This is the Return of Technically Sentient, but under a new name. New adventures with the same motley crue that you’ve been waiting for.
I want to thank Amph for letting me pester him for literal years until he decided to pick this universe back up. I’ve had the pleasure of reading the chapters as they’re forming, and the wonderful old magic is still there.
This new series will be posted On the first of every month. So these chapters are gonna be longboyes, but we figure it’ll be a good way to enjoy his work.We will also be posting these chapters on a delay; our Patrons will be one chapter ahead of everyone else. This first chapter, however, is for everyone to enjoy.
Happy 2021 everybody. We made it.
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Light danced across Amonna’s eyelids, the breaking surf above her scattering the light in a familiar pattern as the sound of waves threatened to lull her back to sleep. It wasn’t an early morning, a late night, or even a rough week. It was just an incredibly slow day.
Like every day, it was just incredibly slow.
The official survey team had dubbed the world EX-277-03, and while all the formal documentation may have borne that eloquent moniker anyone local affectionately referred to it as “The Beach.” An aquatic world with a sparse belt of archipelagos that dotted most of the southern hemisphere, the name was pretty self-explanatory. Anywhere you could walk was either on a beach, or you could see one from there. All the industry took place either near or on the water, and the biggest chunk of GDP was beach related tourism. Hence, “The Beach.” A frontier world, the permanent population for the entire planet was less than a million sentient entities. The climate was temperate in main, and the wildlife was almost ubiquitously benign. A lush world of stunning natural beauty within FTL equivalent of spitting distance to a secondary trade hub, it was well enough known to have a steady stream of visitors without being so built up and investor controlled to have the problems that resort-worlds usually had with crime and inequality.
By almost every measure it was a tropical paradise, but Amonna never quite managed to see it that way. Even if it reminded her of home, she was a Marshall with the Frontier Social Order Service and she wasn’t built to sit on “The Beach” sipping mojitos, getting soft, and watching her bodyfat percentage creep higher and higher into the double digits. She trained for the better part of 5 years in tactical interventions and high-tech surveillance techniques, not writing parking tickets and how to break up rowdy beach parties. She didn’t want atropical, idyllic paradise where she spent most of her time ensuring people had the right kind of fishing license for their yacht and the most exciting part of her job was chasing down teenagers that were breaking curfew! She wanted to do something that mattered! All of this seemed like a bad joke,a big waste of effort. A trained monkey could do her job! All it would need to be able to do is talk, wear a diaper, and maybe hold a pen.
As much as the higher-ups tried to paint it as “fun in the sun” until your pension kicked in, the hard truth was that “The Beach” was really “The Farm.” They sent Marshals who were too close to retirement, too much hassle, or too inept to function in a real team to the farm upstate, the great retirement home in the sky, out to pasture. A white-sand-and-sun litter-box for the aging, the inept, and the scandalous.
. . . and her, apparently.
Her lips pulled back slightly to reveal rows of pointed, serrated teeth. She couldn’t keep the frustration off her face as she ran her fingers through her dorsal mane, pushing the free-floating strands of hair back to billow somewhere other than in her face. Her unkempt hair was a small rebellion against what she saw as an unfair abuse of power. Technically outside of regulation length and style, she was able to get away with it because she knew the system and how to turn it against itself.
Well, she knew a guy who knew the system and how to turn it against itself.
She’d had a medical exemption written up, claiming it was a “culturally significant biological reaction to UV exposure.” Which was . . . sort of true. It was culturally significant that she be in defiance of at least one rule. The irony of her petty rebellion wasn’t lost on her, either. “Stickin’ it to the man” was slightly silly as a Marshal; in the eyes of most people she was a living embodiment of “the man.”
The stark truth of it was that everyone in power must answer to someone, and Amonna had suffered the misfortune of answering to someone during a particularly loud and passionate congress with their secretary. This someone happened to have a wife, and hold a publicly elected office. Amonna was given a written warning in regard to her hair length (and a stern lecture from her desk Sargent about knocking before entering), with the subtle implication that if she didn’t want anything worse to happen to her already crippled career, she’d leave the matter lie.
. . . she hadn’t left the matter lie.
