Saturday, 17 March 2018

07 Chapter Seven: Rescue Mission

The Director and Commander Morgan were cursing under their breath for half an hour while Cora and Don got to work. Tai turned every sub driver, and every Wet-Worker with a Synth-Partner out of bed. The news about the missing Submarine spread almost instantly through the pilot corps. Hours before day-shift, and only the civilians were sleeping.
The Massey Caves were four hours away by submarine. Ten hours for a Dolphin. That was far too long.
There were only a few Submarines in range for an emergency trip. The craft that were already deployed had all been busy preparing for Landfall, weighed down with cargo that couldn’t be replaced easily. They couldn’t dump their payloads.
Decision time.” Morgan reported to the Director. “We can’t get the Cargo Haulers back here in time without dumping their cargo. But if we don’t haul them in, there are only three craft than can carry passengers.” He looked to Cora. “And one of them is the Hydra Hawk.”
Cora bit her lip. “We don’t need to get submarines out there. We have to get the Dolphins out there.”
Director Bridger looked physically ill at the words he was saying. “Cora, using the Dolphins as guides may be our only chance, but there’s no way to get so many Dolphins out there in time. Nor is there any way to get those children back with just the Hydra Hawk. I doubt they’re carrying an extra eight hours of air for every passenger.”
There was a moment as they turned the problem over in their minds. Any sub could fit people inside it, but each submarine was designed with a purpose. Even if you could cram people in on top of each other, the ship’s life support systems were designed to handle a specific crew complement.
Then we have to dump the cargo, and route those Cargo Subs to the Massey Caves for the rescue, or here for re-tasking.” Morgan said firmly.
I’ve seen the manifests on those submarines, Morgan.” The Director bit out. “There’s no way to make Landfall if we dump that cargo. That equipment isn’t pressure-resistant, or waterproof. It’s designed for indoor use. It’ll take us years to rebuild those stockpiles back up.”
So it takes us another five years instead of five months.” Cora put in, trying not to hide her suddenly hopeful thought. “Half the Ark-Hive either has a kid, or a kid of a friend on that submarine, Dad. You lose those kids, and you can forget Landfall. You won’t make it to Lights Out.” She held out a hand to him. “Delay Landfall. Drown the schedule.”
The Director seemed to hesitate for a split second, before the familiar steel-resolve came back. “No. We’re not changing the schedule, and we’re not losing the sub. There’s got to be a way.”
Cora and Tai quickly prepared the Hydra Hawk for launch. “Cora, I don’t know how you talked your father into this.”
With difficulty.” Cora admitted, as she slipped into the pilot’s seat and keyed the radio. “Hydra Hawk, requesting permission to leave.”
Clear waters, Cora.” Her father responded personally. His tone dropped suddenly. “You very sure about this?”
Only way.” Cora told him. “I know it is, because if there was anything else that was remotely possible, you never would have given me permission.”
Tai gestured over their shoulder at the equipment rack. Procedure said that visiting crew and apprentices had to stow their gear in the Docking Bay, but with all the focus on their ship when they had brought the Cache in, Cora had sent her prospective apprentices straight out.
Nix’s wetsuit and dive equipment were there, hanging right beside Cora’s, right where she’d left it.
The Hydra Hawk left the Ark-Hive. Within seconds, almost a dozen dolphins came powering out of the airlocks in Pursuit. Cora slowed her craft long enough for each of them to swim up and bite down on some part of the craft with their beaks, the way Delphi did when he wanted to feel the speed and ride the wake.
The Hydra Hawk was the most Aquan designed ship in the fleet, long and flat like a smooth stingray, and it had a dozen dolphins holding onto the wings, as Cora lead the way to the Massey Caves.
Nobody on the craft said anything for a while. Tai and Cora each took their turn glancing back at Nix’s suit. A light flashed on the console, and they both relaxed. “We’ve reached Dark Water. We can talk.” Tai said, letting out a breath. “Don and I told Nix.”
How’d she take it?”
About like you’d expect.” Tai admitted. “We’re still here, so she didn’t turn us in before she left…” He looked back at her suit, worried. “What if that’s the last time we talk to her?”
We’ll find her.” Cora promised. “There are five other ships, all heading the same direction. The Hawk is faster than all of them, and will get there hours earlier; but there’s only enough room for three or four people. Dozens of people need rescuing.” Cora looked back at the suit. “Our job is to find them, and work a plan.”
I know.”
"Delphi, give me a pulse here!" Cora called.
Delphi's echolocation rang out for a split second, and Cora's TABB lit up with the 3D Model. She scanned the image a moment. "And now the other way, please." Delphi squeaked and clicked again, and the receiver gathered the echo, drawing the other side of the cave onto the image. Cora couldn't make out anything more than four feet away, but she could see her TABB clearly enough, and the dolphin's natural sonar was drawing her a very complete picture of the cave…
...and the tunnels that branched off from the cavern, almost invisible in the darkness and the silt; but it was clear as Light Water to the dolphins. Cora unslung a relay from her pack at set it at the branch. “Tai, I’m placing another repeater.”
Uplink to your TABB is still clear as a bell.” Tai reported from his post on the Hydra Hawk. “I’m sending a homing beacon down the other branches of that tunnel. Still no return ping. She’s in there deep.”
Delphi clicked and whistled. “Great Ones say Metal Whale came in here.”
Cora read the translation. “Tai, are you picking up whalesong?”
Barely. Nothing on thermals or sonar. I thought it was just usual background chatter.”
Delphi says the whales saw the School-Sub come into the Massey Caves alright. We haven’t missed them.”
Delphi clicked again. “Great Ones are coming. Help Delphi. Help Cora.”
Cora read the translation with a smile. “They’ll get here before anyone else from the Ark-Hive does.” She gestured. “Another pulse here, please.”
