05 Chapter Five: First Mission

116 Days To Landfall
Cora and Tai were at the Hangar the next morning, out of their dress uniforms and in their sub gear, which were comfortable as overalls, but usable as wetsuits.
"Nix and Ben, front and centre!" Tai called as the new apprentices came in. "I'm Tai, this is Cora. Remember that, because we're your teachers for the next mission. You've spent time in subs, of course; but you've never been crew before."
Cora left him to it and went to the Moon Pool. Delphi had kept pace with her from the outside, looking in at his human partner. She worked her TABB and sent Delphi a message. "We'll have some new people with us today. Did you find the cache?"
"Cora! Swim now! Found box! Go fast! New friend!"
She smiled and made the hand signals. ‘Stay close. One hour.’
Delphi chattered, nodding his whole head back and forth and vanished back under the water. Cora rose and went back to the two pre-teens. "All right, kids. Today's mission: We've found a Cache out beyond the Ranges, about half a mile sou-southwest of the Fish Farms. Our job is to go out there and bring it back."
Nix and Ben nodded, listening attentively.
"We can get out there by submarine, but the Caches are hard to find, and that means we need Dolphin support. Which means Dark Water Wet-Work. Either of you ever been outside a sub before?"
Both kids shook their heads.
"Then you'll need equipment." Tai told them. "Follow me."
Cora followed. Let’s just hope Nix is impressive enough to knock Ben out of the race.
Everyone in the Ark-Hive used a TABB. The ones rated for underwater field work were a little different in design, but worked the same way.
"The Breather masks will let you see underwater." Cora explained. "They'll give you much better visual clarity in the deeps, and in some of the advanced models, they'll even send messages and information, like a HUD in front of you every second. That said, to be cleared for Dark Water work, you’ll need Contacts as well. They’re organic grafts, so they’ll actually become part of your eyes. Once they take, you could actually go out without a mask and swim around; though it’s pretty cold out there.”
"Nono!" Ben had his eyes squeezed shut. "No, I don't-" Tai made him sit still, and Ben shook his head. "I don't... My eyes? Really?"
Tai grinned. "We all go through it. Be glad. The last generation Taqs had to be replaced every year, the generation before that every month. Be glad that you’ve got surface corneal implants. You’ll never need to replace them.” Tai faltered. “Well, assuming they take before Landfall.”
On the other side of the locker room, Nix was having a similar reaction, though being a lot more stoic about it. Cora could tell she wasn't happy by the way her fists gripped the chair she was sitting on while the lenses were applied to her eyes. “We’ll give them another hour to fit. If you see something drifting in front of you, don’t worry; that’ll fade.”
Tai turned to include Nix. “Now, tips for all of you: Keep your masks clear. If you feel pains in your ears, in your sinuses, report it immediately. You know how to use your fins?”
Nix demonstrated by flexing her feet carefully, and the flippers on her Dive boots retracted, then extended.
Cora and Tai were in their seats, with the two potential apprentices sitting behind them, as the Hydra Hawk was lowered into the Hangar Moon Pool and deployed into the ocean.
Here, take this.” Tai handed Ben and Nix a stick each. It was small and processed to the same basic shape as other rations. “It’s a resin from a Deep Sea plant. They say there was something similar back in the surface days, but nobody’s seen ‘bubbagun’ in centuries.”
What’s it for?” Ben asked, and mimicked Tai, chewing it.
Equalizing Pressure.” Tai told them. “We’ll be changing depths here and there. Don’t swallow this stuff. Keep chewing. It’ll help you equalize to the depth we’re going to.”
The trip continued another few hours, and Cora and Tai gave their two guests a practical refresher on how to navigate, and some basic maintenance.
So, let’s see what you’ve learned.” Cora challenged Ben. “Bearing and angle?”
Ben studied the readouts over her shoulder. “Bearing 040. Down bubble…” He checked again. “Ten degrees?”
Very good.” Cora nodded. “You covered this in your classes?”
"Then pay attention. This is the part you won't get on your school tours." Tai told them. "For all the time we've been down here at the bottom of the ocean, we haven't gone more than two hundred miles from the Ark-Hive. There's light up above, but none of it reaches this deep. The only light down here is what we make, or what the ocean provides. That's why we call it the Dark Water."
"Back closer to the Ark-Hive, we've spent centuries paving over the rough spots, setting up lit travel routes, and of course laying out all the Outposts we need to support ourselves." Cora took up the explanation. "But the only ones who have been out past the Trench were the expeditions to repopulate the fish species many years ago. To say nothing of the relative pressure differences. We only live in a narrow band of altitude. There's a lot of mystery out there in the Dark Waters."
