Jemunu-jah didn't want to have to take the time to rescue the human. If it was foolish enough to go off into the Viisiiviisii all by itself, then it deserved whatever happened to it. Kenkeru-jah had argued that it was their mula to try to save the visitor, even if it was not spawned of the Sakuntala. As he was ranking chief of the local Nuy clan, his opinion was listened to and respected.
Jemunu-jah suspected that the much-admired High Chief Naneci-tok would also have argued vociferously against the decision to send him, but she was still in transit from an important meeting of fellow Hatas and was not present to countermand the directive. As for the war chief Aniolo-jat, he did not seem to care one way or the other where Jemunu-jah was sent. Not that the cunning Hata-yuiqueru felt anything for the missing human, either. All the war chief wanted, as usual, was to conserve clan energies for killing Deyzara.
Perhaps it was Jemunu-jah's cheerless expression that caused the two Deyzara passing him on the walkway to edge as far away as they could without tumbling right over the flexible railing. The speaking/breathing trunk that protruded from the top of their ovoidal hairless skulls recoiled back against the edges of their flat-brimmed rain hats, and the secondary eating trunks that hung from the underside, or chin region, of their heads twitched nervously. Their large, protuberant, close-set eyes nervously tracked him from behind their visors. Another time, Jemunu-jah might have found their excessive caution amusing. Not today.
He supposed Kenkeru-jah was right. Chiefs usually were. But for the life of him, he could not understand how the death of a missing human, and a self-demonstrably reckless one at that, could affect the clan's mula. But the chief had made a decision. As a result, he now found himself directed to present himself to the female in charge of the human community on Fluva. Since Lauren Matthias's status was equivalent to that of a senior Hata, or High Chief of the Sakuntala, Jemunu-jah would be obliged to put his own feelings aside while showing her proper respect. He smoothed his long stride. Actually, he ought to be proud. He had been selected as a representative of his people, the best that Taulau Town had to offer. But if given a choice, he would gladly have declined the honor.
At slightly under two meters tall and a wiry eighty kilos, he was of average height and weight for a mature male Sakuntala. Though smaller than those of a Deyzara, his eyes provided vision that was substantially more acute. From the sides of his head the base of his flexible pointed ears extended out sideways for several centimeters before curving sharply upward to end in tufted points. The outer timpanic membrane that kept rain from entering his right ear was in the process of renewing itself, slowly being replaced by a new one growing in behind it. As a result, the hearing on his right side was at present slightly diminished. It would stay that way for another day or two, he knew, until the old membrane had completely disintegrated and the new one had asserted itself.
His short, soft fur was light gray with splotches of black and umber. The pattern identified an individual Sakuntala as sharply and distinctly as any of the artificial identity devices the humans carried around with them. In that respect he felt sorry for the humans. Despite some slight differences in skin color, it was often very difficult to tell one from another.
His cheek sacs bulged, one with the coiled, whiplike tongue that was almost as long as his body, the other with a gobbet of khopo sap he alternately chewed and sucked. Today's helping was flavored with gesagine and apple, the latter a flavor introduced by the humans that had found much favor among the Sakuntala. He wore old-style strappings around his waist to shield his privates, while the bands of dark blue synthetics that crisscrossed his chest were of off-world manufacture. Attached to both sets of straps were a variety of items both traditional and modern, the latter purchased from the town shops with credit he had earned from providing services to various human and Deyzara enterprises.
Now it seemed that despite his reluctance he was about to provide one more such service. Despite the prospect of acquiring mula as well as credit, he would just as soon have seen the task given to another. But Kenkeru-jah had been adamant. He was as stuck with the assignment as a kroun that had been crammed into the crook of a drowning sabelbap tree.
Raindrops slid off his transparent eyelids as he glanced upward. Not much precipitation today: barely a digit's worth. Of course, it had rained very heavily yesterday. Clouds, like individuals, needed time to replenish themselves. The fact that it rained every day on most of Fluva seemed to be a source of some amusement to newly arrived humans. Once they had been stuck on Fluva for about a season, however, Jemunu-jah had observed, the weather rapidly ceased to be a source of humor for the bald visitors.
Well, not entirely bald, he corrected himself. A fair number of humans owned at least a little fur. In that respect they were better than the Deyzara, who were truly and completely hairless.