So now she was floating in water that was just warm enough to put her to sleep at any time of day, on a planet where the most intense criminal investigation of the century was triggered by a drunken billionaire falling off his yacht. The poor rich bastard was pulled through the engine by his pet Skaq-Hound, an ugly, smelly, vicious little thing with just enough awareness to find the throttle and pull on it while his owner was drunkenly flailing around in front of the primary hydro-intake. With a suitably chummed person of note, and no sign of a yacht, the local tabloids had been awash with rumors of a ghost ship, a curse, and a sea monster for all of 3 days before they found the Skaq and the missing boat unharmed. Adrift and 180 nautical miles away, but unharmed.
The damn hound had bitten one of the marshals during the search of the vessel, too. He’d needed stitches and shots for a smattering of diseases the thing could be carrying but made out with a commendation for being wounded in the line of duty.
“Amonna . . .”
She felt something poke her foot, and she snapped a single eye open blearily in response. It took a moment for the form of her slightly overweight, slightly past his prime, slightly too friendly, and slightly too nosy co-worker to come into focus. “Hey Don.” Her voice was muted, softened in the way it always was when she spoke underwater. Her vocal cords didn’t actually make a sound, but the micro-scale fluctuations in the muscle tone of her vocal cords were recorded and converted to audible speech by the universal translator fastened snugly to the collar of her wetsuit. The device wasn’t intended for submerged use, but Amonna didn’t care and it was easier than learning and using sign-language or “click-tone.” Little more than high pitched clicks and whistles that translated to a common alphabet, it was slow, outdated, and irritatingly loud.
“You uhh . . . fell asleep again.” Don’s expression was apologetic. His hands were full of various case files. Probably monthly equipment inventory assessment and checkout, parking violations, customs reports, and other sundry bureaucratic flotsam that choked the precinct with mindless busywork. There was an uncomfortable mixture of fear and apprehension, apprehension because ostensibly Amonna was in dereliction of her duty and fear because she was about twice his size and at least three times as mean. Amonna made Don just a bit nervous, and that was probably a normal and healthy response for an herbivore to have to a carnivore.
Don was from Promos, like her and most officers in the sub-aquatic office, but just because they shared a homeworld didn’t mean they were anything alike. Don’s face was elongated, brightly colored, with wide eyes and a resting look of innocent surprise, while Amonna’s head was a blunted wedge crammed full of self-replacing serrated teeth. Clocking in at about 35 kilograms soaking wet, Don weighed about as much as a week’s worth of her lunches and that was including the extra weight he was carrying around his midriff. Face to face on solid ground, she might miss him entirely and he’d be staring at a washboard midriff with more muscle definition than he’d ever had. There was a distinct lack of claws integrated into any aspect of Don’s physiology, and the same could not be said for Amonna. The coal-black razors that capped her every digit perfectly mirrored the light-eating vertical slit of her pupils.
In short, Don was a soft-bodied desk-jockey sprinkle-dusted cupcake-boy, and Amonna was a deep sea predator that was frustrated by the lack of violence in her day to day life. Neither of them considered themselves, or the other, in such hostile terms but it was effectively the truth. There were two evolutionary pathways that lead to sentience on Promos: Chridae and Zylach. Chridae were a social, colorful, bio-luminescent schooling species of bony fish. Zylach were an isolationist, territorial, apex predator species. The early history of the world included almost a quarter of a million years of internecine tribal warfare between the two evolutionary branches, with only the technological advancements of the Chridae and self-limiting tendencies of Zylach keeping one side from annihilating the other. Peace was eventually fostered, the voices of reason and diplomacy triumphing over dark and predatory instinct, but it was very difficult to completely overcome a hundred millennia of basic instincts screaming at you to swim into the shadow of your desk and hold very still so your co-worker won’t find you and tear your throat out.
She angled her head to the side slightly, floating mostly limp through the still waters. “Wasn’t sleeping. Just resting my eyes.” A subtle smile flickered across her face as she nodded at him. “Thanks though.” For all the reasons they had to be resentful, fearful, or otherwise distant, Amonna was rather fond of the diminutive Chridae. He was civil with her, in that distant but warm fashion that made someone a happy acquaintance without all the exhaustion of being a friend. She hoped he regarded her with the same unspoken trust that let them lower their guards around one another. Even if he didn’t, it was a marked improvement over her previous work environment . . .
Don slipped a stack of scriving slates into the tray on the right side of her desk, before swimming off towards his own office space with a courteous dip of his brightly colored head-crest. “Just don’t let Verdock catch you dozing off.”
