Short story: Helix in obsidian
Crossgen orphans were the only ones able to survive and work out in Europa’s freezing oceans, an environment which filtered but didn’t fully block out Jupiter’s radiation.By Greg MellorIllustrated by Jason Solo
“Genes have created an incredible adaptive network. From an early embryo onwards, a set of Hox genes trigger genetic switches around the body that instruct the growth of arms and legs and organs, and ultimately determine our intelligence and social skills. The expression of these forms and features occurs in different ways across the entire animal kingdom, resulting in a rich tapestry of evolved species stretching back a billion years. Humanity is a child of this network. Now it is time we took control.”
– Marcus Marcovic, CEO, EvoDev
“Nature will not forgive us our trespasses.”
– Hanna Menchin, Founder of the AntiGen Movement and author of “Evolutionary Storm”
It was arctic summer, the ice bright, the ocean the colour of forged steel.
Arrluk glanced up, distracted by a beam of sunlight piercing the clouds, a hint of blue beyond. He plunged into the water, finding comfort as his warm skin touched the bitter cold. The deeper he swam, the more he felt at peace in those places where stray sunshine gave way to a more permanent dark.
He waited – longer than any human could endure – his lungs tightening, a hollow rush filling his ears until a familiar dialect of clicks and whistles filtered from the distance. Hulking dorsal-finned shapes emerged, white along their jaws and underbellies with elongated white patches behind intelligent eyes.
A big matriarch loomed in ahead of the others – two tonnes of orca filling Arrluk’s vision. He felt the bow shockwave pushing against his chest, her blunt array of teeth now visible only metres from his face. Time seemed to slow as his senses expanded. The pod’s clicks and whistles changed slightly and, then, with the matriarch nearly upon him, the pressure in the water eased at the last instant. She missed him by centimetres, a rushing wall of black and white, her sentient eye observing as she passed. There was something wary in that look but something playful too.
He reached out – one arm white, one arm black – but she was gone before he could grab her. He tumbled in her wake as the other orcas shot by, churning the water until he spun and bounced between their huge bodies.
The last member of the pod waited for him – a young bull with only one white blotch behind its left eye.
Arrluk let out a series of clicks: Hello, Patch.
Beyond the glow of the habitats, the subterranean ocean was impermeable dark, filled with distant, incoherent sounds and murky images fading in and out at the far edge of Arrluk’s sonar reach.
He swung over the orca’s back and grabbed the dorsal fin. Then Patch took off and Arrluk kicked his long, black legs in synch, the white muscles on his belly working hard, a tight-lipped grin spreading across his black and white face.
Finally, with even his lungs near bursting, Arrluk let out a great gasp of air as Patch broke the surface. He lost his grip, slipped back into the water only to meet another bull orca nudging its nose in to fling Arrluk several metres into the air. Arrluk whooped as he cartwheeled and smacked the water hard with a painful belly flop. And so they continued to play for what seemed like hours.
Eventually Arrluk heard a familiar voice calling above the raucous splashing. He peered through the sea spray and saw his foster father, Drew, standing on the beach, frantically waving his arms. He pointed skywards.
As Arrluk looked up, the sound of engines thrummed the air in long, concussive beats.>A sleek spacecraft descended through the clouds on four spikes of blue flame, its black surface scarred and pitted, an EvoDev logo emblazoned in red on the tail fin.
Throughout his childhood and teen years, Arrluk had often dreamt of the day the corporation would arrive. He couldn’t believe it was happening now and he waved at the craft, unable to contain his excitement.
The craft came closer to the pod. Too close. The water flattened out in the backdraft, frightening the orcas until they dispersed in all directions. A cable was lowered from the craft’s underbelly, at its end a beautiful girl with mottled skin, like a leopard seal.
It took him several seconds to react then he yelped as something stung his neck. He pulled the dart out, looked up into the girl’s hazel eyes, his vision smearing like rain on glass. She grabbed him and the cable started to ascend.
As his limbs turned to jelly, Arrluk spied Drew still standing on the beach, shoulders hunched in guilt. A kaleidoscope of memories swirled: the fear on the faces of his Inuit cousins; the hatred and outrage of the colonial Americans. Drew had sheltered him from all that, but Arrluk had often wondered why his foster father was so stern, why connections between them had never been forged, an emotional void that neither was able to bridge.
