“And of Amphitrite and the loud-roaring Earth-Shaker was born great, wide-ruling Triton,
and he owns the depths of the sea,
living with his dear mother and the lord his father in their golden house,
an awful god.”
-from “Theogony” Hesiod
Greater Cousteau Ocean, Triton
August 2460 Terran Standard
She heard his voice barking, coming down the access hall to her quarters. Sounding to her, over the high pitched squeal of her atomic welder, like two dueling whines.
“Rore we need you on the bridge!” Sanji hollered as he emerged into her narrow doorway, while she lay on her back welding the cracked casing around the nanmag’s core, “Aurora! Now! Come on man, the ice got too tight.”
She took her time finishing the mend. Technically she was off the clock. It was taxing enough being on duty sixteen hours a day. That left her four for sleeping and four for herself. Not that there was a lot to do on a cramped submarine miles below the ice shelf that held in the enormous ammonia sea they were plodding through.
But fuck, could she maybe get an hour to work on her own bullshit side projects?
“Aurora come on, please,” he insisted, voice straining with what might have been actual panic, “You know Dani loses his nerve when it gets dangerous.”
Dani was Sanji’s half brother. Sanji was likely most worried that they were losing rank and cred on the ship now that a better pilot was aboard. Also, he was supine and conflicted that the new ace was an intrepid and attractive twenty-five year old space cowgirl.
Aurora pushed herself out from under the machine she had been working on and turned off the welder. She flipped her mask up, revealing that dead beautiful face, with three shiny chrome piercings and flecked with tribal tattoos under her BORGan eyes and at the top of her forehead. There was also a thin line of tattoo dripping down from the center of her full lips, ending in a sharp point on her chin.
She pulled the mask off completely and scratched her scalp. Her hair was a pastel pink muss of delicately designed chaos, with spiky cowlicks sprouting near the back of her head; it was shorter in the front and on the sides but faded into much longer strands of a grown out mullet dangling to her shoulders. A half dozen dreadlocks, half-comprised of nano, and riddled with tricks, traps and lock-picks were clustered in the longer section, rooted at the base of her skull.
Sitting up slightly, she affected a glare and trained it on Sanji, her eyes a cool glowing blue. His bistre face paled a shade. Her demeanor might as well have been a gun.
“Alright dammit,” she conceded, the impatience on her face highlighting her default beauty, “But dammit I’m pulling OT on this. Starting now.”
“Yeah, yeah of course. 18:24, noted and logged,” he logged her onto payroll with a tap on his nano laden wrist, “Now would you please come take the helm while we’re still alive?”
She stood up and laid the mask and the Langmuir torch aside on her tiny workbench. The bench was a nano construct, able to fold back paper thin against the wall. One of those ‘convenient’ modalities, which barely improved the ergonomics in the struggle to extract comfort from a crowded metal shell.
“Jesus. Sanj don’t be such a bitch,” she shook her head.
He frowned for lack of a rebuttal and turned to shuffle sideways five feet to the ladder. The hall was barely twenty inches wide. There were nothing but narrow and impossibly narrow halls on the craft. Even so, Aurora was quick on his heels. She wiped her hands on her work smock before mounting the ladder and darting up beneath him.
Five months ago she had never been in a submarine, let alone piloted a Hydra class aquaminer. But her skills as a space pilot translated well. A lot of the principles were the same. It just handled a bit slower. And that was teaching her some of the finer points of precision piloting anyway.
She couldn’t complain about the money or the obscure locale. Her skills as a getaway pilot had earned her a series of interplanetary charges that she was on the run from. More bounties than she cared to think about. And the three escapes from jail only led to more charges, including murder. So she knew to vanish as far and deep into the murk as she could.
She could pick up the net from under the shelf of frozen solid nitrogen, so she was still making money on the side doing her usual hacking and siphoning of large corporate accounts. In her seven year stint as a full time criminal she had never gotten pinched for her cyber crimes. Only on those bank jobs.
And she had gotten snitched out, long after she had safely completed her part of the heists.
Her only fault was trusting the scumbag she was hired by.
But he got his.
She got away with that one scot-free too.
Aurora followed Sanji onto the bridge and nodded in approval of the scene she took in. Showing on the holoscreen that served as their viewport was a tight canyon of white frozen nitrogen and methane, spiked with bright blue veins, like lightening running through it. The veins stretched ahead of them for as far as they could see.
Signs of a huge deposit of lithium. The very reason they were out here under the ice three months at a time prospecting for Akracore United, the leading manufacturer in the emerging Triton economy. It was a young colony compared to Luna or Mars, desolate so far, but with hopes to utilize the terraforming process that had transformed Mars to the healthiest atmosphere in the system.
“Aurora, take the helm,” Captain Ansen ordered her, “Dani rotate the angle on the holoscreen. Show her.”
Dani vacated the pilot’s seat and Aurora hopped in. They were holding steady, but the implication was that they would need her to get them deeper into this ravine. Or they would have waited six more hours for her actual shift to start.
With a few taps on the command pad for the view screen, Dani slowly pulled the shot up to show the solid blue chunks of an enormous lithium deposit arching over the submerged inverted ravine.
“Shit,” Aurora breathed softly.
It was pure lithium stretching as a roof over the perceivable length of the canyon.
Akracore would export much of it for use in the construction of spaceship hulls on Mars and Titan, while the rest would be processed here on Triton, in their own plants. Nano-built factories that would use the element to constantly churn out medicines, telecommunications devices, batteries, cybernetic eyes and limbs, and a cadre of missiles, munitions and explosives.
It was a well diversified corporation. Their influence draped across the system on insidious and innocuous tendrils alike.
With an alluring incentives program for it’s undersea prospectors.
Ships like theirs were franchised to their captains. Aurora had been recruited unto the Yami Andhera by its master within a week of arriving on Triton with a fake passport. She had met Ansen while he was on leave, in a bar in Aegis City, the only interplanetary port on the moon.
He was three decades an outlaw on the lamb as well. And successful at that. He was a brazen scofflaw in his own right — with a soft spot for beautiful women.
“Billions,” Ansen stated confidently as they all marveled at the shadowy blue lithium, “Bonus out the ass.”
“I’ve never seen so much in one place,” Dani muttered quietly, still slightly embarrassed that his skills were not enough to navigate the trench.
“And I guess you want me to take us down as far as it goes?” Aurora asked rhetorically.
“Phlox, you get us to the end of this deposit and back out and I’ll sign off on three weeks paid leave, effective next pay cycle,” Ansen offered.
“Can I get that in writing?” she smirked as she gripped the steering handles and disengaged the grav-anchors.
Ansen broke a smile. She could wise off all she wanted in light of the commission they were gonna take on this expedition.
Twelve hours later she was bullshitting on the deepnet site called bevəl. She was working on winding down from the .25 grams of starlight she had taken to do the ravine scouting all in one go. It was a designer amphetamine, a couture molecule of speed that was prescribed to long haul space pilots. In most places, starlight was utterly illegal to use, except for the vocations that required it. Triton’s laws were still loose enough that Akracore United could keep it stocked and supplied to it’s Hydra class aquaminer pilots. They manufactured their own in Doris City, one of five nano construct metropolises on the moon that were expanding daily. Lithium was used in this process as well.
