Back in Sol Again: Part 2



Having recovered from his temporary madness and properly cleaned the multitude of messes he’d made, Simon finally returned Homer’s engineering compartment to work. It was only one section of the otherwise half-ship level, but arguably the most important. From here, the engines could be commanded and troubleshooted, repaired and maintained. From only a few, lone consoles, Simon or another engineer could diagnose and locate problems, shut down the engines, or even override their Bridge connections. That was the last thing in the galaxy Simon wanted to do, but it was possible.

Like so many other things aboard Homer, Simon knew the engines inside and out. Even if he hadn’t designed them, he would’ve committed their every schematic and component to memory. Partially, he was dedicated, but also partially, he was paranoid to occasional nervous breakdown. Not usually. It just happened sometimes.

Then again, nothing about Homer, its mission, or its design was usual. Simon might’ve relaxed more had he not designed so much of it. Given his propensity for making an ass of himself though, he preferred safety to regret. As a result, he kept Homer monitored, obsessively and thoroughly.

The ship itself was flawless though; the culmination of several years of work for all involved, and a century of Solsian rocketry R&D. More than that, Homer was the first Solsian ship to fly between solar systems without requiring generations of cryo-sleep or eons between departure and destination. Mostly, it did this via a new drive that folded space for interstellar jumps.

From there, its plasma sub-light engines engaged, and within hours or days, transferred it across the target systems. The jump drives, also know as Fold-Drives of F-Drives, were as much magic and voodoo to Simon as his sub-light plaz-drives to laymen. Unlike most laymen however, he didn’t mind. As big as his brain proved to be at times, and as small as his mouth made it seem others, he didn’t care to understand the infinitely complex mathematics of multi-dimensional physics.

So far, that mentality had served him well. First, from his birth to doctoral work on Earth. Then, to his irreplaceable position as head of the ISC’s Plasma Propulsion lab. Now, to his place aboard Homer that represented the summation of the aforementioned.

Only a few years ago, Simon discovered how depraved the allure of Deep-Space colonization could make certain parties. Even as he sat before his main console, currently arranged for Human use, he recalled Josie’s gratified purr at being rescued. The rescue, and the foiling of the anti-Humanist forces involved, had afforded Simon a momentary fame. It had since faded to obscurity but not before giving him all the command he’d ever want or need over his career.

Simon didn’t mind the fading. He’d never been one for crowds or being ogled by them. All he cared about, really, was his work and his little hemisphere of the universe containing it.

Currently, that hemisphere was headed toward Proxima Centauri B on-rendezvous with an outpost deployed some months before. There, they would stop for a short time, activate the outpost, disgorge some scientist-passengers, then scan and map PCb’s surface. After their layover, they would continue onward toward Gliese 876 to scan its exoplanets, then activate another research outpost before continuing on.

Had it not been for the events initially affording Simon his fame, he might never have mustered the courage to go so far from Sol. Then again, he was never certain he would go until he’d boarded the ship andmade their first jump, leaving Earth, Sol, and everything else he knew far behind. Hestill wasn’t certain he’d done it.

Though he’d never know or admit it himself, his decision to go was cemented on discovering Lina was attending. Niala’s decision to go put him on the fence, and though his best friend outside Rearden, even their attachment hadn’t been enough to drag him from the safety Phobos and the ISC.

But Lina’s decision coupled with Niala’s, and the minor hint of pride at his hand in the ship’s design, and eventually convinced him to go. Only after the F-Drive charged and deposited them outside Sol, did he realize he’d made the decision without being a party to it.

Yet, in spite of everything, he still found himself hopeful. He washeaded for PCb, monitoring the sub-light engines, and reflecting on his idiocy in the break-room and its meaninglessness in the scheme of things.

Before delving too deep, Donnelly patted his shoulder, drawing his head to the side.

“Bit manic-depressive today?”


He realized the apparent shift in his mood again and managed a chuckle. In truth he’d remained quite giddy. At some point in the near future, he and Lina would be alone together. He had no designs beyond that, but he wouldn’t lie about his hopes.

Donnelly heard the chuckle, “I’ll take t’mean yer a hundred percent.”

