Spies: 7 Short Stories

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I was reminded of it in the aquarium. We heard the Demarchy had tailored the sulphur-based metabolism of the ventlings for human use. You'd have to script them in at the developmental level. And even then I'm not sure what you'd end up with would necessarily be human anymore. We have to follow procedure. Cholok was right: quite apart from the fact that Vargovic's operation was completely real - and therefore susceptible to complications which had to be looked for and monitored - any deviation from normal practise was undesirable.

After the first hour or so, the real strangeness of his transformation hit home. He had been blithely unaffected by it until then, but when he saw himself in a full-body mirror, in the corner of Cholok's revival room, he knew that there was no going back. Not easily, anyway. The Gilgamesh surgeons had promised him they could undo the work - but he didn't believe them. After all, the Demarchy was ahead of Ganymede in the biosciences, and even Cholok had told him reversals were tricky. He'd accepted the mission in any case: the pay tantalising; the prospect of the sulphur projects rather less.

Cholok spent most of the day with him, only breaking off to talk to other clients or confer with her team. Breathing exercises occupied most of that time: prolonged periods spent underwater, nulling the brain's drowning response. Unpleasant, but Vargovic had done worse things in training. They practised fully-submerged swimming, using his lungs to regulate buoyancy, followed by instruction about keeping his gill-openings - what Cholok called his opercula - clean, which meant ensuring the health of the colonies of commensal bacteria which thrived in the openings and crawled over the fine secondary flaps of his lamellae.

He'd read the brochure: what she'd done was to surgically sculpt his anatomy toward a state somewhere between human and air-breathing fish: incorporating biochemical lessons from lungfish and walking-catfish. Fish breathed water through their mouths and returned it to the sea via their gills, but it was the gills in Vargovic's neck which served the function of a mouth. His true gills were below his thoracic cavity; crescent-shaped gashes below his ribs. Then you can go and swim with the fishes. While she was busy at one of her consoles, surrounded by false-colour entoptics of his gullet - he asked her: "Do you have the weapon?

Cholok nodded absently and opened a drawer, fishing out a hand-held medical laser. Vargovic hefted the laser, scrutinising the controls in its contoured haft. Then he grabbed Cholok's head and twisted her around, dousing her face with the laser's actinic-blue beam. There were two consecutive popping sounds as her eyeballs evaporated.

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He rinsed the blood, dressed and left the medical centre alone, travelling kilometres down-city, to where Cadmus-Asterius narrowed to a point. Even though there were many gillies moving freely through the city - they were volunteers, by and large, with full Demarchy rights - he did not linger in public for long. Within a few minutes he was safe within a warren of collagen-walled service tunnels, frequented only by technicians, servitors or other gill-workers. The late Cholok had been right; breathing air was harder now; it felt too thin.

The suspect may be an armed gill worker. Approach with extreme caution. They'd found Cholok.

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Risky, killing her. But Gilgamesh preferred to burn its bridges, removing the possibility of any sleeper turning traitor after they had fulfilled their usefulness. In the future, Vargovic mulled, they might be better using a toxin, rather than the immediate kill. He made a mental note to insert this in his report. He entered the final tunnel, not far from the waterlock which had been his destination. At the tunnel's far end a technician sat on a crate, listening with a stethoscope to something going on behind an access panel.

For a moment Vargovic considered passing the man, hoping he was engrossed in his work. He began to approach him, padding on bare webbed feet, which made less noise than the shoes he had just removed. Then the man nodded to himself, uncoupled from the listening post and slammed the hatch. Grabbing his crate, he stood and made eye contact with Vargovic. Then offered, almost plaintively: "Can I help you? You've just had surgery, haven't you? I always know the ones like you: always a little red around the gills.

Vargovic drew his collar higher, then relented because that made it harder to breathe. Vargovic raised the laser. Blinded, the man blundered into the wall, dropping the crate. He made a pitiful moan. Vargovic crept closer, the man stumbling into the scalpel. Not the cleanest of killings, but that hardly mattered.

Vargovic was sure the Demarchy would shortly seal off access to the ocean - especially when his last murder came to light. For now, however, the locks were accessible. He moved into the air-filled chamber, his lungs now aflame for water. High-pressure jets filled the room, and he quickly transitioned to water-breathing, feeling his thoughts clarify. The secondary door clammed open, revealing ocean. He was kilometres below the ice, and the water here was both chillingly cold and under crushing pressure - but it felt normal; pressure and cold registering only as abstract qualities of the environment.

His blood was inoculated with glycoproteins now; molecules which would lower its freezing point below that of water. Vargovic was about to leave the city when a second gill-worker appeared in the doorway, returning to the city after completing a shift. He killed her efficiently, and she bequeathed him a thermally-inwoven wetsuit, for working in the coldest parts of the ocean.

