Saturday, 24 February 2018

Chapter One: Too Deep

Childhood on the Ark-Hive ended the day you understood. Childhood ended the day you understood why Grey Sector was more dimly lit. The day you understood why nobody made eye contact with the Stingray. The day you understood why someone you knew for years could suddenly be dragged away, with a bag over their head... and why everyone looked away when it happened.
The moment of realization didn't come from the knowledge that something was terribly wrong with our small Underwater City. The moment came when you realized there were no options. In centuries past, there were choices that a person would have, ranging from reporting to the proper authorities, to an open revolution to set the wrong things right.
But none of those options were available in the Ark-Hive. Any violent action would be disastrous for the last tiny colony of humanity. Friend and foe alike would be wiped out, and all hope for the future would die with them.
For that was the point of the Ark-Hive: To be the last, desperate hope of survival for a people that had wasted their every other chance, and now clung desperately the possibility that they would one day be able to try again.
Childhood on the Ark-Hive ended the day you understood why there was only one chance left, and when it came, each and every one of the few thousand remaining human beings had to make a choice.
When your second chance is the only one your species will ever get, what do you do with it?
[Taken From the Private Journal of Director Cora Bridger, Founder of New Eden. (2351-2418)]
155 Days to Landfall.
"We went too deep."
Cora heard him say it, but didn't respond. She couldn't move, and if she could breathe, it would be hard enough to groan, let alone answer him. Who is he talking to?
Think. She told herself. Think! You were in the McCallan Trench...
She remembered the Mission. She was releasing the marker buoys...
Tai left the sub.
She opened her eyes with a short gasp of effort. Her eyes hurt. Her bones hurt. Her ears hurt.
"...decompression." She groaned, realizing.
Tai came to her side immediately. "Hey there." He said softly. "We're safe. We're in the McCallan Trench Forward Observation Post."
Cora nodded weakly. She couldn't focus, and her head was pounding...
Get it together. She told herself. Focus on details. Focus on something singular. Decompression. You know about that. What do you know?
She tried to remember the briefing. All Sub-Drivers were trained in recognizing the dangers of pressure changes. Don gave the briefing. How did he put it?
"When at pressure, your body adjusts to the external weight of water." Don's voice came out of her memory. "But the nitrogen molecules in your blood do not. Gas can compress a long way, but when it's inside you, the rest of you isn't so lucky. When the pressure changes too rapidly, the air in your lungs or in your blood starts to expand, and your body fluids start to fizz like carbonates. Treatment: Long term therapy at a tightly controlled air pressure. Several of our deepest outposts are designed to perform this very function."
It was working. Her brain had stopped reeling from one thought to the next. The panic faded, and she focused on her friend. "The sub cracked? We should be dead."
Tai shook his head. "Not the hull, the engine casings. We couldn't control the return assent."
Cora groaned. "I remember. The sub lurched, and.... I don't remember anything after that."
"You hit your head." Tai filled her in. "Once I got the thrusters running and you stabilized, I brought us here. It was where the first Trench Miners were based, back when the Trench was open. I figured if they worked here long term, it would the nearest place with a Decompression Chamber."
Cora groaned again, and looked about the chamber as her vision started to clear. She had mottled bruises on her arms. She'd been driving submarines since she was fourteen, and knew well the signs of ‘the Bends'. "Did you report in?"
"The radio on the sub wasn't working. Odds are, the tossing back and forth knocked around the antennae." He gestured around. "But even if we could call for help, I don't know what they're going to do to rescue us. We're still below the Green Zone. We'd need to pressurize for the Ark-Hive. That'll take at least two weeks. We either do it here or take our chances going back."
Cora held out an arm, and he carefully pulled her to a sitting position. Her eyes had cleared enough that she could see clearly around the chamber. It was about the size of her quarters back home, maybe a bit bigger. The walls were featureless, picked clean, but there were two bunks bolted into the wall, one above the other. Nothing but metal walls with rounded corners.
She scanned left. A table, also bolted into the wall, but no chairs. The airlock door was intact and sealed... And in the upper corner, one of the omnipresent Cameras. "The place has been completely picked clean, but the camera's still on?"
"On, but I don't know if it's working." Tai nodded. "We're a long way from home." He gestured at the only porthole in the chamber. "Delphi refuses to leave."
