OCEAN UNTAMED


13 Apr
13Apr

The Orion’s Arm Universe Project presents

Ocean Untamed

a short story by Remy Zins

Special thanks to Todd Drashner, the Orion’s Arm community and Loyi Mamabolo for their most valuable help

Copyright 2020 Remy Zins Smashwords Edition

Cover image : Europa Lander Mission Concept (Artist's Rendering) https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:PIA21048_-_Europa_Lander_Mission_Concept_(Artist%27s_Rendering),_Figure_1.jpg
https://www.pxfuel.com/en/free-photo-orzqd
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By the end of the 26th century, the solar system is fully colonized but plagued by the Technocrash (a.k.a. Cascading Complexity Collapse), a centuries long, system-wide series of catastrophes that will eventually claim over five billion lives. In these troubled times, everyone does their best to survive. Odys unwillingly works for a criminal organization seeking to buy R & D data on the black market. The deal takes place on a research station situated in Europa's ocean. When the situation goes awry, Odys is left running for his life. Video trailer available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ohQelY-ViPQ


Europa (Jupiter moon), year 2596 CE

Odys was simultaneously looking for a way to escape and, alternatively, a way to die quickly. But 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. He scrambled to fit himself into the heavy shell of the diving suit he had wheeled from the locker room, but there was little chance he would manage to put it on before he died of either hypothermia or drowning. The rush of adrenaline was powerful, but he knew how not to be swayed by it. 

So this was what the end of the road looked like. That was fine. He was prepared for it. There was no point continuing to live anyway, if he couldn’t get his family back. He glanced through the airlock’s greasy window into the locker room, where showers of sparks popped from the door panel. The goons on the other side were furious. They were cyborgs whose cybernetic implants had been made by the company that owned this research station, so as to maximize their efficiency as corporate security guards. But a few weeks earlier, the headquarters of their company’s parent megacorp had fallen victim to a particularly sophisticated malware outbreak. 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 fevers or infections, the antirejection mechanisms that allowed their bodies to tolerate the implants failing miserably. But all in all, most of them seemed to have adapted to their new condition rather well. So they had decided to take over the station and sell their defunct company’s assets on the black market. That was allowing them so far to weather the storm a lot better than most.

Odys had been coerced into – unknowingly – handing fake transaction keys to these cyborgs. The fake keys had proven to only be able to fool them for a few minutes, after which he had learned the bad surprise in the worst of ways. They straight up tried to kill him. They wanted back the armored case that was lying on the airlock’s floor beside him. The shootout had started before he 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 shot the locker room door’s opening mechanism to scrap 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 audited in a long time, wouldn’t throw a fatal malfunction at him in the middle of the cycle. But if it did, he would probably meet his end swiftly, and at this point for him, that was an acceptable outcome. On the off chance this didn’t happen, perhaps he would manage to hide in the kelp fields out there. Whatever would take place in the next few minutes, letting the borgs catch him alive was out of question. If he had the opportunity to confront these half-incapacitated goons one by one in single combat, he would certainly take them all down despite their superiority in sheer strength, but there were simply 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 or a laser strike. This was a moment for flight.

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 instable, distorted image on the screen showed something floating in the ocean outside the airlock, under the spotlight. The creature wasn’t wearing any suit. Its twisted shape did not resemble anything Odys had ever seen. This was a far more advanced biodesign than anything officially living in Europa’s ocean. It looked like a new kind of tweak, an engineered hybrid of humanoid design, 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. On each side, his 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 him floated some kind of fish, about the same size as him, apparently surrounded by a hard shell and possessing what seemed to be strong and long fins on either side. The tweak was holding a large kelp leaf on which a message glowed in bioluminescent letters: 

“EUROPAN EMERGENCY SUIT.”

There was no way to know what the tweak wanted of him. But he knew very well there was no rock bottom when it came to the horrible things people could do to each other, and he had no intention of discovering how far down that rabbit hole the guards on the other side of the locker room door wanted to take him. But 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.

