08 Chapter Eight: Fire In Varuna

91 Days To Landfall
Tai was climbing around the Maintenance Tunnels of Green Sector. He was following a map, drawn in hidden marks. Tai’s TABB lit up with a black light, a feature that only Aquans had built in.
At every turn in the tunnels, there was a small arrow, and a love heart drawn. Tai followed with a smile, until he found his way to an intersection, so deep in the tunnels that he had no idea it was there. One tube lead to the left, and he followed it to find a dead end. A small room, big enough to sit up in. But unlike the rest of the tunnel, it was clean, and made nice. There were two floorchairs, a small lantern, and a basket full of food. There was a rolled up mattress, a small music player, a Reader...
Cora sat in one of the chairs, pouring drinks. “Welcome to The Hermit Shell.” She grinned at him.
Tai came in and settled into the other seat. “An exclusive club with only the best company.” He gave her a soft kiss hello and accepted the drink she offered. “I just don’t get why we couldn’t have lunch at the DJ Locker?”
Tai, this is the one spot in the Ark-Hive that nobody knows about. The logs say that the tunnel ends at the last intersection. No people, no monitors, nobody. Not even Don knows about this place.” She kissed him back in return. “You’re the only one I’ve ever brought here.”
I’m honored.” Tai commented, unflappable.
Cora shifted her seat over so she could sit with him. “For weeks, it’s been… well, y’know. When I have to get away from all of it, even away from nice people… It’s something most people don’t have, but I have one place where I know, for a fact, that nobody’s watching or listening. I think people need that. Something we’ll never have in the Ark-Hive.”
Or anywhere else in the ocean, these days.” Tai observed. “But if we only have an hour or two of real… privacy; I’m glad to spend it with you.”
You’re the only one I could share this with.” Cora agreed. “Anyone else would rather defeat the purpose.” She tried to smile for him. “And I know you had other plans for the day, but in fairness, so did all of us.”
Couldn’t be helped.” Tai admitted with a sigh.
The good news is, the record will never be broken now.” Cora offered.
I still can’t believe they cancelled The Games.” Tony complained.
Lisa shushed him. “Hey, next year we’ll have them on the Surface. Who knows what kind of challenges we’ll have in the air? Races over hillsides instead of through corridors? High Jumps?”
High jumps. Pff.” Tony scoffed. “This was gonna be my year!”
Lisa smiled patiently.
Oh, don’t give me that look.” Tony scorned. “I could have done it.”
The freedive record can’t been broken” Lisa said gently. “124 Meters on one breath? Anyone who tried for 125 has barely survived drowning. Speaking for myself, I’m glad to know you’re not gonna drown before we see the surface.”
Cora wasn’t used to it. Every time she walked into Green Sector, she was approached by someone who wanted to shake her hand. Every time she reached an Outpost, she was given a round of applause. Tai and Nix were getting the same. It had been more than two weeks since the Cousteau rescue, and she was still getting the same attention.
Don’t try and make them stop.” Nix asked her plaintively, and Tai had laughed. “I’m serious, I’ve never been popular before, and it seems to agree with me.”
Nix, don’t confuse us of all being adored with people sucking up to Cora.” Tai grinned. “After the last few weeks, there’s nobody left in the ocean that doesn’t think Cora will be the next Director.”
Cora was about to say something when her TABB chimed. “My father wants to see me when we dock.”
It had been entertaining, even encouraging for the first few days, but now, Cora could feel eyes on her every time she came into drydock. Next to her, finishing the docking procedures on the Hydra Hawk, Nix was apparently having the same thought. “It was easier when I didn’t have this big secret.” She whispered to Cora.
Cora almost smiled. Nix, at least, understood the need to keep such conversations private. It was easy to be overheard in the corridors, or in the elevators. But in the Docking Bay, there was no chance of anyone picking up their conversations over the noise of industry.
Landfall was getting closer every day, and the work just became more and more frantic. Rush and disorder were death on submarines, but The Director was determined. His schedule had been altered here and there, but not pushed back by so much as an hour.
People were starting to ask questions, wondering why the date for Landfall was carved in steel. But questions were dangerous things in the Ark-Hive, so they never went anywhere.
Nix walked with Cora for a few minutes until they got to the elevators. Both of them started receiving the messages that had been sent to them while they were out in the ocean. Nix checked hers and winced. “Ben, again.”
Ooh, someone has a crush on you.” Cora sing-songed.
How do I shut him down?”
You don’t.” Cora told her. “Ben’s a good kid. And with Wayde… gone, he’s almost certain to take over as my father’s Assist. He could use the company of a… friend.”
Nix gave her a sideways look. “Is that an order?”
Cora knew Nix was trying not to ask the question. They were getting near the elevators now, which meant they could be recorded. Anyone listening would hear Cora trying to set her apprentice up on a date with an old classmate. Nix was asking if getting close to Ben was her first assignment from the Aquans.
No harm in being friendly, Nix.” Cora said gently as the elevator arrived. “It’s a fact of the Ark-Hive: We’re stuck with each other.”
Nix split off from Cora when they reached The Director’s Office. Ben barely noticed Cora go into the next room, eyes on Nix. “The uniform really suits you.” He stammered out.
Cora shut the door before she could hear Nix’s answer. Some things she wasn’t game to train Nix in.
