By Remy Zins (2020)
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Europa (Jupiter's moon), year 2596 CE
Odys was looking for a way to escape.Or the least painful way to end this life,
It looked increasingly like it was the latter he was going to need. The water of Europa's ocean, just above freezing temperature, already filled the bottom of the airlock up to his ankles. On the floor beside him, the cold liquid lifted the package he was to deliver: a sleek dark green metallic box protected on the edges by a bulky grey cover. Already shivering, Odys scrambled to fit himself into the heavy shell of the diving suit he had wheeled from the locker room.No way I can manage this before I drown. Or die of hypothermia.
His heart raced as fast as it could and the rush of adrenaline was powerful, but he knew how not to be swayed by it. Almost without thinking, he recited mentally the Abhaya Protection in Pali:"Yan-dunnimittam avamangalanca, yo camanapo sakunassa saddo..."
He didn't have to make any effort for the meaning of the ancient words to appear clearly in his mind:"Whatever unlucky portents or ill omens, and whatever distressing bird calls, evil planets, upsetting nightmares: by the Dhamma's power may they be destroyed."
Over the course of his life, Odys had recited the verses many thousands of times. But this protection was meant to work only for a virtuous person. And at the moment, he was up to his neck in Europa's underworld. Was this really what the end of the road looked like?Anyway, I have no choice. If I have to die now, I'm ready.
There was no point continuing to live anyway, if he couldn't fulfill his obligations to his family and get them back. He glanced through the airlock's grubby window into the locker room, where showers of sparks popped from the door panel. The goons on the other side were furious. And ugly. The poor bastards had accepted cybernetic implants — such as bionic wide-spectrum eyes that allowed them to see through many layers of metal — as a term of the employment contract they had signed with the company that owned this remote research station.
A few weeks earlier, the headquarters of their company's parent corporation had fallen victim to an outbreak of a particularly sophisticated malware. After that, the cyborgs' implants had started malfunctioning and they had resorted to all kinds of messy, artisanal workarounds. Some of them were subject to infections and fevers when the anti-rejection mechanisms that allowed their bodies to tolerate the implants failed. But most of them seemed to have found a way to adapt to their new condition. They had decided to take over the station and sell their defunct company's assets on the black market.
The smugglers had not let Odys know that the transaction keys he was tasked with handing over to the cyborgs were bogus. At first, Odys had thought he would just ride his sub back to civilization. When he had realized what had happened, the two borgs that were escorting him to this sub were already trying to capture him to quench their thirst for revenge. But most of all, they wanted the armored case that was now floating beside him. If he had the opportunity to confront them one by one in single combat, he would certainly defeat them all, despite their superiority in sheer strength. There was just too many of them.
Back when Odys still lived in Chiang Mai, his Shaolin master had taught him to discern when he should embrace flight over fight. Brute combat skills could rarely make up for poor decision making, and no Shaolin monk had ever stopped a bullet nor a laser strike. This was a moment for flight.
The shootout had started before Odys had had any chance to reach his sub, which at this point was docked nearly on the other side of the station. He had nevertheless managed to retreat to the locker room leading to this airlock. He had immediately shot to scrap the opening mechanism of the locker room's door in order to prevent the cyborgs from getting in, and was now trying to escape into the ocean, provided this old airlock, that had probably not been serviced in a long time, wouldn't throw a fatal malfunction at him in the middle of the cycle. But if it did, Odys would probably meet his end swiftly. At this point, that would still be an acceptable outcome. On the off chance this wouldn't happen, perhaps he would manage to hide in the kelp fields out there. But whatever would take place in the next few minutes, letting the borgs catch him alive was out of question.
As the freezing water got to his knees, a screen inside the water-proof control panel — set on the white metallic wall in front of him — burst to life. The unstable, distorted image on the screen showed something floating in the ocean outside the airlock, under the spotlight.What in the hell...?
The creature wasn't wearing any suit. It looked like a new kind of Europan tweak. But regular Europan tweaks would never leave the city or the research stations they worked with. And this seemed to be a more advanced biodesign, an engineered hybrid humanoid, obviously spliced at the genetic level: a human torso seamlessly flowing into a fishlike body with dorsal and ventral fins, ending in a coiling snake tail. Its human arms possessed hands with opposable thumbs, and supported fins that seemed to retract at will like handfans. Judging by its facial features, Odys assumed the creature was a male. Just below the tweak floated some kind of fish, about the same size as him, apparently possessing a hard shell and powerful-looking fins. The tweak was holding a large kelp leaf on which a message glowed in blue bioluminescent letters:
"EUROPAN EMERGENCY SUIT"
There was no way to know what the tweak wanted of Odys. But he knew very well there was no rock bottom when it came to the horrible things angry people could do to each other, and he had no intention of discovering how far down that rabbit hole the guards on the far side of the door wanted to take him. On the other hand, if he had to choose between dying within the next two minutes and taking a chance with the tweak, that was a bet he might be willing to take.
There was a blast and the entire airlock vibrated.Crap.
The guards had managed to force open the locker room door faster than he had expected. The door panel had fallen to the ground and a pack of tall cyborgs stormed inside the room, elbowing each other, looking around like birds, with strange jerks of the neck. A few of them were wrapped inside the curved metal plates of their armored exoskeletons, but most weren't that well protected. One of them saw Odys in the airlock and lurched towards him.
Running seemed to be a struggle for him, as if his legs were too heavy. The others followed almost immediately and they soon crashed together on the door, sticking their hideous heads to the window. They were disfigured by the cameras they had sewn on their faces and plugged into their eye sockets, after their bionic eyes had fallen prey to a malware attack and been removed. They banged furiously on the door with the full force of their semi-metallic fists, as froth gathered at the corners of their mouths. One of them said over the intercom, in a strangely slurring voice:
"I'll skiin ya aliive and feed ya to the sluugs, Earther."No way in hell, bonehead.
Odys had only a few seconds left before they would manage to disconnect the circuits, which would allow them to shut down the airlock cycle and trap him inside.
"We gon' take ya reeal sloow" said another voice.Either the tweak or the guards. No-brainer.
This was the moment of truth. Was he going to die instantly, crushed by a merciless gush of extremely pressurized water, or was the tweak's suit actually going to save him? Was he about to find out if it was really worth trying to come back from the afterlife? Perhaps he should have recited a protection, or at least a mantra, but none came to mind. Instead, he reached into his pocket for his Centillion-Provolves Buddha amulet.
The sound of the guards banging on the window brought him back to the demands of the situation.No time to waste. They'll cut the power any moment.
He rushed to the control panel and keyed in an override, triggering the emergency opening of the outer door. Within a fraction of a second, the airlock released two huge bubbles of compressed nitrogen into the ocean, designed to control the rush of water that would otherwise flood in instantly. But no water came through the door.
Instead, the panels opened by half a meter, as if onto an escape tunnel, and then the power went out. That strange, flishlike biosuit must have somehow opened in half to spread over the outer hull and around the door.That's my way out.
Flickering emergency lights still intermittently illuminated the metallic walls and ceiling of the airlock.If they manage to reboot the command system, they'll be able to shut the outer door, and I'm trapped like a rat.
Shivering in the cold water that now reached his waist, Odys used all his strength to drag the suit he had earlier tried to get into through the water, so that its robust shell fell between the two panels, blocking any attempt to shut them. He grabbed the armored case that was floating beside him and slid himself into the outer door's opening, extending his free hand forward.
There was a squishy surface out there. This suit seemed to be at least partly biological in nature. Perhaps a new type of lifeless biotechnological tool made of organic tissues laced together with some kind of machinery? Something emerged swiftly from the shadows that lay beyond the half-open door and, before Odys had the time to react, latched onto his face, around his chin and nose, while some kind of wet, fleshy tube forced its way inside his mouth.