Before he could answer, an alert sounded on the console. Readouts from instrumentation and the code of ship’s systems scrolled past. Beside them, a bit of comm software flashed. Simon finagled the touch-screen and a fierce-looking lizard appeared.

Captain Ingstrom was one of the few Leaf-tailed Geckos left in the universe. He had granite-colored eyes with slit pupils that stared through someone as if they were insubstantial, mist-like. To Ingstrom, they might very well have been.

“Contact,” had accelerated the growth of the latent, Humanoid genes in species bearing them, not all reacted the same to the process– or even well. Some, like the Chameleons (MeLons), gained the ability to completely transform their appearance in an extension of their previous, appearance-changing abilities. Others gained more subtle advantages, some were left entirely unaffected. An unfortunate few though, like the Leaf-tails, had absolutely withered.

Contact had effected not only those benevolent, latent genes, in some species, but others best left alone as well. In response, some species became outright pariahs among the diverse, Solsian life due tovarious defects or adaptations. Others, and Ingstrom’s people, became irreversibly sterile.

The inability for Geckos to carry or bear offspring was the result of a poor, genetic mutation that might well have disappeared from their DNA given a few dozen more generations of natural selection. Contact came with the latent gene still present in nearly every Gecko subspecies and individual therein.

For a species not known to last much more than a decade or two, the Geckos’ numbers quickly dwindled. Even the fables of the odd, fertile individuals were almost entirely vanished now, lending credence that Ingstrom was one of the last of a sad, remainingfew. Like him, it was assumed they’d given up hope of ever changing that.

All of these things meant Ingstrom was an unhappy creature. His species was dying off and he knew it, and he never let anyone else forget. So when his face appeared on-screen, it was only due to this sentiment beneath his bitterness that Simon didn’t lapse into manic-depression. Even Donnelly found it difficult to avoid. To both men’s credit, anyone would have.

“We’ve entered the Proxima Centauri system and are currently en-route to PCb. ETA is twenty minutes to Geosynchronus orbit and R-V with Oribital platform Alpha-One. Keep your asses glued to those chairs and your eyes on your readings. Inform me the second anything changes.”

Simon acknowledged with a reply, carefully containing what joyremained in him for fear Ingstrom might do his best to rip it out with the least effort possible.For the next while, he did as instructed remained focused. He kept his eyes glued to his readouts on the large touchscreen.

There, an electronic masterpiece was continually laid out by a master from the thousand sensors, cameras, mercury switches, and other minutiae ship-board. It worked in tandem, as one entity, producing the most ethereal scene the universe could: a star-system.

Proxima Centauri was magnificent. It was a system not unlike his, but entirely new, foreign. He knew of every bit and piece of Sol’s noises, its composition. Although he recognized the information fed to him from the panel, he didn’t know it. Not like he knew Sol.

But Neither did anyone else, and that was the important part. He was the first one seeing this system in such detail. The first one watching the stellar winds shift. The first one charting the dips and spikes of the cosmic rays, the planetary approaches and their micro-asteroids and surface refuse.

Somewhere inside of Simon there had always been a little boy staring at stars, thinking of Mars and Phobos, its rich history. Within that little boy, was the dream of something even bigger, more distant. Outside them both, now, it was here. There was no containing his giddiness.

When the ship finally docked at the outpost above PCb, it took all of Simon’s strength not to sprint to the airlock and into his space-suit. Somehow, he managed to stand, fidgeting, at a setof outer-airlock doors with Niala beside him.

The pair carefully fitted their tailored space-suits; the body-hugging cloth, like a neoprene wet-suit, was airtight and warm. Small, copper lines ran through it in scores and grids, a small pack stitched to the back thatpiped fluids through an electric heating and cooling unit.

The envirosuits were as useful for volcanology as for EVAs, with about as much research in them as the F-Drive. They were as near to perfect as Earth-descended creatures could attain, their only issue that they required tailoring. If one attempted to use another’s suit, it left them feeling too constricted, or as if floating, not the best idea in the cold vacuum of space.

The helmets were another story. Like the suits, they could be used for multiple purposes, and often were. However, they were interchangeable between members of the same species. Simon thought about this as he locked his bubble-faced helmet on and fitted his small O2 tank. They wouldn’t be needing much air now, he hoped. Then again, he’d never hoped to go to Ganymede, or foil an anti-Humanist conspiracy either, but that happened too.