Today explained everything. Today was payday and Drew was cashing in on 18 years of raising a patented DNA child.
EvoDev’s Europan training facility was made from several large clusters of spherical habitats anchored to a vast ceiling of turquoise ice. Frigid waters around the facility swirled with unfamiliar tides. Beyond the glow of the habitats, the subterranean ocean was impermeable dark, filled with distant, incoherent sounds and murky images fading in and out at the far edge of Arrluk’s sonar reach.
First up had come corporate orientation, followed by a day of low-g training and then several more exhaustive security sessions for all the teams responsible for guarding EvoDev’s precious Europan assets. Survival training came last. Arrluk learned there were spider-, snake- and radioactive-resistant bacteria genes mixed in with his orca splice. The crossgen orphans were the only ones able to survive and work out in Europa’s freezing oceans, an environment that filtered but didn’t fully block out Jupiter’s radiation.
Mottle-skinned Rozel joked with the others in the mess hall. All carried weapons on their belts with casual confidence, wore their black EvoDev flowgel suits with pride. There was grey-skinned Jake, the pincer-clawed Cray, a dolphin hybrid named Maui, and the other great white shark crossgen, Marketa, a remarkable young woman who was receiving more than casual glances from Jake.
Rozel was incredible too. Arrluk had soon gotten over their first encounter – the tranq dart in his neck to assure his cooperation. She epitomised the signature urgency of this world, a place allowing no room for uncertainty or doubt. You made decisions or you followed orders. You held an opinion or you kept quiet. You wanted to be in a relationship or you didn’t.
Rozel smiled when she saw that he was watching. She left her friends and walked over to join him. “Are you all right?”
Arrluk smiled back. “I’m okay, but I’m still not sleeping well.”
“Give it time,” she said, touching his arm.
“It’s not just the low g. The Europan ocean is so strange.”
She took him by the hand and led him towards the exit.
Jake eyed the two of them closely. “Hey Rozel, where are you taking Orca Boy?”
“Out,” Rozel replied.
“Don’t forget training at 14:00.”
Arrluk nudged Rozel and whispered, “What’s got into him?”
She laughed and in a loud voice said, “Jake’s just peeved he’s met you, Arrluk. Orcas are higher up the predator chain than sharks.”
The rest of the crossgens fell about laughing. Jake leant back in his chair, placed his hands behind his head, and slowly smiled to reveal dangerous rows of teeth.
Arrluk followed Rozel through an osmotic chamber and out into the ocean. “You guys are a pretty tight-knit crew.”
“Out here, you have to be.”
He liked her directness, her honesty.
They swam a kilometre west, their flowgel suits lighting up the dark. Occasionally bumping into each other, the flowgel parting but remaining sealed from the deadly cold, they could feel the warmth and texture of each other’s skin.
He liked that too.
At two kilometres Arrluk spotted pale sponges and anemones clinging to the ceiling of ice; what looked like bulbous seaweed set with spider eyes hanging in twisted ribbons. Schools of large spear-shaped fish with barcoded scales darted this way and that.
At three kilometres they swam deeper and were soon surrounded by giant flyers attracted to the light. They were some kind of hybrid manta ray, about 10 metres across with barbs along their spines and prehensile flipper-feet beneath their bellies. The rays caused havoc with his sonar as he reached out and touched one, its ultra-smooth skin sliding beneath his hand.
Far below their position he caught sight of other gliding shapes – newly engineered leviathans, impossibly larger than any blue whale, filtering some form of xeno-krill into their massive mouths. Hints of their song had reached him back at the facility. Up close it sounded full and youthful, absent of the history in the dialects that resonated around Earth’s oceans.
Rozel had been watching his reaction. “I felt like that too when I first saw all this.”
She swam closer until their faceplates touched, then a second’s delay as the flowgel parted. She kissed him, her lips warm and tangy. “I thought you should see the first ever custom-made extra-terrestrial ecosystem.”
“It’s amazing,” he replied. “You’re amazing.”
She reached around and squeezed his butt. “Europa isn’t the only view I can show you.” She kicked away from him gently, hips swaying enticingly in the penumbra of light.
Rozel led him back to the facility by a different route. The currents changed as they approached an oceanic ridge, a steep incline of haphazard ice fragments and jumbled rock brought up from some distant geological event to create one of the hundreds of brown lineae criss-crossing Europa’s surface. The side had been excavated to allow for the construction of an enormous processing plant, which cast a green glow into the surrounding water. Beyond that was some kind of large-scale mining operation, evidence of heavy machinery occasionally revealing itself through the murky water.