The entire airlock vibrated. The guards had managed to force open the locker room door earlier than he had expected. The door panel had fallen to the ground and they stormed inside the room, coming straight to the airlock. They stuck their ugly face to the window, disfigured by the cameras they had sewn on their cheeks and plugged to their ocular shunts, after their bionic full-spectrum eyes had fallen prey to a malware attack. They banged furiously on the dirty window with the full force of their semimetallic fists.

Someone said over the intercom, in a strangely slurring voice: “I’ll skin you aliiive and feed you to the sluuugs, raaatfucker.” 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’ll taaake you reeeal slooow” said another voice.

Odys’ employer, a smuggler kingpin whom people outside Europa called Iceman, had decided to buy some of what these guys were selling. But his usual errand boys had been busted with the transaction keys. So he had in turn forced Odys to go on this suicide mission, to proceed with the exchange anyway.

There was no more decision to make. It was either the tweak or the guards. This was the moment of truth. Was he going to die instantly, crushed by a merciless gush of super-pressurized water, or was the tweak’s suit actually going to save him? Was he about to find out if physical death was the end of it all, or if life continued somehow afterwards? Either way, it would be fine for him. 

The sound of the guards banging on the window brought him back to the demands of the situation. No time to waste. They would cut power to the airlock any second now. 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 it almost 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. This would allow Odys to exit the airlock and place himself safely inside the suit.

Flickering emergency lights still illuminated intermittently the metallic walls and ceiling of the airlock. If the goons managed to reboot the command system, they would be able to shut the outer door, and he would be ensnared. Shivering in the cold water that now reached his waist, using all his strength, Odys dragged the suit he had earlier tried to get into, 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 cyborg tool, with organic tissues laced together with some kind of machinery? Something swiftly emerged from the shadows that lay beyond the half-open door and, before he had the time to react, it 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. Odys couldn’t move his head even a millimeter. There was no point trying to resist it. So he dropped his arms and waited. 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. It was like being swallowed by the flesh of a fish. The semiorganic tube he breathed through had a terrible taste of rotten flesh.

The suit had probably released ocean water into the airlock slowly, as it soon moved away from the station’s hull without any violent current taking place. It was now swimming through the dark waters, pretty much like a real animal would, 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 of a living animal, perhaps like a dolphin, or of a semi-autonomous machine. Probably something in between. In any case, this was a technology the likes of which he had never seen before.

Odys 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 inside the ocean, the flesh of the inner suit around his head following his movements. The seaweed fields extended forward into the darkness as far as he could see, layers of flat rectangular surfaces filled with long green leaves undulating lazily. Here and there, a few robots tending to the aquatic crops shone occasional rays of light on the fields. They seemed completely immersed in their task, kissing the leaves with their sensors, moving through the weeds along the metallic supports, on their many legs, like spiders made of aluminum bronze.

After several minutes of swimming 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 just 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, so Odys tried not to think too much about the six or seven dozen kilometers of water that separated him from the ocean floor, and concentrated his awareness 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 city. 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 rings. Each new ring, in the course of the colonization effort, 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 floating 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. A ten meter long submersible was parked just above them, its oblong and smooth shape extending away from the algae 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 just 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 much over them. 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 showed him the screen and keypad on the control panel, then proceeded to type on his own waterproof keypad inside the still fully flooded lock:

“GO TO ATLANTIS. GET BACK TO SURFACE”

“WHY ARE YOU HELPING ME?”

“YOU DELIVER MESSAGE”

“HOW?”

“NO WORRY. YOU NO HAVE ANYTHING TO DO. JUST SURVIVE.”