She adjusted slightly, straightening her posture and glancing over her shoulder.
There was history behind that name. As far as she knew, they were still some of his cases as training material at the academy. Before she’d been transferred here, she thought of him as a living legend. His advisement on the Czar’s Eye case not only picked up on a trail that had been cold for 4 years, but it also lead to the closing of almost 18 other related cases. He was the third man through the door during the FSOS raid that had finally captured Skidlash Barnes, most dangerous cyborg in the Perseus Arm. If the stories were true, he still had fragments of an illegal ballistic detonator wedged in his posterior deltoid from when he saved a Core World Senator Primus from a militant-extremist ambush at a campaign rally.
His reputation painted him in broad strokes as a maverick that didn’t just break the rules, but actually re-wrote the whole game just so he could win. In Amonna’s experience, he was an anal-retentive busybody that spent more time harassing her about paperwork and protocol than anything else. Not even Dolph seemed to get as much crap from him as she did, and Verdock loathed Dolph. Still . . . there was a lingering scent of barely contained malice that hung around him like blood in the water and she had absolutely zero interest in pushing him. She told herself that it wasn’t because she scared him, that it was for the sake of maybe someday getting out of this place but . . . she had to tell that to herself fairly often. Especially whenever they had one on one meetings.
“Yeah . . .” She mumbled, scanning the largely empty office level, just checking to make sure he wasn’t lurking on one of the shadows, watching this entire exchange.
With a renewed energy, she flicked her tail out, pitching her forward and over her desk so she could start sifting through her in-box. There was a copy of the day’s duty sheet buried somewhere among the assorted stacks of unsigned incident reports, week old equipment checkouts, and one worryingly dated request for a patrol through a hadal zone. Drawing a scriving tine from her desk drawer, she picked up one of the slates resting on the top and began to idly trudge her way through the work she needed to have done days ago. Writing was . . . different, underwater. Of course, you could do things digitally, on a tablet or with a terminal, and most of the stuff was digitized at some point along the line but scriving slates were still common use down here.
Water and computers were never good friends, just like salt and metallic components were never good friends. The common, easy to use AI’s that populated so many FSOS branch offices were absent here on EX-277-03, and the seas were the reason. Ions suspended in the water would play merry havoc on the casing of such a thing, corroding them virtually unabated due to their charged skin. If the unit tried to use some kind of hard light to insulate itself, the hard light shell would suck down inordinate amounts of power as they tried to maintain cohesion in frustratingly polar liquid. Maintenance of an AI unit became a constant burden, and it almost required a permanent engineer on staff just to keep a handful running, and that wasn’t even taking into consideration just how much more difficult it was to repair them in a sub-aquatic facility.
Scriving slates, on the other hand, were a simple amalgam of clay, a thin shale sheet, and a frame that could be made of any number of materials to bind the three together. Anything from a fine metal writing tine or a simple blunt claw could be used to engrave them. The top layer of clay was soft, the bottom layer was hard, and the backing was stone. They worked in zero-G, underwater, above water, and just about any place between if you weren’t too rough with them. FSOS liked simple, and it liked reliable, and it liked the fact that you could throw 40 tons of them into the sea mud and dig them up two thousand years later and still read them without much effort. Record keeping is important for any law enforcement agency, and one that spanned as many star systems as the FSOS did was doubly obsessed with keeping a meticulous account of crime, investigation, and punishment.
Amonna’s jaw hung open just a fraction as she pulled fresh water across her gills and through her nostrils, absently forcing herself to breathe while maintaining the stillness of desk-work. The worst part of her time stuck behind an undersea desk was the smell. She could smell everything and everyone down here. Bodies gave off little particles, flakes of flesh still clinging to shed scales, the scent of lavatories being used, the stink of exertion and food lodged between teeth and even the detergents that some used to keep their uniforms clean and algae free. There was occasionally a drunk sleeping it off in the drunk tank, and occasionally she’d pick up the potent whiff of their recently disgorged stomach contents. She didn’t want to notice all these smells but she didn’t get much of a choice about it.
