Relic

 

“Relic”

by Gunnar De Winter

 

I Birth I

Beneath miles of ice, Xian floated in freezing water.

Hunting. Scavenging for signs of life. Of past life.

Once teeming with tiny creatures, Europa’s oceans were now devoid of endemic dwellers, but their rare remnants were valuable.

Xian’s torso gills – fragile frills of blood-red tissue that emanated from between her ribs – quivered. As a modified relic hunter she could deal with limited oxygen availability and water pressure. The cold was the real killer here. A blinking message on the HUD of her visor told her that the power of her full body fibre mesh had decreased by half. No microfossils today.

Then she saw it, at the base of a white smoker that vomited minerals and molecules into the subglacial ocean. A rocky slab. Too neat and symmetrical to be natural. The squiggles on it too complex and ordered to have been formed by tide and erosion.

A few kicks of her powerful flipper-encased legs and Xian was within reach. The heat from the vent almost burned her ironically complaining mesh. She pried it loose and held it up.

This was big. Huge. Priceless. Well, almost priceless. Xian was pretty sure she’d be able to put a price tag on it. A smile tugged at the corners of her wide mouth.

The heat on her skin and the HUD’s warning messages drew her away from reveries of decadence and wealth. Snuggly fitted in the protective slime-sack between her shoulder blades, the slab travelled to Bubble with her.

When the city came in sight, Xian began struggling. The cold had maliciously seeped into her muscles, a power-draining parasite weakening its prey. Her strokes became less powerful and the thrust provided by her legs was lacking intensity. Reluctantly, she activated the propulsion functionality of the mesh, which would reallocate power from the heating elements. The chill became worse, but she had no choice.

Accompanied by a chorus of chattering teeth, Xian reached the osmosis field of Bubble, the only human enclave in the vast world-spanning ocean. True to its name, the city hung in a carefully maintained air bubble pressed against the bottom of the ice shell that covered the moon’s surface. The town’s cold, solid heaven protected its inhabitants from the radiation that battered the moon’s exterior, the same radiation that prevented regular visits from other worlds and moons. For all intents and purposes, the residents of Bubble were on their own.

The young scavenger tried to control the shaking of her body and pushed through the carefully maintained osmosis field. It clung to her and left behind a thin layer of translucent mucus. When Xian had struggled through completely, the muck sealed itself beneath her feet. She forced her cold muscles into action and reached up, feeling as though she was trying to swim through thick jelly. She grabbed hold of a carbon tentacle.

For a while, Xian just hung there, laboriously breathing through the sludge that sheathed her.

Someone came reeling down the tether.

“Honey?” the lithe woman asked. With a smooth move, she uncovered a short black carbon knife and cautiously peeled away the slimy layer to reveal what was hidden underneath: her daughter.

Xian’s mind climbed out of its cold-induced slumber. She awoke in one of the main Drops.

The buildings in Bubble were almost all tear-shaped, their tapering tops firmly anchored in the ice with thick graphene cables like the ones that connected the Drops among themselves. Shiny dewdrops in a black spider web.

Every muscle complained as Xian propped herself up on her elbows.

“Aha, there you are,” Zenqi said. A mischievous twinkle in Xian’s mother’s dark brown, almost black eyes followed the initial milliseconds of worried frowning.

Xian grunted. She cautiously flexed and relaxed all major muscle groups one by one, a trick she had learned when she still was an aspiring subglacial diver. Her fingers travelled between her ribs and made sure her gills had properly retracted into their intercostal pouches. Everything was sore, but no severe damage had been done.

Her mother came over and helped her daughter sit up in the copiously blanketed and cushioned bed. From the small bedside table, she handed Xian a wafting, salty algal soup.

“Here, that’ll help.”

“Thanks.” Xian wrapped her hands around the warm bowl.

They lived in a three-room apartment located in the bulbous body of a central Drop. Working class territory. The higher you got, the more exclusive the habitation. Until you reached the upper end, where only the obscenely rich dwelled. Some of them were even rumoured to have labyrinths cut out in the ice.

“How are you feeling?”

Xian sipped the soup. The assault of salt made her squint. “Sore. Stupid.” She remembered the slab and looked around anxiously. It was still safely ensconced by the gooey shoulder pack, placed on the little bamboo table beside the bed. A relieved sigh escaped her.

Zenqi, of course, noticed. The small woman walked over to the pack, picked it up, and placed it on Xian’s lap. “So, what do we have here?”

Wide-eyed, Xian looked at the mysterious artefact. “I don’t know.”

“Looks valuable.” With a flexibility belying her wrinkled face, her mother sat down on an old wicker chair and wrapped her legs into full lotus.

Xian put down the soup bowl and unwrapped the mystery object from its mushy cover. She stroked it, caressed it as carefully as if it was a new-born puppy. It wasn’t as cold as she expected. The squiggles seemed to vibrate at the periphery of perception. The blurred edges emphasized their own mystery. A soft bluish light could be felt more than seen. Enchanting. “Yes,” Xian mumbled.