Odys tried to get more explanations, but the tweak moved away from the airlock’s control panel and simply ignored him. They had to get on the move anyway. He went to the windowless cockpit, a half-spheric room situated at the center of the craft, from where he could see the ocean as if the layers of metal an 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 set the route straight towards Atlantis, from where he would hopefully be able to make his way into the twenty kilometer long Shaft that went from the underwater capital up to the surface of Europa’s ice shell. It was at least a two hour ride at full throttle to Atlantis, 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 came the most difficult part of the mission. 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. Three earthweeks earlier, the team they relied on usually for this type of transaction had been busted with the original transaction keys, and the boss had no plan B. Which was why Odys had been sent on this suicide mission. 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, the sonar sent a proximity alert. There were half a dozen craft between his location and Atlantis, headed directly his way. Odys 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. They had 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 half-spherical screen that surrounded him. The plankton farms were among the ones who were doing the best, but still a significant portion of them had already gone bankrupt, so that the remaining farms concentrated in their vicinity an increasingly starving wildlife. When the last of these farms would go bankrupt or become crippled by malfunctions due to the various malware outbreaks that periodically swept through the solar system, the entire oceanic ecosystem of Europa’s ocean would collapse.

These farms were too widely separated. It would be difficult to use them so as to confuse his pursuers enough to escape. 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 went 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. Those had probably been following him all along, as they were coming from the direction of the research station. Odys tapped on the popup icon that proposed 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 course the various subs would take, and it was clear: they were going to intercept him long before he would get anywhere near the farms.

Odys pulled up a map of the surroundings and checked what laid in the directions that left him the best chance of avoiding both groups of pursuers. About half an hour away, huge bubbles of turbulent warm water, several kilometers across, welled up from hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor, over seventy kilometers below. Odys set the sub’s trajectory in that direction. He could try to hide behind 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.

Twenty minutes later, another spot appeared on his sonar. Much faster than the others. The new craft was still behind both packs of pursuing subs, but it would overtake them soon. Some of the cyborgs must have hijacked a tourist speed craft. This showed how dedicated they were to capturing him. When he reached the first column of turbulence, the speed craft was less than a kilometer behind him. Odys turned around the turbulent area, 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 column of warm water before they could spot him, and then repeat the maneuver. But since he couldn’t see them either, it would be a difficult to pull off.

No more than thirty seconds later, they had picked up his scent and were on his tail. They were way too fast. There would be no way to escape them now. He rushed towards the nearest column of hot water bubbles 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. Odys drove deeper into the bubble and the ride became even rougher. He hoped the tweak had found a way to strap himself in and secure the biosuit so as not to be harmed by its rough shell.

The temperature of the surrounding water was rising. The race craft was catching up. They could come as near as they wanted, but there was no way anyone could board his sub in this environment. 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 his head. And then came the electric shock. His entire nervous system set on 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 revered master, a true Shaolin was able to withstand any amount of pain. But Odys never got anywhere near that far. All he ever managed were only 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 that worked on independent batteries. 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 race craft.

Now what Odys had to do was releasing 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 reeled to the airlock and started opening the panels protecting its command system. Despite his profound feeling of disorientation, it took him only two minutes 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 the outer door and the tweak rushed into the ocean. A few seconds later, Odys 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.

He woke up when a semi-metallic fist hit 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 uncontrollably as he screamed uncontrollably. Someone was stabbing him in the leg.

“What’s the key to the case, asshole?” said a more articulate voice, apparently less subject to glitches resulting from the ongoing technocrash.

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 walking up to him, holding a welding torch. He was an ugly sight to behold. A vulgar security camera had been mounted on his face, output wires running into his eye sockets. He had shaved his hair on one side of his skull, where a pack of scars indicated a sloppy surgical operation had been attempted there. His hand that wasn’t holding the torch twitched intermittently.

“You guys think you can do whatever you want down here. But this is our territory. When your buddies find you, you’ll barely be able to speak. That’ll show them. This ocean is ours.”

It was clearer now. Odys was sitting, hands tied behind his back, on a stool inside a sparkling clean and relatively large service room he didn’t recognize, filled with lockers, a sleek control screentable and two doors on either side. Probably somewhere inside the race craft. He thought of the razor blade he was wearing, hidden under a fake silicon scar at the base of his spine. But there was no way he could use it before this psycho got to him.

Suddenly, the entire craft heaved, and the cyborgs struggled to keep their balance. A strident alarm filled the room. A feminine, strangely calm voice resonated on top of it:

“Alert. Hull breach. Proceed to emergency evacuation immediately.”

