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User:Bryan/Manta

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Manta

Author: Bryan

I peered out through the wall of the tank, trying to make out the details of the room beyond. The glass made it blurry, or perhaps it was just my eyes. A lot of things were a little blurry right now.

My memory seemed reasonably clear, at least, though I was having a lot of trouble making sense of many of the things I could remember. I closed my eyes and tried to focus more calmly, letting myself drift and breathe in a relaxing rhythm. Still feels weird but try to get over that for now, I berated myself. Think back. How did I get into this mess...

The Coral Queen, of course. At first the starship glittering against the solid black of space looked small when viewed through the window of the shuttle; it floated like a tiny solitary jewel, almost lost beside the vast blue-white arc of the planet Talcott. This was a deceptive illusion. Talcott was, by most definitions, a relatively "small" world; it had been colonized only a few centuries ago. The Coral Queen on the other hand was one of the largest starships there was. Its solitude in the sky was telling; Talcott had no orbiting facilities of comparable size for her to dock with during her visit.

Like the vast majority of Talcans I had never really looked outward much to the stars. Our civilization was well into the period of life where our society focused inward, developing our own culture and identity after the influx of colonists abated. It was a well-recognized pattern and I for one was quite satisfied with my life here. But that didn't mean the outside universe held no interest at all, and when ships came calling there was always a long line of people who wanted to have a look.

As I watched the Coral Queen slowly grow and the details of its kilometer-wide spherical hull begin to resolve, I was far more excited than I had expected I would be. I'd won a ticket in the tour lottery and initially I'd been undecided over whether to use it myself or sell it. But though I was still young at twenty nine, what were the odds I'd get a chance to see a ship like this again? Money was money, but this would be a unique experience.

Why couldn't I have sold the ticket and still taken the tour? I paused in my recollections for a moment trying to figure out why I hadn't done that... Oh, right, because I wouldn't have had the ticket any more. I bobbed my head slightly, the closest I could manage to a frustrated shake. The ticket wasn't a physical object, just a record in a computer, so I'd momentarily lost track of that implication. Stupid.

The shuttle docked near one of the ship's poles, where the rotation and the pseudogravity it provided were imperceptible. The only other time I'd been in space had been a suborbital passenger flight, where the weightlessness had lasted a matter of minutes and I'd been strapped to a seat the entire time, so at first I was tremendously clumsy. Fortunately the thirty others who had shared this flight with me were similarly inexperienced, and I was able to take my time getting used to it before debarking. The crewman who met us at the hatch was recognizable both by his blue and white uniform and by the bemused expression on his face as he expertly herded our fumbling group into a loose cluster in the airlock chamber.

He'd seemed quite friendly, eager and proud to show us around. I was happy the crew of the Coral Queen was giving tours at all, and I tried hard to be a good compliant guest. She wasn't really intended for such activities, wasn't intended for much of a human presence at all in fact. Most of the Coral Queen's interior was the domain of the mantas.

Everyone learned about these things as part of ancient history in school and on a planet like Talcott it usually stayed there. I'd refreshed my memory on the subject before coming aboard, though, and remembered quite clearly. When humanity had first begun traveling in space, our technology was severely limited; the speed of light was an unapproachable barrier and it seemed that our technology would never be able to find a way around it. We'd eventually managed to send explorers to a handful of the nearest solar systems anyway, though. Several of them had planets with life, and the oceanic world of Mohandess turned out to have intelligent life too.

The mantas resembled the manta rays of Earth, though several times larger. Once communication had been established it was quickly discovered that they had a sophisticated oral culture - one that was surprisingly comprehensible to humanity, despite the tremendous differences in their form and lifestyle. The mantas likewise were quite fascinated by humans and they settled in to study each other in detail. Mantas were completely lacking in tool-using capabilities, both thanks to the shape of their bodies and to the oceanic terrain of Mohandess. Having seen what human technology could do, however, they desired its fruits tremendously. Humans on the other hand found that despite the surprising familiarity of manta psychology the manta nervous system was nearly incomprehensible. One of its abilities turned out to be a unique ability to navigate a vehicle through a subspace realm at velocities far greater than light. How, exactly, was not known; the mantas themselves hadn't been aware of their own ability until helped to discover it. The most profitable partnership in history was born, and for millennia humans and mantas had been traveling the stars together. Most ships had only a single manta pilot and served primarily human interests, but some - the biggest - were bases for whole populations of mantas and a manta elder to pilot them.

