The Dolphin of Europa
by Ken Kraus
As the shuttle made a quick descent, Rosa Alvaro felt her fingers clamp down on the armrests of her passenger seat. She swallowed to keep her stomach out of her throat.
"Crew, strap in for landing," Peterson said from the pilot's seat.
They leveled at 350 meters above the frozen sea that covered 90 percent of the moon Europa. Weather Station Sedro had been built within a mineral volcanic plume that had thrust itself upward through the ocean's crust, creating a mountain desert island in a frozen sea. The sight of the dark hill in silhouette against the blue glassy surface made Rosa think of her Argentine mother's expression for remote places: Donde el diavolo se quita los calzones. Where the Devil goes to change his underwear.
Down there, inside that miserable hump might be a child who was still alive.
The missing nine-year-old was one of four trapped by quakes that forced the station to be abandoned just over a week ago. That made three station personnel who belonged there, and one child who didn't.
The boy's father was station Commander Peterson, now piloting the shuttle, and one of only two to escape. He had come prepared to rescue or say farewell to the missing. The cracked domes and computer sensors both suggested that the lower tunnels had their air breached within moments of the cave ins. Peterson had brought a wreath and a stuffed animal to make a kind of memorial to his child. But as two of the computer modules in the station's control room had shorted out in the quakes, perhaps the updated repair equipment in their cargo hold might reveal a hidden pocket below where someone might still survive. Dios mio, the odds were less than good.
The shuttle mission had originated from Helix City, the largest cluster of transplanted humanity on this colonized moon, where twenty-eight-year old Rosa Alvaro had come eight months ago to work in its hospital as on op-suite nurse. Here she had met Dr. Ron Kettner, an orthopedic surgeon, four years her senior at thirty-two. He was the louse who had lured her out on this mission, hundreds of miles from any human settlement.
Peterson guided the craft above a plateau on the rocky mountainside. "See that geodesic meshwork of spars and glass on the side of the landing pad? That's the entry to the complex." There were several such webbed dome-like structures that seemed to pop up like boils on the peak of this small mountain, all apparently connected within by a network of hallways within the peak. As the landing pad rose up to meet them, Rosa could see the obvious earthquake damage in at least two of the other domes sporting shattered glass.
The struts touched ground and Peterson gave orders. "We're here. Let's suit up as soon as possible."
Two of the crew of six helped set up a string of lights, and distributed hand torches to everyone. Then they offloaded the new sensory equipment.
"Follow me in," came Peterson's voice in Rosa's helmet. Ron's hand came out and took her elbow, guiding her over the half meter wide crevasse on the launch pad. Rosa noticed an even bigger crack had opened on the other side of the shuttle craft. Shreds of mist were actually been drawn down into it. What the hell was she doing here?
Rosa and Ron watched as Peterson and two techies replaced the damaged modules in the weather control room, to get fresh readings on the closed off tunnels below. She reached for Ron's gloved hand as the screens came to life and Peterson brought up the atmospherics. Even within the spacesuit, the sudden slump of Peterson's shoulders was evident as the data came back all negative for life support below.
Ron came forward, put a hand on Peterson's arm. The commander stood up, and Rosa could hear forced control in his voice transmitting inside her helmet. "As we thought: no surprises. But we'll do the diligence of seeing how far we can physically penetrate and gather evidence."
By the time they'd forced open and entered a chamber on the second level, Rosa could only think of escape. As if being encased in a spacesuit wasn't enough, the rough hewn tunnel looked like a catacomb that wanted to entomb her. Sweat made her neck and face itch.
"I have to go back up a while. Is there a safe place I can wait?"
Peterson suggested the top level observation deck. "Assume that all domes and windows along the way are violated, so keep your suit on."
Ron offered to escort her. Once out of sight of the others, Rosa let him have it.
"Why did you lure me here if the chance of finding survivors is so low?"
"Rosa, leave your helmet alone. There's no--"
"I heard Peterson, do you think I'm an idiot!" She'd sprayed a few droplets on the inside of her visor. "My neck itches that's all, I'm just massaging--oh never mind."
She moved to walk ahead of him, but he caught up and took her arm, began to draw her into one of his gentle bear hugs.
"What's come over you, honey? Part of why I brought you is because you're nothing but professional in the op room, and here-"
She pushed against his chest. "Here is the end of nowhere, Ron. No one could have survived in this ruin."
Normally, Ron's lopsided smile, his bright blue eyes and athletic frame and the soothing tone he was so practiced at, made for a combination--even in his bulky spacesuit-- that would calm Rosa, make her want to take comfort in his embrace.
But she eased her arms away from his, left him standing in the passageway. "And now you're smothering me worse than this damned mountain. I know the way to the dome. Just stay in radio contact, can you manage that?"
So here she indeed was, trudging inside a hill that was as vacant and crude as one of those nineteenth century mines in her native Andes. Rosa was no such adventurer; she needed a network of life flowing around her. Taking the nurse's position at the hospital at Helix City, the largest cluster of humanity on Europa, had felt appropriate. Meeting Ron, one of the few doctors more interested in her intellect than her body, felt like her future held promise of good companionship.
Now as she entered the observation dome, she was alone. A large plexi pane that had shaken loose in the quakes lay cracked on the stone floor. She moved to the railing and looked out over the frozen seascape lit in an eternal twilight blue. Threads of ammoniated ice vapor wafted from the surface. The fuzzy globe of Jupiter, the huge mother planet, hung in the sky as though wanting to fall in on them.
Fingering the rosary in her pocket through her thick gloves, she said a small prayer for the soul of the child and the three other staff who must be lying cold and desiccated within the inaccessible tunnels below.
Then she rehearsed the apology she'd make to Ron when they'd speak by radio in ten minutes. Being deep underground in low light, she'd explain, triggered her old phobia. She could bear the hospital as it contained many hallways with panoramic windows. Yes, she resolved to show remorse for snapping at Ron they way she did, provided he'd get her off this forsaken rock and back to Helix as soon as possible.
Her vision suddenly clouded, as though the outside mist were creeping inside her helmet. Too late, she realized she was breathing it in. Had she loosened the seal earlier in trying to scratch her neck? Rosa opened her mouth to call out and everything went dark.
The man in the worn space suit came forward to catch the woman as she fell backwards. Good thing the gravity was light, she careened slowly enough to give him time to get his gloved hands under her armpits and drag her. He'd risked opening a concealed hatch one level down to track her from behind. When he came within two meters of her, he'd used a pistol with a laser scope to shoot a needle capsule of sleep gas into her air hose. He had only moments to pull her inert form into the control room and through the small opening in the back wall. Once she was through, he let her drop and searched both her back pack and waist pack. He shook a few items out of the backpack, and then trotted out one more time to plant the evidence.
Rosa opened her eyes and stared up at a ceiling of jagged rock. Her hand lifted and she realized it was ungloved, nor did she have a helmet. But she was breathing easily and covered as she was with a blanket, felt warm enough.
On the opposite wall, an old utility desk stood next to a rectangular aluminum table. The entire space was about four meters square, and had no windows. Surely she was deep within the cursed mountain and could swear the walls plotted even now to close in on her.
She leapt out of the cot, the room spun and she felt her way to sit back on the bed.
"I feel drugged."
"That's an accurate assessment," came a voice from the doorway. The man was unkempt, about early 40's with a nearly bald head and a scraggly beard. A concoction of clothing hung on his medium frame: the open thin jacket of a research assistant and underneath a torn set of overalls dotted with greasy stains.
"Who are you? Where am I?" She attempted to stand again, and had to bring her hands to her spinning head.
The man took a seat at the table and let out a soft chuckle. "It'll take a few minutes for y'all to get your legs back." His eyes raked her like laser beams. "And you are?"
"I'm a nurse, here in case there were survivors. What happened to me?" She looked at her watch. Over an hour had passed since she'd been at the dome. This grizzled fellow resembled one of the photos of the missing staff. "Are you from the original team?"
"Well good, then we should contact Peterson and . . ."
The man slowly shook his head. "At this point, you are a member of my crew."
Rosa shivered. "Am I being held against my will?"
The man rose and stood over her. He brought with him the smells of stale sweat, pungency like old cigars and rancid garlic. "Look at your ankle. It about says it all."
A manacle was on her ankle, connected to a flexible cable that buried itself within the wall. The lock had a pattern on the surface; only a special key chip would undo it. "But this is insane. Please, they're expecting me."
Peterson and Ron stood at the crevasse that flanked the observation deck. On the floor nearby was Rosa's hand scanner and her emergency waist pack was hooked on a jutting of rock at the edge.
