Brian Burt - Speculative Fiction
Aquarius Rising: In the Tears of God
BOOK 1 OF THE AQUARIUS RISING TRILOGY:
On an Earth ravaged by climate change, and a disastrous attempt to reverse it, human-dolphin hybrids called Aquarians have built thriving reef colonies among the drowned cities of the coast. Now their world is under siege from an enemy above the waves whose invisible weapon leaves no survivors. Ocypode of Tillamook is an Atavism: half-human and half-Aquarian, marooned in the genetic limbo between species. Only he knows why the colonies north and south of Tillamook Reef have been destroyed, literally turned to stone. Ocypode knows that Tillamook will be targeted next, but sharing the reason might prove as deadly to Aquarius as the Medusa plague itself.
Ocypode and his Aquarian and human comrades flee into the open ocean to escape Medusa, until another Aquarian's treachery leaves them at the mercy of a killer storm. Ocypode must pass through the Electric Forest, where he faces nightmarish creatures and a legendary sea witch who becomes an ally. Finally, he must confront the cyber-ghost of the human he most despises: Peter Cydon, the Great Father who bioengineered the mutagenic virus that gave birth to the Aquarian species. These unlikely allies provide the only chance to stop the Redeemers, rogue scientists who are determined to resurrect the land by slaughtering the sea. Even these allies will not be enough, and Ocypode must decide whom to trust with a secret as lethal as any plague.
This book won EPIC's 2014 eBook Award for Science Fiction.
"For those who enjoy the simple pleasures of an adventure story, Aquarius Rising can be warmly recommended. Burt does a good job of balancing action, exposition and scene-setting to create a highly colourful page-turner, full of the vivid hues and unfamiliar sights of its aquatic world and galvanised by regular tail-breadth escapes and fishy ruckuses. He also opens up the narrative in interesting ways, bringing in other hybrids such as the pillagy and rapey Saurians and the cautious, well-organized part-rodent Talpidians."
"I am glad that this is the first book of a series, because I want to make sure to read the sequels. Unremitting tension, vivid description that doesn’t get in the way of action, realistic emotional presentation of very strange humanoids, incredible technical tools made believable — what more do you want in science fiction?"
"I sometimes wonder if there are any new ideas out there. So many movies, TV series, and even books are retellings of old stories, and even though some of those are well done, we (at least me) want new, different and exciting - and feel disappointed when we spend our time watching or reading something that is just like everything else.
THIS book. This book is like nothing else I've read. I love science fiction, love science fiction that looks at what our planet COULD be like in the future, especially with some of the crazies that are out there. This is an apocalyptic world different than what I have seen before and it's exciting, seeing this new species, learning about the history and the lies - and every moment of this story is exciting. I caught myself on several occasions holding my breath, fingers crossed, hoping that this character or that character would make it through."
"There are surprisingly few sci-fi novels that delve into possible water worlds of the future, in comparison to those that journey into outer space. Arthur C. Clarke and a handful of others come to mind - but even though Dolphin Island comes close, Aquarius Rising is a beast of another color. Its greater attention to building characters, exploring the motivations of a destructive mind and scientists who have 'saved' humanity by mutating it, and providing a thriller genre overlay that keeps readers involved and guessing actually places it a cut above Dolphin Island and its classic waterworld contemporaries.
Readers who enjoy a hefty dose of psychological drama in their science fiction stories will be the best audience for Aquarius Rising, which creates a believable, absorbing world spiced by the motivations and madness of all its characters."
"This first-rate book has easily earned 4 out of 4 stars. The author writes clearly and concisely, and keeps the story moving at a good pace while peeking into the minds of various bizarre lifeforms. He gives us plenty of subplots and supporting characters without creating confusion. The grammar is impeccable. There is no drab filler material. The tension builds steadily, leading to a final showdown and a satisfying ending. As an added bonus, he refrains from using profanities and graphic sex, making the novel suitable for young readers.
This novel should gratify nearly all SF fans and readers interested in intelligent oceanic beings. However, even if you don't ordinarily read SF, there's a good chance you will enjoy this stirring imaginative story."