With an easy jump, he crossed from one suspended walkway to another, saving time as he made his way through town. A few humans could duplicate such acrobatic feats but preferred not to. One spill into the water below, arms and legs flailing wildly, was usually enough to prevent them from trying to imitate the inherent agility of the tall, long-armed Sakuntala. No Deyzara would think of attempting the comparatively undemanding jump. Human children could not be prevented from trying it, though. This was allowed, since the waters beneath the town limits were netted to keep out p'forana, m'ainiki, and other predators who would delight in making a meal of any child unlucky enough to tumble into unprotected waters. That went for Sakuntala children as well as human and Deyzara, he knew. But when they jumped, Sakuntala youngsters only rarely missed.
The rain intensified, falling steadily, if not forcefully. Making his way through the continuous shower, he passed more Deyzara. Like the humans, the two-trunks wore an assortment of specialized outer attire intended to keep the rain from making contact with their skin. To Jemunu-jah this seemed the height of folly. For a Sakuntala, it was as natural to be wet as dry. As visitors who came and went from Fluva the humans could be excused for their reticence to move about naked beneath the rain. But the Deyzara, who had been living and working on the world of the Big Wet for hundreds of years, should have adapted better by now. For all the many generations that had passed, they still displayed a marked aversion to the unrelenting precipitation, though they had otherwise adapted well to the climate. The one month out of the year that it did not rain was their period of celebration and joy. In contrast, it was during such times that the Sakuntala tended to stay inside their houses, showering daily and striving to keep moist.
It all seemed very backward to Jemunu-jah, even though he had viewed numerous vits that showed many worlds where it rained only intermittently and some where water fell from the sky not at all. If forced to live on such a world, he knew he would shrivel up and die like a gulou nut in the cooking fire or in one of those marvelous portable cooking devices that could be bought from the humans or the Deyzara. Rain was life. There would be no flooded forest, or varzea, as the humans called it, without the rain that fell continuously for 90 percent of the year.
With the water from the many merged rivers of the varzea swirling ten meters below the suspended walkway and the surface of the land itself drowned twenty to thirty meters below that, he lifted himself up onto another crossway. This strilk-braced major avenue was strong enough to support multiple paths and was hectic with pedestrians. Humans mixed freely with Sakuntala and Deyzara, everyone intent on the business of the day. Nearby, a spinner team was busy repairing a damaged walkway, extruding the strilk that kept the town's buildings and paths suspended safely above the water. The silvery artificial fiber was attached to huge gray composite pylons that had been driven deep into the bedrock that lay far below the turbid waters and saturated soil. On the outskirts of the sprawling community a carnival of lesser structures whose owners were unable to afford pylons hung from the largest, strongest trees.
The single-story building in front of him was the administrative headquarters of the Commonwealth presence on Fluva. Jemunu-jah had been there a few times before, on official business for the greater A'Jah clan. That particular business being of lesser importance, it had not given him the opportunity to meet Lauren Matthias. He had heard that she was very good at her work, not unlike Naneci-tok, and could speak fluent S'aku. Matthias would not have to strain her larynx in his presence. His command of terranglo, he had been told, was excellent.
A single human stood guard outside the building. He looked bored, tired, and, despite his protective military attire, very, very wet. Visible beneath a flipped-up visor, his face was frozen in that faraway expression many humans acquired after they had spent a year or more on Fluva. He was nearly as tall as a Sakuntala. Drawing himself up to his full height, Jemunu-jah announced himself.
The guard seemed to respond to his presence only with great difficulty. Water ran down the human's face. It was not rainwater, as both of them were standing under the wide lip of the roof overhang that ran completely around the front and sides of the administration building. Jemunu-jah recognized the facial moisture as a phenomenon humans called perspiration. It was a condition unknown to the Sakuntala, although the Deyzara suffered from it as well.
"Limalu di," the guard mumbled apathetically. Jemunu-jah was not so far removed from the culture of his kind, nor so educated, that he did not gaze covetously at the long gun that dangled loosely from the human's left hand. A single swift snatch and he could have it, he knew. Then, a quick leap over the side of the deck into the water below, and he would be gone before the sluggish human barely knew it was missing.