He found himself standing in the airlock beside Niala. The gourd-shaped Rearden beside them. The bot was as much a friend as an automaton could be, but it was also insurance. The outposts had been deployed ahead of Homer and assembled by service bots. Those bots, many not dissimilar from Rearden, were now dormant and awaiting re-activation to sweeping and monitor the outpost. Among other things, Rearden could facilitate that.

The lights in the airlock flashed red and white over distant mechanics, then idled at red. The sealed, outpost doors parted to utter darkness. Rearden’s flexible optic-sensor flared with an LED to illuminate a second, un-powered airlock. Niala muscled a switch beside the doors and manually forced them apart, then space-walked in after the others and sealed them shut. The process was repeated on the inner-doors to grant access to the narrow passage beyond.

Slow, magnetic steps, carried them forward. Control was dead-ahead. Niala and Rearden could activate everything there, but first Simon needed activate the hydrogen power-plant in the station’s bowels. Only then could the other systems be activated.

Midway down the hall, the last of Simon’s excitement was replaced by fear of the eerily empty station. He veered left to a flight of stairs whilethe others continued forward, Rearden’s light silhouetting their progress. Simon took a deep breath, switched on his helmet and shoulder lamps, and started downward.

Flood-lit brilliance from his suit’s lighting all but erased the darkness, but could do nothing for the eerieness. He took the steps slowly. Several floors below, they let out in a small foyer before continuing downward. A few paces forward, another set of sealed doors waited to part down their middle. He reached them, hesitated.

Niala’s voice sounded in his ear, “At control. Awaiting your signal.”

“Give me a minute,” he said, trying to force the doors apart. He grunted and strained over the comm, as obviously trying to pry the doors manually as could be possible.

“Forget the keycard?” Niala snarked.

He found himself glad the Lioness wasn’t there to double over in laughter again. The urge to sever an oxy-line would’ve been too great.

He sighed, “Card. Right.”

A deliberate silence signaled a dead comm. He felt her laugh seven floors overhead and yanked the plastic chain from his waist to slot the card. The battery powered door-lock flickered, a light flashed, and the doors began to part.

More safe-guard then anything, the locks and hydrogen batteries were used on certain, vital areas to discourage outside tampering before station-activation. Simon still wasn’t sure who it was protecting the areas against, but given the hydrogen-plant’s destructive capabilities, and the control room’s general opportunities for mischief, it made sense to err on the cautious side.

The doors opened to a realm of darkness. His light just barely fell over and past giant, encapsulated generators, panels of old-fashioned lever-switches, and deactivated touch-screen consoles. Near the center of the room, he knew, a combination keycard-lever panel would ignite the plant.

He headed over in slow motion, surveying the bus-sized generators and water-vats, and the multiple-man-sized panels of levers and knobs. The vats’ verticalty made him feel small, but he batted it away; the plant served a dual purpose and was required to be immense. By harnessing the hydrogen-plant’s H2O output, the station could create, reclaim, and purify water as well as generate power. Apart from food, the station was entirely self-sufficient.

Between two rows of vats were control consoles similar to those aboard Homer. At one edge, specifically, was the panel he sought. Simon put himself before it and radioed to standby. He slid the keycard through the slot, let the light change, then began the power up sequence:

A few gray switches were thrown. A vibration like someone in the distance driving a jackhammer into a steel sounded. A pair of yellow levers were thrown, gave way to a twisted knob that turned like a key. Industrial ignitions ground to life. The vibration was more jarring; a giant, jack-hammering nearby, with an equally giant jack-hammer. Instantly Simon was heavier, stuck in place by his mag-boots and now weighted by artificial gravity.

“Generators running,” Simon said.

“Beginning oxygen production now,” Niala radioed in response.

Moments later, Simon was standing in front of a newly-awakened console, watching the gravity and oxygen numbers rise to green. When it finally reached Earth-normal, Simon radioed Homer.

“Flight, this is EVA-1, we have atmo across the board. Welcome to Proxima Centauri, and outpost Uruk.”