This must have been the tweak doing his best to help him. Ignoring the pain in his leg, Odys took advantage of the surprise, stood up and kicked the borg with the welding torch in the crotch. He dodged a knife attack, kicked the attacker in the back, then jumped on the third goon to catch his torso between his legs in a scissors grab, making him fall to the floor before yanking a set of output plugs from his facial camera. Phra Shi Chan wouldn’t be proud of him. He had failed to stop the violence before it started and had instead only added to it. But there was simply no way he would to take additional risks that would certainly lead him to being tortured. Besides, he had no time to spare for second thoughts. He only had a few seconds to free his hands, still restrained behind his back. He removed the razor blade from the silicon patch and cut the skin above his right wrist. Warm blood flowed down his hand.

The cyborg who had the knife got back on his feet and drew a gun. Odys ducked behind the screentable. The blood had now made the skin of his hand slippery enough. He seized the restraint around his right wrist with his left hand and pulled hard. He almost didn’t feel the pain when he dislocated his thumb. His hand was free now. He put his right thumb back into place with a solid tap of his left palm. This pain was nothing compared to what he was trying to avoid. The borg with the gun was now drawing dangerously near the screentable. Odys grabbed the edge of the table and swung himself around its side, legs in front, so as to kick his attacker in the shin and throw him out of balance. The cyborg fell and banged his head on the table, breaking his facial camera in this process. Odys grabbed the gun, pointing it alternately towards each of the two who were lying on the floor, looking at him. He grabbed the armored case, moved towards the pressure door that led to the rear of the craft where the airlock was probably located, and checked the control panel. On the screen, a crosssection map of the sub showed that everything behind this door was flooded. One of the borgs tried to get back on his feet. Odys shot him in the knee. It didn’t do much damage to his kevlar-coated articulation, but it served as a warning. Odys could always incapacitate their facial cameras and render them blind.

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 dead the two remaining cyborgs, who could still pose a threat to him. 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. Besides, none of these borgs could walk properly now. In this sinking sub, they were not as much of a threat any more.

“Guys, just try to save yourselves,” he said.

He stepped through the door and left them behind. Everything in this sub was neat and tidy, a sight that was increasingly rare these days. Odys saw in passing the reflection of his face on a sleek 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. But there was no time for self-pity. The pods weren’t far, just a couple of passageway bends away. But when Odys arrived in the corridor from where the pods, lodged between the hulls, were accessible, five of them were already gone and two of the tourist craft crew were preparing themselves to take another each.

“Stop everything! Raise your hands.”

The crewmen obeyed. They were obviously not a threat. Probably just scared to death. There were still more pods available than there were people in this corridor. Odys tucked the gun inside his belt behind his back and approached them.

“Alright, fellas. Go on, get in your pods. But don’t try to follow me. Just go to the nearest farm.”

Odys helped them to lie down 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 reach easily the opening and slid himself into the pod, placing the case between his legs. It felt more like a torpedo or a high-tech coffin than a submersible. He hit the button that closed the hatch behind him and thumbed the control to launch himself into the ocean. 

At a distance, under the sub’s projectors, the tweak was floating, inert, amidst waters stained by his own blood. Odys 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 message was Odys supposed to convey, and to whom? Was there something he wasn’t aware of in the case? As far as he knew, it contained only biological samples and a data core. What kind of information was worth this much commitment? He’d have to find time to analyze the contents of the case. If he managed to survive that long.

The pod didn’t have enough range to perform the eighty odd kilometer trip to Atlantis. Besides, the other pursuing craft would arrive any minute now. His only chance to escape them 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. The pod had finished its health assessment and informed him he had sustained multiple damage but that it was working to counteract it, alongside measures to heal the wound in his thigh. A set of needles injected drugs into his neck and femoral artery.

Odys took manual control of the pod, deactivated the transponder and dove straight into the turbulent waters. The pod shook like a leaf in a hurricane, but so far it was working. Following him this deep into the turbulence would be even more suicidal with the larger craft they had. He drove 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. The nausea reached an extreme level 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 could guarantee his safety for about forty more hours. After that, it would start running out of oxygen and power to keep him warm and alive. 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 in this coffin, Odys fell asleep.

