Read my other Short Stories at: Deep Sky Stories & Illustrations
D. I. I. V. E. - (A Jessica Wind Adventure) - by G. F. Brynn
The planets are, in a metaphorical sense, like children that orbit in a celestial dance around their star-mother which created them eons ago. Yet, unlike human children who grow to that restless age and then leave their mother, the planets dare not - for, to do so would mean certain death in the frigid, interstellar void.
Jessica Rachel Wind gazed out of the small portal at her Homeworld as it drifted lazily below her, following its age-old path around Jupiter and their central Mother-Star. Europa, up until a certain moment in history, had not been a particularly notable sphere in the Terran Collective and had largely been left alone to its own quiet destiny. But these were unsettling times for all who dwelt in the ice encrusted moon and lived among the aboriginal beings who had welcomed them long ago.
Unlike previous eras when compromise and statesmanship had prevailed, a new wave of dictatorial regime was spreading throughout the habitable planets and moons of the Collective. Wind pushed herself away from the small, round window and drifted across the cargo hold to check that all was secured for transport to Homeworld’s surface. She scanned the manifest tablet to ensure that the weight distribution was correct for de-orbiting while she was still in Zero-Grav. It was not an issue yet, but soon would be during the atmospheric and aquatic legs of her trip.
Rachel climbed into and sealed the hatch of the mini-sub then reclined in the captain’s chair. Padded re-entry cushions slid smoothly into place around her and, moments later, the sturdy aquatic-space vessel detached from the larger smuggler’s ship and fell away towards her moon.
Chapter 1) - Imbalance
Everyone - and everything—moves through three-dimensional space in equal measure—yet there is also the fourth element of Time, which is strongly tethered to our normal, physical universe. Now, pause to consider what could happen if the link between space and time was, for a few moments, weakened or made vague - either in favour of one element or the other. A bizarre shift in their behaviour would then be expected to occur, in which one action would affect the natural laws of physics very drastically.
Such was the theory and the science behind a new form of space travel known as DIIVE (Dimensional Imbalance Induced Virtual Engine) Technology.
Earth, once the hub from which all exploration bloomed, was now a stagnant, monolithic world—exclusive domain of the ultra-rich and elite of the Terran Collective. Corpora-Nations held full sway, keeping tight control of manufacturing, terra-forming, and their most beneficial by-products which were sold to the whole system at indenturing costs. As such, the technology for travel throughout the known solar system was also kept as the proprietary property of Deep Sky Aerospace Corp., located on the pristine continent of United Free Africa. There was, in effect, a neo-caste social system from which had emerged an imbalance of opportunities, both in knowledge and standard of living for all people save those lucky few Earth-Dwellers.
But, in any unjust, human-wrought society—as in that of any physical action - there would also come an expected reaction to the tyranny of a monolithic, system-wide dictatorship; such was the cause that Jessica Rachel Wind had aligned herself with.
Wind held on tight while, outside her ship, re-entry hellfire raged. It was short-lived, however, given Europa’s thin atmosphere, and soon The Sparrow, its broad delta wings extended, was darting low over the perpetual ice crust of her Homeworld, gliding smoothly upon the denser surface-effect gases. The outer appearance of this dirty-snowball world belied a biosphere that lay not far below its protective crust; one that was rich in diverse aquatic denizens, as had been discovered by robotic probes of the mid-21st Century.
The benevolent “Europans”, as the new aquatic beings were christened, were an astonishing discovery and were found to be of an intelligence which greatly surpassed that of their Earthly cousins, the Orcas. Their discovery sent shock-waves throughout humanity as Earthers grappled with the knowledge that they shared their solar system with other sentient beings. But, what put the Europans in a tenuous position from the outset was that their existence seriously complicated matters for the Deep Sky Aerospace Corporation.
With their discovery, Europa transitioned from a lifeless moon which could be easily mined of its resources to a precious living world with a delicate ecosystem which fell under the strictest of protection protocols. Thus, rather than expand that company’s deep space aspirations - as had been hoped—Europa became a thorny issue thereafter for everyone; all save for the blissful Europans themselves. But of course, where there is ambition, there is also zealotry, and the agents of Deep Sky Aerospace held themselves up in very high regard. In just such conditions are conflicts sparked.
Chapter 2) - Lost Contraband
After its chameleon nano-paint blended in with its background, The Sparrow came to rest somewhere deep within one of the numerous stress fractures that crisscrossed the icy moon’s surface. The versatile craft’s flex-wings folded back until their points nearly touched at its tapered stern. Soon afterward, a deep shaft was heat-drilled down to the fresh-water strata layer that was New Lake Eire, whereupon the tough little mini-sub separated from The Sparrow and dropped through like a bullet into the watery depths. The Sparrow would remain hidden in the deep crevasse from lawless scavengers known as Collectors who were ever watchful for an untended vessel.
The marine environment of Europa was very different from that of Earth, not least because of the Jovian moon’s much smaller size and because of its greater distance from the sun. Despite such obvious disadvantages though, the innocuous moon thrived with life. Europa relied on Jupiter’s extreme size and gravity to produce powerful tidal effects upon its crust which precipitated heating within its core. Thusly were lakes and seas, comprising fresh and saline waters present below the ice with their own distinct Eco-systems.
On the ocean floor, however, just as there was on the only other living world of the Terran Collective, vast oil reservoirs lay. But Earth’s Corpora-Nations, having long since abstained from anymore fossil fuel extractions on their Home-World, were not as piously averse to plumbing the treasures of less desirable worlds on the outer fringes of the Collective; such was the fate which they desired for little Europa.
Wind dropped a location beacon then steered her thick-skinned craft through the black depths, taking her time lest the peak of an undersea mountain or coral appear out of the murk. Abruptly, the sub’s krypton beams illuminated a debris field dead ahead. Jessica reversed engines!
Europa is a moon that is more Earth-like than any other sphere in our solar system because of its over-abundance of water-ice and the huge world-wide ocean lying beneath it. And because Europa orbits Jupiter - the largest planet in our system—it experiences extreme gravitational tidal stresses from that monstrous world. Europa is constantly being pulled and stretched as it swings around Jupiter’s baleful, swirling face, its Great Red Spot gazing across the void at the little moon as though from a malevolent cyclops. And it is those same powerful stressors which drive and heat molten forces within the core of Europa, thus allowing enough volcanic warmth for the ocean to thrive with aquatic life safe inside the thick shield of ice. It was inside this fascinating ocean-moon that Jessica Wind was born. Her parents were descendants from the first daring group of families who set out to mine the asteroid belt drifting between Jupiter and Mars. Although Mars had been colonized years before, it was little Europa which offered a much more welcoming environment for the next generation of miners. That there was an intelligent, aquatic Europan “people” discovered living there already made the whole biosphere that much more special and priceless to those newcomers who first plunged below the scarred and cracked icy shell. But that was then. Now, a new kind of cyclops eyed little Europa and its vast treasure trove of unique, alien fossil fuels. But, unlike Jupiter, the reaching, scraping claws of Deep Sky Aerospace and the Corpra-Nations could reach out and grip the ice-moon, and its gentle giants, with god-like power. Already, huge factory ships carrying robotic resource extractors had left their Earth orbits and were traveling their ponderous course towards the second moon of the Jovian system. Other plans had been set in motion long before the massive interplanetary factories had left their ports though, and their arrival at Europa only a few days later would strangely coincide with doomsday.
Chapter 3) The People
The flotsam and jetsam was spread out over her entire field of vision and Wind brought The Dolphin to a complete stop to survey it all. The drifting debris appeared to be cargo that had been jettisoned from another submarine not long before she had arrived. But where was the other vessel? Making a quick decision, Wind decided to capture as much of the lost cargo and bring it with her to her destination.
Her submarine was an old, salvage vessel with catch-nets that could be extended outward from the ship’s stern on strong hydraulic poles. Such finds as this were not uncommon on Europa because of off-world smugglers and traders bringing their somewhat illicit wears to this fringe, somewhat lawless world. After some trick maneuvering within the debris, Jessica left the area several minutes later with a sizeable catch of the mystery cargo.
