Saturday, 3 March 2018

04 Chapter Four: Graduation Day

122 Days To Landfall
The announcement just kept playing on every terminal, over and over. Every public place, every intersection, everywhere Cora looked, her father's face was beaming back at her; declaring the news. "We're going back! We're all going back!"
Cora moved faster each time she heard it again. The people of the Ark-Hive were in shock, some with tears streaming down their faces. Some looked terrified. Cora just moved faster until she was almost running, but she forced herself to walk normally. Don't run, don't draw attention, don't get noticed, don't run!
She made it to the elevators and found Tai waiting for her when the doors opened. She immediately felt better. How can just seeing him have that effect, today of all days?
"So, anything interesting happen to you today?" He asked, unflappable as always. It was just an ordinary day with him, and as the doors closed, she fought the urge to kiss him square on the mouth just for being unimpressed. She immediately made a hand signal that anyone who worked out in the ocean would recognize. ‘Safe?’
He made a gesture back. ‘Soon.’
Cora didn't react, audibly. The elevator was being monitored, like everywhere else in the Ark-Hive. The elevator moved, and Cora made the best of it. When it was just them by themselves, the problems of the world seemed far away. "So, how's everyone reacting in Green Sector?"
"They couldn't be more excited."
"I know how they feel.” Cora said. “I couldn't believe it when I heard the announcement."
"I saw you on the dais." Tai commented. "You looked good up there, surrounded by the Committee. You looked very poised, very natural. You'll make a fine Director, on the surface or not."
The conversation was stilted, awkward, professional... it was like she was still talking to her dad. The doors opened in Green Sector, and Cora led the way out.
When Don saw them come into his private lab, he gave them both a careful look, and hit a button on his TABB. "Gold Sector, this is Green One, I'll be running an acoustics test on one of my aquatic specimens, and I will need the monitors switched off. Access Code Green 11985."
"Acknowledged." The answer came over the Comm, and then the camera lights switched off.
"You trust that?" Tai asked.
"Not for a second, but I can run my jamming equipment without them being able to call me on it."
"How long?" Cora asked him evenly.
"A few minutes. Long enough to have the conversation." Don promised her. "Did you know about the Landfall announcement?"
"I found out when you did." She promised them both.
"Why wouldn't he tell his daughter?"
"You saw the reactions. He didn't tell anyone." Cora told him. "If I'd known, I would have found a way to warn you it was coming, though I have no idea what we could have done about it."
"Probably very little." Don conceded. "But that's all in our wake at this point. What worries me is this: You've been rigging the Drone Tests of the surface for the last five years.”
What do the tests actually say?” Tai asked with interest.
The surface has been improving steadily since the Second Ice Age ended. But we’ve kept all the readings on the wrong side of ‘borderline’ for a while.” Don told him, “The next test wasn't scheduled until next year. Why did he move it up to last week?"
"I don't know." She whispered.
"The only thing I can think, is that the Probe launched while you were out of the Ark-Hive." Tai put in. "You couldn't rig it if you only found out after it launched."
"It has me worried too." Cora agreed. "But that's in our wake by now as well. What matters now is Landfall. How does this affect things?"
Don growled. "We expected much more time. Landfall has turned our five year plan into a five month strategy. Our best projections say that we'll only get two thirds of our Exodus preparations finished in time."
"Maybe that's why." Cora suggested. "By taking the whole Ark-Hive by surprise, he may want to flush us out. Or at least rush us enough that some of our people will make mistakes and get caught."
"But he didn't tell you." Don repeated. "Do you think you're compromised?"
"I'm sure I'm not."
"Because... The Director's promoting me." Cora said quietly. "I just don't know where yet. He's being a lot more cagey than usual."
"Maybe it's me." Tai said suddenly. "I was out of the Ark-Hive too, when it launched. Cora told you there were breadcrumbs that led to me. If the Director suspected me of being Aquan, then maybe he moved up the Probe because he thought I was the one rigging them."
"No." Cora said with certainty. "If my father suspected you, you'd be screaming for mercy in the Quay by now."
"I'm glad you're a pilot. You'd make a lousy doctor with that bedside manner." Don joshed her. "All right, marching orders. Tai, tell your contacts to curtail their skimming. It'll be all hands on deck, and if everyone's busy, one of our more eager members might get bold enough to take something we can't cover for."
