The resonance reached everyone in the world ocean with a Mantle, no matter where they were. Some only detected it as a sound, some saw the image and heard the words associated with it, and some, like the Kraken, ignored it.
But only one of the seven comprehended it with perfect clarity. For the Chimera, it was as if he recalled something he'd somehow forgotten and he reeled as it unfolded in his mind:
He remembered swimming through the Tide-ravaged landscape, the waters grey, desolate and lifeless. The creatures that had been taken by the Tide had long ago crumbled to dust, and the creatures he'd tried to cure of the Tide had never been viable.
He'd stopped trying so long ago, the memories of the grisly failures so long ago they had fallen into the hazy past where he'd left so many things.
Now, as far as he knew, there was nothing here that lived, apart from himself, and all he did was drift through a dead sea.
He passed over the bleached coral, noting the grey wastes. It had been so long now there was barely any sign of the civilization he'd come from. Their fortifications, their cities, all of it swallowed by time and Tide.
Had it even really happened? The Chimera wondered. His perception of time and memory had long ago withered to almost nothing. Everything was either "now," "before now," or "back then," and the further back "back then" was, the more uncertain it felt in his mind. The notion that he should survive was the one thin thread that he'd managed to hold onto from the past, the anchor that kept him from drifting into full-on insanity. However real "back then" was, he remembered that was important, and on that point, he never wavered.
But, in moments of despair, he began to ask himself what he was surviving for. What was the purpose?
The question had burned within him, unanswered. He wondered if he might never know, and found himself terrified by the implications. He might survive, but as what? An empty shell, carrying on because of a dim memory, nothing left but instinct?
That was survival, yes.
But was it life?
It was at a moment where he grappled with this implacable question that he'd first felt the waters change. Even though the Tide's polluting effects had spent themselves, there were trace elements in the water, a coppery tinge that lingered in his sensory organs. No matter that the Tide had devoured all the life in this world -- that taste was constant.
Except here. There was a cleaner taste to the water --it was cooler, and as he savored it, it triggered memory within him --not just "back then," but the possibility of a "long ago" before the Tide returned to him.
The sensation that came over him was so strong that he felt a sense of cold terror rip through him, though he couldn't understand what he was afraid of.
The closer he got, the clearer his mind became. Knowledge returned, as did instinct. In this new clarity, he found a hope, and more than that. Within this odd sensation stirred by the waters, he became aware of something.
Or rather, someone.
That alone was a breakthrough. It had been so long, the very concept of a being besides himself was novel. That drove him on. Now that the Mantle had locked onto the chemical composition of the water, it could trace its concentration and it guided him towards the purifying force.
As the mantle chased the strange chemistry, it hummed. That element of awareness became louder, more powerful. Whatever was causing this unusual phenomenon, it was driven by an awareness more vast than he could comprehend, and as he chased it, he felt it watching him.
He paused for a moment. One of the consequences of the Tide despoiling the ocean had been a kind of muddy darkness that occluded the waters. Even if there had been anything left in the ocean to give off light apart from himself, it wouldn't be detectable in the water unless you were very close.
So why, he wondered, is there a brilliant white light on the far horizon?
He swam onward. None of this made sense. The Tide had swallowed everything, long ago. What the Tide didn't kill outright, it changed, and what it changed didn't thrive. Food chains collapsed, growth stopped, and everything turned gray and dead.
But, as he swam on, into purer and purer water, the Mantle decoded something extraordinary in the water's chemistry.
He could hardly believe it. This was more than water returned to its pre-Tide purity, condensed within the waters were genetic information, amino acids, nucelotides--This water contained the building blocks for life.
The Chimera summoned all the power he could and thrust himself through the waters, homing in on the light.
This shouldn't be possible, he thought. Everything's dead. It's been dead for so long . . .
The light was so brilliant now it blotted out all detail, and the Chimera paused for a moment as the Mantle's sensory system guided him deeper within while it adjusted his perceptions to allow him to "see." He could feel the Mantle's Auricontrol tingling, vibrating within him. Whatever was causing this, it was working on the same wavelength his Mantle's did.
