Brian Burt - Speculative Fiction
Aquarius Rising: The Price of Eden
BOOK 3 OF THE AQUARIUS RISING TRILOGY:
In the final installment of the Aquarius Rising trilogy, tensions between Humans and Aquarians have reached the boiling point. In Book 1, Redeemer Edmund Bryce unleashes the Medusa Plague that entombs Aquarian reef-cities in stone as he strives to restore the scorched lands of the Barrens to health at the expense of the oceans. Ocypode, an Aquarian Atavism who serves as Chief Lorekeeper of Phylamook Reef, and his motley collection of comrades manage to stop Bryce and avert disaster. In Book 2, Megalops, an Aquarian biosculptor, is driven mad with grief by the slaughter of his mate and daughter in the wake of the Medusa Massacres. His relentless quest for vengeance leads him to unleash the Vendetta Virus against Redeemer enclaves and causes Aquarius to erupt into civil war.
Ocypode and his friends foil Megalops, but not without tragic casualties that spur a Redeemer ally to reveal everything about Earth's covert warfare to the public. Instead of shaming the combatants to sue for peace, these revelations inspire desperation on both sides and trigger an escalation of hostilities that threatens to destroy all humanoid life on the embattled planet. The tribes of whales sing an ancient prophecy of the Storm-Slayer, a legendary child of Mother Earth and Mother Ocean who is destined to defuse the conflict and save the world. Ocypode's cetacean friends believe he is that mythic figure. Destiny weighs heavily on Ocypode's shoulders as he struggles to forge an alliance between the scattered, distrustful child species of humanity, as well as the Human Guardians beneath the waves and the Human Redeemers dedicated to resurrection of the land, to chart a path to peace.
Both sides resort to waging war by proxy, using barbaric hordes of reptilian Saurians and brutal smart-sharks to commit atrocities against victims on land and sea. War demands sacrifice. Ocypode understands this all too well and is willing to pay in blood... but how steep is the price of peace? And can the world afford to pay it?
EXCERPT FROM NOVEL:
CHAPTER 1—PROXY WARRIORS
Ocypode swam through the crumbled remains of the ancient Human town, its streets swallowed by the ocean long ago, its buildings encrusted with thick growths of coral and reborn as the reef-city of Phylamook. He fought a rising tide of panic, forced himself to maintain the steadiest pace his undersized fin ridges would allow. Tensions between Aquarius and the Humans who still clung to the ravaged Earth were building, as pressurized as a tube of molten magma barely contained beneath the stretching skin of a volcano. Soon those tensions would erupt, spewing flame and ash and poison. When they did, Phylamook Reef would be a primary target.
And one of his most cherished friends lay directly in the line of fire.
Please, Auriga, you have to listen this time. You have to see reason!
The war to dominate the poor, crippled planet had become impossible to hide. Ocypode — Chief Lorekeeper of Phylamook Reef Colony, an Atavism trapped in the genetic no man's land between Humans and Aquarians, fully trusted by neither — understood that. In some ways, it had been much simpler when the conflict was clandestine, when extremists on both sides took care to cloak their attacks in shadows. Elise Leonidis had changed all that.
Is this really what you wanted, Elise?
Tormented by the slaughter of every human being in her enclave, in her care, she chose to shine a spotlight into the darkest corners of both land and sea. The maniacs who unleashed the Medusa Plague which entombed a dozen Aquarian reef-cities in stone stood illuminated, exposed; so did those who struck back with the Vendetta Virus that destroyed almost as many Redeemer enclaves. The monstrous sins of Human and Aquarian alike were dragged out into the open. Now, every sentient creature in the Solar System knew the truth. Everyone had an excuse to justify their hatred, enmity, and rage, their lust for retribution.
As if most humanoids needed an excuse.
He raced through the turquoise waters, burning energy and oxygen. He barely noticed the beauty beneath him, the miraculous renewal Auriga and her fellow biosculptors coaxed from the ruins in the wake of Medusa's carnage. Seaweeds undulated in the current; feathery soft corals fluttered; fish of every shape and size grazed the reefscape, sunlight drifting down from the rippled surface to infuse their stripes and spots and myriad colors with its glow. Phylamook rose from the grave, not as a zombie version of its former self, but transfigured. It was once again the jewel of Aquarius. It had endured so much. Why in the sacred name of the Great Father couldn't it be spared this time?
Ocypode's lungs burned. He rose, knifing above the waves, breathing greedily as he bobbed between the skeletons of taller structures that still stood near the center of the reef-city, jutting metal ribs covered with barnacles. The sea crashed against their sides, tumbled through the holes in their corroded walls. They were a somber sight, cemetery markers for a bygone age. To Aquarians, they were simply reef substrate and breakwater. To Humans, they were a reminder of everything that had been lost.
Some people mourned the tragedy of that loss. Unfortunately, others were determined to find somebody to blame... and punish.
He dove beneath the surface and headed west again, toward the far fringes of the city. The lush coral gardens, the darting dance of fish and other scuttling, crawling creatures barely registered as he glided overhead. What struck him was not a presence but an absence — not a single Aquarian in sight.
