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Ahead in the distance Adam noticed a break in the grid. The manta turned and swam towards this clearing. Adam saw that the clearing was actually a large, rock shelf that stretched out over a shallow basin. The tight grid of coral hovels resumed on the other side of the basin.

The manta stopped directly above the clearing and the urchins up top signaled the net’s release. The thick, dark ropes tumbled downward and the net, along with everyone in it, drifted downward. Adam, Ramata, and Spot climbed out of the top and swam down to the clearing.

While the net full of urchins touched down, Adam took in the immensity of his surroundings. This was indeed a complex. Building after drab building as far as the eye could see and in every possible direction. Adam then heard some scuffling behind him. He turned to see a pile of urchins forming around Ramata and Spot. The urchins rolled up each other’s backs to form walls to separate the three friends.

Adam heard Ramata cry out once, but only once. He didn’t hear any noise at all from Spot. Adam himself was soon enclosed within a dark shell of living urchins. A shaft of light then broke through the walls, then another, and another as Adam’s urchin cell began to dismantle itself. By the time Adam could again see around, most of the urchins that had been on the clearing were nowhere to be seen. He watched the few stragglers roll off down the tight streets – maybe they were headed home. Only one urchin remained on the clearing with Adam, Admiral Pinch.

“Where are my friends?”

“Safe. Away, away.”

Adam clenched his fists. “What have you done with them?”

“These are the King’s orders: ‘Leave the child, take the other two.’ I don’t question my King.”

“I have a question for your King.”

“Oh, you do?”

“Yes, I must ask him something.”

“Then, by all means, you should ask her.” Admiral Pinch barked then rolled away from the shelf lip, his spikes twitching with laughter.

“Her?” Adam asked.

Pinch, with shrill excitement, replied, “Yes, child. I present to you, for all your precious questioning, Her Royal Wetness, the Lady King Altern.”

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Chapter 18
A Complex Of Strict Arrangments

The urchins chattered and chittered at Adam’s bold behavior. Pinch himself seemed unsure of how to respond. “Uh…very well then,” Pinch finally managed to chirp out. He then barked so loudly that everyone jumped, Adam included. A few seconds later, a group of urchins left on-board the manta let down a large, weighted net. The urchins at the bottom rolled away to allow for the net to spread out completely as it came to rest.

When the net settled, the urchins rolled onto it, fighting each other for space while rolling on top of one another. Once the entire mess of urchins squeezed together, Pinch turned to the three and asked, “To Altern?”

Ramata hesitated. Adam said to the water-folk, “It’s the only way.” After some hesitation, Ramata followed Adam into the milling mass. Spot was close behind. Pinch then barked again, abrupt and loud enough to frighten the three outsiders.

The manta took off at a slow pace. Immediately, the net curled up around them all, jostling the urchins about while they chattered and chittered and cursed each other’s presence. Adam, Ramata, and Spot were the lucky ones in this situation. Because they could swim, they could stay close to the top of the closed net and away from the pile of urchins that collected at the net’s bottom. Glad for a chance to rest after their long journey, Adam grabbed the netting and held tight, letting the water rush past him as the manta carried them to where, despite the obvious dangers, he hoped to do what he could to get back home.

The manta swam over row upon row of the urchins’ coral hovels. Adam wondered how many there were, spread out below, surrounding Altern’s complex. At first, the hovels were spaced at regular intervals, perhaps a few hundred yards between them. As they approached their destination, however, the hovels had less and less space between them. Soon, the manta swam over nothing but hovels, all perfectly lined up with just enough space between them to let a single urchin roll through. “This is huge…how many do you think there are?” Adam asked Spot.

“Too many, Adam,” Spot said. “Far too many.”

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In the distance, Adam could already see a manta coming their way. Admiral Pinch and the Urchin Army were no doubt atop the manta, delighted at the prospect of handing over such vile trespassers to King Altern.

“Look, Spot, seem familiar?” Adam directed Spot’s attention to the manta.

Spot sighed. “Our old friend, Admiral Pinch.”

The manta stopped a good distance above the three travelers. Adam, Ramata, and Spot looked up at the manta’s underside. Urchins dropped off the manta, at first one-by-one, then they plummeted in droves, slowly sinking to Ocean’s floor, landing on top of each other, and rolling around to claim a spot of individual space.

Soon, the urchins covered all the seabed around, where they chattered and barked amongst themselves.

“We could still swim for it,” said Adam. “These things can’t follow.” Wide-eyed and nervous, Ramata looked with hope at Adam. The water-folk turned to Spot.

“We’ll be fine here,” Spot said. Hope drained from Ramata’s face.

