Codename: pressure-cooker

[Estimated reading time: 15 minutes]

[This is a work in progress.]


The large planet is a mega-earth, a planet much larger than our own, with the potential surface area some 10,000 times greater than earth's.
Potential surface, though, because LUVOIR-278c is an ocean world, and her surface is hidden beneath miles of water and steam.
Who knows, maybe it's a big diamond at the core, or something.

The world is known as Laan, and its atmosphere is a very close approximation of hell.
It is a world that is being roasted alive by its A-type star, a blue-white ball of hydrogen determined to speed-run through its life and burn out in a mere billion years.
In star terms, Laan does not have long to live.

But it is home, and more, to humans who seek shelter in its vast oceans.


Emile was in his "cabin", on his raised "bunk", stared out the somewhat-cloudy "porthole" of his "ship", and watched with zero interest the fish who swam outside, among the other "ships".
These were not familiar terms to Emile, but are familiar to those people whose ancestors also came from the Pale Blue Dot.

Emile was thinking of the upcoming hunt and was going to cut a hole right through the clear sections of the hull just by staring through it so intently.

Outside, happening just beyond the mostly-clear partition, Emile watched a handful of other vessels swim over the vast, well-lit plain.
Plenty of bright light reached this shallow shelf and provided ample illumination.
A perfect time for a hunt, in other words.

Emile felt a shudder come through the floor, the walls, and eventually through his body, and sprang into action.

He tightened the straps of the bladders on his back, the bladders below his ribs, and the thinner bladders that surrounded his arms and legs.
The bladders rose and fell, rose and fell, all in time with Emile's breath.

The shudder came again, this time louder, loud enough to shake his lungs, and Emile felt Deep Pearl expel several times in quick succession.
Emile picked up a dark-red leather scabbard off its spot on the wall.
He took the serrated knife from the scabbard and gave it a quick once-over, ran a finger over its sharp edge, then returned the weapon to its sheath and held the whole thing in his right hand.
Then, Emile squeezed himself through the fleshy curtains at the edge of his cabin, and felt himself dive down a narrow, pulsing throat that seemed to stretch forever.

Deep Pearl squeezed and pushed at Emile's form, and in a matter of seconds Emile had traversed from his sleeping quarters and into the core of Deep Pearl.
The walls of the pulsing throat pushed in on Emile and he felt comforted, he felt a close connection with Deep Pearl, his heart was flooded with calmness, and Emile felt happy as destiny approached.
The whole journey took just about fifteen seconds, and at the end Emile dropped out of Deep Pearl and into its colder surroundings.

Emile instinctively swam farther down, toward a growing group of other hunters who had the same plan.

Emile saw Alma, and his hear skipped a beat.


The hunters gathered around a small bump in the plain, a minor exhaust vent that seeped warm sulfur.
This was a single distinct feature in an otherwise unassuming and (frankly) boring part of the shelf.

Alma, as the leader of today's hunt, carried a large conch in one hand and swam around the hunters in a circle.
She watched the group and approached the newcomers, double- and triple-checked their air-bladders, examined their weapons, verified the coverage of their armor.

When it was time for Emile's inspection, Alma smiled at him, but said nothing as she ran her hands over the armor on his legs and arms.
She checked the larger bladders on his torso, then spun him around and attached his scabbard to his back.
Then she swam off, to check the last of the arrivals, and Emile felt dejected.

She is busy, he told himself, and willed his mind to stay focused on the hunt.

Deep Pearl was one of five habs gathered here, so there were an even twenty hunters today.
Four from each hab, as was traditional.

The last arrivals passed Alma's inspection and she took lead.
She swam to the spot over the vent and looked around.
Nineteen pairs of eyes looked out at her, ready to follow her into the jaws of hell itself.
Her short hair swayed in the upward breeze from the vent and made Alma look strange, alien-like.

Alma sang out a short 'song, a familiar ditty that Emile hadn't heard in a while, then launched straight into the briefing.

Alma spoke no human language, and humans from the Pale Blue Dot typically did not speak by vocalizing underwater, but if the text of Alma's speech was written down, it would be understood by her ancestors.

"Our destination today is the kelp forest to the north.
The Tumultuous spied it on their way here, so our mission is to investigate, and acquire at least four stalks per hab."
This was once again a stalk-per-hunter hunt, with four hunters from each hab.
Alma looked over at a grizzled hunter from the Tumultuous, a woman in her fifth decade with whom Emile had hunted twice before.
The woman's name was Lee and she was missing most of her right arm.