The old woman’s head bobbed up and down a few times, eyes closed in contemplation.

It was one of the few Drops that didn’t have the sleek, smooth design of a raindrop. Instead, it looked more like an asymmetrical octahedron with an upper pyramid at least three times as large as the stumped bottom one. The boundary between both pyramids was composed out of a wide strip of eerie green windows.

Peculiar according to some. Creepy according to most.

The home of Faraon. The erstwhile scientist, obsessed by ancient Egypt, had set up his own research station in Bubble. No one knew what he was actually researching. Faraon himself, on the other hand, seemed to be up-to-date with everything that happened in the underwater city.

After having reheated her muscles while traversing the graphene tow-bridges, Xian entered the lobby of the large private Drop, flanked by her smaller mother.

“Are you sure about this?” Zenqi sounded unconvinced.

“He’s definitely going to be interested.”

“True. But I don’t trust him.”

“We’ve worked with him before.”

Unexpectedly, it was Faraon himself who came to welcome them. The skin of his face was a tad too taut to be natural. Heavy make-up made his eyes look uncannily large. Thick black braids emerged from his skull, segmented and falling down to just below his shoulders. His smile revealed long predatory canines.

“Aha.” His silk voice threaded its way into the ears of his guests. “Misses Zenqi and Xian. Always a pleasure to see you. Have you come to offer me another one of the exquisite micro’s you’re so good at finding?”

“Perhaps we have something better this time.”

Faraon’s eyes narrowed and his sculpted right eyebrow travelled slightly upwards. Several of his metallic braids buzzed softly and pointed their blunt ends forward. Soft red light emanated from the mechanical head-snakes.

“Hmm . . . Indeed you have. Let’s see it then.”

Xian removed the slab from its slimy safe haven. Faraon stepped closer and peered at the artefact. “My, my . . . extraordinary. Where did you find this? Did you see anything else?”

“Let’s focus on this first,” Xian said.

Faraon tore his gaze away from the entrancing object and smiled. “Of course.”

“What’s your best offer?”

“Xian,” her mother hissed.

Faraon held up his hand. “It’s alright, Miss Zenqi. Youthful exuberance and candidness might have left us old folk, but it’s invigorating to see it’s still alive. Good Xian,” he continued, “before I can give a truthful answer to your question, I’d like to know more about the object in question. Perhaps we can agree to let me have a look at it overnight and we’ll discuss further proceedings in the morning?”

“Good Faraon,” she replied, the sarcasm in her voice barely hidden well enough to escape notice, “out of respect and a mutually beneficial and respectful trading relationship we came to you first. But, as I’m sure you can imagine, there are other interested parties. Giving you an exclusive opportunity to investigate this priceless,” she emphasized this last word, “object would give you an unfair advantage compared to other potential buyers.”

Zenqi hissed her name again.

With an unwavering smile, Faraon nodded. “I see.” He rubbed his smooth chin. “Fair enough. Contact the other parties. However, given our, how did you call it, mutually respectful relationship, I ask that you also deny those others a chance to have a closer look. Also, I would appreciate it if you would come to me before making any decision regarding who you’re going to hand it over to eventually.”

Xian pursed her full lips. “That sounds fair.” She extended her hand. “We’ll talk soon.”

Faraon shook the proffered hand. “Yes, we will.”

As they navigated the black tow bridges back to their apartment her mother could no longer keep her disapproval voiceless. “Why did you do that, Xian?”

“Do what?”

“You know what I’m talking about.”

Xian sighed. “We can’t seem too eager to sell at the first chance we get.”

“Do you even have other buyers?”

“Not yet.”

Her mother shook her head ostentatiously, much to Xian’s annoyance.

“What?”

“You shouldn’t underestimate a man’s desire. Certainly not Faraon’s. He’s always been unduly attracted to novelty, to the unknown.”

“Don’t worry mother, we’ll just let him stew for a while. It’ll push the price up. Besides, we all know he’s going to buy it eventually. This is just part of the game.”

“I don’t know, hon. He hides things behind his smile.”

With a flick of his wrist, Faraon spun the hologram around. His nanotech-laden braids had captured most of the artefact’s details, but he needed – wanted – the real thing.

“Curious indeed,” he murmured, studying the squiggles on the slab’s surface. Signs? Or something else entirely? He had noticed the faint pulsating light emanating from the glyphs. Bioluminescence? Then it wouldn’t be a message from some past life form, but life itself. Either option would be priceless. Either option had to be his. And Xian knew it.

“Sir?” A whisper, easily mistaken for an artificially induced autumn wind were it not that Faraon had expected it.

He turned. “Aha. Seth.”

The tall cloaked man bowed.

“Look at this. What do you think?”

“Odd . . . Unexpected.”

“Exactly. Have you ever heard of bioverms?”

The cloak’s hood shook once.

“Basically, the patterned growth of microbial communities under extreme conditions. Anyway, I think that’s what we’ve got here. But to be sure I need the original. And I need it quickly, before anyone else gets a hold of it. The potential here is . . . immense.”

