by grasping the left corner of the whale's mouth. Lusitania fidgeted a little. The doctor patted and stroked her behind her great left eye.

"Easy, Lusitania. Easy, girl. Stay right here," comforted Dr. Shimata as she pushed off with both hands to the far bulkhead.

The doctor pressed a panel of numbered buttons in a particular order. A part of the bulkhead slid open. Lusitania had never suspected it was a door of any kind. The doctor pushed off the bulkhead for Lusitania's mouth.

"Come, girl," she said as she pulled gently, "into the little room. Look, a feedbag."

Dr. Shimata didn't think Lusitania understood her any more than a dog or a horse would have understood her, but she figured the leviathan would spy the feedbag and taste the aroma of saltwater in the tank beyond. But Lusitania did understand, though her knowledge of spoken English was much sketchier than her knowledge of written English. She made a mighty downward push with her flukes which sent her slowly forward into the just whale-sized airlock. For comfort she nudged her mouth into the familiar feedbag and slurped in the krill. The doctor pressed the radio link button and spoke to the scientists down in Galveston. When Dr. Shimata was certain Lusitania's flukes had cleared the doorway, she pressed a bulkhead keypad and the panel shut with a solid "Chunk!". With another tapping of keypad numbers a strange collar descended above Lusitania's head. The doctor took the two ends of the collar and velcroed them together around the whale, covering her blowhole.

"Just breath naturally, Lusitania...I wish you could understand me."

Lusitania felt the air rush in with each breath. "This is novel," is a rough translation of what she thought. Then things really got strange. The doctor opened a small valve at the base of the fore bulkhead and water began to leak in. Then the leak was a rush and the beads of water disbursed throughout the chamber. "Can this be right?," was an equivalent of what was going through Lusitania's mind. The water kept rushing in and the drops gathered together until there was all water and no air save around the collar over Lusitania's blowhole.

"That's it, girl. Keep breathing...Now--and I wish you knew what I am saying--now we will disengage from the satellite and the spinning will begin. Easy, girl," is what Dr. Shimata said, but it all sounded like bubbles.

There was a great "Kerchunk!" behind them and soon things started to feel very weird. Lusitania didn't like it, but soon she seemed to adjust. The doctor tapped some more numbers on the fore bulkhead keypad and the panel opened to reveal more room than Lusitania had ever seen. Her weak cetacean eyes could just make out the underside of what must have been the top of the water. "The surface," she thought. Dr. Shimata ripped off the collar's velcro connection and swiftly swam through the opened panelway. She rose to the surface. "Her head is in the air," was something like what Lusitania was thinking. How odd it was to have your body in water and your head in the air. But that was the natural way, wasn't it?

Lusitania followed cautiously. "How did I know to hold my breath?," she thought, "and how long can I do this? The surface. I can go to the surface." She breached for the first time since she was an infant. She took in air, submerged a bit, breathed, and kept repeating the novel process. This really felt right.

The doctor flipped on the hydrophone at the bulkhead and spoke to the scientists down in Galveston. "Mission accomplished. I think she's going to be just fine."

Dr. Shimata swam down, opened the panel to the flooded airlock and entered. The panel closed and she pressed some buttons to force air into the chamber. It might come in handy, they thought. Eventually Lusitania heard a large "Kerchunk!" and she knew the doctor had gotten a ride home. She had left the intercom on by accident, but the earthbound scientists didn't bother her to go back and shut it off.

"To Lusitania." Sanjay raised his squeeze bottle of red grapefruit juice.

"To Lusitania," a more subdued Joan Giddings followed suit.

"Too bad we can't stay to see how she and Toshiro take to one another."

"Yes. Too bad."

"Ah, but you can still monitor their vital signs from Galveston."

"I suppose."

"Cheer up a little, doctor. You'll soon be back on terra firma with your loved ones around you: your children, Ed."

"Don't mention Ed Chrispen to me right now, Sanjay."

"Sorry."

"We were going to be married...and now. Now I've had to call a secret NASA investigation of him. Who knows what that will entail: the FBI, the CIA, the Secret Service? I.R.S.?"

"Surely it won't come to that."

"And I have to pretend nothing has changed between us, spy on him,...my own fiancÚ."

"I'm sorry."

"Sanjay, what if it's me? What if I'm to blame for the leak?"

"You mean like 'What if you talk in your sleep?'"

"Something like that."

"This is the captain," said the intercom, "brace yourselves for re-entry. We'll circumnavigate once and arrive at Houston Interplanetary in less than two hours."

"'Interplanetary'," mocked Joan, if you call serving a couple of space stations and a fledgling moonbase 'interplanetary.'"

"Wait until the Mars crew gets back next year," Sanjay reminded her.

"I almost forgot about them. The times they are a-changin'."

"That's the spirit."

They re-entered the atmosphere and thereby gained more weight than Joan would have liked to admit.