Because of the lesser gravity that the Jovian moon exerted on its denizens, many of the aquatic creatures were small, paper-thin and delicate. Yet other beings, such as the aboriginal ‘Awlwn’, had evolved to become very large winged giants who literally flew gracefully through the chill ice-moon’s waters like their Earthly cousins, the Manta Rays. Unlike the Manta’s, the Awlwn grew to massive proportions - the adults reaching the size of several Blue Whales in length. Their wing-span was a staggering 1/2 mile from tip to tip. And so, like their smaller relatives, the Awlwn needed to feed constantly on large quantities of tiny Europan algae, shrimp and krill. Large schools of such shrimp tended to congregate near volcanic heat-vents which dotted the ocean floor. Those less-hardy creatures shunned the frigid climes of the open ocean but thrived in the vicinity of such vents. And so, the Awlwn swam from vent to vent throughout the lunar seasons, making annual, nomadic migrations as they foraged as had their ancestors. Though very intelligent, these peaceful giants were vulnerable for their size; for the Awlwn knew no predators, no enemies, and so, were easy prey for man.
Jessica charted her course with care, running as slowly and silently as an aquatic ghost. Collectors could be anywhere in the open seas, either trolling for prey or hiding in wait to ambush an unsuspecting smuggler such as herself. On Europa, the only safe havens were the ports which housed the well-established Astro-Miner Outposts. Sonar “trip-wires” could be anchored anywhere—some old and abandoned, others freshly charged and listening intently for the tell-tale sounds of a richly laden vessel; easy plunder for a well-equipped Collectors’ crew. Finally, after two hours of cautious maneuvers—sometimes even powered down and adrift within a random ocean current, Jessica reached a familiar coral reef. Unlike the thousands of other reefs on the ocean moon though this one all but surrounded and concealed Port New Haida-Gwaii Outpost.
Another half hour of wending her way through the twisting maze of massive coral branches and Wind was gingerly maneuvering the Dolphin underneath one of the dozens of pressurized airlocks which led into the undersea port. Jessica then allowed an auto-lock sleeve to do the rest— sliding, as it did, securely over the mini-sub’s transfer port to apply an air-tight seal. But Jessica wasn’t ready to enter the port just yet, she first wanted to examine the unusual extra cargo that luck had bestowed upon her.
Ten minutes later, having donned her scuba exo-suit, the Europan girl plunged into the frigid depths via the Dolphin’s lower auxiliary shaft. Flippers extruded from her boots as soon as they sensed water and Jessica swam effortlessly over to the netting to see the loosely floating crates. There were dozens of crates of all sorts bobbing lightly against the strong fibers of the net as one large mass. Switching on her helmet light, Jessica peered through it all, trying to see anything familiar. While she pulled herself around the large net, Jessica was assailed by curious as well as irritated little aquatic aliens of myriad shapes and sizes. Jessica swatted aside a bothersome Gossamer fish and was about to return to her ship when one unusual container caught her eye.
At first glance, there wasn’t any one thing which distinguished it from the rest of the jostling crates and boxes—except that it was a cylinder with an unusual symbol stenciled on its side. The cylinder was red and the chemical symbol (Pgn) was within a cautionary yellow triangle. Puzzled, Jessica nevertheless saw nothing else that warranted extra investigation and so, she swam back up into the belly of the Dolphin to prepare for entering New Haida-Gwaii. After a quick shower and light lunch, Jessica mounted the ladder to go top-side to more spacious surroundings.
Upon opening the trapdoor hatch, a security drone greeted Jessica with a perfunctory, “Welcome, Ms. Wind, are your papers in order?”
“No," she replied without pause before moving on.
“Very well," said it, “enjoy your stay.” Port New Haida-Gwaii was, after all, a “smugglers’ cove” of sorts, and all who entered enjoyed a certain entrepreneurial flexibility from the port’s owner/manager/governor; the one unwritten stipulation was that, in exchange for Governor Reddie’s largess, all guests left their own agendas (and weapons) locked below decks in their submarines. The main hub of the station was Spartan in its decor - with only a few winking eel-light advertising signs to give a hint of the multitude of shops and kiosks (some less reputable than others) which jostled cheek-by-jowl for their guests’ business like so many bees within a very large hive. Jessica was well-versed in the in the comings and goings of such wayward ports and had established herself as a somewhat more trustworthy freelancer-for-hire among the rather thinly shaded rapscallions who plied their lucrative businesses with those of questionable repute. Indeed, Wind had hardly taken five paces passed the amiable drone when she was accosted (in an oblique and vaguely ominous manner) by just one such shady middle-man.
“May a warm Sol and strong current lead you to fortune, Ms. Wind," was the flowery greeting from a much-too-familiar voice which preceded a bent-backed man who crept out from behind a large, rusty sewage pipe. Jessica glanced side-long at the simpering beggar, “what do you want, Dolom," she breathed with barely disguised contempt.
“Why, Ms. Wind”, the one-eyed derelict huffed with nasally affront, “I - I need nothing—nothing whatsoever from you or anyone else under this dome, I - “
“I have not the time nor the inclination for word-gaming with you - especially you, Dolom, so state your business so that I need not share air near you one second longer than need be," Jessica said curtly, cutting off the scallywag and his insufferable whining. The old vagrant stumbled back a step as though he’d been slapped; eye wide with feigned incredulity. Yet, as several seconds of heavy silence passed with no reaction from the wooden-faced woman gazing back at him, the aged trickster dropped the mask with a sly curl of his lips.
“Very well, he growled, letting his true colours show, “you’re not long for this world, at any rate, my dear.” “My dead eye has seen your fate and it is not pretty.” Jessica’s gaze flicked up at where Dolom’s right eye should have been but where now a deep, angry scar slashed down from forehead to cheekbone; a ragged eye-patch covered most of the mutilation that had once been meted out on the old cur after a debt gone too long unpaid.
“Yet, even so, my two good eyes shall see much further if misfortune should befall your one," the Europan girl retorted evenly, her fighting hand rested casually near the hidden dirk at her hip. “Perhaps your other eye sees this as well…?”
”Ffah," the oldster huffed disdainfully as he shuffled back to his beggar’s corner, “you’ll see, you’ll see, Jessica Wind. “I spy much of the comings and goings from where I sit, and there is a reckoning coming for your pathetic Europa—and for you!” And with those last words echoing in that disused under-chamber of New Haida-Gwaii, old Dolom wandered away down an oily side passageway, cackling derisively at his own sick prophecy.
Chapter 4) Treasure!
The undersea port opened up to Jessica soon after she exited the gangway into the third level. Water-tight doors clanged shut behind her after those first three levels were met but, after that, the spaciousness of the dome proper allowed one to breathe in a sense of normalcy once more. The cutting words of the old wart were soon swept aside as the Europan woman allowed the tempo of the vast bustling mall to carry her along on its many-peopled current. New Haida Gwaii was never the same place from one month to the next, it seemed, for many of the shopkeepers were wont to pack up their wares (most of dubious authenticity) and move on to the next submarine port (depending on the depth of their interactions with the authorities) and were soon lost again in the anonymity of the crowd. Such was the ebb and flow of Europa’s checkered, illusive populace, and Jessica reveled in their midst—thrived even. Wind lived by her name, to its fullest extent, never wishing for that comfortable, settled, domestic life which only led to agedness. She had grown up on an asteroid mining and scavenging ship drifting lazily between Europa and those scattered, encrusted lodestones which fed mankind’s insatiable appetite for mineral and gemstone riches. Doubtless she would die living that life as well. So be it. Hers was a challenging, exciting life-trade, not meant for gaining riches as such.
Yet, in the hold of the Dolphin was a priceless artefact taken from one of those same very exotic treasure troves that drifted between Jupiter and Mars. Just what it was, she had no clue yet, but there was a certain someone dwelling under the dome of New Haida Gwaii who could, perhaps give her one.
Thon, the elder Awlwn, drifted calmly on her back, her vast belly scudding slowly along the ceiling of her world while she fed on a delicious algae bloom that had grown down from the ice. The water was warmer there too because of the thermal vent five hundred feet below her. Thon’s youngling swam nearby, imitating her feeding movements and growing larger each day. Waiizon was still very young and so had yet to choose their growth-path and selfness within the Awlwn social Family. That would happen in the course of time—the wave of Evrnon. There was, of course, no simple way of judging such personal decisions of one’s body and mind, and so, there would be no judgements from the family; that was the way of the people; the Awlwn-Throng.