Tai hit a switch on his console, and the viewport suddenly changed, the water outside no longer pitch black. They could see fish swimming, and a dolphin keeping pace with their sub. They could see the outlines of the ocean floor and even the murky churn of the denser waters in the far distance.
"Your mask will do something similar to this when you get outside." Cora reported. She watched them subtly. Ben was staring over the controls, learning the switches and readouts. Nix had her eyes glued to the water outside. She'd never been half this far out, and had obviously never seen anything like it.
"How can the dolphin keep up?" Ben asked after a while. "We must be going pretty fast."
"Thirty knots." Tai confirmed. "Dolphin teams can keep up with us in various ways. There's a cage on the side that he can ride along in when we're at speed; at lower speeds he can ride our wake and we actually pull him along. Observation speeds? He'll try and race us there."
"All dolphins are speed freaks." Cora put in with affection. "Now. Into your suits. We're pressurized for this depth, so you'll be fine, but you'll need your suits to handle the cold. Have someone check your seals before you get wet."
The kids nodded, and Cora returned her gaze to the front viewport. "Oh, Tai? My father would be pleased to have you join us for dinner."
The sub lurched as Tai reacted. The kids in the back seats giggled heartlessly as Tai went pale.
"All right, tadpoles." Cora told them once they were all outside. "Two rules of wet-work. One: Always know where the nearest help is. We're less than a quarter mile from the Farms, but they're fairly automated. If you can't get there yourself, nobody's going to rescue you. So Rule Two: Someone always stays with the ship."
"Back before that rule, we lost a few crews to drifting boats." Tai put in over all their radios. "So, think of me as your guardian angel, watching over the Scope."
"The Cache is out here somewhere." Cora reported. "The beacons would have run down centuries ago. Now, the ship Scope can tell you when we've got something the right size. Delphi's echolocation is good enough to tell you when you've got something the right shape. After that, someone's got to go out and look for the crate. It'll be seven feet on every edge. First one to find it wins."
At that point, it was a matter of slogging through the Ocean Floor. Beyond the Ark-Hive's carefully cultivated reach, there was nothing but ocean wilderness. The animals that humanity had reintroduced to the oceans ran free and filled the maps with predators and wild things. Even after so many years, there was still a lot of ocean to wander about.
Cora stayed well out of the way. The whole point of the exercise was to see if they were suited to field work. If Ben couldn't take it, then as long as Cora stayed mobile in her duties, she had reason to leave him behind.
"Cora, go private." Tai said over her headset.
She keyed the channel closed. "This is risky." She told him. "Even on a private channel-"
"I know. Listen, Don just sent me an encrypted file. It's Ben's record. He was meant to be assigned somewhere in Gold Sector. But at the last second, his orders were changed to send him to you. His assignment has already been picked, regardless of the scores today. He's your new apprentice."
Cora looked over at Ben, who was digging around awkwardly. "Who changed his orders? My father?"
"You ready for this? Commander Morgan."
Cora felt her heart stop.
"What is this?" Ben asked after a while.
"Good question." Cora mumbled as she felt her heart speed up triple time. But she came over to join him. "What have you got?"
Ben held up something, warped and stained. Six interlocked rings, looking malleable and stretchy. Cora swore under her breath and took it off him. "This is from the surface. To this day, there's still several hundred million pieces of ancient rubbish all over the sea floor."
"After all these centuries?" Ben was surprised.
Cora pulled her multitool and started cutting the rings apart. "At the beginning, there was more garbage than fish. A lot of it has rotted away, but the vast majority will stick around. A sea creature comes across something like this and gets himself strangled. The ancients sucked the surface dry, and they're still killing things in the oceans."
"When we head for Land, how much of our stuff do we leave behind?" Nix asked from the other side of the ridge.
"I don't know, but speaking for myself, I reckon we owe it to the oceans to leave with some class." Cora said lightly. "Anyway, we're not picking up the trash, we're looking for the Cache."
Everyone nodded and went back to work. Nix called back. "Delphi is pointing me at something over this side of the ridge. It might be the Cache. I won't be gone long."
"Locator beacon is on." Tai told her from the sub. "I won't be able to keep all three of you in line of sight; but I'll still have your beacons. Anything happens you don't recognize, report it."
While the team split up, Cora looked up up for a moment. Far above their heads, out of reach, there would be light. The light didn't reach their depth.