That was why the Coral Queen was mostly full of water, I remembered, and felt my frustration fade a bit in the face of my satisfaction at being able to follow that particular chain of logic so easily. Understanding that made my memories of the tour itself much clearer. The ship had several truly enormous tanks filling the bulk of its interior, a number of somewhat smaller ones, and huge water-filled tubes connecting them all; the corridors we were led through wove between them and in some cases seemed fairly cramped. But there was still plenty of room for humans on board a ship that big, more than enough for visitors to get lost in.

I remembered my first view of the mantas. The corridor passed a long window with a vast blue-tinted chamber beyond, the water's rippled silvery surface far above, curving slightly in the ship's centrifugal gravity. Indistinct shapes floated slowly through the blue, their huge flexible "wings" beating with lazy grace. I had a hard time focusing past my reflection in the glass to make out any detail.

I opened my eyes again and tried to focus on the glass that was in front of me. There was no reflection now, and I spent a while trying to figure out why not. I knew that I knew it, something about index of refraction, but I just couldn't grab hold of the right facts in my head and bring them together. My frustration increased.

I had separated from the rest of the group at some point, and I couldn't figure out the reason for that either. Oh, I knew what I was thinking at the time; we'd been on the ship for many hours, we were running out of things to see on this once-in-a-lifetime visit, and I hadn't got a chance to see the manta elder who I knew was on board. Everyone in the crew that I'd met had been really laid-back about everything so far, and we'd already been wandering virtually unattended for a while. I figured, what's the worst that could happen? I'd be careful, I'd be polite...

Had I done something stupid? I couldn't tell, not in my current state. I'd found my way through to one of the smaller tanks, out onto a platform that was on the edge of the water's surface. There hadn't been any locked doors, just narrow corridors with the lights turned low - I didn't feel like I was anywhere truly off-limits. And in the water below, I could just barely make out the huge grey shape of the biggest manta I'd seen yet. A full-grown female reached 25 meters across from wingtip to wingtip. It was hard to judge the scale, but she must have been at least that large. The tank had a hatch in the side large enough for her to pass through, but it was closed; this was a private chamber. It had to be her.

I knelt by the edge of the water and peered down at her for several minutes, feeling rather awed. Mantas lived over a thousand years, so I was in the presence of an intelligence who'd been born long before Talcott had been colonized. I didn't think it would be appropriate to disturb her, so I just watched.

There were three much smaller shapes down there with her, and when I first noticed them I thought perhaps they were males; male mantas were much smaller than females and I hadn't seen any on board yet that I was aware of. But I quickly realized they were people. They swam oddly, though, and I remembered wondering if they were using some sort of SCUBA apparatus I was unfamiliar with; they each seemed to have a grey skinsuit with a pair of small wing-fins that appeared similar to the mantas' and I thought perhaps they were dressed that way out of respect. One of the people stood out from the others thanks to her red hair, and I found myself watching her most closely. She swam quite gracefully with the two big fins alone, her legs trailing behind her. She rolled, revealing a lovely figure under the thick "manta suit," and despite the distorting ripples of the water's surface I could have sworn she looked right at me with a grin. I distinctly remembered noticing with surprise that there were what looked like gill slits on her suit's chest, just like a real manta.

Then something made a sudden splash nearby, jolting my attention away from the redhead just long enough to realize that the elder manta had been slowly rising nearer to the surface without me noticing. Then the tip of the manta's tail struck me from behind, throwing me into the water with a startled yelp. I went under, disoriented and struggling to get back to the surface for air, but the huge form of the manta elder swept over me and there was a tremendous thrumming vibration...

I thrashed against the water in my small chamber, the intensity of the experience momentarily overwhelming me so much that I forgot it was just a memory. My heart was beating wildly; the fear of drowning was still amazingly strong even now. I forced myself to hold still with an act of sheer will, gulping deep breaths to calm myself. It took many minutes for me to have the presence of mind to recognize and appreciate the irony.

I didn't know how long the manta elder held me, but I finally broke away - or she released me - and I struggled desperately towards the rippling silver sky. My clothing was shredded and I felt like a hundred pounds of waterlogged cloth were dragging on my arms and tangling my legs. One of the women swept past me, gliding through the water on her curved wing fins, almost cutting me off. I was terrified and furious at her for not helping, and I think I screamed. She seemed to shrug and banked away. I surged out of the water and back onto the ledge, flopping chest-first onto the floor with my arms spread wide and feeling like they were weighed down with lead. I gasped for breath and started coughing.