She had considered popping a few benzos, but knew that they would leave her groggy on her next shift. Instead she decided to eat too much food and try to ride through it. Eventually digestion would wear her down into sleep.
A few hours on bevəl, trolling memes and getting the latest deepnet hacker gossip would have to suffice for absorbing her thinning attention. It was a dedicated hacker haven, completely untraceable. Logic dictated that their servers existed somewhere in physical space, but there were cy cowboys out there that theorized it was all looping on the net, purely digital, with roots dug into server space everywhere at once.
Aurora didn’t bother too much with the hypothetical side of riding the cy though. She was there for job opportunities and the lulz.
For the time being, she was scanning black market classifieds seeing what sort of work was out there for a digital thief. Clicking through them offhandedly, not really needing or seeking employment, but just wanting to know the state of the ‘industry’. If you could call it that.
A chat bubble popped up in the corner of her browser.
240TEETH: I know who you are Phlox.
Her wide, graceful nose and her pouty lips curled into a disdainful look as she contemplated the unsolicited message, coming through from another user on bevəl. She thought for a moment and typed a response.
JARGON535: Get off my pm’s shitwad. Don’t know who you are looking for but I’ll fry your mainframe if you keep trolling.
A symbol in the IM box blinked, indicating the other person was typing a response.
240TEETH: We both know who you are Aurora.
She seethed silently as she considered the message.
No one anywhere should be able to trace her online handle to her realtime identity. Maybe an
Omega level leet hacker like Tank Turing or Theory could figure it out. Not that she understood how they would, but that’s why they were wizards, not cowboys. Nonetheless she shouldn’t even be on their radar. People like that made ten times more money on a five minute hack than all the combined bounties on her head would total up to.
Had to be a bounty hunter, trying to make a name for himself. One that had already invested big in tracing her online. But he was showing no indication that he could link her bevəl handle to a physical locative.
The virtual interloper sent another message:
240TEETH: I’m coming for you Aurora. I’ll be seeing you soon.
The conversation was getting boring for her.
She typed one last gutsy reply before logging out.
JARGON535: Not if I see you first bitch.
She exited out of bevəl and closed all the operations running on her computer. Rolling over in her bunk she finally felt she might be tired enough to sleep. Or angry enough. Professionals couldn’t always evaporate off all their emotions, but they sure as sin had to learn to focus and redirect them.
As she drifted off slowly, she wondered what doomed little fucker was hiding behind that ‘teeth’ screen name.
”The Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune”
-from ”The World is Too Much With Us, Late And Soon”
Launch LCQ Living Compound Sigma Three, Enceladus
Hacat thrashed his heavy dyed-black dreadlocks about as the Neo Screech Rock blasted all around him. His usually pale boring face was marred from a recent near death plunge into a venomously mordacious node of the web. His right eyeball, a sophisticated, custom, cybernetic model built by Xax’s Chopshop, had exploded in his skull two nights before.
Most of it exploded outward, so he didn’t think he had any irreparable brain damage. Though all around the eye he had suffered minor burns and abrasions, he had been on so much starlight that he barely even felt it.
But he had legit been on fire for a minute and he thought that was edge as fuck.
He groaned along to the three year old recording, a song by the Martian band “Thor’s Whores”. It was an obscure band in an obscure genre, grating and hateful. The bottom end was produced to intentionally destroy sub woofers. Allegedly guitar had been used in composing the series it had come from — but if so, it had been compressed, unwound, re-compressed, passed through dozens of phase filters and spliced eight ways to Sunday before the final master. So it was hard to discern what you were really hearing.
The few reviews that had been written up on the collection generally agreed it could be likened to the death knell of a gang-raped domesticated animal warped through a trash compactor.
Hacat reveled in it. He kind of wanted to stuff a poodle through a grinder himself, though he had never seen a real flesh and blood dog.
Most of his life had been spent in an iron dome plugged into the web, in a desolate mining settlement on Enceladus. The furthest from home he had been up to then was a vacation to Titan with school in his tenth grade. Just another moon in the Saturn system. Nothing special to him. Educational, socially forced — no inspiration that there might be culture worth belonging to on any of these damned moons that mankind was slowly assimilating.
His father had migrated to Enceladus with his corporation from Mars, five years before he had been born. His mother overdosed and died, on experimental hallucinogens, when he was three.
Kids in school used to tease him, saying it was impossible to die from that class of chemicals.
He shrugged it off like he shrugged off the beatings.
Figured she really just died of boredom.
Wanted it to eat him too.
As long as he could recall, his father had been an unresponsive, vapid robot — devoted to making money to provide for the wife he no longer had and the son he no longer noticed. Money that bought them nothing. Rote servitude to an outmoded proof of his worth. A cog in a social machine that Hacat grew to hate. It was superfluous and infested and he wanted to slough it all off like a snake shedding dead husk.
The only valve his mounting anxiety and sociopathic insanity found was escape into the virt on the system-wide-net. Fully immersed in 3D virtual reality hacking code, bringing home the proverbial booty.
For years he was not much more than a teen media pirate and porn addict. He managed to accumulate a four billion terabyte cloud of pirated pornography by the time he was sixteen years old. The library, in tandem with his psyche meds, (three doses a day of powerful amphetamine salts,) had melted his brain, hands and genitals into warm gooey puddles of shame.
But over time and without the threat of interest in the real world, he had been lured deeper and deeper into the world of coding. History class in school got him interested in the various revolutionary hacking collectives of the last five centuries. He obsessed over the contemporary folk legends of the outlaws known as the Reticuli, but hesitated to completely wave their banner; they had been broken up by SOLCORPS over a decade ago.
So he lurked around in the deepnet long enough to find his way into bevəl, where he was still considered a bottom-feeder. Not as bad as being a n00b, but barely better. Abuse from those higher on the social ladder was normal to him by then though.
He was happy to be on the food chain at all.
People surfing the net don’t get to bevəl on accident. There isn’t a regular url, it doesn’t come up in search engines, neither spidercrawled nor deepnet. Bevəl comes to you, if it deems you worthy. People don’t loosely pass access to it onto each other. Even amongst tight gangs of code-crackers and script writers. It’s the sort of VIP hacker space that you don’t want anyone knowing you have access to. Cowboys have been killed for blabbing about frequenting it & SOLCORPS agents have had their brains fried out trying to hack it.
It is lethally exclusive and redundantly user unfriendly.
But if you can get in the window, it’s usually worth risk.
There is no common consensus on who or what started the site, or even how old it is. It is allegedly at least ninety-four years old, as the resident elder LuminousTeflon claims to have been logging onto the site at least that long. LumTef was a cy eavesdrop specialist who had afforded to extend his life through several nanomods and a ribcage full of insured BORGans. He claimed to be one hundred-six years old. Other elders have confirmed that he seems to have always been around, that at least he was there when they got there, but none could deny or confirm the claim with any hard evidence.
The real reason his story was accepted was because Tank Turning backed his claim. Turing was the Gandalf of the wizards, a grey hat that could unravel the binary in your DNA. His asking price was astronomical and he was somehow harder to find than bevəl itself. But he knew when people were looking for him and how to make their lives easier or more complicated. Tank identified himself as a male, though as with most cy cowboys, only they would really know.
There was an army of hackers, at least ten thousand strong, that would take Turing’s commands and raid any site he sicked them on. He was an elder on the site, known to have been there on and off for forty years, but he was not a very regular part of the day to day cypher culture & illegal bazaar that comprised most of the site’s main workings.