Faraon walked over to the green-tinted windows. He looked out across the dangling Drops in Bubble. We’ve come so far. And we’ve got so far yet to go . . . I’ve got so far yet to go. The intensity of the light emitted by the algae that clung to the ice-roof of the underwater city diminished. Night time. Biological rhythms had proven hard to change.

“Can’t buy it?”

“She might go to other interested parties first.” Faraon turned briskly on his heels. “I can’t have that. No one can know about this. Exclusivity is important here.”

“Understood.”

“Night is falling. They probably haven’t contacted anyone else yet. But you’ll need to act quickly. And it would be . . . convenient were the witnesses of this find to disappear.”

Seth nodded. Soundlessly, he turned and walked towards the door.

“Oh, and Seth, take Babi and Baba.”

With smug satisfaction, Faraon noticed the slight hesitation in Seth’s step. Good to know that the spectre, despite his demeanour, still knew fear.

“Yes sir.”

The blue light was everywhere. It glowed softly and pervaded everything. It seemed to be closing in. Xian’s breath sped up and fear grabbed hold of her mind and her muscles.

Panting, she opened her eyes. Just a dream.

She glanced over to the corner of the room where she had hid the pouch with the slab beneath a plank.

Is that . . .?

A faint blue glow radiated from the hidden cache, creeping out from between imperfections in its wooden cover. Eerie shadows danced on the room’s walls. Weird shadows. One in the corner seemed too tall. It looked as if it had to hunch just to fit in the small space. Behind it, two smaller ones trembled restlessly.

The tall one moved.

As the inertia of sleep dissipated, Xian realized those weren’t shadows.

Seth stepped towards the corner where the blue glow was strongest. His two companions moved into the light. Mandrills. But larger and more muscular than the ones Xian had seen on the images in the data archives.

With an upheld hand, Seth kept them back. “This doesn’t have to be unpleasant,” he whispered.

Babi and Baba shifted uneasily, barely restraining themselves.

For a brief moment, the scene froze.

Then another shadow flew in and knocked Seth against the wall. “Run, honey. Run!”

In one smooth movement, Xian jumped from her bed, removed the plank, and slung the pouch onto her back as she lunged for the door.

Babi and Baba pounced after her with all the enthusiasm of wild animals finally let loose to hunt their preferred prey.

Despite a lifetime of experience darting over the tow bridges in Bubble, Xian knew she was no match for the monkeys’ acrobatic agility. They swerved over and around the carbon ropes, closing in too rapidly for comfort.

Down. Down. If I can just get to the water…

She let go of all caution and jumped from one thick cable to another, lower one. And again. She barely held on and scraped her arms as she frantically tried to grab hold.

Between the strands of Bubble’s spider web, she saw a clear path all the way down to the osmosis field and jumped.

Just before she reached the safe world of water, strong and wiry fingers grabbed her ankle. One of the mandrills tossed her backwards, casually, back into Bubble’s great carbon mesh.

Her way down was blocked by the two ferocious beasts chasing her. With all the desperation of nearly caught quarry she kept pushing her muscles into movement. Up this time.

If not water, then ice.

She knew there were some maintenance tunnels, but she hoped the labyrinth rumours were true. Feeling the hot breath of her pursuers, she headed towards the middle of Bubble. After all, that’s were the major tunnels were. She saw the eerie glow of Faraon’s dwelling. She diverted her route and went for it. Not that she was planning on giving in, on giving up her one chance of escaping this life. But if anyone had the means and audacity to carve private hidden tunnels…

Faraon sighed.

I should have just taken it when I had the chance.

He turned off the live-feed form the mandrills’ retinal implants.

If you want something done right . . .

He walked over to the alcove where the exo-suit prototype was stored. The dark grey contraption mimicked a blown-up human skeleton, only with a hole where the face was supposed to be.

Manicured fingers danced deftly across the wall screen. Faraon ran a final diagnostic check before he commanded the glass cover to slide away. He opened up the suit.

Muffled mumbling stopped him. He spun around.

Seth had returned with a captive. In his long, wiry arms, the tall man held Zenqi who was defiantly struggling in his vice grip.

“Sir.” The word was little more than an exhalation.

“My my, what a gift you bring me. Despite your initial failure,” he couldn’t resist adding.

Hidden in the shadow of the hood, jaw muscles clenched.

Faraon proceeded to climb into the exo-suit and closed it around him. He stepped out of the alcove with a limberness that seemed to contradict the heavy look of the man-machine combination. His steps were almost as silent as those of Seth.

“Stay here. And don’t let this one escape too.”

With long elastic bounds, Faraon strode across the large central room in his Drop. The exit doors opened and he flung himself out, swinging from cable to tow bridge to cable with a smoothness that rivalled that of his mandrills.

Xian didn’t know how she had done it, but so far she had managed to elude her frantic chasers. They were probably just playing with her.

She extended her torso gills to pump extra oxygen to her protesting muscles, which gave her just enough of a boost to keep climbing to the upper edge of Bubble.