Cora struggled to the porthole, and found the dolphin's beak pressed up against the Plexiglas. A dolphin was always smiling, but his eyes clearly grew relieved when he saw Cora was awake.
"Our distress call, right there." Cora declared immediately.
"He'd never make it." Tai countered. "He went as deep as we did. Dolphins can handle a lot more than us, but if he went back to the Ark-Hive, he'd Bend-Out just like we would."
Cora winced at the thought. "I know. But there's no choice. It's not like we can bring him in here. He either makes it to help, or he goes belly up right outside this window." Through the window she started making hand-signals. Go. Find. Human. Get help. Hurry. Danger. Hurry.
Delphi's head nodded up and down dramatically, and he spun on his tail, powering off into the ocean. It was dark enough that she lost him quickly. In her state, Cora exhausted easily, and she settled back on her bunk. "By the way, why the hell do I have the bottom bunk?"
Tai smiled with affection. "Because I couldn't bother to hoist your unconscious body into the top one."
Cora rolled her eyes a little as she passed out.
154 Days to Landfall
Cora woke to the sounds of conversation. She could move easier now, and looked over towards the airlock. Tai was there, speaking through the intercom at the airlock window. Someone had docked with them. She rubbed her eyes a moment. "Tai? Who is it?"
He looked back at her, startled. "You're awake!" Tai walked over from the airlock to help her stand, and Cora could see the face on the other side of the door.
"Don!" She called out. "You came all the way out here?"
"Hey, you two are still my best team." The older man said with affection.
Cora came over slowly. "How's Delphi?"
"Alive." Don reported. "The Bends had him by the gills by the time he made it to one of our Outposts, but by a miracle, the one he picked was a Synth-Animal Station; and they had enough gear to put him in recovery. He's not out of danger yet, but he's alive." Don smirked. "Pretty brave partner you have there, Miss Bridger. A lot of Dolphins would have lost it before getting halfway home."
Cora joined Tai painfully and sat down. "If you're here, then I assume my father knows?"
"The Director sent a care package." Don promised her. "He sends his apologies, but-"
Cora waved it off. "Dad hasn't left the Ark-Hive for ten years, I wasn't expecting him to come."
"I was." Tai mumbled in a low voice from behind her. She pretended not to hear him.
In the airlock door, there was a compartment where they could pass things through from one side to the other. It had been crammed full of ration cubes. She collected them, and tossed them back to Tai. By the time she had turned back, Don had already refilled the compartment from his side. More rations, a hand-pumped water purifier, and a small cooker. Don lowered his voice. "Tell your co-pilot to cook something." He almost whispered to her, barely audible through the speaker.
Cora pretended she hadn't heard him, and collected the cooker. "Hey, Tai?" She said as she held the gear out to her friend. "I think before he leaves, we better make sure all this gear works. I mean, it's still a fifteen year old pressure chamber. You never know what we'll need to rely on most."
Tai nodded and took the assorted supplies over to the table, at the far side of the chamber.
Cora turned back to Don. "I'm a little surprised that you came yourself. You're the head of Life Sciences, I would think you've got plenty of things to do."
"I know, but your father was worried." Don excused. "He wanted to know you were okay, but he couldn't leave the Ark-Hive. So I volunteered to come personally. It was my mission that had you two ‘scoping the Trench."
Cora nodded and put her hand up to the glass. "I'm okay. We both are."
The much older man mirrored the gesture. "I know. I'm glad." His eyes flicked over her shoulder, up to the camera. Cora knew what he was looking at, but didn't dare turn to look herself. Don lowered his hand, as though it was nothing more than a handshake. "How did the mission go?"
"We got the sensors placed." Cora promised him, but then she lowered her voice and tilted her head back toward Tai, just a tiny bit. "He left the submarine. Halfway down that Trench, he just went for a walk outside. I still don't know why." She licked her lips. "It doesn't seem likely that I would have been left out of anything official, given that I was the pilot. I can't believe he had anything personal going on; not halfway into The McCallan... So what was he doing?"
Don softened. "You're worried." His eyes flicked over her shoulder, up to the camera. "Have you asked him about it?"
"No. I told him that my memory was a little fuzzy after I got knocked out."
"Why did you lie?" Don asked quietly.