Urban legends permeate the colonies of seedy asteroids where you can buy and sell children, starlight, heroin, acutely tailored viruses, weapons, black market software and worse. On bevəl you could get all that and more — with a little ‘quantity’ box next to your selection to choose how many children or canisters of airborne Ebola you wanted to buy. There were constantly classified postings soliciting hitmen, RT thieves, competent hackers, smugglers, and drugs that had barely been invented. And that was just what was linked from visible eggs in the site’s foyer.
Dig a little deeper and it could get rather gruesome.
The “Thor’s Whores” that Hacat was rocking out to then, was something he had just downloaded off of one of bevəl’s music nodes, twenty minutes prior. The recordings had been scrubbed from the rest of the net for legal reasons. After the drummer killed and ate the front woman, his legal team had been building a strong case for self-defense by citing the lyrics from seven different “Thor’s Whores” songs. It was alleged that these specific songs were directed at the drummer, Ung Novstrad, that they were death threats, and that he had no choice but to stab her forty-seven times in self defense.
And then eat her, just to be sure he was safe.
An incoming IM request popped up on his screen. It was another bevəl user, with the name @ggro@phid. He had never seen the handle before, but there were probably only fifty people that he saw regularly enough to know their M.O.
His amphetamine driven curiosity gave. He opened the message.
@ggro@phid: I know where the flower you were looking for is.
He shook his head. No context for the message pushed to the fore of his thoughts.
240TEETH: Uh…. what?
The response box filled up with a picture of bright, pretty, pink flowers. It had been three days since he’d been to sleep. Two since he’d imbibed anything other than starlight. He had no fucking clue.
240TEETH: I’ll repeat… Uh… what?
@ggro@phid: Phlox you dumbass. Those flowers are phlox.
It took a few seconds for the word to register. Why did he know that word? He didn’t give a shit about flowers. But there was something -
240TEETH: Oh fuck. You mean Aurora Phlox? The bank robber, murderer and escaped con?
@ggro@phid: Yes. So much for subtlety.
He laughed at himself, the butt of their sarcasm.
240TEETH: What about her?
@ggro@phid: I can get you her physical location.
Gangling, pasty fingers rubbed his unimpressive beard in concentration. He hadn’t really expected to go any further with the trolling he had pulled the other night. On a suicidal whim he had decided to try to decrypt a series of bevəl login nodes he was able to isolate. As he did it, he had realized it was the sort of hack that could get him banned or killed.
And on the other hand, it might earn him some cred.
The end result instead was a minor stroke that shorted out his left eyeball and a list with fourteen names associated to fourteen bevəl user’s profiles. Ten of them were of dead people. Three of them were private military/corporate assassins — exactly the people he wouldn’t want to fuck with.
And one had been Aurora Phlox. A felon on the run. Escaped convict that must be sweating bullets wherever she was holed up. So he decided to stunt on her. Troll her for the lulz. The random nature in which her information had been spat out to him left him feeling pretty safe that no one could trace him back intentionally.
His hack had been a fluke. Bevəl was secure as shit. He figured that sadistically fucking with her couldn’t possibly go wrong, because there was no way for her to trace him. Let her sweat it the rest of her short life. With twenty-three million credits on her head, she wasn’t gonna last long.
Whoever this was, he thought, they were probably after that money. Not a bottom-feeder. Someone able to eavesdrop on their chat the other day, but probably unable to trace him. Keeping an alert coursing through the site to identify all conversations with her name in it wouldn’t be as difficult as trading your eye for random knowledge, like some serendipitous Odin.
There was only one question he kept coming back to.
240TEETH: What do you get out of it?
He scratched at one of the tails of scabbing that ran back from his burnt out eye socket, knowing that he couldn’t back out just yet. Eleven point five mil was nothing to just laugh off.
Sussing this anon was the play.
@ggro@phid: I want to know how you pulled that stunt to get the logins. I work support for bevəl’s defenses and I saw that cy magic you conjured. You didn’t get much. Can’t believe you’re still alive.
So maybe he wouldn’t get banhammered from the site after all, even with his red paws. He cued up another seventeen minute Neo Screech track and wobbled his head in tweaker glitch glee. His one good eyeball shuddered in it’s socket a billion blips a second as a hundred muscles spasmed in drug induced seizsure.
Hacat’s legs kicked out reflexively. His skull knocked side to side unsteadily, lacking proper ballast to even itself out. A change in the song’s tempo exploded out of nowhere & he stopped spasming and instead began steadily nodding his head to the bass drum, like an entranced witchdoctor.
He calmed his vision enough to see a new message had come up on his computer’s holoscreen.
@ggro@phid: Plus I need help collecting the bounty, without attracting too much attention.
That was the pinch. They couldn’t do it on their own. He was in a power position in the negotiations, he was certain. He had to ice them out and regroup his thoughts.
240TEETH: Message me in two days.
He signed out and started digging through his desk for his alprazolam. He needed some sleep and a day to mull this all over.
And he needed to order a new goddamn eyeball.
“…their charming positions, and the poetry of their manners,
metamorphosed them, the male into a triton and the female into a mermaid.”
-from “20,000 Leagues Under The Sea” Jules Verne
Aegis City, Triton
October 2560 Terran Standard
He spotted the bar through the teeming crowds of Aegis City’s Friday night drinking migration. Its name was well lit in towering neon magenta, two radiant words written vertically: “Roche Limit”. The building was a lacquered grey marble, from the foundation on up to its’ ultimate floor. He was three blocks away yet, and could see it took up an entire city block; a marble masked box, thirty floors cubed. Classical columns lined it’s edges and corners, seemingly superfluously. As he pushed towards it, a series of embedded lights on the columns revealed themselves, erupting as a pattern of inviting subliminals rapidly snaking up and down the structure.
Hacat had just landed on Triton that day and was ready to get one quick glimpse of the colonized pixel of Triton before he shipped out into its vast desolate blue-screen-of-death frontier. Where he’d be posing as another forgettable aquaminer scouring the Greater Cousteau Ocean under the ice shelfs of Leviathan Patera. On some hunt for lithium, vicariously money, that he couldn’t care less about.
For now though, the one night on shore before he started his tour, he was gonna rage the roof down. An Akracore engineer at the barracks where he had been assigned temporary lodging told him that all the wildest prospectors partied at the Roche Limit downtown; a place with robot rodeo, a virt space racing immersion arcade, beast fights and holosoft knife leagues. So he had showered, rented a locker to stash his gear, then went out to find the place.
Two thousand meters above, the daylight white sheen of the neighborhood’s dome had been replaced by a navy blue glow, buzzing with the simulation of night effects already an hour underway. Projecting on the night sky were dazzling holocasts of developing galaxies, at a much greater resolution than possibly attainable from our system. Sporadic holo-adverts would pop up above buildings as billboards or over the window of a shop, if you looked at it long enough. It seemed the entire district was decked out in a casual facade of chintzy glam, that was lined with nano-tech creature comfort. Temporal lobe distraction flashing through and around everyone’s inebriated five second attention spans.
