“Almost a year ago, you discovered the Ivory Chasm for us,” Faisbain said. “This was after you mapped the Bayless Plume. Two such objectives, discovery and a completed survey, in the space of three months was tremendous work and the company was eager for you to go further afield, to scout locations even farther away from the station.”
She paused and pursed her lips. “But there was a problem, wasn’t there, Salvia?”
“I didn’t want to do it.” Salvia’s voice was barely above a mutter, but it was still heard.
Faisbain nodded her head. “That’s right. You didn’t want to do it. And from a promising start two years ago, the productivity of this station dwindled, then crashed. We wondered if you were suffering from a dietary deficiency, but you weren’t, were you?”
Salvia shook her head.
“Nor was it the difficulty of the task. You’re a highly intelligent young woman who took great joy in your past achievements.”
Salvia watched the doctor silently, twitching her limbs occasionally to maintain her position in the tank.
“Then, a little over seven months ago, you came into the station and told me that you weren’t going to do any more work for the company unless we found a way to alleviate your boredom.”
Put like that, Salvia conceded that it made her sound more than a little churlish. But the station staff always had things to do and, when they didn’t, they had company to spend time with. She, on the other hand, had no-one. Nobody to share her discoveries with for almost two whole Earth years. Under the circumstances, she hadn’t considered her request unreasonable.
“After our numerous…discussions, I decided to contact the company with your request, and I have some good news for you.”
The smile that broke across Faisbain’s face was sudden and bright.
“The company accelerated a current programme of theirs and shipped it to us here on Europa.”
Salvia thought she must not be getting something, because that sentence didn’t make any sense to her.
“Current programme?” she asked. “Shipped? Shipped what?”
Faisbain widened her eyes. “Why, a companion of course! A male. He docked yesterday with the Nemo. We’ve been running him through a battery of tests to make sure he’s fully compatible with the ocean environment but think he’s ready for his first exploratory swim. Would you like to meet him?”
Salvia blinked her outer eyelids. She hadn’t been expecting such a swift response from her employer and creator. Had they really created a male, just for her? Just like her? Caught between apprehension and a growing excitement, she said nothing.
“If you swim down to Port Five, you’ll be able to meet him in person,” the biologist told her, adding a cajoling note to her voice. She turned and pressed a button on an adjacent console. The panel beneath Salvia’s feet slid open again. “Why don’t you go now and I’ll meet up with you there?”
Faisbain turned and moved towards the door at the back of the room. Feeling strangely anxious, Salvia slowly flipped her body and swam back down, past the small observation windows, and out of the tube completely. She knew how the ports were numbered, and headed to a panel of three human-sized hatches along the bottom of the station, skimming close to the station’s metal skin as she swam.
It was cooler up here near the water’s surface. A normal human would have suffered from hypothermia in minutes. Salvia, on the other hand, felt nothing more than a refreshing chill against her flesh. She needed it. She felt hot, as if her heart was pumping more and more blood through her body. In order to keep calm, she tried thinking of other things.
Like the temperature of the water.
She liked the variation in the marine climates of Jupiter’s moon, for example. It was clear and a little cold adjacent to the crust of ice that enfolded the rocky satellite, except where the hot water from geothermal vents weakened the solid water, forming cracks that looked out at the thin Europa atmosphere and the vacuum of space beyond. Afraid of what might happen if she was caught in a boiling updraft, Salvia stayed well away from the ice, except for her visits to the station. Where she normally swam, deep down, sometimes skimming the moon’s rocky core, it was warm and comforting. There were no dangers down there she couldn’t deal with, as long as she kept her eyes open and didn’t swim directly into a hot, bubbling geothermal vent. All these things were what she would need to teach her male companion; that is, if the male actually existed and Dr. Faisbain wasn’t playing a trick on her. Humans liked to do that, from time to time.
Salvia saw a large illuminated number “5” next to a hatch and slowed, looking through the neighbouring window with curiosity.
The window was set into the floor of the fifth launch bay, looking down into the ocean depths. Salvia looked up at the foreshortened legs of three humans as they moved about. They were shifting a long metal tank closer to the hatch. The tank must have been heavy, because the station members looked like they were straining their muscles. One of them even had beads of sweat on his forehead. Salvia reflexively lifted a hand to her face but, of course, she didn’t sweat. And even if she did, the water surrounding her would wash her perspiration away in a second.
After the humans moved the tank to the position they wanted, they started tilting it so the end of the tank sat upright on the hatch opening. At this point, Dr. Faisbain entered. The scientist wasn’t aware of it but, in the time she spent training Salvia for her job, Salvia had learnt to lip-read through the thick transparent panels. She narrowed her eyes, damning the glare, and concentrated on the biologist’s lips.