The Dolphin did so, and both Tai and Cora studied the return image on their screens. “It wouldn’t be that way. Couldn’t fit a sub half that size through there.” Tai said. “Left branch?”
Yup.” Cora agreed. “We’ve doubled back on our own tunnels twice. My guess is, the pilot knew he was getting turned around in here, and was trying to find his way back out.”
How did his tracking systems fail?”
Ask when we find them.” Cora shook her head. “Delphi, pulse the ceiling, please.” The Dolphin did so, and Cora checked her readings. “This is insane. We’re closer to open in these caverns than we were at the tunnels. How deep did they go?” She looked back. “Delphi? Where’d you go?”
The air was getting thick in the Cousteau.
Wayde was doing his best to keep the kids calm, but the longer they waited, the more the tension grew. Kids under twelve never exactly sat still, and trapped underground, underwater, far from home, without so much as an answer to their mayday was making the littler ones break down sobbing.
Ben wasn’t taking it well. “My dad’s not getting any answer.” He confided to Nix. The two of them had been on a mission together. They were the oldest on the Cousteau, and the only ones eligible for Apprentice Rank. All the other apprentices were on their assignments.
Nix looked at him sideways. “Your dad, he works with The Director. You two live in Gold Sector.” She observed. “I noticed you freaking out a bit on the Hydra Hawk.”
Ben squeezed his eyes shut. “Don’t tell anyone?”
That you’re claustrophobic?” Nix didn’t even blink. “I live in Grey Sector. This chair I’m sitting in is the most room I’ve had to myself since I got tall enough to reach both sides of my quarters.”
Ben shivered, feeling the sub close in. “How do you handle it?”
Nix showed him. “Close your eyes.”
Ben did so.
Right now, you could be anywhere.” She said to him softly. “You could be in the Observation Dome. It’s empty. Hundreds of square feet, decorations along the walls, endless ocean outside, visible for hundreds of metres. You’re kicked back with a cold drink, and there’s nobody around.”
But that’s not true.” He said softly.
Isn’t it?” Nix said, just as soft. “If I was half an inch out of your reach, you could stretch your arms out in every direction and never find me. With your eyes closed, you could be two feet from anything, or a milion miles clear.”
And despite himself, he could hear his heart rate slow down a little. “This is what you do in Grey Sector?”
Yup.” Nix was about to continue when she saw the lights play over her from the porthole, and she let out a sudden bark of laughter. “Either oxy-debt is making me see things, or we’re rescued.”
Delphi chattered happily, just outside, though Nix couldn’t hear it.
Cora read the translation. “He found them! Tai, I’ve got the Cousteau!”
I’m following Delphi’s beacon. I don’t like what I’m not seeing.” Tai called back. “I’ll relay word to the Ark-Hive, but…”
Delphi fired another pulse, and the picture became clearer to them. “Correction, I don’t like what I am seeing.” Tai swore under his breath. “We’ll never get it out of there!”
Cora actually had to float halfway on her back to see where Delphi wriggled his way between the rocks to rejoin her. “Looks like the entire cave entrance fell in. Delphi found a way through up at the top, but there’s no way we can dig this much rock out of the way.” She swam up to meet Delphi. “But I think I can widen a space in the gap and get in there myself.”
Cora, if you get trapped between the rocks, or if there’s another slip, I won’t be able to get to you in time. And for all Delphi’s gifts, he doesn’t have opposable thumbs.” Tai warned her.
I’ll be careful.” She promised. “Delphi, I want you to take one of these relays, and hold it up to the gap in the rocks. I need to keep an open comm to Tai.”
Delphi took the repeater from Cora’s hand and turned in place smoothly, holding it up. Cora had done cave diving plenty of times, and knew how to move in enclosed spaces. But never in a place with so recent a cave in. Move deliberately, don’t struggle, don’t panic. She told herself. She could feel rock on her every side, and the dirt shifting, both above and below her. She could see lights ahead.
But after a few endless moments, she made her way through. The Cousteau was beneath her, lights bright. Cora pulled rocks and dirt aside to widen the gap before she pushed away from the cave in and got a look at the submarine. “Cora Bridger to Cousteau, are you receiving?”
Yes! Yes, we receive! Thank god!”
Wayde? Is that you?”
Yeah, it’s me. Where are you, Cora?”
Just entered the chamber you’re in.” Cora reported, shining her torch over the submarine. “Report on your status?”
Crew and passengers are alive. Some injuries, not serious. But the rear half of the submarine is buried. Last time we tried to work the engines free of the cave-in, we started a fire in here… Hull’s intact, so’s the forward airlock… But our propulsion is offline. Electrical discharge from the fire.”
Eight hours, give or take.”
Cora bit her lip, still near the gap she had squeezed through. “Tai, can you still hear me?”
I can see the Cousteau. Looks like the hull is intact… but it’s got nowhere to go. Can’t even turn around in here. The drive section and the engines are all buried under the cave in.” Cora let out a breath. “But I have radio contact. Let me set up another relay at my end; they’ll be able to contact the Ark-Hive.”
Should we… get the families into the Communications Centre?” Don asked the Director quietly. “Reports from the site say there’s no joy on a rescue. We’ve got way too many people in that submarine to try and get breathers through to them. We don’t…” Don squeezed his eyes shut. “Rescue Subs don’t have enough dive masks for so many people that small, and we’d never rotate them fast enough, with no sub that can hold enough people.”
The Director was unreadable. “Day shift begins in another hour and a half… We’ve got time to try and work the problem before the families wake up and realize what’s going on. Our job gets harder after that.”
Send the rest of the Dolphin teams around to the outside of this cave, and see if they can find the weakest point.”
You want to blast them out through the mountainside?”
Better odds than blasting them out through the cave-in.” Cora told him. “I need the dolphins to sonar the whole mountainside, and find the weakest, thinnest point in the rock. Delphi, if you can hear me, I need you to go back to the Hydra Hawk and get Nix’s suit. I need her with me.”