The last few urchins dropped off the manta like paratroopers without any chutes. On Ocean’s floor, one urchin among the many rolled its way to a front-most position. The other urchins quieted.

“And I thought taking you home would be the last I saw of you,” chittered Admiral Pinch.

“Well, Admiral, as a wise Turtle once told me, ‘That’s what you get for thinking.’” Adam said with a smile.

“Snarky, water-man. You may be certain that Altern will fix that part of you.”

“Good, good,” Adam said with no hesitation. Ramata and Spot looked at each other, unnerved by the cool, even tone in Adam’s voice. “I hope you take us to the King soon. That’s why we’re here, after all.” Ramata smacked Adam on the shoulder but he refused to acknowledge it and went on with his steady-handed charade. “Are we ready to go? Don’t you think you’ve kept us waiting long enough?” Even Adam was surprised at his confidence and surety. He knew answers were close.

“I warned you once, child, about your impudence. Don’t-”

“Admiral, take us to King Altern or leave us be to find the King ourselves. There will be no more talking.”

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“Ugh! Urchins.” Ramata looked unsettled. No sooner did the water-folk get out the words then the eel from inside the hovel swam out. It took off along Ocean’s floor, rapidly undulating its way along a path towards the next hut. The three of them watched as the eel entered the next hut and then it, plus another eel, exited. One eel continued straight ahead while the other eel slithered towards the hut to its left.

“What’re they doing?”

Spot answered, “Raising an alarm!”

“We’ve got to hide!” Ramata said. “Adam, you’ve got your wish. We’ll be at Altern’s complex soon enough!”

Adam tried to calm her down. “Please, don’t worry.”

“How can I not worry? I’m so far away from where I’m supposed to be!”

“What the worst that King Altern could do? Send you back to Tiskaloo?

“Eh, nopes! The King will probablies kill yins!” The two urchins from the hut below had rolled out to see what was going on above. “All yins, water-folk. Everyones knows water-folk’s not allowed outsides the Tiskaloo.”

“I’m not a-,” Adam stopped himself from telling the urchin that he wasn’t Tiskaloon. If Altern did plan to kill water-folk, better Adam was with Ramata than not. Together they might be able to escape.

“Notta whats, you filthy cuss?”

“Not afraid of King Altern!”

The urchin barked a short laughed and said, “Dumbs and uglies,” then rolled back inside the hut. The other urchin just sat there, staring, not saying anything.

Adam didn’t want to put his friends in any further danger, “Should we run?”

“Yins can’ts just gets outta the here, briny half-breed,” came the urchin’s voice from inside. “Words is out. Yins the here and that’s the thats. Alls the outposts know yins here. Unless yins wants to be tortured and maimed before yins killed, smarter to stays right the there.”

Ramata gasped and Adam joked, “More waiting, Ramata. Like every other thing we’ve done so far.”

“Adam, how can you joke now? This is dangerous.”

“My school says, ‘Life is danger.’ We’re in no more danger now than if we tried to run.”

“AH! Stupid fish talks smarts. Must helps to bes in schools that tells yins how to thinks. S’okeys, thoughs. I’m justs teasing yins. Altern real nices. Yins’ll sees. Everybody maybe lives a little longer.”

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The trip to Altern’s complex was laborious and fraught with many missteps. After hours of swimming in a single direction, Ramata would notice something, some clue or other, that would force them to backtrack and often change directions. It wasn’t that the complex was hidden, or even that hard to find, but since none of them knew where to go – trying to find the place proved much harder than they’d expected.

Had they seen anyone along the way, they might have been able to ask for directions. Trouble was, they saw no one at all. A few solitary, sea cucumbers watched the trio as they swam overhead and, at one point, what Adam though was the shadow of a manta turned out to be a sand shark shuffling around under its silty cover.

Finally, after all the turnarounds and misdirection, it became obvious to them that they were getting close to something. Along Ocean’s floor, spread out according to someone’s plan, small hovels built from coral began to crop up. The first few that appeared didn’t register with the group. But after noticing four or five, Adam spoke up.

“Slow down a sec.”

Ramata, never eager to slow their pace, wanted an explanation.

“Just look down there,” Adam pointed.

“At the coral?” asked Spot.

“And over there,” Adam pointed further away, where another of the coral huts sat in the distance. “And back there.” He pointed back the way they’d come.

Now Ramata was interested. “We must be getting close to something. It’s like a grid…”

Ramata was right. The huts were laid out in a grid. Directly under Adam, Ramata, and Spot was one of the coral boxes. A quarter mile or so to their left, to their right, ahead of, and behind them, were exact duplicates.

“What do you think they are?” asked Spot.