"I can't accept this," Ron said. "She wouldn't--"
"We've scanned all the levels that we've access to," Peterson said. "Look at the scratches on the crevasse wall where she must have tried to grab on before she went down.""That's not good enough," Ron said, and took a chunk out of the stone wall with his hammer. "My damn fault." He sank to his knees, held his helmet and let out a moan.
Peterson put a hand on his shoulder. "Last thing I wanted was another casualty, Ron. She must have backed up while looking at the view. Dropped her hand device as she fell backwards."
"Don't give me that, Dane!" Ron shouted. "She was an amateur, dragged here by me. Probably distracted because I'd made her angry."
"Ron, I torture myself about Wally and the others who must have gone the same way. Conrad had to practically tackle me to pull me out of here as the tremors increased. I wanted to claw through the mountain to get to my son. If it wasn't for my older daughter back in Helix, I would have died here gladly."
Ron stared down the crevasse. Hard to imagine that her five foot four frame with dark intelligent green eyes, that large sloping nose over those full lips, those sculpted Latin cheekbones he loved to trace his fingers over, might now be a crumpled corpse lying hundreds of meters below.
Rosa watched from the cot as her captor nodded at his computer screen.
"Yeah, Dane Peterson! Like hell you cared about your boy." He switched it off and faced Rosa. "I'm Dr. Aaron Zilka, more or less at your service."
She pointed to the ceiling. "Were you just listening in on them? How?"
"Got my own video eyes up there. How I spotted you." He held up a string of pearly beads. "And a prayin' woman, too. My former mother-in-law used to have a rosary like this."
"You took those from me--"
"Just admiring the handiwork." He tossed them back to her.
"Please, can't we call Peterson?"
"Just a simple weather station they said, right? You'll see differently, but for now, allow me to give you a special warning." He took out a pistol and sighted down its miniature scope. "When I bring in my little partner you will shut up about any search team if you want to stay alive. Clear?" He pulled the trigger and a red beam cut through space.
Rosa cried out, grabbed the side of her head. There was a sticky burn graze on top of her ear. The air smelled of burnt carotene.
Zilka waved the gun. "You learn to be a good aim when you're brought up in the bayou then hang in the Quarter the off weekend. Now just you nod if you have my directive clear."
She nodded, her heart skipping beats. What would happen if she screamed?
Zilka called toward the open doorway. "Hey, Waif! Y'all get in here. She won't bite."
A small child appeared, and Rosa came to her feet. The boy had a pony tail and his clothing was filthy. His frame was thin and wiry, a youth just beginning to stretch to adolescent height. The child had survived after all.
"Are you Wally?" she asked.
The boy nodded, his eyes looking huge on his smooth dirty face.
"Your father is--"
"Not concerned in the least with you," Zilka interrupted. "A clean up crew dropped her off and thought she fell down a crevasse--"
"Then maybe they'll come back and get us Zilk? Maybe she's got her radio--"
"I just said, Waif. They think she's dead and they're long gone."
The boy rummaged through her suit discarded in the corner, and then dumped out the contents of her waist pack.
Zilka folded his arms. "Just medical supplies, Waif, no radio. But still handy."
He put his arm around Wally. "I'll get our long wave fixed soon, don't fret. Meanwhile, we've rescued some company."
The child gestured to her ankle. "So if we saved her, why is she cabled up?"
"She's been desperate to climb back to the surface and could breach our airlocks."
The boy turned to her. "Yeah you can't do that, lady. Um, you got a name?"
"I'm called Rosa."
Wally pointed a dirty finger at her face. "Don't cry, we'll help you."
Rosa felt her cheeks, streaked with silent tears.
On the loading platform, Ron watched Peterson direct the search team into the shuttle. "What about one try to penetrate deeper? We have the explosives."
Peterson shook his head, picked up a satchel and led Ron back into the weather control room. "Look at the readouts and camera scans of the lower levels. All atmospheric readings show frigid temps and no breathable air consistent with full breaches. Only someone in a suit could survive down there."
"Rosa had a suit. You said there were one or two passages off the main line up to the top. Something not far from here."
Peterson pointed to the back wall where an outline was etched in the rock. "There's just the one right behind you that's programmed to open from this side and the computer here says it's sealed. The eruptions not only severed the electronic connections but offset the sliding rock, so that it's fused shut."
Ron watched as Peterson took a wreath and a teddy bear out of the satchel, place them on a side section of the main console. "Leave these here, Ron."
Ron rose. "I'm sorry about Wally, Dane. But I'm not ready to write Rosa off yet."
Zilka laid a few plates on the table, then he and the boy dragged it closer to Rosa's cot. He waved her over to join them.
An hour ago she'd used Zilka's medical kit combined with her new supplies to treat her ear plus a conjunctivitis Wally had in one eye.
Now she sat and looked down at her plate, heaped with multicolored shapes.
Zilka winked at the boy. "Go on, Miss Rosa, try one. They won't bite. Anymore, that is." He and Wally shared a smile.
She imagined herself banging the metal plate on Zilch's balding head, grabbing his beard and twisting. "You first, please."
"We'll go like by like, OK?" He picked up a blue roundish pulpy affair trailing stringy filaments. The boy did the same and together they took a bite. "Needs a little more salt," Zilka said, then turned to Rosa.
She picked up the like object from her plate and squeezed it, feeling its sponginess. She closed her eyes and bit a small piece. It tasted like a clam or crayfish, soaked in brine. "Whatever you have to create these foods, you surely can't supply your own air and water forever."
"C'mon now," Zilka said. "Water's no problem on Europa, not all of it's frozen as you might have thought. And the phosphorescent minerals in the wall one level down do an amazing thing, in addition to providing a light show. They release both CO2 and O2. I could go over the chemistry--"
The computer screen emitted a beep. Zilka turned to Wally. "Waif, get me the journal you and I made. In the chest under my bed. Let's show her the pictures you drew."
The boy ran out and Zilka flicked on the screen. "Activity from above. Y'all come back now, hear?"
He swiveled the meter wide screen towards her and she saw a camera image of Peterson's shuttle, firing up its thrusters.
Rosa began shouting "NO!" as the craft took off. She whirled on Zilka. "You monster, you damned monster, you wanted them to go! Think of the boy--"
His grimy hand came out, caught her arm. "And you're not going to tell him, either. Not a word of this!" He shoved her back into her chair and trotted out, probably to prevent Wally coming back. Rosa pushed her plate aside and cried into her arms.
Never again to see the mountains of Argentina, her mother, her earth. Not even Helix and the crowded hallways of the hospital. No more Ron.
She was stranded here, left for dead.
When Ron had refused to board the shuttle, Peterson called the Helix Hospital director, deferring the impasse to Ron's superior. The director expressed remorse for the loss of Rosa, and made Ron understand that he might be spending upwards of two weeks there by himself. At that time, Peterson would return with a new crew, provided the tremors were truly abated. But if the quakes ramped up again he'd have to ride them out alone. Ron agreed, at least, to monitor the weather equipment and maintain the written station logs.
Peterson showed him how to reseal the outside doors and activate the room's generator to produce heat and an atmosphere. He'd left expanding sili-foam to shoot into the small cracks in the walls. Ron agreed to do a full pressure test on the room before removing his suit.
"Ron, don't resort to the explosives on that passage unless you get clear evidence that there's activity in the lower levels."
"You mean like alive, right?"
But Peterson went on, ignoring the comment. "I've shown you how to access and review all the computer's monitor settings for the upper complex, and I'd start with that. Make sure you record the cloud, temp and pressure observations the way I showed you and monitor the tremors that come in. That way you'll be useful while you're here. If by any chance, you can access any of the lower levels, call me before you go in."
Ron grimaced. "Wait a minute, if I can find a way through, I've got to ask you first?"
"There are phenomena down there that I'll tell you how to navigate for your own safety."
"What the hell kind of cryptic talk is that?"
But Peterson had backed out of the room and was boarding the shuttle for lift off.
Rosa sat up, groggy. She had slept at the table, her head cradled in her folded arms. Her Ron was gone, with her stupid angry outburst as his last memory of her.
She noticed the table had been cleared, save for a single orange with the imprint of the Helix Hydroponic Groves. It was a precious object on such an outpost. She tore off the peel and took in the clean citrus smell and savored every section she consumed.
The fruit finished, she looked around for a napkin, rose and shuffled toward the workbench. A few feet beyond the table her ankle tether came taut. She cursed aloud.
"A woman with a rosary should refrain from profanity." Zilka stood in the doorway, his arms folded.
Rosa felt tears welling in her eyes again. "Please don't patronize me. It's getting exhausting."