Cora, you blast the mountainside, and you could tear more holes in her hull.”
Have to take the chance.” Cora told him firmly. “We can’t get them all out by EVA, and their life support is trashed. We have to tow them to safety.”
Silence. “Cora, go private.” Tai told her. She did so, and he dropped his tone. “Towing ships are coming, but they're still ten hours away.”
There’s less than eight hours of oxygen left.” She confided in him. “By the time help gets here, I’ll be looking at a tomb.”
How did this happen?” Director Bridger demanded of Morgan. “How is it possible that we didn’t have any of our Heavy Movers within twelve hours of the Light Water? How is it possible we don’t have any rescue craft that can tow a School-Sub that size in reach?”
We’ve got subs scattered to every corner of the map. That’s what happens when you tell us to pack up the whole ocean and move it to the surface.” Morgan said firmly. “Something was going to give eventually. The real question is how did Wayde, your assistant, get behind the controls of a School-Sub he was barely qualified to drive, and get buried that deep in a maze when he had a clearly marked trail?”
His kid’s on board. He wanted to show off for his son before we all left the ocean.” Bridger shook his head, and then paused. “Or, do you think it’s something else?”
Cora looked carefully at the cave in. There was a lot of mangled equipment. She looked at the sonar array. Something had been wired in. Something new. It was a receiver.
To pick up nav beacons. Cora thought to herself. So why does this one look so much newer than the rest of the sub? Did someone add this? Was it for repairs? If it was put here maliciously, it could lead Wayde anywhere.
Nix looked through the porthole into the airlock as it drained. Delphi had swum in, dropped off her suit and mask, and swum back out again.
Don’t suppose you’ve got about forty more of those?” Wayde quipped darkly.
Nix changed into her suit quickly. “I don’t know why Cora wanted me out there, but I’m glad to help.”
One less set of lungs on board buys us time, but not long.” Wayde told her. “Do good work out there.”
Cora met Nix as she came out the airlock. They were close enough that Cora could see her eyes. Nix wasn’t as happy to see her as the rest of the people on board. Because Tai and Don just told her the big secret, and now Nix is angry. “It’s good to see you.” Cora said honestly. “We were worried.”
The water feels different in here.” Nix answered. “Less… I don’t know. Grainy.”
Good catch. Not many people would have noticed that.” Cora told her. “It’s freshwater. The caves have lots of freshwater pockets. The ocean outside is saltwater. With the difference in density, having a narrower entrance can actually keep the salt out.”
What’s the plan?”
Cora took a deep breath, mixer sending out bubbles, as she swam back up to the gap. “Good question. We need to get some gear, maybe some reinforcements. We’re heading back to the Hydra Hawk first. It’s in the main tunnel, near the entrance.”
Wait, I lost you!” Nix called.
Cora looked back. In the darkness, there was no sign of her. Or anything else. “Dropping flare.”
The bright light flared, showing the whole cavern, about forty feet across. Nix quickly found Cora again, and swam back up to join her. “Dark in here.”
Yeah, it is. Even moreso than the Dark Water outside.” Cora agreed. “Back when I was your age, there was some talk about sealing off some of these caves and turning them into an outpost, but it’s just too damn easy to get lost.”
Nix swum up and followed Cora, wriggling her way between the rocks. “We can’t get them out, can we?” She said quietly, once they were past the signal booster. “Even if we could get earthmovers into this cave, there’s no time to dig them out.”
That’s probably true.” Cora nodded.
I mean, I know we’re all pressurized to this depth, but the water’s freezing, and without breathers there’s no way the kids could just hold their breath…”
No room for them on the Hawk anyway. We’ll have to take the whole sub. So we take them out the other way.”
What does that mean?” Nix asked, but Cora was already on the other side of the landslip and it took Nix a few minutes to catch up. “Other way? How?”
Cora gripped Delphi’s harness with one hand, and Nix with the other. The caves were pitch black, but to Delphi, it was a highway, and he towed the two of them through the tunnels and the hairpin turns at full speed; while Cora explained. “According to the Dolphins, there’s less than four feet of rock between the Cousteau and the ocean. There’s a Geo-Research Outpost fairly close. They’re not set up for a rescue, and they don’t have the oxygen resources to take in dozens of houseguests. Not without asphyxiating themselves. But they have seismic charges.”
They have spare suits too?” Nix asked. “Just in case? A few, at least? I don’t want to be the only one that made it off Cousteau.”
Cora squeezed her hand. Lights were ahead, and they came out of the blackness to the Hydra Hawk. Tai was visible through the canopy, and he waved to Nix. “Good to see you out of there, apprentice.”
Don’t call me that.” Nix said, mindful that the channel was open. Her comment was technically correct. Her assignment wasn’t official yet. But the other reason was because Nix hadn’t decided what to do about the Aquans she knew.
Cora tapped at her TABB and Delphi wheeled around in the water, the other dolphins doing the same. They started clicking and whistling, almost in unison; a lot louder than Nix was used to.
What was that?” Nix asked. “Don’t tell me they can signal the Ark-Hive?”
Dolphins, no. Not at this range. Tai will take care of telling Base what we’ve found. Delphi’s calling reinforcements.”
From who?”
Cora took a breath, letting bubbles escape her mask. “Call it a hunch.” She waved it off. “Let’s get aboard.”
Aboard the Hydra Hawk, Nix pulled her mask off and took a deep breath. “Huh. Air was a lot thicker back on the Cousteau than it is here. I hadn’t even noticed.”
It’ll get a lot thicker still before this is over.” Tai told her.
Any word on what’s happening back on the Ark-Hive?”
I’ve been listening to the Open-Band. No reports yet. A few people wondering about the overdue sub… But I don’t think it’s dawned on them just how serious it is yet.” Tai reported. “And Nix, just so you know, we can speak freely in here while we’re in Dark Water.”
Nix nodded, her face changing.