Thon slipped effortlessly into the all-muse where the Evrnon Wave washed over her. She lay motionless as though ‘gone’ while her soul-mind cast quietly about for any perturbations throughout the vast seas of Ev'r, or Europa as the ‘smalls’ called it. The smalls, who had arrived on their world several seasons past, were interesting curiosities to the Throng - the Family. They could not breathe on Ev'r yet here they were, trying to. Many had perished during the first few smalls’ migrations until the Family made empathic contact and showed them how to live safely below the crust instead of foolishly trying to build habitats on the surface. Now, the smalls thrived on Ev'r, yet, they were also becoming impatient, irritable, like younglings wishing to be off elsewhere altogether. Why could the smalls not be contented where they were? The Family even now, sensed something dark approaching from the smalls’ ancestral-place—their Homeworld—and there was much conversing throughout the Throng, from sea-to-sea, about the intentions of those other ones; perhaps, the humans had never wished to remain their friends…?
The Awlwn-Throng shivered as one within the Evrnon Wave at that most unusual question. Not to be friends? But, what else was there besides friendship, they asked. Thon searched her soul-mind trying to fathom what could lie beyond the bounds of friendship, community, family. There was nothing there for her mind to grasp; only a dark void as cold and lifeless as that which lay beyond the crust of Ev'r. Waiizon, her youngling brushed the tip of one of her fins from a quarter mile away, rousing Thon from her puzzlement. She sent out a sonar-call directing them to a particularly abundant algae bloom she had found, then began her slow descent towards the thermal vent far below. For, it was there that a coral reef grew abundantly, and hidden within the coral was a smalls’ habitat. And there, one particular small lived among many; one with whom Thon had made empathic mind-touch only once; time to do so once more. Perhaps the one called, ((Wind)), could explain the approaching dark soul-minds from her ancestral Homeworld of Earth.
Something else began to stir within Thon as well: the ‘Wild-Mind’ which had not arisen since the arrival of the first smalls upon her world. Luckily, those first migrants had been helpless and in need of saving, and so, the Wild-Mind had ebbed away among the Awlwn-Throng to be replaced by the bond of friendship which soon flowed between Awlwn and Human. But now, the huge sea creature shuddered, and her massive, black back stiffened despite the calmness of a few moments before. She felt an urgency take hold of her which she’d never felt before, and Thon, the Chieftain among the Awlwn suddenly felt an ancient, wild instinct wash over her that had been all but forgotten. A low sonar-call, triggered from the most primal point of her twenty ton brain, boomed forth and her whole square-mile Manta Ray body shivered so as to further amplify that primal call outward in powerful shock-waves! Thon dived for the thermal vent! Something most unfriendly was coming, and the humans had to be warned away before the berserker of her people's ancient, wild past awoke again!
Chapter 5) The Deal
Jessica Wind strolled over to where a familiar looking, rather large man sat in a most unfamiliar setting: An aquarium cafe. Darius, like many of the denizens of Europa, could not swim, and was even averse to enter the cramped confines of a submarine unless out of necessity. So, to meet the bearded, leathery-faced veteran miner all but sitting with the fish - save for a thick bubble-dome that sealed his booth—was quite a surprise to her. Jessica ascended a spiral staircase through the glass ceiling of the cafe, into its second level floor, climbed up into the aquarium booth and slid over to the other side of the small, round table between them. After a brief pause to glance around her at Gossamer Fish and Drift-Ribbons surrounding her, Jessica cocked a questioning brow at her visibly nervous luncheon companion.
“What’re you doing in here," she asked the old miner with a bemused grin playing across her face, for she could tell, just by looking at him, how uncomfortable Darius was. His shaggy, greying mane brushed up against the small, plexi-glass enclosure and each time one of the large-eyed, transparent Casperfish drifted up to gaze fixedly through the bubble at him, Darius winced and looked away with a fidget.
“Well, it ain’t for fun, that’s sure," he growled with a furtive glance over his shoulder, “I needed to talk to you inna-privet.”
”Pars then," she said evenly, slipping easily into the rough lingo of an asteroid miner.
“Look, from what I ken of that viz-mission you sent to my implant, what you scratched from asteroid C-113a is something very rare and dangerous if used loosely or with dark intent.”
Jessica let the words pass without comment; better to learn more and gain rather than pretend to know and lose.
“Not sure I ken your words," she said with an irritated uptick in her tone, “I staked claim to that tumbler for the past year with else but iron ore, conglomerates and the odd smudge of gold, which little pays for fuelling my round trips. And now, after the lottery ball has rolled affronta me at last, you declare it too dangerous? Jessica huffed impatiently—“just what is it ‘bout my find that brings such a mood upon ye?”
With that, Darian leaned forward, his rough reptile skin jacket rustling and bristling its dry, green gator-scales. “Deep Sky will want it back," he said barely above a whisper.
Deep Sky. Jessica turned the name of the most powerful Corpra-Nation about in her head, and, for the first time in some while, she felt fearful unease.
“But, it is very old and damaged, whatever it is. I see no value in it ‘cept as an unusual muse-piece.” “Ffah," she scoffed and inhaled a proffered cig-a-lite from the spidery arms of their receptive table. Darius slammed his great fist down on the small table to emphasize the gravity of his next words, “you just really don’t ken what you have in your hold, do ye”, he growled—or what it does!” “Nethlin Glass is -” again, the dainty robot arm offered up a stress-relieving cig-a-lite but Darius would have nothing of it and swatted the intruding little appendage aside. With hesitant whines and jerks, the thin, silver serving arm folded mutely back into the table, leaving the cig behind. “Nethlin Glass on its own is dangerous enough - specially when Parathagon gas makes contact with it—but this looks even worse because it’s been refined, purified, and was, no doubt, used by an agent of Deep Sky Corp. How it ended up on your asteroid, I cannot ken, girl, but let not doubt sway you on this matter: Lose that cargo - and quick —else…” His final words hung unsaid in the air, and in the tense moment between them.
Deep Sky Corp was never to be trifled with. Never.
Jessica pondered her predicament over a long drag of her cig. A priceless gem lay in her ship’s hold and yet no one would dare transact her for it; the price to be paid for such a deal was just too great. What good was a gem that could never be traded?
She trusted the old miner’s wisdom too. Damn! All right, then… Darius saw the decision made by the slouch of her shoulders, and nodded his approval.
“I knew your pop and thought well of him”, he said, his creased brow relaxing as he shuffled over to the circular exit from the cramped dome they occupied. “Promise me you’ll jettison that harbinger soon as ye get back to your craft—promise me!” Jessica stared fixedly at the space where he’d just been, and then nodded once, stone-faced. Darius paused to pick up his cig, then left her without more said. The cig flared to life upon touching his lips.
Yet, even before he had turned the corner, leaving the Aquarium Cafe to be caught up again in the current of the crowd, another figure entered round the other and sat lazily back in another booth, eyeing the lone woman with heavy-lidded, dead eyes. And the robotic Casper fish that had been drifting just as lazily against the aquarium glass of their dome during their conversation, swam silently away until it stopped beside the booth of the spy. The fish then ‘died’, at the glass beside the man’s face, turned belly-up and then bobbed to the surface, thus allowing him to pick it from the water quite unnoticed, drop it into the plastic bag in his purse, then order sushi without missing a beat.
And all the while, the agent from Deep Sky kept Jessica Wind firmly in his cross-hairs.
Chapter 6) - Blossom-Thoughts
Every creature and everyone is shaped by the world - the environment into which they are born. There are obvious effects that occur to one’s body depending on gravity, climate, atmosphere - even the seasons - if there are any. And yet, a world, especially a very alien world, can affect other more subtle changes upon a newborn than even the most precisely conjectured analogies can predict; such was the alien environment into which Jessica Wind was born; for, Europa became the first environment (in human knowledge) to accommodate two diverse, sentient beings at once.
Even while in her mother’s womb, Jessica sensed the first warm, empathic touch of the Awlwn as they glided and conversed among themselves in the ocean beyond the glass of her parents’ habitat. There were no words as such that were exchanged. Rather, the Awlwn shared varying shades and nuances of caring, curiosity and interest that took form in their minds (and in hers) like the differing blooms of flowers or the varying currents of their aquatic world. Whichever, Jessica grew up learning two very different languages - one spoken, one not - quite unconsciously and unbeknownst to her parents. When she was just two years old, Jessica fell asleep resting against the thick glass window of her nursery. And in a dream, she lay on the black-and-cream mottled back of a baby Awlwn as it flew through the Europan sea beside its mother. The wondrous depths of Europa were revealed to her - from the phosphorescent glow of vast undersea crystal fields to uncounted thermal vents which dotted the seascape, providing food and warmth for all the myriad denizens - including the newly arrived Earthers.