It wasn’t as if it was a failure in design of the structure, bottling it all up – far from it. The place was basically an undersea scaffold with no walls, minimal flooring, and just enough vaguely threatening signage to make an uninvited visit seem distinctly unappealing. Plain, off white-struts had been coated with a corrosion resistant polymers and bolted together in a multi-story cubic frame, and corals had already started to sprout and grow on some of the more sheltered areas. Besides the holding cells and the lift at the drop-off that would take you to the evidence locker, it was about as “open concept” as “open concept” came. The station’s placement at the edge of a particularly deep harbor kept things from getting rattled with the tides or the storms, but for her such calm water was enough to trap various water-born scents for days. She had adjusted to it, in time, silently cursing the quirk of her hunter ancestry all the while. Sometimes it was useful to have acute senses straining to pick up on any sign of potential prey or danger.
When everything smelled like fish-fart and bad breath, it wasn’t.
She wondered if it was as bad for Don, but quietly suspected that it was probably only her and Verdock that had to suffer so much. However, of all the snout wrinkling scents that she usually had to deal with, a new one suddenly came into play. Something rubberized, still off-gassing from an injection mold, with that chemical twang that seemed to stick in the back of her throat. Her ears twitched involuntarily as an ancient part of her hindbrain roused all her sensory apparatus to full attention. The long, fin shaped cups sliced cleanly though the water like daggers as the swiveled and scanned. There wasn’t supposed to be something new down here.
Her head cocked to the side as she continued scratching onto a scriving slate her frankly hazy memory of an uneventful patrol she’d been on two weeks ago. Bubbles . . . bubbles in the water. Struggling? And old predatory tingle crawled up the back of her neck, making little blue photopores kick off along her dorsal fin and tail. Subtle electro-luminescent signals that she wasn’t even aware of that shouted loudly and clearly to any other Zylach with line of sight to her “HEY, SOMETHING’S DYING! WE SHOULD GO HELP IT WITH THAT.”
All of this was, of course, a subconscious reaction. As far as she was concerned, she was just struggling to remember which cruiser she’d taken out on patrol and it was bugging her. “A-4 . . . or was it one of the Delta class . . .” She muttered, absently chewing on the small metal writing spar she clutched between her webbed fingers. She attributed the anxious, nervous energy to having spent too long putting off paperwork, and her own short attention span trying to distract her from the unpleasantness of sorting it all out now. She took her thumb and smoothed flat some of the clay she’d excised, starting again. “Patrol completed without notable event. Cruiser D-4 returned, cleaned, and re-fueled as per standard protocol without notable event.”
“Good enough.” She muttered to herself, setting down the last of her reports, that strange buzz at the back of her head getting stronger now. The last thing in her inbox was a copy of the day’s duty sheet, along with where she’d need to patrol or specific training or briefing she’d need to catch up on. She scanned it, before letting out a string of expletives as her eyes went wide.
“Gotta be kidding me . . .” Darren mumbled to himself, cranking down on valve running from his oxygen tank to his helmet. His words echoed loudly inside the fishbowl-like helmet he was wearing. “Never simple, never easy.” With every breath out the diaphragm around his neck bulged and a release valve somewhere behind his head bubbled noisily. Every breath in was like sucking wind through a straw. He’d only managed to secure a canister of pure oxygen, not a more specifically tuned mixture, so to prevent himself from going blind, having a seizure, and then drowning . . . he had to manually adjust the pressure inside his helmet. And right now it was pretty much as low as he could safely keep it.
This was, however, only one facet of his present consternation. There was, firstly, the long abiding and dull frustration that comes with being stolen from your home and thrust into a bureaucratic nightmare universe of “government managed program,” but there was also the markedly more intense irritation of having an unreliable co-worker leave you high and dry. Or in this case, wet and getting deeper with every passing second. The third fly in the ointment of his day was the potential for oxygen toxicity and suffocation, which he ranked higher in seriousness than the first two, but a procrastination fueled wikipedia binge and a deft hand were handling that better than he expected. The light of the surface was growing dimmer as he continued to sink into the depths of EX-277-03, squinting to try and make out the submerged building he was hoping to land on top of.
His partner was supposed to meet him at the spaceport, help him clear customs, and get acquainted with his shore-side quarters. Instead he’d been dumped off the shuttle with a carry-on bag, a translator that was on the fritz, and no help in sight. He’d been pulled aside during the routine screening, thank God, and was given decent directions from the officer on hand. Fish looking guy that went by Dolph. Very shiny, lots of muscle for an alien, and generally a good sport about it all. He’d have to thank him at some point for it.