Cora sighed. “I wanted to be the one to tell you. I wanted to…”
To recruit me.” Nix said flatly. “I’m not an idiot. I know how risky it is for you to talk about something like this. The only reason you’d tell me is if you want something, or if you think I agree with you.” She glared hard at Tai. “You have any idea what you’ve done to me? If I don’t turn you in, I’m dead. Clang-bang, straight to the Quay. Black Bagged and never heard from again.”
We aren’t what they say we are, Nix.” Cora said gently. “And just so you know, we could all have what we want. I’m Resource Management now. I’ve checked the quotas, checked the inventories. There’s enough resources that if the Aquans and the Earthers decided to cooperate, we could both have everything we want.”
Nix paused. “Really?”
Really. Resources have been tightly controlled for so long, the assumption is we’re on the edge of disaster. And we are, but not for this. If my father would just ease the Schedule and let us go, he could still have Landfall.” Cora sighed. “But he won’t. He’s dug himself too far and he won’t consider compromise.”
So… how do you plan to leave?” Nix wavered.
By not telling him.” Cora said simply. “I run the Resource Allocations now. Nobody will starve, nobody will drown, nobody will…” She trailed off. “If Morgan finds out, he’ll kill us. If my father doesn’t find out, then he’ll get Landfall. Just a few less workers, a few less mouths.” She held out a hand to Nix. “The only question is: Which way will you go?”
Nix stared at her extended hand, long and hard, not reaching.
The radio crackled, breaking the tense moment. “Hydra Hawk, this is Plato Outpost. Your Dolphin teams contacted ours. We’ve been advised of the situation. What do you need?”
Tai took the radio. “We need Seismic charges. Enough to crack a rock wall four feet thick without burying whatever’s under it.”
There was silence from the other end for a while. “We have shaped charges that can do that. But, of course, to catch a large quantity of rock before it collapses, you’ll need some serious towing power. Do you have Heavy Subs on standby somewhere?”
We can handle it.” Tai told him. “We’ll need your towing cables too. And whatever rock-anchors you have on hand.”
Yeah, we keep all that stuff stored here for mining. But our cables hook up to huge gears that are secured to the Outpost itself. We can’t uncouple gears that size. They’re locked into the foundations. All we can send you are the anchors and cables. How do you plan to pull them?”
Cora leaned over Tai’s shoulder to call into the radio. “Leave that to us.”
The Director had started informing the families. Until the Hydra Hawk reported back, there wasn’t a whole lot the Ark-Hive could do. In fact, there wasn’t a whole lot anyone could do.
I thought we had another heavy sub in for repairs.” The Director asked Amos. “Sub Repair is a priority, is it not?”
It is, sir. Or at least, it was a week ago. But with the recent announcement, the Engineering Department has suddenly had their workload triple. It’s been centuries since we needed a land vehicle; and now we need quite a few of them, and we need them to be built in a way that can be packed into landing craft and assembled on the surface.” He waved upward vaguely. “We’re working from centuries-old notes about what the surface is like. The first few surface drones we sent up back then burst from the surface pressure.” He paused. “I actually wonder if living on the surface can be good for you.”
Imagine if that were true.” The Director commented darkly, glancing at the safe behind his desk. He was about to call in the next family when his TABB buzzed. “Go ahead.”
We’ve reconnected with the Hydra Hawk. Shall I put them through to you directly?”
Yes. And use personal security encryption.” The Director gestured for Amos to leave them as the call was put through. “Cora, what’s the situation?”
Life support on the Cousteau is fading. We’ve made contact, and everyone inside is well, but they’re trapped. Heavy movers won’t get them out easily. We’ve gathered some geologic charges, and we think we can get them out, but there’s no chance we can get anyone equipped for an extra two dozen passengers here in time.” Cora reported. “We’re working on a plan, but…”
We’re calling in every level of assistance we can find out there, but…” The Director sighed. “The only help that we can get to you in time are courier craft. They can only carry one or two people. Our people are calculating how many can be ferried from the Massey Caves to the nearest Outpost, given the breathers and wetsuits you have on hand…”
Not enough.” Cora answered. She had done the math too.
Cora… tell Wayde that it might be time to start… making some choices.”
Tell me you won’t order him to get the Gold Level kids off first.”
That I leave to Wayde.” The Director said. “Remember, his kid is there too.”
Well, that was a pleasant conversation.” Nix drawled.
Cora nodded. “Everything the Ark-Hive can send that has the power to move the sub would never fit around the turns and corners. And there’s no chance that we can get them out EVA. Not enough suits and breathers to go around. If we stay in our Dive Suits the whole way, we could still only take so many. Not enough seats to go around.” She grinned at Nix. “And for my father, those are the only options that come to mind.”
Nix let out a breath. “Alright, you got my attention, Aquan. What’s the option he missed?”
Ocean Solutions.” Tai smiled. “Nix, there’s a reason why we asked you to join the rescue.”
Nix was confused for a second, when she heard the sound of whale-song coming through the hull. It had been in the distance for a while, but it usually was in the Dark Water. It was suddenly coming a lot clearer, and closer.
The crew of the Hydra Hawk looked out at the ocean, and their augmented canopy gave them a clearer view of the distance, and the pod of whales that were closing in on the Massey Caves.
Reinforcements.” Nix said, swiftly understanding.
Whale-song can reach for miles and miles.” Cora explained. “The Dolphins can call almost that far. If your whale was anywhere in the area, the Dolphins would reach him.”
He’s not exactly mine.” Nix pointed. “But he’s here.”
You can tell?” Tai was surprised. “The whale you helped wasn’t tagged.”
Trust me, I can tell.” Nix said softly, gazing out at the giant creature.
Cora grinned. “Let’s get back out there.” She ordered. “Tai, you’ve got the instructions from Plato, and you’ve got the sonar maps from the Dolphins. You’re going to have to guide us precisely. Where do we plant the charges? Where do we secure the lines? Watch our feeds carefully, I don’t want us getting confused.”