The artificial sea was more complex and more necessarily disorienting than Lusitania had envisioned. What struck Lusitania at first was the dichotomy of water and air. Of course, that was to be expected. Then, once she got her bearings, she noticed the effect of the spinning of the sea. In human terms the "sea" was like an automobile tire made of seawater and filled with krill, of course, and jellyfish and small sharks and sea bass and sargassum weed and mullet and so forth. The tire was a hundred feet thick, in fact, just over two Toshiro lengths from "tread to whitewall". The spinning which created the tire of water left an air pocket hub, the diameter of which was double the thickness of the tire. The casing of the wheel was constructed of the usual light and durable aerospace composite materials, and was therefore nontranslucent, but the air pocket was flanked by two large tempered glass bubbles which let the stars, the earth and the moon shine through, while filtering out much of the ultraviolet radiation. The tread, to continue the analogy, was covered with solar panels. Once the vessel was set spinning by a thrust from fuel cell powered rockets around the hub, the motion was rendered almost perpetual and quite regular due to the variable refraction gradient solar cells. Before the spin would falter the fuel cell rockets would kick in. It was, for all practical purposes, perpetual motion.

Aeration, circulation, filtration and temperature regulation were handled by an ingenious array of thin concentric layers of wheel casings between the tread and the "sea floor". Suffice it to say, the water temperature range was kept at a comfortable North Atlantic norm. The sea was oxygen-rich, nutrient-rich, creature-rich. All it needed was Toshiro.

"Hello, Love," Ed Crispin greeted Joan at the aero-spaceport baggage claim area with open arms. She felt strangely cold to his embrace and peck on the cheek. "Something wrong?"

"Just tired. We hit the atmosphere pretty hard," she said. Sanjay was right behind her.

"Here's a kiss for your mee-graine." Ed caressed her forehead. Did he say "mee-graine"? Sanjay winced a bit.

"It will pass."

"I could get you some vitta-mins."

"I'll be fine. Sanjay, I'll see you at the Institute tomorrow."

"Tomorrow." Sanjay took her hand and kissed it. "Get some rest please."

"I will," she promised as Sanjay fetched his luggage from the carrousel and passed through the vast terminal toward the parking limousines.

"I'm not sure I like that, old girl."

"What? The kiss on the knuckles? He doesn't mean anything by it."

"Well, see that he doesn't. Right. On to the chariot." At Joan's indication he found her bags on the carrousel and took them in hand.

"Your Honda is a chariot now, is it?"

"Not the Honda. I traded it in."

"On a chariot?"

"On a Lambourghini H2O. It is stunning. Wait until you see it: Microsoft Windscreen 4.03, Rand MacNally Satellite Navigation, Sharper Image SmartStreet autopilot--I added that myself...What else? Oh yes, THX accoustics, black velvet appointments, candy apple red finish..."

"Not to mention the latest hydrogen-oxygen fuel cell engine."

"Didn't I mention that? Well, it goes without saying, doesn't it? After all, it is an 'H2O', what?"

"You must be doing well on the lecture circuit to afford something like that."

"And there's other news. I'm going to be an astronaut again. NASA is loaning me out to the Europeans. I'm going to help them set up a space plane program."

"You're not thinking of defecting, are you?" Joan pretended to be joking.

"Silly girl. No. I'm true blue, but at long last I have some cachet in the space game. I'm hot, as they say."

"Congratulations," she said, somewhat understatedly. Her lack of enthusiasm was inversely proportional to his acquisitive giddiness.

"Logitech Ergonomic Steering Mouse, Carbonix impact-absorbing dash and interiors," he continued on the parking lot limousine, "Orville Reddenbacher Scented Child Safe Airbags..."

The list went on and on as they went onward to experience this vehicular eighth wonder of the world.

Something was happening, Lusitania knew, someone was coming to call. A massive vessel had had a soft collision with the "sea" structure. Toshiro was on his way. Whether this was another preliminary human visit, for reasons medical, technical or ceremonial, or the real thing, Lusitania could not say. It was enough to know that it would be very soon. Whether the visitor was human or cetacean, the transfer process would take a while. There were stages of compression and water lock procedures for her to endure before she could greet the arrival. Lusitania chose to be patient.

She had acquainted herself with the new interface device. It was similar to her feedbag-like terminal in the old satellite except that it was not a trap and the krill were all around her for the taking. The humans had installed it as a pacifier, thinking that it would be something familiar, something soothing in the strange surroundings. They also hoped she and Toshiro would do a little work, just out of habit, on their "honeymoon". The primates only knew so much about what it takes to keep two whales from boredom; their solution, as always, related to their own limited experience: to keep the kids happy and quiet, let them watch television, let them log-on to the Internet.

There was a great rushing of water into the vast water lock. Lusitania heard a clumsy and mighty thud which resonated the entire spacecraft. She broke away from her monitoring of the "Nessie" controversy online. There was no mistake now. She thought in her cetacean mind and felt in her colossal heart something akin to "Toshiro!"

"We have telemetry! And we have audio confirmation!" Sanjay announced to the control room team in Galveston. He turned up the volume on the console for all to hear.

"That's definitely two whales," said Roger Nakamura, sitting on his cluttered desk.

"I almost wish we had a visual link," Joan fretted.

"Why, Dr. Giddings," chuckled Dr. Nakamura, "I never took you for a voyeur."

"We could have had video in there, remember, Joan?" Sanjay reminded her.

"Well, they need some privacy, besides the picture would be all murky within a few days anyway."

A deep bass "kersplunk!" sound overwhelmed the control room speakers. A couple of seconds later it sounded again, if somewhat less intensely.