"We passed over the kelp forest two days back," Lee said and pointed toward the north.
"It looks young, it is mostly fresh saplings, but I saw a handful of thicker stalks.
And a school of blue-gills, but no predators."

"Nevertheless, half will be on guard duty," Alma said, then eyed the group of hunters for a moment before deciding.
"Blue team, you're on guard duty in the kelp forest," she said definitively and nodded.
"Red, you're going in, in pairs."

Today Alma wore a red-hued scabbard on her back.
Maybe, just maybe, Emile would end up with Alma as his hunting partner.
Emile smiled at that.

The shallows and the drop

Alma ended up pairing Emile with Lee.
Lee smiled at that and slapped Emile on the back.

"This will be a good run!" Lee yelled, then yodeled a bit in her own strange way, so loud, it spooked a school of fish that was swimming by beyond the farthest vessel.
"And don't worry, young one," she added quietly, privately, "do well enough, and Alma might visit you.
Just don't die, she don't fancy a corpse!"

The hunters swam north, away from the vessels that they called home, and soon arrived at the edge of the shelf, where the ground fell away rapidly and gave way to a gorgeous view of the deeper plains.
For a few minutes, the hunters just swam in place, no one willing to be the first to cross the boundary between the shallow ledge and the sudden drop.

Emile looked down, past the cliff's edge, and was instantly struck by fear.
The lower shelf was almost a mile below them, a fall that promised an exciting drop and an onerous swim back up.

It was clear today so you could see for a long distance, and a pink glow seeped down from above, from something bright above, to illuminate these relatively-shallow depths.
The plains stretched out for a few miles, the land covered in corals and random growths, spotted with sulfur vents or dark spots that were most likely caverns.
Beyond these, the kelp forest began, a smallish patch that was perhaps just a mile in diameter.

Emile glanced back toward Deep Pearl and the other vessels, and saw them as small black forms far off in the distance, almost too far to see.
Almost, but it was a clear day, and Emile's complex eyes were capable of magnifying whatever he looked at.
So Emile was able to see the vessels even at this far distance.

Alma held the conch to her mouth, and after a moment Emile felt the deep whalesong through his bones.
A mile below them, on the deeper plain, the ground shifted and moved, sand flew up and temporarily blotted out the grass as dozens of green forms swam up.
The green forms were still far away, to small to properly identify, but Emile knew exactly what was coming up.
Alma slung the conch to her back and was the first to swim past the cliff's edge.
The other hunters followed and almost two dozen human shapes began their dive toward the deep.
They dove headfirst into a mile-long fall.

The humans from above swam down, and the green shapes from below swam up, to meet them.
The green shapes were sleeker, and faster, and in a matter of minutes they had made it up to the level of the humans.

The green shapes had roughly humanoid bodies: a head at one end, two extremities close to that, two more extremities on the far end.
But their torsos were wider, fatter, and covered in a tough carapace.
Scaled skin covered the extremities and even their heads, each of which was dominated by two great big eyes and a short but very tough beak.
Some of the hunters liked to attach the disembodied beaks to their arms or feet, and used these quite effectively against predators.

The hunters knew these creatures as tubles.


The tubles swam fast, much faster than it seemed possible for something so bulky, to meet the incoming humans.

They were not sentient, not much smarter than your average fish, but they were compliant.

Emile reached into a webbed pocket at his side and pulled out a small piece of pink flesh, then held it in front of him.
Three tubles approached Emile and tried to bite the piece of pink flesh out of his hands, but Emile's hand moved too fast and the tubles were too slow.
Emile waved his hand this way and that, the tubles moved this way and that, and Emile was able to study the three individuals.

The first tuble was fast, nimble, but much too small.
The second seemed to favor one side, and the extremities on the opposite side seemed to move lazily, a bit too shaky for Emile's taste.
The third tuble, however, was the right size, and it seemed feistier than its compatriots, snapping at the pink flesh almost too fast for Emile.

Emile fed the flesh to the third tuble and grabbed on to its carapace.
The tuble was too engrossed in the treat to be bothered, at first, but once it had swallowed the bit of pink flesh, the tuble began to be annoyed by Emile's presence and swam faster, trying to shake the interloper off its carapace.