Something was seriously awry, and once I was out of the water I started to finally register the weirdness of what I was feeling. My skin felt hot, despite being wet, and I tingled. My legs weren't just tangled up in cloth, they felt like they'd been glued together. And my arms... I turned my head with difficulty, my neck oddly stiff, and stared in dull shock at the glistening grey surface of the wing-fin that had somehow been fastened over it while I was under water. I struggled for a moment trying to lift myself off the floor, but the weight and stiffness of those wings hampered the movement of my arms too much. And I was still having trouble breathing. Panic began to rise in my gut again as I lay there gasping, my chest feeling clogged and the air starting to burn in my throat.

By the time the manta elder swept me back into the pool with her tail again I felt like I was dying, and the surge of water into my mouth was such a relief that I sucked several deep breaths of it before I realized what I was doing. I was breathing in water, and when I exhaled it didn't come out my mouth again; it streamed out through slits across my chest. Once it dawned on me I twisted clumsily in an attempt to make a dash for the surface again.

Someone laughed, the voice so distorted I barely recognized it at first, and one of the manta-women swam by; the redhead. "Dumb buck! You can't breathe air any more, you want to keep trying?" I stared at her in silence, overwhelmed by all the shocks and just barely able to make out her words. Now that I could see her clearly I could tell that she wasn't human, despite her human contours; what I'd thought was a rubbery skinsuit was actually her real skin. Her legs were fused together, the huge wing-fins flexed just like a real manta's when she swam, and the slits on her chest opened slightly with every breath of water to reveal gill cavities. Her head was more human, but even there the differences were now obvious.

And the same thing seemed to have happened to me, too. I was speechless, and could only float there waving my arms weakly to keep myself vertical while the two other manta-people approached to circle me as well. They were all women; there was the redhead, one with short brown hair, and one with longer brown hair. The one with longer hair grinned, making her overly broad mouth seem even broader. "Didn't get undressed before coming in," she murmured.

The redhead laughed again. "Let's help the poor dumb boy!" With a powerful flap of her fins she swept in close, making a grab with her teeth for a torn flap of cloth from what little clothing still clung to me. I managed a strangled yelp, but my attempts to dodge or defend myself were completely useless; I wasn't used to how my legs were fused together yet and my arms felt trapped 'inside' the fins. I flapped clumsily as the other manta-women started following the redhead's lead, unable to get away from them as their bodies brushed past mine and the tatters were stripped from me.

Despite the nightmarish and incomprehensible situation I was in, though, I was startled to find myself responding strongly to their weird attractiveness. It only made me more confused and frightened, though, and I whimpered. "I think he likes us," The redhead snickered.

Then a new voice came rumbling up from below, deeply resonant but still somehow female as well. "Sara, quit it," the manta elder chided firmly. The three instantly banked away, leaving me trembling alone and naked in the middle of the tank as the elder rose to my level. She was moving slowly and seemed a little tired. "Let me see how I did."

I'd never heard a manta speak before or even been the focus of attention of one, let alone one as big as this, and a sense of awe managed to edge out some of the fear. She was huge and she positively exuded authority; I felt positively puny floating there in front of her intent gaze. I tried to wrap arms modestly around myself, but the fins they had become barely curled far enough for me to touch their tips together. The elder emitted a low noise that I interpreted as a chuckle. "I take it you're Talcan," she said at last, "and have no idea what's going on."

I shook my head as vigorously as I could considering how stiff my neck was now and tried to speak; all I managed was "Nnn, nnn!" but considering how I'd only been breathing water for a few minutes now I guess it wasn't too bad. The elder understood the obvious gist, at least.

"Our people are much in demand for our unique skill at piloting your ships," she explained, "but we are long-lived and slow to mature, and few oceans are suitable for bearing children in. But it turns out there are other ways that mantas can reproduce, not so widely known about among your people." I got a distinct sense that the elder was grinning somehow, despite her inscrutable 'face.' "Like our piloting ability, it is one we did not know the full use of until we met your people. On Mohandess elders used it to adopt other mantas into their clans, but the effects are rather more subtle in that case."

