DIASPORA PRIME

Date April 4 2017.
Author Palantir palantir@diasporatales.tech
Subject Diaspora Prime.

The author retains copyright (2012) to this story. Reproducing this story for distribution without the author's permission is a violation of that copyright.
This story is fiction.

Thank you Nifty for the opportunity to post this story.

This story is first of the TALES OF THE TERRAN DIASPORA.

Wirrin shares his life with two friends on one of the great space habitats.

DIASPORA PRIME Part 13.

Next Part


"Five one one, and it's nearly eight km."

"Nine minutes twenty seconds."

"Nine minutes fifty seconds."

"You won't get there in nine-twenty. I'll bet TransCom isn't even that fast. I'm going for ten minutes fifteen seconds."

The trio hadn't played this TransCom game of racing from one sector of Attunga to another for ages and Wirrin thought Thom was so optimistic he must have forgotten half the strategies.

"That long?"

Thom and Calen gave each other a dubious look. Wirrin usually went for a faster time than either of them. Thom laughed.

"You're trying to bluff us into changing our times so you won't lose."

"No I'm not. Calen's the one who'll lose. He always does."

That was mostly true but he also had a knack of occasionally winning by a surprising margin. If Wirrin won, Calen had to wear his dolphin skin on their next outing. If Thom won it would be Calen and Wirrin. And Calen, being embarrassingly fair-minded and sensible, had declared that if he won then they all had to wear them because they were all the dolphin trio.
The day before, Sonic and Calen had visited one of the big Nurseries to meet different groups of children, and by request Calen had worn his special outfit. He hadn't been keen, but evidently the children were expecting it and Gelar said he mustn't disappoint them.

"I thought it would be embarrassing, but when we got there half the kids were wearing them themselves. Sonic loved it, and with every group we met he asked the group mums and dads to choose different children to jump in his mobility unit with him. They got so excited I could hardly believe it."

Wirrin didn't see why it would be hard to believe. He remembered how he'd felt when he first met Flute.

"It's not just kids who wear the suits. Akama's going to wear one next time he talks on the InterWeb."

"Is he really? No one told me about. ...You're a dead wombat Thom."

The stirring had led to a dare from Thom, then the counter dares, and then to make it happen, Calen had linked it with their travelling today through TransCom. The trio raced to the nearest set of TransCom portals and from there their paths diverged. Wirrin was going really well till his last transfer when a surge of travellers delayed his access. He wasn't going to win this time, but sure enough, when he arrived Thom was there shaking his head in disgust and Calen was looking very smug.

"You can show off your dolphin skins tonight when Sonic turns up, while I decide where we're going to wear them."

"It better not be too public."

Wirrin gave Thom a nudge, probably too late, to stop him giving Calen ideas.

"Let's go. ...Are you sure you know how to fly this thing? We don't want someone scraping bits of us off some asteroid."

Completely used to their derogatory remarks about his flying skills, Thom automatically stuck his tongue out and made a rude sign as he led the way to the docking area.

"Anyone could fly this transporter Calen. It's hardly any different to the automated viewers."

Anyone could fly almost anything in fact. All that was needed was authority to give the automatic pilot instructions of what to do. What Calen meant was taking personal control, and he was highly capable at that after all the time he'd put into his training. They went through the entrance walkway, adjusted to the zero gravity, and manoeuvred to their seats.

"Strap in properly Calen. I'm going to use 2G today."

"What for? We're not travelling far."

Silly question. Like asking Thom why he breathed.

"Yes we are."

"What are you talking about? Everything's next to Attunga."

"No it's not. There's a convoy of asteroids for the new level about 4000 km out and I've arranged for us to go and have a look."

"4000? How long will that take?"

"Not long. About twenty minutes."

"Twenty minutes at 2G? No way. They'll be scraping us out of our seats after that long."

"All right, we'll try 1.5 G. Anyhow, with those swimmers muscles you'll hardly notice the drag."

Wirrin watched as Thom competently handled the controls and started the transporter moving. The initial burst was definitely at least 2G but then it eased back and Thom pointed to a number on his console which said 1.4.

"I couldn't resist that."

"Where's Attunga?"

"Behind us of course. I'll switch it in so you can watch."

The real-time display flickered, and defined by its many external light sources, the elongated, regular shape of Attunga appeared, and off to one side the monstrous ellipsoid of Warrakan. It looked spectacular to see them both like this, then rather eerie as they rapidly dwindled to blobs of diffused light and merged with the background stars. The display switched to forward view and all sense of motion vanished.

"This is spooky. Are you sure we're moving? It feels like we've stopped."

"That's because we're travelling in a straight line and our reference points don't change. Watch this."

Wirrin lurched against his restraining straps as the stars started shifting across the screen, then again when they reversed direction and shifted back.

"It does get more interesting when you change direction, except it puts you off course."

"How fast are we going?"

Thom pointed at another number. 2205.

"That's just over 2Ksec. ...But when we reach decel point we'll touch a max of. ...13.2 Ksec."

That brought grins at the neat sounding jargon. Wirrin presumed Ksec meant kilometres per second, which didn't mean much till he thought of Attunga being 28 km in length and only taking a fraction over two seconds to travel its full distance.

"It's weird how we're travelling so fast while it feels like we're not doing anything."

"You've been a lot faster than this haven't you Thom?"

"One of my training trips was at 5G for nine minutes and I reached 26Ksec, but that'll be nothing to when we go to Earth."

There was a blip of light on the console and the display of stars jumped slightly.

"What happened?"

"We just made an automatic correction to dodge an asteroid."

Wirrin and Calen looked at him.

"We're dodging asteroids? Are there many here?"

"Normally there aren't any. These ones today are being guided to Attunga. Let's see. ...There are seventeen of them spread out between here and the convoy."

"So why aren't they in the convoy?"

"They're too big. They guide large ones directly from wherever they find them to save time."

There were three more course corrections before they reached the convoy and each time Thom related the scanning information. The biggest was over a kilometer in diameter and mostly made of ice.

"Look at them all. There are hundreds."

" ...497 for this convoy."

"I don't get it. Why don't they just bring one or two big asteroids?"

"These small asteroids will all have been specially selected. They've probably got high concentrations of some element that's important for the pico-factories."

"So why are they in that globe shape?"

It did look spectacular, hundreds of randomly shaped asteroids massed in a distinctly spherical shape.

"I don't know. Someone probably likes it that way."

"A globe is the most efficient way to use space."

"I want to see one bump into another."

Thom thought that was very amusing.

"Calen, you're dangerous. There'd be bits of uncontrolled rock and ore flying directly at Attunga, and they wouldn't anyway. Their guidance controls are as accurate as the ones on this transporter. ...Tell me when you've seen enough."

That wasn't long as they were all keen to see what was happening with the 'Comet', as Calen had started calling Sonic's special ship. Thom made the most of the trip back, practising his manoeuvring skills, and demonstrating short bursts of 3G acceleration. They spent half an hour watching asteroids being attached to Attunga in readiness for decomposition and transformation to the new level.

"Want to head for the Comet? We can watch this on the InterWeb."

They would normally have spent much longer watching all the activity, but the Comet was a more immediate draw-card and Wirrin and Calen were almost as eager as Thom to watch the initial stages in its development.
This was only the third day after the meeting with Turaku and life continued to be a whirlwind of interest and anticipation. The special ship had jumped to the top of the interest list when Gelar informed them that Sonic wanted the full trio to travel with him, not just Calen, as Wirrin and Thom had presumed.
Thom confidently piloted the transporter away from the new level section of Attunga and towards the special construction area where all mobile transport was built. Today's trip had broken new ground for Wirrin and Calen and they'd developed an extra degree of respect after seeing first-hand the skills Thom was always talking about. Dodging asteroids and adjusting to the isolation of deep space mean a lot more when you're suddenly faced with the reality.
As they rounded one end of Attunga the asteroid came into view. It didn't look very impressive, just a lump of material nestled by the exterior wall of the habitat, but Thom pointed out that they were still nearly ten kilometers away.

"It's the biggest ship Attunga has ever built, nearly twice as big as the tugs for Warrakan's drive engines, and it's going to be fifty meters longer than the security ship that took us to Warrakan with Sonic."

They manoeuvred closer and closer, Thom really was skilled at this, and from only a hundred meters away the impression of size was totally different. Hugging beside Attunga, and apparently kept in place by a myriad of giant cables, the real size and shape was now clear.

"Why isn't anything happening? I thought we'd see all sorts of construction robots and other things."

"It is happening Calen, and so fast it's hard to believe. Those tubes are carrying picobots and energy sources to the asteroid."

"Tubes? You mean the cables?"

"They're nothing like cables. They eat their way into the asteroid and the picobots transform the ore into proper hull material and move it into place. Look over there. There's a new one growing out from Attunga."

Thom knew all this because when he'd learnt he was going to earth he'd spent hours finding out everything he could about the new ship. Not far away, Wirrin saw the tube Thom was talking about, it's free end an indistinct glowing red cloud. Was it really growing? Yes, a new section of tubing came into view while they watched.

"What's the glowing part at the end of the tube?"

"It's millions and millions of picobots. There's an electromagnetic field which holds them in place while they do their work. As soon as the tube reaches the asteroid new picobots will start doing all sorts of things."

It was all amazing, and as they watched, more and more tubes started extending towards the asteroid. Thom fiddled with his controls and they slowly started moving.

"Where are we going now?"

"Just to the end. ...Yes, look at that. The external frame is starting."

Wirrin could see five of the tubes extending from one end of the asteroid, then while he watched, three more started.

"The Comet's bigger than the asteroid so they build it from the inside out."

"Inside out?"

"Calen, it's obvious isn't it? It's solid nickel-iron so they hollow it out and most of that material becomes the hull and the framework."

Fascinated, they watched for over an hour as more and more of the picobot tubes extruded from the main asteroid then set in place. A feathery looking framework joined from the ends of the tubes and the final outline, a strange ellipsoid shape with a flattened bottom area, started to take place. Thom explained it all. Since the Comet was landing on Earth's surface at Monkey Mia, the flat area was needed to match with a huge temporary anti-grav landing field, which would be built there. The current flimsiness was purely temporary as over the next six to seven days it would steadily solidify and build to a two meter thick hull, with huge ten meter reinforcing girders extending internally through the length and breadth of the ship.

"Did you say two meters? ... How thick is the hull on this transporter we're in now?"

It only took a couple of seconds to find out.

"Three cm. Why?"

"Well, if three centimeters is enough for here, why do they need two metres? Wouldn't twenty to thirty centimeters be enough? That hull material is incredibly strong."

Materials technology had gone through two major stages since the pre-habitat days. The first stage replaced traditional steel and concrete with construction materials ten times the strength and hardness, and allowed the building of the great population centres which shifted the major proportion of the Earth's society underground. The second major breakthrough, in conjunction with the development of practical gravity control some eighty years ago, was the great enabler for space habitats, with materials half an order of magnitude stronger again and relatively light. The limited spin-cities had quickly been modified.
Thom nodded knowingly.

"I wondered about that myself when I saw the hull material has a rating of 61.5 SS. That's 61 times as strong as standard steel, and two meters of it is like having 120 meters of the old steel. It's because the Comet might have to go through all sorts of things like radiation belts and solar winds and they're putting special layers in the hull to shield against them. They've got a crazy safety factor too."

The equivalent of a hundred and twenty meters.
Wirrin liked steel. There was a sculpted piece on display in one of his EdCom workshops and its silvery sheen was very impressive. In his mind he added a hundred and twenty meters to the Comet and pictured the resulting shiny steel monster. It would look great, but it would be too heavy to move.

"Are you zapping the Comet or are you thinking?"

"Both. I was imagining what the Comet would look like if it was made of steel."

***

"They're bombarding us with questions. They're all curious about what wild dolphins will be like and Sonic and Puck are out visiting all the pods to keep them up to date with what's going on."

After a call from Gelar, the trio was gathered at the Dolphinarium to do some catching up of their own. Wirrin was curious as to why Sonic and Puck had to do the visiting.

"Why aren't the rangers connected with each pod doing the explaining?"

"They are, but apparently the dolphins need to hear it from Sonic and Puck."

Calen was nodding.

"The whole community's excited and they need to interact with each other when major things happen. Puck goes because she's the main leader and Sonic does all the talking."

"What is he telling them?"

"Depending on numbers, they might have to share their reaches with several hundred Earth dolphins if the Warrakan reach hasn't peaked properly. The nutrients and stimulation have caused an explosion in the number of micro-organisms, but it takes time for the effect to work its way up the food chain."

"Sharing? That's new."

"Yes, we have to consider it because early indications from earth are telling us we might be catering for more dolphins than we expected."

"What's happened?"

"All sorts of things Calen. In the last few days a campaign against 'unnatural creatures' has started in the Semi-Directed sections on Earth and it's made many of the marine centers so worried they're already transporting their dolphins to Monkey Mia."

The trio stared in shock.

"UNNATURAL! ARE THEY CRAZY?"

Calen's angry outburst made everyone jump.

"No Calen. They're not crazy. It's a very calculated campaign by K74 and like-minded habitats to counter the strong negative reaction from the rest of the solar system against the earlier killings."

"But it IS crazy. Earth dolphins are more natural than humans. Humans have all got health-bots in their bodies."

"And most people agree with you, but according to Turaku it's a kind of social engineering to turn the populations in the Directed Habitats against dolphins. He says the next stage in their campaign will likely have reports of modified dolphins losing their senses and attacking people swimming at famous beaches."

"That's stupid. No one will ever believe that."

"They will in the Directed Habitats. A continued stream of bad reports will eventually plant a negative association with dolphins in people's minds."

"As soon as they go on the InterWeb they'll know it's not true."

"No they won't. If it comes from their leaders they'll believe it. The same as we would."

"No we wouldn't."

"Of course we would. When Witnesses tell us things we believe them."