And, within the magic of that lucid dream, Jessica was welcomed by the quiet Awlwn Throng as one of their own, though she could not comprehend as such. And when she awoke with a sleepy smile, their simple yet powerful language was also born within her open, young mind. ((Hi)), she said with a colourful, blossom-thought.
Chapter 7) - Asteroid C-113a
Now, twenty-three years later, the steady buzz of the mall greeted Jessica as she stepped out of the Aquarium Cafe. There would be no windfall deal for the Nethlin Glass artefact in her ship’s hold, so she would have to resign herself to dumping that priceless yet deadly cargo at the next opportunity. Then, back to doing business with her regular buyers for the remaining mineral ores and a smattering of precious metals that C-113a had given up from her labors. Times weren’t getting any easier for tumbler mining, it seemed, nor was the job getting any less dangerous. The life of a freelance asteroid miner was quite often a lonely and short one. And to lose a friend or two over the span of a handful of years shaped one’s character very quickly as well. Jessica was already an old hand at twenty-five. Staking claim to C-113a had seemed like a good prospect at the time. Though being farther out on the fringes of the asteroid belt and never fully mapped, the latest data extrapolations had indicated that her claim had a high probability to yield above average deposits of precious metals. Work had proceeded well at first with her gang of geo-trace and drill-bots working in unison at some promising mineral veins.
Then had come the morning of the unusual find. A ship - or what was left of one - half embedded in the solid rock as though by some weird, cruel trick of physics meted upon the pilot of said ship. Jessica had never seen the like of it before. The bow of the vessel, cabin and all, had been all but devoured by the asteroid - but, after some scraping away of the rubble and detritus, much of the stern portion became visible. It was a very small vessel, compared to the Sparrow, and Jessica wondered about the fate of its lone pilot; there could only have been one person in such a small craft, and even then, that someone had to have been quite small. No more than a child…
And, attached to the underside of the craft, looking quite out-of-place like an afterthought in its design, were the Nethlin Glass Coils. But it was not only the distinctive green glow which gave it away as such, it was the shape of the artefact as well, for the glass had been blown or perhaps crafted by another as-yet unknown method, into a double coil of hollow tubes which extended outward from their circular base to taper into the point of a cone. All in all, the coils of Nethlin Glass would have easily fit into a 3 X 3 X 3 foot box - which is exactly what Jessica had used to store her glittering, green treasure for the trip back to Europa.
And now…what? Jessica stopped stalk still and let the current of people ebb and swirl around and passed her. It didn’t take long for several old, zombie-like texxers - their shriveled, arthritic hands never once having left their sacred sefonz un-clutched their entire lives - to bump blindly into Jessica, their bald, mottled heads nodding numbly. Jessica glanced absently at one particularly hunched-over texxer as she wobbled by, never once raising her watery eyes from the hypnotically glowing clamshell disc gripped in her knobbly hands. Yep, the legacy of the texxing age, she thought with a mirthless shake of her head, two hundred fifty Earthly cycles later and still people get hooked and can never stop.
Jessica focused again on her problem at hand as she made her way back to the Dolphin. What if she could do something else with the glass besides sell it? What if she could use it instead?
Whoa-whoa-whoa, Jessica thought as a wave of excitement took hold, “what if…”, she said aloud, actually startling a nearby texxer away from his sefon for two whole seconds. The shock of seeing the real world (and a real person) standing in front of him was too much for the texxer to handle - he dropped the sefon which fell halfway to the floor but then floated magically back up towards his grasping hands. Desperate for his texx-fix, he missed and another passerby bumped it further into the crowd.
“Hey-hey-hey”, he cried and began shoving people aside as he madly gave chase as though his life depended on clutching that little glowing clamshell again. But it did. It never took long for the hard-wired brain of a texx addict to implode and shrivel to the size of a grapefruit if separated from their disc for just two minutes.
“Good luck”, Jessica said with a wicked chuckle as she hurried back to her ship. An idea had taken hold of her imagination so much so that she didn’t notice the dead-eyed man following close on her heels. His off hand clutched the purse which held the Casper fish while his free hand rested on the hilt of a coal black carbon fibre dirk.
The crowds began to thin as Jessica made her way from the main mall down to the first level leading to the docks. Her mind was racing with excitement at the second new opportunity that she hoped providence had suddenly handed her. Two good fortunes - one missed but the other…? What were the odds, she thought as she ducked through the low doorway of a steel bulkhead. That metal cylinder which she’d scooped up with the other contraband, the one marked, 'Pgn'… Was it Parathagon, the rare, noble gas that Darius had briefly mentioned? If so -
With no warning, something slammed harshly through her mind like a brick through glass! Several paces behind, the dead-eyed man, the assassin, paused in his stalking of Jessica Wind and drew back into the sharp shadow round a corner, suddenly uncertain of his next move. But the force that held Jessica was far more frightening, and wonderful, because of the images that now flashed through her mind!
Her pop, or rather, how she imagined her papa in his last moments of life. Eyes wide and staring as he crawled, struggled desperately towards his life pod a mere twenty yards away from the mine shaft that he’d crawled up from. It should have been easy, a casual hop and skip for one so strong as her pop, had he air left in his suit, if the razor sharp sliver of shale rock had not punctured his exo-suit’s air tank. For most tumbler miners, it wasn’t the work so much as the fatigue near the end of a shift that most often proved fatal. For her pop, it had only been a stumble, a misstep after a hard day of drilling a gold-rich vein that had done him in, and so quickly too.
“Papa…”, she breathed, chocking back the sudden upwelling of grief that washed over her. What…?
Then, mercifully, another image flowed through her soul-mind and Jessica slumped to the floor, tears of grief replaced by ones of joy. The Awlwn! It was a mind-touch.
Chapter 8) - Fight!
There were no words no sound but Thon’s mind-touch washed over and around Jessica as though she lay in a cool, refreshing brook, its water rushing over her face and burbling playfully in her ears. For the Awlwn were nothing if not playful beings. And why not, they feared nothing in their vast, deep ocean-realm. Images flashed through her soul-mind, silent and swiftly like sparrows darting across a meadow towards her, little messengers full of wonderment.
The dark ships approaching from Earth; the roar of a battle that she must flee from. And then, more ominously, the Awlwn themselves. What…? Jessica tried to grasp the apparition before it dissipated like a dream. What were they trying to tell her? To escape or to fight? It had been five years since an Awlwn had last called her name, and never before in such a powerful way. Jessica struggled to her feet, still dizzy from the mind-touch. There were ships coming from Earth. Why? And was there something she could do? Yes, she could do something to help! Her cargo could be used for something important, she was sure!
Youth and nimble reflexes saved Jessica just then - but only just - as the shadow of a hand reaching for her arm shot across her peripheral vision. A dark blade nicked her shoulder as Jessica ducked and whirled - nearly stumbled aside. And just as quickly, her own blade was in her hand and lashing out in a sweeping arc! Jessica crouched, knees bent, her off-hand raised to protect her face and chest the way her pop had taught her. Now dead-eyes warily backed off a pace, favouring his left hand which oozed a trickle of blood. Damn! Jessica shuffled forward though. “Never back away”, her father had said, “attack!” “Attack!”
Viciously, like a feral cat, the girl leapt forward, eyes wide, teeth snarling as the full will to win took hold like a new power unto itself! Dead eyes stumbled back, taken off guard by Jessica’s wild ferocity - he parried and tried to stab with a clumsy, arcing sweep - but a black leather glove brushed the dirk off target and Jessica was in close much too swiftly! She held his blade arm in a grip borne of strength from years of labouring in the mines and Jessica slashed downward with her own blade! “Ah!”, Dead-eyes yelped, feeling the first stab thrust through his thigh muscle! Then a forehead battered his nose and as he reached up and stumbled the third attack found his chest exposed. Without pause and certainly no mercy, Jessica stabbed up and deep and landed hard atop her opponent as he fell. Dead-eyes’ blade fell from his numb hand and the girl felt life leave the man in the loose collapse of every limb. His head lolled and rolled aside, eyes glazed and staring into nothingness. Truly dead.
Jessica stepped back from the scene of the death-struggle to catch her breath. She glanced back the way she’d come, expecting another attacker, but no one came. Her mind raced as she gazed steadily down at the man sent to kill her by…someone. This wasn’t simply a robbery attempt - the coincidence was just too glaring so shortly after Darius’ warning - no, this had to do with her contraband cargo.
