Saturday, 24 March 2018

09 Chapter Nine: Hunger



89 Days To Landfall
~~/*\~~
The Board Meeting was tense as Cora briefed the rest of the Leadership on the situation. “With the Production and Processing permanently wrecked, our Outposts are no longer facing a shipping problem. Their food capacity is now at less than a third of what they need to survive.”
That’s more than nine thousand people.” Amos declared darkly.
Don nodded. “Our best projections say that we can keep everyone fed for another four weeks, at most. Two weeks before it becomes a problem, medically.”
The Director let out a breath. “All right. I’m issuing an executive order that all Outposts beyond the Light Water are to go on immediate rationing.”
What about the Ark-Hive?”
Unnecessary. We have huge stores and our own food comes from an entirely different source than the Outposts on the Ranges.” The Director dismissed instantly. “Cora, Amos, put your heads together and come up with a schedule that will allow the Ark-Hive to supplement their food supply from our stores.”
I’ve been running the numbers most of the night.” Cora yawned. “There’s no way that will help anything. Not for long. Another week at most. Three weeks if we go on rationing too.”
No. That’ll put us even further behind schedule on Landfall.” The Director scowled. “Hades, I’ve never known a run of bad luck like this.”
~~/*\~~
What did they come up with?” Tai asked as they sat together in The Hermit Shell
Nothing useful.” Cora admitted. “The Board likes to waste Air-Mix, make themselves feel like they’re achieving something. But that’s not what I wanted you to know. Tell Don that I found out what the new safe in my father’s office was for. Medical Records. Specifically, his own.”
Your father? He is… unwell?”
No, he’s not unwell. He’s dying.” Cora said plainly. There. I was able to say it out loud and the world didn’t fall on me. “The thing is, I’m absolutely positive he was hiding something more.” Cora said quietly. “There were a lot more files in the safe and-”
She was interrupted by the feel of his arms going around her. The hiding place was cramped, but she settled into him gratefully, suddenly feeling like there was more air in her lungs.
Are you okay?” He asked her, lips against her hair.
She actually smiled a bit, eyes tearing up again. “It’s funny. I always knew that if the Exodus worked, I’d never see him again. I’ve spent years and years getting myself into a mental place where I can handle losing him. I feel bad that I don’t feel worse.” She sighed. “Except…”
Except he didn’t answer the question.” Tai nodded. “His illness is why you have to be on the surface, and in charge by the schedule he’s set, but why does the whole human race have to go with you?”
I don’t know.” Cora admitted. “Does it bother you that we have exactly one place in the world where we can speak privately, and we always seem to spend the time talking about my father?”
Not your father. Your family. And his plans.” Tai grinned. “And our plans. And how our plans affect his plans, and how his plans affect our plans concerning his plans…”
Cora chuckled. “Mm. Oh, and speaking of my family and plans...”
Dinner with Ano?” Tai nodded. “I imagine it’s not going to get any less busy.”
Tonight then.” Cora agreed. “One day we’ll be done with all this, Tai. I’ll miss Ano like crazy, but one day it’ll just be us and the ocean, and clear water all the way ahead of us for life.”
Sounds wonderful.” Tai agreed. “It’s why I joined the Aquans, you know? The Earthers, like Amos and your father? They spend their lives trying to wrestle the ocean into giving them what they need. They don’t understand that you can never win a wrestling match with the oceans. And you don’t have to. What I loved about the Aquan team is that they… didn’t need as much. As much equipment, as much power, as much garbage, as much… anything. They just accept what’s already down here. Coral, cave, fish, Dolphin… A million times easier than Domes, Processor, Submarine… All those machines are a waste, because the Ocean always wins.”
The ocean always wins.” Cora agreed. “I think that’s what I love about it most. It’s just… everything.” She leaned up and kissed his chin. “You’re the only one to feel that way as much as I do. As much as my mom did. Love you, Stripes.”
Love you, Shells.”
~~/*\~~
The door chimed.
You’ll be nice.” Cora said to Ano, as she went to answer it. It was not a question.
I will be.” Ano promised.
Tai came in. He’d made an effort, having scrubbed up his uniform; changed his hair to be a bit neater. He’d never taken the effort before.
You can’t impress me.” Ano told him, by way of greeting.
Never thought that I could, but if I make an effort, you have to.” Tai shot back.
Ano laughed at that, and the mood relaxed. She hugged him close and lead them over to the table. “Sit, sit.” She told them. “Tonight we have wakame noodles, battered and served with Pickled Octopus filet, and cream sauce. I pulled a few strings in the aeroponics bay, got us some actual strawberries to go with dessert, which is an Asakusa Nori jelly.”
Tai’s eyes boggled, and Cora felt her heartrate tick over. Tai was used to eating processed seaweed packs. This kind of luxury was exclusive to Gold Sector, and even then, only in extreme cases. Ano was an excellent cook, but neither Cora or her father ever really bothered to sit and linger over a meal when there was so much to do. “Here, Tai.” She rushed him past that point. “Sit by me.”
So, you must be getting excited.” Ano said knowingly as they sat down.
Tai flushed. “Ano!”
The older woman scoffed. “Not like that. What I mean is, you must be excited about Landfall. It’s the perfect solution for you. Tai, I’ve noticed Rhea has accessed your File a few times, at the Public Terminals.”
Cora looked over at Tai sharply. “Rhea? From your old class?”
