When Nico stepped out of Percy’s line of sight, the bridge of Scipio came into full view. Percy’s breath hitched in his throat at beholding the sheer magnitude of what was essentially the brains of the ship.
Percy had himself never been on ARKIII, but the size of Scipio’s control room was what he had always imagined the ARKIII’s would be. In fact, he felt as though the bridge was more suited to be the command centre of a project similar in scope and calibre as OMPHALOS.
Percy, however, understood that there was good reason for the room’s exorbitant size. Scipio was the only Trinity-class starship that served the people of C-Vita Lyrae, called such because it fulfilled the roles of mothership, habitat, and flagship. Scipio himself could only do so much, and maintaining the life-support systems and defenses of the colossal ship were taxing enough. Scipio’s bridge was also the mobile command centre of the entire New Rome fleet.
The size of the bridge was only accentuated by its eerie emptiness. Percy had expected a skeleton crew, not a ghost one. Consoles that Percy was sure would have been buzzing with activity, and streams upon streams of pre-processed data from Scipio’s sensors, were currently dead. Their operators were likewise absent, and what would have been a very lively place on any other day, was silent as death.
Percy looked around. The bridge was circular, though split into two wings that gently sloped upward, forming an elevated rim around an imaginary central cylinder. Where the two wings met along the centre of the circle was a suspended walkway to a circular platform that stood at the heart of the bridge.
There were three chairs on that circular platform, each with holographic projectors that were currently inactive. Percy supposed those were the seats for the Admiral, the Captain, and the First Lieutenant of Scipio. It was presumably also the figurative seat of power for the entire New Rome fleet.
Percy suspected that the wings of the bridge were platforms, as well. Even though they were filled with rows of consoles, he had every reason to believe that they were hollow underneath to make room for more consoles and crew members. Nevertheless, he could not be sure. Apart from what little he could see to either side of the walkway to the central platform, he could not see underneath the gently sloping wings of Scipio’s bridge.
Percy turned his eyes to what he could actually see at the moment. Projected onto the spherical structure that housed Scipio’s bridge were a couple of screens. One of them was so dark that it almost looked like Scipio was projecting a dead console. However, Percy knew better.
Jason had mentioned a special guest on the comlink, and Percy was pretty sure that he was looking at the bridge of Erebos—the most enigmatic ship in the region of C-Vita Lyrae. Perpetually cloaked and dark, few people ever had the privilege of actually seeing Erebos, and even those who had refused to speak of it.
Percy’s eyes flitted to Nico, whose jaw had become set, and whose eyes had turned hard. Yes, even Nico had refused to talk about the true nature of Erebos. Although, Percy clearly remembered Nico telling him that Erebos was not a ship that took kindly to strangers.
Percy nearly jumped out of his wheelchair when he felt a hand clap onto his shoulder. He hadn’t even noticed Jason coming near him. His heart fluttered when he looked up and saw his boss smiling down at him. The lines at the corners of Jason’s eyes betrayed that he was a man used to smiling despite the grim appearance he often put forward.
Percy swallowed down the nervousness that reared up inside of him. He nodded in Jason’s direction but quickly averted his gaze. He looked up at the projected screens again and noted, with surprise, that one of the screens was displaying a faint and distant star. In the foreground, just barely distinguishable from the background darkness of space, was a planet dimly lit by the light of the parent star that had ejected it.
“Is that?” said Percy, voice soft, as he turned his eyes back to Jason.
Sadness briefly shadowed Jason’s electric blue eyes, sharp despite the years that hid behind them. The hand on Percy’s shoulder tightened, though it was still comforting despite the firmness of the grip. “Home?” asked Jason. “Yeah. That’s home. That’s us. Everyone you’ve ever met depends on that planet, and it’s doomed without the Oracle Drive. Doomed with, even, if Zeus stays in power.”
Percy turned his eyes back to C-Vita Lyrae as a cold knot of dread settled into the pit of his stomach. The educational texts he’d spent a lot of his time reading had always depicted Vita Lyrae as much brighter—much closer than it was now. The truth was difficult to swallow.
Percy had always seen Nova Olympia as a beacon of hope for the people of C-Vita Lyrae and all their subterranean cities. Now, it seemed, that Nova Olympia was just as doomed as the rest of the forsaken world unless they found a way to steer it back to what the experts believed was its original orbit around Vita Lyrae.
Percy bit his lower lip, emotions suddenly welling within him. He looked at Jason. He knew that Jason had come from earth, kept alive by constant rejuvenation on the long trip to the Vita Lyrae system. He wondered, briefly, if the way he felt now was the way that Jason felt all those years ago, in the months leading up to the departure of the ARK ships which had been the last hope of a young race on a doomed planet.
Percy shivered, but Jason’s hand on his shoulder helped to ground him. Jason gave him an encouraging squeeze, and he couldn’t help but lean into it. Percy couldn’t help but be glad, considering his current emotional state, that he had been unconscious on the way to orbit. He didn’t think he could have handled flying over the barren, perpetually twilit wasteland of C-Vita Lyrae’s surface.