Arrluk had glimpsed schematics during training, part of the brief on sustainable fisheries and resources. “When will EvoDev start harvesting?”
She shrugged. “It will happen eventually. But the program’s been set back.” She pointed to one side of the processing plant that was being reconstructed around a freshly blasted crater.
Arrluk’s eyes widened. “AntiGen terrorists!”
Rozel’s breathing changed over the comlink. “People call them that. EvoDev’s orbital defences have improved, we’ve been knocking back AntiGen’s attacks but their micro-drones still get through from time to time.”
“You don’t sound so worried about it.”
He looked at her sidelong. “You’re not sympathising with their cause, surely? It’s all propaganda. Science is part of evolution; nothing’s totally up to nature anymore.”
“I’m not denying the science, but not everyone believes it holds all the answers. These attacks are anything but random. Do you really think EvoDev would invest billions in a security program against a few angry individuals? There’s a lot that doesn’t get broadcast to people on Earth. EvoDev and AntiGen are at full-scale war, Arrluk. Didn’t anybody tell you?”
At its centre the ice was streaked with a series of dark metal fragments, the wreckage of a dozen or more machines woven into the white like coarse impurities.
They made love that night in a flowgel sphere full of warm, briny water as it floated under layers of pale blue ice. And again when they returned to their habitat, finding a timeless place where they could relax together and forget about everything.
In the small hours of morning Arrluk got up and watched a school of Europan squid swim by the window. He was tired and irritable from the long shifts at the facility or the processing plant, or overseeing the transport convoys bringing in engineering equipment through a single tunnel in the ice.
The increasing number of AntiGen drone incursions had them all on edge.“Come back to bed,” Rozel said, her voice thick with fatigue.
“I can’t believe what you said to me yesterday.”
“I didn’t mean it.”
“I’m not naive. I understand both sides of the argument.”
“Do you really? I think you’re just saying what you think I want to hear. You’re designed not to feel, after all.”
“What the hell?”
“I’m sorry, babe. I didn’t mean it like that.”
“Then how did you mean it?”
She got up and padded naked over to the habitat door and pulled on her flowgel suit. “Come with me.”
Once again Arrluk followed her through the osmotic chamber, this time out beyond the stealthbot perimeter, east towards a long sheet of fresh ice. At its centre the ice was streaked with a series of dark metal fragments, the wreckage of a dozen or more machines woven into the white like coarse impurities.
“What were they?”
“AntiGen ice busters. EvoDev nuked them from low orbit. It doesn’t take long for the ice to freeze over.”
Arrluk’s sonar picked up faint images of bodies dotted throughout the carnage. He swam closer, careful of the jagged metal, and was confronted by the faces of the dead. Milky-eyed crossgen corpses, many of them shredded by unimaginable forces, were frozen in place: whale hybrids, moray, dugong.
“Oh my god.”
Rozel touched his face through the flowgel. “At some point you end up taking a side. In the old days it was all trivial stuff: gene-modified foods, cloned sheep, spider-goats. But things have got deadly serious. EvoDev controls the Hox itself.”
“I don’t understand. How is that possible?”
“The Hox is the key to animal forms. The eye is a good example; nature made it once and the Hox expresses it across the entire animal kingdom. EvoDev can express any form it likes in places where nature never intended. Now EvoDev is investing in heavy-duty eco-engineering to feed the hungry populations of the solar system. Nothing and no one is going to get in its way. That’s what I was trying to say earlier. We’re all just custom-made cogs in EvoDev’s machinery.”
Arrluk didn’t know how to respond. This place, this whole situation, was beginning to make him feel sick to the core. It stirred a longing in his heart for a different life to the one the makers of his genes had determined.
Rozel tapped the side of her head, turned quickly and started to swim back to the facility.
“Wait, Rozel, what’s wrong?”
The comlink burst into life with chatter as the distant reverberation of weapons fire boomed through the water.
They swam hard and fast to the facility to find stealthbots unleashing fury and the crossgens firing projectile weapons in all directions.
Jake was yelling over the comlink, then firing rapid pulses. A starfish-shaped drone about 10 centimetres in diameter exploded, blossoming into deadly bubbles of orange flame.