The thrill weaved about him on so many different stratas at once. He had gone undercover to flush out Phlox and had finally gotten out of the Saturn system, all in a fell swoop. Licensed through Akracore he was under a six month paid internship, funded by the corporation but intended to generate more independent prospecting. His test scores and exam records were enough to qualify him as a Digital Communications Officer, but his first six week tour he was signed on as Head of Inventory and Receiving aboard The Valiant Nobody.
He later learned that position translated here to ‘cook’. But fuck it.
At least he had a gig.
He got to the five meter squared gaping entrance to the Roche Limit, meeting a raucous din that blasted out to challenge the roars of the rest of the dome. Stepping into the place he felt almost dizzy. The zeitgeist was electrifying. Beautiful pink-haired cocktail waitresses walked around nude except for shag pink go-go leggings that ran down from their knees and billowed out slightly where they ended above their ankles. When one of the server girls got closer he saw that their ears were feline in shape, and that the leggings sprouted right out of the skin. Their nipples and finely styled pubic hair were also all bright neon pink; a chemical pink that had been effected by nano or some more basic grinder stunt.
A large cyborg got punched by a man of medium build, and the borg went flying backwards shattering a thin aluminum table and the drinks that had been on it. But everyone’s attention was being vacuumed across the room to two giant holographic monsters, each thirty feet tall who were squaring off to battle each other in an enormous holographic cage, fifty meters squared. Their screeches had just been patched into the house audio, over a piston pounding 140 bpm Psy Dub beat, and the regulars seemed to recognize that cue. In unison thousands of people, starting from the ground level of the bar and stretching on up to the various balconies overlooking the floor, turned to watch the holo beast match which had twelve million credits worth of wagers riding on it that very nanosecond.
Hacat gawked at the sheer scale of it, so huge and wide open, yet still packed to the gills with thirty thousand debaucherous drunks in off kilter shore-leave revelry. He was guessing that they likely used some pretty sophisticated AI templates to generate those big razor toothed monsters, but wasn’t so sure what could be so exciting about two programs fighting in 3D holocast. In the virt he had seen way cooler creatures go against real people, with the stakes being their own life.
He guessed it was the excitement of gambling with credits, something he had no association for. Money was a necessary evil to him. Couldn’t see anything fun about playing with it in such self-mocking decadence. But maybe he could learn…
Another person got punched in front of him, snapping her head back hard. They whipped back to a boxing stance and caught the next fist thrown at them. A sickening crunch was heard under the screaming crowds as the initial assailant’s hand was crushed to splinters within an iron fist that ended in pretty lilac French manicured nails.
No one else seemed to notice the exchange.
The disoriented bottom-feeder stumbled on through the crowd seeking an escape to a less bipolar claustrophobic/agoraphobic nook in the huge complex. Behind one of the four gargantuan main bars he saw a shadowy red hall leading off somewhere else.
Somewhere under the overhanging balconies that spiraled up thirty stories.
Worth a gander, he told himself, feeling more than slightly out of sorts amongst these throngs of hardened RT party monsters. Skating on the edge of their worth, screaming and numb, completely saturated in the radiating pulses of their element.
He headed down the hall, head down but grinning.
It was a whole new world and he loved it. He needed a drink and a gram of starlight.
A trio of people with cartoonishly orange and blue skin passed him in the hall, laughing and chortling in some pidgin slanguage that was lost on him. They had completely ignored him, nearly barreling him over.
He spun around ready to curse them out in English when he noticed a capsule on the ground that had spilled from the little blue haired/blue skinned girl’s purse as she had intentionally but offhandedly forearmed his left shoulder. Reflexively scooping it up and masking the move with an adjustment to his bootlaces he palmed the little gelcap. It was the right size and packaging for a half gram of something powerful and illicit.
Likely either starlight or china white.
Watching the trio disappear around the curve of the hall, he stood upright and restored some semblance of a believable casual posture. Had himself fooled at least. He continued down the hall in the same direction he had been headed while he slipped the cap into his jacket’s left pocket.
Hacat glanced down an adjacent hall diverging to his right into a smaller back room, with a bar along one wall and an elevated fighting square as its center piece. The ceilings weren’t high enough for the giant holograms from the main room, and there were only maybe three dozen people loosely gathering at the bar and near the gladiator square, so he opted for it.
As he bellied up to the bar he took the time to pop open the gelcap discreetly to eyeball it. It sparkled like starlight. His eyes were beacons of excitement that missed the presence of a pretty barmaid in a skintight purple synth-velours bodysuit, with visible nano plating on her cheek bones, forehead and neck. It was a look she would have been razzed for on Enceladus, but he soon suspected it upped her relative level of sexy mystique in a place like this.
“Rum and cola,” he ordered as soon as he saw her, wanting to divert her attention from the drugs he had been ogling in his own palm, “And a shot of Russian Tequila.”
He deftly pulled a credit-stick out with his other hand and offered it to her as she pushed a tangle of her jade hair behind one ear. She shrugged it all off and got him his drinks; weirder, jenkier shit than him rolled up into her lap just about every fifteen minutes.
After paying for the drinks he unobtrusively dumped the whole gelcap into the shot and slammed it down. He chased it with the mixed drink and smiled towards the bartender, but she was already taking someone else’s order.
The jolt of amphetamines came on quick. Not as quick as when he smoked it, but the weeks he had spent sober in transit from Enceladus to Triton, had left his tolerance lower than it had been in years. Luckily he had spent that flight time in a benzo-coma, the poorman’s cryo. Paid for by Akracore.
“They got you too?” a rough voice asked in a good natured tone.
Hacat didn’t realize it was directed to him at first. The monster fight from the main room was showing on holo-caster monitors behind the bar and it had gotten his jittery attention hooked. The familiar waves of cock hardening euphoria and melting color fields in his brain washed over him as he watched the one giant beast clamp it’s jaws on the other’s neck. But the same chemical subway lines that were highlighting the visual and empathetic halfway homes in his mind, also spoke up with a peripheral sense of lingering lack of answer.
“Who? What” he murmured loud enough to be overheard.
He watched the other holo beast manage to reverse the weight in the struggle, balancing out the odds slightly, but with it’s neck gored open and coursing fountains of blood.
“Akracore,” a hand slapped him on his shoulder and he snapped his head to look in the appropriate direction. He found a smiling hulk of a man in a soft grey shirt and ashy fatigues pants. His shirt matched the tone of his short cropped hair and long fu manchu, “Who else?”
Hacat stared into Fibonacci spirals that he was hallucinating in the cloth of the guy’s pants — he accessed sudo on his BORGans and reigned in the color differentials and auto-contrasts on his new eyeball. With minimal struggle, he pulled the zoom out to see the fatigues covered in a dusky silicon and rust colored camo pattern. He recognized the print of the pants as being SOLCORPS Asteroid Marines standard from the 2440s, twenty years prior. His racing brain spouted out these cached bits of data to bounce around his skull as he stared blankly at the guy’s leg.
“I’m Langston,” the man attached to the leg held his hand out, totally disregarding how twacked out Hacat clearly was, “Captain Langston Ansen.”
“Oh hey. Nice to met you,” he held his limp hand out to get it crunched in the larger maw, “I’m Hacat.”
Ansen shook his hand, asking, “Just.. a.. just one word? Hack-at? That some kind of code name or something?”
He seemed to be trying to be light hearted and joking, but Hacat was deadpan in his reply, “No it’s my legal name. I’m from Enceladus, just arrived today.”