"They're breaching, both of them," Joan said.

"Sounds like they've 'hit it off'," added Sanjay.

"It will just be a matter of time before they get it on sexually," Nakamura piped up.

"Don't count your calves before they hatch, Roger. Remember how difficult it is to get pandas and gorillas to mate in captivity. These two may be incompatible or they may regard one another as no more than brother and sister."

"We've made it this far anyhow. Let's break out the champagne," said Roger.

"Roger that, Roger," Sanjay agreed. They all had a chuckle...

The first headline that scrolled across the top of Joan's TABB at home that evening was more of the usual: "JFK and Marilyn Die In Each Other's Arms in Moscow Nursing Home Fire!" She instinctively called out to her daughter, "Jill!"

"Yeah, Mom?" The voice popped up behind Joan and she flinched.

"Don't sneak up behind me like that."

"Sorry." There was just a hint of the old sarcasm in the teenager's tone.

"Do you subscribe to this garbage?"

Jill accepted the Texas Aggregates Browser Book tablet from her Mom. "Not me. It must be European, British. They still use Hard Push programs. They break in sometimes. They're just about impossible to block or unsubscribe...Look, it's the whales again." She handed back the TABB.

To the pace of throbbing music the headline blinked and scrolled, "Humpbacks Hump In Space Love Tank!"

"That's kinda crude," Jill observed.

"Very," Joan agreed.

"Mom, JFK and Marilyn Monroe died a long time ago, right?"

"Right. Both in the early 1960's."

"Boy. How gullible do they think we are? Like you could even get whales into orbit."

"A bit of the bubbly should perk you right up," the now smarmy-seeming Ed Chrispen offered Joan across the restaurant table that night. "A bit conventional perhaps, but I think it really complements this gagh."

"I guess I'm just not in the mood for Klingon food tonight."

"Maybe a little yamock sauce will neutralize it a little," said Ed, spooning something yellow-gray onto Joan's food.

Their waiter, dressed as a Star Trek Klingon, loomed over them. Very much in character and in a deep voice he said, "A Cardassian sauce is inappropriate on a Klingon entre. I would suggest the blood wine gravy."

"Isn't it extraordinary?," Ed gushed, "They are so much into the fantasy here. He never breaks character. And this food is...unearthly...Well, I know it's basically Chinese, Indian and Cajun cuisine made up to look like something out of Star Trek, but it works for me, I can tell you. Tonight I wanted something spacey. Of course, we could have gone to "Milliways: The Restaurant at the End of the Universe." But their fare is rather mundane, don't you think?"

"This is fine," Joan replied quietly, "Ed?"

"Yes, my dear," he replied, taking up and kissing her hand.

"You know I hate to pry into your business, especially since I never volunteer to share what I do with you..."

"Well, I realize it's 'Top Secret' and all that, old girl."

"Yes, it is...Still, your lack of curiosity is...curious--but admirable."

"I know what you are getting at."

"Oh."

"You are embarrassed because you can't reveal anything about your projects for NASA while you may have a professional interest in what the Europeans have in mind for me."

"Something like that. It's just silly curiosity, I know. I certainly can't expect you to reveal your 'Top Secrets' any more than I can..."

"Oh, my dear. Put your mind at rest. I deal with no state secrets."

"You don't?"

"Not at all. My function is merely of a consultory and a...public relations nature. I'm like one of your famous American football stars being hired to bolster the image and improve the prospects of the latest expansion team from Mexico City."

"Guadalajara," she corrected quietly.

"'Guadalajara,' quite...What is it? There seems to be a massive question mark on that darling face of yours.

"This is a very difficult thing for me to ask of you...I know you are very respectful of your country of residence..."

"Is this a prepared speech?"

"I'm afraid it is."

"Go on."

"I also know that you are loyal to the European Union--as you should be--but..."

"But you would like me to spy on them for you? Is that it?"

"Not 'spy' exactly...This sounds much worse than it is. Believe me."

"I certainly would like to believe you, old girl. What 'exactly' do you want me to do?"

"Without telling you what the subject matter is, I can say only there has been an apparent leak of certain information..."

"Surely you don't suspect me..."

"No. Of course not."

"I mean. You have told me nothing. And I haven't asked you anything. Have I?"

"No. You haven't. It's just that you are now in a position to find out what the Europeans know about...things."

"Well, I don't know..."

"I'm not asking you to snoop or take candid pictures or wire tap anyone's telephone--nothing like that. Just let us know if you hear any rumors..."

"'Rumours?' Rumours about what?"

"I can only tell you the code name."

"Yes?"

"'Untouchable.'"

"'Untouchable?'"

"Yes, 'Untouchable.'"

"As in the Indian caste?"

"Something like that."

"So I am to let you know if I hear any rumours about untouchables."

"Not exactly, specifically 'Operation Untouchable', or any other rumor about American science."

"But not about the caste of 'untouchables'."

"If you like...Just let me know which rumors are flying around."

"Nothing official."

"No. Nothing official. That would be espionage. I wouldn't expect you to do that."

"Right. In that case, how could I refuse you," he said, standing and taking Joan's hands.

She stood too and they kissed over the cabaret table.

"Waiter," called Ed to the Klingon, "could you bring us some Saurian brandy?"