Cora shivered, suddenly gripped with fear. She'd never spared much thought for the surface. She imagined that people who lived on the surface centuries before had never spared a thought for the Ocean Floor.
"I've got something here!" Ben called.
Cora came over to meet him. Ben had found the corner of a large box, half buried in the silt. "That's it." Cora agreed. "Let's get to work, dig it up."
Ben settled down next to the crate and let out a squawk. “Ack! I’m sinking!”
Cora sighed. “Centuries of dirt and mud all over the thing, and you didn’t think to check how much mud was under your feet?” She pulled him free, and felt bad for needling him about sinking. It was an easy mistake, but she was annoyed. Cora had wanted Nix to find the target first. A win in her training that would have made her a desirable catch for any department, or any sub crew. But Ben had already been planted in her team, by the man who hunted everyone like her and the people she loved.
She was shaken out of her thoughts as Delphi came swooping up to her, squeaking and squealing. An instant later, the message was translated for her. "Need help! Nix help! Go to Nix! Great one! Trapped!"
"Great one?" Cora breathed. She made the hand signals for 'Take me' and gripped Delphi's harness with one hand. "Tai, Nix has gotten herself trapped by a whale. Delphi is taking me to her! Get the Hydra moving and come follow as soon as you can!"
"On the way!" Tai called.
Cora gripped Delphi's harness and let her Dolphin partner yank her straight off her feet; both of them hurtling through the water. Tai called out instructions behind her, giving Ben orders on what to do.
Cora made it over the ridge and took in the whole situation in a glance. She had misunderstood Delphi. Nix hadn't been the one trapped. The trapped one was the whale.
It was at least sixty feet long, and hundreds of tonnes. Cora had seen pictures of Humpback Whales back before their resurrection, and there was no visible difference in the gene-synth version. At least not on the outside.
The whale was pinned, trying not to thrash in place. She could see the netting wrapped around the flukes of his tail... And she could see the rest of the net tangled in the rocks of the ocean floor.
Nix was at the creature's tale with a multitool, trying to cut it free. "Don't worry about the part hooked on the rock!" Cora called ahead. "If he gets his tail free, he might just slap you into next week and not notice. Free the tail while it's immobile."
Nix moved up closer to the whale, awed by the size of him. Its tail alone was twice her size. Cora came over. "I'll take this. You go up to his eyes. Let him see you."
"Really?" Nix asked. "Because-"
"We've gotta convince him that we're on his side. Whales are intuitive, but if his echolocation says we're sharks or scavengers... Trust me: Stick with Delphi."
Nix did so, swimming up the length of the whale. Delphi was floating near the huge creature's eyes, chattering at him gently. Nix kept one eye on the translation rolling across her Tabb, and realized that the Dolphin was addressing the whale. "Humans. Friends. Free soon! Swim soon! Be calm. Still waters gentle!"
Nix came up, resting her hands on the whale to hold position. She could see the large eye, not so different from her own except bigger. The eye focused slowly, trying to get a good look at her face. "I don't know if you can understand me, but we'll have you loose soon."
A series of clicks and squeals came from Delphi, and Nix suddenly realized that the Dolphin was trying to translate for her.
"Keep talking, Nix. Let him know we're helping." Cora told her. "He knows that humans help trapped whales."
"Now how could he possibly know that?" Ben said over their radios. His signal was clear enough that Cora knew they must have been getting closer. The Sub was on the way. "I mean, it's not like they have a bulletin board, right?"
"Whale song is a lot more complex than you think." Tai countered. "Once, we thought Humpback Whale song was seasonal; but it turns out we just didn't understand it. The Life Sciences team has put together an index, of sorts."
"Well, communication, sure..." Ben didn't seem convinced. "Meanwhile, mission accomplished. We've got the Cache, and it's secure. What next?"
"Next, you get down here and help us out." Cora ordered. "He's been dragging this net along for a while, and finally hooked. Other whales have been caught in snare nets that we use for food. The sharks get to them before we can free them. This big guy has already drawn blood where this net is biting into him. The sharks have probably already scented him. We need to get him free before he panics."
"Get clear, and you won't have to worry about it panicking." Ben groused a little, but he came closer and drew his multi-tool. "Where do I cut?"
Cora caught his hand. "Smaller blade! Don't get the whale too! Gentle hands."
Ben switched to a more appropriate tool and went to work. "This thing isn't going to decide we're dangerous? I mean, if a whale is supposedly smart enough to know we're only cutting the net, then it would be smart enough to know where the net came from, right?"