Normally the pod members of Phylamook Colony would have been everywhere, tending and harvesting, chattering in conversation. Children should have been wrestling and roughhousing, chirping silly songs, playing hide-and-seek amid the dark caves and crevices nestled within the rubble of drowned Human homes. The silence was unsettling. Clearly, most of Phylamook had heeded the warnings, evacuating to the Guardian aquadome on the seafloor beyond the shallows or taking refuge in the more intact, defensible Human structures where they could seal themselves behind barriers cobbled from the wreckage. The upper floors of those "safe-houses" poked above the waves, providing a path to precious air without exposing the occupants to open water. Ocypode's fellow lorekeepers huddled in the Archive cavern carved into a coastal cliff far to the east; as Atavisms, they could navigate the slippery stone floors above sea level far better than any normal Aquarian.
Everyone sought safety except Auriga. She lingered, anchored to the reef by unbreakable chains of love and memory. She wouldn't, couldn't leave, and — because of that — neither could he.
The submerged buildings grew more sparse. The coral ridges became narrower, less frequent, replaced by broader expanses of silt with occasional outcroppings of rock. The ocean bottom sloped down into darkness just as Ocypode's objective loomed into view: the vast, floating expanse of the Living Reef Phylamook, the organic storehouse of countless generations of Aquarian knowledge, memories, and experiences. It held more than that. When the recently deceased were fed to it, absorbed into its neuroplasmic innards, it preserved a shadow of their former personalities. The Living Reef was a vessel for the ghosts of his pod's ancestors. One of those ghosts haunted Auriga without mercy, trapped her here even though that was not its intent. Ocypode knew he would find her nearby, despite the Guardian alarms.
He only hoped he would find her in time.
He crooned a greeting to alert Auriga to his approach and prayed she would answer. For an interminable time, there was no response. Then an Aquarian shape detached itself from the narrow edge of the brain-reef disk, near where the tough outer membrane puckered to form an interface slit. Auriga had been Joined with the Living Reef, of course. She swam toward him slowly, lethargically, still disoriented from the altered state of consciousness induced by the Joining. She spent more time communing with the Living Reef Phylamook than living her own life, had done so for many tides. She was an addict. The Joining was her drug. Directly or indirectly, it was likely to kill her in the end.
"What do you want, Ocypode?"
"You know what I want. I want you to seek shelter, like everyone else. I want to know you're safe."
Auriga scowled. Even then — despite the gauntness of her features, the demons in her wide jade eyes — she still took his breath away. She was every bit as lovely as the butterflyfish species that inspired her spirit-name. Her smooth, slick skin gleamed silver in the diluted sunlight; the scalloped fin ridges along her arms and legs and ear channels paled to a milky white. She looked fragile, delicate, but appearances could be deceptive. There was steel beneath the softness. He had seen it many times. He heard it, too, in the stern music of her voice.
"None of us are safe. You know that better than most. I'll face the enemy here, in familiar waters, where I have the weapons to defend myself."
"These aren't normal predators, Auriga."
She grinned, and the old passion flared behind her eyes. "I'm not a normal biosculptor, and Phylamook is not a normal Living Reef. Let them come."
As if they'd heard Auriga's taunt, a pack of shadows, massive and sharp-edged and menacing, hurtled out of the murk in Auriga's and Ocypode's direction.
The smart-sharks moved with lethal, liquid grace. These were definitely the new breed, fiendishly designed to be bigger, more intelligent, and more deadly, to terrorize reef-cities up and down the old Oregon coast. These monsters weren't content simply to maul Aquarian prey. They went after the one member of each colony who couldn't be replaced, the death of whom was guaranteed to devastate their enemies, to generate the most despair. Instead of normal cartilage, concentrated mineral deposits hardened the leading edges of these creatures' dorsal fins and tail fins, making them as sharp as scimitars. Sharp enough, when propelled by the momentum of a giant shark swimming at maximum speed, to slice through the thinnest sections of a brain-reef's underbelly, where the flotation bladders were located. Half a dozen Living Reefs had already been cut to pieces by similar attacks, leaking trails of air bubbles and gouts of neuroplasm as they sank into the cold, black graveyard depths. The murder of a Living Reef was the most unforgivable atrocity any Aquarian could imagine. It didn't just kill the brain-reef; it killed the soul of an entire reef-city.
This was why Auriga refused to leave. All biosculptors had special bonds with their Living Reef, but not like Auriga. Her mate, her beloved, had fed himself alive to Phylamook in order to save her from that fate, and now his spirit possessed the brain-reef's consciousness. Joining was the only way she could cling to him. She would die before she let the sharks take that away.
And, thought Ocypode with a fatalistic shrug, I guess I'm going to die with her.
"They'll go for the underside," he hissed. "They won't waste time on us until after."