"Let's start with what you were about to look for, Nurse Rosa."
"A damned napkin for my sticky hands, or is that too much to ask?"
His arms came up in a gesture of surrender. "Was the Helix Orange to your liking? We don't have but a few left, saved the best for our visitor." He handed her a napkin.
She sighed, warming slightly to his rough charm. "Yes, thank you, much better than the synthesized creations from before."
"Synthesized you say? May I propose a truce, now that you're here with us for the duration?"
"What kind of truce?"
"I take off your tether, show where the ‘creations' come from. Why we have to hide here."
"And why an innocent boy needs to be kept--"
Zilka banged his fist on the table. "Now hush up and listen once before you cast judgment. Good ol' Dad brings him here for just a weekend and swears us all to prevent him seeing the lower levels. But the boy sneaks down, gets excited and now Peterson is bent out of shape, can't let his boy go back to Helix and blab it. Decides to keep him prisoner here another two weeks while all of us go into 20 hour days preparing his great announcement to the world. His new circus exhibit. Three days later the quakes struck and a kind of justice was done if you ask me."
"Why tell the boy you've no working radio? Doesn't that make him your--"
"No!" Zilka pushed back from the table, clenched and unclenched his fists. "That's the point, lady nurse, of the truce I'm offering. You'll see if you promise not to go runnin' amuck."
Rosa sighed. "What choice do I have?" Anything to get out of this stinking cell.
He knelt, took out a disc and swiped it near her ankle. The cuff broke apart. "Don't give me a reason to put this back on."
She followed him into a zig zag tunnel cut into the rock, and after ten meters they entered another space. The room had an elongated dome, set low and spanning most of the space. On Earth this would be called a sun room, but here it looked out onto a forever twilight. Through the triangular panes of reinforced glass outlined in steel lattice work, were the frozen ocean of blue and the expansive sky of Europa. Her spirit wanted to vault through the glass and dance on the ice, which looked only a meter or two below.
Zilka came next to her. "This dome survived the quakes intact, part of our luck. Now it's our master bedroom. Right at sea level."
Rosa saw the boy sleeping in one of several bunks along the back wall. Clothing was strewn on the floor, books and papers scattered about. Next to a rumpled lower bunk, a small collection of upright photos stood on a nightstand. The largest showed a younger Zilka on a beach in a wet suit, with his arm around a sandy haired woman, her own wet suit and stringy hair enhancing her earthy beauty. A glow in her eyes evidenced a freshness for the rugged outdoors and the sea. Rosa asked Zilka about the woman but he waved her off.
He sat down next to the boy and shook him. "C'mon Waif. Wanna be with me when I show Rosa the aquarium?"
Wally sat up, yawning. "We can do it now? We can go?"
"Soon as you're out of the sack."
Zilka let the boy lead them back through the tunnel, through her inner room and out another passage that ended in a large spiral staircase cut into the rock. As the rough stone steps wound down, Rosa was reminded of the old church towers still preserved in Argentina. But here there were no occasional slatted windows to bring relief from the walls pressing in on her as she descended.
They stepped out into a large cavernous space. The arched ceiling was at least five meters high and ribbed with steel supports that allowed the rock to show through. The oval grotto was at least as long. What astounded Rosa more than the size of it was the sound and sight of falling water. Out of numerous fissures on the far rocky wall came a thin sparkling curtain, giving off that satisfying sloshing roar as it gathered toward a grooved gully in the rocky floor, forming a stream that ran into and under the rear wall.
And more amazing was the smattering of glowing rocks in the walls, the effervescent minerals giving off the oxygen that Zilka had spoken of. The space had its own subdued multicolored light. The balmy air was moist, pungent with the smell of seaweed, brine and a touch of sulfur.
Zilka spread his arms. "This is what Peterson was hiding from the world. The weather station above was just the excuse, once this was discovered and expanded. Or exploited, rather. There are minerals and organic nutrients in that water could keep you going for days with no solid food."
"Organics? There are living things in this water? And how is it liquid?"
Zilka elbowed the boy. "She's too fast for me, Waif. Why don't you answer her?"
"Well," Wally said. "First there's this hot up rush thing from below, a volcanic plum." His hands were in motion.
Zilka laughed. "Volcanic heat plume, Waif, but keep going."
"Yeah, like a heat thing from under that melts the ice around, for like, how many million years? So it makes this big lake of water under the ice. And then there's the magical vesent rocks all round."
"Effervescent," Zilka corrected, his face beaming.
"Right, glowing and making the air for the fish to breathe--"
"Fish!" Rosa shouted. "Where?"
Zilka put his arm around the boy. "We better show her before she bangs our heads together, Waif." He took out a remote pad and pointed it at the far dark wall, just to the left of the waterfall.
Hidden electric lights imbedded in the drier area of the wall came on and illuminated a synthetic barrier of what had to be reinforced Plexiglas. It spanned the narrowed far end no more than a few meters across. Behind it was something murky, dark, with faint pinpoints of light, undoubtedly the imbedded phosphorescent rocks.
She turned to Zilka. "Why cordon off that far section?"
"Because it's a dam that's why." Zilka pointed a remote and again, several more lights came on behind the wall, revealing an endless expanse of pure water.
Zilka took out a small flashlight waving it as he spoke. "Used to be that this entire grotto was filled about seven feet in depth with the water until a few years back. Peterson had the plexi put in place, pumped the water dry on this side, making a viewing window." Rosa noticed that the water's surface was about two feet under the top of the glass. Someone could scale the glass and jump in if they wanted.
Rosa's mouth came open. "There are things moving in that water."
"Yes, indeed," Zilka said.
She could see all kinds of skittering life from the size of tiny minnows to the scallop like objects that had been on her plate hours earlier. "My Lord, what do they feed on?"
Zilka pointed to the far left side of the plexi, where the glass curved in to form a circular bubble about a half meter in diameter. "Put your pretty head in the magnifier, and you'll see the shape of species that resemble our shrimp krill that feed on the one-celled life and form the base of the food chain. Then look for coelenterates like jellyfish, but all with their special evolved differences from what bred on our Earth."
Rosa peered through the concave magnifying oval and sighed in wonder. "I could be standing at one of those sea world exhibits on Earth right now. But this is native to here, real life, going on now."
She saw Zilka lean over, wink at the boy who had his hands spread on the glass. "She gets it Waif. We'll make a convert, yet."
"We don't call it our aquarium for nothing," the boy said. "My dad wouldn't let me see this when he was here."
Zilka nodded. "Your dad kept a lot from you and that's not the half of it."
Rosa watched the boy put his ear to the glass. "I don't hear her yet, Zilk." Then he cupped his hands around his mouth and leaned into the glass. "Sehhhhh- laaahhhh"
"What did you say?" Rosa asked.
"Sela," Wally said. "Her name."
Zilka stood, clicked the remote and the lights went off. "A boy needs to learn patience, Waif, especially when waiting for a lady. I think it's back to bed for you. Our guest has seen enough for her first night."
Rosa turned, wondering if she could ask who this "lady" was. She pointed to a large work table along the wall next to the entrance. "What's laying there? Looks like a kind of suit."
Zilka paused. "Peterson's version of a thin gauge flexible dive outfit. The outer skin in only three mill thick but has plenty of insulation and pressure auto sensors. I damaged it intentionally, but now I have reason to complete the repair. Let's be getting upstairs now."
But the boy ran halfway back to the glass. "There she is, there she is! Shine the light."
Ron finished shooting silifoam into the fissures around the weather room and set up the pressure test to make sure the seals would hold.
Still wearing his suit, he sat at the computer screen and activated the voice command, directing it to the Helix Hospital complex main switchboard. He asked for the whereabouts of a colleague, Guy Pinter. While the operator was searching, the pressure test came back negative, and Ron left the screen to turn on the generator that would heat and aerate the space. He dutifully recorded the latest weather observations and cloud patterns in the vicinity.
The three foot screen flashed and showed the face of a red haired man in his late twenties, with a three-day beard. "Doctor Rondo, you still on the mission? Find any stiffs?"
"No jokes, Paint. You must have heard Rosa's missing." Ron watched the gauges on the generator. "And what lady's cot did they have to pry you out of to talk to me?"
"You insult me," Paint said. "I was busy reading charts on my rounds, sir. I could tell you status on any of your patients as we speak. I could also tell you bilge the administrators are bleeping about you. You're like a space castaway."
Guy Pinter was a medical tech, on probation for inappropriate behavior with various female hospital staff. Ron had interceded for him as he'd noticed that Pinter, or "Paint," had a genius for hacking any computer system, and if he could keep out of trouble long enough, would make a brilliant MD Bionics specialist. Paint was Ron's mole into hospital politics and anything floating on the net systems of Helix's medical world.