Emile held on and reached for another piece of pink flesh from his webbed pocket.
He reached forward and dangled the piece in front of the tuble's face, and quickly the creature stopped protesting and calmed down.
Emile allowed the creature to bite at the bit of flesh, but only just a small nibble.

Emile followed Lee, who'd snagged a dark-green tuble, and they all followed Alma.
Alma had found a light-green tuble, one that looked practically white under some light conditions.

The hunters began to chant "Queen Alma-ya, Queen Alma-ya", in jest, and in reference to the famous myth.
The real Queen Almaya had lived sixteen generations ago, and was the first human to ride a gigantic albino tuble, a dangerous, even deadly creature that became known as the batuble.

Emile thought of reminding everyone of one very important fact, that in the myth, Queen Almaya rode astride her lover, and both were on top of the royal-white batuble.
But he chose not to say anything.

The hunt

The hunters approached the kelp forrest from above.
The red team consisted of five pairs of hunters.
Emile was paired with Lee, Alma was with Vey.

Emile eventually noticed that Alma had put reds from different homes together.
Same with blue.
Everyone was paired up with a foreigner.

"Where have you been?" Emile asked Lee, using the plural pronoun to ask where Lee's hab Tumultuous had traveled.

"After," was Lee's only response.
She stared ahead, in deep focus.

They swam toward the south-eastern part of the kelp forest, and turned right just a fraction of a degree.
Their blue counterparts trailed them, and turned to follow.

Emile saves Lee's life

[Scene missing]

The way back

Half of the hunters had affixed tow-cables to their waists and hoisted the stalks of kelp trees between them.
At first, the tubles strained as they struggled with the added weight of the kelp, but they quickly found their strength and lifted the stalks and the riders, and swam slowly up towards the bright plains.

Alma was once again in the lead, seated on the almost-white tuble, with Lee close by and just to the side.
The stalks and hunters followed, at a short distance.
The other hunters formed a protective shell around the heavy-lifters.
Emile was headmost, the hunter furthest from the abyss, vertically up, a position of honor.

The way back up was uneventful, so Emile took the opportunity to get some sleep in.
The tuble knew enough to keep its position in the swarm.

Emile dreamt of Deep Pearl, as was typical, and of Alma.
That, however, was not.

Emile rarely dreamt of other people.
His dream world was often devoid of other humans, and that's the way Emile liked it.
He'd tried filling his dreams with with his hab-mates, with mythical heroes from the past, imagined lovers, but all this resulted in nightmares.
In his dreams, Emile was forever being chased by people, and was terrified of it, so eventually he stopped dreaming of people.

But Alma came into his dreams unbidden, uninvited, but not unwelcome.

Emile dreamed that he was perched atop the Deep Pearl.
The hab was in position over a steep cliff, and Alma was just a fraction of a mile away, out over the bottomless abyss.
She floated at Emile's level.

A tentacle reached up out of the darkness, wrapped itself erotically around Alma, then dragged her form down into the darkness.

Emile forced himself to wake up.
He was still riding the tuble, and up ahead lay their destination: the Deep Pearl and the other habs, swimming round each other.

Emile blinked, his eyes telescoped and focused on Deep Pearl, and suddenly the hab took up most of his vision.

Deep Pearl

Emile was not a particularly tall human, though he wasn't short.
A bit taller than average, Emile was around 2 meters in height.
Or, as he would see it, Emile was 2 meters long and had a arm span of 2.25 meters.

The Deep Pearl was a hab some twenty meters in height, and more than one hundred meters in diameter.
Like most other habs, from a distance Deep Pearl looked like a great big jellyfish, in part because that's what it was.

Her topside was dominated by a large half-spherical dome, pushed down so that it jutted only four meters up, and which was known as the Eye.

The Eye was the largest dome, and was located at the very top of the Deep Pearl, but there were other smaller domes that surrounded the great Eye.
Each of the domes had a slightly different tint, so subtle that it was only apparent when all were seen at once, and some were darker or lighter than the others.
The Eye was by far the clearest, and the brightest.

Emile focused on Deep Pearl's great Eye dome and saw forms moving within it.
He wondered who was Home, and who had been sent out to gather.
The Eye was not an organ, it was a habitat within the body of Deep Pearl.

The hunting party aimed toward the small sulfur vent, the spot that all the habs circled, slowly, in meandering curlicues.