Almost directly above Faraon’s Drop she found a small hatch into the ice.

Quickly, she spun the lock, entered the tunnel and closed the hatch behind her. She used a wrench – probably left there by the maintenance crews – to block the mechanism. The mandrills pounded on the metal doorway.

Surely they couldn’t breach it?

She allowed herself a few breaths. The cold suddenly seeped into her awareness. Fortunately she had gone to bed in her fibre mesh to ease her aching body after nearly drowning that morning.

The pounding stopped. It was replaced by a more controlled tapping. Xian didn’t respond and the tapping grew louder, impatient.

It died down.

After a few moments of silence, a loud creak pierced the cold air. She could see the wrench bending.

Impossible.

She had to move.

Half running, half sliding, she entered the ice tunnel. Her fibre mesh responded automatically even though Xian was sweating with effort. On the soles of her hands and feet, the thin fibres reshaped their profile, giving their bearer traction on the ice.

“Xian.”

Faraon’s voice slithered through the tunnels and reverberated on the ice walls. Echoes of echoes echoed around Xian. Her name came at her from all sides.

“Xian. Stop. This is just a misunderstanding. Let’s talk about it.”

How stupid does he think I am? I’ve been a fool. Of course the madman wants this thing for himself. And I’ll bet you he’ll be very eager to erase all traces of it while he milks it for all its worth. All traces. Including me. Including . . . mom?

“Xian?”

Closer this time. Uncomfortably close.

Her muscles were failing. They had already gone above and beyond their capacity. Now, reluctantly, they were shutting down. A torrent of lactic acid ruthlessly flooded them.

She stumbled, looked around. This was a smaller tunnel. She couldn’t remember how she got here. No maintenance equipment.

The cool ice floor drew her into its embrace. Soothing her, seducing her into the blackness of unconsciousness.

No. Have to keep going. Can’t . . .

A snarl. A growl. Her pursuers were near.

She dislodged the pouch, turned onto her back, and clung her treasure to her chest.

There was one more way to stay out of Faraon’s hands. Besides, she couldn’t be that high up, could she?

She fired up her mesh, ignoring the warning signs that invaded her already starred vision.

Xian sank into the ice.

First, heat.

Then, cold.

Her world shrank. Her consciousness too.

Stay awake. Stay focused. Stay…

Resistance.

The pouch’s descent slowed. Xian’s did not. Blue light sparkled shyly. The slab reacted to the cold. Or, more precisely, the squiggles did. They left their rocky fortress and ventured out into the world. Into their world.

Xian’s fingers lost their connection to the artefact. Her torso gills worked hard, trying to extract whatever modicum of oxygen there might be in the thin layer of melt water surrounding Xian.

Darkness.

Xian fell.

Play dead. The oldest trick in the book.

Zenqi closed her eyes. The room was austere, but not uncomfortable. She was lying on a soft sand-coloured sofa. Her captor was surely watching her through one of the many remote eyes the room was rich.

She slowed her breathing. She was never the diver her daughter was, but there was one thing from the training she excelled at. Biofeedback. Induced torpor.

She shut off the outside world. Her whole existence became a faint purple light in a sea of black. The light pulsated in tune with her heartbeat. It grew fainter, slower.

Zenqi withdrew. Only the faintest flicker of life remained, waiting to be rekindled.

Faraon stopped suddenly. Babi and Baba slid past him as they scrambled in their attempts to come to a halt. Nails and ice produced a symphony of screeching sounds.

This ice was freshly frozen.

Faraon crouched. His visor flashed as different filters struggled to repaint reality.

A form. A human form.

He saw Xian.

She vanished.

“She went through,” he mumbled. “That’s . . .” Crazy? Brilliant?

Faraon turned and sprinted back to the entrance of the ice tunnel system. His mandrills were loving all the excitement. Their high-pitched chatter followed their master as they ran.

Faraon had shed his external skeleton in favour of a silken tunic. He looked at the two bodies on the faux-granite slabs.

“So she’s . . . dead? Alive?”

Seth shrugged slightly and lifted his hands, palms facing forward.

“Interesting.” Faraon frowned. “I can’t believe these two have bested you. Again.”

Silence. A tense gaze. The bond between master and follower stretched.

The Egyptophile broke the tension. “Anyway, keep her on ice. If it’s torpor I want to know how she did it. Could be useful.”

“Now, on to this one.” Ceiling appendages spewed red light and approached Xian’s bruised and battered body. Faraon’s braids shivered a little as they wirelessly received the scan’s information. Frostbite. Burns. Broken ribs. Shattered pelvis. Pulverized left knee. Decreased brain activity.

But life. She was still there, somewhere inside herself.

“Excellent.”

Reading her brain and dissecting her memories would be possible. Hard and time-consuming, but possible.

In the meantime . . . “Seth, scour every ice molecule on this moon. Get me the slab before anyone else gets hold of it. I don’t care what you have to do, who you have to convince. It’s time for you to atone for your failures.”

The spectre bowed his head and quietly removed himself from the scene.

