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10. Big, Metal Coffin
The excitement of donning a black market mech suit quickly faded as Zip descended into the darkness beyond Crustacea’s continental shelf. Staring out at the abyss brought a swell of fear that she couldn’t hold back. It made her wish the metal abomination surrounding her had a cupholder somewhere, but function served over form in bug wars. The suit was a generation old, and built in the bulky style still influenced by Old Earth military tech. It looked like a mix of an ancient tank and a Greek statue. Luckily, it was more graceful than it seemed.
Zip glided through the water with little effort. The creators might have spared the style, but they made up for it with ruthless efficiency. The craft was designed with two objectives: One, survive. Two, kill anything that threatened objective one. Zip’s cockpit was just large enough to give her full range of motion with her arms, necessary to operate the suit in full manual mode. The rest of the space was given to armor plating and emergency repair systems. A set of joysticks disassembled and strapped to the hull. Zip preferred the finesse of a traditional haptic rig, despite the user manual’s recommendation against such controls. Surrounding her was a near panoramic glass canopy, giving her a full view of her poor decision to dive deep into an unfamiliar ocean.
With each passing second, the view mattered less and less. The last rays of visible light disappeared, leaving nothing between her and the impenetrable darkness. Remind me why the hell I take these jobs. The answer was simple, drinks in the prime worlds were expensive; doubly so when she was drinking to forget past jobs. Small servo motors whirred at her feet as Zip descended alongside the rail that Ambassador Pilsen had been transported on. She stayed just far enough away to be barely visible and just close enough to try and find cover among the rocks if something came out of the deep for her.
“If Huron’s tracker is still doing its job, you should be coming up on them in a few hundred feet.” The shrimp’s metallic voice sounded more familiar coming from the suit’s onboard speakers. Assistants were supposed to sound mechanical. It made it easier for Zip to dissociate from the high strangeness she’d been living in all day.
“Looks good from my end.” A domed sonar screen beeped at steady intervals showing nothing on her scopes. “And I’m not seeing any of those monsters you were so keen to tell me about.” The detail had been excruciating, unnecessary, and surely enough to populate Zip’s nightmares for years to come.
“There is a reason I told you to descend with no running lights.” There was almost a hint of sarcasm to the creature’s voice.
Zip had even dimmed most of the lights in the cockpit. The shrimp’s stories might have been overblown, but she wasn’t taking any chances. She descended into the pitch black, taking small comfort in the distant glow that represented the edge of the shelf. Based on Huron’s tracker, they were still within her suit’s depth capabilities. If things got messy and she went too deep, one of the suits rivets was bound to implode and put a hole in her. There were automatic ascension controls for situations like that, but naturally, she had turned them off. Zip had seen one too many pilots squashed against the hull of a destroyer from an automatic eject to trust the manufacturers.
“You should be nearing her position now. See anything? I do hope she’s alright.”
Zip squinted into the darkness. At her distance, it was impossible to see much of anything beyond the dim outline of the scaffolding along the underwater cliff. “I see something, but I’m not sure what I’m looking at.” She flexed her fingers around a pair of triggers built into the haptic controls. A slight touch and whatever she was looking at would become at least fifty percent lead.
“I’m afraid we don’t have much intel on what you’re up against down there.”
Zip sighed. Bad intel, bad visibility, big ugly monsters waiting in the darkness beyond. When she got back to the city, she was going to have a whole round to herself to forget she had ever visited Crustacea. There were plenty of blue planets out there, why did it have to be this one? “I’m going to move in for a closer look.” Approaching meant a risk of being spotted, but focusing on an amorphous gloom wasn’t helping them either. She imagined the monstrous weapons that might be awaiting her. The lobsters were clearly adept at combat. Whatever they had created would be hard enough to pierce ancient crustacean shells. Looking at the armor plating surrounding her, Zip wondered if it was any thicker.
The platforms grew clearer. She keyed a few controls and set the cockpit’s glass to its highest magnification. The system found a hint of motion, moving down the side of the rock wall and focused in on it. Through the gloom, she could see the hulking forms of two lobsters, lit by orange running lights. An enormous crab was bound to the lid of a slender gray box that bobbed along behind them. Zip punched a few more commands and ran a heat scan. At a distance, it was hard to see much of anything, but the cold-blooded crustaceans made any heat signature stand out. The center of the box glowed a faint purple. “I think I’ve got eyes on Pilsen and Huron.”
“Well, that’s good news,” said Tom.
“Yeah, I’m not so sure about that.” Zip watched as the trio moved out to the edge of a platform. They removed what she assumed was Huron and left her to sprawl in the darkness just beyond Zip’s vision. The details were impossible to make out. Zip leaned forward as far as she could. “I can’t see a—”
White lights burst into life from the darkness, turning the black ocean into a sea of tiny stars. Zip hit the suit’s jets, backing away as fast as possible. “Shit, shit, shit.” They had to have seen me. Instinctively, Zip turned the suit sideways, putting the thickest armor between her and the enemy.”
“Problem?” asked Tom.
“You could say that.” The lights continued to pulse, and Zip waited between breaths for impact. None came. The ocean was silent, blinking white and then falling to darkness. Zip held her breath, counting to ten. There were no torpedoes, no harpoons, only silence. “Maybe I overreacted.” No way they didn’t see me. How could they not have seen me?
“Perhaps they were preoccupied?”
“Preoccupied with what?” The sonar dome gave a single, loud chime. “Fuck me.” Zip turned her head to look at the device, knowing immediately that she would hate what she found. The sonar pinged again. A figure took up the bottom of the screen, pushing up toward her from below. “Hey, Tom, I think I’m in trouble.”
Zip pushed the suit’s maneuvering thrusters and pointed herself face down toward the bottom of the ocean. Her fingers hovered over the triggers. At first, there was nothing aside from the alternating strobe of the platform’s lights. Then, she saw it. A hulking behemoth rose from the depths. The sheer size was enough to let her know that she wasn’t being paid enough. Light glinted off of hundreds of thick, white teeth, lining a gaping maw. Several sets of eyes stared up at her, milky and glistening in the twilight.
“I hate your planet.”