Saturday, 3 March 2018

03 Chapter Three: We're Going Back!

122 Days to Landfall
Cora woke up sharply as the shutters began to retract. She moaned, wondering if maybe she could sleep a little longer. The water outside her room was a dark blue, and glowed with the brightness of the lights from the Grid, which were slightly muted by the lightness of the water and she yawned; gathering the will to wake up.
There was movement outside the Dome and she pried one eye open to watch. She envied the Dolphins, gliding around so quickly. They were lovely to wake up to, with their endless play.
And then a far more humanoid shape glided over the Plex, right above her bed, and she squeaked, pulling the covers up over herself. The domes of all the private quarters were transparent, but they could be turned opaque; to give her a view or to give her privacy.
Then she saw it was Tai and relaxed. Reaching one slender hand out from under the sheets, she pressed a button on the TABB beside her bed and whispered instructions to it; opening a private channel between her and the man scrubbing outside her window. “Getting a good view?”
"I'm just cleaning the Plex." With perfect innocence, Tai answered. “The question is, are you getting a good view?”
Looks clean to me.” Cora got up, made a show of stretching a little, and came the few feet to the transparent wall of her room; putting a long soft kiss on the transparent wall between them, as close to his lips as she could reach...
And Tai promptly scrubbed the same spot on the other side with his omni-tool.
Coward.” She breathed back, reaching for a notepad. Paper was hard to come by, but living in Gold Sector had its privileges.
When I kiss you, even like this? I want three levels between us and your father. At least.” Tai returned, a trail of bubbles escaping from his mask.
Cora smiled at him; and the running joke that had been between them ever since they became more than co-workers. In the weeks they had become more than friends, Cora and Tai had been happier than they'd ever been. “Good morning, by the way.” She said, and then held up the message she’d quickly scribbled down. Alison is okay. I got her out and sent to one of the Outposts for ‘hard labor’.
The relief was obvious from his posture, and he made the hand signals for ‘thank you’ before swimming away. Cora tore up the precious page and disposed of them carefully, taking the special effort to eat one or two bits with Alison’s name on them.
Cora turned back to her bed, and tugged the sheets into something resembling order; before dialing the TABB to turn the walls opaque. She loved Tai, but it was rare that anyone went outside alone, especially for maintenance, and she didn't want just anyone to watch her get dressed.
Ano had her breakfast ready when she came into the Common Room. Her father was still there, which was unusual for this time of day. At times, Cora was convinced he slept in his office. Ano set a plate down for her, and she slipped into her seat as though she had been there the whole time.
We've got three different readings.” Her father was saying into his headset. “Is that instrumentation or is someone screwing with it?"
Cora almost inhaled her breakfast. It was a rule in her father's household that you stayed at the table until your meal was done, and Cora had other tasks to perform. She was still chewing when she went over to the Plex tube that ran through their home, along the wall where it met the corridor. She pressed her TABB to the transparent tube and pushed a few buttons. The feeder opened, and Cora checked how much organic matter was being fed into the water. A moment later, the fish came for their own breakfast, keeping them in one place long enough for her TABB to get a scan of it.
Ano came over, nudging her playfully. "I wonder why I bother to cook. You gulp it down so fast; do you even taste it?"
"Of course I do." Cora promised. "How many strings did mom pull to get the best cook in the Ark-Hive assigned to my dad?"
Ano chuckled, looking at the transparent tube herself. "I could swear that some of these little guys follow me when I run my errands."
"You think so?" Cora smiled. "We're doing some pretty wild gene-hacks, but a fish still has the memory span of... well, of a fish."
"I know it's silly." Ano waved her off.
"Actually, not as silly as you think." Cora told her. "I looked it up when you last asked about it? The last gaps were fused into sections about a century after the Ark-Hive started. These Aquatic Tubes run the whole length of the complex. Every Sector, every Level. So, I suppose it's possible for these fish to follow you... but why would they want to?"
"Run another check on the sensors, and report back.” Her father almost growled to whoever he was talking to. He listened for a moment. “Then check it again.”
Cora sent Ano a look, and the older woman retreated quickly from the room.
The Director disconnected the call, and turned to his daughter. “Cora, what have you got on today?”