Her father waved her into the seat opposite his own. “Time to capitalize on your fame. I need you to go out to the Outposts, put a little shark into them. Who needs help, who needs a kick. The only person you have to clear things with is me.”
That include Morgan?” Cora couldn’t help asking.
Morgan kindly lets me run the Ark-Hive, and I let him think he could remove me whenever he wants. As long as Morgan doesn’t want my job, we have a healthy working relationship.” The Director gave her a look. “Something you need to remember, when you run the show.”
Cora shuddered. He wasn’t even pretending it was a question any more.
First stop for you is Outpost Varuna. They’re behind on their regular shipments.” He told her. “It’s an unfortunate consequence of what happened to the Cousteau. The Large subs all double as cargo haulers out on the Dark Water range.” He turned his TABB to show her. “It takes five subs the size of the Hydra to do what a Hauler like the Cousteau could do in one trip. As a result, their runs to the other Outposts are falling behind.”
How badly are they behind schedule?” Cora asked. “And by the way, I’m Resource Management now. Shouldn’t I have that information?”
You do. This is me briefing you.” The Director pointed out.
Cora checked her own TABB. “Dad-”
Not in this room.” He cut her off without looking up from his TABB.
Cora swallowed the sigh. “Director, those five submarines that are needed? They’re only behind because they’re hauling supplies all the way back to the Ark-Hive. A trip to Base is triple the length of trips between Outposts on the Ranges.”
Those submarines are needed in both places, or all the schedules fall apart.” The Director countered. “We can’t leave them stationed on the Deep Range permanently.”
I know. But there is one thing I can suggest. Summon the whales back. They have the towing power of-”
No.” The Director shut that down directly. “Bad enough that they got involved last month.”
Got involved? You mean when they saved dozens of lives?” Cora couldn’t believe it. “Da-Director, if I had told you how we were towing the Cousteau, are you telling me you would have ordered me to let those kids die?”
The Director glared. “Are you under the impression that what those Whales did for the Cousteau was a good thing?”
Cora stared. “Yes?”
Cora, the Cousteau is a complete write-off. That’s what’s causing the current problem with the food shipments.” He spelled it out for her. “To say nothing of what that day meant for you. You may not see this quite like I do, but after the Rescue, about six people came and quietly asked me how you made that work. How does The Director’s own little girl have the capacity to summon a pod of whales as a workforce when-”
No.” She cut him off. “If you’re not my father in this room, then I’m not your ‘little girl’.” She waited for him to acknowledge that, before she fired back. “Six people came to see you? Over a hundred have come to see me and said that they don’t care how I did it, they’re just grateful their kids are safe. You can be mad, or you can be grateful, but you can’t be both.”
Cora, if it was anyone else, there’d be an Inquiry. Why do you think I spun it so hard in your favor? Reminding people whose daughter you were and giving you the credit for saving those lives is what saved you. I’m not calling Morgan and telling him to investigate you. I’m just trying to warn you: Your name is being cheered on right now, but not by everyone.”
Cora looked down. “Director, I know that we’re past the point of ‘overlooking’ things, but… The current workload is getting more than stressful, it’s dangerous! Lighten the schedule.”
I don’t understand why we have to be up there by a certain date. I’m Resource Management. We can support a surface colony, and at least one of the Domes for-”
Under normal usage, but we have no idea what’s up there.” The Director countered. “Seasons and tides are things we have to be aware of on the surface. No human has cared what time of year it was in almost three hundred years. There hasn’t been a time with this many question marks since the Ark-Hive was founded. Our forefathers put everything they could get into this venture, and it took all of that and a lot of improvisation to just make the attempt. They calculated everything we need, and were off by as much as thirty percent. Do I take the same risk with all our lives?”
Cora was about to answer, when the Director’s TABB buzzed. Right on cue, Don.
The Director took the call, and excused himself. There had been a contact from one of the Outposts, and he needed to go to the Communications Room. Anyone else would have to leave the office until he returned. Cora reflected.
The instant his footsteps faded, Cora was up and behind his desk, at the new safe. Her father had over a dozen passwords and combinations. She knew most of them. The safe was small. The kind used for paperwork of keycards, not valuables. The lock was a keypad, not biometric. But the pad had both numbers and letters. The combination could be anything.
She blew through every password she knew, birthdays, everything he’d used before…
Nothing. The safe was a new addition, and apparently the password was something he hadn’t used before.
Six digits.” Cora thought aloud. “Letters and/or numbers…”
Her TABB buzzed. It was Nix, telling her that her father was returning. She quickly cleaned up any trace of what she had been doing and ducked back into her seat… as he walked in. “Anything serious?”
Nothing I didn’t know already.” The Director waved it off. “Those whales had to muscle the Cousteau clear of those caves by brute force. The lines they used to tow it twisted the frame. The interior barely held integrity long enough to get the kids back to the Ark-Hive. That was a really heavy piece of equipment being wrenched around like a Dolphin’s toy. It’ll never work again. Not in any usable hauling capacity. Get over to Varuna, find out what can be done, and make sure the staff are on side. Lately, I’ve gotten the sense from their reports that they’re starting to forget who they work for.”
Cora nodded. “When do I leave?”
They’re refuelling the Hydra Hawk right now.”
On the way.” Cora paused. “Having to go through the Board, then you, then get back to them is starting to cause a delay too. It might be best if I just worked directly with the Outpost Commanders.”
