Beta Ares Prime
In the years between the day the survey mission finished and reported that Beta Ares Prime was a near paradise for colonists, volcanos erupted, ice caps melted, rain began, and the planet turned into a stinking, insect-infested swamp. Complete failure faced the terraformers. There was one way for them to dry the swamps and make the world habitable for the colonists already in flight. It involved sacrificing every crewman in a plan hiding in the quantum interstellar drives.
Published in: Killer Bees From Outer Space
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on Saturday, March 28, 2015.
January 22, 2015
"There's a parachute over there," Sam yelled. Anti-artillery bullets shattered the cockpit, ricocheted inside the old flier. This first contact didn't go well.
"They'll shoot you down. We have to reach the escarpment and the caves." Engine #4 burst into flame. Glenn throttled it down. Airspeed dropped. The plane shook. Tried to rise. Nosedived.
"Grab the stick and pull. We need to gain altitude." I jumped into the copilot's seat and yanked the stick. Ground rose faster than the plane climbed. Glen bent the throttle levers back. The engines screamed death agonies. Wings held. It climbed once more as an updraft lifted the plane. And yet, it clipped trees. Killed birds. The escarpment came into view. Engine #1 seized, blew apart. Its bearings shrieked as metal scored metal.
"Jump." Sam yelled, bracing the stick. We jumped. The plane spiraled downward. A final descent. A fiery descent.
* * *
"The Cave of Winds," Sam said, pointing to the inscriptions.
"Nothing more than limestone worn by wind. Mark the rounded slopes, the herbal fragrance blowing from the jungle side. There's probably a secret system of caves and conduits beneath. I can hear the springs. We should find water spurting," I answered.
"What did you say?" Sam asked.
"I was paraphrasing."
"Paraphrase some food and tell us if there's any geologic danger in here," Glenn ordered. "Translate this stuff. There's more to these inscriptions than just Wind Cave." We moved into the system of caves. Each chamber repeated the symbols, arranging them in different configurations. Sam struggled with the translation.
"I think these cave drawings are astronomical. The repeated symbols are the stars as they appear in the sky on certain days of the year. They line up with the sight holes in the ceilings. All this was excavated by primitives," he said.
"Did they bore the sight holes just to tell the seasons?" Glenn asked. Glenn should have been named Thomas Full of Doubt.
"Probably not," Sam said. We passed through a narrow tunnel. It opened into a chamber with a pool of warm water fed by a spring and a stone platform with a flame about six inches high burning from an iron vent in the floor.
"Is this for real?" Glen sat on the ledge and tested the water. I examined the gas jet and its source in the floor. Sam studied the carvings. We worked silently, wanting to disprove our eyes.
"The flame heats the chamber and vents through the holes in the ceiling," I explained.
"The water is potable." We waited for Sam.
"You know, this writing is different. It is subtler, more sophisticated. The current natives didn't build this and I doubt they understand a its functions. We're in a monastery. That's the closest concept in English. This is the ritual chamber." He walked to another chamber. Six sinopia-colored, statues of naked men stood like antimythological heroes carved in limestone, waiting for us, naked, bowed in adoration. Innocent athletes.
"I thought so." Sam read more inscriptions.
"What?" Glenn asked.
"Here," Sam pointed to the symbols as he translated. "And every time, when the length of I can't tell how years has passed, the supplicants. No, that's not right. It's not petitioner. It's not sacrifice, more like volunteer. Acolyte maybe."
"We get the point," Glenn grouched. Sam studied several lines of script, silent.
"What next?" I asked.
"The chosen ones would stay here waiting for the moon to cross over the sun. An eclipse, that's what they mean. Preparing both mind and body for the eclipse when the fire would grow cold, engulf the chosen and make them glorious." Sam paused. "My translation is too literal," he studied the writing. "It's more like: the priests had a choice. If they found the chosen ones acceptable, they made them priests. They sculpted statues are representations of the chosen ones, immoderate ones."
"The sinopia coloration is form of heme-valent iron. Perhaps oxidized blood. Definitely odd. A civilization flourished here and worshiped this flame for six hundred years. I don't know why it ended. I wish I had my computer so I could record the inscriptions from each cave. Every language has an elusive multiplicity of meaning, shades, hidden implications. I'm sure I'm missing something."
"The rescue mission will take six months. Are we safe?" Glenn asked.
"Sure. The water's potable. There're edible mushrooms and rats for protein. There might be ghosts but the natives are afraid of this place. The writings aren't threatening."
"Then we'll set up camp here. It's as good a place as any." We had nothing to unpack.
Sam translated by memory. I mapped the caves. Glenn bossed.
This limestone ripped cotton clothing. In one month, we wore rags. We substituted parachute nylon but it didn't last. After four months we sported long hair, beards, smiles and nothing else.
"The way I read the star maps, noon today is the eclipse, a centennial occurrence. At zenith, the holes will create a ring of light around the flame. The secret of immortality will be revealed. At least that's what the inscriptions say. I wonder if fear of a lunar eclipse might be what pushed the natives away. Fear of the dark?" Sam mused. He motioned for us to stand inside the ring of light.