Cora looked along the large form. "Nix? How's it going?"
Nix didn't answer, locked in an odd staring contest with the whale. If she was aware of anything else, it didn't show. It was like she was communing with him. Delphi was behind her, doing slow rotations in place, blowing air rings out of his beak. Nix stroked the warm skin around the eye, crooning a bit, speaking soothingly.
"Got it!" Ben called, and the nets fell away. He scrambled back quickly, almost churning the water. "Let's get back before it flattens us!"
"He won't do that." Nix promised calmly, as the whale gave a kick so powerful that everyone felt the ripples roll over them grandly. Delphi turned into the wake with an excited trill, floating into a backward flip.
They watched the whale power away for a few seconds, stretching out in the water... and then turn gracefully around, heading back toward them.
"Run for it!" Ben shouted. "Get to the sub! It's coming back!"
"Ben." Nix was unconcerned. "Will you please stop calling him 'it'?"
The Whale stopped kicking his tail, sliding gracefully to a stop nearby. Somehow, with incredible precision, the whale came closer, and nuzzled his head up against each of the humans in turn, brushing gently. They were tiny little nothings before a giant, and the giant was giving them each the closest thing to a handshake or a hug that he could offer.
Cora could hear Ben whimpering as the whale came over to him, but Delphi swept around behind the boy and held him still, nosing him upright with his beak. Ben was frozen, terrified. But the whale was gentle with him, before he turned and powered away.
Delphi kept pace with him for a while, until they were out of sight in the dark water.
"That was amazing!" Nix almost screamed, loud enough to max out their radios.
"Yes, it was." Ben said, voice still shaky. "I'm going back to the submarine now." He turned to go, hunched over like he was expecting to be attacked.
Nix finally noticed that the sub had come a lot closer while she'd been with the Whale... and she noticed the large crate lashed to it. "Ben found the Cache?"
Cora nodded.
Nix sighed. "I lost the challenge, didn't I?"
Cora was about to answer, when Tai called her. "Cora, we've got a message coming for you. It's coded 'confidential', so it must be something official."
"Your dad?" Nix guessed.
"New orders." Cora agreed.
"Okay, listen up." Cora told the crew of the Hydra Hawk. "I've been dispatched to Cameron Outpost to have words with the Commander there. You guys can either come along, but you won't be able to sit in on the meeting... or I can take you all home first."
"I'm your copilot. I go where you go." Tai said simply.
"And if I'm auditioning for apprentice, I go where he goes." Ben put in.
"And if this is my last mission outside the Ark-Hive, I'm going as far as I can." Nix nodded.
"Well then." Tai said lightly. "We've got a five hour cruise ahead of us. Kids, one of you is going to be coming with us for the next four months or so. It's vital that you learn the secret arts of killing time." He pulled a deck of cards out of his jumpsuit. "Did you two bring your ration books?"
Nix and Ben dutifully drew their ration cards, looking uncertain. Cora and Tai traded a dark grin, and started to deal the cards.
Cameron Outpost was like most of the other Outposts on the Western Perimeter. It was a series of spherical chambers, each the size of a small building, linked together by airlocks.
"The main reason for the Outpost is logistics." Cora told the kids. "A sub goes down anywhere within a hundred miles, they're the ones that tells Base where to go to rescue it. A shark comes too close to our fish, they turn it back or hunt it."
"They also grow and harvest coral." Tai put in. "You've seen it here and there in the Ark-Hive, this is where a lot of it comes from. It's light, strong, porous; and if it's still alive and growing, you can even shape it a bit."
"Thought coral grows slowly." Ben asked.
"It does, but it takes a lot less equipment than mining and tempering steel." Cora told him as she keyed the radio. "Cameron Outpost, this is the Hydra Hawk, please come in."
"This is Vlad." The answer came. "That you, Cora?"
"Yep. We're coming in, turn on the lights for us. Also, we've been driving a while; so if you could put out a spread for four, we'd be grateful."
"That's affirm." Cora told him. The message was unspoken, but clear to Vlad. They had company with them. By the time they docked with the Outpost, the Aquans there would have made preparations.
Ben wrinkled his nose when they cracked the airlock. The air scrubbers didn't work as well in an Outpost, compared to the Ark-Hive he'd lived his whole life in. The Hangar was the same in every outpost, with a Moon Pool and sealed entrances, but the air was thick with the smell of salt and cleaning solutions.