Quickly rifling through Dead-eyes’ purse for clues, she lifted out the plastic bag containing the life-like robot Casperfish. The Aquarium Cafe! How much had been overheard by this thing, and who else was their conversation relayed to?
The near-distant hum of an approaching security drone made her mind up for her. Jessica hurried on towards her submarine with the package. The security scanner in the corridor doubtless had recorded enough to clear her of serious charges with the port’s Governor, although there would be a sizeable bylaw fine for carrying a concealed weapon in his domain.
Damn! All right then…
Chapter 9) - Aquamarine Minds
The Dolphin lit up its interior with a dim red glow of night-running lights as it sensed Jessica’s approach. Once inside, she quickly donned her exo-suit and, within minutes was again swimming through the chill Europan water, her helmet’s headlamp piercing the aquatic gloom. Down the short length of the hull then to the scavenging net Jessica swam until she came again to the bobbing containers and the canister marked 'Pgn'. Knowing the uncanny qualities of Parathagon, Jessica reasoned that it would be in a dense, gel-like state at these temperatures which would render it less volatile, thankfully. The last thing she needed was an accident involving Nethlin Glass and Parathagon in her sub. And Jessica enjoyed waking up alive, every morning, without fail.
The power unleashed from the alien-made glass when touched by the exotic gas of Mars caused a dimensional shift and imbalance between normal space and time to occur, with equally astounding or disastrous consequences, depending how one operated the resultant virtual DIIVE Drive engine. Should she risk it, she wondered?
Jessica spent the next half hour cinching and binding the large, heavy steel cable net tightly into rugged steel hooks that ran along the spine of her sub. Swimming over and around the vessel’s hull so as to secure the net and the contraband for the trip back to the Sparrow. Once back in her ship and in the reaches of deep space, she could take the time to examine this cargo thoroughly.
But what of the Awlwn? The mind-touch just before her encounter with the assassin had been very real, she was certain. Jessica pondered her dilemma as she worked with the heavy steel cables. The exo-suit was a marvel of tough pressure-suit and robotically enhanced strength and bio-feed-back tech for such a form-fitting vehicle. Her carbon-fibre arms and hands moved fluidly - even at these dark depths and pressures - such that Jessica rarely needed to exert herself, and her breathing remained normal. The decision of what to do nagged at her, but unless something else occurred to change her mind, she would stick with Plan A and head for the familiar obscurity and safety of the asteroids.
That was not meant to be. A shadow, as though of a huge storm cloud fell upon the Dolphin and over all and the twilight waters of Europa became even more dark and frigid, if that was possible. The dense current shivered and shuddered with every thundering down-wash from the approaching monster’s heaving wings. Jessica latched herself to the netting with a carabiner and held on for dear life as the adult Awlwn loomed suddenly into view over Jessica and all of Port New Haida Gwaii.
The world stood still for Jessica Wind as she gazed, spellbound, up at the enormous beast-being that drifted ominously overhead. Seen from below, the creature’s vast bulk came fully into relief amid the limpid glimmer of the port’s own tapered light towers. New Haida Gwaii, a fully established Commerce Port with twenty submarine docks and twelve multi-level, pressurized cylinders ringed around the central mall biosphere, was still not half the size of Thon. The mountainous Awlwn seemed hardly to notice the thin-walled structure below it as it drew to a lazy halt with one more slow, thudding beat of its huge, thick, black Manta-wings.
Jessica swooned where she hung against the hull of the Dolphin as Thon’s visual thoughts blossomed in her mind, clear and immediate with no courteous preamble. The deathly black, amorphous shadow of something ominous and swiftly approaching their Homeworld of Evr blanketed Jessica’s soul-mind, causing her to cry out in terror!
((Danger comes)), was the unmistakable message, and then, ((beware the Wild Mind!)) Jessica calmed herself as she had been taught by their race and reached out with an opening bloom of questioning greyish green.
((What danger)), was her reply.
((Death Ships)), came the spear of shocking deep threatening blue stabbing almost painfully with its urgency. ((All-Muse has warned the Throng)) ((Awlwn Throng will defend Ev'r)) ((Jessica will warn her people to escape the Wild Mind)) ((Smalls must leave Ev'r)) ((Now)).
The Awlwn began to fade from her mind and Jessica sensed her wish to depart.
((Wait)), she called, ((I can help your people)) ((There is another way)). Jessica’s message blossomed within the Awlwn’s mind, full of the cunning and trickery which only a human could devise. And Thon, the Chieftain and Queen of the Awlwn Throng listened and wondered.
Chapter 10) - The Approaching Darkness
The Klaxon, a heavy dreadnought class battle cruiser from the Earth Defence Fleet slipped through the DIIVE Drive envelope of space-time, its dimensional imbalance cycle nearly complete as it neared Europa. Commander Smith, smartly decked out in medals and regalia, stood stiff and stoic over the left shoulder of his navigator. Smith was nothing if not a micro-manager, so obsessed was he with running the Klaxon precisely like a Swiss watch, a well-oiled machine. He happened to notice a hair-thin fluctuation in the navigator’s destination calculation and bent down, dark eyes sharp and glaring.
“You erred in your input figures.” “There”, he said, jabbing the nav-screen to emphasize his point. “"Do you not seethat?” The navigator, already nervous to the brink of paranoia, jumped in his seat and blinked as he tried to understand his latest mistake among the dozen previous ones of that morning.
“S-sorry, sir”, he stammered as his hand jerked at once over to the indicated readout. “B-but…the computer said -”,
“Well, perhaps your computer could do with a A.I. patch or even a full neuro-wipe reset after your shift, along with yourself”, Smith snapped, “do you want my ship going on a DIIVE-induced infinite-loop?” “Fix it!” The Commander turned his back on the fretful Nav as he fumbled as carefully as he could to follow his master’s latest decree while also keeping his precious battle cruiser from veering off course into an infinite-loop.
The pre-flight calculations for the Dimensional Imbalance Induced Virtual Engine (DIIVE) needed to split the hairs of precision. The slightest error would cause either a horrific explosion on lift-off or an “Infinite-Loop” where the ship and crew were doomed to a careen through interstellar space forever - or until they smacked into a wayward planet or baked inside a distant star. Nothing fun to texx home to mom about…
Trailing behind the cruiser, spread out in a million-mile convoy of 33 vessels and support tugs, lumbered the massive “Resource Exploit” ships and their Extraction drones which would mine for and deliver up to the mother ships the minerals, rare elements and, of course, the precious fossil fuels on the seabed of Europa. Because that moon was the only other world to harbour life in the Terran Collective, it had long been the wish of many of Earth’s Corpra-Nations to extract its organic fossil remnants as well as the water-ice of the crust itself. The fact that Europa was under the strict protection of the Integrated Nations’ Enviro-Group Collective had proved to be the hardest obstacle to X-TRAX Minerals Corp and its subsidiaries’ expansion plans.
Parathagon, the rare noble gas, found only on Mars, was the main catalyst in DIIVE Technology. But, it was extremely toxic as well, especially if exposed to sea water, which was why it was kept under the tightest security protocols by Deep Sky Corp. Should there ever be an “accident”, there would be devastating effects on all living organisms in an ocean environment. In a similar fashion to causing drastic shifts in the space-time balance when contacting Nethlin Glass, so too were there catastrophic shifts caused to an aquatic environment if the two elements ever mixed. The water would desalinate over a period of only a few short days, thus killing all salt-water fish and mammals. It would mean world-wide extermination. But what concern was that to a Corpra-Nation that had much loftier goals of intergalactic travel and trade - perhaps with other as yet unknown merchants in the vastness beyond the Terran Collective. No, it would be a tragedy, of course. Condolences would be sent to the I.N.’s Enviro-Group Collective. A valiant though half-hearted investigation would be launched, yet the extinction of the beings known as the Awlwns would never be fully explained.
And, quietly at first, but then with growing momentum, the ships of X-TRAX Corp. could finally get to work on the suitably dead moon of Europa.
