Party, with Echoes
“So – your ancestors were pearl divers in Western Australia?” he says.
“Yup,” Yuriko replies, in a who cares sort of way that she hopes reinforces her tough image. But she thinks, So, you said you were fit? and she’s looking at the thermals stretching over his belly and the pudgy hairy spiders that are his hands.
“You’re OK with the gear?”
He makes an O by putting the tip of his index finger on the tip of his thumb, the divers’ sign. “Don’t worry. I have Open Water, Advanced Open Water, Dive Rescue and Dive Master qualifications.”
Yuriko smiles and thinks, But how long since you’ve used them? The spec from Ianni said he was a company director. David Woodridge is his name, although he introduced himself to Yuriko as ‘John’.
“Ah, but we’re on Europa, ten kilometres under the ice. This is not just another wreck dive on the Great Barrier Reef.”
He grins. “I noticed. The ice kinda gives it away.”
She yanks on the drysuit jacket over the thermals. The hood pulls at her hair and squashes her face. Then she checks the sub bobbing at its mooring. The green light on the control panel shows the battery fully charged. She releases the rope and the sub floats into the middle of the pool, a bright orange torpedo-shape surrounded by white ice. The water is so black that the pathetic neon light on the cavern’s ice roof doesn’t even cast a shadow.
Next: equipment. Yuriko lifts the BCD jacket and the two air tanks with one hand. Easy. The importance of gravity is highly overrated. She slides her arms in, passes the hoses through the loop at her right shoulder, reseals the Velcro strip, and snaps the buckles closed. Click, click, click.
He nods. Not very talkative, this one.
“Remember, once we’re in Echo territory, there are only three rules: don’t leave the sub; don’t leave the sub; and by all that’s dear, don’t leave the goddamn sub.”
“I think I get the message, Captain.”
And he”s still treating this as a joke. He may be on a holiday, but she’s seen men shitting themselves with fear in that inky darkness, surrounded by Echoes. Shit is hard to remove from the inside of a drysuit. Guess who gets to do that job?
Yuriko puts on her face mask and gloves. One last check of the tanks, and she jumps from the ice into the black water.
John, or David, follows, clumsy. He bumps into the sub’s propeller cage, pushes himself off with his hand.
Yuriko manoeuvres the sub away from him. Damn it, she’s not going to have the trip scuttled by equipment getting tangled in the propeller before they’ve even started. He’s paying Big Bucks for this adventure and she’ll bring him back here safely, to get her share, for Shiziko, for the exorbitant fare to Earth, for her pale little face and her chance to live.
“Here,” she shouts through her mask, pointing at the handles at the back of the sub. “Hold here.”
He fins past the sub’s flank in languid strokes. Yeah, he has done this before. Some of the tension inside her dissipates.
He grabs the handle, clips on the tether. Yuriko motions, OK? She forces a smile. It’s an adventure after all.
He repeats the gesture.
“Off we go, then.”
Yuriko squeezes the throttle. The propeller kicks into life, pulling the sub down with a jolt. Her vision dissolves into bubbling darkness. And then it’s only the sub’s humming engine, explosions of bubbles with every breath, and a long cone of light fading in the dark nothingness of the water.
She swings the sub until there is a blue-grey mass to the right. The ice looks soft; curving sculptures blunted by passing water and fading in ever-softer tones of grey.
“We’ll follow this wall until we get to the gap.” Her mind slips into tour guide mode. She tells him about the ice layer that surrounds Europa, and the research stations that probe the ocean underneath.
She tells him about her family’s pearl diving past, about her great-grandfather’s grave in Broome. That’s as far as the connection with diving goes. Her grandmother, half-Japanese, half-aboriginal, went back to Japan for a visit. She never left; she met Yuriko’s grandfather. It makes a good story, and explains Yuriko’s dark skin and Polynesian-like face. Usually, the tourists ask questions, but not this one.
She makes the OK sign; he OKs back, smiling through his face mask.
Deeper and deeper the sub drags them, the engine’s hum becoming more pronounced. Her ears pop several times with the increasing pressure.