With a sigh, Jemunu-jah shifted his gaze away from the highly desirable weapon, away from the ancient calling of his ancestors. He was here on clan business. He was civilized now. "I am called Jemunu-jah. I have appointment with Administrator Matthias," he responded in terranglo.
Reaching up to wipe away sweat and grime, the guard blinked uncertainly. "Appointment?"
"Appointment," the lanky gray-furred visitor repeated.
Eyeing the Sakuntala with slightly more interest, the guard tilted his head slightly to his left and spoke toward the pickup suspended there. "There's a Saki here to see Matthias. Says he has an appointment." Jemunu-jah waited patiently while the human listened to the voice that whispered from the tiny pickup clipped to his left ear.
A moment later the guard bobbed his head, a gesture Jemunu-jah knew signified acceptance among humans. Parting his lips and showing sharp teeth, he stepped past and through the momentarily deactivated electronic barrier that was designed to keep out intruders both large and small. Another door, Jemunu-jah reflected as he entered the building. Humans and Deyzara alike were very fond of doors. The Sakuntala had no use for them.
Behind him, the guard had resumed his lethargic pose, leaning back against the wall, his expression having once more gone blank as a part of him dreamed of other worlds and of the long-forgotten state of being dry. Rain fell steadily beyond the brown composite decking and overhang. A few streaks of olive green walus were visible on part of the porch railing. It had taken only a hundred years for several of the millions of varieties of fungus and mold that thrived on Fluva to learn how to survive on the supposedly inedible specially treated composite.
Chief Administrator Lauren Matthias had red hair, green eyes, a short and solid (but solidly attractive) build that was growing stouter with every passing year, a temper to match her contentious official position, and a desk full of worries. She had been chief Commonwealth representative and administrator on Fluva for just over a year now, ever since Charlie Sandravoe had gone nuts and been granted a hasty medical discharge. Like everyone else, she remembered the day when the well-liked Sandravoe had finally lost it, tearing off his electrostatically charged rain cape and the clothes underneath before flinging himself out the window and off the deck outside the office she now occupied. He'd fallen nearly twenty meters to the water below. Several members of the cultural staff, whose offices were in the building below Administration, had seen him plunge past the window of their workplace, arms at his sides, legs together. Maria Chen-ha had had the best look. To this day, she insisted that the face of the ex-administrator had been oddly calm.
They'd found him floating below, miraculously alive, having just missed cracking his skull on a number of intervening branches. A couple of Deyzara had fished him out of the water and brought him up. Diagnosis had been swift: mental breakdown brought on by too much time on Fluva. Sandravoe had extended his tour of duty several times, receiving a bonus for each extension. His offers had been reluctantly accepted because it was hard to find qualified personnel willing to remain on Fluva for any length of time. Besides having to adjudicate the never-ending turmoil between the Deyzara and the Sakuntala, there was also the often hostile and unpredictable flora and fauna, the interesting new diseases, the voracious molds and fungi, and of course the small and slightly disturbing fact that it rained 90 percent of the year. And the absence of dry land.
There was permanent dry land, Matthias knew. Up in the western mountains that ran the length of Fluva's single substantial landmass. The mountains caught the flow of moisture from the western ocean and turned it into rain. The rain fed thousands upon thousands of rivers that, for most of the year, overflowed their banks and drowned the immense tropical woodland that the moisture supported. The result was varzea, where the land lay thirty meters or so below the surface of the merged rivers. It was a morass, it was a mess, and the combination had a disconcerting tendency to drive visiting humans insane.
Not the Deyzara. Imported from Tharce IV a couple of hundred years ago, the Deyzara were well adapted to working in Fluva's sodden conditions. They thrived in its climate, working the plantations that produced dozens of highly valued botanicals and other products. Preoccupied with fighting among themselves, the native Sakuntala had accepted the Deyzara's presence from the beginning. Unfortunately, the Deyzara bred rather faster than the locals, with the result that there were now nearly as many Deyzara as long-arms. Now, a highly vocal and influential faction among the Sakuntala wanted all Deyzara off the planet.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Drowning World by Alan Dean Foster. Copyright © 2003 by Alan Dean Foster. Excerpted by permission of Del Rey, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.