He dropped the case and struggled instinctively with both hands to remove the dark gray, semi-organic apparatus, even though it turned out quickly that he could breathe through it. The entire mechanism stiffened and became hard as stone. It was very uncomfortable. Despite all his efforts, Odys couldn't move his head even a millimeter.No point resisting.
Odys dropped his arms. A second later, the tube and the mask became flexible again. He seized the case handle and settled into the dark niche beyond the half-open panels of the lock's outer door. There was just enough space for him to stand. The cold and wet membrane closed in around him very slowly. It was like being swallowed by a toothless fish. The semi-organic tube he breathed through tasted like rotten flesh. The suit seemed to remain motionless for some time, but through the flesh, Odys felt the vibrations of something like water jets. It was equalizing the airlock with the ocean. Soon, the vibrations waned, and the suit smoothly moved away from the station's hull.
The suit was now swimming through the dark waters of Europa's ocean, between two layers of long, rectangular fields of green seaweed, supported by metallic structures. Odys' own body, constricted by the surrounding flesh of the suit, moved along with it. It would have been hard to tell if this was more a living animal, perhaps like a dolphin, or of a semi-autonomous machine. Perhaps something in between. In any case, this was a type of biotechnology the likes of which Odys had never seen before.
He was probably looking at the ocean though a screen fitted inside the suit, because everything around him looked unbelievably clear. He could turn his head and look at his surroundings as freely as if he was swimming himself directly in the ocean. Placid seaweed fields extended forward into the darkness as far as he could see, layers of dimly lit rectangular surfaces filled with long green leaves undulating lazily in the slow currents. Here and there, a few robots tending to the aquatic crops shone occasional rays of light on the plants. They seemed completely immersed in their task, kissing the leaves with their sensors, moving on their many legs through the weeds and along the metallic supports, like well-tamed spiders made of aluminum bronze.
After several minutes of swimming through the various layers of crops alongside his new companion, half a dozen tweaks of similar design emerged from the shadows, progressing swiftly in vigorous serpentine movements towards the opposite direction. They passed above him, followed by their long snake tails. With such agility, they would easily stop anyone coming after him. Or at least, at this point he could allow himself to hope they would.
They reached the end of the fields, where the deep, murky Europan ocean extended in all three directions. Its vastness was vertiginous and overwhelming. Odys tried not to think too much about the six or seven dozen kilometers of water that separated him from the ocean floor, and focused on his immediate surroundings.
Only robotic subs would occasionally venture towards the depths. There was no civilized activity that far down, as the colonization efforts remained centered around Atlantis, Europa's underwater capital. It was a floating city latched onto the underside of the twenty kilometer thick ice shelf that covered Europa's surface, a stack of concentric tori. Over the course of the colonization effort, each new torus had been built lower and larger in size, like a Ndebele tribeswoman's stack of rings around her neck. But Atlantis, which was Odys' next destination, was situated much too far to be visible from here. Only the scattered lights of a few surviving undersea farms glowed faintly, above and far away, amid the colossal and tenebrous expanse of the ocean.
The tweak swam in front of Odys and indicated upwards with the index finger of his human hand.Alright, buddy.
A ten meter long submersible was parked just above them, its oblong and smooth shape extending away from the kelp fields. The tweak pulled him up, opened the airlock and indicated by movements of his finger that they would get in the lock in turn. He pushed the suit containing Odys and the case inside before initiating the cycle.
When all the water had been removed from the lock, the suit opened itself, slowly removed its organic tube from Odys' mouth, pushed him out and then collapsed on itself, back into its fishlike shape. It seemed to be doing fine outside of the water. Odys knocked his knuckles on the gray scales that covered its unyielding shell. The fact that no such technology existed officially had staggering implications, but Odys had no time to ponder over that.
He picked up the case, opened the inner hatch and entered the craft. It smelled of ozone with an unpleasant layer of methane. While he stripped, toweled himself dry and looked for warm, dry clothes in the lockers, the tweak cycled the airlock open, moved inside and shut the outer door, without triggering the cycle. Knocking on the inner door's window, he beckoned Odys over and signified he wanted to communicate via the control panels by moving his fingers as if taping away on a keypad. The tweak then proceeded to type on his own waterproof keypad inside the still fully flooded lock:
"GO ATLANTIS. GO BACK SURFACE"Time to ask questions.
"WHY ARE YOU HELPING ME?"
It took the tweak a surprising amount of time to answer.
"YOU DELIVER MESSAGE"Huh, what?
Odys hoped for a straight answer, so he went for a more simple question this time:
At least, the answer came faster:
"NO WORRY. YOU NO MUST DO ANYTHING. JUST SURVIVE."Way to weasel out.
Odys tried to get further explanations, but the tweak waved his hand, moved away from the airlock's control panel and ignored him.Gotta get on the move anyway.
Odys went to the windowless cockpit, a hemispherical room situated at the center of the craft, from where he could see the ocean as if the layers of metal and ceramic that surrounded him didn't block his view. This craft was in surprisingly good condition, compared to what most people had to cope with these days. He sat in the driver's seat, in front of the touchpad console, and took the amulet out. He held it between his clasped hands and raised it to his forehead."Whatever unlucky portents or ill omens, and whatever distressing bird calls, evil planets, upsetting nightmares."
Odys kissed the amulet before putting it back into his pocket. He set the route straight towards Atlantis, from where he would hopefully be able to make it up the Shaft. It was a twenty kilometer long hoistway that went from the underwater capital up to the surface of Europa's ice shell. Atlantis was at least a two hour ride at full throttle away, but the guards from the research station didn't have any faster craft. He pulled up an inventory of everything there was inside the sub. Weapons, suits, welding tools, spare batteries, medical supplies, food, bathroom utensils, everything. Any of those could suddenly turn out to come in handy, and he would know where to find them.Now comes the most difficult part.
He had to find a way to smuggle the case through the Shaft — the only way to get to the surface — without being able to rely on the usual smuggler procedure. The team they usually relied on for this type of transaction had been busted three weeks earlier with the original transaction keys, and they had no plan B. Which was why Odys had been sent on this suicide mission to begin with. Now he had to hack into Atlantis' control systems and figure out how he could smuggle the case through security. If he had to, he would climb the entire shaft using the ladders of service passageways.
After about an hour of cruising through dark waters, the sonar sent a proximity alert. There were half a dozen craft between Odys' location and Atlantis, headed directly his way. He used his backdoor into the system to connect to Atlantis' security database and track their transponder codes. There were no registered craft in this area, which meant they had turned off their transponders and gone dark. At this speed, they would cross paths in a matter of minutes.
Odys changed course and curved his trajectory back by a hundred and twenty degrees and downwards, in the direction of a region where floated a few dozen plankton farms. He pulled up their specs from the sub's database and projected their virtual image on the spheroidal screen that surrounded him. Plankton farms generally fared better than the others, but still a significant portion of them had already gone bankrupt, so that the remaining ones concentrated in their vicinity an increasingly starving wildlife. If nothing significant changed, when the last of these farms would have gone bankrupt or become crippled by malfunctions, the entire oceanic ecosystem of Europa would collapse.
But it was clear on the image that the farms were too widely separated.No way to use them as cover.
His only chance would be to get back into the suit and try to hide in one of the packs of giant, bioluminescent jellyfish that gathered there to feed.
A new proximity alert chimed.
Odys tapped the icon on the touchpad console. The view on the screen rotated a hundred and eighty degrees and zoomed to show the virtual image of another five craft.Dammit.
Those had probably been following him all along, as they were coming from the direction of the research station. Odys tapped on the pop-up icon proposing a trajectory analysis. The screen projected a slowly rotating three dimensional hologram showing long lines that swelled at their extremity in layered, roughly conic shapes of increasing translucence towards the lateral edges. It pictured the array of probable courses the various subs would take, and it was clear: they were going to intercept him long before he would get anywhere near the farms.Blooming hell, just what I needed.
