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Sneak Peek

Europa Europa (KS Augustin)

Posted: 24 December, 2015 at 2:05 pm   /   by   /   comments (0)

Release date: October 2015 (Reissue)
Publisher: Sandal Press/Challis Tower
Format: Ebook
Price: US$1.99
Links: Book page at Sandal Press websiteSubscribe to the Sandal/Challis newsletter

Chapter One

The sharp pain Salvia felt in her upper arm told her she was wanted at the station. She flinched and a soft eddy hit her in the back, propelling her forward through the soothing, cool water. It had been several Earth-months since she’d last received a signal and she was disappointed to get it.

Hadn’t they forgotten her yet? After the last round of arguments, she had been so hopeful…

Duty warred with rebellion before finally winning out. Taking a deep breath, Salvia set out, knowing it would take her the best part of a day to reach her destination. She thought it was quite a distance, but the humans had told her that the territory on Europa was so small it would take seventy of them to fill Earth. She couldn’t imagine that. A world seventy times bigger? Europa was already vaster, and lonelier, than she could sometimes bear. What would she do on an even bigger planet?

They weren’t thinking of moving her, were they? Transporting her to Earth? She would refuse if they tried it. They might think they were smart, with their spaceships and technologies, but humans were useless without their personal bubbles of gaseous atmosphere. When she had first been released on Europa, the humans’ submersibles and marine drones were much faster than her, but that had been months ago. Salvia was now sure that she had built up enough strength to outpace the fastest vessel on the station. The fact of the matter was they couldn’t do a thing without her express permission.

Feeling triumphant, she sliced through the dark water with ease, enjoying the bursts of speed she coaxed from her body. She wasn’t worried about feeling another painful jab. The tracking device located somewhere on her body should have relayed her position and direction of travel. And she was doing what they wanted, after all…for the time being.

Her route would take her past the Bayless Plume, which was good. She needed to remind herself that she had achieved great things in the past year and a half. Things that nobody else from the station could have achieved. Things that had increased the profits and prestige of the company she worked for. She kept those thoughts in mind as she swam.

The station shone like a brilliant jewel set into the ice crust, visible from kilometres away. Salvia blinked down her inner eyelid against the glare of light and grimaced. Sometimes she couldn’t believe she was related to the station’s inhabitants. They had no inner membrane to block the bright stabs of illumination that constantly surrounded them. How could anybody see anything clearly under such bleaching? It beggared belief.

She swam up the high tube situated off-centre at the bottom of the station. Even though she was used to darkness, the inky entrance of the tube always appeared menacing and claustrophobic. Flicking her legs she propelled herself upwards. Curved rectangles of light patterned her body as she swept past windows peering out into the funnel, but nobody was watching her. It would have been rare if there had been.

Doctor Faisbain was waiting for her in the Interaction Room. Salvia would have laughed at the title if she didn’t already know that there were cameras everywhere, watching each move she made. Interaction Room? More like a Getting Orders Room. Out in the ocean, she was free. Here in the station, she felt pinned down and shackled.

As if responding to her thoughts, a clear panel below her feet slid shut, trapping her in a cylinder of water. Salvia watched her exit from the station narrow and disappear before looking up again.

“Hello, Dr. Faisbain,” she sub-vocalised.

She wasn’t sure how it worked, but that little bit of sound seemed to be enough to communicate with the humans on the other side of the thick transparent panel.

“Hello Salvia.”

The doctor was an older woman with grey streaks in her hair. Whenever she smiled, the wrinkles on her face grew deeper. She had always been nice, but Salvia knew that the woman was constrained by the company they both worked for. If Dr. Faisbain was ordered to imprison Salvia indefinitely within the station, there was no doubt she would do it.

“You’re looking well,” the doctor said. “It’s been a while, hasn’t it? Five months, I believe.”

Salvia flicked her feet, a movement that sent her bobbing further up in the water. Moving her arms slightly, she approached the window, lowering herself again so she was eye-level with the xeno-marine biologist.

You’re looking older, she thought. More tired. Has the company been bullying you while I’ve been away?

“You’re looking well too,” was all she said.

Faisbain leant against the bench at her back, her arms outstretched behind her as they rested on the flat surface.

“I know this may distress you, Salvia, but I think it’s important that we revisit the last few months. To make sure we’re both on the same page.”

Page of what, Salvia wondered, but kept silent.

The doctor was right about one thing, though. Salvia knew she was probably not going to enjoy the conversation. She never did. The humans had a name for the process where they talked at her, rather than with her. They called it “performance evaluations”. She hated it.

“Almost a year ago, you discovered the Ivory Chasm for us,” Faisbain said. “This was after you mapped the Bayless Plume. Two such objectives, discovery and a completed survey, in the space of three months was tremendous work and the company was eager for you to go further afield, to scout locations even farther away from the station.”

She paused and pursed her lips. “But there was a problem, wasn’t there, Salvia?”