We’ll have to be pretty accurate.” Tai agreed nervously. “According to the Dolphins, there’s a thick plate of hard rock. We blast around it, we can take it out in a complete piece. We put the charges in the wrong places, it will fragment.” Cora keyed her TABB. “Delphi, you’re with me. Tell the others to help Nix. She’ll be figuring out how to get a pod of whales to tow these cables.”
I will?” Nix was surprised. “I have no idea how.”
Figure it out.” Cora said simply.
Nix felt one of the Dolphins press his beak into her back, and propel her up toward one of the whales. It was ‘her’ whale, crooning softly. The giant creature turned and brought his eye to meet Nix. The song changed gently, rolling through the water in a way that made Nix feel like her cells were being shaken apart.
The dolphin came up to hover beside Nix, squeaking happily. Nix checked the translation on her TABB. “Nolly call Great One. Delphi says Great One help Nix.”
I hope so.” Nix whispered, reaching out a hand to rest against the wall of whale that filled her vision. “I hope that you can understand enough. Don says that Whales are just on the edge of sentience. But we can both talk to Dolphins.” She took a breath. “The Dolphins are all wearing harnesses, and I’m betting whales are smart enough to grasp the reason why.” She reached out her other hand. “You are one of the biggest, mightiest things in the ocean. There was a time when you needed the help of one of the smallest to survive. Can I ask you to return the favor now?”
Nolly was clicking and whistling and squeaking in rapid-fire. But he was playing too, rolling back and forth, waving his head up and down exaggeratedly. Nix wondered if that was part of the language.
Delphi zoomed up to join them, also ‘talking’ to the whale. Nix checked her TABB. “Great Ones help. Save boat. Save human young. Help Nix! Please!”
Nix felt herself smile just a little that the Dolphin would say ‘please’ when a human wouldn’t even know how to ask.
Wayde was on the line to the Ark-Hive.
Wayde, the families are being informed.” Commander Morgan told him. “The Director is trying to prevent a full blown riot right now. Everyone that doesn’t have a relative in there at least has a family friend.”
Can I speak to the Director?” Wayde asked brokenly.
No.” Morgan said curtly. “Just remember Wayde, of all the families being torn apart today, you’re the only one that gets to see his son in person.”
Wayde let out a low sob. They’re not even pretending that rescue is still on the table. It’s going to be the worst disaster in Ark-Hive history, and it’s my fault.
Dad?” A small voice wavered.
Wayde disconnected and turned to Ben. “Yeah?”
Quinn’s asleep. He…” Ben sniffed. “He just dropped off. I was talking to him.”
It’s okay.” Wayde promised his son, trying to keep his voice level, even as he coughed a little. “It’s okay to sleep. It’ll actually save air.” He gave the boy a hug. “You, um… you should sleep too.”
Ben nodded, yawning. “Dad? How come you never tried for a second kid? You had the Gold-Level Access. You could have applied for the permit…”
Wayde felt his eyes stinging, but from the emotion or the changing air, he wasn’t sure. “Didn’t… enough room. Never enough room.”
The two of them jerked with a start, and ran to the porthole. Half the kids on the Cousteau did the same. The ones that could still walk, at least.
Outside, they could see a hole in the wall, and ocean outside. The sub shifted as the saltwater and the freshwater merged… Ben let out a cry, expecting to be buried in another cave in.
But the rock was falling away in one complete piece, out into the ocean.
How are they doing that?!” Wayde asked in open disbelief.
115 Days To Landfall
The new shift came on, and it was officially a new day in the Ark-Hive. Those that hadn’t heard already were quickly informed.
The PA announced the usual duty shifts, and a riot nearly broke out. Morgan deployed his Stingrays to every public area, every major workspace…
Nobody went to work. It was the first time since the Aquan Rebellion that the roster was openly ignored. A vigil formed in the Observation Dome, with every family and every friend gathered, waiting for the news. But nobody was expecting a happy ending. The families all knew the rules about Population Control. They all worked in different parts of the Ark-Hive, at every level. Gold Sector, Green Sector, Blue Sector… all of them gathered together, comparing notes, finding out who was in the area that could help, realizing that there was no help coming.
The Director watched from a safe place. Morgan came to join him eventually. “Has there been any word from Cora?”
Morgan shook his head. “Last we heard, they were putting out a call to any reinforcements in the local area to help with the rescue, and setting charges to blast an opening in the Massey Caves.”
Nothing after that?” Director Bridger set his jaw angrily. “What is she doing out there?”
Unknown.” Morgan admitted. “They set off the charges, and the blast knocked out our signal relays. We’re blind again.” He shrugged. “We call it Dark Water for a reason.”
The Director scowled. “There’s no chance, is there?”
Morgan shook his head, expressionless. “Nosir.”
So close.” Director Bridger growled, as though it was a personal insult. “Four more months, and it would have been over. We’re going out on the worst disaster in Ark-Hive history.”
We’ve lost people before.”
In attrition and rebellion, not… Not children. Even the Aquans never hit the children.” The Director scowled again. “Wayde and Cora would usually be the ones to write me a speech. Something to… Well, not make it right, but at least get people moving again.”
If those people don’t get moving again when you tell them to, my people will take care of it.” Morgan promised, cool as ice.
Even Bridger did a double-take at that ruthless statement. “Morgan, no offense, but I’m glad you don’t have my job.”
Morgan smiled like a shark. “I don’t want your job, anyway. Six months, and we won’t be here any more.”
As the hours passed, the gathering changed from a Vigil to a Wake.
The Director had been quietly speaking to the rest of the Board, and quietly brought them around to his side. Even Don had offered no argument. Amos was the last one he had to speak to, and Amos would almost certainly be on his side already. “Terrible day.” The Director commented.
Amos nodded. “I have nephew out there myself.”