The Deep Pearl was one of the smaller habs, but its huge Eye was the biggest dome around.
Some of the other habs had medium-sized central domes, some had multiple domes squished together, but none had as large a dome as the Eye.

Deep Pearl was typically referred to in solemn tones, or informally as Home or Her by those who dwelt within the hab.


The hunting party approached the five habs, and at some subconsciously-decided moment the swimmers broke off into five smaller parties, each group consisting of four hunters and four stalks of kelp.

Emile gave a small wave to the others, and swam on with his group toward Deep Pearl.
Today the Four were Eva, Ooti, Mayal, and Emile.

All four had grown up together on Deep Pearl, so this was a common configuration that they found themselves in.
Until Mayal had a falling out with Eva, over a private disagreement they never shared.
Then the Four seemed quiet and withdrawn, and everyone about Deep Pearl noticed, and everyone was affected.
Emile had long theorized that hab was picking up on their emotions, but had never gotten an answer from anyone.

Eva and Mayal brought down the stalks on the plain, next to a spot claimed by a different hab.
They bid their tubles adieu and fed them the rest of the motivating scraps, and quickly all the tubles swam away.

"Good hunt today," Emile spoke and the other three swam around to focus on him.
Mayal and Eva were as far apart as possible, with Ooti acting as a barrier between the squabbling friends.
"Go on and relax, I'll finish up here.
That's an order," Emile finished with a smile, and so the rest of the Four saw this as a gift, a thanks, more than an actual order.
Even though Emile was the ranking officer, and this was an official hunt.
But that also meant it was Emile's responsibility.

Deep Pearl tore away from the movement of the other habs and sunk toward the stalks, as three hunters swam up to meet her.
Emile swam down to the plain, took out his knife and started cutting the kelp stalks with a practiced ease, slicing at them with surgeon-like precision to tear apart the green flesh.

Her gigantic form brought shadow and Emile was only too happy to work in the dark.

Emile tore off a piece of kelp and tossed it up, then a second and a third in quick succession, toward the Deep Pearl, then watched the chunks go sailing up, up, until they were intercepted by the tentacles that reached down from the hab.
Each tentacle grasped a piece of kelp by coiling around it, then retracted slowly and brought the kelp underneath the hab.
The three pieces of kelp disappeared into the darkness in the center of Deep Pearl, and then the tentacles swung back toward Emile, ready to pick up more morsels.

Satisfied that everything was working as intended, Emile focused on the task of chopping up the great kelp stalk into small-enough pieces, and tossing them up to be snatched by the tentacles.

Splitting four mature stalks of kelp took Emile a while, but he enjoyed the precision of the task, found its repetitive nature calming.
He treated this time as a moment of forced meditation, and took such opportunities whenever he could.


The kelp-cutting meditation is why Emile didn't notice as Alma swam away from her own hab.
Why he didn't see her swimming slowly, a webbing of personal objects towed behind her.
Nor when her form and the bundle then disappeared into Deep Pearl.

Finished with his task of splitting up the kelp, Emile swam a quick circle around the hab, a short survey of the surroundings, and approached Deep Pearl from the side.
One of the closest vertical portals pulsed, welcoming, and Emile dove into it.

Deep Pearl hugged him from the sides, and Emile felt the warm sensation of being home once again.
He traversed the throat toward his dwelling and avoided the Eye or any other public area.

Emile kept his dwelling warmer than most, so it also doubled as sanctuary for the more tropical fauna aboard.
Emile kept eight various flowering pods, almost a dozen strips of different-colored coral, and sixteen varieties of kelp, all of which enjoyed the tropical heat and the slightly saltier environment that Emile preferred.

The plants were on the opposite side from Emile's nest, which occupied the other half of the dwelling.
The clear section of the hull was between the plants and the nest, but now it was clouded over for privacy.
Emile took off his scabbard and stuck it carefully amongst the corals.
He tore off his underwear in a practiced motion and tossed the tatters toward the ceiling, where a weak suction sucked up the pieces into a small dark opening.
Then Emile receded into his nest.

He took the umbilical from its spot and connected its narrow end to the matching depression of his belly button.
Then Emile coiled around himself and the umbilical, shut his eyes, and slept.

The guest

Emile awoke after an hour, refreshed and full of energy.
His dreams were perfectly normal, this time around: a bright, desolate plain, devoid of other humans, a spot just for Emile.
This was an immense help for Emile, emotionally.