Ron took a breath, knowing that the responsible thing to do was to get a status update on at least two patients he'd operated on earlier in the week. But he missed Rosa too much to care.
"OK, Paint. I need you to get to a network terminal stat and hook into the system here. Finding Rosa depends on it."
Paint signed off as the air in the room reached an acceptable level and Ron took off his helmet, unzipped his suit. He closed his eyes and said a silent prayer that Rosa was still somehow alive somewhere, against all probability.
"What is that?" Rosa asked. The object appeared as a whitish blob growing as it approached the glass barrier.
Zilka spoke as though in a trance. "Didn't know she was in the area just now, we didn't really even call her."
"Told you she's like, getting to know us," the kid said. "Hi Sela." He grabbed the remote from Zilka's hand and flicked the aquarium lights back on.
The animal came like a submarine, its wide body head-on while a flat tail fin pushed it forward.
Zilka walked to the plexi, his nose almost touching it. "Yes, she's got the fluke tail similar to the smaller Saur pods that gives her forward motion. But now watch as she halts."
The creature, half again the size of a dolphin and twice the circumference, slowed and turned itself upright. There were no side fins, but strange flowery layers of fluttering veils, at least four that encircled it, waving in rhythmic motion to keep it steady its vertical position.
Rosa's mouth spoke the image that came to her mind. "Like the old paintings of the Flamenco ladies with their layers of ruffles, each one fringed with another color. What is she?"
Zilka put a gentle hand on her shoulder. "I call her part mammal, part coelenterate, and part something way beyond."
"I don't see eyes," Rosa said.
"Look towards the head, there are four of them visible." He took the remote from the boy, switched off the lights and Rosa saw four oval discs evenly spaced around the upper circumference, a centimeter in diameter, open and shining with an eerie glow.
"Talk to us, sweetheart." Zilka cupped his hands on the glass, the way the boy had done before and make a "haaaah" sound into his improvised megaphone.
Rosa felt it before she heard it; a kind of vibration emanating from the plexi wall, traveling along the floor and working up her legs. It carried a kind of low base rumble of a hum that seemed to wax and wane as though it were on a wave motion. At first she thought it was the quakes returning, but the boy took her hand and said, "She's answering."
Zilka's eyes took on a rapturous cast. "Rosa, whatever you've heard about terran whale song; this puts it to shame."
The creature behind the glass began a slow rotation, its skirts flaring outward, the way the dancers would if they spun quickly. The ruffles of these skirts began to glow with their own effervescence. Zilka reached into his overalls and took out a headset, attaching a rubber suction cup to the glass, then adjusted the earmuff speakers over his ears. He motioned to her with one arm to come closer.
The boy took her hand. "Come on, it's really weird how she makes you feel."
Wally pulled Rosa to Zilka and the man took off one of his earpieces and affixed it her head, while keeping one on himself. He plugged the other ear with his free hand and nodded for her to do the same.
Now the full spectrum of clicks and musical trumpeting came through. And there was bottomless pathos in it; soaring roars of jubilance then swooping down into mournful howls. It seemed to envelope her, grip her in a kind of embrace. Rosa closed her eyes and rode with it, allowing tears of relief to well up inside her, as though the creature were playing every emotion she'd ever felt.
She felt Zilka's hand rub her shoulder and her eyes opened, and while the sound encased them she looked into his eyes and saw his own rapture reflecting back to her. All trace of menace in Zilka was gone, replaced by a timeless communion spirit, and her own free hand gripped his arm and pulled him closer until their eyes were inches apart, dancing in the love and the pain the creature sang to them both. Her hand began stroking his face, his stubble and her lips opened to receive his. His odor of unwashed skin and clothes were now just background musk to her. She and this unknown man were kissing deeply and feeling the universe's ultimate romance the creature was generating for them.
And Rosa wished she had a third arm, to pull the creature into their embrace. She thought of shedding her clothes, scaling the wall and throwing herself in to blend with the creature. And oh, what would Ron feel if he could hear the sound--no!
The thought of Ron triggered a faint alarm and she forced herself to push away from Zilka. She tore off the headphone even as she considered spitting out the sour taste in her mouth that lingered from his kiss.
Then she reached forward and tore the earphone from Zilka's head. His reaction was to looked stunned. "What the hell did you--"
"Something's unnatural here, something's not right."
Zilka breathed out. "Don't ever do that again. Now just stay put and watch." He replaced the headphone on his head, then frowned, turned toward the tank. The creature had backed away, going horizontal, its fluke propelling it back into the depths. "You scared her off."
"Easy, Zilk. It was just Rosa's first time," the boy said.
Zilka looked toward the floor, then shook himself and raised his head. "Yeah, just the first time. Maybe we let you feel too much too soon is all. Sela's gone onto her bed I'm sure and it's time we turned in."
He shut the lights and led them back up the spiral rock stairs.
Ron was studying the sealed doorway in the weather room when Paint called back.
"I'm due to clock in from this break in about a half hour, and I'm pirating in on the floor director's console."
Ron moved to the screen. "I'm all for moving fast. So can you penetrate this system's feelers so that you can see the floor plan of this station?"
"Give me a few suggestions for pass keys and we'll see."
Ron gave the log-in key, Sedro-7, from Peterson. "OK," Paint said, "you'll want to sit back a meter while I project this in 3-D."
The hologram of the layout leapt out of the screen. A red flashing area showed the weather console room where Ron sat. "I assume the orange corridors are the upper levels we can access, and the fainter gray stuff the lower levels now cut off."
"That's an affirm," Paint said.
"Can you key into what's causing the blockages, in particular the sealed door from my chamber?"
"That's interesting, because that one's not even showing a link to any lower level."
Ron related Peterson's last comment to Paint about calling first before entering the lower levels. "What's that creepy smile on your face? Rosa's likely dead and I'll be a frozen sardine in a few days unless we get a brainstorm."
Paint produced a bottle of beer, swigged half of it. "My friend, this reminds me of Director Capil's bimbo blunder last year."
"The one where he changed the hospital surveillance system to mask the offices where he was screwing his girlfriend?"
"Right. He'd converted those spaces into one decked out apartment for her, yet flashed old data of them looking like storerooms. Until yours truly broke his code."
"Why would Peterson do a thing like that here?"
Paint shrugged. "The minute you can't explain some authority's behavior is ‘cause of some garbage they're hiding. I'm tempted to concoct a dredger on it, aim at the layout program and the locked passages that are supposedly breached by cave-ins."
A dredger was a penetration program. It gathered all input data on the system and its programmers, then ferreted out possible code breaking sequences. Then it used these code breakers as virtual battering rams to break through any data that was concocted to conceal the true information that lay behind.
"How long will it take you to put together?" Ron knew it was the best chance he had.
"At least the rest of this break, plus some."
"But if Rosa's down there she could be out of time."
"Rondo, if she's down there by any accident she's been long out of time. You're only hope is that against the odds, she's there by some way out design and in that case, you're waiting on your useless ass anyway."
Ron knew Paint needed to be left alone. All he could do was use the time to catch some needed sleep himself. And pray again, as Rosa would do.
Back in the solarium bedroom, Rosa helped Wally off with his sweatshirt and pulled the covers over him on his rank smelling cot. She noticed Zilka staring at the picture of himself and the woman in diving gear. Then the picture frames started to rattle, walking across the night table.
The boy sat up, peering out the skylight. A series of small cracks appeared in the ice sea just outside the window. Then all was still. Rosa had grabbed Wally's hand.
"I think they're starting again, Zilk," the boy said, a whine in his voice.
"Ah, that was a mild aftershock." Zilka sat next to Wally, sang a few verses of an old song with a chorus that repeated "Irene, Goodnight." In moments, the boy was breathing the heavy rhythm of sleep.
Zilka shared a smile with Rosa. "May I escort you back to your quarters?" He led the way through the tunnel back to her isolated room.
When they arrived, Rosa said she'd need more clothing for herself. Zilka's response was to draw his gun.
"What is this?" she asked, the sickening fear rising again.
"Please reattach the shackle to your ankle, Miss Rosa. Or do I do more target practice with your head?"
She reached down and fastened the buckle of the tether lying on the floor.
"I didn't run away, I cooperated as promised."
"True, but then again, your little speech that sent our dolphin away means you're not totally on board either. We'll give it another day of cautionary measure."
"But Aaron, think about the effect that Seline creature had on you. On us both."
"Her name is Sela, you should at least get that right."