“Roger that, EVA-1. Take some time to let your hair down. We’ll see you soon. Flight out.”

Simon couldn’t help but stand before the console to gawk at yet another electronic masterpiece. Like before, this was different, even moreso than aboard Homer. This was the masterpiece Solsians would be viewing for years to come.

Viewing, and remembering, as long as they existed, as their first foray into interstellar colonization.

Preview: Back in Sol Again

Back in Sol Again

(Coming 8/25/17)

In the far away reaches of space, where no-one can hear you scream, where no Solsian creature has ever braved, is one man. Alone. On a ship. With a few thousand others. Like, a massive ship. With lots of supplies. So, really, he’s not all that alone. But he is headed somewhere– maybe.

Dr. Simon Corben is back with his universe of absurdity. With him, as always, is Doctor/Matriarch Niala Martin; a Lioness as gritty as sand-paper and wittier than Twain. (Or so she’d like to think.) The pair find themselves again helming adventure as their ship, Homer, space-jumps through the unknown to scan Earth-like exoplanets in hopes of finding something. What? Anything, really, but it’s only a matter of time.

Before long, that anything attracts separatist Solsians desperate to prove backward ideals. Will those deadly ideals prove more powerful? Or will Simon, Niala, and the others thwart them with the Solsian virtues of justice, patience, and dumb luck? Find out here, August 25th, in Back In Sol Again!

From Chapter 1; Live and Learn… or Not

Presently Simon, like all infatuated creatures– for indeed both cause and effect appear pandemic to the known universe, if not always connected– was about to make a complete and utter ass of himself. How? By doing that most usual of all things; opening his mouth.

Admittedly, he did not compound the situation by speaking, and thus saved himself some hardship. But ultimately, he could not escape the fated stringhe’d sewn himself.

His mouth slacked; opened, as if an occupied bathroom’s unlatched door on a draft. Then, driven by absent mindedness and the draft, it eased the rest of the way open until almost fully ajar. There it remained, its embarrassing contents in full-view long enough to be noticed by the Lionness.

And ridiculed without mercy.

Short Story: Fabulous Honeymoon

The expedition of Vladimir Von Kaufer had been planned for months. It was widely known in Vladimir’s Hungarian hometown– a place notorious for spreading small news in big ways. The little village, as it was more apt to call it, consisted of about thirty homes. Each of them was situated in two circles of fifteen that expanded outward from the town-square in its center. The square, in turn, was a circle of a dozen buildings of varying sizes and uses.

The aforementioned represented the entirety of the village. It had a most peculiar name that, though known to residents, rolled so harshly off the tongue they merely called it “The Village” or “Home.” When abroad, and asked where the residents came from, most merely answered “Hungary.” Others parroted “the country,” as if their rural dwelling were the only in existence. For many of them, it might well have been.

The Village was such a melding of old-time living with new-world ways that on first glance, one would be forgiven for thinking it a town of Luddites. Anyone venturing in to visit its shops, or pass by at night would quickly recognize their error. Though the people kept the quaint, homely appearance for their own pleasure, it was as much civilized as any other place. Indeed, in some ways, more-so.

Thus, Von Kaufer’s expedition was bound to attract some measure of renown as soon as it escaped his lips. He made preparations for days, planning the best route to and through the cavern he would traverse. He hired on neighbors and friends to follow him in, promised a share of credit and loot if found.

Legend had it that long ago a gypsy caravan had run off with an entire estate after its owners had disappeared. Before the estate of the wealthy couple could be auctioned off, or passed to kin, the gypsies had raided it. So the legend went that all they left behind were the brick-walls and cobwebs. The caravan fled authorities, fearing discovery, and hid their boon for later recovery in the cavern.

It was said however, that the gypsy caravan had never been able to return. Over a decade, all manner of ills befell them until only one family-member remained. The old man, even more ancient than he’d been when liberating the possessions, could find no-one to follow him. He was said to have died a vagrant’s death steps from the mouth of the cavern where his boon lay hidden. The unmarked grave in The Village’s churchyard lent credence to at least some of these facts.