“We’ll never know from way up here. Let’s go look.” Ramata lead the way down to the small building below them. The group got closer and Ramata went all the down to look inside the hut. Two spiny urchins sat together within it. There were also a few plants inside growing from the ocean floor and in one corner of the hut was a cage holding an eel.

One of the urchins caught Ramata peeking into one of the hut’s four windows (one on each wall) and immediately barked something. Ramata didn’t understand and couldn’t respond so instead swam back up to the hut roof top where Adam and Spot waited.

“There are urchins in there!”

“Great! That means we must be close,” Adam smiled.

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Chapter 17
Altern’s Complex

Luck was with the trio as they escaped the confines of Big Ruins. The frenzied sharks were nowhere to be seen and the waters all around greeted them with an eerie calm. They followed the length of the ship to its bow and headed into the open expanse of Ocean ahead.

Ramata and Spot had no idea how long it would take to get to King Altern. Neither had before been anywhere near the complex and could only guess as to distances (or even directions). They instead looked for signs along the way that offered them clues about where to go next. The only reason Ramata suggested their current direction was because last time she was near Big Ruins, there was a manta swimming by. Ramata had seen the sharks then, too, of course, but they weren’t a surprise. The waterfolk also glimpsed the Turtle, which was a big surprise. Ramata stayed hidden from the manta and the Urchin Army, but did remember which way the manta swam off. So, that‘s the direction they loosely followed. Whether or not this direction would lead to King Altern they could only hope. And hope kept them moving forward.

Though the way was slow and mostly unremarkable, Adam kept his complaints and impatience to himself. He knew that Ramata and Spot were putting themselves in serious danger by coming along with him. Their fear made him slightly wary of what he was getting himself into, entering Altern’s complex unannounced, but he was determined to find the Drain. He was also determined to keep his friends with him as long as possible so he kept his mouth shut and the three swam quietly through Ocean.

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Adam stared and shrugged his shoulders.

“Oh, I’m sure of it. Water-man gets cursed by a wicked Turtle or eel, falls asleep, woken by the kiss of a water-lass, herself on the run from a tyrannical mother. You should know this; typical Tiskaloon lore, full of unbearable wisdom.” The Admiral carefully watched Adam for some response and getting none said, “No? Well, no matter.” Pinch turned away from Adam and toward some nearby urchins. “The recruits are on their way. We’ve got 150 with another 100 promised upon return. Prep the manta for Tiskaloo. Our fears our confirmed. The cry was human and the Tiskaloons must answer for its whereabouts.”

These last words stuck in Adam’s head. The Urchin Army thought he was already in Tiskaloo! He breathed easy. Adam watched the underling urchins roll off to carry out the Admiral’s orders. Then the Admiral hoisted himself up onto the bench next to Adam. “We’re finally going to get you home. I bet you’re ready for that.”

“Yes, I am,” said Adam.

“What are you most excited to see, water-man? The Hydean heat vents, or perhaps the rock monument at Kimball’s Rift? Oh, do tell me.”

Pinch was prodding Adam. He must be on to him. Surely, he’d watched Adam swim off to the kelp or during his return to the manta. But, rather than get drawn into Pinch’s game, Adam decided to tell the truth.

“I miss my family,” he said. “I’m most excited to see them again.” Well, it was true, wasn’t it? Pinch didn’t press Adam or poke fun, but rather quietly sat. The two sat together for a bit, neither one speaking or moving. Finally, frustrated and uncomfortable, Adam did what Spot told him to avoid. He spoke.

“Admiral, why did we stop here?”

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Adam sighed. The whole world was turned upside down and now, here he was, taking orders from a fish. He didn’t like the idea of returning to the manta but he liked even less the idea of being found out as a faker by Pinch and the Urchin Army.

“OK,” Adam finally said. “I’m going back up there.”

“Gooood luuuuck,” said the starfish who, up until this point, had remained silent. Adam was about to say thanks but Spot cut him off in an unusually bitter tone.

“Shh. Don’t talk to that thing. Have you been speaking to it?” And then to Lettles, “Get out of here. You’re going to give us away. Go do your job.”

Adam reminded himself to ask Spot why he was so mean to the starfish. Lettles, however, paid Spot no mind. It simply turned around and ambled back into the kelp.

“NOW GO!” Spot yelled to Adam.

Adam shot up into the water that bordered the forest edge. There were plenty of fish swimming about so he was able to make his way from one group to the other in a zig-zag line up to the manta. None of the urchins paid any attention to him at all. Adam had sneaked off, and back onto, the manta under Admiral Pinch’s command without any trouble whatsoever!