Tai nodded.
"Cora, whatever your promotion is, you're still a pilot in the short term. I want you talking to the Outpost commanders. We know four of them will back us. Find out what their contingencies are for evacuation or seizure. One way or another, I don't think the Domes are going to be in play much longer."
"The Domes are the entire Ark-Hive." Cora blurted in shock. "What exactly do you mean by, 'not in play'? You wouldn't..."
"No. No strikes against the Domes." Don promised her. "I guess you haven't read the Landfall Charter. No reason you should, it's been completely irrelevant for centuries. But the original plan, back when the Ark-Hive was a temporary measure, was to detach them and float them up to the surface as a temporary Surface Base."
"The Domes can float?" Tai was stunned.
"The Domes can detach?" Cora was equally stunned.
So you can imagine the problem. All our plans were for us to have at least one of them under control, at least for the first stage of our transition. But with the whole place being ordered to prepare for Landfall, I don't know what we'll be left with."
"More importantly... how many people will want to go back to the surface?" Tai put in. "Every plan I've heard was just for the Aquans we've already got on side. At least some of them might decide to go for it if they've got a wide open Earth to live in."
"And at least some of those that we haven't recruited will prefer to stay in the ocean; a place they've known and grown up in and lived in for a dozen generations." Cora pointed out. "Isn't that the whole point of the Aquan movement? The idea that our time on the surface is long done, and the ocean is our home now?"
"After so many centuries, what is there to go back to?" Don asked logically. "The world was spent. Sucked dry and spat out. And that was centuries ago. Maybe it's all healthy and beautiful again, but the air only just became tolerable for us. Who knows what kind of plants and animals might be up there now; if any of them are left."
"The Ocean is a known quantity." Tai put in. "That'll be enough for most people. The surface doesn't hold any appeal for anyone, no matter how many stories we've heard. Nobody's factored Landfall into their plans for their kids."
"Doesn't matter." Cora waved that off. "The Great And Powerful Director Poseidon hath spoken. He decides we're all going back, and everyone's too scared of him to say ‘no’ to his face."
Don and Tai traded a look. She could practically read their mind. Except you.
Cora shook her head slightly. She was the Director's Daughter, but that didn't make it easier for her to defy him. "Man, we were so close!"
"Two years." Don said absently. "But now we've got four months."
"And I might have less than that." Cora put in. "The Graduation is in a few days. And my father has been sniffing around some of the students. He says... He says it's time I took on an apprentice."
"Now?" Don hissed, annoyed. "Of all times?"
"No. He's right." Tai spoke up. "Cora's the right age, and she's got duties that take her through different outposts. She should have received an apprentice months ago. Holding off is just as awkward as having one assigned."
"It's a bad time for Cora to have a pair of eyes on her every second." Don argued. "Especially when The Director is choosing whose eyes they are."
"Can we... adjust the course?" Cora suggested. "Because we all know that most of our people get recruited when they're at the Apprentice level. If I had some say over who got assigned to me, this could be an advantage."
Don nodded and checked his TABB. "We're running out of time on the jammer. Calm your contacts. There's going to be a lot of panic, and a lot of uncertainty out there after the Announcement. Don't leave them alone long enough to stress themselves out. Assure them that we're prepping for this. Their plans changed, so have ours."
"How are we supposed to get to all of them?" Tai asked logically. "Transportation and assignments between the Outposts are watched closely at the best of times. How do we do it now? Especially if Cora has to babysit someone the whole time?"
"Figure it out." Don told them, as though it was just a matter of thinking about it a little harder. "Cora, do you have someone in mind as a preferred apprentice?"
"I haven't met any of the students up close yet. But actually, that raises a problem." Cora began. "Tai's the right age as well. And once the Graduation Ceremony is over, he'll be assigned an apprentice too. How do we stack the deck with two apprentices? One is pushing it."
Don chewed his lip. "There's a way. Have Tai declared your Co-Pilot on a permanent basis. You're Gold Sector. It's within your rights to select your own crew. After the announcement, there's going to be a lot of traffic."
"Her father won't want her driving that much." Tai argued.