Then the icy wall recedes, and there is the thoroughfare. The hole is jagged, the natural tunnel about twenty metres long. Yuriko steers the sub into the opening. Bubbles exhaled from their regulators crawl up the icy sides to form mercury pockets of air in downward-pointing hollows. David’s looking all around, craning his neck this way and that.
“Wait until you see the Fountain site,” she says.
He peers at the map displayed on the sub’s screen. Two green lines, their trajectory to the Fountain and back, and a blinking dot with coordinates. Pretty cool technology, with the signal going through the ice to the satellite in orbit. Impressive, when it works, and this trip was dicey until the last moment. Some sort of problem with the courier company that ferries supplies from Ganymede.
They emerge out the other side of the thoroughfare, in deep darkness. The beam of the sub fades in ever-diminishing shades of grey, two, three hundred feet ahead. Unlike on Earth, there’s no silt, no muck from the bottom, because there is no bottom. The depth sounder on the sub’s screen says the water is about ten kilometres deep. That’s Europa: thick ice, even deeper ocean.
As she sets the coordinates on the sub’s navigator, a message from Ianni splashes across the screen, All OK?
She punches in, Just left. Heading out the gap.
The courier brought your machine.
Yuriko takes a sharp breath, and another one. The micro-pulse machine that she’s waited to get for months. First the Health Office wouldn’t pay, then the stupid courier company went bust. When installed, it will help stabilise Shiziko’s little heart until Yuriko can afford the fare to Earth for the operation.
Efgenia has taken her to the hospital, Ianni continues.
Thank you so much. Her hands are trembling, her eyes misting up. Bless Efgenia, Ianni’s twenty-year-old daughter. Office clerk, nurse-by-default and saver of lives. Now all Yuriko needs is the money, make sure David leaves happy. And go out with the next tourist, and the next, and the next.
Algae float in the water, long strands of feathery structures. The stems, if they can be called that, are hundreds of metres long. They float vertically, kept in that position by warm water welling from the vents far below.
Every now and then, a little amorphous sliver of something passes through the beam of light.
“What’s that?” David asks and points.
“We’re in Echo territory now. They’re coming.”
Out of the murk, another sub joins them, followed by two divers. It makes no sound.
“That’s an Echo? It looks so real,” David says.
“They’re copies. The divers with the sub are Ianni and a tourist he’s guiding.” They wear blue and black suits, from before the time they realised they could stop many Echoes forming by always wearing the same outfits.
“There’s much research still to be done on the Echoes. Did you visit the museum at the Exobiology Centre?”
“I did. These Echoes aren’t intelligent, are they?”
“No. The Echo isn’t even an organism; it’s a colony of bacterial parrots imitating forms of living creatures. They repeat actions, but have no initiative, no thought. Otherwise we’d have won the prize.”
He laughs, uncomfortably. Yuriko gathers he has an interest in exobiology and the fifty million reward for the first proven record of intelligent extra-terrestrial life. Maybe that’s why he’s here, and why he’s secretive. But he won’t find anything. Submarines have scanned the ocean for years. There is plenty of life down there, but none that’s intelligent.
A strong current pushes the sub sideways. Europa’s surface is always in motion under influence of Jupiter’s magnetic pull. Tidal currents rage between the deep icebergs and the algal forests.
In between tracking the navigation screen and adjusting course, Yuriko gestures, OK?
He repeats the gesture, stoic and silent.
Why isn’t he asking any questions? Is he shy? Not terribly interested? Why, if he’s paid all this money to come out here?
Travel through darkness takes on a strangely monotonous quality. Dark shapes flit around the sub, rarely in the cone-shaped beam of the headlight. Some look human, some are fish, silvery things about a hand long, scimitar-shaped with a fringe-like ventral fin, and without eyes. Some of the latter are real, some are Echoes, but it’s hard to tell which is which, even if you catch them. Some Echoes dissolve into bacterial sludge, but others are remarkably resilient.
Yuriko flips her air supply from the empty first tank to the second one and helps David do the same. They’re a bit over an hour into the dive, with another hour still to go.