Here and there, the bare metal was peeking out from the insulation and rusting over from the salt. But there was a lot more coral included in the construction.
The first one they saw was the Stingray Lieutenant. As the Ark-Hive police and armed force, they had a presence on every station, even small Outposts.
Cora noted the kids' reaction. This man was older, somewhat rounded, and his eyes were relaxed. Nothing like the fearsome living weapons they had known back at the Ark-Hive. Cora put up a big smile. "Lieutenant Carter! Always good to see you."
"Miss Cora!" Carter said brightly. "Vlad mentioned you were bringing some friends."
Cora stepped down from the hull of her sub and gestured for them to follow. As Nix and Ben lined up, she introduced them. "Ben. Nix. This is Lieutenant Carter, Stingray Squad. Lieutenant, these are two of our most recent graduates." She smiled winningly at him. "I have business with your lord and master. I was wondering if you and Tai could show them around. It's their first time off the Ark-Hive."
The kids looked scared out of their minds at the prospect of being sent off with a Stingray. But Carter smiled at them. "I was actually about to have dinner. I think we've got time for a quick tour first!"
Cora traded a quick look with Tai. He would keep them out of the way. A small outpost would be toured in about fifteen minutes.
"Commander Lapthorne." Cora found the head of the outpost in the Hangar's Locker Room. He was suiting up. "You're going outside?"
"There's a matter of maintenance that I wanted to discuss with your father. Having you here, I assumed he was sending someone to take a look."
Cora wondered if that was true, or if it was just a good way to get outside the Outpost and its cameras. "Well, what are we waiting for?"
Suited up, the two of them dropped feet first into the water. It was twenty feet between the Moon Pool and the ocean floor. Enough room to allow submarines to pass in and out. They held hands in the slow motion freefall, until they hit bottom.
"Tether." The Commander said, and Cora obediently connected the line between their suits.
"I also wanted to show you these new tethers." He said smugly. "We've been working on them for the last few months. You know when you were a kid, and they taught you acoustic vibration principles?"
"Yeah, two cans on a string, right?" Cora nodded, checking to make sure that the communications were keyed to be private.
"Well, that's the idea behind these. Nobody can hack the encryption, because there's nothing to encrypt. No radio, no transmission. The tether is threaded between us, and the sound carries only between our suits."
"Oh, that's perfect. We played around with something like that once, but it never worked."
"Well, now it does; but you have to be within eight feet. So for private conversations, we've got a new trick; but for communications between outposts..."
'I understand." Cora nodded. "The Chief sent me. He says to tell you that the Landfall announcement took us all by surprise, but there's plenty of time to regroup. In fact, the message is that our plans are unchanged, just accelerated."
"So we lie low." Lapthorne said. "The Chief, whoever he is, is aware that we can't wait forever, right?"
"He is. But remember what's happening here: All those resources are being moved about, all those people are being pulled in, and everyone's planning to leave the Ocean behind. If ever there was a moment for us to pull off an Exodus..."
"Hades, it's finally happening; isn't it?" Lapthorne breathed. "What does your father know about your business here?"
Believe it not, my father sent me with a message of his own." Cora reported. "He sent me out to tell you that you have to pack it up."
Lapthorne swore. "We're being recalled?"
"Not yet. But it’s on the all-powerful schedule that The Board has drawn up, and they don’t want you to waste time packing. Just between us, I think everyone's getting the same message." Cora confided. "The date for Landfall has been set."
Why the hell do we all have to go at once? Why not a staged return to the surface?”
Cora rolled her eyes. “I asked that question once. So did everyone in the Board Meeting. We don’t ask any more, because the answer is always ‘don’t ask’.”
"Whoever the Chief is, he better do something soon." Lapthorne warned her. "Here, look at this."
Cora looked up. He had brought her to the support struts of the Outpost. Each of the four legs was larger around than she could reach. She saw at once what he meant. There was fatigue in the metal. It was running deep. Every inch of the Ark-Hive was ancient, but they'd mastered the art of fixing things. The factories ran day and night, harvesting minerals and digging up metals from the ocean floor.
"We could fix this, you know?" Lapthorne sighed. "Coral struts would do the job. We can carve a nice big piece to the exact dimensions of the rot, secure it in there, like putting a sliver of something under a wobbly table leg. It would be easy."
"I know." Cora sighed back.