Her voice lowered again, becoming plaintive. "I like him, Don. He's a good guy. We can't just... If he was up to something down there, and it gets back to my dad..."
Don smirked a little. "You don't have to worry about Tai. I just had a chat with him, and I'm satisfied it's not a problem."
Cora reacted. "Then why did he break protocol?"
"He was... distracted, and more than that I won't say, because it's not my business." Don told her, reassuring and strong for her, even through a solid wall. "But your father is going to want to know what happened. So you two had better put your heads together and... sort out what went wrong."
Cora translated in her head. Get our stories straight. She nodded. "I will."
"Is there anything else you need?"
Cora thought about it a long moment and sighed. "A time machine?"
"Yeah, your father mentioned the date." Her old teacher said softly. "I'm sorry about missing the fourth."
Cora glanced over her shoulder. Tai had heard that, but wasn't watching her. "Couldn't be helped. It was going to happen eventually, I guess." She sighed. "Old traditions. "
"By the way." Don smirked, his voice returning to normal volume. "I asked Ano if there was anything you might want from home." He gestured at the compartment. "She sent a care package. If there's nothing else, I'll see you in two weeks."
They made their goodbyes and Don left them then. Cora broke down coughing again. She noticed a slight movement out of the corner of her eye and glanced up at the camera. It hadn't changed... And Cora suddenly realized what she'd noticed. The small red light had suddenly switched on.
Cora felt a subtle shiver. When did it turn off? It was running when we got here. More important, who turned it off? Cameras in the outposts never stop recording. They don't have an off switch.
Tai had come over to the box, looking it over. Like all containers in the Ark-Hive, it was watertight, stackable, with resealable latches. He opened it, and broke into a bright smile. "Oh, how sweet." Cora looked over as he pulled out a stuffed blue dolphin, with polished black pearl eyes. He held up up to her like a beloved pet. "What's his name?"
She flushed a little in embarrassment. "Why did she put that in? I haven't used that in ten years."
Tai smiled broadly. "I won't tell Delphi; you know how he gets."
Cora flushed, smiling ruefully. "That's Neptune."
To his credit, Tai managed to keep from bursting out laughing. "Neptune?"
"Kinda childish, I know." She admitted. "My mom named her."
She raised an eyebrow. "Is that a problem?"
No, Ma'am."
He was smiling about the stuffed dolphin, but it didn't reach his eyes. Privacy was a non-existent in the Ark-Hive, especially for sub-drivers, so you kept to yourself and kept all our most private thoughts hidden. Cora had known her friend long enough to read the signs. "Something wrong?"
Tai shook his head, but she reached out and caught his hand, giving him a firm look, until he sighed and confessed. "Don mentioned that one of my... appointments was canceled. Alison was arrested this morning. She got Bagged."
Cora's grip on his arm tightened. "Bagged? What color was the bag?"
"Brown." Tai told her absently. It had been the first thing he'd asked too. "But if they took her to the Quay, you know the odds on ever seeing her again. He looked quietly furious. "She wrote stories, Shells. She wrote stories, and she got Stung for it."
"I know. I told her to pick a less dangerous hobby, but I guess making hides didn't engage her interest enough." She gestured to the sharkskin strap that tied Tai's TABB securely to his wrist. The Ark-Hive was a working colony, and everyone wore a uniform or a jumpsuit most of the time. There had been some variety in accessories, and their friend had made extra income by turning spare animal leathers into woven bands and straps. "That's one of hers, isn't it? She was making me one too."
"Really?" That seemed to get his attention.
"You know what it's like in Grey Sector. Rations get tight, so I make it a point to give them some business. Especially friends of yours." Cora nodded. "I didn't know her as long as you, but... She was my friend too. Brown bag. Not black. There's still hope." Cora settled painfully onto the cot, and Tai came over to sit with her. She took the stuffed dolphin, and ran a fingertip down its beak with a nostalgic smile. "Feel the fabric? That's the same stuff our overalls are made from. Rejects water completely, never soaks in; but it still feels smoother than skin."
"Back then, that would have been fairly new." Tai observed.
Cora nodded. "This Dolphin was the first thing ever made from the new fabric. DH Donaldson created the fabric, my mom and Ano stitched it together into a toy for me, and I was the first one to get my hands on our new miracle fabric." She shrugged a little. "Being the Director's daughter has its privileges. I showed Alison something like this, and... She said she'd try and make something that felt similar."