"That's different. Witnesses don't tell lies. ...They can't tell lies."

Calen was shaking his head but he understood what Gelar was saying. He was just resisting the idea that anyone could see dolphins in a bad light.

"Are we still sure it's mainly K74 behind all this?"

Gelar gave Wirrin a curious look.

"Your program hasn't stopped running Wirrin. We're more sure than ever. It's traced the people who made the reports and linked them all with K74. It also uncovered the identities of the cadre of five men who control the K74 Habitat."

A small group like that controlling fifteen billion people? Wirrin started to think about it. Calen was more interested in dolphins.

"So how does that mean more dolphins?"

"Remember how Monkey Mia works closely with twenty-seven dolphins? They also have association with many more, and it's these they're worried about. Monkey Mia has eleven in particular and it's a similar story at most of the other centres. The whole thing is very complicated as we won't separate individuals from their pods."

Wirrin did some quick figuring. He knew the official group from Monkey Mia were all in the one pod, but the non-official dolphins must come from a range of pods and most pods had at the least ten or fifteen members, with a norm of over twenty. If they had to transport even one extra pod from each centre the numbers would increase enormously.

"Wouldn't that be too many to transport?"

"No, there is room for nearly six thousand. They'd be very crowded but that wouldn't worry them just for the trip. It's when they arrive here that the problems start. Five thousand dolphins in a reach designed for five hundred will quickly destroy the viability of that environment."

"Five thousand? That's impossible. They'd eat everything in the first week."

"Less than that, but we've come up with some solutions. We'll be bringing a week's supply of live food from earth, that's all been organised at Monkey Mia, and Sonic is going to teach them to eat fish-substitute. They won't like it but there's no alternative. Construction of a specialised protein factory is already underway on Warrakan."

Thom suddenly laughed and everyone gawked at him.

"Salmon-sub! I'm thinking of Sonic eating it and telling all the other dolphins to, when he said it was disgusting."

The mood lightened and Calen actually smiled.

"They'll all hate it."

"They'll hate not having to hunt for it, but they'll love the taste. It will be designed especially for them."

Thom was right. The food scientists would make sure of that.

"How long before the reaches are developed enough so they can catch their own? I suppose having extra dolphins will make it longer?"

"No, it will stay the same at just on five months. The four extra reaches on Warrakan will all be ready then, and two months later twenty more.

In another year every pod will be able to have their own reach if that's what they want."

Wirrin worked it out. Five thousand dolphins would be an awful lot of pods.

"That's over two hundred and fifty reaches. ...They've speeded up the plans on Warrakan again?"

"Yes they have, but we won't need that many. Turaku has been working with Uranus and Freedom Habitats and they're hoping many of the dolphins will move there as soon as they've developed working reaches."

The trio shared a look. Gelar's earlier statement that lots of things were happening was true in spades.

"Uranus? They don't even have dolphins."

"They've suddenly become extremely interested."

Gelar pointed a finger at Calen and smiled.

"Someone persuaded them."

"... Me?"

"Of course. You and Sonic. After they saw the events of Sonic's Meeting day they quickly committed themselves, and they've been in contact with Turaku ever since."

Wirrin felt a surge of excitement and pride for Calen and Sonic. Thom must have felt the same because he grabbed Calen's arm and gave it a happy, commendatory shake.

"You're history. You and Sonic."

Thom's comment sounded strange till Wirrin worked out he meant it literally.

"They certainly are, and the effects of Meeting day will be far ranging. All four habitats who've experienced it so far have been inspired, and Turaku is certain that will continue with other habitats."

Four habitats? Oh, Warrakan of course. It was easy to think of Attunga and Warrakan as one identity. Calen was looking rather nonplussed at these implications and started with his usual story that it was all due to Sonic.

"You're wrong Calen. The Concerto and the conference with the scientists awed people and changed their perception of dolphin abilities, but the biggest factor behind the expressed wish for humans and dolphins to work together was inspiration from your interaction with Sonic."

"What are they doing on Titania?"

Everyone smiled at Calen's blatant change of subject.

"They've already had three changes of plan in the eight days since Sonic formally met Attunga. At first they were going to follow our set-up, though with significantly larger reaches, and gradually build a population of enhanced dolphins. Two days after Sonic made his rescue proposal they asked to share in the project by taking five hundred Earth dolphins, and now with the news just ten hours ago about the increased numbers they've increased that to two thousand."

"Two thousand? Are you serious? That's enormous, especially since they haven't had any dolphins before."

"Enormous is a very good word. Our entire database of knowledge relating to enhanced dolphins is being transmitted, along with our specifications for pico-factories to build infrastructure, and environmental data to keep the reaches in optimum condition. We'll have to send Attunga rangers and bio-scientists as well, as they don't have the human expertise they need. Our Dolphinarium is going to be a hive of activity till all the new facilities are ready to be used."

"The Warrakan Dolphinarium is ready to use now!"

"Yes, but even that will be tripled in size to cope with all the dolphin associates from Earth, and since our own dolphins won't be able to move there for an extra five months, all the enhanced training work will have to stay here."

"It will take ages to build an enhanced dolphin population on Titania when they're starting from scratch."

"Decades Thom. But with the knowledge we've developed on Attunga they'll do it much faster than we did. Our own enhanced project started right back when Attunga was built."

Thom was right. The Attunga dolphins weren't just ordinary dolphins with implants. The ova and sperm of mating parents was gene-engineered, then gestated by the female and nurtured after live birth in the ways of the dolphin community. This limited dolphin numbers to their natural breeding cycle and it would be at least eight years before a second generation was born. Attunga dolphins were a refinement of over six generations.

"In a perverse way K74 is doing us a favour by forcing this influx of dolphins. In the long run it will put all our programs years ahead. ...by at least twenty years in Titania's case."

"What about the Uranus moons? Are they involved in this?"

"It would be strange if they weren't. They work together much the same way as Attunga and Warrakan."

"Yes, they're all taking part but Titania will be their main center."

"And why are they having bigger reaches than us?"

"There's no reason for them not to. They've got as much space as they like and more water than they can ever use."

"Water? Way out there?"

"The mantle of every moon is mostly ice if I remember rightly."

Calen looked to Wirrin to find out.

" ...Titania, diameter 1578 km composition half ice, half rock mantle thickness 270 km. Gelar is right. The mantle is nearly all ice."

"I suppose the other moons are the same? I don't know much about them."

Wirrin didn't either. He knew there were five inhabited moons plus the Titania Habitat, but that was only from the recent talk with Warrigal and Turaku.

"I suggest you organise a course with EdCom to familiarise yourself, especially about Titania since Sonic will want you with him when he travels there."

"Titania?"

"Get ready for it. It's practically a certainty."

Yesterday Wirrin and Calen were adjusting to the idea of a 4000 km separation from Attunga, and now they were being informed of a journey that made even the trip to Earth look small. They both turned to examine Thom's expression. His excitement would now jump to a new level. Seeing their looks and knowing he was expected to react strongly he said nothing and pretended to be calm. Wirrin knew that wouldn't last. If he kept holding it in he'd explode.

"Anything else to tell us? You said there were all sorts of things."

Gelar, understanding the byplay, gave a chuckle.

"Well Thom, they've started building the grav-field so the Comet can land on Earth.
Over four hundred dolphins have already arrived at Monkey Mia.
Sonic wants another trip to Warrakan.
In another ten days the Comet will be safe for humans, and three days after that we leave for Earth with Akama and Warrigal.
We've had 75,000 enquiries from people wanting to be Rangers.
Turaku wants you to become an expert at flying the Comet.
And a new AI called Yajala has taken the equivalent position to Turaku on Warrakan.
Is that enough for a start?"

***

A rather excited Thom had piloted the big security ship today, and as far as Wirrin could tell he'd handled it as competently as if it had been the little transporter they'd used to visit the asteroid convoy. Even the fact that he'd been closely scrutinised by four different AIs plus Warrigal hadn't appeared to make him at all nervous.
He'd spent days in a Comet simulator of course, and a surprise real-time session yesterday under the supervision of the security ship's normal pilot because it was the closest existing thing to the Comet. Sonic was most impressed, well they all were, when Warrigal had asked if Thom knew enough to navigate the Comet to earth without using the automated pilot and his answer, with qualifications that were gobbledygook jargon to Wirrin and Calen, had been yes.
He'd be piloting again on the return trip to Attunga but right now they were exploring a sea-grass bed.
After a warm welcome and introduction to Yajala, Warrakan's new dolphin AI, they discussed the current status of different reaches, and the priority they'd been given since the news from Monkey Mia. Yajala showed holos of the additions being made to the new Warrakan Dolphinarium to cater for the influx of dolphin associates, and spoke with Sonic about plans for a section in one of the new reaches where dolphins would be able to experience waves like those in the oceans on earth, then disappeared when the group reached the water.
They'd entered the Warrakan reach at a new access point not far from where the barrier to the extension used to be, and had only travelled a few hundred metres when Sonic demanded a stop because his echolocation was telling him there were schools of fish everywhere and they had to have a close look. Wirrin could hardly believe what he was seeing.
Every move across the sea-grass had sent groups of fish darting and right now at the edge of the sea-grass bed where the water deepened, a great silvery cloud spread thirty meters in both directions before disappearing in the haze resulting from the artificially high levels of nutrients, which Gelar had warned would reduce the normal water clarity.
With a great explosion of motion, the nearest section of the enormous school of tiny fish burst apart as Sonic shot through its midst, then again as he looped and barrelled back a little further along. So many fish but all too small for dolphin food. Twice more the group stopped to marvel at the great profusion of life, and then as they entered the extension area, the water abruptly cleared and almost all sign of life and growth disappeared.
This section was the extra thirty kilometers of new reach which Sonic wanted to assess. Apart from being the watery equivalent of a desert with regards to food, it was technically ready for dolphins and everyone was hoping he would give it the okay. The water was clean and pure and there was an abundance of features specially designed for dolphin interest and enjoyment. The food problem was well under control as the fish-substitute developed for the crisis period had been surprisingly well received by the Attunga dolphins. They called it half-food because the hunting element was missing, but some of the younger dolphins had started playing chasing games with chunks of the protein held in their beaks, and that had caught on as a kind of substitute.
Whether the incoming dolphins would cope with the lack of any apparent life was the big question and there was much discussion as to whether they would all leave the extension area and congregate where the life was.
Calen took great delight in teasing Sonic that they would be a can of sardines and Sonic took even greater delight in retorting that he had the old saying wrong.
For nearly an hour they explored, following Sonic's lead, stopping to check out a maze of underground reefs and then again at the edge of the reach to examine the beginning of a sea-grass bed. At first glance it looked like a featureless expanse of grey sediment with here and there a faint tinge of green, but when Thom beckoned everyone to look closely, hundreds of tiny buds became apparent, some of the slightly more advanced ones showing the beginnings of green growth. In another week the sediment would disappear beneath a thin carpet of plant life and not long after that a wide range of secondary plant species would be introduced among the monoculture.
Sonic nudged close between Calen and Thom to see what everyone was looking at and they both automatically rested their arms over his back. Wirrin saw a smile develop behind Warrigal's face mask at the intimacy behind the natural gesture.
Back at the surface Sonic snugged into the special cradle built for him at the back of Calen's skimmer and the group went on a high-speed trip to the end of the extension and back. Sonic could manage just over thirty km/h for short bursts but with the greater lengths of the Warrakan reaches, the innovation allowed the group to utilise the sixty km/h capability of the skimmers.

"What do you think?"

'If we set up food stations in the extension it will be a great place for them to explore. They will enjoy that.'

That was good news. The extension reach had Sonic's approval.

"Only feed them in the extension area you mean?"

'Yes. It will stop them crowding into the living water.'

***

"Hey Thom, the pilot of the security ship was impressed with the way you handled it today."

"I know. I didn't expect him to say that. He's really friendly and he's going to take me for two hours tomorrow instead of my normal training course with EdCom."

"What? On the ship, or with the simulators?"

"On the ship, but with simulators controlling the display."

"What does that mean?"

"It means I fly the real ship in lots of different situations. He might tell me to lock into position with a slowly spinning asteroid and the asteroid appears on the screen as if it's really there."

"And if you crash into it you try again till you get it right?"

"Eventually. First I'd have to do all the necessary things as if I'd really crashed."

"Do you think you'll crash?"

"Of course. That's the whole idea. He'll set harder and harder problems till I just can't cope. I'll learn more in two hours than weeks of ordinary piloting that way."

"How's that any different to an ordinary simulator?"

"Totally different. Any actions I give the ship are really happening. If I take it up to 15G then it's really accelerating that fast."

"Isn't this stuff meant to be for really advanced pilots?"

"It's incredible Calen. I should be training for two more years minimum before I get access to a ship like the Comet, but Sonic told Turaku to organise it and he did."

"Do you think today's pilot will be going with us on the Comet?"

"He'd better. If he's been chosen for the Security ship he's probably the best pilot on Attunga."

"What did you think of Yajala?"

"I don't know. ...I liked him."

Wirrin had thought about this a lot and meeting the Warrakan AI today had been high on his interest list.

"You can't really think about him as a character Calen. The personality he uses with his holo can be whoever he wants."

"I know that. I like the one he used today though. He didn't have the same serious, important kind of feel that Turaku has."

Wirrin laughed and gently squeezed Calen's earlobe.

"That's because you think he's good looking."

"Do not! How can a bunch of fancy electrons be good-looking?"

Thom picked up on the slightly too rapid denial, and a happy tussle developed while Calen was accused of deserting the trio for Sonic, and now deserting Sonic for the, 'bunch of fancy electrons'.

"Witchetty-wankers!"

"Yajala's probably more important than Turaku when you think about it."

"Wirrin, a minute ago AIs didn't have personalities. Now you're saying one is more important than another?"