The Director nodded. “I remember. It was quite a scandal, someone at your level with a sibling.”
We got permission legally.” Amos said, not really interested in hashing it out. “But these people… how hard did they have to fight to get Population Permits? So many of them…”
I know.” The Director said sadly. “All I can tell them is what they already know. We weren’t meant to live like this. That’s why Landfall is so important. So much space and air just… waiting. Drinkable water, falling out of the sky.”
I can’t imagine that.” Amos admitted. “Can’t even picture it.” He turned to The Director. “I must admit to feeling responsible, sir. It seems my people didn’t build those kids a good ship.”
Relax, Amos. Nothing we’ve learned suggests equipment failure. It’s pilot error.” The Director told him. “I worked with Wayde closely for a lot of years. I have no idea why he picked now to diversify his talents, but…”
The PA chimed the hour and the quiet sobbing turned to wailing. Once one parent started bawling, the others couldn’t hold it back any longer.
The Director took a breath and prepared to approach them, when his TABB chimed. “Director Bridger here, go.”
Sir! Something is coming in on Sonar! Bearing 095. Whatever it is, it’s huge!”
The Director looked in the appropriate direction, which happened to be out the Observation Dome, near the crowd holding vigil at the border between the Ark-Hive and the Ocean. The Director wandered over, peering past the people, out into the water, when the Dome suddenly went silent.
They heard whales singing.
Whale Song was never particularly musical or happy. The creatures were just too big. It sounded almost like a dirge for a moment, when someone pointed and let out a shout of disbelief, as the bright lights of the Light Water revealed what was coming.
The first thing visible was the Hydra Hawk, gliding smoothly through the water in the way a more traditional sub never could. Most of the people in the Ark-Hive had heard of the unique ship, but most of them had never seen it in the water before. The natural looking ship glided into view, with a group of dolphins cavorting around it playfully.
An instant later, it was followed by a whole Pod of Whales, each one with a tow cable attached, some by gripping with their mouths, some with loops tied around their huge bodies like a harness. At least four of them towing, two pushing from behind.
They were towing the Cousteau home.
The people assembled were shouting, exclaiming in disbelief. As they got closer, more details were apparent. Each whale had an escort of two trained Dolphins, all of them swimming in perfect formation, adjusting their path when the Cousteau started to tilt or pitch.
The huge humpback in the lead had a small human riding on his back, waving excitedly to the Observation Dome. A few people waved back reflexively; tears streaming down their faces.
The Dolphins slowed, and then, as if they had rehearsed it, took off in different directions, as the whales lowered the damaged sub to the ocean floor in a free spot. The whales dropped their lines, some of them with help from Nix and the dolphin teams, but the whales didn’t leave, staying where they were.
The dolphins swam and spun and wheeled and corkscrewed in front of the Observation Dome like they were putting on a dance, or an acrobatic show; as if saving their children was the most fun thing they had ever done, and they knew they’d done it well.
The Director’s eyes were fixed on the Hydra Hawk, calculating the changes already. When he was told that Cora and Tai were trying to call in, he had his people send the call to the PA directly.
Ark-Hive, this is Hydra Hawk.” Cora’s voice said brightly. “The Cousteau has been salvaged. But their Air’s getting tight, so send breathers out immediately. Dolphin teams standing by to carry them out, and passengers in. No casualties.”
Her words set of a roar of exultation that wouldn’t stop for anything. The Director applauded louder and longer than any of them.
The dolphins had spun into every access hatch they knew, collecting equipment. Training dolphins to take emergency oxygen out to the immediate area was not a new trick for them. In fact, it was one of their most basic duties…
But then the airlock of the Cousteau opened, and the dolphins took the supplies in, and waited. The Whales waited too, hovering over the space between the Cousteau and the Ark-Hive, seemingly concerned for the young passengers inside.
Have you ever seen this before?” The Director heard someone ask. It was a sentiment shared by several people. “Look at them!” “They’re huge!” “I’ve never seen anything like this before.” “They’re acting almost human, aren’t they?” “They saved the kids!” “They’re amazing!” “A dozen subs couldn’t have done that!”
The Director felt his heart give a solid thump, because he knew that much was true. Before that sentiment could spread any further, someone pointed at the Cousteau airlock, and the first passenger coming out.
The Docking Bay!” Someone shouted, and what was a rapt audience suddenly turned into a stampede, rushing through the corridors, heading for the stairs, the elevators, the access tunnels, some of them even heading for the Moon Pools and trying to make a swim for it.
But eventually, the crowd made it through. Stingray saw an oncoming mob and drew their weapons. Morgan and Bridger together were shouting to open the doors and let them into the Docking Bay, trying to prevent a massacre over a misunderstanding, but once the doors were open, there was dead silence, as everyone gathered around the huge Moon Pool, waiting.
There was a flash of movement, and a small face broke the surface with a gasp.
It was Ben.
Shivering, gasping, and being pushed to the ladder by a Dolphin, one kid had made it safely off the Cousteau, and there was a round of applause as the Dolphin made sure he was taken up by the gathered crowd, before diving back down again.
Seconds later, another dolphin emerged, with a little girl hanging on to his harness.
LUCY!” Someone screamed in delight and the girl was hauled out of the water, promptly handed to her mother.
Bring blankets!” The Director shouted to the watching DockRats. “Blankets, hot drinks, food, breathing masks, heat-packs; bring everything!”
Even as he was saying it, another child was brought to the surface. And another. And another.
The wake had transformed into a celebration. A hundred people cheering and applauding and weeping with gratitude as the dolphins brought their lost boys and girls back to their arms.
The last ones to come up were the Hydra Hawk crew. Tai, Nix, and Cora.
There was an eruption of noise and emotion when they climbed out of the water. Cora pulled off her mask as soon as she broke the surface, and turned to give Delphi a peck on the beak. It was an action that caused another round of applause.