And I bet you’d hate spending all that time away from the Ark-Hive with your co-pilot.” The Director drawled sarcastically, already turning back to his console. “Give Commander Lewis my best. And remind him he’s expendable.”
Cora snorted. “I will.”
I’m starting to think I should just move in here.” Nix yawned. “The passenger seat in the Hawk is still bigger than my rack in Grey Sector.” She leaned back in her seat. “Even has more leg room.”
You can sleep in a minute, apprentice.” Tai grinned over his shoulder at her. “But first, what do you remember?”
Nix yawned. “Varuna Outpost. Breadbasket of the Ranges. Provides 80% of the food crops to the Dark Water Outposts. The Ark-Hive is self-sufficient, but only half our population is there. The Outposts are where the rest of the people live, and it was deemed inefficient for the Ark-Hive to ship food out to them regularly. Far more effective to have a farming colony. Primary sources of food are fisheries, kelp farms, and breeding tanks.”
Good. Now, why are they sending us?”
To get the food shipments back on schedule.”
And how are we meant to do that?” Tai drawled. “Do we have a cargo sub with us?”
Well, no.” Nix admitted.
Right, so we can’t speed things up on the shipping side, and for all my father’s talents, he can’t make plants grow faster or fish spawn more often. So that leaves…”
Production?” Nix guessed. “Can they turn organics into food faster?”
No idea. Find out when we get there.” Tai told her. “That’s our job. That, and to remind Commander Lewis that The Director suddenly remembers where to find him on Radar; and that’s not always a good thing.” He turned and checked his console. “And we’re clear.” He reported. “Nix, if you haven’t figured it out yet, Stingray listening devices only work as far as the Light Water. We can talk freely as long as the Range Light is on.”
Nix said nothing, but her eyes glinted.
He’s quite serious, sweetie.” Cora promised. “If anything Tai and I had said to each other in the Dark Water was audible, at least one of us would have been thrown in Circular Quay years ago.”
No prizes for guessing which one.” Tai said under his breath.
Nix let out a breath she wasn’t aware she was holding. “First time in my life I’ve been out of range of those microphones.” She sounded awed. “I… I have no idea what to say.”
The two more experienced Aquans chuckled.
Oh, actually; there is one thing.” Nix piped up suddenly. “Cora, your father asked me to keep tabs on you and Tai. He had Ben pass me an actual weave-paper note, so that it wouldn’t be recorded.” She bit her lip. “Do you think he suspects something?”
Cora giggled. So did Tai. “Yes, he does. But not what you think.” Cora promised. “He suspects me and Tai of being in love. Which we are. Why he’d want details, I can’t imagine, but don’t worry: We’ll set you up with some notes to give him.”
Nix was still looking at the speakers. “I hate my quarters.” She said to it clearly. “I can’t even stand up in there any more, and I hate that people born in Gold Sector never have to duck.” She leaned back from the Speaker, waiting quietly for a moment.
Cora grinned. “If you need to get it all out of your system, we could park it for a while and let you have the cabin to yourself.”
Nix flushed. “No. I might start getting used to saying what I think out loud. Dark Water is one thing, but it seems like a nasty habit to get into.”
Tai chuckled. “All right, apprentice. Your other briefing. Varuna Outpost is the only Outpost on the Ranges that is completely self-sufficient. Obviously, this makes it of interest to the Aquans. The plans for Landfall include getting everyone out of the Outposts, and taking along anything we might need up there. We’re supposed to find out how much is going, who wants to stay, who’s making noise.”
“And remind them they don’t have a choice.”
Oh, they have a choice.” Cora nodded. “But Tai holds the record at 124 meters; so I don’t like the odds if they choose the alternative.” She checked her console. “Tai, come about to bearing 040. We don’t want to approach the place from this direction.”
Why not?” Nix asked.
You’ll see.”
Varuna Outpost looked like any other Outpost on the Ridges. Curved edges and individual sections, connected by tunnels and pipes, mounted on support beams. But what set this place apart, was the surrounding area.
Nix peered out at the dark water, when Tai hit the sub lights and lit up a whole forest. Towers of green, leafy plant life extended upward in a straight line, planted deep in the sea floor, and reaching up so high that nobody in the Hydra Hawk could see the tops of them.
What are they?” Nix asked, awed.
Kelp.” Cora said simply. “Same stuff you get in the Cafeteria. This is where it comes from. Hundreds of square acres of Kelp, growing and being harvested every day.”
The towers of edible plant life surrounded the Outpost in every direction, making use of every inch of space. There was one corridor of open water, and Tai drove the right down the middle of it, toward the airlock. Nix was glued to the window the whole time. The Outpost was lit up brightly, but little of the light made it past the endless columns of gently waving kelp. In and out out them, she could see divers with dolphin partners, swimming up and down the length of them, choosing sections to harvest with care.
Tai had a firm grip on the helm. Cora did too, eyes constantly moving. “Watch for cross-current. One of the Delivery Subs just left dock, and if they disturb the kelp too much, I don’t want us getting snagged.”
Our rotors? Probably safer than anything the Earthers build.” Tai returned.
Nix checked the warning light automatically. It was still safe to talk. “How free are we to talk in there?”