And he just let that hover there, like it explained everything comfortably.
A large gulp from his rum and cola gave the younger man a half second to recuperate and try to not vomit his pineal gland out of his left nostril. Paranoid anxiety was strangling him with awkward. The one creature in the holo beast match was lying dead, being eaten. A hologram eating a hologram, artificially starved for a bellyful of digital light, as most of the building rocked in ovation of the outcome.
All those credits gambled zapped instantly through imaginary cyberspace to clink into place in the correct accounts. The slightly favored AI had won. Bets on that round weren’t weighted very heavy in either direction. In another ten minutes another round would be fought. Two more holo beasts would be rendered and pitted against each other’s math. Bets were being placed quickly.
Hacat held his glass up high chugging the last of it, sweat trickling down his temple.
The Captain laughed out loud, “Well OK then Mr. Hacat. Let me buy you a beer and we’ll watch the knife fights.”
Langston whistled and caught the attention of nano-face from before. Her smile split open ear to ear as she came over. The nano on her forehead glowed in orange incandescence as she greeted him, “Hey Ansen what can I get for ya?”
“Two porters off the tap,” he smiled and slipped a credit-stick with ten-thousand on it to her, “Put five hundred on a drink tab and the rest on a gambling line.”
“Ay ay Captain,” she saluted him playfully then trotted off to access the tap and process the gambling line.
“J.J.’s great, she’s been working the knife room for two years,” Ansen flicked his thumb at the giant chromed-plated fandango and white neon sign above the bar, something that Hacat had managed to overlook up until then.
The sign declared this parlor “Dice’s Knife” with a big six by eight meter glowing logo in custom font, mounted with a sharp looking dice & knife icon in the center. The dice on the fluorescent sign had come up snake eyes. Just looking at it caused Hacat to ache with the urge to buy a t-shirt with that design on it.
It was a programmed response — hypno subliminals were the cutting edge of marketting and Roche Limit was the tip of the scalpel. Superliminal latency glazed his focal point as he saw himself sporting the imaginable t-shirt in his mind’s eye.
J.J. clunked their beers on the bar and it snapped him out of the trance he unwittingly had fallen into. Ansen lifted his beer and waited for Hacat to do the same. He tipped his mug lightly into the other, “I bet you wish you had a ‘Dice’s Knife’ t-shirt, don’t ya?”
“Yeah, it’s strange..” he admitted, “But it’d make a really meg-rad shirt.”
Ansen laughed, clapping him on the shoulder again, “Hey J.J. throw a t-shirt for this kid on my drink tab and put six hundred on Angelique5fx in the first match. To win, no contingencies.”
“You got it Captain,” she grinned and walked off for the merch case, tapping his bet into her head as she went. He could log his own bets from his own neurochip, but she would get a 2% take on his winnings when she logged it for him.
Langston swiveled his stool to face the fighting square as two women stepped up into the ring. Hacat scooped his beer up in one hand and followed suit. He was still on the upswing of metabolizing the half gram of starlight he’d ground scored, it could turn into a very long night indeed. Fuck it though, he could sleep on the submarine he would soon be shipping out on.
“That’s who we’re rooting for this match,” Ansen pointed his half full beer at a tall, lithe young woman appearing to be of mixed African and Asian genetic stock, in a yellow synth suit under chrome nano-armor plates covering her torso and limbs.
Her opponent was a squatter, more rotund red haired woman, looking at least ten years older. But these days anyone could afford to look younger if they invested right, so Hacat knew that it was just a matter of appearances. But still, the redhead sure looked meaner.
The women’s names were announced and the bell rang. Hacat hadn’t noticed the handles that the women were holding till the holographic blades zapped to life on them. And in the same instant that the weapons turned on the duo was circling at a testing, moderate pace. Angelique5fx feigned a lunge, drawing Red into an over confident attack.
Angelique5fx pirouetted away from the slice and wound up in perfect position to slice across Red’s left triceps. A spurt of holographic blood shot from the point of contact and the redhead winced. The left was her off hand, and the knife a hologram, but still she dropped the weight of the limb as if it had really been cut. Hacat saw that the ‘wound’ was still dripping a hologram of blood.
Whoever had programmed this matrix had been precise as fuck.
“So wait,” Hacat spoke up, “Those things really hurt or not?”
“Fuck yeah they hurt!” Ansen blurted with a smile, “They don’t scar, but the wounds are tracked by the AI that is running the holograms. To step in the ring you have to plug your CNS into an interface with the program. So wounds can be simulated and holographic blood can be accurately rendered.”
“But what about like a stab to the neck or brain or something?” Hacat asked, sipping his porter down slowly.
“The worst that can happen is you black out from shock, get a kind of nasty headache the next day or two,” the Captain informed him, “It’d be a strong enough wallop that it could kill the weak of heart. But you wouldn’t be in this knife league if you were — oh shit!”
The small crowd hollered excitedly as Angelique5fx managed to trip her opponent and come up standing behind her, holding a clump of that rich red hair. Red had lost her grip on her own holosoft knife in the take down. On her knees struggling to leverage her disadvantage, panic hung on her face. The handle of her dropped weapon rattled on the floor six feet away as the holosoft blade flickered out of existence — it would only activate in the hands of one of the combatants logged in for this round.
Without ceremony, Angelique5fx pulled the hair back and sliced her holo-blade across Red’s throat. A huge sheet of holographic blood spilled from the neck as the vanquished gladiator’s eyes rolled back in her unconscious skull.
Angelique5fx held both arms up to the roof triumphantly as the crowd cheered and Red’s limp body slumped to the mat. Ansen hooted and clapped, already up three hundred credits. Hacat shook his head slowly, amazed at how fast it had all gone down and loving the application of technology.
“Damnnnnnnn,” Hacat exhaled, clearly impressed with the action.
“Fucking great right?” Ansen smiled, “You wanna place a bet on the next round?”
Hacat’s face turned avocado, “Oh I don’t know shit about this. I don’t really have any money for gambling.. I uh..”
“Nah it’s cool, kid. I made like fifty million credits last month. Just tell me ‘favorite’ or ‘underdog’. I’ll decide for myself how much of my own money I bet, based on which way you call the bet,” Ansen assured him, “It can go either way any round. It’s just like I’m having you call ‘heads’ or ‘tails’.”
The anachronistic reference to a coin toss, centuries out of custom, actually put Hacat at ease with the idea. Something about the curveball of it. Or the cresting rush of the starlight dancing helixes in his blood stream with the alcohol. The entire frame-rocking orgasm of this deepspace frontier saloon. He threw worry to the wind, feeling wholly at ease with himself for the first time in months, “Fuck, slutever. ‘Underdog’ on this next one.”
“Right on! Attaboy!” Ansen clapped him on the shoulder for the third time in their short relationship and whistled for J.J. to come back over.
People were filling into “Dice’s Knife” now and she had been momentarily beleaguered by incoming custees, not even two drinks into their night. But she saw Ansen’s beckon and she came back with the t-shirt, tossed it to Hacat. The programmed desire was satisfied, their marketting cherry-pick zeroed out by Ansen’s long credit line and prankster sense of humor.
“Fifteen hundred on Sarena Skizzwhores in the next match,” he told her, able to call up the listings in his head, already logged onto the club’s website via his neurochip, “And another round of porters.”
