A Protracted Game: 1.1.8c

The City of Crystal was a collection of onion-shaped domes that glowed brightly in the underwater darkness. Each onion dome shone in the murky underwater world different hues...

A Protracted Game: 1.1.8c
If you haven't read the Previous Chapter, please do so before starting this new installment. If you'd like to read this installment on your favorite e-reader or would like to print it out, in order to save your eyes from strain, see the directions under "Read First" for an offline copy of this installment (and others). Happy reading! —G. Michael Rapp
Note. 1.1.8 will be a five-part installment, featured over the span of two or three weeks, depending on what comes up on my end. Those installments will be featured on RoyalRoad, on Substack, on Wattpad, and on this Website.

The City of Crystal was a collection of onion-shaped domes that glowed brightly in the underwater darkness. Each onion dome shone in the murky underwater world different hues: Cobalt, pastel pink, orange, emerald green, and fuchsia.  At the top of the central onion dome, which was surrounded by smaller onion-like dome growths built on top of one another, a great spire pierced into the darkness above. The spire shone the brightest, emanating a pulsing light that moved along its length. Kanaloa said the spire was how the City of Crystal moved materials and peoples from the ocean’s surface to the ocean floor. It also worked the opposite as well, Kanaloa informed Tián, holding her hand close to his skein’s chest.

Tián felt a burden lift from her shoulders, knowing she was closer to North America. She would be closer to fulfilling the task her papa had given her. She felt something else as well, holding the skein’s hand. She’d grown fond of the machine’s controller: Kanaloa. She didn’t have words to describe it. She assumed it was love or some fondness she’d never really experienced—except with Osma, Mama, and Papa.

To Tián, the City of Crystal looked like a vegetable garden with odd-colored veggies, left to grow on the ocean floor. She shared her thoughts with Kanaloa, who laughed and said, “Yes, yes, of course, Tián. It does remind me of such things as well.”

“What are we to do when we arrive, Kanaloa?” Tián asked, moving closer to the skein. “Do I need to know anything that might help me acclimate to the city?”

“That’s good, Tián,” Kanaloa said. “You will want to know the city’s history, although I will spare you the drier details. I will also tell you about the city’s political structure.”

You don’t have to tell me what you’re about to tell me, Kanaloa,” Tián said with a chuckle. “Just tell me.”

“Sorry, Tián,” Kanaloa said, laughing some, more to himself. “I’ve been alone far too long, and I almost forgot that such matters are usually frowned upon in conversations between two or more humans, or a posthuman and a human.”

“Get to the point, Kanaloa,” Tián said, slapping the skein’s arm with her free hand.

“Yes, my dear Tián,” Kanaloa said with a chuckle. “Follow me to the map room. We need to discuss some things that aren’t in your usual history books or political literature.”

Tián followed Kanaloa’s cobalt and gray skein to the map room, which was located next to the living quarters, found within the protected shell of the station’s center. The map room wasn’t what Tián had expected. Instead, she found the room to be eerily reminiscent of her father’s workspaces. Electrical equipment in varies states of disrepair littered the flat surfaces that lined the walls of the round room. At the center of the map room, Tián noticed a three-dimensional display, showing various inputs accumulated by what she assumed to be the station’s sensor arrays. She also spotted books, real books, on shelves flanking the map room’s only viewport on either side.

“I do apologize for the mess, dear Tián,” Kanaloa said, waving the skein’s hands in various directions, hoping she would understand why he was embarrassed by the mess. “This is my inner sanctum. My sanctum sanctorum, if you don’t mind the overused cliché. This is where I do most of my work outside of being physically in the ocean. I haven’t had many lovely guests, such as yourself, and that is why everything is in such disarray. I guess—”

“Your brain just works that way, Kanaloa,” Tián said, laughing some.

Tián moved over to the bookshelves. Her neural implants translating some of the titles: Silent Spring, Master and Commander, Crime and Punishment, Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out.  She nodded in approval, knowing many of the titles. Her father had made sure Osma read to Tián until she could read on her own. She loved books, but she enjoyed being read to even more. When her father went to bed or to work on some coding, Osma would sneak into her room, Tián waiting for her. They would read books using the little light the small room had to offer at night. Osma reading and Tián listening. It was their little ritual. Their escape from her father, Osma’s creator. It was also their escape from the confines of the factory compound.