Cora came up and found her father waiting for her, arms open, and tears on his smiling face.
Cora returned the hug, but inwardly she was surprised. Her father never reacted this way. Not even when they had privacy. She indulged for a moment and enjoyed it. So much so that she almost didn’t notice Morgan, over near the wall, giving a nod to Randall.
Agent Randall was one of the Ark-Hive’s Stingrays. Morgan kept him close for more unofficial missions. Ones that even the Director didn’t know about. Cora watched over her father’s shoulder as Randall made his way out of the Docking Bay. Nobody else noticed, too caught up in their celebration.
It took hours for the party to stop, but eventually parental instinct won out over public celebration, and the kids were each taken back to their quarters, small and crowded though they were.
Wayde tucked Ben into bed and just… looked at his son for a while.
It wasn’t your fault.” Ben yawned, the day catching up with him.
I know.”
They can’t be really mad. You’ve known the Director for years and years.”
That’s true.” Wayde shushed him. “Now, Fyne, across the hall is going to check on you tomorrow. If you need anything, talk to her... I have to do something at the office.” Wayde coughed a bit. “I… may be some time. Sleep well, okay?”
Okay. Love you, dad.”
Love you.” Wayde whispered, and turned out the light.
He walked out of his quarters without making a sound, or saying a word. He walked to the nearest porthole, and gazed out at the ocean for a while, in no particular hurry.
A soft footstep came up behind him. Wayde didn’t turn to look who it was. “Randall. Just… make it quick.” He said plainly, and shut his eyes, as the black plastic bag went over his head.
The Director returned to his office. All in all, it had gone well, and of the humans involved, his daughter had gotten most of the credit.
The Director received an unmarked note from Morgan, tagged to delete itself as soon as the message was read. It was the way Morgan worked. Bridger brought the message up.
Wayde has been dealt with.
The Director sighed as the message deleted itself. He didn’t like that, but he wasn’t about to let Wayde go unpunished. He worked too closely with the Director to have a near miss so public and so dangerous.
A second message came in a moment later, just like the first.
Nix’s wetsuit was still on the Hydra Hawk from her mission as an apprentice to Cora and her partner. Ben was on that mission too. Why was his wetsuit removed between missions, but not Nix’s?
The Director had no answer to that one, and the implications weren’t pleasant, as the message deleted itself without a trace.
113 Days To Landfall
Two days after the rescue was completed, the pod of whales left the Ark-Hive.
There had been a hundred people requesting clearance to go out and swim with the whales, who had quite happily stayed to join the celebration, so much as they could.
Every single person in the Ark-Hive had seen it happen at some point. A grateful parent would go out to the whale, and the huge creature would receive them gently, before another family came and took their place. The Observation Dome was packed with people watching the whole thing, remarking on how… human the reactions were.
The Hydra Hawk crew had been asked for their opinion on the matter. Cora and Tai were smart enough not to comment. Nix ate up the attention and told the story a dozen times.
The Schedule had been completely disrupted, but the Director was determined to get them all back to work.
Unfortunately, those whales are heroes, and I’m the greedy dictator who won’t even let people see the relics from Caches.” Director Bridger had told his daughter ruefully. “I’m afraid I can only think of one way to get everyone back on side. And that’s to join the party.”
Two days after the rescue, the people in the Observation Dome waved goodbye to the whales as they swam away. The Dolphins escorted them out of the Light Water and came back to keep dancing around the Observation Dome. They’d keep playing as long as someone was willing to watch them.
But then the main entrance doors opened, and in came the Stingray Squad. The crowd froze, having expected this on some level, waiting for the ‘unauthorized party’ to be broken up.
But instead, the squad started rolling in hand carts. Tables, display stands, glass cases… In each one was something unique, something ancient, never seen before. The applause started again, when they came to realize what it was.
The Director stepped into the room as his people set things up, the crowds willingly parting to let them work. He tapped at his TABB and spoke, his voice being amplified for the room. “The Observation Dome is largest public area on the Ark-Hive. In five months, we’ll all be on the surface, with nothing but open space and wide open land to roam. No suits, no breathers, no pressure.”
As he spoke, Cora came in. Her father had left a message that she was to meet him here. She had no idea why, but as people started smiling at her, the pilot-navigator of the Hydra Hawk, she came to realize, as her father made his speech.
Centuries ago, these Caches were dropped, for the simple reason that the ships were desperately needed.” The Director told the crowd. “They needed every hand and every craft they could get, making this place ready in time. The personal effects of the first colonists, the personal belongings of our own ancestors, were sealed up, and left in the ocean.They survived. We’re still finding them, even centuries later, mostly intact.” He paused, waving for his daughter to come stand next to him. “Before the rebellion, it was decided that the Caches, and all relics of the surface should be kept in storage. The last time the Aquan Movement had someone in my job, the surface was all but stricken from the record. It’s a policy that I honestly hadn’t thought to change.” He put an arm around Cora, making sure everyone saw it. “Over the last few days, my daughter, and our resident hero; has made a rather passionate plea on your behalf, that everyone should have the right to enjoy the momentoes of a place that is not only our past… but now, at last, our future as well.”
Cora hadn’t said a word to her father on the subject, but knew to keep smiling, as the crowd applauded and cheered her name again.
The Director smiled broadly. “I’m afraid there aren’t enough relics to go around, not for everyone, but we have enough to open them for display to the general public…” He smiled. “And yes, that includes everyone, from Gold Sector to Grey.”
Another cheer went up.
When you come back tonight, bring your children!” The Director declared. “They should see this too.” He gestured to Cora. “We all have a lot to be grateful for!”
The audience roared again, and Cora felt her heart speed up. Her father was giving her the credit for the biggest PR win he’d ever gotten, and reminding them of the Cousteau at the same time.
The change has been incredible.” Don said in her ear once the ‘Grand Opening’ got started in earnest.