And, to the Chimera, it almost seemed . . . awed.
Or maybe terrified. Perhaps both.
So was he.
The Chimera passed into a chamber at the heat of the phenomena, the resonance from the energies being thrown about causing the Mantle's Auricontrol to burn within him. The pain might have been too much for him to bear under other circumstances, but something close to fevered hope drove him onwards.
Who could do this? And how?
He had to know.
He found his answer soon enough: Suspended at the center of a corona of blue-white energy was a figure, floating cross-legged in the waters. It was encased in a Mantle like his own, but with red and black accents instead of his own golden color. The shape was different as well. He could, with some effort, recall it as the female of his species, but it had been so long--had his race had females?
Memory beckoned, but when he tried to seize it and force it into focus it was elusive. But the longer he was here, bathed in this holy water, it came back, little by little.
He moved closer, despite his Mantle's cry of pain. The closer he got, the more he remembered.
Yes—it was one of his Mantles. And from his analysis, it had evolved, perhaps even past his own. He studied the Auricontrol on the woman's Mantle, noticing it was shot through with hairline cracks. The same brilliant white energy that was purifying the water was coming from within her.
And it seems to be breaking down the Mantle, the Chimera observed. The pain he was feeling from his own made sense now.
Someone had taken one of the Mantles--
--One of MINE--
--and was pushing it to its limits. Past its limits. Beyond them.
But to do what?
The Chimera had no answer. More to the point, none of this had seemed even possible when he'd created them. They were intended as survival gear, to outlast the Tide, and—
A voice--not his own, but very familiar--asked, shimmering and resonating within his mind.
[You never had an answer for that, did you?]
The Chimera froze. It had been so long since he'd heard another's voice, that he found himself unable to react to the sound for a split second.
Who. . .?
[You know me, Ka-Eo.]
His shock was such that it drowned out the cry of his Mantle for a moment. Everything dropped away and he paused and looked inside himself. The uttering of that name stirred something within himself, and he stripped away the name he'd taken, searching for a memory to go along with that name.
The Chimera didn't answer. The name stirred a memory--deep and dark, out of focus in the turbid depths of his mind. Another life, long ago. Before the Tide, before the mantle, before . . .all of this.
And another name came to him:
"Tia'Ho," he said. He reached towards the figure floating peaceful before him. "Is this. . .is it . . . you?"
* ~ *
There's no such thing!
Amisala slashed at Ihitai, lashing him tight with its stinging tentacles. That name provoked such rage in it that they moved more on reflex than conscious action. The poison generated by its tentacles burned into Ihitai's Mantle, causing him to writhe in agony.
Cyan, Ihitai thought, I really need to know something.
[What do you need?]
ANYTHING! Who this is, why it's attacking me, how do I make them stop! I need to know if there's anything I can do to either calm it or stop it.
[I'm sorry, Ihitai] Cyan replied. Something about the familiar voice in his head seemed . . .off, almost as if she were distracted by something.
[I don't perceive it at all. There's some missing element I'm not detecting.]
Cyan, it just stung the hell out of me, Ihitai replied, swimming back towards his attacker. It's here, and very real, and when we got close, it set something off in the Mantle. Can you at least tell me what that was?
Ihitai had only a split-second to wonder what how Cyan might have finished the rest of the sentence, before he flung himself at the attacker again. Even if he couldn't do anything to stop Amisala, he had to buy time for his friends and as many of the others as he could.
Amisala and Ihitai clashed again, and the result was very much the same--it ensnared Ihitai in her grip and threw him down on the floor of the reef, the impact cracking the coral underneath him.
Ihitai watched Amisala floating above him.
It's odd that it's not pressing home the attack, he observed. The creature could have closed the distance between them and used its poison tentacles to paralyze him again, but she wasn't.
Amisala just seemed to be waiting for something Ihitai couldn't guess. But it bought him time enough to see over its shoulder. The mermedusae were drifting back towards the strange creature, little by little.
It's almost like they're mirroring each other, Ihitai thought.