Tai sank into his seat. “I heard something like that, yes. She’s Blue Sector. A Pilot from Green Sector is… Well, a good match, rations wise. She can provide a higher priority for medical rations, Green Sector means better quarters.”
Cora was gobsmacked. “You never mentioned this.”
Why should he? The match won’t happen.” Ano said warmly. “Landfall in a few months. If it goes well, those kinds of matches won’t be important anymore. You two might actually have a shot.” She gave Tai a firm look. “You don’t really think you’ll be dumping The Director’s Daughter for anyone better, do you?”
Ano.” Cora warned.
I don’t believe there is anyone better.” Tai said simply. “Anywhere.”
Tai kept glancing at the table. Cora understood why. Ano had served a meal with such casual luxury, and Tai was having a harder time with that than he would a savage beating.
I was nice of you to do this.” Tai said finally.
Well, I thought it was long past time.”
Ano, we’ve met before, several times.” Tai reminded her.
True, but that was when you were Meyrna’s Apprentice. The rules have changed now, somewhat.”
Tai chuckled. “Not that much. I remember a few people had some things to say on Meyrna adopting a kid out of Green Sector.” He sent Cora a glance. “Maybe the Bridger women have a weakness for me.”
Cora was about to say something when her TABB chimed. She checked the screen. It was Nix. “I should take this.” She stood up, and gave Ano a pleading look. Be nice? Ano just smiled at her.
Cora didn’t go to her room to take the call. She snuck to the door to her quarters and opened the hatch as smoothly as possible. Nix was there. “I went to Ben. He tells me that the number of people who can access a medical report for The Director is less than five.”
And I’m not in the loop, so the number is lower than that. Cora thought. “Good work.”
One more thing. Ben didn’t look that number up.” Nix reported. “He tried, to impress me with his new access, but there’s a new password on the medical logs. He swears it wasn’t there when his father was doing the job.”
The other files in my father’s new safe. Cora thought. “What does Ben think about his father?”
Nix’s face grew colder. “It’s not like he’s the first one to have a family member Bagged. Everyone below Blue Sector knows what it’s like.”
But I don’t. Cora thought distantly. Because I’m Gold Level. Stingray barely notice me.
It was another candid reminder that there was always a wall between her and the people she cared about. Nix made her goodbyes and Cora hurried back to the dinner table, mindful of making sure Tai and Ano didn’t fight.
But when she got back to the table, she found they were laughing and talking like old friends. She had apparently walked in mid-story. Ano was smiling wider than Cora had seen her do in years. “...wearing those dolphin onesie pyjamas! It was all we could do to keep her from diving straight into the Moon Pool. Meyrna didn’t have the heart to tell her she wasn’t a real dolphin just because she was dressed like one!”
Tai was laughing himself sick. “Oh, I wish I could have seen that.”
Oh! I have pictures!” Ano said eagerly. “Meyrna saved a box of baby things. Cora’s first tooth, first stuffed toy, first drawing-”
Tai beamed, just as Cora elbowed him hard. “Would it have killed you to be a little less nice?” She hissed at Ano.
~~/*\~~
82 Days To Landfall
~~/*\~~
Every Dome in the Ark-Hive had a cafeteria. Gold Sector Quarters had their own kitchenettes. Cora made a point of eating with the other pilots when she could, but word was getting out about the food shortages on the Outposts. Most everyone here knew that she had her own gourmet food, and everyone knew people who lived in the Dark Water, going hungry. This was not the time for making a principled stand by lining up with a food tray like everyone else.
The Rationing hadn’t reached the Ark-Hive yet, but every pilot she knew was sneaking some of their food off their trays and wrapping it to take to friends while on assignment. All of Cora’s friends on the Ranges were other Aquans, and there was no chance she could take them food. She had to pretend she barely knew them.
So, unable to eat with her co-workers, and unable to help her friends, Cora waited out the lunch rush with the only person left she could talk to, sitting on the edge of the Moon Pool at the Observation Deck. Delphi came up to join her. “Cora Sad.” He squeaked.
Been a long week.” Cora admitted, reaching out a hand to rest on his grey skin. “I’m sorry we haven’t swum together for a while. Things are happening fast now.”
Swim now?” Delphi clicked. “Make Cora feel better.”
It always does.” Cora agreed. “But I have to drive out to the Ranges first. I just wanted to check in with my best bud. How have you been?”
Dolphins hunt. Find food. Humans stop feeding.” Delphi reported. “Humans scared. Hungry. Great Ones call Delphi. Great Ones show us where fish run. Dolphins eat. Humans need fish?”
Humans have fish.” Cora smiled. “Those fisheries where we spawn them? We have fish. We just… can’t get enough of them where they all need to be.”
Dolphins help.” Delphi ducked under the water and swam away.
Cora sighed. Landfall was getting closer, and if their plans didn’t work, she’d never see Delphi again. She wasn’t getting to spend any time with her friend before risking a goodbye.
You’ll have your whole life once you manage the Exodus. She reminded herself. Everything else is temporary. Three months. A person can hang by their wrists for three months.
~~/*\~~
79 Days To Landfall
~~/*\~~
Resources were everything in the Ark-Hive. Especially the essential ones like food and drinking water. Nobody had much excess. Calories and vitamins were all calculated, and portions served appropriately. As a result, extra food was unusual at the best of times. Enough to keep people healthy, few snacks. Snacks were rewards and perks.