After a very long time, the chime of an incoming transmission woke him up. 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 Odys had to hope they weren’t too plagued by glitches to succeed in rescuing him.


Earth, 8 years earlier

The black rot which was still consuming entire ecologies 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 drinks 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 fullfledged 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 strop growing in Dharma. The reward is ultimate freedom.”

In the Buddhist terminology, Dharma 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. But Odys was generally too restless to have enough patience for sitting meditation, which was yet the crux of the Path. It went to show he was largely hopeless.

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 bubble windshield. This buggy was in rather good condition. 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. The gas giant 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 Jupiter, its atmosphere producing a glowing arc of red twilight all around it. As far as eyes 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 enigmatically 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, on the upper side of the moon’s ice shelf. 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 certainly had created a new precedent there, but he wouldn’t recommend anyone to try the same. The robots that had rescued him had taken significants risk. They had buried themselves under tons of ice to avoid flooding their galleries, and create a makeshift airlock carved into ice. They had then heavily sealed the tunnel they had drilled to rescue him form the liquid waters before reopening the way to their network of mining galleries.

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 would stare at the reflection of his face on the cabin’s window, that still looked miserably red and swollen. Probably under the weight of fatigue and monotony, he inadvertently drifted into day dreaming, 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. But Odys loathed catching himself entertaining out of reach fantasies. It was time to refocus on his objective.

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 path crossed this region, the one that was used for maintenance on 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 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. It had reached a dead end that didn’t show on the map he had used to program the route. The ice blades field had simply become too dense for the buggy to be able to continue through. He first checked for an alternate route on the bubble 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 and put on his suit 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 situated beside the rear hatch. All the air inside the buggy was pumped back into storage in a pop he felt faintly from inside his suit. He opened the hatch, picked up the case and jumped down. The suit was protecting him from the deadly radiations that sterilized Europa’s unwelcoming surface. The ice was hard as rock under his feet. The sun was shining in the dark sky, now clearly outside Jupiter’s atmosphere. It illuminated the surrounding ridges with its faint yellow glow.

Odys used the screenpad on top of his right arm to orient himself, and then jumped forward. He rose slowly 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 keep as much of it as possible in case anything would go sideways. So he had to be very careful to avoid touching the extremely uneven ground on an overly inclined surface. Sometimes, 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 graciously, 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 meters 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. He checked his navigation device was correctly set towards 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.

Odys had to be careful now. This was the most dangerous part, where he could start meeting people. Around a fourth of the way along the inverted parabola of a five meter high jump, his head display warned him of a moving object behind him. He enhanced immediately 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, letting his pursuer draw near. As he was about to get hit by the collision, Odys fired his thrusters downwards, to drop 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 too much their nitrogen reserve. Odys hit the ground, absorbing as much of the impact as possible in his body to minimize the bounce, and tried to stay low. He came to a halt without additionally using his thrusters on the second impact. The attacker had landed somewhere ahead, nearby. He couldn’t keep exposing himself like that.

But there was no time to think. A new figure emerged above a nearby promontory, on a trajectory aimed directly at him. 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: ‘ When you have to deal with several problems at once, always 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 into a direction in 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 current 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, operated a strong rotation of his hips to make the two of them flip over, released his hold and then kicked off his attacker a fraction of a second before he crashed into the other incoming assailant. 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. He 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, at an angle, like the slope of a mountain turned upside down, and approaching fast. He fired all that remained in his thrusters in a direction as close as possible from that of the ground, 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. Shit . One of his pursuers appeared in the sky and soon after, upon completing their parabolic trajectory, made a soft landing, assisted by their suit’s maneuvering thrusters. Odys was unable to defend himself. Hell, he was 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.

Another figure touched down on the icy surface nearby and walked towards Odys. 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. There was nothing he could 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. Had she just downloaded his personal database, 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 by then and she 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. As you can see, I don’t have the case. I lost it when the drone hit me.”