“You got it Captain,” she smiled and fetched the order, placing his bet as she walked to the tap.
“Skizzwhores is the underdog’s name?” Hacat asked. He finished and place down the first mug of porter. J.J. was on her way back with more.
“Yeah,” Ansen nodded nonchalant, then, “The other gal’s a real psycho!”
The Captain’s bravado was starting to break through Hacat’s iciness. For the next hour they placed bets together and watched the holosoft fights. A few more holo beast matches, from the main room of the club, played above J.J’s head as she worked. At some point a second bartender and two barbacks had shown up.
In the course of their idle chatter Ansen had jokingly asked, “I mean what the fuck does Roche Limit mean anyway? Akracore isn’t a Parisian company. It’s just about cool branding.”
“Actually the Roche limit is the point at which a moon or comet is crushed by gravity causing the formation of planetary rings,” the young speed fiend explained, “Triton’s orbit is slowly falling towards her Roche limit and will be pulverized by Neptune’s gravity in about three point six million years.”
“No shit?” Ansen raised his eyebrow, a bit incredulous.
“Yeah. Swear on my math,” Hacat anted up.
Ansen slapped his shoulder again,
“You’re not a total dipshit basketcase are ya? Bet you got more than half a brain in there,” the Captain downed the rest of his beer then said, “Well I don’t see much point in worrying about it. I bet we’ll all be long gone by then!”
He could have meant them personally or the human species in general.
Hacat eventually told him about his job as cook on The Valiant Nobody, despite being better qualified. Ansen laughed, telling him how cook really equated better to ‘janitor’ since most of the food was processed instantly with nano. He chided the kid for a minute jovially, but then offered to get him a better gig aboard his ship doing communications. The Captain had lost his guy recently and was needing to pick up an Akracore-leased intern anyway. Hacat hopped at the chance and Ansen started to immediately file the appropriate forms online as they drank and watched the holosoft fights.
They had been on a bit of a lucky streak and Ansen was up about 35,000 credits for the night. The last match had raked in eight large. Short of a total departure from the short hedging advances Ansen had been profiting on all night, it seemed unlikely they could fall back into the red at this point.
“So next match, what are you thinking?” The Captain prodded.
“Let’s take the favorite on this one,” Hacat suggested confidently.
“Ha ha! Fuck yeah, knew I picked you for a reason,” his face lit with stern exuberance, “The favorite in the next round is my ace pilot.”
“Well then we better win this one!”
Hacat ordered the drinks this round, slowly acquiring a taste for the porters.
A few minutes later, he almost shit himself when he saw Aurora Phlox step out in the ring for the next match. Things were falling into place fast, better than he had ever hoped they might.
“When it came time for the birth, Prometheus…
by the river Triton struck the head of Zeus with an axe,
and from his crown Athene sprang up.”
-from “Bibliotecha” Pseudo-Apollodorus
A week later Hacat was aboard the Yami Andhera waking up to an internal alarm ringing from his neurochip at 03:33 in the morning. Holograms flashing in bright blue coiling sheets tore to life under his new left eyelid, accompanied by a randomized feedback loop that spat distorted over-crunched alarm sounds directly into his skull.
Shutting off the alarm with a tap to a discreet keypad embedded in his wrist, he woke and arose from his bed as quietly as he could manage — he didn’t assume the need to be secretive at this point, but was somehow buying into the self-image in his head that painted him a much more stealthy bounty hunter than he in reality was.
Everyone on board should be asleep now, except Phlox who was on the ‘night’ shift at the helm.
On deepspace colonies like Triton, night and day were complete simulations. Implicitly more so undersea. Psychologically it was found to be most bearable when the Terran cycle of twenty-four hour periods, split into eventide and day could be recreated. In the multitude of domed cities now scattered across the Solar System, the Julian year and the Earth day period were simulated for a sense of normality. The natural genetic propensity for this entrained rhythm might be something mankind would eventually pass the wayside to obsolete, but so far it had been working.
Terran Standard anchored the human psyche, in all of its awful and sublime forms.
He grabbed a Firetracer 7500XSL blaster from the space-proof, black nanoscale duffel he had boarded with. It was the single parcel of luggage he had brought along from Enceladus, plus one contraband firearm and a couple grams of starlight acquired in the lean hours of the night after he had left ‘Dice’s Knife’ that night.
An umbra infected cyborg, with broken pieces of motherboard fused into his gums for teeth, had overcharged him for the gun. But Hacat had, at that time, pockets lined with an extra eight thousand credits that had been kicked to him for his part in the gambling. Money earned partially by betting on Phlox to win. Some sort of inverted bent moral was twisted up in it all, but he wasn’t trying to think about it when he shuffled around the back alley’s of Aegis City that night seeking out drugs and a weapon.
Along with the gun, he had also bought four grams of starlight from the borg in the airtight breathing mask. Tightly surrounding the hoodlum’s skull was a half inch thick rubber skin, allowing only his gnarled, mostly metal face to show through the front, shielded by a convex slice of opaque lucite.
This insulation from the open air was imperative.
Umbra was a highly contagious airborne version of Ebola that had decimated most of Earth’s population centuries ago. It remained incurable — the umbra killed you over the course of a decade, unless you could afford two-hundred thousand credits a month in meds. To legally reside anywhere besides Earth, once infected, people had to remain hermetically sealed off from the public breathing air.
So it was perhaps out of pity that Hacat had given the dying underworld peddler, (who likely would just as soon have killed him and taken all his money,) five thousand credits for the gun and drugs. With a promise of guaranteed perfect working order and good clean molecules of starlight, the ailing fence dissipated back into the shadows he had seeped out of.
Now, Hacat thought back to that momentarily as he gripped the sandpaper textured handle of the Firetracer, looking at it’s round snubbed barrel. He’d only ever fired the thing once.
After the wisps of the borg’s presence had evaporated, he’d pointed the gun down the alley. He circumvented caution and squeezed the trigger, loosing a thick orange concussive laser pulse that blasted a distant chunk of wall to shreds. The building he hit was four blocks down the alleyway, further into the ghetto dwellings that lined the foot of this particular dome.
No one was likely to come looking for him over blasting a hole in a derelict apartment complex, but nonetheless he turned heel and lurched a slightly twacked stagger towards a street with better lighting, lest he maybe need to fire the thing again.
Meandering his way back to the large thoroughfare that Roche Limit sat on Hacat had contemplated his course from there. Being recruited by Ansen to the very ship that Phlox piloted had escalated the conspiracy that was afoot exponentially. His online contact through bevəl had traced her to Triton, but he was initially just to enlist with Akracore until he could find her and flush her out.
Finding her had been luck for sure, but not wholly improbable considering that he had sought out the club most likely frequented by outlaw prospectors in the first place. Would’ve gotten a lead one way or the other, just by stumbling upon the knife fights, he told himself.
Clutching his new purchases beneath his jacket, he’d zig-zagged his way through three domes of the city, back to the corporate barracks he had lodging in for the night. From there he’d accessed the net. When he notified @ggro@phid of the happenstance opportunity he had chanced into, they had advised that he play it cool a few days. Just try to assimilate in as the new guy on the Yami Andhera. No move to gain Phlox’s confidence. No cloak and dagger. Just learn the ins and outs of his cover gig.