Cyan, the mermedusae--
I need to know all you can tell me about them. Fast as you can.
[There's not much to them that you don't already know, Ihitai,] Cyan replied. [They use lights to hypnotize their prey; they generally float very passively and hunt more on instinct than conscious--]
Thanks, Ihitai said.
I think that's what I needed.
He swam towards his attacker, who just floated there, watching him. He wheeled around, just outside of its reach, trying to goad it into attacking him. He didn't swim too fast--all Amisala had to do was reach her hand out to grab him.
But Amisala wasn't doing much of anything, save for its head jerking backwards, and its entire body thrashing as if in pain. But once it passed, the strange being continued floating, watching him, but doing nothing.
Ihitai concentrated, reaching into the Mantle's system, trying to find the same thing he'd tapped into when he killed the mermedusa. He could feel the energy surging within him, gathering it into his hands.
He focused hard, keeping his distance as he kept the terror within himself at bay.
He gathered the force into his hands, feeling the pressure between them increasing and pushed his hands out, aiming towards the curious creature before him.
Before, when the mantle took over and killed the mermedusa, he'd been helpless to control the power or himself, but this time, he would be its master.
And he wouldn't use it to kill.
He willed the force forwards, blasting Amisala backwards with incredible force. She tumbled into the kelp in an awkward display, and Ihitai could feel the mermedusae closing in.
Cyan, he thought. If I encounter someone else with a Mantle, is there a way for me to initiate contact with them. I mean--can the Mantles communicate?
[It's possible through the Auricontrol,] Cyan said. [The presence of two Mantle triggers a resonance and it's possible to establish contact through the Mer.]
Right, Ihitai responded.
The creature leapt to the attack, streaking towards him through the waters. This time, Ihitai met her charge, seizing Amisala before she could close the gap and immobilizing some of their tentacles. The rest slithered over the skin of his Mantle, and the burning poison again coursed through him, but Ihitai held fast.
Perhaps the smart thing would have been to blast her again, to keep knocking her down as long as it took. But Ihitai was beginning to understand the true nature of this conflict, and it wasn't the sort that would be decided with physical power.
The Auricontrol on his brow rang out--a crystal clear note shimmering in the waters. He could see the broken Auricontrol on Amisala's brow resonating--the note back was ragged and off-key, but a connection had been made.
Amilsala, Ihitai thought, listening to the discordant sounds.
Your name is Amisala.
But it wasn't always.
It's all right, Cyan, Ihitai responded, keeping a tight grip on Amisala as the resonance continued.
I know why you didn't tell me what you knew.
About who this is, and who you are.
* ~ *
[Not exactly,] Tia'Ho said.
"I don't understand," the Chimera said. "Why are you doing this? HOW are you doing this?"
[Why didn't you?] Tia'Ho spun the question back on him. [Ka-Eo, the Mantles . . .do you understand what they're truly capable of? What have you been doing all this time?]
"I . . ." the Chimera struggled to remember. "I survived. I . . . They . . . were made to help us survive. What else is there?"
[More than you imagined,] Tia'Ho replied. [The power they can generate, the medium we're communicating in--It's been so long, and I've only been scratching the surface. Did you ever explore all this could do? The possibilities?]
His shoulders fell. For a moment, even the painful buzzing of Auricontroller and the attendant pain failed to move him. For a span of time that was near incalculable, he had been the ultimate survivor, outlasting even the end of his world.
And standing before her, at this moment, he understood how small and pitiful all his survival was in the face of this. How little he'd done with power he'd created and squandered.
So he deflected bitter fact with curiosity.
"You've been restoring the oceans," the Chimera said. "Purifying the water."
[I set myself the task of saving this ocean,] Tia'Ho said. [It's been so long since I started, and the power's so vast. . .I've begun to drift.]
[I'm . . .dissolving,] Tia'Ho said. [There's no other word that's accurate. The only way to restore the oceans . . . was to break all the restraints on your Mantles, and exceed their limits. Then I found a few more limits and I'm past them too, now.]