With Dolph’s help, he’d made it to a secure FSOS dock where they had amphibious cruisers. It was barely a stone’s throw from the spaceport, a 5-minute cab ride that he’d thrown what was probably too much money at the driver for. His voyage through the seemingly abandoned automated marina might make for a compelling point and click adventure, or an excellent lesson in how not to secure potentially dangerous equipment from individuals that only have marginal reason to be someplace, but by the end of it he’d secured a wetsuit that mostly fit him, a helmet that seemed pretty watertight, and the better part of a self-contained breathing apparatus.
With nowhere else to go and no directions other than “it’s underwater” he took the plunge and was now trying to balance his O2 pressure as the depth gauge on his wrist pinged softly for every 10 feet he dropped. Spotting the building was easy, because it looked like a skeletal office building. The blocky, utilitarian lines of a government facility tended to stand stark against the otherwise pristine form of tropical paradise. Getting there, as he realized it was probably the better part of a kilometer swim, was going to be a pain in the ass.
So with the same dogged determination that had seen him through the past 2 years of his absolute horse-shit existence, he started swimming. Swimming, and thinking about all the bizarre turns his life had taken between here and a forlorn highway somewhere in
About 2 years ago he’d been questionably sober and pissing off the soft shoulder of a lonely interstate highway between Chicago and New York in the dead of winter. It was cold, he had work waiting for him, and he had most of his meager possessions with him in the back of a station wagon that had seen better decades. About one year, three hundred and sixty four days, twenty three hours, fifty nine minutes and 30 seconds ago, he was on board an automated survey probe with instructions to collect local fauna for assessment.
Between the bright lights, the booming voice, the unknowable sensation of being spontaneously ripped from the mortal plane and cast into some abstract dreamscape, he thought he’d gone to meet God with his dick in his hand. As it turned out, “God” was just an AI probe having a minor malfunction, and the abstract dreamscape was a complex cognitive function assessment. Apparently, he passed, dick still in hand, and was shuttled off towards a neighboring trade hub along with a cat, the back half of a cow, and three tons of gravel.
As he was later informed by a disingenuously apologetic artificial adjutant, none of that was supposed to happen. The energy expenditure to get him from “Dirt,” as she’d called it for the duration of their meeting, to where he wound up was simply staggering. His world was a planetary backwater, a place that the regional government was vaguely aware of but never really interested in contacting. It had been a “stretch goal” of three consecutive administrations to finally scout and establish contact with the life on “Dirt,” but it never really managed to fit into the budget and it never seemed to really compel any of the primary voting blocs so it just sort of kicked five or ten years down the road.
For about six hundred years.
It was a lot of words to say, “We didn’t mean to pick you up when we did and taking you back would be an expensive and arduous endeavor that no one really wants to undertake.”
When Darren had judiciously pointed out that he, in fact,was rather keen to begin such an undertaking, she revised her summary slightly. “-no one of note really wants to undertake.”
It was at this point Darren decided that the best thing about AI was the fact that, unlike a normal computer, they could be made to feel pain and regret.
That particular bit of business was a story all its own, but with the unexpected outcome of him being seconded to the Frontier Social Order Service instead of thrown in jail cell (which by all account he’d earned.) As surprising as he found it, the consensus among the arresting officers was that the best place in the galaxy for a short tempered, physically robust, and “low IQ” individual such as himself was in law enforcement.
Frankly, it felt like fate had just sort of shrugged for those two days and passed them off to an intern.
In the days that followed, Darren discovered that Humans were a bit of an oddity when it came to life in the wider galaxy. Every bit of science fiction Darren had consumed had prepared him to be weaker, or smaller, or maybe just friendlier than alien life. Even in the long shot works, where humanity was placed on even footing with aliens, they always fell towards the middle of the spectrum. If humanity was a military force, it was never the biggest or the smallest. If they had technology that was comparable to other races, it was never the most advanced or the least advanced. Even when it came to general attractiveness, there was always a “hot” alien race and an “ugly” alien race that humanity fell somewhere between.
