Episode Three [Preview]
At mission’s end, Sofita struggles to contain the Shell’s intrusion into her consciousness while facing off against Pym Zhang’s monstrous creations.
RKG Post #8 – East Ramaxian Coast
Ramaxi`acarol (Southern Ocean)
4 Yubol 2228 – 1520 Hours
Colossal sculptures marked each intersection of longitude lines along the southernmost circle of latitude.
Taller than any pre-impact skyscraper, the majestic statues of the Ramaxian Kyrs Gat represented historically relevant citizens and connected a deadly barrier of invisible energy designed to destroyed helovx ships entering the Ramaxi’acarol.
The cyber-marine lifeforms of World Oceans possessed a string of code in their bio-ware that allegedly protected them from the Gate’s field; Orny’s decision to set down just outside the barrier testified to its futility.
Sofita stood upon the Ornith’s crown, awaiting her Donmat.
“Should I call in our position, Komad?” Dox called from the cabin.
“Scouts can ascertain our position if required,” Sofita replied, kicking off her boots and tossing past the Donmat as she exited the roof hatch.
Dox eyeballed her. “You’re going into the water?”
“Not alone,” she stepped out of her uniform pants and pointed her head. “Down to the OA’s, Donmat.”
After a beat, Dox reluctantly tugged at her uniform jacket.
Stripping deliberate and slow, her usual speed when taking part in anything that didn’t excite her, she glanced at the towering marix beside them, its arm raised and palm aimed.
“That’s Balrusok,” Sofita volunteered before diving into the sea.
Dox splashed down several moments later, deftly passing Sofita with those long legs of hers. She climbed onto the bulkhead around the statue’s foot, and anxiously surveyed the sea around them.
“Did the ‘Sixers have uniforms?” she asked, helping Sofita out of the chop.
“These statues are idealized. That uniform’s a Fifth Gen design,” Sofita took a moment to catch her breath. “Why does your Gen call the original-subjects, ‘Sixers? Their number exceeded one-hundred-fifty thousand?”
Dox shrugged. “Why do you call them ‘Originals?”
“Is that rhetorical?”
“The Femati were here first, Kul.”
Sofita smiled. “Your genetic ties to the Femati are minuscule.”
“What do you mean, Kul?”
“Your soup came from the Fifth Gen.”
Before announcing a production year, hive Oligax withdrew a deceased generation’s recycled mitochondria from cryogenic storage. Fertility engineers used this material to formulate ‘the soup,’ a base that, when mixed with a citizen’s makodonic cells, created her Makodonic Patch.
Dox fell in behind her.
“Is that why there’s two years of us?”
“There are two years of you because the Ninth are vindictive,” Sofita answered, leading her to an entry door in the statue’s big toe. “Open it.”
Dox pulled off the hand-print reader’s box casing and exposed a knot of fleshy cables. “When I was a Toob,” she relayed, “I saw the northernmost one, at Dirtox Point. Our Dokomad told us it was Femitokon, but her uniform was different.”
“Femitokon wears a Primary’s uniform,” she said, observing the young marix tap some numbers into a tiny interface pad wrapped around the cables. “Again, they’re idealized.”
When the door slid open, they entered a circular control room surrounded by monitors that stretched from floor to ceiling.
Dox tore her gaze from the panoramic view outside.
“Where’s the watch crew, Komad?”
Sofita grinned, “In the head.”
“What’s so funny?” she asked, following her.
“Helovx sailors call their ship toilets, the head,”
“That makes no sense,” she quipped, exiting out the heel of Balrusok’s boot.
Sofita rounded the bulkhead and waved to the Ornith.
“Where’s Orny going?” she cried as the silvery sphere flap its wings, rose from the surf, and sped off into the horizon.
Without answering her young charge, Sofita dove into the sea.
Long-distance swimming wasn’t Dox’s strongest suit, but those long legs allowed her to keep up for the five hours it took them to make landfall. She mounted the jagged shoreline with ease as marixi reached their physical peak around age twenty. Sofita fell upon the crags, gasping for breath and feeling all her forty-three years; hizaki experienced no physical peak.
“Where to, Komad?” Dox eagerly jumped in place.
Sofita took a breath.