You don’t.” Cora told her. “We’re a cell group. We know each other, and Don. That’s all. I get missions to talk to others sometimes, but that’s all. The whole Outpost could be Aquans and we wouldn’t know it. As long as we don’t know, we can’t talk.”
The Hydra Hawk docked in Varuna’s Airlock, and Cora immediately climbed around the hull to let Delphi out. The Dolphin swam free of his place on the submarine gratefully, and stretched his tail out. “Delphi swim.”
Do a lap of the Outpost, make friends with the other Dolphin teams.” Cora told him. “Stay close. We’ll go for a swim later, once I’m done meeting with Commander Lewis.”
Keep that thing away from the Harvesters!” A voice called from the other side of the Docking Bay. “Hard enough to meet quota without getting a Dolphin snagged in the rotors!”
That ‘thing’ was instrumental in saving over two dozen children last month!” A voice called back pointedly before Cora could get angry enough to shout it herself. Cora turned to see Commander Lewis coming into the Docking Bay. “Lieutenant Bridger. A pleasure to have you here with us.”
Cora looked around subtly. The one that had shouted about her Dolphin looked askance at her. Commander Lewis had just barely emphasised her name, and telling the whole Docking Bay that her Dolphin was involved with the Cousteau made the situation very clear.
I apologize for the tone Fraser took with you.” Lewis said once he and Cora were alone in his office. “Fraser works the Harvester, and those machines are tempermental, the production line always needs monitoring.” He already had a clipboard with the production statistics on his desk. “We’ve had biologics getting in there and screwing up the work before; and with the Transport Schedule thrown out for weeks…”
I understand.” Cora said. “I wasn’t offended. And if you’ve got those numbers on hand already; then you obviously know why I’m here. The Director wants to know what you’re doing to get us back on schedule.”
Lewis looked at her sideways. “Permission to speak freely?”
You’re confusing me with my father, Lewis. Say what you want to say.”
The Schedule is… borderline impossible.” Lewis said plainly. “With the Cousteau gone, that’s over seventy percent of our shipping manifest just filling up the corridors. I can’t break it up into a dozen smaller shipments, because the subs I’ve got are barely holding together, and the subs from the other Range Outposts are all overworked too. Landfall has doubled everyone’s workload, and with Resources so… expensive, it’s not like we were flush with excess time and equipment before.”
A problem that everyone is having.” Cora admitted. “As much as I hate to say it, you can make up the difference by putting every resource on this, and increasing shift length by three hours each rotation.” She saw the look on his face and pushed through it. “You’d have to delay your second-class duties and-” He reacted again, and this time she called him on it. “Okay. What?”
Second Class Duty is… Well, it’s the only personal time anyone gets.” Lewis explained. “The Ranges are being fed by us, and we can only slow down our workload when we’re performing another duty. One that isn’t as intensive. And if it involves travelling to one of the other Dark Water Outposts, then whoever gets that duty also gets a few hours to sleep or cool off in a Sub, time with other people, away from the Production Line… There’s just so much to do, we have people fighting over the chance to do anything else, just for a little while.”
You didn’t mention this in any of your reports.”
I did, once. Your father responded by declaring our time off to be wasteful, and increasing the Quotas.”
Cora let out a breath between her teeth. “It’s the ocean. We’re surrounded by food.”
Food, yes. Gathering and Production equipment, no. If we can convince people to eat raw kelp, fine. If we want to process it and make it edible first…” Lewis looked exhausted. “We’ve put in petitions for using more Synths, more anything that would reduce the strain on the workers… There’s no Observation Domes here. There’s no Symphonies, or Projectors, or Museums full of Cache Treasures. The people here only have work, and the only time off they have is ‘Second Class Duty’. I tell them that the Ark-Hive has denied them even a few hours where they have to work less hard, I’ll have a riot on my hands.”
The Director mentioned that he’s starting to get the sense that several Dark Water Colonies are having the same reaction. That… shall we say, discipline is starting to wane here.” Cora said with distaste.
Lewis looked outraged. The kind of anger that only came from sudden fear. “I’ll have you know, I’m registered with the Stingray as a certified loyalist of-”
Relax, Lewis. We know you don’t write these reports.” Cora waved it off. “And between you and me, I don’t see how you can drive your guys any harder. However, we don’t have any other choice. With your primary Cargo Submarine declared a write-off, we have to find other ways to feed almost eight thousand people.”
There are nine other Heavy Cargo Subs in the Ocean with the Cousteau’s capacity-”
And all of them are already on assignment.” Cora cut him off. “Before you say anything, I’ve been singing that song for days. But Landfall is apparently inviolate. Everything else is expendable, including food and water.”
Commander Lewis gave the matter some thought. “Well, there are only two options. I can make a large shipment and send one large craft around to all the stops on the Deep Range Circuit.”
Which you don’t have anymore.”
Or I can process the harvested material we already have backing up and combine it with synthetic protein paste.”
And turn the entire food supply for the Dark Water Ranges into emergency rations.” Cora supposed. “High energy emergency rations means the servings aren’t as big.”
If I do that, I can make lots of little shipments and send everyone home with the proverbial ‘food basket’ whenever they come by.” Lewis nodded. “But that means bringing different production lines and different equipment online. Equipment that has been... unmaintained, for some time. The thing about Emergency Rations is that you only make enough of them to cover an emergency.”