Darren had often heard the expression, “Life imitates art.” It was his opinion that, if that was truly the case, life had clearly not bothered to look in any human curated galleries and was doing a really shitty job of imitating the things it had found. To start with, aliens seemed to come in 3 basic shapes: tall and thin, short and wide, or short and thin. The only problem was that “tall” meant somewhere about his shoulder, “wide” meant about human sized, and “thin” meant basically skin and bone. He’d been through crowds as bizarrely diverse as a bad acid trip, cluttered spaces of squawking bird-men and hissing lizard-folk parting like the Red Sea in front of him as he did his best not to accidentally plow through some one because, as he discovered during his first encounter with law enforcement, nearly every other species took to getting knocked down like they were all 90 year old women with osteoporosis and no Life-Alert(tm).
Lots of broken bones, and none of them his.
Of course, as much as it was an absolute power trip to find out that you are the biggest, toughest hombre in any given room, there was also the rather humbling realization that you were also probably the biggest moron in any given room outside the padded ones painted in bright, non-toxic colors. Understanding orbital mechanics was about as important out in the wider galaxy as knowing “red means stop” back home, and with a mathematics education that could best be described as spotty Darren found himself the butt of several jokes regarding his intelligence. The fact that the “Cognitive Capacity Assessment” had been performed on him while slightly buzzed and with his pants around his knees probably didn’t help his case. Regardless of the test scores, he insisted that a lack of education didn’t constitute a lack of intelligence, but when a small child began writing out and calculating just how much energy it would take to transport him back to Earth on his coloring page . . . he took it as a sign to shut up and go for strong silent type, rather than village idiot.
Huge, (relatively) dumb, and enrolled in the equivalent of the police academy, Darren’s life had gotten markedly better once he’d settled into a routine of light exercise, classes on how not to get shot during a traffic stop, and what drugs did what things to what aliens. He was loathe to admit it, but it was actually pretty exciting. It was shaking out to be a challenging, and worthwhile career shift for him. He found that he suited the role of imposing enforcer of law quite well, and there was a certain respect he began to enjoy among his peers for the amount of stun rounds he could take to the ass without flinching during the Less-Lethal training section.
Then he found out it was all just a publicity stunt about how a back-water savage could be made into a noble paragon of order and justice after brutally assaulting 4 officers during first contact. He was getting pushed out the door to a junior position on a planet that they threw fuckups and retirees at because there was nothing to do and nothing to fuck up.
At the time, he couldn’t have been happier about the news. Government pension? Bulletproof job security? Zero-risk posting? Medical, dental, and paid paternity leave? He was pretty sure he’d never need that last bit on account of him being the only living human out and about in the wider galactic community but talk about falling ass first into a dream career . . .
Then he found out it was an ocean-world. Initially hoping for a beach bungalow and maybe some island sweeping duties, the rude truth of it was going to involve a lot of fish smells, and a lot of canned air. Upside of being the diversity hire? You’re hired on the merits of how diverse you are from the other employees. Downside of being the diversity hire? You’re going to be a lot different from the other employees. Darren just didn’t expect the difference would be something like “has to breathe air.”
He took another deep breath and adjusted his O2 flow even lower again to compensate for the increasing depth. The pressure gauge read .2 bar, which was pretty close to the normal partial pressure for oxygen in an Earth-like atmosphere. Maybe a little low, but not enough to matter. He might not know much about Orbital mechanics, but he was smart enough to tune his own breathing equipment. His swim for the structure had turned into more a float, as he’d accidentally found himself caught in a current. “Tide must be shifting,” he muttered to no one in particular, his voice echoing inside his helmet with an almost tinny quality.
It was so gradual he almost didn’t notice it happening, but the undersea FSOS station was no longer getting closer . . . it was starting to slide sideways. And . . . quickly. Seeking to correct the situation, Darren’s drift became a lazy paddle, and after 30 seconds of lazy paddling, he had the sense to look down. This errant glance did three things. One, it caused him to realize that his direction of travel was the opposite of the direction he was swimming. Two, it forced him to register just how frighteningly close the edge of the continental shelf he was. Three, it saved his life.
His lazy paddle became a powerful and purposeful stroke as he tried to fight the current dragging him towards the undersea cliff. With no flotation device, no backup oxygen, and nobody that knew where he was, getting sucked out into deep water here would be practically a death sentence. The only thing that kept it from being literally a death sentence is there wouldn’t be no way for anyone to confirm that he’d actually died. Which was sort of the purpose of a death sentence, after all, he reasoned to himself. The strange, flippant observation in the face of rising alarm and life-threatening peril certainly wasn’t helpful, but it was better than just panicking and flailing around until he was exhausted and out of air.