“I didn’t want to do it.” Salvia’s voice was barely above a mutter, but it was still heard.

Faisbain nodded her head. “That’s right. You didn’t want to do it. And from a promising start two years ago, the productivity of this station dwindled, then crashed. We wondered if you were suffering from a dietary deficiency, but you weren’t, were you?”

Salvia shook her head.

“Nor was it the difficulty of the task. You’re a highly intelligent young woman who took great joy in your past achievements.”

Salvia watched the doctor silently, twitching her limbs occasionally to maintain her position in the tank.

“Then, a little over seven months ago, you came into the station and told me that you weren’t going to do any more work for the company unless we found a way to alleviate your boredom.”

Put like that, Salvia conceded that it made her sound more than a little churlish. But the station staff always had things to do and, when they didn’t, they had company to spend time with. She, on the other hand, had no-one. Nobody to share her discoveries with for almost two whole Earth years. Under the circumstances, she hadn’t considered her request unreasonable.

“After our numerous…discussions, I decided to contact the company with your request, and I have some good news for you.”

The smile that broke across Faisbain’s face was sudden and bright.

“The company accelerated a current programme of theirs and shipped it to us here on Europa.”

Salvia thought she must not be getting something, because that sentence didn’t make any sense to her.

“Current programme?” she asked. “Shipped? Shipped what?”

Faisbain widened her eyes. “Why, a companion of course! A male. He docked yesterday with the Nemo. We’ve been running him through a battery of tests to make sure he’s fully compatible with the ocean environment but think he’s ready for his first exploratory swim. Would you like to meet him?”

Salvia blinked her outer eyelids. She hadn’t been expecting such a swift response from her employer and creator. Had they really created a male, just for her? Just like her? Caught between apprehension and a growing excitement, she said nothing.

“If you swim down to Port Five, you’ll be able to meet him in person,” the biologist told her, adding a cajoling note to her voice. She turned and pressed a button on an adjacent console. The panel beneath Salvia’s feet slid open again. “Why don’t you go now and I’ll meet up with you there?”

Faisbain turned and moved towards the door at the back of the room. Feeling strangely anxious, Salvia slowly flipped her body and swam back down, past the small observation windows, and out of the tube completely. She knew how the ports were numbered, and headed to a panel of three human-sized hatches along the bottom of the station, skimming close to the station’s metal skin as she swam.

It was cooler up here near the water’s surface. A normal human would have suffered from hypothermia in minutes. Salvia, on the other hand, felt nothing more than a refreshing chill against her flesh. She needed it. She felt hot, as if her heart was pumping more and more blood through her body. In order to keep calm, she tried thinking of other things.

Like the temperature of the water.

She liked the variation in the marine climates of Jupiter’s moon, for example. It was clear and a little cold adjacent to the crust of ice that enfolded the rocky satellite, except where the hot water from geothermal vents weakened the solid water, forming cracks that looked out at the thin Europa atmosphere and the vacuum of space beyond. Afraid of what might happen if she was caught in a boiling updraft, Salvia stayed well away from the ice, except for her visits to the station. Where she normally swam, deep down, sometimes skimming the moon’s rocky core, it was warm and comforting. There were no dangers down there she couldn’t deal with, as long as she kept her eyes open and didn’t swim directly into a hot, bubbling geothermal vent. All these things were what she would need to teach her male companion; that is, if the male actually existed and Dr. Faisbain wasn’t playing a trick on her. Humans liked to do that, from time to time.

Salvia saw a large illuminated number “5” next to a hatch and slowed, looking through the neighbouring window with curiosity.

The window was set into the floor of the fifth launch bay, looking down into the ocean depths. Salvia looked up at the foreshortened legs of three humans as they moved about. They were shifting a long metal tank closer to the hatch. The tank must have been heavy, because the station members looked like they were straining their muscles. One of them even had beads of sweat on his forehead. Salvia reflexively lifted a hand to her face but, of course, she didn’t sweat. And even if she did, the water surrounding her would wash her perspiration away in a second.

After the humans moved the tank to the position they wanted, they started tilting it so the end of the tank sat upright on the hatch opening. At this point, Dr. Faisbain entered. The scientist wasn’t aware of it but, in the time she spent training Salvia for her job, Salvia had learnt to lip-read through the thick transparent panels. She narrowed her eyes, damning the glare, and concentrated on the biologist’s lips.

“How far are we from a ‘go’ situation?” Faisbain asked.

Luckily, someone who was only a little in profile answered, his mouth almost fully visible to Salvia.

“We can jettison the cargo now if you like,” he said.

Cargo? Salvia thought they were handling a person like her. What kind of “cargo” were they going to drop into the ocean? A robot submersible? An oceanic sensor array? Was she right? Had they lied to her?

Faisbain nodded.