Europan life had adapted to the cold. Some of the more hardy forms had even learned to love it. Need it.

Affectionately hugged by the frost of the ocean-covering ice, the squiggles rediscovered their breath of life.

Merely hours later, for the first time in eons, an eerie blue glow danced inside Europa’s ice.

 

II Birth II

There was only darkness.

Xian couldn’t see. Xian couldn’t move.

Yet she was unable to shake the feeling that someone else was in here with her, rooting around, poking, prodding.

She tried to scream. The sound never manifested.

There was only darkness.

Faraon found himself inside a large colourful brain. Flashes surrounded him. Neurons talked among themselves. Synapses spoke in a code he was trying to decipher. Like a hunter, he chased the sparks of activity. With flicks of his fingers, he zoomed in and out at random intervals, trying to perceive detail and overview at the same time.

A string of blue numbers appeared and curled around him like a snake constricting its prey. He grabbed the sequence and flung it towards a brain area in front of him. The numbers were absorbed by the pulsing neurons. In response, they glittered with throbs of synaptic action. New connections were made, new clues unearthed.

The holoprojector in the ceiling buzzed.

Faraon quickly saved the new information onto the computational memory that had been laced throughout the walls of his entire Drop.

The brain faded.

He couldn’t risk overheating the projector. Or Xian. It was her brain, after all.

Faraon stood in the centre of the empty domed room. A small black cylinder hung from the dome’s pinnacle. The projector’s stalactite shone with heat. For a while, Faraon simply remained there, drowned in swirling thoughts.

Eventually, he walked to his study, holding his chin to support his frowning face.

With a wave of his hand, he activated the compu-table and called up the latest data. Numbers rolled across the transparent table. His braids leapt in excitement as they noticed the heaps of virtual canapés being spread across the buffet table.

A code. A message. A thought. A memory.

Somewhere in there, in that torrent of encoded neuronal sparks, a buried treasure lay waiting. Waiting for him, and him alone.

The slab was out there somewhere. And with it, the bioverms it carried. Priceless nuggets of knowledge. They were his. He just had to figure out where Xian had hid the curious chunk of rock.

Seth was searching the ice and retracing the Xian’s steps. So far without result. The scanners hadn’t turned up anything either. Unusual. Unexpected. Then again, Xian had proven to be remarkably resourceful.

Faraon shook his head. The braids reluctantly settled back down.

With a one-two swipe, Faraon cleared the table of Xian’s data and replaced it with that of Zenqi. Like daughter, like mother. Self-induced torpor in humans was a rare ability. He wondered if Zenqi could will herself out of it or if she needed some kind of stimulus. Useful nonetheless. He would analyse her body and brain, and teach himself how to become a living dead.

He contemplatively sauntered to the stasis room. The chill painted his breath in vapour. He looked down on the two sarcophagi and circled them, letting his hand softly trace the outlines.

Funny how things go. Maybe they could have negotiated. But Xian was ambitious. Stubborn. She would have gone to others, even if only to drive the price up. He couldn’t have that. No one could know until he had sucked up all the knowledge contained in the artefact.

His jaw clenched.

It was his. His alone.

Seth looked at the screen.

The temperature had gone down severely. His mesh was straining. The heat of the fibres angrily bit his skin, yet his core temperature struggled to maintain itself. Radiation levels had gone up. The green light in the HUD on his visor had turned a deep amber.

He was skirting the limits of his mesh and his body. Even his motivation trembled.

Faraon had given him life when all had seemed lost. Yet the scientist was becoming increasingly erratic. How far could one go to repay a debt of life? How far should one go?

Seth shook his head. In random intervals chills coursed through his body. He couldn’t stay out here for too long. He was quite a bit above the point where Xian had fallen though the ice, but the visor’s filter indicated an anomalous structure here. About the size of the slab he was looking for.

Faraon’s private labyrinth was much more extensive than even Seth had known. It snaked its way through the ice and went higher than was deemed safe.

He turned onto his back, pushed his hand against the ceiling of the small tunnel he was crawling through, and diverted some of his mesh’s power to the glove.

His hand sunk into the ice. The HUD guided his moves as he clawed his way through the dense white slurry. So slow. So cold. Despite the tingling of oncoming numbness, his fingers clutched their quarry in slow motion. Once he was convinced he had a good grip, he withdrew his hand. So slow. So cold.

His mesh beeped. His HUD flashed. His core temperature had dropped even further.

It was the slab indeed. But so high? How?

He embraced the item. Seth smoothed the mesh fibres and allowed himself to slide down the tunnel.

His breath dampened his visor.

As his body was being jostled downwards in the labyrinth, the beeping slowed. Red turned to amber turned to yellow turned to green. All those colours reminded him of something, something that had been gnawing at his fading consciousness. The freezing cold had even slowed down his thoughts.

Blue. That was it.

He hadn’t seen any blue.

This was just right.

Since the resurrection, they had crawled up up up. Now, they were home. High enough to make their antifreeze protein-analogues perform the ballet of life, but low enough to be spared from the worst of the radiation onslaught.