"It's complicated isn't it. I was thinking that Yajala has a much bigger domain than Turaku because Warrakan's nearly eight times as big as Attunga.

"He'll be in charge of a lot more dolphins than Turaku."

"Only for a while. When our new Attunga level is ready they'll bring a lot of dolphins back here."

"More moving. The dolphins will be having a lot of changes with all these things going on. Hey, if Yajala's in charge on Warrakan what happens with Turaku?"

"What do you mean? He'll keep working with dolphins on Attunga."

"Yes, but they won't be our dolphins. When the reaches are ready they're transferring across to Warrakan."

Calen shook his head.

"Not any more. When they found out about Attunga's big new reaches some of them decided to stay."

"I didn't know that. How come?"

Wirrin hadn't known either.

"The pod leaders worked it out between them because some of the dolphins want to stay here when Warrakan leaves for Alpha Centauri. Four of our pods are staying and they'll move to the Level Six reaches as soon as they're ready."

"Four? That means only five pods for Warrakan. Is that enough?"

"No, but it soon will be. Gelar says there'll be a lot more dolphin births after the new reaches start working properly. He thinks there could be eleven or twelve pods by the time Warrakan leaves, and at least eight in the Attunga reaches."

They were talking about the enhanced dolphins. Of course there would be many more than that when Earth dolphins arrived. That was becoming more and more certain with each passing day as the campaign against unnatural dolphins hadn't eased in any way, and the latest report from Monkey Mia said the wall of protection was in full operation again with over 3000 dolphins being hosted and more on the way.

"Are the Earth dolphins going to be separate?"

"No, why should they? Dolphins love meeting each other."

"They'll interbreed. Won't that affect the enhancement program?"

"What? ...Oh no, that's all worked out. I asked Gelar about that ages ago and the enhanced pods won't change much because their males will dominate the Earth males. They're so clever they'll outmanoeuvre them easily."

"But won't they take over in the pods from Earth as well?"

"They'll have a great time because the Earth females will be so attracted to them, but they won't take over. There won't be enough of them for one thing, and pod structures are also too strong to change rapidly."

"When did you find out this stuff? All you have to do nowadays is blink and you're left behind."

"I know. It's good though. ...Umm, about a week ago. Gelar was telling me how the rangers will all be having extended training."

***

"Hello Wirrin. Your life has been rather busy since your last visit."

It certainly had, but since it was a statement rather than a question Wirrin wasn't quite sure what the doctor was getting at.

"Um. ...Yes."

"Well it must be. The notation on your file now matches Calen's and I'm not to encroach on your time with any new commitments."

"New? You've got something new for me?"

"We'll talk about that at your next visit, or whenever it's appropriate. How have you been managing your exercises since we last spoke?"

"Really well. I finished the Reading course and I can cope with nearly two and a half hours of memory storage before it starts to get to me."

"Two and a half? I'm impressed. That's an extra half-hour in just a week."

"I still drop out when things distract me."

"We've discussed that and it's not an issue."

"I know, but it is annoying."

"Well, you're quite naughty to let yourself think like that."

Wirrin felt the slightest flush of embarrassment. The doctor was reminding him, with friendly authority, that they had indeed discussed and agreed on his best mental outlook to encourage progress. Wirrin gave himself a token slap on the wrist as acknowledgement and they both smiled.

"All right. Let's do your check-up. After everything was so healthy last time I know there won't be any problems, but it's better to be sure."

Wirrin relaxed on the bench, felt the usual moment of dizziness, then realised the doctor was nodding his satisfaction.

"Ticketyboo!"

Ticketyboo? What on earth did that mean. ...'All is well'. ...This was a good word to try on Sonic.

"Doctor, you should meet with Sonic. He's always coming up with antiquated sayings like that."

The doctor stared, parted his lips as if to say something, then obviously changing his mind, closed them before continuing.

"How do you keep so fit Wirrin? With your life so busy it must be difficult."

He'd been intrigued by the idea of meeting Sonic but was too polite to express it.

"That's because of Sonic. We're in the water every day with him and all the swimming keeps us fit. Calen spends hours with him and you should see how strong he is. ...Why don't you come to our place for a visit? We could make sure it's a time when Sonic's there so you could talk with him."

The doctor looked almost shocked.

"Surely you can't do that? Sonic is too important to have strangers dropping in for a casual visit. There's hardly a person on Attunga who wouldn't give their eye teeth to meet him."

Wirrin had to smile at the idea of people giving their teeth to Sonic. ...'An expression of eagerness'. The doctor had done it again and this time he wasn't checking Wirrin's facility with retinal imaging.

"Of course we can and Sonic loves meeting people. He's taking us to a Nursery at the other end of Level Four tomorrow, and the day after that he's going to a new EdCom centre on Warrakan. You should come this evening otherwise it might be weeks before things are even slightly normal."

In a couple of moments it was arranged and Wirrin was enjoying the doctors slightly nonplussed look.

"Well Wirrin, I'm feeling slightly out of my depth at the moment. What do I need to know about meeting a dolphin?"

"Nothing. We'll have the translators on so it's easy to talk. Does getting into the water worry you?"

"Not at all. I swim regularly."

"Good. Bring a pair of shorts because we all get in our pool when Sonic's there."

"You have a pool of your own? Big enough for a dolphin?"

"We're spoilt aren't we? But we have to because it's Sonic's home as much as ours. ...I rushed things for you because we're leaving Attunga in four days and I'm not sure when we'll be back. ...Probably another four or five days."

"Leaving? Oh, to Warrakan?"

"No, to earth."

"Earth? ...I don't understand. That would be five or six weeks, not four or five days."

After two and a half weeks of the Earth trip being a major focus for everything, the trip speed was now just one of the background facts and the doctors puzzled look brought back Wirrin's memory of his own amazement.

"It's because there's more trouble coming for the Earth dolphins and Sonic's going to rescue them. The AIs are building a special ship for him and it only takes a bit over a day to get there."

" ...What are they doing to the dolphins this time?"

Wirrin explained the situation, and the excitement at the prospect of having a new dolphin population, to the indignant and then enthusiastic doctor, before leaving for an afternoon at EdCom.

***

"Not fair. A dolphin skin suits you better than it does me."

Apart from an occasional grumble, Calen's objections had fallen by the wayside when the term for the distinctive silvery suit became the general one.

"What a ridiculous thing to say. Calen, you're the definition of how a dolphin skin looks. Everyone else is a copy."

"Yours looks great against your dark skin."

"As if that matters. It's you everyone wants to look like. I bet the kids will mob you and Sonic and hardly even notice we're there."

"Well stop complaining then."

"Who's complaining?"

Thom and Wirrin both were, but not seriously.

"One minute you're saying you'll feel like galahs because everyone will be looking at you, and the next you're saying no one's even going to notice you're there. Typical Thom Logic."

"Hey! Wirrin said it, not me."

"Same thing. Galah brains think alike."

In fact, Wirrin was quite looking forward to today's outing with Sonic to a Nursery with the three of them wearing the dolphin skin suits. Ever since Calen won the dare they'd been complaining, that was part of the fun of losing, but last night when they'd all worn the suits for Sonic's inspection his strong approval changed the feel of it all.

"Galahs wearing dolphin suits? Weird image Calen. Especially since we're all dressed the same."

Calen laughed.

"Come on! Let's go! ...I bet they'll be talking about the three dolphin boys from now on."

***

"This is incredible."

It was exactly as the plans had shown nearly three weeks ago, but standing in the control deck of the Comet for real, was a different experience to looking at a holo of the same thing. It really brought home the way the Comet had been designed as much for dolphins as humans.
At the moment the display was showing the main centre at Monkey Mia, and Sonic had just changed the view of the completed grav-field to a representation showing the number of dolphins spread through the surrounding waters. >From the bank of controls at the edge of his special pool it was possible for Sonic to take charge of the Comet as much as any human. He didn't have the knowledge and training for full control of course, but several simulator sessions had made him familiar with the information access side of things.
Wirrin and Calen were smiling at this latest in Thom's series of exclamations as Turaku guided them through different sections of the Comet on this first day of its being ready for human and dolphin access. After seeing the transport pools, each designed for a full pod of dolphins, the control section for the advanced pico-factory, the living quarters for humans, the medical facility and the docking ports for the Earth dolphins, they were now in the main control area where they'd spend most of the time on the journey.
It really was incredible, and Thom was expressing Wirrin and Calen's feelings quite admirably. Wirrin hadn't realised how big and diverse this controlling centre would be and and seeing thirty or forty people in different areas around the room was another wake up to the significance of the Comet.

"Look at all those dolphins. How up to date is this information?"

"Current apart for the transmission timelag. It's flowing directly and non-stop from earth."

"... And which Turaku are we talking to? Comet-Turaku or our usual Turaku?"

It sounded so strange. Every head turned to Thom, and then to Turaku to see what he'd say.

"Your usual Turaku Thom. The changes all happen tomorrow and you'll meet my extension then."

"What will you do? I mean will he look like you? That would be very confusing if you're both here at the same time?"

'The new aspect will look like a comet. Show them Turaku.'

Turaku's holo melted then morphed to a stylised comet with a fiery tail, and the trio gawked as pieces peeled from the main body then flared to incandescence and disappeared. There was a great burst of dolphin laughter from Sonic and Turaku's normal image returned.
Wirrin was impressed with how instantly Turaku had gone along with Sonic's trick, then changed his mind. After all, he did watch every micro-second of Sonic's life, so it wasn't really surprising that he had a good understanding of Sonic's sense of humor.

"Oh no! Teaching Turaku your fish jokes. More suffering for us."

Sonic gave an emphatic nod and Thom jumped just a moment too late to evade the expertly directed mini-jet of water from a sudden tail slap. Calling Sonic a fish was a friendly insult which always brought a reaction and Wirrin was surprised that Thom hadn't been more wary. No, he'd thought Sonic wouldn't do anything because the situation was more formal than their general activities in a reach or their pool. Thom spluttered, wiped his face, wrung some of the water from his drenched shirt and looked round at all the amused expressions.

"Next time I'm in the water I'll pound you into a blob of jelly."

There were surprised looks from some of the onlookers who had no experience of the nonsense that went on when the trio and Sonic were in a muck around mood. Sonic just laughed again.

'Come and explore the passageways with me.'

"Now?... I haven't got my water gear."

Thom meant the dolphinarium water-shorts and face mask they used when they were out in the reaches.

'You don't wear it at home.'

Thom glanced round then after a quick shrug , stripped, dived in, and disappeared under tow through the exit to one of the waterways. Warrigal laughed.

"So much for the jelly pounding threat."

"Thom only acts tough to make Sonic laugh. It's one of their games."

"Why has Sonic taken him off exploring when we're finding out about the ship?"

"Who knows! That's just Sonic's way."

Turaku indicated a seat by a console and motioned Wirrin to sit in it.

"This is the high access Information Station which has been specially tailored to match your capabilities."

An info-station was an info-station as far as Wirrin was concerned. He used them everywhere, at EdCom, at the Dolphinarium, and his own good one at home, so he wondered what specially tailored could mean.

"We'll leave you to familiarise yourself."

'Integration and introduction module.' It was quite a jolt for Wirrin to have his retinal mode involuntarily activated. It had happened a couple of times when the doctor and technicians were testing at the implant facility but this time it must be Turaku. ...Or maybe it was this information station? Wirrin switched transparency in but everyone was moving away so he returned to full retinal mode and for over an hour immersed himself in the module.

***

"Take it slowly Thom. Nothing more than 3G till we're out of range of the K74 surveillance drones."

The giant engines of the Comet engaged. The images of Attunga and Warrakan dwindled in a section of the display. The forward view showed a panorama of stars and brilliant Sol.


DIASPORA PRIME Part 14.

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Wirrin watched the controlled concentration and efficiency of Thom's manner as he expertly took charge of the greatest space ship ever built. That was his description the previous evening, after being informed that he'd have the opportunity to pilot the Comet for the departure from Attunga. No one was going to disagree with him. There might be bigger vessels but their capabilities wouldn't come anywhere near to matching the Comet.
Wirrin turned to Turaku. This was extension-Turaku, who'd be part of the Comet for as long as it existed. He looked exactly the same as Attunga-Turaku except for a glowing Comet decal emblazoned on the chest of his clothes.

"Why do we have to travel slowly? The K74 drones can't see us."

"Until we have two light seconds of separation they're capable of detecting the energy signature of high acceleration, and that mustn't happen."

"They can detect us? That's a change"

"Only at acceleration greater than 6G, but they have become more capable recently. Their new drones have much improved scanning equipment."

"New drones?"

"Yes, the first of them arrived six days ago."

That sounded to Wirrin as if they'd been arriving ever since.

"Are there many of these new ones out there?"

Turaku gestured to the InfoStation.

"Bring them up on the display for us. It will only take you a moment to find them."

With Calen and Warrigal standing close behind, Wirrin settled at his InfoStation. It must be under the Security section. Whoo! So many possibilities. Pleased at how effective his new reading skills were in this situation, he rapidly scanned the broad menu and found what he needed.
On the big display a representation of Attunga and Warrakan appeared, surrounded at a distance by hundreds of red lights. They couldn't all be new drones. How to differentiate between the new and the old? ...After a few more seconds of figuring the red lights blinked off and were replaced by a smaller number of purple ones. ...How many? ...73 new drones.

"That took you twenty-three seconds Wirrin. Close down your station and try again."

So Turaku wanted to see how fast he could display information did he? Well, there was no searching this time and he could pull the information straight out.

"2.7 seconds. Much better."

Wirrin had an idea, set it going, and grinned at Turaku.

"Tell me how long it takes this time."

"...Point four of a second. Well done, setting a trigger like that is excellent for primary actions but with millions of possible actions it's more efficient to learn the system."

Millions? Well of course there were, and Wirrin understood exactly what Turaku meant. Learning vast numbers of triggers would take a huge amount of time and any particular trigger in itself might never be needed.