The moon disc touched the sun. Words lit up around the chamber. A clever trick. A ring of light coalesced around the flame. The flame grew brighter as the chamber darkened. When the moon disc covered the sun. The fire became alchemical. A cold flame the color of sinopia burst from the ground and burned the blood in our veins. I felt my blood congeal, my body solidify. My flesh transform into rock. I was limestone from weathered outcrop to hill-top temple.
I understood the solitude that asks and promises nothing. I understand faultless love. The rescue squad carried our bodies back home, placed us near murmuring waters and gesticulating fountains. We are immortality personified in a limestone landscape.
Village of the Fifth Lion
by Dave Fragments
June 20, 2014
"They say Methuselah lived 1000 years," yelled Gunny, as Brendan pulled himself across the ravine, clinging to the vine with his hands and feet.
"No one lives forever," Brendan huffed to catch his breath.
"But we want to," Gunny answered. When Brendan got close, Gunny grabbed his bare shoulders and steadied him until he balanced on the rocks. Gunny could feel Brendan's heart thumping in his chest as he brushed the dirt and mist from Brendan's back. Both wore native kit, only a leather string holding their tender bits up against their stomachs, keeping it safe and vines around their forearms and calves to grip the ropes. Otherwise, they were naked.
"Where do we go from here?" Brendan asked Capac their native guide, a physically small man. He stood tall at four foot eight and was twenty-five years older than either Brendan or Gunny. Twice as fit, too, surprising them by traversing the ravine without a safety harness in one-third the time. The three men stood atop the waterfall and watched the water roar over the edge. It was twice the height of the cataract at Niagara. Capac motioned to a series of vines hanging in the falling water a dozen feet away from them.
"You mean we have to rappel down through the waterfall," Brendan said. Gunny pointed a finger at Capac, accusing.
"You told us to leave our climbing harnesses back at camp," he said. Capac laughed at his accusations.
"You want young. You want to life forever? You must walk through the river as it falls down the mountain. Capac's done it many times before. Capac wait for you in cave of life." He picked up the vines, positioned them in the cataract and stepped into the rushing waters. They watched as the water surrounded Capac and he slipped over the precipice. The vines shook with his weight for a few minutes and then got still.
"If one of us don't survive, it's been a good life brother," Gunny said, embracing Brendan. They shared the same father and different mothers. As kids and adults the brothers Brendan and GunWoo, Gunny for short, were inseparable. They insisted on breaking the barriers of racial prejudice. In the excitement of the 1920's, they thrived but in the poverty of the 1930's only the military's secret services required their skills. Soldiers of fortune from a time already gone and never to be restored.
Brendan steadied the vines so that Gunny could follow the guide over the edge of the waterfall. He watched as Gunny's feet slid on the slick rocks and he tumbled. The vines jerked for a few minutes and then went slack. Brendan's heart beat hard in his chest, hoping for the best. Gunny always accused him of expecting the worst. This time he hoped his thoughts of doom were wrong. He steadied his nerves and gathered his strength.
"Now it's my turn to be the superhuman and survive the raging waters at the end of the world," Brendan said to bolster his courage. He crossed himself, tested the vines and stepped into the water flowing toward the edge. In the world there is no force as powerful as water driven by gravity when it cascades over a rocky ledge down into the abyss. Sight, sound and air disappeared in a wall of white water that wanted to smash him on the rocks below. He rappelled through the maelstrom, the muscles of his arms and legs burning with the exertions. Unexpectedly, hands grabbed his feet and legs and pulled him out of the main stream. The force of the falling water lessened and he found his footing on ledge mere inches away from the rushing water. Capac and Gunny braced him against the rock wall.
Success. They lived. What seemed impossible was not. They were at the entrance to the waters of longevity. We call it the Fountain of Youth. Almost.
They stood on a ledge behind the waterfall wide enough for their bodies and not much else. A wall of water rushed past them less than a hand's length away. Brendan coughed up half the river as they edged towards a cave hidden under the lip of rock that formed the waterfall. They were, once again, three on the path to a new life. That was the native concept of immortality, renewed life or restored life. The end of their quest.
It all started because the National Socialists of Germany were up to something. Naval Intelligence discovered them traveling in inordinate numbers between Europe and Argentina with stopovers in French Guyana. They flew long-haul trimotors, Iron Aunties as Navy Intelligence nicknamed them from Guyana in the north overland to southern Argentina. One of our spies tagged along on one trip and photographed the route ostensibly for tourist shots. Brendan found this obscure village in the middle of the Amazonian rainforest while examining the photographs. In a non-descript clearing with a few huts were stone relief sculptures of rampant lions made from flagstones. He counted five lions, the five lions of Juan Ponce De Leon. Objects hidden in the Amazonian jungle for all to see. An invitation to the cognoscenti of the world from Juan the Lion, himself.
That day, Brendan collected Gunny and both flew to Georgetown. They trekked upriver, first south on the Essequibo River, then west on the Potaro River and then south again through the Amazonian rainforest another fifty or sixty miles on foot. When they reached the longitude and latitude of the photograph, they set up camp and searched for over a month before finding the clearing. By that time, they had nothing left but the clothes on their backs, a sextant now useless, their climbing harnesses that let them reach the tops of the forest canopy and some sweat. They had no bargaining chips or weapons other than their minds and bodies.