"That can't be right," the Chimera said. "You're right here in front of me. I'm looking right at you, sitting there in this . . . light. What do you mean by--"
[I'm not there anymore,] Tia'Ho said. [I'm . . .nearly everywhere now. In every molecule of water around you, and further away besides. That body is . . .just a memory, now.]
"You did all this with my technology," the Chimera said. "And you're telling me you won't even live to see the end result?"
"THAT IS NOT MY NAME ANYMORE!" The Chimera thundered. "You stole my technology, let me wander out in the dead seas so long I forgot my name, and now you're going to . . .what? Save everyone?
"It's not enough you humiliated me, surpassed me, but you--"
[I can't save what we knew, Ka'Eo,] Tia'Ho replied. [I can't even save myself. I think you've misunderstood.
[I'm not going to save this ocean.
[I'm going to move it.]
* ~ *
The Kraken was finding the battle with the Raja difficult for two reasons. The first had to do with that damnable ringing all through his Auricontrol, flashing images and unfamiliar voices through his mind as he tried to kill his massive opponent. This was distracting, but he could ignore it if he concentrated hard enough on the matter at hand.
The Raja was smart--he understood the weakness of his people's abilities, and so all of the points where the connections would degenerate and become brittle were well protected by shells and coral, which degraded at a slower rate than the organic grafts the Bajak-Laut employed.
That made it easy, then, the Kraken thought.
Break through his armor and rip him apart from the inside out.
He let loose a volley of spikes, churning the massive creature's flesh into a mass of bloody pulp. The Raja cracked his whip-arm, its razor sharp bone stinger blocked by one of the Kraken's shields, leaving a great weeping gash in it.
The Kraken reeled with the pain--the Raja had something else going for him beyond size and mass after all.
"You've slaughtered my people," the Raja bellowed, lashing at him again.
The Kraken spun away, and the massive tail-ship shattered the coral outcropping behind him. The Kraken dove for the Raja's whip, slashing at it with his forearm blades and cutting deep. He found his speed had been somewhat limited--whatever poison the Raja's stinger had on it was preventing the wound from closing, and that hampered his maneuverability.
"And you've killed even more," The Kraken sneered. "And now that one of them dares to fight back, you act like you're innocent?"
The Raja lunched with his pincer hand, but the Kraken slipped to the side, using two of his tentacle-arms to squeeze his opponent's pincers shut.
"We do what we must to survive!" The Raja screamed, thrashing his claw and trying to throw the Kraken off. "We kill to live!"
The Kraken smashed at the trapped pincer arm with his fists, trying to break through the carapace. The blunt justification for these monsters' behavior sickened him, and he glared at his foe.
"Just that simple, is it? What about the lives you ruin?"
The Raja laughed.
"You think we care whether the things we kill have feelings?"
The Kraken smashed his hands into the armored claw again. Cracks were beginning to form, and he smashed at them with his fists and the point of his shields, causing them to spread. He dug his fingers into the broken carapace and tore it loose, exposing the grey-white flesh within, then began pounding it with his fists, shields and forearm blades. The Kraken assumed he'd found a tender spot, as the Raja thrashed and screamed, trying to throw him off. When that failed, he lashed the Kraken a few times with his whip-arm, but even though the stinger could damage the mantle, the Kraken wouldn't let go.
Berserk with pain, the Raja smashed his hand into one of the coral walls around them, sending the Kraken deep into the reef's roots. The Kraken reeled from the multiple impacts and felt his grip slipping as the coral that had been smashed loose buried him under an avalanche of debris.
He tried to move, but the Mantle wouldn't respond. Perhaps it was the poison, or the damage from the fight, or that damned buzzing in the Auricontroller that kept distracting him, but it was exhausted.
Shake it off, he willed. Everything was dark, and pressing down on him. He couldn't move at all.
Come on. You started this fight, and if you aren't careful, he'll finish it.
He could hear the Raja's legs skittering on the coral, felt the rocks shifting. The Raja was digging him out.
Only natural, the Kraken pondered. I challenged him, wiped out his horde. He won't rest until he sees me dead.