Odys pulled up a much wider map of the surroundings and checked what lay in the directions that left him the best chance of avoiding both groups of pursuers. About half an hour away, huge pockets of turbulent warm water, several kilometers across, welled up from hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor, over seventy kilometers below. There were about a dozen such columns of turbulence. He could try to hide between them and then ascend towards the ice crust. The ice would probably be much thinner there, directly above the vents. That wasn't much of a plan, but it was all he had up his sleeve at the moment.Talk about having a bad day.
Odys set the sub's trajectory in that direction.
Ten minutes later, another spot appeared on the sonar. Much faster than the others. The new craft was still behind both packs of pursuing subs, but it would overtake them soon.Icing on this turd cake.
Some of the cyborgs must have hijacked a high speed transport craft. This showed how dedicated they were to capturing him. After about twenty minutes, when Odys reached the first column of turbulence, the speed craft was less than a kilometer behind. Odys turned around the perturbation, and as soon as he was out of his pursuers' line of sight, started moving upwards and away from them, trying to take cover behind the turbulence, hoping he would be able to hide on the far side of the nearest other column of warm water before they could spot him, and then repeat the maneuver.
No more than thirty seconds later, they had turned far enough around the first perturbation to have a direct line of sight.Scumbags.
Now they were coming straight at him again, and they were much too fast.No way to escape. Unless...
Odys rushed towards the nearest column of hot water and dove into the turbulent area. The entire submersible started shaking. His sonar was deaf, but the cameras could still see far enough to show the pursuing race craft entering the turbulence, only a few dozen meters behind.I'll show you how it's done, dummies.
Odys drove deeper into the pocket and the ride became even rougher. He hoped the tweak had found a way to strap himself in and secure the biosuit.
The temperature of the surrounding water was rising. The race craft was catching up.Come as near as you want, dipsticks. You can't board my sub in here.
The race craft came dangerously close, until thick sheets of hardened metal and ceramic crashed into each other. The shock was brutal. Everything was rolling now. A coffee mug was bouncing erratically around the cockpit and slammed into Odys' head. And then came the electric shock.
His entire nervous system caught fire, every muscle of his body contracting uncontrollably under violent pulses of pain. Through the haze of physiologic chaos, for a fraction of a second, Odys was there, back in Chiang Mai, practicing the iron body training, spear tips cutting through his flesh. For Phra Shi Chan, his master, a true Shaolin was able to withstand any amount of pain. But Odys had never progressed anywhere near that far. All he ever managed were mediocre achievements. He was far from being unbreakable. And the pain rattling his bones reminded him of it.
When it stopped, he was lying on the floor, almost catatonic. Everything was dark except for the emergency lights. The craft was shaking much less, though it was still moving, but the engine was definitely down. They must have been dragging the sub on a tether, after having sent an electrocuting harpoon. He should have seen this coming. They must have managed to install it in a hurry after hijacking the speed craft.Gotta release the tweak.
That was the only edge he had left. He staggered to the maintenance lockers, searched through the drawers and took several spare batteries, a set of tools and an adapter. He went to the airlock and started opening the panels protecting its command system. Despite his profound feeling of disorientation, he managed to plug the batteries together and get the airlock back online. This felt like a drill he had already gone through a hundred times. The tweak was still inside, apparently injured. Odys triggered the opening of the outer door.
A few seconds later, he saw an explosion of lights as his entire body arched again under the pain caused by a massive electric discharge. This time, the shock was so strong that he passed out.
Odys woke up to a semi-metallic fist hitting his cheekbone. All of his face was already sore, and he had a terrible headache.
"The k-keeey!" said an oddly stuttering voice.
Everything was blurry. And the pain didn't help him make sense of the situation either. A powerful sting tore through his thigh and an atrocious pain made his back muscles contract as he screamed uncontrollably. Someone was stabbing him in the leg.
"What's the key to the c-case, jackass?" said a more articulate voice, apparently less subject to glitches.
The blade was removed from his flesh, causing a new spike of unspeakable pain. Then, something bright happened in front of him. He made an almost superhuman effort to focus his vision. One of the cyborgs was dragging his legs up to him, holding a welding torch.You ugly skunk.
He looked more like a half-metallic Frankenstein than a corporate asset enhanced with cutting-edge cybernetic implants. Half of his face was hidden behind a vulgar security camera. He had shaved his hair on one side of his skull, where a pack of scars indicated a sloppy surgical operation had been attempted. The hand that wasn't holding the torch twitched intermittently.
"You guys think you c-can do whatever you w-want down here. But this is our t-territory. W-when your buddies f-find you, you'll barely be able to s-speak. That'll show them. This ocean is o-ours!"
It was clearer now. Odys was sitting on a stool, hands tied behind his back, in a relatively large and graffiti-smeared service room he didn't recognize, filled with mostly broken lockers and a worn-out control screentable. It had two doors on either side.Probably somewhere in the speed craft.
Besides Frankenstein, there were two other cyborgs in the room. The only one of the three who was wearing an exoskeleton stood in the back. And the more eloquent one with the stuttering voice stood on the far side of the screentable. Odys thought of the razor blade he was wearing, hidden under a fake silicon scar at the base of his spine.No time.
There was no way he could manage to make use of it before the torch got to him.
Suddenly, the entire craft heaved and a strident alarm filled the room. The cyborgs struggled to keep their balance, the heels of their boots clinking on the metallic floor. A feminine, strangely calm voice resonated on top of the alarm:
"Alert. Hull breach. Proceed to emergency evacuation immediately."Must be the tweak.
The cyborgs were significantly stronger, but Odys was lighter, faster and more agile. He was drenched in adrenaline, his heart racing as fast as it could. Even with his hands tied, he probably stood a chance. And he had nothing left to lose. Ignoring the pain in his leg, he took advantage of the surprise, stood up and jumped in a rotating movement towards his most immediate attacker.
A fraction of a second later, his right foot kicked the welding torch. The borg initially didn't lose his grip on the tool's handle, but his wrist got twisted enough by the blow that the torch burned him and destroyed some machinery on his chest. Screaming, he dropped the torch, which fell on the toolbox the guards had intended to use to make Odys speak. It ended up head down sideways, its flame attacking the metal floor, while the borg seemed consumed by an internal struggle, seizing the left part of his chest as if he wanted to remove it from his body.That'll teach you.
Odys dodged a blow from the cyborg wearing the exoskleton, and then jumped to catch his torso between his legs in a scissors grab, extending his arms outward to increase his leverage and twisting his hip as hard as he could. The tall borg had been standing strong but Odys managed to impact his posture enough to make him lose his balance. After that, it was a controlled fall.
Odys used every muscle of his body to rotate around the exoskeleton so as to end up on top when the borg reached the floor. He jumped back on his feet before the borg had the time to seize him and kicked his facial camera. The borg's first reflex was to touch his face. Obviously, the poor guy did not appreciate being blind at all. He contorted himself on the floor, apparently victim of a violent panic attack.Phra Shi Chan wouldn't be proud.
Odys had failed to stop the violence before it started and had instead only added to it. But there was simply no way he could take additional risks that would certainly lead him to being tortured. Besides, he had no time to spare for second thoughts. He had to free his hands, which were still restrained behind his back.
But the third borg, the more articulate one, had drawn a gun and was trying to aim despite his hand shaking. He fired and missed, probably not by a lot. Odys cowered below the screentable. He removed the razor blade from the silicon patch and cut the skin above his right wrist. Warm blood flowed down his hand. He hoped that would make the skin of his hand slippery enough. He seized the restraint around his right wrist with his left hand and pulled hard.Dash.
He dislocated his thumb in the process, but under the flood of adrenaline, he almost didn't feel the pain. His hand was free now. He put his right thumb back into place with a solid tap of his left palm. This twinge was nothing compared to what he was trying to avoid.