Cora tapped the TABB on her wrist, “Uh... I've got an appointment this morning..." She gestured at the Plex tube, and the frantically feeding fish within. "And I think the synth-fish are just about ready for transplanting. I can do that as soon as I get the Hydra charged up. It'll take most of the afternoon."
Keep your appointment this morning, but assign the transplant to someone else.” Her father said firmly.
Can't do that.” Cora shook her head. “It's my Life Sciences Project. I was the one that sold Don on letting me run it from here. I can't just tell someone else to finish my work, especially since everyone else who can do it either has a million other things to do, or no Submarine of their own.”
I know, but do it anyway.” Her father said in a tone that allowed no argument. “I'll make it an order, if anyone wants to pick a fight with you about it.”
Dad.” She warned him. “We've talked about this. I have to earn my keep. I refuse to glide along on the wake, just because I'm The Director's Daughter.”
I agree, and I'm pleased that you feel that way.” Her father said seriously. "But I want you close by today; and I want you to get an apprentice this week at Graduation. You'll need the assistance."
Why?” Cora demanded. “Why this week more than any other week?”
The Director sent a glance at Ano. The older woman had developed near telepathy by now and knew when to leave the room. "Cora, you've done twice the work of anyone your age, but by now you should have had an apprentice, you should have accepted a permanent training post... I love that you're a master of all trades and skills, but it's time we got serious about your future."
Cora winced. Okay, this is it, girl. You've been dreading this for three years; don't lose it now. Do not lose your temper. "Dad, I agree. But I know what you mean, and-"
"It's for the best." He cut her off.
Cora fired back. "So when you say 'it's time we get serious' what you mean is that you've picked a job for me and you expect me to take it." So much for not losing your temper.
Her father's face turned to stone, and his mouth became a thin line. "Cora, you always knew it was expected that you would take over from me one day..." His tone changed. "And there are... shall we say, special circumstances which require you start preparing now."
She was about to fire back when his wording pulled her up short. Her father chose his words precisely. "What sort of 'special circumstances'?"
The Director didn't let it show on his face, but Cora had grown up reading his tells. He was excited about something. “You'll find out soon enough.”
Dad, a third of the Deep Range missions have been rescheduled... The Life Sciences Department has had a block on their Resource Management...” She spread her hands wide. “What's happening that none of us know about?!” At that moment, her TABB posted an alert and she waved it away, impatiently waiting for an answer.
The Director raised an eyebrow at his daughter. “You just got done telling me you didn't want any special treatment, but you don't mind putting off your Mentorship by two years, and you don't mind asking for information that nobody else at your rank would have... Pick a side, kid.”
Cora winced, but didn't let it show on her face. Because she'd chosen her side a long time before, and it was hard to forget that her father led the opposite side. She waved her TABB a little. “I have to go, or I'll be late.”
"You haven't finished your breakfast."
"Can't be helped, I'm meeting someone."
"For your 'appointment'? There's nothing on your schedule." Her father commented. "Something personal?"
Cora took it in stride. "Ben. He wanted to go over his simulation results." She gave him a curious look. "Actually, I was a little surprised to see him in the Simulators. I thought he was on the short list for your new Assistant?"
"Not mine. Yours."
Cora blinked. "Mine?"
Her father just gave her a mysterious smile. "You don't want to miss your appointment."
She couldn't help but wonder about that smirk as she left. The last thing she saw was him pulling her plate over. He probably wasn't hungry, but wasting resources of any kind was the cardinal sin in any Outpost, including the Ark-Hive.
At the lower levels of Gold Sector, away from the Dome, there were several areas that were not walled off. Cora wondered what they were built for. As the only space they had, the Ark-Hive reinvented itself with every new generation. What was a storage space later became a hydroponics bay.
But for now, this open area was a Promenade. Food Court, some shopping stalls, most of it mobile, all of it run by people waiting for time and equipment to become available.
The DJ Locker was a small eatery, which served tasty food and homebrew drinks. But it wasn't the food that drew the customers, it was the place itself. Every building in the Ark-Hive was made out of similar materials, but The DJ Locker managed to make its interior seem like something from another world. Cora knew what lumber was, of course. She had seen pictures, but as far as she knew, there were only a few things left in the world made of actual antique wood. But the Locker had made a reasonably good copy of lumber walls, strung with odds-and-ends from various eras.
But while that may have made the eatery popular with a few residents, there wasn't enough traffic through this area to make it worth the time for many customers. That vague obscurity is why Tai and Cora came so often, glad to have their privacy.