At the time, I remembered fully understanding the first half of what the elder had said but not the second; now in retrospect I found the situation reversed. Obviously, one of the abilities that mantas had - manta elders only, in this particular case - was the ability to reshape people in their own image. Obviously. I drew a watery sigh and rippled my fins lightly against the floor of my chamber, remembering how it felt to have arms and hands and fingers and missing them terribly. I didn't worry about not understanding how they did it, since I knew mantas did things that nobody in the universe understood.

The other part was one of those things which I remembered finding obvious at the time, but which I now had to work to figure out. She said mantas are slow to mature, and that they're in demand by people for flying ships. That means... ah! Humans are fast to mature, so they breed quicker. Their population grows faster than mantas, so there's always too few mantas to fly enough ships for them. I nodded, satisfied that it made sense. I knew I'd come to this conclusion before but I kept forgetting how. Perhaps I'd be more confident about it next time.

"These women," the elder tilted her body slightly to look up at the three manta-women clustered a short distance away, "are spacers who have volunteered to become pilots. I imagine it must be a difficult thing to choose, to become so different from what one was born as, and I honor their choice greatly; all mantas do. They will be welcomed as sisters once their transition period is passed."

I looked up at the three, half-human faces smiling with varying degrees of smugness, and a bit of anger managed to blossom through my layers of fear and confusion. "Nnn, nnnaht me!" I managed to spit out. "Nno 'olunteer!"

The elder's attitude became condescending. "Well, no. Males never do volunteer, in fact it's not allowed. But male manta pilots are in even more demand than females, especially in certain important capacities. Males are smaller, they can fly in faster and tighter eddies, they... well, you'll see." The elder manta descended slightly, coming nearer, and I clumsily attempted to shy away. "The reason why it's not normally allowed to convert males, though, is that unlike how it is with humans... male mantas are significantly less intelligent than females."

I glanced up at the manta-women again; the two whose names I didn't know had switched to slightly more sympathetic smiles, but Sara's show of smugness was even greater now. I turned back to the elder with a sense of growing horror and shook my head, squirming as if I could somehow rip my legs back apart or pull my arms out of the fins they felt like they were trapped in with sheer force. "No! Wan' change back!"

"But then we'd be short a male pilot, wouldn't we?" The elder gave a booming laugh, not malicious but certainly not kind. "In any case, I think it'll be better if we skip any more transition period for you now. I know it'll be rough for you, but in the long term it'll all work out. And I'm in a bit of a hurry."

I'd had perhaps ten minutes at most to get used to the drastic alterations that had been done to my body, but it only took me seconds to figure out how to flap my fins fast enough to surge away from the elder. She was huge and the tank we were in was small, relatively speaking, but there was no way I was just going to float there and let her touch me again. For a giddy, panicked moment I thought perhaps I could keep away from her; even inexperienced with this weird shape as I was I had a definite agility advantage. I headed for the surface, thinking of perhaps somehow calling for help.

"Girls, a little help?" The elder asked with bemusement. The three manta-women broke formation from where they'd been waiting and flapped toward me, graceful even in hot pursuit. I tried to dodge around them but now my inexperience became an insurmountable handicap. Currents from their wings buffeted and disoriented me, and then Sara came down on my back. Though she had no hands or legs to grip me with, she somehow managed to suction tightly to me with muscles of her abdomen; her startled exclamation suggested she hadn't even known she could do that herself. But she didn't let it phase her, and she started pumping her wings to force me deeper into the water. "I'm bigger than you, dumb buck," she taunted. "Stop struggling."

She was marginally bigger than me, and certainly better coordinated, but I didn't stop struggling; the elder was getting near. I just couldn't break free of her hold, however she was doing it. Then my body started to feel strangely stiff and my struggles slowed. "Let him go, Sara!" The elder directed, and for a moment I was gliding free.

"Wh.. why?" I managed to croak as the elder loomed over me.

"You won't understand," she answered dismissively.

I shuddered. The elder had started to shape me again at this point, and this time knowing it was coming I could feel more of it as it happened. The flowing twitching changes to my body as my remaining human features were slowly wiped away... and worse, I could feel the changes in my mind. I could tell that I was indeed becoming stupid.

You won't understand, I repeated to myself bitterly. I understood that answer all too well, it seemed.