“Percy,” said a disembodied voice from the speakers around the bridge. It was a deep voice, thickly accented and slick as oil. “For what it is worth,” said Hades, “I am glad that you are alive.”
Percy couldn’t help the warmth that crept into his cheeks. Hades had not been happy with him after he had called things off with Nico, but Percy had always understood. Besides, kind words such as those coming from a man like Hades were worth a lot. “However,” said Hades, “I am not happy that there are things you have kept from me. The true reason for Zeus’ obsession with the Ophiotauroi and your friend Bessie, for example.”
Percy gulped, audibly, and a look around the room revealed that everyone, with the notable exception of Jason, was looking at him expectantly. Even the glittering avatar of Scipio had manifested with a curious look. “I wouldn’t dream of forcing you into revealing something that would risk your safety,” said Jason, gently, “but right now, and if I am right, your goals align with ours. Right now, we are the only people with enough resources on this forsaken planet to actually stand a chance against my father.”
Percy hung his head and sighed. He looked at Nico and said, “I suspect you already figured out where to look?” Percy looked over his shoulder at Scipio. “Scipio, would you mind bringing me a microscope and anything I can use to retrieve nanomachines?” The A.I. blinked at him uncomprehendingly for a moment. “Please?” Scipio looked at Admiral Ramirez for a moment, and after receiving a nod, Scipio briefly closed his eyes. “Thank you,” said Percy.
Percy looked at Admiral Ramirez. “Where can I start typing something that I can relay to Erebos, too?” he said. He shoved aside the anxiety he felt at sharing this information, but he felt like he had no other choice. He wheeled himself forward, toward the Admiral’s seat that Reyna was gesturing at.
Jason stepped in front of Percy. “Percy,” said Jason, genuine concern in his eyes. “You don’t have to do this if you don’t want to.” There were other words that remained unsaid, though the look that Jason gave him nevertheless revealed them. Percy was well aware that Jason knew he was afraid.
“No, Jason,” Percy said. He wheeled himself forward, surprised to find that Will had let go of the wheelchair’s handles. “You were right. If there’s any chance that we can stop Zeus before he hurts anyone and takes over planetary government, I have to do this.”
“Perc—!” Jason stumbled over his own feet when Admiral Ramirez pulled him roughly to the side. Percy nodded gratefully at Reyna.
“Let’s just say that I was suspicious of the Ophiotauroi from the beginning,” said Percy. He looked over his shoulder at Jason, and immediately regretted it. He could very clearly see that Jason wanted to stop him for reasons he didn’t entirely comprehend. Jason wanted to protect him, but he didn’t exactly know why. Maybe it was because he had saved Jason’s life, but from the look in the CEO’s face, he suspected it was something else entirely.
“There was only ever one specimen,” said Percy. “Bessie. But even he was strange. Chimera typically don’t have a very robust genetic structure, since they’re made up of two genetically distinct populations of cells. They’re fertile a lot of the time, but they don’t actually produce Chimera. The difference with the Ophiotauroi is that they have been observed to breed in captivity, producing Ophiotauroi young.”
“Wait,” said Will. The one person with any training in biology stepped forward. “But wouldn’t that make the Ophiotauroi just another species? How are we even sure they are chimeric if they produce chimeric offspring?”
“Because they are made of two genetically distinct populations of cells!” said Percy. “That’s the problem. It’s like a Lyran Sea-Bull and a Lyran Sea-Serpent were perfectly spliced together.” Percy looked meaningfully at Will. “It’s not normal, especially for a species that we initially thought had evolved through the Darwinian mechanism.”
Percy leaned back for a moment, tired from all the talking. Jason tried to walk toward him, but Admiral Ramirez pulled Jason back. “Honestly,” said Percy, when the brief moment of fatigue passed, “I didn’t really think it was much of anything for a while until it came to my attention that Zeus, in particular, led an initiative to hunt the Ophiotauroi to near extinction, keeping only a couple hundred breeding pairs alive.”
Percy’s eyes flitted over to the screen that hid Hades’ face. “That was when I started to get really interested. I checked the genetic code over and over again, but nothing looked awry.”
“I didn’t even know where to start until one night, when I was working on an unrelated project, the word ‘POWERHOUSE’ started flashing across my screen.” Percy looked at Will. “I thought it was a prank at first, but I realized it was referring to the Mitochondria when one of my then-colleagues started talking about how stupid it was that people still kept repeating ‘the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell’ a few thousand years after we left earth.”
Will couldn’t help but snicker. “So I took a look at Bessie’s mitochondria. Lo and behold, there were four kinds. Two were normal, from each of the two distinct cell populations. But there were a third and fourth, for both the bull and the serpent halves. They were rendered inert by machines many thousand times smaller than the smallest we can currently produce, and the DNA inside made absolutely no sense.”
Percy caught a couple of nervous looks being passed around in the bridge. For once, Erebos was illuminated, albeit dimly. Hades, pale and gaunt, was frowning in Percy’s direction. “There was no doubt in my mind—then and now—that the Ophiotauroi are a genetically engineered species and that Zeus wants something from that weird mitochondrial DNA.”