She went with her hunch. "And the woman in the photo with you next to your bed. What is her name?"
He closed his eyes, shook his head. "Fine, you guessed it. You women never leave well enough alone."
She tried a soothing tone. "What did you mean about the creature being stuffed if it went to Helix?"
Zilka holstered his pistol and then sat at the table. "To Peterson, these creatures were merely a ticket to his obsession for fame. Wanted to make sure humanity credited him with this discovery, and within weeks of opening a live display, he planned to kill the best specimens to report on their organ systems, their genetics."
"Why not leave them here in their habitat for others to visit?" Rosa asked.
"The big ice plates are shifting, making it dangerous as a permanent installation. But this station's been here six years and the big one already hit weeks ago. I have faith. And those very big quakes became my chance to make it right." He was up and pacing. "You can't take a creature like Sela, with her advanced consciousness, slice and dice her like some oversized Tuna. She has things to tell us, I'm just barely scratching the surface with her. I've almost got Peterson's suit repaired, and very soon, I'll be able to get even closer to her."
Rosa probed further. "And what of your old Sela? The lady in the photo."
He sat again, looked into his hands. "The fates took her. I thought I'd lost the thread of her spirit, that it had gone to dust. You're Latin, you might understand when I tell you that something in this creature is reaching the place in me in a way that my...only my wife once did. I'm not here by mistake. I was meant to find her."
"Aaron, maybe you're being sung into trusting her for her reasons. Like the Sirens of Ulysses. It might be a way of luring--"
"I know the damn story." He stood, his face hard again. "Maybe it's you who are the Siren here. The pretty face and sexy Latin voice on the surface hiding the ugliness and mistrust underneath. So I'll plug my ears to the likes of you." He lowered the lighting to half and walked out.
Then another small quake began.
Ron had fallen into a doze after the first quake, but when the second struck, he was up and out of the chair. He studied the seismometer, recorded the reading in the log but hadn't the expertise to predict what might come next. He radioed Peterson.
The commander was a third of the way back to Helix. "We're patched in and will read from here. The first tremor showed some plate tension in the nearby fault. Could be the start of another series cycling up, but we'll need another few to tell. What about you? Have you found anything?"
Until Paint's results were in, Ron decided on a vague response. "Just reviewing the readouts on the tunnels. But I think I'm going to pace myself through Rosa's last known movements."
In minutes, Ron was suited and outside the airlock. He stood in the most likely spot in the observation dome, where Rosa would have, looked at the view and began to step backwards. He ran into the wall once and had to change his angle. Would she have moved like that and continued to step backwards? Then, looking behind him, he backed up very slowly near to the crevasse's edge, stopping a boot length short. If he'd gone all the way and fell back at that point, the radio might indeed land where they'd found it, a half meter away. But the outcrop on the crevasse wall that caught the backpack was too far to have easily snagged it on her way over.
He reentered the sealed weather room and took off his helmet, and placed her pack on the table. She'd also had a large waist pack but that had gone down with her. Searching through the backpack revealed items from her medical kit although some of the antibiotics were missing, and then something else caught his eye. He lifted out a small shred of fabric, no more than two centimeters long.
Paint called in. "Rondo, I got progress and more riddles. Which do you want first?"
"Give me the hopeful stuff, I can use it, just now."
"Peterson's hidden pass codes were based on his kids' names, big surprise. The dredger broke through and what do you know, there are more tunnels than we thought. I'm sending the revised plan now. The green ones are new."
The network of tunnels appeared in holographic form in front of the screen. In addition to the familiar orange and tan tunnels, there were green spaces, mostly on the lower levels. "Why would Peterson hide this stuff?" Ron asked.
"Been asking that myself. Particularly that large oval cavity at the very bottom. I can't hook up to the cameras and sensors down there. These are blocked by a second set of codes, unrelated to Peterson, it seems."
"Like there's another cook stirring this damned soup? What about the other members of his team, those supposedly lost?"
"We think alike, Rondo, and I'm digging their bios as we speak. I say if Peterson's hiding something, it's a sure bet he ain't finished over there and maybe, just maybe, you're being there plays into his set up for a return."
"Paint, one more thing. I found a fabric shred in her backpack. If I put it under the mineral scanner here, could it reveal anything about its makeup?"
Within a minute, Paint confirmed the shred as a piece of work glove, consistent with space suit material issued a few years back to Peterson's expedition. Why would that be in Rosa's pack?
Rosa sat up in bed, sweating. She remembered having called out, still hearing the echo of her voice on the dim rocky walls around her. In her awful dream, the creature had come out of the water and stood like a sentry in her room.
She heard the patter of feet in the passage way. Wally entered. "You okay, Rosa?"
"Did I scream or something?"
"Yeah, real loud. You have a nightmare? I get'em, too."
She held out her arms to him and he came to the bed. He smelled sour, but it was comforting to embrace a child.
"Wally, where's Aaron right now?"
"Not in his bunk, so usually that means he's working down below, or being with her."
"Would you be upset if I told you I don't totally trust Sela?"
"Aaron says she makes his hurt about his dead wife go away, too. And I stop getting sad about my dad when I hear her. So she helps calm us down, y'know?"
She considered telling Wally more about his father, but couldn't risk Zilka barging in on them. "Can you tell me about your own bad dreams?"
"Mostly things about my dad. Like when the quakes happened and Zilk and I were trapped, and he just left us. Will you leave me? What if the quakes come again real bad?"
Again Ron called into Peterson, almost halfway back to Helix, and asked about the third quake.
"Too soon to tell if there's a building pattern, Ron. But I admit that three in one day could be a cause for concern."
Two hours later, including one in which Ron managed to get some sleep, Paint contacted Ron. His face was red and puffy on the screen.
"Don't say I never suffered for you. While you've been catching your Z's I've been gobbling up the data coming in, sifting it like the dutiful manservant I am."
"Let's have it." Ron sat up straight, grabbed a food tube snack to suck on while Paint reported.
"I got the profiles on the three lost personnel left on the station. Had to break through all kinds of security bugs on Helix's data base to do it. Get this. On the one hand, they all qualify in some field of science: the woman Garner a meteorologist, a man Satrank as a geologist and another one, the strangest, a Zilka who is a marine biologist."
"A marine biologist on a weather station?" Ron asked.
"It gets even juicier. All three have sheets, as we say in the underworld."
"Speak English, Paint."
"Sheets as in run-ins with the law. Garner went up for attempted murder on her ex-husband's girlfriend. Kidnapped her and drove her across three state lines back in the US, before they caught her. Satrank was put on probation for trying to poison half his lab team just before he was to publish a treatise on Martian minerals from the Olympus Mons crater. Dead men can't take credit, is my take on that one."
"Why choose personnel who've run foul of the law?"
"It fits about keeping secrets. You stay mum about what we're really messing with or I trade your ass back to the authorities. Peterson apparently made deals for their releases, sort of as their guardian. Out here in the Jupiter system, they had a chance for new employment, new lives. Now hold on, my hunch on the dredger codes is about to cough up the results I banked on." Ron saw Paint's face look aside, surely at a screen in the office he'd broken into for the transmission. "Come to daddy, now… Yep, our man."
"Who? What man?"
Paint turned back to the screen. "I applied the dredger to the life history of the marine guy, Zilka, and we're getting pay dirt. I've just broken through to an embedded computer screen down below. Here's a glance."
The scene on Ron's monitor changed from Paint's beaming face to a fish eye view of a darkened room. On one side was a dome shaped skylight, on the other were a few bunk beds along a wall.
"Whoa. How far down is this room?"
"About sea level, certainly two levels below where you guys were able to penetrate. And it looks lived in, don't it?"
A shadow passed in front of the screen, resolving into a scraggly man who plunked down on a bunk and began to remove his socks.
Paint narrated. "Behold Mr. Aaron Zilka, in the flesh, in real time. The guy who falsified all the info coming from the lower level. Know what name figured into the passwords he used in his blockers?"
On the screen, Zilka glanced over at another cot. "Dammit, where is that kid?"
Ron ached to call out to the man, to ask about Rosa. "Paint, if he sees the screen, will he know we've broken through?" But surely Zilka wanted to be hidden.
Before Paint could respond, Zilka cursed and trotted from the room.
"Can you get us into more monitors?" Ron asked.
"Working on it."
Rosa was roused by a hand on her shoulder, shaking her. She opened her eyes to find herself staring into Zilka's face and smelling his sour breath.
"You call the boy in here?" he asked.
Wally slept, curled up against her in the cot. "He'd had a nightmare and came in."
"What'd you talk ‘bout?"
