Drink The Water
"Don't drink the water."
Janine looked back, startled.
A man stood a few paces behind her, towering over her.
Kneeling at the end of the dock, nothing between her and the poisonous Nartressan sea, Janine felt a moment of vulnerability. A slight nudge would send her to her death. She couldn't see his face. The night fading, a blue glow to the east, only a few seaside cottage lights illuminated him from the side. "I know," she replied, standing, "I'm a biologist."
A dark prominent brow dominated the face, the eyes sunk too far into their sockets. The skin was white from too little sun, the hair black as though dyed. He was clean shaven, dressed in a spare formall that seemed too insubstantial to protect against the chill blowing off the bay, a small maritime insignia at the left breast. In the deeply sunken eyes was the hint of a smile. "You must be Doctor Meriwether," he said. "Carson, Thomas Carson, Chief Biologist at the Marine Institute." He jerked a thumb over his shoulder at the brightly-lit building on the hilltop.
"You look nothing like your vid," Janine said, wondering why she hadn't recognized him. She looked down to make sure she didn't trip over the equipment at her feet, and stepped—
Hands shoved her backward off the pier.
As she flailed her arms for balance, she looked at him, her body falling in slow motion toward the water.
His expression hadn't changed.
The water enveloped her, its chill cold fingers reaching every inch of skin. She didn't fight because she knew she was dead, the Nartressan water containing a prion that exuded a prothrombin antagonist. Her blood would stop clotting and would soon grow so thin as to seep between her epithelial cells. Within minutes, she'd be dead.
Janine felt tentacles wrap her ankles and yank her downward into the darker depths, vines grasping every limb, working their way up her trunk to her shoulders, to her neck, to her head. Seaweed wrapped her head, occluded her sight.
It'll suffocate me before I bleed to death, she thought, feeling curiously unafraid. Then her world went black.
* * *
Randall Simmons sat up and gasped for breath, sweat pouring off him, the remains of the nightmare dissipating from his mind.
"You all right?" his wife said, sitting up and rubbing his back.
He shook his head. "Another nightmare, same one."
"That's the fifth night in a row."
He wondered how long he could keep doing this. Last night, he'd stayed awake until past midnight, hoping to make himself so tired that he'd sleep through the night.
"You've got to see somebody."
He just grunted. She didn't understand, and he didn't expect her to.
"Take a day or two off, maybe a week."
He nodded in dull acknowledgement, both of them knowing he'd do no such thing, both knowing he was committed to his work.
Emergency Medical Technician, and now having nightmares about work. How many coworkers had burned out already, traumatized by the fruitless search-and-rescues, the weed snatchings having left the populace terrified and helpless?
He looked toward the window, a hint of morning light at the edges. Four hours sleep, restless, dreaming of weed strands, of one wrapping his ankle and yanking him off the beach and into the surf.
Randall stumbled into the bathroom, relieved himself, and looked at his reflection. Gaunt and pale, his black hair making his skin look paler than it already was.
His coke came to life, the electrical implant in his ear crackling, a red alert blazing on his retinal. "Alert, all responders. Report to base."
Randall was in his boots and out the door.
* * *
Brian Franks stepped off the yacht, and a seaweed tentacle wrapped his foot, the strand flattening to fit between the boat and dock. It yanked him off his feet, and he fell to the decking with a yelp, the slimy feel of seaweed on his leg matching the sick twist in the pit of his stomach.
"Help!" he yelled, but no one was near, and the weed dragged him to the edge. He grabbed for the gunwale and missed, flailed for anything to grab onto.
More strands grasped his leg, yanked him into the water, and pulled him deep, straight down, the sky receding as he sank into the murk, and he found himself wondering how the bay could be so deep.
And cold …
* * *
Her head clouded with weed smoke, Honeydew Diamond stumbled on the beach, thinking she'd put her high-heeled shoe into a hole.
The night dark, she had to look twice, disbelieving.
A seaweed strand wrapped her ankle. She pulled away, thinking it hallucination, and it pulled back, yanking her toward the water.