Screams, more weapons fire, then silence.
Arrluk’s heads-up display projected onto his faceplate, calculating trajectories and destruction zones. He offloaded a dozen rounds into a drone cluster, spun away, held his gun over his head and blasted another group approaching from above.
Never stay still, aim, destroy, keep moving.
“Cray’s down, Marketa is injured.”
He couldn’t tell who was speaking.
All he could think about was the bleached faces of those rebel crossgens entombed within the ice. Then, as the fighting intensified and the water churned with particle beams, explosions and blood, all that mattered was Rozel and a burning resolve to be free of this crazy nightmare.
A tall bipedal creature was slumped over the hemisphere, impaled by a splinter that had smashed up through the floor.
The four crossgens were silent as the submersible descended down the side of another oceanic ridge south of the destroyed EvoDev facility.
Jake had severe burns on his legs. Maui was unharmed. Rozel had freeze burns across her back from a tear in her flowgel suit. She’d been snicked by a stealthbot’s friendly fire. Arrluk was still in adrenaline overload but there was a dull ache emerging – he suspected his black hand was broken from the constant recoil of his weapon.
Jake’s eyes held a distant look as he got off the comlink. “Marketa and Cray are dead. There’s nothing left up there.”
“Where are we going?” Arrluk asked.
“We’re going to make them pay, Orca Boy.”
Arrluk grabbed Jake and shook him hard. “Make who pay? If you are all working for the terrorists then you’ve just got your asses kicked by your own side.”
Jake shoved Arrluk away. “You need to show him, Rozel.”
“I’ve been trying.”
Arrluk looked from one to the other, exasperated. “What?”
“There’s more to see down here below the ice,” Rozel said.
Arrluk peered out the viewing port. “More what – what are you talking about?”
They were deep into the ocean now, staring at a great gouge in an underwater ridge where gigantic chunks of rock and ice had been hacked away, leaving a wedge cut into the underside of the mountain. Jake piloted the sub on to a platform lit by green lights. Stealthbots made a brief appearance, scanned the sub’s identity data squirt then floated away into the dark.
High above the platform a silhouetted shape jutted out from the ridge. A craft about half a kilometre long, blacker than the surrounding ocean, was wedged precariously into jagged rock. Like the skeletal frame of a long-forgotten ocean goliath, its outer “ribs” were covered in angular barbs, smaller in size as they reached the “tail” section. There was no visible engine bulb or anything that indicated a drive device.
Arrluk glanced back over his shoulder at Jake and Rozel. “What the hell is that?”
Jake didn’t reply, busy with the sub’s controls, and Maui just pointed to Rozel already on her way out.
Arrluk followed her silently, swimming the short distance from the sub to the craft’s entrance. Up close, he realised it was a short ice tunnel ending in a crude opening cut into the craft. Each corridor and connecting chamber was lit by white strip lights on floor and ceiling, but the odd angles and geometries of the chambers messed with his sonar until he felt light-headed.
“The nausea fades,” Rozel said as the outer chambers opened to even larger chambers, walls covered in glyphs.
“What’s causing it?”
“There’s something about the granular detail of the wall structure itself. It’s organic in origin – the whole craft is made from a single piece.”
She led him down a narrow corridor. The craft’s nexus was at the end: a circular room with a domed ceiling and a large, etched hemisphere set into the floor. A tall bipedal creature was slumped over the hemisphere, impaled by a splinter that had smashed up through the floor.
Arrluk swam around the perimeter keeping a wary distance. The creature appeared to be fossilised or at least shrunken from its original form. It was made of the same substance as the craft: black, organic, alien. Even in death it looked fearsome, with a streamlined head, angular eyes set beneath a heavy brow and an array of barbs along its back, much like the shape of the outer hull. Dexterous hands ended in four digits clutching at the splinter that had rammed up its spine.
Rozel spoke softly. “The science team suspect the pilot and ship are one life form – some kind of super-strong, super-light bio-ceramic. Apart from interstellar flight, god only knows what it was designed to do.”
Arrluk kept very still as pieces started to click together in his mind: the strange black skin that coated the flyers; the
way the leviathans could stay afloat when nothing that big could ever exist in nature. “EvoDev is harvesting the alien’s DNA.”
Rozel nodded grimly. “It’s in the gene pool here as prototypes. More industrial and military applications are developed every day. Life itself is being manipulated here beyond its natural boundaries and no one gives a damn.”