"This book is so well written that I could taste the saltwater in the air. It was easy to get immersed (pun not intended) into this world. At first it seems nothing more than a pitiful creature against the sad hand dealt to him by life. It quickly moved into one fast paced adventure after another, each with its own emotional tug of war.
Later this month I am scheduled to read book 2 of this series and I have to admit it will be difficult for me to stay on track and not read it out of turn. I can hardly wait to see what happens next."
"Strong novel. Good strong cast and ideas here. Found an inventive world and a powerful novel concept here. Good job bringing the reader some new horizons to explore."
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EXCERPT FROM NOVEL:
CHAPTER 21—THE ELECTRIC FOREST
Night fell quickly in the forest. Even if lingering storm clouds hadn't hidden the moon and stars, the dense canopy of kelp fronds would have done so. The incessant electric hum buzzed inside Ocypode's head. The gloom grew so thick that he could barely swim through it. At least he wasn't alone. Nocturnal creatures swam and crawled and slithered through the macrocystis plants: grazing fronds, nibbling stalks, filtering the currents for plankton. Larger, fiercer fish cruised the kelp jungle, hunting their smaller neighbors. In such dusky waters, Ocypode would have expected bioluminescence to be common, but the denizens of the Electric Forest didn't shimmer like their deepwater kin.
A nudibranch munching on the underside of a frond above Ocypode's head flared brilliant yellow as it bit into one of the kelp's conductive filaments, continuing its meal without distress. A kelp crab flashed in bursts of orange as it gnawed at a stem-like stipe. Snails and isopods and amphipods flickered in shifting constellations as they nibbled on the macrocystis foliage. Mutated opaleyes and halfmoon perch drifted through the forest, banishing the darkness with the multicolored sparks of an undersea aurora while they fed. Somehow, these species had developed ways to discharge the surges of electricity without damaging themselves. Ocypode was so absorbed by the show, he didn't see the shadow lunge out of a thicket of stalks beside him.
His muscles clenched in agony. The shadow wriggled toward the trunk of the nearest macrocystis plant. What...in Hell...was that? Its bulbous head split open like a clamshell before its jaws closed around the kelp stalk. It pulsed with ghostly greenish light. He recognized its shape: long, compressed body tapering to a knife-point caudal fin, blunt snout ending in wide jaws bristling with teeth, a dorsal fin jutting above the entire length of its body like a razor laced with needle spines.
It was the biggest, ugliest wolf-eel Ocypode had ever seen, at least three meters from snout to tail. Its mottled hide fluoresced as it sank its fangs into the macrocystis, sucking out electric juice. He couldn't fathom what the hideous thing was doing. As his head began to clear — as the pain diminished to endurable levels — he understood. Not a wolf-eel. It was a dragon-eel, a mythic monster of the Electric Forest. The creature wasn't braving the kelp's high-voltage sting on some suicidal whim. It was recharging.
He needed to get away, quickly, before the thing either electrocuted him or shredded him with its fangs. His muscles quivered like jellyfish plasm. The dragon-eel suckled at the kelp's electric teat, glowing ominously bright. It looked hungry. No, not hungry: angry. Wolf-eels — the less exotic cousins of this thing — were fierce predators, but they didn't hunt anything the size of humanoids. They were, however, highly territorial. The creature released the macrocystis stalk and undulated toward him, glowing like a serpent out of Hell. He could never outswim it. It saw him, not as prey, but as a trespassing rival.
Ocypode closed his eyes, let his arms dangle, allowed himself to sink into the depths. He didn't look to see if the dragon-eel was bearing down on him. Unless it believed he was already dead, it would bite again, and then Ocypode wouldn't need to pretend. How would it feel to have his nervous system fried by a battery with fins? He kept his eyes wedged shut, didn't move a muscle. His slow descent would send a message: in the ocean, dead things sank.
The dragon-eel was not so gullible.
Fire lanced along his side. A jolt of current forced his limbs to jitter while tiny suns erupted from the void behind his lidded eyes. Still, Ocypode didn't swim or scream or flail. The dragon-eel hadn't struck with the full force of its potential discharge; it had only prodded him to make sure he was dead. He would do nothing to persuade it otherwise. He sank, limp and lifeless, another feast for seafloor scavengers. The dragon-eel didn't pursue him.