"But if my dad wants me on the Board, or as his assistant, I could run a lot of missions for him. You know he hasn't left the Ark-Hive in years. Having his daughter as his go-between is good politics. I could have you declared my co-pilot for when I'm on missions, and as my sub-driver for official visits."
"If you two are paired up, then regulations say you can split a single apprentice between you. So we'll need to fix your simulator scores." Don began. "Though not by much. You two work together well. And once you confess to your dad that Tai is your boyfriend too-"
"What?" Cora blurted, flushing.
Don blinked. "Oh. Sorry. Was that a secret?"
Cora and Tai traded an awkward look. "Masters of deception, are we not?”
"It's the perfect cover story, though. If you two go everywhere together? The questions stop with you being a couple. Anyone who suspects you will stop looking at that point."
Tai had been very quiet during all this.
Cora suddenly noticed him not saying a word. "Tai... we do this, your career begins and ends with The Director's Daughter. You're at my level, and you're a good driver. We do this, and you're basically running errands for your girlfriend for life. You could..."
Tai finally spoke up. "Cora, if this doesn't work, I'll be clapped in Circular Quay by the end of the year. And if your father has his way, none of us will be driving subs ever again."
"All right, then you know what to do." Don said. "Put yourself down as assistant teachers. I'll run my list of possible recruits and select the students you train, and I'll see if I can arrange it so that you only get two in your class."
"Let's hope we can spot the one The Director wants us to take." Tai said grimly.
117 Days To Landfall
Ceremonial Events had become less common in the Ark-Hive than they used to be. Cora had attributed it to the way her father faded into his work after her mother died.
But now things were accelerating wildly. Cora was having trouble keeping up with all the orders her father was sending out.
The announcement that Landfall was less than six months away had filled the Ark-Hive with a kind of terrified energy. Gold Sector was full of anticipation. None of them had ever seen the surface, and most of the records of that time had been sealed, or destroyed in the passage of centuries. But when Cora walked through the Corridors of the Spire, and listened to the chatter in the Common Areas; they were excited too. They were preparing to explore the unknown.
But down on Green Level, where the rooms were more cramped, and the work was harder, and the families were held together by proximity; the fear was greater than the excitement.
None of them had ever seen the surface. It had been removed from their collective thoughts by centuries of willful separation from the world above. But now that they had the chance to go back...
Not everyone wanted to leave.
Cora did her best to hold still while Ano fussed over her. "The stupid suit fit me last time I had to wear it." She complained.
Ano was unflappable. "I don't know why you have to go, anyway. You haven't been to a graduation since you graduated."
"The Director's trying to push a permanent Apprentice on me." Cora sighed. "I'll get dad to give you a raise if you'll go in my place and pretend to be me."
Ano snorted. "I'm sure nobody will notice the switch." The older woman commented with light sarcasm. "Besides, I like fussing over your uniform. It feels like I hardly see you anymore."
Cora felt a spike of guilt. Ano had practically raised her after her mother had died. In her father's household, hard and unyielding; Ano was her closest, warmest family. And Ano didn’t know the truth about her either. There was a solid wall between her and anyone not in on the secret. “There… is a reason for that.”
I know.” Ano said kindly. “I’m glad you and Tai have finally sorted yourselves out.”
Cora winced. “Did everyone on the Ark-Hive know before I did?”
I believe there were one or two Little Fish in Grey Sector who didn’t know anything about it.” Ano teased. “And I know for a fact that nobody has the nerve to tell your father.” She chuckled at the open relief on Cora’s face. “But just so you know, you can’t keep it secret forever.”
I know.” Cora sighed. “How bad will it be?”
Your father is not a warm man, sweetie. That was your mother’s area. In fact, just between us, I overheard them talking about the day when their wonderful, beautiful daughter would inevitably fall in love. They agreed that she would handle it.”
Cora smiled sadly. “I really miss her, Ano.”
The older woman gave her a quick hug. “I know, Starfish. So do I.”
When I realized… I mean, when Tai…” Cora pulled her head in awkwardly as she picked up her TABB and started fiddling with it. “I really wanted to talk to her about it.”
You can always talk to me.” Ano reminded her gently. “I’m no substitute for your mom, I know; but-”
You’ve been pretty close for going on a decade now.” Cora assured her, and subtly turned her TABB around to show Ano the message she’d written silently. Not here. Walls have ears.
