Helix: Chapter One


A newly hatched chickadee will hide from the shadow of a hawk, though it has never seen a hawk before.  Like the chickadee, each of us is born with a silent inner knowing that steers us through our lives.  And like the chickadee, each of us is born prepared to see monsters.

Dr. Abraham Cohen
The Book of Life
First edition, 2361

            Nicholas Vermeer watched his city roll past through the window of the streetcar.  Cobblestone alleys turned at tight angles around warm brick facades; brilliant flowers erupted from window boxes.  The residents of New Amsterdam favored tulips, the same way they favored high, narrow buildings and bridges arching over canals.  A consortium of Dutch businessmen had contracted the original design for New Amsterdam colony four centuries earlier, and the architects took pains to recreate a classic vision of their home city.  Unlike his ancestors, however, Nicholas and his fellow citizens lived in perpetual springtime.  He could not imagine suffering through the long, harsh winters of Earth, thousands of kilometers below the orbital colony.
            Nicholas had fifteen minutes to spare; he would just make it to the temple on time.  The Aescelan priests frowned at tardiness, and he didn't want to make a bad impression today, when so much was at stake.  The priests had likely already made their decision, but Nicholas saw no reason to take risks.  Because he and Kemala, his wife, were both born to devoted Aescelean parents, the priesthood already had complete maps of their genomes.  Both of them, in fact, had been carefully screened and engineered by priests when they were still embryos.
            Still, this was the most important day of their lives, and Kemala had insisted on dry-cleaning his police uniform and polishing his three medals.  He'd pointed out that it didn't matter, that they would stand before the Council draped in the blank white robes of supplicants, but she wasn't interested in his point of view.  All day, he'd been uncomfortably aware of drinks and crumbs, wanting to keep his uniform pristine.  Nicholas doubted the priests would bother to notice such petty details, but Kemala would give him her most critical eye when they met at Temple.
            His earpiece crackled, and he heard the voice of the police dispatcher:
            "Unit 41, please respond."
            "I'm here, Hendrika," he said. "No time to chat. I'm almost to my stop."
            "Forget that. We have an emergency, code 12-C.  Near your location." 12-C meant an unauthorized nonresident had invaded the colony.
            "Call Jaarl.  He likes the rough stuff."
            "Too late. Medics picked him up already. The 12-C shattered five of his ribs."
            Nicholas sat up. "Armed?"
            "Negative.  He broke Jaarl against a streetlamp."
            "By the Great Man!"  Nicholas was on his feet now, his training taking over. He touched the emergency strip overhead, and the streetcar lurched to a halt on its tracks. Several passengers groaned, but they saw his police uniform and offered no complaints.
            Nicholas shoved the folding door open and jumped out, boots clicking against the cobbles.  "Description?"
            "You'll know him when you see him."
            Nicholas looked along the street.  The Temple Plaza lay only two blocks ahead, dominated by a marble statue of the Great Man that stood ten meters high. He could still make it on foot.  The idea of offending the priests frightened him.  He was twenty-six years old, and had lived a well-ordered life on New Amsterdam: temple, community, family.  Rarely did his duties conflict.  He felt his stomach twist into a knot.  He absolutely could not offend the priests.  At the same time, he absolutely could not let a dangerous outsider run loose in the colony he'd sworn to protect.
            Shouts erupted behind him.  He turned to see a police hovercraft streaking a few meters above the pedestrians, who cried out and ducked.  Officer Pike Jansen, Kemala's least favorite among his friends, leaned out the side, blond hair streaking in the wind, and fired repeated blasts from an electric shockgun at a running figure below.
            Pedestrians and street florists shouted and dodged aside as the shockgun's bolts cooked the air around them.  Jansen's quarry moved in a fast zigzag, overturning the avenue's famous flower carts and knocking startled tourists to the cobbled street.
            Nicholas gaped at the intruder.  He was huge, a little shorter than Nicholas but exceedingly wide, and judging by the intruder's speed, not much of that was likely to be fat.  The man's face was a blur.  So were his legs.  From here, a city block away, Nicholas could hear the intruder's deep, grunting snarls whenever he plowed over an unfortunate bystander.
            The monstrosity hurtled directly toward Nicholas, crossing dozens of meters in a few seconds.
            Nicholas drew the chemical pistol at his hip, let his hand and his eye aim, and squeezed off two smoking tranquilizer balls--he doubted one dose would be enough for the giant intruder.
            The first shot missed entirely.  The intruder cut abruptly to one side to dodge a sizzling bolt from above, and the smoking tranq ball grazed past his ear.  The other ball smacked into the back of the intruder's thick hand and erupted into a puff of orange smoke.