Chapter 8
An Admiral Explanation

Back on the bench, Adam positioned himself so that it looked like he’d been sleeping the whole time Admiral Pinch was off the manta. He was lying down, hands under his head, when Pinch returned to check up on him. The sound of shrill, urchin barking “woke” Adam and he sat up.

“A-ha! The sleepy water-man wakes,” Pinch said. “Isn’t there a children’s tale about that?”

 


 

Today marks, give or take a bit, the halfway mark in this experiment. To those reading and commenting and sending e-mails about the story, thank you! If you are one of those folks enjoying the tale thus far, I’d love for you to share it with your friends and family. If you’re not that into it, that’s OK too. I get it! Thanks, as always, for your eyeballs and time.

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No one here had ever seen a human so no one considered that he might be one. Adam guessed that might not be such a bad thing after all so he changed the subject. “Why do you work here, Lettles?”

“Dooooo I haaaaveee aaaa chooooiiice?”

Adam, surprised by the starfish’s answer, didn’t know what to say. He opened his mouth several times but closed it every time he thought he had an appropriate reply. No response seemed sufficient. He wanted to say, “Yes, of course you have a choice,” but then he remembered his own inability to refuse Admiral Pinch’s offer and wondered how much of a choice the starfish had after all.

A familiar striped face and speedy voice darted into the kelp forest.
“AdamamIgladtoseeyouareyouallrightcomeonwegottagetyououttahere!” It was Spot, excited as ever. Spot’s eyes tried to take in everything at once, he was so nervous.

“Spot!” Adam cried. “I’m glad to see you, too.”

“Cmoncmoncmon,” Spot spouted while swimming in circles around Adam. “I saw Admiral Pinch getting ready to board the manta.”

Adam gasped and swam to the edge of the kelp. He looked up to the manta and, sure enough, members of the Urchin Army were loading large, kelp-packaged supplies and newly “recruited” urchins up onto the manta’s back. Adam didn’t see the Admiral but didn’t doubt Spot.

“Well, where are we going to run?”

“Run? Running requires legs! But anyway, we’re not running anywhere. You need to get back onto the manta!” Spot said.

“What? No way. I’m not going back there. I thought you were here to help.”

“I am. But, if you ride to Tiskaloo with the urchins you’re guaranteed to get there safely. You and I alone is a much more dangerous plan.”

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“An Army farm? You mean…th-they grow urchins? For the Army? Adam began to think that leaving the manta wasn’t such a good idea after all. “What do you do here?”

“Iiiiii’mmmmm aaaaa faaaaarrrrmerrrr. Lllllleeeettlllleeees’sssss mmmyyyyyyy naaaame-,” here Lettles the starfish stuttered, which sounded most bizarre to Adam’s ears considering how slowly the starfish already spoke, “-eerrrr, Iiii meeannn nnummmbeeeerr Twwwooo Fiiivveeee Eeeiiighhhht Twooooo.”

“You don’t have to give my your number, Lettles. I’m not with the Army.”

“But Iiiii saaawww yooouuu coooooommme dowwwwnnnn froooommm theeee mmmmmaaaaannnttttaaaa tooooo iiiinnnssspeeecct mmmmmyyyy wwwooorrrrk.”

“No,” Adam corrected, “I came down because Admiral Pinch left. He is holding me on board. I escaped.” At this, Lettles gasped and each of his five appendages curled up to cover its mouth, forgetting that he was using two of those appendages to prop itself up. The starfish fell right over onto its back. Adam moved to help Lettles.

“Yyyyoooouuu hhhaaavveee toooooo llleeeaavvveee. Yoooouuuu’rrrree aaaaa ddaaannngggeeerrr toooo uussss allll.”

“I’m not going anywhere yet. I’m waiting for a friend of mine who will know what to do.” Adam nervously peeked out into the open water beyond the cover of the kelp. No sign of Spot. He darted a glance up towards the manta. It didn’t seem to be moving – yet. He hoped Spot hurried.

“Aaarreeee yoouuuuu trrryyyiinngg toooo gggeeett hooommmmmee?” asked Lettles from behind him. The question surprised Adam. He was trying to get home and he wondered how Lettles could know that. But then he remembered that everyone thought he was water-folk and home was Tiskaloo. Adam was slow to respond and when he finally did he simply said, “Yes, I am.”

“Wwwwwweeeeelll, Tisskaaaaloooo’sss nooot thaaat farrrr awwwaaayyyy. Iiiifff yooouuuu cuuut throoouuuugh theeee fooorrressstt, thhhhaaaat iisss…”

“I’m not-” Adam began, then figured it would be too dangerous to explain otherwise.

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