He settled to the bottom, collapsed into the rocky silt of the forest base. He didn't move. The buzzing in his head began to fade, but his muscles still twitched. Many tides ago, when Ocypode was a child, a flotilla of jellyfish had engulfed him without warning, raked their tentacles across every centimeter of his unprotected flesh. Now, it felt as if he had swallowed those jellies: they floated inside him, spitting venom straight into his innards. Blood oozed from his back and side where the dragon-eel's fangs had left their mark. He wondered what other monstrosities prowled the Electric Forest, searching for the scent of wounded prey.
He rose slowly, very slowly, using a macrocystis stalk to pull himself skyward. He passed dozens of flashing herbivores as he ascended but saw no sign of the dragon-eel. He reached the surface, pushed through a rubbery tangle of fronds, and thanked Mother Ocean that he still drew breath. The air smelled fetid but tasted sweet. He fumbled in his pouch for ointment to salve his wounds. Lightning flashed beneath the waves wherever the kelp grazers fed, as if the storm had overspilled the bowl of blackened clouds into the ocean.
Other lights flared above the canopy. Gulls and terns glided through the night sky, swooping on the forest to hunt fish and snails and shrimps that made the canopy their home. Darkness shielded the birds from the vampire sun, but it dimmed their vision. Beaks too often pierced the fronds instead of snapping up their prey. Some birds simply shocked themselves unconscious; others flamed like feathered torches. Charred carcasses bobbed amid the fronds. The stench of overcooked meat mingled with the smell of rotting kelp. The foxfire beneath the canopy was beautiful, but in the Electric Forest, everything of beauty had a darker side.
Ocypode drifted on the surface for some time, watching the occasional seabird meet its fiery doom while waves rustled the kelp and thunder grumbled overhead. He was still bleeding from the wound on his back. Dangerous. It advertised his vulnerable condition to any other spawn of childhood nightmares that lurked within the forest. He finally dove, resumed his journey south toward the distant promise of open water. He was cautious, extremely cautious.
Still, he never saw the net.
The mesh of sticky threads collapsed around his head and upper torso. Not a net: a web of some strong, elastic substance woven between massive stalks of kelp. He flailed instinctively. Instead of freeing himself, he tangled his arms and legs as well. He felt vibrations in the webbing to his right, turned his head and caught his first glimpse of the weaver. He had never seen a crab so monstrous. Five pairs of thin, segmented legs radiated from an armored body more than a meter in diameter. With legs extended, it must have spanned four meters. Its shell was so black it glistened. It scuttled toward him, joints clicking, eyes like polished pebbles of obsidian studying him from the ends of short, flexible stalks. He barely noticed the eyes, though. He couldn't tear his gaze from the pincers, or the mandibles that twitched around its mouth with greedy anticipation.
Ocypode thrashed in the spider-crab's net. He didn't free himself, but he noticed something. His wounded side didn't stick to the webbing. Salve prevented the strands from clinging to him. He twisted, slid one arm along his side to smear it with the ointment. After that, it took just seconds to work his arm loose. The crab's leg joints clicked like jangling bones. Closer. Closer. He fumbled for his pouch, yanked out the ointment, spread the greasy stuff across his other arm, his face, his legs, his torso. Patches of skin pulled free. He wriggled until only one leg remained stuck, fin ridges glued to cords of webbing. The spider-crab danced closer. Its claws sliced the sea like scimitars.
Ocypode stifled the urge to kick; that would snare him tighter. Instead, he tucked his body inward and slathered salve across the places where web entangled flesh. A crab leg scratched his arm, scraping like a dull knife. A scimitar-claw gashed his shoulder. Ocypode lunged away from the web, from its gruesome weaver, and his leg snapped free. The spider-crab's pincers closed on empty water.
As he swam to safety, he felt foolish. It was only a crab, after all. The creature's eyes followed his escape from the ends of twitching eyestalks before it scuttled toward a sheephead thrashing in another section of the web. The crab advanced until its legs encircled the struggling fish and its round body loomed overhead. Its carapace dropped, plunging mandibles deep into the fish's side. Within seconds, the fish stopped moving. Ocypode shuddered. Nerve toxin. Must be venom sacs connected to the mandibles. Just a crab, huh? Nothing in this forest is as harmless as it seems...and you damn well better remember that.