“D’you read much, Kanaloa?” Tián asked, looking over at the skein for a response.

The skein shrugged and answered, “Depends on the week or month, Tián. I haven’t read in a long time, though.”

“Well, we’ll have to see about that, won’t we, Kanaloa?”

"Yes, yes, we shall, my dearest Tián,” Kanaloa said with a chuckle. “Please—come over here. I need to show you some things.”

The skein pointed toward the three-dimensional display and waved Tián over to it. She nodded and walked up to the display, placing her hands on the chromed circular rail that surrounded the display.

"Do you know what an imago is, dearest Tián?” Kanaloa asked.

Tián shrugged. “Depends on what context you are referring to, Kanaloa.”

Kanaloa’s skein nodded and then said, “It is sometimes called an ancestral memory device by many aquatics. In fact, many aquatics, myself included, have kept unusually sharp memories with the help of DNA. We store loads of information that can be recalled later in our bodily computation architecture, Tián.”

“So—”

“—so I have the memories of my clan,” Kanaloa stated, pointing to the three-dimensional display. “What you have before you is a digital representation of my complex memory storage within my organic body.”

“What does that mean?” Tián asked, interested to see what her companion would say next. “Does that mean—”

“—it means, my dearest Tián, that I have the memories of a hundred million souls, compressed into something that, from occasion to occasion, I update with new DNA from my kin.”

“So, what does that have to do with the City of Crystal?” Tián asked, expecting an answer that would unfold the puzzle before her. She enjoyed puzzles, but she also enjoyed data collection, especially if it meant probing the minds of those closest to her.

“The City of Crystal operates one of the largest DNA repositories in the Verse,” Kanaloa said. “I need your help breaking into it.”

“Why?” Tián asked, not expecting Kanaloa’s answer.

“As I’ve said before,” Kanaloa began, his skein moving closer to the display. “There are those who wish to see an end to the peace that many of us fought so hard for in the first place. We must keep the peace, at all costs, Tián. You are my key into the repository, for reasons that I will make clear soon—”

“—you’re using me?” Tián asked, moving away from the three-dimensional display.

“It’s nothing personal, Tián,” Kanaloa stated. “It’s just that I have many sins to atone for, as I am sure you understand. I seek redemption, and I seek redemption for my kin as well. The City of Crystal won’t know what we’ve stolen until it’s too late, Tián.”

“Is that why you rescued me?” Tián asked, crossing her arms over her chest.

"No,” Kanaloa answered. “I found you clinging to life in the Pacific. Something told me that I needed to intervene rather than let the cruel universe have its way. When I witnessed your memories, I knew I’d done the right thing.”

“Kanaloa—”

“—I need to find redemption in this world, Tián,” Kanaloa interjected, moving closer to Tián. “You have offered me that chance. I only wish I haven’t disappointed you—”

“You haven’t, Kanaloa,” Tián said, moving closer to the skein. The skein grabbed Tián’s hand and she touched the skein’s smooth chest. “How do we steal what we need, Kanaloa?”

"You are one helluva a tease, my dearest Tián,” Kanaloa’s skein said, before kissing Tián. She returned the kiss, and then looked up at the three-dimensional display. “What’s wrong, Tián?”

“How do I increase my own memory storage?” Tián asked, pointing to the display.

“Depends on how far you want to modify your meat puppet, Tián,” Kanaloa answered. “I would assume that you aren’t interested in changing your form to something more suitable for such modifications?”

Tián laughed. “No, I don’t want to be an octopus like you, Kanaloa.”

Kanaloa’s skein laughed and stated, “Hurt my feelings why don’t you.”

“How do I increase my own memory functions, Kanaloa?” Tián asked.

Kanaloa’s skein scratched its smooth, cobalt chin. “That is something I will have to consider. We do have some time before we reach our intended destination. The City of Crystal is quite large, and the Imago is located deep within the metropolis’ central dome. It will probably take at least three or four days before we are able to disembark—especially given the nature of the city’s customs checks and quarantine procedures.”

“So, what modifications will you need to perform?” Tián asked.