As one tends to do when returning home after a long absence, they made themselves comfortable.

The first phase of their resurrection was complete.

Replication initiated.

In a black sea of oblivion, the tiniest pinprick of purple persisted.

Thump . . .

Minutes passed. I . . .

Thump . . .

More minutes. Am . . .

Thump . . .

Purple pulsations grew in intensity. Alive . . .

Slowly, time sped up, as if a divine DJ increased the bpm of the LP of existence.

My . . . name . . . is . . . Zenqi . . .

The ox-cart that was her heart resumed its usual activity, dragging blood through her body. The rush was deafening at first.

The purple light grew. Bigger. Brighter. Faster.

Sensation returned.

Cold. So cold.

Danger.

ThumpThumpThump.

The luminous pulsations went so fast that they blurred into a single bright light that consumed Zenqi’s awareness. There was only adrenaline and instinct.

Her eyes opened forcefully.

Cold. Box. Cold. Coffin. Cold. Push.

Her newly resuscitated muscles poured all their effort into one big burst. Her hands and feet pushed against the top of the stasis-pod while her back strained against the bottom. The lid of the sarcophagus flew away. It clanged against the pod’s side. No locks or alarms. Good thing nobody expected a sarcophagus to be opened from the inside.

Zenqi flung her body out of its freezing enclosure and fell to the ground. Darkness awaited, ready to undo Zenqi’s brief reprieve from its dominion. But she fought.

No. . . No . . . Xian . . . Xian . . .

When the shivering of her crumpled body no longer prevented her from intentional movement, Zenqi crawled towards the other sarcophagus. Her fingers went looking for a hold. She pulled herself up, assisted by her scrambling feet.

Xian . . . Dear . . .

The screen on the sarcophagus told her what she needed to know. Fractures had been set, skin had been healed, and haemorrhages had been contained. Xian would still be weak and in pain, but even if Zenqi had to carry her, they would get out of here.

Seth, who had shaken off the cold, entered Faraon’s study.

The scientist stood behind his compu-table, bent over waterfalls of data. His fingers were playing an invisible piano. Eyes in small lakes of make-up narrowed as he looked up.

“Do you have something for me?”

Seth nodded and carefully placed the slab on the transparent table. The river of numbers opened up and flowed around it, a virtual stream disrupted by a physical object.

Faraon smiled. “So you are still useful after all.” He looked at the slab and a frown replaced the smile. “Where are the bioverms?” He reached out, intending to trace the outlines of the squiggles that once held blue light, but stopped his hand just shy of its target. “Is this all you’ve found?”

Seth nodded.

“No bioluminescence? No burrowing tracks or anything like that?”

“No sir.”

“Hmm. . .”

A red light flashed in the top right corner of the table. A swipe of Faraon’s hand and Zenqi appeared, her image pushing the dancing numbers on the compu-table aside. Faraon tilted his head. Zenqi was crawling out of her sarcophagus. Every few seconds, the old woman stopped moving as a tremor shook her head to toe. Her body was readjusting to life. Faraon and his spectre watched Zenqi move to the other stasis pod.

“I’ll get her,” Seth whispered.

Faraon held up his hand. “No, wait, let’s see where this goes.”

Zenqi dragged herself up and looked down onto the other sarcophagus. Her hands moved across the screen. Her tapping fingers danced more smoothly with every passing second.

Faraon smiled.

“Should I stop her now?”

“No. Let them leave. This could expedite the whole process significantly. If. . . When they manage to get out, follow them. Discreetly. They have to think they’ve escaped by themselves. Then they will lead us to our price.”

Seth nodded.

The darkness stirred.

Something called. It pulled at Xian. It was different than the presence she had felt earlier. Pulling, not pushing. Encouraging, not coercing.

Her universe expanded. Slowly. Crawling. Head, neck, torso, legs. Her body became a part of her once again. Needles of light tested the density of her eyelids.

Then, cold. Then, pain.

But beyond them, something else. Sound. A voice.

“. . . up dear.”

Her eyes opened slowly. A shape loomed over her. Mother.

Xian’s muscles creaked and groaned when they were forced into activity following their imposed hibernation. The sudden gale of blood blowing through her body highlighted all her recent injuries. She moaned, balancing on the edge of fainting.

“No no, stay with me, dear.” Wiry fingers clutched her shoulder and pulled her up. “Come on, get out of that box, Xian.” That tone, just like when she was young and her mother wanted her to do an annoying chore. The memory pushed her over the sarcophagus’ edge. Entwined, mother and daughter fell to the floor.

Zenqi scrambled out from underneath her daughter and reached for the fibre mesh lying beside the sarcophagus. “Here, this’ll help.”

Xian struggled to put it on. Cold nor pain had left her system. With the tenderness only a mother could muster, Zenqi helped her daughter wriggle into the mesh. Xian moved unbalanced. Feeble. She caught Zenqi staring at her.

“What. . .?”

“Your eyes . . .” She shook her head. “Later. We’ve got to go. Now.”

