We slammed down to the surface inside a sphere filled with suspension fluid that tastes of the memory of vodka. We breathed it in, letting the physics of fluid keep us in one piece.
Lena gave me a thumbs up as she unclipped her harness and swam towards me. She massaged the spot on her jaw that activated the radio telepathy. My scalp prickled as the familiar jarring sensation of my bones preparing to conduct her voice into my head so we could communicate inaudibly.
She unsealed the hatch and we held on as the suspension fluid emptied out. It broke down into inert compounds, entirely soluble and we coughed out our share. Our eyes met and we grinned at one another.
‘We made it.’ I said.
She gave me the thumbs up.
‘Let’s go fishing.’
The sphere bobbed on the waves but Lena squatted with drilled grace as she retrieved her pack and depressed a series of rounded switches before she plunged her hands into the centre of it. The pack rippled and travelled over her hands and down her arms. She was covered in a layer of nanite-woven material. I picked up my own pack and repeated her movements. It moved across my skin like a whisper. Millions of robots making material from the surrounding air. It was as light as silk, took on impact like steel plate and kept out foreign bodies and vectors of infection. The nanites wove a different pattern over our heads and faces, weaving an invisible veil of tiny propeller powered robots around our heads.
Most of all, 725 necessitated remaining warm and dry.
The entire surface of the planet was covered in water. Our craft had been designed to explore it. We would move by activating bacterial sacs that blew out jets of chemical propulsion but the drop had been accurate. Lena climbed out of the hatch and onto the sphere.
It bothered me that we were the first humans here, and we had become so accustomed to it that we simply went to work.
The company had conducted deep scans and sent out drones to explore and stream back live data. The initial data presented a thriving ecosystem and some interesting rock formations. Most of all, there were no natives to negotiate with.
Yes, we did do that. It was always smarter to make friends rather than enemies.
Lena’s feet and hands generated minute barbed hairs on her soles and palms as she climbed up the sphere and slipped onto her front
‘I used to like fishing. Did you ever go fishing, Gee?’
I laughed and told her no, I had not.
Her voice was a honeyed drawl. It was pure Southern in its sweet, tough allure. She was compact, almost androgynous in her lean frame. That was both deliberate and a matter of the genetic enhancements she had taken on as part of her contract.
Women like us represented the thinking around manned space exploration Women coped better in proximity. We suffered less from intercranial pressure and we retained less iron in our blood. These were baseline genetic advantages before the science started to push the envelope of what was possible. What was human.
We were here to retrieve a specimen from one of the most populous species. They resembled giant shrimp, moving in schools that spanned several miles. They would rest on the surface for a time before disappearing into the depths. Getting one would allow us to tag and track them. Research and Development would take over from there. We never asked.
That was never recommended.
This location had been determined through its proximity to the routes they would take. All we had to do was sit here, scoop one up and wait for the pickup. Ostensibly it’s a giant ice cream scoop that flings us back up into station orbit, launched from a single spring and using kinetic energy to power it down.
‘Pass me the BB.’
The Bubble Bobble was a passive weapon that sent out a swarm of nanites who would weave a spider silk and graphene sphere around whatever you wanted it to. It was a handgun with a retractable stock and a fibre optic cable that plugged into the suit and gave you God Mode accuracy.
‘So did you ever fish with a gun, Lena?’ I said.
She chuckled and whispered a rude word.
The sound of their motion registered in our displays. They moved quickly, generating momentum and forcing the water ahead of them. Lena told me she was setting up. I went to set up the tank. I activated a live stream from a satellite positioned over our sector. Their motion generated patterns of cerulean and emerald, sparks of scarlet and purple.
‘We need one, right?’ Lena said.
I sent her an emoji of a smiley face and a thumbs up. I checked the simulation data and activated the tank.
It charged towards us, the data shouting its glory into the world.
‘This is going to be messy.’
I counted down.
The data went flat.
‘What the fuck?’
Lena chuckled and gave a slow whistle.
‘They might have stopped.’
I shook my head and superimposed previous patterns of travel with what just happened.
”Or they know we’re here.’ I said.
Her response was unusual.
A wet, choking sound. I sent an optical cortex override which allowed me to connect to whatever information her suit was transmitting.
I jumped to the veil.
The white, slick tentacle that whipped the air in front of her.
The blood that dripped from the tip.
The other tentacles that crammed through her veil. They greasily insinuated themselves into her nostrils and down her throat. Her thoughts were packed and red as her oxygen reserves faded in the face of such a gross invasion.
I shut off and sealed the hatch. I sent an emergency message to the Station A.I and went to the action station and took out the Thumper.
Something had borrowed Lena’s voice but it could not mirror her inflections and patterns.
I will not communicate with you until you relinquish my colleague.
We don’t want to hurt you Grace.
She sent an image and it sent me down into blackness.
I came to slowly. I tasted blood and my head throbbed with a sick, deep agony.
During orientation, there had been a guest lecturer from Research and Development. He did not make eye contact easily and his voice had been a soggy whisper.
I had experienced etic reality. Reality seen from the outside. Alien. Encounters with such things were to be immediately reported.
There was the slick snap of tentacles against the sphere.
‘I’m sorry we never get to talk more, Lena.’
Lena was silent now. I curled up into a ball and let the despair press down on me.
I shut my eyes and surrendered to the darkness.
The change in pressure when the hatch was torn away made me look up.
Its gleaming tentacles rushed in.
I opened my eyes.