“Let’s do it,” she said with a sigh. “Haber wants his luggage in the ocean yesterday. But stay sharp. The greatest difficulty will be from thermal shock and we’ll have to begin retrieval protocols instantly if we detect it. Better to find out sooner rather than later if we have a dud on our hands.”

Another technician moved to a console and said something. Unfortunately she had her back to Salvia, so only a low buzz was audible.

What did they mean about jettisoning cargo? About the cargo being a dud? Salvia wanted to think about the questions more but a dull creak vibrated through the water towards her. She turned in time to see the hatch fully retract. In a plume of obscuring white bubbles, something dropped into the water.

Salvia wanted to approach the object but she stayed where she was, confused by what had been discussed in the launch bay. Then the object began to move by itself. Salvia watched it cautiously, then gasped as her vision cleared and the bubbles rose to the station’s metal skin and skidded upwards.

It was a person! Her heart thumping, she approached the stranger, circling with slow practised movements, her gaze never leaving the newcomer’s body.

Faisbain was right. It was a him. Like her, he had a slit low on his abdomen, but it was short and his skin was smooth and unbroken at the juncture of his thighs. Dr. Faisbain had told her that many of her adaptive features were taken from Earth mammals called dolphins and, from her educational vids, Salvia could see this was one example of it.

She circled him again while he remained calm in the water. When she was in front of him, his large dark eyes focused on her, but he didn’t turn his head when she went around his back. His skin was smooth and glowing a neutral purple, even along his spine where a dorsal fin erupted, although there was a small circle of blue at the junction of back and fin. Salvia had been told of early attempts to craft something that was more fish-like, able to fan out or lie flat against the body depending on circumstances, but they couldn’t get it to work. Eventually, the scientists settled on a thick fixed membrane, kept erect by extruded vertebrae.

The webbing between his fingers and long toes were just like hers, which meant that the light shallow mounds on his forehead, cheeks and chin must be on hers as well. She had never seen more than dim glass reflections of her facial photophores, those large organs that augmented her vision and turned the dark of the ocean into a wonderland of exquisite detail. The mounds looked…interesting, like small shiny mirrors reflecting the world.

Her skin gleamed blue with satisfaction, shifting to orange and then back again to blue as she continued her leisurely examination. She flexed her shoulders, almost sure that hers weren’t quite as broad as his. And while her legs were muscular and powerful, the stranger’s seemed to be bigger and thicker, as were his arms. If he could help her lift away rocks on their exploratory journeys, he would prove to be very useful.

“Salvia.”

The voice came from the speaker just next to the hatch.

Dr. Faisbain. She’d forgotten.

She spun around and headed for the window. Inside the launch bay, Faisbain was crouched down, watching her.

“We haven’t had time to properly introduce you,” she said with a smile. “Salvia, your new companion is called Rhus.” Her gaze shifted to somewhere behind Salvia’s right shoulder. “Rhus, this is Salvia. Up till now, she’s been the only full-time resident of Europa.”

Salvia felt ripples brush her fin as Rhus approached.

“Hello Salvia.”

His voice, while higher in tone than a normal human’s and designed to cut through water with less interference, was still deeper than hers.

“Hello,” she said politely, not knowing what else to say. Her body, rippling yellow and pink was, she hoped, the only outward indication of her embarrassment.

Dr. Faisbain chuckled as she watched them through the porthole. “Why don’t you take Rhus for a quick look around? Don’t be too long. We need to complete his medical check-up before we release him into your tender care.”

Salvia was more than happy to hear the request. Without waiting to see if Rhus was following, she darted away from the station.

At first, she had a stretch of beloved water to herself. Then, she felt the presence of someone skimming close to her. She flashed him a look—he had almost collided with her!—and, annoyed, dived down, spiralling through the currents like a torpedo. To her chagrin, he followed, almost at her heels. She levelled out at the Zaymen Ridge, the first and most explored of Europa’s underwater features, and slalomed between its stubby pillars, trying to outdistance him. When she finally came to an exhausted halt near the end of the ridge, he was behind her, but only by a handful of lengths. However, she noted with satisfaction that he appeared to be more out of breath than her.

“What did you do that for?” he asked, in between gasps. He flexed his back rhythmically, urging more water into his lungs.

“Dr. Faisbain told me to give you a ‘quick look around’,” she said, “and that’s exactly what I did.”

He snorted a quick chuckle and a small thread of bubbles rose to the surface.

“You were very impressive,” he finally said, but his breathing was still laboured.

Salvia didn’t know if Rhus had made that up to make her feel better, but it set a warm glow of pride in her belly. He was radiating blue and purple, which meant he wasn’t in heightened emotional state. Maybe, she thought with a flick of her foot, he was telling the truth.

“In fact,” he said, “I didn’t think I could keep up.”

It was Salvia’s turn to be impressed. Even as she was darting from one outcrop to another, she had kept an eye on him, gleaming brightly in the water behind her. Up till that minute, she thought she was the fastest swimmer in the ocean. Now she wasn’t so sure.