The borg with the gun was now dangerously close, jerking his neck in a birdlike fashion, trying and failing to lower himself so as to see under the horizontal surface, hampered by malfunctioning armored plates on his flank. His other two acolytes were still shrieking. These guys had so many Achilles' heels it was almost child's play to take them down. This one literally lacked meaningful protective gear on his legs, especially around the calves.
Odys grabbed the edge of the table and swung himself around its side, legs in front, so as to kick his attacker behind the tibia, just above his heel, and throw him off balance. The cyborg fell and banged his head on the table, while Odys got back up on his feet. He used the restraint that was still attached to his left hand to knock the borg's facial camera, and with his right hand he yanked a set of output plugs from it. The poor guy dropped his gun, took his hands to his face and reeled backwards. He seemed to be subject to the same blindness-induced panic as his mate. That one had managed to reactivate his camera and was getting up from the floor. Odys grabbed the gun, pointing it alternately towards each of the three.
The borg who had been injured by the welding torch ignored the injunction, still entirely focused on managing the situation in his chest. The armored goon who had recovered his sight didn't obey either, and was actually reaching inside his exoskeleton, obviously for a weapon.You crazy motherfuckers.
Odys shot the metal plate that protected the borg's cheek, which made his head turn sideways, and then shot his camera, the bullet piercing through the device before ricocheting off the bulkhead. The goon fired his weapon almost at random around the room, before dropping it and yielding to the panic attack apparently caused by blindness. He staggered and eventually fell to his knees.
Odys kicked the welding torch that was still blowing plasma into the floor so that its flame wouldn't melt any more metal. He grabbed the armored case and moved towards the pressure door that led to the rear of the craft, where the airlock was probably located. He checked the control panel. On the screen, a cross-section map of the sub showed that everything behind this door was flooded.
At this point, all three cyborgs were too busy with internal struggles to present any meaningful threat. Odys could try to get the restraints completely removed, but that would make him lose precious time. He would find something later. His only way out now was through one of the emergency pods. He just had to follow the signs on the walls and hope that part of the craft wasn't also flooded. He moved across the service room, around the screentable, and stopped in front of the opposite door. A part of his brain screamed he should shoot the three borgs dead. But he knew Phra Shi Chan would have definitely disavowed him if he caused death willingly, all the more outside of a situation of legitimate defence.
"Guys, just try to save yourselves," he said.
He stepped through the door and left them behind. Everything in this corridor was worn out, from the floor patterns to the overhead pipes. Odys saw in passing the reflection of his face on a grease smeared metallic door frame. A third of his face's skin was blue, and another third was bright red. His lip and the bags under his eyes were grotesquely swollen and purple.No time for self-pity
On the wall, a map showed that the pods weren't far, just a short staircase leading down and a couple of passageway bends away. There didn't seem to be any passengers in the craft. The hijackers had probably evacuated them. When Odys arrived in the corridor from where the pods — lodged between the hulls — were accessible, five of them were already gone. Two of the craft crew, recognizable by their jumpsuits showing the transport company's logo in the middle of their backs, were preparing themselves to take another pod each.
"Stop everything! Raise your hands."
The crewmen obeyed.Not a threat.
They just looked like regular guys having a particularly bad day.Probably just scared to death. ...Actually, they can be useful.
There were still a few more pods available than there were people in this corridor, so there was no need for conflict. Odys tucked the gun inside his belt behind his back and approached them.
"Alright, guys. Go on, get in your pods. But don't try to follow me. Just go to the nearest farm."
Odys helped them get in the tubes that sloped down gently into the space between the hulls. Once their hatches were sealed, he chose one of the remaining pods, used the step that allowed him to easily reach the opening, and slid himself into the pod. Placing the case between his legs turned out to be an impractical move, hampered as he was by the restraint on his left wrist.
The pod was cramped and felt more like a torpedo or a high-tech coffin than a submersible. Nevertheless, Odys hit the button that closed the hatch behind him, took a deep breath and thumbed the control to launch the pod into the ocean.
He was suddenly subjected to a powerful thrust, that diminished quickly. The crewmen's pods were already speeding away. At a shorter distance, under the craft's projectors, the tweak was floating, inert, amidst waters stained by his own blood. Odys stopped the propulsion. He had no idea why the poor fellow had sacrificed himself to help him escape. It was evidence he was working for something he saw as greater than himself.But what about that message? Whom was I supposed to deliver it to? Is there something funny in the case I'm not aware of?
As far as he knew, it contained only biological samples and a data core. What kind of information would be worth such commitment?
Odys reactivated the pod's propulsion and drove away at full throttle. He'd have to find time to analyze the contents of the case.If I manage to survive that long.
The pod didn't have enough range to perform the eighty odd kilometer trip to Atlantis. And the other pursuing craft would arrive any minute now. His only chance to escape was to go back into the turbulence and try to get away, pushed upwards by the hot waters, up to the ice shell that topped the ocean. The warmer water in this area would have probably melted some portion of it. It was almost a suicidal move, but it would still be incomparably better than falling into the hands of his pursuers.So be it.
The pod had finished its health assessment and showed him the extent of the damage he had sustained. It was working to treat the various injuries. A set of needles injected drugs into his neck and femoral artery.
Odys took complete manual control of the pod, deactivated the transponder and dove straight into the turbulent waters.Inshallah.
The pod shook like a leaf in a hurricane, but so far it was working. He steered it closer to the center of the turbulent area. Another needle injected anti-sickness drugs into his blood stream.
But the ride became so rough even they couldn't compensate for the disorientation of his inner ear. Up and down kept rotating all around him in a physiologically distressing motion. It was terrifyingly disorienting. He threw up, and the vomit flew everywhere in the confined space around his head, including back on his face. He couldn't even wipe it off. He was now shaking harder than he ever imagined possible. His nausea gradually rose to an extreme before he lost all consciousness.
When he finally woke up, the pod was still. He activated the engine. Everything vibrated around him, but there was no motion. He checked the scopes. He was apparently stuck in a tunnel of liquid water running through ice, and the more he pushed the throttle, the worse he was making it. The current was strong. He tried to reverse, several times, to no avail. The pod would guarantee his safety for another forty hours. After that, it would start running out of oxygen and power to keep him alive and warm. He activated the distress beacon, after which all he could do was hope that someone well intentioned would respond.
Hours passed. Not being able to even move, Odys recited mantras and protective verses until he fell asleep.
After a very long time, the chime of an incoming transmission woke him up.At last.
Robots designed to drill through the ice crust — in order to mine metals from old asteroids trapped in the ice — had picked up his distress call.Now let's hope these aren't too glitched out.
Earth, 8 years earlier
The black rot which was still consuming entire biospheres on Earth had so far spared the hills west of Chiang Mai, where Phra Shi Chan had his forest monastery. It was a green place, with lots of hidden caves where one could easily spend some time in harmony with the surrounding nature. The only downside was that there was no water this far up the hill during the dry season, and Phra Shi Chan strongly advised against installing an artificial water supply. It kept the place wilder.
When Odys periodically left home to reside at the monastery for a few days or a few weeks, he would follow Phra Shi Chan every morning for a walk through the woods, down to the villages where devotees would religiously place food and drink in his begging bowl. Though Odys never became a monk, he spent a lot of his time at the monastery. The Shaolin method had always been at its core a way for pacifists to cope and survive turbulent times, when the threat of physical violence was widespread. This made it more relevant now than ever
One day, on the way to one of the nearby villages, Phra Shi Chan took a detour. It had rained all night and water was still dripping from the leaves all around. The forest never felt more alive than just after a downpour. It smelled strongly of wet dirt and decomposing organic matter. Odys walked barefoot on the small path that ran among the heaps of dead leaves, in his designated place in the line of disciples. The full-fledged monks walked ahead, clad in yellow robes and ranked by seniority, followed by novices, and finally lay people like him, wearing white outfits and ranked by age.