The natives had blowguns with curare tipped darts. They were a short people, knotted, rough faces who still lived a Stone Age existence, sans clothes, sans electronics, sans moving vehicles. Brendan and Gunny knelt facing the flagstones that formed De Leon's crest and waited two days for the natives to accept them.
An elder of the village, Capac took them into his hut and taught them the native language. The natives actively eschewed the modern ways of doing things. The interlopers tried not to teach the natives modern ways and they made a keen effort not to use methods that didn't fit into the native way. The natives had no math or concept of numbers greater than one, two and many. Only tomorrow existed -- a week hence meant nothing to these people. They counted the years not by the movement of the sun on the horizon, which didn't exist in the jungle; rather the natives used the rising of the river with the melting of snow on the mountains because it created new rapids and waterfalls.
Brendan and Gunny adapted to the villager's ways and customs, hunting, eating bugs and roots and animals, dressing in the native thongs. The natives carefully avoided adopting anything modern. What the village needed, it took and made its own. Vines replaced the climbing harnesses. Plant dyes and stains turned Gunny's yellow body and Brendan's pink body deep brown and indistinct from any other adult. They pierced their ears and lips and tattooed their calves and arms. Brendan and Gunny became men with the wings of heaven painted on their backs. The women even took them to their beds. In time, they became tribesmen in acts and deeds.
And they did so eagerly and earnestly. Brendan and Gunny wanted the secret that Juan Ponce De Leon so coveted. They wished to be young again. They wished to return to society and become the next captains of industry. John Jacob, J. D., Stanford and Vanderbilt would bow and scrape to them. With their knowledge of the past and the upcoming war, nothing could stop them from being the new robber barons. To be young again was the unsaid motto of the elites that denied the '29 Crash and the changing of the world. To that end the brothers committed their lives. They had no fortune left. Their Father was bankrupt thanks to the crash of '29. He was arrested jailed and convicted. With food kitchens, hunger and poverty, all honor left the family behind. In the last desperate few years, they only had each other.
When the snows of the mountains melted and the rivers rose a second time, Capac announced it was his time to go to the waters of new life, the baby-making waters. It took him two months to visit his family and friends. Only Gunny and Brendan who still counted the days and weeks and full moons in secret, cared about the passage of days. One morning with no fanfare, Capac told them to prepare to go to the mountain. Now, illuminated by the afternoon sun through the falling water, the three men stood on a rock ledge hidden looking at the cave of life.
Brendan could see the opening with a light shining through. They edged their way into a chamber. The cave wasn't much more than two layers of granite held apart by large stones, an anticline forming the roof and floor of the chamber. At the entrance, a single stream of water poured into a stone basin.
"Is this it?" Brendan asked. Capac smiled, cupped his hands and drank from the stream of water. Brendan and Gunny gave each other sideways looks, at first trembling with anticipation and then riddled with doubts. They drank from the stream.
Brendan wanted to say something like -- The water tasted clean and pure, a touch of effervescence, a hint of dissolved minerals. It delighted his mouth and throat as he drank. -- But he would have been lying. It tasted of water. A sparkling water to be sure but nothing more than effervescent water from the waterfall outside the cave. After the exertions of climbing down through the waterfall, the two men drank a second time to replenish the water lost in the day's exertions.
"It is done. We will be young once again," Capac said in refined Spanish. Brendan stopped and stared, mouth open. He never heard Capac speak in anything but the guttural native language.
"Who are you?" Gunny asked. A nagging voice in his and Brendan's mind raised fears and doubts over their search for everlasting life. Capac unwrapped the vines from his forearms and calves, removed the ear piercings and undid the leather string holding his privates. Then he stepped into the spray near the edge and washed his body.
"Please, wash your previous life away and come into the new life all clean and sparkling."
Respectfully, the two men stripped the vines and leather thongs from their bodies. They washed each other more out of physical habit than anything else but this time, it wasn't brotherly or sexual or anything else they ever felt in their life. Immortality was here in this cave and that fact changed everything.
Capac led them through a narrow opening into a larger cave deep in the mountain. A wood fire burned heartily on one side for warmth. Torches lit the chamber and a passage beyond. Three sets of animal skins and soft bedding lay arranged around the fire. Brendan immediately realized that the campfire and bedding meant that someone prepared this cave and whoever did, did not enter through the falling water. Capac spoke first.
"We have a few hours to talk. It's been two lifetimes since new blood came to the tribe and I have questions about the outside world," he said.
"There's another entrance to this cave, isn't there?" Brendan asked. Capac laughed heartily.
"Of course, the Mommy entrance," Capac answered.
"Then that climb up the cliffs, the rope crossing of the ravine and the waterfall were what?" Gunny asked.
"A test young man, a test. Just as the time you spent with the tribe showed your determination and spirit to learn the way of the tribe and not impose your own, so the ravine and cliff and waterfall test your courage. You proved that you are physically fit and mindfully worthy of living more than one life." Capac sat down on the animal skins and relaxed. Brendan stared at him, puzzled, unsure and at this point, filled with doubts and questions. He sat on the animal skins, feeling his hands and feet tingle. He hid his nervousness and waited for Capac to speak.