Well, this qualifies. The Director won’t be swayed on the date for Landfall, and once that’s over, we can all go back to normal.”
Normal? We won’t even be in the ocean any more.” Lewis snorted. “Lieutenant, the pressure on some of those tanks will go beyond the Red Line even under the best of circumstances and if I have to keep that equipment running around the clock…”
You think it’ll overheat?”
The regulator is under a mile of seawater, and won’t overheat unless a volcano opens up underneath us.” Lewis said. “It’s not the temperature, it’s the pressure. To make smaller shipments fast, I’d have to bring some other Processors online, and they… are offline for a reason.”
What about preserved goods and emergency rations you already have?”
Already gone. We have the capacity to create long-life supplies, but that requires specific chemicals and freon gases, all of which is created at the Ark-Hive. With Landfall so close, those resources have been cancelled. All our preserved food is being reserved for use on the surface, until the Life Sciences Department can create stable surface food supplies. Assuming we don’t find some source of nourishment waiting for us up there.”
Cora nodded. “The whole thing is being carefully timed that way. Raw materials for you to produce food will run out exactly when you run out of customers. Food Drops out at the colonies will stop at the exact moment we don’t need colonies any more. Resource Management.”
Great idea on a spreadsheet, but it means there’s no margin for error. What does The Director intend to do about the inevitable ‘wild cards’?”
He screams at me, then I scream at you, and miracles happen.” Cora gave a long suffering sigh. “Bring your other production lines online. I know it’s a risk, but they only need to work for two months. By then, everyone on the Deep Ranges will be in the Ark-Hive, ready for Landfall.”
I know you hate being ‘bad cop’.” Tai said softly.
Won’t be much longer.” Cora promised and changed the subject. They didn’t get much downtime away from the Ark-Hive, and while the cafeteria wasn’t exactly hidden, they took a moment to enjoy a meal without Morgan or her Father watching. “Ano asked me about you yesterday. She wants to know when she gets to meet you.”
Ano’s met me dozens of times.” Tai teased. “Who do you think told me about your favorite music the first time I made you that mix-list?”
Cora choked on her Kale. “That was years ago. Exactly how long have you been pining over me?”
I object to the term ‘pining’ since it was clearly mutual the whole time.”
Was not.”
Was too.”
Ano wants to have you over for dinner.” Cora got back on topic. “She’s been saving up her ration cards and putting aside bits and pieces from her own personal stores. She wants to make a fuss about my first serious guy, and she’s asked that it be a night when my father will be working, so that she has you in her sinister clutches all night.”
I thought Ano liked me.”
She adores you, but there’s a tradition of tormenting the boyfriend, and with mom gone, and dad… well, if he wants to grill someone, he can have the professionals do it. Ano wants to play ‘mother’ for a little while, and she’s been doing that for ten years, so I…” She smiled impishly at him.
You already said yes.” Tai nodded with a wry grin. “Well, we can’t put it off forever. Family is family, after all.”
Cora said nothing to that, but felt a wave of sympathy for him. His family was Green Sector, so there was never any real chance of siblings. His father’s number had come up in the Lottery years before, once Tai was old enough to be assigned his own Quarters and assignments. After moving out of his father’s quarters, his father’s name had gone into The Lottery with the other Empty Nest parents, and now her beloved Tai had no family left.
Gold Sector can have family. She thought quietly. If my mom hadn’t died, I could have siblings right now. I have Ano and Don. Tai never had anyone who he could pretend was his family.
You look sad now.” Tai observed.
Cora came around the table between them and took his face between her hands, kissing him soundly. “Love you, Stripes.”
Love you, Shells.” Tai responded automatically, touched.
And Nix, she loves you too. Not like I do, but as a big brother at least, and Don…” Cora trailed off. He was giving her one of those smiles again. “Sorry.”
No, please continue.” He teased and kissed her chin. He pulled back and looked at her worried face. “What? What is this for? What’s wrong?”
Cora looked down, a little embarrassed. “I just realized… I mean, you never told me all that time, because you figured we wouldn’t have a shot. Gold Sector being matched with Green Sector? Can’t work for long. If it wasn’t for my mom, we never would have met, would we?”
Likely.” Tai admitted. “But either we make Landfall, or we pull off the Exodus. Either way, we can change those rules, since we won’t be…” Tai was smiling softly for her, pulling her in closer. “We could actually get to keep each other, Shells.”
We could.” Cora smiled, and hugged him tight. “So don’t get killed?”
You either.” Tai smiled and hugged her tighter. “Nix is watching us.”
Cora broke the hug and waved their apprentice over. “What’s the word?”
Between the Scheduling problems back at Base, travel time to the Ark-Hive, and the Docking schedules there, we’d be better off sleeping here tonight.” Nix reported. “I already spoke with their Ops Manager, and he’s got a room for us. It’s not comfortable, but it’s the only room left with a hatch and a bunk.”
The two pilots nodded, yawning. It had been a long drive to be sure.
I’ve already checked the room. There’s only one bunk. So I’ll bed down in the Hydra Hawk.” Nix smiled secretly at the two of them. “See you both in the morning.”
She was gone before either of them could figure out what to say to that.
I think she means that in the sweetest possible way.” Cora offered finally.
Tai laughed.