Phra Shi Chan stopped by a large tree and waited for everyone to gather around him. He pointed his finger just in front of him, at something so small it was difficult to make out.
"What is this?" he asked.
"This is a chrysalis, master" responded one of the novices standing beside him.
"Friends, do you know how the caterpillar evolves from being a larva into an adult butterfly?"
"Teach us, master" responded one of the monks "so that we can learn and commit your teaching to memory."
"Friends, when it hatches from its egg, the larva stuffs itself with leaves. When it has molted four or five times, it hangs upside down from a twig or a leaf and then molts one more time into a golden chrysalis. Then, tiny parts of the larva — the imaginal discs — start digesting the rest of the body, from muscles to gut, transforming it into an organic soup from which the pupa feeds to grow into an adult butterfly. The larva sacrifices its own body to gain beauty and the freedom of flight. If the larva decided this sacrifice was too strenuous, it would never complete its metamorphosis."
Phra Shi Chan paused for effect and looked silently at his disciples.
"Friends, this is my most important advice: however much it costs you, never stop learning. Never stop growing in Dhamma. The reward is ultimate freedom."
In the Buddhist terminology, Dhamma meant the true nature of things, the natural law of the universe, as well as the teaching showing how humans could use that law to their best advantage. However, Odys was generally too restless to have enough patience for sitting meditation, which yet was the crux of the Path. This meant that in Phra Shi Chan's eyes, however sympathetic he would always remain, Odys would never rise above mediocrity.
Europa, present day
When it reached the top of the slope, the buggy emerged from the kilometer wide canyon that seemed to extend endlessly into the shadows behind the vehicle, between ice cliffs hundreds of meters high.
Four tall wheels supported a large cabin, divided between the rear compartment — full of lockers — and the cockpit which was topped by an armored windshield shaped as a bubble. It was in rather good condition. Odys had hung his Centillion-Provolves Buddha amulet from one of the curved metal frames that supported the spheroidal window of the cockpit. All the main systems were operational, as the glitches resulting from damage made by previous malware attacks affected only sub-systems Odys had no need for.
The full extent of the sky finally came into view over him, through the transparent ceiling of the bubble. Jupiter covered over five hundred times as much of Europa's sky as Luna does Earth's. A tiny sun was emerging from behind the dark and massive figure of the gas giant, its atmosphere producing a glowing arc of red twilight all around it. As far as the eye could see, the entire icy landscape, with its buttes, clefts, cirques and craters was illuminated in a faint red-orange hue. The uncanny glimmer made the moon look like it was ablaze by virtue of an eerie frozen fire.
The buggy was now rolling through a somewhat flatter area, filled to the horizon with fields of thin ice blades about two meters high, leaning sideways towards the sun in roughly conic shapes. Every once in a while, a snowflake would hit the windshield. Europa's cryogeysers constantly sprinkled metric tons of them into the upper atmosphere, where they would scatter widely and then lazily fall down, one at a time.
Odys didn't have to do anything. The buggy was driving itself perfectly through the ice blade fields towards Alagonia, Europa's main surface city, which was situated exactly above Atlantis. Alagonia was linked to Atlantis by the vertical Shaft through which everything that traveled between the two cities had to pass.Well, almost everything.
He probably had created a new precedent there, but he wouldn't recommend anyone try the same. The robots that had rescued him had taken significant risks. They had buried themselves under tons of ice to avoid flooding their galleries, and created a makeshift airlock carved into ice. They had then heavily sealed the tunnel they had drilled to rescue him from the liquid waters before reopening the way to their network of mining galleries. The entire contents of the airlock had been vaporised in the process.
During the first part of this buggy trip, Odys had spent his time monitoring the surroundings for any sign of threat, but this entire region seemed completely empty of any activity. He had stared for a while at the reflection of his face on the cabin's window, still miserably red and swollen. Under the weight of fatigue and monotony, he inadvertently drifted into daydreaming. Something he would seldom do.
There was a point ahead in time beyond which everything would be so radically different that he could hardly allow himself to think about it. His entire being was focused on reaching that point. The moment when he would get his necklace, his family back. Or at least the possibility of meeting them again one day. After that, he would be free to leave this godforsaken moon, leave the smugglers behind, hell, even leave the whole solar system behind, and get on a starship to one of the new colonies around a distant star.Dammit.
Odys hated catching himself entertaining such out-of-reach fantasies.Refocus.
He had reprogrammed the buggy's route to stay out of the usual pathways, so as to avoid detection as much as possible. Only one road crossed this region, the maintenance track for the communication relays. He was set to arrive soon in the vicinity of this path, but he would stay several klicks out, by precaution.
Odys was still intrigued by the tweak's earlier behavior and wondered why the hybrid had sacrificed himself for his survival. He wanted to take a shot at analyzing the contents of the case before handing it to the smugglers, and that required avoiding any welcoming party that might be waiting for him upon arrival.
He scanned the data chip that was embedded in his flesh by the hip, to download its database onto a screenpad. He resumed browsing the data he had in store about bio-sample analysis and data encryption. Cracking the case's samples and data core in whatever little time he would be able to manage would be a serious challenge. But there was nothing Odys couldn't learn. And this attitude had been the secret to his survival ever since he had been forced to flee Earth's nightmarish conditions.
However, his knowledge wasn't always enough to keep him out of trouble. The buggy stopped, unable to find a path forward.Crap.
It had reached a dead end that didn't show on the buggy's map. The ice blades field had simply become too dense for it to be able to continue through. Odys first checked for an alternate route on the cabin's console, but it turned out he would have to go so far back that Alagonia would fall out of the buggy's range.
Sure, he could go back to the mines and again hack the robots working there to bend them to his will, then resupply and try another route. But that would make him lose precious time. On the other hand, he was already wearing a vacuum suit, and he had more than enough oxygen supplies. Alagonia was only about twenty klicks away. If the suit didn't start malfunctioning halfway through the trip, he could probably make it on foot, moving by successive leaps to take advantage of Europa's 1/7th G gravity.
Odys got up from his seat and moved to the rear compartment, where he looked in the lockers for food and water. He ate a few protein and energy bars, drank copiously, swallowed some preventive anti-radiation meds and put on his helmet. He took as many oxygen supplies as he could, attached them all at the back of his suit, and ordered the depressurization of the cabin on the control panel, beside the rear hatch. All the air inside the buggy was pumped back into storage. He opened the hatch and felt a powerful pop from inside his suit, as the gas that had been pumped into the compartment equalized with Europa's atmosphere. He picked up the case and jumped down.
The suit was protecting him from most of the deadly radiation that sterilized Europa's unwelcoming surface. The ice was hard as rock under his feet. The sun was shining faintly in the dark sky, now clearly outside Jupiter's atmosphere. It illuminated the surrounding ridges with its dim yellow glow.
Odys used the screenpad on top of his right arm to orient himself, and then jumped forward. Slowly, he rose about two meters above ground, gliding between the ice blades. The difficult part was the touchdown. His suit was equipped with thrusters that could help him manage his trajectory, but the nitrogen supply was limited and Odys wanted to save as much of it as possible in case anything went sideways. So he had to be very careful to avoid touching the uneven ground on an overly inclined surface. Often, he would have to kick an ice blade in mid-air to correct his trajectory, or altogether bounce back up towards the sky.
Leap after leap, he moved forward quickly. He jumped as high as five meters now and bounced gracefully, almost like an ice skater. There were no more ice blades in the area he was now crossing, but Odys had to slow down so as to avoid falling into a pit. He didn't want to be forced to use his thrusters' nitrogen supply to get himself out of any situation he could have avoided by paying better attention. The rugged landscape was covered all over with crevices, clefts and drop-offs which cast impenetrable shadows on large portions of the ground.