It was with this in mind that Vladimir Von Kaufer set about his planning. The cave had claimed many through its treacherous obstacles. No matter how far similar expeditions had made it inside, the cavern’s end seemed ever beyond reach. Some expeditions, ill-provisioned for the trek, had even returned unharmed and utterly dismayed. Most of their leaders lived in despair of their failure afterward. With their places as laughing-stock in folk-lore, they could never again convince others to follow them to that grisly place.

Von Kaufer however, had the upstanding confidence of all the Village’s people. As soon as the utterance came from his lips, men and women lined up to follow. It was as if his very reputation guaranteed he not return empty-handed. His own determination ensured it.

A week before the expedition was set to begin however, Vladimir fell ill. He was deathly pale, his hands cold and clammy, and his eyes sunken. He looked as though he had lost all the blood from his body. Indeed, his doctors concluded an anemic attack of unknown cause had thinned his blood to dangerous levels. That whole week passed with him in varying states of decay.

Then, for two whole days, Vladimir teetered on the brink of death. With him, the Village held their breath in hopes of his recovery so that he might complete his expedition. It would undoubtedly be the ultimate triumph, especially after so deathly an illness.

He rose from his bed on the second night, once more strong and colorful. Though the coldness of his skin had yet to abate, he assured everyone he would continue the expedition at once. Having already been past schedule by two days, he rounded up his team from their nearby homes, and set forth at-once for the cavern.

He rallied them at the mouth of the cavern before dawn, and plunged for its depths. Aided by head lamps, climbing ropes, harnesses and other miscellanea, they descended with their own weight in rations and water. Vladimir was certain they could not turn back lest they fail and never return. Each person in their own right agreed and loaded themselves amply.

For the first day, there was nothing ominous. They crossed chasms and scaled precipices in single file. When it came time to rest, it was past noon on the surface. The mile of rock between them and the sun cast them in darkness all the same.

The group collectively set down to eat and sleep, doing both with vigor. They awoke hours later with to find their number one less than they’d been before. Vladimir was disappointed. The man must have left, gone in the night so as to not be deterred by his leader or companions. The leader himself seemed to pity him, but rallied the group again and set forth.

Again, more climbing of plateaus, reverse-scaling of precipices and crossing of chasms all with a downward attitude. They neared the furthest point ever traversed, the cavern’s sometimes jagged, claustrophobic passages confirmed the fact. After one, particularly harrowing passage, the cavern opened up, and they took rest for the night.

Nine became seven. Two more had left. A man and a woman. They had previously been enamored with one another, smitten to the point that they must have convinced one another to flee. Nonetheless, the expedition would continue, the shares more robustly divided.

Vladimir led them forward at once, passed scattered skeletons from a lost expedition. The dusty bones and tattered rags of clothing from a past age infected the air with a lingering dread. It lasted until they bedded down again several hours later.

Again they awoke to fewer numbers. Seven became four. Vladimir seemed to halfheartedly dismiss the attitudes of the departed compatriots. All the same, they searched about, finding but one small trace of blood. A drip, only partially dried to brown, was muddled by the dust and dirt-laced floor.

A shudder went among the remaining expedition. Vladimir himself seemed unaffected. Perhaps it was by his cunning or confidence that he inspected the area. He felt around with his finger-less-gloved hands on the walls. Near the drip on a wall he found yet another fleck, evidently at hand height. It seemed someone had leaned against the rather sharp bit of rock too hard before fleeing.

No matter, Vladimir told the others, it was as rational an explanation as any. The other three, remaining comrades felt that so-present dread. Still they packed their sleeping equipment, and ventured forth, led as always by Von Kaufer’s vigor and tenacity.

It was during one of their short breaks that another comrade seemed to make off for nowhere. She had left her pack near the others and gone off to relieve herself. Much like Von Kaufer, she’d isolated herself for a moment, but unlike him, she never returned.

Vladimir spirits finally felt the blow. He had but two comrades left; one male and one female, whom both seemed as determined as he to go forward. Again they started forth, that awful dread afflicting even Vladimir’s seemingly unassailable vitality. When at last they bedded down for the night, Vladimir sank into a kind of depression. Even if by some means the treasure existed, he’d never offset the cost of the expedition by retrieving only one-fifth of the share. That was to say nothing of the lost hope of becoming wealthier off it.

