Lost Colony Ch. 14-2

“Waypoint reached.”

Abandoning his excavation of the science nook, Sparr returned to the command station. The chart confirmed that he had gone fifteen kilometers. Sparr remembered something from an old movie. “Surface to periscope depth.”

“The Sea Otter is not equipped with a periscope.”

“A porthole?”

“The Sea Otter is equipped with external cameras.”

“Activate cameras.”

The top half of the command screen lit with a mosaic of equally dim, watery images.

“Surface to one meter.”

The sub began to rise from its thirty meter cruising depth. At first the cameras revealed little more than indistinct blurs on the seafloor, but as the vessel rose the images became clearer. As soon as one revealed the late afternoon sky, he leveled off.

“Are there any machines nearby?”

“The Sea Otter’s passive systems do not currently detect any airborne, submarine, or surface traffic. Shall I switch on active monitoring?”

“No,” Sparr said quickly. “Leave active systems off, follow the shoreline east, and set speed to ten kilometers per hour.”

Sparr enlarged the view from the starboard camera, keeping it pointed at the shore and zoomed in. The optics and image stabilization were excellent. He could make out individual shore birds, scrub, and boulders.

“Can you look for caves?”

“Yes,” the voice said, “pattern recognition can identify land features.”

“Notify me if you spot any cave. And bring up the chart again.”

While the sub cruised slowly east, Sparr inspected the chart. Not only was it astoundingly detailed, there were several data overlays which revealed as much about what Calista had been up to as they did the topography of the planet. One overlay showed the planet’s cities, towns, and roads. Another showed suspected colonist industrial sites such as mines and factories. And one revealed the entire history of where the sub had traveled.

Calista had been thorough. In addition to cruising the shorelines of both the eastern and western continents, she had guided the sub into several marine trenches and up the larger rivers. Icons showed where she had launched drones, come ashore, and visited a sampling of the industrial sites. The sub was equipped to identify and sample aquatic animals. The drones must be programmed to do the same for surface species. The operation would have taken years to plan.

“Cave identified. Magnifying.” The sub’s pattern recognition software had spotted something.

A cave, just as perfectly round as the Portal, but much smaller, filled the camera’s field of view. He had found the Museum.

***

If the Museum was built like the Portal, it relied on natural light for human navigation and therefore it was too late to go ashore. Instead, Sparr parked the sub on the ocean floor, ate a sad meal of reconstituted lasagna, and slept on the little bunk. The next morning, as Kaybe’s mellow star rose, Sparr took the sub as close to shore as possible, surfaced just enough to expose the top hatch, and splashed ashore.

Unlike the Portal, there were no wooden steps or walkways to help with the climb to the mouth of the cave. Fortunately, the distance wasn’t great, and enough sand and gravel had been strewn across the ice to provide traction. In less than a minute, Sparr reached the rim of the cave and stepped within.

If it was a Museum, it wasn’t one with many visitors. The floor had been worn flat in a few spots, but overall the site had a neglected feel. Sparr suspected more animals took shelter here than people. But at least the lighting was good. A dim but adequate glow filtered in from cracks in the ice above, just enough to bathe the walls and floor with a blue glow. Moving slowly to give his eyes time to adjust, Sparr pressed forward.

The way narrowed before passing through a round opening partially blocked by collapsing ice. Sparr put his hand out to steady himself, only to realize that the opening was made of metal. A hurried inspection revealed little detail. It didn’t seem to belong, but farther in he saw further evidence that the Museum was constructed from more than just rock and ice. Vertical metal partitions intruded from both sides, mostly sheathed in ice, but with edges or corners visible in spots. Debris of some sort had become lodged in the gaps between the partitions.

Sparr stopped abruptly. Something about the debris caught his eye. He scraped away at the ice. The creature that lay within, its elongated body curled and twisted, resembled no Earth species. His heart racing, Sparr swabbed the animal and fed the strip into the gene sequencer.

Decoding: 1% complete. The slow progress of the sequencer was a sure sign the creature was alien.

“Holy shit,” Sparr gasped. He took a closer look at the animal. Though difficult to make out wrapped as it was in ice, the creature looked like a fat, burgundy-colored worm as thick as Sparr’s forearm. Fine hair grew from rings each two centimeters apart along its length. He couldn’t even guess what niche of the ancient Kaybe ecosystem it might have occupied.