Luckily, if it came to that, jumping up a four meter high cliff was almost child's play in this low gravity. When he was high enough above ground to see far away, he could make out the tall plumes of vapor that reached kilometers into the sky, welling up behind the horizon from cracks in the ice crust, and producing extremely scattered snowfall. Soon, the lights of Alagonia started casting their glow on the horizon.Civilization. At last.
He checked his navigation device was correctly set to lead him to the hangar bay he had selected as his destination. He would still have to hack his way in, but that wasn't the kind of problem that would resist him for very long.Careful now.
This was the most dangerous part, where he could start meeting people. Around a quarter of the way along the inverted parabola of a five meter high jump, his head display warned him of a moving object behind him.Not again!
He immediately enhanced the image projected at the bottom of his faceplate with a flicker of the eye. Someone had jumped in his wake and was using their thrusters to catch up. He didn't react, as if he hadn't seen anything yet.That's right. Come closer, Charlie.
As he was about to undergo a collision, Odys fired his thrusters downwards, dropping swiftly towards the ground. The attacker passed just above him, unable to catch hold, and continued on their trajectory, hopelessly trying to follow Odys without depleting their nitrogen reserve. Odys hit the ground, absorbing the impact, and tried to stay low. The attacker had landed somewhere not very far ahead.Can't keep exposing myself like that.
But there was no time to think. A new figure emerged above a nearby promontory, on a trajectory aimed directly at him.Gimme a break!
Odys jumped forward as hard as he could and monitored his 360° screen for any sign of motion. There were six figures now on his tail, bouncing through the thin atmosphere, and one of them was less than ten meters behind. Odys heard Shi Chan's voice in his head, as if the master was still teaching him from beyond the grave:'If you have to deal with several problems at once, don't forget to check if they can't just solve each other.'
He knew what he had to do. It was a precise calculation, that he had to make with all the sharpness of his mind. When he touched the ground, he changed course to a direction which he had calculated that two of his pursuers would almost hit him at once, but not quite.
As he reached the highest point of his trajectory, Odys saw that his calculation had been correct: two of his attackers were about to catch up with him in mid-air. At the monastery, he had been trained to react at extremely high speed to attacks from close adversaries, and in comparison this felt like seeing the blows coming in slow motion. He had more than enough time to assess his move. Within the last second before the collision, he maneuvered his thrusters towards the attacker coming from the left, grabbed hold of their body between his legs while keeping the case close to his chest, operated a strong rotation of his hips with a hint of nitrogen thrust from his backpack to make the two of them flip over, released his hold and then kicked off a fraction of a second before both his assailants crashed into each other.You asked for it.
In his wake, after impact, the two pursuers continued their course at weird angles. Odys kept moving forward, hopeful he could manage to escape them, provided they didn't start using guns. But as he was coming down from a long jump above a wide crevice, something really big and way too fast showed up from behind, moving semi-erratically towards him, changing course several times a second. Odys was hit before he even had the time to have a proper look at it.
Pain invaded his ribcage and his arm as he was sent on a trajectory he could hardly control.A drone. Of course.
The ground seemed to be above him, approaching fast at an angle, as if he was looking at the slope of a mountain that had been turned upside down. He fired all that remained in his thrusters in order to soften his landing as much as possible. He crashed on his flank, the pain caused by the stone-hard ice reaching a metabolic shriek. His hand was empty. He had lost hold of the case during the impact. It was now completely out of reach.Dammit.
One of his pursuers appeared in the sky and soon after, upon completing a parabolic trajectory, made a soft landing, assisted by their suit's maneuvering thrusters. Odys was unable to defend himself.Hell, unable to move, even.
The person in that suit drew a high-powered laser gun.
"Don't move!" they gestured in cosmonaut sign language.Well, I didn't plan to anyway.
The drone appeared in the sky, hovering low above, showing them its disk-shaped underside from which three short legs came out as it landed softly. It looked like a big blister on which smaller blisters of varying design were agglutinated. Another figure touched down on the icy surface nearby and walked towards Odys.Nothing I can do now.
The person walking up to him had the tiniest hint of a feminine gait, almost imperceptible. She was holding a scanning device, that she waved around his belly and hips.Did she just download my database?
It was hosted on a tiny data core that was embedded in his flesh by the hip. She checked the readings and, visibly satisfied, walked off. A third person had touched the ground and was also coming to him. This one was holding a comm device. She fiddled with it until Odys could hear her voice.
"Can you hear me?" she said.
"Yeah, I can hear you."
"Weren't you carrying a case?"
"What? I don't know what you're talking about."
"It's okay. We'll find it for you."
The woman looked at the screen of her device.
"I'm reading your suit's report. You have three fractured ribs and a fractured arm. And damn, your face looks like you've taken a severe beating. We'll get you what we can."What? Now they want to fix me?
The place quickly filled with people walking around in vacuum suits. Odys couldn't hear what they were saying, but they were obviously talking a lot. All he could do was wait.
After a while, someone came to him.
"We found your armored case," she said and then walked away.Have fun with it, ratbags.
A group of medics came to him and started examining him. He still couldn't hear what they were saying. But after a while, they finally talked to him directly.
"We're going to give you injections, that's all we can do. We'll provide them to your suit, it will take care of the rest."
They gave him essentially damage control hormones, painkillers and stimulants. When all that was over, without a single word, they helped him get up, someone shoved the case in his good hand and they all either got inside the drone and flew away with it or leaped off the scene, thrusters blowing full steam under his unbelieving eyes.This makes no sense.
How had they found him here, in the middle of nowhere? Why did they try to heal his injuries after causing them in the first place? Why had they given him the case back and why instead of taking it, had they appeared to scan the database in his hip? It contained only a few personal files and as many free online tutorials as he could stuff in it.
But there was one thing they hadn't done, and that was resupply him with air. He was getting low on oxygen and it seemed clear that no one was going to help him now. Odys checked the route to his destination on his screenpad and jumped off.
There were only a few klicks left to Alagonia. He was now entering an area where an increasing number of robots would forage. Some of them were tasked with monitoring the ice plates that shifted periodically due to the tides, as Europa wobbled around what almost was its tidally locked dance with Jupiter, presenting always the same face towards the gas giant. The robots didn't pay any attention to him. It wasn't unusual for them to see a suited biont hopping around. The recreational area open to the general public wasn't on this side of the buried city, but technicians or scientists would be seen around here often enough.
Alagonia was essentially buried under the surface, to be better shielded against Jupiter's deadly radiation. Only satellite dishes, arrays of telecommunication antennas, the main landing pad and its control tower were visible above the icy ground, with the sporadic exception of a few bubble-shaped maintenance buildings. Odys leaped all the way to the hangar bay he had selected, without any trouble.
A tunnel sloped down into the ice, and he walked to the end of it. There was a main airlock gate for vehicles and robots, and two smaller airlocks in the tunnel's walls on either side. One of them was covered haphazardly by several rusty corrugated metal sheets, indicating it was out of use. Probably someone had attempted repairs and eventually given up on them. Odys stopped by the still functioning control panel of the other lock, keyed in a silent override, stepped into the airlock and cycled it.First things first.
He had to get rid of the suit, find appropriate clothes and find somewhere to lay low, where he would be looked after by someone he could trust, while taking a good look at what was in the case. He started disassembling his suit. There was Nelly of course, but she probably had already more than enough on her plate at the moment. The inner door of the lock slid open and the vastness of the hangar bay, filled with row after row of empty shipping crates, appeared in front of him. It smelled essentially of cold engine oil. He would have to…
Something coming from the side hit him in the neck. A hand had grasped the wrist of his injured arm and was twisting it. The pain stung through the suppressants. He was too weak in that arm to resist. Someone hit him powerfully in the leg and tried to snatch the case from his good hand, but Odys managed to secure his grip on it as he executed a controlled fall to the ground. The landing was awfully painful, especially in the ribs. And it felt like something had snapped in his leg.Won't be easy to get up, now.