“How far are we from a ‘go’ situation?” Faisbain asked.
Luckily, someone who was only a little in profile answered, his mouth almost fully visible to Salvia.
“We can jettison the cargo now if you like,” he said.
Cargo? Salvia thought they were handling a person like her. What kind of “cargo” were they going to drop into the ocean? A robot submersible? An oceanic sensor array? Was she right? Had they lied to her?
“Let’s do it,” she said with a sigh. “Haber wants his luggage in the ocean yesterday. But stay sharp. The greatest difficulty will be from thermal shock and we’ll have to begin retrieval protocols instantly if we detect it. Better to find out sooner rather than later if we have a dud on our hands.”
Another technician moved to a console and said something. Unfortunately she had her back to Salvia, so only a low buzz was audible.
What did they mean about jettisoning cargo? About the cargo being a dud? Salvia wanted to think about the questions more but a dull creak vibrated through the water towards her. She turned in time to see the hatch fully retract. In a plume of obscuring white bubbles, something dropped into the water.
Salvia wanted to approach the object but she stayed where she was, confused by what had been discussed in the launch bay. Then the object began to move by itself. Salvia watched it cautiously, then gasped as her vision cleared and the bubbles rose to the station’s metal skin and skidded upwards.
It was a person! Her heart thumping, she approached the stranger, circling with slow practised movements, her gaze never leaving the newcomer’s body.
Faisbain was right. It was a him. Like her, he had a slit low on his abdomen, but it was short and his skin was smooth and unbroken at the juncture of his thighs. Dr. Faisbain had told her that many of her adaptive features were taken from Earth mammals called dolphins and, from her educational vids, Salvia could see this was one example of it.
She circled him again while he remained calm in the water. When she was in front of him, his large dark eyes focused on her, but he didn’t turn his head when she went around his back. His skin was smooth and glowing a neutral purple, even along his spine where a dorsal fin erupted, although there was a small circle of blue at the junction of back and fin. Salvia had been told of early attempts to craft something that was more fish-like, able to fan out or lie flat against the body depending on circumstances, but they couldn’t get it to work. Eventually, the scientists settled on a thick fixed membrane, kept erect by extruded vertebrae.
The webbing between his fingers and long toes were just like hers, which meant that the light shallow mounds on his forehead, cheeks and chin must be on hers as well. She had never seen more than dim glass reflections of her facial photophores, those large organs that augmented her vision and turned the dark of the ocean into a wonderland of exquisite detail. The mounds looked…interesting, like small shiny mirrors reflecting the world.
Her skin gleamed blue with satisfaction, shifting to orange and then back again to blue as she continued her leisurely examination. She flexed her shoulders, almost sure that hers weren’t quite as broad as his. And while her legs were muscular and powerful, the stranger’s seemed to be bigger and thicker, as were his arms. If he could help her lift away rocks on their exploratory journeys, he would prove to be very useful.
The voice came from the speaker just next to the hatch.
Dr. Faisbain. She’d forgotten.
She spun around and headed for the window. Inside the launch bay, Faisbain was crouched down, watching her.
“We haven’t had time to properly introduce you,” she said with a smile. “Salvia, your new companion is called Rhus.” Her gaze shifted to somewhere behind Salvia’s right shoulder. “Rhus, this is Salvia. Up till now, she’s been the only full-time resident of Europa.”
Salvia felt ripples brush her fin as Rhus approached.
His voice, while higher in tone than a normal human’s and designed to cut through water with less interference, was still deeper than hers.
“Hello,” she said politely, not knowing what else to say. Her body, rippling yellow and pink was, she hoped, the only outward indication of her embarrassment.
Dr. Faisbain chuckled as she watched them through the porthole. “Why don’t you take Rhus for a quick look around? Don’t be too long. We need to complete his medical check-up before we release him into your tender care.”
Salvia was more than happy to hear the request. Without waiting to see if Rhus was following, she darted away from the station.
At first, she had a stretch of beloved water to herself. Then, she felt the presence of someone skimming close to her. She flashed him a look—he had almost collided with her!—and, annoyed, dived down, spiralling through the currents like a torpedo. To her chagrin, he followed, almost at her heels. She levelled out at the Zaymen Ridge, the first and most explored of Europa’s underwater features, and slalomed between its stubby pillars, trying to outdistance him. When she finally came to an exhausted halt near the end of the ridge, he was behind her, but only by a handful of lengths. However, she noted with satisfaction that he appeared to be more out of breath than her.
“What did you do that for?” he asked, in between gasps. He flexed his back rhythmically, urging more water into his lungs.
“Dr. Faisbain told me to give you a ‘quick look around’,” she said, “and that’s exactly what I did.”
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