"I can't stay long." She promised. "I'd love to stay longer, but my dad wants me in more of the Meetings now."
"He's grooming you." Tai commented.
"I think he is." She admitted softly.
Tai smiled serenely, tracing circles on the back of her hand. "You could do a lot worse."
Cora cast her gaze about a moment and slid around the table to sit closer. His arm quickly pulled her close and she relaxed into him.
He brushed his lips against her cheek. "When do you have to go?"
"I told my dad that I was meeting with one of his students." She told him with a slight smile.
Tai smirked. "If I didn't know you better, I might think that you were sneaky."
"Drown the thought." Cora smirked. “I didn't have any luck finding out what he's doing with the Life Sciences Department. Don says he knows, and that we shouldn't worry.”
Office politics.” Tai declared. “The Soldier and the Scientist don't get on, and your dad is flexing his muscles.”
They sat quietly a moment. He pulled her plate over and the two of them ate quietly, still leaning tightly into each other. "I don't wanna be Director." She said softly. "He is grooming me for it, but... I don't want his job."
"If not you, then who? We could end up with someone a lot worse."
"Oh, thanks." She snorted.
He flushed. "I just heard that the way you must have heard it, and we both know that's not what I meant. Just think of all that you could do as Heir Apparent."
Cora was about to answer when her TABB, and the PA came to life at the same moment. Tai reacted, and she realized he was receiving the alert too. Tai saw her look, and had a similar gaze. It must have been something big. As two people with a Big Secret, it made them both nervous.
"All hands will report to the Observation Deck at 1350 today for a priority announcement from Director Bridger.” The announcement came in unison from every speaker and screen. “All Outposts will make similar arrangements for all hands in their respective authorities. All ships will dock at their most convenient port and Wet-Workers will cease operations until 1430. Repeat, Director Bridger will address the population at 1350 today. All hands are required to attend or view."
The announcement stopped, and there was dead silence in the Ark-Hive. Cora felt her heart pounding. "Everyone? All at once? Ceasing all operations? Has that ever happened before?"
"Never. At least, not that I can think of." Tai looked downright terrified. "Must be something huge. What do we do?"
"Report to the Observation Dome at 1350." Cora said like it was obvious. "I'll probably be on stage with the rest of the Board. I'll blow you a kiss."
"You will not." Tai said.
Cora smirked and kissed him sweetly. "I'll come and see you after. Wear your dress uniform again. I never told you this, but I liked you in that." She kissed him again and turned on her heel, heading out of their little sanctuary. She could hear the whispers already. Whatever was happening, it had people nervous. This was a place where new things were looked upon with secret awe or open hostile suspicion, depending on which side you took. People in the Ark-Hive weren't quick to react when something changed.
Please, Hades... Cora thought to herself. Whatever it is, don't let it be something that could put Tai or Don in danger.
The Observation Dome was the only place in the entire Ark-Hive that was open to people from every Sector. The Dome over the open plaza gave anyone within an incredible view of the Oceans outside.
But Cora had never seen so many people in there at one time. The stage was set up, as it was for graduations and official functions, but the entire population of the Ark-Hive was present. They lined every square foot of available space. Balconies and windows across every building of the Observation Level were crowded with more faces.
Wayde was in fine form, organizing people into the most efficient layout so that the maximum number of people would have a view of the dais. The stage had been set at the top of an elaborate staircase. The omnipresent cameras were all recording, with a few mobile ones surrounding the podium. The stage was a good bit larger, and Cora suddenly understood the reason her father insisted she cancel her afternoon. She was expected on stage.
The entire Board of Directors was lined up behind her, and she was posted six inches from the podium, where the cameras were sure to pick her up. Cora had never felt so conspicuous in her life. She carefully didn't let her gaze focus on Tai or Don. The rest of the Corps was nearest the stage in the audience, and Cora wished she could stand with them.
There was a great current of energy in the Dome. None of them knew what was going on, and in such a tightly regulated community, something so completely out of the norm was intimidating.