Not two meters farther along he encountered another creature, a segmented beetle-like animal with a wide, flat body and scores of brittle legs. He swabbed it, then took a moment to admire its disconcertingly unique appearance. Was it aquatic, or had it thrived in forested environments lost hundreds of millenia ago? Reluctantly, he moved on.

The place was a Museum, Sparr realized, a repository of long-extinct species. Or were they? From what Brielle had revealed to him, the planet was slowly transitioning from an unimaginably long ice age. Perhaps some of the animals here still thrived. Like the Originals, and the plankton they fed on, the other species were merely out of view. It would take a lifetime of research to determine.

Sparr continued his way along the passageway, stopping to swab a sleek, eyeless animal with fins along its entire length. Next he encountered a skeletal structure which might be an animal, or the home of some micro-organism which had secreted it like coral. A hard-shelled disc-shaped creature seemed all teeth, while a nearly featureless blob was so sticky that Sparr could barely retrieve the DNA strip. At least one fish-like creature had been entombed with a family of parasitic or symbiotic animals attached. Some alcoves held what were obviously animals, some clearly plantlike. Just as many defied categorization. Sparr swabbed them all.

The most cryptic animal was housed at the far end of the corridor. By the time Sparr reached it he had been collecting DNA samples for more than an hour, running short on strips even with the bundle he had grabbed from the Sea Otter’s science alcove. The creature was six sided, with six sharp legs and six multi-jointed arms. Its head, if that’s even what it was, appeared to be little more than a drooping stalk, covered with fine tendrils or hair. The animal’s body shone, reflecting the light from armored, or at least rigid, plates.

“You’re a hexa-crab,” Sparr said softly. He had never seen such an odd creature.

It was time to head back. Sparr was reluctant to use the last of the DNA strips, and in any event he seemed to have reached the end of the Museum. By now the sun would be higher in the sky, making even the sub’s narrow hatch potentially visible to a lucky satellite. He had underestimated the Alliance tech once, nearly getting himself killed in the process. He wouldn’t make the same mistake twice.

Back aboard the Sea Otter, Sparr initiated a dive, set course for Neeva, and programmed a leisurely pace. Along the way he would let the vessel hug the bottom of the sea, as far from satellite and drone imagery as possible. He wasn’t in a hurry, and had plenty of DNA strips to sequence.

The brief visit to the Museum had yielded a jackpot. He had sampled more than enough different species to begin piecing together Kaybe’s pre-Earth genetic heritage. It would far outweigh any previous finding, If he could ever get the data into safe hands.

***

There was a mirror above the sub’s cramped toilet. Sparr stood in front of it, trimming his beard, and trying to decide if he liked what Kaybe had turned him into. He went through the list, talking to himself as he scraped away at his whiskers.

“Pro – I’m in good shape. Con – I’m half covered in scars.” That last part was an exaggeration, but the mirror only showed him from the chest up, and his right shoulder was visibly webbed with scars from the air car crash.

“Pro -,” he continued, “I’ve turned into a pretty good fighter. Con – I had to kill a bunch of people.” In addition to the blood he had spilled in the gladiator arena his first few weeks as a captive, Sparr had also fought and killed bandits, petty criminals, and two waves of assassins. Sometimes he wasn’t sure what bothered him more, the number of men and women whose lives he had taken, or the increasing ease with which he took them. He tried to drive away the uncomfortable thought.

“Pro – I’ve learned an enormous amount about Kaybe. Con – I’m not sure I’ll ever get to share it.” If he wasn’t killed trying to reach the camp, and Calista and Kevin would certainly be trying their best to do so, he could reveal not just what he himself had turned up, but what Brielle had related as well. The Translator had answered most of Sparr’s remaining questions, allowing him to stitch together what he had already learned. The story didn’t disappoint. To be able to share the twin stories of Kaybe’s biological and human history more than justify the tortured year he had spent on the planet.

“Pro – I’ve made love to many women. Con…” Sparr trailed off, looking into his own dark eyes in the mirror. Was there a con, a downside to having enjoyed the company of more sexual partners in the past year than in the five previous? Certainly some of the encounters had stretched the definition of lovemaking. He had been forced at knifepoint to fuck a stranger while others watched, had drug-fueled rough sex as part of a show, and played the role of brute in a priestess’ fantasy. There had been sweeter, more intimate moments as well, but most encounters on Kaybe skirted the hungry, raw edges of sexuality. And he had savored them all. Had that potential always been in him, or had the planet molded his appetites? Sparr allowed himself a smile. Did it matter?