The wetsuit had octopus ancestry, and when it slithered onto him it left apertures for his gill-openings. She had been wearing goggles which had infrared and sonar capability, and carried a hand-held tug. The thing resembled the still-beating heart of a vivisected animal, its translucent components nobbed with dark veins and ganglia.

But it was easy to use: Vargovic set its pump to maximum thrust and powered away from the lower levels of C-A. Even in the relatively uncontaminated water of the Europan ocean, visibility was low; he would not have been able to see anything were the city not abundantly illuminated on all its levels. Even so, he could see no more than half a kilometre upwards; the higher parts of C-A lost in golden haze and then deepening darkness. Although its symmetry was upset by protrusions and accretions, the city's basic conic form was evident, tapering at the narrowest point to an inlet mouth which ingested ocean.

The cone was surrounded by a haze of flotation bubbles, black as caviar. He remembered the chips of hyperdiamond in his hands. If Cholok was right, Vargovic's people might find a way to make it water-permeable; opening the fullerene weave sufficiently so that the spheres' buoyant properties would be destroyed.

The necessary agent could be introduced into the ocean by ice-penetrating missiles. Some time later - Vargovic was uninterested in the details - the Demarchy cities would begin to groan under their own weight. If the weapon worked sufficiently quickly, there might not even be time to act against it. The cities would fall from the ice, sinking down through the black kilometres of ocean below them.

Near C-A, the rocky interior of Europa climbed upwards to meet him. He had travelled three or four kilometres north, and was comparing the visible topography - lit by service lights installed by Demarchy gill-workers - with his own mental maps of the area.

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Eventually he found an outcropping of silicate rock. Beneath the overhang was a narrow ledge, on which a dozen or so small boulders had fallen. One was redder than the others. Vargovic anchored himself to the ledge and hefted the red rock, the warmth of his fingertips activating its latent biocircuitry. A screen appeared in the rock, filling with the face of Mishenka. But the spot they're covering is right where we planned to pull you out. I mean you didn't just grievously injure her?

The rock did a creditable impression of Mishenka looking pained. You'd better get your ass there. He passed a few gill-workers on the way, but they ignored him and once he was more than five kilometres from C-A there was increasingly less evidence of human presence. There was a head-up display in the goggles. Vargovic experimented with the readout modes before calling up a map of the whole area. It showed his location, and also three dots which were following him from C-A. They were at least three kilometres behind him now, but they were perceptibly narrowing the distance.

With a cold feeling gripping his gut, it occurred to Vargovic that there was no way he could make it to the extraction point before the Demarchy caught him. Ahead, he noticed a thermal hot-spot; heat bubbling up from the relatively shallow level of the rock floor. The security operatives were probably tracking him via the gill-worker's appropriated equipment. But once he was near the vent he could ditch it: the water was warmer there; he wouldn't need the suit, and the heat, light and associated turbulence would confuse any other tracking system. He could lie low behind a convenient rock, stalk them while they were preoccupied with the homing signal.

It struck Vargovic as a good plan. He made the distance to the vent quickly, feeling the water warm around him, noticing how the taste of it changed; turning brackish. The vent was a fiery red fountain surrounded by bacteria-crusted rocks and the colourless Europan equivalent of coral.

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Ventlings were everywhere; their pulpy bags shifting as the currents altered. The smallest were motile, ambling on their stilts like animated bagpipes, navigating around the triadic stumps of their dead relatives. Vargovic ensconced himself in a cave, after placing the gill-worker equipment near another cave on the far side of the vent, hoping that the security operatives would look there first.

While they did so, he would be able to kill at least one of them; maybe two. Once he had their weapons, taking care of the third would be a formality. What Vargovic saw when he turned around was something too repulsive even for a nightmare. It was so wrong that for a faltering moment he could not quite assimilate what it was he was looking at, as if the thing was a three-dimensional perception test; a shape which refused to stabilise in his head.

The reason he could not hold it still was because part of him refused to believe that this thing had any connection with humanity. But the residual traces of human ancestry were too obvious to ignore. Vargovic knew - beyond any reasonable doubt - that what he was seeing was a Denizen.

Others loomed from the cave depths. They were five more of them; all roughly similar; all aglow with faint bioluminescence, all regarding him with darkly intelligent eyes. Vargovic had seen pictures of mermaids in books when he was a child; what he was looking at now were macabre corruptions of those innocent illustrations. These things were the same fusions of human and fish as in those pictures - but every detail had been twisted toward ugliness, and the true horror of it was that the fusion was total; it was not simply that a human torso had been grafted to a fish's tail, but that the splice had been made - it was obvious - at the genetic level, so that in every aspect of the creature there was something simultaneously and grotesquely piscine.

