The red-faced parakeets came swooping up to the breakfast deck. The sun had been up for three hours already and the morning fog had burned off, at least on this side of the city. Ann Grove carried a tray with a cup of freshly brewed coffee, a glass of orange juice, the San Francisco Chronicle and a toasted bagel out to the human table on the deck. A lower table sat off to one side, currently empty. The flock came up the slope towards her, tumbling in the air, screaming and squawking. The birds circled the house, then landed on the railing and the feeding table, two or three at a time, with ruffled feathers and a lot of chatter.
"Hi," Ann said. "You're late."
"We were told…"
"Something in the lake wants to talk to you," one parakeet got out.
"What sort of something?"
"Big," a parakeet said.
"Mean," said another parakeet.
"It came down flop!" one said, dancing and bobbing its head. "Flop!" it repeated. "Flop, flop."
"Well," Ann said, "eat your breakfast and I'll go talk to it." She put a variety of fruit and nuts on the bird table.
Ann's current residence was on the north end of Russian Hill, on the edge of a cliff, overlooking the Bay Street Reservoir (which was not on Bay Street. It was on Russian Hill), Russian Hill Park (which was not on Russian Hill. It was on Bay Street), and the Hyde Street Pier where the Balaclutha was moored. Between the reservoir and the bottom of the cliff there was a small hidden lake.
Ann went down the interior stairs, into the lowest level of the house, which held the garage, the wine cellar, the playroom and the unused servant's quarters. Crossing the playroom she opened a door in the far wall. The steep and narrow stairs hugged the northern foundation as it followed the cliff down another story and a half. The stairs ended on a small landing in front of a well hidden and well defended door which opened on an inconspicuous ledge above the willows surrounding the hidden lake. Ann slipped down the rough path and stopped above the lake. It looked as if it had rained. Not everywhere, just on the last five or six feet of unstable detritus before the shore of the lake. She descended the final distance carefully.
One black eye swiveled at her.
"I beg your pardon," she said. "I wasn't expecting an orca." Ann had never been too involved with the ocean or its peoples, but her briefings had been thorough, and she knew the principal players and the speech.
"Never believe a sea dragon," the orca in the lake muttered. "It'll be easy, he said. No problem. You'll be comfortable. Ha!"
Cautiously Ann moved around and further away from the big mammal's head. She stifled a laugh. Orcas were almost always serious. "I beg your pardon?" she repeated.
Both eyes managed to focus on her. "Ah, the calf was right about you, but you were supposed to have what he called a swimming pool."
"I have had such, in the past, but not at this house. Are you sure you were looking for me and not for someone else, or even a human?"
"Are you the one Lucky calls Jingwu?"
"I know a young sea dragon called Lucky," Ann said. "What's another form of his name?"
"Ruiman. He says you know his uncle."
"Yes," Ann said. "I do. I seem to be the one you were seeking. Why are you here, so far from your normal waters? If I may ask?"
"I was sent. We have a problem."
"If the explanation will be prolonged, let me move us to the ocean where you will be more comfortable."
"What may I call you?"
"Humans call me Domino," the orca said.
"Domino, I need to touch you to move you."
"You may ride."
Ann striped off her clothes and, slipping onto the orca's back, lay alongside his dorsal fin, gripping as much of him with her arms and legs as possible. A moment later, they were in the surf well off the west end of Golden Gate Park. "This acceptable?" Ann asked, sitting above the waves on a tall rock. For San Francisco, it was a warmish day: The fog had rolled back here, too, already and temperatures all the way up in the high 60s seemed possible.
"Fine. Ah," Domino said. He swam out a little, broke water, then came back. "The situation is this," he began. "What the humans call dumping is occurring in our territory."
"That may be illegal, in that humans have laws against it, but it's mundane. You and the humans are supposed to handle that yourselves."
"No, it's not. It is illegal, but it is also magic, human magic."
"In what sense?" Ann said.
"Liquids, in barrels, and dust, in paper barrels or boxes, other things in boxes or buckets. Everything is mixing together down here and causing loose magic, which according to Ruiman and the other young sea dragons, makes it your problem."
"You seem to have some ability in magic yourself," Ann said. "Why haven't you taken care of it?"
"We are not particularly skilled in magic," Domino said.