“How did you get here?” she asked.

“You mean, to Europa?”

Salvia nodded.

“On a ship. It’s called the Nemo and it came from Mars.”

“And didn’t you have any place to exercise on this ship from Mars?”

He laughed and the burst of bubbles from his mouth momentarily obscured his features. “Haven’t you ever been on a ship?”

“Of course I have,” she answered, frowning deeply. “It’s just…I wasn’t awake at the time.”

“You were asleep?” His voice was incredulous. “If you came from Mars, you must have been asleep for the entire four months! Even the normals don’t sleep for that long.”

Salvia flashed an embarrassed yellow again. “It wasn’t sleep, exactly. Dr. Faisbain told me it was a state of suspended animation. That must be how you got here too.”

He had probably picked up the name of the ship from one of the technicians, she thought, and was using it to try and impress her.

“No.” He shook his head. “I was conscious almost the entire time.”

“Conscious? Were you able to see anything?”

As much as Salvia loved her watery home, the presence of the station was a constant reminder that there were other wonders beyond the ice crust. Other worlds. There were planets where the water had dried up, disappearing into space they said, yet humans still managed to live there. There were other habitats under domes, protecting the inhabitants from hard vacuum or pollution. Some planets had rings around them, glittering garlands of ice and rock. Even Jupiter had thick colourful bands covering it. She wondered if Rhus had seen any of them.

“The crew kept me in a transparent observation tank for the entire journey. It was almost as if I was living with them. The captain used to come to the observation tank all the time and talk to me.”

There was a note of pride in his voice that Salvia envied.

She had always known that she was something apart from the rest of the station’s inhabitants. Dr. Faisbain had been kind but firm on that point. Salvia wasn’t human and shouldn’t think like a human. Instead, she was told to open her mind to the wonders of Europa and take her cues from its marine landscape. Thinking like a human, Faisbain told her, might only serve to narrow her perspective.

Except…

Humans were the only other sentient beings on Europa and being deliberately shut off from them was like being thrown out of a community for being too strange, too different. It was something that had obviously not happened to Rhus.

Salvia would have to think about that, about why she had been treated one way and Rhus another. But there was another, more important question she had to ask.

“You call them ‘normals’. Why is that?”

Surprise flashed across his face. “Because they are. We use their base DNA code, with splices from other animals. That makes us different. They are normals. We are,” he hesitated, and blinked his eyes quickly. “They used a term on the Nemo. ‘Cold-adapted marines’.” He looked pleased with himself. “Yes, that was it.”

Salvia tried the words out on her own tongue. “Cold. Adapted. Marines.” She didn’t like it. “It makes us sound like a brand of food.”

Rhus shrugged.

“Come on,” she said, not caring that her voice was a bit brusque. “I should get you back to the station before the ‘normals’, as you call them, start panicking.”

“Then what happens?”

Salvia flicked away. At that moment, she didn’t care what happened to him. “That’s up to them to decide.”

She headed for the station at a more leisurely pace, a clearly puzzled Rhus lagging behind.

Chapter Two

Rhus wanted to power through the water. He wanted to skim the ice sheets at the moon’s surface while on his back, watching the small bubbles trapped beneath the frozen water wobble as he sliced under them. He wanted to dive down to the depths and slalom the ridge again.

He wanted to swim.

He radiated a happy blue and purple as he followed Salvia back to the station, wondering if she understood how lucky she was. All this time, she was living in the most perfect environment imaginable while he was trawling the vacuum between planets. As much as the trip on the spaceship had impressed and fascinated him, the feel of free-moving water against his skin told him he was finally home. He just hoped nobody would try to take it away from him.

The woman Salvia referred to as Dr. Faisbain was waiting for them at Hatch Number Five. She looked older than a lot of the people who had accompanied him in the spaceship, but she also looked kinder. Certainly, she was a lot more relaxed than the courteous yet stiff captain of the Nemo, Haber. The ship crew were often very serious and intense, even when supposedly relaxing, and they didn’t smile as often as Dr. Faisbain. Rhus thought she must be a very important person to be given such a position at the Europa station.

“I brought him back in one piece,” Salvia was saying to her.

Salvia’s voice was higher than his. In the background, through the porthole’s window, he heard the faint vibration of her voice as it was piped into the launch bay, artificially deepened and processed so normals could understand it. He remembered that they did the same to him on the Nemo.

“That’s good,” Faisbain said with a smile, “but, if you don’t mind, Salvia, we’d like to keep Rhus overnight at the lab for observation.”

“Observation?” Salvia’s feet glowed red with dismay but Rhus noticed that she made sure to keep those extremities below the level of the porthole. He didn’t know how Salvia was able to keep her emotions so controlled like that. He couldn’t do it. He would have to ask her to teach him.

