The submersible floated down through the midnight-blue depths like a falling star. Unlike Earth, the waters of Tethys were still pure and unpolluted. With no habitable land to speak of, it remained untouched by the surge of humanity settling new worlds, of interest only to scientists and prospectors.
“Look.” Jon tapped the screen showing the view from the front cameras.
Fatima leaned past him. In the distance they could see light. One of the underwater habitats, the equivalent of coral reefs, floated in the darkness, shining like a festive UFO. The bubble-like jellies supporting it had a soft, translucent glow, while the network of plant-like structures forming its skeleton were home to creatures that shone like red and blue baubles. Amongst the branches of the structure, there were shadowy hints of movement as fish analogues darted about their home.
Jon and Fatima were a contracted couple, as many of the prospectors on the planet were. When you were in a confined space together for months at a go, it helped to be in a relationship. The third member of their crew, Sev, was a synthetic, although he looked every bit as human as his crewmates.
“Something large on the sonar. It’s coming straight for us.” Sev’s voice lacked human inflection. On Tethys, there were plenty of predators capable of swallowing research vessels like this whole.
“Fuck,” Fatima swore.
“It could be another habitat,” suggested Jon.
Sev shook his head.
“No. It’s moving too quickly. It should be on visual in a minute.”
“It’s a kraken; a small one, luckily,” said Fatima.
So named because it had a similar body shape and two long arms like a squid, the kraken was an apex predator, with wide jaws full of fang-like protrusions. It had clearly mistaken the submersible for prey.
“Better than a jawsome.”
A kraken attacked by grabbing hold of its prey–the hull could be electrified to deter it. Jon rested a finger on the console, ready.
The vessel shook as the creature’s arms latched onto it.
Jon pressed the button. The lights dimmed and the vessel shook once more as the kraken let go.
“It’s retreating.” Fatima hugged her partner, then Sev.
“Indeed,” said the synthetic. Then, it looked at a screen. “May I draw your attention to this?”
“What is it?” Jon asked.
“An anomalous energy source.”
Fatima checked the logs. “There aren’t supposed to be any other vessels in a hundred klicks of here.”
“There is no identification beacon,” Sev added.
“Interesting.” Fatima turned to Jon. “Let’s take a look.”
He nodded and tapped in the course.
“We’ll be there in about an hour,” he told her.
They travelled in silence, save for necessary comments on their progress. They had catalogued seven new species and two mineral deposits on their current tour, and had learned not to speculate without hard data.
“Nothing on visual,” said Jon as they drew near.
Fatima looked up. “Nothing on sonar. It’s a tangle of rocks down there.”
“It may be below the seabed,” suggested Sev.
“That’d be my guess, too.”
Before anything more could be said, the lights flickered, then failed. The screens and consoles died, leaving them in total darkness save for the luminescent safety strips.
“Do you think there’s a leak?” asked Fatima.
“There was no warning from diagnostics,” said Sev, “nor any reason for one to have occurred.”
“I don’t –” Fatima’s expression changed from concern to worry.
The gentle hum of the air purification system disappeared, and there was no vibration from the engines. The submersible was dead in the water.
“All systems offline,” Sev confirmed.
“An instantaneous loss of power,” murmured Jon.
Sev gave a curt nod in the faint luminescence. “Indeed. Under normal circumstances, the vessel should retain battery power. Its absence suggests catastrophic failure.”
“A hull breach.”
“But, surely,” said Fatima, “if the hull were breached to such an extent, well.…” She pressed her hands together to indicate the likely outcome.
“It could be something to do with the anomaly,” said Jon.
“A power drain? But, if so, why is Sev still functioning?”
“My construction parallels organic life, in some respects. It may be that I am immune in the same way that the electrical activity in your brains is unaffected. Or, it may be that a hull breach is to blame.”
“The only way to be sure,” said Fatima, “is to go take a look.”
“I’ll go,” said Jon.
Sev interrupted him.
“It would be best for me to go.”
Jon shook his head. “You’re only certified waterproof to three-hundred meters and, according to the last figures I saw, we are well below that depth.”
“It is my programmed duty to protect you from danger. I will go.”
Jon threw up his hands in surrender.
“Don’t be long,” said Fatima.
“I will return shortly,” said the synthetic, heading for the airlock. “I would appreciate your assistance in manually operating the doors for me.”
“Sure.” Jon stood and followed.
A few minutes later, the synthetic was outside on the hull. Ten minutes passed, then twenty.
Jon was pacing. “He should be back by now.”
“Maybe there was a small breach, and he’s trying to fix it?”
Jon shook his head.
“No, something is wrong.”