“Our destination is the Fairgrounds,”
Dox jogged off into the white. “It’s this way!”
Sofita trudged after her in the packed snow.
“When I was thirteen, I accompanied my sib up here,” she yelled over the tundra wind and slowing Dox down. “She had a surface-final coming up. We came up here to get a feel for it.”
“My first time on the ice was amazing!” Dox cried.
“Mine was pitiful,” Sofita huffed beside her on the snow. “Obscene white, in every direction. I’m still unable to navigate.”
Dox laughed, slowing her pace to remain beside her.
“Your caste is born able to keep your bearings over terrain lacking visual cues,” Sofita felt her chest loosen as her body acclimated to the run. “Before acquiring the Shell, I enrolled in a bizak-led course on tundra awareness.”
“Bizaki got to learn it,” Dox laughed. “Bellies struggle, too, right?”
“Only subaki can navigate the white like marixi.”
“I didn’t know that!” Dox hollered over the wind.
“No one did until your generation grew up.”
Oxygen intoxication had been the leading cause of death among the original subaki. The nurturing caste suffered from congenital fematcolx, a genetic connection to the ancient Femati that gave them the tiniest alveoli of any caste.
After the demise of the Femaki’xirpaxul, this condition mutated with eight out of ten subaki born with smaller than normal alveoli. Those affected who spent more than a day on the surface succumbed to fematicolixa, a respiratory failure that helovx termed hyperoxia.
Velto Wram, during her days as a representative, sponsored the development of The Subcolax Corrective, a serum that entered the lungs of unborn subaki and altered any dwarfed alveoli’s development. Subolax had enabled Eleventh Gen subaki to serve between the poles, attend sporting events, and acquire Surface Operational positions that proved the caste fitter for surface life that most marixi.
Further inland, the conversation became impossible as winds whipped from every direction, and within hours, Sofita felt her feet sinking deeper into the snow.
The eastern ice sheet was the only one to survive the planet’s Dark Years; its girth greater since Zealandia’s rise brought rainy fronts that fell as snow. Forced glaciation below kept the Prime Ramax stable, but fresh-pack was loose enough to swallow a femmar whole if she wasn’t careful.
“We’re losing density,” she shouted.
“We should keep going!” Dox hollered. “Uymtik packs roam the perimeter, but they won’t come into the soft pack. We can dig our way through that!”
Marixi loved tunneling through snow, but this one hated uymtiks.
The femmar had engineered a breed of predatory polar bears called fusaxica after operating the KB Trench tripled the continent’s penguin population. Fusaxica overbreeding led to the creation of a canid called the uymtik. The pack-minded canids often hunted femmar for sport, but for every alpha killed trying to take down a powerful fusaxica den-queen, another met her end by way of a surface scout’s palm blaster.
Sofita stopped running when the snow reached her knees. “We need to make the Fairgrounds by midnight!”
“Fairgrounds!” Dox confronted her. “That’s over two days on foot, Kul!”
Sofita closed her eyes, standing firm against the wind.
“Kul, no!” Dox cried before sprinting into the white.
An electronic beat fills the room as Sofita’s fingers move over the keyboard, playing along to Fusada’s favorite song. Fusa enters, pushing the dancing marixidoe aside and, without warning, striking Sofita.
Suddenly, the spheres in her flesh quaked.
Fusa stands over her, ready to strike again, eyes wet with pure delight. Around her neck snakes Fusada’s small arms, twisting around her thick neck with murderous intent. Teeth together, the towering brute extends her arms and tips back, slamming her marixidoe against the floor, pinning Fusada with her powerful back.
She screamed, her fury echoing on the wind.
Fusada thrashes beneath her kerma, struggling not to be free but to keep the cruel bruiser down long enough for her hizak twin to run away. Sofita doesn’t run away. She rushes at Fusa, landing a kick to the older bully’s frontal.
Fusa’s fingers latch onto her ankle. She stands, yanking five-year-old Sofita into the air before smacking her little body against the floor as if blunting a seal upon the ice.
Heat erupted from her heels as the Shell came to life, climbing her bones on its way to her brain. Fully transformed, she hovered above the white to find that the young marix made healthy ground during the Shell’s ignition.