“Now that he’s had some exercise on Europa and a chance to breathe its water, we’ll need to do a full health check-up. He’s been in a very limited environment up till now and we want to make sure his body can cope with conditions on the moon.”

“But didn’t you make him so he could cope?”

Rhus was surprised at Salvia’s question. Only a little while ago, he was convinced she didn’t care if he stayed or left. Now, she appeared to be arguing on his behalf.

“We did,”Faisbain nodded, “but sometimes things go wrong. Things we might not be aware of until we’ve done a full examination. Don’t worry, I’m sure he’ll be fine. Once we’ve checked his health, we’ll insert the tracking beacon then we’ll release him to begin work tomorrow.”

Salvia’s feet pulsed a quick flash of vivid scarlet—anger—before being cloaked in the simmering darker red again.

“You have some work for us to do?” she asked.

“We kept our side of the bargain, remember?”

What were they talking about? Rhus wanted to interrupt and ask but there was such an air of intensity between the two women that he didn’t dare. Besides, he was starting to feel very tired. Maybe a bit of a rest was exactly what he needed.

It was Faisbain who broke the tension by moving away from the porthole and stretching her shoulders. Watching intently, Rhus repeated the action in the cool, dark water.

“Tomorrow, Salvia.” This time, the scientist’s voice brooked no objections.

The metal hatch next to the porthole slid open. Rhus swam over to it and looked up into the tube of water.

“We’ll complete our tests as quickly as possible.” Faisbain’s voice again. “I promise.”

With a last look at Salvia, who gave him a reluctant nod, Rhus swam up into the tube and tried not to notice the lid screwing shut beneath his feet.

* * *

There was a set of passages. The station’s staff knew about them because they were escape exits, to be used in the remote eventuality that the major transit shaft leading up through the station somehow collapsed. They didn’t think Salvia knew about it because they thought she was stupid.

(Salvia, Salvia thought with savage delight, was young, but Salvia was far from stupid.)

After Rhus had entered the tube, Salvia told Dr. Faisbain that she would revisit the Zaymen Ridge. There was something interesting she had seen there, she said. She even swam halfway to the ridge, so the tracking sensors would note her route. Then she doubled back.

Salvia knew she was taking a risk. There was nothing stopping a technician from glancing at a station screen and seeing her head back to the station, but she had done this several times before and hadn’t been caught. She was betting that the novelty of Rhus would mean even less attention would be paid to her.

Unlike the station’s main water shaft, the passage Salvia headed for was unlit. If she were a normal—Rhus’ word, but she liked it, so she started using it—she wouldn’t have even noticed the dark circle halfway up the vertical wall of the station. But what the normals didn’t know was that the slow eddies beyond the half-hidden tube opening called to the ocean creature in her. Its languid flows whispered of cylinders of languid water, slow, quiet and rarely visited.

The pipe was covered by a thick, open-mesh lid. Salvia swam right up to the lid and stretched her arm between the ribbons of criss-crossing metal, reaching for the tube’s inner surface. Her fingers crept over a rough surface, crusted with colonies of tiny polyps, till they grazed a squarish artificial bump. That, she knew, was the manual release button. She pressed it and quickly withdrew her arm, letting the mesh petals dilate open. Lowering herself so she almost touched the coral, and so her dorsal fin wouldn’t hit the metal, she quietly entered the pipe.

From past visits, Salvia had worked out where the major sections of the station were situated. Dr. Faisbain had told her that she had excellent spatial cognition. As if Salvia didn’t know.

She swam straight ahead, following the curve of the tube. At the first intersection, she took the downward pipe, then turned right. That would take her to the scientific observation section. Dr. Faisbain’s territory. Salvia put a hand out and her webbed fingers touched the curved metal wall.

“—finished?”

That sounded like the biologist.

“Yes, Doctor.”

Salvia didn’t recognise the second voice, but thought it must be one of the technicians.

“And the beacon’s inserted?”

“Yes, Doctor. And I’ve calibrated it so it’ll activate the upper arm sensory trigger on signal.”

Absently, Salvia rubbed her arm. Every call from the station resulted in the stabbing pain in her upper arm. It was useful knowing that disabling the beacon would also disable the pain.

“Good. I’ll be at the meeting if you need me.”

There were muffled sounds then a rhythmic pattern. Feet. Salvia kept her fingers on the wall while she paced along with the sound. The normals hadn’t realised how effectively vibrations travelled through metal and water. Living in air, they were used to the imperfect transmission of sound, not realising that Salvia could often hear them more clearly that they heard themselves.

Dr. Faisbain continued to walk.

The only time Salvia met with any confusion in interpretation was if simultaneous conversations took place in rooms next to each other. And sound could get muffled if there was some kind of thick dampening material between the person and the floor. Luckily, there were small rugs only in a few areas, such as in the bedrooms and a couple of the small meeting rooms. Important meetings usually meant the involvement of most of the station’s staff, in a room that had a bare, hard floor. Like the rest of the company’s building, wedged between ice and liquid water, it was sheeted in metal—easy to keep clean…and also very efficient at transmitting sound.