Oddly, the Collector’s ship that had gone on a week before the convoy with its lethal quantity of Parathagon had broken contact with the Klaxon shortly after landing on Jupiter’s moon. Worrisome though that was, there was still a plan B that could be enacted by the battle cruiser which would arrive at Europa before the convoy. Only a small amount of Parathagon was necessary to exact the dreadful, needed outcome upon the oceans of Europa. And the Klaxon had more than enough of that…
Jessica uncoupled the Dolphin from the umbilical to New Haida Gwaii and commenced the return trip to the Sparrow. What had started as a routine business venture at the port had escalated to become a life-and-death struggle and then a flight to safety amid a build-up of tensions among the Awlwn. That an invading force of Earth vessels was now enroute to Europa with ill intentions had been made very clear to her by Thon; and now what? A fight for survival beside these enigmatic sea giants? Jessica had a plan of sorts, but now that she had time to reflect on her decision, heavy doubts worried their way into her thoughts. She had always had a loose bond with the Awlwn since childhood - especially after her father’s death - but what could she actually do against the overwhelming forces aligned against them? And what could the peace-loving Awlwn do in the end, save comfort their young and elders against Earth’s onslaught as they faded from existence like so many other creatures touched by humankind.
No! She would fight! Steeling her will, the Europan girl set course for the waiting Sparrow and the one course of action she knew had a chance of success - suicidal though it may be; she would be unable to live with herself if she ran now.
“Damn you all”, she yelled, her voice at once filled with helplessness and fury!
Chapter 11) - A Last Package
One week earlier, Donovan Sykes steered the last of the cargo up the ramp of his ship and into the hold of his submarine. His contract with Deep Sky Corp was nearly due for renewal, but would not be. “Damn arrogant drones”, he growled through the cig dangling off-angle, its smoke stinging his right eye to tears. Last run then a thanks-for-nothing as he headed for freelancer freedom at last. Dealing with these quasi-military stiffs had been the worst decision of his Collector career.
And the new commander of the Klaxon had all but made up Donovan’s mind to part ways with his erstwhile employer at the earliest opportunity. This was to be his last cargo-run for Deep Sky, although he wouldn't tell them that; to break contract with “the Corp.” was to invite a dark and unknowable consequence. And so, Donovan Sykes would simply disappear into the crowd after this delivery, as he had done so often before - .
“All going well, I presume”, said a stiff, clipped voice over his left shoulder. Sykes jumped, startled in spite of himself, where he was securing the load and looked up to see Commander Smith leaning over, gazing intently at his handiwork like an over-anxious parent - though a dark-hearted one, if the stories about him were true.
“Aye, everything is loaded and ready to off”, Donovan replied, all business as he stood up to leave. The commander barred his way.
“I have an extra package that needs to be added to your load, if you don’t mind”, he said with an almost friendly tone, “it won’t add much in weight and I have made it worth your while.” And, with that, a rather thick envelope, stiff with an enviable content of credit notes, was slipped into his hand then and there.
Donovan wavered at the suddenness of the rather surprising transaction but then recovered and nodded slightly, aware of a handsome windfall having been dropped in his lap - for what purpose, he could only guess.
“Be there any particular delivery point for this particular…package”, he asked under his breath. Commander Smith paused for three quiet beats, then straightened the peak of his uniform cap with the grey returning to his eyes.
“Yes”, he said with bland indifference, “the ocean of Europa.” “Just unseal it and drop it in the water when you get there, that’s all.” And his lidded eyes were as calm as death.
Chapter 12) - The Wild Mind
Asteroid C-113a drifted quietly along in its orbit of the sun as had been the case for eons. Its path had been set billions of years ago when a young planet between Mars and Jupiter began to take form, but then disintegrated and scattered itself to the void, unable to fend off that giant worlds overwhelming gravity. And now, C-113a, set as it was on the outer fringes of that vast, scattered ring of asteroids, shivered ever so slightly in the hoary, cold shadows so far away from our star…and it moved. Only a whisper, at first, but then, ever so perceptively, it began to gain momentum as mighty Jupiter whispered, ((Come)), from across the void.
But, was it indeed Jupiter that called, or was it merely an echo of another voice, another mind; one that was rapacious and wild, yet, above all, protective.
Mighty and beyond the reach of any one’s control, was the Wild Mind.
And, in the depths, the Awlwn Queen also shivered, and knew. Thon slipped into the Evrnon Wave and called to her people across the length and breadth of Europa. And, as one, the people relaxed, slowed their bodies and then drifted, faded into the All-Muse as though ‘gone’. There was no stopping it this time, the threat was all too real. Deep in the seabed of Europa, the volcanic vent at its south polar region experienced a spike in activity for the first time in uncounted thousands of years. Where before the common geysers of water plumes that erupted out of the ice there were a fascinating spectacle, now, any telescope, probe or spacecraft would bear witness to a Europa that literally shivered, quaked with pent up power; like a rage!
The Sparrow soared away from the ice moon at speed, powering its way to a rendezvous with the Klaxon, though Jessica had no name for the enemy yet. That E.D.F. Ships were nearly upon Europa and its people was enough knowledge for her.
She set her ship on autopilot then set to work prying open the small plywood box containing the Nethlin Glass Coils. There was no way of knowing how long she had.
Chapter 13) - The Small, Black Spot
There is no science, no equation for some phenomenon - like God, like infinity, it just is and has always been. And, in the frigid depths of Evr, the Awlwn Throng hung suspended, their great aquatic wing tips touching one to another for hundreds of miles round their Homeworld’s Antarctic circle like a great ring of infinity. They had not been drawn there in that fashion by choice but by instinct. For this was the last resort, the last stand that these other sentient beings drew upon if ever, when ever a Black Death of any kind threatened their small water world.
For the Awlwn race, the Wild Mind was their last bastion of in-civility which lay buried deep within their otherwise gentle mind-souls like a small, dark spot, a trace remnant strand of DNA that they had long ago suppressed though never fully erased. But it was that one dark spot that remained ever vigilant, ever watchful, across the Evrnon-Wave and the void beyond Europa, for the enemy - whoever or whatever that may be. And when a Black Death was sensed to be, that small, black spot grew, expanded within every Awlwn’s twenty ton brain and took it over like a benign though feverish virus that harnessed the untapped power of their combined minds to lash out and destroy!
((Come)), the Wild Mind called. And asteroid C-113a accelerated towards Jupiter.
Commander Smith read the latest intel viz-mission report from his neuro-implant with an irritated grimace. Of course the Collector hadn’t followed through and the waters of Europa remained at their natural salination levels, and now, Mr. Sykes was nowhere to be found. He would answer for his failure on some future date but for now… Smith sent a secure neuro-texx down to his ship’s cargo level and to the agent he had placed there as a backup measure. ((Prepare to execute inoculation delivery on my order)), he advised cryptically. The Klaxon would enter normal space shortly, after which a missile would deliver a small dose of Parathagon through the Europan ice and into its global sea. A toxic, chemical catalysis would spread quite quickly and evenly throughout the marine biosphere until its intended desalination was achieved.
“We're finished our DIIVE cycle, sir”, said the Nav officer, interrupting Smith’s quiet revere. Sure enough, the star field solidified back to its normal, sharp profile around the battle cruiser once more and little Europa came into view, back-dropped by the massive bulk of gleaming Jupiter.
“What’s that?” Smith looked up at the forward view screen at the officer’s curious tone of voice. A ship, dead ahead. It appeared to be damaged, listing nose-down and without power.
“Hail that ship”, Smith ordered. A few moments passed, then, “This is Jessica Wind of the Sparrow”, came the reply, “I need assistance here. I had engine failure shortly after lift-off and would appreciate any help you can spare.” Smith scratched his chin, considering this unusual turn of events. Jessica Wind. An agent had been sent to retrieve a valuable item from her. Smith was still waiting to hear back from him, but now, here was the woman herself. Time to close the deal.
“You are welcome to come aboard”, Smith replied with all the warmth he could muster, “stand by and we’ll pull you in.”
“Thank you, standing by”, was the grateful reply. Smith couldn’t resist a dry chuckle.
Chapter 14) - Traitor!
If there had been an over-witness of the past events that were converging towards the present, they would have observed Donovan Sykes as his rather shambling patchwork ship approached the arc of Europa’s cracked and fractured horizon. The Sledge was a misshapen, lumbering vessel, and though he’d had newer and swifter craft before falling on hard times, somehow, this older, limping Collector’s cruiser seemed to fit more to his liking. There seemed always to be a minor emergency of some sort that needed tending to at any time of the day or night, like a cranky kid who was never quite satisfied and enjoyed stirring up trouble for the attention of his parent. And Donovan obliged. Yes, the old ship was bothersome, but it was home.