CHAPTER FOUR

"Have you been reading in the tabloid websites about these space whales?" Joey Gretch asked his world-wide audience of Laugh Net Live. "Well, apparently some international corporation has rocketed two whales into orbit so they can make love in space. You know, to test sex in space or something. I don't know. Is this really a good idea? What if they get really passionate. You know, 'Yes, Freewilly! Yes! Yes! Yes! Go Freewilly!' and they roll out of orbit. Then 'Splat!' Sorry Sri Lanka. What a mess. And just what do whales do after sex anyway, smoke a herring? And what if she says, 'Not tonight. I have a haddock?' Thank you very much! Tonight's guests, for your viewing and downloading pleasure, Mr. Robin Williams...Ringo Nelson and the Naughty Nineties...and many many more..."

"Oh boy," sighed Joan, and, after programming a download of Laugh Net Live, she set down the browser, rolled over and tried to sleep.

"I think we may have a success here," Sanjay Singh Patel said, perhaps a little too cheerily the next morning over coffee in the executive conference room of the Astrobiology Institute.

"Wonderful," was all Joan could muster.

"Hey, Joan. This will all blow over in a couple of weeks. Everyone is treating this whole tabloid thing like a joke. Did you catch Robin Williams with Joey Gretch last night? Brilliant. The man is a national treasure, an international treasure!"

"He is very funny."

"Did anything come of your meeting with Colonel Chrispen?"

"I'm afraid so. He took the bait and a little too readily. If he had any integrity at all, he might have shown the least bit of moral outrage."

"I know it was difficult for you to ask him."

"I'll keep you posted."

Lusitania and Toshiro spent their time in silent bliss. She had been shy at first, but receptive. He had gently nudged up to her and gained her confidence. The downside of their paradisiacal situation was that the sophisticated communications they had devised when they were apart could avail them no verbal intercourse, though sexual intercourse was possible, perhaps even imminent. Their relationship would rest almost solely on touch. Nor could they speak in the sounds customary of grey whales, having been isolated in time and space from the education of their pods since calfhood. "Not a bad trade-off", each of them thought, but separately, without the hope of direct transfer of the information, "we'll talk later." So he sidled against her length, she sidled against his. They touched in small ways and large. They savored their mate's proximity, the cold briny water and the seemingly endless supply of krill. They knew it was a temporary arrangement. They each made the most of it.

"How would you like to tag along with me tomorrow when I go to NASA?" Ed Chrispen's face asked Joan from her computer's desk monitor. She found it more intimate than the wall set for personal communication. She powered up her conferencing camera for Ed's benefit.

"I've seen NASA. I do have a lot on my plate tomorrow," her face said back.

"I understand. Pity: not only is tomorrow my last day stateside for a while, but I have some good rumors for you."

"Oh...Well, I'll get back to you. Can you hold a minute?"

"For you, love, I'll hold forever."

"Really, it will only be a minute."

"But it will seem like an eternity," he said wistfully.

"Oh brother," she said after she had put him on hold. She didn't bother to call the Institute; she just killed a few tens of seconds gazing out the window at the gathering twilight. "I think I can spare a few hours," she told him when she decided it was time to get back to him, "what's the occasion?"

"I am--Dare I say it?--starring in a commercial for Eurovision tomorrow. We're shooting video all over the Johnson Space Center: you know, me in front of the Saturn V, me next to the classic lunar lander, that sort of thing."

"A commercial? Let me guess: Lambourghini?"

"'Barcarole', actually."

"'Barcarole?'"

"Barcarole Escargot."

"As in 'snails'?"

"The finest tinned escargot in France. Actually, the factory is in Sarajevo. The premise is quite cute really. It has to do with the idea that an astronaut, on the one hand lives in "the fast lane" as it were, traveling thousands of kilometers per hour and that our friend the cuddly snail, on the other hand, enjoys a somewhat slower pace of life. They'll dub in Francoise later."

"Francoise."

"The special effects these days are most ingenious. They tell me, even if I look at the wrong spot--you know, where Francoise is supposed to be--they'll fix my eye line in post-production."

"Unbelievable. Well, how could I possibly miss all that? Where should we meet?"

"Fear not, milady, I will bring my carriage to fetch you. Is six too early."

"Six?...No...Not at all. I'll see you at six."

They each disengaged their teleconferencing connection; they hung up, in other words.

No, thought Lusitania, they can't do that. She was plugged into her cyber-collar. She wondered why she persisted in using the thing since it caused her as much consternation as stimulation. A legal compromise had been reached between the tabloid press and the Royal Wildlife Ministry. The video makers were given unlimited access to the creatures in Loch Ness. They were not allowed to harm or touch the Nessies, but there were no restrictions on proximity. Lusitania knew what this meant in terms of stress, especially for scotiasaur mothers and newborns. Apparently, the tabloids' indignation over the downing of the helicopter and the endangerment of its crew was mostly a ploy to gain unrestrained access. Future such incidents would be fodder for sensationalism but not lawsuits.

Lusitania felt a jolt when she backed out of the collar to nestle alongside Toshiro. She guessed correctly that she had caused the jets to burn for a second, moving the huge craft slightly off-course. How had she done that? She had to be careful with her emotions when she was in the collar, but it was what she saw in there that caused her feelings to fluctuate so. Anyway, she now felt the computer's automatic course correction, so no harm was done.