He lie down to rest only to awake and find the last man gone. He, alone with the woman, would continue forward. There was equally as much dread between them now. Some phantom force, it felt, had cursed their expedition and would forever hound them. Still they climbed, descended, leapt and crawled. They knew not when the end of the cavern might come, but forewent sleep to ensure they see it as soon as possible.

It was nearly forty-eight hours after that last man had left Vladimir and the woman alone that they descended into a pit. From the wall they’d started down, they trudged forward. Their limbs and eyes were heavy, but their eyes wide, alert, peeled for anything signaling their boon.

Their headlamps swept the ceiling and walls for ways out of the pit. They found none. It was then that their lights flitted along the floors. Gold sparkles froze them. Their minds were stuck, stunned by what lay before them.

The far-wall was piled with gold and silver. Rubies and Sapphires gleamed in golden cups. Emeralds shined from inlaid fittings in silver cutlery and other tableware. Mounds of coins of gold, silver, even bronze, were scattered in a marvelous painting of riches. Priceless artworks in dusty, wooden frames seemed untouched by the ages. With them were equally earthen-hued trunks and cases which later revealed infinitely more jewelry.

Von Kaufer and the woman, Anika, embraced in excitement and triumph. They even kissed deeply, as though possessed by animal carnation at their success. It was then that Vladimir parted from Anika and stepped back a few paces.

“I must confess,” he said formally. “Five of those eight whom fled are not in the Village.”

Anika’s brow furrowed. She looked about to question him. His face flashed. All of his features became squared and pointed, including his carnivorous teeth. His eyes glowed yellow with fearsome slits and his back became arched as if poised to pounce. He expected Anika to recoil in terror.

Instead, she laughed heartily, “Three of those eight too, are neither home nor yet live.”

Her face took on a similar disposition. Anika’s blue eyes turned ice-cold white. Her back arched too, and her arms and legs became sinuous, her teeth long.

Vladimir laughed too. Their faces reverted, he stepped over and placed a hand in the small of her back, directing her to stand beside him as if his bride. They stared at the pile of riches together, chuckling for a long while.

There and then, Vladimir looked into Anika’s eyes and smiled, “We shall return to the village with as much as we can carry, then come back for the rest, no matter how many trips it takes.”

Anika flashed a deranged, predatory smile, “Then we will take the whole village, and add it to the pile in our home.”

Together they laughed with malice. They parted to begin stuffing their pockets. Vladimir had to admit it wasn’t what he’d expected, but it certainly wasn’t for the worse. His homecoming would only be but an extension of his good fortune. Together, he and Anika would reign, King and Queen, over the Village, as it drowned in blood.

She caught his eye over a mound of gold she sifted, “It will be a fabulous honeymoon.”

Short Story: Ode to Shadows

The ocean is an abyss, more desert than plain or forest teeming with life. The thought is a difficult one for humans to grasp when deserts have become synonymous with arid, barren, wastelands. The ocean is seemingly its antithesis, most would think. In truth, it is but one face of a two-sided coin. Humans have descended little more than six miles in one, lone spot, only to find emptiness, darkness. They have mapped little more than five-percent of this lifeless zone with primitive instruments put to shame by even their lesser-advanced, contemporary achievements.

What they have found (or rather, not) is nothing in comparison to what lies hidden in the deepest, unexplored recesses. In places where neither men nor beast can reach, there dwells a spark of existence known only as Shadows. They are unlike their surface counterparts in uncountably unimaginable ways. They’ve no physical bodies, not as a man could touch or feel; no eyes or ears, nor mouths with which to speak. Instead, they communicate with only thoughts projected between one another. Each Shadow is a floating consciousness with no more aim but to continue floating. Were any man or animal to stumble upon their confines, an intentional, psychic transmission would destroy them. It is not with malice nor anger, but merely an effect of Shadows’ extreme differences.

Had someone known this before NOAA sent down their prized research team, perhaps things would have gone differently. But once more humanity was slighted for their curiosity, blissful ignorance. In time, each researcher was subjected to that pulse of mental power, overwhelmed to death by it.