She didn't notice, but Tai winced when she mentioned her father.
"Neptune was the last gift my mom ever gave me." Cora confessed quietly.
They sat together on the lower bunk for a moment, until Cora's eyes started to droop. The room wasn't spinning nearly as much, but she had little enWaydece to spare. Tai squeezed her hand. "You should sleep."
"Okay." She murmured.
She lay back, suddenly exhausted. He lifted her feet onto the bunk and slipped her boots off. She could hear him rustling around in the care package Ano had sent; and a moment later a soft blanket was tucked around her. It smelled warm and familiar. Ano sent the blanket from my bed. Some distant part of her mind thought clinically.
Tai tucked Neptune into her hands and she drifted off, as content as she could be in the unfamiliar place. Tai doesn't have anyone left to send him a care package any more. She thought as she fell asleep. Tai turned the camera off. How did he do that?
150 Days to Landfall
Time passed slowly. As a rule, there wasn't too much leisure time on the Ark-Hive, or anywhere else in the inhabited ocean. Having to sit and do nothing was unusual, and the novelty was wearing off. They'd played hand after hand of cards until their fingers cramped. With none of their usual work or diversions available, they had to amuse themselves.
"We could watch movies, or something?" Tai suggested.
"No hardline." Cora reminded him. "A picture of any decent quality will never transmit through that much water. I don't keep things stored locally on my TABB, internal or otherwise."
"Why not?"
"Long story short? Because my personal TABB is back home, getting a new wristband, and the one I take out on missions with me is open to my dad."
Tai found that hilarious. "I have a few vids. But you'll have to watch on my TABB."
"Anything to kill an hour or two."
Tai came over and sat next to her on the bunk. She had to lean over him to see it, but he didn't seem to mind, shifting to make room for her. As she started to doze gently, he held still, letting her sleep on his shoulder.
146 Days to Landfall
Cora was healing well, and began some light exercise. Tai's TABB needed charging after a week, but the chamber was picked clean, and Don's care package hadn't included a charging unit.
"We should go over our suits." Tai said one morning. "They can send us a ship on auto, but... We walked into the Chamber, we'll have to walk out again."
The suits were a light yellow. They stood out dramatically against the water, which was the goal. It made them easy to spot by passing craft, rescue workers... Cora's suit was marked with a large star icon on the back, and Tai's with a row of stripes. The identifying marks were there to make it easy to tell workers apart over distance. No matter how healthy the oceans were, very little sunlight got so deep, and a pair of submariners needed every advantage they could get in working together.
"The suits look fairly intact, but the lines were twisted up from the pressure shifts." Tai decided after inspecting his suit.
"Crystal CO2 scrubbers are still sealed." Cora declared after a moment. "Means we don't need to take air tanks."
"Good. I hate those clunky things." Tai yawned. "The breathers may only last a few hours, but I'd trade an entire Day-Tank for the ease of movement."
"Me too." Cora smiled. "You ever just... float?" She asked him, as though dreaming. "Not swim, or try to rise. You ever just let go of the ground, the sub, everything else?"
He nodded, almost eagerly. "All the time. I take my weights out there sometimes, and I'm careful to be buoyancy neutral. I can't rise through the water, but I don't sink, because I make sure I'm not heavy enough. I just... be."
"That's what it is." Cora smiled. "I told my dad this once, he told me that was just the feeling you get when you sleep."
"Not the same." Tai declared instantly.
"Not even close." She agreed. "It's the weight. I can feel the bed too much, and nothing from above. I can feel my weight pressing me against the cot. When you're in the water, it spreads out perfectly on all sides, so that you don't feel heavy anymore. You just... Close your eyes and let it hold you up, hold you still. If there's movement in the water, you don't even feel it as you move, because you move at the same rate. When you just let yourself be in the water, you're part of it..."
"It's like being born, maybe." Tai crooned. "Being alive without having to be active. Just existing, connected to something that never stops. It's very... spiritual."
Cora shivered pleasantly. He understood. It was hard to find someone who could relate on this subject, and Cora closed her eyes, enjoying the moment. "Everyone knows that water morphs to fit every shape. What they don't tell you, is that when you go into the water it just... fits into you so perfectly. It's like the water welcomes me."