With the Outposts on Rationing, the people already concerned about being marginalized and ignored by the leaders of the Ark-Hive grew quietly furious. With rationing unnecessary on the Ark-Hive, not much changed for the people closer to where Cora lived. As days passed, Cora delivered food from the storehouses out to the Ranges, and saw the people there staring at her with eyes that grew hungrier and more envious with each passing day.
~~/*\~~
Time to arrival?” Cora asked quietly.
Another hour.” Tai checked. “I’ll call ahead, tell them to have guards ready at the Docking Bay.”
Tell them to move quietly. I don’t want armed Stingray hanging around the airlock for too long. Everyone will know we’re coming.”
It’s getting like that, isn’t it?” Tai nodded grimly. “Last time we were at Cameron Outpost, my ‘friends’ there put me against a wall and flat out begged me for food. Another week of this, and the Ark-Hive will have to go on rationing too, just to prevent riots from breaking out in the Outposts.”
What does that mean for us?” Nix asked from behind them. “For the Aquans, I mean?” The fear was apparent in her voice.
Tai and Cora traded a look. “Want to bring her inside?”
Yeah, why not?” Cora grinned. “You go with her. I’ve got paperwork to finish. Resource Management, y’know?”
~~/*\~~
Rookie, you good?”
She sealed the Dive Hatch shut behind them, and Nix checked her Breather again. “I’m good. First time we’ve gone EVA without Cora or Delphi.” Nix grinned, checking his position with her suit lights.
I don’t bite.” Tai chuckled. “And turn off those suit lights. You wanna live in the Dark Water, you have to be comfortable with night diving. Below the Euphotic Zone, we get no natural light from above. It takes a fair amount of work making the ocean provide light, so you gotta know how to move in the dark.”
Nix switched off her lights. Light from the luminous plants was distant, but the plants didn’t move, and Nix was able to orient herself, find a direction. Sound moved fast in the water, and between her ears and her TABB, she was able to follow his movements as he headed for the sea floor.
Y’know, we haven’t really spoken, since you found out The Big Secret.” He said as they swam away from the Hydra Hawk.
Nix shivered. “When I found out, I wanted so badly to be scared of you, Tai. It would have been easy to turn you in and let them shoot you, then.”
Man, if I had a ration card for every time a girl said that to me.” Tai drawled. “Okay, so you’re worried about the food shortage. I assume Cora let you in on the plan for Exodus.”
Right, and I don’t see how it could work.” Nix admitted. “The schedule is so tight, how could we ever hope to just… sneak away with enough submarines and equipment to leave it all behind?”
Nix, you’ve been running with us enough to know that the problem isn’t equipment, it’s policy. We could build outposts out of stone and coral that would stay strong as steel for centuries. We can grow luminous plants and fishes and minerals enough that we don’t even need the UV lanterns, thanks to our vitamin diets. We can have trained Synth’s towing more cargo than our own cargo subs can, and they can do it for generations, because all of them can multiply on their own.” Tai told her. “The reason we don’t have it now is because The Director is so hellbent on getting us back to the Surface, as has everyone in his job, for longer than we’ve been alive. Anyone who suggests these solutions gets noticed by Morgan. Trust me, leaving is the hard part, staying away will be easy.”
Even with the famine? People are ready to riot over non-toxic seaweed. We’re running out the clock on Landfall, and our people need to eat too.”
As if to answer her, Tai turned on his suit lights again… And a forest of plant life lit up in front of them.
WHAT!?” Nix burst out laughing.
It’s called Dwarf Kelp. It grows as much as the regular stuff, only it branches outward instead of growing straight upwards like the regular farms do. It means we can produce as much food as a Kelp Farm and do it in half the space. Without synthing it with the bioluminescence like we do in other workspaces, it doesn’t glow, so you could swim right past it and never know it was here.” Tai explained.
How on earth did you pull this off?”
It’s something they put together early on.” Tai explained. “Back when ‘Ocean Solutions’ wasn’t a dirty word. The early Aquans seeded a lot more of this stuff. When the rules changed and we realized we were going to have to go into hiding, our early leaders let the Ark-Hive think it had died out on its own.”
Nix was silent for a long moment. “How much more?”
I know what you’re thinking.” Tai sighed. “Cora’s already said the same.”
We could end the Food Shortage if we told people.”
So could The Director if he put his people out in the water and told them to follow the animals. They have to eat too. Cora’s suggested using Ocean Solutions at every step of the Landfall Process to lighten the schedule, ease the resource drain... and he’s shut her down at every step. Convinced they’re not ‘reliable’.” He let out a breath, sending a stream of bubbles up. “Nix, the Ocean is the most dependable thing that there’s ever been.”
Nix ran her fingertips across the plants. A funny looking fish peeked out from between the leaves at her, and retreated. “What do you mean, dependable? Down in Grey Sector, everyone’s afraid of it. The slightest creaking noise and everyone cowers.”
I did too, my first time out.” Tai grinned. “You saw how Ben’s first Dark Water dive went. Did I ever tell you about mine?”
Nix shook her head, and nearly turned in place as the water exaggerated her movements. “No, you didn’t.” She tried again.
Well, my instructor was Cora’s mom.” Tai told her. “It was a long time ago. I was the youngest Apprentice in eighty years. She took me out on a Dark Water run, and then went quiet, turned all the lights off. I freaked out completely.”
Really?” Nix found that hilarious. “You?”
Freaked out worse than Ben did with the whale.” Tai confirmed. “And then I hear her voice in my ear, telling me to go limp, let the water carry me for a minute. I do that, and… I don’t sink. I can feel the water around me, and it isn’t rushing past me. I’m completely still. And I stay that way for ten minutes, while Cora’s mother just keeps talking to me.”