"You found me."
"That took all of us, and I think some of us were unconscious when I left."
"Very well. Let us see," Ann said. She passed her hands over her head, rose to her feet, and dove into the sea. "Where do we go?"
"Out, down current."
"I've a distance limit," Ann said. "I can't go farther than fifty miles from San Francisco Bay."
"Well," Ann said. "Yes, it's magic, and yes, it's illegal, and yes, it's having an open-ended magical effect on the environment, which makes it my problem."
Ann was standing in a wide and fairly deep depression on the ocean floor, with Domino and those of his pod who were able to function and weren't supporting those who were still unconscious.
She felt a steady flow of water, east to west, all around her. She assumed it was a small branch of the outflow from San Francisco Bay. In front of her were, as Domino described, metal and paper barrels and drums, plastic 5 gallon pails, and what appeared to be disintegrating cardboard cartons lined with plastic bags. Some of the containers had a lot of algae, some had less, but everything seemed to be leaking. It seemed as if someone had cleaned out a commercial magic factory, and the enchanted ingredients were mixing and remixing, with interesting results.
"What's it done? Who has it affected?" Ann asked.
"Farther down, there's a starfish that has a shared consciousness with all its buds."
"Is it — are they — intelligent?"
"What happens if I take away the flow of magic? Does it go back to being alone and dumb? That would be a problem."
"They're all over. They don't care where they live, so I would suppose nothing happens, and anyway, it's not really that intelligent."
"I'll want to see one."
"It's a starfish."
"Nonetheless," Ann insisted.
"Very well," Domino said. He looked over at the pod. A younger member shrugged then flipped over in place and headed swiftly west.
"How long has this been here?"
"The local people say the last barrels came more than three full moons ago, but before that, four or five times in the last turn of seasons, sets of barrels and crates came down."
"And the magic?"
"That started after the third dumping occasion. It's always changing. It surges and ebbs; sometimes very bad, sometimes only annoying. It goes with the current, so it was more dilute but wider spread in the rainy season."
"Anything else enhanced or changed?"
"A bed of oysters, back in a little, near the shallows around the islands, are growing strange pearls, which will be a problem if one of your humans finds out about them. Some things died: a lot of kelp, many of our seal herd, three of us turned to stone — one of us changed into a human, but we got him back — and a couple of otters. A long way out and warmer" – Ann understood Domino to mean south – "it's killed some dolphins and caused some abortions in a pod of gray whales. It's hardest on warmbloods, and it's getting stronger."
"I can do something about it, one way or another."
Ann examined the starfish and attempted a conversation with it. While it might be intelligent, as yet it was also very much a tabula rasa. What it was not, however, was dependent on outside magic, being now slightly magical itself.
Ann delivered the starfish back to the young orca, who took it a little way north, out of the current, and dropped it.
Ann walked into the dump and cast a crystal dome over it, large enough for her to walk from barrel to barrel. As she pulled the residual magic charge out of the discards, they reverted to the simple original material, usually organic, becoming merely olive oil, sandalwood dust, feathers from a black chicken, dried herbs and the like, with a sprinkling of various minerals, notably crystals.
The mixture of ingredients was strange. Ann's knowledge of human sorcery was theoretical rather than practical, but she could make no sense of any of the combinations that could be made from the items present. She felt her first impression, that this was a manufacturer's inventory rather than a single enchanter's pantry, was the most realistic. The large economy-sized amounts of material reinforced that idea.
The water within the dome became murky, but that didn't bother Ann's vision and of course she wasn't breathing it, so she continued. Eventually, she was done, everything was magically inert and she was glowing in the dark.
Very carefully, she slowly released the dome. The now neutral material suspended in the water began to diffuse, the lightest particles first, drifting west in a haze, and the heavy material much more slowly, almost oozing along the bottom.
"Well done." After a moment, Domino added: "Thank you."
"Blessings and good fortune be yours," Ann said. "And if this happens again, call me." One wave of her hand, and in front of the pod was a rocky pedestal with one of her large crystal phones perched on top. The phone blended in with the seascape and to human eyes would appear as an outcropping of sea bottom. The orcas saw it as it was.
"Is that likely?" Domino asked.
"It's possible," Ann said, "and I'd like to know who's doing it."