"I told him I'd had bad dreams, too. Where were you?"
Zilka sat at the table, sipped at a drink bottle. "I was finishing up the diving suit below. Got too involved. Guess it's good he finds some comfort with you. When he wakes, I'll learn what you told him anyway."
"What about the three quakes today, Aaron?"
"Part of what we risk. It's called acceptance." He left the room.
Then she noticed the green light flashing in the middle of the screen on the table. That was new. A word came on the screen: her name with a question mark. A rush of adrenalin shot through her. Was this a genuine contact or was Zilka testing her, playing at something?
The table was within reach of her tether and this just might be a lifeline. She had to chance it.
Ron asked Paint to bring up the resolution on the screen. "This space is still too dark. Something against the wall, could be a cot, but it's in too much shadow. Wait! There's movement on it. Paint, could you flash Rosa's name on the screen?"
"OK, we cross the threshold."
Ron saw the figure rise off the cot and walk forward toward the screen. A woman. Rosa.
"It's her, it's her. Oh my God, she's really alive. I knew it, I knew it!" Rosa looked tired and thinner as she leaned over the chair at the edge of the table. "Paint! Patch me through on audio."
"You've got it, but I'd keep it soft."
"Rosa, this is Ron, can you hear me?"
He saw her hands come to her mouth, her head nod. She brought a finger to her lips, then looked over her shoulder. Rosa leaned into the screen, her mouth distorted in perspective as she whispered. "It's Zilka who has me here. The boy too, Peterson's son. He's changed the programs so that it looks like this level can't support life. Oh Ronny, where are you?"
Ron had Paint give him control of Rosa's screen and typed so that she could read, avoiding excess noise. "Still on Sedro, never left you, my love."
He savored watching her clasp her hands as though praying a thank you. "Love you, too," she said.
But there were still levels of rock to penetrate before she was safe. He continued typing. "Shhh, Rosa. Still locked out from above but working on it. Will tell Peterson about his boy. Zilka's history shows he might be dangerous." She nodded in recognition of this. "I'm going to flash you a summary of his past, might help you deal with him until we get there."
Ron put the text through, a synopsis of Zilka's qualifications showing his degrees in meteorology and ocean biology. Then came his arrest two years ago, after a suspicious diving accident in the Caribbean that resulted in the death of his wife, Sela. Zilka was awaiting trial when Peterson intervened and took him off planet to Sedro.
Ron, leaving the history on the screen, typed another question below. "Why is Zilka holding you and the boy?"
Rosa leaned into the screen again, speaking low. "The bottom level leads to a warm underwater pocket of sorts. Small creatures and--Wait!" Ron saw her look over her shoulder. "The boy is stirring, hold on."
During the pause, Ron radioed Peterson, put through a text message to turn around, that his son was still alive. Then the fourth and most powerful quake began.
One moment Rosa helped Wally sit up on the cot and the next she was on the floor. The vibration was so pronounced she envisioned a crevasse opening under her and sucking her down. Wally clung to her, called for Zilka. The quake subsided as Zilka ran in.
"Everybody OK?" He extended a hand to Rosa, helping her off the floor.
"Zilk, they're getting worse, aren't they?" Wally asked.
Rosa spoke from her desperation to get above to Ron. "Aaron, get this tether off me so we can all get out."
Zilka put up his hands. "Hold on, hold on. First I'm going to check the instruments to see what the monitor predicts."
His eye landed on the computer screen, still showing the text Rosa had read. "Who put that on there?"
Rosa hesitated, open mouthed. Zilka came forward, grabbed her arm and squeezed, arching her toward him.
He shook her hard. "Who knows we're here, dammit?"
Her mouth worked on its own. "They're above. They know. " She turned to the boy. "Wally, your father's --"
Zilka twisted her arm behind her back, pointed her toward the screen. "Whoever you are, you come down here, I'll kill her, you hear me! This is my domain!"
The boy elbowed past them to get to the screen, but Zilka released Rosa and hit the display shut down button.
"But my dad--"
"Shut up, don't listen to anything she says, it's a lie." He keyed in a combination that hooked into the sensor cameras on the lowest level. The screen showed an image of the plexi wall. There were swirls of bubbles within and water was lapping over the top. "It got stirred up but it held. And now, we put in new codes and let her asshole friends try to break these."
Ron's screen went dark, although he continued to see the image of Rosa being manhandled by Zilka. "Paint! What happened?"
"You heard the man. I gave her screen over to you and you forgot to wipe the text when he barged in. Now he's keyed in new codes, and I'll have to dredge all over again to break through. We learned a few things, though."
"Stop being so cool and get the door open, I've got to get down to her, now."
"The new codes block that as well," Paint said. "I'll redredge as fast as I can. When people do their own passwords they typically use familiar names- his incorporated his dead wife's. But now because of you, Rondo, he knows we're onto him--"
"Screw all that, you've got the map of where they are now, right?"
"I'll flash it and let you print it at your end."
"OK, and then we go for our last option to break this door down."
As the room shook again, Rosa watched Zilka trot to the wall where her tether was pegged and work it loose with a tool. He stood up, holding the end of the tether attached to her ankle.
"We're going below, now!" He yanked on the line and her leg jerked.
"Why down? That's crazy," she said.
"No arguing, both of you move. That means you, Waif."
"What about my dad?" the kid asked, close to tears.
"He's not here, I said, but whoever is up there is locked out, and will stay locked out."
"So that we die down here?" she asked.
Zilka took out his pistol. "Here's a sure way to go, just give me the word."
The prospect of going into an abyss that could cave in on her was more frightening than what Zilka could do to her. "You'd kill me, right in front of the boy, you'd do it, wouldn't you? Go on, show Wally what a murderer you are! Why not kill the boy, too? Just like you murdered your wife, the real Sela. Right, Aaron?"
Zilka blinked, lowered the weapon a moment. Rosa pressed her advantage. "I read the report, Aaron. She was an ace diver, like you. She didn't get stuck under that coral reef. You made it happen, didn't you?"
"She was leaving me!" he shouted. He gestured down the passage. "Sela's the exception. She's loyal." Zilka banged the tether back into the wall, twisted it tight and pocketed his tool. "Now it's time we ditched you, nurse."
Before Rosa could protest, a violent shock rocked the room causing a few pieces to fall out of the ceiling. Zilka turned to Wally. "Time for our escape, boy. Let's get below."
"Wally!" Rosa shrieked. "Your father could be above, trying to get in."
Wally yelled back at her. "You just told Zilk to kill me, so forget it."
Zilka clapped the boy on the back. "He knows who his friends are." Then they were gone.
The boy she wanted to rescue had fled from her and the man who wanted to save her was locked out, levels above. She was in between, in a tomb that would surely cave in at any moment.
Ron powered down the drill laser and studied his work: a two inch deep gulley in the perimeter of the stone door that was the barrier to the lower levels. "Paint, I'm going for the explosives."
He'd plant a charge in the gulley, suit up and open the outside door. Then with Paint's map in hand he'd run for the lower galleries and bring Rosa and the boy to safety above.
"And Paint, if you lose contact with me, grab the director and spill all of this."
"And put my head on the proverbial hacker's block?"
"Peterson was willing to risk lives to keep his little secret right? So I need the insurance policy. I'll remove your head from said block when I get back."
Rosa's room shook and bits of rock dislodged from the wall. She clutched at her rosary, prayed for guidance. Lord, help this poor idiot woman to think again.
Calm down, calm down. Look at things technically, like Ron might. She shoved the prayer beads back into her pocket and studied the eyelet. OK, then.
She needed a way to get enough leverage to turn the metallic loop that held her cable, to unscrew it from the wall. She looked toward the kitchen tools and wondered if one of the long handles of a stirring spoon could be inserted through the hole. She had to try at least three of the elongated spoons before one would fit through, then with both hands she began to grunt as she turned the eyelet. Slowly it rotated, coming free.
With the remote in hand, Ron opened the outside door to the weather room, and stumbled through it as the air within rushed out. He took two paces to the left behind a bulkhead wall and pressed the button on his remote. A bright flash erupted as a small fireball engulfed the space.
Ron ran back in; seeing the equipment scorched, the screen he'd used with Paint now blown apart. He closed the door behind him, resealing the space, then ran over the rock debris to the open hole in the wall where the doorway was. He grabbed his chipping tools and hacked at the small opening. Within a minute he was able to expand the hole just enough to climb through.
Rosa was free, although she was holding a coil of fifteen feet of cable still attached to her ankle. Now what?