And then her father came from an entrance somewhere and took the stage. Someone cued him, and he began to speak. “When the Earth died, The Ark-Hive was established. The ocean was sick to the point of poisonous, thick with garbage and waste and chemicals and decay. There was so much corruption, that it's a miracle it didn't eat through the walls. And believe it or not, we built the Ark-Hive here because it was the safest and healthiest spot left in the world. Now, nearly three centuries later, the oceans have been restored to health and beauty. But before the ocean turned blue again, and there was something good to look at... The interior of the Dome was designed to project images, much the same way our holographics do.” He gestured to someone, but Cora didn't see who. “Run it.”
Cora reacted as her father stepped back to be beside her, and threaded his fingers through hers. It was the first time in years that he'd made such a gesture. Cora wasn't game to remark on it in front of everyone, but at that moment all the lights went down. The whole dome above lit up with a display a moment later. Cora leaned back in her chair to see it all. A few moments later, her jaw dropped open.
The dome had become a dark blue blanket, wonderful and limitless. The infinite was peppered with shining glowing points of radiant light. So many points of twinkling light; some alone in the blue-black ocean; some places so tightly packed together that it had ceased to be points of light and instead become a fine haze, like the filmy see-through fabrics that some of the Gold Sector Women wore around their shoulders. The image was moving as the billion points of light moved in a flawless pattern of perfect harmony and color.
What is it?” Cora whispered, so breathlessly that she barely heard it.
But her father heard. He held the microphone in his hand, and told the whole Ark-Hive what they were looking at. “It's The Sky. The sky by night. Above the surface is a whole other infinite layer, and there it is.”
I had no idea...” Cora breathed.
The image changed instantly, and she gasped. The night sky was now replaced with a long desolate ocean of pale white, that did not move. There were small spiny creatures that Cora couldn't begin to guess at, scuttling along the bright glassy surface.
It's sand.” Her father said, divining her confusion, and he continued to explain to everyone, though he was only looking at his daughter. “You've seen sand, but not like this. It's called a desert. A place without any water at all, or so little of it that the sand goes on forever without water on it.”
The image changed again, and Cora felt her jaw drop right to the floor. Water, at last, something she recognized. Huge amounts of water, but seen from above, as it cascaded over a ledge. The water changed from a blue she recognized to a stunning white froth; churning together as it came hurtling over an edge she couldn't see and crashing to a depth she couldn't make out. The lines of falling waves went further than the recording could show her; the falls just going on forever and ever; as myriads of multi-colored light shone out from the sparkling mists.
Waterfalls.” Her father said gently. The whole Dome gasped. He had them all under an incredible spell, and Cora suddenly realized that she wasn't the only one having a complete brainlock at the images. Her father was showing the whole Ark-Hive. Every outpost, every screen... The whole human race is seeing this.
The image changed again, to show an open space of land. Cora had grown up in the Ark-Hive, the oceans able to conceal anything more than a few hundred feet away. She had never seen a horizon before, let alone the endless flat plains of gently waving green plants that she saw in an endless carpet. Small colorful plants, ablaze with an incredible display of variety popped up here and there.
Grass. Flowers.” Her father pointed them out.
A creature floated across the sky, as the stingray did over the dome.
Bird.” Her father named it, and Cora felt her hands tremble.
The image shifted again, now a flatter plain with thinner, pale grass. The image included a trio of animals that walked on four legs, covered in tawny fur. The group was instantly recognizable to anyone as a family. One was lithe and lean, the larger one powerful and covered in a collar of long golden fur... and the smallest was the single most adorable thing that Cora had ever seen, as it rolled around playfully on it's back, pawing at the pale grass.
Lions.” Her father pointed to the animals, and then to the plants. “Trees.”
The images came thick and fast then, too fast for her to contain herself, too fast for her father to identify anything. An incredible variety of things that crawled and ran, and flew and scuttled across all varieties of land and grass, and dirt, and trees. Beyond the scenes of living things were scenes of people too. More people than Cora could comprehend, in small villages, or elaborate marketplaces, or huge silver and concrete cities with towers that reached high enough to grace the sky.
And finally, explosively, it ended, the display going dark and the lights staying off.
Cora rocked back and forth on her feet, completely shattered, gasping for air. Tears were running down her face in gentle rivers; as she struggled to comprehend the sheer awesomeness of the world above. The wonderful, beautiful, incredible, incomprehensible world.
