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White Sailors

by Peter Jerrim

 
CHAPTER 4

The beam from the torch penetrated halfway to the bottom of the vat. Threads of mucus drifted through it. Three jellyfish, each about the size and shape of a human brain, swam up and down, beating with feathery flesh, filtering nutrients into their transparent interiors.

'Thank you, waiter,' said Huan. 'After the soup I'll have snot salad.' She shone the torch onto Lequila and Bryan. 'Help her on with the suit, sweetheart. What's taking so long?'

'It's against a nat's principles.' Lequila's voice was muffled by her mask. 'We're supposed to complete our tasks with a minimum of technological assistance. Putting on one of these rubbery things feels like cheating--too much like a glitskin.'

'Ridiculous. When you won your lifting comp you wore boots and a belt, didn't you? And you also consider yourself a swordsperson... Well who's ever heard of nude fencing? "En garde. Woops. Don't mind the blood. 'Scuse me while I plug the holes." That'd be one percent as dangerous as going into this vat without protection. Now get the thing on and recite our instructions.'

Lequila wiggled her foot into a corner of the balloon suit. 'How am I supposed to swim in this?' she asked.

'Wait till you've got it on,' said Huan. 'We'll seal round your face where the mask is. Then we'll pump the air out. It will stick to your face like a second skin.'

'I don't want a second skin. It's cold.'

'Soon we'll be in the slime. You won't be cold then.'

Bryan strapped a canister of compressed air onto Lequila's back. 'The slime in here is kept above room temperature. That's hot enough to make your core temperature rise rapidly. It'll be worse wearing the rubber suit. You'll have to be quick or you'll cook--literally.'

'Marta didn't say anything about cooking.'

'Marta doesn't know the first thing about cooking. But she needed both of you to come,' said Bryan. 'The biggest and the littlest students in the academy. One for strength and one for the tight corners. I presume you want the 500 credits you'll each be paid for this?'

Lequila bundled up her hair and slid a cap over it before donning the rest of her suit. She shuddered and pulled the flippers onto her feet. Bryan tugged a tube from a pump he had placed on the floor and attached it to the back of her suit. The rolls of excess rubber were sucked smooth against her body.

'Very nice,' Bryan said.

'I think my own skin is nicer.'

'But you'd be scratching yourself for the next twenty years if that slime got on it. The fungus isn't neutralised till it gets to the other end of the farm. It's still digesting.' He strapped a canister onto Huan's back and fitted the breathing tube to the mask.

'I'm still waiting to hear the instructions,' said Huan.

'Go to Section 79 to the right of the Tower. Avoid all fungifarm personnel. Descend to Level 25. Don suits and enter fungistream through open vat. Proceed to Valve P43. Incapacitate and remove all bots jamming the valve. Check valve open. Return.' Lequila's mask was fogging up. 'I don't even know what a bot looks like.'

'Imagine a rat with fins.'

'Yes.'

'Think of a paw with telescopic claws.'

'Yes.'

'Add a laser or two and a very bad temper.'

'I don't want to know any more.'

'Don't worry,' said Huan. 'If all the bots have got stuck in the valve together they mustn't be too smart. Although they secrete chemicals in their fur to counteract the digestive enzymes in the slime they still have to clean and groom themselves every half hour or so. The first bots have been in there for a day. They'll be half-digested by now. That's why we've got to be quick. The doctors in the manse want to recover some while there's enough left of them to determine what went wrong. Anyway, it doesn't matter what they look like. We won't see anything once we're in the pipe. When they're tired the only thing the react negatively to is light. So we won't use any light.'

'You mean we'll have to feel our way?' said Lequila. 'And how do you incapacitate a bot?'

'There's a little button behind its neck,' said Bryan. 'Just touch it and the thing's paralysed.'

'What if it bites first? Or shoots?' asked Lequila.

'They're programmed to be friendly to humans,' Huan said. 'They're only dangerous if they're confused. The lasers will be dephased by our masks.'

'Well, you'd better go first.'

'No. You're bigger than me so you'll feel the heat first--if you turn round to get out you can't leave me behind. And I don't want to get into any tight spots and find you can't squeeze in to help me.'

As she slid into the vat Lequila felt the heat from the slime run up her body like a ring of bath water on dry skin. She began to sweat. She beckoned Huan to follow and slipped beneath the surface.

Through the blur of liquid she could see the dark circle of the feed pipe. She kicked towards it, pushing the jellyfish out of the way as she went. Pink drool oozed from the digestive openings in their underparts. She paused at the entrance and waited until she felt Huan grip her ankle. As they proceeded along the pipe it became more difficult to move. The liquid had taken on the consistency of glue.

Lequila and Huan moved in exhausting slow motion.

After a few metres the pipe veered to the right and then forked. By pushing her hand round both pipes Lequila found they had the same diameter. The rush of her movements and the exertion of her breathing were too noisy. She quietened herself and waited for Huan to bump into her. She took Huan's hand in hers and placed one of her fingers against her mask.

As they lay still they floated together to the top of the pipe. After a minute they had quietened their breathing sufficiently to hear ahead.

A sporadic flutter beat through the right hand pipe. It was interrupted sometimes by a sound like a sponge being squeezed.