If she ran up to Ron, they could be more effective together in returning to free Wally from that devil Zilka. Yes, that was best. Rosa pulled a flashlight from the cabinet near the table and bolted into the passage that led above.
The ground vibrated and she stumbled against the tunnel's wall, fell to her knees. A voice of reproach sounded in her head. She'd been delivered for a second chance, but who would save Wally if by the time she'd reached Ron, the caverns had crashed in on the boy?
Rosa stood and faced the opposite way. "Wally, I'm coming."
Ron got lost running down the most direct passage before consulting his map. At least twice, he'd taken the wrong side of the fork and had to double back. He resolved to handle this like delicate surgery: take your time and do it right once.
A hundred feet further brought him to another junction with a small chamber on the side. He glanced in and saw a bunk that was occupied.
"Rosa!" he called, trotting over. The room was dark and his light fell upon the face of a woman that had been dead for days. The cheeks were shrunken as the body had begun to desiccate. The belly showed dried blood around a knife wound. This was one of the staff that had been murdered, probably by Zilka. Rosa could be next.
Rosa, holding a hammer she'd grabbed from her room's workbench, reached the bottom of the staircase and came out into the cavern. She nearly tripped over a cluster of rocky debris on the floor. The plexi wall that dammed the water at the far end was still intact and in the foreground was the creature Zilka named after his dead wife.
Sela was rotating in place, all her skirts fluffed up and pulsing with flickering sparkles of the light that she generated from some chemical process within herself.
Zilka and the boy were at the table, bearing the new generation wet suit between them. They moved towards an opening in the wall, one Rosa hadn't seen before.
"Aaron, stop! I have to get the boy out! This whole place is going to cave in!"
Zilka looked up. "Wally, take the suit inside the sub while I deal with Ms. Rosa."
The boy yelled to her. "Go away! You told him to kill me."
"No, no. It was like a dare, I didn't want him to kill either of us. Don't you want to see your father?"
Zilka reached her, slapped her across the face. Rosa howled, the animal in her rising as she swung the hammer at Zilka. He caught her arm, wrenched the tool free and it clattered to the floor. She curled her hands and clawed at his face. Fury had replaced all fear.
"Get back you fucking beast, get back!"
He stumbled back under the force of her blows. While blocking her onslaught with one arm, he bent and picked up the end of her tether that had come loose from her waist. He yanked and her legs went out from under her. She lay on the floor stunned as the next quake began.
He took the hammer from the floor and made to hit her, but she rolled away. Still holding the end of her coil, he banged the eyelet back into the floor, just as he'd done above. Refusing to be shackled again, she rose up and ran at him, knocking him over and they both landed just in front of the plexi wall. The hammer had rolled out of his reach, but fatigue and fear were overcoming her again. She couldn't win by brute force.
The sight of the headset, dangling from the plexi barrier, gave her the shred of an idea. "Sela, help me!" she called out, then reached for the line that held the headphones and affixed them to her ears.
There was the creature's hypnotic hum, coming through loud and clear.
As she hoped, Zilka lunged and yanked the phones off her head. "You don't deserve to hear what she has to say, you whore!"
Rosa clutched his collar, pulled him to her and then with her hands over his, pressed the phones tightly onto Zilka's own ears. His eyes immediately glazed over. She stepped back, allowing the creature's song to fully captivate him. As he stood transfixed before the creature that held him emotionally bound, Rosa uttered a quick prayer of thanks and dragging her coil, ran for the boy.
"Don't be afraid. I came down here for you, didn't I? Trust me, Wally!"
"But we were going to get in the special sub and be OK." The boy pointed to a panel that had opened in the rock wall. Rosa could see the end of something metallic, about two meters in diameter, over the edge of a small upward stair beyond.
The renewed shaking of the room panicked her further. "No, no. I see what it is, but it would only get trapped under the ice above. We can't stay down here anymore, the room's going to fall in!"
Ron passed through the room that had to have been Rosa's, recognizing it from the computer image he'd seen before. He cursed aloud that it was empty. The air was safe here, so he took off his helmet, strapped it to his utility belt. Pulling out the map, he cursed again realizing he had to go lower, to that chamber of life she'd spoken of.
He wound down the spiral stair just as the next tremor began, beginning to feel a sense of his own panic. He came out into a large cavern with a dammed wall of water at one end. There was Rosa, pulling at the arm of a boy. He called to her, she looked up and screamed with an expression of pure joy.
"See Wally! There he is, my friend. Ron!"
Ron trotted toward them, and then stopped, seeing Zilka at the far end, with a laser gun in his hand.
Rosa expected Zilka to start firing, but his face was calmer, probably the effect of the Sela creature.
"Go on, that's right, all of you. I see it all now. Take the boy, go on above." He even reached into his pocket and tossed the tether's key to her.
Rosa had a sudden moment of pity for him. "What about you?" She waved the key at her ankle and her tether broke loose. "Aaron, stop all this. Come with us."
Zilka shook his head as the tremor subsided. Except for the wash of the waterfalls and the hum of the Sela behind him, the space had a moment of peace. "Ms. Rosa, if I go above, it's into jail or worse. I'm not proud of the madness that comes over me and I have only one way to go now, so leave me to it."
Ron walked forward, pointing to the creature just behind the plexi wall. "What is that thing, alive?"
"The lady will explain, but your time is short," Zilka said, reaching down for the wet suit on the floor. "Go on now, up you go, before I come to my senses and start shooting again."
Wally began crying, tugging at Rosa to get back to Zilka. Zilka came forward, dropped to one knee, hugged the boy. "Waif! Go on with them. My future's with Sela, and your daddy may be up there after all." He took the kid's face in his hands. "I need you to tell them of what we found, why it needs to be saved. You're my little scientist, right?"
Another rumble came through and this time there was a roar from above. Ron grabbed the howling boy and Rosa turned to follow them through the opening to the stairs. She took a moment to look back at Zilka, frantically donning the wet suit. Whatever he had in mind, she'd no more time for him.
The floor bounced anew and more rocks came off the walls. The electric lights began to flicker. "Hurry Ron, go!" she called after him. Ron pushed the boy up the stairs ahead of him, and Wally must have felt the urgency for he was scrambling up so fast that Ron and Rosa could barely keep up with him.
Wally suddenly turned around and Rosa, ascending the last few steps, bumped into him. "What is it?"
"It's all caved in!" the boy called, pointing to the tunnel.
Rosa brought her hands to her mouth. About three meters in front of her, the passage was blocked by a pile of stone that had fallen from the ceiling. Why now, why this? Ron edged by her and began picking away at the pile.
"Rosa, Wally, let's work fast." They fell to, joining him. But after a minute of tearing away stones, they made little progress.
A large shake brought down more stone, undoing their work. Rosa had to pull Wally back to shield him from several chunks that came loose from above.
The boy pulled at her. "It's like Zilk told me before, we gotta go for the sub."
"What's he talking about?" Ron asked as the lights flickered with the next tremor.
"Some kind of small submarine down there I think," Rosa cried.
"Yeah, my dad had it built. It takes up to four."
Ron pulled the boy to him. "Lead, Wally, we'll follow." He turned to Rosa. "We've got no other choice. Even if we get through this cave-in there could be others."
Rosa trailed behind the boy and Ron, going back down the dreaded staircase. As they trudged back into the cavern the lighting on the walls cut down to half.
Ron grabbed Rosa's hand. "There goes the main electric. Probably on emergency power now."
The floor was covered with rising water. Lord, if she weren't soon crushed, she'd die of drowning instead. Her legs were weak and stumbled, but Ron was pulling her, the boy leading.
Wally motioned to the plexi wall. "Look, he's in there."
They stared at Zilka, suited up and immersed in the water, which had risen somehow in the quake to spilling over the top of the plexi enclosure, already showing a crack down its face.
Zilka reached out his gloved hand to the creature, whirling beside him, and she extended a small tentacle which found and encased his wrist. Then other slits were opening in the creature's sides and a multitude of small tentacles emerged, reaching toward Zilka. They swirled round his limbs the way a mummy would be wrapped. The creature backed away from him, extending these tentacles like tethers. She went into a horizontal position and used her fluke to swim away into the darkness, trailing Zilka in a net of tentacles behind. So, the singing temptress had hooked her man at last.
"He's gone!" Wally said. "What's she gonna do with him?"
"Hell if we know," Ron said, as things rumbled again. "Where's this sub of yours?"
The boy ran to the open passage in the far wall. Ron and Rosa followed. She charged through water coming past her knees and up the several stone cut steps to where the submarine lay in a kind of makeshift dock. The craft was lolling back and forth in its slot.
Ron gestured to a hatch in the top side. "Wally, you know how to open this?"