The lights came back up and she saw they were all having the same reaction. Every face wore the same look of rapt disbelief. Her father had returned to the podium. “Three hundred years ago, the world above experienced Total Collapse.” He declared. “Our ancestors had all that, and then they sucked it dry. Wasting anything is a sin on the Ark-Hive, but it wasn't always like that. You just saw the world of five hundred years ago. There's nothing left. And once it was gone, what was left turned so toxic that nobody could even try and restore it.”
Someone let out a cry of pure grief. They had only known such things had existed for thirty seconds, and already they were horrified to think of what had been lost.
The first of us poured all their hopes for the future into one last gasp of the human race. Ask anyone who works in the water: One deep breath is the difference between life and death. The first of us held their breath for the entire world. Three hundred years later, and here we are. Grey Sector’s Storage Bays are filled with the stored seeds of every plant, and the embryos of every animal. Day and night, our technical skills have given new life to the Oceans, and given us food and provision...”
His words set off a murmur. The surface was never spoken of.
And now... for the first time in three hundred years... our surface probes have declared that the air is fit to breathe, and the soil can make things grow. What we have done for the oceans, we must now do for the land.”
Dead silence. The crowd was struck dumb.
It's our heritage.” Her father said powerfully. “Our forefathers fled to this place, and we forgot that it was never supposed to be our home. We were meant to go back. If we couldn't do it, then our children would; or their children would. We're meant to live on the land, as were our ancestors and their ancestors before us. The Earth is our home. The Ark-Hive was just a place for us to survive. And now... it's the only hope to restore what was lost.”
Cora could hear the ocean roaring in her ears. Roaring so loud she'd barely been able to make out anything he said, after the words 'go back'.
It sounds like an impossible job, to take a dead world, swept clean by time... and turn it into that, does it not?” He pointed back up at the Dome, now clear again, showing the ocean outside. “But we've done it before. We turned the poison oceans healthy and filled them with life. It took centuries, but we did it. And now that we know we can, our forefathers can have their last hope of survival fulfilled!”
His words set off a roar. A roar so loud that it made the dome tremble, but Cora was so overloaded by what she'd seen and heard, that she wasn't sure if it was excitement, agreement, or rage.
We've been waiting so long, and now at last we can start. We can do what all of this was meant to do, and start putting it all back!” Her father's voice roared over the din. “Four months from now, on the anniversary of the Ark-Hive being established, we fulfill the purpose that all of this was meant for!” He pointed back at the Dome. “In four months, there's a whole new world to restore! Four months, and we can walk without suits, without breathers, without submarines! The date for Landfall has been set! WE'RE GOING BACK! WE'RE ALL GOING BACK!”
Cora clapped her hands over her ears as the roar got louder and louder. The crowd roared, jumping up and applauding, screaming, a lot of them were weeping, caught up in the energy of the moment. The Dome lit up again, showing them the projections of surface life. The crowd reacted again, shock giving way to fascination, and the cheers grew stronger and hungrier.
Cora couldn't help it. She looked at Don. He was not as enthusiastic. His eyes were cold and deadly, though a smile was plastered on his face. He was already adjusting plans, revising schedules, preparing for how this changed things. Cora gave herself a quick mental slap. She had been getting caught up too.
The entire Dome was cheering, taking up his rallying cry as a chant. "WE'RE GOING BACK! WE'RE GOING BACK! "
Cora clapped louder than anyone else, with a big smile fixed on her face. And as her father moved into the crowd, Don excused himself. The Director was shaking hands, offering congratulations, accepting praise. He'd never been the most popular leader of the Ark-Hive, but in the last five minutes, he'd reminded them of the surface. It was a bedtime story that everyone had outgrown, and he'd just taken them on a tour, and claimed credit for getting them there.
Cora kept clapping until she was sure that her father's entire protection detail was focused on him, out in the crowd, and then she slipped back toward one of the entrances. Once she was alone, she had to lean against the wall, shivering.
Don said that all our plans for Exodus were three years away from completion. She thought to herself. But we're four months from Landfall.
It changes nothing. She told herself firmly. For a moment she'd been uncertain, wondering if her father had a point. Maybe the flaw in the Aquan philosophy was just that humans were never meant to be in the water.
It changes nothing. She told herself again. The ocean is my home. The ocean is Tai's home. It's Don's home, and I'm not abandoning her just because my dad told us all to do it.
But deep down, she wondered if the rest of the Ark-Hive would still feel that way. She could still hear them chanting.
Cora shivered. Her father had just changed all the rules of the game.