Light returned to the Kraken's world as the last of the debris was knocked away. The Raja's whip slithered around him, pinning him tight and pointing the stinger directly between the Kraken's eyes.
"Now, murderer," The Raja screamed. "Now, you'll suffer the vengeance of the Horde. You will die, and none of the horde will take any part of you. No one will eat you.
"You will die as . . . nothing."
The Raja's tail constricted around him. The stinger moved closer.
And with nothing else to do but wait for death, the Kraken finally paid attention to what the ringing in the Auricontrol was.
* ~ *
The waters began to rumble around them.
"What are you doing?" The Chimera demanded.
[This world can't be saved,] Tia'ho said. [But with what's here, I can make a new one, somewhere else.]
"Impossible!" The Chimera screamed. "I . . . I never designed the Mantles to have that capability. You can't do this."
[You may not have conceived it, but I found it. In the Mer, I was in contract with every part of this ocean. I reached into every part of it. Healed it. Rebuilt it.]
"The Mer was nothing, " the Chimera fumed. "Meaningless. A by-product of the technology. It was never meant to--"
[You never wanted your ultimate survivors to talk to each other, Ka'Eo?] Tia'ho remarked. [What were they meant to do, then?]
"They were meant to survive," he replied. "Survival is everything."
[Survival is meaningless, unless you can live, too.]
The coral underneath their feat now began to crack and shatter. The Chimera could feel the quakes penetrating to the very core of the world.
Everything was breaking apart.
Was she doing this? He could barely comprehend the power she held, and what he was seeing. The pain in his Auricontroller had dulled now, replaced with a quiet awe as the world began to break apart around them.
"No," he heard himself say, shaking with fury.
He lashed out, blasting Tia'Ho's form with beams of energy from his hands.
"I won't let you do this!" The Chimera screamed. "You have made a mockery of me! Made a mockery of my life! My SURVIVAL! And I won't tolerate it! I'll destroy you first!"
Tia'ho's body didn't move. All the blasts did was break off bits of her Auricontroller, but beyond that, there was no damage.
After all, she wasn't there anymore.
"THIS ISN'T WHAT I SURVIVED FOR!" The Chimera screamed. "I WON'T GIVE UP THIS WORLD!"
[Ka'Eo,] Tia'Ho said. [It's not your decision anymore. We're the last two left, and it's the end. Isn't it better to start again and give someone else a chance?]
"NO!" He railed. "I don't care about anyone else. There IS no one else! OUR SURVIVAL IS EVERYTHING! WE COULD OUTSIT ETERNITY!"
[For what? More of this? You said it yourself--our people are gone forever. There's nothing left of what we once were. That's done, it's gone.]
[I'd rather build something better.]
"I WON'T LET YOU!" The Chimera said, unhinged. He blasted Tia'Ho again, but her lack of reaction only fueled his rage more and more.
"BUILD ANOTHER WORLD AND I'LL TEAR IT DOWN! I WILL! I--"
The Chimera's hands fell like a puppet whose strings had been cut and he tumbled away, swept up in the rising current of the water. For all his rage and fury, Tia'Ho didn't wish him any harm. She understood his anger. He'd spent so long, locked into this narrow course that he didn't see another way out any more--what was now, was all that would be.
[This is how he survived,] she thought. [Living alone in a world of nightmares.]
She pitied him. Perhaps destroying him would have been kinder.
But she remembered he was one of her people, even if he didn't, and she had a duty to protect them.
And so she shut him off, and she discharged her duty at last.
Water began rushing up into open space, sheathed in brilliant energy, pulling coral, plants, Tia'ho's body, the Chimera, and other things into the void, hurling it as far as she could, feeling the exertion tear away at her consciousness as she carried it, hand over hand, to the other side of the universe. Behind it, the old world collapsed in on itself, crumbling in fiery cosmic dust.