"How many of the new drones are within two light-seconds distance?"

"...All of them."

"That took three seconds. Given our current rate of acceleration, how long before the last of them is out of our two light-second range?"

The result, 106 minutes, involved new information and fifteen seconds of figuring how to put it all together.

"That's better. Now figure how long before K74 is out of range."

This was somewhat similar to the last query and Wirrin managed it in seven seconds.

"Excellent. How many other existing threats to the Comet can you find?"

Wirrin instantly thought of the big offensive vessel from K74, but Turaku was asking generally.

" ...There's a radiation belt two and a half hours away, less if we increase acceleration, but it's a low-level threat. ...And there are three medium level threats near K74."

"What are they?"

That only took an instant as Wirrin already had his attention on them.

"The offensive K74 ships we saw weeks ago, except there are now three instead of two."

A scale change with the display showed that two of the ships were moving, but relatively slowly, while the third was moving into deep space at a high velocity. That was interesting. Without being told Wirrin searched and then gasped in surprise.

"It's travelling nearly thirty times as fast as we are."

"Check its acceleration. That's a better indication of its capability."

" ...13G."

No wonder it was making the Comet look like a snail. Well, that would certainly change when the Comet activated full power. Wirrin wondered if the speeding ship had a destination.

"How do I work out where it's going?"

"Link in the navigation menu."

Annoyed with himself for not thinking of the obvious, Wirrin went ahead.

"It's not going anywhere!"

"No, this is its maiden voyage and they're testing it. ...See how much you can discover about it while I talk to Akama and Sonic."

A glance showed Sonic and Akama looking in this direction. They must have something they wanted to discuss.

"Everything? I can't do that in just a few seconds."

"See what you can manage in twenty minutes."

Calen and Warrigal, obviously curious about what Sonic and Akama wanted, moved off with Turaku.
Within moments Wirrin had detailed schematics and specifications. ...What a monster this new K74 ship was, nearly 600 metres in length. ...Capable of 14G acceleration, so it was close to its maximum at the moment. Everything about the ship's function was here in minute detail. This was too easy. Turaku must be expecting something else, perhaps its history? Its purpose? Maybe tracing where the Comet got all this information from would turn up something. ... Search for any database about K74. ...Hmm, very interesting. A stream of information coming directly from K74 itself? Wirrin's ideas kept coming, and as he set them in motion he started to realise all over again how powerful this InfoStation really was.

***

"What have you got to tell us Wirrin?"

"Well for a start that ship is a dud. If they run those engines at over 80% like they are now, they'll eventually collapse."

"We knew that. What else have you unearthed?"

"It's named after one of that cadre on K74, and so are the other two ships, and it's got special stealth equipment and scanning devices to get close enough to Warrakan to find out about our drive engines. It was only completed twenty hours ago and they've got plans to build two more, each connected by name with one of the cadre."

Akama was surprised.

"It's designed for surveillance against Warrakan? That wasn't in my security report."

"The surveillance capabilities were mentioned, but not that they were specifically aimed at Warrakan. That's new information which Wirrin has uncovered, along with the link between the ships and the ruling cadre."

That was news to Wirrin, and he immediately felt a combination of awkwardness and pleasure at the impressed looks he was receiving. Akama rested his hand on Wirrin's head. Again? What did it mean and why didn't he do it to anyone else?

"Well done Wirrin. You've already shown that my hunch was correct."

He removed his hand and smiled at Wirrin's puzzled look.

"It was my idea to give you full integration with the Information Station. Will this new K74 ship be effective in its purpose?"

Wirrin looked to Turaku but he said nothing.

"It won't find out anything we don't want it to. It uses the same equipment as the new drones, just on a bigger scale."

"So you believe it will be completely frustrated in its purpose?"

"I'm certain of it. Attunga and Warrakan have already designed and built new protective facilities to counter anything it can try. We have a huge advantage over K74 because we get information about any of their new developments as soon as they implement them."

"How can we do that? It seems like we find out whatever we want."

Calen was asking and Gelar was nodding in agreement with the question.

"Almost everything. Attunga has its own surveillance drones which tell us about the activity around K74. They're like the Guardian drones which protect the dolphins at Monkey Mia, except they're designed for space. They disabled two of the new K74 drones and brought them to Attunga for analysis. Most of the information comes from the AI on K74 though, who's been communicating with our own AIs for nearly two months."

"That AI is still there? Last I heard he was transferring to Attunga."

"He agreed to postpone the shift while all this trouble is happening with the dolphins."

"You discovered all this in fifteen minutes?"

"Um! ...Yes. This InfoStation is amazing."

"I'd like you to put a serious effort into learning this system while we're travelling.
Turaku, can you oversee a set of exercises and challenges which will help Wirrin become more facile with his station?"

"...Done."

"Excellent, and I think these early results already warrant installation of a similar system at home on Attunga. Let's see what happens after twelve hours of application."

Wirrin stared at Akama. An InfoStation as powerful as this at home? This was like Thom's advancement with his piloting. Excitement welled at the thought, then bubbled even more at the prospect of special tutoring with Turaku. ...Twelve hours? That was more than half his waking time. This was going to be a busy trip.

***

"Are you ready Thom? Here it comes. ...Five. ...Four. ...Three. ...Two. ...One. ...Turn around!"

Silly question because for Thom this was one of the highlights of the trip. Well, it was for all the trio really, as this was the point where the Comet would reorient itself so the thrust of the engines could slow the ship in a mirror image of the acceleration of the first half of the trip. It was also the point of maximum speed, and though they'd known all along what it was going to be, it was still exciting to experience the moment. Wirrin flashed the number dramatically on the display in large size.

"Whoo! 9726.3 Ksecs. A total record for the trip to earth. The K74 ships couldn't come anywhere near that."

Nearly 10,000 kilometers in one second. The idea of it was incredible, especially as the panorama of stars gave no indication of movement at all. The only apparent difference was the increased brightness of the Sun. Well, that would all change when they approached Earth.

" ...They could reach almost 7000 Ksecs Thom, but if they tried any faster the engines would conk out."

"Weak as wombat water!"

"Wombat water wouldn't reach 7000 Ksecs."

Nothing was as good as the Comet as far as Thom was concerned. He'd been quite disgusted to learn that despite his expectations, the Comet wouldn't be making a Solar System speed record on this trip. That would have to wait. The transporters carrying the initial population to the Titania Habitat had, despite their much lower acceleration capability, been able to reach over 10,000 Ksecs because of the much longer time they could build speed.
The record holders on a regular basis though, were the vessels carrying supplies and personnel to the small scientific research habitat way out at Pluto.

".. 9722.8 km/s. We're slowing down."

"Come on everyone. Just over thirteen hours till we get to Earth. This is the long stretch with not much change so we need to copy Sonic and have a good rest before everything starts happening."

Calen was right. A glance showed that Sonic was in the logging state he'd informed them would last for at least ten hours in case he didn't get a chance for a proper rest on earth. The Comet was under control of the security AI, at this velocity human reactions would be too slow for anything immediate, and the number of people in the control centre had reduced to only seven. Everyone else had the same idea as Sonic.

***

Wirrin stared in utter awe at the site on the display. For the last few minutes no one had spoken, held as if spellbound, by the magnificence of planet Earth. Standing shoulder to shoulder with Calen and Thom in an automatic need to share the moment, Wirrin wondered how anything could be so beautiful. He'd seen this before, many times, as holo images or virtual reality presentations, but knowing it was real changed the perception.
There was a call from Sonic who was watching from the water and Calen raced over and dived in with him. Apart from sleep times they'd been together almost the whole trip. Puck and Flute were going to come but Sonic persuaded them to stay and relay information to the Attunga dolphins who were slightly on edge with all the imminent changes. As far as Wirrin could tell Sonic didn't seem to be affected by the separation from his pod but according to Calen that was a case of logic overruling his natural feelings.

'Home of all dolphins and people. So much water.'

"Home for AIs too. They started on earth."

There was indeed a vast amount of water. With Monkey Mia the destination, the approach aspect at the moment showed a major part of the Pacific Ocean.

'How long before we reach the water?'

Wirrin smiled at Sonic's perspective. People would have asked how long before they would land.
As if a spell had been broken people throughout the command centre stirred from their quiet contemplation and moved to action. Wirrin connected with his InfoStation and called to Sonic that it would be another twenty-one minutes. Thom moved close to the pilot from the security ship to watch his procedure for the final approach into atmosphere and the gravity well of Earth. The planetary sphere grew to fill the screen, till the features of the Australian continent took prominence, till the familiar aerial view of Shark Bay took over.
Wirrin looked at Akama, standing quiet and staring with rapt attention at the approaching view of his old home country. Yes, there was his river and range, visible for a while as the Comet slowed more and more in its descent.
With precision and apparent ease the ship came to rest in the cradle of the grav-field and everyone looked around with a curious sense of anticipation. The pilot swivelled his seat towards Akama.

"All secure and ready for debarkation Honored One."

The display switched from landing information to external and everyone took in the buildings of the Marine Centre, the approaching phalanx of vehicles, and most of all the glistening, azure expanse of sky and bay. Just clear of the grav field Akama stopped.
Wirrin, walking close behind bumped into him because at that moment he was staring at the sky. Akama smiled then lifted his head and stared. He kept staring, as if he had no intention of moving. Oh, he was stopping to give the Attunga dwellers time to absorb the surroundings. Every single one of them had lifted their head to gaze in wonder at this first step into an environment without walls. The trio exchanged glances. They'd talked about this, wondering what real sky and open air would be like, but Wirrin knew that for all of them this was more powerful than anything they'd envisioned.
Calen laughed and pointed at Wirrin's head.

"What?"

"Your curls are moving. The air's pushing them."

They were too. Wirrin was suddenly conscious of the light pressure on his hair. The air was moving without any fan or other device.

"It's called wind."

"Not quite Thom. When it's gentle like this it's called a breeze."

Another push of air moved Wirrin's hair and he became the centre of attention as the whole group smiled at the novelty of it.

"Earth, Air, and Sea. All around."

Mention of the sea by Akama set Wirrin looking past the waiting people to the Bay, and with a jolt it came to him just how enormous it really was. Stretching as far as he could see it made the big new reaches on Warrakan almost nothing.
Akama started moving again, slowly, and Calen edged close to the transport module, floating silently on its anti-grav field, and murmured something to Sonic. As they approached the welcoming group Wirrin was almost bewildered by the clash between the imperatives telling him to examine everything around and his sense of occasion telling him to focus on the people. A man stepped forward and made a greeting to Akama, welcoming him home and then welcoming the whole group.

"Honored one. Would you grace us with a short ceremony?"

Akama nodded then pointed to the shoreline.

"Earth, Air and Sea. ...As befits the moment."

Wirrin forgot, well almost, all the externals vying for his attention. Akama had assumed the mantle of his office. Quiet and dignified, but demanding of attention by the power of his presence, he transformed in an instant from one of a group, to the centre of attention for all. This was the Akama introducing Sonic to six hundred million people on Attunga, the Akama respecting a glorious arc of tribute from every enhanced dolphin.
Something major was about to occur.
With a single inclusive gesture he invited everyone to be part of whatever was to happen at the water's edge.

In the walk to the water the two groups gradually mingled and Wirrin watched attention switching between Akama and the somewhat incongruous spectacle of Sonic guiding his transport module. Calen was smiling and Wirrin wondered what Sonic had just said to him. Sonic's head was tilted in the awkward position which meant he was surveying everything around. He was certainly very active, twisting in every direction. Yes, he was very excited and Calen was reflecting that.
With sudden purpose Sonic's module manoeuvred close to Akama and a short conversation took place. Straining to hear, Wirrin made out something about dolphin friends and the ocean then watched in surprise when, after a nod from Akama, Calen climbed in with Sonic and the module raced for the water, now only 50 m away, across the sand into the shallow water then, with a slight lift and a crash of spray, broached a small wave and continued till it came to a dead stop in the deeper water.
What now?
With one great leap Sonic sailed directly into the ocean. The leap was impressive in itself, but from the relatively confined stricture of the module it was more so, and worthy of the sudden indrawn breaths and soft exclamations. Calen, standing in the chest deep water of the module, suddenly raised his arm and Sonic erupted from the water in a truly spectacular parabola of power, speed and motion. The whole gathering stopped in its tracks, watched wonderingly for a moment till Akama moved forward, turned, and with a hand gesture now familiar to Wirrin took everyone's attention.

"Sonic, our dolphin friend, has requested a small amount of our time while he invites his Earth relatives to a place in our ceremony."

Without waiting for a response Akama turned again and started towards the beach. A murmur built, and looking round, Wirrin took in the puzzled looks being exchanged. Well, they had no idea of Sonic's capabilities, and Akama's acquiescence to a request from a dolphin in regard to a traditional ceremony must be quite incomprehensible. Wirrin gave Thom a nudge and spoke softly.

"Akama's just told them how important Sonic is and they don't understand."

"Well they're in for a shock if he starts speaking."

They both smiled but were interrupted in their thoughts when the person walking just in front and a little behind Akama turned and gave a curious look.

"Excuse me, your voices carried on the breeze and I couldn't help overhearing. The dolphin is important to Akama in more than a formal sense? ...And you seem to imply it can speak intelligently?"

Oops! Wirrin and Thom exchanged a grimace. Had they said too much? A rush contact with Turaku in retinal mode gave the okay to speak freely and Wirrin gave a nod and friendly smile, wondering who he was talking to. He did have an important air about him.

"That's right. Sonic is so important that Akama came on this trip to help him. ...And he can speak better than any of us."

"Better?..."

"Believe it my friend. ...And invite anyone still at the Marine Centre to join us. My intuition says they should."