The face was the worst; bisected by a lipless down-curved slit of a mouth, almost sharklike. There was no nose, not even a pair of nostrils; just an acreage of flat, sallow fish-flesh. The eyes were forward facing; all expression compacted into their dark depth. The creature had touched him with one of its arms, which terminated in an obscenely human hand. And then - to compound the horror - it spoke, its voice perfectly clear and calm, despite the water.

Vargovic began to get a grip, shakily. He reached up and dislodged the Denizen's hand from his shoulder. Coming here was always your mission. You have brought us something we want very much. That was always your purpose. He thought of the chips in his hands. Then he'd been lied to by his superiors - or they had at least drastically simplified the matter.

He filled in the gaps himself, making the necessary mental leaps: evidently Gilgamesh was already in contact with the Denizens - bizarre as it seemed - and the chips of hyperdiamond were meant for the Denizens, not his own people. Presumably - although he couldn't begin to guess at how this might be possible - the Denizens had the means to examine the shards and fabricate the agent which would unravel the hyperdiamond weave.

They'd be acting for Gilgamesh, saving it the bother of actually dirtying its hands in the attack. He could see why this might appeal to Control. But if that was the case It made no sense. But on the other hand, he could not concoct a better theory to replace it.

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It was scarlet now; no longer the blue-green hue it had displayed upon it first appearance. We were in pain, once. Always pain. But Cholok took it away, made us strong. For that they punished her, and us. She brought our humanity to the fore; made it impossible to treat us as animals. We thought they would kill us, rather than risk our existence becoming known to the rest of Circum-Jove.

Instead, they banished us here. Vargovic nodded vigorously, no longer convinced that he could handle the three operatives on his own. Ever since he had arrived in the cave he had felt his energy dwindling, as if he was succumbing to slow poisoning. A thought tugged at the back of his mind, and for a moment he almost paid attention to it; almost considered seriously the possibility that he was being poisoned.

But what was going on beyond the cave was too distracting.

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He watched the three Demarchy agents approach, driven forward by the tugs which they held in front of them. Each agent carried a slender harpoon gun, tipped with a vicious barb. The Denizens moved too quickly, lancing out from the shadows, cutting through the water. The creatures moved faster than the Demarchy agents, even though they only had their own muscles and anatomy to propel them. But it was more than enough. They had no weapons, either - not even harpoons. But sharpened rocks more than sufficed - that and their teeth. Afterwards, the Denizens returned to the cave to join their cousins.

They moved more sluggishly now; as if the fury of the fight had drained them. For a few moments they were silent, and their bioluminescence curiously subdued. The Denizens - all of them - looked momentarily toward his open hands, as if there ought to have been something there. Fighting his fatigue - it was a black slick lapping at his consciousness - Vargovic said: "I understand perfectly well. I have the samples of hyperdiamond, in my hands He didn't like this, not at all.

It was the way the Denizens were slowly creeping closer to him; sidling round him to obstruct his exit from the cave. We can't leave the vent. It's not like yours. Later it became the means of imprisoning us. The DNA in our bone marrow was manipulated to limit the production of normal haemoglobin; a simple matter of suppressing a few beta-globin genes while retaining the variants which code for ventling haemoglobin.

Hydrogen sulphide is poisonous to you, Vargovic. You probably already feel weak. But we can't survive without it. Oxygen kills us. There's more, as well. The water's hot here; so hot that we don't need the glycoproteins. We have the genetic instructions to synthezise them, but they've also been turned off. But without the glycoproteins we can't swim into colder water. Our blood freezes. Now he was surrounded by them; looming aquatic devils, flushed a florid shade of crimson. And they were coming closer.

It was a miracle an organ like that was capable of speech in the first place Maunciple was her first attempt at getting it to us - but Maunciple never made it. That was why Cholok recruited you - an outsider. Her life mattered less than what she was about to give us. It was Cholok who tipped off the Demarchy about your primary extraction site, forcing you to come to us. He struggled, but it was pointless. All he could manage was a feeble: "I don't understand Is the barn haunted? And why is Granny Pickle acting so strange? Lexile: Secret Spies on Stage How hard could it be to help little kids put on a play?

Then Lulu gets lost, and the Secret Spies must use their tracking skills! Lexile: The characters portray positive character traits helpfulness, respectful. Readers engage in reading comprehension, comparing and contrasting, and the gathering and synthesizing of facts to solve the mysteries.

My 9-year old boy devoured these books, laughing and learning with each flip of the page! Reading Level. Item Item No. Item No. See Also View Print Catalog. Interest Level. Sample Chapter: Get Corny.