The boy kneeled down and turned a swivel bar just below the hatch and it sprang up. Ron turned to Rosa. "I'll go first, you hand in the boy, and then you."
As Ron eased himself in, Rosa considered what she was about to entrust her life to. The pontoon shaped craft was no more than several meters long. They'd be trapped in a coffin under a sea of ice.
Ron reached up for Wally, but the boy sat himself on the hatch's rim and easily jumped below.
Rosa peered over the rim. "Ron, I can't come in, I can't. I'm phobic of closed in spaces! It's why I snapped at you above at the dome. I'm so sorry."
Ron extend his arm up through the hatch. "Rosa, just take my hand--"
"No Ron, don't make me--"
He clutched her wrist as a large crack resounded around them. Frantically looking through the passageway, Rosa could see that the plexi barrier had crumbled and the sea was rushing in to fill the space. Ron pulled her down into the hatch and it closed over them as the water encased the craft, now rocking and fully buoyant.
"Honey, I told you this expedition wouldn't be boring, didn't I?"
"I've had enough of your damned excitement!" She remained kneeling on the floor, looking over her new prison cell.
There were four seats within the tiny space, two up at the nose and one small one on either side of the flanking walls just behind. Ron turned to Wally. "Wanna be my copilot? Or maybe I'll be yours."
Rosa shook her head at Ron. There he was smiling at the kid like it was a new adventure. The boy's face was taut but he nodded and let Ron belt him into the copilot seat. Ron pointed to one of the side seats. Rosa crawled to it, strapped herself in and took out her rosary.
"I'll pray, you boys drive."
"Sounds like a plan," Ron said. He threw down his helmet and fingered the controls on the console. Just like in a shuttle craft, there were heavy view shield windows starting at the nose and wrapping around to the side. Several more large rectangular windows ran along the flanks of the craft, plus a large curved one at the rear. The water had risen to about halfway up the front windows. Their running lights showed that ahead of them, in the passage way, boulders were coming down into the water.
"We've got to get out of here, fast," Rosa called, knowing she must sound like a fool, stating the obvious.
"Wally," Ron said. "What did Zilka show you about this? What do you remember?"
The boy was wide eyed, bringing his hands to his face, starting to panic.
Ron put a hand on his shoulder. "Usually we have to take care of air first, right?"
The boy nodded. "Right! We have to pressurize. I think it's here." He pointed to the console.
Ron hit the button and let out a laugh. "Right where it says ‘pressurize'." Rosa felt the rush of air come into the cabin as a screen on the console came to life. Wally pointed to other controls and Ron nodded, reaching for a kind of joystick.
There was whirring noise and the craft shot forward, yanking Rosa sideways in her seat, her belt digging into her waist.
"Whoa, cowboy," Ron called out. "OK, we go light on the accelerator pedal, now we know." Wally even picked up a bit of his smile.
Rosa saw a new problem ahead. As the cavern filled up the craft remained buoyant, its roof about to scrape the cavern ceiling, illuminated by the craft's lights. "Ron, this thing has to dive down some how!"
"Oh yeah!" the boy called, leaning over and hitting another control on the panel. "I almost forgot."
Bubbles emerged from all around the craft as it blew out from its outer jacket, lost buoyancy and sunk under the surface. Through the windows, the cavern walls, dotted with iridescent rock, seemed to drop away and in a moment they were submerged within a body of water, the rocky slopes of the mountain fading behind in their back port window. As the encompassing glass windows revealed their emergence into the large underground lake, Rosa felt grip of her phobia begin to ease in her chest and belly.
Now the running lights showed life teeming all around them, most of it small, but creatures of all shapes- some squid-like, some fishlike, many looked like conglomerations of different species cobbled together to survive in this other world. They passed over small fissures in the seabed, through which bubbles and powdery silt emerged, the result of the quakes.
Rosa became transfixed and thankful that they were alive, and that there was no sign of the demon Sela. Wherever she went to hide with her new mate or meal, let her do it in secret. She took a moment's pleasure in watching Ron's open mouth, the delight in his eyes as he observed the new sea of life, and Wally's own animation as he named some of the creatures.
"Fantastic," Ron said. "This is what your daddy was hiding from us, that rascal trickster. Speaking of which, let's see if we can get through to him."
"No good," the kid said. "Zilk said all our radios were out."
"We'll see about that," Ron countered. After several tries on the communications panel, he hit an all purpose hailing channel. Peterson's voice came on.
Rosa smiled as she heard father and son yelp at each other. He was coming, he was close, and he and Wally would spend days together back at Helix with Wally's sister, just being a family again. All those old soppy clichés, Rosa thought, but now so real for them.
Then a reality hit her. "Dane!" she called out to Peterson on the radio. "There must be tons of layers of ice above us, how do we get through?"
"You've got a pair of heat laser cutters in your bow, and there's an area of thinner ice, only about thirty meters thick near the base of the mountain. I'll guide you there. There are extra suits for all of you, even a child's, in the forward lockers. Once you cut through and we land on the ice, I can send down a cable and haul Wally up."
Rosa's gut twisted. "What about Ron and me?" Her eyes met Ron's. He nodded, put a finger to his lips, as though he understood her concern.
"And then yourselves, of course," Peterson added. "Once I have my son safe."
Rosa mouthed to Ron: "you first."
"Dane," Ron said. "We're going to insist you take myself, the heaviest weight, first, to make sure the line is safe. And by the way, we're all sorry you'll no longer be able to make a surprise announcement about the nature of the undersea life here, wonderful as it is."
"And why is that?" Peterson shot back.
"My assistant at Helix, Mr. Pinter, was in touch with me, and it's his penetration of the hidden codes in the computer monitors on Sedro that gave me access to Rosa and Wally. He's already made a full preliminary report, on my direction, to the Helix upper staff, who are concerned about all of us, of course."
There was silence at the other end. Ron continued. "And then there's the additional questions of the nature of your staff's background, namely that of Dr. Zilka, who'd been holding your son down there."
Wally jumped forward to have his say. "But Zilk took care of me, guys."
"He also lied to you, Wally. You had a working radio the whole time. So, Dane, I'd say you'll need me and Rosa to help vouch for you when the authorities have their questions on our return."
"I hear you, Dr. Kettner," came Peterson's reply. "I'd be grateful for your testimony, should it be needed. We'll haul you up first, make sure the cable's safe."
Rosa let out her breath, reached for Ron's hand, squeezed it.
"And Dad," Wally said. "No way you can hurt Sela, leave her alone. That's an order."
They used the next hour and a half to navigate a wide circle, marveling at all the new forms of sea life-- most it smaller than a man's hand--and then, getting word that Peterson was close, powered to the designated area near the mountain's edge.
Peterson talked Ron through the procedure of lasering a hole above them, making a kind of dome in the ice so that the craft could float up and clear the waterline, stay buoyant. Then the lasers would be directed above to blast a vertical shaft to the surface. Peterson was minutes away from landing his shuttle on the ice above. Ron could use his own suit, so he helped Rosa and Wally into spare ones located in the rear lockers.
As the three of them were about to pop on their helmets to exit the craft, Rosa looked through the back port and could see, just under the surface. The creature called Sela was there, several meters from their stern. The water witch had followed them after all. She twirled and was all aglow. She was alone.
Wally and Ron saw her too, and Wally told Ron to activate the exterior sonar pick up. The hum of the creature came over the speakers and filled the cabin of the craft. Rosa felt the immediate peace, all her recent concerns ebbing away. She turned and saw Ron and the boy staring back at Sela through the rear port, their faces taking on the dreamy look that Zilka's had.
"She's really lovely," Ron said.
Rosa gripped the rosary in her hand, kept squeezing it as if holding onto a lick of sanity. She stumbled from her seat and hit the sonar button, making the speakers go silent.
Ron turned to her, frowning. "Why did you do that?"
"Because you saw what happened to Zilka, didn't you?" She tapped on the rear viewport. "Go away, you. One catch is enough for today."
© 2009 Ken Kraus
Bio: Mr. Kraus's recent credits include two short stories that recently appeared in science fiction Webzines.“Lovers Under the Green Sky” debuted in the July 08 issue of Planetary Stories with custom illustrations, and Squatters appeared in the July 2008 edition of Aphelion. During the fall of 2008, his reviews of several new stories appeared in the Planetary Stories editorial sections. Ken has also written numerous articles for technical journals, as well as a lead feature on Spain in the Newark Star Ledger’s travel section. And, of course, he is continuing to revise his novel, Borgus and the Duke, and submitting it to literary agents.
E-mail: Ken Kraus
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