            With any normal person, that much contact would be sufficient; the expanding gas would hit his nose or mouth and drop him cold.  The intruder seemed unaffected, though, protected by his unusually wide anatomy.  The orange smoke curled harmlessly through his meaty fingers.
            The intruder, still running, looked ahead and saw Nicholas waiting for him with chemical pistol raised.  For a moment Nicholas's gaze locked with the intruder's small, black eyes, and he felt his stomach lurch again.  Something was seriously wrong with the man�s face, especially around the jaw and mouth...
            And the intruder was gone again, a blur of motion turning and darting down a narrow alley.
            Overhead, the hovercraft twisted in midair to pursue, then nearly crashed into a flower-drenched brick facade.  The driver slung the craft aside at a sharp angle to skim along the building wall, tilting so sharply that Fredrik and the driver would have fallen out without their harnesses.
            Stupid, Nicholas thought.  The alley amounted to little more than a paved footpath, allowing residents easy access to their apartments; it had never been intended for any kind of vehicle.  Nicholas's earpiece crackled: Fredrik.
            "Vermeer, pursue on foot; we'll try to circle around and cut him off," Fredrik said.
            Obviously. "Understood," Nicholas replied.  He dashed after the intruder, pistol high.  He hoped the narrow alley would grant the intruder less room to escape from the tranq gas.
            Nicholas darted into the cool shadows of the alleyway, distantly aware of the mingled scent of spring flowers and baking sweetbreads.  Recessed doorways, the entrances to private citizens' homes, lined the narrow corridor of the alley.  The intruder could have hidden in any of these and ambushed Nicholas, but he hadn't.  Nicholas knew this because he could see the monstrously wide man ahead, at the far end of the alley.  He'd run through in less than two seconds.
            Nicholas chased after him, sucking air in deep gulps, boots thumping the pavement.  Why today?  New Amsterdam was a peaceful colony with almost no violence, mostly known for the delicate and exotic flora it cultivated for decoration, food and medicine.  The pursuit of this strange giant would certainly prove the most exciting police event of the year. 
            He could already see Kemala's soft brown face, the gentle frown, the hardness creeping into her dark eyes.  She would understand the importance of his work, of course.  That wouldn't stop her from resenting it.  Especially not today.
            Nicholas emerged from the far end of the alley, already well behind his quarry.  Fredrik and the hovercraft would never make it around in time.
            The alley opened onto another wide avenue, Rembrantstraat, this one thronged with tourists and costumed street performers and bisected by a dark canal where wooden boats drifted along, bearing even more tourists.
            Nicholas didn't even have to look.  The hefty intruder shoved his way through the staring crowd, heading straight for the canal.  The crowd of passengers aboard a wooden mock-Viking tour boat stared and pointed as the intruder pounded towards them. The enormously wide man lowered himself onto his massive legs, and then leaped.
            He's going for the boat.  Nicholas charged forward through the gap the large man had driven through the crowd.  Hope everybody can swim. He took a quick glimpse overhead. No sign of the hovercraft.
            The intruder arced high, high above the canal, an impossibly tall jump for any person, especially one so massive.  It was a miscalculation on the intruder's part, though. He was going to land well past the boat.
            "Fredrik?" Nicholas said. "Fredrik, where in the prophet's name are you?"
            "Be there in a second," his earpiece crackled.
            Nicholas watched the enormous man's long descent.  His massive, oddly rounded feet extended before him, guiding him to the street on the far side of the canal.
            "Not possible," Nicholas heard himself say.  The massive intruder crashed into the cobbles on the far side of the canal.  Pedestrians drew back from him as a loud cracking sound boomed across the canal, echoing off the brick walls behind Nicholas.
            The intruder's feet had shattered the cobbles as if they were made of delicate crystal.  His feet!  The man's thick legs ended in hard black hooves, each of them wider around than Nicholas's shoulders.  He could crush my skull with one stomp, Nicholas thought.
            "Hold it!" Nicholas shouted across the canal. "Police order!"
            A deep rumbling came back in response--either laughter or snarls.
            Nicholas finally got a full look at his quarry and felt his grip on his gun slip.  The intruder was not human--not entirely, anyway.  His skin was a roughly textured gray, bristling with sharp hairs, stretched over muscles the size of boulders.  His hands looked like they could crush stones into powder.  It was the man's face, though, that caused Nicholas to touch the sacred caduceus hanging from his own neck, an act of prayer.  The creature's eyes were small and appeared solid black, at least from this distance.  His nostrils flared at the front of a wide, flat nose--the snout of an animal.  Cruel-looking tusks curled up out of either side of his mouth, forming a permanent devilish smile.