Once the waters found their destination, she poured them into the shape of a sphere, a shimmering globe in the darkness, building the physical laws that would govern its existence to hold it together. Unlike its fellows, this would be no planetary body formed of rock and fire. This was something else, something unique--a vast ocean formed around a triad of coral, waters that would, after a long time, spawn life, building on the information from the waters of their former world. The beings that rose from that primordial soup could never comprehend the miraculous fact of their creation, born from a dead world incalculable light-years away.
This was the birth of the world-ocean.
* ~ *
Ihitai looked into Amisala's dead eyes with horror. He'd seen it all through the Auricontroller and, coupled with the images in his dreams, he'd put it all together at last. He knew what Amisala was. Or rather, what it wasn't anymore. Amisala wasn't Tia'Ho at all. Amisala was just whatever the Mantle had salvaged of itself when the waters had been moved, when Tia'Ho broke away from her physical form and fully dissolved.
Amisala was an empty shell--surviving, but not alive.
It turned away from him, her head twitching in pain. She'd thrown him out of her sphere of perception, and she floated there, confused about what do next.
No wonder you can't detect her, Ihitai thought to Cyan. There's nothing to there to detect.
[But how did we see . . .that?]
I guess the Mantle could still record it, Ihitai thought. Even damaged and without someone to control it, it . . .remembered, even if it doesn't know.
[The missing piece.]
Yes, Ihitai replied.
But I don't think it's the only one.
He watched the creature, floating and aimless in the water. Sometimes the mermedusae moved closer, as if in response to its commands. Ihitai watched them interact, putting more of it together.
There's enough of a connection that Amisala can control some of the sea life here, he thought. It may not have Tia'Ho's mind, but there's still some access in the genetic memory of everything here . . .the mermedusae respond to it because they're only a little more advanced than it is . . .
But what if Amisala tries to control the other sea life?
[I don't know,] Cyan said. [Amisala isn't doing it intentionally, they're just reacting to whatever she's putting out.]
So what do I do about it?
[I don't know, Ihitai. The only way I'm able to perceive her is based on the data your Auricontroller absorbed when you resonated. She's still barely there to me.]
It's all right, Ihitai said. I was asking myself.
He watched Amisala's head jerk back and forth, watching the action mirrored by some of the Mermedusae. He didn't hate the creature--how could he? Once upon a time and who only knew how long ago, the person who he owed his life to, who made the world in which he swam inhabited that body, transcended it, and now. . .
He felt pity for Amisala. It was broken, in pain, and to call it alive felt . . .cruel. He'd seen inside it and found only madness and suffering. A great black emptiness it couldn't ever fill.
He thought about letting it go. He didn't want to harm it. He didn't want to harm anyone, but seeing Amisala, learning what he knew . . .
But Amisala, whether it wanted to or not, was controlling the Mermedusa. Its awakening had caused them to rampage through the kelp forest, and without conscious control over them, Amisala could provoke rampages like this everywhere, never knowing the destruction it could spread.
And that meant she had to be stopped.
He felt a similar shiver to when he'd first thought of the dark depths below him, chased with the awful memory of the destruction of the mermedusa that had tried to kill him.
It wasn't my decision then, he remembered. The Mantle took over.
He glanced at Amisala, who continued to drift in the water, head lolling to and fro.
And that's all she is.
Amisala couldn't live on in pain. And Ceffyl and the other people of the reefs deserved to live in peace.
And Ihitai wanted to see his friend again.
But only he had the power to make that happen.
He steadied himself, letting his mind expand and access the Mantle's full power, setting aside the fear of its instincts and fully synchronizing with it. The only thing he carried with him was his resolve to protect this place, and the sorrow of what he felt he now must do.
And Ihitai committed to his decision.
Then he swam at Amisala at full speed, striking the surprised creature with full force and seizing it around the waist as they smashed through the kelp forest, as the maddened creature once again snared Ihitai in its tentacles. Ihitai ignored the burning venom, propelling the two of them through to the other side of the forest and smashing his opponent to the reef's floor, dragging it along as they tumbled along the jagged coral. Behind them, the mermedusae streamed back through the trails they'd blazed in the forest, forming a circle around them, just as they had when Amisala had emerged from her cave, bearing silent witness to their final battle.