Kicking her feet every now and then, Salvia kept up with Dr. Faisbain’s tread. She was expecting the doctor to stop at one of her usual rooms but was surprised when the scientist kept walking all the way to what Salvia knew as the “boardroom”. Why it was called a boardroom was a mystery to her but, then again, much of what the normals did was a mystery.

When Dr. Faisbain’s footsteps halted, Salvia knew she was outside the correct room. She frowned and pressed herself closer to the wall. Like the large meeting hall, the boardroom was only peopled intermittently, usually during the monthly meeting with department heads. Salvia cast her mind back and knew that the last monthly meeting had been last week. There shouldn’t be another gathering in the boardroom for another three weeks at least. Something very important must be going on.

Even though she knew they couldn’t hear her, Salvia breathed shallowly and listened in, her cheek pushed up against the metal skin of the tube.

“—glad you could make it, Dr. Faisbain.”

Salvia didn’t know who was speaking, but she knew that tone of voice. It was courteous but masking condescension.

“I came as quickly as I could, Captain Haber.”

There was the scrape of a chair and a bit of murmuring as Faisbain sat down.

Salvia didn’t know who this “Captain Haber” was. She hadn’t heard the name before. Was he the captain of the ship that had brought Rhus? She didn’t think he was a technician. His voice sounded too authoritative.

“And how is our newest denizen of Europa’s oceans?” That was Haber’s voice.

“Rhus is doing better than expected,” Faisbain said. “Considering the accelerated medium in which he was developed, his skeletal and muscular structures are amazingly robust. He does seem to tire easily, however. Tests indicate a sub-standard level of oxygen absorption from the water, so it’s obvious that organ growth is lagging but I’m sure he’ll come up to speed quickly once he’s in his home environment and has had a few months’ further growth under his belt.”

“And Salvia?”

“She’s fine.” Salvia knew the scientist well enough to detect the thread of stiffness in her tone. She wondered if anybody else heard it as well.

“We’ve spent a lot of money on this venture already, Dr. Faisbain. I’m expecting something more than ‘fine’, especially considering the rushed nature of the second creature’s development.”

Creature? Were they referring to…Rhus? And her?

“I’d like to remind you that Salvia and Rhus are both human, Captain.” The censure in Faisbain’s voice was obvious now, even through layers of steel. “They were grown from human stock and all modifications were spliced on human stock first. With the exception of marine technology in their lungs, skin and eye structure, they are fully human.”

“No human has ever cost as much as one of your…patients, Dr. Faisbain.”

Haber’s voice was a bit muffled. Salvia imagined he would only sound like that if he was leaning forward and perhaps resting his hands on something that interfered with sound transmission. A table?

“Costs that the company has recouped many times over.”

Salvia knew there were others in the room. She could hear their shuffling interfering with her following the conversation, but it appeared that the doctor and Haber were the only ones willing to talk. Salvia wondered why that was. Were hostility-laden arguments between normals some kind of spectator sport? Did someone keep score? Was that why others were in the room? None of the other monthly meetings had sounded anything like this.

“The new compounds that are being synthesised to form lightweight, innovative building materials came from Europa,” Dr. Faisbain said. “So did the material to create new bone growth matrices. The samples Salvia has brought back, from regions deeper and farther away than we dare explore, have led to innovations in fields ranging from industrial compounds to micro-surgical techniques.”

Salvia straightened her spine and smiled.

Yes! You tell that superior-sounding arrogant man, Dr. Faisbain!

“And such discoveries have stopped for the past half a year, haven’t they, Dr. Faisbain?”

Salvia stilled.

“Understandable, under the circumstances,” Faisbain said.

Her voice was softer now and full of…uncertainty? Salvia frowned and continued to listen.

“We created a modified human being, sent her out into an ocean of darkness and expected only blind obedience. We don’t expect such behaviour from domesticated pets, much less another sentient being.”

“She’s a tool of the company that employs us both.”

“She’s a young woman, Captain Haber. An intelligent, sensitive and lonely young woman. The only thing that surprises me is how long she waited before staging her mutiny. I know you are on the company’s board, and that you specifically requested the ship captaincy so you could relay the company’s…displeasure to me in person but, on your return, could you also tell the rest of the board that we’re dealing with an intelligent being here and not a circus animal.”

There was a long silence and Salvia wondered whether the normals had used hand signals to indicate the meeting was at an end. She hadn’t heard any noises associated with people leaving. She tried to imagine what it might look like in the boardroom. Besides their voices, how did normals send emotional signals to one another? They didn’t have bioluminescent skin like she did, and their tones didn’t seem to vary very much, staying in a lower range that she found signified secrets to be told, information that wasn’t to be shared. As far as she was concerned, humans were more about hiding things than revealing them.