The second change must have put more stress on me than the first, or something like that, because I'd slipped into some sort of semi-conscious stupor afterward; I didn't remember much aside from sinking down to the floor of the tank, and then the sensation of being gently towed somewhere through the water. When I regained full consciousness afterward I had found myself here, in this tank that was only just large enough for myself.

I couldn't tell how long it had been since then. I'd explored my own body at first, in stunned amazement; I hadn't had a chance for the changes to sink in during the time I'd been only halfway manta, and now that I was apparently fully manta there was so much more that was different. My body was too stiff for me to turn my head far, and I still felt very sluggish, but my eyes had vastly increased their field of view and I could sense every square inch of my skin in incredible detail. I could tell I must look almost exactly like a normal manta now. I half dreaded and half longed for the opportunity to get out into a larger tank so that I could try swimming around.

I'd also gone over my memories in careful detail, and explored the new limits of my own mind. My brain felt as sluggish as my body did, but only sometimes. My thoughts usually seemed quite clear, actually. But deceptively so... I remembered so many things I didn't understand that I knew I used to understand, or that took me great effort to figure out again when I thought of them now.

The elder had told me I wouldn't understand why this had happened to me. But she hadn't tried to explain it all to me, either, so I didn't know for sure whether she was right. There were some clues, I was sure. She'd told me she wasn't allowed to do what she'd done to me, and she'd told me she was in a hurry... those things were important somehow. But either I really was too stupid to put it together, or I just didn't have enough information yet.

I couldn't accept the first, so I decided to stick with the second. Something else would have to happen eventually and I'd learn more. I wouldn't stay locked in this small tank forever, would I? For a while I wasn't sure, and despair threatened to overwhelm... then I remembered. Mantas are in demand! People will want me to do something for them. I breathed a watery sigh of relief. Yes, something else was bound to happen eventually. I tried to relax and wait some more, mulling over more distant and melancholy memories. I had friends and family back on Talcott. What would they think of my disappearance? Maybe they'd be able to rescue me somehow...

My thoughts were interrupted by a muffled clang, and the water in the tank shifted slightly. I rippled my wing fins just a little and lifted off of the floor to be ready in case I needed to try swimming for some reason, though I didn't think I'd be able to do that even as well as I had during my brief time 'in transition.' There'd been no room to practice in here and I still felt sluggish. After a brief pause there was suddenly movement visible through the glass portal in front of me, and it took me a moment to register what I was seeing. A door had opened and a man had walked into view.

Tiny! There was no way refraction could be messing up my perceptions to such a degree; the man looked only about thirty or forty centimeters tall. This was terribly confusing, I didn't remember ever hearing about such small people existing. Perhaps it was some spacer thing that wasn't widely known, like the whole turning-people-into-mantas routine? Then it finally dawned on me what was really going on. The man wasn't tiny, it was me that was huge.

As if I didn't feel strange enough already. Making a rough estimate based soley on what I could see of the man and myself, I must have been about five meters or more from wingtip to wingtip. Is that normal size for a male manta? Yeah... I think it is. Well, of course.

While I'd taken the time to do all this rapid thinking the man had been busily going about some sort of mysterious business on the other side of the glass involving glowing panels, and he finished whatever it was he was doing before I'd even begun trying to pay attention. He moved up closer to the glass, peering through at me, and cleared his throat. "Um, hello. I'm Tannin. How are you feeling?"

The voice came through the water clearly but from an indistinct source, and for a moment I was too surprised to answer; it took me a moment to reassure myself that it was really him speaking, perhaps through some sort of machine. I tried to answer that I was frightened and wanted to go home but all I managed was to make a low warbling moan somewhere deep in my throat. My mouth was all wrong, it didn't even seem like I had a tongue in there.

Tannin grimaced, the expression on his tiny face clear even through the distortion of the glass. "You don't even know how to talk yet? Coral wasn't kidding when they said you were raw. Guess that's part of the risk we took going through unofficial channels to hire you, eh? Well, don't worry, we're a small operation but I'm sure we can handle you. I knew you'd need at least some training, and I worked at a pilot academy for a few years." He glanced at one of the glowing panels again. "Your name is Ellery?"

He was speaking far too quickly about things I didn't understand, so it took me a moment to register the question he'd asked at the end. I bobbed my head slightly and emitted an emphatic moan. At least he knew my name. But how did he know my name? I didn't have the time or the presence of mind to think about it now.