“Destination reached.”

Sparr finished shaving, put aside his self-critique, and went to the command station. He had asked the sub’s autonomous systems to take him to the waters just outside of Neeva, the town nearest the Odysseus camp. After four days he was there.

“Bring up the marine chart.”

The sub complied, displaying the gorgeously detailed map. Sparr zoomed in to his location, ready to plan his final approach. Neeva lay against the foothills of the north-south mountain range. A dozen streams ran through it before combining into a single canyon to the west. It was here that Sparr had been caught by the drones and shot down weeks earlier.

The canyon, with its violent, glacial river, didn’t offer an approach to the camp, but another, gentler river farther up the coastline did. In fact, Sparr was confident the Alliance had chosen the site with access to fresh water in mind. How far upriver the sub could take him was another matter.

“Surface to camera depth.”

The sub rose, as Sparr watched the cameras intently. However, well before they surfaced, the sub’s voice assistant broke in.

“There is an encrypted call, and two data packages waiting.”

“What? Stop, stop surfacing.” Sparr’s skin prickled with suspicion. “What data packages?”

The sub leveled off, twenty meters down. “The first data package is a chart update.”

That made sense. It had been roughly a year since Sparr lived in a world where software updates were an integral part of daily life, but he remembered the routine. Alliance satellites circled the planet, making continuous improvements to the charts. But Sparr had only been underwater for four days. What were the odds that a map update just happened to come along after he commandeered the sub? He chewed on the idea for a minute.

“How big is the chart update?”

“One point one terabyte.”

“And how big is the existing chart package?”

“Seven point three terabytes.”

Something was off. “Can you back up the existing chart before downloading the update?”

“Yes.”

“Okay. Backup and download.”

“Download speeds would be faster at the surface.”

“No!” Alarm jolted Sparr. “Stay submerged.”

Obeying his instructions, the sub stayed at depth while downloading and installing the update. When it was complete, the new chart filled the display.”

“What the fuck!” Sparr laughed. The image presented was still ostensibly Kaybe, but almost all of the details had been stripped. There was no depth information, no latitude or longitude grids, no markers for cities, roads or colonist sites, and no sign of the Odysseus camp. Even the mountain ranges and coastlines were blurred. Calista and Kevin might just as well have written ‘fuck you’ on a blank piece of paper and uploaded it.

“Restore chart from backup,” Sparr said, still chuckling. “What’s the second data package?”

“The remaining package is an eighteen terabyte system software upgrade. Shall I download and install it?”

“Fuck no!” Sparr said. He laughed, but the ploy reminded him how thin his plan was. They knew he was arriving by sub, knew he was coming for them. Even if he was able to navigate the sub upriver, some trap would be waiting. It would be suicide. Sparr would have to find a different plan. As his eyes idly wandered the sub’s interior, one came to him.

Sparr took the sub back an hour south, past the canyons and well away from Neeva. By now evening would be creeping over the Odysseus camp. “Surface,” he instructed the voice assistant. A few minutes later the sub lurched, slapped by the ocean swells.

“Answer the encrypted call.”

It took several minutes before the call went through, before someone answered. When the line finally went active, Sparr was pleased to at last see Calista face to face. He jumped in before she could speak.

“Heyyy Cali,” he said, injecting as much exaggerated fondness into his voice as possible. “Great to see you! And I love, L-O-V-E love the warm reception you arranged for me here on Kaybe.”

Calista’s face was tight. Wherever she was had poor lighting, but he could make out the wall of one of the Alliance prefabricated habitats. She had beaten him back to the camp. “Look, Alain,” she said, her voice tense and low. “You can keep the sub. Fuck, I don’t care. Keep it. But if you come back here you are dead. You have to know that.”

“Aw, dead? Really? I mean, I was getting mixed signals from you, you know? Shooting me into space, sending those assassins, drones, ordering your own sub sunk with me in it… are you breaking up with me?”

“You know what’s happening here Alain, don’t fucking pretend.” Calista shot a glance to one side. Wherever she was, the blonde was afraid of being overheard.