90 Days To Landfall
Cora woke up suddenly. She was alone, and all the lights were out, so the room was nearly pitch black. In fact, there was no light from the porthole either. In an unfamiliar room, it took Cora a few minutes to shake off sleep and figure out where she was.
Why are the lights out?” She thought aloud. Her TABB provided some light, and she scanned the small room. Her timer said it was 0400. “But the lights outside should be on.” Cora said to herself. “The Kelp Forest has people working on the night shift too… There should be lights out there.”
And then the room shook, just for an instant.
Cora was full awake instantly. Something was happening. Something bad. She tapped at her TABB. “Bridger to Ops.” There was no answer. Cora worked the frequency finder. “Bridger to anyone in range, come back?”
I’m here!” Nix’s voice answered, but Cora could barely make it out. “Talk fast, I can’t keep a signal up for more than a few-” The rest was lost to static for several seconds. “-cking bay is full of smoke! I ca-”
Smoke. Cora thought archly. Smoke means fire.
Fire was the greatest terror of any Outpost or Submarine. Contained in a small, pressurized environment, it would spread death quickly and leave nothing behind to rebuild. Every Outpost had alarms and backups to warn the entire Outpost immediately. But Cora hadn’t heard anything. No alarms, not even lights…
She swiftly understood. “The power! The power is out! Fire in the generator rooms!”
Cora came out of her room and ran for the generators. The Range Outposts were designed with the working equipment centralized, and the living spaces around them. If the fire was big enough to cut the power, and burn out the backups; then it must have spread already.
There was no smoke in the corridor, and the emergency chemical lights were giving enough glow to see by. People were waking up, the shuddering in the walls getting their attention.
Fire!” Cora shouted at them. “All hands to duty stations! Fire in the generator rooms!”
A few started running with her, and after a moment she let them take the lead. They knew the place far better than she did.
The Generator rooms were in the central section of the Outpost. There were three ways in. Cora ran to the nearest one, and found Tai was already there in a Breather, dragging someone out of the Generator Room.
She was so relieved to see him she nearly pounced, but held herself back just in time. There were no doubt going to be a lot of questions asked, and she didn’t want anyone reporting that she apparently had no idea where he was in the leadup to the fire. As half a dozen men in fireproof gear went running into the room, she found Commander Lewis. “What happened?!” She demanded of him.
Electrics overloaded.” Lewis growled. “Apparently the load on regulator was too high.”
Exactly what he was worried about. Cora thought grimly. “Anyone else in there?”
Two more.” Tai told her, about to go back in. Cora grabbed him and checked his hands. He’d been burned, but not very badly.
Tai, this is their Outpost, they’ve got people for this.” Cora told him.
My people are scattered all over the complex.” Lewis told her. “The fire is in the works. They’re trying madly to stop the smoke from asphyxiating the whole crew. They’re pulling the electrics before the entire outpost goes up in flames. They’re sealing every hatch before-”
Aren’t there redundancies and backups for this sort... of... thing.” Cora’s voice faltered. She knew the answer to that. The backup parts were all being used. Resource Management had determined that extra parts were unnecessary.
I did this. Cora thought bleakly. Or at least, I helped.
She took Tai’s breather. “Get those hands fixed.” She told him. “How long left on this?”
Another ten minutes of air.” Tai didn’t bother arguing. He knew she’d made up her mind. “Two of them, on the lower level. Hoses are on the left of the hatch. Cora… Don’t be crazy?”
Cora squeezed his hand. He knew her too well. She was feeling guilty enough to run into a burning module, but she was staying calm. Lewis was also pulling a breather on. Cora didn’t try to talk him out of it.
We get those guys out, and we can breach the Halon System.” Lewis told her. “If the vents don’t let us do it, we can just break open the tanks. It’ll smother the flames, and anyone without a breather.”
Then we better get them out!” Cora shouted to him over the growing roar of the fire. “Tai, seal the hatch behind us. We’ve got air, and there’s no sense feeding the flames more than we have to.”
Cora had been trained in fire suppression. All pilots were, as well as most people over the age of twelve. Fire was something that everyone had to know how to fight. Minutes counted in an underwater fire. Cora had heard once that the Air-Mix they breathed was different to the atmosphere on the surface, and burned at a different velocity.
She had been given the tour of the Generator Room earlier in the day. It looked nothing like that now. Thick clouds of smoke filled every inch that wasn’t covered in sheets of flame. Cora’s Taqs compensated, the way they did with the Dark Water, but it only helped a little.
Cora stayed low. Commander Lewis kept his hand on her back all the way so they wouldn’t lose each other.
Comms are down, but my people were fighting the fire from the other side of the Module at last report!” He shouted to her over the roar of the flame. “Your man said the two were on the lower level!”
Which is good, because I don’t think we’d be able to find our way up.” Cora shouted back, as she found the hose. “Let’s do this!”
The water was being fed from the ocean, and the pressure was enormous. It took both of them to point the water where it was needed, but they started gaining ground at last. They went deeper, and Cora noticed other teams heading towards her, also with hoses. They made their way toward the middle of the room…
And found Fraser, also wearing a breather, trying to lever a hunk of burning debris off his friend. Lewis left the hose to Cora and hurried over to help him. “About time!” Fraser yelled at them. “Get Baz outta here.” He was already back at the control panel. “Commander, the fire is shorting out the regulator!”
We knew that!” Lewis was hoisting his wounded man up in a fireman’s carry as someone gave him oxygen.