"Well, Ellery, welcome to Roger's Cove. You're probably looking forward to getting out of this tub, eh?" I didn't need to think about that question before giving another emphatic head-bob and grunt. "Heh. Alright, sit tight for a moment. The shuttle's docked to the main tank, we'll have it locked and open any moment. Brook's looking forward to meeting you."

The things he'd said that I hadn't quite been able to understand made me feel apprehensive, but the things he had said that I did understand provided a great sense of relief. I wasn't trapped in here forever, people knew who I was, people were talking to me. I made a thankful warbling sound and wondered how I'd ever be able to talk back. The elder manta could speak somehow, it occurred to me, I must be able to too. Heh. Maybe I'm not so dumb, either.

Then there was a faint whirr as the wall directly behind me slid to the side and I was distracted again by the huge blue-tinted expanse it revealed. I could barely see it in my peripheral vision, which even in my current state didn't quite stretch far enough to see directly backward. I had to turn my whole huge clumsy body around first. It looked like open ocean, and I was surprised by a noticeable change in the taste of the water I was filtering through my gills; I hadn't realized that the cramped tank I was in had smelled bland and stale. This new smell was rich and fresh. Yes, after all I'd been through, I wanted very much to get out of here; I had no reason to fight that particular urge. I gave my wing-fins a tentative flap, realizing now that the sense of sluggishness must be because of my increased size, and surged out.

There was a smooth ground visible below, and a silvery surface to the water above, but even so I got a moment of vertigo from the sudden open space. Then I saw a shape moving slowly overhead, and I panicked it instantly evoked a flashback of the manta elder's assault. I let out a tremendous thrumming cry of alarm and pumped my wings, surging away from the enormous manta hovering near me.

The endless ocean ahead of me resolved into a solid blue wall as I neared it. I banked clumsily to the right but wasn't quite able to avoid giving the surface a solid slap with my wingtips that made me cry out again in pain. Shit oh shit oh shit... This wasn't open ocean, I was trapped in a tank! Just like on the Coral Queen again! I struggled toward the surface, the memory of the experience again brought so sharply to mind that I felt like I was downing.

The manta made a surprised thrumming sound, then switched to English; "Hey, wait! What's wrong? Ellery!"

I forced myself to stop flapping, trying to get a grip on my panic and think again. The manta was a female, but her voice sounded different from the elder's and she wasn't chasing me. The tank was much bigger and there were no other mantas nearby - I was soaring in the middle of the biggest empty space I could recall ever being in. That helped me to calm down; I didn't feel trapped. Even so, as I came back to my senses I emitted a plaintive whine of distress.

"For crying out loud, didn't they give you any transition period at all over there?" The female manta's question sounded exasperated, but with a sympathetic tone. I couldn't think of a way to answer so I just moaned sadly and let myself float in place while she slowly rose to my level. Her approach made me slightly twitchy, but this time I overcame the fear and tried to pay more attention to the differences. She was three times my size but still smaller than the elder had been, and her colouration was lighter. She came to a halt a few tens of meters away and I got the sense of a reassuring smile from the way she rippled her fins. "My name's Brook," she said, "at least it is to human speech. But you can call me-" she made a resonant thrumming sound.

She paused expectantly and I frowned in concentration as I tried to figure out my vocal apparatus. After a moment I gave my best shot at duplicating the sound. It was terrible, but Brook seemed happy with my attempt and that made me feel not so bad about it.

"Well, I certainly wasn't expecting to have to teach you how to speak when you got here. And I guess you weren't expecting to have to learn, either. Hmm." Brook gently waved her wings and banked in a tight circle. "And you're so tense right now neither of us is likely to manage anything productive just yet. How about you just relax for now, explore the cove and get settled in, while I go tear a strip off of Tannin for not giving me enough background on your file. Maybe in a few hours you'll be in better condition for talking. You okay with that?"

She seemed nicer than the elder had, but I was still disoriented and very nervous about her presence. Too many new things at once were overwhelming my sluggish thoughts. I bobbed my head cautiously. Brook bobbed her head back, evidently amused by the gesture, and banked away again; I watched as she swam slowly and gracefully into the distance where she slid into an alcove in the far wall of the tank. The alcove wasn't deep, her slender tail still hung out of it, but I breathed a watery sigh of relief. My lingering fear faded quickly and I found my attention wandering.