The friend she'd been with was nowhere around. She grabbed at the sand to stop her slide, the night on the beach with the high-paying customer turning into a nightmare on the beach.
The seaweed tightened and dragged her toward the water. She screamed, the sand scraping off her evening gown up to her waist, her breasts. A tentacle, then two, crept up her legs and around her hips. Again she screamed, a wave crashing over her, the roiling surf taking what remained of her gown over her head. I always knew I'd die in the nude, Honeydew thought inanely…
"Don't drink the water."
Janine looked back, startled.
A man stood a few paces behind her, towering over her.
Kneeling at the end of the dock, nothing between her and the poisonous Nartressan sea, Janine felt a moment of vulnerability, as though a slight nudge might send her to her death. "I know," she replied, "I'm a biologist." Why do I have a sudden sense of déjà vu? she wondered.
The night fading, a blue penumbra to the east, only a few cottage lights illuminating him from the side, she couldn't see his face. She stood and looked at him fully, recognizing him finally from the numerous vid coms they'd exchanged. "You must be Doctor Thomas Carson. I'm Janine Meriwether, Assistant Xenobiologist at the Alien Microbiology Institute." She stepped nimbly over the equipment at her feet to greet him.
"Pleased. You look just like your vid," he said, his dark prominent brow dominating his face above eyes sunk too far into their sockets. The hair was dark against skin too white.
"Aren't you cold in that formall? Seems too insubstantial in the breeze." She jerked a thumb over her shoulder at the brisk bay wind. She noted the maritime insignia at the left breast.
"Lived here all my life," he said. "It's invigorating. But come on, the panel's waiting for you. Dismayed them when they found you'd already left the spaceport, but I knew where you'd gone."
"And you came to find me." She grinned, having come to the dock to see for herself the poison seas she'd be studying for the next year or so, rather than wait for her escort. Janine decided she liked him.
"You grew up here, didn't you?"
She bent to snap her cases closed. "For a time, but I don't remember much except the cold and the wind." Snap-snap. "Father was in the diplomatic service, so we never stayed in one place too long. I spent more time in orbit than I did groundside."
Snap-snap, and ready to go. She handed him one and picked up the other two. Her mobile laboratory. She'd studied the prion remotely, but not up close. The vector resisted being taken off planet. The environment couldn't be duplicated, and the creature disintegrated in the face of all attempts to preserve it. She'd had just enough time before Doctor Carson's arrival to obtain a sample.
"This way," he said, gesturing toward a waiting hover.
She glanced back at the dock as she followed him, wondering what had happened back there. Just a dream, she thought, shaking it off.
The hover lifted and followed a path that wound its way up the hillside. She glanced down at the small collection of buildings that comprised the hamlet of Wainsport. Sparsely settled, Nartressa was ninety-five percent water, and its main export was seafood.
But not just seafood. The seas were so abundant that over twenty thousand robotrawlers plied its waters continuously with no noticeable drop in biodensity. Although the fish had been harvested for over three hundred years, only in the last forty years had it reached these proportions. The volume showed no sign of slowing despite multiple warnings from conservationists that the harvests were unsustainable.
From the hover window, Janine counted ten such robotrawlers off the coast, and above one hovered a suborbital resupply ship, lifting the trawler's hold right from its belly and dropping in an empty hold, the operation taking ten minutes.
The hover dash squawked. "Doctor Carson, distress call from Randwick. The weed's snatched another one."
"Pilot," Carson said. "Alert the panel we got a live snatching. They'll be happy to wait for Janine."
"Right away, Sir," the woman said, putting the hover into a tight bank, the engine screaming. She got on the squawk box.
Why didn't he use his trake? Janine wondered, the acceleration pushing her into the seat. She wondered what they would find. "How many people so far, Doctor?" The sector government had sent her to investigate not the forty plus seaweed grabs, but the seaweed itself.
"Forty-five confirmed snatchings. Another twenty people are missing without explanation. Keep in mind, Doctor Meriwether, the population here is small, just under a million, and about half of those people spend most of their time on orbital processing plants. And not a single body recovered."