"The last I knew of the outside world, a civil war had divided the United States in half. Has that war been settled? What are the politics of Europe? Are my beloved Spain and despised Britain still monarchies? Or has your new American revolution spread across the world?" Capac asked. Brendan's mind raced at the implications of the questions.
"Who are you?" he asked, feeling tired and sleepy but not muscle-sore. Usually after this much climbing and jumping around he felt aches and pains but not today. He felt invigorated.
"I am the one you seek. I am Juan, the fifth Lion of all explorers, originally of Spain, once governor of Puerto Rico and now resident of the village." He used the native name for the village and the region of the Amazonian jungle they occupied. "We have just drunk of the fountain of youth. This is what you wanted, isn't it? The Fabled Fountain of Youth. That was your endeavor in coming to the village and living with us?"
"Yes, of course. Have you known all along?" Gunny asked. He kept opening and closing his hands and flexing his arms. His muscles wanted to move and not stay still. Brendan shook my head in agreement.
"How do I know? You are not the first. There were more in the past and fewer in the present. Some died of old age, unworthy. Most, like you, are still in the surrounding villages." Capac yawned and rubbed his face. Brendan also felt the urge to sleep. He blamed it on the fire and the warmth of the cave. They talked of all matters important and unimportant.
They spoke of the history of the world for the past hundred years, the industrial revolution, the invention of telephone, telegraph and radio. Daylight left the waterfall and the fire provided the only light. The cave swirled in surreal images like those avant-garde artists of the civilized world. Surrealism gone cave dweller, making Gunny look shorter to Brendan while he felt thinner, lighter. Capac's face lost his wrinkles and when he laughed, his voice sounded oddly high pitched.
"It is time for the three of us to sleep, Captain Brendan Hargreaves, GunWoo Yoon. It is easier when you sleep. In the morning your new Mother will wake you, give you a new name and carry you from the cave. Your new life will begin. You will remember the old life you left but the new life before you will fill your mind and be most important. That is fitting and proper and as it should be. You will live full lives in one of the villages. You will grow, marry and beget strong children. Tomorrow, your great adventure of life begins anew." With those words, Capac put his head in his arms and fell asleep.
Brendan looked at Gunny and realized that he was smaller, younger, almost childlike. Gunny put words to their thoughts.
"Do I look like a child to you? You look like a child to me," he asked. That was when Brendan realized what was happening in the dim firelight and he understood Capac's words. They had drunk of the fountain of youth and under its power, their bodies reverted to childhood. It all made sense. In the morning the mothers would find new babes and raise them as their own.
"We wanted to live forever but to live forever, we must be reborn and grow up. This village is as good a life as any other and decidedly better than many of the cities we left behind," Brendan said, wondering if the sentiments were his or the effect of the Fountain of Youth.
"But this is barely above Stone Age. We're living like Neanderthals," Gunny said.
"We shouldn't have played it so coy. What's so bad about growing to manhood in the Stone Age? I suspect we won't care about the life outside the village. We won't care about being Captains of Industry. I'll bet the Fountain blocks past memory or makes us forget. We'll have our place in the village and only village life will matter."
"Strange gift this eternal life. Not what I expected," Gunny said.
"Not at all," Brendan agreed. He watched Gunny fall asleep and then curled up on his animal skin and slept like a baby.
The Roaches of my Kitchen
by Dave Fragments
April 1, 2014
I have a problem with housework. I don't do it, anymore. Screw it. Who cares? They do.
I learned bad housekeeping in my first place after the big one. My sink is so filled with grease from pizza, chicken wings, French fries and deep-fried take out that even the roaches can't approach it without safety lines and harnesses. Tiny ropes. You know, ropes like the one's that mountain climbers and spelunkers use. They even made tiny signs with tiny roach warnings: "beware the black hole of grease."
Now don't tell them this but roaches are really are clumsy bugs. One slip and they would slide down the drain and into the gaping black maw of the garbage disposal to be ground and torn to bits with the remains of rotting takeout and potato peels. I eat lots of potatoes.
"Belay those lines," I would hear from their tiny black mouths as they mine the sink for errant bits of food stuck in the layers of grease. Every so often one of those roaches is brave enough to venture out on the grease without a safety line and slides into the drain. On occasion, I simply flick a designated roach into to the black hole. The other roaches scatter of course and giggle about it afterward. It's in their nature to be silly. However, they always cheer their dear, demised , dead roach hero. After that a party starts.
Roaches give great wakes. They raise tiny headstones out of roach poo with tiny roach lettering saying things like "To Dad from his 37,425 children. Thanks for leaving us the rotting garbage" and chant strange roach hymns in tiny voices begging some demented Almighty roach in a heaven with fourteen rotting fruits and a new life for the fallen one. Then they party hearty. Party all night until the sun rises and they scurry away.
