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Lost Colony Ch. 14

Story Info
Underwater and under the covers.
  • September 2021 monthly contest
15.8k words
4.94
4.2k
20

Part 15 of the 15 part series

Updated 10/21/2021
Created 05/07/2020
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Author's note:

This is the fourteenth (and final!) chapter of my series Lost Colony. Most readers should start with chapter one, but if you want to scroll down to the steamy parts, be my guest!

This is a work of (science) fiction. All characters are over age eighteen. Thanks for reading!

BTW, I published a summary of the first eight chapters, so if you're just joining the story and want to catch up without reading those chapters, you can read the summary. Naturally, it's full of spoilers; as the author, I'd rather you read the entire thing.

----------------

How old had he been? Nine?

Sparr, with unfading clarity, remembered the day as a child he had first visited the Baltimore aquarium. His parents had led him past the touch pools dotted with rays, and around the penguin enclosure. These animals were already familiar to him, featured in his favorite childhood books and videos. Even the reef tank, an imposing exhibit thick with blacktip sharks, pufferfish, and whiptail rays, was easily within his comprehension. Its inhabitants looked and acted exactly like fish should, either camouflaging themselves in the sand or scouring the water restlessly, eager for prey.

But farther into the building, deep within corridors dark and quiet, they came upon tanks of jellyfish, stars, and anemones. These creatures seemed neither to hide nor hunt. Sparr had watched, entranced by their waving tendrils, improbable colors, and languid movements, until at last his parents had to tear him away. These weren't fish as he knew them; they fit into no easy category within his mind.

Twenty-five years later the feeling swept over Sparr once more. Standing with the Translator Brielle, and surrounded by the Originals, he struggled to place the aliens into a category he could accept. The massive, slug-shaped beings appeared completely immobile. Covered as they were in delicate fronds, Sparr would have assumed they were plants or missed them entirely. Brielle had guided him to the truth, but he was slow to absorb it.

"You said something terrible happened?" Sparr had been asking questions of Brielle, the first person he had met on Kaybe with both the knowledge of past events and the willingness to share it.

"Yes," the Translator said. "When we didn't heed their warning, there was no avoiding the plague."

"The Originals caused a plague?"

"No!" Brielle said hastily. "No, we brought it on ourselves when we dug."

The timeline began to come together. The warning that Brielle referred to was something like an electromagnetic pulse, or EMP. When the colonists showed up they eventually got around to mining. The Originals, the ice-burrowing aliens native to Kaybe, had become alarmed that the colonists were mining in dangerous locations. Unable to communicate with the colonists, they had resorted to disrupting their electronics with the EMP, intending it to be a warning. But instead of heeding the warning, the colonists had minted tokens, each of which was imprinted with the code for a single piece of equipment or part. The mining must have resumed.

"So the plague had a natural origin?"

"Natural and ancient," Brielle confirmed, "from a time before even the Originals."

"What is wanted from me? Why was I rescued?"

"Last time they couldn't talk to us, couldn't warn us of the danger."

They were finally getting around to it. "And this time they think I can convince my people to stop digging?"

"There's no one else, Alain."

A silence hung between them. Sparr wanted to help, but the difficulty of the task couldn't be ignored. He had already failed once in his plan to gain access to the Odysseus camp, nearly getting killed in the process. It wouldn't be any easier the second time. "Fucking drones," he muttered, more to himself than Brielle.

"The machines?" Brielle was still watching him carefully.

"Yes. They'll be looking for me."

"They know of the difficulty," Brielle said, presumably referring to the Originals. "They gave you this." She drew close to Sparr, pressing a small bundle into his hands. She explained its use.

A hundred questions came to mind, but before Sparr could pursue even one of them, Chael dashed into the chamber. "We have a problem."

Chael led them toward the surface, up half a dozen ramps through the ice and rock. Other chambers appeared to either side, some empty, some stocked with supplies. Ignoring them, the trio eventually found the massive main cave. Sparr had seen it a month past, standing at the rim with Chi, the Precipice priest. At the time he had been in awe of the cave's staggering size and perfectly circular opening. It was no less impressive from partway down, the wooden stairs toward the surface dwarfed by the immensity of the cave.

Near the top, Chael gestured for Sparr to keep behind him. They peered cautiously over the rim. "There," Chael said. "Look."