Kanaloa’s skein moved over to a workspace, grabbing two small notebooks. The skein turned around and faced Tián. “I’ve planned this for the better part of my exile—thirty years. I will need to study what I can do with a baseline human form.”

“What do I need to do, Kanaloa?” Tián asked, crossing her arms over her chest.

“I will need you to be patient,” Kanaloa answered. “We will need to time our crime perfectly, and you will have to be comfortable with committing such a criminal act against the Pacific Aquatic Nations.”

“You still haven’t told me the histories and political structures of the city yet,” Tián protested, nodding over to the display.

“All in due time, Tián,” Kanaloa said. “We still have time.”


"This won’t hurt—at least not that much, dear Tián,” Kanaloa said, pricking Tián’s finger with microneedles. Although Tián couldn’t see the microneedles, she felt something. It wasn’t pain like she’d imagined it would be. Instead, she felt a slight pinch and then nothing—everything was normal, or as normal as it could be. “You will want to lay down, though, Tián. You will experience excruciating pain as your metachines build new memory structures within your body, starting at levels smaller than most medical technologies are competent with.”

“Will you be here?” Tián asked.

“Of course, dear Tián,” Kanaloa answered. “I will only leave when I need to make the correct course adjustments for the customs authorities.”

“What else have you given me?” Tián asked, looking at the skein.

“I’ve given you a copy of my memory, which includes the memory of a hundred million souls. You have also been given the ability to steal the imago’s memory as well—at least part of it anyways. Although I hope the process doesn’t kill you.”

"That’s reassuring,” Tián said, feeling a fever grip her body.

“Now rest, my Tián.”

“How long will this take?” Tián asked. She felt a sharp pain in her chest, and she felt like she was being burned alive. She felt her flesh roast. She smelled, tasted even, the roasting flesh.

Kanaloa’s skein sat down in the chair next to Tián’s bed. It watched her with inhuman stillness. Tián scrunched her eyes, and she tried to hear what Kanaloa was saying. Her neural implants just wouldn’t work. His language was a foreign tongue. His language was an invisible barrier for her, something she couldn’t traverse, something that kept her away.

Then, in the midst of her pain, Tián saw her dead mother.

“Mama?” Tián shouted, wincing from the effort. She felt sweat run down her cheeks, chin, and neck. “Mama?”

Her mother didn’t speak. She didn’t say anything when she visited Tián over the years. Tián couldn’t remember what her sweet voice sounded like anymore. Her voice was drowned out by a hundred million voices, a hundred million thoughts, a hundred million experiences. She called out to her mother once again: “Mama, why did you leave me? I never did anything wrong. I always listened to you. Tián a good girl. Tián an obedient girl—just like you told me to be.”

Again, her mother said nothing. Her mother just sat where Kanaloa should’ve been. She watched with bright eyes, as if enjoying seeing her only child in pain.

“Mama!”

The fire grew stronger. Tián felt her body being ripped away, tossed into the great darkness. She felt her lungs struggling to breathe, and she felt her heart struggling to beat fast enough. Her body was failing her. She wasn’t ready, not yet. She didn’t want to go the way her mother did—a nobody, someone the world had consumed and tossed her aside like a spent cigarette in some gutter with her young child.

The fever grew stronger, and Tián felt her body being tied down. She struggled against the restraints. She smelled the fire, and, surely, if she didn’t struggle, she would be burned alive. Where was Kanaloa? Why wasn’t he here with her? Had Kanaloa betrayed her? Had he left her to die?

"Mama!” she screamed, the restraints being tightened even more, but, this time, by her mother. “Why are you doing this, mama?”

Her mother was silent. She was as silent as the day Tián found her body, lying amongst the trash heaps, next to the dumpster they’d searched the night before for food. Her mother stared with an intensity that Tián still remembered. She gave those eyes to Tián now. Her hands were those of cold raindrops. Her mother’s body smelled of trash, of rot, of death. Death smelled odd to Tián, even now.

Death smelled like Tián’s mother, who used jasmine and various oils to keep the smell of the streets off her and her child’s body. The smell of her mother didn’t last long. The rains came. The smell of rotting flesh and buzzing flies came soon afterward. Tián didn’t want to leave her mother, but she had to. She was hungry and the dumpsters were empty of good food. She had to move with the others. She had to migrate to another part of the city, hoping to find something that wouldn’t upset her tummy but would keep her warm during the monsoonal rains.