"Janine, please. I hate to be called Doctor."
He grinned at her. "Certainly, Janine. Tom."
"Pleased." They shook and shared a laugh. "And prior disappearances? You were going to search the records."
"Found a few, but nothing that was definitely the work of the weed. Again, no bodies, and so it's difficult to tell whether the weed pulled them under." In their exchanges prior to her arrival, he'd explained the local term for the seaweed. "No one likes it," he'd told her, "It clogs the harbor, washes up on the shores, and gets tangled in the trawlers. Like the weeds in your garden, this stuff grows more rapidly than we can get rid of it. So we just call it the weed."
Previous biodiversity studies had yielded nothing remarkable about the seaweed, except that it was the most abundant flora on Nartressa. It was regarded as the primary food source for the prolific fish populations, more than two thousand species of which had been identified. Oddly, only the one species of seaweed existed, an anomaly that defied logic or explanation, since such genetic specialization tended to be an evolutionary dead-end.
Instead, the weed had thrived.
For three hundred years, humans had lived on Nartressa and had harvested its oceanic bounty without noticeable trouble. Until two years ago. A weed strand had snatched someone off a dock in full view of a crowd of bystanders, and since then, forty-five more people had been dragged into the depths and another twenty were suspected to have met the same fate. In the year since Janine had been contacted, thirty confirmed snatchings had occurred, the rate increasing.
And now they've snatched another person, she thought, the hover banking above a beach, houses clustered at the lagoon edge, a small crowd visible near the emergency vehicles.
Janine sighed as the hover settled.
* * *
EMT Randall Simmons quartered the lagoon surface with the drone, its images funneled to his corn through the subdural optimitter as he searched for any sign of the latest victim.
Of the fifteen times he'd been dispatched to snatch sites, he'd not found the slightest sign of the victims. No trace of any weed victim had thus far been found.
Or of the weed that had snatched them. No heat signatures, no chemical traces, no spectrometer signs. Worse, biometer traces left on land of the seaweed's passage bore not a single difference from that of the ocean water itself.
Randall felt the Chief's scrutiny. "Got anything, Simmons?"
He shook his head, the three lines on his corn flat, the surface of the water featureless, but for wind and surf.
"Uh, oh," the Chief said, "Here comes trouble."
Randall heard the approach of a hover, its engines whining under strain. In a hurry.
He guided the drone back across the lagoon, bewildered that even in the shallow water, no trace of the victim could be found.
Beyond the police tape, the wail of a woman rose. "Diagnosed with leukemia just last week, and now this!"
Twenty-four year old Benjamin Johnson, who'd gone for a jog around the lagoon, wasn't going to be found either, Randall knew. His mother, the woman watching from beyond the tape, had seen him being dragged into the water from her kitchen window and had commed EMS. Stationed on Randwick Island, Randall's unit covered an archipelago spread across six thousand square miles of ocean. They'd been on scene in minutes, the squad house on the hilltop commanding a view of the surrounding ocean. Despite their quick response, the trail had been cold already, the water an even temperature just ten feet from the shore.
Randall looked over the Chief's shoulder.
An oddly-dressed woman followed a tall, dark-haired man out of the hover, carrying three bulky valises between them. The woman's gotta be an offworlder, Randall thought. The Chief intercepted them, and a heated exchange followed, if the gestures were any indication.
Randall returned his attention to the drone, turning it back once again over the lagoon. The brisk breeze made it somewhat difficult to control even with its antigrav unit, its geopositioning only accurate to within a foot.
He brought up a grid of the lagoon, saw he'd quartered it all. On his trake, he opened a secure channel to the Chief. "Lagoon quartered. Start on the inlet?"
"No, bring in the drone. These critter-happy brain-heads want to talk to you," the Chief told him over the coke.
Randall brought in the drone, and the mother's wail grew louder.
While he packed it, the offworlder woman started unpacking her cases. Finishing, he loaded the drone onto his hover, and stepped over to watch her.