The breeze was doing a good job of carrying voices. Akama was speaking. He sat on the sand and turned his head to stare at the Bay.
Wirrin stared too. First of all at waves. Real ones, building like giant ripples in the distance, then cresting and falling in the shallows with a rush and swirl on the sand. They weren't very big, but there was something fascinating about them. All the people, taking their cue from Akama, sat on the sand and watched expectantly. A soft questioning buzz rippled back and forth as people looked and wondered. Wirrin noticed Warrigal talking quietly with the man who'd made the welcome.
Several dolphin fins broke the surface near Sonic's transporter then disappeared. Hundreds of metres away more shapes came into view, gliding directly inshore, going under, then reappearing in the classic behaviour of a dolphin pod on the move. Thom's head turned and Wirrin followed his look.
A stream of people was leaving the Marine Centre, dozens of them, and not far away from what Wirrin remembered was the access to the underground living areas, an even bigger stream was appearing. A soft gasp of surprise from all around jerked Wirrin's gaze back to the water. His eyes, returning to the area where he'd seen the approaching pod faltered and widened. Dozens of pods were coming in a direct approach from all directions. No, more than that. Scanning the further distance showed the same pod movement.
Thom grabbed Wirrin's arm.

"He's getting them all."

Not all, but it did look like it. It turned out that Sonic, aware he was causing a delay, had called to dolphins within a radius of four to five km.

"How can he do that? They've never even met him."

Wirrin was as amazed as Thom at the seemingly instant way the Earth dolphins were responding to Sonic.

"Calen will tell us. He's down there with him somewhere."

"I wish we were."

Wirrin switched into retinal mode just long enough to query Turaku. He was zapping the external scene at the moment and didn't like interrupting that.

"We'll see it all later Thom. Turaku's watching through the local surveillance units and he's organised a guardian drone for Sonic and Calen."

"Calen's got his own Guardian? What a dingo!"

The man next to Wirrin, the same one, made a slight head movement as if he wished to speak but wasn't quite sure he should. There was something about him which Wirrin liked so he opened up again.

"I'm Wirrin and this is Thom. We're Sonic's friends."

"Thank you Wirrin and Thom. My name is Narn. ...Your friend Sonic can control other dolphins as effectively as this?"

Wirrin smiled at Narn's carefully chosen use of the word 'effectively', when he was clearly finding the evidence of his own eyes hard to believe.

"It's not control. He wouldn't like that. He would have spoken to them and they're coming because they agree with what he's saying."

"He communicates that well? ... I mean it's obvious he can, but you make it sound like human conversation?"

Why was he asking again? Akama had already told him to believe it. Oh! Not really. This question was more perceptive.

"Yes, I'm sorry I was being too general. Your dolphins aren't the same as ours. Sonic understands human speech as well as anyone. He doesn't speak it himself because he produces sounds differently, but the translators do that perfectly for him. He communicates with other dolphins the same way dolphins always do, except his range of ideas and vocabulary is enormous. We talk to him every day so we just think of it as normal speaking."

"Every day? ...You have such a close association with him?"

"Yes, Calen is closest though. He's out there in the water with him now. We're like his human pod. He comes to our home every night to relax and mess around."

"Mess around? ... As in youthful companionship?"

Thom and Wirrin both laughed.

"Yes, but you should say dolphin companionship. He does the same messing around with anyone he likes. When Akama was in our pool he got splashed and bumped the same as we do."

"Akama visits your home?"

The tone wasn't quite disbelief, more like, 'who are these boys to be visited by someone like Akama?'.

"Only once. To meet Sonic."

"He likes seeing you too Wirrin."

Thom and Calen had built up a theory that Akama was interested in Wirrin because they looked so identical when they were little children. Wirrin gave Thom a shooshing nudge and glanced at Akama, hoping he hadn't heard. He was gazing at the bay with a slight smile.

"Hey look! It's Calen."

With one hand holding the side of Sonic's transporter for support, Calen surveyed the people on shore till their eyes caught. He raised his other arm for a quick wave then disappeared underwater again.

"What a wombat! We really should be out there."

Wirrin felt the same way. Calen's wave had sent a message of excitement he was wanting to share. They couldn't go though. It would feel like they were pushing in when they weren't asked. Wirrin turned to Narn, thinking he liked the sound of that name.

"Calen goes with Sonic because they do nearly everything together and he can speak dolphin properly."

"Properly?"

"Well, Thom and I know quite a few words, but we don't say them right because we can't make all the sounds. Calen can because he has special implants."

There was a period of silence.

"Wirrin, I don't quite know what to say. You speak familiarly of a world I didn't know existed. Do many people on Attunga speak to dolphins?"

Narn was experiencing the preliminary wonder at the idea of talking dolphins.

"Not really. Calen's the only one with real dolphin language and there aren't many dolphins. Sonic's the first one who speaks to everybody, and the others like to get to know you first. They mostly speak with their rangers and other dolphinarium people."

Narn clearly wanted to say more but the happenings in the water now took all attention. Two distinct pods, probably thirty or forty dolphins, were now active near the transporter only twenty meters away. Their immediacy took first focus but couldn't hold it because not far to the left was another pod, and close by another, and another. Everywhere in the close vicinity pods were milling, and in the further view innumerable pods were still approaching. Like a blanket, the silence of wonder settled on the human gathering at the astonishing sight. Seemingly, the whole ocean was full of dolphins.


DIASPORA PRIME Part 15.

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"Earth, Air, and Sea!"

Akama's voice rang loud and clear across the water, and Wirrin, standing with Calen, Thom and Sonic, chest deep in the water by the transport module, listened to a symbolic call for Earth dwellers, Sky dwellers and Water dwellers to meet in this place which embodied those three fundamental elements so well. It was short and powerfully presented and everyone watched quietly, wondering what was to happen next.
For Wirrin and Thom there had been an awkward but proud moment when Sonic and Calen had surfaced and called to them and they'd had to walk from the shore and stand with Sonic under the curious gaze of the crowd which now numbered several hundred people.
Akama finished and stood, waiting with his attention on Sonic, who ducked slightly under the surface. Standing right next to Sonic, Wirrin sensed the rapid transmission of sound as the message was translated in terms the gathered dolphins would understand.
2160 dolphin heads, Wirrin found out the number later, lifted from the water and looked towards Akama, who raised his arm in formal acknowledgement. >From his low vantage point Wirrin's view was limited to the dolphins close to the transport, but the effect was still incredible, hundreds of dolphin heads rose, all looking in the same direction and waiting. Gelar related that from the shore the great sea of faces gave him the uncanny feeling that every single one of them was to looking directly at him. Akama motioned to the man who'd made the original welcome, and to Warrigal as well, then walked with them into the water and towards Sonic.
Wirrin watched them approaching but his attention kept flicking to the nearby crowd of dolphins, their fixed smiles looking strangely overpowering en masse, and to Sonic whose body was vibrating with excitement and energy. Sonic left the trio and whisked through several metres of water to meet Akama and the representatives of Australia and Attunga. There was a burst of dolphin sound and Akama looked to Calen for its meaning.

"It was a call of happiness at being in such a beautiful place and a thank you for the welcome."

There was another burst of sound and suddenly Sonic's translated speech resounded over the gathering.

'Dolphins are excited to meet humans and be part of a ceremony.'

The trio jerked with surprise. Sonic needed to be in his transporter for the translator to work. Wirrin made a quick contact and spoke quietly to Thom and Calen.

"Turaku's collecting the sound and making the translator work."

Akama made the same short traditional ceremony they'd already heard, Welcome to Country, but this time, with the dolphins so prominently included, it felt extra important and moving. At the end Sonic's amplified voice said thank you and invited all the people into the water.
At first people were too surprised to respond but when Akama beckoned, that changed completely and all the watchers crossed the wet band of sand and waded tentatively into the water.
Sonic made a mini leap and disappeared below the water. Two seconds later every dolphin had followed, leaving the surface eerily deserted in contrast to the great gathering of a moment before. Calen dived as well, to hear what was going on, but reappeared in moments, shaking his head.

"It's chaos. They're all communicating and it's too much sound for me to cope with."

Sonic reappeared, he'd only gone under so he could speak dolphin properly, and like magic the waters of the Bay were again filled with myriads of dolphin forms.
The Earth representative, looking quite overwhelmed, was carried on Sonic's back with crowds of dolphins swimming close in accompaniment, while Akama passed a message for people to spread themselves far along the beach so there would be plenty of clear space for the dolphins to approach.
People and dolphins mingled. The dolphin pods came to the shallow water and cooperated in a slow progression of movement from north to south amongst the people, who were now stretched along several hundred metres of coastline. These dolphins were all used to human contact and their elegant body language and friendly bumps and nudges sent spirits soaring. Every person Wirrin could see had a happy smile as the mass of interacting dolphins moved steadily past.
Certain dolphins, which turned out to be the pod leaders, approached first Sonic, then, after a short rapid exchange of dolphin speech, Akama, Warrigal and the Earth representative. Calen, his face glowing with excitement said they were following Sonic's suggestion and representing the rest of their pod as part of the ceremony.
For twenty minutes the mingling of dolphins and humans continued, till the last pods joined waiting groups in deeper water. Akama raised his arm in a formal gesture then waded towards the shore. As one, people all along did the same then moved to congregate and hear what he had to say. Wirrin was struck with the way the people were following Akama's lead and the dolphins Sonic's. He started to move but was stopped by Calen.

"We'll have to find out what he says later. Sonic wants us with him. Jump in the transport because they're going out to deeper water."

"What's happening?"

Calen pointed at the people gathering round Akama.

"The same thing really. A big meeting so Sonic can explain everything properly to them."

The transport zipped straight out into the Bay, following the cruising form of Sonic for about a kilometre. Sonic stopped and, equipped with face masks good for a half hour air supply, the trio dived to join him.
The first shock was the bottom, which was so distant you could hardly make it out. The Attunga reaches were no more than four meters in depth and nothing like the fifty meters here. Wirrin's first impression was of just too much water.
That was fleeting though, as the bigger shock was the number of dolphins. Twenty meters to one side was like a living wall and other dolphins were approaching. Sonic sank deeper and deeper with the trio following, and as they did the wall of dolphins closed round till they were almost completely englobed. Wirrin understood why. They were in deeper water and Sonic was thinking in 3-D. This way the maximum number of dolphins could see Sonic and the trio.
For the next forty minutes Wirrin wished for implants like Calen's so he could hear more clearly. Ordinary human ears really don't function very well underwater.
He sensed many things though, through his knowledge of dolphin body language and sounds; the presentation and identification of the trio as part of Sonic's pod; the thrill of massed warning sounds when Sonic explained the deadly danger and the death of the earlier pods; an almost unbearable moment when the whole group expressed sounds of sadness and loss when Sonic made it clear they would be leaving their homes forever; and then a longer period of growing excitement as they heard what was in store for them.
Every five or six minutes the globe formation dissolved then reformed as every dolphin, following Sonic's cue, surfaced for air, and once the trio had to access the transport module for replacement masks. Calen was very much involved, speaking directly to the dolphins and sometimes to Sonic, and occasionally darting close to an individual who must have asked him something. Eventually there was a great swirl of motion, and as the dolphins dispersed, Calen headed for the surface.
Back in the transporter he gasped as if exhausted, then started towards the shore.

"Wow! This is harder than I thought."

"Where are we going now?"

"I'm taking you back to Akama."

"Us? What about you?"

"I'm going with Sonic. We've got three more meetings. One near Faure island, one in Denham Sound, and one up near Bernier Island."

"Why was it hard? You were amazing."

Wirrin nodded vigorously, in total agreement with both Thom's question and statement.

"They use the same words as our dolphins but it's hard to understand them. It's like they're on different wavelengths. Sonic had to say some of my speech in a different way to get the meaning across properly."

Wirrin wanted to ask zillions of questions but they were fast approaching the shore.

"How come we're not going with you?"

"Akama wants you with him. There's a delay with some dolphins arriving from North America and the dolphins won't start loading into the Comet for another four hours. He's taking you to visit Gnardune Springs."

"Sonic told you all this?"

"Yes, Turaku has been keeping him updated with everything."

Wirrin's connections to the InterWeb and Turaku didn't work while he was underwater. Sonic's were designed to, as long as he was near his transporter or other specialised equipment.

"Four hours? You won't have time for three meetings."

"Yes we will, and we'll be back in time for Sonic to talk to all the Monkey Mia people. Sonic's transporter is too slow so we've got air transport."

Of course they'd have air transport. Turaku would make sure Sonic had security wherever he went. Thom pointed. Sure enough, a big air transporter was approaching from somewhere inland of the Marine Centre. No, not just one. Four more came into view and accelerated at high speed in the direction of Faure island. The first one passed almost overhead, moving relatively slowly and quite low. Calen brought the transporter to a halt at the water's edge.

"Quick! I have to get back with this transporter. They need it to move Sonic, and for Turaku to keep in contact when he's underwater."

Wirrin and Thom leapt to the sand and watched as Calen took off at great speed.

"Whoo! Look at him go! He's in a hurry."

Wirrin laughed.

"Yes, about half the speed you'd be doing."

They watched a moment as Calen raced towards the big air transporter, which was now hovering near where they'd parted with Sonic, then swivelled to watch yet another air transporter, travelling very low and coming directly towards them.
All this open space. Things could happened from any direction. The air vehicle settled close by and when a door slid open Warrigal appeared, beckoning them aboard. Inside, as the air transporter lifted and accelerated, they joined Warrigal and Akama along with Narn who gave a friendly smile of recognition.

"Narn tells me you've already introduced yourselves. He's taking us to visit Old Country."