She nudged closer to Toshiro. He was now her security and comfort. Whatever happened now, he was her harbor in the storm. He was...She could see now he was quite ready for...romance. Yes, it was quite visible, quite pink. You couldn't miss something like that. A human female would have said something like "Oh my God!"

"I think we may just have conception," declared Sanjay down in Galveston, "or a damn good attempt at it."

"Now that calls for champagne," said Roger Nakamura, right on cue.

"How many cases of that stuff do you have?"

"Only about a case and a half...now. I got a good deal on it at the winery outside of Aspen last year."

"Oh, Rocky Mountain bubbly," Dr. Chumley chimed in, sipping, "imported, eh?"

"I wish Joan were here for this." Sanjay sipped.

"How long should we leave those two together?" Roger asked.

"Who: Joan and Chrispen?" Dr. Chumley may have had too much bubbly.

"Assuming you mean the whales, Roger," an offended Sanjay offered, "we'll let them have a few more contacts over the next week or so. When the frequency dies down we'll have them transferred back to their home tanks."

"It's rather like microwaving popcorn, what? When the popping stops it's done." Dr. Chumley was on a Rocky Mountain high.

The morning for Joan wasn't so much fun. She had to sit around and wait while Ed was in the make-up chair. She had to stand around and wait while the lighting was set up for each shot, for each angle, for each take, and Colonel Chrispen was no born actor. The shoot took time; it ate minutes and hours until there was no morning left. Joan hoped she would be able to sound him for rumors at the lunch break, but the colonel was too much into talking showbiz with his crew. Then the dialogue coach had a few pointers for him. Then the director asked for retakes of a couple of garbled lines. Then the afternoon was taken up waiting out the customary Houston area drizzle. A cloudburst around five o'clock effectively shut things down for the day.

Joan was exhausted and she had spent more time doing less than ever in her life. Colonel Chrispen was chipper. Like a child after a roller coaster ride, he was ready to go again, which was just as well for the whole farce would continue the next morning. Joan was ready to chalk up the whole day as a loss when Ed spilled his information at the last minute of the last mile of the road home.

"I did hear something about 'Untouchable' yesterday," he told her as he pulled the Lambourghini to the curb of her house, "it seems to have something to do with some sort of mass driver the Russians are developing for lunar mining. Is that any help?"

"It could be. Thanks, I'll let you know. Well, it was certainly an interesting day. So that's what movie making is like?"

"Quite glamorous, what?"

"Oh, quite."

"My dear," he took her hands and kissed them, "I will miss you, but when our schedules permit, how would you like to be married on the Continent?"

"Europe?"

"For example. I know just the spot beside Lake Geneva, absolutely gorgeous. And with what I'm making these days, we can import both families to attend. Think about it."

Joan climbed out of the Lambourghini. "I will. Thanks for a wonderful day." She closed the door strongly.

"Bye now." He blew a kiss and tooled away from the cul de sac.

"The bastard", she thought.

"That was an experience", Lusitania thought, but snuggling was the best part of it. She wondered why the humans were so obsessed with the sexual act. It permeated all of their literature, their music, their imagery. It must have been a different experience for them. It must have been; apparently, they could do it anywhere anytime, the monkeys! She knew this would be the last time for Toshiro and herself, at least for a while. Lusitania was somewhat relieved at that, but she liked having Toshiro around. For his part, he seemed to enjoy her company. In the wild, males and females of their kind would spend most of their time apart. Lusitania knew she and Toshiro would never reach the seas of Earth again. This current situation was as close as they could ever get to normalcy and it would not last for long.

Toshiro pulled away from the cyber-collar. He had been there for hours. Lusitania was beginning to be worried about him. He swam up to her and pushed her. "What was that for?" she wondered, a bit upset. Then she noticed that he was pushing her toward the cyber-collar. The last few times she had used the contraption something had offended her or made her anxious. She was not sure she ever wanted to wear it again. Toshiro nudged her toward it again, more gently this time. "It must be important to him," she thought, so she obliged him.

Once in the collar she saw a still image of a human. She had seen it before. It was used to illustrate the Nessie controversy in various web news reports. It was a frame from a motion picture of many years past. There was an elderly human and he was dressed in safari attire. She identified the man as Sir Richard Attenborough. She identified the film as "Jurassic Park". When she wondered why the image didn't move, or at least change to another image, it moved and said, in hushed tones, "I'll show you."

"What I'm going to tell you must not leave this room, Dr. Giddings," the federal agent told Joan.

"Of course."

The smartly dressed young woman might have been a lawyer or a business executive in her tailored steel blue cotton suitdress and her matching pumps. Her demeanor was appropriately serious. "You were right to contact the Company."

"The Company?"

"The Agency."

"I see...Well, I suspected Colonel Chrispen had fed me false information, but had it been true, it would have been something the government should know about."

"It is true and we do know about it, but we did not know the Europeans knew and we did not suspect your Colonel Chrispen."

"Then it's real? There really is an Operation Untouchable? I thought you made it up...some of you at the company."

"The real code name is 'Outcaste.'"

"Outcast."

"With an 'e', of course."

"Of course."