David looks around, over his right shoulder, then over his left shoulder. Yes, they’re following. That’s what Echoes do. Yuriko can already see the sub with the two divers. Both wear red drysuits. One of them is an Echo of Yuriko, the other a tourist, quite overweight.
David points. “Is that…”
“That’s us, yes.”
“You mean – we’ll be around here for years?”
“Maybe.” Some Echoes stay, others vanish. No one knows why.
He mumbles, “Shit.”
* * *
Yuriko has a third of a tank of air left when the sub hits the updraft. Bubbles rise from the inky waters below. She fingers the sub’s control pad. Above them, in the ice-cave, a compressor bucks into life; she can hear the hum of the engine.
“Am I crazy or is this water warm?” David asks.
“No, not crazy. This is the Fountain. There’s a vent way down below. It’s an undersea volcano.”
“We’re going up here, aren’t we?”
“Yup, but slowly. We don’t want to come out suffering the bends, do we? Make sure your jacket is fully deflated.”
The water all around is bubbling now. The Echoes still hang around, their forms distorted with the movement of water. Five metres below the surface, the lights in the cave come on, prompted by Yuriko’s command on the sub.
Then there is the rope, and the ladder. The sub bobs to the surface. Yuriko lets David climb out first.
He’s stopped at the top of the ladder, gaping at thousands of ice stalactites hanging from the ceiling. The greenish neon light makes the surface twinkle. The ice varies in colour from light green to pink to orange, yellow and red, from algae and sulphurous deposits.
“I said it was pretty.”
They’re not alone in the cave. By the time Yuriko has climbed out, they’re surrounded by Echoes. There are at least three copies of herself, each subtly different from the other. All their mouths are moving.
“Don’t take off the mask yet,” she says through the babble that sounds like English, but means nothing.
She attaches the sub’s cable to the winch that’s in a niche cut into the wall. A flick of a switch and sub creeps out of the water. By now, the screen shows that the pump has disposed of poisonous gases.
She takes off the mask, pushes down the hood.
“Give me your tanks, and I’ll hook them up to the compressor.” It will need most of the night to refill the tanks for the way back.
The next twenty minutes are filled with domestic activity. Yuriko opens the sub’s hatch, pulls out a lumpy package and rolls it out on the icy floor. The tent self-inflates. David carries the mats inside, one in each sleeping compartment.
It’s warm enough in the cave to take off the drysuits. The walls are sweating water, glistening lumpy smoothness with a tinge of green. Yuriko pulls out the meal packages and inserts them in the slot behind the sub’s still-hot engine.
David emerges from the tent. He’s ditched his suit in favour of trackpants and polar-grade jacket. His cheeks are bright red.
“You OK?” Yuriko asks, handing him the meal packet.
He sits down in a collapsible chair, rips the spoon from the packet and starts to eat. Steam rises in the cold air.
Yuriko starts eating as well, uneasy, wishing she could fill the awkward moments of silence. “So, why did you decide to come here?”
Well, I… a friend told me about this place.”
“A friend,” she prompts, but he’s looking at the Echoes on the other side of the water. There’s a copy of Yuriko, black hair in a ponytail like she used to wear it before she decided to cut it off.
“You work in exobiology?” she asks again.
“No more than a hobby. I heard about this place. I thought I’d come and see it.”
Why then does she feel he’s not interested?
“What does your company do?” she asks.
“My company?” He looks up. His eyes are wide.
Yuriko leans back, on the defensive. “Well, it said in the message I got from my boss that you are—”
“What business is it of yours what I do for a living?” His voice is harsh.
The Echoes repeat his words.
“Shut up!” he shouts, and they repeat, shut up, shut up, shut up.
He leans his head in his hands, his knuckles white. Silence stretches for at least a minute, with faint calls of shut up merging into unintelligible mush.
Yuriko scrapes non-existent food from the bottom of her packet.
“Well,” he says, finally. “It’s probably all over the gossip circuit. You know the courier service from Ganymede?”
Yuriko nods. The one that was supposed to deliver Shiziko’s machine.
“That is – or rather was – my company.”