Akama turned to watch the display as the waters of the Bay raced beneath them, his eyes fixed ahead on the dark band of green which Wirrin knew was the course of his river. Everyone was quiet as the first silver sparkles of water appeared and rapidly enlarged, watching Akama as he stared with rapt attention.
Wirrin felt a mini lump forming in his throat, wondering what it would be like to return to a home you thought you might never see again. Akama looked straight at him with a gentle smile, as if he knew his thoughts, and Wirrin couldn't help smiling back.
The air transporter landed then departed, leaving the group of five in a clear area not far from the water which Wirrin could see glistening through gaps between the scattered eucalyptus trees. Akama stayed still, looking all round for a moment, then pointed.

"This way first. I want to show you something."

As they walked Wirrin took in everything. It was like one of the enviro parks on Attunga, except it went on and on in every direction, with the wonder of the blue sky above, and the rich red of the sandy soil, rough and textured beneath their feet. There was a sudden high-pitched screech and twittering and Wirrin whirled to catch a glimpse of flying green shapes disappearing into some high branches.

"Lorikeets. There is quite a concentration of bird-life along the river."

Wirrin and Thom looked at each other. Calen was missing this. Well, at least he'd see the zapped version. As they passed a strange looking tree Thom stopped to touch the loose layers of whitish grey bark hanging from a dull orange scar on the trunk.

"It's a paper-bark tree."

Narn pulled a small piece free and handed it to Thom who rubbed it between his fingers before passing it to Wirrin.

"Paper?"

Wirrin and Thom knew what paper was. They'd made it themselves with EdCom when they were younger.

"It wasn't used for paper. It just looks like it."

The next stop was a giant old gum tree.

"Recognise it?"

Akama pointed to where a large limb branched from the main trunk and the picture leapt into Wirrin's mind of a boy holding on for dear life with winged devils plucking at him. Yes. There was the big lumpy growth which had fascinated him. This was the exact tree, still here after all this time.

"Can I climb on your shoulders?"

Wirrin stared at Akama in amazement. Of course he could, but it wasn't something you expected from a Witness. Akama laughed.

"Some of the low branches are gone. I'll need help to get up there."

A couple of minutes later Wirrin and Thom were perched on the branch next to Akama, looking down at Warrigal and Narn and then surveying the scenery. Once again Akama pointed, this time at a large white bird in the shallows of the river, its head bent low to the water and steadily trawling from side to side.

"What is it doing?"

"It's a Spoonbill. When it lifts its head you'll see why it's called that, and it's foraging for food."

Fascinated, Wirrin and Thom watched and, sure enough, when the bird raised itself to look around alertly, the rounded spoon shapes of its upper and lower bills came clearly into view. Akama wanted to get moving and scrambled to the ground. Wirrin was more awkward in his descent.

"Our time is very limited and I'd like to fit in a mini Walkabout."

The next three quarters of an hour piled wonder on wonder and Wirrin wished Calen was with them. At least he was zapping everything and they'd be able to share it all later.
The highlight for Wirrin was holding a bizarre creature which Narn discovered, a dangerous looking little reptile called a thorny devil with spikes and rough protrusions all over. Amazingly, it was quite soft, belying its ferocious appearance, and Wirrin examined it closely, enjoying the sensation of its tiny claws hooking into his fingers while Narn explained how it could actually drink through its skin.
At the end of the walk there was another surprise when Akama left his clothes on the sand and raced into the waters of Gnardune Pool and, laughing, beckoned everyone else to join him. Wirrin thought he was purposefully replaying the scene from his youth. After ten minutes the atmosphere of light-hearted companionship changed abruptly when the big air transporter, flanked by four others, appeared overhead and settled at the water surface. A message, from Turaku, appeared in retinal mode and Wirrin called for everyone to hurry.

"There's a security alert and we need to get back to the Comet."

"Do we have time enough to collect our clothes?"

"...Yes. It's not directed at us, but Turaku doesn't want us out in the open."

Akama's visit to Home Country was cut short and the group, now concerned and serious, rushed to get aboard. As the convoy accelerated towards Monkey Mia Turaku's holo shimmered into view.

"I felt it necessary to return you to the Comet Honored One. External activity has commenced rather sooner then expected and it is advisable to raise our security."

"Of course. ...What is the nature of this activity?"

"Four large space vessels have stationed themselves in low orbit directly above Shark Bay and are closely scanning the area. We have suppressed all electronic signals, but excepting the Comet itself, there is nothing we can do about optical surveillance.
The unusual configuration and movements of the dolphins have indicated to those watching that something is happening and the probability of a response is rising critically."

"Rising? What are the indications for that?"

"The Comet traced signals from the low orbit surveillance to locations not far outside Australian territorial jurisdiction, but more significantly to three large ships, one fifteen kilometers west of Dirk Hartog island, one close to Ningaloo, and one not far from the Great Barrier Reef Centre."

Fifteen km? Wishing he was sitting at his InfoStation, Wirrin linked with the security of the air transport, located the ship so close to Shark Bay, and scanned the information about it. Ten minutes ago it was a legitimate cruise ship from the friendly Malaysian area, but since detecting the signals from above the Australian Security AIs had discovered that the passenger lists were phoney. The people existed, but currently 83% of them had been observed going about their business in their normal home habitats.
What about the other two ships? A quick look showed a similar disparity.

"The ships are fake. The people meant to be on them aren't there."

Akama nodded at Wirrin's comment and addressed Turaku.

"What are we doing about them? This feels very much like a repeat of the last attack."

"Air cover has been dispatched to all three locations for a closer look and all defensive systems are now in operation."

Wirrin checked the security overview in retinal mode then switched it to full holo so everyone could see the groups of air defence vessels dispersed to all areas of Shark Bay. One particularly large air vessel was streaking towards the cruise ship and the data showed it would arrive in just over two minutes.

"Where are Sonic and Calen? Are they safe?"

"I asked them to board an air transporter and return to the Comet but Sonic has committed himself to the meeting for at least another twenty minutes."

Wirrin displayed the area, where a convoy of six aircraft circled, then zoomed close. There was the distinctive globe of dolphins, gathered near the surface of the relatively clear water. They would be easily picked out by any high-resolution optical device in low orbit. Wirrin looked at the huge group of dolphins, and picturing Calen and Sonic in the water with them, went to check on how many were there. The whole display flashed red for a second, sending a shock of apprehension through everyone watching. As one they turned to Turaku.

"Another signal was transmitted to the three ships. We have been damping all emissions but a sudden power increase of a full order of magnitude penetrated before we adjusted our suppression levels. I've mobilised the Comet and we will all rendezvous at Sonic's location."

The transporter lurched to a new bearing and a surge of acceleration cut in.

"...Underwater activity has been detected near all the suspect ships. ... High-speed drone movement has commenced. ...I have deployed 130 enhanced guardians from the security resources protecting the dolphin gathering for interception and containment."

Stunned with the speed of everything, the group watched the big holo display which Turaku was now controlling. Wirrin, horrified more and more by the number and speed of the attack drones being revealed, grabbed Thom's arm as a kind of mutual support.

"There are hundreds. Can we stop them before they reach Sonic?"

"694 hostile drones. They would reach the dolphin meeting in 8 minutes and 20 seconds at their current speed of 107 km/h but first engagement with our guardians will occur in 3 minutes and 40 seconds.
We anticipate complete disablement of every hostile unit."

107 km/h? That was a big speed increase over the the original drones. They'd definitely been improving them. Still it was encouraging to hear the confidence Turaku was expressing.
The seconds ticked by. The Comet would reach Sonic in five more minutes according to the screen and they'd be able to board themselves just two minutes after that. The display flashed red again, sending Wirrin's pulses racing. That red was a warning of some significant happening.

"There is a further deployment of drones. ...A larger type of unknown capability."

Six red markers were moving away from the cruise ship, two heading towards the northern end of Bernier Island and the other four following the path of the earlier drones towards the gap between Dorre and Dirk Hartog Islands, on a direct path to the gathered dolphins.

"Larger? Does that mean more dangerous?"

"That is very likely, but air cover is arriving and will disable both the cruise ship and the drones."

The trajectory for the air cover was from a southerly direction and Wirrin wished it would head for the main group of attack drones first.
Yes! The air cover had done its job. It must have, as the red signature of the big drones and the cruise ship had changed to a dull grey. Smiles of relief lit up as Turaku confirmed the neutralisation then disappeared again as the great bulk of the attacking drones left the Indian Ocean and entered the outer waters of Shark Bay.
Wirrin took in what he could from the display. Almost everything was converging on Sonic's position, except for the guardians rushing towards the attack drones. ...Forty seconds to engagement.
The Comet was closing, still several minutes away, and the number of aircraft above the dolphin gathering had increased.
What?
The dolphins were spread out and moving directly away from the oncoming danger with several hundred guardians following. The display made that horrible red flash, then again, and again. Why didn't it stop? Wirrin felt fright from his heart to his toes at the sight of the frozen holographic image of Turaku. The awful flashing stopped and Turaku came to life.

"Emergency situation averted. Major engagement in ten seconds."

Ten seconds! There was no time for relief or to wonder what the emergency had been, as the display zoomed to the last few seconds of the rapidly closing drones and their adversaries.
On the screen the situation looked overwhelmingly in favor of the huge attacking group which outnumbered the guardians almost six to one, but Turaku looked confident, not as a morale booster Wirrin hoped, and there was the positive legacy of guardian capabilities from the first monkey Mia attack as well.
Thom's grasp on his arm tightened and everyone watched, transfixed, as the mass of red markers on the screen engulfed the blue markers of the guardians. Momentarily the groups separated again as the red continued at unabated speed. The blue rapidly changed direction, closed and matched speed, and the red lights started winking out. In less than thirty seconds every red marker had changed to grey and come to a halt. The new guardians were even more effective than the originals. Thom let our cheer and Wirrin laughed at the empathetic nods from Akama, Narn and Warrigal.

"Is Sonic safe? Have all the drones been stopped?"

According to the screen that was so, but confirmation from Turaku would clinch that.

"Honored one, Sonic and the Earth dolphins have completely recovered from a sonar attack."

Recovered? They'd been hurt somehow? Fear jolted again through Wirrin and he saw his own shock reflected from Akama, Warrigal and Narn in the silence as they waited for an explanation.

"Sonar pulses designed to confuse dolphin auditory senses were transmitted underwater by the hostile drones and for 7 seconds every dolphin at the gathering suffered a form of sensory deprivation. This was dangerously effective. After twenty seconds their steadily worsening condition would have led to unconsciousness and drowning.
I was able to use the translators on Sonic's transport module to produce a dampening signal till the drones were destroyed."

"Sonic could have drowned?"

"No Wirrin. I would not have allowed that."

Wirrin fleetingly wondered what Turaku would have done to stop it, but Sonic and Calen were his immediate concern.

"Is he all right?"

"Completely. The instant the signal was suppressed every dolphin returned to full consciousness."

"Did it do anything to Calen? He hears all those sounds."

"Not a thing. He reflexively switched off his implants when the interference started.
They've resumed their meeting because the dolphins are in turmoil after their flight response was triggered. The mothers with young were particularly distressed by the loss of contact with their little ones."

The holo screen showed the Comet arriving near Sonic, a gathering of the big air cover vessels in the area where the drones had been disabled, and activity near the cruise ship, which Turaku explained was the retrieval, for analysis, of the strange large drones.
Turaku, still controlling the holo, was using it to help explain the current situation to Akama, and information flashed rapidly and briefly into view. The attacks at the other locations had been contained and relief spread as their air transport made its final approach to the Comet.

"They haven't got a hope against our AIs."

As if deliberately flinging Thom's words in his face the holo screen flashed fiercely red.


DIASPORA PRIME Part 16.

Prev Part
"Level one emergency! Level one emergency! Engage acceleration safety restraints."

Thom was the first to recover from the moment of shock and bewilderment and yelled to everyone to find a safety harness. With the automatic message still sounding, everyone rushed to comply.
Almost reaching one of the seats, Wirrin staggered, and nearly fell when the transporter lurched with a sudden change of direction. Grasping for support, he pulled himself into place, and engaging his harness looked to see how everyone else was managing. Warrigal was getting to his feet, Akama hanging on to the back of a seat, and Thom and Gelar were buckled in. The transporter decelerated and when the lurching stopped Akama and Warrigal made themselves secure. The sound and fury of the warning message and flashing red screen abruptly stopped and everyone turned to Turaku.

"I regret the lack of warning Honored one, but the Comet is moving to a defensive position. Your boarding path is now recalibrated. Please remain with your acceleration restraints engaged. One of the low orbit space vessels is emitting a May Day distress signal indicating complete loss of control and descending at great velocity. Its trajectory however, leads to a direct impact on the gathered dolphins and we have interposed the Comet as a precautionary measure."

"It's not out of control? It's being guided?"

"Yes, we're certain."

"How long before impact?"

"Sixty-seven seconds, but no impact will occur."

While Turaku was speaking the air transporter manoeuvred so forcefully that anyone not restrained would have been thrown in all directions. Wirrin was hardly aware of it. He was so focused on the holo image Turaku was relaying from the Comet.
These people must be crazy. Crashing a great spaceship to kill dolphins? Were there people on it? 150 meters in length and plummeting at over 900 kilometres per hour. ...It really was big. More and more thoughts flashed into Wirrin's mind as he linked to the security system.
... tried to link ... it was locked under Turaku's control somehow and he couldn't connect. A look showed that Turaku was once again a frozen image, a sign that back on the Comet he was focusing every possible resource on the crisis.
What did Turaku mean by no impact? At that size and rate of fall it was a deadly missile which would destroy the Comet no matter what its strength of construction. And if the Comet moved to safety Sonic and Calen and all the dolphins would be annihilated.
All sense of motion stopped. What?.. The transporter was docked.
35 seconds showed on the holo. Information was coming through, probably automatically.
25 seconds. Wirrin thought of Calen and Sonic in the open water and looked at Thom who was looking back. Yes he was thinking of them too.Wirrin's gaze snapped back to the countdown.
23 seconds. ... And helplessness raged as the numbers dwindled.
21 seconds. ...20 seconds. ...19 seconds.
All Wirrin could do was watch the countdown and the image of the plummeting vessel.
18 seconds.
...A great blaze of light surrounded the plunging arrow of destruction then darkened as protective filtering cut in. The dimly seen outline shuddered and separated into six or seven segments. Each segment was surrounded momentarily by a glowing aura then disintegrated to smaller pieces which were in turn broken apart. The process repeated so rapidly that after the glimpse of the first division everything appeared to exlode to a huge glowing cloud and it wasn't till Wirrin saw a slow motion replay that he understood what had happened.
To all intents and purposes the space vessel had been turned to dust, or something like it, in four or five seconds.