Xian took a step and brought a hand to her head, trying to ward off the vertigo of too much too soon.

Zenqi grabbed her daughter’s arm and slung it over her shoulders. “Here we go.”

Like a pair of drunkards, mother and daughter made their way out of the room.

“Not that way,” Zenqi said when Xian instinctively steered herself in the direction of the main lobby. “Too obvious. Let’s go via the disposal ducts.” It’s already peculiar that Faraon hasn’t acted yet. Can he be arrogant enough to think we’re that firm in his grasp?

Soon, Zenqi had managed to pry loose an air duct panel near the floor. She pushed Xian in. “Keep going down.” Bones complained and muscles muttered their reluctance, but Xian and Zenqi persisted.

A difficult and painful descent later, two small human-shaped drops dislodged from the larger Drop.

Nestled in the ice, they grew. In size, in numbers, in thought.

Each unit was a part of the whole. Connected. Sharing. Be gone, hot oblivion. Be welcome, cold awareness.

Together, they contemplated. With flashes of blue light, signals travelled between them, within them.

A mind reassembled itself, one spark at a time.

Xian looked closer at her reflection. Blue. Her eyes were blue. They weren’t supposed to be. They were dark brown. Not blue. Certainly not this radiant blue.

Her mirror image frowned.

Zenqi was looking over her shoulder. “Rested?”

“As well as possible, I guess.”

“Then let’s get going.”

Xian nodded. No need to endanger more people.

Zenqi was already saying goodbye to their host, Benjimon, a short and burly tinkerer. He and Zenqi were old friends. Xian suspected they had been more than friends. She didn’t judge. Benjimon loved to call himself a blacksmith who danced on the thin line between law-abiding citizen and provider of less-than-entirely-legal materials. Hell, he loved to perform pirouettes on that line.

“Good luck”, he rumbled when he shook Xian’s hand. “If there’s anything . . .”

“We’ll remember that, Benjimon, along with your kindness.”

The women left, leaving behind a bald head-scratching Benjimon.

Zenqi kept throwing back glances long after Benjimon had disappeared from view.

“Everything alright?” Xian asked.

Zenqi shrugged. “It’s a small Bubble we’re living in. We can’t keep running from Faraon. Or hide from him.”

“We could hide until there’s an off-world visit.” As soon as she had said it, Xian knew that that was an illusion.

“You know those visits are rare. Too rare to count on.”

“Maybe some of the scientists or wealthy collectors have private shuttles stashed somewhere. After all, they seem to be able to travel at will.”

“Even if they do, they’ll never take us. Weight is costly when it comes to space travel.”

“Then we’ll just have to steal a shuttle.”

Zenqi shook her head. Silly girl, her body language said. “Do you know how to fly one?”

“No.”

“Neither do I. No, we need to find what Faraon is looking for. To negotiate a deal, or to buy passage.”

Xian bit her lower lip, trying to find an alternative. She couldn’t. The artefact was their key to surviving these events that had spun out of control so quickly.

“So,” her mother went on, “where did you leave the slab?”

Xian’s eyes drifted upwards, to the icy roof that covered the world.

A twinge. A tingle. An other.

Something beckoned. Unknown.

Strands of blue pushed through the ice, melting and refreezing it as they went. They/it existed in viscosity encased in solidity. Push. Extend. Grow. Units died and were born. The cycle did not stop. Nor did the mind. Above and beyond all the parts lay awareness.

Tendrils quivered as they descended.

Blue light danced.

Zenqi and Xian walked through the icy bowels of Bubble’s roof. Xian ran her hand across the walls while Zenqi continually threw suspicious glances over her shoulders. The tunnels had been getting smaller and smaller. They were on the right track. Xian stopped and frowned. A remnant of remembrance tickled her mind. “I think . . .”

Zenqi looked around. No signs whatsoever. Ice preserves the timeless but erases the ephemeral. “Are you sure this is the place?”

Xian sighed exasperated. “No. I was overheated and undercooled. Plus giant monkeys were chasing me, eager to get their teeth in my butt.”

“Calm down, dear. What do you remember?”

Xian rubbed her eyes. “Cold. I sank through the floor.” Her eyes narrowed, a memory in sight. “Then, something . . . It . . . pulled. The slab pulled away from me.”

“Are you sure?”

A vigorous nod. “Yes. Yes. I remember now. I tried to keep hold, but the ice . . . it was just too cold. I was too slow.”

“Xian? Do you feel alright?”

“No worse than earlier. Why?”

“Your eyes. They’re . . . glowing.”

Xian reflexively brought her hands to her eyes. She couldn’t feel anything wrong, but when she slowly moved her hands away she saw a blue glow on them. “I . . . what’s happening?”

Somewhere beneath those words, Zenqi heard the scared little girl that Xian could hide so well. She grabbed her daughter’s hand and squeezed. I’m here, she said without words, looking into Xian’s shining eyes.

Drip.

Zenqi cocked her head. “Did you hear that?”

“What?”

Drip.

“That.”

“Yes, I hear it.”

Drip.