Ano read the message and her face changed. Everyone knew that the Ark-Hive was monitored, but nobody really gave it much thought. Cora wrote more. We’ll talk later, after dad finds out from someone other than you.
Tai joined her at the elevator to the Observation Dome. The second the doors closed, Cora made the hand signals for ‘time’ and ‘ready’. Her expression made it clear she meant it as a question.
Tai nodded, and made the signal for ‘now’.
You look good in your uniform.” She offered.
It’s not mine. It was in the Reclaim pile.” Tai offered. “I’m lucky they didn’t use staples to adjust it for me.”
Cora chuckled. “What do you plan to do when we get back to the surface?”
I wonder what will happen to Sub Drivers?” Tai quipped. “Will we still be partners, do you think?”
If we’re not, I’ll quit. Dad can’t do anything about it once we’re on the surface.” Cora said lightly. Did you get all that? She asked the monitors silently.
Your father will have me killed if he found out.” Tai said, not entirely acting.
He’s not like that, Tai. He’s really a wonderful man, and you know he’s loyal to his family.” She smirked when Tai gestured for her not to lay it on so thick. “I still say we should just tell him.”
Well, I thought a lot about what you said yesterday, and… I figured you might be right.” Tai said, glancing at where they thought the microphones might be. “I know you hate keeping this a secret. Maybe we should just tell him.”
We wouldn’t be the first team to fall for each other. I sent the request for us to be permanently assigned together this morning.” Cora agreed. “I love you, Tai.”
Love you.” He said back, and pulled her in for a kiss. They kept the kiss going longer than usual. Cora pulled back just enough to check the elevator controls. Another four seconds.
The doors opened. Nobody was waiting, but the corridors of the Ark-Hive were narrow enough that someone was always within sight. Cora and Tai broke the kiss, as if worrying about being caught out, and made their way to the Observation Dome. With any luck, Cora thought to herself; that’ll be enough to get the word out.
It took less than two hours for her father to get word.
The Director made his speech, once again pushing reminders about Landfall. The staff of the Ark-Hive was assembled, by rank and by Department. Cora was a Sub-Pilot, and from Gold Sector, and the Director’s Daughter. She had a seat in the front row, her father beside her. The seat on her opposite side was empty, in honor of where her mother should have been sitting.
The Graduation was the most important day on the calender, and it opened with the Speeches. There was only so far that anyone could advance in their career, short of founding another Outpost, and there was no chance of that happening with Landfall so close; so the Ark-Hive found other ways to show appreciation for their workers. Reputation was a very powerful commodity.
Each Department head came up and gave promotions, new assignments, laurels and praise to various members of their teams.
The Director sat beside his daughter and leaned over. “You picked a hell of a time for this.” He said to her quietly.
He got the call already. Cora smiled innocently at him. “I have no idea what you mean.”
I mean your new boyfriend. I told you to just airlock him.”
Dad, I’ll have you know that due to his fear of you, Tai was a perfect gentleman the entire time we were decompressing. Didn’t even admit how he felt until we got back.” Cora said seriously. “Which really sucks, because we wasted all that time.”
Cora, if you want me to be okay with this, you should stop doing that.” Her father warned.
He was afraid that you would have him killed; and I told him that you were a wonderful human being who would never be that petty or cruel to someone who meant so much to his daughter.” Cora gave him a cunning grin. Your move, old man.
Well.” The Director sighed. “You’ve put me in a bind there, daughter mine.”
Cora grinned. “The request for assignment changes has already been sent. Wayde should have it ready for a signature soon.”
Another problem.” The Director commented. “You and that guy are supposed to be assigned your apprentices. I’m about to appoint them to you. I’ve bent the rules far enough because of your special status. If you’re a permanent team, there’s-”
We’ll have to pick one of the two.” Cora agreed. “But there’s going to be plenty of jobs open over the next four months.”
The orders have already gone through.” The Director pointed out.
We’ll handle it.” Cora said. “You know, dad; I can’t help but notice that since we started this conversation, you’ve never once asked if I’m happy, you have no comment on the fact that I’ve actually fallen in love; and you haven’t even said his name.”