"Son of a bitch," Sparr muttered. The drone hovered lazily over the Portal compound, not bothering even to stay high enough to avoid detection. Below, the compound was eerily quiet, with only the smoke of a cookfire to suggest that it was occupied.

"It's watching for you, isn't it?" Chael kept his eyes on the drone.

"Probably," Sparr admitted, although he wondered how they knew where to look.

"And there's something else. A silver boat, low in the water like it's already half sunk. And a woman."

Sparr's heart sank. "A tall, blonde woman?"

"Yes, do you-"

"Yes, fuck," Sparr said. Calista, in her submersible. He was eager to confront her, but on his terms, not hers. "What is the plan for getting me out of here?"

"There is a ship waiting. Your friend is on board."

"My friend? Tracee?"

"Yes," Chael said. "The woman from Neeva. The one with the glass eyes."

"Shit!" Could the day hold any more surprises? A departure from the Portal with Tracee was appealing, but with Calista and the drone watching, it seemed like a longshot. How could he reach the ship with so many eyes on him? He turned the problem around in his head, restlessly.

"Can you get me any closer to the blonde?"

***

Sparr watched as Chael trotted down the stairs toward the Portal compound. The drone spun, swept to one side then the other, then settled back into its original position. Sparr and Brielle slunk back away from the cave entrance.

"I'll show you the way," Brielle said. "It's a bit tight, but I think we can manage."

The pair retraced their steps, from daylight at the cave's mouth, back into the increasingly dim interior. As they went, Sparr once again had time to consider the countless questions pressing in on him. One tugged at his attention more urgently than the others.

"Brielle," Sparr began. Unlike the Translator, who hopped easily across both ice and stone, Sparr had to move with care. "The animals on the surface. Do the Originals say how long they've been here?"

She gave him a curious look. "What do you mean? Different ages, I suppose. The seals have long lives. I'm not sure, but I think a hare is lucky to see five years."

"I meant," Sparr said, "how long have the hares and seals been on this world?"

"Oh." Brielle said nothing for several seconds as they descended a steep section. "I don't know. It isn't part of the teachings."

The origin of Kaybe species had intrigued Sparr since he first learned they were near perfect genetic matches of Earth species. "Can you ask them? Ask the Originals?"

"Ask?" The concept seemed never to have occurred to Brielle. "We don't ask. We listen, and they teach."

"But you speak to them. You can ask if you want to?"

They were back in one of the larger chambers that Chael had first led him to. Several of the Originals lay half burrowed into the ice, seemingly immobile. Whether they had come simply to feed, or if there was some social aspect to their behavior, Sparr had no idea.

"I can ask," Brielle said. "You mustn't speak until I say so."

Brielle took in a deep breath and slowly let it out, some air passing through her mouth, and some through her nose. Sparr listened, entranced, as the sibilant, alien sound filled the chamber. Some parts he could hear clearly, some were inaudible, too shrill or soft for him to perceive. After half a minute she once again took up the common tongue. "I don't know if they will answer."

"Were you speaking to her?" Sparr asked, indicating the closest Original.

"Hmm? Oh, no, it doesn't work that way. I spoke to all of them."

While Sparr digested this latest piece of information, several of the younger Translators filed into the chamber, escorted by a priest. A few carried parchment and charcoal, others leaned casually against the Originals, using them as back rests.

"They don't mind that?" Sparr asked.

"Oh, not at all. It helps us learn. It's like-" Brielle stopped abruptly, raising a finger to ask for quiet.

From nowhere in particular, the alien language swelled, receded, then rose again. Brielle listened raptly, lips just parted, eyes no more than slits. Once she responded, her voice a song, barely audible, its meaning unfathomable. Again, the language rose around them, and again Brielle sang out some new query. It reminded Sparr of a call and response from gospel music. Then, just before the sound at last faded, Brielle's eyes opened wide, shooting a meaningful glance at Sparr. She gestured for him to follow her.

"How did you know?" Brielle asked, once they were out of the chamber.

"How did I know what?"

Brielle shook her head almost imperceptibly. "The animals, both land and sea. We don't have a word for it." She furrowed her brow. "A thousand thousand?"

Sparr understood. The word million had no doubt been lost to the inhabitants of Kaybe. They seemed to have little mathematics, and no need for such a large number regardless. "In my language we call it million," he said.