There was a pleasant, peaceful silence. Both of them were resting a hand on the airlock wall, nearly touching, as though part of the ocean beyond.
"Being still is great." Cora said with a smile, not opening her eyes. "You know what's better?"
"Going very fast?" Tai guessed with a grin.
"Delphi tows me sometimes." Cora giggled. "Speed freaks. All dolphins are speed freaks." Their hands brushed together by chance, and she gripped his fingers in her own quickly. "What must it be like, to be them?"
"I can't even imagine."
"No masks, no tanks, no breathers. Just spend all day in that state of... evenness." Cora marveled, completely at peace. "One day, I'd like to be like that. Even if only for a little while."
"You could almost call that the Aquan dream." Tai volunteered.
Dead silence.
Cora's eyes opened, and she moved away sharply. The spell had been shattered. Tai sat up too, aware of how badly he'd ruined the moment. "Sorry, can we just-" He reached a hand out to her but she was already out of his reach.
Miserable silence.
"Well, if we were back at the Ark-Hive..." Cora said finally. "I would find something to change the subject. If we were in the Hydra Hawk, I'd break the silence with something routine and submarine related."
Tai smirked. "Not a whole lot to distract you in a Pressure Chamber, huh?"
Cora smirked tightly and turned away. "I'm making dinner."
"I'm going to sit in here and take my foot out of my mouth."
Cora left the airlock, and glanced up at the camera. It was still on. She didn't know if it was recording, but if it was, someone would have heard that little conversation. If someone heard the conversation, they would wonder why Cora didn't report it. Officially, the Aquans were long gone, but the hunt for them never ended...
Is he Aquan? Does he think I suspect him? Is he sabotaging my suit right now? She asked herself sickly. Would he have the nerve?
She felt sick. She thought of Alison. Alison was a friend, and she'd been Bagged for such a trivial thing... Tai was her best friend. She couldn't let him get found out.
If there was anything to find out.
145 Days to Landfall
"Well, dinner was great." Tai offered.
"Thank you." Cora said politely.
It was almost the first words said between them since the awkward incident in the Airlock. Cora had waited until Tai went to sleep, and checked her gear again. He hadn't tampered with it, and she kicked herself for thinking Tai capable of such a thing.
But there was an incredible tension between them now. She had to do something.
"Something I've never asked you, Stripes..." She licked her lips. "Why do you call me 'Shells'?"
"You don't like it."
"I have no problem with it as a nickname, but I don't know where it came from. I call you 'Stripes' because of the pattern you have on your wetsuit. But my suit has a star pattern. Where did 'Shells' come from?"
Tai almost didn't answer her. "It was your mom." He said finally, and tried not to lose his nerve when he saw the way she froze. "She was my Mentor when I became an apprentice. One day she was teaching me about underwater ecology; and about how long Coral lived. She was showing me some of the Coral Fields that had died off, gone gray."
"I've seen them." Cora nodded.
"Well, she was showing me how the Life Sciences division was reintroducing plant and animal life to all the Grey Fields." Tai continued. "And the one that adapted best was the Synth-Crabs. Tiny little shells crawling along endless fields of grey coral. And I had just met you, and I made some comment about your name being so close to 'Coral' and your mom made the joke that it was either 'Cora' or 'Crabshell'."
Cora rolled her eyes. "She used that joke all the time. Every time I said I liked something, she'd make the joke that she was going to name me after it. I was very nearly named 'Dolphin, TABB, Prawn-Sauce'..."
Tai smirked. "Your mom was the first Instructor I ever met that had a sense of humor."
"She was great." Cora agreed softly. It had worked. The tension was broken. "So. We'll be heading back soon. What do you plan to do next?"
Tai shrugged. "I've got some credits saved. Being in here away from everything gives me an extra week's worth of rations. Maybe I'll splurge, get a mineral water bath."
Cora smiled a little to herself.
Tai returned the smirk good-naturedly. "I know, Director's Daughter, Gold Sector. You can probably have one whenever you like, huh?"
She shrugged. "What answer would keep me out of trouble?"
Tai snorted. "How about you? First thing you'll do when you get back?"
"Probably check on Delphi." Cora sighed. "After this many days, he'll either be out of danger or..."