The Director scowled. “Um…”
Tai.” Cora supplied with a sigh. “His name is Tai.”
Right. Tai.” The Director scowled again, but tried to hide it, aware of how public they were. “Which apprentice are you keeping?”
"Tell you at the debrief tomorrow afternoon. Can’t pick a winner till I’ve met them both." Cora told her father. "Don't worry; we'll see what they're made of."
You’d better. One of them is Wayde’s kid.”
So that’s the one he wants me to pick. Cora translated in her head, and put a smile on her face. “So, the request is approved then?”
The Director looked at her, then glanced over at Tai. "Oh, screw it. You may as well bring him to dinner."
"You'll be nice." Cora said sharply. It was not a request.
"I will not." Her father said simply.
And then the crowd started applauding and the conversation was over as the next Board Member came up to give his speech.
You could draw the entire timeline of a person’s life on Graduation Day. The Observation Dome was split into five sections, according to age groups. Cora had walked with her father round the edge of each of them, as The Director oversaw each stage.
Everything was recycled in the Ark-Hive, even the names. Population Controls were tight, given the constant Resource Balance. When someone died, their equipment and personal gear was refit and put back into circulation. The Suits, the TABBs, and various other gear had names stenciled on the side. It was easier to pick names for people than re-stencil everything.
I still say reusing names seems ghoulish.” Cora murmured to her father.
I know, but it’s out of necessity.” Her father promised. “Like everything else.”
Easy for us to say. The Director’s Family is the only one that gets a surname.”
We’re the only ones that need them.” The Director told her firmly.
Cora smiled at the newest residents of the Ark-Hive, each one being assigned their new name. It wasn’t a lottery, and there were relatively few newborns every year, so there wasn’t a fight over names; but if there was, it was her father’s job to adjudicate.
Next group over were the schoolkids and graduates. The children were praised for their best subjects, honored for their accomplishments, and upon graduation, named as Apprentices. Her father gave each student their accolades, and each graduate their new assignment. Cora winked at Nix when her turn came up.
Third group were the single adults. Carnal liaisons in the Ark-Hive were fairly frequent, with few other vices so freely available. But marriages and children were an entirely different matter. While not exactly having arranged marriages, there was an understanding among most couples that matches were made for Ration Cards and better Quarters. Blue Sector had better living arrangements, Green Sector had better food. It was expected that two people would put their names down as permanent co-habitants to improve their means. It also improved the odds of getting a Permit for Reproduction.
I appreciate you avoiding your boy-toy’s longing gaze for this part.” Her father commented.
Don’t call him that.” Cora hissed back, keeping her face even. “Tai would never get permission to move up to Gold Level, and you’d never let me leave.”
You never know. This time next year it may be Academic.” Her father offered.
I’m counting on it.” Cora said with grim irony. “Do we have to go to the next section?”
I do, you don’t.” Her Father said. “But you should anyway. The last Lottery.”
Why not call it off?” Cora wavered. “If it’s the last one…”
Cora, we’re still here for now.” Her father told her patiently. “We have the Lottery for the same reason we have the Quay. There’s only one prison, because we can’t have people think a violent crime will give them three squares a day and a bed without duty. Any crime that demands less than a life of hard labor…”
I know.” Cora sighed. “What’s the count this week?”
Four men getting the lash. Usual reasons. Theft of ration, dereliction of duty. But wh-”
There it is!” Cora pointed at the last group. The elderly, the retired and the Empty Nest family units were all gathered as they put their names in the Lottery. Cora hated to watch it. Five names would be drawn out, and those five would be given an hour to say their goodbyes, before being given the last, and the largest, meal of their lives.
The worst part is the looks on their faces.” Cora moaned. “When their number comes up, the person called is usually… Relieved.”
I hate it too.” Her father sighed. “You head home, I’ve got to meet our Lottery Winners and thank them for their service… And take their ID’s down to the pool of Newborn’s Names. It’s not easy, Cora; but this is the circle of life down here, including the 'Early Retirement'.”
Hatchings, Matchings, and Dispatchings.” Cora quipped grimly.
Her father almost smirked. “Our last Graduation Ceremony.” He said softly. “Imagine what it’ll be like next year, Cora. No lottery, the population limits get lighter… Everything we could ever want.”