"Instead, we're going to be told to abandon the Outpost completely." Lapthorne growled. "Cora, you should know... Not all my people will want to come back to the Ark-Hive." The two of them looked silently up at the rotting metal before he spoke again. "The Outposts saved us, getting as much of the team out into the water as we could. But he's talking about abandoning the Ocean entirely, and his first step is to call everyone back to within his reach. Some of the Outposts aren't going to take that."
"Like Cameron Outpost?"
"I can wrangle my people. We've got a pretty good setup here, but there are only a few of us this far out. The ones you've got to worry about are Praxis Outpost and Delta Outpost. They're so much bigger and more central to the Ark-Hive than we think... Aquan or not, they won't want to leave what they've got. I'm betting that's what The Chief is waiting for."
"A rebellion?" Cora hadn't considered it. "Maybe." She changed the subject. "Your Stingray detail seems very... well fed."
Lapthorne chuckled. "Never feed the hand that bites you. Carter gets that much."
"Hey, get away from there." Ben warned.
The Tour had included a meal, and the two apprentices met up with Tai afterward. Cameron Outpost was a working community, but like everywhere people lived; the workforce was made up of families. None of them had ever seen a Cache Crate before, and the one they had collected was easily visible, lashed to the hull of the docked Hydra Hawk, so the kids were gathered around.
Carter was there, and he actually seemed amused. "Let them alone. None of them have ever seen a private Yacht before, let alone what's in the Crate. Can't help but indulge them, now and then."
Ben and Nix just stared at Carter. The Stingray guards they knew would have drawn their Shock-Sticks by now, and this one was smiling?
"Think he's an Aqua?" Nix whispered to Ben, not taking her eyes off Carter. "He sure don't act like a Stinger."
Ben and Nix were so focused, that neither of them noticed Tai suddenly appearing right between them. "This isn't the Ark-Hive." He said kindly, and both kids yelped. "Stingers are death incarnate to us, but out here in Dark Water, it's a small community. You make a family, or a prison camp. Which do you suppose is better for the people that live here?"
Nix shivered, looking at the kids that surrounded their submarine. "They shouldn't be... relaxed. He's still Stingray."
Secretly, Tai agreed. "So. You guys remember everything Cora and I taught you about cards? Because you're going to need it." He led the way into the common areas. "See, Drivers have a hundred different ways to fill in the time. Here in the Outposts? Whenever there's someone new docked, they get invited to a nice, friendly Poker Game."
Cora had delivered her message to Lapthorne, and then reconnected her radio to give him the official line, ready for anyone who might be listening. “The Recall Order is part of the Landfall plan, so you’ll want to take advantage of these few months.”
I am so informed.” Lapthorne said formally.
As they walked back toward the Moon Pool, Delphi came zooming up, swooping to a dead halt as he reached Cora. "Cora! Found you!"
Cora chuckled and held out her hand as Delphi nuzzled her happily. "How far did you follow the whale?"
"Far! Went fast! Great One say thank you! Great One likes Nix! Great Ones sing!" The Dolphin clicked back. He rotated in place and fired a pulse toward the structure of the Outpost. "Metal thin. Bad! Metal break soon!"
"We know, Delphi. We were just talking about that." Cora said soothingly. The echolocation of a dolphin was accurate enough to work as medical diagnosis, let alone for engineering. "We'll be going back to the Ark-Hive soon. You want to stay here and wait for us?"
Delphi was about to answer, when he suddenly halted in the water, and spun back to look back the way he came. "Great Ones! Song changing! Song is sad!"
Cora had reached the ladder that would lead back up to the Outpost. "Sad? Why?"
Delphi looked back at her. A Dolphin was always smiling, but Delphi had nearly bent double, looking down his beak at her accusingly. "Great Ones say that Friends are leaving. Cora leaving? Cora friend! Cora go?"
Silence. Cora looked at her friend, tortured. She couldn't tell him the truth, or the secrets. She couldn't transmit anything without it being exposed. Instead, she made the hand signals for 'No. Stay. Safe.'
Delphi swooped up to match her height on the ladder, and pushed his beak into the small of her back. Cora felt herself leave the ladder, and Delphi pushed her swiftly up to the surface.
Her crew was assembled at the edge of the Moon Pool. Ben looked bright red with embarrassment as Cora took her faceplate off, and tucked the cowl down around her collar again. "Well, my job's done. You got the full tour, Tadpoles?"
They both nodded.
Cora smothered a smirk. "Ben? Where are your shoes?"
"Trip nines! I had trip nines, and the guys gets dealt a fourth ace!" Ben nearly exploded.
Cora barely blinked. "Let's go home."