What did she say?”
Same thing that you have to remember now: The Ocean is the ultimate provider, and the unquenchable enemy. No deals to be made, no respect for your anger, no interest in your threats. The ocean always wins.”
Was Cora’s mother an Aqua?”
Don’t think so. If she was, she never admitted it.” Tai said ruefully, having wondered the same thing. “But she understood what Commander Morgan and The Director never have: You can wipe out the Aquans, but you can’t beat the ocean. That’s why they’re going to lose. They refuse the Ocean that they’re living in. They won’t accept its resources, won’t care for its creatures. And that’s why they aren’t surviving down here.”
Because the ocean always wins.” Nix nodded. “Tai… I can feel the water starting to move.”
Yup. Currents at play, rubbing against each other. Variations in temperature and salinity mean that even on the ocean floor, there are rivers and updrafts and waves. A few places, the salt gets so much thicker you’d swear you could see lakes and rivers running along the ocean floor. In time, you’ll learn them all the way I did. But for now, rest easy about the Food Shortages. You’re an Aquan now. Part of the Deep. And it will provide.”
Nix closed her eyes, let the water carry her. Except she knew she wasn’t moving. She could feel movement, but knew she wasn’t caught in it. She switched off her suit lights, just let herself… be. In the dark, there was nothing to get closer to, or further from. There was no up, or down; because the ocean buoyed her neutrally. But she didn’t feel isolated or cut off… she felt expanded.
What are you thinking, Nix?” He said in her ear.
I… I feel… Everywhere.” Nix said vacantly, as though she was far away.
Good. Go with that. Sound travels very fast in the water, because every drop is connected to every other. Listen to it, let it tell you what’s here.”
She could hear the tiniest sounds echoing through the water that rested against her ears. She could feel the tiniest currents. She was barely aware of her breathing, the water filling her ears made her heartbeat so loud and clear… and then it slowed, soothing her. She felt like she was aware of everything. She was aware of the tiny fish darting, and the drift of the dwarf kelp. She could hear Cora moving about on the Hydra Hawk. She could hear playful whistles and clicks in the distance...
Nix moved suddenly, reaching out and grabbing Tai. She hadn’t seen him in the darkness, and he hadn’t announced himself, but somehow she knew he was there.
Nix laughed, delighted. “Do you hear them, Tai? Can you hear the Dolphins?”
~~/*\~~
Nix didn’t say much when they climbed back aboard the Hydra Hawk. She felt like she was glowing. “I had no idea…” She hummed.
Cora smiled at her from the pilot’s chair. “You see why we can’t just leave? Maybe once we were meant to be up there, but we live here now. We aren’t ‘making the best of it’, and we aren’t ‘fighting for life’ at every step. That’s what my father is doing. People like us…”
We belong here.” Nix agreed quietly, serene for the first time in her life. She looked to Cora. “I don’t wanna go back. You’ve seen Grey Sector… My father, he has to go back to the surface, but...”
It won’t be long now.” Cora promised. “This? What you’re feeling right now? I’ve been this way for more than ten years. Admittedly, easier in Gold Sector than it is down in Grey, but…”
What is that?” Tai asked suddenly.
Cora turned to look at the console. There was a bogey on sonar. It looked like a cloud on the horizon. “Light up the exterior lights, I wanna see…”
Tai did so, and the three of them let out a shout. On the edge of their vision was a huge school of fish, swimming quickly in a straight line. There were hundreds, possibly thousands of them… And as they looked closer, they could see why the school was so tightly packed together, swimming so straight.
They were being herded. Dozens of dolphins, a few wearing harnesses, were swooping left and right, scaring the fish into a common direction. They were posted on all sides of the swarm, above, below, beside, and behind, keeping the fish in line, almost as fast as Tai could point his lights at them.
Tai checked the bearing. “They’re heading for the Ark-Hive!”
Those weren’t just our Dolphins, either. They were wild ones too, ones that haven’t been trained.” Cora exclaimed. “It’s incredible!”
I didn’t know they could do that! Do they think it’s a game?” Nix asked.
Possibly. Dolphins will invent a game to play if we don’t give them one.” Cora hummed. “But I think it’s a lot simpler than that. They know about the food shortage, and they wanna help.”
I’d better call ahead and tell the Ark-Hive what’s coming to Dinner.” Tai laughed. “I’ve never seen anything like this, and I’d lay odds nobody back there has either. I better warn them before the Stingray Patrols start getting jumpy.”
~~/*\~~
78 Days To Landfall
~~/*\~~
The Director made an announcement. The people of the Ark-Hive had seen the Dolphins bringing home food in huge quantities. Like the Cousteau before, they had a clear view of the whole thing. A day later, the audience gathered again as the Director gave word on the matter.
It is clear, that our trained Dolphin teams have become aware of the food shortages affecting our brothers in the Dark Water Outposts.” He declared to the whole Ark-Hive. “We’re very lucky to have their help, especially as our time in the ocean comes to a close. But even for the smartest of our creatures, there are limits to what they can do. They have, after many hours of work, succeeded in herding a school of edibles into our catchment areas, in capacities that nearly tore the nets. But clearly this cannot work for every outpost, simply because they don’t all have the facilities, and the ocean is a big place when you’re trying to herd a thousand slippery creatures into a straight line.”
There was a rumble of agreement from the Observation Dome.