Now though, as he entered the chill of the night-side shadow of the ice moon, Sykes felt a twinge of uneasiness about the errand he was on. The man he was to meet was usually reliable enough but lately, had become nervous to the point that Donovan had grown suspicious in his true business motives. Donovan set the Sledge down inside the steep-walled fracture-valley that he knew to be one of the general areas that smugglers favored because of the thinner ice floor; thinner ice meant a quicker deal and turnaround time. Donovan tilted his captain’s chair back, closed his eyes and waited. The minutes dragged by. An hour passed, and then some until, even as patient as he was, the Collector began to doubt his choice of spots to touch down in. Donovan was about ready to scrub the mission and disappear for good when he began to notice steam rising from a melting spot that appeared in the ice not fifty yards ahead. As he leaned forward, peering through the front portal, he began to see the conning tower of a submarine break the surface of the temporarily liquefied ice. Another minute passed before a hatch clanged open at the top of the tower, and from out of the grey and rust-streaked iron vessel climbed Darius Leech.
Donovan stepped down from the lift of his craft and walked to where Darius waited. “D’ya have my package”, the miner inquired with a sweep of a large arm.
“That I do”, said Donovan, and with that, he handed over a small briefcase to the giant man. “One robotic Casperfish, good for whatever nefarious bit of spying that you may have in mind.” “I had no idea that you miners were in so deep with the Corporation”, he said having noticed the sub’s tell-tale markings. Darius scuffed a spacesuit boot on the frost of Europa as he rounded on Donovan to size him up and down before saying, “mind your path, Collector, else your next delivery could be your last.” And with that, the traitorous astro-miner returned to his vessel. Moments later, the craft sank below the surface and set course for Port New Haida Gwaii. Donovan gazed after it for a few moments more then turned back to his own ship. But he’d barely taken three steps when a blinding flash and crackle of energy caused him to stumble back and fall to the ice in shock. For there, stepping out of nothingness, came another figure, clad in silver.
Chapter 15) – The Gathering Hell-Fire
“Thank you, standing by”, was the grateful reply. Commander Smith gave the order and the Kaxon’s tractor beam locked on to the disabled Sparrow.
“Uh…Commander…?”, the Nav Officer said tentatively.
“Not now, mister”, growled Smith as he focused on the ship they were reeling in. Nearer and nearer the small ship came to the hulking battle cruiser, the only signs of functionality being its navigation strobes winking at one-second intervals as if in unison with a ticking clock. “Open the bow cargo bay doors”, Smith said tensely, after which he sent another secure neuro-texx to his agent in the cargo hold. ((Kill her, retrieve the Nethlin Coils and send the inoculation missile to Europa)), he ordered.
((Aye)), replied Darius Leech.
The Sparrow touched down light as a feather inside the airy cargo bay and then, just as soon after, a small pod-cycle detached from the ship’s stern, carrying Jessica Wind who straddled the small, sleek craft and prepared to escape through the closing doors to the ink-black shadows of the vacuum beyond. As she glanced over her shoulder for a last glimpse of her ship though, Jessica saw a familiar figure step out of a side door and approach the craft, its nav-lights still quietly winking away the seconds. Like a countdown…
“Uh…Commander”, the Nav Officer said again, almost in a whisper, “there’s s-s-something…something happening…inside that-that ship.” Commander Smith glanced up from his chair screen’s view of the cargo hold to see the blood draining from the face of the officer.
“What is it”, he said irritably. A pause filled the air too long for his liking.
“Well…”, he growled, but the Nav only stood up stiffly, his eyes fixed on his screen for one more breath before he turned and bolted for the exit! “Sorry - gotta go!”
Darius Leech paused in mid-step on his way to the Sparrow, gun in hand, then shot a look to his left as a mini re-entry pod-cycle detached from its concealed spot underneath the tail of the craft. The rider was just turning away when she caught sight of him and halted as though stunned. Jessica was, indeed, stunned at seeing a supposed friend of her father aboard a Corporation Ship. But it was true! Darius turned, knelt and fired with such quickness that it was nearly fatal for her. But at the last second, Jessica cranked hard on the controls and jammed the accelerator! The pod-cycle leaped away amid a hail of high velocity rail-gun talon rounds! The little craft nearly made it into space but a lucky hit caused it to careen out of control, slamming hard against the threshold and throwing Jessica out into the vacuum! Mangled and broken, the little vehicle crashed back inside the bay and at Darius’ feet.
“Sorry, kid, but if there’s one thing I’ve finally learned, it's how to get ahead in this Godforsaken world.” “And this…is it”, he said dryly, gazing around at the huge vessel and Corporation that had all but swallowed his soul.
Time to prepare the missile, he thought. It was then that he noticed the Sparrow’s strobes. They had suddenly begun flashing and flickering faster than normal, and there was some kind of crackling sound coming from inside it.
”Out of my way!” yelled someone. It was an officer from the bridge. But he wasn’t heading to the bridge. Instead, he was yanking open the hatch to an escape pod and diving inside as if the grim reaper was hot on his heels.
“Hey, what - ?” Darius began, now alarmed but not sure what to make of it all. POOSH. Away went the Nav Officer without a wit of guilt for abandoning ship and leaving that egocentric tyrant to the four winds of the cosmos; which was just where he was heading. The crackling suddenly grew much too loud. What was that?
Inside the Sparrow, a small 3’x 3’x 3’ plywood box containing the Nethlin Glass Coils had been opened to reveal the milky green, double-helix of alien-made, hollow glass coils. And into the coils had been fed a plastic hose which ran back to a release valve controlled by a timer which had just ticked down to the bland and rather empty number ‘0’. A hissing sound soon began which, if Darius had been there to bear witness, would have been coming from a connected aluminum canister marked Pgn for Parathagon. A green, bubbling gas then shot from the canister, through the valve and then into the coils as a thick, curling, roiling mist. Instantly, there followed an uncontrollable, catalytic chemical reaction that was as breathtaking as it was terrifying!
The sound of a hundred gunshots erupted from the Sparrow as its fuselage bulged terrifically then exploded! Darius fell to his knees, his hands clapped to ears that dripped blood from their perforated drums. He ran, stumbling blindly as though gone mad as the noise only intensified, echoing off the steel walls of the cargo bay!
Hell exploded out of the Sparrow in the shape of a blinding, whirling energy ring of pure, crackling energy! A Dimensional Imbalance Induced Virtual Engine had erupted to full power inside the belly of the Klaxon and there was no way - no hand of man - would control it. Ever! It was a raw, wild beast that roared and raged throughout the battle cruiser, the spinning torus ring only growing larger as the DIIVE Drive fed upon itself to reach an end that would never come. Because this DIIVE had been released without any limiting control, an infinity loop would be the one and only outcome for the ship and all the souls aboard! Angry fingers of dimensional tension flicked and snapped out and around the whole vessel, unfettered by the laws of normal physics, and then, before reaching optimal power, a bolt reached out and touched and cradled Jessica for a moment where she drifted unconscious and unafraid in the silent chill of space. Then, she opened her eyes.
Chapter 16) - Into the 5th D.
Breath returned to the woman clad in silver. And when she opened her eyes (if that could be a proper definition in the other place) she blinked tearfully through the blinding light until her new perception grew accustomed as best it could. Her brain was limited though in how much it could process in the fifth dimension.
Jessica looked around her where she still drifted and where there should have been pinpoints of starlight, she instead saw huge globules of infinite light, some orange, some blue, some dim red gleaming all around and arcing under and over. Jessica floated within the midst of bright, beautiful eternity. Holding her gloved hand before her spacesuit visor, she gasped in disbelief as she saw a hand that was as thin as paper when seen on edge, but normal otherwise. She wriggled her fingers and was amazed to see paper-thin digits fluttering quite normally where they were in this very un-normal realm.
Then, recalling her escape from the Klaxon, Jessica twisted her paper-body round until the cruiser hove into view. Time seemed to have slowed to a snail’s pace for that ship and its unlucky crew. The weirdest sight of all was the ship itself, because it appeared in an exploded view to Jessica’s new eyes. Her new, higher viewpoint now enabled her to see the inside and outside of the ship, bow to stern, all at once!
And, where before there had been a torus ring from the DIIVE Drive, there now loomed a huge, blinding sphere of simmering, wild power. Vibrant yet faint bell-gongs and chimes assailed her ears too, and Jessica could only guess that they were the gravitational disturbance that each and every star-sphere created from its warping of space-time. Uncounted varieties, like the strings of a cosmic orchestra, accompanied the star-bells as planets, small and large, followed their own eternal paths. Though she should have felt terrified by this drastic shift in dimensions and perceptions that the DIIVE had thrown her into, Jessica remained surprisingly calm; it was, after all, a beautiful vista that she gazed upon, as though in a heaven.