"A mill-ion," Brielle said, carefully sounding out the new word. "The animals of this world have been here for seven million years."

It was even longer than Sparr's wildest guess. Seven million years was long enough for meaningful evolutionary differentiation. In addition to the almost-chickens and not-quite-figs he had sequenced, the planet must hold entirely new species as well.

"Did the Originals say how they got here?"

Brielle told him. As the pair descended, she answered his question, and many more. Sparr listened, astonished as the last few pieces of the Kaybe mystery unfolded like a flower.

***

"I see her, yes!"

Sparr and Brielle lay prone on the ice, outside the far edge of the Portal compound. From their vantage point they could just see the observation deck which marked the closest spot most visitors were allowed to get to the Portal. The ship which Sparr had intended to catch was still pulled alongside the dock. Much closer, the top hatch of Calista's sub glinted in the late afternoon sun.

And there was Calista herself. Unlike Sparr, who had by necessity dressed himself in the robes, wraps, furs, and vests of the locals, his ex-lover dressed brazenly in a close-fitting thermal management suit favored by the Alliance. The garment would keep her warm on a glacier or cool in the desert, but did nothing to help her blend in.

"That's your friend?" Brielle asked.

"I thought so." Sparr had dismissed the idea months earlier that Calista was anything like a friend. Still, seeing her here, standing on the rocky shore, fine blonde hair tossing in the breeze, it wasn't difficult to remember the attraction they had shared.

"There goes the other one!" Brielle pointed to a petite figure jumping from the ship to the dock.

"Right on time." Sparr watched with mixed feelings as Tracee made her way toward the shore. If their plan went well he would be denied her companionship on the way to Neeva, but would arrive without notice.

Calista also saw. She pulled a compact spotting scope from her pack and followed Tracee as she reached the shore then turned to walk along the beach away from Calista and the sub. Calista shifted nervously. She was, Sparr was certain, trying to decide whether to follow Tracee or remain near the ship. A few minutes later her decision became clear. Calista spoke something for the benefit of her implant. Seconds later the drone moved to follow Tracee down the beach. It was almost time.

Sparr wriggled back toward the narrow ice tunnel he and Brielle had emerged from minutes earlier. "I can't thank you enough, Brielle." He tugged off all but his trousers, wrapping the gene sequencer and the rest of his clothing into an oilskin bag. "Everything you and Chael have done for me, every question you answered."

"Will you have enough time to reach the others?" By 'the others' Briell meant the Alliance camp.

"I won't be in a hurry," Sparr admitted. "They'll know I'm coming anyway."

"There's a place," Brielle said, seemingly ready to share one final surprise. "I should have told you earlier."

"Okay..." Staying low, Sparr crawled to the shore, ready for yet another immersion in the frigid water.

"A cave," Brielle continued. "A day's travel east from here. We call it the Museum. A cave like here, but much smaller. Just above high tide."

Sparr's interest piqued. Like many other words in the local tongue, museum was an imperfect translation. It could mean anything from library, to exhibit, to zoo. "I can visit it?"

"Yes," Brielle said softly. She looked over her shoulder as if uncertain whether what she was revealing was allowed. "It isn't part of the teachings, but I have heard of it. From your questions I think you will find it," she hesitated, "interesting."

"I'll look for it," he assured her. For all of her poise, Sparr had to remember that Brielle was only just making the transition from girl to young woman. The Precipice, the Originals, had placed an enormous burden upon her. "Thank you again."

With no time to waste, Sparr slid into the icy surf. Using the oilskin as a float, he first kicked out away from shore, then turned back toward Calista and the sub. The chill water worked to weaken him, but he paddled vigorously, circling well clear of Calista before looping back toward the sub. He hauled himself halfway out of the water, clinging to the submersible's hull, using it as a shelter to hide from Calista's view. The hatch was closed, but not locked. Gingerly, he pushed it open and crawled inside.

This moment represented the riskiest part of the operation. Assuming Calista hadn't spotted him, he would have several minutes to figure out the sub and make his escape. After securing the hatch, Sparr dropped into the sub's main compartment. A swivel chair occupied the forward portion of the deck, facing a panel which was surely the command station. He touched the panel.

"Welcome to the Sea Otter," the display read, before fading to reveal a menu.

1) Dive plan design and review

2) Boat systems and status

3) Remote operations and collection

4) Diagnostics and maintenance

Sparr touched Dive plan design and review.