“When can we send the other one out?” Captain Haber finally asked.

“Rhus,” there was a slight stress on his name, “will be ready to begin work tomorrow. We had a problem with the tracking device that was implanted on Mars and had to replace it. Other than that, he’s coping admirably.”

“And the girl will start work again?”

“Salvia is a reasonable young woman. She knows we made a deal. We stuck to our end. I’m sure she’ll stick to hers.”

“We’re after results, Dr. Faisbain. In the absence of new product launches, our share price has remained static for more than half a year. Considering the size of our investment here, the board considers this unacceptable. We’re depending on your hybrids to help generate more profit.”

“I’m sure you are, Captain Haber. And may I remind you that Rhus’ arrival is only an acceleration of a plan that had already been agreed to five years ago? I’m sure the company is aware of the roadmap I helped draft. Contrary to what others might think, this posting to Europa hasn’t turned out to be the exile they hoped for me.”

Another silence.

“Based on past results,” Faisbain said, and Salvia detected a note of triumph in her voice, “as the senior marine biologist on Europa station, I’m expecting a significant rise in commercial discoveries once both Salvia and Rhus begin working together.”

There wasn’t much of importance said after that. Or, at least, anything that made sense to Salvia. The voices became more relaxed, others chimed in, and Salvia gathered that the main, combative part of the meeting was at an end. When she heard someone enter the room, announcing the arrival of food, she knew it was time to go.

Using measured strokes, Salvia headed out of the pipe system and into open water, increasing her speed as she hit the ocean currents. She hadn’t been detected but, for safety’s sake, she wanted to be as far from the station as possible.

She headed for her home, a cave system forty kilometres from the humans’ outpost. Although she had a bay at the station that was supposedly her own “room”, it had been Dr. Faisbain who’d encouraged her to be more independent, telling her that it wouldn’t always be practical swimming back to the base while she was exploring underwater terrain six sectors away, for example. The biologist’s encouragement changed the way Salvia thought about her job. She realised that she didn’t have to take the company handouts if she didn’t want to. Just as she didn’t have to eat the company food.

The station had been set up to dispense daily rations and, most of the time, Salvia had dutifully gone and collected her meals. There were three of them for each day, labelled “Breakfast”, “Lunch” and “Dinner”. This had amused and puzzled Salvia no end. Did the humans really regulate their lives to such an extent? When she asked Faisbain about it, the scientist had replied that, yes, most humans ate their meals three times a day.

Salvia said nothing but she was smiling inside. What if someone suddenly became hungry in between one of these regimented meal times? What if they happened across something delicious in the course of their work? Were they supposed to ignore a tasty titbit just because they hadn’t reached the eating part of their cycle?

But that wasn’t the only puzzle that the normals posed. Faisbain explained that, at first, humans hadn’t been sure what was waiting for them under the icy crust of Europa.

“We had expected a barren salty ocean, stretching all the way around Jupiter’s moon,” Faisbain had told her during her third physical examination, when she was still getting used to having an entire moon to herself. “And when we started the drilling, in order to site the station…well, we discovered more surprises.”

“Like the thickness of the ice,” Salvia said from inside the observation tank.

“That’s right.” The older woman’s voice was distracted from referring to several monitors. “Definitely thinner than we were expecting. And the water was warmer too.”

“And full of life.”

It hadn’t taken Salvia long before she was entranced by the wonder of the dark watery world. Except it wasn’t dark to her. Her eyes had been modified, so what appeared to be complete blackness to humans was actually a landscape of shading and pastel colour to her. The currents were faint ribbons of blue, sinuously weaving their way between ridges and slowly fading into larger currents and bodies of water. Schools of marine creatures resembling fish appeared as white and silver flashes, darting across water, coalescing and dispersing, flowing around obstacles and meeting up on the other side as if they were a single entity, temporarily sliced into individual streams that seamlessly melded together again.

Salvia’s stomach would rumble when she saw the shoals of white-fish. There were bigger predators in Europa’s oceans but Salvia knew she had a couple of advantages over them. She was quick. And smart. It didn’t take long for her to capture flapping slivers of firm flesh in her hands and mouth and crunch them between her sharp teeth. She swallowed their rich blood as she chewed, and considered her small catches of fish to be superior in taste and texture to the processed blocks that the station dispensed.

She was given medical care by the humans. And accommodation. And food. Dr. Faisbain was kind and even joked with her from time to time. But even during her first tentative forays into Europa, Salvia knew that the humans weren’t her friends. She watched the way they treated each other—what they said behind another person’s back—and that was with their own kind. She knew they would be more cruel with her. They could turn into foes at the least opportunity.