So, if we can’t take food to the hungry people, we must bring the hungry people to the food!” The Director declared grandly. “As of 1200 hours today, the Ark-Hive is officially recalling the Outpost Populations home to Base!”
His words set off a silent roar that threatened to break loose. Stingray guards quietly slipped into position around the Observation Dome, expecting a riot to break out.
The Director made his case quickly. “The Recall was always part of the plan. Hunger has forced us to accelerate that part of the Schedule. But remember, all this is temporary. In a few months, we’ll have the whole wide world above. Nobody will ever feel crowded ever again. This is my pledge to you: I will make that happen, no matter what.”
It took less than an hour for someone to respond to his speech,
~~/*\~~
Still Waters Run Deep!” The Pirate Station declared on every screen.
People of the Ark-Hive, you have been Deceived.” The modulated voice narrated the images of fiery explosions. “The idea of using Ocean animals to help with food supply was rejected by the Director several days ago. The animals did it anyway by themselves, and Director Bridger took the credit after the fact.”
More footage rolled, showing images of the Dolphins herding the fish.
Despite repeated requests from several members of his most trusted staff, The Director has consistently refused to allow the assistance of Ocean Solutions, maintaining a policy of strictly refusing help that is not under the direct control of his pilots.”
In addition, the Outposts that remain on heavy rationing have had their food supplies restricted, due to a lack of transport submarines. Yet still, Ocean Solutions are refused. The Director has decreed that starvation of others is preferable to compromise. Is there anyone that doubts they are able and willing to do the job?”
To make the point, the footage showed the now famous footage of the Cousteau being towed home.
~~/*\~~
Don saw Cora coming into his lab and quietly switched off the monitors. “Four minutes.” He told her. “Do you have any idea what your father is thinking? The schedule was already insane, and now he’s accelerating the whole thing by cramming us all in cheek-by-jaw for three months? Do you have any idea why?”
He’s thinking that he can hold the inevitable back just long enough to get us to the Surface. I’ve already told him we can’t get back to what we had a week ago. Our stores can’t handle an extra eight thousand mouths.”
Then why do it?” Don demanded.
The Director is…” She was an inch away from telling him about her father’s illness, but she didn’t. Instead, she moved on to another urgent topic. “You heard the Board talking about the food shortage. About the dolphins not being able to bring in enough for everyone?”
I was there.” Don agreed. “There’s rage building all over the Outposts. There was, long before this happened. Almost eight thousand people, getting hungry enough to kill someone.”
Cora reacted. “But… they won’t, right?”
He gave her a canny look. “Are you under the impression that I can decide what thousands of homeless, hungry, legitimately angry people will do for the next three months?”
You know where there’s more food.” Cora said quietly. “Food that the Outposts can get to in time, without coming back in.”
Don looked confused for a second, and suddenly realized, jaw dropping. “No. That is not an option.”
It might be our only option.” Cora said. “I’m Resource Management now, Don. I’m serious.” She spelled it out for him. “We Do Not Have Enough Food. And if my father does call everyone into the Ark-Hive...”
Cora, if there’s a total recall of all Outpost Personnel? If there’s a total shutdown of-” Don paused, searching for words. “The losses could be inevitable.”
Long silence. Cora stared at him.
Don looked away. “Don’t look at me like that. All I’m saying is, there’s a reason Resources are currency around here. They run too thin, for exactly this reason. The Director’s trying to centralize a community that’s spread out. Landfall meant that sooner or later, something would snap.”
Yeah, but that wasn’t what you were going to say.” She said softly. “You were about to say: If there’s a total shutdown in food distribution, it would be helpful to our plans.”
Don hesitated for a split second before he said it. “Well, it would. Wouldn’t it?”
To have half the people and security in the Ark-Hive on their backs from starvation rations? Of course it would.” Cora scorned. “But those are people you’re talking about. People who-”
People who would think nothing of locking us all up in the Quay.” Don pointed out. “Cora, figure it out: this isn’t careful planning and preparation any more. Landfall is in less than twelve weeks, and your father won’t lighten the schedule for Davy Jones himself.”
I know.” Cora said softly. Nothing more than that.
Some people we just can’t make deals with, Cora. Some things we can’t compromise on.”
~~/*\~~
It was like talking to my father again. They’re both as determined to be right as each other.” Cora said later to Tai.
Noticed that, huh?”
Thing is… He is right, you know.” Cora sighed. “We could save them, Tai. Those people who crowded around us all month, we could save them. And the only thing stopping me is Don, and the only thing stopping him is the same fear that keeps…”
He shushed her, stroking her hair. "Don's smart. He'll find a way. One way or another, we'll be okay."
"Funny, y’know. Whenever my dad and I are at odds, I go to Don. But I can’t go to him, and I can’t go to the Director this time. I... I wish my mom was here." Cora sighed into his chest. "I wish I could talk to her."
Tai checked the Navigation panel. "We're not that far out, if you want to go by and see her."
Cora hesitated. "Yeah. Actually... I'd like to. I missed the Anniversary this year."
~~/*\~~
The Memorial was outside the Ark-Hive, halfway between the Domes, and Circular Quay. It was once a transport yacht called the Tulley. It was the victim of the last great Aquan Uprising. That was what it was called, but everyone who visited knew it as a short, brutal war fought by means of executions and assassinations.
The Tulley had been declared the victim of sabotage, and gone down with all hands, including Cora’s mother. The Director had the wreck put under a small dome and turned it into a Memorial for everyone killed in the Aquan Conflicts… Or anywhere else on duty.