"Crisis averted!"

Turaku was back, but after a quick glance around the transporter, Wirrin's focus returned to the screen where smaller glows of light were flaring below the spreading globe of particulate matter, reducing anything still falling to dust.

"What about the other vessels? Do we have to worry about them?"

"There is a low probability of action being directed against the Great Barrier Reef Center. North Australian Security is demanding dispersal of the remaining vessels along a prescribed path under threat of reprisal for non-compliance."

The cloud on the screen disappeared and was replaced with a navigational representation showing three large red markers and a much larger group of smaller markers.

"What are all those smaller things? They're not missiles are they?"

That was Thom. At that moment the whole group of markers started moving.

"They are a variety of survival modules, small transporters and other craft which left the vessel when the distress call commenced. We believe all personnel were vacated before the suicidal plunge."

"Do we stay in our safety restraints?"

"No Honored one. A return to the Control Center is now the most advisable course of action."

"And Sonic and Calen haven't been harmed in any way?"

"Calen is somewhat stressed but too busy to dwell on it. Sonic has shown extraordinary presence of mind and rallied the Earth dolphins after their second general alarm call. They are leading the dolphins away from the settlement area for the vessel remnants. It's a precautionary measure only and in a short time they will resume their interrupted meeting."

"What happened to that ship? I didn't know the Comet could do something like that?"

"Regretfully we've not only revealed a portion of our offensive capability Thom, but also the fact of our presence. It was a battery of broad-spectrum energy beams controlled by the Security AI and myself. Wirrin can access the details from his InfoStation."

Offensive? Wirrin would have called it defensive. Well, in this case anyway.

"Thank you Turaku. These are remarkable achievements."

Akama released his safety harness and headed for the transporter exit with everyone following.

"Turaku, these attacks are bordering on fanatical. I think we should bring all dolphins into the Comet as soon as possible."

Everyone stopped briefly at Gelar's words. Akama and Warrigal nodded then turned to Narn for his thoughts.

"Honored one, I am in no position to make such a decision, but it is apparent to me that we should follow as closely as possible the advice of our companion intelligences."

He indicated Turaku.

"I agree with you Narn. With so much happening we're all behind. ...Turaku what do you suggest?"

"The likelihood of further hostile action is low in the short term, but rising. I would like to see immediate action."

"Rising? Again?"

The tone of disbelief in Akama's query matched the feeling of the whole group.

"Not critically, but the level of purpose evidenced is high. We rate it highly unlikely, but possible."

"... Bring the dolphins aboard as quickly as possible."

Wirrin felt like cheering and Thom was almost nodding his head off.

"Action initiated. ...Sonic informs me the dolphins will be dispersed to pod groups and ready for pick-up in five minutes."

Five minutes? Turaku must have been in contact with Sonic all the time they were talking. Well of course he was. Poor Calen, he'd be even more stressed at a sudden message for a rush loading. They should be down there supporting him. As the group approached the Comet's Control Center a crowd of strangers passed. Who were they? Oh! The Earth companions moving to the dolphin transporter modules to be with their respective pods. So many people? The Control Center looked as if every person involved with the Comet was there. Yes, they had to be. It was the safest place in the ship. Thom nudged Wirrin's arm.

"What?"

"Find out if there are any more threats."

He was pointing to the info-station.

"Me? Turaku and the Security AI are doing that non-stop."

"Use your tricks. You think differently to them. Go on. You never know."

Wirrin sat down and linked in. He'd been dying to do this for ages, from the moment when Turaku was so busy and commandeered all connections, and prevented till now by the rapid sequence of events. What was happening? ...Thirty ferries ready to go as soon as the human companions reached them. ...No, 31 ferries. ...Where did that extra one come from? ...The Comet's pico-bot factory was building extras to speed the boarding process. Ok, the threats. First thing was to tap into the Comet's security and there was a trigger for that.

"Dingoes! Thom, look at this."

"What is it?"

Wirrin flashed some schematics into view.

"They've analysed those big drones. Just as well they disabled them. Just one of them could have hurt every dolphin in the gathering."

"How?"

"They make gigantic sound-waves, nearly 300 decibels. Just one burst would permanently damage the dolphins sound receptors if they were any closer than twenty kilometers."

"...That's horrible. ...Don't tell Calen. ...Not till the dolphins are all safe. Could Turaku do anything to stop them?"

It took a couple of seconds to find out.

"He could. He was actually ready. Sound is so important to dolphins he'd prepared contingency plans for every possibility he could think of. The air cover vessels were equipped to vaporise a wall of water in front of the signal so its strength would be lost."

"He knew they were going to do it?"

"No, but he was ready anyway. He's amazing. Look at all these. He worked out 273 ways they might be attacked by water and had responses for all of them."

Wirrin read the list as it scrolled rapidly through. ...Poisons, concussions, explosions, stealth picobots. ...Stealth picobots? What were they?

"I've never even heard of some of these things."

Thom was looking at him strangely.

"Did you just read all that? I could only pick out a few things from a list rolling up the screen."

"You'll be just as fast after your reading course."

That got a dubious look.

"Are there any dangers showing up?"

".. Um. Not at the moment, and they're using the highest level of monitoring they can."

"Are there any more ships close by?"

"...Yes. Seventy-four in a 100 km range."

"And what about the other Centers?"

"... Ningaloo has sixty-four, and the Great Barrier Reef has 247."

"247?"

"Thom, it's one of the wonders of the solar system."

"Do your special checks on them."

Wirrin was starting to wonder. Thom seemed almost fixated on the idea that there must be more danger.

"The security AIs are checking them all the time."

"I know, but the first lot of ships tricked them till they looked more closely."

"The first? ...You think there are more?"

"They had backups for the first drones, and when they didn't work they had another huge backup in space. Three ocean ships isn't very much compared to those four big spacecraft."

Wirrin hadn't thought of it like that, but it did sound sensible.

"...Turaku and the security AIs calculate an 83% probability of other resources being involved, but all their searching isn't finding anything."

Thom gripped Wirrin shoulders with a, 'come on, you can do it, get into it'. manner.

"See, I'm right aren't I? It needs a different way of looking at things."

"What do you mean?"

"They know they're up against really clever AIs, so they're doing something to avoid the AI's capabilities."

Wirrin and Thom both jumped in startlement as Turaku appeared right beside them without his usual shimmer effect warning.

"Well thought out Thom. Keep assisting Wirrin with your ideas."

He blinked off as suddenly as he appeared and Wirrin glanced to where his steady image was talking with Akama.
Whoo! That was the first time he'd used multiple images in the same setting. Thom firmed his grip on Wirrin shoulders with a definite go signal, and with Turaku's intercession that was now a virtual command.
Where to start? The ships seemed to be Thom's fixation so that would do. ...Trace their origins? Already done and too obvious.
...Examine all the people connected with every ship ... any links or references by those people to dolphins, Dolphin Centers, K 74 and other directed habitats?
Wirrin added idea after idea, some from Thom but mostly his own, and set everything running.
...What about new information from the AI based on K 74?
...Too soon for any response with the 54 minute turnaround time ...add it in anyway.
After five minutes he'd added dozens of ideas with no results. No definitive results that is. There were billions upon billions of responses. Wirrin had a quick look at his search tree. Five percent of the Comet's computational power was now commandeered for his queries. That was an enormous amount. It would increase too, as the number of links and references built.

"Space dust! Look how much processing we've got going. It just hit 5.3% of the Comet's capability."

"That doesn't sound like very much."

Wirrin snorted with laughter. Thom needed some basic education about processor power.

"Thom, that's.."

Wirrin's words were cut off because Thom's hand-grip had just tightened fiercely.

"What's the rest of it doing?"

"Everything. Running the Comet, the security. It's linked in with Turaku and the Security AI, and the databases and communications. You know that."

"Check out what's happening. Especially with the AIs."

"The AIs? I don't think I can do that."

"With that info-station? I bet you can. ...Ask Turaku."

Wirrin didn't have too. His holo screen cleared and a command menu he'd never seen before flashed into view. A rapid scan of the overview had his eyes boggling. This was giving him the capacity to watch an AI function, almost like reading his mind and body. No, not really. Things were happening trillions of times too fast for Wirrin to look at anything specific. He could get a general picture though.
Turaku should be first. Wirrin felt as if he'd been given express permission, with the new command menu appearing the way it did. So, what was Turaku doing? ...95% of potential performance? What did that mean? With the capabilities an AI had, it sounded like a huge amount was happening. Wirrin didn't know enough about AIs to figure if that was normal. ...Yes, it was. A quick query brought up a simple performance/time graph showing an almost unvarying 92% since Comet Turaku had become aware. An extra 3% didn't seem like much.

"Turaku seems pretty close to normal. He..."

Wirrin broke off and followed Thom's interest in what was happening on a further section of the display screen where people were grouped with Akama. Calen was next to one of the dolphin transporters and talking to a dolphin companion while members of the pod swam into place. He suddenly looked up and waved as if he knew people were watching him, then dived and disappeared. Now that Wirrin was linked to his InfoStation it would be easy to watch and keep track. A couple of seconds work had a sub screen following everything Calen was doing.

"He's all right. He doesn't look too stressed. ...What does the graph thing tell you about Turaku?"

Wirrin wasn't so sure about Calen. Well, back to the job at hand.

"It says it's normal for him to be working nearly flat out."

"Are you sure? He was so busy his image froze twice, and that never happens. With all these things going on he must be doing more than usual."

Wirrin changed the scale on the graph and searched the time axis for the two performance spikes he knew must be there. ...Yes, 98% for the first one and 98.5% with the multi-spectrum energy beams. He enlarged the second spike section and extra information appeared. That was interesting. The performance output was measured with two basic indicators, background and foreground activity. How did they relate?

"Wey! Thom! That's nothing like normal. He usually only puts 5% into foreground and all the rest is background. Ever since we landed it's been the other way round."

"Is it the same for the Security AI?"

It wasn't quite, but it was definitely similar. Both AIs were concentrating at an extremely high level. The amount of information being processed in and out was amazing, and Wirrin, wondering where it was all coming from, did a trace to find out.

"That can't be right."

"What?"

"Turaku and our Security AI are working with every AI in Australia and they're are all concentrating the same way, on security work."

"All of them?"

"Every single one."

Wirrin did some more checking and nearly fell out of his chair in amazement.

"I don't believe this. The numbers are too high. They can't be processing this much."

"Have a closer look at it."

Wirrin turned to see why Thom was sounding so definite.

"Analyse what they're analysing. ...Go on."

It was a striking phrase.

"That's what they're already doing. I don't see the point."

"That's not what I meant. ...I don't know how to say it."

He went quiet for a moment.

"Um! ...I'm telling you to look at the data, not use it yourself."

Wirrin finally understood and was totally impressed.

"That's not easy Thom. I've done that with ordinary data, but not data that's being used by AIs. They do things differently."

"You'll work it out."

He was looking rather pleased with himself now that his meaning had got through.
Wirrin searched out the library of analysis programs he remembered using in EdCom and started checking the purpose of different types.
...No good. None of them applied in quite the right way.
...Okay, set up an InterWeb search with the proper parameters.
...Wirrin was relieved when hundreds of results poured in. A closer look showed they still weren't what he wanted.
...Change the parameters and try again.
After a number of refinements he whittled the results to a short list of five programs, each with one or more features he wanted, but none with then all.
...Combine them somehow?
...Yes, that might work. Wirrin set his task going then grunted when error messages about data incompatibility came flashing back.
What? ...Oh yes! A data conversion algorithm would fix that.

"Is it doing anything?"

"Yes Thom. It's tracing the data packet routings, then it will look for patterns and anomalies, and then it will check the structure and properties."

"Well, that sounds good."

Wirrin bumped his head back into Thom's chest and laughed at the stir about his jargon.

"Twit! It depends whether it finds anything."

"Twit? ...What's that mean?"

"Sonic's been saying it to Calen lately. Something about a bald hairy lion. They were laughing about it a couple of weeks ago."

"Bald and hairy?"

He rotated his thumbs in Wirrin's neck muscles then stopped when Wirrin sat up with an exclamation.

"Now what?"

"It's tracking the data. ...No wonder they're all busy. They're connected with almost every data source on Earth and the information is pouring in like a flood."

"All the AIs?"

"Yes, it doesn't make sense."

Wirrin picked a random source and showed it to Thom.

"See this? It's a database about the old transport vehicles which ran on fossil fuels and it shouldn't have anything to do with the attacks or dolphins, but the AIs are processing every single element as if it's important."

Wirrin felt a surge of excitement. Something strange was definitely being revealed.
Suddenly the performance graph for Turaku plummeted to just over 30%, steadied, then started rising. A closer look showed the foreground portion fluctuating near 26% and the background tasks increasing. Wirrin switched to the graph for the Security AI and a similar thing had happened, though with slightly different numbers.
The vehicle database information suddenly disappeared without any reason and Wirrin's startled comment was interrupted by a warning neck squeeze.

"Everyone's looking at you."

They were too, and not just looking. Akama and Turaku were approaching.

"Well done Wirrin. Turaku informs me you've just assisted the entire Australian AI community."

Wirrin wasn't sure how to respond to that, but he didn't have to because Turaku started explaining.