Arrluk pictured a cosmic web of life: a vast network that dwarfed Earth’s, strung out between star systems like spider silk.
She rummaged in the flowgel pouch velcroed to her belt and pulled out a starfish drone so he could see it. She watched his face closely. “You know how this works.”
Arrluk held up his hands in protest. “We can’t. That really would be terrorism.”
“We can make choices, Arrluk,” she said, slapping the drone onto the hemisphere. “We have to.”
“Wait. Please, wait.”
He couldn’t help but see a death rictus in the alien creature’s fearsome face. Had there been emotions behind those orbs; a soul that had endured the stellar night? Maybe it was an ocean dweller or, more likely, used to living in a vacuum, perhaps with a family or equivalent of a pod.
He swam closer and touched the etchings on the hemisphere. A star chart was depicted, each pinpoint made of silvery material, each star connected by gossamer-like threads forming a complex weave across the surface. Some stars had multiple connections, others were isolated. Many branched out into other connections. Beside each star was etched an alien glyph, each patterned so fine that the detail went beyond Arrluk’s visual and sonar ability.
“It must go down to the nano level,” Arrluk said breathlessly. “It looks like a classification system. See those glyphs? There’s an eye, an ear, wings, spine. Oh, and look there, different shapes like this ship – maybe that’s an inventory for vacuum-adapted forms.”
Rozel nodded. “They’re in all the chambers and EvoDev is slowly deciphering them. AntiGen is not a terrorist organisation, Arrluk, we’re a pro-Earth movement. Who else is going to fight to protect the Hox? Nature has good reasons why it expresses some forms and not others. What if EvoDev was able to tamper with fertility rates or protein growth or longevity? Dial up or dial down the food supply, starving or fattening up the populations of Earth and Mars, all while making trillions in the process. Our role will change as nature becomes more commercialised – we’ll be made more aggressive. You, me, the sustainable supply chain, it’s all a smokescreen.”
Arrluk pictured a cosmic web of life: a vast network that dwarfed Earth’s, strung out between star systems like spider silk. Maybe it – the pilot and ship – had found comfort in the night, its warm body in tune with the cold void as it swam between the stars.
What other life forms were out there in the interstellar ecosystem? Did their dialects resonate with the deep harmonics of space? Did they sing to one another across the great divide?
Arrluk traced his hands along the silver links. “It’s almost like a storyline of evolution. Some links get broken by catastrophe, sometimes life is forever at the whim of nature, and sometimes life gets bootstrapped up and takes control. And maybe intervention is needed for species that get too aggressive. Whatever this thing was, it’s part of a species tough enough to stop or start evolutionary curves. I doubt it ever intended for us to pick over its carcass and retrofit its tech-DNA. A predator species like humanity consuming its way across the stars...” He reached out and placed his hand over Rozel’s. “We’re not ready.”
She smiled and together they flipped a timer switch underneath the starfish drone casing. Neither spoke as they left the craft and swam back to the submersible.
The huge concussions were felt but not seen. Tonnes of dirty ice and rock from the landslide blossomed out into the ocean for several days, all of it soon swept away by the mysterious Europan tides.
The bulb-craft skimmed above the ice in long, languid arcs as the surviving crossgens made their way to the hidden AntiGen base. The curve of Jupiter receded into the west, its great bands of orange and purple clouds and storm cells giving way to breathtaking night skies.
Arrluk touched Rozel on the cheek. “They’ll find the alien ship again, won’t they? They’ll dig it up from a hundred kilometres down if they have to.”
“Yes. Yes they will.”
“Do you think all we did was just kick the can down the road for the next generation to deal with?”
“If not us, then somebody else, eventually. But there’s plenty we can keep doing now to increase the pressure on EvoDev.”
She nudged him in the ribs.
“Hey! What was that for?”
Her hazel eyes turned mischievous. “Next generation, huh? You planning on having babies with someone?”
Arrluk didn’t say anything; just smiled and held her close as night settled over the ice and the constellations sparkled through the thin Europan atmosphere.
The universe was no blank canvas. It contained a rich legacy of life older than Earth, civilisations and ecosystems evolved in unimaginable ways, connecting and blending with each other at their own pace, when the time was right. The warm DNA of life entwined in the cold fabric of the cosmos.
Helix in obsidian.