            Nicholas recognized the blasphemy that must have occurred.  Someone had created this beast by applying the Great Man's teachings in a forbidden, heretical way.  Nicholas would try to take the monster alive; surely the Aescelan priests would want to learn where it had come from, and who had made it.  Righteous fury surged inside Nicholas--creating such a thing was a grievous sin, strictly prohibited by the Great Man himself.
            "Don't move!" Nicholas said.  The arched bridge over the canal was twenty meters away.  Nicholas tried to determine how fast he could edge toward it without giving the man-beast an opening to cut and run.
            It was imperative that the thing not get away, and not just because Nicholas would never catch up with it.  Nicholas realized exactly where they were, on the south side of Rembrantstraat.  Behind him stood a row of art galleries, cafes, and a small playhouse, all of it in the decorative brick required by the colony's strict building codes.  Across the canal, the hog-faced monstrosity stood just outside the peristyle enclosing the United Nations courthouse, the highest law on the colony.  If the beast injured the U.N. magistrate or her staff, there could be repercussions all the way from Earth.
            The massive creature opened its great jaws and bellowed, a deep, angry sound that reverberated along both sides of the street; Nicholas wouldn't have been surprised if all ten million colony residents heard it.
            "What in the bottomless void is that thing?" Fredrik's voice crackled.  The hovercraft swept into Nicholas's line of sight, flying towards the canal.
            "No idea," Nicholas replied. "Can you take him?"
            As the craft approached the canal, Fredrik rose from the passenger side with the long barrel of his shockgun before him.  He trained it on the howling beast.
            The intruder's jaws snapped shut.  It looked up at Fredrik, looked across at Nicholas, then stepped one of its giant hooves forward over the lip of the canal.
            "I got him," Fredrik said.  An electric bolt leaped from Fredrik's gun to the shattered cobbles.
            But the intruder was gone.  Nicholas watched him plunge into the dark water of the canal and sink out of sight.
            "Did I get him?" Fredrik asked, close enough that Nicholas heard the man's voice both in realtime and in an echo from his own earpiece.
            "Not even close." Nicholas holstered his chemical gun and drew a shock pistol from his hip.  He fired a bolt of electricity into the water. "Fredrik, shoot him!"
            "Where?"  Nothing was visible in the canal.
            "Anywhere!  Everywhere!"  Nicholas kept firing, bolt after bolt into the water.  The charge meter on his gun sank towards zero.
            Finally catching on, Fredrik launched repeated bolts of electricity into the canal, filling the air with thunder and smoldering ozone. 
            "I'm out," Nicholas said.
            "Did we get him?"
            "I can't see anything. Ping it."  Nicholas heard a faint background hum through his earpiece as the craft's sonar activated.
            "Way ahead of you," Fredrik said. "How fast you think it can swim?"
            "I don�t know.  Have you ever seen anything like that before?"
"Never.  We should report it to the priests."
            Nicholas looked up and down the canal, searching for any disturbance in the canal surface.  He tuned out the faux-Viking boatload of screaming tourists.  The watercraft's mechanical oars swished double time, and he heard a modern hydrogen engine kick to life deep inside.  Good.  He needed those civilians out of harm's way.
            "We've got nothing!" Fredrik shouted in his ear. "That blasphemous thing has disappeared."
            "Impossible. Check again."
            "We did, Nick.  He's not in the canal."
            Nicholas looked along the canal again.  The creature couldn't have emerged without drawing the crowd's attention.  He looked the other way, up the canal, past the Viking tour boat with its ridiculous oars dipping and lifting to imitate the rowing of ancient seamen.  No noticeable disturbance that way, either; the crowd had shrunk back from the canal, but not fled, survival instincts conflicting with the reluctance to miss a spectacle.
            Nicholas glanced at his watch again--now he was officially late to the Temple.  Kemala would be fuming.
            The Viking drakkar listed slightly in the water.  Nicholas looked at it carefully. The oars extended, dipped, pulled, lifted--and again.  Had they dropped a bit lower the second time?  He watched again--the oars lifted, swung forward, dipped into the water, and this time the wide paddles at the tips submerged completely, leaving only the oar shafts in view.
            "Fredrik, drop me a line," he said. "I need to get to that tour boat."
            "You sure?"
            "Where else could it go?"
            The hovercraft drifted over above Nicholas's head, and a cable fitted with circular rungs unspooled towards him.  Nicholas grabbed one rung in his hand and slipped a foot into a lower rung.  The hovercraft lifted him from the street and ferried him over the canal to the tour boat.  Nicholas held a finger over his lips to request quiet from the passengers.  Thankfully, they cooperated.
            Nicholas stepped lightly on the deck of the boat.  The pilot, a gruff middle-aged man in a horned helmet, scowled at him.
            "She's sinking," the older man whispered. "You've breached her."