Oh! My manners have escaped me. We haven't been properly introduced. Radiation and nuclear winter nearly made mankind extinct but the roaches survived. After the bombs fell, our roach masters in their newly evolved wisdom rebuilt the cities in their image and kept a few of us alive. In time, they created amusement parks and thrill rides to entertain. The rich roaches, the ones that live "La Dolce Vita," kept a few almost-extinct humans alive. I'm called Denali after the old human tourist attraction in Alaska and because I live in Exhibit D. I'm the deadliest of all deaths--the greasy sink slob with a garbage disposal.
by Dave Fragments
August 12, 2013
"Damn it. Poseidon's gone," Santiago stamped his feet and yelled at his cellphone. His display brought a shush from Miss Leslie the librarian. Trying to be quiet, he dragged Ethan and Higashi behind a book stack. Tagge a pledge at La Fraternidad de los Pescadores stood nearby and listened.
"I just saw him at dinner," Ethan said. Tagge put a goofy grin on his face and leaned forward.
"You ate dinner with Poseidon?"
"No, Khalid and his family. He's leaving with his Father. He was just made ambassador to Mars Prime."
"Khalid's the new ambassador?" Tagge gasped like he didn't understand. Santiago shook a fist at Tagge.
"Open your ears. His father not him."
Miss Leslie headed their way.
"His father was Ares, lover of Venus, lost his balls to a moray eel." Tagge said. Ethan and Higashi giggled. Santiago turned with a growl.
"What are you talking about?"
"Khalid, the ball-less." Santiago flipped the bird at Tagge.
"Incapable of saying no to his father," Ethan said. Santiago gestured dramatically not realizing that Miss Leslie stood behind him, arms folded, face stern, a head and shoulders taller than his diminutive form.
"Smart ass. Who's going to be our Poseidon for the Carnaval," he asked.
"Silence!" Miss Leslie commanded too loud. She surprised Santiago. He jumped a foot in the air and turned, startled and stared up at her face. Ethan and Higashi smirked and giggled, embarrassing their friend even more.
"One day you're going to give me a heart attack then you'll be forced to give me mouth-to-mouth," Santiago's voice echoed across the library, raising heads. Miss Leslie brandished a rolled newspaper and swatted Santiago twice. The smacks brought approving nods and encouragement from some of the library patrons.
"Why is it always the shrimps that have such nasty, dirty mouths?"
"You liked it last night when I stuck my tongue up your hoo-hah." The Library was filled with audible gasps, a guffaw, swiveling heads, choked laughter and frantic movements to hide. Miss Leslie sucked air like a gaping chest wound.
"Get out!" Swat. "Get out!" Swat "Get out!" Swat. "I've told you before the library is not your personal meeting room." Swat, swat, swat. "Hold your meetings in your frat house. This--" she raised the rolled up newspaper again but stopped, straightened her jacket, and pointed the rolled newspaper at the door. "--is a place for study."
Santiago broke for the door.
Tagge checked out his art books at the computer scanner and held them in front of him like a shield. At six-foot, ten-inches, he stood taller than nearly every citizen of New Atlantis. Undaunted, Miss Leslie herded the four young men to the exit with the rolled up newspaper and chased them from the steps, harrumphing and sputtering and stamping her feet. Only the edge of the college green stopped the rampage.
"Dean Dickhout will hear about this," Miss Emily stamped her feet and marched back into the library.
Above the four boys, the mid-winter constellations twinkled on the reinforced transparent aluminum ceiling. The artificial breeze filled the night air of Northern Atlantis College's Main Dome. Fake crickets chirped in the real grass. Nine fathoms above, a hurricane raged. It's tidal swell and waves washed over the barren sand-wash that once was the east coast of North America.
Santiago cornered Higashi and Ethan against a stanchion at the entrance to the aquaculture bridge. Bemused and grinning with impish intent, Tagge stood behind Santiago and leaned over the small man. Santiago didn't realize he was there as he unleashed a diatribe describing Miss Emily as the upcoming apocalypse, a creature of woe, and a sign of the moral decline and the fall of civilization. When he ended, he chicken-necked his head around and stared up at Tagge's grinning face.
"Damn you pledge."
"You're such a funny little man." He patted Santiago on the top of his head like a puppy dog. Santiago turned a vivid red.
"Back-off," growled Santiago.
"As long as I can keep my grades up, I'll be your Poseidon," Tagge offered. Santiago stared at his too tall tormenter. There was nothing much god-like or inspiring to see. Tagge's stringy blond hair, mangy beard, and old clothing marked him as from the lower classes.
"You're just a pledge." Santiago stuttered out a response. In three days their Valentine Festival -- Carnaval de Azul Del Mar y Cielo Dorado -- would begin. La Fraternidad de los Pescadores had to present the new Poseidon and the position carried symbolic power.
"Then make me a full brother of Pescadores."
Santiago faced a dilemma. To fail would mean disgrace. Panicky times call for desperate measures. This was a possible solution.
A century earlier the coastal cities of the World faced inundation as the polar icecaps melted to nothing. Civilization moved to high ground but the cyclones and hurricanes ravaged the land with salt water. Tidal walls failed. The discovery of nickel and molybdenum nodules from the ocean floor provided the high strength alloys for underwater habitats. The first wave of humans to take refuge became the elite. The second wave became fish farmers, go-betweens, and middlemen. When the last of the landholds failed, the survivors became servants, laborers, and lowest of all miners.
This moment, history didn't enter into Santiago's thoughts. He needed a Poseidon and was desperate for a volunteer. Santiago, Ethan and Higashi held a wordless discussion of pokes, nudges, head-nods, shuffles, and shrugs. They made the most important decision of their young lives without words. Santiago mumbled the decision still facing away from Tagge.