“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? These guys want to fix me now ?

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.

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. Then, without a single word, they helped him get up and someone shoved the case in his good hand. After that, 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 made no sense. How did they find him here, in the middle of nowhere? Why had they given him back the case and why instead of taking it, did they appear to scan the database in his hip? It contained only a few personal files and a as many free online tutorials as he could stuff in it. And why try to heal him after causing the injuries in the first place?

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 radiations. Only parabolas, 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 shipping crates, appeared in front of him. It smelled essentially of 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 on the other shoulder and tried to snatch the case from his good hand, but Odys managed to secure his grip on it as he rolled voluntarily to the ground. The landing was awfully painful. He wouldn’t be able to get up easily now. He was surrounded by seven or eight men looking down at him. Viktor “Two Fingers” stood in front, wearing his usual turtle neck shirt, a white scarf hanging from his neck. His rugged face displayed a dark version of amusement.

“I’m injured!” said Odys. “Can’t you see my face?” It was still largely red and swollen. 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!”

“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, idiot.”

Odys sighed. How could he have been so stupid? He held the case in front of him. 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, provided the proper religious ritual was performed.

“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. His 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.” 

Someone pressed the dirty sole of their boot on his cheek, before spitting on him. At least they didn’t kick him in the face. In turn, another three or four guys spat on him, and then the smugglers walked away with their precious case. Odys wiped his face as best as he could with the back of his hand. He had just 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. Looking back, his entire life felt empty, meaningless, desperate and harrowing. If only he could just die of his injuries now, it would either be the end of it all, or he would find a life that could only be better. The hangar seemed empty now. Why not just die here, in the cold?

But thuds and clumps indicated that somebody had entered the bay. This could mean yet more trouble. The wisest thing to do seemed to stay quiet. But if it came to that, he would try to get shot fatally. He crawled slowly to the nearest pile of crates and sat up, leaning his back on 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 make his situation worse was if these people were members of the yakuzas or some other rival faction.

But they were women disguised in public service jumpsuits. Their leader appeared soon after, hidden inside a buggy topped with a half-sphere of tinted glass. The front part of the sphere rotated open, and there she appeared, leaning on the edge. The mermaid looked even better than usual, with her red hair and her low-cut purple dress. It didn’t show from where he was standing, but Odys knew she was the successful result of what was thought to be a cutting-edge genetic experiment, a human torso mounted on a fish tail. It was said that the wife of Mario “Iceman” Scroggins – Two Fingers’ boss – 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. Your face is in ruins. I’m so sorry. We were being short on time.“

Why was she apologizing? Odys and the mermaid didn’t know each other very much. To him, she was the big boss’ wife, someone who navigated the high spheres of power, someone against whom he should protect himself. He had seen her quite a few times at Mario’s parties, but only from afar. He was surprised she could even recognize him.

“You know,” she continued, “most 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 the Tritonian refugees. Or was it when you 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 wasn’t here to rough him up some more. Or at least not immediately. But what could she want now? The case was 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 did they want now?

“I like you, Odys. You deserve better than this.”

She nodded to one of her assistants, who came to squat in front of him, 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. His family. Finally. He could almost feel them all touching his mind. An invisible glow warmed his chest from within. But then once again, he saw them all dead, in their Chiang Mai family home.

“I just have one question for you” said the mermaid. “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?”

“The monks in the city temples back on Earth said they knew how to perform it, and they even asked for a huge reward in exchange. It worked on my friend’s family. He had been a monk once and showed me how to do it. He said it would work anywhere.”

“And you’ve never thought you’d been scammed? I should have known better. Never meet your heroes, you’re guaranteed to be disappointed.”

Odys had been too young back then. Could he indeed have been scammed, after all? But Rav would have never done that to him. Or would he?

“The truth is, Odys, that we’re preparing for a big event around here.”

Odys looked at her, confused. 

“Here… you mean…” he said, pointing his finger around.

“I mean, on Europa, as a whole. 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 you.”

“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 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.”

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