Ocypode smeared every part of his body with salve until the tube was empty. He bumbled into two more webs in the gloom, but he quickly freed himself from both. How long would the ointment last? No amount of caution would protect him from the crab-nets if he kept traveling at night, but he dreaded the thought of drifting beneath the canopy, waiting to see if sunrise would rescue him before some new nocturnal horror attacked. He wove southward in a sea of shadows cast by living, dying torches. So tired. So hungry. Soon, parts of his brain would fall dormant, dropping him into that abyss of drowsy dreams that swallowed over-tired Aquarians.
Ocypode spotted something that made him wonder if he had sunk into a dream already.
It grew out of the ocean floor, macrocystis plants snaking through the structure as if they were an integral part of its construction. The outer walls were smooth with rounded edges. Graceful spires sprouted from the domed roof, extruding kelp stalks from their pinnacles. An ornamented tower rose from the center nearly to the canopy above. It looked like a castle. The facade gleamed with the iridescent sheen of nacre, a giant oyster shell turned inside out. He swam closer. Underwater lightning danced across the delicate friezes decorating the outer walls. Smart-sharks and devil-rays and dragon-eels and other marine monstrosities jutted from the parapets like Neptune's gargoyles. And yet, the threat implied by those sinister guardians seemed contrived. They were rendered in loving, if ferocious, detail.
Ocypode explored the perimeter, marveling at the artistry. Near the bottom of the castle, concealed behind a tangle of macrocystis stalks, he found an entrance: a doorway carved to resemble the immense jaws of some deepwater leviathan. Interlocking teeth sealed the portal against intruders. Not exactly inviting, but he needed food, rest, shelter from the things that prowled these waters.
He saw no obvious way to open the door. He probed the edges of the portal with webbed fingers, located a hollow close to where the jaws clamped together. He reached inside, carefully, and felt a recessed circle. He pressed the button, heard a click on the other side of the wall. The jaws of the castle's gatekeeper slid ponderously apart to reveal a tunnel. Ocypode hesitated only for a moment before he swam inside. He almost waited too long.
The jaws slammed shut behind him, centimeters from his flipper-feet, with a force that would have crushed him had he been a second slower. His eyes adjusted to the darkness. The tunnel curved upward, lit by the faintest glimmer. Ocypode stoked his courage and rose toward the light. The tunnel opened into a pool inside a vast artificial cavern: the central tower of the castle. Oxygen-rich air filled the chamber, but what he saw stole his breath away.
Glow-globes surrounded the circular hall, swelling like boils out of macrocystis trunks embedded in the walls. Carvings and murals adorned the walls and the domed ceiling, less hostile than the gargoyles that leered from the outer parapets: whales, dolphins, rainbow fishes, glossy-shelled mollusks, floral gardens of soft coral. Stunning. More like a cathedral than a castle, a temple to Mother Ocean and Her wonders. Viny growths twined along the lower walls, interwove with the kelp stalks to form a dense lattice. Ocypode recognized the sight, the smell, the hum of bioelectronics, the most sprawling network he had ever seen. The place had to be an Archive, but it was not like any Archive he'd ever heard of, not even in the tallest tales of the eldest elders!
Where were its designers?
Ocypode found a set of stone steps at the edge of the pool and climbed onto the floor, which had a rough, cement-like texture to prevent wet flipper-feet from slipping. He wandered toward the nearest wall. The bioelectronic interface nodes were peculiar, but he felt sure he could figure them out. The carvings and the sculptures and the paintings, though, bespoke a depth of insight and perception he couldn't hope to match. Oh, how he longed to meet the Aquarians who had formed these works of art — who had built this fortress of surreal beauty in the heart of such a frightful place. He had so many questions for them. At that moment, he would have settled for an answer to the most obvious: why?
Something collided with his skull. The answer struck him as he struck the cold, hard floor. You build a temple in the Electric Forest because you don't want visitors. Ocypode wondered, as he lost consciousness, just how far the masters of the castle would go to guard their privacy.