"Mama!” Tián screamed again. She clenched her hands into fists. Tián balled her feet, and she slammed her head against the pillows. She cried for her mother again before darkness grew thicker and the air heavier with fever. Cold water ran down her forehead and neck and cheeks. Her mother quietly tended to her needs, or at least that is what a fevered Tián reasoned. She could not see. She could not hear. She felt everything, though. Every pain was like knives stabbing and sawing into her flesh. The fire just wouldn’t stop. She smelt her bones melting, her flesh and raw nerves already gone.

"Mama!”

Then, when she thought only more pain would come, the pain began to subside. A coolness gripped her body. She felt as if she were floating on the Pacific’s briny surface once again. She saw the one-eared young man. This time he was clutching another man. Their embrace was special. The two appeared to be lovers, holding on until the last minute, hoping they would find each other in the next life, wherever that may be. Tián felt her body being dragged away from the two men. She felt a great calming wash over her, and she saw Kanaloa in his true form: a great octopus of dull colors and great tentacles. Kanaloa used his tentacles to swim and hold onto Tián’s limp body. Kanaloa swam in silence and with great haste. Tián felt the darkness enveloping her, swirling around her body. She didn’t cry for her mama this time. She simply surrendered to it, allowing the darkness to take her.—at least part of it anyways.


Tián awoke from her fevered dreams to find Kanaloa sitting where she’d first seen him. The skein stirred once it noticed Tián was awake.

“I fear we almost lost each other, dear Tián,” Kanaloa said, a sadness touched his voice. “I don’t know what I would’ve done without you here, beside me.”

“Did it work?” Tián asked, pushing herself up from the bed.

Kanaloa’s skein nodded. “It didn’t kill you, but it did what it was designed to do.”

“Will we be able to pull it off?” Tián asked.

Kanaloa’s skein nodded again and said, “I believe so. The transference process with the Imago won’t be as painful—I promise you that.”

“How can you promise such things, Kanaloa?” Tián asked, trying to move away from the bed. “Do you really know that for sure?”

“I do, Tián,” Kanaloa answered. “I designed the Imago’s architecture.”

“What?” Tián said, looking up at the skein.

"I am the Imago’s architect,” Kanaloa said. “I was the one who designed it after the war with the land.”

“I’m confused, Kanaloa,” Tián said, pushing herself from the bedside. “What are you talking about?”

"I was the one who created Imago, shortly after the war,” Kanaloa’s skein said, before grabbing a hold of Tián’s shaking form. “You see, just after the war between the aquatics and the land nations, the ocean was nearly destroyed. Ecosystems had been collapsing throughout the world’s oceans. The Imago was built to protect life in the oceans. It was built to recreate life, and to repopulate the oceans once again.”

“Where does your redemption come in?” Tián asked, looking up at the skein.

“I was the one who destroyed the oceans, to begin with,” Kanaloa answered. “I built the superweapon that nearly destroyed life as we know it on this planet.”

“That doesn’t make sense, Kanaloa,” Tián said.

“It doesn’t if you’ve been living under a rock, Tián,” Kanaloa stated, helping her move to an empty chair near a viewport overlooking the central dome of the City of Crystal. “It was scorched earth, to use the cliché, Tián. We were desperate, and I found the answer to our problems with a biological weapon I thought I could control. In fact, I am probably to blame for quite a few million deaths above and below the oceans. The Imago holds my redemption, you see, Tián. It holds the cure, and I aim to free the cure from its prison.”

“Prison?”

"Yes, Tián,” Kanaloa stated, helping her down to the empty chair. “The last war made many of the aquatics a paranoid lot. They didn’t want the oceans to be fixed. They wanted to keep the cure to themselves, to starve out the land nations. It’s an admirable stance given the postwar conditions—one I used to hold, in fact—”

"Now?” Tián asked, looking at Kanaloa’s skein.