While he did that, @phid rushed to process the appropriate digital forms that would allow them to legally claim the bounty through SOLCORPS. You had to be licensed, but it wasn’t that complex for someone with no existing criminal record to qualify. Hacat was approved in less than thirty hours, which he had discovered yesterday. Officially and by the books he was a bounty hunter now.
He had waited until tonight for the next phase: apprehending Aurora Phlox legitimately and requisitioning the Captain’s aid. Ansen would be legally compelled to take him back to shore so Hacat could turn her over and collect on the bounty. Plus, the Captain was going to be offered an even five million credits for the inconvenience.
An anonymous account had been arranged by @ggro@phid that they could both draw 50% from after a one time deposit; another one of the many, unusual, specialized arrangements that could be set up invisibly on the deepnet. Ansen’s bribe would have to come out of Hacat’s take — the price of dues being paid in the hierarchy of outlaws and bounty hunters.
He made sure that the Firetracer was set to a non-lethal setting. In that mode, the gun put out a phase-field blast that could not be stopped with any standard armor formats. Knowing firsthand the potential of the gun, he had extensively researched its ‘stun’ option online, since boarding the Yami Andhera. It was a directional pulse, a surefire way to knock a person unconscious from under five meters. The cockpit was not even three square and the field did not rebound, so he should be fine.
Nano-ties, which doubled as either handcuffs or zip-ties, were tucked in one of the long pockets of his pants. They were something he usually had on him, but at this point he double checked for the sake of his suddenly shaking nerves. He would have to bind her once she was stunned.
He had seen Phlox fight in the holosoft league, and her match had been the quickest of the night. It had lasted six seconds flat. She was an explosion of wanton merciless grace. If it came down to an actual fight she would surely gut him — with that recreation WWII Japanese Naval Dirk that she always wore on her hip.
Hacat thought he had done a good job of keeping the recognition off his face when she stepped into the ring that first night. Hard to say as he was so spun out and drunk, completely banjaxed by the cross-fade. Everybody’s eyes were really on the ring anyway.
Phlox wore glossy grapefruit colored boots, the only other remarkable color on her other than her punky pink hair. He thought of the boots as ‘elven’ in some way, the way they came to sculpted points in the back directing a gawker’s attention right up at her thickly muscled ass. Her legs were just as well built, poured into black synthleather that hung low on her exposed hips. She wore a strapless black bodyform one piece that cupped her enormous breasts, the cut of the synth fabric disappearing into her pants like a bathing suit.
Both of her well toned arms were tattooed around the biceps and triceps with rings of black rectangles. On her right forearm was some sort of chrome arm bracer that coated from elbow to the back of her hand, and on her right hip was a sheathed dirk. From where they had sat, her face tatts were indiscernible at that moment, but it was her.
It occurred to Hacat that she wore much less armor than most of the women fighting that night.
Her opponent was of medium height, decked in flashy but functional purple and chrome armor over a black body suit. She wore a tall purple mohawk laid over with black tiger stripes. As their names were announced he’d learned her name was “Nikki Damage”.
Phlox was announced as “Violet Ryans”.
The bell rang and the crowd erupted louder than they had been all night. This was the start of the big money fights. Women who had been in the league long enough to have followings would cap the night in the last ten matches.
Damage jerked her right hand up high as she entered a fighting stance, an eight inch holo-soft fighting blade zapping to life in her grip. On Phlox’s right arm, her chrome arm bracer revealed itself as a weapon as well, with two holo-soft blades extending off the back of her hand like an ancient Roman gladiator’s caestus. She drew the holographic dirk with her left hand as well.
Damage circled to her own right a half step as Phlox crossed her arms and weapons above her head in front of her. The posture was the tightening of a corkscrew that she quickly launched at Nikki Damage. Unwinding the stance low, she had sprang. Twirling on her right heel impossibly fast she came up under Damage thrusting her caestus up to catch the descending knife. With unexpected strength and tenacious dexterity Phlox locked the descending chop inches from her own knuckles.
There was a pause, as Phlox stood with her back to her opponent, locking the eight inch blade with her own unique razor-pronged armament. Aurora grinned to the crowd as she rocketed her left elbow back into Damage’s face smearing her nose across her face like jelly in an explosion of blood.
Capitalizing on the stun move, she spun around quickly and rammed her dirk up through Nikki Damage’s throat, up into her skull, with such force that the top three inches of the holographic blade extended out into the purple mohawk. Simulated blood spurted everywhere as ‘Dice’s Knife’ roared in bloodthirsty delight.
He tried to shake that image as he crept down the narrow halls of the Yami Andhera, the Firetracer gripped tightly in his hand.
After the match he saw that Phlox still wore the sheath and the arm bracer. Over another five porters with the Captain and herself, he’d learned that she had made a specialized hilt to be able to emulate the weight of the real dirk that she always wore on her hip. She had a reason for always wearing it. It was some sentimental bullshit about a robbery she had done.
Some emo fuckery that he had no time for then and no time for now.
The three points of starlight that he had snorted just before leaving his quarters were kicking into high gear. His nerves weren’t as jittery now. Now they had a fleet of overconfidence zooming along on them towing him forward to nab her. He imagined himself the rightful emissary of some vengeful gods of the Elysium. Some Metatron of SOLCORPS. Poetic delusions of grandeur bubbling through his bloodstream as a thick sweat started dripping all over his body.
He was almost upon her. The cockpit right around this corner.
Stepping silently onto the bridge he found her.
She was in the pilot’s seat at the control console of the craft, where she should be. Turned slightly to the side and showing no sign of having noticed him, she had a mask of some sort on, the reflective face of it reminding him of the borg in the alley. Was it the same mask? Was he tweaking that hard? He took a step closer. No it was one of the submarine’s diving masks. Scuba. Akaracore standard issue.
Phlox tapped away at one of the touch pads in front of her. According to the holocast view screen they were well out in the middle of open sea. They’d be safe to cruise without her hands on the controls for a while.
“Alright not another move Phlox,” he barked, more confidently than he thought he could muster, “This is a Firetracer 7500XSL. I will fucking slag you if you move.”
He knew it was a bluff of sorts, she could reason he wouldn’t use the concussive laser setting on the gun if he wanted to make it back to Aegis City or Enceladus for that matter. But she should know about the stun and not want to get hit with that either.
She froze in place, turned away from him on the swiveling piloting chair.
“Ohh…. you got me,” she said sarcastically, making total light of his advantage.
But his confidence had rode the climb up to peaking on the back of that starlight, and he was not in the mood for her bravado now. He leveled the gun towards the back of her head and moved a step further into the crowded cockpit of the ship.
“You know why I got you, glitchbitch? Because you’re vain. You use the same damn hack handle and the same damn network of back stabbing crooks even after you’re past your day. Bevəl was co-opted decades ago. But you idiot fucking Turing Trolls just don’t get it,” he grimaced in disgust, the blaster wavering in his hand amidst his spontaneous meth addled rant, “You don’t even bother to modify your facial appearance with a twenty million credit bounty on your head. You know you’re pretty and you’d rather be dead than ugly. Vanity. Vanity bitch. That’s the cost of your life.”
He paused as an unseen tightness gripped at his throat. A meek cough forced itself up his esophagus. Reflexively he leaned on the console next to him. In the back of his skull a sickening scratching was wailing subliminally. His eyes started blinking spastically.