"He'll be fine." Tai promised her. "Don came out here himself. The Life Sciences Department? They'll be all over it, taking care of him."
It was the second allusion to her special status as The Director's Daughter, and Cora was trying to figure it out. He wasn't the first one to have trouble with it, but this felt different. "Of course, I don't suppose I'll get much time to visit Delphi." She remarked. "Dad will be all over me to get back to work." She was leading him. She was giving him the opening to ask about her father's work. If he was Aquan, he'd make casual enquiries about what her father had her do...
But Tai didn't ask, and Cora hoped that was a good sign.
"I can check in on him, if you want." Tai volunteered. "He's known me as long as he has you."
Cora smiled a little. "That would be nice."
144 Days to Landfall
Cora woke up sharply. "What's that?"
Tai groaned from the top bunk, still asleep. "What's what?"
Cora threw back her blanket. "You don't hear that?"
Silence. Tai listened closely to nothing, and closed his eyes again. "I don't hear anything." He groused. A few moments later, he sat up, alert. "Wait. Yes, I do." He slid off the bunk and went over to the porthole, peering out into the ocean. "I can see running lights. They're heading for the Trench." He looked back at her. "You can hear that?"
"Noise travels fast in the drink." Cora excused.
"I know, but still... What are you, part dolphin?"
Cora chuckled, glancing back at her stuffed toy. "You aren't the first to say so." She gestured in the general direction of the porthole. "Our ride?"
"I think so." Tai craned his neck. "Looks like a Clipper. It'll be cramped, but we'll get back to the Ark-Hive quickly. Ten hours?"
"Maybe twelve." Cora agreed. "Gotta admit, part of me doesn't want to go back."
"Well, we've got a sub." Tai gestured grandly at the drifting submarine outside. "We could just keep going. Nobody's ever really bothered to explore much beyond the McCallan Trench. If we can make it in the Dark Water, we can make it anywhere."
"We didn't make it, and we nearly died." Cora pointed out with a tight smile. "Besides, I wouldn't go without Delphi."
"Ahh, too bad." Tai grinned, checking the pressure gauges near the airlock. "Well, if I'm reading this right, and I'd like to think that I am... We can go whenever we want."
They went over the few possessions they had, started packing them up. A Sub-Driver was an expert in packing things to maximize space.
"I'm sorry." Tai said softly. "About the other day."
Cora tensed a little. "It's okay."
"No, it's not." Tai shook his head. "After what the Aquans did to your mom... Even a passing remark, even just as a joke... It was incredibly tasteless of me. I'm sorry."
"Hush." She shushed him, coming over closer, close enough to touch. It was the nearest they'd been to each other during their stay. "I love being out in the ocean. That doesn't make me Aquan, it makes me a good sub-pilot. I can say the same thing about you. I'm not Stingray; people can talk around me without being terrified of using actual words."
He caught her hand, squeezing her fingers. "I know. I trust you. But I'm sorry I made it weird, being locked in here with me."
"It wasn't so bad." Cora promised him. "I just wish you weren't so good at playing cards."
Tai laughed and headed into the airlock. Cora took one last look around. It wasn't as bad as a lot of places that people worked. It was actually roomier than Tai's room back at Green Sector. But she hadn't sat still for so long since she was a little girl, and it had quickly lost it's novelty.
Once in the airlock, she had the care package sealed, as it had been when Don brought it. Tai was working his way into the wetsuit. They had become a lot more comfortable and a lot easier to manage, to the point where a lot of Wet-Workers kept them on as regular clothes. As a matter of procedure, she checked the seals at his gloves and facemask, and he did the same for hers. Cora checked the readouts. "My scrubbers have enough for another hour. You?"
"The same. Air won't be a problem." Tai agreed. "If you like, I could go on my own, dock the submarine properly. Save you the trouble of having to suit up."
The faint hint of suspicion came back, but Cora shook it off. If he was planning to make a run for it without her, he'd missed his chance. "Nah, I need to stretch my legs. We won't get much chance to do that once we're on the way home."
"Ain't that the truth."

Note From The Author: I hope you're all enjoying The Ark-Hive, in its serialised format. if you'd rather not wait until the next chapter is published, you can head over to Amazon, and buy the whole book; in a complete ebook format, or in paperback.