He was surrounded by seven or eight men dressed in black, looking down at him. They stood like a pack of crows around a dying rat. Viktor "Two Fingers" stood in front, wearing his usual turtle neck shirt, a white scarf hanging from his shoulders. His rugged face displayed a dark version of amusement.
"I'm injured!" said Odys. "Can't you see my face?" Two Fingers and his henchmen chuckled. "Why are you attacking me? I brought back your case alright. And I almost died about a hundred times! Your bogus transaction codes didn't hold them back long enough. You should be happy I managed to hold on to the package, it was nearly impossible."
"You were never supposed to be here." said Two Fingers. "You haven't gone straight to your rendez-vous point. You thought we'd let you steal what's ours? We put a tracker in your body, dipshit."
Odys sighed.How could I be so stupid?
He put the case on the ground and pushed it towards them with his good hand. Two Fingers nodded sideways at one of his henchmen, who came and picked it up.
"What about my necklace now?" asked Odys.
The necklace he had lost to these smugglers contained his family, or at least their DNA. Something that would enable him to bring them back to life, if he ever made that kind of money, and then managed to perform the proper ritual. They would all start out as babies, but it would be them, in the flesh, as his father wanted.
"You really think we'll give it to you after what you've just done?"
Two Fingers gestured to an acolyte. The man approached Odys and kicked him in the stomach with his cocked boot. Odys' ribcage sent a sharp spike of agony.
"We're far from being done with you" said Two Fingers. "Lay low for a couple of days, get yourself repaired and wait for orders. We'll be sending you back down soon."
Someone spat on his face.
"And don't you remove that tracker now, swollen face."
One of the henchmen pressed the dirty sole of his boot on Odys' cheek, before spitting on him.At least they're not kicking me in the face.
In turn, another three or four of these scumbags spat on him, and then they all walked away. Odys wiped his face as best as he could with the back of his hand. He had lost all of his energy, and the will to fight on. He had hoped so badly that he would get his family back by now. That he would be making plans to leave Europa. If he looked back, his entire life felt meaningless, desperate and harrowing. He reached in his pocket for his Centillion-Provolves Buddha amulet.
This stupid thing had never achieved anything tangible for him. And now he had lost everything.Worthless.
Odys threw it away and it ricocheted off an empty crate before bouncing several times on the floor and coming to a halt somewhere out of his sight. The hangar was silent and seemed empty. If he had the strength to get up and walk, he would get back to the airlock and cycle it without donning any suit.
Thuds and clumps resonated from the other side of the warehouse, which meant there was still somebody around. But it could also mean yet more trouble. The wisest thing to do seemed to stay quiet, although if there were to be more threats of violence, this time he would try to get shot fatally. He crawled slowly to the nearest pile of crates and sat up, leaning his back against it. The wheezing and the sound of steps kept getting closer, as if they knew exactly where to find him. The only thing that could still make his situation worse was if these people were members of the yakuza, or some other rival faction.
But they turned out to be women disguised in public service jumpsuits.
They had the demeanor of well-trained field agents. Their leader appeared soon after, hidden inside a buggy topped with a hemisphere of tinted glass. The front part of the sphere rotated open, and there she appeared, leaning on the edge.Ah. Didn't expect that.
Ariyal the mermaid looked even better than usual with her red hair done up in a way that somehow said 'I own you', and her low-cut purple dress that probably cost a fortune. She made 'classy' look like a threat. She was the wife of Mario "Iceman" Scroggins, Two Fingers' boss.
It didn't show from where Odys was standing, but she possessed a human torso mounted on a fish tail. She was the result of a unique experience of genetic manipulation that made her something between a merperson and a JGA-designed Europan. It was said that she never left her husband's pools. Some even said those pools connected with a labyrinth of deep underwater ice caves, that ran underneath Alagonia, and that that was where she spent most of her time. Odys had never seen her out of the water, much less riding a vehicle in a hangar bay, escorted by female mercenaries.
"Damn!" she said, raising her eyebrows. "You've taken a hell of a beating, Odys. Your face is in ruins. I'm so sorry. We were short on time."Why is she apologizing?
Odys and Ariyal didn't know each other very well. To him, she was no more than the big boss' wife, someone who navigated the high spheres of power, in the face of whom his first reflex was to protect himself. He had seen her quite a few times at Mario's parties, but only from afar, and he never had a chance to have a proper conversation with her. He was surprised she could even recognize him.
"You know," she continued, "much of what I do is little more than listening to past stories, in order to write the future ones. I've never had the opportunity to tell you this, but I have to say I'm impressed. You became a bit of a legend a few years back when you slingshot through the Iapetus blockade disguised as space trash, to bring life saving supplies to Tritonian refugees. Or was it when you accidentally broke the record for a deep dive inside Neptune's atmosphere? There are so many stories about you that it's become hard to figure out which of them are even true."Okay, so she is not here to rough me up some more. At least not immediately. But what could she want now? The case is gone.
And then it struck him.Those people, outside.
They weren't interested in the case either. And, at least for the most part, they were women, too. But those had already scanned his hip.What more do they want?
"I like you, Odys. You deserve better than this."
She nodded to one of her assistants, who came to squat in front of Odys, and opened her fist to present him the necklace. A burst of adrenaline shot through his body. Odys snatched the necklace from her hand and brought it immediately to his forehead.Family. Finally.
He imagined how happy they would be to see this. He hadn't failed them.
"I just have one question for you" said Ariyal. "Is it true that you believe in some kind of spell that would bring your family back to life?"
"It's not a spell," Odys responded, "It's a religious ritual. And I know how to perform it."
"You disappoint me, Odys. I refused to believe it was true. Tell me, what makes you so sure it'll work?"
"It was the last wish of my father. Just before he died, he made me promise I would try to bring them all back. The monk my father used to sponsor had given him full knowledge about the particulars of the ritual. I've learned them by heart."
"I see. Has the idea ever crossed your mind that perhaps your father had been scammed? I should have known better. Let me give you some advice, Odys. Never meet your heroes, you're guaranteed to be disappointed."
"All my heroes are already dead," he said.
Odys ran the necklace through his fingers. He couldn't let his father down. He had to try.
"Actually, Odys, we're preparing for a big event around here."
Odys looked at her interrogatively.
"I mean, on Europa, as a whole," she continued. "We're organizing an intervention coordinated between the surface and the bottom of the ocean. The Shaft will be destroyed. Without loss of life, thanks to your help."
"Wait. What do I have to do with this?"
"Let me explain. Our sisters and brothers down there only live in water, so they can't come up here."
"Are you talking about the hybrids I've seen in the ocean?"
"Yes, you probably met with at least one of them. Actually, they usually try their best not to get spotted at all, so all they can rely on in Atlantis is a handful of trusted allies. As a matter of course, they communicate with us by using unsuspecting smugglers as a vehicle."
"I see. So you guys got in trouble when those half-wits got nabbed transiting through the Shaft with their contraband transaction keys."
"At the worst possible moment, yes. After that, security around the Shaft got tightened significantly, and our allies in Atlantis don't have the skills to circumvent it. When I learned Mario was sending you down to pick up the slack, I was sorry for you but at the same time I saw the opportunity."
"So you let them send me to die swimming with sharks."
"Well, we didn't let you down, did we?"
That poor hybrid who had helped him with the swimming biosuit had literally given his life so that he could escape. That was something difficult to argue against.
"But why do you guys want to destroy the Shaft in the first place?" he asked.