“Yeah, I know.” Sparr was enjoying the act, but wanted to get to the truth. “I met our mutual friend Kevin. Money, Calista, seriously? You sold me out, hijacked my entire mission just to get rich? Gonna live in the beach house with Kevin? Maybe make some demented, murderous babies together?”

“You know this has nothing to do with Kevin,” Calista hissed. “God, you’re arrogant. Georgetown, Johns Hopkins, success on your first mission. You have NO idea what most of us go through. Do you even know that I have family in South Africa?”

Sparr bit back his response. Earth was reeling from hundreds of years of plague and famine. A few countries were slowly pulling themselves up, but others were slipping. South Africa, with a dwindling population and shrinking economy, was barely hanging on.

“And Mineral will get them out for you.”

“Yes, fuck! Do you get it now?”

“What I get, Cali, is that you’re hijacking the data that only my employer can use. What’s Mineral going to do with DNA, sell it to the highest bidder? Hang on until things on Earth really go into the shitter to get a better price? What about everyone else in South Africa, on Earth? Those DNA sequences can mean solutions to plague and famine now!”

When Cali had no reply, Sparr kept going.

“Oh, and you know why I didn’t know you had family in South Africa? Because you never told me! You never shared shit, never opened up to me. And you knew. You fucking knew, Cali! You knew you were going to kill me on day one.”

“No!” Calista snapped. “No, that isn’t true. We put you down in an escape pod. You had shelter and food. You were supposed to stay where you were!”

It was the same phrase that Kevin had used, a self-serving justification for sending Sparr to an unknown fate. He considered arguing further, telling Calista how brutal his first weeks and months had been, how many times he’d come within a whisper of death. It didn’t matter. He had confirmed his suspicions. There was little more to say.

“Well,” Sparr said softly. His anger was already ebbing. “Either way, thanks for the software update. You might want to tell wonder boy thanks from me, too. Oh, and Cali?”

“What?”

“I did like fucking you. All those times leading up to the mission. I won’t lie, it was hot. So hot, in fact, that I’m going to come back and screw you over one more time.”

***

Sparr dove the sub, circled west, then began a long arc back north. His ploy with the software update might buy some time. He had no doubt that the update, if installed, would cripple or compromise the sub. If Calista believed he was planning to install it, she and Kevin might lower their guard. Regardless, he had remained surfaced long enough for the sub’s location to be at least roughly estimated. They would expect Sparr to come from the coast. He wouldn’t oblige them.

While the sub slid through the ocean’s darkest waters, Sparr prepared. In addition to the evacuation suit, the sub contained an emergency kit. He removed the signal beacon, then stuffed the pack with spare food pouches. The gene sequencer just fit into the waterproof case. Sparr had spent much of the voyage sequencing the almost one hundred native Kaybe species he had swabbed at the Museum. They represented a treasure of genetic information far exceeding what Sparr had even imagined just weeks earlier. He was ready.

The chart, after he had restored the real version from backup, was enormously helpful. After scouring the coastline imagery north of the Odysseus camp, Sparr found a marshy area thick with mangrove trees. At sunset the next day he nudged the sub into a grove, secured it, and climbed out.

“Sea Otter,” Sparr grumbled. “I told Calista she should have called you the Seadevil.” He rapped his knuckles against the hull and got on his way.

While the marsh provided a good hiding place for the sub, it was less welcoming to someone on foot. The mud sucked at Sparr’s feet, roots seemed to reach up to trip him, and biting flies quickly found his ankles. Frustratingly, neither of the planet’s moons appeared to light his way. As night deepened, Sparr was left with little choice but to slog blindly through the knots of trees and vines.

His efforts paid dividends. As the marsh thinned, Sparr found a dry stream bed heading inland. It offered scant cover, but he walked along it nonetheless, savoring the even surface. The night came alive around him as startled birds burst from cover, rodents chirped, and the wind tossed wiry grasses. Somewhere to the south Calista and Kevin waited, alongside the rest of the Odysseus crew. Would he find welcome and redemption there, or be imprisoned? Would he even reach them?

Morning found Sparr just as he reached the foothills. Before it grew too light he found cover, made camp, ate, and rested fitfully. A cold rain swept around him, adding another layer of misery. When it passed and evening once again approached, Sparr resumed his journey south. It wouldn’t be long now, he knew. The wide spiral he had taken, first by sub, then by foot, was coming to a close. Sparr scrambled over glacial valleys, scrub forest, and cool glens.

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