Aurora kicked the ground with enough force to spin herself around in the chair to face him.
She laughed, smiling at him through the red and purple lights reflecting on her dive mask, “You know why I got you, you over extended 404 fail?”
He tried to lift his gun arm, but found he couldn’t. A weak choke squeaked from his mouth. He was completely paralyzed, except for his damn eyelids which were now flapping like a fat epileptics’ tits. If his left hand had not been gripping the console next to him, he would have already tipped to the ground.
“Yeah it doesn’t take long for the gamma-aminobutyric acid and glycine to put your body in a REM state,” she said matter of factually, “It’s expensive as fuck to get them at this concentration in a gas form, but my ‘network of backstabbers’ can get their hands on anything. ”
She tapped the opaque face plate on her dive mask.
“What did you think I was going for a swim?” Aurora laughed again, “See this is the thing, Hacat, I think you’ve hit your Roche limit.”
She swiveled the chair to the side a bit and started tapping at the command pad for the holocaster.
An image came up on the display of an undersea ravine made of white ice spiked with blue veins.
“Did you really think Langston didn’t know what the Roche limit was when we picked you up? He was just trolling you. Like with that damned t-shirt prank,” she mocked him, “You are seriously one stupid fucktard, kid.”
His mind trembled with fear as his body remained frozen and helpless.
On the screen there was some sort of rapid movement in the background. But the vid was clearly taken on Triton, there shouldn’t be anything that Akracore didn’t have cataloged and indexed moving in this ammonia.
“I mean really. ‘240Teeth’. Clearly a shark reference. And it doesn’t take long in a search engine to figure out that’s what your drug addled parents got the name from,” she went on revealing her familiarity with his life, “You know your mom didn’t die on psilocybin extracts, n00bsauce. Your dad and her were pretty deep into drugs back then, sure. But she killed herself. Slit her wrists in the tub. I went back and checked the records in detail. You could’ve done the same by now. Sorta wonder why you never did.”
His soul winced in lieu of his body which couldn’t manage right then.
Something started crawling out of the shadows of the ravine for certain on the holocast screen. It was a dark bundle writhing closer to the viewpoint of the camera feed they were now watching. Starkly inhuman movements.
“Now I know you’ve never seen anything like this,” she stated, a clear air of pride in her voice, “That, my soon-to-be dead crew mate, is an honest to god fucking alien.”
She grinned at his paralyzed panicking body, looking him right in the eyes, “So fucking edge right?”
Her nonchalant parlay was unnerving him in his prone shell. Inside his mind he was shaking to pieces. Desperate last thoughts about things he’d never get to do again flashed through his brain in an erratic forlorn slideshow.
“That’s where we made our real cash this summer,” she told him, “I mean the take on the lithium was in the millions too. But what Akracore really wanted to buy was our silence on was these sea monster motherfuckers that we discovered. They are keeping it hushed from the media for at least a year while they clear all the patents and construct a facility to study them in. Gotta stay ahead of the curve, ya know?”
The creature on the screen fluttered through the ammonia, tumbling end over end with thick dark tendrils rippling out from a central sinewy hub. It was like an acrobatic octopus cutting through the depths of the Greater Cousteau, a spindle of enigmatic darkness twirling right off the holocaster screen.
Hacat’s terror manifested as a long pathetic squeal eking out of his paralyzed throat, his mind clawing at what the fuck they were watching on the screen and why. He saw several more of the creatures start to emerge from the shadows, the rhythm of their swimming ominously enthralling. With every fluid propulsion he saw haunting echoes of a hunting pattern, profanely comprehensible from any link on the food chain that observed it.
Phlox tapped a button on the console before her, speaking a command over a communications channel, “Sanji release that block of synth-meat out the bow trash release now.”
“Roger Rore,” came Sanji’s voice over the cockpit’s speakers, and Hacat began to realize how completely bamboozled he had been.
There were three of the alien beings on the screen now. They seemed to be orbiting around each other in some sort of primal holding pattern as they contemplated the Yami Andhera. It finally occurred to Hacat that the holocast screen was now showing the realtime exterior of the craft.
“Couple of fascinating facts that we do already have established about the Lusca,” Phlox explained, still the paragon of casual, “One: They’re plants. Flora not fauna. Two: They’re carnivorous, implying there must be something else out here that they feed on.”
On the screen the slab of synth-meat Aurora had ordered released drifted into view. It was an unappetizing two foot long congealed block of vat-grown meat. Cloned beef meant to cut down on animal cruelty while it simultaneously expedited a corporations ability to produce food.
The Lusca each opened wide to extend their limbs in a show of their full size and power. In the center of their main body was a gnarly bundle of long wide curved teeth arranged in a circle about their gruesome maws. Thinner, barbed spikes extended from each of their six appendages. They began spinning in slow circles, the limbs spread to their full length, three nightmarish pinwheels decked in razor teeth poised to feed.
Hacat smelt the stink of urine running down his leg, felt the wetness, but still he could not move. Could not take his eyes off the screen.
In a tornado of violence the Lusca tore the meat to shreds. It was over in a few seconds, but for the paralyzed would-be bounty hunter it slowed down to an eternity as he concluded the only reason she could possibly be showing him this.
“So fucking rad right?” Aurora rose from the pilot’s chair, leaving the craft in an automatic holding mode.
As she walked towards Hacat he felt someone puissant handling him from behind, testing his dead weight. Phlox took the Firetracer out of his frozen hand and tucked it into her pants. In a moment they had him on his back and he could see the person who had come up behind him was Captain Ansen.
“You came to the wrong fucking cantaloupe, kid,” Ansen said to him grimly, also wearing a scuba mask.
They started dragging his prone form down the tight hall way, towards a chute that led down to the bow side airlock, where he could imagine Sanji was waiting. The tight dimensions of the submarine made moving him more difficult than it probably would have been for this duo of hardened killers in open space.
Aurora grinned down in Hacat’s terrorized eyes, “Ansen didn’t mention that we’re a couple, did he?”
“Here, tilt him up like this,” Ansen coached her as they started lowering him down the chute.
“Got it,” she grunted as the worked the weight and bulk of his body down to a lower level of the craft. It only took a bit more shoving and prodding and they finally got him down to the airlock where Sanji was waiting to help them. To help put the young meddler out to die.
“I’ll go watch from the bridge,” Sanji told them as he shimmied past to get up the ladder back to the main deck of the craft. He seemed more nervous, not even wanting to look at Hacat in his last moments as he went by.
“I got it recording for the deepnet, once the gag order lifts,” Phlox called to him as he ascended, “But yeah no worries, we got this.”
They pushed Hacat’s body into the separate tiny room that served as the airlock. Sealing him in, they could safely release him into the ammonia sea as food for the Lusca. Ironically his ability to move started to creak back into feasible as Ansen tapped the codes that would lock him in. He managed to lower his stiff arm with a clumsy lurch of the shoulder.
“And hey, Hacat,” Aurora looked through the thick plexiglass into Hacat’s alabaster face, “As far as ‘never changing my hack handle’… Who the fuck do you think @ggro@phid is?”
She cackled evilly as she punched in the command to open the outer airlock, sucking him into the sea where he would soon become the first human being eaten by the Triton native, the Lusca.
Aurora and Ansen quickly ascended the ladder, eager to watch the spectacle.