Every year, the Ocean claimed a few victims. Their names were added to a Memorial Wall, which had long since grown too long; having stood since the Ark-Hive was founded. When Meyrna Bridger was added to their number, the Wall of Names had been moved to the Tulley, and now surrounded a larger-than-life statue of The Director’s late wife on all sides; with benches for people to sit, lots of places for people to write tributes, leave messages...
It took a submersible, or a long hike in full dive gear, to get to the Memorial, so on any given day, there weren't that many people present. With the schedule so tight, Cora and Tai docked the Hydra Hawk and found they had the place to themselves.
Just them, a list of names, the statue, and the cameras.
Cora came over to the Memorial statue, and sat before it, gazing up. It had been almost ten years, but the picture Cora had of her mother, both carved in stone, and in her memory; had never changed a bit.
"Hi." Cora whispered to her mom. "I... I'm sorry I didn't make it back for the Fourth. I would have been here if I could." She looked down, mindful of the cameras. "Things are happening. I... I hate to say this, but I don't know if I'll be able to come back."
Tai had stepped back, giving her some room, but she waved him over to come and join her. "I never told you what happened, did I?" She said to him quietly.
Is there anyone left in the ocean that doesn’t know the story? The last act of the Purges was the Aquans trying to escape. Four mutinies. Three ships sunk by Stingray, and the fourth became this memorial.” Tai gestured around the Tulley. “Your mom sabotaged the turbines, sank her own boat; got herself a statue.”
Yeah.” Cora nodded. “I like that everyone thought my mom was a war hero. There were enough victims that day.”
Tai squeezed her shoulder in solidarity; and the two of them sat beneath the outstretched arms of the shrine for a while. After a moment, he took out his TABB and tapped a few buttons. Cora glanced up and noticed the camera light was off. Tai wanted to talk privately. "So. What's the real story?" Tai asked.
"Didn't fool you, huh?" She said ruefully.
"You hunched your shoulders whenever you had your back to the cameras. The same way you did in the Pressure Chamber, back before I knew you were Aqua. So... What were you hiding? Or would you rather not talk about it?"
Cora was silent a long moment. "I've never talked to anyone but Don about this... But my mother was murdered."
"What?" He was stunned. "Why?"
"Huh. I figured most people would ask 'by who?'" Cora commented. "Okay, here it is... Everyone was told my mother was caught in the middle of an Aquan raid. But I was Don's apprentice at the time, and I knew full well that was a lie. Nobody believed she was targeted, because she was the one person on the Board of Directors that was arguing in their favor. But my mom was loyal to her husband, so the Aquans never claimed her as a member."
"I know all this, but if she was targeted..."
"Tell me something, Tai... In all the time we've been alive, how many people do we know that have been dragged into Circular Quay?"
"Dozens. There could be a thousand people in there by now." Tai said honestly.
"And how many have ever come out?"
"None. At least, none that I know of."
Cora nodded. "Something that my dad didn't know... Mom was investigating why. She was digging into what went on in there. Something that nobody but Stingray Squad ever knew... Before he rose to Intel and Security Chief, Morgan was the C.O. of Circular Quay."
"Morgan had your mom killed?" Tai was stunned.
"The Tulley went down and imploded soon after." Cora nodded.
"To cover any evidence." Tai let out a low whistle. "Can you prove it?"
Cora glanced around, put her back to the camera. “Don gave me a video, of my mother having a confrontation with Morgan. It ended with him shooting her three times. That's the ironic part." Cora nearly laughed. "I have proof, but I got it through Don. If I tried to tell my father that his right hand man had his wife killed... I could do it, at the cost of Don, and me, and every Aqua stupid enough to be my friend." She rolled her head to the left slowly, looking at him. "So. Now you've got the poison pill, just like me." She looked back out the viewport. "Don worried that a ten year old wouldn't be able to handle it. And when Morgan got promoted, I wasn't sure I could. But... Don never questioned my commitment after that."
Tai let out a breath. "I can't even imagine."
Her face changed, going dark. "No. You can't. I see Morgan every day, and I smile at him like he's a trusted ally... But I swallow it, because I'm keeping secrets too. I can't tell my dad not to trust his friends when he can't trust his daughter." She lowered her voice. "Day's going to come when my father knows the truth about me. When that day comes, I aim to be far away from him. But that will be the day when Morgan's secret comes out..."
"Your father will kill him dead."
Cora gave a single nod. "Part of me wishes I could stick around to see it happen." She shook it off. “We could end the food crisis, Tai.”
Tai looked at her. “The ‘kelp farms’?” He sighed. “Yeah, that’s been on my mind too. We went past three of them this week. The Outposts don’t even know they’re there.”
That’s the problem with way things are.” Cora sighed. “Nobody explores. We’ve got the biggest, widest untapped frontier, and we never look past the lights.” Cora stood up and turned back to the statue. “Mom understood that. Dad called her his mermaid. I remember, he said to her once that if it happened in our lifetimes, she would be the most important thing he could ever give to the Surface.” She said softly. “I think that if she’d lived, my Dad wouldn’t be such a hard man. He might even be willing to compromise. Slow the schedule, even let people go if…” She trailed off. “Mom was the one thing he…” She trailed off again.
Tai stared at her. “I can’t tell what you’re thinking right now.” He admitted.