The tank was the size of four or five football fields by my vague estimate. I tried to pace it out but it was hard to gauge scale both due to my own altered size and the relative featurelessness of the wall I was following. It was glassy and blue, clearly intended to give the illusion of a much larger body of water, with only a few spots where a hatchway or window was embedded in it. It occurred to me that I had no idea at all where this place might be; something about it gave me a pretty strong impression that I was no longer on the Coral Queen. It was the flat surface of the water above me, I realized at last; I remembered that all the large pools on the Coral Queen had a noticeable curve to them though I couldn't remember why. That little tank I'd been in must have been in a shuttle, and I was now on a planet again. Took me long enough to figure that out, I grumbled.

So where did that leave me? There were no mantas living on Talcott as far as I knew; they didn't like the oceans there for some reason and there wasn't a major spaceport. That left... I had no idea how many other planets there were, I just knew there were lots and lots. There was absolutely nothing familiar left to me now and I felt intensely homesick.

Brook eventually came back out out of the alcove into the big tank and as she approached I could tell that she was angry about something. I didn't try to swim away, I knew now there wasn't much point to that, but I guess I had managed to figure out the manta way of expressing a cringe. Brook halted a short distance away and let out a series of exasperated clicks.

"You're not going to bolt again, I hope? Good. Okay, so I knew you were a convert, I was expecting that. And I knew you were raw, just by looking at the way you move. But Tannin tells me you weren't even a spacer?"

I couldn't shake my head, so I tilted my body down slightly to hang it instead and hoped Brook knew enough about human expression to understand.

Brook clicked again. "Well, how did this even happen? Coral's ripped us off, damn it." She made a few other sounds that were probably manta invective, and I hung my head even farther. On top of everything else, I was being told I was no good for whatever it was that I'd been kidnapped and changed into a manta for? I felt ready to cry, assuming that was possible.

Brook noticed my demeanour and cut off her annoyed sounds with an amazingly well-simulated human sigh. "Well, I guess beggars can't be choosers, can they? And since you don't even know how to speak yet, I still don't really know what your story is. The file Coral gave us on you is silt. I guess I should try to get you talking, at least. The boss says he's not going to try hiring another male anyway so you'll have to do."

It was hardly a ringing endorsement and I still didn't understand most of what she was talking about but it seemed to me that this was my only chance. I summoned up all the concentration I was able to muster and tried to repeat Brook's manta-sound name again. I didn't manage much better, but some of her annoyance immediately seemed to fade. "Heh. You actually picked up on something already. I guess you might not be so hard to teach after all."

I felt an oddly warm glow at that. Brook's attitude was condescending but she'd nevertheless paid me a compliment - and most importantly, the compliment that I wasn't dumb. I could be taught, I could learn. I made a happy thrumming sound.

Brook chuckled - a human chuckle, so I knew she wanted me to understand it. "Okay, calm down, little guy. Language lessons will wait. First let's get you swimming properly. Do you know anything at all about basic manta biology? You'll need to learn how to eat..."

The next couple of days were manta boot camp. Swimming was easy enough once I got the hang of it, my new body had all the necessary reflexes and I just needed a little experience to refine them. Once I stopped trying to move like I still had legs I found it much easier and could even outpace Brook in a race. Not that she would race with me, of course. I found eating to be a little harder to wrap my head around at first. Mantas turned out to be filter feeders, and the key was finding the right currents and concentrations of plankton to follow. But how could I find and eat things that were too small to see? I learned to follow the scents Brook pointed out to me, and I could taste success when I did so, but I had trouble understanding the mechanics of it. Brook only chuckled and told me not to think about it so much.

It was hard. In between Brook's lessons she spent a lot of time in some other tank I couldn't follow her into, leaving nothing to do but think. I may not have been as smart as I was as a human but all my human memories were still there and I couldn't help but keep trying to think like I used to. It depressed me. I thought about my friends and family a lot, wishing I could talk to them, even just to let them know what had happened to me. I was starting to realize 'rescue' would be pointless, even if it was possible, since I'd still be a manta - Brook had assured me that there was no way to reverse the transformation and I'd begun to believe her. But I still wanted to go home to Talcott, to have at least some control over my life again.