His equipment setup was all wrong for open water, he realized. He didn’t have fins, a buoyancy compensator, a compass . . . he didn’t even have anyone that knew he was in the water. “Ohhh . . . this was really stupid and I’m just now realizing how stupid it was . . .” He muttered quietly to himself, using the words to block out the mental picture that was forming of his blue lips and bloodshot eyes slowly slipping into the stygian depths, gasping for air inside a slowly cracking helmet about to implode from the change in pressure.
Definitely not imagining his painful death in the crushing frozen depths of the ocean as he suffocated.
He wasn’t a weak swimmer by any measure, but he’d never tried to swim in open water before, not like this. The current was too strong, too fast, there was no way he could overcome it. Even if he’d strapped fins on right now he wasn’t going to be able to outswim it. His breathing was getting faster, and his heart rate was starting to climb. It was becoming difficult to draw full breaths, the pressure on his chest increasing steadily as the depth increased. The only reason he didn’t have nitrogen narcosis now was because he wasn’t using mixed air.
“Small mercies,” he muttered darkly. “Might take the edge off the whole situation a bit though.”
A brightly colored yellow fish floated past him, heading towards the shore. “Makes it look easy, the bastard.” Darren scowled at the tiny mote of color as it limply coasted forward and away from him-
Limply coasted? Shouldn’t it be frantically swimming? Or at least doing something to fight the current? Darren stopped thrashing his way through the water, and his backwards rate of travel increased by a dismally insignificant amount. He stared at the rapidly disappearing fish, which was regarding him with one huge, dull, glassy eye, presenting a broad, almost guitar pick shaped profile towards him. Its pectoral fins waved once, lazily, to let it slowly rotate in place to watch him go.
“You little shit.” Darren huffed. Clumsy scooping motions helped him pivot sideways, and once his angle of attack had been adjusted properly, he started swimming in earnest perpendicular to the current. Within 30 seconds he was out of it. Further from his destination than when he started, but no longer being sucked out to sea. “Smarmy little . . . saved my ass.” He shook his fist at the sun-colored chordate, which continued to regard him with its vacant, unblinking eye.
With a grim sigh that only he could hear, he started his swim in towards the station. Again. More carefully this time.
“Shit-shit-shit-shit-” Like a torpedo of muscle and cartilage, Amonna’s form cut through the water with frightening and predatory speed, leaving drifting clouds of kicked-up office supplies and discarded sundries in her wake. She powered through the offices, darting out the side of the structure into open waters and aiming her streamlined body for the surface. “Nobody told me I was supposed to go get the new guy from the spaceport, just tossed it into the overflowing pile of busywork on my desk and expected-” Her sub-vocalized gripes caught in her throat as something glinted out over the continental drop off. Her higher thoughts stuttered as the ancient hind-brain that had been nagging at her for the past 10 minutes leapt up, grabbed her by the nose, and pointed her head at the source while her subconscious screamed “LOOK THAT WAY. PREY.”
Mentally, she blinked once, the shape too distant and too wrong to be any kind of prey the ancient parts of her would recognize, but not so distant and wrong as to be entirely unidentifiable. “Is that . . .” She began powering through the water again, the pouches and buckles and equipment on her duty belt making tiny vibrations that only her ears would be able to pick up. The lone figure, which she now recognized as clearly a bipedal figure, poorly struggling through the water in little more than a rescue-breathing harness and a badly fitted wetsuit.
She swam in closer, tearing through the water like a dart before sharply cutting down, and then back up again in front of . . .
“Are you Darren Dirt?” Her translator crackled in a guttural tongue that sounded brutish and thick as she took in the familiar sight of safety equipment that she’d never needed, and the unfamiliar face of a variety of alien she’d never met.
She could hear the powerful thump of their heartbeat in the water, and she could feel the light tingle of a straining muscular system across her ampullae of Lorenzini. Taking it in from toe to head, they had rubberized boots for sifting through coral beds, a stiff limbed suit that was meant for water at least 15 degrees colder, a bottle of pure Oxygen with an emergency reflector stripe fastened to their chest with what looked like a civilian issue belt, and a bubble helmet that had no business being pulled on over a wetsuit. Honestly, it was a miracle they hadn’t inverted themself, because the neck gasket probably would have failed at anything deeper than 10 feet and the fishbowl construction would have lived up to its namesake.