Cora was staring at the statue of her mother. “Meyrna Bridger.” She said finally. “I remember when I was little, I couldn’t really say her first name. It was tricky to pronounce, tricky to spell… But you know what it is?”
What?”
Six digits.”
~~/*\~~
77 Days To Landfall
~~/*\~~
Ben wasn’t nearly as difficult to distract as Wayde had been. All Cora had to do was hint that Nix wanted to see him… privately. Nix would make him look for her for a few minutes, which would be all Cora needed.
Cora snuck into her father’s office and went right for the safe.
M-E-Y-R-N-A
The safe unlocked quickly, and Cora let out her breath. Her father hadn’t said her mother’s name aloud since the funeral. Whatever was in the safe must have been pretty riveting.
~~/*\~~
Cora went down to Grey Sector.
If the Ark-Hive was a city, Grey Sector was the the slums. To save power, only one light in three still lit, giving the corridors a feeling of being long and narrow in the darkness. Grey Sector was also where the majority of the equipment was installed, and the sounds of heavy machinery, rushing water and sewerage rang out almost everywhere.
Cora had to hold her breath the entire way to the living section. Not many people were forced to live below Green Sector, but with Landfall coming, people were being forced to double up, make room for each other.
The door opened, and a rail thin man with cloudy eyes peered out. He could barely see Cora standing right in front of him. “Who are you?”
I need to speak to Nix.” Cora said, a little revolted by the smell coming from the vents.
The man let her in, felt his way to the side of the chamber, and sat down on a packing crate. The chamber was as narrow as a janitor’s closet, and only had one room. The furniture was just packing crates.
But despite the smell, it was clean, and Nix was at the back of the room. Around her little space, there were sketches on the walls. Sketches of whales. Nix was standing in the middle of the room, still small enough that she didn’t have to stoop below the low ceiling. Her eyes were closed, and her expression peaceful.
Cora recognized the ‘escape’ and waited respectfully for her to finish.
Nix finished her meditations and froze when she saw Cora. “Ma’am.” She said carefully.
We have work to do.” Cora told her quietly. “Can you spare a few minutes?”
Nix's eyes flicked to the blind man. She pulled her jumpsuit up over her shoulders, suddenly back in uniform. “Dad, I have to go back on duty. I'll be back when I can.”
The Old Man held a hand out, brushing the side of her face with the back of two fingers. “Aye.” He croaked. “I'll be here.” He broke down coughing, and Nix put a mug of something that smelled faintly of ammonia in his hand quickly, before hustling Cora out.
Cora understood. It was the first time she had come to Nix's quarters. First time she'd been in Grey Sector for a long while. While she made it a point never to act superior towards people who lived so far below her deck, she had to admit that the conditions were making her nauseous outright.
Nix all but dragged her away from the door, squeezing her way through a few groups of shambling people until they reached the water pipes. The roar was constant, quiet enough that they could still hear each other, loud enough to not be recorded. “It's the fumes.” She told Cora, scared. “My dad's been 'monitoring' the waste reclamation for most of his career. When you're a seventh generation Grey Sector, it's not like there's a lot of room for advancement, and... He swears he can still do the job even after all the damn chemicals sent him blind. And he can. You listen to those machines, the pipes... You can diagnose more stresses and system failures from the sound they make than anything else. Everyone at the plant helps each other, because the second any of them has to admit defeat and retire...”
I get it, Nix. The Lottery isn’t the kindest fact of life.” Cora shushed her apprentice and pulled her in tight for a hug. The poor girl seemed scared out of her mind; and Cora didn't blame her. The Retirement Facility was the only place less appealing than Circular Quay was rumored to be. “I won't tell anyone how bad it is. You can trust me.” She broke the hug and chewed her lip. “But in a few minutes, you may not thank me for it.”
Why?”
Because there's something I need to tell you. Something bad. And on this subject, you're the only one I can trust.”
~~/*\~~
What is this place?” Nix asked quietly.
I call it my Hermit Shell. It’s the only place in the Ark-Hive that isn’t monitored, and is big enough to fit two people.” Cora told her. “And it’s the only place we can speak about this. Nix, I need to talk to someone, and I can’t with anyone else. Not even Don. Not even Tai. Not about this.”
I’m not sure I want to know, after a build up like that.” Nix murmured. “Why me?”
Because Don already knows, and if he does, then Tai might too.” Cora took a breath. “My father has a hidden safe. I finally got into it a few hours ago. It contains medical evidence, taken from the usual monthly checkups of everyone in the Ark-Hive. The files also contain a message from Don, signing off on the results as accurate.”
What do to results say?” Cora asked.
You’ve heard of Weir Syndrome. People who go too deep for too long?”
About how they can’t take pressure shifts again, and have to stay in the one Outpost.” Nix nodded. “Yeah. I know about it.”
My father has recently been given proof that not only does he have it, but everyone else in the Ark-Hive might be developing it naturally.”
Impossible.” Nix said instantly. “We’d know by now.”
We would, but none of us have ever gone shallow.” Cora explained. “It’s hard to spot, because it doesn’t affect everyone the same way. We’ve all been pressurized to this depth, and have been for centuries. Nix, nobody had ever done that before. The Ark-Hive was the last ditch effort to avoid extinction. There’d never been babies born on the ocean floor. There was no evidence our ancestors knew what living entire generations at the bottom of the ocean would do to us.”
Are you saying we can’t go back?” Nix breathed.