A light flashed. Operator not recognized.

He tried Boat systems and status.

Status normal, the display read. Operator not recognized.

"Fuck!" he grumbled. Of course the sub had some sort of authentication system. There had to be a way to override it. He pressed Diagnostics and maintenance. A menu appeared.

1) Diagnostics level I

2) System restart

Desperate for anything that might grant him access, Sparr jabbed his finger at System restart.

Operator not recognized.

"Hello?" Calista's voice echoed through the cramped confines of the sub.

"Shit," Sparr muttered softly. His eyes raced around the cabin, looking for anything that might allow him to control the sub manually. There was only the control panel. Frantically, he selected Remote operations and collection.

All remote collection drones accounted for. Please authenticate to initiate collection operations.

"Alain!" Calista's voice rang louder now, more certain. "That's you, isn't it?"

"Fuuuuuck, fuck, fuck." Again, Sparr's eyes swept the cabin. He had been certain there would be manual controls. Surely a touch panel wasn't the only way to operate the sub.

"You know how this ends, Alain. Why don't you just come out."

He knew how it ended. Whatever he and Calista had once shared had only ever been superficial. They had enjoyed athletic sex, but she had always kept him at a distance emotionally. Now he knew why.

"Seeker One return to station," Calista said, her voice grim.

Seeker One must be the drone that she had sent to follow Tracee. Sparr had less than a minute.

"Goddammit!" Sparr shouted. Frustration was rising to the surface, boiling over. "God FUCKING damn this fucking, stupid sub!"

"Personal distress detected." A soothing, female voice played from hidden speakers.

"Fucking right distress!" Sparr bellowed. "I'm about to get the fuck blown up!"

"Voice stress confirmed," the voice continued. "Safety override activated. What is your command?"

It took Sparr a moment to even take a guess at what was happening. "Get me the fuck out of here!"

"Command not specific," the voice said.

"Come out now, Alain!" Calista's words were cold, final. "You can't control that sub and you won't get a second chance."

The sub was asking him for a command. Sparr struggled to master his fear. "Ahhh, course north, straight north! Dive!"

The sub pitched subtly, seeking its new heading. "Diving," the oddly soothing voice said. "Depth one meter."

"Shoot it!" Calista must be issuing commands to the drone. "Sink it. Fuck!"

"Depth five meters."

The sub jerked as muffled explosions burst around it, potent shocks that roiled the water. Whatever weapons the drone was equipped with weren't effective against submerged targets.

"Depth ten meters."

The explosions subsided as the sub descended. "Course zero degrees," the voice said. "Unusual atmospheric disturbances detected. I suggest remaining submerged."

"No shit," Sparr muttered.

***

While the sub maintained the course Sparr had requested, he experimented with the voice interface. "Disable location reporting."

"location reporting is already disabled," the voice explained.

Of course. Calista didn't want the sub's location traceable by the Alliance any more than Sparr did.

"Show map."

"Marine chart active." The screen lit with a detailed rendering of the southern continent's shoreline and ocean. In addition to showing his location, the chart had been updated with satellite imagery. Though labeled as a 'glacial anomaly', the Portal was clearly marked. Sparr chuckled. The closest thing he had come to a map during his journey had been a finely woven tapestry with stars representing the ancient cities.

Using the chart's interface, Sparr plotted a location fifteen kilometers to the east. Brielle had said the Museum was roughly one day's travel. He didn't know whether she had meant travel by foot or by ship, but fifteen kilometers felt like a good place to start. He set an easterly course, changed into his dry clothes, and began exploring the sub's cabin.

Just aft of the command station, on the starboard side, was a tiny kitchen featuring a flip-down heating surface, sink, and bins for food pouches. Sparr counted more packs of noodles, fruit snacks, and breakfast burritos than he would need for his voyage. To port he found the sub's toilet, a collapsible bunk, and more storage bins. He rifled through them but found nothing of interest, only a few changes of clothing in Calista's size. There was no evidence that she had left a weapon on board.

Farther aft, where the cabin narrowed, Sparr found an alcove containing the science terminal. The opening screen suggested that there were separate interfaces for both mineral and biological operations, but both were locked, and no amount of cajoling or contrived panic could grant Sparr access. An emergency evacuation suit hung nearby, as did a waterproof case. He discovered and pocketed a handful of DNA strips.



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