Kanaloa’s skein knelt in front of Tián and grabbed her hands. “Now, I want redemption. I don’t want this world to die. Contrary to popular belief, I believe we can only succeed out there amongst the other planets and stars without a healthy home like Earth. We are on a precipice, and, if we’re not careful, we could very well cause the extinction of an entire planet, and the very species that once called it home. I only need a simple formula from the Imago. The request will be granted, given the modifications I have made to your DNA. However, I will need you to take that formula with you aboard this station and flee as fast as you can for North America.”

“What do you mean, Kanaloa?” Tián asked, gripping the skein’s hands. “You aren’t coming with me?”

"I’m afraid not, my dearest Tián,” Kanaloa answered. “I am to stay here. I will know that you’ve succeeded when the Holy Diver makes it to North America. It will serve your purposes, and it will serve my final wishes as well.”

"What do you mean?” Tián said, feeling tears welling up in her eyes. “What do you mean?”

"The Holy Diver, this station, will reproduce the needed antidotes for the poison I have unleashed on this world. It will allow me to find my redemption. While you escape, I and a select group of comrades hope to steal the entirety of the Imago, in order to keep it from those who wish to use it as a weapon.”

“Will we see each other again?” Tián asked, looking at the skein’s face.

“No, Tián,” Kanaloa answered. “We will not see each other again. Your crimes, my crimes, will be too great for far too many people. We can’t be seen together again. You must leave this place. Survival on my part isn’t certain, and the Imago is likely to need considerable modifications in order to ensure it doesn’t fall into the wrong hands ever again.”

“What do I need to do?”

“You only need to enter the Imago's chamber, Tián,” Kanaloa’s skein answered. “My modifications will do the rest. You will want to be careful, though. We will need to make sure you have the proper equipment to disembark from the Imago’s chamber. That will require a good deal of preparation on our part. Are you ready, Tián?”

“As ready as I’ll ever be, I guess,” Tián admitted with a half shrug. “I think we’d better get started.”

"True enough, dear Tián,” Kanaloa said. “Don’t worry. I’ve made sure you've got the memory of my kin written into your body. You are one of us now, even if we forever part ways. You will carry our kind to the stars. Cliché, I know, but clichés seem to be the best fit for a situation like this one.”

Tián laughed.

“Good to hear that laugh, my dear,” Kanaloa said. “You will be comforted to know that wherever you go, my kin will always be nearby.”

“What do you mean?” Tián asked, wiping tears away from her eyes.

“We are in space, too,” Kanaloa answered. “We have moved beyond the cradle of this world for others. We may not have the same forms as we once did, but we are out there, and in greater numbers than we used to be. Take comfort in that, dear Tián. Where they are, I am, too.”

“I have something I need to ask you,” Tián said.

“Yes, what is it, dear Tián?”

"Do you still have my bag?” Tián asked.

Kanaloa nodded his skein’s head. “I do. It still has everything, from what I could ascertain.”

“Is my father’s watch in there?” Tián asked, pushing herself up from the chair.

“I found a watch,” Kanaloa answered. “It appears to be quite old, too. Probably built during the last century. Analog, as they used to call it back then. Still works, too. Why do you ask?”

“I need something to give me strength while I’m in the chamber,” Tián said. “I need something that will remind me what I need to keep moving toward.”

“I see,” Kanaloa stated, as the skein scratched its smooth cobalt chin. “I think that can be arranged. The rest of your belongings can stay here, aboard the Holy Diver. You will be able to get back here, in order to escape safely back into international waters.”

“You never spoke to me about my father’s watch,” Tián said. “I figure my memories would’ve given you some insight into its value.”

“I thought it would be a sore point to start off our first conversation with something given to you by a father who pushed you away from your only true home,” Kanaloa said. “It is also a conundrum to me, Tián. Your father’s watch is not like the many thousands I’ve seen in my day. Its weight is far too light for something built from the materials of the previous century. It also appears to have two batteries, serving two different purposes. One battery appears to power the watch’s mechanisms, but the other appears to do something wholly unusual to me. I would be careful with your father’s watch. You might find that it will attract unwanted attention. Keep it close to you.”

“Thank you, Kanaloa,” Tián said, touching the skein’s chest with a free hand and the other hand holding onto the armrest of the chair behind her. “I do appreciate your insights.”

“It’s time,” Kanaloa said. “We best get ready.”


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