Something about the pressure differentials is making a permanent change in the people down here. Since nobody has ever tried to return to surface level, it hasn’t mattered, and nobody’s noticed. But with Landfall happening now…” Cora took a breath. “The report says that anyone over the age of about twentyfive is too far gone to adapt to a normal lifespan on the surface.”
Over twentyfive?” Nix thought aloud. “What about people older than that?”
Older than that, and anyone who moved to the surface will experience an accelerated form of Weir Syndrome.” Cora said, face drawn with sick dread. “Average life expectancy… about eight years. Maybe ten at most. That’s more than three quarters of the population. Landfall would be a slow death sentence for this generation.”
And the Director knows this?” Nix was awed at the secret she now held. “Has he… I mean, in the files, was there any response?”
My father wanted to know what would happen to any newborn babies in that eight year gap.” Cora scorned. “Apparently, they would be fine.”
Nix swiftly understood. “So he’s not telling anyone. That’s why The Director is obsessed with getting everyone up there at once. Eight years is long enough to have a whole new generation, and just enough people under twenty five would be able to raise them. One generation gap, and humanity is a Surface Dwelling Species again.” She covered her face. “Populate or Perish. That’s us that he’s talking about, you know. The ones that will live out their lives, looking after a dozen brats per adult. That’s you and me he’s talking about.”
What I can’t believe is that Don knew!” Cora growled. “And he didn’t tell me!”
Nix covered her mouth with both hands. “All of them. All the adults. Your father was really going to send them all up there…”
Nix, I have no idea what to do with this information, and I can’t go to anyone else. If I go to anyone, I either risk outing myself as an Aquan, or…”
Or you get someone that Don has in his pocket; and if he was in on this, that may be dangerous.” Nix guessed. “Funny, but until five minutes ago, you were one of his top people.”
Cora nodded heavily. “I know.”
Nix bit her lip. “Give me an order.”
Cora took her breath. “I need to know where Don stands. Nix, I know you don’t like cozying up to Ben, but… I need to know where Don was for the day and a half before the Cousteau suddenly drove itself into a cave-in.”
You think Don did it?” Nix breathed.
It’s perfect, isn’t it?” Cora offered. “The Cousteau goes down, the whales get credited with saving dozens of kids, including you. The same event means that everyone’s schedules get thrown out, the Ark-Hive gets filled with hungry people, and everyone suddenly loves the wide open ocean.”
Especially when word gets out that they... can’t... leave...” Nix trailed off.
Cora noticed Nix’s eyes getting big, and turned to look. Tai was there, in the doorway to her hiding place, and it was clear he’d heard everything.
Cora set her jaw. Unpleasant. “Nix, give us the room. I won’t insult you by asking if you can be trusted.”
Yes, that would be insulting, wouldn’t it?” Tai drawled, as Nix gratefully fled.
Cora couldn’t look him in the eye for a moment. “How much did you hear?”
Enough to know that I should be outraged in at least two different directions.” He eyed her. “Three, if what I think is true. You got this shocking revelation, and you suddenly decide you can’t trust Don, the man that you’ve said repeatedly you’d prefer as your own father.”
I know.” Cora whispered.
And then came the part where you decided you not to tell me about it…” Tai scowled hard.
I know.” Cora winced hard. This was going to be messy.
Because if Don can’t be trusted, then neither can I.” Tai guessed. “Dammit, Cora; you know me. You KNOW me! How could you not… Why?!”
It’s not that I don’t trust you, Tai. But I wasn’t ready to tell the whole Ark-Hive yet.”
You know I’m not a gossip!”
Cora let out a breath and went on the offensive. “I also know you’re the Pirate Station that keeps hacking in.”
The look of shock on Tai’s face both confirmed it, and gave them both a few silent moments to cool off.
How did you know?” Tai whispered. “When?
A few weeks ago. Because I do know you.” Cora said simply. “When we got back from Nix’s first mission, the Broadcast happened from the minute we hit Light Water. I’m betting you bundled the kids off to a poker game and put together the video, then transmitted to your broadcast equipment the minute we came into range. The Pirate Hacks since we found that Cache have been… very up-to-date with information. I’m involved because of my father. You’re involved in those events because of me. I appreciate you not using me as a source too often, but sooner or later, Stingray are going to put together the fact that only eight people on the Ark-Hive know the things you broadcast.”
That’s sort of the reason why I broadcast them, Cora. Those things can’t be kept a secret.”
Cora nodded. “And we’ll just blow right past the point that you didn’t tell me about your ‘other job’, given that you’re yelling at me for having this secret for ten minutes…”
Cora, we’re a cell network. It’s how we survived the Purges. First rule of a Cell is that you only tell others what they need to know. It’s not because we don’t trust each other, it’s because we trust each other so much that we don’t need to be informed.”
Yes.” Cora agreed.
But this isn’t that. Your secret was something you should have reported, and the minute you found out Don knew already, that should have been the end of it. You have the information, your Commander has the information, and then you wait for orders. But you decided to talk to someone about it. And who do you pick? Nix. The youngest, greenest recruit in the whole network. You go to Nix before you talk to me. Is it because you think I’m going to blab it out to everyone right away? Or because Don recruited me, and you don’t trust him any more?”
Cora bit her lip. “I think Don sabotaged the Cousteau.”
Tai nodded. “I think so too. Notice how I haven’t put word about that out?”
Don would never let you.”
Don doesn’t know about my ‘other job’.” Tai told her. “He didn’t teach me how to Hack, and he didn’t start the Pirate Station.”
Cora blinked. “Who did?”
Tai sighed. “Your mother.”