Cora blinked. “What do you mean?”
Don gestured. Over at the tubes, where the fish and working synths swam, the little kids from the rescued Sub were all gathered around, waving up at the fish. Cora looked over to the Moon Pool, where more of them were gathered around, tossing treats to Delphi. The dolphin was lapping up the attention, turning cartwheels for them, playing to the crowd. Cora noticed that the kids weren’t the only ones enthused. Their parents were too. “Well, it’s only fair, I suppose.” She said finally. “The Animals did all the work.”
Every single worried parent, every family friend… Pretty much everyone in the Ark-Hive saw that Submarine getting towed home by Synth-Whales, with you and Tai in the lead, and Nix riding ‘her’ whale the whole way in.” Don declared. “Nothing the Pirate Hacks, nothing the Stingray Commander, nothing the Director himself could say would match up against that image. That’s the thing that’s going to stand out and stay on their minds, long after they forget the danger, long after they forget the fear.”
Cora smiled, glad for it, and her smile suddenly froze. “Oh, Hades… Don, tell me it wasn’t you.” She breathed. “I found… something, wired into the antennae and sonar arrays. The Cousteau could have been rigged, so that Wayde would follow a false beacon, panic…”
Don’t looked innocently at her. “I’m not sure what you’re implying, but do you really think that even if I had the nerve to put so many children at risk, I would actually have the ability to orchestrate the whole situation so completely? I didn’t even know about Nix’s whale.”
Cora made herself relax. “No, I guess not.”
Don left her then. It wasn’t wise for them to be seen together for too long, even on a night where she was the hero of the hour. Cora scanned for her copilot, the only one she could spend the whole night with and not raise any red flags. She found him telling the tale to a group of rapt listeners, and waited until they let him go before she sidled in next to him. “I don’t like how I’m getting so much of the credit.” She said to him quietly. “You and Nix were right there with me.”
Well, Nix was. I was waiting on the Hawk.” Tai reminded her. “Besides, you’re the hero, but you’re not the one getting the credit. That honor goes to the Dolphins and the Whales.”
Couldn’t have worked out better if he’d planned it.” Cora said, low enough that only Tai could hear her.
Which ‘he’?” Tai commented. “Don, or your father?”
My father?” Cora grinned tightly. “He went out of his way to tell everyone that the reason they’re getting what they want was because of me convincing him. We never even spoke about opening a museum.”
Tai nodded. “He knows he can’t take the credit, since he was dead set against opening the Caches to the general population. But if a hero, a real hero, an icon, stood up to him and argued ‘on behalf of her beloved people’? That he could agree to… as long as the hero in question had his name.”
Cora winced. “I just made my father’s name stronger, and made the Whales and Dolphins heroes at the same time.”
If your father wants you to be his successor, he just handed it to you on a plate.” Tai nodded. “What I can’t figure out, is why he’s doing that now. We’re a few months from Landfall. Surely he’ll want the Top Job then.”
Cora glanced around, and whispered warmly in his ear. To anyone else, a romantic embrace. “My father has a new safe in his office. The usual passcodes don’t work. He only put it in a week ago.”
Sounds important.” Tai agreed. “And we don’t have to worry about the Ben/Nix debate anymore. Nix is officially our permanent apprentice. Your father is looking for a new assistant, and Ben is available. With so many people being given full time rotations for Landfall, apprentices are getting accelerated promotions too.”
Where’d Wayde go?”
Nobody’s heard from him since we got the Cousteau back to the Ark-Hive. Black Bag.” Tai murmured in her ear. They both knew what that meant. Brown bags were cloth, and used only as blindfolds while being dragged away. Black Bags were plastic, and used so that your executioner didn’t make a mess when they drilled you straight through the bag right away. “Remember, you should keep whispering in my ear as long as possible. Good for our cover.”
Tai, it’s not cover, we’re really dating.”
Still, best to sell it.” He grinned at her. “Love you, Shells.”
Love you, Stripes.”
112 Days To Landfall
The museum was the most popular place to be on the Ark-Hive, at all times of the night. There were other places, but most of them were empty now. The Green Sector Commons wasn’t the first place Cora looked, but Nix was there. Her new apprentice saw her coming and turned away pointedly.
Cora wasn’t offended. Nix had been declared a hero, like Cora and Tai, but she was still trying to process The Big Secret, and hadn’t decided yet. But it had been a few days, and none of them had been arrested. Which meant Nix was more okay with it that she let on, and it was time for her to declare.
Cora came over, not getting too close, giving the girl her space. Nix said nothing.
"Did you know that Whales teach classes?" Cora said softly. "We always knew that they travelled in pods, and we always knew they sang to each other. But only after centuries of listening to them sing did we figure out what they were saying. Whale song is storytelling. To each other, to dolphins..."
"Are whales sentient?" Nix asked, too amazed to remember she was angry for a moment.
"That's a matter of debate." Cora nodded. "But I believe they are. They died out, we brought them back. There was nobody to remember old songs, or to teach them new songs. They started over from scratch with our help." She let out a breath. "If they are sentient, then we resurrected a dead sentient species and gave them a chance to begin again. And now, my father plans to leave. Write them off as animals and never speak to them again. But we're part of their song now." She reached out and touched Nix for the first time, clasping her hand. "And so are you. You saved one from the nets. That whale sang as he swam away. What do you think he was telling his friends?"
Nix said nothing.
"Nix. You liked it when the whale thanked you for your help." Cora said softly. Once again, it wasn't a question. “You saved the Big Guy, and he came back to help us save Cousteau…”
Long, fragile silence.
"I don't want them to forget me." Nix admitted. "And I don't want to forget them." She took a shuddering breath. "I don't want to leave." She confessed, soft as a psalm. "I don't want to leave the ocean."
"I know exactly what you mean." Cora smiled, and put an arm around Nix, giving her a warm hug. "Welcome to Team Aqua, Nix."