"Go collect whatever's important to you," He should have asked about Tagge's past. Most men in Tagge's family died young from decompression sickness, their bones riddled with holes or their minds addled from Heliox while mining metal nodules. He was the first of his family to attend college and the reason for his intelligence was his unique parentage and altered genetics. He hesitated, unsure he heard Santiago's words. Santiago turned and hollered.
"Are you deaf? I said go get your stuff."
Tagge went to his dorm and collected a few changes of clothing, a second-hand drawing tablet, and his art portfolio.
In an hour, he stood on the deck of the lowest chamber in the Fraternity Dome was cold. Most of these old chambers began as airlocks and were converted to storage. Santiago stood next to a cloth-covered statue and a life-sized 3D printer.
"I always thought Poseidon was temporary tattoos, a pair of speedos, flippers, and a trident," Tagge said.
"We're not like other Fraternities. Pescadores' Poseidon isn't a stage trick. That's why the choice is so prestigious." Santiago pulled the cloth. A life-sized bronze-tone Poseidon stood in naked glory, trident in hand, heroic musculature, gills, webbed feet and hands. It had curly hair, thick beard, and Tagge's face. Tagge walked around the statue, examining it.
"Did you just create this?"
"I printed it while you were collecting your belongings. That's what you'll look like in a few hours."
"Awesome, but I don't have gills and I'm not that muscular."
"You will be for the opening of the Valentine Carnaval."
Santiago made it sound like a simple paint job. A man disappears before the Carnaval and at the opening ceremony a demigod reappears from the ocean depths with hearts and flowers, stupid but entertaining.
Santiago once lived it.
Tagge always thought Santiago looked familiar -- a shift of shoulders, a head movement, a turn of phrase. He finally found proof in the archival book stacks--a yearbook. Unfortunately, Miss Leslie got her hands on it and she was determined to ruin Santiago.
"When I revert will I lose half my age like you did?" Tagge asked. The question stopped Santiago.
"What are you trying to say? I was never Poseidon." He shook his head and tried to shrug away the accusation.
"You can't hide cheekbones or that funky skull of yours. Anatomy 101."
"That was my cousin. Every male in my family has my face. I'm a legacy student. Besides, it was years ago when you were what, an impressionable ten year old boy?" He walked over to the statue for comparison. It was nearly two foot taller and fifty-plus pounds beefier. He put a hand on its shoulder to illustrate the differences.
"I don't believe you. I have an eidetic memory," Tagge proceeded to mimic Santiago's speech as Poseidon from twelve years before word for word, gesture for gesture and when Santiago tried to deny it a second time, he recited the rest of the speeches from the Mayors of the various domes. Santiago's shoulders slumped.
"Damn your memory. How long have you known?" Santiago asked.
"Since yesterday when I found your yearbook on Miss Emily's desk. I borrowed it when she chased us out of the library. Do you remember what she wrote in it?"
Santiago raised his hands defensively and laughed.
"I remember her being a wallflower."
"A wallflower? She remembers it differently. She wrote: 'To my darling stud muffin and special Valentine, I long for your embrace. We will always be together.' In return you called her a brown-bagged, mattress-backed, sperm bank and broke up. That was breathtakingly not nice and she really, really, really hates your guts. Hurricane Leslie is probably screaming through the college dome looking for the yearbook right now."
"That woman could cause a great deal of trouble for me." Santiago pounded one fist into his other hand.
"The College archives contained a single copy in the reserved stacks. That copy is in my backpack. Call it payment, in advance, for services rendered." He leaned against a worktable, waiting for a response. Red-faced, Santiago sputtered. He thumbed through the yearbook to determine its provenance. The love-struck and now vengeful Miss Leslie certainly appeared in it along with the documentation of another dozen acts that Santiago hoped long forgotten. He shelved the yearbook next to a set of manuals and spoke slowly.
"I was young and stupid and I regret my misdeeds."
"That's a good rationalization. Good enough for you to let me be Poseidon." Tagge smiled, sarcastically.
"Yeah," Santiago sneered. He pointed to the chamber. The lights in it revealed a Laser DNA modification chamber. Tagge's eyes popped open and his face lit up in surprise.
"I thought only one Jankowsky Chamber existed." He walked over and touched it.
"Eighty years ago Cyrus Jankowsky was president of Pescadores and he left a legacy to the brotherhood." Santiago walked to the controls. "It turns you into Poseidon. The first cycle bulks your muscles. After a rest, a second cycle grows scales, gills and fins."
"Two cycles? Didn't expect that."
"Single cycle transformations aren't reversible, too much DNA alteration."
Tagge opened the door to the chamber and stepped inside. Santiago waved at him, puzzled and amused.
"Leave your clothes outside."
"Silly of me. How many lives does this thing give? You're on your at least second life, aren't you?" Tagge asked, shucking his clothing and stepping inside the chamber as a sign of trust. Santiago locked it.
"Am I going to regret making you Poseidon?"
"I'm won't summon the Kraken to shake the foundations of the world. I bet my girlfriend I could do it."
Annoyed at Tagge's answer, Santiago shook his head negatively and put his hands on his hips.
