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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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“Weren’t you listening, Adam?” asked Ramata. “The Drain is smack dab in the middle of Altern’s complex. Tiskaloons aren’t allowed there and you look enough like a Tiskaloon that you shouldn’t try to go there either, at least, not if you care for yourself. Adam, the Turtle just told you about the Drain so you’d be quiet and stop asking questions. I’m sorry, but you have to admit, there’s no going back. You got the answer to your question. Spot and I are both sorry it wasn’t what you wanted to hear.”

“Ramata’s right, Adam. You can’t just walk up to King Altern and ask to see the Drain. Let’s go back to Tiskaloo and figure out something else. It’s not the end of the world.”

Adam turned away and shook his head. “You can both go back. That’s fine. Go. Thanks for your help. I’m not going back. I’m going to find the Drain of the World and if that means I have to walk right up to King Altern and ask – then that’s what I have to do.”

“It’s suicide, Adam.”

“No, it isn’t. It’s taking charge of the only thing I really can control – my actions. You tell me, what else can I do?”

“Come back to Tiskaloo. We have options.”

“Or, come swim and study with my school.”

“And spend every day wondering what Altern has and if it might somehow get me back home? I can’t.”

Ramata and Spot looked at each other. Their eyes were rimmed with fear yet they both knew Adam was going to do whatever it took for him to get some questions answered. He was determined to go with or without them. Since they knew Adam had no idea of where he now was or how to get where he wanted to go – they decided they had no choice but to help him. As scared as they were, they had to help him.

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Spot nudged Adam’s back

“I’m here because I want to know where I can find land,” Adam said.

The Turtle looked at each of them before asking, “That’s it?”

Relief surged through Adam. This wasn’t so bad after all. He smiled. “That’s it.”

“Go outside the ship, back out into Ocean, and swim down until you can swim no further. Reach down and – when you hit something hard – that is land.” The Turtle began to swim up and away.

“Wait, wait!” Adam cried out. “Dry land!”

“Ohhh…well, that’s different.”

“A lot different, yes.”

“There isn’t any,” the Turtle said matter-of-factly and again attempting to swim up and away.

Ramata put a hand on Adam’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, Adam.”

He shrugged the water-folk off and swam up towards the Turtle. “There must be something!” Adam yelled. “An island somewhere…some…thing…,” his voice broke off into loud sobs.

“Please keep down the noise! I’m trying to leave this ship without becoming shark food!”

“I don’t care if the sharks come here! They can come eat the rest of me.”

The Turtle sighed and stopped swimming. “There’s another way, of course. Isn’t there always? If you want dry land, you must simply unplug the Drain of the World. But, since you can’t really do that, you won’t get any dry land. So, learn to enjoy Ocean and quit pining for that which cannot return. You’re alive, child. There is no greater gift for which to ask.”

“What’s the Drain of the World?”

“Dear child, my patience, and air, run thin.”

“Please, if there is any chance, any at all, I have to understand it.”

“And I’ve explained to you that there is no chance. The Drain sits in the middle of King Altern’s complex and is that which allows the King to rule over Ocean.”

“Ahem…,” Ramata interrupted.

“That which allows King Altern to rule over most of Ocean,” corrected the Turtle.

“But, what’s the Drain do?”

“What do any drains do? When unplugged, water flows through them. If the Drain of the World is unplugged, it would drain the water from Ocean.” All three of the travelers gasped and the Turtle continued. “I can no longer stay here. I must get air.” The Turtle swam off to a balcony set and disappeared into it.

Adam tried to call out further questions but the Turtle didn’t respond. He turned to Ramata and Spot. “You heard the Turtle.”

“Yes. I’m so sorry,” Ramata said again.

“Me too, Adam,” offered Spot. “Maybe you can join my school…if you didn’t want to live in Tiskaloo, that is.”

Adam couldn’t believe his ears. “What? Weren’t you listening? The Drain of the World! We’ve got to go!”

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Adam and Ramata broke from each other’s heated gaze and turned towards the stage. The curtain had parted a tiny bit and, right at the bottom, a tiny Turtle poked its tiny head through the tiny crack.

“Children, please, keep it down. Do you want all of Ocean to be privy to your ridiculous bickering?”

Ramata pushed Adam at his shoulder and whispered, “Told you.”

He turned to give a mean look but saw that Ramata was smiling. He smiled back. “Yeah, yeah, you told me.” The three swam over to the open curtain.

Chapter 16
Sometimes, a Turtle Finds You

The Turtle on the stage in between the red curtains’ gap was brown and green and oh-so-small.

“I thought you’d be bigger,” Adam said.

“And that, brilliant one, is what you get for thinking,” said the Turtle while slowly taking its time to look at each of them. “You three certainly make a ruckus. You do know that sharks hunt these waters?”

Adam put what was left of his foot in front of him and stuck the mangled mess into the Turtle’s face. The Turtle turned its head and frowned. “Then why must you yell?”

Adam explained, “I didn’t think you were here and I was beginning to get angry.”

“And mean,” added Ramata.

“Well, I heard every moment, loud and clear.”

“You were here and you didn’t say anything?” said Adam, anger again threatening to overtake him.

“Where else would I be? You kept talking. I kept listening. Interrupting another’s conversation quite rude and the like.” The little Turtle, no bigger than Adam’s hand, crawled out from behind the curtains and swam up to look Adam in the face. “Now, you must answer me in haste for I need to surface for a long, long breath. Why are you here?”

Boldly presented with THE question and being on the spot to answer, Adam drew a blank. He looked at the little creature in front of him but was unable to say a single word.

“Speak, child, or you will surely have cause to scream and yell about being alone with no Turtle around. Why…are you here?”

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“Were there many of these ships?” asked Ramata.

Spot spoke up . “This isn’t the first floater I’ve seen. First one I’ve ever been in though.”

“Ramata, what are we waiting for?” Adam tried to bring them back to their point for being there in the first place.

“Were there many of these ships?” Ramata asked again.

“Oh, jeez, I dunno,” Adam replied, annoyed. “A hundred maybe?”

“Oh…”

Adam noticed a hint of uncertainty in Ramata’s voice. “What, Ramata? What is it?”

“It’s just…well, I thought…I hoped this was the only ship.”

“Why?”

“Um, what if a Turtle isn’t in this one?”

“You don’t know if there is a Turtle is in this ship? You brought us here to see a Turtle, right?”

“Well, maybe it doesn’t live here, and goes from floater to floater – if there were so many of them. Maybe that’s how Turtles stay  hidden, keep their bubbles of mystery around them, you know? Or maybe Turtles just get tired of the same old floaters all the time and go to new ones, looking for new things.”

Adam’s face turned pink then red. The ocean water flushed cool against his warm, angry face.

Spot warned, “Don’t yell, Adam.”

“I’m not going to yell,” Adam said, his voice rising anyway. He turned that voice towards Ramata. “Where’s the Turtle, Ramata? You brought us all the way out here. My foot is ruined! And I still don’t see anyone or anything that can help me find land!” He swam over and got in Ramata’s face. “Where’s the Turtle?!”

Adam grabbed Ramata by the shoulders. Ramata turned and bit his fingers. “Don’t you ever do that to me!” The water-folk swam away. “I didn’t guarantee you anything. How could I?”

“Children,” came a voice from behind them.

“Shut up, Spot!” both of them yelled out, still glaring at each other.

“Uh, that wasn’t me,” said Spot from above them. “Look. There on stage.”

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