((Hello)), said a boy’s voice in her head. Looking down, Jessica was amazed to see an equally paper-thin, ghostly looking boy floating close beside her. ((You lost?)) the boy asked with equal measures of curiosity and concern. Not certain what to say, Jessica could only manage, “Um…”. The boy smiled knowingly with a glint of mischief in his eyes, ((that’s okay)), he telepath’d, ((pleased to meet you)), and he reached out a bare hand to shake Jessica’s…which was a perfectly normal thing to do while floating in a very weird place such as this.
Jessica reached out with her gloved hand but but then jerked it back when a tickling sensation shot up her arm. He laughed mischievously, a brown-skinned boy with intelligent, flashing Asian eyes. ((It’s just the tension in this dimension)), he said glibly. The boy had a mop of brown hair that was an odd tangle of long hair and thin, straight locks that could have been mistaken for porcupine quills.
((my name is Alex Faraway * and I’m pretty familiar with things in this…place)), he said with a casual wave of his hand, ((so let me show you around a bit)). And with that said (or thought) Alex proceeded to introduce Jessica to the fluid freedoms allowed for in the extra expanse that was the 5th Dimension.
The most astounding theme of all (and which Alex took great delight in showing her) was that time held no authority where, or when, they now were. It was all because of the “Glass Tunnels”, * of course, which Alex led her through from planet to planet through a maze of 5th Dimensional portals that seemed infinite in number. Places and times seemed to pass by before her as drastically as the change in constellations of all the different skies that they stood under. The ghostly boy was thrilled with her companionship as if he’d been alone for quite some time. He kept up a steady stream of chatter as he led Jessica by the hand from world to world as easily as if they were just strolling along a garden path. Jessica was indeed fascinated by Alex’s stories of his adventures, first on Earth, where he was born, then on Mars, where he travelled to, to find his missing father and awaken the ancient people of Mars.
((People of Mars?)) said Jessica; now she was really puzzled. ((There are no people of Mars, only people of Earth and Europa)), she said. The boy smiled then said quietly, ((there are no boundaries between universes here either)).
Jessica could only stare, dumbstruck at that newest revelation, then she said, ((Alex, take me back, I have to get back to where and when I was, my friends need my help)). The boy seemed to understand, although he grew quiet and sad as he led her back. Times and places, ancient and new, flashed by as they leaped from portal to portal throughout the maze of Glass Tunnels. With each leap they made, Jessica noticed a thin, circular metal band that rested around Alex’s head glow brightly like a halo. When they returned to where she had started from, Alex said, ((I have something for you if you wish to enter this place again)). And with that, he took off the small crown which slowly changed shape to become a small, golden metal rod. As Jessica watched, Alex easily split the rod in two down its length and gave half of it to her. ((This is called a Luss)), he said quite seriously for a boy his age, ((I am part Martian so can use it at will, but you are not)). ((You will only be able to use this one time so it should only be for something very important)). Jessica took the strange yet simple looking device, not sure at all what she would ever do with it, but tucked it away in a pocket for safe keeping.
When she looked up again, the boy had already donned the device which encircled his head once more and glimmered golden.
((Goodbye, Jessica)), he said with a touch of melancholy, then the ghost of Alex Faraway crossed the threshold back to his own universe and vanished before her eyes.
Now what, Jessica thought still drifting aimlessly in that, vast timeless realm. “Oh ya, I know”, she said with a wicked grin, and she reached into her pocket.
Chapter 17) - Back In Time
A blinding flash and crackle of energy caused Donovan to stumble back and fall to the ice in shock. For there, stepping out of nothingness, came a figure, clad in silver.
“What the hell”, he cried out, but that was all he managed as Jessica Wind pounced on him with her dirk at his throat!
“Don’t bloody well move”, she snarled kneeling hard on his rib-cage, “tell me the truth and live; lie and die!”
Donovan Sykes had never been so frightened in his life as at that very moment. The point of the long, thin dagger nicked lightly against his throat just below the helmet. He stared, wide-eyed up at the fearsome woman, unable to muster a word of protest. “What do you know about that canister”, she said with a nod towards the tank full of Parathagon gas. Donovan looked sidelong at the canister then said, “I - I was told just to open it and drop it in the water - that’s all”, I don’t know anything else - I swear!”
“You know nothing else, like what could happen…eh…?” and the woman leaned in hard and close, her deep brown eyes locked on his like a feral cat atop a mouse. Donovan shut his eyes tight, feeling the point begin to tear into his suit.
“Here’s what you will do…nothing more, nothing less”, Jessica Wind purred. And after Donovan Sykes, the Collector, reluctantly dumped his full load of cargo into the hole in the ice left by the traitor, Darius Leech, a mystified Jessica of only an hour hence would land the Sparrow and find and collect said windfall of abandoned cargo, along with the same tank marked 'Pgn', which she would then put to very good use not long after.
The finger of energy reached out and touched Jessica, cradling her with its dimension-shifting tension for but a short breath, then she was released. If there was sound allowed in the vacuum, she would have heard a tremendous roll of thunder as she awakened; instead, all Jessica saw was a blinding flash! The Klaxon took off in a streak of light too quick to follow. She blinked once and it was gone - away on a voyage to eternity as the raging DIIVE Drive she’d ignited inside it took the battle cruiser and all aboard on an infinity loop to nowhere.
Was that all she saw? Not quite. Abruptly, the convoy of Resource Exploit ships ended their own DIIVE Drive cycles and loomed into view not one hundred miles away. Large and lumbering with their escort craft in tow, the ships of X-TRAX Corp were imposing to say the least. But then, no one - not even Jessica had reckoned on the Awlwn and the power of their subconscious Wild Mind.
From below the huge horizon of Jupiter came asteroid C-113a. Having been whipped around by that planet’s powerful gravity pull to attain incredible speeds, it headed straight on a collision course with Europa; well, almost. Instead, the asteroid passed through an exceptionally powerful geyser of large chunks of glacial ice as they erupted out into space. Quite suddenly, the huge mass of ejected ice became swept along by the asteroid which proceeded at incredible velocity towards the formation of factory ships. They had very little warning and no chance to escape. The hail of disintegrating asteroid and icebergs trailing in its wake plowed into and through the armada at ten miles per second, obliterating most of the larger vessels and leaving the rest so seriously damaged that they became dead in space, calling for rescue ships.
“Yahoo!” Jessica cried from her ringside seat of the whole spectacle! Meanwhile, far below and beneath the shield of ice, the Awlwn Throng awoke from their self-induced trance, realizing very little of what had transpired far above yet also knowing that they and their world were safe once more; such was the way of their dark, powerful guardian mind.
Jessica’s euphoria was short-lived though. Stranded as she was in free-fall 100 miles above the ice moon with only a spacesuit and limited air supply, she found herself facing the blackest, most dire circumstance. Gingerly, she pulled from her pocket the strange little device that had transported her quite magically into the past to confront the Collector and create a much-needed loop in time. Could it possibly work again? She was, after all, not fully Earth-born but half Europan; an Earthopian just as Alex Faraway was a half-Martian Earthian in his own parallel universe. Now that Jessica had the Luss-half in her world, would it…perhaps…
Hell-fire raged all around Jessica Wind as she, again, plummeted like a meteor through the atmosphere, mere minutes away from certain and sudden death! “Hol-ly s-son-of-a…!” BANG! BAM! WHOOSH… The raging flames subsided outside the protective bubble that the amazing Luss had formed around her. Next minute, the tumbling, indestructible sphere plunged through thin frost-clouds on its way to making a very mean, deep crater in the ice crust of Europa!
“Whoa - Jeez”, Jessica screamed, “Let! Me! Out!” Immediately, the sphere vanished, leaving Wind streaking down through the rush of frigid gases. Something coughed and sputtered weakly behind her.
“Come-on-come-on!”, she yelled…200’…100’…75’ the HUD altimeter read off in her visor... 50’…30’…VAR-R-ROOM! The jet pack ignited mere seconds from terra firma and slowed Jessica’s fall enough that she only ended up with bruised ribs from the jerk of the shoulder straps. Jessica tumbled to the ice, exhausted yet grateful to feel solid, slippery ground under her once more.
“Damn, what a day!” she breathed as the wicked grin returned and her sharp eyes surveyed the frosty horizon of home.
“All right then…”