Tagge waved him off.
"You're overthinking this."
"If you don't present as a stunning Poseidon, the brotherhood will blame me. I could make life your painful with this thing." The bank of lasers on the side of the chamber glowed blue and hummed to life. Tagge's attitude changed.
"I promise not to disappoint. If you're worried, join me and become Triton. We can both kick off the Carnaval, swimming alongside each other. We would be celebrities for life."
"Been there, done that." Ten laser beams hit Tagge's body. They traced the contours of muscles before penetrating his DNA and changing it. His body pulsed rhythmically like a dance of changes. Each movement relieved the stress and caused his muscles to grow larger, stronger. Instinctively, he flexed and let the Lasers remodel his body but his body started to burn.
"How long," he gasped, hurting.
"Less time than it took for me."
Tagge didn't ask again.
Santiago took his yearbook and reminisced the pain. He found pictures that incriminated him and Miss Leslie as friends with benefits: her profession of love, his messages of lust, both ragging their classmates as ugly inferiors, his words glorying in being a rotten little prick to everyone. He set the yearbook on a shelf and waited for Tagge to finish.
When the first transform cycle ended, Tagge stumbled out of the chamber on webbed feet and collapsed onto Santiago. They wobbled over to an air mattress where Tagge collapsed and slept. Hours later he woke, hungry, aching and stronger than he ever imagined. The hefty growth of curly blond hair and full beard tickled. Santiago handed him a water bottle. Tagge grabbed it and crushed it, squirting water over his face.
"Too strong," Tagge said, gulping another.
"Your body has to get used to being stronger. You can break bones, ride the giant squid and swim with the great whales. To do that takes muscle, scales, and gills." Santiago motioned for him to walk around the chamber. In the Mining Dome, he was always cold. Here, the metal floor didn't feel cold. Neither did the circulating air. The chamber held a variety of devices that only Poseidon could use on Valentine's Day--pink underwater thrones, crowns, masks for pink sharks, dolphin heads, a fish head with sharp teeth far deadlier than any in the textbooks, and an underwater airlock. He ripped a strip of cloth off a pink costume and wrapped it around his crotch like a loincloth. Santiago chuckled.
"At least my junk won't be hanging out," Tagge said. He spied boxes of takeout food on a desk. He sat and opened one.
"I can fix that."
"I don't understand?"
Santiago weighed his answer.
"Years ago, I dangled and didn't care. It wasn't a problem the first day and much of the second day. Then the groupies started and the seekers turned up, seeking attention and turning me into a rabid, humping schnauzer. That got old and stupid real fast. I stayed true to the spirit of Valentine and played cupid." Santiago hung his head in shame.
"I didn't think that anyone would risk modified DNA creating a chimera."
"They didn't know or didn't care." He hesitated, shaking his head again. Tagge put on his most sympathetic face. Santiago continued. "A dozen women got pregnant. The Archon and Advisors of Pescadores gave me the option of supporting all those kids or reverting to childhood and going through puberty again. They buried me deep in the system and I stayed hidden until you and Miss Leslie discovered my secret." Santiago put his head in both hands, seeking sympathy. Tagge shrugged and ate a full container of fried fish, ignoring the pathos. When he finished, he smacked his lips and belched.
"They dangled and you ate the worm hook, line and sinker. Got napkins?" Tagge asked, wiggling his fingers in the air.
"They'll never take the hooks out. They own you. Carnaval is like the gladiator contests of Ancient Rome; red blood and pink sex for the masses." Santiago threw a jar of hand sanitizer to him. Tagge wiped his fingers and dried them on his old and too-small t-shirt.
"I guessed as much. I'm hungry and stiff. It's a shame I can't get to a gym." Tagge stood up and flexed his new and massive musculature. He could touch the ceiling of the chamber and do one-hand pushups. He tried handstands and touched his toes to the ceiling, did splits between benches.
"The machine creates heroic muscles good. You'll look like a true god of the seas and oceans when you get scales. That's what sells the illusion, the scales." Santiago set up the controls of the machine for gills and scales. An image of the colorations appeared on the control screen. The deltoids and back were gold, the biceps, triceps and lower arms emerald green along with the breastplate and torso; dark blue-green shark coloration covered the image's hips, thighs and legs. He tapped a button and added a modesty pouch.
"You want me to add webbed hands and feet? A fin on your back and head, fins on your arms?"
"Hell no. I'd look like that twentieth century movie monster--the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Those gill slits are atrocious." He ran his finger along the thickened neck. His movement caused Santiago to push his chair away from the console and launch into an animated speech about transformations.
"They're show gills, big enough to supply oxygen but look ugly. People might think that but they stay quiet. If you want to stay underwater for more than ten or fifteen minutes without surfacing then you need water flowing over gills. I calculated that to swim deep and fast, the most efficient structure is a blowhole and gills that can act like lungs on the surface. However, creation of the water path around your bone structure and internal organs is impossible to reverse. It's permanent. The Archons don't like a Poseidon they can't revert. It's the same for a Triton. They require skeletal changes to form a tail with a fluke and once you grow a tail, you can't revert. Plus, the functional ones are ugly. A triton like Bernini's statue with tentacle-like legs can't even swim fast."