So he’s come here to forget, to drown his sorrow. Damn it, what drug did he take while he was in the tent? Ianni should make all customers sign a declaration that they will not take any illicit drugs on the dive. He says he doesn’t like treating privileged customers like criminals, and that a dive-medical is sufficient, but he doesn’t have to deal with the consequences.
“You know what happened? We invested into exploring caves on Ganymede, because we had evidence of intelligent life there. My… idiot partner was going after the fifty million reward. We had the technology, except the evidence turned out to have been faked by my partner. He disappeared with my money.”
He unbuttons his jacket. “It’s getting hot in here. Aren’t you hot?”
Yuriko shakes her head, and can do nothing but watch while he peels off his jacket. Shit, he’s taken drugs for sure.
“Anyway, good meal, Captain.” He pushes himself up. “Now, let’s have a party.”
He digs in his jacket and pulls out a Cube, which he puts down on the ice, and turns up the volume. A woman wails over the thump of a heart-stopping doof-doof-doof.
“Come on, let’s dance.”
David grabs her hand and pulls her up.
“I’m not sure if this is such a good idea.”
“Come on, dance. Look, they’re all coming for the party.”
At least twenty Echoes have come into the cave, some of them bobbing to the beat. It seems they are attracted by the music.
David drags her along in his dance, uncoordinated, as if he’s drunk. She’s trying to pull herself free, but he won’t let her go.
His face is red; his cheeks aglow with energy.
Yuriko moves with him, stiff, trying to keep as much distance from him as possible. She wants to push him away, to yell at him, but he might become violent and the Echoes will copy him. She can’t afford that to happen, because then she can’t take tourists back here.
They dance. Doof-doof-doof. The Echoes are dancing, too, copying David’s clumsy moves. Yuriko stumbles along; it’s all she can do.
Shit, shit, shit. This is going to end badly.
David whoops and lets go of her hand. He’s looking at the ice shelf across the bubbling water. Yuriko turns.
A different kind of Echo has come in. Five of them. They’re silvery and walk on four legs, prowling like leopards. Their heads are bulges on their backs, in the place where you’d put the saddle on a horse. Their eyes, three of them, are constantly shifting, iridescent. They make sounds like zippers moving up and down, audible over the doof-doof-doof of the music.
David has dropped in a crouch, steadying a camera on a hastily-unfolded tripod.
Oh damn. The fifty million reward. Saving his company. He has known about this.
Now who again was lying about the secrets? Who took off with the money?
David faces her, his cheeks flushed, pulling a rope from his jacket.
“You must help me catch one. I’ll pay a good commission.”
The bait floats before her. Immediate flight back to Earth. A guaranteed spot for Shiziko in the best hospital, treatment by the best doctors.
The music is going doof-doof-doof.
“Come on, girl. Hurry up. I need the money.”
Yuriko finds her tongue. “You can’t. They’re not real.” She has to shout to make herself heard.
“They’re proof that intelligent life exists.”
“But when you attack them, the others will copy.” And there are a lot of Echoes in the cave. “It’s dangerous.”
“Oh, fuck off. I’m getting one of these suckers.” He pushes Yuriko aside, staggers to the edge of the water.
“No, David, no!” Yuriko shouts.
Time slows. David jumps, grabs one of the silvery Echoes by a paw, and falls… in the water. He’s not wearing a drysuit. Yuriko runs to the sub, climbs on, and lets it slide down the ramp. David’s thrashing in the water, trying to tie the Echo with the rope, while bashing it, and the Echo is pushing him under. The other, human, echoes are starting to jostle each other.
Yuriko reaches him, grabs him by the back of the shirt. At that moment, the alien Echo disintegrates, spilling a flood of algal sludge all over him, and over her. Yuriko can’t see; slime is running in her eyes. David is gasping and spluttering.
Her arms ache from trying to drag him up. He’s too heavy for her, and she almost slips into the water herself.
And still he’s protesting. “Let me go! I have to get that thing.”
Shit, shit, shit.
If he carries on like this, he’ll get both of them killed. She whacks him, hard, on the side of the head. His eyes roll up; he stops moving.
The alarm on the sub is beeping.