In unison, they looked up. A weak blue light had appeared in the ice above their heads. A blue light that hadn’t been there moments earlier. A blue light that grew in intensity.

Drip drip drip.

Zenqi pulled Xian’s hand towards her. “I think we should go. Now.”

Xian resisted. “Wait, mum. Just wait a second.”

Something came peeking from the ice. A thin blue strand, shining with curiosity. A translucent sheath covered a core thread in which globs of bright blue light pushed and shoved each other. As the strand unreeled from its cold dwelling, its tip moved around, seemingly scanning the environment. When it pointed at Xian, it froze. For a moment, so did time. Then, the spindly tentacle lunged forwards. Zenqi pulled again. Xian stood her ground, enchanted.

An exosuit-clad Faraon closed the hatch behind himself. The two giant mandrills stood beside him, fidgeting, eager to get their hands on a prey that would not escape a second time. They chattered excitedly.

“Quiet.” Faraon turned and stared them down. “From now on, not a sound, understand?”

Babi and Baba closed their mouths. The locked-in excitement made them tremble.

“Let’s go.”

Faraon lunged ahead, primate pets close on his heels. Seth’s signal pinged brightly. Faraon’s visor coloured the route for him. A virtual yellow brick road that led to the sorcerer’s stone.

Seth was waiting for them. A shadow in a bright ice tunnel.

Faraon and his beasts slowed down. “Well?”

A whisper, a barely audible group of words. “Behind the next bend.”

“Excellent. Did they find it?”

Seth hesitated. “Something found them.”

“What do you mean?” The question was superfluous since Faraon was already toggling through visor filters to look through the ice. There was too much of it between him and his quarry to get a clear picture, but he managed to discern two fuzzy human shapes. And something else. Something new. Something blue.

That’s it. Even more magnificent than I had hoped.

“Let’s present ourselves.”

He stepped past the curve in the tunnel.

Xian was sitting on her knees. The thin blue tentacle danced around her waving right hand, snake and charmer at the same time.

“Well, what do we have here?”

Faraon walked towards mother and daughter, confident in his strong exo-suit. A pharaoh from the future in a tunic of divine power.

Zenqi turned towards him. Her eyes narrowed. “Back off.”

The blue string wrapped itself around Xian’s hand. Worlds collided. Thoughts sniffed at each other. A million voices, each as small and incomprehensible as a pin-dancing angel, deafened Xian’s mind.

A forest of blue tendrils burst from the ice and ensnared Faraon and the two baffled mandrills. A mother protecting her child. A hive protecting their kin. A predator chasing away a scavenger.

The shadow behind Faraon and the primate twins had vanished.

Faraon’s exo-suit strained. Canines ripped and tore. But the tendrils were too fast, too many, too strong. They wrapped around their victims in tight bundles and pulled them up, against the ice roof. The ice melted slightly and turned into a viscous syrup. The mandrills were pulled into it, their panicked chattering silenced. Faraon’s suit creaked and squeaked. He tried to push back, but there was no solid surface to push against, only the thick sludge it had morphed into. He too disappeared in the ice, which was already beginning to harden.

The tendril that was curled around Xian’s hand unfurled itself and followed his ferocious kin back to their cold world.

“Hon, are you okay?” Zenqi rushed over to Xian, who was still on her knees, dazed.

Xian nodded, out of breath.

“Did . . . Did you do that?” Zenqi asked.

“No. At least, I don’t think so.”

Zenqi looked up apprehensively. “What was that?”

“Don’t know. Europans, I guess. Old. Many. I don’t know. Just tired.”

Zenqi manoeuvred her shoulder underneath Xian’s armpit and hoisted her daughter up. “Come on, let’s get out of here.” She grinned. “Next time, you carry your old mother.”

Cold. Pain. Awe.

Faraon’s fleeting consciousness noted the life surrounding him. The potential. The power. The hidden treasure trove of knowledge.

It/they assaulted him, entered him. Images were forced into his mind, others were taken from it.

His life force trickled away from him.

He had one final trick up his sleeve.

His being embraced darkness. Everything turned black. Everything except a small purple light, pulsating slower and slower. But never completely gone.

Through a hidden biological consensus, artificial night descended over Bubble as the algae plastering the city’s roof toned down their bioluminescence. People, and their bodies, liked diurnal rhythms. Here and there, pinpricks of faint light signalled the presence of night owls and workaholics in the Drops.

But for the first time since its inception, Bubble had its own equivalent of a starry sky. The fading light of the algae seemed to give birth to distant blue glimmers in the ice. Dancing. Exploring.

Xian looked up at Bubble’s roof. A deep breath escaped her. Now she could rest. Now she could heal.

I guess we’ll have to learn to share our world.

_______________

Gunnar De Winter is a biologist/philosopher hybrid who’s had stories published in, among others, Daily Science Fiction, Amazing Stories, Perihelion SF, and various anthologies. He is also a two-time finalist in the international Quantum Shorts competition. Say hello to him on Twitter @evolveon. He lives in Belgium.

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