Tagge pulled a chair over to the computer console and sat.
"You really thought about these changes. How deep can I dive and how long can I stay underwater?"
Santiago typed in a few commands. The specifications for a Poseidon appeared on the screen.
"Twelve minutes and fifteen or sixteen fathoms. Longer than that, you have to carry an Oxy-tube. Deeper will cause brain damage. You might look like the god of the sea but you're still human and still basically live on the land. Like I said, this is like Circus Maximus for Atlantis, nothing but make-believe."
"That's pathetic. I have brothers and friends who train to hold their breath for that long and on saturation dives my brothers can dive ten times as deep."
"Poseidon dives unprotected and lives. Ordinary men use pressure suits to protect their bodies and we both know there's still damage. I've seen what happens when a pressure suit fails. It crushes." Santiago grimaced at the thought.
"We call it the octopus death," Tagge said in a soft voice.
"You know diving from doing it and I know diving because I studied diving physiology for decades. It was my doctoral thesis and a monograph. I reworked most of Jankowsky's designs based on the possible DNA changes from this machine." Santiago pulled a galley print from his backpack and let Tagge read it. In an appendix were illustrations of various body modifications and their suitability for underwater survival. Tagge put the monograph down. His face was grim. Conversion for safe mining was possible but unlikely under the current government.
"Everything in your monograph we knew from experience. The human body wasn't built for underwater mining." He tapped the desk with a finger.
"Those changes are the reason they trapped me into being Poseidon. Professor Geruchsniffer says the monograph is dangerous and won't be read into law for decades. This current government is all politics-for-show like the Carnaval."
Tagge scratched at his new beard. He leaned forward and pointed a finger at Santiago's chest in a challenge.
"You once asked me if you would regret turning me into Poseidon and I replied that I wasn't going to summon the Kraken. Would you be willing to shake the foundations of the world? What if Poseidon and his son Triton rose from the sea and claimed power? What if the god of the sea ordered society to change?" Tagge leaned back and folded his arms, hoping. Instead, Santiago gave him a harsh look.
"Before we go down the path of earthquakes and sea monsters I need to know one thing; is Miss Leslie in on your plan?"
"Hell no. She'd hates your guts and that's all that motivates her."
"Good. It's time for your second treatment but before you do, here's is a real Poseidon, a denizen of the ocean." The parameters of the transform would make this transformed man capable of deep dives with the whales and living on the floor of the ocean.
"The perfect Poseidon for the miners of the deep. I won't call you Sonny if you won't call me Sonny," Tagge said. Santiago shook his head up and down, agreeing.
"This design was Jankowsky's aim in creating the Laser Transformation chamber. I think he wanted to turn Homo Sapiens into fish-men and recreate civilization in the ocean. When I threatened to expose his writings, the Archons screwed me." Santiago's face scrunched up in a frown. Tagge pressed him.
"Let's make his dream come true. Would Poseidon look much different than merely cosmetic?"
"Not by much; thicker skin, stronger scales, sleeker gill slits, and webbed feet. The blowhole cover would resemble a pauldron. Years ago fraternities used blowholes, so you'll look retro. Only you would feel the difference between your current internal organs and the pressure resistant organs." He called the design on the screen, waited a moment and then turned the machine to standby.
"What's holding you back?" Tagge asked.
"Me becoming Triton. I might have led a despicable life but it's the only life I have. I'll be ocean bound and not able to walk again. That's lonely. Poseidon at least has family and friends."
"Not if there's a Shoal of Tritons. I'll call my brothers and their friends. They'll jump at the chance to be Tritons."
"That won't work. The Fraternity will go nuts with gossip if a bunch of miners show up at the front door. Then government will shut us down."
"You've got an airlock."
"Air locks require lots of air. Someone would notice."
"Not the airlock in this chamber. It's made for divers to enter with breathing gear. Pressurizing water is easy. The diver gears up, jumps into the pool, swims to the lock, seals the hatch and equalizes the pressure. It only requires a small pump to raise or lower the pressure inside the lock."
Santiago gave him a stupid and doubting look. He went to the controls at the main hatch and pushed a button. The door to a water-filled pressure chamber opened in the chamber's water pool.
"I feel real stupid. Never knew it worked that way. Tell your brothers that I'll be waiting," Santiago said. Tagge sent a message describing the airlock and entered the transformation chamber.
"They're already calling you our hero." He closed the door to the chamber.
"Remember what Ovid says: 'Then gives it breath; the blast with doubling sound, runs the wide circuit of the world around.' And 'it', my friend, is called revolution."
"!Viva la Revolucion!" Tagge answered. Santiago initiated Tagge's total transformation to Poseidon. When the Lasers hit, he could hear Tagge moaning. His transformation would be harsher. He dreaded it but first, he loaded his yearbook into a small submersible and launched it to the deep ocean floor.
"Maybe in this incarnation I'll enjoy humanity. I'll be Nerites to his Poseidon," he said wistfully to no one. He looked at Tagge changing under the influence of the device. "He wouldn't be as cut and buff or handsome as I like but he will unwittingly be Cupid's gift on this Valentine's Day from me to me. This may be the biggest adventure of my several lives."
End of story