No, not the Production Line Regulator, the Hydraulic one!” Fraser told him.
Lewis looked horrified. “But if the fire has shorted out the Hydraulics, then the pressure on the support struts might be in jeopardy!” Lewis told Cora. “With everything burning hollow and the water sloshing back and forth… If the weight shifts around too much-”
There was a sudden creaking noise, deep enough that Cora felt it in the pit of her stomach, loud enough that it carried over the din. All of them looked up at the walls, waiting for them to cave in. “Too late.” Fraser sighed, as though such things happened every day.
EVERYONE OUT!” Lewis roared. “Seal the hatches! Seal everything! Evacuate!”
Cora caught Fraser’s hand, tossed aside her hose and ran for the hatch, when the floor suddenly shifted beneath her feet. She was sent wheeling, facedown in icy water. She fought to get upright, caught the barest glimpse of the hatch. Lewis was through, holding the door open for her. He dared not come back into the room…
And then the ocean came pouring in through the wall around the hatch, and Cora could see Lewis realize it.
NO!” Fraser screeched behind Cora as Lewis slammed the hatch shut, sealing off the next section, with them on the wrong side of the door. Fraser barely had time to let out a cry before the section lurched again, and the ocean came pouring in.
Think. Cora told herself. If the hull had ruptured, it would have imploded instantly, and they’d both be dead already. But instead, it was filling up with water. Icy cold ocean water, barely a degree above freezing solid. The seals around the hatch had torn away, but if the hull hadn’t imploded…
The foundations!” Cora shouted to Fraser. “The support struts of this section are failing! Crash positions! Grab onto something!” She tapped at her TABB, the water waist high now. “Nix! Bring the Hydra Hawk!”
WHAT?!” The answer came, barely audible over the static. “I can’t drive this thing!”
There was another creaking noise, like someone was tearing the world apart…
...and the whole world pitched sideways. Cora felt the water leave the floor, felt the floor jump up and slap her, felt the water crash down again. Something else hit her, and she felt seawater against her lips. The breathing mask was broken, the hose torn.
Fraser pulled her up just long enough to grab another breath as the water sloshed back, slapping them off their feet again. There was a loud bang as the room suddenly stopped spinning around them. The place was wrecked, all jagged metal and destroyed machinery.
The torn section of the hull was now sideways, water still flooding in. Air pressure kept almost ten feet from flooding, but the waters were still rising, the hull leaking in a dozen places after the impact.
Fraser was gasping beside her, turning blue. “Well…” He coughed. “F-fire’s out.”
Cora wasn’t faring much better. The water was cold enough that she could feel it stabbing into her like a thousand knives all over her body. Cora wanted to scream, but had to save her air, even as her limbs betrayed her and her hands went numb. “W-w-we Have t-t-to get-t-t out!” Cora said to him. “My breather’s scrapped. How’s y-y-yours?”
Fraser checked. “It’s okay, but-t-t it’s nearly empty.”
Cora checked the gauge. There was enough to get one of them all the way there, or both of them halfway. “124 meters.” She whispered to herself. “T-Today’s a good day to break the rec-c-c-rd.”
Fraser had apparently read her mind. “Go. Take it. You’re the Director’s Daughter. My life ain’t worth spit if I don’t save you.”
What are you worried about, Fraser? The cold will kill us both before we get halfway to the Docking Bay.” Cora stuttered out. “We dive, go for the break in the hull, then make speed for the-”
A long beak poked up from the water between them. A familiar dolphin, carrying a small pack on his harness. Cora recognized her suit, folded and secured, as Delphi clicked and whistled. “Cora! No Suit.”
You n-noticed.” Cora let out a breath. “Delphi, hurry! We gotta get out of the water before we freeze!”
The water broke again, and Tai came up, wearing his suit. “Oh, thank mercy.” He said when he saw her. “Are you alright?”
D-Do I look alright?” Cora was already trying to get her suit unpacked with fingers that wouldn’t move. “Tai, this is Fraser. He doesn’t have a heat-pack-k, he doesn’t have a suit, and his Air-Mix has just enough to get him to safety if Delphi tows him.”
Delphi go!” The Dolphin said immediately, and Fraser gripped the harness.
The second they were alone, Cora let out a short scream. “Tai, this is really freakin’ cold and I can’t-t make my fingers work!”
Tai immediately got to work helping her get into the suit. “When the module broke off and fell, I thought for sure…”
When I woke up and you weren’t there, I thought the same.” Cora said as they both kept treading the rising water. “I thought we agreed we were gonna keep each other forever. We agreed that just last night, in fact.”
Tai could barely get the wetsuit on her trembling body. “I remember.”
Cora was no help, having trouble moving her limbs. “Tai, I’m not as cold anymore… I’m going hypothermic. Hurry.”
Tai gave up. “This isn’t working. It’s hard enough to get into one of these things without it and you being soaking wet.” He sent a glance upward. The chamber was almost full of water.
Just get the torso piece on, and fire up the heat!” Cora croaked, lips now solid blue. “I would honestly prefer to suffocate!”
Tai did so, and Cora let out a scream again. The heating elements in her wetsuit were in such contrast to the water that she felt like someone was branding her. She twisted herself in a knot trying to hold on, and Tai pulled her face mask over her, just as her head bumped against the ceiling.