Emile grabbed one of the sponges from a flowering pod and performed some grooming, then tossed the sponge up to the ceiling, where it was sucked up into the small dark opening.

He then pulled a black, large, roughly rectangular piece of fibrous tissue from inside the nest, where the fabric served as a layer of insulation and padding.
A knife in Emile's practiced hands made quick work of the fabric and in a few minutes Emile was able to wrap his lower region in multiple swaths of the material.
Emile, like most others on the hab, made his underwear daily.
To them it was a religious activity.

Emile certainly treated it with the utmost focus, and devoted his afternoons to the practice.

Having prepared himself like this, Emile swam to the fleshy curtains and fell into Deep Pearl.
The gigantic throat wriggled and pushed at Emile, and for a short time he felt protected and content.
Then Emile emerged into the Eye and saw Alma.

Alma was with Helene, the Captain of Deep Pearl, and the two were looking on as Sal the cartographer concentrated on a flat stretch.

"The hero wakes!" Helene boomed as soon as she noticed Emile.
Alma looked toward the cartographer, to check if he would mind the interruption, but Sal had already lost all interest in the world of humans and was intently focusing on the flat expanse before him.
Alma and Helene swam toward Emile and met him in the approximate center of the Eye.
Darkness was falling outside, but a ring of faint bioluminescent spots illuminated the inside of the Eye.

"Alma was just telling me about the hunt," Helene said to Emile, smiling.
"Well done!
That was a brave thing you did, my boy," the Captain beamed.
Emile smiled demurely, not wanting to make a big deal, but Helene was not having it.
"Ah, see, Emile is too modest!
And look at that form!"
Helene took Emile by the shoulder and twisted him around, as if she was making sure to showcase her prize from all directions.

Emile felt like a piece of meat.
And he felt fear.
He feared Alma going along with Captain Helene's offer.
He feared they would take him away from Deep Pearl, send him to live on Monolia, or some other hab.

"Thank you, Helene, but Monolia is well-stocked at the moment: we have twelve on the way," Alma replied and winked at Emile, who didn't notice.
He was busy imagining himself anywhere else and turning a ruddy red out of the embarrassment.

And, being a man, he wondered how many of those "on the way" were Alma's offspring.

He looked at Alma, then, just a moment too long.
His eyes lingered on her strong arms and the defensive helix bracelets, which Alma wore even indoors, even here, in the Deep Pearl, under the protective dome of the Eye.
Her pitch-black hair was braided now, so it sat flush against her scalp.

"Ah, well, maybe next time," Helene replied, and gave Emile a withering look, for just a moment.
"Emile, would you favor our guest with one of your creations?
The boy is an artist with flavors, I don't know how he does it!
Ah, but it's time."

Speeches and And

"Bzzt", Captain Helene vocalized and brought the entirety of both Deep Pearl and the Eye, eight people in total, to a stop.
All eyes were on her.
"Evening all!
I'll keep this brief," she said and pointed toward Alma.
"Alma will be joining us for a few weeks, so let's make her feel welcome!
Emile is going to favor us with a signature cocktail of his, plus a healthy helping of And!"
There was much rejoicing at that.
Everyone (except Sal the cartographer and Emile) rushed to meet and introduce themselves to Alma.

Ooti was in such a hurry, she made a mad dash toward Alma, but forgot to unplug her umbilical, and was promptly brought to a stop in a very comical way.
Alma checked on Ooti, but everyone was fine.

Emile, meanwhile, made his way to a particular side of the Eye, where multicolored coral surrounded a webbing of small leather sacks.
He carefully pulled the webbing out from in-between the coral, then untied the webbing and pulled out two leather sacks.

The sacks were of varied sizes and patterns of leather, but each had a small pointed tooth attached at one end.
There was a bit of seaweed attached to each pointed tooth.

Emile pulled the seaweed out of one tooth, pushed at the pouch, and squeezed just a bit of its contents out towards a nearby intake spout.
A cloud of concentrated pink escaped the leather pouch, then was quickly whisked away by the pull of the spout.

After a short time, a very mild pink began to pour through the outlet spouts, and soon the entire Eye took on a pink hue.

The next pouch colored things a dark-green.

Then Emile took a much larger pouch out of a different coral patch, and sprayed most of its contents toward the intake spout.
This time, the contents were mostly clear.
This was And.

This might be a fun night after all, Emile considered.

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