Still panting Yuriko, activates the message screen.
You OK? Ianni. The back-to-base alarm will have woken him up. It’s the middle of the night shift in the village.
Yes, for now, but I’ve got to get out of here. This guy’s a nutcase.
I’m coming right away. Hang in there.
Thank goodness for Ianni.
Yuriko pulls David onto the ice and drags his limp body into the wall cavity that holds the winch. There is a panel that slides across the opening, to protect the winch from sulphurous gases.
She runs to the tent to get some blankets for herself, but two Echoes come out, both copies of herself. One pushes her, hard. She stumbles, while the other grabs her wrist. Yuriko twists free, and the Echo distorts. Her own face explodes in a gulf of green slime. More Echoes are crossing the water. Herself, Ianni, and various tourists. Yuriko scrambles to her feet and runs for the niche, slamming the panel behind her.
Shit. Shit, shit, shit.
All she can do is sit on the blanket that covers David, hug herself and hope that Ianni won’t be too long.
* * *
Yuriko is shivering by the time Ianni slides open the door.
She gets to her feet and stumbles out of the niche. Her legs have lost all feeling and won’t support her. Ianni manages to grab her under the arms. He feels hot like a furnace.
“Yuriko, what happened here?”
The entire cave floor is covered in greenish-brown slime that has frozen onto the ice.
In a few sentences, she tells him what David has done. While she’s talking, Ianni is shaking his head.
“It’s my fault. I shouldn’t have accepted him. I shouldn’t have—”
“Please, Ianni, there’s nothing you could have done. Let’s get out of here before the Echoes come back.” They’ll be violent.
Ianni and Yuriko load David in a compressor cell and Ianni takes him down. Meanwhile, Yuriko packs up the tent, clenching and unclenching her teeth. She hopes David has the sense to pay Ianni plenty of compensation. He has destroyed their means of income, her chance to get Shiziko to a decent hospital. Hot tears burn in her eyes.
David’s camera is still on the ice. Yuriko picks it up and puts it in her BCD pocket. Then she jumps into the water, and dives under the sub to enter the dive-bell entrance.
While Ianni steers the sub, she sits next to David’s unconscious form, fighting the urge to throttle him. The idiot.
She takes his camera out of her pocket and replays the recording. There is David jumping into the water, her going after him, dragging him out, trying to beat off the Echoes, running into the alcove. The board slides over the entrance.
The silver Echoes float over the water to inspect the sub’s screen. One touches it with a silver paw. The creature makes a sudden movement, as if it’s sneezing. Another Echo comes over, and also inspects the screen. It zips and chitters. The other one replies. A third silver form approaches the sub, but the second Echo lashes out with a foot, and the third Echo dissolves in algal slush. The first one replies again.
The two silver forms skitter up the cavern wall. A bit later, Ianni emerges from the water.
Yuriko’s heart is thudding. Echoes are mindless and stupid. They don’t talk. Or hide. David hasn’t seen this recording…
“Ianni, the Echoes only react to living beings, don’t they?”
He turns around, frowning. “Why are you asking, Yuriko? Yes, off course we can still take tourists in the big sub, but it will be less exciting for them, and much more expensive for us. I’m sorry, but you’re going to have to get a licence to drive this thing and I’m not sure I can afford to—”
“Ianni. Forget the tourists.”
His frown deepens. “Yuriko?”
“You wanted to see New York?”
“Yes, but what—”
“We’re going to go to New York, and I’m going to make an appointment for Shiziko’s operation. But first we’re going to take this cheating, lying low-life to the hospital, and then we’re going hunting.”
She leans over, and dumps David’s camera in his lap.
Besides being a writer of crazy fantasy, space opera and hard Science Fiction, Patty Jansen is slush reader and editor at Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine. She blogs at http://pattyjansen.wordpress.com/ about writing, about science, about editing and about slush piles. Patty is a winner of the second 2010 quarter of the Writers of the Future Contest and has published in the Universe Annex of the Grantville Gazette. She lives in Sydney, Australia where, once upon a time before children came along, she and her husband used to go SCUBA diving.