"That's what I'm counting on," said Auriga. "Follow me." She spun and stroked toward the brain-reef, angling beneath it. Ocypode followed, struggling to keep up as best he could. He felt the smart-sharks bearing down on him, heard their tails thrashing as they fought to close the distance. This was a race he couldn't win. He felt a gut-churning sense of déjà vu, remembering another time in this same spot when he and Auriga had narrowly averted a similar fate. But those had been regular smart-sharks — not really very smart at all, ruled by their instinctive hungers, driven mad when the Living Reef's potent bioelectric field overloaded their electrosense. These were upgraded versions, cunning and determined, specially bred to savage brain-reefs.
Luckily, Auriga was cunning and determined, too, and had prepared a surprise.
As the lead shark veered toward the vulnerable underbelly of the brain-reef, a swarm of silver missiles shot up from below. Razor-fins, thousands of them; Ocypode had never seen a shoal move in such perfect synchrony, as seamless as the cells of a single organism. They closed on the super-shark, a squadron of razor blades flying in tight formation. They moved with incredible speed, curving in a graceful arc and spinning into a whirlwind of quicksilver that surrounded the alpha shark and tightened around it. They circled in a blur, struck repeatedly, then spun away, leaving a flayed and ragged carcass oozing clouds of crimson. Despite their programmed discipline, several members of the super-shark pack could not deny their heritage. They surrendered to the bloodlust and dove on the sinking corpse of their dead comrade, gobbling loose ribbons of flesh. Others maintained their attack vector and accelerated toward the brain-reef membrane. The razor-fin swarm struck repeatedly, flaying one shark after another. These mercenary monsters wouldn't get the chance to gut the Living Reef; Auriga's biosculpted defenders gutted most of them instead.
But not all. Even the flashing schools of razor-fins couldn't stop so many fast, powerful, single-minded attackers striking simultaneously.
One of the sharks plowed through Auriga's shifting silver wall of defenders and dove toward the brain-reef's unprotected ventral membrane. Bloody lacerations crisscrossed the creature's sandpaper hide, but it didn't slow. In fact, it accelerated with a thrash of its tattered tail, determined to complete its mission before succumbing to its wounds. It headed straight toward Auriga, who floated between it and its true quarry. To Ocypode's horror, she didn't dive out of its path; instead, she pulled a shell dagger from her pouch, the polished blade iridescing as she lunged toward the massive shark with a screech of fury. Ocypode cried out in vain. Nothing would stop her now, and he had no chance to reach her before the collision.
Luckily, someone did. Half a dozen torpedo-darts embedded themselves along the shark's gray flank, pumping potent doses of a paralytic agent into its bloodstream. The creature's muscles froze, encased in invisible ice, as its streamlined body sailed beneath Auriga's outstretched blade and curved toward the seafloor.
Blinding beams of white pierced the coppery haze beneath the brain-reef as Guardian submarines raced to reinforce the razor-fins, spotlights prodding the surviving sharks into a scattered retreat, picking off stragglers with more torpedo-darts. The attackers' vanquished pack-mates sank beneath the lances of light into the embrace of the Deep Black, destined to become a feast for bottom scavengers. Ocypode couldn't suppress a thrill of triumph.
And that, he thought, is why this bloody war will tear the world apart.
"They'll be back," he murmured.
"And we'll be waiting for them," said Auriga. "This was the Great Father's charter colony. It won't fall to their kind again."
"You were always one of the most vocal advocates for peace, Auriga."
"I still am. But, until it comes, I'll fight, because Aquarius is worth fighting for."
In that moment, he barely recognized her. He remembered a gentle, creative spirit, one who sculpted living works of art. Several hundred tides of tragedy and loss had turned her into a warrior.
Unfortunately, too many others were content to wage the war by proxy. That made it all too easy to be brave, to be callous about the cost. If he didn't find a way to show both sides the folly of this path, then the proxies might be the only ones left to celebrate a victory. Conflict was natural. Reconciliation took effort. Sometimes, Ocypode wondered if the so-called intelligent tribes of planet Earth had the will or wisdom to save themselves.
"Price of Eden provides a fast-paced romp through a world that holds different, competing options for survival, and considers both the sacrifices of war and the impossible circumstances of continued existence. As moral and ethical questions about friendships and associations permeate a greater story of this war's impact on all involved, Price of Eden evolves beyond bloodlust and outrage to walk a delicate line between a survival story and a political sci-fi thriller.
Fans of his prior books will appreciate the unexpected directions Brian Burt takes as he ultimately considers the real nature and definition of 'Eden' and the price all will pay to forge new paths towards peace."
"The Aquarian universe is very complex and very well constructed, the characters are well-rounded and fully developed, and the atmosphere of the story is very dramatic and tense. The name of the novel [Price of Eden] suits the story really well. The dialogues are crisp, the story is fast paced, and the plot is the best science fiction I have ever read, which is all thanks to the writing style of Brian Burt! Simply brilliant and more than fantastic."
"It can be hard to standout in the sci-fi genre, but Brian Burt’s series has emerged with a visionary world and an equally imaginative plot, earning Price of Eden 4 out of 4 stars. I highly recommend this enchanting, underwater sci-fi adventure to readers who enjoy sci-fi/fantasy and are looking for something quite different from the usual options in the genre. The futuristic look at climate change and scientific advancement are well played out in this compellingly immersive tale."