A thought sent Sofita charging through the wind, and when she caught up, she scooped Dox up under her arm and blasted off over the tundra. The intense acceleration rendered the Donmat unconscious as Sofita barreled hundreds of miles within minutes.
The arena’s curved stained-glass walls appeared on the horizon.
“Remember the ’89 Finals, ‘Fita?” the Shell asked.
Sofita deposited Dox onto the snow and recalled the day that she, when seven, opened the front door to find Pel Ru smiling down at her. The sugary subak had often visited after the demise of their cherished caregiver, Bilo.
The twins had spent their first two years roaming the Kul Estate naked and unkempt, fed only when the bizaki kitchen staff worked their shift. Pel had urged Fusa to hire a caregiver, cautiously playing the brute’s marix sensibilities in suggesting Fusa couldn’t spend her days raising donats.
Pel came that day knowing Fusa would be absent, and finding the twins returning to their former state of neglect, got down to the business of bathing and dressing them. Afterward, she’d corralled them into her waiting transport, where Laxum, Pitana, and zaxiridoe, Pitasa, greeted them. On the ride to the surface, she’d styled Sofita’s hair while an unusually docile Fusada sat subdued by pretty Pitasa’s charms.
While the podcresting final proved exciting for Fusada and Pitasa, Pel had sensed her young hizakidoes’ disenchantment. She’d marched the trio to her clan’s elegant observation suite and arranged for a late-night meal. Dining alone with Pitana and Laxum had left Sofita feeling like a true hizak for the first time.
Dox began to rouse as Sofita powered down.
“Give it a few moments,” she advised when her underling tried to stand.
Dox wavered on her feet before falling to all fours.
“Did you have to carry me like I’m a doe-doe!”
A blaring horn signaled the end of the Isurus Relay and sent them scurrying behind a lofty snowbank. Crowds filed out of every Fairgrounds exit as Sofita and Dox took off east over the white. Twelve miles passed before Dox began trotting backward for conversation.
“Did you catch the podcresting finals in Gurtat?”
Sofita shook her head. “Did you know that helovx regard podcresting as the most violent sport played by women?”
“I didn’t know women podcrested.”
Sofita caught up so that Dox could run facing forward.
“They consider us women,” she added, to Dox’s dismay. “Which teams hunted for primacy this year?”
“Vanda and Utama,” the Donmat replied.
“The Primaries made it to Week Six?”
“I know, right? Utama hasn’t made a final since the Ninth got here,” the young marix laughed. “But the Meg’s ended up spanking them, 43 to 9.”
Sofita confessed, “I haven’t been to a match in over twenty-two years.”
“That’s longer than I’ve been alive!” Dox exclaimed. “The way you look at bizzies, I figured you’d be at the Fairgrounds every day.”
Sofita chuckled. “No time off from Orta.”
“You can’t live on duty all the time, Kul.”
“I’m the only hizak in uniform,” Sofita reminded. “Duty is my life.”
“You’re the only one that can make the Shell work,” she countered. “You can tell Orta to ride off if you want,”
“I did tell them to ride off once. Now I,” Sofita brought her fingers up and curled them to make quotes, “hunt hybrids.”
The icy wind this far inland invigorated her hide as she followed Dox over the hilly pack snow, terrain forged thousands of years before the impact. Down the slope stood the time-ravaged remains of Camp Vostok; its buried foundation held a single enclosure and three broken walls.
Two yards from Vostok’s wind ravaged sign lay the borehole that gave rise to their species. A pair of half-shell barriers marked its opening, considerably widened by Fifth Gen bizaki, who proved gracious enough to carve narrow steps along its walls going down.
Sofita descended gingerly, digging her fingers into the icy walls. Halfway down, she noticed that Dox wasn’t behind her.
“Dox!” she yelled.
A bald head peeked over the opening.
“I can keep a lookout, Kul!”
“Get down here, Donmat!” she growled.
Over ten thousand rungs later, Sofita reaching the last step. Assessing the drop-off, she hopped off and landed in thick slush, cracking its thin coat with her bare feet. Bits of ice poked at the webs between her toes, but the chill on her ankles felt like paradise. Behind her, Dox tumbled down the drop, cursing when she hit the slush, knees first.