The team of six arrived at a previously undocumented area of sea-floor. Their mission was to map it and catalog its biome. In their specialized submarine– not unlike a ballistic missile design, but different entirely in its purpose– they laid anchor somewhere in the southern Atlantic. The trough they took residence in was three miles deep, enough to require mixtures of exotic gasses to replace oxygen. Those gases of helium and oxygen were necessary given the dangerous nature of Oxygen at such depths and pressures.

The first day of their two-week stay was uneventful, spent largely in configuring their diving gear to the intense pressure outside. By the second day acting leader of the team, Karen West, had ordered they make their first foray into the deep. Through a moon pool in a central compartment, they plunged into blackness without fear, unaware of what lay beyond their ship’s powerful lighting.

Split into pairs, one third was to head for a geothermal vent to the South. Another was to map the extent of the vent’s radiant heat to the North. It was, by way of deduction, in hopes of creating a mapped radius of a possible live-zone. Such is the sea’s nature that, as the desert’s inverse, heat is the life-giving force in the freezing depths. The final third of the group was to remain in range of the ship, collecting sediment samples to determine the anchorage area’s age and composition.

Instructed as they were, the pairs broke ranks and ventured forth in their enormous pressure-suits like over-inflated astronauts. Indeed, the aquanauts’ steps in the low gravity of the Ocean made the comparison all the more apt. Not even the strongest suits could protect them for what was to come.

It was Donald that first saw the shadows. Though the others wouldn’t come to know that until it was too late. He and his partner, in charge of mapping the radiant heat’s outermost reaches, came upon a Shadow without knowing it. They bounced between their feet in a low-G moonwalk, appeared as great, shuffling, tire-clad men with flood-lights atop their heads.

When something skirted the edge of a light, Donald pursued it. A moment later he was stopped dead. Pressure built in his suit. Screams sliced through his comm. It linked to his partner and the rest of the team. Before they could react, there was a shrieking crescendo. A loud, wet pop! Then, his suit toppled over, face-mask spattered with blood and brain in a viscous carnage.

Karen recalled everyone to the ship at-once. It wasn’t enough. As different as Shadows are, like man they shared an intrinsic trait; curiosity. Donald’s partner barely made to flee before he too screamed, silenced by another, wet pop! Karen and the others were already double-timing it to the ship, hoping its poly-alloy walls would protect them.

If only they’d known what they were up against, perhaps they wouldn’t have been so foolish. But how could they have? The only reason anything is known of their encounter is due to a real-time black-box system linked into their comms and embedded in the submarines controls. The black-box was near-indestructible, only discovered when the submarine’s scheduled rise came. Crew or not, the sub was fated to ascend.

When it appeared at the surface, there were only the vaguest of hints of what had gone wrong. After a quarantine period, its exterior was examined and found to be immaculate. Nothing more could be learned without boarding.

Scattered around the sealed, moon-pool doors, NOAA rescue crews in hazmat gear found their four researchers. Audio of a final, few minutes preceded dead-silent comms that lasted two-straight weeks. After the routine, first day, and the chilling events of Donald’s death, leader Karen and the others’ final moments were discovered.

A mixture of swears and cries bled through the comms. Debates about what might have happened, what to do now. Then, with an almost audible breath, a silence. A thump against the sub’s outer-hull gave way to a collective groan. Someone said something about a nose bleed to Karen. Another thump. Then, two more in succession. A crew-member’s screams terrified someone to tears– or perhaps it was the pain of the slow, further succession of thumps omnipresent against the hull.

Before long, little else was to be heard but cries and thumps. Sounds of four men and women dying grated investigators’ ears, whom listened to the thumps for five full minutes. Then came screams. Like Donald and his partner’s, that apexed in shrill cries.

Then, pop, pop, pop… pop!

The deaths were ruled an accident, but NOAA barred return to the site. If only they’d known the Shadows, like humans, were a global pandemic in the ocean’s deepest recesses, perhaps they’d have never again set foot on a ship. Instead, man continued on unawares. But such is the nature of his ignorance and fragility that he might be at death’s door one day, then sailing the high-seas unbidden the next. Alas, that matters not to the Shadows, for they are eternally patient, curious, and wait only to investigate with a wet, solemn, pop!