"Your Institute has stumbled on a major security crisis of global proportions."

"Ms. Stern, I am willing to do whatever you ask me to do. I guess I could do a little more spying on Ed. I've had enough practice lately."

"Oh, that won't be necessary. You have served your country well, your planet even."

"Well, that's a relief. This has been so difficult for me. I really was in love with the man, at least I thought I was. Who would have thought he was some kind of enemy mastermind?"

"Hardly a mastermind and not really an enemy agent. The colonel just doesn't seem to be able to hold a secret; the man leaks like a colander. You see, we don't think his intentions were ever sinister, perhaps a little greedy. The Russians approached him and paid him--"

"The Russians? I thought we were on friendly relations with them these days."

"In espionage, Dr. Giddings, there are no friends. You'd be surprised the trouble we've had with Canada in the past few years."

"Canada? Really?"

"However, in this case, it's not the Russian government that's involved, it's a couple of corporations headed by former regional Soviet officials, ex-military and the like." She paced. "Back in the 80's Moscow was developing new classes of weapons based on simple technology for deployment from space, specifically from the moon. Well, it was all contingency stuff, you know. The Soviet economy was in shambles but they thought someday they would try for the moon again, and if they found the resources to get there, they could set up a base where they could get the whole Earth in their sights. Of course, that was a lot of if's."

"So they were going to set up missile bases disguised as mining operations?"

"Not quite. They were going to set up mining facilities all right, but they wouldn't need to be choosy about what kind of ore they would process. Dr. Giddings, do you know what a mass driver is?"

"Yes. It is some sort of industrial catapult, isn't it?"

"Essentially, yes. We have used it, ourselves, on a small scale for mining lunar material. However, in the wrong hands and strategically placed, it could be a devastating weapon of mass destruction and extortion."

"So these Russian corporations were going to threaten to throw rocks at the Earth if their demands weren't met?"

"It doesn't sound very plausible, does it? Doesn't scare you, huh? You are a biologist. Some scientists hold the belief that the dinosaurs were killed off by some rock thrown from space."

"But that asteroid or comet or whatever it was would have been massive."

"It was, and I doubt that even the renegade Russians would be able to hurl something that big anytime soon. But did you know even a relatively small boulder flung with any force at all from the moon would have all the effects of a multi-megaton thermonuclear device?"

"Just rocks."

"Yes: just rocks. Oh if we knew about it in time, it would be an easy enough thing to keep them from getting the equipment off the Earth in the first place. Or we could easily attack their moon base from ours. But if they infiltrated the Russian space program and got the operation set up in secret and destroyed our base first, they would be able to blackmail the world. Of course, thanks to your intervention and the loose lips of your bumbling Colonel Chrispen, we have found out in time."

"Thank God for that. I guess Ed will be going to prison."

"Far from it, I'm afraid. Of course, he will not be allowed near any sensitive military installations ever again. In fact, his career as an astronaut will be over in less than a year. However, he will probably make millions on the lecture circuit. Oh, he could run for president in 2020 with all the good press he'll be getting in the next year, but he will be advised that we will release damaging information if he does, so that will be the end of that."

"I'm afraid I'm more in the dark than ever."

"You see, we need him. He will be the hero who gets credit for uncovering the mass driver plot. He's ready-made for it. He's handsome, if dim, he is a known astronaut, he is liked by the Americans and the Europeans alike, and he's so self-promoting we won't have to do much work on that front. We'll just point him at the press and let him go."

"I guess you know what you're doing," said Joan, still confused about the whole thing.

"It's a public relations coup: 'Handsome James Bondish astronaut foils sinister corporate plot, saves Russian space program and prevents World War III.' Not a bad deal. First, the Russians will have American and European (maybe even Japanese) help with their space program and their economy. If we can help guide the Russian entrepreneurs we can prevent other such threats to world peace. I mean, just think of all the missing nuclear and biological weapons floating around the former USSR. Secondly, NASA (and Institutes such as yours) will get more public support for space exploration. We have to control the moon and other satellites for everyones security, right? Third, the Europeans will have a hero (one of their own) who saved the world and made everyone see the need for a vigorous space program...and..."

"Fourth?"

"I'm sure there is a fourth. There are probably many more benefits. We see it as a win-win-win-win-ad infinitum proposition."

"You haven't told Ed Chrispen about this yet, have you?"

"I think the less he knows the better, don't you? We will tell him all he needs to know to be a hero when the time comes. Before we're finished with him he'll think the whole bust of the renegades was his idea."

"You're very confident."

"It's part of our training."

"One thing still puzzles me. Of course, this has nothing to do with the mass driver thing, but how did Ed Chrispen find out about our whale project?"

"Apparently, you talk in your sleep. That is why I'm here, actually, to tell you to stay away from Chrispen, at least while you're unconscious."

"I talk in my sleep?"

"I could show you the video, if you like."

"No. That's not necessary."

CHAPTER FIVE

It was Lusitania's turn to show Toshiro, not only that she got his message, but that she had learned his system for leaving her own. She gently nudged him toward the cyber-collar. He didn't have to be nudged twice. It was a time-delayed form of communication, mostly visual, and limited to what information could be gleaned from the Global Web and from what little data was stored in the computer itself. It was more than enough for their short time together. Lusitania's innovation, her suggestion, would occupy more time, but perhaps after they parted they could refine it at long distance in the way they had passed messages before.