More than the terrible equipment it had on, or the hunting drive of her hind brain, what caught her attention was that whatever this thing was . . . was big. Like, too big. She had more length from tailfin to shoulder, but it had more width, thickness, and mass. The way it struggled to stay buoyant, kicking up continually even though they had a bubble helmet and a bottle of oxygen on meant it was dense. The hunting drive in her hindbrain shifted from hunt mode to warily observe mode as it started to speak again. That same, guttural, rough tongue reverberated through the helmet, muffling and blending the syllables into a sort of dull grumbling, before the translator module on her collar kicked in. “Stone. Darren Stone. Copulate with this translator module . . . it incorrectly conveys my meaning with great frequency. The AI unit that registered my secondary nominative attribute elected to use my place of origin in place of the Clan-Title that I held.”
She watched its mouth move, catching sight of two rows of square teeth. There were little points catching on the sides, and as if noticing her attention, pulled its lips back in what was either a threat display, or a demonstration of health and strength. No gaps, no chips, no rot. Pink, healthy, clean, sharp. She could see the broad, square grinding teeth of its rear jaw when its mouth opened wider in its speech, and it was plain to see that even though they were grinding teeth, they interlocked neatly with their siblings lodged in its upper palate. Grinding teeth that could also shear, meaning both plant and animal matter were a part of its ancestral diet. Probably not an apex predator . . . but then again, on certain planets, even apex predators were opportunistic herbivores when the calories were there. The front teeth were square, incisor rather than canine. Scrapers rather than shearers. Scavenger origin? Omnivore, scavenger, but with far too much muscle to be just a scavenger . . .
All of this clicked through her mind in the first few moments of it speaking, and she waited for it to finish its introduction before somewhat abashedly making her own. “Amonna. Officer 21154-25. I’m . . . sorry. Duty sheet says I was supposed to meet you at the spaceport. I was on my way when I spotted you drifting.” Her ears pulled back and down, to make her appear slightly smaller. She had no idea if the display of deference was working, but the way its jawline tensed seemed to indicate they were receiving the news less than favorably.
“I observe these circumstances.”
Its translator was more than a little stiff, and they had stopped the threat/fitness display entirely. The rigid and overly formal translations probably meant the heuristic language model was still refining itself, leading Amonna to believe that whatever species this thing was, there weren’t a lot of them kicking around in the galactic community. She closely examined what she could see of its bare form, which was really nothing more than its head. The brow was heavy, and slightly sloped instead of rounded. The orbits of its small, almond shaped eyes were also a very robust in formation, with a prominent nose and wide jaw, the whole creature practically dripped “high gravity.” Well, everything but the sheer size of it.
It began swimming again, seeking to circle past her, with that same painfully slow, ungainly, and inefficient flail of the arms and legs that almost all land bipeds that found themselves in water had to resort to. “You, partially, exist at a state of lower fixed pressure than your surroundings, Amonna.”
“What?” Amonna’s brow furrowed, as she was left completely at a loss regarding its sentiments.
“Translation inadequate. Idiomatic approximation subroutine active.” Its older, bulkier model gurgled in a clearly synthesized diagnostic tone before beeping softly as it struggled to produce an equivalent to the sentiment Darren was attempting to express.
With a dull, clicking sound and a soft whirr, the device completed its calculations just as Darren came even with her. “Approximation complete. You kinda suck, Amonna.”
A scowl flashed across her face, but then softened. As much as she hated to admit it, she did really drop the ball on things today. “Hey, wait! Why didn’t you just wait at the starport? I was on my way to pick you up and get you situated . . . and how did you even get out here? That suit came out of the motor pool safety equipment, which is-” She gestured towards the dark outline of the largely automated marina floating a few hundred meters off from the station at the surface. “-way over there, and you haven’t even been logged into the system yet so-”
Darren turned slowly, a slightly bemused expression crossing its face. “Your analysis also relies on the assumption that I, in fact, do not also kinda suck.” It flashed its teeth again, and Amonna was still uncertain if that was a good sign or a bad one. “Well, if your function is to situate me in my assigned roll, in my assigned duties, with my assigned equipment, and in my assigned residence, please lead on. As a private aside, I recommend patience, as I am markedly slower in water than you are.”