"Our thanks to both of you. Your analysis task resolved the priority trap which had ensnared us and then provided a means of escape."

"Priority trap?"

Wirrin had a good idea of what that might be but he listened carefully as Turaku explained.

"Yes, the information in the data sources we access was modified so that every element was tagged with a priority signal linked to dolphins and security. Its effect was to make it highly important to look at every element regardless of its significance. It was very cleverly done."

"You mean every single bit of stored information on earth showed up as a threat to the dolphins?"

"In a way. It also indicated a connection which needed following."

"So Wirrin saves the day."

"Indeed he does Thom."

What a dingo head!
Wirrin started to say it had all been Thom's idea, but again the display on his screen changed, this time to the familiar overview of Shark Bay with three red markers showing. Now what?

"The backup threats you were concerned about. With proper attention they were easily revealed and will be quickly dealt with. Honored one, the Comet is about to move to the Denham Sound location."

Already? 1400 dolphins had been moved into the Comet so quickly?
Wirrin saw that it had taken just over twenty minutes and realised he'd lost track of time while concentrating at his InfoStation. Sonic and Calen must be aboard. Yes, there they were in Sonic's module, Calen watching and Sonic working at his special underwater InterWeb console, keeping in contact with the Earth dolphins. Attention switched to the Comet's big real-time display screen showing the external view as the convoy moved rapidly south. Wirrin took in the various accompanying aircraft. Their number had built and he asked Turaku about them.

"Is anyone tracking them? They haven't got stealth like the Comet."

"They do have a degree of stealth but it's all turned off to add an element of misdirection to the strong attention we are now receiving."

The main section of Wirrin's holo changed and showed a display of ...53 space vessels and satellites scanning from orbit. ...and more moving into range.

"Our unprecedented energy expenditure has brought worldwide scrutiny and concerted attempts to understand what happened."

Wirrin hadn't given a thought to the effects on the rest of the world. He'd been much too occupied.

"Have we explained anything to them?"

"That an out-of-control space vessel was destroyed to prevent the annihilation of the Shark Bay marine environment as well as the above-ground facilities and people at Monkey Mia, Denham and Carnarvon. They don't understand how and they won't be told. Their immediate puzzle is the disappearance from their scanners of 1400 dolphins."

Thom laughed.

"They'll be a lot more puzzled when the rest of them vanish then."

"Yes Thom, but not for long. As soon as the Comet departs, the world in general will be informed they have been moved to safety on Attunga. There will be an outcry against so many special dolphins leaving earth, but when the evidence of the attempts against them is disseminated we expect an enormous backlash against the responsible habitats."

"What will happen to them?"

"Nothing Thom. But we are confident that opinion will be voiced so strongly against such aggression that any action against wild dolphins would critically isolate them in the world community."

"So they'll get away with it?"

Thom was getting fired up. Wirrin agreed with him but Akama spoke.

"They're not getting away with anything Thom. When the facts are known the standing of the semi-directed habitats will be very badly damaged and they will make great efforts to recover it. We expect all of them to openly dissociate with K74."

"K74 won't care. They'll try something else."

"We agree, but not on Earth, and not immediately. Our actions today have very much put them on notice that their self perception of dominance in the solar system is not what they think, and for a while at least they will take stock. They have a great deal to think about. Their best efforts have proved futile and they have just learnt that their technology is inadequate."

"Not on Earth? You mean they'll try something against Attunga and Warrakan?"

"Yes, but nothing overt while they try to understand our capabilities. Once we announce that the special dolphins will have guaranteed safety on Attunga and Warrakan it will be very clear where the primary resistance to their plans is based. We will become the main focus of their attention."

Wirrin thought that with the surveillance drones and the giant space vessel, Attunga and Warrakan already were, but before he could ask exactly what Akama meant, the Comet met with a whole new convoy of air transporters from Monkey Mia and started descending to the Denham Sound gathering. Akama pointed to the image of Calen and Sonic.

"Why don't you join them? We'll call you back if we think there is a need."

Gelar went with them and they rushed because Sonic and his transport module would be out in the water as soon as possible. Wirrin and Thom dashed past a group of dolphin companions and scrambled quickly into the module, where there was only time for a brief hug and greeting before the loading bay doors opened and they were on the move.

***

'I hope you're having a good adventure Thom.'

Trust Sonic to know how to make them all smile. Thom's appetite for action was certainly being overindulged in the current situation.

"Sonic says we're safe now?"

Wirrin was alerted by Calen's tone that he needed some assurance.

"Turaku disintegrated one of their spaceships and the other three ran for cover as fast as they could. They haven't got anything left they can do to us."

"Disintegrated? The one that was falling on us?"

Wirrin wasn't going to say that it was being guided with pinpoint accuracy, so he gave a non-committal nod, and changed the subject by demanding to know what had been happening with Calen and Sonic.

"Everything you could possibly imagine but I'll have to tell you later."

In a rush Sonic disappeared into the ocean with one of his great leaps and Calen indicated the face masks.
The trio entered the water and the first thing Wirrin noticed was the myriad voices of dolphin communication. Sound travels four times as fast through water and to human ears gives a false sense of proximity.
So many voices, though not loud, and with nearly 500 dolphins in this gathering, Wirrin tried to imagine what the main group at Monkey Mia would have been like if they'd all spoken at like this.
Sonic was swimming towards one of the pods but at the same time talking to the rest of the gathering, explaining the procedure for entering the special ferries designed to carry ten dolphins the short distance into the Comet, and constantly giving assurance and telling them their human companions would meet them and stay with them in their living pools once they were aboard.
Calen shot ahead and Wirrin swam like crazy, trying to keep up. Good grief! He made it look so effortless. The dark silhouette of a ferry settled abruptly on the silvery surface and then another close by, and Wirrin had to smile at the sense and sounds of excitement coming from the dolphins as access to the ferries opened and they moved aboard. The ferries lifted and Sonic headed for another pod. Wirrin decided he needed some serious swimming training when, despite a full on effort, he and Thom were left behind.
The Comet's pico-factory was still producing extra ferries under Akama's priority of wanting the dolphins quickly aboard, and by the time they reached the main Monkey Mia gathering there would be fifty-two. Currently there were thirty-six operating from six different loading bays, all under the control of Turaku in liaison with Sonic, and the whole Denham Sound group of 486 dolphins in twenty-five pods was transferred aboard in just over fifteen minutes.
Calen laughed when Wirrin and Thom flopped in the transport module, gasping for breath.

"Weak! Just as well you weren't there when we had to dodge the debris from the sky."

By the time the module came to rest inside the Comet they'd recovered. They were strong and very fit after all, just not up to Calen's standard.
Sonic was totally preoccupied, talking through the links in his module to over 1900 dolphins in their new pod sized travelling pools. The Comet raced for the rendezvous south-east of Monkey Mia and near Faure Island, and what with catching up with outside things on Wirrin's holo and having a look in on several of the on-board dolphin pods, there wasn't any proper talking time for the trio.
The loading procedure repeated, then again at Monkey Mia where the much larger number of dolphins took almost an hour to transfer, and left Wirrin and Thom almost worn to a frazzle. Calen insisted they stay on the Comet for the final two pick-ups and Wirrin and Thom, sensing Calen had quite recovered his equilibrium, were quite keen to get back to the Control Center.

***

The Ningaloo Reef Marine Center was north of Monkey Mia and Wirrin spent most of the travel time talking with Narn, who made a personal and rather friendly parting ceremony when the Comet settled offshore. This group of dolphins was the smallest so far and after Sonic spoke to their gathering they boarded very quickly.
Calen came to the Control Center because of the delay before the next pick up and the trio finally relaxed together.
Thom was keen to know details about the 3000 km trip to the Great Barrier Reef, wondering if the Comet might have an effect on the terrain below its path with its speed way in excess of the sound barrier, but, because of the urgency, the trip would be at an altitude much too high for any atmospheric effects.

****

"So what are all these things that happened?"

Wirrin and Thom had been intrigued ever since Calen's earlier comment about his adventures.

"Well, I think I must have swum about a hundred kilometers. My muscles all feel like jelly."

After his earlier expression saying how weak they were, this was really a ploy to pique their curiosity by not going ahead with what they were waiting for, so Wirrin and Thom agreed with him, telling him he was oh so strong, conjecturing how quickly he might recover, and praising his endurance, till he had to laugh.

"All right! It started with the sharks."

There was no come back for a statement like that. He wasn't joking and after a startled moment Thom asked if he'd really seen some.

"Lots of them near the second meeting. They're everywhere in the Bay but Faure Island is one of their main hunting grounds and a group of them were attracted by the gathering. A big one came charging in three times and it was chaos. I couldn't believe it was happening and Sonic made me get into the module each time till it was safe."

"Did Sonic go with you?"

"He doesn't have to worry. He's too fast. The sharks are after the babies and little dolphins which aren't fast enough to get away. ...and that was me."

"How close did it get?"

"Close enough to see, but only quickly, because I was too busy following Sonic's warning to get safe."

"Were you worried?"

"Sort of. The first time happened too quickly, and the other times I was thinking about Sonic because he helped chase it away."

Thom was staring in disbelief.

"He did?"

"It's not really chasing because the sharks aren't scared. A group of dolphins swim in really close, dodging and turning all the time to make the shark confused and lose track of the little dolphin it's after. Then they harass it so much it goes somewhere else."

"Harass?"

"Sonics word. He explained what happened because I couldn't see from the module. He wouldn't have got hurt, I know, because Turaku would have done something, but I didn't think of that at the time."

Wirrin and Thom exchanged glances and Wirrin wondered if Thom had the same image of an energy beam reducing any attacking shark to its constituent atoms.

"Was it very big?"

"Let's have a look. ...It's all on the surveillance database."

Of course it was. Wirrin found the relevant data and played it on his personal holo and they watched a four and a half metre tiger shark gliding in fierce majesty, lunging toward the mass of dolphins, then being enveloped in a frantic cloud of activity till, with seeming annoyance, it moved to disengage.

"That thing looks evil. They should do something to keep them away from the dolphins."

"No they shouldn't. It's a Marine Reserve Thom, and sharks are as important as everything else."

Coming from sensitive Calen this was quite startling, but not really, when you thought of all his knowledge about animals and their care.

"They shouldn't stop them from eating baby dolphins?"

"Not in general. Sharks are a fixed part of Earth dolphin life and they have to learn to live with them."

Calen was in explanation mode on a subject they'd discussed before in a theoretical way. Listening to the horrifying statistics that only 30% of baby dolphins in Shark Bay survived to adulthood, and that almost every adult carried scars from their encounters in trying to protect the young, really brought home how different life was for wild dolphins.

"Tiger sharks! And we thought catching a perentie was exciting."

"A perentie? Truly?"

"Akama took us on a mini walkabout while we were at Gnardune Pool and Narn trapped one in a rock cleft."

"Narn? Who's that?"

"We met him after you and Sonic raced into the bay when we landed. He's like an Australian version of a Witness and he was with us all the time. We all like him."

"He must be clever with animals if he can catch a perentie. They're very quick and elusive. Did he hold it? I know their claws are dangerous."

"Wirrin's got it all zapped so we can show you later."

Calen hung on every word as they talked about the thorny devil, the spoonbill, the big red kangaroos and the other birds and animals which had been part of the walk. He didn't ask for an immediate replay. That would happen at some stage when he could savour it properly. Wirrin and Thom switched the conversation back to Calen. They wanted to hear more from him.

"It was the worst thing I can ever remember.
Sonic was talking to the whole group when my implants went berserk. Weird sounds and whistles blasted in my ears and echoed in my head like Thom's sound system playing every bit of music at the same time.
My reflexes turned the implants off and then I saw every dolphin was twitching and quivering. Sonic was on his side and looking really weird and starting to float towards the surface. When I put my hand on him he didn't even react and I could tell he was unconscious.
I hardly had time to think, except that I might be able to help if he was at the surface and I could keep his blow-hole in the air, and then he woke up. They all woke up, and after a whole lot of distress calls from three mothers who's babies had sunk and had to be pushed up to breathe they were all okay.
Turaku got through and Sonic explained to everyone that the bad people had done it but it wouldn't happen again. He was talking more and answering all the questions when he suddenly made the imperative distress signal and called every dolphin to come close because something was falling out of the sky which would hurt them if they were spread out too much. It was really bewildering with all the distress calls and not knowing what was going on, and then there was another distress call to get away because poison might fall in the water and the gathering had to follow Sonic as fast as they could, but they wouldn't swim any faster than the three babies because most dolphins would never leave them behind. Next thing we reached a safe place but it wasn't, because there was a sudden rush to get everyone into the Comet. By the time you two joined me I was thinking anything could happen."

Listening quietly while thoughts and story tumbled out, the image of every dolphin suddenly going unconscious loomed in Wirrin's mind, along with a determination that the trio would stay close together till the Comet was safely on its way to Attunga.

***

"6118 dolphins altogether Calen. There's only room for another 400 without things starting to get crowded.
There are 322 separate pods and 297 companions from Earth with them.
Turaku says that Attunga level health checks have started for them all, and 197 are getting priority health-bot treatments for various wounds, mostly shark bites, though one dolphin has lost most of its left fluke in an encounter with an orca and needs tissue replacement. The dolphins come from 278 different Earth locations and there are 73 babies less than one week old.
Gelar is moving round, starting to meet the companions, and Sonic is explaining the food situation and telling the dolphins when they'll next get something to eat.
Thom wants to stuff his face with food while the rest of us contemplate the beauty of the Earth's moon as we pass by."

***

The Comet, newly escaped from Earth's gravity well, was on its way home.


Section Concludes.

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I hope you've gained some enjoyment from this story.
Any comments and feedback would be greatly appreciated.
My email address is palantir@diasporatales.tech
For further information about the diaspora series you're welcome at https://diasporatales.net
Palantir.