Toshiro saw that Lusitania had chosen a clip from another movie as her icon. It had been used in a webzine report referring to the seventy-fifth anniversary of "Gone With The Wind". The report had remarked on changing racial attitudes in the United States. The gist was that the romance of American's for the "Old South" had waned and had turned in the direction of national embarrassment, even in the South itself. Lusitania's use of the clip was totally irrelevant to the report's message. Toshiro saw Scarlet O'Hara in the first scene of the movie, with her beaux around her, saying, "Talk, talk, talk..," and the rest was Lusitania's proposal that she and Toshiro invent a spoken language, mutually agreed upon, to make their communication more direct, more intimate. It would pass the time until their separation and take their minds off the fact that they would have to leave this paradise and, later, it would help them pass the time until their next mating, however far off that would be.

Although Toshiro's next message was accepting of Lusitania's proposal it expressed some concern about her suggestion that they use their language to communicate with humans. He saw that as a very dangerous proposition. Lusitania agreed that he had a point. She experimented with setting the computer to delay-record something she had in mind.

"What do you make of it?" Dr. Chumley asked Sanjay Singh Patel in the monitoring room of the Astrobiology Institute in Galveston.

"It's almost rhythmic, isn't it? I've heard most of these sounds come from grey whales, but not in such rapid succession. That sounds like just one whale, but which one?"

"It must be Lusitania," said Joan, "it doesn't sound much like what we've heard from Toshiro in the past. But why would a female vocalize like that?...My God, she could be under stress. That must be it. She's been in there too long with him. She's afraid of his sexual demands or he's intimidating her to give him more space, and of course, there isn't anywhere she can go."

"That's it, then," decided Chumley, "it's time to get them out of there. Make the arrangements, Roger."

"Right, Chief," Roger Nakamura responded, "the experiment is over anyway. Now's the time to analyze data."

Lusitania vocalized again. It sounded urgent to Joan.

"Roger, please," urged Joan, "get them out of there."

"BABY NESSIE KIDNAPED!," screamed the lead banner at the Universal Correspondent website. A Cockney voice proclaimed the same thing. Over and over again for a long fifteen seconds the headline blared. The tabloid was anything but subtle. A video clip, supposedly of the baby and her mother, ran on a continuous loop in the center of the page. Lusitania recognized the clip. It was from the incident with the helicopter. She had no way of knowing yet if the story was true. It wouldn't have mattered to the tabloid, she knew, as long as they could milk the story for everything they could get out of it. She also knew there was a possibility that agents of the tabloid had performed the abduction themselves. What she knew most was that she was helpless to do anything about it and that she was very angry. She struggled to get out of the cyber-collar. If she had been calm, it would have been a cinch. In her state of rage, however, the collar held on. She pushed and swayed from side to side and pulled and all the time she was sending desperate, violent thoughts into the computer. Then she heard the great coupling of metal with metal and she knew time was up for she and Toshiro. The humans had come for one of them and soon would fetch the other. Lusitania's rage, her anguish, exploded. She saw, she felt, she heard the computer in her cyber-collar respond with equal violence. She finally pulled out.

Lusitania and Toshiro could feel the thrust of the stabilizing rockets. They did not stop firing. The metal of the hulls of the two ships scraped one another. Some debris floated past the starview window at the hub of the wheel. It was the coupling mechanism of the smaller tank ship. The rockets kept thrusting. They burned and the wheel began spinning out of control. The spin was neither around the usual turn of the wheel nor was it an end over end kind of torque, but a disorienting combination of the two. The two giants were sloshed and washed and swept around the "tire" like toy submarines in a child's bathtub during an earthquake. They were often forced against the walls of their enclosure. They bounced off one another several times. They were pelted by smaller creatures and other debris. More times than they could count they were thrown through the air gap--so often, they learned to take a breath at those times. Otherwise, they struggled to reach and stay near the surface like nauseous passengers hugging the rail of an oceanliner. They endured this watery Hell for days until the biggest jolt yet shook the water wheel.

Then, somehow, the twisting flattened out. Things settled to the bottom. Creatures, most of them, incredibly, still alive, bobbed to the surface and just treaded water until they could get their bearings again. For some, it was hours before they felt strong enough to swim around, to explore the new configuration of the bottom. Eventually, the small sharks began to clean up the casualties. The "sea" was somewhat tilted, but stable for the moment. Only Lusitania and Toshiro could appreciate one other change in their situation: the moon, as seen through the hub's tempered glass domes, was colossal.

"Joan," said Sanjay, "I'm sorry. There is nothing we can do. At the speed they are going now, no one from Earth orbit can catch them. And there is not a craft on the moon large enough to stop them."

"So we're just going to let the crash into the moon?

"It's out of our hands now."

"I don't know if this will be of any more comfort to you," Roger noted, "but NASA says there's a small chance they'll miss the moon altogether."

"Don't tell me they might slingshot back into Earth orbit. Don't get my hopes up!"

"I wish I could tell you that. The truth is, they could slingshot but they would have too much momentum to be captured by Earth's gravity. They would either bounce off the Earth's atmosphere or fly far beyond the moon's orbit. Either way, we can't catch them. I'm sorry. One good thing, they're not likely to sling into Earth's atmosphere and burn up."

