Down To A Sunless Sea
Escorted by the assassin and her sisters, Hari passed through an airlock into a short tunnel lined with stained white ceramic, where hidden machines blitzed him with microwaves, neutrino beams, and X-rays. He was forced to surrender his book, felt a small surge of relief when it was returned to him after it had been interrogated inside a virtual space as ancient as the tunnel’s security protocols. It was the only thing he’d brought with him. He’d left everything of his old life behind, but he hadn’t been able to abandon or give away the book, and not just because it was a memento of the dead man who had saved his life, or because it had smuggled the copies of the eidolon and the djinn aboard Pabuji’s Gift. He had carried it through adventures and hardships; its stories had amused and amazed and informed him; he was bonded to it by something stronger than sentiment or gratitude. And he hoped that some trace of the djinn might still be hidden inside it; it was a faint and foolish hope, but he needed all the help he could get.
With two of the assassins in front of him and two behind, he descended a ramp that spiralled down a vertical shaft. A small zoo of machines squatted in alcoves and niches cut into the raw, rough ice of the shaft’s wall. Most were dead, mantled with frost, but a few reached out with brief whispers of microwaves and a man-shaped bot stepped forward to watch the little procession go past, its eyes burning red in the chilly shadows of its crypt.
A string of lamps hung down the centre of the shaft, and presently Hari saw that their little lights were reflected on a black circle below.
Water. The still surface of the buried sea.
Three streamlined scooters were moored at the bottom of the ramp. Hari climbed aboard one behind one of the assassins, as he’d once ridden behind Riyya, and the scooters drove down a long tunnel and at last emerged into a limitless cavern. An icy overhead stretched away in every direction, lit by chains of floating lamps. Swales and humps like inverted hills, fins, long gashes fringed with stalactites dozens of metres long. Grids of illuminated rafts hung all around, dangling streamers of red and brown weed. In the far distance, a chain of fat spheres dwindled into the deep dark.
Hari felt a flutter of relief. As he’d guessed, as he’d hoped, Sri Hong-Owen’s daughters hadn’t entirely thrown off their human instincts. They lived close to the overhead of their pocket sea. They were vulnerable. And because they hadn’t shut down his p-suit’s deep radar, he could see the floor more than two kilometres below, could glimpse immense bulkheads, walls, curving away, delimiting a chamber was less than five kilometres across. He supposed that it had been sealed off from the rest of the subsurface ocean so that it could be warmed and oxygenated. A small, vulnerable bubble habitat.
His escorts drove him to a pod hung from a smooth bulge of ice where small schools of fish flickered amongst a fuzzy turf of red weed and clusters of fleshy flowers pulsing on bony stalks. They pushed him through the entrance, a moon pool at the base where external hydrostatic pressure was balanced by internal atmospheric pressure, and sealed him in. It was spherical, the pod, chilly and damp, divided into three levels by mesh platforms. In the lowest level, a teardrop-shaped cleaning bot that had clearly gone insane was slowly working its way around the rim of moon pool, following a shallow, circular groove it had carved into the floor. It might have been working there for centuries.
There was no link Hari could latch on to, through either his bios or the suit comms. He couldn’t open any windows in the pale walls.
He wondered if the Saints had managed to intercept Pabuji’s Gift. The manikins controlled by the eidolon and the copy of the djinn should be enough to hold them off, but even if they gained control of the ship it didn’t matter. By now, its course had been set and its motor had been shut down. If the Saints tried to take control, if they tried to restart the motor, they’d trigger his little surprise; if they didn’t, it would activate itself in a little under seven hours. Meanwhile, there was nothing Hari could do until Sri Hong-Owen’s daughters decided to talk to him.
He had a long wait. He couldn’t detect any toxins or contaminants in the pod’s atmosphere – a standard nitrox mix – but he kept his p-suit sealed. He watched the clock he’d set up in his visor display tick down, tried not to think about the potential flaws in his plan. Such as it was. He mostly sat still, trying to seem calmer than he felt.
The insane cleaning bot completed a painfully slow circuit, began another. At last, with three hours remaining on the countdown, a patch in the opaque wall cleared. He ankled towards it, felt a flutter of relief when he looked out and saw a little cluster of faint shapes rising through the black water. Sri Hong-Owen’s daughters were coming for him.