Pitch dark reigned the farther they ventured into the crevasse, but inborn night vision brought shape to what the light couldn’t touch. A half-mile east, they came upon a glowing grotto, and when Sofita inquired of its color, a brooding Dox claimed it gray, like everything else around them.
Sofita sat upon its ice-covered bank before trudging waist-deep into its flow. The narrow stream led them to a cave with cloying rock walls and low overhead. Higher water prevailed on their advance, the numbing cold hardening her uzxi.
Dox snorted. “Kul?”
“No, my gash isn’t swelling.”
Dox sniggered. “Mine is!”
“I could’ve gone a surface night without knowing, Dox.”
A limestone wall blocked their path with a dull gray light glowing in the waters beneath it. Sofita bent at the knees to go under, eyes searching the brackish tow for a navigable passage. Stroking her way through the oxygen-deprived murk, she arose within an ice-littered lagoon.
Dox sprang up as she climbed out, and together they pulled themselves up the bluff’s smooth rockface with only their fingers and toes. At the top, both took a much-needed moment to rest their stressed digits.
Beyond the overlook lay the Vosk’tulak, an unhealed sore that spread for miles within the cavernous expanse. The ice sheet above gave off a dull glow, a subterranean sky looming for miles over the decaying splendor.
“We need to get to the eastern shore,” Sofita said.
“Then we should’ve entered the Vosk ISO office,” Dox said, following her down the shales of layered stone. “Kul, why aren’t all damaged citizens terminated?”
“I’m damaged, Donmat, but I’m not damaging,” she replied, minding her steps as the slate steepened. “An individual’s damage not inflicted on others isn’t grounds for termination.”
“Then how do we get away with terminating males that don’t hurt nobody?” Dox hopped to the plates ahead of her. “Femtrux said just being male doesn’t make them damaged,”
“Males are considered damaged constructs.”
“Who says males are constructs?”
“The Balanced Citizenry Act,” Sofita slowed in sight of the rocky shore. “Laxum Jyr warned on the ramifications of designating males as constructs.”
“Jyr’s right,” Dox jumped from a high ledge, cracking through the ice-covered sand. “I mean when you stop seeing certain citizens as femmar based on limitations, who’s next? Bizzies with bizrudap? Bruisers with ilitux?”
“Jyr would be pleased to hear you say that Pure Gen,”
“Since I started serving this Division,” Dox tallied. “There hasn’t been one male brought to Femitokon Holding. Are skin hiders that convincing?”
“They emulate physical traits defined by the Fifth Office as normal,” said Sofita, her thoughts again on Bilo Balru.
The subak male had been a hider, arriving the day before she and Fusada’s third year. Fusa had paid him no mind because subaki didn’t interest her, but to the Kul twins, a new face was a different world to explore. After a month of spying, they discovered his maleness but promised never to tell.
“Do you think there are any males left?” asked Dox.
“Other than Orny?” said Sofita, silencing her young charge.
Low tide along the eastern shore exposed hundreds of fossilized pod-units. The scent of rotting gashcolic discharge hung heavy as they stepped cautiously between the piles, bare feet cracking the ice-skinned sand.
Dox dragged a finger over the frozen embryonic fluid that glazed a stack of centuries-old bones. “Was this an Original Subject?”
“Pods that hatched the originals are long gone,” Sofita climbed onto a large rock plate that jutted over deeper water. “Those are the remains of unhatched subjects.”
Dox shook her hand as if shedding unseen filth. Joining her on the ledge, she exhaled bitterly. “What are we doing here, Kul?”
“My name is on a termination order for a male I’ve never met,” said Sofita, eyeballing the distance to the water’s surface.
“If that’s the case,” Dox paced around her. “We should take this to our superiors—”
“-Our superiors put my name on the termination order!” Sofita snapped before relaxing. “Dox, this male prisoner has answers I need.”
Dox studied the dark water.
“Will the Shell even work in there?”
“That’s why you’re here,” she slapped the Donmat’s taut bicep, “If I surface brain-dead, you’re to extract me.”
Dox nodded, then her face twisted in shock.
“Wait,” she protested, “what if I fall in?”
“Don’t.” Sofita crouched down and hugged her knees.
Dox’s foot pressed between her shoulders and tipped her headfirst off the ledge.