Brook started teaching me how to speak a couple of days later, right after an argument with the humans in the observation window. I had started figuring out how to produce the sounds of human speech on my own already, and that seemed to be what spurred Brook on - she seemed displeased at the notion of a manta speaking english, even though she was quite fluent herself.

I found myself in a very strange relationship with Brook. Even in my current mental condition I eventaully recognized that one of her main goals in my education was to help continue to subtly pry me further from my old human identity, and as a result I became somewhat wary of her praise. But at the same time, I really did feel more kinship with her than with the humans behind the observation window. I couldn't talk with them - not so much due to my own vocal limitations as to their complete dismissiveness of me when I tried - and we lived in completely different environments now.

One of my more haunting human memories was my first view of the mantas through the glass in the Coral Queen. What would I have thought if I'd seen myself in there as I was now? I'd have felt just as distant.

It was on the tenth day since I'd arrived at this place when I heard an interesting new sound rumbling through the water, and swimming up near the rippled surface I spotted a dark shape moving past in the sky overhead. A spaceship, I couldn't tell how big, and it seemed to be coming down nearby. I sent a thrumming cheer up at it, despite knowing that there was no way it would hear me, and dove down to sweep excitedly along the sandy bottom of the tank.

Brook entered through her hatch and chuckled at my antics. "How are you?" She asked in manta.

"Good!" I did my best to respond in kind. "I have questions!" They were still only just now forming in my mind but I knew they were important.

Brook flicked her tail in assent. "Ask, I have answers."

"What is that for?" I tilted up in the general direction of the ship's landing. "Is that for me?"

Her tail's curve turned negative. "No, it's a supply ship. Brings food," she simplified in case I hadn't understood 'supply ship.'

I had, and her answer left me disappointed. It took me a moment to get my next question together. "Then what am I for?"

"Excuse me?"

I made an impatient sound. I didn't know enough words in manta to explain so I switched to english. "Mantas fly ships, mantas are wanted for that. The people you work for wanted me for that. When do I fly a ship?"

Brook registered a moment of surprise and then gave an expression I recognized as a smile. "You're an eager little male," she answered in english, "especially for one who wasn't even a spacer to begin with. Do you know anything about how to fly a ship yet?"

"No..." Of course not, she hadn't even mentioned the subject lately let alone done any training. "But I swim well now!"

"Hm. You do indeed." I was actually a bit surprised at how seriously Brook took my response - even with my sluggish thought processes I'd realized almost before I was finished saying it that there wasn't necessarily any real connection between the two. But then again, what did I know? "Tell you what. I'll speak with Tannin and see if we can get moving on that. The ship will be here for a day or two."

I gave an involunary squeal of excitement. Brook chuckled and waved her fins; "Easy there, male, I'm sure we won't get past simulations." But whatever that meant it didn't do much to reduce my eagerness. Finally, I can do something!

I wanted to get proactive, even if the things I was proactive about were the things these people wanted me to do anyway. When they'd found out how I'd come to be a manta they'd apparently written me off as useful, and I found myself perversely wanting to prove them wrong about that. Though really, I didn't hold much sense of resentment toward these people in particular. They hadn't wanted to change me in the first place, after all, it had been the matriarch of the Coral Queen who'd been responsible. Her and those damned Spacer women she'd had in the tank with her.

Brook had a brief talk with the humans through the window and when she came back she had good news. They were apparently pleasantly surprised that despite my background I was actually interested in becoming a pilot and they had given Brook the go-ahead to start training me in that area. Brook was nowhere near as wildly enthused as I was but was apparently interested in the project too. And so I started my second crash-course in Mantahood.

I didn't get to meet the supply ship's actual pilot, she wasn't a trusted member of this company like Brook was and they didn't want her to find out about me. But that was okay, since Brook was apparently a hotshot hyperspace pilot herself and knew her way around ship systems. but I got to see the inside of the ship while the pilot was stretching her wings elsewhere in the complex, including the hyperspace harness itself - the place from which a manta could pilot the ship through some alternate dimension at speeds faster than light.

I knew I hadn't even understood hyperspace before I'd become a manta, so there was no point trying now; I just accepted on faith what Brook told me about it. The hyperspace harness didn't really look like a harness, just a big spherical chamber with seaweed-like artificial stuff sprouting out of the walls. It still felt thrilling somehow. Apparently it tuned itself to manta nerves, or something like that... I didn't care. This was where I would do what I had been kidnapped for.