Story Excerpt Sunday: From Starfarers by Vonda N. McIntyre


by Vonda N. McIntyre

from Chapter 3

The wilderness had begun to feel like a dream, yet a dream of such intensity that she could bring it back in vivid memory.

Three orcas breached, one after the other, bursting free, turning, splashing hard and disappearing beneath the slate-blue water. A moment later they leaped again, heading the opposite direction. The white spring sunlight glazed their black flanks and the stark white patches on their sides.

Walking down the path to her cabin, J.D. watched the beautiful, elegant creatures, and wondered how she could even consider leaving them.

The three half-grown orcas swam to the mouth of the harbor, cutting the choppy surface with their sharp dorsal fins. They joined a larger group of whales. Without her binoculars, J.D. could no longer tell which three had leaped and played. The whole pod swam toward shore. Five or six divers, sleek in the water, swam with them.

J.D. expected Zev to clamber out and greet her, but orcas and divers alike swam to where the beach shelved off into deeper water. There, they stopped. One of the divers — she thought it might be Zev — waved and gestured to her.

She sent a signal to her metabolic enhancer and scrambled down the bank. A rush of heat radiated from beneath the small scar on her side. The enhancer kicked her metabolism into high gear. Stripping off her clothes, she left them in a pile on the rocks and waded into the frigid water. She gasped when the water reached the level of her nipples. She hesitated, shivering, then plunged underwater.

When she surfaced, Zev bobbed in front of her. A wave slapped her face, reminding her that she was in an alien element. She sputtered and moved past Zev so she could turn her back to the swells.

“We came to talk to you,” he said. “Will you come?”

“Of course,” she said. “But I have to get my lung.”

He swam with her to the anchored platform. The orcas and the other divers accompanied them. The dorsal fins all around reminded her of the trunks of the trees in the center of the forest, primordial and eternal, multiple yet individual. The water transmitted the pressure of the orcas’ passing, and the vibrations of the first level of their speech. She could hear them with her body as well as her ears.

At the platform she put on her swim fins and let the artificial lung slide onto her back. Warm, a little slimy, it spread itself across her shoulders. She slipped her mask on. By the time she had cleared it, it had connected with the lung. She breathed in the musky, warm, highly oxygenated air.

J.D. sank beneath the choppy waves. The peacefulness of the sea enfolded her, and the alienness and fear vanished. Here she was at home.

She wondered if space would have surrounded her with the same experience. She supposed she would never find out. She had decided to choose the ocean over space, the divers over the starship.

Zev dove with her. His sleek body and pale hair collected light and bounced it back. Even under the gray surface, he glowed.

J.D. swam farther from shore, till the surf rolling onto the beach faded to a sound like the wind in new spring leaves. The whales encircled her, each great ebony body a shadow in the wavery light, the white patches glowing like Zev. The young diver accompanied her like a puppy, dashing ahead, spiraling around her, falling behind and speeding past.

The change in the current, the drop in water temperature told her they had left the inlet.

They traveled for a long way. Except for Zev, the other divers formed an outer circle beyond her range of vision.

J.D. swam much more slowly than Zev, never mind the orcas. They moved at quarter-speed to accommodate her. Squeaks and clicks flowed through the water and through her body. She recognized the phrases of encouragement to very young whales. She managed to smile. But if she really were a young orca, an adult would be swimming close beside her, drawing her along within the pressure-wave formed by its body in the water.

She struggled onward, resolute. Her legs began to ache. She breast-stroked for a moment. That slowed her even farther. She kicked in the metabolic enhancer again, knowing she would pay for it tomorrow.

She wondered how far they had come, and where they were. Drifting upward, she broke the surface. The offshore fog bank, a pretty white curtain, had moved in with a vengeance. It flowed over the water like a second sea. J.D. could see nothing of the island, nothing but a few meters of ocean, no longer choppy but glassy calm. Even the dorsal fins were dim, imagined shadows in a distance impossible to estimate. A smooth wake of tiny parallel ripples angled across her. One of the orcas swam past, and out of sight.

She trod water. Uneasily, she circled. The view was the same in all directions: flat water, dense fog.

Surfacing had not restored her link with the information web. The contact, which diving always interfered with, refused to reform. Reflexively she looked up, as if she could see the electromagnetic radiation pouring out of the sky, somehow misdirected, and could call it to her. But the web remained silent.

One of the orcas surfaced beside her and blew, exhaling explosively and drawing in a deep breath. Its dorsal fin cut the fog in swirls. The whale raised its head above water and looked at her. Unlike ordinary humans, the orcas –and the divers–could see equally well in water and in air. It spoke to her in phrases beyond her vocabulary. She could recognize the tone. If she had been a young orca, or a diver child, the tone would have been patient. But she was an outsider, she was an adult, and she was tediously slow.

Orcas were easily bored.


Vonda N. McIntyre writes science fiction. Starfarers is the first book of the Starfarers Quartet Omnibus.



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