            "Not us," Nicholas whispered back. He pointed a finger straight down to the oaken boards of the deck and raised his eyebrows.
            The drakkar pilot's eyes widened and he nodded.  Without a word, he led Nicholas to the tiny cabin, an enclosed wooden structure shaped to look like a rowboat inverted and tied down for storage, just large enough for the pilot's chair and controls.  The pilot grabbed the chair and slid it aside, revealing a hard plastic panel underneath.
            Nicholas gave the pilot a quick nod of thanks.  He opened a pouch on his belt and withdrew a compact orange ball, small enough to conceal in his hand.  It was packed with tranquilizer gas, enough to stop a rioting mob.  He hoped one would be enough to finally put the blasphemous creature down, because he didn't have another.  Nicholas had carried the device on his belt for four years, ever since he got his badge. He'd never needed it before.
            Nicholas crouched next to the panel.  He paused, drew a deep breath.  He had no real defense if the creature was waiting down there in the dark, ready to ambush him.
            The Great Man watches over me. He mouthed the prayer as he mentally recited it. He guides my life along its proper channel, and into its proper destination.  Again, he touched the miniature caduceus hanging around his neck, the symbol of his faith.
            Nicholas slipped his fingers under the panel latch, working as quietly as possible.  He raised the ball of compressed gas over his head.  Then he took another breath, lifted the panel open and peered into the greasy machinery below. 
            The darkness below deck reeked of mold and stale water.  A steep, narrow rack of stairs led towards the unseen rowing pistons, which tapped out a staccato as the oars reached forward, dipped, pulled back through the water.
            A massive gray shape boiled up out of the dark.  Nicholas twisted the gas ball in his fingers, turning the upper and lower halves in opposite directions. He hurled the ball at the approaching monster, then slammed the panel shut and threw himself down on top of it.
            The monster crashed against the underside of the panel, and the trap door slammed up into Nicholas's chin, cracking his teeth together and flinging him back against the cabin wall.
For a moment, panicked thoughts rushed and collided in his brain: it's free it's gotten loose.  Then the hard plastic access panel clapped back into place below him. Nicholas grabbed onto the seat of the pilot's chair and wedged his feet against the cabin wall, bracing himself in case the weight of his body wasn't enough to hold the panel closed.  He struggled to draw air; the impact had smashed the breath from his lungs.  If the man-beast charged like that a second time, it would knock Nicholas aside, perhaps snapping a few of Nicholas's ribs in the process.
            The lid lifted again, but with much less force, as if a timid dog were trying to nose it open.  Thick orange tranquilizer gas curled up around the edges of the trapdoor, and Nicholas forced himself not to breathe, despite his desperate craving for oxygen.  He was behind on his tranquilizer antidote; the situation with Kemala had distracted him all month. 
            The lid slipped back into place.  The drakkar ship's hold would be brimming with tranquilizer gas.  Nicholas hoped he hadn't killed the blasphemous man-beast; dead monsters told no tales. In any case, the safety of these passengers came first, regardless of what information the creature might have.
            Still resisting the urge to breath, Nicholas rolled to his feet.  He stepped out of the cabin, nodded as he passed the boat pilot, strode to the very edge of the deck, and filled his lungs with air that tasted of the blooming clusters of water flowers on the canal surface.  He'd never appreciated so much how fresh and alive the air of his city smelled.
            Five additional police hovercraft arrived, and Fredrik stepped down from his own craft onto the boat, charged shockgun at his side.  He carried the industrial-sized model normally mounted on the hovercraft hull, having apparently decided that the smaller version on his hip wouldn't be sufficient for the man-beast.
            "Is it here?" Fredrik asked.
            "Yeah.  He's either tranqed out or pretending to be.  Grab me a gas mask and I'll go in with you."
            "Forget it," a woman's voice said beside him.  Nicholas turned to see Fahari Sgaal, a tough, muscular woman who'd been a year ahead of him at the academy.  She stepped from a hovercraft onto the deck of the boat. Two more cops joined her, carrying the big shockguns. "We're here to back you up.  Now back up."
            The police officers moved toward the cabin, armaments raised.  Nicholas tried to follow them, but Fredrik shook his head.
            "I thought someone was running late for Temple," Fredrik said.
            Nicholas froze. One crisis after another.  Police dropped down around him, securing the ruptured drakkar with cables to keep it afloat.  Overhead, hovercrafts struggled to lift the boat higher.  The situation was under control.
Nicholas stepped onto the hovercraft Fahari had departed and asked the driver for a quick ride to Temple Plaza.
            "Say hi to your wife for me," Fredrik said.
            "I'll be sure to blame all of this on you," Nicholas replied as the craft rose away from the canal.

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