Delphi returned then, whistling. “Cora! Help Cora!”
Delphi got them to the Hydra Hawk. Nix was in the pilot's seat, white-knuckled grip on the controls. Tai took over and guided them away from the Kelp Farm. The ‘forest’ was tangled and being torn up by the sudden collapse of whole modules of the outpost.
The water was full of escape pods, and other submarines, all of them evacuating. Cora could see huge bubbles exploding out of the open sections.
Can they get a handle on it before the whole thing comes apart?” Nix asked, rubbing some warmth into Cora’s arms.
I don’t know.” Cora croaked. “But either way, food production is shut down. Tell Lewis we’re alive, and get us back to the Ark-Hive. I have to brief my dad.”
So… what happened?”
Exactly what he said would happen.” Cora wrapped her fingers gratefully around the hot drink. The cold had left her bones on the trip, but the memory of it was still intense. “The equipment that should never have been used overheated, and the replacement parts and backup generators were already packed because the Recall order is less than two months away, and they weren’t equipped to increase output and lower preparation at the same time. Behold the result.”
How long to get back on schedule?” The Director asked.
Cora swatted him. She was the only one alive that was able to do so. “People are dying over there, dad.”
And I don’t mean to seem unfeeling, but there’s a much larger issue here.”
The ‘larger issue’ is a joke!” Cora scorned.
You’re upset, so I’m going to pretend you didn’t say that.” The Director glared at her. “We’re talking about your future. That’s no joke.”
I’ve run the numbers eight times. We can lighten the schedule! Do it in stages! A Surface colony can live, and live damn well off the ocean for generations; we’ve been doing it all this time. Leave one or two Domes behind after Landfall, and the Ark-Hive can live long and sustainable with less people and less equipment. Especially if you get off your high horse and use the Synths. We can have it both ways, if you lighten the damn schedule!”
And we could have ended the rebellion six months earlier if we’d just given the Aquans everything they wanted.” He fired back. “Some things you just do not compromise on. Some people you do not shake hands with.”
How is this the same thing?!”
Trust me, it is.” The Director told her. “To do what you suggest would mean to leave half our population behind for a year, maybe more.”
So what?! After centuries in the ocean, that’s a dealbreaker?” Cora demanded. “What am I missing?! I’m serious! What’s the hurry?!”
And finally, The Director gave her an answer. “You are!”
The words hung in the air for a long moment. “I am?” Cora repeated, confused. “I don’t understand.”
With a sigh, her father turned his chair around to the new safe. Cora’s eyes flashed, but he put his body between her and the keypad. She strained her ears to listen as he punched in the code. Six digits. Letters or numbers?
She got a quick look inside the safe when he opened it. He pulled out one file. There were a dozen others left inside. The safe was closed instantly, and Cora made herself focus on the conversation.
Her father pushed the file to her, and told her what was in it while she looked. “Did you never wonder why I haven’t left the Ark-Hive in years? It’s Weir Syndrome.”
Cora set her jaw. Weir Syndrome was named for the first man in the Ark-Hive to suffer from it. Compression sickness that crept up by inches. Cora and Tai had both been checked for it after getting back from the Decompression Chamber. It was the unspoken fear of many of the Deep Sea crews; because it was hard to spot, and came on slowly.
It was always fatal.
Dad?” Cora croaked.
Hey.” He gave her a sharp look. “Clear eyes, daughter. I always knew I wasn’t going to see the surface myself. If I even tried going that shallow I’d… well let’s say it, boil from the inside. But I still have time. Time enough, anyway. When the Board finds out I won’t be going to the surface personally, they will come like sharks. I have to have my legacy in place, and a change of power completed before anyone knows there’s any question.”
Me.” Cora said quietly.
You.” The Director agreed. “It’s been assumed that you’d take over from me sooner or later. And you’ve got lots of appeal as a candidate. You’re a hero after the Cousteau, you’re already on a first name basis with most of the Outpost Commanders and Department Heads…” The Director let out a breath. “But when humanity reaches the surface, all the rules change. I need an established fact. You need to be running the place before you leave.”
Cora’s eyes felt hot, but it took her a moment to realize she was crying. The words on the file were blurring. The medical report was saying the same thing.
The Director came around the desk and lifted her chin gently. “Hey. Don’t weep for me, daughter. I always knew that I wouldn’t make it up there. Every generation to live in the Ark-Hive before you has known the same.” His voice changed, becoming more personal and gentle than she could ever remember it being. “Cora, I know I haven’t been the best father. Your mother was always better with you than I was. But there are four hundred years of your ancestors all working toward the same goal. And you, my wonderful, brilliant daughter, will fulfill centuries of work, all toward that one dream: To take us all home.” He smiled broadly at her. “And not only will I live to see you be part of the generation that finally goes back to the surface… I get to watch as you lead them there.”
Cora stared, shellshocked.
To give you that, I will do anything.” The Director said gently, hugging her close. “I worked so hard, and it will all be worth it. They’ll write history books about you, Cora Bridger. You’ll be the first Director in the history of the Ark-Hive to be more than just a ‘caretaker’ for the human race. I’m so proud of you, Cora.”
It was too much. The secrets she kept, her own plans for the future, the revelation of her father’s illness, the weight of the surface, and the future… Her father’s approval was the final straw, and she broke down sobbing on his shoulder.