"Our Europan sisters and brothers were born at the bottom of the ocean, where no one else dares to venture, and they have made it their home. They are fine scientists, Odys. They are masters of bio-engineering. Over the decades, they've created an entire ecosystem of engineered species fully adapted to Europa, complete with leviathans and behemoths designed to keep them safe. Once the last plankton farm fails, they will be the only ones able to maintain a living ecosystem in the ocean."
"Let me guess. They're afraid nonetheless that they're going to get discovered, and then plundered by a sufficiently weaponized megacorp which is sure — by the way — to collapse one day or the other under a malware attack, anyway. And then, they'll find themselves sold as slaves on the black market. I get the picture."
"You're rising back up in my esteem, Odys. They want their freedom, indeed. And the way things currently run in our solar system represents a real threat for them. They're claiming the ocean as theirs. If we manage to coordinate our attack on the Shaft between the ocean and the surface, we'll be able to guarantee that no one gets hurt. And then, we will make sure that no one interferes with the lives of true Europans ever again."
"So my role was" Odys said, and then trailed off... "to convey a message? Is that what you planted in my underskin database?"
"No, they don't have this kind of technology. They made you ingest a tiny biodata cell. You probably didn't even notice it."
Odys thought back to the biosuit's tube that had forced its way into his mouth.
"I suppose I didn't" he said.
"Actually, you made it back just in time. If you had arrived a few hours later than this, we would have had to launch our attack without proper coordination with our ocean-based forces, and many people would have died or been forced against their will to live down there without ever being able to come out."
Odys nodded pensively. They all remained silent for a few seconds.
"So, what do you want from me now?" said Odys.
"Nothing. We'll help you sneak out from here before it's too late."
"You mean… you have a ship for me?"
"Don't get your hopes too high" she said with mirth. "In a few hours, after shit hits the fan, everyone will be looking for you."
"But what about you people?"
"Oh, don't worry about us. I'm a mermaid, there's nothing my influential husband can deny me" she said, winking. "I run the show exactly however much I want. Come with us, we'll get you fixed."
"Alright," he sighed. "Could any of you help me get on my feet? I need to look for my amulet."
Two of Ariyal's mercenaries walked up to him. The mermaid straightened her backbone and her neck. She seemed to be listening to something important, her forefinger resting on her cheek.
"There's no time," she said. "We have to go now. The Gatekeeper can't hold it. It's having another breakdown."
Deep ocean, twenty hours later What a privilege,
Even though his body was still too weak to allow him to move around by himself, he was suffused with divine joy. Few living beings in the universe could claim to be blessed enough to meet their creator. But Eqnor was on his way to have an exceptional and highly confidential audience with his FatherGod, something his peers could only dream of. It was a prerogative of only His priestesses or those who had given Him outstanding service. And Eqnor had nearly died serving Poseido.
He had been sent with a crew of fellow operatives to rescue a human from an offcomer research station somewhere in the freezing cold of the ocean's top regions, in the ordinarily forbidden sector where offcomers had confined themselves, the region surrounding Atlantis. The mission had been an ordeal. They had managed to sneak a submarine up to the fringe of the station's kelp fields so that the human could use it to get back to the moon's surface with the information the FatherGod wanted him to carry to the GateKeeper and its allies.
On their way through the fields, they had glimpsed the human fleeing the wrath of the station's security guards with Qhigneod, encased in an autonomous swimming emergency suit. The rest had been a mess. They had done their best to delay the cyborg pursuers, but they had been vastly outgunned and had only been able to buy the fugitives about twenty minutes, suffering massive injuries in the process. Eqnor had been the leader of their pack and had taken most of the worst shots.
His body was now encased in a healing casket on which he still depended as a life support. The casket was itself tucked in a pocket attached to the belt worn by the behemoth who was carrying him to the temple, fastened in the middle of its giant body, somewhere between its tusk-surrounded circular mouth and its tentacled rear end.
"We're almost there" said the behemoth in its deep, ultrasonic voice. "You can remove your blindfold now."
Eqnor uncovered his eyes and looked ahead. They were reaching the end of a wide coral tunnel they had been traveling through. The continuous field of faintly glowing turquoise crystals that plastered the corridor kept scrolling by around him, until they reached the mouth. They emerged into a seemingly infinite space structured by a three dimensional webbing of mineral tendrils, almost completely covered with beddings of slowly undulating polyps. Eqnor had never seen a place quite like this one.
They swept through the large frames of the webbing, between schools of translucent rays and jellyfishes. Pulses of amaranthine light ran periodically through the polyps along the tendrils, as far as eyes could see. Eqnor and the behemoth kept moving down the mineral architecture, occasionally passing through streams of disconnected, slowly ascending bubbles, towards the depths of the artificial, coral-built cave.
The massive silhouette of the temple finally appeared, a complex, burgeoning coral bulb towering over a nest of bioluminescent seaweed. As they drew near the structure, the behemoth slowed and landed on a protruding platform, level with the center of the temple. Two human-sized creatures, vaguely resembling red urchins possessing paddled tentacles instead of spikes, hurried from the gate to meet them. The behemoth released Eqnor from his pocket. The two creatures received the casket with devotion, bowing as they embraced it with their tentacles. They transported Eqnor through the gate, in the antechamber of the temple. Five humanoids just like him, the remaining members of his infiltration unit, were already waiting, getting massaged by the polyps covering the chamber's walls.
"Peace be upon Qhigneod and his family" he said.
They looked at him silently, their gazes speaking a thousand words. Qhigneod had followed the human in the sub and eventually had given his life to secure the success of their mission.
Within a flash, Eqnor relived all the best memories he had with Qhigneod, both on and off the job. The ball smuggling games; funny impressions of family members; the time when they almost provoked a catastrophe while passing information to their contact in Atlantis.Gone. Forever.
But they all knew the risks of working in this unit. They had all chosen it because they wanted to do something different. Something more. Something divine. Even if that meant losing their lives.
"The priestess will receive you shortly" said one of the tentacled urchins.
It rubbed the chamber's membrane, and the sphincter that occupied a large section of the forward wall relaxed open. Eqnor's comrades remained floating aside, waiting for the urchins to take the lead and push him through. They entered a faintly illuminated corridor that soon ended in an intersection. One way up, two ways down, one on the left, one the right. They swam through the down left corridor until the next junction.
It was a maze. A three dimensional maze. They took dozens of turns — mostly downward, Eqnor noted — before finally reaching a sphincter leading to the Holy of Holies, a large circular room decorated with complex fractal patterns. As they swam into the temple, they performed the holy gestures. Except for Eqnor, who could only nod. The priestess was a sort of translucent jelly fish containing a large brain and holding a cubic object in its translucent, seemingly unsubstantial limbs. She entered the room through a sphincter on the right, and when she had placed herself between the humanoids and the altar that sat at the center of the temple, they bowed to her as well. Eqnor's heart raced. Something was radiating happiness inside his chest. He was going to meet his creator.
"Our FatherGod Poseido will now have an audience with you" the priestess said.
The urchins swam out of the temple, back into the maze, and the sphincter contracted behind them. The priestess swam to the altar, where she opened a small airlock in which she placed the cube. Eqnor lowered his head, as his comrades bowed down on the floor. The entire room vibrated for a while, and then the vibration waned, until it became almost inaudible.
"Please, rise up" said an ultrasonic voice coming from the altar. "You all have been of great service to our community. I deplore the loss of our comrade Qhigneod. Peace be upon him. He was a strength for all of us. His sacrifice will not be in vain. His family will be heavily compensated. As an expression of our gratitude, in the name of the entire community, you will all be promoted and receive special advantages. However, you will have to wait for some time for that to happen, to avoid that anyone relates them to what is about to happen. You have served your part very well. You can now rest as other units take care of the next phase. Soon, the entire ocean will be ours and we will be free to come out from hiding."To be continued...
A section of the sequel can be found on Smashwords: Flamingo Gambits Back to Stories by Author