The vessel shuddered and began to move.
“Yeah, something is definitely wrong.”
Fatima grabbed his arm to steady herself.
“No, I don’t think so. The motion is too smooth; I’d say mechanical. Definitely not a predator chomping down on prey.”
“I hope Sev’s okay,” murmured Fatima.
“I hope we are,” said Jon.
Then, the motion ceased and they looked at one another in the dim light, wondering what was about to follow.
“What do you think?”
Jon shrugged. “I guess whoever it is has us where they want us.”
“But, who could it be? If UEC didn’t want us in the area, they’d put an embargo on the zone.”
“With no beacon?”
“Could be bootleggers.”
Fatima shook her head. “The anomaly wasn’t some two-credit craft. It’d have to be corporate or government and UEC controls who comes on-planet.”
They fell silent. The only possibilities left were crazy.
“So, what do we do?” Jon asked at last.
“It’s either wait, or go take a look outside. I suggest we suit up and take a stroll.”
She waved a hand as Jon tried to interrupt.
“Yeah, yeah, I know. What happened to Sev? It could be suicide, but how long will we last in here with the air filtration down? If they don’t come aboard soon, it’ll be suicide to stay here.”
“You’re right,” he admitted. “Plus, I am feeling a little curious. Okay, a lot curious. Fine, let’s suit up and take a look. But, if we get killed, I will be blaming you.”
She grinned and nodded.
They headed for the airlock and climbed into the heavy reinforced suits mounted beside it.
The suits, too, had been drained of power, so there was no motor to propel them, nor the integral muscle analogues that increased their strength. Luckily, the submersible was sitting on the bottom of what they guessed to be a cavern, so they drifted down a few metres and then were able to walk.
There was a faint glow overhead.. At least they could see one another and make out the seabed and where it began to rise. Fatima gestured for Jon to follow her and began to climb toward the glow.
A couple of minutes later, their helmeted heads broke the surface of the water. There was air in the upper part of the cavern. They stumbled awkwardly out of the water. The cavern was the size of a dropship. A bluish, bioluminescent glow came from the walls and ceiling.
“Well,” said Jon, “I don’t see a welcoming committee.”
“Ah, shit,” Fatima swore and pointed.
“What is it?” Jon asked, following the line of her finger.
It was Sev, scattered about in numerous pieces. Sev might have been a synthetic, but he’d become part of their makeshift family.
There was a slight twitch of one severed arm and Fatima ran over to the remains and crouched by the head.
The lips on the mangled head moved silently, causing a dangling eye to swing on a fibre-optic cord. “The… light…” they managed to say.
Fatima stood and shook her head. “Must be nearly drained. Said something about ‘the light.’”
Jon shrugged. “Maybe synths see a tunnel, too, when they die.”
Then, the glow suddenly intensified.
“What the–” Jon looked wildly about.
“The light…” Fatima murmured, still not quite understanding.
The bluish luminescence had become brighter and seemed almost to be pressing in upon them.
“I can see… pictures…” murmured Jon. “It’s… it’s communicating… somehow…”
“It’s alive…” gasped Fatima.
They’d assumed the light belonged to unthinking algae.
The images were disjointed and vague, as if the product of something that saw without eyes. They could sense fear and rage, and an infinity of ocean.
Then, the light faded and the cavern returned to silent emptiness.
“It’s alive… intelligent…” said Fatima, uncertain if ‘it’ was the glow, the cave, the sea or the world.
“I think…” Jon paused and framed his thoughts. “I think it detected our intrusion into its world.We haven’t done much, yet, but we must be messing it up. It hates us and fears us.”
“Yet, it hasn’t killed us,” Fatima interrupted.
“No. Maybe it wanted to assess us, understand us.”
“But, why destroy Sev?”
“He wasn’t alive. Maybe it couldn’t communicate with him and it did it in a rage. Or, maybe it was curious. After all, it couldn’t shut him down like it did the sub.”
“Okay. But, what are we supposed to do now?”
As if in answer to her question, they suddenly became aware of the glow of the submersible shining up into the cavern.
“It’s restored power,” said Jon; “It wants us to take back a warning. This planet is already occupied.”
They trudged back into the water, glancing nervously about, fearful lest this be some cruel trick.
“I think we should leave Tethys,” Jon said.
“Uh-huh. But, I don’t know if the UEC will give it up. They’ve invested a lot in this world.”
“And,” she added as they reached their vessel, “this is humanity’s first encounter with what appears to be intelligent life. They won’t just let that go.”
Jon looked at Fatima as the water emptied out of the airlock. “No, we’re not smart enough to leave it alone.