"Roger, you're saying they have a chance to survive for a time?"

"A slim one, but conceivably, they could live for months or even years if their little ecosystem holds up."

"After all that twisting and flipping there's not much chance of that, is there?"

"Joan," chimed in Sanjay, seeming to regain some hope himself, "that scenario is not so far-fetched, although I would give odds on months rather than years. We know that many of the sensors have been destroyed, but most of the systems seem to be operational. There are no known breaches in their hull. We have heart rates from both whales--and they are settling back to normal. The system is designed to be self- sustaining. You had a lot to do with that, you know."

"So they could live until the system breaks down and they starve?"

"Eventually, but the more I think about it, the more I think they might beat the odds. We might even be able to track them until they leave the solar system."

"Sanjay, dear boy," Dr. Chumley said, "let's be realistic. We just don't know how much damage has been done. By all means, let us not give up hope completely, but let us not set ourselves up for disappointment. A natural ecosystem is a delicate thing. Our simplified version may not be able to cope with such turbulence and survive. Our immediate concern is to try to figure out what went wrong, and more importantly..." He paused dramatically.

"Yes." Roger took the bait.

Chumley continued, "We need to decide what we're going to tell Mr. Hoshimoto."

"RUNAWAY LOVE NEST FLINGS WHALES TO THE STARS!" shouted the tabloid in text and voice clip and crude artist rendering.

Jill Giddings greeted her mother from the dinner table. "Hi, Mom."

"Hi. What's up?"

"It's the whales again, see?" She held up the TABB browser for Joan to see. "They never give up on this stuff, do they? 'Nightline Online' has some NASA guy on tonight. He's supposed to deny the whole thing. Some congressman is saying he got a leak from someone at NASA."

"We can only hope."

"What?"

"Nothing. Say, how would you and Petey like to visit your Gramma Giddings in South Carolina?"

Petey came running into the kitchen, "Yayyyy!"

"Do we have to?" Jill was bored already.

"The Institute has given me a few days off and we've worked so many hard hours lately, I just need to relax, but I've got an idea you should like."

"Oh yeah? What?" Jill was not buying it.

"If you can put up with us old folks for a couple of days--"

"And the prewt!" She made a face at her brother.

"And Petey..."

"I'm not 'prewt'!" he screamed at his sister.

"Calm down," said Joan, fending off a headache, "we all need a vacation. Jill, the plan is to spend a couple of days with Gramma Giddings and then you and I and...a friend will take a cruise to Florida. You might meet some kids your own age on the boat."

Jill was smiling internally, but her cautious facade said, "Maybe we could do that...Who's the friend?"

"Sanjay Patel."

"Whatever happened to Ed Chrispen?"

"That just didn't work out."

"Gramma's not gonna like it. Sanjay's an out and out Caucasian."

"She'll like him fine, he's dark enough. Color means race to your grandmother. You like him don't you?"

"Yeah, Sanjay's great."

"Surf!" said Petey. "Mama and Sanjay sittin' in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N--"

"Petey!" both Joan and Jill said together. They both rolled their eyes.

"Sorry." For his teasing Petey got his hair mussed vigorously by his mother.

Colonel Rodriguez' voice came over all major news sites simultaneously. The video was scratchy at first but was soon as clear as a drink of water. "We've got Earth in our fore telescope. The ol' blue marble looks mighty good!"

The worldwide viewers heard great cheers come from the NASA control room. Announcers at each site announced some equivalent of, "Colonel Estevan Rodriguez, mission commander, greets a welcoming population of almost six billion enthusiastic space fans as he turns the onboard camera on science specialist Lieutenant Commander Margaret Umbutu."

The world heard Commander Umbutu's greetings of, "Hello, Earth! Hello, USA! And hello to my Mom and Dad, kins-people and friends in Uganda! Earth, you ARE looking good!"

"Roger that," intoned mission specialist Jane Chen, "We have never seen a prettier sight!"

"Mars is fantastic," added Marine Captain Dan Trent, "but there is no place like home sweet home!"

"Except maybe that UFO Dan reported," taunted Colonel Rodriguez.

"I know I saw something there, Estevan. It sure looked to me like it was a giant fish tank, shaped like an old-fashioned innertube."

"Tell everybody what you saw in it, Dan," Major Chen teased him.

"I know I'm gonna catch Hell for this in debriefing, but I swear there were these two whales in it. They could have been humpbacks."

"And they had little green men riding them," joshed the mission commander.

Six more years out, Lusitania grunted something to Toshiro which translated as "Are you sure we're going to miss Jupiter?"

"If we can trust the simple charts on the computer, it looks good," said Toshiro in the new language.

The little whale with them was disappointed. "Aw, Mom, can't we even see it?"

"I think we'll see, it Prewt," replied Lusitania, "maybe even one of its moons."

"Surf! Daddy, tell me again how I got my name."

"You'd better ask your mother that, Prewt. It was her doing."

"Well, Prewt, there was this human. You remember me telling you about her. Her video is in the computer. She was working late one night and fell asleep in the control room. Well, it's the strangest thing. It seems she was talking in her sleep..."

THE END