But now that she was safely in her cave, Salvia could ruminate more clearly on the meeting she’d overheard. The words that Captain Haber spoke seemed to imply that she and Rhus were nothing more than animals. Trained creatures sent out into Europa to sniff out and recover minerals and structures that might be used by the mysterious, almighty “company” to “increase profits”. She had heard those terms many times, most often when they thought she wasn’t listening. She didn’t know exactly what a “company” was, except she was sure it described a very greedy entity. Maybe it was something, or someone, that the humans worshipped. That sounded right. And “profits” were like sacrifices to the company. The bigger the sacrifice, the more the entity liked it.

And what if the sacrifices weren’t big enough? Salvia had known she was taking a risk by not working these past few months. Would the company understand? Or would it grow so angry that it would travel to Europa to punish Salvia?

But she was already steps ahead of the monster. Afraid that it might decide to wreak vengeance, Salvia had been hoarding the rations that the station provided. There had been no firm thought of mutiny at first, just an uneasy thought that she needed some kind of insurance, in case she displeased the station’s supervisors. She hadn’t said anything to Dr. Faisbain of what she was thinking; after all, wasn’t Dr. Faisbain also a human, and not to be trusted?

Whenever she could, Salvia snuck away extra rations and, by now, had a reasonably-sized cache. That was her emergency reserve, in case disaster struck. And it had been a wise move.

When, several months ago, she’d gone back to the station to tell them that she refused to do any more work until they provided a companion for her, they did as she’d feared, and used the threat of starvation against her. Up to that point, the normals had somehow thought that she was feeding exclusively on the compressed dusty bricks they called food. When she laughed at them and displayed a wriggling white-fish in her hand, before munching on it in front of them, they looked shocked. They would have threatened to withhold medical care but both parties knew that Salvia was in the peak of health. She had been created to be the perfect complement to Europa and, unfortunately for them, she was.

When they ran out of threats, they finally settled down and listened. And that’s when Salvia told them what she wanted.

Salvia hadn’t cared if the companion she had asked for was male or female. All she wanted was someone to share Europa with. The white-fish were too simple-minded and primitive for her to communicate with, and their predators, for all that their size proclaimed some degree of prowess in Europa’s oceans, were also only intent on eating and breeding. There hadn’t been a single creature in her new home that she could talk to or share new discoveries with. The station personnel, even including Dr. Faisbain, were more interested in what she found rather than how she felt. So she had refused further assignments until she had a confidant. A friend.

And she hadn’t quite believed their promises until they delivered one to her.

She had expected to be happy. She hadn’t bargained on the conflicting emotions that Rhus’ appearance caused.SneakPeek-09-Cover-EuropaEuropa

Her ideal friend would have been someone like her, quiet and curious. She hadn’t been ready for a brash male who boasted about his journey to Europa, a journey she couldn’t herself recall. She had wanted someone to share confidences with, but Rhus appeared to be somebody who was happier demonstrating his own superiority. She’d been happy when she heard Dr. Faisbain tell the rest of the room, including Captain Haber, that Rhus’ organs were still immature. That meant that he wasn’t as strong as he had first boasted. As first human inhabitant of the moon, Salvia was still its mistress and holder of more knowledge about Europa than any other person in the galaxy.

In the comforting arch of her cave, Salvia smiled to herself. Having some company was good, but she wouldn’t make the mistake of trusting Rhus too much. He was still a tool of the “company” that Salvia mistrusted. He would need to prove himself before she shared more than her surface thoughts with him.

She flicked a glance to a small section of the cave floor piled with uneaten station rations. Although Salvia had laughed at the station staff when they threatened to starve her, they hadn’t known that it was bravado. She hadn’t known how long she could have lasted if they hadn’t listened to her demands. Her Europan diet consisted mostly of white-fish, but she hadn’t been on Europa long enough to confidently predict its cycles. Maybe there was an annual migratory surge, when life would disappear to another part of the moon, too far away for her to comfortably reach. Maybe there were regular die-offs. Suicide runs. Geothermal poisoning from the moon’s active core. The rations were her insurance for such occurrences. Thank goodness she hadn’t needed to rely on them.

Her gaze then drifted to a small patch of darkness, hidden behind bigger boulders and bioluminescent patches of copepod colonies. That was her second exit out of her cave.

That passage was small and low, with barely enough room for her to wriggle through. After discovering it, Salvia left it alone, entering and exiting her home via the larger, primary entrance. The reasoning was clear. She couldn’t discount the humans sending autonomous marine drones of their own to explore the moon. In case there was any trouble between the station and herself—they wanted to trap her, for example—she didn’t want to betray her secret escape route.

Yes, she may have been cynical about humans and their motivations but, judging by Haber’s words, she was justified in her paranoia.

Floating in the closed comfort of her cave, Salvia let herself drift upwards until she could reach out and touch the rough ceiling. So much had happened that it was difficult to take it all in. Her mind was whirling with visions of lies, betrayal, deceit…and darting through the oceans with someone by her side.

Closing her eyes, she sighed and waited for the new day. And Rhus’ arrival.

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