Lequila moved towards the sound, gliding one hand round the pipe as she went while feeling ahead with the other. She churned the glue with her flippers and worked forward. Waves of heat pulsed through her and with each wave she trembled with a new release of sweat. The rubber suit slid and rucked at her knees and elbows.

A bolt of light drilled through the darkness, for a moment illuminating Huan's flailing limbs. More laser flashes stabbed over them. They covered their masks with their hands. Hot prickles bloomed on their skin where the lasers hit. The shots were low powered, only investigative, but if their suits were punctured they would be in trouble.

Lequila pushed Huan behind her and lunged toward the source of the light.

But the bot was tired and its flashes grew weaker. It was the only one with its head far enough out of the jam to see to shoot. This gave it protection from the cloud of jellyfish that were sucking away on what was left of the other bots. Lequila felt around with her rubber-numbed fingers, grabbed the bot behind its neck and yanked it out of the jam. She found the nob behind its neck and pushed it.

As the bot went limp she passed it behind her to Huan. She brushed away the jellyfish and felt for the knobs in the other bots. Two of them were still alive and responded to her touch. She handed these to Huan, too, and signed on her arm to take them out of the vat.

Huan returned in two minutes to help Lequila grapple with the stuff that was stuck in the valve. They picked at the decomposing flesh until they were left with a circular mesh of metallic fingers that had fused into a mess of fur and bone. It felt like a drum skin pushed tight from the other side.

Lequila tried to get a grip on one of the fingers but her own fingers would not close and her hand went numb. Her body felt light and out of control. The heat oozed into her head. She felt a pressure round her ankle and something pulling her away.

Some time later she became aware of a prodding and pulling and a powerful hosing down. Then Huan was tearing at her mask. As her suit peeled off the jet of cold water tattooed her skin.

'Drink this,' said Bryan, putting a phial of liquid to her lips. 'You were in there too long. You overheated.'

Lequila sat up and drank. 'The remains of the bots are holding something back. I think that once they locked their claws together in there they knew they would never leave. We can't budge it, or get a grip on anything. And we can't use explosive,'

'Why don't we try from the other side?' said Huan. 'We'll find whatever it is they were trying to keep out.'

'But surely the fungimers would have put bots on the other side as well.'

'Not necessarily,' said Bryan. 'They might have run out of suitable bots. Remember all this happened only yesterday--New Year's Eve. It could be sabotage. And it's urgent because the pressure's building up. If the whole digester blows then it could take months to get it back together. The talent lost during that time would set back any prospects the council had of selling.'

Lequila said, 'In that case, why is Machesti so interested in getting it cleared? I think he's after something more radical than fungus. But what?'

In half an hour they were on the other side of the digester, ready to enter the feed chute that protruded at a steep angle from the main pipe.

'I'm getting tired,' said Lequila.

'Close to death twice in 24 hours,' said Bryan. 'I'm not surprised. Do you want to withdraw?'

'A crack at a cap and I'll be fine.'

'Are you sure, nat?'

'It's all natural product.'

Bryan took a white capsule from his belt and popped it in her mouth. 'Now this should be the first and last one this year. I suspect you've had too many of these lately.'

'One for me, too?' asked Huan. 'I think I'm going to need it. I'm glad we can take lights this time.' They slid down the chute and into the slime in the main pipe. It was cooler on the other side and the liquid was thin enough for their helmet torches to beam four or five metres ahead.

Urine Alley, thought Lequila. And there's only one way out.

Huan was leading when they came to a series of chambers like glass intestines that wound up and around the digester floor in intersecting loops. Here the liquid was clear and the torch-light could penetrate it as easily as it did the walls of the chambers.

A school of magenta jellyfish had gathered in one of the loops and squabbled slowly like a gaggle of late-night drunks at Beni's Place. The other chambers were clear except for a few strands of twitching green that slowly dissected a struggling jellyfish.

Huan entered one of the chambers opposite the jellyfish and with three kicks propelled herself through to the other end. Lequila followed and they reentered the main pipe. A few minutes later they reached the blockage made by the bots.

Although she could feel the heat coming through from the other side, this time Lequila was cool enough to think clearly. In the torch-light she could see that the telescopic claws which formed the framework of the bots' drum were fully extended. They were under tension so a quick snip with some pliers from Lequila's utility belt made the whole thing spring apart.

The sudden release of pressure sucked the divers forward down the hot pipe and swept them with a rush into the vat where they had first entered. Then a mass of jellyfish was vomited out behind them and they were lifted with the surge over the rim of the vat and dropped onto the floor.

Before they had crawled out of the mess a high-pitched squeal pierced their ears.

Huan and Lequila wobbled to their feet. Between them rolled a pink worm about three metres long and one metre wide. Concentric circular waves rippled along its body and dwindled to its writhing tail. Half a dozen jellyfish were stuffed in its glistening mouth. It rolled its crimson eyes up at them. Already its eyes were going dull in the air.

Huan poked it with her foot. An orifice opened on top of the worm's head and another squeal came out, bitter and quickly rising too high to hear.

Huan laughed and shouted through her mask, 'Isn't it cute!'

'Very cute,' said Bryan. 'But this is only a baby. Wait till its mummy arrives.'

 

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